Denis McLoughlin.

Several consecutive posts in early August talked about Henry Kane’s late 1950’s ‘stiletto gumshoe’, Marla Trent, the “Private Eyeful” (link below). The paperbacks were graced by cover art from postwar illustration greats like Robert Maguire and Mort Engle, but I did once have a hardcover with much simpler (and a little less leering) art by Denis McLoughlin, which in its way was all the more striking.

British artist Denis McLoughlin (1918 – 2002) was as much a graphic designer as an illustrator, doing spot illustrations for a mail order catalog firm when WWII broke out and he became a gunner at a suburban London Royal Artillery Depot. There he was also ‘drafted’ to do officers’ portraits and produce murals around the base. After the war, McLoughlin began a long association with UK publisher T.V. Boardman, Ltd., his book cover work what he’s best known for, though he also did many magazine illustrations and even worked in comics. Fascinated by the swiftly evolving photo-mechanical color separations processes, McLoughlin was known for eking out striking results with limited colors, something pretty foreign to contemporary designers and illustrators working in a CMYK digital environment. 

Like many of the unsung heroes of the postwar commercial art world, Denis McLoughlin was all too often underpaid for his efforts. In his case it meant being forced to work way past retirement age. Tragically, his eyesight faded in his 80’s, Soon, he began to lose dexterity in his right arm. Fearing he’d be unable to draw and paint, Denis McLoughlin committed suicide using a studio prop pistol that only had one bullet in it. 

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2020/08/01/no-really-where-did-marla-go/

The Phineas Poe Trilogy.

Don’t let a noir protagonist’s quirky name fool you. Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe is not Auguste Dupin or Hercule Poirot. Hell, he’s not even Mike Hammer or Jessica Jones. The mean streets of Manhattan or L.A. have nothing on Phineas Poe’s darkest nightmares. If you want to read something uplifting – or at least reassuring – move on. The closest familiar comparison I can offer you to Baer’s three Phineas Poe novels would be Peter Medak’s unrelentingly dark (and almost surreal) 1993 neo-noir thriller Romeo Is Bleeding, scripted by Hilary Henkin.   

Baer’s Phineas Poe is a former cop and drug addict fresh from the psych ward and promptly mixed up with Jude, a classic noir femme fatale who abandons him (and I won’t tell you precisely what he discovers has occurred when he awakes to find her gone), and his tortuous, violence filled quest to find her – to reunite, to rescue her or to seek revenge – takes Poe on a dark journey through drug induced dreams and violent episodes populated by two-bit crooks, Goths, hackers, sociopaths and killers. It all plays out in a nightmare landscape that may be Denver, Colorado and desert-noir Texas, but is more like Dante’s nine circles of hell. Sound like fun?

It is. Oh, it really, really is. 

There are three Phineas Poe novels: Kiss me, Judas (1998), Hell’s Half Acre (2000) and Penny Dreadful (2004), each readily available individually both new and used and also conveniently offered in three-novel omnibus editions. The reader may take a while to adjust to Baer’s writing style, its rapid-paced yet surreal language and almost bratty taunting with ‘normal’ structure, punctuation and grammar. But a few pages in, Baer’s dark poetry will have you hooked, and structural norms largely forgotten. 

I was shocked to discover Baer’s Phineas Poe books (individual editions and one omnibus…I’m not a collector but always acquisitive) missing from the writing lair’s too-many and overstuffed bookcases, presumably squeezed out by new additions at some point in recent years. Shame on me. But that’s a mistake that’s easily rectified. I have Greg Levin’s Criminal Element article “12 Neo-Noir Authors Too Good Not To Be Crazy Famous” (see the preceding post) to thank for prompting me to look for my Baer books and to order new ones right away. There’ll be other new books ahead of Baer’s Phineas Poe trilogy, but now I can’t wait to get really weirded out all over again.

From Paused To Un-Pause.

I’ve been more or less on ‘pause’ with my own writing projects since late March. Specifically, the outreach/submission chores have been on hold, for good or bad, waiting till Labor Day before ‘un-pausing’.

