Where Do The Dead Girls Live?

lily james by cuneyt akeroglu

There is no dry erase board hanging on my writing lair’s wall, and no tally maintained for my in-progress projects’ body counts. But if there was, the completed manuscript for The Stiletto Gumshoe currently making the rounds in the querying process would show eight: Five men and three women. None could be labeled innocent victims, though two of the women might be considered ‘collateral damage’ of the novel’s primary crimes, while the last of the three ought to ignite some cheers when she finally goes down.

No, I didn’t track my body count, much less categorized by gender, and the ‘dead girl’ trope wasn’t even on my radar when work on that novel began. But by the time it was deep in revisions and I’d also started its sequel (for a hoped-for hard-boiled crime fiction series, that one still in-progress), there was no ignoring an expanding dialog about the dismissive and disturbing reliance on murdered women — often anonymous victims — deployed in the mystery/crime fiction genre and pop culture/entertainment in general as convenient plot devices, all too often for voyeuristic thrills and with fetishistic relish, and customarily used as prompts for male protagonists’ stories.

So, updating that imaginary dry erase board for The Stiletto Gumshoe’s in-progress sequel might still show a relatively benign body count, the story including the demise of two women at this point (once again, far from innocent bystanders) and several bad guys getting their just desserts, their final tally still undetermined. (It is a work-in-progress, after all, so we’ll let creativity and writerly caprice lead where it will, already-discarded outlines aside.) Still, I know all too well that one of the women who dies near the beginning of this novel does so in a grisly manner (though ‘off-camera’, so to speak), doesn’t even merit a line of dialog before her demise, and may fit the profile of the dreaded ‘dead girl’ trope closer than I’d like. Nothing intentional, just how the story worked out.

dead girl book

I’d already finished Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession (2018) at the time the sequel was underway, and could hardly plead ignorance about the issue. To be fair, the title of Bolin’s book, which earned its share of accolades (NYT Notable Book of 2018, NYT Editor’s Choice, Edgar Nominee, etc.) is a bit misleading, being more personal memoir, and only the first fourth (if that) actually dealt with the ‘dead girl’ trope. Still…the topic was already out there for discussion elsewhere.

For example, last week’s first Literary Hub e-newsletter included a CrimeReads link to “Inverting – And Avoiding – The ‘Dead Girl’ Trope”, its subhead: “Writers Carolyn Murnick And Alex Segura Discuss The Dangers And Pitfalls Of The Crime Genre’s Most Problematic Trend” (Link Below). Please give it a look. Here are writers themselves grappling with the issue, just as we’ve seen others do recently in roundtables, essays and posts. The question: Why does so much crime genre material rely on male investigators (private eyes, cops, the FBI, whomever) solving the murders of more or less anonymous women? Further, why does so much crime genre material (novels, stories, film, TV series, comics, art) use the stalking, assault, abduction, rape, torture and murder of women for entertainment? Why do writers choose to write this, and why do readers seem to gobble it up?

Dead Girl Trope

Don’t look for answers here. It’ll take a more widely read authority than me (not being an authority on anything, really) to plumb the psyches of writers or readers, and a much smarter observer to analyze the drives, impulses and interests of modern American society. That the ‘dead girl’ trope is very much alive and well (so to speak) and even thriving in entertainment is apparent. But as this piece’s title asks, precisely where do the ‘dead girls’ live? Where is the ‘dead girl’ trope most prevalent, and is it really in the crime genre?

