As Close As I’ll Get To The Decameron…For Now.

Turn To Stone

Suckered in some time ago by a handsome faux-leather hot stamped and embossed hardcover edition of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, complete with Gustave Dore illustrations (that 19thcentury French engraver who’s still inspiring countless SF/Fantasy artists today), I took the plunge into a daunting reading experience for someone more accustomed to Mickey Spillane and mystery pulp reprints. Prudently, I had an annotated eBook edition handy at all times in order to make some sense of every second or third line.

But it was still pretty intimidating.

The Decameron

So, try another?

Maybe it’s time to dial back a couple hundred years to attempt fellow Florentine Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, perhaps in one of those nifty editions with the Rockwell Kent illustrations (and hopefully with another annotated eBook handy)?

But you know, with snow falling here since Wednesday afternoon and lake-effect snow squalls forecasted straight through Sunday, it’s much more fun to think about Eleanora Stone buzzing around the Tuscan countryside on a Vespa, with the Summer of 1963 rolling into a warm Italian Autumn. Which is precisely what Ellie Stone got to do (however briefly) in James W. Ziskin’s Turn To Stone (2020), the seventh novel in his Ellie Stone mystery series. Now, it’s not really a retelling of or necessarily a homage to The Decameron, in which seven women and three men hid from the Black Plague in a Tuscan villa, wiling away the hours by sharing 100 tales from the educational to the more ribald. Instead, Ziskin’s early 1960’s ‘girl reporter’ finds herself quarantined in a remote but opulent Florentine palazzo, with some of the reluctant guests (and Ellie herself) sharing stories after dinners — not coincidentally from The Decameron — stories the reader will study carefully to hunt through for clues to the novel’s mystery. (Not that it helped me one bit, but I’m truly awful at picking up on clues.)

Ellie Stone Series

I fell in love with Ziskin’s Ellie Stone mystery series and Eleanora Stone herself from the opening pages of the first novel, Styx And Stone (2013). Smart, savvy, assertive yet very authentically a person of her time (that book set in 1960), Ellie Stone fled Manhattan academia with strained family relationships and tragedies all part of her personal baggage, finding her way to a reporter’s job at a small-town newspaper in New Holland, New York. There she’ll solve shocking local crimes, much to the chagrin of suitably 1960’s boorish male coworkers and the law. We first encounter her doing double-duty trying to solve her own father’s assault and murder among the Columbia professorial crowd back in NYC.

Subsequent entries in the evolving series have found Ellie solving other local crimes. But author Ziskin presumably confronted the problem vexing other writers penning successful mystery/crime fiction series set in small towns: Just how many brutal murders can occur in one little burg? I mean, once the body count hits a certain number, won’t the state police or the Attorney General take notice and send in the troops? (Mind you, that would’ve been William P. Rogers in 1960 or Bobbie Kennedy by 1963, not the current office holder, who’d surely be too busy plumbing new depths of sycophancy to alert the US Marshals.) So, Ellie has also managed to stumble into trouble while on vacation in the Adirondacks, on assignment in Los Angeles, at upstate New York horse tracks and now in Turn To Stone, in Florence, Italy for a symposium honoring her late Columbia professor father.

And she’s barely unpacked before the trouble erupts: The symposium’s host has been found dead, his body floating in the Arno river. Accident? Suicide? Murder? While it casts an obvious pall over the event, a pre-arranged post-conference weekend outside Florence is still a must-attend affair, though it goes bad quick enough when the threat of a Rubella outbreak quarantines the group of students, professors and various hangers-on…one of that group quite likely a murderer. And there’s no shortage of culprits hiding secrets and personal grudges going back to the Spanish Civil War, the dark days of Mussolini’s fascist regime, entrenched anti-Semitism and the horror of the Nazi occupation, casting the shadow of guilt on fellow academics, students and relatives alike.

