The lawless Wild West marked a unique and fascinating period in US history that inspired countless Hollywood movies and created legends from gunslingers, bounty hunters and liquor-drinking cowboys. Now a new book, out this week, sheds fresh light on the American Frontier and on the female detectives who brought the outlaws to justice. Lucy Bryson finds out howdy West was won.
No period in American history has captivated our imaginations more than the 1800s. Gold prospectors and pioneers scrambled for the Frontier boomtowns in search of their fortune, while gun-toting cowboys swigged hard liquor behind swinging saloon doors.
But the Wild West was wild for a reason. Its lawlessness – and its law breakers – is legend and sparked the advent of the Spaghetti Western and innumerable books about the era and its anti-heroes. It is here, in the heart of the lawless American Old West, that Innocent Bystander, a gripping new crime drama by the British novelist and historian C.A. Asbrey, is set.
It follows Abigail MacKay, a feisty female sleuth at the Pinkerton Detective Agency, in a race against time to find her missing sister, Madeleine. She’s disappeared in lawless Wyoming after running off with murderous widower David Bartholemew whose previous wives have all wound up dead. MacKay knows Madeleine is in mortal danger but can’t save her alone. The only people that can help are her “best enemies” Nat Quinn and Jake Conroy – two outlaws known as The Innocents. Together, the unlikely band must find and protect Madeleine before bringing Bartholemew to justice.
Innocent Bystander, the third instalment in Asbrey’s popular The Innocents Mystery series, doesn’t disappoint. It’s a fabulous ‘whodunnit’ that’s packed with strong characters and witty dialogue, a cinematic setting, and simmering chemistry between MacKay and her charismatic anti-hero, Quinn.
It’s also meticulously researched and sheds fresh, historically-accurate light on the Pinkerton Detective Agency, a real crime-fighting agency established in the 1850s by the Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton, and its work.
Perhaps more importantly, and contrary to almost all ‘Wild West’ literature, Asbrey’s books – which include The Innocents and Innocent as Sin – celebrate the female protagonist and turn the idea of the “helpless damsel in distress” on its head. Madeleine, for instance, is no normal ‘victim’; she’s a bold, brave woman who refuses to play along with society’s rules. MacKay herself is a master of disguise and an expert in science who plays men at their own game – and wins. Asbery has based her stories on real people and real events, and created highly believable, three-dimensional characters that readers can’t help but warm too – flaws and all.
Asbrey is clearly unafraid to highlight the real issues that women have faced – and sadly continue to face – in a male-dominated world. She touches on immigration and female sexuality, and on the misogynistic conventions that women are expected follow. [When discussing Abigail’s claim to be a married woman, Nat says: “She ain’t with him, that’s for sure. No man would allow his wife to behave the way she does. He’s either gone or dead.”] In so doing, Asbrey cleverly redresses the gender imbalance in historical crime drama and should be warmly applauded.
Meet: C.A. Asbrey
From policing Britain’s streets to a stint at the UK Home Office, C.A. Asbrey went from fighting crime to writing about it. Here’s everything you need to know about the acclaimed novelist.
Born in Hong Kong to Scottish parents, Christine Anne Asbrey was perhaps destined to live a life beyond the ordinary. Her actor father gave her a taste for pursuing creative passions, and a globe-trotting childhood encouraged a passion for exploring cultures other than her own.
In 1978, after moving to Mid Calder, West Lothian, Scotland, she joined Lothian and Borders Police at the age of 18. The driving force was simple: to bring criminals to justice. “I was brought up knowing right from wrong at an early age, and that stayed with me through my teens and early 20s,” she says. “It was a career that offered everything an inquisitive, adrenaline-seeking young woman needed, and then some”.
Asbrey spent five years on the beat where she faced criminals on a daily basis. She regularly assisted in investigations of a sexual nature, too. On one occasion, she went undercover on a street where women were being mugged. “I pretended to be a victim and was attacked. That was when my colleagues jumped in to catch the mugger.”
In 1984, at the age of 24, Asbrey moved into private security and worked in the Security and Investigations department at British Airways. For the next 24 years, she liaised with the British government and with police forces worldwide to formulate policy and advise on international threat levels and security training.
Asbrey had a serious accident in 2005, which confined her to a wheelchair (she is still working to regain full mobility) and forced her to leave British Airways – a job that by definition involved global travel. Despite the set-back, she quickly landed a role in the Office of Fair Trading at the Home Office where she specialised in consumer law, energy law and postal law.
