Like Christmas In January.

Turn To Stone

I may have to vanish for a week, or at least play hooky from the day job, it being like Christmas in late January for me.

Just got my mitts on James W. Ziskin’s new Ellie Stone mystery, Turn To Stone, (a bit beefier than the preceding six books at nearly 350 pages) with the NYC-via-upstate New York small town newspaper reporter jetting off to Italy in 1963. Ziskin’s savvy and engaging Eleanora Stone played a part in nudging me to get to work on my own projects, validating the notion of a female mystery/crime fiction protagonist in a setting other than the much more common Roaring Twenties, Depression era 1930’s, WWII and postwar late 40’s/early 1950’s…or today, for that matter.

The Words I Never Wrote

But the Christmas In January stocking holds more than just Ellie Stone. I now also have Jane Thynne’s new The Words I Never Wrote. How bittersweet to flip to her author bio on the dustjacket’s back flap to read “…the widow of the author Philip Kerr”. I’m still grieving Kerr’s loss and the thought of never reading another new Bernie Gunther novel again. I devoured each of Thynne’s excellent Clara Vine series books, and am eager to see what this non-series novel will be.

More to say about these once done, though I know I’ll be completely humbled both masters’ work.

New York: 1959

The Best of Everything Main

There’s a scene in AMC’s Mad Men where we spot ad man Don Draper reading The Best Of Everything, just one of so many period-perfect details that series got right (juxtaposed with a handful of anachronisms they didn’t).

Like Valerie Taylor’s 1959 pulpy novel The Girls In 3B, Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything played a part in helping me to settle on the year 1959 to start my own work. Okay, technically the novel came out in September of 1958, not 1959, but its hit film adaptation was a 1959 release, and notably, the first novel bought by Hollywood before publication and while still in editing. Note: The original hardcover release actually depicted author Jaffe on the cover…that’s her right below on the right.

The Best Of Everything Montage

More polished and ‘big time’ perhaps than Taylor’s comparatively pulpier paperback original The Girls in 3B, Jaffe’s novel is a classic mid-twentieth century soap opera, foreshadowing many more books just like it, including the comparatively sex and drug-filled Valley Of The Dolls just 8 years later. Three young women seeking adventure and romance in New York meet in Fabian Publishing’s typing pool, where they report to icy editor Amanda Farrow played by Joan Crawford, lecherous old editor-in-chief Mr. Shalimar and handsome, honorable-when-he’s-not-drunk (which is nearly always) Mike Rice played by the somewhat wooden leading man Stephen Boyd.

Montage 1

Fashion’s reigning supermodel of the time, Suzy Parker, plays aspiring actress Gregg Adams, Diane Baker is naïve small-town rube April Morrison and Hope Lange is the lead, Radcliffe-educated and happily engaged Caroline Bender. Parker’s glamorous veneer crumbles when she falls hard for a director, then falls harder and right out of a window to her death. Diane Baker winds up with an oily playboy, gets pregnant and tricked into an abortion, but miscarries in a car crash en route to the operation (at least in the movie…not sure that’s how it went down in the novel). Fear not: She winds up with the handsome doctor caring for her after the accident. And ‘smart girl’ Caroline Bender played by Hope Lange moves up Fabian Publishing’s ranks, gets dumped by her hometown fiancé, is later propositioned by the newly married rat, ultimately takes over retiring Joan Crawford’s editorial position, but may or may not trade that for marriage with Stephen Boyd in the end.

Montage 2

It’s all melodramatic and sometimes groan-worthy stuff, but both the book and the film are like reference manuals for the period, from the clothes to the dialog, the workplace settings and the make-you-cringe office interplay, all wrapped up in the restrictive 1958/59 social dynamics. The novel’s still a terrific read, overdue for a re-read and it’s going onto my to-be-read stack right as soon as I get a chance over the next week or so. The movie’s a genuine guilty pleasure, and for someone writing in a 1959 setting, almost demands note-taking while watching.

