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. 

What’s Old is New Again.

My pre-Halloween reading (an illustrated edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) wrapped up a few days before the holiday, and I was tempted to grab another horror classic as we headed closer to the 31st. But the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable still had a few books, with one right on top I was anxious to get to, the sleek Rui Ricardo cover art calling to me each time passed by. 

“Fortune favors the bold” is a Latin proverb, and frequently used as a slogan by the military and on European coats of arms. Fortune favors the dead? Well…

I didn’t know much about Stephen Spotswood’s new Fortune Favors The Dead, only that it was set in post-WWII NYC and had been likened to a gender-bending version of Nero Wolfe, all of which sounded good to me. As it turned out, the only disappointment with Spotswood’s debut novel came once I reached the end. No tap dancing around things here: I loved this book, did not want it to end, and insist that Spotswood hunker down on a follow-up…like now.

Fortune Favors The Dead introduces a memorable detective duo: Lillian Pentecost, an already well-known and successful New York private investigator and all-around ‘fixer’ who’s reserved, insightful, and unfortunately, suffering from worsening MS. Finding a very special person to mentor as an assistant is essential. In a sort-of prologue set three years before the novel’s main storyline, we meet the narrator, Willowjean “Will” Parker, a teenage runaway roving the country with a small-time circus, earning some extra pocket money during its New York stay. In an exciting opening scene, Willowjean’s knife throwing skills save Lillian Pentecost, and land Will in jail.

The real story picks up right after the end of WWII, with the Pentecost agency enlisted to investigate the murder of a wealthy industrialist’s widow (the industrialist having offed himself earlier). The killing took place right after a spooky séance at a Halloween costume party and is a genuine locked room mystery with plenty of suspects.

What’s old is new again in Spotswood’s capable hands, situating his debut novel in comfortable territory and populating it with familiar types. Mind you, none of this is done in a derivative manner. Quite the contrary, Spotswood turns Golden Age mystery fiction and film tropes on their ear, reinventing everything in a way that honors genre roots but feels entirely fresh and new, most notably by replacing cerebral Nero Wolfe and streetwise Archie Goodwin with an intriguing detective duo like Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker, than taking things still further with Will’s risky attraction to a possible suspect — the pretty party girl stepdaughter of the murder victim — and even further still with the ultimate resolution of the crime(s). An admission: I didn’t figure out even one tiny bit of the mystery on my own and clumsily fell for every single red herring the author inserted along the way. Credit to Stephen Spotswood.

Is Fortune Favors The Dead a standalone? I really hope not. I want to return to Lillian Pentecost’s well-appointed headquarters home and tag along with Willowjean Parker, whether she’s getting herself in trouble (which she does) or getting in too deep with a pretty face. Come to think of it, those are both the same thing.

Candy & Johnny On Air (And In My Car).

With my obligatory Halloween season reading complete, and a nifty illustrated hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula returned to the writing lair’s bookcases till it’s due for another re-read, it’s back to more traditional fare for me, which right now happens to be Stephen Spotswood’s just-released Fortune Favors The Dead. I only started it Tuesday morning, am only 60 pages into the novel as I write this, and will likely be halfway through by the time you’re reading this. So more about that new mystery/crime fiction novel later, though I can tell you that Spotswood’s unique pair of 1940’s private investigators pretty much had me from page one. 

The same day I started Fortune Favors The Dead, my Crime Reads e-newsletter (or whatever they call it) listed an article by Stephen Spotswood himself, and on a cherished topic: “10 Classic Radio Mysteries Every Crime Fiction Lover Should Know” (link below). ‘Round here, old time radio fans have long enjoyed a local four-hour Saturday afternoon showcase that aired its share of classic mystery and crime shows, though lately it’s been veering more and more toward big band broadcasts and comedies. But there’s always satellite radio, which I’ll admit I’m kind of off-and-on with (currently on) for a reliable round-the-clock broadcast including a healthy helping of classic mystery and crime programs. 

Spotswood’s Crime Reads article highlights a number of well-known and not-so-well known shows from the 1930’s through very early 60’s, two in particular being faves of mine. Candy Matson, starring Natalie Parks, was one of the west coast’s most popular series in its time, short-lived as it was (1949 – 1951). Matson, a former fashion model turned private eye, was a “stiletto gumshoe” if ever there was one, and it’s too bad that of the show’s 90 episodes, only fourteen survived. But they’re a treat. For more about Candy Matson, follow the other link below to an August 2019 post from right here.

