I can feel you getting tense, baby. Just loosen up. This'll be great, I promise.
Sometimes the thing you're searching for finds you, especially in mid-century fiction. There were several covers produced for Day Keene's thriller Hunt the Killer, but the three used by Phantom Books were basically identical, and you see them above. The first came in 1951, the second in 1952, and the Phantom Classics edition in 1958. You see how the art was leached of its vividness with each subsequent release. It changes form too. The gaffing hook disappeared on the last cover. Did that happen because it was too violent, or too phallic, or both? We've yet to find a satisfactory explanation for why art changed this way for a company publishing the same book multiple times. Clearly they couldn't have lost rights to the original art, or else how could they have legally copied it? But if they had the rights, why use these progressively simpler versions? In this case we suspect Phantom wanted the cover to change with each edition to give it the sense of being a new product, but that's just a guess. The truth remains a mystery for now. In any case, interesting covers for Mr. Keene.
Paperback publishers double down on a legendary model.
Bettie Page has long been an inspiration in multiple media, and you can include paperback art on the list. These two covers for authors Day Keene and Jack Moore, published in 1959 and 1962 respectively, use Page's instantly recognizable form to draw the eyes of newsstand browsers, a tactic we assume was a wild success. We love both of these, especially the top image by Jack Faragasso. There are even others from the period. The artist on both of these is the legendary Unknown, by far the most prolific mid-century paperback illustrator of all time. We'll doubtless run across more from the same genius later.
He's Keene on murder and mayhem.
We don't generally like photo covers on paperbacks but this double from Lancer Books of the Day Keene novels Who Has Wilma Lathrop? and Murder on the Side is rather nice, with pretty colors and eye catching fonts. Murder on the Side deals with an ordinary guy who, when he tries to help his hot young secretary out of a sticky situation, gets involved in troubles more serious than he planned on. He goes from being bored with his life to risking it at every turn. As for the other book Wilma Lathrop, we already talked about it. You can read our bit on that here.
As long as you're already feeling terrible I might as well tell you he landed on your cat.
For such clever animals cats do get underfoot at inconvenient times, don't they? But fret not—no felines are flattened in Day Keene's Wake Up To Murder. There's barely any character development at all, let alone time for extraneous animals. What happens here is the protagonist James Charters decides to save a woman from death row. Sound familiar? That's because it's the same set-up Keene used for Death House Doll. Plotwise the books diverge from there, as Charters gets blamed for a couple of murders and has some mobsters chasing after him for $10,000 they think he has. Put this in the Florida thriller bin, copyright 1952.
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.
Tough time on the front, and unwelcome back at home.
You'd never guess from the art, but The Big Kiss-Off deals with an Air Force pilot named Cade Cain who, after twelve years in Korea, returns to a life of boating around the Louisiana bayou and comes across the bodies of six Chinese men on an isolated mud flat. And on his first day back, too, which is pretty bad luck, even for a guy who got shot down and spent two years in a prison camp. He wants nothing to do with the bodies or whoever was responsible for putting them there, but somehow his old local nemesis learns of the find and before he knows it he's beaten, threatened, and told to leave town again—this time for good. Two fisted loners in mid-century fiction rarely take that sort of treatment laying down. When Cain learns that his wife has sold off his family's land, divorced him in absentia, and found comfort in his enemy's bed, something simply has to be done.
Before he gets his vengeful ducks in a row, a near-naked fugitive swims aboard his boat and the mystery deepens. Her name is Mimi Moran, because the alliteration is strong with this book. She's looking for her husband, who it happens is a pilot who flies illegal aliens into the U.S. for the bad guys. Cade Cain decides to help Mimi Moran and that's when the real trouble starts. The Big Kiss-Off is a solid yarn from Day Keene. It has the usual issues common to fiction of the 1950s, for example the hero having to constantly resist forcing himself on his beautiful passenger because he's “only human, after all.” Fortunately, even though “her flesh constantly attracted his hands like a magnet,” he contains himself—mostly. Not someone you'd want near your sister. Or any woman, really. But as a fictional hero he serves his purpose just fine.
