We've been seeing each other for a while now. I've decided you can start coming up the front stairs.
Above, a Jim Bentley cover for L.K. Scott's Backstairs, 1953 for Pyramid Books. Bentley also worked for various men's adventure magazines, including Stag, for which he illustrated the James Jones story “The Knife” in December 1957. Jones, you may remember, wrote From Here to Eternity. We'll see if we can dig up more from Bentley later.
Let's briefly consider someone else's feelings. How do you think your rejection of my inappropriate sexual advances made me feel?
We thought we'd exhausted the supply of therapist sleaze novels, but not quite. Above you see The Glass Cage by Edward Ronns, which is about a Park Avenue shrink who finds himself in sticky situations with upper crust women. This was published in 1962 with Bob Abbett cover art. We don't have our shrink sleaze covers keyworded, which means if you want to see the others we'll have to usher you to them ourselves. They're to be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.
You play with fire you're bound to get burned.
We're in reliable literary territory today—Thompson territory. A Hell of a Woman was originally published in 1954, with this Pyramid edition coming in 1962. The story resembles James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, as an amoral opportunist is driven by lust to plan a murder. Who is the “hell of a woman” from the title? There are two candidates. The main character Frank “Dolly” Dillon love-hates his wife, so maybe it's her. But on the other hand, it's for his young mistress that he plots to kill an old lady and steal her stash of $100,000, so it's probably her. $100,000 is an unlikely amount of money ($967,000 in today's dollars) to be stashed in a spinster's house, and of course there's a reason for that, but you'll have to read the book to find out. That will involve descending into the troubled and self-destructive mind of yet another Thompson anti-hero, but you won't regret it—this is a nice effort from one of the kings of pulp.
Forget it, buster. You look good now but we both know there's a useless tub of lard just dying to get out.
Careful girls—inside every hunk there's a pot-bellied sofa sloth waiting for an opportunity to emerge. All it takes is beer and time. John Garth's Hill Man, published in 1954 by Pyramid Books, concerns opportunity as well. It deals with an opportunistic country boy who marries and beds his way into property and riches. Garth was a pseudonym used by Janice Holt Giles, who under her real name wrote numerous historical novels set in Kentucky. Hill Man isn't a historical novel. It fits more into the long tradition of rural dramas we've talked about often. The cover art on this particular example is by Julian Paul.
All these books are on our bucket list.
When you look at paperback covers every day it's interesting the common elements you notice. Of late, we've noticed buckets. They pop up on backwoods and rural sleaze novels, usually in amusing fashion, often in the possession of hardworking women going about difficult chores while nearby men don't do dick. We'll just tell you—that's not the way it works around our place.
No need to be nervous. To a doctor your body is nothing more than a soft, seductive, infinitely pleasurable biological wonder.
More for the doctor sleaze bin, Roy Benard Sparkia's Doctors & Sinners, from 1960 for Pyramid Books. Sparkia was prolific in this genre, but he also wrote Build My Gallows High, which was the basis of one of the great films of the 1940s, the film noir Out of the Past, which starred Robert Mitchum.
Beautiful detective gets into a sticky mess in Los Angeles.
Even if you haven't read Honey West we bet you've heard of her. This Girl for Hire is the first novel starring one of the first female private eyes in popular literature. It was originally published in 1957, spawned ten sequels, a 1965 television show, and even a 2013 graphic novel. All of that began with This Girl for Hire, so we read it, and it's pretty bad. Not every published book—even popular ones—possess style or merit, and this one's buzz is undeserved. The plot is a bore, the humor is obvious, the dialogue needs a serious polish, and the sexiness so boldly touted in the rear cover blurb simply doesn't materialize. And finally—the cardinal sin—we don't get the impression matters improve in later novels. For better along these lines we recommend Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise adventures. They deliver eroticism and action and most of them are actually pretty good. In fact, This Girl for Hire made us immediately retreat to our Blaise stash just to remind ourselves this concept could be done well. See below.
