Women Make the Best Detectives

David Corbett

Due to conflicting family obligations, Allison and I have exchanged posting days this week. I’m appearing today, and Allison will appear this Wednesday.

In my fifteen-plus years as a private investigator, I had the opportunity to work with numerous detectives, men and women both, but in retrospect I find myself particularly impressed with the latter.

Perhaps that’s because the qualities they brought to the profession weren’t the ones usually associated with it: toughness, intimidation, bravura. Their talents lay elsewhere, and turned out to be perfectly suited to the business.

Three women specifically stick out in my memory.

The most famous, and the materfamilias for the others, is Sandra Sutherland, who was my boss, along with her husband Jack Palladino. Together they lent their names to arguably the best investigation firm west of the Mississippi at the time: Palladino & Sutherland.

Jack was a Bostonian, raised by a shipyard worker, street-smart and book-smart too (brilliant, really, an encyclopedic mind), flamboyant and ambitious, a bully to some but that’s a compliment to others, especially in that field. He’s Sicilian, I’m Irish, and we spent the first year-and-a-half testing each other’s tempers, then settled down into a solid working rapport.

But this about Sandra and she was something else—a diffident Australian, former journalist, single mom (until she married Jack), arch-lefty to the bone, anti-authoritarian and literary and gentle by nature but fiercely proud, savagely loyal—crossing her was madness—and voraciously hungry for the story beneath the story. She was perhaps best renowned for spearheading the firm’s efforts in the Michael Jackson Case.

Some of the things that made her brilliant could not be taught, though in observing them I did lift a few pointers for the old trick bag. She relied on her intuition about witnesses with uncanny insight, knowing what to say, when to say it, and most importantly when to stop.

I once read a government transcript of a secret taping by an informant in a drug case in which Sandra, appearing at his door as background for a grand jury defense, tried to engage him in admissions about events he was concealing from his handlers. She played the dithering blond thing to perfection, priming the pump with harmless anecdotes about this suspect or that (most of them our clients), offering sly little openings for the snitch to fall into, which he did. Liars can’t help but brag. Sandra knew that, knew it in her core.

She taught me that my most essential tool was my own personality, my instincts, my ability to put people at ease. The rest was the easy stuff. Without the gift of being able to get people to open up, though, you were useless.

The second woman who astonished me was Melody Ermachild, another P&S investigator until she launched off to start her own firm with Barry Simon (yes, back then women needed a man in the frame to legitimize their “toughness”).

Melody shared Sandra’s essentially gentle spirit — a perhaps counter-intuitive quality for a detective of either sex — which is what made them both such sly interrogators: People trusted them. And she shared Sandra’s core moral sympathy for the underdog. But that sympathy felt more grounded in Melody—perhaps because of her longtime Buddhist practice—and that was the impression she gave you: This woman is fundamentally decent but also centered, strong, smart.

I worked with Melody on the second People’s Temple Trial. She’d been one of the key investigators in the first go-round, which ended in a hung jury. She’d  gone off to form her own firm by the time the second trial commenced, and so we divvied up witnesses for the reconnection necessary to make sure, in the event courtroom appearances were necessary, the Temple survivors were up for it.

This was no small matter. These people were devastated. They had been betrayed by one of the most monstrous religious con men in the history of America, seen their personal histories of abuse and their thirst for social justice turned hideously against them, watched themselves and their families manipulated and brainwashed into unspeakable privations and ultimately death, only to become pariahs to anyone who learned they’d once been associated with the temple. They needed to be coaxed gently into the light. Many refused. I met with witnesses in ghetto coffee shops, condemned buildings, prison—and the Berkeley fourplex where, unknown to me at the time, my wife-to-be also lived in an upstairs apartment.

None of my successes would have been imaginable, frankly, without Melody. She’d paved the way, meeting with many of them in the first round of interviews, building a bridge of trust with these brutalized people that I relied upon each and every time. She was meticulous, thorough, determined, resourceful—but her greatest asset was her simple humanity. She inspired me not just professionally. I think I became a better person, a better man, because of working on that case, working with her.

Melody is also the author of two wonderful books: Altars in the Streets: A Courageous Memoir of Community and Spiritual Awakening, and Meena: Heroine of Afghanistan.

