More Dangerous Dames, Please.

tough guys and dnagerous dames

As I write this, we’re about to head into ‘Phase Three’ of the pandemic response ’round here, and will soon be able to re-enter shuttered retail stores (in limited numbers, masked and distanced, even gloved if you prefer, which I do). It’s none too soon for me. Bookstore phone orders and curbside pickups have been a Godsend, but obviously there’s no browsing, a crucial part of the book-buying (and money squandering) experience.

Early in the ‘sheltering in’, the always-excellent Kevin Burton Smith’s The New Thrilling Detective Web Site recommended a long list of hard-boiled/noir-ish/private eye mystery/crime fiction anthologies. I managed to track down several and have just now finished the last one, Tough Guys And Dangerous Dames, a hefty 1993 Barnes And Noble Books hardcover edited by those small press and retail bookstore instant-remainder anthology mavens, Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin Greenberg. The E.T. Steadman cover art is a handsome pre-Adobe CS/Adobe CC digital photo-illustration, though you’d think they’d have gone for an actual public domain 1930’s – 1950’s era illustration, mindful of the anthology’s content. (These days, small presses, the self-published and no shortage of scammers seem happy to steal whatever vintage illustrations they want to ‘appropriate’.)

The trio of editors selected nearly thirty stories from Black Mask and other familiar hard-boiled crime fiction pulp magazines, penned by a star-studded list of that era’s writers, including Robert Bloch, Leigh Brackett, Hugh B. Cave, Raymond Chandler, Earle Stanley Gardner, William Campbell Gault, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and John D, MacDonald. Pulp fiction luminaries notwithstanding, The Stiletto Gumshoe’s followers/visitors won’t be surprised to hear that I first flipped to Robert Leslie Bellem’s “Homicide Hunch”, a Dan Turner Hollywood Detective tale.  Here the story opens with the rock ‘em – sock’em hard-boiled L.A. private eye falling for a villain’s old trick, and finds himself trussed up hand and foot in a plush penthouse, with a lovely blonde tied up much the same way on the sofa across the opulent room. But no matter what we’re led to believe, she’s no damsel in distress and it’s all an elaborate plot to make Turner the patsy for a murder. It takes a few pages worth of delightfully silly Bellem word-smithing for Dan Turner to puzzle it all out and set things right after a suitable amount of punches and gunplay. What can I say? I loved it.

Not to nitpick, but while the ‘tough guys’ abound, the ‘dangerous dames’ are actually few and far between and I’d have happily taken a few more. But that didn’t make the reading any less fun. But now I’m all out of my pandemic-procurement curbside pickup treasures, the writing lair’s endtable to-be-read spot is bare once more, and I’m jonesing for stepping through a bookstores doors again…like now.

Love Story.

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The editorial may be titled “Love Story”, but it’s kind of a darkly noir-ish looking affair, dontcha think? Vincent Peters shoots models Du Juan and Edwin K in “Love Story” for Numero China in 2011.

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And They’re All-True.

al rossi true advetures march 1957

The men’s adventure (or so-called ‘sweats’) mags were what they were and I can’t say I’m much of a fan. Heck, even pulp mag veteran Mort Kunstler did his cover illustration for the March 1957 issue of True Adventures magazine under a pen name (brush name?), which tells me it wasn’t considered a premier venue. But, the interesting art often lurked inside those publications, with some nifty mystery/crime fiction halftone and duotone spots and spreads from Bill Edwards, Charles Copland, Gil Cohen and others.

Now I’m not sure which of that issue’s “true” tales the Al Rossi B&W illustration shown above was done for. Was it “Woman’s Secret Shame” or “Die, Little Lovely”? I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have been for “What Are Your Homosexual Tendencies?”, but then, those were very different times…

True Adventures March 1957

Websites & Typewriters.

WD May-June

The May-June 2020 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine was surely put together before the pandemic swept over us and the subsequent sheltering-in commenced. But this issue’s main feature, WD’s 22nd annual “101 Best Websites For Writers” by managing editor Cassandra Lipp proved well-timed for readers/writers stuck at home. I’ve already flagged a few that look interesting (just what I need…more sites and blogs to follow).

