You think you're the first spurned woman to try to shoot me? Baby, that's how my ex-girlfriends all say hello.
Above is the Fawcett Publications 1967 edition of Richard Stark's, aka Donald E. Westlake's landmark crime thriller Point Blank, which was originally published in 1962 as The Hunter and was first in the long-running Parker series. Parker was one of the cruelest and most sociopathic anti-heroes in mid-century literature. The Robert McGinnis cover makes him look like some kind of sophisticated rogue, but don't let the art fool you—Point Blank is rough stuff. You like Jack Reacher? Reacher has the personality of a yoga instructor in comparison. This was our first Parker, but we've read another since and it looks like we're going to have a long, entertaining relationship with this character.
Look at my face. Does this look like the face of someone who thinks you're charming or interesting?
This edition of Assignment to Disaster by Edward S. Aarons has a highly successful piece of cover art. In fact, this beautiful depiction of a red-haired femme fatale rendered in almost comic-book style is the only reason we acquired the novel. It's uncredited, which is criminal, in our view. We immediately checked online for info, but none was forthcoming. Failing to identify the artist, we went ahead and read the story, and what you get here is a U.S. plan to orbit a superweapon, a warhead-packed nuclear missile that orbits the Earth and is always ready to rain fire upon the Soviet Union. The frankly hilarious hope is that having such a strategic advantage will bring peace. Um... just like it did with gunpowder and the machine gun and the H-bomb, right? Right.
Anyway, the weapon, named Cyclops, is set to be orbited, but a plot is uncovered to insert bogus launch equations and cause the missile to crash, probably on a U.S. city. CIA agent Sam Durell is sent to stop the bad guys. Along the way he encounters a beautiful damsel in distress, a more beautiful femme fatale, returns to his childhood home, and gets chased and pummeled a lot. Ultimately, the book is fine, with thankfully little Cold War propaganda, and a focus on sheer action. It was published in 1955 and was the first of a Durell series that ran to an amazing forty-eight entries. That fact alone should tell you that Assignment to Disaster gets the job done. Is it special? No. Is it worthwhile? For sure. We'll move on to the next adventure at some point and report back.
You know what'll really murder you? This stench. Seriously, take a whiff.
Above, the front and rear of James Kieran's thriller Come Murder Me, with art by Barye Phillips. As the cover reveals, the book is about a man who plans his own murder. The twist is he doesn't know he's done it. How is that possible? There are two possibilities, and we bet you can figure out both if you try. 1951 copyright on this.
Goodis gets down and dirty while Hooks takes it up a notch.
This cover for David Goodis's 1956 novel Down There was painted by Mitchell Hooks, one of the unique talents of the paperback art era. Hooks worked in different modes. Often he utilized the type of line art you'd find in a high quality comic book or graphic novel, such as here and here. Other times he used color blocking for his backgrounds, such as on the above cover and the one you as this link. He also used a lot of color bleeds, an example of which you see on his brilliant front for Madball, the second one at this link. And he worked in a more realistic mode too, when the mood struck. For Down There he mixed techniques, using a bleed in black to impart a film noir feel, and pairing his two figures with his trademark color-blocking. The effect is magnificent. Hooks was simply a highly versatile artist who always managed to surprise, and that makes his work a constant pleasure to seek out.
His cover for Down There fits Goodis like a glove. The novel is the unrelentingly grim story of a man whose piano playing genius saves him from a life of crime and transforms him into a classical music star, but who is inexorably dragged back into the depths of violence and revenge when his criminal brother needs protection. We soon learn that there are two brothers, both crooks, both neck deep in organized crime trouble. The reader catches no breaks—Goodis is matter-of-factly dark, spinning the tale from the point-of-view of an emotionally crippled main character, and crushing hope in heartwrenching ways that make the turning of pages a real effort at times.
