Do Not Disturb

do not disturb by devotchka

The sign on the hotel room doorknob may read ‘Do Not Disturb’, but I’m betting she’s going to ignore that. She could be a ‘stiletto gumshoe’, or could just be a jealous spouse or girlfriend in this nifty photo called (not surprisingly) “Do Not Disturb”, by Devotchka.

White Butterfly

White Butterfly 1992

White Butterfly (1992) was the third entry in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series, though actually the second one that I read. I confess: I’d heard of Mosley but knew little about him or his work, and saw the 1995 film adaptation of Mosley’s first published novel, Devil With A Blue Dress with Denzel Washington and Jennifer Beals on TV or a rental at some point. Before I read the book, that is. I literally raced out to get it then, was completely enthralled when I read it, and hungered for more Mosley once done. I have two independent bookstores nearby, one close to home, one close to work, both charming operations, but both allocating just a little too much floor space to trinkets and knickknacks instead of books. So I walked out of one with White Butterfly, the third in the Easy Rawlins series, but the second I ended up reading, it being the only Walter Mosely novel on shelf at that time. For some reason, I’ve ended up working through more of Walter Mosley’s books in much the same way: totally out of sequence.

No matter. I adored White Butterfly, with Easy Rawlins settled into domestic life but keeping secrets from his spouse. A girl’s murder in the Los Angeles ghetto doesn’t have the cops in arms. Another murder – this time a white girl, so now they’re interested – finds the police blackmailing Easy to assist them, or his old pal Mouse (who turns out to be something less than a pal) who’s in jail may never get out of the clink.

Like much of the very best in noir fiction and film, Rawlins’ novels give us a hero with his share of flaws who is sucked into a maelstrom of darkness and danger where temptation abounds, and is forced to combat powerful forces, be they unscrupulous cops, syndicate gangsters or crooked politicians…everything dialed up a few notches in Easy Rawlins’ world of rampant racism. I’m not going to say that Walter Mosley effectively captures the postwar Los Angeles African American milieu, only because I’m not African American, not from Los Angeles and wasn’t around then. I will say that he conveys the time, place, people and culture, does it with power and with a richness that tumbles off every page without ever feeling like a travelogue or history lesson. Not one Walter Mosley novel has ever disappointed me, and his Easy Rawlins books are among my favorites.

Devils In Blue Dresses

Devil In A Blue Dress 1st

Maybe one way to judge the importance of a book is by the number of editions. A continually popular book, an important book – and Walter Mosley’s first published novel and the first in the Easy Rawlins series, Devil In A Blue Dress from 1990, has never been out of print to my knowledge – is available in multiple countries (rightly so), print and audio, and has been re-issued in various editions. Up top is what I believe is the original first edition (which I don’t have, my copy only a lowly paperback re-issue). Below, a sampling of other editions. Mind you, these aren’t all, by any means, just the first few I screen-grabbed out of curiosity in a quick search. Mighty impressive.

Devil In A Blue Dress - Multiple

Hatchett: Just A Few Years Too Early?

Hatchett

Just a few years too early? Perhaps. Lee McGraw’s 1976 novel Hatchett introduces hard-as-nails ex-cop turned private detective Madge Hatchett, a denim-n-boots gal with more than a bit of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone about her, and running her M.L. Hatchett Investigations detective agency in Chicago like Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski. But unlike Grafton or Paretsky’s groundbreaking and now iconic female detective characters who both arrived a mere six years after, Madge Hatchett only managed to appear in one book. Also unlike those two authors, Lee McGraw’s gender-neutral moniker is a pen name for Paul Zakaras.

This is an action-packed crime novel, full of gunplay, fistfights and explosions. Madge Hatchett is no ‘blonde bombshell’ or teasing sexpot ala G.G. Fickling’s Honey West, Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz, much less the many saucy-naughty-downright-porny female super sleuths and spy series cluttering paperback racks at the time Hatchett was released, like The Baroness, Cherry Delight or The Lady From L.U.S.T. There’s a fair amount of squirm-worthy vintage sexism, poking fun at ‘women’s lib’ and the like, but no more than you’d encounter in an episode of a retro-seventies sitcom like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Rhoda. To the author’s credit (considering the era) Hatchett’s troubles with the law are due more to the fact that she’s a combustible troublemaker than a woman.

