The Howdunit Series

scene of the crime

I suppose Writer’s Digest Books “Howdunit Series” ought to be mandatory reading for every mystery/crime fiction writer, but the fact is, they’re quite entertaining for crime fiction fans as well. And very informative, if you like to be well-versed in grisly trivia.

I only have two: Keith D. Wilson’s Cause Of Death – A Writer’s Guide To Death, Murder & Forensic Medicine, and just added Anne Wingate’s Scene Of The Crime – A Writer’s Guide To Crime-Scene Investigations this past weekend. That the books are nearing 30 years-old doesn’t bother me, since my current projects are set in 1959. Things probably weren’t even up to 1990’s standards at that time anyway.

Private Eyes

What’s your pleasure? Poisons? Firearms? I really need to locate a clean copy of Private Eyes – A Writer’s Guide To Private Investigators by Hal Blythe, Charlie Sweet and John Landreth, though I’m sure things were quite different for P.I.’s sixty years ago when my ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ hung up her shingle. The fact that I don’t see these books on shelf in used bookstores very often tells me that once bought, they’re kept. Sure, everything you ever wanted to know is online. But it’s nice to have details and info handy from reliable sources, not just a Wikipedia entry.

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Bienville Parish, Louisiana. May 23rd, 1934.

Bonnie And Clyde Poster

The 1934 Ford V-8 was shot up pretty bad on that rural road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, about 150 rounds from pistols, shotguns and automatic rifles. The man behind the wheel took 17 shots, the woman beside him was hit 26 times, both with several head wounds. It probably was every bit as gruesome as the slow-mo climax of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, which did so much to revive interest in the Depression era crooks, romanticizing the duo into legendary status far beyond anything their real life short-lived crime spree deserved. By most accounts, Clyde Barrow died instantly from the first volley, Bonnie Parker lasting only a moment more as the fusillade continued.

Boonie CLyde MinI Series

You can picture the real Bonnie Parker, Faye Dunaway or Holliday Grainger, as you wish. Fashion magazine art directors want to do something with gangsters or gun molls? They do a Bonnie & Clyde pictorial. There’s been no shortage of non-fiction books, novels, feature films, TV/cable and direct-to-DVD films about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, from Dorothy Provine in The Bonnie Parker Story in 1958 to this year’s The Highwaymen, each taking its own license. Lets guess that Bonnie And Clyde Vs. Dracula may not have been the most historically accurate of the bunch.

Bonnie & CLyde 4 Fashion PicsBonnie Clye 3 MoviesBonnie & CLyde VS Dracula

But it was eighty five years ago today on May 23rd, 1934 that the real duo met their end in a roadside ambush led by Texas lawman Frank Hamer and various Texas and Louisiana state and local police.

Good or bad, the legend lives on.

Bonnie & Clyde

Men In Danger

Howell Dodd Men In Danger magazine 1964

Men in danger? Sure, but I’m not certain which is more dangerous. The easy money for delivering a package of something that’s surely illegal? Or Miss Can’t-Keep-My-Slip-On goading him from her perch on the bed behind? A pulp (or more correctly, one of the so-called ‘mens sweats’) magazine interior illustration by Howell Dodd from a 1964 issue of Men In Danger.

The Dame Was Trouble

The Dame Was Trouble

I like to juggle two books at once: A ‘main read’ kept at home for long sessions in the evening and on the weekend, but also another kept in my briefcase or in the car to nibble away at with on-the-go morning coffee stops, waiting for appointments during the workday or even occasional (and indulgent) on-the-way-home coffee stops. And though I don’t really read all that many anthologies and story collections, the fact is they’re ideal for the portable reads, a better alternative, perhaps to all-too-frequently disappointing Kindle ‘commuter’ reads.

An anthology in the car right now is The Dame Was Trouble – A Collection Of The Best Female Crime Writers Of Canada from Coffin Hop Press, edited by Sarah L. Johnson with Halli Liburn and Cat MacDonald. I read about this book at shekillslit.com and looked for it right away. It’s a handsome trade paperback, just shy of 400 pages with stories from sixteen Canadian women writers, including NYT best-selling author Kelly Armstrong, who kicks the anthology off with an absolutely delightful period private eye tale done with a twist, “Indispensible”, which reminded me of Linda L. Richards’ Kitty Panghorne series (see a previous post here about her novel Death Was The Other Woman). Hermine Robinson’s “A Cure For The Common Girl” was a terrific and trashy Calgary-set contemporary ‘ex-urban’ noir. What’s your pleasure? This anthology has lethal ladies from law enforcement as well as the law-breakers, dangerous dames both young and old, straight and not, and in Canadian settings as well as locales that could be…well, anywhere. I’ve only completed four stories so far, looking forward to a fifth in the early-AM coffee-to-go darkness en route to work tomorrow, but the first fourth of the book sure has been a treat. Check it out.

