The Master At 101 Years

Kiss me Deadly

Shame on me, but I screwed up my post scheduling, so this was meant to appear on Saturday.

A belated birthday acknowledgment to Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey Spillane, born 101 years ago on March 9th, who sadly left us in 2006. Loved by readers, resented by writers (to this day), reviled by critics, spoofed by himself and many others, the man was actually an instrumental part of building the postwar paperback marketplace. I’ll argue that he played a part in revitalizing — maybe even redefining —  the hard-boiled private eye novel for the second half of the twentieth century, and along the way, sold a mere 225 million books.

Crime Reads Screen Cap

Crime Reads editor Molly Odintz has a very interesting piece at Crimereads.com, “The Ten Best And Pulpiest Mickey Spillane Covers”  – do log on and check it out. The covers shown here aren’t the ones Odintz presents, and some might say her choices aren’t anywhere near as pulpy, weird or downright pervy as some Spillane covers can be. Molly Odintz acknowledges that while commercial success should never be a measure of literary merit, Spillane’s recent centennial and various authors (Max Allan Collins key among them) arguing for a reassessment of the writer’s importance begs for publishers to reissue his work, but in different cover art, “…so that folks like me will actually want to read him in public. Can you imagine bringing one of these on the subway?” But she continues, and this is crucial to understanding Spillane and his work: “But Mickey Spillane didn’t care about what people thought of his cover designs, or the literary merit of his books, and paid no attention to any censorial judgments whatsoever, so perhaps the best way to celebrate the iconic writer’s birthday would indeed be to bring one of these on the subway – and not care what anyone thinks”.

Vengeance Is Mine

Odintz showcases ten Spillane covers she considers particularly weird, pulpy or tawdry. Anyone familiar with postwar pulp magazine and paperback cover art may consider them surprisingly tame. I’ll concede, Spillane’s One Lonely Night was almost always packaged with particularly disturbing cover art of a bound and partially stripped woman. The 1960’s – 70’s era Spillane reissues followed that period’s trend towards photo cover art, and typically employed provocatively posed near-nude women with no relation to the title, story or…well, anything at all, simply beckoning to the reader with ‘come-hither’ expressions. Some European editions of Spillane novels went way beyond anything that would be allowed in the U.S. market. And the fact is, many 1950’s era mystery/crime fiction paperbacks (and certainly the remaining pulps from the same era) can completely out-weird, out-sex, out-perv most any Mickey Spillane cover art, with one after another depicting menacing thugs and lover-boy private eyes threatening or otherwise taking advantage of a gallery of women-as-victims and women-as-eye-candy, invariably undressed or undressing in fetishistic detail, restrained, terrified…or often as not…dead.

One Lonely Night

Do we blame the writers? The publishers, their art directors, the illustrators? Do we blame the culture of the time? Do we blame anyone at all, or do we just recognize that they’re artifacts from another era? Don’t ask me…I’ll have to leave vexing questions like that to smarter folks than I. But I won’t apologize for appreciating Mickey Spillane. I have all of the Mickey Spillane novels, with doubles and triples of a few from different eras, along with the unfinished works completed by Max Allan Collins, some few books about Spillane, the complete Mike Hammer comic strip book and sundry other Spillane items. Call me a fan.

The Body Lovers

While I don’t ride the subway, I fully understand what Molly Odintz is saying, and there are more than a few (maybe most) of my Spillane books that I’m not too eager to whip out in the coffee shop, just so I can watch fellow patrons ease their chairs away from me. But the same goes for other vintage paperbacks I have, and quite a few contemporary books, now that I think of it.

Cheap used bookstore copies of the first few Mike Hammer novels were actually what lured me into the mystery/crime fiction genre in the first place, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Spillane’s no-nonsense prose and plot-first writing style guides me in my own humble writing attempts, particularly whenever I get ‘writerly’. I don’t know if, like Molly Odintz, I’d like to see Mickey Spillane’s body of work reissued in ‘tamer’ packaging, or just as she speculates, if the hard-boiled crime fiction master’s work indeed should be reissued, but in cover art that celebrates all the violent, sexy, tawdry, pulpy storytelling each book contained.

