Thursday, August 30, 2012

Fanny Ellsworth and the creation of "noir"

“Black Mask Magazine, Steve Fisher, and The Noir Revolution” by Keith Alan Deutsch

Keith Alan Deutsch is publisher and conservator of Black Mask Magazine, a publication that has a long-established connection to EQMM. He is also the co-author of several reference and scholarly books relating toBlack Mask, hardboiled, and noir fiction. They include Black Mask Pulp Story Reader Volumes 1 – 6, Jo Gar’s Casebook, and The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories. His knowledge of key publications and acquaintance with many of the genre’s writers put him in a position to provide a fascinating overview of the field.Janet Hutchings

It is difficult to remember seventy-five years after the revolution, but Steve Fisher, Cornell Woolrich, and a few other second-wave Black Mask boys of the late 1930s ushered in a sea change in crime-fiction narration.

Fanny Ellsworth, who replaced Joseph Shaw at Black Mask in 1936, favored this change from the objective, hardboiled writing promoted by Shaw and the earlier editors of Black Mask Magazine to the subjective, psychologically and emotionally heightened writing that came in vogue under her guidance.

This little-noticed shift in style in Black Mask fiction, “The Ellsworth Shift,” led to the creation of the film genre we now know as noir through the writings of Steve Fisher, particularly in his film scripts, and through the novels and short fiction of Cornell Woolrich, whose writings we now also call noir, although the term was originally applied only to film.

This dark new style and psychology in crime-fiction narration jumped from magazine and book publications into screenplays, and led in the 1940s to the emergence in Hollywood of the classic age of the noir film thriller.

The obsessive, dreamlike narration favored by Fisher and Woolrich in their tense crime tales was a perfect match for the dark shadows and frightening, expressive camera angles developed in German and Hollywood horror cinema. Narrative fiction style and camera photography styles played against and enriched each other in the development of this new film genre.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Forgotten Books: Murder Among Owls by Bill Crider


The only series I read regularly are those that offer worlds I want to visit. This may be because before I began reading mysteries reguarly I read science fiction. World building is critical in sf and fantasy.

And it is in mystery fiction, too. Sherlock Holmes. Agatha Christie. John Dickson Carr. Indelible worlds. Or Mr. and Mrs. North. Craig Rice's various detectives working out of Chicago. Hammett, Chandler, Chester Himes' Harlem novels.

And Bill Crider's small town Texas series, the latest of which is MURDER AMONG OWLS (St. Martin's, $23.95) This time Sheriff Dan Rhodes has to decide whether Helen Harris' death was accidental or criminal. At certain points in his investigation his deputies are his biggest hindrance to solving what is now clearly a crime. Wizards they're not.

Any novel that references the Warner Bros. cartoon icon Pepe Le Pew on the third page is a can't miss reading exprience for me. And Crider does this as he does everything else--nice and easy. The sentences and the scenes flow so gracefully you might overlook the difficulty of keeping the writing so spot-on.

If you think Andy Griffith of Mayberry with an edge and a tart tongue you'll have a good sense of of the world Crider creates in these fine books. He's admirably unsentimental about his town and its people, seeing them for what they are. The good ones are good without being saints, the bad ones are bad without being Hannibal Lechter. Real people doing real people things.

Two highlights--the dog who's scared of the cat and a hilarious chain saw chase between a lunatic and his seventy-something would-be prey. I've never read this scene in any form anywhere else before. It is pure Crider and the essence of his best work.

You'll like Rhodes and his town. And for sure you'll want to come back for more.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stories from other stories

Ed here: Before we begin I forgot to credit last night's post/review of my novel The Girl In The Attic to Ben Boulden and his fine blog Gravetapping. My apologies, Ben.


Stories from other stories

I've always been intrigued by how one writer reads a piece by another writer and does a riff on it that ends up entirely his own. Well, almost entirely.

I've been reading one Alain Silver's fine books of interviews, this one dealing with Hwood directors, writers and cinematographers involved in noir films.

In the course of talking with Billy Wilder, Wilder mentions how he got the germ of the idea for The Apartment from a Noel Coward play. In Coward the hero is the man who uses the apartment of his friend for his tryst. But Wilder says he was more interested in the friend who let him use it. What was his story? Thus, the great film The Apartment was born.

