It isn't easy being more highly evolved than everyone else.
These covers are from John D. MacDonald hardbacks published by British imprint Robert Hale during the mid-1960s, two entries in his famed Travis McGee series. Eight years ago we shared a selection of Fawcett Gold Medal paperback covers from the series which were painted by luminaries Ron Lesser, Elaine Duillo, Robert McGinnis, and others. You can see them here if you're inclined. When we put together that set we hadn't read any of the books, so we figured it was time to take ole John D. and his creation McGee for a spin.
We read the novels you see above and the results were a bit mixed for us. McGee is a sort of fixer who lives an idle life on a houseboat in Florida, but takes detective-like jobs whenever money runs short. Despite his laid back trappings, he's a cynical, hypercritical guy who thinks he knows everything about everyone. MacDonald tries to mitigate this somewhat by making McGee occasionally critical of himself, but it's just a fig leaf. The guy is an enormous pain—manipulative, often pointlessly mean, and of the opinion that he can discern facts about people that they don't know about themselves.
These assessments of others always turn out to be true, as you'd expect since they come from the star character, but we couldn't help thinking how in real life McGee would be a real trial to know. That's just our opinion. But here's what's indisputable—MacDonald's female characters are mentally weak and sexually neurotic. McGee sometimes treats them shabbily and they later thank him for shaking them up. In The Deep Blue Goodbye when a woman important to McGee dies, he has virtually no reaction. His aplomb is inconsistent, considering at other times we hear his deepest thoughts about everything from the sexual proclivities of hippies to the eventual fate of western civilization.
Our feelings about him are probably generational. We weren't even zygotes when these novels were published, so maybe this sort of jaundiced and superior cynicism played better back in the sixties when a major cultural shift was underway. Despite our quibbles, the plots of these novels are engaging, and McGee, though full of himself, isn't invincible. The difficulties he runs into are surprising, and often deadly, particularly in Nightmare in Pink, in which the villains manage to put him into an exceedingly tight spot. A palpable sense of menace in the fiction helps carry the day.
The art above was painted by the genius illustrator Barbara Walton, who was sort of a house artist for Robert Hale Limited, producing scores of dust jackets for the company. In fact, she was one of the greatest of dust jacket artists, someone whose work surpassed its boundaries to become fine art. That fact may not be fully clear here, but trust us. We haven't talked much about Walton because of our focus on paperbacks, but she was really something. You can see another example of her work (one of her least impressive pieces) here, and an entire gallery of good stuff here.
These are people who definitely pay attention to the poles.
When you look at lots of paperbacks sometimes a common thread suddenly jumps out at you that went unnoticed before. Such was the case a few weeks ago when we noticed the large number of characters on mid-century covers leaning against poles—light poles, telephone poles, sign poles, etc. We suggested someone should put together a collection, but of course we really meant us, so today you see above and below various characters deftly using these features of the urban streetscape as accessories. Art is from Benedetto Caroselli, Harry Schaare, George Gross, Rudolph Belarski, James Avati, et al. You can see a couple more examples here and here.
They call it the Devil’s wheel for a reason.
It’s been a while since we’ve put together a pulp collection, so below you’ll find vintage cover art that uses the roulette wheel as a central element. They say only suckers play roulette, and that’s especially true in pulp, where even if you win, eventually you lose the money and more. Art is by Ernest Chiriaka, Robert Bonfils, Robert McGinnis, and many others.
Sorry to barge in. Remember you said your life was total shit and couldn’t possibly get worse? The sheriff is here with a county crew—he says he has to bulldoze your shack.
We’ve already shared Robert McGinnis covers twice this month, but since it’s in the charter of pretty much every pulp website to feature him constantly, here’s another contribution—Deadly Welcome, written by John D. MacDonald, 1959, for Dell Publishing. Probably a substantial proportion of you have read this, but if not, it deals with a government employee sent by the Defense Department back to his home town, the fictional Ramona Beach, Florida, to locate a missing government scientist. Top marks.
What is authorship, after all?
This striking paperback cover for Mr. Arkadin was put together for Britain’s WDL Books by R. W. Smethurst, a well-known illustrator of comic books during the 1950s and 1960s. The Smethurst signature you see is not an autograph, but rather part of the art, something many of his covers contained. But the fact that he claims credit at all is rather interesting, because the art isn’t completely his. He seems to have borrowed his red-skirted femme fatale from Robert Maguire, who painted her for John D. MacDonald’s April Evil, below. It’s quite possible the other figures are borrowed as well. How strange.
Or is it? Maybe Smethurst was simply following Orson Welles’ lead. Though Welles is credited as author of Mr. Arkadin, he never wrote it. He developed a story for the film version, and wrote the script for it, but after the film he farmed out the novelization to a French film critic named Maurice Bessy. That screenplay adaptation was published in French in 1955, then translated from French into English a year later and released as what you see above. So in the end we have Welles taking credit for another’s writing, and Smethurst borrowing another’s art. And to think, all this derived from a film Welles never finished.
Yet, it’s fitting. Welles was consumed by the question of fakery. His documentary F for Fake discusses the subject in absorbing detail, even focusing on his own work. In short, he suggests that authenticity is a chimerical concept because it is subject to human error and fraud. While Welles slyly avoided explicitly claiming authorship of the Mr. Arkadin novelization, Maurice Bessy’s role, if it was ever widely known, was reconfirmed only in 2007. It’s easy to suspect that Welles knew the role of his ghostwriter would be forgotten. We’re talking about a man, after all, whose career caught fire thanks to one of history’s ultimate fakes—his panic inducing War of the Worlds broadcast.
