Walker’s Back.

When Old Midnight COmes ALong

Loren D. Estleman’s latest Amos Walker mystery series novel When Old Midnight Comes Along was released right before Christmas, but I didn’t get my hands on a copy till a week ago. While it’s possible I’ve missed one or two Amos Walker novels (possible, but unlikely), there are almost thirty of them, so I probably ought to do a careful check of the full list…just in case.

If you’re a hard-boiled detective fiction fan, an Amos Walker novel is like coming home to a beloved and familiar place. If you’re foolish enough to be taking a whack at writing hard-boiled or noir-ish crime fiction yourself, then a tour of Walker’s Detroit mean-streets are must-read tutorials. The writing feels effortless, though I’m sure it’s not, and Estleman consistently manages to rival Raymond Chandler when it comes to snappy banter and vivid descriptions. The Motor City private eye’s a bit older here, aging pretty naturally in each book, and his not-a-friend but not-a-nemesis Detroit PD detective John Alderdyce’s retired and working for a hi-tech security firm now (and not liking it one bit). Walker’s hired by a high-profile political fixer to locate the man’s wife. Or, verify that she’s deceased, seeing as she’s been missing for nearly seven years. With only months to go before she can legally be declared dead, and a million dollar life insurance policy on the table, our beloved P.I. naturally wonders why the bigwig doesn’t just wait it out, particularly since he originally was the prime suspect in the wife’s disappearance. But as you’d assume, the plot thickens. Quickly.

I devour mystery and crime fiction, but admittedly, not because I love whodunits. If I did, I’d read more cozies (which I rarely do), which are really the realm of the great locked room mysteries, authentic trails of clues and genuine puzzlers. But it’s never been about the ‘mystery’ for me, and instead, all about enjoying dark and dangerous rides through noir-ish settings riddled with crime and corruption, populated by good guys with an edge and bad girls with an agenda, the final resolution of ‘the crime’ relatively unimportant to me. Well, there’s no one better to guide you through those dark netherworlds than Loren D. Estleman and his grim, gritty, wisened and wise-cracking Amos Walker. But in this case, I found myself uncharacteristically ensnared by the novel’s mystery, naively thinking I’d figured out everything about halfway through, only to discover I had it all wrong (and I mean completely and totally wrong).

It’ll be a wait for the next Amos Walker mystery. But in the mean time I can cross my fingers that Estleman hasn’t given up on his Valentino, Film Detective series. A little more light-hearted, perhaps, and only five novels so far, but I really, really wish there’d be another. Please.

Taking A Moment…

Hammett 1

Just before shutting off the writer’s cave lights before heading to bed last night, I paused for a moment to browse one particular shelf on one of too many bookcases. Spines out, there were my Dashiell Hammett books lined up, a fancy hardcover Chatham River Press novel omnibus edition, a couple frail vintage paperbacks, and various Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperbacks, the handsomest of the bunch in my opinion.

When it comes to the granddaddies of hard-boiled private-eye/crime fiction, I’ll concede here that I’m more Chandler than Hammett, more Marlowe than Spade. Still, yesterday was the anniversary of the day Dashiell Hammett passed away from lung cancer back in 1961. A moment of reverence seemed in order.

Hammett 3

Pinkerton Agency operative, US Army vet in both WWI and WWII, staunch anti-fascist, Hammett was blacklisted and even served time in federal prison for contempt during the 1950’s communist witch hunts. He published over 100 short stories, story collections and novels, created The Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and of course, Sam Spade, and wrote for the silver screen as well, such as the screenplay for his long-time partner Lillian Hellman’s play Watch On The Rhine (a particular favorite film of mine). And yet, he wrote his final novel at age 40, more or less turning his back on fiction decades before his death, his novel and short fiction output penned primarily in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a puzzlingly brief career, but one that obviously influenced the mystery/crime fiction genre far beyond its duration.

Hammett 2

My to-be-read pile is disturbingly tall at the moment. No, I don’t plan to squeeze in a re-read of The Maltese Falcon right now. But then I am reading Loren D. Estleman’s new When Old Midnight Comes Along, an Amos Walker mystery, and can feel the echoes of Dashiell Hammett’s work from eighty and ninety years ago in even that beloved private eye’s story.