Genre may be no more than a convenient publishing industry term, something writers use to steer submissions to the proper agent, those agents use to pitch editors, publishers use to organize lists, booksellers (and librarians) use for merchandising and readers use to navigate bookstore aisles. After all, charming sweet shoppe and kitty-cat cozies are shelved in the same mystery genre section as hard-boiled P.I. series and grisly shoot ‘em ups. But they have as much in common as dystopian sci-fi and a Regency romance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘dead girl’ trope is deployed by mystery/crime fiction writers as ruthlessly and dismissively as we might naturally assume. I’d suggest that where ‘the dead girls live’ — that is, where the ‘dead girl’ trope is most prevalent – is actually in aligned categories like ‘Thrillers’, ‘Suspense’, ‘Psychological Suspense’ and many other similar labels that dustjacket copywriters concoct.  I just finished one myself this week, albeit a comparatively tame novel. Still, it was just one of the the many, many, many novels where the dead girls reside in the company of an army of stalkers and serial killers. These novels often adhere to very successful formulas which seem to pit writers in competition with one another to dream up ever increasing levels of sadistic torture and cruelly sex-ified deaths. If the cover art doesn’t give it away, the opening pages will, inevitably featuring a woman abducted, restrained, enduring some unimaginable horror and then finally being murdered (or about to be). There are oodles of these books, many by incredibly successful and popular writers, and while some are shelved in the ‘Mystery’ section, just as often (if not more so) they’re in ‘Fiction & Literature’. In fact, I’ve read my share of author interviews in which the writers distance themselves from the mystery/crime fiction ‘genre’ altogether, presumably leery of the perceived ghettoization a genre label can lead to.

Admittedly, my own reading tastes lean towards mid-twentieth century crime fiction from the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp shorts to the postwar paperback originals and series, along with contemporary material that revives, honors and reimagines their tropes, whether noir pastiche or hard-boiled homage. Not surprisingly, my own work attempts to do the same. Oh, all that material’s brimming with violence and bloodshed, full of brawls and gunplay, yet seems to feature as many (if not more) mobsters, thieves, muggers, blackmailers, drug dealers, embezzlers, pimps, femmes fatales and rogue cops duking it out with private eyes, detectives, reporters, attorneys and sundry investigators as it does ‘dead girls’ used only as triggers for hard-boiled dicks’ heroic quests, with victims reduced to mere props. In the mystery/crime fiction genre, women definitely die. And men die. Lots of them. Good ones and bad ones and various in-betweeners. But as for inhumanly crafty serial killers and the endless horror-show of women in bondage and sexualized torture that populate the pages of so many ‘thrillers’? Maybe not as much as you might suppose, or so it seems to me, and at least in my own reading.

isebelle huppert guy bourdin 1988 copy

My point is only this: The ‘dead girl’ trope is indeed very real, much more than a trend, and it’s something each and every mystery/crime fiction writer needs to confront when outlining, plotting and eventually pounding the keys. Further, it’s something readers might want to consider when choosing their next books. We’re bound to encounter no shortage of squirm-worthy sexism, racism and politics in a lot of classic mystery/crime fiction, even in works by cherished legends. Each of us can compartmentalize that in the way we choose. Or not. But before we paint the entire mystery/crime fiction genre with too broad a brush of complicity – intended or not — let’s think about where the ‘dead girl’ trope prevails. Is it in the ‘crime genre’? Well, yes…some, to be sure. But perhaps, it thrives much more visibly among the innumerable ‘thrillers’ on the drug store, supermarket and mass-merchandiser bestseller racks and in the bookstores’ Fiction & Literature sections. My observation tells me that it’s where the ‘dead girls’ really live.

Top photo: Lily James by Cuneyt Akeroglu; above: Isabelle Huppert by Guy Bourdin, 1988

https://crimereads.com/inverting-and-avoiding-the-dead-girl-trope/

 

At The Rap Sheet

The Rap Sheet

Thanks to J. Kingston Pierce’s always excellent The Rap Sheet blog (link below) for a mention and link to The Stiletto Gumshoe site and my recent post on James Ellroy’s This Storm. If you already follow The Rap Sheet, you know what a treasure it is. If you don’t, then why the hell not? The emailed updates are always welcome in my inbox and likely to send me foraging online through endlessly intriguing articles and sites. So be warned: A quick peek at The Rap Sheet will inevitably lure you into some well-spent time delving deeper into that site and many others.

