It’s Not Just Beer & Brats

Milwaukee Noir

Let the coastal types snicker at flyover cities. Residents of the megapolis hugging the southern end of our own ‘inland sea’ (Lake Michigan) know what’s what. From Menominee Falls down to Milwaukee, through Kenosha, Racine and crossing the border into snooty Lake County, all across big bad Chicago itself and then into Northwest Indiana’s shuttered mills and abandoned factories, it’s all one long piece of familiar turf. It’s John Dillinger and Al Capone, Indiana roadhouses and rural Wisconsin mob hideouts. It’s Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits’ tunes with a Midwestern spin. It’s crooked, gritty, dirty, down to earth, beautifully bungalow-lined blue collar-ville. It’s home.

Milwaukee Noir - Crime Reads

Spotted the news that Akashic Press is releasing Milwaukee Noir edited by Tim Hennessy this week. Akashic’ global city-by-city Noir Series has never disappointed me yet. Milwaukee’s filled with good and bad like my home digs, just on a smaller scale, and much more than clichés about brats and breweries. Milwaukee Noir should be out the day I’m writing this, and the bookstore closest to work is pretty reliable when it comes to new releases in the Noir Series. If it’s not on-shelf within a week or two, they’ll be glad to order a copy for me, and I’m looking forward to this one.

Crime Reads: The State Of The Mystery

The State Of The Mystery

Linked from Crime Reads (crimereads.com) via Literary Hub: Part One of a must-read roundtable discussion among twenty mystery writers — specifically, the 2019 Edgar Award nominees — on everything from topics like genre ghettoization to publisher consolidation, their own earliest influences and some sage advice to newbie writers. The second part of this dialog will be posted tomorrow, 4.25.19. If you’re a mystery/crime fiction fan or writer (which I’m guessing you might be if you’re reading this) or not, it’s a lively and informative read, with interesting comments from Lisa Black, John Lutz, Leslie Klinger, Lori Rader-Day, Jacqueline Winspear, Lisa Unger and others. A link is below for the first part…you can follow up on Part Two on your own, I’m sure! But do check it out.

https://crimereads.com/the-state-of-the-mystery-a-roundtable/

No Hoods Left In The Hood?

Noir Gentrification

Background research on settings? Search engines can only yield so much, and eventually you just have hop on a bus or get in the car, ready to pound the pavement if you really want to get the look and feel of a place for whatever it is you’re writing about. Obviously that’s a problem if you live in Newark and your project’s set in Novgorod. But if it’s just another neighborhood in your home town, you’re good to go. For some (me, for example), the trick is accessing a time machine in order to capture not just a place, but a place-in-time.

Adam Abramowitz, the Boston writer of A Town Called Malice and Bosstown, had a terrific piece in the March 19th CrimeReads (link below), “Noir In The Era Of Gentrification: What Happens To Spenser & Scudder When Their Cities Are Gone?” He opens by recalling childhood trips to neighborhoods that were ripe with danger and which later became settings for his writing. But in the ensuing years, those blocks once lined with strip joints, gin joints and sundry other joints populated by lethal predators were gentrified building-by-building into rehabbed lofts and pricey rebuilds, the strip joint now a Starbucks, the gin joint a trendy bistro, and the only predators still lurking about are snooty sales clerks in fancy boutiques.

“Big city noir is under siege,” he writes. “As a noir reader, I become as attached to a city as to the main character working those pitiless streets…(Gentrification) threatens to render our stories sentimental and nostalgic until we all sound like a lamenting grandparent: Back in the bad old days.” Abramowitz refers mostly to New York and Boston, but acknowledges the same for James Lee Burke’s New Orleans and even Chandler’s and MacDonald’s Los Angeles.

Here beside the coast of the ‘inland sea” (the Great Lakes), it’s no different. Endless blocks south and west of Chicago’s Loop seemed destined for permanent skid row status after WWII. Now the South Loop has exploded with residential hi-rises, and west of downtown where independent food service distributors stretched for a mile beneath the Lake Street El and the Fulton Market strip, McDonald’s erected its new headquarters, just over from Google’s Chicago HQ, and suburban corporations are elbowing each other aside, determined to find suitably sized industrial lofts to gut or tear down so they can erect faux-rehabs. The SRO’s and their hoboes, homeless, hookers, pimps, muggers and wino’s have been pushed a couple miles south and west once again, and if the migration continues, eventually they’re going to cross the border into Indiana or be halted at the Mississippi.

Brighton-Archer

My own work is set in a very particular time and place, and while that place has changed considerably, it definitely hasn’t been gentrified. 1959 landmarks like the sprawling Miami Bowl 24/7 100-lane bowling complex or the once-luxurious Brighton Theater are long gone, along with countless Mom & Pop storefront bakeries, bars, hardware stores, dress shops, jewelers and deli’s (and all of the loan sharks, card games and B-girls that worked their back rooms). Some are no-brand phone stores and vaping shops now, others just vacant. The discreet Mowimy Popolsku signs in their doors have been replaced by a different language, perhaps, but I’m sure there’s no shortage of punks, thugs and crooks around. They’re just busy spray-painting their colors on garage walls before they get down to business these days. Now the word is that retiring Yuppies and monied Millenials from landlocked Chinatown are buying up two flats as investment properties. Not exactly gentrification, but enough change to make it hard to recognize anything from the old B&W photos sourced online.

