She's got this caper in the bag.
What does the Devil drive? People, apparently. Robert Ames' thriller The Devil Drives, for which you see a nice Barye Phillips cover above, has a labyrinthine plot at the center of which is one of the most duplicitous femmes fatales ever, a bad woman named Kim Bissel. In a small Florida town, numerous people are after bags of money from a deadly armored car robbery, loot that went missing after the getaway boat crashed and upended. Cold-blooded Kim wants the cash more than her male rivals can possibly comprehend, yet they continue to underestimate her—at their mortal peril. We've noted before that the only true respect women received in mid-century fiction and cinema was as deadly criminals. Pyrrhic, considering the possible punishments in store, but you'll find yourself on this feminist fatale's side as she tries to beat the odds. While the plot is improbable, the book works because of Ames' hallucinatory, irony filled, interior monologue driven prose. Recommended stuff, from 1952.
This is a Dior blouse you've managed to ruin, FYI, just in case you have anything resembling a human soul.
The lead character in Peter Rabe's Stop This Man is a jackass, but he isn't a rapist. This cover by Darcy, aka Ernest Chiriaka, does capture his essential nature, though, as he's bossy as hell and sees woman mainly as objects to be possessed or manipulated. When he intrudes into the back room of a club and encounters a female employee changing clothes he intimidates her into continuing so he can see her naked. As often happens in mid-century crime novels, she decides this makes him a real man and falls for him. It's not rape but it's definitely rapey. But of course us modern readers are aware of this going in, right? The sexism, the racism, all the rest, are features of 1950s crime literature. Each person needs to decide whether there's something to be gained in the fiction beyond its obvious affronts to societal values.
In Stop This Man lots of people are trying to stop Tony Catell, but not from harassing women. They want to thwart his criminal master plan. In mid-century crime fiction the main character is often in possession of an ill gotten item he expects to open the gateway to a better life. It may be money or bearer bonds or a rare diamond. Here the item is a thirty-six pound ingot of stolen gold. Catell hopes to fence it but the trick is to find an interested party who will give him a good price. Did we forget to mention that it's radioactive? There's always a catch, right? People who come into extended contact with this brick of gold die, but that doesn't stop Catell. He wraps it in an x-ray technician's lead lined apron and travels from Detroit to L.A. seeking a buyer for this lethal hunk of heavy metal.
Catell is kind of radioactive too, actually, in the sense that he's bad news through and through. He plans to sell his killer treasure, but has no idea the radiation is turning it into mercury. It's a cool set-up for a thriller by the experienced Rabe. You may be thinking 1952's Kiss Me, Deadly did it first, but Spillane's novel does not have the radioactive suitcase made famous by the movie adaptation, so this could be—could be, because we haven't read every book out there—the first time this nuclear gimmick appeared. It was originally published in 1955, which means it's also possible the nuclear angle was influenced by Kiss Me Deadly the film, which appeared in May the same year. But while Stop This Man is cleverly set up and is as hard-boiled as any crime novel we've come across, overall we felt it should have been executed at a higher level.
Any of you hardened felons seen my beautiful virginal daughter lately?
Mitchell Hooks handles the cover work on this Gold Medal edition of the 1957 Tarn Scott thriller Don't Let Her Die. The book concerns a well connected prison inmate who uses his outside-the-walls contacts to kidnap the warden's daughter and maneuver for a pardon in exchange for her life. We say maneuver rather than demand because the convict keeps deniability throughout, claiming to know nothing even as the warden daily receives anonymous ultimatums, with a little extra motivation provided by photos of his terrified daughter nude. The warden caves pretty quickly, appeals to the governor for the pardon, is refused, and that's where things get interesting. There's more grit than usual here, but certain lines will not be crossed, and the reader is well aware of that, despite all the menace injected into the prose. Even so, Scott—a pseudonym used by Walter Szot and Peter G. Tarnor—certainly showed promise. Sadly, the pairing only produced a few books.
