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.
Musically speaking, I'm like a piano ballad and you're like a guy playing banjo with his dick. We just don't belong together.
Above, a cover for Nothing in Her Way, another excellent novel by the reliable Charles Williams, this one dealing with con men—and a masterful con woman. Like any book of this sort, the fun is in the scams within scams within scams. It starts as a real estate swindle, and broadens into thoroughbred racing, with numerous mini-stings mixed in, as the main character finds himself getting into deeper trouble trying to keep up with his slippery ex-wife. Good fun from beginning to end, tense, involving, surprising, and affecting. The copyright on this is 1951. We don't know who painted the cover, but since Barye Phillips was tapped for an entire set of Williams fronts for Gold Medal in 1951, it's a reasonable bet he did this one too.
Handle with care. Do not bend or crush. This end up. Ignore all noises from within. And most importantly—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.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1950—The Great Brinks Robbery Occurs
In the U.S., eleven thieves steal more than $2 million from an armored car company's offices in Boston, Massachusetts. The skillful execution of the crime, with only a bare minimum of clues left at the scene, results in the robbery being billed as "the crime of the century." Despite this, all the members of the gang are later arrested.
1977—Gary Gilmore Is Executed
Convicted murderer Gary Gilmore is executed by a firing squad in Utah, ending a ten-year moratorium on Capital punishment in the United States. Gilmore's story is later turned into a 1979 novel entitled The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize for literature.
1942—Carole Lombard Dies in Plane Crash
American actress Carole Lombard
, who was the highest paid star in Hollywood during the late 1930s, dies in the crash of TWA Flight 3, on which she was flying from Las Vegas to Los Angeles after headlining a war bond rally in support of America's military efforts. She was thirty-three years old.
1919—Luxemburg and Liebknecht Are Killed
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, two of the most prominent socialists in Germany, are tortured and murdered by the Freikorps. Freikorps was a term applied to various paramilitary organizations that sprang up around Germany as soldiers returned in defeat from World War I. Members of these groups would later become prominent members of the SS.
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