As Close As I’ll Get To The Decameron…For Now.

Turn To Stone

Suckered in some time ago by a handsome faux-leather hot stamped and embossed hardcover edition of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, complete with Gustave Dore illustrations (that 19thcentury French engraver who’s still inspiring countless SF/Fantasy artists today), I took the plunge into a daunting reading experience for someone more accustomed to Mickey Spillane and mystery pulp reprints. Prudently, I had an annotated eBook edition handy at all times in order to make some sense of every second or third line.

But it was still pretty intimidating.

The Decameron

So, try another?

Maybe it’s time to dial back a couple hundred years to attempt fellow Florentine Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, perhaps in one of those nifty editions with the Rockwell Kent illustrations (and hopefully with another annotated eBook handy)?

But you know, with snow falling here since Wednesday afternoon and lake-effect snow squalls forecasted straight through Sunday, it’s much more fun to think about Eleanora Stone buzzing around the Tuscan countryside on a Vespa, with the Summer of 1963 rolling into a warm Italian Autumn. Which is precisely what Ellie Stone got to do (however briefly) in James W. Ziskin’s Turn To Stone (2020), the seventh novel in his Ellie Stone mystery series. Now, it’s not really a retelling of or necessarily a homage to The Decameron, in which seven women and three men hid from the Black Plague in a Tuscan villa, wiling away the hours by sharing 100 tales from the educational to the more ribald. Instead, Ziskin’s early 1960’s ‘girl reporter’ finds herself quarantined in a remote but opulent Florentine palazzo, with some of the reluctant guests (and Ellie herself) sharing stories after dinners — not coincidentally from The Decameron — stories the reader will study carefully to hunt through for clues to the novel’s mystery. (Not that it helped me one bit, but I’m truly awful at picking up on clues.)

Ellie Stone Series

I fell in love with Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mystery series and Eleanora Stone herself from the opening pages of the first novel, Styx And Stone (2013). Smart, savvy, assertive yet very authentically a person of her time (that book set in 1960), Ellie Stone fled Manhattan academia with strained family relationships and tragedies all part of her personal baggage, finding her way to a reporter’s job at a small-town newspaper in New Holland, New York. There she’ll solve shocking local crimes, much to the chagrin of suitably 1960’s boorish male coworkers and the law. We first encounter her doing double-duty trying to solve her own father’s assault and murder among the Columbia professorial crowd back in NYC.

Subsequent entries in the evolving series have found Ellie solving other local crimes. But author Ziskin presumably confronted the problem vexing other writers penning successful mystery/crime fiction series set in small towns: Just how many brutal murders can occur in one little burg? I mean, once the body count hits a certain number, won’t the state police or the Attorney General take notice and send in the troops? (Mind you, that would’ve been William P. Rogers in 1960 or Bobbie Kennedy by 1963, not the current office holder, who’d surely be too busy plumbing new depths of sycophancy to alert the US Marshals.) So, Ellie has also managed to stumble into trouble while on vacation in the Adirondacks, on assignment in Los Angeles, at upstate New York horse tracks and now in Turn To Stone, in Florence, Italy for a symposium honoring her late Columbia professor father.

And she’s barely unpacked before the trouble erupts: The symposium’s host has been found dead, his body floating in the Arno river. Accident? Suicide? Murder? While it casts an obvious pall over the event, a pre-arranged post-conference weekend outside Florence is still a must-attend affair, though it goes bad quick enough when the threat of a Rubella outbreak quarantines the group of students, professors and various hangers-on…one of that group quite likely a murderer. And there’s no shortage of culprits hiding secrets and personal grudges going back to the Spanish Civil War, the dark days of Mussolini’s fascist regime, entrenched anti-Semitism and the horror of the Nazi occupation, casting the shadow of guilt on fellow academics, students and relatives alike.

