Vintage Pulp Sep 10 2020
PAILS BY COMPARISON
All these books are on our bucket list.

When you look at paperback covers every day it's interesting the common elements you notice. Of late, we've noticed buckets. They pop up on backwoods and rural sleaze novels, usually in amusing fashion, often in the possession of hardworking women going about difficult chores while nearby men don't do dick. We'll just tell you—that's not the way it works around our place.
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Vintage Pulp Jul 28 2020
ZERO SUM DAME
There's nothing in her way except a huge red box.


Above you see a wonderful alternate cover for Nothing in Her Way by Charles Williams, with the great Robert McGinnis on the brush chores. We personally don't mind that Gold Medal covered McGinnis's femme fatale with a box of text, but we imagine McGinnis purists do. Considering this cover dates from 1963, it's perhaps a little too much to expect a publisher to feature a practically naked woman on a mainstream novel—and make no mistake, Charles Williams was a mainstream author who sold piles of books. Gold Medal obviously made concessions for the puritans, of which there have always been many in the U.S. But never fear. The case of the censored femme fatale was easy to solve. Just look below, where we've composited together a complete version, not to be found on any other website. Pretty good, no? We're not just pretty faces. See the earlier Gold Medal cover here.

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Vintage Pulp Jun 19 2020
DISARMING PERSONALITY
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.

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Vintage Pulp Jun 3 2020
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER
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.

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Vintage Pulp Apr 21 2020
PIT STOPPER
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.

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Vintage Pulp Apr 11 2020
LOW NOTES AND HIGH NOTES
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 see at 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.

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Vintage Pulp Mar 2 2020
FLYING LESSONS
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.

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Vintage Pulp Feb 23 2020
GRIM FERRY TALES
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.

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Vintage Pulp Feb 9 2020
SPOUSE OF PAIN
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.

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Vintage Pulp Jan 15 2020
NO KITTEN AROUND
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.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
September 29
1916—Rockefeller Breaks the Billion Barrier
American industrialist John D. Rockefeller becomes America's first billionaire. His Standard Oil Company had gained near total control of the U.S. petroleum market until being broken up by anti-trust legislators in 1911. Afterward, Rockefeller used his fortune mainly for philanthropy, and had a major effect on medicine, education, and scientific research.
September 28
1941—Williams Bats .406
Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox finishes the Major League Baseball season with a batting average of .406. He is the last player to bat .400 or better in a season.
September 27
1964—Warren Commission Issues Report
The Warren Commission, which had been convened to examine the circumstances of John F. Kennedy's assassination, releases its final report, which concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy. Today, up to 81% of Americans are troubled by the official account of the assassination.
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