Often as not, I’ll gravitate towards a European market film poster art over the tamer U.S. versions, particularly with 1940’s and 1950’s films noir and crime thrillers (kind of the opposite of how I react to U.S. paperback cover illustrations vs. European versions form the same era). And while I adore the poster art below for L’Ombra Del Passato (translating as The Shadow of The Past, I think) shown below, I have to hand this one to the dueling revolvers above for Edward Dmytrik’s seminal 1944 noir Murder, My Sweet, the adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely that rebranded crooner Dick Powell as one of film noir’s go-to leads.
Georgetown University professor Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows (2020 Johns Hopkins University Press) is subtitled “A Hard-Boiled History”, and some may quibble with that. Lee’s 216-page hardcover (the last 46 pages comprised of appendices and footnotes) is less a ‘history’ of fictional hard-boiled detectives and more a close look at how a shortlist of exemplary private eye characters from literature and broadcast media represent and echo their eras.
If you’ve been burned in the past by academics’ books, I can relate. Susanna Lee previously authored Hard-Boiled Crime Fiction And The Decline Of Moral Authority, but also Proust’s Swann’s Way and Stendahl’s The Red And The Black among other titles, and those might give anyone the willies if they’re disinterested in a return to high school and college required reading lists. (You say ‘Proust’ and I’m automatically fleeing the other way, one particularly disastrous college term paper still nagging at me to this day.)
But, fear not. Detectives In The Shadows is engaging and readable throughout, and I for one would’ve been happy with another 100 pages to devour. She selects a key hard-boiled detective to represent different periods, starting with Carroll John Daly’s Terry Mack as the start of the hard-boiled detective sub-genre, soon supplanted by that same writer’s more popular Race Williams, both of them Black Mask magazine staples. Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade embody the late 1920’s and early Depression years, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe represents the 1930’s-40’s, and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer violently echoes the post-WWII Cold War era. Lee dismisses the 1960’s altogether, considering its social upheavals unfriendly to hard-boiled private eyes’ rugged individualism and quasi-vigilanteism. She jumps to the 1970’s with Robert Parker’s Spencer and his first appearance in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. From Parker’s Spencer, Lee switches from fiction to the screen with HBO’s The Wire and True Detective series, and lastly, Netflix’ Jessica Jones. Brief mentions of broadcast television’s The Rockford Files and David Janssen as Harry O may still leave some readers scratching their heads. Wither Kinsey Milhone and V.I. Warshawski? Lew Archer and Easy Rawlins? The roster could continue, but again I’ll point out that Susanna Lee didn’t assemble a laundry list of hard-boiled detectives, but instead, aimed to show how the uniquely American literary invention of the lone-wolf hard-boiled P.I. represents evolving periods in modern history.
Coming from a steady diet of cozies and ready to take a peek at the dark, violent world of hard-boiled detective literature? Then pick another non-fiction book to provide you with an overview, but keep Susanna Lee’s Detectives In The Shadows on hand for a later read when you want to delve deeper into what these iconic characters represent.
I can’t call Nancy Guild (1925 – 1999) a Noir Princess, but she did star alongside George Montgomery in The Brasher Doubloon, the 1947 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s 1942 Philip Marlowe novel The High Window (see the preceding post). Guild may not have had the shortest Hollywood career, but close it, and her eight-movie resume’s a peculiar mix of a truly good films and real clunkers like Abbott & Costello Meet The Invisible Man and Francis Covers The Big Town (Francis being Universal’s popular talking mule). Basically, she knocked out one film per year between 1946 and 1953, then simply left tinsel town for wedded life, only occasionally appearing on television in the late 1950’s and doing one final film role in the early 1970’s.
But check out The Brasher Doubloon, a darn good postwar noir and a respectable Chandler adaptation. Nancy Guild (her last name rhymes with ‘wild’) acquits herself well as a sometimes fetching — sometimes frightening secretary to a wealthy woman seeking the return of a valuable collectible coin from her deceased husband’s collection. Some consider The Brasher Doubloon the most ‘gothic’ of the Phillip Marlowe movies, and both of its often overlooked stars, George Montgomery and Nancy Guild, deserve to be seen.
