That second round of drinks is always murder.
This Pocket edition of Roy Huggins' detective mystery The Double Take is from 1959 and the art is by Harry Bennett. Huggins tells the story of a man who wants to dig into his wife's history and hires private dick Stu Bailey for the job. Bailey learns that the wife has been hiding for a long time. She's overweight now, but gained the pounds as a disguise. She'd also gotten married as a disguise, attended college and joined a sorority as a disguise, dyed her hair as disguise, changed her name as a disguise, and of course changed her city as a disguise. Somewhere way back before she was a plump wife with a suspicious husband she was a showgirl who called herself Gloria Gay. Bailey discovers all that, but the elusive question is why she's hiding in the first place.
Huggins probably should have done a bit better here. The concept is rich—a woman who essentially goes into hiding inside her own body by eating herself into a disguise. But he doesn't take advantage of the idea. Also, the second third of the book feels padded. That could have been shortened and the multi-twist final act would have been better for it. We did like those twists, though, and the L.A. setting was well rendered. It brought back memories from some wild years we spent running around Tinseltown. But in the end The Double Take was a middling time eater, and with time so precious, it isn't one we'd recommend dashing out to buy—or download, or whatever. Huggins has a Stu Bailey anthology called 77 Sunset Strip, and for the title alone we'll read that, and be hoping for something a bit better.
Cain is guaranteed to deliver.
Above you see a Pocket Books cover for James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, the 1953 edition. It has art from James Avanti, and is very different from Pocket's 1947 edition, which we showed you here. Avati is an illustrator we don't run across that often, but his work is easily recognizable, and always very good. See a few more examples here, here, and here. Needless to say (but we'll say it anyway), The Postman Always Rings Twice is a book you should read.
No matter how hard you try you can't outrun destiny.
Richard Deming's 1960 novel Hit and Run, which came as the above Pocket edition with uncredited cover art, is a fast and easy read about three people who attempt to evade blame for a hit and run accident. How's that for a literal title? It doesn't happen often. Anyway, an unlucky pedestrian was left with a broken hip, which would be a simple insurance company problem if the trio weren't so keen to cover up an extramarital affair. So they embark on their clever scheme, but when the hospitalized victim unexpectedly dies they're suddenly on the hook for manslaughter instead of reckless driving. It gets worse—as it always does in crime fiction—when one of trio turns out to be not exactly on the same page as the other two. We enjoyed this tale. It has classic bad-to-worse momentum, and got from A to Z with a minimum of fuss. Simplicity wins sometimes.
Can I not die? No? Then I'll take: in bed, very elderly, after earth shattering sex with my 25-year-old boytoy.
This Pocket Books edition of John Ross MacDonald's The Way Some People Die features the first cover we've acquired by British illustrator Charles Binger, and quite a nice one it is. It reminds us of Ernest Chiriaka's work, this one for instance. This is a Lew Archer thriller, third of eighteen, and as we mentioned before, this series is said to improve as it goes. We'll see about that. This one is a standard caper that starts when a mother hires Archer to find her missing daughter, who's gotten mixed up with the proverbial bad crowd. We're talking the worst of the worst—hustlers, gangsters, heroin addicts, and, most terrifying of all, failed actors. Archer beats down a few tough guys, gets hit over the head in classic detective novel fashion, has beautiful women express their romantic interest, and in the end is shotgunned in the face, dismembered, and incinerated in an industrial kiln. Oh, wait—that's not correct. Actually, he comes out on top again, bruised but triumphant. Not bad, but not great yet. Onward to book four.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1912—Pravda Is Founded
The newspaper Pravda, or Truth, known as the voice of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, begins publication in Saint Petersburg. It is one of the country's leading newspapers until 1991, when it is closed down by decree of then-President Boris Yeltsin. A number of other Pravdas appear afterward, including an internet site and a tabloid.
1983—Hitler's Diaries Found
The German magazine Der Stern claims that Adolf Hitler's diaries had been found in wreckage in East Germany. The magazine had paid 10 million German marks for the sixty small books, plus a volume about Rudolf Hess's flight to the United Kingdom, covering the period from 1932 to 1945. But the diaries are subsequently revealed to be fakes written by Konrad Kujau, a notorious Stuttgart forger. Both he and Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann go to trial in 1985 and are each sentenced to 42 months in prison.
1918—The Red Baron Is Shot Down
German WWI fighter ace Manfred von Richthofen, better known as The Red Baron, sustains a fatal wound while flying over Vaux sur Somme in France. Von Richthofen, shot through the heart, manages a hasty emergency landing before dying in the cockpit of his plane. His last word, according to one witness, is "Kaputt." The Red Baron was the most successful flying ace during the war, having shot down at least 80 enemy airplanes.
1964—Satellite Spreads Radioactivity
An American-made Transit satellite, which had been designed to track submarines, fails to reach orbit after launch and disperses its highly radioactive two pound plutonium power source over a wide area as it breaks up re-entering the atmosphere.
1939—Holiday Records Strange Fruit
American blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday
records "Strange Fruit", which is considered to be the first civil rights song. It began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, which he later set to music and performed live with his wife Laura Duncan. The song became a Holiday standard immediately after she recorded it, and it remains one of the most highly regarded pieces of music in American history.
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