Death Is A Private Eye

Death Is A Private Eye

Apparently, Death Is A Private Eye – The Unpublished Stories Of Gil Brewer, a Stark House Press Noir Classics book edited by David Rachels, came out during the summer, but it didn’t get on my radar till right before Christmas. Still, the post-holiday season’s as good as any time to gift ourselves, and my Christmas stockings were woefully empty this year, so why not?

Fans of postwar era paperback original hard-boiled crime and so-called vintage sleaze books are surely aware of Gil Brewer, a kind of sad character whose life could form the makings of one of his own stories. A heavy drinker, Gil Brewer was still a prolific writer, and a promising career was launched at the beginning of the 1950’s under the guidance of former Black Mask editor and literary agent Joseph Shaw, who helped the writer sell several stories to the already dwindling crime pulp marketplace, and also sold three novels between 1950 and 1951. These included 13 French Street, which sold over a million copies. The story goes that Brewer was drying out in a sanitarium’s alcoholic ward when the publisher’s contract for that book arrived.

Only ten years later, Brewer’s mentor was gone, the writer just another me-too scribe in the notorious Scott Meredith agency roster, and his story and book sales were few and far between. Injured in a serious auto accident (driving drunk, not surprisingly), Brewer soon found himself cranking out low-pay sleaze and sex material, sales dwindling for even those with each year through his passing in 1983. At that point, his agent handed over cartons of unpublished submissions to his family, and volumes of Brewer’s papers were given to the University of Wyoming. The twenty short stories and two novellas in this Death Is A Private Eye collection were culled from that material, and the book includes an informative introduction from editor Rachels which you can read online if you want an advance look into this vintage writer’s life and work before ordering your own copy. Unlikely that you’ll see this title on shelf at your local book store, of course, but you can get it from the usual online sources or direct from the publisher at starkhousepress.com

TV Noir With A Mancini Soundtrack

Peter Gunn 1

I can’t keep track of all the oddball cable channels I can access. FETV? Never heard of it, but apparently it’s one of far too many syndicated rerun channels cluttering the cable landscape, and definitely wasn’t marked as a favorite. That is, until I discovered that FETV was running three back-to-back episodes of Peter Gunn, the 1958 – 1961 ABC detective series created by Blake Edwards and starring Craig Stevens as the titular private eye with Lola Albright as his jazz chanteuse girlfriend, Edie Hart.

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Set in an unnamed waterfront city that could hug either coast (but is actually far-too-familiar Universal and later MGM backlot streets), suave and perpetually cool Peter Gunn uses quirky jazz club Mother’s as his unofficial office, drives a car-phone equipped big-finned two-tone ’58 DeSoto and typically gets a cool grand for his jobs. Always nattily attired, Gunn’s not afraid to get his hands dirty, and is good with his fists in a tussle with thugs and, in keeping with his name, ready with his gun when needed. Creator Blake Edwards aimed for a cool, hip tone with this series. The look is visibly ‘noir-ish’, most scenes set at night, the redundantly re-used sets kept dark and shadowy, often filmed in jarring camera angles, and all enhanced by Henry Mancini’s jazzy score. In fact, the “Peter Gunn Theme”, which you’d recognize right away if you heard it, was nominated for an Emmy and two Grammys.

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Not to overpraise. This is still crank-em-out late ‘50’s-early 60’s era TV, and there are some genuinely silly episodes, either formulaic whodunits or misguided attempts at lighthearted humor. The urbane P.I. in a wild west ghost town? Peter Gunn babysitting a seal? Well, skip those and focus on the good ones, and there are a bunch, at least from those I’ve seen so far. Dark, moody and then suddenly erupting with unexpected violence, the best episodes of Peter Gunn are as good as many film noirs and neo-noirs, just compressed into a half hour time slot.

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Blake Edwards also wrote and directed a number of the episodes, and several years later took another whack at his Peter Gunn creation, directing a feature film (co-written with William Peter Blatty of The Exorcist fame) released by paramount and starring TV’s Craig Stevens. There’ve been further attempts to revive the character in 1989, 2001 and as recently as 2013 by TNT, but nothing’s come of them. A DVD boxed set exists, and if I stumble across it at a reasonable price, I’d go for it.

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L.A. Noir Gets No Darker

Dead Extra

Contemporary or retro, a lot of “L.A. Noir” stories, novels and films claim they’ll take you on a tour of the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra (Prospect Park Books, 2019) drags you into the worst, and then rubs your nose in it…in a good way.

