Problematic Pulp Poetry? 

Black Mask - May

Pulp poetry. Hmmm…

Sometimes, they creep out of nowhere and catch you unawares, even though you really shouldn’t be surprised. You’re enjoying a classic film noir or crime caper flick when suddenly (incredibly, for what was then considered comic relief) a grotesque bit of racial/ethnic stereotyping intrudes. It was just a few weeks ago that I watched Raoul Walsh’s 1941 High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino on TCM’s Saturday Night Noir Alley feature, having forgotten all about the scenes with Willie Best playing ‘Algernon’, the mountain resort’s resident ‘step-n-fetchit’ style porter/handyman. The bits are hardly unique, but still made me squirm and were almost enough to ruin the viewing experience. I still adore the film. I mean: Bogart and Lupino, come on.

But…

Detective-Story-April-9-1932

Whether it’s a vintage movie, novel, comic, pulp story or even some 1950’s/60’s television shows, repellant racial/ethnic stereotypes rear up out of nowhere. Often, they’re not even intended to be demeaning, and that casual indifference almost makes them worse. At the same time, the prevailing dismissiveness about virtually all female characters in most 20th century mystery/crime fiction and film is so overwhelming that we can almost fail to recognize it. It just…is. Women (sometimes, even if billed as the lead) are relegated to secondary characters at best, mere eye candy, damsels in distress or potential victims, more commonly. Gay/lesbian characters? Well, barely acknowledged in retro film or TV, of course, and deployed mostly in vintage sleaze novels for titillation, popping up in vintage crime fiction as caricatures or presumed villains.

Different times, different culture. It was what it was.

Saucy Movie Tales - June

Nowhere is this more apparent than in mid-20thcentury pulp fiction – specifically, the 1930’s through 1950’s mystery/crime pulp fiction magazines. Inevitably, a crime/pulp/noir fan has to wonder: How can I possibly enjoy these films, novels, magazines and comics when so many are riddled with disappointing ethnic/racial/gender dismissiveness, or worse, utterly offensive stereotypes? If I’m enjoying these works, even in part, isn’t that some kind of implicit endorsement?

hardboiled noir - problematic art

W.M. Akers questions this in his terrific piece from the 5.10.19 Crime Reads  (crimereads.com, link below), Hardboiled Noir, Pulp Favorites, And Problematic Art,  subtitled: “Reckoning With Hateful Attitudes In Classic Crime Fiction”. Akers’ own first novel, the historical-fantasy Westside just released in May 2019, deals with amateur sleuth Gilda Carr in a re-imagined 1920’s New York City, and he explains how he turned to vintage pulps to capture the feel of the era, “the same way I used old newspapers and pre-code movies and Joseph Mitchell essays and any other scraps from the period that I could find as a portal to a city that, if it ever really existed, doesn’t anymore”. He points specifically to a Theodore Tinsley (creator of the groundbreaking 1930’s era Carrie Cashin female detective character) story from a 1934 Black Mask pulp magazine issue, “Smoke”, featuring the sleuthing NYC columnist Jerry Tracy. The tale, one of 25 Jerry Tracy stories the prolific Tinsley wrote, is tainted by casual racism and sprinkled with overtly offensive stereotypes. So Akers asks, “In a moment when lovers of problematic art are asked to be more critical of their taste than ever before, it is worth asking what it takes to enjoy sloppy pulp fiction in 2019 – and why it’s worth the effort.”

True Jan 1939

Akers realizes that each film viewer or story reader will need to arrive at their own conclusions and react accordingly, whether by foregoing the material entirely, merely ignoring the objectionable content, or finding some way to process it. He still finds much to inspire him in these 60 – 90 year old pieces. I get that, because I do, too. I won’t ignore their intrinsic flaws, which aren’t limited to ethnic/racial/gender issues, but also include outlandish plots, padded word counts, copycat characters and more.

But the language always lures me in. Give me any old mystery/crime fiction pulp reprint or omnibus collection and I guarantee that the period slang and vintage word-smithing will hook me, from their nearly comical descriptions of hard-to-choreograph action scenes, to snappy banter and dialog sprinkled with authentic vintage street talk, to frequent but cautiously handled love scenes and female character depictions, which can border on the surreal or just plain pervy and fetishistic. I’m hooked, I’m an addict, I admit it.

