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.
Dan J. Marlowe gives readers an immersive experience.
Death Deep Down, a thriller from the typewriter of the prolific Dan J. Marlowe, was published in 1965, which is a significant year compared to the books from the ’40s and ’50s we typically read. Books from the mid-sixties and later usually have pacing more similar to today's novels, with faster movement and more action-oriented plot beats. That's true here, and combined with good writing skill, the result is that there isn't a single page Marlowe has written that readers would likely be tempted to gloss over at any point. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The story revolves around a potential fortune-making modification to scuba equipment (or SCUBA if you prefer), and the various forces—business, government, and non-aligned—that all want the rights to it. When you think scuba you think warm waters, and the cover illustration reinforces that notion, but all the aquatic action is in the freezing waters of Long Island Sound, off Oyster Bay. The protagonist Rocky Conrad, a marine on leave from the Vietnam War, is drawn into the plot when his half brother, who developed the gear, is tortured to death. This is juxtaposed against an inheritance drama within a wealthy family, while lurking in background are mysterious assassins of sadistic bent, who flay skin, break bones, and cut out eyes. Who they're working for is one of several mysteries Rocky needs to unravel. He goes about it the way you'd expect of a guy with his name—fists first.
This was Marlowe's tenth novel, and he knew exactly what he was about. There aren't many flaws, though it's at times jarringly pervy, with female characters getting fully or partly naked according to flimsy authorial pretexts. We love nudity, but within the narrative flow. Rocky's asides get a little digressive. Even so, the female characters play important roles both behind the scenes of the caper, and front and center in the action. One such instance involves a vicious fight. We just mentioned how rarely authors write truly knock-down drag-out battles between two women, and presto—here you go. This fight is amazingly hateful, with face scratching, hair ripping, and the combatants rolling off a deck. At the end both require serious medical attention and are likely to be scarred for life. It's a nice punctuation in a book filled with good action. Turning to the striking cover, this Gold Medal edition features the instantly recognizable work of Robert McGinnis, and his genius shines through even on what is an understated effort by his standards. As often occurs with mid-century paperbacks, the blurb is misleading. Topside she was all honey and sex and woman—underwater she had the conscience of a shark. That's every woman in the book apart from the main love interest Dulcie, which makes it potentially foolish that Rocky treats them all dismissively. The only thing more dangerous than a femme fatale is, like, three of them. We're going to try another Marlowe. Based on how involved we got in Death Deep Down, more is mandatory.
Do you ever put the gun away? I'm just wondering because you'll probably need two hands for what I have planned.
We recently called Barye Phillips a ubiquitous illustrator, but we keep running into Robert McGinnis too. Which mid-century artist do you suppose painted the most paperback covers? Surely both Phillips and McGinnis have to be in the running. Here's the latter's masterful work on the cover of William Ard's Wanted: Danny Fontaine, a 1960 re-issue of 1959's As Bad As I Am. In this novel the title character has just been paroled after his third prison stint. Because his crimes always involve helping damsels in distress, a provision of his parole is that he must stay away from women for eighteen months. That's not easy. He has movie star looks on a six-four frame, and an overt but non-aggressive masculinity wrapped inside a genuine charm that verges on innocence. All of that makes him irresistible to women. But the fact that his probabtion officer can't wait to send him back to prison offers all the motivation he needs to keep his life unentangled. Unfortunately, Fontaine gets entangled anyway. He gets involved in a cop killing, at which point a beautiful actress named Gloria Allen risks everything to come to his aid. We thought it was a clever thematic reversal by Ard after taking such lengths to portray Fontaine as a habitual white knight. The man who's gone to prison three times rescuing women is doomed unless a woman helps him—and at great risk to herself, since the police have gone full vigilante in an attempt to avenge one of their own. While the plot Ard spins is unlikely in parts, and there are some of the issues regarding race that are endemic to vintage fiction, Danny Fontaine and Gloria Allen are both winning creations, the supporting cast is good, and the story is propulsive. With this one on his ledger, plus the excellent Club 17 and Deadly Beloved, we may have to elevate Ard to our top rank of vintage crime authors, that lofty designation we like to call “trusted."
Victor Mature offers a ride and accidentally opens a Dors to big trouble.
