I plan to rise from soul crushing poverty into the soul crushing middle class, and if you play your cards right I'll take you with me.
This 1955 Bantam edition of Steve Fisher's 1954 novel Giveaway has a front by James Hill that's at once beautiful and sordid. We've always been drawn to this art, so after seeing the book around for years we finally decided it was time to give it a read. Fisher tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Midwestern runaway named Eddie Shelton who ends up in Los Angeles and meets a mother and daughter who make their living by selling prizes they win for appearing on (fictional) game shows such as Down Melody Street and Cookies or Cash. It's difficult to get on the shows because the producers prefer novices, rather than “pros.” Jane, the daughter in this duo, sees Eddie as her ticket to being booked on a show called Man and Wife that offers huge prizes, including a trip to Hawaii and a year's wardrobe. She's willing to do anything for the chance—even convince Eddie she's in love with him.
The allegory is strong with this book. It reminded us of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, with its capitalist critique folded within the characters' constant hope that a jackpot will lift them out of their meager circumstances, but it's also indebted to Catcher in the Rye because it features the same sort of youngish character who thinks the entire world is phony bullshit. Like that book, Giveaway is written in first person with copious slang and the feel of trying to make sense of a confusing society. We saw it labeled somewhere as juvenile fiction. It isn't. It stars two teens, but the themes from veteran pulp magazine contributor, crime novelist, and screenwriter Fisher are adult, and overall he crafts a good tale. His screenplays include Dead Reckoning, Lady in the Lake, and Johnny Angel, so a foray into the criminal underworld with him is mandatory. We have one of his crime novels, so that'll be an upcoming read, and we'll report back.
Evelyn Berckman's treasure hunting mystery is a real gem dandy.
The cover art on this paperback edition of Evelyn Berckman's 1956 novel The Strange Bedfellow was painted by James Hill, and we'll go ahead and call it a masterpiece. We saw brilliant work from him recently on the cover of Thomas Sterling's Murder in Venice, and here his evocative effort gets right to the heart of a story about a museum researcher named Martha Haven beseeched by two older scholars to go on a quest for a priceless ruby called Kali's Eye. The jewel vanished more than two centuries ago in Germany, lost in the aftermath of a crime of passion. While Berckman doesn't necesarily bring anything new to the sub-genre of historical puzzlers, she's an excellent writer:
Incredible that from this passing association—a few words, a kiss or two—she could have become so obsessed with him. At first she had waited, with entire confidence, for the sick longing to lessen, fade away of itself. Far from lessening, it became worse. He was lodged in her like an incurable malady, like a lethal arrow. However she twisted and struggled she could not work it free. So they did happen, those instant, violent attractions of which one read with half-amused skepticism. By a damnable fluke, it had happened to her. She began leading two separate lives. Outwardly she continued doing what she had always done; inwardly she kept walking round and round without ceasing inside a circle of pain.
Love and heartbreak are the key ingredients of romance novels, and as the above passage indicates, there are plenty of love yearnings in Berckman's story, but in addition you get the ingredients of a pulp style treasure hunt: dusty bookstores, old churches, forgotten crypts, desiccated corpses, and the rest. The tale also delves into Jewish history in Europe, which is a harrowing story far beyond the parts most people know casually. Berckman handles all that well, slipping in a few historical lessons, writing from the point of view of a protagonist whose knowledge of what happened back then is spotty. And as a bonus she gets her plot rolling right away with murder on page four.
The book is good, but in our opinion there are two flaws. First, the treasure hunt is too linear—Martha speeds directly to the crumbling medieval hamlet where she thinks Kali's Eye rests, and turns out to be correct. A wrong turn or two would have been nice. And second, Berckman cheats at the climax a bit, relying upon a mechanism rather than Martha's wits to settle matters. An experienced thriller or mystery writer would have dropped Martha in even deeper soup, and invented a cleverer method for her to extricate herself. But neither problem is a dealbreaker. We'd read Berckman again because, simply, good literary skills make up for an awful lot.
So just out of curiosity, why aren't you paddling an Uber? Seems like everyone else is.
This spectacular cover for Thomas Sterling's Murder in Venice was painted by James Hill, an artist of obvious skill but one we rarely encounter. The book was originally published in 1955 as The Evil of the Day, with this beautiful Dell edition coming in 1959. Sterling tells the tale of a man named Cecil Fox who invites three guests from abroad to his Venetian mansion in order to pretend he's near death and tease them with the promise of inheriting his wealth. These three guests are people he's not had much contact with in recent years, which makes the game even more delicious for him, the way the trio feel plucked from their lives of obscurity to possibly be gifted wealth and status. Factions form and subterfuges abound, but everything is thrown into disarray when one of the guests is murdered. Was it to eliminate a possible inheritor? To add intrigue to the game? Or for other, unguessable reasons?
Go with option three. The whole point of murder mysteries is to be unguessable. Murder in Venice is a pretty good puzzler, with a small set of curious characters and a few forays into the Venetian night. Sterling gets inside the head of his protagonist Celia Johns quite effectively. She's the personal assistant to one of the invitees, and thus has no skin in the game. She just wants a fair wage for a fair day's work. At least that what she says. Her host Mr. Fox, on the other hand, seems to think everyone is corruptible, and everyone is money hungry—it's just a matter of baiting the hook in the right way. He thinks he knows most people better than they know themselves, and he doesn't see Celia as any sort of exception.
