And Then, Marla Came Back.

Kisses Of Death

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.

No, Really: Where Did Marla Go?

Private eyeful 1

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 at, 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.

Private eyeful 2

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.

Private eyeful 3

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.

Private Eyeful 4

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…

The Master’s Birthday: Raymond Chandler

Chandler penguin 3

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.

Chandler penguin 1

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.

Chandler penguin 2Chandler penguin 4

The Real Queens.

Ellery Queen 1 1952

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.

Ellery Queen 2 1952

Classic? Yes. Pulp? Well, No.

classic pulp comic

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.

Thank You, Mr. Hammett.

dashiell hammett

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’.

dashiell hammett books

Hammer Time.

masquerade for murder

Thank goodness for indie booksellers doing their best with curbside pickup.

My last bundle of books (in a free tote, no less) included Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins’ new Masquerade For Murder – A Mike Hammer Novel. It’s no secret here at this site: I’m a Mickey Spillane fan and proud to defend the much-maligned writer to literary-leaning mystery/crime fiction readers and authors. And, I happen to be a Max Allan Collins fan as well, loving his long-running Nathan Heller series along with Ms. Tree, the Maggie Starr series (please write some more of those, Mr. Collins) and others.

With a new title out, it’s no surprise that you’ll see Collins appearing here and there. I recommend “My Five Favorite Private Eyes” at Criminal Element (link below), those detectives including Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, (not surprisingly) Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Max Allan Collins’ own Nathan Heller. Confession: I’m not a huge Nero Wolfe fan. And for me it’ll always be Chandler/Marlowe all the way over Hammett/Spade. But, lets not argue about it. They’re all great.

criminal element

Also turn to Mystery Fanfare (Mystery Readers Inc.) for “Completing Mike Hammer” by Collins himself (link also below), in which the author provides some background on the 1950’s publishing sensation (225 million books sold), how his association with Spillane came about and some insights into the process of fleshing out incomplete Spillane materials.

mystery fanfare

As for Masquerade For Murder? I’d have devoured this novel in an evening or two if day-job responsibilities hadn’t intruded (pandemic sheltering-in notwithstanding). The 220-page Titan Books hardcover was a quick read, as a Mike Hammer novel ought to be. Collins concedes that he had less to go on in the way of Spillane’s notes, partials, outlines, etc. for  this one, in which a slightly older, wiser but no less dangerous Mike Hammer witnesses the suspicious hit-and-run of a prominent financial wunderkind, which leads him and Velda Sterling through a maze of Wall Street brokerages and decadent 1980’s New Wave nightclubs, tangling with wealthy traders, brutal bank robbers, a blackmailing call girl and a particularly lethal martial arts murderer. Spillane loved ‘gotcha’ endings, and although the ‘bad guy’s’ identity isn’t all that much of a secret here, Collins still cooked up a zinger in the final pages, with a femme fatale getting her just desserts, followed by a more tragic ending.

Bottom line: If you revere Mickey Spillane like I do, or at least enjoyed his Mike Hammer novels, you’ll go for Masquerade For Murder. No, it’s not from the hands of the master, but it is channeled through and lovingly crafted by a friend, credible expert, hard-core enthusiast and one heck of good writer.

https://www.criminalelement.com/my-five-favorite-private-eyes/

http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2020/05/completing-mike-hammer-by-max-allan.html

Vintage Small Screen Noir

TV Noir

I spotted film and television historian Allen Glover’s 2019 TV Noir – Dark Drama On The Small Screen on shelf during my last in-person visit to the local bookstore, right before everything went bonkers. But I already had a stack of books in hand and figured I’d get it on a subsequent trip. Lesson learned: You see it, you want it: Just get it. You never know what might happen. Like a pandemic.

But the indie store close to the day job (still dutifully going in most days) takes phone orders and does curbside pickup, bless them, and TV Noir was still in stock. (Okay, so I phone ordered three other books at the same time. What can I say. It’s a sickness.)

martin kane 1950

I knew from my in-store browse that portions of Glover’s lushly illustrated 250+ page hardcover weren’t going to be of particular interest to me. The author’s definition of ‘noir’ is wide-ranged and focuses less on the ‘look’ of a show and more on its themes. Considerable space (over a third of the book) is allotted to the UK’s Danger Man (1961 – 1966) and The Prisoner (1968), David Janssen in The Fugitive and again in Harry O, Lloyd Bridges’ 1965-66 dark western The Loner, and even SF/Horror with The Invaders and The Night Stalker/Kolchak. Not exactly what you think of when think ‘noir’? Well, me either. But no matter. It’s the first half or more of Glover’s book that I was really interested in.

