Just a few years too early? Perhaps. Lee McGraw’s 1976 novel Hatchett introduces hard-as-nails ex-cop turned private detective Madge Hatchett, a denim-n-boots gal with more than a bit of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone about her, and running her M.L. Hatchett Investigations detective agency in Chicago like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. But unlike Grafton or Paretsky’s groundbreaking and now iconic female detective characters who both arrived a mere six years after, Madge Hatchett only managed to appear in one book. Also unlike those two authors, Lee McGraw’s gender-neutral moniker is a pen name for Paul Zakaras.
This is an action-packed crime novel, full of gunplay, fistfights and explosions. Madge Hatchett is no ‘blonde bombshell’ or teasing sexpot ala G.G. Fickling’s Honey West, Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz, much less the many saucy-naughty-downright-porny female super sleuths and spy series cluttering paperback racks at the time Hatchett was released, like The Baroness, Cherry Delight or The Lady From L.U.S.T. There’s a fair amount of squirm-worthy vintage sexism, poking fun at ‘women’s lib’ and the like, but no more than you’d encounter in an episode of a retro-seventies sitcom like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda. To the author’s credit (considering the era) Hatchett’s troubles with the law are due more to the fact that she’s a combustible troublemaker than a woman.
Hatchett’s lured into an ever-widening mystery after a murder in her own apartment building is pinned on an ex-con and recovering junkie she’d befriended. Determined to prove the cops wrong, she soon finds herself in the middle of a gangland war when a mysterious freelance non-Mafia kingpin attempts to take over Chicago’s crime syndicate (an unlikely scenario with the Chicago mob very much alive and well at this time). Hatchett navigates her way through the underworld of drug dealers, pornographers and pimps with her Beretta as much as her investigative prowess. So it’s a little disappointing that three-fourth’s through the novel, the otherwise smart and gutsy private eye falls prey to some seemingly requisite damsel-in-distress business, which in vintage crime novels always demands that the hero loose her clothes: “So, I was lying on a bed. In a totally dark room. And it was obvious why I couldn’t pick myself up: I was wearing a pair of ropes. One holding my hands behind my back, the other wrapped around my ankles. Wearing ropes and nothing else, a perfect costume for a kinky foldout. Or that last scream scene in a snuff film.” Fear not, though. Madge Hatchett needs no rescuing, blasts her way free and burns down or blows up the crooks’ lairs and leaves not only the aspiring ‘Mister Big’ but sundry Mister-In-Between’s full of bullet holes.
The cover art is a puzzler, if only for the Ballantine Suspense line art director’s choice for an illustrator. Not that it isn’t good. But the illustration’s by well-known Peruvian fantasy/SF/sword & sorcery artist Boris Vallejo, who along with his own spouse Julie Bell, Frank Frazetta, Ken Kelly, Sanjulian and several others more or less defined 1960’s through 1980’s fantasy painting. Vallejo’s known for his sword-wielding barbarians and armor-clad Amazons, so he seems like an odd choice. While Madge Hatchett is described at one point as resembling Sophia Loren, in general she’s smokes like a chimney, likes her booze, enjoys a joint and favors practical private eye attire, not lilac jersey dresses. Looking at this cover art and knowing Vallejo’s style, it’s easy to swap a spear for the revolver, a magic goblet for the glass of whiskey, a throne for the chair, and to turn the two dead dudes lying beneath Hatchett’s chunky 70’s heels into vanquished goblins. Then it’s a Boris Vallejo painting.