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?
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.
I thought I had this scheduled for Monday the 2nd, but I messed up.
So, a happy belated birthday to “April Dancer” (what a cool character name), The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., AKA Stephanie Powers, one of retro TV’s iconic girl-with-a-gun characters, who later starred in the mystery series Hart To Hart, and earlier in her career earned her ‘Noir Cred’ as Toby Sherwood in Blake Edwards’ creepy 1962 neo-noir thriller Experiment In Terror.
Powers was born Stefania Zofya Paul Federkiewicz in Hollywood (that made for a short trip to get a career rolling) on November 2, 1942, and happily is still with us today.
Probably too much to ask, but can I have that sleek Girl From U.N.C.L.E. car, pretty please?
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.
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.
P.D. James’ (1920 – 2014) first novel came out ten years before her An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (1972), which was, I think, her fifth book. In addition to several standalone works, James (Phyllis Dorothy James, The Baroness James of Holland Park, no less) published a popular series of fourteen mystery novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh, and the London inspector even factored in An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which introduced young London private investigator Cordelia Gray.
The fact is, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is a more important character among literary detectives, cops and investigators than she’s sometimes given credit for, bridging a gap between the golden age of mystery’s largely genteel (and often British) female detectives, the handful of 50’s/60’s era women P.I.’s, cops and spies — most of whom resided in glib, period-sexy quickies – and the introduction of a fresh crop of long-lived, popular characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Washawski and others in the early 1980’s. But back in 1972, Cordelia Gray was something else altogether: A pointedly unglamorous person with no exceptional superspy skills, sometimes troubled by very human self-doubt, but always bolstered by determination and persistence.
In the first of only two Cordelia Gray novels, the fledgling 22-year old private detective suddenly assumes ownership of her former boss-then-mentor and business partner’s private detective agency after he’s committed suicide, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Business” is a relative term, but Cordelia promptly acquires an unexpected out-of-town client. She’s tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of an otherwise healthy, handsome and well-liked college student (soon due for a generous inheritance, as well) who abruptly left school, hid out in a remote estate gardener’s shed, and was found dead, presumably having hung himself with his own belt. A telltale clue – traces of purple lipstick on his lips – leads Cordelia and the reader astray, certain that a woman was involved in the young man’s death. That’s cleared up once Cordelia learns he was actually found wearing that lipstick…along with a lacy black bra and panties. But even this is only one more crafty diversion in P.D. James’ mystery.
Hard-boiled or noir-ish, it’s not. An Unsuitable Job For A Woman isn’t a shoot-em-up or action-filled thriller. It’s a classic mystery British mystery novel freshened up for its time. Or, even a little ahead of its time. And more than merely ‘freshened up’. Cordelia’s stuck in a few fixes and there are some exciting scenes punctuating her relentless investigation (trapped in an abandoned and frighteningly deep well, just one harrowing example). The mystery’s resolution – and the very extended coda that follows – all satisfy and seem sure to have left readers craving more from Cordelia Gray. So, it’s surprising that James only wrote one more Cordelia Gray novel, and not till ten years later, at that: The Skull Beneath The Skin (1982).
I originally read An Unsuitable Job For A Woman a long time ago. Honestly, it hadn’t been top of mind for ages, till I recently stumbled across a handsome trade pb and decided it was time for a re-read. Aside from the basic premise, I’d forgotten enough so that my re-read was more like a first-read. I’d also forgotten how very, very British the novel was, which isn’t a criticism, only an acknowledgment of what a provincial Midwesterner I must be.
Maybe Cordelia Gray didn’t enjoy the multi-book career she deserved. But she did live on, and more about that in another post…
A panel of writers discussing the subject of sex in crime fiction could easily drift into arguments about gender politics or pontificating about the genre’s persistent reliance on sexualized violence. Now, don’t get me wrong: Those are vitally important topics that writers, readers and critics will continue to grapple with. But in Lisa Levy’s two-part Crime Reads piece (links below), you’ll feel more like you’ve been squeezed in between Robyn Harding, Alex Segura, P.J. Vernon, Kelly J. Ford, Layne Fargo, and Laura Lippman – each a mystery/crime fiction scribe who, to one degree or another, has wrestled with sexual content in their own work – and wonder if you’re the only person at the table who didn’t knock back a few before the fast-paced conversation commenced. There’s precious little pontificating here.
Part One is titled “Let’s Talk About Sex In Crime Fiction: A Roundtable Discussion”. But Levy acknowledges in the first paragraph, “Let’s talk about why we don’t talk about sex in crime fiction”. As she and her roundtable members concede, the plain fact is that many (if not even most) mystery and crime fiction novels tend to steer clear of sex, and I’m not only pointing to cozies.
