melannen: The hobo sign for "This House Is Bigger On the Inside," two nested houses drawn in chalk on blue. (hobo)
melannen ([personal profile] melannen) wrote2010-01-04 12:20 am

Why yes, this post is longer than the fic.

I haven't had time to do much reading in the yuletide archive yet, but I want to talk about the fandom I wrote in, which was Miss Madelyn Mack, Detective.

When I was hinting around about what it was, [personal profile] elspethdixon guessed "a steampunk comic about superheroes fighting crime in 1890s NYC, that being the most awesome madlibs example I can think of at the moment."

She was incorrect: it's actually a collection of short stories and two mostly-lost silent films, not a comic; and they were written between 1909 and 1914, not in the 1890s.

...the rest was pretty much right. I was going for "A hundred-year-old book about lesbians fighting crime in gaslit New York City."

Since it's mostly only steampunk in that Madelyn carries a pocket telephone, and in that it's set in the era when most of the steampunk technology was actually becoming real; and it's mostly only superheroes in that her dear companion Nora is a girl reporter working for the Daily Bugle, and in that they are both very good at fighting crime.

But then, they're only lesbians in that ... no, actually they're fairly obviously lesbians to anyone who's read the book, and my yuletide feedback agrees with me on that :D

[personal profile] cinaed, my assigned recipient, describes the fandom as " - it's pretty much a genderswap of Holmes and Watson". It's not the fandom we matched on (there will be a post about that one later), but how was I supposed to resist at least looking it up with a summary like that?

The complete Madelyn Mack story collection is available for free download through archive.org, and the PDF is illustrated with stills from the films. The Alice Joyce website also has contemporary reviews of the lost films.

I started reading ...three pages in, and Madelyn telling Nora how she's a greater detective than "our old friend Sherlock Holmes" because women are naturally better at that sort of thing, and I was pretty much a lost cause.

So is it really just a genderswap of Holmes and Watson set in gaslight New York City? I have prepared a convenient comparison chart so you can judge for yourself!

Sherlock Holmes Miss Madelyn Mack Point to:
Male Female Madelyn
London New York City tie
John Watson, disabled war hero Nora Noraker, intrepid newspaperwoman tie
Plays a stradivarius violin Has NYC's largest record collection and commissions private recordings at exorbitant rates tie
Cocaine and Morphine by injection, to spend days in a drugged haze. Kola beans, carried in a locket around her neck, to stay awake for days at a stretch. Madelyn
221B Baker Street and a beekeeper's cottage in Sussex A high-rise Manhattan office and a reproduction Swiss chalet surrounded by roses on the Hudson Madelyn
Probably a sodomite Probably a tribade Madelyn
Has a chemistry set Has a pocket telephone Madelyn
Inspector Lestrade and Scotland Yard Inspector Taylor and various police departments Sherlock
The martial art of Baritsu Performing feats of derring-do in a corset and silk petticoats Madelyn
Baker Street Irregulars Harem of cute office-boys Sherlock
Stolen from Poe Based on a real female consulting detective. And also shameless Holmes fanfic! Madelyn
Master of disguise Wears only pure white and pure black Sherlock
Is a workaholic recluse Drags Nora out on drives in the country and late nights at cabarets Madelyn
Goes on long undercover jobs and spends years as a fugitive pretending to be dead Goes on a world-spanning adventure trip whenever she has enough money, just for the fun of it (which is approx. every few months.) Madelyn
Mrs. Hudson The Boltons and Peter the Great, a large dog Madelyn
Mary Marston Thorny Preston Sherlock
Meets clients while in a dressing-gown, smoking in armchair by the fire Meets clients while "lying flat on her back on a tawny leopard skin in an attitude strongly suggestive of Cleopatra reposing on the trophies of her royal huntsmen" Madelyn
Has only ever been bested by The Woman (or two!) Understands that women are naturally better detectives than men Madelyn


Final score: Sherlock 4, Madelyn 12 Madelyn wins!

