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.

What’s Beyond The Edges.

Brian Tull 2

Born in 1975, Brian Tull’s only way to remember the 1930’s through 1950’s is through his imagination. Which must be vivid, and which he draws upon to create his enormous photo-realistic paintings and public art murals, each “strategically cropped…sometimes confrontational and often featuring the female figure as protagonist, giving you a subtle glimpse into the characters’ lives. Usually leaving you wondering what or who is beyond the edges.” Retro? Yes, and wonderfully so, but there’s more at work here than mere nostalgia. Check out more of the artist’s work at his site (if only to get a better feel for the size of the paintings): briantull.com.

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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.

Gail Ford – Girl Friday

Gail Ford

Homicide Bureau Inspector Madson’s able assistant Gail Ford is rarely seen slogging through routine office chores or clerical duties, more typically enlisted to go undercover to help the police solve vexing cases, palming herself off as everything from a greasy spoon waitress to a department store clerk, a personal maid or a fresh-off-the-bus rube just arrived in the big bad city.

Gail Ford – Girl Friday was created by Gene Leslie and first appeared in Crime Smashers in 1950. Or, depending on the source, she was created by Ray McClelland, and also appeared in Smash Detective magazine as one of that crime fiction pulp’s comics features. I’ll have to leave it up to vintage pulp and comics experts to confirm authorship and venues, none of which matters much to a non-collector like myself. But the 15 stories included in this Gwandanaland trade paperback are supposed to be from 15 consecutive Crime Smashers issues running from 1950-1953. A couple are credited to Pierre Charpentier and Keats Petree.

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Unlike some near-contemporaries like Adolphe Barreaux’ well-known Sally The Sleuth or Queenie Starr, Gail Ford – Girl Friday managed to chase crooks and solve crimes without losing all of her clothes. A smart investigator and quite the daredevil, she kept a revolver handy in her purse and knew how to use it, and had to trade blows more than once with menacing thugs, most of whom learned the hard way just what a high heel can really do when there’s a full-force Gail Ford kick behind it. She almost seems like a prototype for Mickey Spillane’s Velda, right down to the shoulder length Bettie Page style hairdo, complete with neatly trimmed bangs.

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The Gwadanaland book includes no intro, front or back matter, just scans of the comics pages themselves. But it’s a nicely printed book and the material is all quite crisp and readable, considering. The firm aims to publish largely forgotten public domain material, and I’ll be getting more from them for sure.

 

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.

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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/

No Going Back.

Tumblr-Wordpress

Not ‘going back’ to Tumblr, but I am expanding to Tumblr. If you’re visiting here and unable to follow this site because you’re not signed up at WordPress or a blog aggregator,  but happen to reside at Tumblr, then you can follow along from there. New posts (starting with August 2019) will automatically appear at thestilettogumshoe.tumblr.com, the short ones appearing intact, longer ones with a feature image, opening text and handy link to the post at this source blog.

The Stiletto Gumshoe blog actually started at Tumblr in Autumn 2018, but I closed that down in December after barely two months of activity and started over on the WordPress platform. Tumblr was going through some changes at the time. I didn’t leave Tumblr in protest (though I know many did) but because some of Tumblr’s more out-there content was troubling, and whether they’ll admit it or not, the platform’s plagued by pornbots, spammers and hackers (and still is, I suspect). For more on that, refer to “A Tumblr Refugee” from late December (link below).

Still Tumblr’s super-simple social media aspect remains a lure. The Stiletto Gumshoe’s been up at WordPress for eight months with 400 posts, just under 4,000 visitors, over 7,500 views and over a thousand Likes. Which is nice, but experienced bloggers would snicker at those numbers, and the site hasn’t even topped a hundred followers yet. While this isn’t the sort of destination that’ll ever draft thousands of followers, there’s not much point to crafting content that goes unseen. Cross posting to Tumblr can only increase exposure.

The Stieltto Gumshoe Dot Com

So, visit however you like: thestilettogumshoe.com. thestilettogumshoe.wordpress.com. thestilettogumshoe.tumblr.com. All routes will lead back here, and given some time, I’ll make a point of retrieving older content to get it posted a bit at a time at Tumblr.

P.S. You can also ogle lots of random visuals (with frequent links back to here) at Pinterest if you like: https://www.pinterest.com/stilettogumshoes/

“A Tumblr Refugee” 12.2018 Post: https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2018/12/27/a-tumblr-refugee/

The Los Angeles Epic.

this storm

Epic? Horror fans (or at least the vampire enthusiasts among them) might point to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books. Heroic fantasy readers would naturally hold up J.R.R. Tolkien’sThe Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all of its many, many prefaces and repackaged source materials. I don’t know if mystery/crime fiction readers and critics expect the genre to spawn anything that ought to be called ‘epic’, but I’ll nominate James Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet and now the new L.A. Quartet, including 2019’s This Storm.

