Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Marvelous Judith Lee

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate it today. I hope everyone can be with their family and friends.

This TV season I've enjoyed watching the Miss Fisher Mysteries from Australia; I've tried reading the books but don't like them as much as the show. I found the books to be more action-adventure-oriented, whereas I prefer a cozy mystery. Phryne Fisher is a very interesting character, having been born poor but becoming well-to-do when her father inherited a grand title after WWI, so now she has the money and leisure to devote to being a detective. I find her a refreshing and positive model of women's lib back in the 1930s.

I have read other books as well lately, and I have to rave about Richard Marsh's Judith Lee mysteries. It's two collections of short stories for one great price. I'm 1000 pages into it and still not done yet.

Judith Lee is like a female Sherlock Holmes. There are other characters that claim that title, but I found Lady Molly of Scotland Yard kind of boring, and Lady Molly stopped being a detective as soon as she got married. Judith Lee on the other hand is not a professional detective at all. She's a teacher of deaf and dumb students, so she knows how to lipread in many languages. She often unwittingly sees conversations from afar, which give her clues about various mysteries, both criminal and domestic. She protests that "I'm not a thief-taker" and doesn't want to be hired to spy on people. Even as she's solving cases as a hobby, Judith Lee seems to have a full life in her teaching profession. She travels the world and is invited to speak at international conferences. She decided to be a spinster, but her life is not empty because of it. She has many friends and colleagues.

I enjoy how outspoken and confident Judith Lee is. Even though she sometimes resents having to investigate cases instead of doing her real work, she often thinks that she is being guided by fate to be at the right place at the right time. She physically defends herself against men, and she is often not afraid when they become threatening or try to kill her. One time when a confused man demands to know who she is, Judith says "I am Nemesis." She is there as an agent of justice, and she often prefers to operate by her own peculiar methods, only involving the police when necessary. However, she has a friendly relationship with Inspector Ellis of Scotland Yard. He trusts her judgement, and is ready to bring police whenever and wherever she asks. It's so good to see her respected and even feared by criminals.

I loved it when Judith Lee would occasionally spar with a man or comment on how irrational and silly men were. It's just the same way that Sherlock Holmes would talk about how women were insoluble puzzles, with motives he didn't understand. Judith Lee says that her talent is nothing special and that other people can learn it too, but everyone continues to marvel about her gift. They say that if she had been born 200 years earlier, she would have been accused of witchcraft (which Watson has said of Sherlock Holmes as well). Judith Lee also reminds me of Kate Warne (of the Pinkertons) as well, because she impersonates a fortune teller at one point and cleverly scares a murderer into thinking that her scheme was discovered. The story was somewhat reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers's Strong Poison, where Mrs. Climpson pretends to be a medium to trick a nurse into finding an old woman's will and mailing a copy to her lawyer. There was another story that used a mysterious and nameless snake much like "The Speckled Band", which I enjoyed.

Judith Lee sometimes remarks about how some young women are beautiful and even says "I fell madly in love with her" though she helps the girl to marry her male sweetheart instead. I wonder if Richard Marsh meant that in the lesbian sense, or if he just meant it to be something like a girlcrush, when a straight woman adores another woman, such as a famous celebrity, but wouldn't actually pursue anything sexual if given the chance. Either way, it's sad that too many damsels in distress are so innocent and gullible, and Judith Lee remarks on how they are like children. Richard Marsh really captures a compelling and believable female voice in Judith Lee. It's sad that an Edwardian author writes a better feminist character than a lot of modern writers these days.

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