A Bullet For Cinderella.

On the Make, 1960 - illus Mitchell Hooks.2 copy

I prefer A Bullet For Cinderella, John D. MacDonald’s original title for his 1955 novel retitled On The Make, the 1960 Dell paperback edition that got this gorgeous Mitchell Hooks cover illustration, a particular Hooks’ fave of mine.

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.

Words & Pictures

The Brass Cupcake 2

Book titles have been on my mind lately. While doing some routine computer housekeeping to finally read, file or toss the zillion things I collect, I found myself marveling at so many retro mystery/crime fiction novel and pulp magazine story titles. Say what you want about vintage genre fiction, but those writers sure could concoct some terrific titles.

The fact is, I’d been struggling with titling my own projects, originally doing some querying with just a working title (Surprise: “The Stiletto Gumshoe”) but then fretting that the title might give the wrong impression. Considering that queries and subs often garner no more than a few seconds of a busy agent or editor’s attention – if that – did I really want to stick with a title that sounds more like a ‘mystery-lite’ novel or shopaholic mystery about a modern-day well-heeled dilettante running down clues in her Louboutins?

Sure, cover art ultimately brings a book’s title to life and telegraphs the novel’s message. But in the manuscript stage, the ‘cover art’ is 12 pt. Times New Roman type on plain white 20 lb. bond or much more likely a screen…or something even more generic keyed into online submission/query forms.

Publishers Weekly

Jim Milliott reported on the importance of book titles in last week’s Publishers Weekly: “Judging A Book By Its Title” (link below), sub-headed with, “A recent test found that titles can be more important than cover art in attracting prospective readers”. Milliott writes about a Codex Group research study presenting over 50 upcoming titles to some 4,000 participants in order to probe what piqued readers’ interest or might impact purchase decisions. Book buyers being word lovers by nature, it might come as no surprise that titles, not cover art, prompted decision making, at least according to the Codex Group study. Reading Milliott’s article further, though, I’m not so sure, particularly when he quotes an Amazon creative director, who recognizes the importance of “the interplay between the title of the book and the visuals on the cover”.

The Brass Cupcake Barye Phillips 1958

If you’re reading this and follow or visit here, you already know I’m fixated on cover art…contemporary or retro, photo or illustrated. I pondered some mystery/crime fiction titles I’ve always loved…John D. MacDonald’s The Brass Cupcake came to mind as just one particular fave, for example, and I peeked at different editions of that book, from what I think is its first release from 1950 (at the top of this post) to what may be the best known, a 1958 edition with a Barye Phillips illustration (just above) and various other editions. Each says something a little different, accurate or not.

Brass Cupcake - Montage

If you’re a published writer, you may have books on shelf with covers so beautiful they could make you weep, and others you prefer to hide in your sock drawer. Or, if you’re still looking forward to the day when your name will be emblazoned on your first book, you’ll have ample time to fret about the cover art…and little voice in what it ends up as, no doubt. And if you’re an avid reader squandering too much dough on books (like me) you know how titles and cover art have lured you in…happily, sometimes…and sometimes not.

I’m experimenting with titles right now, sending out with “Title A” vs. “Title B” to see if it matters, naturally petrified that the options are awful. “The Stiletto Gumshoe” doesn’t have the zing of The Brass Cupcake. But then, what does?

https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/82381-judging-a-book-by-its-title.html

 

The Lethal Sex

the lethal sex 1959

This important (and overlooked for decades) 1959 anthology was reissued by The Mystery Writers Of America in 2018, and is available in print and Kindle editions. Something tells me equal representation for women writers wasn’t top of mind for editors, publishers or even the MWA sixty years ago.

The original paperback edition showcases a wonderful Robert McGinnis cover illustration, though in keeping with the times and then prevailing trends, it’s a needlessly sexy picture for the deliciously dark but not necessarily saucy content of the 14 stories selected by MWA Grandmaster (though not at the time this book was done) and editor John D. MacDonald, who only broke out of the pulps himself and into the big time (relatively) just nine years earlier with The Brass Cupcake, then went on to bigger success with The Executioners, filmed as Cape Fear in 1962, and of course, his long running Travis McGee P.I. series. MacDonald provides a terrific introduction as well as lead-ins for each of the fourteen stories written by women, some of them full-time mystery/crime fiction writers, some working in other genres from science fiction to romance and even children’s books. MacDonald adopts an appropriately apologetic stance, noting that some of the talented writers in the anthology deserved much wider recognition.

Some did get it (back then, at least), while some, sadly, did not. So there are some names I’ve never heard of and been unable to learn more about. And there are luminaries from that era, like Margaret Millar, the 1956 Edgar Award winner for Best Novel, who wrote more than two dozen mystery novels including three different series. Somehow Millar (previously Margaret Sturm) managed to snag Mr. Kenneth Millar in between pounding out successful novels, the Mister better known as ‘Ross MacDonald’, hard-boiled maestro of Lew Archer fame.

Death In High Heels Montage

And there’s the incredibly prolific Christiann Brand, who wrote more books than I can count, with multiple mystery series, stand-alone novels, general fiction, children’s series and more. Her Death In High Heels (above) is a favorite. In fact, The Lethal Sex gives fair representation to U.S. as well as UK writers like Brand. The book was published later in Britain, though from the look of it, lost some of the stories along the way.

The LEthal Sex UK Edition

The complete US edition of The Lethal Sex also included stories by Ursula Curtis, Bernice Carey, Margaret Manners, Anthony Gilbert, Jean Potts, Miriam Allen DeFord, Gladys Cluff, Carolyn Thomas, Neda Tyre, D. Jenkin Smith, Veronica Parker Johns and Juanita Sheridan. I had a crumbling 1959 paperback bought on Ebay in a bulk-books purchase which barely made it through an initial reading, so I was thrilled to see that it was re-issued, and in mighty handsome packaging this time, even if it’s not a McGinnis painting. Look for this one. It’s a worthwhile read.

The Lethal Sex 2018 Edition

 

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