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.
Ignore the skull. That belonged to an old boyfriend.
Barye Phillips does nice cover work on this 1953 Gold Medal edition of 1950's Savage Bride, Cornell's Woolrich's bizarre tale about a man who marries a very young woman who, despite her tender age, harbors some shocking secrets. Without spoiling it, let's just say her unusually rustic upbringing results in serious marital problems. There are warning signs. She has weird dreams and speaks in tongues. But she's hot, so her husband overlooks that stuff. He soon finds himself enduring unimaginable hell. Even so, in our opinion he actually gets off lucky—because for a fleeting second we thought his wife was a reanimated mummy. Trust us, it wasn't an unreasonable guess. Things don't get quite that crazy, but they come close. This is one problematic spouse. Marry wisely.
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 1953. 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 the early 1950s, 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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1929—Stock Market Crashes
Black Thursday, a catastrophic crash on the New York Stock Exchange, occurs when the value of stocks suddenly declines and continues to decline for a month. The event leads to a subsequent crash in world stock prices and precipitates the Great Depression. This after famous economist Irving Fisher had declared that stock prices had reached a permanently high plateau.
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying
. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
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