The last of the three women I want to discuss was also an operative at P&S, but she never went on to glory in the field, never formed her own firm. She in fact left the business shortly after I came on board, moved to New Hampshire (if I recall correctly) and opened a boutique. Her name was Bonnie Ferro, and she was a tiny redhead with paprika freckles and an infectious laugh. I remember her precisely because she wasn’t an investigator by nature—no dogged insistence on the truth, no fierce sense of justice, no uncompromising allegiance to the underdog. She was just brave.

I can’t even recall the name of the case now, but it involved the murder of a Cow Hollow woman whose remains were so water-logged by the time they were found, wrapped in a sleeping bag in the bay, that the brightness of her recently manicured nails stood out as the one recognizably human feature on her corpse.

We were hired by the defense team for her husband, a mousy accountant, who was charged with her murder. The investigation led us to a seedy hotel on Market Street, where there resided a trio of young men with suspiciously precise knowledge of the murder. Bonnie went in undercover to befriend them, get them to open up to her, living in this fleabag SRO for three weeks until she thought she’d go mad. But she didn’t go mad. She got the goods.

And yet that success did not induce a hunger for more. She recognized that, unlike Sandra and Melody, she had no core longing for the work. But she didn’t pack it in until after she’d done the job asked of her, as disturbing and dangerous as it was.

These three were by no means the only women investigators at P&S who also worked hard and well and inspiringly: Stephanie Voss, Jacqui Tully, Dee Modglin, I remember them as well. And though Nancy Pemberton, another San Francisco PI, never worked for P&S, I know Nancy well, know her work—her professionalism, her integrity, her determination and profound sense of morality—and if I were in trouble I’d want her on my team.

As for fictional private investigators? Sadly, there I prefer a man: His name is Jackson Brodie, and he’s the most imaginatively, convincingly and profoundly fleshed-out investigator I’ve ever come across in the pages of a novel. Some consolation: his creator is, indeed, a woman: Kate Atkinson, a literary novelist who turned her hand to writing a detective and struck gold. I’m sure some wag would say her books “transcend the genre,” but that’s a phrase only used by pedants and lit-crit fetishists who wouldn’t know “the genre” and if it came up and bit off their . . .

But I digress.

* * * * *

So, chime in on your favorite women detectives, flesh-and-blood or fictional. I don’t mean women cops, like Jane Tennison pictured above, but private investigators. 

Do the fictional women PIs you love possess the same traits I found in my real-life avatars — specifically, gentleness of spirit, simple humanity, integrity — or are they obliged to bring more traditionally masculine traits to the game? 

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: The late great Solomon Burke, joining Italian rock legend Zucchero in a rocking stomping bit of bilingual Gospel-soul called Diavolo in Me (I Got the Devil in Me) — and I do.

Please abide about the first 40 seconds or so — the track is live, with introductions, etc. — then get ready to boogie with your bibles and jump up for Jesus — CRANK IT UP!:


27 thoughts on “Women Make the Best Detectives

  1. Reine

    I wanted to say Hilary Tamar, who I truly believe is a woman, but then thought that – well if she is a closeted female do I really want to put that out there? Then, of course is the question of whether or not she's a detective or a lawyer . . . both, right? But she could be a he? OK, I'm going to say her, because if she is a man, then Caudwell wouldn't have written her that way? I mean she must have an idea who Hilary is, or else I have to say Helen Mirren, but I guess that doesn't make a lot of sense either . . . um . . . given your character rule-out. So I will go with Kay Scarpetta because she does Boston really well, and I want her kitchen and house on Tory row.

  2. PK the Bookeemonster

    I know there will be mentions of Grafton, Barnes, and Muller. But I will say Janet Dawson's creation, Jeri Howard, a private investigator in Oakland, California, is one of my favorites. Dawson wrote 9 books between 1990 and 2000. I loved the straight forward, factual, building upon clues narration — the type of storytelling I like about Law and Order. Being a PI is a business and you do your job.
    Dawson released a new book a couple months ago after a hiatus of 11 years and I was thrilled but I didn't like this new one as much because it seemed there was too much info dumping.
    Side note- favorite female cop: Eve Dallas.

