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!
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.
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.
It's time you got your hands dirty, tough guy. We'll start with a pedicure.
Above, an Ace double consisting of John Creighton's Trial by Perjury and Louis Trimble's The Smell of Trouble. Cover art is by uncredited and his twin brother unattributed. You can see another Ace double here.
I think we should consider a separation. And I have just the body part in mind.
A gringo detective with an agency in Mexico City is hired to locate his crooked ex-partner, who has bailed with the agency's money, and now is causing trouble for the client. The PI takes the job, glad to be paid to track down his betrayer, and starts in the Mexican town of Rio Bravo where the partner immediately turns up dead. From there the hero delves into local corruption, crosses the border to Texas, uncovers a human trafficking ring, meets a cantina dancer named Arden Kennett, deals with a dangerous wife, watches murders pile up and the police begin to suspect him, and learns that knives can be thrown just as effectively as they can be brandished.
The book was published in the U.S. as an Ace Double in 1959 with Paul Rader art and bound with Charles Fritch's Negative of a Nude, but the rare edition above is from Aussie imprint Phantom Books and appeared in 1960. We can't identify the artist, which is an affliction we've been dealing with quite a bit of late. But don't blame us—as we've mentioned once or twice before, including just a few days ago, Phantom didn't credit art, possibly because much of it was copied from U.S. editions. Many of the covers do, however, look like the same hand, so hopefully someone will be able to ID the owner of that hand at some point in the future.
Go completely unnoticed in any setting with the amazing new Undercover Operative Trench Coat.
Well, some products don't work as advertised. We weren't going to buy it, but then we learned it came with a complimentary limited edition newspaper with two eye holes cut in it. But when we wore the coat we got spotted immediately and now we have a restraining order. 1955 copyright on this Ace Double of Harry Whittington's One Got Away (Robert Schulz cover art), bound with Cleve F. Adams' Shady Lady (Harry Barton on the art chores). We'll see you after our probation hearing.
Went down down down and the flames went higher.
Stewart Sterling, aka Prentice Winchell and several other pseudonyms, began as a writer for radio but eventually branched out into pulp novels and carved out a literary career that lasted almost twenty years. He created two running characters during that time. One of them was Gil Vine, a house detective in a hotel. The other—Ben Pedley—was a fire marshall who relied upon training and experience to foil arsonists (who typically were merely the hired thugs of more highly-placed criminal elements). Fire Marshall Pedley had the drive and toughness you’d expect from a fictional firefighter, as well as the flaws you enjoy in an anti-hero. There were nine Fire Marshall Pedley novels, including Five Alarm Funeral, which you see above, Where There’s Smoke, Fire on Fear Street, Alarm in the Night, Too Hot To Handle, Hinges of Hell, and others. For more detailed information on Sterling and his body of work, visit his page on the website Mystery*File.com.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1933—Prohibition Ends in United States
Utah becomes the 36th U.S. state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, thus establishing the required 75% of states needed to overturn the 18th Amendment which had made the sale of alcohol illegal. But the criminal gangs that had gained power during Prohibition are now firmly established, and maintain an influence that continues unabated for decades.
1945—Flight 19 Vanishes without a Trace
During an overwater navigation training flight from Fort Lauderdale, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo-bombers lose radio contact with their base and vanish. The disappearance takes place in what is popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
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