Why put yourself through something like this? Well, it's very stylish, so much so that French director François Truffaut fell in love with it and adapted it to film in the form of Tirez sur le pianiste, known in English as Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut was world famous after winning best director at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival for Les Quatre Cents Coups, aka The 400 Blows, so choosing Down There for his next project says plenty about the book. Goodis was well received by French directors in general. Other adaptations of his work were made by Pierre Chenal, Jacques Tourneur, Henri Verneuil, Francis Girod, René Clément, Gilles Behat, and Jean-Jacques Beineix. That's just remarkable. We'll probably watch some of those films, and you can be sure we'll revisit both David Goodis and Mitchell Hooks imminently.
1960 jazz novel soars to great heights.
Told over a span of years wrapped around World War II, Lou Cameron's novel Angel's Flight appeared in 1960 and was set in the mid-century jazz scene. Cameron writes in a beat style, imbues his prose with a powerful sense of place, fills it with factual anecdotes, colorful characters, and wild slang, ultimately weaving a sprawling tale of rags to riches, hope and struggle, and one man's determination to maintain his integrity in a cutthroat world.
We realized we were reading something really good during a scene a quarter of the way through in which the main character, Ben, is chatting with his nemesis Johnny in the parking lot of a movie studio. Johnny is trying to get Ben to understand something elemental about how to achieve success. Ben isn't getting it. Johnny says, “Watch this. You'll learn something.” He grabs Ben's panama hat from his head and sails it away.
Ben: “Hey, that cost me eight bucks!”
The wind takes the hat, and it skips and rolls away. But a nearby man chases it down, and, huffing and puffing, eagerly returns it to Ben. After the man leaves, Johnny explains that the good samaritan was no random guy, but was the production chief, one of the top guys at the studio. Yet despite his position, he chased the hat. “He'd have done that for any grip on the goddamn lot,” Johnny says.
Ben: “So he's democratic.”
“You still don't dig me? Christ, you're thick!”
Johnny goes on to explain that the studio exec chased the hat because it was a reflex, just like Pavlov's dog. And if you understand people's reflexes you can control them. “They don't think," he says. "They react. Show them a picture of a blind girl with a puppy and they get lumps in their throats. Wave a flag and they stand. Show them a picture of Hitler and they hiss. Are you getting the picture? Do you dig what I'm saying?”
But no, Ben doesn't get it. He is thick. And his reply almost put us on the floor laughing:
“All I dig, you bastard, is that you used my hat! Next time gives a fat lip!”
It's a funny, insightful, cleverly conceived scene, and from that point forward we settled in for what we knew would be an amazing ride. Another funny exchange involves Ben's roommate and occasional sex partner Dorothy, who works as a nude art model and often can't be bothered to wear clothes around the apartment. Note: in the dialogue below, “Read from a map,” is slang for reading sheet music.
I asked Dorothy if she knew a cat who could read from a map. She thought prettily for a moment and said, “There's my husband, Tom. He used to play cello.”
"Don't you know anybody but your husband? He's liable to take a dim view of life as he finds it on the Sunset Strip.”
“Oh, Tom won't mind. He's very progressive.”
“He'd have to be. Is there anybody you haven't slept with who reads music? For that matter, is there anybody you haven't slept with?”
That's funny stuff. Ben had no idea until that moment Dorothy was even married. But he really needs someone who can read music, so his desperation causes him—save for a touch of exasperation—to ignore Dorothy's surprising revelation and all its strange implications, which makes the scene all the funnier.
But Angel's Flight isn't a comedy. It's a gritty tale about a jazz musician trying to make it in L.A., and mixed into the narrative is crime, betrayal, and drugs, along with harsh racial and homophobic language. But it also features many ethnic and gay characters in actual three-dimensional speaking roles, rather than as exotic ornaments. The white characters aren't spared racial insults either. In the end, each reader needs to decide whether to endure rough content, or say no to a significant piece of vintage literature.
