Handle with care. Do not bend or crush. This end up. Ignore all noises from within. And by all means—do not open.
The Box is one of Peter Rabe's strangest tales. It's the story of a man named Quinn who's punished for his transgressions against a bunch of NYC gangsters by being sealed in a coffin-like crate and shipped across the planet. The good news is he's sealed in with numerous canisters of water and packs of c-rations. The bad news is he has to lie in darkness, terror, and filth. He's supposed to end up right back in New York after some weeks on the high seas, but fate intervenes when the box is opened ahead of schedule in Libya. The town, called Okar, has some criminal goings on, and since Quinn's ornery nature makes him disruptive by habit, he can't help putting himself right in the middle. The folks that freed him soon realize they'd have been better off leaving him shut away.
The book is okay. We liked the idea of Quinn continuing to live in a metaphorical box, even after he's escaped one physically. The thing about Rabe, though, here and in other efforts as well, is that he builds his story upon lots of verbal interplay and emotional subterfuge, filling the narrative with scenes of people never quite saying what they mean, and characters trying to understand the deeper implications of what they hear. It may confound some readers. Rabe is simply a very internal writer. We've compared him to Ernest Hemingway, which is easy to do considering Papa's vast influence, but in this case the similarities are particularly clear. The fact that the story is basically impossible to believe is almost disguised by Rabe's strong style. Almost. 1962 copyright on this, with art by Barye Phillips.
Taxes are still unavoidable. But depending on weather and traffic, death sometimes doesn't show up at all.
Above, front and rear covers painted by Mitchell Hooks for Lionel White's 1957 novel Death and Taxes. We considered buying this, but we have so many books and magazines piled up now it's just stupid. Also we already have a couple of other White novels, so we'll get back to him later. Check out our write-up on his novel The Big Caper.
On a map Route 66 runs east-west between L.A. and Chicago. In this book it turns sharply south and never stops.
We were pretty excited for Richard Wormser's 1961 novel Drive East on 66. It sounded like fun—a thriller set on an iconic U.S. road we've traveled parts of at least a dozen times. This road, for our international readers who may not know, was and remains for many Americans the embodiment of a specific type of freedom consisting of endless miles, open spaces, small towns, and the possibility of all sorts of adventure. It's a road where you'd expect to see strange sites and meet even stranger people. Which is pretty much what happens in Wormser's tale.
The protagonist is a lawman named Andy Bastian, who's paid $1,000 to drive a disturbed young man from California to a Kansas mental facility. Since the father wants to avoid publicity and the prospective patient is prone to violent freak-outs, flying or taking a train is not a possibility. That makes Route 66 the best way to go. It's a fertile premise but for the most part the book feels unrealized. Its plot is unlikely and its characterizations feel off-the-mark, particularly that of the student-psychiatrist along for the drive whose job is to keep the patient on an even keel. She's awful at her job, and the romance between her and Bastian is so clumsy an arranged marriage would feel more natural.
Wormser lost his way on this one, we think, but the book generated a follow-up, so there you go—our opinion means squat. If we had to guess, we'd say the concept alone helped put the story over for readers, because again, Route 66 is a piece of American iconography, and building a crime thriller around it will make up for a multitude of sins. Just not for us. The cover art here is uncredited, however some experts say it's by Mitchell Hooks, and we agree it looks like his work, but we're not experts. Absent official confirmation, mark it as unknown.
Elements and people mix dangerously in Theodore Pratt's weather driven drama.
We ordered Theodore Pratt's Tropical Disturbance long before hurricane season arrived, but as the timing worked out we read it during Dorian, and the news reports reminded us of what the author sometimes didn't. The main plot device here is a love triangle between a rich clod, a poor everyman, and a beautiful virgin who both of the guys would be better off without. Pratt didn't intend for the third to be true. He lost his way because of his desire to contrive a specific type of conflict. But the problem is we don't think a woman who's dating one man can begin dating another, deliberately keeping both on the hook, and act all oops-gee-whiz when everything goes pear-shaped. More importantly, we don't think the author can expect her to remain a sympathetic character the way he obviously intends.