There’s not much reason to be familiar with Racine, Wisconsin. Unless you’re a fan of old-time radio shows, that is, and remember Fibber McGee & Molly’s sponsor, the Johnson Wax company of Racine, Wisconsin (S.C. Johnson today, mega-corporate marketers of Windex, Pledge, Glade, Drano, Saran Wrap, Raid, Ziploc bags, Off and many other branded products probably lurking somewhere around your home). There’s a chance if you attended college anywhere from Chicago to Milwaukee that you might’ve taken a field trip to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed S.C. Johnson corporate campus for an architecture class. But that aside, Racine has been eclipsed lately by its small city/big town neighbor just a short hop down the road, Kenosha Wisconsin, which has been in the news much more than it would like.
I’ve been to Kenosha and Racine and all points in between Chicago and Milwaukee, that 100 mile+ stretch along lower Lake Michigan’s western shoreline, more or less one continuous metro area straddling two states (even been to that diesel-punk shrine S.C. Johnson campus numerous times on day job chores). But I never expected to see Racine mentioned in the pages of Mystery Scene magazine, much less to learn that one of my wordsmith heroes resided on the north side of that town for a year and half back in the mid-1960’s.
With his writing career briefly stalled, Lawrence Block (a name mentioned often enough here at The Stiletto Gumshoe) found himself relocating from Buffalo, New York to Racine, Wisconsin for a year and half, working a regular day job at Whitman Numismatic Journal (numismatics being coin collecting). The job offer was based in part on one particular 1964 article Block wrote: “Raymond Chandler And The Brasher Doubloon”. That essay (also available in Block’s collection of non-fiction pieces, Hunting Buffalo With Bent Nails, 2019), is reprinted in the latest Fall 2020 issue of Mystery Scene magazine, and it’s an intriguing read for Block fans and Raymond Chandler enthusiasts alike. Whether you know Chandler’s story from his 1942 Philip Marlowe novel The High Window or the 1947 film adaptation (the second, actually) The Brasher Doubloon with George Montgomery and Nancy Guild, do check out Block’s essay.
This Fall 2020 Mystery Scene issue is full of the usual tasty stuff, including all the new book release ads and reviews, some of which I’ve added to the orders refilling the writing lair’s to-be-read endtable. But there’s more, of course, like Pat H. Broeske’s excellent (but all too short!) “Love On The Run” article, which takes a look at some of the many Hollywood films inspired at least in part by the notorious exploits of the real-life Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, including Joseph Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1957), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie & Clyde (1967) naturally enough, Nicholas Ray’s incredible They Live By Night (1948) and others. They Live By Night is a particular fave of mine and overdue for a fresh viewing soon. It’s odd that such a noir classic is mostly seen in cheesy omnibus disk set editions found in bargain bins. If you haven’t seen this one, perhaps Italian illustrator Averardo Ciriello’s gorgeous film poster art below will send you off to find this incredible piece of doomed, dark romance with Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The faces Ciriello painted for that poster are truly haunting.
As for Mystery Scene magazine, go get your own copy of the Fall 2020 Mystery Scene now…
I’m still merrily working through Barry Day’s 2014 The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words (scroll back a couple posts) as the master’s birthday rolls around: July 23, 1888 – March 26, 1959…and born right here in “the jewel on the lake”, no less.
It’s a good thing I’m not really a collector (though admittedly acquisitive) or I’d definitely go broke tracking down the many, many different editions, both domestic and foreign, of Chandler’s works, such as these cleanly simple but handsome Penguin Australia book covers that I stumbled across when snooping for visuals for this birthday post.
The World of Raymond Chandler – In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day, is a profusely illustrated (200+ images) 2014 hardcover I stumbled across in my first return visit to a favored used bookstore just a few days ago. Things were rearranged for more open space (which runs contrary to the typical used bookstore ambience, doesn’t it?) with masks required, limited occupancy, one person per aisle/cubicle and they’re only buying books by appointment, no walk-ins. But it was an odd time of day, I was one of only two customers, and it sure was nice to leisurely browse after being away since early March.
