Thursday, August 11, 2011

Pulp Magnet: Honey West



Honey West  – the nerviest, curviest P.I. In Los Angeles first appeared in1957's This Girl for Hire , a light-hearted romp of a pre-Buffy/post-noir detective novel that was liberally packed with sexual innuendos the way that the classic Thin Man movies made casual and off-hand references to drinking. Headstrong, gorgeous and sensuous, Honey West started out as a sexy girl detective searching for the bad guy(s) who killed her father, Hank West. The first female private detective in popular fiction, she solved a number of cases, despite regularly getting in over her head and was often rescued or assisted by her boyfriend Johnny Doom. 

Honey is undoubtedly most memorable for her having a lot of trouble keeping her clothes on, sort of like Modesty Blaze, only Honey came first and she wasn't a spy/secret agent in the novels. A glamorous modern-day femme fatale for hire, Honey West is a liberated woman who knows what she likes “...masculine men, martinis on the rocks, fast cars, black silk stockings, water skiing, rare steaks, Hemingway, Roquefort salads, dancing, sour cream and chives, apple turnovers and baseball.” She's a seductive and exciting blend of Marilyn Monroe and Mike Hammer, and the lady has no problem going after whatever she wants. The essay 'Private Eyeful' by Laura Wagner is perhaps one of the best introductions to and examinations of Honey West available. 

The character of Honey West was invented by the husband and wife writing team of Gloria and Forest Fickling, who went by the pseudonym 'G.G. Fickling.' The Ficklings were friends of Richard Prather, creator of the Shell Scott series. Some writers have asserted that Prather was involved in the early development of the Honey West character; however, Gloria Fickling sets the record straight on that score in the article 'Double Trouble: Honey West & Her Stylish Creator, Gloria Fickling,' by Kevin Burton Smith. In this post-Buffy world where strong women are all over the media it is slightly bizarre to read about all the resistance and trouble the Ficklings ran into when first trying to launch Honey West.

So, despite urban legends to the contrary, Honey West was not some sort of feminized version of Prather's Shell Scott. She is, was and always will be her own woman. The Fickling's were, however, very much inspired by the real-life actress Julie London, whom they credited in the foreword to the eighth Honey West novel Blood and Honey.

The article 'Double Trouble: Honey West & Her Stylish Creator, Gloria Fickling,' by Kevin Burton Smith details the process of Honey West's creation, as told by Gloria Fickling herself. These days it's easy to take a strong female character like Ellen Ripley, Buffy, Nikita, or V. I. Warshawski for granted, but back in 1957 no one would touch the character of Honey West with a ten foot pole. The Ficklings went through a lot to finally get Pyramid Press to take a gamble on the first female private eye in popular fiction. 

The paperback series ran from 1957 to until 1971 and consists of 11 novels -- plus one guest appearance in the Fickling's other paperback detective series, Eric March — in the novel Stiff as a Broad (1971). A very good examination of the Honey West novels is Gary Warren Niebuhr's 'A Fresh Look at Honey West' at the Mysteryfile site.


Aaron Spelling brought Honey West to ABC television in the fall of 1965 and for 30 half-hour episodes, the one and only Anne Francis took on the role. Francis brought a lot of class to the role and really made it work. The TV show upgraded Honey, giving her a new boyfriend (no longer Johnny Doom, but rather Sam Bolt, a supporting character from Burke's Law), a pet ocelot named Bruce, and a number of James Bond-like gadgets such as an exploding compact; some dangerous earrings; and a lipstick microphone. Of course, on the TV show, Honey tended to keep her clothes on a bit more than in the books. Unfortunately, the Honey West TV series ran against Gomer Pyle, USMC and only lasted one season. All the changes to the character might not have done her any favors either as each gimmick and gadget took things away from the original premise and had a tendency to make the show look like an imitator of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., or The Avengers, and unfortunately for Honey, Emma Peel won that somewhat unfair contest, despite Anne Francis winning a Golden Globe for her performance on the series.