Likewise, performances feed one into the other as well. This afternoon TCM showed the 1938 screwball comedy Boy Meets Girl. If you want to know where Cagney-Wilder got the Cagney performance for One, Two, Three (1961) it came from here. Slicked up, timed better, with much better writing in the later version but the hellzapoppin frantic punch line-punchline-punchilne rythm of One is certainly here to see.

Boy Meets Girl is sloppy, hasty and nonsensical (there are moments when you think you're watching Marx Brothers outtakes) but it sure ain't boring. And the always long-suffering Ralph Bellamy as the studio VP is another portrait of a dumb guy way out of his element. But here he's not the innocent he usually plays.

Fir the record here's the storyyline from TCM bloggers:

Two lazy screenwriters need a story for the studio's cowboy star. A studio waitress turns out to be pregnant. This gives them the idea for a movie about a cowboy and a baby. The waitress's baby becomes the star. The cowboy and his agent run off with the waitress and her valuable asset. The writers retaliate by hiring an unemployed extra to impersonate the baby's father. But the extra already knows the waitress... Written by David Steele

A Hollywood film studio in receivership and courted by a British outfit has all the signs of being run as a madhouse by Elliot Friday. To complete the image, screenwriters Law and Benson pretty well run rampant over the lot. When canteen-girl Susie is found to be pregnant they hatch the idea of making her expected a new star. Owner B.K. starts to realise this is no way to run a railroad. Written by Jeremy Perkins {}

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Girl In The Attic by Ed Gorman


Ed Gorman has released an updated and edited edition of his 1987 novelNight Caller as an ebook. The title has changed to The Girl in the Attic, and it is advertised as, “heavily edited and revised by the author and Patrica Lee Macomber.” I read the original version of the novel a few years ago and really enjoyed it. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to put the updated version on my reading list. It is available from Crossroad Press on bothNook and Kindle, and I highly recommend giving it a read.

Night Caller by Ed Gorman Review, Originally posted December 21, 2007.

In the 1980s and 90s Ed Gorman wrote several novels under the pseudonym Daniel Ransom. The novels tended towards horror and science fiction—two of my favorite genres—but like everything Mr. Gorman writes there were heavy elements of both suspense and mystery; I should disclose that I haven’t read many of the Daniel Ransom novels, but the few I have read have been vintage Ed Gorman.

I recently read Night Caller by Daniel Ransom and I had a really good time with it. Sally Baines and her daughter Jamie are on vacation in the Midwest when their car breaks down on a rural stretch of highway. It isn’t long before a farmer gentleman rescues them with a ride into the nearest town: Haversham. He seems like a nice man, but he looks at Jamie strangely, and even more disconcerting, when they arrive in town Sally and Jamie see him eagerly pointing them out to another local. Their unease continues to mount when they are told their car won’t be ready until the following day. And things really begin to feel strange when they go to the local hotel—The Royal—looking for a room.

I’m not an expert—or even well read—when it comes to 80s horror, but
Night Caller very much has an 80s feel about it. It’s small town horror with a twist of psycho, and maybe just a touch of Stephen King. The characters are amusing, especially a local doctor and a disgraced national television news reporter. The mother-daughter team of Sally and Jamie are central to the plot line, and they hold up well as the story unfolds. There is a large cast of local characters who keep the story fresh and Ed Gorman, as usual, adds more than a little mystery and suspense into the mix to keep it interesting.

Night Caller is, simply put, damn fun. It is a fast read—maybe 90 minutes of reading time—and fits the bill perfectly if you’re in the mood for light horror. And, if there are any producers out there, it would make a terrific television movie. Maybe something similar—in production values and theme—to one of those semi-campy Stephen King television movies of the 90s.

Zebra Books published
Night Caller in October 1987; it was a paperback original.


Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy

The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy

TULSA , Okla. From The New York Times

TODD RUTHERFORD was 7 years old when he first understood the nature of supply and demand. He was with a bunch of other boys, one of whom showed off a copy of Playboy to giggles and intense interest. Todd bought the magazine for $5, tore out the racy pictures and resold them to his chums for a buck apiece. He made $20 before his father shut him down a few hours later.

A few years ago, Mr. Rutherford, then in his mid-30s, had another flash of illumination about how scarcity opens the door to opportunity.

He was part of the marketing department of a company that provided services to self-published writers — services that included persuading traditional media and blogs to review the books. It was uphill work. He could churn out press releases all day long, trying to be noticed, but there is only so much space for the umpteenth vampire novel or yet another self-improvement manifesto or one more homespun recollection of times gone by. There were not enough reviewers to go around.

