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).
Of course I had sex with him, daddy. Didn't you teach me to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?
We like the fiction of Charles Williams quite a bit, so after reading six of his novels we thought we'd go all the way back to his debut, 1951's Hill Girl. The hill girl of the title is eighteen year-old Angelina, who has the temerity to actually enjoy sex, and compounds this sin by hooking up with handsome but married Lee Crane. This is horrifying to Lee's brother Bob, who not only wants what's best for his sibling, but also counts Lee's wife as one of his best friends. Thus this affair simply cannot stand. But Lee can't let Angelina go for reasons that can be best summarized this way: she's insanely hot and amazing in the sack. When Angelina's fundamentalist father literally comes after Lee with a shotgun Angelina ends up under Bob's protection, and shortly afterward under Bob.
Hey, girls just wanna have fun, right? So what develops here is a battle between two brothers over ownership of a woman's body. To his credit, Bob comes to the realization that whatever Angelina did before she was involved with him is none of his fuckin' business, even if the fuckin' was with his brother; but Lee never quite sees the light, even though he's married to a beautiful and wonderful woman. His obsession with Angelina will cost someone dearly. Hill Girl is miles away from Williams' nautical adventures, an interesting window onto sexual attitudes of the 1950s, and solidly put together as well. That's probably why it sold a million copies and launched his career. The cover art for this Gold Medal edition is by Barye Phillips.
There's a sucker born every minute. And they die just as fast.
Fredric Brown's Madball was hard as hell to get at anything approaching a reasonable cost but we finally scored a copy. It's one of the more famous novels in the fertile carny niche, and had two amazing covers which you see above, the first by Foxley Griffith for the 1953 Dell edition, and the second by Mitchell Hooks for the 1962 Gold Medal edition. What's a madball? It's a gazing crystal. What's Madball about? After an insurance settlement a carnival worker comes into a couple of thousand bucks. When he's murdered his nest egg seems like the motive. But what nobody knows—or what nobody is supposed to know—is that he'd also been an accomplice in a bank robbery and possessed not just a couple of thousand dollars, but more than $40,000. That's about $380,000 in today's money—sufficient to inspire desperation and bloodthirsty viciousness. Madball is set apart by its weird backdrop, its odd carny denizens, its multi-pov narrative, and its sexual frankness. It's a mad tale, improbably plotted, testing the limits of believability, but recommended. See more carny fiction here, here, and here.
She purrs but only when she's thinking about destroying you.
This edition of Wade Miller's iconic sleazer teaser Kitten with a Whip is a rarity and it came from Gold Medal in 1963. There's a moment early in the narrative when the hapless protagonist David turns on a news report about the seventeen-year-old sexpot invader occupying his home. Up until then the girl, whose name is Jody, has been in David's house tormenting him only a few hours, but is threatening to ruin his life with lies that they've been shacked up having a grand old time, or that he tried to rape her. David is paralyzed with fear that his wife, neighbors, and employer will believe her. But in that moment when the entire city is told the girl is a violent psycho who escaped her confinement a mere twelve hours earlier by stabbing a matron, David doesn't realize nobody will believe anything she says—not his employers, not his neighbors, and certainly not his wife—as long as he turns her in then and there. “I woke up, found her in my house, bought her some clothes because she had none, gave her money for a bus out of town—and instead of leaving she decided to stay and blackmail me.” He'd be believed, beyond a doubt. But he never makes the call. So he really deserves everything that happens afterward. But the book is a classic for a reason. It's a fun, crazy read.
Show me what's under yours and I'll show you what's under mine.
This beautiful cover for Neil McNeil's 1960 thriller Hot Dam featuring a redhead topped by a tam and wearing a kilt-like skirt is uncredited, if you can believe that. We checked around the usual spots and nobody has a clue, so into the unknown bin it goes. As for the fiction, Hot Dam is the fourth of seven novels starring McNiel's detectives Tony Costaine and Bert McCall, two toughs who don't hesitate to shoot their way into and out of trouble. This one tells the story of a valley about to be flooded after the construction of a dam, and the townspeople reluctant to move. Based on that description you'd think the good guys are the townspeople, but this is the golden age of consequence-free industry, which means it's the dam builders who are the protagonists. And of course those standing in the way of progress aren't doing it for environmental or sentimental reasons, but rather—as the cover notes—to protect a fortune in bootleg whisky hidden somewhere in the valley. The booze is owned by a clan of kilt clad Scots who have violent tendencies and a connection to old world druidism, but other villains want it too. And when McCall discovers he's related to the crazy Scots things get really interesting. Pretty good book all in all. It delivers action, an interesting setting, and both leads get laid multiple times. What more is there?
