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.

 

Strand Magazine: What Else Do You Want?

Strand

If a John Steinbeck 1954 short story (largely unseen in English previously) and a Joyce Carol Oates story (who also has a novella out now from Hard Case Crime) aren’t enough, then perhaps an interview by Andrew F. Gulli with novelist Hank Phillipe Ryan would make you grab the July-November 2019 issue of the Strand Magazine off the stand. I was intrigued by how many of my recent reads were featured in ads or award lists, not all of them new releases, including Edgar Cantero’s This Body’s Not Big Enough For Both Of Us, Laura Lippman’s Sunburn, S.A. Lelchuk’s Save Me From Dangerous Men and Job Copenhaver’s Dodging And Burning. 

 

But my biggest takeaway from this current issue was just how many forthcoming titles I took note of for my own book watch lists. Naturally a new issue of Strand Magazine, Mystery Scene or Publisher’s Weekly will yield a book or two to look for. But for some reason this issue was a cover to cover shout out for new books I need to get. Just a few: Paul Di Filippo’s The Big Get-Even and his The Deadly Kiss-Off,  Lawrence Dudley’s New York Station and Jeffrey Fleishman’s My Detective among them. It’s going to be a busy Fall.

The Chelsea Girls

The Chelsea Girls - Fiona Davis

Looking to take a break from dark, noir-ish crime fiction after James Ellroy’s This Storm, I knocked off Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, taking a refresher course in the world of thrillers, suspense fiction and serial killers, those enormous categories so closely aligned with mystery/crime fiction, but not always quick to consider themselves a part of the genre.

But the bigger departure from my more customary reading material was Fiona Davis’ The Chelsea Girls (2019), Davis’ fourth novel, the second I’ve read, and the second using an iconic New York residential hotel and mid-twentieth century setting as a backdrop (her debut novel The Dollhouse was set in the Barbizon in the 1960’s).

Ambitious, outgoing head-turner Maxine Mead and comparatively mousey Hazel Ripley partner up on a USO tour during the end days of WWII in war ravaged Italy. After VE Day they drift part, Maxie to Hollywood while Hazel returns to New York where she flees from her manipulative stage mother to take up residence in the Chelsea Hotel, home to actors, writers, artists and a colorful cast of the postwar Boho set’s hangers-on. Reunited over a provocative Off-Broadway play penned by Hazel and starring Maxie, the two friends fall under the watchful eye of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Just when Hazel and Maxie should triumph, self-appointed boycotting blacklisters ruin everything, and unexpected betrayals tear the friends apart, only to reunite in the late 1960’s for a sort of reconciliation revealing that, the era’s injustice notwithstanding, not everyone swept up in the Communist witch hunt’s net was entirely innocent.

A novel like Fiona Davis’The Chelsea Girls provides valuable lessons for writers even as it delivers the goods for readers. Davis crafted a page-turner, but does so without any gunplay, car chases, ticking time bombs or steamy sex scenes. It’s just a damn good tale expertly told with two characters that engage the reader pretty much right from their initial introductions. Make that three characters, because the Chelsea Hotel itself is a character as much as Hazel and Maxine, much like the Barbizon was in Davis’ first book, The Dollhouse.

Not to suggest that The Chelsea Girls lack of suspense tricks made it all sunshine and sweetness. It’s definitely not, dealing with the end of the war and the Red Scare after all. But reading it right after This Storm was akin to listening to Taylor Swift after hours of thrash metal. I won’t say ‘soothing’, but it was something like that. For me, it did what it was supposed to do. With the Barbizon and the Chelsea under her belt, I don’t know what other iconic retro residential hotels are left for Fiona Davis, but wherever she goes with her next novel (and clearly, there’ll be a next one), I’m making my reservation now.

 

All The Wrong Places

All The Wrong Places - Joy Fielding

If Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places reads like a Lifetime Channel movie turned into a novel, it does so in a good way. Clearly there’s a sizeable audience for this formula, as Fielding’s nearly 50-year career with just-shy of 30 novels indicates.

After spending days in the impressive but depressing milieu of James Ellroy’s epic This Storm where everyone’s evil or at least mildly crooked, I needed a break from mid-twentieth century gangsters, cops, junkies, pimps and blackmailers (to say nothing of fascists and fifth columnists). So a non-crime fiction novel came home with me (still reading that one) along with Joy Fielding’s All The Wrong Places, its color-saturated cover literally reaching out to me from the shelf, flanked as it was by two comparatively dowdy looking trade paperbacks. (So think about that when fretting over your books’ cover art!)

