It’s nearly 75 years since Rita Hayworth slinked around the Buenos Aires nightclub-casino, but you could almost hear the orchestra starting up Put The Blame On Mame in this photo titled “Gilda” by Sylvia Gamot.
A lethal looking lady with a cigar perched in her elegant hand may be intimidating enough, but it’s the automatic tucked beneath her arm that you need to worry about. Some stylish neo-noir from Colorado artist Shawn Shea, whose work and posters can be found at Pixels, Fine Art America and Daily Paint Works.
A big thanks to site follower/viewer Art Scott for passing along some intriguing info (complete with links) about revered golden/silver age illustrator Robert McGinnis and sex educator, author and feminist Shere Hite, who sadly passed away not long ago on September 9th, 2020.
An April 2017 Vanity Fair magazine feature by Michael Callahan, “The McGinnis Look”, profiled the artist and his iconic paperback covers and movie posters featuring distinctively stylized femme fatales who became known as “the McGinnis Woman”: long, lithe figures draped (or more likely undraped) in 1960’s-70’s mod patterned apparel. These trademark women appeared on numerous pulpy mystery/crime fiction novels, perhaps as much a part of some series’ appeal as the stories themselves.
No news there to many followers and visitors of a “noir culture” blog like The Stiletto Gumshoe. The interesting bit of vintage illustration trivia and mid-twentieth century pop culture lore was the revelation that one of McGinnis’ frequently employed models was none other than a young Shere Hite, whose fit frame and wavy red tresses were a perfect match for McGinnis’ evolving style.
Shirley Diana Gregory was born in Missouri in 1942, changed her name to Shere Hite (using her stepfather’s surname after her parents’ divorce) and with her B.A. and a Masters in History under her belt, headed to New York in 1967 to work on her Ph.D at Columbia University. Just another Boho student squeezed into a cramped Manhattan apartment, Hite found work as an artist’s model, not only for Robert McGinnis, but for other pulp and paperback illustrators, such as Norm Eastman. But it’s her work with McGinnis that may be most readily identifiable, often retaining her thick mane of wavy red hair. International renown was only a few years away for Hite, but at that particular time, she was the McGinnis woman come to life.
Hite published a number of works from the mid-1970’s through 2006, starting with Sexual Honesty By Women For Women, then most notably The Hite Report On Female Sexuality two years later, and a follow up on men and male sexuality several years after that. As far back as 1948, Alfred Kinsey, and later, Masters & Johnson in the mid-1950’s, published ground-breaking studies on human sexuality, but Hite’s interview-based research largely discarded those pioneers’ notions about women’s sexual experiences and responses, which were still rooted in male-centric perspectives. From what I’ve read, she endured some nit-picking about her methodology, but my freshman year 100-level sociology and psychology classes certainly don’t qualify me to draw any such conclusions. What’s clear is that Hite played a crucial role in the 1960’s-1980’s women’s movements and evolving understanding of – and attitudes towards – female sexuality. That she was gearing up to accomplish all of this while earning some coin with art modeling gigs, and for well-known names in the mystery/crime fiction publishing arena – is pretty damn cool.
Follow the links below (with thanks again to follower/visitor Art Scott for those) to Michael Callahan’s 2017 Vanity Fair article on Robert McGinnis and a more recent piece from Air Mail News on Shere Hite and her McGinnis modeling work. It’s enough to make you scrutinize the faces of the people populating all those postwar paperbacks and mid-twentieth century pulp magazine covers a lot closer to see who else we might discover.
I’m not sure if two books constitute a series, but it’s still customary to start with the first novel, nonetheless. In my case, I didn’t realize that Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Last Dance (2020 Blackstone hardcover) was a follow-up to his My Detective from 2019, which introduced Los Angeles police detective Sam Carver.
If Carver feels a bit like a 2020 version of Philip Marlowe – his keen observations, introspection and (via Fleishmann) way with words, in particular – it works, and fits perfectly with the environment he operates in. But Carver’s a troubled soul when Last Dance opens, just back from an extended leave of absence following on-the-job capture and near-death at the hand of Dylan Cross, Carver’s still on-the-loose nemesis from that first novel, a rape victim turned vengeance seeking murderer. Carver’s first assignment once he’s back: a famous (but just past her prime) Russian ballerina is found dead, her spartan loft littered with vodka bottles and drugs. Accidental OD? Suicide? Murder? Hard to say, since the dancer’s body is promptly stolen from the morgue before it can even be autopsied.
Last Dance is, on one hand, pure L.A. Neo-Noir, and quite perfectly so. But Fleishmann, a long-time foreign correspondent before he was a novelist, can’t resist pushing things beyond the Hollywood Hills as the mystery takes on global implications, soon brushing up against the F.B.I., Russian spies and even the 2016 election (and more). The cast of characters is long enough to require a score card, though uniformed cop Lily Hernandez stands out as a possible future partner for lone wolf Sam Carver in an upcoming novel. The mystery of the ballerina’s death (and her body’s disappearance) is smartly and patiently parceled out with more than its share of twists and revelations. Never particularly good at solving mystery/crime fiction novels’ puzzles before the end, I failed miserably here as well. But I’ll pat myself on the back for spotting the eerie presence of Carver’s real antagonist — serial killer Dylan Cross – hovering nearby.
