More From Larry Schwinger.

Pennsylvania artist and illustrator Laurence ‘Larry’ Schwinger’s full color illustrations made my recent used bookstore find of the 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a real jewel. And all for less than ten bucks. His non-stylized, no-nonsense illustrations added a lot to the classic vampire tale. 

Schwinger didn’t do a lot of horror work that I’m aware of. Or that much mystery/crime fiction material either. But he did some, and they’re nifty pieces, including a series of Cornell Woolrich 1980’s Ballantine paperbacks like I Married A Dead Man (at the top), The Bride Wore Black and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and more recently, some Hard Case Crime novels, including Spiderweb, Shooting Star, Witness To Myself and Robbie’s Wife

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: A Used Bookstore Jewel.

Picking up some books I’d ordered at the local indie, I first browsed a bit, in the mood for something suitable for Halloween time. Sad to say, I didn’t find anything there that piqued my interest, but on the way home, a stop at one of two nearby used bookstores yielded a treasure of sorts: A 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, illustrated by Larry Schwinger. It looked like-new and was only $7.99, so that bargain went home with me. 

Sure, I’ve read it before and more than once, but it is one of the grand-daddies of the horror genre, about as influential a book as you can choose, whether for its obvious place of honor in vampire literature, gothic horror literature and horror cinema, or simply its impact on pop culture. I’m nearing the halfway point (that is, as of the few pages I could devour over my drive-thru A.M. coffee earlier today). I wanted something suitable for Halloween. Well, reading Dracula alone in your car in an empty parking lot in the pre-dawn darkness (in a storm, no less, this morning) is pretty damn seasonal.

The book’s been dissected by vampire enthusiasts, critics and scholars alike, so I have little to add to their much wiser assessments, except to note that for all its flaws, and there are many, this re-read reminds me of just how ‘modern’ a novel Dracula really is, clumsy 19th century epistolary structure notwithstanding. A re-read also provides a healthy reminder that Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula is a wholly evil villain, which is almost comforting for an avid noir-ish crime fiction fan like me, being immersed so much in a literary and cinematic world of anti-heroes and sundry shades of gray. 

I suppose I’ll finish it over the weekend (it’s Thursday now as I write this), and I expect to be in the mood for more Dracula on-screen. Reading the novel is bound to find me watching the original, as in Todd Browning’s 1931 Universal film version with Bela Lugosi as the tuxedo and opera cape clad Transylvanian vampire. Its connection to the source material is thin at best, as is Lugosi’s iconic portrayal, but there are all those magnificent Charles D. Hall designed sets and matte paintings to marvel at, and after all, the film’s source material was the successful Hamilton Deane play more than Bram Stoker’s novel anyway. 

Of course, that’s a short film, so I’ll likely have to pick some other Dracula, vampire or horror flick to round out an evening of viewing, but there’s a classic horror DVD or two (well, way more, actually) lurking down in the writing lair. The 10.21.20 edition of Crime Reads (www.crimereads.com) could help, with Lit Hub and Crime Reads staff writer Olivia Rutigliano’s piece “The Fifty Best, Worst And Strangest Draculas Of All-Time, Ranked”. I won’t say who’s her favorite (but it wasn’t Bela…hmmmmm) and the list includes David Niven, Lorne Greene, Morgan Freeman, puppets and cartoons. It’s a fun read, and helpful for recommending a film or warning you away from some. Check it out – link below. 

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Witches, 1950’s Style.

This should’ve been in an October issue, but it’s actually from the February 1958 issue of Jem, “The Magazine For The Masterful Male”, one of the countless Playboy knockoffs from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

“Broom And Board” by R. Fred Arnold, is the “authentic, never-before printed story of the life and times of a witch”. Authentic it’s not, though 1950’s-funny it aims to be. Young Beaulah Broome of Coffeyville, Kansas is more or less a normal small-town teen who sometimes hears spooky voices and other-wordly laughter. Tossing and turning in bed one night, she awakes to find a witch perched right on her own footboard. “At least, I imagined it was a witch. She had on a peaked hat and long grey robes. There was a broom clutched in her hand. But far from being the weather-beaten hag pictured in the usual drawings of witches, she was a beauty. The grey robes fitted tight over a voluptuous figure. The peaked hat made her long face and laughing eyes even more beautiful.” With a sprightly “Hi-ya, witchy,” the visitor welcomes Beaulah to the IWW (the International Witch Workers) who’ve been monitoring her since childhood. Young Beulah is whisked away for training at…Wichita State University.

