Vixens, Vamps & Vipers

vixens vamps & vipers

I adore 1930’s – 50’s crime comics and even some costumed superheroes from that period…well, one at least: Batman. But it was a boys’ club, after all, and it takes some digging to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’, with not a lot to show for the search. Mike Madrid has done a lot of the digging for us, in his first book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy And The History Of Comic Book Heroines, then Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines Of Golden Age Comics.

supergirls & divas

A year later, Madrid decided to give the villainesses their due, and rightly so, since it may be that crime and villainy were just about the only way mid-twentieth century women in comics could assert themselves, after all. Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Villainesses Of Golden Age Comics is a handsome 250+ page book from Exterminating Angel Press and should be a must-read for fans of vintage comics, and in particular, anyone interested in women’s roles in mid-20th century pop culture. The book reproduces 22 different 1940’s-50’s comic stories along with well researched but very readable background information on the characters themselves, their superhero/crime fighter opponents, and the writers and artists who brought them to life. Notable female villains like Madame Doom, Veda The Cobra Woman And Skull Lady are here, but more prosaic crooks and femmes fatales were the most fun for me. For example, National Comics’ 1943 Idaho, who reminds me of a wisecracking Barbara Stanwyck in a 1930’s screwball comedy or crime caper. As the book states, these characters “both transcend and become ensnared in a web of cultural stereotypes”. Female superheroes and women crime fighters from the capes & tights variety (and demure little skirts, in most cases) to the plucky girl reporters, private eyes and DA’s were few enough. Perhaps the only way for female characters to be allowed to fully assert themselves alongside or against the era’s goody two shoes heroes was as villainesses, and there are some memorable ones in this book that’ll surely send you poking around online and digging in vintage comics bins for more.

madame doom

Hard-Boiled Dames.

hard-boiled dames

Hard-Boiled Dames (1986), edited by Bernard Drew says it’s “A brass-knuckled anthology of the toughest women from the classic pulps”. This anthology features women detectives, reporters, adventurers and even a few criminals from 1930’s pulp fiction magazines. Marcia Muller notes in her preface, “Although the courageous independent female sleuth may have, for whatever reasons, gone somewhat out of fashion in the suspense fiction of the 1950’s and 60’s, she was very much in evidence in the pulp magazines of the 30’s and 40’s.”

21st century mystery/crime fiction fans of the more hard-boiled variety could easily think that the genre was populated with no shortage of female sleuths (the bad-ass ones, that is) all along. Not so, of course. Before things exploded in the early 1980’s, thanks to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and some others, there’d been nearly thirty years of ‘blonde bombshells’ like Honey West, Mavis Seidlitz, Marla Trent, and weirder still, Cherry Delight, The Baroness, The Lady From L.U.S.T. and other one-shots and series focused more on the protagonists’ looks and bedroom antics. While the 1940’s through the early 50’s had a decent run of smart, hard-fighting female private eyes, reporters, district attorneys and sundry cloaked/costumed crime fighters, it was relegated to comics much more than pulp fiction or novels. You really have to dial back to the 1930’s pulp era to uncover the female detectives and their associates, and some of the best are featured in this book.

I read my first Carrie Cashin story in Hard-Boiled Dames, and then went hunting for more. Carrie looks “like a demure brown-eyed stenographer in a tailored jacket and tweed skirt”, and in front of clients often defers to her “broad-shouldered assistant Aleck, to allay any clients’ concerns about a woman detecting”. But Miss Cashin is the head of the Cash And Carry Detective Agency, the first to leap into danger, and clearly the brains of the outfit. This anthology includes author Theodore Tinsley’s “The Riddle In Silk”, in which Carrie (with assistant Aleck in tow) investigates a bloody murder in a mansion on the requisite dark and stormy night, which leads them back into the city and ultimately to the waterfront docks on the trail of a stolen pair of silk stockings which “may mean the difference between peace and war in Europe”, the hose containing secret coded messages.

Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady is here too, in “The Domino Lady Doubles Back”, along with Katie Blayne, Trixie Meehan – 15 stories in all, each accompanied by 2 page introductions about the authors and their characters, and reproductions of the original pulps’ illustrations. If you see this book around, snatch it. It’s a good read, and a real eye opener about

 

First You Must Believe It.

how to say i'm a writer

An odd topic for “A Writer’s Blog That’s Not”? I’ll confess: Sometimes it’s a writer’s blog that is, though writerly posts might make some visitors flee. But Bethany Marcel’s short essay at Literary Hub (lithub.com) “How To Say ‘I’m A Writer’ And Mean It” was a quick and motivational read, and not just for writers. What she has to say may resonate with anyone who pursues creative endeavors, a vocation or most anything at all outside the day jobs that tend to define us.

