Liar, Liar

Liar Liar

Most of the ‘stiletto gumshoes’ I favor are either shoot-first bad-asses or wily femmes who can finagle the truth out of any tight-lipped crook. Once in a while I’ll dip into something more…frothy? That’s what I expected from K.J. Larsen’s Cat DeLuca, but was pleasantly surprised to read something much more, a comical P.I. novel that wasn’t only trying to be funny, but actually pulled it off.

Cat DeLuca’s large and intrusive Italian family of more or less honest Chicago cops and ‘connected’ Bridgeport cousins may not approve of her career – owner of the Pants On Fire Detective Agency (as in “Liar, liar, pants on fire”) – but after her marriage to serial philanderer and chronic liar Johnnie Rizzo collapsed, nailing cheating spouses seemed as good a way to make a living as any other. The problem is, tailing adulterous husbands can prove dangerous when they’re more than it seems, and early in the first Cat DeLuca novel, Liar, Liar, Cat’s tricked into tailing another rover with a roving eye by a woman who’s really a crime reporter, and Cat’s caught in an explosive (literally) assassination attempt that puts her in the hospital…and that’s barely the beginning of her adventures following handsome maybe-crook Chance Savino. From there, Liar, Liar speeds along at a rip-roaring pace with hot diamonds, gun-runners, car thieves, two-bit street hustlers and crooked bigshots, wacky Italian family gatherings, nosey priests and kindly mobsters — more comedy than mystery, nearly slapstick in many parts, but all pretty darn good.

The Cat DeLuca series was five books, I think, and then seemed to stall for some reason. Don’t ask me, because it seemed tailor-made for a long run and should’ve had Hollywood sniffing around. Series like this one make me wonder just how many terrific books are lurking out there that I’ve missed and may never discover without prowling the shelves in the better used bookstores.

Author “K.J. Larsen” is actually three sisters: Kari, Julianne and Kristen Larsen who reside in Chicago and the Pacific Northwest. How three siblings can co-write a mystery series without killing each other is a mystery in itself, but obviously it worked. Larsen’s Bridgeport neighborhood is a close-knit Italian community, which originally was a bit of a puzzler to me, Bridgeport and the locally infamous 11th Ward a solidly Irish enclave and home to the Mayors Daley (senior and junior) and a long list of Chicago/Cook County politicians, bureaucrats and power brokers. Time for me to bone up on my Chicago lore, apparently.

 

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

From the well-known anthologist, author and master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler: The Big Book Of Female Detectives, which proudly claims to be “The Most Complete Collection Of Detective Dames, Gumshoe Gals & Sultry Sleuths Ever Assembled”. I’m not qualified to say if it is or it isn’t, only to point out that it is indeed one big, fat book at 1,115 pages.

Now keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a collection of tales written by women, but about women detectives, cops, reporters and various sleuths, and understandably the women writers are better represented in more of the contemporary material.

The book includes 74 stories, arranged chronologically with each section and story accompanied by informative introductions written by the master himself. Victorian/Edwardian – British Mysteries and Pre-World War One – American Mysteries comprise the early era. Those are followed by The Pulp Era, The Golden Age and The Mid-Century, and the longest section, The Modern Era. But Penzler’s not done yet, and closes with a final section devoted to women on the other side of the law, Bad Girls. Of course, there’s no way to assemble a book like this without some critics complaining that their favorite character was left out or questioning why a particular writer was included at all. So let them quibble. For myself, I’ll confess that I sped through the early eras’ sections and really get hooked in The Pulp Era, with one of my personal favorites from that period, Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady in “The Domino Lady Collects”, and surprised to see two Adolphe Barreaux Sally The Sleuth strips, including “Coke For Co-Eds”…you just have to love that title. Familiar names crowd the Modern Era, including Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Max Allan Collins, Nevada Barr, Lawrence Block and others.

I got this book before the holidays and only just wrapped it up now, dipping in for a story here and a story there at a leisurely pace. Finishing it was almost bittersweet – I got used to seeing that big ol’ book on the endtable. If you see it, get it. I can’t think of better ‘textbook’ overview of women detectives (and crooks!) in one book.

 

Nancy Drew on the CW

Kennedy McMann Nancy Drew

The CW network is a reliable go-to destination for superheroes – traditional (Supergirl) and reimagined (Arrow) along with tween/teen soap operas redone with some contemporary sizzle, and now they’ll take a whack at rebooting that iconic teen mystery classic of all classics, Nancy Drew.

Let’s guess that this new Nancy Drew won’t drive a sporty roadster, have a kindly housekeeper or go poking around in attic’s or behind grandfather clocks. Kennedy McMann will take over the on-screen role previously done by Bonita Granville in several B-movies, Pamela Sue Martin in the 70’s Hardy Boys-Nancy Drew series and Emma Roberts in a quirky big screen re-imagining.

Three Screen Nancy Drews

McMann’s Nancy Drew will find her college plans derailed by a family tragedy and herself a murder suspect, which rekindles her love for detective work. Drew will team up with ‘George’ played by Lydia Lewis, a tattooed tough girl from the wrong side of the tracks, the duo reluctant partners at first due to some bad blood from their past, but destined to form a close bond while becoming kickass investigators. Initially, their sleuthing suggests the real culprit may actually be a long dead local girl, which will lead to some ghostly goings-on, though online rumors suggest it’ll be more Twin Peaks style weirdness than a spook show. Myself, I’m picturing Veronica Mars meets Scooby-Doo. If anything, I suspect much of the inspiration comes from the current Nancy Drew comics series from Dynamite Entertainment, scripted by writer Kelly Thompson. The show will be CBS Studios’ third attempt to launch a Nancy Drew series, with key creators culled from CW projects like Supergirl, Charmed and Vampire Diaries.

Not sure if ‘Carolyn Keene’ would approve, but we’ll see.

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

 

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