Crime Reads: The State Of The Mystery

The State Of The Mystery

Linked from Crime Reads (crimereads.com) via Literary Hub: Part One of a must-read roundtable discussion among twenty mystery writers — specifically, the 2019 Edgar Award nominees — on everything from topics like genre ghettoization to publisher consolidation, their own earliest influences and some sage advice to newbie writers. The second part of this dialog will be posted tomorrow, 4.25.19. If you’re a mystery/crime fiction fan or writer (which I’m guessing you might be if you’re reading this) or not, it’s a lively and informative read, with interesting comments from Lisa Black, John Lutz, Leslie Klinger, Lori Rader-Day, Jacqueline Winspear, Lisa Unger and others. A link is below for the first part…you can follow up on Part Two on your own, I’m sure! But do check it out.

https://crimereads.com/the-state-of-the-mystery-a-roundtable/

Save Me From Dangerous Men

Save Me From Dangerous Men

S.A. Lelchuk’s Nikki Griffin loves books.

She can quote classic writers to grad students, has a huge storage locker crammed so full of books that she needs straps to keep the shelves from tumbling over. She even owns a Bay Area used bookstore, the kind of place that only seems to exist in novels, where quirky patrons congregate for hours, hold literary meetings, sip complimentary coffee and (hopefully) buy something once in a while.

But it’s also a destination for abused women. Somehow word gets around about Nikki Griffin. Because she tracks dangerous men. Men who hurt the women they claim to love. And Nikki is particularly skilled at teaching them what it feels like to be hurt and helpless, and making sure that they never, ever hurt those women again.

Lelchuk’s Save Me From Dangerous Men hooked me mere sentences into the opening pages, with a tense scene that set the pace for the entire novel. That the book eventually took an unexpected turn and found Nikki Griffin embroiled in something much bigger than another threatened or abused wife or girlfriend could’ve been a disappointment in less capable hands, but the author skillfully interweaves Nikki’s day job, her poignant backstory, her ‘side business’ along with a more conventional private investigation job she accepts with misgivings, which not surprisingly, spirals into global thriller territory.

When I bought this book the week before last, one of four that I carried to the register, the cashier asked if it was for me or someone else. It seemed like an odd question. I told her it was for me, and her face immediately lit up as she told me she’d just finished it, assuring me I would like it. A lot. And she was right. I guess she just wanted to share.

There’s no setup to segue conveniently into a sequel, but I get the feeling S.A. Lelchuk’s got another Nikki Griffin novel in the works. I sure hope so. A couple online reviews I read actually griped about the author being a man writing a woman’s book and in first person POV no less. Oh, screw them. We all hear “this one’s a real page-turner” bandied about a lot, but Save Me From Dangerous Men truly is, and Lelchuk has created a very memorable, troubled, vulnerable yet lethal character who gives the notion of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ another rich layer: part bibliophile, part investigator, part vigilante, but very, very human throughout. Look for this one and check it out…I can’t imagine you’ll be disappointed.

In Comes Death

In COmes Death 1951 copy

This 1952 paperback edition of Paul Whelton’s In Comes Death is actually an abridged version of his 1951 hardcover (also released in the UK in 1952), the last in his six-book Garry Dean series, Dean a tenacious, hard-nosed reporter for Belle City’s Press Bulletin.

In Comes Death Hardcovers

Here Dean witnesses a young woman faint right in the courtroom when she hears that her boyfriend, Leo Parrish, will be charged with manslaughter for the hit and run death of one David Muriel out on deserted Frog Lane. She knows he’s innocent, and although Dean’s editor and the police are sure Parrish is their man, the reporter investigates, coming up against some mighty dangerous types determined to frame young Parrish for the murder, and racing to protect Parrish’s girlfriend when she’s marked for death as well. The cover art (uncredited, as best I can verify) depicts an actual scene from the novel (now there’s a rarity!) with the real killer stealthily creeping up on the girl, about to strangle her with one of her own stockings.

Other novels in Paul Whelton’s Garry Dean series included Call The Lady Discreet, Women Are Skin Deep (AKA Uninvited Corpse) and Pardon My Blood.