In addition to the one James Ellroy novel I don’t have (Clandestine, 1982) I found this Chandler book tucked away in the Memoirs section, and what a treasure it is. Though not a biography, it runs chronologically, the writer’s early years covered mostly through his own correspondence from that period, while his key novel, pulp and screenwriting years are addressed via a mix of excerpts from his own work, juxtaposed with more correspondence and miscellany. Chandler’s thoughts on the art and craft of writing (most of those quite cynical) and fellow mystery/hard-boiled wordsmiths are some of the best parts of this book.
Browse backwards at “The Stiletto Gumshoe” and you’ll understand what a find this book is for me. I honor both of the U.S. hard-boiled mystery granddads, i.e. Hammett and Chandler, but favor Chandler by far, indulging myself with multiple rereads. I don’t turn to him for plotting guidance, Chandler’s plots puzzlingly mixed up at best, but for the music of the language, the endless array of Chandler-esque bon mots and his ability to somehow be gritty and poetic at the same time (something I desperately wish I could succeed at).
Yes, I’m well aware that Raymond Chandler and a host of mid-twentieth century writers have undergone some well-deserved scrutiny and inevitable reassessment of late. But, for good or bad, I’ve chosen to compartmentalize them along with the bulk of sixty to ninety-year-old films, pulp fiction, comics and vintage paperbacks, digesting the material in context of its own time, reluctant to evaluate the work through a 2020 lens. After all, while I can benefit from easy access to reams of modern scholarship, that doesn’t mean I’ll look at Rembrandt, Dante, Michelangelo or Shakespeare through contemporary filters either. For more about that, just follow the link below to an old January 2019 post about Raymond Chandler, The Annotated Big Sleep, Megan Abbott and more. But while you do, I’ll just continue to savor some of the master’s own words.
As I write this, we’re about to head into ‘Phase Three’ of the pandemic response ’round here, and will soon be able to re-enter shuttered retail stores (in limited numbers, masked and distanced, even gloved if you prefer, which I do). It’s none too soon for me. Bookstore phone orders and curbside pickups have been a Godsend, but obviously there’s no browsing, a crucial part of the book-buying (and money squandering) experience.
Early in the ‘sheltering in’, the always-excellent Kevin Burton Smith’s The New Thrilling Detective Web Site recommended a long list of hard-boiled/noir-ish/private eye mystery/crime fiction anthologies. I managed to track down several and have just now finished the last one, Tough Guys And Dangerous Dames, a hefty 1993 Barnes And Noble Books hardcover edited by those small press and retail bookstore instant-remainder anthology mavens, Robert Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz and Martin Greenberg. The E.T. Steadman cover art is a handsome pre-Adobe CS/Adobe CC digital photo-illustration, though you’d think they’d have gone for an actual public domain 1930’s – 1950’s era illustration, mindful of the anthology’s content. (These days, small presses, the self-published and no shortage of scammers seem happy to steal whatever vintage illustrations they want to ‘appropriate’.)
The trio of editors selected nearly thirty stories from Black Mask and other familiar hard-boiled crime fiction pulp magazines, penned by a star-studded list of that era’s writers, including Robert Bloch, Leigh Brackett, Hugh B. Cave, Raymond Chandler, Earle Stanley Gardner, William Campbell Gault, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and John D, MacDonald. Pulp fiction luminaries notwithstanding, The Stiletto Gumshoe’s followers/visitors won’t be surprised to hear that I first flipped to Robert Leslie Bellem’s “Homicide Hunch”, a Dan Turner Hollywood Detective tale. Here the story opens with the rock ‘em – sock’em hard-boiled L.A. private eye falling for a villain’s old trick, and finds himself trussed up hand and foot in a plush penthouse, with a lovely blonde tied up much the same way on the sofa across the opulent room. But no matter what we’re led to believe, she’s no damsel in distress and it’s all an elaborate plot to make Turner the patsy for a murder. It takes a few pages worth of delightfully silly Bellem word-smithing for Dan Turner to puzzle it all out and set things right after a suitable amount of punches and gunplay. What can I say? I loved it.