Still, there’s no substitution for actually walking the main streets, side streets and even the alleys (which were only paved with cinders from the nearby ComEd plant back in the era I’m writing in). The sights, sounds and smells are all a little different from what my characters experienced in 1959, I suppose. But as Adam Abramowitz writes in his CrimeReads essay, “Don’t cry, noir lovers. Change is cyclical and as long as the slums of the heart keep burning, there’s always going to be material to mine.”

https://crimereads.com/noir-in-the-era-of-gentrification/

The Master At 101 Years

Kiss me Deadly

Shame on me, but I screwed up my post scheduling, so this was meant to appear on Saturday.

A belated birthday acknowledgment to Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey Spillane, born 101 years ago on March 9th, who sadly left us in 2006. Loved by readers, resented by writers (to this day), reviled by critics, spoofed by himself and many others, the man was actually an instrumental part of building the postwar paperback marketplace. I’ll argue that he played a part in revitalizing — maybe even redefining —  the hard-boiled private eye novel for the second half of the twentieth century, and along the way, sold a mere 225 million books.

Crime Reads Screen Cap

Crime Reads editor Molly Odintz has a very interesting piece at Crimereads.com, “The Ten Best And Pulpiest Mickey Spillane Covers”  – do log on and check it out. The covers shown here aren’t the ones Odintz presents, and some might say her choices aren’t anywhere near as pulpy, weird or downright pervy as some Spillane covers can be. Molly Odintz acknowledges that while commercial success should never be a measure of literary merit, Spillane’s recent centennial and various authors (Max Allan Collins key among them) arguing for a reassessment of the writer’s importance begs for publishers to reissue his work, but in different cover art, “…so that folks like me will actually want to read him in public. Can you imagine bringing one of these on the subway?” But she continues, and this is crucial to understanding Spillane and his work: “But Mickey Spillane didn’t care about what people thought of his cover designs, or the literary merit of his books, and paid no attention to any censorial judgments whatsoever, so perhaps the best way to celebrate the iconic writer’s birthday would indeed be to bring one of these on the subway – and not care what anyone thinks”.

Vengeance Is Mine

Odintz showcases ten Spillane covers she considers particularly weird, pulpy or tawdry. Anyone familiar with postwar pulp magazine and paperback cover art may consider them surprisingly tame. I’ll concede, Spillane’s One Lonely Night was almost always packaged with particularly disturbing cover art of a bound and partially stripped woman. The 1960’s – 70’s era Spillane reissues followed that period’s trend towards photo cover art, and typically employed provocatively posed near-nude women with no relation to the title, story or…well, anything at all, simply beckoning to the reader with ‘come-hither’ expressions. Some European editions of Spillane novels went way beyond anything that would be allowed in the U.S. market. And the fact is, many 1950’s era mystery/crime fiction paperbacks (and certainly the remaining pulps from the same era) can completely out-weird, out-sex, out-perv most any Mickey Spillane cover art, with one after another depicting menacing thugs and lover-boy private eyes threatening or otherwise taking advantage of a gallery of women-as-victims and women-as-eye-candy, invariably undressed or undressing in fetishistic detail, restrained, terrified…or often as not…dead.

One Lonely Night

Do we blame the writers? The publishers, their art directors, the illustrators? Do we blame the culture of the time? Do we blame anyone at all, or do we just recognize that they’re artifacts from another era? Don’t ask me…I’ll have to leave vexing questions like that to smarter folks than I. But I won’t apologize for appreciating Mickey Spillane. I have all of the Mickey Spillane novels, with doubles and triples of a few from different eras, along with the unfinished works completed by Max Allan Collins, some few books about Spillane, the complete Mike Hammer comic strip book and sundry other Spillane items. Call me a fan.

The Body Lovers

While I don’t ride the subway, I fully understand what Molly Odintz is saying, and there are more than a few (maybe most) of my Spillane books that I’m not too eager to whip out in the coffee shop, just so I can watch fellow patrons ease their chairs away from me. But the same goes for other vintage paperbacks I have, and quite a few contemporary books, now that I think of it.

Cheap used bookstore copies of the first few Mike Hammer novels were actually what lured me into the mystery/crime fiction genre in the first place, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Spillane’s no-nonsense prose and plot-first writing style guides me in my own humble writing attempts, particularly whenever I get ‘writerly’. I don’t know if, like Molly Odintz, I’d like to see Mickey Spillane’s body of work reissued in ‘tamer’ packaging, or just as she speculates, if the hard-boiled crime fiction master’s work indeed should be reissued, but in cover art that celebrates all the violent, sexy, tawdry, pulpy storytelling each book contained.

