Liar, Liar

Liar Liar

Most of the ‘stiletto gumshoes’ I favor are either shoot-first bad-asses or wily femmes who can finagle the truth out of any tight-lipped crook. Once in a while I’ll dip into something more…frothy? That’s what I expected from K.J. Larsen’s Cat DeLuca, but was pleasantly surprised to read something much more, a comical P.I. novel that wasn’t only trying to be funny, but actually pulled it off.

Cat DeLuca’s large and intrusive Italian family of more or less honest Chicago cops and ‘connected’ Bridgeport cousins may not approve of her career – owner of the Pants On Fire Detective Agency (as in “Liar, liar, pants on fire”) – but after her marriage to serial philanderer and chronic liar Johnnie Rizzo collapsed, nailing cheating spouses seemed as good a way to make a living as any other. The problem is, tailing adulterous husbands can prove dangerous when they’re more than it seems, and early in the first Cat DeLuca novel, Liar, Liar, Cat’s tricked into tailing another rover with a roving eye by a woman who’s really a crime reporter, and Cat’s caught in an explosive (literally) assassination attempt that puts her in the hospital…and that’s barely the beginning of her adventures following handsome maybe-crook Chance Savino. From there, Liar, Liar speeds along at a rip-roaring pace with hot diamonds, gun-runners, car thieves, two-bit street hustlers and crooked bigshots, wacky Italian family gatherings, nosey priests and kindly mobsters — more comedy than mystery, nearly slapstick in many parts, but all pretty darn good.

The Cat DeLuca series was five books, I think, and then seemed to stall for some reason. Don’t ask me, because it seemed tailor-made for a long run and should’ve had Hollywood sniffing around. Series like this one make me wonder just how many terrific books are lurking out there that I’ve missed and may never discover without prowling the shelves in the better used bookstores.

Author “K.J. Larsen” is actually three sisters: Kari, Julianne and Kristen Larsen who reside in Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. How three siblings can co-write a mystery series without killing each other is a mystery in itself, but obviously it worked. Larsen’s Bridgeport neighborhood is a close-knit Italian community, which originally was a bit of a puzzler to me, Bridgeport and the locally infamous 11th Ward a solidly Irish enclave and home to the Mayors Daley (senior and junior) and a long list of Chicago/Cook County politicians, bureaucrats and power brokers. Time for me to bone up on my Chicago lore, apparently.

 

Enrique Badia Romero

Enrique Badia Romero 2Many know Italian artist Enrique Badia Romero for his sword-wielding Amazons and Red Sonja-style barbarians, Vampirella and various other alluring vampiresses, most of those rising from their coffins without their PJ’s.

Enrique Badia Romero 4

But to others, Romero is one of the main artists on the long running Modesty Blaise newspaper strips, running uncensored in Europe and in slightly less saucy versions in limited US distribution. A master draftsman and downright lethal with a brush and pen, here’s a few Romero illustrations and a daily strip to ogle.

Enrique Badia Romero 1Enrique Badia Romero 3Enrique Badia Romero 5

Going To Glendale?

2019 Los Angeles Vintage Paperback Show

While I’m about to step out for some quick Saturday AM errands (which might include a bookstore stop…maybe) I’m not planning any two thousand mile treks this weekend. Anyway, there’s an annual vintage pulp, paperback and collectibles show ‘round these parts each Spring, if I was so inclined. I’ve gone to a couple of these shows to see the original cover art and illustration art exhibits, but kept my credit cards safely tucked away in my wallet. Fortunately, (being a fan of retro illustration and postwar crime fiction) I’m rarely gripped by the collector frenzy, which can be as dangerous as a gambling addiction for the weak-willed. But for those of you in the Los Angeles area, the Vintage Paperback Collectors Show & Sale in Glendale this Sunday sure looks like the place to be. And I do like that Robert McGinnis illustration chosen for their poster!

Sienkiewicz’ Natasha

bill sienkiewicz black widow

Call her Natalia Alianovna Romanova, call her by her alias, Natasha Romanoff. Better still, call her Marvel’s Black Widow, here rendered by artist Bill Sienkiewicz.

Ms. Tree

Hard Case Crime Ms Tree

I discovered Grand Master ‘Edgar’ winner Max Allan Collins’ and Terry Beatty’s ground-breaking character Ms. Tree completely backwards: Not from the various comics series which debuted in 1981 and ran in titles by several different publishers through the early 1990’s, but in the one Ms. Tree novel, Deadly Beloved, published by Hard Case Crime back in 2007. And as it happened, I didn’t even buy that when it was released but several years later, and foolishly didn’t read it right away. But that delay didn’t diminish the enjoyment one bit. I was completely entranced with the character of Michael (not Michelle!) Tree, and determined to track down the comics. Easier said than done, as it turned out. I’ve never been lucky with comic shops’ back-issue bins, often as not muscled aside by some hard-core comics dude. In the end I only located one DC Comics Ms. Tree Quarterly. That one I grabbed and enjoyed a lot.

