More work from Portuguese artist, illustrator and designer Rui Ricardo, who did the handsome cover art for Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors The Dead, discussed in a prior post. To see more of the artist’s work (and there’s a lot to gaze at) go to http://www.rui-ricardo.com
My pre-Halloween reading (an illustrated edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) wrapped up a few days before the holiday, and I was tempted to grab another horror classic as we headed closer to the 31st. But the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable still had a few books, with one right on top I was anxious to get to, the sleek Rui Ricardo cover art calling to me each time passed by.
“Fortune favors the bold” is a Latin proverb, and frequently used as a slogan by the military and on European coats of arms. Fortune favors the dead? Well…
I didn’t know much about Stephen Spotswood’s new Fortune Favors The Dead, only that it was set in post-WWII NYC and had been likened to a gender-bending version of Nero Wolfe, all of which sounded good to me. As it turned out, the only disappointment with Spotswood’s debut novel came once I reached the end. No tap dancing around things here: I loved this book, did not want it to end, and insist that Spotswood hunker down on a follow-up…like now.
Fortune Favors The Dead introduces a memorable detective duo: Lillian Pentecost, an already well-known and successful New York private investigator and all-around ‘fixer’ who’s reserved, insightful, and unfortunately, suffering from worsening MS. Finding a very special person to mentor as an assistant is essential. In a sort-of prologue set three years before the novel’s main storyline, we meet the narrator, Willowjean “Will” Parker, a teenage runaway roving the country with a small-time circus, earning some extra pocket money during its New York stay. In an exciting opening scene, Willowjean’s knife throwing skills save Lillian Pentecost, and land Will in jail.
The real story picks up right after the end of WWII, with the Pentecost agency enlisted to investigate the murder of a wealthy industrialist’s widow (the industrialist having offed himself earlier). The killing took place right after a spooky séance at a Halloween costume party and is a genuine locked room mystery with plenty of suspects.
What’s old is new again in Spotswood’s capable hands, situating his debut novel in comfortable territory and populating it with familiar types. Mind you, none of this is done in a derivative manner. Quite the contrary, Spotswood turns Golden Age mystery fiction and film tropes on their ear, reinventing everything in a way that honors genre roots but feels entirely fresh and new, most notably by replacing cerebral Nero Wolfe and streetwise Archie Goodwin with an intriguing detective duo like Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker, than taking things still further with Will’s risky attraction to a possible suspect — the pretty party girl stepdaughter of the murder victim — and even further still with the ultimate resolution of the crime(s). An admission: I didn’t figure out even one tiny bit of the mystery on my own and clumsily fell for every single red herring the author inserted along the way. Credit to Stephen Spotswood.
Is Fortune Favors The Dead a standalone? I really hope not. I want to return to Lillian Pentecost’s well-appointed headquarters home and tag along with Willowjean Parker, whether she’s getting herself in trouble (which she does) or getting in too deep with a pretty face. Come to think of it, those are both the same thing.
With my obligatory Halloween season reading complete, and a nifty illustrated hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula returned to the writing lair’s bookcases till it’s due for another re-read, it’s back to more traditional fare for me, which right now happens to be Stephen Spotswood’s just-released Fortune Favors The Dead. I only started it Tuesday morning, am only 60 pages into the novel as I write this, and will likely be halfway through by the time you’re reading this. So more about that new mystery/crime fiction novel later, though I can tell you that Spotswood’s unique pair of 1940’s private investigators pretty much had me from page one.
The same day I started Fortune Favors The Dead, my Crime Reads e-newsletter (or whatever they call it) listed an article by Stephen Spotswood himself, and on a cherished topic: “10 Classic Radio Mysteries Every Crime Fiction Lover Should Know” (link below). ‘Round here, old time radio fans have long enjoyed a local four-hour Saturday afternoon showcase that aired its share of classic mystery and crime shows, though lately it’s been veering more and more toward big band broadcasts and comedies. But there’s always satellite radio, which I’ll admit I’m kind of off-and-on with (currently on) for a reliable round-the-clock broadcast including a healthy helping of classic mystery and crime programs.
Spotswood’s Crime Reads article highlights a number of well-known and not-so-well known shows from the 1930’s through very early 60’s, two in particular being faves of mine. Candy Matson, starring Natalie Parks, was one of the west coast’s most popular series in its time, short-lived as it was (1949 – 1951). Matson, a former fashion model turned private eye, was a “stiletto gumshoe” if ever there was one, and it’s too bad that of the show’s 90 episodes, only fourteen survived. But they’re a treat. For more about Candy Matson, follow the other link below to an August 2019 post from right here.
