Undercover Girl (Well, One Of Them)

Alexi Smith 3

An Academy Award nominee it wasn’t, and labeling Universal’s 1950 Undercover Girl a ‘film noir’ might be broadening the genre’s parameters a bit. Or not, depending on where you draw the line between ‘noir’ and postwar crime melodrama. Pretty sure there’s no connection to the popular comic character Starr Flagg – Undercover Girl from right around the same period, which was created by that human writing machine Gardner Fox with art by Ogden Whitney, first appearing in Manhunt starting in 1947, graduating to her own short-lived comic title in 1952.

Starr flagg Undercover Girl

Still, Canadian born actress Alexis Smith, perhaps best known to noir and crime film fans for The Two Mrs. Carrolls alongside Humphrey Bogart in 1945, wields a revolver pretty well in this postwar era crime-action film as a rookie cop out to nab the narcotics gang responsible for her father’s death. Or at least, she does it handily in the film’s publicity stills.

Alexis SmithAlexis Smith 2Alexis Smith Undercover Girl 1950Undercover girl colored

Walk Softly, Sweetheart

walter stackpool larry kent 513 1960

It was just some casual curiosity that had me poking around Australian websites for more info on the “Larry Kent, Detective” series, and one of the chief illustrators of the books’ covers, Walter Stackpool. Now it’s turning into an obsession. A link’s below to a recent post about Stackpool, but there’ll be more to come about the 150+ radio show episodes and 400+ (!!!) novels and novelettes in the long running Larry Kent series, which began (on radio) as a former New York newshound who’d emigrated to Australia and set up shop as a freelance private eye. The books, I think, are all set in the U.S. Check out some covers online for yourself. Looks to me like the Australians had as good or better a handle on just how to depict 50’s-60’s era noir-ish and hard-boiled milieus than many of our own artists here in the States.

Above, Walter Stackpool’s cover art for Walk Softly Sweetheart from 1960, a not-so-good screen grab of the book below.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/05/20/walter-stackpools-larry-kents/

Walk Softly Sweetheart

 

 

One Of My First: House Of Flesh

House Of Flesh - Original

This was one of the very first vintage paperbacks I ever bought. Only a teenager, with no knowledge at all of pulp magazines, barely a passing awareness of mid-twentieth century crime fiction and paperback originals, just starting to dig on retro hard-boiled and ‘noir-ish’ crime novels, I wouldn’t have known a Robert Maguire cover from a Robert McGinnis to save my life then. Cain vs. Kane? This MacDonald vs. that MacDonald or Chandler vs. Hammett? Only names that I was just beginning to digest. But I remember buying this book at a now long-shuttered strip mall used bookstore, the ancient (and kind of scary) proprietor eying me up suspiciously the entire time I browsed his cluttered aisles, probably a victim of too many smart-ass high school kids stuffing books down their pants. Looking back now, I’m surprised he didn’t shake his head no when I brought a handful of books to the register. I really expected him to, particularly once he eyed up the sorta-sleazy cover art on each one.

But he didn’t.

CC Beall House OF Flesh 1950 Art

And though I could read things that were a hundred times more explicit than Bruno Fischer’s 1950 House Of Flesh and in countless books right from the library (even the school library) or any Walgreens or grocery store book display, this one resonated with me. The cover art played a part in that, I’m sure. There’s just enough evocative detail in the painting to get a vintage-noir newbie revved up: The wrinkled bedsheet yanked off the seedy striped mattress…no more than a blurred brushstroke or two suggesting one black shoe lying loose on the floor…the young blonde’s blouse half-on and half-off and revealing a shadowy hint of her black slip or brassiere…holding onto that bottle of something-or-other clenched between her stockinged legs. Her entire stance looks world-weary, frustrated, anxious, even. Not frightened, but apprehensive, perhaps?

The book wasn’t in great shape when purchased, and college and multiple moves consigned it and too many other treasures to the trash. I’ve kept my eye out for an affordable (and sturdier) replacement copy. I know there’ve been other editions from Dell (with different cover art) and even one more current reissue from Black Mask books. Not a collector, as I’ve often noted here, I still need that original Dell #123 edition with what I now know to be a C.C. Beall cover painting.