My hands-down favorite vintage radio mystery/crime drama is Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, a long-running series (1949 – 1962) with over 800 episodes and one of the very last radio dramas to be broadcast nationally. Johnny Dollar originally was a traditional hard-boiled P.I., but the show was re-tooled in the mid-50’s with the character reimagined as a freelance insurance investigator…”the man with the action packed expense account”. In the show’s audition pilot, Dick Powell played the lead, and then a long list of actors took over Johnny Dollar’s role, including Charles Russell, film star Edmond O’Brien (seen up above at the top if this post with his eyes glued to either the revolver or the shapely limbs), John Lund, Bob Readick and Mandel Kramer…and the actor most fans associate with Johnny Dollar: Bob Bailey. During what many consider the show’s best period, Bailey as Johnny Dollar narrated each story, which ran for one whole week in nightly fifteen-minute episodes. Production values, co-stars and music were all top notch, and the scripts were as good as any mystery/crime fiction storytelling you’d find in Manhunt magazine or on a prime TV show.

I already have several multi-disk sets of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and will surely end up with more, though I have a bad feeling that when it’s time to trade in the current wheels, new cars won’t even have CD players any longer. And for me, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar – or any mystery/crime radio shows – go best with long drives. I don’t know why, but radio dramas just make the miles go by quicker. Now I’ll assume that most vintage radio programs have fallen into the public domain. Candy Matson, Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and so many others are all over the place and from multiple companies, with three, four or more versions of disk sets and sometimes even more for downloads. Guessing which ones are good quality is a gamble. That said, if you haven’t tried old time radio mystery/crime shows, do so, and I’d say that Candy Matson and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar are good places to start.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/08/25/candy-matson/

A Stiletto Gumshoe’s Halloween: The Toff.

“The Toff” (the Honorable Richard Rollinson) opens his mail and discovers a beautifully crafted doll of a naked woman – with a dagger plunged into her chest – which lures him into the bizarre world of the Obeah and a dangerous occult mystery. Maybe mystery, crime fiction and the supernatural (or at least the exceedingly eerie) ought to intersect more often. This one’s a pulpy adventure in John Creasey’s long running series of some sixty “Toff” novels published between 1938 and 1977. The piece of cover art above is from a 1967 Hodder & Stoughton UK paperback edition of A Doll For The Toff, though sadly without an artist credit that I know of.

From East Of A To Apartment Five.

Coincidentally, a few weeks back I pulled Russell Atwood’s 1999 novel East of A off the shelf for an overdue re-read, recalling that I enjoyed the book enough the first time around to earn a spot as a keeper in the writing lair’s over-stuffed bookcases. But there were other new arrivals on the to-be-read pile, and Atwood’s novel eased back into place.

But not this time. East Of A will get its re-read, so I can revisit NYC private eye Payton Sherwood, a man with more than his own share of backstory, who tries to help a teenage runaway, only to end up taking a beating from some street thugs and having the girl run off with his Rolodex. Call it noir, neo-noir, post-modern noir or whatever the hell you like – this one was damn good. Normally novels that feel like travelogues and spend too much time taking the reader on a tour of their setting can leave me wanting. Not East Of A and its gloriously gritty romp through after-hours clubs, drug dens and the underbelly of New York City, neatly conducting its guided tour by way of the storytelling. It left me wanting more.

Which is good, since J. Kingston Pierce’s 10.24.20 edition of The Rap Sheet Blog happened to be one of those long lists of newsworthy mystery/crime fiction miscellany (that post called “A Basket of Oddments”), including a mention of Atwood’s Payton Sherwood mysteries (East of A from 1999 and Losers Live Longer from ten years later), and the news that there’s some new Atwood work available, though not a Payton Sherwood crime novel this time. I suppose I’ll get Atwood’s new Apartment Five Is Alive a little late for Halloween, but I’ll still be in the mood for a haunted house (make that apartment) book.

In addition to being a writer, Atwood runs Blue Umbrella Books in his Westfield, Massachusetts hometown, which like many indie booksellers already had a tough enough time of making a go of things, and has taken a beating during the pandemic and its shut-downs. Apartment Five Is Alive can hopefully put some coin in the kitty. Hey, I’m in. 

For more (with links) about Russell Atwood and his books, head to The Rap Sheet blog, which if you don’t already, you really ought to. Link below…

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2020/08/the-book-you-have-to-read-east-of-by.html

More From Larry Schwinger.

Pennsylvania artist and illustrator Laurence ‘Larry’ Schwinger’s full color illustrations made my recent used bookstore find of the 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a real jewel. And all for less than ten bucks. His non-stylized, no-nonsense illustrations added a lot to the classic vampire tale. 

