From Mike Vosburg’s fun Retrowood from 2013, a ‘sorta-kinda’ mid-twentieth century Hollywood (but not really) hard-boiled noir with private eye J. Parker Wrighte mixed up in mystery and murder among the decadent tinsel town’s stand-ins most devious (and pervy) denizens. The story is dark but goofy fun, and the art’s almost sedate for Vosburg, while still indulging the figurative master’s flair for lovely — albeit lethal — ladies.
Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows (2020 Johns Hopkins University Press) is subtitled “A Hard-Boiled History”, and some may quibble with that. Lee’s 216-page hardcover (the last 46 pages comprised of appendices and footnotes) is less a ‘history’ of fictional hard-boiled detectives and more a close look at how a shortlist of exemplary private eye characters from literature and broadcast media represent and echo their eras.
If you’ve been burned in the past by academics’ books, I can relate. Susanna Lee previously authored Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction And The Decline Of Moral Authority, but also Proust’s Swann’s Way and Stendahl’s The Red And The Black among other titles, and those might give anyone the willies if they’re disinterested in a return to high school and college required reading lists. (You say ‘Proust’ and I’m automatically fleeing the other way, one particularly disastrous college term paper still nagging at me to this day.)
But, fear not. Detectives In The Shadows is engaging and readable throughout, and I for one would’ve been happy with another 100 pages to devour. She selects a key hard-boiled detective to represent different periods, starting with Carroll John Daly’s Terry Mack as the start of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre, soon supplanted by that same writer’s more popular Race Williams, both of them Black Mask magazine staples. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade embody the late 1920’s and early Depression years, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe represents the 1930’s-40’s, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer violently echoes the post-WWII Cold War era. Lee dismisses the 1960’s altogether, considering its social upheavals unfriendly to hard-boiled private eyes’ rugged individualism and quasi-vigilanteism. She jumps to the 1970’s with Robert Parker’s Spencer and his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. From Parker’s Spencer, Lee switches from fiction to the screen with HBO’s The Wire and True Detective series, and lastly, Netflix’ Jessica Jones. Brief mentions of broadcast television’s The Rockford Files and David Janssen as Harry O may still leave some readers scratching their heads. Wither Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski? Lew Archer and Easy Rawlins? The roster could continue, but again I’ll point out that Susanna Lee didn’t assemble a laundry list of hard-boiled detectives, but instead, aimed to show how the uniquely American literary invention of the lone-wolf hard-boiled P.I. represents evolving periods in modern history.
Coming from a steady diet of cozies and ready to take a peek at the dark, violent world of hard-boiled detective literature? Then pick another non-fiction book to provide you with an overview, but keep Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows on hand for a later read when you want to delve deeper into what these iconic characters represent.
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.
If Jennifer Mays of Mike W. Barr’s The Maze Agency could have lingered at one publisher, she might’ve become a more iconic “stiletto gumshoe”. But the fact is, this fun whodunit series bounced around from one company to another in its primary late 1980’s – early 1990’s years, the handoffs continuing all the way through 2009. The Maze Agency’s ‘maze’ logo, designed by Todd Klein, first appeared in 1989 at Comico Comics, where we met Jennifer Mays – she of the trademark blonde forelock – a former CIA agent who bid goodbye to boss Ashley Swift at the Swift Detective Agency to strike out on her own. Mays partners up with armchair detective and true-crime writer Gabriel Webb, and together they solve (increasingly dangerous) puzzling whodunits in mostly self-contained stories with both obvious and obscure clues sprinkled throughout to challenge readers.
The Maze Agency was a Will Eisner Award nominee for best new series in 1989, but soon enough Comico went under with only seven issues released. The title migrated to Innovation Comics for a longer 16 issue run (plus two specials) through 1991, then was published by various outfits including Alpha Productions, Caliber Comics, IDW and finally Moonstone in 2009. Originally drawn by UK artist Alan Davis (with inks by Paul Neary) for a six-page spec story, the series’ art was mostly done by a young Adam Hughes, one of his first full-time series (I think).
