1950 jazz mystery tries to take a step forward with an innovative approach.
When you maintain a website that discusses vintage paperback art, you stop being amazed when a cover isn't credited. This one for Bart Spicer's 1950 novel Blues for the Prince is unattributed, and that's too bad, because the painter put together a nice scene. What's unique about the novel, as you might guess from the evocative art, is its setting within the black American jazz community (the blonde singer at centerstage does not materialize within the narrative, by the way). The plot revolves around a white detective named Carney Wilde hired to disprove claims that a murdered jazz legend's music was all plagiarized. Wilde at first ignores the homicide because it's unrelated to his assignment of determining the provenance of the songs, but he soon finds that the plagiarism claims and the killing are intertwined.
Fictional detectives are usually idealized creations. They're the toughest, smartest, and most irresistible of men, so why not the most egalitarian too? Wilde is basically color blind, even within his interior monologues—which is to say, he's not faking his lack of prejudice. It's an interesting choice by Spicer, as Wilde moves through an entirely black world, but proceeds without seeming to notice anything in the way of major ethnic or cultural differences. Obviously, this is because Spicer's narrative constructs no differences. He doesn't write of any notable poverty, impactful racism, or police brutalilty. Wilde does, however, see something of a difference in class. The dead musician—Harold Morton Prince, aka the Prince—has left behind a rich family that has plenty to protect. Wilde is firmly on their side, not least because the Prince is one of his idols. But in investigating the crime he learns that legends are humans too, and that scratching the surface of an idol often reveals something beneath the gleam.
The tale benefits from its unusual setting. It's solidly if unspectacularly written, we think, and improves as it progresses, ushered toward its climax by a nightclub scene in which Spicer shows off his musical knowledge by taking nearly an entire chapter to describe a hot jazz set. His approach to the story in general is a question worth exploration. If not for a few descriptions and one or two incidents of specifically aimed language, Blues for the Prince could be like many other mid-century novels set within the jazz world—i.e. these could all be white characters and you'd have essentially the same book. So Spicer really did two nearly opposite things here: he foregrounded black characters in a mid-century novel in a way most authors would not, and he suggested a potential evolution of black-populated fiction to a state of pure entertainment devoid of topical issues. If the novel were just a little better it would probably be widely discussed today. As it is, this jazz mystery is still worth a read.
I plan to rise from soul crushing poverty into the soul crushing middle class, and if you play your cards right I'll take you with me.
This 1955 Bantam edition of Steve Fisher's 1954 novel Giveaway has a front by James Hill that's at once beautiful and sordid. We've always been drawn to this art, so after seeing the book around for years we finally decided it was time to give it a read. Fisher tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Midwestern runaway named Eddie Shelton who ends up in Los Angeles and meets a mother and daughter who make their living by selling prizes they win for appearing on (fictional) game shows such as Down Melody Street and Cookies or Cash. It's difficult to get on the shows because the producers prefer novices, rather than “pros.” Jane, the daughter in this duo, sees Eddie as her ticket to being booked on a show called Man and Wife that offers huge prizes, including a trip to Hawaii and a year's wardrobe. She's willing to do anything for the chance—even convince Eddie she's in love with him.
The allegory is strong with this book. It reminded us of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, with its capitalist critique folded within the characters' constant hope that a jackpot will lift them out of their meager circumstances, but it's also indebted to Catcher in the Rye because it features the same sort of youngish character who thinks the entire world is phony bullshit. Like that book, Giveaway is written in first person with copious slang and the feel of trying to make sense of a confusing society. We saw it labeled somewhere as juvenile fiction. It isn't. It stars two teens, but the themes from veteran pulp magazine contributor, crime novelist, and screenwriter Fisher are adult, and overall he crafts a good tale. His screenplays include Dead Reckoning, Lady in the Lake, and Johnny Angel, so a foray into the criminal underworld with him is mandatory. We have one of his crime novels, so that'll be an upcoming read, and we'll report back.
There's no bottom in sight.
In High Dive Frank O'Rourke uses one of the time-honored tropes of mid-century crime fiction—the escape to Mexico. This 1955 Bantam edition has cover art which we like very much. It successfully captures the mysterious mood of the story, which centers around an unnamed Pacific resort town. That town is obviously Acapulco, a fact made clear from the book's cliff diving scenes. The fun begins when an insurance investigator named Jim Bradley rents a house in order to lie in wait for armored car robbers he feels will turn up there with the stolen loot sooner or later. He whiles away the months interacting with a menagerie of secretive expats, sultry women, and his true and faithful love Maria.
