Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Tough Dames by Mark Troy

Mention fictional female private eyes and people immediately think of characters such as Sharon McCone, Kinsey Milhone, V.I Warshawski and others who appeared on the scene in the 70's and 80's. Ask who was the first female private eye and most people will tell you Cordelia Gray or Sharon McCone, or even Delilah West. For the record, Cordelia debuted in 1972, Delilah in 1974 and Sharon in 1976. Also for the record, they weren't the first female private eyes.

One candidate for first female PI is Polly Burton, the narrator of Baroness Orczy's Old Man in the Corner series which appeared in 1901. Polly was a journalist, so she fits the definition of private eye as set forth by the Private Eye Writers of America:
. . . a person paid for their investigative work but not a member of a unit of government.
Journalists who do their own legwork qualify under this definition. But did Polly really investigate? Mostly she quizzed and challenged the old man who deduced the facts while playing with string. So maybe she's a precursor to a private eye.

As an aside, sleuths such as Miss Marple and Nancy Drew, competent though they might be, were not private eyes by this definition, because they didn't get paid for their investigative work. The definition also excludes Baroness Orczy's other character, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard, because of her, admittedly tenuous, connection to a government agency.

The honor of first female PI goes to Trixie Meehan, the creation of Thomas Theodore Flynn in 1933. Trixie was a partner with Mike Harris of the Blaine Private Detective Agency. Mike was tough and wise-cracking. Trixie was cute and pert. Or so you would believe if you didn't know her. According to Mike,
Trixie was smart, shrewd, fearless, and tireless on a case. And her temper would make a scorpion blush and her little tongue would peel the hide off a brass bound monkey. And when Trixie and I crossed trails on a case, it was usually my hide that took the peeling.

Grace "Redsie" Culver, a secretary and sometimes operative for the Noonan Detective Agency who was usually involved in cases right up to her neck, is the first female eye who didn't share the lead with a male colleague. She was smart, competent, brave and independent. Grace was created by Roswell Brown, a pen name of Jean Francis Webb, and appeared in twenty stories in The Shadow Magazine from 1934 to 1937.

Nora Charles, wife of retired private eye, Nick, appeared in Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man in 1934. Nora was rich, beautiful and independent-minded. She appeared in only one book, but the duo were highly popular on radio and in the six Thin Man movies in which she was played by Myrna Loy.

The first truly hard-boiled female private eye is probably Violet McDade, created by Cleve Adams, who, with her partner Nevada Alvarado, made her debut in 1935. Shrinking, Violet wasn't. She was a former circus fat lady who tackled her problems with two fists or the two guns she carried up her sleeves.

Here's Nevada describing her boss:
Violet him him. Not hard, just a backhanded sweep across the room.
Nevada was a slim, dark-haired beauty who was just as hard-boiled as her boss. Together, these two made the McDade and Alvarado Detective Agency a force to be reckoned with.

Sarah Watson, by D. B. McCandless, was neither young nor beautiful. She was, instead, middle-aged, heavy, dowdy, and relatively charmless. The stories, however, are humorous and charming. Sarah had a tough side. She confesses at one point that she'd like to
". . . beat up a man proper, for once! I'd begin on the nose...The nose is a nice tender place to begin. Maybe I'd break it -- after a while."
She was a regular in Detective Fiction Weekly from 1936 to 1937.

Carrie Cashin was the owner and chief operator of the Cash and Carry Detective Agency. She was young, attractive, and one of the most popular of the lady dicks. Carrie got the job done. She was not above breaking and entering, lying to the police, and armed robbery if that's what it took. Foreshadowing Remington Steele by half a century, she expected a lot of people would have trouble hiring a woman dick, so she hired a man named Aleck to front the agency. She would pose as his stenographer, but would, in fact, solve the crime.

Carrie was the creation of Ted Tinsley and appeared in 38 of the 50 Crime Busters/Mystery Magazine issues from 1937 to 1942. Whenever Carrie appeared on the cover, often showing a glimpse of shapely leg and thigh holster, sales of the magazine spiked. It was rumored that there were plans to give her her own pulp.

Theolinda "Dol" Bonner was an early creation of Rex Stout. She had the lead in only one novel, The Hand In The Glove in 1937, but she appeared in several Nero Wolfe stories and seems to be one of the few women Wolfe could tolerate. Dol was a young socialite whose family was wiped out in the depression. She ran the Bonner and Rafferty Detective Agency in Los Angeles and didn't shy away from guns.

In 1992, NBC produced a TV movie, Lady Against The Odds based on The Hand In The Glove starring Crystal Bernard.

Bertha Cool, created by Earl Stanley Gardner under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, was a large, penny-pinching woman who ran B. Cool Confidential Investigations with her partner Donald Lam. These were a mismatched pair and great because of it. Where Bertha was large, Donald was small; where Donald bent and twisted the law, Bertha broke it.

Bertha was known for such sayings as
"Well peel me for a grape,"
'Well can me for a sardine."
Cool and Lam were the result of some of Gardner's best writing. Had Bertha been given her own TV series, she might have attained more popularity than Perry Mason. The series lasted 31 years from 1939 to 1970 and was the longest running female private eye series until 2008 when Sharon McCone surpassed her in Burn Out.

Mark Troy's website
Mark Troy's Hawaiian Eye Blog


Morgan Mandel said...

Wow, that was a fascinating and thorough look at female private eyes. Love the graphics also. Great job, Troy.

Morgan Mandel

Jean Henry Mead said...

Great article, Troy! If what you said is true, I was a private investigator, as a police reporter, and wasn't even aware of it. :)


Ben Small said...

Very good article, Mark. How you bring back memories. I loved the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam series by A.A. Fair. Couldn't get enough of them when I was young, even though I never read Gardner's Perry Mason series.

Some may not have noticed, but there's a new dame in town: Baby Shark. The Baby Shark series by Robert Fate features a Rambo-esque gorgeous pool shark who shoots her .38s as well as she does her pool cue. She's a fascinating character, tough as nails, and Robert Fate develops her in a Hemingway style. Very good reading.

Thanks for the memories...

Dana Fredsti said...

Mark, what excellent research and what a fun post for us dames in the group! I loved the Redsie cartoon... i may steal that for my motto.

Toby Webb said...

I've just come across this mention of my father and his character Gracie Culver. It's nice to know they are remembered.