The ultimate hunt is one where the prey can shoot back.
The cover copy perhaps gives the impression Wade Miller's The Killer is about a hunter who goes after human prey for sport, but it's actually about a man who hires a professional big game hunter to track down and kill his son's murderer. While the hero uses his unique skill set to lay a trap or two and make some interesting deductions, the story is a standard thriller. But a pretty good one, set in different locales in the U.S., with a few decent twists and a nice—if somewhat overwrought—love story. Both covers from Gold Medal were compelling, with art by C.C. Beall and an unknown, 1951 and 1958.
Where have you been? I've waiting all day to crush what little spirit you have left.
The Brat is solid work from Gil Brewer. The novel has been extensively reviewed online, but we'll give you the set-up: a woman from the sticks marries the first man who can rescue her from nowheresville, but her desire for a better life soon reveals itself to be a mad lust for riches. She conceives a robbery that has no hope of success and tries to drag her husband into it against his will. The result is murder and a lot of evidence pointing his way, though he had nothing to do with it. The only way to keep his neck out of the noose is to find his missing wife, the missing money, and learn whether the robbery was all a fatal error or a set-up from the beginning. Excellent stuff from Brewer, with an awesome air boat chase in the Everglades as its pivotal action piece. The cover art on this 1958 edition is by the stalwart Barye Phillips, and we think it's one of his best.
Have you ever considered the possibility that it's just a penis substitute offering psycho orgasmic relief for self esteem inadequacies?
Leave it to a woman to overcomplicate things. Sometimes a gun is just a plain old penis substitute. Dan Cushman's 1953 novel Jungle She features plenty of those, as his franchise man's-man Frisco Dougherty helps an escaped “half caste” damsel in distress return to the locale of her captivity on a Borneo plantation and to try and steal the tyrannical owner Van Hoog's hidden fortune. That's supposed to be her in John Floherty, Jr.'s cover art, and if you're thinking to yourself she looks inclined to use the gun on Frisco, well—spoiler alert—she actually does shoot him, but he survives to confront Van Hoog in a vertiginous rope bridge climax. If you want to buy any of Cushman's jungle adventures you'll probably find them expensive—up to $100 for this one. But be patient. We also saw it for eight bucks.
Elmore Leonard's first crime novel is all ups and no downs.
Elmore Leonard published until 2012, and is thought of as a contemporary novelist rather than a mid-century writer, but The Big Bounce appeared long enough ago to get pulp cover treatment right when that style was fading. The Fawcett Gold Medal movie tie-in edition of the book has Robert McGinnis on the art chores, and this is it for Leonard good girl art, as far as we know. Apparently, he finished the book in 1966 but had it rejected by publishers for three years, a shocking fact considering he already had five novels on the market. But those were westerns and The Big Bounce was Leonard's first crime novel. That's no excuse, really. It should have been published immediately, but publishers are motivated by factors other than literary quality, as a rule. The book is a fun ride involving an ex-con who gets mixed up with some petty thieves and a thrill seeking femme fatale who wants help ripping off her sugar daddy. It has many of the elements Leonard would later perfect—the elliptical plotting, the dialogue that rings so true to the ear, and the mid-scene ending. The Big Bounce is a ball, well worth your time.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1925—Jury Decides the Teaching of Evolution Is a Crime
In the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, American schoolteacher John Scopes is found guilty of violating the Butler Act, which forbids the teaching of evolution in schools. The sensational trial pits two great legal minds—William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow—against each other. Ultimately, Scopes and Darrow are destined to lose because the case rests on whether Scopes had violated the Act, not whether evolution is fact.
1969—First Humans Reach the Moon
Neil Armstrong and Eugene 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. become the first humans to walk on the moon. The third member of the mission, command module Pilot Michael Collins, remains in orbit in Apollo 11.
1972—Chaos in the Big Apple
In New York City, within a span of twenty-four hours, fifty-seven murders are committed.
1944—Hitler Survives Third Assassination Attempt
Adolf Hitler escapes death after a bomb explodes at his headquarters in Rastenberg, East Prussia. A senior officer, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, is blamed for planting the device at a meeting between Hitler and other senior staff members. Hitler sustains minor burns and a concussion but manages to keep an appointment later in the day with Italian leader Benito Mussolini.
1966—Sinatra Marries Farrow
Superstar singer and actor Frank Sinatra marries 21-year-old actress Mia Farrow, who is 30 years younger than him. The marriage lasts two years.
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