Sweet Cheat, 1959 - ernest chiriacka cover

Seemed fitting that on the day The Rap Sheet included a mention of The Stiletto Gumshoe, it led off with a pic of Peter Duncan’s Sweet Cheat (“She Was The Nicest Bad Girl In Town”) with its gorgeous Ernest Chiriaka cover, that paperback from 1959, the very same year The Stiletto Gumshoe’s hoped-for noirish crime fiction series is set in. Serendipitous indeed! The Duncan novel’s a link to a 2010 page from the great Bill Crider’s (1941- 2018) own blog — Bill Crider’s Pop Culture Magazine (link below), which ran for sixteen years, is yet another incredibly informative and entertaining site you can get lost in, and is sorely missed by many.

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com

http://billcrider.crider.blogspot.com/

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

 

Long Ago And Far Away…Not.

Crime ReadsI’m deep in James Ellroy’s 2019 This Storm, but expect to be wallowing in the underbelly of 1942 Los Angeles’ dark side for days to come, the meaty novel just shy of 600 pages. Loving (worshipping?) Ellroy as I do, I wouldn’t dream of skimming a single passage, preferring to relish every syncopated jazz-rhythmic sentence, almost wishing I could read it all out loud.

The novel, the second book in Ellroy’s epic second ‘L.A. Quartet’, opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues into the Spring of 1942, right in the middle of the periods we often associate most closely with classic mystery/crime fiction and film: The Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and Golden Age Hollywood, Word War II, the tumultuous postwar years and the Red Scare and Cold War era of the 1950’s. These are the decades of the sleazy crime pulps, the rise of hard-boiled detective paperback original series, classic crime melodramas and film noir, banned crime comics and even the earliest TV detective series. The visuals – the clothes, the cars, the city streets, the diners, bars and buildings – all trigger associations with a classic crime and mystery milieu that’s firmly ingrained in pop culture.

In “The Art Of Setting Your Crime Novel In A Not-So-Distant Past”, a 7.24.19 Crime Reads essay (link below), New York writer (and NYT bestselling author, to be precise) Wendy Corsi Staub talks about growing up in the 1960’s, smitten with bygone eras which seemed so much more intriguing than her everyday world of bell bottoms and The Brady Bunch, unaware that all too soon that ticky-tack Melmac dinnerware and avocado applianced world would itself become ‘history’. Maybe not fog-shrouded Victorian London, Colonial Boston or Medieval Europe, but history nonetheless.

While we look back nostalgically through rose-colored glasses to the 1930’s – 1950’s for so much classic crime/mystery, the real people who lived in that era similarly looked back 60 – 80 years earlier, though in their case it led them to the Wild West, which may account in part for the popularity of Westerns in film, pulps, comics and television shows from the 1930’s till they abruptly vanished altogether in the late 1960’s.

Wendy Corsi Staub points out that the decades of our own youth – Boomer, Gen-X or Millennial as the case may be – are already (or soon will be) history every bit as much as Philip Marlowe roaming 1930’s/40’s Los Angeles or Mike Hammer pounding perps in 1950’s Manhattan. But writing about (and reading about) the recent past can be challenging. Writers themselves may be surprised to discover how much they don’t know (or don’t remember) about periods that aren’t so far gone. Staub checks in with several novelists including Alyson Gaylin and Laura Lippman who’ve recently released books set in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I was particularly pleased to see a personal favorite of mine included, Anthony award finalist James W. Ziskin, whose Ellie Stone mystery series (now at six novels) is set in the very early sixties. It would just be sheer hubris to suggest that ‘great minds think alike’, but I felt reassured when these writers explained how they may have relied on everyday magazines more than Google – ads, recipes and all – to build their arsenal of period-correct details and get a feel for the times. Spending a bundle at Ebay equipped me with loads of period mags to browse, highlight and scan, and were much more fertile sources than even the novels or TV series reruns from the same years. James Ziskin echoed what drew me to the specific years in which I’ve set my own current projects. The Stiletto Gumshoe opens in the Spring of 1959. The in-progress sequel takes place only a few months later. If I’m lucky enough to sell this darn thing and turn it into a series (which I realize is a lot like spending your Lottery jackpot before buying a ticket) I’d forecast the timeline up to the mid-sixties, before so many sudden and sweeping political, cultural and social changes erupted. Why? Precisely as Ziskin states, those years are “on the cusp” of change. But it hasn’t quite happened yet. For me working in 1959, one foot’s firmly rooted in the older mid-twentieth century world, while the other very hesitantly tip-toes a bit towards what’s still to come.

