The Pocket Books marketing team messes up a near perfect thriller.
This cover for Cornell Woolrich's 1949 thriller Rendezvous in Black was painted by William Wirts, a new name for us, but a guy who deserves credit for a job well done. The editors at Pocket Books, though, did a terrible job, because their cover blurb gives everything away. The plot deals with a man who is driven mad by the death of a loved one and transforms into a vengeance killer. Most of his victims are carefully humanized by Woolrich so that a sense of tragedy is progressively inflicted upon you. You hope the next target will be the one who escapes the killer's clutches or turns the tables. But nope, the blurb tells you none of them survive. How? Because it tells you a police woman is made up a certain way in order to trap the killer. Ergo nobody survives up to the point that the police woman is introduced. And she doesn't show up until the last twenty pages. This is a particularly bad spoiler because the story is constructed around the killer's cat and mouse games with his victims, who as we said before are written in such a way that you really root for them. That's a couple hundred pages of potential suspense tossed in the bin by that indiscreet cover blurb.
Rendezvous in Black is a classic from Woolrich, one of the most left field concepts from a highly creative writer, but the moment you started reading this post any surprises contained in the book were rendered ineffective. We debated using an alternate cover from somewhere online and not mentioning the spoiler, but among the many things we like to discuss here are the decisions made by publishing companies in promoting their books. These decisions include which art to use, or re-use, or use in altered form, whether to over-emphasize violence, and often, whether to promise something far more salcious than the text actually delivers. As the paperback revolution got into full swing during the 1950s publishers often slapped action art on serious works such as 1984, or sex covers on classical literature like Aristarchus of Samos's L'Antiragione. Those are brazen moves, but we don't mind. On the other hand, whoever made this decision for Pocket Books should have been fired. But as it happens, Rendezvous in Black is so interesting and different that it can't be ruined. So we recommend that you read it anyway.
Old West justice is delivered hard and fast—and selectively too.
We don't read a lot of westerns, though they're a major part of the pulp tradition. But when we saw this copy of William MacLeod Raine's The Fighting Edge we took the plunge. This Pocket Books edition with Frank McCarthy cover art is from 1950, but the tale was originally published in 1922, so it's pretty retro in its attitudes. In the story fifteen year-old June Tolliver is coveted by a forty-something cowboy named Jake Houck. He means to marry her. Whether she wants him is immaterial. It just so happens he has serious dirt on June's father, which means papa Tolliver isn't likely to be much help in keeping his virginal daughter from pervy Jake's clutches. But she has one ally—young Bob Dillon, who doesn't know much, but knows he can't let someone else get on his girl.
All in all, The Fighting Edge is an entertaining piece of historical fiction, with digressions into ranching and range wars, but readers who understand that the taming the West was part of a larger genocide against Native Americans might not be fans of Raine's mythologizing. The book unambiguously sees justice as subordinate to supremacy. As events unfold, the local Utes become furious that the killing of one of their braves by the aforementioned Jake Houck goes unpunished, but their decision to go on the warpath is bad for the grand design, thus they must be violently suppressed. Sound familiar? The more things change, and all that. Raine never imagined his work would be relevant a hundred years after he wrote it, we're sure, but there you go.
I'm not worried. I know something you don't. I'm the star of an entire series.
Above, a 1959 cover painted by James Meese for John Ross MacDonald's 1950 thriller The Drowning Pool. We looked at a 1951 cover for this a while back, but rather than talk about the story made some dumb jokes and called it a day. So about the book. The novel features franchise detective Lew Archer trying to solve a drowning murder while dealing with a family torn apart over an inheritance. Liking the book is a matter of liking the character. Archer is cynical, quippy, and pretty rude most of the time—in short, a typical mid-century fictional detective. And therein lies the issue. He's standard, which means the mystery needs to be unique, but instead it's a drop-off from the series debut The Moving Target. It's not bad, though, and consensus is the eighteen Archer adventures improve as they progress. We'll see, because we plan to keep reading them. Hopefully Archer will make us glad he survived this gun to his head.
I knew you were really a guy all along, darling. There were clues—your walk, your love of violent sports, the bulge in your shorts...
We praise paperback art generally. We see merit in most efforts. But it raises the question: What is an unsuccessful piece of art? Well, we think this 1952 Pocket Books cover for Edgar Mittelholzer's 1951 novel Shadows Move Among Them is a major oops from illustrator Tom Dunn. He was better on other covers, but the guy Dunn wrong here. While it would be absolutely awesome if this book were about a love affair with a transvestite, it's actually a whites-in-the-tropics novel, with the overheated land this time being British Guiana.
