“The Toff” (the Honorable Richard Rollinson) opens his mail and discovers a beautifully crafted doll of a naked woman – with a dagger plunged into her chest – which lures him into the bizarre world of the Obeah and a dangerous occult mystery. Maybe mystery, crime fiction and the supernatural (or at least the exceedingly eerie) ought to intersect more often. This one’s a pulpy adventure in John Creasey’s long running series of some sixty “Toff” novels published between 1938 and 1977. The piece of cover art above is from a 1967 Hodder & Stoughton UK paperback edition of A Doll For The Toff, though sadly without an artist credit that I know of.
Coincidentally, a few weeks back I pulled Russell Atwood’s 1999 novel East of A off the shelf for an overdue re-read, recalling that I enjoyed the book enough the first time around to earn a spot as a keeper in the writing lair’s over-stuffed bookcases. But there were other new arrivals on the to-be-read pile, and Atwood’s novel eased back into place.
But not this time. East Of A will get its re-read, so I can revisit NYC private eye Payton Sherwood, a man with more than his own share of backstory, who tries to help a teenage runaway, only to end up taking a beating from some street thugs and having the girl run off with his Rolodex. Call it noir, neo-noir, post-modern noir or whatever the hell you like – this one was damn good. Normally novels that feel like travelogues and spend too much time taking the reader on a tour of their setting can leave me wanting. Not East Of A and its gloriously gritty romp through after-hours clubs, drug dens and the underbelly of New York City, neatly conducting its guided tour by way of the storytelling. It left me wanting more.
Which is good, since J. Kingston Pierce’s 10.24.20 edition of The Rap Sheet Blog happened to be one of those long lists of newsworthy mystery/crime fiction miscellany (that post called “A Basket of Oddments”), including a mention of Atwood’s Payton Sherwood mysteries (East of A from 1999 and Losers Live Longer from ten years later), and the news that there’s some new Atwood work available, though not a Payton Sherwood crime novel this time. I suppose I’ll get Atwood’s new Apartment Five Is Alive a little late for Halloween, but I’ll still be in the mood for a haunted house (make that apartment) book.
In addition to being a writer, Atwood runs Blue Umbrella Books in his Westfield, Massachusetts hometown, which like many indie booksellers already had a tough enough time of making a go of things, and has taken a beating during the pandemic and its shut-downs. Apartment Five Is Alive can hopefully put some coin in the kitty. Hey, I’m in.
For more (with links) about Russell Atwood and his books, head to The Rap Sheet blog, which if you don’t already, you really ought to. Link below…
Pennsylvania artist and illustrator Laurence ‘Larry’ Schwinger’s full color illustrations made my recent used bookstore find of the 1997 Illustrated Junior Library hardcover edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula a real jewel. And all for less than ten bucks. His non-stylized, no-nonsense illustrations added a lot to the classic vampire tale.
Schwinger didn’t do a lot of horror work that I’m aware of. Or that much mystery/crime fiction material either. But he did some, and they’re nifty pieces, including a series of Cornell Woolrich 1980’s Ballantine paperbacks like I Married A Dead Man (at the top), The Bride Wore Black and The Night Has A Thousand Eyes, and more recently, some Hard Case Crime novels, including Spiderweb, Shooting Star, Witness To Myself and Robbie’s Wife.
P.D. James’ young London private detective Cordelia Gray debuted in the 1972 novel, An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (see the preceding post for more about that book). Twenty-two, just this side of broke, partnered with a former Scotland Yard detective in a none-too-successful P.I. agency, Cordelia suddenly must take over when she finds her one-time mentor and former boss dead in his office.
The first Cordelia Gray novel was not only a bit of a groundbreaker, being a decade ahead of some more well-known mystery series led by women detectives, but also a darn good read. So, it’s surprising that writer James (1920 – 2014) only penned one more Cordelia Gray novel, and that one came ten years later. But presumably the character resonated with fans nonetheless, first in a 1982 film that quickly came and went (and if it’s still lurking out there somewhere, I haven’t found it), then, fifteen years later, Cordelia reappeared, and this time more successfully.