Gun play? Car chases? Thrills and chills? Well, aside from a close call with a wild boar (you read that right), this novel steers clear of conventional crime fiction tricks and many common mystery tropes, though prior books in the series have had their share of excitement. No, I get the feeling this particular novel was a result of the author’s passionate love affair with the region’s culture, language, cuisine and troubled history, Ziskin degreed in Romance languages and literature, a prior director of New York University’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo, collaborating with Italian writers and academics on cultural events. (Write what you know, writers are often told.) But for all the references to Renaissance art, literature and troubled 20thcentury tragedies – and there are many – you somehow also come away with some breezier visions of 1950’s-60’s thrillers and Continental rom-com films, easy to picture Suzanne Pleshette astride a motor-scooter or Tony Franciosa climbing out of a red Italian sports car. That is, with a horrible sense of dread hanging over everything the entire time.

I was busy as all hell with my day job when I got my hands-on Turn To Stone, leisurely reading time at a premium, and this chunky trade pb a whisker shy of 350 pages. But I blew through it in three evenings (with all too brief pre-dawn pre-work coffee-to-go in my car time added in). It doesn’t take gangsters with snub-noses, thugs with badges or scheming femmes fatales to make a mystery a page-turner, and Turn To Stone’s elegant writing and wonderfully complex story hooked me from the first page when Ellie boards the Pan Am 707 for Rome, and kept me hooked till she was on her way back to New Holland, where she might just have been the catalyst that ignited Beatlemania in upstate New York (you’ll have to read it to get that).

Yes, I was already a fan, but I betcha James W. Ziskin gets to you too. But as for The Decameron? I still have to think about that…

Maybe Next Year…

Maybe Next Christmas

No, The Stiletto Gumshoe won’t be in anyone’s Christmas stocking this year, least of all mine. Perhaps I spent 2019 being naughty when I should’ve been nice. Still, I’m thinking positive thoughts for 2020, and am one of those naive types who truly believe that diligence pays off (even if I’ve been proven wrong in the past). So I know what I hope to find under my tree next year: Not baubles or bangles. Just a book, and one book in particular…

Candy Matson

Candy Matson

Not unlike the zillion cable TV channels which I frequently surf right through, I probably don’t put my car’s satellite radio to good enough use, mostly hopping back and forth between MSNBC and Sirius’ one old time radio channel. But that paid off a couple days ago with a Candy Matson broadcast, a ‘stiletto gumshoe’ I’d never heard of before. But I’ll definitely be shopping for more episodes now.

A west coast regional NBC show, Candy Matson starring Natalie Parks aired from 1949 through the end of the 1950-1951 season, reigning as San Francisco’s most popular crime drama for a while. Written by Parks’ husband, Monty Masters, it was originally planned as yet one more male private eye series (starring Masters himself), but old-time radio legend says that his mother-in-law convinced him to reimagine the show with a female private eye, which he did, and which west coast stations and their listeners liked – a lot.

Unfortunately, like many old time radio shows, they weren’t all recorded. National shows often were performed twice, once for the East Coast and Central time zone, then again later the same day for Mountain and Pacific time zones. Others were transcribed to air later for the west coast, and many of those survive. But Candy Matson was a regional west coast production, with no need for rebroadcasts or transcription, and sadly, only 14 of the show’s 90+ episodes remain.

Former San Francisco fashion model turned private eye Candy Matson worked out of her swanky Telegraph Hill apartment, drove a sporty roadster and had a closet full of stylish threads which she put to good use, being attractive, well aware of it and perfectly content to flirt when it could help solve a case.  She often had to sneak around Homicide Detective Ray Mallard, but managed that handily since the detective was clearly smitten with her, their evolving romance one of the keys to the show’s popularity with listeners. Matson was a witty, sarcastic glamour gal, actress Natalie Parks delivering the well-written wisecracks and classic hard-boiled P.I. style first person narration with real sass. Packing a gun in her purse and not afraid to use it, she was full of bravado, which often got her in trouble with crooks and sundry other dangerous folks, though some of the episodes are more lighthearted.

Unable to secure a permanent sponsor, Parks and Masters reluctantly threw in the towel at the end of the 1950-51 season, but did so with a series finale in which Detective Mallard finally proposed to Candy and she decided to retire. So, West Coast listeners would no longer hear the phone ringing to open the show, or Candy answering with “Hello, Yukon 28209. Yes, this is Candy Matson”. (Note that one of the series audio CD sets depicted with this post managed to get that darn phone number wrong.)

