Security—there's a serious situation in sporting goods.
Steve Brackeen's, aka John Farris's, Baby Moll tells the tale of a former mob tough guy who's dragged away from the normal life he's built for himself to help his former boss survive the attentions of an assassin. It seems that years ago the bossman torched a building and a young girl survived with burns. The girl has grown up is presumably behind the murder attempts. But the book isn't really focused on her, which makes Barye Phillips' excellent cover art and the accompanying tagline a bit misleading. The various women spend little time on the page. Baby Moll is really about how the protagonist goes about his investigation. There's a good amount of action and an assortment of interesting characters, but we wouldn't go so far as to call the book either exceptional or well written. It's okay. It goes in the South Florida crime bin, so the setting might be enough to put it over for many readers.
The sky's the limit in third Bond thriller.
Ian Fleming's Moonraker is James Bond's third literary outing and it sees him trying to prevent the detonation of a loose nuke. If you've never read a Bond book, you may want to know that in addition to being thrillers they're hardcore car and food porn. Fleming takes pains to describe engines, exhausts, gearing; then he'll turn toward flavors, ingredients, and vintages. In Moonraker a chapter long car chase is a tour de force. A meal in a private club is almost as exciting. The rarefied world of three digit speed and three star dinners drew us in almost as much as the plot. But the main takeaway from this book for us is that it was absolutely murdered by United Artists when adapted for the screen. They left nothing but the title and the name of the villain. It's worth reading just to experience Fleming's original vision. This 1960 Signet edition has Barye Phillips cover art, and it's a bit different for him but very nice.
Of course I had sex with him, daddy. Didn't you teach me to do unto others as I would have them do unto me?
We like the fiction of Charles Williams quite a bit, so after reading six of his novels we thought we'd go all the way back to his debut, 1951's Hill Girl. The hill girl of the title is eighteen year-old Angelina, who has the temerity to actually enjoy sex, and compounds this sin by hooking up with handsome but married Lee Crane. This is horrifying to Lee's brother Bob, who not only wants what's best for his sibling, but also counts Lee's wife as one of his best friends. Thus this affair simply cannot stand. But Lee can't let Angelina go for reasons that can be best summarized this way: she's insanely hot and amazing in the sack. When Angelina's fundamentalist father literally comes after Lee with a shotgun Angelina ends up under Bob's protection, and shortly afterward under Bob.
Hey, girls just wanna have fun, right? So what develops here is a battle between two brothers over ownership of a woman's body. To his credit, Bob comes to the realization that whatever Angelina did before she was involved with him is none of his fuckin' business, even if the fuckin' was with his brother; but Lee never quite sees the light, even though he's married to a beautiful and wonderful woman. His obsession with Angelina will cost someone dearly. Hill Girl is miles away from Williams' nautical adventures, an interesting window onto sexual attitudes of the 1950s, and solidly put together as well. That's probably why it sold a million copies and launched his career. The cover art for this Gold Medal edition is by Barye Phillips.
Bond is born in Ian Fleming's 1953 Cold War thriller.
We've read a few Bond novels, but not his debut in 1953's Casino Royale. When it comes to secondhand bookstores and yard sales you read what you find. But we decided to finally made a deliberate effort to go back to the beginning with an edition from Signet, which appeared in 1960 with Barye Phillips cover art. The debuts of franchise characters leave room for continuing adventures by design but we've never read a book that was so deliberately a prequel as Casino Royale. It's the essential novel for understanding Bond. You know the basics already: Cold War intrigue, opposing teams taking the field for a long struggle, a Soviet spy named La Chiffre who's dipped into funds not his and who hatches a desperate plan to restore them via the baccarat tables of a famous French casino, Bond dispatched to outplay him, break him, and ensure his downfall for stealing the money.
The book is fantastic from its opening, through its tremendously tense middle sections, and on to its brutal punchline of an ending. Bond is imperfect as both a spy and a man. He's sometimes kind, prone to sentiment, and philosophical about his work; he's also sexist, racist, and generally regressive. Casino Royale is designed to explain how the first three qualities were destroyed, making him a perfect spy. The latter three qualities remain. While in serious fiction many authors of the period were writing about racial equality and the essential sameness of people, Ian Fleming was declaring that Asians are terrible gamblers because as a race they lack resolve. None of this is a surprise because much is known about Fleming's personal views. Bond is an icon, but of a less enlightened era. We're readers, of ours. Yet we can meet on the page, and—with a tolerance Fleming never showed others—still manage to have a little fun.
Where have you been? I've waiting all day to crush what little spirit you have left.
The Brat is solid work from Gil Brewer. The novel has been extensively reviewed online, but we'll give you the set-up: a woman from the sticks marries the first man who can rescue her from nowheresville, but her desire for a better life soon reveals itself to be a mad lust for riches. She conceives a robbery that has no hope of success and tries to drag her husband into it against his will. The result is murder and a lot of evidence pointing his way, though he had nothing to do with it. The only way to keep his neck out of the noose is to find his missing wife, the missing money, and learn whether the robbery was all a fatal error or a set-up from the beginning. Excellent stuff from Brewer, with an awesome air boat chase in the Everglades as its pivotal action piece. The cover art on this 1958 edition is by the stalwart Barye Phillips, and we think it's one of his best.
Al Wheeler gets caught in an explosive situation.
