The N-Word In The Writers’ Room.

Walter Mosley

I’ve been away for a few days, a mix of offsite day job chores, personal work and routine R&R, but feeling disconnected and nearly off the grid in a spot where broadband is a foreign word. On the plus side, I was insulated from the daily tweetstorm from Pennsylvania Avenue, though it was a ten-mile trek just to buy a Sunday newspaper.

You may not be able to link to Walter Mosley’s Sunday 9.8.19 New York Times editorial section piece, “Why I Quit The Writer’s Room” (link below) since the NYT, like most newspapers, needs to encourage you to subscribe, so sometimes articles don’t open, and I get that. So, if you have any problem linking, you can also get to it via Crime Reads (crimereads.com). But do get to it, however you like, because Mosley’s piece is well worth the effort.

If you visit or follow here, then there’s no way you could be unfamiliar with Edgar Award winner and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Walter Mosley, the prolific novelist who’s made up for lost time (he started writing in his mid-thirties) with over 40 novels, plus non-fiction books, plays and screenwriting credits. Mosley’s perhaps best known for his magnificent Easy Rawlins series, which includes his first published novel, Devil In A Blue Dress from 1990, later made into the 1995 film by the same name starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals. His latest non-fiction writer’s book, Elements of Fiction just came out last week.

Mosley’s op-ed piece held the top space of the NYT’s Op-Ed section back page, and finds him at work in his current show’s writers’ room when he received a call from the network’s Human Resources Department. “Mr. Mosley, it’s been reported that you used the N-Word in the writers’ room,” the H.R. staffer said. Incredulous, I assume, Mosley replied, “I am the N-Word in the writers’ room.” And then he quit. There’s much more to it than this shorthand description, of course, but why read about it from me when you ought to get it firsthand from Walter Mosley himself? It’s a thought-provoking piece, crafted as only Mosley could.

As for me, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what I can learn in Mosley’s Elements of Fiction, my copy due in the local bookstore Tuesday.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/walter-mosley.html

The Best Of Manhunt

The Best of Manhunt

I pre-ordered my copy of The Best of Manhunt – A Collection of The Best of Manhunt Magazine edited by Jeff Vorzimmer earlier in the summer. The book arrived weeks ago, but eager as I was to dive right in, I was already committed to other reading, and reluctantly set it aside. Typically juggling two books at once, anthologies often find their way to my car. Short stories are ideal for a quick read over the AM coffee-to-go, during workday breaks or while waiting for an appointment. With 39 stories to devour in this nearly 400-page book, I figured it would hold me for a week or more for sure. Once I got around to it, that is.

The hell with that…I blew through this book in two days, and feel like I’ve just been given an incredibly humbling how-to course in the craft of mystery and crime fiction writing from some of the genre’s masters, and all for a little over twenty bucks instead of a fat tuition check.

Yes, I was puzzled about the story sequence and why Mr. Vorzimmer decided not to put them in chronological order. And yes, I was a teeny-tiny bit disappointed that the book wasn’t illustrated (excluding two small sample page reproductions and one amusing illustration in the editor’s intro). That’s not me grousing about anything, just wondering aloud. This handsome volume from Stark House Press more than makes up for it by not skimping on other extras, including an entertaining anecdotal foreword from Lawrence Block, an explanatory story selection front piece from the editor, Vorzimmer’s 9-page introduction, a reprint of Scott & Sidney Meredith’s introduction from the 1958 The Best From Manhunt paperback (see below) and a reflective afterword from Barry N. Malzburg to close the book.

The author list reads like a rogue’s gallery of postwar mystery and mid-twentieth century short fiction luminaries, including: Nelson Algren, Lawrence Block, Gil Brewer, Erskine Caldwell, Harlan Ellison, Fletcher Flora, David Goodis, Evan Hunter, Frank Kane, John D. MacDonald, Richard Prather, Mickey Spillane, Donald Westlake and Harry Whittington…and that’s only about a third of the roster.

Favorites? Don’t ask, there are too many. Okay, twist my arm and I’ll say that David Goodis’ 1953 “Professional Man” just might be my fave, a dark tale about an always-reliable hit man forced to kill his own lover. And for me, Gil Brewer’s 1955 “Moonshine” was far and away the most disturbing tale in the anthology, dealing with a cuckolded husband driven to murder…make that murders, plural. The closing scene, after he’s killed one of his wife’s lovers, surprised yet another (literally hiding in the bedroom closet) and shot him, murdered his wife, and then, with the still smoking .45 automatic in hand, calls his two children into the room. I’m still getting chills picturing that grim closing scene.