Am I seriously claiming it's better than Holmes? No, of course not. Nora and Madelyn and the world they inhabit are fabulous and fabulously drawn, and as Edwardian genre stories they are certainly still eminently readable, and I am so very, very glad they exist; and a blatant Holmesian pastiche that consistently fails the reverse Bechdel is just so much *fun* to play in, and I really do wish they had a living fandom like Holmes has (or, failing that, they were part of Holmes-universe fanon!) But realistically, the mysteries aren't nearly as clever, as a writer Hugh C. Weir is no Conan Doyle, and with only five stories and two lost film shorts to work with, there's not nearly as much there.

And then there's the last and longest story, The Purple Thumb. TPT is ... problematic.

It's got redeeming factors: Madelyn is at her very best, being an annoying genius and refusing to tell Nora her deductions and running around NYC breaking and entering and chasing after gunmen; we get to see a lot more of what Nora's life is like and who she is as a person; the longer story means we get a lot more character development in general; and the secondary characters in this story (Ariel and Jacqueline and Gwendolyn and even Thorny) are all great, especially the theater women, who are so very good at playing with appearance and turning preconceptions to their own advantage and never get judged for it.

But ... well, first off, it's a very weak story. The mystery's solution is half obvious from the beginning, and half an unbelievable contrivance that wouldn't be out of place in a Shakespeare comedy, and the pacing is uneven, particularly the ending, which is really rushed (I suspect he had a maximum length to write to, as the magazines wouldn't buy a novel, and had to finish up quick, but the pacing issues are noticeable.) And also he seems to think Haitians are Spanish.

And it has a pasted on love interested for Nora, Thorny Preston. For all it's obviously pasted on, I was willing to fly with it; Thorny's interesting and sweet and respects both Nora and Madelyn, and the courtship that's described between an overworked career woman with self-image problems and her old-beau-made-good could have been done worse. And then in the last couple of pages of the book, Thorny declares to Nora that they're getting married that afternoon - doesn't bother asking - with the presumption that of course marriage will be the end of her career. It could have been worse, but it just sticks in the craw, especially since until then, the book's done such a good job with believable and independent career women (not even a good job for the period - a good job for *now*.)

And then there's the racism.

It's not exactly unexpected - this is a book written in America by a white person in the beginning of the twentieth century; even the ones that were trying to be progressive usually come off terribly to modern eyes, and Madelyn Mack is really just a pulp detective story (okay, I suppose technically Madelyn was in the slicks, a step up! - but it's still genre adventure.) I went into it mostly prepared to, at the very least, meet cheerful, loyal black servants, and instead discovered that for all of the first four stories, every single character is white, and most are described in such a way as to make that clear. (I don't know details of NYC's demographics in that period - just enough to know that 1910-1915 saw the start of a lot of changes in racial dynamics in Northern cities that would set a pattern for the century; and enough for me to find the solid wall of whiteness wrong.)

As for The Purple Thumb--

Let me tell you a story about yuletide panic. I was reading Madelyn Mack slowly, to keep myself in voice for writing, as I worked on my fic, and as I did period & background research about it (and tried to find out more about the films). I was half done the story and through all but the last chapter in the book when I found myself reading a bit about Madelyn Mack that turned up on Google Books in an academic paper, and fell over the phrase "the final case, 'The Purple Thumb', a racist tale of murder and detection". The author just dropped that descriptor in there and moved on to something else.

...of course it's racist, it's an Edwardian novel. What must have been in the last story to earn that descriptor above and beyond, so bad that the writer had to mention it even in a completely unrelated analysis? I was terrified that there was going to be something so vile that I wouldn't be able to look past it and keep liking Madelyn - worst case would be a deduction that hinged on White people being inherently superior in some way, but I've read enough bad 19th century novels that there were plenty of other scenarios I could imagine. I was half-certain that I'd have to abandon the story I was writing and scrape something together at the last minute in the other fandom I knew, and I wouldn't have time to do anything I was satisfied with.

