I see dead people. Not next week's lottery numbers. Not future stock fluctuations. Just useless, creepy dead people.
Richard Matheson was a well known writer who published many novels and short stories, penned teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and wrote the novel Psycho—which later became Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller—but his 1962 supernatural novel A Stir of Echoes is a bit obscure. It's probably better known as a 1999 movie starring the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon. The story here deals with a man whose talent as a medium is accidentally unleashed when he's hypnotized at a party. The book isn't elegantly written. A typical sentence: He walked weavingly toward the door. But you don't have to be a master stylist to tell a good story and that's what Matheson did over the course of his long career, churning out great concept after great concept, here unspooling the tale of a man who can't control his unbidden psychic talent. With the power to see the future, the protagonist gains unwanted knowledge of kidnapping, adultery, a shooting, and other violent and nightmarish occurrences. It defies belief that all this happens in a week or two on a formerly quiet suburban street, but A Stir of Echoes is an entertaining story with a nice twist ending. We haven't seen the movie but we're curious now.
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.
365 days in the year and just her luck she's in Greyton today.
There's never an untimely moment for a great cover. This unusual piece fronts Mark McShane's Untimely Ripped, which as you can surely guess involves a Jack the Ripper type killer. The first victim in the fictional English village of Greyton is a prostitute, and the terror is due to the fact that in a place so small there are no strangers, which means the killer is someone known and loved—the priest, the constable, who knows? It gets worse. Not only is the killer seemingly someone they all know, but the first murder begins to look non-random when the victim's sister is killed and mutilated. Then a third victim suffers the same fate. We won't tell you more. Well, we'll tell you this: McShane uses the fifth longest word in the English language: praetertranssubstantiationalistically. What does it mean? Hah. Whatever he wants, because he made it up. The cover art on this Crest paperback is uncredited, which is a crime all its own.
A man in love can talk himself into anything.
Above is a top notch Mitchell Hooks cover for the classic Chester Himes thriller For Love of Imabelle, which is about a good-hearted but simple man named Jackson who's conned out of his life savings. Get this: he actually believes a man can change the denomination of paper money by cooking it in an oven. In goes ten-dollar bills, turn up the heat, and—presto—out come one-hundred dollar bills. The scam, of course, is that the tens are pocketed before cooking and switched for counterfeit hundreds. Silly perhaps, but Himes wrote things he knew, so this con doubtless existed. The basic thrust of the plot is twofold: how to get the money back before Jackson's life is ruined, and whether our hapless hero's now missing girlfriend Imabelle is a fellow victim or a heartless participant in the scam. In Himes' hands everything unfolds with great style. Check this sentence:
Jackson looked up at the clock on the wall and the clock said hurry-hurry.
Only a unique talent could pull off something so jazzy. We were less impressed with his third novel The Crazy Kill—which was the first of his books we read—but with his award winning Imabelle we've gone back to the beginning of his Harlem cycle and he's got us hooked now, especially since he's actually written a conventional good guy. In The Crazy Kill there are few legitimately sympathetic characters, but in this one you can really root for poor overmatched Jackson. Himes' franchise detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones also play significant roles, and in fact Imabelle contains the defining moment of Coffin Ed's career. The story is topped off by a chaotic action movie style climax that's both thrilling and appalling. The Fawcett Gold Medal paperback at top appeared in 1957, and a later reissue as A Rage in Harlem came in 1965. And then there's the movie. Maybe we'll talk about that later.
A deserted island, a pair of killers, and very little time.
We just finished reading Aground, which Charles Williams wrote in 1960, and it was a solid if unspectacular outing from a highly experienced author. In this one John and Rae (two characters who meet here but would later marry and appear in Dead Calm) are trapped with two weapons smugglers on a yacht that's stuck on a reef. The only way to free the boat is to lighten the load, so the crooks make the couple help unload tons of guns onto the atoll, and thus we get the ticking clock for this thriller—when the boat is light enough to float, the criminals will move it to slightly deeper water, make their captives reload the guns, kill them and be off. A fun gimmick, perhaps not exploited to fullest advantage, but the end result is worthwhile. The Crest paperback edition above, with uncredited art, appeared in 1961.
Age is just a number—a prison sentence is real.
The cover blurb on this 1957 Crest paperback for Gil Brewer's Little Tramp is a case of false advertising. The femme fatale is not jail bait—she's eighteen. Which might make involvement with her a case of bad judgment, but not one of illegality. An important detail, that. But even if young Arlene isn't jail bait, she still might be the reason the down-on-his-luck protagonist Gary Dunn goes to prison. She's decided to stage her own kidnapping to pry money from her rich father, and has set Dunn up to look like the perpetrator. The scheme goes wrong when a sleazy private investigator decides to use the scam to kidnap Arlene for real. This is typical Brewer—an everyman finds himself in over his head with a woman. The art however, is not typical. It's first rate stuff, painted by the always great Barye Phillips for Fawcett-Crest in 1957.
It's really been three days since we showered? Wow. The old saying is true—time flies when you're having fun.
Love in Dishevelment by David Greenhood deals with a man and woman in New York City who decide to live together, something that was severely frowned upon in 1948 when the book was first published, especially for two upstanding professionals like the couple in the story. There's also an out-of-wedlock baby, even more frowned upon, and these and other elements led to the book being banned in Australia, though on the whole you could call the story a romance. Greenhood, who also wrote non-fiction and poetry, takes a literary approach here, and he earned good reviews. This Fawcett-Crest edition appeared in 1955 with cover art from James Meese.
Only good hot sax could make a girl move her body that way.
In 1958's hit novel The Horn beat author John Clellon Holmes tells the story of Edgar Pool, a talented tenor saxophonist who makes his mark on the NYC jazz scene and grows into a global legend. The last twenty-four hours of his life are related via the recollections of friends and lovers, so what you get is a rise-and-fall biography centered around a booze-drugs-women nexus, which Holmes based on the lives of jazz masters Lester Young and Charlie Parker and set in 1954 to give it a tinge of documentary nostalgia. It's a really nice piece of literature. Holmes had already written Go, which is considered the first beat novel; The Horn is the definitive jazz novel from that genre. This 1959 Fawcett Crest paperback comes with worthy cover art from Mitchell Hooks.
Don’t play the game unless you play it for keeps.
Seems about time for another Robert McGinnis cover, so here’s one you don’t see often—Tereska Torrès’s novel of multiple marital affairs The Dangerous Games. Despite the look of this, the French-born Torrès was considered by most critics to be among the ranks of serious, literary authors. In true Orwell or Hemingway fashion she honed her craft in conflict by working for the Volontaires Françaises during World War II and later traveling from Poland to Palestine. In 1950 she published Women’s Barracks, based loosely on her wartime experiences, and that book is considered by many to be the first lesbian pulp novel. The Dangerous Games initially appeared in 1958 in France as Le labyrinthe (subtitled …oh! ces jeux dangereux), and the above McGinnis-graced reprint followed in 1961.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying
. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
1973—Kidnappers Cut Off Getty's Ear
After holding Jean Paul Getty III for more than three months, kidnappers cut off his ear and mail it to a newspaper in Rome. Because of a postal strike it doesn't arrive until November 8. Along with the ear is a lock of hair and ransom note that says: "This is Paul’s ear. If we don’t get some money within 10 days, then the other ear will arrive. In other words, he will arrive in little bits." Getty's grandfather, billionaire oilman Jean Paul Getty, at first refused to pay the 3.2 million dollar ransom, then negotiated it down to 2.8 million, and finally agreed to pay as long as his grandson repaid the sum at 4% interest.
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