Last Dance.

I’m not sure if two books constitute a series, but it’s still customary to start with the first novel, nonetheless. In my case, I didn’t realize that Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Last Dance (2020 Blackstone hardcover) was a follow-up to his My Detective from 2019, which introduced Los Angeles police detective Sam Carver. 

If Carver feels a bit like a 2020 version of Philip Marlowe – his keen observations, introspection and (via Fleishmann) way with words, in particular – it works, and fits perfectly with the environment he operates in. But Carver’s a troubled soul when Last Dance opens, just back from an extended leave of absence following on-the-job capture and near-death at the hand of Dylan Cross, Carver’s still on-the-loose nemesis from that first novel, a rape victim turned vengeance seeking murderer.  Carver’s first assignment once he’s back: a famous (but just past her prime) Russian ballerina is found dead, her spartan loft littered with vodka bottles and drugs. Accidental OD? Suicide? Murder? Hard to say, since the dancer’s body is promptly stolen from the morgue before it can even be autopsied. 

Last Dance is, on one hand, pure L.A. Neo-Noir, and quite perfectly so. But Fleishmann, a long-time foreign correspondent before he was a novelist, can’t resist pushing things beyond the Hollywood Hills as the mystery takes on global implications, soon brushing up against the F.B.I., Russian spies and even the 2016 election (and more). The cast of characters is long enough to require a score card, though uniformed cop Lily Hernandez stands out as a possible future partner for lone wolf Sam Carver in an upcoming novel. The mystery of the ballerina’s death (and her body’s disappearance) is smartly and patiently parceled out with more than its share of twists and revelations. Never particularly good at solving mystery/crime fiction novels’ puzzles before the end, I failed miserably here as well. But I’ll pat myself on the back for spotting the eerie presence of Carver’s real antagonist — serial killer Dylan Cross – hovering nearby. 

Jeffrey Fleishmann crafted a literate piece of contemporary crime fiction with Last Dance. Noir poetry like this takes a bit of work to create, to be sure, so it’s only fair that the author insists that readers put in some work to fully enjoy the book. No skimming to the next clue or action sequence is allowed. It’s not that kind of novel, and there’s too much to be missed if you tried. Once you’ve gotten comfy with the writer’s style, you really want to savor the countless lyrical scene-setting descriptions, painting quick but artful pictures of every locale and each character, even the mere walk-ons. It’s a lot to digest, but well worth the effort. 

So, although I met Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Sam Carver in his second appearance, that’s easily remedied. My Detective has already been ordered for my next haul of in-store pickups. And Fleishmann better have a third outing planned for Sam Carver’s neon-neo-noirish Los Angeles. 

Tula, Felia & Cyd…And The Girl Hunt Ballet.

Doing a double-check of Hollywood movie trivia for some writing-in-progress, I had to pause when I stumbled across “The Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence from Vincente Minelli’s 1953 MGM musical The Band Wagon. Call me a procrastinator, but I just had to watch it a couple of times. Now, musicals aren’t really my thing. But if you haven’t seen this stunning 12-minute homage to then controversial Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer hard-boiled novels, you’re missing a treat. In the mini-movie-within-a-movie, Fred Astaire’s a dapper but dangerous New York gumshoe and Cyd Charisse may be the most bewitching femme fatale to ever melt a movie screen. For more about “The Girl Hunt Ballet”, follow the link below to a December 2018 post here at The Stiletto Gumshoe.

As for Cyd Charisse, that would be Tula Ellice Finklea from Amarillo, Texas, who first went by Felia Sidrova and later Maria Istomina while dancing with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in her late teens and early twenties (when she married fellow dancer Nico Charisse). She became ‘Cyd’ when talent scouts lured her to Hollywood…though even that would be after a brief stint going by Lily Norwood. A woman of many names, indeed. That Charisse was a dancer (and one of Hollywood’s all-time greats) is doubly amazing considering that she began studying ballet to build up her body during a sickly childhood and a bout with polio. 

If an MGM musical star still needed any more mystery/crime/noir cred after her memorable “The Girl Hunt Ballet” performance, check out Nicholas Ray’s 1958 Party Girl, where Charisse is a cynical Chi-Town showgirl mixed up with gangsters and falling for a crooked mob lawyer. It didn’t do so well here in the U.S. and is rarely listed among better known postwar film noir and crime melodramas, but oddly enough it’s gained some sort of cult following among European crime film fans. As luck would have it, Party Girl airs on Sunday evening 9.6.20 (this post being written days ago).

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2018/12/29/the-girl-hunt-ballet/

Stage Violence Draws Real Blood: Layne Fargo’s Temper

temper - layne fargo

After back-to-back mystery/crime fiction novels set in 1950’s New York, I was ready for a break, and Layne Fargo’s first novel Temper (2019, Simon & Shuster) provided just that.

