Cruel Summer

criminal number six cover

Issue number five of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ always magnificent Criminal commences a new storyline called “Cruel Summer, apparently planned from the very beginning of the Criminal series. It opens here with private investigator Dan Farraday’s pickup lines rebuffed by an attractive single woman in a hotel lounge. When she cautiously relents, we discover that this ‘Jane Hanson’ is actually Marina Kelly, the very woman Farraday’s been hired to locate. Things don’t go precisely as planned with the hotel bar pickup, any more than Farraday’s investigation did, but then this is an Ed Brubaker story, so of course things don’t go precisely as planned. Evidently, issues six and seven will switch gears and zero in on other familiar Criminal characters, notably Teeg Lawless, before bringing things back full circle with Farraday and Marina. Phillips’ art is brilliant, as always. Brubaker’s script doesn’t exhibit one wasted word that I can see. Like every issue of Criminal before, I’m hungering for the next installment the moment I close the comic’s back cover. Phillips’ cover art for that issue – Issue Number Six – is shown above.

Like most (all?) issues of Criminal, this one includes excellent extras, here a roundtable discussion on crime fiction (and media) series characters with Ed Brubaker, Jason Starr, Alex Segura and Sara Gran. Heck, even if you didn’t care for crime comics, the issue’s worth buying for that alone.

criminal number 6

The Missing Witness

perry peterson the missing witness 1954 copy

Perry Peterson (1908-1958) enjoyed a successful career doing illustrations for the more prestigious ‘glossies’ like the Saturday Evening Post, Liberty and Ladies Home Journal, so you won’t find his work on tawdry crime pulps, or even very many paperback covers for that matter. Romantic or comical (or both combined) couples were Peterson’s stock in trade, and he did it well. Still, you sense that the artist might have longed for the occasional mystery subject, and clearly had a nice touch with painting a sense of fear, impending threat and danger, as in his 1954 illustration for “The Missing Witness” by John and Ward Hawkins shown above (the full two-page spread below), plus several other examples shown here.

perry peterson the missing witness 1954

Sadly, Peterson passed away at only 50, his career cut short when magazine illustration assignments and PBO covers were still in demand, so we’ll never know what he might have done with less ‘lighthearted’ subjects. Stunning work from one of the lesser known mid-twentieth century masters, though, aren’t they?

Perry peterson 2Perry peterson 3

 

 

 

‘Bad Times’ Was A Good Time

I’m usually the last one to see any current movies, often as not streamed or on disk instead of herded into the multiplex. Case in point: Drew Goddard’s 2018 stylish neo-noir Bad Times At The El Royale. Released not long before Halloween 2018, my own sale rack DVD was tossed in my bag for a weekend getaway where cable, broadband, WiFi (or even a land line) was unavailable. So I finally saw it a week and a half ago. If I recall a brief Autumn 2018 marketing blitz, it didn’t seem to pay off at the box office. Still, the film’s been well reviewed, and I’ll add my own thumbs-up for Goddard’s Quentin Tarantino homage (well, that’s what it seemed like to me).

El Royale Intro

A brief intro’s muted palette and its unexpected jolt of mayhem alerts viewers that they’re in for a smart bit neo-noirish fun.

And the film delivers, as a traveling salesman, a Catholic priest, a singer and a smart-mouthed hippie converge on the El Royale, a peculiar and nearly deserted (its gaming license recently evoked) resort hotel straddling the Nevada-California state line. But no one’s who they seem to be, including the kinda-creepy desk clerk, apparently the only staff on site. Jon Hamm’s salesman is really an FBI agent. Jeff Bridges’ priest is actually a paroled bank robber, Dakota Johnson’s hippie is on the run from a Manson Family style cult, her little sister drugged and tied up in the car trunk. Lewis Pullman’s creepy guilt-ridden perv of a desk clerk is a former Army sniper. Only Cynthia Erivo’s singer-for-hire appears to be playing it straight, though that hardly keeps her out of trouble.

In a decidedly non-linear narrative, we glimpse each character’s backstory, enough to deepen the mystery and drag the viewer inexorably towards a violent climax. When the credits finally roll, a few questions might remain unanswered or at least some details left unclear, but that’s okay. Written and produced by director Drew Goddard, the film’s a visual treat, drenched in almost surreal hues, erupting in sudden bursts of violence, with every participant turning in terrific performances.

El ROyale Cast

Cynthia Erivo and young Cailee Spaeny are both new to me, but I’ll be watching for more from them, that’s for sure. Just as I’ll be watching for Dakota Johnson to further demonstrate how well she can do bad-ass and handle a gun.  If there’s a lethal assassin, cat burglar or (dare I hope) a gumshoe role in her future, I’m in.

Dakota Johnson

If you missed Bad Times At The El Royale, and enjoy a quirky neo-noir thriller, and like Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez’s or even David Lynch’s work, then give this film a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I sure wasn’t.

