Mary Fortune | Pioneer Detective Story Writer (1833-1911)

Mary was born in Belfast, Ireland, daughter of George Wilson, a civil engineer of Scottish ancestry,

No other woman, with the exception of Anna Katharine Green, wrote so much crime fiction in the nineteenth century. Fortune was the first woman to write fiction centred on the detective, her knowledge of the colonial police allowing her to narrate convincingly from this masculine perspective. Yet Fortune’s anonymity and almost exclusive employment for a popular magazine prevented her gaining wider recognition, as was enjoyed by other writers who gained their start at the AJ, such as Arthur Upfield. The extent of her influence is difficult to assess, though Fergus Hume’s highly successful The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (1886) is the most likely literary descendant. When she disappeared from the pages of the AJ, she was effectively forgotten; it is only now, with publications such as this bibliography, that the extent and scope of her writing can be appreciated.

The Detective’s Album’ was to become one of the longest-running series in the early history of crime fiction, for it was written by Fortune from 1868 to 1908, and continued by other hands after she either died or retired from the AJ. For forty years, these short fictions, usually around the novelette length, appeared in each monthly issue of the magazine—a total of over five hundred detective stories in all.

In 1855, a young woman named Mary Helena Fortune travelled from Canada to Australia, with the commission of writing about the goldfields for an English magazine, The Ladies’ Companion. Though she never actually supplied the requested articles, she was to have a long and significant auctorial career in Australia. For over fifty years she published under the pseudonyms ‘Waif Wander’, ‘W. W.’ and her initials, ‘M. H. F.’, in newspapers and popular magazines. She contributed work in a variety of genres: poetry; memoirs; journalism; serialized novels, ranging from tales of Australian life to the gothic historical romance ‘Clyzia the Dwarf; and, most importantly, over 500 crime stories. Her only book publication during her lifetime was The Detective’s Album by ‘W. W.’ (1871), a collection of her crime writing. It is now a rare item, with only one copy known to exist, held at the Mitchell Library.