Mystery Lite: The Frame-Up.

the_frame_up

Mystery-Lite? Softies? I’m not sure how to classify Meghan Scott Molin’s debut novel The Frame-Up, a library discovery I squeezed in over the holidays. Oh, it’s definitely a mystery, but then it seems to adhere to the marketplace template that used to be called ‘Chick-lit’: A witty and engaging twenty-something heroine, under-appreciated by a mean boss in an otherwise cool big city job that’s rife with workplace drama, relying on a flamboyantly gay male confidante and winding up in an unlikely romance…all sprinkled with lots and lots of brand names.

But in Molin’s novel, the brand names aren’t for designer shoes, pricey apparel or trendy Manhattan (or Rodeo Drive) boutiques, but comic books, superheroes, sci-fi/fantasy films and cult-fave TV shows, because The Frame-Up is set in the comic book world and its protagonist, Michael-Grace Martin (who prefers to go by ‘MG’) is a writer at Los Angeles headquartered Genius Comics. I suspect that MG’s a stand-in for the author herself, who’s a self-confessed fandom geek. In fact, it looks like the book cover’s designer-illustrator Danny Schlitz thought so too, since the cover art matches the author photo inside so well.

We first encounter wisecracking purple-haired L.A. hipster-nerd Michael-Grace Martin in a meet-cute scene with LAPD Detective Matteo Kildaire, handsomely hunky but, sadly, a ‘muggle’ and unwelcome in MG’s geek universe. Reluctantly enlisted as a special LAPD consultant when a costumed vigilante recreates crime scenes from the classic ‘Hooded Falcon’ comic series — the very character MG is currently rebooting – she and the cute cop pose as a couple so he can come and go at the Genius Comics offices and among her fan-boy/girl crowd.

Now Michael-Grace is a comics, con and cosplay geek and no ‘stiletto gumshoe’, preferring ballet flats anyway, though she’s stuck in heels in a couple scenes, including one in which she manages to spike a shadowy figure assaulting her at a crime scene (only to to realize too late that she just rammed her heel into Detective Matteo Kildaire’s foot). In fact, she rivals any snoopy 40’s/50’s comics ‘girl reporter’ or even vintage Nancy Drew herself as she pokes through closets and eavesdrops on incriminating conversations to try and discover what’s behind an apparent drug smuggling ring, a years-old murder and why someone’s dressing up as The Hooded Falcon comic book character. No surprise: Along the way, she falls hard for her pretend boy-toy with a badge, even if he is utterly clueless about Star Wars, Dr. Who, costuming and all things precious to MG and her pals.

It’s all pleasantly ‘lite’ with the crimes (drug smuggling and murders) largely kept ‘off screen’ and the romance completely G-rated enough for the Hallmark Channel. In fact, it might not hurt if the threats were just a smidge more threatening and the all the heavy breathing, racing pulses and sweaty palms led to more than a few chaste kisses, especially with an assertive, purple-haired smart-ass L.A. twenty-something like Michael-Grace Martin. But that’s just this one reader’s unsolicited opinion, and this particular reader’s book comfort zone typically includes brutal fistfights, lethal gunplay and some decidedly un-chaste kissing…and more. So what. Author Meghan Scott Molin seems to know what she’s doing, and will likely have ample opportunity to settle into the right tone since the book is subtitled inside as “The Golden Arrow Mysteries, Book 1”. Which tells us Ms. Molin signed more than a one-book deal with publisher 47 North. Myself, I’ll happily look for Book 2 and more. The novel may be a bit of a softie or even ‘mystery-lite’, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a fun read. 47 North being the latitude of Amazon’s Seattle HQ (and an Amazon imprint), I hope it finds its way into booksellers too (who can be understandably reluctant to carry books by ‘the enemy’) and not just libraries, where I stumbled across it. A fun first book, Meghan Scott Molin.

