Lily Renee: Fighting The Axis With A Sable Brush.

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Fiction House’s Senorita Rio waged a war of vengeance against the Nazis in Fight Comics during WWII, eager for revenge against all fascists after the death of her Navy Ensign fiancé at Pearl Harbor. Though Rio was launched by Morgan ‘Jo’ Hawkins and Nick Cardy, it’s artist “L. Renee” who is most closely associated with the character, and who had her own very personal reasons for bringing the Allies’ most lethal lady agent’s adventures to life.

Fourteen year old Vienna teenager Lily Renee Wilhelm was horrified when the Anschluss united Austria with Nazi Germany. The daughter of a well-to-do Jewish family, her father lost his job as the director of a prestigious cruise line, she was expelled from school, their home and possessions were soon confiscated and they were forced to move into a cramped shared apartment in the new Jewish ghetto. Knowing things would only get worse, Lily’s parents got her out of the country in the Kindertransport program that allowed Jewish children to emigrate overseas. Knowing very little English, Lily was taken in by a British family just before war broke out in 1939, unaware that the host family was actually more interested in a free house servant than aiding Europe’s endangered Jews. Ill-used and nearly starved, Lily fled, but with Britain and Germany at war now, she was picked up by the authorities and incarcerated as an enemy alien. A distant relative intervened and Lily got a job as a nurse’s aid in a military hospital. Unaware if her parents were still alive, working 12 hour shifts, shunned by her British coworkers, still unfamiliar with the language, it was a brutally lonely life for the young teen, her only solace found during her rare off hours when she indulged her amateur interest in art, drawing on any scrap of paper she could find.

L Renee 3While England endured the Blitz, Lily was shocked (but thrilled) to discover that her parents had, in fact, managed to escape Austria and arranged for her to join them in America. A perilous cross Atlantic freighter voyage dodging storms and German U-Boats finally reunited the family in New York. They found an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lily’s father got a job as an elevator operator, while she pitched in by hand painting Tyrolean scenes on knick-knacks while going to night school, even as the U.S. joined the war. Splitting her time between modeling jobs for fashion designers and classes at The Art Students League and The School Of The Visual Arts, Lily landed an apprentice position at an agency doing illustrations for Woolworth’s catalogs, but her mother was convinced she could do better, eventually prodding the young girl to answer a want ad for comic book artists. Lily balked, certain a woman wouldn’t be considered, particularly one so young, and still convinced while she waited with her portfolio on her lap in the Fiction House reception area surrounded only by men.

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But she was hired and soon found herself working side by side with pioneering women comic artists like Nina Albright and Fran Hopper, doing prep work and backgrounds, clean-ups and inking for the princely sum of $18 a week. Eventually she was assigned to draw some Jane Martin, Pilot issues, then given The Werewolf Hunter horror title, a series she often scripted without credit.

After Nick Cardy moved on to other titles, random artists temporarily filled in on Fight Comics popular Senorita Rio series till it was handed to young Lily Renee. She usually signed her work only as “L. Renee”, and her fan mail (much of it from servicemen) confirmed that most readers assumed she was a man. Lily Renee continued to do the Senorita Rio series for most of its run, finally leaving for other titles after the war, and eventually leaving the comics industry for textile design and other artistic endeavors.

L Renee 2But who could be better suited to drawing this iconic WWII era character, a woman so distraught over her fiancée’s death at Pearl Harbor that she abandons her glamorous, successful Hollywood career, fakes her own death and goes undercover as a government agent combatting fascist spies and saboteurs in her native South America. Lily Renee knew a thing or two about the dangers of Nazi tyranny, and drew Senorita Rio with relish as she rooted out evil German agents and collaborators, dispatching the bad guys (and a lot of nasty femmes fatales) with a compact automatic hidden in her garter holster, and always doing it in style, often as not in Senorita Rio’s trademark red dress and matching heels.  Not quite as skilled a draftsman as Nick Cardy was, young Lily Renee still celebrated Rio’s athleticism and daring, while embracing the one-time Hollywood starlet’s very apparent sensuality. In Renee’s hand, Rita Farrar/Senorita Rio surely got more than a few WWII era reader’s pulses racing in slinky peekaboo scenes that graced most stories. And like all good Golden Age comics heroines, Rio was frequently captured by the bad guys, but she was never a helpless damsel in distress waiting to be rescued. Notable among that era’s female characters, it was Senorita Rio herself who did the rescuing, and always triumphed over the enemy.

