Dangerous Dames

Pulpster copy

The Pulpster No. 26, a 2017 PulpFest publication: Not that I attended PulpFest, only being greedily acquisitive, not really a collector and generally steering clear of cons and swap meets.

But I wanted this particular “Dangerous Dames” issue with Ron Goulart’s survey of early crime and mystery pulps’ female detectives, including Hulbert Footner’s Madame Storey, Cleve F. Adams’ Violet McCade, D.B. McCandless’ Sarah Watson, and of course, Theodore Tinsley’s Carrie Cashin, the most successful of the bunch with nearly 40 stories appearing in Crime Busters and Street & Smith’s Mystery Magazine between 1937 and 1942. Prolific author and pop culture historian Ron Goulart was the perfect choice for this piece with his mile-long fiction resume and a dozen or more non-fiction books including The Hard-Boiled Dicks: An Anthology And Study Of Pulp Detective Fiction (1967) and The Dime Detectives (I have a 1980’s edition of that book). You may know him from a roster of pen names including Howard Lee, Jillian Kearny and several others. Goulart’s piece was followed by Bill Pronzini’s “Women In The Detective Pulps”, a look at women crime fiction writers working in the pulp magazines’ boyz club, including Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Carolyn Wells, Dorothy Dunn and others.

Black Mask July 1949

The Pulpster wasn’t a newsstand magazine, to my knowledge, and at only 40 pages, a bit pricey, but well worth it for those two articles. Well, those, and the nifty Norman Saunders cover illustration, which was from the July 1949 issue of Black Mask, and still available as a poster at the artist’s website (normansaunders.com). BTW, that bloody hand print really is the artist’s own hand covered with red paint, according to Saunders’ son.

Walker’s Back.

When Old Midnight COmes ALong

Loren D. Estleman’s latest Amos Walker mystery series novel When Old Midnight Comes Along was released right before Christmas, but I didn’t get my hands on a copy till a week ago. While it’s possible I’ve missed one or two Amos Walker novels (possible, but unlikely), there are almost thirty of them, so I probably ought to do a careful check of the full list…just in case.

If you’re a hard-boiled detective fiction fan, an Amos Walker novel is like coming home to a beloved and familiar place. If you’re foolish enough to be taking a whack at writing hard-boiled or noir-ish crime fiction yourself, then a tour of Walker’s Detroit mean-streets are must-read tutorials. The writing feels effortless, though I’m sure it’s not, and Estleman consistently manages to rival Raymond Chandler when it comes to snappy banter and vivid descriptions. The Motor City private eye’s a bit older here, aging pretty naturally in each book, and his not-a-friend but not-a-nemesis Detroit PD detective John Alderdyce’s retired and working for a hi-tech security firm now (and not liking it one bit). Walker’s hired by a high-profile political fixer to locate the man’s wife. Or, verify that she’s deceased, seeing as she’s been missing for nearly seven years. With only months to go before she can legally be declared dead, and a million dollar life insurance policy on the table, our beloved P.I. naturally wonders why the bigwig doesn’t just wait it out, particularly since he originally was the prime suspect in the wife’s disappearance. But as you’d assume, the plot thickens. Quickly.

I devour mystery and crime fiction, but admittedly, not because I love whodunits. If I did, I’d read more cozies (which I rarely do), which are really the realm of the great locked room mysteries, authentic trails of clues and genuine puzzlers. But it’s never been about the ‘mystery’ for me, and instead, all about enjoying dark and dangerous rides through noir-ish settings riddled with crime and corruption, populated by good guys with an edge and bad girls with an agenda, the final resolution of ‘the crime’ relatively unimportant to me. Well, there’s no one better to guide you through those dark netherworlds than Loren D. Estleman and his grim, gritty, wisened and wise-cracking Amos Walker. But in this case, I found myself uncharacteristically ensnared by the novel’s mystery, naively thinking I’d figured out everything about halfway through, only to discover I had it all wrong (and I mean completely and totally wrong).

It’ll be a wait for the next Amos Walker mystery. But in the mean time I can cross my fingers that Estleman hasn’t given up on his Valentino, Film Detective series. A little more light-hearted, perhaps, and only five novels so far, but I really, really wish there’d be another. Please.

Taking A Moment…

Hammett 1

Just before shutting off the writer’s cave lights before heading to bed last night, I paused for a moment to browse one particular shelf on one of too many bookcases. Spines out, there were my Dashiell Hammett books lined up, a fancy hardcover Chatham River Press novel omnibus edition, a couple frail vintage paperbacks, and various Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperbacks, the handsomest of the bunch in my opinion.

When it comes to the granddaddies of hard-boiled private-eye/crime fiction, I’ll concede here that I’m more Chandler than Hammett, more Marlowe than Spade. Still, yesterday was the anniversary of the day Dashiell Hammett passed away from lung cancer back in 1961. A moment of reverence seemed in order.

Hammett 3

Pinkerton Agency operative, US Army vet in both WWI and WWII, staunch anti-fascist, Hammett was blacklisted and even served time in federal prison for contempt during the 1950’s communist witch hunts. He published over 100 short stories, story collections and novels, created The Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and of course, Sam Spade, and wrote for the silver screen as well, such as the screenplay for his long-time partner Lillian Hellman’s play Watch On The Rhine (a particular favorite film of mine). And yet, he wrote his final novel at age 40, more or less turning his back on fiction decades before his death, his novel and short fiction output penned primarily in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a puzzlingly brief career, but one that obviously influenced the mystery/crime fiction genre far beyond its duration.

Hammett 2

My to-be-read pile is disturbingly tall at the moment. No, I don’t plan to squeeze in a re-read of The Maltese Falcon right now. But then I am reading Loren D. Estleman’s new When Old Midnight Comes Along, an Amos Walker mystery, and can feel the echoes of Dashiell Hammett’s work from eighty and ninety years ago in even that beloved private eye’s story.

Worth The Wait: Mystery Scene.

Mystery Scene 162

The Mystery Scene 2019 Holiday Issue (No. 162) appeared in my mailbox right before Christmas, but I set it aside for a leisurely read when I’d be out of town on a short holiday-over-the-holidays.

Okay, I’m fibbing. I cracked it open right away. But that was only for a quick skim to browse the 2019 Gift Guide For Mystery Lovers while there was still time before the 24th.  There was no point in snooping the books, as it turned out, because I already had or was about to get most of those included in this year’s guide: Joyce Carol Oates Cutting Edge, Otto Penzler’s The Big Book of Reel Murders, Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty’s Ms. Tree: One Mean Mother, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ Criminal: Bad Weekend. The novelties and more gifty items were cute enough but not targeted for my Christmas stocking or well-intended gift giving.

Publishers Kate Stine and Brian Skupin officially announced the magazine’s switch to a quarterly starting this year. It’ll be tough to wait longer between issues, but the promise of an increased page count while keeping the subscription price untouched was welcome news.

Mystery Scene Lesbian Mysteries

Along with the must-read reviews, John Vaerli’s interview with former librarian, publishing PR exec and editor Domenica de Rosa, better known by her Elly Griffiths pen name and her Magic Men mystery series, and Nancy Bilyeau’s article on Robert Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) were particular treats, as was Catherine Maiorisi’s look at contemporary lesbian mysteries, which flagged a couple writers who weren’t on my radar (but are now). As always, both the reviews and the ads launched a list of books to watch for, including Damien Angelica Walters’ The Dead Girls Club, Loren D. Estleman’s When Old Midnight Comes Along – An Amos Walker Novel, Timothy J. Lockhart’s Smith and Laird Blackwell’s Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine And The Art Of The Detective Story, to name just a few.

So, it’ll be a longer wait now for the next issue. Guess I’ll just have to savor it that much more once it arrives.

Always Falling For The Bad Girls.

Crime Reads - Strong Women In Mystery

Caroline and Charles Todd, authors of the Ian Rutledge and Bess Crawford mystery series, chatted about memorably strong women literary characters in the January 7thCrime Reads. Whether hero or villain, and without any implicit ratings (like least to most), their informal list ranged from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and Rachel in My Cousin Rachel to Harper Lee’s Scout and Bronte’s Catherine Earnshaw, and closer to home in modern mysteries, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. Their list isn’t intended as a comprehensive chart of powerful female literary characters, but more of a dialog prompt for readers. They list a few with their reasons, then close with, “…How would you change our list? Or add to it? And more importantly, why.”

Crime Reads Montage

Their prompt worked, and got me thinking. The first few who immediately came to mind were Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, Bridget Gregory in The Last Seduction, Judith Rashleigh from L.S. Hilton’s Maestra novels and even Selina Kyle/Catwoman and Harley Quinn from the comics world. I stopped once I realized that I was coming up with nothing but villains, completely ignoring the long list of heroic cops, district attorneys, private eyes and plucky amateurs who comprise so much of my own reading (and writing: as in, the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ herself). Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel? Stumptown’s Dex Parios? James Ziskin’s Eleanora Stone or Robert Eversz’ Nina Zero? Kara Danvers or Kate Kane? Nope. Troublemakers are the women who automatically popped into my head first, whether from novels, film, comics or TV.

There must be a message there, or something I should reckon with.

Caroline and Charles Todd wondered how readers might change or add to their list of memorably strong literary women, and why. Me? I’m still scratching my head and wondering why I thought of bad girlz before the heroes came to mind. And I’ll keep wondering, but you should go to Crimereads.com to read the Todd’s short article.

 

Death Is A Private Eye

Death Is A Private Eye

Apparently, Death Is A Private Eye – The Unpublished Stories Of Gil Brewer, a Stark House Press Noir Classics book edited by David Rachels, came out during the summer, but it didn’t get on my radar till right before Christmas. Still, the post-holiday season’s as good as any time to gift ourselves, and my Christmas stockings were woefully empty this year, so why not?

Fans of postwar era paperback original hard-boiled crime and so-called vintage sleaze books are surely aware of Gil Brewer, a kind of sad character whose life could form the makings of one of his own stories. A heavy drinker, Gil Brewer was still a prolific writer, and a promising career was launched at the beginning of the 1950’s under the guidance of former Black Mask editor and literary agent Joseph Shaw, who helped the writer sell several stories to the already dwindling crime pulp marketplace, and also sold three novels between 1950 and 1951. These included 13 French Street, which sold over a million copies. The story goes that Brewer was drying out in a sanitarium’s alcoholic ward when the publisher’s contract for that book arrived.

Only ten years later, Brewer’s mentor was gone, the writer just another me-too scribe in the notorious Scott Meredith agency roster, and his story and book sales were few and far between. Injured in a serious auto accident (driving drunk, not surprisingly), Brewer soon found himself cranking out low-pay sleaze and sex material, sales dwindling for even those with each year through his passing in 1983. At that point, his agent handed over cartons of unpublished submissions to his family, and volumes of Brewer’s papers were given to the University of Wyoming. The twenty short stories and two novellas in this Death Is A Private Eye collection were culled from that material, and the book includes an informative introduction from editor Rachels which you can read online if you want an advance look into this vintage writer’s life and work before ordering your own copy. Unlikely that you’ll see this title on shelf at your local book store, of course, but you can get it from the usual online sources or direct from the publisher at starkhousepress.com

The Adventures Of Bianca Dangereuse

The Wrong Girl

The cover art (a photocomposed piece by The Book Designers starting with a sumptuous Tetiana Lazunova photo) might make you think Donis Casey’s 2019 The Wrong Girl from Poisoned Pen Press is a romance or historical, but it’s a fooler. I saw the novel at more than one mystery fiction site, and though I hadn’t read any of Casey’s previous ten mysteries (the nineteen-teens Oklahoma-set Alafair Tucker mysteries), I planned to check it out. I was glad I did.

Split between pre-Dustbowl Oklahoma in 1921 and 1926 Hollywood, The Wrong Girl tells the story of rural small-town teen Blanche Tucker and the perilous adventures that lead her to Hollywood, then later, stardom as the mysterious fan-favorite Bianca Dangereuse, a silent film era daredevil adventuress and real life enigma. Chapters juxtapose Blanche/Bianca’s trek from desolate farmlands to the Hollywood Hills in 1921, with L.A. private eye Ted Oliver’s investigation into the discovery five years later of the skeletal remains of one Graham Peyton. Oliver’s digging into the death of that notorious rake, pimp and all-around hood for a local crime lord, while film star Bianca Dangereuse takes a peculiar interest in the case.

Writers accustomed to having their knuckles wrapped about the whole “show-don’t-tell” thing might be put off at first by author Donis Casey’s habit to tell. And tell and tell and tell and tell some more. But it works because Casey’s a very good storyteller, and The Wrong Girl reads like the writer is telling the story herself. In person. Some of it reads like a traditional vintage P.I. novel, some like a 1920’s silent adventure film. Neither cozy nor hard-boiled, the novel doesn’t fit neatly into any mystery/crime fiction sub-genre, (complete with silent film style title cards liberally inserted throughout the text) and whatever type of mystery-adventure tale you decide to call it, I bet you plow through this 230-page quick-read with a smile. I did. Casey closes The Wrong Girl with some narrative threads clearly unresolved and the tease: “Join us next time to find the answers to these questions and many others as we continue the adventures of Bianca Dangereuse, Episode 2”.

Okay, I’ll be there.

The Skeleton In Santa Claus’s Closet.

Snappy Stories

I not entirely sure I want to know what skeletons Santa’s got hiding in his closet. His personal stash of pilfered toys from the workshop? Incriminating photos of Mrs. Claus? The down ‘n dirty scoop on Rudolph? Or is it really where the naughtier elves rendezvous in secret? We’ll never know, unless you can get your mitts on this 1926 issue of Snappy Stories.

 

No Christmas Cozies Here.

Hard boiled christmas stories

I’ll skip Dickens’ A Christmas Carol again this year and just do a re-read (or at least a thorough re-browse) of Reverse Karma Press’ 146-page trade pb Hard-Boiled Christmas Stories, collecting multiple holiday-themed stories from the 1930’s – 1940’s pulp magazine heyday.

The anthology includes crooked Santa Clauses (spell-check, please), holiday homicides and seasonal scams from John K. Butler (writer of the hard-boiled L.A. cabbie Steve Midnight tales), Steve Fisher (1941’s I Wake Up Screaming), Henry Leverage (editor of Sing Sing prison’s in-house publication, where he was a ‘resident’), West Pointer Lt. John Hopper, newspaperman Jack Kofoed, and several others. The book leads off with a Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective yarn, but not by Turner’s creator Robert Leslie Bellem, this homage tale penned instead by the anthology’s editor John Wooley, who also edited the first-ever Dan Turner collection. I’ve talked about my love affair with Robert Leslie Bellem’s sing-songy slang-filled snappy banter before, and Wooley does the artful word-smith’s style justice here in “Santa’s Slay Ride”. Why no Bellem original? Though he knocked out literally hundreds of Dan Turner short stories and comics scripts, the Hard-Boiled Christmas Stories editors concluded that Bellem had never written a Christmas story for the hard-boiled Hollywood private eye. Go figure.

I don’t know why Santa Claus and his elves would want to leave a 1930’s pulp cover style damsel-in-distress all ‘wrapped up’ under the Christmas tree, but that cover art was done by David Saunders, son of the late pulp, paperback and pinup illustrator Norm Saunders, intended to emulate the familiar style of mystery and crime pulp maestro H.J. Ward.

 

 

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