Paul Whelton montage

 

Liar, Liar

Liar Liar

Most of the ‘stiletto gumshoes’ I favor are either shoot-first bad-asses or wily femmes who can finagle the truth out of any tight-lipped crook. Once in a while I’ll dip into something more…frothy? That’s what I expected from K.J. Larsen’s Cat DeLuca, but was pleasantly surprised to read something much more, a comical P.I. novel that wasn’t only trying to be funny, but actually pulled it off.

Cat DeLuca’s large and intrusive Italian family of more or less honest Chicago cops and ‘connected’ Bridgeport cousins may not approve of her career – owner of the Pants On Fire Detective Agency (as in “Liar, liar, pants on fire”) – but after her marriage to serial philanderer and chronic liar Johnnie Rizzo collapsed, nailing cheating spouses seemed as good a way to make a living as any other. The problem is, tailing adulterous husbands can prove dangerous when they’re more than it seems, and early in the first Cat DeLuca novel, Liar, Liar, Cat’s tricked into tailing another rover with a roving eye by a woman who’s really a crime reporter, and Cat’s caught in an explosive (literally) assassination attempt that puts her in the hospital…and that’s barely the beginning of her adventures following handsome maybe-crook Chance Savino. From there, Liar, Liar speeds along at a rip-roaring pace with hot diamonds, gun-runners, car thieves, two-bit street hustlers and crooked bigshots, wacky Italian family gatherings, nosey priests and kindly mobsters — more comedy than mystery, nearly slapstick in many parts, but all pretty darn good.

The Cat DeLuca series was five books, I think, and then seemed to stall for some reason. Don’t ask me, because it seemed tailor-made for a long run and should’ve had Hollywood sniffing around. Series like this one make me wonder just how many terrific books are lurking out there that I’ve missed and may never discover without prowling the shelves in the better used bookstores.

Author “K.J. Larsen” is actually three sisters: Kari, Julianne and Kristen Larsen who reside in Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. How three siblings can co-write a mystery series without killing each other is a mystery in itself, but obviously it worked. Larsen’s Bridgeport neighborhood is a close-knit Italian community, which originally was a bit of a puzzler to me, Bridgeport and the locally infamous 11th Ward a solidly Irish enclave and home to the Mayors Daley (senior and junior) and a long list of Chicago/Cook County politicians, bureaucrats and power brokers. Time for me to bone up on my Chicago lore, apparently.

 

Closing In On A Hundred Years.

Writers Digest Masthead

Writer’s Digest magazine put out a call from their website at writersdigest.com for readers, subscribers and contributors to share their memories of how the magazine has impacted their writing, all in anticipation of celebrating the publication’s 100th anniversary starting in January 2020.

If you spotted my post from a week ago, Publisher’s Weekly and various business publications reported that Writer’s Digest’s parent company F+W Media is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy since earlier this month, which makes that 100th anniversary landmark suddenly sound a little ‘iffy’. But I choose not to overreact. Chapter 11 can enable reorganization, often in conjunction with the sale of selected assets, liquidation of money-losing operations, negotiations with creditors and a leaner but more stable organization as a result. Still, sometimes it’s just a prelude to something worse. Business works in mysterious ways.

Writing Mysteries 2nd Edition

When I wrote that previous post, I had the Writer’s Digest Books 2019 Guide To Literary Agents sitting beside my keyboard. Right now I have the second edition of Writer’s Digest Books’ Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton (RIP), an older but pretty pristine 2002 edition from a used bookstore, packed full of helpful guidance from a long list of the genre’s heavy hitters, and sitting in that very same spot in front of me.

F+W Media owns some crafting, outdoors and collectibles publications that could vanish without my noticing, though their subscribers might not agree. But it’s hard to imagine a world without Writer’s Digest magazine, or Writer’s Digest books for that matter. 100 years? That’s one heck of a legacy. So lets all keep our fingers crossed that the magazine, its subsidiary businesses and the parent company find a solution to their current problems.

 

Eight (Not ‘8’) Million Ways To Die

Eight Million Ways To Die

You’ll hear it said by novelists time and again, whether from relative unknowns or the frequent bestseller list residents: When the rights are sold to Hollywood for a project, just cash the check and forget about it.

Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Lawrence Block knows that all too well, and can point to the 1986 film adaptation of his 1982 hard-boiled Matthew Scudder detective series novel Eight Million Ways To Die as a prime example, right down to the film’s inexplicable title change to “8 Million Ways To Die”, as if audiences needed the numeral instead of the word for some strange reason. There are understandable pragmatic reasons studios modify novels for the big screen, length and location costs the most common. Sometimes it’s merely a screenwriter’s or director’s whim or conceit. And sometimes it’s just who-the-hell-knows-why?

Now, to be clear: Unlike many, I don’t hate the Hal Ashby 1986 film starring Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and a young Andy Garcia in his first leading role. It garnered some pretty bad reviews and wasn’t a box office success, though not for lack of trying with then-popular stars, a script by no less than Oliver Stone and Robert Towne, some thrilling sequences and no shortage of retro-eighties style sexy violence, sexy voyeurism…and just sex. I’ll admit that I’ve always like Bridges’ many brooding and cynical performances, and happen to consider Arquette one of the 1980’s – 1990’s under-rated talents. But the minute you see palm trees and the sun-drenched Pacific beaches on the screen, you have to wonder what the hell the studio was thinking.

John K Snyder III Matthew Scudder

Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways To Die, the 5th Matthew Scudder novel, takes its title from the Oscar winning 1948 film noir The Naked City and the 1958 – 1963 ABC television series of the same name, it’s concluding narration one of the mystery/noir genre’s many memorable lines: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

Eight Million ways To Die MontageNo one would ever accuse prolific writer Lawrence Block of being lazy. Since pounding out paperback originals in the 1950’s under various pen names, he’s earned shelves full of awards and launched multiple series, the Matthew Scudder hard-boiled detective series nearing twenty novels as of 2019. The Scudder books are New York books, and Eight Million Ways To Die is 1980’s New York in every way. Just as we stereotype the 50’s as bobby sox and poodle skirts, the 60’s with either mods or flower children and the 70’s with John Travolta in a white polyester suit on a lighted dance floor, we tend to see the 80’s through a filter of VHS taped clichés from teen sex comedies and neon lit erotic thrillers, all dressed up in fuchsia spandex and over-moussed mall hair. But Block’s novel is the real New York of the 1980’s…Ed Koch’s New York, teeming with Wall Street white-collar embezzlers and pimps and dealers working the streets beneath the elevated tracks. It’s dark, wet, grimy, dirty and dangerous. And it’s a hell of a place for a struggling alcoholic with a gun and no P.I.’s license.

John K Snyder III Eight Million Ways To Die 2

Hollywood took Block’s novel and didn’t even bother keep the name intact, much less the plot or setting. But John K. Snyder III honored this book in one of the most impressive graphic novel’s I’ve ever read, rivaling the very best of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ work, and for me that’s saying a lot.

Eight Million Ways To Die - Noir City Article

The IDW Publishing 140 page+ hardcover is a work of art from front to back, sticking painstakingly close to Block’s novel, lifting text and dialog direct from the book, and rendering it all in an utterly sumptuous painterly style that’s incredibly moody and relentlessly dark, like the source material itself. I’d read about this graphic novel at Crime Reads and the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City e-magazine (screen grabs from its article shown here), couldn’t wait for its release, and wasn’t disappointed. And, in a weird way, I’m pleased as could be for writer Lawrence Block, not that someone of his stature needs this unknown blogger and writer-wannabe’s well wishes. But his iconic P.I. character and one of the series’ very best books finally got its long-overdue treatment. Not in a movie, but in a graphic novel that could serve as a ready-to-shoot storyboard for a properly done film.

John K Snyder III Eight Million Ways To Die

If you’ve read Block’s book, you’ll still enjoy this graphic novel. If you haven’t read the novel and want an intro to Block’s Matthew Scudder character, this is just as good a place to start before you pick up one of the Scudder series books. So, enjoy Block and Snyder’s graphic novel, but still…go get a Matthew Scudder novel too.

Femme Noir

SunBurn Femme Noir

“It creates a whole new category…’femme noir’.”

