You're damned picky all of a sudden for a dame I found dumpster diving behind White Castle.
Alley Girl has some of the harder boiled characters we've come across in mid-century fiction. We're reminded a bit of James Ellroy, whom we suspect must have read and been influenced by this book. The style of author Jonathan Craig, aka Frank E. Smith, is not similar to Ellroy's, but the feel is a match. The lead male Steven Lambert is a crooked cop, a sexual predator, and a serial swindler. His girlfriend is a hardcore drunk, a nymphomaniac, and a self-destructive thrill seeker. Most everyone else is a victim or a dupe, particularly the innocent man Lambert is framing for murder, and the man's beautiful wife who Lambert coerces into sex by promising not to go through with the frame-up. We throughly enjoyed this book. It's anchored by just the sort of irredeemable heel that makes crime fiction so entertaining. The only problem is a 1954 edition from Lion like you see here could cost you a fortune. The 2013 re-issue, which comes from Black Curtain Press—but without the excellent cover art from Robert Maguire—is much more economical. We recommend reading it in any case.
Nothing's funny, really. I just can't help laughing about how utterly screwed we are.
Gulf Coast Girl is more solid aquatic themed work from Charles Williams. This time the story involves a woman who seeks help from a crack salvage diver in finding a small plane that crashed in the Gulf of Mexico with a fortune on board. The story has a framing device—the boat they use for their salvage operation is found abandoned and the only clue to their whereabouts is a diary. So the story is narrated by the captain of the rescue vessel, reading from the diary what happened to the protagonists. This frame seems unneeded for nearly the entire length of the book, but the always competent Williams shows late that this device is in no way extraneous. Nifty work. We're really ripping through Williams' catalog now. Originally published in hardback in 1955 as Scorpion Reef, these Dell paperback editions of Gulf Coast Girl appeared in 1955 and 1960 with cover art from Robert Maguire and Robert McGinnis.
Sorry about your face. My aim isn't so good with this thing.
Give a girl a whip and you'll find out who's the boss. Luisita is about a Mexican girl living in nowheresville whose beauty brings her both opportunities and problems. After a run of bad luck in her home town she moves to Los Angeles and eventually lands a job in a massage parlor. There she learns how depraved men really are, but also how easy they are to manipulate, and of course she uses to this new knowledge to try and get herself a piece of the pie. Basically, it's one of those books that's supposed to expose a shocking subculture, but it has the added bonus of pretending to offer insights about an entire ethnic group. However, the racism subplots are probably accurate. Loomis later went on to write House of Deceit and The Marina Street Girls. The excellent art on this is by Robert Maguire and the copyright is 1954.
Seventeen thrillers from swinging sixties.
Above, seventeen covers from Gold Star Books for Hank Janson's, aka Stephen Daniel Frances's, best selling and highly sexual Hank Janson series, starring a tough reporter who shared a name with the author's pseudonym. We think these represent the complete run of Janson books published by Gold Star, though there are more entries in the series. Later novels were written by Victor Norwood, Harry Hobson, and D.F. Crawley. The excellent art is from Paul Rader, Harry Barton, and Robert Maguire, circa 1963, 1964, and 1965.
There. I shot him. Now will you get off my back about never helping you out around here?
Above, the cover of Sucker Bait by Robert O. Saber, aka Milton K. Ozaki, 1955 from Graphic Books. Rich men pay $1,000 for entry into the Purple Door Club, where they procure the services of Chicago's most beautiful prostitutes, but also become targets for blackmailers. Hero Carl Good is accused of murdering one of the women and has to clear himself by finding the real killer. Good thing he's a detective. The cool cover art here is by Robert Maguire.
What's in the box? Uh, you know, lipstick, gum, cigarettes, the souls of men I consume. The usual.
Above, really nice front and rear cover art for The Blonde on the Street Corner by David Goodis, which was published by Lion Books as a paperback original in 1954. Set in Philadelphia during 1936, the book examines a bunch of guys who have big dreams but no money, no motivation, and no ideas how to escape dead-end Philly. The narrative is basically plotless, like the characters' lives. Talk about a great depression. The cover art, by Robert Maguire, is beautiful but the blonde depicted is nothing like the blonde Goodis writes about. Goodis's blonde is overweight, married, and in her mid-thirties. She does have a sexual aura, though, and certainly fits the mold of a femme fatale. This is considered lesser Goodis, but it's still good enough.
I could screw my way to the top but this method is so much more satisfying.
Above you see the covers for the 1958 and 1954 Signet editions of Death Before Bedtime, by Edgar Box, who was in reality literary legend Gore Vidal. This novel is the middle entry of a trilogy—the first is Death in the Fifth Position and the third is Death Likes It Hot. All feature public relations exec/amateur detective Peter Sargeant II, and the story in this one takes place in Washington, D.C., and involves a murdered senator, his promiscuous daughter, his widow, and various figures ranging from pure to corrupt. It owes plenty to Agatha Christie in that the murder—via dynamite, by the way—occurs in a house and everyone who was on the premises is a suspect. Unsurprisingly, there's almost as much sex as sleuthing, but there's also plenty of Vidalian wit. The top cover was painted by Robert Maguire and the second was the work of Clark Hulings.
