I'm not usually a quitter! But right now! I'm considering! Going back! To delivering pizzas!
And speaking of trains, above you see the cover of Lawrence G. Blochman's novel of foreign intrigue Bombay Mail, a murder mystery set in India and staged on a Calcutta to Bombay mail train. The lead character isn't actually a postal worker, but rather an investigator, Leonidas Prike of the British C.I.D., also known as the Criminal Investigation Department. This was Blochman's debut, originally appearing in hardback in 1934, which was the same year another celebrated trainbound mystery—Murder on the Orient Express—was published.
About that copyright date, by the way. Nearly every place you look will have Bombay Mail listed as arriving in 1934, but it may have appeared, at least in limited form, in 1933. We deduced this because the movie Bombay Mail, which was based on the novel, premiered in the U.S. in January 1934. We have a hard time imagining a debut novelist selling his book to movies before it hit the stores, so 1933 might be the actual publication date. One thing we're sure about, though, is this Dell mapback edition arrived in 1943, and the art is by Robert Stanley.
My colleagues would be shocked if they knew the perverse pleasure I take in not washing my hands.
Does he go naked under his smock? Does he prefer Merlot over Syrah? What exactly is the doctor hiding? His secret is—spoiler alert!—he isn't really a doctor. Gerbrand was a year from finishing medical school when World War II swept him up and he found himself serving as a Wehrmacht medic, first in battle, and later in concentration camps. That's a serious secret. We were thinking about other terrible secrets doctors could have. If we were being treated by Gerbrand, here are five more things we'd hate to discover.
He took the Hippocratic Oath with his fingers crossed.
He gets a bizarre sexual thrill from giving injections.
No matter what time your appointment is he has his receptionist let you in an hour later.
During chest surgery he squeezes patients' hearts and makes quacking noises.
He knows exactly where Hitler's other ball is.
Anyway, during the war Gerbrand learns everything a real doctor would, and then some. When peace comes he lands a job as a surgeon in West Germany, becomes known and respected, and has romantic liaisons with upper crusty women. But his secret will come out and when it does he'll be in trouble bigtime. We won't tell you how it turns out, because that would require a second spoiler alert, and one per write-up is our limit. The book was originally published in 1955 as Without Sanction, and this retitled Dell paperback came in 1959 with cover art by James Hill.
The New York City fashion scene turns out to be murder.
This cover for by George Harmon Coxe's Fashioned for Murder was painted by Fred Scotwood, and we love it. The point-of-view is a reflection in a camera lens, and check out the detail of the focal length numbers above the title text:
Nice touch. This book is one that was mailed to us from the United States by a friend, so thanks to Alex for that. In the story, a model poses with an elaborate set of costume jewelery she's been told is worthless, but comes to believe the gems are real after a stranger robs her of them, and an acquaintance returns them just before dying at her feet—shot twice in the back. She enlists the aid of a photographer who's smitten with her, and the two try to unravel the mystery. There's a very funny line about one of the supporting characters:
From the first she had been one of the best reporters the Bulletin ever had, never asking favors because of her sex and never making excuses when things went wrong.
Was there a time when women in professional settings asked favors because of their sex? We thought they barely got hired at all. The line reveals a prevalent mid-century myth that women (and minorities) rarely deserved what they achieved. Today all but the most stubborn people understand that the opposite was true—women and minorities had to be supernaturally good to get anything resembling a fair shake.
Admittedly, the main female character in Fashioned for Murder, whose name is Linda Courtney, does need help solving the mystery of the possibly-real gems, but anyone would—there's a killer (or killers) on the loose and that's nothing to tackle alone. Her photographer friend is very happy to help, though he's a bit of a twerp, in our opinion. But with a cool setting in the NYC fashion industry and some deft writing, Coxe has crafted a nice thriller, one that's well worth your time.
There's a sucker born every minute. And they die just as fast.
Fredric Brown's Madball was hard as hell to get at anything approaching a reasonable cost but we finally scored a copy. It's one of the more famous novels in the fertile carny niche, and had two amazing covers which you see above, the first by Foxley Griffith for the 1953 Dell edition, and the second by Mitchell Hooks for the 1962 Gold Medal edition. What's a madball? It's a gazing crystal. What's Madball about? After an insurance settlement a carnival worker comes into a couple of thousand bucks. When he's murdered his nest egg seems like the motive. But what nobody knows—or what nobody is supposed to know—is that he'd also been an accomplice in a bank robbery and possessed not just a couple of thousand dollars, but more than $40,000. That's about $380,000 in today's money—sufficient to inspire desperation and bloodthirsty viciousness. Madball is set apart by its weird backdrop, its odd carny denizens, its multi-pov narrative, and its sexual frankness. It's a mad tale, improbably plotted, testing the limits of believability, but recommended. See more carny fiction here, here, and here.
The only friend I need is Jack and he comes in a bottle. Um—I mean he comes from a bottle.
Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps was reviewed positively in The Guardian—in 2011. No small feat for a book dating from 1942. It's a semi-autobiographical novel dealing with love, sex, New York City society, and the search for happiness. It's divided into six episodes starring the same woman, and each section features a different central male figure, usually a love interest, but other times a person who stands in contrast to a love interest, such as the therapist to whom the protagonist vents about her marriage. Needless to say, the book fails the Bechdel test at every turn. It made a controversial splash in the ’40s because of its frank style, and is seen today as a minor classic, the first effort from an author who would go on to greater recognition. The edition you see here appeared in 1955 and the cover art of a woman and her little friend in a bottle—perhaps not Jack Daniel's but something sure to hit the spot anyway—is by Robert McGuire.
*sigh* Maybe I should have left this outfit back home and packed a raincoat instead.