Chicago: 1959

The Girls In 3-B

If you’re the blog-reading sort who takes notes, then you’d have caught more than once that my “The Stiletto Gumshoe” work-in-progress is set in Chicago’s ethnic blue-collar bungalow belt in 1959. Why that particular year? It intrigues me because it’s right on the cusp of major social changes that are about to explode in the early 1960’s…but not quite there yet. There’s enough of the old to easily link with the look and feel of so many familiar noir tropes, but so other things intrude into that comfortable but shadowy black & white movie world and hard-boiled novel milieu to continually hint at the disruptions soon to occur.

Like any writer, I accumulated scads of references from sites, blogs, magazines and books, loaded up on photos, catalogs and ads, all of which I scroll through periodically to keep my head firmly in the right mindset when approaching the keyboard. It’s too easy to picture episodes of I Love Lucy or Father Knows Best and simplify everything into Elvis, poodle skirts and sock hops if imagining the 1950’s, when in fact 1959 probably looked and felt much more like the pre-British Invasion Camelot era.

Crine Reads - Write About The Past

Raymond Fleishchmann, author of How Quickly She Disappears, writes in his 1.24.20 Crimes Reads piece “What We Write About When We Write About The Past” (link below) that “…a successful novel set in the past should certainly include many textural details: that is, depictions of seemingly insignificant ways in which yesteryear differs from today”. But just the same, Fleishchmann points out, “…a successful novel set in the past will intentionally reject many of the stereotypes we have about the past, and as a result that novel’s distant time period might feel surprisingly modern. Certain readers may even mistake this quality for inaccuracy”. He reminds us that in many ways the past isn’t as long-ago as we might suppose and people do, think and feel many of the same things today as they did then. “The human condition defies time,” Fleishchmann says, and I consider that a memorable line.

After browsing photos and ads, there’s nothing better to rely on than books from that era. Note: Not books about that era. From that era.

I read Valerie Taylor’s 1959 The Girls In 3B a few years back and I suppose it even played a part in settling on 1959 for my own work, along with Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything from the previous year (along with its 1959 film adaptation…more about that one later). Valerie Taylor’s (pen name of Velma Young) third novel tells the story of three rural small-town friends – Annice, Pat and Barby – who move to Chicago in search of independence, romance and adventure. Sharing a grungy Hyde Park third floor flat, one signs up for college classes, hoping to be a poet. One gets a clerical job at a publisher and one a stock clerk’s position in a large State Street department store. Though the novel ends with more or less happy (or happy enough) resolutions for each of the three young women, they’ll first endure sexual assaults, unplanned pregnancy/abandonment and the thoroughly ingrained economic, cultural and societal sexism of the time…including predatorial Beatnik boys’ unexpected misogyny. The novel may have been marketed as being racy, though it really isn’t. And it’s been embraced as one of the 1950’s/1960’s era lesbian pulp novels (Taylor’s other books certainly key titles from that era) though only one of the three women ultimately discovers some real happiness with another woman. Still, that’s notable nonetheless, Valerie Taylor recognized for bucking the prevailing vintage lesbian pulp novel trends demanding that gay and lesbian characters always come to bad ends…even if that was only going straight.

james meese the girls in 3-b preliminary

It’d be nice to have the original paperback. The cover’s preliminary art is shown here as well, a frequent post at many vintage pulp/paperback/illustration sites (I’ve seen it credited James Meese but am unsure about that). But I read The Girls In 3B – and just finished re-reading it – in The Feminist Press’ Femmes Fatales series handsome 2012 edition, complete with Lisa Walker’s detailed 20+ page afterword.

With some recent input from a skilled Beta reader in hand (an excellent 4+ page single spaced write-up, no less!) after an over-the-holidays read of my continually re-revising work, The Girls In 3B seemed like an ideal read before attacking my manuscript. And I’m going to squeeze in Rona Jaffe’s The Best Of Everything as well as the movie over the next week, merrily overdosing on 1959 for a while.

https://crimereads.com/what-we-write-about-when-we-write-about-the-past/

 

Maybe Next Year…

Maybe Next Christmas

No, The Stiletto Gumshoe won’t be in anyone’s Christmas stocking this year, least of all mine. Perhaps I spent 2019 being naughty when I should’ve been nice. Still, I’m thinking positive thoughts for 2020, and am one of those naive types who truly believe that diligence pays off (even if I’ve been proven wrong in the past). So I know what I hope to find under my tree next year: Not baubles or bangles. Just a book, and one book in particular…

Merry Murder & Mayhem.