Queries previously circulated for the completed The Stiletto Gumshoe novel (that’s actually not it’s title) while I continued work on its follow-up for a hoped-for mystery/crime fiction series. But with NYC the epicenter of all-things-bad back in the Spring, it seemed sensible to halt any further outreach. Considering the frustrating ratio of replies (even when they’re ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’) to so-called NORMANS (no reply means a no), why send things out to empty workstations and unopened inboxes? Offices had emptied out, folks were huddling in their homes and apartments, and we all had bigger things on our minds than genre fiction queries.

Things loosened up a little in some parts of the country (New York in particular) while we drifted into Summer, a time of year considered by many (though not all) as the publishing marketplace’s down-time. Though ‘real’ Summer’s still with us for another two weeks-plus, Labor Day’s the traditional end of the season, and I’m ready – even eager – to get going again. So, just to get back in the groove, I pulled the untouched-for-months manuscript out and gave it another once-over…what writer can forego making another tweak or two? 

As for the in-progress sequel? It hasn’t progressed as much as I’d like, not for lack of inspiration or due to writer’s block, but simply a matter of time. I never could’ve foreseen how the day job would change once everything went haywire back in late March: Staff working from home, me on-site, access to assets, info and more from Brazil, Germany, the UK and other faraway places all delayed. Bottom line: Everything takes half again longer than usual to complete. Mind you, there’ll be no whining here. I’m working. So many still are not. 

Writing, publishing and bookselling sites, blogs and the trade press provide a mixed bag of news and opinions on what’s-what in the marketplaces. The good news: Print unit sales have been up, by more than anyone foresaw, and the numbers seem to show some staying power. On the other hand, book production’s been disrupted, not only by pandemic related issues but supply-chain and other problems with the main book printing mega-companies. Still, new titles are coming out. Deals are being made. All eyes may be on the latest political tell-all hardcover right now, but we assume that’ll fade sometime soon. So, while pressing pause when the pandemic first swept over the country and everything initially shut down seemed prudent, lingering in neutral for too long can only lead to inertia. Time to get back to work.

Literary Agent Jessica Faust’s excellent Bookends Literary Agency blog (link below) recently posted “Keep Moving Forward”, recounting the ups and downs (mostly ups) of the scary days in the Spring, and offers, “My tip for my clients is the same as I gave my agents. Keep moving forward…Keep submitting, even if it’s summer or a pandemic or the world looks bleak. Keep moving forward and controlling the one thing you can control: What you’re doing.”  Makes sense to me. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is or will ultimately be, there’s no point sitting on the sidelines with a wait-n-see attitude. So next week I’ll reopen that buzzkill of a query/submission spreadsheet, revisit my continually-added-to literary agent lists, revise and refresh my queries and get back to work. 

Y’know, I’m getting revved up already.

Keep Moving Forward

Photos: Laura Chouette, Natalia Drepina, Janko Ferlic

Mystery Muses.

Filling and then whittling down my writing lair’s to-be-read endtable yields a lot of books, some few keepers finding their way onto already over-stuffed bookshelves, the rest crammed into cartons headed for the used booksellers. This time it took two trips to turn in three hefty cartons, most of those the non-keepers from my sheltering-in reading. No point in grousing about the out-of-pocket spending for those boxes-o-books vs. what I got back. Reading isn’t a business, after all. Usually all that fresh cash is burning a hole in my pocket before I can leave the store anyway. This time I behaved, more or less, and only walked out with one book (hard to believe).

Jim Huang and Austin Lugar’s 2006 Mystery Muses – 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers is a follow up to their 100 Favorite Mysteries Of The Century and They Died In Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated And Forgotten Mystery Novels. Huang and Lugar are just the editors, letting 100 mystery writers ranging from the well known to some newcomers (newcomers fifteen years ago, that is) comment on classic mystery novels that inspired or played a seminal role in their own mystery and crime fiction careers. This 224-page trade pb was a quick read, though I’ll need to revisit it again, this time with a pen and notepad handy. I’m embarrassed to admit that there were quite a few classics I still haven’t read (and a few I’d never heard of!) but also, the participating writers included a number of names I wasn’t familiar with and, in some cases, now want to know more about. 

