Harold & Elvis (Thanks To Richie Fahey).

A Stone for Danny Fisher

It wouldn’t be the first time Richie Fahey’s cover art prompted me to buy a book I’d normally dismiss (it’s how I first discovered Stuart Kaminsky’s wonderful Toby Peters detective novels). But the 2007 Touchstone reprint of bestselling trash-master Harold Robbins’ 1951/52 A Stone For Danny Fisher didn’t disappoint. And mind you, I don’t particularly care for novels (or films) set in the boxing world. Robbins later settled in to a repetitious but highly successful formula that produced glitzy bestsellers like The Carpetbaggers and 79 Park Avenue. But here the writer’s closer to his own roots, perhaps, with Depression-era Brooklyn teenager Danny Fisher’s family relocating to the Lower East Side after hitting hard times, where Danny’s forced to reckon with crushing poverty, squalid surroundings and rampant anti-Semitism. While his talent for amateur boxing gets him a spot in the ring, it also gets him mixed up with gamblers crooks and mobsters, even while he tries to navigate (and not so well) relationships with two very different women – a prostitute who fits right in with the seamy world Danny’s been thrust into, and the ‘good girl’ determined to set him free.

What I never knew until I’d finished A Stone For Danny Fisher is that it was adapted (mighty loosely) into Elvis Presley’s 1958 King Creole, a pretty legit and gritty movie quite unlike the silly romps Presley was forced to star in after he got out of the Army. Credit that to the movie being directed by none other than Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas and so many other classics), who was understandably concerned about working with the pop sensation, but took the project seriously and decided to shoot in black & white with a very dark palette for a distinctly ‘noir’ look.

King Creole 2

Apparently, Hal Wallis bought the rights to A Stone For Danny Fisher as a vehicle for James Dean, but the project was shelved after the actor’s death. Later, after an Off-Broadway theatrical version got some buzz, the project was revived, now to star Elvis, but doing what Hollywood does best (i.e. toss out everything they paid for, more or less). Elvis’ Danny Fisher is no longer a boxer but a singer and the setting’s changed from New York to New Orleans. He’s still mixed up with hoods and two very different women, the ‘bad girl’ played by Carolyn Jones (sister of Shirley Jones and better known as Morticia Addams on TV’s The Addams Family series) …the ‘good girl’ played by Dolores Hart, whose short Hollywood career ended in 1963 when she left to become a Catholic nun.

Strangely, Elvis did end up playing a boxer several years later in Kid Galahad, a sorta-kinda (but not really) remake of a 1937 film with Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart.

King Creole 1

King Creole was produced pretty quickly, the studio getting a sixty-day deferment for Presley to delay his induction into the Army. Still, it really is a pretty good movie, whether you like Elvis films or not. Mind you, I wouldn’t go comparing the storyline to Harold Robbins’ A Stone For Danny Fisher.  Check them both out, though. Just enjoy each on its own merits.

Murder For Love.

Murder For Love

At the tail-end of March, I mentioned a number of mystery/crime fiction anthologies spotted at The New Thrilling Detective website, complete with handy links for ordering even though none were very recent releases. I’m past mid-way through the group I selected, just wrapping up Otto Penzler’s Murder For Love, a 1999 rack-sized paperback edition of the 1996 book.

Sixteen writers contributed previously unpublished tales, and Penzler nabbed some real names for this project, including Mary and Carol Higgins Clark, James Crumley, John Gardner, Faye and Jonathan Kellerman, Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Joyce Carol Oates, Sara Paretsky and Anne Perry among others. How an editor can avoid redundancy and end up with sixteen distinctly different stories with so many luminaries turning in material to fit a theme is a mystery in itself.

The lead-off story by real-life former NYPD cop William J. Caunitz, “Dying Time”, is a procedural treat. If Jill Hennessey and Sam Waterson made cameos before its climax, it could’ve been an episode of Law & Order, and even was written in that same era. (With seven novels to his credit in Caunitz’ post law enforcement career, the writer sadly passed away right around the time of this anthology’s original publication.)  Near the end of the book is a deliciously dark (and unsettling grim) bit of noir-ish business from Joyce Carol Oates, and in the middle is Bobbie Ann Mason’s wryly playful “Nancy Drew Remembers”, in which the girl detective, now grown up and not doing so well, gets taken for a ride, and not in her trademark roadster this time.