 

 

No Luck For A Lady.

no luck for a lady

My copy of Floyd Mahannah’s No Luck For A Lady is a 1958 second printing of the 1951 paperback (of the 1950 hardcover titled The Golden Hearse) and my scan above doesn’t do the gorgeous Robert Maguire cover art justice. The original edition (don’t know the artist on that one, sorry) is shown below.

Some sites bill the book as a ‘Cassie Gibson’ detective novel, but that’s stretching it a bit. Oh, there’s a character called Cassie Gibson, and she really is a private detective. But the novel’s really Nap Lincoln’s story, a fellow en route to San Francisco to embark on a year-long South American construction job when he loses his shirt in Reno. Broke and hitchhiking at night, he’s picked up by a big yellow Cadillac convertible driven by a beautiful redhead – Miss Cassandra Gibson (strangely, she’s described as both a redhead and a blonde in an example of some very rushed copy editing). But Cassie’s Caddy has a flat, and when Nap looks in the trunk for the spare, he discovers a corpse and a stash of narcotics. Nap learns that Miss Gibson is a licensed P.I. who’s trying to keep the agency her father started afloat, now on a case that has her mixed up with gamblers and gangsters. Soon enough Cassie and Nap are on the run from the local law while duking it out with some mighty scary Reno crooks.

no luck for a lady - original

This ought to be Cassie’s book, but Nap Lincoln is the hero of ths ‘Cassie Gibson Detective Novel’, with the lady P.I. playing second fiddle all the way. It’s too bad, because her character is an interesting one. It’s all the more frustrating then to read the closing scene, with Cassandra and Nap about to go their separate ways, only to ‘fess up about their feelings for one another. Before they have the last paragraph’s climactic kiss, Cassie tells Nap, “I’ve had enough detecting to last the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a detective, Nap. I want…to be a woman.”

The two being mutually exclusive in 1950, apparently.

 

Death Was The Other Woman

death was the other woman

I’ve recently been stuck in the car for multiple two-hour each-way and six-hour each-way trips, and with an expired satellite radio subscription no less. I have several multi-disk sets of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar radio shows and got some mileage out of those (more about that excellent mystery series later). But one trip (one way, at least) sped by with Linda L. Richards’ Death Was The Other Woman. I rarely listen to audio books, though often I read that they’re one of the few real publishing/bookselling growth categories. ‘Course, I don’t think they mean old fashioned audio CD’s, but there are all kinds of freebies available at the library.

Richards’ novel is probably a little too soft to be labeled ‘hard-boiled’, but give me a mid-twentieth century urban setting and I’ll always give a book a try. In Depression-era L.A., young Kathleen ‘Kitty’ Panghorn, a one-time heiress whose father took a one-way flight out a skyscraper window during the stock market crash of 1929, has been reduced to living as a boarder in what was once her own home. Jobs are scarce, so she’s glad to be working (albeit with very unreliable paychecks) for private eye Dex Theroux, who might be a good detective if he wasn’t drunk most days by noon. All the familiar stereotypes, clichés and tropes of the genre are here in abundance, but handled well and in a genuinely fun way. Richards has done some fifteen novels, with three in the ‘Kitty Panghorn’ series, so now I’ll need to track down Death Was In The Picture, and the third from 2016, Death Was In The Blood. I don’t know if the audio book cover art shown above is the same as the hardcover, but this one was designed by David Rotstein, using a nifty Richie Fahey illustration.

Blue City

blue city

Ross MacDonald’s Blue City: Late in 2018 I re-read MacDonald’s The Way Some People Die, the third Lew Archer novel, and it ignited some kind of a MacDonald frenzy, and not just for McRibs (though I could go for one of those at the moment). Bit by bit I’ve been working my way through Ross MacDonald’s canon since. It seems that bookstore mystery sections don’t give the author (real name: Kenneth Millar) the respect he deserves, but then, there’s a very charming and well stocked bookstore a short hop from my day job that doesn’t have a single copy of anything by Raymond Chandler or Mickey Spillane on its shelves either, so go figure.

