Last Dance.

I’m not sure if two books constitute a series, but it’s still customary to start with the first novel, nonetheless. In my case, I didn’t realize that Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Last Dance (2020 Blackstone hardcover) was a follow-up to his My Detective from 2019, which introduced Los Angeles police detective Sam Carver. 

If Carver feels a bit like a 2020 version of Philip Marlowe – his keen observations, introspection and (via Fleishmann) way with words, in particular – it works, and fits perfectly with the environment he operates in. But Carver’s a troubled soul when Last Dance opens, just back from an extended leave of absence following on-the-job capture and near-death at the hand of Dylan Cross, Carver’s still on-the-loose nemesis from that first novel, a rape victim turned vengeance seeking murderer.  Carver’s first assignment once he’s back: a famous (but just past her prime) Russian ballerina is found dead, her spartan loft littered with vodka bottles and drugs. Accidental OD? Suicide? Murder? Hard to say, since the dancer’s body is promptly stolen from the morgue before it can even be autopsied. 

Last Dance is, on one hand, pure L.A. Neo-Noir, and quite perfectly so. But Fleishmann, a long-time foreign correspondent before he was a novelist, can’t resist pushing things beyond the Hollywood Hills as the mystery takes on global implications, soon brushing up against the F.B.I., Russian spies and even the 2016 election (and more). The cast of characters is long enough to require a score card, though uniformed cop Lily Hernandez stands out as a possible future partner for lone wolf Sam Carver in an upcoming novel. The mystery of the ballerina’s death (and her body’s disappearance) is smartly and patiently parceled out with more than its share of twists and revelations. Never particularly good at solving mystery/crime fiction novels’ puzzles before the end, I failed miserably here as well. But I’ll pat myself on the back for spotting the eerie presence of Carver’s real antagonist — serial killer Dylan Cross – hovering nearby. 

Jeffrey Fleishmann crafted a literate piece of contemporary crime fiction with Last Dance. Noir poetry like this takes a bit of work to create, to be sure, so it’s only fair that the author insists that readers put in some work to fully enjoy the book. No skimming to the next clue or action sequence is allowed. It’s not that kind of novel, and there’s too much to be missed if you tried. Once you’ve gotten comfy with the writer’s style, you really want to savor the countless lyrical scene-setting descriptions, painting quick but artful pictures of every locale and each character, even the mere walk-ons. It’s a lot to digest, but well worth the effort. 

So, although I met Jeffrey Fleishmann’s Sam Carver in his second appearance, that’s easily remedied. My Detective has already been ordered for my next haul of in-store pickups. And Fleishmann better have a third outing planned for Sam Carver’s neon-neo-noirish Los Angeles. 

What’s Old is New Again.

My pre-Halloween reading (an illustrated edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) wrapped up a few days before the holiday, and I was tempted to grab another horror classic as we headed closer to the 31st. But the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable still had a few books, with one right on top I was anxious to get to, the sleek Rui Ricardo cover art calling to me each time passed by. 

“Fortune favors the bold” is a Latin proverb, and frequently used as a slogan by the military and on European coats of arms. Fortune favors the dead? Well…

I didn’t know much about Stephen Spotswood’s new Fortune Favors The Dead, only that it was set in post-WWII NYC and had been likened to a gender-bending version of Nero Wolfe, all of which sounded good to me. As it turned out, the only disappointment with Spotswood’s debut novel came once I reached the end. No tap dancing around things here: I loved this book, did not want it to end, and insist that Spotswood hunker down on a follow-up…like now.

Fortune Favors The Dead introduces a memorable detective duo: Lillian Pentecost, an already well-known and successful New York private investigator and all-around ‘fixer’ who’s reserved, insightful, and unfortunately, suffering from worsening MS. Finding a very special person to mentor as an assistant is essential. In a sort-of prologue set three years before the novel’s main storyline, we meet the narrator, Willowjean “Will” Parker, a teenage runaway roving the country with a small-time circus, earning some extra pocket money during its New York stay. In an exciting opening scene, Willowjean’s knife throwing skills save Lillian Pentecost, and land Will in jail.

