Mystery Muses.

Filling and then whittling down my writing lair’s to-be-read endtable yields a lot of books, some few keepers finding their way onto already over-stuffed bookshelves, the rest crammed into cartons headed for the used booksellers. This time it took two trips to turn in three hefty cartons, most of those the non-keepers from my sheltering-in reading. No point in grousing about the out-of-pocket spending for those boxes-o-books vs. what I got back. Reading isn’t a business, after all. Usually all that fresh cash is burning a hole in my pocket before I can leave the store anyway. This time I behaved, more or less, and only walked out with one book (hard to believe).

Jim Huang and Austin Lugar’s 2006 Mystery Muses – 100 Classics That Inspire Today’s Mystery Writers is a follow up to their 100 Favorite Mysteries Of The Century and They Died In Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated And Forgotten Mystery Novels. Huang and Lugar are just the editors, letting 100 mystery writers ranging from the well known to some newcomers (newcomers fifteen years ago, that is) comment on classic mystery novels that inspired or played a seminal role in their own mystery and crime fiction careers. This 224-page trade pb was a quick read, though I’ll need to revisit it again, this time with a pen and notepad handy. I’m embarrassed to admit that there were quite a few classics I still haven’t read (and a few I’d never heard of!) but also, the participating writers included a number of names I wasn’t familiar with and, in some cases, now want to know more about. 

A Blonde For Benny.

From Australia’s loooong running Larry Kent: I Hate Crime pulp series, this one’s for Blonde For Benny, the cover art presumably by series illustrators Stan Pitt or Walter Stackpool, though I see no signature or credits anywhere.

I bought several Larry Kent reprints not long ago, with two novelettes to each trade paperback. Can’t say I plan to swap them for a long list of more favored U.S. pulps and postwar PBO’s, but it’s always interesting to read UK and Australian takes on American slang, settings and hard-boiled storytelling.

A Black Silk Dress, Tighter Than A Bandage On A Sore Finger.

Allan Anderson’s gruesome cover art for the January 1942 issue of Spicy Detective magazine corroborates the assumption that the illustrators were often cooking up ideas (or getting them from the editors) with little regard to the stories inside a particular issue. Oh, there’s all sorts of murder and mayhem in this 128-page Adventure House 2007 trade pb reprint, but nothing about a bride-to-be fending off a knife-wielding killer outside the seamstress’ fitting room. 

That the U.S. was officially in WWII by this point is apparent, though the stories were surely written and selected long before Pearl Harbor the month before. Henri St. Maur’s “Go Ahead – Shoot” deals with private op Matt Kerrigan tangling with Axis spies at a precious metals smelter, and Adolphe Barreaux’s Sally The Sleuth 8-page comic “On The Heels Of Heels” finds her infiltrating Nazi saboteurs masquerading as a quiet married suburban couple. For once, it’s someone other than Sally herself who manages to lose most of her clothes (well, mostly). 

The interior illustrations shown here (unfortunately uncredited, as usual) accompany the issue’s lead story, “A Pile of Publicity” by Justin Case. That would be pulp maestro Hugh B. Cave (1910 – 2004), a one-man story factory who sold over 800 pulp magazine tales, most of his horror, science fiction and weird menace tales penned under his real name. “Justin Case” was used for The Eel series, The Eel one of the era’s many gentleman thief anti-heroes who dabbled in private investigations. Case/Cave wrote seventeen of them between 1936 and 1942, this one the second to last. An admirer of Damon Runyon’s style, Case mimicked that same present-tense first-person format for his Eel tales. Here, The Eel’s hired by a wealthy artist to protect a just-completed full figure nude portrait to be unveiled during an elaborate gala at the painter’s Connecticut estate, and wouldn’t you know it, some folks wind up dead during the highbrow art set’s decadent shenanigans.

For anyone who’s only used to browsing the 1930’s-40’s era’s mystery/crime pulp’s covers but hasn’t given the stories themselves a try, I encourage you to do so (mystery/crime fiction writers in particular). Every hoary hard-boiled genre cliché began here, sometimes awkwardly plugged into really clunky prose, but often as not, really leaping off the page, particularly when you keep in mind they weren’t quite so cliched yet. For example, try this passage from the issue’s second-to-last story, “Two Little Rocks” by Clark Nelson, a nifty bit of nastiness dealing with murderous jewel smugglers: 

“The instant Steve Carnahan, proprietor of Carnahan Detective Agency, entered that frowsy hotel bedroom, he knew he’d led with his chin. 

