Musically speaking, I'm like a piano ballad and you're like a guy playing banjo with his dick. We just don't belong together.
Above, a cover for Nothing in Her Way, another excellent novel by the reliable Charles Williams, this one dealing with con men—and a masterful con woman. Like any book of this sort, the fun is in the scams within scams within scams. It starts as a real estate swindle, and broadens into thoroughbred racing, with numerous mini-stings mixed in, as the main character finds himself getting into deeper trouble trying to keep up with his slippery ex-wife. Good fun from beginning to end, tense, involving, surprising, and affecting. The copyright on this is 1951. We don't know who painted the cover, but since Barye Phillips was tapped for an entire set of Williams fronts for Gold Medal in 1951, it's a reasonable bet he did this one too.
Handle with care. Do not bend or crush. This end up. Ignore all noises from within. And most importantly—do not open.
The Box is one of Peter Rabe's strangest tales. It's the story of a man named Quinn who's punished for his transgressions against a bunch of NYC gangsters by being sealed in a coffin-like crate and shipped across the planet. The good news is he's sealed in with numerous canisters of water and packs of c-rations. The bad news is he has to lie in darkness, terror, and filth. He's supposed to end up right back in New York after some weeks on the high seas, but fate intervenes when the box is opened ahead of schedule in Libya. The town, called Okar, has some criminal goings on, and since Quinn's ornery nature makes him disruptive by habit, he can't help putting himself right in the middle. The folks that freed him soon realize they'd have been better off leaving him shut away.
The book is okay. We liked the idea of Quinn continuing to live in a metaphorical box, even after he's escaped one physically. The thing about Rabe, though, here and in other efforts as well, is that he builds his story upon lots of verbal interplay and emotional subterfuge, filling the narrative with scenes of people never quite saying what they mean, and characters trying to understand the deeper implications of what they hear. It may confound some readers. Rabe is simply a very internal writer. We've compared him to Ernest Hemingway, which is easy to do considering Papa's vast influence, but in this case the similarities are particularly clear. The fact that the story is basically impossible to believe is almost disguised by Rabe's strong style. Almost. 1962 copyright on this, with art by Barye Phillips.
Theft is what little people do, my dear. In politics we call it privatizing public assets.
Above, a cover for Paul Gallico's Thief Is an Ugly Word. The scan makes it look like a novel, but Dell's 10¢ books were really story length offerings bound as pamphlets. Dell's edition, all sixty-four pages of it, came out after the tale had already appeared in a May 1944 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. The above edition is from a little later, 1951, with art by Barye Phillips.
Unstoppable forces meet immovable opinions in John D. MacDonald's novels.
John D. MacDonald is a polemical writer. We've jumped around his lengthy bibliography enough to be intimately familiar with his strong opinions about a wide ranging array of subjects. His basic approach is, “I've thought about this social phenomenon/cultural development/historical factoid much more carefully than anybody and here's the ironclad dogma I've developed about it.” Which is fine, we guess. His observations about the inexorable direction of civilization remain insightful half a century later. We've built a house of cards and MacDonald took pains to point that out, with intelligence and some wit. But in seven books we've read, which he wrote in three different decades, he consistently cheats when writing about people, choosing in general to portray them as weak willed cardboard cutouts so they serve as foils for his sociological philosophizing.
This, more than any other reason, is why so many contemporary readers say MacDonald's writing hasn't aged well. But in our opinion he's still worth reading. There's real menace in his work, which is job one for a thriller author. In 1953's Dead Low Tide his hero is suspected of using a spear gun to skewer his boss, seemingly over either a real estate project or the man's slinky wife, and someone may be setting him up for the crime. His actual prospective love interest, a longtime neighbor, is drawn into the mess in her efforts to provide an alibi. MacDonald dishes out the twists, despairs the loss of Florida wilderness to fast-buck builders, and laments what's in the hearts of men. It's a good book, but you don't need us to tell you that. The man sold a skillion novels for a reason. We're moving on to The Executioners after this, which is the source material for the film adaptation Cape Fear, and we have high expectations.
She's got this caper in the bag.
What does the Devil drive? People, apparently. Robert Ames' thriller The Devil Drives, for which you see a nice Barye Phillips cover above, has a labyrinthine plot at the center of which is one of the most duplicitous femmes fatales ever, a bad woman named Kim Bissel. In a small Florida town, numerous people are after bags of money from a deadly armored car robbery, loot that went missing after the getaway boat crashed and upended. Cold-blooded Kim wants the cash more than her male rivals can possibly comprehend, yet they continue to underestimate her—at their mortal peril. We've noted before that the only true respect women received in mid-century fiction and cinema was as deadly criminals. Pyrrhic, considering the possible punishments in store, but you'll find yourself on this feminist fatale's side as she tries to beat the odds. While the plot is improbable, the book works because of Ames' hallucinatory, irony filled, interior monologue driven prose. Recommended stuff, from 1952.
If you could ask the ones who did it we suspect they'd say dying young is overrated.
