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.
Maybe it's too soon to bring it up, but if you ever remarry maybe choose someone who isn't a Red Sox fan.
Awhile back we put together a small collection of vintage paperback covers featuring hanging figures. The above cover for Joseph Shearing's The Golden Violet is an addition to that group. Shearing was actually Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long, who earned acclaim writing numerous historical and gothic horror novels, with The Golden Violet part of the latter group. The cover on this Dell edition was painted by Barye Phillips. Side note: the Red Sox are going to miss the playoffs again, and they might even finish last. We're devastated—not. That's for you, Dan. With love, of course.
I used to show up with a cloak and scythe, but I learned it's faster to wear a suit and work at the corporate level.
We should start calling Robert McGinnis Robert McAgainis, because he keeps showing up. According to archivist Art Scott, McGinnis painted covers for 1,068 titles in more than 1,400 editions. He is, quite simply, the king of paperback illustrators. He painted the above effort featuring a tough guy loomed over by a femme fatale on a poster for William R. Cox's 1961 thriller Death Comes Early, the tale of a tough nightclub owner who tries to solve the murder of his best friend. The book has a marvelous tone to it, with a more colorful, grittier feel than most crime novels. The women have mileage, the men are impure, and there are few clear motivations in the book's realm of organized crime and dodgy police. While all the characters are interesting, protagonist Jack Ware and his love/hate interest Lila Sharp stand out. Cox's plot unfolds sensibly, as the murder first seems to be about a gambling debt, then something more sinister. We're already on the prowl for more from him.
I take it from the way you're sprawled across the front seat that dinner and a movie is no longer the plan.
April Evil is a book that showcases John D. MacDonald on literary cruise control, as he confidently weaves together the tale of an elderly, widowed ex-doctor whose has a safe in his study filled with cash, the greedy relatives that hope he leaves his loot and property to them, and how, because rumors of the money have spread, three criminals decide to rob his house. Matters are even more complicated because the doctor has taken in a young married couple, and while the wife is not scheming to get his fortune, the husband is, and he has a big mouth. That mouth entices a psychopathic killer into hijacking the robbery scheme, with the ultimate plan of killing both his partners and—probably—everyone living in the house. For people acquainted with MacDonald but who haven't read April Evil, the approach will be familiar, particularly the character crosscurrents and fateful timing. It's well written, enjoyable, and free of pseudo-sociological content, which we consider to be a problem with McDonald's Travis Magee novels. We recommend it, even more so if you can score Dell's 1956 edition with Robert McGinnis cover art.
The thrills get lost in the deep end of Rinehart's final novel.
Mary Roberts Rinehart is another of those legendary mystery writers from the pulp era, having launched her career all the way back in 1908. The phrase, “The butler did it,” derives from her work. Of her many novels, we chose to read her 1952 effort The Swimming Pool and our reason was simple—we loved the cover. It was painted by Victor Kalin in a different style than we'd ever seen from him. So with excellent art fronting the work of a major author, we sat down, rubbed our hands together, and thought: “Okay, here we go.” And long story short, The Swimming Pool was definitely too slow to enjoy. And we have a suspicion Rinehart knew it, as her use of foreshadowing to sustain interest is incessant:
Perhaps that excuses her for what happened years later.
I daresay any train east from that Nevada city carries its own load of drama, but I had no idea it was carrying ours.
She was terrified, although it was only after long months of what I can only call travail that we learned the reason for it.
But those inquiries of hers eventually led to her tragic undoing.
And so forth. It occurs particularly at the end of chapters, but it pops up numerous times in other places. It was combined, as well, with the technique of having characters withhold information. We don't mean clandestinely. We mean openly, as in: “I'm not going to tell you that right now. Later perhaps, but not now.” We could have weathered this if it had been only a single character who knew more than he/she said, but there are two important ones here who simply won't speak up. It's a style. We get it. But in real life we'd be like: “Oh you better believe you're going to tell me what you know or this day is going to turn all kinds of bad for you.”
The story deals with two sisters living in a luxurious but neglected estate. The younger sister is a novelist of middling success, while the older one is basically a socialite. For months this older sister has been living in terror, but refuses to tell anyone what the danger is or accept help for her problem. Soon mysterious events occur, such as strange people creeping around the estate, someone taking potshots with a pistol, and a woman drowning in the titular swimming pool. Protection seems to miraculously arrive in the form of a studly renter for the estate's guest cottage, but he has his own agenda, which he reveals at the pace of Chinese water torture.
In fact, Rinehart's entire narrative feels padded, or deliberately drawn out in service of a word count. But here's the thing—she can certainly write. Who are we to even say that? Of course she can write. She published hundreds of stories, scores of novels, and saw her work adapted to cinema or television something like fifty times. But what can we do? We like what we like. The pacing of The Swimming Pool eventually wore us down. We learned only after reading it that it was her last novel, published when she was seventy-six. So we're thinking her spark might be brighter earlier. That means we'll try her again sometime. A serious reader of crime novels could do no less.
She could tell them the secret but it would be a bad Korea move.
Holly Roth, who also wrote as P.J. Merrill and K.G. Ballard, originally published The Shocking Secret as The Content Assignment in 1954. This Dell edition came in 1955 with William Rose cover art. The story, set beginning in 1948, deals with John Terrant, a British reporter in Berlin whose American love Ellen Content is a CIA agent who disappears during a mission. Nearly two years later her name turns up in a newspaper story that says she's a dancer in New York City. So Terrant crosses the pond to track her down but ends up in the middle of the Cold War, with bad commies and the whole nine.
