Vintage Pulp Feb 2 2018
A BOUNCY BALL
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. 

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Vintage Pulp Jan 25 2018
IMA BELIEVER
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. 

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Vintage Pulp Jan 24 2018
FASHION STATEMENT
What kind of monster do you take me for? Of course it's not real—I only wear faux female.


Above, a cover for Handsome by Theodore Pratt, 1951, from Gold Medal Books. Pratt turns the time-honored sleaze staple of nymphomania on its head by writing about a man who's addicted to sex.

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Vintage Pulp Dec 2 2017
ROOM WITH A VIEWER
She has a serious windows vulnerability.


Basic human psychology. When you deliberately hurt someone you may hate yourself but if they get over it you usually do too. When you deliberately hurt someone and they never get over it you stop hating youself and learn to hate them. This is the basic idea behind Clifton Adams' 1953 thriller Whom Gods Destroy. The main character Roy Foley learns this lesson early by kicking a defenseless crippled dog, which he sees every day afterward and therefore keeps kicking it until it goes away. But the lesson really sinks in when his unrequited high school crush kicks him. She's from a wealthy family and he's from the wrong side of the tracks. When he confesses his love for her she laughs in his face. The next day he drops out of high school, flees town, and throws away his bright future. That's backstory. The book opens when he returns fifteen years later. He inevitably sees her again and, as the abused, hates her with a murderous intensity. And as the abuser she hates him right back. It's clear these two are going to mangle each other. Whom Gods Destroy is recommendable stuff. 

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Vintage Pulp Nov 10 2017
URBAN DECAY
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.

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Vintage Pulp Sep 19 2017
STRANGER THINGS
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.

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Vintage Pulp Sep 5 2017
BLIGHT TOUCH
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.

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Vintage Pulp May 20 2017
OUTSIDER CANDIDATE
No, I really think you should run, Chico. True, you're just an amoral hustler, but people like that get elected now.


Obviously, Run, Chico, Run has nothing to do with running for office, but metaphorical running, as in trying to survive in a teen gang in Spanish Harlem. The lead character Francisco, aka Chico, yearns to escape the slums, and actually succeeds, at least for a time, by getting tossed into reform school. Four years later he's a changed man. Or is he? By hook or by crook, he finds himself being dragged back into his old life of street crime, and that isn't going to end well at all. No spoiler there, though—the book opens in court and tells the story of poor Chico's downfall working backward. Wenzell Brown wrote other novels in this vein, including Gang Girl, The Wicked Streets, and Teen-Age Mafia. Run, Chico, Run is 1953, with cover art from Barye Phillips. Another nice cover came with the 1960 re-issue, below, but that one's uncredited. 

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Vintage Pulp Sep 2 2016
FROM BAD TO WORSE
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.

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Vintage Pulp Mar 18 2016
LET THE HEELING BEGIN
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. 

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
August 17
1953—NA Launches Recovery Program
Narcotics Anonymous, a twelve-step program of drug addiction recovery modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous, holds its first meeting in Los Angeles, California.
August 16
1942—Blimp Crew Disappears without a Trace
The two-person crew of the U.S. naval blimp L-8 disappears on a routine patrol over the Pacific Ocean. The blimp drifts without her crew and crashes in Daly City, California. The mystery of the crew's disappearance is never solved.
1977—Elvis Presley Dies
Music icon Elvis Presley is found unresponsive by his fiancée on the floor of his Graceland bedroom suite. Attempts to revive him fail and he's pronounced dead soon afterward. The cause of death is often cited as drug overdose, but toxicology tests have never found evidence this was the case. More likely, years of drug abuse contributed to generally frail health and an overtaxed heart that suddenly failed.
August 15
1969—Woodstock Festival Begins
The Woodstock Music & Art Fair, which was billed as an Aquarian Exposition, takes place on a 600 acre dairy farm in Bethel, New York. It would run for three sometimes rainy days and feature thirty-two acts performing at all hours of the day and night. Today the festival is regarded as one of the greatest events in popular music history.
1977—Radio Signal Arrives from Deep Space
An unidentified radio signal, nicknamed the WOW Signal for the notation a scientist made on a computer readout, is briefly detected by the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project's Big Ear radio telescope. Despite a month of searching the same section of space, the signal is never found again.
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