Any of you hardened felons seen my beautiful virginal daughter lately?
Mitchell Hooks handles the cover work on this Gold Medal edition of the 1957 Tarn Scott thriller Don't Let Her Die. The book concerns a well connected prison inmate who uses his outside-the-walls contacts to kidnap the warden's daughter and maneuver for a pardon in exchange for her life. We say maneuver rather than demand because the convict keeps deniability throughout, claiming to know nothing even as the warden daily receives anonymous ultimatums, with a little extra motivation provided by photos of his terrified daughter nude. The warden caves pretty quickly, appeals to the governor for the pardon, is refused, and that's where things get interesting. There's more grit than usual here, but certain lines will not be crossed, and the reader is well aware of that, despite all the menace injected into the prose. Even so, Scott—a pseudonym used by Walter Szot and Peter G. Tarnor—certainly showed promise. Sadly, the pairing only produced a few books.
Reports of his death are greatly anticipated.
Octavus Roy Cohen's The Corpse That Walked is an interesting book. A man who wants to help his fiancée with a debt takes a shady but well-paid job doubling for a millionaire investor. He's instructed to be highly visible to press and public in Miami Beach while the rich man goes quietly to South America, where his newly rented anonymity will allow him to ace competitors out of a profitable minerals deal. The only problem is it's all a lie. The rich man is about to be indicted for various financial crimes and faces years in prison, so he's found a double with the intent of having him murdered. Thus freed from federal pursuit, the rich man plans to adopt an entirely new identity. Plastic surgery figures prominently in the narrative, so if you accept that one man can made to look like another, this is reasonably entertaining stuff. The copyright on this Gold Medal edition is 1951 and the cover art is uncredited.
During my time in the city I learned those folks have some depraved and immoral ideas. Wanna try a few?
When you read a lot of vintage crime fiction of varying quality it's useful to occasionally return to a trusty author like Charles Williams. He's a solid stylist, which makes all his books decent reading experiences. Big City Girl isn't his best, but it's interesting just the same. It's about an escaped convict who, if he accomplishes nothing else while free, wants to murder his wife—the big city girl of the title. She's living with his family on an isolated farm and, in pure femme fatale fashion, is causing more than her share of trouble with her hosts. What Williams attempts to do here is write an entire collection of characters that aren't very smart, and as we've noted before that's more difficult than you'd think. You have to credit how well the feat is pulled off here. Some of Williams' books we've read have been great, others merely decent, but none have been close to disappointing. You can purchase anything he authored with confidence.
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.
He always manages to insert himself into the most private places.
When one of the Pulp Intl. girlfriends saw this book, she said, “I could use some house dick right now.” That's a true story. But moving on, think you have a right to privacy in your hotel room? Think again. In House Dick the detective main character has the run of a 340-room Washington, D.C. hotel, and he liberally uses his master keys to go where he wishes whenever on the flimsiest of pretexts. This is highly ironic considering author Gordon Davis was in reality E. Howard Hunt and, as a member of Richard M. Nixon's black bag squad, arranged the world's most famous hotel break-in at the Watergate Hotel. He probably never should have gotten into politics—not only because his name is associated with one of more shameful episodes in domestic American history (please, no obtuse e-mails, authoritarians), but also because Hunt could actually write. He's no Faulkner, but as genre fiction goes he's better than many. The main character in House Dick, tough guy Pete Novak, is drawn by a beautiful femme fatale into a scheme involving stolen jewels that—naturally—goes all kinds of sideways. There's less D.C. feel than we'd have liked, but the narrative works well overall. Gordon/Hunt wrote something like seventy books and we're encouraged to try a few more. This Gold Medal edition is from 1961 with Robert McGinnis cover art.
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.
I go out walkin'... after midnight... out in the moonlight...
Crime writers all face the same task of dumping their heroes into hot water in new and interesting ways. In Night Walker Donald Hamilton shoves his protagonist into a bizarre situation and it all begins with him merely hitchhiking after dark. The next thing he knows he's hurt, housebound, and forced to assume a dead man's identity. If he doesn't continue the charade serious consequences could result, with prison being the least of them. But of course, as in any decent thriller, there's always the promise of great rewards, in this case the dead man's beautiful wife Elizabeth, or possibly the dead man's young mistress Bonita. There's a funny line of dialogue in this one when a character refuses a cigarette:
“Don't take it out on Philip Morris. He hasn't done anything to you.”
Ah, the 1950s, when men were men and cigarettes weren't coffin nails. And another staple of 1950s genre fiction is commie hysteria, also a major component of this book. But that's fine—every literary era has its archetypal villains. The book's fatal flaw is that the latter portion contains long monologues of the bad guy explaining his evil plot, due to the fact that Hamilton hasn't constructed the narrative for the hero to suss it out for himself. Tedious doesn't even begin to describe this sort of writing. Overall Night Walker is middling work from Hamilton, passable in the first half, but a bit taxing in the second. Good thing this 1964 edition from Fawcett's Gold Medal was cheap. And the cover art is nice. It's by Harry Bennett.