Get behind me, ma'am. You'll be safe. I didn't jog and bike and do the paleo diet just to get gunned down in this stinking saloon.
They Died Healthy is a great title for a western. Logan Stewart was actually a pseudonym for an author named Les Savage, which we think is a far better name for a writer of westerns than Logan anything. Stewart/Savage authored more than twenty books and something like ninety published stories before dying young at age thirty-five. Was he gunned down healthy? Not so much— he was in poor health for a while due to diabetes and high cholesterol before succumbing to a heart attack. But his fiction lives on. He's considered by many to be one of the better western writers of his day. They Died Healthy is copyright 1951 with art by unknown.
Maybe all those stars are why none of the killers can seem to nail this chump.
Donald Hamilton's 1965 novel Assassins Have Starry Eyes was originally published in 1956 as Assignment: Murder. This could have been better. The lead character here, Dr. James Gregory, is a tough-guy physicist who sits so much he “wears his pants shiny,” yet has no problem physically outmatching adversaries in various deadly situations. We'll buy it, since the author asks it, but there's another issue with Dr. Gregory—he's a dick, all the more so as the narrative wears on.
Some sharp edges are to be expected, since people are trying to kill him—possibly due to his involvement in a government project tasked with creating an atomic super weapon—but he's snide and superior even in his interior dialogues and reminiscences. He especially hates peace protestors because they simply don't understand the need for world-threatening super weapons. Bah! Morons!
Books with difficult men are often fun, but it's clear Hamilton thinks he's writing Dr. Gregory not as an anti-hero, but as a no-nonsense everyman. The guy was impossible for us to like. We finished Assassins Have Starry Eyes mainly to see if he got his brains blown out. As for Hamilton, his writing is fine, so maybe he'll do better with a different character (like Matt Helm, who he's remembered for creating). We'll try one down the line.
O'Donnell shows how sex, violence, and style are supposed to be done.
First of all, we recognize that Peter O'Donnell set down his comic strip character Modesty Blaise in book form almost a decade after the Ficklings created Honey West, but we don't think O'Donnell had any advantages. We don't think his way was paved by earlier sexy heroines, or that he was working under fewer constraints because the permissive ’60s were underway. He simply had a better feel for how to titillate readers. But while his 1965 Blaise debut, entitled simply Modesty Blaise, was erotic, it was also carefully plotted, scenically enthralling, and technically convincing. For example, Blaise and her partner Willie Garvin discuss calibres of weapons, preferred approaches to combat, and the logistics of dealing with adversaries in a way that not only feels natural, but lends credibility to what is at its core a preposterous premise.
The premise: Modesty Blaise is an orphan who, abandoned somewhere in the near east, rises from the life of a street urchin to become the biggest crime kingpin in the Mediterranean. She has help along the way, learning how to fight, shoot, organize, roleplay, meditate, dominate men, and generally survive in a brutal world. There's an edge of harsh realism to this fantasy. Her backstory contains two rapes, a gunshot wound, and beatings, but she perseveres to become a feared, almost mythical figure of the criminal underworld, known by name to many but personally only to Garvin, her partner, protector, sounding board, and trainer, who like her is a former street crook.
Modesty Blaise picks up after Blaise and Garvin have retired with a pile of money but are bored. The British government comes calling with a proposal: work for them under minimal management and return to the life that thrilled them, this time on the side of law and order. The government wants Blaise to stop the theft of a pile of diamonds andprevent a potential international incident. They know a man named Gabriel plans to steal them but they don't know how, where, or when. Blaise and Garvin first work preventatively at a distance, but soon realize the only chance they have is to infiltrate Gabriel's deadly organization and be on hand when the theft is carried out.
In the tradition of James Bond, each Blaise villain tends to employ a particularly unusual henchman, and in this case it's a woman, speculated to be hermaphroditic, definitely sadistic, named Mrs. Fothergill, a martial arts expert and slavering loon. The eventual showdown between Blaise, with her analytical mentality, and Fothergill, who's dense but animalistically clever, doesn't disappoint thanks to O'Donnell's descriptive skills, which allow him paint the action in a step by step way that makes it cinematically easy to picture. He may have picked up this ability from visualizing and writing the Modesty Blaise comic strip, or he may have had it all along. In any case, more writers need the gift.