Criem Reads Xmas

So many Christmas-themed mystery novels are ‘cozies’ to one degree or another. No surprise, since starry nights, blankets of snow, roaring fires and evergreen bedecked rooms are all pretty…well, cozy. Seriously, kitty-cats, caterers, country cottages all fit in with the spirit of the season a little better than dark urban alleys, sleazy cocktail lounges and drug dens. Still, there’ve been — and continue to be — a lot of holiday themed novels and stories that sidestep the overly cute.

Crime Reads Christmas

Paul French offers up a group of Christmas themed novels and short fiction for our consideration in his 12.9.19 Crime Reads article “The Crime Novels Of Christmas – A Merry Rundown Of Crime Fiction Set During The Holidays”, which lists writers as diverse as James Ellroy, Lee Child and George Pelecanos to Anne Perry, Tasha Alexander and W. Somerset Maugham. Now I can’t imagine Ellroy’s Perfidia making anyone feel all warm ‘n cozy, much less brimming with good will towards their fellow man, but the fun of Christmas themed mystery and crime fiction is the contrast of all the murder and mayhem with the merry time of year. Follow the link to French’s Crime Reads article and see if you don’t want to book a little non-wrapping/caroling/shopping/baking time beside the tree for some serious reading.

https://crimereads.com/the-crime-novels-of-christmas/

Delayed Gratification

Crime Fiction

Pestering local bookstore clerks is becoming a hobby. Maybe the owners are pleased, but I think the staff behind the register cringe when I start to pull out my notes, printouts and crumpled scraps of paper with lists of books I’m after. Hey, it’s not my fault they don’t – or won’t – have everything I want. Here’s a few of the mystery/crime fiction titles just ordered or reserved, whether they’ll be in-hand in a few days or, in some cases, not till January (!):

Crime Fiction – A Reader’s Guide (above) by Barry Forshaw, which has been teasing me from multiple blogs, sites and e-newsletters and will finally be on my bookshelves where it belongs. I special ordered the UK edition, since the US book won’t be out till Summer 2020, and I don’t think I can wait.

Under Occupation

Under Occupation by Alan Furst, whose books you can consider military fiction, espionage novels or WWII-era thrillers. Screw the categories. I’ve never missed one of his novels, and none have let me down.

Script For Scandal

Script For Scandal by Renee Patrick, the third Lilian Frost & Edith Head Mystery. ‘Renee Patrick’ is actually the husband and wife team of Vince and Rosemarie Keenan, Vince being the new editor of the Film Noir Foundation’s Noir City magazine.

The Sundown Motel

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. What I’ve read online has me drooling. This is one of those books I’d surely impulse buy for the cover art alone, so I’m glad I read about it, just in case I never spotted it on shelf in a store.

Shamus Dust 2

Shamus Dust by Janet Roger…another beautiful cover that’s a real credit to the graphic designer (sometimes subtle is best). Oh, and a nod to the author for her handsome and chock-full-of-stuff website/blog at janetroger.com. That’s one heck of an author site! Check it out.

Janet Roger Com

We’ll skip the non-mystery/crime fiction books ordered or reserved. But I do read other things, y’know)

1,667 Words Per Day

NaNoWriMo Montage

No NaNoWriMo for me this November, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be eagerly watching posts at WordPress, Tumblr, Pinterest and across the far-too-many bookish and writerly sites and blogs I follow so I can share the adventure with those brave souls who’ll take the pledge this year.

NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, that being November, and more specifically, NaNoWriMo is the annual challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel during the thirty days of November. It’s been going since 1999, with nearly 800,000 active novelists participating and over 360,000 novels completed.

Grant Faulkner and the NaNoWriMo staff’s Inkwell column in the current issue of Writer’s Digest magazine address ten key NaNoWriMo expectations vs. truths (it being “The Truth Issue” of WD), key among them the understandable assumption that the NaNoWriMo challenge is undertaken only by first-time writers and the unpublished. In fact, prior NaNoWriMo participants have included authors like Sara Gruen (Water For Elephants), Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus), Marissa Meyer (Cinder, Scarlet, etc.), Elizabeth Acavedo (The Poet X) and other successfully published and even bestselling writers.