Hatchett’s lured into an ever-widening mystery after a murder in her own apartment building is pinned on an ex-con and recovering junkie she’d befriended. Determined to prove the cops wrong, she soon finds herself in the middle of a gangland war when a mysterious freelance non-Mafia kingpin attempts to take over Chicago’s crime syndicate (an unlikely scenario with the Chicago mob very much alive and well at this time). Hatchett navigates her way through the underworld of drug dealers, pornographers and pimps with her Beretta as much as her investigative prowess. So it’s a little disappointing that three-fourth’s through the novel, the otherwise smart and gutsy private eye falls prey to some seemingly requisite damsel-in-distress business, which in vintage crime novels always demands that the hero loose her clothes: “So, I was lying on a bed. In a totally dark room. And it was obvious why I couldn’t pick myself up: I was wearing a pair of ropes. One holding my hands behind my back, the other wrapped around my ankles. Wearing ropes and nothing else, a perfect costume for a kinky foldout. Or that last scream scene in a snuff film.” Fear not, though. Madge Hatchett needs no rescuing, blasts her way free and burns down or blows up the crooks’ lairs and leaves not only the aspiring ‘Mister Big’ but sundry Mister-In-Between’s full of bullet holes.

The cover art is a puzzler, if only for the Ballantine Suspense line art director’s choice for an illustrator. Not that it isn’t good. But the illustration’s by well-known Peruvian fantasy/SF/sword & sorcery artist Boris Vallejo, who along with his own spouse Julie Bell, Frank Frazetta, Ken Kelly, Sanjulian and several others more or less defined 1960’s through 1980’s fantasy painting. Vallejo’s known for his sword-wielding barbarians and armor-clad Amazons, so he seems like an odd choice. While Madge Hatchett is described at one point as resembling Sophia Loren, in general she’s smokes like a chimney, likes her booze, enjoys a joint and favors practical private eye attire, not lilac jersey dresses. Looking at this cover art and knowing Vallejo’s style, it’s easy to swap a spear for the revolver, a magic goblet for the glass of whiskey, a throne for the chair, and to turn the two dead dudes lying beneath Hatchett’s chunky 70’s heels into vanquished goblins. Then it’s a Boris Vallejo painting.

The Poets Of Tabloid Murder

golden age

“The Poets of Tabloid Murder”: That’s a chapter title in Peter Haining’s The Golden Age Of Crime Fiction: The Authors, The Artists And Their Creations From 1920 To 1950. I love that line. It ought to be a book title. I just might have to steal it for something.

British author Peter Haining (1940 – 2007) is well known to genre fans, and not just the mystery genre. Horror aficionados surely know him well from numerous anthologies and non-fiction books on ghosts, vampires, the Frankenstein legend and Dracula – Bram Stoker’s Count and the historical figure. He wrote several novels of his own, and worked under a couple of pen names as well. For mystery fans, Haining has authored a number of books on the roots of crime fiction and the art of mystery pulps, comics and books. When it comes to the hard-boiled and noir-ish segment of the genre, Americans tend to think of it as all ‘ours’, the hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving private eyes being uniquely American creations. It’s good to get another perspective, which if not a truly global overview, still one that forces Yanks to open their eyes to other authors, films, books and illustrators from England, France and elsewhere.

