A Mid-Fifties ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’.

True-Detective-October-1954 mort kuntsler copy 2

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of my personal favorites and residing in a ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ folder stuffed full of 1950’s/60’s photos, ads and historical references.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.

Do No Harm.

Do No harm

My book cases’ Collins (and I don’t mean Wilkie) section takes up most of a long shelf, and that’s only the Max Allan Collins solo titles (his co-authored completions of Mickey Spillane novels being in the even bigger Mickey Spillane section). Collins shares some shelf space with Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peter series, which I consider a pretty honorable place to reside. From Michael O’Sullivan and The Road books to Ms. Tree, Maggie Starr in the 1950’s NYC comics scene series to the new Galena, IL police chief Krista Larsen series, it’s a long and continually growing row. There’s even an ancient Mallory hardcover from 1984, Kill Your Darlings (a used bookstore find, that one). I’ll admit to coming up a little shy on his Nolan and Quarry novels. Still, call me a fan.

But the longest portion of that long bookshelf is taken up by Collins’ Nathan Heller books, among my favorite mystery/crime fiction series, right up there with Estleman’s Amos Walker and Spillane’s Mike Hammer himself. There are hardcovers, trade pb’s and pocketbooks from Tor Forge, iBooks, Harper Torch, Signet, Dutton, Thomas Mercer and more…you have to stay on top of things if you want to catch the Hellers, and I do try to be diligent about it.

Advance PR noted that 2020’s Do No Harm would thrust Chicago P.I. Nathan Heller and his A-1 Detective Agency in the middle of a sensational 1950’s murder case: The Sam Sheppard affair. Heller has found himself in the midst of Los Angeles’ Black Dahlia murder, the Lindbergh kidnapping and Marilyn Monroe’s death among other high-profile cases. I’ll admit to enjoying Nathan Heller most when tangling with the mob in his Chi-Town home-town, his early career the most interesting. Frankly, I knew little about the real-life Sheppard murder other than it being ‘sorta-kinda’ the inspiration for the popular 1960’s TV series The Fugitive.

Newspapers

Dr. Sam Sheppard was a successful suburban Cleveland physician and apparently a bit of a philanderer. Late at night after an Independence Day get-together with neighbors, Marilyn Sheppard was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered right in the family’s lakefront home’s upstairs bedroom, while their son slept just down the hall and Sheppard himself snoozed away on a downstairs sofa. Law enforcement bungled the investigation and the local press more or less convicted him long before charges were filed or his trial commenced. Sheppard was found guilty and sent away for life. Many, however, felt he was railroaded.

Collins’ Nathan Heller novel includes a large cast of characters both real and imagined/composited, including Elliott Ness (who moved to Cleveland after his notorious ‘Untouchables’ escapades in Chicago), Perry Mason creator Earle Stanley Gardner and celebrity defense attorney F. Lee Bailey. Collins’ and long-time associate George Hagenauer’s thorough research is evident throughout, the book reading at times like a true crime book and at others like a rousing Nate Heller noir novel. Sheppard was ultimately retried and exonerated, though he earned no brownie points for his antics during his post-prison life, and while Collins seems convinced of the doctor’s innocence, Do No Harm doesn’t whitewash the man. The author concedes that he changed his own mind several times about who really murdered Marilyn Sheppard during the wee hours of July 4th, 1954.

If my work schedule was a little less overwhelming, I’m sure I’d have plowed through this book in a couple days. As it was, I was forced to read a chapter or two at a time over several days, but always anxious to get right back to it. Nate Heller books are just like that. Do No Harm was actually the very last new book added to the normally overflowing to-be-read heap on the writing lair’s endtable. That pile will grow again and soon enough, though it’ll take a little more doing than usual to rebuild the stack to normal size. And it’ll take some patience to wait for another Max Allan Collins Nathan Heller novel.

PW’s Book Shopping List.

PW

A mid-November issue of Publishers Weekly was stuffed full of interesting things, particularly two special features on mysteries, thrillers & true crime in, “Out Of The Shadows” by Michael J. Seidlinger, and “Open Wounds” by Bridey Heing. The thrust of those two meaty multi-page articles: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl has sold nearly four million copies in seven years, during which time the mystery/crime fiction/thriller marketplace might feel overtaken by a glut of domestic thrillers helmed by similarly imperfect narrators. But the genre, its subsets and offshoots are an incredibly rich and diverse landscape of distinctive voices, inventive plot devices and milieus, so both Seidlinger and Heing showcased a wide selection of now-debuting and soon-to-arrive novels and true crime titles that aren’t necessarily Gone Girl derivatives (or even include ‘Girl’ in the title, which so many new releases have been doing). I was pleased to spot some I’d already ordered, reserved or even had in hand. And, just as pleased to see more in Seidlinger and Heing’s articles and the adjacent ads for books I mean to get, including:

