A case of the permanent blues.
The lyrically titled Blue Mascara Tears is a dark one from James McKimmey, author of able efforts such as The Long Ride and Cornered. In the tale a San Francisco cop named Jack Cummings can't nail crime kingpin Knocko Cutter because the fix is in at the police department. Cutter also employs two vicious and efficient torturer-killers to silence witnesses, which works for a while, but as Cummings notes, “The collapse was coming from the fault in the structure itself.” In other words, the kingpin's sociopathic nature compels him to mistreat his most trusted henchmen, and even henchmen have a breaking point.
Two events are threaded through the plot: the robbery and murder of a man who had $65,000 in his possession; and the rape of a fourteen-year-old girl. The crimes quickly tie together, reveal twists and lies, and the kingpin's search for the missing cash presents the most meager of openings for Cummings to possibly nail him. But that's easier said than done when the police department is corrupt from top the bottom. Realizing the odds are long, Cummings grows more determined—and more willing to cross the line. It all leads to a climax that's expertly dragged out to the final paragraph.
And speaking of experts, the front on this 1965 Ballantine paperback was painted by Ron Lesser, one of the more accomplished illustrators of the mid-century period. Occasionally everything dovetails perfectly with cover design. Here you have excellent art from Lesser, a unique choice for a font, and a perfect blue teardrop, which we assume was an inspiration from Ballantine's art director. Add them together with McKimmey's story and Blue Mascara Tears is a through-and-through success.
When you promise to carry a secret to the grave make sure nobody takes you literally.
We didn't know Robert L. Pike's Mute Witness was the source material for the film classic Bullitt when we picked it up, but indeed it is. In the book the main character is named Clancy not Bullitt, and the lead villain is named Rossi not Ross, but the central idea remains—a mob turncoat figures out a clever way to escape free and clean from his employers by using the police as unwitting accomplices. We checked online and someone was selling the first edition hardback of this for $2,000. To which we say dream on. While Mute Witness is a notable book because of the movie it spawned, it isn't a particularly brilliant one. Solid, we'd say. Entertaining. Fast paced. But it also has lines like, “Clancy felt the old familiar tingle run along his spine like barefoot mice,” as if mice usually wear stiletto heels. But as far as it being a fun read, the requirement was met. We recommend it. It was originally published in 1963, with this edition from Avon coming in 1966 with Ron Lesser cover art.
Do you find people disagreeable? Maybe it's you that's the problem.
This Ron Lesser cover for John D. MacDonald's Pale Gray for Guilt is a variation on the one we posted years back. Yes, we keep reading these MacDonald books even though we complain about the author, but we have no problem with the writing itself—the guy was named a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, after all. He can certainly write, his plots are usually engrossing, and his characters are interesting. All good. But to an extent we also read him for the same reason some people watch cable news—i.e. to disagree with his opinions. We think the ’60s and ’70s counterculture brought about important, positive, and long overdue changes to society. MacDonald is basically counter-counterculture.
Years back we developed an aphorism, which we became known for among our friends: The moment you make a generalization about any group of people, the living contradiction to that generalization will be nearby to make you look like a fool. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee has met his share of people and has scathing views of various groups. Not ethnically or gender-wise, at least for the most part, but more esoterically. He'll put down all people who see psychiatrists, or all people who waterski, or all people who vacation in Palm Springs. He finds various categories of humans tedious, save for the few that meet his lofty standards and in so doing serve as proof of his own excellent taste.
The Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle states that the more accurately you measure the velocity of a particle the less accurately you can measure its position, and vice versa. Which is to say any energy you use to pinpoint position will alter a particle's velocity simply by impacting it, and the reverse is true. In human relations, some people tend to alter those they meet. Nice people may cause disagreeable people to temporarily behave a bit nicer; disagreeable people may make normally nice people behave disagreeably. To a disagreeable person, then, it seems as if lots of people are disagreeable.
In Pale Gray for Guilt the disagreeable Travis McGee is focused on avenging the murder of one of his best friends, which seems to have come about due to a refusal to sell waterfront acreage to a large development corporation. McGee manages to buy the land himself, thus bringing the villains out of the woodwork to wrest it from him. The story takes a curiously long time to develop, gets overly deep into the minutiae of stock trading, and contains virtually no action, so we imagine this is one of the less liked entries in the McGee series. Yet it's still very readable, which just goes to show what raw writing skill can do.
