Armchair-ing.

Writers Digest August

Magazines are planned months ahead of time, so Writer’s Digest can be forgiven for putting out its July/August 2020 “Travel Writing Issue” when few are. Traveling, that is.

Who could have foreseen where we’d be right now? A reluctant traveler even in normal times, I’ll admit to skimming some of the feature articles this month. But the magazine still had a lot to offer, particularly the excellent WD Interview with author Robert Dugoni by Larry Brooks. And even while we’re still mostly sheltering in, ‘armchair travel’ is a perfectly suitable pastime (now more than ever, actually) so hopefully a lot of budding travel writers are studying this issue carefully.

Classic? Yes. Pulp? Well, No.

classic pulp comic

I finally set foot in a comic book store the day before Independence Day. Masked, distanced, limited occupancy (not usually an issue in this particular shop anyway), things weren’t quite back to normal, but on the way, at least. Aside from the current Diamond Previews, I didn’t end up getting anything band new, mostly hauling recent and back issues to the register. Quite a bunch, as it turned out.

I don’t know if this 2020 Source Point Press J. Werner Presents Classic Pulp comic is a standalone or part of a series, but it reprints three 8 to 10 page 1940’s The Adventures of Ellery Queen comics, the first credited to R.S. Callender (writer, I’m guessing), the rest uncredited. Classic? Definitely. “Pulp”? Well, no…they’re comics. And while contemporary comics typically dole out one act of a larger story arc per issue (that arc often as not something cataclysmic), here the stories are succinct self-contained whodunits. Each tale pauses two-thirds through to quiz the reader: Have they caught the clues so far in order to solve the crime? I thought that was cute, but for the record: No, I did not catch the clues in any one of the tales. Some gumshoe, huh?

That’s a Norman Saunders cover illustration – obviously more pulp than comics – courtesy of David Saunders.

Harold & Elvis (Thanks To Richie Fahey).

A Stone for Danny Fisher

It wouldn’t be the first time Richie Fahey’s cover art prompted me to buy a book I’d normally dismiss (it’s how I first discovered Stuart Kaminsky’s wonderful Toby Peters detective novels). But the 2007 Touchstone reprint of bestselling trash-master Harold Robbins’ 1951/52 A Stone For Danny Fisher didn’t disappoint. And mind you, I don’t particularly care for novels (or films) set in the boxing world. Robbins later settled in to a repetitious but highly successful formula that produced glitzy bestsellers like The Carpetbaggers and 79 Park Avenue. But here the writer’s closer to his own roots, perhaps, with Depression-era Brooklyn teenager Danny Fisher’s family relocating to the Lower East Side after hitting hard times, where Danny’s forced to reckon with crushing poverty, squalid surroundings and rampant anti-Semitism. While his talent for amateur boxing gets him a spot in the ring, it also gets him mixed up with gamblers crooks and mobsters, even while he tries to navigate (and not so well) relationships with two very different women – a prostitute who fits right in with the seamy world Danny’s been thrust into, and the ‘good girl’ determined to set him free.

What I never knew until I’d finished A Stone For Danny Fisher is that it was adapted (mighty loosely) into Elvis Presley’s 1958 King Creole, a pretty legit and gritty movie quite unlike the silly romps Presley was forced to star in after he got out of the Army. Credit that to the movie being directed by none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas and so many other classics), who was understandably concerned about working with the pop sensation, but took the project seriously and decided to shoot in black & white with a very dark palette for a distinctly ‘noir’ look.

King Creole 2

Apparently, Hal Wallis bought the rights to A Stone For Danny Fisher as a vehicle for James Dean, but the project was shelved after the actor’s death. Later, after an Off-Broadway theatrical version got some buzz, the project was revived, now to star Elvis, but doing what Hollywood does best (i.e. toss out everything they paid for, more or less). Elvis’ Danny Fisher is no longer a boxer but a singer and the setting’s changed from New York to New Orleans. He’s still mixed up with hoods and two very different women, the ‘bad girl’ played by Carolyn Jones (sister of Shirley Jones and better known as Morticia Addams on TV’s The Addams Family series) …the ‘good girl’ played by Dolores Hart, whose short Hollywood career ended in 1963 when she left to become a Catholic nun.

