And Then, Marla Came Back.

Kisses Of Death

Henry Kane’s Marla Trent – The Private Eyeful – from his 1959 one-shot crime novel featuring a then-rare female private eye, was re-issued a year later in new cover art, but then presumably vanished into PBO limbo, the publisher and/or readers not interested enough to turn it into a series.

But the almost impossibly accomplished and attractive blonde bombshell did, in fact, return a couple years later, though only as a costar this time in another of Kane’s Peter Chambers private eye novels (there being about thirty titles in that series, I think).

Kisses Of Death came out in 1962 from Belmont Books, a step down in terms of publishers. Like many of Kane’s novels, the case that opens the story turns into something else altogether. Here, a frantic Mrs. Valerie Kiss demands to see NYC P.I. Pete Chambers early on a Saturday morning, certain she’s being blackmailed. He joins the stunningly lovely former actress at an office address he knows well: None other than Marla Trent Enterprises. Marla Trent, New York’s infamous ‘private eyeful’, is much too successful to try to milk the very married Mrs. Kiss out of a few bucks over some compromising photos of her in the sack with a bartender boy toy, though she had been hired by Mister Kiss to follow the cheating wife. But while Mrs. Kiss, Chambers, Trent and her assistant Wee Willie Winkle try to figure out what’s going on, the Mister’s busy taking a head-first header from a high-rise window and commits suicide.

Case closed? Hardly. Months later (and the book spans more than a year and half by my count) a hushed-up investment bank robbery lures in both Chambers and Trent, hired to work as a team (under Chambers lead) to track down nearly nine million dollars stolen just as the Kiss’ marriage ended in that gruesome landing on the Midtown asphalt. In fact, Mrs. Kiss’ none-too-secretive affairs, the peekaboo bedroom photos and even the suicide may all have been part of an elaborate plot to cover up one of New York’s biggest heists ever.

Kane’s Marla Trent is only a costar here, albeit a prominent one, with wisecracking Pete Chambers occupying center stage for most of the novel, including a puzzling subplot dealing with a gorgeous South American doctor the P.I.’s anxious to bed. The complex case takes Chambers, Trent and Winkle to the west coast and ultimately overseas, where the reader is treated to some fairly exciting gunplay in a couple climactic scenes (well-earned, since the reader endured the preceding chapters’ maddening maze of clues, interrogations and Pete Chambers’ seduction routines).

Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful, bows out of Kisses of Death and crime fiction history on a frustrating note, arriving at Chambers’ pad, all fetchingly attired in a sleek summer blue dress and matching white pumps and handbag, to pick up her share of their fee and finally make good on the preceding 180+ pages of flirtation. Black Russians are her specific drink of choice to lose her inhibitions, and apparently, she’s already had a few before arriving. Insisting that Chambers take a symbolic bath, “like washing off all that’s gone before,” Marla changes his bachelor pad’s bedsheets (?!), gets out of her clothes, sips yet another Black Russian and waits for the P.I.  But she’s soon reaching for her things once the freshly bathed Pete Chambers admits that he bedded their original client (and the novel’s eventual villainess) early on in the case.

She sat her Black Russian on the bar. “You lied to me, you bastard, didn’t you? You’re a cheap little man after all, aren’t you? You told me you’d never been with that bitch.” She stepped into her shoes, wriggled into her blue dress, buttoned all the buttons. “Men will never understand women.” She took up her little white bag. “Thanks for the check, and thanks for nothing.” She came to me and kissed my forehead. “It’s been most instructive.” Then she left like a lady without slamming the door.

 I don’t know if men will ever understand women, and definitely don’t know if Henry Kane ever did. Since Kisses Of Death is a Peter Chambers novel and not the “Private Eyeful’s” story, a few more pages follow so the P.I. can bump into a beautiful witness briefly introduced midway in his investigation, and thus, end the novel in suitably swingin’ early sixties style, those freshly changed bachelor pad sheets about to get wrinkled.

