Mystery Scene #161

mystery sceneAlways a treat to find the new Mystery Scene in my mailbox, even when the stack of books on my to-be-read end table is overflowing (and it really is). The issue offered up its always reliable mix of new, retro and unusual topics and didn’t disappoint…but, does it ever? Some highlights:

Bulldog drummond books

Michael Mallory’s Bulldog Drummond was a treat. News to me that there’d been around two dozen Bulldog Drummond films released between 1922 and 1969. I’ve only seen one, probably waking up on the couch in the wee hours with my hand on the remote tuned to some oddball channel. I can’t even remember for sure which one it was at that. Adventurer and investigator Bulldog Drummond was created by British Army officer Herman Cyril McNeile, who wrote under the pen name “Sapper” (British Army regulations prohibiting service members from using their real names for fiction publication) with ten Bulldog Drummond novels published between 1920 and 1937. Gerard Fairlie and then Henry Raymond continued the series from 1938 through 1969.

Ray Milland Bulldog Drummond 2

John B. Valeri’s piece on reporter turned writer Alex Segura and his Pete Fernandez private eye series was a real teaser, opening with a Segura quote, “I like to keep readers on their toes. I like to pull the rug out from under them…”, and then closing with something to keep fans alert. Segura may be following up his fifth Pete Fernandez private eye novel, Miami Midnight (2019) with something quite different and soon. “While he’s a bit cagey about the details, (Segura) does drop a few tantalizing clues as to what readers can expect: A non-PI female lead, a different time period and a murder. Beyond that, all bets are off.” Well, here’s betting I’ll be watching closely for something like this from Mr. Segura, and it can’t come to soon.

The most unusual piece was Craig Sisterson’s “Found In Translation” a five pager looking closely at mystery/crime fiction work translated to English and vice-versa, but more specifically, talking to the translators themselves. Though I’m currently hard at work – and more or less working from scratch — on launching a particular project (can you guess…”The Stiletto Gumshoe”), I’m not actually a newbie to the writing/publishing racket…more like reinventing myself. But under a prior pen name, my second novel sold the foreign rights. It was only one market, but hey, the check cashed just fine. I can’t write or speak a single word of that particular language, so I’ve always wondered how well they did with the slang and vernacular. Sisterson’s article drives home what an art quality translations really are.

 

Noir Is Where You Find It.

shaun mcguan taylor swift

“Noir” is where you find it, and it’s not always cloaked in shadowy lighting or filtered through hazy cigarette smoke. The darkness won’t always part to reveal wide-brimmed fedoras shading square jawed private eyes, or purse sized pistols wielded by fetching femme fatales. No, this thing we call “noir” – film noir, neo-noir, domestic noir, rural noir, L.A. Noir, femme noir, whatever noir — is something much more than just all the visual trappings of classic film noir or the pulps, paperback mysteries and crime comics from the same era, or the reimagined pastiches and homages produced since.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 1

I was reminded of this when I scrolled past a Tumblr post at the always intriguing comics and art blog Dirty River (link below) with its repost from artist Shawn McGuan’s Tumblr blog (link also below), showing off his illustration (the terrific art shown at the top of this post) for a Tidal article, “The Delectable Neo-Noir of Taylor Swift” by Alex Segura (and again, link below). If I’d bothered to check my email that morning, I’d have already seen a link to the Tidal article at my 8.24.19 Crime Reads e-newsletter.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 2

Alex Segura’s essay begins: “Revenge. Betrayal. Bad blood and knives in the back. Getaway cars, heists gone wrong…these aren’t potential plot threads for a treacherous crime novel. They’re references to songs by Taylor Swift, a beloved pop princess who’s built a name with her catchy, teen-friendly and seemingly All-American odes to lost love and shaking it off. But there’s more to America’s sweetheart…a complex, layered, conflicted character who could easily saunter in front of a film noir’s monochrome and stark stylish camera.”