So far, one of my favorites among the MacDonald novels wasn’t a Lew Archer book at all, but this 1947 stand-alone Blue City. The Black Lizard 2011 trade pb edition is shown above, and a handsome Joe Montgomery designed cover it is. This might remind you a little bit of Spillane’s non-Mike Hammer novel The Long Wait from just a few years later, filled with small town corruption, gin mills, roadhouses, bad girlz who mean well and extremely vicious hoods. I was surprised at just how far MacDonald was allowed to go with the material – violence was A-OK in mid-twentieth century crime fiction, but there was always a lot of tip-toeing around the sex. It’s pretty sizzlin’ in this 70+ year old novel.

If you only know this title from the atrocious 1986 Michael Manning film of the same name with 80’s brat-packers Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy, forget that and read the book. It’s raw, gritty crime fiction at its very best.

Chicago Crime (Writers)

crime reads chicago

I don’t know if Chicago really produces more or better crime fiction. I’ll bet New York and L.A. writers would scoff at the notion. In fact, most writers working on either coast, or in Cleveland, Spokane, Omaha, Little Rock and everywhere in between would rightly argue that their home range is best.

My own current projects are set in Chicago, among some of the very same bus routes and neighborhoods Julie Hyzy — author of the White House Chef and the Manor Of Murder mystery series and the just-released thriller Virtual Sabotage — mentions in her Crime Reads piece “For Crime Writers, Chicago Is The Place To Be”. She isn’t cheerleading for the Windy City so much as pointing out what a surprisingly nurturing mystery/crime fiction community she’s discovered there. And if she did indeed wait at a CTA stop near Cook County Jail or ride the California Avenue bus south to the Marquette Park neighborhood commuting to high school, then she sliced right through a hunk of real Chicago: the southwest side’s ethnic blue collar bungalow belt. My in-progress ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ series is set primarily in Chicago’s Brighton Park neighborhood, just across the river and past the as-yet unbuilt expressway south of Cook County Jail, and immediately to the north of Ms. Hyzy’s high school destination. California Avenue – two lanes choked with cars and buses most of the way, sometimes residential, sometimes commercial, and unrelentingly brown bricked – is basically my novels’ eastern border.

Who am I to argue with her when she asks, “Why does the Windy City produce so much good crime fiction?” in her article’s subtitle. It’s an interesting read for Windy City dwellers, writers or any mystery/crime fiction enthusiasts. Check it out at https://crimereads.com/for-crime-writers-chicago-is-the-place-to-be/

Winter Reading Plans

three readers

Five days into the new year, and I just finished Meghan Scott Molin’s The Frame-Up (more about that one later), am deep into The Annotated Big Sleep for at-home reading and just picked up Sara Gran’s The Infinite Blacktop – A Claire DeWitt Novel to keep in the car for daytime-downtime reading. (I usually have more than one book going at a time, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.)

I normally have a folder handy on my desktop to screen-cap or download any interesting books I spot so I won’t forget to look for them, particularly since it may take a while to get around to it. Sometimes I feel foolish for letting so many books collect there, as if I could ever hope to read them all (not that it’d stop me from buying them). And at this time of year, when every blog and e-newsletter touts yet another ‘Best Of 2018’ or ‘Must-Read In 2019’ list, I feel doomed. When I skimmed J. Kingston Pierce’s Rap Sheet (therapsheet.blogspot.com) 1.3.19 post “Early Rivals For Our Reading Attention”, I was overwhelmed at first, then I didn’t feel quite so bad. It lists 325 US and UK new releases, and just for the first quarter of the year. If anyone can actually get through all those, they’re a speed-reader, unemployed…or nuts. And likely to be out about six grand.

the rap sheet screen cap

My own ‘watch-for’ list is much smaller right now. Forgive me for further cluttering feeds and inboxes with yet another book list. It’s a mixed bag of noir-ish fiction, mystery, hard-boiled crime, non-fiction, YA/comics-related titles and at least one genuinely goofy item: Murder-A-Go-Go’s – Crime Fiction Inspired By The Music Of The Go-Go’s. I mean, seriously…how can you not want to see what that’ll be about?

