Detectives In The Shadows.

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.

The “There” And The “Then”.

Not everyone re-reads novels, but I do, returning to a few classics and cherished favorites every few years, sometimes just grabbing a previously read book purely on a whim. But it’s rare for me to re-visit a book finished less than a year ago. Nonetheless, that’s just what I did with Laura Lippman’s 2019 Lady In The Lake, even though the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is filling up (overflowing, actually) with new books waiting to be started.

Sure, I enjoyed Lippman’s tale of Baltimore’s mid-1960’s upper middle-class Jewish homemaker Madeline ‘Maddie’ Schwartz, her abrupt decision to leave her family for a new life in an edgy part of town, finagling her way into a bottom-rung newspaper job, and her ambitious and potentially dangerous investigation into the largely ignored death of Eunetta ‘Cleo’ Sherwood, a young African-American woman. Lady in The Lake is crime fiction. It’s definitely a mystery. But it’s also a coming-of-age story, though the age in this sorta-kinda homage to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar is Maddie Schwartz’ late-thirties, her own teenage years’ self-discovery tabled for marriage and homemaker roles. 

Read the first time only months earlier, there were no new revelations to be discovered in the plot. And Lippman scores no better or worse than most writers do with the “there” – that is, immersing the reader in the place in which the story unfolds. I’ve never been to Baltimore, Maryland, and Lippman’s laundry list of stores, restaurants and street names didn’t conjure up any specific sense of place. That’s not a criticism. The fact is, having been raised on a century of Hollywood films and television shows, we all can recognize a handful of Los Angeles and New York street and neighborhood names and landmarks. But the main drags in Tulsa or Spokane? The upscale department store in Denver vs. the dime store chain in Minneapolis? The fancy dining spots in Pittsburgh and the greasy spoons in Cleveland? Of course not. 

For myself, I’ve chosen not to agonize over pointless geography lessons in my own writing, confident that no reader will spot check my rendition of Chicago (much less Chicago over 60 years ago) on Google Maps to uncover a fabricated street name or question if the Rexall drug store was really on the southwest or northeast corner of an intersection. The “there” – the real sense of place – has to be conveyed via much more than a tour guide’s itinierary.

But the “then”? 

Laura Lippman’s handling of the “then” in Lady of The Lake was masterfully done, and why I opted to revisit the novel, this time like a high school/college class reading assignment, taking careful note of the different ways she kept the reader firmly rooted in the Autumn of 1965 through November 1966 (with a brief coda some twenty years later). Just as a sense of place is established – and maintained – by much more than meaningless address lists, the elusive sense of “then” must first be conveyed (and then repeatedly but, hopefully, not intrusivelyreinforced) with much more than pointing out cars’ make and model years, household product brand names or some other pop culture references. In Lady In The Lake, everything really feels like it’s 1966, from the characters’ body language to the pervasive dismissiveness Maddie Schwartz constantly navigates through. Spiro T. Agnew may be running for governor, The Sandpipers playing at the theater, but those only matter if a contemporary reader even knows who Agnew was or can picture Steve McQueen on screen. Chronological cultural cues are sprinkled throughout, of course, but it’s the actions and dialog that constantly define the time, if not the place. How precisely Lippman accomplished all of this is not so easy to decipher.

My own work is set in the ethnic blue collar bungalow belt of 1959 Chicago. Neighborhood borders – and ethnic/racial boundaries – are as rigid and insurmountable as real walls, and a viaduct or railroad line as formidable as the Brandenburg Gate in Cold War era Berlin. I think I’ve managed a sense of place pretty well without getting bogged down in street names and local landmarks that couldn’t resonate with readers. But that doesn’t mean that all the maps, downloaded photos, vintage magazines and hours of research were pulled together for nothing. They’ve played their part in helping me to establish – and maintain – an essential sense of the “then” as much (if not more so) as the “there”. Am I doing it as handily as Laura Lippman? I doubt it. But a re-read of her Lady In The Lake is helping to keep me on the right track.

Photo: Andrey Dubinin

Ana’s Paloma.

I’m not the world’s biggest James Bond fan, with mixed feelings about the original 1950’s-60’s Ian Fleming novels, favoring the first three Sean Connery films over all others, and with (you can yell at me and throw things now) the first Pierce Brosnan film, Goldeneye, coming in next. But not being the world’s biggest fan doesn’t mean I’m still not on board for all of them…well, except for the Roger Moore films. Sorry, I just cannot get into those. 

