May 2008

Clayton Moore

mystery strumpet

Turn Off, Tune Out, Drop Dead

Call it my Luddite’s lament. I just can’t help it. My anti-modernist streak comes and goes as swiftly as a summer cold but when it sticks, it’s worse than spring fever in its grasp on my faculties.

It’s bad enough on a good week when I’m perfectly happy to fire e-mails back and forth through a broadband connection while instant messaging, downloading podcasts and watching CNN in high-def to see if the ruling fathers have tried to sneak in Armageddon while I wasn’t looking (and trust me, you want high-definition when that day comes).

But when I get really soured by overdoses of the proverbial Web 2.0 -- as I did this month when I had to break down yet another preening pronouncement about how web-based widgets reflect the human condition -- I snap like a twig. (You older folks will remember twigs as Toy 1.0. You bright young things will recall them as those pixels that generate a crunching noise in your online multiplayer first-person shooter before little Billy playing in Bucharest blows off the top of your skull with a .50 calibre sniper rifle. Ah, childhood …).

So this month, I’m going technology-free. I’ve unplugged the telephone, de-jacked the cable and killed the electronics in the house as dead as an EMP burst. If I run a little short this time, it’s because I’ve taken pen to paper just like the good old days and am sitting in the sunshine with a tall glass of sloe gin to soothe my writer’s cramp. We’re going back to the days when men wore hats, ladies wore Chanel, and bad guys carried a roll of quarters for business and a roll of dimes for communication with the home office.

Even a looming depression can’t keep down the spunky lead character of Linda L. Richard’s two-petite-fisted mystery novel Death was the Other Woman. Set in Los Angeles in 1931, this brassy little detective novel from the cofounder of January Magazine takes a different point of view and injects some much-needed cheek into its hardboiled locale. In a different piece of work, say some newly revived gem from the boys at Hard Case Crime, the hero here would be Dexter J. Theroux, a two-fisted, whiskey-drinking investigator who’s more private dick than Dick Tracy. Of course, there’s no telling that to his wisecracking secretary Kitty Pangborn, who quickly reveals herself as the real brains of this vaudeville act, despite the fact that her bright-eyed boss dismissed her in front of clients as “the kid.”

“Dex is tall and dreamy,” she admits. “Of sure, he’s a mook, but he’s the kind of mook that can heat a girl’s socks, if you follow my drift. The kind that can get your lipstick melting.”

Richards has done a terrific job not only in nailing Kitty’s post-Prohibition lingo, which is peppered with euphemisms straight out of any smoky late-night picture show, but also in capturing a lost world of fedora-topped tough guys, underworld dives and domestic melodramas from a time when those Desperate Housewives would have been run out of town or worse.

It’s those sawbucks that inspire dear old Dexter to take a gig from Rita Heppelwaite, the mistress of a shady local businessman. Kitty has faith in her boss, despite his predilection for stocking his surveillance car with Jack Daniels, but he’s his own worst enemy and Kitty’s fondness for her salary gives her plenty of incentive to tag along. After Dex’s Girl Friday finds their blood-spattered target dead in a bathtub, it leads to a fundamental conflict between the dynamic duo and a case of mistaken identity that only Kitty has the chops to solve. Cue the violins.

An even more intriguing case, and even another Kitty, emerge in Denise Hamilton’s first stand-alone mystery, The Last Embrace, an outstanding work of fiction that will on shelves in July. The novel jumps ahead a few decades to post-war Los Angeles where industry is booming, Hollywood is on a hot streak and starlets by the score are streaming into the city of angels to become either the new Veronica Lake or the next Elizabeth Short (not much of a choice, is it?).

Our dateline is 1949 and our heroine is Lily Kessler, a former spy with the OSS still reeling from the death of her lover, Army Major Joseph Croggan, in a freak car accident just after the war. Returning to the tranquil Midwest to pay her respects to her dead fiancé’s family, Lily is pressed into service to find out what happened to Croggan’s sister Kitty, who has disappeared from her Hollywood boarding house. Though Mrs. Croggan warns Lilly to “stay away from that Errol Flynn,” the embittered war veteran is tougher than she looks.

“Lily laughed,” Hamilton writes. “Hollywood was a playground compared to what she’d been through. She’d had so many aliases that sometimes she’d forgotten who the real Lily was. But the thought of going back to L.A. made her uneasy.”

As well it should. Denise tells me that the book was inspired by the real-life disappearance of starlet Jean Spangler, who vanished in October of 1949.