A dame opened the door to his hairy-fisted knock. She was a tall, slinky redhead in a black silk dress that was tighter than a bandage on a sore finger. She had green eyes, red lips and a sardonic smile. She also had a pearl-handled .38 caliber persuader, which she proceeded to jam against Carnahan’s middle vest-button. 

“Freeze, flatfoot,” she remarked distinctly.”

A tall, slinky redhead in a black silk dress that was tighter than a bandage on a sore finger…I’ll never manage a line like that. If you can compartmentalize the wince-worthy bits of non-politically correctness, there are real genre gems to be enjoyed in those ancient pulps. I’ve still got four or five more late 30’s and early 40’s Spicy Detective issues to work through.  

Redemption’s Where You Find It.

Clandestine

“Three out of five ain’t bad”, I wrote a few days back, referencing the to-be-read pile on my writing lair’s endtable. The first two of five books stacked there turned out to be duds, but the remaining three more than made up for that. The last, a 1999 Avon Twilight trade pb edition of James Ellroy’s 1982 novel Clandestine, was a risky choice right now. Like many, I’ve got the blues these days, whether it’s from the pandemic, or politics, or just every damn thing. An Ellroy novel, while sure to be a crime fiction masterpiece, is unlikely to lift anyone’s spirits.

Just goes to show ya…

Young uniformed LAPD cop Fred Underhill has a skeleton or two in his closet but is brimming with as much ambition as cynicism. He’s buddied with a loveable lush of a partner, spending his nights in an endless series of cocktail lounge pickups and seeking some vague something (which he calls the ‘wonder’). But the partner dies in a bloody holdup shootout. Then Underhill falls hard for beautiful, accomplished but broken prosecutor, Lorna Weinberg. The seamless monotony of Underhill’s daily life is unraveling. Skirting the rules to solve a possible serial killer’s rampage, he’s soon in plain clothes and in pretty heady company, and his attempts at leverage and manipulation are ruthlessly squashed by real department pro’s. When the prime suspect he fed to a rogue detective squad turns out to be innocent (discovered only after the culprit kills himself in his cell), Underhill’s career is destroyed, his marriage crumbles, his entire life seems over. Years pass, the ex-cop’s obsession with the murders still simmering, when events send him far from the familiar glitter and grime of Ellroy’s mid-twentieth century Los Angeles to the seemingly pristine pastures and small towns of America’s Dairyland. There Fred Underhill uncovers scandals and crimes that are almost too vile for the underbelly of Hollywood at its worst.

Cladestine Group Shot

Clandestine surprised me in two ways. First: This was, I believe, Ellroy’s second published novel, and the very familiar creative wordsmithing and staccato rhythm prose that readers cherish from his masterful L.A. Quartet (1987 – 1992) and the in-progress second L.A. Quartet (214 – 2019) is nowhere to be found. Ellroy’s writing’s is very straightforward here (though no less darkly poetic). Second: The novel’s closing pages provided a very unexpected balm to my blues. No one should seek redemption in James Ellroy’s bleak world, but there it was in the conclusion of Clandestine. The “R” word even lurks in the novel’s final sentence. After 320+ pages of Ellroy’s trademark cynicism, corruption and violence, there was a glimmer of hope after all.

Again, it just goes to show ya…

Clandestine is considered a standalone book in the Ellroy bibliography, but it actually nestles quite comfortably alongside the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz), with familiar faces making cameo appearances and the long shadow of dastardly Dudley Smith looming over all.

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Ellroy experts (and I’m not one, only an avid reader) will know better, but Clandestine also seems to point towards his 1996 true crime/memoir My Dark Places, or so it seemed to me. But whether it does or not, Clandestine is an amazing novel on its own, and whatever I reach for next will have to be mighty good to stand up to any comparisons. But the fact is, the writing lair’s endtable is empty now, the to-be-read pile sorely in need of replenishing. There’s a stack of Adventure House 1930’s-40’s Spicy Detective pulp reprints on my bookshelves that are still unread, and they’ll have to do for now…

No, Really: Where Did Marla Go?

Private eyeful 1

Not a collector but always acquisitive, I once had four editions of Henry Kane’s Private Eyeful, (none pristine collectibles, mind you) including the striking 1960 UK version with its Denis McLoughlin cover art, the original 1959 US paperback edition with a frequently seen Robert Maguire illustration, a 1960 reissue with Mort Engle cover art, and even a Lancer pb edition from years later (75 cent cover price, so let’s guess late 1960’s or even 1970’s) with a period-sexy nearly nude model posing in no more than a holster for the Howard Winters cover photo.