My hands-down favorite vintage radio mystery/crime drama is Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, a long-running series (1949 – 1962) with over 800 episodes and one of the very last radio dramas to be broadcast nationally. Johnny Dollar originally was a traditional hard-boiled P.I., but the show was re-tooled in the mid-50’s with the character reimagined as a freelance insurance investigator…”the man with the action packed expense account”. In the show’s audition pilot, Dick Powell played the lead, and then a long list of actors took over Johnny Dollar’s role, including Charles Russell, film star Edmond O’Brien (seen up above at the top if this post with his eyes glued to either the revolver or the shapely limbs), John Lund, Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer…and the actor most fans associate with Johnny Dollar: Bob Bailey. During what many consider the show’s best period, Bailey as Johnny Dollar narrated each story, which ran for one whole week in nightly fifteen-minute episodes. Production values, co-stars and music were all top notch, and the scripts were as good as any mystery/crime fiction storytelling you’d find in Manhunt magazine or on a prime TV show.
I already have several multi-disk sets of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and will surely end up with more, though I have a bad feeling that when it’s time to trade in the current wheels, new cars won’t even have CD players any longer. And for me, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – or any mystery/crime radio shows – go best with long drives. I don’t know why, but radio dramas just make the miles go by quicker. Now I’ll assume that most vintage radio programs have fallen into the public domain. Candy Matson, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and so many others are all over the place and from multiple companies, with three, four or more versions of disk sets and sometimes even more for downloads. Guessing which ones are good quality is a gamble. That said, if you haven’t tried old time radio mystery/crime shows, do so, and I’d say that Candy Matson and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are good places to start.
“The Toff” (the Honorable Richard Rollinson) opens his mail and discovers a beautifully crafted doll of a naked woman – with a dagger plunged into her chest – which lures him into the bizarre world of the Obeah and a dangerous occult mystery. Maybe mystery, crime fiction and the supernatural (or at least the exceedingly eerie) ought to intersect more often. This one’s a pulpy adventure in John Creasey’s long running series of some sixty “Toff” novels published between 1938 and 1977. The piece of cover art above is from a 1967 Hodder & Stoughton UK paperback edition of A Doll For The Toff, though sadly without an artist credit that I know of.
Coincidentally, a few weeks back I pulled Russell Atwood’s 1999 novel East of A off the shelf for an overdue re-read, recalling that I enjoyed the book enough the first time around to earn a spot as a keeper in the writing lair’s over-stuffed bookcases. But there were other new arrivals on the to-be-read pile, and Atwood’s novel eased back into place.
But not this time. East Of A will get its re-read, so I can revisit NYC private eye Payton Sherwood, a man with more than his own share of backstory, who tries to help a teenage runaway, only to end up taking a beating from some street thugs and having the girl run off with his Rolodex. Call it noir, neo-noir, post-modern noir or whatever the hell you like – this one was damn good. Normally novels that feel like travelogues and spend too much time taking the reader on a tour of their setting can leave me wanting. Not East Of A and its gloriously gritty romp through after-hours clubs, drug dens and the underbelly of New York City, neatly conducting its guided tour by way of the storytelling. It left me wanting more.
Which is good, since J. Kingston Pierce’s 10.24.20 edition of The Rap Sheet Blog happened to be one of those long lists of newsworthy mystery/crime fiction miscellany (that post called “A Basket of Oddments”), including a mention of Atwood’s Payton Sherwood mysteries (East of A from 1999 and Losers Live Longer from ten years later), and the news that there’s some new Atwood work available, though not a Payton Sherwood crime novel this time. I suppose I’ll get Atwood’s new Apartment Five Is Alive a little late for Halloween, but I’ll still be in the mood for a haunted house (make that apartment) book.
In addition to being a writer, Atwood runs Blue Umbrella Books in his Westfield, Massachusetts hometown, which like many indie booksellers already had a tough enough time of making a go of things, and has taken a beating during the pandemic and its shut-downs. Apartment Five Is Alive can hopefully put some coin in the kitty. Hey, I’m in.
For more (with links) about Russell Atwood and his books, head to The Rap Sheet blog, which if you don’t already, you really ought to. Link below…
Pennsylvania artist and illustrator Laurence ‘Larry’ Schwinger’s full color illustrations made my recent used bookstore find of the 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a real jewel. And all for less than ten bucks. His non-stylized, no-nonsense illustrations added a lot to the classic vampire tale.