To be clear: I don’t read a lot of so-called ‘suspense’, ‘thrillers’, ‘psychological suspense’, ‘suspense thrillers’ and whatever other monikers publishers’ marketing departments dream up. Yet, there are a lot to choose from. Given a choice between sadistic serial killers/tortured victims vs. something retro and noir-ish, I’ll always go with the latter. But I’m not completely out of touch with this category, even if some thriller writers adamantly disassociate themselves from the mystery/crime fiction genre, presumably leery of genre labels.

All The Wrong Places updates the familiar ‘lonely hearts killer’ for the 21st century with charming ‘Mister Right Now’ prowling dating apps for his prey. Now I’m not sure what alternate universe you need to visit to locate women who are foolish enough to go to a blind date’s home after only one get-acquainted drink, but in All The Wrong Places they succumb to good looks, a beguiling smile and the promise of a handsome bachelor’s home cooked dinner. No surprise that once the meal’s laid out and the wine is poured, they suddenly find their hands cuffed behind their backs, a noose around their necks, and a long night of unspeakable torture and death in store.

Scenes of this icky torture (mostly kept ‘off screen’ in a kind of PG-13 level of ick) are interspersed among the novel’s main narrative trail, in which thirty-something Paige gives in to her hip widowed mother’s prodding to surf the dating apps herself. Paige is bunking down with Mom after leaving her unfaithful live-in boyfriend and losing her ad exec job. Meanwhile, Paige’s bestie Chloe endures a philandering husband’s hellish abuse, while they all suffer through trickery and worse at the hands of Paige’s scheming near-twin cousin, Heather, the novel’s resident bad girl…and in some ways, its real villain. Frankly, the story could almost stand on its own without the sadistic serial killer at all, even if it wouldn’t have ever found its way onto my to-be-read end table. Some readers will complain that Fielding chickened out at the novel’s climax. There’s no amateur sleuthing, Paige doesn’t vanquish the killer (or even encounter him at all outside of texts) , and even the bad girl’s fate is only implied, not depicted. But I think it was a surprisingly brave choice on the author’s part, particularly in a category that relies on formula.

So I’ve read my serial killer thriller for 2019, though I can’t swear that another won’t sneak home with me from a bookstore visit. Formula can be a good thing, particularly in the hands a talented pro like Joy Fielding, and all the more intriguing when a skilled writer chooses to bend the rules even a little.

The Los Angeles Epic.

this storm

Epic? Horror fans (or at least the vampire enthusiasts among them) might point to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles books. Heroic fantasy readers would naturally hold up J.R.R. Tolkien’sThe Lord Of The Rings trilogy and all of its many, many prefaces and repackaged source materials. I don’t know if mystery/crime fiction readers and critics expect the genre to spawn anything that ought to be called ‘epic’, but I’ll nominate James Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet and now the new L.A. Quartet, including 2019’s This Storm.

This book’s been sitting on my to-be-read end table since its release, the huge red swastika emblazoned on its cover doubly eerie in light of current events. I wanted to clear the deck of other reading and projects to devote a few days to This Storm. For me, no skimming’s allowed with Ellroy. I won’t speed-read through a passage to jump to the next ‘good part’. Every single word is a ‘good part’. I couldn’t imagine trimming random notes from a Beethoven symphony and I can’t conceive of skipping a single sentence, phrase or word in an Ellroy novel. At just under 600 pages, This Storm is not a quick read. The plot’s incredibly complex, the cast of characters enormous (there’s actually a six page Dramatis Personae appendix to guide you…and you’ll need it), and when you crack the book open, you just assume that you’ll be living with it for a few days.

If you love James Ellroy, you loved (or will love) This Storm. But I recognize that not everyone is quite so enamored with the writer as I am. The rhythmic syncopated jazz score that is an Ellroy manuscript is off-putting to some. The dense, complex plotting, the sheer bleakness of his milieus and the relentless greed, duplicity and violence his characters exhibit can almost be too much to bear. In James Ellroy’s world, no one’s ‘good’ and everyone has an agenda, which often as not is an evil one. Sometimes it’s on a grand scale. Just as often, it’s a vapid, banal evil that’s somehow even more disturbing.

Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet comprised four books: The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1900) and White Jazz (1992), all of which dealt with an intricately intertwined group of post-WWII LAPD detectives, criminals, bureaucrats, wives, girlfriends, crime victims and not-so-innocent bystanders spanning 1947 through 1958. Over twenty years later, Ellroy launched his second L.A. Quartet with Perfidia (2014), revisiting some of the very same characters a few years earlier at the very outset of the U.S. involvement in WWII.

This Storm opens on New Year’s Eve 1941 and continues through early May 1942, just before the tide began to turn in the Pacific War with the Battle Of The Coral Sea and the more decisive Battle Of Midway. But in the early months of 1942, news from the front was not good. War hysteria has the entire west coast on edge. This is the time of the Japanese internment and rampant fear of saboteurs, Nazi spies and Russian fifth columnists. But crime can still flourish during war time, and the line between simple crooks, the merely corrupt and the downright traitorous is a blurry one.