El ROyale 3

 

One Night Stands

Manhunt Dec 1958

Mired in relentlessly humid nineties for days, I headed out for what was supposed to be a quick Saturday AM trip to run errands, anxious to be home before morning warmed into another tropical afternoon. ‘Quick’ turned into three hours, with impatient weekend warriors fighting over parking spaces at each stop, my last a nightmarish trek through a crowded big box store. But a regional chain used bookstore beckoned from across the parking lot afterwards, like a well earned treat for getting those chores done. The last thing I need is more books piling up on my end table right now, but I walked out with a few treasures anyway.

One Night Stands

I know I had Lawrence Block’s One Night Stands And Lost Weekends, a 2008 Harper trade pb collecting some of the Grand Master’s short crime fiction and suspense novelettes from 1958 to 1966, with dates and credits for each in the back. Perhaps my original copy was reluctantly sold to a used bookstore to make room (bookshelf space is generous but not limitless here). Or I lent it to someone and forgot to get it back. But this nifty book is back on shelf now where it belongs, in a surprisingly clean, crisp copy I’m nearly done with already.

When I brought it and another book to the register, the cashier was nice enough to ask if I’d seen the Lawrence Block hardcover short fiction omnibus there as well. I hadn’t, so he dragged me over (it was out of order on shelf, as it turned out), so I also left with a like-new 2002 first edition hardcover of Enough Rope (previously published in the UK as The Collected Mysteries Stories), a nearly 900-page door-stopper of a collection with more than 80 Lawrence Block short stories. If there’s a duplicate between the two books (I spotted one right away), who cares? My only complaint: Eighty-plus gems, and the publisher couldn’t spring for an appendix or permissions section at the back to provide original publication dates at least, if not publication titles too? Well, no whining when you snag a treasure for eight bucks.

enough rope

Enough Rope is on my nightstand, that book spanning more years of Block’s career and including a bounty of detective/crime fiction short stories, with nine Matthew Scudder pieces, so it’d be worth buying for those alone. One Night Stands And Lost Weekends is in my car so I can knock off a shortie before and after work or chilling in a parking lot before a meeting during the week.

Three ‘lost’ Ed London – Private Eye novelettes conclude that book. I read the last one, “Twin Call Girls” and still need to finish “The Naked And The Deadly” and “Stag Party Girl”. Block’s three page 2001 introduction to his long-lost Ed London stories is as interesting as the stories themselves…no kidding. So, with only a few stories left to read, I’ve spent some quality time with a lot of delightfully unsavory people, visited dreary small towns, knocked back shots and draft shorties in their dismal cocktail lounges, then bedded down in their dingy hotel rooms, achingly alone or rolling ‘round a worn out mattress with any of a long string of curvy blondes squeezed into snug sweaters and tight skirts, on the make or ripe for a glib stranger’s line. In “Man With A Passion” from Sure-Fire in 1958, freelance photographer (and scheming blackmailer) Jacob Falch breezes into a jerkwater town with ten grand in his suitcase, recently paid by the mayor of the last jerkwater town to conceal some skillfully composited photographs of the mayor’s wife in very compromising positions. “The room was drab and colorless,” we’re told. “There was a bed, a straight-backed chair that looked as though it would buckle if he sat on it, and a dull brown dresser studded with cigarette burns. In short, Falch reflected, it was a crummy room in a cheap hotel. But it would do for the time being.” Cheery, huh?

You have to keep the time, the publications and their readership in mind, just like you do when reading pre-WWII crime and spicy pulp stories. The women are reduced to hair color, the shape of their figures and the cut of their clothes, all of them cunning femmes fatales when they’re not nameless trophies to be ‘had’ (with no one quibbling about the ethics of how that comes about). Assault masquerades as seduction in these overwhelmingly grim stories of adulterers, hit men and swindlers. Culled mostly from 1958 – 1961 issues of Manhunt, Guilty and Trapped magazines, some feel hastily written (and they often were, per the author’s own introduction), are glaringly dated, simple and sometimes shallow…

And utterly sublime.

See, the thing about Lawrence Block short stories is that, for me, they function on three levels.

First, and naturally enough, they’re just plain entertaining, downright fun to read (in a peculiarly grim sort of way) and rarely disappoint.

Second (and this applies particularly to the oldies), they carry me back to a bygone era I can only imagine (and probably romanticize more than I should) when talented, hard-working (and lucky) writers willing to pound the keys diligently enough could, theoretically, actually make a living at this writing game. Just like his writing how-to books, Block’s usually good for some conversational background about those early days when he started out, which both books’ introductions covered and which I love to read. Styles and tastes have evolved considerably since the 50’s-60’s waning pulp days and the PBO era. Some of the outlandish premises and gotcha endings might no longer fly with editors or readers. And just like most 1930’s – 1960’s crime pulps, spicy’s and ‘adventure’ magazines, the stories are brimming with squirm-worthy situations and borderline offensive dialog. And just like those mid-twentieth century pulps, I simply can’t help but enjoy the storytelling and straightforward writing.

