The woman born Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins wrote dozens of novels under four names: the pseudonyms D. B. Olsen, Dolan Birkley, Noel Burke, and, of course, her second married name, Dolores Hitchens. She was a prolific writer with the kind of range that might necessitate multiple pen names, traipsing around the genre with agility and bravado throughout a career that spanned decades—from the 1938 publication of The Clue in the Clay to her death in 1973. Her Rachel Murdock series, which featured a spinster detective with a feline sidekick, was an early example of the cat mystery subgenre, now firmly associated with cozy mysteries. Her two James Sader books, Sleep with Strangers (1955) and Sleep with Slander (1960), lie at the opposite end of the crime spectrum. They are moody, chewy, hard-boiled detective novels with a male private investigator protagonist.
Hitchens was not remarkable because she was a woman, but it would be willful and silly to discuss her legacy, and these novels in particular, without taking her gender into account. Even now, almost fifty years after Hitchens’s death, gender and genre remain stubbornly intertwined in crime fiction. Cozy mysteries are written, for the most part, by and for women and ignored or dismissed by male readers and critics to a proportionate degree. Meanwhile, private eye fiction is dominated by men and male archetypes, so much so that female authors in this subgenre are often defined by our difference—our work seen, if not as masculine, as explicitly counter-masculine. It is unsurprising that Bill Pronzini, in praising Sleep with Slander, described it as “the best traditional male private eye novel written by a woman” before adding, “and one of the best written by anybody.” Pronzini won the Private Eye Writers of America’s inaugural Shamus Award for Best P.I. Hardcover Novel in 1982. Only seven female writers have won this award (for a total of ten wins—three for Sue Grafton and two for S. J. Rozan).
There is certainly something traditional about James Sader—he’s a sleuth with a moral compass that doesn’t depend on law, and he deals with both femmes fatale and alcoholism. Like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer, he roams around Southern California, burning through shoe leather and pissing people off. His domain is Long Beach, “the town that had grown up from a village by the sea, a city with a hill in the middle of it, sprouting oil derricks like a forest of pins.”
We meet Sader in Sleep with Strangers, when he visits his new client, Kay Wanderley, “a slender, well-shaped girl with blonde hair.” We see him after we see her: “The man on the step was in the act of lighting a cigarette. Rain lay in his hair, which was hatless, and which also, though obviously once reddish, now had faded to a tawny rust laced with gray. He had a lean, sharp, intelligent face. The hands that cupped the match wore a look of mobile strength.”
As he tells another woman, “Detectives aren’t half as glamorous in real life as they are on TV, or in the movies,” and this is true of Sader, who fumbles through both novels without the benefit of any special charisma or genius. What he does have are the plain, well-worn tools of integrity and tenacity, scuffed by age and alcoholism. Unlike the typical boozed-up private eye, Sader is, for the most part, a sober drunk. “I’m a high-dive drinker,” he explains. “That first taste of alcohol is the same as jumping off a ten-story building. I’d like to get back up, but I can’t.” While his relationship with alcohol never takes over the story—no destructive benders, no Alcoholics Anonymous—it’s a thread that runs through both novels, taut and threatening as a tripwire. Our man is, at baseline, in a constant struggle for control, and he spends all his time running down liars, cheaters, and killers.
In Sleep with Strangers, Sader grapples with a sordid, depressing case about money and corruption that directly recalls Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. There’s a rich old man, a few young, wayward women—even a pivotal oil sump. But while his streets are just as mean, Sader is a shabbier hero than Marlowe:
He’d been young once, yes; but that was over. It was really and finally over. The bitter truth was that he was now a tired man with gray in his hair, with the beginning of a stoop, and no amount of frenzy or cunning, no wishing . . . could bring back that which had gone forever. There must be a time like this in everyone’s life, he thought numbly. When all your illusions go down the drain. When you see at last what you have lost.
Sader develops an infatuation with Kay, and in one of the novel’s wackier episodes, he more or less abducts her, taking her to Vegas to hide away and possibly marry, against her will and for what he mistakenly believes is her own good. Marlowe—who threw a young, willing, naked Carmen Sternwood out of his bed—would never have acted so desperate.
But Sader’s flaws and foibles make him a compelling character, worth following as he wanders around Long Beach looking for answers, digging until he hits the truth. He solves the case, but there’s more to it than that. His investigation leads him to a forceful confrontation with reality, as well as the pain of adapting to that reality. Kay Wanderley offers a similar theory about her missing mother: “She had a world that she loved and it fell apart, and then she was lost. She was like a child alone in the dark.”
Sleep with Slander is more or less literally about a child alone in the dark. Sader is hired by Hale Gibbings, a wealthy sixty-year-old architect, who tells him, “I need most of all an honest man. Yes . . . a kind of crook, and yet honest.” Gibbings asks him to track down a five-year-old boy being abused by an unknown party in an unknown place. Sader doesn’t trust his client and his task proves remarkably frustrating, with even the most basic facts about the child and his origins proving difficult to pin down.
There was something inside the amorphous case, a hard core he couldn’t quite get a grip on. He tried to think of a comparison and remembered something his grandmother had said once, something about a flatiron inside a feather bed. There was a flatiron somewhere inside this thing but he couldn’t find it. He just knew that it was there. A booby trap.
The case twists and plunges admirably, and through it all, Sader holds on, propelled by a simple core of decency and the fact of this suffering child: “You couldn’t endure thinking of the child’s body subjected to abuse; the tears were warm and wet, and the sobs were something you heard if you stopped to listen.” Pronzini was right: Sleep with Slander should be a classic of the private investigator genre. It has the breadth and the depth, the memorable characters, the vivid style, and the brutal emotional impact of the best hard-boiled detective fiction.
Of course, Hitchens had some of the blind spots you might expect of a white American writer of her era. Almost all of the characters in these books are white, and when they’re not, the difference is very much noted. A “chocolate-colored maid” appears and disappears within a sentence; a half-Asian supporting character in Sleep with Strangers has a larger part, but every time she shows up, we hear about her “exotic, oriental eyes.” To be fair, Long Beach was, as of the 1950 census, 97.4 percent white. These days, it’s a majority minority city that’s given us Snoop Dogg and a vibrant Cambodia Town, the largest ethnically Cambodian community outside of Cambodia. It also has a new literary sleuth: Joe Ide’s Isaiah Quintabe, a brilliant Black detective in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, presiding over the bustling life of contemporary Long Beach.
But Ide’s work doesn’t overwrite Hitchens’s any more than mine overwrites Chandler’s. Sleep with Strangers and Sleep with Slander capture a different era of Long Beach’s history, and Sader is the perfect guide—a dogged private investigator who muddles through darkness, “realizing that the city in which he had grown up had a side to it he had never known,” and shining light wherever he goes.