La Confidential 1LA Confidential 2

Two of Ellroy’s original L.A. Quartet novels have been made into films, one a double-Oscar winning masterpiece, L.A. Confidential in 1997, and the other a dismal failure: The Black Dahlia, 2006. Familiar characters from those films populate This Storm, including Dudley Smith (James Cromwell in L.A. Confidential), Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirshner) and relegated to bit parts here, Lee Blanchard, ‘Buzz’ Meeks and others. L.A. Confidential is a magnificent film which does an impressive job of condensing a sprawling, complex novel into a taut feature film. Why The Black Dahlia didn’t work, considering the talent assembled with visual stylist Brian DePalma directing Hillary Swank, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhardt and Mia Kishner, is more of a mystery. I hope Johansson and Kishner consider another period noir role some day, the critical and box office failure of The Black Dahlia notwithstanding. Kirshner in particular garnered her share of rave reviews, even if the film didn’t.

Black Dahila 2Black Dahlia 1

A plot summary of This Storm is impossible. Paring down the labyrinthian story to its fundamentals finds cops and crooks alike conspiring to pit the right against the left, the schemers unaware that the two sides are already working hand in hand, their political ideologies only empty rhetoric, their quests driven by short term greed and for more far reaching postwar power. In This Storm, run of the mill blackmailers, pimps, pornographers, perverts, thieves and murderers mix it up with closet fascists, the German Bund, Mexican paramilitary police, Imperial Japanese spies and NKVD agents, some orchestrated by and some manipulated by corrupt LAPD detectives and bureaucrats. Here, life is cheap. Sex is currency, fists and bullets fly with impunity, the thugs with badges often more violent than the worst of the criminals. Aside from a particularly horrid lead character getting a bit of a comeuppance (though only a bit, and only a temporary one at that), there’s little to console you at This Storm’s conclusion, and that includes the fact that it’ll be a long wait for the third novel in James Ellroy’s second L.A. Quartet.

Elmore Leonard wrote that “reading (James Ellroy’s) The Black Dahlia aloud would shatter wine glasses”. I don’t doubt it. In fact, I truly wish I could read all of Ellroy’s novels out loud in order to fully appreciate the staccato rhythm and musicality of the rapid-fire prose. Books like This Storm leave me humbled, and almost feeling presumptuously arrogant for having the impudence to aim my own fingers at a keyboard to try my hand at crime fiction. So…epic? I don’t think that’s hyperbole. This Storm and James Ellroy’s original and second L.A. Quartets really are, to me at least, crime fiction’s epics.

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/

 

Stage Violence Draws Real Blood: Layne Fargo’s Temper

temper - layne fargo

After back-to-back mystery/crime fiction novels set in 1950’s New York, I was ready for a break, and Layne Fargo’s first novel Temper (2019, Simon & Shuster) provided just that.

Author Wendy Heard mentions Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film starring Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis, in her dustjacket back cover praise for Fargo’s Temper. It’s a perfect reference. There are no swollen joints or black feathers sprouting out of anyone’s shoulder blades, no practice barres or frayed leg warmers. Temper isn’t set in New York’s ballet world, but in Chicago’s indie theater scene. But much like the darkly surreal Black Swan, Temper deals with passionate creatives’ self-absorbed and manipulative relationships, the wafer-thin line between on stage performances and offstage drama, and the horrors that may be revealed when creativity is fully unleashed.

Black Swan

Struggling actor Kira Rascher lands the role of a lifetime with Joanna Cuyler’s cutting edge theater group, which means she’ll have to work with mercurial actor/director Malcom Mercer, the indie scene’s bad boy, notorious for pushing performers past all reasonable limits and leaving a long trail of broken hearts — and minds — in his wake. Yes, Kira-Joanna-Malcom form a doomed love triangle, but the fact is, Temper is more of a love-and-destruction octagon that sucks in everyone in Kira’s circle, from part-time bi-bedmates to ex’s going way back to high school scandals.

Temper isn’t a mystery novel and couldn’t be labeled crime fiction by any stretch. The cover calls it ‘psychological suspense’, and I’ll go along with that. Like Black Swan, it defies easy categorizing. But it was an excellent read, and for us residents of the big city on the inland ocean, Temper was brimming with spot-on locales and atmosphere. Sure, a savvy reader may guess where the story is inexorably heading (and I did), but it was one heck of darkly fun trek getting there, thanks to Layne Fargo’s skillful multi-POV writing. Check it out.

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/

 

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