Although there were women detectives in American popular fiction as early as 1883 (Clarice Dyke, by Harry Rockwood), Anna Katharine Green’s aristocratic spinster Amelia Butterworth was the best-known, premiering in That Affair Next Door (1897). Over fifty of these titles are still in print. As Frances A. DellaCava and Madeline H. Engel show in their survey, however, the characterization of early female detectives followed the English line of development: “middle class, genteel, single women whose detective style is purely intuitive.” 1 They were retired schoolteachers, society matrons, nurses, nuns and shopkeepers, none trained in law enforcement and most employing “feminine psychology” to solve cases. The pulps, such as Black Mask, had featured a few detective couples, but they were written by men, although the editor of that magazine in its later days was a woman. The Butterworth line of detection eventually merged with the genteel British school of Agatha Christie. (Right: Anna Katharine Green)
The first hard-boiled female protagonists were written by men. The most notable of them was Bertha Cool, half of the Cool and Lam agency created by the energetic Erle Stanley Gardner ( below) under the pseudonym of A.A. Fair. First appearing in 1939, Cool was a “hefty” two-hundred-pound widow, somewhere in her forties or fifties, a tightwad who chain-smoked and the first character in the genre to swear (according to Frank B. Robbins). 2 Phrases passing her lips include “For Christ’s sake,” “Don’t be a sap,” “none of your damn business,” “Why the hell,” and “what a bitch I was.”
“And don’t mind me when I cuss,” Mrs. Cool went on, “because I like profanity, loose clothes, and loose talk. I want to be comfortable. Nature intended me to be fat. I put in years eating salads, drinking skimmed milk and toying with dry toast. I wore girdles that pinched my waist, form-building brassieres, and spent half my time standing on scales.”A.A. Fair (pseud. Erle Stanley Gardner), The Bigger They Come (New York: Morrow, 1939), 20.
Cool intimidates diminutive Donald Lam, a suspended lawyer whom she hires to be her go-fer. “I hire people to do my leg-work…Donald Lam is one of my legs.” 3 Lam is the narrator, and he reports that “she had the majesty of a snow-capped mountain, the assurance of a steam-roller.” 4 Unfortunately the second half of this pioneering novel resembles one of Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, with Lam freeing the wrongly accused by a legal paradox involving extradiction between California and Arizona.
Gardner won a loyal readership for this series, which went to twenty-nine titles and lasted until 1970. Some of the titles featuring Bertha Cool more than her partner are: Bats Fly at Dusk (1942), Cats Prowl at Night (1943), and Give ‘Em the Axe (1944). 5 For a list of all of them, see this link. Originals are highly prized by collectors. (Below right: Erle Stanley Gardner in his prime)
More conventional was Hannah Van Doren, introduced by Dwight V. Babcock in 1941 in Homicide for Hannah. The daughter of a detective, Van Doren earns her living by writing true crime stories. Young and good looking, she is also hard-drinking and prefers that her big-city murders have a sexual or macabre angle. She appears in only one other novel, Hannah Says Foul Play (1946). 6
Similar to Cool is Amy Brewster, a cigar-smoking, 300-pound lawyer-financier introduced by Sam Merwin Jr. in 1945. 7 Upper-class but unfeminine, she is enlisted by friends to solve crimes. She appears in Knife in My Back (1945), Message from a Corpse (1945) and A Matter of Policy (1946). Both Bertha Cool and Amy Brewster are defined against the genre’s stereotypes, particularly the femme fatale: they are not attractive, not home-bound, and not submissive, either conversationally or professionally.
The first reasonably hard-boiled woman detective is Gale Gallagher, who appeared in 1947. Created by the team of Will Oursler and Margaret Scott, writing under the pseudonym of “Gale Gallagher,” this detective of the same name heads the Acme Detective Agency, which specializes in skip tracing. Gallagher is single, 5’5″ tall, in her late twenties, attractive, and well-dressed. Her father was a New York City policeman, killed in the line of duty, who educated her in police lore as she grew up. She trained at the police academy, so she knows many policemen. She has a firearms license, but she doesn’t usually carry a gun. She has a secretary and, in her private office, a Thomas Hart Benton painting that calms her. Her cases rarely turn too violent; however, she is knocked unconscious in I Found Him Dead (1947) but in Chord in Crimson (1949) she merely walks down dark alleys. From her clothes consciousness to her pastimes (“I do some of my best thinking in the tub”), Gallagher predates the heroines of Grafton and Paretsky. Gale is interested in the jazz scene, frequenting clubs in New York and Baltimore where she sits solo at the bar. She dates a variety of men until she falls for painter Bart Crane at the end of I Found Him Dead (by far the better novel) and becomes his steady during the second novel, which is more in the English “murder-in-the-mansion” school. 8
Gallagher set the table for Honey West, the private investigator of husband and wife team Forrest and Gloria Fickling. This series began in 1957 with This Girl for Hire and lasted through ten more titles, finishing with Stiff as a Broad (1971). Honey West is the daughter of a police detective and works as a private eye in California. DellaCava and Engel describe her as “an attractive, very sexy, single woman in her thirties and… coyly flirtatious with a good-looking police officer.” 9 She takes all cases and some of them put her in physical danger. In the mid-1960s a television series was based on the character. (Right: Gloria Fickling in 2005)
As this chronology reveals, the circumstances that make a female detective authentically hard-boiled are a subject of contention. Maureen T. Reddy makes a case for P. D. James’ Cordelia Gray, the heroine of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (1972).10 Unfortunately James abandoned her detective almost on inception. More scholars look on Sharon McCone, introduced by author Marcia Muller in 1977, as the first contemporary American female detective. There were thirteen McCone novels by the mid-1990s, forming a body of work. McCone is an operative of the All Souls Cooperative legal services, who is tough enough to handle murderers but sometimes found babysitting for a friend or resettling Vietnamese in San Francisco. The first McCone book is “more soft than hard-boiled,” writes Reddy, but McCone is a loner, who relates mostly to fellow detectives and the police. 11 From these works, all scholars agree, came the explosion of Grafton, Paretsky, Liza Cody, and other female authors in the 1980s.