“I was manager of the Energy team,” she explains. “I advised those dealing with public enquiries on more complex points of law and was media trained by the Rank organization to
complete requests from TV, radio, and newspapers. I also gave talks to groups of advisors from Citizens Advice and lawyers.”
Her experiences as a woman at the sharp end of crime – in public and private organisations – would prove invaluable in later life. And little did she know that her own courage and pluck would, in later life, inspire the creation of a hugely popular series of crime novels.
In 2008, Asbrey joined the consulting team for BBC1’s The One Show and Watchdog, where she advised researchers on consumer law. “My desk was the go-to point of contact for researchers, who then gave the brief to the presenter.”
Asbrey’s foray into full-time writing happened by accident. Having “lost the will to live” after working in the contracts department of a major corporation, a job which she “hated”, Asbrey forged a new life – and launched a dream career – writing historical crime fiction. She has since penned three acclaimed, award-winning books as part of The Innocents Mystery series and is a member of the Crime Writers of America, where her publisher is based.
The rest is, quite literally, history.
Q&A with C.A. Asbrey
We grab five (more) minutes with the British novelist C.A. Asbrey to chat equality, inspiration and the American Mid-West.
Q: What drew you to the story of the Pinkertons, and this period in history?
A: When I first began training as a probationary police officer, the woman in charge of the training department was a sergeant who had joined in the 1960s. She was fabulously, witty and full of stories from her youth along with anecdotes she had picked up from the older women she had met when she had first joined. That took me back to the post-war period and got me wondering when the first female police officers were employed. Despite having an interest in history, nobody ever taught me much about the first females to do most things we now see as normal and routine – other than the way women stepped into male roles during both world wars.
Those researches took me back to 1910 (some reports say 1909) in the USA and 1914 in the UK, although matrons had been employed to deal with female prisoners for a very long time prior to that. Whilst these women had the same powers of arrest as the men, they performed a different, and female-centric job, dealing with sexual offences, prostitutes, children, and family matters. In that arena they quickly became experts. The first female sheriff in the USA was sworn in on Jan 1st, 1934, and the first female deputy in 1912.
Looking further back, I was surprised to find that the first females to do exactly the same job as a man, to have the same training and powers, actually went right back to 1856 in the USA. Kate Warne persuaded Allan Pinkerton to employ her, telling him that nobody expected a woman to be investigating and that women could access places men couldn’t. She quickly proved her worth, and ended up heading a whole department of female detectives who solved murders, robberies, acted an armed guard for Abraham Lincoln, and were able spies during the Civil War.
Q: The ‘Old West’ setting is an unusual one for crime fiction – do you think this helps extend its appeal beyond the crime and historical fiction genres?
A: The books aren’t only set in the West. They are set everywhere the female Pinkertons worked, which is all over 19th century America, and even into Canada. British Columbia was the Pinkerton’s largest contract outside the USA, as they didn’t have their own detective department in the police force for a long time after joining Canada. The books go from coast to coast, north and south, all over 19th century USA.
The main character is a Scottish immigrant, so she takes her Victorian identity with her—a classic fish-out-of-water in many of the places she ends up. The view is not that of the male sheriff facing down outlaws at high noon. It’s a Scottish Victorian lady plunged into a world which is not her own, and we get to watch her deal with it. The era was a time of great change and invention. Abigail embraces progress and sees herself as a modern woman.
The setting makes for an original take on the 19th century murder mystery. They are most certainly not from the perspective of a masculine-shoot-em-up angle. They are more like the Victorian gothic murder-mysteries which readers will be familiar with. However, they are set against a backdrop of a series of different kinds of lawlessness, with the increased challenges of distance. Remoteness made it more acceptable for women to step outside constrictive society, and the books do reflect how women in the Old West enjoyed more independence than their sisters in the East, or in Europe. They could divorce and re-marry, enjoy property rights, and even keep the children, at a time when women in the UK had to wait for an act of parliament to walk away from an unhappy marriage with nothing.
The real Old West was a melting pot of immigrants, a good place for people with murky pasts to re-invent themselves, but nowhere near as lawless as modern movies paint it. It was actually less violent than many modern cities, but lack of access to government law enforcement meant people formed into local associations which took the law into their own hands without what we could consider a fair ‘due process’ today. Dime novels spread the myth of the violent frontier, even as the country evolved, and the West embraced the image. There was even a town called Palisade which staged Indian raids and shootouts like a real-life Westworld. It kept the town afloat as a tourist attraction when the silver mines dried up. There were also numerous fake train robberies set up by colluding train conductors and remote towns, designed to give the Easterners a fine show, as well as delaying them long enough to make money from their hotel accommodation and meals.