In the naked city there are a million reasons to kill and die.
In Dead End two crooked cops end up with a million dollars in dirty money and decide to ditch their jobs and flee the country. But their law enforcement colleagues are after them, so first they hole up in an old Prohibition hideout to let the heat dissipate. How long will they stay in this little room? As long as it takes. The older cop Doc suggests months. The younger cop Bucky is going crazy in days. You know for a certaintly that this partnership isn't going to end well. Lacy is up and down as a writer but this is him on the upswing. Originally published as Be Careful How You Live in 1959, this Pyramid paperback appeared in 1960 with cover art by Ernest Chiriaka.
I love fire escapes. I don't know if they've saved many lives, but they've helped me ruin quite a few.
Above is another cover for Ed Lacy's breakthrough detective thriller Room To Swing, with the hero lurking on a fire escape. They should change the names of those things, considering how often they're used for things other than escaping fires. The art here is by an unknown, and like the previous cover (though we didn't point it out at the time) shows a white detective. Or one that can be taken for white. But the main character Toussaint Marcus Moore is black. In fact he's so dark even his girlfriend gives him a hard time about it. Clearly both publishing companies knew the book would sell fewer copies with an identifiably black cover star. The whitewash is an ironic side note to a book that directly discusses racism, but mid-century book covers, even those having nothing to do with race, often deceived consumers, so this is not an anomaly. Both covers are high quality art pieces. See the other one here.
A Harlem detective learns the rules of engagement in pre-civil rights America.
Ed Lacy is credited by many as having created the first African American detective, Harlem gumshoe Toussaint Marcus Moore. Room to Swing is the novel in which this uniquely named character debuted. The set-up for the plot is also unique. The producer of an unsolved crimes television show called You—Detective! has located a fugitive she wants to arrest on air. She hires Toussaint to keep an eye on this ratings goldmine and make sure he's still around when she and her film crew are ready to spring their trap. Sounds simple, but in 1958 a black detective following a white man 24/7 will run into problems, considering he can't safely go to all the same places. Hell, he couldn't comfortably go to all the same places even today.
And if being a cop magnet isn't bad enough for Toussaint, having a white woman as a client is even more problematic, since they can barely be seen in public together. This is true even in New York and Ohio, where the action takes place. Although the northern U.S. was not part of the Jim Crow system, outside of large cities apartheid generally reigned. Small town Ohio is no different from Alabama for Toussaint. Even getting lunch or using a pay phone is often difficult. Speaking to a white man without calling him “Sir” generally leads to trouble, and being referred to as “boy” in return is standard practice. All of which raises the question: Why did this deep-pocketed producer hire a black detective at all? She has her reasons.
Room to Swing won Lacy the coveted Edgar Award, though we wouldn't say the book is brilliantly written. But it takes readers into fresh territory for a detective novel, and Toussaint is portrayed humanistically and empathetically. The book exemplifies the idea that it's possible for anybody to write about anybody else, regardless of race. Unfortunately, it wasn't a luxury that was often afforded to any but white writers back then, but it certainly should have been. All sorts of insights might have been possible. Room to Swing has plenty of those, and if you can find this Pyramid paperback edition with Robert Maguire cover art, all the better.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
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.
1927—Mae West Sentenced to Jail
American actress and playwright Mae West is sentenced to ten days in jail for obscenity for the content of her play Sex. The trial occurred even though the play had run for a year and had been seen by 325,000 people. However West's considerable popularity, already based on her risque image, only increased due to the controversy.
1971—Manson Sentenced to Death
In the U.S, cult leader Charles Manson is sentenced to death for inciting the murders of Sharon Tate and several other people. Three accomplices, who had actually done the killing, were also sentenced to death, but the state of California abolished capital punishment in 1972 and neither they nor Manson were ever actually executed.
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.
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