Strangely, Elvis did end up playing a boxer several years later in Kid Galahad, a sorta-kinda (but not really) remake of a 1937 film with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart.

King Creole 1

King Creole was produced pretty quickly, the studio getting a sixty-day deferment for Presley to delay his induction into the Army. Still, it really is a pretty good movie, whether you like Elvis films or not. Mind you, I wouldn’t go comparing the storyline to Harold Robbins’ A Stone For Danny Fisher.  Check them both out, though. Just enjoy each on its own merits.

The Sunday Girl.

The Sunday Girl

Pip Drysdale’s new The Sunday Girl from local publisher Sourcebooks had me worried at first. When twenty-something London real estate market research assistant Taylor Bishop is royally screwed by her bad-boy boyfriend and inspired by Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War to plot her revenge, a series of nasty but hardly deadly gotcha’s can’t quite even the score for getting dumped, much less learning that her ex posted a particularly kinky sex video of Taylor online. Enter wealthy, handsome Pierce Brosnan clone David Turner to turn her head, and 50 pages in, I wondered if I’d seen The Sunday Girl promoted at mystery and crime fiction sites or was reading an edgy contemporary romance instead.

But that was only Drysdale playing the reader, and quite craftily so, waiting till we’re fully invested in the major players and the set-up and then swiftly unleashing the real suspense and genuine mayhem. Yes, Taylor thinks she’s been quite the sneak with each of the nasty tricks she’s played on her jerk of an ex. And her friends (and the reader) will be totally perplexed when she unexpectedly gets back together with him. Which is when we discover just how malevolent he really is.

Sarah Prindle’s lead review of Pip Drysdale’s The Sunday Girl in the current Mystery Scene magazine will give you a much better glimpse of this excellent novel than anything I can offer, not being a reviewer myself. If you find this book mis-shelved anywhere other than your bookstore’s Mystery/Crime Fiction section, don’t be fooled, and don’t let the first 50 or so pages worry you. Drysdale’s crafted a wryly witty, suspenseful and extremely dark contemporary tale here, with a very real, relatable protagonist in the person of Taylor Bishop, who could easily be your own pal or coworker, and will have to learn the hard way what she’s capable of. And what the consequences of her own actions could be.

pip drysdale by frank faller

Author Pip Drysdale photo (c) Frank Faller

The Case Of The Singing Skirt.

1963 the case of the singing skirt

If we can trust online translations (which we probably can’t), this 1963 Dutch edition of Erle Stanley Gardner’s 1961 Perry Mason novel The Case Of The Singing Skirt reads “The Girl’s Secret In Leotard”.  Well, that’s what I got, anyway. Which might make sense since the model in Dutch photographer Philip Mechanicus’ cover photo doesn’t appear to be wearing a skirt at all. To be fair, many U.S. paperback editions of Gardner’s Perry Mason novels showcased peculiarly steamy covers for their wildly successful mysery/courtroom potboilers. This one? A low-rent California gambling den’s cigarette girl and aspiring songstress who witnesses a gambling debt payoff winds up pinned with a murder rap…Perry Mason to the rescue.

Singing Skirt Group

Block & Pochoda In Mystery Scene.

mystery scene 164

You’ll find Ivy Pochoda (These Girls, 2020) and Lawrence Block (Dead Girl Blues, 2020) in the current Mystery Scene magazine, issue 164. Pochoda nabs this issue’s cover, and is treated to an excellent four-page profile by Oline H. Cogdill. Lawrence Block appears with “A Burglar’s Future”, a Bernie Rhodenarr story from the new The Burglar In Short Order 2020 release. Honestly, there’s not a page to be skimmed over in this particular issue, even including a review (the lead review, that is) for the novel I just finished, Pip Drysdale’s new The Sunday Girl (see an upcoming post for that one).

