Louis Brennan's disaster thriller is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inundated by a flood.
Louis A. Brennan's thriller Death at Flood Tide, first published in 1958 by Dell, has a cover illustration by Bob Abbett, whose work probably needs no introduction. But if he does, look here. This piece is almost on the level of a sketch compared to some of the more realistic scenes he's painted, yet it remains stylistically familiar.
The novel tells the story of Barry Coplyn, who during the flooding of an Ohio town is deputized to help the local police, is tasked to follow up the report of a body, finds a nude woman murdered in a house, and subsequently realizes he's suspected of the murder. If he'd simply been arrested he would have had a right to a lawyer and possibly bail, but as a deputy serving the county he has to obey his new boss or be jailed for dereliction of duty. It's a clever gambit by the sheriff to keep Coplyn close and talking while attempting to gather enough evidence to fry him.
The first murder reopens the file on an identical murder two years earlier, and the sheriff thinks Coplyn committed that one too—which is a realization exactly an eternity too late for the man he railroaded into the electric chair. But he isn't too broken up about finding out he was wrong. Instead, he thinks he can make up for the error by sending Coplyn to die—the other man was poor and black, while Coplyn comes from a wealthy white family. This is supposed to balance the cosmic and sociological scales. All of this occurs against the backdrop of the inundated town, with the flood providing hinderances to police, but opportunity to the murderer.
Another interesting aspect of the narrative concerns slaps of the face. Coplyn slaps his girlfriend Jay Jay twice, then spends the entire book trying to excuse this, with none of his explanations remotely adequate. He even wallows in self pity, claiming the slaps hurt him worse than they hurt her. Jay Jay comes to understand she's being unreasonable and forgives him, which we can't condone, but that's the way it goes in mid-century books. In the end she's key to solving the crimes, not through happenstance or device, but through intelligence and insight, so at least Brennan gave her that.
Brennan remains a solid author in this second outing we've taken with him, after the Ohio frontier adventure The Long Knife—though he seems a bit more sure-footed in the old than modern midwest. The main flaw for us is that we had to work hard to like Coplyn and the sheriff, who both suffer from the affliction of callousness portrayed as manliness. We think compassion and restraint show strength, while cathartic emotions like self-pity and fury show weakness, so we were hoping the sheriff would pay for his frame-up, and Coplyn would fail to get the girl. But neither of those outcomes is a possibility. Even so, Death at Flood Tide is pretty good.
Evelyn Berckman's treasure hunting mystery is a real gem dandy.
The cover art on this paperback edition of Evelyn Berckman's 1956 novel The Strange Bedfellow was painted by James Hill, and we'll go ahead and call it a masterpiece. We saw brilliant work from him recently on the cover of Thomas Sterling's Murder in Venice, and here his evocative effort gets right to the heart of a story about a museum researcher named Martha Haven beseeched by two older scholars to go on a quest for a priceless ruby called Kali's Eye. The jewel vanished more than two centuries ago in Germany, lost in the aftermath of a crime of passion. While Berckman doesn't necesarily bring anything new to the sub-genre of historical puzzlers, she's an excellent writer:
Incredible that from this passing association—a few words, a kiss or two—she could have become so obsessed with him. At first she had waited, with entire confidence, for the sick longing to lessen, fade away of itself. Far from lessening, it became worse. He was lodged in her like an incurable malady, like a lethal arrow. However she twisted and struggled she could not work it free. So they did happen, those instant, violent attractions of which one read with half-amused skepticism. By a damnable fluke, it had happened to her. She began leading two separate lives. Outwardly she continued doing what she had always done; inwardly she kept walking round and round without ceasing inside a circle of pain.
Love and heartbreak are the key ingredients of romance novels, and as the above passage indicates, there are plenty of love yearnings in Berckman's story, but in addition you get the ingredients of a pulp style treasure hunt: dusty bookstores, old churches, forgotten crypts, desiccated corpses, and the rest. The tale also delves into Jewish history in Europe, which is a harrowing story far beyond the parts most people know casually. Berckman handles all that well, slipping in a few historical lessons, writing from the point of view of a protagonist whose knowledge of what happened back then is spotty. And as a bonus she gets her plot rolling right away with murder on page four.
The book is good, but in our opinion there are two flaws. First, the treasure hunt is too linear—Martha speeds directly to the crumbling medieval hamlet where she thinks Kali's Eye rests, and turns out to be correct. A wrong turn or two would have been nice. And second, Berckman cheats at the climax a bit, relying upon a mechanism rather than Martha's wits to settle matters. An experienced thriller or mystery writer would have dropped Martha in even deeper soup, and invented a cleverer method for her to extricate herself. But neither problem is a dealbreaker. We'd read Berckman again because, simply, good literary skills make up for an awful lot.
