The Police Women’s Bureau

The Police Women's Bureau

Book reviews claim a novel is a ‘real page turner’ all the time, but I’m here to tell you that Edward Conlon’s The Policewomen’s Bureau is precisely that: A page turner. My proof? I started the book after work on Monday, and stayed up ridiculously late both Monday and Tuesday nights devouring this novel. Yes, a little groggy in the office Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, but it was worth it.

Edward Conlon’s a former New York City cop himself, and even after retiring was called back, currently the Director Of Executive Communications for the Police Commissioner. His own memoir Blue Blood was a bestseller and award finalist. The man can write, and he knows what’s what when it comes to being a cop and has an uncanny feel for effectively setting a scene — a hectic Italian family gathering, an authentic squad room, holding cell or gritty New York street scene.

Decoy 1957

I knew I’d like this book from the very beginning of the first page, which is a quote from the groundbreaking 1957 TV series Decoy (see link below for more about that), which starred Beverly Garland in the very first network crime drama led by a woman, the first filmed on location in New York, and told the story of Officer Casey Jones, an NYPD policewoman working different cases in each episode, sometimes undercover, sometimes in uniform. It’s a perfect choice to kick off Conlon’s novel, which is based on real life policewoman Marie Cirile’s own memoir and here tells the story of Marie Carrara, young wife, mother and member of a large and very traditional Italian family. Marie’s a cop, though policewomen are largely relegated to women’s wing jail matrons and occasional undercover assignments, enduring relentless taunts, hassles and worse  from their male counterparts, and institutional discrimination from the higher-ups. The book opens in 1958, spanning a ten-year-plus period through 1969 as Marie moves up the ranks, fighting superiors along with the crooks, while suffering through horrifying abuse from her ultra-traditional maximum-macho Italian husband (also a cop, and clearly a slightly crooked one), which goes beyond his flagrant infidelity, verbal abuse and routine physical violence, then culminates in a brutal rape. It’s grim stuff. But Marie perseveres, devoted to her kid and the job. Which is incredibly exciting stuff, tricking mobsters and working sympathetic snitches, trading blows with drug dealers and chasing junkies. Finally partnered up with two precinct oddballs, the threesome quickly grow into an unbeatable team with stellar arrest records, and form an unbreakable bond in the process.

The Policewomen’s Bureau is a terrific crime fiction novel, a maddening tale of how-things-were seventy years ago (enough so to dispel any warm nostalgia one might have for the ‘good old days’) and a truly moving saga of a quiet hero, a regular woman’s struggle against relentless injustice and discrimination. Do check it out, and give Beverly Garland a peek in 1957’s Decoy while you’re at it.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/02/06/decoy-retro-tvs-first-woman-with-a-badge/

 

Decoy: Retro TV’s First Woman With A Badge?

Decoy

Before Charlie’s Angels in 1976 – 1981, before Angie Dickinson played Sergeant Pepper Anderson in Police Woman from 1974 to 1978, even before Anne Francis reinvented Honey West in one 1965-1966 season that became a bit of a cult favorite, there was New York Police Officer Casey Jones, memorably played by Beverly Garland in the 1957-1958 season’s Decoy.

Now only a retro TV and pop culture forgotten footnote, Decoy was actually a groundbreaking series. Inspired in part by the successful Jack Webb series Dragnet, Decoy was the first TV show to film on location in New York City, the first show to feature a police woman as its main character and, in fact, the first full-season dramatic series to feature a female protagonist at all.