If you think you know the crime pulps based on the 1930’s-40’s detective magazines – and I’ve read and enjoyed my share of those via reprints as you may have noticed from material appearing here – trust me when I tell you than the stories in Manhunt were quite different. Oh, there are some rogue cops, hard-boiled detectives, gunsels and femmes fatales, of course. Some familiar postwar private eye series characters even make appearances, including Richard Prather’s Shell Scott and Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell. But they’re hardly indicative of the creatively diverse stories you’ll find here. I’m neither an expert nor an authority on postwar mystery/crime fiction, only an avid fan. But I can think of no better book to provide an overview of what the genre was capable of in the 1950’s than this The Best of Manhunt – A Collection of The Best of Manhunt Magazine as put together by Jeff Vorzimmer. And you’ll just have to indulge me for a few subsequent posts while I celebrate the magazine’s 14-year run with some random covers worth viewing.

Below is the 1958 ‘Best of’ paperback, with its Ernest Chiriacka cover:

best from manhunt 1958 ernest chiriacka cover

 

The Tommy Gun Dolls

The Tommy Gun Dolls

I always enjoy a surprise, such as discovering something unknown and unexpected on a comic shop’s graphic novel shelves. A recent example: Daniel Cooney’s The Tommy Gun Dolls, a handsome creator-owned hardcover graphic novel set in Prohibition era San Francisco, with both story and art by Cooney himself, assisted on inks and colors by Leigh Walls and Lisa Gonzales.

It’s 1928, and the city’s practically a war zone with rival Irish, Italian and Chinese mobs duking it out over turf, booze, gambling and prostitution. Meanwhile, at the bawdy Frisky Devil speakeasy-burlesque house (and its adjoining bordello), the showgirls and hookers endure the mobsters’ and customers’ abuse. When one of them is murdered and her grisly death hushed up by cops on the take and a tight-lipped coroner, the ladies take matters into their own hands, egged on by part-time grifter, part-time gambler, part-time snoop and full-time trouble-maker Frankie, the dead girl’s lover, and apparently a refugee from a Bob Fosse musical, complete with a black bob, derby and a complete Sally Bowles ensemble.

Oh yeah, and a tommy gun.

The Tommy Gun Dolls – Volume One: “The Big Takeover”  was a Kickstarter campaign project that resulted in a very handsome book. I don’t know the status of Volume Two – “Double Cross On Maiden Lane”, though the first book clearly was a ‘to-be-continued thing’, so I hope we’ll see that next book and more from Mr. Cooney soon. This is a pretty complex tale full of double-crosses and retro-decadence, all rendered in some mighty nice artwork. Not sure if I buy ‘proto-punk’ Frankie’s torn stockings and unlaced Doc Martens get up in the story’s opening scenes, but let’s give the artist some creatively anachronistic leeway there and just say they were World War One doughboy surplus gear. The boots, that is.

The Tommy Gun Dolls 2

It’s C.J. (Not that it really matters).

C.J. THomas

I was pleased as could be a couple weeks back to see The Stiletto Gumshoe site mentioned with a link at J. Kingston Pierce’s essential The Rap Sheet blog (8.9.19). It was only later that I realized that my still new-ish blog was referred to as “the anonymously composed blog”.

Certain that I’d introduced myself early on, I scrolled all the way back through December 2018 posts to double check. Uhm…ooops. No such post. But remembering that The Stiletto Gumshoe was originally launched at Tumblr and only lingering there for a few weeks before migrating over to WordPress (though now cross-posting back to Tumblr, with WordPress and Tumblr soon to be some sort of siblings anyway), I did introduce myself in one of the original Tumblr blog’s first posts. But not every Tumblr post made it intact to WordPress when I relaunched things here.

So, not that it ought to matter much to anyone, but the name’s C.J. Thomas (as the visual above suggests). It’s only a pen name, but if it’s good enough at the top of a manuscript or signed to the bottom of a query, it’s good enough here. You’ll understand if I daydream about seeing it emblazoned in 72 pt. type across a book’s front cover.