Planned for a Spring release, but delayed like everything else in our pandemic world and now headed our way (we’ll see) this November is the 25thNo Time To Die. Ana De Armas strikes some lethal poses as CIA agent Paloma, a “Bond Girl” though not 007’s love interest, or so I’ve read. 

Sixties Spy Style.

The Wilson Lewes Trio had four LP’s, I think, each a compilation of their takes on popular movie theme songs. I don’t know if this kitschy 1966 album with the themes from Dean Martin’s The Silencers and James Coburn’s Our Man Flint was even remotely listenable. But the two well-armed assassins look formidable enough – and suitably swinging sixties-ish – to take on playboy photographer Matt Helm and former Z.O.W.I.E (Zonal Organization World Intelligence Espionage) spy Derek Flint.

Rest In Peace, Dame Enid.

Dame Enid Diana Elizabeth Rigg: (7.20.1938 – 9.10.2020), with a long and creative stage, TV and film career dating back to 1959, but best known to many for her fondly remembered run as agent Emma Peel on The Avengers back in 1965 -1968. Rest in peace, Ms. Rigg…

Mystery Muses.

Filling and then whittling down my writing lair’s to-be-read endtable yields a lot of books, some few keepers finding their way onto already over-stuffed bookshelves, the rest crammed into cartons headed for the used booksellers. This time it took two trips to turn in three hefty cartons, most of those the non-keepers from my sheltering-in reading. No point in grousing about the out-of-pocket spending for those boxes-o-books vs. what I got back. Reading isn’t a business, after all. Usually all that fresh cash is burning a hole in my pocket before I can leave the store anyway. This time I behaved, more or less, and only walked out with one book (hard to believe).

Jim Huang and Austin Lugar’s 2006 Mystery Muses – 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers is a follow up to their 100 Favorite Mysteries Of The Century and They Died In Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated And Forgotten Mystery Novels. Huang and Lugar are just the editors, letting 100 mystery writers ranging from the well known to some newcomers (newcomers fifteen years ago, that is) comment on classic mystery novels that inspired or played a seminal role in their own mystery and crime fiction careers. This 224-page trade pb was a quick read, though I’ll need to revisit it again, this time with a pen and notepad handy. I’m embarrassed to admit that there were quite a few classics I still haven’t read (and a few I’d never heard of!) but also, the participating writers included a number of names I wasn’t familiar with and, in some cases, now want to know more about. 

The Maze Agency.

Maze 1 Adam Hughes

If Jennifer Mays of Mike W. Barr’s The Maze Agency could have lingered at one publisher, she might’ve become a more iconic “stiletto gumshoe”. But the fact is, this fun whodunit series bounced around from one company to another in its primary late 1980’s – early 1990’s years, the handoffs continuing all the way through 2009. The Maze Agency’s ‘maze’ logo, designed by Todd Klein, first appeared in 1989 at Comico Comics, where we met Jennifer Mays – she of the trademark blonde forelock – a former CIA agent who bid goodbye to boss Ashley Swift at the Swift Detective Agency to strike out on her own. Mays partners up with armchair detective and true-crime writer Gabriel Webb, and together they solve (increasingly dangerous) puzzling whodunits in mostly self-contained stories with both obvious and obscure clues sprinkled throughout to challenge readers.

Maze 2

The Maze Agency was a Will Eisner Award nominee for best new series in 1989, but soon enough Comico went under with only seven issues released. The title migrated to Innovation Comics for a longer 16 issue run (plus two specials) through 1991, then was published by various outfits including Alpha Productions, Caliber Comics, IDW and finally Moonstone in 2009. Originally drawn by UK artist Alan Davis (with inks by Paul Neary) for a six-page spec story, the series’ art was mostly done by a young Adam Hughes, one of his first full-time series (I think).

