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 Master At 101 Years

Kiss me Deadly

Shame on me, but I screwed up my post scheduling, so this was meant to appear on Saturday.

A belated birthday acknowledgment to Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey Spillane, born 101 years ago on March 9th, who sadly left us in 2006. Loved by readers, resented by writers (to this day), reviled by critics, spoofed by himself and many others, the man was actually an instrumental part of building the postwar paperback marketplace. I’ll argue that he played a part in revitalizing — maybe even redefining —  the hard-boiled private eye novel for the second half of the twentieth century, and along the way, sold a mere 225 million books.

Crime Reads Screen Cap

Crime Reads editor Molly Odintz has a very interesting piece at Crimereads.com, “The Ten Best And Pulpiest Mickey Spillane Covers”  – do log on and check it out. The covers shown here aren’t the ones Odintz presents, and some might say her choices aren’t anywhere near as pulpy, weird or downright pervy as some Spillane covers can be. Molly Odintz acknowledges that while commercial success should never be a measure of literary merit, Spillane’s recent centennial and various authors (Max Allan Collins key among them) arguing for a reassessment of the writer’s importance begs for publishers to reissue his work, but in different cover art, “…so that folks like me will actually want to read him in public. Can you imagine bringing one of these on the subway?” But she continues, and this is crucial to understanding Spillane and his work: “But Mickey Spillane didn’t care about what people thought of his cover designs, or the literary merit of his books, and paid no attention to any censorial judgments whatsoever, so perhaps the best way to celebrate the iconic writer’s birthday would indeed be to bring one of these on the subway – and not care what anyone thinks”.

Vengeance Is Mine

Odintz showcases ten Spillane covers she considers particularly weird, pulpy or tawdry. Anyone familiar with postwar pulp magazine and paperback cover art may consider them surprisingly tame. I’ll concede, Spillane’s One Lonely Night was almost always packaged with particularly disturbing cover art of a bound and partially stripped woman. The 1960’s – 70’s era Spillane reissues followed that period’s trend towards photo cover art, and typically employed provocatively posed near-nude women with no relation to the title, story or…well, anything at all, simply beckoning to the reader with ‘come-hither’ expressions. Some European editions of Spillane novels went way beyond anything that would be allowed in the U.S. market. And the fact is, many 1950’s era mystery/crime fiction paperbacks (and certainly the remaining pulps from the same era) can completely out-weird, out-sex, out-perv most any Mickey Spillane cover art, with one after another depicting menacing thugs and lover-boy private eyes threatening or otherwise taking advantage of a gallery of women-as-victims and women-as-eye-candy, invariably undressed or undressing in fetishistic detail, restrained, terrified…or often as not…dead.

One Lonely Night

Do we blame the writers? The publishers, their art directors, the illustrators? Do we blame the culture of the time? Do we blame anyone at all, or do we just recognize that they’re artifacts from another era? Don’t ask me…I’ll have to leave vexing questions like that to smarter folks than I. But I won’t apologize for appreciating Mickey Spillane. I have all of the Mickey Spillane novels, with doubles and triples of a few from different eras, along with the unfinished works completed by Max Allan Collins, some few books about Spillane, the complete Mike Hammer comic strip book and sundry other Spillane items. Call me a fan.

The Body Lovers

While I don’t ride the subway, I fully understand what Molly Odintz is saying, and there are more than a few (maybe most) of my Spillane books that I’m not too eager to whip out in the coffee shop, just so I can watch fellow patrons ease their chairs away from me. But the same goes for other vintage paperbacks I have, and quite a few contemporary books, now that I think of it.

Cheap used bookstore copies of the first few Mike Hammer novels were actually what lured me into the mystery/crime fiction genre in the first place, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Spillane’s no-nonsense prose and plot-first writing style guides me in my own humble writing attempts, particularly whenever I get ‘writerly’. I don’t know if, like Molly Odintz, I’d like to see Mickey Spillane’s body of work reissued in ‘tamer’ packaging, or just as she speculates, if the hard-boiled crime fiction master’s work indeed should be reissued, but in cover art that celebrates all the violent, sexy, tawdry, pulpy storytelling each book contained.

The Long Wait

 

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.

