You're soaked. Good thing I was here to lend you my jacket. Now let's go somewhere and get you out of those wet clothes.
Bad luck. It's laid many a pulp protagonist low. In the 1938 thriller You Play the Black and Red Comes Up, written by Richard Hallas, aka Eric Knight, luck never seems to run the way the main character wants. The cover art on this 1951 Dell edition is by Victor Kalin, and depicts a scene in which the narrator Dick Dempsey gives his coat to a woman who has emerged naked from the sea. The fact that Dempsey is on the dock at that moment seems like the best possible luck, but luck can start good then turn bad, start bad then turn worse, and in all cases end up mockingly ironic. At one point Dempsey is trying his best to lose at roulette and the wheel hits black eleven times in a row, as he disbelievingly keeps letting his pile of cash ride. Then when he finally shifts it to red he's stunned when the wheel hits that color too.
The money that's causing Dempsey trouble isn't the fortune he won gambling—it's the fortune he stole during a robbery. In classic Damoclean style this loot hangs over him the entire book. He can't give it back, can't confess, and can't leave it behind. He just knows, like in roulette, whatever he does will turn out to be the wrong bet. You Play the Black and Red Comes Up is one of those books that was out of print for a while, but we can see why it was revived. Besides having the best title of possibly any crime novel ever written, its late-Depression, southern California setting makes a nice backdrop for weird events, bizarre characters, and outlandish existential musings. Critics of the day were divided on it. Was it homage to hard-boiled fiction, or a parody of it? To us it seems clearly the former. In either case, Hallas's tale has its flaws, but it's tough, spare, and very noir, all good qualities in vintage crime fiction.
*sigh* I'm still confused how I was charged for not having something.
They say possession is nine tenths of the law, but that last tenth can get mighty interesting if the thing you don't possess when the cops come along is, for example, identification, or clothing, or, apparently morals. Paul Hunter's 1961 novel Morals Charge deals with an eighteen-year old named Nancy who is lusted after by her mother's boyfriend, falls into the clutches of a big city racketeer, is jailed on a morals charge and abused by cops intent on using her to snare bigger prey. Paul Rader handles the cover work here, and it's a typically excellent effort. Mid-century paperback art would be far less entertaining without him, and though everything he does is great, if you want to see some of our favorites, check here, here, here, and here. We also have a mini-collection here.
Everyone said we were crazy to breed bite-sized cattle, but wait'll they taste how juicy and tender they grill up.
Edna Ferber is one of the more significant figures in American literature, a unique, sometimes political author who won a Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking 1926 novel So Big. We did one of those Facebook favorite book lists during the lockdown and So Big landed in our top twenty. Ferber wrote other notable books, including Showboat (yes, that one), Cimarron (ditto), and Giant, the 1952 Fawcett Cardinal edition of which you see above with Stanley Borack cover art. Rock Hudson and James Dean would of course make the film version an all-time classic. Ferber occasionally had doubts she'd be a success, but became one of the most popular and respected authors of her era, which just goes to show, whether it's books or bite sized cows, good ideas often win in the end, even if you have to hire a tiny cowboy to do the hands-on work.
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.
Only perfect manners can snare the perfect man.
This item caught our eye. How To Be Attractive was written by Hollywood actress Joan Bennett and, as its title indicates, is designed to help the modern mid-century woman negotiate the fraught dating scene. We've seen a few bloggers rip this book to shreds, but that's easy do with something written in 1943. We've read a few excerpts of it and it strikes us as a harmless artifact of an earlier age. Nobody was hurt in its writing, manufacture, or sale, and some of the advice—which veers into such realms as throwing parties and befriending other women—seems pretty practical to us. On the other hand, there's definitely a boys-will-be-boys theme running through it, the idea that if guys get the wrong idea from a woman's behavior or dress it's entirely her responsibility. We daresay most people have grown up a little since then, are still doing it, and will keep at it. We've seen a few other celebrity authored books, so maybe we'll post some of those later. Below, Bennett shows she'd be attractive, with or without the help of a book.
Don't worry. Lava's slow. I'm fast. I'll undress, we'll screw, then we'll run for our lives.
When we lived in Central America there were three volcanoes that loomed over our town. One's slope commenced just a few miles away and its peak dominated the sky to the south, but that one was extinct. The other two were not. One was dormant, but the other was active and smoked nonstop, with the prevailing wind carrying the ash away from town. This mountain occasionally shot out fountains of lava hundreds of feet high, which is a sight that will make you realize how insignificant you are the same way seeing a tornado or massive wave will. These mountains stood sentinel over many of our adventures, and were even involved in a few, including the time we visited a village on the extinct volcano and a mob of about thirty people beat a suspected thief to death.
Another time the top of that volcano started glowing red one night when we were hanging out at one of the local bars. We stood in the street with our drinks watching this spectacle, and pretty soon we could see flames around the mountain's peak. We thought we were seriously screwed. It was always understood that if that dead volcano ever came back to life there was nothing to do but kiss your ass goodbye. We decided to redouble our drinking. It turned out the flames were caused by a forest fire way up by the rim, but we gotta tell you, in those moments when we thought we might be toast, we got very efficiently hammered. It's a great memory, standing in that cobbled colonial lane, guzzling booze and waiting for the mountain to blow us all to hell.