Dakota North

By Michael Lark 3

No surprise that Marvel’s Dakota North, created by activist, essayist and writer Martha Thomases along with artist Tony Salmons, was eclipsed by Jessica Jones. Thomases’ groundbreaking much-more-than-a-detective simply appeared 15 years too early, in a marketplace that hadn’t matured enough to embrace smart, accomplished and utterly lethal female characters. Mind you, Max Allan Collins and Terry Beatty already paved the way five years earlier with their memorable Ms. Tree. Today? Indie comics and the majors alike are teeming with Dakota North, Ms. Tree and Jessica Jones clones.

Dakota North - 4 Covers

Former fashion model, daughter of a CIA agent and now owner of her own private investigations firm headquartered in New York, with satellite offices in Paris, Rome and Tokyo, Dakota North only had a five issue mini series in 1986-87, then made numerous appearances in various other Marvel titles. Dakota North was slated for another series in 2006, but that never materialized.

Dakota North

Nonetheless, Thomases’ creation was an important character, and finally available in a trade pb compilation, Dakota North – Design For Dying released this time last year, which includes those first Dakota North issues plus a number of (though not all) her appearances in other titles.

Dakota North - Cover

The terrific B&W illustrations included at the top and below are by Michael Lark. And, in keeping with ‘great minds think alike’: I scheduled this post in the middle of the week of the 23rd-29th (most of my posts are pre-scheduled days ahead of appearing), and when I scrolled through posts at my blog aggregator (Bloglovin…very handy tool!) I see the venerable Not Pulp Covers at Tumblr posted a Tony Salmon Dakota North page.  Mind you, Not Pulp Covers is clearly run by a much greater mind than mine!

By Michael Lark 2By Michael Lark 1

The Dames

pulp fiction the dames

Otto Penzler’s Pulp Fiction: The Dames is a follow-up to his previous anthologies Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters and Pulp Fiction: The Villains. My copy shown here is a 2008 Quercus UK edition, a big fat 500+ page trade paperback which includes 22 stories plus two saucy Sally The Sleuth comic strips from 1930’s – 40’s pulp fiction magazines, including the top tier mags like Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, right down to the bottom rung in publications like Gun Molls, and Spicy Romantic Adventures. Penzler’s preface and Laura Lippman’s well-written introduction frame the material well. As she writes, “The pulps of the early 20thcentury will never be mistaken for proto-feminist documents…(but) there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.” Indeed, the roots of V.I. Washawski, Kinsey Millhone and even Lippman’s own Tess Monaghan can be traced right back here.

Pulp Fiction The Dames Back

The anthology opens with a terrific Cornell Woolrich 1937 tale, Angel Face, about a chorus girl trying to keep her wayward younger brother out of trouble, but when he’s framed for murder, she ignores the cops and does her own sleuthing to nab the mobster she’s sure did the deed. It may end abruptly and even a bit implausibly, but every sentence absolutely sings with vintage slang and retro word-smithing that’s a dark delight. That’s followed by Leslie T. White’s Chosen To Die from 1934 with husband and wife team of P.I. Duke Martindel and attorney Phyllis Martindel, the well-intended gumshoe relying on his savvy spouse to get him out of jams with the law. The book includes stories from Dashiell Hammett, a Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady tale, a T.T. Flynn Trixie Meehan story and even Raymond Chandler’s 1935 Killer In The Rain, which he cannibalized (along with material from other short stories) for The Big Sleep. Read it and see if you don’t spot some mighty familiar scenes and passages, even if the private eye isn’t named Marlowe.

