Rural heist goes way south.
The Big Caper by Lionel White is a bank robbery thriller written in multi-p.o.v. style, with more than a dozen characters ranging from compassionate to psychopathic all getting to describe the action. It's a good book. The crux of it is that a career bank robber sends his girlfriend and an associate to act as the advance team for the robbery. They go to the Florida town where the bank is located, set up as husband and wife, and spend six months gathering intelligence for the operation—from pacing out bank dimensions and vault location, to befriending local cops, uncovering data on important people and town operations, to renting a big house and hosting other members of the crew as they trickle into town. The boss has told his vanguard that their husband and wife act is just that—an act. Do they pay attention? No. And it's from there that complications begin to arise. The plot is carefully structured and the writing is a cut above the usual genre fare, but the ending is a bit pat. Still, it's basically a winner. Gold Medal published this edition in 1955 with cover art by Barye Phillips, and the book became a 1957 film noir of the same name starring Rory Calhoun and Mary Costa. We may check that out later.
You can try to ransom me but my husband really doesn't answer the phone during football season.
In Who Has Wilma Lathrop? a Chicago high school teacher marries the woman of his dreams after a three month courtship, but wakes up one morning to find her missing, and immediately thereafter discovers she has a hidden past as a gangster's mistress and possible jewel thief. Suddenly that whirlwind romance doesn't seem like it was a good idea, but he loves her and has to locate her. He's smart and has some combat training, so he isn't totally helpless, but finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble. This is a recommended yarn from Day Keene set in the middle of a bitter Chicago winter. If you're lucky enough to find the above 1955 Gold Medal edition you'll get great art by Barye Phillips.
Your partners all voted and decided to demote you to this shallow grave.
When the cat's away the mice will play, so the saying goes, and in Kill the Boss Good-By San Pietro crime kingpin Tom Fell goes missing for a month and a subordinate tries to take over his operation. When Fell reappears a power struggle ensues, while the top bosses in L.A. decide to wait and see who will come out on top. What makes the book a bit different is the reason Fell was missing—he was in a mental institution recovering from a breakdown with the aid of electroshock treatments. The new brain-scrambled Fell is calmer than the old Fell, but is he cured or is he worse? His enemies soon find out. Interesting hard boiled stuff from Peter Rabe, driven primarily by dialogue mixed with simple descriptive passages revealing a—dare we say it?—strong Hemingway influence. 1956 with cover art by Barye Phillips.
Security—there's a serious situation in sporting goods.
Steve Brackeen's, aka John Farris's, Baby Moll tells the tale of a former mob tough guy who's dragged away from the normal life he's built for himself to help his former boss survive the attentions of an assassin. It seems that years ago the bossman torched a building and a young girl survived with burns. The girl has grown up is presumably behind the murder attempts. But the book isn't really focused on her, which makes Barye Phillips' excellent cover art and the accompanying tagline a bit misleading. The various women spend little time on the page. Baby Moll is really about how the protagonist goes about his investigation. There's a good amount of action and an assortment of interesting characters, but we wouldn't go so far as to call the book either exceptional or well written. It's okay. It goes in the South Florida crime bin, so the setting might be enough to put it over for many readers.
The sky's the limit in third Bond thriller.
Ian Fleming's Moonraker is James Bond's third literary outing and it sees him trying to prevent the detonation of a loose nuke. If you've never read a Bond book, you may want to know that in addition to being thrillers they're hardcore car and food porn. Fleming takes pains to describe engines, exhausts, gearing; then he'll turn toward flavors, ingredients, and vintages. In Moonraker a chapter long car chase is a tour de force. A meal in a private club is almost as exciting. The rarefied world of three digit speed and three star dinners drew us in almost as much as the plot. But the main takeaway from this book for us is that it was absolutely murdered by United Artists when adapted for the screen. They left nothing but the title and the name of the villain. It's worth reading just to experience Fleming's original vision. This 1960 Signet edition has Barye Phillips cover art, and it's a bit different for him but very nice.
Of course I had sex with him, daddy. Didn't you teach me to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?
We like the fiction of Charles Williams quite a bit, so after reading six of his novels we thought we'd go all the way back to his debut, 1951's Hill Girl. The hill girl of the title is eighteen year-old Angelina, who has the temerity to actually enjoy sex, and compounds this sin by hooking up with handsome but married Lee Crane. This is horrifying to Lee's brother Bob, who not only wants what's best for his sibling, but also counts Lee's wife as one of his best friends. Thus this affair simply cannot stand. But Lee can't let Angelina go for reasons that can be best summarized this way: she's insanely hot and amazing in the sack. When Angelina's fundamentalist father literally comes after Lee with a shotgun Angelina ends up under Bob's protection, and shortly afterward under Bob.
Hey, girls just wanna have fun, right? So what develops here is a battle between two brothers over ownership of a woman's body. To his credit, Bob comes to the realization that whatever Angelina did before she was involved with him is none of his fuckin' business, even if the fuckin' was with his brother; but Lee never quite sees the light, even though he's married to a beautiful and wonderful woman. His obsession with Angelina will cost someone dearly. Hill Girl is miles away from Williams' nautical adventures, an interesting window onto sexual attitudes of the 1950s, and solidly put together as well. That's probably why it sold a million copies and launched his career. The cover art for this Gold Medal edition is by Barye Phillips.
