Close Up.

close up amanda quick

When I first spotted Close Up (2020) on more than one of the too-many mystery/crime fiction and book sites I follow, I was expecting “Casey, Crime Photographer” in heels, and scheduled it for a bookstore curbside pickup. I’ve been making it a point lately to try big name authors whose books I’ve bypassed, partly to see what I’ve been missing and partly to find out what I can learn for my own writing.

Amanda Quick is well-known Seattle, Washington author Jayne Krentz. With over fifty NYT bestsellers to her credit, Krentz writes ‘romantic suspense’, with her ‘Amanda Quick’ pen name reserved for historical romantic suspense (which apparently just recently transitioned to more recent history, like Close Up, which is set in the 1930’s), and works as ‘Jayne Castle’ (oddly enough, the author’s real name) for paranormal romantic suspense. From this I’ll glean that the latter isn’t horror as such, the Quick books aren’t quite ‘noir’ or crime fiction, and the Krentz novels not quite thrillers. These are romance novels however you want to label them, not that this is a bad thing.

In Close Up, Vivien Brazier flees a pampered but claustrophobic heiress’ life in San Francisco to pursue a career as a fine arts photographer in Los Angeles. She pays the bills by moonlighting as a crime scene photographer, following police radio calls at night and elbowing the boys club aside at fires, auto accidents and murder scenes, spending her days working on a provocative series of male nudes with a steady stream of Muscle Beach buff-boys lined up outside her beachfront home studio. Smarter and more observant than the rest of the camera jockeys, Vivien helps the police I.D. a high-profile serial killer only a few chapters into the novel. But this spins off into a more puzzling murder mystery, and pairs her with dapper but troubled private (and apparently psychic) investigator Nick Sundridge and his loyal dog Rex. An elaborate if ill-conceived scheme to ensnare this new and even more diabolical killer takes them to the upscale oceanfront resort town of Burning Cove, where romance blossoms even as they to elude – then uncover – the murderer.

A snippy critic might complain that the plot takes some mighty implausible turns, the characters continually do incredibly improbable things and the entire business is rife with an endless list of writerly no-no’s that would guarantee an agent’s or editor’s swift and dismissive rejection for any unknown. But with a looong list of successful books to her credit, I don’t think Quick/Krentz/Castle needs to worry about any of that, and just aims to tell a good story in her own way.

Still, I’ll confess that I kind of wished the author trusted the nifty setup she initially created and left intriguing, no-nonsense Vivien Brazier right where she was when the book began: prowling the means streets of 1930’s Los Angeles on the hunt for grisly crime scenes with her big Speed Graphic camera in tow, bantering with the cops and the lensmen, and living the Boho life by day as a fine arts photographer, even though she has to endure the gallery elite’s sneers at her figure study photos. But Quick/Krentz/Castle knows what she’s doing, even when she chose to hightail it out of that intriguing milieu for a remote movie star hideaway resort and something more like a Golden Age drawing room mystery (albeit one laced with some sex). Bottom line: What the hell do I know? When I have fifty NYT bestsellers under my belt, I’ll make suggestions.

Whether you only enjoy its beginnings or stay on board for the rest of the ride, I bet you’ll agree that Quick’s Close Up is a fun read. I just hope some other writer picks up where Amanda Quick began and brings us an engaging, no-nonsense ‘girl crime photographer’ in a retro urban setting…Close Up was really onto something there. Hey, don’t look at me. I’m already wrestling with my own no-nonsense ‘stiletto gumshoe’ in a retro urban setting. You give it a try.

Dancing In The Street.

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At first glance you might expect a drive-by hit or something sinister, but it was only a brief but intimate dance they had in mind. That, and apparently a hand or two of cards to wait out the downpour. From a photo suite by Christopher Pillitz.

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Dangerous Bluff.

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Illustrator Thornton Utz depicting a tense standoff for Thomas Walsh’s Dangerous Bluff (”Who would give in, the detective or the gunman with the human shield?”) from the Saturday Evening Post in 1960.

‘Sin Money’: What Crime Fiction Dreams Are Made Of…

robert bonfils

I’m a softie for compromising photos as a mystery/crime fiction caper staple, enough so that they were the go-to starting point for my own Stiletto Gumshoe’s initial plotting. Just upgrade those B&W glossies to smartphone screens, JPG’s and some frillies that aren’t over fifty years old, and this could still be a sleazy scene from a savvy blackmailer’s or modern-day peeper P.I.’s playbook. But it’s a Robert Bonfils illustration for Don Elliott’s (Robert Silverberg) Passion Pair, a 1964 Leisure Books paperback: “The blackmailers are Jim and Lois MacIntyre, smooth and polished in all the tricks of the trade…and their trade is love…until the pictures are developed. Then the shame and degradation of their victims becomes reflected in a negotiable check…the only true sin money.”

Ahhh, ‘sin money’. It’s what steamy crime fiction dreams are made of.

robert bonfils 1964

The Right Book At The Right Time: Three-A-Penny.