Occasionally it's instructive to think about fictional situations with characters swapped or reimagined, just to be sure you're making objective judgments, and again, we don't think a man who's dating one woman, then starts dating another while telling the first she just has to wait around until he makes up his mind, would be labeled anything but a tremendous douche. But Tropical Disturbance is a good book anyway. When the anticipated hurricane finally comes those sequences are vivid and effective, and because Pratt has maneuvered all three members of his love triangle into the same house to weather the storm, almost anything can happen—and does. 1961 on this, with uncredited art, but which the experts say is by Robert McGinnis.
Unstoppable forces meet immovable opinions in John D. MacDonald's novels.
John D. MacDonald is a polemical writer. We've jumped around his lengthy bibliography enough to be intimately familiar with his strong opinions about a wide ranging array of subjects. His basic approach is, “I've thought about this social phenomenon/cultural development/historical factoid much more carefully than anybody and here's the ironclad dogma I've developed about it.” Which is fine, we guess. His observations about the inexorable direction of civilization remain insightful half a century later. We've built a house of cards and MacDonald took pains to point that out, with intelligence and some wit. But in seven books we've read, which he wrote in three different decades, he consistently cheats when writing about people, choosing in general to portray them as weak willed cardboard cutouts so they serve as foils for his sociological philosophizing.
This, more than any other reason, is why so many contemporary readers say MacDonald's writing hasn't aged well. But in our opinion he's still worth reading. There's real menace in his work, which is job one for a thriller author. In 1953's Dead Low Tide his hero is suspected of using a spear gun to skewer his boss, seemingly over either a real estate project or the man's slinky wife, and someone may be setting him up for the crime. His actual prospective love interest, a longtime neighbor, is drawn into the mess in her efforts to provide an alibi. MacDonald dishes out the twists, despairs the loss of Florida wilderness to fast-buck builders, and laments what's in the hearts of men. It's a good book, but you don't need us to tell you that. The man sold a skillion novels for a reason. We're moving on to The Executioners after this, which is the source material for the film adaptation Cape Fear, and we have high expectations.
Owning a whorehouse has been fun, ladies, but a man of my wickedness has a destiny. I'm running for Congress.
Above is a cover by Lu Kimmel, an artist we've featured only once before, but who painted many paperback fronts, and delved as well into advertising, portraiture, and fine art. We'll see him again later. Joseph Millard's The Wickedest Man was originally published as The Gentleman from Hell and was based on real-life figure Ben Hogan—not the golfer. So what did the evil Hogan do? He was a con man, a murderer, a spy for both the Union and Confederate armies during the U.S. Civil War, a brawler, a jury tamperer, a whorehouse proprietor, and worst of all—as indicated by our subhead—a politician. There are several books about the guy, but Millard's is probably the best known. This Gold Medal edition came in 1954.
Sure, you can call me. I'm at Northside u-r-a-zero. And let me give you a fake name to go along with that.
We have a few Richard Prather novels but they haven't managed to fully enthrall us. This is the fourth book in his Shell Scott series, in which the wackiest dick in the west heads to Las Vegas on a missing persons case. Prather was one of the best selling authors of the 1950s, so we're confident we'll soon find a book that makes us see the light (and with three dozen in the Shell Scott series alone there are many from which to choose), but this one didn't quite get there. It was published in 1951 and this excellent piece of cover art is uncredited.
It's a man's man's man's world, but it wouldn't be nothing without a woman... to fight over.
When Fawcett Publications launched its Gold Medal line, Man Story was the second paperback it put out. It's a fiction anthology culled from the pages of True magazine, which was part of the Fawcett stable, and it came out in 1950 numbered 102 on the cover because the series began at 101. There are heavyweight, widely published authors in this collection, including William Attwood, Daniel Mannix, and Barnaby Conrad. Of special note are Philip Wylie, who wrote Gladiator, Paul Gallico, who wrote The Poseidon Adventure, and MacKinlay Kantor, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Andersonville.
