Sleuthing on the Airwaves

The music swells and then fades. Suddenly there’s drum beat and then a scream. “Ladies and gentlemen, quiet please. A murder has been committed,” intones the announcer. “Here’s your chance to play detective! Phyl Coe Mysteries on the Air.”

Young sleuth Phyl Coe, a name derived from the show sponsor Philco, a maker of batteries and radios, made her detecting debut in 1936. She solved mysteries “right before your ears.” It was up the listeners to determine how she did it.

As a woman in radio, I’m drawn to the stories of other women in early radio – even fictional ones.

From the 1920s onward, film, radio, and, eventually, television, were obsessed with crime. Most of these programs featured male detectives but a few young female detectives found their way into broadcast media early.

Described as “the beautiful girl detective,” Phyl Coe starred in fifteen-minute episodes that invited listeners to solve the mystery using official entry blanks from their local Philco dealer to win “huge cash prizes.” Coe was smart and unafraid to take charge of the situation. In one case, she attends a magic show with her boyfriend only to have the magician shot dead on the stage. She manages to solve the case before the police arrive.

Coe lasted only one year, though. The next year, Philco decided to change the gender of its detective, turning feminine Phyl into masculine Phil.

But the airwaves were not without a female sleuth for long.

Kitty Keene, Inc., a soap opera that centered on a former Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl turned detective in mid-life, joined Phil in radio detecting in September of 1937. When Keene’s daughter had a baby, Keene became the only sleuthing grandmother on the radio. The show ran for four years, with three actresses playing Keene, the longest run for a radio female sleuth.

Movie stars Joan Blondell and Dick Powell starred in the short-lived radio serial Miss Pinkerton, Inc., in 1941, based on characters created by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Blondell played Mary Vance, a law school graduate who inherits her uncle’s detective agency and earns the nickname “Miss Pinkerton” from New York City police sergeant Dennis Murray, played by Powell.

The year 1946 was a banner year for sleuths with three women arriving on the scene. Meet Miss Sherlock played as much for laughs as detection, with ditzy amateur sleuth Jane Sherlock solving cases along with her attorney boyfriend, Peter Blossom. The Affairs of Ann Scotland starred radio and stage star Arlene Francis as a sexy girl detective.

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Miss Sherlock (OTR)

Finally, real-life New York City policewoman Mary Sullivan inspired the series Policewoman, which dramatized cases from her career. Sullivan herself added postscripts to the episodes, enhancing the reality of the crimes depicted. This series marked the first pure female sleuth, devoid of comedy or the melodrama of soaps.

Candy Matson was the first hard-boiled woman on the airwaves, debuting in 1949. Sassy, sexy, and sensible, Matson carries a gun, never hesitates to enter the lowliest dive bar for a case, and doesn’t take anyone’s guff. Monty Masters created Matson and cast his wife, Natalie Parks, in the lead role. Every thirty-minute episode opens with a ringing telephone answered, “Hello, YUKON 2–8209. Yes, this is Candy Matson,” followed by the swell of the theme song. Matson’s work took her from her apartment on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill to real locations around the Bay Area. Matson works with her best friend and sidekick, Rembrandt Watson, though he is not a doctor like the most famous Watson; he provides more comic relief than actual help. Her boyfriend, San Francisco police lieutenant Ray Mallard, continually underestimates her skill, even as she reliably solves cases before him. The show ran on various NBC stations until 1951

The glory days of the smart detecting woman did not last, however. Matson, radio’s last lady crime fighter, went off the air in the early 1950s.

 

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Pistols and Petticoats Is Out!

My new book, Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, came out today! Find it in your local bookstore. If you don’t see it, ask for it to be ordered.

Pistols and Petticoats explores the struggles women have faced in law enforcement and in mystery fiction since the late nineteenth century. Working in a profession considered to be strictly a man’s domain, investigating women were nearly always at odds with society. These sleuths and detectives refused to let that stop them, and paved the way to a modern professional life for women on the force and in popular culture.

Read more about the book and how it came to be here.

And see photos from the book along with an introduction from me in this awesome slideshow on Time.

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Police officer demonstrates an arrest Source: Library of Congress

Girl Detectives Before Nancy Drew

My new book, Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction, comes out April 26th (two weeks from today! Mark your calendars!).

 

Nancy Drew looms large in young-adult detective fiction, but she was not the first girl detective. In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, there were a number of young female detectives who solved cases quite capably in their own right.

Some of the first appeared in dime novels, short, usually adventurous fiction sold as cheap paperbacks. Edward L. Wheeler’s pistol-wielding heroine Denver Doll was fighting crime, handily winning poker hands, and leading a band of adventurers known as the Red Shirts as early as 1882. Although her age is never revealed, Doll appears to be about eighteen years old with “rich brown hair” that fell in “rippling waves half-way to her waist. A plumed slouch hat of snowy white; an elegant suit of gray, and patent leather top boots, with a diamond-studded ‘boiled’ shirt, collar, and a sash about her waist beneath the coat, made up her costume, and gave her an appearance at once dashing, and characteristic of the wild roving existence she led.” Doll is particularly good at posing as a man, in one case disguising herself as a tough miner named “Glycerine George.” Doll blazed through four stories, eluding capture by both criminals and love; that Doll remains unmarried is a particularly rare feat for the young fictional heroine.

Detective Kate Edwards is, despite the title of her book, most unladylike in her adventures in Lady Kate, The Dashing Female Detective (1886) by Harlan Halsey. Edwards tried a few professions out before settling on private eye. She speaks multiple languages and dons disguises to uncover clues, appearing as everything from an old woman to a tough-talking male sailor. She knocks men to the ground and uses swords and pistols with skill. Trapped on a cliff at night during a storm, Edwards lowers herself from a tree like a superhero, climbing limb to limb to the ground and to safety. She’s not all brawn, though. In the most Sherlock Holmesian of fashion, Edwards deduces the whereabouts of a suspect by examining the clay on his left-behind boots.

Another young detective, Violet Strange, was the creation of Anna Katherine Green, a writer little known today but one once called the “mother of detective fiction” for her best-selling mysteries. Strange was a wealthy debutante and the favorite child of her father, Peter Strange. The girl’s mother had died when she was a child, and her father gives Strange free reign over her life. Her family home, on New York’s Fifth Avenue, is luxurious, and Violet travels throughout the city to social events in a chauffeured limousine. But she also gets paid to detect as a member of a high-profile private detective agency. Strange is so adept that some characters suggest she have supernatural powers, but Strange rebuffs them, asserting her practicality and displaying a talent for logic and mathematical puzzles.

Drew wasn’t all that different from these and other sleuthing peers when she made her debut in 1930. Like Strange, Drew had the financial means and freedom to travel to solve crimes, unencumbered by school or family responsibilities. Like Strange, Drew also lost her mother when she was young, and both women had fathers who paid little attention to their whereabouts.

All together, what made these girl detectives so effective is that few took them seriously or could even see them as real detectives. Doll, Edwards, Strange, and Drew all used this underestimation to their advantage.