Biggers isn't always better but he tried.
What's an agony column? Basically it's a newspaper feature in which readers writes messages to other readers. For example: “Regular at Main Street Cafe who takes her coffee every weekday morning just before 9:00. Would you be amenable to meeting a certain gentleman who has admired you from afar?” You get the idea. The “agony” in the terminology derives from the fact that people who write in generally are suffering from some sort of heartache or other.
The Agony Column is basically an epistolary mystery, in which a man writes letters to the crush he contacted through a London newspaper's agony column, and details his involvement in a puzzling murder case. It's a very esoteric set-up for a novel, and besides mystery there's a dose cute romance. Nearly the entire book takes the form of the main character's letters, though some sections are conventionally written.
The nature of the novel requires more suspension of disbelief than usual, simply because nobody really writes letters with detailed, multi-character dialogue, but once you get over that hurdle it works pretty well. There are other hurdles. About London's Chinatown the main character writes, “Not only the heathen Chinee so peculiar shuffle through its dim-lit alleys, but the scum of the earth of many colors and of many climes. The Arab and the Hindu, the Malayan and the Jap, black men from the Congo and fair men from Scandinavia.”
Ouch. That brought the cuteness to a screeching halt. But readers should note that Biggers evolved, and would later create the Chinese American detective Charlie Chan partly as a counter to racist portrayals of Asians. The books were popular, but as the decades progressed people soured on them because Chan too is a racial stereotype. It's difficult for authors to write characters—especially outside their own ethnic group—that stand up over time as social mores change. But they keep trying, and should, in our opinion. What would fiction be like if they didn't?
The Agony Column has plenty of positives. Being set on the eve of World War I in a London gripped by tension over the looming global hostilities lends it atmosphere, and the mystery itself contains a few surprises we doubt most readers will foresee. It's also a short tale, which keeps the epistolary gimmick from wearing thin. We think it's worth a read. The Agony Column originally appeared in 1916, with this Avon edition, illegibly signed by the cover artist and unattributed inside, coming in 1943.
Then you die. And she's happy about it.
To quote Queen Latifah: “Who you callin' a bitch?” In this 1958 thriller trusty old Gil Brewer concocts a tale in which violent events are unleashed when a detective is hired to shadow a cheating wife. He learns there's two-hundred grand in a safe and stages a robbery, which of course goes spectacularly wrong, and leads to him being identified as the thief. He's suddenly on the run and everyone he knows is chasing after his big bag of money. Treachery abounds. There are actually two wives in this story. Which one is the bitch of the title? Well, from the narrator's point of view, probably both. But his troubles are his own fault. The book is fun, but there's a curiously aimless quality to this particular effort from Brewer. He's done better. The cover art, on the other hand, is about the best you'll see, though it's uncredited. Now we'll let Queen have the last word:
One day I was walking down the block.
I had my cutoff shorts on, right, ’cause it was crazy hot.
I walked past these dudes.
When they passed me one of 'em felt my booty.
He was nasty.
I turned around red.
Somebody was catching the wrath.
Then the little one said, “Yeah me, bitch,” and laughed.
Since he was with his boys he tried to break fly.
I punched him dead in his eye,
and said, “Who you callin' a bitch?”
Ladies, trust me, there's enough to go around.
We tend to get books in lots, without knowing much about them, and with Gladiator we were thinking bodybuilding titillation, sort of like this book. But no. It's the life story of a superman. The main character, Hugo Danner, can lift a horse, jump forty feet straight up, crush bones, is bulletproof, and a genius. Originally published in 1930, the Danner character preceded the comic book Superman by eight years. Some say Superman was even a deliberate copy, though that remains in dispute.
But unlike Superman, Hugo Danner is earthly, with earthly worries about family, women, and morality, which makes for an affecting tale. His doubts come to the fore in the trenches of World War I, where he crushes enemies' heads to jelly, rampages German strongholds with such ferocity that even after bullets and bayonets rip his clothes from his impervious body he still kills hundreds while naked and drenched in gore. And he comes to realize the utter pointlessness of it all:
His heart ached as he thought of the toil, the effort, the energy and hope and courage that had been spilled over those mucky fields to satisfy the lusts and foolish hates of the demagogues. [snip] The war was only another war that future generations would find romantic to contemplate and dull to study. He was only a species of genius who had missed his mark by a cosmic margin.
Recommended stuff. These paperback editions from Avon appeared in 1949 and 1957, with nice cover art by unknowns. We should mention, though, that the art is deceptive. Hugo is no manslut. In fact, the book barely focuses on sex apart from his earliest encounters. Gladiator is an attempt at serious, speculative sci-fi. Know that going in and you'll probably enjoy it.
Help... dying... last wish... to see dripping wet naked woman.
The cover art for this 1948 Avon edition of Paul Cain's Fast One kind of looks like a guy's about to drop dead in front of a bathing woman, but actually he's merely been shoved into the bathroom by the story's anti-hero protagonist. It's always interesting which moment an artist (or a publisher directing an artist) will choose for a cover. This is not an important event in the narrative, but the chance to show a woman in the bath was apparently too enticing to pass up.