Gun play? Car chases? Thrills and chills? Well, aside from a close call with a wild boar (you read that right), this novel steers clear of conventional crime fiction tricks and many common mystery tropes, though prior books in the series have had their share of excitement. No, I get the feeling this particular novel was a result of the author’s passionate love affair with the region’s culture, language, cuisine and troubled history, Ziskin degreed in Romance languages and literature, a prior director of New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, collaborating with Italian writers and academics on cultural events. (Write what you know, writers are often told.) But for all the references to Renaissance art, literature and troubled 20thcentury tragedies – and there are many – you somehow also come away with some breezier visions of 1950’s-60’s thrillers and Continental rom-com films, easy to picture Suzanne Pleshette astride a motor-scooter or Tony Franciosa climbing out of a red Italian sports car. That is, with a horrible sense of dread hanging over everything the entire time.

I was busy as all hell with my day job when I got my hands-on Turn To Stone, leisurely reading time at a premium, and this chunky trade pb a whisker shy of 350 pages. But I blew through it in three evenings (with all too brief pre-dawn pre-work coffee-to-go in my car time added in). It doesn’t take gangsters with snub-noses, thugs with badges or scheming femmes fatales to make a mystery a page-turner, and Turn To Stone’s elegant writing and wonderfully complex story hooked me from the first page when Ellie boards the Pan Am 707 for Rome, and kept me hooked till she was on her way back to New Holland, where she might just have been the catalyst that ignited Beatlemania in upstate New York (you’ll have to read it to get that).

Yes, I was already a fan, but I betcha James W. Ziskin gets to you too. But as for The Decameron? I still have to think about that…

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/

 

A Second Row of Birthday Candles For Mrs. Peel, Please.

Diana Rigg 3

We’ll light another round of birthday candles, these for English actress Diana Rigg, born today on July 20th, and perhaps best known for playing Emma Peel in the 1965-1968 BBC series The Avengers with Patrick MacNee, a role she didn’t particularly like, with sudden celebrity status (and unexpected publicity as a sex symbol) she didn’t particularly welcome. Rigg auditioned on a whim after the original actress was dropped after only two episodes, and was shocked to discover by the first season’s end that while she was a co-star with (and frankly, much more popular than) Patrick MacNee, she was being paid less than some crew members and had a real fight on her hands to gain equal pay, eventually tripling her season one salary. But for U.S. audiences, Rigg’s Mrs. Peel was British Invasion Mod-Chic personified, gun and judo flips always ready for the bad guys, and always managed in sleek black catsuits and wild op-art mini-dresses. ABC broadcast The Avengers in the U.S. to replace the groundbreaking series Honey West with Anne Francis (‘G.G. Fickling’s 1950’s-60’s PBO ‘stiletto gumshoe’), once the network execs learned they could buy the British spy-flavored show for less than it cost to produce Honey West.

Diana Rigg 6The Avengers may be what Diana Rigg is most known for, but only a small part of her long acting resume, which is heavy on UK stage drama along with British and American television and film roles. She was also the host of the PBS Mystery series from 1989 through 2003 and even had  a recurring role in Game Of Thrones. Rigg was made a Commander Of The Order Of The British Empire (CBE) in 1988 and a Dame Commander Of The Order Of The British Empire (DCBE) in 1994, and thankfully, is still with us.

Diana Rigg 5

The 1960’s Fifty Shades Of Grey?

Valley Of The Dolls 50th

A post or two back I referred to Renee Rosen’s novels as ‘guilty pleasures’, though was quick to point out that her books are far from fluff. Rather, for me, at least, they’ve been pleasant diversions from a steady diet of gangsters, gumshoes and gun molls.

For a real guilty pleasure – that is, a book you devour but feel legitimately guilty about — Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 Valley Of The Dolls is like a mid-sixties Fifty Shades Of Grey…similarly notorious, and notoriously popular in its time. Sprawling (to the point of rambling), sexy, melodramatic yet often awkwardly written, the book’s a compelling page-turner nonetheless. A legitimate publishing phenomena, Valley Of The Dolls was the biggest selling book in publishing history at the time of the author’s death in 1974 and has gone on to sell over 31 million copies to date. For any contemporary writer tracking single digit weekly orders for their Amazon Kindle and Create Space books, or praying that their small press’ 5,000 unit trade paperback press run will sell out someday, 31 million books is almost too much to grasp.

