Beach Reads, Murder & Mayhem.

NYT Summer Thrillers

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review feature “Murder, Betrayal, Sweet Revenge: A Summer’s Worth Of Thrillers” could prod any mystery/crime fiction fan to head straight to the bookstore. Laura Lippman’s Lady In The Lake was treated to a full page review by none other than Stephen King, a fellow who’s knocked out a book or two himself. King’s review opens with an anecdote about Edmund Wilson’s 1945 essay in which the critic dismissed most detective and mystery fiction as little more than crossword puzzles, wondering why anyone would even care who-killed-who (insert a novel’s victim here). Well, as King rightly pointed out, clearly millions care, evidenced by the many, many millions of mystery/crime fiction books sold in the nearly 75 years since Wilson first rankled readers with his snooty observations. And, as King further explained, he cared specifically who killed Eunetta Scherwood and Tessie Fine, whose mid-1960’s Baltimore murders are investigated by Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz in Laura Lippman’s Lady In The Lake.

Lady In The Lake

Terri Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child and several other thriller writers responded to the Times’ question, “What’s the most memorable murder you’ve ever dreamed up?”, with some pretty grisly (and funny) answers. Author Lisa Gardner explained where a thriller writer goes to research her latest murder in “A Visit To The Body Farm”, forensic anthropologist Bill Bass’ University Of Tennessee three-acre wooded Anthropology Research Facility which contains nearly a thousand decomposing corpses, ready for educational use by budding crime lab students. (Ugghhh.) Ross MacDonald and Tina Joran put together a two page “Murder Map” (the illustration sans callouts shown here) with an exemplary true crime book highlighted for each of the fifty states. It’s like a mystery/crime fiction enthusiast’s centerfold pinup, suitable for hanging over your writing desk or reading chair.

NYT Book Review

And after reading multiple mystery/crime fiction reviews, there was Kate Tuttle’s piece, certainly the most thought provoking in last week’s edition. Tuttle notes that over 70 percent of Amazon’s  true crime book reviews are by women, and her essay “Why Are Women Such Devoted Readers Of True Crime?” recalls grisly summer camp serial killer storytelling: “When the lights go out, we talk about what scares us: The near miss, the victim that could have been us.” Kate Tuttle wonders, “Why did we thrill so to these stories? What possible benefit could we derive from hearing about someone like us who had met the worst possible fate – not dying from a freak accident or a sudden illness but dying the way girls are killed: Intimately, sexually, compulsively, fueled by jealousy or entitlement or rage?” The question wasn’t fully answered, perhaps, leaving us all to ponder it on our own.

NYT Summer Thrillers 2

 

The Dames

pulp fiction the dames

Otto Penzler’s Pulp Fiction: The Dames is a follow-up to his previous anthologies Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters and Pulp Fiction: The Villains. My copy shown here is a 2008 Quercus UK edition, a big fat 500+ page trade paperback which includes 22 stories plus two saucy Sally The Sleuth comic strips from 1930’s – 40’s pulp fiction magazines, including the top tier mags like Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, right down to the bottom rung in publications like Gun Molls, and Spicy Romantic Adventures. Penzler’s preface and Laura Lippman’s well-written introduction frame the material well. As she writes, “The pulps of the early 20thcentury will never be mistaken for proto-feminist documents…(but) there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.” Indeed, the roots of V.I. Washawski, Kinsey Millhone and even Lippman’s own Tess Monaghan can be traced right back here.

Pulp Fiction The Dames Back

The anthology opens with a terrific Cornell Woolrich 1937 tale, Angel Face, about a chorus girl trying to keep her wayward younger brother out of trouble, but when he’s framed for murder, she ignores the cops and does her own sleuthing to nab the mobster she’s sure did the deed. It may end abruptly and even a bit implausibly, but every sentence absolutely sings with vintage slang and retro word-smithing that’s a dark delight. That’s followed by Leslie T. White’s Chosen To Die from 1934 with husband and wife team of P.I. Duke Martindel and attorney Phyllis Martindel, the well-intended gumshoe relying on his savvy spouse to get him out of jams with the law. The book includes stories from Dashiell Hammett, a Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady tale, a T.T. Flynn Trixie Meehan story and even Raymond Chandler’s 1935 Killer In The Rain, which he cannibalized (along with material from other short stories) for The Big Sleep. Read it and see if you don’t spot some mighty familiar scenes and passages, even if the private eye isn’t named Marlowe.