I already forgot where I spotted Carswell’s new book. Crime Reads? Thrilling Detective? The Rap Sheet? Bottom line: I follow or subscribe to a few too many mystery/crime fiction sites/blogs, so it’s hard to keep track. But one of them recommended Dead Extra and I’m glad I asked the local bookstore to get me a copy (small press titles so rarely found on-shelf anywhere but in specialty shops).

Presumed to be killed in action, WWII U.S. Airman (and former LAPD uniformed cop) Jack Chesley has finally returned to Los Angeles after a two-year stint in a Nazi POW camp, only to discover that both his father and his wife, Wilma, are dead. The wife’s demise was ruled an accident, but her twin sister Gertie knows better. Wilma was murdered, and at that only after enduring a couple years of exploitation and abuse at the hands of silver screen big shots bankrolling sleazy prostitution and blackmail rackets.

The story unfolds in alternating points of view, one chapter for Jack in the 1946 present day as he begins to investigate Wilma’s death, and one for Wilma in 1943 and 1944, telling her horribly degrading story: Going off the deep end after getting that telegram from Uncle Sam, committed to a sanitarium, tricked into performing for a no-tell motel’s striptease sex club in order to escape, and then on the run from a murderous gang of pimps and blue movie blackmailers.

There’s nothing titillating about this seamy underworld, and while vengeful Jack Chesley’s investigation covers familiarly gripping hard-boiled ground, it’s really Wilma’s story (as well as her twin sister Gertie’s in the ‘present day’) that will ensnare the reader. I’d have been content with a book that let Wilma tell her own tale…it’s a novel in itself.

Cozy mystery fans would surely faint a few chapters into Dead Extra, but retro crime fiction fans – especially those enjoying period hard-boiled So-Cal material ala Chandler to Ellroy – will probably find themselves comfortably at home here. It’s rough stuff in many places, but I’ll assume that’s only because the author decided not to pull any punches. And the novel has its share of punches and gunshots to go along with the 1940’s era sleaze. Do look for Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra. And let’s prod Sean Carswell into taking a whack at a novel that tells the story of another ‘Wilma’ or ‘Gertie’…he did it well here and I’d love to see more.

 

Dig It: The Dead Beat Scroll

the dead beat scroll

A feature at The Rap Sheet blog (link below) is a good enough recommendation for me, and even though I only saw Shamus and Barry Award nominee Mark Coggins’ piece about the Beats, Jack Kerouac and his new August Riordan novel The Dead Beat Scroll on a Monday, I knew I had to have it. The book was in my hands that Wednesday A.M., which is mighty quick, and I dove in that evening. Indie mystery/crime fiction publisher Down & Out Books did a fine job with this handsome trade pb, each chapter offset with evocative full-page B&W photos shot by the author himself.

Private investigator August Riordan is out for vengeance when his former partner is murdered. But that investigation leads him to an unresolved missing person case and more gruesome murders, all pointing to a lost Jack Kerouac manuscript, presumably worth millions. Specifically, that most famous of Kerouac manuscripts, and if you need clarification on that then you need to do some reading up on Kerouac and the Beats. This was my first time with a Coggins’ novel, my intro to his August Riordan character, and I’m glad I took a chance on a hard-working writer who never got on my radar for some reason. A contemporary setting doesn’t make him pull back on some fun hard-boiled banter, thank goodness:

“Then why did number one son pull a gat on me as soon as I walked through the door?”

Brendan shrugged. “Guns were the language we were speaking until now…”

Research into Chicago’s more provincial late 1950’s Beat scene has been among the things I’ve had to dig into for my own projects lately, and while Coggins’ novel isn’t that kind of a retro setting, it’s fitting in nicely and tidbits about Kerouac, the manuscript and the Beat scene are sprinkled throughout. So this was a timely read for me. I really enjoyed The Dead Beat Scroll and I bet you will too if you check it out. But do look up author (and photographer, BTW!) Mark Coggins’ site (link below). The stunning shots framing each chapter of The Dead Beat Scroll are his and are definitely worth a look.

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com/

https://www.markcoggins.com/

Spade & Archer

Chris Knight Photography

Look hard, I do believe it reads “Spade & Archer” on that frosted glass door. The photo’s by Chris Knight, born in Germany and (I think) currently living and working Florida, best known for his opulently staged portraits, cinematic styled editorial work and as the author of The Dramatic Portrait. Look for more of his work at chrisknightphoto.com.

