In Meg Elison’s Book of the Unnamed Midwife, which was also a Philip K. Dick award nominee, our unnamed heroine cross-dressed as a man in order to not get, shall we say, harassed by the post-apocalyptic gangs of men. In Rod Duncan’s The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter, (another Philip K. Dick award nominee) we have Elizabeth Barnabus who cross-dresses as her ‘brother’ Edwin in order to, well, have a job.
Like a lot of steampunk, Bullet Catcher’s Daughter takes place in an alternate universe Victorian England, so naturally it would be unseemly for a lady to be an adventurous private investigator (or own property, etc.). During the day, she tutors another young lady who lives on the wharf with her in the complexities of the law, but at night, she dons men’s clothes and digs up secrets in the more unseemly parts of this world that’s been divided between the Gas-Lit Empire and the Anglo-Scottish Republic. This division is political — apparently having something to do with the Luddite Rebellion — social.
Elizabeth’s adventures begin when she, in the guise of her brother, accepts a missing person job from the Duchess of Bletchley. Their first meeting is interrupted by the arrival of Patent Officers, who, in this world, seem to be a kind of Gestapo analog. They lay down the law and the law is hardcore. In this opening scene we discover that Elizabeth is a quick-change artist as well, and she’s able to avoid capture by quickly shifting into her female garb. This is a skill, we’re told, learned growing up in the circus. The rest of the novel follows her investigation as it leads her all sorts of places including not only a return trip to life in the circus, but to the other side of the line, which is particularly dangerous for her as she’s wanted as part of payment for her father’s debits.
It’s striking to me how much thought both Elison and Duncan put into the problems of cross-dressing. Duncan, in particular, depends on his heroine’s skills with slight-of-hand, physical acting, and theatre make-up. Elison’s heroine just has to punt and hope for the best. Luckily, in Elison’s case, her heroine is familiar enough with the idea to know how to bind her breasts and is willing to cut her hair and live ‘in character.’ But both heroines have to deal with a deep understanding that they can’t pass for very long and too close-up.
Unlike a lot of the other books up for the Philip K. Dick this year, I would say that Duncan’s Bullet Catcher’s Daughter best represents the kind of fiction this award was meant to showcase. I enjoyed this book, but it is much more of a classic paperback pulp novel than nearly any of the others nominated.
That’s not to imply this book isn’t thoughtful and doesn’t have something to say about the rights of women in the Victorian age, but it’s intentionally a lot more commercial and fun than some of the other books and stands a stark contrast to Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water, for instance (which right now, I’m going to lay bets, will be this year’s winner.)