I'm sort of a paradox. I'm a terrible wife, but I'm incredible at everything that gets a woman a husband.
Above is a cover for Don Tracy's novel The Cheat, originally published as Criss-Cross in 1934, with this Lion edition coming in 1956 with Charles Copeland cover art. This is a good book, but if you're seeking artful prose you might as well keep looking. 1934 was early in the game for hard-boiled fiction. A few authors were doing visionary work but the form was still establishing its parameters. What attracted readers was that these were new types of stories—frank, violent, and centered around hard luck protagonists, ruthless villains, and women who were to varying degrees breathtakingly beautiful, sexually ravenous, and totally amoral.
The Cheat is about a boxer named Johnny Thompson. The Depression has drained the profit from boxing, so for the moment Johnny is an armored car guard, riding shotgun for payroll deliveries. He's occasionally going out with Anna, who's far too beautiful for the likes of him and mainly just likes to have money spent on her. Johnny doesn't have much of that, which means he has no real shot with Anna. He coasts along in financial and romantic limbo until Anna breaks his heart by suddenly marrying a neighborhood slickster named Slim Dundee.
So many of these pulp novels hinge upon sex, but it couldn't be explicitly stated. Tracy is fairly clear about it here, though. Johnny thinks he's ugly yet refuses to consort with women he considers to be of inadequate quality, so he's sexually inexperienced. He isn't a virgin, but it's been years since his first couple of sexual encounters. Anna is his unattainbale dream. He's never even kissed her, but her willingness to associate with him provided his life with hope. He lost that when she married, but she later shocks him by finally offering herself to him, vows be damned. We get a clear sense of what it means to Johnny:
I bit my knuckles thinking about it and how sweet—oh my God—it would be, but I wouldn't take it. [snip] Every hour was full of pictures of Anna. Anna as I'd seen her and Anna as I'd never seen her, but could if I went there the next night. Anna, naked. Anna, in my arms, looking up at me. I kept seeing her and feeling her body under me and her open mouth on my mouth.
So hot she makes him bite his knuckles. That's hot. Johnny virtually flogs himself, telling himself not to give in, not to betray Slim, not to accept Anna's baffling out-of-the-blue offer, but it's useless of course. He goes, she meets him at the door in a kimono and nothing else, his fuses all blow, and nature takes its course:
I remember sobbing, although I wasn't really crying, when the first deep contentment began to rub out the ache I'd had in me for so long.
Well, that gets to the point. And it's a point we've been making for years. These guys don't get into trouble because of mere sex. They get into trouble because of sex as they never imagined it could be—in this case sex that makes him “not really” cry. Yowsa. His reaction has largely to do with finally attaining what he thought he was not good enough to have, in effect validating his entire existence, but there's no doubt the heights of sheer physical pleasure bring it on too. We picture him drying his wet eyes with a corner of the sheet and telling Anna, “I'm sorry. It's not you, it's me.” Needless to say, he's hooked, and who wouldn't be?
During subsequent sessions Anna keeps her, ahem, guard up, and Johnny enjoys every moment, despite feelings of guilt for being a backstabber. Then comes the pivotal day when Slim approaches him with an idea to rob the armored car—with Johnny as the inside man. Anna is on board with the plan, so clearly if he refuses she might not let him be her inside man anymore. Where it goes from there we won't reveal. We'll only say that The Cheat overcomes its rudimentary feel and provides considerable entertainment, which is the next best thing to actually being well written. And for those who enjoy their crime thrillers with motion and sound, a pretty good movie was made of it in 1949. Chose either or both. You'll win regardless.
Excuse me, fellas, gotta go. Fleeting joy, followed by stinging disappointment and eventual doom are beckoning.
When you write more than fifty novels it helps to be highly imaginative, and Day Keene puts his brain through its paces in 1954's Joy House, a bizarre tale about a flashy mob lawyer named Mark Harris who flees his West Coast employers, wakes up in a Chicago mission after a five-week drinking binge, and is scooped up by a beautiful do-gooder widow who lives in a boarded up mansion. The widow became a recluse years earlier when her husband was murdered, and now all she does is take food to the mission three times a week, but when Harris moves into her house he awakens her dormant love glands and the two start really heating up the old pile of bricks.
