Nick and Nora Charles—never shaken, never stirred, and almost never sober.
1934's The Thin Man is what we like to think of of a palate cleanser. After reading a few less accomplished authors you grab a Hammett because you know he's great. It's pure fun following functional alcoholic Nick Charles and his equally hard drinking young wife Nora as they navigate deception and murder. How much do Nick and Nora Charles drink? At one point Nick wakes up feeling terrible and realizes it's because he'd gone to bed sober. Several cocktail sessions a day is about average. Maybe that's why danger doesn't faze them. Even being shot at is reason for a libation and a quip.
This edition of The Thin Man is a rare one. It's the Pocket Books paperback from 1945, with the type of art that was prevalent on paperbacks during the heyday of pulp. We can't tell you much about the book that hasn't already been written, including the fact that it's less a mystery than a comedy of manners, but there is one aspect that's rarely commented upon. Nick Charles is of Greek descent. His full last name is Charalambides. This was the ’30s, when there was open racism in the U.S. against Greeks. James M. Cain delves into this in The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which the Greek character Nick Papadakis is insulted behind his back and set apart as a non-white inferior.
So in The Thin Man Hammett was portraying Nick Charles not as the upper crust dilettante William Powell made famous in the film version, but as a tough guy outsider. People are a bit afraid of him. Filmgoers were definitely not afraid of pencil mustached William Powell. Hammett wanted the written Charles to possess street cred, to be a person who had been places and seen things others had not. Hammett was going for a different type of detective in more ways than merely his drinking habits. Charles' maverick role is just a little extra flavor in an already entertaining novel. The actual mystery is difficult to follow, but even so we highly recommend this if you haven't read it.
Turns out too big to fail was a strictly financial concept.
You wouldn't think when you work for one of the industries most responsible for screwing up the planet you'd get much sympathy when you wind up dead, but Frances and Richard Lockridge's Payoff for the Banker was written in a previous era. This banker, George Merle, was loved by many and respected by all. Well, not all. At least one person hated him, and police think it's the woman in whose apartment his body was found. Enter husband and wife sleuths Pamela and Jerry North to solve the case. The fact that husband and wife sleuths were written by husband and wife authors interests us, as we have trouble collaborating on a trip to the store with the Pulp Intl. girlfriends, but that's why fiction is different from reality. The Lockridges were so good at working together they even made the Norths into franchise characters who appeared in twenty-six books. They also were portrayed on radio, stage, television, and cinema. We bet the Lockridges argued mostly about how to spend all their earnings. Originally published in 1946, this Pocket paperback edition appeared in 1948 fronted by Donald Beck art.
Well, I notice at least part of you is getting happier.
It's hard to stay mad with someone else's tongue in your mouth. Ever notice that? The principle is amply demonstrated on this brilliant cover for Edward Mannix's 1960 thriller The End of Fury. Put this one in the mean-streets-of-NYC bin, even though the action mostly takes place in Jersey City. The story deals with the Boyles, an Irish family of five—a hard drinking father, an emotionally wrecked mother, a widely desired daughter, and two sons, one a priest in training, the other this rebel with a stripper girlfriend you see on the cover. The priest/heretic brothers may seem like clichés today, but Mannix helped popularize the motif, with even The New York Times calling him a highly skilled writer. Interestingly, he was also a voice actor, dubbing dialogue for at least nine films from the early ’70s to the early ’90s. The art on this is by Robert Maguire and we think it's one of his best.
It's not a party until someone gets broken.
Ramona Stewart's The Surprise Party Complex is a mostly forgotten tale of West Coast weirdness, with wannabes, once-weres, and their children mixing in and around a Hollywood boarding house called the Pyrenees. The goings-on of a particular summer are chronicled by fifteen-year-old Pauline, who's been dragged out to Tinseltown by her father, a man intent on restoring a lost fortune by making a big score on a silver mine. Pauline ends up chumming aimlessly around with two other Pyrenees teens, both of whom have bad parents and lots of idle hours. They have some comic misadventures, and naturally one of them has problems a bit darker than the other two. The basic theme here is all that glitters in Hollywood is not gold, and the young generation has issues. Yes, it sounds like the same novel that has been written about every generation since at least World War I, but this is one of the better efforts, we think, and cleverly written too. It captures a place and mood that, as former L.A. residents, really enthralled us. This 1963 Pocket Books edition initially caught our eye because of the excellent cover art by Harry Bennett. This happens to us a lot—i.e. come for the art, stay for the story. Well, Harry certainly did his job here. We've talked about him before, and he once again shows what a unique painter he was.
