Love it. Hate it. Read it.

maestra

“Love it. Hate it. Read it.” That’s what the red violator on L.S. Hilton’s 2018 Ultima said, Ultima being the third book in her “Maestra” trilogy (AKA the Judith Rashleigh trilogy): Maestra, 2016, Domina, 2017 and Ultima, 2018. Well, I did read it, and I did indeed love it, though even cursory blog and review surfing confirms there are those who hated it, NYT bestseller status, seven figure advance and six/seven figure upfront film option notwithstanding. Clearly some readers and reviewers fixated on the books’ sexual content, uninterested in witnessing a fully fleshed out femme fatale’s emergence, or uncomfortable with a radical heroine’s ultimate success.

Maestra’s austere black cover originally beckoned to me from my library’s new releases shelf. Much has been made of the provocative vertical red slit, though the trilogy’s other covers suggest the none-too-subtly-symbolic slit could be no more than a torn painting or a stiletto’s cut (a blade, not a shoe), precisely the kind of wound the trilogy’s utterly ruthless anti-heroic protagonist might inflict. I devoured that book, unaware at the time that it was planned as a trilogy, though sure that a sequel at least was forthcoming. But if ads ran or new books were shelved face-out at the bookstores, I never saw them, and L.S. Hilton’s memorable Judith Rashleigh eventually fell off my radar. Recently I recently spotted a like-new copy of Maestra at a local used bookseller. Reacquainting myself with one of the neo-noir thriller niche’s most intriguing femmes fatales, I got the balance of the series immediately.

Suspense? Thriller? Frankly, some sixty-plus pages into Hilton’s first volume, Maestra, I was getting nervous with what felt uncomfortably close to a twenty-teens take on good old-fashioned chick-lit, all of that category’s tropes visibly in play: The uber-smart heroine suffering indignities in a hip, urban workplace where she’s surrounded by a cadre of catty coworkers and enduring a downright evil boss, the tale told with endless name-dropping on steroids, and not just the usual laundry list of designer apparel, shoes, fragrances, wines, shops and clubs. Maestra opens in a snooty London art auction house, so the name-dropping extends to artists as well. But I needn’t have worried. Once L.S. Hilton cut loose, the rest of Maestra and the next two novels were deliciously dark, provocative and true ‘page-turners’.

And yet, they were also much more than that.

Judith Rashleigh (Rashleigh…rashly?) is determined to leave her less-than-humble lower-class Liverpool roots behind. An overworked but underpaid London art auction house assistant, she knows more than her artsy-smartsy coworkers and the unfairly wealthy art patrons who buy and sell masterpieces like they were mere commodities. Yet this wise-beyond-her-years art historian reluctantly moonlights as a glorified B-girl in a men’s’ club just to get by. After barely escaping a gallery patron’s sexual assault (arranged by her own boss, no less) only to be sacked when she dares to question the authenticity of a pricey work of art, Judith commiserates with her one and only reliable friend. Not a coworker, drinking buddy or flat-mate.

Rage.

Bit by bit, Judith Rashleigh (under various aliases) reinvents herself, and her journey from a Liverpool ragamuffin on the dole to owner of an art gallery in Venice pits her against dot-com billionaires and Central European arms dealers, gold-digging mistresses and the Sicilian Mafia, rogue cops and Russian oligarchs, while flitting from the Riviera to Berlin and all points in between, finally returning to London where everything began, and where she’ll extract her final revenge, deploying an uncannily crafty and uniquely female arsenal of weapons.

L.S. Hilton is the pen name for respected historian and biographer Lisa Hilton, who already had several well-regarded British history books and three historical novels to her credit when she began Maestra. They often say “write what you know”, and it seems that Hilton did just that. Hailing from the north of England herself, studying art in France and Italy and even interning at Christie’s have all lent an air of authenticity to the series. The art history rings true (at least it did for this former fine arts major), each book linked to a particular artist, such as the groundbreaking 16thcentury woman painter Artemisia Gentileschi in Maestra, Baroque era bad-boy Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio in Domina,and strangely, post-impressionist Paul Gauguin in Ultima. If all the highbrow culture and haute couture name-dropping sounds off-putting for traditional mystery/crime fiction fans, please reconsider. Maestra, Domina and Ultima are three kickass rollercoaster thrill rides of heists, murder and mayhem. It’s just that most of the criminal hijinks go down in luxury hotels, billionaires’ estates and opulent salons instead of dark-n-dirty New York back-alleys.

Much to my disappointment, some author interviews and reviews have been a bit juvenile, all flustered and fixated on the sexual content in L.S. Hilton’s Maestra trilogy. I’ve cringed more than once while reading articles comparing Maestra, Domina and Ultima to (shudder) E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey books, as if those mommy-porn books are the only current reference point for any woman writer whose work incorporates some adventurous sex. But L.S. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh has more in common with Selina Kyle/Catwoman or Bridget Gregory from John Dahl’s 1994 The Last Seduction than she does with James’ Anastasia Steele.

