Beauty is easy to love. Ugly takes unresolved psychological issues.
Spouses who cheat usually don't do so because their fling is more attractive than their partner. We learned this years ago from a widely noted survey of cheaters. What attracts them is that the person they desire is more exciting. Theodora Keogh's 1954 novel The Fascinator encapsulates this idea. It's about a woman's attraction to a man who's more exciting than her husband. The other man, Zanic, is ugly due to a congenital condition that made his brows and ears grow so he looks like an ape, and he's also overweight. But no matter—he's a sculptor and an elegant speaker and all the rest, so the story, as it develops, follows whether the main character Ellen will actually cheat with this persistent and somewhat creepy ogre of a man who she finds more exciting than her handsome but normal husband. It's not the type of book we usually read, but blame the cover art for that. It drew us because we thought it might be another Sandro Symeoni effort for Ace Books. It's uncredited, but we suspect Sandro's brush. Why? Look here. In any case The Fascinator is well written and thoughtful.
Anything could happen there and it usually did.
We're drawn to books about places we know, so Camilo José Cela's The Hive was a natural. Originally published in 1950 and titled La colmena, the tale is largely set in a Madrid bar known as Doña Rosa's Café. There are also scenes set in apartments, streets, and other cafés, as Cela explores the lives of more than three-hundred characters in brief sketches, slowly weaving these warp and weft strands into a tapestry that ultimately represents a single character—Madrid circa 1943. Maybe that doesn't sound thrilling, but we liked it. Cela was economical yet vivid, like here, at closing time for the café:
Within half an hour the café will be empty. It will be like a man who has suddenly lost his memory.
And here, about a boy who survives by singing on the street:
He is too young in years for cynicism—or resignation—to have slashed its mark across his face, and therefore it has a beautiful, candid stupidity, the expression of one who understands nothing of anything that happens. For [him] everything that happens is a miracle: he was born by a miracle, he eats by a miracle, has lived by a miracle, and has the strength to sing by pure miracle.
Cela was a fascist, a supporter of Francisco Franco's dictatorship. His beliefs came with contradictions, for example he worked as a censor for the government, was himself banned so that The Hive had to be published first in Argentina, yet remained loyal to the regime that had financially and reputationally harmed him. He even became an informer. In Cela's writing there's humor, but also coldness, a sense of observing small and pathetic people. For someone born into material comfort in a Spain where many families retain unearned wealth for hundreds of years, his subtle judgements came across to us as cruel, the product of a person who looked closely at everyone but himself. The book isn't overtly political, though, which makes it easier to focus on the skill that eventually won him a Nobel Prize.
The edition you see here is from Ace Books in 1959 with an uncredited cover. We went back and forth on this artist. We want to say it's Sandro Symeoni, but we don't have enough cred to make that call definitively. It looks like some of the items he painted, but publishing companies sometimes sought art of similar styles, or directed illustrators to produce something similar to what another artist had provided. During the late 1950s and early ’60s Ace Books had many covers in this general style. That said, compare the close-ups below. The first is from the above cover, and the rest are from confirmed Symeonis. If The Hive wasn't painted by the same person, then whoever did paint it went beyond merely working in a similar style—he was a thief.
I'll have to go to confession later for thinking this, but my religion could use a few sweaty writhing chicks.
We know Hugh B. Cave as a horror writer, so when we saw this wild Samson Pollen cover for his 1959 novel The Cross on the Drum we were looking forward to some dark and scary stuff fit for the Halloween season. Unfortunately, Cave plays it straight—or as straight as you can in a voodoo novel. Basically, it's a variation on the standard South Seas tale, except set in the Caribbean on a small island called Ile du Vent, and involving a missionary who wants to civilize the locals. The book is absolutely fine aside from its built-in cultural snobbery, but it never had the weight and menace we seek from a novel of this type. In the end, how you assess it might hinge on your own beliefs. If you're a Christian you'll probably see it as a thrilling tale of moral uplift in which Jesus outshines the false gods of santería, but if you're a non-believer you'll probably see a flawed novel-length discussion of whether one primitive superstition is inherently better than another. Take a side and discuss.
