From Muskrat To Mink To Murder.

Howell Dodd 1953

This work week’s enough to drive me to drink. And it calls for a really large drink (and I’m not much of a buzzer, mind you).

Just like the gal down to her last few smokes in the Howell Dodd illustration from the June 1953 issue of True Fact Crime magazine, I could use a large one too. In fact, I’d be happy to pay more than thirty cents for it. But we all know that two bits and a nickel will only buy trouble, and in her case, will lead her down a bloody road “from muskrat, to mink, to murder” as the magazine’s lurid teaser lines stated.

You just gotta love those old pulp magazine copywriters.

And They’re All-True.

al rossi true advetures march 1957

The men’s adventure (or so-called ‘sweats’) mags were what they were and I can’t say I’m much of a fan. Heck, even pulp mag veteran Mort Kunstler did his cover illustration for the March 1957 issue of True Adventures magazine under a pen name (brush name?), which tells me it wasn’t considered a premier venue. But, the interesting art often lurked inside those publications, with some nifty mystery/crime fiction halftone and duotone spots and spreads from Bill Edwards, Charles Copland, Gil Cohen and others.

Now I’m not sure which of that issue’s “true” tales the Al Rossi B&W illustration shown above was done for. Was it “Woman’s Secret Shame” or “Die, Little Lovely”? I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have been for “What Are Your Homosexual Tendencies?”, but then, those were very different times…

True Adventures March 1957

Hollywood Babylon.

Babylon 1

I think Hollywood Babylon was the second storyline in the DC Vertigo American Century series, spanning issues #5 through 9. I have the entire American Century series, but it took some doing. I was originally ensnared by a couple random comics, eventually lucking into three shrink-wrapped back issue bundles that equipped me with almost every issue. I’ve since filled in the gaps with trade pb’s.

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Written by Howard Chaykin along with David Tischman, the art was sketched and thumbnailed by Chaykin, then fleshed out and inked by quite a team that included Marc Laming, Warren Pleece, Dick Giordano and Job Stokes. The covers for these five issues of the American Century series were done by John Van Fleet. In the Hollywood Babylon storyline, Chaykin and Tischman’s cynical Korean War era adventurer Harry Kraft lands in Hollywood, wearing a Quality Studios night watchman uniform and shacking up with an L.A. widow and her kid. The writers somehow manage to squeeze in a load of early 1950’s Tinseltown lore under various guises and fake names, including a troubled Martin & Lewis style comedy duo, a Rita Hayworth clone, a vintage television superhero, crooked HUAC politicos, mobsters and more…and all in less than a hundred pages. The trade pb concludes with Harry bidding the glittery So-Cal set goodbye and motorcycling Route 66 into a standalone rural roadside diner story, where “a femme fatale offers him a piece of her pie, if he’ll kill her husband”.

You just gotta love it.

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The American Century series traveled from Central America to Paris, Manhattan to the backwoods bootlegger southern states. It’s an adventurer’s tale, but less Steve Canyon and more Wally Wood’s Cannon…but with a brain. Chaykin and Tischman’s Harry Kraft is a fascinating, bitterly bad-assed rogue “with a gun in one hand and a garter belt in the other”. Someday, I really mean to stack the whole damn collection in a big pile on the writing lair’s endtable, then hunker down to read the entire thing in sequence from start to finish, uninterrupted.

babylon 2babylon 3

Long Ago And Far Away…Not.

Crime ReadsI’m deep in James Ellroy’s 2019 This Storm, but expect to be wallowing in the underbelly of 1942 Los Angeles’ dark side for days to come, the meaty novel just shy of 600 pages. Loving (worshipping?) Ellroy as I do, I wouldn’t dream of skimming a single passage, preferring to relish every syncopated jazz-rhythmic sentence, almost wishing I could read it all out loud.

The novel, the second book in Ellroy’s epic second ‘L.A. Quartet’, opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues into the Spring of 1942, right in the middle of the periods we often associate most closely with classic mystery/crime fiction and film: The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and Golden Age Hollywood, Word War II, the tumultuous postwar years and the Red Scare and Cold War era of the 1950’s. These are the decades of the sleazy crime pulps, the rise of hard-boiled detective paperback original series, classic crime melodramas and film noir, banned crime comics and even the earliest TV detective series. The visuals – the clothes, the cars, the city streets, the diners, bars and buildings – all trigger associations with a classic crime and mystery milieu that’s firmly ingrained in pop culture.