The real story picks up right after the end of WWII, with the Pentecost agency enlisted to investigate the murder of a wealthy industrialist’s widow (the industrialist having offed himself earlier). The killing took place right after a spooky séance at a Halloween costume party and is a genuine locked room mystery with plenty of suspects.

What’s old is new again in Spotswood’s capable hands, situating his debut novel in comfortable territory and populating it with familiar types. Mind you, none of this is done in a derivative manner. Quite the contrary, Spotswood turns Golden Age mystery fiction and film tropes on their ear, reinventing everything in a way that honors genre roots but feels entirely fresh and new, most notably by replacing cerebral Nero Wolfe and streetwise Archie Goodwin with an intriguing detective duo like Lillian Pentecost and Willowjean Parker, than taking things still further with Will’s risky attraction to a possible suspect — the pretty party girl stepdaughter of the murder victim — and even further still with the ultimate resolution of the crime(s). An admission: I didn’t figure out even one tiny bit of the mystery on my own and clumsily fell for every single red herring the author inserted along the way. Credit to Stephen Spotswood.

Is Fortune Favors The Dead a standalone? I really hope not. I want to return to Lillian Pentecost’s well-appointed headquarters home and tag along with Willowjean Parker, whether she’s getting herself in trouble (which she does) or getting in too deep with a pretty face. Come to think of it, those are both the same thing.

The Big Hoax.

I expected something akin to Affair In Trinidad or even Gilda, two cherished South American locale films noir teaming Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Well, The Big Hoax isn’t quite like those films, but is still a very intriguing piece.

This is a 2020 Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics 124-page hardcover edition of the 2001 graphic novel by Carlos Trillo and Roberto Mandrafino’s – the Argentine writer and artist, respectively. In what appears to be the post-WWII era, the banana republic of La Colonia’s corrupt regime is a notorious vice haven run by gangsters and ex-Nazis, populated by a devout but downtrodden peasantry and threatened by rebels. Disgraced former detective Donald Reynoso, a useless drunk when we first meet him, is hired by the lovely Melinda Centurion to retrieve some very compromising photos, which pit the duo against corrupt cops, revolutionaries and a ruthless and relentless hit man. Precisely why Melinda must get these revealing photos back is a whole other story, and what the titular “Hoax” is about.

Trillo’s story veers between bawdy humor and pure hard-boiled banter and action, frequently stepping back from the narrative for various characters to briefly narrate vital backstory. All of this is depicted in Roberto Mandrafino’s fluid and energetic artwork, which has a touch of caricature about it, but always stays focused on telling the tale. Even if it wasn’t at all what I first expected, I really got a kick out of The Big Hoax, but then, I’ve yet to be let down by any of Titan’s Hard Case Crime comics.

More Manhunt.

A little over a year ago, I got my hands on Stark House Press’ The Best Of Manhunt, edited by Jeff Vorzimmer (see link below for more on that book).  A legendary postwar mystery/crime fiction pulp magazine like Manhunt clearly deserves more than just one “best of” volume, so Vorzimmer’s back with The Best Of Manhunt 2 (2020), a 420+ page companion trade pb. Much like the first book, there aren’t a lot of ‘extras’, such as author bio’s or cover reprint images. The stories are the attraction. The book opens with some brief entries including Peter Enfantino’s foreword, Jon L. Breen’s introduction and his 1968 article, “On The Passing Of Manhunt”, and finally a 1970 Robert Turner article “Life And Death Of A Magazine”. Those only take up twenty pages or so, and then it’s on to forty tales culled from 1953 through 1964 issues of Manhunt magazine.

The first book may have included a roster of more ‘marquee’ authors, but this follow-up volume still features familiar names like Fletcher Flora, Bruno Fischer, Erle Stanley Gardner, Wade Miller and Donald Westlake. Manhunt’s gritty, hard-boiled rep didn’t seem to attract many women writers, but you’ll find Delores Florine Stanton Forbes (1923 – 2013) included, appearing here as De Forbes. Helen Nielsen (1918 – 2002) was better known as a TV mystery scriptwriter, but her “You Can’t Trust A Man” from a 1955 issue is short, sweet tale with a gotcha ending, and it’s a real treat. 

