Winter Reading Plans

three readers

Five days into the new year, and I just finished Meghan Scott Molin’s The Frame-Up (more about that one later), am deep into The Annotated Big Sleep for at-home reading and just picked up Sara Gran’s The Infinite Blacktop – A Claire DeWitt Novel to keep in the car for daytime-downtime reading. (I usually have more than one book going at a time, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.)

I normally have a folder handy on my desktop to screen-cap or download any interesting books I spot so I won’t forget to look for them, particularly since it may take a while to get around to it. Sometimes I feel foolish for letting so many books collect there, as if I could ever hope to read them all (not that it’d stop me from buying them). And at this time of year, when every blog and e-newsletter touts yet another ‘Best Of 2018’ or ‘Must-Read In 2019’ list, I feel doomed. When I skimmed J. Kingston Pierce’s Rap Sheet (therapsheet.blogspot.com) 1.3.19 post “Early Rivals For Our Reading Attention”, I was overwhelmed at first, then I didn’t feel quite so bad. It lists 325 US and UK new releases, and just for the first quarter of the year. If anyone can actually get through all those, they’re a speed-reader, unemployed…or nuts. And likely to be out about six grand.

the rap sheet screen cap

My own ‘watch-for’ list is much smaller right now. Forgive me for further cluttering feeds and inboxes with yet another book list. It’s a mixed bag of noir-ish fiction, mystery, hard-boiled crime, non-fiction, YA/comics-related titles and at least one genuinely goofy item: Murder-A-Go-Go’s – Crime Fiction Inspired By The Music Of The Go-Go’s. I mean, seriously…how can you not want to see what that’ll be about?

Raymond Chandler and The Annotated Big Sleep will keep me occupied for a few more nights. January is peculiarly balmy at the moment here, but it won’t be long before that changes, which means ideal at-home evening reading conditions. Indoors. Where it’s warm. And Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt will go down nicely with the dashboard heater blowing and a large coffee in the cup holder while waiting for an appointment or before work. Hopefully these other titles will show up at my local bookstore promptly.

2019 books 1

  • A Bloody Business by Dylan Struzan, with illustrations by Drew Struzan
  • American Heroin by Melissa Scrivner Love
  • Dark Streets, Cold Suburbs by Aimee Hix
  • Metropolis by Philip Kerr, the last Bernie Gunther novel before the author’s sad demise

2019 books 2

  • Murder, My Love by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (A Mike Hammer novel)
  • The Lost Girls Of Paris by Pam Jenoff
  • The Only Woman In The Room by Marie Benedict
  • The Jean Harlow Bombshell by Mollie Cox Bryan

2019 book 3

  • Bad by Chloe Esposito
  • The Paragon Hotel by Lyndsay Faye
  • Murder-A-Go-Go’s – Crime Fiction Inspired By The Music Of The Go-Go’s edited by Holly West
  • Under The Moon – A Catwoman Tale by Lauren Myracle

http://therapsheet.blogspot.com/2019/01/early-rivals-for-our-reading-attention.html

Reader Photos by Jessica Castro, Daria Shevtsova and Kate Williams

The Annotated Big Sleep…and uneasy feelings of complicity.

The Annotated Big Sleep

The Annotated Big Sleep by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizutto (and, of course, by Raymond Chandler) with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem, came out in Summer 2018. I got my copy in early Autumn, but intentionally put the big 450+ page book aside at the time. Eager as I was to plunge back into one of my all-time favorite works from the classic era of mystery/hard-boiled crime fiction — now with the added delight of countless footnotes, annotations and period details explained along with accompanying photos — I concluded that it’d be better to linger over this gem and savor every annotated anecdote in cozy armchair comfort during the soon-to-arrive long winter nights. Now with January here, the holiday hubbub behind us and the bleakest stretch of frigid weather ahead, that plush chair and Chandler’s 1939 The Big Sleep beckons. So I’ve just plunged in.

But as I begin, I’m reminded of author Megan Abbott’s July, 2018 Slate.com essay, “The Big Sleep – Reading Raymond Chandler In The Age Of #MeToo”.

Megan Abbott begins with: “In April, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman, writing about male authors who objectify or diminish women, marveled over the many women she knows who remain ‘open to verbal entrancement’ by such men. As an example, she cited those who ‘sustain complicated and admiring relationships with lodestars like Raymond Chandler.’ Reading those words, I felt found out. Exposed.”

Slate - Megan Abbott-Raymond Chandler

Abbott relates how she first discovered Chandler as a child through Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaption of The Big Sleep, then started what became her first novel in order to actually write herself into sardonic, world-weary Philip Marlowe’s world. Dial forward to Summer 2018 when, like many (myself included), Abbott eagerly waited for the release of the first ever annotated edition of The Big Sleep and Chandler’s “lushly rendered world of afternoon highballs, blackjacks hidden behind trench coats, and cunning women with teeth like knives”. But with the book in hand, she realized that “…like most women I know, I’ve been squinting hard at my attachment to certain male writers and artists, from Jim Thompson to Norman Mailer, with problematic or troubling views of women. The word complicity knocks around my brain…”

I suppose that word must knock around in most mystery/crime fiction writers’ heads. And if it doesn’t, perhaps it ought to.

