Thanks for rescuing me. Don't untie me yet, though. First let me tell you about this kinky fantasy I've always had.
George Harmon Coxe's Murder in Havana was an easy buy for us—it was cheap and set in an exotic land. We were also drawn by its World War II backdrop, which made us fully expect Nazis, and we got them. The story concerns Andrew Talbot, who's in charge of a secret shipbuilding project. While he's out on the town someone breaks into his hotel room but somehow ends up dead five floors below. Talbot is relieved not to have been robbed of his top secret dox, but once he realizes the dead man hadn't been the only person in his room and his papers were photographed rather than stolen, he sets out to save his professional reputation and unmask the spies.
As required from this sort of tale, the hero meets a couple of beautiful women, interfaces fractiously with the local cops, gets knocked over the head, and drinks rum. Mysteries from this era can be wordy, but Coxe deserves credit—he keeps the action moving around Havana and avoids the pointless reiterations that can slow these books. The ending is fun, and multi-layered. There could be more local color and travelogue, and we aren't sure if we accept the idea of skeleton keys being purchaseable on the street, but overall Murder in Havana is quite entertaining. It was published in 1943 originally, with this Dell edition and its Barye Phillips cover art of a woman bound but incongruously smiling coming in 1950.
Zumba, huh? Never heard of it. But anything that involves dancing around in this heat I'll take a pass on.
A glance at this Barye Phillips cover for Dan Cushman's 1951 novel Jewel of the Java Sea and you immediately expect it to be filled with lyrical old place names, with their romantic connotations for Westerners of a certain age—Siam, Burma, Celebes, Dutch East Indies, and broadly “the Orient,” names that have dissipated into history, though colonial memory continues to associate them with riches, adventure, and freedom. The name Java is still in use, and that's where Frisco Dougherty, a musician by training, but a fortune hunter and brawler in practice, has been knocking around for fifteen years attempting to make his fortune.
Dougherty has had little luck at this, which is why when he comes into possession of a yellow diamond said to be part of a priceless larger set, he goes into treasure hunter mode with sharp tongue, clenched fists, and hot lead. This jewel he's stumbled upon is supposedly one of five known collectively as the Taj Nipa, with those in turn married to a larger diamond called the Taj-i-nur. The whole kit and caboodle is presumed to reside in the vault of the Maharajah Sir Jagadipendra Bahadur, G.S., C.I., C.C.E.I., LMNOP. But that presumption could be wrong. Maybe the stones were liberated from their vault, though nobody has reported a theft.
Such capers are the core of these types of books, but there are also women. Anna, a Dutchwoman cast adrift in the islands, tells Dougherty she's searching for her missing father, an army major. She's important, but Dougherty is particularly intrigued by Locheng, an exotic dancer in the town of Pontianak, Borneo, and to his eye, a mix of all things good about Asia. He tells the reader she's, “Indo-Chinese, Malay, child of the melting pot, and [with] white blood, enough white blood make her vivid, give her fire.” Uh huh, Frisco loves him some Locheng, though he has a mighty brusque way of showing it:
He decided not to knock. He swung the door open. She sprang up to face him. She was naked. He took a deep breath and looked at her. She seized her sarong and swung it around her hips, tucked it tightly around her waist. Her breasts remained bare, after the fashion of native women.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “Is it the Western influence that makes you think a body should be hidden? Let me see you as you were. You are so beautiful.”
The Western influence. We didn't notice him wandering around naked to demonstrate his liberation. But maybe that's his point—he's too corrupted to be free, but luckily—his luck, not hers—she isn't. At this point he's met Locheng exactly once before, and she called him a hodah orang—ugly man, according to the book, though not according to Google translate—and showed him the door. But he clearly thinks being cursed out was just a flirtatious prelude to his inevitable conquest of Locheng, and indeed, as these South Seas novels are usually male literary fantasies, that conquest will come soon enough.
Dougherty is interesting. He's impulsive and self-entitled; bigoted, though this appears to be more class than skin based; and sexist, to which we add no qualifiers considering he always wants women to parade around naked. But he's also sentimental and defends the underdog. We think he's an accurate depiction of a certain type of wayfaring American male endemic to the wilder reaches of the world. As former inhabitants of a couple of those reaches ourselves, we've met the type. Cue the Pulp Intl. girlfriends: “Met? You are the type.” Well, not really, though. We've always sought adventures, but our resemblance to Dougherty stops where he demands unearned respect, crosses lines of consent, and calls grown men, “boy.”