This book’s been sitting on my to-be-read end table since its release, the huge red swastika emblazoned on its cover doubly eerie in light of current events. I wanted to clear the deck of other reading and projects to devote a few days to This Storm. For me, no skimming’s allowed with Ellroy. I won’t speed-read through a passage to jump to the next ‘good part’. Every single word is a ‘good part’. I couldn’t imagine trimming random notes from a Beethoven symphony and I can’t conceive of skipping a single sentence, phrase or word in an Ellroy novel. At just under 600 pages, This Storm is not a quick read. The plot’s incredibly complex, the cast of characters enormous (there’s actually a six page Dramatis Personae appendix to guide you…and you’ll need it), and when you crack the book open, you just assume that you’ll be living with it for a few days.

If you love James Ellroy, you loved (or will love) This Storm. But I recognize that not everyone is quite so enamored with the writer as I am. The rhythmic syncopated jazz score that is an Ellroy manuscript is off-putting to some. The dense, complex plotting, the sheer bleakness of his milieus and the relentless greed, duplicity and violence his characters exhibit can almost be too much to bear. In James Ellroy’s world, no one’s ‘good’ and everyone has an agenda, which often as not is an evil one. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale. Just as often, it’s a vapid, banal evil that’s somehow even more disturbing.

Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet comprised four books: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1900) and White Jazz (1992), all of which dealt with an intricately intertwined group of post-WWII LAPD detectives, criminals, bureaucrats, wives, girlfriends, crime victims and not-so-innocent bystanders spanning 1947 through 1958. Over twenty years later, Ellroy launched his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia (2014), revisiting some of the very same characters a few years earlier at the very outset of the U.S. involvement in WWII.

This Storm opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues through early May 1942, just before the tide began to turn in the Pacific War with the Battle Of The Coral Sea and the more decisive Battle Of Midway. But in the early months of 1942, news from the front was not good. War hysteria has the entire west coast on edge. This is the time of the Japanese internment and rampant fear of saboteurs, Nazi spies and Russian fifth columnists. But crime can still flourish during war time, and the line between simple crooks, the merely corrupt and the downright traitorous is a blurry one.

La Confidential 1LA Confidential 2

Two of Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet novels have been made into films, one a double-Oscar winning masterpiece, L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the other a dismal failure: The Black Dahlia, 2006. Familiar characters from those films populate This Storm, including Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and relegated to bit parts here, Lee Blanchard, ‘Buzz’ Meeks and others. L.A. Confidential is a magnificent film which does an impressive job of condensing a sprawling, complex novel into a taut feature film. Why The Black Dahlia didn’t work, considering the talent assembled with visual stylist Brian DePalma directing Hillary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhardt and Mia Kishner, is more of a mystery. I hope Johansson and Kishner consider another period noir role some day, the critical and box office failure of The Black Dahlia notwithstanding. Kirshner in particular garnered her share of rave reviews, even if the film didn’t.

Black Dahila 2Black Dahlia 1

A plot summary of This Storm is impossible. Paring down the labyrinthian story to its fundamentals finds cops and crooks alike conspiring to pit the right against the left, the schemers unaware that the two sides are already working hand in hand, their political ideologies only empty rhetoric, their quests driven by short term greed and for more far reaching postwar power. In This Storm, run of the mill blackmailers, pimps, pornographers, perverts, thieves and murderers mix it up with closet fascists, the German Bund, Mexican paramilitary police, Imperial Japanese spies and NKVD agents, some orchestrated by and some manipulated by corrupt LAPD detectives and bureaucrats. Here, life is cheap. Sex is currency, fists and bullets fly with impunity, the thugs with badges often more violent than the worst of the criminals. Aside from a particularly horrid lead character getting a bit of a comeuppance (though only a bit, and only a temporary one at that), there’s little to console you at This Storm’s conclusion, and that includes the fact that it’ll be a long wait for the third novel in James Ellroy’s second L.A. Quartet.

Elmore Leonard wrote that “reading (James Ellroy’s) The Black Dahlia aloud would shatter wine glasses”. I don’t doubt it. In fact, I truly wish I could read all of Ellroy’s novels out loud in order to fully appreciate the staccato rhythm and musicality of the rapid-fire prose. Books like This Storm leave me humbled, and almost feeling presumptuously arrogant for having the impudence to aim my own fingers at a keyboard to try my hand at crime fiction. So…epic? I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This Storm and James Ellroy’s original and second L.A. Quartets really are, to me at least, crime fiction’s epics.

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