Thirteen Days Overdue (And It’s Lace)

Rap Sheet LogoShame on me, but this is thirteen days overdue.

A heartfelt (belated) congratulations to J. Kingston Pierce on the thirteenth anniversary of The Rap Sheet Blog at therapsheet.blogspot.com (link below). The blog began on May 22nd, Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthday, appropriately enough, and since has showcased over 7,500 posts with over 6.3 million page views.

The Rap Sheet and CrimeReads are my primary mystery/crime fiction genre and noir culture resources, providing timely news and acting as vital jumping off points to learn more about so many different writers, books, films, artists and much more. For that, a great big thank you to The Rap Sheet!

So, I checked to see what a thirteenth anniversary is. You know, paper for the first, silver for the 25th, gold for the 50th and so on. There are some pretty weird ones, and several online wedding anniversary gift charts left a few years blank altogether. But all showed lace for a thirteenth anniversary. Now I’m at work at the moment with no lace handy, and I’m not about to go desk to desk to see who could help. Surely someone’s lacy somewhere today, but it won’t be appearing here. So we’ll have to make do with some vintage Alan Geoffrey Yates – AKA Carter Brown – and three editions of The Black Lace Hangover (which is, after all, a pretty cool title).

https://therapsheet.blogspot.com

Problematic Pulp Poetry? 

Black Mask - May

Pulp poetry. Hmmm…

Sometimes, they creep out of nowhere and catch you unawares, even though you really shouldn’t be surprised. You’re enjoying a classic film noir or crime caper flick when suddenly (incredibly, for what was then considered comic relief) a grotesque bit of racial/ethnic stereotyping intrudes. It was just a few weeks ago that I watched Raoul Walsh’s 1941 High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino on TCM’s Saturday Night Noir Alley feature, having forgotten all about the scenes with Willie Best playing ‘Algernon’, the mountain resort’s resident ‘step-n-fetchit’ style porter/handyman. The bits are hardly unique, but still made me squirm and were almost enough to ruin the viewing experience. I still adore the film. I mean: Bogart and Lupino, come on.

But…

Detective-Story-April-9-1932

Whether it’s a vintage movie, novel, comic, pulp story or even some 1950’s/60’s television shows, repellant racial/ethnic stereotypes rear up out of nowhere. Often, they’re not even intended to be demeaning, and that casual indifference almost makes them worse. At the same time, the prevailing dismissiveness about virtually all female characters in most 20th century mystery/crime fiction and film is so overwhelming that we can almost fail to recognize it. It just…is. Women (sometimes, even if billed as the lead) are relegated to secondary characters at best, mere eye candy, damsels in distress or potential victims, more commonly. Gay/lesbian characters? Well, barely acknowledged in retro film or TV, of course, and deployed mostly in vintage sleaze novels for titillation, popping up in vintage crime fiction as caricatures or presumed villains.

Different times, different culture. It was what it was.

Saucy Movie Tales - June

Nowhere is this more apparent than in mid-20thcentury pulp fiction – specifically, the 1930’s through 1950’s mystery/crime pulp fiction magazines. Inevitably, a crime/pulp/noir fan has to wonder: How can I possibly enjoy these films, novels, magazines and comics when so many are riddled with disappointing ethnic/racial/gender dismissiveness, or worse, utterly offensive stereotypes? If I’m enjoying these works, even in part, isn’t that some kind of implicit endorsement?