In the end, Jewel of the Java Sea is a South Asian thriller that sits neither at the top nor bottom of the genre. Frisco Dougherty might be worth having a beer with, but only until he says something offensive and refuses to apologize. What we'd prefer to hear from him are reflections about something other than how Western influence has ruined his chances to enjoy boobs al fresco. That may yet happen. Reading the book, we got the feeling he was supposed to become a franchise. A series never took root, but he did pop up in one sequel, 1960's The Half-Caste, also set in Asia. We already purchased it a little earlier today, because Cushman can write. What will be interesting is to see if Dougherty can grow.
Into battle, me mateys! And tonight for those who survive—extra portions of organic Chai tea!
Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, not an official holiday, sadly. We asked the Pulp Intl. girlfriends what they'd do if they were pirates and the answers weren't pretty. Making all the men walk the plank was the most charitable of their thoughts, with swords and whips coming into play pretty quickly after that. Good thing we're only supposed to talk like pirates. Arrr... let's tone down the homicidal thoughts, girls.
Above and below is a collection of vintage paperbacks with women pirates. Well, maybe the woman on the cover of Rafael Sabatini's The Fortunes of Captain Blood isn't a pirate so much as someone defending herself. But anyone who can handle two pistols at once is an honorary pirate, at the least. We found eleven examples, and the cover art on display is by Harry Schaare, Rudolph Belarski, Barye Phillips, Paul Anna Soik, and others.
Turns out Barye Phillips and Dom Lupo lived at the same address, but at different times.
We've talked often about vintage paperback art being copied. We have another example today involving Dom Lupo and Barye Phillips. Hearing those two names you'd think it was Phillips, who was a stalwart of mid-century paperback illustration, who'd been copied by Lupo, talented but lesser known. Nope—it's the other way around. Above is Lupo's cover for 13 French Street, which was used by Gold Medal Books in 1951. You also see here Phillips' cover for Little Tramp (larger version here), which dates from 1957. Naughty Barry.
But Lupo copied too, sort of. He seems to have used as his inspiration a promo photo of U.S. actress Rita Gam, below. Using photos as the basis for illustrations was pretty normal, as we've documented before, so Lupo was just doing what artists did. You can see he changed the angle a bit, so it's not a true copy so much as a template. There's an internet replication error we should note: a few places say the Gam photo is from her 1952 thriller The Thief. Which means, obviously, she could not have inspired Lupo unless she had a time machine. Since the poses are so similar, we assume the attribution to The Thief is simply wrong—though ironic, because in art, everyone is a little bit of a thief. Great work by all involved.
There are skeletons in the closet, and then there are entire graveyards.
Above is a nice Barye Phillips cover for Savage Bride, an alternate to the one we showed you last year, also painted by Phillips. This cover is far nicer, we think. The teaser tells the truth—this story is weird and terrifying. Well, not terrifying in the sense that it'll give you chills. More in the sense that you can't possibly imagine what you'd do if your wife were like the one in this book. You can read a bit more about it here.
The mob comes to California and spreads like a virus.
Above you see a piece of atypical Barye Phillips art on the cover of the 1957 crime thriller The Hoods Take Over, written by Ovid Demaris. We call it atypical because Phillips rarely painted in collage style, with multiple figures and elements crowded onto a canvas. In fact, this is the first we've seen of this technique from him, though we wouldn't be surprised if there are others. Working in this way, Phillips' beautiful visual style is simplified to the level of comic book art. We think it diminishes his genius, but hey, we bet it paid just as well as his other covers.
Turning to the story here, the title is perfectly descriptive—organized crime hoods are taking over L.A. But the overmatched cops are given a tool to check the rampant spread of lawlessness when a school teacher witnesses a brutal mob murder and—shockingly—is willing to testify even though it endangers his life. This is an excellent tale with a modern feel and pacing, told in numerous short chapters, and starring an array of characters. It hits the ground running, maintains a strong sense of dread, and never lets the tension abate.
We won't get into the plot too much except to say that we love novels where survivability for the good guys isn't guaranteed, and here you are in no way assured that the protagonists—embodied by that proud but possibly foolish teacher—will win. Will he stick to his principles when the mob comes a-knocking, threatening him and his pregnant wife? Most people wouldn't, but this particular citizen thinks he can make a difference. Because he never fought in World War II he believes the challenge now before him is how he's meant to contribute to the world's hard-won freedom.