Those who forge ahead will read a memorable story. They'll learn about the origins of jazz and the mechanisms of the music industry, from forming bands, to gigging, to pressing records, to earning radio play. They'll also discover that the title Angel's Flight is metaphorical on multiple levels. The villain is Johnny Angel, bi-sexual hustler extraordinaire. The song that secures his fame is called “Angel's Flight.” And of course the title predicts his meteoric rise in the music industry.
But most importantly, the book's title also references the vintage Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles. Ben has never been on it. He wonders what's at the top. He rides it one night and finds that at the end of the line there's nothing. Just a dark street. And lonely ambition. This is a highly recommended book. The Gold Medal edition, which you see above, has Mitchell Hooks cover art.
Fine, one last story. There once was an army of biting ants and they ate your husband's ballsack. Can we go back to the car now?
Fawcett Publications kept illustrator Barye Phillips mighty busy with its Gold Medal line, and here his work is yet again, on the cover of John D. MacDonald's 1952 thriller The Damned. The creekside setting doesn't actually capture the mood of the book, but it's a very nice, ominously serene piece of art. Beyond the cover readers will encounter MacDonald wrestling with what we considered to be a very literary concept. An automobile ferry develops various issues, leaving a long line of cars stuck at a Mexican river crossing most of a day and all of a night. Except for the few people who had driven there together, none know each other, but on that desolate roadside they interact in life-changing ways, ranging from budding love to betrayal to abandonment to sudden death. With more than a dozen stories interwoven, none are truly resolved, but most characters end up pointed toward destinies that can be guessed. As we've mentioned before, the farther you go back into MacDonald's bibliography the less didactic he tends to be. The Damned is his fifth novel, and its freshness of concept speaks to a writer spreading his wings and reveling in the purity of creative flight. This is the MacDonald we think newcomers to his work will enjoy most.
Ignore the skull. That belonged to an old boyfriend.
Barye Phillips does nice cover work on this 1953 Gold Medal edition of 1950's Savage Bride, Cornell's Woolrich's bizarre tale about a man who marries a very young woman who, despite her tender age, harbors some shocking secrets. Without spoiling it, let's just say her unusually rustic upbringing results in serious marital problems. There are warning signs. She has weird dreams and speaks in tongues. But she's hot, so her husband overlooks that stuff. He soon finds himself enduring unimaginable hell. Even so, in our opinion he actually gets off lucky—because for a fleeting second we thought his wife was a reanimated mummy. Trust us, it wasn't an unreasonable guess. Things don't get quite that crazy, but they come close. This is one problematic spouse. Marry wisely.
Nations to betray, people to murder. *yawn* Let me nap for about twelve hours before I spring into action.
We move from yesterday's canines to today's felines. Pure pinup style art by Willard Downes adorns this Gold Medal paperback of John Flagg's, aka John Gearon's, novel The Persian Cat. Looking at this, we were pretty sure Downes painted it long before Gold Medal came knocking at his studio door, simply because this piece, while wonderful, is also generic enough to front probably a quarter of mid-century thrillers. A read through the tale seems to confirm our suspicion. The main character is ex-OSS agent Gil Denby, who money lures back into the spy game for a high stakes mission in Teheran, where he's supposed to bring to justice a femme fatale who was a Vichy traitor during World War II. The femme does plenty, but she never quite gets around to lounging abed in her undies.
This was published in 1950, a crucial period in Iranian history. Though the narrative doesn't reveal an exact time frame, it's a given that the tale and publication date are closely aligned. That means the story takes place when Iran was ruled by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, aka the Shah, with some power also apportioned to a series of prime ministers. In fact, there were seventeen prime ministers from 1940 to 1950, which hints at the political volatility of the country. Iranians would eventually elect the reformist Mohammed Mossadegh as PM in 1951, and the U.S. and Britain would promptly overthrow him in 1953, leading to the Shah gaining unchallenged power.