That's not exactly the type of apology I had in mind, but I guess it'll have to do.
This is an interesting piece of cover art for Raymond Chandler's third Phillip Marlowe thriller The High Window, the novel that was filmed as Time To Kill with Marlowe rewritten as another character, then filmed several years later as The Brasher Doubloon, with Marlowe restored. The book originally appeared in 1942, and the above painting by James Meese fronted Pocket Books' 1955 edition. Without reading it, one might assume this is Marlowe being punchy, but it's actually a bad guy named Alex Morny laying into his wife/accomplice-in-crime Lois. In the narrative Marlowe is lurking nearby, but he doesn't intervene because he's contemptuous of criminals, whether male or female.
Marlowe generally sticks up for underdogs. He particularly hates the abuse of authority. When two cops give him a hard time for being uncooperative he reminds them why he's that way by refreshing their memories concerning a case he investigated where a spoiled heir shot his secretary then killed himself. The cops closed that case with the official finding that the opposite had happened—the secretary had shot the heir before turning the gun on himself, and they did it to spare the heir's powerful father public embarrassment. The cops ask an annoyed Marlowe what difference it makes. They were both dead, so who cares?
Marlowe: “Did you ever stop to think that [his] secretary might have had a mother or a sister or a sweetheart—or all three? That they had their pride and their faith and their love for a kid who was made out to be a drunken paranoiac because his boss's father had a hundred million dollars? Until you guys own your own souls you don't own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every time and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may—until that time comes [I will not trust you].”
We've paraphrased a bit because the specifics aren't needed here, but it's a great speech. Countless sociological and criminological studies reveal that justice is still meted out mildly upon some groups, and severely upon others, more than half a century after Chandler wrote those lines. And the fact that a two-tiered justice system exists is so accepted these days it's banal to even point it out. But Marlowe tended to rail against corruption, even if doing so caused him problems. To resist was part of his personal code, and the code is part of what makes him such an interesting character. If you want to know more about The High Window you can find an extra detail or two in our write-up on Time To Kill here.
Hey, lady! Yo, I need this space! You gonna be here all freakin' day or what?
What's happening here? In George Harmon Coxe's mystery Murder for Two a character named Rosalind Taylor has been shot in the back of the head. We're not giving anything away. It's an early moment and you know it's going to happen because it's on the book cover. At least on this 1952 Pocket Books edition. Murder for Two stars Coxe's intrepid photo-journalist Flash Casey, who starts out dealing with industrial intrigue and soon gets mixed up with mobsters and more. Coxe's Casey novels were very popular and two of them became movies, which would make you think he'd ride Flash until he broke down, but he wrote only five of these novels out of more than sixty books published, which just shows how many ideas he had. The cover for this one is uncredited, amazingly.
Fine. Explain. But don't turn around. I hate your face so much right now I might shoot it on general principle.
Above, a cover for Erle Stanley Gardner's The Case of the Haunted Husband, eighteenth in the acclaimed Perry Mason series, from Pocket Books. Generally considered one of the best Mason mysteries, this one tells the story of a female hitchhiker who accepts a ride from a guy who gets a little too handsy, leading to a multi-car crack-up. The woman awakens behind the wheel, with the driver nowhere to be seen, and a fatality in one of the other cars. The cops don't believe she wasn't the driver, so they arrest her and charge her with negligent homicide. Things get worse when the car turns out to be stolen, and suddenly she's on the hook for that too. Enter Perry Mason. Nothing is haunted in this book, but the mystery is a winner. We also were reminded how effective short chapters can be in drawing a reader into a story. The hardback of The Case of the Haunted Husband appeared in 1941, and the above paperback with Bernard Safran art followed in 1949.
Once you open the package there's no returning the contents.
There are numerous vintage editions of James M. Cain's classic thriller The Postman Always Rings Twice out there, including one from the Spanish publisher Bruguera that we showed you years ago, but we recently got our hands on this 1947 Pocket Books edition, with a cover by Tom Dunn. We read the book, and there are several interesting aspects to the novel, including frightening violence, a generally amoral view of the world, and this:
I took her in my arms and mashed my mouth up against hers...
“Bite me! Bite me!”
I bit her. I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs.
