Dakota North

By Michael Lark 3

No surprise that Marvel’s Dakota North, created by activist, essayist and writer Martha Thomases along with artist Tony Salmons, was eclipsed by Jessica Jones. Thomases’ groundbreaking much-more-than-a-detective simply appeared 15 years too early, in a marketplace that hadn’t matured enough to embrace smart, accomplished and utterly lethal female characters. Mind you, Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty already paved the way five years earlier with their memorable Ms. Tree. Today? Indie comics and the majors alike are teeming with Dakota North, Ms. Tree and Jessica Jones clones.

Dakota North - 4 Covers

Former fashion model, daughter of a CIA agent and now owner of her own private investigations firm headquartered in New York, with satellite offices in Paris, Rome and Tokyo, Dakota North only had a five issue mini series in 1986-87, then made numerous appearances in various other Marvel titles. Dakota North was slated for another series in 2006, but that never materialized.

Dakota North

Nonetheless, Thomases’ creation was an important character, and finally available in a trade pb compilation, Dakota North – Design For Dying released this time last year, which includes those first Dakota North issues plus a number of (though not all) her appearances in other titles.

Dakota North - Cover

The terrific B&W illustrations included at the top and below are by Michael Lark. And, in keeping with ‘great minds think alike’: I scheduled this post in the middle of the week of the 23rd-29th (most of my posts are pre-scheduled days ahead of appearing), and when I scrolled through posts at my blog aggregator (Bloglovin…very handy tool!) I see the venerable Not Pulp Covers at Tumblr posted a Tony Salmon Dakota North page.  Mind you, Not Pulp Covers is clearly run by a much greater mind than mine!

By Michael Lark 2By Michael Lark 1

Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora

Fifty Shades

I enter keywords like ‘private eyes’, ‘femme fatale’, ‘female detective’ and a host of other mystery-crime fiction-noir related terms when I’m hunting up new books. So I can’t figure out why The Private Eye Writers Of America Presents: Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora edited by Robert J. Randisi popped up for the first time just a couple weeks ago, even though it was published in 2015. I definitely never saw it on shelf in a bookstore, but then, so-called hybrid, small press and micro-publisher titles are usually rarities on retailers’ shelves, even in the independents and specialty shops.

Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora isn’t a tie-in to the E. L. James books (love them, hate them or just be indifferent) or dealing with dominant/submissive relationships or any form of BDSM. Rather, the anthology aims to illustrate “that sex and crime not only go hand in hand” but actually provide a “sexy, bawdy spin on the art of detection and the law of attraction”.

The sex and crime connection’s a bit thin in a couple of the tales, but that’s okay. The anthology includes Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, here reluctantly involved in a high stakes Russian technology theft after giving a high school career day presentation. John Lutz offers an unexpected and funny spin on how federal grants are mis-spent in the hallowed halls of academia. For someone with a couple of bookshelves dedicated to Max Allan Collins, his Nathan Heller tale would normally be my automatic favorite, this one blending fact and fiction as they usually do, Heller assisting pre-WWII era Cleveland Public Safety Director Eliot Ness with a deadly hit & run insurance racket. It loses out only on a technicality – I already have this story in his excellent 2011 collection, Chicago Lightning – The Collected Nathan Heller Stories. So my favorite in Randisi’s anthology was M. Ruth Myers’ “The Concrete Garter Belt”, with Myers’ Shamus Award winning Depression era Dayton, Ohio private eye Maggie Sullivan guilted into investigating a woman’s disappearance which at first leads her to a hardly rare case of workplace harassment that turns into something much more heinous. And no, there really isn’t a ‘concrete’ garter belt involved. Lets just say that the uncharacteristically fancy blue silk one P.I. Maggie Sullivan treats herself to with a recent client bonus ends up being a life-saver in a shoot out. Not unlike this Private Eye Writers of America anthology itself, I haven’t seen M. Ruth Myers’ books in stores, but my introduction to her Maggie Sullivan series character induced me to whip out the credit card and start ordering.

Maggie Sullivan Books

This was a fun bunch of stories, mixing some classic hard-boiled material with more edgy contemporary tales, some getting pretty steamy and explicit, others kind of tap-dancing around the sex and crime theme. The Riverdale Avenue Books release is a POD edition, and pretty obviously so. I hope in the four years since it came out that the publisher — helmed by well-known agent Lori Perkins and by all I’ve skimmed online doing well and well-regarded — has mastered the art of formatting text files and proofreading typo’s and punctuation a little better…yikes!

Undercover Girl (Well, One Of Them)

Alexi Smith 3

An Academy Award nominee it wasn’t, and labeling Universal’s 1950 Undercover Girl a ‘film noir’ might be broadening the genre’s parameters a bit. Or not, depending on where you draw the line between ‘noir’ and postwar crime melodrama. Pretty sure there’s no connection to the popular comic character Starr Flagg – Undercover Girl from right around the same period, which was created by that human writing machine Gardner Fox with art by Ogden Whitney, first appearing in Manhunt starting in 1947, graduating to her own short-lived comic title in 1952.