Kisses Of Death is no better or worse than Private Eyeful, and no better or worse than countless other coastal private detective standalone and series novels from the mid-fifties through early sixties. Soon enough, British spies would make so many NYC and L.A. P.I.’s passé. As for Marla Trent, the Private Eyeful? While the Ficklings’ Honey West would make it to TV screens and appear in a few more novels, the mystery/crime fiction/thriller genres would only see a handful of other female detectives and some sexed-up adventurers and ‘lady spies’ for nearly twenty years till Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky and others finally reinvented everything.

So, where did Marla Trent, the “Private Eyeful” finally go? Evidently, she slipped back into those white pumps to sashay off into PBO obscurity, yet another mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoe’ who’d have to wait for the field to evolve.

No, Really: Where Did Marla Go?

Private eyeful 1

Not a collector but always acquisitive, I once had four editions of Henry Kane’s Private Eyeful, (none pristine collectibles, mind you) including the striking 1960 UK version with its Denis McLoughlin cover at, the original 1959 US paperback edition with a frequently seen Robert Maguire illustration, a 1960 reissue with Mort Engle cover art, and even a Lancer pb edition from years later (75 cent cover price, so let’s guess late 1960’s or even 1970’s) with a period-sexy nearly nude model posing in no more than a holster for the Howard Winters cover photo.

But a years-ago mishap with apartment windows left open all day while at work – a day plagued by thunderstorms – turned my Private Eyefuls and a number of other books into soggy messes with nowhere else to go but the trash. All I have now is an inexpensive replacement copy of that awful Lancer photo cover edition, a disintegrating book at that, with all but a few pages completely loosened from the binding. Proof once again why it’s best that I never became a collector.

Private eyeful 2

Now, not everyone’s a Henry Kane (1918 – 1988) fan, but I’ll admit to being one. Like writers as diverse as pulp maestro Robert Leslie Bellem (Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective) and eminent literary bad-boy James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, etc., etc.), Kane’s writing has a uniquely musical quality to it. Not quite Runyon-esque, but sometimes syncopated and sometimes sing-songy, it almost demands to be read out loud, and then could get your fingers snapping once you find the writer’s rhythm. If some critics assert that the prodigiously productive pulp and paperback original writing machine (like Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, John Grisham and others, originally a lawyer before he was a writer) can be painfully smarmy or annoyingly glib, I’d only counter that countless postwar era mystery/crime fiction writers were as well, the spinning paperback racks crammed with wise-cracking coastal private eyes like Kane’s Peter Chambers back then.

Roughly midway in the writer’s successful series of smart-assed NYC gumshoe novels, Henry Kane paused to crank out Private Eyeful in 1959. Why? Who knows. Prodded by an agent or editor, perhaps, hoping to give “G.G. Fickling’s” Honey West some competition. But let’s be frank: Henry Kane, like so many other writers from the same era, could be dismissive at best and downright misogynistic at worst when it comes to female characters, so the decision to write an entire novel about a female private eye remains a puzzler to me.

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Kane’s Marla Trent is the super-successful owner of Manhattan’s Marla Trent Enterprises, capably assisted there by big, smart and handsome William Winkle (AKA Wee Willie) and stern middle-aged secretary Rebecca Asquiff. This is no struggling pair of gumshoes dodging bill collectors. The agency’s offices are plush and well located, the revenue stream steady and lucrative, and as for Marla Trent herself? She’s blue-eyed and blonde-haired with curvy measurements that are incessantly relisted, a one-time beauty pageant contestant but also a Vassar graduate, with a Masters from NYU and a PhD from Columbia. Previously (and briefly) married to Andrew King, then of the FBI and now of the NYPD, 28-year-old Marla Trent is quite comfortable with her luxurious Manhattan penthouse, sports car and seemingly endless wardrobe courtesy of a large six-figure inheritance from her deceased inventor father.