Pen Name Infographic Screen Cap

Some writers wouldn’t dream of publishing under their own name, while others can’t understand what all the fuss is about. I got a kick out of Scott McCormick’s recent piece at the Book Baby blog, seen via Chris The Story Reading Ape’s Blog, a pretty reliable daily read for all things writerly. (Links below.) McCormick’s “Pen Names: How And Why To Use Them” covered familiar ground for many writers, listing famous scribes who’ve employed pen names and providing some guidance on how to come up with one of your own. I’m intrigued by writers who’ve adopted pen names simply because they considered their own names too long or too foreign for the English language market, as illustrated by the cute pen name infographic included in McCormicks piece, which highlighted some well-known writers’ names going back to the 1700’s. Not that I considered Isak Dinesen’s name that easy to pronounce (I’d just as soon not say it out loud and have some smarmy literary type correct me with a snicker), but seeing as how her real name was Karen Christence Dinesen, Baroness Blixen-Finecke, I kinda get it.

Naturally the church’s choirmaster will want a pen name for her sizzling Kindle erotica shorts, and a school board member might feel a little queasy putting her real name on a blood-soaked cops-n-robbers shoot ‘em up series making the rounds. Sometimes it’s just a handy way to keep the day job and ‘real life’ separate from writing endeavors – in-progress or published — and sometimes it’s as simple as a do-over on a long, clunky or perpetually mispronounced name. For the record, my own is only one syllable, yet people have been butchering it since grade school. Go figure.

Nonetheless, hello from C.J. Thomas, host of The Stiletto Gumshoe, and hopefully the name that’ll appear in jumbo type on the front cover of a book by the same name. Well, someday.

https://thestoryreadingapeblog.com/2019/08/29/pen-names-how-and-why-to-use-them-by-scott-mccormick/

https://blog.bookbaby.com/2019/08/pen-names-how-and-why-to-use-them/

 

Strand Magazine: What Else Do You Want?

Strand

If a John Steinbeck 1954 short story (largely unseen in English previously) and a Joyce Carol Oates story (who also has a novella out now from Hard Case Crime) aren’t enough, then perhaps an interview by Andrew F. Gulli with novelist Hank Phillipe Ryan would make you grab the July-November 2019 issue of the Strand Magazine off the stand. I was intrigued by how many of my recent reads were featured in ads or award lists, not all of them new releases, including Edgar Cantero’s This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, S.A. Lelchuk’s Save Me From Dangerous Men and Job Copenhaver’s Dodging And Burning. 

 

But my biggest takeaway from this current issue was just how many forthcoming titles I took note of for my own book watch lists. Naturally a new issue of Strand Magazine, Mystery Scene or Publisher’s Weekly will yield a book or two to look for. But for some reason this issue was a cover to cover shout out for new books I need to get. Just a few: Paul Di Filippo’s The Big Get-Even and his The Deadly Kiss-Off,  Lawrence Dudley’s New York Station and Jeffrey Fleishman’s My Detective among them. It’s going to be a busy Fall.

The Consummate Illustrator

Austin Briggs

Just ordered mine today from Auad Publishing: Austin Briggs – The Consummate Illustrator edited by Manuel Auad, text by David Apatoff, with a foreword by the artist’s son.

Briggs isn’t the first name that’ll come to mind when you think of so-called golden and silver age illustrators from the mid-twentieth century, at least among pulp, mystery and crime fiction enthusiasts. He worked primarily in the glossies (lucky fellow) and in advertising, but his enormous body of work included no shortage of dark and mysterious pieces from high profile magazine story assignments. Check out a previous post of mine on Austin Briggs (link below) for a few more examples of his work and more about the artist.

Austin Briggs Cosmopolitan 1947Austin Briggs

And try the link to Auad Publishing while you’re at it. What an interesting operation. I have a couple Auad books, so I know that Austin Briggs – The Consummate Illustrator will be a handsome piece. Manuel Auad produces a small but impressive list of titles, each a labor of love and honoring classic American and foreign illustrators. These are well made books done in short runs, most sold direct from the publisher, not in stores, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. There’s only so much to browse there, some of the titles already sold out. But the site’s definitely worth a visit for its Links page, with a great list of artists’ and illustration sites you’re bound to probe a bit.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/07/24/austin-briggs/

auadpublishing.com

The Chelsea Girls

The Chelsea Girls - Fiona Davis

Looking to take a break from dark, noir-ish crime fiction after James Ellroy’s This Storm, I knocked off Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, taking a refresher course in the world of thrillers, suspense fiction and serial killers, those enormous categories so closely aligned with mystery/crime fiction, but not always quick to consider themselves a part of the genre.