Not to nitpick, but while the ‘tough guys’ abound, the ‘dangerous dames’ are actually few and far between and I’d have happily taken a few more. But that didn’t make the reading any less fun. But now I’m all out of my pandemic-procurement curbside pickup treasures, the writing lair’s endtable to-be-read spot is bare once more, and I’m jonesing for stepping through a bookstores doors again…like now.
Deluged with articles and radio/TV news touting ways to pass the time while sheltering at home? Must-see series to binge watch, reading literary classics you skipped in high school, or perhaps reviving dormant hobbies? Sure, like I have time to start a ship in a bottle. The fact is, moving the day job from the office to the writing lair has mostly meant that everything takes twice as long to accomplish. So far, there’s no time for down time.
But one thing I promised to do is to finally catch up on an entire stash of articles and essays from Crime Reads, a fat folder of sloppy screen-caps and still-working links, some a year and half old. I was too busy to read them properly or at all when first spotted, and I mean to get through these things by the time we un-shelter.
Dial back with me to July of 2018 for “How To Write Like Chandler Without Becoming A Cliché” by Owen Hill (link below), one of the editors of the amazing The Annotated Big Sleep, along with Pamela Jackson and Anthony Dean Rizzuto (well, and Raymond Chandler, of course), that jumbo 470+ page 2018 Vintage Crime/Black Lizard classic noir/crime fiction fan must-read. I’ve written about it here before. Maybe will again. But for now, it’s Owen Hill’s remarks about just how easy it is to become so enthralled by the genre’s mid-twentieth century roots that the icons, triggers and tropes can permeate our own work…and not necessarily in a good way.
Hill’s essay is subtitled “Tips For Aspiring Crime Writers Enthralled By The Classics” and he opens by listing just a few of the most obvious and iconic scenes we’d automatically associate with Raymond Chandler’s (sometimes by way of Dashiell Hammett’s) work, and he notes, “Today it’s difficult to imagine a detective novel without at least an homage to these and other Chandleresque tropes. What’s a fledgling writer to do? How to make it all seem fresh?”
Aside from avoiding the most worn out clichés and stereotypes, Hill recommends reading. And reading a lot.
Chandler? Well, sure. How can you not? Hill adds James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald and notes that Chandler himself learned second-hand by reading the pulps, especially Earle Stanley Gardner and Hammett. I’ll add in a diverse bunch of notorious characters from James Ellroy to Sandra Scoppettone, Vicki Hendricks and early Megan Abbott, Loren D. Estleman and Stuart Kaminsky, Sue Grafton and George Pellecanos, Max Allan Collins and Sara Gran, both Kanes (Henry and Frank)…and of course, Mickey Spillane. My list could go on and on. You’ll have your own to add.
There’s a very fine line between homage and pastiche, and narrow as the distinction may be, it’s made worse by being blurry and ill-defined. What one reader/writer considers reverent, another sees as laughably hokey. I struggle with this all the time, whether working in period settings (much of my own stuff set in the late 1950’s to very early 1960’s) or in ‘the now’. Once the fellows sport suspenders and fedoras, the women wear hats and gloves, the cars have fat fenders or fins and the gumshoes plunk coins in pay phone slots, a writer’s in treacherous territory, where deadly clichés lurk around every corner.
Hill’s solution is the same one recommended by nearly every writing how-to book. Read, read and read some more…though obviously, leaving a little time for your fingers to tap dance across the keyboard. Makes sense. Only by getting a firm handle on the wide diversity of voices, settings, situations and styles a thriving genre comprises, and by seeing first-hand how those who’ve gone before us have synthesized the genre’s iconography into their own fresh perspectives can anyone possibly hope – however humbly – to put their own spin on things. It’s okay to be enthralled or even to go all fanboy/girl over genre classics, so long as we don’t become clichés ourselves.
So, you’ll indulge me if I include some pics of Robert Mitchum from the 1978 The Big Sleep in this post instead of the more revered, and obvious, Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe himself.