Let’s be clear: Marla Trent is smart, savvy and capable, but most of all, Marla is attractive, as the reader is reminded over and over and over again as characters fawn over her, flirt with her, attempt to seduce her and literally are dumbfounded by her looks, all in increasingly squirm-worthy ways throughout the novel.

In Private Eyeful, Trent deals with one case in the book’s opening pages that swiftly morphs into an altogether different – and more troubling – case, initially helping model and actress Katrina Jurillo prove her ne’er-do-well brother’s innocence in an armed robbery (said brother already doing time in Sing-Sing). But this turns into an even more serious situation when his appeal goes bad and the assistant D.A. is shot dead right in the court room. Marla has to navigate a particularly puzzling (and loooong) list of culprits, lots of red herring clues, goofy coincidences and leering late fifties naughtiness, culminating in a credulity-straining trial scene. Most of the nod-and-a-wink sauciness leads nowhere, though there’s an oddly unexpected romp with Marla’s ex right in his precinct office during the work day, and the novel does end as bedroom hijinks are about to commence (this time with a handsome doctor who popped up late in the tale to facilitate all that strained credulity in the climactic court room scene).

Is it a good mystery, or even good P.I. crime fiction? Well, I’ll let readers decide on their own if they choose to dig up their own copy of Private Eyeful. Henry Kane’s novels are an acquired taste, as are so many postwar private eye series. I’m not about to canonize Brett Halliday, Carter Brown or Frank Kane either. But I happen to have a fascination with the much-too-short list of mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the pre-Grafton and Paretsky era, even if digging up their novels, pulp tales, comics, movies and TV shows can feel like an archeological dig. They’re not all high-art, but for me they are pop-cultural touchstones.

Private Eyeful 4

Like Henry Kane’s Peter Chambers novels, Private Eyeful and the Marla Trent character are sorta fun and kinda sassy in a silly way, period pieces with all of the baggage that implies. That the book is set in 1959, the same year I open my own The Stiletto Gumshoe works-in-progress, is more coincidence than inspiration, and I’d be quick to point out that Kane’s blonde bombshell and my own Sharon Gardner (real name: Sasha Garodnowicz) have no more in common than occasionally running down the bad guys in heels.

So, why just the one Private Eyeful novel? Again, who knows. It may have been no more than a whim for Henry Kane. It might not have sold well enough to interest Pyramid Books in a series. The novel’s much better than many mystery/crime fiction PBO’s I’ve read from that era, and no worse than others, though no one would consider it a crime fiction classic. Maybe male readers preferred their saucy crime hijinks told from a comfortably male POV, while female readers were too smart to fall for sexified cartoons. So, Henry Kane’s Marla Trent had its one shot in 1959 (with reissues) but otherwise vanished.

Or did she? Tune in tomorrow for Marla’s return…

A Well-Dressed P.I.

vogue 1951 via the retro housewife

You’d rightly assume this 1951 Vogue magazine photo is supposed to be a postwar ‘career gal’ art director or photo editor reviewing contact sheets. But I prefer to imagine a stylish ‘stiletto gumshoe’ going over steamy pics from the prior night’s no-tell motel stakeout on an adultery case soon to go really bad. From The Retro Housewife at www.the-retro-housewife-01.tumblr.com

The Client.

Ward Sutton - New Yorker

Sure, but then the venetian blinds couldn’t cast distorted and ominous shadows across the room. A New Yorker magazine cartoon by Ward Sutton.