As long as Harris keeps a low profile his pursuers won't have success, but he and the widow become increasingly public—something Harris can't avoid because he hasn't been truthful about hiding from mobsters who want to kill him. Luckily for him, she wants to start life anew, and suggests moving to Rio de Janeiro. Excellent idea, but there's more going on than Harris knows. As imaginative as this story is, it could have been better written—a hazard when you publish seven other novels in the same year—but overall we liked it. We like the uncredited cover too. We'll have more from Keene later. After all, with fifty-plus novels to his credit, he's almost unavoidable.
You're going burgling again, aren't you? Don't lie to me, buster. I always know the signs.
David Goodis's novel The Burglar is one of our recent favorites. Above is a nice edition from Banner Books, which we gather was a British sub-imprint of Lion Books, but one that must not have been around long, since we can't locate any mention of it except in the seller's auction. Indeed, the vendor could simply be wrong. It happens. The art on this is uncredited. You can read our rave of the novel here.
Update: the May 1955 cover of Justice you see below is attributed to Julian Paul, so that solves the mystery of The Burglar.
Nightfall is the time when desperate men commit desperate acts.
David Goodis was one of the mid-century era's most successful crafters of crime fiction. Movies based on his books include Dark Passage, the visually dazzling 1983 French film La lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter), and the brilliant thriller The Burglar. His drama Nightfall, aka The Dark Chase, tells the story of a man who stumbles upon bank robbers, comes into possession of their loot, but loses it in a wild panic while fleeing a shooting. Months later and many states away, he's trying to make a new life but soon learns cops are trailing him trying to solve the robbery, and the surviving bank robbers have surfaced to demand the cash. He'd better find it or he's mega-screwed, but he literally can't remember what happened to it. He's blacked it out. Like other Goodis novels Nightfall became a movie, though it's hard to see cinema in it when you read it. But Jacques Tourneur had no issues, crafting a 1956 film noir starring Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. For us the novel, with its hallucinatory nature and quasi-amnesiac protagonist, wasn't a top thriller, but it was satisfying enough. This Lion Books edition came in 1956 with uncredited cover art.
Some girls just can't get enough dock.
We said recently that untamable girls on the waterfront were an oft used trope in mid-century literature, and since then we keep running across examples. 1954's Wharf Girl by William Manners is another to add to the list. There are actually a few women involved here, according to the rear cover, a Stella, a Kathy, and a Barby, but the actual wharf girl seems to be Stella. We suppose that's her in the uncredited cover art. We can't tell you more without buying the book, and well, that isn't going to happen because the shipping costs for this are out of control. Plus we already have something like two-hundred novels to read. That's not a typo. Will we ever get to them? Well, our city is back in quarantine, so we have a lot more free time now.
In addition to my amazing Oregon trunk I've been told I have a stunning Florida shaft.
Wasn't it just yesterday we were talking about trunks? Well here we go again with a fun cover for Oregon Trunk, sexually ambiguous to our eyes despite its overtly macho posturing. If he has a Florida dick would that make it a swing state? Oh, stop with the eye rolling. Every quip can't be a winner. Moving on, this was written by Wayne Overholser under the pseudonym Dan J. Stevens, and published by Lion Books in 1950. We can't say for sure what the trunk reference here is, but the backdrop of the book is the building of a rail line, so if we had to guess we'd say the rail line is the trunk, from which everything branches, including the fortunes of the book's characters. Don't quote us on it. The artist on this is uncredited.
Ugh. The last thing I remember is running out of Jell-O shots then washing down Jell-O powder with straight vodka. Sometimes I'm too smart for my own good.
Elmore Leonard once advised fledgeling authors to not write things readers tend to skip. He meant long descriptive passages and lengthy interior musings. Benjamin Appel's 1934 crime novel Brain Guy has a lot of both. The narrative is packed with paragraph after paragraph of description and rumination, many of them as long as a page. They're all stylishly written, though, so maybe Elmore should have added: “Unless you're really good at that sort of thing.”
His body was host to many disputing beings, walking drunken as if he were striding down some nebulous stairway of dream on queer missions, inevitable, sadistic. His head whirled and it wasn't from fresh morning but late night, his brain sick from wildness, now, suddenly lucid, or regretful, by turns melancholy, exalted, mournful, stolid. And all these moods knew one union, the walking forward of the body containing them.