With a setting in the endlessly fertile (for genre fiction) Louisiana bayou, and a narrative that wastes no time putting Cain in hot water, The Big Kiss-Off keeps the pages turning. It originally appeared in 1954 but the above edition was published in 1972 by Triphammer Books in Britain, with nice art by Ron Lesser borrowed from Robert Dietrich's (E. Howard Hunt's) 1962 Lancer Books thriller Curtains for a Lover. Notice how Triphammer erased part of Lesser's distinctive signature. That was obviously to keep the figure on their cropped art from looking crowded by the lettering, but we imagine it still annoyed Lesser. You can see a U.S. cover for The Big Kiss-Off in this collection of Day Keene novels we put together back in 2009.
Yes, I'd like to report a murder. A man murdered every last bit of my patience.
Above, a nice cover for Day Keene's 1954 thriller Death House Doll, with excellent art credited to Bernard Barton, who's aka Harry Barton (Bernard was his middle name). In the story, a Korean War vet has promised his fatally wounded brother he'd look after his wife and baby daughter, but when he gets back to the world (Chicago) he's stunned to find that she's sitting on death row for murder, and unwilling to spill the truth even if it saves her. The attraction with this one is watching a decorated war hero run riot on hoods and thieves, while up against the always effective ticking clock gimmick—an execution date, which in this case is five days hence. The book was an Ace Double with Thomas B. Dewey's Mourning After on the flipside, and the art on that one, just above, is by Victor Olson. We put together a nice collection of Harry Barton's work back in May that we recommend you visit at this link.
Unbelievable. I put my trust in you. Give you my heart. And here I find you pawing some red-headed bimbo.
Above is a cover for 1955's The Passion Murders, written by the prolific Day Keene, aka Gunard Hjerstedt, and originally published as Farewell to Passion in 1951. In this one a burned out big city lawyer leaves the danger and corruption of the metropolis behind for a simpler existence, only to find that small towns offer no protection against crime. The tangled web includes a dangerous mobster, a partner with no scruples, and the lawyer's own compromised wife. We really like the cover on this one, but unfortunately it's uncredited.
Hmm... looks like it was four or five shots that did her in—tequila most likely.
Originally published in 1945 as The Dead Lie Still, William L. Stuart’s thriller Dead Ahead is about an ex-naval intelligence officer who after the war runs afoul of a gang of local thugs. The Ace edition here appeared in 1953 and the art is by Norman Saunders. It’s a double novel, and the other side is Day Keene’s Mrs. Homicide, also with Saunders art. Twice the vice, one easy price.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
Pierre Laval, who was the premier of Vichy, France, which had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, is shot by a firing squad for treason. In subsequent years it emerges that Laval may have considered himself a patriot whose goal was to publicly submit to the Germans while doing everything possible behind the scenes to thwart them. In at least one respect he may have succeeded: fifty percent of French Jews survived the war, whereas in other territories about ninety percent perished.
1966—Black Panthers Form
In the U.S., in Oakland, California, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale form the Black Panther political party. The Panthers are active in American politics throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but eventually legal troubles combined with a schism over the direction of the party lead to its dissolution.
1962—Cuban Missile Crisis Begins
A U-2 spy plane flight over the island of Cuba produces photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles being installed. Though American missiles have been installed near Russia, the U.S. decides that no such weapons will be tolerated in Cuba. The resultant standoff brings the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. The crisis finally ends with a secret deal in which the U.S. removes its missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing the Cuban weapons.
1970—Angela Davis Arrested
After two months of evading police and federal authorities, Angela Davis is arrested in New York City by the FBI. She had been sought in connection with a kidnapping and murder because one of the guns used in the crime had been bought under her name. But after a trial a jury agreed that owning the weapon did not automatically make her complicit in the crimes.
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