I don’t know if it makes sense to list “best of’s” from a “best of” book. So I’ll just point out my favorites. While the anthology finds noirish and hard-boiled crime and mayhem in every corner of the U.S. from Florida to Chicago, make-believe burgs and various nowheresvilles, my faves were coastal, one in New York and one in Los Angeles. Frank Kane (1912-1968) is the man behind the long running Johnny Liddell P.I. series of nearly thirty novels and numerous sort stories. His glib NYC gumshoe is too slick and smart-assed for some readers, but Kane’s non-Liddell story, “Key Witness” from a 1956 issue is near-perfect. In part a police procedural, it feels like it could have been written today save for a few anachronisms. There’s no wisecracks or trademark Kane leering, the longish tale was quite dark, gritty and, for me, wholly unexpected.

Heading west to Los Angeles, William Campbell Gault’s “Death Of A Big Wheel” from the April 1957 issue is a lengthy story featuring Hollywood private eye Joe Puma. Some innocent cocktail lounge small talk with a past-his-prime film star finds Puma mixed up with hard-as-nails B-movie studio starlets and gangsters. It’s a real fun read, and was just begging to made into a movie. Still ought to be, if you ask me.

Covers of some of the Manhunt issues the forty stories included in The Best Of Manhunt 2 are shown here.  If you’re interested in postwar mystery/crime pulp fiction that’s a couple notches above the repetitious fistfights, gunplay and outlandish mysteries of 1930’s-40’s era pulps, you can’t go wrong with either (or both) of The Best of Manhunt books.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/09/06/the-best-of-manhunt/

Murder At The Bath House.

Swedish photographer Emmelie Hedenstrom’s website (link below) not only showcases her commercial work for corporate portraiture, fashion & beauty and more, but has an extra reason to stop by. 

“Murder In The Bath House” is a narrative photo suite in ten chapters, conceived and written by the photographer herself along with Ada Skarp. Viewers are invited to “put on your detective’s hat and study the photos. If you look closely and carefully, you will gradually be able to decipher the hidden clues, untangle the relationships and discover the motives. Piece everything together and the whole story will unfold”. 

Hedenstrom assembled a cast of seven models, period-perfect props, wardrobe and accessories for a location shoot at Stockholm’s Centralbadet. Her classic photo-noir mystery is a darkly lurid tale of tawdry affairs, deceit and murder, the images riddled with both red herrings and subtle clues. Check Hedenstrom’s beautifully set, art directed and lensed images, and “Murder In The Bath House” in particular, just a few random images from which are shown here.

Just Let Them Do The Talking.

If you’re an Elmore Leonard (10.11.25 – 8.20.2013) fan, which I am, you’ll want to visit Crime Reads for Dwyer Murphy’s excellent piece “How Elmore Leonard Really Wrote His Novels – According To His Characters” (link below).  Leonard was one of those incredibly prolific writers who built a loyal fan base of avid readers right alongside equally dedicated followers among writers who marveled at his streamlined and readable storytelling that always stripped away the superfluous. Everything superfluous. And did so with what seemed like effortless ease (which I’m certain it wasn’t). As Dwyer Murphy explains, Leonard named his characters and more or less told them to start talking, and that’s how the story unfolded. And it worked, by God, it really really worked.

Dwyer’s article is an interesting read in itself, and timely on Leonard’s birthday, but all the more so for the excellent links to previous Crime Reads articles on Elmore Leonard. Writer or reader, you’ll find them all worth a read, and below you’ll also find a link to a year-old post from right here about Leonard’s famous “rules for writers”.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/10/14/the-rules/

Build My Gallows High.

Geoffrey Homes’ last novel Build My Gallows High (1946) was adapted by the author himself — under his real name, Daniel Mainwaring (1902 – 1977) — for the screenplay for Jacques Tourneur’s classic 1947 film noir Out Of The Past with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas. (See the preceding post for more about that.)