But the bigger departure from my more customary reading material was Fiona Davis’ The Chelsea Girls (2019), Davis’ fourth novel, the second I’ve read, and the second using an iconic New York residential hotel and mid-twentieth century setting as a backdrop (her debut novel The Dollhouse was set in the Barbizon in the 1960’s).

Ambitious, outgoing head-turner Maxine Mead and comparatively mousey Hazel Ripley partner up on a USO tour during the end days of WWII in war ravaged Italy. After VE Day they drift part, Maxie to Hollywood while Hazel returns to New York where she flees from her manipulative stage mother to take up residence in the Chelsea Hotel, home to actors, writers, artists and a colorful cast of the postwar Boho set’s hangers-on. Reunited over a provocative Off-Broadway play penned by Hazel and starring Maxie, the two friends fall under the watchful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Just when Hazel and Maxie should triumph, self-appointed boycotting blacklisters ruin everything, and unexpected betrayals tear the friends apart, only to reunite in the late 1960’s for a sort of reconciliation revealing that, the era’s injustice notwithstanding, not everyone swept up in the Communist witch hunt’s net was entirely innocent.

A novel like Fiona Davis’The Chelsea Girls provides valuable lessons for writers even as it delivers the goods for readers. Davis crafted a page-turner, but does so without any gunplay, car chases, ticking time bombs or steamy sex scenes. It’s just a damn good tale expertly told with two characters that engage the reader pretty much right from their initial introductions. Make that three characters, because the Chelsea Hotel itself is a character as much as Hazel and Maxine, much like the Barbizon was in Davis’ first book, The Dollhouse.

Not to suggest that The Chelsea Girls lack of suspense tricks made it all sunshine and sweetness. It’s definitely not, dealing with the end of the war and the Red Scare after all. But reading it right after This Storm was akin to listening to Taylor Swift after hours of thrash metal. I won’t say ‘soothing’, but it was something like that. For me, it did what it was supposed to do. With the Barbizon and the Chelsea under her belt, I don’t know what other iconic retro residential hotels are left for Fiona Davis, but wherever she goes with her next novel (and clearly, there’ll be a next one), I’m making my reservation now.

 

Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer

Betty Bates 2

Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer (AKA Betty Bates – Attorney at Law, Betty Bates – Lady at Law and just plain ol’ Betty Bates) is one vintage female crimefighter comic series that needs no apologies or caveats. Created by Stanley Charbot, pen name for Bob Powell, and sometimes drawn by artists Al Bryant, Nick Cardy and Alice Kirkpatrick, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer appeared in Hot Comics for ten years from 1940 through 1950. The early issues’ art is, frankly, pretty crude, though no worse than many other comics were at the time (peek at the earliest Batman issues for comparison). But with Cardy and Bryant wielding the pencils, inking pens and sable brushes later on, there are spots in the series that could rival even some of Matt Baker’s fluid panels.

Betty Bates 1

Consider: Betty Bates wasn’t just one more in a long line of assistants, secretaries or girlfriends. Bates was the D.A. In fact, Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer was the longest running series led by a lawyer – man or woman – till Marvel’s Daredevil passed the ten-year mark, and it was one of the longest running non-super powered/non-costumed comic heroes of the golden age.

Betty Bates 3

But Bates doesn’t spend too much time in the court room, far too busy fighting crooks, looking for trouble or getting caught up in it. Using her wits and falling back on some handy martial arts skills when needed, she normally prevails on her own and without the aid of some hunky cop or boyfriend, though some stories include ‘Larry’, a reporter who’s obviously smitten with the lady lawyer.

Betty Bates 5

Two things leap out at you: The drawings foregoe the then customary ‘good girl art’ look, with its intrusive peekaboo bathing suit and undressing scenes. Similarly, though Betty falls into some bad guys’ clutches, it’s no more frequent than in any other crime comics or costumed superhero series, and no one could label Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer as a ‘damsel in distress’ or ‘women in peril’ comic. In fact, the stories are really quite good, several stand up well even today, and with ten years of material, there’s a lot to read.

