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.

 

Leder’s “Fire Walk With Me”.

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It’s beloved by some, reviled by others: David Lynch’s 1992 Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a follow-up (a prequel, more accurately) to the ABC 1990-91 TV series Twin Peaks. As for me, I’m in the often-puzzled but still intrigued camp when it comes to David Lynch, typically glued to the screen but left unsettled or even disturbed by some of the sequences and visuals. (Okay, and occasionally groaning at some of the ‘artistic’ self-indulgence.)

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Woodstock, New York filmmaker and photographer Jonathan Leder was presumably intrigued as well, as evidenced by his 2010 shoot for Vice magazine titled “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me”, styled by Anette Lamothe-Ramos, with models Amelia Gilliam as Sheryl Lee’s Laura Palmer and Brittany Nola as Moira Kelly’s Donna Hayward.

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See the next post for the remaining images…

 

Heels In Hand.

Noir City International

Model Victoria Mature knows perfectly well that there’s no point running in heels across the tarmac to catch that DC-3 before it takes off for San Francisco. Hats off to photographer Jason Mitchell and digital illustrator Bill Selby for the Film Noir Foundation’s current Noir City International poster. I wish I was headed west myself for that event, and not just because it’s snowing outside right now.

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.

Girls With Guns: Marie Windsor

marie windsor the narrow margin

One of the 1940’s – 50’s many “Queen Of The B’s”, Marie Windsor (Emily Marie Bertelsen, 1919 – 1980) would’ve turned 100 today, December 11th.  Her film and television resume is a mile long, including her share of crime melodramas and a couple key noir films: Force Of Evil with John Garfield in 1948, and one of her best (and a personal favorite or mine), The Narrow Margin from 1952 (a publicity still from that film shown above) most of which takes place on a train, with Windsor playing a murdered mobster’s widow…or is she? (She’s much, much more.) Naturally athletic and considered tall for her time at 5’9″, she often had to stoop or do scenes sitting down when paired with height-challenged male co-stars.

Guilty Pleasures, And Not A Noir: Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

Love With The Proper Stranger 1

No, not a film noir or even a crime melodrama, Love With The Proper Stranger is one of my guilty pleasure movies. I suppose we’d call it a romance, and though there are multiple scenes that are — if not downright comedic, then certainly played for laughs – it’s hard to think of it as a period rom-com. This is the story of young Angie Rossini, a Macy’s store clerk eager to spread her wings and escape the crowded family apartment shared with an overbearing mother and two vigilant older brothers, all of them anxious to lock her into marriage with a bumbling neighbor. But Angie’s recent one-night stand with roving jazz musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen) leaves her pregnant, so she tracks him down for the name of a doctor and money for a backroom abortion. Doesn’t actually sound like the setup for a light-hearted romance, does it?

Directed by Robert Mulligan from an Arnold Schulman script, the film is unrelentingly gritty and claustrophobic, capturing mid-twentieth century big city life beautifully…beautifully grim, that is. Released on Christmas Day in 1963 (and often listed as a 1964 release), the film may not have been a huge financial success, but did snag five Oscar nominations, including one for Natalie Wood. Schulman penned a novelization of the film, which may have been an expanded version of the original treatment, including some scenes handled differently or not even in the movie, the story told more from Rocky Papasano’s POV.

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I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site that a late 1950’s/early 1960’s Natalie Wood became the model for my imaginary ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ character, and specifically, it’s her performance in Love With The Proper Stranger – her look, wardrobe, demeanor, and the neatly crafted juxtaposition of assertiveness and vulnerability.  Natalie Wood is stunning here in an incredibly real everyday person kind of role, one that countless young women surely could relate to back in 1963. If you get a chance to see this one, check it out.

Poster

Remembering Natalia (11.29.1981)

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Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in 1938 in San Francisco, the Russian emigre family name later changed to Gurdin, but we knew her as Natalie Wood, first appearing on film at age 4, lighting up the screen in the original Miracle On 34th Street at only 8, later to create memorable screen roles in Rebel Without A Cause, Splendor In The Grass, West Side Story, This Property Condemned, and my personal favorite, Love With The Proper Stranger from 1963/1964…earning three Oscar nominations along the way.

