Vixens, Vamps & Vipers

vixens vamps & vipers

I adore 1930’s – 50’s crime comics and even some costumed superheroes from that period…well, one at least: Batman. But it was a boys’ club, after all, and it takes some digging to uncover the era’s ‘stiletto gumshoes’, with not a lot to show for the search. Mike Madrid has done a lot of the digging for us, in his first book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy And The History Of Comic Book Heroines, then Divas, Dames & Daredevils: Lost Heroines Of Golden Age Comics.

supergirls & divas

A year later, Madrid decided to give the villainesses their due, and rightly so, since it may be that crime and villainy were just about the only way mid-twentieth century women in comics could assert themselves, after all. Vixens, Vamps & Vipers: Villainesses Of Golden Age Comics is a handsome 250+ page book from Exterminating Angel Press and should be a must-read for fans of vintage comics, and in particular, anyone interested in women’s roles in mid-20th century pop culture. The book reproduces 22 different 1940’s-50’s comic stories along with well researched but very readable background information on the characters themselves, their superhero/crime fighter opponents, and the writers and artists who brought them to life. Notable female villains like Madame Doom, Veda The Cobra Woman And Skull Lady are here, but more prosaic crooks and femmes fatales were the most fun for me. For example, National Comics’ 1943 Idaho, who reminds me of a wisecracking Barbara Stanwyck in a 1930’s screwball comedy or crime caper. As the book states, these characters “both transcend and become ensnared in a web of cultural stereotypes”. Female superheroes and women crime fighters from the capes & tights variety (and demure little skirts, in most cases) to the plucky girl reporters, private eyes and DA’s were few enough. Perhaps the only way for female characters to be allowed to fully assert themselves alongside or against the era’s goody two shoes heroes was as villainesses, and there are some memorable ones in this book that’ll surely send you poking around online and digging in vintage comics bins for more.

madame doom

The Weather Outside Is Frightful…

winter montage

Oh, the weather outside is frightful…or so the 1945 Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne song Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow says.

Last weekend we had a winter tease ‘round here, with a good bit of snow, but manageable. This weekend we’re getting walloped, and it’s still going on as this is written. Once done, temps will drop, winds pick up and whatever was already cleaned up will just drift back into impassable hills overnight. Not whining, mind you, since it’s been winter-lite so far this season, with only one sorta-snowstorm in early November, and even November-December out of town travel into the frigid zones wasn’t too bad.

But I don’t mind a bit. For me, the most productive time of year is October through May when we’re driven indoors. There are fewer temptations, with no beaches, softball leagues, patio soirees, swimming pools, gardening or whatever warm weather pursuits might lure you away from the work you mean to do. When the shorter days and first snows send the bears into hibernation, a lot of us head to the sofa for Netflix binge watching. But for some, it’s the most opportune time to get things done, whether that’s painting your personal masterpieces in the apartment’s spare bedroom studio, building one of those insanely detailed toy train layouts in the basement, or finally starting that novel that’s been kicking around inside your head. Of course, there’s no better way to weather the – well, the weather – than to curl up in something cozy with a good book and your beverage of choice. Smarter folks may peek out the window to see the blizzards still blowing and simply choose to stay in bed. Which would be a pretty fun idea if there’s a bedmate by their side. After all, there’s no need for winter jammies when there are better ways to keep warm.

alexa mazzarello

Getting around on Saturday errands kinda sucked this morning, the snowplow drivers apparently breakfasting or loading their rigs with salt. But I’ve been in for a while now, with no plans to go back out till Monday morning, and once the week’s blog posts are scheduled, it’ll be time to hunker down over The Stiletto Gumshoe. The manuscripts-in-progress, not the website. A productive winter weekend of uninterrupted writing (or rewriting, as it happens) sounds good, with no plans to pause till evening. I expect the fingertips may be numb come 11:00 PM, at which time Eddie Mueller’s Noir Alley will beckon on Turner Classic Movies. 1944’s Murder, My Sweet is the film this week, with Dick Powell taking his first turn at reinventing himself as a hard-boiled noir favorite, and it was Anne Shirley’s last film. But it’ll be back to the keyboard Sunday, since the weather outside promises to remain frightful. But there are worse things than being warm inside when some productive work gets done. Agreed?

Montage: Roan Lavery, Meghan Elliott, Kate Williams; Still life: Alexa Mazzarello

 

Hard-Boiled Dames.

hard-boiled dames

Hard-Boiled Dames (1986), edited by Bernard Drew says it’s “A brass-knuckled anthology of the toughest women from the classic pulps”. This anthology features women detectives, reporters, adventurers and even a few criminals from 1930’s pulp fiction magazines. Marcia Muller notes in her preface, “Although the courageous independent female sleuth may have, for whatever reasons, gone somewhat out of fashion in the suspense fiction of the 1950’s and 60’s, she was very much in evidence in the pulp magazines of the 30’s and 40’s.”