While Murder in Venice is a mystery, it's also a minor sociological examination of what it means to some people to be rich but face losing their money, and what it means to others to not value money at all. Sterling scored a success, but interestingly, he borrowed the idea from Ben Johnson's play Volpone, which premiered way back in 1606. Sterling was up front about his inspiration, and within his novel the play even makes an appearance on a drawing room shelf. Frederick Knott, who wrote the famed plays Wait Until Dark and Dial M for Murder, later adapted Sterling's novel into a 1959 play called Mr. Fox of Venice. The next year the book was published in France as Le Tricheur de Venise and won Sterling the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for foreign authors. And finally, Joseph Mankiewicz combined the original play, Sterling's novel, and Knott's play into a 1967 movie called The Honey Pot.
When material gets recycled to that extent, it's usually good, and Sterling does his part. He was a diplomat before becoming an author and lived in Italy for years, so we would have liked more color from someone who obviously knew Venice well, but he's an interesting writer even without the aid of scenery, as in this moment of musing from Celia: She said, “my sleep,” as though it were, “my dress,” or, “my ring.” It belonged to her. Every night had a certain amount, and if she lost it she was frantic. She had forgotten that sleep was not a thing, it was a country. You couldn't get it, you had to go there. And it was never lost. Sometimes you missed a train, but there was always another coming after. In the meantime, neither the green hills nor the nightmare forests ever changed. They stayed where they were and you went to them. And sooner or later you would go and not come back.
My colleagues would be shocked if they knew the perverse pleasure I take in not washing my hands.
Does he go naked under his smock? Does he prefer Merlot over Syrah? What exactly is the doctor hiding? His secret is—spoiler alert!—he isn't really a doctor. Gerbrand was a year from finishing medical school when World War II swept him up and he found himself serving as a Wehrmacht medic, first in battle, and later in concentration camps. That's a serious secret. We were thinking about other terrible secrets doctors could have. If we were being treated by Gerbrand, here are five more things we'd hate to discover.
He took the Hippocratic Oath with his fingers crossed.
He gets a bizarre sexual thrill from giving injections.
No matter what time your appointment is he has his receptionist let you in an hour later.
During chest surgery he squeezes patients' hearts and makes quacking noises.
He knows exactly where Hitler's other ball is.
Anyway, during the war Gerbrand learns everything a real doctor would, and then some. When peace comes he lands a job as a surgeon in West Germany, becomes known and respected, and has romantic liaisons with upper crusty women. But his secret will come out and when it does he'll be in trouble bigtime. We won't tell you how it turns out, because that would require a second spoiler alert, and one per write-up is our limit. The book was originally published in 1955 as Without Sanction, and this retitled Dell paperback came in 1959 with cover art by James Hill.
Hayworth finds the elusive cure for zombiedom.
National Enquirer tells readers Rita Hayworth has come back from the dead on this issue from today in 1963. What a curious statement. We can't find corroboration anywhere, but she may been referring to the fact that she hadn't appeared in a movie in two years, but was back to work filming Circus World, which would premiere in mid-1964. Why the break? Possibly because in 1961 Hayworth had filed for divorce from her fifth and final husband, film producer James Hill, on the grounds of extreme mental cruelty. It seems she wanted to retire, but he forced her to keep working and the impasse eventually broke the marriage.
Hayworth was forty-five in 1963, and looked just fine, if stills from Circus World are any indication, but Enquirer editors figured they'd dig into the past for a more youthful cover photo. They settled on a promo shot Hayworth had made ten years earlier while making the film Salome. As a tie-in to the movie, she had modeled a figure slimming swimsuit known as a Salome Sea Mold for her Rita Special Swimwear line marketed by the company Flexees. We have no idea how well the tie-in worked, but the company is still around. Hayworth continued working after Circus World, making a movie every year or two until 1972. At that point we assume she slid into zombiedom, or at least retirement, on her own terms.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1952—Chaplin Returns to England
Silent movie star Charlie Chaplin returns to his native England for the first time in twenty-one years. At the time it is said to be for a Royal Society benefit, but in reality Chaplin knows he is about to be banned from the States because of his political views. He would not return to the U.S. for twenty years.
1910—Duke of York's Cinema Opens
The Duke of York's Cinema opens in Brighton, England, on the site of an old brewery. It is still operating today, mainly as a venue for art films, and is the oldest continually operating cinema in Britain.
1975—Gerald Ford Assassination Attempt
Sara Jane Moore, an FBI informant who had been evaluated and deemed harmless by the U.S. Secret Service, tries to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford. Moore fires one shot at Ford that misses, then is wrestled to the ground by a bystander named Oliver Sipple.
1937—The Hobbit is Published
J. R. R. Tolkien publishes his seminal fantasy novel The Hobbit, aka The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Marketed as a children's book, it is a hit with adults as well, and sells millions of copies, is translated into multiple languages, and spawns the sequel trilogy The Lord of Rings.
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