You don’t have to sell me on the appeal of the ‘classic crime and noir’ decades: The enormous fat-fendered cars, fellows in their double-breasted suits with the wide-brimmed fedoras pulled low over the eyes. The women sporting silly truffles atop their freshly set do’s, shapely in tailor pencil skirts, their stocking seams straight. Boat-sized Yellow taxis and elevator operators, newsstands and nightclubs with tiny tables, each with a little shaded lamp in the center. And everyone smokes. Everyone. It all seems so much more glamorous, more dangerous and more intriguing than the ‘now’. Or even the recent ‘now’, whether that’s mods in mini-skirts or disco divas in Danskin wrap dresses, shopping mall cliques ogling MTV or hackers with their noses glued to smartphone screens. The familiarity of our youth – the recent past – can make it seem bland. But it’s not. And the details of those years – the essential bits and pieces and subtle cues writers need to sprinkle throughout their material – may even take some research to get right. Even if it’s very recent.  And the fact is, there’s richness in the recent past that can equal all the imagined romance of earlier eras.

Yes, even the fashion disaster that was the 1970’s.

Mystery/crime fiction writer or reader, check out Wendy Corsi Staub’s essay at Crime Reads:

https://crimereads.com/the-art-of-setting-your-crime-novel-in-a-not-so-distant-past/

 

Mignon And More In Mystery Scene

Mystery Scene 160 - 2019

I know there are no books by Mignon G. Eberhart on shelf at my local public library. I checked. But then, the list of well-known mystery/crime fiction writers missing from the shelves there would too long to start counting.

Another Mans Murder

The latest issue of Mystery Scene magazine is full of the usual features and excellent interviews and articles, and didn’t disappoint. But it rarely does. Michael Mallory’s article “Mystery’s Enigmatic Mistress – Mignon G. Eberhart” was a pretty in depth look at a woman who was a bit of mystery herself. Born Mignonette Good in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1899, Eberhart went on to write nearly 60 mystery novels along with numerous short stories and plays, beginning with the Sarah Keate medical mystery series in the 1920’s. By the time of her death at 97 in 1996, Eberhart was considered one of the highest paid mystery writers in the field, yet biographical information remains pretty sparse, with very few interviews ever conducted. Mallory’s excellent article provided just enough info to get me intrigued, and I’ve been digging up some of Mignon G. Eberhart’s mysteries since, some of which have been reprinted in multiple editions and are readily available.

On a more somber note, Nancy Bilyeau’s “Berlin Noir – Philip Kerr’s Novels Of The Third Reich And After” gives an overview of Kerr’s incredible Bernie Gunther series, in which the Chandler-esque Berlin homicide detective navigates the rise of Nazism, the horrors of WWII and its aftermath, and struggles to find a place in a postwar world through 14 always-entertaining but incredibly thought provoking novels. Philip Kerr, of course, sadly passed away in March of 2018. The publication of his 13thGunther novel Greeks Bearing Gifts just a month after his death was a bittersweet event for his ardent fans (count me among them), and presumed to be the final work from this master. But there was one more, Metropolis, published just this April, and surprisingly, a kind of origins story set in 1928 when the horrors to come were only glimpses of still unimaginable anomalies in Weimar Germany, where cynical Berlin cop Bernie Gunther was still working his beat, eager to please and, if a smart ass at heart, not yet the hardened world weary soul readers came to love across a dozen-plus novels.