After All -

After All by Robert Arthur Neff

Are Snakes NecessaryDouble Feature

Hard Case Crime’s Are Snakes Necessary by Brian DePalma and Susan Lehman, and Double Feature by Donald Westlake

Bonita Palms

Bonita Palms by Hal Ross

That Left Turn At Albuquerque

That Left Turn At Albuquerque by Scott Phillips

The Wrong Girl

The Wrong Girl by Donis Casey: ‘The Adventures Of Bianca Dangereuse’

The Beauty DefenseAnd for some non-fiction, The Beauty Defense – Femmes Fatales On Trial by Laura James

 

 

Dead Fashion Girl

dead fashion girl copy

I’m not sure precisely what “A Situationist Detective Story” is, and rarely read true crime, preferring to indulge in make-believe murder and mayhem. A noir-addict ought to be comfy with unhappy endings, which no one expects in true crime books. We can only look for some satisfactory resolution: The suspect arrested, the crime solved, the guilty tried and sentenced with some measure of justice done for the victim.

There’s no such satisfaction with Jean Mary Townshend’s 1954 murder. Fred Vermorel’s Dead Fashion Girl (2019) deals not only with the crime and initial police investigation, but what the author considers a six-decade cover-up of bungled inquiries and period prejudices, the book as much a look at prim and proper postwar middle-class England and the hush-hush decadence of mid-1950’s London bohemian culture.

Twenty-one-year-old aspiring fashion designer and sometimes model Jean Mary Townshend worked as a theatrical costumer in London’s west end, commuting by train to her parents’ South Ruislip home. Following some after-work fun, she was last seen alive walking home late at night. Her body was discovered the following morning, evidently strangled with her own scarf. Although it was reported at the time (1980’s documents indicating otherwise) that there were no signs of sexual assault, Townshend’s fully clothed body was found with her shoes and underthings carefully removed and left nearby. Other incidents occurred right in this same vicinity over the next few years, with suspicion initially falling on U.S. servicemen from a nearby Air Force base to members of the well-to-do set. Efforts to reopen the investigation or obtain records have been rebuffed and the case remains unsolved.

Dead Fashion Girl is filled with minute details and numerous photos. Yet, what makes the book more interesting than a by-the-numbers police procedural for a true crime neophyte like myself are the portions devoted to the mid-fifties milieus Jean Mary Townshend inhabited along with the authorities’ fixation on the decadent London scene, proto-beatnik and artsy cliques. Vermorel’s known for so-called “anti-biographies” and pop culture books covering the Sex Pistols, Gary Numan, Adam Ant, Kate Bush, Vivienne Westwood, Kate Moss and others. His Dead Fashion Girl provides a good glimpse (especially for an uninformed Yank) of a pre-Mod/pre-Profumo affair London scene. It may leave you uneasy and even furious that Townshend’s killer was never brought to justice and now, over sixty years later, most likely never will be. Sadly, there’s no justice for the Dead Fashion Girl.

Beach Reads, Murder & Mayhem.

NYT Summer Thrillers

Last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review feature “Murder, Betrayal, Sweet Revenge: A Summer’s Worth Of Thrillers” could prod any mystery/crime fiction fan to head straight to the bookstore. Laura Lippman’s Lady In The Lake was treated to a full page review by none other than Stephen King, a fellow who’s knocked out a book or two himself. King’s review opens with an anecdote about Edmund Wilson’s 1945 essay in which the critic dismissed most detective and mystery fiction as little more than crossword puzzles, wondering why anyone would even care who-killed-who (insert a novel’s victim here). Well, as King rightly pointed out, clearly millions care, evidenced by the many, many millions of mystery/crime fiction books sold in the nearly 75 years since Wilson first rankled readers with his snooty observations. And, as King further explained, he cared specifically who killed Eunetta Scherwood and Tessie Fine, whose mid-1960’s Baltimore murders are investigated by Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz in Laura Lippman’s Lady In The Lake.

Lady In The Lake

Terri Gerritsen, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child and several other thriller writers responded to the Times’ question, “What’s the most memorable murder you’ve ever dreamed up?”, with some pretty grisly (and funny) answers. Author Lisa Gardner explained where a thriller writer goes to research her latest murder in “A Visit To The Body Farm”, forensic anthropologist Bill Bass’ University Of Tennessee three-acre wooded Anthropology Research Facility which contains nearly a thousand decomposing corpses, ready for educational use by budding crime lab students. (Ugghhh.) Ross MacDonald and Tina Joran put together a two page “Murder Map” (the illustration sans callouts shown here) with an exemplary true crime book highlighted for each of the fifty states. It’s like a mystery/crime fiction enthusiast’s centerfold pinup, suitable for hanging over your writing desk or reading chair.

