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 dick.
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.
Eew. Please tell me you washed that hand after you were out there in that nasty gutter.
Above, an awesome cover for Gutter Star, Intimate Novel #52, written by Dorine B. Clark and published in 1954. The painting is by Frank Uppwall, and it was reused in 1957 by Beacon for Carol Emery's lesbian novel Queer Affair.
You're damned picky all of a sudden for a dame I found dumpster diving behind White Castle.
Alley Girl has some of the harder boiled characters we've come across in mid-century fiction. We're reminded a bit of James Ellroy, whom we suspect must have read and been influenced by this book. The style of author Jonathan Craig, aka Frank E. Smith, is not similar to Ellroy's, but the feel is a match. The lead male Steven Lambert is a crooked cop, a sexual predator, and a serial swindler. His girlfriend is a hardcore drunk, a nymphomaniac, and a self-destructive thrill seeker. Most everyone else is a victim or a dupe, particularly the innocent man Lambert is framing for murder, and the man's beautiful wife who Lambert coerces into sex by promising not to go through with the frame-up. We throughly enjoyed this book. It's anchored by just the sort of irredeemable heel that makes crime fiction so entertaining. The only problem is a 1954 edition from Lion like you see here could cost you a fortune. The 2013 re-issue, which comes from Black Curtain Press—but without the excellent cover art from Robert Maguire—is much more economical. We recommend reading it in any case.
Let's trade. You give me what's in your hand and I'll give you what's in my pants.
The cover for this Lion Books edition of Jim Thompson's The Golden Gizmo is as quirky as Thompson's prose. The title of the book has a double meaning. A gizmo is a special ability, a gift. If you had a sense for knowing when someone was bluffing at poker, you'd say, “My gizmo told me he had nothing.” Or if you had a knack for meeting beautiful women, you'd say, “My gizmo kicked in as soon as I walked into the party.” The main character's gizmo is the ability to sniff out scenarios that lead to profit, which comes in handy in his work as a freelance gold buyer. But there's a literal gizmo here as well—a priceless gold watch that he steals by accident. In the end both gizmos cause him no end of trouble, and the question is whether he can get out with his hide intact. The story is enlivened by the main character's fiery alcoholic femme fatale wife Elaine. Strange, but pretty good. The strikingly pretty cover art is uncredited, sadly.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1923—Yankee Stadium Opens
In New York City, Yankee Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's New York Yankees, opens with the Yankees beating their eternal rivals the Boston Red Sox 4 to 1. The stadium, which is nicknamed The House that Ruth Built, sees the Yankees become the most successful franchise in baseball history. It is eventually replaced by a new Yankee Stadium and closes in September 2008.
1961—Bay of Pigs Invasion Is Launched
A group of CIA financed and trained Cuban refugees lands at the Bay of Pigs in southern Cuba with the aim of ousting Fidel Castro. However, the invasion fails badly and the result is embarrassment for U.S. president John F. Kennedy and a major boost in popularity for Fidel Castro, and also has the effect of pushing him toward the Soviet Union for protection.
1943—First LSD Trip Takes Place
Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann, while working at Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, accidentally absorbs lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, and thus discovers its psychedelic properties. He had first synthesized the substance five years earlier but hadn't been aware of its effects. He goes on to write scores of articles and books about his creation.
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