That's stylish writing. It's also writing that doesn't tell you as much as it should. If this confident prose moved the story or helped us to understand the character better, we'd like it more. But too often neither happens, which means, even as well written as the book's long passages sometimes are, they try the patience.
Still, some of Appel's turns of phrase are epic. In one scene a character is stabbed to death and drops a bottle he's holding. Appel writes that it fell from the man's slack fingers and, “the ginger ale ran out from the narrow neck as if it too had been murdered.” All of this clever prose encompasses a nobody-to-somebody crime story that, at its core, could be more compelling, but we may try Appel again. He's fun to read.
Instead of fighting about this, let's compromise. My soul will go to church with you while my body stays in bed.
Julian Paul does top work on this cover for Richard Matheson's 1953 thriller Fury on Sunday. Paul painted some nice covers for men's adventure magazines as well, two of which we showed you here and here. We read this novel, and from a complex intro that hurries to introduce five main characters, it settles into a streamlined narrative of people stalked and held hostage by a madman. Of the captives—the coward, the tart, the everyman, and the good girl—we knew right away who would be killed, which dampened some of the suspense. Another problem is that the characters do not make the smartest decisions, sometimes to the point of straining credulity. If Fury on Sunday were a horror movie they'd all be murder bait, pretty much. For those reasons the book, Matheson's second, resides in the same not-fully-realized territory as his first, Someone Is Bleeding, also published in 1953. But in 1954 he would strike gold. That year he published I Am Legend, which is a sci-fi classic and became a movie four different times. We have that book lined up for later.
Some wounds are too serious to ever heal.
Sometimes authors stumble upon themes that are ahead of their time. Richard Matheson's debut novel, 1953's Someone Is Bleeding, is highly improbable in its details, but his central character, Peggy Lister, is an interesting creation from the pre-#MeToo age. Perceived by men as beautiful while still a child, raped at age ten, molested by her father, as an adult she reacts in unpredictable ways to constant, unwanted male advances. Basically, she's a PTSD sufferer before that term existed, and before there were many, or any, aid mechanisms or understanding about the issue. It's clear Matheson has sympathy for her, but his narrative pre-supposes that her reactions aren't normal. It's a fine line. Matheson understands that Peggy is traumatized, but there's a bubbling undercurrent of suggestion that she should be able to somehow just get over it. This one is a pass, we think, because of a few too many cringes. Luckily for Matheson, he quickly improved and soon became an important writer.
Strangely calm on the eastern front too. Let me try the western front one more time.
Even the most serious and important books of all time can be given the genre treatment. German author Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is a towering literary achievement, a masterpiece of war fiction with deep pacifist themes, but it could still be sexed up a little, thanks to Lion Books. This edition is from 1950, and the artist is uncredited.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1927—La Lollo Is Born
Gina Lollobrigida is born in Subiaco, Italy, and eventually becomes one of the world's most famous and desired actresses. Later she becomes a photojournalist, numbering among her subjects Salvador Dali, Paul Newman and Fidel Castro.
1931—Schmeling Retains Heavyweight Title
German boxer Max Schmeling TKOs his U.S. opponent Young Stribling in the fifteenth round to retain the world heavyweight boxing title he had won in 1930. Schmeling eventually tallies fifty-six wins, forty by knockout, along with ten losses and four draws before retiring in 1948.
1969—Stones Guitarist Is Found Dead
Brian Jones, a founding member of British rock group Rolling Stones, is found at the bottom of his swimming pool at Crotchford Farm, East Sussex, England. The official cause of his death is recorded as misadventure from ingesting various drugs.
1937—Amelia Earhart Disappears
Amelia Earhart fails to arrive at Howland Island during her around the world flight, prompting a search for her and navigator Fred Noonan in the South Pacific Ocean. No wreckage and no bodies are ever found.
1964—Civil Rights Bill Becomes Law
U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signs the Civil Rights Bill into law, which makes the exclusion of African-Americans from elections, schools, unions, restaurants, hotels, bars, cinemas and other public institutions and facilities illegal. A side effect of the Bill is the immediate reversal of American political allegiance, as most southern voters abandon the Democratic Party for the Republican Party.
1997—Jimmy Stewart Dies
Beloved actor Jimmy Stewart, who starred in such films as Rear Window and Vertigo, dies at age eighty-nine at his home in Beverly Hills, California of a blood clot in his lung.
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