 

Mystery Scene

Mystery scene

Finding a new issue of Mystery Scene magazine in the mail is just like getting an unexpected present. I spent a pleasant Sunday evening with this new Winter 2019 issue, as well as the morning after to finish it up (once through the pre-dawn Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru en route to work, the car eater going full blast this Monday AM). I haven’t read anything by the cover story feature, Laura Benedict, but plan to now. Many writers have peculiar rituals as part of their work habits. Benedict’s compelled to clean and de-clutter her house from top to bottom before commencing a new novel. “Horace McCoy: Noir’s Forgotten Founding Father” by Michael Mallory made me think about an unsung hero of the genre, McCoy not the most prolific writer, but the author of the Depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They which made him a darling among the European literary philosopher set. Of course the issue had the usual features and pages and pages of new release reviews…all in all, a pleasant end to a cold weekend (and a helpful start to a frigid work week).

David Goodis

Goodis Midnight Classics

Hard-boiled, noir, pulp, crime novelist and screenwriter David Goodis was born today, March 2nd back in 1917.

My own introduction to Goodis’ work was The Blonde On The Street Corner and The Moon In The Gutter in used bookstore 1990’s trade paperback editions from Midnight Classics (wish I still had those). From there I looked for more of his work, and confess to finding it a little uneven. Digging deeper, I discovered I wasn’t alone in that conclusion.

Four David Goodis Novels

Goodis, apparently, almost seemed to emulate one of the characters in the bleak, noir-ish world of his writing, hanging out in lowlife taverns and greasy spoons, poorly dressed, prone to depression and bouts of anger, and unlucky in love. But after laboring for years over low-paying aviation and adventure pulp magazine stories, Goodis was finally at the top of his game by the mid-1940’s. He had a couple successful hardcover novels to his credit, a lucrative six-year Warner Bros. screenwriting contract, and a hit movie based on his own novel, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Yet within a couple years, he left Hollywood behind, had to move in with his parents in Philadelphia, and spent the remainder of his life cranking out paperback originals for Gold Medal and Lion Books along with – once again – pulp magazine stories. A lawsuit against the producers of the hit TV series The Fugitive, which Goodis asserted was based on his work, wasn’t resolved until just after his death. And by that time, not one of his books was even in print in the U.S. Yet, he was revered in Europe, with nearly a dozen critically acclaimed novels in France alone.

Goodis A Life In Black & White

David Goodis: A Life In Black And White by French writer Philippe Garnier was published in France in the mid-eighties, but wasn’t translated and published in the U.S. until 2013. It’s available through the Film Noir Foundation (it was edited by Eddie Muller), and at Amazon. In the mean time, you’ll find that “The Mysterious Life Of David Goodis” by Andrew Nette in a February 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Review Of Books (link below) provides a terrific capsulized overview of who Goodis was, what was great and not-so-great about him and his work, and even why European readers honored him so much more than his own American compatriots.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/mysterious-life-david-goodis/ – !

Straight From The Fridge, Dad

straight from the fridge dad

Just about any book with a Richie Fahey cover illustration will make me pause for a second look, and the cover designed by Jesse Marinoff Reyes for the 2000 edition shown here of Straight From The Fridge, Dad – A Dictionary of Hipster Slang by Max Decharne features a terrific Fahey piece.

“Think of it as a sort of Thirty Days To A More Powerful Vocabulary for the beret-wearing, bongo-banging set” the back cover says, but it’s actually more than that.

I have several books on retro slang, most of them pretty slim things, written and published as novelty items, I suppose. But apparently it took someone who divides his time between London and Berlin to put together a more comprehensive and detailed book on mid-20th century American slang, digging deep not only into the 1950’s-60’s Beat Scene but further back into the Jazz era and reference works like Babs Gonzales’ Boptionary, Del Close and John Brent’s How To Speak Hip LP and hipster lingo dictionaries from Cab Calloway and Lavada Durst. Decharne’s Straight From The Fridge, Dad is nearly 200 pages of slick words and expressions that fit right in anywhere from a 1920’s speakeasy to a 1940’s crime novel and all the way up to a late 1950’s Greenwich Village coffee house. If you dig retro or just love words, you’ll love this book, and if you’re writing anything set in the 1920’s through 1960’s, you’ll find a word or phrase — or two or more — to slot in quite comfily in your own work. Though nearly twenty years old, the book’s been re-released in several editions (all with nifty cover art, though I’ll still go with the Fahey illustration) and is available new and used online and seen frequently in bookstores. Get yourself a copy, and then arrange that beret just-so atop your head, make yourself an espresso or pour a shot of MD 20-20 and settle in to a dictionary that’s actually fun to read.