But a years-ago mishap with apartment windows left open all day while at work – a day plagued by thunderstorms – turned my Private Eyefuls and a number of other books into soggy messes with nowhere else to go but the trash. All I have now is an inexpensive replacement copy of that awful Lancer photo cover edition, a disintegrating book at that, with all but a few pages completely loosened from the binding. Proof once again why it’s best that I never became a collector.

Private eyeful 2

Now, not everyone’s a Henry Kane (1918 – 1988) fan, but I’ll admit to being one. Like writers as diverse as pulp maestro Robert Leslie Bellem (Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective) and eminent literary bad-boy James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, etc., etc.), Kane’s writing has a uniquely musical quality to it. Not quite Runyon-esque, but sometimes syncopated and sometimes sing-songy, it almost demands to be read out loud, and then could get your fingers snapping once you find the writer’s rhythm. If some critics assert that the prodigiously productive pulp and paperback original writing machine (like Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, John Grisham and others, originally a lawyer before he was a writer) can be painfully smarmy or annoyingly glib, I’d only counter that countless postwar era mystery/crime fiction writers were as well, the spinning paperback racks crammed with wise-cracking coastal private eyes like Kane’s Peter Chambers back then.

Roughly midway in the writer’s successful series of smart-assed NYC gumshoe novels, Henry Kane paused to crank out Private Eyeful in 1959. Why? Who knows. Prodded by an agent or editor, perhaps, hoping to give “G.G. Fickling’s” Honey West some competition. But let’s be frank: Henry Kane, like so many other writers from the same era, could be dismissive at best and downright misogynistic at worst when it comes to female characters, so the decision to write an entire novel about a female private eye remains a puzzler to me.

Private eyeful 3

Kane’s Marla Trent is the super-successful owner of Manhattan’s Marla Trent Enterprises, capably assisted there by big, smart and handsome William Winkle (AKA Wee Willie) and stern middle-aged secretary Rebecca Asquiff. This is no struggling pair of gumshoes dodging bill collectors. The agency’s offices are plush and well located, the revenue stream steady and lucrative, and as for Marla Trent herself? She’s blue-eyed and blonde-haired with curvy measurements that are incessantly relisted, a one-time beauty pageant contestant but also a Vassar graduate, with a Masters from NYU and a PhD from Columbia. Previously (and briefly) married to Andrew King, then of the FBI and now of the NYPD, 28-year-old Marla Trent is quite comfortable with her luxurious Manhattan penthouse, sports car and seemingly endless wardrobe courtesy of a large six-figure inheritance from her deceased inventor father.

Let’s be clear: Marla Trent is smart, savvy and capable, but most of all, Marla is attractive, as the reader is reminded over and over and over again as characters fawn over her, flirt with her, attempt to seduce her and literally are dumbfounded by her looks, all in increasingly squirm-worthy ways throughout the novel.

In Private Eyeful, Trent deals with one case in the book’s opening pages that swiftly morphs into an altogether different – and more troubling – case, initially helping model and actress Katrina Jurillo prove her ne’er-do-well brother’s innocence in an armed robbery (said brother already doing time in Sing-Sing). But this turns into an even more serious situation when his appeal goes bad and the assistant D.A. is shot dead right in the court room. Marla has to navigate a particularly puzzling (and loooong) list of culprits, lots of red herring clues, goofy coincidences and leering late fifties naughtiness, culminating in a credulity-straining trial scene. Most of the nod-and-a-wink sauciness leads nowhere, though there’s an oddly unexpected romp with Marla’s ex right in his precinct office during the work day, and the novel does end as bedroom hijinks are about to commence (this time with a handsome doctor who popped up late in the tale to facilitate all that strained credulity in the climactic court room scene).

Is it a good mystery, or even good P.I. crime fiction? Well, I’ll let readers decide on their own if they choose to dig up their own copy of Private Eyeful. Henry Kane’s novels are an acquired taste, as are so many postwar private eye series. I’m not about to canonize Brett Halliday, Carter Brown or Frank Kane either. But I happen to have a fascination with the much-too-short list of mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the pre-Grafton and Paretsky era, even if digging up their novels, pulp tales, comics, movies and TV shows can feel like an archeological dig. They’re not all high-art, but for me they are pop-cultural touchstones.

Private Eyeful 4

Like Henry Kane’s Peter Chambers novels, Private Eyeful and the Marla Trent character are sorta fun and kinda sassy in a silly way, period pieces with all of the baggage that implies. That the book is set in 1959, the same year I open my own The Stiletto Gumshoe works-in-progress, is more coincidence than inspiration, and I’d be quick to point out that Kane’s blonde bombshell and my own Sharon Gardner (real name: Sasha Garodnowicz) have no more in common than occasionally running down the bad guys in heels.