We talked about the 1953 Rita Hayworth film Miss Sadie Thompson back in December. The source material, written by W. Somerset Maugham, first appeared in the literary magazine The Smart Set in 1921 as “Miss Thompson,” and was published by Dell as Rain in 1951. This edition has beautiful cover art from Victor Kalin, belying the dark story Maugham weaves inside. The movie sticks reasonably close to the book, so if you want to know more about the plot you can check here.
*gasp* That phone is just everything! Where did you find it in that color? I'm dying of jealousy right now.
Murder takes no holiday and neither does artistic talent, as proven by this beautiful Robert McGinnis cover of a man losing his shit over the latest pink phone from Ma Bell. Okay, that isn't what's happening, but it looks that way, right? Actually the male figure is way over his head in a smuggling plot and the female figure—a femme fatale named Vivienne Larousse—is keeping him from losing his nerve. The book is set on the fictional Caribbean Island of St. Albans, a British enclave that seems to be modeled after the Caymans. Brett Halliday's franchise sleuth Michael Shayne is thrown into the mix to solve a murder that took place in the U.S., and follows the clues to the tropics. Of the approximately seventy Shayne novels, this one—number thirty-five or so—is merely adequate. Actually, all the ones we've read have been merely adequate. But we'll keep at it. McGinnis, on the other hand, is masterful. Of all the moments in an action oriented book to illustrate he chose an unlikely one, but the result is just everything. His alternate cover, below, is also great.
Gringo adventurer goes down South American rabbit hole looking for Inca treasure.
Pulp fiction, genre fiction, crime fiction—call it what you want. Basically, none of it will ever win a Pulitzer Prize, but it can be mighty enjoyable when done just right. Plunder of the Sun is faster than fast pulp-style fiction from To Catch a Thief author David Dodge. The rough and tumble protagonist Al Colby tries to unravel the secret of an Inca quipa—an ancient numero-linguistic recording device—which may tell the location of an impossibly huge hoard of gold. The tale speeds from Santiago, Chile to Lima, Peru and into the high Andes by boat, train, and tram to a climax on the highest lake in the world.
This is a confident yarn from an author who traveled widely in the countries portrayed, and his tale avoids the cultural judgments you often find in these types of novels. His descriptions of cities, hotels, and transport are unflattering but accurate, yet his treatment of the Peruvian and Chilean villains has no whiff of condescension. They're just the villains, nothing more—smart, tough, deadly, and motivated. The book's only flaw is its late turn toward romantic matchmaking. Still, it was a very good read. It became a movie of the same name in 1953, placed in a new setting, with Glenn Ford and Diana Lynn. The art on this 1951 Dell paperback is by Robert Stanley, and as a bonus it comes in a collectible mapback edition.
Nothing's funny, really. I just can't help laughing about how utterly screwed we are.
Gulf Coast Girl is more solid aquatic themed work from Charles Williams. This time the story involves a woman who seeks help from a crack salvage diver in finding a small plane that crashed in the Gulf of Mexico with a fortune on board. The story has a framing device—the boat they use for their salvage operation is found abandoned and the only clue to their whereabouts is a diary. So the story is narrated by the captain of the rescue vessel, reading from the diary what happened to the protagonists. This frame seems unneeded for nearly the entire length of the book, but the always competent Williams shows late that this device is in no way extraneous. Nifty work. We're really ripping through Williams' catalog now. Originally published in hardback in 1955 as Scorpion Reef, these Dell paperback editions of Gulf Coast Girl appeared in 1955 and 1960 with cover art from Robert Maguire and Robert McGinnis.
I think I've finally got his strategy figured out. Every time he throws a punch he hits me.
William Campbell Gault was a fan of sports—or at least of using sports as a backdrop for his fiction. In The Canvas Coffin the boxer hero Luke Pilgrim wakes up the morning after a tough title fight and fears he may have killed Brenda Vane, the woman he escorted to his victory party. He can't quite remember, though, what with all those blows to the head, but she's definitely dead, and he needs to unpuzzle the mystery before he ends up in prison. As set-ups go, this is a nice one. Guys who think they may have committed murder are staples of crime fiction and film noir, but the idea of making the character a concussed boxer is clever. Gault wrote about twenty sports thrillers, so he knew his stuff. Illustrator William George knew his stuff too, and produced a nice cover for this Dell paperback, dated 1954.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1930—Chrysler Building Opens
In New York City, after a mere eighteen months of construction, the Chrysler Building opens to the public. At 1,046 feet, 319 meters, it is the tallest building in the world at the time, but more significantly, William Van Alen's design is a landmark in art deco that is celebrated to this day as an example of skyscraper architecture at its most elegant.
1969—Jeffrey Hunter Dies
American actor Jeffrey Hunter dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after falling down a flight of stairs and sustaining a skull fracture, a mishap precipitated by his suffering a stroke seconds earlier. Hunter played many roles, including Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings, but is perhaps best known for portraying Captain Christopher Pike in the original Star Trek pilot episode "The Cage".
1938—Alicante Is Bombed
During the Spanish Civil War, a squadron of Italian bombers sent by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini to support the insurgent Spanish Nationalists, bombs the town of Alicante, killing more than three-hundred people. Although less remembered internationally than the infamous Nazi bombing of Guernica the previous year, the death toll in Alicante is similar, if not higher.
1977—Star Wars Opens
George Lucas's sci-fi epic Star Wars premiers in the Unites States to rave reviews and packed movie houses. Produced on a budget of $11 million, the film goes on to earn $460 million in the U.S. and $337 million overseas, while spawning a franchise that would eventually earn billions and make Lucas a Hollywood icon.
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