‘The Dames’ from pulp fiction aren’t all snoopy reporters, private investigators or even uniformed cops (rare as those were). The bad girlz might be some of the more memorable characters in this anthology, from gun molls to gang leaders. Unlike Penzler’s recent – and enormous – The Big Book Of Female Detectives (see link below for a post on that book) this one’s strictly vintage pulp fiction. Which isn’t always literary, can sometimes be a little squirm-worthy, but is almost always entertaining, and the female private eyes, girl reporters, sleuthing secretaries and, yes — even former chorus girls – make for one terrific tale after another.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/03/09/the-big-book-of-female-detectives/

Tinsel Town

Masthead

I never saw this five-issue series from Alterna Comics which apparently ran last year, and just happened to stumble across it recently at a blog. I’ve looked for it since with no luck. But a trade pb collecting the whole series is due out this summer, though not till the end of July (which could just as easily mean anywhere from August through Autumn). I suppose I’ll pre-order now.

 

Tinsel Town 1 Cover

 

Sure looks interesting: David Lucarelli writes a story drawn by Henry Ponciano set in the silent film era, when Abigail Moore dreams of becoming a police officer. Of course, women weren’t welcome then, but she takes a job as a studio security officer, where soon enough she’s mixed up in a noir-ish behind the screen mystery. Well, that cover art’s a little bright for ‘noir-ish, but I’m still eager to check this out.

Ms. Tree

Hard Case Crime Ms Tree

I discovered Grand Master ‘Edgar’ winner Max Allan Collins’ and Terry Beatty’s ground-breaking character Ms. Tree completely backwards: Not from the various comics series which debuted in 1981 and ran in titles by several different publishers through the early 1990’s, but in the one Ms. Tree novel, Deadly Beloved, published by Hard Case Crime back in 2007. And as it happened, I didn’t even buy that when it was released but several years later, and foolishly didn’t read it right away. But that delay didn’t diminish the enjoyment one bit. I was completely entranced with the character of Michael (not Michelle!) Tree, and determined to track down the comics. Easier said than done, as it turned out. I’ve never been lucky with comic shops’ back-issue bins, often as not muscled aside by some hard-core comics dude. In the end I only located one DC Comics Ms. Tree Quarterly. That one I grabbed and enjoyed a lot.

DC Ms Tree Quarterly

So I was thrilled to hear that Titan Comics Hard Case Crime line will reprint the Ms. Tree series later this year. So far I’ve been pleased with all of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics that I’ve tried — Triggerman, Peepland and others —  and trust them to do an excellent job.

Ms. Tree. Well, just say it out loud. Misz-Ter-ree. Mystery. Get it? Cute.

Ms Tree Trio

Ms. Tree is writer Collins’ and artist Beatty’s ode to the classic crime comics which largely vanished in the aftermath of the 1950’s Wertham comics scare (Seduction of The Innocent, congressional hearings, etc.). Michael Tree took over her murdered husband’s private detective agency (the Mister also named Michael Tree) and the original series apparently dealt with her violent, vengeance-driven quest to solve his murder and ultimately bring the crime syndicate responsible to justice. Subsequent stories dealt with serious subjects for a time when comics still tiptoed around more mature real-world topics like pregnancy, abortion, homophobia. Ms. Tree herself is kind of a double for Mickey Spillane’s Velda, Mike Hammer’s secretary and paramour — An imposing six foot tall, sporting a Bettie Page hairdo and packing a gun in her shoulder bag (a bag that’s wielded as a nasty weapon in an emergency). Ironically, Ms. Tree turns out to be an even more effective P.I. than her husband was. The character preceded – or maybe even foreshadowed Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, and helped to supplant outmoded notions of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ previously embodied in the G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz series. I don’t see release dates for this Titan Comics Hard Case Crime comics series, but will definitely be watching for it. Ms. Tree is not escaping me this time.

 

Nancy Drew, High School Hipster

Nancy Drew by Tula Lotay

The prior post noted that the CW Network will soon launch a Nancy Drew series, starring Kennedy McMann as the iconic teenage sleuth. From what I can glean of the planned storyline, I get the feeling the series’ inspiration comes less from the classic ‘Carolyn Keene’ books and perhaps more from the Dynamite Entertainment Nancy Drew comics series that started last year.

