E. V. Cunningham built a series of novels around extraordinary women in a striking variation on the detective genre. Sometimes the leading woman is the criminal; occasionally, she is the co-investigator, the instigator, or the inspiration of the crime. Cunningham’s women may not be stunningly beautiful, but they possess an intelligence, a resourcefulness, and an honesty that makes them attractive in every sense. They may have to deal with husbands or lovers who underestimate their spirit and their capabilities, but once caught up in sometimes bizarre situations, they show pluck, courage, and wit. A typical Cunningham woman is wisecracking, tough, and honest Shirley: soft and vulnerable, at times as hard as nails, able to cope with tough cops, death threats, and complex difficulties, bright and funny, and, for the men around her, exasperating. So, too, is Sylvia, a woman of strength and beauty who began life as an abused child but who, through sheer guts and determination, fought her way into polite society, teaching herself languages, reading voraciously, and lying all the way. These women move in a comic world, with the comedy resulting from their perception of male pretensions; they are willing to play the game, to build on men’s illusions, delusions, and limitations to achieve their own ends.
In Penelope (1965), a charming socialite, independently wealthy and bored with her banker husband’s arrogant complacency, takes to theft. She plays Robin Hood to the local parish and associated charities and charms the police commissioner and district attorney, while providing the police with clue after clue to implicate herself. Ironically, their preconceptions prevent their accepting the truth even when they are confronted with irrefutable evidence.
Another character, Margie, is an innocent mistaken for a thief and then for an oil-rich countess; as a result, she is kidnapped twice and threatened with torture and murder, but somehow she remains unflappable, her whole adventure comic and resolvable.
Others, such as Phyllis, Lydia, Alice, and Helen, move in a more somber world, with loss of family, friends, and lives a real possibility. Phyllis finds her mother brutally beaten to death; Lydia sees her father pushed to suicide, her inheritance stolen, and her own life threatened; Alice’s child is kidnapped and terrorized; and Helen must confront sexual sadists. Yet amid such horrors, these women remain quick-witted and humane. Alice, for example, finds her family torn apart when she is caught up in a devilish conspiracy that results in a violent midnight rendezvous, all because a stranger clung to her husband for a second in a subway station. Sally, on the other hand, told that she has only a few months to live, hires a professional gunman to end it all quickly; when she learns that the original diagnosis was wrong, however, she is ready to fight for life and a chance at love.
Masao Masuto Series
Cunningham’s tribute to women continues in his Masao Masuto series. Masuto’s wife, Kati, participates in consciousness-raising sessions and occasionally chides her husband for his insensitivity to her and the family. Even Masuto’s belief that most detectives underestimate women and as a result miss evidence relevant to a case grants women an equality that is often missing from detective fiction. Samantha (1967) focuses on a young woman’s calculated and bloody revenge after she is raped by half a dozen young men on a Hollywood set, while The Case of the Poisoned Eclairs (1979) takes a hard look at some of the uglier costs of wealth.
Cunningham always includes people who are tinged with prejudice but convinced that they have none. He is particularly disturbed by anti-Jewish sentiments, having earlier written a semifictional biography of a Polish-Jewish financier who helped in the American Revolution, as well as a history of the Jews. The hero of The Wabash Factor (1986) is a Jewish police officer with an instinct for foul play, while Masuto’s partner is Jewish and must fight against a Nazi mentality, even in Southern California. In The Case of the Russian Diplomat (1978), Arab and German terrorists kidnap and terrorize Masuto’s daughter, assassinate a diplomat, and plan an explosion that will take hundreds of innocent lives, all to undermine the Jewish Defense League. In other works, the terrors of the Holocaust continue to affect modern events. Former Nazis, brutal, intolerant, and twisted, dominate the landscape. The villain in Lydia (1964) is a suave German actor, one of Adolf Hitler’s close associates, who blackmails his fellow Nazis living in the United States. He has no qualms about eliminating all who stand in his way.
An Antifascist Viewpoint
Furthermore, Cunningham’s strongly antifascist sentiments come across in his mysteries. The Federal Bureau of Investigation uses strong-arm tactics, intimidation, and authority to break the rules and manipulate events, and untouchable entrepreneurs and the unimaginably wealthy prove to be frauds, thieves, and murderers. Income-tax evasion leads to multiple murders, which city police are quick to cover up, and...
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