Schwinger didn’t do a lot of horror work that I’m aware of. Or that much mystery/crime fiction material either. But he did some, and they’re nifty pieces, including a series of Cornell Woolrich 1980’s Ballantine paperbacks like I Married A Dead Man (at the top), The Bride Wore Black and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and more recently, some Hard Case Crime novels, including Spiderweb, Shooting Star, Witness To Myself and Robbie’s Wife

An Unsuitable Job For A Woman.

P.D. James’ (1920 – 2014) first novel came out ten years before her An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (1972), which was, I think, her fifth book. In addition to several standalone works, James (Phyllis Dorothy James, The Baroness James of Holland Park, no less) published a popular series of fourteen mystery novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh, and the London inspector even factored in An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which introduced young London private investigator Cordelia Gray. 

The fact is, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is a more important character among literary detectives, cops and investigators than she’s sometimes given credit for, bridging a gap between the golden age of mystery’s largely genteel (and often British) female detectives, the handful of 50’s/60’s era women P.I.’s, cops and spies — most of whom resided in glib, period-sexy quickies – and the introduction of a fresh crop of long-lived, popular characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Washawski and others in the early 1980’s. But back in 1972, Cordelia Gray was something else altogether: A pointedly unglamorous person with no exceptional superspy skills, sometimes troubled by very human self-doubt, but always bolstered by determination and persistence. 

In the first of only two Cordelia Gray novels, the fledgling 22-year old private detective suddenly assumes ownership of her former boss-then-mentor and business partner’s private detective agency after he’s committed suicide, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Business” is a relative term, but Cordelia promptly acquires an unexpected out-of-town client. She’s tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of an otherwise healthy, handsome and well-liked college student (soon due for a generous inheritance, as well) who abruptly left school, hid out in a remote estate gardener’s shed, and was found dead, presumably having hung himself with his own belt. A telltale clue – traces of purple lipstick on his lips – leads Cordelia and the reader astray, certain that a woman was involved in the young man’s death. That’s cleared up once Cordelia learns he was actually found wearing that lipstick…along with a lacy black bra and panties. But even this is only one more crafty diversion in P.D. James’ mystery.

Hard-boiled or noir-ish, it’s not. An Unsuitable Job For A Woman isn’t a shoot-em-up or action-filled thriller. It’s a classic mystery British mystery novel freshened up for its time. Or, even a little ahead of its time. And more than merely ‘freshened up’. Cordelia’s stuck in a few fixes and there are some exciting scenes punctuating her relentless investigation (trapped in an abandoned and frighteningly deep well, just one harrowing example). The mystery’s resolution – and the very extended coda that follows – all satisfy and seem sure to have left readers craving more from Cordelia Gray. So, it’s surprising that James only wrote one more Cordelia Gray novel, and not till ten years later, at that: The Skull Beneath The Skin (1982). 

I originally read An Unsuitable Job For A Woman a long time ago. Honestly, it hadn’t been top of mind for ages, till I recently stumbled across a handsome trade pb and decided it was time for a re-read. Aside from the basic premise, I’d forgotten enough so that my re-read was more like a first-read. I’d also forgotten how very, very British the novel was, which isn’t a criticism, only an acknowledgment of what a provincial Midwesterner I must be.

Maybe Cordelia Gray didn’t enjoy the multi-book career she deserved. But she did live on, and more about that in another post…

More Manhunt.

A little over a year ago, I got my hands on Stark House Press’ The Best Of Manhunt, edited by Jeff Vorzimmer (see link below for more on that book).  A legendary postwar mystery/crime fiction pulp magazine like Manhunt clearly deserves more than just one “best of” volume, so Vorzimmer’s back with The Best Of Manhunt 2 (2020), a 420+ page companion trade pb. Much like the first book, there aren’t a lot of ‘extras’, such as author bio’s or cover reprint images. The stories are the attraction. The book opens with some brief entries including Peter Enfantino’s foreword, Jon L. Breen’s introduction and his 1968 article, “On The Passing Of Manhunt”, and finally a 1970 Robert Turner article “Life And Death Of A Magazine”. Those only take up twenty pages or so, and then it’s on to forty tales culled from 1953 through 1964 issues of Manhunt magazine.

The first book may have included a roster of more ‘marquee’ authors, but this follow-up volume still features familiar names like Fletcher Flora, Bruno Fischer, Erle Stanley Gardner, Wade Miller and Donald Westlake. Manhunt’s gritty, hard-boiled rep didn’t seem to attract many women writers, but you’ll find Delores Florine Stanton Forbes (1923 – 2013) included, appearing here as De Forbes. Helen Nielsen (1918 – 2002) was better known as a TV mystery scriptwriter, but her “You Can’t Trust A Man” from a 1955 issue is short, sweet tale with a gotcha ending, and it’s a real treat. 