We finally used the internet for something useful and solved this MacDonald problem—we simply looked up some lists of his best books. Based on the consensus that emerged from his fans (who by the way seem to agree that the McGee series is not as good as his earlier standalone novels), we're going to read Dead Low Tide, The Executioners (made into the film Cape Fear), and The Drowner. Those seem to be the books people really like, and as a bonus they're all cheap to buy.
What does the cover have to do with the story? Virtually nothing.
We showed you a 1955 Avon Publications cover for Charlotte Jay's award winning thriller Beat Not the Bones, and above you see an alternate cover from Avon that came in 1966. We don't remember the main character ever being tied to a tree, and we're sure she certainly never wore the sexy rag you see here, but those are the vagaries of good girl art. Both the 1955 cover and this one depict scenes that didn't happen in the story, but the earlier version is a but more true to the spirit of Jay's tale, where the above goes for pure titillation. We love them both. This one is by the always excellent Ron Lesser, and his original painting appears below.
Tough time on the front, and unwelcome back at home.
You'd never guess from the art, but The Big Kiss-Off deals with an Air Force pilot named Cade Cain who, after twelve years in Korea, returns to a life of boating around the Louisiana bayou and comes across the bodies of six Chinese men on an isolated mud flat. And on his first day back, too, which is pretty bad luck, even for a guy who got shot down and spent two years in a prison camp. He wants nothing to do with the bodies or whoever was responsible for putting them there, but somehow his old local nemesis learns of the find and before he knows it he's beaten, threatened, and told to leave town again—this time for good. Two fisted loners in mid-century fiction rarely take that sort of treatment laying down. When Cain learns that his wife has sold off his family's land, divorced him in absentia, and found comfort in his enemy's bed, something simply has to be done.
Before he gets his vengeful ducks in a row, a near-naked fugitive swims aboard his boat and the mystery deepens. Her name is Mimi Moran, because the alliteration is strong with this book. She's looking for her husband, who it happens is a pilot who flies illegal aliens into the U.S. for the bad guys. Cade Cain decides to help Mimi Moran and that's when the real trouble starts. The Big Kiss-Off is a solid yarn from Day Keene. It has the usual issues common to fiction of the 1950s, for example the hero having to constantly resist forcing himself on his beautiful passenger because he's “only human, after all.” Fortunately, even though “her flesh constantly attracted his hands like a magnet,” he contains himself—mostly. Not someone you'd want near your sister. Or any woman, really. But as a fictional hero he serves his purpose just fine.
With a setting in the endlessly fertile (for genre fiction) Louisiana bayou, and a narrative that wastes no time putting Cain in hot water, The Big Kiss-Off keeps the pages turning. It originally appeared in 1954 but the above edition was published in 1972 by Triphammer Books in Britain, with nice art by Ron Lesser borrowed from Robert Dietrich's (E. Howard Hunt's) 1962 Lancer Books thriller Curtains for a Lover. Notice how Triphammer erased part of Lesser's distinctive signature. That was obviously to keep the figure on their cropped art from looking crowded by the lettering, but we imagine it still annoyed Lesser. You can see a U.S. cover for The Big Kiss-Off in this collection of Day Keene novels we put together back in 2009.
I hereby claim this land and everything in it for the British Emp—er, I mean for me!
Since we're on the subject of tropical islands (see below), here is a really beautiful cover for Adam Shaw's 1966 novel Pleasure Island. We first saw it at killercoversoftheweek, which informed us that it was painted by Ron Lesser, one of top illustrators of the mid-century era. Taking a close look at the art, it seems to us that the characters depicted are thinking two entirely different things at this moment.
Him: Wow, she's hot! I can't wait to have her. I think I'll call this place Pleasure Island.
Her: *sigh* It was nice while it lasted. Looks like we'll have to invent clothes and self defense classes now.
The locale in the story is one of the Marquesas Islands. Shaw's characters made a habit of stumbling upon natural wonders, because he followed Pleasure Island with Isle of Delight and Shipwrecked on Paradise. Safe to assume pleasures, delights, and paradise-like qualties were quickly ruined in each place. See more Lesser cover art here.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
1954—Joseph McCarthy Disciplined by Senate
In the United States, after standing idly by during years of communist witch hunts in Hollywood and beyond, the U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Joseph McCarthy for conduct bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. The vote ruined McCarthy's career.
1955—Rosa Parks Sparks Bus Boycott
In the U.S., in Montgomery, Alabama, seamstress Rosa Parks refuses to give her bus seat to a white man and is arrested for violating the city's racial segregation laws, an incident which leads to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott resulted in a crippling financial deficit for the Montgomery public transit system, because the city's African-American population were the bulk of the system's ridership.
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