Three-A-Penny

April showers might bring May flowers, but around here they’ve mostly brought monsoons, ‘sheltering-in’ a moot point when you’d drown if you stepped outside.

Other things large and small that we’ll just lump together under “Pandemic Fatigue” conspired to drag me down for several days. But before I could descend into any self-indulgent woe-is-me mindset, Golden Age British mystery author Lucy Malleson came to the rescue with her 1940 memoir Three-A-Penny, the 2019 US edition just out here this May.

Subtitled “In A Man’s World: The Classic Memoir of A 1930’s Writer”, this 80-year-old work reads more like a novel, arriving serendipitously as the perfect prescription to chase my own blues away. It’s hard to be bummed-out by the trivial when you’re reading a memoir from someone who endured real woes.

A contemporary of better-known British mystery writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, Lucy Malleson wrote some sixty novels under the Anthony Gilbert pen name, along with numerous other books under her own and other names, plus thirty radio plays and an impressive number of short mysteries, most of those published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Her engagingly written memoir recounts the stressful times of the First World War’s horrors, the 1918 Flu Pandemic and England’s interwar economic chaos, which Lucy Malleson overcomes while enduring persistent gender discrimination at every turn. Struggling to get by on a secretary’s subsistence pay, she began writing short poems, then stories and finally sold her first novel, The Man Who Was London, inspired in part by a performance of the popular play The Cat And The Canary.

No matter the challenge, Malleson responds optimistically with unrelenting pragmatism . There’s no self-pity to be found in her memoir, only an utterly practical, determined person working her way through life in a man’s world. Her decision to pitch her first novel under a male pen name (and how she cooked up the ‘Anthony Gilbert’ moniker) is an absolute treat to read. But once the novel was due for publication, she was caught off-guard by the publisher’s request for an author bio – including publicity photos. Undeterred, Malleson got fitted for a custom wig and beard at a theatrical agency, posed for some photos and dreamed up a suitable background for ‘Anthony Gilbert’, an identity she carefully protected for years.

The Three-A-Penny title comes from fellow British mystery novelist Dorothy Sayers, who wrote, “You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people”. The book ends when Malleson is only halfway through her productive career, still brimming with optimism that her next story, next novel, or next script will be the one that finally achieves the fame and fortune that eluded her throughout her career.

“I don’t feel guilty that my books don’t sell ten thousand copies,” Malleson wrote in her memoir’s conclusion, “though I should love them to, and so would my publishers. When I was young, I confidently thought they would; when they didn’t, I was astounded. But it never occurred to me, when my average sales were 1,250 copies, to abandon writing and do something more lucrative. Besides, one day they may.”

Vengeance is Hers.

vengeance is hers

Dangle a shiny bauble in front of me, and I’m completely in your power. Well, if the bauble’s a book, that is, and one with an eye-catching cover.

There’s a long list of books I’ve bought based on their covers alone, only to be disappointed by the books themselves. There are so many cozies, anemic thrillers and bland whodunits masquerading as edgy hard-boiled or saucy neo-noir tales. Used bookstores make out pretty well with my discards, their alluring covers ready to ensnare the next victim.

So, it’s a thrill when I get an unassuming little book that turns out to be a gem. I need more ‘baubles’ like Vengeance Is Hers, a 1997 anthology from Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, one more of the anthologies I spotted over a month ago at The New Thrilling Detective website. The cover art? Meh. And it’s just a rack-sized pocketbook at that. But this collection of 17 mystery/crime fiction stories by women writers – plus one gate-crasher from co-editor Mickey Spillane himself to open the book – was a cover-to-cover treat. Sure, some stories felt a little anachronistic, the book over twenty years old, after all. But the talented roster of writers including Joan Hess, J.A. Jance, Wendi Lee, Sharyn McCrumb, S.J. Rozan and others, delivered surprisingly different spins on the notion of vengeance. From uniformed cops to (then) modern private eyes and traditional femmes fatales, the stories cover the bases, with some genuine head-scratching mysteries, liberal doses of edgy violence and thoughtful storytelling throughout. The real jewel in the book may be mystery maestra Dorothy B. Hughes’ last completed work, “Where Is She? Where Did She Go?”. Hughes paints a vivid picture of the mid-twentieth century L.A. Boho jazz scene, and leaves the reader unsure at the end if a crime actually occurred or not. For his part, Mickey Spillane delivers a story that oozes trademark Spillane hard-boiled-isms throughout, but foregoes any gunplay, fistfights or violence, and is a surprisingly thoughtful piece.

A ho-hum cover on an easily overlooked pocketbook? This sure was, and if it hadn’t been shown in The New Thrilling Detective website, it would’ve remained off my radar. Glad I spotted it there and took a chance, even without anyone waving a shiny bauble before my usually gullible eyes.

Love On The Run.

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Is it only a lover’s clandestine meeting? Or, is something more sinister going on here? It’s usually hard to tell with narrative style fashion photography, and in the end, who cares? The Mikael Jansson shots are deliciously dark in this vintage 2000 Donna Karan campaign photo suite, “Love On The Run”, starring Milla Jovovich and Gary Oldman.

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