Third and finally, I often feel like I’m cheating a bit when I read Lawrence Block, and suppose many writers would. Why? Because in addition to reading simply for enjoyment, I’m also getting a value-added (if unintended) tutorial on how to do it and how to do it right. Plot, action, setting and characters are all managed with such an economy of words. I plow through one story and immediately want to revisit the last pages I wrote in my own projects to prune, edit and tweak. Knowing that many of these stories were knocked out in a single evening is maddening to someone less skilled.

You’ll excuse me now. I’m setting the way-back machine to 1959, heading to a hot-sheet hotel on Chicago’s SW side so I can add some cigarette burns to one of their dreary room’s dresser tops. The ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ herself probably left one of her Viceroys smoldering there once things heated up on the rickety old bed. Like I said, when I read some vintage Lawrence Block, I want to revisit my own stuff immediately. Cigarette burns. Yeah, that’s what I need…

Magazine images include: Guilty March 1958, July 1958 and September 1958; Manhunt December 1956; Trapped June 1958, October 1958 and April 1959.

Mafiosa

Mafiosa Cover

Spotted at Crime Fiction Lover (and you just have to love the straightforward name of that site, dontcha?):

Planned for a first issue to be released in August 2019, Mafiosa is scripted by Sunshine Barbito with art by Debora Carita. Set in Prohibition era Little Sicily, it tells the story of 18 year old Nicoletta Marchesi, daughter of a made man who aims to join the family business herself. From the description I read, it sounds like this mafiosa is more lethal than any mafioso, and I’m anxious to see more.

Looks like the book’s launch is relying on a Kickstarter campaign. There are some sample pages and a handy link to Mafiosa’s Kickstarter page at Crimefictionlover.com (link below). Check it out for info on this forthcoming comic, or just to learn more about Crime Fiction Lover, “The Site For Die Hard Crime And Thriller Fans”, if you’re unfamiliar with the spot-on news, reviews, interviews and features you’ll find there.

https://crimefictionlover.com

Cigarette Girls

Cigarette Girl

Back in mid-May I mentioned Susanna Calkins’ new novel (the first in a new series, I think), Murder Knocks Twice, a period mystery set in early 1929 Chicago. Struggling to care for her ailing father, young Gina Ricci takes a job as a cigarette girl in a local speakeasy, only to learn that the girl she’s replaced was recently murdered, and the club’s brooding, mysterious photographer turns out to be an estranged cousin from the family that disowned her and her dad. When Gina witnesses that same enigmatic photographer brutally murdered, she obeys his dying words and takes his camera, then learns to process film, and that’s only the start of the multiple mysteries that erupt in Calkins’ novel, all of which is set against a backdrop of the Capone-Moran gang wars, the book’s final pages playing out just as the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurs. It’s a fun read, leisurely paced (or methodically, depending on your assessment) and brimming with red herrings and subplots. Some may think Calkins’ tale is a little light on mayhem and Roaring Twenties decadence, considering the time, place and characters. But if so, it certainly didn’t detract from her good storytelling.

MURDER KNOCKS TWICE copy

Two things struck me as I read Murder Knocks Twice.

First: how Calkins used photographs and her hero’s urgent need to learn photography and film processing as a crucial driver in the narrative. That intrigued me, since it’s similar to things going on in both the first The Stiletto Gumshoe novel currently making the rounds and its sequel, still underway. A female protagonist, a Chicago setting — albeit with thirty years separating the two, my tale set in 1959 – it’d be presumptuous of me to say ‘great minds think alike’. I will say it was nice to see another author use photos and processing the way Calkins did.

4 cigarette girls

Second: Calkins wise choice of a nightclub cigarette girl for her main character (and what looks like a series character at that). It got me thinking about just how few cigarette girls have helmed mystery/crime fiction novels, when it’s such an obvious role. If you’re writing period crime fiction, which understandably may involve speakeasies, casinos, roadhouses and nightclubs, a cigarette girl is ideal for a character that needs to be right in the middle of the action. I’ve thought about it, I’ve browsed my own bookshelves and I’ve surfed online, but found precious few (if any) cigarette girl characters, much less lead characters, even among vintage pulps. So, hats off to Calkins for finally giving a vintage crime milieu fixture her proper due!

Cigarette Girl Pulps

And while we’re at it, congrats to her for a job well done. If you insist on non-stop gunplay, grisly violence or sizzling bedroom hijinks, (and frankly, I often do!) then Murder Knocks Twice may not be the next book you’ll consider. But, consider it nonetheless. It really is a good read.

