It's always darkest just before the dawn.
Celia Fremlin's 1958 novel The Hours Before Dawn was lauded by the Mystery Writers of America. You can see that for yourself by looking at the cover of its 1961 Dell paperback edition. You would assume, then, that the book is a murder mystery or thriller. Yes and no—it's really more of a domestic drama about a British woman named Louise who's overwhelmed by her three kids and husband. She's tired, stressed, unhappy, unlaid, and unlikely to find space for a breather or a recharge. Into this mix comes a woman who rents the family's vacant upstairs room and adds to Louise's problems by proving to be one weird bird. Who is this woman, where did she come from, and why does it seem as though her presence is not a random event? Yes, there's a mystery, but the vast bulk of the narrative is about Louise's daily life, her struggles with child rearing, her nosy and obtuse neighbors, and the problems caused by her accumulating lack of sleep.
Even without the mysterious renter angle this would be a good book. We thought we understood, basically, what it meant to be a mid-century housewife, but we were wrong. Fremlin brings Louise to life by dissecting her challenging existence, baring every bit of it for the reader's increasingly sympathetic inspection. Love is not the issue. Nor is desire. The issue is simply time. And rest. And peace. No wonder then that her boarder is able to embark upon an insidious plot without very much worry of close observation, and of course when Louise begins to understand something is truly amiss—and is not just the imaginings of her weary brain—she finds it devilishly difficult to find an ally, within her household or without. A mystery novel? Well, yes, but not of the type that can be puzzled out by readers. A highly effective depiction of all the ways in which a woman can work so hard and so thanklessly? One of the better ones you'll read.
Tarzan destroyed on social media after posting photo of himself with lion he killed for sport.
Tarzan and the Lost Empire, originally serialized in 1928 and ’29 in Blue Book Magazine, was entry twelve in Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan series, and some would say the concept had jumped the shark—and the lion—at this point. Basically, Tarzan stumbles upon a remnant of the Roman Empire hidden deep in the mountains somewhere in Africa and—as this 1951 cover by Robert Stanley depicts—is dragged into their coliseum bloodsports. In later books he'd venture to a subterranean world, find a city of talking gorillas, and fly a fighter plane for the RAF (maybe that one isn't so strange, since he had the civilian identity of John Clayton).
Burroughs was never mistaken for a great writer, but his Tarzan books sold millions of copies and the character remains one of the best known in pulp literature. As tough as he was, we doubt even the King of the Jungle could have survived social media. But Tarzan was not one with whom to trifle. We can totally picture an adventure where he goes to Silicon Valley to battle the forces of shame. It ends when he learns the evil mastermind is Mark Zuckerberg, swings on a DSL cable into Facebook, and lays waste to the place. “Shame me, Zuckerberg? Me Tarzan! You lame!”
Actually, I'll pay first. I once bought a television on installments and I can tell you easy financing is a scam.
This cover illustration from Robert McGinnis features one of his more famous elongated femmes fatales. He's also cleverly included iconic detective art objects such as a pistol, a martini glass, a smoldering cigarette, and a tumbler of some amber liquid or other, and with some nifty positioning he's placed all these items clearly in view why keeping the poses of his stylized figures easy and balanced. And for good measure his femme has lost a heel, which invites speculation as to how that happened. That's GGA (good girl art) at its best.
Could Robert Kyle's, aka Robert Terrall's, aka Brett Halliday's 1960 thriller Kill Now, Pay Later possibly be as good as its cover art? That's a big ask. Too big, really, though the book is pretty good. Kyle's franchise detective Ben Gates is hired to guard gifts at a high society wedding, but someone slips a mickey into his coffee and he's in la-la land while two murders and a robbery occur. As a matter of self preservation he has to solve the crimes or his chances of securing more work will be pretty slim. After all, who'd hire a detective that passes out on the job?
