p.s. I also confess that it was me who let that silent-but-deadly slip during the arraignment. Jail food. Sorry.
Above, a cover for The Second Confession by Rex Stout, originally 1949 with this Bantam edition coming in 1952. It stars Stout's recurring character Nero Wolfe, a sedentary and overweight man of mysterious background who loves orchids and occasionally solves crimes. The book did quite well, but we haven't been enticed yet. So many franchise detectives, so little time.
Sorry to scare you. Just triple checking. So it's a firm no on that dinner invitation. Any chance you'd meet me for coffee?
In one of our favorite episodes of The Simpsons, Bart is on edge because he's being stalked by Sideshow Bob, who wants to kill him. Homer decides to show Bart a new hockey mask and chainsaw he's bought. He bursts into Bart's room wearing the mask, brandishing the roaring chainsaw, and yells, “Hey Bart! Check out my new hockey mask and chainsaw!” Bart screams in terror, and Homer, realizing he's chosen the worst possible time to show off these purchases, backs out of the room apologizing. Amazingly, a scene exactly like that occurs in Mignon G. Eberhart's 1946 Miami based parlor mystery White Dress, except protagonist Marny Sanderson is terrified of a killer who's been stalking her while wearing a black raincoat with a black scarf wrapped around his head. Another character dons the same costume and walks unannounced into her room with the intention of confirming her description of the killer. He doesn't yell, “Hey Marny, did he look anything like THIS!” But he might as well have. His subsequent apology: “My God, how stupid of me. It never occurred to me that I might frighten you.” We got a hearty laugh from that.
None of this is to say White Dress is bad, but it's certainly obtuse in parts. It's also old fashioned, even for a novel from the period. Authors like Dashiell Hammett had debuted more than a decade earlier and changed the conventions of detective novels, peopling them with hard-boiled men and women. Swooning flowers of maidenhood like Marny continued to exist in the sub-genre of romantic mysteries Eberhart specialized in, but ladies of leisure faced with murder don't react in proactive ways. That's where the romance comes in, as Marny attracts the attentions of a dashing Navy flier who makes it his latest mission to swoop down and save the hot damsel in distress. Though more decisive than Marny, his approach to the mystery is often ridiculous. Without getting deeply into it, suffice it to say he has a couple of dangerously cockeyed brainstorms. But you know what? For all its quirks we still liked White Dress. It's a window onto a romanticized realm we've never understood. Maybe it never truly existed. But viewed anthropologically, it's engaging and amusing.
This one has both her arms—and they're .38 calibre.
The versatile Mitchell Hooks is back, working in what we like to think of as his realistic mode on this cover for Ben Benson's The Venus Death. We wrote a little piece on Hooks and his various styles of painting. You can see that at this link. This novel is a solid thriller about the sparks that fly when a young state trooper named Ralph Lindsey crosses paths with an even younger femme fatale named Manette Venus. Yes, that's a ridiculous name, like something a stripper made up. So maybe it's no surprise that within the narrative it turns out to be a pseudonym. But Manette Venus isn't a stripper. She's just a woman with a secret—and some unsavory acquaintances.
Benson can write. He's not a master, but he also doesn't litter the narrative with grammatical clunkers or overcooked stylistic flourishes. In workmanlike fashion and in somewhat procedural detail, he tells the story of Ralph the trooper digging to the bottom of a baffling mystery involving a bizarre shooting, two guns, and the sometimes tricky place where presumption and proof clash. He learns at the end that sometimes people can be one thing, then seem to be the opposite, then turn out to be what you thought they were in the first place. That's vague, we know, but we liked the book, so you get no concrete hints. This edition came in 1954 from Bantam.
We have a couple of juicy parts for you. And afterward we'll give you a role.
Above is a cover for Willis T. Ballard's novel The Package Deal, and we can hear you groaning out there, but really, what are we to do with a cover like this other than make the most obvious tasteless joke possible? The predatory Hollywood producer is an archetypal character in mid-century literature and—as has been documented of late—in real life too. But for the purposes of this website, we're only interested in fiction, and here you get a story about a producer trying to rekindle his career in television after serving in the military during World War II. He struggles to make a show called Mr. Detective a hit. It stars an ambitious actress named Marianne Delaine, and she comes attached to a problematic financial backer. Ballard worked in television for years on shows like Dick Tracy and Cowboy G-Men, so the hook here is that he gives you an insider depiction of that realm. This was originally published in 1956, and the above edition from Bantam came a year later, with uncredited cover art.
Beware the Jabberwock, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch.
Night of the Jabberwock, first of all, is a great title for a book. And in Fredric Brown's hands you know it won't be a typical story. What you get is the tale of a mild-mannered newspaper editor in a nowhere town called Carmel City who wishes he could beat the big papers to a world shattering scoop just once. And of course he gets more than he asked for when he's sucked into a Carrollian nightmare that grows progressively crazier over the course of twelve hours. It would be best to go into reading this book knowing nothing about it at all, but the cover art by Robert Skemp, with its single line about the mob coming to town, gives too much information, simply because the main character's assumptions about what's happening start along completely—and we mean completely—different lines. Night of the Jabberwock is still great even slightly spoiled, but because you already know it has to do with organized crime, we'll tell you nothing more. It was originally published in 1950, and this Bantam edition came in 1952.
Okay, Galahad—I want you to forget you're the most gallant of all the knights and beat this guy like a circus monkey.
