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.
1941—NBC Airs First Official TV Commercial
NBC broadcasts the first TV commercial to be sanctioned by the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC began licensing commercial television stations in May 1941, granting the first license to NBC. During a Dodgers-Phillies game broadcast July 1, NBC ran its first commercial, from Bulova, who paid $9 to advertise its watches.
1963—Kim Philby Named as Spy
The British Government admits that former high-ranking intelligence diplomat Kim Philby had worked as a Soviet agent. Philby was a member of the spy ring now known as the Cambridge Five, along with Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross. Of the five, Philby is believed to have been most successful in providing classified information to the Soviet Union. He defected to Russia, was feted as a hero and even given his commemorative stamp, before dying in 1988 at the age of seventy-six.
1997—Robert Mitchum Dies
American actor Robert Mitchum dies in his home in Santa Barbara, California. He had starred in films such as Out of the Past, Blood on the Moon
, and Night of the Hunter
, was called "the soul of film noir," and had a reputation for coolness
that would go unmatched until Frank Sinatra arrived on the scene.
1908—Tunguska Explosion Occurs
Near the Podkamennaya Tunguska River in what is now Krasnoyarsk Krai in Russia, a large meteoroid or comet explodes at five to ten kilometers above the Earth's surface with a force of about twenty megatons of TNT. The explosion is a thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic blast, knocks over an estimated 80 million trees and generates a shock wave estimated to have been 5.0 on the Richter scale.
1971—Soviet Cosmonauts Perish
Soviet cosmonauts Vladislav Volkov, Georgi Dobrovolski and Viktor Patsayev, who served as the first crew of the world's first space station Salyut 1, die when their spacecraft Soyuz 11 depressurizes during preparations for re-entry. They are the only humans to die in space (as opposed to the upper atmosphere).
1914—Rasputin Survives Assassination Attempt
Former prostitute Jina Guseva attempts to assassinate Grigori Rasputin in his home town of Pokrovskoye, Siberia by stabbing him in the abdomen. According to reports, Guseva screamed "I have killed the Antichrist!" But Rasputin survived until being famously poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, and drowned in an icy river two years later.
1967—Jayne Mansfield Dies in Car Accident
American actress and sex symbol Jayne Mansfield dies in an automobile accident in Biloxi, Mississippi, when the car in which she is riding slams underneath the rear of a semi. Rumors that Mansfield were decapitated are technically untrue. In reality, her death certificate states that she suffered an avulsion of the cranium and brain, meaning she lost
only the top of her head.
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