DC Ms Tree Quarterly

So I was thrilled to hear that Titan Comics Hard Case Crime line will reprint the Ms. Tree series later this year. So far I’ve been pleased with all of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics that I’ve tried — Triggerman, Peepland and others —  and trust them to do an excellent job.

Ms. Tree. Well, just say it out loud. Misz-Ter-ree. Mystery. Get it? Cute.

Ms Tree Trio

Ms. Tree is writer Collins’ and artist Beatty’s ode to the classic crime comics which largely vanished in the aftermath of the 1950’s Wertham comics scare (Seduction of The Innocent, congressional hearings, etc.). Michael Tree took over her murdered husband’s private detective agency (the Mister also named Michael Tree) and the original series apparently dealt with her violent, vengeance-driven quest to solve his murder and ultimately bring the crime syndicate responsible to justice. Subsequent stories dealt with serious subjects for a time when comics still tiptoed around more mature real-world topics like pregnancy, abortion, homophobia. Ms. Tree herself is kind of a double for Mickey Spillane’s Velda, Mike Hammer’s secretary and paramour — An imposing six foot tall, sporting a Bettie Page hairdo and packing a gun in her shoulder bag (a bag that’s wielded as a nasty weapon in an emergency). Ironically, Ms. Tree turns out to be an even more effective P.I. than her husband was. The character preceded – or maybe even foreshadowed Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, and helped to supplant outmoded notions of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ previously embodied in the G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz series. I don’t see release dates for this Titan Comics Hard Case Crime comics series, but will definitely be watching for it. Ms. Tree is not escaping me this time.

 

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

From the well-known anthologist, author and master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler: The Big Book Of Female Detectives, which proudly claims to be “The Most Complete Collection Of Detective Dames, Gumshoe Gals & Sultry Sleuths Ever Assembled”. I’m not qualified to say if it is or it isn’t, only to point out that it is indeed one big, fat book at 1,115 pages.

Now keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a collection of tales written by women, but about women detectives, cops, reporters and various sleuths, and understandably the women writers are better represented in more of the contemporary material.

The book includes 74 stories, arranged chronologically with each section and story accompanied by informative introductions written by the master himself. Victorian/Edwardian – British Mysteries and Pre-World War One – American Mysteries comprise the early era. Those are followed by The Pulp Era, The Golden Age and The Mid-Century, and the longest section, The Modern Era. But Penzler’s not done yet, and closes with a final section devoted to women on the other side of the law, Bad Girls. Of course, there’s no way to assemble a book like this without some critics complaining that their favorite character was left out or questioning why a particular writer was included at all. So let them quibble. For myself, I’ll confess that I sped through the early eras’ sections and really get hooked in The Pulp Era, with one of my personal favorites from that period, Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady in “The Domino Lady Collects”, and surprised to see two Adolphe Barreaux Sally The Sleuth strips, including “Coke For Co-Eds”…you just have to love that title. Familiar names crowd the Modern Era, including Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Max Allan Collins, Nevada Barr, Lawrence Block and others.

I got this book before the holidays and only just wrapped it up now, dipping in for a story here and a story there at a leisurely pace. Finishing it was almost bittersweet – I got used to seeing that big ol’ book on the endtable. If you see it, get it. I can’t think of better ‘textbook’ overview of women detectives (and crooks!) in one book.

 

Benicio’s Girls With Guns

Jose Luis Benicio 1

It’s a peculiar American conceit: We think we dominate everything. No question, sometimes we do. In the vintage art and illustration arenas for comics, pulp magazines and book covers, titans like McGinnis, Maguire, Steranko, Kirby, Adams and so many others created a remarkable legacy of mid-twentieth century pop-cultural visuals. A person could spend a lifetime studying these artists and their work. But, I also like to snoop around Euro-Sleaze magazines, Giallo digests, and pop illustration in other markets from the UK to Australia and Mexico to South America. There’s a lot to be appreciated.

Centro Commercial

For example, commercial art studios in Spain reached out across Europe — and across the Atlantic as well – to become a powerful force in 1960’s – 70’s comic art art and illustration, most evident in the American market among the many magazine-sized monthlies from Warren Publishing like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, along with competing titles from Marvel and Skywald. Meanwhile, the work of talented young artists from Brazil and Venezuela made it into the regular U.S. comic book scene and the paperback cover market, though the latter was contracting so fast at the time, many U.S. artists had already migrated into more lucrative advertising and movie studio work.

Jose Luis Benicio 2

Consider Brazilian artist Jose Luis Benicio, apparently regarded as the ‘King Of The Pinups’ in his own country, though his work actually dealt more with Brazilian film studio posters and regular advertising assignments. Perhaps he really ought to be known as the painter of ‘Girls With Guns’, for his extensive work on period-sexy action/espionage paperback series.

