Death Was the Other Woman and a question about alternative histories
Richards' inspiration was the opening scene of The Maltese Falcon, where Sam Spade's loyal secretary, Effie Perrine, opens the door to "Miss Wonderly," then sits and clacks away at her typewriter as the visitor spins out her yarn. What, wondered Richards, would someone like Effie do while the boss was off getting drunk or getting bashed in the head? Here's Richards, from an essay she wrote for Crimespree Magazine:
"(Q)uite often, these hard drinking PIs had a secretary. We seldom saw any of them do very much, but they were a solid presence in the stories in which they cropped up; gently esteemed by their bosses and treated with more respect than most of the women who appeared in the same tales.This gives Richards a perfect set-up for a kind of alternative history, and she follows through nicely. Her Kitty Pangborn is no mere vicarious fantasy of a woman stepping into a man's job. She does no shooting, for example, and she is never drugged, slugged or shot at. But the story is decidedly a mystery, and Kitty does her share of sleuthing, snooping and, above all, thinking and reflecting. The thinking, the reflecting, and her narration of the events that led her to the side of P.I. Dexter J. Theroux lend the story a wistful, coming-of-age air. Readers who liked Fredric Brown's great Fabulous Clipjoint might feel at home here.
"As I read – and read and read – I began to look for the female hands that were making the fruitful outcomes possible. You’d never see them straight on, of course. It’s possible even the authors responsible didn’t see these women at work. But the times dictated that these women do their stuff quietly, careful not to bruise the delicate larger egos of their often sodden bosses. I saw it all emerge. And I saw the reasons why.
"It was the Depression. Money was scarce and jobs difficult to come by. If you had a job, yet the job itself was imperfect, you wouldn’t just chuck it and get a new one, as we would in the 21st century. Jobs were precious, something to hold on to. You would do whatever you could – whatever you had to do – to make it work out, even if that meant doing the boss’s job for him when he wasn’t looking."
Richards handles her other big narrative challenge nicely, too. She portrays the past – 1930s Los Angeles – without turning it into a museum piece. Kitty's back story helps here, too. She is the product of a once wealthy family that lost everything in the Depression. Thus she knows of the era's glitzy nightclubs but has fallen far enough from that world to be awed when she visits them. This gives Richards narrative license to paint word pictures of the scenes we know so well from movies set in the early 1930s. You know them, those vast rooms all in the best silver-and-cream that black-and-white movies could muster, all raised seating platforms and bold, curved modernist edges.
P.S. In another gender-based variation on a hard-boiled theme, Richards has an awkward, countrified young man turn up to look for his wayward sibling – a little brother, that is, rather than Chandler's Little Sister.
© Peter Rozovsky 2008