Harriet Preston Spofford and the first female-authored detective series

January 14, 2023 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Her work had been published in a variety of newspapers and magazines, but most of them were low circulation periodicals. Harriet wrote incessantly, sometimes as much as 15 hours a day, because the money that she received from her publications barely covered the family’s expenses.

In 1859 she wrote a story that she believed was worthy of a larger audience, and she boldly sent it to the leading periodical in America at the time, the Atlantic Monthly. The editors were impressed. But James Russell Lowell, the chief editor, and one of the leading literary figures in America at the time, had doubts.

The story Spofford had written, “In the Cellar,” was set in Paris, and was detailed in its description of the city and the locations that she selected. How could a young woman who had never traveled outside of New England write so perceptively, Lowell wondered. He came to the conclusion that she had not written the story but had simply translated it from the original French.

When questioned, Harriet met that conclusion with these words: “Made it up, every word of it.”

She was confident enough and convincing enough that the editors of the magazine, including Lowell, believed her and published the story. The editors also sent the author a check for $100 along with a letter of recommendation that she could show the other editors to whom she sent contributions.

That incident opened the door for Spofford to have one of the great writing careers of any female in America in the mid-19th century.

Her Atlantic Monthly story was a detective story, but the detective was never named. In two subsequent stories, “Mr. Furbush” and “In the Maguerriwock,” she does name the detective and was the first author in America to write a series of detective stories using the same American detective character. Both of these stories were published in Harper’s New Monthly in 1865 and 1868. Spofford thus joins Metta Victoria Fuller Victor, Louisa May Alcott, and Anna Katharine Green as female authors who made significant contributions to the development of American detective fiction between the work of Edgar Allan Poe in the 1840s and the appearance of the most famous fictional detective of them all, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, in 1889.

Spofford, Victor, Alcott, and Green were not concerned so much with the development of the detective genre as they were with making a living. During that time, American readers had an almost insatiable desire to read fiction, and “story magazines” proliferated. These publications paid for their contributions, though the pay was not enough to grant the authors much luxury or leisure.

Spofford stood apart from most of her peers for her popularity and success. Her writing was richly descriptive and avoided many of the sensationalistic devices common to much of the storytelling of her day.

Her first novel, Sir Rohan’s Ghost, was published in 1859, the same year that her story appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, and it was a critical success. She went on to write numerous novels, short stories, reviews, and critiques during the next five decades, right up until her death at the age of 86 in 1921.

Although she sank into the obscurity fated for many of the female writers of her day, scholars have lately revived her work and paid particular attention to her small collection of detective fiction. Canadian professor Rita Bode, in an article examining this work, writes:

Her recognition of the potential in new technologies is a kind of paradigm for her treatment of her subject matter; she looks above and beyond the literary modes of her period, working her way carefully through a thought-ful exploration of both private conscience and social injustice. Spofford raises issues and provokes thought, confounding her detective and simultaneously confronting her reader with the complexities of human behavior. Although her detective stories remain few in number, she nonetheless makes her mark at the beginnings of a genre that was destined to endure. (Clues: A Journal of Detection, Vol: 26:1)


Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback

Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *