A long day's journey into sleaze.
After reading Stan Shafer's Heat, which we tried only because it had Kitty Swan on the front, and Rand McTiernan's Doctor's Dirty Tricks, which we tried only because it had Christina Lindberg on the front, we had one of our recurring cycles of interest in ’60s and ’70s sleaze novels and decided to download a few. First up is 1971's Hard Rider by Conrad Grimes, which we chose because it was published by top sleaze imprint Midwood. The book is about pals Annie and Claudia, who buy a van, paint it psychedelically, and set out from Kentucky to see the world. Or at least the United States. Or at least the groovy parts. They head east to New York City, then west to San Francisco, and manage to have all the expected cultural-sexual adventures of the era. They unknowingly star in clandestinely filmed pornography, sojourn in an all women's commune called the Sisterhood that's devoted to eradicating men, and enjoy sweet lesbian love with each other. Annie eventually finds her place as a West Coast political radical, and Claudia finds home and hearth in the heartland. The book is nothing special, on any level, even though it's incredibly raunchy. But even raunch demands skill. Grimes could use more.
I'll cover his face with the sports section. I think he would have liked that.
The Frightened Stiff, which was first published in 1944, with this Dell edition coming in 1953, was written by Kelley Roos, and centers on his franchise detective Jeff Troy, who along with wife Haila starred in a run of popular mysteries with a comedic bent. This is the third in the set. We have one of them—1956's The Blonde Died Dancing—so we'll try to report back on it eventually. The above cover art is by Len Oehmen.
A femme fatale's deadliest weapon is never a gun.
We've discussed a few Gil Brewer books without talking much about the man himself. Eventual author of thirty-three novels under his own name and a dozen more under pseudonyms, he started as a literary writer but after selling Satan Is a Woman to Gold Medal Books in 1950 decided that genre fiction was a faster and easier way to earn money. It was also after Satan Is a Woman that drinking began to take a heavy toll on him, to the point of hospitalizations, a near-fatal auto accident, and eventual death. 1961's A Taste for Sin was written during his heavy consumption period, and it's spotty, to say the least, a messily written book, but so crazy it's impossible not to read in a state of wonder.
The story deals with Jim Phalen, a small time crook, an an unlucky one. He meets Felice Anderson, seventeen years old, married at fifteen, recklessly unfaithful from the day she took her vows, and so purely nuts that for sexual thrills she demands to be raped. Explorations of women's alleged rape fantasies were common back then, and at first we thought A Taste for Sin was just another, but Phalen assaults her enthusiastically more than once, making clear that he's had fantasies about this too. Thus, as a shortcut to getting to the essential core of his personality, it's an interesting choice by Brewer. It's clear that Phalen is a throughly bad guy, one who never had much of a chance in life. He won't get much of a chance in this novel either, and doesn't deserve one.
Felice's husband works at a bank and she comes up with a plot to rob it for a million dollars. The only way to succeed is to commit murder. Phalen is horrified at first, but those bedroom games short-circuit his thinking and pretty soon he thinks he sees a way it might work. There are dozens of obstacles, including the police dogging his heels about a robbery he committed early in the story, but it's Felice's wild nature that threatens to become insurmountable. In trying to reflect the confusion in Phalen's mind about her, the pressure he feels from all quarters, and the hasty logistics of the heist, Brewer's narrative becomes like a rock skipping across a pond, hitting and bouncing onward, hitting again, bouncing onward. Phalen even flies to Lucerne, Switzerland, and Brewer expends only a few pages on the entire trip.
We don't feel as if his writing is top notch through any of this, and in our view the narrative is especially loose during its latter third. The story is also rushed during that section—though we do understand that its acceleration may be intended to reflect the lead character's barely maintained control. It just didn't work properly. But we'll give the story credit for its unflinching nature. Did Brewer build it around an underaged femme fatale so nuts as to be unbelievable because he was ambitious, or did she end up on the page due to a booze-fueled lapse in judgment? We'll never know, but Felice, and whether you buy her characterization, is the key to whether you'll like the book. She's a rare creature in the annals of mid-century crime fiction.
You can love her but you can never trust her.
A while back we said we'd skip the 1954 Orrie Hitt novel Cabin Fever because we had several other Hitt books awaiting our attention. But the cover art for 1959's Tawny enticed us, so we bought it and—turns out we didn't pass on Cabin Fever after all, because Tawny is Cabin Fever published under a new name. It was also published yet again in 1974 as Lovers at Night. Lesson: watch out for re-titles in vintage literature. But it's okay. Hitt is interesting if erratic, and since this is an early effort from him—possibly only his third, though we can't be sure because he published four books in 1954—we were curious to have a look.
Tawny follows the travails of Danny O'Conner, who takes a job managing a sprawling lakeside roadhouse/casino/cabin complex called the Flying Red Rooster and quickly becomes romatically entangled with the boss's omnivorous wife, the eponymous Tawny Stone. She hates her husband but divorcing him would mean losing her stake in the business she originally financed. You'd think this would lead to the usual murder-the-husband scheme, but Hitt twists the plot the other direction when the husband approaches Danny and says that he wants Tawny to die or disappear.
So the question is who tries to kill who? Or maybe they both take a whack at homicide. We ain't saying. In the end, though, you still have juicy adultery and a sinister murder plot. We've read a lot of books along those lines, often by better writers, but we've read them by worse writers too. In the hands of a top stylist Tawny might have been a real barnburner. As it is, we can call it readable but not special. The art on this Beacon Signal edition (it was also published by Softcover Library in 1969) is by an unknown, which is too bad because it's one of the better covers on a Hitt novel. The far less tawny original painting appears below.
For every job there's a perfect tool.
In Ed Lacy's 1961 boxing drama The Big Fix, the fix is defnitely in, and in the worst way possible. Tommy Cork, a thirty-something middleweight boxer who in his prime battled Sugar Ray Robinson, becomes the pet project of a dilletante boxing manager who promises that with the best training, diet, and promotion Cork can reach the top again. Sounds good, but Tommy has unwittingly become the focus of a deadly scam, a plan to find some desperate boxer with a reputation for ugly losses, make a show of training him for high profile bouts, all the while taking out a life insurance policy on him, then having a hammerfisted accomplice kill him in the ring. Since the murder will happen before a crowd, there will be no suspicion of foul play, particularly for a pug known for fighting stubbornly and hitting the canvas hard.
But nothing is straightforward in Lacy's hands. Tommy's wife May, hopeful for a better life, gets into trouble with violent numbers runners, an aspiring writer sees the couple as the perfect pathetic characters to be the focus of a novel, an ex-boxer cop starts to get wise to the murder scheme, and other twists come from nowhere to infinitely complicate the tale. Despite the subplots, as readers you know the only fitting climax is one that takes place in the ring, and Lacy pushes the story inexorably toward that showdown, hapless Tommy facing off against a man who plans to kill him with a relentless assault, or if possible a single blow. If he's going to have help, he'll need to provide it himself. As usual, Lacy tells a good story. He's reliably full of excellent ideas. That also goes for Ernest Chiriacka, who painted the eye-catching cover.
Southwest Florida gets obliterated but most of the wreckage is human in MacDonald disaster drama.
The three weather based thrillers we've discussed—A Town Is Drowning, Tropical Disturbance, and Death at Flood Tide—represent a minor fraction of the total in mid-century fiction. It's no surprise, then, that an author as prolific as John D. MacDonald also tested the waters. Murder in the Wind, also known as Hurricane, came in 1956 during the more fertile, less censorious period for MacDonald, and presents readers with a disparate selection of people who all hole up in an abandoned house during a hurricane named Hilda. Eventually the house is swept away entirely, but the story is never less than solidly grounded and engrossing. If your time is limited you might skip this one in favor of The Damned, which is a close cousin, conceptually speaking, but otherwise Murder in the Wind is a necessary read. You get all the fulfillment you'd want from a disaster drama.
New and improved Picchioni dance tights! They'll never tear a seam, even if your body does!
Italian illustrator Franco Picchioni conceived a balletic cover pose for John J. Everett's Assi allo sbaraglio. If we tried this position everything we have would split down the middle, up to and including our pride. The title of the book translates to “aces in disarray,” so we'd be suffering from asses in disarray. But speaking of stretched to the limit, let's stop with this strain of thought before it wears out completely. John J. Everett was a pseudonym, of course, but we don't know for whom, and his novel is part of Edizioni MA-GA's Il Cerchio Rosso collection, though we can't pinpoint the year. Nothing is working for us today, but we'll bend over backwards trying to find more info.
