THE LADY INVESTIGATES:
MADEMOISELLE YVONNE CARTIER
by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan
As well as the fully fledged women sleuths, there were on both sides of the Atlantic many female auxiliaries. To some extent their position in fiction reflected changing social attitudes in real life; women were demanding more involvement in challenging spheres of activity but, limited by experience rather than understanding, they were generally cast in the role of helpers to enterprising males. In the stories, few of these auxiliaries had ambitions to become detectives in their own right; several were drawn into crime-solving by helping their professional-investigator husbands, lovers, brothers or fathers. Others kicked off as criminals but eventually became assistants to the super-sleuths with whom they had previously skirmished. There were also the secretaries of a few famous detectives who branched out from the straight and narrow paths of shorthand-typing into the more exciting avenues of active fieldwork with their bosses.
One of the earliest and most competent of these auxiliary detectives was Mademoiselle Yvonne Cartier of the Sexton Blake stories. (Blake was created by Harry Blyth for Harmsworth's Halfpenny Marvel in 1893. The character was later taken over by other writers and his adventures went on appearing for several decades in many periodicals including the Union Jack, the Detective Weekly, the Penny Popular and the Sexton Blake Library. It is probable that more words of fiction have been published about him than any other character in the English language.) At first Sexton Blake worked alone; then in 1904 he acquired a teenage boy assistant, Tinker; and Yvonne Cartier, the creation of G. H. Teed, came into the saga in 1913. Although the stories appeared in what were nominally boys' papers, the arrival of Yvonne underlined the fact that many adults were also addicted to the Sexton Blake mysteries. Tinker is obviously a character with whom boy readers could identify; Yvonne, however, is an adventuress who brings a note of romance into the bracing all-boys-together world of Blake and Tinker-and Pedro, their big and masculine bloodhound. (Their Baker Street apartment is in fact shared by a woman, but Mrs Bardell the housekeeper, with her constant malapropisms, is very much on the safe side of middle age.)
Yvonne comes from Australia and although girls from that country are rather more celebrated in light fiction for earthiness than glamour, she is nothing if not exotic. Her name, and the fact that even after years in England she is still frequently addressed as 'Mademoiselle', suggest a streak of the romantically 'foreign' in her make-up. Though not quite Edwardian, Yvonne has some of the legendary elegance of that period. As she remained active in the series until the end of 1926, however, her image became streamlined into something more in keeping with the type of progressiveness projected by popular magazines, with a background of jazz and cocktails, smart apartments and fast cars. The fourteen years during which she held sway covered the First World War, and took in many social changes, including of course the real beginnings of women's emancipation. But despite being in a sense the first of the modern female detectives, Yvonne retains a slightly old-world, gracious flavour. This is communicated through the illustrations from the beginning to the end of her saga, whether she is riding astride (but skirted) and cracking a stockwhip in a 'Val' picture of 1913, drawn by Eric Parker in 1924 as she grapples with a murderous Chinaman or (in a 1939 Detective Weekly reprint) depicted as a platinum blonde in elegant slacks. (Yvonne departed from the Victorian tradition of brunette women detectives and had hair that was described as golden or 'burnished-bronze'.) Whether she is on the side of the law or working against it, Yvonne is one of the most adept of crime operators. She is sufficiently quick-thinking to outwit Blake and, naturally, to discomfit the plodders from the Yard; 'she ranked with the greatest scientists of the day', being a dab hand at physics and chemistry, and she conducts her excursions into crime with 'mathematical precision'. With all this added to the usual female detective flair for disguise and a 'perfect' knowledge of 'Arab languages and customs ... and Egyptology' (Blake & Co. spend a lot of time in the Near and Far East) she is a force to be reckoned with. Yvonne also owns a yacht, the Fleur de Lys, complete with a loyal crew that is almost always at her disposal.
Despite the extraordinarily colourful adventures in which she plays such a prominent part, Yvonne is a credible and satisfactory character in comparison with many of the cardboard clue-tracers who preceded her in late-Victorian and Edwardian magazines. In her are combined glamour and dependability, astuteness and niceness. She's fairly emancipated as well; and in this sense it is appropriate that she came on the scene in 1913, when the campaign for female suffrage was at the height of its militancy, and very much in the public eye. Yvonne possesses the kind of determination in the face of heavy odds that might have made her a good suffragette. However, she is never directly involved in political affairs, but remains throughout the series a persuasive embodiment of the type of woman who is extremely active in her own interests.
Her impact upon readers at the time is perhaps best summed up in an incident from one of the earliest stories in 1913. This is low-toned but realistic compared with some of the more fanciful events initiated by Yvonne, and it shows how it was then considered outlandish for a woman, especially if unaccompanied, to drive a car. A fawning London jeweller who bows low as Yvonne climbs into 'a large red motor' outside his premises, 'almost forgot his pose in astonishment as she entered the driver's seat and took the wheel'.
