Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards
Katherine Pangborn can host a dinner party, play the piano, ride a horse, and coordinate a wardrobe for any occasion. But after the stock market crash of 1929, and her father's subsequent suicide, she's reduced to living as a boarder in her childhood home on Bunker Hill. Desperate for money, she lands a job working as a secretary for Dexter Theroux, a boozy Los Angeles PI, and spends most of her workday trying to make his operation look semi-respectable. No longer Miss Katherine, she's Kitty now, and Kitty takes the Red Car.
When the book begins, the voluptuous red-haired Rita Heppelwaite strolls in, and pays Dex to tail her married boyfriend, the newly moneyed Harrison Dempsey. Dex and Kitty find a body in Dempsey's tub, and assume the worst. But when the body disappears, and Dempsey's widow tells them that their supposed corpse was in San Francisco at his estimated time of death, the plot thickens considerably.
The lit, though likeable, Dex is no match for this case, and Kitty shakes loose the vestiges of her finishing school upbringing to reveal a woman capable of wily and resourceful detecting.
In a recent interview, Richards said:
“I spent a chunk of time a few years ago reading a lot of the classics of noir fiction. Hammett’s work from the 1930s. Chandler’s early stuff. Even some Damon Runyon and some Ross Macdonald. And I lifted my head from it realizing that the lifestyle described was completely impossible. The way those guys drank and carried on – especially Hammett’s detectives, and Chandler’s – it was simply not possible for them to have solved any of those cases on their own."
And it's true. Boozing aside, Philip Marlowe spends a good hunk of each Chandler novel getting knocked out. There had to be some plucky young assistant out there digging up the hot leads while our hero sat in the office nursing an Alka-Seltzer with a steak on his eye.
When she's not trailing shady broads through underground casinos, Kitty is also a captivating and insightful narrator. Though saddened by what the Depression has cost her, she is also aware that it's provided her with a unique opportunity to forge a life outside the constraints of the upper classes. Her finishing school classmates may be jaunting off to Europe, but their lives aren't half so exciting as Kitty's.
Despite its fair share of gangsters, gun shots, and jaded dames, Death Was the Other Woman doesn't have a gritty neo-noir feel. It's a caper story, more Nick and Nora than Sam Spade. But what it sacrifices in dark gloom, it makes up for in good fun.
If you liked...: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett or Die a Little by Megan Abbott, this book is for you.