House Of Flesh Dell 3rd Issue

I’d no idea at the time what the “Shudder Pulps” were, and surely assumed the novel I bought was going to be a tasty bit of retro saucy stuff. Well, based on that cover, at least. But the so-called Shudder Pulps are precisely where author Bruno Fischer (1908 – 1992) got his start with fiction. Fischer, who came to the U.S. from Germany as a toddler, was actually a rabble-rouser, ardent socialist, reporter and editor who took to writing pulp stories on the advice of a friend to make some extra money. And what were the Shudder Pulps? Also called “Weird Menace” pulps, those were the pre-WWII pulp magazines that offered a bit of horror, a bit of mystery, some exotic foreign adventures and various demonic cults, their covers typically adorned with unclad damsels in distress, ready to be abducted, ravished, tortured or killed by sinister foreigners and mad doctors. Fischer churned out dark mysteries for those rags along with some conventional hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately penning over 300 pulp magazine stories through the 1950’s. But he began writing novels, including one private detective series, when he sensed the pulps’ heyday was waning. A referral from John D. MacDonald helped get House Of Flesh published by Dell’s new paperback original line.

House Of Flesh - New Dell Edition

This is a very weird but very good novel, chock full of pretty sinister and steamy stuff for its time. It’s not a straight crime novel, traditional mystery or even a horror novel. In fact, it’s been called “Male Gothic” by some, and I think that’s a pretty good label. Much like the gothic novels flooding the market throughout the 1960’s and 70’s – those ubiquitous ‘women running from houses’ paperbacks – House Of Flesh puts a relative innocent in a remote locale teeming with dark mystery, where forbidden love and hints of eerie goings-on abound. Only here the ‘innocent’ isn’t a young governess, the love interest isn’t a brooding Bronte-esque Heathcliff type, the forbidden love isn’t merely smoldering glances or fiery kisses, and all the dark mystery is pretty gritty stuff.

Still smarting from a bitter divorce and a humiliating championship defeat, pro athlete Harry Wilde escapes to the tiny town of North Set in upstate New York for the summer. But rural and remote don’t necessarily mean relaxing. An ominous mansion in the hills is home to a weird veterinarian who keeps a pack of vicious dogs. It’s also home to the vet’s second wife Lela, a classic noir femme fatale if ever you encountered one – brooding, demanding, manipulative and literally simmering with passion. The vet’s first wife? Rumor is the vet did her in and fed her remains to his dogs. When a local woman goes missing, and Harry discovers some human bones in the woods, suspicion falls on him, even while he and Lela flirt, spar and inevitably indulge in a passionate affair in smart banter and some splendid circa-1950 steamy prose. In their own way, Harry and Lela are as good a match as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers and Cora Smith in his The Postman Always Rings Twice. And 1950’s pocketbook purchasers must’ve agreed, since House Of Flesh sold just shy of 2 million copies.

House Of Flesh Black Mask Books Reissue

No gunsels or mobsters, no gin joints or shadowy big city alleys here. This is noir, but a kind of horror-noir, dark rural noir, or even ‘Male Gothic’ if you prefer. This was one of the firsts for me, and I blame that striking piece of C.C. Beall cover art for luring me in. Heck, this book and a few others bought back then are responsible for my whole fixation. I’m grateful for that, and will keep up my search for a crisp, clean but affordable copy of that 1950 original, C.C. Beall cover art and all.