Starr flagg Undercover Girl

Still, Canadian born actress Alexis Smith, perhaps best known to noir and crime film fans for The Two Mrs. Carrolls alongside Humphrey Bogart in 1945, wields a revolver pretty well in this postwar era crime-action film as a rookie cop out to nab the narcotics gang responsible for her father’s death. Or at least, she does it handily in the film’s publicity stills.

Alexis SmithAlexis Smith 2Alexis Smith Undercover Girl 1950Undercover girl colored

Natasha.

Paul Gulacy - Natasha

Sure, I get it: We’re supposed to go for Marvel’s Black Widow when she’s sporting her form-fitting black catsuit. But in artist Paul Gulacy’s capable hands, I think she looks every bit as lethal in a trenchcoat. I’ve posted an example of Gulacy’s take on Natasha Romanova before (link below). He does have a way with black and white, doesn’t he?

Paul Gulacy - Natasha 4Paul Gulacy - Natasha 3Paul Gulacy - Natasha 2

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An Embarrassment Of Riches

New books waiting to be read hereabouts usually are left on one particular endtable right next to my favorite reading chair. I pass it constantly, so any library books stare back at me as a reminder to return them on time. Normally there are a few books stacked there, and should I fall behind, a couple more might pile up.

But right now, there’s an embarrassment of riches piled high on the endtable. Whether that’s because I’ve really fallen behind in my reading or simply have acquired too many books the past couple weeks (much more likely), I couldn’t say for sure. And I’m not even counting the stack of half a dozen Adventure House trade pb pulp reprints of 1940’s Spicy Detective and Spicy Mystery magazines I got just last week. All I know for sure is that there’s a lot of reading to catch up on this summer.

I’m holding off on Phillip Kerr’s final Bernie Gunther novel, Metropolis and James Ellroy’s This Storm till I can really hunker down with them. Those two are books to be savored. Fingers crossed: Unless something intervenes, I’m on schedule for a four-day getaway next weekend. Sure, I could spend it swimming, canoeing and hiking. But an easy chair, a fireplace and either Kerr or Ellroy sounds good too. Maybe I’ll flip a coin.

Knowing that I have a couple more books reserved at a nearby bookstore and due in this or next week, and one or more backordered from the online behemoth, I can only hope that old endtable is sturdier than it looks.

  • Robert J. Randisi’s Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora – A Private Eye Writers Of America anthology
  • Jump Cut by Libby Fisher Hellman
  • Ka-Chow: Dan Turner In Pictures by Robert Leslie Bellem and Adolphe Barreiax
  • Hollywood Detective with Dan Turner, Queenie Starr, Betty Blake and more
  • Metropolis by Phillip Kerr, the final Bernie Gunther novel completed before the author’s untimely death.
  • The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova, author of the great The Historian and The Swan Thieves
  • Speakeasy by Alisa Smith
  • This Storm by James Ellroy, the second entry in his new L.A. Quartet (Perfidia being the first)
  • Where Monsters Hide by M. William Phelps, a rare true-crime book (rare for me, that is)
  • The Moneypenny Diaries by Kate Westbrook
  • The Best Of Spicy Mystery – Volume 1
  • Westside by W. M. Akers

I’m nearly through Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora as I write this, but will surely be done with it by the time this appears, so more about the one shortly.

The Poetics Of Pulp.

Spicy Detective Reprint

The Poetics Of Pulp? A couple weeks ago, I commented about precisely that (link below).

Each mystery/crime fiction enthusiast (or writer) has to find their own way to process what’s merely retro-fun vs. what’s infuriating in mid-twentieth century pulp fiction. I noted in that prior post that W.M. Akers, author of the newly released novel Westside (just got my copy a few days ago) grappled with this very issue when using old pulp tales to do research for his re-imagined hard-boiled fantasy 1920’s New York City. The rampant racism, homophobia and relentless misogyny that was so pervasive in old pulp tales is hard to digest, yet the allure of the rapid-paced storytelling and slang-filled vintage prose can be so addictive.

It’s the language that always gets me, rarely the plots. Imagine yourself a 1930’s – 1950’s pulp scribe, churning out tales month after month for multiple titles and publishing syndicates in order to reliably put three squares on the table. The most imaginative writer might dream up some nifty set-ups and create a compelling scene or two for each story, but eventually it would become increasingly difficult to concoct genuinely unique solutions for so many mysteries. Inevitably, things start to become contrived, maybe even outlandish, if not downright silly.