So with one magazine’s issue, I learn about a prolific writer I never knew much about (but will, soon enough) and bid farewell to a writing hero whose work I’d grown to love. Can’t ask for more than that from a magazine.

The Police Women’s Bureau

The Police Women's Bureau

Book reviews claim a novel is a ‘real page turner’ all the time, but I’m here to tell you that Edward Conlon’s The Policewomen’s Bureau is precisely that: A page turner. My proof? I started the book after work on Monday, and stayed up ridiculously late both Monday and Tuesday nights devouring this novel. Yes, a little groggy in the office Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, but it was worth it.

Edward Conlon’s a former New York City cop himself, and even after retiring was called back, currently the Director Of Executive Communications for the Police Commissioner. His own memoir Blue Blood was a bestseller and award finalist. The man can write, and he knows what’s what when it comes to being a cop and has an uncanny feel for effectively setting a scene — a hectic Italian family gathering, an authentic squad room, holding cell or gritty New York street scene.

Decoy 1957

I knew I’d like this book from the very beginning of the first page, which is a quote from the groundbreaking 1957 TV series Decoy (see link below for more about that), which starred Beverly Garland in the very first network crime drama led by a woman, the first filmed on location in New York, and told the story of Officer Casey Jones, an NYPD policewoman working different cases in each episode, sometimes undercover, sometimes in uniform. It’s a perfect choice to kick off Conlon’s novel, which is based on real life policewoman Marie Cirile’s own memoir and here tells the story of Marie Carrara, young wife, mother and member of a large and very traditional Italian family. Marie’s a cop, though policewomen are largely relegated to women’s wing jail matrons and occasional undercover assignments, enduring relentless taunts, hassles and worse  from their male counterparts, and institutional discrimination from the higher-ups. The book opens in 1958, spanning a ten-year-plus period through 1969 as Marie moves up the ranks, fighting superiors along with the crooks, while suffering through horrifying abuse from her ultra-traditional maximum-macho Italian husband (also a cop, and clearly a slightly crooked one), which goes beyond his flagrant infidelity, verbal abuse and routine physical violence, then culminates in a brutal rape. It’s grim stuff. But Marie perseveres, devoted to her kid and the job. Which is incredibly exciting stuff, tricking mobsters and working sympathetic snitches, trading blows with drug dealers and chasing junkies. Finally partnered up with two precinct oddballs, the threesome quickly grow into an unbeatable team with stellar arrest records, and form an unbreakable bond in the process.

The Policewomen’s Bureau is a terrific crime fiction novel, a maddening tale of how-things-were seventy years ago (enough so to dispel any warm nostalgia one might have for the ‘good old days’) and a truly moving saga of a quiet hero, a regular woman’s struggle against relentless injustice and discrimination. Do check it out, and give Beverly Garland a peek in 1957’s Decoy while you’re at it.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/02/06/decoy-retro-tvs-first-woman-with-a-badge/

 

Another Writer’s Digest In The Mailbox

Writer's Digest Sept 2019

“Primarily I’m writing to entertain, right?” Karin Slaughter, bestselling author of a book a year since 2001, says just that in her interview with Ericka McIntyre in the September 2019 issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. “If I could change the world, with what I’m writing, then I would write very different books.” Still, she explains that there are things in her books that go beyond storytelling, issues she hopes readers will confront, things she’d like men to know about women, experiences she’d like to validate for female readers. But this is only a brief part of the three-page interview (with more online at writersdigest.com). Slaughter’s remarks on writing discipline and productivity are particularly worth noting, considering that her book-a-year output has added up to over 120 million copies sold in 37 languages.