Raymond Chandler and The Annotated Big Sleep will keep me occupied for a few more nights. January is peculiarly balmy at the moment here, but it won’t be long before that changes, which means ideal at-home evening reading conditions. Indoors. Where it’s warm. And Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt will go down nicely with the dashboard heater blowing and a large coffee in the cup holder while waiting for an appointment or before work. Hopefully these other titles will show up at my local bookstore promptly.

2019 books 1

  • A Bloody Business by Dylan Struzan, with illustrations by Drew Struzan
  • American Heroin by Melissa Scrivner Love
  • Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs by Aimee Hix
  • Metropolis by Philip Kerr, the last Bernie Gunther novel before the author’s sad demise

2019 books 2

  • Murder, My Love by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (A Mike Hammer novel)
  • The Lost Girls Of Paris by Pam Jenoff
  • The Only Woman In The Room by Marie Benedict
  • The Jean Harlow Bombshell by Mollie Cox Bryan

2019 book 3

  • Bad by Chloe Esposito
  • The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
  • Murder-A-Go-Go’s – Crime Fiction Inspired By The Music Of The Go-Go’s edited by Holly West
  • Under The Moon – A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle

http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2019/01/early-rivals-for-our-reading-attention.html

Reader Photos by Jessica Castro, Daria Shevtsova and Kate Williams

The Annotated Big Sleep…and uneasy feelings of complicity.

The Annotated Big Sleep

The Annotated Big Sleep by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizutto (and, of course, by Raymond Chandler) with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem, came out in Summer 2018. I got my copy in early Autumn, but intentionally put the big 450+ page book aside at the time. Eager as I was to plunge back into one of my all-time favorite works from the classic era of mystery/hard-boiled crime fiction — now with the added delight of countless footnotes, annotations and period details explained along with accompanying photos — I concluded that it’d be better to linger over this gem and savor every annotated anecdote in cozy armchair comfort during the soon-to-arrive long winter nights. Now with January here, the holiday hubbub behind us and the bleakest stretch of frigid weather ahead, that plush chair and Chandler’s 1939 The Big Sleep beckons. So I’ve just plunged in.

But as I begin, I’m reminded of author Megan Abbott’s July, 2018 Slate.com essay, “The Big Sleep – Reading Raymond Chandler In The Age Of #MeToo”.

Megan Abbott begins with: “In April, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman, writing about male authors who objectify or diminish women, marveled over the many women she knows who remain ‘open to verbal entrancement’ by such men. As an example, she cited those who ‘sustain complicated and admiring relationships with lodestars like Raymond Chandler.’ Reading those words, I felt found out. Exposed.”

Slate - Megan Abbott-Raymond Chandler

Abbott relates how she first discovered Chandler as a child through Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaption of The Big Sleep, then started what became her first novel in order to actually write herself into sardonic, world-weary Philip Marlowe’s world. Dial forward to Summer 2018 when, like many (myself included), Abbott eagerly waited for the release of the first ever annotated edition of The Big Sleep and Chandler’s “lushly rendered world of afternoon highballs, blackjacks hidden behind trench coats, and cunning women with teeth like knives”. But with the book in hand, she realized that “…like most women I know, I’ve been squinting hard at my attachment to certain male writers and artists, from Jim Thompson to Norman Mailer, with problematic or troubling views of women. The word complicity knocks around my brain…”

I suppose that word must knock around in most mystery/crime fiction writers’ heads. And if it doesn’t, perhaps it ought to.

