(Spotted at that most excellent of reference sites, Notpulpcovers.com)
Back in 1944, ‘Noir Prince’ David Goodis penned a dogfight story titled “Dusk Is For Dying” under his own name for Fighting Aces magazine. For Goodis, any time may have been a good time for dying, dusk or dawn.
But let’s assume that “The Dawn Is For Dying” (above) by Lance Kermit doesn’t deal with heroic American airmen blasting Zeroes, Messerschmitt’s or whatever else Fighting Aces magazine showcased.
Actually, “Lance Kermit” was one of several pen names David Goodis used for the pulp magazine market (though he used his own name for many stories too). Not that I’d consider Adventure magazine a prestige venue…or any of the men’s adventure or ‘sweats’ mags, for that matter. But a David Goodis story graced by an Al Rossi two-page B&W illustration is prestigious enough for me, even if Rossi’s art is pure vintage sleaze at its ‘best’…or worst, depending on your point of view.
Now that I think about it, this April 1959 issue would’ve been on the newsstands during my own The Stiletto Gumshoe project, the hoped-for series’ first novel set in April and May of that same year. As it happens, “Sharon Gardner/Sasha Garodnowicz” (the Stiletto Gumshoe herself) inherited a soft spot for mystery fiction and true crime pulps left behind by her old man, and she’d have been sorely tempted by “The Case Of The Deadly Doll” and “Are You A Slave Of Desire?”. But I know she’d have snickered at “Land Of The Love-Captive Girls” and John Stygna’s cover art with its sword-wielding sheik and harem girls. My bet: A quick thumb-through of the rag would’ve probably found her settling in to Kermit/Goodis’ “The Dawn Is For Dying”.
Not everyone re-reads novels, but I do, returning to a few classics and cherished favorites every few years, sometimes just grabbing a previously read book purely on a whim. But it’s rare for me to re-visit a book finished less than a year ago. Nonetheless, that’s just what I did with Laura Lippman’s 2019 Lady In The Lake, even though the to-be-read pile on the writing lair’s endtable is filling up (overflowing, actually) with new books waiting to be started.
Sure, I enjoyed Lippman’s tale of Baltimore’s mid-1960’s upper middle-class Jewish homemaker Madeline ‘Maddie’ Schwartz, her abrupt decision to leave her family for a new life in an edgy part of town, finagling her way into a bottom-rung newspaper job, and her ambitious and potentially dangerous investigation into the largely ignored death of Eunetta ‘Cleo’ Sherwood, a young African-American woman. Lady in The Lake is crime fiction. It’s definitely a mystery. But it’s also a coming-of-age story, though the age in this sorta-kinda homage to Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar is Maddie Schwartz’ late-thirties, her own teenage years’ self-discovery tabled for marriage and homemaker roles.
Read the first time only months earlier, there were no new revelations to be discovered in the plot. And Lippman scores no better or worse than most writers do with the “there” – that is, immersing the reader in the place in which the story unfolds. I’ve never been to Baltimore, Maryland, and Lippman’s laundry list of stores, restaurants and street names didn’t conjure up any specific sense of place. That’s not a criticism. The fact is, having been raised on a century of Hollywood films and television shows, we all can recognize a handful of Los Angeles and New York street and neighborhood names and landmarks. But the main drags in Tulsa or Spokane? The upscale department store in Denver vs. the dime store chain in Minneapolis? The fancy dining spots in Pittsburgh and the greasy spoons in Cleveland? Of course not.
For myself, I’ve chosen not to agonize over pointless geography lessons in my own writing, confident that no reader will spot check my rendition of Chicago (much less Chicago over 60 years ago) on Google Maps to uncover a fabricated street name or question if the Rexall drug store was really on the southwest or northeast corner of an intersection. The “there” – the real sense of place – has to be conveyed via much more than a tour guide’s itinierary.
But the “then”?