So be it. While the best of the bunch might still suffer from those contrived plot resolutions, they were wrapped up nice-n-neat in wonderful language brimming with authentic (or entirely fabricated) street vernacular that could sometimes be — dare I say it – ‘pulp poetry’ when done right.

There aren’t many actual pulp magazines in my bookcases, not being a collector. Reprints and omnibus books? Those I have. Adventure House reprints of Spicy Detective and Spicy Mystery, for example, are a real treat since they’re cover-to-cover reissues of the original magazines, complete with all ads, illustrations and even the crummy two-column linotype typesetting that can make your eyeballs spin.

The July 1941 Spicy Detective Stories (a 2005 Adventure House reprint, 128 page glossy cover perfect-bound trade pb) has seven stories plus a four-page “Sally The Sleuth” comic strip. A couple of the stories are a snore, a couple are actual stinkers. But the two that lead off the book are gems (albeit gems with ridiculous conclusions). “The Second Slug” by Justin Case (get it?) is from that writer’s long-running “Eel” series about a gentleman thief of “courageous action and questionable morals”. Here the Eel earns an easy C-note just to accompany racketeer Knuckles Orio to an after-hours nightclub audition of a naïve young fan dancer, supposedly to ensure that Knuckles behaves himself. But it’s just a setup to provide the gangster with an alibi when his fiancée is murdered. The ‘Eel’ has to keep the law at bay and duke it out with Knuckles’ thugs, but manages to romance the young fan dancer while solving the crime. Some clues and even the final resolution are a bit far-fetched, but what makes the fast-paced story sing is the Damon Runyon style prose. ‘Justin Case’ – one of several pen names used by writer High B. Cave – was an ardent fan of the Bard of Broadway’s stylish “present-tense, first-person narrative style”.

Next up is Robert Leslie Bellem with a Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective story, “Death By Arrangement”. Bellem’s Dan Turner tales are notorious for logic-defying solutions to their crimes, and this one’s no different, a spin on the locked-room mystery with a pistol rigged up to a grand piano’s keyboard. I adore Dan Turner pulp stories and even the Dan Turner comics, though I’m tempted to skip right over the final paragraphs or panels when the crimes are finally solved. But Bellem’s language always gives me a thrill. Here’s the opening of “Death By Arrangement”, where the Tinsel Town gumshoe has just arrived at a Hollywood bigwig’s swanky cocktail party:

“The read-haired cupcake in the low cut emerald evening gown dished me a kiss that jostled me all the way down to my fallen arches. And then somebody hung a hand on my shoulder, spun me around and measured me for a swift poke on the horn.” Dan recovers his composure before returning the blow. “But I braked my duke when I tabbed the bozo who was trying to paste a mouse on my smeller…it isn’t polite to lower the boom on a half-pint drip like him, not with my dimensions. You don’t drive tacks with a sledgehammer.”

 I can only fantasize about crafting a phrase as cool (and as corny) as “paste a mouse on my smeller”.

Adolphe Barreaux’ Sally The Sleuth series was a Spicy Detective staple with two to four page B&W comic strips in each issue. In “Dangerous Delivery”, Sally investigates a refugee murdered over a rare stamp worth $35,000, and of course manages to end up in trouble and out of her clothes by the second page. This July 1941 Spicy Detective issue’s cover by Allen Anderson depicts a damsel in distress who could almost be Sally The Sleuth herself, and not unlike Sally, isn’t waiting to be rescued but using a conveniently placed candle to burn through her bonds…and also just like Sally, is doing so in powder blue silkies.

Hate ‘em. Love ‘em. Or simply find a way to compartmentalize the vintage pulps to process the bad and savor the good. Me, I’ll stay conflicted even while binging on the ‘poetry of pulp’.

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Writer’s Digest: Villains & Violence

 

Happy to see the July/August 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine in my mailbox this past weekend. I’ve heard no further news about WD parent company F+W Media’s financial woes or the bankruptcy announced back in March, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed that management will find a way to reorganize and pay all creditors while keeping this vital writers’ resource going. I think 2020 is Writer’s Digest’s 100th anniversary, so it’d be tragic for the publication to vanish now.

July/August is billed as “The Villains Issue” and like many theme issues, it’s stretching things a bit to make some articles’ fit the theme. But that’s okay, since I found nearly everything in this issue interesting or useful. But my favorite was “Packing The Punch” by Carla Hoch, author of Fight Write: How To Write Believable Fight Scenes from WD Books.

Writers Digest July-August 2019

Many writers insist that sex scenes are the most difficult to write, and they may be right. Finding a comfort zone between steamy and merely icky can be challenging, particularly since every writer knows that readers will identify the roles and activities with the writer and the writer’s own ‘proclivities’. Maybe you don’t care, but you might if you’re a grammar school teacher or town council member writing lurid kink-filled scenes in your downtime.