Compare & Contrast.

dead girl blues

“Compare and contrast.” I heard that often enough in college art history classes when a huge screen lit up with slides of some old master painting paired side by side with an impressionist, abstract or expressionist work dealing with a similar subject. “Compare and contrast,” we were instructed to do, awkwardly standing up in a packed auditorium and, in my case, terrified that I’d butcher the artists’ names when forced to say them out loud.

Compare and contrast: I’d just tucked away my copy of Ivy Pochoda’s These Women, knowing what I was in for when I pre-ordered the book and still mulling it over days later when Lawrence Block’s 2020 Dead Girl Blues came in for a pickup. Pochoda’s novel might end up mis-shelved in the mystery or thriller section in some stores, but really it’s neither, instead being a much more harrowing look at the overlooked and ignored in an all-too-familiar setup – a serial killer preying on prostitutes in South Central L.A. Pochoda’s take on this, its literary structure and wordsmithing throw down a gauntlet to challenge countless contemporary thriller writers who celebrate violence, sexualized torture and death for entertainment, her novel zeroing in not on yet another psycho killer, the law enforcement chase or voyeuristic peeks at the victims’ suffering, but instead, on the victims’ friends, parents and even the neighborhood that was the scene of the crimes.

these women

Now I’ve sung Lawrence Block’s praises here before, being one of a select group of writers I revere and who could retype an old phone directory and still sell it to me. With a career that goes back to the 1950’s, there’s a mountain of Block work to digest, so I won’t claim to have read everything he’s done. Well…yet.

Compare and contrast: Pochoda’s These Women goes after the sometimes squirm-worthy serial killer/thriller conventions with a radically different voice, points-of-view and tone that defiantly challenge readers to rethink genre tropes…and more. So, what was Lawrence Block’s intent with Dead Girl Blues, clearly a very personal and eerily unsettling book that also defies many/most genre conventions, though in a very different way? Hey, don’t ask me. All I know is he wrote one hell of a disturbing book which, in its way (and an entirely different way) also insists that the reader rethink the often icky serial killer/murder/thriller conventions. I suppose it would take someone with Block’s resume to dare to put out this book. Sure, a trendy l’enfant terrible might disingenuously try it just to snag some short-lived buzz. But Lawrence Bock has nothing to prove and no need to court trendyville.

Don’t look for shoot-outs, car chases or fetishistic sexual violence-as-entertainment. I’m not sure anything is resolved when you reach the end of the last page, but you’ll be riveted from the opening, “A man walks into a bar”, and wrongly presume that you’ve been down this road before…maybe too many times.

Oh, but you haven’t.

Block’s about to take you somewhere you don’t expect to go, following the unassuming fellow beside you at the bar, next to you in the front seat of the car, behind the store counter, across the dinner table, maybe in bed with you. Hell, he could be your coworker, your boss, your neighbor or even your lover. He might be the James Thompson you think you know, or he might just be “Buddy”, and he’s done something very, very bad. Horribly, sickeningly bad. Maybe he’ll do it again. Maybe not.

There’s not a superfluous word to be found in this novel, the wordsmithing so crisp that Joe R. Lansdale called it “prose as lean as a starving model”. It’s a relatively short work that ought to have any mystery/crime fiction reader thoroughly riveted, but more so, should compel any avid reader of the oh-so-many bestselling sex-n-violence serial killer thrillers to pause and think about what they like to read – and why. Maybe that’s what Ivy Pochoda aimed to do with These Women. Maybe it’s what Block had in mind. Maybe not. But maybe it’s something we all need to ponder when we think about our reading and viewing choices.