I’m pretty sure some of the site info is already obsolete (one at least is on hiatus or gone altogether as far as I know) but there are some intriguing sites in this year’s list, including some you may be well aware of but which were entirely new to me, like ‘Cliché Finder’ at www.westegg.com/cliché or TV Tropes at www.tvtropes.org. As time allows, I’ll be visiting a bunch, but cautious with the follows, a plan to prune an already too long list of blogs and sites funneling stuff into my inboxes one of the many sheltering-in to-do list chores I’ve yet to tackle.

But for readers who aren’t looking for more ways to squander time online, there’s Alexandra Claus’ 5-Minute Memoir: “Typewritten Wonder” about the old baby blue Smith-Corona typewriter in a tan case spotted at a local Goodwill store when she was only 11. Begging her mother to spring for the ten-dollar price tag got Claus’ nowhere at the time, unaware that of course Mom returned to the store later, bought the treasure and had it refurbished just in time to be the best Christmas present ever.

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Add something from WD’s 22nd batch of recommended writers’ websites to your favorites bar, or nod knowingly along with Alexandra Claus when she writes, “My typewriter made my childhood dreams of being a writer feel real. Its well-worn keys stoked the creativity in my soul.” Kinda makes me want to shove this laptop aside and hunt up a typewriter.

Well…just kind of.

Photo: Jak Kaiser

 

David Seeley

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What gets you? Spiders, creepy clowns, snakes? For me it’s 1) deep water/drowning and 2) heights, either of those likely to plague my rare nightmares, and both frighteningly popular scenes among crime pulp cover artists, vintage paperback cover illustrators and many of the B&W’s and duotones in the prewar pulps and postwar men’s adventure mags. So artist David Seeley’s terrifying depiction of a woman being shoved out of a highrise window has been giving me the chills since I first spotted it. (Kinda shivering right now.)

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Neither prudish nor particularly political, normally I just yawn when it comes to contemporary artists doing pinup style art. Seventy years ago? That was then, this is now. And many of the subjects in David Seeley’s work do seem to lose track of their clothes, except for some skimpy lacies. But they never seem to lose sight of their guns, and maybe that’s what caught my eye and why the work reminds me less of peekaboo paintings and more of familiar Robert McGinnis 1960’s series paperback covers and the popular styles seen in so many 1960’s/70’s illustrated film posters.

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Boston based artist David Seeley studied architecture and first worked as a successful architect until some serious soul-searching led him to pursue art full-time. In a modern day spin on many postwar illustrators’ shared NYC studio spaces, Seeley shares a virtual studio with fourteen other artists including the likes of Greg Manchess. Seeley’s technique is an intriguing blend of digital photo-composition merged with traditional oil painting on archival printouts, and he details his process at his site, www.daveseeley.com. Check it out…it’s pretty interesting even if you’re not an artist.

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“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.”

Maltese Falcon 1

The new Summer 2020 Mystery Scene issue arrived yesterday, but there was no time to read it last night, being stuck with some day job take-home work. More about what looks like a terrific issue later. But I did manage a quick peek over this morning’s drive-through large-with-cream (God bless Dunkin’ Donuts) on the way to work, and the last item in Louis Phillips “Mystery Scene Miscellany” column caught my eye, it being the day after Dashiell Hammett’s birthday.

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“The stuff that dreams are made of.”

No, not the Carly Simon song from her 1987 Coming Around Again album or paraphrasing Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade delivers that final line of dialog in the 1941 The Maltese Falcon, just before he and Ward Bond exit while we watch the elevator gates close over Mary Astor’s resigned face, the car descends into darkness and that memorable Adolph Deutsch composed Warner Brothers studio orchestra music builds for the film’s close, a mere minute or so of truly iconic proto-noir cinema that gets me every time I see it.

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“The stuff that dreams are made of.” According to Mystery Scene Miscellany (referencing a 1989 Lawrence Grobel biography of the Hustons), that wonderful line which had long been attributed to director/screenwriter John Huston was actually ad-libbed on set by Bogart himself. Doubly intriguing, since all I’ve read about the film indicates that Huston was meticulous about sticking to his script in this, his first feature film directorial assignment, even shooting largely in sequence.