hardboiled noir - problematic art

W.M. Akers questions this in his terrific piece from the 5.10.19 Crime Reads  (crimereads.com, link below), Hardboiled Noir, Pulp Favorites, And Problematic Art,  subtitled: “Reckoning With Hateful Attitudes In Classic Crime Fiction”. Akers’ own first novel, the historical-fantasy Westside just released in May 2019, deals with amateur sleuth Gilda Carr in a re-imagined 1920’s New York City, and he explains how he turned to vintage pulps to capture the feel of the era, “the same way I used old newspapers and pre-code movies and Joseph Mitchell essays and any other scraps from the period that I could find as a portal to a city that, if it ever really existed, doesn’t anymore”. He points specifically to a Theodore Tinsley (creator of the groundbreaking 1930’s era Carrie Cashin female detective character) story from a 1934 Black Mask pulp magazine issue, “Smoke”, featuring the sleuthing NYC columnist Jerry Tracy. The tale, one of 25 Jerry Tracy stories the prolific Tinsley wrote, is tainted by casual racism and sprinkled with overtly offensive stereotypes. So Akers asks, “In a moment when lovers of problematic art are asked to be more critical of their taste than ever before, it is worth asking what it takes to enjoy sloppy pulp fiction in 2019 – and why it’s worth the effort.”

True Jan 1939

Akers realizes that each film viewer or story reader will need to arrive at their own conclusions and react accordingly, whether by foregoing the material entirely, merely ignoring the objectionable content, or finding some way to process it. He still finds much to inspire him in these 60 – 90 year old pieces. I get that, because I do, too. I won’t ignore their intrinsic flaws, which aren’t limited to ethnic/racial/gender issues, but also include outlandish plots, padded word counts, copycat characters and more.

But the language always lures me in. Give me any old mystery/crime fiction pulp reprint or omnibus collection and I guarantee that the period slang and vintage word-smithing will hook me, from their nearly comical descriptions of hard-to-choreograph action scenes, to snappy banter and dialog sprinkled with authentic vintage street talk, to frequent but cautiously handled love scenes and female character depictions, which can border on the surreal or just plain pervy and fetishistic. I’m hooked, I’m an addict, I admit it.

Pulp poetry? In a way, I guess that’s what it is. At least for me. So then call me a pulp poetry sucker if you insist, and I won’t argue, despite all the objectionable content that may be surrounding it.

Some months ago I speculated about nagging issues of complicity, sparked in part by a Megan Abbott essay about the then recent release of Raymond Chandler’s The Annotated Big Sleep (link below). The issues here are much the same. And as someone currently working with writing projects in a mid-twentieth century setting, it’s more than a matter of reacting to random squirm-worthy content in my recreational reading or film viewing, but becomes a challenge to achieve some sense of period authenticity without reinforcing outmoded attitudes or reviving offensive content in my own writing. I’m certain that I’m not alone in this.

Westside

Well, one thing I definitely took away from W.M. Akers’ Crime Reads essay: I need to get his novel Westside,  because it sounds pretty cool! I’ll be checking the indie bookstore on my route home after work today, and if unavailable, will be online for a moment or two this evening to order it. I definitely want to read about Gilda Carr in Aker’s reimagining of 1920’s New York.

https://crimereads.com/hardboiled-noir-pulp-favorites-and-problematic-art/

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/01/03/the-annotated-big-sleep-and-uneasy-feelings-of-complicity/

The Glamorous Dead

The Glamorous Dead

Suzanne Gates’ The Glamorous Dead could easily have been done as a lighthearted retro-romp of a vintage-Hollywood mystery, and would’ve been perfectly entertaining and surely sold well enough. But Gates crafted a much more serious, mature and darker novel, even if it is brimming with celebrities, classic movie references and retro Tinsel Town glamour.

Set in 1940 and narrated by Penny Harp, the book deals with the murder of an extra from Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy The Lady Eve, with the cops pretty sure Penny herself is the murderer, leaving her on her own to prove her innocence. But the investigation soon involves leading lady Barbara Stanwyck in the amateur sleuthing, particularly once suspicion might fall on her husband Robert Taylor, who may or may not have been carrying on with the murder victim.

Don’t picture two unlikely gal-pals chumming around and stumbling over clues. Both women have their secrets and their own good reasons to keep them that way, and the entire affair is cloaked in a dark, moody and noir-ish tone. If Gates has another retro Hollywood mystery novel in her, she can count me in. I’ve got my share of mid-twentieth century mystery/crime fiction books ahead of me in the to-be-read heap, and Suzanne Gates’ 2017 The Glamorous Dead made for a nice kick-off to a Spring/Summer 1930’s-50’s sojourn, which I confess, is mostly where I like to be. Well, when reading, that is.