Laura Lippman’s handling of the “then” in Lady of The Lake was masterfully done, and why I opted to revisit the novel, this time like a high school/college class reading assignment, taking careful note of the different ways she kept the reader firmly rooted in the Autumn of 1965 through November 1966 (with a brief coda some twenty years later). Just as a sense of place is established – and maintained – by much more than meaningless address lists, the elusive sense of “then” must first be conveyed (and then repeatedly but, hopefully, not intrusivelyreinforced) with much more than pointing out cars’ make and model years, household product brand names or some other pop culture references. In Lady In The Lake, everything really feels like it’s 1966, from the characters’ body language to the pervasive dismissiveness Maddie Schwartz constantly navigates through. Spiro T. Agnew may be running for governor, The Sandpipers playing at the theater, but those only matter if a contemporary reader even knows who Agnew was or can picture Steve McQueen on screen. Chronological cultural cues are sprinkled throughout, of course, but it’s the actions and dialog that constantly define the time, if not the place. How precisely Lippman accomplished all of this is not so easy to decipher.
My own work is set in the ethnic blue collar bungalow belt of 1959 Chicago. Neighborhood borders – and ethnic/racial boundaries – are as rigid and insurmountable as real walls, and a viaduct or railroad line as formidable as the Brandenburg Gate in Cold War era Berlin. I think I’ve managed a sense of place pretty well without getting bogged down in street names and local landmarks that couldn’t resonate with readers. But that doesn’t mean that all the maps, downloaded photos, vintage magazines and hours of research were pulled together for nothing. They’ve played their part in helping me to establish – and maintain – an essential sense of the “then” as much (if not more so) as the “there”. Am I doing it as handily as Laura Lippman? I doubt it. But a re-read of her Lady In The Lake is helping to keep me on the right track.
I’ve been more or less on ‘pause’ with my own writing projects since late March. Specifically, the outreach/submission chores have been on hold, for good or bad, waiting till Labor Day before ‘un-pausing’.
Queries previously circulated for the completed The Stiletto Gumshoe novel (that’s actually not it’s title) while I continued work on its follow-up for a hoped-for mystery/crime fiction series. But with NYC the epicenter of all-things-bad back in the Spring, it seemed sensible to halt any further outreach. Considering the frustrating ratio of replies (even when they’re ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’) to so-called NORMANS (no reply means a no), why send things out to empty workstations and unopened inboxes? Offices had emptied out, folks were huddling in their homes and apartments, and we all had bigger things on our minds than genre fiction queries.
Things loosened up a little in some parts of the country (New York in particular) while we drifted into Summer, a time of year considered by many (though not all) as the publishing marketplace’s down-time. Though ‘real’ Summer’s still with us for another two weeks-plus, Labor Day’s the traditional end of the season, and I’m ready – even eager – to get going again. So, just to get back in the groove, I pulled the untouched-for-months manuscript out and gave it another once-over…what writer can forego making another tweak or two?
As for the in-progress sequel? It hasn’t progressed as much as I’d like, not for lack of inspiration or due to writer’s block, but simply a matter of time. I never could’ve foreseen how the day job would change once everything went haywire back in late March: Staff working from home, me on-site, access to assets, info and more from Brazil, Germany, the UK and other faraway places all delayed. Bottom line: Everything takes half again longer than usual to complete. Mind you, there’ll be no whining here. I’m working. So many still are not.
Writing, publishing and bookselling sites, blogs and the trade press provide a mixed bag of news and opinions on what’s-what in the marketplaces. The good news: Print unit sales have been up, by more than anyone foresaw, and the numbers seem to show some staying power. On the other hand, book production’s been disrupted, not only by pandemic related issues but supply-chain and other problems with the main book printing mega-companies. Still, new titles are coming out. Deals are being made. All eyes may be on the latest political tell-all hardcover right now, but we assume that’ll fade sometime soon. So, while pressing pause when the pandemic first swept over the country and everything initially shut down seemed prudent, lingering in neutral for too long can only lead to inertia. Time to get back to work.
Literary Agent Jessica Faust’s excellent Bookends Literary Agency blog (link below) recently posted “Keep Moving Forward”, recounting the ups and downs (mostly ups) of the scary days in the Spring, and offers, “My tip for my clients is the same as I gave my agents. Keep moving forward…Keep submitting, even if it’s summer or a pandemic or the world looks bleak. Keep moving forward and controlling the one thing you can control: What you’re doing.” Makes sense to me. Whatever the ‘new normal’ is or will ultimately be, there’s no point sitting on the sidelines with a wait-n-see attitude. So next week I’ll reopen that buzzkill of a query/submission spreadsheet, revisit my continually-added-to literary agent lists, revise and refresh my queries and get back to work.
