Created by Zelda F. Popkin
Pseudonym of Jenny Feinberg
“Mary looked like year before last’s debutante, last June’s bride, this year’s young matron. Prospective shoplifters, hesitating before a haul, never guessed that the pretty, well-groomed young woman in the oxford gray suit and kolinsky scarf, standing beside them at the counter, was far more interested in the behavior of their nimble fingers than in the quality of the step-ins, marked down from five-ninety-eight to three and a half. They — poor, mis-led thieves — took her at dress and face value. It was one of the secrets of her success as a minion of law and order.”
MARY CARNER is smart and tough, both analytical and intuitive, a crisply-efficient and fast-talking detective who works at Blankfort’s swanky, upscale Fifth Avenue store in New York City, in Zelda Popkins once-popular but now largely and unjustly forgotten series.
Unjustly, because Mary is, in many ways, a shining predecessor to many of today’s realistic female eyes. In many ways, she’s the grandmother of Kinsey Millhone,V.I. Warshawski and all the rest. A year before the publication of The Big Sleep, Mary was already challenging the boys’ club mentality that for so many years had soaked into the shamus game.
As part of Jeremiah Blankfort and Company’s security team, Mary’s a shrewd investigator, analytical and intuitive, and she’s no cream puff, either. She can be bracingly direct and fiercely independent. Often working undercover, posing as just another shopper, she was a real woman doing a real job in the real world. And these books aren’t some tra-la-la cozy little diversions, either — Popkins wrote sharp, tough little gems full of subtle violence and surprising wit, and wasn’t afraid to address “women’s issues.”
Mary’s creator, Zelda Popkin, did what her latter day sisters-in-crime too often get sole credit for: creating a viable, intelligent professional female detective who could hold her own in a profession and a time largely seen to be dominated by males. Sorry, boys–there are no wardrobe misfunctions here. And Popkin did it all without a womens studies program!
She pushed the envelope in another important way–besides making her protagonist a smart, savvy and competent woman, she also married her off–to a smart, savvy and competent man, Chris Whittaker. Sure, modern day readers may roll their eyes to discover Chris was her boss at Blanchard’s, but neither marriage–or later, maternity–slows down Mary. Or the author’s shrewd observations on a woman’s lot.
“Contempora was a career women’s club. Business women, editors, writers, social workers, doctors, lawyers. Glamour girls of the higher earning brackets. Important young women. Smart. That last adjective referred as much to attire as to mentality.
The “girls” dressed for their jobs as deliberately as actresses making up for a role. To be a type, to look a part. Mary Carner’s costume was a case in point.
Mary looked like year before last’s debutante, last June’s bride, this year’s young matron. Prospective shoplifters, hesitating before a haul, never guessed that the pretty, well-groomed young woman in the oxford gray suit and kolinsky scarf, standing beside them at the counter, was far more interested in the behavior of their nimble fingers than in the quality of the step-ins, marked down from five-ninety-eight to three and a half. They – poor, mis-led thieves – took her at dress and face value. It was one of the secrets of her success as a minion of law and order.”
More disappointing for me was the fact despite Mary’s job in department store security being a convenient hook for her to come upon and investigate crime, most of the books have her working as an amateur sleuth who just happens to tangentially become involved in a case–in other words, trouble isn’t her business, it’s a hobby. And the novelty of a partnership of equal partners in a marriage working together as detectives–a true rarity, then and now–soon wanes as the series progresses, and Chris and his importance in the story slowly starts to fade from view.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Popkin, was a novelist, magazine writer, publicist, and the author of fourteen books. At 17, she became the first woman general assignment reporter on the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, but left in 1917 to attend the Columbia University School of Journalism. In 1919 she married Louis Popkin, with whom she created one of the very first public relations firms in the United States. She also wrote several standalones, including So Much Blood (1944), which many consider her best work. Non-crime fiction novels include Quiet Street, Death of Innocence, Herman Had Two Daughters and Dear Once. Unfortunately, only a few of the Mary Carner books available as e-books–which is a shame, since most of the series has never been reprinted, and first editions, mostly Dell Mapbacks, are now commanding a thousand bucks or so in some places.
- “Zelda Popkin has a genuine talent for writing mystery stories.”
— The New York Times Book Review on Death Wears a White Gardenia
- “Death Wears a White Gardenia is a fabulously fun murder mystery with the right blend of genteel, light-hearted humor and big city, hardboiled attitude. Popkin does a stellar job of creating a realistic department store atmosphere with a large cast of characters. The female characters, in particular, shine in this story, from Carner to the secretaries, they come off with authentic New York City attitude, liberated working girls who know how to survive in the city and who speak their mind.”
— Cullen Gallagher (August 2020, Pulp Serenade)
- Death Wears a White Gardenia (1938) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Time Off for Murder (1940) | Kindle it!
- Murder in the Mist (1940) | Buy this book
- Dead Man’s Gift (1941) | Buy this book
- No Crime for a Lady (1942) | Buy this book
- Dangerous Dames
A Timeline of Some of the Major Female Eyes
THE DICK OF THE DAY
- June 12, 2021
The Bottom Line: The department store dick is a jane? This 30s sleuth was in five sharp, tough little gems full of subtle violence & surprising wit, and wasn’t afraid to address “women’s issues”—or get married.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.