Above is a nice cover for the movie tie-in edition from Avon Publications of The Long Haul by Mervyn Mills, which is about a trucker who gives a ride to a gangster's moll and as a result has to deal with numerous life threatening problems. It was published in 1957 and immediately adapted to the big screen, with the movie starring Victor Mature and Diana Dors appearing the next year. The art on this, which we think is great, is modeled after the movie poster and is unattributed, possibly because it's a photo-illustration, though we can't 100% sure on that.
Sometimes it's better if you don't go all the way.
Above is another case where the foreign promo material for a film surpasses the domestic version, something that happened increasingly as U.S. studios gave up on painted art, while foreign distributors kept on with the traditional ways. These two Italian promos were made for Quando baci una sconosciuta, which was produced in the U.S. as Once You Kiss a Stranger. The film stars the lovely Carol Lynley, so the odds of ending up with a nice domestic poster were high, but Warner Brothers flubbed it. Have a look at their effort below and we think you'll agree it's almost disgracefully bad. Meanwhile the Italian promos were painted by Tino Avelli, someone whose we've highlighted before, and while these don't rise to the level as some of most magnificent posters from Italy, they're still pretty nice.
Once You Kiss a Stranger is a reworking of Patricia Highsmith's 1950 novel Strangers on a Train, but with a woman in one of the leads. These days many would complain that this is evil “gender swapping,” but dramatic plotlines are finite in number, therefore freshening up old material in this way has always been attractive to Hollywood. They're doing it a bit more of late because today there are fewer new ideas than ever, and because ticket buyers—by which we mean the diverse people under age thirty who actually fuel profits—like it and put down good money to see it.
Lynley plays a deranged woman who intends to exchange murders with a golf pro played by Paul Burke. Lynley is about to be permanently committed to a mental institution, while Burke always finishes second in his tournaments to Phil Carey. Lynley offers to solve that problem by killing Carey, and expects Burke to kill her psychiatrist in exchange. Just as in the novel, as well as Alfred Hitchcock's 1951 cinematic adaptation, the key to making this plot device work is the protagonist not believing what he's being told. Once You Kiss a Stranger makes that part more realistic than either Highsmith or Hitchcock by simply having Burke agree to anything that gets the tanned and toned Lynley into bed. This is where casting a woman pays dividends. The entire entrapment is now in shorthand because everyone in the cinema understands the visceral need to get inside Lynley. Hell, for her we'd promise to rope the moon. We'd swear an oath while covered in goat's blood. We'd swim a lake of fire. Point is, you can understand Burke's attitude being, “Uh huh... I hear you... murder... understood... can you take off your panties real slow?” However, Burke being led by his dick into trouble is the only improvement Once You Kiss a Stranger manages over what came before. The rest is a pale imitation of two scintillating sources, and done on a level dialogue-wise that Mystery Science Theater 3000 would epically mock. We can't recommend it, but speaking only for ourselves, we'll watch anything with Lynley. Full stop. Once You Kiss a Stranger, with her, Burke, Carey, and the lovely Martha Hyer aged forty-five and looking fantastic, premiered today in 1969.
She's so ready even the book cover is moist.
Above: a simple but striking piece of dust jacket art by French illustrator Jef de Wulf we found on an auction site for André Dinar's, aka, Georges-André Delpeuch's 1968 novel Dévergondée, a title that translates literally as “wanton.” Obviously, the paper got damp at some point, and being us, we ran with that idea for our subhead, and being them, the Pulp Intl. girlfriends told us we're gross. But that's the pulp life. You just gotta roll.
Now I'd like to do a little number about the fantastic sex I'm going to have later with a random member of the audience.
Above: a Robert Bonfils cover for Thom Martin's sleazer Serenade to Seduction, which came from Newsstand Library in 1960. We figure the singer here, after making her announcement, goes right into a steamy rendition of Dinah Washington's “Big Long Slidin’ Thing.”
It was an invitation she couldn't refuse.
