Can I not die? No? Then I'll take: in bed, very elderly, after earth shattering sex with my 25-year-old boytoy.
This Pocket Books edition of John Ross MacDonald's The Way Some People Die features the first cover we've acquired by British illustrator Charles Binger, and quite a nice one it is. It reminds us of Ernest Chiriaka's work, this one for instance. This is a Lew Archer thriller, third of eighteen, and as we mentioned before, this series is said to improve as it goes. We'll see about that. This one is a standard caper that starts when a mother hires Archer to find her missing daughter, who's gotten mixed up with the proverbial bad crowd. We're talking the worst of the worst—hustlers, gangsters, heroin addicts, and, most terrifying of all, failed actors. Archer beats down a few tough guys, gets hit over the head in classic detective novel fashion, has beautiful women express their romantic interest, and in the end is shotgunned in the face, dismembered, and incinerated in an industrial kiln. Oh, wait—that's not correct. Actually, he comes out on top again, bruised but triumphant. Not bad, but not great yet. Onward to book four.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold. You have no choice about that when you spend twelve years in prison.
This is a nicely evocative poster for the British crime drama The Long Memory. The couple embracing against a backdrop of flames gets the mood across perfectly, because the film is, in fact about a couple, and especially one man, trying to hold onto something good amidst a moral conflagration. The story involves him being wrongly imprisoned, being released twelve years later, and immediately going on a mission to take revenge on the people who lied at his trial. We just talked about revenge yesterday, and here we go again with a character who has murderous impulses but who's basically a good person. Can he really go through with killing his persecutors?
We were surprised by this one. We watched it based solely on the poster and feel well rewarded for expending the time. Probably the newness of the movie's setting in 1950s London and the outlying areas along the River Thames helped a bit, but it's an effective tale on its own merits. John Mills stars, and is accompanied by John McCallum, Elizabeth Sellars, Geoffrey Keen, and beautiful Norwegian obscurity Eva Bergh. In the end the film asks a simple question: Is revenge worth it? Well, we can't say, but the movie is worth it, in our opinion. The Long Memory premiered in England today in 1953.
You want me to be a good girl? I can do that. But it'll cost you extra.
We run into Robert McGinnis everywhere. In fact, we suspect his art is so collectible that his covers are the reason some vintage paperbacks avoid oblivion. But Don Kingery's Good Time Girl, though obscure, deserves to survive on its own merits. It's a good book. The story, which is set in a small Louisiana town called Bay Ste. Marie, deals with a journalist named Jack Candless who agrees to push a false story of rape in order to advance his flagging career. The alleged victim is the town prostitute, but Candless helps make her over into a virginal good girl. The whole scheme is supposed to last only a few days, but of course it spirals completely out of control—not least because Jackie blue is a blackout drunk. This is the first time we've read Kingery, but hopefully not the last. Good Time Girl is confidently written, compellingly plotted, interestingly peopled, emotionally believable in terms of alcoholism, and has a convincing sense of place that makes clear Kingery knows the dirty south well. Top marks.
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.
One esoteric murder method begets another. Possibly.
Concepts for thrillers can be hard to come by, so sometimes authors borrow from one another. Not long ago we read John D. MacDonald's The Drowner and shared the cover from the Gold Medal edition. Here you see British author John Creasey's, aka Gordon Ashe's, Death from Below. If you quickly click this link you'll notice the two books have identical art, thematically—a woman being pulled down into the water by an unidentified killer.
We figured Creasy borrowed from MacDonald, but interestingly, both books were originally published in 1963. Assuming months were spent actually writing them, it seems as if both authors simply had the same idea (we don't know if there was an earlier thriller with the same concept, but we wouldn't be surprised). The main difference between the tales is that MacDonald's killer drowns one person, where Creasy's goes full serial and drowns dozens, including children. His story also takes place in France, rather than the U.S., and has a deep—if unlikely—political element.
We know this scenario didn't happen, but we like to imagine both MacDonald and Creasy/Ashe walking into bookstores on opposite sides of the Atlantic sometime soon after both paperback editions had been released, seeing each other's on a shelf, and being mightily perturbed. At that point we like to imagine Creasy, in time-honored British fashion, saying, “MacDonald! That cheeky bugger!” MacDonald on the other hand, being American, probably went, “Creasy! That sneaky motherfucker!” Advantage: yanks.