  3. Jake Nantz

    I gotta go with Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan, with a secondary nod to our own Zoe Sharp's Charlie (bodyguard, PI, sometimes it blurs in fiction y'know?). Awesome post David. Awesome.

  4. David Corbett

    Reine: Wanting the kitchen of your favorite woman PI is a giveaway of some sort. I’m just not sure of what. Beyond that, I must confess that I’m not familiar with Hilary Tamar – my apologies — and so the sexual identity conundrum you pose was completely outside my field of play. A little help?

    PK: I’m glad you gave Janet her props. She’s a wonderful writer who deserves a much broader readership.

    Jake: Yes, I think Charlie is great too, but it is a strange little niche, the bodyguard thing. I wrote a bodyguard hero in my third novel, BLOOD OF PARADISE, and was amazed the book was nominated for a Shamus. I didn’t realize it qualified.

    That said, the issue of weapons is an interesting one, at least in real-life PIs. Tink Thompson, one of the best male private investigators I ever knew, said, “I don’t carry a gun. I don’t need one, and I don’t like what they do to people.” A PI’s job is far more similar to a journalist’s than a cop’s – which is why Tess Monaghan is such a great representation of the breed. Your job is to find out. You don’t need to control anybody. If things get tense, you back off. You learn to persist without being threatening. Which, again, is why women are so good at the job.

    Alafair: As usual succinct, and to the point. A trifecta!

    I’m heading out to the gym, will be back in the saddle in about 2 hours. Don’t forget to sanctify, sanctify, sanctify your soul (i.e., check out the vid).

  5. Allison Brennan

    I'm glad we switched days, because yesterday my 7 year old told me it was the "best day EVER" but that best day ended with me crashed early, exhausted.

    What a fabulous post. I think men and women compliment each other because each gender brings different skill sets (assume both are already smart and competent.) I particularly liked your story about Sandra because immediately I thought, husband and wife P.I. firm! What a series! 🙂 … and now I know why Stephanie Zimbalist had to have Pierce Brosdan as the figurehead in REMINGTON STEELE when she did all the work.

    I think you nailed it in that people put their shields down with women. Men also tend to be very linear thinkers (which is a plus in many situations) while women tend to pull in everything at once and be able to switch it up based on the physical and emotional reaction of the people around them. I just hate to make generalizations because there are always exceptions.

    I read a lot of great characters, and can't pick just one. Hmm, thinking about it I don't read a lot of books about P.I.s–I wonder why? The books I read tend to mostly have law enforcement related characters. I need to broaden my reading, because off the top of my head, Elvis Cole is the only P.I. I can think of outside of Lippman's Tess. My mom loves Kinsey, however. Oh! Linda Barnes's Carlotta Carlyle series. I don't think she's writing anymore, but I really enjoyed those books. And Karen Kijewski who wrote the Kat Colorado series, but isn't doing those anymore.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi David

    I agree Charlie occupies a 'strange little niche' but to a certain extent she is all about finding out the truth as much as simply being a bullet-catcher. Thanks for the vote of confidence, though, Jake.

    Female PIs? What about Robert B Parker's Sunny Randall?

  7. Sandy

    V.I.W., Kinsey, Maisie
    And, David, I must say that I admire not only your eye but also your ability to translate what it sees into what we see.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post, David. Fascinating. You've LIVED, brother.
    Now you've got me wanting to get in there, get my hands dirty, live the life of a PI. Damn, but have you romanticized it. You offer a unique perspective, having actually done what you write. Who else would know so well the traits needed to be an exceptional PI, and why? I've learned a few things from your blog today – thank you.

  9. Louise Ure

    Hi D,

    I only met Sandra once but am in wholehearted agreement with your depiction of her. What a wonderful woman … and P.I.

  10. David Corbett

    Allison: I’m glad we switched too, if only so you could hear your 7-year-old crow your praises, even if you were half asleep when you heard them.

    You outed yourself as a Classical Liberal recently – i.e., a libertarian conservative – and there’s an old understanding that PI novels tend to lean left, cop novels lean right. That may explain your preference. Cops are about re-establishing order. PIs normally unearth corruption – and corruption invariably involves the powerful. (Speaking of overbroad generalizations.)

