Monday, September 17, 2012

Junk Love Monday: Vintage Crime

They are dark, dirty, and deadly--and there's always a dame (or two). It is the genre of murder, seduction, and betrayal that gave us Sam Spade, one of the most iconic Noir characters of all time. I know that my love affair with vintage crime has its roots in the summers of my childhood, when I watched black and white Perry Mason episodes and adapted the plots for weird make-believe games that my siblings and I played (but rarely understood). Who needs cowboys and Indians when you can have a detective, a damsel, and a dastardly villain? And nothing gets the blood pumping like a good interrogation scene, especially if your grandparents' basement happens to be stocked with a crooked table, a cobweb-covered chair, and a single incandescent bulb fixture with a pull-chain....

But when I saw The Maltese Falcon on the big screen, I was absolutely hooked. I love the mystery, and the darkness, and the diamonds that every temptress wears (along with lipstick that is surely bright red, even in a black and white film). I don't even care that a lot of the time, the plot makes no sense (ever see The Big Sleep?). I just love the look of crime on film, and even more than that, I love the design of vintage crime novels. The titles are compelling: Deep Lay the Dead, Murder in False Face, The Big Midget Murders. And the art is fantastic, whether it is on a dust jacket, imprinted in the binding itself, or on the cover of a classic pulp paperback.

I definitely prefer titles of the 1930s and 1940s. After that, even Perry Mason gets a little less dirty (although my Perry Mason collection goes up through the 1960s), and the heroes become a little more James Bond-ish, and fall a little farther out of the classic Noir category. Actually, one entire bookcase in my house is devoted to vintage crime fiction. Some are hardbound sets with compelling titles; others were purchased purely for the binding or cover art.

I like to group titles together based on a similar theme: anything involving the word "skeleton" is in a stack together; titles with "poison" are lined up in a different section; I even have a few books with "widow" in the title that I put together. Perry Mason and Simon Templar (from The Saint series) occupy two whole shelves together. As I accumulate more titles, I store them (temporarily) somewhere else. Once per year, I dismantle the entire display and start from scratch, so that I can add the new ones in. (Honestly, there isn't much in this world that I enjoy more than an afternoon spent renovating the crime shelves.) I tend to watch the films more than I read the books, but occasionally, I pull a particularly dramatic title, curl up under a blanket, and pretend I'm Sam Spade.

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