Name changes between a book and film adaptation are nothing new and often done with no apparent reason besides a screenwriter’s whim. Out Of The Past’s Jeff Bailey was Red Bailey in the book. As for Jane Greer’s Kathie Moffat, who’s rightly considered one of the postwar film noir era’s most iconic femmes fatales, she’s Harriet “Mumsie” McGonigle in Mainwaring/Homes’ novel. Mumsie? Seriously? Somehow, I just don’t see Robert Mitchum’s noir antihero forsaking all hope of redemption for someone named Mumsie McGonigle, even when played by Jane Greer.

There actually was a real-life Mumsie McGonigle in early 1940’s Los Angeles crime lore, a notorious Madame named Rose “Mumsie” McGonigle who ran a 24/7 brothel catering to celebrities and providing freebies to public officials as payoffs. When the law finally shut her down, Mumsie’s bribes must’ve worked, since all but one of 48 counts of pandering, procurement and statutory rape were dismissed. Mumsie’s rumored little black book listing Los Angeles politicians and studio bigwigs (and their various ‘proclivities’) may have also helped to get the charges dropped.

Geoffrey Homes’ Build My Gallows High came out in hardcover and later in paperback as an Ace Double Novel paired with Harry Whittington’s The Humming Box. But book titles, of course, can’t be copyrighted except in some very limited trademark brand name cases. If you’re looking for a copy of Mainwaring/Homes’ Build My Gallows High to compare the novel to the film Out Of The Past, don’t get confused with Roy Benard Sparkia’s 1956 Build My Gallows High, a Gold Medal paperback original about a series of murders in a resort community.

Sex & Crime (Not Sex-Crimes).

A panel of writers discussing the subject of sex in crime fiction could easily drift into arguments about gender politics or pontificating about the genre’s persistent reliance on sexualized violence. Now, don’t get me wrong: Those are vitally important topics that writers, readers and critics will continue to grapple with. But in Lisa Levy’s two-part Crime Reads piece (links below), you’ll feel more like you’ve been squeezed in between Robyn Harding, Alex Segura, P.J. Vernon, Kelly J. Ford, Layne Fargo, and Laura Lippman – each a mystery/crime fiction scribe who, to one degree or another, has wrestled with sexual content in their own work – and wonder if you’re the only person at the table who didn’t knock back a few before the fast-paced conversation commenced. There’s precious little pontificating here.

Part One is titled “Let’s Talk About Sex In Crime Fiction: A Roundtable Discussion”. But Levy acknowledges in the first paragraph, “Let’s talk about why we don’t talk about sex in crime fiction”. As she and her roundtable members concede, the plain fact is that many (if not even most) mystery and crime fiction novels tend to steer clear of sex, and I’m not only pointing to cozies.

But let’s be clear: When talking about “sex” in crime fiction, the panel’s not talking about the voyeuristic and sexified violence that permeates so many suspense thrillers and serial killer novels. Whether you think it’s good, bad, puzzingly creepy or downright repellant, many thrillers rely on sexualized stalking, torture, rape and murder. Writers crank ‘em out and readers continue to devour them. But that’s not at all what these writers are addressing. They’re simply talking about sex. Characters who are driven by sex, think about sex or engage in sex…novels that may require sex scenes of whatever duration, detail and level of decadence from vanilla to…well, decadent.

Part Two is “What Are The Sexiest Books In Contemporary Crime Fiction?”. Here the panel tosses out a wide array of very different writers and novels that might be considered ‘sexy’ or at least include scenes in which the protagonists engage in sex. As to why mystery/crime fiction novels frequently seem to sidestep sex? Well, read Levy’s piece at Crime Reads yourself to see what these writers think. Is it because crime fiction typically deals with really awful things – crimes, after all, which often as not include murder – so that sex scenes would seem out of place, intrusive and gratingly gratuitous? Is it because so many mystery and crime fiction novels still feature middle aged white guy private eyes (with no shortage of recovering alcoholics and other troubled souls) whose bedroom antics may not provide for much sizzle? Could the continuing evolution and expansion of the genre comfortably embrace more – and more diverse – sexual content? And even if it could, should it? 