Above, a nice front for Dead, She Was Beautiful by Whit Masterson, aka Wade Miller, who in turn was actually William Miller and Robert Wade writing in tandem. This one has an unusually interesting set-up. A divorce detective is hired by a man to follow his unfaithful wife, and the detective is shocked to discover the woman is his ex-wife. This is in Los Angeles, which immediately raises the question of how such a bizarre coincidence could happen in a city of millions. Well, it isn't a coincidence, which becomes clear when the wife/ex-wife is killed by being shot in the back with an arrow. The cops think the detective may have done it, especially because he hated his ex, so what you get here is the time-honored scenario of a private op who has to solve a crime or take the fall for it. We'd describe this as decent, but nothing special. The cover art is by Barye Phillips, and the copyright is 1956.
During my time in the city I learned those folks have some depraved and immoral ideas. Wanna try a few?
When you read a lot of vintage crime fiction of varying quality it's useful to occasionally return to a trusty author like Charles Williams. He's a solid stylist, which makes all his books decent reading experiences. Big City Girl isn't his best, but it's interesting just the same. It's about an escaped convict who, if he accomplishes nothing else while free, wants to murder his wife—the big city girl of the title. She's living with his family on an isolated farm and, in pure femme fatale fashion, is causing more than her share of trouble with her hosts. What Williams attempts to do here is write an entire collection of characters that aren't very smart, and as we've noted before, that's more difficult than you'd think. You have to credit how well the feat is pulled off here. Some of Williams' books we've read have been great, others merely decent, but none have been close to disappointing. You can purchase anything he authored with confidence.
In my experience the ones who think I'm sinful are always the ones I won't let join the fun.
Above is a brilliant cover for James M. Cain's Sinful Woman painted by Barye Phillips, early work from him, and among his best. This was published by Avon in 1947, and though it isn't hard to find it's dear to purchase. The story involves a famous actress who goes to Reno for a quickie divorce from her movie producer husband. When she runs into problems she charms the local sheriff—a big fan of her work—into helping out, but must deal with increasing complications. Most agree Sinful Woman isn't Cain's best, but from a purely literary perspective he's a better writer than most, even in lesser efforts. It's well worth a read.
Rural heist goes way south.
The Big Caper by Lionel White is a bank robbery thriller written in multi-p.o.v. style, with more than a dozen characters ranging from compassionate to psychopathic all getting to describe the action. It's a good book. The crux of it is that a career bank robber sends his girlfriend and an associate to act as the advance team for the robbery. They go to the Florida town where the bank is located, set up as husband and wife, and spend six months gathering intelligence for the operation—from pacing out bank dimensions and vault location, to befriending local cops, uncovering data on important people and town operations, to renting a big house and hosting other members of the crew as they trickle into town. The boss has told his vanguard that their husband and wife act is just that—an act. Do they pay attention? No. And it's from there that complications begin to arise. The plot is carefully structured and the writing is a cut above the usual genre fare, but the ending is a bit pat. Still, it's basically a winner. Gold Medal published this edition in 1955 with cover art by Barye Phillips, and the book became a 1957 film noir of the same name starring Rory Calhoun and Mary Costa. We may check that out later.
You can try to ransom me but my husband really doesn't answer the phone during football season.
In Who Has Wilma Lathrop? a Chicago high school teacher marries the woman of his dreams after a three month courtship, but wakes up one morning to find her missing, and immediately thereafter discovers she has a hidden past as a gangster's mistress and possible jewel thief. Suddenly that whirlwind romance doesn't seem like it was a good idea, but he loves her and has to locate her. He's smart and has some combat training, so he isn't totally helpless, but finds himself in deeper and deeper trouble. This is a recommended yarn from Day Keene set in the middle of a bitter Chicago winter. If you're lucky enough to find the above 1955 Gold Medal edition you'll get great art by Barye Phillips.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1950—The Great Brinks Robbery Occurs
In the U.S., eleven thieves steal more than $2 million from an armored car company's offices in Boston, Massachusetts. The skillful execution of the crime, with only a bare minimum of clues left at the scene, results in the robbery being billed as "the crime of the century." Despite this, all the members of the gang are later arrested.
1977—Gary Gilmore Is Executed
Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is executed by a firing squad in Utah, ending a ten-year moratorium on Capital punishment in the United States. Gilmore's story is later turned into a 1979 novel entitled The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
1942—Carole Lombard Dies in Plane Crash
American actress Carole Lombard
, who was the highest paid star in Hollywood during the late 1930s, dies in the crash of TWA Flight 3, on which she was flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles after headlining a war bond rally in support of America's military efforts. She was thirty-three years old.
1919—Luxemburg and Liebknecht Are Killed
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the most prominent socialists in Germany, are tortured and murdered by the Freikorps. Freikorps was a term applied to various paramilitary organizations that sprang up around Germany as soldiers returned in defeat from World War I. Members of these groups would later become prominent members of the SS.
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