If it helps to persuade you, when you're an old woman you'll look back on even your worst one night stands with nostalgia.
Vintage thrillers and films often used Mexico as a setting, and we very much enjoy when that happens, due to our own numerous trips to the country and the many fond memories they produced. Wade Miller's 1950 novel Devil May Care takes readers to Mexico and does a better job of it than most books we've read. The trip happens when soldier of fortune Biggo Venn is sent to Ensenada on a mission that promises to profit him $10,000. Unfortunately, Biggo's contact turns up murdered, and out of caution he decides the smartest move is to wait for the unknown killer or killers to reveal themselves. He lays low and plays the role of gringo tourist. While doing so he meets up with a hard luck American named Jinny and a beautiful local named Pabla, both of whom are romantic interests, though in Jinny's case it's a love-hate dynamic.
Plenty happens with Jinny and Pabla, but Biggo's most portentous encounter is with fellow soldier of fortune Lew Hardesty, who's not only a rival suitor for both women, but keeps trying to horn in on Biggo's caper. The two eventually get into a vicious fight that settles nothing except that Biggo, who's ten years older, is losing his edge (though he dislocates Hardesty's jaw before the man pushes it back into place and comes at Biggo like a whirlwind). It's a good scene in a fun book. In fact, we think Devil May Care is Wade Miller (a pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and Bill Miller) at his/their best. The story is well paced, exciting, sometimes sad, and often funny. The authors use the rough-edged mercenaries-at-large premise brilliantly, as in this exchange between Biggo and Hardesty:
Biggo growled, “I thought you were in Bolivia.” Just because he had met one of his own kind made the outlook no brighter. Hardesty was a comrade but something less than a friend. He had a knack for showing up where he wasn't wanted.
“I was. Now I'm here.”
“Have you ever spent a summer in Bolivia? Very hot.”
Biggo understood the old pattern. Hardesty had been on the wrong side, whichever side happened to be losing that year. “Yes, Lew, I was thinking about you only the other night.”
“I love you too.”
“I know that. I remember the time you let me go out after that tiger in the Malay with a jimmied gun.”
Hardesty laughed. “That was a fine joke. Those man-killers are always old tigers, anyway. You've got more teeth than he had. Was that any worse than shipping me that opium in Transjordan? I sat in that mud jail for two months until one of your shells knocked out a wall.”
Biggo laughed in turn. “That was the gunner's fault. He'd promised me a direct hit.”
Much of the dialogue features similar banter, and not just between the soldiers. Hard luck Jinny can quip with the best of them:
Jinny said faintly, “I thought you went to jail.” She looked ready to be sick. She held a cracker halfway to her mouth, forgotten.
“Can't keep a good man down, honey.”
“What's that got to do with you?”
In the end the killers reveal themselves and Biggo—by now seeking revenge as well as a payoff—brings hell directly to their doorstep, or in this case to their yacht in the harbor. The climax brings a surprise or two, and Biggo's fate hinges upon who to trust, and who not to. Devil May Care is a wide-open sort of tale about dangerous men, but its title proves to be contradictory. Biggo pretends not to care about anything except the next mission and the next exotic port of call, but his acceptance of his own aging and his slim hope for retirement and a restful old age matter—in the end—more than anything else. The book has some moments that might make modern readers quail, but all the portrayals and reactions make sense in context. We loved this one.
You paid the cover charge to get in. Now you have to pay the uncover charge or get out.
The brush behind this cover for Wade Miller's 1946 debut thriller Deadly Weapon was paperback vet Bob Abbett, and it's one of his better pieces in a portfolio filled with top efforts. The book is good too. It's about an Atlanta detective who drives to San Diego to avenge the death of his partner, and as befits such a concept, features excellent Sam Spade-like repartee between main character Walter James and a local cop named Austin Clapp. Some of the action is centered around a burlesque theatre and its headlining peeler Shasta Lynn, but the deadly weapon isn't a femme fatale, as implied by the art, but Walter James himself. The man is hell on wheels. He even uses his car to ram another auto and its occupants over a cliff. Overall, Deadly Weapon is well written, well paced, and well characterized (if a bit saccharine in the romantic subplot). Wade Miller—who was really Bob Wade and Bill Miller acting as one—started his/their career on a good note with this one.
If you make enemies they'll always eventually strike back.
