One of the myths that refuses to die among modern mystery scholars is the notion that strong independent female sleuths didn’t begin to appear in American crime fiction until the 1970s and 1980s. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. Female authors writing about strong female sleuths were quite prominent in the genre until the post-World War II and Korean War era, when male action thrillers, particular in paperback originals aimed at returning veterans, drove many of them from publishers’ lists. Reading tastes, then as now, reflected the general mood of the country. After years of war, America was ready for a time out. Rosie the riveter went back home to become Rosie the housewife. It was the absolute nadir of feminism, a time when you could put a television show on the air called Father Knows Best and not risk daily pickets by women’s groups. Mickey Spillane could bed his women and blow ’em away in the same paragraph, while John D. MacDonald took misogyny and turned into an art form that most men—and many women—accepted with relish.
But it was an entirely different time for women writers between the two world wars. Having won the right to vote in 1920, women—and women writers—were embracing new lifestyles. Women voters may have been largely responsible for forcing prohibition on the country, but ironically that doomed “noble experiment” also led to increased public drinking by women, albeit in the speakeasies that flourished in most major cities. If women were getting out more, they were also going to college and entering the labor force. The crash of 1929 didn’t halt that movement but rather further fueled it. Times were tough and a paycheck was a paycheck, whoever earned it. And when the war came along and took most of the young men with it, women assumed even larger roles in society. Detective fiction reflected those changing conditions.
Lucy Cores’ inspired creation, Toni Ney, a dancer turned exercise maven, is a prime example of the kind of strong-willed female sleuth that graced the pages of American detective fiction from suffrage to the bomb. She’s smart, self-assured, independent, and not afraid to speak her mind. She likes men but doesn’t require one to put food on the table. Work means a career, not something to do while waiting for Mr. Right to come along. Still, she’s a bit of a romantic. Like many young girls, Toni dreamed of being a ballet dancer, and, like most young girls, she soon realized that while many are called, only a few are chosen. Instead of being devastated, she became an exercise director (today we would probably say aerobics instructor) at a fancy beauty salon (Painted for the Kill), before embarking on a second career as an exercise columnist and dance critic for a major Manhattan newspaper (Corpse de Ballet). Her powers of observation are especially keen, which is why ballet aficionado Captain Anthony Torrent of New York’s Homicide Bureau seeks her out when he needs a fresh perspective on a case. But Toni doesn’t look for crimes to solve. She’s on the scene in her work capacity when murder strikes in both of her recorded cases. For the most part, she and boyfriend Eric Skeets earn high marks from Captain Torrent for staying in the background, offering insights instead of digging for clues on their own. Of course, you can’t always be good (otherwise we’d have nothing but police procedurals and private eye novels) but Toni is usually joined in her ill-advised clue-gathering by the stalwart Eric Skeets, whose heart is in the right place even if his punches don’t always land where they should.
If Lucy Cores’ books differ any from other mysteries of the day, it’s in their playful attitude toward sex. There’s nothing particularly salacious—it’s more what used to be called slightly “naughty”—in the narrative but the talk is frank, and the sexual peccadilloes of the characters and just the right amount of bitchy asides provide much of the books’ humor. There are gay characters, as you might expect in books set in the world of the theater and the beauty industry. Cores doesn’t dwell on their sexuality, but this was a period in which gays were seldom identified as such in detective fiction, even in passing, and if they were, it was usually as villains, such as the “gunsels” in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In Cores’ books some gay characters are bad, some are good, some are just indifferent, but none are pitied, despised or played for laughs—at least no more than any of the other characters are. Much the same spirit can be found in another contemporaneous two-book ballet mystery series (A Bulletin the Ballet and Murder a la Stroganoff) written in 1938 by Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon..
Cores dedicates her second Toni Ney book, Corpse de Ballet, to Olga Ley, “who knows all about ballet.” But we suspect that Olga Ley was also the inspiration for Toni Ney. Aside from the rhyming similarity in their names, Ley was not only a dancer, like Toni, specializing in ballroom as well as ballet, but she was an expert on exercising, eventually writing two major books on the subject. Her own lean, athletic figure matched Toni’s. Like Cores, Ley was born in Russia (St. Petersburg) in 1912 and emigrated to the United States after the Russian Revolution and Civil War. In addition to dancing and exercise, she worked as an illustrator (as did Cores) and a costume designer. She married Willy Ley, a German-born rocket scientist who once tutored Wernher von Braun. Willy Ley fled Germany in 1935 when he learned that Hitler wanted rockets for weapons, not space exploration. Unfortunately, the U.S. government wasn’t interested in rocketry and Ley changed careers, becoming one of the foremost science writers of his day. He also dabbled in science fiction, a passion he shared with Olga, a frequent attendee at science fiction conventions, where she dazzled everybody when she appeared in the costume pageants. They passed their interest in science fiction on to their daughter Sandra, who in 1976 edited Beyond Time, an anthology of alternate history stories. Olga contributed a story, as did Lucy Cores, whose “Hail to the Chief” speculates that if the Watergate burglars had not been caught, Nixon would not only have served out his second term but would have found a way around the constitutional two-term presidential limit to stay in the White House until 1994.