You can actually read the whole story online (the entire February 1958 issue of Jem is at Flashbak (flashback.com), “Where Everything Old Is New Again”. Beulah masters the art of infiltrating other women’s bodies in order to seduce men, but if you’re expecting something 1950’s-naughty, be warned: the tale’s strictly PG rated, if even that. Nonetheless, it did feature a nice (though uncredited) illustration.

Cordelia On Screen.

P.D. James’ young London private detective Cordelia Gray debuted in the 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (see the preceding post for more about that book). Twenty-two, just this side of broke, partnered with a former Scotland Yard detective in a none-too-successful P.I. agency, Cordelia suddenly must take over when she finds her one-time mentor and former boss dead in his office. 

The first Cordelia Gray novel was not only a bit of a groundbreaker, being a decade ahead of some more well-known mystery series led by women detectives, but also a darn good read. So, it’s surprising that writer James (1920 – 2014) only penned one more Cordelia Gray novel, and that one came ten years later. But presumably the character resonated with fans nonetheless, first in a 1982 film that quickly came and went (and if it’s still lurking out there somewhere, I haven’t found it), then, fifteen years later, Cordelia reappeared, and this time more successfully. 

The UK 1997 – 2001 BBC series of feature length episodes started out based in part on James’ novel, but the rest used original stories, though intended at least to maintain the novelist’s tone and stay true to the character. To be fair, there really were only two Cordelia Gray novels to adapt. Some sites suggest that P.D. James wasn’t entirely thrilled with the film/TV adaptations and remained determined to undermine anymore attempts (thus, refusing to write another Cordelia Gray novel). True or myth, I can’t say. I can say that the series lead, Helen Baxendale, does a very credible job of portraying Cordelia Gray. Baxendale may be more familiar to U.S audiences (or at least Gen-Xr’s and syndicated rerun channel watchers) as Emily Waltham, David Schwimmer/Ross Geller’s unlucky British girlfriend/fiancée/wife from the NBC mega-hit sitcom Friends. Baxendale’s real-life first pregnancy may have cut short her stint on that US series, but was neatly written in to An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. So, Ms. Gray joined the select club of literary/TV/film/comics private eyes and cops mothers and moms-to-be. 

An Unsuitable Job For A Woman.

P.D. James’ (1920 – 2014) first novel came out ten years before her An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (1972), which was, I think, her fifth book. In addition to several standalone works, James (Phyllis Dorothy James, The Baroness James of Holland Park, no less) published a popular series of fourteen mystery novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh, and the London inspector even factored in An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which introduced young London private investigator Cordelia Gray. 

The fact is, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is a more important character among literary detectives, cops and investigators than she’s sometimes given credit for, bridging a gap between the golden age of mystery’s largely genteel (and often British) female detectives, the handful of 50’s/60’s era women P.I.’s, cops and spies — most of whom resided in glib, period-sexy quickies – and the introduction of a fresh crop of long-lived, popular characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Washawski and others in the early 1980’s. But back in 1972, Cordelia Gray was something else altogether: A pointedly unglamorous person with no exceptional superspy skills, sometimes troubled by very human self-doubt, but always bolstered by determination and persistence. 

In the first of only two Cordelia Gray novels, the fledgling 22-year old private detective suddenly assumes ownership of her former boss-then-mentor and business partner’s private detective agency after he’s committed suicide, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Business” is a relative term, but Cordelia promptly acquires an unexpected out-of-town client. She’s tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of an otherwise healthy, handsome and well-liked college student (soon due for a generous inheritance, as well) who abruptly left school, hid out in a remote estate gardener’s shed, and was found dead, presumably having hung himself with his own belt. A telltale clue – traces of purple lipstick on his lips – leads Cordelia and the reader astray, certain that a woman was involved in the young man’s death. That’s cleared up once Cordelia learns he was actually found wearing that lipstick…along with a lacy black bra and panties. But even this is only one more crafty diversion in P.D. James’ mystery.