Betty Bates Attorney At Law 2

The Gwandanaland Betty Bates – Lady At Law Readers Collection is a hefty volume, with over 400 pages of Betty Bates stories. Strangely, they’re all black and white, though the comics were full color, of course (I’ve included some online finds here, the book too fat to open in my scanner). A couple came from awful originals, were scanned off of second-generation copies or perhaps just poorly scanned and not corrected, and I was pretty disappointed that the publisher would include such barely readable pieces. But with so many in the book, quantity made up for quality…I guess.

I don’t know why, but they also decided to tack on a few unrelated ‘bonus’ pieces: several Jungle Lil and Miss America stories, also with some mighty uneven scanning and in black and white. I’m not much for adventure pulps/comics, whether Jungle Jane’s, Jill’s or Lil’s, and 1940’s era costumed superheroes aren’t really my thing. But I’ll be bringing up the Miss America stories in another post nonetheless (you’ll see why). No idea why Gwandanaland added this material…the Betty Bates, Lady Lawyer stories really made for a nice fat book all on their own.

Betty Bates 4

The Real Chicago.

Velma And Roxie

Understandable if you only think of Chicago as Broadway darling Bob Fosse’s brainchild (along with John Kander and Fred Ebb), the hit musical debuting in 1975, revived in 1997 and adapted for the 2002 film with Renee Zellwegger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere. But it really begins with journalist, playwright and screenwriter Maurine Dallas Watkins’ creation, originally running on Broadway in 1926, adapted to a 1927 silent film and again in 1942 as Roxie Hart starring Ginger Rogers.

Ginger ROgers - Roxie Hart

Louisville, Kentucky native Maurine Dallas Watkins (1896 – 1969) attended college back east, studying to be a playwright, but ended up in Chicago where she landed a job as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune in 1924. The Trib was one of seven dailies, each competing for attention in what may be the then Second City’s most colorful era, with Prohibition in full force, speakeasies on every corner, Al Capone-Bugs Moran gang wars turning the streets into a war zone and Chicago’s legendary political corruption overseeing it all. Watkins had no shortage of tawdriness to cover, including the Leopold And Loeb kidnapping/murder case and the sensational trials of two photogenic ‘jazz babies’ accused of crimes of passion: Cabaret singer Belva Gaertner, “the most stylish on murderess row” and Beulah Sheriff Annan, “the beauty of the cell block’. Far from sympathetic, Watkins was frustrated by the ease with which the two women managed to manipulate her male colleagues, particularly since she was convinced that both women were guilty as hell.

old posters

Soon after leaving the Tribune, Watkins returned to school and drama workshops, where she penned The Brave Little Woman, which she soon revamped into Chicago, in which Beulah became Roxie Hart and Belva morphed into Velma Kelly. The play debuted on Broadway in 1926 and was an immediate hit, spawning successful road tours (one with a very young Clark Gable) and inevitably landed in Hollywood…Watkins ending up there as well. Her play was adapted to the silent screen by Cecil B. Demille, and with major changes, into 1942’s Roxie Hart. Meanwhile, Watkins became a moderately successful screenwriter, her best-known film being Libeled Lady from 1936 with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow. She retired to Florida, quite well off and by then deeply religious, turning down further offers for the rights to Chicago, regretting the part she played in glorifying two murderers who escaped justice. But after she passed away in 1969, her estate sold the rights to Bob Fosse, who glammed up the jazz baby killers more than ever.

He Had It Coming Book

The story behind all this will be told in detail soon. Chicago Tribune Publishing will release Kori Rumore and Marianne Mather’s He Had It Coming – Four Murderous Women And The Reporter Who Immortalized Their Stories in November. The book grew out of Tribune photo editor Mather’s discovery of decades-old boxes of photo negatives of the ‘real’ Roxie, Velma and others collected by Maurine Dallas Watkins, which led her to research the fifty-plus Watkins’ Tribune bylines. The result is a biography of Maurine Dallas Watkins and a profile of the sensational Belva Gaertner/Beulah Sheriff Annan trials — a long overdue honor for one of the Trib’s own, and aiming to set the story straight on a couple of flapper-fatales from history and the real story behind Roxie, Velma and Chicago.

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