The Gold Medal line actually helped bring about the demise of pulp magazines. This was due partly to the sheer number of books it published (it went from 35 titles in 1950 to 66 the next year and never looked back), as well as to the shift in tone from the pulps it represented. Some of the writers published by Gold Medal would become huge names moving forward, including John D. MacDonald, Louis L'Amour, Richard Prather, and Charles Williams. Yet for all the importance of this second Gold Medal paperback, it's cheap as hell. We saw it selling for five dollars, which is a pretty nice price for the motherlode of testosterone fiction.
Once she gets her lips on you it's over.
This Gold Medal paperback of Gil Brewer's 13 French Street has a cool wraparound cover, which you see in its entirety below. It looks very much like a painting but is actually a photo. Brewer is a fun writer. What he attempts to do here is tell the story of a succubus. The character, named Petra, isn't an actual mystical creature, but she's so demanding, sexually predatory, and emotionally manipulative that men involved with her slowly lose their vitality, becoming withered, shuffling shells of their former selves. Brewer imbeds a love triangle in this odd premise, pitting two old friends against each other, and adds in murder and blackmail. The result is interesting and fun, though not wholly successful, in our view. But Brewer would hit the mark solidly with later efforts. This one is copyright 1951.
She's got this caper in the bag.
What does the Devil drive? People, apparently. Robert Ames' thriller The Devil Drives, for which you see a nice Barye Phillips cover above, has a labyrinthine plot at the center of which is one of the most duplicitous femmes fatales ever, a bad woman named Kim Bissel. In a small Florida town, numerous people are after bags of money from a deadly armored car robbery, loot that went missing after the getaway boat crashed and upended. Cold-blooded Kim wants the cash more than her male rivals can possibly comprehend, yet they continue to underestimate her—at their mortal peril. We've noted before that the only true respect women received in mid-century fiction and cinema was as deadly criminals. Pyrrhic, considering the possible punishments in store, but you'll find yourself on this feminist fatale's side as she tries to beat the odds. While the plot is improbable, the book works because of Ames' hallucinatory, irony filled, interior monologue driven prose. Recommended stuff, from 1952.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1971—Mariner Orbits Mars
The NASA space probe Mariner 9 becomes the first spacecraft to orbit another planet successfully when it begins circling Mars. Among the images it transmits back to Earth are photos of Olympus Mons, a volcano three times taller than Mount Everest and so wide at its base that, due to curvature of the planet, its peak would be below the horizon to a person standing on its outer slope.
1912—Missing Explorer Robert Scott Found
British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his men are found frozen to death on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, where they had been pinned down and immobilized by bad weather, hunger and fatigue. Scott's expedition, known as the Terra Nova expedition, had attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole only to be devastated upon finding that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them there by five weeks. Scott wrote in his diary: "The worst has happened. All the day dreams must go. Great God! This is an awful place."
1933—Nessie Spotted for First Time
Hugh Gray takes the first known photos of the Loch Ness Monster while walking back from church along the shore of the Loch near the town of Foyers. Only one photo came out, but of all the images of the monster, this one is considered the most authentic.
1969—My Lai Massacre Revealed
Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh breaks the story of the My Lai massacre, which had occurred in Vietnam more than a year-and-a-half earlier but been covered up by military officials. That day, U.S. soldiers killed between 350 and 500 unarmed civilians, including women, the elderly, and infants. The event devastated America's image internationally and galvanized the U.S. anti-war effort. For Hersh's efforts he received a Pulitzer Prize.
1918—The Great War Ends
Germany signs an armistice agreement with the Allies in a railroad car outside of Compiègne in France, ending The Great War, later to be called World War I. About ten million people died, and many millions more were wounded. The conflict officially stops at 11:00 a.m., and today the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is annually honored in some European nations with two minutes of silence.
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