Hemingway's lament for the downtrodden working class is supposed to be his worst novel. But is it really?
Don't let the cover blurbs fool you. In general To Have and Have Not is considered by critics to be Ernest Hemingway's worst novel. Originally published in 1937, it was completely rewritten and became a great 1944 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. If you've already seen the movie but never read the book, hold onto your hats, because this is extraordinarily rough stuff from Hemingway, a tale of desperation and murder in the depths of the Great Depression. Harry Morgan is a Key West boat captain who's stiffed for $825 after his three-week charter skips town. That would be about $15,000 in today's money, so it's no surprise that losing this bundle means Morgan, who's married, has three kids, the usual assortment of bills and responsibilities, and has spent his life fighting to get ahead, is now destitute.
If you opt to read the book, make sure not to gloss over exactly how far in the hole Morgan is. $825 dollars would bend the morals of most people in 1937, just as $15,000 would today. After being cheated out of this cash he makes a fateful decision to turn criminal himself by running illegals from Cuba to Florida. That's when things go from bad to worse. If you look closely at the cover art on this Perma Books edition from 1953 you'll see what the result of Morgan's criminal foray was. That's one reason cover art is so interesting. The scene the artist chooses to depict—in this case it's Tom Dunn—can sometimes be so specific as to give away an important plot point. If you can't tell what we're talking about by looking at the art we'll give you a hint. What happens to Morgan is the also title of an earlier Hemingway book.
But moving on, To Have and Have Not is—we'll just come out and say it—brutally racist. There are some who would like to gaslight you into thinking you're seeing something that isn't there, and others who would prefer you to ignore this, but you shouldn't, because racism is actually pivotal in the narrative. Morgan's initial foray into crime is against people he clearly feels are subhuman. They and other ethnic groups are referred to with slurs, and these come not just from Morgan's mouth, and from his thoughts, but from the writer's thoughts too. There are places where Morgan uses actual names to refer to characters that Hemingway still refers to by slurs. Think: “Hey Joe, give me a hand with these poles,” said Harry. The [slur] put down his coffee and helped Harry with the poles. So while it's always good to separate the author from their fiction so they have freedom to create any sort of characters they wish, it still raises an eyebrow when you read something like that.
Another aspect of To Have and Have Not that may jar is its lack of sympathetic characters. Morgan's ex-prostitute wife Marie is probably the nicest person in the book, and even she drops n-bombs all over place. But you have to root for someone, so it's her and Harry. You do it because they're at the economic mercy of terrible people. Most of these folks—who are generally of a better class—wouldn't use racial slurs, but they also wouldn't think twice about ruining someone for a few dollars. And while Harry employs a black man and gets along with him fine, you can be sure none of his rich charters would let a black man deign to speak to them. So in its way, To Have and Have Not is relevant in 2020 by starring a working class character who's uncouth, uneducated, and devoid of genuine empathy, but who constantly deals with people that think they're better than him and really aren't.
This is why losing the charter and those $825 bucks is such a clever way to open the novel. The charter, Johnson, flies away and doubtless never gives what he did much thought, but in shafting a working man creates wreckage that crushes not just the man he cheated, but those around him. We think this is the way to focus on the book if you read it—acknowledge the obvious deficiencies of Harry Morgan, but pay close attention to the secondary characters. This is what Hemingway wanted, which is why Morgan's narration lasts for only a while. Everything after his first crime caper is told from outside his point of view. As the book goes on, Hemingway drags you deeper into the lives of these ancillary characters, dispassionately leaving a struggling Morgan to recede into the distance.
So is To Have and Have Not Hemingway's worst book? We don't like it as much as his other works, but with its changes in point-of-view, mood, and even narrative tense, it's also more challenging than those books. Ultimately, the most serious indictment of To Have and Have Not comes from the author himself—he thought it was his worst book too. And who are we argue with Ernest Hemingway? But on the other hand, when you write The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and win a Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, and later win a Nobel Prize for your body of work, your worst book can still be pretty good.
She knows the best way to a man's heart—ballistically speaking.
It's been a couple of years since we had a cover by French illustrator Jean Salvetti, so here's one for Dorothy ouvre le bal, or “Dorothy opens the ball,” published in 1952 by Paris based Éditions le Trotteur and written by Oscar Montgomery, aka José del Valle. There were three books in the Dorothy series, with this one coming second. Short synopsis: Dorothy goes to Egypt, hurts a bunch of bad men. As you can see, Salvetti signed his work Salva. More Salva here, here and here.
The truth is I only listen to classical, but all the guys at those concerts are too old and frail to risk taking to bed.
Last stop for the scum of humanity on the road to hell? Sign us up! But 1953's Honky Tonk Girl isn't the throwaway novel you'd expect. The premise is unique—a Dixieland jazz musician named Johnny Nickles fears he's recorded a haunted album. The platter, The Ghost Album, is so titled because it's a tribute to dead jazz kingpins, and seems to have heralded a series of misfortunes: the band's arranger dropped dead of a heart attack; Johnny's girlfriend stole his money and car; his band lost the cushy house gig they'd been promised; and now, playing nightly in a dive bar in nowheresville, the band's drummer has been murdered. Nickles decides to solve the case and gets help from a hooker, a chanteuse, a cop, and some obvious clues. We thought the idea of a haunted album would be the launch pad for a memorable book, but Beckman doesn't quite get this one airborne because—despite his extensive pulp pedigree—he's middling as a writer. But what does come through is his musical knowledge and familiarity with the hand-to-mouth existence of ambitious young jazzmen. We give it a 5 for prose and an 8 for atmosphere. The cover art, on the other hand, is a solid 10. It's by the always amazing Howell Dodd.
Murder mystery explores the turbulent years of pre-Malaysia Singapore.
We grabbed this beautiful hardcover copy of Suddenly, at Singapore from Scottish publishers William Collins, Sons & Co. for two reasons. First, the cover art is by the legendary Barbara Walton, one of the great illustrators of the mid-century period, and the title promises exotic thrills. Though we're lucky enough to live in an exotic land ourselves, we never get tired of tales set in Asia, Africa, or the Mediterranean. And speaking of exotic, Gavin Black is a pseudonym far less exotic than the author's real name—Oswald Wynd. Why use a pen name when you're named Oswald Wynd? Beats us, though the fake name does sound more real.
Anyway, Suddenly, at Singapore involves the Harris Brothers, two adventurous anglos born and raised in Singapore who own a shipping company that, in addition to legit cargos, transports black market weapons around the Java Sea in a fleet of Chinese junks. The story opens with the older brother Jeff being murdered, and younger brother Paul vowing revenge—as soon as he figures out who ordered the killing. He's also involved in an as yet unconsummated martial affair, and is trying to send his wife back to the U.S. to get her out of his hair. The two plotlines eventually braid together, and pretty soon the hero and both his women are in all kinds of difficulties.
This was a quick read, decent not great, but with nice local color derived from Black's/Wynd's time spent in the region. The story takes place before Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak merged into Malaysia, and Black channels some of the political tension and economic lawlessness that prevailed during that time, but doesn't delve into it in a detailed way. He would do that later, though—we gather that this was the first of numerous Paul Harris thrillers. We also hear from those in the know that Suddenly, at Singapore is the worst of the lot, so we may try the second book Dead Man Calling when we get the hankering for South Seas craziness again.
She's tougher than Tarzan, meaner than Sheena, and lustier than Gungala.
You can look at this cover and correctly assume that we've shared it because it was painted by Frank Frazetta, considered by many to be the master of sword and sorcery art. It's a beautiful piece, rightly famous. Alan Dean Foster is a master too. He isn't what you'd call a significant author in the sense that he's produced lauded original material, but he may be the king of movie novelizations. Among his output: The Black Hole, Clash of the Titans, Outland, Starman, Pale Rider, and The Chronicles of Riddick, as well as novelized series based on Star Wars, Star Trek, and Alien. We love Foster for his Star Wars sequel Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which came out before The Empire Strikes Back (notice we don't bother with that Episode nonsense) and followed Luke and Leia—not siblings in Foster's universe—as they adventured on strange worlds and discovered their love for each other. We still think the film series should have followed Foster's lead, but whatever.
His Luana is a novelization of the 1968 movie of the same name starring Mei Chen Chalais, which we talked about a while back. Sometimes novelizations are published before the film, sometimes after. Foster published Luana six years after the film in 1974 for reasons that are obscure. It was among his first published books. While template for a novelization is provided by the filmmakers, the author is who gives it color and life. Foster fulfills that duty with obvious relish, mining literary and cinematic antecedents like Tarzan, Tarzana, Gungala, Sheena, Shuna, and Ka-Zar for familiar tropes. A kilometer long pit filled with army ants? A lion and panther, both larger than any ever seen before, working in tandem with a huge chimp? A pitched battle between blowgun wielding Tanzanian tribesmen and an expedition of white explorers? A secret city of solid gold buildings? As lost world tales go, by standing on the shoulders of his predecessors, Foster crafts something better than average. And far better than the movie too.
Hmm. I know there are seven deadly sins, but maybe if I just keep doing lust over and over it'll only count once.
It's been a criminally long time since we've read a James M. Cain novel. We have several, so we'll have to remedy the omission pronto. The last one we read was Sinful Woman, and above we have the cover of the 1957 edition from Avon, which originally published the book in ’47. That earlier cover is spectacular, and we recommend taking a look at it here. We'll get back to Cain soon.
North of the border, south of the border.
We're back into quasi-quarantine where we live, so what better way to use up double the idle time than with an Ace double novel? In The Cut of the Whip a loner named Dan Port fetches up in a dusty Texas oil town and finds bad luck and trouble when his sports car is rammed and totaled. The person who did it was fleeing town with a sheaf of valuable business documents. The owner of those dox—the fugitive's father—pays Port to retrieve them, and soon he finds himself the only person who can foil a kidnapping plot. The previous books we've read by Rabe verged on bizarre in terms of concept, but this outing is more conventional—we suppose because Port was a franchise character. Rabe would eventually wheel him out for six adventures. We missed the Rabe of efforts like The Box and Kill the Boss Good-by, but he's adequate here, if less imaginative. Port blows into town, whips the asses that need whipping, and drifts away to who-know's-where. Just like a franchise character should.
Robert H. Kelston's Kill One, Kill Two, like its partner book, starts with a deadly auto incident. Maybe that's why the novels were paired. But similarities vanish from that point forward. This book is set in Monterrey, Mexico, and opens with a bang when the protagonist runs over a man on a dark highway. Kelston uses this event to frame a set of circular relationships: there's the protagonist Allen McCoy, who is bedding Juanita, a local nude dancer widely considered to be the most beautiful woman in Monterrey, who is watched over by her hot-headed brother, and is lusted after by a knife fighter known as the Shadow, who's acquaintances with an alcoholic blonde temptress of easy virtue, who is having an affair with the dancer's husband, but all along is trying to bed studly Mr. McCoy.
We've given nothing away with that summary. Kelston shoehorns all that into the first thirty or so pages, and you might have to re-read them to keep the connections straight. Who was it that got run over, you're wondering? That would be Juanita's husband Raúl, the guy who's making naughty spoons with the blonde. Thus McCoy is perceived to have gotten a romantic rival out of the way, and is believed by local gossips to now be bedding both the dancer and the blonde. In local macho culture that makes him a pure stud, but for his corporate employers it makes him radioactive. The gossips have it all wrong, though. The death was an accident, a result of drunken driving and darkness. McCoy soon comes to believe that poor Raúl was thrown in front of his car, and must solve the mystery or see his career destroyed by the rumors.