But let’s be clear: When talking about “sex” in crime fiction, the panel’s not talking about the voyeuristic and sexified violence that permeates so many suspense thrillers and serial killer novels. Whether you think it’s good, bad, puzzingly creepy or downright repellant, many thrillers rely on sexualized stalking, torture, rape and murder. Writers crank ‘em out and readers continue to devour them. But that’s not at all what these writers are addressing. They’re simply talking about sex. Characters who are driven by sex, think about sex or engage in sex…novels that may require sex scenes of whatever duration, detail and level of decadence from vanilla to…well, decadent.
Part Two is “What Are The Sexiest Books In Contemporary Crime Fiction?”. Here the panel tosses out a wide array of very different writers and novels that might be considered ‘sexy’ or at least include scenes in which the protagonists engage in sex. As to why mystery/crime fiction novels frequently seem to sidestep sex? Well, read Levy’s piece at Crime Reads yourself to see what these writers think. Is it because crime fiction typically deals with really awful things – crimes, after all, which often as not include murder – so that sex scenes would seem out of place, intrusive and gratingly gratuitous? Is it because so many mystery and crime fiction novels still feature middle aged white guy private eyes (with no shortage of recovering alcoholics and other troubled souls) whose bedroom antics may not provide for much sizzle? Could the continuing evolution and expansion of the genre comfortably embrace more – and more diverse – sexual content? And even if it could, should it?
Long before I typed the first sentence for my own current project (The Stiletto Gumshoe, no surprise) and the character was still forming in my head, I knew that there would indeed be sexual content. It was a crucial part of illustrating just who the protagonist was and would help to define her in context of her environment: an insular ethnic blue-collar neighborhood in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, when enormous social changes were still a few years away. She’d be chastised by her nosy landlady, teased by her friends, completely misunderstood by men and finally forced to do a little soul searching about her behavior (this is 1959, after all) including how some unwise decisions of the romantic (or lusty) variety got her mixed up with blackmailers, thugs with badges and murder in the first place.
But, that’s my project. In a lot of other writers’ work, the same thing might not apply, and what goes on behind the protagonist’s closed bedroom door might well be completely out of place.
Levy and crew don’t really provide answers so much as share questions about sex in crime fiction (while providing a fertile list of writers and novels worth discovering or revisiting). And whether you’re a mystery/crime fiction reader, or a writer agonizing over some sexual content in your projects – and if doing so, then precisely how and how much – this two-part roundtable will give you something to think about. On the fun side, it’ll probably ignite a chuckle or two along the way. Levy’s Crime Reads panel had some fun with this one!
Austrian artist Rudolph Sieber-Lonati (1924 – 1990) was best known for his colorful and action-packed science fiction, horror and western illustrations, but he also painted a number of crime digest and paperback covers. An excellent example: This illustration for G. W. Jones’ Morgen Wirst Du Nicht Mehr Leben, one of that prolific writer’s many “Fledermaus” and “Die Schwarz Fledermaus” digests. Unreliable online translators work that title out as “Tomorrow You Won’t Live Anymore”, but what do you want to bet it’s really “Tomorrow, You Die”?
A couple posts back I mentioned Susan Shapiro’s article “Genre Fluidity” from the September/October issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. That’s genre, not gender, and while the piece largely dealt with rethinking in-progress projects for altogether different genres, the genre bending notion was top of mind while I concurrently wrapped up Elizabeth Hand’s new Cass Neary novel, The Book Of Lamps And Banners, a 2020 Mulholland Books hardcover, and a textbook example of “genre fluidity”.
I don’t recall if I bought Hand’s first Cass Neary novel, Generation Loss (2008), as soon as it came out or discovered it sometime later. All I remember is how completely surprised and utterly enthralled I was by the author’s addictive mix of (what might seem at first like) indulgent literary fiction with mystery/crime fiction…all dosed with an unexpected bit of dark fantasy.
If you’ve read Hand’s Cass Neary novels, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…well, you just have to plunge in and see for yourself.
To begin with, Cass Neary herself is a memorable mix, like those Just Kids Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe merged into one person, with a decadent and dangerous dash of Nan Goldin and Chrissie Hynde stirred in. Briefly a gallery scene darling for her stark and daring photos of New York’s new wave scene and the Big Apple’s rotten core, Soho salon sales and a now-collectible coffee table monograph’s money promptly went right up her nose and into her veins. After an extended stay in rehab, Cass emerged as a has-been, reduced to working in the Strand Bookstore in order to hold onto her rent-controlled apartment. Working the Strand’s stock room, that is, following some ‘incidents’ with customers.