The Golden Age Of Crime Fiction takes a quick look at the roots of the mystery genre, then plunges in to the 1920’s era, which you could argue was dominated by British writers. It covers all the obvious bases in pulp magazines and the postwar paperback revolution through the rise of espionage novels (in the 1950’s, largely a British trend that wouldn’t really explode in the U.S. until the early sixties). My two favorite chapters in this handsome and lushly illustrated book are the already mentioned “The Poets Of Tabloid Murder” and the chapter that follows, “The Mean Streets of Crime Noir”, these two covering the hard-boiled and noir novels of the 1940 – 1950’s era, with special attention paid to the rise of hard-boiled crime fiction in the U.K., which erupted once readers got a glimpse of Raymond Chandler, James Cain, W.R. Burnett and others. While we may be familiar with postwar British crime fiction’s saucy book covers (often as not, done by British artist Reginald Heade) frequently seen on many blogs and sites, it’s good to read up on the novels’ writers, like James Hadley Chase, Michael Storme and Hank Janson (Stephen Francis). Some of these British writers and their publishers had to grapple with obscenity suits and arrests, the British market still a little more conservative than the U.S. scene when it came to murder, violence and most of all, sex.

Published by the UK’s Prion Books, this book was from the local library oddly enough, but I see it’s readily available online. You can bet I’ll be ordering one to keep.

 

 

 

Hard-Boiled Dames.

hard-boiled dames

Hard-Boiled Dames (1986), edited by Bernard Drew says it’s “A brass-knuckled anthology of the toughest women from the classic pulps”. This anthology features women detectives, reporters, adventurers and even a few criminals from 1930’s pulp fiction magazines. Marcia Muller notes in her preface, “Although the courageous independent female sleuth may have, for whatever reasons, gone somewhat out of fashion in the suspense fiction of the 1950’s and 60’s, she was very much in evidence in the pulp magazines of the 30’s and 40’s.”

21st century mystery/crime fiction fans of the more hard-boiled variety could easily think that the genre was populated with no shortage of female sleuths (the bad-ass ones, that is) all along. Not so, of course. Before things exploded in the early 1980’s, thanks to Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski and some others, there’d been nearly thirty years of ‘blonde bombshells’ like Honey West, Mavis Seidlitz, Marla Trent, and weirder still, Cherry Delight, The Baroness, The Lady From L.U.S.T. and other one-shots and series focused more on the protagonists’ looks and bedroom antics. While the 1940’s through the early 50’s had a decent run of smart, hard-fighting female private eyes, reporters, district attorneys and sundry cloaked/costumed crime fighters, it was relegated to comics much more than pulp fiction or novels. You really have to dial back to the 1930’s pulp era to uncover the female detectives and their associates, and some of the best are featured in this book.

I read my first Carrie Cashin story in Hard-Boiled Dames, and then went hunting for more. Carrie looks “like a demure brown-eyed stenographer in a tailored jacket and tweed skirt”, and in front of clients often defers to her “broad-shouldered assistant Aleck, to allay any clients’ concerns about a woman detecting”. But Miss Cashin is the head of the Cash And Carry Detective Agency, the first to leap into danger, and clearly the brains of the outfit. This anthology includes author Theodore Tinsley’s “The Riddle In Silk”, in which Carrie (with assistant Aleck in tow) investigates a bloody murder in a mansion on the requisite dark and stormy night, which leads them back into the city and ultimately to the waterfront docks on the trail of a stolen pair of silk stockings which “may mean the difference between peace and war in Europe”, the hose containing secret coded messages.

Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady is here too, in “The Domino Lady Doubles Back”, along with Katie Blayne, Trixie Meehan – 15 stories in all, each accompanied by 2 page introductions about the authors and their characters, and reproductions of the original pulps’ illustrations. If you see this book around, snatch it. It’s a good read, and a real eye opener about

 

The Annotated Big Sleep…and uneasy feelings of complicity.

The Annotated Big Sleep

The Annotated Big Sleep by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizutto (and, of course, by Raymond Chandler) with a foreword by Jonathan Lethem, came out in Summer 2018. I got my copy in early Autumn, but intentionally put the big 450+ page book aside at the time. Eager as I was to plunge back into one of my all-time favorite works from the classic era of mystery/hard-boiled crime fiction — now with the added delight of countless footnotes, annotations and period details explained along with accompanying photos — I concluded that it’d be better to linger over this gem and savor every annotated anecdote in cozy armchair comfort during the soon-to-arrive long winter nights. Now with January here, the holiday hubbub behind us and the bleakest stretch of frigid weather ahead, that plush chair and Chandler’s 1939 The Big Sleep beckons. So I’ve just plunged in.

