Cigarette Girls

Cigarette Girl

Back in mid-May I mentioned Susanna Calkins’ new novel (the first in a new series, I think), Murder Knocks Twice, a period mystery set in early 1929 Chicago. Struggling to care for her ailing father, young Gina Ricci takes a job as a cigarette girl in a local speakeasy, only to learn that the girl she’s replaced was recently murdered, and the club’s brooding, mysterious photographer turns out to be an estranged cousin from the family that disowned her and her dad. When Gina witnesses that same enigmatic photographer brutally murdered, she obeys his dying words and takes his camera, then learns to process film, and that’s only the start of the multiple mysteries that erupt in Calkins’ novel, all of which is set against a backdrop of the Capone-Moran gang wars, the book’s final pages playing out just as the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre occurs. It’s a fun read, leisurely paced (or methodically, depending on your assessment) and brimming with red herrings and subplots. Some may think Calkins’ tale is a little light on mayhem and Roaring Twenties decadence, considering the time, place and characters. But if so, it certainly didn’t detract from her good storytelling.

MURDER KNOCKS TWICE copy

Two things struck me as I read Murder Knocks Twice.

First: how Calkins used photographs and her hero’s urgent need to learn photography and film processing as a crucial driver in the narrative. That intrigued me, since it’s similar to things going on in both the first The Stiletto Gumshoe novel currently making the rounds and its sequel, still underway. A female protagonist, a Chicago setting — albeit with thirty years separating the two, my tale set in 1959 – it’d be presumptuous of me to say ‘great minds think alike’. I will say it was nice to see another author use photos and processing the way Calkins did.

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Second: Calkins wise choice of a nightclub cigarette girl for her main character (and what looks like a series character at that). It got me thinking about just how few cigarette girls have helmed mystery/crime fiction novels, when it’s such an obvious role. If you’re writing period crime fiction, which understandably may involve speakeasies, casinos, roadhouses and nightclubs, a cigarette girl is ideal for a character that needs to be right in the middle of the action. I’ve thought about it, I’ve browsed my own bookshelves and I’ve surfed online, but found precious few (if any) cigarette girl characters, much less lead characters, even among vintage pulps. So, hats off to Calkins for finally giving a vintage crime milieu fixture her proper due!

Cigarette Girl Pulps

And while we’re at it, congrats to her for a job well done. If you insist on non-stop gunplay, grisly violence or sizzling bedroom hijinks, (and frankly, I often do!) then Murder Knocks Twice may not be the next book you’ll consider. But, consider it nonetheless. It really is a good read.

P.S. Yes, that’s a young Audrey Hepburn in the cigarette girl costume in the quadrant of photos above.

 

Karla Ortiz

Karla Ortiz

Concept artist, illustrator and fine artist Karla Ortiz says she “paints her days away, and that’s how she likes it”, and she’s downright chatty at her blog (karlaortizart.blogpsot.com) about technique, the development of works from sketch through completion and more. Check out more of the artist’s work at karlaortizart.com

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Gabe Leonard

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Gabe Leonard came from Wyoming, studied art at the Columbus College Of Art And Design in Ohio, but ended up in California, originally making his mark in the competitive Venice Beach boardwalk art scene. Leonard’s distorted figures and skewed ‘camera angle’ scenes are often inspired by song lyrics, and are reminiscent of Hollywood crime films and westerns. Here are a few to browse, with originals oils and limited edition prints and other news at the artist’s site, gabeleonard.com.

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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

Murder Knocks Twice

MURDER KNOCKS TWICE copy

Whenever I think I follow too many blogs or let my inboxes fill with too many e-newsletters and posts, I get turned on to some new book (or movie or comic or show) and remember why it’s good to stay in touch. A week ago J. Kingston Pierce’s The Rap Sheet posted a cutie with a Mickey Spillane (via Max Allan Collins) Mike Hammer novel paired with Susanna Calkins’ just-released Murder Knocks Twice.

The Rap Sheet - Murder KNocks Twice

Calkins has half a dozen historical mysteries to her credit already, so Roaring Twenties Chicago speakeasies is a big departure for this first in what apparently will be a new series, focused on The Third Door club’s new cigarette girl, Gina, just hired to replace recently murdered Dorrie, who’s death is somehow tied in to the illegal nightclub. Gangsters, cigarette girls and Chi-Town? I’m in. So The Rap Sheet led me to The Criminal Element blog (criminalelement.com) for info on Calkins’ new novel and series, which then led me to an older but no less interesting Crime HQ interview with the author.

And I guess that’s why I should never complain about over-stuffed in-boxes.

criminal element dot comSusanna Calkins Books

Easter Bunnies

The Playboy Club 2

Femmes fatales and stiletto gumshoes simply don’t mix well with Easter.

Molly Odintz explains (somewhat tongue in cheek) why Passover is the most ‘noir’ of all Jewish holidays in a 3.20.19 CrimeReads.com article, “10 Reasons Why Passover Is The Noirest Holiday”, though she winds up concluding that, after all, most Jewish holidays can be summed up as “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” Go to Crimereads.com for some serious thoughts along with a seasonal chuckle.

The Playboy Club 1

While Odintz managed handily, I’m stumped trying to find anything remotely connected to both Easter and noir culture. Springtime, marshmallow eggs or coconut covered lamb cakes just don’t belong with dark alleys, gunsels and gun molls or shadowy hot-sheet hotel rooms. The best I can do is to riff on the Easter Bunny, or ‘bunnies’ of a sort…so, alas: Playboy Bunnies.

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NBC’s short-lived 2011 series The Playboy Club only aired three episodes before it was cancelled, though seven were started, with five in the can. Apparently network execs assumed the popularity of AMC’s critically acclaimed Mad Men meant that everyone wanted more of that early 60’s vibe, so ABC brought out the similarly short-lived Pan Am and NBC launched The Playboy Club, set in 1961 and shot on location in Chicago.

The Playby Club 3

The show wasn’t even on my radar at the time, but I have since seen the pilot or first episode online (everything is online somewhere, isn’t it?) and have to say that A) it wasn’t nearly as offensive as religious conservatives and irate women’s groups contended and B) it was actually pretty good, sort of an eye-candy soap opera melded (much to my surprise) with a healthy dose of neo-noir-ish flavored Second City mobsters and Chicago political corruption (the two going more or less hand-in-hand in real life). But I suppose the few folks who tuned in did so to ogle Amber Heard in a satiny corset and bunny ears, but not enough of them to keep the show afloat for more than three weeks.

Well, I sure as hell wasn’t going to tempt fate with any Easter-related religious noir, and couldn’t come up with any legit Easter-Noir, so bunnies it is, even if only from a cancelled TV series.

Bonnie And Clyde, 1991

Bonnie & Clyde 1

“Bonnie And Bonnie” might be a better title, this vintage looking photo suite recalling the poignant Parker family reunion sequence from the groundbreaking 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde, produced by star Warren Beatty, directed by Arthur Penn, with Burnett Guffrey in charge of cinematography.

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One might argue that photographer Peter Lindbergh’s 1991 Vogue UK shoot is no more historically inaccurate than the 1967 film was, even swapping supermodels Linda Evangelista and Karen Mulder for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. But I didn’t mind screenwriters David Newman and Robert Benton playing fast and loose with the Depression era duo’s story anymore than I do Lindbergh, Mulder and Evangelista’s beautiful photos.

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