It’s one thing to read mid-twentieth century favorites contextually, ever mindful that the stories were written in different times and a vastly different social and cultural landscape. And I for one think it’s dangerous to interpret such material through contemporary filters, seeing themes and subtexts lurking there that most likely never occurred to the writers themselves. So I choose not to feel any guilt when I enjoy Raymond Chandler, any more than I do when I read Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald or even Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddel novels. But as Abbott notes, “If you want to understand toxic white male masculinity , you could learn a lot by looking at noir.” The noir world – films, novels, pulp stories, comics and more – is a darkly retro place, dialed decades back to a time when gender roles are quite different. Women characters are relegated to eye candy or the occasional femme fatale…either props or fundamentally evil. Further, as mystery/crime fiction readers and fans, we delight in all the murder and mayhem. And as writers, we actually create it.

In contemporary crime fiction and thrillers, female characters are often a kind of cannon fodder, anonymous and included only to be stalked, abused, tortured or murdered. Disproportionately, women are the victims of violence that’s all too often catalogued in gruesomely fetishistic detail, frequently less as ‘crime’ and instead some kind of perversely voyeuristic titillation. So, when we relish these creepy chills as readers, or craft them as writers, are we merely compounding decades-old problems?

Hey, don’t look for answers here. If a brilliant writer like Megan Abbott struggles with complicity, I can’t expect to do any more.

But I suspect that I’ll raise this topic again in the future. This notion of complicity, that is. My own current projects are set in 1959, right on the cusp of sweeping social changes, but not quite there yet. It’s difficult to settle into a 1959 mindset and attempt to make characters, situations and dialog ring true. Sometimes succeeding can almost make me cringe. But the times were what they were.

None of that will make Hill’s, Jackson’s and Rizutto’s (and, once again, Raymond Chandler’s) The Annotated Big Sleep any less enjoyable for me. It’ll give me something to keep in mind, though. Slogging home from work through slush and ice will be almost bearable knowing that hefty book is on the end table beside a cushy chair, and at least for a few evenings I’ll be comfortably ensconced in southern California. But when I reluctantly set it aside to return to my keyboard and get back to work on my own projects, that complicity thing will be knocking around in my head, the same as it seems to do in Megan Abbott’s. And that’s a good thing… that I’m wrestling with it, that is. And we all should.

https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/raymond-chandler-in-the-age-of-metoo.html

 

 

 

Their First Meeting

Strand Magazine Oct-Jan 2018

Foolishly, I used to bypass Strand Magazine on the newstands, wrongly considering it a Sherlock Holmes and cozy mystery title. Once I finally bought a copy, I learned otherwise, of course.

For example: The October 2018-January 2019 issue leads off with a Mike Hammer story by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, adapted from a radio-style playlet originally intended as part of a 1954 Mike Hammer jazz LP. Iowa writer Collins, as many know, became close friends with Spillane in the hard-boiled master’s latter years and was assigned to manage his papers after his death, which included completing a number of unfinished manuscripts.

“Tonight My Love” in this current issue of Strand Magazine is a short-short story, opening much like a Mike Hammer novel would, with the “hard-hitting and lusty” private eye on a routine tail job, lurking outside a low rent nightclub while he tries to keep a Lucky Strike lit on a rainy New York night. “That was when she showed up from somewhere wearing a red dress that would’ve looked painted-on if any living artist was only that good. Her eyes were big and dark, and her lips so lush it made my own go slack…”

In a little over two and half pages of taut, vintage Spillane (via Max Allan Collins) prose we witness an important event in the Mike Hammer saga that stretched over multiple novels, short stories, movies, TV series, radio shows and comics. The very last line of “Tonight My Love” is a gotcha for any Spillane fan (and I’m definitely one).

Different actresses have played the part, from Maxine Cooper to Tanya Roberts, but it may be that, much like Spillane’s Mike Hammer himself, it’s a role that can’t really be assumed since each reader has their own image of…well, that’d be giving away the last line of “Tonight My Love”. Check it out in the current Strand Magazine.