But as I begin, I’m reminded of author Megan Abbott’s July, 2018 Slate.com essay, “The Big Sleep – Reading Raymond Chandler In The Age Of #MeToo”.

Megan Abbott begins with: “In April, the New Yorker’s Katy Waldman, writing about male authors who objectify or diminish women, marveled over the many women she knows who remain ‘open to verbal entrancement’ by such men. As an example, she cited those who ‘sustain complicated and admiring relationships with lodestars like Raymond Chandler.’ Reading those words, I felt found out. Exposed.”

Slate - Megan Abbott-Raymond Chandler

Abbott relates how she first discovered Chandler as a child through Howard Hawks’ 1946 film adaption of The Big Sleep, then started what became her first novel in order to actually write herself into sardonic, world-weary Philip Marlowe’s world. Dial forward to Summer 2018 when, like many (myself included), Abbott eagerly waited for the release of the first ever annotated edition of The Big Sleep and Chandler’s “lushly rendered world of afternoon highballs, blackjacks hidden behind trench coats, and cunning women with teeth like knives”. But with the book in hand, she realized that “…like most women I know, I’ve been squinting hard at my attachment to certain male writers and artists, from Jim Thompson to Norman Mailer, with problematic or troubling views of women. The word complicity knocks around my brain…”

I suppose that word must knock around in most mystery/crime fiction writers’ heads. And if it doesn’t, perhaps it ought to.

It’s one thing to read mid-twentieth century favorites contextually, ever mindful that the stories were written in different times and a vastly different social and cultural landscape. And I for one think it’s dangerous to interpret such material through contemporary filters, seeing themes and subtexts lurking there that most likely never occurred to the writers themselves. So I choose not to feel any guilt when I enjoy Raymond Chandler, any more than I do when I read Mickey Spillane, Ross MacDonald or even Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddel novels. But as Abbott notes, “If you want to understand toxic white male masculinity , you could learn a lot by looking at noir.” The noir world – films, novels, pulp stories, comics and more – is a darkly retro place, dialed decades back to a time when gender roles are quite different. Women characters are relegated to eye candy or the occasional femme fatale…either props or fundamentally evil. Further, as mystery/crime fiction readers and fans, we delight in all the murder and mayhem. And as writers, we actually create it.

In contemporary crime fiction and thrillers, female characters are often a kind of cannon fodder, anonymous and included only to be stalked, abused, tortured or murdered. Disproportionately, women are the victims of violence that’s all too often catalogued in gruesomely fetishistic detail, frequently less as ‘crime’ and instead some kind of perversely voyeuristic titillation. So, when we relish these creepy chills as readers, or craft them as writers, are we merely compounding decades-old problems?

Hey, don’t look for answers here. If a brilliant writer like Megan Abbott struggles with complicity, I can’t expect to do any more.

But I suspect that I’ll raise this topic again in the future. This notion of complicity, that is. My own current projects are set in 1959, right on the cusp of sweeping social changes, but not quite there yet. It’s difficult to settle into a 1959 mindset and attempt to make characters, situations and dialog ring true. Sometimes succeeding can almost make me cringe. But the times were what they were.

None of that will make Hill’s, Jackson’s and Rizutto’s (and, once again, Raymond Chandler’s) The Annotated Big Sleep any less enjoyable for me. It’ll give me something to keep in mind, though. Slogging home from work through slush and ice will be almost bearable knowing that hefty book is on the end table beside a cushy chair, and at least for a few evenings I’ll be comfortably ensconced in southern California. But when I reluctantly set it aside to return to my keyboard and get back to work on my own projects, that complicity thing will be knocking around in my head, the same as it seems to do in Megan Abbott’s. And that’s a good thing… that I’m wrestling with it, that is. And we all should.

https://slate.com/culture/2018/07/raymond-chandler-in-the-age-of-metoo.html

 

 

 

No Business For A Lady

No Business For A LAdy copy

James L. Rubel’s No Business For A Lady (1950) is a frustrating novel. While the book’s front and back covers tease with “Meet Eli Donovan, lady detective and easily the most beautiful shamus living”, and “Most detectives have angles, but here’s one that has curves”, we’d expect postwar paperbacks to pitch a female private detective that way. What’s frustrating is 1) that a genuinely interesting female P.I. character that preceded G.G. Fickling’s Honey West and Carter Brown’s Mavis Seidlitz couldn’t garner her own series, and 2) that a well-conceived character could be dropped into a plot that relies on an utterly implausible crime, albeit in an otherwise well-told tale.

