Created by Liza Cody
Back in the early eighties, everyone else was huffing and puffing and patting themselves on the back about how Sharon, Kinsey and V.I.. et al were storming the male PI citadel stateside.
Meanwhile, across the pond this British sister was already doing it for herself, in an amazing story arc about a young female P.I.’s journey from innocence to a hard-fought world-weariness.
One of the all-time great female eyes, Liza Cody’s ANNA LEE is a former cop turned operative for a small detective agency, Brierly Security, in London. Anna’s a pretty shrewd investigator, thoroughly dedicated, quietly thorough, who seems to live for her job. She prides herself on her pragmatism and competence, and seems to have a deep-rooted wish to fix things, be they people’s shattered lives or a leaky faucet in her neighbour’s flat. And she’s nobody’s bimbo.
She has a sense of humour, but it’s so dry it’s almost air. Mind you, with the cast of people that surround her, Anna needs whatever sense of humour works. She lives upstairs from a constantly-bickering married couple, the ever-sensible Bea, and the ne’er-do-well sometime poet (and Andy Capp clone) Selwyn.
Meanwhile, the big cheese at work, Commander Brierly himself, is a straight-laced tight-ass who doesn’t think Anna’s particularly suitable for the job, and regrets hiring her. Sitting on the Commander’s side, as though he was God Almighty, is Beryl, office manager/Nazi, who has even less use for Anna, and delights in putting her in a bad light. Fortunately, Bernie, an older operative sees something in Anna that Brierly and Beryl have missed, and acts as a mentor to the younger detective.
All in all, a vivid, well-rendered sense of time and place, and a compelling and credible hero who felt real and alive, not assembled according to some recipe; less an homage or tribute to detective genre than a boot at the door, demanding to be let in.
As she once explained on her web site:
“At the very beginning… all I wanted to do was to avoid my freezing, uninsulated studio, and look busy by the fire… I hadn’t read a lot of detective fiction — just Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald — but I’d enjoyed the pace and the writing. I did, however, have very serious doubts about their views of women.”
On top of that part of the attraction was the US itself, which seemed like an exotic location where gunplay and casual violence were plausible; not at all like England which breeds a different kind of nastiness altogether.
It made me wonder what would happen to an ordinary, competent English woman who happened to be a detective; someone who went unarmed, used the Yellow Pages a lot and got hurt when she was hit.
So I started small: I fitted an ex-police woman, Anna Lee, into a small detective agency on Kensington High Street and gave her an unimportant case. Then, sort of like a reader, I waited to see what happened.
Anna Lee’s debut, Dupe (1980), won the John Creasey Award in 1980 for Best First Novel, and it looked like the series was well on its way–the Anna Lee books were every bit as good as her acclaimed stateside sisters.
And then television happened…
A series of British made-for-television movies were produced in the nineties, but hardcore fans were disappointed. The producers tried to give Anna Lee a slightly breezier sheen, perhaps with an eye to American sales. Actress Imogen Stubbs looked the part, but the script’s take on the character was completely different from how many fans pictured her. Gone was much of Anna’s freshness and feisty charm; replaced by a sort of air-brushed trans-Atlantic, one-size-fits-all, non-British Britishness.
Bernie was played as a slightly goofy older op, hardly the experienced world weary pro who takes Anna Lee under his wing. Bea was completely gone, leaving only Selwyn in the office, now a former professional wrestler intent on making a comeback. And Quex became a poet. Still a big guy, perhaps, but hardly the physically-imposing giant he is in the books.
And so it went… the claptrap Renault was replaced by a classic Sunbeam Alpine Mk III, albeit only semi-restored. And another American-style lady shamus cliché popped up as well–Anna takes up jogging. As though saddling her with a cat wasn’t bad enough.
And did we really need yet another private eye waking up fumbling for a Marlboro?
I remember thinking at the time: Get back to the chip shop, Anna, and all will be forgiven.
It turns out I wasn’t the only one disappointed. The rumour is that Liza Cody stopped writing Anna Lee mysteries dead in their tracks because of the television movies, which she also saw as a major disappointment. Unfortunately, she had also sold the right to the producers for any future novels featuring Anna, and so pulled the plug on the whole series, saying that she wouldn’t supply any more and decided to focus on other projects. A regrettable but understandable decision.
That the TV shows are no longer available didn’t trouble me, but the fact the novels, too, seem to have gone out of print is a real crime. Seek them out–they’re well worth the hunt.
Meanwhile, Cody did indeed start on another project: a new series, about lady wrestler and sometime detective Eva Wylie, who made her series debut in Bucket Nut (1992), a novel in which Anna makes a cameo.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Liza Cody was born in London, and attended the City and Guilds of London Art School and the Royal Academy School of Art, supporting herself as a painter. Before turning to writing, she worked as a film studio technician, a furniture-maker, a photographer, a graphic designer and an assistant at Madame Tussauds, gluing hair onto dummies.
- “Day or Night” (2013, Deadly Pleasures)
A touching and oddly moving tribute to Anna Lee, that isn’t–of course–an actual Anne Lee story (due to legal reasons), but comes awful damn close. Collected in My People and Other Crime Stories (2021).
- Dupe (1980) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Bad Company (1983) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Stalker (1984) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Head Case (1985) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Under Contract (1986) | Buy this book
- Backhand (1992) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- ANNA LEE: HEADCASE
(1993, LWT Productions/ITV)
Later aired on “A&E Mystery Movie” October 4, 1994
Based on the novel by Liza Cody
Teleplay by Andrew Davies
Directed by Colin Bucksey
Producer: Sue Birtwhistle
A Granada/London Weekend Television Production
Starring Imogen Stubbs as ANNA LEE
Also starring Michael Bryant as Commander Brierly
Ken Stott as Bernie Schiller
Barbara Leigh-Hunt as Beryl Doyle
Edin McCarthy as Quex
and Brian Glover as Selwyn
Also featuring Alan Howard, Kate Beckinsale, Shirley Anne Field
- ANNA LEE
5 120-minutes episodes
A Carnival Films Production in association with LWT for ITV
Later aired on A&E in the U.S.
Based on the novels and characters created by Liza Cody
Writers: Andrew Davies, Douglas Watkinson, Anthony Horowitz
Directors: Colin Bucksey, Peter Barber-Fleming, Christopher King
Producer: Brian Eastman
Executive producer: Sarah Wilson
Starring Imogen Stubbs as ANNA LEE
Brian Glover as Selwyn Price
John Rowe as Commander Brierly
Peter Wight as Bernie Schiller
Wilbert Johnson as Stevie Johnson
and Sonia Graham as Beryl Doyle
Guest stars: Anthony Newley, Peter Firth, John Bird, Jesse Birdsell, Adrian Edmondson.
- “Anna Lee: Dupe”
- “Anna Lee: Stalker”
- “Anna Lee: Diversion”
- “Anna Lee: Requiem”
- “Anna Lee: The Cook’s Tale”