Fancy Anders arrived fully formed.
I do not refer to her slender, shapely figure, although that was part of the package. I said off-handedly to my wife Barb that a mystery series not unlike Australian TV’s Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries might work in wartime Hollywood. Source author Kerry Greenwood's historical mystery novels (which I have never read) took place in 1920s Melbourne; Miss Fisher, as played by Essie Davis, was worldly and appeared to be in her (gorgeous) forties, despite a flapperish image. For my purposes, Los Angeles provided the perfect noir period with the Second World War a time when females were stepping into male roles.
“She’s a young woman,” I said, “not long out of college, who takes over her father’s successful private investigation agency when he goes off to war. Rich, headstrong, beautiful, confident, a wild child, but not street smart. Tough-minded enough to buck her society queen mother who wants her to be a debutante poised to marry money. More money, since the family already has plenty.”
Barb liked it. “She’ll need a catchy name.”
“How about ‘Fancy Anders’?” I have no idea where that came from.
“Write it down,” she advised.
Many fiction writers, in particular mystery writers, have had similar experiences. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and the whole Brownstone set-up seemed to fall into, and then out from, his typewriter. Archie needed a little fine-tuning over the first two or three books, but that entire, special world seemed fully formed with Stout just having to pluck it out of the sky and set it down on bond paper.
For about twenty years after his big success with Wolfe and Archie, Stout was compelled by his editor to come up with another series just as wonderful. Wolfe’s papa tried, again and again, and couldn’t pull it off – he couldn’t consciously contrive to duplicate a success that his subconscious had provided him.
I started thinking about Fancy, with no real idea where to market the property or what publishing format exactly would suit her. She and her world came into very sharp focus quickly, though, and I desperately wanted to give her a chance to shine. NeoText co-founder John Schoenfelder and I had been discussing my doing something for the digital publishing company. John and I had similar interests in classic pulp fiction and film, and Fancy Anders struck me as a good place for us to start.
NeoText specializes in novella-length material, so I suggested doing three e-book novellas that later could be collected into a book. We also explored bringing a strong graphic component into the mix, since my work in comics – the graphic novel Road to Perdition remains my calling card – might attract a different segment of our potential audience rather than just readers who knew my crime fiction.
Was a male mystery writer writing about a female detective, in these gender sensitive times, a detriment? I considered having Barb write the novellas with me – we have collaborated on two standalone novels, any number of short stories, and the long-running “Trash ‘n’ Treasures” cozy series, under our joint penname, Barbara Allan. But Barb was busy writing her draft of what would be Antiques Carry On.
Both John and I were fans of UK-based artist Fay Dalton, currently illustrating the Folio Editions of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. From the start she was our choice to do the covers of the three novellas, but somewhere along the way we determined to illustrate the novellas themselves – each of the ten chapters per book getting a full-page illustration.
That would help establish, and get the most out of, the nostalgic backdrop and the three settings I’d settled upon: an aircraft defense plant, Fancy Anders Goes to War; the Hollywood Canteen, Fancy Anders For the Boys; and the Warner’s lot, Fancy Anders Goes Hollywood.
Having Fay Dalton provide a staggering thirty-three paintings for the three novellas was a great way to bring the right touch to the material. Fay’s work echoes the great pin-up artists of the forties (including the likes of Zoë Mozert, Joyce Ballantyne, and Pearl Frush) and she had already painted covers for two graphic novel series I’d done for Titan’s Hard Case Crime Comics (Quarry’s War and Mike Hammer: The Night I Died).
Most of Fay’s paintings for Fancy Anders Goes to War are full-color (a few are black-and-white, some with touches of color, for a noir effect), although the trade paperback editions of it and those of the two novellas to follow will present only the covers in full-color. (It’s my hope that a publisher will step up and do an oversize edition collecting all three novellas and showing off Fay’s magnificent artwork.)
Mickey Spillane’s favorite format was the novella and I can see why – working at 30,000 words (mystery novels tend to run 50,000 to 70,000 words) gives the writer room to tell the story properly while moving things along at a good clip. And the three novellas, though each stands alone, are interwoven, adding up to a sum bigger than its parts, with an overall mystery being solved (Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse inspired this approach).
While the Fancy Anders novellas are not as true crime-oriented as my Nathan Heller novels, the central murder parallels a notorious real one. And the research was extensive, including Elizabeth R. Escobedo’s From Coveralls to Zoot Suits (2013), focusing on Hispanic women during World War II; Gerrie Schipske’s Rosie the Riveter in Long Beach (2008), a pictorial history; Sheerna Berger Gluck’s Rosie the Riveter Revisited (1987), an invaluable oral history; and Constance Bowman Reid’s Slacks and Calluses (1944), illustrated by Clara Marie Allen, an entertaining contemporary memoir by two teachers who spent the summer of 1943 working at an aircraft plant in San Diego.