Author Wendy Heard mentions Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, in her dustjacket back cover praise for Fargo’s Temper. It’s a perfect reference. There are no swollen joints or black feathers sprouting out of anyone’s shoulder blades, no practice barres or frayed leg warmers. Temper isn’t set in New York’s ballet world, but in Chicago’s indie theater scene. But much like the darkly surreal Black Swan, Temper deals with passionate creatives’ self-absorbed and manipulative relationships, the wafer-thin line between on stage performances and offstage drama, and the horrors that may be revealed when creativity is fully unleashed.

Black Swan

Struggling actor Kira Rascher lands the role of a lifetime with Joanna Cuyler’s cutting edge theater group, which means she’ll have to work with mercurial actor/director Malcom Mercer, the indie scene’s bad boy, notorious for pushing performers past all reasonable limits and leaving a long trail of broken hearts — and minds — in his wake. Yes, Kira-Joanna-Malcom form a doomed love triangle, but the fact is, Temper is more of a love-and-destruction octagon that sucks in everyone in Kira’s circle, from part-time bi-bedmates to ex’s going way back to high school scandals.

Temper isn’t a mystery novel and couldn’t be labeled crime fiction by any stretch. The cover calls it ‘psychological suspense’, and I’ll go along with that. Like Black Swan, it defies easy categorizing. But it was an excellent read, and for us residents of the big city on the inland ocean, Temper was brimming with spot-on locales and atmosphere. Sure, a savvy reader may guess where the story is inexorably heading (and I did), but it was one heck of darkly fun trek getting there, thanks to Layne Fargo’s skillful multi-POV writing. Check it out.

Tiptoeing ‘Round The Templates

Tiptoeing-Templates 1

Whether as a reader or even as a writer, there’s much to be said for a ‘comfort zone’, that familiar territory of a particular genre’s or category’s reliable template. Familiarity doesn’t have to mean boring or redundant. Each book will have an author’s individual spin. It’s like a really good breakfast from a neighborhood diner where the short order cook (likely visible and hunched over the grill behind the counter) feels no compunction to stir in fancy imported cheeses, the toast won’t come from a vegan bakery, the heap of hash browns are grilled, greasy and just right and the coffee’s served sans-cinnamon or caramel but refilled frequently. Nothing nouvelle, no surprises, but still something to be savored.

When you crack open a traditional ‘whodunit’ mystery novel, it’s safe to expect that a body will be discovered by the end of chapter one and the rest of the book will be spent working through a list of suspects and red herrings to uncover just who committed the crime. Though every writer will put their own individual spin on the template, that reliable formula is almost as comfy as your apres-workday sweater or your reading chair. Naturally, reading nothing but books that rigidly adhere to some pre-ordained genre format would eventually become dreary. It’s fun to be surprised or even challenged, yet we’ll still return to the comfort zone again and again.

Part of what separates the writing pro’s from mere wannabe’s may be an ability to anticipate reader’s expectations. In traditional ‘whodunits’, that business about ‘discovering the body by the end of chapter one’ ( a gross over-simplification, obviously) may be a reader’s reasonable expectation, and therefore, the writer’s implicit obligation, or so some agents and editors are likely to point out.

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But the mystery genre – at least as a retail bookstore merchandising label – covers more than only traditional whodunits and includes all sorts of thrillers, crime fiction, noirs and much, much more, where the rules often are bent, twisted or turned completely upside-down. Clearly some writers aren’t merely tiptoeing around the category’s templates, but merrily stomping over them. That said, I’m not sure I’ve earned the cred to do any foot stomping on genre conventions just yet.

Charles Finch’s front piece on “Winter Thrillers” in this past Sunday’s New York Times opened with: ”Who knew a thriller could be this boring! Felonies, hush money, Russian agents, dogged journalists – in real time, it turns out, all that stuff moves like molasses, with none of the subtle internal coherence you find in a good novel of suspense. We may have to concede that while truth is indeed stranger than fiction, fiction is substantially better arranged. On the other hand, we don’t know the ending yet. There are great books that begin slowly, the authors talking themselves uncertainly toward their material before suddenly they find it and the intensity increases, the options narrow, the risk heightens: The final report comes in.” Finch then goes on to review an Australian author’s new thriller which apparently takes its sweet time to get moving, but ultimately turns out to be, as he notes, “all at once enthralling”.

(Of course we know perfectly well what thriller Finch was really talking about in his introduction, since most of us watch in disbelief as it plays out on our TV and phone screens newsfeeds every night.)