NaNoWriMo Site

The NaNoWriMo organization (link below) states: “NaNoWriMo believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide structure, community and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals and build new worlds – on and off the page.” Participation is free. The NaNoWriMo site offers support and tools to writers taking the pledge. And it’s a daunting challenge. 50,000 words no longer adds up to a complete novel, but it’s a generous portion. And that works out to 1,667 words per day. Everyday. For an entire month, one that kicks off the holiday season with all of the activities and family obligations that might involve. But for a would-be novelist who’s struggled to start, or felt too intimidated by the seemingly overwhelming process, the annual NaNoWriMo event may be precisely the impetus needed to unleash their inner writer and finally commit to making a meaningful start.

No doubt there are many publishers, editors, agents, booksellers and published novelists who recoil in horror at anything that helps to pump hundreds of thousands of novelists – many if not most being newcomers — and hundreds of thousands of novels into an already overcrowded marketplace. But no one suggests that the 50,000 words generated by each of the successful participants will be publishable, or a complete first draft. Or, even any good. But they will represent the vital first step in a daunting and time consumptive creative and executional process, and for many, may be the beginning of a successful ongoing effort.

Several years ago, I pledged to give NaNoWriMo a try. Much of that October was spent collecting notes and references, tightening up my outline and doing my best to ‘clear the deck’ of potential intrusions by Halloween night — ready to plunge in right at the stroke of midnight and the start of November. And I was actually doing slightly better than 1,667 words per day for a solid week and a half…till day job mandates intervened with firm directives demanding multiple late nights and weekends, and for weeks to come (almost Xmas before things slowed down, in fact). Within days, it became apparent that I’d get no further than the nearly 25,000 words I had in hand. Well, not if I wanted to continue to draw a paycheck. Reluctantly, I gave up.

This year? New challenges I don’t need at the moment. Aside from ongoing querying for The Stiletto Gumshoe, I’m 40,000 words into its sequel, and have started two related short stories. It’s no time to pause to undertake a NaNoWriMo challenge.

But for those who will – or are even considering it – you’d better plan to get your jack-o-lantern carved ahead of time and to finish this year’s Halloween costume soon. Probably best to volunteer for the Halloween Party’s designated driver role come Thursday the 31st unless you’re one of those writers who believe that the best work’s done when sloppy drunk. ‘Course, when you’re obliged to average 1,667 words per day every day, even sober writing could sound like it came from someone who’s had a few.

Good luck to all the brave souls who undertake the NaNoWriMo challenge this year!

https://nanowrimo.org/what-is-nanowrimo

Chicago 1946 – 1957

46 chicago

Late 1950’s Chicago wasn’t much on my radar back in 2000 when Steve Monroe’s ’57 Chicago came out. I’ve probably seen it on shelf in used bookstores, even recently when I’ve been laser focused on 1959 Chicago for my own projects (as in, The Stiletto Gumshoe). Even if I have spotted Monroe’s debut novel, I probably decided to pass, not being much of a fan of the boxing scene, which is the what that novel deals with.

But, it’s on order through my local bookseller now, in the newer 2015 trade pb edition. I requested it along with some other books when I was barely 20 pages deep into Monroe’s second novel, ’46 Chicago from 2002, which I recently bought at a used bookstore. Boxing scene or not, if Monroe’s debut is even half as good as his follow-up, I know it’ll be good.

’46 Chicago deals with semi-rogue cop Gus Carson, recently returned to the force after a harrowing time in the Pacific war, only to find himself suspended over an off-duty shooting in a whorehouse. Where he was a patron at the time. So, let’s be clear: Gus is no angel. Tempted by five hundred easy but obviously suspicious dollars from a Chicago bigwig endorsed by the police brass, Gus is tasked with locating the man behind the numbers game on the south side…who’s been kidnapped. Or, may be dead already. Who’s behind it? The cops? Rivals? The mob? Gus’ search drags him down through the underbelly of the city and up to the sprawling estates of the North Shore’s millionaire power brokers, forced to confront his own violent and less than honest past along the way. He may solve this mystery, but there’s no redemption for Gus Carson at its end. It’s all loosely based on the Chicago mob’s real-life takeover of the south side numbers/policy racket, engineered by Sam Giancana under Tony Arccado’s leadership.

