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.
Stop playing hard to get! I just want to make sweet love to you!
The Woman Aroused tells the story of a man who allows a confused and mysterious woman to stay with him, then finds he can't get her out of his apartment. He basically can't even get her off his sofa. The woman calls herself Lee, but that isn't her real name. She has no family, no friends, no past. She has a strange accent that hints at origins somewhere in Europe, but conversely she has an American flag tattoo on her forearm.
It emerges that Lee is short for “liebchen,” a nickname from when she was a worker and sex slave in a Polish concentration camp. The tattoo is a cover-up for her Nazi serial number. But even after these discoveries the issue remains how to get rid of her. The narrator is no match for her physically because she's six feet tall and labor hardened, he has limited hope of outsmarting her, and due to complications he can't involve the police. Quite a pickle, and quite an inversion of the usual male-female relationship found in mid-century fiction.
Ed Lacey, aka Ed Lacy, née Leonard Zinberg is not a polished writer, at least not working under this pseudonym, but he certainly dreams up thought provoking tales. This one is just weird enough to sustain interest throughout its short length. The cover on this Avon edition, which gives vivid form to the physical turning of the tables depicted in the narrative, is by famed pin-up artist William Randall, aka Bill Randall, and the copyright is 1951.
Shut up, conscience. We both knew she'd eventually criticize my driving one time too many.
Above, both sides of Australian writer Charlotte Jay's, aka Geraldine Halls' The Fugitive Eye, for Avon Books, 1953, about a witness to murder who loses his eyesight in an accident and finds himself pursued by bad guys. The rear cover, with its multi-angle text, is almost as interesting as the front, but the art is uncredited. If you're wondering where the dead woman's other foot is, someone found it over here.
A thousand miles out to sea there's nobody to help you if you can't help yourself.
Above, a Bill Johnson cover for the Charles Williams thriller Dead Calm, originally published in hardback in 1963 with this Avon paperback coming in ’65. We love this cover. It gets more interesting the more you look at it. As for the story, it deviates from the 1989 Nicole Kidman movie in several important ways, including the number of characters, the approach the heroine Rae takes toward being stranded on a sailboat in the middle of the South Pacific with a madman, and the climax. The movie is excellent, of course, but it's interesting the choices screenwriters make. In the movie Rae uses sex as part of her arsenal but Williams has more imagination than that—or less, depending on your point of view. In any case, Dead Calm is a recommended read.
Any male hussy will tell you—quantity is quality.
1952 Avon cover for Donald Henderson Clarke's The Headstrong Young Man, with a banner explaining said headstrong young man is a male hussy. Which would lead to this conversation:
“You're a male hussy, you know that?”
“It's not a compliment.”
“It means I screw a lot of women, right?”
“Then thank you.”
“But you have no discernment. You don't care. You'll stick your cock in anything that moves.”
“You sure seemed to enjoy it.”
*Sigh* “You are also incredibly thick.”
Unbelievable. I put my trust in you. Give you my heart. And here I find you pawing some red-headed bimbo.
Above is a cover for 1955's The Passion Murders, written by the prolific Day Keene, aka Gunard Hjerstedt, and originally published as Farewell to Passion in 1951. In this one a burned out big city lawyer leaves the danger and corruption of the metropolis behind for a simpler existence, only to find that small towns offer no protection against crime. The tangled web includes a dangerous mobster, a partner with no scruples, and the lawyer's own compromised wife. We really like the cover on this one, but unfortunately it's uncredited.
Long live the King—in Yellow, that is.
The interesting cover above for Five Sinister Characters was painted by Paul Stahr and fronts a Raymond Chandler short story collection composed of "Trouble is My Business,” “Pearls Are a Nuisance,” “I'll Be Waiting,” “The Red Wind,” and “The King in Yellow.” Lovecraft fans probably know that last title via its usage by Robert W. Chambers for his 1895 collection of weird stories, which you see at right, but Chandler's “King in Yellow” is unrelated. Chandler's tale involves a tough guy bandleader named King Leopardi who wears yellow suits, while Chambers' collection is, well, weird. But Chandler knew of Chambers and he also knew of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, of which Chambers' fiction is considered a part. Midway through Chandler's tale a character says, “The King in Yellow. I read a book with that title once.” A clear reference to Chambers' macabre work. The influence of that work continues to grow over time—it even made an impact on the first season of True Detective. Originally published by Avon in 1944, this edition of Five Sinister Characters appeared as part of Avon's Murder Mystery Monthly series in 1945. Recommended stuff.
Hey, Sarge, I'm ready for those nocturnal maneuvers you mentioned.
Not long ago we put together a large collection of lesbian paperback covers from the mid-century period. This one—Harry Whittington's Rebel Woman, 1960, from Avon Publications—we held back. It was just too awesome to mix in with the fifty or so we posted earlier. As we mentioned before, since these were mainly written by men, they reflected male fantasies and assumptions, and this one is prototypical anti-lesbian sleaze. An American mercenary gets involved in a Latin American revolution and is captured by a squad of female rebels. When he realizes the leader of the group is an old flame he figures he has nothing to worry about. But when he “saw the way she looked at the girl Dolores [he knew] the twisted path she had taken.” He decides she'll need to be reconverted to the hetero team, but that may be harder than it seems at first glance. Whittington may have gone to hell for writing this one. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1916—Einstein Publishes General Relativity
German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein publishes his general theory of relativity. Among the effects of the theory are phenomena such as the curvature of space-time, the bending of rays of light in gravitational fields, faster than light universe expansion, and the warping of space time around a rotating body.
1931—Nevada Approves Gambling
In the U.S., the state of Nevada passes a resolution allowing for legalized gambling. Unregulated gambling had been commonplace in the early Nevada mining towns, but was outlawed in 1909 as part of a nationwide anti-gaming crusade. The leading proponents of re-legalization expected that gambling would be a short term fix until the state's economic base widened to include less cyclical industries. However, gaming proved over time to be one of the least cyclical industries ever conceived.
1941—Tuskegee Airmen Take Flight
During World War II, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, aka the Tuskegee Airmen, is activated. The group is the first all-black unit of the Army Air Corp, and serves with distinction in Africa, Italy, Germany and other areas. In March 2007 the surviving airmen and the widows of those who had died received Congressional Gold Medals for their service.
1906—First Airplane Flight in Europe
Romanian designer Traian Vuia flies twelve meters outside Paris in a self-propelled airplane, taking off without the aid of tractors or cables, and thus becomes the first person to fly a self-propelled, heavier-than-air aircraft. Because his craft was not a glider, and did not need to be pulled, catapulted or otherwise assisted, it is considered by some historians to be the first true airplane.
1965—Leonov Walks in Space
Soviet cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov leaves his spacecraft the Voskhod 2 for twelve minutes. At the end of that time Leonov's spacesuit had inflated in the vacuum of space to the point where he could not re-enter Voskhod's airlock. He opened a valve to allow some of the suit's pressure to bleed off, was barely able to get back inside the capsule, and in so doing became the first person to complete a spacewalk.
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