Population 1280. Correction—1274.
Purely by coincidence, we also read a novel that's the dark twin of Never Say No to a Killer. The book was Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280, and in this one the main character is a self-described moron, and so is everyone else. At least it seems that way at first. Or maybe it's kinder to say they're simply unpretentious and earthy. Check out this exchange between two lawmen from adjacent counties:
“Pre-zactly! Ken said. “So I'll tell you what to do about them pimps. The next time they even look like they're goin' to sass you, you just kick 'em in the balls as hard as you can.”
“Huh? But don't that hurt awful bad?”
“Pshaw. 'Course it don't hurt. Not if you're wearing a good pair o' boots.”
“I mean, wouldn't it hurt the pimps?”
Once we're immersed in this chaw-and-cornbread milieu, one character emerges to be considerably more cunning than the others. The aphorism applies again. Though he doesn't consider himself to be smart, somehow he's more than up to the task of conniving his way through multiple nefarious schemes to reach his ultimate goals, which consist of getting laid and not working too hard as sheriff.
The book is set during the Great Depression and its portrait of man-woman and white-black relations is both horrifying and hilarious. Thompson's approach is partly satirical, but the actual ideas espoused by his characters are deadly serious, as well as historically grounded, such as in a conversation about whether the county's black residents have souls. The consensus is they don't. Why? Because they aren't really people.
It's a pointed commentary on the distant Jim Crow south, yet the very same question of black humanness festers at the core of America's 2017 problems. If you doubt it ask yourself how the same observers who have limitless sympathy for a white rancher shot after initiating a standoff with federal lawmen somehow have none for unarmed black men shot in the back, or why rich white ranchers who refuse to pay their federal grazing fees are perceived as persecuted, while a poor black man trying to survive by selling loose cigarettes is not.
Critic Stephen Marche once described Pop. 1280 as “preposterously upsetting,” which is as apt a description as we can imagine. The idea of who's really human, what is sexual consent, what are the obligations of lawmen, and what is evil are played for laughs by Thompson, but always with an incisive twist that lets you know where his sympathies lie. Yet as shocking as the book is to read, it's addictive and consistently entertaining, particularly when various characters dispense their tabacky soaked wisdom…
… about women: “I'd been chasing females all my life, not paying no mind to the fact that whatever's got tail at one end has teeth at the other, and now I was getting chomped on.”
... about the mentally challenged: “You probably ain't got as long a dingle-dangle as him—they tell me them idjits are hung like a stud hoss.”
… about learning: “I mean I caught him reading a book, that's what! Yes sir, I caught him red-handed. Oh, he claimed he was only lookin' at the pitchers, but I knew he was lyin'.”
We recommend Pop. 1280 highly. The Gold Medal paperback you see above with its Robert McGinnis cover art is expensive, but numerous later printings are available at reasonable prices. Just go into the reading with your psyche girded. You'll root for the main character Nick Corey, but he's merely one of the most charming bad apples in a town that's rife with rot. That rot leads to the reliable pulp staples of adultery, betrayal, and murder many times over, but in the most unique and enjoyable way.
That famous southern hospitality must happen in some other part of the south.
Charles Williams' 1954 thriller Go Home, Stranger doesn't take place entirely at sea like fun efforts such as Dead Calm and Aground, but it does have an aquatic focus, with much of the action taking place in swamps and bayous along the Gulf Coast, as lead character Pete Reno tries to prove to the yokel police force that his famous actress sister didn't murder her husband. Though the cops aren't much help he finds an ally who doubles as a love interest. The Gulf feel is strong, the story is interesting, and the writing is typically solid, but this is not Williams at his best. Relegating the sister—who has the most at stake—to a mainly off-the-page role possibly saps the story of urgency. But of course middling Williams surpasses many thriller authors' best work. The cover art is by Barye Phillips, and its dark and moody nature illustrates the prose nicely. The copyright on this Gold Medal edition is 1963.
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.
Hmm... you should be on the ground writhing in agony by now. What's this material? Polyester?
We talked about the Charles Williams thriller A Touch of Death back in 2015. Shorter version: it's great. But we didn't show you the alternate cover art. This edition came first, in 1954, from the brush of Saul Tepper. See the other cover here.
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.
My life has gone horribly wrong, but at least I still have my digni— Oh, great. My fly was open this whole time, wasn't it?
In David Goodis' 1954 thriller Street of No Return, a down-on-his luck nobody named Whitey, who had been a great singer years ago only to lose his voice, career, and sobriety—thanks to a dame, of course—finds that even for a man at rock bottom things can get worse. And it involves something more serious than discovering his fly is open, though that would be funny. What happens is an impulsive act of compassion drags him into a pit of murder and corruption, set against the backdrop of Puerto Ricans-vs-cops race riots in Philadelphia. There are plenty of reviews of this online, so for details just look around. This one caught our eye because of the intricate and gritty cover art, yet another top effort from Barye Phillips.
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.
What are you, deaf or something? How many times do I have to tell you?
We come across lots of similar covers but these two from Gold Medal Books are truly twins. The first, for Walt Grove's The Man Who Said No, is uncredited, but the second, for Mike Heller's So I'm a Heel, was painted by Barye Phillips. These could actually both be Phillips, looking at them. He sometimes didn't sign his work. But absent confirmation, we'll just say both are great. 1950 and 1957.
Dammit, because of you all the girls started calling me “just barely average Stan.”
John Monahan was a pseudonym used by W.R. Burnett, the man behind Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle, and other enduring novels. He also wrote or co-wrote such screenplays as This Gun for Hire and Scarface. In Big Stan he tells the story of a cop named Stanislaus who’s tasked with catching a masked criminal known as the Black Phantom. The Phantom proves elusive until he makes the mistake of targeting Stan’s wife. It’s a fairly well regarded book from an author who wrote some of the classics. The art on this 1953 Gold Medal paperback is by Barye Phillips.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1947—Hollywood Blacklist Instituted
The day after ten Hollywood writers and directors are cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to give testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the group, known as the "Hollywood Ten," are blacklisted by Hollywood movie studios.
1963—Ruby Shoots Oswald
Nightclub owner and mafia associate Jack Ruby fatally shoots alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of Dallas police department headquarters. The shooting is broadcast live on television and silences the only person known for certain to have had some connection to the Kennedy killing.
1971—D.B. Cooper Escapes from Airplane
In the U.S., during a thunderstorm over Washington state, a hijacker calling himself Dan Cooper, aka D. B. Cooper, parachutes from a Northwest Orient Airlines flight with $200,000 in ransom money. Neither he nor the money are ever found.
1936—First Edition of Life Published
Henry Luce launches Life, a weekly magazine with an emphasis on photo-journalism. Life dominates the U.S. market for more than forty years, publishing scores of iconic photographs that remain some of the most recognizable ever shot, and peaking at one point with a circulation of more than 13.5 million copies a week.
1963—Doctor Who Debuts on BBC
The BBC broadcasts the first episode of Doctor Who, starring William Hartnell as a mysterious alien who time travels in his spaceship, the TARDIS. With his companions, he explores time and space while facing a variety of foes and righting wrongs. The show would become the longest-running science fiction series ever broadcast.
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