So Gates delves into the mystery, unravels a complicated plot, and handles the advances of three beautiful women. We think of these babe-magnet detectives as the male analogue to the dewy maidens of romance novels. As male wish fulfillment goes, Kill Now, Pay Later gets the job done, offering up a tough and competent protagonist and an engaging assortment of secondary personalities. This was third in the Gates series after Blackmail, Inc. and Model for Murder. We'll probably try to locate those. Kyle/Terrall/Halliday knows how to entertain a reader.
Crossing this desert we'll eventually be reduced to wearing filthy, sweat-crusted rags, but I'm glad we started out looking so fabulous.
The pretty Harry Bennett cover art on this paperback won us over. Plus we wanted to read something set in the Sahara. Our trip to Morocco incubated strong interest in vintage fiction set in the region. The Captive of the Sahara was written in 1939 originally, with this Dell edition coming in 1950. British author E.M. Hull—Edith Maud to her friends, we bet—conjures up a tale here that's pure Arabian Nights, one of those florid books filled with words like “insensibly,” and where women suffer from heaving breasts and quickening pulses. This was Hull's realm. She published other books with similar settings, including 1919's The Sheik, which became a motion picture starring Rudolph Valentino
In The Captive of the Sahara virginal one percenter Isma Crichton travels for the sake of adventure to the City of Stones, and there in the trackless Algerian desert lustful Sidi Said bin Aissa decides to make dessert of her. Full disclosure: we're too corrupted to really enjoy books that hint around sex with poetic language. We're pulp guys. We can't help wanting these pale, trembling flowers to get properly laid, three or four detailed times, but that isn't Edith Maud's writerly plan. What happens is bin Aissa forces Isma to marry him, and a battle of wills follows as he tries to convince and/or bully her into relinqushing what he feels is rightfully his—her vagina.
Under these circumstances we were not keen to see Isma laid, properly or any other way. And that's effective writing for you. We had sneered through most of the book but now were rooting for Isma to escape her desert prison and return to dashing David—a childhood friend whose confession of love was the original trigger for her fearful (did we mention that virgin thing?) departure and eventual trip to the City of Stones. We have to give Edith Maud credit—she sucked us into to this tale, and we liked it in most parts, but we certainly shan't (see her influence?) be recommending it. It's overwrought, often silly, and at times viciously racist. But hey, if you're looking for a literary adventure-romance, this might be it.
Theft is what little people do, my dear. In politics we call it privatizing public assets.
Above, a cover for Paul Gallico's Thief Is an Ugly Word. The scan makes it look like a novel, but Dell's 10¢ books were really story length offerings bound as pamphlets. Dell's edition, all sixty-four pages of it, came out after the tale had already appeared in a May 1944 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. The above edition is from a little later, 1951, with art by Barye Phillips.
Jack Finney's alien invasion novel is filled with close encounters of the worst kind.
This paperback cover was painted by John McDermott, aka J.M. Ryan, and it's iconic, as is Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers. You know the story. Aliens come from space in the form of pods that grow into exact duplicates of humans, who are replaced and dissolved into dust. Finney deftly blends sci-fi and horror, and the result is great—simply put. As with many macabre tales, the fear factor subsides somewhat once the monsters move from the shadows to center stage, but it's still very good even after that point.
The Body Snatchers became a movie in 1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007. The ’56 Don Siegel version is famously considered by many to be a direct Cold War allegory, and is the best of the quartet of adaptations, but the ’78 iteration is damned good too. In terms of metaphor, the book is less about the Cold War and more clearly about the overall loss of freedom in American society. Finney would probably be a bit dismayed about how—other than the freedom to buy things—that process continues to accelerate.
The novel originally appeared in 1955 as a serial in Colliers Magazine, with this Dell edition coming the same year. The cover artist McDermott is someone we've featured before, and if you're curious you can see more of his nice work here and here. Some book dealers actually try to sell this edition for $100, if you can believe that. Money snatchers is more like it. Buy a cheap new edition, read it, and enjoy it.
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.