This particular true crime pulp cover has been one of my personal favorites and residing in a ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ folder stuffed full of 1950’s/60’s photos, ads and historical references. Sure, you’ll find more exciting, violent, lurid or blatantly ‘sex-ified’ covers among 1950’s crime fiction and true crime pulps than this October 1954 issue of True Detective magazine, which touted cases inside like “The Murder Minded Lawyer Of Lake Wales” and a double-length feature, “Daughter’s Revenge”. This particular plainly attired snoop was but one of many vintage paperback and pulp magazine covers that planted the seeds of inspiration for my own current projects, and could almost be ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ herself.
Often as not, postwar pulp and paperback covers weren’t even credited. I’ve seen this one attributed to Mort Kunstler at more than one site now, but in what may or may not be more authoritative art auction sites, it’s credited to Lu Kimmel (1905 – 1973), so I’ll go with that. Smack my forehead…I always thought it was a photo, not an illustration.
Book titles have been on my mind lately. While doing some routine computer housekeeping to finally read, file or toss the zillion things I collect, I found myself marveling at so many retro mystery/crime fiction novel and pulp magazine story titles. Say what you want about vintage genre fiction, but those writers sure could concoct some terrific titles.
The fact is, I’d been struggling with titling my own projects, originally doing some querying with just a working title (Surprise: “The Stiletto Gumshoe”) but then fretting that the title might give the wrong impression. Considering that queries and subs often garner no more than a few seconds of a busy agent or editor’s attention – if that – did I really want to stick with a title that sounds more like a ‘mystery-lite’ novel or shopaholic mystery about a modern-day well-heeled dilettante running down clues in her Louboutins?
Sure, cover art ultimately brings a book’s title to life and telegraphs the novel’s message. But in the manuscript stage, the ‘cover art’ is 12 pt. Times New Roman type on plain white 20 lb. bond or much more likely a screen…or something even more generic keyed into online submission/query forms.
Jim Milliott reported on the importance of book titles in last week’s Publishers Weekly: “Judging A Book By Its Title” (link below), sub-headed with, “A recent test found that titles can be more important than cover art in attracting prospective readers”. Milliott writes about a Codex Group research study presenting over 50 upcoming titles to some 4,000 participants in order to probe what piqued readers’ interest or might impact purchase decisions. Book buyers being word lovers by nature, it might come as no surprise that titles, not cover art, prompted decision making, at least according to the Codex Group study. Reading Milliott’s article further, though, I’m not so sure, particularly when he quotes an Amazon creative director, who recognizes the importance of “the interplay between the title of the book and the visuals on the cover”.
If you’re reading this and follow or visit here, you already know I’m fixated on cover art…contemporary or retro, photo or illustrated. I pondered some mystery/crime fiction titles I’ve always loved…John D. MacDonald’s The Brass Cupcake came to mind as just one particular fave, for example, and I peeked at different editions of that book, from what I think is its first release from 1950 (at the top of this post) to what may be the best known, a 1958 edition with a Barye Phillips illustration (just above) and various other editions. Each says something a little different, accurate or not.
If you’re a published writer, you may have books on shelf with covers so beautiful they could make you weep, and others you prefer to hide in your sock drawer. Or, if you’re still looking forward to the day when your name will be emblazoned on your first book, you’ll have ample time to fret about the cover art…and little voice in what it ends up as, no doubt. And if you’re an avid reader squandering too much dough on books (like me) you know how titles and cover art have lured you in…happily, sometimes…and sometimes not.
I’m experimenting with titles right now, sending out with “Title A” vs. “Title B” to see if it matters, naturally petrified that the options are awful. “The Stiletto Gumshoe” doesn’t have the zing of The Brass Cupcake. But then, what does?
Reminder: If you’re stopping in here at The Stiletto Gumshoe at WordPress or at its Tumblr counterpart (links below) but aren’t signed up to follow on either platform, you can always tag along via a free-and-easy blog aggregator like Blog Lovin. I use it to stay abreast of numerous blogs and sites all in one handy place.
So well composed and deceptively simple looking, this piece by UK artist Mike Redman is almost as much a graphic design as it is an illustration. I think it always catches my eye because it reminds me so much of my own in-progress work on ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’, Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz) described as “more comfy atop a barstool than behind a receptionist’s desk”.