“Spangler’s body was never found, but police discovered her purse in Griffith Park with a note written to a mystery man named ‘Kirk’ that suggested she might have been seeking an abortion,” Hamilton says. “It soon emerged that Spangler had played a bit part in a Kirk Douglas movie, but the actor swore he didn’t know her and was quickly cleared by police. In another intriguing twist, two weeks before her disappearance, Spangler had partied in Palm Springs with two henchmen of Mickey Cohen’s who also disappeared. Sixty years later, her disappearance remains unsolved.”

The Last Embrace won’t solve that particularly disturbing whodunit but it does fashion a transfixing narrative that dispenses with the barking bravado of James Ellroy and the cardboard cut-outs of conventional noir. Not least of Hamilton’s fascinating creations is a quirky special-effects wizard that the author readily admits is based on the groundbreaking stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, who gave her the first-hand view of Hollywood for the sake of research. You’ll never get so close to the weird nexus of vixens, gangsters and sword-wielding skeletons as you will here.

I’m not sure any further praise is necessary for Tom Rob Smith’s super-lauded Child 44, which should be hitting bookstore shelves as we speak, but for what my two cents is worth, it’s earned its acclaim. Set in Stalinist Russia in the dead of winter, 1953, the novel is a marvellously confident debut that is as much as a portrait of a culture in the grip of a terror state as it is a thriller that wields every element with absolute precision. (If you’re the lazy sort who can’t be bothered to wade through these old-fashioned “books,” slumming novelist Richard Price is grumbling over a screenplay to be directed by Ridley Scott now that the writers’ strike is over).

Smith’s eyes on Russia’s trembling hordes is Leo Stepanovich Demidov, a member of the MGB state security force employed to investigate a brutal series of murders that first looks like simply the proverbial series of unfortunate events, as exemplified by the first crime scene and Demidov’s bleak view of Moscow’s concrete jungle and his own bureaucratic labyrinth. 

Leo stared up at Apartment Block 18 -- a low-rise, squat slab of gray concrete. It was late afternoon, already dark. An entire working day had been lost to a task that was as unpleasant as it was unimportant. According to the militia incident report, a boy aged four years and ten months had been playing on the tracks, three nights ago, and was caught by a passenger train, his body cut up by the wheels. The driver of the 21.00 to Khabarovsk had communicated at his first stop that he’d caught a glimpse of someone or something on the tracks shortly after leaving Yaroslavskiy Voksal station. Whether that train had actually hit the boy wasn’t yet established. Maybe the driver didn’t want to admit to hitting the child. But there was no need to press the issue: it was a tragic accident with no question of blame. The matter should’ve already been closed.

But of course, the horrific crimes continue and Smith piles on the red herrings, state secrets and double crosses with gusto. By formulating a nationalistic war hero who wants nothing more than good for his beloved nation and then kicking the legs out from under him, Smith succeeds in fashioning not just a great mystery but one of the best novels of the year so far.

Let’s end the month on a finger-poppin’, high-rollin’ high note with an agreeable little novel I’ve been putting off since last year that’s as smooth as a menthol cigarette and just as disposable. Robert J. Randisi is never a slouch, having one-two punched his way through four character-driven series and a fistful of stand-alone novels, let along having founded the Private Eye Writers of America and dreaming up the Shamus Award. In Luck Be a Lady, Don’t Die, the sophomore novel in his evolving Rat Pack series, Randisi turns his attentions to Las Vegas, 1960, where Frank and the boys are on the eve of premiering their ring-a-ding heist film. So says pit boss Eddie Gianelli, who’s nursing some hurt feelings after the events of Everybody Kills Somebody Sometime.

After I helped Frank and Dean out when they were in Vegas in February shooting Ocean’s 11, I guess I kidded myself that we were friends. Now they were coming back to town for the opening of the film at the Fremont Theatre. I thought maybe, with Dean getting there first to play the Copa Room, I’d hear from him, and then from Frank when he hit town. But why would a couple of big timers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin want to be friends with a pit boss from Brooklyn?

It turns out that Frank himself needs the help of “Eddie G” and his underground entourage that includes P.I. Danny Bardini and New York “torpedo” Jerry Epstein. Sinatra was set to meet a simple and unassuming girl named Mary Clarke (who happens to also keep company with MoMo Giancana) to accompany him during his Vegas jaunt but it turns out the broad has disappeared and it’s up to Eddie to track her down. It all reads like a cable movie with b-level actors stepping up to their celebrity cameos but between the book’s light-hearted charm, volley-quick banter and Eddie’s street-savvy panache, it all comes together for a nice evening on the Strip.

Alright you mugs. That’s all for this round. Have your people call my people and we’ll do lunch. If I had people, that is. Or picked up the phone once in a while. Fat chance.

Clayton Moore waxes nostalgic at