Individual issues seem pretty scarce in shops ‘round these parts, but are easy enough to source online. The 1990 Innovation Annual is a good place to start if you want to find out more about Jennifer Mays, her sidekick Gabriel and their law enforcement link, NYPD detective Roberta Bliss. The series captures some of the then-innovative hard-boiled female private eye vibe that had been unleashed only a few years earlier by Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone and, in the comics scene, Max Allan Collins’ (along with Terry Beatty) Ms. Tree. But the real treat is the way Mike W. Barr’s storytelling honors mid-twentieth century pulpy whodunits with real mysteries and perplexing clues, the result being edgy and even a bit hard-boiled without sidestepping the fun factor.
Henry Kane’s Marla Trent – The Private Eyeful – from his 1959 one-shot crime novel featuring a then-rare female private eye, was re-issued a year later in new cover art, but then presumably vanished into PBO limbo, the publisher and/or readers not interested enough to turn it into a series.
But the almost impossibly accomplished and attractive blonde bombshell did, in fact, return a couple years later, though only as a costar this time in another of Kane’s Peter Chambers private eye novels (there being about thirty titles in that series, I think).
Kisses Of Death came out in 1962 from Belmont Books, a step down in terms of publishers. Like many of Kane’s novels, the case that opens the story turns into something else altogether. Here, a frantic Mrs. Valerie Kiss demands to see NYC P.I. Pete Chambers early on a Saturday morning, certain she’s being blackmailed. He joins the stunningly lovely former actress at an office address he knows well: None other than Marla Trent Enterprises. Marla Trent, New York’s infamous ‘private eyeful’, is much too successful to try to milk the very married Mrs. Kiss out of a few bucks over some compromising photos of her in the sack with a bartender boy toy, though she had been hired by Mister Kiss to follow the cheating wife. But while Mrs. Kiss, Chambers, Trent and her assistant Wee Willie Winkle try to figure out what’s going on, the Mister’s busy taking a head-first header from a high-rise window and commits suicide.
Case closed? Hardly. Months later (and the book spans more than a year and half by my count) a hushed-up investment bank robbery lures in both Chambers and Trent, hired to work as a team (under Chambers lead) to track down nearly nine million dollars stolen just as the Kiss’ marriage ended in that gruesome landing on the Midtown asphalt. In fact, Mrs. Kiss’ none-too-secretive affairs, the peekaboo bedroom photos and even the suicide may all have been part of an elaborate plot to cover up one of New York’s biggest heists ever.
Kane’s Marla Trent is only a costar here, albeit a prominent one, with wisecracking Pete Chambers occupying center stage for most of the novel, including a puzzling subplot dealing with a gorgeous South American doctor the P.I.’s anxious to bed. The complex case takes Chambers, Trent and Winkle to the west coast and ultimately overseas, where the reader is treated to some fairly exciting gunplay in a couple climactic scenes (well-earned, since the reader endured the preceding chapters’ maddening maze of clues, interrogations and Pete Chambers’ seduction routines).
Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful, bows out of Kisses of Death and crime fiction history on a frustrating note, arriving at Chambers’ pad, all fetchingly attired in a sleek summer blue dress and matching white pumps and handbag, to pick up her share of their fee and finally make good on the preceding 180+ pages of flirtation. Black Russians are her specific drink of choice to lose her inhibitions, and apparently, she’s already had a few before arriving. Insisting that Chambers take a symbolic bath, “like washing off all that’s gone before,” Marla changes his bachelor pad’s bedsheets (?!), gets out of her clothes, sips yet another Black Russian and waits for the P.I. But she’s soon reaching for her things once the freshly bathed Pete Chambers admits that he bedded their original client (and the novel’s eventual villainess) early on in the case.
She sat her Black Russian on the bar. “You lied to me, you bastard, didn’t you? You’re a cheap little man after all, aren’t you? You told me you’d never been with that bitch.” She stepped into her shoes, wriggled into her blue dress, buttoned all the buttons. “Men will never understand women.” She took up her little white bag. “Thanks for the check, and thanks for nothing.” She came to me and kissed my forehead. “It’s been most instructive.” Then she left like a lady without slamming the door.
I don’t know if men will ever understand women, and definitely don’t know if Henry Kane ever did. Since Kisses Of Death is a Peter Chambers novel and not the “Private Eyeful’s” story, a few more pages follow so the P.I. can bump into a beautiful witness briefly introduced midway in his investigation, and thus, end the novel in suitably swingin’ early sixties style, those freshly changed bachelor pad sheets about to get wrinkled.
