After seventy-three years she's finally lost her title.
We've seen this photo in numerous online spots, and why not? It's amazing. But none of those sites bother to explain the provenance of the image. We dug around, and it appears we're the first website to have done it. The Mystery Writers of America, which was founded in 1945 in New York City and soon expanded to other locations, in its early years used to throw what they called a Clues Party. In November 1947 the party was in Chicago, and the MWA awarded the title of Mystery Girl to the woman who performed best in a scream test—as opposed to screen test. Four contestants—Marybeth Prebis, Betty Rosboro, Bobby Jo Rodgers, and Portia Kubin—let fly with their most bloodcurdling screams, and the winner was Kubin, above. The MWA stopped throwing Clues Parties at some point, which seems a shame, but they established the coveted Edgar Award, so maybe that's an okay trade. Kubin was probably an aspiring actress but a glance at various online sources shows no film credits, which means this was her only shot at celebrity. But what a shot.
Do you find people disagreeable? Maybe it's you that's the problem.
This Ron Lesser cover for John D. MacDonald's Pale Gray for Guilt is a variation on the one we posted years back. Yes, we keep reading these MacDonald books even though we complain about the author, but we have no problem with the writing itself—the guy was named a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, after all. He can certainly write, his plots are usually engrossing, and his characters are interesting. All good. But to an extent we also read him for the same reason some people watch cable news—i.e. to disagree with his opinions. We think the ’60s and ’70s counterculture brought about important, positive, and long overdue changes to society. MacDonald is basically counter-counterculture.
Years back we developed an aphorism, which we became known for among our friends: The moment you make a generalization about any group of people, the living contradiction to that generalization will be nearby to make you look like a fool. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee has met his share of people and has scathing views of various groups. We don't mean ethnically or gender-wise, but more esoterically. He'll put down all people who see psychiatrists, or all people who waterski, or all people who vacation in Palm Springs. He finds various categories of humans tedious, save for the few that meet his lofty standards and in so doing serve as proof of his own excellent taste.
The Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle states that the more accurately you measure the velocity of a particle the less accurately you can measure its position, and vice versa. Which is to say any energy you use to pinpoint position will alter a particle's velocity simply by impacting it, and the reverse is true. In human relations, some people tend to alter those they meet. Nice people may cause disagreeable people to temporarily behave a bit nicer; disagreeable people may make normally nice people behave disagreeably. To a disagreeable person, then, it seems as if lots of people are disagreeable.
In Pale Gray for Guilt the disagreeable Travis McGee is focused on avenging the murder of one of his best friends, which seems to have come about due to a refusal to sell waterfront acreage to a large development corporation. McGee manages to buy the land himself, thus bringing the villains out of the woodwork to wrest it from him. The story takes a curiously long time to develop, gets overly deep into the minutiae of stock trading, and contains virtually no action, so we imagine this is one of the less liked entries in the McGee series. Yet it's still very readable, which just goes to show what raw writing skill can do.
We finally used the internet for something useful and solved this MacDonald problem—we simply looked up some lists of his best books. Based on the consensus that emerged from his fans (who by the way seem to agree that the McGee series is not as good as his earlier standalone novels), we're going to read Dead Low Tide, Deadly Welcome, The Executioners (made into the film Cape Fear), and The Drowner. Those seem to be the books people really like, and as a bonus they're all cheap to buy.
Not so tight sweetie—I just ate eggs.
Margaret Millar was a respected writer who won the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award in 1983, and happened to be the wife of acclaimed pulp author Ross MacDonald, aka Kenneth Millar. The air she has in mind here isn’t a physical thing, but rather the emotions of guilt and suspicion. Still though, it’s kind of a funny title, because when you consider how married couples get after a few decades together, it’s easy to imagine old Ross’s reaction every time Margaret let one slip. He probably smirked and said, “Jesus, there really is an air that kills.”
Anyway, the book is a mystery in which a married couple’s seemingly stable existence is rocked when the wife reveals that she’s pregnant with another man’s baby. That man soon turns up dead, drowned in his car at the bottom of a lake. However, this isn’t a straightforward puzzler. There are elements of melodrama, and the plot is stretched out over an extended period as we see the couple split and begin to live separate lives. But of course the mystery underpins everything, eventually circling back to center upon the woman’s new child.
An Air that Kills is considered by some to be Millar’s best work, and indeed she's considered by many critics to be one of the better writers of her era. She established a career before her husband did, though that doesn't seem to be as widely known as it probably should. In terms of writerly skill, we aren’t really qualified to say whether she's better than her spouse, but we’re sure it made for some interesting discussions and slightly edgy ribbing at the MacDonald/Millar dinner table. We highly recommend this book.
Not the hair! Not the hair!
