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.
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.
Eww! No way! If you want them shaved do it yourself!
Non chiamate la polizia would translate as Don't Call the Police, a title chosen because that's exactly what doesn't happen. A Chicago businessman gets out of the shower to find his mistress dead, and he doesn't call the cops, instead relying on a private investigator named—wait for it—Barr Breed. That's one of the better names. This was published by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore for its Biblioteca Economica collection, and it's from 1955 and was written by Bill S. Ballinger, aka Frederic Freyer, aka B.X. Sanborn, aka Barr Breed. Actually, strike that last one. We just wanted to say it again. The book originally appeared in 1948 in the U.S., where it had another precisely descriptive title—The Corpse in the Bed. The art for Signet by Mitchell Hooks was excellent, and you see that below. We'll have more from Hooks later.
An American crime story.
Written by The Gordons, who were the tandem of spouses Gordon Gordon and Mildred Gordon, FBI Story follows Agent John Ripley as he investigates the disappearance of a woman named Genie. She's wanted for theft by the FBI, and by the Los Angeles police as a person of interest in a murder case. Ripley finds that he and the missing woman have a lot in common, a fact revealed by his perusal of her bookshelf and diary. Is she really a criminal or just a desperate woman in deep trouble? As the investigation unfolds and the search spans the entire United States, we learn that other people are after her, including a millionaire American fascist who looks like Hitler and rants about the master race. Eventually Ripley uncovers jewel thievery, treason, and the mysterious Genie herself.
Originally published in hardback on the heels of World War II in 1950, FBI Story delves deeply into the weariness and cynicism of combat vets, of which Ripley is one, yet all the agents are unswervingly dutiful and honest. Considering the fact that the novel is dedicated to J. Edgar Hoover, one could be excused for branding it propaganda. In fact, Gordon Gordon was an ex-FBI agent and had J. Edgar Hoover approve his work. Even so, FBI Story is generally considered a good read. It was later turned into a movie starring James Stewart and Vera Miles. The Bantam edition of the book is from 1955 with uncredited art, and the Corgi one appeared in 1957 with Mitchell Hooks on the cover chores.
Only good hot sax could make a girl move her body that way.
In 1958's hit novel The Horn beat author John Clellon Holmes tells the story of Edgar Pool, a talented tenor saxophonist who makes his mark on the NYC jazz scene and grows into a global legend. The last twenty-four hours of his life are related via the recollections of friends and lovers, so what you get is a rise-and-fall biography centered around a booze-drugs-women nexus, which Holmes based on the lives of jazz masters Lester Young and Charlie Parker and set in 1954 to give it a tinge of documentary nostalgia. It's a really nice piece of literature. Holmes had already written Go, which is considered the first beat novel; The Horn is the definitive jazz novel from that genre. This 1959 Fawcett Crest paperback comes with worthy cover art from Mitchell Hooks.
Early television design rejected as a little too hypnotic.
We're doing a double on artist Mitchell Hooks with this cover for Gene Stackelberg's thriller Double Agent. Hooks was working this time for Popular Library, also in 1959 (we neglected to put the copyright in yesterday's post). CIA agent is accused of treason and can only clear his name with the help of the sister of a known informer. Gene Stackelberg was a pseudonym for Ouida Adams, a female writer who doubtless chose her pen name because it sounds so dry and serious, and likely because readers would be prejudiced against a female espionage author. As far as we can tell this was her only foray into fiction.
Underneath her cool exterior lies a completely different woman.
Paula is another southern sin novel—i.e. set in a decadent, overheated south where sex and greed combine to produce deadly results. This one follows an oil worker who goes to work for an impotent millionaire and his young hottie of a wife—the eponymous Paula. Hero gets hottie pregnant and murder must follow, but it’s after the killing that things really begin to fall apart, and in unpredictable ways. You know the basic idea because you read it in James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and “Double Indemnity.” Though the cover art from Mitchell Hooks doesn’t specifically invoke a southern mood, it’s really quite nice, especially how the robe is rendered in a style that verges on calligraphy, complimenting the edges of the mirror, and how the reflection in the glass is red, revealing the fiery intensity beneath Paula's cool exterior. Nice touch. You can see a couple more Hooks pieces here and here.
They say there are victors and losers in life, but what if you’re both?
David Mark’s 1959 thriller Long Shot, originally published as The Long Chance in 1955, is a look at the life of a compulsive gambler. He picks winning horses, losing horses, marries Ruth, beds Katy and Carol, picks winning horses, picks many more losing horses, and eventually resorts to lies, cheating, theft, and so forth. To understand what the novel is about all you really need to know is the lead character’s doubly predictive name—Evan Victor Loeser. The excellent art here is by Mitchell Hooks.
Jack Kerouac writes about the road ahead.
Jack Kerouac gets a pulp style cover by Mitchell Hooks for the short, semi-autobiographical (of course) novel Maggie Cassidy. It’s a tale of high school into college, as well as love sought and lost, but you can always count on Kerouac to subvert conventionality. Maybe it isn’t his best, but it has those sparks and flashes of his unique style. The book was first published in 1959 by Avon, and this edition from the British imprint Panther appeared in 1960.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1992—Cocaine Baron Escapes Prison
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, imprisoned leader of the Medellin drug cartel, escapes from a posh Colombian jail known as La Catedral after he learns authorities intend to move him to a real prison. His taste of freedom doesn't last—he's killed in a shootout a year-and-a-half later.
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.
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