She saw, she conquered, she came—over and over.
We read Jason Hytes' 1962 sleaze novel Come One-Come All in electronic form, and thanks to a glitch in the page count we had no idea how long it was. Which led to the moment when we thought to ourselves, “This is getting interesting,” swiped to the next page and were confronted with the words—The End. By that page the book's lead character Barbara Martin had succumbed to her own sexual voracity, progressed to random seductions with both sexes, reached the point of being lured into prostitution, and dealt with the decision working out not well at all. And by not well at all we mean really not well. So while unknowingly swiping to The End, we were anticipating the commencement of bloody retribution by Barbara against the tale's villain. Nope. Barbara has learned her lesson and moves on. And so have we. But we'll say this much—for the genre, Hytes is not a bad writer.
….then he ate their livers. Anyway, I think he went that way. You check it out and I'll light your way from back here.
First rule of dark places: make sure you never go in first. Jean Salvetti paints a sinister scene on this cover for 1953's Des clous! by Robert Tachet, which is about crime, smuggling, and espionage in Perpignan on the French/Spanish border. The title, pronounced like “clue,” means “nails,” or maybe “spikes.” In the least surprising revelation imaginable, Tachet was a pseudonym for André Héléna. Why is that no surprise? Because Héléna was a pseudonym machine who also published as—ready?—Noël Vexin, Andy Ellen, Andy Helen, Buddy Wesson, Maureen Sullivan, Herbert Smally, Jean Zerbibe, Kathy Woodfield, Sznolock Lazslo, Clark Corrados, Peter Colombo, Alex Cadourcy, Joseph Benoist, Lemmy West, and C. Cailleaux. He was not only prolific, but was also one of the few mid-century writers to have his books translated into English from another language. Salvetti was prolific too. We have a few more examples of his brushwork if you're interested. Check here, here, here, here, and here.
I plan to rise from soul crushing poverty into the soul crushing middle class, and if you play your cards right I'll take you with me.
This 1955 Bantam edition of Steve Fisher's 1954 novel Giveaway has a front by James Hill that's at once beautiful and sordid. We've always been drawn to this art, so after seeing the book around for years we finally decided it was time to give it a read. Fisher tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Midwestern runaway named Eddie Shelton who ends up in Los Angeles and meets a mother and daughter who make their living by selling prizes they win for appearing on (fictional) game shows such as Down Melody Street and Cookies or Cash. It's difficult to get on the shows because the producers prefer novices, rather than “pros.” Jane, the daughter in this duo, sees Eddie as her ticket to being booked on a show called Man and Wife that offers huge prizes, including a trip to Hawaii and a year's wardrobe. She's willing to do anything for the chance—even convince Eddie she's in love with him.
The allegory is strong with this book. It reminded us of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, with its capitalist critique folded within the characters' constant hope that a jackpot will lift them out of their meager circumstances, but it's also indebted to Catcher in the Rye because it features the same sort of youngish character who thinks the entire world is phony bullshit. Like that book, Giveaway is written in first person with copious slang and the feel of trying to make sense of a confusing society. We saw it labeled somewhere as juvenile fiction. It isn't. It stars two teens, but the themes from veteran pulp magazine contributor, crime novelist, and screenwriter Fisher are adult, and overall he crafts a good tale. His screenplays include Dead Reckoning, Lady in the Lake, and Johnny Angel, so a foray into the criminal underworld with him is mandatory. We have one of his crime novels, so that'll be an upcoming read, and we'll report back.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1933—Prohibition Ends in United States
Utah becomes the 36th U.S. state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, thus establishing the required 75% of states needed to overturn the 18th Amendment which had made the sale of alcohol illegal. But the criminal gangs that had gained power during Prohibition are now firmly established, and maintain an influence that continues unabated for decades.
1945—Flight 19 Vanishes without a Trace
During an overwater navigation training flight from Fort Lauderdale, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo-bombers lose radio contact with their base and vanish. The disappearance takes place in what is popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
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.
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