One of the Guns, Gams and Gumshoes, Colleen, just finished writing an article about female private eyes in literature, so it was surprising to read the November 14, 2014 article “The Death of the Private Eye” by John Semley in the New York Times and see references to only men being shamuses in hardboiled fiction.
There Were Lady Dicks, Too
The hardboiled private dicks in pulp fiction’s hard-hitting, heart-pumping stories included numerous female characters as the main protagonists, although you’d never know it from Semley’s text:
“The hard-boiled gumshoes were men…”
“If the private dick has all but disappeared, something of his DNA is woven into the biology of the authority-bucking hackers…”
“This is the real essence of the P.I….despite his venality…”
Miss Marple: An Amateur Sleuth
Semley does, however, give a passing nod to Miss Marple (“the old-school gumshoe feels as irrelevant as Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple felt a generation before”) except that Miss Marple was an amateur sleuth, not a professional private investigator (definition from Private Eye Writers of America: A private investigator is a private citizen [not a member of the military, federal agency, or civic or state police force] who is paid to investigate crimes).
Tip of the Fedora to Hard-Boiled Female PIs
Let’s look at a few female private eye characters who made their appearances during the hard-boiled era:
Grace “Redsie” Culver, an operative for the Noonan Detective Agency, starred in 20 stories in The Shadow Magazine from 1934-1937.
Carrie Cashin, owner of the Cash and Carry Detective Agency in Manhattan, first hit the fiction scene in 1937 and went on to star in 38 stories.
Dol Bonner started walking the mean streets in The Hand in the Glove (1937) by Rex Stout, who later included Bonner as a supporting character in several novels featuring Nero Wolfe.
The Death of the Private Eye Genre?
This is the real point of Semley’s article, and it’s a valid one. Yes, technological tools, available to just about anyone, have cast a cold shadow on many of the private investigator’s tricks of the trade. My husband and I have an entire room filled with cameras and other equipment that are hopelessly outdated. A lot of the smartphone apps I use for investigations any kid can buy.
Walking the Mean Streets: Still in Vogue
But not all investigations are about being technically hip. When a law firm hired us to find the names of people who had worked on a building nearly 50 years ago, there were no databases, even proprietary ones, that contained a shred of evidence to these people’s identities, so we sleuthed the old-fashioned way: On foot. Talked to people, reviewed old reverse phone directories, ended up digging through dusty boxes in a storage facility (where we finally found the people’s names).
We know a homicide detective who resorts to some old-fashioned tricks when he wants to get people to answer the door: He finds their electrical box and turns off the power. Within seconds, they’ve opened their door and he’s there with a few questions he’d like them to answer.
A Witness Wrote Us a Letter
When a lawyer hired us to find a gang member who had tried to kill his client, we headed to the gang member’s neighborhood and knocked on doors. Nobody wanted to talk to us because they were either frightened or protective of the gang. Later we returned to the neighborhood with signs that we posted on trees, bus benches, a fence at a park. A few days later, we received a letter written by someone who didn’t want to give their name, and who was writing with paper and pen because they didn’t want their identity traced electronically. They wrote that they would meet us at the park at a certain date and time and talk with us, for fifteen minutes only.
Was this witness for real? We didn’t know, but we showed up at the park at the designated time…and found a woman in her fifties who quietly told us the gang member’s name and address. She refused to give us her name, and to be on the safe side she hadn’t even driven to the park in her car (she’d walked). Her information cracked the case.
Semley claims that “All P.I. stories are now period pieces.” Hmm…maybe that’s even more of a cliche than thinking only tough, wisecracking guys were gumshoes.
All rights reserved by Colleen Collins and Shaun Kaufman. Any use of the content (including images owned by Colleen Collins and/or Shaun Kaufman) requires specific, written authority.