Legendary thief plays cat and mouse on the French Riviera.
One of our favorite fiction tricks is the hero who has no idea a beautiful pest loves him. In David Dodge's To Catch a Thief the technique is used to good effect as readers are treated to a fun tale about a retired jewel thief known as Le Chat (the Cat) who'll be thrown in a French prison on general suspicion unless he catches an imitator who's robbing one percenters all over the French Riviera. Dodge is a rock solid storyteller, not the type of artisan to win literary prizes, but one to keep you turning pages at a rapid clip, and he's great here as usual. The art on this 1953 edition from Dell Publications is by Mike Ludlow, and even though the bikini clad cover figure for some reason is depicted on a piney lakeshore rather than the beach at Cannes, the image is still a nice match for Dodge's urbane, sun-drenched, Mediterranean mystery. Highly recommended.
There's an actual iron maiden down here. Looking at it, I admit it's an unduly harsh thing to call you when I'm angry.
As you know by now, we're often drawn to books by the covers, and John Dickson Carr's Hag's Nook attracted us because of the instantly recognizable art by Robert Stanley. Well, you can't win them all. This is a gothic mystery featuring Dr. Gideon Fell, who would appear in more than twenty other novels. Fell is unique in crime lit. He's obese and gets around on two canes—which is actually a pretty good description of the book's plot. Carr would go on to become a legendary writer of golden age mysteries, so we don't doubt for a moment that he penned numerous excellent tales, but this early effort—1933 originally, with this Dell edition appearing in 1951—didn't get it done for us. What did get it done for us, though, is the dungeon feel of Stanley's cover art. He's one of the good ones. We remember the blog Pop Sensation once described his work as "rich and creamy," which was descriptively on the nose, we think. Check for yourself here and here.
That was amazing when you started moaning, “Jack, Jack,” right at the end. My name's Robert, by the way.
Above, a George Erickson cover for The Strangers, by William E. Wilson, copyright 1955. The book concerns a man, his dissatisfied wife, and the love triangle that results, which sounds like solid sleaze, but this is actually literary fiction from a serious author. Wilson became known as an anti-racism voice during his day. His first novel, Crescent City, is focused on the Ku Klux Klan, and one of his noted works is the autobiographical essay, “Long, Hot Summer in Indiana,” set during 1924, when the Klan was ascendant. The Stranger wasn't rapturously received, but we think Wilson is a good writer, so we may check out Crescent City. If we do, we'll report back. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1963—John F. Kennedy Is Assassinated
In Dallas, Texas, U.S. President John F. Kennedy is killed and Texas Governor John B. Connally is seriously wounded as they ride in a motorcade through Dealy Plaza. Lee Harvey Oswald
, an employee of the schoolbook depository from which the shots were suspected to have been fired, was arrested on charges of the murder of a local police officer and was subsequently charged with the Kennedy killing. He denied shooting anyone, claiming he was a patsy, but was killed by Jack Ruby on November 24, before he could be indicted or tried. Today, Americans who believe JFK was killed as the result of a conspiracy are routinely dismissed
in the press, yet the vast majority of them believe Oswald did not act alone.
1959—Max Baer Dies
Former heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer dies of a heart attack in Hollywood, California. Baer had a turbulent career. He lost to Joe Louis in 1935, but two years earlier, in his prime, he defeated German champ and Nazi hero Max Schmeling while wearing a Star of David on his trunks. The victory was his legacy, making him a symbol to Jews, and also to all who hated Nazis.
1945—Nuremberg Trials Begin
In Nuremberg, Germany, in the Palace of Justice, the trials of prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany begin. Among the men tried were Martin Bormann (in absentia), Hermann Göring, Rudolph Hess, and Ernst Kaltenbrunner.
1984—SETI Institute Founded
The SETI Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, the discovery of extrasolar planets, and the habitability of the galaxy, is founded in California by Thomas Pierson and Dr. Jill Tarter.
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