Decoy 1

As with Dragnet, Garland provides voice-over narration to introduce the episodes, bridge scenes, and sometime break the ‘fourth wall’ to offer a summation at the episode’s end. Little is revealed about Officer Casey Jones’ personal life. She has no regular partner, and normally works out of different precincts, assigned to handle a wide variety of cases and crimes, sometimes in uniform, more often undercover. There’s a wonderfully gritty urban edge in almost every episode, making the most of the locations, with only selected scenes shot on interior sets built in New York’s 26th Street Armory. Tight budgets and fast-paced six-day per week schedules demanded on-the-fly filming with few amenities: No plush stars’ trailers, the actors changing in apparel store dressing rooms, using restaurant restrooms and wearing thermals under their costumes during winter time shoots (though Garland usually had to forego even a sweater because it made her uniform look too bulky). Beverly Garland often did her own stunts and fight scenes. Known primarily as a B-Movie actress at this point, though actually one of Hollywood’s more reliable TV actors, Garland does a magnificent job in diverse roles and situations, sometimes playing a no-nonsense uniformed cop or more often going undercover as everything from a thief to a junkie, a nightclub singer to an asylum inmate. Officer Casey Jones is consistently capable, smart, aggressive but compassionate, a good shot and handy in tussle, and best of all, seems to command the full respect of her fellow officers and superiors. Garland gets down and dirty for some undercover roles, and glams it up in others, in what must have been one hell of a part for an actor to play.

DECOY 1

I know there are some episodes on YouTube, and I’ve seen public domain DVD sets with a few episodes each in used bookstore bargain bins, but I can’t vouch for the picture or audio quality on those. Once I read about this series, I bit the bullet and bought the Film Chest Media Group Complete Series DVD Set, and the quality is really top notch, the visuals darn near as striking as a period film noir, just as the scripts pulled no punches on some pretty edgy stuff for the time.

Decoy 3 DVDs

Sadly, the series only lasted one season. Right from the start, the networks and potential sponsors were uneasy about a dramatic series with a female lead, and a cop show at that. Westinghouse was the primary sponsor, but when the series failed to deliver the hoped for viewership, it was cancelled, though it continued in syndication for the next seven years.

If you get a chance to see some episodes of Decoy, I think you’ll agree that it’s a surprisingly mature and well-made show for its time, and Beverly Garland did some memorable work when roles like this simply didn’t exist. Do look for it.

Pistols And Petticoats

Pistols And Petticoats

Pistols And Petticoatsby Erika Janik (Beacon Press hardcover, 2016)

The back cover says, “Fiction and reality meet and mingle in this fascinating work of cultural history. Who are the great female detectives in literature? Who were their historical precedents? How did they make their way in a predominantly male world, whether we’re talking about the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1861 or SVU on NBC?”

Wisconsin NPR producer Erika Janik’s Pistols And Petticoats – 175 Years Of Lady Detectives In Fact And Fiction covers a lot of ground in 200+ pages: The emergence of women in official law enforcement, as well as women investigators – private eyes, plucky girl detectives and police women – in literature, film and TV. The book is organized more or less in chronological order, starting with a juxtaposition of some key police women alongside various literary female sleuths from the 19thand early 20thcentury, then breaking into chapters that chronicle the rise of women as integral parts of official law enforcement agencies while combatting constant harassment and discrimination, and the increasing appearances of female crime solvers in pulp fiction, mid-20thcentury cinema, comics and crime fiction. There are a lotof people to keep track of here, including many fictional characters that I never heard of and now need to learn more about.

Pistols And Petticoatsis a very readable book, deftly merging scholarly details and insights without being dry or pendantic. Frankly, it almost feels like it deserved to be a two-volume set, one a history of women in police work and the other a companion piece chronicling sleuths in literature film and pop culture. A couple hundred pages with a detailed list of sources can’t possibly cover every character, of course, so readers shouldn’t be miffed if their own favorites are overlooked or short-changed. Inevitably, books like this become obsolete the moment they hit the shelves, since new novels, characters, films and television shows constantly appear. But for real historical ground-breakers and familiar late 20thand early 21stcentury literary entertainment characters, it’s an excellent primer.

In the book’s final chapter, Janik notes, “Though television would have you think there is a woman homicide detective in every police department in America, only 15 percent of homicide detectives are women. Real women have fared far worse professionally than their fictional sisters. We’re far more comfortable with powerful, competent police women in books and on television than in real life”.

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