You’re a Mean Man with a Typewriter, Sister

The Hard-boiled Lady Writers of the Pulps

The story goes that when big shot Hollywood director Howard Hawks finished reading Leigh Brackett’s 1944 crime novel No Good From a Corpse, he was blown away by the snappy patter and the rock hard prose, and figured the writer might be just who he needed for his film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. (This William Faulkner character he’d already hired just wasn’t cutting it).

“Get me that Brackett guy,” he said to his secretary.

Which proved to be a problem. Leigh Brackett was not a “guy.”

It’s hard to believe, when these days the mystery section is filled to overflowing with Lepionkas, Paretskys, Evanoviches, Chas, Lippmans and all their disciples, that hard-boiled writing used to be an almost exclusively male profession. But there were women writers in the pulps, some of them hiding behind pen names and gender-free initials and some flying free and readers be damned, but even so, they were in relatively short supply, and, like most pulp writers, are now almost totally forgotten. Some of them even contributed to Black Mask, although far more wrote more traditional mysteries, appearing in such pulps as Street & Smith’s Detective Story. Hell, some even served as editors for the pulps.

In the Pulps

  • Frances Beck
  • Leigh Brackett (New Detective, Thrilling Detective, Flynn’s Detective Fiction, Argosy)
  • Wyona Dashwood (Black Mask)
  • Miriam Allen deFord (aka “Miriam Allen’)
  • Tiah Devitt
  • Marjorie Stoneman Douglas (Black Mask)
  • Elizabeth Dudley (Black Mask)
  • Dorothy Dunn (Black Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Tales, Thrilling Detective)
  • Zale Herrington (aka Alan Farley, W. Lee Harrington; Dime Detective)
  • Eliza Mae Harvey (Black Mask)
  • Helen Holley (Black Mask)
  • K.M. Knight (actually Kathleen Moore Knight; Black Mask)
  • Kay Krausse
  • Marian O’Hearn
  • Florence M. Pettee (Black Mask)
  • Sally Dixon Wright (Black Mask)
  • Daisy Bacon
  • Fanny Ellsworth

The Hard-boiled Queens

They wrote books. Wanna make something of it?

  • Dail Ambler
    Creator of Danny Spade, New York dick of the first pulpitude. One of the longest-running series of Spillane imitators was not only British, but a woman!
  • Leigh Brackett
    Responsible for the classic novel No Good from a Corpse (1944), featuring private eye Ed Clive, as well as the co-writer of screenplays for both The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. She also wrote a handful of well-regarded tales for such pulps as New Detective and Thrilling Detective, although she never did crack Black Mask.
  • Dorothy Dunn
    Dunn was a St. Louis schoolteacher who published over sixty short stories in such hardboiled pulps as Black Mask, Dime Detective, Detective Tales, and Thrilling Detective in the forties and fifties, with such juicy titles as “Senora Satan,” “Dead-End Darling” and “Morphine Alley.” She also wrote a novel, 1950’s Murder’s Web. Her writing’s marked by “strong characterization, offbeat situations, and evocative and distinctively gritty prose,” according to Bill Pronzini in a short essay in Deadly Women.
  • Patrica Highsmith
    Her bruising and brooding psychological studies of immoral sociopaths, such as her most famous character, Tom Ripley, are among the most disturbing in crime fiction. She also wrote Strangers on a Train, which was brought to the screen by Raymond Chandler (script) and Alfred Hitchcock (director).And the 1999 film, The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Matt Damon, is definitely worth a peek.
  • Dolores Hitchens
    Wrote numerous mystery novels all over the genre, but personally I think she peaked with her two Jim Sader books, Sleep With Strangers and Sleep With Slander, which Bill Pronzini famously tagged as “the best private eye novel written by a woman — and one of the best written by anybody.”
  • Dorothy B. Hughes
    Dorothy Belle Hughes published fourteen novels, all but two within a ten-year period, from 1940-1950. Her first novels feature “upper class crime,” with elements of international intrigue. With The Fallen Sparrow (1942), she turned more toward criminal noir psychology, and both Ride the Pink Horse and In a Lonely Place were successful enough to be filmed. H.R.F. Keating prefers her later The Expendable Man (1963) in his Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books. Hughes also reviewed crime fiction extensively, published an authorized study of Erle Stanley Gardner, and received the Grand Master Award in 1978 from the Mystery Writers of America. (Contributed by Bill Hagen).
  • KT McCall
    Actually two Australian women, Audrey Armitage and Muriel Watkins, they wrote the Johnny Buchan series for Horowitz, the Australian pulp publishers, who proudly proclaimed KT McCall “Crime fiction’s best selling woman author” and described her on the back of her books as blonde, beautiful and with brains. Not that the photo was of either of the authors — actually, it was of a model from a local agency.
  • Helen Nielsen
    She spat out twisted, noirish novels and short stories, many with female protagonists, and a slew of  scripts for succh shows as Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Craig Rice
    The first mystery writer to grace the cover of Time Magazine, and one of the bestselling mystery writers of her era, this hard-boiled queen wrote the screwball antics of hard-boiled, hard-drinking lawyer John J. Malone, who thought he was a hard-boiled eye (and certainly drank like one), and countless standalones.


  • “Women in the Pulps”
    A great little essay by Bill Pronzini in Deadly Women.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith and Bill Hagen.

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