Pulp poetry? In a way, I guess that’s what it is. At least for me. So then call me a pulp poetry sucker if you insist, and I won’t argue, despite all the objectionable content that may be surrounding it.

Some months ago I speculated about nagging issues of complicity, sparked in part by a Megan Abbott essay about the then recent release of Raymond Chandler’s The Annotated Big Sleep (link below). The issues here are much the same. And as someone currently working with writing projects in a mid-twentieth century setting, it’s more than a matter of reacting to random squirm-worthy content in my recreational reading or film viewing, but becomes a challenge to achieve some sense of period authenticity without reinforcing outmoded attitudes or reviving offensive content in my own writing. I’m certain that I’m not alone in this.

Westside

Well, one thing I definitely took away from W.M. Akers’ Crime Reads essay: I need to get his novel Westside,  because it sounds pretty cool! I’ll be checking the indie bookstore on my route home after work today, and if unavailable, will be online for a moment or two this evening to order it. I definitely want to read about Gilda Carr in Aker’s reimagining of 1920’s New York.

https://crimereads.com/hardboiled-noir-pulp-favorites-and-problematic-art/

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/03/the-annotated-big-sleep-and-uneasy-feelings-of-complicity/

Tap Dance Killer

Tap Dance 3

Not sure if I stumbled across this at Book Riot or Women In Comics (my blog aggregator has way too many things coming in and needs some pruning):

Tap Dance Killer (now there’s a title!), scripted by Ted Sikora with art by Nikolaus Harrison. If I’ve got it straight (search results were spotty) this is about actress Nikki St. Clair, who experiences some sort of supernatural occurrence while appearing in a ‘horror show musical’ as the Tap Dance Killer, and actually assumes the role in real life, becoming a mobster assassin and ultimately sparking an all-out gang war. This may be one of the various comics projects launched via a Kickstarter campaign, though it also looks like there are several issues out already, with a trade pb due that covers the first five issues. I haven’t seen it at my local comix shops (no surprise, there), but I’m on the lookout now.

Tap Dance 1Tap Dance

Abbett’s Silver-Age Masterpieces

run for doom robert abbett

Robert Abbett is but one of the many 20th century illustrators often eclipsed by more famous names like Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire, James Avati, Belarski, DeSoto and others. And he’s also one of the many artists whose paperback cover and magazine illustration work represents but a tiny part of their artistic career, so many of these academically trained artists well-skilled in and much preferring to work in other subjects altogether…Western art for McGinnis and James Bama, Civil War historical painting for Mort Kunstler, and so on. In Abbett’s case, his illustration fame is definitely overshadowed by his renown as a wildlife, landscape and outdoors artist. Born in Hammond Indiana, Robert Kennedy Abbett (1926 – 2015) studied at the University of Missouri and Purdue University, and once he achieved some success in commercial illustration, relocated to Oakdale Farm in rural Connecticut in 1953. There he became entranced with the autumnal landscapes, hunting and wildlife scenes, which became his trademark in his post-illustration fine arts career.

In fact, even within paperback cover illustration, it’s probably his work on many Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Barsoom and Pellucidar books that brought him the most acclaim, much more than general fiction, crime fiction or any so-called ‘sleaze’ books, which so many illustrators had in their portfolios (even if hidden way in the back).

run for doom kane

Working in a style reminiscent of Mitchell Hooks and other ‘silver age’ artists, Abbett had a tremendous command of figure drawing, but still enjoyed abstracted or vignetted backgrounds and settings, which became the trend in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s. Bird dogs in New England fields may be his primary legacy, but for me it’s the way so many of his characters look precisely like those I imagine for my own in-progress writing (which is set in 1959, after all). Above is the original art for Henry Kane’s Run For Doom from 1962, as well as a so-so found image of the book cover. Below is one of my favorites: Robert Carroll’s 1961 Champagne At Dawn. No, I don’t mean the book. I don’t have it and never read it, and I’m not sure I’d go looking for a readable copy about ‘fly now, pay later girls’. But change that hair color to a deep brunette shade, and that’s more or less Sharon Gardner, AKA Sasha Garodnowicz, AKA the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’. Well, maybe a slightly more ‘curvy’ version of Gardner/Garodnowicz/Gumshoe. I can forego a 1961 novel about stewardesses (I assume in 1961 they weren’t flight attendants yet), but I’d give anything to find a decent scan of the original art from that book!

