Honey West at 60
The first really successful female private eye in a series was a bimbo! Or at least frequently clothing challenged and none to swift. So says Kevin Burton Smith on The Thrilling Detective website about Honey West, created by the husband and wife team, Gloria and Forest, “Skip,” Fickling writing as G.G. Fickling.
I disagree with the bimbo appellation. Honey came along in 1957, the same year that Leave It To Beaver hit the airwaves and fifteen years before Ms Magazine landed on the newsstands. If June Cleaver was the model for the American woman, Honey West was her antithesis. She was single, independent, and kick-ass. She didn’t have and didn’t need a man to help or fulfill her. She was ahead of the sexual revolution in her sexual liberation. She took the occasional lover with no commitments.
Honey appeared in eleven novels, beginning with This Girl For Hire in 1957. She ran her solo operation, “H. West, Private Investigator” from the third floor of the Wilks Building on Anaheim and Third Streets in Long Beach, California. The “H” actually stands for “Hank,” Honey’s father, who was killed six years before the first book began. He was shot in an alley. Honey witnessed his murder and claims to want to find his killer (she never does.) She took over his office and his rolltop desk. She carries a .32 revolver in her purse and a .22 automatic in her garter. She knows judo.
There is some truth to KBS’s allegation that she was clothing challenged. She did manage to lose some or all of her clothes in nearly every book, often at the point of gun. Her good looks were part of her appeal to readers and a frequent source of comments by associates and bad guys alike. Everyone desired her. Perhaps typical of the era, her attributes and measurements are listed on the back cover of the books. (38-22-36, 5’5”, 120 pounds, taffy-colored hair, blue eyes, heart-shaped birthmark inside her right thigh.) But to call her a bimbo implies a lack of ability, which is decidedly not the case. Honey was out there knocking on doors, uncovering clues, and answering to nobody but herself. She could take a clip on the jaw or a knock on the head and give back more than she took. Men who tried to disparage her abilities received the lash of her sharp tongue.
The Ficklings describe Honey as a combination of Marilyn Monroe (who was also seen as a bimbo, but was not) and Mike Hammer. Richard S. Prather, creator of the Shel Scott series, was a friend of the Ficklings. It was he who urged them to write a female P.I. along the lines of Shel Scott. This was the era of the goof-ball P.I. and the stories took some outlandish turns.
The breakout for Honey came when she appeared in an episode of Burke’s Law in 1965. This was followed by the Honey West TV series created by Aaron Spelling and starring Anne Francis. The series ran for 30 episode (30 minutes, black and white) in 1965/1966. It lasted only one season because it was up against stiff competition from Gomer Pyle, USMC.
Anne Francis was curvaceous and blonde, the exact image of Honey as described in the books. She first came to this writer’s attention in the sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet, in which she portrayed Andromeda, the scientist’s beautiful and virginally naïve daughter. As Honey, she was outfitted in slinky catsuits and evening gowns, given high-tech, James Bondish gear such as lipstick microphones, tear gas earrings, and garter belt gas masks. She drove a Cobra sports car and had a pet ocelot named Bruce. The sexual innuendo was toned down for TV, but viewers were regularly treated to seeing a sensual blonde woman toss bad guys over her shoulder.
Even though the show last only a season, it broke ground for other shows such as Police Woman and Charlie’s Angels. Honey West was the first woman detective to appear as the central character in an American television series. The series was also an early pioneer in the co-merchandising department. There were Honey West games and Honey West dolls—Barbie-like creations with sleuthing clothes and accessories.
The stories don’t hold up well today, anymore than Leave It To Beaver holds up. But they are still fun glimpses at a pre-feminist world, and Honey is a delight to spend time with. She still kicks ass.
The Honey West books
• This Girl For Hire (1957)
• A Gun For Honey (1958)
• Girl On The loose (1958)
• Honey in the Flesh (1959)
• Girl on the Prowl (1959)
• Kiss for a Killer (1960)
• Dig a Dead Doll (1960)
• Blood and Honey (1961)
• Bombshell (1964)
• Stiff As a Broad (1971)
• Honey on Her Tail (1971)