NYT Book Review

And after reading multiple mystery/crime fiction reviews, there was Kate Tuttle’s piece, certainly the most thought provoking in last week’s edition. Tuttle notes that over 70 percent of Amazon’s  true crime book reviews are by women, and her essay “Why Are Women Such Devoted Readers Of True Crime?” recalls grisly summer camp serial killer storytelling: “When the lights go out, we talk about what scares us: The near miss, the victim that could have been us.” Kate Tuttle wonders, “Why did we thrill so to these stories? What possible benefit could we derive from hearing about someone like us who had met the worst possible fate – not dying from a freak accident or a sudden illness but dying the way girls are killed: Intimately, sexually, compulsively, fueled by jealousy or entitlement or rage?” The question wasn’t fully answered, perhaps, leaving us all to ponder it on our own.

NYT Summer Thrillers 2

 

Bienville Parish, Louisiana. May 23rd, 1934.

Bonnie And Clyde Poster

The 1934 Ford V-8 was shot up pretty bad on that rural road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, about 150 rounds from pistols, shotguns and automatic rifles. The man behind the wheel took 17 shots, the woman beside him was hit 26 times, both with several head wounds. It probably was every bit as gruesome as the slow-mo climax of Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie & Clyde, which did so much to revive interest in the Depression era crooks, romanticizing the duo into legendary status far beyond anything their real life short-lived crime spree deserved. By most accounts, Clyde Barrow died instantly from the first volley, Bonnie Parker lasting only a moment more as the fusillade continued.

Boonie CLyde MinI Series

You can picture the real Bonnie Parker, Faye Dunaway or Holliday Grainger, as you wish. Fashion magazine art directors want to do something with gangsters or gun molls? They do a Bonnie & Clyde pictorial. There’s been no shortage of non-fiction books, novels, feature films, TV/cable and direct-to-DVD films about Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, from Dorothy Provine in The Bonnie Parker Story in 1958 to this year’s The Highwaymen, each taking its own license. Lets guess that Bonnie And Clyde Vs. Dracula may not have been the most historically accurate of the bunch.

Bonnie & CLyde 4 Fashion PicsBonnie Clye 3 MoviesBonnie & CLyde VS Dracula

But it was eighty five years ago today on May 23rd, 1934 that the real duo met their end in a roadside ambush led by Texas lawman Frank Hamer and various Texas and Louisiana state and local police.

Good or bad, the legend lives on.

Bonnie & Clyde

Pulp Fictioneers

Pulp Fictioneers John Locke

I suspect that many had-boiled crime fiction fans – readers and writers alike – tend to romanticize the legendary writers from the mid-twentieth century pulp and paperback originals era. I know I do. We have this image of a grizzled wordsmith in a dumpy third floor cold-water walkup, street noise and curbside trash smells wafting through an open window and rattling the yellowed venetian blinds, a second hand desk or wobbly card table with a pint of no-name rye whiskey on one side, a pack of unfiltered Luckies beside an overflowing ashtray on the other, and a temperamental Underwood in the middle, the writer pounding away some first-draft-is-the-only-draft tale of murder and mayhem oozing with just-sexy-enough-to-get-by eroticism, the wrinkled pages headed for Startling Detective or Women In Crime magazine.

And then you think about what that all really would’ve been like, and have to wonder what’s so damn good about the imaginary scenario.

Pulp Fictioneers – Adventures In The Storytelling Business edited by John Locke (Adventure House, 2004) goes a long way to dispelling some of the nostalgic romance. This intriguing read collects over one hundred articles, letters and miscellany from Writer’s Digest, Writer’s magazine and Author & Journalist from the 1920’s through the 50’s which provide a real-life glimpse of the pulp era from both the writers’ and publishers’ perspectives. Low per-word pay rates, production snafu’s, fly-by-night publishing scams, story rejections, puzzling writers’ guidelines, declining newsstand sales and much more – the pieces all make for a compelling read about sides of the marketplace that have nothing to do with The Shadow or Dan Turner Hollywood Detective. One thing’s clear here: Writer’s groused about editors and the markets then as much as they do now, and like all creatives, felt the world was treating them most unfairly. For those of us so entranced by the garish H.J. Ward and Norm Saunders covers and the shoot ‘em up stories, Pulp Fictioneers provides a healthy antidote to romancing bygone eras.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