But I’ll suggest that fight scenes – like any action scenes – can be every bit as difficult to craft as the squirmiest sex scene, if not more so. Both types of scenes have multiple participants (well, usually), there’s a lot of movement and action that must be choreographed, and then accurately attributed so the reader won’t be hopelessly lost. Who’s punching who? Who pulled the trigger, and who got hit? A sense of place has to be defined, pain has to be described and so much more, but unlike a sex scene, this has to be accomplished with an economy of words. Perhaps it’s fine to indulge in flowery prose and a languid pace for lovemaking. Fight scenes demand a finger-snapping staccato rhythm, moving fast but with pinpoint accuracy to keep the reader speeding through the words while still comprehending precisely what’s what. That’s a mighty tall order for pro’s and budding talents alike. As Carla Hoch says, “Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good long sentence, pulsating with verbs and sutured with commas to grab your reader by the collar and drag them to the scene, because you will give them no other choice and there’s no leaving until you throw in the towel.”

By Bert Hardy

Some suggest that a writer should try to hear an imaginary musical soundtrack behind their words in order to guide their pace. (You know, that might even work well with reading?) Sex scenes? If all soft-focused slow-mo stuff, the soundtrack might be a romantic Debussy piece or a soft pop ballad. More rambunctious romps might demand club tunes with a relentless pulsing beat you can feel right in your belly (or lower). Depends on what kind of frolicking the fun-lovers are up to. What kind of soundtrack sets the pace for a fight scene? Well, it’s unlikely to be a waltz. A thrash metal song, maybe. Some bust-loose jazz jam or an AOR guitar-god head banger. Hell, it could be a pompous Wagnerian thing if the fight involved axes and chain mail. In my work, it’s most likely bare knuckles on skin, slugs flying from a .45 automatic, or when the Stiletto Gumshoe’s caught unarmed, there’s still a spike heel rammed down doubly hard on a thug’s wingtips.

Thanks to Writer’s Digest magazine once again for helpful how-to’s like Carla Hoch’s terrific piece. I’ll be watching my mailbox with my fingers crossed that the issues keep coming.

(No credits available for the found art illustrations above, but the photos are by Bert Hardy above and Richard Avedon below.) 

By Richard Avedon

 

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered

Stay Sexy & Dont Get Murdered

“Fuck polite.”

That’s a phrase repeated in Karen Kilgariff’s and Georgia Hardstark’s dual memoir Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered – The Definitive How-To Guide.

Kilgariff and Hardstark, of course, are the co-hosts of the cult-hit podcast My Favorite Murder. Launched in 2016, their ‘Murderinos’ (the name their Facebook group members call themselves) number well into six figures. Shop for hundreds of My Favorite Murder t-shirts and memorabilia on Etsy. And now, buy the hardcover memoir. And I encourage you to do precisely that, because it’s a really good read.

They may be unlikely duo, and met only a year before doing the first My Favorite Murder podcast. Kilgariff is a TV writer and standup comic, Hardstark was a Cooking Channel cohost, both sharing a fascination with true crime stories, a sharp sense of humor and perhaps most important, sheer rage over the treatment of women (crime victims, specifically) in the mainstream media, the legal system and our culture at large.

Via Rolling Stone

“Fuck polite?” No mystery there. Young girls are so thoroughly indoctrinated to be polite and deferential that they continue to demur even when thrust into increasingly creepy and downright dangerous situations. You know, those utterly icky situations where something simply doesn’t feel ‘right’. Which is really the time to say no, to ignore politeness and the ingrained deferential response…to get the hell outa there. But all too often, it’s too late once they become victims of horribly inappropriate behavior (at best)  or (worse) abuse, assault, rape and murder. ‘Fuck polite’ simply means that there’s no need to be polite to that seemingly nice young man with his arm in a sling who asks for assistance, because he just might be the next Ted Bundy. There’s actually no need to approach the friendly old gent leaning out of his van and asking for directions, or to accommodate all the other repairmen, delivery men, parking lot attendants, cabbies, ride share drivers or even that evening’s date. It’s not mandatory to be polite or to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. What is mandatory is to do what you want to do so while staying safe…and staying alive.

And so…fuck polite.

Kilgariff and Hardstark’s book is a pretty quick read, full of funny bits and bittersweet memories side-by-side with biting rants and poignant memoir. In some ways, it reads like one of their podcasts committed to ink-on-paper…just with ‘more’. I read the hardcover. While I’m normally not an audio book fan, I realize this would’ve been one book to listen to instead. Check it out, and once you have, see if you don’t want to recite one of their Murderinos’ mantras: “Pepper Spray First, Ask Questions Later.”

Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

(Live event photo via Rolling Stone)

 

A Good Day To Die

good day to die polek holdova

A good day to die? Hmmm. Guess that all depends on which end of the gun you’re on.

“Good Day To Die”, by Lucem, from Polek Holdova.

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