Vengeance is Hers.

vengeance is hers

Dangle a shiny bauble in front of me, and I’m completely in your power. Well, if the bauble’s a book, that is, and one with an eye-catching cover.

There’s a long list of books I’ve bought based on their covers alone, only to be disappointed by the books themselves. There are so many cozies, anemic thrillers and bland whodunits masquerading as edgy hard-boiled or saucy neo-noir tales. Used bookstores make out pretty well with my discards, their alluring covers ready to ensnare the next victim.

So, it’s a thrill when I get an unassuming little book that turns out to be a gem. I need more ‘baubles’ like Vengeance Is Hers, a 1997 anthology from Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins, one more of the anthologies I spotted over a month ago at The New Thrilling Detective website. The cover art? Meh. And it’s just a rack-sized pocketbook at that. But this collection of 17 mystery/crime fiction stories by women writers – plus one gate-crasher from co-editor Mickey Spillane himself to open the book – was a cover-to-cover treat. Sure, some stories felt a little anachronistic, the book over twenty years old, after all. But the talented roster of writers including Joan Hess, J.A. Jance, Wendi Lee, Sharyn McCrumb, S.J. Rozan and others, delivered surprisingly different spins on the notion of vengeance. From uniformed cops to (then) modern private eyes and traditional femmes fatales, the stories cover the bases, with some genuine head-scratching mysteries, liberal doses of edgy violence and thoughtful storytelling throughout. The real jewel in the book may be mystery maestra Dorothy B. Hughes’ last completed work, “Where Is She? Where Did She Go?”. Hughes paints a vivid picture of the mid-twentieth century L.A. Boho jazz scene, and leaves the reader unsure at the end if a crime actually occurred or not. For his part, Mickey Spillane delivers a story that oozes trademark Spillane hard-boiled-isms throughout, but foregoes any gunplay, fistfights or violence, and is a surprisingly thoughtful piece.

A ho-hum cover on an easily overlooked pocketbook? This sure was, and if it hadn’t been shown in The New Thrilling Detective website, it would’ve remained off my radar. Glad I spotted it there and took a chance, even without anyone waving a shiny bauble before my usually gullible eyes.

Murder For Love.

Murder For Love

At the tail-end of March, I mentioned a number of mystery/crime fiction anthologies spotted at The New Thrilling Detective website, complete with handy links for ordering even though none were very recent releases. I’m past mid-way through the group I selected, just wrapping up Otto Penzler’s Murder For Love, a 1999 rack-sized paperback edition of the 1996 book.

Sixteen writers contributed previously unpublished tales, and Penzler nabbed some real names for this project, including Mary and Carol Higgins Clark, James Crumley, John Gardner, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Joyce Carol Oates, Sara Paretsky and Anne Perry among others. How an editor can avoid redundancy and end up with sixteen distinctly different stories with so many luminaries turning in material to fit a theme is a mystery in itself.

The lead-off story by real-life former NYPD cop William J. Caunitz, “Dying Time”, is a procedural treat. If Jill Hennessey and Sam Waterson made cameos before its climax, it could’ve been an episode of Law & Order, and even was written in that same era. (With seven novels to his credit in Caunitz’ post law enforcement career, the writer sadly passed away right around the time of this anthology’s original publication.)  Near the end of the book is a deliciously dark (and unsettling grim) bit of noir-ish business from Joyce Carol Oates, and in the middle is Bobbie Ann Mason’s wryly playful “Nancy Drew Remembers”, in which the girl detective, now grown up and not doing so well, gets taken for a ride, and not in her trademark roadster this time.

Each story has a one-page or more intro penned by the editor, which I enjoyed. Though no credit appears in my paperback edition, I’m going to guess the handsome cover art comes from retro-noir photo-illustration maestro Richie Fahey. Now, I can’t verify that, of course, but it sure looks like his work. You can’t see them in the scan shown here, but there are vintage drapes hanging deep in the background shadows that just say ‘Fahey’ to me.

This is just the kind of anthology that populates used bookstore shelves, so frankly I’m surprised I didn’t have it. But I will keep an eye out for the two companion anthologies from Penzler: Murder For Revenge and Murder And Obsession.

