There was a comment recently on a Lord Peter discussion group about “the Lady Molly stories”, or Lady Molly of Scotland Yard. I’d never heard of them, so I did a search, and was surprised to find that they were written by the same author as The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy. A few minutes later I had the collection of twelve stories sitting before me on the screen.
It didn’t take long to figure out why Lady Molly Robertson-Kirk is not as famous as Percy Blakeney.
The idea is that Lady Molly is officially a detective, assisted by her faithful (so very, very faithful) companion Mary Granard; what if any actual rank either lady holds in the Metropolitan Police Department is never specified, and in any case would seem to have no bearing on their behavior. In fact, the latter severs her association with Scotland Yard in the second or third story of the collection, to become Lady Molly’s full-time assistant – which is, I thought, extraordinary considering how hard-won any place in 1910 Scotland Yard would be for a woman.
From what I read on Wikipedia, the stories predate the first real-life female Scotland Yard detective by a decade; from what I read elsewhere, written in 1910 it was more like almost fifty years before there was a woman in the Metropolitan Police forces. (I haven’t yet turned up an actual date for the first female detective, but in 1952 there were something like 388 women in a force of over 20,000, from Detective Constables to Superintendents. I’ll keep poking around – there has to be a note somewhere about who and when the first was.)
Lady Molly herself goes where she will, and the chief’s opinions and orders be damned. She is, perhaps, something of an ancestress of Albert Campion’s; her peerage is kept mysterious, a sort of inside joke, her lineage and title never specified yet conferring all of the benefits of her position in society without any of the restrictions. Waving aside the little fact that in 1910 it would have been considered rather more than unladylike for a well-bred woman to play detective, and that not a soul would have taken her (a woman and a lady) seriously, she is not something that would be desirable on any police force. She’s … I think I hate her, actually. Lady Molly flouts procedure and chain of command continually; I wonder why she was not simply created as a private enquiry agent like Holmes, since she behaves like one.
“The Frewin Miniatures”:
“Will you undertake the job?” said the chief one day to Lady Molly.
“Yes,” she replied, “on two distinct conditions.”
[Usually an underling cannot dictate conditions to her chief…]
As far as I remember, though, Holmes never used the methods Lady Molly stoops to – which are therefore considered a “feminine” take on things, getting the job done when the boys can’t. Unfortunately, the very first example of her feminine slant involves her, off her own bat and unsanctioned by her superiors, perpetrating a very cruel hoax on a baby’s mother. That sets the pattern for the rest of the stories: Molly’s investigative technique involves trickery, deceit, lots of disguises, a cruel streak, and wild unsupported illogical leaps of intuition, acted on by her as if they were reasonable conclusions reached by quantifiable means, which not only ignore all generally accepted methods of investigation but also cheat the reader of any possibility of figuring out the puzzle on her own. At least a third of the stories concluded with a smug flourish on Molly’s part and a “Wha – ?” on mine. (Spoiler: “‘As soon as I heard that Miss Marvell was very tall and bony,’ said Lady Molly, ‘I thought that there might be a possibility of her being merely a man in disguise.'” I would have been utterly tickled if she was just a tall and bony woman.)
On the other hand, the stories which don’t pull a solution out of the air (“Obviously the old lady was not angry about what we all thought she was angry about, but instead – based on nothing but an idea I had – I know she was angry about this other thing instead, and that’s why this person killed her”) are thoroughly and utterly predictable. I was being charitable in the beginning and allowing for a less experienced and jaded original audience for the stories, but even so I knew what happened in the first story before the narrator had finished telling the details of the crime (although it was a clever – if revolting – method of keeping a body unidentified; ID and COD would be hard to pin down even now in such a corpse). And I’m never very good at working out the puzzle on my own; I would not recommend these stories for anyone who is. Oh, and for one thing – and for rather obvious reasons, I suppose, primitive equal rights and all that – most of the miscreants are women.
Another of the countless differences between Holmes and Molly is that people came to Holmes and requested his help. Molly should, as a Scotland Yard detective, go where she’s told to go, but she seems to have a great deal of autonomy in the matter. And it isn’t pretty.
“Our police, I fear me, have an exaggerated view of my capacities, and the men here asked me unofficially to remain in the neighbourhood and to give them my advice if they should require it. Our chief is very lenient to me and has allowed me to stay. Therefore, if there is anything I can do–”
“Indeed, indeed there is!” ejaculated Mr. Grayson with sudden energy. “From all I hear, there is not another soul in the kingdom but you who can save this innocent man from the gallows.”