    Then again, you may just like cop stories because, well, you tell me. (Why do I detect a distinct flavor of foot in my mouth?)

    One of the reasons Reacher has achieved such iconic status is that he’s neither cop nor PI, neither right nor left – or rather, he’s all things to all readers. He’s the plains gunman with the heart of gold.

    Sandy: Why thank you!

    Stephen: Well, I don’t know that being a PI means I’ve lived any more than the next guy. You find people, you get them to talk to you, you write it up and hand it over to the lawyer. If the witness gets called at trial, you’ll be doing a lot of babysitting (another reason women are great at the job, btw – I’m not being flip here. Handholding trial witnesses is incredibly and subtly demanding).

    There was still a certain amount of vicarious living in the job. I didn’t fly cocaine in from Mexico or bring tons of pot and hash in by ocean-going tug from Thailand – my clients did. I didn’t kill my parents for the insurance money, molest adoring boys or conduct the largest fraud in French corporate history at the time – the guys I was after did. But yeah, I played an active part in the curious pastime known as civil and criminal litigation. It’s a contact sport.

    Louise: I didn't know you'd met Sandra. Interesting. Was it research for a book or just one of those things?

    I notice that no one has plumbed the question I find most interesting — are fictional women PIs like their real-life counterparts, or are they obliged to be more kick-ass, i.e., male, to appeal to a broader audience? V.I. seems to me sometimes to be Elvis Cole in drag.

    And come on — didn't anybody dig the video? (Sheesh …)

  11. Allison Brennan

    I think you nailed it, David — and why I love Jack Reacher so much 🙂 I like law and order … but I hate corruption. I respect authority, but have a HUGE problem when authority is abused (and tend to believe that "absolute power corrupts absolutely.") In fact, when those in power abuse that position (i.e. teachers abusing students; politicians taking bribes/using authority for favors–or think they can do anything because they're "powerful"; cops being overly violent; fathers/step-fathers sexually abusing children … the list goes on … I see red, hence my love of vigilante stories. But as a libertarian, any abuse by those in power is practically an act of war 🙂

  12. David Corbett

    Allison: I'm glad you brought that up. I didn't mean to suggest it was an either-or kinda thing: Conservatives love order and liberals alone loathe corruption. Or put this way: Conservatives tolerate corruption and liberals can do just fine with chaos. Um, no.

    It's more of an emphasis than a box into which certain writers or books absolutely do or not belong. The fact that cops believe in order and represent a certain type of authority makes some liberals queasy — or bored. Just as screw-ups facing the obvious consequences of their own immorality (i.e., noir) is a yawn or a waste of time to a lot of conservatives.

    And yet, I see my friends of various political stripes crossing these lines all the time, and liking books I'd never expect they would.

    Because people are kind subtle and complicated. Sometimes.

  13. Reine

    Zoëëëëëëëëëë, I totally should have said Charlie who is my hero. Still reading book-the-first, though, because I can't afford a new quaddie-book-holder-stand thing to read while reclining in chair (recall my old tilt-a-whirl). I have made it through chapter 4+ a few lines at a time. Refuse to read book-the-second first, even though it's an e-book and downloaded already, y'know?

    David, you've just explained my cousin Tommy Troy to me. I was very close to him as a child, then family shit happened. I grew up knowing him as the detective son of a murdered Boston cop who retrieved me from his then current duty station in the North End. Years went by that I had no idea he'd gone back to school nights and become a lawyer. He was actually my father's cousin, so my grandmother was his aunt. It was a bit hard for some in the family to get a hold on how Tommy could have gone from Boston police detective on the same force as his father when killed in the line of duty, to criminal defense lawyer. I adored him. He was funny. He loved my grandmother and Auntie-Mom.

  14. Reine

    I did reunite with Tommy when, at the tender age of 45, I returned to graduate school in Boston. I'd seen him before that, but he was at such odds with my father most of his life (as was I) we often did not end up in the same place at the same time until after my father's death.

  15. Reine

    And – as long as non-detective detectives are a go here – I must say I LOVE Madeline Dare! So completely extraordinarily ordinary, like and unlike, alike.

  16. Reine

    OK, maybe that didn't sound right about Madeline . . . she is so into the right and wrong of life – into the making right of the wrong, that is – in her life, as it visits her . . . just love that. Go Cornelia.