Revenge Obsession

Name Your Poison.

Robert Stanley

“Name Your Poison,” the intro to the 1955 anthology Dangerous Dames instructs the reader. “Or maybe you don’t care for poison. Maybe you’d rather be shot full of holes, or tossed over a high balcony, or ripped apart by dogs…there are twelve dames in this book, and they supply a lot more in the way of sex, savagery and surprises than a man usually bargains for.”

It’s pretty rare for to find a vintage paperback (or retro pulp magazine or even many Golden Age comics) with a credit for the cover artist inside, but “Cover Painting By Robert Stanley” is right there at the bottom of the copyright page of Dangerous Dames, edited by Brett Halliday (David Dresser), though the cover says “Selected by Mike Shayne”. (Non-nod, wink-wink).

In the anthology’s foreword, Halliday shares a pretend conversation he had with his own fictional hard-boiled hero, private-eye Mike Shayne, about choosing the dozen stories for this book, which date from 1936 through 1955 and include work from Bruno Fischer, Anthony Boucher, Harold Q. Masur and Day Keene (Gunard Hjertstedt 1904 – 1969). Keene’s “A Better Mantrap” from 1947 opens the anthology, and aside from a few period anachronisms, you’d think it was a newly written domestic noir. When a wife’s had it with years of subtle and not so subtle abuse from a boorish husband, there are all kinds of ways to get rid of him. It’s a treat, and if it’s any indication of the quality of the tales in Dangerous Dames, one of the first books to begin replenishing my previously empty to-be-read spot on the writing lair’s endtable, then my shelter-at-home reading drought is over.

Dangerous Dames

Dangerous Dames Are Heading My Way.

Dangerous Dames Ordered

The to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is usually stacked high, but I’d been whittling it down the past week or two, and got caught empty-handed just as we were all directed to burrow into our shelters. No libraries. No local indies or Barnes & Noble, no Half Price Books, no comix shops…nothin’.

So, I spent some weekend time burning through my credit limit for items from multiple sites from small press publishers to Amazon, for curbside bookstore pickup and elsewhere. First up: Some nifty noir-ish and pulpy anthologies spotted at The New Thrilling Detective Web Site with handy links to Amazon for these (presumably) used OOP gems.

“Twelve Lively Ladies…Twelve Deadly Dolls!” it says up above on the cover of 1955’s Dangerous Dames.  Okay, I’m in, even if it’s a pretty fair assumption that ‘Mike Shayne’ had no hand in the selection process. I’d have probably gone for The Dark End Of The Street based on the cover alone, and I’m kinda miffed that I missed that one before. “New Stories Of Sex And Crime” sounds like a nice mix of the noir and the naughty, and who couldn’t use that when we’re all so social-distanced?

Dark At The End Of The Street Ordered

I know I’ve seen Otto Penzler’s Murder For Love but don’t know why it’s not in my bookcases.

Murder For Love Ordered

Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins may seem like a puzzling duo to some, but thank goodness the scribe from Iowa befriended everyone’s hard-boiled hero while Spillane was still among us. I definitely did not know about this particular anthology, and very much want to see how those two managed to narrow things down to only twelve “hard-boiled, hard-hitting women writers”.

Vengeance Is Hers

Last up, an oldie from the Martin Greenberg anthology factory, which put out some terrific as well as some been-there-done-that anthologies in its heyday. But then, who knows how long the great sheltering may last…apparently past Easter Sunday, contrary to some hare-brained podium bluster. I’m betting I’ll find something I like in a book titled Tough Guys And Dangerous Dames.

Touch Guys And Dangerous Dames Ordered

I tried for Dolls Are Murder, a 1957 pocketbook from The Mystery Writers Of America, but someone else got there first and it was no longer available.

More books are en route from elsewhere and via pickup, and the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable shouldn’t look quite so forlorn pretty soon.

Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora

Fifty Shades

I enter keywords like ‘private eyes’, ‘femme fatale’, ‘female detective’ and a host of other mystery-crime fiction-noir related terms when I’m hunting up new books. So I can’t figure out why The Private Eye Writers Of America Presents: Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora edited by Robert J. Randisi popped up for the first time just a couple weeks ago, even though it was published in 2015. I definitely never saw it on shelf in a bookstore, but then, so-called hybrid, small press and micro-publisher titles are usually rarities on retailers’ shelves, even in the independents and specialty shops.