Dodging And Burning

dodging & burning

John Copenhaver’s Dodging And Burning is subtitled “A Mystery”, and it is, though this is no ‘whodunit’, and as the complex story evolves, told from multiple points-of-view and in different times, no less, it becomes as much a who-done-what as a whodunit. Like most of my favorite mystery/crime fiction tales, this is less about the mystery and more about the characters themselves, the setting their tales unfold in, and the events that lure us into unexpected situations, almost indifferent to anything so simple as a crime being solved in the end. Because with the really great books, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Reminiscent in part of novels as diverse as Peyton Place and To Kill A Mockingbird, Dodging And Burning begins as a coming of age tale in a small WWII-era town. At first it appears there’ll be a brutal crime to solve, but the small town setting starts to feel a bit like Twin Peaks as we start to have doubts about the nature of the crime…or if a crime occurred at all. In Copenhaver’s capable hands, that alone would’ve made for a wonderful novel. But he delivers something infinitely more complex, probing characters’ painful secrets and revealing the era’s exciting but dangerous underworld of hidden sexual identities that could never hope to survive in 1940’s small town USA. The novel’s conclusion is bittersweet – in the telling, but also in the reader’s realization that the book is over. The fact is, you’ll want more.

‘A Mystery’? Sure. But no locked rooms, no private dicks, cartoon femmes fatales or gunsels waving snub-noses around. Whether the author planned to write genre fiction that was ‘more’ or ignored genre conventions altogether and the publisher is responsible for that tagline on the book’s cover, who knows. But this is one one hell of good read, and I’ll keep my eyes open for whatever might come next from this writer. Like Dodging And Burning, I bet it’ll be a surprise.

 

Hard-Boiled Dames.

hard-boiled dames

Hard-Boiled Dames (1986), edited by Bernard Drew says it’s “A brass-knuckled anthology of the toughest women from the classic pulps”. This anthology features women detectives, reporters, adventurers and even a few criminals from 1930’s pulp fiction magazines. Marcia Muller notes in her preface, “Although the courageous independent female sleuth may have, for whatever reasons, gone somewhat out of fashion in the suspense fiction of the 1950’s and 60’s, she was very much in evidence in the pulp magazines of the 30’s and 40’s.”

21st century mystery/crime fiction fans of the more hard-boiled variety could easily think that the genre was populated with no shortage of female sleuths (the bad-ass ones, that is) all along. Not so, of course. Before things exploded in the early 1980’s, thanks to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and some others, there’d been nearly thirty years of ‘blonde bombshells’ like Honey West, Mavis Seidlitz, Marla Trent, and weirder still, Cherry Delight, The Baroness, The Lady From L.U.S.T. and other one-shots and series focused more on the protagonists’ looks and bedroom antics. While the 1940’s through the early 50’s had a decent run of smart, hard-fighting female private eyes, reporters, district attorneys and sundry cloaked/costumed crime fighters, it was relegated to comics much more than pulp fiction or novels. You really have to dial back to the 1930’s pulp era to uncover the female detectives and their associates, and some of the best are featured in this book.

I read my first Carrie Cashin story in Hard-Boiled Dames, and then went hunting for more. Carrie looks “like a demure brown-eyed stenographer in a tailored jacket and tweed skirt”, and in front of clients often defers to her “broad-shouldered assistant Aleck, to allay any clients’ concerns about a woman detecting”. But Miss Cashin is the head of the Cash And Carry Detective Agency, the first to leap into danger, and clearly the brains of the outfit. This anthology includes author Theodore Tinsley’s “The Riddle In Silk”, in which Carrie (with assistant Aleck in tow) investigates a bloody murder in a mansion on the requisite dark and stormy night, which leads them back into the city and ultimately to the waterfront docks on the trail of a stolen pair of silk stockings which “may mean the difference between peace and war in Europe”, the hose containing secret coded messages.

Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady is here too, in “The Domino Lady Doubles Back”, along with Katie Blayne, Trixie Meehan – 15 stories in all, each accompanied by 2 page introductions about the authors and their characters, and reproductions of the original pulps’ illustrations. If you see this book around, snatch it. It’s a good read, and a real eye opener about

 

Nowheresville

nowheresville

I think Mark Ricketts’ Nowheresville originally was released as a four-part conventional comic series from Calibre Comics. If so, I’ve never seen it poking out of any comic shops’ back-issue bins, but then I don’t go rummaging through them much, always sensing they’re off-limits to all but the dedicated hard-core. Or at least, that’s the vibe I often get. But, it was released by Image as a 192-page digest-sized trade pb, and if you like noir-ish crime fiction, colorful word-smithing, edgy black & white art and most of all, the 1950’s beat scene, you’ll love Nowheresville.

When a low-life NYC smut photographer emerges from his darkroom, he discovers that the model he left helplessly trussed up and gagged in lingerie, stockings and heels on a makeshift set’s divan has just been murdered. Oh, it’s a set-up, no question, but the cops don’t seem particularly interested in finding out the truth, only deciding who they’ll pin this one on. Which leads us to the graphic novel’s hero, almost-too-cool-to-be-real Chic Mooney, good looking, poetic, oozing hipness but still a badass. Lured into the case, he’ll have to reckon with a crooked cop who’s got it in for him, a particularly vicious gangster, his junkie drummer pal and, perhaps worst of all, his own ex, now an utterly ruthless Hollywood star who isn’t only a femme fatale on screen.

nowheresville 2

The art’s strictly solid black and white, all stark and jagged like some kind of 1950’s abstract expressionist art…if it was done with a bottle of India Ink and a stylus, that is. It’s stylized and terrific, but it’s the scripting that’ll get you, riffing on fifties slang that’s a real treat to read. The plot may meander here and there, but you don’t seem to care, because it remains a fun read even if you’re lost for a page or two.

I stumbled across this book by accident in a used book store’s graphic novel section. But I think it’s still available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s site. Or, maybe your local comics shop has it. I hope they do…check it out, man.

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