That's all fine, but the entire story turns out to be a fish too big for Kelston to land. He has it on the hook, then sees it wriggle off through pointless dialogue, confused motivations, and general lack of clear direction. We accepted the main character's motivation, but not necessarily his flimsy engineering background, nor his extraordinary bravery and physical competence in the face of danger. After all, he's just a builder. But that's genre fiction for you—on the page anyone can be a stud, even a pasty-ass, red-headed numbers cruncher like Allen McCoy. A cruel editor would have improved this tale, but in the end we enjoyed it anyway, because owing to our background we're predisposed to like adventures set in Latin America. The fact that it came packaged as an Ace double helped. We have a few other Ace doubles in the website, and you can see the whole lot by clicking its keywords below.
Nightfall is the time when desperate men commit desperate acts.
David Goodis was one of the mid-century era's most successful crafters of crime fiction. Movies based on his books include Dark Passage, the visually dazzling 1983 French film La lune dans le caniveau (The Moon in the Gutter), and the brilliant thriller The Burglar. His drama Nightfall, aka The Dark Chase, tells the story of a man who stumbles upon bank robbers, comes into possession of their loot, but loses it in a wild panic while fleeing a shooting. Months later and many states away, he's trying to make a new life but soon learns cops are trailing him trying to solve the robbery, and the surviving bank robbers have surfaced to demand the cash. He'd better find it or he's mega-screwed, but he literally can't remember what happened to it. He's blacked it out. Like other Goodis novels Nightfall became a movie, though it's hard to see cinema in it when you read it. But Jacques Tourneur had no issues, crafting a 1956 film noir starring Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. For us the novel, with its hallucinatory nature and quasi-amnesiac protagonist, wasn't a top thriller, but it was satisfying enough. This Lion Books edition came in 1956 with uncredited cover art.
Spillane's classic thriller brings death sealed with a kiss.
This is a beautiful paperback edition of Mickey Spillane's Kiss Me, Deadly. We talked about the book way back in 2013. Shorter version: You really think we can tell you something that hasn't already been written about this classic? Kiss Me, Deadly originally appeared in 1952. This version came in 1958 from London based Arthur Barker Limited, no. 42 in its Dragon series, with uncredited cover art. Barker is a pretty obscure publisher that launched in 1938 and was gone by 1969, so this paperback is rare, though less expensive than you'd suspect. Barker also produced a hardback of Kiss Me, Deadly in 1953 that likewise has interesting cover art and a surprisingly low price tag. We'll show you that later.
Some girls just can't get enough dock.
We said recently that untamable girls on the waterfront were an oft used trope in mid-century literature, and since then we keep running across examples. 1954's Wharf Girl by William Manners is another to add to the list. There are actually a few women involved here, according to the rear cover, a Stella, a Kathy, and a Barby, but the actual wharf girl seems to be Stella. We suppose that's her in the uncredited cover art. We can't tell you more without buying the book, and well, that isn't going to happen because the shipping costs for this are out of control. Plus we already have something like two-hundred novels to read. That's not a typo. Will we ever get to them? Well, our city is back in quarantine, so we have a lot more free time now. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1922—Egyptologists Enter Tut's Tomb
British Egyptologists Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon become the first people to enter the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in over 3000 years. Though sometimes characterized as scholars, Carter and Carnarvon were primarily interested in riches, and cut up Tut's mummy to more easily obtain the jewels and gold affixed to him.
1947—Hollywood Blacklist Instituted
The day after ten Hollywood writers and directors are cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to give testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the group, known as the "Hollywood Ten," are blacklisted by Hollywood movie studios.
1963—Ruby Shoots Oswald
Nightclub owner and mafia associate Jack Ruby fatally shoots alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of Dallas police department headquarters. The shooting is broadcast live on television and silences the only person known for certain to have had some connection to the Kennedy killing.
1971—D.B. Cooper Escapes from Airplane
In the U.S., during a thunderstorm over Washington state, a hijacker calling himself Dan Cooper, aka D. B. Cooper, parachutes from a Northwest Orient Airlines flight with $200,000 in ransom money. Neither he nor the money are ever found.
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