So, why just the one Private Eyeful novel? Again, who knows. It may have been no more than a whim for Henry Kane. It might not have sold well enough to interest Pyramid Books in a series. The novel’s much better than many mystery/crime fiction PBO’s I’ve read from that era, and no worse than others, though no one would consider it a crime fiction classic. Maybe male readers preferred their saucy crime hijinks told from a comfortably male POV, while female readers were too smart to fall for sexified cartoons. So, Henry Kane’s Marla Trent had its one shot in 1959 (with reissues) but otherwise vanished.

Or did she? Tune in tomorrow for Marla’s return…

The Master’s Birthday: Raymond Chandler

Chandler penguin 3

I’m still merrily working through Barry Day’s 2014 The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words (scroll back a couple posts) as the master’s birthday rolls around: July 23, 1888 – March 26, 1959…and born right here in “the jewel on the lake”, no less.

Chandler penguin 1

It’s a good thing I’m not really a collector (though admittedly acquisitive) or I’d definitely go broke tracking down the many, many different editions, both domestic and foreign, of Chandler’s works, such as these cleanly simple but handsome Penguin Australia book covers that I stumbled across when snooping for visuals for this birthday post.

Chandler penguin 2Chandler penguin 4

In His Own Words.

Chandler

The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day, is a profusely illustrated (200+ images) 2014 hardcover I stumbled across in my first return visit to a favored used bookstore just a few days ago. Things were rearranged for more open space (which runs contrary to the typical used bookstore ambience, doesn’t it?) with masks required, limited occupancy, one person per aisle/cubicle and they’re only buying books by appointment, no walk-ins. But it was an odd time of day, I was one of only two customers, and it sure was nice to leisurely browse after being away since early March.

In addition to the one James Ellroy novel I don’t have (Clandestine, 1982) I found this Chandler book tucked away in the Memoirs section, and what a treasure it is. Though not a biography, it runs chronologically, the writer’s early years covered mostly through his own correspondence from that period, while his key novel, pulp and screenwriting years are addressed via a mix of excerpts from his own work, juxtaposed with more correspondence and miscellany. Chandler’s thoughts on the art and craft of writing (most of those quite cynical) and fellow mystery/hard-boiled wordsmiths are some of the best parts of this book.

Browse backwards at “The Stiletto Gumshoe” and you’ll understand what a find this book is for me. I honor both of the U.S. hard-boiled mystery granddads, i.e. Hammett and Chandler, but favor Chandler by far, indulging myself with multiple rereads. I don’t turn to him for plotting guidance, Chandler’s plots puzzlingly mixed up at best, but for the music of the language, the endless array of Chandler-esque bon mots and his ability to somehow be gritty and poetic at the same time (something I desperately wish I could succeed at).

Yes, I’m well aware that Raymond Chandler and a host of mid-twentieth century writers have undergone some well-deserved scrutiny and inevitable reassessment of late. But, for good or bad, I’ve chosen to compartmentalize them along with the bulk of sixty to ninety-year-old films, pulp fiction, comics and vintage paperbacks, digesting the material in context of its own time, reluctant to evaluate the work through a 2020 lens. After all, while I can benefit from easy access to reams of modern scholarship, that doesn’t mean I’ll look at Rembrandt, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare through contemporary filters either. For more about that, just follow the link below to an old January 2019 post about Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep, Megan Abbott and more. But while you do, I’ll just continue to savor some of the master’s own words.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/03/the-annotated-big-sleep-and-uneasy-feelings-of-complicity/

More Dangerous Dames, Please.

tough guys and dnagerous dames

As I write this, we’re about to head into ‘Phase Three’ of the pandemic response ’round here, and will soon be able to re-enter shuttered retail stores (in limited numbers, masked and distanced, even gloved if you prefer, which I do). It’s none too soon for me. Bookstore phone orders and curbside pickups have been a Godsend, but obviously there’s no browsing, a crucial part of the book-buying (and money squandering) experience.

Early in the ‘sheltering in’, the always-excellent Kevin Burton Smith’s The New Thrilling Detective Web Site recommended a long list of hard-boiled/noir-ish/private eye mystery/crime fiction anthologies. I managed to track down several and have just now finished the last one, Tough Guys And Dangerous Dames, a hefty 1993 Barnes And Noble Books hardcover edited by those small press and retail bookstore instant-remainder anthology mavens, Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin Greenberg. The E.T. Steadman cover art is a handsome pre-Adobe CS/Adobe CC digital photo-illustration, though you’d think they’d have gone for an actual public domain 1930’s – 1950’s era illustration, mindful of the anthology’s content. (These days, small presses, the self-published and no shortage of scammers seem happy to steal whatever vintage illustrations they want to ‘appropriate’.)

