It isn't easy being more highly evolved than everyone else.
These covers are from John D. MacDonald hardbacks published by British imprint Robert Hale during the mid-1960s, two entries in his famed Travis McGee series. Eight years ago we shared a selection of Fawcett Gold Medal paperback covers from the series which were painted by luminaries Ron Lesser, Elaine Duillo, Robert McGinnis, and others. You can see them here if you're inclined. When we put together that set we hadn't read any of the books, so we figured it was time to take ole John D. and his creation McGee for a spin.
We read the novels you see above and the results were a bit mixed for us. McGee is a sort of fixer who lives an idle life on a houseboat in Florida, but takes detective-like jobs whenever money runs short. Despite his laid back trappings, he's a cynical, hypercritical guy who thinks he knows everything about everyone. MacDonald tries to mitigate this somewhat by making McGee occasionally critical of himself, but it's just a fig leaf. The guy is an enormous pain—manipulative, often pointlessly mean, and of the opinion that he can discern facts about people that they don't know about themselves.
These assessments of others always turn out to be true, as you'd expect since they come from the star character, but we couldn't help thinking how in real life McGee would be a real trial to know. That's just our opinion. But here's what's indisputable—MacDonald's female characters are mentally weak and sexually neurotic. McGee sometimes treats them shabbily and they later thank him for shaking them up. In The Deep Blue Goodbye when a woman important to McGee dies, he has virtually no reaction. His aplomb is inconsistent, considering at other times we hear his deepest thoughts about everything from the sexual proclivities of hippies to the eventual fate of western civilization.
Our feelings about him are probably generational. We weren't even zygotes when these novels were published, so maybe this sort of jaundiced and superior cynicism played better back in the sixties when a major cultural shift was underway. Despite our quibbles, the plots of these novels are engaging, and McGee, though full of himself, isn't invincible. The difficulties he runs into are surprising, and often deadly, particularly in Nightmare in Pink, in which the villains manage to put him into an exceedingly tight spot. A palpable sense of menace in the fiction helps carry the day.
The art above was painted by the genius illustrator Barbara Walton, who was sort of a house artist for Robert Hale Limited, producing scores of dust jackets for the company. In fact, she was one of the greatest of dust jacket artists, someone whose work surpassed its boundaries to become fine art. That fact may not be fully clear here, but trust us. We haven't talked much about Walton because of our focus on paperbacks, but she was really something. You can see another example of her work (one of her least impressive pieces) here, and an entire gallery of good stuff here.
Last one to leave turn out the lights.
Above, a beautiful black dust jacket for James Hadley Chase's thriller Believed Violent, 1968, from British publisher Robert Hale Limited. Chase gets right into this one with an adulterous sex scene on the opening page, and serious repercussions resulting from the subsequent murder. The book evolves to become an espionage caper, with Russians willing to pay a fortune for the secret formula behind the manufacture of a revolutionary new metal. Against that backdrop you get the broken man behind the formula, a sadistic professional killer, a one-eyed henchman, a sex slave heroin addict whose eventual rebellion has pivotal consequences, and Chase's franchise character Frank Terrell. The art here, which is what we really wanted to show you, is from Barbara Walton. We've mentioned her only briefly but as you can see she was a top talent. We're going to get back to her a little later.
Eileen Walton proves she’s just as talented as her sister.
Last week we shared a group of book covers that used shadows or silhouettes of Venetian blinds as a theme. We stumbled across one more on Flickr—George B. Mair’s 1964 North African spy adventure Miss Turquoise. It’s the second of his books starring David Grant, a character he based loosely on himself. The art is by Eileen Walton, sister of illustrator Barbara Walton, and she shows that talent ran in the family with this lovely moonlit tableau for Jarrold Publishing. Thanks to the original uploader, and see the other covers of this ilk here.
Put down that knife right this instant buster or you’re seriously grounded.
This great dust cover is by Barbara Walton, one of the best illustrators ever to take up a brush. She did most of her work in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and was quite prolific along with her equally talented sister, so we’ll be sure to get back to her a bit later. Charlotte Armstrong was an award winning mystery writer, the author of twenty-nine novels, and this one has a Shakespearean set-up as a young man decides that his father was murdered by his new stepfather. He has little evidence save for a cryptic note and a general belief that his mother should not have remarried as quickly as she did, so rather than go to the cops he plots his own brand of revenge. Problem is, he might be wrong in his basic assumption. The above hardback appeared in 1964 for the book’s British run, and the Ace paperback edition below is from a year earlier in 1963.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1954—Communist Party Outlawed
In the U.S., during the height of the Red Scare, President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Communist Control Act into law. The new legislation bans the American Communist Party, and prohibits people deemed to be communists from serving as officials in labor organizations.
1968—France Explodes Nuke
a two-stage nuclear weapon, codenamed Canopus, on Fangataufa, French Polynesia.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
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