O'Donnell would write twelve more Blaise books, several of which are—within the constraints of the erotic adventure genre—excellent. When we say erotic we don't mean sex defines the narratives. Blaise is merely a red-blooded beauty in the bloom of youth who happens to be free of inhibitions and possessed of strong appetites. Some of the eroticism is wrapped in action. In The Silver Mistress there's a great climax set beside an underground lake where she evens the odds against a physically superior opponent by stripping and coating herself in slippery cave mud. O'Donnell describes her as he might a creature made of mercury, in constant, fluid motion and silvery in color.
And speaking of visuals, the art on this 1966 Fawcett paperback was painted by Robert McGinnis and was a tie-in to a Twentieth Century Fox film adaptation starring Monica Vitti, whose stylized likeness McGinnis placed on the cover. There's also extra Vitti on the rear. As always, this is great work from McGinnis, a master of his craft. As for O'Donnell's craft, now that we've revisited Blaise and Garvin's debut we'll probably take another look at a few of their other adventurous forays. But this one we can strongly recommend, both on its own and as a superior alternative to Honey West.
Do you find people disagreeable? Maybe it's you that's the problem.
This Ron Lesser cover for John D. MacDonald's Pale Gray for Guilt is a variation on the one we posted years back. Yes, we keep reading these MacDonald books even though we complain about the author, but we have no problem with the writing itself—the guy was named a Grandmaster of the Mystery Writers of America, after all. He can certainly write, his plots are usually engrossing, and his characters are interesting. All good. But to an extent we also read him for the same reason some people watch cable news—i.e. to disagree with his opinions. We think the ’60s and ’70s counterculture brought about important, positive, and long overdue changes to society. MacDonald is basically counter-counterculture.
Years back we developed an aphorism, which we became known for among our friends: The moment you make a generalization about any group of people, the living contradiction to that generalization will be nearby to make you look like a fool. MacDonald's franchise character Travis McGee has met his share of people and has scathing views of various groups. We don't mean ethnically or gender-wise, but more esoterically. He'll put down all people who see psychiatrists, or all people who waterski, or all people who vacation in Palm Springs. He finds various categories of humans tedious, save for the few that meet his lofty standards and in so doing serve as proof of his own excellent taste.
The Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle states that the more accurately you measure the velocity of a particle the less accurately you can measure its position, and vice versa. Which is to say any energy you use to pinpoint position will alter a particle's velocity simply by impacting it, and the reverse is true. In human relations, some people tend to alter those they meet. Nice people may cause disagreeable people to temporarily behave a bit nicer; disagreeable people may make normally nice people behave disagreeably. To a disagreeable person, then, it seems as if lots of people are disagreeable.
In Pale Gray for Guilt the disagreeable Travis McGee is focused on avenging the murder of one of his best friends, which seems to have come about due to a refusal to sell waterfront acreage to a large development corporation. McGee manages to buy the land himself, thus bringing the villains out of woodwork to wrest it from him. The story takes a curiously long time to develop, gets overly deep into the minutiae of stock trading, and contains virtually no action, so we imagine this is one of the less liked entries in the McGee series. Yet it's still very readable, which just goes to show what raw writing skill can do.
We finally used the internet for something useful and solved this MacDonald problem—we simply looked up some lists of his best books. Based on the consensus that emerged from his fans (who by the way seem to agree that the McGee series is not as good as his earlier standalone novels), we're going to read Dead Low Tide, Soft Touch, Deadly Welcome, The Executioners (made into the film Cape Fear), and The Drowner. Those seem to be the books people really like, and as a bonus they're all cheap to buy.
Reports of his death are greatly anticipated.