Mittleholzer was born and raised there, so he was writing what he knew. Plotwise, you have an isolated colony of people, which in an eerie precursor to Jim Jones and Jonestown, is led by a charismatic minister. This person, Reverend Harmston, calls his enclave Berkelhoost, and its inhabitants are there to escape civilization for a more liberated way of living. Into this setting comes the main character Gregory Hawke, who's the reverend's nephew and is sorely in need of a life reset. He's described as a shadow of his former self, and others in the colony are suggested to be mere shadows also.
Mittelholzer is considered one of the most important novelists to originate from the Caribbean (for those inclined to lump a region so geographically and culturally diverse into its own genre). Mittleholzer was a serious, ambitious writer, and he was prolific too, cranking out twenty-six books. While his family was white, some genetic quirk left him “swarthy,” as he described himself, and it was a disappointment to his father. This burden of ethnic inadequacy informed his fiction, and gave his whites-in-the-tropics stories more than the usual emotional heft.
Mittelholzer never made a fortune writing, but he's had a small revival the last twenty years, and many of his books are available. Since he was born in 1905 he never got to experience this increased interest. In fact, he died earlier than he should have, via suicide at age sixty. Apparently, this act was partly caused by his inability to make more than a subsistence living at his chosen profession. It's a fate that's befallen everyone from Sylvia Plath to John Kennedy Toole, so he's in esteemed company. We haven't read Shadows Move Among Them but we may fit it into our reading list, because as foreigners living abroad we identify with these kinds of books. If we do we'll report back.
Her final stop is the intersection of deep trouble and hot water.
Detectives and their partners are considered to be a common motif in mid-century fiction, but actually you don't run into pairings as often as you'd expect, and when you do, one character usually dominates the narrative. End of the Line, by Bert and Dolores Hitchens, features two detectives in a story that's almost equally divided. Maybe that's what happens when spouses collaborate. The two detectives work for a railroad company and are tasked with investigating a cold case—the Lobo Tunnel crash of five years earlier, in which a train was derailed by a deliberately placed obstruction. The mystery is fine, but the fun part is reading how the two sleuths—one a mama's boy and the other a heavy drinker—try to work together. The Pocket Books paperback you see here has beautiful cover art by Jerry Allison that suggests the story is about a girl in trouble. That's true too, but it's the dicks that make this one swing. Pretty cool stuff, copyright 1959.
Nick and Nora Charles—never shaken, never stirred, and almost never sober.
1934's The Thin Man is what we like to think of as a palate cleanser. After reading a few less accomplished authors you grab a Hammett because you know he's great. It's pure fun following functional alcoholic Nick Charles and his equally hard drinking young wife Nora as they navigate deception and murder. How much do Nick and Nora Charles drink? At one point Nick wakes up feeling terrible and realizes it's because he'd gone to bed sober. Several cocktail sessions a day is about average. Maybe that's why danger doesn't faze them. Even being shot at is reason for a libation and a quip.
This edition of The Thin Man is a rare one. It's the Pocket Books paperback from 1945, with the type of art that was prevalent on paperbacks during the heyday of pulp. We can't tell you much about the book that hasn't already been written, including the fact that it's less a mystery than a comedy of manners, but there is one aspect that's rarely commented upon. Nick Charles is of Greek descent. His full last name is Charalambides. This was the ’30s, when there was open racism in the U.S. against Greeks. James M. Cain delves into this in The Postman Always Rings Twice, in which the Greek character Nick Papadakis is insulted behind his back and set apart as a non-white inferior.
So in The Thin Man Hammett was portraying Nick Charles not as the upper crust dilettante William Powell made famous in the film version, but as a tough guy outsider. People are a bit afraid of him. Filmgoers were definitely not afraid of pencil mustached William Powell. Hammett wanted the written Charles to possess street cred, to be a person who had been places and seen things others had not. Hammett was going for a different type of detective in more ways than merely his drinking habits. Charles' maverick role is just a little extra flavor in an already entertaining novel. The actual mystery is difficult to follow, but even so we highly recommend this if you haven't read it.
Turns out too big to fail was a strictly financial concept.
You wouldn't think when you work for one of the industries most responsible for screwing up the planet you'd get much sympathy when you wind up dead, but Frances and Richard Lockridge's Payoff for the Banker was written in a previous era. This banker, George Merle, was loved by many and respected by all. Well, not all. At least one person hated him, and police think it's the woman in whose apartment his body was found. Enter husband and wife sleuths Pamela and Jerry North to solve the case. The fact that husband and wife sleuths were written by husband and wife authors interests us, as we have trouble collaborating on a trip to the store with the Pulp Intl. girlfriends, but that's why fiction is different from reality. The Lockridges were so good at working together they even made the Norths into franchise characters who appeared in twenty-six books. They also were portrayed on radio, stage, television, and cinema. We bet the Lockridges argued mostly about how to spend all their earnings. Originally published in 1946, this Pocket paperback edition appeared in 1948 fronted by Donald Beck art.