21st century mystery/crime fiction fans of the more hard-boiled variety could easily think that the genre was populated with no shortage of female sleuths (the bad-ass ones, that is) all along. Not so, of course. Before things exploded in the early 1980’s, thanks to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and some others, there’d been nearly thirty years of ‘blonde bombshells’ like Honey West, Mavis Seidlitz, Marla Trent, and weirder still, Cherry Delight, The Baroness, The Lady From L.U.S.T. and other one-shots and series focused more on the protagonists’ looks and bedroom antics. While the 1940’s through the early 50’s had a decent run of smart, hard-fighting female private eyes, reporters, district attorneys and sundry cloaked/costumed crime fighters, it was relegated to comics much more than pulp fiction or novels. You really have to dial back to the 1930’s pulp era to uncover the female detectives and their associates, and some of the best are featured in this book.

I read my first Carrie Cashin story in Hard-Boiled Dames, and then went hunting for more. Carrie looks “like a demure brown-eyed stenographer in a tailored jacket and tweed skirt”, and in front of clients often defers to her “broad-shouldered assistant Aleck, to allay any clients’ concerns about a woman detecting”. But Miss Cashin is the head of the Cash And Carry Detective Agency, the first to leap into danger, and clearly the brains of the outfit. This anthology includes author Theodore Tinsley’s “The Riddle In Silk”, in which Carrie (with assistant Aleck in tow) investigates a bloody murder in a mansion on the requisite dark and stormy night, which leads them back into the city and ultimately to the waterfront docks on the trail of a stolen pair of silk stockings which “may mean the difference between peace and war in Europe”, the hose containing secret coded messages.

Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady is here too, in “The Domino Lady Doubles Back”, along with Katie Blayne, Trixie Meehan – 15 stories in all, each accompanied by 2 page introductions about the authors and their characters, and reproductions of the original pulps’ illustrations. If you see this book around, snatch it. It’s a good read, and a real eye opener about

 

Chris Clor

chris clor

At first, she just looks like a private eye’s secretary, perched on the gumshoe’s desk. But is she? And there are so many details to take in and wonder about in this darkly moody Chris Clor image: That the shadowy visitor’s briefcase is handcuffed to his wrist. What’s with the religious statue on the file cabinet, and why is one file drawer left open? Hey, just choosing purple shoes to go with a green dress is a puzzler.

Gorgeous stuff.

Mystery Lite: The Frame-Up.

the_frame_up

Mystery-Lite? Softies? I’m not sure how to classify Meghan Scott Molin’s debut novel The Frame-Up, a library discovery I squeezed in over the holidays. Oh, it’s definitely a mystery, but then it seems to adhere to the marketplace template that used to be called ‘Chick-lit’: A witty and engaging twenty-something heroine, under-appreciated by a mean boss in an otherwise cool big city job that’s rife with workplace drama, relying on a flamboyantly gay male confidante and winding up in an unlikely romance…all sprinkled with lots and lots of brand names.

But in Molin’s novel, the brand names aren’t for designer shoes, pricey apparel or trendy Manhattan (or Rodeo Drive) boutiques, but comic books, superheroes, sci-fi/fantasy films and cult-fave TV shows, because The Frame-Up is set in the comic book world and its protagonist, Michael-Grace Martin (who prefers to go by ‘MG’) is a writer at Los Angeles headquartered Genius Comics. I suspect that MG’s a stand-in for the author herself, who’s a self-confessed fandom geek. In fact, it looks like the book cover’s designer-illustrator Danny Schlitz thought so too, since the cover art matches the author photo inside so well.

We first encounter wisecracking purple-haired L.A. hipster-nerd Michael-Grace Martin in a meet-cute scene with LAPD Detective Matteo Kildaire, handsomely hunky but, sadly, a ‘muggle’ and unwelcome in MG’s geek universe. Reluctantly enlisted as a special LAPD consultant when a costumed vigilante recreates crime scenes from the classic ‘Hooded Falcon’ comic series — the very character MG is currently rebooting – she and the cute cop pose as a couple so he can come and go at the Genius Comics offices and among her fan-boy/girl crowd.

Now Michael-Grace is a comics, con and cosplay geek and no ‘stiletto gumshoe’, preferring ballet flats anyway, though she’s stuck in heels in a couple scenes, including one in which she manages to spike a shadowy figure assaulting her at a crime scene (only to to realize too late that she just rammed her heel into Detective Matteo Kildaire’s foot). In fact, she rivals any snoopy 40’s/50’s comics ‘girl reporter’ or even vintage Nancy Drew herself as she pokes through closets and eavesdrops on incriminating conversations to try and discover what’s behind an apparent drug smuggling ring, a years-old murder and why someone’s dressing up as The Hooded Falcon comic book character. No surprise: Along the way, she falls hard for her pretend boy-toy with a badge, even if he is utterly clueless about Star Wars, Dr. Who, costuming and all things precious to MG and her pals.