Our latest literary foray has been Lionel White's 1959 crime novel Invitation to Violence, but first let's acknowledge this brilliant cover. It's uncredited, but we love it—especially the lower quarter, with its sprinting gunman and finned classic car. The story hinges upon a car. Everyman Gerald Hanna drives by an early a.m. jewel heist in progress, but one in the midst of going haywire because two cops have stumbled upon it. There's a shootout in progress, men down, and one of robbers forces himself into Gerald's car to make a getaway. The robber has been shot in the head, and after a succesful escape from the scene of the crime keels over dead. Gerald dumps the body and—whaddaya know—is left with a bag of jewels worth $250,000. You could call this a case of right place right time, or wrong place wrong time. The first will be true if Gerald gets to sell the loot and ride away into the sunset, and the second will be true if he's in a Lionel White novel.
The jewels corrupt Gerald's ethics immediately and comprehensively. Instead of turning them in to the police he attempts to profit from them, and the difficulties he encounters are myriad, involving characters ranging from the sister of the dead thief, to the heist's silent backer, to two clever cops who think Gerald was one of the original thieves. Gerald is educated. He's an accountant by trade. He knows how to plan, think ahead, and weigh odds. But everybody is working against him, even his fiancée, who unwittingly throws a wrench into his scheme because she's angry at being stood up the night Gerald was just a little preoccupied by a mortally wounded jewel thief bleeding out in his Chevy. Right place right time, or wrong place wrong time? White writes happy endings sometimes, so it isn't actually a foregone conclusion how Gerald's story wraps up. But it's a foregone conclusion that it will be a crazy ride.
Just my luck. I go to the trouble of hiring a bodyguard and end up with one who doesn't even notice my body.
Hillary Waugh wrote more than forty novels and eventually earned a Grand Master designation from the Mystery Writers of America. His 1958 thriller The Girl Who Cried Wolf shows why, as he takes a standard detective novel premise and adds a touch of girl-crush cuteness to it. A rich co-ed named Patty Merchant has fallen hard for gumshoe Phil Macadam. She's never met him. He gave a lecture to her class and she went starry eyed over him. She hatches a phony stalking story in order to hire him and be close to him, which works fine until she's grabbed by actual kidnappers.
The Robert McGinnis cover art on this 1960 Dell edition—and the alternate version below—vibes femme fatale, but Patty Merchant is no man eater. She's shy, sweet, smart in school but a bit clueless in romance. You can't help but like her, and neither can Macadam. Which is good because he goes through the entire wringer and then some trying to locate and rescue her. The Girl Who Cried Wolf is a good, fast paced read, more soft-boiled than hard, but very entertaining. This being our first Waugh, we're already planning to pick up more of his work.
This is right about when every dog person I've ever known starts to rethink their preferences.
Amos Hatter entertained us very effectively with his 1952 Hawaiian romance Island Girl, and since we knew his 1951 novel Untamed Woman was set in the islands too, we grabbed it. Hatter, aka James W. Lampp, Ben West, et al, tells the story of laced up lawyer Natalie Brewster, who jets from Boston to paradise to get a contract signed by her firm's client Bill Grant. When her briefcase disappears at his bacchanalian luau she assumes he stole it to keep her from leaving so he can make advances toward her. After a time she isn't so sure he lifted it after all, but the missing briefcase does keep her there, and she gives in to Bill's overtures, and gets caught up in all of Hawaii's other distractions too.
Hatter is comfortable working within the setting, and punctuates his story with nice local color, as well as quirky humor. Our favorite sequence was a living room destroying fight between Natalie and her fierce rival Dorothy. Amazingly, of all the books we've read, that was the first knock-down drag-out—apart from the Modesty Blaise novels—that we've come across between two women. Hatter writes it well. The hatred is pure enough to set off Mauna Loa. The next day both Natalie and Dorothy are wrecked, which is what happens when you smash coffee tables and hurl vases at each other. The end of the book is a little rushed, and a little dumb, but if you want lightweight, male-oriented, 1950's sex adventure, Untamed Woman will get the job done. The cover on this, by the way, featuring a femme fatale in a leopard outfit, is uncredited.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1989—Anti-Feminist Gunman Kills 14
In Montreal, Canada, at the École Polytechnique, a gunman shoots twenty-eight young women with a semi-automatic rifle, killing fourteen. The gunman claimed to be fighting feminism, which he believed had ruined his life. After the killings he turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.
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.
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