Each story has a one-page or more intro penned by the editor, which I enjoyed. Though no credit appears in my paperback edition, I’m going to guess the handsome cover art comes from retro-noir photo-illustration maestro Richie Fahey. Now, I can’t verify that, of course, but it sure looks like his work. You can’t see them in the scan shown here, but there are vintage drapes hanging deep in the background shadows that just say ‘Fahey’ to me.

This is just the kind of anthology that populates used bookstore shelves, so frankly I’m surprised I didn’t have it. But I will keep an eye out for the two companion anthologies from Penzler: Murder For Revenge and Murder And Obsession.

Revenge Obsession

A Broken Heart To Go…

Martinis And A Broken Heart To Go

Mid-January: Snowflakes started falling mid-afternoon Friday, and by Saturday morning (not especially cold) a thick coating of snow turned streets and sidewalks treacherous. But by mid-afternoon today, the temps plummeted into the 20’s, headed for the frigid teens by tonight, with gusty winds whipping people right down icy driveways.

The writing lounge sounds like the place to be tonight, maybe tomorrow as well. Maybe there’s no reason to poke my nose out the door till I head back to work on Monday. The keyboard beckons, and there’s work to be done. There’s a freshly refilled thermal carafe of coffee on my desk, the ashtray’s in reach, and though they’re only CD’s (vinyl would be better) the Jazz Noir compilation and 1997’s Martinis And A Broken Heart To Go (complete with Richie Fahey case art) ought to do the trick to keep things warm while I pound the keys.

There are worse ways to spend a weekend…

Jazz Noir

Straight From The Fridge, Dad

straight from the fridge dad

Just about any book with a Richie Fahey cover illustration will make me pause for a second look, and the cover designed by Jesse Marinoff Reyes for the 2000 edition shown here of Straight From The Fridge, Dad – A Dictionary of Hipster Slang by Max Decharne features a terrific Fahey piece.

“Think of it as a sort of Thirty Days To A More Powerful Vocabulary for the beret-wearing, bongo-banging set” the back cover says, but it’s actually more than that.

I have several books on retro slang, most of them pretty slim things, written and published as novelty items, I suppose. But apparently it took someone who divides his time between London and Berlin to put together a more comprehensive and detailed book on mid-20th century American slang, digging deep not only into the 1950’s-60’s Beat Scene but further back into the Jazz era and reference works like Babs Gonzales’ Boptionary, Del Close and John Brent’s How To Speak Hip LP and hipster lingo dictionaries from Cab Calloway and Lavada Durst. Decharne’s Straight From The Fridge, Dad is nearly 200 pages of slick words and expressions that fit right in anywhere from a 1920’s speakeasy to a 1940’s crime novel and all the way up to a late 1950’s Greenwich Village coffee house. If you dig retro or just love words, you’ll love this book, and if you’re writing anything set in the 1920’s through 1960’s, you’ll find a word or phrase — or two or more — to slot in quite comfily in your own work. Though nearly twenty years old, the book’s been re-released in several editions (all with nifty cover art, though I’ll still go with the Fahey illustration) and is available new and used online and seen frequently in bookstores. Get yourself a copy, and then arrange that beret just-so atop your head, make yourself an espresso or pour a shot of MD 20-20 and settle in to a dictionary that’s actually fun to read.

The Big Blowdown

The Big Blowdown - Richie Fahey Cover art

There’s a long list of George Pelecanos’ projects that I adore: Novels, short stories, television scripts.

But my favorite remains The Big Blowdown, his 1999 tale of two Washington DC friends (including Nick Stefanos, the Pelecanos character who’s crossed-over into more than one project) set in a post-WWII world of realistically drawn blue-collar Greek neighborhoods filled with rich renderings of everyday people who live and work alongside the small-time mobsters who really run things. Some have compared Pelecanos’ early novels to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, and I won’t argue. They share a spare yet darkly poetic writing style and focus on a specific time, place and cast of characters. How he continues to create excellent books while concurrently working as a writer/producer for high-visibility projects like The Wire, The Pacific and The Deuce among others is beyond me. A person can only do so much. Somehow, Pelecanos does still more.

For me, this particular novel has been a kind of tutorial on how a master wordsmith handles an ethnic milieu, something I’m working with (different ethnicity, but still) in my own projects. Obviously, Pelecanos does it better than many, and better than anything I could ever hope for.

The Big Blowdown will get a careful re-read someday. I’ll just need to give it some time so I can forget the specifics and discover it all anew. As an aside, the nifty Richie Fahey cover art on my well-worn trade pb edition shown above doesn’t hurt.

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