57 chicago

Monroe’s novel is truly harder than hard-boiled, darker than the most noir-ish of noirs, utterly grim and gritty throughout. I just finished ’46 Chicago after work tonight (Tuesday), and now I’m itching for ’57 Chicago to arrive, so I can dive in to that one, fight scene and boxers or not. But only three of the five books I’d ordered have come in so far (those picked up today), ’57 Chicago still en route. Steve Monroe did one more novel in 2015, Pursuit, in what looks like a contemporary setting. According to his website (stevemonroebooks.com) there are a couple more languishing in a file cabinet, including a sequel to ‘46 Chicago. I don’t know if Monroe’s retired (he is or was a successful real estate broker) or if the current publishing/bookselling marketplace conditions have those projects permanently stuck in limbo, but I hope they see the light of day. Some day.

Side note: I did buy ’46 Chicago at a used bookstore, my copy a like-new hardcover with a perfectly clean dustjacket. Only a little way in, what should tumble out from between the pages? The author’s own day-job business card, which may well have been hiding in there since the book’s release in 2002. (The company’s since been absorbed by another in a mega-merger.) And based on the card and his title at the time, I don’t think Mr. Monroe’s hurting for a tight-fisted publisher’s advance minus agent’s commission. Just guessing.

 

L.A. Noir Gets No Darker

Dead Extra

Contemporary or retro, a lot of “L.A. Noir” stories, novels and films claim they’ll take you on a tour of the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra (Prospect Park Books, 2019) drags you into the worst, and then rubs your nose in it…in a good way.

I already forgot where I spotted Carswell’s new book. Crime Reads? Thrilling Detective? The Rap Sheet? Bottom line: I follow or subscribe to a few too many mystery/crime fiction sites/blogs, so it’s hard to keep track. But one of them recommended Dead Extra and I’m glad I asked the local bookstore to get me a copy (small press titles so rarely found on-shelf anywhere but in specialty shops).

Presumed to be killed in action, WWII U.S. Airman (and former LAPD uniformed cop) Jack Chesley has finally returned to Los Angeles after a two-year stint in a Nazi POW camp, only to discover that both his father and his wife, Wilma, are dead. The wife’s demise was ruled an accident, but her twin sister Gertie knows better. Wilma was murdered, and at that only after enduring a couple years of exploitation and abuse at the hands of silver screen big shots bankrolling sleazy prostitution and blackmail rackets.

The story unfolds in alternating points of view, one chapter for Jack in the 1946 present day as he begins to investigate Wilma’s death, and one for Wilma in 1943 and 1944, telling her horribly degrading story: Going off the deep end after getting that telegram from Uncle Sam, committed to a sanitarium, tricked into performing for a no-tell motel’s striptease sex club in order to escape, and then on the run from a murderous gang of pimps and blue movie blackmailers.

There’s nothing titillating about this seamy underworld, and while vengeful Jack Chesley’s investigation covers familiarly gripping hard-boiled ground, it’s really Wilma’s story (as well as her twin sister Gertie’s in the ‘present day’) that will ensnare the reader. I’d have been content with a book that let Wilma tell her own tale…it’s a novel in itself.

Cozy mystery fans would surely faint a few chapters into Dead Extra, but retro crime fiction fans – especially those enjoying period hard-boiled So-Cal material ala Chandler to Ellroy – will probably find themselves comfortably at home here. It’s rough stuff in many places, but I’ll assume that’s only because the author decided not to pull any punches. And the novel has its share of punches and gunshots to go along with the 1940’s era sleaze. Do look for Sean Carswell’s Dead Extra. And let’s prod Sean Carswell into taking a whack at a novel that tells the story of another ‘Wilma’ or ‘Gertie’…he did it well here and I’d love to see more.

 

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