Jeffrey Fleishmann crafted a literate piece of contemporary crime fiction with Last Dance. Noir poetry like this takes a bit of work to create, to be sure, so it’s only fair that the author insists that readers put in some work to fully enjoy the book. No skimming to the next clue or action sequence is allowed. It’s not that kind of novel, and there’s too much to be missed if you tried. Once you’ve gotten comfy with the writer’s style, you really want to savor the countless lyrical scene-setting descriptions, painting quick but artful pictures of every locale and each character, even the mere walk-ons. It’s a lot to digest, but well worth the effort.
So, although I met Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Sam Carver in his second appearance, that’s easily remedied. My Detective has already been ordered for my next haul of in-store pickups. And Fleishmann better have a third outing planned for Sam Carver’s neon-neo-noirish Los Angeles.
I wasn’t deep-digging, it just popped up in a search: Janet Rudolph’s excellent Mystery Fanfare (www.mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com) way back in 2011 posted about fashion designer Hally McGehean debuting her wearable art collection at that year’s New York Fashion Week. McGehean’s designs included her Hard Case Crime Dress assembled from nearly 1,000 miniature reproductions of the line’s book covers. I’ll presume you had to rummage through your closet for the proper shoes and even a faux-fur, and of course, there was no word on whether the gun cost extra.
The cover illustration for the February 1971 issue of Real Men magazine might go with the story “He Bet His Babe In A Poker Game…And Lost!” that lurked inside. But with so many so-called ‘men’s adventure’ magazine stories like this particular issue’s “Sex-Hungry Women – Where To Find Them!”, “Give A Dame A Gun And She’s A Killer!” and “I Went To Bed With A Lez…Just To Find Out What It’s Like!” (from ‘an average young wife’, no less), it’s not always entirely clear which story the cover art goes with. Nonetheless, it’s classic 1960’s-70’s style vintage sleaze, and likely could’ve been paired with any of a number of that marketplace’s stories and articles.
I haven’t read Thomas Walsh’s 1953 novel The Night Watch or William Ballinger’s Rafferty from the same year, but both books were adapted by screenwriter Roy Huggins for Richard Quine’s 1954 Columbia noir, Pushover. At the time, reviewers compared it (favorably or not) to 1944’s Double Indemnity, and understandably so, both films starring Fred MacMurray as a too-smart-for-his-own-good fellow who may not be dirty but is certainly a bit dusty, enough to fall in love or lust with a seductive blonde even though he knows she’ll be pure trouble. In the film adaptation of James M. Cain’s steamy novel, it was Barbara Stanwyck, of course, in one of most memorable roles. Here it’s a young Kim Novak.
The movie opens with an action-packed robbery that goes bad. Cut to stag-night MacMurray spotting unattached Kim Novak at a late-night movie. Kim’s car trouble leads them to a cocktail lounge, then to more drinks at home (and presumably whatever else goes on there that couldn’t be shown in 1950s films). The coincidental meeting looks to turn into a romance, till we learn that MacMurray’s actually a cop who’s been tailing Novak all along, she being the gal pal of the armed robber who’s now wanted for murder.
She’s no dope, figures out that MacMurray’s a detective, but love is love and lust is lust, and soon enough the two conspire to get their mitts on the heist man’s loot and make their getaway. Just why they think their hastily hatched scheme can succeed with two-man police teams doing round the clock surveillance on Novak’s apartment eludes me. Meanwhile, MacMurray’s confirmed bachelor partner falls hard for Kim Novak’s neighbor, played by Dorothy Malone, a cute nurse he’s keeping an eye on (literally) through binoculars from his perch across the street. Keep that in mind the next time you wonder if you ought to close the blinds when you’re down to your skimpies or getting up to something naughty.
No surprise, just about everything that could go wrong does, with MacMurray getting deeper in trouble by the hour and a couple of bodies left in his wake. Like all good noirs, doomed love is precisely that: Doomed.
I’d only seen this film once before, but it’s suddenly in rotation on the MOVIES! cable channel’s Sunday and Thursday night noir showcases. Double Indemnity it’s not, but it’s damn good. Dark, steamy, punctuated with sudden bursts of violence…all you could want from a mid-1950’s crime film.
It had been ten years since Fred MacMurray helped make the screen sizzle alongside Barbara Stanwyck as Walter Neff and Phyllis Deitrichson. With a 25-year age difference, it’s understandable if you consider him mismatched with sleek 21 year old Kim Novak. But then, Hollywood never fretted much about pairing middle-aged (and older) fellows with ingenues and starlets (I mean, Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn? Seriously?). That we believe that Kim Novak’s gun moll doesn’t only see MacMurray’s crooked cop as her ticket out of the life, but that he actually gets her motor humming, is just a testament to the young actress’ emerging talent. Bottom line: The duo make it work. MacMurray was an old pro, and one of Hollywood’s highest earning actors at the time, but this was Kim Novak’s first starring role. In fact, it was only her second film, the previous part just an uncredited walk-on.
On TV, online (it’s there) or on disk – if you haven’t seen Pushover, check it out. It won’t make it to the top of your film noir list, but you won’t be disappointed.
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?
More work from Portuguese artist, illustrator and designer Rui Ricardo, who did the handsome cover art for Stephen Spotswood’s Fortune Favors The Dead, discussed in a prior post. To see more of the artist’s work (and there’s a lot to gaze at) go to http://www.rui-ricardo.com
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.