I know—a magenta coat and white beret are bold choices for a clandestine meeting. But just look at the results.
Deep Is the Pit, for which you see Barye Phillips cover art above, is the story of a thief and killer named Marty Lee, who, like Stringer Bell of The Wire, tries to plow his ill-gotten gains into legitimate business. In this case, he swings a deal to buy the decaying old Stannard Hotel in San Francisco, which he turns into one of the hot spots of the West Coast by installing several themed bars and nightclubs. Since all his crimes were committed under a well established false identity and in disguise, he feels pretty safe, even when hostelry success makes him part of Frisco's highly scrutinized glitterati. There's only one snag—his former girlfriend from his criminal days is still around. But because she wants to make it big as a singer and actress, she has no reason to cross a guy who now owns some of the best clubs in California. Her knowledge of his past is neutralized by her ambition, and that's the only reason he hasn't killed her. Well, not the only reason. She's also great in bed.
He eventually jilts her for the rich daughter of the Stannard clan, Karen, and it's here that we see Marty's true colors. His bride is a virgin, and he pretty much ruins sex for her from the word go by ravaging her like an animal, which is the way he's always done it. Her pain and humiliation don't matter to him. He thinks her growing reluctance and eventual refusal to have sex with him is her fault. Even though he understands on some level that she needs gentleness and affection, he can only take what he wants, at whatever time and as violently as his mood dictates. He inevitably turns back to his old girlfriend, carrying on an affair while his upper crust marriage appears on the surface to be a happy one. Yet at the same time, he's very attached to his wife. It isn't love. It's something more akin to bedazzlement.
H. Vernor Dixon is one of those writers who lacks a strong or notable style, yet still puts a story across entertainingly. We were never tempted to skip even a paragraph. It's at about the two-thirds point that Marty's problems arrive in a bunch. His hotel is robbed by some of the subordinates he trained in the art of theft, an underworld figure with whom he's had dealings starts hanging around the property, and his old girlfriend suddenly wants more than just a singing career—or else. He can't do much about the robbers or the mobster, but he can handle his old flame. If he gets rid of her, his other problems will likely sort themselves out. But in these books supposedly disposable women can have tricks of their own up their sleeves. Deep Is the Pit ultimately hinges on Marty's desperate attempt murder his mistress, which Dixon manages to describe tautly and with good twists. The pit is deep indeed, but for readers falling in is a good time.
And this stretch is great for the shoulders. We violent ones know how to take care of bodies in more ways than one.
Above is a Barye Phillips cover for Howard Hunt's 1950 novel The Violent Ones, about World War II vet Paul Cameron, summoned by his buddy Phil Thorne back to Paris, where they spent part of the war. Thorne needs help with an unspecified jam, but he's killed not long after Cameron arrives, who then vows revenge against any and all. There's nothing subtle here. He turns bull-in-china-shop, knocks heads, gets knocked, uncovers commies, and manhandles various women—who fall for him anyway. The murder has to do with the smuggling of gold to Hanoi. Cameron mocks the head smuggler at one point, “So now you're sending gold to your cousins in Indo-China so the Little Brown Man can come into his own?” Hunt couldn't imagine Vietnam escaping the western orbit, but it happened anyway. That's irony. He's an intriguing author and a uniquely interesting man, which means he may appear here again.
Well, my herb garden died and my macramé is crap. Looks like betrayal and adultery are my remaining options for passing the time.
You know what's weird about Charles Williams' 1951 thriller River Girl? There's no river. The action takes place in a swamp, and several sloughs. Sloughs are sluggish side channels. It struck us as funny. Why not call the book Swamp Girl? That would fit both literally and figuratively, because the main character Jack Marshall gets swamped by trouble clear up to his neck. There's a funny line of dialogue about halfway through the book that encapsulates his dilemma. A character muses, “It just doesn't seem possible that in only eleven million years, or however long they've been here, men could have got as stupid about women as they have. They must have practiced somewhere before.”
Yup. What happens here is Jack Marshall, who's deputy sheriff of a southern town, stumbles across a woman living way out in an isolated corner of the local swamp, and is overcome with fascination and lust. We've met these isolated swamp women before in mid-century fiction, and they're always problematic. This one's name is Doris, and Jack wants her real bad, but she lives in a shack with her fisherman husband Roger, the two scratching out an almost feral existence. Why? It seems as if Roger is hiding from either the law, or some shady characters he double-crossed. That's all the opening our horny deputy needs to drive a wedge into the marriage—a dick-shaped wedge. He boats into the swamp to enjoy Doris's company whenever her husband is away, and when she finally agrees to run away with him everything goes wildly, ballistically wrong.
Concerning those ballistics, the hero reflects at one point: “No jury on earth would ever believe I'd had to shoot an unarmed man twenty pounds lighter and fifteen years older than I was just to defend myself. I could have stopped him with one hand.” In the scene, Roger was indeed unarmed, but had moved toward a gun that Marshall reached first. Under identical circumstances, an American cop today could shoot that person—multiple times whether they were unarmed or not—claim to have been afraid, and only an extraordinary set of circumstances would see the cop lastingly punished. But here in 1951 Deputy Do-Wrong is in a real pickle.