This is going to hurt you considerably more than it's going to hurt me.
Some years ago one of us bought a bullwhip. The opportunity was there to acquire a twelve foot version and be taught to use it by someone who made his living by wielding them at medieval fairs, so we leapt at the chance. As you may know, the crack comes from part of the whip breaking the sound barrier. It seemed like a cool idea to sew a piece of piano wire onto the end, which made the whip capable of gouging chunks out of trees. Generally, it only worked for five or six strikes before the wire tore loose from the tip, but it seemed like good, clean, twenty-something stupid-fun.
Whip Hand reminded us that bullwhips are no joking matter. Preferred instrument of torture for slave owners of the American south, they become central to the narrative of W. Franklin Sanders', aka Charles Willeford's Texas-based thriller when a character has his face flayed to pieces by an angry whip master. It's a brutal and bloody sequence in an uncompromising book constructed around a multi-p.o.v. first person narrative, each participant telling their own part, with not all of them managing to survive until the end.
The thrust of the story involves a kidnapping-turned-murder, a theft of the ransom money, and a chase to recover the stolen cash. The whip is never used by any of the female characters as suggested by the cover, but when it comes to paperbacks from the mid-century period you have to expect a bit of hyperbole. In this case the art is by the always brilliant Bob Abbett. Even without whip wielding femmes fatales, overall we liked Whip Hand. It's often barely realistic and isn't brilliantly written, but it's the type of tale that will get your attention and keep it. You can see some more whip themed paperback covers here.
Shoot first, pray later.
You know how you read a book or watch a movie and the lead character has a total failure of imagination? He kills a guy then goes home to pack rather than just hopping the next freight westward. Or he steals a million dollars and hangs around spending big in New York City rather than beating it for Santorini. A crucial section of Elliot Chaze's 1953 thriller Black Wings Has My Angel hinges on just that sort of boneheadedness, but it in no way ruins the book because it's simply too well constructed and written to be ruined by anything. Here's a passage we liked:
“Pretty soon a matronly brunette in a brocaded man's dressing gown came skating out of a door and she and Virginia were hugging and kissing. It was good old Mamie. And Virginia I'll be damned. And isn't this a hell of a note. And Lord how I've wanted to see you. And when they were finished with the italics Mamie was shaking hands with me and shaking up some drinks we didn't need.”
That's a bit beat, isn't it? A bit Kerouac? Which is not to say Chaze is a literary giant in pulp clothing, but it's still a cool little passage, and we'd say he possesses better technical chops than most of his peers. The only thing that mars the book—besides what we mentioned at top—is an ending that, in the interests of irony and symbolism, pushes the bounds of likelihood. But still, this was an excellent tale well told about a man who meets a dark and dangerous woman who becomes central to his plans to execute a spectacular robbery, then becomes central to his heart.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1981—Ronnie Biggs Rescued After Kidnapping
Fugitive thief Ronnie Biggs, a British citizen who was a member of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery, is rescued by police in Barbados after being kidnapped. Biggs had been abducted a week earlier from a bar in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by members of a British security firm. Upon release he was returned to Brazil and continued to be a fugitive from British justice.
2011—Elizabeth Taylor Dies
American actress Elizabeth Taylor, whose career began at age 12 when she starred in National Velvet
, and who would eventually be nominated for five Academy Awards as best actress and win for Butterfield 8
and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
of congestive heart failure in Los Angeles. During her life she had been hospitalized more than 70 times.
1963—Profumo Denies Affair
In England, the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, denies any impropriety with showgirl Christine Keeler and threatens to sue anyone repeating the allegations. The accusations involve not just infidelity, but the possibility acquaintances of Keeler might be trying to ply Profumo for nuclear secrets. In June, Profumo finally resigns from the government after confessing his sexual involvement with Keeler
and admitting he lied to parliament.
1978—Karl Wallenda Falls to His Death
World famous German daredevil and high-wire walker Karl Wallenda, founder of the acrobatic troupe The Flying Wallendas, falls to his death attempting to walk on a cable strung between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wallenda is seventy-three years old at the time, but it is a 30 mph wind, rather than age, that is generally blamed for sending him from the wire.
2006—Swedish Spy Stig Wennerstrom Dies
Swedish air force colonel Stig Wennerström, who had been convicted in the 1970s of passing Swedish, U.S. and NATO secrets to the Soviet Union over the course of fifteen years, dies in an old age home at the age of ninety-nine. The Wennerström affair, as some called it, was at the time one of the biggest scandals
of the Cold War.
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