by ZJ Czupor
Versatile and Ahead of Her Time
This mystery author was born on Christmas Day, 1907 in San Antonio, Texas. She was the daughter of W.H. Robbins and Myrtle Statham. In addition to the fifty novels she published in her lifetime, under four different names, she has enough first and last names to fill a short paragraph. Along with her six given names at birth, her mother’s two additional marriages, and her own two marriages she officially is known as Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robbins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens.
If you’re keeping score: Norton and Birk are from her two stepfathers and Olsen and Hitchens are from her two marriages.
This prolific American mystery writer is better known as Dolores Hitchens (1907-1973) whose novels appeared during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Her contemporaries were the better-known mystery and suspense authors Dorothy B. Hughes (1904-1993), Margaret Millar (1915-1994), and Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995).
But in the span of thirty-five years, Hitchens wrote fifty novels published under four different names: Dolores Hitchens, D.B. Olsen, Dolan Birkley, and Noel Burke.
At the age of 13, she published a poem in a motion picture magazine and later as a graduate student in nursing at the University of California, won a prize for an inter-scholastic book of poetry. After graduation, she worked as a nurse at Hollywood Hospital and later as a teacher before she took up serious writing.
What’s fascinating about Hitchens is that she was a versatile writer and experimented in a wide range of genres, and in all of them quite well. She wrote hard-hitting thrillers, hardboiled private eye novels, Western fiction, and successful cozy mysteries.
In 1934, she married Beverley S. Olsen, a radio operator on a merchant vessel. Their marriage lasted six years. However, one of her pseudonyms incorporated his last name. Writing as D. B. Olsen, she blazed a trail for future cozy writers.
She wrote twelve cozy mysteries between 1939 and 1956 all starring 70-year-old amateur sleuth Rachel Murdock, a spinster detective with a feline sidekick named Samantha. Hitchens describes Miss Rachel as a “seventy-year-old with traces of what had been her stunning beauty and eyes with a dark aliveness like the movement of water in a little pool.”
Her most famous cozy and her second novel was The Cat Saw Murder, (Doubleday Crime Club, 1939) which preceded many mysteries of the era in which a cat helps solve the crime.
In The Cat Saw Murder, Miss Rachel, and her spinster sister Miss Jennifer match wits with the 35-year-old bumbling Lt. Detective Stephen Mayhew to solve the mystery of who brutally murdered Miss Rachel’s niece. Critics say the novel was written in the tradition of Mary Roberts Rinehart with foreshadowing but with a more sinister bent than the cozies we know today. There’s a grisly ax murder, body parts, and copious blood, except on the cat who was the only witness to the crime. There’s also offbeat humor and a surprise ending.
When American Mystery Classics re-issued The Cat Saw Murder (2021), Pulitzer Prize finalist Joyce Carol Oates wrote an introduction. Oates said the novel “is a particularly eccentric example of such a genre work in that there are two ‘mysteries’ running concurrently: the mystery of who has committed a curiously awkward, quasi-bungled murder at a most inopportune time, and the mystery of who is narrating the story, from a future perspective in which the mystery has (evidently) been solved, and one, or two, or three individuals are engaged in narrating it.”
Again, writing as D.B. Olsen, Hitchens introduced Lt. Stephen Mayhew as the protagonist in her first novel, The Clue in the Clay (Phoenix Press, 1938) and again in Death Cuts a Silhouette (1939).
In the early 1940s, researchers admit they don’t know if Dolores divorced Olsen or was widowed. But she married Hubert A. Hitchens and they had one child together in 1942.
Now writing as Dolores Hitchens, she wrote two stand-alone critically acclaimed hardboiled detective novels in the Raymond Chandler tradition. They feature California private eye Jim Sader: Sleep With Strangers (Doubleday: The Crime Club, 1955) and Sleep With Slander (Doubleday: The Crime Club, 1960).
Sader is a private detective and reformed alcoholic living in Long Beach, California, who Hitchens describes as a man in the act of lighting a cigarette:
Rain lay in his hair, which was hatless, and which also, though obviously once reddish, now had faded to a tawny rust laced with gray. He had a lean, sharp intelligent face. The hands that cupped the match wore a look of strength.
