Cigarette Girls

Cigarette Girl

Back in mid-May I mentioned Susanna Calkins’ new novel (the first in a new series, I think), Murder Knocks Twice, a period mystery set in early 1929 Chicago. Struggling to care for her ailing father, young Gina Ricci takes a job as a cigarette girl in a local speakeasy, only to learn that the girl she’s replaced was recently murdered, and the club’s brooding, mysterious photographer turns out to be an estranged cousin from the family that disowned her and her dad. When Gina witnesses that same enigmatic photographer brutally murdered, she obeys his dying words and takes his camera, then learns to process film, and that’s only the start of the multiple mysteries that erupt in Calkins’ novel, all of which is set against a backdrop of the Capone-Moran gang wars, the book’s final pages playing out just as the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurs. It’s a fun read, leisurely paced (or methodically, depending on your assessment) and brimming with red herrings and subplots. Some may think Calkins’ tale is a little light on mayhem and Roaring Twenties decadence, considering the time, place and characters. But if so, it certainly didn’t detract from her good storytelling.

MURDER KNOCKS TWICE copy

Two things struck me as I read Murder Knocks Twice.

First: how Calkins used photographs and her hero’s urgent need to learn photography and film processing as a crucial driver in the narrative. That intrigued me, since it’s similar to things going on in both the first The Stiletto Gumshoe novel currently making the rounds and its sequel, still underway. A female protagonist, a Chicago setting — albeit with thirty years separating the two, my tale set in 1959 – it’d be presumptuous of me to say ‘great minds think alike’. I will say it was nice to see another author use photos and processing the way Calkins did.

4 cigarette girls

Second: Calkins wise choice of a nightclub cigarette girl for her main character (and what looks like a series character at that). It got me thinking about just how few cigarette girls have helmed mystery/crime fiction novels, when it’s such an obvious role. If you’re writing period crime fiction, which understandably may involve speakeasies, casinos, roadhouses and nightclubs, a cigarette girl is ideal for a character that needs to be right in the middle of the action. I’ve thought about it, I’ve browsed my own bookshelves and I’ve surfed online, but found precious few (if any) cigarette girl characters, much less lead characters, even among vintage pulps. So, hats off to Calkins for finally giving a vintage crime milieu fixture her proper due!

Cigarette Girl Pulps

And while we’re at it, congrats to her for a job well done. If you insist on non-stop gunplay, grisly violence or sizzling bedroom hijinks, (and frankly, I often do!) then Murder Knocks Twice may not be the next book you’ll consider. But, consider it nonetheless. It really is a good read.

P.S. Yes, that’s a young Audrey Hepburn in the cigarette girl costume in the quadrant of photos above.

 

The New Pulpeteers

taya ferdinand shutter - pulpeteers

The July 2019 issue of The Writer magazine’s cover story was focused on literary agents – “Pulling Back The Curtain – What Does A Literary Agent Really Do?” by Kerrie Flanagan, followed by a nice interview with agent Donald Maas (a name that ought to be familiar to any querying writer, genre writers in particular), plus Ryan G. Van Cleave’s article on literary agent contracts. Savvy pro’s might groan and say they’ve read it all before. Newbies might lap it all up, and as for myself — somewhere in between — I always find some bit of new info in these articles, no matter how often I’ve retread the same ground in writers’ magazines or blogs. And seriously, how can you go wrong with an interview with a sage like Donald Maas?

But the article that really caught me by surprise in this issue was Heidi Ruby Miller’s “Introducing The New Pulp…Pulp Fiction Is Back, Baby”, a nice three page look at the resurgence of pulp fiction, distinguishing between the classic pulp era and contemporary writers and starting by acknowledging what was worrisome about mid-twentieth century pulpdom. Defining new pulp, Miller quotes Tommy Hancock of Pro Se productions: “Fiction writing with the same sensibilities, beats of storytelling, patterns of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists and publishers.”

Mystery Weekly Magazine

Most of Miller’s overview addresses adventure pulps like Doc Savage, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Pellucidar and Barsoom novels, SF/Fantasy material from vintage Lovecraft, Bradbury and Campbell, etc., as opposed to the mystery/crime fiction pulps. And after all, one could argue that crime pulp never really went away, merely migrated online and into periodic anthologies. Even with the disolution of so many 1930’s – 1960’s pulp magazines, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine are still out there, pulpy paper and all. Maybe the writers appearing inside don’t want to be classified as ‘pulpeteers’, or who knows? Maybe they’d be proud to wear to wear the mantle. After all, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine has been emblazoned with a violator on the cover for a while now noting “With Black Mask”, and I can’t think of anything that evokes the classic crime/mystery pulp era better.

three modern pulps

Miller’s article concludes with a list highlighting new pulp resources: Sites, cons, podcasts and even print/online pulp publishers, though again, those are more adventure/fantasy pulps than crime. That’s OK. ‘Pulp’ ala Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective, Sally The Sleuth and The Domino Lady may have faded away, or only live in reprints and some questionable revivals, but the noir-ish and hard-boiled flavor of the classic pulp era is still alive in a lot of talented mystery/crime fiction writers’ novels. Still…it sure would be nice if some well-heeled entrepreneur like the fellows who launched the original Hard Case Crime paperback line got a bright idea to launch a for-real ink-on-paper mystery/crime pulp magazine…wouldn’t it?

(Taya Ferdinand illustration from The Writer magazine)

Private Eye Dreams.

1954 Maidenform Private Eye

The models dreamed that they were prizefighters, ballerinas, bullfighters, movie stars, gunslingers and in 1955, no less than President. So why not a private eye?

Maidenform’s iconic “I Dreamed” ad campaign was brainstormed by agency creatives Mary Fillius, Kitty D’Alessio and Kay Daly, who pitched multiple ‘dream’ concepts to Maidenform’s founder Ira Rosenthal and his daughter Beatrice Coleman who made the final selections. The successful campaign ran non-stop from 1949 through 1969. This ‘private eye’ print ad is from 1954: “…searching for clues about this most-wanted figure. ‘Arresting to look at, last seen in America’s most famous bra, and no supporting evidence!’ Why, it’s me in my new Maidenform strapless – the thriller with a secret no one would suspect!”

My own in-progress 1950’s P.I. gets underway some five years later, and with one manuscript complete and making the rounds, and its sequel halfway done, I haven’t had to specify what brands of undies or ‘foundations’ Sharon Gardner, AKA the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ prefers. But she does grump a bit about the way the models seem to float like angels on chiffon clouds in all the girdle ads.

The Blonde Viper

The Blonde Viper 1

Viper Bionda – “The Blonde Viper” – is the original protagonist and title of a series of 1970’s Italian erotic crime comics, with some 30+ issues in its original run, the character then also appearing in other titles like Wallestein and Baghera, stepping far afield from crimes and mere bedroom play and increasingly combatting supernatural threats like vampires and sundry other monsters. All silly stuff, but a lot of the art – covers and interior panels alike – are intriguing. Finding post-able images from Euro-Sleaze comics, pulps, and Giallo crime novels can be challenging since so many are just a little too out-there for me. This one’s from the prince of perversity himself, Emanuelle Taglietti, and may just be one of the tamest pieces of cover art he ever did.

taglietti

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.

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