At the moment, I’m tiptoeing ‘round the templates myself, reluctantly conceding that attempts to ignore sensible genre conventions traded well-intentioned creativity for dreadful pacing.

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With the completed manuscript for my noir-ish period crime novel The Stiletto Gumshoe deep in the un-fun querying process, I’d been hard at work and roughly halfway through the first draft of its follow-up. But I recently halted work on the in-progress sequel in order to revisit the first novel, which is now midway through a fairly substantial rework that’ll slice an entire hunk off the front and redistribute essential info throughout the manuscript. I was reluctant to do so at first. (Horrified is more like it.) But with a couple nearly identical ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’ query replies in hand – quite complimentary but sternly reminding me that not all genre conventions are bad just because they’re familiar – I sucked it up and got to work killing all those ‘precious darlings’ writers are warned to watch for. Once the first novel’s updates are done, I can restart the querying process while I concurrently start over at the very beginning of the follow-up book to slice, dice and purge the same sort of artsy-smartsy opening portions that cluttered up the first. Un-planned, time-consumptive and frustrating? You betcha. But the first book is already better for it, and the follow-up will be too once updated and back underway. Like Charles Finch said in his NYT Book Review piece, it ought to ‘increase the intensity, narrow the options and heighten the risks’ and do so all that much quicker for the reader.

Sure, some will say I’m a weenie for kowtowing to some agents’ comments (agents who may have relayed nice remarks, but no offers of representation, mind you). Well, then a weenie I am. Consider: If a painter proudly unveiled a portrait in progress only to be told “Nice, but the nose is crooked”, then that painter should grab a brush and fix the bent schnoz.

Tiptoeing-Templates 3Even though I happily embrace novels that defy genre conventions and turn category formats upside-down while I work through stacks of comfortably familiar books, I don’t expect I’ll be on the vanguard of redefining literature. I’ll be content with telling a good story that I really want to share, hopefully doing so with the pacing and narrative flow publishing professionals approve of (as opposed to beta readers who are all too often neighbors, coworkers and drinking buddies). So for now I’m just fine with adopting a wobbly and precarious pose between writer’s how-to books’ rigid guidelines and the natural storytelling creativity struggling to cut loose, and just tiptoe ‘round the templates.

The Girl Hunt Ballet

Girl Hunt Ballet 3

The Band Wagon (1953) is a classic MGM musical (it’s the film that included the famous song “That’s Entertainment”) with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant…even a walk-on by Ava Gardner. Astaire plays a popular but aging Hollywood song and dance star who’s returned to Broadway in the hopes of restarting his career, where’s he’s mismatched with Gabrielle Gerard, a famous ballerina unfamiliar with musical theater, played by Cyd Charisse. Their initial outing, an ill-conceived highbrow musical version of Faust, is a disaster. But Fred saves the day by rallying the cast and crew to rework the material into a more conventional musical comedy show that premieres to rousing success…while he and the ballerina (who originally nearly despised each other) naturally end up falling in love.

Okay, so why should we mention this film here? Because of its legendary The Girl Hunt Ballet sequence.

Girl Hunt Ballet 2

One of many song and dance numbers planned for the film was called “The Private Eye”, but it proved unworkable for some reason. Still determined to probe that theme, they found inspiration in a recent Life magazine article on Mickey Spillane, at that time a very controversial pop culture phenomenon, reviled by critics, but read by millions.  The result, “The Girl Hunt Ballet” is a dance tale set in a Spillane-style urban underworld of violent New York streets and smoky gin mills, all teeming with cops and robbers shooting it out, gangsters wielding switchblades and fetching femmes fatales…Charisse (remember, she’s playing an aloof prima donna ballerina in the film) the ‘fetchingest’ of them all. Astaire does what comes easy for Astaire – being effortlessly cool, even playing a private eye. Director Vincent Minelli decided the sequence needed some narration, like Mickey Spillane’s first person narrative Mike Hammer novels themselves, and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner wrote it, though he insisted on going unpaid and uncredited so as not to step on the toes of the film’s songwriters and screenwriters.

Cyd CHARISSE und Fred ASTAIRE in 'Vorhang auf!', 1953

I’ll be the first to admit that musicals aren’t really my thing. But The Girl Hunt Ballet is really something to see. Articles about it frequently refer to Charisse and Astaire’s “sexually charged” duet. That’s putting it mildly. I don’t know how the film didn’t melt. The extended 12 minute sequence captures every period pulp and hard-boiled mystery cliché and trope you can think of and turns them into a brilliant piece of noir art. Maybe you don’t want to sit through all of Band Wagon. I get that. But if you can seeThe Girl Hunt Ballet – YouTube or wherever — watch it. And with good speakers and the bigger the screen the better.

Girl Hunt Ballet

 

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