In “The Art Of Setting Your Crime Novel In A Not-So-Distant Past”, a 7.24.19 Crime Reads essay (link below), New York writer (and NYT bestselling author, to be precise) Wendy Corsi Staub talks about growing up in the 1960’s, smitten with bygone eras which seemed so much more intriguing than her everyday world of bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, unaware that all too soon that ticky-tack Melmac dinnerware and avocado applianced world would itself become ‘history’. Maybe not fog-shrouded Victorian London, Colonial Boston or Medieval Europe, but history nonetheless.

While we look back nostalgically through rose-colored glasses to the 1930’s – 1950’s for so much classic crime/mystery, the real people who lived in that era similarly looked back 60 – 80 years earlier, though in their case it led them to the Wild West, which may account in part for the popularity of Westerns in film, pulps, comics and television shows from the 1930’s till they abruptly vanished altogether in the late 1960’s.

Wendy Corsi Staub points out that the decades of our own youth – Boomer, Gen-X or Millennial as the case may be – are already (or soon will be) history every bit as much as Philip Marlowe roaming 1930’s/40’s Los Angeles or Mike Hammer pounding perps in 1950’s Manhattan. But writing about (and reading about) the recent past can be challenging. Writers themselves may be surprised to discover how much they don’t know (or don’t remember) about periods that aren’t so far gone. Staub checks in with several novelists including Alyson Gaylin and Laura Lippman who’ve recently released books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was particularly pleased to see a personal favorite of mine included, Anthony award finalist James W. Ziskin, whose Ellie Stone mystery series (now at six novels) is set in the very early sixties. It would just be sheer hubris to suggest that ‘great minds think alike’, but I felt reassured when these writers explained how they may have relied on everyday magazines more than Google – ads, recipes and all – to build their arsenal of period-correct details and get a feel for the times. Spending a bundle at Ebay equipped me with loads of period mags to browse, highlight and scan, and were much more fertile sources than even the novels or TV series reruns from the same years. James Ziskin echoed what drew me to the specific years in which I’ve set my own current projects. The Stiletto Gumshoe opens in the Spring of 1959. The in-progress sequel takes place only a few months later. If I’m lucky enough to sell this darn thing and turn it into a series (which I realize is a lot like spending your Lottery jackpot before buying a ticket) I’d forecast the timeline up to the mid-sixties, before so many sudden and sweeping political, cultural and social changes erupted. Why? Precisely as Ziskin states, those years are “on the cusp” of change. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. For me working in 1959, one foot’s firmly rooted in the older mid-twentieth century world, while the other very hesitantly tip-toes a bit towards what’s still to come.

You don’t have to sell me on the appeal of the ‘classic crime and noir’ decades: The enormous fat-fendered cars, fellows in their double-breasted suits with the wide-brimmed fedoras pulled low over the eyes. The women sporting silly truffles atop their freshly set do’s, shapely in tailor pencil skirts, their stocking seams straight. Boat-sized Yellow taxis and elevator operators, newsstands and nightclubs with tiny tables, each with a little shaded lamp in the center. And everyone smokes. Everyone. It all seems so much more glamorous, more dangerous and more intriguing than the ‘now’. Or even the recent ‘now’, whether that’s mods in mini-skirts or disco divas in Danskin wrap dresses, shopping mall cliques ogling MTV or hackers with their noses glued to smartphone screens. The familiarity of our youth – the recent past – can make it seem bland. But it’s not. And the details of those years – the essential bits and pieces and subtle cues writers need to sprinkle throughout their material – may even take some research to get right. Even if it’s very recent.  And the fact is, there’s richness in the recent past that can equal all the imagined romance of earlier eras.

Yes, even the fashion disaster that was the 1970’s.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, check out Wendy Corsi Staub’s essay at Crime Reads:

https://crimereads.com/the-art-of-setting-your-crime-novel-in-a-not-so-distant-past/

 

Private Eye Dreams.

1954 Maidenform Private Eye

The models dreamed that they were prizefighters, ballerinas, bullfighters, movie stars, gunslingers and in 1955, no less than President. So why not a private eye?

Maidenform’s iconic “I Dreamed” ad campaign was brainstormed by agency creatives Mary Fillius, Kitty D’Alessio and Kay Daly, who pitched multiple ‘dream’ concepts to Maidenform’s founder Ira Rosenthal and his daughter Beatrice Coleman who made the final selections. The successful campaign ran non-stop from 1949 through 1969. This ‘private eye’ print ad is from 1954: “…searching for clues about this most-wanted figure. ‘Arresting to look at, last seen in America’s most famous bra, and no supporting evidence!’ Why, it’s me in my new Maidenform strapless – the thriller with a secret no one would suspect!”

