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...
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