The world of hardboiled pulp is certainly male-dominated, but there have been female authors who have given the masters of the sub-genre a run for their money. Leigh Brackett is certainly the best known female hardboiled writer, if only for her screenplay adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1945) for director Howard Hawks’s acclaimed film featuring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe. Brackett also adapted Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973) for director Robert Altman’s deconstruction of the genre with Elliott Gould as Marlowe. Less well-remembered is the hardboiled novel that won Brackett the chance to first adapt Chandler, No Good from a Corpse (1944).
From the outset, it is clear this is Chandler territory. Brackett’s tough guy private eye hero Ed Clive (named for Brackett’s husband and fellow pulp author, Edmond Hamilton) is very much in the Marlowe tradition and the Los Angeles setting only enhances the authentic feel. More than the trappings, it is the fact that Brackett writes convincingly as a man (particularly in her observations of women as objects of lust who are never to be entirely trusted) that is the most startling. One understands Howard Hawks’s surprise when he hired Brackett as a screenwriter on the strength of this book and found out she was a woman. Murder, blackmail, sultry singers, and beatings and shootings aplenty make No Good from a Corpse an unsung classic of pulp detective fiction.
The other female writer I wish to single out for attention is Dolores Hitchens. An American mystery writer in the Agatha Christie tradition, Hitchens also authored two novels featuring middle-aged private eye and recovering alcoholic, Jim Sader. Sleep with Strangers (1955) is a solid private eye thriller, while Sleep with Slander (1960) is an unheralded gem and one of the earliest thrillers to focus on child abuse and the exploitation of children as its theme.
Brackett may be better known, but Hitchens’s two forays into the hardboiled tradition with the Sader books earn my vote as the better efforts. At no point does Hitchens attempt to emulate Chandler or Hammett. Sader’s age and vulnerability to alcohol set him apart from his partner in the agency and other hardboiled heroes. What is more, Hitchens manages to still write straight hardboiled thrillers even with an evident woman’s touch in delving deeper into her characters and their world. Whether uncovering the damage done by small town gossip or looking at how stereotypes destroy the lives of various individuals and those in their sphere, Hitchens writes with all the sensitivity of Ross Macdonald, or his wife and fellow mystery author Margaret Millar, but without their sometimes heavy-handed Freudian approach.
Maxim Jakubowski had the good taste to select all three titles for reprinting in the Blue Murder line of trade paperbacks he edited in the UK a quarter of a century ago. Poor public domain copies of No Good from a Corpse are easily obtainable on Amazon or eBay. Hitchens’s pair of titles will take more hunting, but are well worth the effort. These two ladies prove the hardboiled genre was not an exclusive boys club. Brackett could mimic Chandler well enough to pass for a forgery while Hitchens will leave readers lamenting the fact she only gave us two such gems to treasure. Happy hunting to those with the good sense to seek out the hardboiled classics by these two very classy dames.
William Patrick Maynard was authorized to continue Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu thrillers beginning with The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009; Black Coat Press) and The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012; Black Coat Press). The Triumph of Fu Manchu is scheduled for publication in July 2014.