TRASHY TUESDAY: DEATH IS FOREVER by Maxine O’Callaghan (1980)
Although Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton are usually credited with being the ‘mothers’ of the female PI genre, Maxine O’Callaghan actually beat all of them to publication. Her first Delilah West PI story,
A Change of Clients, appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in 1974, which was years ahead of the books by the other three. The first Delilah West novel, Death Is Forever, however, did not appear until September 1980. This was a couple of years after Marcia Muller’s Edwin Of The Ironshoes (1977), but still two years before the first books by Grafton and Paretsky (both 1982).
Maxine went onto write six Delilah West novels. They were all quite good, but never took off like the books by Grafton and Paretsky. In hindsight, I suspect that they lacked the perky charm of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone books and the hard political edge of the V. I. Warshawski stories. They were good solid, medium hard-boiled PI stories, that featured decent credible plots and some real emotional impact. I particularly remember enjoying the second novel, Run From Nightmare, and the much later
They were also not helped by the spectacularly bad covers that Raven House Mysteries imposed on the first two books.
Raven House Mysteries of this period typically had small, cheap-looking photographic covers of inanimate objects, such as cups, spades, guns, bullets and the occasional body. They were terribly bland covers that rarely attracted attention.
The 1981 Raven House edition of Death Is Forever (see above) sports a rather bizarre cover of an axe stuck in a watermelon, that seems to be bleeding. It is the sort of cover you would expect on a cheap horror novel about backwoods farmers killing lost teenage tourists. Apart from giving a nod to the book’s California location, it gives no sense of the story within and would probably have turned off anyone looking for a PI novel. It is probably one of the oddest covers I have seen.
The second Delilah West novel, Run From Nightmare, fared little better.
The rather vague photo seems to be of a smashed pair of glasses lying in blood. It is a very dark photo that does not catch the eye. Even the blurb on the front does not indicate that it is the second in a series or that it is a PI novel, which is very different from the treatment that the first Sue Grafton Kinsey Millhone novel received.
It was not until 1989 that the next Delilah West novel, Hit & Run, appeared and by that time the Female PI phenomena was well underway. When it was published in paperback (1991), as part of ST Martin’s Press’ Mean Streets series, it received a bright, jazzy cover that clearly positioned it in the PI market.
The subsequent Delilah West novels also received good covers, including this distinctive, bright, cartoon-looking one for the last book in the series, Down For The Count, which was typical of a lot of paperback covers of the late 1990’s.
Original copies of the Delilah West books are probably a little difficult to find these days, but fortunately they have all been reprinted by Lee Goldberg and the magnificent people at Brash Books and are also available on the Kindle. Brash Books have also produced a volume of Delilah West short stories, Bad News And Trouble, which includes the original story, A Change of Clients. They are well worth checking out.