Fifty Shades Of Grey Fedora isn’t a tie-in to the E. L. James books (love them, hate them or just be indifferent) or dealing with dominant/submissive relationships or any form of BDSM. Rather, the anthology aims to illustrate “that sex and crime not only go hand in hand” but actually provide a “sexy, bawdy spin on the art of detection and the law of attraction”.

The sex and crime connection’s a bit thin in a couple of the tales, but that’s okay. The anthology includes Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, here reluctantly involved in a high stakes Russian technology theft after giving a high school career day presentation. John Lutz offers an unexpected and funny spin on how federal grants are mis-spent in the hallowed halls of academia. For someone with a couple of bookshelves dedicated to Max Allan Collins, his Nathan Heller tale would normally be my automatic favorite, this one blending fact and fiction as they usually do, Heller assisting pre-WWII era Cleveland Public Safety Director Eliot Ness with a deadly hit & run insurance racket. It loses out only on a technicality – I already have this story in his excellent 2011 collection, Chicago Lightning – The Collected Nathan Heller Stories. So my favorite in Randisi’s anthology was M. Ruth Myers’ “The Concrete Garter Belt”, with Myers’ Shamus Award winning Depression era Dayton, Ohio private eye Maggie Sullivan guilted into investigating a woman’s disappearance which at first leads her to a hardly rare case of workplace harassment that turns into something much more heinous. And no, there really isn’t a ‘concrete’ garter belt involved. Lets just say that the uncharacteristically fancy blue silk one P.I. Maggie Sullivan treats herself to with a recent client bonus ends up being a life-saver in a shoot out. Not unlike this Private Eye Writers of America anthology itself, I haven’t seen M. Ruth Myers’ books in stores, but my introduction to her Maggie Sullivan series character induced me to whip out the credit card and start ordering.

Maggie Sullivan Books

This was a fun bunch of stories, mixing some classic hard-boiled material with more edgy contemporary tales, some getting pretty steamy and explicit, others kind of tap-dancing around the sex and crime theme. The Riverdale Avenue Books release is a POD edition, and pretty obviously so. I hope in the four years since it came out that the publisher — helmed by well-known agent Lori Perkins and by all I’ve skimmed online doing well and well-regarded — has mastered the art of formatting text files and proofreading typo’s and punctuation a little better…yikes!

The Dame Was Trouble

The Dame Was Trouble

I like to juggle two books at once: A ‘main read’ kept at home for long sessions in the evening and on the weekend, but also another kept in my briefcase or in the car to nibble away at with on-the-go morning coffee stops, waiting for appointments during the workday or even occasional (and indulgent) on-the-way-home coffee stops. And though I don’t really read all that many anthologies and story collections, the fact is they’re ideal for the portable reads, a better alternative, perhaps to all-too-frequently disappointing Kindle ‘commuter’ reads.

An anthology in the car right now is The Dame Was Trouble – A Collection Of The Best Female Crime Writers Of Canada from Coffin Hop Press, edited by Sarah L. Johnson with Halli Liburn and Cat MacDonald. I read about this book at shekillslit.com and looked for it right away. It’s a handsome trade paperback, just shy of 400 pages with stories from sixteen Canadian women writers, including NYT best-selling author Kelly Armstrong, who kicks the anthology off with an absolutely delightful period private eye tale done with a twist, “Indispensible”, which reminded me of Linda L. Richards’ Kitty Panghorne series (see a previous post here about her novel Death Was The Other Woman). Hermine Robinson’s “A Cure For The Common Girl” was a terrific and trashy Calgary-set contemporary ‘ex-urban’ noir. What’s your pleasure? This anthology has lethal ladies from law enforcement as well as the law-breakers, dangerous dames both young and old, straight and not, and in Canadian settings as well as locales that could be…well, anywhere. I’ve only completed four stories so far, looking forward to a fifth in the early-AM coffee-to-go darkness en route to work tomorrow, but the first fourth of the book sure has been a treat. Check it out.

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