A Black Silk Dress, Tighter Than A Bandage On A Sore Finger.

Allan Anderson’s gruesome cover art for the January 1942 issue of Spicy Detective magazine corroborates the assumption that the illustrators were often cooking up ideas (or getting them from the editors) with little regard to the stories inside a particular issue. Oh, there’s all sorts of murder and mayhem in this 128-page Adventure House 2007 trade pb reprint, but nothing about a bride-to-be fending off a knife-wielding killer outside the seamstress’ fitting room. 

That the U.S. was officially in WWII by this point is apparent, though the stories were surely written and selected long before Pearl Harbor the month before. Henri St. Maur’s “Go Ahead – Shoot” deals with private op Matt Kerrigan tangling with Axis spies at a precious metals smelter, and Adolphe Barreaux’s Sally The Sleuth 8-page comic “On The Heels Of Heels” finds her infiltrating Nazi saboteurs masquerading as a quiet married suburban couple. For once, it’s someone other than Sally herself who manages to lose most of her clothes (well, mostly). 

The interior illustrations shown here (unfortunately uncredited, as usual) accompany the issue’s lead story, “A Pile of Publicity” by Justin Case. That would be pulp maestro Hugh B. Cave (1910 – 2004), a one-man story factory who sold over 800 pulp magazine tales, most of his horror, science fiction and weird menace tales penned under his real name. “Justin Case” was used for The Eel series, The Eel one of the era’s many gentleman thief anti-heroes who dabbled in private investigations. Case/Cave wrote seventeen of them between 1936 and 1942, this one the second to last. An admirer of Damon Runyon’s style, Case mimicked that same present-tense first-person format for his Eel tales. Here, The Eel’s hired by a wealthy artist to protect a just-completed full figure nude portrait to be unveiled during an elaborate gala at the painter’s Connecticut estate, and wouldn’t you know it, some folks wind up dead during the highbrow art set’s decadent shenanigans.

For anyone who’s only used to browsing the 1930’s-40’s era’s mystery/crime pulp’s covers but hasn’t given the stories themselves a try, I encourage you to do so (mystery/crime fiction writers in particular). Every hoary hard-boiled genre cliché began here, sometimes awkwardly plugged into really clunky prose, but often as not, really leaping off the page, particularly when you keep in mind they weren’t quite so cliched yet. For example, try this passage from the issue’s second-to-last story, “Two Little Rocks” by Clark Nelson, a nifty bit of nastiness dealing with murderous jewel smugglers: 

“The instant Steve Carnahan, proprietor of Carnahan Detective Agency, entered that frowsy hotel bedroom, he knew he’d led with his chin. 

A dame opened the door to his hairy-fisted knock. She was a tall, slinky redhead in a black silk dress that was tighter than a bandage on a sore finger. She had green eyes, red lips and a sardonic smile. She also had a pearl-handled .38 caliber persuader, which she proceeded to jam against Carnahan’s middle vest-button. 

“Freeze, flatfoot,” she remarked distinctly.”

A tall, slinky redhead in a black silk dress that was tighter than a bandage on a sore finger…I’ll never manage a line like that. If you can compartmentalize the wince-worthy bits of non-politically correctness, there are real genre gems to be enjoyed in those ancient pulps. I’ve still got four or five more late 30’s and early 40’s Spicy Detective issues to work through.  

Redemption’s Where You Find It.

Clandestine

“Three out of five ain’t bad”, I wrote a few days back, referencing the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. The first two of five books stacked there turned out to be duds, but the remaining three more than made up for that. The last, a 1999 Avon Twilight trade pb edition of James Ellroy’s 1982 novel Clandestine, was a risky choice right now. Like many, I’ve got the blues these days, whether it’s from the pandemic, or politics, or just every damn thing. An Ellroy novel, while sure to be a crime fiction masterpiece, is unlikely to lift anyone’s spirits.