The Hoods Take Over isn't a perfect novel. For one thing, its violent and messy ending is a shade on the improbable side, possibly conceived because Demaris felt it was the only way to conclude all his disparate character arcs in economical fashion. But unlikely or not, it's a slam-bang climax, and the book is very good overall. So good, in fact, that we immediately went online and located a couple more Demaris novels, and went way above our usual price ceiling for paperbacks to buy them. Guess we've come down with a bad case of Ovid.
These shots are surprisingly revealing. This shaving thing you do—call me crazy but I think that could really catch on.
Above, a Barye Phillips cover for Bodies in Bedlam by Richard S. Prather, the second entry in his forty-one novel series (or maybe it was forty-two) starring detective Shell Scott, for Gold Medal Books, 1951. We have a couple, so we'll circle back to Prather and Mr. Scott a bit later.
You know what'll really murder you? This stench. Seriously, take a whiff.
Above, the front and rear of James Kieran's thriller Come Murder Me, with art by Barye Phillips. As the cover reveals, the book is about a man who plans his own murder. The twist is he doesn't know he's done it. How is that possible? There are two possibilities, and we bet you can figure out both if you try. 1951 copyright on this.
When I ask you to disrobe it doesn't seem like you get excited the way you used to.
The sprawling 1925 medical novel Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1926, but no book was so lofty it couldn't be reworked to fit the pulp paperback aesthetic of the 1950s. We read this way back when we attempted to go through the entire Pulitzer list in order. Some of those books were amazing, like Edna Ferber's So Big, and others made us almost abandon the project. Arrowsmith was somewhere in the middle for us. The subtly sexual art by Barye Phillips fits this classic, because the main character Martin is sort of a serial romancer who can't stick with one woman even when he tries.
Did we ever finish that Pulitzer list? No. Once we learned that even among the best books ever written some are markedly better than others, we began skipping ahead and finally stopped after To Kill a Mockingbird and The Edge of Sadness. Those two very different and indescribably awesome novels completed our interest in deep examinations of the human experience. After those, we wanted to have fun when we read. We moved on to the frights, thrills, and speculations of horror, vintage crime, and sci-fi, and that's where we mainly reside today. But Arrowsmith was interesting and we recommend it for a compelling read.
Lives and deaths converge at a river crossing in John D. MacDonald's iconic thriller.
Fawcett Publications kept illustrator Barye Phillips mighty busy with its Gold Medal line, and here his work is yet again, on the cover of John D. MacDonald's 1952 thriller The Damned. The creekside setting doesn't actually capture the mood of the book, but it's a very nice, ominously serene piece of art. Beyond the cover readers will encounter MacDonald wrestling with what we considered to be a very literary concept. An automobile ferry develops various issues, leaving a long line of cars stuck at a Mexican river crossing most of a day and all of a night. Except for the few people who had driven there together, none know each other, but on that desolate roadside they interact in life-changing ways, ranging from budding love to betrayal to abandonment to sudden death. With more than a dozen stories interwoven, none are truly resolved, but most characters end up pointed toward destinies that can be guessed. As we've mentioned before, the farther you go back into MacDonald's bibliography the less didactic he tends to be. The Damned is his fifth novel, and its freshness of concept speaks to a writer spreading his wings and reveling in the purity of creative flight. This is the MacDonald we think newcomers to his work will enjoy most.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1915—Claude Patents Neon Tube
French inventor Georges Claude patents the neon discharge tube, in which an inert gas is made to glow various colors through the introduction of an electrical current. His invention is immediately seized upon as a way to create eye catching advertising, and the neon sign
comes into existence to forever change the visual landscape of cities.
1937—Hughes Sets Air Record
Millionaire industrialist, film producer and aviator Howard Hughes sets a new air record by flying from Los Angeles, California to New York City in 7 hours, 28 minutes, 25 seconds. During his life he set multiple world air-speed records, for which he won many awards, including America's Congressional Gold Medal.
1967—Boston Strangler Convicted
Albert DeSalvo, the serial killer who became known as the Boston Strangler, is convicted of murder and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison. He serves initially in Bridgewater State Hospital, but he escapes and is recaptured. Afterward he is transferred to federal prison where six years later he is killed by an inmate or inmates unknown.
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