Still fueled by a flirtation with any available substance and ever on a doomed quest to reunite with her soulmate, Quinn, the remnants of Cass’ reputation (or notoriety) drag her into mysterious situations and ever deepening danger from coastal Maine to Europe. Seemingly innocent assignments and chance meetings inevitably go bad and leave behind a frightening body count. By the second novel, she’s a person of interest to the U.S. authorities following the deadly aftermath of her brief stay in Maine. In the opening pages of The Book Of Lamps And Banners, Cass is skulking through London with a thousand stolen Euros and a fake passport, evading Interpol. Another ‘chance meeting’ (or is it?) finds her tagging along with an old stateside acquaintance, now a rare book dealer delivering a rare and priceless book of ancient dark magic. No surprise, the handoff doesn’t go down as planned, the buyer is murdered, and before the night is out, Cass is mixed up with a troubled young app developer, white supremacists, Nordic mysticists and murderers. Like each of the Cass Neary novels, the line between reality and something ‘other’ is indistinct here, much of it filtered through her beloved Konica’s lens onto increasingly hard-to-come by Tri-X film. Though Cass Neary’s a flesh and blood person with all too-human foibles and addictions, photography is something nearly mystical for her, which may be why she winds up with weird earth goddess worshippers, Neo-Nazi ritualists and murderous madmen hunting for dark grimoires.
Hard-boiled and classic mystery fans beware: There are no gumshoes here. No retired cops attending AA meetings in between solving crimes, no suburban caterers or chefs stumbling over dead bodies and definitely no kitty cats sniffing out crooks. Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary novels are unrelentingly dark and gritty, whether cruising rain-soaked London streets or stomping through eerie Swedish forests. Is she an investigator? Well, a reluctant – albeit determined – one, yes. But Cass Neary has more in common with Lou Reed than Lew Archer.
Elizabeth Hand’s The Book Of Lamps And Banners can deservedly be shelved in any bookstore’s Fiction & Literature section. It certainly should be cross-merchandised in the Mystery section. And some renegade booksellers will put it in their SF/Fantasy/Horror sections, and I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong. Hand blurs genre lines with a skill that mirrors her Cass Neary’s deft touch with the camera shutter. If I sound a little too fannish here, I’m not ashamed. For me, The Book Of Lamps And Banners was a literate neo-noir masterpiece, as each of the prior Cass Neary novels has been, and it’ll be a long, long wait for the next one, presuming that Elizabeth Hand will grace us with another.
Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows (2020 Johns Hopkins University Press) is subtitled “A Hard-Boiled History”, and some may quibble with that. Lee’s 216-page hardcover (the last 46 pages comprised of appendices and footnotes) is less a ‘history’ of fictional hard-boiled detectives and more a close look at how a shortlist of exemplary private eye characters from literature and broadcast media represent and echo their eras.
If you’ve been burned in the past by academics’ books, I can relate. Susanna Lee previously authored Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction And The Decline Of Moral Authority, but also Proust’s Swann’s Way and Stendahl’s The Red And The Black among other titles, and those might give anyone the willies if they’re disinterested in a return to high school and college required reading lists. (You say ‘Proust’ and I’m automatically fleeing the other way, one particularly disastrous college term paper still nagging at me to this day.)
But, fear not. Detectives In The Shadows is engaging and readable throughout, and I for one would’ve been happy with another 100 pages to devour. She selects a key hard-boiled detective to represent different periods, starting with Carroll John Daly’s Terry Mack as the start of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre, soon supplanted by that same writer’s more popular Race Williams, both of them Black Mask magazine staples. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade embody the late 1920’s and early Depression years, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe represents the 1930’s-40’s, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer violently echoes the post-WWII Cold War era. Lee dismisses the 1960’s altogether, considering its social upheavals unfriendly to hard-boiled private eyes’ rugged individualism and quasi-vigilanteism. She jumps to the 1970’s with Robert Parker’s Spencer and his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. From Parker’s Spencer, Lee switches from fiction to the screen with HBO’s The Wire and True Detective series, and lastly, Netflix’ Jessica Jones. Brief mentions of broadcast television’s The Rockford Files and David Janssen as Harry O may still leave some readers scratching their heads. Wither Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski? Lew Archer and Easy Rawlins? The roster could continue, but again I’ll point out that Susanna Lee didn’t assemble a laundry list of hard-boiled detectives, but instead, aimed to show how the uniquely American literary invention of the lone-wolf hard-boiled P.I. represents evolving periods in modern history.
Coming from a steady diet of cozies and ready to take a peek at the dark, violent world of hard-boiled detective literature? Then pick another non-fiction book to provide you with an overview, but keep Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows on hand for a later read when you want to delve deeper into what these iconic characters represent.