Marcel’s piece is subtitled “First You Must Believe You’re A Writer”. That is, first you must believe you’re a writer in order to feel comfortable telling someone that, in fact, you are. Right upfront she declares, “I’m a writer. For years, I couldn’t say it. I wondered when I could. How many publications would it take? What finish line would I have to cross?” She goes on to explain that she agonized over not having a book published by the time she was thirty and still later, not having a book published at all. She avoided acknowledging that she wrote, frustrated by people’s reactions when she tried to explain that she primarily wrote essays.

I could say that I’m a Cardiologist, a cop or a C.P.A. Of course, just saying so doesn’t make it so. Understandably, there are quite specific education, training, qualifications and certifications involved in these and many other undertakings. But ‘creatives’ are self-defined by the simple act of doing. No license or accreditation officially certifies that someone is a writer, any more than they might be an actor, dancer, artist or musician. Mind you, it takes certain accomplishments to be a published writer, just as a SAG/AFTRA card identifies a working actor and so on.

im a writer montage

But if you’re squeezing paint onto a palette up in the spare bedroom studio once the dinner dishes are done, then you’re an artist, even if your work will have no wider exposure than neighborhood outdoor art fairs. Out in the garage after work with your guitar in hand, penciling lyrics into a notebook? I’d say you’re a musician, even if an open mike night was your biggest audience. Performing in a local theater group’s production? Changing after work for ballet class at your community college? Wandering the forest preserves on weekends with your camera (not your phone) in hand? An actor, a dancer, a photographer, in each case.

Because if you paint, then you’re an artist. Maybe not a particularly good one. Maybe not an artist who’ll ever earn a nickel from your work. Maybe not a ‘professional’ artist. But you’re an artist. Whether you’re a paralegal, a plumber or a proctologist in your day job, if you dance, you’re a dancer. If you act, you’re an actor. If you play an instrument you’re a musician. Money may draw a line between a hobby and a career. But I’ve no idea where the demarcation between a passion and a vocation lies.

What doesn’t make someone a writer (or an artist, actor, dancer, musician)? Well, ‘armchair writing’, that is, just reading about writing. Grousing about agents, editors, publishers and booksellers. Holding court in the college cafeteria or local coffeehouse and pontificating about the writing you’ll do someday (when the marketplace catches up with you). Criticizing the work of other writers, with little or no work of your own to compare it with. No, what makes someone a writer – a good one or a bad one – is writing. And so too with the other artistic endeavors.

Bethany Marcel’s proud declaration that she’s a writer (and she clearly is) is a call to fellow scribes — amateur, dilettante and wannabe alike — anyone whose fingers are poised over their keyboard right now. And, even more so to those whose fingers are busy doing something else instead of dancing across the keys. Perhaps this is the creatives’ coming out of the closet. Like Marcel used to do, I suppose I’ll still take the easy route when quizzed about what I do. I’ll use my day job to define me. Pressed further, I dial back to my college major. But inside, I’ll know. Near the end of her piece, Marcel says, “You can’t control how the world responds to you or your work. Here’s what I know now, after over ten years of writing, no book, no MFA and a smattering of publications few people have read: I’m a writer.” Hopefully soon I’ll have the guts to say it with the same conviction she does.

Link to Bethany Marcel’s essay at Literary Hub below:

https://lithub.com/how-to-say-im-a-writer-and-mean-it/

 

 

Mystery Lite: The Frame-Up.

the_frame_up

Mystery-Lite? Softies? I’m not sure how to classify Meghan Scott Molin’s debut novel The Frame-Up, a library discovery I squeezed in over the holidays. Oh, it’s definitely a mystery, but then it seems to adhere to the marketplace template that used to be called ‘Chick-lit’: A witty and engaging twenty-something heroine, under-appreciated by a mean boss in an otherwise cool big city job that’s rife with workplace drama, relying on a flamboyantly gay male confidante and winding up in an unlikely romance…all sprinkled with lots and lots of brand names.

But in Molin’s novel, the brand names aren’t for designer shoes, pricey apparel or trendy Manhattan (or Rodeo Drive) boutiques, but comic books, superheroes, sci-fi/fantasy films and cult-fave TV shows, because The Frame-Up is set in the comic book world and its protagonist, Michael-Grace Martin (who prefers to go by ‘MG’) is a writer at Los Angeles headquartered Genius Comics. I suspect that MG’s a stand-in for the author herself, who’s a self-confessed fandom geek. In fact, it looks like the book cover’s designer-illustrator Danny Schlitz thought so too, since the cover art matches the author photo inside so well.

