No Business For A Lady

No Business For A LAdy copy

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.)

No Business for a Lady 1965

Turner’s Warshawski

v i warshawski kathleen turner

Kathleen Turner as one of the 90’s best ‘stiletto gumshoes’, here in a publicity shot for the 1991 film V. I. Warshawski, the movie adaptation of Sara Paretsky’s award-winning hard-boiled Chicago private detective series.

Still More About Mavis…

Seidlitz And The Super SPy 1967 orig - spanish

Still more about Carter Brown’s female private detective, Mavis Seidlitz (see the preceding post):

Why did Carter Brown choose such an odd name for this character? Sure, many twentieth century names can seem a little clunky today: Bertha, Edna, Sophie, Norma, Bernice, Lottie and many others. But…Mavis? Mavis Seidlitz? Consider some of the 1930’s – 1960’s era women private detectives, cops and crime fighters from film, fiction and comics. Honey West. Torchy Blane, Sally O’Neil, Jill Trent, Starr Flagg, Tony Gayle. They have a little more zing to them, don’t they? Lets assume Yates settled on ‘Mavis Seidlitz’ to be cute. The clumsy name suited an often clumsy and ‘daffy’ character.

Mavis - France?

So, are the Mavis Seidlitz novels any good? Well, a lot of postwar era paperback original crime fiction is an acquired taste. The Carter Brown books are pretty slim, typically 128 pages, so more like novelettes by today’s measure. Mavis’ undercover work strains credibility in some cases. The mysteries can seem a little convoluted sometimes. Red Herrings abound. They may seem hastily written, with that vintage ‘first draft is the only draft’ feel. If you’ve read your share of the genre, you know what I mean. I won’t say that I like them. But I do plan on reading the rest of the series.

Still…120 million books.

Mavis Seidlitz won’t make V.I. Warshawsky, Kinsey Millhone or Ellie Stone nervous. But the character still commands an important place in the history of women detectives, cops and crime-fighters, particularly back in a time when any ‘stiletto gumshoes’ were woefully few and far between.

None but the lethal heart - aus - 1959 orig

And, More About Mavis…

The Bump & GRind Murders 1964 originally

And more About Carter Brown’s Female Private Detective, Mavis Seidlitz (see the preceding posts):

The early Mavis Seidlitz novels were published with pretty typical paperback original crime fiction style cover art. I don’t think any single artist handled the series, but I’ll leave that to the collectors and experts to clarify. In the 1960’s, the books were ‘branded’ with consistent designs featuring provocative glamor girl paintings by master illustrator Robert McGinnis. No doubt, the fetching cover art had a lot to do with the series sales, even if they had little to do with the novels’ plots, often as not. McGinnis actually did just shy of 100 Carter Brown books. By the 1970’s, original cover art paintings remained popular in romance, western, science fiction and sword & sorcery/fantasy genres, but had largely fallen out of favor for general fiction and the mystery genre. Carter Brown titles, including the Mavis Seidlitz series, were reissued then in photo covers.

More in the next post…

none but the lethal heart (1959 originally)

the loving and the dead (1959 originally)

Tomorrow Is Murder 1960 originally

 

More About Mavis…

and the undead sing 1974

More About Carter Brown’s Female Private Detective, Mavis Seidlitz (see the preceding post):

Mavis Seidlitz appeared in a dozen paperbacks written between 1955 and 1974 by ‘Carter Brown’, pen name for English-born Australian writer Alan Geoffrey Yates (1923 – 1985), who wrote over 320 ‘Carter Brown’ novels alone, selling more than 120,000,000 copies in over a dozen languages. Check those numbers: three-hundred-and-twenty novels. Additionally, Yates wrote science fiction, westerns and other crime novels under alternate pseudonyms, including Todd Conway, Raymond Glenning, Sinclair MacKellar, Dennis Sinclair and Paul Valdez. He favored U.S. settings, yet he’d already written more than 30 detective novels set in America before ever visiting the States.

Prolific? Driven? It’s unclear, but for a while, Yates was under contract to deliver one short novel and two long novels to his publishers each month. Nonetheless, he was an admitted procrastinator and frequently suffered from total writer’s block, often sitting down at the typewriter mere days before a manuscript’s deadline and plowing through (allegedly) with the aid of a little Dexedrine.

What writer wouldn’t be humbled by Yate’s prodigious output? The writing, publishing and bookselling marketplaces are very different today than they were in the postwar heyday of paperback originals. Now writers hope their small press publisher’s 2,000 to 5,000 copy trade paperback print run will sell out in a couple years with tolerable returns. Self-published and hybrid authors obsessively monitor anemic Amazon sales-ranks. A lucky few achieve bigger mass-market levels, but do so via a shrunken network of independent book retailers, one online behemoth and only one viable national chain.

But just how can any writer get their head around the notion of selling over 120 million books?

More in the next post…

The Bump & Grind Murders - Photo cover

Mavis Seidlitz

lament for a lousy lover 1960

Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz female private eye preceded G. G. Fickling’s (husband and wife team of Gloria and Forest Fickling) Honey West character by a couple of years, with two or even three ‘Mavis’ novels released by the time Honey debuted in This Girl For Hire in 1957.

As the junior partner in Rio Investigations, Mavis is often relegated to receptionist chores for owner Johnny Rio, then finds herself volunteered for undercover duty on most cases: Impersonating a superstar pop singer, pretending to be an endangered heir’s wife or hired as the on-location babysitter to a man-hungry TV series leading lady. Clumsy, clueless and unlike most series private eyes, she isn’t particularly bright. Frankly, she’s kind of ‘daffy and dizzy’ as the books describe her, more likely to literally stumble into jeopardy through sheer klutziness, often solving crimes completely by accident. It was intended to be funny. Fifty years later, it doesn’t necessarily succeed and will inevitably offend some contemporary readers.

No surprise, Mavis manages to lose some or all of her clothes when she’s fleeing killers or captured by thugs…I think this occurs not just once but several times per book (though to be fair, I’ve only really read four Mavis Seidlitz novels and skimmed two others so far). The books’ cover copy always teases that she’s “mad for money and men” or “a curvy blonde who’s heavy on sex, light on sense and sure-fire in a clinch”, but she actually does relatively little cozying up with the many handsome men – good and bad guys alike – who populate the books, which is peculiar, considering all the ‘sexy’ teasing. Even by the later entries in the series during the late 1960’s and into the 70’s, the content is mired in a leering tone that can either seem quaint or awkward and outmoded.

Almost, I said.

More in the next post…

The Loving And The Dead 1959

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