Schwinger didn’t do a lot of horror work that I’m aware of. Or that much mystery/crime fiction material either. But he did some, and they’re nifty pieces, including a series of Cornell Woolrich 1980’s Ballantine paperbacks like I Married A Dead Man (at the top), The Bride Wore Black and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and more recently, some Hard Case Crime novels, including Spiderweb, Shooting Star, Witness To Myself and Robbie’s Wife.
Picking up some books I’d ordered at the local indie, I first browsed a bit, in the mood for something suitable for Halloween time. Sad to say, I didn’t find anything there that piqued my interest, but on the way home, a stop at one of two nearby used bookstores yielded a treasure of sorts: A 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, illustrated by Larry Schwinger. It looked like-new and was only $7.99, so that bargain went home with me.
Sure, I’ve read it before and more than once, but it is one of the grand-daddies of the horror genre, about as influential a book as you can choose, whether for its obvious place of honor in vampire literature, gothic horror literature and horror cinema, or simply its impact on pop culture. I’m nearing the halfway point (that is, as of the few pages I could devour over my drive-thru A.M. coffee earlier today). I wanted something suitable for Halloween. Well, reading Dracula alone in your car in an empty parking lot in the pre-dawn darkness (in a storm, no less, this morning) is pretty damn seasonal.
The book’s been dissected by vampire enthusiasts, critics and scholars alike, so I have little to add to their much wiser assessments, except to note that for all its flaws, and there are many, this re-read reminds me of just how ‘modern’ a novel Dracula really is, clumsy 19th century epistolary structure notwithstanding. A re-read also provides a healthy reminder that Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is a wholly evil villain, which is almost comforting for an avid noir-ish crime fiction fan like me, being immersed so much in a literary and cinematic world of anti-heroes and sundry shades of gray.
I suppose I’ll finish it over the weekend (it’s Thursday now as I write this), and I expect to be in the mood for more Dracula on-screen. Reading the novel is bound to find me watching the original, as in Todd Browning’s 1931 Universal film version with Bela Lugosi as the tuxedo and opera cape clad Transylvanian vampire. Its connection to the source material is thin at best, as is Lugosi’s iconic portrayal, but there are all those magnificent Charles D. Hall designed sets and matte paintings to marvel at, and after all, the film’s source material was the successful Hamilton Deane play more than Bram Stoker’s novel anyway.
Of course, that’s a short film, so I’ll likely have to pick some other Dracula, vampire or horror flick to round out an evening of viewing, but there’s a classic horror DVD or two (well, way more, actually) lurking down in the writing lair. The 10.21.20 edition of Crime Reads (www.crimereads.com) could help, with Lit Hub and Crime Reads staff writer Olivia Rutigliano’s piece “The Fifty Best, Worst And Strangest Draculas Of All-Time, Ranked”. I won’t say who’s her favorite (but it wasn’t Bela…hmmmmm) and the list includes David Niven, Lorne Greene, Morgan Freeman, puppets and cartoons. It’s a fun read, and helpful for recommending a film or warning you away from some. Check it out – link below.
P.D. James’ young London private detective Cordelia Gray debuted in the 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (see the preceding post for more about that book). Twenty-two, just this side of broke, partnered with a former Scotland Yard detective in a none-too-successful P.I. agency, Cordelia suddenly must take over when she finds her one-time mentor and former boss dead in his office.
The first Cordelia Gray novel was not only a bit of a groundbreaker, being a decade ahead of some more well-known mystery series led by women detectives, but also a darn good read. So, it’s surprising that writer James (1920 – 2014) only penned one more Cordelia Gray novel, and that one came ten years later. But presumably the character resonated with fans nonetheless, first in a 1982 film that quickly came and went (and if it’s still lurking out there somewhere, I haven’t found it), then, fifteen years later, Cordelia reappeared, and this time more successfully.
The UK 1997 – 2001 BBC series of feature length episodes started out based in part on James’ novel, but the rest used original stories, though intended at least to maintain the novelist’s tone and stay true to the character. To be fair, there really were only two Cordelia Gray novels to adapt. Some sites suggest that P.D. James wasn’t entirely thrilled with the film/TV adaptations and remained determined to undermine anymore attempts (thus, refusing to write another Cordelia Gray novel). True or myth, I can’t say. I can say that the series lead, Helen Baxendale, does a very credible job of portraying Cordelia Gray. Baxendale may be more familiar to U.S audiences (or at least Gen-Xr’s and syndicated rerun channel watchers) as Emily Waltham, David Schwimmer/Ross Geller’s unlucky British girlfriend/fiancée/wife from the NBC mega-hit sitcom Friends. Baxendale’s real-life first pregnancy may have cut short her stint on that US series, but was neatly written in to An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. So, Ms. Gray joined the select club of literary/TV/film/comics private eyes and cops mothers and moms-to-be.