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 3

A Taylor Swift expert I’m not. Diana Krall, Beethoven, Joan Jett — those I know, which tells you how screwed up my musical tastes are. But you’d have to be a hermit not to have heard Swift’s music or surfed past her award show performances, each treated like an event. Arriving at the day job’s Friday morning’s staff meeting, for instance, a coworker was being teased for not getting enough sleep Thursday night, everyone but me presuming the dedicated Taylor Swift fan stayed up to get and then give a few listens to Swift’s brand-new album Lover, a midnight release.

It takes more than a pop star – particularly one who started out as a teenage country & western sensation – donning saucy thigh-highs for a duet with Madonna, performing in some provocative cinematic style music videos or sidling up to a bar in a slit dress for Vanity Fair (which is where the 2015 photos for this post all came from, BTW) to make her a purveyor of anything we’d label noir or even neo-noir. But as Alex Segura points out in his essay, “The driving force that propels all noir stories can be summed up with one word: desire…the best works of noir also feature ostensibly good people forced or tempted to do bad things – then dealt some harsh consequences they can’t recover from”.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 4

I love the clichés, stereotypes and tropes of classic noir and get a kick out of their redeployment in contemporary neo-noir. But I know full well that the genre – if it is one – isn’t comprised of props, wardrobes, sets and lighting cues. Probing further than the mere look of noir films, crime pulp magazine illustrations and 1950’s private eye paperback covers is what leads us into the dark netherworld of noir, a grim place filled with larceny, lust, greed, amorality, vapid evil and small hope for redemption or escape. Yum. Let me buy my ticket now, please.

So, Taylor Swift as a noir princess instead of just a princess of pop? Well, when you read Alex Segura’s article, you may just agree. Not because of some provocative photo shoots or music videos, but because of the themes in so many of her songs and the canny word-smithing she employs to convey them.

Taylor Swift Vanity Fair 2015 5

Check out Alex Segura’s article. No one’s trying to convert you into a Taylor Swift pop music fan, least of all me. But for dedicated mystery/crime fiction fans and what might be called noir culture enthusiasts, it’s always good to ponder what makes “noir”…well, noir, even when it challenges our notions of what the genre really is.

And while you’re at it, take a look at Dirty River and Shawn McGuan’s blog, though I’ll be posting a few of McGuan’s pieces here shortly, and it isn’t the first time he’s shown up at The Stiletto Gumshoe.

https://dirtyriver.tumblr.com/

https://mcgone.tumblr.com/

http://read.tidal.com/article/neo-noir-of-taylor-swift

Where Do The Dead Girls Live?

lily james by cuneyt akeroglu

There is no dry erase board hanging on my writing lair’s wall, and no tally maintained for my in-progress projects’ body counts. But if there was, the completed manuscript for The Stiletto Gumshoe currently making the rounds in the querying process would show eight: Five men and three women. None could be labeled innocent victims, though two of the women might be considered ‘collateral damage’ of the novel’s primary crimes, while the last of the three ought to ignite some cheers when she finally goes down.

No, I didn’t track my body count, much less categorized by gender, and the ‘dead girl’ trope wasn’t even on my radar when work on that novel began. But by the time it was deep in revisions and I’d also started its sequel (for a hoped-for hard-boiled crime fiction series, that one still in-progress), there was no ignoring an expanding dialog about the dismissive and disturbing reliance on murdered women — often anonymous victims — deployed in the mystery/crime fiction genre and pop culture/entertainment in general as convenient plot devices, all too often for voyeuristic thrills and with fetishistic relish, and customarily used as prompts for male protagonists’ stories.

So, updating that imaginary dry erase board for The Stiletto Gumshoe’s in-progress sequel might still show a relatively benign body count, the story including the demise of two women at this point (once again, far from innocent bystanders) and several bad guys getting their just desserts, their final tally still undetermined. (It is a work-in-progress, after all, so we’ll let creativity and writerly caprice lead where it will, already-discarded outlines aside.) Still, I know all too well that one of the women who dies near the beginning of this novel does so in a grisly manner (though ‘off-camera’, so to speak), doesn’t even merit a line of dialog before her demise, and may fit the profile of the dreaded ‘dead girl’ trope closer than I’d like. Nothing intentional, just how the story worked out.

dead girl book

I’d already finished Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession (2018) at the time the sequel was underway, and could hardly plead ignorance about the issue. To be fair, the title of Bolin’s book, which earned its share of accolades (NYT Notable Book of 2018, NYT Editor’s Choice, Edgar Nominee, etc.) is a bit misleading, being more personal memoir, and only the first fourth (if that) actually dealt with the ‘dead girl’ trope. Still…the topic was already out there for discussion elsewhere.

