The Devil went down to Southeast Asia looking for fortunes to steal.
1969's I, Lucifer is Peter O'Donnell's third Modesty Blaise novel, and it's a series we're going through mainly to highlight the great cover art by Robert McGinnis. He didn't illustrate all the books. In fact, this might be the last, which means we'll probably move on to other authors. But that won't be because the Blaise books aren't good. In fact, for the sexy spy genre they're top notch—exotically located, compellingly plotted, and peopled by wacky Bond-style supervillains. Case in point: the titular character in I, Lucifer is a a man suffering from a psychotic delusion that's he's Satan. The funny part is he isn't even bad. The real bad guy is Seff, the opportunist who launches a global extortion scheme that hinges on faux-Lucifer's participation even though his delusion prevents him having a clue what he's really doing. He might be the only villain in the Blaise novels who's a victim.
When Seff's murderous extortion hits too close to home for Modesty, she and sidekick Willie Garvin gear up and eventually end up in the Philippines, where they right some wrongs, explosively. As usual Modesty uses sex to get over on the bad guys, and it's a major part of what readers enjoyed about the series. At one point she ponders whether a colleague thinks she's promiscuous. Well, no, she isn't by 1969 standards. But the joy of literature is she can be unpromiscuous, yet we can be there in the room for every encounter. This book is particularly amusing along those lines, as it brings two of Modesty's lovers together to be uncomfortable and/or jealous as they're displaced by a third. But sleaze fans will need to look elsewhere. O'Donnell is subtle—if not poetic—with his sex scenes.
Though the sexual aspects of Modesty Blaise were a major attraction of the novels, we enjoy even more the tactical nature of O'Donnell's action, which is probably an influence from his military service in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Greece and other places. It's also probably why so much of the Blaise series is connected to that region. While the tales are always exotic, this entry is even wilder than usual. How wild? It involves precognition, trained dolphins, Moro mercenaries, and body implants that kill remotely, yet it all works. That's because as always, in the center of the chaos, you have Blaise and Garvin, perfect friends, platonic soulmates, and two armed and extremely deadly halves of a razor sharp fighting machine. Abandon all hope ye who cross them.
Hi, I'm lost and alone and if I disappeared off the face of the Earth nobody would question it or care.
Above, very nice Mitchell Hooks art for Gil Meynier's Stranger at the Door, originally 1948, with this Crest Books edition coming in 1955. We gave it a read and you should think of it as an early Psycho. The main character Joe runs a Tucson boarding house, and we learn via his vivid internal dialogues that he hates all people, particularly those who possess authority through education or social position. His disorder soon focuses on Dorry, an attractive new boarder who has no idea how disturbed Joe really is. He schemes, sneaks around, spies, and steals, and his first attempt at serious harm involves running someone over with his car. That person isn't the last. An unusual book for the time period, which we enjoyed because it's so different.
Some people need a mental health day every day.
We were going to post an assortment of covers we thought were scary, but when we came across these Psycho fronts we realized they were all we needed. The creation of veteran horror author Robert Bloch and originally published in 1959, one of literature's early homicidal psychopaths remains frightening even today. When Bloch wrote Psycho the concept of psychopathy was little known in American culture, but after Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 movie adaptation, as well as the real-world Dahmers and Specks and Bundys, that naïveté evaporated. Now everyone knows psychopaths are real and live among us.
Bloch's man-child Norman Bates, a sadist and misanthrope with lust/hate feelings toward women, was able despite his dysfunctions to operate in society with a veneer of civility, and was capable of love, but only a stunted and twisted variety instilled by an emotionally violent forebear from whose shadow he could never fully escape. Sound like anybody you know? We have mostly front covers below, along with a rear cover and a nice piece of foldout art we found on the blog toomuchhorrorfiction. These are all English editions. We'll show you one or two interesting non-English covers later.
I have to admit, you're pretty good in the sack for a capitalist running dog lackey.