Mignonette Eberhart was an acclaimed mid-century crime writer who was the first to create a female sleuth, which she did in her book The Patient in Room 18. This was a year before Agatha Christie created her immortal sleuth Jane Marple in Murder at the Vicarage. Eberhart soon veered away from pure whodunits and into romance-mysteries that usually centered on good women involved with bad men. The tagline of 1940’s The Hangman’s Whip—“Death is quicker than divorce”—gets that idea across succinctly. It was in these writings that Eberhart flourished, becoming internationally known and highly paid. She authored fifty-nine books, six of which were adapted to film, along with three of her short stories, and in 1971 she earned the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award. Eberhart died in 1996, but she changed the romance genre and entertained millions while doing it. Her books—including The Hangman’s Whip—remain widely available.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Above is the promo art for the June 24, 1987 Japanese premiere of Alan Parker’s supernatural thriller Angel Heart, a movie that happens to be one of our favorites around here. It’s based upon a novel by William Hjortsberg. That novel, a brilliant channeling of Hammett and Chandler titled Falling Angel, was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America. The film version is dark, violent, sexual, and unflinching. Most of the action was transplanted to New Orleans in place of the book’s New York setting, and that decision gave the film an ominous backdrop of jazz, rain, voodoo, bayou, and shadows, with a desperate protagonist wandering virtually lost in the center of it all.
When the film opened in the U.S. reviewers were impressed with the visual tapestry Alan Parker had constructed, but quite a few were unhappy with both Lisa Bonet’s sexually charged role and the lack of sympathetic characters in the narrative. But this is another of those films that has staying power. Mickey Rourke is brilliant as the rumpled detective Harry Angel, Bonet manages a brave performance in a difficult role, and Robert DeNiro is oily and secretly amused as Louis Cyphre, the client who knows so much more than he’s telling. In fact, if not for an almost ruinous special effects misstep in the final minutes, we’d call this movie a perfect piece of pulp cinema. But even with that one colossal error, this kind of hellride doesn’t come along often, which is why we appreciate it as a rare gem, now twenty-two years old.
Another master crime novelist writes sex books to make ends meet.
Today for your enjoyment we have another example of a heavyweight author earning extra nickels under the guise of a pseudonym. This time it’s crime thriller icon Lawrence Block, who’s won four Shamus Awards, three Edgars, seen his novels 8 Million Ways To Die, The Campus Tramp and Deadly Honeymoon made into films of varying quality, and who wrote the screenplay for the recent critically acclaimed film My Blueberry Nights.
But it was as Sheldon Lord that he really let his hair down, penning salacious books like Stud, as well as the lesbian themed tales below. He also flaunted his utter immunity to writer’s block by publishing fiction under the names Jill Emerson, Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanaugh, and Andrew Shaw. It's an astonishing output. Maybe when Block wrote Stud he was thinking about himself.
One of the most prolific thriller writers ever dies.
Novelist and screenwriter Donald E. Westlake died Friday of a heart attack at age 75. Westlake who began publishing in 1960, wrote more than 100 books under his name and several pseudonyms. He won three Edgar awards from the Mystery Writers of America, and his screenplay of Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters earned him an Academy Award nomination. Fifteen of his novels were adapted to film, including 1972’s The Hot Rock, with Robert Redford, and 1999’s Payback, with Mel Gibson.
Like many pulp authors, Westlake wrote a few erotica novels, these under the pen name Alan Marshall. Curiously, a visit to Westlake’s official website finds no mention of Marshall, which we count as an official disavowal. Nevertheless, you see an Alan Marshall cover below. Westlake said he published under so many names because it would have been unbelievable that one person wrote so much. His feverish output will continue even after death—his latest novel Get Real is due to be published in April.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1974—Police Raid SLA Headquarters
In the U.S., Los Angeles police raid the headquarters of the revolutionary group the Symbionese Liberation Army, resulting in the deaths of six members. The SLA had gained international notoriety by kidnapping nineteen-year old media heiress Patty Hearst
from her Berkeley, California apartment, an act which precipitated her participation in an armed bank robbery.
1978—Charlie Chaplin's Missing Body Is Found
Eleven weeks after it was disinterred and stolen from a grave in Corsier near Lausanne, Switzerland, Charlie Chaplin's corpse is found by police. Two men—Roman Wardas, a 24-year-old Pole, and Gantscho Ganev, a 38-year-old Bulgarian—are convicted in December of stealing the coffin and trying to extort £400,000 from the Chaplin family.
1918—U.S. Congress Passes the Sedition Act
In the U.S., Congress passes a set of amendments to the Espionage Act called the Sedition Act, which makes "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces, as well as language that causes foreigners to view the American government or its institutions with contempt, an imprisonable offense. The Act specifically applies only during times of war, but later is pushed by politicians as a possible peacetime law, specifically to prevent political uprisings in African-American communities. But the Act is never extended and is repealed entirely in 1920.
1905—Las Vegas Is Founded
Las Vegas, Nevada is founded when 110 acres of barren desert land in what had once been part of Mexico are auctioned off to various buyers. The area sold is located in what later would become the downtown section of the city. From these humble beginnings Vegas becomes the most populous city in Nevada, an internationally renowned resort for gambling, shopping, fine dining and sporting events, as well as a symbol of American excess. Today Las Vegas remains one of the fastest growing municipalities in the United States.
1928—Mickey Mouse Premieres
The animated character Mickey Mouse, along with the female mouse Minnie, premiere in the cartoon Plane Crazy, a short co-directed by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks. This first cartoon was poorly received, however Mickey would eventually go on to become a smash success, as well as the most recognized symbol of the Disney empire.
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