The UK 1997 – 2001 BBC series of feature length episodes started out based in part on James’ novel, but the rest used original stories, though intended at least to maintain the novelist’s tone and stay true to the character. To be fair, there really were only two Cordelia Gray novels to adapt. Some sites suggest that P.D. James wasn’t entirely thrilled with the film/TV adaptations and remained determined to undermine anymore attempts (thus, refusing to write another Cordelia Gray novel). True or myth, I can’t say. I can say that the series lead, Helen Baxendale, does a very credible job of portraying Cordelia Gray. Baxendale may be more familiar to U.S audiences (or at least Gen-Xr’s and syndicated rerun channel watchers) as Emily Waltham, David Schwimmer/Ross Geller’s unlucky British girlfriend/fiancée/wife from the NBC mega-hit sitcom Friends. Baxendale’s real-life first pregnancy may have cut short her stint on that US series, but was neatly written in to An Unsuitable Job For A Woman. So, Ms. Gray joined the select club of literary/TV/film/comics private eyes and cops mothers and moms-to-be.
P.D. James’ (1920 – 2014) first novel came out ten years before her An Unsuitable Job For A Woman (1972), which was, I think, her fifth book. In addition to several standalone works, James (Phyllis Dorothy James, The Baroness James of Holland Park, no less) published a popular series of fourteen mystery novels between 1962 and 2008 featuring Scotland Yard commander Adam Dalgliesh, and the London inspector even factored in An Unsuitable Job For A Woman, which introduced young London private investigator Cordelia Gray.
The fact is, P.D. James’ Cordelia Gray is a more important character among literary detectives, cops and investigators than she’s sometimes given credit for, bridging a gap between the golden age of mystery’s largely genteel (and often British) female detectives, the handful of 50’s/60’s era women P.I.’s, cops and spies — most of whom resided in glib, period-sexy quickies – and the introduction of a fresh crop of long-lived, popular characters like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Washawski and others in the early 1980’s. But back in 1972, Cordelia Gray was something else altogether: A pointedly unglamorous person with no exceptional superspy skills, sometimes troubled by very human self-doubt, but always bolstered by determination and persistence.
In the first of only two Cordelia Gray novels, the fledgling 22-year old private detective suddenly assumes ownership of her former boss-then-mentor and business partner’s private detective agency after he’s committed suicide, recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. “Business” is a relative term, but Cordelia promptly acquires an unexpected out-of-town client. She’s tasked with investigating the apparent suicide of an otherwise healthy, handsome and well-liked college student (soon due for a generous inheritance, as well) who abruptly left school, hid out in a remote estate gardener’s shed, and was found dead, presumably having hung himself with his own belt. A telltale clue – traces of purple lipstick on his lips – leads Cordelia and the reader astray, certain that a woman was involved in the young man’s death. That’s cleared up once Cordelia learns he was actually found wearing that lipstick…along with a lacy black bra and panties. But even this is only one more crafty diversion in P.D. James’ mystery.
Hard-boiled or noir-ish, it’s not. An Unsuitable Job For A Woman isn’t a shoot-em-up or action-filled thriller. It’s a classic mystery British mystery novel freshened up for its time. Or, even a little ahead of its time. And more than merely ‘freshened up’. Cordelia’s stuck in a few fixes and there are some exciting scenes punctuating her relentless investigation (trapped in an abandoned and frighteningly deep well, just one harrowing example). The mystery’s resolution – and the very extended coda that follows – all satisfy and seem sure to have left readers craving more from Cordelia Gray. So, it’s surprising that James only wrote one more Cordelia Gray novel, and not till ten years later, at that: The Skull Beneath The Skin (1982).
I originally read An Unsuitable Job For A Woman a long time ago. Honestly, it hadn’t been top of mind for ages, till I recently stumbled across a handsome trade pb and decided it was time for a re-read. Aside from the basic premise, I’d forgotten enough so that my re-read was more like a first-read. I’d also forgotten how very, very British the novel was, which isn’t a criticism, only an acknowledgment of what a provincial Midwesterner I must be.
Maybe Cordelia Gray didn’t enjoy the multi-book career she deserved. But she did live on, and more about that in another post…
Several consecutive posts in early August talked about Henry Kane’s late 1950’s ‘stiletto gumshoe’, Marla Trent, the “Private Eyeful” (link below). The paperbacks were graced by cover art from postwar illustration greats like Robert Maguire and Mort Engle, but I did once have a hardcover with much simpler (and a little less leering) art by Denis McLoughlin, which in its way was all the more striking.
