QUAINT #13 Hagar of the Pawnshop, The Gypsy Detective by Fergus Hume

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Hagar Stanley was created by Fergus Hume and appeared in Hagar of the Pawnshop, The Gypsy Detective (1898). Hume (1859-1932) was born in England but grew up in New Zealand and moved to Australia to practice law. In 1886 he published The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, which became the best-selling detective novel of the 19th century. But Hume did not retain the rights to Hansom Cab and did not become rich by it, and his later attempts to duplicate the success of Hansom Cab were not successful.

Hagar Stanley is a Romany (Gypsy). She is the niece of the miserly pawn shop owner Jacob Dix. While young Jacob had taken a Romany wife and brought her to London. They had a son, Jimmy, but his wife could not stand the air of London and died, and Jimmy grew up to be a brutal man and a scoundrel who left his father and took up with the Romany. Hagar was of the same Romany tribe as Dix’s wife, and was happy in the New Forest, but then Goliath appeared:

“He is half a Gorgio and half Romany—a red-haired villain, who chose to fall in love with me. I hated him. I hate him still!”—the woman’s bosom rose and fell in short, hurried pantings—“and he would have forced me to be his wife. Pharaoh—our king, you know—would have forced me also to be this man’s rani, so I had no one to protect me, and I was miserable. Then I recalled what the chal had told me about you who wed with one of us; so I fled hither for your protection, and to be your servant.”

Dix is an awful person to be around, but he values her servitude and keeps her at his shop. In a short time Hagar became as clever as Jacob himself, and he was never afraid to trust her with the task of making bargains, or with the care of the shop. She acquired a knowledge of pictures, gems, silverware, china—in fact, all the information about such things necessary to an expert. Without knowing it, the untaught gypsy girl became a connoisseur.

Dix’s solicitor, the corrupt Vark, falls in love with Hagar and proposes marriage, but she sees that he is as much interested in Dix’s money as he is in her and declines the proposal. Vark believes that Hagar is as corrupt as he is, and he tries to get Dix to disinherit his son Jimmy so that Hagar will inherit Dix’s money. Vark has a letter forged which claims that Jimmy planned to kill Dix; as Vark planned, Dix has a fit when he reads the letter. The fit damages Dix’s health, but before he dies he alters his will to make Hagar his beneficiary. Hagar takes possession of the will before Vark can, intending to let Jimmy have his father’s money. Vark, stymied, then tells her that Jimmy is Goliath.

With Dix’s death Hagar takes charge of the pawn shop, and through the pawn shop she meets men and women in need of her talents at solving crimes and righting wrongs. Hagar’s first case involves Eustace Lorn, a “tall, slim, fair-haired and blue-eyed man” to whom Hagar is immediately attracted. She helps him track down the secret of his uncle’s wealth, and by the end of the story she has agreed to let him court her, but only if he finds Jimmy Dix for her. She wants to give the pawn shop to Jimmy Dix so that she can leave the city, but all her efforts to find him have failed, and she is stuck running the shop until he can be found.

In other cases she helps prove that an innocent woman did not commit murder; she deciphers a string of numbers, discovers a hidden painting, and secures a marriage; she uncovers the deception behind a ruined marriage; she stops a murderous diamond thief; and she defends a woman from blackmail. In some of the cases she is essentially an observer to the stories Hume wants to tell, including the revenge of some Chinese on Westerners who steal their sacred idols, and of a love triangle leading to murder.

In the final story Jimmy Dix escapes from prison and Eustace Lorn reappears, having become wealthy as a traveling bookseller. Dix saves Vark from a murderous convict, and Hagar gives him the pawn shop. She marries Lorn and the pair take to the roads as wandering booksellers.

Hagar Stanley is historically significant as the first major female ethnic detective. There were a very few female Native American detectives in American dime novels, but Stanley was the first female detective in English literature who was neither English, American, or French. She likely created the vogue for unusual female detectives in the 20th century, who until the pulps of the 1920s and 1930s were significantly more unusual than their male counterparts. The Stanley stories are also interesting as the culmination of the trend toward making Romany characters the heroes and protagonists of stories. Starting in the 1830s, with William Harrison Ainsworth’s Rookwood and G.P.R. James’ The Gipsey (1835), Romany were allowed to function in fiction both as villains–their traditional role–and as heroes, as in George Borrow’s The Romany Rye (1857) and eventually in Hagar of the Pawnshop. Unusually, the Romany protagonist of Hagar is not only a woman, but she is allowed
to remain both a Romany (rather than converting to Christianity) and a wanderer at the end of Hagar. This rejection of middle-class assumptions was very rare in 19th century English mystery fiction.

Stanley is the opposite of Hume’s London. She is immensely attractive. She is cool under pressure and in dangerous situations; when faced with an angry Englishman, who is bigger and stronger than she is, she promptly boxes his ears and completely breaks his spirit, so that he is afraid of her from that time forward. She has a “strict sense of duty, her upright nature, and her determination to act honestly, even when her own interests were at stake,” as she does with the pawnshop. She has an equal interest in justice and mercy. Hagar is also smart. She has a quick wit, giving as well as she gets in some amusing exchanges. She is self-possessed, and though capable of emotions is free of hysterics. She is pretty, but she always dresses in black; she remains in mourning for Jacob, her uncle, even though she viewed him with contempt. Finally, she is experienced in the ways of crime and criminals, having learned from Jacob things like invisible ink and ciphers. Hagar is moral, upright, smart, and tough. She is damn near ideal.

About the Quest for Unusual & Adventurous International Notations & Tales (QUAINT).

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