I can’t accuse a publisher of well-intentioned marketing hyperbole, since the quote comes from a Wall Street Journal review of Laura Lippman’s 2018 novel Sunburn.

Not that Lippman’s neo-noir homage to fellow Baltimore writer James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce isn’t ‘femme noir’, because it certainly is, but only that writers like Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, Megan Abbott and quite a few others might rightfully argue that ‘femme noir’ has been thriving for more than a couple decades before Sunburn’s release a little over a year ago. So lets agree that Lippman’s novel – and really, her entire body of work, including the essential Tess Monaghan detective series – builds on, enriches and strengthens the continually expanding ‘femme noir’ category.

Sunburn had been on my end table’s ‘to-be-read’ pile longer than it deserved till an Anna Holmes Topic interview link from Lit Hub reminded me that the book was still waiting for me. Holmes’ interview, “The Accidental Crime Novelist” (link below) covers a lot of ground with the writer, including her transition from reporter to writer and the genesis of the initial Tess Monaghan detective novel, which in a way mirrored Lippman’s own career path at that time, to her thought-provoking remarks about where the mystery/crime fiction genre is — and has been — and its peculiar (and overdue for reassessment) reliance on women as anonymous victims. Consider Holmes’ excellent interview a companion piece to Laura Lippman’s own January 2019 Topic.com Monologue, “The Problem With Dead Women” (link also below).

Sunburn

Lippman’s one of those writers who unintentionally makes me (and many others, no doubt) feel woefully inadequate and ready to delete all works-in-progress from my computer. There are masters of language who can write with an economy of words, yet somehow choose the right words all the time. Is it magic, God-given talent, or the result of endless editing and rewriting to purge all the fluff and writerly nonsense? Presumably, it’s some combination of all three. Sunburn is a prime example of this skill at work. Just shy of halfway through, I’d be challenged to point out an unnecessary paragraph, wasted phrase or random word that could’ve been deleted. Yet, every word is precisely the right word. Doing just that is what I aspire to.

Some online reviews have whined about Sunburn’s pace or complained that it takes too long to get going, but I think they miss the point. ‘Noir’, whether ‘neo-noir’, ‘femme noir’ or any other sub-category of this ever-expanding thing we call ‘Noir’ isn’t necessarily the same as mystery. It often includes a mystery, just as it may include private eyes, cops, crooks, femmes fatales and murders or other sundry forms of mayhem. But there doesn’t have to be a body discovered by the end of the first chapter or a colorfully quirky investigator on hand to solve the crime. Holmes deftly draws that from Lippman in her interview. So many of the best writers working in Mystery’s various sub-categories know it well, as Lippman clearly does.

You’re probably more on top of new releases than I am, so I’ll bet you read Laura Lippman’s Sunburn months ago. Even so, do check out Anna Holmes interview with the writer, and Lippman’s Topic.com monologue.

https://www.topic.com/the-accidental-crime-novelist

https://www.topic.com/laura-lippman-the-problem-with-dead-women

 

The Master At 101 Years

Kiss me Deadly

Shame on me, but I screwed up my post scheduling, so this was meant to appear on Saturday.

A belated birthday acknowledgment to Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey Spillane, born 101 years ago on March 9th, who sadly left us in 2006. Loved by readers, resented by writers (to this day), reviled by critics, spoofed by himself and many others, the man was actually an instrumental part of building the postwar paperback marketplace. I’ll argue that he played a part in revitalizing — maybe even redefining —  the hard-boiled private eye novel for the second half of the twentieth century, and along the way, sold a mere 225 million books.

Crime Reads Screen Cap

Crime Reads editor Molly Odintz has a very interesting piece at Crimereads.com, “The Ten Best And Pulpiest Mickey Spillane Covers”  – do log on and check it out. The covers shown here aren’t the ones Odintz presents, and some might say her choices aren’t anywhere near as pulpy, weird or downright pervy as some Spillane covers can be. Molly Odintz acknowledges that while commercial success should never be a measure of literary merit, Spillane’s recent centennial and various authors (Max Allan Collins key among them) arguing for a reassessment of the writer’s importance begs for publishers to reissue his work, but in different cover art, “…so that folks like me will actually want to read him in public. Can you imagine bringing one of these on the subway?” But she continues, and this is crucial to understanding Spillane and his work: “But Mickey Spillane didn’t care about what people thought of his cover designs, or the literary merit of his books, and paid no attention to any censorial judgments whatsoever, so perhaps the best way to celebrate the iconic writer’s birthday would indeed be to bring one of these on the subway – and not care what anyone thinks”.