Nancy Drew 1 by Tula Lotay

In writer Kelly Thompson’s reimagining of the Nancy Drew universe, the plucky girl detective’s in a hipster high school world with old pal Bess and gay punkette George forming her ‘Scooby’ gang of investigators. The interior art is by Jenn St-Onge (look for more of her work at the artist’s site, jennstonge.ca) with each issue released with multiple covers (that annoying trend among greedy comics publishers) and I’ve gone with the ones drawn by British comic and illustration master Tula Lotay. I’m only four issues into the series so I think I have some catching up to do, but it’s a good read for a “Teen+” marketed title, and it sure ‘feels’ a lot like what the CW is touting for its network Nancy Drew series.

Nancy Drew 4Nancy Drew 5

Hatchett: Just A Few Years Too Early?

Hatchett

Just a few years too early? Perhaps. Lee McGraw’s 1976 novel Hatchett introduces hard-as-nails ex-cop turned private detective Madge Hatchett, a denim-n-boots gal with more than a bit of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone about her, and running her M.L. Hatchett Investigations detective agency in Chicago like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. But unlike Grafton or Paretsky’s groundbreaking and now iconic female detective characters who both arrived a mere six years after, Madge Hatchett only managed to appear in one book. Also unlike those two authors, Lee McGraw’s gender-neutral moniker is a pen name for Paul Zakaras.

This is an action-packed crime novel, full of gunplay, fistfights and explosions. Madge Hatchett is no ‘blonde bombshell’ or teasing sexpot ala G.G. Fickling’s Honey West, Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz, much less the many saucy-naughty-downright-porny female super sleuths and spy series cluttering paperback racks at the time Hatchett was released, like The Baroness, Cherry Delight or The Lady From L.U.S.T. There’s a fair amount of squirm-worthy vintage sexism, poking fun at ‘women’s lib’ and the like, but no more than you’d encounter in an episode of a retro-seventies sitcom like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda. To the author’s credit (considering the era) Hatchett’s troubles with the law are due more to the fact that she’s a combustible troublemaker than a woman.

Hatchett’s lured into an ever-widening mystery after a murder in her own apartment building is pinned on an ex-con and recovering junkie she’d befriended. Determined to prove the cops wrong, she soon finds herself in the middle of a gangland war when a mysterious freelance non-Mafia kingpin attempts to take over Chicago’s crime syndicate (an unlikely scenario with the Chicago mob very much alive and well at this time). Hatchett navigates her way through the underworld of drug dealers, pornographers and pimps with her Beretta as much as her investigative prowess. So it’s a little disappointing that three-fourth’s through the novel, the otherwise smart and gutsy private eye falls prey to some seemingly requisite damsel-in-distress business, which in vintage crime novels always demands that the hero loose her clothes: “So, I was lying on a bed. In a totally dark room. And it was obvious why I couldn’t pick myself up: I was wearing a pair of ropes. One holding my hands behind my back, the other wrapped around my ankles. Wearing ropes and nothing else, a perfect costume for a kinky foldout. Or that last scream scene in a snuff film.” Fear not, though. Madge Hatchett needs no rescuing, blasts her way free and burns down or blows up the crooks’ lairs and leaves not only the aspiring ‘Mister Big’ but sundry Mister-In-Between’s full of bullet holes.

The cover art is a puzzler, if only for the Ballantine Suspense line art director’s choice for an illustrator. Not that it isn’t good. But the illustration’s by well-known Peruvian fantasy/SF/sword & sorcery artist Boris Vallejo, who along with his own spouse Julie Bell, Frank Frazetta, Ken Kelly, Sanjulian and several others more or less defined 1960’s through 1980’s fantasy painting. Vallejo’s known for his sword-wielding barbarians and armor-clad Amazons, so he seems like an odd choice. While Madge Hatchett is described at one point as resembling Sophia Loren, in general she’s smokes like a chimney, likes her booze, enjoys a joint and favors practical private eye attire, not lilac jersey dresses. Looking at this cover art and knowing Vallejo’s style, it’s easy to swap a spear for the revolver, a magic goblet for the glass of whiskey, a throne for the chair, and to turn the two dead dudes lying beneath Hatchett’s chunky 70’s heels into vanquished goblins. Then it’s a Boris Vallejo painting.

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