The Long Wait

 

The Brass Halo

the brass halo jack webb

Around the time of the publication of John D. McDonald’s The Brass Cupcake in 1958, there was a slew of other books with ‘Brass’ in their titles. Coincidence? Publishers scrambling to capitalize on the success of one particular book? Who knows.

Just one of many was Jack Webb’s (no, not the actor/director/producer Jack Webb of Dragnet fame) The Brass Halo, originally published in hardcover in 1957, then in paperback in 1958. Jack Webb (1916-2008), who also worked under the pen name John Farr, wrote 9 Golden-Shanley mysteries between 1952 and 1963 featuring homicide detective Sammy Golden and and unlikely sidekick, kindly Catholic Priest Father Shanley. In this book, the duo team up to solve a less-than-honest private eye’s murder after he’s found knifed in a nightclub torch singer’s dressing room, the chanteuse gone missing.

The Brass Halo

I haven’t read it, and will confess that my interest in the book is less about Webb’s novel and more about Robert Maguire’s cover art, this particular cover illustration among the artist’s best, in my opinion.

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

From the well-known anthologist, author and master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler: The Big Book Of Female Detectives, which proudly claims to be “The Most Complete Collection Of Detective Dames, Gumshoe Gals & Sultry Sleuths Ever Assembled”. I’m not qualified to say if it is or it isn’t, only to point out that it is indeed one big, fat book at 1,115 pages.

Now keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a collection of tales written by women, but about women detectives, cops, reporters and various sleuths, and understandably the women writers are better represented in more of the contemporary material.

The book includes 74 stories, arranged chronologically with each section and story accompanied by informative introductions written by the master himself. Victorian/Edwardian – British Mysteries and Pre-World War One – American Mysteries comprise the early era. Those are followed by The Pulp Era, The Golden Age and The Mid-Century, and the longest section, The Modern Era. But Penzler’s not done yet, and closes with a final section devoted to women on the other side of the law, Bad Girls. Of course, there’s no way to assemble a book like this without some critics complaining that their favorite character was left out or questioning why a particular writer was included at all. So let them quibble. For myself, I’ll confess that I sped through the early eras’ sections and really get hooked in The Pulp Era, with one of my personal favorites from that period, Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady in “The Domino Lady Collects”, and surprised to see two Adolphe Barreaux Sally The Sleuth strips, including “Coke For Co-Eds”…you just have to love that title. Familiar names crowd the Modern Era, including Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Max Allan Collins, Nevada Barr, Lawrence Block and others.

I got this book before the holidays and only just wrapped it up now, dipping in for a story here and a story there at a leisurely pace. Finishing it was almost bittersweet – I got used to seeing that big ol’ book on the endtable. If you see it, get it. I can’t think of better ‘textbook’ overview of women detectives (and crooks!) in one book.

 

Stumptown

Stumptown-5

One way for rabid readers to keep from going broke is to learn to love their public library. I have. The one closest to me is a charming and well-designed facility, though all that décor apparently left no funds for books. But the next library over is an enormous two-story treasure trove, and its graphic novel section could outdo many comics shops. That’s where I came across writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth’s great contemporary hard-boiled series, Stumptown.

Stumptown 1

Dex Parios is my favorite kind of ‘stiletto gumshoe’: Wonderfully flawed. Army vet and inveterate gambler, Dex is both bad-ass and wise-ass, and occasionally a bit of a screw-up. It makes for a lethal combo.

Stumptown 4

Sounds like near-future small screen options won’t be short of intriguing girlz-with-guns and lethal ladies, even though I’m still processing the sad news that Netflix cancelled the amazing Jessica Jones series with Krysten Ritter.

Cobie Smulders

ABC just announced a new Stumptown series by Jason Richman and Ruben Flesicher. Hard-boiled Dex Parios will be played by Canadian actress Jacoba Francisca Maria Smulders, better known as Cobie Smulders. Marvel universe fans know Cobie as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill from the Avengers. TV channel surfers know her as Robin Scherbatsky from syndicated-everywhere How I Met Your Mother sitcom reruns. Seems like a good casting decision to me, and I’m betting she can bring Dex Parios’ hard-boiled grit and glimpses of vulnerability to life on screen just fine. Looking forward to this one. And still enjoying Rucka and Southworth’s comics.

Stumptown Hardcover

David Goodis

Goodis Midnight Classics

Hard-boiled, noir, pulp, crime novelist and screenwriter David Goodis was born today, March 2nd back in 1917.