Lucy Cores was a very versatile writer. In addition to the two Toni Ney mysteries, she published a third mystery, Let’s Kill George, this time a stand-alone, in 1946, before abandoning the form, at least as a writer. She was an avid mystery reader, according to her son Michael, and in her later years particularly admired P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Martha Grimes. Among earlier writers, Ngaio Marsh was obviously a favorite. There is a reference to Marsh’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn (misspelled, however) in Painted for the Kill. Cores was also fond of the classics and once wrote the book and lyrics for an unproduced musical version of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone.
Romance featured in many of her other books, including Women in Love (1951), which was based on one of her own early love affairs. The 1952 paperback edition bore the lurid subtitle “She substituted sex for passion.” Most of her other romance novels were historicals, including Destiny’s Passion (1978) and Fatal Passion (1989), set in the Regency period. The Year of December (1974) chronicles the adventures of Claire Clairmonte, the onetime mistress of Lord Byron, in Russia. Katya (1988) was another novel of romantic suspense set in imperial Russia. There are also elements of mystery in The Misty Curtain (1964) in which a young girl attempts to reconnect with her mother, now a princess, who abandoned her as a baby. The Mermaid Summer (1971) was set on Martha’s Vineyard, where Cores lived for many years, and contained characters easily recognized by her friends there. A short story in TheSaturday Evening Post was turned into a television series, The New Loretta Young Show, which ran during the 1962-63 season. It featured a New York magazine editor who was trying to raise seven children. In addition to her writing, Cores also worked as a book illustrator and graphic designer, notably for Walter J. Black’s Classics Club in the early 1940s.
Lucy Cores was born to a middle-class family in Moscow in 1912. For most of her life she thought she had been born in 1914 and only toward the end of her life did she discover the mistake. Since that meant her ninetieth birthday party would be held that much sooner, she was overjoyed. Her family fled Russia after the Communist revolution and she hid out with her mother in Poland and lived for a while in Paris before arriving in the United States in 1921. It’s a period of her life that she did not like to remember and refused to discuss. Although her father, Michael Cores, had been a lawyer in Russia, it was not a career he could follow in the United States and he eventually became a professional musician, playing the viola in the NBC Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini. Her uncle, Alexander Cores, was one of the most celebrated violinists of the twentieth century. Isaac Stern played at his funeral. He was also responsible for teaching comedian Jack Benny how to play the violin badly (Benny could already play it competently). The family musical ability was passed on in full measure to Lucy’s younger son, Danny Kortchmar, one of the country’s foremost guitarists and a songwriter as well who has played with Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and Carole King (and just about every other legend in the music business) and who today is primarily on the production end of the recording industry.
After learning English, Lucy Cores attended the Ethical Culture School in Manhattan and was graduated from Barnard College. She met and married Emil Kortchmar, the son of Russian Jewish émigrés, in 1942. Although Emil did not go to college first, he attended New York University Law School before he went to work in his father’s business, manufacturing screw-machine parts. He eventually took over the business and then sold it in the 1960s, although he continued to run it for the new owners for a time. Until the last year of his life he helped a nephew operate a similar business in New Rochelle. He loved sailing and the family owned several boats over the years. He taught his elder son Michael, who today specializes in restoring old wooden boats, to sail, but Lucy made it clear that sailing was not an activity in which she was interested.
The Kortchmars moved to Larchmont, New York, in 1940s, where Lucy met Frederic Dannay, the half of the Ellery Queen writing team who founded and edited Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. In 1950, the Kortchmars rented a summer home on Martha’s Vineyard, fell in love with the island, and eventually bought a house on North Road where they spent every summer for the rest of their lives. In the 1970s and 1980s they also spent a month or two every winter in Grenada in the West Indies. During those years Lucy made her mark as a formidable poker player and enticed any number of people into joining her in hard-fought Scrabble games. She loved word games and was giving to making puns. She was asked once if she wanted to surf and replied, “They also surf who only stand and wade.”
Following Emil’s death in 1990, Lucy moved back to Manhattan. She frequently entertained friends and grandchildren in her living room, the focal point of which was a large bowl of M&Ms on the coffee table. She continued to spend her summers on Martha’s Vineyard where she swam every day and was a regular at the local library. She died there in her sleep on August 6, 2003, at the age of 91. At the time of her death, she was learning how to use a computer and working on a novel about the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.
Lucy Cores’ sophisticated and charming mysteries are little known today, if only because she survived them by six decades, but they are well worth revisiting. Toni Ney isn’t a relic of a forgotten era, trapped forever in the conventions of her time. A few superficial trappings aside, she seems as modern in her outlook as any of today’s current female sleuths. The times may change but well-realized characters are never dated.
Tom & Enid Schantz
The editors are grateful to Michael Kortchmar for his very helpful assistance in putting together the biographical portions of this introduction.