 

No Business For A Lady

No Business For A LAdy copy

James L. Rubel’s No Business For A Lady (1950) is a frustrating novel. While the book’s front and back covers tease with “Meet Eli Donovan, lady detective and easily the most beautiful shamus living”, and “Most detectives have angles, but here’s one that has curves”, we’d expect postwar paperbacks to pitch a female private detective that way. What’s frustrating is 1) that a genuinely interesting female P.I. character that preceded G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz couldn’t garner her own series, and 2) that a well-conceived character could be dropped into a plot that relies on an utterly implausible crime, albeit in an otherwise well-told tale.

Rubel’s Eli Donovan is a licensed L.A. private investigator earning a comfortable living on routine cases like background checks and debt collections. Nothing glamorous or exciting, but it’s enough to pay for a nice wardrobe, a sporty coupe, a handsome apartment and to indulge her weakness for hats – the fancier and frillier the better (this is still the era when men and women alike wore hats darn near everywhere). Actually, based on the novel’s description, neither woman depicted on the book covers shown here resemble her at all.

Now, don’t be fooled: Eli’s no daffodil. She’s a former Marine, former cop and, oddly enough, a former chorus girl (briefly). She packs a Walther automatic and can take care of herself. A war widow, Eli Donovan fell in love with a fellow Marine who went missing on Tarawa, was finally declared dead and supposedly buried there according to the Corps. She didn’t make it through WWII unscathed herself, and was seriously injured in a Jeep accident, requiring plastic surgery. With her appearance changed, she also switched from a “mousey brunette” to a blonde to start fresh after the war (and so, she doesn’t resemble either of the women depicted on the books’ covers).

Early in the novel, Eli has a chance to earn a bigger than usual fee from a wealthy but stern and unattractive businesswoman (“with a face that looked like it was sired by a horse”) who admits to being insanely jealous over her handsome cad of a husband, who she suspects of being unfaithful. Well, so far, so good. The setup could lead to delicious vintage mystery/crime fiction fun: adultery, murder…all the good stuff.

And it does. Well…sort of. Because the main plot device here is that the unfaithful (and very flirtatious) hubby is a dead ringer for Eli Donovan’s dead husband. In fact, it turns out that he actually is her husband, who really wasn’t killed on Tarawa after all. Yet for a good 50 – 75 pages, he apparently doesn’t recognize Eli as his former wife. And she’s not sure he’s her husband…she only suspects he might be. Now don’t you suppose you could instantly recognize your spouse, even after a 5-6 year absence? And I don’t mean from a distance, or in a brief encounter, but in multiple meetings, over drinks, dinner and romantic one-on-ones? The whole business comes off kind of silly, and torpedoes this otherwise well done novel.

That nonsense aside, the story is well told with interesting secondary characters, some twists and turns, and most of all, an otherwise credible and well-drawn heroine. The novel’s conclusion feels open ended enough to lead to a sequel and a series. At the very end, Eli and her police chief pal go over details of the case when he asks if she still has feelings for her ex, now a felon wanted not only by the police, but the Marine Corps. Eli assures him she’s over him.

“Then find yourself a nice guy and settle down to raising a family,” he suggested. “This is no business for a lady.” I shook my head and smiled at him. He was a swell friend and I liked him. But he hadn’t analyzed me correctly. I liked men. I loved the way they whistled when they saw me. I was still young and I had a lot of years ahead of me before my hair turned gray, my face got lined and the whistling stopped. I couldn’t picture myself living in semi-poverty surrounded by wet diapers and screaming infants. Maybe someday I’d be lucky enough to meet the right man. Until I did…? I said, “Sorry, Bill. But I’m not a lady.

 (Scan of my pretty solid 1950 edition at top, the 1965 edition below (that one’s not mine.)

No Business for a Lady 1965

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