My own introduction to Goodis’ work was The Blonde On The Street Corner and The Moon In The Gutter in used bookstore 1990’s trade paperback editions from Midnight Classics (wish I still had those). From there I looked for more of his work, and confess to finding it a little uneven. Digging deeper, I discovered I wasn’t alone in that conclusion.

Four David Goodis Novels

Goodis, apparently, almost seemed to emulate one of the characters in the bleak, noir-ish world of his writing, hanging out in lowlife taverns and greasy spoons, poorly dressed, prone to depression and bouts of anger, and unlucky in love. But after laboring for years over low-paying aviation and adventure pulp magazine stories, Goodis was finally at the top of his game by the mid-1940’s. He had a couple successful hardcover novels to his credit, a lucrative six-year Warner Bros. screenwriting contract, and a hit movie based on his own novel, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Yet within a couple years, he left Hollywood behind, had to move in with his parents in Philadelphia, and spent the remainder of his life cranking out paperback originals for Gold Medal and Lion Books along with – once again – pulp magazine stories. A lawsuit against the producers of the hit TV series The Fugitive, which Goodis asserted was based on his work, wasn’t resolved until just after his death. And by that time, not one of his books was even in print in the U.S. Yet, he was revered in Europe, with nearly a dozen critically acclaimed novels in France alone.

Goodis A Life In Black & White

David Goodis: A Life In Black And White by French writer Philippe Garnier was published in France in the mid-eighties, but wasn’t translated and published in the U.S. until 2013. It’s available through the Film Noir Foundation (it was edited by Eddie Muller), and at Amazon. In the mean time, you’ll find that “The Mysterious Life Of David Goodis” by Andrew Nette in a February 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Review Of Books (link below) provides a terrific capsulized overview of who Goodis was, what was great and not-so-great about him and his work, and even why European readers honored him so much more than his own American compatriots.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/mysterious-life-david-goodis/ – !

Death On The Cheap

Death On The Cheap - Cover Scan to Use

Death On The Cheap – The Lost B Movies of Film Noir: There’s a quote from Robert Mitchum, surely one of the postwar era film noir icons, that appears in this book’s introduction, and understandably makes it into most online reviews I’ve seen. Mitchum told the author, “Hell, we didn’t know what film noir was in those days. We were just making movies. Cary Grant and all the big stars at RKO got all the lights. We lit our sets with cigarette butts”.

Fans of the genre tend to forget that while a handful of classics were big budget A films, most of what we now lump together as ‘Film Noir” weren’t scripted by James Cain or William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks, William Wyler or Fritz Lang, and didn’t star Lauren Bacall, Dana Andrews, Barbara Stanwyck, Humphrey Bogart or Gene Tierney. For every Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, The Blue Dahlia or Laura, there were a dozen B-movie mysteries and crime melodramas with miniscule budgets, tight shooting schedules and second tier casts comprised of stars who no longer shined so bright and newcomers still learning their craft. Often as not, the dark, gritty locations and sets were service corridors behind the studio sound stages, while left-over interior sets were hastily redressed and left in shadow partly to look ominous, partly to hide the fact that they were so sparsely propped.

Arthur Lyons (1946-2008) was the author of over 20 books, including the L.A. private eye Jacob Asch series, as well as a co-founder of the Palm Springs Festival Of Film Noir, a former Palm Springs city councilman, and considered a film noir expert…in particular, those low-budget and B-movies made between 1939 and 1959. This 250+ page book takes a closer look at some films you’d be familiar with, but also many you never heard of and might have a hard time locating, even now when darn near everything seems to be available on DVD/Blue Ray, cable, YouTube or streaming somewhere. Lyons may be an ardent fan, but he wasn’t looking at these films through rose colored glasses, and is quick to point out that some are real stinkers. But some definitely are not, and their no-name casts, first-take-is-the-only-take filming, murky nighttime back lot exteriors, questionable scripts rewritten on the fly while the cameras rolled all somehow came together serendipitously to create real works of noir art. (Then again, some didn’t.)

