Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Female Detective with a Black Velvet

Andrew Forrester's 'The Female Detective' is possibly the original Lady Detective. She appeared in print in 1864, as did William Hayward Smith's 'Lady Detective'. The British Library editions have 'The Female Detective' as the first, but in 'The Penguin Book of Victorian Women in Crime' the editor, Michael Simms, has them the other way around, either way it took more than twenty years for more female detectives to join them.

The Penguin book is an excellent introduction to a number of female detectives, invented at a time when the very idea must have been faintly outrageous. That the Lady Detective making her revelations on my copy (an early British Library reprint with what I assume is the original cover reproduced in it) has a young woman on the cover who is not only lifting her skirts to reveal a good bit of ankle under her crinoline, but she's smoking, there's also what looks a lot like a pint glass with some straws in it next to her.

I'm slightly ashamed to admit that having met, and liked, both of these resourceful ladies in the Penguin collection, I bought the British Library books and still haven't read them. It's an awful oversight, and one which I'll put right as soon as I can.

The Black Velvet is roughly contemporary with both of these books, there is a story I very much want to believe that says it was invented at Brook's Club after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, so that even the Champagne had the appearance of wearing a black armband. It's made in a pilsner glass or champagne flute, is half and half champagne and stout (Guinness is the obvious choice for this one because it's everywhere, but if I can find it I'd use something like Samuel Smith's Imperial stout because that's how much I want the Prince Albert story to be true). Put the champagne in the glass first, and gently pour the stout in, over a spoon if it helps, so that it floats on top of the fizz.

What I find so attractive about this story is the way it slyly subverts notions of Victorian mourning rituals, in much the same way that 'The Female Detective' and her sister subvert the cliches of Victorian womanhood. They may have been aberrations, far ahead of their time, but there was also clearly a market for them. As for the Black Velvet - there's something affectionately tongue in cheek about drinking it as a tribute to the departed.

Even if it wasn't invented at Brook's (Difford's guide, and I'm indebted to a man on Twitter for this information, suggests another origin - the Shelbourne hotel in Dublin says they did it first, and date it to the 1870's - it may be so) it's still a drink with a venerable history, and the mix of aristocratic champagne and workmanlike stout is surprisingly appealing. If you haven't tried this before it's better than it sounds, as well as a chance to drink like a Victorian (lady Detective).


  1. Both the book and the drink sound very seductive. I am definitely going to try them! And I love all your posts on books & cocktails.

  2. Thank you! The research is a lot of fun...