Check out L. S. Hilton’s Maestra trilogy for an artfully word-smithed and complexly plotted thrill-ride of high-stakes extortion, theft, murder and revenge. But most of all, look for these three novels in order to finally experience a fully fleshed-out femme fatale’s own story. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh isn’t a walk-on, sidekick, love interest, bed-mate or adversary in yet one more male cop’s, detective’s, spy’s, thief’s or adventurer’s story. She isthe story.  I’ll have more to say about that in an upcoming post, but till then, look for L.S. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh trilogy: Maestra, Domina and Ultima. Love It. Hate It. But do read it.

L S HIlton 1989

Author L.S. Hilton

Bonnie And Clyde, 1991.

Bonnie & Clyde 1

Revisiting the work of photographer Peter Lindbergh, who passed away last week on 9.3.19. Shown here is his 1991 shoot with models Karen Mulder and Linda Evangelista as Bonnie And Clyde. The Depression era gangsters more or less mimic scenes and the ‘feel’ of the groundbreaking 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde produced by star Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn, with Burnett Guffrey in charge of cinematography. Okay, neither Mulder or Evangelista look like the real Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, or even like Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway for that matter, but I could argue that Peter Lindbergh’s fashion editorial homage is no more historically inaccurate than screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton’s story was in that iconic film.

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R.I.P. Peter Lindbergh.

Peter Lindbergh, R.I.P.

P Lindbergh 3

Photographer Peter Lindbergh, whose work has appeared here multiple times, passed away last week (9.3.19) at age 74. Lindbergh was born in the waning days of World War II in what was still German occupied Poland. After studying art and photography, he worked as a window dresser in Germany and Holland, finally opening his own photo studio in the 1970’s. By the late 1980’s he’d achieved international acclaim for numerous high-profile fashion editorials and was instrumental in the rise of the 1980’s-90’s celebrity supermodels, including Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Cindy Crawford and others.

In a marketplace dominated by lush, color-saturated images and severe figure distortions designed to enhance the apparel and accessories, Lindbergh’s work was characterized by a uniquely naturalistic style, often in black and white and looking more like candid shots, even though this was achieved with an army of stylists and assistants. Here are just a few pieces of Peter Lindbergh’s work with models Mila Jovovich and Mariacarlo Boscono. Indulge me with this and the next post, an adaptation of an older one from back in February showing a 1991 shoot with models Karen Mulder and Linda Evangelista as Depression era gangsters Bonnie And Clyde.

P Lindbergh 5

 

What Could Go Wrong?

Noir City Poster what could go wrong?

I took four years of French in high school, not Spanish (not that I can remember a damn thing from those classes), so it’s not as if can translate “Que podria salir mal?” on my own. Not sure if we should ever trust online translation sites, but apparently it reads “What could go wrong?” And with any classic film noir or crime melodrama storyline, what could go wrong?

Only everything, right?

Another stunning Film Noir Foundation Noir City film festival poster, this one for the 18thannual San Francisco fest in early 2020.

The N-Word In The Writers’ Room.

Walter Mosley

I’ve been away for a few days, a mix of offsite day job chores, personal work and routine R&R, but feeling disconnected and nearly off the grid in a spot where broadband is a foreign word. On the plus side, I was insulated from the daily tweetstorm from Pennsylvania Avenue, though it was a ten-mile trek just to buy a Sunday newspaper.

You may not be able to link to Walter Mosley’s Sunday 9.8.19 New York Times editorial section piece, “Why I Quit The Writer’s Room” (link below) since the NYT, like most newspapers, needs to encourage you to subscribe, so sometimes articles don’t open, and I get that. So, if you have any problem linking, you can also get to it via Crime Reads (crimereads.com). But do get to it, however you like, because Mosley’s piece is well worth the effort.

If you visit or follow here, then there’s no way you could be unfamiliar with Edgar Award winner and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Walter Mosley, the prolific novelist who’s made up for lost time (he started writing in his mid-thirties) with over 40 novels, plus non-fiction books, plays and screenwriting credits. Mosley’s perhaps best known for his magnificent Easy Rawlins series, which includes his first published novel, Devil In A Blue Dress from 1990, later made into the 1995 film by the same name starring Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals. His latest non-fiction writer’s book, Elements of Fiction just came out last week.

Mosley’s op-ed piece held the top space of the NYT’s Op-Ed section back page, and finds him at work in his current show’s writers’ room when he received a call from the network’s Human Resources Department. “Mr. Mosley, it’s been reported that you used the N-Word in the writers’ room,” the H.R. staffer said. Incredulous, I assume, Mosley replied, “I am the N-Word in the writers’ room.” And then he quit. There’s much more to it than this shorthand description, of course, but why read about it from me when you ought to get it firsthand from Walter Mosley himself? It’s a thought-provoking piece, crafted as only Mosley could.