The most interesting aspect of High Dive is its style. It's lightly Hemingway flavored, making for a curious hybrid—part mystery, part lost generation. In addition to the prose, Hemingwayesque elements include: a sexually dissatisfied wife and a sad, cuckolded husband acting out their tragic pantomime of a marriage; numerous meet-ups for cocktails and generally constant drinking; an atmosphere of Americans existing but not thriving in a foreign land; and a local spectacle—not bullfighting, but cliff diving—that intermittently shifts from background to foreground in order to frame certain plot points. Yeah, it's pretty good, this book.
O'Rourke, who also published as Kevin Connor, Frank O'Malley, and Patrick O'Malley, mostly wrote westerns, and perhaps that's why he seems so comfortable in this Mexican space. For some readers it may take too long—about half the novel—for the protagonist to make actual headway solving the case of the armored car loot. His break finally comes when the wife of one of the robbers turns up in town. Or at least that's what he thinks. But is she really involved, and is her husband really one of the crooks? Perhaps, but by then the missing money isn't the attraction of the story. It's the disparate personal narratives, which are resolved as appropriate—triumph, tragedy, irony, and all the rest. High Dive was a pleasant surprise.
The decline and incineration of Western civilization.
These covers for Pat Frank's acclaimed post apocalypse drama Alas, Babylon can be considered additions to our collection of nuclear explosion book covers. In the story, a missile from a fighter jet causes an explosion in Syria that the Soviets mistake for a full scale NATO nuclear strike. They retaliate with a full strike, the U.S. retaliates with a full strike, and that's all she wrote. Actually, not really. That's the first act. Frank wrote plenty more, none of it fun. The novel first appeared in 1959, with these not-quite-identical Bantam editions coming later. We may have missed them in our initial searches for nuke covers because they're pretty subtle, combing the idea of a red sun with an atomic blast, but we're sure these are supposed to be explosions—or at least evoke them. There's also a very cool Spanish cover we posted way back in 2009. No explosion on that one, but it's exceedingly interesting.
Whoa. This is going to sound incredible, but right now I'm looking at what has to be the biggest bird of all time.
Once again we decided to read a book about someplace we've been. We just enjoy reading descriptions of places from a lifetime ago that we happen to know personally. This time it was the Canary Islands, where we spent time about five years back, depicted in A.J. Cronin's novel Grand Canary. Unfortunately, this tale concerning an assortment of characters on a steamer headed Spainward was a bit of a slog. The cast was too typical: two missionaries, a drunk, a profane older lady, a beautiful young one, a gruff captain, etc. Grand Canary was originally published in 1933, so this idea wasn't a cliché back when Cronin wrote it, but in our view it still doesn't compare well to other books about disparate characters turning up in exotic ports. The main plot involves a broken doctor trying to escape a ruined past who finds himself smack in the middle of a yellow fever outbreak. Chance for redemption? Maybe. The art on this 1952 edition from Bantam is by Mitchell Hooks, and it's excellent.
Why so bashful, beefcake? Turn around, drop those buckskins, and let me see what I'm working with.
The frontier adventure The Stranger by Lillian Bos Ross has a fun and games sort of cover, but it somewhat belies the content of the book, which is about a lonely Kansas woman who advertises herself as a willing wife, agrees to an arranged marriage, travels to California's Bug Sur coast to wed, and finds that her new husband is an awful brute. It's an adventure but also a romance, and being written in 1942 and set even earlier, her main goal is to—you see this coming, right?—win over the husband who beats on her (and cheats on her, for that matter). Does she succeed? Do bears shit in the woods? This Bantam paperback edition was published in 1949, and the cover art is credited to Bernard Barton, who was actually Harry Barton, but using his middle name instead.
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. Then 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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1985—Matt Munro Dies
English singer Matt Munro, who was one of the most popular entertainers on the international music scene during the 1960s and sang numerous hits, including the James Bond theme "From Russia with Love," dies from liver cancer at Cromwell Hospital, Kensington, London.
1958—Plane Crash Kills 8 Man U Players
British European Airways Flight 609 crashes attempting to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport in Munich, West Germany. On board the plane is the Manchester United football team, along with a number of supporters and journalists. 20 of the 44 people on board die in the crash.
1919—United Artists Is Launched
Actors Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, along with director D.W. Griffith, launch United Artists. Each holds a twenty percent stake, with the remaining percentage held by lawyer William Gibbs McAdoo. The company struggles for years, with Griffith soon dropping out, but eventually more partners are brought in and UA becomes a Hollywood powerhouse.
1958—U.S. Loses H-Bomb
A 7,600 pound nuclear weapon that comes to be known as the Tybee Bomb is lost by the U.S. Air Force off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, near Tybee Island. The bomb was jettisoned to save the aircrew during a practice exercise after the B-47 bomber carrying it collided in midair with an F-86 fighter plane. Following several unsuccessful searches, the bomb was presumed lost, and remains so today.
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