Pushover: Double Indemnity, Take Two.

I haven’t read Thomas Walsh’s 1953 novel The Night Watch or William Ballinger’s Rafferty from the same year, but both books were adapted by screenwriter Roy Huggins for Richard Quine’s 1954 Columbia noir, Pushover. At the time, reviewers compared it (favorably or not) to 1944’s Double Indemnity, and understandably so, both films starring Fred MacMurray as a too-smart-for-his-own-good fellow who may not be dirty but is certainly a bit dusty, enough to fall in love or lust with a seductive blonde even though he knows she’ll be pure trouble. In the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s steamy novel, it was Barbara Stanwyck, of course, in one of most memorable roles. Here it’s a young Kim Novak. 

The movie opens with an action-packed robbery that goes bad. Cut to stag-night MacMurray spotting unattached Kim Novak at a late-night movie. Kim’s car trouble leads them to a cocktail lounge, then to more drinks at home (and presumably whatever else goes on there that couldn’t be shown in 1950s films). The coincidental meeting looks to turn into a romance, till we learn that MacMurray’s actually a cop who’s been tailing Novak all along, she being the gal pal of the armed robber who’s now wanted for murder. 

She’s no dope, figures out that MacMurray’s a detective, but love is love and lust is lust, and soon enough the two conspire to get their mitts on the heist man’s loot and make their getaway. Just why they think their hastily hatched scheme can succeed with two-man police teams doing round the clock surveillance on Novak’s apartment eludes me. Meanwhile, MacMurray’s confirmed bachelor partner falls hard for Kim Novak’s neighbor, played by Dorothy Malone, a cute nurse he’s keeping an eye on (literally) through binoculars from his perch across the street. Keep that in mind the next time you wonder if you ought to close the blinds when you’re down to your skimpies or getting up to something naughty.

No surprise, just about everything that could go wrong does, with MacMurray getting deeper in trouble by the hour and a couple of bodies left in his wake. Like all good noirs, doomed love is precisely that: Doomed.

I’d only seen this film once before, but it’s suddenly in rotation on the MOVIES! cable channel’s Sunday and Thursday night noir showcases. Double Indemnity it’s not, but it’s damn good. Dark, steamy, punctuated with sudden bursts of violence…all you could want from a mid-1950’s crime film. 

It had been ten years since Fred MacMurray helped make the screen sizzle alongside Barbara Stanwyck as Walter Neff and Phyllis Deitrichson. With a 25-year age difference, it’s understandable if you consider him mismatched with sleek 21 year old Kim Novak. But then, Hollywood never fretted much about pairing middle-aged (and older) fellows with ingenues and starlets (I mean, Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn? Seriously?). That we believe that Kim Novak’s gun moll doesn’t only see MacMurray’s crooked cop as her ticket out of the life, but that he actually gets her motor humming, is just a testament to the young actress’ emerging talent. Bottom line: The duo make it work. MacMurray was an old pro, and one of Hollywood’s highest earning actors at the time, but this was Kim Novak’s first starring role. In fact, it was only her second film, the previous part just an uncredited walk-on. 

On TV, online (it’s there) or on disk – if you haven’t seen Pushover, check it out. It won’t make it to the top of your film noir list, but you won’t be disappointed.

Bye, Dex.

This won’t be the first one we’ll hear about, pandemic production a logistical nightmare for every TV show and film, and viewing routines all discombobulated. ABC’s Stumptown, based on Greg Rucka’s darkly hard-boiled comics series and starring Cobie Smulders as Dex Parios, was originally renewed for a second season. But the news came down last week that the show’s been cancelled. Dex was one of broadcast television’s better ‘stiletto gumshoes’, though the likelihood of seeing Dex teetering on stiletto heels would be pretty slim. One hopeful note: ABC is reportedly trying to sell the series to another network or streaming service. Fingers crossed, right?

Rui Ricardo.