I try to reflect the real side of any location I use. The truth is sometimes confounding, amusing, and gives a new angle on the period classic murder-mystery.
It’s fun to have such a large and diverse canvas to draw on. It means that each and every mystery is different. Each book can be read as a standalone, but they are linked by the relationship between the two main characters and the murderous vendetta of a criminal enemy. I can go from a stuffily-respectable Victorian Boston to the frontier; from the law in a 19th century British province to crime in remote mountain towns. I can cover many more subjects and crimes than one which is stuck in only one type of society, and I can still set it in the same 19th century period. So, yes. The short answer is that the diverse settings add a lot to the appeal due to the depth and breadth of available settings.
Q: Why do you think so little is known about the female detectives of this time period?
A: Thinking back, I was taught very little about the first females to do many things. It doesn’t seem to be part of any regular curriculum, but a more advanced study by people who determine to seek these subjects out. They say that ‘History is written by the victorious’. Most historians were men and they simply overlooked histories which were not their own. We have to remember that many of these women stepped beyond the societal norms and those writing the stories may not have wanted to encourage other women to do the same. Others may just not have been interested or didn’t take women’s work seriously. It happens time and time again; there were the Onna-Bugeisha—the female Samurai who fought in battles and helped maintain law in feudal Japan since the 12th century. They are now all-but forgotten. There were multiple female scientists whose work was overlooked and the credit went to the man in charge; the female artists and writers whose work was seen as a pastime, where for men it was a vocation (Freda Kahlo was once described as “wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art”). Palaeontologist and fossil collector Mary Anning is immortalised as the woman who “sells sea shell, by the sea shore” but she died in poverty. The men who collected fossils full-time, and who consulted her, were called scientists. Mary Anning also studied hard and was an expert in her field, yet was never afforded that title.
Physicist Lise Meitner’s partner won a Nobel Prize while she was overlooked. There were women who broke through in astronomy, science, mathematics, but we are taught so little about them, even if they had as much input as the men whose names we know.
In this case, the Women’s Department of the Pinkerton Detective Agency were criticised at the time for working closely with men. Allan Pinkerton and Kate Warne often posed as husband and wife and attracted many accusations of impropriety, especially from the wives of agents. Robert Pinkerton wanted to get rid of the Women’s Department but Allan Pinkerton fought the decision. However, Robert got his way in 1884 when Allan Pinkerton died. Coupled with many of the records being destroyed in a fire, the Women’ Department quickly dropped into obscurity to all but a few history enthusiasts.
Q: Your characters are very three-dimensional. How important was it for you to create realistic ‘warts and all’ protagonists?
A: I did a great deal of study into the characters, the crimes, and the nature of the society. Once of the most surprising aspects which readers comment on is how humane the two main criminals are. That is actually something which surprised me when researching. The poverty of the time often coupled with social mores to produce many criminals who were known to be polite, courteous, and humane. The reasons for this weren’t just altruistic; it meant that ordinary people stepped back and didn’t get involved when the big companies and the rich got robbed. After all, why should they risk their lives when an injury could jeopardise the harvest which would feed the family for the year ahead? Names like Bill Miner—The Gentleman Outlaw and Charles Earl Boles(AKA ‘Black Bart’), had a reputation for style and sophistication while politely robbing people. Boles even left poetry and robbed on foot because he was afraid of horses. The use of posses in the USA has links to the old common law ‘Hue and Cry’ in which bystanders were summoned to assist in the apprehension of a criminal. Anything a criminal could do to prevent the people turning on them helped them stay free—and that included naked charm.
Not all my characters are as humane, but I feel it’s important to project a rounded person onto the page. I don’t shy away from romance, as it’s a part of life too, but it comes along with a plot—in the same way as it occurs in life—and usually at the most inopportune moments.
Criminals can be charming and funny, the best of society can be lazy and self-absorbed; women can be feisty, and men cowards. In reality, we are all a mix of good and bad, so it’s important to make sure your characters have realistic traits. Petty bullies, people-pleasers, and leaders can inhabit any workplace just as much as a prison or a gang of criminals. Personality types will rise to the surface no matter what situation that person is in.
It’s also good to remember that there are times when a positive can be a negative and vice versa, and make sure you reflect that. For instance, Abigail MacKay’s determination and individualism makes her excellent at working undercover, and doing work society disapproves of, but it makes her poor at teamwork. Her judgement can be poor when assessing risks too.
It’s also interesting to write villains as though they truly believe they are victims. I’ve met people who have done dreadful things, but who feel they had little choice, when of course, they actually did.