Chandler's Los Angeles is dark day and night.
We're still marveling over Sandro Symeoni's cover work for Ace Books. Each is better than the next. The one above isn't signed, but it's him for sure—well, we think so. It's a beautiful street scene for Raymond Chandler's Pick-Up on Noon Street, not a novel but an anthology of medium length stories originally published in pulp magazines during the 1930s. The collection, comprising four tales set in Los Angeles, first came out in 1950, with this Ace edition appearing in 1960.
The title story was originally published in 1936 as “Noon Street Nemesis” and deals with an undercover narc named Pete Anglish, who accidentally becomes involved in kidnapping and human trafficking. The story is unique because it's set partly in L.A's African American community and it doesn't traffic in the disparaging terminology you usually find under such circumstances. There are good guys and bad guys of all types, with no particular weight given to their backgrounds. It's also a good tale.
In 1935's “Nevada Gas” the title refers to cyanide gas, which comes into play in a specially modified limousine two killers use to execute an unfortunate in the back seat. A Los Angeles tough guy with the excellent name Johnny De Ruse learns that the car was an exact duplicate of the murdered man's actual limousine, which he then entered with no clue the ride would be his last. That's a lot of effort to kill a man, and it intrigues De Ruse greatly, but his curiosity draws the attention of several lethal characters.
In 1934's “Smart-Aleck Kill” a tough Tinseltown detective named Johnny Dalmas tries to solve a murder the cops think was a suicide. The victim was a director of smut movies, but the reasons for his death have to do with something else entirely, and Dalmas has to dodge bullets and overcome duplicity to solve the case.
In 1936's “Guns at Cyrano's” a detective-turned-hotelier named Ted Carmady finds a beautiful blonde who's been knocked out in one of his rooms, and lets his protectiveness lead him into the world of gangsters and fixed prizefights. Cyrano's is a nightclub where the blonde works as a dancer, and where Carmady gets neck deep in murder.
Of the four stories, we liked “Nevada Gas” the best because the character of De Ruse was the most interesting and resourceful, but the leads are all similar—all are basically cousins of Philip Marlowe, kicking ass and taking names in an L.A. rife with hustlers, thugs, wise-ass cops, and corrupt one percenters. If you think of Pick-Up on Noon Street as a sort of Marlowe sampler plate, it should certainly do the job of making you hungry for the main course.
Italy becomes a rich source of paperback covers painted by moonlighting movie artists.
We recently turned up some paperback covers by famed Italian movie poster artist Sandro Symeoni. He painted those for Ace Books during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The company had many beautiful covers at that time, but not all were by Symeoni.
We got to wondering whether Ace lured other artists who normally didn't paint paperback covers, and located this effort for Vivian Connell's The Golden Sleep. This came from renowned cinematic illustrator Silvano Campeggi, who painted valuable promos for Casablanca and other classic films. Like the Symeonis we've found, this cover was previously unattributed, but unlike those, there was no sleuthing needed—Campeggi signed this as Nano, his usual nom de pinceau.
We're enjoying this digging, especially because it adds new knowledge to what's already out there, but it eats up more time than we want to expend, so we won't keep it up. We have a few more to show you. In the meantime, you can check out Campeggi's Casablanca posters here. Oh, and Vivian Connell was a guy. For years we assumed the opposite, so we figure many other people probably do too. Just a side note.
Shit, that waiter is fast! The meal sucked and his service was worse, but maybe we should have tipped him anyway.
This cover for the 1965 Ace Edition of Martha Albrand's 1959 novel A Day in Monte Carlo caught our eye for a couple of reasons. One is the nice art by an unknown, but the other is because we're almost finished with David Dodge's 1952 travel book The Poor Man's Guide to Europe, and it encompasses the south of France. Why read a 70 year-old travel book? We knew it would be like a priceless time capsule—and it is. We'll get to it a bit later, but suffice to say it made us see this cover as two vacationers stiffing a waiter who's now chasing them with a scimitar. As you'd expect, however, this is actually an espionage novel, and a well reviewed one.