My own in-progress 1950’s P.I. gets underway some five years later, and with one manuscript complete and making the rounds, and its sequel halfway done, I haven’t had to specify what brands of undies or ‘foundations’ Sharon Gardner, AKA the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ prefers. But she does grump a bit about the way the models seem to float like angels on chiffon clouds in all the girdle ads.

Renee Rosen’s Guilty Pleasures

Park Avenue Summer

I stumbled onto my first Renee Rosen novel a few years ago and have been hooked since. Just finished her latest, Park Avenue Summer, a few weeks ago.

Rosen’s Dollface from 2013 is where I started, her first novel, I think. No surprise that it caught my eye, being set in Prohibition era Chicago, and telling Vera Abramowitz’ story in which romance with a suave bootlegger goes bad once he’s in the clink and she has to take over. Writer Rosen’s from Ohio but relocated to Chicago, seems to have acquired a very genuine feel for the city, and obviously does her homework on each period she writes about. That first book set a tone for the subsequent novels: A young woman navigating her way through an overwhelmingly male dominated world in eras when things were evolving, but only a bit. A very little bit.

Dollface

I missed her second novel from 2014 but kept up with the next three: White Collar Girl  from 2015, about young Jordan Walsh struggling to make it as a reporter in the boys club newsroom of the Chicago Tribune back in 1955. Next came Windy City Blues in 2017, once again set in Chicago and merging 1950’s-60’s fact and fiction with a young Jewish girl in the vibrant R&B music scene and tumultuous race relations while at Chicago’s legendary Chess Records.

White Collar Girl

Rosen’s latest, Park Avenue Summer, left her adopted home town for mid-1960’s New York City, where aspiring photographer Alice Weiss takes a job as Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary just as the iconic editor and author of the then-scandalous Sex And The Single Girl was about to turn the publishing world on its ear with the relaunch of Cosmopolitan magazine. I saw one review calling this novel “Mad Men Meets The Devil Wears Prada”, and that’s not an entirely bad description, at least as far as describing the milieu goes.

I’m calling Rosen’s novels ‘guilty pleasures’, but not to suggest that they’re lighthearted fluff. Far from it. Her novels have been a treat, helped locales and era come vibrantly alive for me, and each has been a pleasant diversion from the mysteries and crime fiction I normally devour. Three in a row all situated in 1950’s-60’s settings? That’s just a bonus for me. I don’t know where Renee Rosen is headed next: Back to Chicago, and if so, in what decade? Wherever and whenever it is, I can guarantee I’ll be going along for the trip.

Windy City Blues

 

Beverly Garland: Much More Than A B-Girl In B-Movies

Beverly Garland in It Conquered The World

Following up on the preceding post about the groundbreaking 1950’s TV series Decoy, starring Beverly Garland:

Not Of This Earth 1

A trouper playing mostly tough women in small film roles as well as a reliably hard-working television actor, Beverly Garland (born Beverly Fessenden 1926 – 2008) may have been an unlikely choice to play New York City Police Officer Casey Jones in the groundbreaking 1957-1958 series Decoy, which was not only the first show to feature a police woman as the series lead, but actually the first full-season dramatic series with a female lead…period.

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Few know of Garland’s work in what was really a revolutionary, though now largely forgotten, series. Most know Beverly Garland either for her parts in several campy low-budget science fiction films like The Alligator People and Not of This Earth, up against some of 1950’s sci-fi’s most ridiculous monsters, or stranger still, as one of television’s most familiar suburban mom’s. Garland played Fred MacMurray’s wife in over 70 episodes of My Three Sons between 1969 – 1972, then the mother in several episodes of Remington Steele, mother to former Charlie’s Angels star Kate Jackson in 88 episodes of The Scarecrow And Mrs. King from 1983 – 1987, then mother to Terri Hatcher’s Lois Lane in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman in 1995 – 1997, and a mother on 9 episodes of 7th Heaven. That’s a lot of mom’s for someone who started out playing boozy broads and B-girls, and nabbed her first film role (under the name Beverly Campbell) in the noir-classic D.O.A.

In a way, Beverly Garland’s memory lives on not only in her film and television work, but also in the property she and long-time husband Fillmore Crank developed, The Beverly Garland Hotel, still in operation as “The Garland”, a popular luxury boutique hotel in North Hollywood, and frequently used as a film-friendly location site.

The Garland

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