London, 1887, and Miriam Lea is looking for employment. An advertisement for “private agents” passes her way and soon she is being employed as a private detective, roaming the globe in search of a fraudster. The (arguably) third-ever professional female detective to appear in crime fiction, this is the only appearance of Miriam Lea. You may not have heard of her – this is for a number of reasons, not least that her creator, Leonard Merrick tried to destroy every copy of the book!
The British Library have been doing a sterling job, tracking down and republishing such lost books – I read somewhere that there were only five copies of this in existence. No longer – it’s getting a fair bit of publicity, such as this article in the Guardian recently. Merrick was described by JM Barrie as the “novelist’s novelist” – but does this blast from the past put him on my must read list?
Well, no, because this is the only detective novel that he wrote.
A unique book, this. The detective story was still in its earliest days at this point and it can’t be compared directly to novels from the modern day. The writing style is fascinating, presented as an occasional diary written by Miriam detailing her excursions around Europe and Africa on the trail of her quarry. Some of the writing is a little hard-going at times, the writer being found of putting some odd phrases into Miriam’s mouth, but it’s a fascinating read as a piece of history.
To be completely honest, it’s never going to make anyone’s list of best ever mysteries, as, to be blunt, it isn’t one. It’s the story about a female detective, but there’s no mystery for the reader apart from how is Miriam’s life going to unfurl. The identity of her quarry is never in any doubt, and you can soon see where the story is going. There is a twist at the end, but we’re not talking The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd here.
It’s a short book, so it’s a short review. It’s certainly worth a look, as a piece of literary history if nothing else, and I’m sure that fans of Victorian fiction will enjoy it. Worth a look.