It turns out (spoiler! - not that you can't deduce this on about page five -) that Broadway star Ariel Burton's huge and deadly secret is that, gasp, her father wasn't 100% white! Yeah, it's a classic Tragic Mulatto trope, and played for all the melodrama possible. I didn't come out of it hating any of the characters except the ones I was supposed to, the man who abused Ariel and the man who rejected her both get what's coming to them, and it's hinted that Ariel herself rose from the ashes to a triumph, but it's still spot-on the classic stereotype, and (partly because, as I mentioned above, the ending of this story is really rushed and sketchy and badly done in general) it's really hard to tell exactly what the author thought he was saying with this turn of events, assuming he was thinking anything other than DRAMA!!!

It's no "Adventure of the Yellow Face," is what I'm saying. But then, it's no worse than you might run into in your average modern genre show either (which is a sad commentary on several levels) which left me not so much in the "throw computer against wall" space as in the "this really needs epic fixit fic!" headspace. Epic fixit fic in which Ariel gets to rise above the stereotype, continuing to be awesome all the way, and New York City gets some diversity, and while I'm at it, Thorny Preston gets taught a lesson and Jacqueline the probably-not-actually-French maid has a chance to shine. Oh, and there is hot femmeslash.

There was no chance *whatsoever* that I would get the fixit fic written in time for yuletide - it's more of a spend-five-years-researching-then-publish-as-original-novel story - but I had a lot of fun telling it to myself over the holiday.

So here's the outline of the story I would have written, had I but world enough, and time:
Ariel Burton decides that if she doesn't have a place in the world, she'll make herself one, and pulls together all her money to buy a rickety mansion in Harlem with the goal of opening a Black theater.

She also decides, while she's at it, to embrace her desires and starts a relationship with Jacqueline, the former French maid, who is still living with her. Assuming she and Jacqueline weren't already so doing it in canon, which is a valid reading of the text. Jacqueline, at the very least, was aware of Ariel's masquerade and actively supported it. Anyway, they're really hot together & pull off brilliantly labyrinthine capers. I think for the purposes of this story, Jacqueline is also Haitian Creole and was faking being French.

Ariel has some difficulty fitting in to Harlem's growing middle class/artistic community, as someone who has identified as white almost her entire life but doesn't any more, but the large amount of money she brought with her helps, as does the residual glamour of Broadway. And the fact that she and Jacqueline are both talented and competent and smart and awesomecakes. She's still both surprised and warmed when a young woman turns up on her doorstep asking for help - not in acting, but in murder: someone is stalking and killing the women of Harlem, and OFC - we'll call her Alice - wants to know if Ariel has any connections leftover from her famous case that could induce the police to pay attention.

Ariel calls in the debt that Madelyn owes her - but what they want isn't so much Madelyn's detective skill as the publicity & sympathy that a Nora Noraker story about Madelyn always creates. And Madelyn agrees that she does owe a debt, admitting that intellectual pride led her to do Ariel a terrible wrong in the resolution of that case, and convinces Nora to write about what's happening - but Thorny, Nora's fiance, is less entranced at the idea that Nora become involved with such people, he's heard what Harlem's turning into, he has friends who used to live there. And he's not sure he likes the idea of his bride-to-be working at all, anyway. The result is a terrible row that ends with Nora shouting that maybe she doesn't want to marry him then, fleeing to the Rosary, and falling right back into Madelyn's arms and bed.

Meanwhile Ariel, Jacqueline, and Alice have been going over clues and making maps, and after Alice goes home for the evening, the other two hatch a strategy that involves Jacqueline wandering alone through the most dangerous streets in hopes of luring the predator in front of Ariel's camera lens. But before Jacqueline gets to the target area, she is Accosted and dragged into an alley and then the back-room of a bar, where she discovers that some of the people of Harlem have formed an anti-serial-killer vigilance committee, which they have organized & run in secret, since the last thing the neighborhood needs is rumors of gangs of black men roaming the street. They yell at her for taking stupid risks for awhile until she convinces them to come talk to Madelyn, Ariel, and Alice - it helps that OMC who's in charge of the committee (we'll call him Zeb) is a good friend of Alice's.

