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.

The Cutie.

The Cutie 2

Ken Laager’s deceptively simple (but simply stunning) cover art for the Hard Case Crime 2011 edition of Donald Westlake’s The Cutie (originally tiled The Mercenaries, from 1991).

The CutieThe Mercenaries

The New Pulpeteers

taya ferdinand shutter - pulpeteers

The July 2019 issue of The Writer magazine’s cover story was focused on literary agents – “Pulling Back The Curtain – What Does A Literary Agent Really Do?” by Kerrie Flanagan, followed by a nice interview with agent Donald Maas (a name that ought to be familiar to any querying writer, genre writers in particular), plus Ryan G. Van Cleave’s article on literary agent contracts. Savvy pro’s might groan and say they’ve read it all before. Newbies might lap it all up, and as for myself — somewhere in between — I always find some bit of new info in these articles, no matter how often I’ve retread the same ground in writers’ magazines or blogs. And seriously, how can you go wrong with an interview with a sage like Donald Maas?

But the article that really caught me by surprise in this issue was Heidi Ruby Miller’s “Introducing The New Pulp…Pulp Fiction Is Back, Baby”, a nice three page look at the resurgence of pulp fiction, distinguishing between the classic pulp era and contemporary writers and starting by acknowledging what was worrisome about mid-twentieth century pulpdom. Defining new pulp, Miller quotes Tommy Hancock of Pro Se productions: “Fiction writing with the same sensibilities, beats of storytelling, patterns of conflict, and creative use of words and phrases of original pulp, but crafted by modern writers, artists and publishers.”

Mystery Weekly Magazine

Most of Miller’s overview addresses adventure pulps like Doc Savage, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Pellucidar and Barsoom novels, SF/Fantasy material from vintage Lovecraft, Bradbury and Campbell, etc., as opposed to the mystery/crime fiction pulps. And after all, one could argue that crime pulp never really went away, merely migrated online and into periodic anthologies. Even with the disolution of so many 1930’s – 1960’s pulp magazines, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine are still out there, pulpy paper and all. Maybe the writers appearing inside don’t want to be classified as ‘pulpeteers’, or who knows? Maybe they’d be proud to wear to wear the mantle. After all, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine has been emblazoned with a violator on the cover for a while now noting “With Black Mask”, and I can’t think of anything that evokes the classic crime/mystery pulp era better.

three modern pulps

Miller’s article concludes with a list highlighting new pulp resources: Sites, cons, podcasts and even print/online pulp publishers, though again, those are more adventure/fantasy pulps than crime. That’s OK. ‘Pulp’ ala Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective, Sally The Sleuth and The Domino Lady may have faded away, or only live in reprints and some questionable revivals, but the noir-ish and hard-boiled flavor of the classic pulp era is still alive in a lot of talented mystery/crime fiction writers’ novels. Still…it sure would be nice if some well-heeled entrepreneur like the fellows who launched the original Hard Case Crime paperback line got a bright idea to launch a for-real ink-on-paper mystery/crime pulp magazine…wouldn’t it?

(Taya Ferdinand illustration from The Writer magazine)

Love Stories.

Gorgi Omnibus

If you write mystery, crime fiction or have the audacity to say you’re trying to write that often elusive thing called ‘noir’, then hit your touchpad or click your mouse and get to crimereads.com for managing editor Dwyer Murphy’s excellent tribute to James M. Cain (link below), whose birthday was just this week (July 1, 1892). I won’t quote passages from The Wit, Wisdom And Noirs Of James M. Cain – 25 Of The Greatest Lines Ever Written By A Crime Fiction Master, but will only encourage you to relish those that Murphy wisely selected, which include riveting lines from Cain’s novels as well as the master’s thoughts on writing and language. Keep in mind (as Dwyer Murphy points out) that Cain didn’t really consider himself a crime writer as such, much less ‘hard-boiled’ or a purveyor of anything called ‘noir’. He felt that he was writing love stories. Love gone tragically bad, doomed love, deadly love, perhaps. But love nonetheless. There’s a lesson there, I think. One day when I’m much smarter I’ll have learned it.

Omnibus 2

Tempting as it is to use any of the many original editions of his novels for some visuals for this post, or the 1940’s – 60’s era paperback reissue gems or even the much more tawdry 1970’s and later editions, I grabbed some omnibus editions and collections here instead. Aw heck, they’re all good.

Omnibus 1

https://crimereads.com/the-wit-wisdom-and-noirs-of-james-m-cain/

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