Champagne At Dawn 1961

The Glamorous Dead

The Glamorous Dead

Suzanne Gates’ The Glamorous Dead could easily have been done as a lighthearted retro-romp of a vintage-Hollywood mystery, and would’ve been perfectly entertaining and surely sold well enough. But Gates crafted a much more serious, mature and darker novel, even if it is brimming with celebrities, classic movie references and retro Tinsel Town glamour.

Set in 1940 and narrated by Penny Harp, the book deals with the murder of an extra from Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy The Lady Eve, with the cops pretty sure Penny herself is the murderer, leaving her on her own to prove her innocence. But the investigation soon involves leading lady Barbara Stanwyck in the amateur sleuthing, particularly once suspicion might fall on her husband Robert Taylor, who may or may not have been carrying on with the murder victim.

Don’t picture two unlikely gal-pals chumming around and stumbling over clues. Both women have their secrets and their own good reasons to keep them that way, and the entire affair is cloaked in a dark, moody and noir-ish tone. If Gates has another retro Hollywood mystery novel in her, she can count me in. I’ve got my share of mid-twentieth century mystery/crime fiction books ahead of me in the to-be-read heap, and Suzanne Gates’ 2017 The Glamorous Dead made for a nice kick-off to a Spring/Summer 1930’s-50’s sojourn, which I confess, is mostly where I like to be. Well, when reading, that is.

Book Riot’s Favorite P.I.’s

Book Riot 9 Best Noir Retellings copyVia Book Riot: Matthew Turbeville writes about “Crime Fiction’s New Favorite Private Eyes” with a good list to bring along the next time you’re headed to the bookstore or to have handy when you’re ready to shop online. That this list happens to include a number of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ of one sort or another is incidental. Turbeville sees the mystery/crime fiction genre evolving (or, already evolved) so that Chandler’s and Hammett’s iconic private eye’s aren’t so much supplanted by other characters, but merely taking their place alongside them. He points to Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt (who he mentions has at least two more novels in the series, and here’s hoping!) as an example: “…while Philip Marlowe may fight with gunfire, DeWitt is the woman who takes a bullet, pries it from her body, and continues on with her journey to solve every mystery possible.”

book riot

Turbeville’s list includes a diverse group of writers and their P.I. creations, but most of all, memorable characters deserving of ongoing mystery/crime fiction series. Six he lists (and we all know there are others, and we all have our own faves) are Steph Cha’s Juniper Song series, Alex Segura’s Pete Fernandez series, Erica Wright’s Kat Stone series, Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary series, Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series, and Kellye Garrett’s Dayna Anderson – A Detective By Day series. Look for Turbeville’s article at Book Riot (link below), with links to the individual authors’ books.

3 books 23 books 1

https://bookriot.com/2019/04/24/crime-fictions-new-favorite-private-eyes/

Murder Knocks Twice

MURDER KNOCKS TWICE copy

Whenever I think I follow too many blogs or let my inboxes fill with too many e-newsletters and posts, I get turned on to some new book (or movie or comic or show) and remember why it’s good to stay in touch. A week ago J. Kingston Pierce’s The Rap Sheet posted a cutie with a Mickey Spillane (via Max Allan Collins) Mike Hammer novel paired with Susanna Calkins’ just-released Murder Knocks Twice.

The Rap Sheet - Murder KNocks Twice

Calkins has half a dozen historical mysteries to her credit already, so Roaring Twenties Chicago speakeasies is a big departure for this first in what apparently will be a new series, focused on The Third Door club’s new cigarette girl, Gina, just hired to replace recently murdered Dorrie, who’s death is somehow tied in to the illegal nightclub. Gangsters, cigarette girls and Chi-Town? I’m in. So The Rap Sheet led me to The Criminal Element blog (criminalelement.com) for info on Calkins’ new novel and series, which then led me to an older but no less interesting Crime HQ interview with the author.

And I guess that’s why I should never complain about over-stuffed in-boxes.

criminal element dot comSusanna Calkins Books

Domestic Noir

Troubled Daughter - Twisted Wives

Not long ago I read a blogger’s book review which suggested that Lifetime Channel made-for-cable movies are the contemporary counterpart of the suspense stories written 50 – 75 years ago that might have appeared anywhere from a crime pulp magazine to a woman’s glossy…brooding, often incredibly dark stories about women on the run, women contemplating crimes, reckoning with duplicitous lovers, seeking revenge on abusive spouses or grappling with their own personal demons. An accurate assessment? Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, and if you routinely watch Lifetime Channel films, you can decide on your own.