More work from Portuguese artist, illustrator and designer Rui Ricardo, who did the handsome cover art for Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors The Dead, discussed in a prior post. To see more of the artist’s work (and there’s a lot to gaze at) go to http://www.rui-ricardo.com

What’s Old is New Again.

My pre-Halloween reading (an illustrated edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) wrapped up a few days before the holiday, and I was tempted to grab another horror classic as we headed closer to the 31st. But the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable still had a few books, with one right on top I was anxious to get to, the sleek Rui Ricardo cover art calling to me each time passed by. 

“Fortune favors the bold” is a Latin proverb, and frequently used as a slogan by the military and on European coats of arms. Fortune favors the dead? Well…

I didn’t know much about Stephen Spotswood’s new Fortune Favors The Dead, only that it was set in post-WWII NYC and had been likened to a gender-bending version of Nero Wolfe, all of which sounded good to me. As it turned out, the only disappointment with Spotswood’s debut novel came once I reached the end. No tap dancing around things here: I loved this book, did not want it to end, and insist that Spotswood hunker down on a follow-up…like now.

Fortune Favors The Dead introduces a memorable detective duo: Lillian Pentecost, an already well-known and successful New York private investigator and all-around ‘fixer’ who’s reserved, insightful, and unfortunately, suffering from worsening MS. Finding a very special person to mentor as an assistant is essential. In a sort-of prologue set three years before the novel’s main storyline, we meet the narrator, Willowjean “Will” Parker, a teenage runaway roving the country with a small-time circus, earning some extra pocket money during its New York stay. In an exciting opening scene, Willowjean’s knife throwing skills save Lillian Pentecost, and land Will in jail.

The real story picks up right after the end of WWII, with the Pentecost agency enlisted to investigate the murder of a wealthy industrialist’s widow (the industrialist having offed himself earlier). The killing took place right after a spooky séance at a Halloween costume party and is a genuine locked room mystery with plenty of suspects.

What’s old is new again in Spotswood’s capable hands, situating his debut novel in comfortable territory and populating it with familiar types. Mind you, none of this is done in a derivative manner. Quite the contrary, Spotswood turns Golden Age mystery fiction and film tropes on their ear, reinventing everything in a way that honors genre roots but feels entirely fresh and new, most notably by replacing cerebral Nero Wolfe and streetwise Archie Goodwin with an intriguing detective duo like Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker, than taking things still further with Will’s risky attraction to a possible suspect — the pretty party girl stepdaughter of the murder victim — and even further still with the ultimate resolution of the crime(s). An admission: I didn’t figure out even one tiny bit of the mystery on my own and clumsily fell for every single red herring the author inserted along the way. Credit to Stephen Spotswood.

Is Fortune Favors The Dead a standalone? I really hope not. I want to return to Lillian Pentecost’s well-appointed headquarters home and tag along with Willowjean Parker, whether she’s getting herself in trouble (which she does) or getting in too deep with a pretty face. Come to think of it, those are both the same thing.

Retrowood.

From Mike Vosburg’s fun Retrowood from 2013, a ‘sorta-kinda’ mid-twentieth century Hollywood (but not really) hard-boiled noir with private eye J. Parker Wrighte mixed up in mystery and murder among the decadent tinsel town’s stand-ins most devious (and pervy) denizens. The story is dark but goofy fun, and the art’s almost sedate for Vosburg, while still indulging the figurative master’s flair for lovely — albeit lethal — ladies.

Candy & Johnny On Air (And In My Car).

With my obligatory Halloween season reading complete, and a nifty illustrated hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula returned to the writing lair’s bookcases till it’s due for another re-read, it’s back to more traditional fare for me, which right now happens to be Stephen Spotswood’s just-released Fortune Favors The Dead. I only started it Tuesday morning, am only 60 pages into the novel as I write this, and will likely be halfway through by the time you’re reading this. So more about that new mystery/crime fiction novel later, though I can tell you that Spotswood’s unique pair of 1940’s private investigators pretty much had me from page one. 