Long before I typed the first sentence for my own current project (The Stiletto Gumshoe, no surprise) and the character was still forming in my head, I knew that there would indeed be sexual content. It was a crucial part of illustrating just who the protagonist was and would help to define her in context of her environment: an insular ethnic blue-collar neighborhood in the late 1950’s/early 1960’s, when enormous social changes were still a few years away. She’d be chastised by her nosy landlady, teased by her friends, completely misunderstood by men and finally forced to do a little soul searching about her behavior (this is 1959, after all) including how some unwise decisions of the romantic (or lusty) variety got her mixed up with blackmailers, thugs with badges and murder in the first place.

But, that’s my project. In a lot of other writers’ work, the same thing might not apply, and what goes on behind the protagonist’s closed bedroom door might well be completely out of place.

Levy and crew don’t really provide answers so much as share questions about sex in crime fiction (while providing a fertile list of writers and novels worth discovering or revisiting). And whether you’re a mystery/crime fiction reader, or a writer agonizing over some sexual content in your projects – and if doing so, then precisely how and how much – this two-part roundtable will give you something to think about. On the fun side, it’ll probably ignite a chuckle or two along the way. Levy’s Crime Reads panel had some fun with this one!

Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary.

A couple posts back I mentioned Susan Shapiro’s article “Genre Fluidity” from the September/October issue of Writer’s Digest magazine. That’s genre, not gender, and while the piece largely dealt with rethinking in-progress projects for altogether different genres, the genre bending notion was top of mind while I concurrently wrapped up Elizabeth Hand’s new Cass Neary novel, The Book Of Lamps And Banners, a 2020 Mulholland Books hardcover, and a textbook example of “genre fluidity”.

I don’t recall if I bought Hand’s first Cass Neary novel, Generation Loss (2008), as soon as it came out or discovered it sometime later. All I remember is how completely surprised and utterly enthralled I was by the author’s addictive mix of (what might seem at first like) indulgent literary fiction with mystery/crime fiction…all dosed with an unexpected bit of dark fantasy. 

Or not. 

If you’ve read Hand’s Cass Neary novels, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…well, you just have to plunge in and see for yourself. 

To begin with, Cass Neary herself is a memorable mix, like those Just Kids Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe merged into one person, with a decadent and dangerous dash of Nan Goldin and Chrissie Hynde stirred in. Briefly a gallery scene darling for her stark and daring photos of New York’s new wave scene and the Big Apple’s rotten core, Soho salon sales and a now-collectible coffee table monograph’s money promptly went right up her nose and into her veins. After an extended stay in rehab, Cass emerged as a has-been, reduced to working in the Strand Bookstore in order to hold onto her rent-controlled apartment. Working the Strand’s stock room, that is, following some ‘incidents’ with customers.

Still fueled by a flirtation with any available substance and ever on a doomed quest to reunite with her soulmate, Quinn, the remnants of Cass’ reputation (or notoriety) drag her into mysterious situations and ever deepening danger from coastal Maine to Europe. Seemingly innocent assignments and chance meetings inevitably go bad and leave behind a frightening body count. By the second novel, she’s a person of interest to the U.S. authorities following the deadly aftermath of her brief stay in Maine. In the opening pages of The Book Of Lamps And Banners, Cass is skulking through London with a thousand stolen Euros and a fake passport, evading Interpol. Another ‘chance meeting’ (or is it?) finds her tagging along with an old stateside acquaintance, now a rare book dealer delivering a rare and priceless book of ancient dark magic. No surprise, the handoff doesn’t go down as planned, the buyer is murdered, and before the night is out, Cass is mixed up with a troubled young app developer, white supremacists, Nordic mysticists and murderers.  Like each of the Cass Neary novels, the line between reality and something ‘other’ is indistinct here, much of it filtered through her beloved Konica’s lens onto increasingly hard-to-come by Tri-X film. Though Cass Neary’s a flesh and blood person with all too-human foibles and addictions, photography is something nearly mystical for her, which may be why she winds up with weird earth goddess worshippers, Neo-Nazi ritualists and murderous madmen hunting for dark grimoires. 