Night Watch

Night Watch

David C. Taylor’s Night Watch, his third Michael Cassidy NYPD Detective novel, is just out, not on shelf yet that I’ve seen, but ready to order online. Apparently this third novel is actually set in between his first, Night Life, and his second, Night Work, each book set in mid-1950’s New York (with some forays elsewhere).

Night Life

The Michael Cassidy novels are dark, gritty hard-boiled crime fiction at its best, yet with a very readable, literary flair. Detective Cassidy navigates New York’s mean streets and upper crust with equal ease, thanks in part to his Broadway producer father. Similarly, he finds himself grappling with a cop’s normal cases, but they manage to drag him into much bigger things, bumping against the FBI, CIA and more than mere murder. Night Life was a library find for me. I devoured it, and kept my eyes open for Night Work, which was as good or better, so I’m eagerly looking forward to Night Watch. Taylor needs to get a web-savvy pal to freshen up his website (davidctaylorauthor.com), because I’m betting there’ll be readers looking to learn more pretty soon!

Night Work

david c taylor author dot com

Book Riot’s Favorite P.I.’s

Book Riot 9 Best Noir Retellings copyVia Book Riot: Matthew Turbeville writes about “Crime Fiction’s New Favorite Private Eyes” with a good list to bring along the next time you’re headed to the bookstore or to have handy when you’re ready to shop online. That this list happens to include a number of ‘stiletto gumshoes’ of one sort or another is incidental. Turbeville sees the mystery/crime fiction genre evolving (or, already evolved) so that Chandler’s and Hammett’s iconic private eye’s aren’t so much supplanted by other characters, but merely taking their place alongside them. He points to Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt (who he mentions has at least two more novels in the series, and here’s hoping!) as an example: “…while Philip Marlowe may fight with gunfire, DeWitt is the woman who takes a bullet, pries it from her body, and continues on with her journey to solve every mystery possible.”

book riot

Turbeville’s list includes a diverse group of writers and their P.I. creations, but most of all, memorable characters deserving of ongoing mystery/crime fiction series. Six he lists (and we all know there are others, and we all have our own faves) are Steph Cha’s Juniper Song series, Alex Segura’s Pete Fernandez series, Erica Wright’s Kat Stone series, Kristen Lepionka’s Roxane Weary series, Julia Dahl’s Rebekah Roberts series, and Kellye Garrett’s Dayna Anderson – A Detective By Day series. Look for Turbeville’s article at Book Riot (link below), with links to the individual authors’ books.

3 books 23 books 1

https://bookriot.com/2019/04/24/crime-fictions-new-favorite-private-eyes/

Window Dressing: Vogue’s Rear Window

vogue us 2013 april

Fashion photography maestro Peter Lindberg (who’s been showcased here and more than once) worked with model Carolyn Murphy and actors Tobey Maguire and even Laurie Metcalf, of all people, to reprise selected scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 mystery classic, Rear Window, that film based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 story “It Had To Be Murder”. Sure, the April 2013 issue’s editorial was intended to show off Spring couture, but who cares? It’s an elegant pictorial, and enough to make you want to rewatch Rear Window right away. I wonder who Lindbergh, Murphy, Maguire, Metcalf and crew would have chosen to stand in for Raymond Burr?

vogue us 2013 april2vogue us 2013 april3vogue us 2013 april4vogue us 2013 april5vogue us 2013 april6vogue us 2013 april7vogue us 2013 april8

Murder Knocks Twice

MURDER KNOCKS TWICE copy

Whenever I think I follow too many blogs or let my inboxes fill with too many e-newsletters and posts, I get turned on to some new book (or movie or comic or show) and remember why it’s good to stay in touch. A week ago J. Kingston Pierce’s The Rap Sheet posted a cutie with a Mickey Spillane (via Max Allan Collins) Mike Hammer novel paired with Susanna Calkins’ just-released Murder Knocks Twice.