Roth infuses her tale with an Englishman in New York fish-out-of-water quality, which is occasionally amusing and adds interest, but in the end the entire enterprise comes across lightweight—which is to say it lacks menace and the proper amount of intellectual heft needed for a book about the political/ideological clash of the era. And another issue, though an admittedly nit-picky one, is that the surprise of the title, which we mostly gave away in our subhead, isn't all that shocking. Dell never should have renamed the book.
Moving on to Roth herself, she's one of those writers whose life had an eerie parallel with her fiction. Her 1962 novel Too Many Doctors is about a woman who falls off a ship and loses her memory. In 1964 Roth disappeared from her husband's yacht one stormy night off the coast of Morocco and was never seen again. Officially, her death was an accident. If we get ambitious maybe we'll read Too Many Doctors. While we can't recommend The Shocking Secret, we wouldn't be surprised if several of her other books are better. Her reputation would seem to suggest it.
If I didn't do this I'd have to go on government assistance. So really, I help balance the budget.
Bob Bristow's 1959 novel Sin Street has one of the more interesting prostitution covers we've run across recently. The art is uncredited, but we love the receding row of signs for hot sheet hotels in the background. There's also a sign for a loan office, although we feel like what might be more useful on the block is a pharmacy. Probably there's one around the corner.
The climate there was always changed from what the rest of America knew.
Legendary author Chester Himes originally published Hot Day Hot Night in 1969 as Blind Man with a Pistol, with this Dell photocover edition featuring a beautiful model coming in 1970. Those two years are about as far forward as we're willing to go when it comes to fiction for our website (we often read newer books, but don't write about them). Elmore Leonard and Stanley Ellin likewise have pushed the upper boundary of our vintage perimeter, so Himes, of course, has received an exception too.
Hot Day Hot Night features a typically digressive Himes narrative that derives from the murder of a charlatan and a missing suitcase of cash. The dead scam artist, who called himself Doctor Mubuta, had convinced a ninety-something preacher named Mister Sam that an arcane formula could restore youth and virility. It sounds a bit crazy that anyone would believe that, but Himes puts it succinctly: It wasn't any harder to believe in rejuvenation than to believe equality was coming. It's also easier to believe when you have no idea what the ingredients in the concoction are, as revealed in this amusing exchange:
“What's that milky stuff floating around in it?”
“That's albumin, same stuff as is the base for semen.”
Mubuta doesn't answer that—smartly, we think. Other elements of the miracle mixture include baboon balls, bits of rabbit, eagle, and shellfish, some rooster feathers, and a “concupiscent eye.” Of course, this is total baloney, though we never find out what's really in the stew. Ingredients readily available around Harlem exclude eagles. Anyway, when the deal goes awry and Mubuta ends up stabbed to death, Himes' franchise detective duo Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson are drawn into the investigation in what is their final official appearance here in the eighth novel in Himes' Harlem Detective cycle (they also featured in 1993's posthumously published Plan B).
We've described Himes as a sort of literary walk on the wild side, and he's as uncompromising as ever all these entries into his Harlem series. It will be interesting to see how his work is regarded as the years pass. Himes is a mirror image of writers like Chandler and Spillane, working along identical literary lines, casting nearly every character in his books as criminals or victims. But the expectations on Himes were different, because—indisputably—rules change according to who's playing the game, and what color they are. We recommend this book, and everything by Himes.
As detective capers go, this one is a real Honey.
Victor Kalin painted this beautiful cover for Thomas B. Dewey's Go, Honeylou, published by Dell in 1962. The blurb describes the book as a “swift new caper,” and that's true. Private eye Pete Schofield is hired to drive a beautiful 6-foot bumpkin named Honeylou from L.A. to San Francisco. It's a strange request, considering a detective's high rate of pay, which is probably why Schofield doesn't seem surprised when he's immediately tailed, soon harassed, eventually beaten, and finally robbed of his human cargo. He next finds that all along he was delivering Honeylou to a whorehouse, that her guardian aunt has been murdered, and a massive cache of her money is in the wind. It all worked fine for us, however Go, Honeylou was written well into a Pete Schofield series, and we'd have preferred to start with book one. But whaddaya gonna do? We've since noticed a couple of earlier entries out there at good prices. Since this one was good, we might buy those and report back.
The cover art for Murder in the Wind changes like the weather.
The copy we read of John D. MacDonald's natural disaster thriller Murder in the Wind a while back had a front painted by George Gross. The two covers you see above were painted by Bob Abbett and Robert McGinnis. Their art goes in different directions. Abbett's shows nothing related to bad weather but uses a dilapidated background to imply that his cover figure is stranded, while McGinnis went for an outdoor setting cut by slanting rain, also using a dilapidated house motif. Both efforts are excellent, and the book is good too, as we mentioned here.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
1954—Joseph McCarthy Disciplined by Senate
In the United States, after standing idly by during years of communist witch hunts in Hollywood and beyond, the U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Joseph McCarthy for conduct bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. The vote ruined McCarthy's career.
1955—Rosa Parks Sparks Bus Boycott
In the U.S., in Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white man and is arrested for violating the city's racial segregation laws, an incident which leads to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott resulted in a crippling financial deficit for the Montgomery public transit system, because the city's African-American population were the bulk of the system's ridership.
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