Maze 4

Individual issues seem pretty scarce in shops ‘round these parts, but are easy enough to source online. The 1990 Innovation Annual is a good place to start if you want to find out more about Jennifer Mays, her sidekick Gabriel and their law enforcement link, NYPD detective Roberta Bliss. The series captures some of the then-innovative hard-boiled female private eye vibe that had been unleashed only a few years earlier by Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and, in the comics scene, Max Allan Collins’ (along with Terry Beatty) Ms. Tree. But the real treat is the way Mike W. Barr’s storytelling honors mid-twentieth century pulpy whodunits with real mysteries and perplexing clues, the result being edgy and even a bit hard-boiled without sidestepping the fun factor.

Maze 5 Jerry Bingham

Eavesdropping.

pat jones by william helburn 1956

I’m sure it was shot for a fashion editorial, but model Pat Jones sure looks like a snoopy reporter or ‘stiletto gumshoe’ hard at work (and stylishly so) in this 1956 William Helburn photo.

In The Study With A Typewriter.

In The Study With A Typewriter

The 8.3.20 issue of Publisher’s Weekly (which I didn’t get till ten days later, for some reason) includes an 8-page tribute commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s debut, “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”, which introduced Hercule Poirot. The writer’s prodigious output (66 novels under her own name, 6 more under a pen name, 14 story collections, plays, etc.) make her the world’s best-selling and most translated author according to Guinesss World Records, with well over 7,000 translations of her work, more than a billion copies of her books sold in English, and another billion in other languages. Liz Scheier provides a 4-page article in PW, “In The Study With A Typewriter”, followed by her 4-page “And Then There Were More” where mystery writers discuss the debt owed to the Queen of Crime.

Visitors and followers here can safely guess that my own tastes might run a bit more hard-boiled than a lot of the cozier British (and U.S.) material written in the golden age of detective fiction. But I’d never have discovered the subsets of mystery/crime fiction that I love without Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie…heck, even Nancy Drew mysteries. “Mystery tropes that now seem inextricably baked into the category first became popular in Christie’s books,” Scheier writes. And unlike the noir-ish material I gravitate towards, there’s a lot of comfort to be found in cozies, soft mysteries and the wealth of material that traces back to Agatha Christie…particularly the sense of justice and closure her books offer. Maybe there’s not a ‘happy ending’ for everyone, but there are no loose ends and the bad guys are brought to justice. Scheier quotes author Hannah Dennison: “(Christie’s) dealing with evil in the world, but at the end, goodness always comes through. It gives you the sense that even though the world, especially now, is so full of injustice and darkness, things will always come right.”

It looks like the articles are accessible at PW’s site: www.publishersweekly.com.

“Scotch, Smokes, Pills And Women”: Lawrence Block Remembers Henry Kane.

Martinis And Murder

Prolific pulp and paperback original mystery/crime fiction writer Henry Kane was much more than a couple of ‘stiletto gumshoe’ novels like 1959’s Private Eyeful and its sorta-not-quite sequel Kisses Of Death from 1962.

Best known for his Peter Chambers NYC private eye novels (about 30 of those, I think), he also penned more than two dozen other books, including the Inspector McGregor series and numerous standalone novels published between 1950 and 1982. He wrote a short-lived radio series in 1954, and many assume that Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn TV series was based on Kane’s Peter Chambers. In fact, Kane wrote the TV show’s one tie-in paperback novel.  Like Erle Stanley Gardner, John Grisham, Scott Turow (and others, I bet), Henry Kane was a lawyer, but much preferred writing to trials, contracts and briefs.

Mystery Scene - Block Kane

The fact is, however popular Henry Kane may have been in the postwar era pulp fiction (e.g. Manhunt magazine) and paperback crime fiction marketplace, he’s not very well known any longer, his books rarely appearing on shelf even at used booksellers that specialize in vintage paperbacks. It’s pointless for me to try to assemble a bio when an excellent anecdotal homage already exists: MWA Grandmaster Lawrence Block’s “Remembering Henry Kane” from the Summer 2010 Mystery Scene magazine is still at the mag’s site. Like anecdotes? Count on Block, whose own publishing history goes back a bit and is always good for a few (and always reliably well told). Follow the link below for a much better and even chuckle-worthy remembrance of the private eye and crime fiction wordsmith with a uniquely smart-assed style and rhythm, Henry Kane.

Death Is The Last LoverMy Darlin Evangeline

https://www.mysteryscenemag.com/article/65-articles/murders-in-memory-lane/2537-the-murders-in-memory-lane-remembering-henry-kane?showall=1

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