In 2007, Lily Renee was nominated to the Comic-Con International Hall Of Fame, and as of this writing, is still with us at age 99.

Femme Noir.

Femme Noir 6

In a preceding post I mentioned a list of comics missed or overdue for a revisit that has accumulated while the shops have been shuttered the past few months. They still are closed, around here at least, but are expected to re-open soon. All the same, while I’m blessed with several nice stores very close by, they’re woefully light on indies, being strictly focused on the capes-n-tights crowd from the majors. But one off the beaten track shop will come through, I know, and that’s where I’ll mine the bins for Christopher Mills and Joe Staton’s Femme Noir.

Femme Noir 1

I have several back issues, but grabbed them at random and not in sequence, and really want to hunker down with the whole series. Bursting out of Port Nocturne’s deep dark shadows in always-energetic artwork, Mills and Staton’s Femme Noir seems like a genuinely pulpy comic treat based on the disjointed storyline I’ve gleaned from what I have. The Dark City Diaries, Blonde Justice and Dead Man’s Hand…now there’s a bunch I need to acquire, whether in individual issues or trade reprints. Counting the days (or a couple weeks, depending on what I hear).

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Just Ask Eddie.

Ask Eddie

A Film Noir Foundation email blast tells us to “Ask Eddie”, promoting an upcoming live stream Facebook page where questions can be posed to that master of all things noir, Eddie Muller.

I think I need to stay away. Or at least, keep my questions to myself. After all, is it even possible to sift through the hundreds (thousands?) of questions I’d love to ask the main man himself? But don’t think I won’t be swooping in to snoop.

Want to know more? You know where to go, fellow film noir friends.

www.filmnoirfoundation.org

A Well-Dressed P.I.

vogue 1951 via the retro housewife

You’d rightly assume this 1951 Vogue magazine photo is supposed to be a postwar ‘career gal’ art director or photo editor reviewing contact sheets. But I prefer to imagine a stylish ‘stiletto gumshoe’ going over steamy pics from the prior night’s no-tell motel stakeout on an adultery case soon to go really bad. From The Retro Housewife at www.the-retro-housewife-01.tumblr.com

Close Up.

close up amanda quick

When I first spotted Close Up (2020) on more than one of the too-many mystery/crime fiction and book sites I follow, I was expecting “Casey, Crime Photographer” in heels, and scheduled it for a bookstore curbside pickup. I’ve been making it a point lately to try big name authors whose books I’ve bypassed, partly to see what I’ve been missing and partly to find out what I can learn for my own writing.

Amanda Quick is well-known Seattle, Washington author Jayne Krentz. With over fifty NYT bestsellers to her credit, Krentz writes ‘romantic suspense’, with her ‘Amanda Quick’ pen name reserved for historical romantic suspense (which apparently just recently transitioned to more recent history, like Close Up, which is set in the 1930’s), and works as ‘Jayne Castle’ (oddly enough, the author’s real name) for paranormal romantic suspense. From this I’ll glean that the latter isn’t horror as such, the Quick books aren’t quite ‘noir’ or crime fiction, and the Krentz novels not quite thrillers. These are romance novels however you want to label them, not that this is a bad thing.

In Close Up, Vivien Brazier flees a pampered but claustrophobic heiress’ life in San Francisco to pursue a career as a fine arts photographer in Los Angeles. She pays the bills by moonlighting as a crime scene photographer, following police radio calls at night and elbowing the boys club aside at fires, auto accidents and murder scenes, spending her days working on a provocative series of male nudes with a steady stream of Muscle Beach buff-boys lined up outside her beachfront home studio. Smarter and more observant than the rest of the camera jockeys, Vivien helps the police I.D. a high-profile serial killer only a few chapters into the novel. But this spins off into a more puzzling murder mystery, and pairs her with dapper but troubled private (and apparently psychic) investigator Nick Sundridge and his loyal dog Rex. An elaborate if ill-conceived scheme to ensnare this new and even more diabolical killer takes them to the upscale oceanfront resort town of Burning Cove, where romance blossoms even as they to elude – then uncover – the murderer.