You will learn none of this reading The Persian Cat. It isn't even there as deep background. Also missing is any affinity for language, culture, geography, architecture, or life in the streets. Nor does Flagg mention that the predominant language in Iran is Farsi, not Arabic, and he only hints that the predominant ethnic group is Persian, not Arab. In short, the book lacks a sense of place. When reading about the exotic and distant city of Teheran, this is a letdown. Flagg traveled the Middle East but could have written this novel without ever leaving the U.S. We can't say why the Iranian flavor is so weak, but lack of interest and/or lack of willingness to have learned usable details of the country are leading possibilities. See: David Dodge for how to write exotic locales successfully.
That said, The Persian Cat is a reasonably fun, well-written adventure. Yes, we know that assessment seems contradictory. We'd have liked a more atmospheric and informative tale, but Flagg has talent. His hero Denby deals with betrayal, murder, hairsbreadth escapes, and serious doubts about whether he wants to send that languorously stretching femme fatale to her death. The book's biggest flaw—besides the usual behavior toward women that might easily earn Denby a restraining order or prison time today—is a climax built on revelatory dialogue, pages of it, that will leave you screaming in your head, “Enough talk! Just shoot the fucker!” Still, Flagg overcomes these issues to craft nine tenths of a good book. We'll probably try him again down the line.
The view is amazing but the amenities are sorely lacking.
Charles Williams has made us love seagoing thrillers, so whenever see a book that seems to be along those lines, we grab it. When we saw this Robert McGinnis cover for Basil Heatter's Virgin Cay, we were immediately sold. And in fact, the novel feels like a lost Charles Williams tale, thanks not only to its aquatic focus, but the fact that it's written to a nearly Williamsian skill level.
The set-up is great. A guy washes up on a chi-chi Caribbean Island after his sailboat sinks, and his appearance from out of the sea, a stranger in a community where everyone knows each other, gives one resident the idea to entice him into a foolproof murder plot by promising him enough money to buy another boat. Since the castaway is not rich, and it would take him a lifetime to save for a replacement vessel, he's mightily tempted. It's from there that things get complicated.
The art on this Gold Medal paperback, in addition to its obvious beauty, reveals an important aspect of the plot—woman alone on an isolated hump in the sea with little more than a can of water. But how do we get from a shipwrecked sailor to a woman marooned on an island? Well, that murder thing. We won't say more. Nice effort from Heatter, definitely worth a read.
I think this book will win me the ignoble prize.
Robert McGinnis shows his unique skills again, this time on a 1960 cover for The Girl on the Best Seller List by Vin Packer, who is in reality the prolific Marijane Meaker. The art is a hair misleading, since the author character in question is well into middle age, and is an everyday woman, not a lithe McGinnis beauty. It's important, because the reason she writes a book in the first place is because her dreary existence in a medium sized town filled with depressingly mediocre people becomes unbearable. When she slams virtually everybody she knows, including her own husband, the townsfolk get plenty angry. Revenge may be on the agenda. A vindictive author and a town full of dreary people means there's nobody truly worth rooting for in the story, but Best Seller List is still interesting as a chronicle of a rural enclave that's had its illusions of goodness ripped apart. If you find it cheap, it's worth a read.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1940—The Battle of Britain Begins
The German Air Force, aka the Luftwaffe, attacks shipping convoys off the coast of England, touching off what Prime Minister Winston Churchill describes as The Battle of Britain.
1948—Paige Takes Mound in the Majors
Satchel Paige, considered at the time the greatest of Negro League pitchers, makes his Major League debut for the Cleveland Indians at the age of 42. His career in the majors is short because of his age, but even so, as time passes, he is recognized by baseball experts as one of the great pitchers of all time.
1965—Biggs Escapes the Big House
Ronald Biggs, a member of the gang that carried out the Great Train Robbery in 1963, escapes from Wandsworth Prison by scaling a 30-foot wall with three other prisoners, using a ladder thrown in from the outside. Biggs remains at large for nearly forty years.
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