The backdrop here is prohibition era Los Angeles and the main character Gerry Kells and the femme fatale S (we never learn her first name) are pulled into a maelstrom of trouble when Kells refuses to work for his old crime buddies and in retaliation they frame him for murder. The novel was put together from five stories that appeared in Black Mask magazine, and when it was published Cain—aka Peter Ruric, aka George Sims—was hailed as a giant of hard-boiled fiction on par with Hammett and Chandler. We don't know about that, but Fast One is a good read—bare bones and quick paced and filled with random brutality.
The bio page for Fast One says Cain “has lived as he writes—at high speed and with violence.” It's a phrase that makes you want details but none are provided. We imagine the description is accurate, though, because Cain published this single novel, as well as some screenplays (including for The Black Cat), then vanished into obscurity and eventually died of alcoholism.
What does the cover have to do with the story? Virtually nothing.
We showed you a 1955 Avon Publications cover for Charlotte Jay's award winning thriller Beat Not the Bones, and above you see an alternate cover from Avon that came in 1966. We don't remember the main character ever being tied to a tree, and we're sure she certainly never wore the sexy rag you see here, but those are the vagaries of good girl art. Both the 1955 cover and this one depict scenes that didn't happen in the story, but the earlier version is a but more true to the spirit of Jay's tale, where the above goes for pure titillation. We love them both. This one is by the always excellent Ron Lesser, and his original painting appears below.
For the last time! I gave all my spare change to the guy who pretends he's a statue!
Drum circles always end up sounding exactly the same. And we say that with respect, since both of us here at Pulp Intl. are what you'd call professional drummers. No joke. It's sort of how we met. During that auspicious encounter BB said to me, “Other drummers hate me.” Me: “Why is that?” BB: “Because I'm better than them.” True story. Charlotte Jay's thriller Beat Not the Bones marches to the beat of a different drummer. The novel, which first appeared in 1952 and in the above Avon paperback edition in 1955, involves a sheltered Australian woman who ventures to the fictional New Guinean town of Marapai to prove her husband, who worked there as a government anthropologist, was a murder victim rather than a suicide. The book was well received and won Jay, aka Geraldine Halls, the inaugural Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year.
Our expectations, in that case, were high. But were they perhaps a bit too high? Jay's prose is evocative and the setting is fascinating, but the heroine of Beat Not the Bones, tender young Emma Warwick, tries the patience just a little as she sort of gasps, swoons, and palpitates her way toward the answer she seeks. Was her husband murdered because he refused to approve the application for a gold claim? Is there a more sinister plot afoot? She can only know by embarking on a journey to the country's steamy interior. This trip into the heart of darkness, the dramatic crux of the book, doesn't begin until more than three quarters of the way through. But we knew it was imminent, and that made us impatient. Just get to the jungle journey! Beat not the bones! Get to trekkin' already! Well, Emma gets there eventually.
As she draws closer to the center of the mystery she grows emotionally stronger, hindered by some and helped by others, particularly a local acquaintance named Hitolo who works for the state but still has jungle roots. This is the type of novel where grown Papuan men like Hitolo are all “boy,” rampaging predatory colonialism is “opening up the country,” and colonials are under the delusion that their presence is helpful to the locals. But Jay, the omniscient voice of the narrator, makes clear that none of these beliefs are true. While the question among the characters is whether the very environment corrupts white men, the suggestion made by the author is that the corruption is not found there, but brought there, stowed away in the colonials' own souls.
To put a finer point on it, what truly corrupts colonials is the blatantly evil act of stealing native people's past by destroying their traditions and beliefs, and also stealing their future by taking possession of everything that holds value in the modern world that awaits them. In the face of such a robbery that leaves its victims doubly impoverished all justifications are hollow; they're a farce, winkingly acted out as cover for a greedy rampage. But we anthropologize. The jungle journey is the key to this book, and whether you like it depends on whether you consider that section worth the wait. Like your average drum circle Beat Not the Bones could have been more varied, more streamlined, more nimble, but when the end comes it's with a thunderous crescendo and a sense of waking from a dream.
Yep, this is a robbery. Faked you out, right? Now pretend I'm asking for a back rub and empty the cash drawer.
Above, a great cover for W.R. Burnett's High Sierra from Avon Publications' series Murder Mystery Monthly, 1946, featuring a very slick robber painted by Paul Stahr. We shared another cover for this book you can see here.
Better killing through chemistry.
Above is a 1958 Avon edition of The Death Dealers, sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's first foray into the mystery genre. When a chemistry professor's best student dies of an apparent lab accident the professor ponders taking over the protege's cutting edge research as a way to impress peers—and perhaps earn a long denied tenure. But he's deduced there's a murderer loose and is worried the police might deduce it too, and consider the valuable research a perfect motive. While Asimov lays out the killing and resulting dilemma in a methodical way, and the world of chemists on a college campus is one he knew well as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, the linear nature of the plot and emotional coolness of the characters don't allow the mystery to truly grip the reader. Yet the book is very readable—the details of life on campus, the politics, the maneuvering for that elusive tenure, are all interesting. And the backdrop of advanced chemistry, the detailed but not overwrought descriptions of experiments and processes, the fact that most of the characters are geniuses in their field, all work well. But there are so many mystery masterpieces out there we can only feel good recommending The Death Dealers to voracious readers in the genre. Or to Asimov fans. Neither group will be disappointed. All others, no guarantees.