My dear lady heaved a little sigh of satisfaction. She had all along wanted to have a more important finger in that Yorkshire pie.
“That Yorkshire pie” was a particularly nasty murder. In another story, to the opposite effect was this quote: “Lady Molly had not seemed as interested as she usually was in cases of this sort. With strange flippancy–wholly unlike herself–she remarked that one Scotch journalist more or less in London did not vastly matter.” In another she loses interest in the case and proceeds out of duty – even the adoration of the narrator can’t make that sound less than childish. Yeah, I think I do hate her. Not real fond of Baroness Orczy either.
Another puzzling aspect of what sort of official position Molly holds in the Yard forces is that she wanders Europe solving her little puzzles. France, Italy, all regions of the UK – nowhere is safe from Lady Molly.
The message board comment that led me to these stories was made in a context of disapproving of the fawning tone of the narrating sidekick. I thought that as long as it was on a par with Watson’s tone that I’d find it tolerable at worst. It’s not on a par. Where Watson, iirc, admires Holmes and expects great feats from him, Mary Granard almost literally worships Lady Molly. It’s nauseating. I had collected a few of the examples as I read, but lost them, and it’s just as well; no anti-emetics are provided with this review. Suffice to say many of them feature “my dainty lady”. Yeah. (Wait, just one, with apologies: ” No one can be so winning or so persuasive as my dear lady. In a moment I saw the girls’ hostility melting before the sunshine of Lady Molly’s smile.”)
What makes this particularly difficult to take is that Mary’s worship of her is based on her cleverness – which, again, is almost pure “women’s intuition”, the illusion of shrewd thinking being maintained largely by keeping Mary and therefore the reader in the dark about many details – and on her ladylike loveliness. In fact, I think Lady Molly could be dumb as a stump and Mary would still revere her pretty shoulders and charming smiles and dainty white fingers. (Mary gives very little indication of brains herself.) Molly’s behavior toward her is often abominable. Mary is subservient and very, very inferior to Molly throughout, and is treated accordingly, sent off on strange, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes frightening or downright dangerous missions without a clue of what’s going on. Whether the ignorance she is kept in is a reflection of her ability, her intelligence, Molly’s idea of preserving verisimilitude, or Molly’s thoughtlessness, it would in reality probably have gotten the woman killed at least once, and no one, male or female, would put up with it now. I hope.
There is a nasty vein of snobbery through all of these stories. Mary is largely disregarded, by everyone from Molly on down. In addition to beauty almost automatically equaling innocence, it is a given that the poor are slovenly, poor women are slatterns, and they’re usually the ones who did it (poverty outweighing beauty in the unlikely event of a pretty pauper). Even when the narrator acknowledges that the disadvantaged are disadvantaged, there is still a tone of “but even so!” The rich, of course, are under no obligation to lift a finger toward anyone less fortunate, and they are given the benefit of the doubt and the assumption of innocence: given stories from two people, one “noble” and one “common”, the noble’s word is taken as gospel and the commoner’s is suspect. And it’s all presented with a matter-of-fact air, as if offering the statement that grass is green.
“The somewhat uncouth manners suggestive of an upbringing in a country parsonage” – like Jane Austen’s?
“With that vagueness which is a usual and highly irritating characteristic of their class, the girls finally parried every question by refusing to swear positively either for or against the identity”…
It is revealed toward the end of the collection that Lady Molly secured a place in the Yard (just like that) in order to be better positioned to try and clear her beloved, unjustly convicted of murder. After that little matter is settled, she (very properly, as befitting a lady) leaves Scotland Yard. Which leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, what happens to Mary then? Does she merely go back – from having been Molly’s maid to her partner and friend – to being the maid? Or does she sever the umbilical? The next thing that rankles about this is … after all those times of people – men, and Mary – waxing rhapsodic about how magnificent an investigator Molly was, none better, not even the men, and look what a difference her feminine point of view makes in these cases … She quits? Just … walks away. So much for responsibility.
It’s a pity. There are the seeds of some good ideas here: the clock in “A Castle in Brittany” (made pointless by a cheat); the disguises in “The Man in the Inverness Café”; the revelation of the hat in “The Woman in the Big Hat”. But – to carry the metaphor, they’re too smothered in fertilizer to grow.