The same day I started Fortune Favors The Dead, my Crime Reads e-newsletter (or whatever they call it) listed an article by Stephen Spotswood himself, and on a cherished topic: “10 Classic Radio Mysteries Every Crime Fiction Lover Should Know” (link below). ‘Round here, old time radio fans have long enjoyed a local four-hour Saturday afternoon showcase that aired its share of classic mystery and crime shows, though lately it’s been veering more and more toward big band broadcasts and comedies. But there’s always satellite radio, which I’ll admit I’m kind of off-and-on with (currently on) for a reliable round-the-clock broadcast including a healthy helping of classic mystery and crime programs. 

Spotswood’s Crime Reads article highlights a number of well-known and not-so-well known shows from the 1930’s through very early 60’s, two in particular being faves of mine. Candy Matson, starring Natalie Parks, was one of the west coast’s most popular series in its time, short-lived as it was (1949 – 1951). Matson, a former fashion model turned private eye, was a “stiletto gumshoe” if ever there was one, and it’s too bad that of the show’s 90 episodes, only fourteen survived. But they’re a treat. For more about Candy Matson, follow the other link below to an August 2019 post from right here.

My hands-down favorite vintage radio mystery/crime drama is Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, a long-running series (1949 – 1962) with over 800 episodes and one of the very last radio dramas to be broadcast nationally. Johnny Dollar originally was a traditional hard-boiled P.I., but the show was re-tooled in the mid-50’s with the character reimagined as a freelance insurance investigator…”the man with the action packed expense account”. In the show’s audition pilot, Dick Powell played the lead, and then a long list of actors took over Johnny Dollar’s role, including Charles Russell, film star Edmond O’Brien (seen up above at the top if this post with his eyes glued to either the revolver or the shapely limbs), John Lund, Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer…and the actor most fans associate with Johnny Dollar: Bob Bailey. During what many consider the show’s best period, Bailey as Johnny Dollar narrated each story, which ran for one whole week in nightly fifteen-minute episodes. Production values, co-stars and music were all top notch, and the scripts were as good as any mystery/crime fiction storytelling you’d find in Manhunt magazine or on a prime TV show.

I already have several multi-disk sets of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and will surely end up with more, though I have a bad feeling that when it’s time to trade in the current wheels, new cars won’t even have CD players any longer. And for me, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – or any mystery/crime radio shows – go best with long drives. I don’t know why, but radio dramas just make the miles go by quicker. Now I’ll assume that most vintage radio programs have fallen into the public domain. Candy Matson, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and so many others are all over the place and from multiple companies, with three, four or more versions of disk sets and sometimes even more for downloads. Guessing which ones are good quality is a gamble. That said, if you haven’t tried old time radio mystery/crime shows, do so, and I’d say that Candy Matson and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are good places to start.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/08/25/candy-matson/

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: The Toff.

“The Toff” (the Honorable Richard Rollinson) opens his mail and discovers a beautifully crafted doll of a naked woman – with a dagger plunged into her chest – which lures him into the bizarre world of the Obeah and a dangerous occult mystery. Maybe mystery, crime fiction and the supernatural (or at least the exceedingly eerie) ought to intersect more often. This one’s a pulpy adventure in John Creasey’s long running series of some sixty “Toff” novels published between 1938 and 1977. The piece of cover art above is from a 1967 Hodder & Stoughton UK paperback edition of A Doll For The Toff, though sadly without an artist credit that I know of.

From East Of A To Apartment Five.

Coincidentally, a few weeks back I pulled Russell Atwood’s 1999 novel East of A off the shelf for an overdue re-read, recalling that I enjoyed the book enough the first time around to earn a spot as a keeper in the writing lair’s over-stuffed bookcases. But there were other new arrivals on the to-be-read pile, and Atwood’s novel eased back into place.

