To a true hunter everyone is prey.
Richard Stark's, aka Donald E. Westlake's The Hunter, which was also published as Point Blank, is a landmark in crime literature, a precursor to characters like Jack Reacher. The standout qualities of this novel are its brutality and its smash cuts from set-piece to set-piece. As an example of the former, the main character, named Parker, basically scares a woman into committing suicide, dumps her body in a park, and slashes her face post-mortem as a way of foiling police attempts at identification. The latter quality, the narrative's disorienting transitions, is exemplified by a chapter that ends with Parker's hands mid-murder around an enemy's throat, and the next opening with him sitting in another enemy's house, holding a gun on him as he walks through the door. Westlake stripped away every bit of transitional prose he could in order to create breakneck pacing and heightened menace. Parker is not only dangerous, but is also emotionally barren. He feels nothing beyond the need to best his rivals. Permanently. Westlake's publisher knew The Hunter was something special, and convinced him to turn what was supposed to be a stand-alone novel into a series. Twenty-four entries in that series speak to its success. This first of the lot is highly recommendable. It came from Perma Books in 1962, and the excellent cover art featuring Parker's lethally large hands is by Harry Bennett.
Crossing this desert we'll eventually be reduced to wearing filthy, sweat-crusted rags, but I'm glad we started out looking so fabulous.
The pretty Harry Bennett cover art on this paperback won us over. Plus we wanted to read something set in the Sahara. Our trip to Morocco incubated strong interest in vintage fiction set in the region. The Captive of the Sahara was written in 1939 originally, with this Dell edition coming in 1950. British author E.M. Hull—Edith Maud to her friends, we bet—conjures up a tale here that's pure Arabian Nights, one of those florid books filled with words like “insensibly,” and where women suffer from heaving breasts and quickening pulses. This was Hull's realm. She published other books with similar settings, including 1919's The Sheik, which became a motion picture starring Rudolph Valentino
In The Captive of the Sahara virginal one percenter Isma Crichton travels for the sake of adventure to the City of Stones, and there in the trackless Algerian desert lustful Sidi Said bin Aissa decides to make dessert of her. Full disclosure: we're too corrupted to really enjoy books that hint around sex with poetic language. We're pulp guys. We can't help wanting these pale, trembling flowers to get properly laid, three or four detailed times, but that isn't Edith Maud's writerly plan. What happens is bin Aissa forces Isma to marry him, and a battle of wills follows as he tries to convince and/or bully her into relinqushing what he feels is rightfully his—her vagina.
Under these circumstances we were not keen to see Isma laid, properly or any other way. And that's effective writing for you. We had sneered through most of the book but now were rooting for Isma to escape her desert prison and return to dashing David—a childhood friend whose confession of love was the original trigger for her fearful (did we mention that virgin thing?) departure and eventual trip to the City of Stones. We have to give Edith Maud credit—she sucked us into to this tale, and we liked it in most parts, but we certainly shan't (see her influence?) be recommending it. It's overwrought, often silly, and at times viciously racist. But hey, if you're looking for a literary adventure-romance, this might be it.
I go out walkin'... after midnight... out in the moonlight...
Crime writers all face the same task of dumping their heroes into hot water in new and interesting ways. In Night Walker Donald Hamilton shoves his protagonist into a bizarre situation and it all begins with him merely hitchhiking after dark. The next thing he knows he's hurt, housebound, and forced to assume a dead man's identity. If he doesn't continue the charade serious consequences could result, with prison being the least of them. But of course, as in any decent thriller, there's always the promise of great rewards, in this case the dead man's beautiful wife Elizabeth, or possibly the dead man's young mistress Bonita. There's a funny line of dialogue in this one when a character refuses a cigarette:
“Don't take it out on Philip Morris. He hasn't done anything to you.”
