Created by Liza Cody
Back in the early eighties, while everyone was huffing and puffing Stateside about Sharon, Kinsey and V.I., across the pond British writer Liza Cody was writing an amazing story arc about a young female P.I.'s journey from innocence to a hard-fought world-weariness.
A great British PI and one of the very best of the female investigators, Liza Cody's ANNA LEE is a former cop turned operative for a small detective agency, Brierly Security, in London. Anna's a pretty shrewd investigator, thoroughly dedicated, quietly thorough, who seems to live for her job. She prides herself on her pragmatism and competence, and seems to have a deep-rooted wish to fix things, be they people's shattered lives or a leaky faucet in her neighbour's flat. She has a sense of humour, but it's so dry it's almost air. Mind you, with the cast of people that surround her, Anna needs whatever sense of humour works for her. She lives upstairs from the a constantly-bickering couple, the ever-sensible Bea, and the ne'er-do-well sometime poet/Andy Capp clone Selwyn. The big cheese at work, Commander Brierly himself, is a straight-laced, tight-ass who doesn't particularly think Anna's all that suitable for the job. Sitting on the Commander's side, as though he was God Almighty, is Beryl, office manager/Nazi, who has even less use for Anna, and delights in putting her in a bad light.
All in all, a vivid, well-rendered sense of time and place, and a compelling and credible hero who felt real, not assembled according to some recipe; less an homage or tribute to detective genre than a boot at the door, demanding to be let in.
"At the very beginning, as Cody explains on her web site, "all I wanted to do was to avoid my freezing, uninsulated studio, and look busy by the fire... I hadn't read a lot of detective fiction - just Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross McDonald - but I'd enjoyed the pace and the writing. I did, however, have very serious doubts about their views of women."
On top of that part of the attraction was the US itself, which seemed like an exotic location where gunplay and casual violence were plausible; not at all like England which breeds a different kind of nastiness altogether.
It made me wonder what would happen to an ordinary, competent English woman who happened to be a detective; someone who went unarmed, used the Yellow Pages a lot and got hurt when she was hit.
So I started small: I fitted an ex-police woman, Anna Lee, into a small detective agency on Kensington High Street and gave her an unimportant case. Then, sort of like a reader, I waited to see what happened.
Anna Lee's debut, Dupe, won the John Creasey Award in 1980 for Best First Novel.
A series of British made-for-television movies were produced, but hardcore fans were disappointed. The producers tried to give Anna Lee a slightly breezier sheen, perhaps with an eye to American sales. Actress Imogen Stubbs looked the part, but her take on the character was completely different from the way I picture her.
Gone was much of the freshness and charm of the character; replaced by a sort of trans-Atlantic, one-size-fits-all, non-British Britishness.
Bernie was played as a slightly goofy older op, hardly the experienced seen-it-all pro who takes Anna Lee under his wing. Bea was completely gone, leaving only Selwyn in the office, now a former professional wrestler intent on making a comeback. And Quex became a poett. Still a big guy, perhaps, but hardly the physically-imposing giant he is in the books.
And so it goes... the claptrap Renault was replaced by a classic Sunbeam Alpine Mk III, albeit only semi-restored. And another American-style lady shamus cliche popped up as well --Anna takes up jogging. As though saddling her with a cat wasn't bad enough. And did we really need yet another private eye starting with our hero waking up fumbling for a Marlboro?
I remember thinking at the time: Get back to the chip shop, Anna, and all will be forgiven.
It turns out I wasn't the only one disappointed. The rumour is that Liza Cody stopped writing Anna Lee mysteries because of the television movies. Evidently, the rights had already been purchased for any future novels. Unsatisfied with how previous books had been adapted, she said she wouldn't supply any more and decided to focus on other projects. A regrettable but understandable decision.
It's perhaps understandablre that the TV shows are no longer available, but the fact the novels, too, seem to have gone out of print is a crime. Seek them out -- they're well worth the hunt.
LIn 1993, Cody started a second series, about lady wrestler, Eva Wylie, who made her debut in Bucket Nut, a novel in which Anna makes a cameo.
Liza Cody was born in London, and attended the City and Guilds of London Art School and the Royal Academy School of Art, supporting herself as a painter. Before turning to writing, she worked as a film studio technician, a furniture-maker, a photographer, a graphic designer and an assistant at Madame Tussauds, gluing hair onto dummies.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.
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