I was pleased to see the new issue of Writers Digest magazine in my mailbox, keeping my fingers crossed that the financial woes which recently took down its parent company, F+W Media, are being resolved in a way that enables the magazine to continue publication. I’d really miss WD if it vanished. This September 2019 issue is “The Big Idea Issue”, with interesting articles on “Mastering High Concept”, how to effectively deploy subplots and more. My favorite this issue was Simon Van Body’s “Becoming A Multigenre Master”, with some guidance on how to work concurrently on multiple projects in completely different genres. I have no burning desire to pen a western or a steampunk romance, but there are times when I’d consider starting something outside my usual areas of interest, perhaps even something measurably ‘steamier’ than I’m what currently doing, even if only for fun or self-publication. “The many voices that make you up but which cannot be reconciled into one single voice all the time can most definitely be channeled into different ways of telling stories,” Van Body assures writers, sounding so certain in his article that I might just be tempted to give it a try.

Cruel Summer

criminal number six cover

Issue number five of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ always magnificent Criminal commences a new storyline called “Cruel Summer, apparently planned from the very beginning of the Criminal series. It opens here with private investigator Dan Farraday’s pickup lines rebuffed by an attractive single woman in a hotel lounge. When she cautiously relents, we discover that this ‘Jane Hanson’ is actually Marina Kelly, the very woman Farraday’s been hired to locate. Things don’t go precisely as planned with the hotel bar pickup, any more than Farraday’s investigation did, but then this is an Ed Brubaker story, so of course things don’t go precisely as planned. Evidently, issues six and seven will switch gears and zero in on other familiar Criminal characters, notably Teeg Lawless, before bringing things back full circle with Farraday and Marina. Phillips’ art is brilliant, as always. Brubaker’s script doesn’t exhibit one wasted word that I can see. Like every issue of Criminal before, I’m hungering for the next installment the moment I close the comic’s back cover. Phillips’ cover art for that issue – Issue Number Six – is shown above.

Like most (all?) issues of Criminal, this one includes excellent extras, here a roundtable discussion on crime fiction (and media) series characters with Ed Brubaker, Jason Starr, Alex Segura and Sara Gran. Heck, even if you didn’t care for crime comics, the issue’s worth buying for that alone.

criminal number 6

One Night Stands

Manhunt Dec 1958

Mired in relentlessly humid nineties for days, I headed out for what was supposed to be a quick Saturday AM trip to run errands, anxious to be home before morning warmed into another tropical afternoon. ‘Quick’ turned into three hours, with impatient weekend warriors fighting over parking spaces at each stop, my last a nightmarish trek through a crowded big box store. But a regional chain used bookstore beckoned from across the parking lot afterwards, like a well earned treat for getting those chores done. The last thing I need is more books piling up on my end table right now, but I walked out with a few treasures anyway.

One Night Stands

I know I had Lawrence Block’s One Night Stands And Lost Weekends, a 2008 Harper trade pb collecting some of the Grand Master’s short crime fiction and suspense novelettes from 1958 to 1966, with dates and credits for each in the back. Perhaps my original copy was reluctantly sold to a used bookstore to make room (bookshelf space is generous but not limitless here). Or I lent it to someone and forgot to get it back. But this nifty book is back on shelf now where it belongs, in a surprisingly clean, crisp copy I’m nearly done with already.

When I brought it and another book to the register, the cashier was nice enough to ask if I’d seen the Lawrence Block hardcover short fiction omnibus there as well. I hadn’t, so he dragged me over (it was out of order on shelf, as it turned out), so I also left with a like-new 2002 first edition hardcover of Enough Rope (previously published in the UK as The Collected Mysteries Stories), a nearly 900-page door-stopper of a collection with more than 80 Lawrence Block short stories. If there’s a duplicate between the two books (I spotted one right away), who cares? My only complaint: Eighty-plus gems, and the publisher couldn’t spring for an appendix or permissions section at the back to provide original publication dates at least, if not publication titles too? Well, no whining when you snag a treasure for eight bucks.

enough rope

Enough Rope is on my nightstand, that book spanning more years of Block’s career and including a bounty of detective/crime fiction short stories, with nine Matthew Scudder pieces, so it’d be worth buying for those alone. One Night Stands And Lost Weekends is in my car so I can knock off a shortie before and after work or chilling in a parking lot before a meeting during the week.