Well, my herb garden died and my macramé is crap. Looks like betrayal and adultery are my remaining options for passing the time.
You know what's weird about Charles Williams' 1951 thriller River Girl? There's no river. The action takes place in a swamp, and several sloughs. Sloughs are sluggish side channels. It struck us as funny. Why not call the book Swamp Girl? That would fit both literally and figuratively, because the main character Jack Marshall gets swamped by trouble clear up to his neck. There's a funny line of dialogue about halfway through the book that encapsulates his dilemma. A character muses, “It just doesn't seem possible that in only eleven million years, or however long they've been here, men could have got as stupid about women as they have. They must have practiced somewhere before.”
Yup. What happens here is Jack Marshall, who's deputy sheriff of a southern town, stumbles across a woman living way out in an isolated corner of the local swamp, and is overcome with fascination and lust. We've met these isolated swamp women before in mid-century fiction, and they're always problematic. This one's name is Doris, and Jack wants her real bad, but she lives in a shack with her fisherman husband Roger, the two scratching out an almost feral existence. Why? It seems as if Roger is hiding from either the law, or some shady characters he double-crossed. That's all the opening our horny deputy needs to drive a wedge into the marriage—a dick-shaped wedge. He boats into the swamp to enjoy Doris's company whenever her husband is away, and when she finally agrees to run away with him everything goes wildly, ballistically wrong.
Concerning those ballistics, the hero reflects at one point: “No jury on earth would ever believe I'd had to shoot an unarmed man twenty pounds lighter and fifteen years older than I was just to defend myself. I could have stopped him with one hand.” In the scene, Roger was indeed unarmed, but had moved toward a gun that Marshall reached first. Under identical circumstances, an American cop today could shoot that person—multiple times whether they were unarmed or not—claim to have been afraid, and only an extraordinary set of circumstances would see the cop lastingly punished. But here in 1951 Deputy Do-Wrong is in a real pickle.
There's only one solution: via a complicated gambit he tries to make it look as if Roger has killed him and fled the state with Doris. The key to the scheme is that Roger's body must never be found, nor his own, nor can there be any sign of Doris ever again. Think he can pull it off? Then we've got some prime swampland to sell you at a nice price. Like submerged bodies, complications always pop up. In Williams' hands, those complications provide more than enough dramatic current to make River Girl a fun, swift read. As we've said about him before, he's as reliable as the Woolworth clock. Anything he writes will be at least decent, and often it will be excellent. We rate this one lower than his top efforts, but above what most authors were producing around the same time.
Part of me really loves nature and solitude. But then part of me wants a frappuccino and a cheese danish.
Frisco Dougherty is back, and as impressed with himself as ever, if we judge by how many times he refers to himself in the third person. Last seen in 1951's Jewel of the Java Sea, he's still knocking around Indonesia in 1960's The Half-Caste, eternally seeking the big score that will earn him enough money to escape the tropics for San Francisco. His newest chance comes in the form of a trio of Americans who have arrived in Java to repatriate the bones of an anthropologist who died in the jungle. Dougherty suspects the coffin they plan to recover contains not a body, but a treasure, and formulates a complicated plan to steal whatever is inside. He follows the group into deepest Borneo, funded by the Wuch'ang crime cartel, who he also plans to betray.
There are two main positives to The Half-Caste. First, the exotic setting mixed with deep background concerning the Dutch East Indies evolving into an indepedent Indonesia influenced by a rising China is interesting; and second, the contents of the coffin are a clever surprise. Overall, though, we considered the book an unworthy sequel to Jewel of the Java Sea. Dougherty always verged on caricature, but now he's fully up that river. While still calculating, bigoted, chauvinistic, and pervy, he's bereft of charm, which used to be his saving grace. We suspect Cushman wanted to show how the tropics had decayed Dougherty's psyche since the first book, but he comes across too unsympathetic. It feels as if Cushman returned to the character unwillingly.
As for the half-caste of the title—Annalee, aka Sangra Brueger—she's one of the trio of coffin seekers, but because Dougherty spends nearly the entire book tracking the group from afar, she's barely in the narrative physically until the last forty pages. Dell Publications used Annalee's meager presence, with an assist from Robert McGinnis cover art, to lure readers, but it's a slight misrepresentation. The book is basically all Dougherty, along with his two male partners. During the era of good girl art there were nearly always women on paperback covers, no matter how flimsy the rationale, so you have to expect this sort of thing. We can't really complain, because certainly, the art is brilliant. We're happy to have it.