Kisses Of Death is no better or worse than Private Eyeful, and no better or worse than countless other coastal private detective standalone and series novels from the mid-fifties through early sixties. Soon enough, British spies would make so many NYC and L.A. P.I.’s passé. As for Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful? While the Ficklings’ Honey West would make it to TV screens and appear in a few more novels, the mystery/crime fiction/thriller genres would only see a handful of other female detectives and some sexed-up adventurers and ‘lady spies’ for nearly twenty years till Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others finally reinvented everything.
So, where did Marla Trent, the “Private Eyeful” finally go? Evidently, she slipped back into those white pumps to sashay off into PBO obscurity, yet another mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoe’ who’d have to wait for the field to evolve.
Not a collector but always acquisitive, I once had four editions of Henry Kane’s Private Eyeful, (none pristine collectibles, mind you) including the striking 1960 UK version with its Denis McLoughlin cover art, the original 1959 US paperback edition with a frequently seen Robert Maguire illustration, a 1960 reissue with Mort Engle cover art, and even a Lancer pb edition from years later (75 cent cover price, so let’s guess late 1960’s or even 1970’s) with a period-sexy nearly nude model posing in no more than a holster for the Howard Winters cover photo.
But a years-ago mishap with apartment windows left open all day while at work – a day plagued by thunderstorms – turned my Private Eyefuls and a number of other books into soggy messes with nowhere else to go but the trash. All I have now is an inexpensive replacement copy of that awful Lancer photo cover edition, a disintegrating book at that, with all but a few pages completely loosened from the binding. Proof once again why it’s best that I never became a collector.
Now, not everyone’s a Henry Kane (1918 – 1988) fan, but I’ll admit to being one. Like writers as diverse as pulp maestro Robert Leslie Bellem (Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective) and eminent literary bad-boy James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, etc., etc.), Kane’s writing has a uniquely musical quality to it. Not quite Runyon-esque, but sometimes syncopated and sometimes sing-songy, it almost demands to be read out loud, and then could get your fingers snapping once you find the writer’s rhythm. If some critics assert that the prodigiously productive pulp and paperback original writing machine (like Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, John Grisham and others, originally a lawyer before he was a writer) can be painfully smarmy or annoyingly glib, I’d only counter that countless postwar era mystery/crime fiction writers were as well, the spinning paperback racks crammed with wise-cracking coastal private eyes like Kane’s Peter Chambers back then.
Roughly midway in the writer’s successful series of smart-assed NYC gumshoe novels, Henry Kane paused to crank out Private Eyeful in 1959. Why? Who knows. Prodded by an agent or editor, perhaps, hoping to give “G.G. Fickling’s” Honey West some competition. But let’s be frank: Henry Kane, like so many other writers from the same era, could be dismissive at best and downright misogynistic at worst when it comes to female characters, so the decision to write an entire novel about a female private eye remains a puzzler to me.
Kane’s Marla Trent is the super-successful owner of Manhattan’s Marla Trent Enterprises, capably assisted there by big, smart and handsome William Winkle (AKA Wee Willie) and stern middle-aged secretary Rebecca Asquiff. This is no struggling pair of gumshoes dodging bill collectors. The agency’s offices are plush and well located, the revenue stream steady and lucrative, and as for Marla Trent herself? She’s blue-eyed and blonde-haired with curvy measurements that are incessantly relisted, a one-time beauty pageant contestant but also a Vassar graduate, with a Masters from NYU and a PhD from Columbia. Previously (and briefly) married to Andrew King, then of the FBI and now of the NYPD, 28-year-old Marla Trent is quite comfortable with her luxurious Manhattan penthouse, sports car and seemingly endless wardrobe courtesy of a large six-figure inheritance from her deceased inventor father.
Let’s be clear: Marla Trent is smart, savvy and capable, but most of all, Marla is attractive, as the reader is reminded over and over and over again as characters fawn over her, flirt with her, attempt to seduce her and literally are dumbfounded by her looks, all in increasingly squirm-worthy ways throughout the novel.
In Private Eyeful, Trent deals with one case in the book’s opening pages that swiftly morphs into an altogether different – and more troubling – case, initially helping model and actress Katrina Jurillo prove her ne’er-do-well brother’s innocence in an armed robbery (said brother already doing time in Sing-Sing). But this turns into an even more serious situation when his appeal goes bad and the assistant D.A. is shot dead right in the court room. Marla has to navigate a particularly puzzling (and loooong) list of culprits, lots of red herring clues, goofy coincidences and leering late fifties naughtiness, culminating in a credulity-straining trial scene. Most of the nod-and-a-wink sauciness leads nowhere, though there’s an oddly unexpected romp with Marla’s ex right in his precinct office during the work day, and the novel does end as bedroom hijinks are about to commence (this time with a handsome doctor who popped up late in the tale to facilitate all that strained credulity in the climactic court room scene).