But I’m glad at least one bit of improvisation was allowed, and all the more pleased to think of Humphrey Bogart coming up with that particular – and memorable – line.

Thank You, Mr. Hammett.

dashiell hammett

Samuel Dashiell Hammett, born this day, May 27thin 1894, passed away in 1961, and what else can someone like me say but a very large thank you to one of the creators of hard-boiled detective fiction and this thing I like to think of as ‘noir culture’.

dashiell hammett books

Close Up.

close up amanda quick

When I first spotted Close Up (2020) on more than one of the too-many mystery/crime fiction and book sites I follow, I was expecting “Casey, Crime Photographer” in heels, and scheduled it for a bookstore curbside pickup. I’ve been making it a point lately to try big name authors whose books I’ve bypassed, partly to see what I’ve been missing and partly to find out what I can learn for my own writing.

Amanda Quick is well-known Seattle, Washington author Jayne Krentz. With over fifty NYT bestsellers to her credit, Krentz writes ‘romantic suspense’, with her ‘Amanda Quick’ pen name reserved for historical romantic suspense (which apparently just recently transitioned to more recent history, like Close Up, which is set in the 1930’s), and works as ‘Jayne Castle’ (oddly enough, the author’s real name) for paranormal romantic suspense. From this I’ll glean that the latter isn’t horror as such, the Quick books aren’t quite ‘noir’ or crime fiction, and the Krentz novels not quite thrillers. These are romance novels however you want to label them, not that this is a bad thing.

In Close Up, Vivien Brazier flees a pampered but claustrophobic heiress’ life in San Francisco to pursue a career as a fine arts photographer in Los Angeles. She pays the bills by moonlighting as a crime scene photographer, following police radio calls at night and elbowing the boys club aside at fires, auto accidents and murder scenes, spending her days working on a provocative series of male nudes with a steady stream of Muscle Beach buff-boys lined up outside her beachfront home studio. Smarter and more observant than the rest of the camera jockeys, Vivien helps the police I.D. a high-profile serial killer only a few chapters into the novel. But this spins off into a more puzzling murder mystery, and pairs her with dapper but troubled private (and apparently psychic) investigator Nick Sundridge and his loyal dog Rex. An elaborate if ill-conceived scheme to ensnare this new and even more diabolical killer takes them to the upscale oceanfront resort town of Burning Cove, where romance blossoms even as they to elude – then uncover – the murderer.

A snippy critic might complain that the plot takes some mighty implausible turns, the characters continually do incredibly improbable things and the entire business is rife with an endless list of writerly no-no’s that would guarantee an agent’s or editor’s swift and dismissive rejection for any unknown. But with a looong list of successful books to her credit, I don’t think Quick/Krentz/Castle needs to worry about any of that, and just aims to tell a good story in her own way.

Still, I’ll confess that I kind of wished the author trusted the nifty setup she initially created and left intriguing, no-nonsense Vivien Brazier right where she was when the book began: prowling the means streets of 1930’s Los Angeles on the hunt for grisly crime scenes with her big Speed Graphic camera in tow, bantering with the cops and the lensmen, and living the Boho life by day as a fine arts photographer, even though she has to endure the gallery elite’s sneers at her figure study photos. But Quick/Krentz/Castle knows what she’s doing, even when she chose to hightail it out of that intriguing milieu for a remote movie star hideaway resort and something more like a Golden Age drawing room mystery (albeit one laced with some sex). Bottom line: What the hell do I know? When I have fifty NYT bestsellers under my belt, I’ll make suggestions.

Whether you only enjoy its beginnings or stay on board for the rest of the ride, I bet you’ll agree that Quick’s Close Up is a fun read. I just hope some other writer picks up where Amanda Quick began and brings us an engaging, no-nonsense ‘girl crime photographer’ in a retro urban setting…Close Up was really onto something there. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m already wrestling with my own no-nonsense ‘stiletto gumshoe’ in a retro urban setting. You give it a try.

Dancing In The Street.

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At first glance you might expect a drive-by hit or something sinister, but it was only a brief but intimate dance they had in mind. That, and apparently a hand or two of cards to wait out the downpour. From a photo suite by Christopher Pillitz.

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