It’s one thing to read mid-twentieth century favorites contextually, ever mindful that the stories were written in different times and a vastly different social and cultural landscape. And I for one think it’s dangerous to interpret such material through contemporary filters, seeing themes and subtexts lurking there that most likely never occurred to the writers themselves. So I choose not to feel any guilt when I enjoy Raymond Chandler, any more than I do when I read Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald or even Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddel novels. But as Abbott notes, “If you want to understand toxic white male masculinity , you could learn a lot by looking at noir.” The noir world – films, novels, pulp stories, comics and more – is a darkly retro place, dialed decades back to a time when gender roles are quite different. Women characters are relegated to eye candy or the occasional femme fatale…either props or fundamentally evil. Further, as mystery/crime fiction readers and fans, we delight in all the murder and mayhem. And as writers, we actually create it.

In contemporary crime fiction and thrillers, female characters are often a kind of cannon fodder, anonymous and included only to be stalked, abused, tortured or murdered. Disproportionately, women are the victims of violence that’s all too often catalogued in gruesomely fetishistic detail, frequently less as ‘crime’ and instead some kind of perversely voyeuristic titillation. So, when we relish these creepy chills as readers, or craft them as writers, are we merely compounding decades-old problems?

Hey, don’t look for answers here. If a brilliant writer like Megan Abbott struggles with complicity, I can’t expect to do any more.

But I suspect that I’ll raise this topic again in the future. This notion of complicity, that is. My own current projects are set in 1959, right on the cusp of sweeping social changes, but not quite there yet. It’s difficult to settle into a 1959 mindset and attempt to make characters, situations and dialog ring true. Sometimes succeeding can almost make me cringe. But the times were what they were.

None of that will make Hill’s, Jackson’s and Rizutto’s (and, once again, Raymond Chandler’s) The Annotated Big Sleep any less enjoyable for me. It’ll give me something to keep in mind, though. Slogging home from work through slush and ice will be almost bearable knowing that hefty book is on the end table beside a cushy chair, and at least for a few evenings I’ll be comfortably ensconced in southern California. But when I reluctantly set it aside to return to my keyboard and get back to work on my own projects, that complicity thing will be knocking around in my head, the same as it seems to do in Megan Abbott’s. And that’s a good thing… that I’m wrestling with it, that is. And we all should.

https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/raymond-chandler-in-the-age-of-metoo.html

 

 

 

Their First Meeting

Strand Magazine Oct-Jan 2018

Foolishly, I used to bypass Strand Magazine on the newstands, wrongly considering it a Sherlock Holmes and cozy mystery title. Once I finally bought a copy, I learned otherwise, of course.

For example: The October 2018-January 2019 issue leads off with a Mike Hammer story by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane, adapted from a radio-style playlet originally intended as part of a 1954 Mike Hammer jazz LP. Iowa writer Collins, as many know, became close friends with Spillane in the hard-boiled master’s latter years and was assigned to manage his papers after his death, which included completing a number of unfinished manuscripts.

“Tonight My Love” in this current issue of Strand Magazine is a short-short story, opening much like a Mike Hammer novel would, with the “hard-hitting and lusty” private eye on a routine tail job, lurking outside a low rent nightclub while he tries to keep a Lucky Strike lit on a rainy New York night. “That was when she showed up from somewhere wearing a red dress that would’ve looked painted-on if any living artist was only that good. Her eyes were big and dark, and her lips so lush it made my own go slack…”

In a little over two and half pages of taut, vintage Spillane (via Max Allan Collins) prose we witness an important event in the Mike Hammer saga that stretched over multiple novels, short stories, movies, TV series, radio shows and comics. The very last line of “Tonight My Love” is a gotcha for any Spillane fan (and I’m definitely one).

Different actresses have played the part, from Maxine Cooper to Tanya Roberts, but it may be that, much like Spillane’s Mike Hammer himself, it’s a role that can’t really be assumed since each reader has their own image of…well, that’d be giving away the last line of “Tonight My Love”. Check it out in the current Strand Magazine.

 

Turner’s Warshawski

v i warshawski kathleen turner

Kathleen Turner as one of the 90’s best ‘stiletto gumshoes’, here in a publicity shot for the 1991 film V. I. Warshawski, the movie adaptation of Sara Paretsky’s award-winning hard-boiled Chicago private detective series.