We first encounter wisecracking purple-haired L.A. hipster-nerd Michael-Grace Martin in a meet-cute scene with LAPD Detective Matteo Kildaire, handsomely hunky but, sadly, a ‘muggle’ and unwelcome in MG’s geek universe. Reluctantly enlisted as a special LAPD consultant when a costumed vigilante recreates crime scenes from the classic ‘Hooded Falcon’ comic series — the very character MG is currently rebooting – she and the cute cop pose as a couple so he can come and go at the Genius Comics offices and among her fan-boy/girl crowd.

Now Michael-Grace is a comics, con and cosplay geek and no ‘stiletto gumshoe’, preferring ballet flats anyway, though she’s stuck in heels in a couple scenes, including one in which she manages to spike a shadowy figure assaulting her at a crime scene (only to to realize too late that she just rammed her heel into Detective Matteo Kildaire’s foot). In fact, she rivals any snoopy 40’s/50’s comics ‘girl reporter’ or even vintage Nancy Drew herself as she pokes through closets and eavesdrops on incriminating conversations to try and discover what’s behind an apparent drug smuggling ring, a years-old murder and why someone’s dressing up as The Hooded Falcon comic book character. No surprise: Along the way, she falls hard for her pretend boy-toy with a badge, even if he is utterly clueless about Star Wars, Dr. Who, costuming and all things precious to MG and her pals.

It’s all pleasantly ‘lite’ with the crimes (drug smuggling and murders) largely kept ‘off screen’ and the romance completely G-rated enough for the Hallmark Channel. In fact, it might not hurt if the threats were just a smidge more threatening and the all the heavy breathing, racing pulses and sweaty palms led to more than a few chaste kisses, especially with an assertive, purple-haired smart-ass L.A. twenty-something like Michael-Grace Martin. But that’s just this one reader’s unsolicited opinion, and this particular reader’s book comfort zone typically includes brutal fistfights, lethal gunplay and some decidedly un-chaste kissing…and more. So what. Author Meghan Scott Molin seems to know what she’s doing, and will likely have ample opportunity to settle into the right tone since the book is subtitled inside as “The Golden Arrow Mysteries, Book 1”. Which tells us Ms. Molin signed more than a one-book deal with publisher 47 North. Myself, I’ll happily look for Book 2 and more. The novel may be a bit of a softie or even ‘mystery-lite’, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fun read. 47 North being the latitude of Amazon’s Seattle HQ (and an Amazon imprint), I hope it finds its way into booksellers too (who can be understandably reluctant to carry books by ‘the enemy’) and not just libraries, where I stumbled across it. A fun first book, Meghan Scott Molin.

 

 

No Luck For A Lady.

no luck for a lady

My copy of Floyd Mahannah’s No Luck For A Lady is a 1958 second printing of the 1951 paperback (of the 1950 hardcover titled The Golden Hearse) and my scan above doesn’t do the gorgeous Robert Maguire cover art justice. The original edition (don’t know the artist on that one, sorry) is shown below.

Some sites bill the book as a ‘Cassie Gibson’ detective novel, but that’s stretching it a bit. Oh, there’s a character called Cassie Gibson, and she really is a private detective. But the novel’s really Nap Lincoln’s story, a fellow en route to San Francisco to embark on a year-long South American construction job when he loses his shirt in Reno. Broke and hitchhiking at night, he’s picked up by a big yellow Cadillac convertible driven by a beautiful redhead – Miss Cassandra Gibson (strangely, she’s described as both a redhead and a blonde in an example of some very rushed copy editing). But Cassie’s Caddy has a flat, and when Nap looks in the trunk for the spare, he discovers a corpse and a stash of narcotics. Nap learns that Miss Gibson is a licensed P.I. who’s trying to keep the agency her father started afloat, now on a case that has her mixed up with gamblers and gangsters. Soon enough Cassie and Nap are on the run from the local law while duking it out with some mighty scary Reno crooks.

no luck for a lady - original

This ought to be Cassie’s book, but Nap Lincoln is the hero of ths ‘Cassie Gibson Detective Novel’, with the lady P.I. playing second fiddle all the way. It’s too bad, because her character is an interesting one. It’s all the more frustrating then to read the closing scene, with Cassandra and Nap about to go their separate ways, only to ‘fess up about their feelings for one another. Before they have the last paragraph’s climactic kiss, Cassie tells Nap, “I’ve had enough detecting to last the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a detective, Nap. I want…to be a woman.”