Pulp Fictioneers

Pulp Fictioneers John Locke

I suspect that many had-boiled crime fiction fans – readers and writers alike – tend to romanticize the legendary writers from the mid-twentieth century pulp and paperback originals era. I know I do. We have this image of a grizzled wordsmith in a dumpy third floor cold-water walkup, street noise and curbside trash smells wafting through an open window and rattling the yellowed venetian blinds, a second hand desk or wobbly card table with a pint of no-name rye whiskey on one side, a pack of unfiltered Luckies beside an overflowing ashtray on the other, and a temperamental Underwood in the middle, the writer pounding away some first-draft-is-the-only-draft tale of murder and mayhem oozing with just-sexy-enough-to-get-by eroticism, the wrinkled pages headed for Startling Detective or Women In Crime magazine.

And then you think about what that all really would’ve been like, and have to wonder what’s so damn good about the imaginary scenario.

Pulp Fictioneers – Adventures In The Storytelling Business edited by John Locke (Adventure House, 2004) goes a long way to dispelling some of the nostalgic romance. This intriguing read collects over one hundred articles, letters and miscellany from Writer’s Digest, Writer’s magazine and Author & Journalist from the 1920’s through the 50’s which provide a real-life glimpse of the pulp era from both the writers’ and publishers’ perspectives. Low per-word pay rates, production snafu’s, fly-by-night publishing scams, story rejections, puzzling writers’ guidelines, declining newsstand sales and much more – the pieces all make for a compelling read about sides of the marketplace that have nothing to do with The Shadow or Dan Turner Hollywood Detective. One thing’s clear here: Writer’s groused about editors and the markets then as much as they do now, and like all creatives, felt the world was treating them most unfairly. For those of us so entranced by the garish H.J. Ward and Norm Saunders covers and the shoot ‘em up stories, Pulp Fictioneers provides a healthy antidote to romancing bygone eras.

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

Death On The Cheap

Death On The Cheap - Cover Scan to Use

Death On The Cheap – The Lost B Movies of Film Noir: There’s a quote from Robert Mitchum, surely one of the postwar era film noir icons, that appears in this book’s introduction, and understandably makes it into most online reviews I’ve seen. Mitchum told the author, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts”.

Fans of the genre tend to forget that while a handful of classics were big budget A films, most of what we now lump together as ‘Film Noir” weren’t scripted by James Cain or William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, William Wyler or Fritz Lang, and didn’t star Lauren Bacall, Dana Andrews, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart or Gene Tierney. For every Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia or Laura, there were a dozen B-movie mysteries and crime melodramas with miniscule budgets, tight shooting schedules and second tier casts comprised of stars who no longer shined so bright and newcomers still learning their craft. Often as not, the dark, gritty locations and sets were service corridors behind the studio sound stages, while left-over interior sets were hastily redressed and left in shadow partly to look ominous, partly to hide the fact that they were so sparsely propped.

Arthur Lyons (1946-2008) was the author of over 20 books, including the L.A. private eye Jacob Asch series, as well as a co-founder of the Palm Springs Festival Of Film Noir, a former Palm Springs city councilman, and considered a film noir expert…in particular, those low-budget and B-movies made between 1939 and 1959. This 250+ page book takes a closer look at some films you’d be familiar with, but also many you never heard of and might have a hard time locating, even now when darn near everything seems to be available on DVD/Blue Ray, cable, YouTube or streaming somewhere. Lyons may be an ardent fan, but he wasn’t looking at these films through rose colored glasses, and is quick to point out that some are real stinkers. But some definitely are not, and their no-name casts, first-take-is-the-only-take filming, murky nighttime back lot exteriors, questionable scripts rewritten on the fly while the cameras rolled all somehow came together serendipitously to create real works of noir art. (Then again, some didn’t.)

The book includes a detailed filmography with titles, alternate titles (and there are many), credits, plot summaries and commentary. Nearly 20 years old, Lyons’ Death On The Cheap is still available new, though I’ve seen really inexpensive copies available online. If you’ve already read everything you care to read about The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Reckoning and Out Of The Past, maybe it’s time to brush up on some lesser-known and altogether forgotten films. But good luck tracking a few of them down if you want to watch them for yourself.

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