It’s difficult to compete with the master.
This Dame for Hire, Sandra Scoppettone’s new 1940s mystery featuring a “female Sam Spade,” arrived on my doorstep shortly after I finished reading several of Dashiell Hammett’s novels, including his most famous work, The Maltese Falcon. Faye Quick is a decent heroine in her own right, but she’s no Sam Spade. And, to be perfectly honest, This Dame for Hire is no Maltese Falcon, either. That’s not to say it isn’t a decent mystery—it’s just that it pales in comparison to one of the landmarks in detective fiction.
It’s New York City in 1943. World War II is in full swing, which means that with so many guys off fighting the Nazis, the home front is full of women soldiering on in jobs they never expected to fill. Faye Quick started as the secretary for private detective Woody Mason, but as Faye puts it, “in ’41 the Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and by January of ’42, Woody Mason was in the army and I was running A Detective Agency.” The “A” didn’t stand for anything; it just allowed Woody to be first in the phone book. All of which makes Faye an accidental detective of sorts—but a detective nonetheless.
One evening, she literally stumbles over a corpse as she walks down the street toward home. It turns out that young Claudette West was murdered, although several months after the crime the police still don’t know why. Which is why Claudette’s parents, socialites Porter and Myrna West, visit Faye and ask her to investigate. Porter’s one of those control freak types who wants Faye to call him every day with a report, while his wife only speaks when Porter allows it.
While Claudette’s father suspects her boyfriend Richard, Faye’s investigation will uncover the seamy secrets of Claudette’s life, from affairs with married professors to her involvement with an acting company in Greenwich Village. Faye crosses paths with phony Rockefellers, back room abortionists, and a host of other characters as she struggles to decipher who killed Claudette West and left her body on a snowy city street.
In that regard, the plotline is fairly well done, even if the likely villain is suggested relatively early on (have you ever noticed that when a character is particularly solicitous in a story, there’s often an ulterior motive at play?). The real challenge I have with This Dame for Hire is the manner in which Scoppettone tries to create the 1940s “tough girl” banter for her main character. For some reason, it seems forced and artificial rather than an effortless component of the overall narrative. Perhaps it is that Faye is characterized, in most instances of dialogue, as speaking in a very noticeable form of slang. There are lots of “wannas” and “yas” and “yaps” and the like. In contrast, Hammett used his word choices more judiciously, and while there’s a staccato pacing to the dialogue it doesn’t come across as a lesson in slang. Hammett’s characters seem to speak far more naturally, whereas Scoppettone’s characters are almost play-acting at being tough.
The other interesting comparison between This Dame for Hire and the real “tough guy” fiction of the period is that Faye is much more your modern heroine in ’40s garb. In that regard, she’s much like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser; as much as I have enjoyed Parker’s books, he wouldn’t last a minute with somebody like Hammett’s Continental Op or Sam Spade. They’re single-minded; they’re detectives, and they don’t care who takes the fall as long as they get the truth and nobody plays them for the fool. Spenser’s far too worried about being in touch with his feminine side and making sure he’s got the right wine to go with the chicken. In a sense, Faye’s a bit like Spenser: she’s not all that tough, and she lets us see a bit more of her emotions. That actually creates some humorous moments in the story and I think it works for the most part, but it remains a challenge: if you’re going to compare a character to someone like Sam Spade, the question is how they measure up. Faye’s a decent detective, but she doesn’t send anybody she’s romantically involved with up the river. Sam Spade did, and would, and that makes him stone cold and Faye just another pretender to the throne.
All of that being said, and overt comparisons aside, once you look at This Dame for Hire on its own terms, it’s a pretty fun little mystery. It offers some quirky insights into New York during World War II, offers up an interesting heroine who isn’t constantly being saved by some guy, and leavens the mystery with some humor. While some aspects of the mystery seem a bit too contrived, and Scoppettone may telegraph the identity of the villain a bit too early, she still manages to tell an entertaining tale.