Viewed from a contemporary perspective, it's hard to recall a time when there weren't female detectives the likes of V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, Tess Monaghan and Sharon McCone, but back in the 1930s they were almost nonexistent. As a child, I went through my fair share of Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout, among the many books read under the covers with a flashlight to circumvent the parental "go to bed" commandment. But at the time I never read or even knew of Stout's female detective Theodolinda "Dol" Bonner, who came to being in the standalone novel The Hand in the Glove in 1937, one of the very first female private eyes.
Although Stout only gave Bonner one solo outing, she also guest-starred in some of the Nero Wolfe stories, one of the few women Wolfe tolerated perhaps because she herself claimed to have been "inoculated against" men, even her suitor, the newspaperman Len Chisholm. Although The Hand in the Glove is a contemporary of the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin titles, it was written in the third person narrative, not Archie's sarcastic first-person. Even so, it still has some of the hallmark wit that graces the Wolfe/Goodwin novels. In the book, a religious charlatan has charmed the wife of wealthy industrialist, P.L. Storrs, who decides he needs a private investigator to look into the man and hires Bonner, even though he doesn't approve of female detectives. But when she arrives at Storrs' country estate, she instead finds the body of her client and a garden party filled with a bouquet of suspects.
Bonner isn't quite the fully realized, tough-as-nails P.I. of the 21st century, sending out mixed messages about her ability to do the job as a woman, perhaps mirroring the changing-but-still-traditional views of women in Stout's day. Bonner begins the novel as part of a two-woman firm, Bonner and Raffray, although the Raffray half soon dissolves, Bonner being disgusted about Raffray's submissiveness to her fiancée. Yet, Bonner concedes she herself decided to be a detective on flimsy grounds, adding, "I made a long list of all the activities I might undertake on my own. They all seemed monotonous or distasteful except two or three, and I flipped a coin to decide between detective and landscape design." Although she's a smart cookie and solves the crimes where the male detectives in the case don't, she's also squeamish about seeing corpses and faints after she shoots a criminal.
After Dol first appeared, Stout's New York editor wrote to her London counterpart, "The Hand in the Glove is doing almost as well as Nero, but whether or not there will be another Dol Bonner mystery we can't be sure." Turns out, it was twenty years later that she reappeared, as Wolfe's operative in the 1956 Too Many Detectives. Anthony Boucher noted of these later appearances, that while Bonner was Archie's age, it was Wolfe who made "sheep's eyes" at her, inviting her to breakfast and dinner and seating her at his right. The confused Archie, taken by Bonners' pretty assistant Sally Colt, wonders if "there might be some flaw in my attitude toward female dicks," and concludes, "If she hooks him and Sally hooks me, we can can all solve cases together and dominate the field."
The Thrilling Detective site noted that in 1992, NBC dusted off the rights to The Hand In The Glove and made a TV movie (under the title Lady Against the Odds) as a vehicle for actress Crystal Bernard (of the sitcom Wings), moving the setting up a few years to World War II. According to People Magazine, it was an "uninvolving and ludicrously unconvincing...turkey." Still, it did win an Outstanding Individual Achievement in Cinematography for a Miniseries or a Special for cinematographer Bradford May. So at least it looked marvelous.