Tales of female derring-do are few and far between. Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel, two of fiction's better-known "macho" ladies, are, sadly, past their salad days. Women looking for swashbuckling role models find themselves stuck with Mary Cunningham.
Now along comes an idea that almost -- but not quite -- succeeds as a book: In "Hannie Richards," Hilary Bailey looks back to John Buchan's gentleman-adventurer Richard Hannay, first featured in "The Thirty-Nine Steps" (1915). Obviously delighted by the possibilities, she turns him into "a tall attractive woman in her thirties with dark brown eyes and dark red hair," who smuggles any sort of contraband -- even human beings -- to earn the cash needed to keep her home-loving husband and twin daughters comfy down on the family farm.
Hannie paints her toenails, endures her hypochondriacal mother, bets at dog tracks, keeps her lovers at arm's length and has her closest relations with the friends with whom she shares drinks and intimacies at the Hope Club, "a haven for women in the heart of London" and the place she rests between cases. After all, British popular fiction is full of gentlemen's clubs and the tales told therein.
"My big advantage," announces Hannie in the Hope Club as the book opens, "is that I can disguise myself as a woman, which, in most societies, means that no one notices you." This, to be sure, is a succinct rendering of the premise that fueled the imaginations of the very first writers who created female sleuths in the 19th century. It has been a staple notion ever since.
But Bailey is not content with merely taking this concept and using it to transform a particular tradition that heretofore had placed women mostly on the sidelines. Instead, she adds a polemical note to the proceedings, and Hannie Richards becomes less a heroine to thrill to and more a vehicle for clunky feminist rhetoric.
If, for instance, there's mild wit to be had in the episode where Hannie is engaged to retrieve a mysterious African child, who or may not be a new messiah, from a dangerous famine area, it's buried under the message Bailey insists on spelling out. The peaceful youngster, whom Hannie dubs "Bob," turns out to be a girl when examined by the papal representatives who'd charted her birth but weren't counting on this development. This is clever and unexpected, but Bailey then goes a step further and has "Bob" begin menstruating seconds before she's to meet her guardians-to-be. The squeamishness of Cardinal Riordan provides Hannie with the chance for an angry speech:
"You've had women saints. Jesus was born of a woman. I don't think this should upset you -- you look as if you'd lost a shilling and found sixpence. What's wrong with women, anyway? Half the world is women. Your position is -- you want a Saviour, but only if he's a man, not a nasty, bleeding woman. You make me sick . . . Who told you God was a man anyway?"
And, not long after this outburst, Hannie learns to her anguish that Adam, her husband, is leaving her for another woman. "Why not?" she rages in the Hope Club. "Why not -- that's what I'm asking. Why can't you win? Why do you have to choose between life and men every . . . time? Why do they want everything? Why do they eat your life?"
Calmer, she muses, "It must have been like being married to a commando. What did it was the summer -- he asked me to stay at home and have another child. I said not yet. In a year or two, I said, when I'd done a few more jobs, built up a reserve of cash. Like a gangster film, isn't it? The wife pleads with her husband to give up the game, and he says, 'One more job, just one more. It'll set us up for life.' "
One more job is, in fact, what she takes on -- both to distract herself from Adam's betrayal and in order to have enough money to fight for custody of her children. But it's an undertaking more reckless than usual and, forgoing her customary caution, Hannie watches events take one wrong turn after the next and soon winds up in a Rio jail cell, framed for smuggling drugs.
Rescue comes after five dreary weeks, in the person of a fellow adventurer enlisted by the women back at the Hope Club to get her out. And herein lies a problem it's hard to get around: If a Travis McGee figure is still necessary to ride in and save the damsel in distress, no matter how much he admires her as his professional equal, what's it all been about?
With so much other table-turning, here was a perfect opportunity to have a woman gallop up and untie a man from the railway trestle, and yet Bailey funked it. All I can say is, it would have been more entertaining, not to mention a more effective piece of feminist literature, if she'd skipped the speeches and let Hannie have this final bit of glory.