Just goes to show ya…

Young uniformed LAPD cop Fred Underhill has a skeleton or two in his closet but is brimming with as much ambition as cynicism. He’s buddied with a loveable lush of a partner, spending his nights in an endless series of cocktail lounge pickups and seeking some vague something (which he calls the ‘wonder’). But the partner dies in a bloody holdup shootout. Then Underhill falls hard for beautiful, accomplished but broken prosecutor, Lorna Weinberg. The seamless monotony of Underhill’s daily life is unraveling. Skirting the rules to solve a possible serial killer’s rampage, he’s soon in plain clothes and in pretty heady company, and his attempts at leverage and manipulation are ruthlessly squashed by real department pro’s. When the prime suspect he fed to a rogue detective squad turns out to be innocent (discovered only after the culprit kills himself in his cell), Underhill’s career is destroyed, his marriage crumbles, his entire life seems over. Years pass, the ex-cop’s obsession with the murders still simmering, when events send him far from the familiar glitter and grime of Ellroy’s mid-twentieth century Los Angeles to the seemingly pristine pastures and small towns of America’s Dairyland. There Fred Underhill uncovers scandals and crimes that are almost too vile for the underbelly of Hollywood at its worst.

Cladestine Group Shot

Clandestine surprised me in two ways. First: This was, I believe, Ellroy’s second published novel, and the very familiar creative wordsmithing and staccato rhythm prose that readers cherish from his masterful L.A. Quartet (1987 – 1992) and the in-progress second L.A. Quartet (214 – 2019) is nowhere to be found. Ellroy’s writing’s is very straightforward here (though no less darkly poetic). Second: The novel’s closing pages provided a very unexpected balm to my blues. No one should seek redemption in James Ellroy’s bleak world, but there it was in the conclusion of Clandestine. The “R” word even lurks in the novel’s final sentence. After 320+ pages of Ellroy’s trademark cynicism, corruption and violence, there was a glimmer of hope after all.

Again, it just goes to show ya…

Clandestine is considered a standalone book in the Ellroy bibliography, but it actually nestles quite comfortably alongside the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), with familiar faces making cameo appearances and the long shadow of dastardly Dudley Smith looming over all.

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Ellroy experts (and I’m not one, only an avid reader) will know better, but Clandestine also seems to point towards his 1996 true crime/memoir My Dark Places, or so it seemed to me. But whether it does or not, Clandestine is an amazing novel on its own, and whatever I reach for next will have to be mighty good to stand up to any comparisons. But the fact is, the writing lair’s endtable is empty now, the to-be-read pile sorely in need of replenishing. There’s a stack of Adventure House 1930’s-40’s Spicy Detective pulp reprints on my bookshelves that are still unread, and they’ll have to do for now…

Bullets Vs. Blades.

Guilty - May 1959

Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, as someone learned the hard way in this cover illustration from the May 1959 issue of Guilty – Detective Story Magazine.

In The Study With A Typewriter.

In The Study With A Typewriter

The 8.3.20 issue of Publisher’s Weekly (which I didn’t get till ten days later, for some reason) includes an 8-page tribute commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s debut, “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”, which introduced Hercule Poirot. The writer’s prodigious output (66 novels under her own name, 6 more under a pen name, 14 story collections, plays, etc.) make her the world’s best-selling and most translated author according to Guinesss World Records, with well over 7,000 translations of her work, more than a billion copies of her books sold in English, and another billion in other languages. Liz Scheier provides a 4-page article in PW, “In The Study With A Typewriter”, followed by her 4-page “And Then There Were More” where mystery writers discuss the debt owed to the Queen of Crime.

Visitors and followers here can safely guess that my own tastes might run a bit more hard-boiled than a lot of the cozier British (and U.S.) material written in the golden age of detective fiction. But I’d never have discovered the subsets of mystery/crime fiction that I love without Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie…heck, even Nancy Drew mysteries. “Mystery tropes that now seem inextricably baked into the category first became popular in Christie’s books,” Scheier writes. And unlike the noir-ish material I gravitate towards, there’s a lot of comfort to be found in cozies, soft mysteries and the wealth of material that traces back to Agatha Christie…particularly the sense of justice and closure her books offer. Maybe there’s not a ‘happy ending’ for everyone, but there are no loose ends and the bad guys are brought to justice. Scheier quotes author Hannah Dennison: “(Christie’s) dealing with evil in the world, but at the end, goodness always comes through. It gives you the sense that even though the world, especially now, is so full of injustice and darkness, things will always come right.”