Octavus Roy Cohen's The Corpse That Walked is an interesting book. A man who wants to help his fiancée with a debt takes a shady but well-paid job doubling for a millionaire investor. He's instructed to be highly visible to press and public in Miami Beach while the rich man goes quietly to South America, where his newly rented anonymity will allow him to ace competitors out of a profitable minerals deal. The only problem is it's all a lie. The rich man is about to be indicted for various financial crimes and faces years in prison, so he's found a double with the intent of having him murdered. Thus freed from federal pursuit, the rich man plans to adopt an entirely new identity. Plastic surgery figures prominently in the narrative, so if you accept that one man can made to look like another, this is reasonably entertaining stuff. The copyright on this Gold Medal edition is 1951 and the cover art is uncredited.
During my time in the city I learned those folks have some depraved and immoral ideas. Wanna try a few?
When you read a lot of vintage crime fiction of varying quality it's useful to occasionally return to a trusty author like Charles Williams. He's a solid stylist, which makes all his books decent reading experiences. Big City Girl isn't his best, but it's interesting just the same. It's about an escaped convict who, if he accomplishes nothing else while free, wants to murder his wife—the big city girl of the title. She's living with his family on an isolated farm and, in pure femme fatale fashion, is causing more than her share of trouble with her hosts. What Williams attempts to do here is write an entire collection of characters that aren't very smart, and as we've noted before that's more difficult than you'd think. You have to credit how well the feat is pulled off here. Some of Williams' books we've read have been great, others merely decent, but none have been close to disappointing. You can purchase anything he authored with confidence.
He always manages to insert himself into the most private places.
When one of the Pulp Intl. girlfriends saw this book, she said, “I could use some house dick right now.” That's a true story. But moving on, think you have a right to privacy in your hotel room? Think again. In House Dick the detective main character has the run of a 340-room Washington, D.C. hotel, and he liberally uses his master keys to go where he wishes whenever on the flimsiest of pretexts. This is highly ironic considering author Gordon Davis was in reality E. Howard Hunt and, as a member of Richard M. Nixon's black bag squad, arranged the world's most famous hotel break-in at the Watergate Hotel. He probably never should have gotten into politics—not only because his name is associated with one of more shameful episodes in domestic American history (please, no obtuse e-mails, authoritarians), but also because Hunt could actually write. He's no Faulkner, but as genre fiction goes he's better than many. The main character in House Dick, tough guy Pete Novak, is drawn by a beautiful femme fatale into a scheme involving stolen jewels that—naturally—goes all kinds of sideways. There's less D.C. feel than we'd have liked, but the narrative works well overall. Gordon/Hunt wrote something like seventy books and we're encouraged to try a few more. This Gold Medal edition is from 1961 with Robert McGinnis cover art. |
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1939—Holiday Records Strange Fruit
American blues and jazz singer Billie Holiday
records "Strange Fruit", which is considered to be the first civil rights song. It began as a poem written by Abel Meeropol, which he later set to music and performed live with his wife Laura Duncan. The song became a Holiday standard immediately after she recorded it, and it remains one of the most highly regarded pieces of music in American history.
1927—Mae West Sentenced to Jail
American actress and playwright Mae West is sentenced to ten days in jail for obscenity for the content of her play Sex. The trial occurred even though the play had run for a year and had been seen by 325,000 people. However West's considerable popularity, already based on her risque image, only increased due to the controversy.
1971—Manson Sentenced to Death
In the U.S, cult leader Charles Manson is sentenced to death for inciting the murders of Sharon Tate and several other people. Three accomplices, who had actually done the killing, were also sentenced to death, but the state of California abolished capital punishment in 1972 and neither they nor Manson were ever actually executed.
1923—Yankee Stadium Opens
In New York City, Yankee Stadium, home of Major League Baseball's New York Yankees, opens with the Yankees beating their eternal rivals the Boston Red Sox 4 to 1. The stadium, which is nicknamed The House that Ruth Built, sees the Yankees become the most successful franchise in baseball history. It is eventually replaced by a new Yankee Stadium and closes in September 2008.
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