I don’t know if it makes sense to list “best of’s” from a “best of” book. So I’ll just point out my favorites. While the anthology finds noirish and hard-boiled crime and mayhem in every corner of the U.S. from Florida to Chicago, make-believe burgs and various nowheresvilles, my faves were coastal, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Frank Kane (1912-1968) is the man behind the long running Johnny Liddell P.I. series of nearly thirty novels and numerous sort stories. His glib NYC gumshoe is too slick and smart-assed for some readers, but Kane’s non-Liddell story, “Key Witness” from a 1956 issue is near-perfect. In part a police procedural, it feels like it could have been written today save for a few anachronisms. There’s no wisecracks or trademark Kane leering, the longish tale was quite dark, gritty and, for me, wholly unexpected.

Heading west to Los Angeles, William Campbell Gault’s “Death Of A Big Wheel” from the April 1957 issue is a lengthy story featuring Hollywood private eye Joe Puma. Some innocent cocktail lounge small talk with a past-his-prime film star finds Puma mixed up with hard-as-nails B-movie studio starlets and gangsters. It’s a real fun read, and was just begging to made into a movie. Still ought to be, if you ask me.

Covers of some of the Manhunt issues the forty stories included in The Best Of Manhunt 2 are shown here.  If you’re interested in postwar mystery/crime pulp fiction that’s a couple notches above the repetitious fistfights, gunplay and outlandish mysteries of 1930’s-40’s era pulps, you can’t go wrong with either (or both) of The Best of Manhunt books.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/09/06/the-best-of-manhunt/

Just Let Them Do The Talking.

If you’re an Elmore Leonard (10.11.25 – 8.20.2013) fan, which I am, you’ll want to visit Crime Reads for Dwyer Murphy’s excellent piece “How Elmore Leonard Really Wrote His Novels – According To His Characters” (link below).  Leonard was one of those incredibly prolific writers who built a loyal fan base of avid readers right alongside equally dedicated followers among writers who marveled at his streamlined and readable storytelling that always stripped away the superfluous. Everything superfluous. And did so with what seemed like effortless ease (which I’m certain it wasn’t). As Dwyer Murphy explains, Leonard named his characters and more or less told them to start talking, and that’s how the story unfolded. And it worked, by God, it really really worked.

Dwyer’s article is an interesting read in itself, and timely on Leonard’s birthday, but all the more so for the excellent links to previous Crime Reads articles on Elmore Leonard. Writer or reader, you’ll find them all worth a read, and below you’ll also find a link to a year-old post from right here about Leonard’s famous “rules for writers”.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/10/14/the-rules/

Build My Gallows High.

Geoffrey Homes’ last novel Build My Gallows High (1946) was adapted by the author himself — under his real name, Daniel Mainwaring (1902 – 1977) — for the screenplay for Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1947 film noir Out Of The Past with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. (See the preceding post for more about that.)

Name changes between a book and film adaptation are nothing new and often done with no apparent reason besides a screenwriter’s whim. Out Of The Past’s Jeff Bailey was Red Bailey in the book. As for Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat, who’s rightly considered one of the postwar film noir era’s most iconic femmes fatales, she’s Harriet “Mumsie” McGonigle in Mainwaring/Homes’ novel. Mumsie? Seriously? Somehow, I just don’t see Robert Mitchum’s noir antihero forsaking all hope of redemption for someone named Mumsie McGonigle, even when played by Jane Greer.

There actually was a real-life Mumsie McGonigle in early 1940’s Los Angeles crime lore, a notorious Madame named Rose “Mumsie” McGonigle who ran a 24/7 brothel catering to celebrities and providing freebies to public officials as payoffs. When the law finally shut her down, Mumsie’s bribes must’ve worked, since all but one of 48 counts of pandering, procurement and statutory rape were dismissed. Mumsie’s rumored little black book listing Los Angeles politicians and studio bigwigs (and their various ‘proclivities’) may have also helped to get the charges dropped.

Geoffrey Homes’ Build My Gallows High came out in hardcover and later in paperback as an Ace Double Novel paired with Harry Whittington’s The Humming Box. But book titles, of course, can’t be copyrighted except in some very limited trademark brand name cases. If you’re looking for a copy of Mainwaring/Homes’ Build My Gallows High to compare the novel to the film Out Of The Past, don’t get confused with Roy Benard Sparkia’s 1956 Build My Gallows High, a Gold Medal paperback original about a series of murders in a resort community.

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