Everything you need to know about the Honey West TV Series is covered in the book by John C. Friedrikson: Honey West, (Paperback, 2009) Bear Manor Media (ISBN-10: 1593933460 / ISBN-13: 978-1593933463)

But Honey West isn't through with us just yet. Not by a long shot.

Moonstone Books recently brought Honey West back in a comic series written by Trina Robbins and Elaine Lee, featuring the art of Cynthia Martin, Ronn Sutton, and covers by Malcolm McClinton, and Lee Moyer, with alternate covers featuring classic photos of Anne Francis from the 1965 TV series or stunning new photos of model Hollis Mclachlan .

A special Honey West Commemorative Issue combining the first two issues of the Moonstone Honey West comic series, a new short prose story by Will Murray, a new Anne Francis bio, and a new Anne Francis tribute essay in one sleek & classy package has been released to honor the passing of Anne Francis. Moonstone is reportedly working on a Honey West anthology, as well as a possible crossover between Honey West and T.H.E. Cat. Maybe Moonstone or someone else might consider doing a Honey West / Emma Peel cross-over someday...

Far from being done and over with, that sultry private eye-full Honey West is only just getting started.

Pulp Magnet - Honey West by Jim Garrison. 

7 comments:

  1. There is a comic Honey West-T.H.E Cat crossover coming, and then I'm penning a Honey West-T.H.E. Cat prose tale for the Moonstone anthology.

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  2. I am So looking forward to your Honey West-T.H.E. Cat cross-over(s), Mr. Eckert. The characters should play off of one another really well. I still have some notes on-hand for a follow-up/Part Two to this article, and would love to include some details about your cross-over for Moonstone!

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  3. Although I shouldn't really comment on other people's gambles - especially in retrospect - I can't help thinking that anyone turning down the Honey West concept back in the late '50s was showing a lack of imagination.

    As we see here, there was plenty could be done to make a female character attractive to the audience, and even to create - or rather reveal - a new audience to suit the idea.

    Innovation that sticks seems very much about allocating funds to a probable loser - in a sense writing those funds off - but altering the conventional approach to presentation and promotion in any way that might be necessary to make the new thing succeed. Where's the harm in a large firm with a steady income gambling like this on the side? If not the future, continuity of operation at least may well demand the sacrifice.

    Very informative post - of course. This is as good as the best of the NetherWerksite Old School Heretic.

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  4. I wonder if Honey was an inspiration to the more explicit Cherry Delight and Lady from L.U.S.T novels of the late sixites and seventies?

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  5. Hi Porky!
    Honey West was ahead of her time, in some respects. The interview with Gloria Fickling that I linked to up above (and Here again) was truly eye opening. Nobody would touch the first novel with a ten foot pole. The very notion of a woman private eye was deemed unworkable. But the Ficklings knew better, and inevitably, Honey West kicked open the door and made it possible for characters/concepts like Charlies' Angels, Police Woman, and even Buffy to get a shot at doing their thing. But it was Honey West who did it first.

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  6. Hi Trey,
    I haven't found anything to confirm that just yet, but it seems a reasonable theory. Gardner Fox (writing as Rod Gray) may well have taken some inspiration from Honey West, especially in the latter novels that convert her into a spy/secret agent, similar to how Nick Carter was converted over from private detective to super-spy in the Seventies as a reaction to all the James Bons heat/hullabaloo.

    I'll keep digging around and see what I can find. thanks for bringing up the Lady from L.U.S.T. & Cherry Delight series--somewhere, someone is thinking up ways to relaunch those series, no doubt...

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  7. Many thanks for the kind words. :-)

    I also see the Honey books (particularly the final three, where she becomes a secret agent--BOMBSHELL is a thriller, not a P.I. mystery, and then in the final two books she is formally a secret agent with the CIA) as a precursor to the Baroness series by "Paul Kenyon."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Baroness_%28novels%29

    Best,

    -Win

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