Well, I notice at least part of you is getting happier.
It's hard to stay mad with someone else's tongue in your mouth. Ever notice that? The principle is amply demonstrated on this brilliant cover for Edward Mannix's 1960 thriller The End of Fury. Put this one in the mean-streets-of-NYC bin, even though the action mostly takes place in Jersey City. The story deals with the Boyles, an Irish family of five—a hard drinking father, an emotionally wrecked mother, a widely desired daughter, and two sons, one a priest in training, the other this rebel with a stripper girlfriend you see on the cover. The priest/heretic brothers may seem like clichés today, but Mannix helped popularize the motif, with even The New York Times calling him a highly skilled writer. Interestingly, he was also a voice actor, dubbing dialogue for at least nine films from the early ’70s to the early ’90s. The art on this is by Robert Maguire and we think it's one of his best.
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.
That's not exactly the type of apology I had in mind, but I guess it'll have to do.
This is an interesting piece of cover art for Raymond Chandler's third Phillip Marlowe thriller The High Window, the novel that was filmed as Time To Kill with Marlowe rewritten as another character, then filmed several years later as The Brasher Doubloon, with Marlowe restored. The book originally appeared in 1942, and the above painting by James Meese fronted Pocket Books' 1955 edition. Without reading it, one might assume this is Marlowe being punchy, but it's actually a bad guy named Alex Morny laying into his wife/accomplice-in-crime Lois. In the narrative Marlowe is lurking nearby, but he doesn't intervene because he's contemptuous of criminals, whether male or female.
Marlowe generally sticks up for underdogs. He particularly hates the abuse of authority. When two cops give him a hard time for being uncooperative he reminds them why he's that way by refreshing their memories concerning a case he investigated where a spoiled heir shot his secretary then killed himself. The cops closed that case with the official finding that the opposite had happened—the secretary had shot the heir before turning the gun on himself, and they did it to spare the heir's powerful father public embarrassment. The cops ask an annoyed Marlowe what difference it makes. They were both dead, so who cares?
Marlowe: “Did you ever stop to think that [his] secretary might have had a mother or a sister or a sweetheart—or all three? That they had their pride and their faith and their love for a kid who was made out to be a drunken paranoiac because his boss's father had a hundred million dollars? Until you guys own your own souls you don't own mine. Until you guys can be trusted every time and always, in all times and conditions, to seek the truth out and find it and let the chips fall where they may—until that time comes [I will not trust you].”
We've paraphrased a bit because the specifics aren't needed here, but it's a great speech. Countless sociological and criminological studies reveal that justice is still meted out mildly upon some groups, and severely upon others, more than half a century after Chandler wrote those lines. And the fact that a two-tiered justice system exists is so accepted these days it's banal to even point it out. But Marlowe tended to rail against corruption, even if doing so caused him problems. To resist was part of his personal code, and the code is part of what makes him such an interesting character. If you want to know more about The High Window you can find an extra detail or two in our write-up on Time To Kill here.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1929—Stock Market Crashes
Black Thursday, a catastrophic crash on the New York Stock Exchange, occurs when the value of stocks suddenly declines and continues to decline for a month. The event leads to a subsequent crash in world stock prices and precipitates the Great Depression. This after famous economist Irving Fisher had declared that stock prices had reached a permanently high plateau.
1935—Four Gangsters Gunned Down in New Jersey
In Newark, New Jersey, the organized crime figures Dutch Schultz, Abe Landau, Otto Berman, and Bernard "Lulu" Rosencrantz are fatally shot at the Palace Chophouse restaurant. Schultz, who was the target, lingers in the hospital for about a day before dying
. The killings are committed by a group of professional gunmen known as Murder, Inc., and the event becomes known as the Chophouse Massacre.
1950—Al Jolson Dies
Vaudeville and screen performer Al Jolson dies of a heart attack in San Francisco after a trip to Korea to entertain troops causes lung problems. Jolson is best known for his film The Jazz Singer, and for his performances in blackface make-up, which were not considered offensive at the time, but have now come to be seen as a form of racial bigotry.
1926—Houdini Fatally Punched in Stomach
After a performance in Montreal, Hungarian-born magician and escape artist Harry Houdini is approached by a university student named J. Gordon Whitehead, who asks if it is true that Houdini can endure any blow to the stomach. Before Houdini is ready Whitehead strikes him several times, causing internal injuries that lead to the magician's death.
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