by | Feb 2, 2024 | Tracy Clark, On writing | 7 comments

By Tracy Clark

I just checked my latest manuscript for Pepper. I’m good!

Remember the old ‘70s TV show Police Woman? It starred Angie Dickinson as Det. Pepper Anderson? I do. In fact, I remember it every time I sit down to write, because there are some things I have to remember not to do, thanks to good old Pep.

For those young’un’s out there, here’s how the show went:

Pepper was an undercover cop working for the impressive-sounding Criminal Conspiracy Unit of the Los Angeles Police Department. In all their stings, Pepper played the hooker with a heart of gold, or the madam with a heart of gold or the junkie with the heart of gold. She went undercover as a stripper, a nurse, a stewardess, whatever she needed to be. Pepper was versatile.

The only woman on her team, a sergeant no less, Pepper was the one with the legs and the flippy hairdo. The one in the short skirts and halter tops. The one with the gun and badge in her big purse with the fringe (more on that later).

Anyway, every week, Pepper, swaggering, serious, confident, swishy Pepper would mix it up with the guys as they tracked down the bad guys on the streets of ratty LA. Pepper would be firing on all cylinders for 40 solid minutes each episode, figuring it all out, getting the goods on the jive turkeys who were selling the smack or pimping out the girls on Sunset Boulevard.

And then right before the final commercial break, Pepper would have her cover blown. There’d be that scene where she dives for her gun in that big purse of hers only to have the bad guy knock the whole thing out of her hands and put her in a chokehold.

End scene.

Commercial break.

After the commercial, we’d find Pepper tied to a chair with a bomb underneath it. Tick. Tick. Tick.

Pepper would still be talking trash, of course, but there she’d be tied to the bomb chair waiting for — you guessed it — the men to come rescue her.

Police Woman ran on NBC for four years from 1974 to 1978. This kind of scene played out every single week. Pepper snarky and capable for 40 minutes, knocked out, tied up, manhandled or locked in a cargo crate headed for Bangladesh for the last five.

The guys would rush in all worried about Pep because, well, somebody had to take care of her. She was a woman way out of her league, a delicate flower in need of male protection.

The dialog in the rescue scenes would always go something like this, as one of her male subordinates, remember Pep’s a sergeant, untied the ropes from Pepper’s wrists and set her as free as a bird of paradise.

“You okay, Pepper?” One would say.

Pepper would answer breathily, “I’m fine. Boy, am I glad to see you guys.”

Then Pepper would get up and smoosh her hair down from where the bad guy mussed it all up.

“Let’s get out of here,” she’d add, cutting her eyes at the bad guy. “Jive turkey.”

And she’d say it all haughty, like she hadn’t just been tied to a bomb chair or locked in a shipping crate full of radiator fans headed out to sea.

I remember throwing my hands up as a kid watching those last five minutes. Just once, just once I wanted Pepper to get her own feet out of the fire.

Police Woman was considered a big step forward in the representation of women on television, but though a lot had changed in the ‘70s, some things hadn’t. It’s true, TV women had nonconventional jobs—cops, doctors, pilots, judges—but their spot on the gender hierarchy hadn’t changed a wit. Women could be cops, but they still needed a man to save them. They could be doctors, but there was always a male doctor there who was more doctor than she was. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

Back to Pepper’s purse. It was way too big. It’s one of the reasons she kept getting manhandled. By the time she dug around in that big bucket thing for her peashooter she was halfway in the bomb chair.

So, as I’m writing my female cops, I’m constantly thinking about Pepper. If I lose my mind and actually write a scene where my female cops get tied to stuff and a man has to come in and cut the ropes, I lunge for the delete button on my laptop like it was the failsafe on a nuclear bomb.

If my characters cannot save themselves, if Det. Harriet Foster or Det. Vera Li cannot get their guns drawn and just stand there helpless waiting for the men on their team to rush in and ask if they’re okay? Man, that scene is going the way of Sandusky.

No knock on Pepper (well maybe just a little knock), but my fictional women don’t need to be rescued. I will never, ever pull a Pepper. In fact, I look for signs of Pepper at my revision stage. No bomb chair. Check. No shipping crate. Check.

If you read my series, and there’s a scene where Det. Harriet Foster is tied to a chair or locked in a shipping container, and she can’t figure out how to get herself out of the situation? Sound the alarm. I did not write that. I’ve been body snatched and you need to call the authorities ASAP.

Tracy Clark, a native Chicagoan, is the author of the Cass Raines Chicago Mystery series and the Det. Harriet Foster series. A multi-nominated Anthony, Lefty, Edgar, Macavity, and Shamus Award finalist, Tracy is also the 2020 and 2022 winner of the G.P. Putnam’s Sons Sue Grafton Memorial Award. She is a member of Crime Writers of Color, Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.

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  1. Karna Small Bodman

    Great blog, Tracy. And times certainly have changed. We love the “new” Magnum PI where there’s a guy (Magnum) and a girl (Higgins) – same names as the old Magnum PI with Tom Selick — but in the new one Higgins, a former MI6 trained type – comes to the rescue of all sorts of people, including men, of course. Now I can’t wait for next season’s episodes.

  2. Lisa Black

    So true!!! I know I watched Police Woman fairly regularly, though I don’t remember a single scene in particular. But yes, if I ever start to write an ending where my protagonist needs someone else to rescue her, I stop, think ‘nah’—she’s the protagonist, after all—and rewrite.

    • Tracy Clark

      Thanks for all your responses to good old Pep. She taught us all some pretty valuable lessons. 1. Do NOT drop your gun into the bottom of a large fringed purse. 2. Do NOT try to run away from a goon in 5-inch heels. Never works out. and 3. Ask for a desk job. Those bomb chairs are NO joke.

  3. Linda Krug

    Oh my, I’ve been sitting in Starbucks reading your blog and laughing hysterically. You’ve nailed the Sarg and that big old purse of hers. I remember those very awesome first 40 minutes and the agonizing final five. Thanks for making my day and reminding everyone that we — and our characters — can save our own damn selves.

  4. L. D. Barnes

    Thank you Thank you Thank you! I hated Police Woman and I could never figure out why. You nailed it. I will do my best to keep Detective Racheal Culpepper of the Chicago Police Department from waiting on anything as I write my Chicago Street Murders.

  5. Chris Goff

    LOL. I will never write another scene with my female protagonist where I don’t think — whatever you do, don’t pull a Pepper! Great blog, Tracy.

  6. Isabella Maldonado

    Tracy, you made me snarf my coffee when you wrote “jive turkey!” Still laughing. Another note about the show: did you ever notice how many times Pepper had to take her clothes off to play her undercover role?

    To answer your question, NO, I have never pulled a Pepper when writing one of my female characters. In fact, mine tend to rescue the men, or other women, or kids, or whoever needs saving.

    Lastly, I’d like to address the big giant fringed bag. There were times when I worked undercover and carried a gun, and also years when I carried concealed off duty. Usually, my gun was in a pancake holster designed to hide it in my waistband (ankle holsters are a pain to get to in a hurry) but sometimes, I used a purse.

    My purse was designed to conceal a gun. It was divided into two sections with a Velcro closure holding the gun between them in the middle. Really clever, actually. You could walk around with your pistol and no one would ever suspect. Yeah, there’s no way anyone in their right mind would toss a gun into the bottom of a tote bag. I think the screenwriters did that because they wanted Pepper in a skin-tight outfit, or partially naked, with nowhere to conceal a bulky weapon. Then, of course, the time spent rummaging would give the jive turkeys a chance to get the drop on her.