Heat, guns, passion, and politics. What more do you need for an adventure novel? Paul Edmondson's 1959 potboiler The Little Revolution is set on the fictional island of Caimanera, which is of course modeled after Cuba, where American wife Fidessa Broughton gets tangled up in a rebellion via her choice of a bedroom partner, even as her husband goes astray with a local woman, and a military captain's daughter rebels as well, in that way all teenagers do. The excellent art on this is by the eclectic Mitchell Hooks. We discussed his singular genius in detail a while back.
So, I'm off to that crucial business meeting with— Wow, that thing's transparent, isn't it? Well, money can wait.
Above, a beautiful Bob Abbett cover for William Campbell Gault's Sweet Wild Wench, published by Crest Books in 1959. Abbett used a still of Brigitte Bardot from the 1958 film En cas de malheur as his inspiration. It certainly worked on us—we wanted to read this entirely because of the cover art. The story deals with a promiscuous private eye named Joe Puma who's hired to look into the activities of a Los Angeles cult, but soon finds himself tangled up in two murders, multiple lovers, and various pulp fiction tropes, which his main character actually refers to in his interior monologues as being like “something out of the pulps.” We appreciated the meta touch, the narrative has a nice L.A. feel, and there's a pretty good fight scene about three quarters of the way through, but the long and winding mystery resolves with a fizzle. Two Gaults down, two meh results. We'll dutifully try another.
I see dead people. Not next week's lottery numbers. Not future stock fluctuations. Just useless, creepy dead people.
Richard Matheson was a well known writer who published many novels and short stories, penned teleplays for The Twilight Zone, and wrote the novel Psycho—which later became Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller—but his 1962 supernatural novel A Stir of Echoes is a bit obscure. It's probably better known as a 1999 movie starring the ubiquitous Kevin Bacon. The story here deals with a man whose talent as a medium is accidentally unleashed when he's hypnotized at a party. The book isn't elegantly written. A typical sentence: He walked weavingly toward the door. But you don't have to be a master stylist to tell a good story and that's what Matheson did over the course of his long career, churning out great concept after great concept, here unspooling the tale of a man who can't control his unbidden psychic talent. With the power to see the future, the protagonist gains unwanted knowledge of kidnapping, adultery, a shooting, and other violent and nightmarish occurrences. It defies belief that all this happens in a week or two on a formerly quiet suburban street, but A Stir of Echoes is an entertaining story with a nice twist ending. We haven't seen the movie but we're curious now.
The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a worse girl with a gun.
Steve Brackeen's, aka John Farris's, Baby Moll tells the tale of a former mob tough guy who's dragged away from the normal life he's built for himself to help his former boss survive the attentions of an assassin. It seems that years ago the bossman torched a building and a young girl survived with burns. The girl has grown up and is presumably behind the murder attempts. But the book isn't really focused on her, which makes Barye Phillips' excellent cover art and the accompanying tagline a bit misleading. The various women spend little time on the page. Baby Moll is really about how the protagonist goes about his investigation. There's a good amount of action and an assortment of interesting characters, but we wouldn't go so far as to call the book either exceptional or well written. It's okay. It goes in the South Florida crime bin, so the setting might be enough to put it over for many readers.
365 days in the year and just her luck she's in Greyton today.
There's never an untimely moment for a great cover. This unusual piece fronts Mark McShane's Untimely Ripped, which as you can surely guess involves a Jack the Ripper type killer. The first victim in the fictional English village of Greyton is a prostitute, and the terror is due to the fact that in a place so small there are no strangers, which means the killer is someone known and loved—the priest, the constable, who knows? It gets worse. Not only is the killer seemingly someone they all know, but the first murder begins to look non-random when the victim's sister is killed and mutilated. Then a third victim suffers the same fate. We won't tell you more. Well, we'll tell you this: McShane uses the fifth longest word in the English language: praetertranssubstantiationalistically. What does it mean? Hah. Whatever he wants, because he made it up. The cover art on this Crest paperback is uncredited, which is a crime all its own.