For example, last week’s first Literary Hub e-newsletter included a CrimeReads link to “Inverting – And Avoiding – The ‘Dead Girl’ Trope”, its subhead: “Writers Carolyn Murnick And Alex Segura Discuss The Dangers And Pitfalls Of The Crime Genre’s Most Problematic Trend” (Link Below). Please give it a look. Here are writers themselves grappling with the issue, just as we’ve seen others do recently in roundtables, essays and posts. The question: Why does so much crime genre material rely on male investigators (private eyes, cops, the FBI, whomever) solving the murders of more or less anonymous women? Further, why does so much crime genre material (novels, stories, film, TV series, comics, art) use the stalking, assault, abduction, rape, torture and murder of women for entertainment? Why do writers choose to write this, and why do readers seem to gobble it up?

Dead Girl Trope

Don’t look for answers here. It’ll take a more widely read authority than me (not being an authority on anything, really) to plumb the psyches of writers or readers, and a much smarter observer to analyze the drives, impulses and interests of modern American society. That the ‘dead girl’ trope is very much alive and well (so to speak) and even thriving in entertainment is apparent. But as this piece’s title asks, precisely where do the ‘dead girls’ live? Where is the ‘dead girl’ trope most prevalent, and is it really in the crime genre?

Genre may be no more than a convenient publishing industry term, something writers use to steer submissions to the proper agent, those agents use to pitch editors, publishers use to organize lists, booksellers (and librarians) use for merchandising and readers use to navigate bookstore aisles. After all, charming sweet shoppe and kitty-cat cozies are shelved in the same mystery genre section as hard-boiled P.I. series and grisly shoot ‘em ups. But they have as much in common as dystopian sci-fi and a Regency romance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘dead girl’ trope is deployed by mystery/crime fiction writers as ruthlessly and dismissively as we might naturally assume. I’d suggest that where ‘the dead girls live’ — that is, where the ‘dead girl’ trope is most prevalent – is actually in aligned categories like ‘Thrillers’, ‘Suspense’, ‘Psychological Suspense’ and many other similar labels that dustjacket copywriters concoct.  I just finished one myself this week, albeit a comparatively tame novel. Still, it was just one of the the many, many, many novels where the dead girls reside in the company of an army of stalkers and serial killers. These novels often adhere to very successful formulas which seem to pit writers in competition with one another to dream up ever increasing levels of sadistic torture and cruelly sex-ified deaths. If the cover art doesn’t give it away, the opening pages will, inevitably featuring a woman abducted, restrained, enduring some unimaginable horror and then finally being murdered (or about to be). There are oodles of these books, many by incredibly successful and popular writers, and while some are shelved in the ‘Mystery’ section, just as often (if not more so) they’re in ‘Fiction & Literature’. In fact, I’ve read my share of author interviews in which the writers distance themselves from the mystery/crime fiction ‘genre’ altogether, presumably leery of the perceived ghettoization a genre label can lead to.

Admittedly, my own reading tastes lean towards mid-twentieth century crime fiction from the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp shorts to the postwar paperback originals and series, along with contemporary material that revives, honors and reimagines their tropes, whether noir pastiche or hard-boiled homage. Not surprisingly, my own work attempts to do the same. Oh, all that material’s brimming with violence and bloodshed, full of brawls and gunplay, yet seems to feature as many (if not more) mobsters, thieves, muggers, blackmailers, drug dealers, embezzlers, pimps, femmes fatales and rogue cops duking it out with private eyes, detectives, reporters, attorneys and sundry investigators as it does ‘dead girls’ used only as triggers for hard-boiled dicks’ heroic quests, with victims reduced to mere props. In the mystery/crime fiction genre, women definitely die. And men die. Lots of them. Good ones and bad ones and various in-betweeners. But as for inhumanly crafty serial killers and the endless horror-show of women in bondage and sexualized torture that populate the pages of so many ‘thrillers’? Maybe not as much as you might suppose, or so it seems to me, and at least in my own reading.