From moment to moment everything can change.
Donald MacKenzie's Moment of Danger, also known as Scent of Danger, appeared in 1959 as a Dell paperback with a front painted by the busy Robert McGinnis, always the man to employ for elevated cover art. In this case, his pistol packing, sarong clad femme fatale lounging behind a spider plant stands as a top effort. And by the way, we only know what a spider plant is because we have six large ones busily propagating around palatial Pulp Intl. HQ.
The tale follows a double-crossed jewel thief named Macbeth Bain (you gotta love that) who vows revenge on the partner who ditched him after a big heist and put the cops onto him. The double-cross is only half successful. The partner gets away with the loot, but through a stroke of luck, the evidence that was supposed to put Bain behind bars never materializes. Now he's free, furious, and tracking his missing partner from London to Gibraltar, Tangier, and Malaga, seeking to even the score. Along for the adventure is the partner's wife, also intent upon revenge after being ditched for another woman.
This is a densely written tale, heavy on narrative and light on dialogue, told from Bain's point of view as he struggles with fear of his uber-competent partner, and attraction toward his beautiful sidekick. He's a curious character, hard to like at first because his emotions range from anger at his betrayal to resentment that a woman is tugging at his heart, but you eventually root for him. The book ends almost anti-climactically, mid-scene at a crucial moment, but it remains a decent whirlwind thriller that passes through several exotic cities, and is worth the reading time, imperfections and all.
Hollywood agreed. The big brains out in Tinseltown liked Moment of Danger enough to option it and make it into a 1960 movie titled Malaga, starring Trevor Howard and Dorothy Dandridge. We'll definitely watch it because it's a noteworthy film, representing a rare leading role for an African American actress, and in fact was Dandridge's last movie. Our film watching résumé is a bit thin on the Dandridge front anyway, so we now have a good reason to address that. We'll of course report back.
I know they cause betrayal and violence, but they're also a girl's best friend, so the least I can do is forgive them.
Authors are always looking for new angles for thrillers, which means finding new professions for their protagonists. In Carlton Keith's A Gem of Murder, the main character Jeffrey Green is a document verifier. But he's no dusty old senior with bifocals—no sir. He's an ass kicking, woman chasing, tough-as-nails, he-man. He's asked to confirm whether two writing samples from decades apart are by the same hand, soon learns that a fortune in jewels have gone missing, and encounters many people interested in ascertaining their whereabouts. Despite the document verifier gimmick, the book is a standard mystery, though it tells the reader where the missing jewels are in the first few pages (as does the rear cover). Keith's try at something new could have used more heft, more peril, more propulsion, and probably better writing in general. That's not to say it's bad. It's just that despite its innovative lead character and cleverly hidden jewels it doesn't separate itself from the pack. Originally published in 1958 as The Diamond-Studded Typewriter, this retitled Dell edition with wonderful Harry Schaare cover art came in 1959.
The Long Knife portrays human nature red in thought and deed.
None of the westerns we've read since we started this website have been bad, but Louis A. Brennan's 1960 adventure The Long Knife almost had us quitting in the first two chapters. The thing that initially threw us is that Brennan narrates in western language filled with hankerings, gay-larkings, damnations, betwixts, narys, and more. The other westerns we've read had specific terminology, naturally, but were narrated more-or-less conventionally, with the linguistic color coming mostly in dialogue. Brennan, conversely, goes all-in with omniscient frontier voicing: Black as the devil come straight out of hell was Lew, without bothering to change to human skin. He never wore a cap and his hair was char and his buckskins were soot and his face was dead wood from the walnut hulls he'd stained it with for his scout. [snip] His shoulders fit in the doorway as snug as ball and patch in a rifle-gun barrel and his arms hung to his knees. You get the picture. But as we've said before, a good author teaches you how to read their fiction. Brennan's approach slowed us at first, but we soon got up to speed.