“Domestic Suspense” or “Domestic Noir” isn’t a new genre subset, just a label being used more frequently, perhaps. Sarah Weinman’s 2013 anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is about as excellent an introduction to the roots of this mystery/crime fiction sub-category as you could ask for, with stories by writers you’ll likely want to learn more about residing side-by-side with luminaries like Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Shirley Jackson. I didn’t buy this as soon as it came out, but wished that I had, even if my own tastes do run more towards gunsels, gangsters and thugs. If the anthology’s stories, taken as a whole, accomplish one thing consistently, it’s a mastery of the ‘ominous and the foreboding’. And who better than Sarah Weinman to assemble this anthology? Weinman’s the editor of the classic Library of America Women Crime Writers series as well as co-editor of an edgy anthology like Sex, Thugs And Rock & Roll, and I say that alone makes for a solid resume (not that it’s where hers ends).

I’ll let the more educated and experienced critics, reviewers and writers debate the pro’s and con’s of genre sub-categories and the inherent risks of ghettoization. Myself, I’ll just enjoy dark mystery masters’ work, and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives showcases 14 such masters at the top of their game and laying the foundations for contemporary dark suspense.

 

Lois Lane Returns

Lois Lane Jenny Frison variant cover

One of comics’ original ‘plucky’ girl reporters (and surely the best known) will be getting her own title once again with a 12-issue series starting this July. Superman’s Girl friend Lois Lane was a DC Comics silver age staple with over 130 issues, and she’s made countless appearances in various Superman titles, but after that comic was cancelled, the Daily Planet reporter only had a one-shot in the late 90’s.

There’s already a bit of understandable frustration buzzing in comicdom though, since the book will be scripted by Greg Rucka with art by Mike Perkins, and many wonder why a series about the world’s best investigative journalist and a comic character icon couldn’t land a woman on the creative team. Jenny Frisson has been tapped for at least one variant cover so far (shown above). The comics world is not what it was back when 1950’s/60’s Lois Lane tales depicted her endlessly scheming to trap Superman into marriage or needing to be rescued by the man of steel. Kinda would make sense for a Lois Lane reboot to be penned by a woman writer or drawn by any of the top women artists, wouldn’t it?

Can’t Go Wrong With EQMM

EQM519-Cover

I understand why publishers prefer readers to subscribe to their magazines, which can sidestep costly distribution and retailer discounting and enable better readership forecasting and print runs. But I happen to like buying my Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (still called the original title Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine on the perfect-bound spine) at the store. There’s something delightfully retro about those digest-sized books with their flimsy cover stock and pulpy interior paper. Paying a cashier (in cash) and walking out with a copy just feels right, somehow. Like I should be buying a pack of filterless Luckies and some Beechnut gum to go along with it.

EQMM March April 2019

EQMM has been at it for nearly eighty years now. That’s a heck of a lot of crime fiction, and almost too many writers to count when you think about it. I’ve heard some folks dismiss the publication as too soft, old fashioned, or even ‘cozy’, though my response to that is simply, “Hey, have you actually read it?”

The fun of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine is that you get to read a little bit of everything, and can do so at a reasonable price. I don’t have the new May/June 2019 issue yet and actually just finished the March/April issue, with tales from Bill Pronzini, Joyce Carol Oates and Carolyn Hart. Harley Mazuk’s “The Road From Manzanar” was a sprawling and thought-provoking piece of literary fiction about a former volunteer in the Spanish Civil War now faced with combat again as the U.S. enters WWII, and Mazuk somehow managed to condense this amazing tale down to 18 perfect pages. R. J. Koreto’s “The Girl On The Roof”, a delightfully dark bit of adultery and murder with a good ‘gotcha’ ending, and Robert S. Levinson’s bittersweet Golden Age Hollywood tale “All About Eve” were particular favorites this issue.

In a way, EQMM and the companion digest, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine are the closest thing we still have to the old pulp magazines. Sure, I could get either for my phone or tablet. But what’s the fun of that? The print digests simply feel right in my hands. There’s that subtle but tangible scent of that newsprint paper stock. And I’m still hoping I’ll stumble across a downtown newsstand or Mom-n-Pop corner store where I can buy my next copy…maybe with a pack of filterless Luckies and some Beechnut gum.

Heck, I don’t even smoke filterless Luckies…

EQMM Dec 1953

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