Sadly, it was on this date, November 29th in 1981, that Natalie Wood drowned off the Catalina coast in a boating accident that’s still shrouded in mystery.

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To say I’m a fan isn’t quite enough. Of course, Wood never played a true ‘femme fatale’, much less a gun moll, film noir heroine or even a real crook, unless you want to count the silly mid-sixties farce Penelope. But for some reason, it was always Natalie Wood that I pictured when envisioning my own creation, ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ – Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz, changed for obvious reasons), a 22-year old trying to make her way in the gritty brown-bricked bungalow rows of Chicago’s ethnic southwest side in 1959. Specifically, it’s the look of Natalie Wood from the early 1960’s, and her Angie Rossini character from Love With The Proper Stranger, like the NYC publicity shots shown above from that film. As Sharon Gardner herself relates, surveying the crowd from her all-too-familiar perch on a barstool in Silky’s cocktail lounge:

“…A decent looking type out for a few snorts after work on a Thursday evening was more likely to go for the loudmouthed lushes squeezed into their sparkly cocktail dresses. But enough liquor can turn me into Natalie Wood, when a fellow wants to believe it. Minus a few curves. And if it’s dark. Which Silky’s usually is.”

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Maybe she got screwed by producers when it came to showcasing obvious singing and dancing talents. Maybe it took a while for her to acquire well-deserved cred for her acting ability and to overcome the child-star label. No question that her prime years included some silly roles, the kind every star was arm-twisted into during the waning days of the studio system. But I just refer anyone unfamiliar with Wood’s work to some of those key films listed above. ‘Nuff said.

Natalie Wood: July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981. Gone at only 43. We can only imagine the work she left undone at such a young age, but will always have the work she left us with. Yeah, I’m a fan, and always will be.

Natalie Wood Dance 3

Blues In The Dark

Blues in The Dark

L.A. indie film producer Karissa Glover is in the final stages of a messy divorce from a B-grade action film star and needs a new place to live. Like now. Coincidence (or is it?) leads her to an old mansion in West Adams Heights, available at a ridiculously low rent. The house has remained vacant since its prior owner, Ultimate Studio’s overnight star and film noir femme fatale Blair Kendrick, was murdered in the late 1940’s.  The now forgotten star’s furniture and mementoes all remain, and Karissa soon uncovers one mystery after another, all related to Kendrick’s then-taboo relationship with an African-American jazz musician. Obsessed, Karissa begins developing a film based on the actress’ life story, attempting to solve the mysteries surrounding her death. And some mighty dangerous people definitely do not want anyone digging into Blair Kendrick’s death or the mysterious disappearance of her lover.

You’d have to turn in your ‘I-Read-Mysteries’ I.D. card if you don’t see where this one’s going. But that’s not intended as a criticism. Like a fun road trip, sometimes it’s all about the journey, not the destination. And I don’t mean that I anticipated all the twists, turns and details in Raymond Benson’s tale, only that I guessed at its ultimate resolution early on. But that just made me all the more eager to learn how we’d get there. No surprise; Benson’s a good storyteller, done here in chapters that alternate between modern day Karissa Glover’s efforts to learn more about the mysterious 1940’s star, and Blair Kendrick’s postwar Hollywood milieu, in which she tries to avoid the casting couch, falls hard for a handsome jazz pianist, and their desperate attempts to elude period prejudices, lethal studio enforcers and even the mob. Benson knows how to handle this alternating chapter structure well. His multi-book Black Stiletto series (each of which I literally gobbled up) about a 1950’s costumed vigilante employed the technique skillfully.

It bears mentioning that Blues In The Dark’s Karissa Glover is an adoptee, her birth parents unknown, only that she is of mixed racial heritage. Like maybe a beautiful blue-eyed blonde film noir actress and an African American jazz musician. Hmmm…

If you like retro Hollywood settings, a good mystery and a well-told tale, it’d be hard not to like Raymond Benson’s Blues In The Dark.

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