James L. Rubel’s No Business For A Lady (1950) is a frustrating novel. While the book’s front and back covers tease with “Meet Eli Donovan, lady detective and easily the most beautiful shamus living”, and “Most detectives have angles, but here’s one that has curves”, we’d expect postwar paperbacks to pitch a female private detective that way. What’s frustrating is 1) that a genuinely interesting female P.I. character that preceded G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz couldn’t garner her own series, and 2) that a well-conceived character could be dropped into a plot that relies on an utterly implausible crime, albeit in an otherwise well-told tale.
Rubel’s Eli Donovan is a licensed L.A. private investigator earning a comfortable living on routine cases like background checks and debt collections. Nothing glamorous or exciting, but it’s enough to pay for a nice wardrobe, a sporty coupe, a handsome apartment and to indulge her weakness for hats – the fancier and frillier the better (this is still the era when men and women alike wore hats darn near everywhere). Actually, based on the novel’s description, neither woman depicted on the book covers shown here resemble her at all.
Now, don’t be fooled: Eli’s no daffodil. She’s a former Marine, former cop and, oddly enough, a former chorus girl (briefly). She packs a Walther automatic and can take care of herself. A war widow, Eli Donovan fell in love with a fellow Marine who went missing on Tarawa, was finally declared dead and supposedly buried there according to the Corps. She didn’t make it through WWII unscathed herself, and was seriously injured in a Jeep accident, requiring plastic surgery. With her appearance changed, she also switched from a “mousey brunette” to a blonde to start fresh after the war (and so, she doesn’t resemble either of the women depicted on the books’ covers).
Early in the novel, Eli has a chance to earn a bigger than usual fee from a wealthy but stern and unattractive businesswoman (“with a face that looked like it was sired by a horse”) who admits to being insanely jealous over her handsome cad of a husband, who she suspects of being unfaithful. Well, so far, so good. The setup could lead to delicious vintage mystery/crime fiction fun: adultery, murder…all the good stuff.
And it does. Well…sort of. Because the main plot device here is that the unfaithful (and very flirtatious) hubby is a dead ringer for Eli Donovan’s dead husband. In fact, it turns out that he actually is her husband, who really wasn’t killed on Tarawa after all. Yet for a good 50 – 75 pages, he apparently doesn’t recognize Eli as his former wife. And she’s not sure he’s her husband…she only suspects he might be. Now don’t you suppose you could instantly recognize your spouse, even after a 5-6 year absence? And I don’t mean from a distance, or in a brief encounter, but in multiple meetings, over drinks, dinner and romantic one-on-ones? The whole business comes off kind of silly, and torpedoes this otherwise well done novel.
That nonsense aside, the story is well told with interesting secondary characters, some twists and turns, and most of all, an otherwise credible and well-drawn heroine. The novel’s conclusion feels open ended enough to lead to a sequel and a series. At the very end, Eli and her police chief pal go over details of the case when he asks if she still has feelings for her ex, now a felon wanted not only by the police, but the Marine Corps. Eli assures him she’s over him.
“Then find yourself a nice guy and settle down to raising a family,” he suggested. “This is no business for a lady.” I shook my head and smiled at him. He was a swell friend and I liked him. But he hadn’t analyzed me correctly. I liked men. I loved the way they whistled when they saw me. I was still young and I had a lot of years ahead of me before my hair turned gray, my face got lined and the whistling stopped. I couldn’t picture myself living in semi-poverty surrounded by wet diapers and screaming infants. Maybe someday I’d be lucky enough to meet the right man. Until I did…? I said, “Sorry, Bill. But I’m not a lady.
(Scan of my pretty solid 1950 edition at top, the 1965 edition below (that one’s not mine.)