Is it a good mystery, or even good P.I. crime fiction? Well, I’ll let readers decide on their own if they choose to dig up their own copy of Private Eyeful. Henry Kane’s novels are an acquired taste, as are so many postwar private eye series. I’m not about to canonize Brett Halliday, Carter Brown or Frank Kane either. But I happen to have a fascination with the much-too-short list of mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the pre-Grafton and Paretsky era, even if digging up their novels, pulp tales, comics, movies and TV shows can feel like an archeological dig. They’re not all high-art, but for me they are pop-cultural touchstones.
Like Henry Kane’s Peter Chambers novels, Private Eyeful and the Marla Trent character are sorta fun and kinda sassy in a silly way, period pieces with all of the baggage that implies. That the book is set in 1959, the same year I open my own The Stiletto Gumshoe works-in-progress, is more coincidence than inspiration, and I’d be quick to point out that Kane’s blonde bombshell and my own Sharon Gardner (real name: Sasha Garodnowicz) have no more in common than occasionally running down the bad guys in heels.
So, why just the one Private Eyeful novel? Again, who knows. It may have been no more than a whim for Henry Kane. It might not have sold well enough to interest Pyramid Books in a series. The novel’s much better than many mystery/crime fiction PBO’s I’ve read from that era, and no worse than others, though no one would consider it a crime fiction classic. Maybe male readers preferred their saucy crime hijinks told from a comfortably male POV, while female readers were too smart to fall for sexified cartoons. So, Henry Kane’s Marla Trent had its one shot in 1959 (with reissues) but otherwise vanished.
Or did she? Tune in tomorrow for Marla’s return…
I’m still merrily working through Barry Day’s 2014 The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words (scroll back a couple posts) as the master’s birthday rolls around: July 23, 1888 – March 26, 1959…and born right here in “the jewel on the lake”, no less.
It’s a good thing I’m not really a collector (though admittedly acquisitive) or I’d definitely go broke tracking down the many, many different editions, both domestic and foreign, of Chandler’s works, such as these cleanly simple but handsome Penguin Australia book covers that I stumbled across when snooping for visuals for this birthday post.
Quite by accident, I stumbled across cover scans for the original vintage Ellery Queen comics sampled in Source Point Press’ 2020 J. Werner Presents Classic Pulp – Ellery Queen comic that I picked up this past weekend and showed here a couple days ago.
The Spring 1952 issue included “The Corpse That Killed” which was included in my reprint, and the second Summer 1952 issue featured the full Norman Saunders cover Source Point Press utilized. Of course, I much prefer the ten-cent cover price to the 2020 comic’s four dollar cost. Inflation and all that, I guess.
I finally set foot in a comic book store the day before Independence Day. Masked, distanced, limited occupancy (not usually an issue in this particular shop anyway), things weren’t quite back to normal, but on the way, at least. Aside from the current Diamond Previews, I didn’t end up getting anything band new, mostly hauling recent and back issues to the register. Quite a bunch, as it turned out.
I don’t know if this 2020 Source Point Press J. Werner Presents Classic Pulp comic is a standalone or part of a series, but it reprints three 8 to 10 page 1940’s The Adventures of Ellery Queen comics, the first credited to R.S. Callender (writer, I’m guessing), the rest uncredited. Classic? Definitely. “Pulp”? Well, no…they’re comics. And while contemporary comics typically dole out one act of a larger story arc per issue (that arc often as not something cataclysmic), here the stories are succinct self-contained whodunits. Each tale pauses two-thirds through to quiz the reader: Have they caught the clues so far in order to solve the crime? I thought that was cute, but for the record: No, I did not catch the clues in any one of the tales. Some gumshoe, huh?
That’s a Norman Saunders cover illustration – obviously more pulp than comics – courtesy of David Saunders.
Samuel Dashiell Hammett, born this day, May 27thin 1894, passed away in 1961, and what else can someone like me say but a very large thank you to one of the creators of hard-boiled detective fiction and this thing I like to think of as ‘noir culture’.