As long as you're already feeling terrible I might as well tell you he landed on your cat.
For such clever animals cats do get underfoot at inconvenient times, don't they? But fret not—no felines are flattened in Day Keene's Wake Up To Murder. There's barely any character development at all, let alone time for extraneous animals. What happens here is the protagonist James Charters decides to save a woman from death row. Sound familiar? That's because it's the same set-up Keene used for Death House Doll. Plotwise the books diverge from there, as Charters gets blamed for a couple of murders and has some mobsters chasing after him for $10,000 they think he has. Put this in the Florida thriller bin, copyright 1952.
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.
Listen, lady! There's two of us and only one goat on this island! We're going to have to come to an agreement!
No, this cover for William Fuller's 1954 thriller Goat Island is not a duplicate of yesterday's. It's a similar piece painted by the great same artist—George Gross. On both fronts you have the dark-haired femme fatale, the open white shirt, the seated position, the nearby tree, the shack in the distance, and a general backwoods mood. If you must copy, copy yourself. In terms of content the book falls into the category of South Florida detective yarns, a sub-genre scores of writers have found profitable over the decades. It's the second book featuring Fuller's franchise detective Brad Dolan. In 1957 Ace Books republished it with the art redone by John Vernon, which you see below. Yes, they're different. Look closely. Vernon's signature appears at the extreme bottom right, whereas Gross's is absent at top. Duplicating covers was common during the mid-century paperback era but we've rarely seen an artist as accomplished as Vernon given the task. Both covers are good, but Gross gets the nod of quality for only copying himself.
The Florida heat cooks up trouble in Lawrence Kasdan's masterful neo-noir.
Kill your husband for you? Sure, I can make that happen, I guess. Spousal murder is a film noir and pulp fiction plot tentpole, and the motivation for trying something so risky generally revolves around sex. But during the time the film noir and pulp fiction genres were extant their makers could only imply it. The neo-noir thriller Body Heat, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1981, fixed that problem, as not-so-bright lawyer Ned Racine, played by William Hurt, is seduced into a murder plot by whip smart bombshell Matty Walker, played by Kathleen Turner in her cinematic debut.
Body Heat is an apt title. The setting is South Florida during a heat wave, with most of the action set in the mythical towns of Pinehaven and Miranda Beach. Every frame of the movie seems to vent steam. There's copious slippery sex and nudity, all of it important to the plot. When the pair have their electric first encounter Hurt pulls off Turner's panties with an expression of pure awe on his face and intones, “So wet.” For just that moment he wonders if it's really him turning on a woman that much. And he's right to wonder, because it isn't him. What's turning her on is money.
Directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan, the film is a reworking of Double Indemnity, but it improves on the original in the sense that we fully understand the visceral reasons why murder has occurred. That moisture between Turner's legs causes an electrical short in Hurt's brain. After subsequent sexual encounters, including an anal session that's implied but clear as day thanks to some clever visuals, he's hooked like a bluegill. For a guy just smart enough to get a law degree, but not bright enough to avoid being known as his town's worst lawyer, bedding Turner makes him feel godlike. Surely he can pull off murder and make it look like an accident.
Body Heat made Turner, Hurt, and Kasdan superstars, and did the same for a few of its below-the-line players. Turner went on to become one of the pre-eminent actresses of her generation; Hurt, who had starred in the brilliant but under appreciated Altered States, became one of Hollywood's top leading men; and Kasdan directed Silverado, The Big Chill, and other hits. Co-star Ted Danson also blew up, and Mickey Rourke parlayed a blazing supporting bit into a career as Hollywood's go-to rebel creep. You know any film that ignites five such careers is top notch, but as a post-noir entry Body Heat is also cinematically important. Not only did it finally lay bare the motivation behind all those noir murders and obsessions, but it did so with a reverent visual style and pitch perfect mood. We can't recommend it strongly enough.
What would you do to get your hands on $3.5 million?