Needless to say, for that reason the cover of 1952's The Angry Mountain by Hammond Innes sold us. The art is by Mitchell Hooks and it's close to his best work, we think. We didn't need to know anything about the book. We just wanted to see how the author used a volcano—specifically Vesuvius—in his tale, since they're a subject personal to us. The cover scene does occur in the narrative, though the couple involved aren't actually trying to have sex. Innes describes this lava lit encounter well. In fact we'd say it's described beyond the ability of even an artist as good as Hooks to capture, but that doesn't mean the book is top notch. Innes simply manages to make the most of his central gimmick.
The narrative deals with a man named Farrell who was tortured during World War II, losing his leg to a fascist doctor who amputated without anesthesia. A handful of years later Farrell is in Europe again, getting around on a prosthetic leg, when a series of events leads to him believing the doctor who tortured him is alive and living under a false identity. In trying to unravel this mystery he travels from Czechoslovakia, to Milan, to Naples, and finally to a villa at the foot of Vesuvius, along the way being pursued but having no idea why. He soon comes to understand that he's thought to be hiding or carrying something. But what? Why? And where? Where could he be carrying something valuable without his knowledge? Well, there's that hollow leg of his he let get out of his sight one night when he got blackout drunk...
That was a spoiler but since you probably don't have a volcano fetish you aren't going to seek out this novel, right? The main flaw with The Angry Mountain is that, ironically, there's not much heat. Farrell is an alcoholic and has PTSD, so he's not an easy protagonist to get behind. And his confusion about what's happening gives the first-person narrative the feel of going around in circles much of the time. And because this is a 1950s thriller, there's the mandatory love interest—or actually two—and that feels unrealistic when you're talking about a one-legged boozehound who has nightmares, cold sweats, and general stability problems. So the book, while evocative, is only partly successful. But those volcano scenes. We sure loved those.
There's been entirely too much downsizing around here. How about today you and I do a little upsizing?
When does a growth spurt occur in a typical business? In mid-century sleaze fiction, it happens whenever secretary and boss agree, as suggested in this brilliant cover by George Gross for John Hunter's 1957 novel Office Hussy, previously published in 1951 as The Loves of Alice Brandt and credited to Gene Harvey. We like to interpret this as the woman being the boss, having just told her subordinate to pour a couple of tall bourbons, and be damned quick about it. But it can be seen the other way if you wish. Doesn't matter, because when consenting parties get together everybody gets a bonus. You already know George Gross was close to the best paperback artist ever, but if you're unfamiliar with him, check here, here, and here.
Coffee isn't going to get the job done today. You got any of that 8-ball left over from last weekend?
Based on the bummed expressions on the faces of the coffee drinkers on this cover for Larry Tuttle's The Bold and the Innocent, they've just come to the conclusion that they need stimulation of a higher order than caffeine. At least that's what it looks like to us. But this is a swinger sleaze novel, which means the only way they'll get their hands on 8-balls is if they have sex with 4 guys. That doesn't happen. Instead the story deals with two married women who cross the line with each other. You know the one. The lesbian line. That always leads to serious trouble in mid-century fiction, and The Bold and the Innocent is probably no exception. 1965 on this, with uncredited art, though it's possibly Bill Edwards.
So far I've had malaria, dysentery, dengue, hookworm, and schistosomiasis, but baby, you make it all worth it.
Once again cover art works its intended magic, as we made the choice of reading Georges Simonen's African adventure Tropic Moon solely due to being lured by Charles Copeland's evocative brushwork. This edition came from Berkley Books in 1958, but the tale was originally published as Coup de lune in 1933. It's set in Gabon, then a territory of French Equatorial Africa, and poses the familiar question: does Africa ruins whites or were they bad beforehand? The main character here, Joseph Timar, is done in by heat and booze and easy sex, but he was surely a terrible person before he ever set foot in Gabon, and of course he's a stand-in for all white colonials. All we can say is we get the message. We got it way back when Conrad wrote it. What would be great is some sense of evolution in all these Conrad-derived works, for instance if occasionally the human cost of colonial greed were shown to be black lives and prosperity rather than white dignity and morality, but literary treatments of that sort had not yet come over the horizon during the pulp era. On its own merits, though, Tropic Moon is interesting, a harrowing front row seat for a downward spiral in the equatorial jungle.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1943—Philadelphia Experiment Allegedly Takes Place
The U.S. government is believed by some to have attempted to create a cloak of invisibility around the Navy ship USS Eldridge. The top secret event is known as the Philadelphia Experiment and, according to believers, ultimately leads to the accidental teleportation of an entire vessel.
1953—Soviets Detonate Deliverable Nuke
The Soviet Union detonates
a nuclear weapon codenamed Reaktivnyi Dvigatel Stalina, aka Stalin's Jet Engine. In the U.S. the bomb is codenamed Joe 4. It is a small yield fission bomb rather than a multi-stage fusion weapon, but it makes up for its relative weakness by being fully deployable, meaning it can be dropped from a bomber.
1969—Manson Followers Continue Rampage
A day after murdering actress Sharon Tate and four others, members of Charles Manson's cult kill Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson personally orchestrates the event, but leaves the LaBianca house before the killing starts.
1977—Son of Sam Arrested
The serial killer and arsonist known as Son of Sam and the .44 Caliber Killer, is arrested in Yonkers, New York. He turns out to be 24-year-old postal employee David Berkowitz. He had been killing people in the New York area for most of the previous year.
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