P.S. Yes, that’s a young Audrey Hepburn in the cigarette girl costume in the quadrant of photos above.

 

The New Pulpeteers

taya ferdinand shutter - pulpeteers

The July 2019 issue of The Writer magazine’s cover story was focused on literary agents – “Pulling Back The Curtain – What Does A Literary Agent Really Do?” by Kerrie Flanagan, followed by a nice interview with agent Donald Maas (a name that ought to be familiar to any querying writer, genre writers in particular), plus Ryan G. Van Cleave’s article on literary agent contracts. Savvy pro’s might groan and say they’ve read it all before. Newbies might lap it all up, and as for myself — somewhere in between — I always find some bit of new info in these articles, no matter how often I’ve retread the same ground in writers’ magazines or blogs. And seriously, how can you go wrong with an interview with a sage like Donald Maas?

But the article that really caught me by surprise in this issue was Heidi Ruby Miller’s “Introducing The New Pulp…Pulp Fiction Is Back, Baby”, a nice three page look at the resurgence of pulp fiction, distinguishing between the classic pulp era and contemporary writers and starting by acknowledging what was worrisome about mid-twentieth century pulpdom. Defining new pulp, Miller quotes Tommy Hancock of Pro Se productions: “Fiction writing with the same sensibilities, beats of storytelling, patterns of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists and publishers.”

Mystery Weekly Magazine

Most of Miller’s overview addresses adventure pulps like Doc Savage, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Pellucidar and Barsoom novels, SF/Fantasy material from vintage Lovecraft, Bradbury and Campbell, etc., as opposed to the mystery/crime fiction pulps. And after all, one could argue that crime pulp never really went away, merely migrated online and into periodic anthologies. Even with the disolution of so many 1930’s – 1960’s pulp magazines, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine are still out there, pulpy paper and all. Maybe the writers appearing inside don’t want to be classified as ‘pulpeteers’, or who knows? Maybe they’d be proud to wear to wear the mantle. After all, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine has been emblazoned with a violator on the cover for a while now noting “With Black Mask”, and I can’t think of anything that evokes the classic crime/mystery pulp era better.

three modern pulps

Miller’s article concludes with a list highlighting new pulp resources: Sites, cons, podcasts and even print/online pulp publishers, though again, those are more adventure/fantasy pulps than crime. That’s OK. ‘Pulp’ ala Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective, Sally The Sleuth and The Domino Lady may have faded away, or only live in reprints and some questionable revivals, but the noir-ish and hard-boiled flavor of the classic pulp era is still alive in a lot of talented mystery/crime fiction writers’ novels. Still…it sure would be nice if some well-heeled entrepreneur like the fellows who launched the original Hard Case Crime paperback line got a bright idea to launch a for-real ink-on-paper mystery/crime pulp magazine…wouldn’t it?

(Taya Ferdinand illustration from The Writer magazine)

Frazetta’s Femmes Fatales

Frazetta 2

Just how many late 20th century budding artists first started scribbling their own muscle bound barbarians and sword wielding valkyries after ogling Frank Frazetta’s (1928 – 2010) Conan paperback and early Warren magazine cover paintings, who’ll ever know. For many, the man’s work was the look of dark fantasy for decades. But he was more than Cimmerians and death goddesses, and had a flare for 50’s-60’s style bad girlz when given the chance. There’s not a broadsword or wizard in sight among these.

Frazetta 1Frazetta 3

Love Stories.

Gorgi Omnibus

If you write mystery, crime fiction or have the audacity to say you’re trying to write that often elusive thing called ‘noir’, then hit your touchpad or click your mouse and get to crimereads.com for managing editor Dwyer Murphy’s excellent tribute to James M. Cain (link below), whose birthday was just this week (July 1, 1892). I won’t quote passages from The Wit, Wisdom And Noirs Of James M. Cain – 25 Of The Greatest Lines Ever Written By A Crime Fiction Master, but will only encourage you to relish those that Murphy wisely selected, which include riveting lines from Cain’s novels as well as the master’s thoughts on writing and language. Keep in mind (as Dwyer Murphy points out) that Cain didn’t really consider himself a crime writer as such, much less ‘hard-boiled’ or a purveyor of anything called ‘noir’. He felt that he was writing love stories. Love gone tragically bad, doomed love, deadly love, perhaps. But love nonetheless. There’s a lesson there, I think. One day when I’m much smarter I’ll have learned it.

Omnibus 2

Tempting as it is to use any of the many original editions of his novels for some visuals for this post, or the 1940’s – 60’s era paperback reissue gems or even the much more tawdry 1970’s and later editions, I grabbed some omnibus editions and collections here instead. Aw heck, they’re all good.

Omnibus 1

https://crimereads.com/the-wit-wisdom-and-noirs-of-james-m-cain/

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