It looks like the articles are accessible at PW’s site: www.publishersweekly.com.

Three Out Of Five Ain’t Bad: Lansdale’s More Better Deals.

More Better Deals

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable was five books-high when my first two choices turned out to be real stinkers, one a painfully indulgent bit of rambling and plotless literary fiction, the other presumably mis-shelved in a bookstore’s mystery section, revealing itself as a pretty distasteful bit of crime-free erotica (I swear, the cover art made it look like a neo-noir thriller).

But, as the post’s title says, three out of five ain’t bad, particularly when those three were welcome treats after back-to-back (but un-named here) disappointments. First up:

Think of a James M. Cain novel seething with adultery and deceit, but filtered through someone like Orrie Hitt. Then think of that being fully reimagined by expert storyteller and wordsmith Joe R. Lansdale, and that’s what his More Better Deals (2020 Mulholland/Hatchette) is. Oh sure, you’ve been down this road before. But, always remember that it’s about the journey, not the destination.

In a vaguely early 1960’s nameless East Texas locale, Ed Edwards unloads overpriced junkers at Smiling Dave’s used car lot, his boss, customers – everyone in town, actually – unaware he’s the light-skinned son of a long-gone African-American father and a white trailer-trash alcoholic mother. Half-heartedly trying to help his similarly light-skinned younger sister while pointlessly daydreaming about something better than his own humdrum life, Ed meets trouble in a short black dress and heels — aiming a twelve gauge his way — when he attempts to repossess her boorish and abusive husband’s Cadillac.

Mrs. Nancy Craig’s a classic femme fatale fashioned from the long literary and cinematic history of desirable but deadly women who’ve manipulated foolish men with sex and the promise of money to share, so it’s no surprise when Ed Edwards is soon in deep: Plotting murder ala Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice, reluctantly turned into a kidnapper when murder fails to pay off, and even stirring up trouble that puts years of ‘passing’ at risk.

Taking advantage of a slow Summer workday, I left the day job early this past Friday, started More Better Deals ‘round mid-afternoon and continued to devour this novel straight through dinner and deep into the wee hours, unable to put it down.  ‘It’s a real page-turner’ and all that…oh, that it is. With frustrating memories of that plotless bit of literary fiction still fresh in my head, it was pure joy to dive into a novel that took me by the hand right from page one and introduced engaging (if downright awful) characters descending deeper and deeper into a cesspool of lust laced with suspicion, double-dealing that leads to death. That Lansdale accomplishes this with an economy of words (yet never failing to paint a fully rendered picture of each locale) merely testifies to his skill. I challenge a reader to point out any paragraph, sentence, phrase or word that could be dispensed with. It’s the kind of writing I might aspire to but simply lack the talent to match (but I can keep on hoping…right?).

Call it “desert noir” or “rural noir” if you like, but More Better Deals is “Noir” at its purest, gifting readers with sizzle and violence, but ultimately grappling with much sadder, darker and woefully inevitable doom.

So, if I haven’t made my point yet, go get the damn book and read it.

(BTW: I’ve scanned my hardcover twice now, but it keeps showing up in red. The book’s really a two-color hot orange and brown design, in case you’re looking for it.) 

35 Suspects, And All On Camera, Apparently.

35 Dolls Of Memphis 1959

“35 Dolls Of Memphis” is a Neil Pritchie story from the January 1956 issue of Stag magazine, which lucked out with this two-page spread duotone illustration by Illustrators Hall Of fame inductee James Bama, well represented in the “men’s adventure magazine” market at that time, his solid run on Bantam paperback covers still a few years away.

“There weren’t enough detectives in Memphis to question all the inmates of Daddy Samples’ harem,” the story’s tease stated, “a collection of luscious females, each a murder suspect.”

Would it surprise us if the Bama art turned out to be the best part of the tale?

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