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.

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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.

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Murder, My Sweet (1944)

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As planned, I knocked off Saturday night by 11:00 to hunker down with TCM’s weekly Noir Alley feature, hosted by ‘The Czar Of Noir’ Eddie Muller, for RKO’s 1944 Murder, My Sweet. Not unlike Warner Brothers’ 1941 classic The Maltese Falcon, many consider Murder, My Sweet a kind of ‘proto-noir’, exhibiting all the style, queues and characteristics we associate with film noir, even though it was made before the post-WWII period some scholarly types prefer to pinpoint as the noir era.

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Directed by noir-maestro Edward Dmytryk, the film’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1940 novel Farewell, My Lovely, which had already been done without the Phillip Marlowe character as part of the Falcon film series in 1942’s The Flacon Takes Over. A few things are changed, some plot points downplayed or eliminated due to production code limitations, such as the key character’s obvious homosexuality (which remains hinted at none too subtly), and a narcotics operation. Early on when private eye Marlowe reluctantly starts his search for missing nightclub songbird Velma Valento, the bar is no longer a segregated African American club. Even Los Angeles’ infamous offshore gambling boat scene is discarded, not due to any censorship, but only because the studio didn’t want to offend the real-life gangsters in charge or the bigwigs who patronized them.

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The title change makes sense in hindsight. This film would re-launch actor Dick Powell’s career, and following an initial Minneapolis test screening under the novel’s Farewell, My Lovely title, it was decided that audiences would rightly expect a lightweight musical or romantic comedy with Powell’s name on the marquee. Powell (real name, born 1904) had been a very successful pretty boy singer/dancer throughout the 1930’s, but at age 40, it was time to reinvent his image. He’d actively campaigned for – and lost – the Fred MacMurray role in Double Indemnity. This was his big chance to start a whole new phase, and he acquitted himself well here, going on to star in a number of high-profile film noir classics and 1950’s crime melodramas, as well as taking over in the director’s chair.

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Murder, My Sweet was also intended to reinvigorate Claire Trevor’s stalled career. Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger in 1910) had recently been relegated to B-movies and westerns, and not always in the lead. But her performance here as the lusty trophy wife of a quirky but wealthy old codger pretty much steams up the screen. Even so, some say she was upstaged by former child star Anne Shirley (born Dawn Evelyeen Paria in 1918) as Trevor’s spoiled but feisty stepdaughter. Shirley sizzles in this film, which sadly was her last, choosing to retire at a young 26. But what a way to bow out.

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Dymtryk, later one of the infamous Hollywood Ten in the Red Scare era, is the brilliant director of films like Crossfire, The Caine Mutiny and Walk On The Wild Side. Here he deploys a bag of B-movie tricks to squeeze out every ounce of irony, sass and stunning visuals from the locations, sets and each actor’s performance. There are just so many memorable shots and sequences in this film, my own favorite coming early on when flashing neon sign lights make hulking thug Moose Malloy’s threatening reflection appear and disappear in the private eye Phillip Marlowe’s office window.

Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely was made again in 1975 with the real title, this time starring a world-weary Robert Mitchum as Phillip Marlowe, along with Charlotte Rampling and Sylvia Miles, and even a young pre-Rocky Sylvester Stallone in a small part as a lovesick brothel thug.

Hard-Boiled Dames.

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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

 

Don’t Look In The Bag…

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When a nasty man tells you, “Don’t look in the bag,” just don’t look in the bag, damn it.

The Bag Man, a David Grovic film from 2014 (also titled Motel and The Carrier) gives John Cusack another turn as a really, really bad guy that we inexplicably find ourselves rooting for, just like we did in The Grifters, Gross Pointe Blank and The Ice Harvest. The film’s adapted from a John Russo screenplay with rewrites by the director, and based in part on Marie-Louise von Franz’ The Cat: A Tale Of Feminine Redemption. Joining Cusack are Robert De Niro, Crispin Glover and Rebecca Da Costa.

Cusack plays one of bigshot gangster DeNiro’s hitmen, assigned to pick up a bag and wait for his boss at a rundown rural motel, with very strict instructions not to look in the bag. Seems simple, almost too simple to Cusack, and indeed it is, since things quickly spiral out of control with the arrival of a hooker who’s much more than she appears to be, and an ever growing body count that includes FBI agents, crooked local cops and fellow gangsters.

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The film is unrelentingly dark and unsettling, punctuated by sudden (and frequent) bursts of bloody violence. It’d be totally unfair to even hint at what’s in ‘the bag’, only to encourage darkly noir-ish crime film fans to check it out for another good performance from John Cusack, who does weary-and-flawed-but-redeemable better than anyone, and from Rebecca Da Costa, who makes a memorable bad ass, though I haven’t seen much from her since this project.

And remember…don’t look in the bag.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

Nowheresville

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I think Mark Ricketts’ Nowheresville originally was released as a four-part conventional comic series from Calibre Comics. If so, I’ve never seen it poking out of any comic shops’ back-issue bins, but then I don’t go rummaging through them much, always sensing they’re off-limits to all but the dedicated hard-core. Or at least, that’s the vibe I often get. But, it was released by Image as a 192-page digest-sized trade pb, and if you like noir-ish crime fiction, colorful word-smithing, edgy black & white art and most of all, the 1950’s beat scene, you’ll love Nowheresville.

When a low-life NYC smut photographer emerges from his darkroom, he discovers that the model he left helplessly trussed up and gagged in lingerie, stockings and heels on a makeshift set’s divan has just been murdered. Oh, it’s a set-up, no question, but the cops don’t seem particularly interested in finding out the truth, only deciding who they’ll pin this one on. Which leads us to the graphic novel’s hero, almost-too-cool-to-be-real Chic Mooney, good looking, poetic, oozing hipness but still a badass. Lured into the case, he’ll have to reckon with a crooked cop who’s got it in for him, a particularly vicious gangster, his junkie drummer pal and, perhaps worst of all, his own ex, now an utterly ruthless Hollywood star who isn’t only a femme fatale on screen.

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The art’s strictly solid black and white, all stark and jagged like some kind of 1950’s abstract expressionist art…if it was done with a bottle of India Ink and a stylus, that is. It’s stylized and terrific, but it’s the scripting that’ll get you, riffing on fifties slang that’s a real treat to read. The plot may meander here and there, but you don’t seem to care, because it remains a fun read even if you’re lost for a page or two.

I stumbled across this book by accident in a used book store’s graphic novel section. But I think it’s still available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s site. Or, maybe your local comics shop has it. I hope they do…check it out, man.

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.

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