This art pops up frequently at Pinterest, Tumblr and random blogs…it’d be nice if Redman’s name accompanied the image more often…
With that clock ticking closer to midnight, this duo looked more apprehensive than enthusiastic. Perhaps, like many, they failed to make a suitable list of New Year’s resolutions for 2020.
Count me among that lot.
I have no resolutions for this new decade (which I realize technically doesn’t commence until 2021), knowing from prior experience that I’d never keep them anyway. My vices are few, drinking modestly (if even that), donut shop coffee my drug of choice, reasonably thrifty, diligent in the day job, unfailingly (and happily) faithful in my relationship.
Confession: I smoke, and resolving to quit would be the very best resolution. But I know I won’t, at least not now, so why kid myself? So then…what else? Eat healthy? Exercise more? Be more charitable, kinder to strangers, start going to church?
I don’t do resolutions, but I do have an agenda for 2020. Not so different than my 2019 agenda, with some tweaks to my writing endeavors: Table The Stiletto Gumshoe’s sequel temporarily, concluding it’s presumptuous to work on the second book of a planned series when the first hasn’t even been sold, much less agented yet. But the agenda includes a refusal to lose heart while continuing the humbling (or soul-crushing) querying process. It’s not rejections that sting. Those are fairly few and, often enough, come with genuinely encouraging remarks. It’s the non-responses that bruise some, and it seems they’ve become the industry norm. But the agenda’s full with short fiction projects for The Stiletto Gumshoe and other things, coupled with a renewed zeal to pay more attention to short fiction markets, contests and competitions, anemic or non-existent compensation aside. Keeping up with all that while aiming for some better balance of ‘real’ writing time and lazy-ass blog-hobbying time is enough of an agenda for my 2020. So, here’s hoping for a happy and productive 2020, for me and all of you!
The Stiletto Gumshoe will be away till the next decade (2020), enjoying an overdue holiday-over-the-holidays.
This eerily foggy Christmas Eve morning feels more like Autumn than December, likely to hit the mid-50’s this afternoon. But last I checked, there’s just a whisker-shy of two feet of snow on the ground where I’m headed, and that ought to be suitably seasonal. While I won’t exactly be ‘off the grid’, I’ll be darn close, with no cable, satellite dish, streaming or internet/email, and wi-fi’s a ten-mile drive away. Heck, cell/text is a bit spotty. That might not sound good to you, but I can’t wait. The halls have already been decked with boughs of holly…or at least, a tree, wreaths and other stuff. Ample provisions have been stowed away, a good supply of firewood piled up, a selection of Xmas CD’s and movies have been packed, the latter a mix of Christmas classics and darker noir and neo-noir-ish faves set at Christmas time (The Stiletto Gumshoe can’t survive on White Christmas alone).
Family will be close at hand. No skiing or snowmobiling planned, but with an aged but beloved furry four-footed friend likely to be having his last Christmas, there’ll be some romps among the snow-covered pines, I’m sure. What there won’t be are day job commutes, last minute client emergencies-that-aren’t, mall trips, parking lots, UPS/FedEx tracking of overdue presents, obligatory extended family get-togethers or jousting with MAGA hat wearing relatives. And no querying, blogging, texting or emailing. If I get the urge, I can always fire up the laptop to pound some keys beside the tree. Fireside reading in a comfy chair? I’m bringing Benjamin Moser’s hefty 800+ page bio of Susan Sontag, Sontag – Her Life And Work, Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon and Marcos Martin’s Batgirl – Year One: The Deluxe Edition hardcover and my first-ever Danielle Steele novel, her new release, Spy. And odd mix? Yeah, I suppose so.
There’ll be a merry missive here tomorrow, but that aside, this is it for 2019. So, my very sincere holiday wishes to all visitors, lurkers and especially my followers here at thestilettogumshoe.com both at WordPress and Tumblr. See you in 2020!
No, The Stiletto Gumshoe won’t be in anyone’s Christmas stocking this year, least of all mine. Perhaps I spent 2019 being naughty when I should’ve been nice. Still, I’m thinking positive thoughts for 2020, and am one of those naive types who truly believe that diligence pays off (even if I’ve been proven wrong in the past). So I know what I hope to find under my tree next year: Not baubles or bangles. Just a book, and one book in particular…