So now we've got Madelyn, Nora, Jacqueline, Ariel, Alice & Zeb in the back parlor of Ariel's mansion with maps and notes and clippings all over the floor, and then Thorny shows up, and apologizes abjectly to Nora & Ariel both for being a cad. Nora forgives him in her socially awkward way, but suggests they postpone the wedding again, possibly indefinitely. Ariel, being a wise and forgiving woman, makes him grovel a bit and then laughs at him and solicits his help with his former-Harlemite friends, since it's clear at this point that the culprit knows the neighborhood very well.

Now we've got to have some actual detectiving: Madelyn and Nora are going to have to use their fame and connections to do the things that only they can, by which I mean schmooze the police and press into a) taking it seriously while b) not turning it into a racial panic. And do things like get pocket telephones and electric torches for all the squad leaders in the committee. So Madelyn gives Alice some quick interrogation & fingerprint training, and Alice, Zeb and Thorny are sent out to do the actual leg-work of the detectiving. Ariel and Jacqueline are under strict orders to stay home, and not do anything rash unless they first check with either Zeb or Madelyn, no matter how clever Ariel thinks it is, which means the two of them end up running a defacto command center/switchboard/safehouse/sewing circle. Which means, basically, that they are descended upon by a bevy of respectable church ladies and their daughters and husbands, and Ariel has no idea how to deal with this. Fortunately, the respectable church ladies know exactly how to deal with everything and anything, and Ariel and Jacqueline find themselves almost despite themselves, and despite the church ladies, becoming part of the inner circle of pillars of the community.

Meanwhile, there is exactly the usual amount of derring-do and deductions, mysterious clews and red herrings, coincidences and revelations, wild chases and deadly peril. People learn about each other! And bond! And have sexual tension! And there is far more than the usual amount of stubborn idiocy and less-than-useless interference on the part of the official police and government people, who are convinced the culprit must be a black man.

Of course it turns out to be one of Thorny's former white Harlemite acquaintances, who just likes killing women and had been delighted when the changing status of his old neighborhood made it a safer stalking-ground. They finally put together an elaborate trap in an attempt to get incontrovertible proof of the culprit, that requires everybody working together but ends up being a more complicated variation on Jacqueline & Ariel's original bait-and-camera idea, and after the requisite suspenseful moments, Bad Guy is hauled off to prison in chains to the accompaniment of Nora's newspaper articles making it clear that such a thing must never be allowed to happen again.

Madelyn offers Alice a junior partnership in her detective agency, Zeb kisses Thorny, and Madelyn/Nora and Ariel/Jacqueline stay OTP. Ariel starts talking again about her plan to build a theater where black actors can do real drama about real lives, which seems more possible than ever with the way the community has come together, and Thorny says, why build a new theater, if we pool our resources I bet we could put that on Broadway. And then Madelyn says that if Ariel produces and Thorny writes the play, she'll put up half the funding and she can probably get her old friend Mrs. Irene Norton to cover the other half. So they basically wind up putting on Three Plays for a Negro Theater, and everybody lives happily ever after until the Great War comes, the end.


If anybody wants to steal that idea and write it, please please please do? :D

As for the story I actually wrote, as opposed to the one I dreamed about:

Silver Buttons All Down Her Back, 4300 words, explicit Madelyn/Nora first-time, gratuitous Sherlock Holmes crossover and clapping-rhyme references. I think it's possibly the best fic I have ever published, certainly the best I've done for yuletide. Damning with faint praise, I know.

But the rec for Silver Buttons described it as "pretty much just a straight-up slash/relationship story, but it's very well done, and very much in the spirit of the original characters." The 'straight-up slash' description, I think, was intended as a caveat, but it makes me very happy, because it is the first straight-up classic 'ship story I have *ever* published - I tend to go either for gen or kink or complicated ambiguity - and I've wanted to do a proper old-fashioned pairing story for ages, because I love reading them, but could never quite make it work before. Complicated is easier. So hooray for Nora and Madelyn and their blatantly obvious sexual tension!