Suddenly it hit him. Instead of trying to cajole others to review a client’s work, why not cut out the middleman and write the review himself? Then it would say exactly what the client wanted — that it was a terrific book. A shattering novel. A classic memoir. Will change your life. Lyrical and gripping, Stunning and compelling. Or words to that effect.

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50. for the rest go here:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shirley Jackson, Literary Writer

Shirley Jackson, Literary Writer

Horror and The New Yorker don’t typically mix, but Shirley Jackson made it happen!

Horror and The New Yorker don’t typically mix, but Shirley Jackson made it happen!

Ed here: The older I get the more I reread and respect Shirley Jackson.

From The Criminal Element

Rarely does anyone think of The New Yorker magazine as a place to go to get a quick fix of horror fiction. And yet in 1948 that well-respected magazine published just such a story, which caused great controversy and stirred up a tremendous amount of hate mail. It also was the cause of numerous readers cancelling subscriptions.

The story was published during a time when many town governments across America sponsored weekly cash-prize lotteries as a means of bringing people into town from the surrounding farms to stimulate the postwar economy for the local merchants. The name of the story was, of course, “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. You may read (or more likely re-read) it here.

for the rest go here:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sports Thrillers in the 1970s

Sports Thrillers in the 1970s

Two-Minute Warning (1976) Movie Poster

Ed here: What we're talking about here is the difference between a serious novel and movie and a popcorn quickie. Thomas Harris of cannibal fame wrote Black Sunday which is an angry look at the bleak and turbulent sixties and seventies and Two Minute Warning is one of those star-packed nail biters that lets you leave the theater without ever thinking of the movie again. Black Sunday has a Bruce Dern performance you'll remember a long long time. But you know what?

I enjoyed both of them--I also enjoyed both novels that provided the source material. Plenty of room in my empty head for each.

Thank God that football is back!This summer, spent without the usual NFL OTAs and ubiquitous trade rumors, seemed a more dreary summer than any I’ve experienced since my tenth. (That was the summer I was the unlucky recipient of a burst appendix and had to spend most of it laid up in bed.)

In fact, I was so desperate for anything football-related that I pulled from my DVD collection two of my favorite sports-related thrillers: Black Sunday (1977), starring the late, great Robert Shaw, and Two-Minute Warning(1976), starring the late, great Charlton Heston.

for the rest go here:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Forgotten Books: Hardboiled America by Geoffrey O'Brien

Hardboiled America

One of the books about hardboiled fiction that rarely gets mentioned is Hardboiled America by Geoffrey O'Brien. He's a literary writer of real distinction (as well as the editor of The Library of America) but he's not slumming. He loves and understands the material. And he writes with real elegance.

His assessment of such major writers as Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich, Gardner are very much his own, and all the more fascinating because of it. He also takes the time to illustrate how literary fiction influenced hardboiled and how hardboiled influenced literary and mainstream.

For me he's at his best with the second generation of hardboiled writers, namely the Gold Medal girls and boys and how they spun off into Lion, Graphic, Ace, etc. I wish he wasn't so dismissive of John D. MacDonald. Here he takes the familiar path of the neo-noir critics who complain that JDM wasn't tough enough in his viewpoint. Most of his books concern middle class or working class men and women confronting crime. They're not gumshoes, they're not criminals. They bring their manners and mores with them when they try to extricate themselves from their problems. It's not that he isn't hardboiled; it's that he doesn't use all the cliches of hardboiled.

O'Brien shines when discussing Day Keene, Harry Whittington and, especially, Charles Williams. In fact I think his piece on Williams is definitve. Hard to imagine anybody handling Williams' career any more shrewedly.

The Hardboiled Checklist at the back of the book (1929-1960) is the most intelligent, exhaustive such list I've ever seen. Makes you wish you had three lifetimes just to read every book he takes note of.

This belongs on the shelf of every hardboiled reader and writer. It doesn't get any better than this.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes



The Five Best "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" Episodes

In terms of longevity, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was the most successful American television anthology series. It ran from 1955 to 1962 in a half-hour format and then from 1962 to 1965 as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The list below includes only the 268 half-hour episodes.