  17. David Corbett


    I think Zoé's Charlie has the pluck, savvy and almost cutthroat sense of justice we all want in a heroine, and Madeline's crackling humor is what makes her such a gem. I agree, they both belong high on our list.

    As for Tommy Troy — great name — he reminds me of Richie Roberts in AMERICAN GANGSTER, who went from hunting Frank Lucas to representing him. Cops who get juandiced by the BS the job inevitablt entails — or who have a background with abusive authority figures — often turn around and become white knights for the underdog. They're fighters. And they hate bullies.

  18. Reine

    He did pretty well, too. And I miss him:

    This story ran on page E07 of the Boston Globe on 2/15/2000.

    "Thomas Troy, flamboyant lawyer defended 'Boston Strangler'; at 70

    By Tom Long, Globe Staff, 2/15/2000

    Thomas C. Troy of Reading, a flamboyant defense attorney whose
    clients included ''Boston Strangler'' Albert DeSalvo, died Saturday at
    the Lahey Clinic. He was 70.

    Also among Mr. Troy's clients was William Douglas, the Tufts University
    professor convicted of killing prostitute Robin Benedict.

    His forte was working a jury. He was a consummate courtroom showman who
    alternately played the engaging buffoon and the vicious cross-examiner.

    He was born on Meridian Street in East Boston in 1930, two weeks after
    his father, a Boston police detective, was shot dead while making an
    arrest in the South End.

    He served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War.

    Like many members of his family, he became a police officer, joining
    the Wilmington force when he was 20. ''Law enforcement, as far as I'm
    concerned is the oldest, most honorable profession known to man,'' he
    said in a story published in the Boston Phoenix on March 11, 1986.

    After four years on the Wilmington force, he became a patrolman for the
    Metropolitan District Commission and was stationed in Brighton. It was
    as a police prosecutor for the commission that he got his first taste
    of courtroom work. ''I enjoyed it and I won most of the times against
    lawyers,'' he said in 1986. ''I happen to be good at it, but then I'd
    be good at selling cars – new or used, '' he said.

    In 1961, he injured his back in a crash in a police cruiser. It forced
    him to retire from police work.

    He became a private investigator and studied nights. He graduated from
    Coolidge College and Portia Law School.

    Mr. Troy's courtroom antics earned him a reputation as a rogue. It was
    an image he cultivated. ''I never say anything I don't at least
    partially mean,'' he said. ''I always knew how far I could go.''

    He estimated that he won 95 percent of his cases . . . ."

  19. Allison Davis

    David, sorry I missed this yesterday (working, being a lawyer)…fabulous. Love Solomon Burke, saw him at Jazz Fest in all his extravagence and largeness…someday you really must come to Jazz Fest and sit in the Gospel Tent, it is a sinularly fabulous experience.

    I like mixing up the qualities — love tender male dectectives and tough women detectives (and cops) and so go back and forth. Would have loved to had your background but even in my job, I watch women lawyers and men lawyers and there are different styles. In your face as opposed to engaging the enemy. I'm known as the tough adversary (she's a bitch) but also some of my best friends are opposing counsel. All interesting dynamics.

    In times of stress, Nancy Drew is my favorite PI…when I'm really reading, VI most favorite to read, but there are several others — and many piled next to my bed TBR.

    Sounds like Reine should write that book about Tommy…I love that story.

  20. David Corbett


    I second your motion on writing Tommy's story.

    And yeah, it takes all kinds. Your world and mine aren't that different (as you know).

    Peace out:

  21. Reine

    Thank you, Allison. Thank you, David. You've given me the focus for my new WIP that I've been looking for. I've been wanting to get the focus away from me while telling the story. As I write in the first person, that can get sticky. Tommy it is, then.

  22. PD Martin

    Back from Hawaii and catching up!

    Can we go into TV?? For some reason, reading your post and the comments took me back a few years (or maybe decades). Yes, Nancy Drew and Famous Five but I can't get Charlie's Angels or Hart to Hart out of my head. Daggy, 70s, but true! And I'm sure if I watched them now I'd cringe that the females weren't stronger, but that's where my memories took me for some reason.


Comments are closed.