The pieces of treasure are worth a fortune. The nuggets of wisdom—not so much.
Barbara Walton art graces the dust sleeve of John D. MacDonald's A Deadly Shade of Gold. It was published in 1967 by Robert Hale, Ltd. two years after the book's U.S. debut. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee kicks ass and dispenses unsolicited wisdom, and while the action is fun, the philosophizing is less so. The latter is sometimes insightful when directed at civilization, but is often sweeping and incorrect when directed at civilians. Vacationers are this way. College boys are that way. Lesbians are this way. We've had plenty of experiences with all the categories of humans McGee thinks of as tedious and banal, and we found them to be as varied and interesting as any other group.
The book, though, is engrossing, built around our favorite film noir and crime fiction device—a trip to Mexico, with the action set in the fictional coastal town of Puerto Altamura. There McGee seeks to uncover the killers of a close friend and determine the whereabouts of a set of golden pre-Colombian statuettes. Five entries into the series and MacDonald seems to have hit his stride. McGee is going to keep making dubious pronouncements (we sent a passage about “negroes” from the seventh entry Darker than Amber to a black friend, who said: “What idiot wrote that?”), but we liked this caper. If you're curious about the character or author you can learn more at thetrapofsolidgold.blogspot.com, pretty much the last word on all things Travis McGee and John D.
I'm not judging you for being an easy lay, baby. I'm judging you for not letting me get any damn sleep.
This is a nice effort from illustrator Barye Phillips for John D. MacDonald's 1951 thriller Judge Me Not. Everything Phillips does is beautiful, of course, but we were particularly stuck by the pastel pinks and blues here. As for the writing, this is early John D., and the story concerns a burned out war vet having an affair with the mayor's wife in a small town, and the events set into motion when she turns up dead. We've been making our way through MacDonald's bibliography. His renown makes us sure we'll soon come across the book that truly thrills us, but this wasn't the one.
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.
No place to run, no place to hide.
Today the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco will be screening The Dark Corner, a movie that starts fast and keeps up a quick pace throughout, telling the story of small-time detective who is tormented and eventually framed by an unknown enemy. The script, which is credited to five writers, is filled with fun jargon and treats viewers to one of the better quotes from film noir when Mark Stevens references the title with, “I feel all dead inside. I’m backed up in a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me.”
Lucille Ball, top-billed, is pitch perfect as Stevens’ secretary, love interest, and driving force, and William Bendix, who made a career out of tough-and-volatile, nails his role even more solidly than usual here. You also get good work from Clifton Webb and femme fatale Cathy Downs. Atypically violent, and brilliantly wrapped in shadows and cut by black silhouettes by director Henry Hathaway and director of photography Joseph MacDonald, The Dark Corner is what watching film noir is all about. Favorite line: after a character is pushed thirty-one floors to his death a witness on the street gestures at a high window and remarks to a policeman, “Brother, he came out of there like a hot rivet. You know it’s a funny thing, I never yet seen one of those guys bounce.” A must-see.
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.
Give a girl a light? You’ll have to lean down here, though. If I come up there I’ll start flopping around something awful.
We love this Ray App cover for John Ross MacDonald’s mystery The Drowning Pool because it’s incredibly bizarre. Plot of the book aside (it’s the second Lew Archer novel), there can be only two reasons for the female figure to be positioned as she is—she’s either standing in a rowboat, presumably for the pure pleasure of it, or she’s trying to conceal her mermaid half. She shouldn’t worry about hiding, though—generally guys don’t hang around the docks unless they’re at least a little interested in seafood. 1950 original copyright, and 1951 on the paperback.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
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.
1912—U.S. Invades Nicaragua
United States Marines invade Nicaragua to support the U.S.-backed government installed there after José Santos Zelaya had resigned three years earlier. American troops remain for eleven years.
1936—Last Public Execution in U.S.
Rainey Bethea, who had been convicted of rape and murder, is hanged in Owensboro, Kentucky in what is the last public execution performed in the United States.
1995—Mickey Mantle Dies
New York Yankees outfielder Mickey Mantle dies of complications from cancer, after receiving a liver transplant. He was one of the greatest baseball players ever, but he was also an alcoholic and played drunk, hungover, and unprepared. He once said about himself, "Sometimes I think if I had the same body and the same natural ability and someone else's brain, who knows how good a player I might have been."
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