P.D. James’ (1920 – 2014) first novel came out ten years before her An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (1972), which was, I think, her fifth book. In addition to several standalone works, James (Phyllis Dorothy James, The Baroness James of Holland Park, no less) published a popular series of fourteen mystery novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh, and the London inspector even factored in An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which introduced young London private investigator Cordelia Gray.
The fact is, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is a more important character among literary detectives, cops and investigators than she’s sometimes given credit for, bridging a gap between the golden age of mystery’s largely genteel (and often British) female detectives, the handful of 50’s/60’s era women P.I.’s, cops and spies — most of whom resided in glib, period-sexy quickies – and the introduction of a fresh crop of long-lived, popular characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Washawski and others in the early 1980’s. But back in 1972, Cordelia Gray was something else altogether: A pointedly unglamorous person with no exceptional superspy skills, sometimes troubled by very human self-doubt, but always bolstered by determination and persistence.
In the first of only two Cordelia Gray novels, the fledgling 22-year old private detective suddenly assumes ownership of her former boss-then-mentor and business partner’s private detective agency after he’s committed suicide, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Business” is a relative term, but Cordelia promptly acquires an unexpected out-of-town client. She’s tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of an otherwise healthy, handsome and well-liked college student (soon due for a generous inheritance, as well) who abruptly left school, hid out in a remote estate gardener’s shed, and was found dead, presumably having hung himself with his own belt. A telltale clue – traces of purple lipstick on his lips – leads Cordelia and the reader astray, certain that a woman was involved in the young man’s death. That’s cleared up once Cordelia learns he was actually found wearing that lipstick…along with a lacy black bra and panties. But even this is only one more crafty diversion in P.D. James’ mystery.
Hard-boiled or noir-ish, it’s not. An Unsuitable Job For A Woman isn’t a shoot-em-up or action-filled thriller. It’s a classic mystery British mystery novel freshened up for its time. Or, even a little ahead of its time. And more than merely ‘freshened up’. Cordelia’s stuck in a few fixes and there are some exciting scenes punctuating her relentless investigation (trapped in an abandoned and frighteningly deep well, just one harrowing example). The mystery’s resolution – and the very extended coda that follows – all satisfy and seem sure to have left readers craving more from Cordelia Gray. So, it’s surprising that James only wrote one more Cordelia Gray novel, and not till ten years later, at that: The Skull Beneath The Skin (1982).
I originally read An Unsuitable Job For A Woman a long time ago. Honestly, it hadn’t been top of mind for ages, till I recently stumbled across a handsome trade pb and decided it was time for a re-read. Aside from the basic premise, I’d forgotten enough so that my re-read was more like a first-read. I’d also forgotten how very, very British the novel was, which isn’t a criticism, only an acknowledgment of what a provincial Midwesterner I must be.
Maybe Cordelia Gray didn’t enjoy the multi-book career she deserved. But she did live on, and more about that in another post…
I expected something akin to Affair In Trinidad or even Gilda, two cherished South American locale films noir teaming Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Well, The Big Hoax isn’t quite like those films, but is still a very intriguing piece.
This is a 2020 Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics 124-page hardcover edition of the 2001 graphic novel by Carlos Trillo and Roberto Mandrafino’s – the Argentine writer and artist, respectively. In what appears to be the post-WWII era, the banana republic of La Colonia’s corrupt regime is a notorious vice haven run by gangsters and ex-Nazis, populated by a devout but downtrodden peasantry and threatened by rebels. Disgraced former detective Donald Reynoso, a useless drunk when we first meet him, is hired by the lovely Melinda Centurion to retrieve some very compromising photos, which pit the duo against corrupt cops, revolutionaries and a ruthless and relentless hit man. Precisely why Melinda must get these revealing photos back is a whole other story, and what the titular “Hoax” is about.
Trillo’s story veers between bawdy humor and pure hard-boiled banter and action, frequently stepping back from the narrative for various characters to briefly narrate vital backstory. All of this is depicted in Roberto Mandrafino’s fluid and energetic artwork, which has a touch of caricature about it, but always stays focused on telling the tale. Even if it wasn’t at all what I first expected, I really got a kick out of The Big Hoax, but then, I’ve yet to be let down by any of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics.