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.

Decisions, decisions…

Diego Bernard Harley Quinn

The Batman family’s rogues gallery has always been the comic world’s best (IMHO). And though Selina Kyle will always be my favorite, the zany shrink with a kink has become my number two, and it’s whimsical art like this piece by Diego Bernard that makes her so endearing. So hard to choose: Street or costume? At least accessorizing’s always a cinch for Harley Quinn. Just carry a great big mallet.

Gal Friday

gal friday by chris samnee 2008

No, it’s not vintage Gail Ford – Girl Friday, but a different look at a “Gal Friday’, this piece called just that and by Chris Samnee from 2008.

Where Do The Dead Girls Live?

lily james by cuneyt akeroglu

There is no dry erase board hanging on my writing lair’s wall, and no tally maintained for my in-progress projects’ body counts. But if there was, the completed manuscript for The Stiletto Gumshoe currently making the rounds in the querying process would show eight: Five men and three women. None could be labeled innocent victims, though two of the women might be considered ‘collateral damage’ of the novel’s primary crimes, while the last of the three ought to ignite some cheers when she finally goes down.

No, I didn’t track my body count, much less categorized by gender, and the ‘dead girl’ trope wasn’t even on my radar when work on that novel began. But by the time it was deep in revisions and I’d also started its sequel (for a hoped-for hard-boiled crime fiction series, that one still in-progress), there was no ignoring an expanding dialog about the dismissive and disturbing reliance on murdered women — often anonymous victims — deployed in the mystery/crime fiction genre and pop culture/entertainment in general as convenient plot devices, all too often for voyeuristic thrills and with fetishistic relish, and customarily used as prompts for male protagonists’ stories.

So, updating that imaginary dry erase board for The Stiletto Gumshoe’s in-progress sequel might still show a relatively benign body count, the story including the demise of two women at this point (once again, far from innocent bystanders) and several bad guys getting their just desserts, their final tally still undetermined. (It is a work-in-progress, after all, so we’ll let creativity and writerly caprice lead where it will, already-discarded outlines aside.) Still, I know all too well that one of the women who dies near the beginning of this novel does so in a grisly manner (though ‘off-camera’, so to speak), doesn’t even merit a line of dialog before her demise, and may fit the profile of the dreaded ‘dead girl’ trope closer than I’d like. Nothing intentional, just how the story worked out.

dead girl book

I’d already finished Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession (2018) at the time the sequel was underway, and could hardly plead ignorance about the issue. To be fair, the title of Bolin’s book, which earned its share of accolades (NYT Notable Book of 2018, NYT Editor’s Choice, Edgar Nominee, etc.) is a bit misleading, being more personal memoir, and only the first fourth (if that) actually dealt with the ‘dead girl’ trope. Still…the topic was already out there for discussion elsewhere.

For example, last week’s first Literary Hub e-newsletter included a CrimeReads link to “Inverting – And Avoiding – The ‘Dead Girl’ Trope”, its subhead: “Writers Carolyn Murnick And Alex Segura Discuss The Dangers And Pitfalls Of The Crime Genre’s Most Problematic Trend” (Link Below). Please give it a look. Here are writers themselves grappling with the issue, just as we’ve seen others do recently in roundtables, essays and posts. The question: Why does so much crime genre material rely on male investigators (private eyes, cops, the FBI, whomever) solving the murders of more or less anonymous women? Further, why does so much crime genre material (novels, stories, film, TV series, comics, art) use the stalking, assault, abduction, rape, torture and murder of women for entertainment? Why do writers choose to write this, and why do readers seem to gobble it up?

Dead Girl Trope

Don’t look for answers here. It’ll take a more widely read authority than me (not being an authority on anything, really) to plumb the psyches of writers or readers, and a much smarter observer to analyze the drives, impulses and interests of modern American society. That the ‘dead girl’ trope is very much alive and well (so to speak) and even thriving in entertainment is apparent. But as this piece’s title asks, precisely where do the ‘dead girls’ live? Where is the ‘dead girl’ trope most prevalent, and is it really in the crime genre?

Genre may be no more than a convenient publishing industry term, something writers use to steer submissions to the proper agent, those agents use to pitch editors, publishers use to organize lists, booksellers (and librarians) use for merchandising and readers use to navigate bookstore aisles. After all, charming sweet shoppe and kitty-cat cozies are shelved in the same mystery genre section as hard-boiled P.I. series and grisly shoot ‘em ups. But they have as much in common as dystopian sci-fi and a Regency romance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘dead girl’ trope is deployed by mystery/crime fiction writers as ruthlessly and dismissively as we might naturally assume. I’d suggest that where ‘the dead girls live’ — that is, where the ‘dead girl’ trope is most prevalent – is actually in aligned categories like ‘Thrillers’, ‘Suspense’, ‘Psychological Suspense’ and many other similar labels that dustjacket copywriters concoct.  I just finished one myself this week, albeit a comparatively tame novel. Still, it was just one of the the many, many, many novels where the dead girls reside in the company of an army of stalkers and serial killers. These novels often adhere to very successful formulas which seem to pit writers in competition with one another to dream up ever increasing levels of sadistic torture and cruelly sex-ified deaths. If the cover art doesn’t give it away, the opening pages will, inevitably featuring a woman abducted, restrained, enduring some unimaginable horror and then finally being murdered (or about to be). There are oodles of these books, many by incredibly successful and popular writers, and while some are shelved in the ‘Mystery’ section, just as often (if not more so) they’re in ‘Fiction & Literature’. In fact, I’ve read my share of author interviews in which the writers distance themselves from the mystery/crime fiction ‘genre’ altogether, presumably leery of the perceived ghettoization a genre label can lead to.

Admittedly, my own reading tastes lean towards mid-twentieth century crime fiction from the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp shorts to the postwar paperback originals and series, along with contemporary material that revives, honors and reimagines their tropes, whether noir pastiche or hard-boiled homage. Not surprisingly, my own work attempts to do the same. Oh, all that material’s brimming with violence and bloodshed, full of brawls and gunplay, yet seems to feature as many (if not more) mobsters, thieves, muggers, blackmailers, drug dealers, embezzlers, pimps, femmes fatales and rogue cops duking it out with private eyes, detectives, reporters, attorneys and sundry investigators as it does ‘dead girls’ used only as triggers for hard-boiled dicks’ heroic quests, with victims reduced to mere props. In the mystery/crime fiction genre, women definitely die. And men die. Lots of them. Good ones and bad ones and various in-betweeners. But as for inhumanly crafty serial killers and the endless horror-show of women in bondage and sexualized torture that populate the pages of so many ‘thrillers’? Maybe not as much as you might suppose, or so it seems to me, and at least in my own reading.

isebelle huppert guy bourdin 1988 copy

My point is only this: The ‘dead girl’ trope is indeed very real, much more than a trend, and it’s something each and every mystery/crime fiction writer needs to confront when outlining, plotting and eventually pounding the keys. Further, it’s something readers might want to consider when choosing their next books. We’re bound to encounter no shortage of squirm-worthy sexism, racism and politics in a lot of classic mystery/crime fiction, even in works by cherished legends. Each of us can compartmentalize that in the way we choose. Or not. But before we paint the entire mystery/crime fiction genre with too broad a brush of complicity – intended or not — let’s think about where the ‘dead girl’ trope prevails. Is it in the ‘crime genre’? Well, yes…some, to be sure. But perhaps, it thrives much more visibly among the innumerable ‘thrillers’ on the drug store, supermarket and mass-merchandiser bestseller racks and in the bookstores’ Fiction & Literature sections. My observation tells me that it’s where the ‘dead girls’ really live.

Top photo: Lily James by Cuneyt Akeroglu; above: Isabelle Huppert by Guy Bourdin, 1988

https://crimereads.com/inverting-and-avoiding-the-dead-girl-trope/

 

Tango Noir.

Jorge Botero Lujan 1

Just a dance? No, seems like much more. Intriguing paintings from Jorge Botero Lujan, artfully capturing the steamy embraces of dark ballroom romance.

Jorge Botero Lujan 2Jorge Botero Lujan 3Jorge Botero Lujan 4Jorge Botero Lujan 5Jorge Botero Lujan 6

“Our Last Hours Before He Killed Himself”

olga sherer by elisabeth toll bon magazine 2009 our last hours before he killed himself

I often say that many ‘artsier’ and edgier fashion editorials tell a story, or mean to at any rate. But even if creative directors, art directors and photographers have lofty narrative goals, the purpose of the shoots is to sell clothes. Or shoes, makeup, accessories or whatever.

But when a shoot is titled “Our Last Hours Before He Killed Himself”, as is this one by Elisabeth Toll with model Olga Sherer for a 2009 issue of Bon magazine…well, clearly the creative team had something narrative in mind. And that’s one hell of  title.

Elisabeth Toll 3Elisabeth Toll 2Elisabeth Toll 1Elisabeth Toll 4

At The Rap Sheet

The Rap Sheet

Thanks to J. Kingston Pierce’s always excellent The Rap Sheet blog (link below) for a mention and link to The Stiletto Gumshoe site and my recent post on James Ellroy’s This Storm. If you already follow The Rap Sheet, you know what a treasure it is. If you don’t, then why the hell not? The emailed updates are always welcome in my inbox and likely to send me foraging online through endlessly intriguing articles and sites. So be warned: A quick peek at The Rap Sheet will inevitably lure you into some well-spent time delving deeper into that site and many others.

Sweet Cheat, 1959 - ernest chiriacka cover

Seemed fitting that on the day The Rap Sheet included a mention of The Stiletto Gumshoe, it led off with a pic of Peter Duncan’s Sweet Cheat (“She Was The Nicest Bad Girl In Town”) with its gorgeous Ernest Chiriaka cover, that paperback from 1959, the very same year The Stiletto Gumshoe’s hoped-for noirish crime fiction series is set in. Serendipitous indeed! The Duncan novel’s a link to a 2010 page from the great Bill Crider’s (1941- 2018) own blog — Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine (link below), which ran for sixteen years, is yet another incredibly informative and entertaining site you can get lost in, and is sorely missed by many.

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com

http://billcrider.crider.blogspot.com/

And Some More Suarez…

fernanda suarez 2

Some more work from Santiago, Chile concept artist and illustrator Fernanda Suarez, who may be familiar to many for her intriguing artistic rethinks of famous Disney characters. Suarez’ gorgeous work is easily located at Art Station, Tumblr, DeviantArt and elsewhere (a couple links are below to get you started). Now, much of the work is quite witchy, mystic and fantasy oriented, along with some very fetching vampiric looking ladies of the night, but all quite stunning, even if that’s not your thing.  You have to dig deep to locate the slightly more ‘noir-ish’ among the pieces, but its’ well worth the search.

fernanda suarez 1

fernanda suarez 4

fernanda suarez 5Fernanda suarez 3

fernandasuarezartstation.com

fdasuarez.tumblr.com

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