Barye Phillips art adorns the cover of Carter Brown's The Bombshell, first published in 1957, with this Signet edition appearing in 1960. The book features his franchise police detective Al Wheeler, who's assigned a murder case where there's no body. He protests because it's really a missing persons investigation, but his boss is convinced young Lily Teal's corpse is somewhere to be found. Even so, a previous investigation came up empty and Wheeler is assigned the case with the expectation he won't get anywhere. But failure is for lesser detectives. Our favorite exchange in this one:
Femme fatale: “Maybe it's something to do with me being born in the South—a girl matures early in a hot climate.”
Al Wheeler: “And you've been carrying that climate around with you ever since.
We shared this cover as part of a collection several years ago, but hadn't read the book. The scan above is from our own copy. This is the third Al Wheeler book in the long running series, but it already feels a bit perfunctory. The narrative doesn't really take off until Wheeler is framed for attempted sexual assault. At that point, based on how far his still unknown enemies are willing to go, he realizes there's more to the case than just a possible murder. Overall, not a bad outing, but nothing special. We have more Al Wheeler mysteries we acquired recently, so we'll see how those go.
So much for French chivalry.
This cover for Quatre pas dans la nuit fits right into our collection from earlier this year featuring ruthless men using women as human shields. In fact, it's the same painting by Barye Phillips used on Ben Benson's Broken Shield, which we included in that previous group. Quatre pas dans la nuit appeared in 1958 and is the French edition of the Ed Lacy novel Be Careful How You Live, which is in turn an expansion of his story "Time Wounds All Heels." We talked about Lacy a bit earlier this year, so if you want to know more check here.
I am happy. You wanna see mad? Keep telling me to cheer up.
Charles Williams wrote more than twenty novels, and though the ones we've read have been good to serviceable, we were expecting eventually to come across an absolute winner. Hell Hath No Fury is that book. It was Williams' fourth novel, written in 1953, and features a tough drifter who becomes a used car salesman in a brokedick country town where he happens to notice bank security is lax. But robbing the bank is the mere entry point to all the problems he encounters. There's also a one-woman nightmare of a femme fatale, a shockingly adept sheriff, a filthy blackmailer, an irascible boss, and a sweet local beauty ripe for love. Williams uses the best line in the book on her:
I took her face in my hands and kissed her. And then they dynamited the dam.
There's no dam. That's just what the kiss does to him. And it's a brilliant pulp moment. A book like this screams for film adaptation, and it was eventually put onscreen in the form of 1990's The Hot Spot, with Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen, and a radiant Jennifer Connelly. We haven't watched the film, but it's on the slate. The only flaw to the book, besides the usual stuff general to 1950s crime fiction, is the title. The main character Harry Madox thinks he's rid himself of the femme fatale Dorothy Harshaw, but hell hath no fury. Those four words tell us she'll be back plenty mad and will have a say in how matters conclude. It takes a little of the suspense away. Otherwise, top notch.
I'm not judging you for being an easy lay, baby. I'm judging you for not letting me get any damn sleep.
This is a nice effort from illustrator Barye Phillips for John D. MacDonald's 1951 thriller Judge Me Not. Everything Phillips does is beautiful, of course, but we were particularly stuck by the pastel pinks and blues here. As for the writing, this is early John D., and the story concerns a burned out war vet having an affair with the mayor's wife in a small town, and the events set into motion when she turns up dead. We've been making our way through MacDonald's bibliography. His renown makes us sure we'll soon come across the book that truly thrills us, but this wasn't the one.
That famous southern hospitality must happen in some other part of the south.
Charles Williams' 1954 thriller Go Home, Stranger doesn't take place entirely at sea like fun efforts such as Dead Calm and Aground, but it does have an aquatic focus, with much of the action taking place in swamps and bayous along the Gulf Coast, as lead character Pete Reno tries to prove to the yokel police force that his famous actress sister didn't murder her husband. Though the cops aren't much help he finds an ally who doubles as a love interest. The Gulf feel is strong, the story is interesting, and the writing is typically solid, but this is not Williams at his best. Relegating the sister—who has the most at stake—to a mainly off-the-page role possibly saps the story of urgency. But of course middling Williams surpasses many thriller authors' best work. The cover art is by Barye Phillips, and its dark and moody nature illustrates the prose nicely. The copyright on this Gold Medal edition is 1963.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1992—Cocaine Baron Escapes Prison
Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria, imprisoned leader of the Medellin drug cartel, escapes from a posh Colombian jail known as La Catedral after he learns authorities intend to move him to a real prison. His taste of freedom doesn't last—he's killed in a shootout a year-and-a-half later.
1925—Jury Decides the Teaching of Evolution Is a Crime
In the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, American schoolteacher John Scopes is found guilty of violating the Butler Act, which forbids the teaching of evolution in schools. The sensational trial pits two great legal minds—William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow—against each other. Ultimately, Scopes and Darrow are destined to lose because the case rests on whether Scopes had violated the Act, not whether evolution is fact.
1969—First Humans Reach the Moon
Neil Armstrong and Eugene 'Buzz' Aldrin, Jr. become the first humans to walk on the moon. The third member of the mission, command module Pilot Michael Collins, remains in orbit in Apollo 11.
1972—Chaos in the Big Apple
In New York City, within a span of twenty-four hours, fifty-seven murders are committed.
1944—Hitler Survives Third Assassination Attempt
Adolf Hitler escapes death after a bomb explodes at his headquarters in Rastenberg, East Prussia. A senior officer, Colonel Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, is blamed for planting the device at a meeting between Hitler and other senior staff members. Hitler sustains minor burns and a concussion but manages to keep an appointment later in the day with Italian leader Benito Mussolini.
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