Barbara Bel Geddes looking calm.
1. Lamb to the Slaughter - When a meek housewife (Barbara Bel Geddes) learns that her cheating husband is leaving her, she whacks him--fatally--with a frozen leg of lamb. She then calmly calls the police to report that her husband was murdered by an intruder. This darkly amusing tale, written by Roald Dahl, works to perfection--right down to the killer punch line. It was one of only 17 episodes (of the total 268) directed by Hitchcock.

2. Man from the South - Based on another Roald Dahl story, this episode stars Steve McQueen as a young man who bets a wealthy oddball (Peter Lorre) that he can light his lighter ten times in a row. If he can, he wins Lorre's snazzy convertible. But if the lighter fares to produce a flame just once, he loses a finger. A suspenseful, well-acted classic featuring another one of Dahl's trademark twists.

Vera Miles in Revenge.
3. Revenge - The very first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents raised the bar very high. A distraught woman (Vera Miles) tells her husband she has been assaulted. When the police investigation goes nowhere, the couple seek their justice and go looking for the assailant. In a long-running series featuring a number of memorable twist endings, "Revenge" features perhaps the most potent one. Directed by Hitchcock.

4. The Glass Eye -Director Robert Stevens won an Emmy for this haunting tale of a middle-aged woman (Jessica Tandy) who falls in love from afar with a ventriloquist she has never met. After they begin exchanging letters, he agrees to meet her--with disastrous results. This beautifully written teleplay (by Stirling Silliphant) provided underused actor Tom Conway (George Sanders' brother) with his last good role. It's ultimately a very sad story of two lonely people.

Billy Mumy with loaded gun.
5. Bang! You're Dead - Hitchcock directed this wonderfully tense episode about a young boy (Billy Mumy) who mistakes a real gun for a toy pistol and spends the day playing with it. The worst part: the gun is loaded. Mumy's success as Will Robinson on Lost in Space has obscured his finest TV work, as in this episode and the "It's a Good Life" episode of The Twilight Zone.

Honorable Mentions: One More Mile to Go (a man with a corpse in his car trunk) and Victim Four (a Paul Henreid-directed episode about a woman whose bad headaches are really bad). It's interesting to note that both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone featured adaptations of Ambrose Bierce's An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. However, The Twilight Zone episode was actually a short French feature filmed two years before its broadcast on Twilight Zone.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The bestsellers of yesterday

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When I was college age I read everything including best sellers. The Daily Beast ran a piece today about some of the Beach Reads of the Sixties.

As for the ones shown above at the time I was a big Harold Robbins fan. The Carpetbaggers and A Stone For Danny Fisher being my favorites among his novels. I've reread both these books in the years since and they hold up (for me) very well. He was a story teller in the grand tradition but when he got into writing sex books I gave up on him. Places like Midwood and Nightstand were publishing far more interesting and entertaining books with far more realistic stories and characters. I'm serious. Ditto "sex shock" novels like The Chapman Report. Not as much fun as the Midwoods.

Rona Jaffe was an excellent storyteller and a talented observer of life in New York City. I know a number of female novelists who credit The Best Of Everything as being an important novel in the creation of feminist literature. I read many of her books over the years. She was very good.

I always preferred Irving Wallace to Sidney Sheldon. Wallace was the better novelist, storyteller and observer. Sheldon's stuff was so over the top it got boring after about thirty pages.

Jacqueline Susann was one of the nastiest people I ever saw on TV so I had no interest in reading her books, the godmother to Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin sans politics. Her perpetual self-promotion was her least irritating trait if that tells you anything. She insisted she wrote her books herself which I never believed.

Nothing Arthur Hailey wrote ever interested me.

One name missing here is Herman Wouk. My high school friend Steve Schwartz recommended Marjorie Morningstar as a way to learn about certain kinds of Jewish life. I was dating a Jewish girl at the time as well. Her mother kept raving about it. Hell of a good solid serious fascinating novel. I liked Youngblood Hawk and a few others by Wouk too. He was in the tradition of popular novelists who really had something to say about how we lived such as Jerome Weidman. I wish we had novelists like those today.

For me Peyton Place remains my favorite best seller of all-time. It came damned close to being real literature far more than the sudsy Gone With The Wind. I reread it every few years and it never lets me down. I just wish poor Grace Metalious' had played out more happily. Another name that should appear here is Maritta Wolff. Her Whistle Stop is well in league with Peyton Place. Popular but serious and lasting fiction.