What do you get the pulp fan who has everything?
We were poking around online and came across these two nude figurines by the French artist Alain Gourdon, aka Aslan. He's well known today as an advertising illustrator, paperback and magazine illustrator, and pin-up artist. He also modeled a hedonistic lifestyle, a sort of mini-Hefner existence (example here, and below)—which like Hugh Hefner's may have been partially staged for publicity purposes. But what is less known about Aslan, outside France, anyway, is his sculpture. However he was a heavy hitter in this area too, and had been since before he became famous as a pin-up artist. Way back in 1952, when he was only twenty-two, he won a prize for his sculpture. Later he sculpted a famous bronze bust of Brigitte Bardot as Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, and he also sculpted a funerary statue for famed actress Dalida's tomb, as well as a bronze bust of her that was erected on the Place Dalida in 1997. So these figurines come as no surprise to us. We'd let these live on our desks, keeping our stray papers under control, but the prices are too rich for our blood. On the other hand, since it's Christmas, maybe we can receive them as gifts. Hmm... Okay, gotta run. We're going to talk to our girlfriends about these.
A favor turns fatal in MacDonald mystery.
This is just the sort of eye-catching cover any publisher would want from an illustrator, an image that makes the browser immediately curious about the book. Since so many John D. MacDonald novels were illustrated by Robert McGinnis, and the female figure here has the sort of elongation you usually see from him, you could be forgiven for assuming at a glance that this is another McGinnis, but it's actually a Stanley Zuckerberg effort, clearly signed at lower left. We've run across only a few of his pieces, namely The Strumpet City and Cat Man. This is by far the best we've seen.
The story here is interesting. It begins with a woman having drowned in a lake and a sister who disbelieves the verdict of accidental death. She's right, of course, and the detective she hires soon agrees with her. The mystery is quickly revealed to involve taxes, deception, and money—specifically money the dead woman was supposed to keep safe and which has now disappeared. In an unusual move, MacDonald unveils the killer two thirds of the way through the tale, and the detective figures it out shortly thereafter. The final section of the book details his efforts to trap the villain.
This is the last book MacDonald wrote before embarking on his famed Travis McGee franchise. It was within the McGee persona that MacDonald indulged himself in often tedious sociological musings. In The Drowner his characters ring more true, but you can see signs of what is to come in several existential soliloquies concerning the state of the world and the various frail personality types that inhabit it circa 1963. For all our misgivings about the McGee books, they're still good. But we especially recommend any novel MacDonald wrote that came earlier, including this one.
Update: We got an e-mail from Pamela, who told us, "The plot seemed familiar, and sure enough - it was an episode of Kraft Suspense Theatre back in 1964."
We had a look around for it, with no expectations of success, but lo and behold, we found the episode on Archive.org, which often has public domain films and television shows on its platform. We watched the episode, which stars Aldo Ray, Clu Gallagher, and Tina Louise, and we have to say, John. D. MacDonald was probably thrilled. The adaptation is almost exact, with only a bit of license taken with the climax. The only thing he would have hated is that he's credited as John P. MacDonald. The only thing we hated was the lo-rez quality. Oh well. You can't ask for perfection when it comes to early television.
This little baby doesn't fire bullets. It fires sequins. Ready to look fabulous?
B-movie queen Jeanne Carmen brandishes a prop machine gun in 1957 in this promo image made the film Guns Don't Argue. Carmen looks handy with a gun, but her true weapon of choice was a golf club. She was a famous trick shot artist. She was also a master baster.
United they stand, divided they make plea deals.
Sometimes it's all in the title. Could we possibly resist a movie called Hell is a City? Not a chance. The city in question is industrial Manchester, England, and hell is caused by escaped criminal John Crawford when he sets up a heist that turns to murder, subsequently bringing top cop Stanley Baker along to try to crack the case by turning the four crooks against each other. The movie isn't a procedural, but has a few of the elements, and it has some film noir stylings too, though it isn't a noir. What it is, though, is well acted, well shot in numerous outdoor locations, and believable—not always the case for films from the period. Crawford's villain is an incredibly bad guy. He doesn't blanche at assault, rape, or murder, and holds his scheme together through rank intimidation of his criminal partners. It's all justified, he feels, to enable him to retrieve and sell a cache of stolen jewels and flee to life in some foreign land. But first he needs hard cash, and that's where the heist comes in. It goes pear shaped right away when it turns out the satchel he targets is chained to Lois Daine's wrist. He gives her a love tap and that, as they say, is that—he has a staring corpse on his hands. We won't tell you more, except that Hell Is a City has numerous intertwined characters, all interesting, and has an urban setting that by its very dismal nature makes you understand why Crawford wants so badly to be someplace far away. The movie premiered in England in April 1960 and reached the U.S. today the same year.
