One of the more persistent myths about private eye dramas is that they were produced for, and consumed by, men. Even the most cursory look at the archival record shows how wrong this notion is, but closer study highlights the myriad ways conflicts over gender roles suffused the genre. Take The Adventures of Sam Spade (1946-1951), for example. The radio adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s famously hardboiled The Maltese Falcon appears to center masculine authority over both the narrative and the justice system. Behind the scenes, however, a woman calls many of the shots.
The above image, a grainy publicity photo circulated to promote the series early in its run, depicts the scene that opened most episodes: the moment when Sam returns to his office to dictate his latest case report to his loyal secretary, Effie Perrine (Lurene Tuttle). Effie may not have investigated cases with Sam (Howard Duff), but her presence still frames each episode. Indeed, as his secretary, she is arguable the author of his “capers.” This device justifies the series use of voice-over narration -an integral part of the private investigator genre – but it also makes it unclear who exactly is the author of the narrative to which we are listening. Gruff and solid, the voice-over imposes the PI’s worldview on their case. It tells us what to think and how to feel about crime. It affirms their masculine right of authorship – and therefore control – over the execution of justice. Women rarely achieve this level of control, either in film or on the radio. Or do they? After all, Sam’s is the voice we hear, but Effie is the one who actually types up the client report to which we are presumably listening. Before they reach us, Sam’s words have been doubly mediated – first when Effie takes them down on her notepad, and then again when she types them out into a coherent narrative. We have no way of knowing if Effie has embellished or downplayed the events acted out by the program’s cast. Taken to an extreme, one could argue that Sam is simply a figment of Effie’s active imagination.
The publicity photo certainly calls the notion of Sam’s authorship and control into question by depicting Sam as a dreamy, distracted figure in the background, while his more serious, active secretary, Effie studiously records his latest “caper” on a notepad in the foreground. Demurely dressed, with her eyes fixed on her work, Effie could be any conscientious secretary executing her professional duties. Sam, meanwhile, seems taken up with the power of his own narrative, a stark contrast to the photo caption’s description of him as a “hard as a ten-penny nail” private eye. We see Effie’s full face, but only part of Sam’s as he reclines in profile behind her, as though he were an incompletely formed figment of her imagination – a picture drawn by a young woman who had read too many detective novels. Or a secretary’s cynical view of her own hard work compared to her boss’s lounging attitude.
Effie is by no means incompetent at her job. Tuttle may have voiced her as an adolescent ingénue, but the sound of Effie’s fingers on the typewriter came through strong and clear in the office background whenever she sat down to write Sam’s stories.
 CBS, “Private Eye,” November 2, 1947, The Adventures of Sam Spade (radio); Photo Files, Billy Rose Theatre Division; The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
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