We’re pretty sure, Smethurst, however, is not actually playing with the concept of fakery. John D. MacDonald was not obscure and neither was artist Robert Maguire, so there was no attempt at theft when Smethurst painted a close duplicate of Maguire’s femme. His cover falls into the category of pastiche—work in the style of another. What we’d really enjoy is if someone out there identified the other figures on the cover. But if those are Smethurst’s that would prove interesting too. In the meantime, if you want to know about Welles’ F for Fake and learn more about his attitudes toward authenticity, go here.
Never trust a man in expensive clothes.
The Pulp Intl. girlfriends want more depictions of men on the site. Can we oblige them? Probably not. Vintage paperback art features women about ninety percent of the time, and they’re often scantily clothed. Men, on the occasions they appear, are not only typically dressed head to toe, but are often sartorially splendid. There are exceptions—beach-themed covers, bedroom depictions, gay fiction, and romances often feature stripped down dudes. We’ll assemble some collections of all those going forward, but today the best we can offer is an assortment of g’d up alpha males, with art by Victor Kalin, Robert McGinnis, and others. Enjoy.
But I’ve been super tense, and my masseur—his name is Pablo, by the way—he offered to make a house call, and…
Above is a Victor Kalin cover for the John D. MacDonald thriller Soft Touch, a book that originally appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine as Taint of the Tiger in March 1958, back when Cosmo used to print abridged novels. It’s the story of a man whose old war buddy approaches him with an offer to commit a seven-figure heist. The idea is to rob a courier of cash he’s shuttling from Latin America. The lead character is willing to do the job because his work sucks, he misses military action, and his wife is a cheating lush. Basically, he sees the crime as a way out, but of course he actually ends up getting way in—everything goes wrong. Taint of the Tiger was published in hardback as Soft Touch shortly after its Cosmo debut, and appeared in August the same year as a Dell paperback edition, above, with Kalin’s art. This is MacDonald before he invented Travis McGee. Not perfect, but well worth a read.
It’s not their fault—it’s a jean-etic disorder.
In pulp and sleaze fiction there are many types of bad women—vamps, golddiggers, black widows, you name it—but women who wear jeans, or even jean shorts, are destined for a special brand of trouble. Some of these women are already corrupt while others are merely at the gateway, but they all end up in the same place—Calamity City, daddy-o.
He convinced everybody they needed to take a Whiz.
Above is the cover of the bawdy humor magazine Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang. The monthly was launched out of Robbinsdale, Minnesota in 1919 by Wilford Fawcett, who came up with the unusual name by combining his own nickname with the phrase soldiers used to describe the sound of artillery shells. Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang began with a run of only 500 issues, had no art or photos, and seemingly never carried revenue-generating advertising save for sometimes on the inside front cover. The content was short stories, limericks, anecdotes, and one-liners, much of which would rightly be considered sexist, racist, or just plain unfunny today. On the other hand, some of it is rather cute. We liked this limerick:
Of Course Not
Carefully she rouges her dimpled knees,
Then adds a powdery sheen,
Do you think she does this little stunt,
If she thinks they won't be seen?
Well, maybe it isn't so great. But did you have any idea women once rouged their knees? That just blew us away. Anyway, from the humble seed of Capt. Billy’s Whiz Bang sprang the entire Fawcett Publishing empire, which at its height consisted of more than 60 separate magazine imprints and made Wilford Fawcett an international celebrity. Later, Fawcett Publishing launched Gold Medal books, where Kurt Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald, among many other notables, got their starts. This issue of Whiz Bang appeared this month in 1923, and thanks to the website Darwination you can read it by downloading their copy here. As a bonus, below are five more covers that came from MagazineArt.org, where you can see a fuller collection.
Drink up little Suzy.
British actress Suzy Kendall, who appeared in Thunderball, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and To Sir with Love, relaxes in a bath with a cocktail in this marked up promo shot from the set of 1970's film version of John MacDonald's classic thriller Darker than Amber.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1954—Communist Party Outlawed
In the U.S., during the height of the Red Scare, President Dwight Eisenhower signs the Communist Control Act into law. The new legislation bans the American Communist Party, and prohibits people deemed to be communists from serving as officials in labor organizations.
1968—France Explodes Nuke
a two-stage nuclear weapon, codenamed Canopus, on Fangataufa, French Polynesia.
1942—Battle of Stalingrad Begins
The Battle of Stalingrad, perhaps the most pivotal event of World War II, begins. It lasts for more than six months, spread across the brutal Russian winter, and ends with two million casualties. The Russian sacrifice reduces the powerful German army to a shell of its former self, and as a result Nazi defeat in the war becomes a simple matter of time.
1979—Alexander Gudonov Defects
Russian ballet dancer and actor Alexander Borisovich Godunov defects to the U.S. The event causes an international diplomatic crisis, but Gudonov manages to win asylum. He joins the famous American Ballet Theater, where he becomes a colleague of fellow-defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, and later earns roles in such Hollywood films as Witness and Die Hard.
1950—Althea Gibson Breaks the Color Barrier
Althea Gibson becomes the first African-American woman to compete on the World Tennis Tour, and the first to earn a Grand Slam title when she wins the French Open in 1956. Later she becomes the first African-American woman to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.
1952—Devil's Island Closed
Devil's Island, the penal colony located off the coast of French Guiana, is permanently closed. The prison is later made world famous by Henri Charrière's bestselling novel Papillon, and the subsequent film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
1962—De Gaulle Survives Assassination Attempt
Jean Bastien-Thiry, a French air weaponry engineer, attempts to assassinate French President Charles de Gaulle to prevent Algerian independence. Bastien-Thiry and others attack de Gaulle's armored limousine with machine guns, but after expending hundreds of rounds, they succeed only in puncturing two tires.
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