But sadly, A Day in Monte Carlo, which you might categorize as romantic suspense, is silly. Its main flaw is that the central relationship between American spycatcher Mark and French dancer Fleur is built on the gimmick of love at first sight. They meet, fall in love within minutes, and agree to marry before half a day has passed. After that point one of the main sources of plot tension becomes: how can Mark carry on a love affair and still chase the great and mysterious Timgad, mastermind behind the Algerian rebel movement, who flits from the Sahel to the Riviera with the ease of a migratory hawk? Well, there's an answer to that, though not a good one.
Albrand was something of an expert at this type of fiction, having published other novels in the same vein, but reputations can deceive. A great writer, perhaps, could pull all this off, but Albrand, whose go-to lines are things like, “Oh, Mark, I was so afraid. Is it really worth it to love this much?” is not a great writer. At least not in this book. We've actually seen her compared to the aforementioned David Dodge, who in addition to travel books wrote fiction classics like To Catch a Thief. But while Dodge wrote with wit, panache, and a touch of romance, he also wrote with gravity and grit. A Day in Monte Carlo needs a dose of the latter two qualities. Onward and upward.
This art is both a Sym-ulation and the real deal.
Italian illustrator Sandro Symeoni signed this 1959 Ace Books cover for Peter Cheyney's He Walked in her Sleep just “Sym,” but however he marks his work, we'd know it at first glance. For years we thought he was a movie poster and record sleeve artist only, then we suddenly started finding his paperback covers. All are brilliant. Oh, and speaking of brilliant, this is an awesome title for a thriller. It was originally published in 1946 as part of the Cheyney collection He Walked in Her Sleep and Other Stories, but Ace got hold of it and typeset it to novel length. More from Cheyney and Syemoni soon.
James M. Cain spins a tale about an unusual love and an unusual life.
Vintage Ace paperbacks are considered highly collectible for a few reasons, including the fact that the company popularized the double novel. But we like Ace because it often did well with art. This front for James M. Cain's The Moth is about as striking as cover illustration gets. It's uncredited, but we know exactly who it is. It's Sandro Symeoni. How do we know? Because the cover at this link is confirmed to be Symeoni, and there's no doubt the artist is the same as above. Not only is the style a match, but so is the time period. This came in 1958, and Ace used Symeoni's art several times between ’58 and ’60. That makes this paperback a super discovery, because Symeoni, a brilliant Italian artist who specialized in movie posters, rarely painted book covers. It's possible that, as with Arthur Miller's Focus (you clicked the link above, right?) the art was borrowed from one of Symeoni's posters, but if so we don't know which one. Doesn't matter. Sandro kills again.
Moving on to the novel, Cain, one of the towering figures of pulp literature, stretches himself here to tell the life story of a man through his first thirty-five years, spanning the Great Depression, Prohibition, and World War II; his various jobs, schemes, and hustles; and his ups, downs, ups, downs, ups, downs, ups... We're not putting an end on that sentence in order to avoid giving a hint whether he ultimately triumphs or fails. For a time Cain's protagonist works in the oil business. For years he's a hobo riding the rails. For part of his life he's a renowned soprano. But no matter where he goes or what he does, there's a past destined to come full circle to stare him in the face. This is Cain's longest book, but it's pretty involving. Its only flaw—if it can be called that—is that it doesn't surprise. You know which untrustworthy friend will come back to haunt him, and which unlikely love will reappear to offer a chance at redemption. Still, a good read. We recommend it.
What's really a shame is tomorrow he'll probably tell his buddies how great he was.
We're once again documenting the craze of mid-century publishers sensationalizing literary classics with racy cover art. Today's example is Shame, which is a translation of French icon Émile Zola's 1868 novel Madeleine Férat. It deals with a woman who loves her man but desires his best friend. That sounds exactly like freshman year of college to us, and in real life it was a total drag, but Zola made a literary masterpiece of it. He also achieved something no author would dream of today—he wrote twenty-one novels about two branches of a single family, tracing how environment and heredity were the overriding influences in their lives, even five generations onward, despite the various family members' desires or pretensions to individuality.