I didn’t set out to write a feminist character, but I did write a career path for a character which would attract that kind of person. I put the kinds of people I have known in life into a story. The women I’ve known who did that kind of work didn’t set out to change the world. They sought to carve out a space for themselves in a world where they were just a little bit different. However, in doing so, they changed things incrementally, and showed young girls that they had more options than they thought.
Q: Your books touch on political issues – including women’s rights and immigrant rights – that feel very relevant today. Do you deliberately write from a political perspective?
A: No, I most definitely don’t. I do, however, think politics inform everything in our lives, so when you write about the past, it’s no different. Whatever you write about, and wherever you set it, there will be things which influence the circumstances your characters are in.
Trauma felt by children of immigrants caught up riots in the 1840s was every bit as disturbing as it would be today. That suffering informed behaviour, being orphaned robbed people of their promised futures, and the opportunities all depended on the society at the time and the person’s place in it – all touched by politics and political movements consciously pushing their interests.
One of the characters suffers from Irritable Heart, the 19th century name for P.T.S.D., and we are only just really grasping what that means and how to treat it. I do detail some of the preliminary ways the condition was recognised and treated at the time. Much of the ignorance lay around the way people at the time attributed certain emotions as female, and failed to understand mental illness in general. Those people are, sadly, more likely to get involved with the law, and that was just as true in the past. We see cuts to support services leaving the police service picking up the pieces today.
The second book in my Innocents Mystery series, Innocent as Sin, does relate to the children of immigrants being traumatised by discrimination being whipped up against certain groups, and what happens to those children when they have no parental guidance. It was based on real examples found in research. It wasn’t designed to reflect the current times, as I wrote that book long before Trump even considered running for president. I’d been trying to find a publisher for some time. It’s just a coincidence that politics are cyclical, and synchronicity came around just as book two was published.
I do think if you write about real issues and historical events, they will echo down the years as humans seem to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Q: Your books are very detailed in their descriptions of historic detective work – what do you think readers would find most surprising about the forensics of the time?
A: Apart from the fact that the women were trained in it and very skilled at their jobs? There was no sending stuff ‘off to the lab’. There were no laboratories. A good detective did the work themselves or knew a scientist who could. Forensics were pretty hit or miss and depended on who was around, skilled enough, and determined to bring a killer to justice.
More often than not it wasn’t a police officer who did the analysis. It was a local doctor. Author Arthur Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on the man who taught him, Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell assisted the Edinburgh police in more than one case by using a scientific method of investigation. He was not the only one though. Cesare Lombroso, Alexandre Lacassagne, and Edmond Locard, to name but a few, were all doing the same thing and pushing the boundaries on how crimes were solved.
The comments made by readers so far relate to how much people were able to do at the time, but the 19th century was a time where science started to bloom and knowledge grew exponentially. The tests for poisons improved, and with it, the ability to bring in people who previously walked away from their crimes. I have to be careful to makes sure the methods I write about are accurate and not anachronistic. A review delighting in the accuracy of a flame test made my day.
The other comments relate to the limitations of justice at the time, and how certain classes of people could walk away without charge while others would be far more likely to get the worst available sentence. ‘Respectable’ women were far more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt than poor women or servants. And the influence of the Masonic Lodge on the upper classes is not to be underestimated in the protection of wealthy men, and their families, either.
I love finding devices which were invented far earlier than people think, like the vending machine (1615 – or even earlier), the fax machine (1843), and the battery (1800).
Q: How do you think your background in the police has informed your work as a writer of crime fiction?
A: I didn’t set out to write her as a heroine. I wrote her as a dedicated woman at work. She cares about her job, her professionalism, and about people. Then I gave her challenges. I tried to make her real and reflect the personalities of the women I knew who did that kind of work, because people don’t fundamentally change – only times do. The women who joined the police, before it was mainstream, were prepared to be different and meet with disapproval. They were looking for something more than domesticity and office work, and those women have always been around. The opportunities weren’t. It was a time when women who married were expected to resign immediately, so those who had long careers usually had reasons for not marrying. I also had to provide that layer of social meaning. Why was she working at all? How did she even know about the opportunity to work as a detective?
Most people who commit crime rationalise why they do it. Sometimes it’s need, other times it’s greed. It can be lack of opportunity, boredom, or simply all they know. Very few people see themselves as bad. They mostly have excuses, justifications, and behaviours which they see as balancing out their acts to make them good overall. Most reason that others are worse than they are. The criminals also needed to have good back-stories and a sound psychological reason for their actions. Everyone has a back-story, even if I don’t write it.