The Rap Sheet - Murder KNocks Twice

Calkins has half a dozen historical mysteries to her credit already, so Roaring Twenties Chicago speakeasies is a big departure for this first in what apparently will be a new series, focused on The Third Door club’s new cigarette girl, Gina, just hired to replace recently murdered Dorrie, who’s death is somehow tied in to the illegal nightclub. Gangsters, cigarette girls and Chi-Town? I’m in. So The Rap Sheet led me to The Criminal Element blog (criminalelement.com) for info on Calkins’ new novel and series, which then led me to an older but no less interesting Crime HQ interview with the author.

And I guess that’s why I should never complain about over-stuffed in-boxes.

criminal element dot comSusanna Calkins Books

Domestic Noir

Troubled Daughter - Twisted Wives

Not long ago I read a blogger’s book review which suggested that Lifetime Channel made-for-cable movies are the contemporary counterpart of the suspense stories written 50 – 75 years ago that might have appeared anywhere from a crime pulp magazine to a woman’s glossy…brooding, often incredibly dark stories about women on the run, women contemplating crimes, reckoning with duplicitous lovers, seeking revenge on abusive spouses or grappling with their own personal demons. An accurate assessment? Well, I don’t know if I’d go that far, and if you routinely watch Lifetime Channel films, you can decide on your own.

“Domestic Suspense” or “Domestic Noir” isn’t a new genre subset, just a label being used more frequently, perhaps. Sarah Weinman’s 2013 anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives is about as excellent an introduction to the roots of this mystery/crime fiction sub-category as you could ask for, with stories by writers you’ll likely want to learn more about residing side-by-side with luminaries like Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Millar and Shirley Jackson. I didn’t buy this as soon as it came out, but wished that I had, even if my own tastes do run more towards gunsels, gangsters and thugs. If the anthology’s stories, taken as a whole, accomplish one thing consistently, it’s a mastery of the ‘ominous and the foreboding’. And who better than Sarah Weinman to assemble this anthology? Weinman’s the editor of the classic Library of America Women Crime Writers series as well as co-editor of an edgy anthology like Sex, Thugs And Rock & Roll, and I say that alone makes for a solid resume (not that it’s where hers ends).

I’ll let the more educated and experienced critics, reviewers and writers debate the pro’s and con’s of genre sub-categories and the inherent risks of ghettoization. Myself, I’ll just enjoy dark mystery masters’ work, and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives showcases 14 such masters at the top of their game and laying the foundations for contemporary dark suspense.

 

It’s Not Just Beer & Brats

Milwaukee Noir

Let the coastal types snicker at flyover cities. Residents of the megapolis hugging the southern end of our own ‘inland sea’ (Lake Michigan) know what’s what. From Menominee Falls down to Milwaukee, through Kenosha, Racine and crossing the border into snooty Lake County, all across big bad Chicago itself and then into Northwest Indiana’s shuttered mills and abandoned factories, it’s all one long piece of familiar turf. It’s John Dillinger and Al Capone, Indiana roadhouses and rural Wisconsin mob hideouts. It’s Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits’ tunes with a Midwestern spin. It’s crooked, gritty, dirty, down to earth, beautifully bungalow-lined blue collar-ville. It’s home.

Milwaukee Noir - Crime Reads

Spotted the news that Akashic Press is releasing Milwaukee Noir edited by Tim Hennessy this week. Akashic’ global city-by-city Noir Series has never disappointed me yet. Milwaukee’s filled with good and bad like my home digs, just on a smaller scale, and much more than clichés about brats and breweries. Milwaukee Noir should be out the day I’m writing this, and the bookstore closest to work is pretty reliable when it comes to new releases in the Noir Series. If it’s not on-shelf within a week or two, they’ll be glad to order a copy for me, and I’m looking forward to this one.

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