‘The Dames’ from pulp fiction aren’t all snoopy reporters, private investigators or even uniformed cops (rare as those were). The bad girlz might be some of the more memorable characters in this anthology, from gun molls to gang leaders. Unlike Penzler’s recent – and enormous – The Big Book Of Female Detectives (see link below for a post on that book) this one’s strictly vintage pulp fiction. Which isn’t always literary, can sometimes be a little squirm-worthy, but is almost always entertaining, and the female private eyes, girl reporters, sleuthing secretaries and, yes — even former chorus girls – make for one terrific tale after another.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/03/09/the-big-book-of-female-detectives/

Femme Noir

SunBurn Femme Noir

“It creates a whole new category…’femme noir’.”

I can’t accuse a publisher of well-intentioned marketing hyperbole, since the quote comes from a Wall Street Journal review of Laura Lippman’s 2018 novel Sunburn.

Not that Lippman’s neo-noir homage to fellow Baltimore writer James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce isn’t ‘femme noir’, because it certainly is, but only that writers like Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, Megan Abbott and quite a few others might rightfully argue that ‘femme noir’ has been thriving for more than a couple decades before Sunburn’s release a little over a year ago. So lets agree that Lippman’s novel – and really, her entire body of work, including the essential Tess Monaghan detective series – builds on, enriches and strengthens the continually expanding ‘femme noir’ category.

Sunburn had been on my end table’s ‘to-be-read’ pile longer than it deserved till an Anna Holmes Topic interview link from Lit Hub reminded me that the book was still waiting for me. Holmes’ interview, “The Accidental Crime Novelist” (link below) covers a lot of ground with the writer, including her transition from reporter to writer and the genesis of the initial Tess Monaghan detective novel, which in a way mirrored Lippman’s own career path at that time, to her thought-provoking remarks about where the mystery/crime fiction genre is — and has been — and its peculiar (and overdue for reassessment) reliance on women as anonymous victims. Consider Holmes’ excellent interview a companion piece to Laura Lippman’s own January 2019 Topic.com Monologue, “The Problem With Dead Women” (link also below).

Sunburn

Lippman’s one of those writers who unintentionally makes me (and many others, no doubt) feel woefully inadequate and ready to delete all works-in-progress from my computer. There are masters of language who can write with an economy of words, yet somehow choose the right words all the time. Is it magic, God-given talent, or the result of endless editing and rewriting to purge all the fluff and writerly nonsense? Presumably, it’s some combination of all three. Sunburn is a prime example of this skill at work. Just shy of halfway through, I’d be challenged to point out an unnecessary paragraph, wasted phrase or random word that could’ve been deleted. Yet, every word is precisely the right word. Doing just that is what I aspire to.

Some online reviews have whined about Sunburn’s pace or complained that it takes too long to get going, but I think they miss the point. ‘Noir’, whether ‘neo-noir’, ‘femme noir’ or any other sub-category of this ever-expanding thing we call ‘Noir’ isn’t necessarily the same as mystery. It often includes a mystery, just as it may include private eyes, cops, crooks, femmes fatales and murders or other sundry forms of mayhem. But there doesn’t have to be a body discovered by the end of the first chapter or a colorfully quirky investigator on hand to solve the crime. Holmes deftly draws that from Lippman in her interview. So many of the best writers working in Mystery’s various sub-categories know it well, as Lippman clearly does.

You’re probably more on top of new releases than I am, so I’ll bet you read Laura Lippman’s Sunburn months ago. Even so, do check out Anna Holmes interview with the writer, and Lippman’s Topic.com monologue.

https://www.topic.com/the-accidental-crime-novelist

https://www.topic.com/laura-lippman-the-problem-with-dead-women

 

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.

 

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