The aircraft plant setting struck me as a great place to start. The suspicious “accidental” death of a riveter selected for the Rosie the Riveter publicity campaign has sent Fancy undercover in a dangerous and unfamiliar environment. The pampered rich girl must fit in with working-class “gals” from every social strata of Los Angeles. The predominantly female workers in this typical defense plant, including many Hispanic and Black women, range in age from their twenties to their sixties. And all of these women, ruled by men in positions of authority, face careless sexism at every turn.
Fancy is no naive, sheltered thing – as the novella says, “She lost her virginity long before gaining her college degree,” and her hobbies include flying, jiujitsu, racing and shooting. She packs a baby Browning semi-automatic and uses her tool belt’s hammer and wrench not just for defense work, but for self-defense. And taking out a bad guy – and not in the dating sense – does not give her a moment of pause. She is as tough, in her way, as my other female PI, Ms. Tree.
Writing about women protagonists is nothing new for me. The Ms. Tree comic book premiered before the novels of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, anticipating the ‘80s wave of literary female private eyes. To some degree, Ms. Tree had been conceived as an American “answer” to Modesty Blaise, the UK’s female James Bond. As great as Peter O’Donnell’s criminal-turned-spy is, she borders on being smarter and tougher than any man, embracing the trope that to register heroically in fiction or film, a female in a traditionally male heroic role must be smarter, tougher, stronger, etc., than any man.
I always felt Ms. Tree being the equal of any man was enough.
Tough women detectives haven’t been absent from American popular culture, but they remained a novelty for decades. Of course, Nancy Drew was every bit as big as the Hardy Boys and has spanned the decades just as durably. In the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s spunky girl reporters like Torchy Blane, Lois Lane and Brenda Starr made an impact, although Rex Stout’s distaff private eye Dol Bonner in The Hand in the Glove (1937) was just another of those failed attempts to make Wolfe-like lightning strike twice. In the ‘60s, Honey West, in books and on a short-lived TV series, fell into the a-woman-has-to-outdo-any-man cliche, and perhaps the less said about Charlie’s Angels in the ‘70s the better. Then came the tough, competent likes of Cagney and Lacey, Temperance Brennan, Dana Scully, Jane Tennison, Clarice Starling, and especially Lisbeth Salander. And for my money, Veronica Mars is the best private eye to come along in recent memory.
Much more common have been pairings of men and women, sparked of course by Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man (1934) and the MGM movie series (and subsequent TV show) it spawned. Hammett stubbornly refused to write novel sequels and others – in particular Mr. and Mrs. North, a married detective team created by a married writing team, Richard and Frances Lockridge – filled the Nick-and-Nora gap. Largely forgotten now, the Norths appeared in twenty-six novels, on Broadway, in a motion picture, and on several radio and TV series. The married-couple detective team format rears its head every now and then, notably with the ‘80s series Moonlighting.
While I’ve never followed the Nick and Nora pattern myself, any number of times I’ve paired off male and female detectives, though rarely playing the ubiquitous sexual tension card. For example....
The Reeder and Rogers political thrillers (Supreme Justice, Fate of the Union, Executive Order), co-written with Matthew V. Clemens, pair former Secret Service agent Joe Reeder and current FBI agent Patti Rogers.
In the 1950s, Jack Starr is the trouble-shooter for the comic strip syndicate owned by his stepmother, retired burlesque queen Maggie Starr; but the trio of mysteries (A Killing in Comics, Strip for Murder and Seduction of the Innocent) are more in the Archie and Wolfe tradition than Nick and Nora. This allowed me to draw upon (sorry) my interest and background in comics.
Krista Larson is the young police chief of tourist town Galena, Illinois, occasionally aided by her retired homicide cop pop, Keith (in Girl Most Likely and Girl Can’t Help It). The Larsons are presented as average people and not over-the-top heroes with the setting an American version of what readers (and viewers) encounter in nordic noir.
John Sand, the spy James Bond was based on (it is strongly implied), and his rich wife Stacey have recently appeared in a trio of slightly tongue-in-cheek thrillers from the Collins and Clemens team (Come Spy With Me, Live Fast, Spy Hard and To Live and Spy in Berlin). Matt and I also wrote about Jordan Rivera, the very tough protagonist of What Doesn’t Kill Her, which John Gilstrap has called “the American answer to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.”
My wife Barb and I have written about Brandy Borne, the much put-upon daughter of small-town theatrical diva Vivian Borne in the fifteen-novel (so far) series begun by Antiques Roadkill. Brandy tells her story in the first person, with the narrative occasionally commandeered by her mother for a dizzying first-person chapter or two per book.
I mention my previous incursions and excursions into female territory for two reasons: first, a cheap shot at mentioning a bunch of my books, all of which are still available; and second, to justify in this uncomfortable climate a man daring to write a woman’s story.
All that’s left for me to say in my defense is that this wasn’t my idea. Fancy Anders simply popped into my head and demanded attention. It was a little scary.
So I gave in.
You get the chance to meet her this week.
One last tip: don’t underestimate her.
Fancy Anders Goes To War is published on 5th October. Click here to order a copy of the book.
A FAY DALTON GALLERY
Images copyright (c) Fay Dalton, all rights reserved