Segueing from Renee Rosen’s 2019 Park Avenue Summer to Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls was a natural, and I did just that. In Rosen’s novel, an Ohio ingenue and aspiring commercial photographer arrives in mid-sixties New York and promptly becomes iconic editor Helen Gurley Brown’s secretary right at the moment the magazine is about to be relaunched as the controversial girl-power monthly it quickly became. The novel’s heroine gets that plum gig via a referral from a family friend who’s an editor at the Dolls’ real-life publisher, Bernard Geis Associates.

Valley of the Dolls

Valley Of The Dolls the 1967 20thCentury Fox film starring Patty Duke, Sharon Tate, Susan Hayward and Barbara Parkins frequently pops up on both broadcast and cable TV channels, but if you’ve only seen the movie and never read the book, I encourage you to give the novel a try. The movie’s pure mid-sixties kitsch, but understandably had to sidestep or soften the novel’s more tawdry and saucy content. In fact, it’s said that original screenwriter Harlan Ellison insisted his name be removed from the credits due to the less downbeat ‘Hollywood’ ending reshot at the studio insistence.

Even if you haven’t seen the film or read the book, it’s enough of a pop culture touchstone that most people have some vague idea of what it’s about. Three New York friends in the entertainment business experience various highs and lows in their careers and love lives, succumbing to ‘Dolls’ (barbituates, and specifically, Seconals) along the way…enough to institutionalize one for addiction (Patty Duke in the movie) and be the weapon of choice for another’s suicide (Sharon Tate in the movie). But the novel’s very different from the film, most notably in its more sprawling 20 year time span from 1945 to 1965. (The film seems to be set almost entirely in the 1960’s.) There are more complex backstories, complications and relationship woes, it being a rambling sort of soap opera. And the sex is notably more explicit. Keep in mind that in 1966, sleaze publishers like Midwood and others were still pumping out ‘sexy’ paperback originals to be sold exclusively ‘under the counter’ at most stores. Frank dialog about menstruation, abortion or contraception was pretty rare. Explicit sex scenes (well, relatively so) in a mainstream novel? Even more scandalous, and here the sex includes vanilla sex, gay sex, lesbian sex, oral sex and more, and in frequent doses. And most importantly, it’s the women, not the men, talking about it, wanting it, trying to avoid it or merrily engaging in it.

Nearly half the book is set in the 1940’s, and the titular ‘dolls’ don’t even appear till well over a third of the way through. The novel’s male characters are mostly philanderers, lushes, failures or con men, and even the seemingly ‘good’ men go bad to some degree by the end. The three main women are complex, but far from angels, and none find release or redemption in their careers, their romances or anywhere except in the embrace of their lovely little dolls. Do not look for a happy ending when you finish the last page.

Valley of The Dolls Movie

I read Jacqueline Susann’s Valley Of The Dolls last week in a handsome 50thAnniversary trade paperback edition, complete with some introductory front matter and an essay from the author herself. A tireless self-promoter, book publishing urban legends claim that Susann would get up in the wee hours to primp, fill her car with coffee and cartons of donuts in order to show up at local rack jobbers and distributors’ loading docks before the truck drivers departed, encouraging all to keep her book face-out and in-stock at each stop on their routes. If true, this was before the days of consolidated book distribution (still continuing as we speak, with Baker & Taylor leaving the trade book business altogether and Ingram just about the only game in town).

Well, I never managed to wade through Fifty Shades Of Grey, even after a couple tries that couldn’t get past fifty pages of grey. But I’m really glad I read Valley Of The Dolls. Call it kitsch, call it trash…call it what you like, but it was a cultural milestone in its time and still a fun read even today.

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

 

Men In Danger

Howell Dodd Men In Danger magazine 1964

Men in danger? Sure, but I’m not certain which is more dangerous. The easy money for delivering a package of something that’s surely illegal? Or Miss Can’t-Keep-My-Slip-On goading him from her perch on the bed behind? A pulp (or more correctly, one of the so-called ‘mens sweats’) magazine interior illustration by Howell Dodd from a 1964 issue of Men In Danger.

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