Ralph Bellamy

The early chapters cover standalone shows and series I’d never even heard of, some dating back to television’s very earliest days, including ‘live noir’ from various playhouse series featuring stars (or soon to be stars) like James Dean, Paul Newman, Dick Powell, Farley Granger in productions adapted from stories by Raymond Chandler, Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, Dorothy B. Hughes and others. Most of these are long gone, never saved except for their scripts, production notes and a handful of photo stills which the author uncovered.

M Squad - Staccato

No question: 1950’s/1960’s television was strictly a boys club, and TV Noir doesn’t even give a nod to Beverly Garland in 1957’s groundbreaking Decoy, much less Anne Francis in Honey West. But then, Glover isn’t cataloging cop, detective and private eye shows, but digging deep into dark, desolate and gritty projects like Cornell Woolrich’s The Black Angel (a 1940’s live production) or John Cassavettes cult-fave Staccato. Ample time is spent looking at more familiar shows like Dragnet, M Squad, Richard Diamond, Peter Gunn and 77 Sunset Strip.

Peter Gunn

With a few exceptions, the oddball cable rerun channels, YouTube and bargain bin DVD’s are the likely places to locate some of these 1950’s/1960’s programs like Martin Kane – Private Eye or Man Against Crime, and I’m up for rooting through used bookstore movie sections to see what I can come up with once the sheltering-in winds down.

Rare TV Detectives DVD

The Crimson Lady & The Sidewalk Empire.

Crimson Lady

The whole time I whined about the forlorn looking empty spot on my writing lair’s to-be-read endtable, I completely forgot that three Bold Adventure Press Larry Kent POD trade paperbacks had arrived right before the shutdown and shelter-at-home directives. I’d tucked them away on a bookshelf, and there they were even while I was getting the shakes with nothing new to read. Found them last night while re-shelving books (the to-be-read heap piled high now, with still more to come or be picked up, thank goodness). Each of these three books contains two Larry Kent adventures, this one with Crimson Lady and Sidewalk Empire.

Kent, of course, started out as a half-hour radio show on the Macquarie Network, inspired in part by Carter Brown’s successful books, which in turn spawned an incredibly successful book series for Cleveland Publishing, most Larry Kent novels penned by Don Haring (a Yank living down-under) and Australian native Des R. Dunn, ultimately comprising over 400 titles between 1954 and 1983. While the radio show was set in Australia, the Larry Kent novels are mostly set in the U.S. (or various international locales).

Sidewalk EMpire

I think there are seven of these Larry Kent double-books so far. I got three, and will find some time to say more once I’ve read them. I’m not expecting War And Peace. Hell, I’m not even expecting Frank Kane or Brett Halliday. If they’re a notch above a Carter Brown book, I’ll be content. And there appears to be some other interesting offerings from Bold Venture Press I’ll need to checkout…

www.boldventurepress.com

 

Thrilled About Thrilling Detective.

Thrilling Detective - Anthos

I’ve visited Kevin Burton Smith’s excellent Thrilling Detective site in the past, but was kinda giddy to see it migrate to WordPress as “The New Thrilling Detective Web Site” so I could more easily follow along. And doing so paid off nicely this weekend when I was jotting down lists of books to order – for curbside pickup at the local indie, direct from the publisher, from Bud Plant, and from the behemoth in Seattle. The Thrilling Detective site ran two posts sharing long lists of mystery/crime fiction anthologies with links for most (or all?) right to Amazon, many being OOP titles.  I tried for six, but got a bounce-back on one later, it being no longer available. But five’s a start, and my to-be-read endtable is woefully empty, having foolishly not stocked up before the great sheltering commenced. The Amazon items may take longer than usual to arrive, but the others look like they’re speeding my way now, and the indie pickup books should be in hand tomorrow and are desperately needed.

If you find things that interest you here at The Stiletto Gumshoe’s lair, then you’re going to find many more and much better items of interest at The Thrilling Detective site. The link’s right below…use it now. And more about the gems I nabbed via Smith’s site will follow in another post…

https://thrillingdetective.wordpress.com/

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