Obsessive lust. We get it. Still, it's bizarre. Then there's this:
"Well, get this. I'm just as white as you are, see? I may have dark hair and look a little [Mexican], but I'm just as white as you are."
It was being married to that Greek that made her feel she wasn't white.
Caustic racism. Later the femme fatale, Cora, explains that she simply cannot tolerate having a child with the aforementioned husband, who she married for security. “I can't have no greasy Greek child, Frank. I can't, that's all.” Cain establishes with this style of banter that his two main characters are bad people. But The Postman Always Rings Twice is great, and nobody ever said literature is supposed to be easy to read. This is fast-paced pulp fiction that's about as good as you'll ever find. Highly recommended.
God, I love these pants. Fashion may be transitory, but these will never go out of style.
Here's an interesting cover for Romana Stewart's Desert Town showing that confidence is the key to fashion. You gotta wear it like you mean it. Even if it's jodhpurs. The story here is a coming of age tale about a seventeen-year-old girl pursuing an older man, with the pursuit complicated by her eerie resemblance to the man's dead wife, the fact that her mother is basically the queenpin of the town, and the fact that the man is a hustler and the story behind his wife's death may not be as simple as it seems. There's even more to it—a fierce rival for the man's attention, crooked cops, a dangerous gangster, an alcoholic wife, and other curious smalltown characters. The story was adapted for cinema in 1947 as Desert Fury, starring Burt Lancaster, John Hodiak, Lizabeth Scott, and Mary Astor. The cover artist on this 1948 Pocket Books edition is Roswell Keller, whose work was last seen on the front of Slay the Loose Ladies, a paperback we included in our alpha males collection.
Caught between the dark and a hard place.
This 1949 Pocket Books paperback of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy Hughes is a rarity. The novel is abundantly available today, but the first edition paperback you see above is hard to find. The story was made into a 1950 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, but the final product bears little resemblance to the novel. Actually, the movie is a lesson in how source material can be completely cannibalized yet still made into a superior product. In a Lonely Place the movie, after all, is considered one of the best of the mid-century noirs. We said the same about it last year. But unlike the film, Hughes' novel leaves no doubt that main character Dixon Steele is a murderer. In fact, it's the central plot device—he kills a wealthy man and assumes his identity. The novel is said to be an inspiration for Patricia Highsmith's famed murderous grifter Tom Ripley. The nice art on In a Lonely Place was painted by Frank McCarthy, a prolific illustrator of paperbacks and magazine covers who toward the end of his career moved into fine art with frontier and western themes. We haven't featured him before but he'll doubtless pop up again.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1962—Marilyn Monroe Sings to John F. Kennedy
A birthday salute to U.S. President John F. Kennedy takes place at Madison Square Garden, in New York City. The highlight is Marilyn Monroe's breathy rendition of "Happy Birthday," which does more to fuel speculation that the two were sexually involved than any actual evidence.
1926—Aimee Semple McPherson Disappears
In the U.S., Canadian born evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson disappears from Venice Beach, California in the middle of the afternoon. She is initially thought to have drowned, but on June 23, McPherson stumbles out of the desert in Agua Prieta, a Mexican town across the border from Douglas, Arizona, claiming to have been kidnapped, drugged, tortured and held for ransom in a shack by two people named Steve and Mexicali Rose. However, it soon becomes clear that McPherson's tale is fabricated, though to this day the reasons behind it remain unknown.
1964—Mods and Rockers Jailed After Riots
In Britain, scores of youths are jailed following a weekend of violent clashes between gangs of Mods and Rockers in Brighton and other south coast resorts. Mods listened to ska music and The Who, wore suits and rode Italian scooters, while Rockers listened to Elvis and Gene Vincent, and rode motorcycles. These differences triggered the violence.
1974—Police Raid SLA Headquarters
In the U.S., Los Angeles police raid the headquarters of the revolutionary group the Symbionese Liberation Army, resulting in the deaths of six members. The SLA had gained international notoriety by kidnapping nineteen-year old media heiress Patty Hearst
from her Berkeley, California apartment, an act which precipitated her participation in an armed bank robbery.
1978—Charlie Chaplin's Missing Body Is Found
Eleven weeks after it was disinterred and stolen from a grave in Corsier near Lausanne, Switzerland, Charlie Chaplin's corpse is found by police. Two men—Roman Wardas, a 24-year-old Pole, and Gantscho Ganev, a 38-year-old Bulgarian—are convicted in December of stealing the coffin and trying to extort £400,000 from the Chaplin family.
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