The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A forgotten female Sherlock Holmes gets her due in this audio play (with physical clues)

Debora Crabbe stars in “Loveday Brooke in ‘The Mystery of the Drawn Daggers,’ ” an audio-play mystery from We Happy Few. (Sam Reilly)
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Loveday Brooke, the brilliant sleuth from Catherine Louisa Pirkis’s late-Victorian stories, has been so overlooked recently that her plight might be called “The Case of the Neglected Detective.” But Pirkis’s private eye will sidle out of obscurity if D.C.’s classics-focused troupe We Happy Few has its way. “Loveday Brooke in ‘The Mystery of the Drawn Daggers,’ ” an audio-play experience that includes a mailed package of clues and atmospheric extras, is the latest offering in We Happy Few’s 2020-21 season, which is virtual at least through January. Adapted and directed by artistic director Kerry McGee, “Drawn Daggers” releases on Nov. 23, with instructions to access an audio file sent via email, as well as in the mailed package. Audiences can listen to the play at their own pace, while poring through the clues.

“Uncovering forgotten women’s writers has become a bit of a passion of mine,” says McGee, explaining why she’s unsheathing “Drawn Daggers” just a year after We Happy Few’s revival of “Lovers’ Vows,” a once-sensational, now-slighted 1798 play by Elizabeth Inchbald.

Not that “Drawn Daggers” privileges scholarship over entertainment. Brooke is a crime-solving genius — knowledgeable, preternaturally perceptive, skilled at undercover work and versed in the minutiae of invisible ink. As conjured in the seven vivid, twisty stories that Pirkis published in London’s Ludgate Monthly, and in book form, between 1893 and 1894, Brooke is also businesslike, open-minded, cool under pressure and so confident as to embody the Lean In ethos for the Pax Britannica era. Employed by a Fleet Street detective agency, Brooke is inevitably several steps ahead of her (male) boss and police allies, and has to explain her deductions to dazzled clients and colleagues at the end of each case.

Her explications recall those of Sherlock Holmes, whom Arthur Conan Doyle had introduced in 1887, launching a series that heightened public interest in detective yarns. Fiction about women investigators was not lacking, but Brooke stood out by a London-fog-drenched mile. “While there were some other stories about female detectives in this period, there were none that were like Loveday Brooke, who’s really a professional detective who’s into it because she’s interested in the work and has the capacity for it. She’s not doing it to avenge her wrongly imprisoned husband or something like that, which is often the case with the other female detectives from this period,” says Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, a professor of English at the University of California at Davis, whose writings about Victorian culture include the article “Trouble with She-Dicks: Private Eyes and Public Women in ‘The Adventures of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective.’ ”

Miller, who is not involved with the We Happy Few production, says the Brooke stories connect to “first-wave feminism and the growing movement of women’s right to vote, and other kinds of legal challenges to women’s situation at this time.”

We Happy Few’s engagement with the stories dates to when McGee’s husband sent her an article about early fictional women gumshoes. A mystery fan, McGee read all of the cited texts and gravitated to Brooke. “There’s not a side plot where she gets married and gives up her job,” McGee notes. “She’s like, ‘This is what I do. This is how I make my money. I’m an independent woman working in the world.’ I thought that was really cool.” Inspired by the D.C.-area Women’s Voices Theater Festival to champion sidelined classics by women, McGee decided to adapt Pirkis’s tales for the stage.

Her dramatization was originally envisaged as a live production running in repertory with a Sherlock Holmes play. Then the pandemic forced We Happy Few to pivot to audio. To ease into the new mode, the troupe first reinvented a previous Edgar Allan Poe production as two sound broadcasts, released in October. Ticket-buyers had the option to purchase mailed boxes of surprise add-ins: Carnival masks, tarot cards and more. The gambit aligned We Happy Few with theaters across the country — including, locally Rorschach Theatre and Synetic Theater — that have used curated mailings to enhance, or convey, theatricality at a distance.

For “Drawn Daggers” — and We Happy Few’s audio-drama “Sherlock Holmes and ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men,’ ” scheduled for release in January — the boxes are not extras but part of the experience. (The theater plans to keep “Drawn Daggers” available at least through March, and the creative team has begun by preparing for 200 orders.) Ultimately, McGee says, the audio-plus format helped We Happy Few solve a problem it had faced, pre-pandemic, in tackling the mystery genre: The troupe’s minimalist aesthetic made it hard to present key narrative elements without over-telegraphing their importance. If a whodunit staging has one prop, and it’s a lamp, McGee points out, theatergoers will too easily identify that object as a clue. When audience imaginations do the scene setting, helped by sound and mailed curios, that’s not a problem.

Debora Crabbe, who plays Brooke, also appreciates the all-sound medium, which gives her the stimulating challenge of acting solely through her voice. To counter stereotype, the actress aimed to infuse Brooke’s lines with nuance. “Usually when it’s a woman in a power position, people tend to just think that she’s too rigid, or not fun, or she has no sense of humor,” Crabbe says.

Why has Brooke largely dropped off the radar? Miller says that Pirkis, while successful in her day, “was writing popular fiction, which wasn’t really taken seriously as literature, and a lot of it was published in magazines, too, which made it seem a little more temporary.”

McGee finds the oblivion regrettable. Reading Pirkis’s stories for the first time, McGee says, “I was almost embarrassed that I didn’t know who Loveday was.”

Loveday Brooke in 'The Mystery of the Drawn Daggers'

We Happy Few.

Dates: Releasing on Nov. 23, and available at least through March.

Prices: $28.