A Harlem detective learns the rules of engagement in pre-civil rights America.
Ed Lacy is credited by many as having created the first African American detective, Harlem gumshoe Toussaint Marcus Moore. Room to Swing is the novel in which this uniquely named character debuted. The set-up for the plot is also unique. The producer of an unsolved crimes television show called You—Detective! has located a fugitive she wants to arrest on air. She hires Toussaint to keep an eye on this ratings goldmine and make sure he's still around when she and her film crew are ready to spring their trap. Sounds simple, but in 1958 a black detective following a white man 24/7 will run into problems, considering he can't safely go to all the same places. Hell, he couldn't comfortably go to all the same places even today.
And if being a cop magnet isn't bad enough for Toussaint, having a white woman as a client is even more problematic, since they can barely be seen in public together. This is true even in New York and Ohio, where the action takes place. Although the northern U.S. was not part of the Jim Crow system, outside of large cities apartheid generally reigned. Small town Ohio is no different from Alabama for Toussaint. Even getting lunch or using a pay phone is often difficult. Speaking to a white man without calling him “Sir” generally leads to trouble, and being referred to as “boy” in return is standard practice. All of which raises the question: Why did this deep-pocketed producer hire a black detective at all? She has her reasons.
Room to Swing won Lacy the coveted Edgar Award, though we wouldn't say the book is brilliantly written. But it takes readers into fresh territory for a detective novel, and Toussaint is portrayed humanistically and empathetically. The book exemplifies the idea that it's possible for anybody to write about anybody else, regardless of race. Unfortunately, it wasn't a luxury that was often afforded to any but white writers back then, but it certainly should have been. All sorts of insights might have been possible. Room to Swing has plenty of those, and if you can find this Pyramid paperback edition with Robert Maguire cover art, all the better.
Well, I notice at least part of you is getting happier.
It's hard to stay mad with someone else's tongue in your mouth. Ever notice that? The principle is amply demonstrated on this brilliant cover for Edward Mannix's 1960 thriller The End of Fury. Put this one in the mean-streets-of-NYC bin, even though the action mostly takes place in Jersey City. The story deals with the Boyles, an Irish family of five—a hard drinking father, an emotionally wrecked mother, a widely desired daughter, and two sons, one a priest in training, the other this rebel with a stripper girlfriend you see on the cover. The priest/heretic brothers may seem like clichés today, but Mannix helped popularize the motif, with even The New York Times calling him a highly skilled writer. Interestingly, he was also a voice actor, dubbing dialogue for at least nine films from the early ’70s to the early ’90s. The art on this is by Robert Maguire and we think it's one of his best.
You're damned picky all of a sudden for a dame I found dumpster diving behind White Castle.
Alley Girl has some of the harder boiled characters we've come across in mid-century fiction. We're reminded a bit of James Ellroy, whom we suspect must have read and been influenced by this book. The style of author Jonathan Craig, aka Frank E. Smith, is not similar to Ellroy's, but the feel is a match. The lead male Steven Lambert is a crooked cop, a sexual predator, and a serial swindler. His girlfriend is a hardcore drunk, a nymphomaniac, and a self-destructive thrill seeker. Most everyone else is a victim or a dupe, particularly the innocent man Lambert is framing for murder, and the man's beautiful wife who Lambert coerces into sex by promising not to go through with the frame-up. We throughly enjoyed this book. It's anchored by just the sort of irredeemable heel that makes crime fiction so entertaining. The only problem is a 1954 edition from Lion like you see here could cost you a fortune. The 2013 re-issue, which comes from Black Curtain Press—but without the excellent cover art from Robert Maguire—is much more economical. We recommend reading it in any case.
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.
Sorry about your face. My aim isn't so good with this thing.
Give a girl a whip and you'll find out who's the boss. Luisita is about a Mexican girl living in nowheresville whose beauty brings her both opportunities and problems. After a run of bad luck in her home town she moves to Los Angeles and eventually lands a job in a massage parlor. There she learns how depraved men really are, but also how easy they are to manipulate, and of course she uses to this new knowledge to try and get herself a piece of the pie. Basically, it's one of those books that's supposed to expose a shocking subculture, but it has the added bonus of pretending to offer insights about an entire ethnic group. However, the racism subplots are probably accurate. Loomis later went on to write House of Deceit and The Marina Street Girls. The excellent art on this is by Robert Maguire and the copyright is 1954.
Seventeen thrillers from swinging sixties.
Above, seventeen covers from Gold Star Books for Hank Janson's, aka Stephen Daniel Frances's, best selling and highly sexual Hank Janson series, starring a tough reporter who shared a name with the author's pseudonym. We think these represent the complete run of Janson books published by Gold Star, though there are more entries in the series. Later novels were written by Victor Norwood, Harry Hobson, and D.F. Crawley. The excellent art is from Paul Rader, Harry Barton, and Robert Maguire, circa 1963, 1964, and 1965.
There. I shot him. Now will you get off my back about never helping you out around here?
Above, the cover of Sucker Bait by Robert O. Saber, aka Milton K. Ozaki, 1955 from Graphic Books. Rich men pay $1,000 for entry into the Purple Door Club, where they procure the services of Chicago's most beautiful prostitutes, but also become targets for blackmailers. Hero Carl Good is accused of murdering one of the women and has to clear himself by finding the real killer. Good thing he's a detective. The cool cover art here is by Robert Maguire.
What's in the box? Uh, you know, lipstick, gum, cigarettes, the souls of men I consume. The usual.
Above, really nice front and rear cover art for The Blonde on the Street Corner by David Goodis, which was published by Lion Books as a paperback original in 1954. Set in Philadelphia during 1936, the book examines a bunch of guys who have big dreams but no money, no motivation, and no ideas how to escape dead-end Philly. The narrative is basically plotless, like the characters' lives. Talk about a great depression. The cover art, by Robert Maguire, is beautiful but the blonde depicted is nothing like the blonde Goodis writes about. Goodis's blonde is overweight, married, and in her mid-thirties. She does have a sexual aura, though, and certainly fits the mold of a femme fatale. This is considered lesser Goodis, but it's still good enough.
I could screw my way to the top but this method is so much more satisfying.
Above you see the covers for the 1958 and 1954 Signet editions of Death Before Bedtime, by Edgar Box, who was in reality literary legend Gore Vidal. This novel is the middle entry of a trilogy—the first is Death in the Fifth Position and the third is Death Likes It Hot. All feature public relations exec/amateur detective Peter Sargeant II, and the story in this one takes place in Washington, D.C., and involves a murdered senator, his promiscuous daughter, his widow, and various figures ranging from pure to corrupt. It owes plenty to Agatha Christie in that the murder—via dynamite, by the way—occurs in a house and everyone who was on the premises is a suspect. Unsurprisingly, there's almost as much sex as sleuthing, but there's also plenty of Vidalian wit. The top cover was painted by Robert Maguire and the second was the work of Clark Hulings.
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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