As for me, I’ll be looking forward to seeing what I can learn in Mosley’s Elements of Fiction, my copy due in the local bookstore Tuesday.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/opinion/sunday/walter-mosley.html

Still More From Manhunt

Manhunt Dec 1958

Manhunt magazine (1952 – 1967) not only published many of mystery/crime fiction’s best writers, it offered covers that rivaled the best of the era’s competing mystery and private eye series paperbacks, promising chills and sexy thrills the same way the 1930’s – 40’s era crime pulps did, but in a less cartoonish and much more sophisticated style. Check out the preceding posts for more on Manhunt, and I promise I’ll move on to other topics now.

manhunt dec 1953manhunt juy 1956 walter popp covermanhunt m spillane 1953Manhunt Nov

More From Manhunt

Manhunt 5 April 1953

Celebrating Manhunt, the postwar mystery/crime fiction magazine that ran from 1952 to 1967, here with a few exemplary covers. Get your hands on Stark House Press’ new The Best of Manhunt – A Collection of The Best of Manhunt Magazine edited by Jeff Vorzimmer, even if only to read the editor’s excellent introduction, “The Tortured History of Manhunt”, which almost reads like a crime story itself!

The issue above is one of my favorite Manhunt covers, and not because it included stories from two of my personal postwar idols, Mickey Spillane and Henry Kane. No, the cover art just manages to include everything the period’s hard-boiled niche of the genre was about, in all its pulpy glory, but does so in what feels to me like a darker and more mature way than the 1930’s – 40’s crime pulps ever managed to do. Just one fan’s POV, mind you.

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The Best Of Manhunt

The Best of Manhunt

I pre-ordered my copy of The Best of Manhunt – A Collection of The Best of Manhunt Magazine edited by Jeff Vorzimmer earlier in the summer. The book arrived weeks ago, but eager as I was to dive right in, I was already committed to other reading, and reluctantly set it aside. Typically juggling two books at once, anthologies often find their way to my car. Short stories are ideal for a quick read over the AM coffee-to-go, during workday breaks or while waiting for an appointment. With 39 stories to devour in this nearly 400-page book, I figured it would hold me for a week or more for sure. Once I got around to it, that is.

The hell with that…I blew through this book in two days, and feel like I’ve just been given an incredibly humbling how-to course in the craft of mystery and crime fiction writing from some of the genre’s masters, and all for a little over twenty bucks instead of a fat tuition check.

Yes, I was puzzled about the story sequence and why Mr. Vorzimmer decided not to put them in chronological order. And yes, I was a teeny-tiny bit disappointed that the book wasn’t illustrated (excluding two small sample page reproductions and one amusing illustration in the editor’s intro). That’s not me grousing about anything, just wondering aloud. This handsome volume from Stark House Press more than makes up for it by not skimping on other extras, including an entertaining anecdotal foreword from Lawrence Block, an explanatory story selection front piece from the editor, Vorzimmer’s 9-page introduction, a reprint of Scott & Sidney Meredith’s introduction from the 1958 The Best From Manhunt paperback (see below) and a reflective afterword from Barry N. Malzburg to close the book.

The author list reads like a rogue’s gallery of postwar mystery and mid-twentieth century short fiction luminaries, including: Nelson Algren, Lawrence Block, Gil Brewer, Erskine Caldwell, Harlan Ellison, Fletcher Flora, David Goodis, Evan Hunter, Frank Kane, John D. MacDonald, Richard Prather, Mickey Spillane, Donald Westlake and Harry Whittington…and that’s only about a third of the roster.

Favorites? Don’t ask, there are too many. Okay, twist my arm and I’ll say that David Goodis’ 1953 “Professional Man” just might be my fave, a dark tale about an always-reliable hit man forced to kill his own lover. And for me, Gil Brewer’s 1955 “Moonshine” was far and away the most disturbing tale in the anthology, dealing with a cuckolded husband driven to murder…make that murders, plural. The closing scene, after he’s killed one of his wife’s lovers, surprised yet another (literally hiding in the bedroom closet) and shot him, murdered his wife, and then, with the still smoking .45 automatic in hand, calls his two children into the room. I’m still getting chills picturing that grim closing scene.

If you think you know the crime pulps based on the 1930’s-40’s detective magazines – and I’ve read and enjoyed my share of those via reprints as you may have noticed from material appearing here – trust me when I tell you than the stories in Manhunt were quite different. Oh, there are some rogue cops, hard-boiled detectives, gunsels and femmes fatales, of course. Some familiar postwar private eye series characters even make appearances, including Richard Prather’s Shell Scott and Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell. But they’re hardly indicative of the creatively diverse stories you’ll find here. I’m neither an expert nor an authority on postwar mystery/crime fiction, only an avid fan. But I can think of no better book to provide an overview of what the genre was capable of in the 1950’s than this The Best of Manhunt – A Collection of The Best of Manhunt Magazine as put together by Jeff Vorzimmer. And you’ll just have to indulge me for a few subsequent posts while I celebrate the magazine’s 14-year run with some random covers worth viewing.

Below is the 1958 ‘Best of’ paperback, with its Ernest Chiriacka cover:

best from manhunt 1958 ernest chiriacka cover

 

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