Of course I had to give myself training wheels by way of making the story part of a correspondence between Nora and John Watson - crossovers make everything better, right? And I was pretty sure my recipient would be okay with a bit of Holmes/Watson, considering her prompt. Framing the story that way really gave me a direction for writing; having Nora's first-person account be directed to a particular person rather than an abstract made it a lot easier for me to write her inner life; having the comparison between the two be explicit as well as implicit actually made it easier to forget about it, and just write Nora.

Plus, it gave me an excuse to cross-promote the story to Holmes fans. (I really, really want Madelyn and Nora to be adopted by Holmes slash fandom. Madelyn travels in Europe a lot, and moves in the same circles in New York as Irene would, and Holmes is already canon in Madelynverse... yes, I know I should just go read the Mary Russell books, but I suspect that I would keep disliking Holmes/Mary as a 'ship even after reading them, so I'd rather stick with Madelyn.)

I really feel like I want to talk more about why Miss Madelyn Mack is so deeply awesome, but really, the story I wrote is 4,300 words of me showing you all why, and after staring at this entry for several hours days, I realize that what I actually want to do is a line-by-line director's commentary of my fic. So...there is going to be another entry up shortly with that.

Anyway!

If you didn't feel like wading through all that, here's what you should know: Miss Madelyn Mack and Miss Nora Noraker are genderswapped Holmes and Watson in New York city; they are awesome and every bit as slashy as their counterparts, only with petticoats; and you can read the entire book at archive.org legally: Miss Madelyn Mack Detective; and you should. Also I will so be cosplaying her at some point: I already have a vintage 1914 black gown and black lace petticoats a Victorian adventurer's magnifying glass and stompy boots and an awesome hat; all I need is some cola berries and a locket to put them in! (I really want to find & try some kola nut, actually, it sounds interesting.)

Here is a picture of Miss Madelyn Mack:
inarticulate: Ginshu from Amatsuki smiling. (spread joy like an infection)

[personal profile] inarticulate 2010-01-04 05:38 am (UTC)(link)
Here via network, just read through this entire entry, and before I was even halfway done, I had downloaded the book. Twice, I think, since my internet was acting up. This sounds amazing.
flourish: white lady, green eyes, brown hair (Default)

[personal profile] flourish 2010-01-04 05:23 pm (UTC)(link)
I read the entire entry. I LOVE IT. MISS MADELYN MACK HERE I COME.
waywren: (Default)

[personal profile] waywren 2010-01-04 08:31 pm (UTC)(link)
So did I! BECAUSE IT WAS AWESOME.
flourish: white lady, green eyes, brown hair (Default)

[personal profile] flourish 2010-01-04 11:17 pm (UTC)(link)
I now have this enormous plot bunny where Madelyn Mack, Nora Noraker, Mary Morstan, Mary Russell, and Harriet Vane have a ladies' sewing circle, literary discussion group & terrorist society. YES.
waywren: Conan poings happily for once in his life. (Squee)

[personal profile] waywren 2010-01-05 02:49 am (UTC)(link)
THIS.

YES YES YES DEAR GODS YES.

IAWTC. XD
sparkymonster: (Default)

[personal profile] sparkymonster 2010-12-10 08:57 am (UTC)(link)
I'm here to due that one's fault right up there. trying to be innocent in blue while really being EVIL
synecdochic: torso of a man wearing jeans, hands bound with belt (Default)

[personal profile] synecdochic 2010-01-04 06:54 am (UTC)(link)
That is an awesome cosplay choice for you!
starlady: holmes holds his spyglass against watson's chest (intimacy)

[personal profile] starlady 2010-01-05 02:18 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, man. I have downloaded the book and I am psyched! I loved, loved, loved your YT story, and this sounds pretty much amazing. I can hear the pitter-patter of plot bunny feet in the yard even as I type.

Also, and I am completely serious, you should totally write that novel. Madeleyn Mack is in the public domain, after all. And then you could totally pull a Paul Auster and write another book about a contemporary female detective whose significant other dies and she becomes obsessed with finding the lost films!