It most definitely reflects in my mystery writing. I understand what it takes to solve a crime, the levels of proof required by courts, and systematic method of investigation it takes to gather it.
The most sexist moments in the book actually happened to me, except I cleaned up the language. I was one of the first groups of women to earn the same as men and do the same job as them. I considered that the pushback and sexism I saw would also have happened to the female Pinkertons. Victorian men were not always gentlemanly. If a woman stepped out of the role society dictated for her, they were ruthless. One editor actually asked how she was prepared to work for men who treated her the way her ‘boss’ did inthe first Innocents Mystery book, The Innocents. I took that as a sign we have come a long way.
Q: The setting for the books is very vivid – had you been to Wyoming before beginning work on The Innocents?
A: Wyoming had to feature as it has no statute of limitations and it’s important to the plot that Nat will be wanted for the rest of his life. I’d been through Denver and seen a lot of the USA but I didn’t know Wyoming well. I had to learn more, from maps, visits, and books.
When I name major cities, I use real maps from the time, research, old photographs, and local knowledge to bring the place to life.
The use of San Francisco in Innocent Bystander is a good example of this, as is the description of Boston in Innocent as Sin. I know both cities very well. When I name a famous person from a real place – such as a lawman, medical professional, or professor – they really existed too. Even if they only play a small part I research their lives, their appearance, and their known behaviours.
I also make things up. Small towns are generic, with invented names. So is Ghost Canyon. They are based on features you can find anywhere. There are plenty of writers who write places from their imagination. As long as it feels real I have no problem with presenting readers with a place I invented. After all, I invented the people who populate it too.
Q: Do you think the character of Abigail redresses a gender imbalance in crime fiction? And in what ways do you think she defies gender stereotypes?
A: I don’t think she redresses the balance, but she was never meant to. She was meant to tell a new story, in a different way, and from a fresh perspective. The story of law enforcement in the past is always going to be very male oriented because that’s the way it was. It doesn’t mean that minority voices can’t be heard though. It also doesn’t mean that more stories can’t be told. Real equality is about everyone’s experience being equally valid.
Abigail isn’t identified as anyone’s wife, daughter, or sidekick. She’s all those things; they are all part of her—but they don’t define her. She doesn’t even use her married name as it helps her maintain a distance and provides an alias at work. She makes her own way in a world which isn’t used to women doing anything other than fitting in. She is unapologetically clever, fearlessly individual, and not afraid of being unpopular. In all of those things she reflects the real women who did the work way back in the 1850s.
Abigail MacKay is the first period detective I can think of actually written by someone who did the work. There are wonderful writers who write modern detectives and pathologists, with backgrounds in the role. I can’t think of any period detectives though. I look forward to being corrected as we need more, not less, but every story will still be individual.
She isn’t a lady picking her way through a mystery as an amateur. She’s a fully-trained, skilled detective, working for a law enforcement agency which really existed, using real techniques, and genuine methods available at the time. She’s as professional as any, and more determined than most, as she sees herself as having nothing to lose.
She is different, as women in historical mysteries are usually portrayed as a sidekicks or love-interests. The second book, Innocent as Sin, clearly shows that she is never less than a full partner. Even when she competes with a man they don’t beat her; they both come up with a full solution to the crime which corroborates the other—it’s a whodunit solved by two different, and competing, means.
I don’t shy away from her emotional side. She’s lonely. Many professional people, especially women, are. It isn’t talked about enough. She doesn’t have to be, but she isn’t prepared to compromise who she is to fit into someone else’s set of expectations. I want to be clear that she isn’t isolated because of the job, but does the job because it fills a void. She loves her work, but knows that she wouldn’t be allowed to do it when married. A partner would have to be an improvement for her, and that’s a big ask. We all have to deal with changing priorities as we go through life, and the 19th century simply gave a woman less choices.
She enjoys the invisibility her disguises bring her and notes the changes in the way people treat her in various guises; an effeminate male, an older woman, a boy, etc. She uses them in her work to play with other people’s expectations and will knowingly select the best one for the situation. She isn’t afraid to confound the gender stereotypes of her time, but she doesn’t shy away from using them either.
Q: The book ends on a positive note, and seems to set the scene for more books – can readers expect more from Abigail soon?
A: I’ve written book four and started on book five. I see this series going for around six books in total and have some great plots in mind. Once I’ve finished that, I have a murder mystery set in Gothic 19th century Edinburgh plotted and researched. It stretches across two centuries and I just have to write it. My work did take me into the old Victorian mortuary in Edinburgh and it’s too good a location not to put in a book. The city has so much history that it is almost a character in itself.