The main character is not the monster described above, but another frontier denizen, who moves between white and Indian society, living in the Ohio River Valley woods, something of a legend in his sylvan realm, hunting and wandering where he pleases. He's known by the tribes as “Flash in the Sun” because of his golden blonde hair. Whites know him as Cameron Galway. The plot deals with the machinations of westward spreading whites, and the savage ways of tribes. It begins with Galway's framing and wrongful arrest for murder, his burgeoning feelings for a pretty frontier girl named Meg Farney, his subsequent escape, and the unquenchable enmity of a cruel Army lieutenant named Thornwood (Red Locust to the Indians)—also the man behind the frame-up. When Thornwood suspects that Meg, who he plans to marry whether she wants it or not, likes Galway, hate blossoms into full-scale obsession. He plans to sign Galway off if it's the last thing he ever does.
We like our books to have a sense of real menace, and this one has it by wagonloads. It's dispassionate, utterly violent, continually shocking, and hard to read in parts, not because of the bloodletting, but due to Cam Galway's rigid aplomb as he goes through experiences that would emotionally cripple any normal man. Probably readers of a modern mindset will wonder whether Native Americans have a problem with this book. We don't generally presume to speak for others, but sometimes the answer is clear. The answer must be yes. The tribespeople here—mostly Shawnees—have no emotional depths beyond anger and ambition. We suspect that the people of those times were just as emotional as modern people, or at least were as prone to the same range of expression, but this is western literature, and pure grit is what readers want. There's plenty of that. The Long Knife is filled with hard, hard men.
Louis Brennan was a professor of archaeology, and presumably knew his history too. What seems very accurate here is the lack of conscience within military men and high ranking settlers. Thornwood/Red Locust at one point promises a Shawnee chief a barrel of whiskey and a barrel of beef if the tribe refrains from attacking his two-thousand acres of land for one year. The chief loves the deal. Only a single advisor thinks it's a foolish bargain: “You will not get one barrel of whisky nor one beef. Before it is time to pay, this Red Locust will lead his soldiers against our village and there will be none left to drink and eat.” The Shawnees are smart and even devious, yet distressingly naive, as they try to somehow forestall the advance of a culture that values endless accumulation and possesses neither moral scruples nor concerns about taking native lives.
Some of Brennan's scenes leap from the page. At one point Galway agrees to what he thinks is a one-on-one fight to the death with his Shawnee rival Catfishjaw, only to find that he's to face five knife-wielding braves—with no weapon of his own. They surround him and the resulting melee is brutal. This is a tale conceived by someone who was respected in a history-adjacent academic field, wrote noted theoretical papers that touched on American pre-history, and set his novel in the region of Ohio where he'd been born. Brennan puts all those aspects of his background to good use. On the minus side, the long final act, a frontier judicial proceeding that lasts chapters, drains the energy from what we expected to be a crackling climax. Even so, if you're willing to set aside the built-in racial issues of western fiction, The Long Knife is a good example of the genre, an intense portrayal of conflict in a land where the most savage man usually wins.
We're having a baseball season after all, baby. But before I go, you sure you don't want to learn the backdoor slider?
We were really worried for a while. Baseball had been postponed, and while some blamed the owners and others blamed the players, we blamed the entire universe. Well, except for Bernard Malamud, a favorite writer of ours, who we were forced to read in high school and expected to hate, but loved. The Natural wasn't the book we read. We read selections from The Stories of Bernard Malamud. If you're going to read serious literature, bite-sized chunks can ease the digestion process. We digress—baseball, delayed, now back on track. The best part? Living overseas as we do, it means we get to have our yearly conversations with baffled friends who just can't wrap their heads around the sport's rules—or really, its entire concept. We enjoy that.
How do you fix a malfunctioning operating system? Become an expert trouble shooter.
Al Fray's 1958 novel Come Back for More is fronted by John McDermott art. It's unusual and a bit sinister, and though it doesn't really fit the story, we love it. The novel tells the tale of Swede Anderson, a soft, chubby, civic-minded bank teller in River City who testifies against the bank's robbers and realizes afterward that the cops who encouraged him to testify and told him everything would be fine never cared about him and never had a plan to keep him safe from retribution. After his car is blown to bits with the wrong person inside he escapes town on a box freight, rides the rails, works odd jobs, and generally goes off-grid.
He returns four years later—forty pounds lighter, much tougher, infinitely more cynical, and with a broken nose and scar that change his facial appearance. His name is now Warner McCarthy, and he wants to even the score. He sets into motion a plan to get close to the crooks who robbed the bank and somehow get revenge. He soon learns that they're ensconced in a local trucking firm and operate the local Teamsters union. What follows is a sort of deep cover thriller, with McCarthy being pulled into the center of the corrupt syndicate, and deeper into the their illegal enterprises. Along the way he meets a woman—pro forma—who happens to own a competing trucking company the crooks want put out of business.