Vengeance Is Mine

Odintz showcases ten Spillane covers she considers particularly weird, pulpy or tawdry. Anyone familiar with postwar pulp magazine and paperback cover art may consider them surprisingly tame. I’ll concede, Spillane’s One Lonely Night was almost always packaged with particularly disturbing cover art of a bound and partially stripped woman. The 1960’s – 70’s era Spillane reissues followed that period’s trend towards photo cover art, and typically employed provocatively posed near-nude women with no relation to the title, story or…well, anything at all, simply beckoning to the reader with ‘come-hither’ expressions. Some European editions of Spillane novels went way beyond anything that would be allowed in the U.S. market. And the fact is, many 1950’s era mystery/crime fiction paperbacks (and certainly the remaining pulps from the same era) can completely out-weird, out-sex, out-perv most any Mickey Spillane cover art, with one after another depicting menacing thugs and lover-boy private eyes threatening or otherwise taking advantage of a gallery of women-as-victims and women-as-eye-candy, invariably undressed or undressing in fetishistic detail, restrained, terrified…or often as not…dead.

One Lonely Night

Do we blame the writers? The publishers, their art directors, the illustrators? Do we blame the culture of the time? Do we blame anyone at all, or do we just recognize that they’re artifacts from another era? Don’t ask me…I’ll have to leave vexing questions like that to smarter folks than I. But I won’t apologize for appreciating Mickey Spillane. I have all of the Mickey Spillane novels, with doubles and triples of a few from different eras, along with the unfinished works completed by Max Allan Collins, some few books about Spillane, the complete Mike Hammer comic strip book and sundry other Spillane items. Call me a fan.

The Body Lovers

While I don’t ride the subway, I fully understand what Molly Odintz is saying, and there are more than a few (maybe most) of my Spillane books that I’m not too eager to whip out in the coffee shop, just so I can watch fellow patrons ease their chairs away from me. But the same goes for other vintage paperbacks I have, and quite a few contemporary books, now that I think of it.

Cheap used bookstore copies of the first few Mike Hammer novels were actually what lured me into the mystery/crime fiction genre in the first place, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Spillane’s no-nonsense prose and plot-first writing style guides me in my own humble writing attempts, particularly whenever I get ‘writerly’. I don’t know if, like Molly Odintz, I’d like to see Mickey Spillane’s body of work reissued in ‘tamer’ packaging, or just as she speculates, if the hard-boiled crime fiction master’s work indeed should be reissued, but in cover art that celebrates all the violent, sexy, tawdry, pulpy storytelling each book contained.

The Long Wait

 

The Brass Halo

the brass halo jack webb

Around the time of the publication of John D. McDonald’s The Brass Cupcake in 1958, there was a slew of other books with ‘Brass’ in their titles. Coincidence? Publishers scrambling to capitalize on the success of one particular book? Who knows.

Just one of many was Jack Webb’s (no, not the actor/director/producer Jack Webb of Dragnet fame) The Brass Halo, originally published in hardcover in 1957, then in paperback in 1958. Jack Webb (1916-2008), who also worked under the pen name John Farr, wrote 9 Golden-Shanley mysteries between 1952 and 1963 featuring homicide detective Sammy Golden and and unlikely sidekick, kindly Catholic Priest Father Shanley. In this book, the duo team up to solve a less-than-honest private eye’s murder after he’s found knifed in a nightclub torch singer’s dressing room, the chanteuse gone missing.

The Brass Halo

I haven’t read it, and will confess that my interest in the book is less about Webb’s novel and more about Robert Maguire’s cover art, this particular cover illustration among the artist’s best, in my opinion.

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