The Long Wait

 

The Pop Culture Rembrandt

Pop Culture Rembrandt

Check out the Crime Reads.com essay by J. Kingston Pierce: “Robert McGinnis: A Life In Paperback Art”, honoring the prolific American illustrator on his 93rd birthday this Sunday, February 3rd. The article’s tag notes, 93 Years & Thousands of Paintings from a “Pop Culture Rembrandt” and Pierce’s essay does a fine job of sharing McGinnis story and his place among the masters of postwar paperback, magazine and commercial illustration.

Robert McGinnis - Lesbian Covers

Perhaps more than any other artist from that era, Robert McGinnis’ work is almost inseparable from the identities of a number of popular paperback crime and adventure series. Consider at least the well-known ones: Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne, various Carter Brown series, Richard S. Prather’s Shell Scott series, John D. MacDonald’s novels including the Travis McGee series, M. E. Chaber’s Milo March Mysteries, Edward S. Aarons’ Sam Durrel spy series, and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books as well as his A.A. Fair Donald Lam & Bertha Cool mysteries. Almost disappoints me that McGinnis only did two covers for one of my own private eye series favorites, Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddel mysteries. But along with these, there were countless stand-alone titles, from crime to romance, westerns to espionage and more. McGinnis only did a few of the postwar paperback era’s lesbian themed books, and took what may be an unfair bad rap for his illustration for Beebo Brinker, but we should remember that illustrator’s often had no more than a brief editor’s blurb to go by, and often didn’t get to read the book itself…if budgets or deadlines would have allowed them to anyway.

Never Kill A Client 1963

McGinnis’ style evolved with the times, becoming increasingly abstract, vignetted and decorative, rooted less in fully rendered interior/exterior scenes. By the time photography and all-typographic styles began to dominate the paperback market’s covers, the artist had moved successfully into film posters and other assignments (likely more lucrative) while pursuing his own fine art work, predominantly western art. The excellent book Tapestry- The Paintings Of Robert E. McGinnis edited by Arnie and Cathy Fenner does a wonderful job of juxtaposing selected McGinnis commercial illustrations with non-commercial paintings, seeing both in a fine art context.

kill now pay later 1960

For many, Robert McGinnis’ striking nude (or nearly so) vixens and elongated, preening sixties-chic coquettes are what he’ll be remembered for. Myself, I’m drawn to the more flesh-n-blood figures, my all-time favorite the seated woman in a simple green dress and long brown gloves from the cover of Never Kill A Client, a 1963 edition of a Mike Shayne mystery (above), and an illustration I keep handy since it so closely resembles my own imaginary character, the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’. Some real favorites are shown here in this post, including the fetching femme fatale perched on a private eye’s desk from Kill Now, Pay Later (1960), or the bar room pianist tickling the ivories where McGinnis’ trademark longer-than-long legs draw his attention from Murder Me For Nickels. The iciness of the subdued colors in a very risqué for the time, Exit For Dying (1956) may just be the single sexiest piece of cover art I’ve ever seen. But I’ll always love the comparatively prosaic and fully-rendered scene of the redhead alighting from the backseat on Day Keene’s Too Hot To Hold from 1959.

Murder Me For Nickels

I’m never comfortable with labeling one artist, author, musician or any other creative as ‘the best’. There are masters and there are followers and many at levels of skill, talent and popularity in between. For me, there are several artists from those golden and ‘silver’ ages of paperback, pulp and glossy magazine illustration that comprise the top tier. McGinnis, of course would be there, not only as a superior figurative artist but also as a master designer, possibly demonstrating more stylistic diversity than any of his peers and contemporaries. And of course, those contemporaries are, for the most part, retired or deceased now. Bittersweet, but maybe that’s for the better, so they don’t have to reckon with an Adobe-ruled Illustrator/Photoshop world.

Robert McGinnis Exit Dying 1956

Do follow the link below to J. Kingston Pierce’s “Robert McGinnis: A Life In Paperback Art” essay and gorge on the many reproductions. It’s a far more eloquent tribute than anything I could muster up. Still, a heart-felt happy 93rd birthday to the ‘”Pop Culture Rembrandt”, Robert McGinnis.

Too Hot To Hold 1959

https://crimereads.com/robert-mcginnis-a-life-in-paperback-art/

 

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/

Crime Reads

Crime Reads Dot Com

Crime Reads:Writer, reader, film/TV viewer or just a pop-culture watcher — if you like all things dark and murderous, you can’t go wrong with Crime Reads at crimereads.com. Mystery/crime fiction fans will likely get lost there, meaning to pop in to peek at something, only to realize hours later how much time they spent reading one piece after another. Writers? It is an absolutely amazing resource, linking you to book reviews, topical, thought-provoking essays and articles and so much more. The Crime Reads Brief is a really cool weekly e-newsletter providing links to multiple feature articles. If you’re here at ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’, then I’m certain you’ll want to pop in there, if you don’t do so already. Go to crimereads.com for more info.

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