 

Mystery Scene

Mystery Scene 1

Found the new Mystery Scene magazine issue 159 in my mailbox after work, and am only disappointed that I already devoured the darn thing and now have to wait for another issue. Mystery fans and writers will find the usual healthy mix of topics and mystery/crime fiction sub-categories well-represented. I got a particular kick out of one entry in the monthly The Hook: Intriguing First Lines feature, which showcases a selection of particularly interesting, gripping or even amusing first sentences or paragraphs from various mystery novels. I pasted in author Lee Goldberg’s opening from his 2019 Killer Thriller above, and who among us hasn’t met or known someone just like the person being described? Just in case the image is missing on your screen, here it is as text:

“Ian Ludlow’s UCLA creative writing professor insisted that the key to being a successful novelist was writing from personal experience. That’s why the professor was the author of five unpublished novels about sexually frustrated novelists who toiled in obscurity while teaching talentless and ungrateful students how to write.” From Killer Thriller, by Lee Goldberg 2019

mystery scene

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.

 

The Dealer

 

Dealer - Collins

I’m a Max Allan Collins fan, enjoying the very prolific Iowa writer’s partnership on several unfinished Mickey Spillane Mike Hammer novel manuscripts, his three-book 1950’s comics-scene mysteries (A Killing In Comics, etc.), the before-its-time Ms. Tree comics and one Ms. Tree novel, Deadly Beloved, The Road To Perdition graphic novel and subsequent sequel novels, and most of all, the entire Nathan Heller series – novels and short fiction alike. In fact, those Nate Heller books are among my favorites, and a few have been read more than once…just cuz.

There are some Collins’ works I haven’t read, including a few standalone novels and TV/film novelizations. But one group in particular that I’ve neglected is his Quarry series, dealing with a Viet Nam war era U.S. Marine sniper who becomes a professional assassin, and including 14 novels. The series was made into a short-lived Cinemax series only loosely based on the actual books, which ended in 2017. Most of the 1970’s Quarry novels have been reissued as handsome pocketbook style paperbacks by Hard Case Crime, when the imprint was on its own and still now under Titan Books’ ownership. But not this one, apparently.

Just spotted it this morning at the incredible and long running Not Pulp Covers blog (companion to the Pulp Covers blog), and I guess it’s time to hunt up a copy and see if Collins can hook me on his hit man the way he’s done so well with Nate Heller, Ms. Tree and other memorable characters.

Flatlands Noir: Krysten Ritter’s Bonfire

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter

This week’s announcement that Netflix cancelled Marvel’s Jessica Jones starring Krysten Ritter was bitter news for many loyal fans. But I’m certain we’ll see Ritter in other projects. That is, if she has the time for acting. I mean, it’s not enough to be a successful model turned actor turned cult icon? She has to be a writer too? (And clearly a damn good one.)

Krysten Ritter’s 2017 debut novel Bonfire was an impressive debut, and like many reviewers said, I ‘burned’ through it. Sorry, but that’s not an exaggeration. I really couldn’t put it down.

I’m going to label Bonfire ‘flatlands noir’ — not set among cornfields, pastures or picturesque farm houses, but the small town Midwest, multiple states filled with unknown burgs that have been bypassed by the interstates and left largely jobless when their local lifeblood factories shuttered in the early 2000’s. They’re too far from the city to be a suburb or even ‘exurban’, devolving into a bleak world of main streets lined with empty storefronts, Walmarts and Dollar Stores lurking on the outskirts of town where lonely two lane highways might seem like routes to something better, but only vanish into empty horizons. Author Ritter’s bio tells us she grew up on a farm before being discovered in a shopping mall and packed off to New York to start a successful modeling career. I sense that she adhered to that time-honored writer’s advice to ‘write what you know’ with her debut novel. The book feels authentic throughout with the author offering what may well be firsthand experience of small town life. Krysten Ritter’s Barrens, Indiana setting felt as real to me as countless off-the-highway towns that are sprinkled across the maps of Illinois, Wisconsin or Ohio and that I’ve driven through on business or en route to getaways and vacations.