Though, I do think that "Probably a sodomite" and "Probably a tribade" actually comes out to a draw. ^_^
flourish: white lady, green eyes, brown hair (Default)

[personal profile] flourish 2010-01-05 10:10 pm (UTC)(link)
I am totally going to ask William (one of my advisors) who is REALLY INTO early film what he knows about them. <3
cinaed: I can whistle through my fingers, bulldog a steer, light a fire with two sticks, shoot a pistol with fair accuracy (Ann Sheridan)

[personal profile] cinaed 2010-01-10 03:48 am (UTC)(link)
I know I already commented on my actual fic on AO3, but I couldn't resist cheering at this awesome entry. And the fact that you're inspiring other people to write Madelyn Mack stories! \0/

I am just getting into the Peter Wimsey books myself (how much do I love Peter's mother? So much!), but since I adore Mary Morstan and Irene Adler, I'm sure the ladies' sewing circle idea is brilliant.

And now you're making me want tons and tons of awesome crossovers. Like Wooster stumbling into a case while he and Jeeves are over in NYC, avoiding Aunt Agatha, and Nora and Madelyn getting involved. Or Irene Adler meeting Madelyn Mack/Sherlock Holmes meeting Madelyn/anyone meeting Madelyn... ^^

Do you mind if I link this post? I am trying to convert some flisters to the wonder that is Madelyn Mack, and this post is too awesome not to share.
mllesays: John Singer Sargent painting (c-dc // mrrrow)

[personal profile] mllesays 2010-01-23 03:07 am (UTC)(link)
Here from some random place I can no longer remember. I haven't had a chance to read your story yet, but this post and everything in it is amazing times twenty. Thank you so much for introducing me to such a neat series.
elspethdixon: (Default)

[personal profile] elspethdixon 2010-02-04 04:35 am (UTC)(link)
Oh my God - how have I lived without this book in my life? (and how did I miss the post when you first put it up?)

...thank you so, so much for introducing this book to me.

(Anonymous) 2010-03-31 03:47 am (UTC)(link)
I read your fic, and then I read the book and was translated (I never knew I wanted this and HERE IT WAS), and then I found this and read your fixit sequel idea, which is wonderful and awesome and I would totally read this, it takes everything I was disappointed in in that last story and makes it better --

-- and then you brought up potential feminine-centered multicrossoveriness, and I found you even more awesome. (Someday I will write my Victorian multicrossover, whose axes currently are John Lafcadio's paintings, Irene Adler's official and unofficial career, and Mary Morstan's educational experiences; and when I do, I will now have to fit in somewhere that Irene knew Madelyn Mack's parents fairly well. Possibly that a young Madelyn met a young Raoul at some point in time; the Macks seem to have been of the class that could logically take off to the Côte d'Azur for a vacation, and in my head Henriette and Raoul's country village retreat was somewhere in Provence sort-of-with-Victoire.)

Also, I have read the first few Mary Russell books, and I dislike Holmes/Russell quite a bit; it doesn't start until the second book, however, and the first one struck me when I read it as a reasonably good pastiche with a strong vibe of preparing the next generation for the passing of the torch (which, come to think of it, is probably why I was so gazornkled when King decided to pair them up) and, IIRC, doesn't sell Watson as short as she goes on to do. (I may be mentally blocking it out, though; there are several Holmes pastiches that I reread and wonder how I managed not to notice something pullhairworthy.)

In short, once again, thank you for discovering this book, writing in its fandom, and otherwise bringing it to light where I could read it.

-- Sophonisba (saphanibaal on livejournal)
waywren: (Default)

[personal profile] waywren 2010-11-17 04:52 am (UTC)(link)
I actually remembered this post nearly a year later to come back and look for the links. XD You describe so well! And I am in desperate need of reading material on my ipod touch, it being so much less spoons to carry than books.
waywren: (Default)

[personal profile] waywren 2010-11-20 09:43 pm (UTC)(link)
And now that I have read your discussion of problems and your fixit, I feel ready to tackle Purple Thumb. XD
waywren: (Default)

[personal profile] waywren 2010-11-22 06:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Yeah, and now that I've read it, you're completely accurate. I was a bit disappointed in Madelyn, but hell, she's a product of her times. And Robinson Crusoe was WAY worse.