Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

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Posts Tagged ‘Dol Bonner’

Female Private Eyes Walked Those Fiction Mean Streets, Too

Posted by Writing PIs on November 11, 2017

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When a friend recently commented about the lack of female private eyes in hardboiled fiction, I pointed him to a post I’d written a few years ago in response to an article in the NYT. Female private eyes in literature go back further in time than those in the hard-boiled genre, however. Many view Mrs. Paschal as the first female private detective in literature. In 1864, Mrs. Paschal appeared in The Revelations of a Lady Detective, written by W. S. Hayward, a British male writer. Although Mrs. Paschal occasionally worked with the police force, she also conducted private investigations for payment.

But back to hard-boiled detective fiction—below is my 2014 post about lady dicks who also roamed those mean streets…

The Death of the Private Eye?

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 PIsSecret Agent

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.

An Anonymous Witness

When a defense lawyer hired us to find three gang members who had tried to kill his client (a member of another gang), we headed to the defendant’s neighborhood and knocked on doors. Nobody wanted to talk to us, mostly because they were frightened of gang retaliation. 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 phone call from a public coffeehouse by a woman who didn’t want to give her name or email address as she didn’t want her identity to be traced electronically. She was willing to meet us at the park where the crime had occurred at a certain date to talk with us, for fifteen minutes only. She purposefully chose the time when the crime had occurred (late in the evening).

We showed up at the park at the designated time. A woman in her late fifties emerged from the shadows of a group of trees and walked toward us. She spoke quietly, pointing out the crime scene, and where she’d witnessed the defendant fighting for his life against three young men, all of which matched exactly what the defendant had described. She refused to give us her name, and to be on the safe side she hadn’t 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.

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