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?
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.
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?
P.D. James’ young London private detective Cordelia Gray debuted in the 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (see the preceding post for more about that book). Twenty-two, just this side of broke, partnered with a former Scotland Yard detective in a none-too-successful P.I. agency, Cordelia suddenly must take over when she finds her one-time mentor and former boss dead in his office.
The first Cordelia Gray novel was not only a bit of a groundbreaker, being a decade ahead of some more well-known mystery series led by women detectives, but also a darn good read. So, it’s surprising that writer James (1920 – 2014) only penned one more Cordelia Gray novel, and that one came ten years later. But presumably the character resonated with fans nonetheless, first in a 1982 film that quickly came and went (and if it’s still lurking out there somewhere, I haven’t found it), then, fifteen years later, Cordelia reappeared, and this time more successfully.
The UK 1997 – 2001 BBC series of feature length episodes started out based in part on James’ novel, but the rest used original stories, though intended at least to maintain the novelist’s tone and stay true to the character. To be fair, there really were only two Cordelia Gray novels to adapt. Some sites suggest that P.D. James wasn’t entirely thrilled with the film/TV adaptations and remained determined to undermine anymore attempts (thus, refusing to write another Cordelia Gray novel). True or myth, I can’t say. I can say that the series lead, Helen Baxendale, does a very credible job of portraying Cordelia Gray. Baxendale may be more familiar to U.S audiences (or at least Gen-Xr’s and syndicated rerun channel watchers) as Emily Waltham, David Schwimmer/Ross Geller’s unlucky British girlfriend/fiancée/wife from the NBC mega-hit sitcom Friends. Baxendale’s real-life first pregnancy may have cut short her stint on that US series, but was neatly written in to An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. So, Ms. Gray joined the select club of literary/TV/film/comics private eyes and cops mothers and moms-to-be.
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.
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 25th: No 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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).
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.