Hard-boiled or noir-ish, it’s not. An Unsuitable Job For A Woman isn’t a shoot-em-up or action-filled thriller. It’s a classic mystery British mystery novel freshened up for its time. Or, even a little ahead of its time. And more than merely ‘freshened up’. Cordelia’s stuck in a few fixes and there are some exciting scenes punctuating her relentless investigation (trapped in an abandoned and frighteningly deep well, just one harrowing example). The mystery’s resolution – and the very extended coda that follows – all satisfy and seem sure to have left readers craving more from Cordelia Gray. So, it’s surprising that James only wrote one more Cordelia Gray novel, and not till ten years later, at that: The Skull Beneath The Skin (1982). 

I originally read An Unsuitable Job For A Woman a long time ago. Honestly, it hadn’t been top of mind for ages, till I recently stumbled across a handsome trade pb and decided it was time for a re-read. Aside from the basic premise, I’d forgotten enough so that my re-read was more like a first-read. I’d also forgotten how very, very British the novel was, which isn’t a criticism, only an acknowledgment of what a provincial Midwesterner I must be.

Maybe Cordelia Gray didn’t enjoy the multi-book career she deserved. But she did live on, and more about that in another post…

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: Dark Seduction.

If you plunk down some hard-earned coin for a look at Dark Seduction, a low-low budget film that’s part film noir pastiche and part 1980’s vampire spoof, don’t come looking for me. I’m not recommending Greg Travis and Steve Bishart’s twelve-years-in-the-making pet project, nor condemning it. Haven’t seen it, actually, only viewing an online trailer, and really only rooting around for suitable items to post here for the Halloween season. Stumbling across a 2016 LA Weekly article by Gwynedd Stuart titled “A Lesbian Vampire Film Noir 30 years In The Making Is A Time Capsule From 1984” seemed to fit the bill.

The Big Hoax.

I expected something akin to Affair In Trinidad or even Gilda, two cherished South American locale films noir teaming Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Well, The Big Hoax isn’t quite like those films, but is still a very intriguing piece.

This is a 2020 Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics 124-page hardcover edition of the 2001 graphic novel by Carlos Trillo and Roberto Mandrafino’s – the Argentine writer and artist, respectively. In what appears to be the post-WWII era, the banana republic of La Colonia’s corrupt regime is a notorious vice haven run by gangsters and ex-Nazis, populated by a devout but downtrodden peasantry and threatened by rebels. Disgraced former detective Donald Reynoso, a useless drunk when we first meet him, is hired by the lovely Melinda Centurion to retrieve some very compromising photos, which pit the duo against corrupt cops, revolutionaries and a ruthless and relentless hit man. Precisely why Melinda must get these revealing photos back is a whole other story, and what the titular “Hoax” is about.

Trillo’s story veers between bawdy humor and pure hard-boiled banter and action, frequently stepping back from the narrative for various characters to briefly narrate vital backstory. All of this is depicted in Roberto Mandrafino’s fluid and energetic artwork, which has a touch of caricature about it, but always stays focused on telling the tale. Even if it wasn’t at all what I first expected, I really got a kick out of The Big Hoax, but then, I’ve yet to be let down by any of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics.

Le Diable.

These femmes fatales are devilish enough, but this isn’t another Halloween post.

I confess: I’ve seen some of these illustrations lurking around sites and blogs forever and always assumed they were retro styled but recent comic or pinup art. Not so. They’re but a few of dozens of cover illustrations from French paperback and digest novels done by “R & R Giordan”, which is really the brothers Raoul and Robert Giordan, who had a long and successful career doing comics, book covers and spot illustration work in the 1940’s through the 1970’s, particularly popular in science fiction and adventure titles.