Three ‘lost’ Ed London – Private Eye novelettes conclude that book. I read the last one, “Twin Call Girls” and still need to finish “The Naked And The Deadly” and “Stag Party Girl”. Block’s three page 2001 introduction to his long-lost Ed London stories is as interesting as the stories themselves…no kidding. So, with only a few stories left to read, I’ve spent some quality time with a lot of delightfully unsavory people, visited dreary small towns, knocked back shots and draft shorties in their dismal cocktail lounges, then bedded down in their dingy hotel rooms, achingly alone or rolling ‘round a worn out mattress with any of a long string of curvy blondes squeezed into snug sweaters and tight skirts, on the make or ripe for a glib stranger’s line. In “Man With A Passion” from Sure-Fire in 1958, freelance photographer (and scheming blackmailer) Jacob Falch breezes into a jerkwater town with ten grand in his suitcase, recently paid by the mayor of the last jerkwater town to conceal some skillfully composited photographs of the mayor’s wife in very compromising positions. “The room was drab and colorless,” we’re told. “There was a bed, a straight-backed chair that looked as though it would buckle if he sat on it, and a dull brown dresser studded with cigarette burns. In short, Falch reflected, it was a crummy room in a cheap hotel. But it would do for the time being.” Cheery, huh?

You have to keep the time, the publications and their readership in mind, just like you do when reading pre-WWII crime and spicy pulp stories. The women are reduced to hair color, the shape of their figures and the cut of their clothes, all of them cunning femmes fatales when they’re not nameless trophies to be ‘had’ (with no one quibbling about the ethics of how that comes about). Assault masquerades as seduction in these overwhelmingly grim stories of adulterers, hit men and swindlers. Culled mostly from 1958 – 1961 issues of Manhunt, Guilty and Trapped magazines, some feel hastily written (and they often were, per the author’s own introduction), are glaringly dated, simple and sometimes shallow…

And utterly sublime.

See, the thing about Lawrence Block short stories is that, for me, they function on three levels.

First, and naturally enough, they’re just plain entertaining, downright fun to read (in a peculiarly grim sort of way) and rarely disappoint.

Second (and this applies particularly to the oldies), they carry me back to a bygone era I can only imagine (and probably romanticize more than I should) when talented, hard-working (and lucky) writers willing to pound the keys diligently enough could, theoretically, actually make a living at this writing game. Just like his writing how-to books, Block’s usually good for some conversational background about those early days when he started out, which both books’ introductions covered and which I love to read. Styles and tastes have evolved considerably since the 50’s-60’s waning pulp days and the PBO era. Some of the outlandish premises and gotcha endings might no longer fly with editors or readers. And just like most 1930’s – 1960’s crime pulps, spicy’s and ‘adventure’ magazines, the stories are brimming with squirm-worthy situations and borderline offensive dialog. And just like those mid-twentieth century pulps, I simply can’t help but enjoy the storytelling and straightforward writing.

Third and finally, I often feel like I’m cheating a bit when I read Lawrence Block, and suppose many writers would. Why? Because in addition to reading simply for enjoyment, I’m also getting a value-added (if unintended) tutorial on how to do it and how to do it right. Plot, action, setting and characters are all managed with such an economy of words. I plow through one story and immediately want to revisit the last pages I wrote in my own projects to prune, edit and tweak. Knowing that many of these stories were knocked out in a single evening is maddening to someone less skilled.

You’ll excuse me now. I’m setting the way-back machine to 1959, heading to a hot-sheet hotel on Chicago’s SW side so I can add some cigarette burns to one of their dreary room’s dresser tops. The ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ herself probably left one of her Viceroys smoldering there once things heated up on the rickety old bed. Like I said, when I read some vintage Lawrence Block, I want to revisit my own stuff immediately. Cigarette burns. Yeah, that’s what I need…

Magazine images include: Guilty March 1958, July 1958 and September 1958; Manhunt December 1956; Trapped June 1958, October 1958 and April 1959.

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