British artist Denis McLoughlin (1918 – 2002) was as much a graphic designer as an illustrator, doing spot illustrations for a mail order catalog firm when WWII broke out and he became a gunner at a suburban London Royal Artillery Depot. There he was also ‘drafted’ to do officers’ portraits and produce murals around the base. After the war, McLoughlin began a long association with UK publisher T.V. Boardman, Ltd., his book cover work what he’s best known for, though he also did many magazine illustrations and even worked in comics. Fascinated by the swiftly evolving photo-mechanical color separations processes, McLoughlin was known for eking out striking results with limited colors, something pretty foreign to contemporary designers and illustrators working in a CMYK digital environment.
Like many of the unsung heroes of the postwar commercial art world, Denis McLoughlin was all too often underpaid for his efforts. In his case it meant being forced to work way past retirement age. Tragically, his eyesight faded in his 80’s, Soon, he began to lose dexterity in his right arm. Fearing he’d be unable to draw and paint, Denis McLoughlin committed suicide using a studio prop pistol that only had one bullet in it.
Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight, as someone learned the hard way in this cover illustration from the May 1959 issue of Guilty – Detective Story Magazine.
The 8.3.20 issue of Publisher’s Weekly (which I didn’t get till ten days later, for some reason) includes an 8-page tribute commemorating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s debut, “The Mysterious Affair At Styles”, which introduced Hercule Poirot. The writer’s prodigious output (66 novels under her own name, 6 more under a pen name, 14 story collections, plays, etc.) make her the world’s best-selling and most translated author according to Guinesss World Records, with well over 7,000 translations of her work, more than a billion copies of her books sold in English, and another billion in other languages. Liz Scheier provides a 4-page article in PW, “In The Study With A Typewriter”, followed by her 4-page “And Then There Were More” where mystery writers discuss the debt owed to the Queen of Crime.
Visitors and followers here can safely guess that my own tastes might run a bit more hard-boiled than a lot of the cozier British (and U.S.) material written in the golden age of detective fiction. But I’d never have discovered the subsets of mystery/crime fiction that I love without Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie…heck, even Nancy Drew mysteries. “Mystery tropes that now seem inextricably baked into the category first became popular in Christie’s books,” Scheier writes. And unlike the noir-ish material I gravitate towards, there’s a lot of comfort to be found in cozies, soft mysteries and the wealth of material that traces back to Agatha Christie…particularly the sense of justice and closure her books offer. Maybe there’s not a ‘happy ending’ for everyone, but there are no loose ends and the bad guys are brought to justice. Scheier quotes author Hannah Dennison: “(Christie’s) dealing with evil in the world, but at the end, goodness always comes through. It gives you the sense that even though the world, especially now, is so full of injustice and darkness, things will always come right.”
It looks like the articles are accessible at PW’s site: www.publishersweekly.com.
Prolific pulp and paperback original mystery/crime fiction writer Henry Kane was much more than a couple of ‘stiletto gumshoe’ novels like 1959’s Private Eyeful and its sorta-not-quite sequel Kisses Of Death from 1962.
Best known for his Peter Chambers NYC private eye novels (about 30 of those, I think), he also penned more than two dozen other books, including the Inspector McGregor series and numerous standalone novels published between 1950 and 1982. He wrote a short-lived radio series in 1954, and many assume that Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn TV series was based on Kane’s Peter Chambers. In fact, Kane wrote the TV show’s one tie-in paperback novel. Like Erle Stanley Gardner, John Grisham, Scott Turow (and others, I bet), Henry Kane was a lawyer, but much preferred writing to trials, contracts and briefs.
The fact is, however popular Henry Kane may have been in the postwar era pulp fiction (e.g. Manhunt magazine) and paperback crime fiction marketplace, he’s not very well known any longer, his books rarely appearing on shelf even at used booksellers that specialize in vintage paperbacks. It’s pointless for me to try to assemble a bio when an excellent anecdotal homage already exists: MWA Grandmaster Lawrence Block’s “Remembering Henry Kane” from the Summer 2010 Mystery Scene magazine is still at the mag’s site. Like anecdotes? Count on Block, whose own publishing history goes back a bit and is always good for a few (and always reliably well told). Follow the link below for a much better and even chuckle-worthy remembrance of the private eye and crime fiction wordsmith with a uniquely smart-assed style and rhythm, Henry Kane.
Henry Kane’s Marla Trent – The Private Eyeful – from his 1959 one-shot crime novel featuring a then-rare female private eye, was re-issued a year later in new cover art, but then presumably vanished into PBO limbo, the publisher and/or readers not interested enough to turn it into a series.