isebelle huppert guy bourdin 1988 copy

My point is only this: The ‘dead girl’ trope is indeed very real, much more than a trend, and it’s something each and every mystery/crime fiction writer needs to confront when outlining, plotting and eventually pounding the keys. Further, it’s something readers might want to consider when choosing their next books. We’re bound to encounter no shortage of squirm-worthy sexism, racism and politics in a lot of classic mystery/crime fiction, even in works by cherished legends. Each of us can compartmentalize that in the way we choose. Or not. But before we paint the entire mystery/crime fiction genre with too broad a brush of complicity – intended or not — let’s think about where the ‘dead girl’ trope prevails. Is it in the ‘crime genre’? Well, yes…some, to be sure. But perhaps, it thrives much more visibly among the innumerable ‘thrillers’ on the drug store, supermarket and mass-merchandiser bestseller racks and in the bookstores’ Fiction & Literature sections. My observation tells me that it’s where the ‘dead girls’ really live.

Top photo: Lily James by Cuneyt Akeroglu; above: Isabelle Huppert by Guy Bourdin, 1988

https://crimereads.com/inverting-and-avoiding-the-dead-girl-trope/

 

Cruel Summer

criminal number six cover

Issue number five of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ always magnificent Criminal commences a new storyline called “Cruel Summer, apparently planned from the very beginning of the Criminal series. It opens here with private investigator Dan Farraday’s pickup lines rebuffed by an attractive single woman in a hotel lounge. When she cautiously relents, we discover that this ‘Jane Hanson’ is actually Marina Kelly, the very woman Farraday’s been hired to locate. Things don’t go precisely as planned with the hotel bar pickup, any more than Farraday’s investigation did, but then this is an Ed Brubaker story, so of course things don’t go precisely as planned. Evidently, issues six and seven will switch gears and zero in on other familiar Criminal characters, notably Teeg Lawless, before bringing things back full circle with Farraday and Marina. Phillips’ art is brilliant, as always. Brubaker’s script doesn’t exhibit one wasted word that I can see. Like every issue of Criminal before, I’m hungering for the next installment the moment I close the comic’s back cover. Phillips’ cover art for that issue – Issue Number Six – is shown above.

Like most (all?) issues of Criminal, this one includes excellent extras, here a roundtable discussion on crime fiction (and media) series characters with Ed Brubaker, Jason Starr, Alex Segura and Sara Gran. Heck, even if you didn’t care for crime comics, the issue’s worth buying for that alone.

criminal number 6

Book Riot’s Favorite P.I.’s

Book Riot 9 Best Noir Retellings copyVia Book Riot: Matthew Turbeville writes about “Crime Fiction’s New Favorite Private Eyes” with a good list to bring along the next time you’re headed to the bookstore or to have handy when you’re ready to shop online. That this list happens to include a number of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ of one sort or another is incidental. Turbeville sees the mystery/crime fiction genre evolving (or, already evolved) so that Chandler’s and Hammett’s iconic private eye’s aren’t so much supplanted by other characters, but merely taking their place alongside them. He points to Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt (who he mentions has at least two more novels in the series, and here’s hoping!) as an example: “…while Philip Marlowe may fight with gunfire, DeWitt is the woman who takes a bullet, pries it from her body, and continues on with her journey to solve every mystery possible.”

book riot

Turbeville’s list includes a diverse group of writers and their P.I. creations, but most of all, memorable characters deserving of ongoing mystery/crime fiction series. Six he lists (and we all know there are others, and we all have our own faves) are Steph Cha’s Juniper Song series, Alex Segura’s Pete Fernandez series, Erica Wright’s Kat Stone series, Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary series, Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series, and Kellye Garrett’s Dayna Anderson – A Detective By Day series. Look for Turbeville’s article at Book Riot (link below), with links to the individual authors’ books.

3 books 23 books 1

https://bookriot.com/2019/04/24/crime-fictions-new-favorite-private-eyes/

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