The two being mutually exclusive in 1950, apparently.

 

The Last Comics.

dan turner

Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective: The Last Comics: This is a Fiction House Press trade pb collecting fifteen Dan Turner tales from the late 1950 through March 1953 Crime Smashers comics, all written by Robert Leslie Bellem, illustrated by Adolphe Barreaux (of Sally The Sleuth fame), Robert McCarty, Max Plaisted or Tony Tallarico. Bellem was the creator of the Dan Turner character, originally appearing in a 1934 issue of the pulp magazine Spicy Detective and later having his own title that ran from 1942 to 1950. But these aren’t prose pulp tales — they’re short 8-page comics stories and, no surprise, the mysteries are pretty contrived and sometimes more than a little repetitious. The fun, though, is in the period dialog. To a starlet being framed for a murder, whose only alibi is a secret tryst: “You’re in a jackpot, kitten. To nix a murder rap, you’ll have to confess you were indulging in neckery with a boyfriend”. When Dan discovers the gun used in a murder: “And here’s the croakery weapon, begosh!” Interrogating a female suspect: “I’ll have another chin-fest with the Laverne quail”. And so on.

dan turner - girl fight

Actually, many of the individual panels from these very stories have been circulating all over comics and other sites and blogs for ages, particularly the girl-fight scenes, of which there are quite a few, the stories all set among Hollywood studios, and it is Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective after all. The five-panel piece above, for example, depicts Fifi Valcour (I swear, I’m going to steal that name for something!) and Brenda Lee staging a Paris café brawl for a movie scene they’re shooting, which results in the murder of Monarch Pictures director Baldy Boyd. Fun stuff.

Death Was The Other Woman

death was the other woman

I’ve recently been stuck in the car for multiple two-hour each-way and six-hour each-way trips, and with an expired satellite radio subscription no less. I have several multi-disk sets of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio shows and got some mileage out of those (more about that excellent mystery series later). But one trip (one way, at least) sped by with Linda L. Richards’ Death Was The Other Woman. I rarely listen to audio books, though often I read that they’re one of the few real publishing/bookselling growth categories. ‘Course, I don’t think they mean old fashioned audio CD’s, but there are all kinds of freebies available at the library.

Richards’ novel is probably a little too soft to be labeled ‘hard-boiled’, but give me a mid-twentieth century urban setting and I’ll always give a book a try. In Depression-era L.A., young Kathleen ‘Kitty’ Panghorn, a one-time heiress whose father took a one-way flight out a skyscraper window during the stock market crash of 1929, has been reduced to living as a boarder in what was once her own home. Jobs are scarce, so she’s glad to be working (albeit with very unreliable paychecks) for private eye Dex Theroux, who might be a good detective if he wasn’t drunk most days by noon. All the familiar stereotypes, clichés and tropes of the genre are here in abundance, but handled well and in a genuinely fun way. Richards has done some fifteen novels, with three in the ‘Kitty Panghorn’ series, so now I’ll need to track down Death Was In The Picture, and the third from 2016, Death Was In The Blood. I don’t know if the audio book cover art shown above is the same as the hardcover, but this one was designed by David Rotstein, using a nifty Richie Fahey illustration.

Blue City

blue city

Ross MacDonald’s Blue City: Late in 2018 I re-read MacDonald’s The Way Some People Die, the third Lew Archer novel, and it ignited some kind of a MacDonald frenzy, and not just for McRibs (though I could go for one of those at the moment). Bit by bit I’ve been working my way through Ross MacDonald’s canon since. It seems that bookstore mystery sections don’t give the author (real name: Kenneth Millar) the respect he deserves, but then, there’s a very charming and well stocked bookstore a short hop from my day job that doesn’t have a single copy of anything by Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane on its shelves either, so go figure.

So far, one of my favorites among the MacDonald novels wasn’t a Lew Archer book at all, but this 1947 stand-alone Blue City. The Black Lizard 2011 trade pb edition is shown above, and a handsome Joe Montgomery designed cover it is. This might remind you a little bit of Spillane’s non-Mike Hammer novel The Long Wait from just a few years later, filled with small town corruption, gin mills, roadhouses, bad girlz who mean well and extremely vicious hoods. I was surprised at just how far MacDonald was allowed to go with the material – violence was A-OK in mid-twentieth century crime fiction, but there was always a lot of tip-toeing around the sex. It’s pretty sizzlin’ in this 70+ year old novel.

If you only know this title from the atrocious 1986 Michael Manning film of the same name with 80’s brat-packers Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy, forget that and read the book. It’s raw, gritty crime fiction at its very best.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