Chester Himes' tough love affair with Harlem continues.
A beautiful piece of George Ziel art fronts this Avon paperback edition of the Chester Himes' thriller The Real Cool Killers. The story here takes place during one night, as a white man is shot in the back on a Harlem street and the detective duo Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed make the scene. Ed goes off his head and is suspended, which makes 90% of the book Gravedigger's show. Was the victim an innocent bystander? Was the murderer who it seems to be? And what does Coffin Ed's daughter have to do with it?
Himes' descriptive flair is unique, his sense of place is vivid, his use of language is a highwire act, and his characters are interesting. Even their names are often amazing—Ulysses Galen, Sugartit, Shiek, etc. The Real Cool Killers appeared in 1959, and as we noted when read The Crazy Kill, we're struck by the fact that—in that charged cultural era on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement—Himes doesn't bother writing a single sympathetic black character aside from his two cops. But in this way he's no different than other hard-boiled crime writers.
Himes moved black characters to the center. They drive the action from all sides rather than are merely affected by it. Research shows that books, films, and television shows in which black characters drive rather than are affected by the action tend to be less popular with white Americans. Seen in that light, Himes' success is a tribute to a unique skill set. In the same way the murdered man in The Real Cool Killers gets his thrills going to Harlem, readers in 1959 were able to visit a world not their own in Himes' fiction. He's more than just a real cool writer. He's a pioneer.
Um, Georgia Boy—see if you can put down that unrest you've got happening down around Savannah.
George Mayers does the cover work for the Erskine Caldwell short story collection Georgia Boy, which first appeared in 1943, and in this Avon paperback edition in 1947. While it's a story collection, all the tales are narrated by one young character and mainly discuss the poor Stroup family and their friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. This is Caldwell in a more humorous mode than normal, but the underlying themes of his work—particularly poverty and racism—remain, as in the tale "Handsome Brown's Day Off," in which a black character becomes a living target at a carnival.
We recently encountered this phenomenon in a Jim Thompson novel, and what we thought, or at least hoped, was a case of literary flourish was actual reality—in the Jim Crow south white carnival goers paid to throw baseballs at black men's heads. The balls were generally of a novelty variety, which is to say heavy enough to fly straight, though not hard enough to be lethal, but still. Making the tableau even more horrific was the requirement that the target stick his head through a hole in a jungle backdrop and that he grin and mug for the assembled whites as he tried to dodge the baseballs. We checked it out in other sources and confirmed the prevalence of this barbaric practice. We also found that carnivals in northern states did it too, though it was far more common down south. Apparently the big fun with these spectacles occurred whenever some college or professional pitcher showed up and thrilled the crowd by nailing these poor guys' heads at high velocity.
We found a 1908 article, which you see at right, about a group of pro baseball players who substituted normal baseballs for novelty ones and repeatedly beaned a man, putting him in the hospital, where it was feared he might not survive. The target was said to have taken the punishment “courageously,” and of course there was no suggestion of charges being filed.
We also found two other mentions of “African dodgers”—the gentlest term used to describe them—being killed. Things like these need to be remembered, especially in light of today's cultural battles wherein a segment of people seek to propagate a myth of the south as misunderstood. But literature, besides its other value, is often useful for preserving history, as Erskine Caldwell shows. That said, in Georgia Boy we preferred the stories about sex and we have a feeling you will too.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1912—International Opium Convention Signed
The International Opium Convention is signed at The Hague, Netherlands, and is the first international drug control treaty. The agreement was signed by Germany, the U.S., China, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, and Siam.
1946—CIA Forerunner Created
U.S. president Harry S. Truman establishes the Central Intelligence Group or CIG, an interim authority that lasts until the Central Intelligence Agency is established in September of 1947.
1957—George Metesky Is Arrested
The New York City "Mad Bomber," a man named George P. Metesky, is arrested in Waterbury, Connecticut and charged with planting more than 30 bombs. Metesky was angry about events surrounding a workplace injury suffered years earlier. Of the thirty-three known bombs he planted, twenty-two exploded, injuring fifteen people. He was apprehended based on an early use of offender profiling and because of clues given in letters he wrote to a newspaper. At trial he was found legally insane and committed to a state mental hospital.
1950—Alger Hiss Is Convicted of Perjury
American lawyer Alger Hiss is convicted of perjury in connection with an investigation by the House unAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), at which he was questioned about being a Soviet spy. Hiss served forty-four months in prison. Hiss maintained his innocence and fought his perjury conviction until his death in 1996 at age 92.
1977—Carter Pardons War Fugitives
U.S. President Jimmy Carter pardons nearly all of the country's Vietnam War draft evaders, many of whom had emigrated to Canada. He had made the pardon pledge during his election campaign, and he fulfilled his promise the day after he took office.
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