It’s all pleasantly ‘lite’ with the crimes (drug smuggling and murders) largely kept ‘off screen’ and the romance completely G-rated enough for the Hallmark Channel. In fact, it might not hurt if the threats were just a smidge more threatening and the all the heavy breathing, racing pulses and sweaty palms led to more than a few chaste kisses, especially with an assertive, purple-haired smart-ass L.A. twenty-something like Michael-Grace Martin. But that’s just this one reader’s unsolicited opinion, and this particular reader’s book comfort zone typically includes brutal fistfights, lethal gunplay and some decidedly un-chaste kissing…and more. So what. Author Meghan Scott Molin seems to know what she’s doing, and will likely have ample opportunity to settle into the right tone since the book is subtitled inside as “The Golden Arrow Mysteries, Book 1”. Which tells us Ms. Molin signed more than a one-book deal with publisher 47 North. Myself, I’ll happily look for Book 2 and more. The novel may be a bit of a softie or even ‘mystery-lite’, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fun read. 47 North being the latitude of Amazon’s Seattle HQ (and an Amazon imprint), I hope it finds its way into booksellers too (who can be understandably reluctant to carry books by ‘the enemy’) and not just libraries, where I stumbled across it. A fun first book, Meghan Scott Molin.

 

 

No Luck For A Lady.

no luck for a lady

My copy of Floyd Mahannah’s No Luck For A Lady is a 1958 second printing of the 1951 paperback (of the 1950 hardcover titled The Golden Hearse) and my scan above doesn’t do the gorgeous Robert Maguire cover art justice. The original edition (don’t know the artist on that one, sorry) is shown below.

Some sites bill the book as a ‘Cassie Gibson’ detective novel, but that’s stretching it a bit. Oh, there’s a character called Cassie Gibson, and she really is a private detective. But the novel’s really Nap Lincoln’s story, a fellow en route to San Francisco to embark on a year-long South American construction job when he loses his shirt in Reno. Broke and hitchhiking at night, he’s picked up by a big yellow Cadillac convertible driven by a beautiful redhead – Miss Cassandra Gibson (strangely, she’s described as both a redhead and a blonde in an example of some very rushed copy editing). But Cassie’s Caddy has a flat, and when Nap looks in the trunk for the spare, he discovers a corpse and a stash of narcotics. Nap learns that Miss Gibson is a licensed P.I. who’s trying to keep the agency her father started afloat, now on a case that has her mixed up with gamblers and gangsters. Soon enough Cassie and Nap are on the run from the local law while duking it out with some mighty scary Reno crooks.

no luck for a lady - original

This ought to be Cassie’s book, but Nap Lincoln is the hero of ths ‘Cassie Gibson Detective Novel’, with the lady P.I. playing second fiddle all the way. It’s too bad, because her character is an interesting one. It’s all the more frustrating then to read the closing scene, with Cassandra and Nap about to go their separate ways, only to ‘fess up about their feelings for one another. Before they have the last paragraph’s climactic kiss, Cassie tells Nap, “I’ve had enough detecting to last the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a detective, Nap. I want…to be a woman.”

The two being mutually exclusive in 1950, apparently.

 

Death Was The Other Woman

death was the other woman

I’ve recently been stuck in the car for multiple two-hour each-way and six-hour each-way trips, and with an expired satellite radio subscription no less. I have several multi-disk sets of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio shows and got some mileage out of those (more about that excellent mystery series later). But one trip (one way, at least) sped by with Linda L. Richards’ Death Was The Other Woman. I rarely listen to audio books, though often I read that they’re one of the few real publishing/bookselling growth categories. ‘Course, I don’t think they mean old fashioned audio CD’s, but there are all kinds of freebies available at the library.

Richards’ novel is probably a little too soft to be labeled ‘hard-boiled’, but give me a mid-twentieth century urban setting and I’ll always give a book a try. In Depression-era L.A., young Kathleen ‘Kitty’ Panghorn, a one-time heiress whose father took a one-way flight out a skyscraper window during the stock market crash of 1929, has been reduced to living as a boarder in what was once her own home. Jobs are scarce, so she’s glad to be working (albeit with very unreliable paychecks) for private eye Dex Theroux, who might be a good detective if he wasn’t drunk most days by noon. All the familiar stereotypes, clichés and tropes of the genre are here in abundance, but handled well and in a genuinely fun way. Richards has done some fifteen novels, with three in the ‘Kitty Panghorn’ series, so now I’ll need to track down Death Was In The Picture, and the third from 2016, Death Was In The Blood. I don’t know if the audio book cover art shown above is the same as the hardcover, but this one was designed by David Rotstein, using a nifty Richie Fahey illustration.

Stiletto Gumshoes: Kim Delaney

kim delaney

‘Stiletto Gumshoes’ of a sort on TV: Kim Delaney, first known as Detective Diane Russell on NYPD Blue, then as criminal defense attorney Kathleen Maguire on Philly, which only lasted one season back in 2001 (below), and then on CSI: Miami in 2002, though written off after ten episodes.

philly

 

 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