The Girl Hunt Ballet

Girl Hunt Ballet 3

The Band Wagon (1953) is a classic MGM musical (it’s the film that included the famous song “That’s Entertainment”) with Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant…even a walk-on by Ava Gardner. Astaire plays a popular but aging Hollywood song and dance star who’s returned to Broadway in the hopes of restarting his career, where’s he’s mismatched with Gabrielle Gerard, a famous ballerina unfamiliar with musical theater, played by Cyd Charisse. Their initial outing, an ill-conceived highbrow musical version of Faust, is a disaster. But Fred saves the day by rallying the cast and crew to rework the material into a more conventional musical comedy show that premieres to rousing success…while he and the ballerina (who originally nearly despised each other) naturally end up falling in love.

Okay, so why should we mention this film here? Because of its legendary The Girl Hunt Ballet sequence.

Girl Hunt Ballet 2

One of many song and dance numbers planned for the film was called “The Private Eye”, but it proved unworkable for some reason. Still determined to probe that theme, they found inspiration in a recent Life magazine article on Mickey Spillane, at that time a very controversial pop culture phenomenon, reviled by critics, but read by millions.  The result, “The Girl Hunt Ballet” is a dance tale set in a Spillane-style urban underworld of violent New York streets and smoky gin mills, all teeming with cops and robbers shooting it out, gangsters wielding switchblades and fetching femmes fatales…Charisse (remember, she’s playing an aloof prima donna ballerina in the film) the ‘fetchingest’ of them all. Astaire does what comes easy for Astaire – being effortlessly cool, even playing a private eye. Director Vincent Minelli decided the sequence needed some narration, like Mickey Spillane’s first person narrative Mike Hammer novels themselves, and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner wrote it, though he insisted on going unpaid and uncredited so as not to step on the toes of the film’s songwriters and screenwriters.

Cyd CHARISSE und Fred ASTAIRE in 'Vorhang auf!', 1953

I’ll be the first to admit that musicals aren’t really my thing. But The Girl Hunt Ballet is really something to see. Articles about it frequently refer to Charisse and Astaire’s “sexually charged” duet. That’s putting it mildly. I don’t know how the film didn’t melt. The extended 12 minute sequence captures every period pulp and hard-boiled mystery cliché and trope you can think of and turns them into a brilliant piece of noir art. Maybe you don’t want to sit through all of Band Wagon. I get that. But if you can seeThe Girl Hunt Ballet – YouTube or wherever — watch it. And with good speakers and the bigger the screen the better.

Girl Hunt Ballet

 

Gale Gallagher

Chord In Crimsons

“Gale Gallagher” is both the author and the private eye character herself in two late 1940’s novels, I Found Him Deadand Chord In Crimson. The books are written as if the private investigator herself is detailing authentic case histories in response (or even rebuttal) to the glut of hard-boiled detective novels so popular at the time. In fact the first book’s rear dust jacket purports to show the author/detective herself. Actually, the character — and pen name — was the real-life husband and wife writing team of Margaret Scott and William Oursler.

Private investigator Gallagher is the daughter of a widower New York cop, raised like a boy and groomed for a career in law enforcement. But she abandoned the police academy to open her own agency, the Acme Investigating Bureau. Gale’s licensed to carry (but rarely does). She’s smart, sarcastic, an elegant dresser, frequents Manhattan’s nightclubs and dates (or at least flirts with) her share of men.

I FOund Him Dead Front & Back

Rooting around in the dusty history of mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoes’ can be a little frustrating.  Intriguing characters like Scott and Oursler’s Gale Gallagher vanished, while ‘blonde bombshells’ like G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz flourished in multiple titles and editions. In a way, Gale Gallagher marks a transition point between the relatively demure amateur female sleuths from the 1930’s pulps and drawing room mysteries to the ‘saucier’ 50s/60s/70s series, and owes more to the familiar male hard-boiled private eye series of the time.

A Hard-Boiled Christmas

Hard boiled christmas stories

Okay, I’ve waded through snow at home three times so far this season, and this weekend I’ll be a few hundred miles further north where some heaps of white stuff await. So I guess that means there’s no hope of Indian Summer returning before Autumn ends. It’s really December. And almost Christmas.

There are always loads of cozy Christmas themed mysteries released around the holidays. Instead, how about Hard-Boiled Christmas Stories, edited by John Wooley and John McMahon, a 2012 Reverse Karma Press release with 10 holiday themed hard-boiled crime stories from 1930’s and 40’s pulp magazines including Detective Fiction Weekly, Dime Detective, Phantom Detective, Popular Detective and G-Men Detective. This also includes a new “Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective” story penned by John Wooley and emulating the style of the character’s creator, Richard Bellem. The book’s 8-page introduction incudes some nice background and bio info. The Dan Turner tale’s B&W illustrations and the book’s cover art are by David Saunders, son of golden age illustrator Norman Saunders, though he notes that he was trying to do one in the style of H.J. Ward.

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