Mid-century paperbacks and the many sides of erotic dance.
We've seen more paperback covers featuring dancers than we can count. No surprise—they are after all an essential element of crime fiction, and many of the covers depicting them are excellent. But as you might imagine, novels that feature strippers, showgirls, and burlesque dancers as characters also fall into the sleaze genre quite often, which in turn makes for a lot of low budget cover work. So we have the full range for you today in a collection depicting the kinetic art of stage dancing, with illustrations from Bernard Safran, Robert Maguire, Robert McGinnis, Gene Bilbrew, Doug Weaver, and others, as well as numerous unknowns. Enjoy.
I can’t wait until I can afford a good pair of high heels—then when I walk all over these chumps it’ll actually hurt them.
Above is the cover for the 1952 Lion Library paperback edition of Ward Greene’s Cora Potts, which was originally published in 1929 as Cora Potts: A Pilgrim’s Progress. An illiterate country girl robs her father’s store, runs away barefooted to the big city, eventually commits murder, and ends up a respectable, nouveau riche society wife. Greene was saying that the U.S. was a country that rewarded greed and ruthlessness, while respect for the rules was peddled to the lower classes to keep them in line. Some critics found this formulation unpalatable, and many thought the part where Potts burns through $100,000 in one year was just impossible. As that’s only about $1.3 million in today’s money we find their protests bizarre, but in any case Greene had based his character on an actual femme fatale with the amazing name of Kitty Queen.
Catherine Queen, as she had been born, indeed progressed from barefoot Georgia bumpkin to bejeweled society dame. She became public knowledge briefly in 1929 when her dupe of a husband, a prominent banker, was nabbed for embezzlement and the facts of his lavish expenditures on Queen came out at trial. How much had he spent on her in a year? $147,000. And like Cora Potts’ hapless first husband, Queen’s husband still loved her, wrote heartrending letters from prison, and sent her the few meager dollars he still collected via various means. And yet Queen never visited him once, same as Potts never visits her imprisoned spouse. The Manhattan critics who doubted the novel's verisimilitude knew nothing about Kitty Queen, but Greene had lived and worked in Atlanta and down there her story had been big news.
The cover at top is by Mal Singer, and the art from Lion’s 1955 re-issue at right was painted by Robert Maguire. Greene’s book is surprisingly obscure today, but its general message that in a corrupt society vice is virtue resonates more than ever. His genius was also in having a female character behave in a way typically ascribed to successful men, and having her go unpunished for breaking both the rule of law and of gender. Greene touched on similar themes more than once, but also wrote upbeat material. One of those pieces was a short story called, “Happy Dan, the Whistling Dog,” which appeared in Cosmopolitan and became a primary inspiration for one of the most beloved screen romances of all time—the animated feature Lady and the Tramp.
And just to dig as deeply into this subject as we can, there is some confusion online about when Greene wrote that dog story. Nearly every website says 1943, but then again nearly every website copies from other websites. A couple of sources say the story is from 1924, while a French page says 1937. We don’t know when he wrote it, but we’re inclined to believe the 1924 date. Greene was already in his mid-thirties by then, and had been writing for Cosmo since at least 1923, publishing a piece on F. Scott Fitzgerald that year. We think Walt Disney probably read the Happy Dan story in 1943 in an old Cosmo, and at that point contacted the now respected literary figure Greene about buying the property and adapting it. But we don’t know for sure. Someone in the real world of actual libraries with actual paper info will have to sort this one out.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
The federal penitentiary located on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay closes. The island had been home to a lighthouse, a military fortification, and a military prison over the years. In 1972, it would become a national recreation area open to tourists, and it would receive national landmark designations in 1976 and 1986.
1916—Einstein Publishes General Relativity
German-born theoretical physicist Albert Einstein publishes his general theory of relativity. Among the effects of the theory are phenomena such as the curvature of space-time, the bending of rays of light in gravitational fields, faster than light universe expansion, and the warping of space time around a rotating body.
1931—Nevada Approves Gambling
In the U.S., the state of Nevada passes a resolution allowing for legalized gambling. Unregulated gambling had been commonplace in the early Nevada mining towns, but was outlawed in 1909 as part of a nationwide anti-gaming crusade. The leading proponents of re-legalization expected that gambling would be a short term fix until the state's economic base widened to include less cyclical industries. However, gaming proved over time to be one of the least cyclical industries ever conceived.
1941—Tuskegee Airmen Take Flight
During World War II, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, aka the Tuskegee Airmen, is activated. The group is the first all-black unit of the Army Air Corp, and serves with distinction in Africa, Italy, Germany and other areas. In March 2007 the surviving airmen and the widows of those who had died received Congressional Gold Medals for their service.
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