Krysten Ritter

Flatlands Noir? Well, suffice to say that bad things can happen anywhere, and you don’t need to be in the dark back alleys of New York or the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles to find trouble. Trouble will find you. Even in Barrens, Indiana, which is where Bonfire’s heroine, Abby Williams, finds herself. But Abby’s no stranger to aptly named Barrens. It’s where she grew up, or more correctly, where she fled from, to a new life as an environmental attorney in Chicago, complete with a hipsterville office and a sleek apartment where she can indulge in an array of meaningless one night stands. Investigating an industrial pollution class action suit involving one-industry Barrens’ leading employer, Abby’s met with suspicion by some, hostility by others, and even old friends are hiding secrets about scandals from Abby’s youth. Ritter deftly interweaves multiple story threads dealing with Abby’s strained relationship with her father, dangerous corporate intrigue, a years-old tragedy and even murder. You can enjoy Ritter’s Bonfire as a conventional page-turning mystery or as a harsh look at contemporary small town USA. Either way, I suspect that, like me, you’ll be eager to see another book from Krysten Ritter, and I’m betting she has another in her. Watching the way she took seemingly unrelated plot lines and deftly wove them all together as the novel plowed through to its climax was truly impressive.

Acting? Hell, table that for a bit and get to work on another novel, Krysten, if you’re not already.

Into The Night

Into The Night - Woolrich - Block

As I understand it, Into The Night was an unfinished Cornell Woolrich novel manuscript, not only missing an ending, but the opening and some passages in the middle (which doesn’t leave very much, if you think about it). It fell to Lawrence Block to complete the novel. I know I have this book somewhere (if you ever saw my bookshelves, you’d understand) but had to rely on a search engine image for the picture above.

Time for candor, even if it gets me in trouble: I’m not the biggest Woolrich fan, and I know that’s sacrilegious in noir and crime fiction circles.

It’s been a while, so if I get the plot mixed up a little, I’ll beg your forgiveness now. In Into The Night, a woman’s failed suicide attempt goes awry, though she’s actually relieved that her gun jammed. But when she drops the weapon, it accidentally goes off anyway, the bullet shooting right through the window where it finds an unintended target, another woman merely passing by.

That’s an interesting if perhaps implausible premise. From what I’ve read, some readers didn’t care for Lawrence Block’s upbeat ending, preferring something more Woolrich-ish…i.e. dreary and downbeat. Still, this one can be an entertaining read for hardcore Woolrich buffs, if only to try to pinpoint the original manuscript’s portions and Block’s rewrites/additions.

White Butterfly

White Butterfly 1992

White Butterfly (1992) was the third entry in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, though actually the second one that I read. I confess: I’d heard of Mosley but knew little about him or his work, and saw the 1995 film adaptation of Mosley’s first published novel, Devil With A Blue Dress with Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals on TV or a rental at some point. Before I read the book, that is. I literally raced out to get it then, was completely enthralled when I read it, and hungered for more Mosley once done. I have two independent bookstores nearby, one close to home, one close to work, both charming operations, but both allocating just a little too much floor space to trinkets and knickknacks instead of books. So I walked out of one with White Butterfly, the third in the Easy Rawlins series, but the second I ended up reading, it being the only Walter Mosely novel on shelf at that time. For some reason, I’ve ended up working through more of Walter Mosley’s books in much the same way: totally out of sequence.

No matter. I adored White Butterfly, with Easy Rawlins settled into domestic life but keeping secrets from his spouse. A girl’s murder in the Los Angeles ghetto doesn’t have the cops in arms. Another murder – this time a white girl, so now they’re interested – finds the police blackmailing Easy to assist them, or his old pal Mouse (who turns out to be something less than a pal) who’s in jail may never get out of the clink.

Like much of the very best in noir fiction and film, Rawlins’ novels give us a hero with his share of flaws who is sucked into a maelstrom of darkness and danger where temptation abounds, and is forced to combat powerful forces, be they unscrupulous cops, syndicate gangsters or crooked politicians…everything dialed up a few notches in Easy Rawlins’ world of rampant racism. I’m not going to say that Walter Mosley effectively captures the postwar Los Angeles African American milieu, only because I’m not African American, not from Los Angeles and wasn’t around then. I will say that he conveys the time, place, people and culture, does it with power and with a richness that tumbles off every page without ever feeling like a travelogue or history lesson. Not one Walter Mosley novel has ever disappointed me, and his Easy Rawlins books are among my favorites.

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