Jose Luis Benicio 3

Born in 1936 near Rio Prado, Benicio originally planned on a career in music, but abandoned the piano for a paint brush, initially starting out as an apprentice in Porto Alegre at only 16, then hitting the big time in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1950’s. There he worked for various studios and small agencies, eventually forging a lucrative long-term relationship with the Brazilian office of McCann-Erickson advertising by 1961, which led to work for Coca Cola, Esso and others. Tireless in his prime, Benicio also produced, by his own reckoning, over 300 movie posters for the government-backed Embrafilme Studios.

Jose Luis Benicio 5

At the same time, Benicio worked for various publishers on popular Modesty Blaise-style knock-off series like Giselle and Bridgette In Action, nearly all featuring the series’ provocatively posed heroines brandishing a gun. Tame by both U.S. and European standards, these ubiquitous ‘Girl-With-A-Gun’ covers actually brought him some unwelcome attention from the conservative military government. Eventually political changes in Brazil brought an end to the government backed film studio system, and portions of Benicio’s lucrative movie marketing work dried up. He began working with some American publishers, but by this time, digital graphics were already sounding the death knell for traditional illustration.

Jose Luis Benicio 6

Benicio normally worked in gouache, today considered by many to be a dying art. Gouache, which is more or less ‘fine-arts’ tempera paint, combines the brilliance of the purest oils but with unparalleled opacity. Due to its quick drying time, it’s the perfect medium for commercial illustrators. I worked with it a little back in school days, and was impressed with its bright, intense colors and buttery viscosity, but found it pretty tricky to handle. (Which is probably among the many reasons why I’m not a successful commercial illustrator!) More of the well-known vintage U.S. paperback and pulp magazine covers than you’d think were actually done in gouache, not oils.

Jose Luis Benicio 4

To be clear, ‘girls with guns’ aren’t the only thing Benicio painted. But they are among the familiar pop culture images the artist is widely known for, particularly in the South American market. Do dig around a bit on your own if you’d like to see more of the Brazilian illustrator’s work. There are two books on Jose Luis Benicio, though neither is likely to be on a shelf at your local bookstore: Sex & Crime: The Book Cover Art Of Benicio by Reference Press, 2011 and Benicio Created The Woman by Goncalo Junior, originally published in 2006 and re-released in 2012.

Jose Luis Benicio 1stJose Luis Benicio 8Jose Luis Benicio 7

Stumptown

Stumptown-5

One way for rabid readers to keep from going broke is to learn to love their public library. I have. The one closest to me is a charming and well-designed facility, though all that décor apparently left no funds for books. But the next library over is an enormous two-story treasure trove, and its graphic novel section could outdo many comics shops. That’s where I came across writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth’s great contemporary hard-boiled series, Stumptown.

Stumptown 1

Dex Parios is my favorite kind of ‘stiletto gumshoe’: Wonderfully flawed. Army vet and inveterate gambler, Dex is both bad-ass and wise-ass, and occasionally a bit of a screw-up. It makes for a lethal combo.

Stumptown 4

Sounds like near-future small screen options won’t be short of intriguing girlz-with-guns and lethal ladies, even though I’m still processing the sad news that Netflix cancelled the amazing Jessica Jones series with Krysten Ritter.

Cobie Smulders

ABC just announced a new Stumptown series by Jason Richman and Ruben Flesicher. Hard-boiled Dex Parios will be played by Canadian actress Jacoba Francisca Maria Smulders, better known as Cobie Smulders. Marvel universe fans know Cobie as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill from the Avengers. TV channel surfers know her as Robin Scherbatsky from syndicated-everywhere How I Met Your Mother sitcom reruns. Seems like a good casting decision to me, and I’m betting she can bring Dex Parios’ hard-boiled grit and glimpses of vulnerability to life on screen just fine. Looking forward to this one. And still enjoying Rucka and Southworth’s comics.

Stumptown Hardcover

Nancy Drew, High School Hipster

Nancy Drew by Tula Lotay

The prior post noted that the CW Network will soon launch a Nancy Drew series, starring Kennedy McMann as the iconic teenage sleuth. From what I can glean of the planned storyline, I get the feeling the series’ inspiration comes less from the classic ‘Carolyn Keene’ books and perhaps more from the Dynamite Entertainment Nancy Drew comics series that started last year.

Nancy Drew 1 by Tula Lotay

In writer Kelly Thompson’s reimagining of the Nancy Drew universe, the plucky girl detective’s in a hipster high school world with old pal Bess and gay punkette George forming her ‘Scooby’ gang of investigators. The interior art is by Jenn St-Onge (look for more of her work at the artist’s site, jennstonge.ca) with each issue released with multiple covers (that annoying trend among greedy comics publishers) and I’ve gone with the ones drawn by British comic and illustration master Tula Lotay. I’m only four issues into the series so I think I have some catching up to do, but it’s a good read for a “Teen+” marketed title, and it sure ‘feels’ a lot like what the CW is touting for its network Nancy Drew series.

Nancy Drew 4Nancy Drew 5

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