Hard-boiled and classic mystery fans beware: There are no gumshoes here. No retired cops attending AA meetings in between solving crimes, no suburban caterers or chefs stumbling over dead bodies and definitely no kitty cats sniffing out crooks. Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary novels are unrelentingly dark and gritty, whether cruising rain-soaked London streets or stomping through eerie Swedish forests. Is she an investigator? Well, a reluctant – albeit determined – one, yes. But Cass Neary has more in common with Lou Reed than Lew Archer.

Elizabeth Hand’s The Book Of Lamps And Banners can deservedly be shelved in any bookstore’s Fiction & Literature section. It certainly should be cross-merchandised in the Mystery section. And some renegade booksellers will put it in their SF/Fantasy/Horror sections, and I’m not sure that’s entirely wrong. Hand blurs genre lines with a skill that mirrors her Cass Neary’s deft touch with the camera shutter. If I sound a little too fannish here, I’m not ashamed. For me, The Book Of Lamps And Banners was a literate neo-noir masterpiece, as each of the prior Cass Neary novels has been, and it’ll be a long, long wait for the next one, presuming that Elizabeth Hand will grace us with another. 

The Future Of Crime Fiction.

Maybe it’s my imagination, but while Writer’s Digest magazine celebrates its 100 years of publication, it’s also demonstrating a newfound maturity that seemed to be missing in recent years. The current September/October 2020 issue – a special double-sized “The Future Is…” issue – is a meaty read with instructive and thought-provoking articles from front to back. Practical business matters are well covered by Jeff Somers discussing his experience working with agent Janet Reid, followed by Cassandra Lipp and Robert Lee Brewer’s “The Next Step”, an 11-page roundup of twenty literary agents. In “Female, Powerful And Real”, Lorena Koppel-Torres shares her thoughts on writing authentic, relatable female characters in YA fiction, but her remarks apply to any audience. Susan Shapiro’s “Genre Fluidity” (Note: “Genre”, not “Gender”) didn’t simply look at genre-bending projects but actually reworking in-progress manuscripts into altogether different genres. Genre bending fluidity felt perfectly timed as I wrap up Elizabeth Hand’s latest genre-bending Cass Neary masterpiece, The Book Of Lamps And Banners (more about that one soon).   

But of particular interest to a mystery/crime fiction reader and writer was David Corbett’s “The Future Of Crime Fiction”, a roundtable including Alafair Burke, Rachel Howzell Hall and six other writers discussing the evolving law enforcement landscape, criminals’ countermeasures and how crime writers will keep up. This hit close to home. I’m intrigued by the many ways imaginative writers concoct genuinely puzzling mysteries in contemporary settings where routine (but ever changing) technology would dazzle any classic gumshoe, leaving Spade’s, Marlowe’s and Hammer’s heads spinning till their fedoras fell off. Our frighteningly detailed digital footprints and increasingly pervasive surveillance (and the easy online access for pros and amateurs alike) provide rich, new tactical fodder for mystery writers on one hand, but at the same time, diminish some of the unknown and hard-to-uncover that was the core of classic mysteries for decades. 

I’ll admit it: I’m more comfortable in an era in which the entire world isn’t a touch screen away. As my ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ character began to take shape in my head a few years back, I always imagined her residing somewhere in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s. There’s no iPhone in her purse, and even when she doesn’t need a pocketful of change for a pay phone, she’s flipping through the Yellow Pages and chipping her nail polish on a rotary dial, along with a zillion other things that made up a sixty-year-old ‘then’. Frankly, some of them make it a little bit easier to concoct a ‘mystery’. Mind you, I’m not a nostalgia geek, and wouldn’t trade places with 2020 and 1959 (well, maybe for a day or two, purely for note-taking and observation). That’s fine for me and this project. For the braver writers turning their back on the ‘then’ and dealing with the ‘now’, the remarks Burke, Hall and crew provided in David Corbett’s Writer’s Digest article are well worth checking out. 

 Illustrations: Sam Peffer and Raymond Pease

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