This was a pretty good tale. It's like a precursor to the Jack Reacher books in the sense that McCarthy, for all the murderous thugs he deals with, is always in control. Many people die, but the worst he deals with is a hurt hand. Telling you this isn't a spoiler because if you're an experienced reader of crime novels it'll become clear pretty quickly that Fray's plan is to show how much smarter and more determined his hero is than the villains. We were fine with it. The Reacher books prove that some modern readers like a sort of invulnerability. Well, it worked in 1958 too. Not top notch, but worth a read.
She knows there's trouble just around the corner.
Harry Schaare painted this cover for James McKimmey's 1960 novel Cornered!, which features a woman who's not only cornered but cold, we guess. We last encountered McKimmey back in March when we read his roadgoing thriller The Long Ride, a book we enjoyed. This effort concerns everywoman Ann Rodick, who has fled to a small town to avoid retribution from the big city gangster she put on death row with her trial testimony. She's been hiding for more than a year, but as the date approaches for the gangster's meeting with the hangman, she senses that she's never been in greater danger.
She's right about that—the ganster's most fervent wish is to know that Ann has died before he has, and a hitman has been tracking her for months. Now he's close, in the next county, then the next town, and soon, amongst her local acquaintances. But Ann also has two other serious problems: first, in her rush to change her identity she married an awful and abusive man; second, an amazingly sleazy neighbor has uncovered her secret and promises not to tell in exchange for sex. So while the paperback's cover says two men want Ann, actually three men do. Maybe the editors didn't read the book. Oh, and the town doctor is in love with her. So actually, four men want her.
The main character of this scenario can be argued to be the hitman, who has the unlikely name Billy Quirter. He's who the title of the book seems to refer to—McKimmey uses the word “cornered” to explicitly describe the situation in which Quirter finds himself, stuck in a small town with both his prey and the police alerted to his presence. But being cornered doesn't mean he can't get uncornered—all he has to do is fulfill his difficult mission. How he attempts to pull that off, and by what unexpected means he hopes to do so, is the drama that drives the latter half of the book.
Overall, we'd call Cornered! a success. It reminded us of a later author—Stephen King. We know that sounds strange, but McKimmey's broad stroke character development is very Kingian, flaws included. For example, the sleazy neighbor feels that if Ann knew enough to testify against a gangster it's because she must have been a denizen of organized crime herself, which, along with a dash of religious fervor, makes him believe she's evil and he has the right to demand anything he wishes from her. This type of fanaticism drives many King characters, from Margaret White in Carrie to Mrs. Carmody in The Mist to Annie Wilkes in Misery. We'd prefer more subtle motivation, but within the milieu constructed by McKimmey the character works. We've now had two good reads from him, which means we'll try another.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1919—Wilson Suffers Stroke
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson suffers a massive stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed. He is confined to bed for weeks, but eventually resumes his duties, though his participation is little more than perfunctory. Wilson remains disabled throughout the remainder of his term in office, and the rest of his life.
1968—Massacre in Mexico
Ten days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics
in Mexico City, a peaceful student demonstration ends in the Tlatelolco Massacre. 200 to 300 students are gunned down, and to this day there is no consensus about how or why the shooting began.
1910—Los Angeles Times Bombed
A massive dynamite bomb destroys the Los Angeles Times building in downtown Los Angeles, California, killing 21 people. Police arrest James B. McNamara and his brother John J. McNamara. Though the brothers are represented by the era's most famous lawyer, Clarence Darrow, of Scopes Monkey Trial fame, they eventually plead guilty. James is convicted and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. His brother John is convicted of a separate bombing of the Llewellyn Iron Works and also sent to prison.
1975—Ali Defeats Frazier in Manila
In the Philippines, an epic heavyweight boxing match known as the Thrilla in Manila takes place between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. It is the third, final and most brutal match between the two, and Ali wins by TKO in the fourteenth round.
1955—James Dean Dies in Auto Accident
American actor James Dean, who appeared in the films Giant
, East of Eden
, and the iconic Rebel without a Cause
, dies in an auto accident
at age 24 when his Porsche 550 Spyder is hit head-on by a larger Ford coupe. The driver of the Ford had been trying to make a left turn across the rural highway U.S. Route 466 and never saw Dean's small sports car approaching.
1962—Chavez Founds UFW
Mexican-American farm worker César Chávez founds the United Farm Workers in California. His strikes, marches and boycotts eventually result in improved working conditions for manual farm laborers and today his birthday is celebrated as a holiday in eight U.S. states.
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