Thank You, Mr. Hammett.

dashiell hammett

Samuel Dashiell Hammett, born this day, May 27thin 1894, passed away in 1961, and what else can someone like me say but a very large thank you to one of the creators of hard-boiled detective fiction and this thing I like to think of as ‘noir culture’.

dashiell hammett books

‘Sin Money’: What Crime Fiction Dreams Are Made Of…

robert bonfils

I’m a softie for compromising photos as a mystery/crime fiction caper staple, enough so that they were the go-to starting point for my own Stiletto Gumshoe’s initial plotting. Just upgrade those B&W glossies to smartphone screens, JPG’s and some frillies that aren’t over fifty years old, and this could still be a sleazy scene from a savvy blackmailer’s or modern-day peeper P.I.’s playbook. But it’s a Robert Bonfils illustration for Don Elliott’s (Robert Silverberg) Passion Pair, a 1964 Leisure Books paperback: “The blackmailers are Jim and Lois MacIntyre, smooth and polished in all the tricks of the trade…and their trade is love…until the pictures are developed. Then the shame and degradation of their victims becomes reflected in a negotiable check…the only true sin money.”

Ahhh, ‘sin money’. It’s what steamy crime fiction dreams are made of.

robert bonfils 1964

Hammer Time.

masquerade for murder

Thank goodness for indie booksellers doing their best with curbside pickup.

My last bundle of books (in a free tote, no less) included Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins’ new Masquerade For Murder – A Mike Hammer Novel. It’s no secret here at this site: I’m a Mickey Spillane fan and proud to defend the much-maligned writer to literary-leaning mystery/crime fiction readers and authors. And, I happen to be a Max Allan Collins fan as well, loving his long-running Nathan Heller series along with Ms. Tree, the Maggie Starr series (please write some more of those, Mr. Collins) and others.

With a new title out, it’s no surprise that you’ll see Collins appearing here and there. I recommend “My Five Favorite Private Eyes” at Criminal Element (link below), those detectives including Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, (not surprisingly) Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and Max Allan Collins’ own Nathan Heller. Confession: I’m not a huge Nero Wolfe fan. And for me it’ll always be Chandler/Marlowe all the way over Hammett/Spade. But, lets not argue about it. They’re all great.

criminal element

Also turn to Mystery Fanfare (Mystery Readers Inc.) for “Completing Mike Hammer” by Collins himself (link also below), in which the author provides some background on the 1950’s publishing sensation (225 million books sold), how his association with Spillane came about and some insights into the process of fleshing out incomplete Spillane materials.

mystery fanfare

As for Masquerade For Murder? I’d have devoured this novel in an evening or two if day-job responsibilities hadn’t intruded (pandemic sheltering-in notwithstanding). The 220-page Titan Books hardcover was a quick read, as a Mike Hammer novel ought to be. Collins concedes that he had less to go on in the way of Spillane’s notes, partials, outlines, etc. for  this one, in which a slightly older, wiser but no less dangerous Mike Hammer witnesses the suspicious hit-and-run of a prominent financial wunderkind, which leads him and Velda Sterling through a maze of Wall Street brokerages and decadent 1980’s New Wave nightclubs, tangling with wealthy traders, brutal bank robbers, a blackmailing call girl and a particularly lethal martial arts murderer. Spillane loved ‘gotcha’ endings, and although the ‘bad guy’s’ identity isn’t all that much of a secret here, Collins still cooked up a zinger in the final pages, with a femme fatale getting her just desserts, followed by a more tragic ending.

Bottom line: If you revere Mickey Spillane like I do, or at least enjoyed his Mike Hammer novels, you’ll go for Masquerade For Murder. No, it’s not from the hands of the master, but it is channeled through and lovingly crafted by a friend, credible expert, hard-core enthusiast and one heck of good writer.

https://www.criminalelement.com/my-five-favorite-private-eyes/

http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com/2020/05/completing-mike-hammer-by-max-allan.html

Thrilled About Thrilling Detective.