Bond is born in Ian Fleming's 1953 Cold War thriller.
We've read a few Bond novels, but not his debut in 1953's Casino Royale. When it comes to secondhand bookstores and yard sales you read what you find. But we decided to finally made a deliberate effort to go back to the beginning with an edition from Signet, which appeared in 1960 with Barye Phillips cover art. The debuts of franchise characters leave room for continuing adventures by design but we've never read a book that was so deliberately a prequel as Casino Royale. It's the essential novel for understanding Bond. You know the basics already: Cold War intrigue, opposing teams taking the field for a long struggle, a Soviet spy named La Chiffre who's dipped into funds not his and who hatches a desperate plan to restore them via the baccarat tables of a famous French casino, Bond dispatched to outplay him, break him, and ensure his downfall for stealing the money.
The book is fantastic from its opening, through its tremendously tense middle sections, and on to its brutal punchline of an ending. Bond is imperfect as both a spy and a man. He's sometimes kind, prone to sentiment, and philosophical about his work; he's also sexist, racist, and generally regressive. Casino Royale is designed to explain how the first three qualities were destroyed, making him a perfect spy. The latter three qualities remain. While in serious fiction many authors of the period were writing about racial equality and the essential sameness of people, Ian Fleming was declaring that Asians are terrible gamblers because as a race they lack resolve. None of this is a surprise because much is known about Fleming's personal views. Bond is an icon, but of a less enlightened era. We're readers, of ours. Yet we can meet on the page, and—with a tolerance Fleming never showed others—still manage to have a little fun.
Where have you been? I've waiting all day to crush what little spirit you have left.
The Brat is solid work from Gil Brewer. The novel has been extensively reviewed online, but we'll give you the set-up: a woman from the sticks marries the first man who can rescue her from nowheresville, but her desire for a better life soon reveals itself to be a mad lust for riches. She conceives a robbery that has no hope of success and tries to drag her husband into it against his will. The result is murder and a lot of evidence pointing his way, though he had nothing to do with it. The only way to keep his neck out of the noose is to find his missing wife, the missing money, and learn whether the robbery was all a fatal error or a set-up from the beginning. Excellent stuff from Brewer, with an awesome air boat chase in the Everglades as its pivotal action piece. The cover art on this 1958 edition is by the stalwart Barye Phillips, and we think it's one of his best.
Al Wheeler gets caught in an explosive situation.
Barye Phillips art adorns the cover of Carter Brown's The Bombshell, first published in 1957, with this Signet edition appearing in 1960. The book features his franchise police detective Al Wheeler, who's assigned a murder case where there's no body. He protests because it's really a missing persons investigation, but his boss is convinced young Lily Teal's corpse is somewhere to be found. Even so, a previous investigation came up empty and Wheeler is assigned the case with the expectation he won't get anywhere. But failure is for lesser detectives. Our favorite exchange in this one:
Femme fatale: “Maybe it's something to do with me being born in the South—a girl matures early in a hot climate.”
Al Wheeler: “And you've been carrying that climate around with you ever since.
We shared this cover as part of a collection several years ago, but hadn't read the book. The scan above is from our own copy. This is the third Al Wheeler book in the long running series, but it already feels a bit perfunctory. The narrative doesn't really take off until Wheeler is framed for attempted sexual assault. At that point, based on how far his still unknown enemies are willing to go, he realizes there's more to the case than just a possible murder. Overall, not a bad outing, but nothing special. We have more Al Wheeler mysteries we acquired recently, so we'll see how those go.
So much for French chivalry.
This cover for Quatre pas dans la nuit fits right into our collection from earlier this year featuring ruthless men using women as human shields. In fact, it's the same painting by Barye Phillips used on Ben Benson's Broken Shield, which we included in that previous group. Quatre pas dans la nuit appeared in 1958 and is the French edition of the Ed Lacy novel Be Careful How You Live, which is in turn an expansion of his story "Time Wounds All Heels." We talked about Lacy a bit earlier this year, so if you want to know more check here. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1984—Britain Agrees to Cede Hong Kong
Great Britain signs over Hong Kong to China in an agreement stipulating that
the colony be returned to the Chinese in 1997. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signs the Joint Sino-British Declaration with her Chinese counterpart Zhao Ziyang, while political groups in Hong Kong push futilely for independence.
1912—Piltdown Man Discovered
A hominid fossil known as Piltdown Man is found in England's Piltdown Gravel Pit by paleontologist Charles Dawson. The fragments are thought by many experts of the day to be the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown form of early man, but in 1953 it is discovered to be a hoax composed of a human skeleton and an orangutan's jawbone. The identity of the Piltdown forger remains unknown, but suspects have included Dawson, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Arthur Conan Doyle and others.
1967—Australian Prime Minister Disappears
The Prime Minister of Australia, Harold Holt, who was best known for expanding Australia's role in the Vietnam War, disappears while swimming at Cheviot Beach near Portsea, Victoria and is presumed drowned.
1969—Project Blue Book Ends
The United States Air Force completes its study of UFOs, stating that sightings are generated as a result of a mild form of mass hysteria, and that individuals who fabricate such reports do so to perpetrate a hoax or seek publicity, or are psychopathological persons, or simply misidentify various conventional objects.
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