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 is 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.
All the worst things together in one place.
It's been a while since we got our hands on an Ace double novel. Ace Double 59 features Robert Bloch's Spiderweb and David Alexander's The Corpse in My Bed. The first has cover art by Harry Barton, and the second, despite looking painted by the same artist, is actually uncredited. Two decent books here. Spiderweb deals with a novice grifter who embarks on a long con under the tutelage of a devilish criminal mastermind. Pretty soon he's committing terrible deeds against his will, including setting up his own girlfriend's politician father for a scam. We were more than a little surprised when the book used the identical gag that we raved about in Lou Cameron's 1960 novel Angel's Flight, in which a hat blown by the wind becomes a crucial life lesson. Check here to understand what we mean. At first we thought Bloch had stolen the idea from Cameron, an assumption we made because Angel's Flight is a far superior book, but nope—Spiderweb predates Angel's Flight by two years. It goes to show that the old adage is true: good writers borrow, great writers steal.
The Corpse in My Bed, originally titled Most Men Don't Kill, tells the story of a former soldier who in his civilian career as a detective finds himself in the classic shamus pickle—standing over a corpse amidst possibly incriminating evidence. A war related head wound plus some booze leaves him unsure whether he merely found the body or caused it, so he goes into hiding while his partner Chet and an acquaintance nicknamed Tommy Twotoes try to get to the bottom of the puzzle. It isn't easy to come up with a character that really stands out in the pantheon of mid-century crime fiction. Twotoes—a 300-pound millionaire with a weird affinity for penguins—is one you'll remember for a while. We checked to see if Alexander used him in other novels, but as far as we can tell he didn't, though he seemingly showed up in a few short stories. Both Bloch and Alexander do good work here, a bit rough around the edges at times, but well worth a read. Just don't pay $350, like one vendor is charging. We got them for twenty bucks. Schwing!
It's taken weeks to get here, but it will be worth it—in that fabled place I am told are stores that have shoes, boxer-briefs, bug repellant, and more.
We shared a Robert Stanley cover for Edgar Rice Burroughs' wild adventure Tarzan and the Lost Kingdom a while back. We'd be doing a disservice if we didn't also share the brilliant Frank Frazetta art used for Ace Books on its 1962 re-issue. Frazetta is an artist about whom there is no debate. He was a genius.
You'd be vicious too if you ate only once a month.
When we last saw Bertrand the Werewolf—on a very nice 1951 cover of Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris—he had been unleashed by the full moon and was dining out in decidedly un-French style. On this 1962 Ace Books edition he's finished his meal and is pondering possible desserts. He looks considerably more menacing here than on that previous cover thanks to the skill of the artist, who is, incredibly, uncredited. For that Ace receives a serious demerit, because this is special work and it should have been attributed. Bad publishers! We'll dig around and see if someone has an idea who painted it.
As the source of the strange noises you've been hearing, I strongly suggest you resist your innate curiosity.
Louis Trimble's Stab in the Dark is one half of an Ace double novel, the other half of which—Jonathan Gant's Never Say No to a Killer—we powered through in one day back during the fall of 2017. Ordinarily when you finish one of these doubles you start right in on the back side, but you know how easily distracted we are. We finally got around to Stab, though, and it pits a secret agent against a group of blackmailers in possession of dirty photos of important people. Sounds fun, doesn't it? But there's nothing special here. We assume Trimble did better work elsewhere. 1956 on this, with unattributed cover art.
Listen, lady! There's two of us and only one goat on this island! We're going to have to come to an agreement!
No, this cover for William Fuller's 1954 thriller Goat Island is not a duplicate of yesterday's. It's a similar piece painted by the great same artist—George Gross. On both fronts you have the dark-haired femme fatale, the open white shirt, the seated position, the nearby tree, the shack in the distance, and a general backwoods mood. If you must copy, copy yourself. In terms of content the book falls into the category of South Florida detective yarns, a sub-genre scores of writers have found profitable over the decades. It's the second book featuring Fuller's franchise detective Brad Dolan. In 1957 Ace Books republished it with the art redone by John Vernon, which you see below. Yes, they're different. Look closely. Vernon's signature appears at the extreme bottom right, whereas Gross's is absent at top. Duplicating covers was common during the mid-century paperback era but we've rarely seen an artist as accomplished as Vernon given the task. Both covers are good, but Gross gets the nod of quality for only copying himself.
Yes, I'd like to report a murder. A man murdered every last bit of my patience.
Above, a nice cover for Day Keene's 1954 thriller Death House Doll, with excellent art by Harry Barton. In the story, a Korean War vet has promised his fatally wounded brother he'd look after his wife and baby daughter, but when he gets back to the world (Chicago) he's stunned to find that she's sitting on death row for murder, and unwilling to spill the truth even if it saves her. The attraction with this one is watching a decorated war hero run riot on hoods and thieves, while up against the always effective ticking clock gimmick—an execution date, which in this case is five days hence. The book was an Ace Double with Thomas B. Dewey's Mourning After on the flipside, and the art on that one, just above, is by Victor Olson. We put together a nice collection of Harry Barton's work back in May that we recommend you visit at this link.
Sorry losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest—and you all know it!
You know the aphorism about intelligence, right? The one where smart people never feel smart enough and stupid people never realize they're stupid? The lead character in Jonathan Gant's, aka Clifton Adams' Never Say No to a Killer constantly brags about how smart he is. He even claims to have a genius I.Q. He puts this brainpower to use in escaping prison, setting himself up in Lake City, gaining possession of a million dollars worth of blackmail material, and sparking interest from the most beautiful woman he's ever seen, but you have a sneaking suspicion the entire time he isn't really that smart.
Since the story is told from first person point-of-view you have no evidence he's a blowhard, but for a guy who's allegedly so much smarter than everyone else plenty of things go wrong with his schemes, and the corpses he generates don't inspire confidence in his self assessment. And indeed, later you discover definitively that he isn't bright at all—he just has an enormous ego, one that allows him to bluster his way through problems, but which keeps him from spotting obvious dangers and prevents him from understanding it's he who's being played.
He believes beautiful women are his reward for being so much better than everyone else, which makes it especially satisfying when these women begin giving him trouble. If he were really a genius he'd have known that you never cross a femme fatale. Never Say No to a Killer is not an especially well written book, but the story is great and the character of Roy Surratt is rare. Well, rare in fiction. In real life people like him are everywhere. Overall this is decent-but-not-great stuff from Ace Double Novels, circa 1956, with uncredited cover art, and Louis Trimble's Stab in the Dark on the flipside.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1971—First of the Pentagon Papers Are Published
The New York Times begins publication of the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret U.S. Department of Defense history of the country's political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The papers reveal that the U.S. had deliberately expanded its war with carpet bombing of Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks, and that four presidential administrations, from Truman to Johnson, had deliberately misled the public regarding their intentions toward Vietnam.
1978—Son of Sam Goes to Prison
David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer known as Son of Sam, is sentenced to 365 years in prison for six killings. Berkowitz had acquired his nickname from letters addressed to the NYPD and columnist Jimmy Breslin. He is eventually caught when a chain of events beginning with a parking ticket leads to his car being searched and police discovering ammunition and maps of crime scenes.
1963—Buddhist Monk Immolates Himself
In South Vietnam, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burns himself to death by dousing himself with gasoline and lighting a match. He does it to protest the persecution of Buddhists by Ngô Đình Diệm administration, choosing a busy Saigon intersection for his protest. An image of the monk being consumed by flames as he sits crosslegged on the pavement, shot by Malcolm Browne, wins a Pulitzer Prize and becomes one of the most shocking and recognizable photos ever published.
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