Ivy Pochoda’s These Women. Lawrence Block’s Dead Girl Blues. Compare and contrast? I can’t, I suppose, other than having read them back-to-back. Two radically different works from two radically different writers, yet both challenge genre tropes and conventions in their own very powerful ways. So all I can say, is read these books…read them both.

www.lawrenceblock.com

Why Bother?

raica oliviera by fulvio maiani

As explained in prior posts, I’ve reluctantly pressed the pause button on my querying and writing outreach activity, hoping things will settle back into something like normal come September (summer being a notoriously bad time for pestering agents anyway, or so we often hear). The fact is, my last query went out way back in mid-March and it was a straggler at that.

So, I was surprised to receive a query response this week. Even more so since I’d sent that particular query five months ago. I’d already flagged it as a “NORMAN” (No Reply Means A No) long ago. I’m not sure what’s more dismissive: No reply at all, or one sent five months later.

I mean, seriously…at that point, why bother?

 

Photo: Raica Oliviera by Fulvio Maiani

See You In September.

Jeff Drew PW

See you in September? No, I’m not going anywhere.

But that is the title of a recent Publishers Weekly lead article from Vice-President, Editorial Director Jim Milliot reporting on NYC publisher surveys regarding plans on when and how their offices might reopen. Like so many businesses there and in other cities nationwide, the “Big Five” plus Abrams, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Kensington, Norton, Scholastic and others responded with cautious and flexibly phased plans, none of which involved employees returning before Labor Day. Till then, work-from home, Zoom conferencing, digital manuscripts, galleys and review copies will remain the norm.  In some cases, senior management is even reassessing long term office space needs, anticipating that some portion of their staff will continue with WFH at least in some capacity. To a degree, it may be less about reconfiguring office spaces and work schedules, and more about the logistics of getting to and from work, those challenges all too apparent to any city dweller. Bus, subway, El and train commuting are still scary prospects. Further, how will crowds navigate elevators up and down hi-rise office buildings?

The following week’s issue included the first in a series of independent publishing columns, that one by past chair of the Independent Book Publishers Association, Peter Goodman, who speculated that the pandemic’s impact will likely reshape independent, hybrid, micro-press and self-publishing with increased adoption of e-books, a regrettable but likely inevitable shakeout among indie retail bookseller accounts, and the growing influence of distributors and their print-on-demand capabilities. Myself, I’m all for that last one, a crucial component in keeping indie press and backlist titles available, particularly if retail bookstore upfront orders are publication go/no-go criteria. Goodman also acknowledges what many have fretted over or even joked about: The sheltering-in’s sudden proliferation of budding writers. “…A lot of smart, creative people who are spending more time at home will be producing more books,” Goodman states. “Is this a good thing? Not entirely, as it crowds the marketplace and may again create an unfortunate line between ‘real’ and ‘hobby’ publishing.” Will retail bookstores – indie or chain – get serious about stocking some of these self/hybrid/micro published titles, or will the nearly non-navigable and overpopulated online maze remain their only marketplace?

stef van der laan marie claire france 2015 by robert nethery

A second entry in this series the following week, this one from Ed Nawotka and Claire Kirch, reported a mixed bag of business results and planning among independent publishers. Topline: Nearly all endured a brutal March and April with drastic drop-offs in orders, though sales have steadily picked up since. Back to normal? Not exactly. Nor are independent and smaller presses racing to get back to their offices just yet, even if they aren’t in the same types of workplaces the majors are.

Along with Publishers Weekly, a number of book sites/blogs I follow have been reporting on the plight of booksellers throughout these sheltering-in months, now transitioning to updates about their slow and cautious re-openings. But the entire industry hit pause back in March or thereabouts, and if publishers and retailers aren’t up to speed, then agents won’t be either, so writers will have to make their own individual decisions about queries and submissions. Myself, I hate to think of sitting on my hands till Autumn (though Summer has always been considered a notoriously bad time for querying/submitting anyway), but I’d already concluded it might be prudent to do so, and reading reports from industry insiders simply reinforces that.

Oh well, Fall’s always been my favorite season.

Publishers Weekly cover illustration: Jeff Drew; Bookstore photo: Stef Van Der Laan by Robert Nethery, 2015.

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