It's a marriage that goes from bad to worse.
Ever since the term “gaslighting” became an accepted part of the American lexicon we've been meaning to watch the original version of Gaslight. Finding this Spanish promo poster spurred us to finally screen the film. There are those who think any old black and white mystery or thriller is a film noir, which is why you'll occasionally see Gaslight referred to as part of that genre. But it's actually a melodrama falling into an unofficial category of mid-century films we like to call, “Don't Trust Your Husband.” Other entries in the genre include Rebecca, Dial M for Murder, and Sorry, Wrong Number. Based on a play by Patrick Hamilton, Gaslight tells the story of Bella, a woman living in early 1900s London who, because small items in her house are constantly missing or misplaced, thinks she's losing her mind. But it's her creepy spouse Paul who's orchestrating all of this. He intends to have her declared insane, which is part of a larger scheme having to do with—of course—money.
On one level Gaslight is a drama about paranoia and the betrayal of marital trust. On another it's an unintentionally humorous examination of Edwardian values. Humorous because we doubt most women—either when the film was first released or today—would have been successfully manipulated in this way. If it were the Pulp Intl. girlfriends they'd both be like, “Do you think I'm stupid? Stop moving shit around the house.” But poor Bella is little more than a possession during the time in which she lives, and lacking the agency to question her husband she mostly swoons. But help eventually arrives from an unlikely quarter. Gaslight was remade in 1944 with Ingrid Bergman, and the original compares poorly to that excellent version, but it's still a quality film well worth viewing. It premiered in the UK in June 1940, and in Barcelona, Spain as Luz de gas today in 1942.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1933—King Kong Opens
The first version of King Kong
, starring Bruce Cabot, Robert Armstrong and Fay Wray, and with the giant ape Kong brought to life with stop-action photography, opens at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The film goes on to play worldwide to good reviews and huge crowds, and spawns numerous sequels and reworkings over the next eighty years.
1949—James Gallagher Completes Round-the-World Flight
Captain James Gallagher and a crew of fourteen land their B-50 Superfortress named Lucky Lady II in Fort Worth, Texas, thus completing the first non-stop around-the-world airplane flight. The entire trip from takeoff to touchdown took ninety-four hours and one minute.
1953—Oscars Are Shown on Television
The 26th Academy Awards are broadcast on television by NBC, the first time the awards have been shown on television. Audiences watch live as From Here to Eternity wins for Best Picture, and William Holden and Audrey Hepburn earn statues in the best acting categories for Stalag 17 and Roman Holiday.
1912—First Parachute Jump Takes Place
Albert Berry jumps from a biplane traveling at 1,500 feet and lands by parachute at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. The 36 foot diameter chute was contained in a metal canister attached to the underside of the plane, and when Berry dropped from the plane his weight pulled the canopy from the canister. Rather than being secured into the chute by a harness, Berry was seated on a trapeze bar. It's possible he was only the second man to accomplish a parachute landing, as there are some accounts of someone accomplishing the feat in California several months earlier.
1932—Lindbergh Baby Is Kidnapped
The twenty-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh, Charles Augustus Lindbergh III, is kidnapped from the family home in East Amwell, New Jersey. Over two months later the toddler's body is discovered in woods a short distance from the home. A medical examination determines that he had died of a massive skull fracture. A German carpenter named Bruno Hauptmann is arrested, tried, and convicted for the crime. He is sentenced to death and executed in April 1936.
1953—Watson and Crick Unravel DNA
American biologists James D. Watson and Francis Crick tell their friends that they have determined the chemical structure of DNA. The formal announcement takes place in April following publication in Nature magazine. In 1968, Watson writes The Double Helix, a non-fiction account of not only the discovery of the structure of DNA, but the personalities, conflicts and controversy surrounding the work.
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