Above, a cover for Kid Galahad by Francis Wallace. You get all the elements here—the natural talent, the meteoric rise from obscurity, the weakness for women, the predatory gangsters, the big fixed fight, etc. The book is originally copyright 1936 with this Bantam edition fronted by Charles Andres art appearing in 1947.
If you'd just asked for directions like I told you we wouldn't be in this mess.
This is a nice acquisition—Vereen Bell's Swamp Water with George Gross art on the front. The book is a rural slice of life novel dealing with a young trapper named Ben Ragan who ventures into the Okefenokee Swamp in search of his lost hunting dog, Trouble. Nobody, aside from Indian tribes of earlier times, is thought to have entered the dreaded swamp and returned. Ragan goes in and finds Trouble—and trouble. Bell expertly catalogs swamp flora, fauna, and topography, which makes for a backdrop so vivid you can almost feel the humidity. This is an extraordinarily enjoyable tale, a sort of a revenge novel/chronicle of the deep South/backwoods adventure, written when the vast Okefenokee straddling Georgia and Florida was nearly uncharted territory. 1941 on this originally, with Bantam's edition coming in ’47.
They said she needed a hobby and look what happened.
Each vintage book brings interesting discoveries. For instance, we recently learned that there was once a drink made with sherry and an egg yolk. Seriously. Reading Beast in View we learned that another name once used for scissors—at least by author Margaret Milar—was “paper knife.” Always have a really big paper knife around the house. Small ones are fine for cutting paper, but the huge ones are better for going through arteries. A terrible fate, surely, though no worse than drinking sherry with an egg yolk in it. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The villain in Beast in View begins as nothing more than a serial phone harasser who seems to know just enough about her victims to prey on their insecurities. The lies she tells her victims are terrible, and the language is ugly too. More direct forms of harassment soon commence, just about the time amateur sleuth Paul Blackshear steps in and is asked to find the caller. That seems easy enough at first, but he soon finds that identity is a more nebulous concept than he imagined.
Beast in View won the 1955 Edgar Award for best mystery of the year. Hmm... well we liked it. But is it really better than Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley, which it beat? We don't know about that. Later Beast in View was voted one of the best mysteries of all time by the Mystery Writers of America. That's a broader accolade, in a way, and we can't find any fault there. It's a good book, written in classical mystery style, with a great ending, and this line:
[no spoiler] felt no pain, only a little surprise at how pretty the blood looked, like bright and endless ribbons that would never again be tied.
Well, that's certainly a nice piece of writing. This was our second Millar, and we have another lined up for a bit later. But first we may re-read The Talented Mr. Ripley, just to see if our memories are betraying us and Highsmith really isn't the better writer. But it isn't a competition anyway, is it? That defeats the entire point of reading for pleasure. Copyright on Beast in View is originally 1955, and this Bantam paperback edition came in '56 with Mitchell Hooks cover art.
So when you sang “You're So Vain,” the song really was about me, wasn't it?
This is top work from artist C.C. Beale on this cover for Van Wyck Mason's Saigon Singer, especially the small elements of the background writing on the wall and the Siamese cat in the foreground. The singer of the title—who never performs “You're So Vain,” sadly—is Pamela Saunders, a former prisoner in a Japanese internment camp who survives filth and near starvation to resurrect herself as singer in Saigon. Along the way she becomes known as Black Chrysanthemum before adopting the stage name Xenia Morel. Her transformation is interesting, but the star of the story is Major Hugh North, who turns up in Saigon looking for a dossier containing the names of British and American traitors who during the war sold secrets to a Japanese general. Saunders-Chrysanthemum-Morel survived the prison camp by becoming the mistress of the general, and it's due to this close association that she possesses the dossier. She'll give it to North, but only if he pays her enough money to get to Paris, where she wants to continue her singing career.
Mason knew this part of the world and uses his knowledge well in writing of Saigon social life, oppressive heat, scented baths, tiger hunts, French legionnaires, and other you-had-to-be-there aspects of post-World War II Vietnam. As number thirteen in a series of exotic Hugh North mysteries (others were set in Singapore, Burma, Manila, Bangkok, et al) we sense a formula here, but in the end we liked it despite the usual flaws of colonialist fiction, and we were envious of Mason for having travelled in that part of the world during that time, and having been lucky enough to make a career of writing about it. Well, maybe we can't complain too much—we've hit some good spots too. And we write, though we get fuck-all for it. In any case, this particular discovery makes us curious about earlier Mason books, so maybe we'll check out some of his Hugh North adventures. Saigon Singer was originally published in 1946, and the above edition is from 1948.
If you could ask the ones who did it we suspect they'd say dying young is overrated.
Above, a nice front for Dead, She Was Beautiful by Whit Masterson, aka Wade Miller, who in turn was actually William Miller and Robert Wade writing in tandem. This one has an unusually interesting set-up. A divorce detective is hired by a man to follow his unfaithful wife, and the detective is shocked to discover the woman is his ex-wife. This is in Los Angeles, which immediately raises the question of how such a bizarre coincidence could happen in a city of millions. Well, it isn't a coincidence, which becomes clear when the wife/ex-wife is killed by being shot in the back with an arrow. The cops think the detective may have done it, especially because he hated his ex, so what you get here is the time-honored scenario of a private op who has to solve a crime or take the fall for it. We'd describe this as decent, but nothing special. The cover art is by Barye Phillips, and the copyright is 1956.
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