What’s Old is New Again.

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.

Chugging ZZZQuil With Map Daddy.

A dedicated film noir fan ought to be more of a drinker, able to take it straight from a pint bottle of rye like any hard-boiled gumshoe, or at least able to keep a grip on a long-stemmed cocktail glass in a smoky nightclub like any self-respecting femme fatale. A writer as well? Hell, there ought to be a fifth of bourbon flanking my manual Royal, no glass required. 

But it’s a Mac, not a typewriter, and only a coffee mug and an ash tray (tsk-tsk!) keep the computer company. And when it comes to alcohol, frankly, I’m a lightweight. 

Still, it might’ve made sense to stake out a bar stool at a local lounge ‘round mid-day Tuesday the 3rd and just stay put for the night, for a week or however long it took. “It” being the election, of course. Michael Koelsch’s cover art for Hard Case Crime’s Cocktail Waitress (above) by James M. Cain looks about right. Though Paul Rader’s art for ‘March Hastings’ (Sally Singer) The Drifter (below) from 1962 was more the feeling.

We all knew it wouldn’t get called Tuesday evening, what with tens of millions of early vote ballots, mail-in ballots, absentee and overseas ballots in a tightening race. Nail-biters like Georgia aside, increased turnout, extra scrutiny and a little thing called the pandemic were bound to drag things out. Oh, I still had to go to the day job on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Fill the tank, grab some groceries and all the other regular life stuff. But it was hard to focus on anything while it felt like the fate of the world hung in the balance…which, of course, it did. Hanging out till the wee hours with the broadcast and cable networks’ Map-Daddies (MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki the best of the bunch, whether you like the channel or not) is not good for the blood pressure, peace of mind or trying to catch some ZZZZ’s. It would’ve been better to hunker down in the writing lair with the TV going and a bottle of something strong at hand, but as noted above: I’m not much of a drinker. No, it was four nights of watching till whenever and then guzzling some ZZZQuil to catch some sleep before the AM alarm went off, and I could go back to pretending that we weren’t teetering between some hoped-for return to normalcy and something infinitely worse than merely four more years of chaos. 

Confession: It wasn’t actually ZZZQuil. Cheapskate that I am, I buy the private label version. 

The chaos isn’t over, not by a long shot, though if you ask me, the shenanigans that will persist for a few more days – or even weeks – are more about using lawsuits (or the threats of suits that never materialize) to raise some much-needed cash to replenish depleted campaign coffers. But as of late Saturday morning, I feel like I can breathe again. I mean, did they actually ring bells in Paris? Probably not, but still. Up till then, it felt silly to be crafting posts about books and movies and artists when so much was at stake, and though a few items were already pre-queued to appear at Tumblr, I just let ‘em go and wasn’t paying much attention. 

So, back to ‘normal’ now. Or, sort of. As if there isn’t a killer plague ravaging the world and the U.S. in particular, and the economy isn’t shot to hell and the rising Covid case counts aren’t threatening another statewide lockdown before Thanksgiving and…well, that’s all another story, I guess. But at least I can motivate myself to crack open a book once more, watch a movie, string a few words together to compose a blog post, and hopefully, lay off the ZZZQuil – branded or generic – so my body can get back to making its own melatonin again.

Do It.

I did. Days ago, in fact, with no long lines, mix-ups or troublemakers. Early voting was in a nearby circuit court facility, which meant going through security (as in, practically being strip searched, though still setting off the alarm three times, which turned out to be no more than the eyelets on my boots). There were all kinds of important state and local races to wade through, including a bitterly disputed state income tax referendum. But you’ll understand if my finger jabbed the screen pretty damn hard when I checked off that very first one at the top…figuratively poking someone in the face, I suppose, but doing it on behalf of all the relatives and ancestors that came before me and would’ve been so horrified at the national nightmare we’ve endured the past few years. 

Agree, disagree, doesn’t matter. What matters is that you get out and vote if you haven’t yet, and then watch along with me and everyone else in America – and around the world – for every fucking legal vote to be counted.  

Happy Belated B-Day, April.

I thought I had this scheduled for Monday the 2nd, but I messed up.