The trio of editors selected nearly thirty stories from Black Mask and other familiar hard-boiled crime fiction pulp magazines, penned by a star-studded list of that era’s writers, including Robert Bloch, Leigh Brackett, Hugh B. Cave, Raymond Chandler, Earle Stanley Gardner, William Campbell Gault, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and John D, MacDonald. Pulp fiction luminaries notwithstanding, The Stiletto Gumshoe’s followers/visitors won’t be surprised to hear that I first flipped to Robert Leslie Bellem’s “Homicide Hunch”, a Dan Turner Hollywood Detective tale.  Here the story opens with the rock ‘em – sock’em hard-boiled L.A. private eye falling for a villain’s old trick, and finds himself trussed up hand and foot in a plush penthouse, with a lovely blonde tied up much the same way on the sofa across the opulent room. But no matter what we’re led to believe, she’s no damsel in distress and it’s all an elaborate plot to make Turner the patsy for a murder. It takes a few pages worth of delightfully silly Bellem word-smithing for Dan Turner to puzzle it all out and set things right after a suitable amount of punches and gunplay. What can I say? I loved it.

Not to nitpick, but while the ‘tough guys’ abound, the ‘dangerous dames’ are actually few and far between and I’d have happily taken a few more. But that didn’t make the reading any less fun. But now I’m all out of my pandemic-procurement curbside pickup treasures, the writing lair’s endtable to-be-read spot is bare once more, and I’m jonesing for stepping through a bookstores doors again…like now.

Thank You, Mr. Hammett.

dashiell hammett

Samuel Dashiell Hammett, born this day, May 27thin 1894, passed away in 1961, and what else can someone like me say but a very large thank you to one of the creators of hard-boiled detective fiction and this thing I like to think of as ‘noir culture’.

dashiell hammett books

Hammer Time.

masquerade for murder

Thank goodness for indie booksellers doing their best with curbside pickup.

My last bundle of books (in a free tote, no less) included Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins’ new Masquerade For Murder – A Mike Hammer Novel. It’s no secret here at this site: I’m a Mickey Spillane fan and proud to defend the much-maligned writer to literary-leaning mystery/crime fiction readers and authors. And, I happen to be a Max Allan Collins fan as well, loving his long-running Nathan Heller series along with Ms. Tree, the Maggie Starr series (please write some more of those, Mr. Collins) and others.

With a new title out, it’s no surprise that you’ll see Collins appearing here and there. I recommend “My Five Favorite Private Eyes” at Criminal Element (link below), those detectives including Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, (not surprisingly) Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Max Allan Collins’ own Nathan Heller. Confession: I’m not a huge Nero Wolfe fan. And for me it’ll always be Chandler/Marlowe all the way over Hammett/Spade. But, lets not argue about it. They’re all great.

criminal element

Also turn to Mystery Fanfare (Mystery Readers Inc.) for “Completing Mike Hammer” by Collins himself (link also below), in which the author provides some background on the 1950’s publishing sensation (225 million books sold), how his association with Spillane came about and some insights into the process of fleshing out incomplete Spillane materials.

mystery fanfare

As for Masquerade For Murder? I’d have devoured this novel in an evening or two if day-job responsibilities hadn’t intruded (pandemic sheltering-in notwithstanding). The 220-page Titan Books hardcover was a quick read, as a Mike Hammer novel ought to be. Collins concedes that he had less to go on in the way of Spillane’s notes, partials, outlines, etc. for  this one, in which a slightly older, wiser but no less dangerous Mike Hammer witnesses the suspicious hit-and-run of a prominent financial wunderkind, which leads him and Velda Sterling through a maze of Wall Street brokerages and decadent 1980’s New Wave nightclubs, tangling with wealthy traders, brutal bank robbers, a blackmailing call girl and a particularly lethal martial arts murderer. Spillane loved ‘gotcha’ endings, and although the ‘bad guy’s’ identity isn’t all that much of a secret here, Collins still cooked up a zinger in the final pages, with a femme fatale getting her just desserts, followed by a more tragic ending.

Bottom line: If you revere Mickey Spillane like I do, or at least enjoyed his Mike Hammer novels, you’ll go for Masquerade For Murder. No, it’s not from the hands of the master, but it is channeled through and lovingly crafted by a friend, credible expert, hard-core enthusiast and one heck of good writer.

https://www.criminalelement.com/my-five-favorite-private-eyes/

http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2020/05/completing-mike-hammer-by-max-allan.html

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