The cost is only everything she has.
As you know, we're fascinated by pseudonyms. Murder Is the Pay-Off came from the typewriter of Leslie Ford, whose real name was Zenith Jones Brown. We can't imagine why she decided not to publish this under her own name. After reading it, we think the book must represent something close to the zenith of her authorial output. It's an interesting and well written mystery originally published in 1951, with this Dell edition coming in 1954 fronted by Carl Bobertz cover art. The novel is set in the fictional New York City satellite burg of Smithville, where the murder of a slot machine magnate turns the close knit community upside down.
A lot happens in the book (in that upper crust, smalltown sort of way), but at its center is ambitious and egotistical Connie Maynard, whose behavior makes the police suspect her of being the killer, though she isn't. She has her reasons for keeping quiet. She's ostensibly the secondary villain in the narrative, but we liked her. It was easy to do because every major character is flawed. While Connie is trying to steal someone's husband and refuses to reveal her innocence, her rival Janey Blake is a chronic gambler who's lost her and her husband's life savings, and Gus Black, the hero of sorts, is work-driven, neglectful of Janey, and sometimes oblivious.
The identity of the killer is strongly hinted at about halfway through the book, at which point the multi-pov narrative expands to include that person's interior monologues. It's precise and highly intelligent work from Ford. In addition, there are interesting proto-feminist themes, specifically Janey dealing with presumptions of stupidity from the men around her when she's really one of the smartest people in the book, and Connie encountering sexism in her professional life. At one point Gus—the hero, remember—even tells Connie, “I wouldn't work for a dame anyway.” Literary protagonists aren't usually chauvinists to such an overt degree, even in 1951. Well, we'll work to find more Ford. We want to read her again.
We'll talk more about how uncivilized you people are later. Right now I'm going to kill rare animals purely for ego.
Above is a nice Carl Bobertz cover for Hall Hunter's, aka Edison Marshall's novel The Bengal Tiger, set in India during late 1850s. The lesson here is that he who prints the books establishes the narrative. The “barbaric terror of the Sepoy massacre” against England and its British East India Company caused about 2,400 British fatalities, according to official records of the time, but the toll is now thought to have been about 6,000. The Brits didn't bother to keep track of Indian deaths, but the change in recorded population between the previous census and the next indicated hundreds of thousands were killed. On a level orders of magnitude more disturbing is the fact that during the British occupation of India at least 40 million Indians, and possibly more than 100 million, were killed or starved to death.
If you were to ask Brits about the deadliness of their empire, most would not believe it, and many would try to excuse it. That's no surprise. Generally, the citizens of the expansionist powers can only deal with such horrors by first denying the truth, then if that fails, suggesting that there's a statute of limitations on mass murder. It happens, for example, whenever someone brings up slavery and westward expansion in the U.S. “It had nothing to do with me, or anyone else alive today.” However, over on the opposite side of reality where anti-Floridian concepts like factual history and mathematics reside, there are widely agreed upon studies revealing that—in Britain's case—$45 trillion in wealth was drained from India over about 170 years. That amount of gain has very much to do with everyone alive today, and in the future. Have a good Monday!
Now that you've shot the continent's last white rhino can we do something I think is romantic?
Jonathan Latimer's African adventure novel Dark Memory needs a more grandiose title, because it's pure Hemingway, and you know how lyrical his titles were. Latimer's novel is about nature, and courage, and women. It reads as if he said to himself after finishing Green Hills of Africa, “I wonder if I could do something like what Papa did here?” Well, he could. Dark Memory is a totally absorbing safari tale, a slice of time long gone. Latimer is in what we call the “trusted” category. He's set-and-forget. He's a concierge who's never failed a customer. If he wants to take us on an African safari, all we can say is, “Where do we get our malaria shots?”
Today people who hunt big game are excoriated on social media, and we understand why. The animals they shoot are simply too rare and valuable to be killed for ego. The hunters of yesteryear also killed for ego, but did so under a more limited ecological understanding and more lax political circumstances. Some practices of the past shouldn't survive, and killing lions for their skins shouldn't survive any more than should gladiatorial combat with swords. Big game hunters of today know that these African animals will be slaughtered unto extinction, but they simply don't care. Some might not want to shoot the last one, or hundredth one, or thousandth, but they're offset by sociopaths who'd pay a fortune to usher a species to oblivion. It's basic economics. The rarer the animal the more someone will pay to kill it.
If you were to search Dark Memory for good explanations why people kill African wildlife you'd be disappointed. Killing to prove one's own courage, killing a silverback gorilla carrying an infant, all seems shallow and pointless even to the main character, Jay Nichols, part of a group slogging through the wilds of Belgian Congo. When he later refers to the shooting—actually his shooting—of that female gorilla as a murder, his feelings are made crystal clear. In one scene another hunter explains how, during his current duties guiding a party of Brits, they've killed two hippos. For no reason except vanity. Then he lists the other casualties: “Zebra, eland, antelope, kuku, oryx, wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, [impala], waterbuck, dik-dik, oribi, bushbuck, reedbuck. I can't remember them all. Yes, and a number of different gazelles. We've killed more than two-hundred animals.”
Latimer is a show-not-tell type of writer, but seems to suggest that, while shooting a charging animal may prove a type of courage, it's of the crudest kind. The same rough men don't have enough courage to be truthful. Nor do they have the guts to be evenhanded—they must always weight the scales. Fairness angers them, because then they lose their advantages. But the book is only partly about all this. There's a woman on the expedition, Eve Salles, and her role barely differs from that of the animals. She's to be conquered for vanity too. In the context of this difficult trek through the Congolese jungle, she will be left in peace only if she belongs to someone. If the cruel, intimidating asshole running the safari has his druthers, it'll be him. She resists this depressing reality, but how long can she last?
Latimer tackles his themes declaratively, methodically, repetitively, and close to flawlessly. The man could definitely weave a tale, but for modern readers it'll be uncomfortable because he occasionally takes the route of racism in his descriptive passages. That's often true of vintage literature. We write—for a living even—so we never cut ourselves off from good writing. There's always something to learn. But those who read for pleasure should focus on the pleasure first. You have no other obligation, because there's plenty of good writing out there that doesn't equate gorillas and black men. But if, like the hunters in this book, you can trek past the hazards, your patience and forbearance will be rewarded—with high tension, savage action, deep reflection, and extraordinary visual power.
In the end, Dark Memory turns out to be a safari adventure that deftly channels the mid-century classics—Hemingway, Blixen, and others. Like those books, there's a level of dismissal toward the inhabitants of the land the characters claim to love, yet also like those books, there's insight into that rarefied realm of rich white Americans in the African wild. Latimer, a highly regarded crime writer, added big outdoor adventure to his résumé with Dark Memory, and as far as we're concerned he pulled it off. Originally published in 1940, the cover at top is from the 1953 Perma-Doubleday edition, painted by Carl Bobertz. It's actually a Canadian cover. We know only because every edition we've seen online has the price of 35¢, and a small notation that says: in Canada 39¢. Ours being 39¢, it must be Canadian. Brilliantly deduced, eh?
I want to rob the Egyptian Museum as bad as anyone, but I don't think a mummy disguise is the answer!
Above, an alternate cover for Donald Hamilton's Night Walker, from Dell Publications. We already showed you a 1964 edition from Fawcett Publications. This is the 1954 first edition paperback, with a cover painted by Carl Bobertz. The male character, by the way, is in disguise, but not as a mummy. Just want to make sure you don't go stampeding to get the book expecting anthropological intrigue. You can read what we wrote about it here. |
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