Gil Brewer wrote a lot of books. Wild rates in the bottom tier, according to most critics. When private detective Lee Baron takes over his father's investigative agency his first case is an old flame asking him to intercede on her behalf with her angry, cuckolded husband. Baron finds not an angry spouse but a mutilated corpse. Arms removed, face chopped apart with a hatchet, it's clear somebody was very angry at him. Or they were trying to obscure his identity—which means the corpse might not be the husband at all. When Baron uncovers a connection to a $400,000 bank robbery ($3.5 million in today's money) he begins to think he's landed a case that can put his agency on the map—if the police don't shut him down before he gets started. We agree this isn't Brewer's best, but it's still a mildly entertaining jaunt into Tampa, Florida's underbelly circa 1958. Above are two editions from Fawcett Crest and Gold Medal (aka Fawcett Crest).
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.
He fell for her—hook, line, and sinker.
Above is a nice cover for Ed Lacy's Blonde Bait. We talked about Lacy recently—he was a white writer who lived much of his life in Harlem and wrote many black characters. Blonde Bait isn't one of those books. It's about a guy named Mickey who's sailing the Florida Keys on his yacht and comes across a woman stranded on a sand bar. Strangely, she has a suitcase. Her name is Rose, and how she got there, as well as what's in the bag, is what the book is all about. That and whether she's telling the truth about highly connected and dangerous men trying to kill her. Lacy wasn't a master stylist—at least not this time around—but for those who like books with boats, islands, and mysterious femmes fatales, this one will fit the bill. The art on this beautiful 1959 Zenith Books edition is by Rudy Nappi.
Better living with polymers.
Models Joan Brown and Betty Bland demonstrate the tensile qualities of Krene Plastic by using a sheet as a hammock in this photo shot in Cypress Gardens, Florida in 1955. Krene Plastic was 1/100th of an inch thick but was strong enough to support the weight of both models plus two others—at least according to its makers the Bakelite Company. At the time it was touted as a miracle material, perfect for a wide range of applications, but ultimately it was used mainly to make shower curtains.
You really want to turn me on? Try helping with the laundry.
“A lusty novel about Florida crackers,” the cover bluntly proclaims, but the crackers actually originate from Mississippi, which they've had to leave in disgrace after a preacher becomes the source of a scandal. In Florida he takes up his dubious ways while his son gets into woman trouble of his own. Author Charles H. Baker, Jr. wins extra points for his usage of the word “ho,” a tricky term, with so much encompassed by its single syllable, and which we've discussed in detail before.
Dell Publications pioneered the usage of mapbacks, which you probably know, but sometimes the company deviated from that tradition and this book is a very nice example. Just take a look at the amazing rear cover below. The front was painted by Victor Kalin, the back presumably by some under-appreciated in-house artist, and the whole shebang was published in 1951.
Guys, I just saw some incredibly rare— Oh. I was going to say clownfish, but you two have those beat.
A shell collecting vacationer in Florida comes across a damsel in distress during a late night beach walk and she of course draws him into intrigue way over his head. Before he knows it he's stumbled across a corpse and gotten involved in a murder investigation, as the damsel seems less and less like she's in distress as opposed to causing it for others. Author Richard Powell was known for the wit he mixed into his mysteries, and Shell Game is heavy on the repartee—if light on actual mystery. This Dell edition appeared in 1951 and the fun cover art is by Robert Stanley.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1911—Team Reaches South Pole
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, along with his team Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, and Oscar Wisting, becomes the first person to reach the South Pole. After a celebrated career, Amundsen eventually disappears in 1928 while returning from a search and rescue flight at the North Pole. His body is never found.
1944—Velez Commits Suicide
Mexican actress Lupe Velez, who was considered one of the great beauties
of her day, commits suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. In her note, Velez says she did it to avoid bringing shame on her unborn child by giving birth to him out of wedlock, but many Hollywood historians believe bipolar disorder was the actual cause. The event inspired a 1965 Andy Warhol film entitled Lupe
1958—Gordo the Monkey Lost After Space Flight
After a fifteen minute flight into space on a Jupiter AM-13 rocket, a monkey named Gordo splashes down in the South Pacific but is lost after his capsule sinks. The incident sparks angry protests from the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, but NASA says animals are needed for such tests.
1968—Tallulah Bankhead Dies
American actress, talk show host, and party girl
Tallulah Bankhead, who was fond of turning cartwheels in a dress without underwear and once made an entrance to a party without a stitch of clothing on, dies in St. Luke's Hospital in New York City of double pneumonia complicated by emphysema.
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