Madeleine Férat wasn't part of that epic cycle, and it isn't one of Zola's most celebrated works, though it was made into a 1920 silent film in Italy called Maddalena Ferat, directed by Roberto Roberti and Febo Mari, and starring Francesca Bertini. Ace Books saw it as a moneymaker not just once, but a second time, when it published it as a double novel with Thérèse Raquin on the flip. The pairing represents perhaps the high point of the paperback age in a way—two nineteenth century French literary classics being crammed as a double translation into an impulse purchase meant to tempt people in drugstores and bus stations. It's insanely funny. Also amusing is that Ace wasn't the only paperback publisher to give this book a makeover. But there's an unfunny aspect too—Ace didn't credit either of the cover artists. C'est dommage.
North of the border, south of the border.
We're back into quasi-quarantine where we live, so what better way to use up double the idle time than with an Ace double novel? In The Cut of the Whip a loner named Dan Port fetches up in a dusty Texas oil town and finds bad luck and trouble when his sports car is rammed and totaled. The person who did it was fleeing town with a sheaf of valuable business documents. The owner of those dox—the fugitive's father—pays Port to retrieve them, and soon he finds himself the only person who can foil a kidnapping plot. The previous books we've read by Rabe verged on bizarre in terms of concept, but this outing is more conventional—we suppose because Port was a franchise character. Rabe would eventually wheel him out for six adventures. We missed the Rabe of efforts like The Box and Kill the Boss Good-by, but he's adequate here, if less imaginative. Port blows into town, whips the asses that need whipping, and drifts away to who-know's-where. Just like a franchise character should.
Robert H. Kelston's Kill One, Kill Two, like its partner book, starts with a deadly auto incident. Maybe that's why the novels were paired. But similarities vanish from that point forward. This book is set in Monterrey, Mexico, and opens with a bang when the protagonist runs over a man on a dark highway. Kelston uses this event to frame a set of circular relationships: there's the protagonist Allen McCoy, who is bedding Juanita, a local nude dancer widely considered to be the most beautiful woman in Monterrey, who is watched over by her hot-headed brother, and is lusted after by a knife fighter known as the Shadow, who's acquaintances with an alcoholic blonde temptress of easy virtue, who is having an affair with the dancer's husband, but all along is trying to bed studly Mr. McCoy.
We've given nothing away with that summary. Kelston shoehorns all that into the first thirty or so pages, and you might have to re-read them to keep the connections straight. Who was it that got run over, you're wondering? That would be Juanita's husband Raúl, the guy who's making naughty spoons with the blonde. Thus McCoy is perceived to have gotten a romantic rival out of the way, and is believed by local gossips to now be bedding both the dancer and the blonde. In local macho culture that makes him a pure stud, but for his corporate employers it makes him radioactive. The gossips have it all wrong, though. The death was an accident, a result of drunken driving and darkness. McCoy soon comes to believe that poor Raúl was thrown in front of his car, and must solve the mystery or see his career destroyed by the rumors.
That's all fine, but the entire story turns out to be a fish too big for Kelston to land. He has it on the hook, then sees it wriggle off through pointless dialogue, confused motivations, and general lack of clear direction. We accepted the main character's motivation, but not necessarily his flimsy engineering background, nor his extraordinary bravery and physical competence in the face of danger. After all, he's just a builder. But that's genre fiction for you—on the page anyone can be a stud, even a pasty-ass, red-headed numbers cruncher like Allen McCoy. A cruel editor would have improved this tale, but in the end we enjoyed it anyway, because owing to our background we're predisposed to like adventures set in Latin America. The fact that it came packaged as an Ace double helped. We have a few other Ace doubles in the website, and you can see the whole lot by clicking its keywords below.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1916—Rockwell's First Post Cover Appears
The Saturday Evening Post publishes Norman Rockwell's painting "Boy with Baby Carriage", marking the first time his work appears on the cover of that magazine. Rockwell would go to paint many covers for the Post, becoming indelibly linked with the publication. During his long career Rockwell would eventually paint more than four thousand pieces, the vast majority of which are not on public display due to private ownership and destruction by fire.
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.
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