The Giordan brothers came from Nice, Robert born in 1922, Raoul in 1926, and worked at a hotel during WWII. After a brief postwar stint at an animation studio, they began working in comics, much of their 1950’s-60’s era work being graphic novel style adaptations of popular science fiction books. In the 1970’s, Raoul began to drift away from comics and illustration work to focus on his own painting, and some years later, both had stopped commercial work altogether. Sadly, brother Robert passed away at the young age of only 61, though Raoul gave an SF/Fantasy comic one more go as late as the 1990’s. Raoul Giordan passed away in 2017.

Even though they’re best known in European science fiction/fantasy/adventure circles, the brothers did a lot of covers for mystery/crime fiction digests and paperbacks as well, some of which are shown here. Le Diable En Bas Nylon by Gerald Rose (The Devil In Nylon Stockings, no surprise) from 1952, and others, are indicative of their consistent style: A particularly ‘fatal’ femme fatale either beckons to some soon-to-be victim, or is already gloating over his downfall, as we see in Robert Trebor’s Mauvais Pretexte. There’s quite a bit about the Girodan brothers to be found online, but mostly in French, and four years of high school French doesn’t equip me to decipher more than a random word or two. Perhaps the less linguistically-challenged among you will fare better.

More Manhunt.

A little over a year ago, I got my hands on Stark House Press’ The Best Of Manhunt, edited by Jeff Vorzimmer (see link below for more on that book).  A legendary postwar mystery/crime fiction pulp magazine like Manhunt clearly deserves more than just one “best of” volume, so Vorzimmer’s back with The Best Of Manhunt 2 (2020), a 420+ page companion trade pb. Much like the first book, there aren’t a lot of ‘extras’, such as author bio’s or cover reprint images. The stories are the attraction. The book opens with some brief entries including Peter Enfantino’s foreword, Jon L. Breen’s introduction and his 1968 article, “On The Passing Of Manhunt”, and finally a 1970 Robert Turner article “Life And Death Of A Magazine”. Those only take up twenty pages or so, and then it’s on to forty tales culled from 1953 through 1964 issues of Manhunt magazine.

The first book may have included a roster of more ‘marquee’ authors, but this follow-up volume still features familiar names like Fletcher Flora, Bruno Fischer, Erle Stanley Gardner, Wade Miller and Donald Westlake. Manhunt’s gritty, hard-boiled rep didn’t seem to attract many women writers, but you’ll find Delores Florine Stanton Forbes (1923 – 2013) included, appearing here as De Forbes. Helen Nielsen (1918 – 2002) was better known as a TV mystery scriptwriter, but her “You Can’t Trust A Man” from a 1955 issue is short, sweet tale with a gotcha ending, and it’s a real treat. 

I don’t know if it makes sense to list “best of’s” from a “best of” book. So I’ll just point out my favorites. While the anthology finds noirish and hard-boiled crime and mayhem in every corner of the U.S. from Florida to Chicago, make-believe burgs and various nowheresvilles, my faves were coastal, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Frank Kane (1912-1968) is the man behind the long running Johnny Liddell P.I. series of nearly thirty novels and numerous sort stories. His glib NYC gumshoe is too slick and smart-assed for some readers, but Kane’s non-Liddell story, “Key Witness” from a 1956 issue is near-perfect. In part a police procedural, it feels like it could have been written today save for a few anachronisms. There’s no wisecracks or trademark Kane leering, the longish tale was quite dark, gritty and, for me, wholly unexpected.

Heading west to Los Angeles, William Campbell Gault’s “Death Of A Big Wheel” from the April 1957 issue is a lengthy story featuring Hollywood private eye Joe Puma. Some innocent cocktail lounge small talk with a past-his-prime film star finds Puma mixed up with hard-as-nails B-movie studio starlets and gangsters. It’s a real fun read, and was just begging to made into a movie. Still ought to be, if you ask me.

Covers of some of the Manhunt issues the forty stories included in The Best Of Manhunt 2 are shown here.  If you’re interested in postwar mystery/crime pulp fiction that’s a couple notches above the repetitious fistfights, gunplay and outlandish mysteries of 1930’s-40’s era pulps, you can’t go wrong with either (or both) of The Best of Manhunt books.

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