Thursday, December 13, 2018

*in which two very independent women embark on two very different paths: Miss Ferriby's Clients, by Florence Warden and The Green Jacket, by Jennette Lee

From different sides of the Atlantic come two very different stories involving two very different women.  The first of these is Miss Ferriby's Clients, written by a highly prolific Florence Warden (neé Florence Alice Price) whose biography  remains somewhat elusive.  There's a bit about her at Furrowed Middlebrow which notes that she was a
"Playwright, actress, and author of more than 150 novels which, .... 'specialized in courtship and marital dilemmas.'  She once bragged that she wrote more than a million words a year, and she routinely published 2 -4 books per year throught her career."
 The blogger at The Androom Archives adds that she
"was born in Hanworth as the daughter of a stockbroker. She was educated in Brighton and in France... In 1887 she married Edward George James. She wrote many more novels, but ... she received little money from her work and her financial situation became more difficult."
Fantastic Fiction offers a list of many of her books, as does The Edward T. LeBlanc Memorial Dime Novel Bibliography, and trust me, I've noted the ones that look like possible mystery novels for future reading.    For right now though, it's all about this book, Miss Ferriby's Clients.

North View Publishing, 2010
Kindle Version
originally published 1910

Young Welton Keynes and his brother Basil  had been brought up enjoying "every luxury" until the day that their father "found himself one morning a ruined man."  While nobody actually knew what had happened to dad,  it was believed that he'd offed himself while crossing from Dover from Ostend on a boat.   Basil was 18, and while he was supposed to have been on his way to Cambridge just after leaving Eton, he had to get a job as a bank clerk, while Welton, 24, found the job market tough.  Three weeks of looking brought nothing until one day he saw an advertisement for a secretary:
"...not over twenty-fve, University man preferred, by elderly lady engaged in philanthropic work.  Salary 500 pounds per annum."
Off to Chiswick he goes, where he gets directions to the elderly lady's home from a younger woman who a bit later talks young Walton into walking to her home, where her mother dishes out the dirt on Miss Ferriby.  She lets him know that "Miss Ferriby changes secretaries very often, and ... and nobody seems to know what becomes of them."  Mind you, this should have been Welton's  clue to walk completely away from this job,  but everything changes when he rescues an old woman "most opportunely" from an attack.  This second strange happening in the neighborhood makes him even more curious, and he returns to Miss Ferriby's residence the next day where he was "not in the least surprised" to find that the woman he'd rescue was Miss Ferriby herself.  He gets the job, but it doesn't take long for him to wish he hadn't. 

What's notable here isn't so much the mystery itself, but rather how the main criminal is portrayed. It's not a spoiler to let on that Miss Ferriby isn't the nicest of elderly women (in fact, she is one of the most brutal women villains in fiction of this era that I've read so far), and the first thing we learn about her is that she is "deformed and stunted," with an "enormous head."  She has "features large enough for those of a man." Her main "deformity", a "hunchback," is mentioned 21 times throughout the novel, and in describing this book, the publishers have noted that often "the main villain" in books of this era (as was the case in the Victorian era as well) was "physically disabled or disfigured ... to make him or her appear more villainous."  There are more than a few surprises in store for the reader of this novel, and seriously, by the time I finished it my head was spinning from all of the twists.

Kessinger Legacy Reprints
originally published 1917
331 pp

Next up is American author Jennette Lee's The Green Jacket. Jennette Lee (1860-1951) went to school at Smith, married in 1886, and then went back Smith in 1901 where she became an associate professor of English in 1904.  Bob Schneider at Women Detectives notes that she left academia in 1913 to become a full-time writer, with 22 books published between 1900 and 1926, and that "less than 15% of her output seems to be in the mystery/detective genre."   The Green Jacket is the first of a series of three novels to feature Miss Millicent Newberry, quite likely, as stated at Women Detectives, the first woman detective who actually owned her own detective agency.  Newberry is also notable in that she feels that she ought to have say in what happens with the criminals she's caught.  She doesn't believe that prison is always the right decision; as she tells her former mentor Tom Corbin, she "couldn't sleep nights, thinking of men in prison that never would have been there," if it hadn't been for her,
"Men that I knew weren't really bad -- drunk or mad or something!"
As she says, "I made up my mind that if I did the catching, I was going to have something to say about the punishment."  Indeed, some of the visitors to her office are former offenders she's caught, including women, who come and check in on a regular schedule much as if she were a probation officer. 

 The Green Jacket begins as Tom Corbin tells Milly he wants to partner with her. Her business is highly successful, and typical male that he is, he talks about how they are made to "work together."  As he says, Milly has the "good mind for details," but she needs him "to handle the case as a whole." He wants her to take on the case of the Mason emeralds, which he never solved when he was called in two years earlier "after some of the hardest work the office ever put in on anything."  It all came back to him that very morning when he saw a clipping about the death of a woman Corbin's detectives had suspected in the case, and now he tells Milly that she'll "never solve the case."  Milly needs time to think it over, changing her mind when a heavily-veiled woman walks into her office and asks her to take up the same case.  It seems that Mrs. Oswald Mason had gotten Milly's name from her now dead adopted daughter (Corbin's suspect), and they make plans for Milly to stay at the Mason home in the guise of a seamstress so that Milly can make some headway on discovering who stole the jewels.   The title refers to a piece of knitting that Milly works on as she works on the case.  It seems that she has a habit of starting something new for every case that she keeps up as long as it takes her to come to a solution.  She's also sort of a detective Madame Defarge -- reverse stitches in her work here and there are used as reminders of specific things she wants to remember.

I think it's just great that we have a woman writer creating an incredibly independent female detective whose business is going gangbusters, but if I never read another book by this author I'll be perfectly okay with that.  First of all, I don't even see a point to this detective story, something anyone who reads this will completely understand when all is said and done, because really, the only thing that happens is that Milly's on hand at casa de Mason to act as a soundboard for everyone's problems.  A few family secrets come out that have some sort of bearing on the theft of the emeralds, but when it comes right down to it, the whole story is just plain lackluster with much wringing of hands in the process.  Second, the coincidence of Mrs. Mason walking into the Newberry Detective Agency just after Milly and Corbin have their little talk about that very same case he couldn't ever solve is just too much.  And finally, really, this entire book could have been half of its size -- it made me so frustrated I just wanted to scream through most of it.

Truth be told, between these very independent women, I'll take the villain any time -- at least she was much more interesting than the crime solver.  So it's  definitely thumbs up for Miss Ferriby's Clients and a big thumbs down on The Green Jacket. 

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