A snippy critic might complain that the plot takes some mighty implausible turns, the characters continually do incredibly improbable things and the entire business is rife with an endless list of writerly no-no’s that would guarantee an agent’s or editor’s swift and dismissive rejection for any unknown. But with a looong list of successful books to her credit, I don’t think Quick/Krentz/Castle needs to worry about any of that, and just aims to tell a good story in her own way.

Still, I’ll confess that I kind of wished the author trusted the nifty setup she initially created and left intriguing, no-nonsense Vivien Brazier right where she was when the book began: prowling the means streets of 1930’s Los Angeles on the hunt for grisly crime scenes with her big Speed Graphic camera in tow, bantering with the cops and the lensmen, and living the Boho life by day as a fine arts photographer, even though she has to endure the gallery elite’s sneers at her figure study photos. But Quick/Krentz/Castle knows what she’s doing, even when she chose to hightail it out of that intriguing milieu for a remote movie star hideaway resort and something more like a Golden Age drawing room mystery (albeit one laced with some sex). Bottom line: What the hell do I know? When I have fifty NYT bestsellers under my belt, I’ll make suggestions.

Whether you only enjoy its beginnings or stay on board for the rest of the ride, I bet you’ll agree that Quick’s Close Up is a fun read. I just hope some other writer picks up where Amanda Quick began and brings us an engaging, no-nonsense ‘girl crime photographer’ in a retro urban setting…Close Up was really onto something there. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m already wrestling with my own no-nonsense ‘stiletto gumshoe’ in a retro urban setting. You give it a try.

Vengeance is Hers.

vengeance is hers

Dangle a shiny bauble in front of me, and I’m completely in your power. Well, if the bauble’s a book, that is, and one with an eye-catching cover.

There’s a long list of books I’ve bought based on their covers alone, only to be disappointed by the books themselves. There are so many cozies, anemic thrillers and bland whodunits masquerading as edgy hard-boiled or saucy neo-noir tales. Used bookstores make out pretty well with my discards, their alluring covers ready to ensnare the next victim.

So, it’s a thrill when I get an unassuming little book that turns out to be a gem. I need more ‘baubles’ like Vengeance Is Hers, a 1997 anthology from Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, one more of the anthologies I spotted over a month ago at The New Thrilling Detective website. The cover art? Meh. And it’s just a rack-sized pocketbook at that. But this collection of 17 mystery/crime fiction stories by women writers – plus one gate-crasher from co-editor Mickey Spillane himself to open the book – was a cover-to-cover treat. Sure, some stories felt a little anachronistic, the book over twenty years old, after all. But the talented roster of writers including Joan Hess, J.A. Jance, Wendi Lee, Sharyn McCrumb, S.J. Rozan and others, delivered surprisingly different spins on the notion of vengeance. From uniformed cops to (then) modern private eyes and traditional femmes fatales, the stories cover the bases, with some genuine head-scratching mysteries, liberal doses of edgy violence and thoughtful storytelling throughout. The real jewel in the book may be mystery maestra Dorothy B. Hughes’ last completed work, “Where Is She? Where Did She Go?”. Hughes paints a vivid picture of the mid-twentieth century L.A. Boho jazz scene, and leaves the reader unsure at the end if a crime actually occurred or not. For his part, Mickey Spillane delivers a story that oozes trademark Spillane hard-boiled-isms throughout, but foregoes any gunplay, fistfights or violence, and is a surprisingly thoughtful piece.

A ho-hum cover on an easily overlooked pocketbook? This sure was, and if it hadn’t been shown in The New Thrilling Detective website, it would’ve remained off my radar. Glad I spotted it there and took a chance, even without anyone waving a shiny bauble before my usually gullible eyes.

Kirilin’s “Gun Crazy” Series & More.

vladimir kirilin 1

You’ve probably seen a couple of these photos  (the “stiletto gumshoes” in particular) a zillion times on Tumblr, Pinterest and elsewhere. I know I have. What I don’t see very often is anything mentioning who shot them. They’re by Israeli photo-artist Vladimir “Volf” Kirilin, including some shots here from his “Gun Crazy” and “In The City Of The Moonlight” series. Look for more of the master’s work at 500px.com.

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Sasha’s Anna.