The book includes a detailed filmography with titles, alternate titles (and there are many), credits, plot summaries and commentary. Nearly 20 years old, Lyons’ Death On The Cheap is still available new, though I’ve seen really inexpensive copies available online. If you’ve already read everything you care to read about The Postman Always Rings Twice, Dead Reckoning and Out Of The Past, maybe it’s time to brush up on some lesser-known and altogether forgotten films. But good luck tracking a few of them down if you want to watch them for yourself.

The Big Blowdown

The Big Blowdown - Richie Fahey Cover art

There’s a long list of George Pelecanos’ projects that I adore: Novels, short stories, television scripts.

But my favorite remains The Big Blowdown, his 1999 tale of two Washington DC friends (including Nick Stefanos, the Pelecanos character who’s crossed-over into more than one project) set in a post-WWII world of realistically drawn blue-collar Greek neighborhoods filled with rich renderings of everyday people who live and work alongside the small-time mobsters who really run things. Some have compared Pelecanos’ early novels to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, and I won’t argue. They share a spare yet darkly poetic writing style and focus on a specific time, place and cast of characters. How he continues to create excellent books while concurrently working as a writer/producer for high-visibility projects like The Wire, The Pacific and The Deuce among others is beyond me. A person can only do so much. Somehow, Pelecanos does still more.

For me, this particular novel has been a kind of tutorial on how a master wordsmith handles an ethnic milieu, something I’m working with (different ethnicity, but still) in my own projects. Obviously, Pelecanos does it better than many, and better than anything I could ever hope for.

The Big Blowdown will get a careful re-read someday. I’ll just need to give it some time so I can forget the specifics and discover it all anew. As an aside, the nifty Richie Fahey cover art on my well-worn trade pb edition shown above doesn’t hurt.

Primal Spillane

Primal Spillane

Some dismiss him, some revere him, and some 1950’s-60’ literary critics actually reviled Mickey Spillane, certain that he represented the end of American arts & letters. But nearly 250 million book buyers apparently thought otherwise. I’ll proudly admit to being among the adoring faction, having read all of his novels and re-reading a couple faves more than once. Sure, some of his later work can’t hold a candle to his first few Mike Hammer novels. So what? The man’s a hard-boiled genre icon. I’m glad that Iowa mystery writer Max Allan Collins forged a relationship with Spillane in the golden age great’s latter years, assigned to sort through his papers following Spillane’s demise, and authorized to complete several of Mickey Spillane’s unfinished novels (which I’ve enjoyed as well).

Primal Spillane is a collection of ‘short-shorts’ the emerging writer penned as filler material for comics back when he was starting out before his WII service. There are over 40 short pieces here, covering a lot of ground – not Mike Hammer stories so much as adventure stories, war stories along with some crime stories. Pretty uniformly, they employ those trademark Spillane gotcha endings and make the most of ultra-short word counts, which is a lesson in economy for any writer. There’s a good intro written by Collins, and the book was compiled with the able assistance of his researcher, Lynne Meyers.

Gina Higgins’ American Noir

Kiss Me Deadly G Higgins

“American Noir”, the ongoing series of stunning large format paintings by California artist Gina Higgins, is aptly named. That they’re noir is apparent. But the way they evoke a time, place and ‘feeling’ of a sensual and dark slice of America may be their real power and beauty.

Can you tell I’ve become hooked?

G Higgins 6

Gina Higgins may have been born in New Orleans, but she grew up in Los Angeles off Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills. That Los Angeles-Hollywood vibe seems to permeate her work – from film culture to Sunset Boulevard to retro L.A. nightlife. Still a teenager, she took a break from her college education to study and draw abroad in France and Italy (basically like winning the lottery for an art student) then returned to complete her degree, graduating from the University of Southern California Roski School Of Fine Art.

Insomnia G Higgins

Early Higgins illustrations became sought after work for clients like Liz Claiborne, Etienne Aigner, MGM, CBS and others, and then in 2009 Higgins began her signature series of large format paintings (acrylics on canvas, if I’ve read the notes right on various sites) that became “American Noir’. Clearly a masterful figurative painter, Higgins doesn’t seem to be content with straightforward representational realism. Her figures and faces are personalized, stylized and manipulated with a skilled hand till they’re kind of one – almost organically – with her semi-surreal settings and backgrounds. I’ve never seen a Gina Higgins painting in the flesh, but something tells me it would make me want to cry.

See next post…

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G Higgins 3

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