But the almost impossibly accomplished and attractive blonde bombshell did, in fact, return a couple years later, though only as a costar this time in another of Kane’s Peter Chambers private eye novels (there being about thirty titles in that series, I think).
Kisses Of Death came out in 1962 from Belmont Books, a step down in terms of publishers. Like many of Kane’s novels, the case that opens the story turns into something else altogether. Here, a frantic Mrs. Valerie Kiss demands to see NYC P.I. Pete Chambers early on a Saturday morning, certain she’s being blackmailed. He joins the stunningly lovely former actress at an office address he knows well: None other than Marla Trent Enterprises. Marla Trent, New York’s infamous ‘private eyeful’, is much too successful to try to milk the very married Mrs. Kiss out of a few bucks over some compromising photos of her in the sack with a bartender boy toy, though she had been hired by Mister Kiss to follow the cheating wife. But while Mrs. Kiss, Chambers, Trent and her assistant Wee Willie Winkle try to figure out what’s going on, the Mister’s busy taking a head-first header from a high-rise window and commits suicide.
Case closed? Hardly. Months later (and the book spans more than a year and half by my count) a hushed-up investment bank robbery lures in both Chambers and Trent, hired to work as a team (under Chambers lead) to track down nearly nine million dollars stolen just as the Kiss’ marriage ended in that gruesome landing on the Midtown asphalt. In fact, Mrs. Kiss’ none-too-secretive affairs, the peekaboo bedroom photos and even the suicide may all have been part of an elaborate plot to cover up one of New York’s biggest heists ever.
Kane’s Marla Trent is only a costar here, albeit a prominent one, with wisecracking Pete Chambers occupying center stage for most of the novel, including a puzzling subplot dealing with a gorgeous South American doctor the P.I.’s anxious to bed. The complex case takes Chambers, Trent and Winkle to the west coast and ultimately overseas, where the reader is treated to some fairly exciting gunplay in a couple climactic scenes (well-earned, since the reader endured the preceding chapters’ maddening maze of clues, interrogations and Pete Chambers’ seduction routines).
Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful, bows out of Kisses of Death and crime fiction history on a frustrating note, arriving at Chambers’ pad, all fetchingly attired in a sleek summer blue dress and matching white pumps and handbag, to pick up her share of their fee and finally make good on the preceding 180+ pages of flirtation. Black Russians are her specific drink of choice to lose her inhibitions, and apparently, she’s already had a few before arriving. Insisting that Chambers take a symbolic bath, “like washing off all that’s gone before,” Marla changes his bachelor pad’s bedsheets (?!), gets out of her clothes, sips yet another Black Russian and waits for the P.I. But she’s soon reaching for her things once the freshly bathed Pete Chambers admits that he bedded their original client (and the novel’s eventual villainess) early on in the case.
She sat her Black Russian on the bar. “You lied to me, you bastard, didn’t you? You’re a cheap little man after all, aren’t you? You told me you’d never been with that bitch.” She stepped into her shoes, wriggled into her blue dress, buttoned all the buttons. “Men will never understand women.” She took up her little white bag. “Thanks for the check, and thanks for nothing.” She came to me and kissed my forehead. “It’s been most instructive.” Then she left like a lady without slamming the door.
I don’t know if men will ever understand women, and definitely don’t know if Henry Kane ever did. Since Kisses Of Death is a Peter Chambers novel and not the “Private Eyeful’s” story, a few more pages follow so the P.I. can bump into a beautiful witness briefly introduced midway in his investigation, and thus, end the novel in suitably swingin’ early sixties style, those freshly changed bachelor pad sheets about to get wrinkled.
Kisses Of Death is no better or worse than Private Eyeful, and no better or worse than countless other coastal private detective standalone and series novels from the mid-fifties through early sixties. Soon enough, British spies would make so many NYC and L.A. P.I.’s passé. As for Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful? While the Ficklings’ Honey West would make it to TV screens and appear in a few more novels, the mystery/crime fiction/thriller genres would only see a handful of other female detectives and some sexed-up adventurers and ‘lady spies’ for nearly twenty years till Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others finally reinvented everything.
So, where did Marla Trent, the “Private Eyeful” finally go? Evidently, she slipped back into those white pumps to sashay off into PBO obscurity, yet another mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoe’ who’d have to wait for the field to evolve.