Ah, the 1950s, when men were men and cigarettes weren't coffin nails. And another staple of 1950s genre fiction is commie hysteria, also a major component of this book. But that's fine—every literary era has its archetypal villains. The book's fatal flaw is that the latter portion contains long monologues of the bad guy explaining his evil plot, due to the fact that Hamilton hasn't constructed the narrative for the hero to suss it out for himself. Tedious doesn't even begin to describe this sort of writing. Overall Night Walker is middling work from Hamilton, passable in the first half, but a bit taxing in the second. Good thing this 1964 edition from Fawcett's Gold Medal was cheap. And the cover art is nice. It's by Harry Bennett.
It's not a party until someone gets broken.
Ramona Stewart's The Surprise Party Complex is a mostly forgotten tale of West Coast weirdness, with wannabes, once-weres, and their children mixing in and around a Hollywood boarding house called the Pyrenees. The goings-on of a particular summer are chronicled by fifteen-year-old Pauline, who's been dragged out to Tinseltown by her father, a man intent on restoring a lost fortune by making a big score on a silver mine. Pauline ends up chumming aimlessly around with two other Pyrenees teens, both of whom have bad parents and lots of idle hours. They have some comic misadventures, and naturally one of them has problems a bit darker than the other two. The basic theme here is all that glitters in Hollywood is not gold, and the young generation has issues. Yes, it sounds like the same novel that has been written about every generation since at least World War I, but this is one of the better efforts, we think, and cleverly written too. It captures a place and mood that, as former L.A. residents, really enthralled us. This 1963 Pocket Books edition initially caught our eye because of the excellent cover art by Harry Bennett. This happens to us a lot—i.e. come for the art, stay for the story. Well, Harry certainly did his job here. We've talked about him before, and he once again shows what a unique painter he was.
Oh, that Katherine Everard. On second thought, maybe the book isn't so bad after all.
“A first novel that holds little promise of a future.” Thus concluded one 1949 review of Katherine Everard's Cry Shame!, aka A Star's Progress. This assessment is funny because Everard was a pseudonym used by American literary treasure Gore Vidal, who'll be remembered far longer than any of his critics. Cry Shame! tells the story of a girl who becomes a stripper in New Orleans at age thirteen, a wife for a much older man at age fourteen, a Hollywood starlet as an adult, and finally—thanks to romantic misfortune—a broken woman. Today's critics claim they can see touches of Vidalian genius in various details of the book. Of course they can. This Pyramid edition comes complete and unabridged—except for the bottom half inch of the cover cut off by some shoddy work at the printer—with art by Harry Bennett.
Harry Bennett channels Himes and Harlem.
Chester Himes’ cycle of Harlem detective fiction spanned eight complete novels, and one unfinished effort, with five of the paperback editions illustrated by Harry Bennett, whose work you see above. Himes is world renowned, Bennett somewhat less so, but he was an award winning artist who illustrated hundreds of paperbacks during his career. We were reminded of him by a recent entry on Killer Covers, and remembered how much we like these pieces. In contrast to his lushly rendered romance covers, or more conventional crime novel art, these have an almost spontaneous quality. Publisher input usually has quite a bit to do with it, but we suspect Bennett was also influenced by Himes’ writing and the Harlem setting, and as a result produced this jazzy art for a jazzy novelist. Excellent stuff.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1955—James Dean Dies in Auto Accident
American actor James Dean, who appeared in the films Giant
, East of Eden
, and the iconic Rebel without a Cause
, dies in an auto accident
at age 24 when his Porsche 550 Spyder is hit head-on by a larger Ford coupe. The driver of the Ford had been trying to make a left turn across the rural highway U.S. Route 466 and never saw Dean's small sports car approaching.
1962—Chavez Founds UFW
Mexican-American farm worker César Chávez founds the United Farm Workers in California. His strikes, marches and boycotts eventually result in improved working conditions for manual farm laborers and today his birthday is celebrated as a holiday in eight U.S. states.
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.
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.
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