Yvonne's career falls into two main sections. She is at first intent on a campaign of vengeance against a group of powerful enemies, and this sets her against the law. Then-after an idealistic involvement with a 'socialistic' Pacific Island community-she becomes a Consultant, which means in fact that she works in co-operation with Sexton Blake in tackling crime and bringing the perpetrators to justice. The first story, 'Beyond Reach of the Law', sub-headed 'A Woman's Revenge', sets the tone of the Yvonne/Blake relationship. Yvonne is then in her early twenties, and she and her widowed mother have been defrauded by business associates of the Australian goldmine left by Yvonne's father. When her mother dies of grief, Yvonne swears revenge; she quickly gathers together a small group of helpers (all men) although she is pretty well penniless, and has sufficient strength of character to make it understood that 'I am the sole head, and . . my word is law.' Yvonne stops at nothing to disgrace her enemies, and Blake is employed to uncover her crimes. The action, now switched to London, is enhanced by the strong period atmosphere. There are large hats, heavy veils, long dresses in abundance, and city street scenes with classic incidents like this:
"Follow that taxi!" [Tinker] gasped, as he threw open the door. "A half-sovereign over your fare if you keep it in sight."
Blake first realizes that he is up against 'a great and scientific mind' when Yvonne, after shadowing him, nips into the empty house next door to Blake's apartment and 'in a few moments' transforms herself into an elderly nun, then beards the detective in his consulting room to extract £10 from him for seaside holidays for deprived children! Her efficiency in disguise is again illustrated shortly afterwards. Yvonne kidnaps Tinker — 'Heavens, what will the guv'nor say when I tell him I was foiled by a woman?' — and then with a brown wig and a few touches to her face she manages to become 'a perfect reproduction' of Blake's boy assistant. She kidnaps both Tinker and Blake twice in this first story, and so it is not surprising that the detective begins to mutter 'What a wonderful woman! ... What a pity! What a brilliant mind, and what a detective she would make!'
Blake could actually have mastered Yvonne on their first encounter but, although his life is threatened, he doesn't fire his revolver because his adversary is a woman. This chivalry, however, finds no echo in Yvonne. With the baseness (according to fictional traditions) of the female she adds insult to the physical injury that she has inflicted upon him. She stands over Blake with her 'tangle of gold-bronze hair ... tantalizingly illuminated ... above a white, gleaming skin' and the detective passes into unconsciousness 'to the sound of a silvery, mocking laugh'. All this of course is the perfect preamble to romance. While Blake is wondering how he can recruit Yvonne to the cause of law and order, she finds 'her pulses throbbing with ... exquisite pain' and offers him a personal partnership as well as a professional one. Blake is attracted to the exotic Yvonne but declines her offer because his 'duty lies in stamping out crime, not promoting it'. Gradually, however, after she has knocked out all her enemies and escaped from a bleak moorland prison, Yvonne begins to work with Blake. There are moments when, in gratitude for some act of investigation or daring on her part, Blake 'seizes both her hands and gazes down into her eyes', but passion is always quickly pushed aside by platonic camaraderie and the unceasing demands of the war against crime.
G. H. Teed was up against one of the basic problems of the writer of a long-running series: he had to keep the romantic interest alive, and at the time (especially in a paper read largely by juveniles) this could not be done by harping on extra-marital relationships. Domesticity was no alternative, as it would have meant the kiss of death to the image of dashing detection. So Yvonne simply had to fade away without explanation. Teed made a carbon copy of her for the Detective Weekly during the 1930s with Roxane Harfield, but it was only in the last paragraph of what was intended to be the final book in the main stream saga that a girl managed to get Sexton Blake, after over 70 years of chastity, to propose. Teed's stories were memorable on many counts, and Yvonne set new standards for the female detective. For most of her career she was Blake's auxiliary, but she comes across with greater force than many of her Victorian and Edwardian forerunners.
This survey of female sidekicks comes full circle with another look at the Sexton Blake saga. In 1913 the sleuthing hero of the Union Jack was associated with Yvonne the Adventuress; by the 1960s this character was nothing more than a memory and Blake's current lady assistant was 'tall and honey-blonde Paula Dane', his efficient and attractive secretary. (Blake, by the way, has not grown older. His ageing process seems to have stuck somewhere in the early forties.) Paula was originated by W. Howard Baker in Frightened Lady, a Sexton Blake story of I956. The Amalgamated Press finally dropped the Blake series in 1963, ending the Sexton Blake Library with The Last Tiger, another adventure by the same author. The series went out on a high note, as Paula and Blake get caught up in the suspense and intrigue of foiling a fearsome group of technologically adept Japanese survivors from the Second World War, who plan to take over the world from their Pacific Island hideout. After surviving all these trials and terrors, it is not surprising that Blake weakens sufficiently in the last paragraph to propose ('I think we might risk it-don't you?') and that Paula, undaunted by the down-to-earth nature of this offer of marriage, should accept. As the series had come to an end, marital bliss could safely take over from sleuthing excitement. (The Blake stories were revived for a few years by another publisher but the detective's domestic status presented no problem-the engagement was simply ignored!)
The actions and aspirations of these auxiliaries, from Yvonne Cartier to Paula Dane, have added colour and charm to the sleuthing scene for over half a century. The lady helpers were a strange assortment; they embodied conflicting images, suggesting female independence of thought at one level but, at another, being nudged beyond supportive roles to the point of subservience. This kind of see-sawing between the realistic and the romantic view of women's abilities is of course characteristic not only of the detective story but of other branches of light fiction.
© Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan