Help... dying... last wish... to see dripping wet naked woman.
The cover art for this 1948 Avon edition of Paul Cain's Fast One kind of looks like a guy's about to drop dead in front of a bathing woman, but actually he's merely been shoved into the bathroom by the story's anti-hero protagonist. It's always interesting which moment an artist (or a publisher directing an artist) will choose for a cover. This is not an important event in the narrative, but the chance to show a woman in the bath was apparently too enticing to pass up.
The backdrop here is prohibition era Los Angeles and the main character Gerry Kells and the femme fatale S (we never learn her first name) are pulled into a maelstrom of trouble when Kells refuses to work for his old crime buddies and in retaliation they frame him for murder. The novel was put together from five stories that appeared in Black Mask magazine, and when it was published Cain—aka Peter Ruric, aka George Sims—was hailed as a giant of hard-boiled fiction on par with Hammett and Chandler. We don't know about that, but Fast One is a good read—bare bones and quick paced and filled with random brutality.
The bio page for Fast One says Cain “has lived as he writes—at high speed and with violence.” It's a phrase that makes you want details but none are provided. We imagine the description is accurate, though, because Cain published this single novel, as well as some screenplays (including for The Black Cat), then vanished into obscurity and eventually died of alcoholism.
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.
For the last time! I gave all my spare change to the guy who pretends he's a statue!
Drum circles always end up sounding exactly the same. And we say that with respect, since both of us here at Pulp Intl. are what you'd call professional drummers. No joke. It's sort of how we met. During that auspicious encounter BB said to me, “Other drummers hate me.” Me: “Why is that?” BB: “Because I'm better than them.” True story. Charlotte Jay's thriller Beat Not the Bones marches to the beat of a different drummer. The novel, which first appeared in 1952 and in the above Avon paperback edition in 1955, involves a sheltered Australian woman who ventures to the fictional New Guinean town of Marapai to prove her husband, who worked there as a government anthropologist, was a murder victim rather than a suicide. The book was well received and won Jay, aka Geraldine Halls, the inaugural Edgar Award for best mystery novel of the year.
Our expectations, in that case, were high. But were they perhaps a bit too high? Jay's prose is evocative and the setting is fascinating, but the heroine of Beat Not the Bones, tender young Emma Warwick, tries the patience just a little as she sort of gasps, swoons, and palpitates her way toward the answer she seeks. Was her husband murdered because he refused to approve the application for a gold claim? Is there a more sinister plot afoot? She can only know by embarking on a journey to the country's steamy interior. This trip into the heart of darkness, the dramatic crux of the book, doesn't begin until more than three quarters of the way through. But we knew it was imminent, and that made us impatient. Just get to the jungle journey! Beat not the bones! Get to trekkin' already! Well, Emma gets there eventually.
As she draws closer to the center of the mystery she grows emotionally stronger, hindered by some and helped by others, particularly a local acquaintance named Hitolo who works for the state but still has jungle roots. This is the type of novel where grown Papuan men like Hitolo are all “boy,” rampaging predatory colonialism is “opening up the country,” and colonials are under the delusion that their presence is helpful to the locals. But Jay, the omniscient voice of the narrator, makes clear that none of these beliefs are true. While the question among the characters is whether the very environment corrupts white men, the suggestion made by the author is that the corruption is not found there, but brought there, stowed away in the colonials' own souls.
To put a finer point on it, what truly corrupts colonials is the blatantly evil act of stealing native people's past by destroying their traditions and beliefs, and also stealing their future by taking possession of everything that holds value in the modern world that awaits them. In the face of such a robbery that leaves its victims doubly impoverished all justifications are hollow; they're a farce, winkingly acted out as cover for a greedy rampage. But we anthropologize. The jungle journey is the key to this book, and whether you like it depends on whether you consider that section worth the wait. Like your average drum circle Beat Not the Bones could have been more varied, more streamlined, more nimble, but when the end comes it's with a thunderous crescendo and a sense of waking from a dream.
Yep, this is a robbery. Faked you out, right? Now pretend I'm asking for a back rub and empty the cash drawer.
Above, a great cover for W.R. Burnett's High Sierra from Avon Publications' series Murder Mystery Monthly, 1946, featuring a very slick robber painted by Paul Stahr. We shared another cover for this book you can see here.
Better killing through chemistry.
Above is a 1958 Avon edition of The Death Dealers, sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov's first foray into the mystery genre. When a chemistry professor's best student dies of an apparent lab accident the professor ponders taking over the protege's cutting edge research as a way to impress peers—and perhaps earn a long denied tenure. But he's deduced there's a murderer loose and is worried the police might deduce it too, and consider the valuable research a perfect motive. While Asimov lays out the killing and resulting dilemma in a methodical way, and the world of chemists on a college campus is one he knew well as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, the linear nature of the plot and emotional coolness of the characters don't allow the mystery to truly grip the reader. Yet the book is very readable—the details of life on campus, the politics, the maneuvering for that elusive tenure, are all interesting. And the backdrop of advanced chemistry, the detailed but not overwrought descriptions of experiments and processes, the fact that most of the characters are geniuses in their field, all work well. But there are so many mystery masterpieces out there we can only feel good recommending The Death Dealers to voracious readers in the genre. Or to Asimov fans. Neither group will be disappointed. All others, no guarantees.
Chester Himes' tough love affair with Harlem continues.
A beautiful piece of George Ziel art fronts this Avon paperback edition of the Chester Himes' thriller The Real Cool Killers. The story here takes place during one night, as a white man is shot in the back on a Harlem street and the detective duo Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed make the scene. Ed goes off his head and is suspended, which makes 90% of the book Gravedigger's show. Was the victim an innocent bystander? Was the murderer who it seems to be? And what does Coffin Ed's daughter have to do with it?
Himes' descriptive flair is unique, his sense of place is vivid, his use of language is a highwire act, and his characters are interesting. Even their names are often amazing—Ulysses Galen, Sugartit, Shiek, etc. The Real Cool Killers appeared in 1959, and as we noted when read The Crazy Kill, we're struck by the fact that—in that charged cultural era on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement—Himes doesn't bother writing a single sympathetic black character aside from his two cops. But in this way he's no different than other hard-boiled crime writers.
Himes moved black characters to the center. They drive the action from all sides rather than are merely affected by it. Research shows that books, films, and television shows in which black characters drive rather than are affected by the action tend to be less popular with white Americans. Seen in that light, Himes' success is a tribute to a unique skill set. In the same way the murdered man in The Real Cool Killers gets his thrills going to Harlem, readers in 1959 were able to visit a world not their own in Himes' fiction. He's more than just a real cool writer. He's a pioneer.
Um, Georgia Boy—see if you can put down that unrest you've got happening down around Savannah.
George Mayers does the cover work for the Erskine Caldwell short story collection Georgia Boy, which first appeared in 1943, and in this Avon paperback edition in 1947. While it's a story collection, all the tales are narrated by one young character and mainly discuss the poor Stroup family and their friends, acquaintances, and neighbors. This is Caldwell in a more humorous mode than normal, but the underlying themes of his work—particularly poverty and racism—remain, as in the tale "Handsome Brown's Day Off," in which a black character becomes a living target at a carnival.
We recently encountered this phenomenon in a Jim Thompson novel, and what we thought, or at least hoped, was a case of literary flourish was actual reality—in the Jim Crow south white carnival goers paid to throw baseballs at black men's heads. The balls were generally of a novelty variety, which is to say heavy enough to fly straight, though not hard enough to be lethal, but still. Making the tableau even more horrific was the requirement that the target stick his head through a hole in a jungle backdrop and that he grin and mug for the assembled whites as he tried to dodge the baseballs. We checked it out in other sources and confirmed the prevalence of this barbaric practice. We also found that carnivals in northern states did it too, though it was far more common down south. Apparently the big fun with these spectacles occurred whenever some college or professional pitcher showed up and thrilled the crowd by nailing these poor guys' heads at high velocity.
We found a 1908 article, which you see at right, about a group of pro baseball players who substituted normal baseballs for novelty ones and repeatedly beaned a man, putting him in the hospital, where it was feared he might not survive. The target was said to have taken the punishment “courageously,” and of course there was no suggestion of charges being filed.
We also found two other mentions of “African dodgers”—the gentlest term used to describe them—being killed. Things like these need to be remembered, especially in light of today's cultural battles wherein a segment of people seek to propagate a myth of the south as misunderstood. But literature, besides its other value, is often useful for preserving history, as Erskine Caldwell shows. That said, in Georgia Boy we preferred the stories about sex and we have a feeling you will too.
Stop playing hard to get! I just want to make sweet love to you!
The Woman Aroused tells the story of a man who allows a confused and mysterious woman to stay with him, then finds he can't get her out of his apartment. He basically can't even get her off his sofa. The woman calls herself Lee, but that isn't her real name. She has no family, no friends, no past. She has a strange accent that hints at origins somewhere in Europe, but conversely she has an American flag tattoo on her forearm.
It emerges that Lee is short for “liebchen,” a nickname from when she was a worker and sex slave in a Polish concentration camp. The tattoo is a cover-up for her Nazi serial number. But even after these discoveries the issue remains how to get rid of her. The narrator is no match for her physically because she's six feet tall and labor hardened, he has limited hope of outsmarting her, and due to complications he can't involve the police. Quite a pickle, and quite an inversion of the usual male-female relationship found in mid-century fiction.
Ed Lacey, aka Ed Lacy, née Leonard Zinberg is not a polished writer, at least not working under this pseudonym, but he certainly dreams up thought provoking tales. This one is just weird enough to sustain interest throughout its short length. The cover on this Avon edition, which gives vivid form to the physical turning of the tables depicted in the narrative, is by famed pin-up artist William Randall, aka Bill Randall, and the copyright is 1951.
Shut up, conscience. We both knew she'd eventually criticize my driving one time too many.
Above, both sides of Australian writer Charlotte Jay's, aka Geraldine Halls' The Fugitive Eye, for Avon Books, 1953, about a witness to murder who loses his eyesight in an accident and finds himself pursued by bad guys. The rear cover, with its multi-angle text, is almost as interesting as the front, but the art is uncredited. If you're wondering where the dead woman's other foot is, someone found it over here.
A thousand miles out to sea there's nobody to help you if you can't help yourself.
Above, a Bill Johnson cover for the Charles Williams thriller Dead Calm, originally published in hardback in 1963 with this Avon paperback coming in ’65. We love this cover. It gets more interesting the more you look at it. As for the story, it deviates from the 1989 Nicole Kidman movie in several important ways, including the number of characters, the approach the heroine Rae takes toward being stranded on a sailboat in the middle of the South Pacific with a madman, and the climax. The movie is excellent, of course, but it's interesting the choices screenwriters make. In the movie Rae uses sex as part of her arsenal but Williams has more imagination than that—or less, depending on your point of view. In any case, Dead Calm is a recommended read.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1964—China Detonates Nuke
At the Lop Nur test site located between the Taklamakan and Kuruktag deserts, the People's Republic of China detonates its first nuclear weapon, codenamed 596 after the month of June 1959, which is when the program was initiated.
1996—Handgun Ban in the UK
In response to a mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland that kills 16 children, the British Conservative government announces a law to ban all handguns, with the exception .22 caliber target pistols. When Labor takes power several months later, they extend the ban to all handguns.
Pierre Laval, who was the premier of Vichy, France, which had collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, is shot by a firing squad for treason. In subsequent years it emerges that Laval may have considered himself a patriot whose goal was to publicly submit to the Germans while doing everything possible behind the scenes to thwart them. In at least one respect he may have succeeded: fifty percent of French Jews survived the war, whereas in other territories about ninety percent perished.
1966—Black Panthers Form
In the U.S., in Oakland, California, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale form the Black Panther political party. The Panthers are active in American politics throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but eventually legal troubles combined with a schism over the direction of the party lead to its dissolution.
1962—Cuban Missile Crisis Begins
A U-2 spy plane flight over the island of Cuba produces photographs of Soviet nuclear missiles being installed. Though American missiles have been installed near Russia, the U.S. decides that no such weapons will be tolerated in Cuba. The resultant standoff brings the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. The crisis finally ends with a secret deal in which the U.S. removes its missiles from Turkey in exchange for the Soviets removing the Cuban weapons.
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