Thrilling Detective - Anthos

I’ve visited Kevin Burton Smith’s excellent Thrilling Detective site in the past, but was kinda giddy to see it migrate to WordPress as “The New Thrilling Detective Web Site” so I could more easily follow along. And doing so paid off nicely this weekend when I was jotting down lists of books to order – for curbside pickup at the local indie, direct from the publisher, from Bud Plant, and from the behemoth in Seattle. The Thrilling Detective site ran two posts sharing long lists of mystery/crime fiction anthologies with links for most (or all?) right to Amazon, many being OOP titles.  I tried for six, but got a bounce-back on one later, it being no longer available. But five’s a start, and my to-be-read endtable is woefully empty, having foolishly not stocked up before the great sheltering commenced. The Amazon items may take longer than usual to arrive, but the others look like they’re speeding my way now, and the indie pickup books should be in hand tomorrow and are desperately needed.

If you find things that interest you here at The Stiletto Gumshoe’s lair, then you’re going to find many more and much better items of interest at The Thrilling Detective site. The link’s right below…use it now. And more about the gems I nabbed via Smith’s site will follow in another post…

https://thrillingdetective.wordpress.com/

Trouble Is My Business.

Trouble 1

Some hard-core film noir enthusiasts could break the bank collecting movie memorabilia. Some, like writer-director-actor Thomas Konkle and cohorts, decide to make their own film noir instead. The result, Trouble Is My Business, is both tribute and pastiche, deadly serious but with a nod and a wink to fellow noir aficionados.

The early to mid-1940’s roots of film noir may start with bigger budgeted crime melodramas starring Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield, Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. But the classic postwar film noir era surely counts many more projects with a little less prestige, made for a lot less money and not always through the major studios. Not every 40’s/50’s noir was directed by the likes of Billy Wilder or Fritz Lang. Paraphrasing some genre luminaries, those involved didn’t realize they were making ‘film noir’, only cranking out low-budget crime flicks on tight schedules. The dark, shadowy look we cherish today was sometimes no more than a convenient way to mask underpropped sets and over-familiar backlot locations.

Trouble 4

Consider Thomas Konkle’s Trouble Is My Business an earnest love letter to those noir cult faves, the film’s look betraying its tighter-than-tight budget, but happy to overlook it in classic B-movie style. Cowritten by Konkle with Brittney Powell, directed by Konkle, and produced by Konkle along with Michael Smith, Trouble Is My Business drops us right in the middle of the very time and place the film pays tribute to: Los Angeles in 1947. There, down on his luck private eye Roland Drake (played by director co-writer Konkle himself) sees a chance for redemption – which, in classic noir style, will inevitably lead him into something more sinister – with the fetching Montemar sisters: First with lovely Katherine, who winds up dead after she and Drake wind up in bed…and then with femme fatale Jennifer Montemar. Both roles are played by Brittney Powell, relying on a wig and her performance as a disguise.

Trouble 3

Noir tropes and clichés abound, from crafty dialog to the SoCal location shots and a memorably nasty thug with a badge. Brimming with noir-stereotype scenes and set-ups, Trouble Is My Business also indulges viewers with a glimpse of what went really on behind closed doors in those 40’s/50’s era films which were still made under the swiftly disintegrating production code. But to the film’s credit, Konkle and Powell get the screen sizzling a bit without going for the cheap shots.

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I don’t know what you get with downloads or online viewing. The Trouble Is My Business‘ deluxe’ DVD set comes with both color and black and white versions. Assuming it was shot in color and converted to B&W, like so many television series’ retro-noir novelty episodes, it’s interesting to see both and then to compare the B&W version to postwar noir classics…the well-funded and poverty row titles as well. I’m no cinematographer, and can’t even shoot a decent still-photo to save my life with a phone or camera. But to my inexpert eye, the oldies exhibit richer, deeper darks and more striking haloed lighting effects than contemporary equipment can manage. But then, maybe it’s precisely that dark magic achieved 60-70 years ago that drove enthusiasts like Thomas Konkle, Brittney Powell, the actors and crew to create an earnest homage like Trouble Is My Business.

Trouble 2

https://troubleismybusinessfilmnoir.tumblr.com

Over 6,000 Books Per Day.