A man in love can talk himself into anything.
Above is a top notch Mitchell Hooks cover for the classic Chester Himes thriller For Love of Imabelle, which is about a good-hearted but simple man named Jackson who's conned out of his life savings. Get this: he actually believes a man can change the denomination of paper money by cooking it in an oven. In goes ten-dollar bills, turn up the heat, and—presto—out come one-hundred dollar bills. The scam, of course, is that the tens are pocketed before cooking and switched for counterfeit hundreds. Silly perhaps, but Himes wrote things he knew, so this con doubtless existed. The basic thrust of the plot is twofold: how to get the money back before Jackson's life is ruined, and whether our hapless hero's now missing girlfriend Imabelle is a fellow victim or a heartless participant in the scam. In Himes' hands everything unfolds with great style. Check this sentence:
Jackson looked up at the clock on the wall and the clock said hurry-hurry.
Only a unique talent could pull off something so jazzy. We were less impressed with his third novel The Crazy Kill—which was the first of his books we read—but with his award winning Imabelle we've gone back to the beginning of his Harlem cycle and he's got us hooked now, especially since he's actually written a conventional good guy. In The Crazy Kill there are few legitimately sympathetic characters, but in this one you can really root for poor overmatched Jackson. Himes' franchise detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones also play significant roles, and in fact Imabelle contains the defining moment of Coffin Ed's career. The story is topped off by a chaotic action movie style climax that's both thrilling and appalling. The Fawcett Gold Medal paperback at top appeared in 1957, and a later reissue as A Rage in Harlem came in 1965. And then there's the movie. Maybe we'll talk about that later.
A deserted island, a pair of killers, and very little time.
We just finished reading Aground, which Charles Williams wrote in 1960, and it was a solid if unspectacular outing from a highly experienced author. In this one John and Rae (two characters who meet here but would later marry and appear in Dead Calm) are trapped with two weapons smugglers on a yacht that's stuck on a reef. The only way to free the boat is to lighten the load, so the crooks make the couple help unload tons of guns onto the atoll, and thus we get the ticking clock for this thriller—when the boat is light enough to float, the criminals will move it to slightly deeper water, make their captives reload the guns, kill them and be off. A fun gimmick, perhaps not exploited to fullest advantage, but the end result is worthwhile. The Crest paperback edition above, with uncredited art, appeared in 1961. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1964—Warren Commission Issues Report
The Warren Commission, which had been convened to examine the circumstances of John F. Kennedy's assassination, releases its final report, which concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy. Today, up to 81% of Americans are troubled
by the official account of the assassination.
1934—Queen Mary Launched
The RMS Queen Mary, three-and-a-half years in the making, launches from Clydebank, Scotland. The steamship enters passenger service in May 1936 and sails the North Atlantic Ocean until 1967. Today she is a museum and tourist attraction anchored in Long Beach, U.S.A.
1983—Nuclear Holocaust Averted
Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov, whose job involves detection of enemy missiles, is warned by Soviet computers that the United States has launched a nuclear missile at Russia. Petrov deviates from procedure, and, instead of informing superiors, decides the detection is a glitch. When the computer warns of four more inbound missiles he decides, under much greater pressure this time, that the detections are also false. Soviet doctrine at the time dictates an immediate and full retaliatory strike, so Petrov's decision to leave his superiors out of the loop very possibly prevents humanity's obliteration. Petrov's actions remain a secret until 1988, but ultimately he is honored at the United Nations.
2002—Mystery Space Object Crashes in Russia
In an occurrence known as the Vitim Event, an object crashes to the Earth in Siberia and explodes with a force estimated at 4 to 5 kilotons by Russian scientists. An expedition to the site finds the landscape leveled and the soil contaminated by high levels of radioactivity. It is thought that the object was a comet nucleus with a diameter of 50 to 100 meters.
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