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.
S*H*E* spies with her little eye a low rent plot to destroy the world.
We're doing the acronymic spy thing a third day in row because we have this amazing Japanese poster for the 1980 U.S. film S*H*E*. This shows that the idea of imitating James Bond's acronymic and numeric organizations continued for many years after the trend peaked during the 1960s. Cornelia Sharpe stars as a Security Hazards Expert who battles an international crime ring that threatens the global oil supply.
Interestingly, this was written by Roger Maibaum, who wrote more than a dozen Bond screenplays, including Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Licence To Kill. Which tells you that he may have been envisioning the same sort of high gloss action as in his Bond movies. But we're telling you that his vision was thwarted by a low budget, flat acting from Sharpe, less than compelling music, and the fact that this was a CBS television pilot. For now you can watch it on YouTube at this link—if you dare.
Those with sharp eyes, or Sharpe eyes, will have noticed that the poster was painted by Robert McGinnis. Since it was a made-for-television movie, the U.S. promo art obviously doesn't feature the cut away sections of costume that reveal breasts and midriff. Those subtractions make this piece rare and expensive. Our question immediately became whether the skin meant the international version of the movie had nudity. It actually does, briefly, but that's no help at all.
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.
Like all thefts in pulp fiction it was less than perfect.
We were just talking recently about U.S. paperback art being copied by overseas companies, and here we have a good example from the Italian publishing company Gialli Tre Cerchi. This cover for Wallace MacKentzy's, aka Mario Raffi's Allan Beebe spacca tutto meno Gina features art copied from Robert McGinnis. The artist is uncredited, which is probably good because his work, though pleasing, is not close to the standard of McGinnis. But don't take our word for it. Have a look at the McGinnis that was copied—Carter Brown's Who Killed Doctor Sex?, which we shared way back in 2012. You'll also notice it was copied more than once. Well, if you're going to steal from someone, steal from the best.
*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.
Elmore Leonard's first crime novel is all ups and no downs.
Elmore Leonard published until 2012, and is thought of as a contemporary novelist rather than a mid-century writer, but The Big Bounce appeared long enough ago to get pulp cover treatment right when that style was fading. The Fawcett Gold Medal movie tie-in edition of the book has Robert McGinnis on the art chores, and this is it for Leonard good girl art, as far as we know. Apparently, he finished the book in 1966 but had it rejected by publishers for three years, a shocking fact considering he already had five novels on the market. But those were westerns and The Big Bounce was Leonard's first crime novel. That's no excuse, really. It should have been published immediately, but publishers are motivated by factors other than literary quality, as a rule. The book is a fun ride involving an ex-con who gets mixed up with some petty thieves and a thrill seeking femme fatale who wants help ripping off her sugar daddy. It has many of the elements Leonard would later perfect—the elliptical plotting, the dialogue that rings so true to the ear, and the mid-scene ending. The Big Bounce is a ball, well worth your time.
Population 1280. Correction—1274.
Purely by coincidence, we also read a novel that's the dark twin of Never Say No to a Killer. The book was Jim Thompson's Pop. 1280, and in this one the main character is a self-described moron, and so is everyone else. At least it seems that way at first. Or maybe it's kinder to say they're simply unpretentious and earthy. Check out this exchange between two lawmen from adjacent counties:
“Pre-zactly!" Ken said. “So I'll tell you what to do about them pimps. The next time they even look like they're goin' to sass you, you just kick 'em in the balls as hard as you can.”
“Huh? But don't that hurt awful bad?”
“Pshaw. 'Course it don't hurt. Not if you're wearing a good pair o' boots.”
“I mean, wouldn't it hurt the pimps?”
Once we're immersed in this chaw-and-cornbread milieu, one character emerges to be considerably more cunning than the others. The aphorism applies again. Though he doesn't consider himself to be smart, somehow he's more than up to the task of conniving his way through multiple nefarious schemes to reach his ultimate goals, which consist of getting laid and not working too hard as sheriff.
The book is set during the Great Depression and its portrait of man-woman and white-black relations is both horrifying and hilarious. Thompson's approach is partly satirical, but the actual ideas espoused by his characters are deadly serious, as well as historically grounded, such as in a conversation about whether the county's black residents have souls. The consensus is they don't. Why? Because they aren't really people.
It's a pointed commentary on the distant Jim Crow south, yet the very same question of black humanness festers at the core of America's 2017 problems. If you doubt it ask yourself how the same observers who have limitless sympathy for a white rancher shot after initiating a standoff with federal lawmen somehow have none for unarmed black men shot in the back, or why rich white ranchers who refuse to pay their federal grazing fees are perceived as persecuted, while a poor black man trying to survive by selling loose cigarettes is not.
Critic Stephen Marche once described Pop. 1280 as “preposterously upsetting,” which is as apt a description as we can imagine. The idea of who's really human, what is sexual consent, what are the obligations of lawmen, and what is evil are played for laughs by Thompson, but always with an incisive twist that lets you know where his sympathies lie. Yet as shocking as the book is to read, it's addictive and consistently entertaining, particularly when various characters dispense their tabacky soaked wisdom…
… about women: “I'd been chasing females all my life, not paying no mind to the fact that whatever's got tail at one end has teeth at the other, and now I was getting chomped on.”
... about the mentally challenged: “You probably ain't got as long a dingle-dangle as him—they tell me them idjits are hung like a stud hoss.”
… about learning: “I mean I caught him reading a book, that's what! Yes sir, I caught him red-handed. Oh, he claimed he was only lookin' at the pitchers, but I knew he was lyin'.”
We recommend Pop. 1280 highly. The Gold Medal paperback you see above with its Robert McGinnis cover art is expensive, but numerous later printings are available at reasonable prices. Just go into the reading with your psyche girded. You'll root for the main character Nick Corey, but he's merely one of the most charming bad apples in a town that's rife with rot. That rot leads to the reliable pulp staples of adultery, betrayal, and murder many times over, but in the most unique and enjoyable way.
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.
Three great artists try to get the feel of an identical pose.
Today we thought we'd illustrate the imitative nature of commercial art by sharing a nice Italian poster for the comedy Tre femmine in soffitta. Originally released in the U.S. in 1968 as Three in the Attic, and starring Yvette Mimieux and Judy Pace, the movie involves a wacky love triangle, and is notable for its breezy interracial theme, as Mimieux, who is white (and hot), and Pace, who is black (and hot), both get involved with the same inordinately lucky guy.
Turning to the art, the figure at the poster's far right, which represents Pace, is a direct copy of one of our favorite Robert McGinnis femmes fatales, the girl on Carter Brown's 1960 novel The Bombshell, who has an unusual fascination with her own butt. Clearly, some imitation is more blatant than others. The poster was painted by Ezio Tarantelli, who had a nice career as an illustrator, particularly in the spaghetti western genre, and whose work on the poster for L’Amore Scotta a Yokohama we lavishly praised several years back. We may have to downgrade the genius label we slapped on him, but obviously he still shows great skill, copied butt grabber or not.
As if Tarantelli's pass at a McGinnis ass wasn't enough, we found another copy of the same pose, executed by another Italian artist, this time the great Mario de Berardinis. His piece promotes the 1975 erotic comedy La nottata, or “The Night,” which starred Sara Sperati and Susanna Javicoli. Did de Berardinis imitate Tarantelli or McGinnis? We don't know, but he truly was a genius, so copying is officially forgiven. You can see our original write-up on The Bombshell here.
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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