So, a happy belated birthday to “April Dancer” (what a cool character name), The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., AKA Stephanie Powers, one of retro TV’s iconic girl-with-a-gun characters, who later starred in the mystery series Hart To Hart, and earlier in her career earned her ‘Noir Cred’ as Toby Sherwood in Blake Edwards’ creepy 1962 neo-noir thriller Experiment In Terror.

Powers was born Stefania Zofya Paul Federkiewicz in Hollywood (that made for a short trip to get a career rolling) on November 2, 1942, and happily is still with us today. 

Probably too much to ask, but can I have that sleek Girl From U.N.C.L.E. car, pretty please?

Retrowood.

From Mike Vosburg’s fun Retrowood from 2013, a ‘sorta-kinda’ mid-twentieth century Hollywood (but not really) hard-boiled noir with private eye J. Parker Wrighte mixed up in mystery and murder among the decadent tinsel town’s stand-ins most devious (and pervy) denizens. The story is dark but goofy fun, and the art’s almost sedate for Vosburg, while still indulging the figurative master’s flair for lovely — albeit lethal — ladies.

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Post Mortem.

Halloween 2020: If there were trick-or-treaters out and about Saturday afternoon and evening, they vanished like ghosts. Mostly out and about myself on a loooong list of errands from mid-morning through sundown or thereabouts, I saw some folks perched beside outdoor candy bowls in their driveways, one “trunk-n-treat” going on in a grammar school parking lot, but only a handful of kids in costumes making the rounds, and who knows how many houses were ready with treats vs. how many opted for a pandemic year off. 

My Saturday to-do list found me driving from here to there and back again for hours, with satellite radio and a local station’s Halloween specials of old-time radio horror shows for creepy company. As noted in previous posts, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, Casey, Crime Photographer and a host of other mystery/crime shows are more my taste, but the 1930’s – 1950’s Golden Age of Radio had its share of spooky shows, like Lights Out, Inner Sanctum, The Hermit’s Cave, Suspense, Witches Tales and others. I heard a couple of stinkers and some darn good ones, and even the worst were better than listening to the dueling pre-election rallies on the cable news stations’ simulcasts.

Once it got dark and the grown-up ghouls could take over, I’m guessing the nightspot costume parties were few and far between ‘round here, new indoor dining and drinking Covid restrictions in place since Friday. That’s a lot of Party City and pop-up Spirit Halloween store sexy devils, sexy nurses, sexy vampires, sexy angels, sexy cops, sexy witches and sexy-whatever’s who had to stash their wigs and fishnets in storage till next year. 

The most Halloween-ish thing I did was watch Universal’s 1943 Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, the first of the studio’s monster bash movies, and the first to show the monster stumbling around with outstretched arms (though it never explains that he’s supposed to be blind…along with a whole lot of other classic horror trivia that make for a story in itself) and in general, is a charming (not scary) piece of vintage camp.  

I’ll look ahead to Halloween 2021, when things will hopefully be slightly closer to normal, trick-or-treaters can crowd the sidewalks and sexy-whatever’s can see if their costumes still fit. Thinking about things still remaining the way they are now is scarier than any Universal monster-fest flick.

Witch photo: Igor Voloshin

Goodbye, James (1930 – 2020).

I may not be the biggest James Bond fan in the world, only kinda-sorta into the Ian Fleming novels, but I do truly love the first four films, Dr. No through Thunderball, with Scottish actor Sean Connery in the 007 role, and for me Connery will always be James Bond (Pierce Brosnan’s stint in the part comes second, so the Roger Moore, Daniel Craig and George Lazenby fans can howl all they want now). It’s sad when anyone passes, but today’s news that Sean Connery passed away is bittersweet, the man having lived a long and full life that any one of us can only envy. We mourn another icon lost, but cherish the memories.

Rest in peace, Sir Thomas Sean Connery. Your body of work will live on for a long time to come. 

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Meow.

I’m usually not big on the vintage pinup and cheesecake photos, but I am big on Paulette Goddard, probably best known for her work with Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and The Great Dictator. But in her way, she also marked her turf among Golden Age Hollywood horror actors and scream queens for her starring roles in back-to-back horror comedies with Bob Hope, The Cat And The Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940). 