Award-winning private eye novelist Bill Pronzini calls Sleep With Slander “the best hard-boiled private eye novel written by a woman,” and then adds, “and one of the best written by anybody.” (1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, co-author Marcia Muller, 1986).
Author Steph Cha writing in the Foreword to Sleeping With Strangers (re-issued by Library of America, 2021), calls the novel, “Taut, suspenseful, and gritty” and says that many consider this Dolores Hitchens’ best novel.
The storyline follows Sader in a missing-person’s case as he searches through Long Beach’s oil and real estate industries in the 1950s.
Dolores’ second husband, Hubert A. Hitchens was an investigator for Southern Pacific Railroad Police. She collaborated with Bert Hitchens on five railroad mysteries—all police procedurals about a squad of railroad cops in Los Angeles. Their novels carried titles like F.O.B. Murder (1955), One-Way Ticket (1956), End of the Line (1957), The Man Who Followed Women (1959), and The Grudge (1963). Interestingly, Bert Hitchens got first billing on these novels.
Consider this beginning tense passage from End of the Line:
Like a silver eel the streamliner rose from the flats of the dusky desert, skirting the toes of the wrinkled hills, sweeping upward into the clear green twilight in the pass. Thunder followed it under the ground and a wind rushed outward at its passing. Lizards and cactus owls and a few jackrabbits froze at the vast vibration and waited for catastrophe to follow. In the cab the engineer looked at his watch. In less than two hours they should be in Los Angeles.
Ahead lay Lobo Tunnel…
…At the last instant, as the train swept into the tunnel entrance, the engineer stiffened, his lips parted, and he reached for the brakes. It was too late.
On sixty-four wheels Death roared into Lobo Tunnel and made a noise that men would hear for years.
Hitchens’s western novel, The Night of the Bowstring (Doubleday, 1962), was considered “first-rate” and appeared under her D. B. Olsen byline. The St. Louis Dispatch called the novel written “in the manner of The Oxbow Incident. On the cover of another edition, The Denver Post said, “Ensuing events make up an intense novel filled with expert characterizations and shocking, surprising denouements…One of the classics that western fiction buffs are lucky to stumble on in a year’s reading.”
Her last novel, Fools’ Gold (Doubleday: The Crime Club, 1958) is considered a “forgotten masterwork” according to Sarah Weinman, who edited The Library of America’s two-volume edition titled Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s.
Fools’ Gold is a caper-gone-wrong about two teenagers who bungle a robbery, a young woman who becomes a reluctant accomplice and fugitive, and an ex-con who sees their heist as a way out of his dead-end job.
Edgar-nominated and Anthony Award-winning author Duane Swierczynski calls Fools’ Gold “both of its time and way ahead of it…this is the genius of Hitchens’s novel—you can see this going wrong in a million different ways” as grown-ups take advantage of the teenagers.
Her novel was adapted into the French cult film Bande à part, or in English, Band of Outsiders (1964), by French-Swiss film director and screenwriter Jean-Luc Godard.
When Dolores Hitchens was in her prime, the publishing world was dominated by male writers, but she made an impact writing about secrets and skeletons in the closet, along with grisly violent worlds. She enjoyed popularity for a brief time during her career but sadly was quickly forgotten when her novels went out of print. Fortunately, many of her novels have been re-issued and mystery readers can re-discover the genius of her layered and suspenseful plotting.
In 1973, Dolores Hitchens died at the age of 66 in Orange County, California.
And that’s your Mystery Minute.
The famous dance scene in Godard’s film Band of Outsiders influenced the dance scene by Uma Thurman and John Travolta in Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction (1994. In tribute, Tarantino named his film production company “A Band Apart.”
Bill Pronzini won Mystery Writers of America’s “Grand Master” award in 2008 and was a nominee for the Edgars Best Novel award in 1988 for A Wasteland of Strangers. He is married to mystery author Marcia Muller.