Rubel’s Eli Donovan is a licensed L.A. private investigator earning a comfortable living on routine cases like background checks and debt collections. Nothing glamorous or exciting, but it’s enough to pay for a nice wardrobe, a sporty coupe, a handsome apartment and to indulge her weakness for hats – the fancier and frillier the better (this is still the era when men and women alike wore hats darn near everywhere). Actually, based on the novel’s description, neither woman depicted on the book covers shown here resemble her at all.

Now, don’t be fooled: Eli’s no daffodil. She’s a former Marine, former cop and, oddly enough, a former chorus girl (briefly). She packs a Walther automatic and can take care of herself. A war widow, Eli Donovan fell in love with a fellow Marine who went missing on Tarawa, was finally declared dead and supposedly buried there according to the Corps. She didn’t make it through WWII unscathed herself, and was seriously injured in a Jeep accident, requiring plastic surgery. With her appearance changed, she also switched from a “mousey brunette” to a blonde to start fresh after the war (and so, she doesn’t resemble either of the women depicted on the books’ covers).

Early in the novel, Eli has a chance to earn a bigger than usual fee from a wealthy but stern and unattractive businesswoman (“with a face that looked like it was sired by a horse”) who admits to being insanely jealous over her handsome cad of a husband, who she suspects of being unfaithful. Well, so far, so good. The setup could lead to delicious vintage mystery/crime fiction fun: adultery, murder…all the good stuff.

And it does. Well…sort of. Because the main plot device here is that the unfaithful (and very flirtatious) hubby is a dead ringer for Eli Donovan’s dead husband. In fact, it turns out that he actually is her husband, who really wasn’t killed on Tarawa after all. Yet for a good 50 – 75 pages, he apparently doesn’t recognize Eli as his former wife. And she’s not sure he’s her husband…she only suspects he might be. Now don’t you suppose you could instantly recognize your spouse, even after a 5-6 year absence? And I don’t mean from a distance, or in a brief encounter, but in multiple meetings, over drinks, dinner and romantic one-on-ones? The whole business comes off kind of silly, and torpedoes this otherwise well done novel.

That nonsense aside, the story is well told with interesting secondary characters, some twists and turns, and most of all, an otherwise credible and well-drawn heroine. The novel’s conclusion feels open ended enough to lead to a sequel and a series. At the very end, Eli and her police chief pal go over details of the case when he asks if she still has feelings for her ex, now a felon wanted not only by the police, but the Marine Corps. Eli assures him she’s over him.

“Then find yourself a nice guy and settle down to raising a family,” he suggested. “This is no business for a lady.” I shook my head and smiled at him. He was a swell friend and I liked him. But he hadn’t analyzed me correctly. I liked men. I loved the way they whistled when they saw me. I was still young and I had a lot of years ahead of me before my hair turned gray, my face got lined and the whistling stopped. I couldn’t picture myself living in semi-poverty surrounded by wet diapers and screaming infants. Maybe someday I’d be lucky enough to meet the right man. Until I did…? I said, “Sorry, Bill. But I’m not a lady.

 (Scan of my pretty solid 1950 edition at top, the 1965 edition below (that one’s not mine.)

No Business for a Lady 1965

Turner’s Warshawski

v i warshawski kathleen turner

Kathleen Turner as one of the 90’s best ‘stiletto gumshoes’, here in a publicity shot for the 1991 film V. I. Warshawski, the movie adaptation of Sara Paretsky’s award-winning hard-boiled Chicago private detective series.

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