Mae West must have been a hell of a woman to know if 'She Done Him Wrong' and 'The Constant Sinner' are anything to judge by - the heroines in both are physically dead ringers for Mae, and I'm guessing share some of the same principles as well as her gift for memorable one liners. I still have her autobiography 'Goodness Had Nothing To Do With It' to read but I suspect it will only confirm my suspicions.
Of the two novels I preferred 'The Constant Sinner' to read, or at least I remember it being better paced, but 'She Done Him Wrong' is a shade less disturbing. Babe Gordon in 'The Constant Sinner' had to much experience and to few morals to be an easy heroine to care for, Diamond Lil is a shade less troublesome. She reads as a little older than Babe and not quite as damaged but she's still "a beautiful short course to Hell".
Lil's ex lover, Chick Clark, has found himself in jail due in part to stealing diamonds to keep her happy. Lil not being a girl to let the grass grow under her feet has skipped town and taken up with rising politician and white slave trader Gus Jordan. She doesn't know about the sideline in selling women into the brothels of Rio and wouldn't be happy if she knew that's where the money that buys her diamonds was coming from. Lil's funny like that. Gus's partner in crime Rita has arrived from Rio with a handsome young bull fighter in tow - Jaurez - who's making eyes at Lil, and Rita who didn't like her much in the first place really isn't happy about it. Neither is Gus - but Lil likes a bit of variety. Meanwhile Chick Clark has escaped from prison and is after Lil, intent on revenge and Gus is being watched by a mysterious policeman known only as 'The Hawk', oh and Lil has spotted a handsome salvation army Captain and she's never wanted a man more...
What's really interesting about 'She Done Him Wrong' though is Mae's attitude to sex. Published as a book in 1932, 'She Done Him Wrong' is based on Mae's 1927 play of the same name, it's not particularly graphic but it's very frank. Lil enjoys sex but her passion is diamonds, they're her career and her only real love. She likes the men she sleeps with, but she's never been in love. She's smart, tough, and quite capable of taking care of herself. She has no particular problem with prostitution believing that a smart woman will make the best of herself and her opportunities such as they are, and in an age when the most respectable career option for a woman was still marriage she makes a sly point. Is it more honest to have fun with a man whilst having an eye on the bottom line or to marry him for bottom line?
Mae's underlining of the point that Lil doesn't love the men she takes to bed but loves what she does there still feels a little bit unusual for a woman to be admitting to - Lil is a liberated woman by any standards and one who commands respect. Even at the end of the book when it looks like she might get her love story Mae has Lil ask herself "Is this love? Really love? Or something just for the winter season?" which is admirably honest as is the last line - the rather splendid 'I always knew you could be had'. Inner goddesses be damned, I want to discover my inner Diamond Lil, she'd give me better advice.