If you’re the blog-reading sort who takes notes, then you’d have caught more than once that my “The Stiletto Gumshoe” work-in-progress is set in Chicago’s ethnic blue-collar bungalow belt in 1959. Why that particular year? It intrigues me because it’s right on the cusp of major social changes that are about to explode in the early 1960’s…but not quite there yet. There’s enough of the old to easily link with the look and feel of so many familiar noir tropes, but so many other things intrude into that comfortable but shadowy black & white movie world and hard-boiled novel milieu to continually hint at the disruptions soon to occur.
Like any writer, I accumulated scads of references from sites, blogs, magazines and books, loaded up on photos, catalogs and ads, all of which I scroll through periodically to keep my head firmly in the right mindset when approaching the keyboard. It’s too easy to picture episodes of I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best and simplify everything into Elvis, poodle skirts and sock hops if imagining the 1950’s, when in fact 1959 probably looked and felt much more like the pre-British Invasion Camelot era.
Raymond Fleishchmann, author of How Quickly She Disappears, writes in his 1.24.20 Crimes Reads piece “What We Write About When We Write About The Past” (link below) that “…a successful novel set in the past should certainly include many textural details: that is, depictions of seemingly insignificant ways in which yesteryear differs from today”. But just the same, Fleishchmann points out, “…a successful novel set in the past will intentionally reject many of the stereotypes we have about the past, and as a result that novel’s distant time period might feel surprisingly modern. Certain readers may even mistake this quality for inaccuracy”. He reminds us that in many ways the past isn’t as long-ago as we might suppose and people do, think and feel many of the same things today as they did then. “The human condition defies time,” Fleishchmann says, and I consider that a memorable line.
After browsing photos and ads, there’s nothing better to rely on than books from that era. Note: Not books about that era. From that era.
I read Valerie Taylor’s 1959 The Girls In 3B a few years back and I suppose it even played a part in settling on 1959 for my own work, along with Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything from the previous year (along with its 1959 film adaptation…more about that one later). Valerie Taylor’s (pen name of Velma Young) third novel tells the story of three rural small-town friends – Annice, Pat and Barby – who move to Chicago in search of independence, romance and adventure. Sharing a grungy Hyde Park third floor flat, one signs up for college classes, hoping to be a poet. One gets a clerical job at a publisher and one a stock clerk’s position in a large State Street department store. Though the novel ends with more or less happy (or happy enough) resolutions for each of the three young women, they’ll first endure sexual assaults, unplanned pregnancy/abandonment and the thoroughly ingrained economic, cultural and societal sexism of the time…including predatorial Beatnik boys’ unexpected misogyny. The novel may have been marketed as being racy, though it really isn’t. And it’s been embraced as one of the 1950’s/1960’s era lesbian pulp novels (Taylor’s other books certainly key titles from that era) though only one of the three women ultimately discovers some real happiness with another woman. Still, that’s notable nonetheless, Valerie Taylor recognized for bucking the prevailing vintage lesbian pulp novel trends demanding that gay and lesbian characters always come to bad ends…even if that was only going straight.
It’d be nice to have the original paperback. The cover’s preliminary art is shown here as well, a frequent post at many vintage pulp/paperback/illustration sites (I’ve seen it credited James Meese but am unsure about that). But I read The Girls In 3B – and just finished re-reading it – in The Feminist Press’ Femmes Fatales series handsome 2012 edition, complete with Lisa Walker’s detailed 20+ page afterword.
With some recent input from a skilled Beta reader in hand (an excellent 4+ page single spaced write-up, no less!) after an over-the-holidays read of my continually re-revising work, The Girls In 3B seemed like an ideal read before attacking my manuscript. And I’m going to squeeze in Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything as well as the movie over the next week, merrily overdosing on 1959 for a while.