Maritta Wolff’s Night Shift

night shift

A month or so ago I commented on Whistle Stop, a 1946 Nero Films production that was part soap opera and part crime melodrama with a mismatched George Raft and very young Ava Gardner. Rife with steamy small-town adultery and intrigue, the film included just enough criminal mischief and shadowy scenes to qualify for the Movies! network’s Thursday and Sunday night film noir showcases (which, based on many of the flicks chosen, doesn’t take too much qualifying). But it wasn’t the movie that caught my attention as much as the source material: Maritta Wolff’s 1942 novel by the same name, her debut, and written while she was still in college, no less. That was enough to put me on the hunt, and though I’ll have to get my copy of Whistle Stop used and online (the local bookstore unable to deliver with the promised copy I ordered), I did get a new copy of her second novel Night Shift for a quick curbside pickup, and what an intriguing read it was.

During the early days of WWII in a small and unnamed midwestern city, Sally and her fellow boarding house neighbors are barely getting by on low paying waitress and war plant jobs. Christmas being right around the corner lends little cheer to their day to day routines of endless bus commutes, household chores, grisly factory accidents and handsy bosses. Suddenly the dreariness is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Petey Braun, Sally’s sassy, stylish sister unseen for years, back from crisscrossing the country with ribald tales to tell and a purse full of dough just in time for the holidays. Petey promptly finagles a singing job at the local edge-of-town nightclub where gambling and women are on the menu in addition to the steaks and cocktails.

maritta wolff 1

Night Shift could be a handy desk reference for any writer looking to add authenticity to period settings, Wolff’s writing is spot-on for dialog and descriptions, particularly of the humdrum and uneventful minutiae of daily life. It’s a very different kind of writing from what readers may be accustomed to in contemporary fiction, particularly genre fiction, which tends to be ruthlessly purged of nonessentials by agents and editors eager to get to the action. The novel’s nearly 550 pages long, (though I still plowed through it in two evenings) and a hundred pages or more go by before smart-mouthed Petey whisks into town in a swirl of stylish frocks with a savvy nose for a buck, a man and a plush place to park herself for a while.

maritta wolff 3

A crime novel? Well, not exactly, and certainly not a mystery. Oh, there’s some action, a genuinely evil bad guy, some neither-completely-good nor completely-bad troubled souls, and even a nasty killing near the end, with most of the book taking place in settings and scenes right out of a postwar noir film. Maritta Wolff had a way with the underbelly of mid-twentieth century small town life. Though Night Shift is populated by no shortage of men – siblings, spouses, coworkers, lovers and would-be-Romeo’s alike – it’s a woman’s novel all the way through. Just because there are no big heists, car chases, shootouts or murders, as such, this is still a genuine noir, and in many ways more legitimately so for disregarding some of the genre’s clichés and obligatory plot tropes.

An upcoming post will take a look at how this novel was trimmed down for a pretty nifty Warner Brothers noir-melodrama-romance by Raoul Walsh and crew, with none other than Ida Lupino as brassy Petey Braun.

maritta wolff 2

Just Pocket That Advance.

The Deer Park 1967 Cover Art

Cover art for a UK Corgi paperback edition of Norman Mailer’s 1955 The Deer Park, the writer’s infamous expose of Hollywood decadence set in mythical Desert D’Or (Palm Springs). A good novel or a dreadful one, I couldn’t say, but it was notorious in its day, the manuscript rejected by the publisher for obscenity even though it was already typeset and ready to go to press. Unprecedented at that time, Mailer kept his advance and took the book to another publisher.

Word to the wise: Cash the check, then talk.

 

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).

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