A Harlem detective learns the rules of engagement in pre-civil rights America.
Ed Lacy is credited by many as having created the first African American detective, Harlem gumshoe Toussaint Marcus Moore. Room to Swing is the novel in which this uniquely named character debuted. The set-up for the plot is also unique. The producer of an unsolved crimes television show called You—Detective! has located a fugitive she wants to arrest on air. She hires Toussaint to keep an eye on this ratings goldmine and make sure he's still around when she and her film crew are ready to spring their trap. Sounds simple, but in 1958 a black detective following a white man 24/7 will run into problems, considering he can't safely go to all the same places. Hell, he couldn't comfortably go to all the same places even today.
And if being a cop magnet isn't bad enough for Toussaint, having a white woman as a client is even more problematic, since they can barely be seen in public together. This is true even in New York and Ohio, where the action takes place. Although the northern U.S. was not part of the Jim Crow system, outside of large cities apartheid generally reigned. Small town Ohio is no different from Alabama for Toussaint. Even getting lunch or using a pay phone is often difficult. Speaking to a white man without calling him “Sir” generally leads to trouble, and being referred to as “boy” in return is standard practice. All of which raises the question: Why did this deep-pocketed producer hire a black detective at all? She has her reasons.
Room to Swing won Lacy the coveted Edgar Award, though we wouldn't say the book is brilliantly written. But it takes readers into fresh territory for a detective novel, and Toussaint is portrayed humanistically and empathetically. The book exemplifies the idea that it's possible for anybody to write about anybody else, regardless of race. Unfortunately, it wasn't a luxury that was often afforded to any but white writers back then, but it certainly should have been. All sorts of insights might have been possible. Room to Swing has plenty of those, and if you can find this Pyramid paperback edition with Robert Maguire cover art, all the better.
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.
Okay, who am I now? I'm you—when you got shitfaced last Friday, couldn't get it up, then barfed and passed out.
The woman on the cover of Ed Lacy's, aka Leonard Zinberg's 1952 novel Sin in Their Blood is supposed to be dead, but we kind of like our alternate interpretation that she's clowning around. Whether dead or joking, though, based on the art you'd never guess the book is about a rightwing organization extorting a black man who's passing as white—thus the sin in his blood—but that's exactly what's at the crux of this tale. Lacy, who was white, dealt with African American issues quite a lot. He's actually credited by some with inventing the first black private eye—Toussaint Marcus Moore. The first Moore novel, 1957's Room To Swing, won an Edgar Award—crime fiction's top honor.
African American subject matter was important to Lacy. From the earliest years of his career he explored racial issues, for instance in 1940's Walk Hard—Talk Loud, which is about a black prizefighter. During the 1950s he was married to a black woman and lived in Harlem, so he was always writing what he observed personally. Harlem is where he blossomed as a writer, where he lived much of his life, and where he died in 1968. Today Lacy is remembered as an important contributor to crime fiction, and we recommend his work. As a side note, the above cover would have fit perfectly into this collection, one of the most interesting groups we've shared over years, we think. And for good measure you can see another in the same style here.
I'll get mine, yours, and everyone else's I can lay my little hands on too.
Set initially at San Quentin Prison, then in the wider environs of Oakland, California, I'll Get Mine follows a do-gooder prison shrink down the rabbit hole of Latino gang culture, where he becomes involved in a murder mystery and takes on the role of potential savior to a beautiful druggie ensnared in Pachuco culture. It was originally published in 1951 as Cure It with Honey, which you see at right.
Thurston Scott was a pseudonym for the team of Jody Scott and George Thurston Leite, and what they put together was racy stuff for the time, with hetero sex achieved, gay sex alluded to, various flavors of drugs inhaled and injected, and some violence. The mix of elements worked well—the novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. The 1952 Popular Library edition at top was illustrated by A. Leslie Ross, and its resemblance to a cover we shared last month puts us in mind of assembling a collection of women leaning against lamp posts and street signs. Stay tuned.
Sorry, the agony from these unbelievably tight ropes distracted me. Did you say don’t cry for you?
William Campbell Gault, aka Will Duke, aka Roney Scott won an Edgar Award for Best First Novel when he published Don’t Cry for Me in 1952. Despite the nature of the prize, he was no novice writer—he had published many shorter length works before turning his talents to the novel form. His characterizations were uncommonly deep, and he worked hard at avoiding pulp’s cookie-cutter approach. For instance, the hero here lives next door to a pulp writer and constantly overhears bitter authors complaining about the travails of their profession. It’s an ironic touch, but more importantly, it’s a realistically quirky detail. You buy it because it has a tinge of real world weirdness. Like many pulps, the plot here involves an unidentified corpse and the trouble that tends to bring, but Gault’s unique voice elevates the tale. That voice made him one of the most respected and imitated pulp writers of his day. We suggest you check him out.
Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Above is the promo art for the June 24, 1987 Japanese premiere of Alan Parker’s supernatural thriller Angel Heart, a movie that happens to be one of our favorites around here. It’s based upon a novel by William Hjortsberg. That novel, a brilliant channeling of Hammett and Chandler titled Falling Angel, was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America. The film version is dark, violent, sexual, and unflinching. Most of the action was transplanted to New Orleans in place of the book’s New York setting, and that decision gave the film an ominous backdrop of jazz, rain, voodoo, bayou, and shadows, with a desperate protagonist wandering virtually lost in the center of it all.
When the film opened in the U.S. reviewers were impressed with the visual tapestry Alan Parker had constructed, but quite a few were unhappy with both Lisa Bonet’s sexually charged role and the lack of sympathetic characters in the narrative. But this is another of those films that has staying power. Mickey Rourke is brilliant as the rumpled detective Harry Angel, Bonet manages a brave performance in a difficult role, and Robert DeNiro is oily and secretly amused as Louis Cyphre, the client who knows so much more than he’s telling. In fact, if not for an almost ruinous special effects misstep in the final minutes, we’d call this movie a perfect piece of pulp cinema. But even with that one colossal error, this kind of hellride doesn’t come along often, which is why we appreciate it as a rare gem, now twenty-two years old.
Another master crime novelist writes sex books to make ends meet.
Here we have another heavyweight author earning extra nickels under the guise of a pseudonym. This time it’s crime thriller icon Lawrence Block, who’s won four Shamus Awards, three Edgars, seen his novels 8 Million Ways To Die, The Campus Tramp and Deadly Honeymoon made into films of varying quality, and who wrote the screenplay for the recent critically acclaimed film My Blueberry Nights.
But it was as Sheldon Lord that he really let his hair down, penning salacious books like Stud, left, as well as the lesbian themed tales below. He also flaunted his utter immunity to writer’s block by publishing fiction under the names Jill Emerson, Chip Harrison, Paul Kavanaugh, William Ard, and Andrew Shaw. Quite an output. Maybe when Block wrote Stud he was thinking about himself.
Daniel Chavarría's Cuban crime novels evoke the island as only a longtime resident could.
Uruguayan author Daniel Chavarría was a miner, a model, and a museum guide, before landing in Cuba and launching a literary career. He’s since won the Dashiell Hammett Award for his novel Gijón and the Edgar Award for Adios Muchachos. His fiction is political, comical, and suspenseful, but most of all it is palpably tropical, the product of a languid and overheated island where material riches are few but passions run high. Read Chavarría and you’ll immediately perceive the difference between fiction written by foreign authors who maybe spend six weeks in Cuba, and a man who has lived there for decades and calls it home. For instance, what foreign author could hope to explain the concept of bicycle hookers, and all the subtleties associated with their trade? Chavarría does exactly that in Adios Muchachos—in fact he writes primarily about hookers. They’re his obsession, his muses, and he writes about them both unflinchingly and reverently. We won’t tell you more—except that we very much enjoyed the above two books. As a bonus, illustrator Owen Smith’s cover paintings serve as perfect encapsulations of the strange, dark beauty of Chavarría’s prose. More on Smith later.
One of the most prolific thriller writers ever dies.
Novelist and screenwriter Donald Westlake died Friday of a heart attack at age 75. Westlake who began publishing in 1960, wrote more than 100 books under his name and several pseudonyms. He won three Edgar awards from the Mystery Writers of America, and his screenplay of Jim Thompson’s novel The Grifters earned him an Academy Award nomination. Fifteen of his novels were adapted to film, including 1972’s The Hot Rock, with Robert Redford, and 1999’s Payback, with Mel Gibson.
Like many pulp authors, Westlake wrote a few erotica novels, these under the pen name Alan Marshall. Curiously, a visit to Westlake’s official website finds no mention of Marshall, which we count as an official disavowal. Nevertheless, you see an Alan Marshall cover below. Westlake said he published under so many names because it would have been unbelievable that one person wrote so much. His feverish output will continue even after death—his latest novel Get Real is due to be published in April.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
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.
1966—Missing Nuke Found
Off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean, the deep submergence vehicle Alvin locates a missing American hydrogen bomb. The 1.45-megaton nuke had been lost by the U.S. Air Force during a midair accident over Palomares, Spain. It was found resting in nearly three-thousand feet of water and was raised intact on 7 April.
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