Still More From Manhunt

Manhunt Dec 1958

Manhunt magazine (1952 – 1967) not only published many of mystery/crime fiction’s best writers, it offered covers that rivaled the best of the era’s competing mystery and private eye series paperbacks, promising chills and sexy thrills the same way the 1930’s – 40’s era crime pulps did, but in a less cartoonish and much more sophisticated style. Check out the preceding posts for more on Manhunt, and I promise I’ll move on to other topics now.

manhunt dec 1953manhunt juy 1956 walter popp covermanhunt m spillane 1953Manhunt Nov

The Best Of Manhunt

The Best of Manhunt

I pre-ordered my copy of The Best of Manhunt – A Collection of The Best of Manhunt Magazine edited by Jeff Vorzimmer earlier in the summer. The book arrived weeks ago, but eager as I was to dive right in, I was already committed to other reading, and reluctantly set it aside. Typically juggling two books at once, anthologies often find their way to my car. Short stories are ideal for a quick read over the AM coffee-to-go, during workday breaks or while waiting for an appointment. With 39 stories to devour in this nearly 400-page book, I figured it would hold me for a week or more for sure. Once I got around to it, that is.

The hell with that…I blew through this book in two days, and feel like I’ve just been given an incredibly humbling how-to course in the craft of mystery and crime fiction writing from some of the genre’s masters, and all for a little over twenty bucks instead of a fat tuition check.

Yes, I was puzzled about the story sequence and why Mr. Vorzimmer decided not to put them in chronological order. And yes, I was a teeny-tiny bit disappointed that the book wasn’t illustrated (excluding two small sample page reproductions and one amusing illustration in the editor’s intro). That’s not me grousing about anything, just wondering aloud. This handsome volume from Stark House Press more than makes up for it by not skimping on other extras, including an entertaining anecdotal foreword from Lawrence Block, an explanatory story selection front piece from the editor, Vorzimmer’s 9-page introduction, a reprint of Scott & Sidney Meredith’s introduction from the 1958 The Best From Manhunt paperback (see below) and a reflective afterword from Barry N. Malzburg to close the book.

The author list reads like a rogue’s gallery of postwar mystery and mid-twentieth century short fiction luminaries, including: Nelson Algren, Lawrence Block, Gil Brewer, Erskine Caldwell, Harlan Ellison, Fletcher Flora, David Goodis, Evan Hunter, Frank Kane, John D. MacDonald, Richard Prather, Mickey Spillane, Donald Westlake and Harry Whittington…and that’s only about a third of the roster.

Favorites? Don’t ask, there are too many. Okay, twist my arm and I’ll say that David Goodis’ 1953 “Professional Man” just might be my fave, a dark tale about an always-reliable hit man forced to kill his own lover. And for me, Gil Brewer’s 1955 “Moonshine” was far and away the most disturbing tale in the anthology, dealing with a cuckolded husband driven to murder…make that murders, plural. The closing scene, after he’s killed one of his wife’s lovers, surprised yet another (literally hiding in the bedroom closet) and shot him, murdered his wife, and then, with the still smoking .45 automatic in hand, calls his two children into the room. I’m still getting chills picturing that grim closing scene.

If you think you know the crime pulps based on the 1930’s-40’s detective magazines – and I’ve read and enjoyed my share of those via reprints as you may have noticed from material appearing here – trust me when I tell you than the stories in Manhunt were quite different. Oh, there are some rogue cops, hard-boiled detectives, gunsels and femmes fatales, of course. Some familiar postwar private eye series characters even make appearances, including Richard Prather’s Shell Scott and Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell. But they’re hardly indicative of the creatively diverse stories you’ll find here. I’m neither an expert nor an authority on postwar mystery/crime fiction, only an avid fan. But I can think of no better book to provide an overview of what the genre was capable of in the 1950’s than this The Best of Manhunt – A Collection of The Best of Manhunt Magazine as put together by Jeff Vorzimmer. And you’ll just have to indulge me for a few subsequent posts while I celebrate the magazine’s 14-year run with some random covers worth viewing.

Below is the 1958 ‘Best of’ paperback, with its Ernest Chiriacka cover:

best from manhunt 1958 ernest chiriacka cover

 

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