Anna 1

Some dismiss Luc Bresson films as mindless action movies with a glossy veneer of sexy artsy-ness. To which I’d respond with, “What’s so awful about mindless action movies with a glossy veneer of sexy artsy-ness?”

La Femme Nikita, The Transporter, Lucy, The Professional…not a terrible resume, IMHO. I’ll blame myself for not knowing enough about the cloud of abuse allegations leveled against writer-producer-director Bresson to take a position, much less purge his films from my watch list. And that list includes his well-known projects and some that slipped in and out of theaters pretty quickly.

Sasha Luss stars as 'Anna' in ANNA.

Case in point: Anna, the stylish 2019 action thriller starring Sasha Luss as KGB assassin Anna Poliatova. Real-life fashion model Luss originally aimed to be a professional ballet dancer till she was sidelined by an injury in her tweens, soon turning to modeling (which she still does pretty well at) and then acting, Anna being her second film project. Here she plays a young Russian woman who escapes years of domestic abuse by making a deal with the devil: Undergo grueling KGB training, give them five years, and after that she can go free. Working undercover as a Paris fashion model (a real stretch for Luss), Anna’s particularly good at what she does (kill people) until her cover’s blown. Reluctantly agreeing to become a double agent for the CIA, Anna now faces a dizzying series of double-crosses and betrayals before she finally breaks free…or at least, achieves some sort of fragile truce.

Sasha Luss stars as 'Anna' in ANNA.

Some regard Anna as a derivative and inferior version of Bresson’s own La Femme Nikita (one hell of a film, as was its U.S. adaptation, Point Of No Return). I won’t argue, but I also don’t care. Anna is easy on the eyes, packed full of Luc Bresson’s trademarked action sequences, and even deploys credible costars like Helen Mirren, Cillian Murphy and Luke Evans.

Mindless action with a glossy veneer of sexy artsy-ness? Well, yeah..it pretty much is.

And that’s a problem?

Sasha Luss stars as 'Anna' in ANNA.Anna (Sasha Luss, left) and Maud (Lera Above, right) in ANNA.Anna 6

Script For Scandal

Script For Scandal Ordered

‘Renee Patrick’s’ Script For Scandal is the third Lillian Frost & Edith Head Mystery, this time a Severn House (UK) library style edition with a glossy full color hardcover binding plus matching dustjacket. Renee Patrick? That’d be the husband and wife team of Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, the latter a familiar name here since he’s the new editor of The Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine, which ought to lend some genuine cred to the series’ Golden Age Hollywood trivia. And there’s a lot.

Lillian Frost is a New York transplant in Hollywood, fired from her department store job in the first novel and now working as the social secretary for a quirky Tony Stark style zillionaire inventor. Striking up a friendship with Paramount Studio’s (not yet) famed costume designer Edith Head, the duo get mixed up in Golden Age Hollywood mysteries, impulsive Lillian foolishly stepping into danger and more cerebral Edith, often as not, figuring things out from afar. The late 1930’s film studio milieu provides ample opportunities for guest appearances by silver screen luminaries, here including Billy Wilder, Paulette Goddard, Bette Davis, George Raft, Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray.

In Script For Scandal, it’s MacMurray who’s slated to star against-type as a smooth-talking bad guy in a proto-noir (this being only 1939), using artful lighting and deep shadows to mask the project’s budget and add some German Expressionist inspired sense of ominous dread. But the film is based on a real-life 1936 bank robbery in which the loot’s still missing and the crooks all wound up dead, along with an L.A.P.D. detective…none other than Lillian Frost’s own boyfriend’s previous partner. The D.A.’s digging into the case again, and three new murders start pointing guilty fingers at Frost’s squeeze.

These Renee Patrick novels certainly aren’t hard-boiled, much less anything you’d call ‘noir’. While I flee from cozies, I’m open minded when it comes to retro settings, 1930’s – 50’s era Hollywood and NYC in particular. If Script For Scandal, like the two prior novels in the series, may be light on gunplay, action, sexy sizzle or anything dark-n-heavy, they’re genuine ‘page-turners’ with complicated mysteries that are…well, just plain fun. I don’t know why the series changed publishers for book number three, but I hope it’s strictly for good reasons, because I, for one, definitely want to see more books in this Lillian Frost & Edith Head mystery series.

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