Paulette Goddard (real name: Marion Levy 1910-1990) was a child model, a Zeigfield Girl, an Oscar nominee, a 1950’s Hollywood blacklist victim, appeared in over 60 films between 1929 and 1964 and was married to Charlie Chaplin, Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. And she managed to look pretty adorable when she had to wiggle into a studio costume department’s black cat suit (literally) for some Halloween pinup shots. 

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Les Edwards’ Vampires.

During his school days at Homsey College Of Art, British artist and illustrator Les Edwards (who also goes by Edward Miller for some of his romance work) was told in no uncertain terms that he’d never become an illustrator. Well, he graduated from there back in 1972 and has been incredibly successful in publishing, film posters, advertising and even graphic novels ever since. Probably better known for his SF/Fantasy work (as well as romance novel covers under his nom-de-brush), Edwards has done a bit of horror work too including this mini-gallery of Draculas and sundry other ‘children of the night’, with WWII Polish concentration camp survivor and horror grand dame Ingrid Pitt (1937 – 2010) from The House That Dripped Blood among them. 

Candy & Johnny On Air (And In My Car).

With my obligatory Halloween season reading complete, and a nifty illustrated hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula returned to the writing lair’s bookcases till it’s due for another re-read, it’s back to more traditional fare for me, which right now happens to be Stephen Spotswood’s just-released Fortune Favors The Dead. I only started it Tuesday morning, am only 60 pages into the novel as I write this, and will likely be halfway through by the time you’re reading this. So more about that new mystery/crime fiction novel later, though I can tell you that Spotswood’s unique pair of 1940’s private investigators pretty much had me from page one. 

The same day I started Fortune Favors The Dead, my Crime Reads e-newsletter (or whatever they call it) listed an article by Stephen Spotswood himself, and on a cherished topic: “10 Classic Radio Mysteries Every Crime Fiction Lover Should Know” (link below). ‘Round here, old time radio fans have long enjoyed a local four-hour Saturday afternoon showcase that aired its share of classic mystery and crime shows, though lately it’s been veering more and more toward big band broadcasts and comedies. But there’s always satellite radio, which I’ll admit I’m kind of off-and-on with (currently on) for a reliable round-the-clock broadcast including a healthy helping of classic mystery and crime programs. 

Spotswood’s Crime Reads article highlights a number of well-known and not-so-well known shows from the 1930’s through very early 60’s, two in particular being faves of mine. Candy Matson, starring Natalie Parks, was one of the west coast’s most popular series in its time, short-lived as it was (1949 – 1951). Matson, a former fashion model turned private eye, was a “stiletto gumshoe” if ever there was one, and it’s too bad that of the show’s 90 episodes, only fourteen survived. But they’re a treat. For more about Candy Matson, follow the other link below to an August 2019 post from right here.

My hands-down favorite vintage radio mystery/crime drama is Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, a long-running series (1949 – 1962) with over 800 episodes and one of the very last radio dramas to be broadcast nationally. Johnny Dollar originally was a traditional hard-boiled P.I., but the show was re-tooled in the mid-50’s with the character reimagined as a freelance insurance investigator…”the man with the action packed expense account”. In the show’s audition pilot, Dick Powell played the lead, and then a long list of actors took over Johnny Dollar’s role, including Charles Russell, film star Edmond O’Brien (seen up above at the top if this post with his eyes glued to either the revolver or the shapely limbs), John Lund, Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer…and the actor most fans associate with Johnny Dollar: Bob Bailey. During what many consider the show’s best period, Bailey as Johnny Dollar narrated each story, which ran for one whole week in nightly fifteen-minute episodes. Production values, co-stars and music were all top notch, and the scripts were as good as any mystery/crime fiction storytelling you’d find in Manhunt magazine or on a prime TV show.

I already have several multi-disk sets of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and will surely end up with more, though I have a bad feeling that when it’s time to trade in the current wheels, new cars won’t even have CD players any longer. And for me, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – or any mystery/crime radio shows – go best with long drives. I don’t know why, but radio dramas just make the miles go by quicker. Now I’ll assume that most vintage radio programs have fallen into the public domain. Candy Matson, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and so many others are all over the place and from multiple companies, with three, four or more versions of disk sets and sometimes even more for downloads. Guessing which ones are good quality is a gamble. That said, if you haven’t tried old time radio mystery/crime shows, do so, and I’d say that Candy Matson and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are good places to start.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/08/25/candy-matson/

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