Just before shutting off the writer’s cave lights before heading to bed last night, I paused for a moment to browse one particular shelf on one of too many bookcases. Spines out, there were my Dashiell Hammett books lined up, a fancy hardcover Chatham River Press novel omnibus edition, a couple frail vintage paperbacks, and various Vintage Crime/Black Lizard trade paperbacks, the handsomest of the bunch in my opinion.
When it comes to the granddaddies of hard-boiled private-eye/crime fiction, I’ll concede here that I’m more Chandler than Hammett, more Marlowe than Spade. Still, yesterday was the anniversary of the day Dashiell Hammett passed away from lung cancer back in 1961. A moment of reverence seemed in order.
Pinkerton Agency operative, US Army vet in both WWI and WWII, staunch anti-fascist, Hammett was blacklisted and even served time in federal prison for contempt during the 1950’s communist witch hunts. He published over 100 short stories, story collections and novels, created The Continental Op, Nick and Nora Charles and of course, Sam Spade, and wrote for the silver screen as well, such as the screenplay for his long-time partner Lillian Hellman’s play Watch On The Rhine (a particular favorite film of mine). And yet, he wrote his final novel at age 40, more or less turning his back on fiction decades before his death, his novel and short fiction output penned primarily in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a puzzlingly brief career, but one that obviously influenced the mystery/crime fiction genre far beyond its duration.
My to-be-read pile is disturbingly tall at the moment. No, I don’t plan to squeeze in a re-read of The Maltese Falcon right now. But then I am reading Loren D. Estleman’s new When Old Midnight Comes Along, an Amos Walker mystery, and can feel the echoes of Dashiell Hammett’s work from eighty and ninety years ago in even that beloved private eye’s story.
Otto Penzler’s Pulp Fiction: The Dames is a follow-up to his previous anthologies Pulp Fiction: The Crimefighters and Pulp Fiction: The Villains. My copy shown here is a 2008 Quercus UK edition, a big fat 500+ page trade paperback which includes 22 stories plus two saucy Sally The Sleuth comic strips from 1930’s – 40’s pulp fiction magazines, including the top tier mags like Black Mask, Dime Detective and Detective Fiction Weekly, right down to the bottom rung in publications like Gun Molls, and Spicy Romantic Adventures. Penzler’s preface and Laura Lippman’s well-written introduction frame the material well. As she writes, “The pulps of the early 20thcentury will never be mistaken for proto-feminist documents…(but) there is just enough kink in these archetypes of girlfriend/hussy/sociopath to hint at broader possibilities for the female of the species.” Indeed, the roots of V.I. Washawski, Kinsey Millhone and even Lippman’s own Tess Monaghan can be traced right back here.
The anthology opens with a terrific Cornell Woolrich 1937 tale, Angel Face, about a chorus girl trying to keep her wayward younger brother out of trouble, but when he’s framed for murder, she ignores the cops and does her own sleuthing to nab the mobster she’s sure did the deed. It may end abruptly and even a bit implausibly, but every sentence absolutely sings with vintage slang and retro word-smithing that’s a dark delight. That’s followed by Leslie T. White’s Chosen To Die from 1934 with husband and wife team of P.I. Duke Martindel and attorney Phyllis Martindel, the well-intended gumshoe relying on his savvy spouse to get him out of jams with the law. The book includes stories from Dashiell Hammett, a Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady tale, a T.T. Flynn Trixie Meehan story and even Raymond Chandler’s 1935 Killer In The Rain, which he cannibalized (along with material from other short stories) for The Big Sleep. Read it and see if you don’t spot some mighty familiar scenes and passages, even if the private eye isn’t named Marlowe.
‘The Dames’ from pulp fiction aren’t all snoopy reporters, private investigators or even uniformed cops (rare as those were). The bad girlz might be some of the more memorable characters in this anthology, from gun molls to gang leaders. Unlike Penzler’s recent – and enormous – The Big Book Of Female Detectives (see link below for a post on that book) this one’s strictly vintage pulp fiction. Which isn’t always literary, can sometimes be a little squirm-worthy, but is almost always entertaining, and the female private eyes, girl reporters, sleuthing secretaries and, yes — even former chorus girls – make for one terrific tale after another.