But not this time. East Of A will get its re-read, so I can revisit NYC private eye Payton Sherwood, a man with more than his own share of backstory, who tries to help a teenage runaway, only to end up taking a beating from some street thugs and having the girl run off with his Rolodex. Call it noir, neo-noir, post-modern noir or whatever the hell you like – this one was damn good. Normally novels that feel like travelogues and spend too much time taking the reader on a tour of their setting can leave me wanting. Not East Of A and its gloriously gritty romp through after-hours clubs, drug dens and the underbelly of New York City, neatly conducting its guided tour by way of the storytelling. It left me wanting more.

Which is good, since J. Kingston Pierce’s 10.24.20 edition of The Rap Sheet Blog happened to be one of those long lists of newsworthy mystery/crime fiction miscellany (that post called “A Basket of Oddments”), including a mention of Atwood’s Payton Sherwood mysteries (East of A from 1999 and Losers Live Longer from ten years later), and the news that there’s some new Atwood work available, though not a Payton Sherwood crime novel this time. I suppose I’ll get Atwood’s new Apartment Five Is Alive a little late for Halloween, but I’ll still be in the mood for a haunted house (make that apartment) book.

In addition to being a writer, Atwood runs Blue Umbrella Books in his Westfield, Massachusetts hometown, which like many indie booksellers already had a tough enough time of making a go of things, and has taken a beating during the pandemic and its shut-downs. Apartment Five Is Alive can hopefully put some coin in the kitty. Hey, I’m in. 

For more (with links) about Russell Atwood and his books, head to The Rap Sheet blog, which if you don’t already, you really ought to. Link below…

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2020/08/the-book-you-have-to-read-east-of-by.html

More From Larry Schwinger.

Pennsylvania artist and illustrator Laurence ‘Larry’ Schwinger’s full color illustrations made my recent used bookstore find of the 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a real jewel. And all for less than ten bucks. His non-stylized, no-nonsense illustrations added a lot to the classic vampire tale. 

Schwinger didn’t do a lot of horror work that I’m aware of. Or that much mystery/crime fiction material either. But he did some, and they’re nifty pieces, including a series of Cornell Woolrich 1980’s Ballantine paperbacks like I Married A Dead Man (at the top), The Bride Wore Black and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and more recently, some Hard Case Crime novels, including Spiderweb, Shooting Star, Witness To Myself and Robbie’s Wife

Cordelia On Screen.

P.D. James’ young London private detective Cordelia Gray debuted in the 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (see the preceding post for more about that book). Twenty-two, just this side of broke, partnered with a former Scotland Yard detective in a none-too-successful P.I. agency, Cordelia suddenly must take over when she finds her one-time mentor and former boss dead in his office. 

The first Cordelia Gray novel was not only a bit of a groundbreaker, being a decade ahead of some more well-known mystery series led by women detectives, but also a darn good read. So, it’s surprising that writer James (1920 – 2014) only penned one more Cordelia Gray novel, and that one came ten years later. But presumably the character resonated with fans nonetheless, first in a 1982 film that quickly came and went (and if it’s still lurking out there somewhere, I haven’t found it), then, fifteen years later, Cordelia reappeared, and this time more successfully. 

The UK 1997 – 2001 BBC series of feature length episodes started out based in part on James’ novel, but the rest used original stories, though intended at least to maintain the novelist’s tone and stay true to the character. To be fair, there really were only two Cordelia Gray novels to adapt. Some sites suggest that P.D. James wasn’t entirely thrilled with the film/TV adaptations and remained determined to undermine anymore attempts (thus, refusing to write another Cordelia Gray novel). True or myth, I can’t say. I can say that the series lead, Helen Baxendale, does a very credible job of portraying Cordelia Gray. Baxendale may be more familiar to U.S audiences (or at least Gen-Xr’s and syndicated rerun channel watchers) as Emily Waltham, David Schwimmer/Ross Geller’s unlucky British girlfriend/fiancée/wife from the NBC mega-hit sitcom Friends. Baxendale’s real-life first pregnancy may have cut short her stint on that US series, but was neatly written in to An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. So, Ms. Gray joined the select club of literary/TV/film/comics private eyes and cops mothers and moms-to-be. 

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