The Loong Wait 1

Just over 6,000 books per day. Every single day. For the last 102 years, since the day he was born on March 9, 1918, in fact. That’s how many books you’d have to sell to equal Mickey Spillane’s estimated tally.

That’s not just a successful writer. That’s a pop culture phenomenon.

Born Frank Morrison Spillane in Brooklyn, New York, Mickey was writing for comics in the 1940’s, a career he’d started while still a Gimbels basement salesman before enlisting in the Army Air Corps the day after the Pearl Harbor attack. The comics scripts led to writing two-page prose shorts used as filler in some titles. Newly married after the war and looking to buy a country house in exurban Newburgh, New York, Spillane decided to write a novel for some added income, blasting out I, The Jury in just 19 days. Accepted by Dutton, it sold over 6.5 million copies in its initial hardcover and paperback releases. Pre-Amazon, pre-eBook.  I, The Jury introduced postwar crime fiction readers to an entirely new type of hard-boiled private eye: Mike Hammer, adapted from Spillane’s earlier Mike Danger comic scripts, a rough, tough loner dispatching vigilante justice with his fists and his .45 on single-minded vengeance filled quests against organized crime in the earliest novels, and Communist spies in later works. Spillane wrote 13 Hammer novels (and a number of short stories) between 1947 and 1996, some unfinished manuscripts later completed by Iowa writer Max Allan Collins in recent years. I’ve got ‘em all, some in different editions, along with Primal Spillane, collecting his early shorts, Collins and James Taylor’s One Lonely Night – Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and From The Files Of Mike Hammer – The Complete Dailies And Sunday Strips from the mid-50’s and others. A scan of my more-or-less demolished (slightly cleaned up for use here) 1952 first printing of Spillane’s The Long Wait paperback is the image up above. I want to get the edition below, and will inevitably when I spot one going for less than collector prices.

The ong Wait 2

The Long Wait is a non-Hammer novel, though with some minor tweaks it easily could be, and I suppose Spillane scholars debate whether it started out as one. In the tradition of Ross MacDonald’s 1947 Blue City and a host of similar crime fiction novels, a drifter who’s much more than he seems stirs up trouble in a lethally crooked town, not arriving as a hero on a quest, but seeking vengeance. When the dust settles – or the gun smoke clears, the blood stops flowing and the screams finally fall silent, this being a Mickey Spillane novel – there’s a brief bit of ‘gotcha’ at the very end as in most Spillane tales, though they all (like so many postwar crime fiction novels) could do with expanded denouements, IMHO. Also shown here is a foreign (French?) edition which adapts the original U.S. hardcover’s dustjacket art. The other is an Orion UK paperback edition, which is what you get today if you order a new paperback online, and what the hell that cover art is about, I don’t know.

The Long Wait 3

I cherish Spillane’s first wave of Mike Hammer novels from 1947 through 1952 (before he became a Jehovah’s Witness, putting his writing temporarily on hold): I, The Jury, My Gun Is Quick, Vengeance Is Mine!, One Lonely Night, The Big Kill and Kiss Me, Deadly. Still, I have a particular but inexplicable affection for The Long Wait, every bit as hard-boiled, gritty, violent and retro-sexy as any of his early Hammer books, if not more so.

The Long Wait 4

It was made into a film starring Anthony Quinn and Peggie Castle in 1954, which I’ve never seen, though it sounds like it uses at least the core of Spillane’s novel. It doesn’t seem to be available on disk or download, and the only sites I see offering the film have “dot-ru” at the end, so you’ll understand if I’m not ready to click away on those.

The Long Wait 5

Mickey Spillane’s popularity was lamented by intellectuals. He was reviled by literary critics, envied by fellow writers, and adored by readers (he called them customers) and paperback rack-jobbers. For good or bad, he added a new chapter to the evolving twentieth century mystery/crime fiction genre and to the paperback book pop culture revolution.

So, happy 102ndbirthday, Mickey Spillane. Say hello to Velda and Pat Chambers for me.

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