Above, an alternate cover for Whit Masterson's 1956 L.A. mystery Dead, She Was Beautiful. This edition from Corgi Books appeared in 1957, and the art is by Jack M. Faulks, a new name to us. He took an interesting route with this. The art could be depicting the same woman alive and dead (note the blurb: “more dangerous dead than alive”), or it could be depicting two different women of similar appearance. Either works, in terms of the story. Which is to say, yes, a character is shot in the back with an arrow, and yes, that character later turns out to have a twin. Spoiler alert. So you have a cool cover that's more clever than it seems at first. We'll keep an eye out for more from Faulks. And let's all keep an eye out for stray arrows.
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.
She purrs but only when she's thinking about destroying you.
This edition of Wade Miller's iconic sleazer teaser Kitten with a Whip is a rarity and it came from Gold Medal in 1963. There's a moment early in the narrative when the hapless protagonist David turns on a news report about the seventeen-year-old sexpot invader occupying his home. Up until then the girl, whose name is Jody, has been in David's house tormenting him only a few hours, but is threatening to ruin his life with lies that they've been shacked up having a grand old time, or that he tried to rape her. David is paralyzed with fear that his wife, neighbors, and employer will believe her. But in that moment when the entire city is told the girl is a violent psycho who escaped her confinement a mere twelve hours earlier by stabbing a matron, David doesn't realize nobody will believe anything she says—not his employers, not his neighbors, and certainly not his wife—as long as he turns her in then and there. “I woke up, found her in my house, bought her some clothes because she had none, gave her money for a bus out of town—and instead of leaving she decided to stay and blackmail me.” He'd be believed, beyond a doubt. But he never makes the call. So he really deserves everything that happens afterward. But the book is a classic for a reason. It's a fun, crazy read.
The ultimate hunt is one where the prey can shoot back.
The cover copy perhaps gives the impression Wade Miller's The Killer is about a hunter who goes after human prey for sport, but it's actually about a man who hires a professional big game hunter to track down and kill his son's murderer. While the hero uses his unique skill set to lay a trap or two and make some interesting deductions, the story is a standard thriller. But a pretty good one, set in different locales in the U.S., with a few decent twists and a nice—if somewhat overwrought—love story. Both covers from Gold Medal were compelling, with art by C.C. Beall and an unknown, 1951 and 1958.
Yes, you’re definitely fabulous, but I said to bring a wetsuit, not a jumpsuit.
Nightmare Cruise, aka The Sargasso People, was written by Wade Miller, who was not an actual author, but rather a pseudonym for collaborators Robert Wade and Bill Miller. The two also wrote as Will Daemer, Whit Masterson and Dale Wilmer. During the ’40s and ’50s they published about three-dozen novels, including Kitten with a Whip, which became a celebrated piece of camp cinema starring Ann-Margaret. They also wrote Badge of Evil, which was adapted into Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a film usually considered the last true noir produced. Miller died prematurely of a heart attack in 1961, but by then the duo’s place in pulp history was assured. Wade continued writing, eventually winning the Private Eye Writers of America’s 1988 Lifetime Achievement Award, and 1998 City of San Diego Local Author Achievement Award. We’ll discuss his noteworthy solo output at a later date.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1914—RMS Empress Sinks
Canadian Pacific Steamships' 570 foot ocean liner Empress of Ireland is struck amidships by a Norwegian coal freighter and sinks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the loss of 1,024 lives. Submerged in 130 feet of water, the ship is so easily accessible to treasure hunters who removed valuables and bodies from the wreck that the Canadian government finally passes a law in 1998 restricting access.
1937—Chamberlain Becomes Prime Minister
Arthur Neville Chamberlain, who is known today mainly for his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938 which conceded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany and was supposed to appease Adolf Hitler's imperial ambitions, becomes prime minister of Great Britain. At the time Chamberlain is the second oldest man, at age sixty-eight, to ascend to the office. Three years later he would give way to Winston Churchill.
1930—Chrysler Building Opens
In New York City, after a mere eighteen months of construction, the Chrysler Building opens to the public. At 1,046 feet, 319 meters, it is the tallest building in the world at the time, but more significantly, William Van Alen's design is a landmark in art deco that is celebrated to this day as an example of skyscraper architecture at its most elegant.
1969—Jeffrey Hunter Dies
American actor Jeffrey Hunter dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a skull fracture, a mishap precipitated by his suffering a stroke seconds earlier. Hunter played many roles, including Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings, but is perhaps best known for portraying Captain Christopher Pike in the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage".
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