MacDonald paves the way for two brilliant film adaptations.
John D. MacDonald's The Executioners should be studied in screenwriting classes as an example of what great movie minds can do with good base material. The book was made into two movies, both called Cape Fear, the first in 1962 with Robert Mitchum playing an iconic villain, and the second in 1991 with a lean and terrifying Robert DeNiro in the same role. You probably know the novel's basic set-up: a young man's testimony sends a savage rapist to prison, but years later as a middle-aged lawyer, he's astonished to find not only that the rapist has earned an early parole, but that he has one thing on his mind—revenge. MacDonald gets the entire backstory of the rape, trial, and imprisonment built in the first twenty pages, then kicks the tale into high gear as the hero tries to save his family from several potentially horrible forms of retribution.
The book is great, but even so it's of minimal scope compared to both film adaptations. The 1962 Cape Fear rearranged the book's climax into something more intense and physical, while the 1991 Cape Fear, which was directed by Martin Scorsese, took the pedophile sexual predator subtext of the novel and dragged all its dark ugliness right out into the open. Both adaptations made wise, bold choices, both were acclaimed by critics, and both pushed the envelope while daring audiences to endure the ride. So what you have here is a book that is among MacDonald's best, and two movies based upon it that are both among the best cinema of their era. That's some trick. We suggest you make time for all three. It will be well worth it.
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.
1949—First Emmy Awards Are Presented
At the Hollywood Athletic Club in Los Angeles, California, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences presents the first Emmy Awards. The name Emmy was chosen as a feminization of "immy", a nickname used for the image orthicon tubes that were common in early television cameras.
1971—Manson Family Found Guilty
Charles Manson and three female members of his "family" are found guilty of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders, which Manson orchestrated in hopes of bringing about Helter Skelter, an apocalyptic war he believed would arise between blacks and whites.
1961—Plane Carrying Nuclear Bombs Crashes
A B-52 Stratofortress carrying two H-bombs experiences trouble during a refueling operation, and in the midst of an emergency descent breaks up in mid-air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five of the six arming devices on one of the bombs somehow activate before it lands via parachute in a wooded region where it is later recovered. The other bomb does not deploy its chute and crashes into muddy ground at 700 mph, disintegrating while driving its radioactive core fifty feet into the earth, where it remains to this day.
1912—International Opium Convention Signed
The International Opium Convention is signed at The Hague, Netherlands, and is the first international drug control treaty. The agreement was signed by Germany, the U.S., China, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, and Siam.
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