Nightlife, 1976.

patti hansen dior chris von wangenheim

Mid-seventies decadence, reminiscent of the provocative Helmut Newton photos shot for the 1978 film The Eyes Of Laura Mars about Faye Dunaway’s edgy fashion photographer stalked by a psycho killer. Here Chris von Wangenheim shot Patti Hansen for Christina Dior’s 1976 “Nightlife Is Your Dior” campaign, juxtaposing elegant couture cocktail gowns with flaming car wrecks, and doing it, well…just ‘cuz.

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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/

 

70’s Decadence

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From Vs. magazine’s Fall-Winter 2014/15 issue, an intriguing homage to all that’s decadent in fashion photography – bad boy Helmut Newton, badder-girl Ellen Von Unwerth, and a nod to the 1978 erotic crime thriller Eyes Of Laura Mars (more about that guilty pleasure weird-fest of a flick at thestilettogumshoe.com later…count on it).

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The photo suite’s introductory copy explains: “In the cult movie Eyes Of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway plays a photographer who can see through the eyes of a killer. Here, our cover girl Uma Thurman – a modern-day Dunaway – embodies the thriller’s title role and pays homage to its seductive 70’s styling and provocative imagery (the movie featured stills by Helmut Newton). Who better to capture this iconic marriage of fashion and film than Newton’s seminal successor, Ellen Von Unwerth?”

Well, I’ve seen Von Unwerth get both saucier and nastier than these, and the staged photo shoots, stills and grisly murders in the 1978 film pushed the limits for the time, presaging a host of disturbing visuals soon to populate countless VHS tapes in the ‘erotic thriller’ craze of the early 80’s. But Von Unwerth and Thurman captured some vintage decadence here, to be sure.

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Hatchett: Just A Few Years Too Early?

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Just a few years too early? Perhaps. Lee McGraw’s 1976 novel Hatchett introduces hard-as-nails ex-cop turned private detective Madge Hatchett, a denim-n-boots gal with more than a bit of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone about her, and running her M.L. Hatchett Investigations detective agency in Chicago like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. But unlike Grafton or Paretsky’s groundbreaking and now iconic female detective characters who both arrived a mere six years after, Madge Hatchett only managed to appear in one book. Also unlike those two authors, Lee McGraw’s gender-neutral moniker is a pen name for Paul Zakaras.

This is an action-packed crime novel, full of gunplay, fistfights and explosions. Madge Hatchett is no ‘blonde bombshell’ or teasing sexpot ala G.G. Fickling’s Honey West, Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz, much less the many saucy-naughty-downright-porny female super sleuths and spy series cluttering paperback racks at the time Hatchett was released, like The Baroness, Cherry Delight or The Lady From L.U.S.T. There’s a fair amount of squirm-worthy vintage sexism, poking fun at ‘women’s lib’ and the like, but no more than you’d encounter in an episode of a retro-seventies sitcom like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda. To the author’s credit (considering the era) Hatchett’s troubles with the law are due more to the fact that she’s a combustible troublemaker than a woman.

Hatchett’s lured into an ever-widening mystery after a murder in her own apartment building is pinned on an ex-con and recovering junkie she’d befriended. Determined to prove the cops wrong, she soon finds herself in the middle of a gangland war when a mysterious freelance non-Mafia kingpin attempts to take over Chicago’s crime syndicate (an unlikely scenario with the Chicago mob very much alive and well at this time). Hatchett navigates her way through the underworld of drug dealers, pornographers and pimps with her Beretta as much as her investigative prowess. So it’s a little disappointing that three-fourth’s through the novel, the otherwise smart and gutsy private eye falls prey to some seemingly requisite damsel-in-distress business, which in vintage crime novels always demands that the hero loose her clothes: “So, I was lying on a bed. In a totally dark room. And it was obvious why I couldn’t pick myself up: I was wearing a pair of ropes. One holding my hands behind my back, the other wrapped around my ankles. Wearing ropes and nothing else, a perfect costume for a kinky foldout. Or that last scream scene in a snuff film.” Fear not, though. Madge Hatchett needs no rescuing, blasts her way free and burns down or blows up the crooks’ lairs and leaves not only the aspiring ‘Mister Big’ but sundry Mister-In-Between’s full of bullet holes.

The cover art is a puzzler, if only for the Ballantine Suspense line art director’s choice for an illustrator. Not that it isn’t good. But the illustration’s by well-known Peruvian fantasy/SF/sword & sorcery artist Boris Vallejo, who along with his own spouse Julie Bell, Frank Frazetta, Ken Kelly, Sanjulian and several others more or less defined 1960’s through 1980’s fantasy painting. Vallejo’s known for his sword-wielding barbarians and armor-clad Amazons, so he seems like an odd choice. While Madge Hatchett is described at one point as resembling Sophia Loren, in general she’s smokes like a chimney, likes her booze, enjoys a joint and favors practical private eye attire, not lilac jersey dresses. Looking at this cover art and knowing Vallejo’s style, it’s easy to swap a spear for the revolver, a magic goblet for the glass of whiskey, a throne for the chair, and to turn the two dead dudes lying beneath Hatchett’s chunky 70’s heels into vanquished goblins. Then it’s a Boris Vallejo painting.

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