There's only one solution: via a complicated gambit he tries to make it look as if Roger has killed him and fled the state with Doris. The key to the scheme is that Roger's body must never be found, nor his own, nor can there be any sign of Doris ever again. Think he can pull it off? Then we've got some prime swampland to sell you at a nice price. Like submerged bodies, complications always pop up. In Williams' hands, those complications provide more than enough dramatic current to make River Girl a fun, swift read. As we've said about him before, he's as reliable as the Woolworth clock. Anything he writes will be at least decent, and often it will be excellent. We rate this one lower than his top efforts, but above what most authors were producing around the same time.
Poor baby. If I'm making you cry now, just wait. I've got shit planned for you that'll really unleash the waterworks.
We said we'd get back to Paul Connolly's and here we are. This cover for his 1952 novel Tears Are for Angels was painted by Barye Phillips, and though skillful as always, it's deceptively plain for a book laden with doom, steeped in pending disaster, and populated by lost souls suffering in self-made hells. What you get here is a man named Harry London, whose shoot-first reaction to adultery comes at the heavy price of his amputated arm and his wife's life, due to his attempt to kill her lover going horribly awry. After two years of drinking himself into oblivion his chance for revenge comes along in the person of his dead wife's friend Jean, who signs onto London's long delayed murder scheme. The book is a clinic in noir style, with characterizations pushed to the very darkest levels, like something James M. Cain thought up, then went, “Naaah! Too downbeat!” Self loathing and hate fucks make the book overwhelmingly malicious, then comes the wild murder scheme, which has WARNING! DISASTER AHEAD! across it in flashing letters. Additionally, the task Connolly sets for himself here is to make a beautiful woman's attraction to a drunken, reeking, one-armed ogre of a man seem plausible. He failed, as almost any writer would, but we have to give him credit—even though the romantic interaction between his leads is ridiculous, he makes turning each page an exercise in dread. That takes talent. Tears Are for Angels is a fascinating read.
Thanks for rescuing me. Don't untie me yet, though. First let me tell you about this kinky fantasy I've always had.
George Harmon Coxe's Murder in Havana was an easy buy for us—it was cheap and set in an exotic land. We were also drawn by its World War II backdrop, which made us fully expect Nazis, and we got them. The story concerns Andrew Talbot, who's in charge of a secret shipbuilding project. While he's out on the town someone breaks into his hotel room but somehow ends up dead five floors below. Talbot is relieved not to have been robbed of his top secret dox, but once he realizes the dead man hadn't been the only person in his room and his papers were photographed rather than stolen, he sets out to save his professional reputation and unmask the spies.
As required from this sort of tale, the hero meets a couple of beautiful women, interfaces fractiously with the local cops, gets knocked over the head, and drinks rum. Mysteries from this era can be wordy, but Coxe deserves credit—he keeps the action moving around Havana and avoids the pointless reiterations that can slow these books. The ending is fun, and multi-layered. There could be more local color and travelogue, and we aren't sure if we accept the idea of skeleton keys being purchaseable on the street, but overall Murder in Havana is quite entertaining. It was published in 1943 originally, with this Dell edition and its Barye Phillips cover art of a woman bound but incongruously smiling coming in 1950.
Zumba, huh? Never heard of it. But anything that involves dancing around in this heat I'll take a pass on.
A glance at this Barye Phillips cover for Dan Cushman's 1951 novel Jewel of the Java Sea and you immediately expect it to be filled with lyrical old place names, with their romantic connotations for Westerners of a certain age—Siam, Burma, Celebes, Dutch East Indies, and broadly “the Orient,” names that have dissipated into history, though colonial memory continues to associate them with riches, adventure, and freedom. The name Java is still in use, and that's where Frisco Dougherty, a musician by training, but a fortune hunter and brawler in practice, has been knocking around for fifteen years attempting to make his fortune.
Dougherty has had little luck at this, which is why when he comes into possession of a yellow diamond said to be part of a priceless larger set, he goes into treasure hunter mode with sharp tongue, clenched fists, and hot lead. This jewel he's stumbled upon is supposedly one of five known collectively as the Taj Nipa, with those in turn married to a larger diamond called the Taj-i-nur. The whole kit and caboodle is presumed to reside in the vault of the Maharajah Sir Jagadipendra Bahadur, G.S., C.I., C.C.E.I., LMNOP. But that presumption could be wrong. Maybe the stones were liberated from their vault, though nobody has reported a theft.
Such capers are the core of these types of books, but there are also women. Anna, a Dutchwoman cast adrift in the islands, tells Dougherty she's searching for her missing father, an army major. She's important, but Dougherty is particularly intrigued by Locheng, an exotic dancer in the town of Pontianak, Borneo, and to his eye, a mix of all things good about Asia. He tells the reader she's, “Indo-Chinese, Malay, child of the melting pot, and [with] white blood, enough white blood make her vivid, give her fire.” Uh huh, Frisco loves him some Locheng, though he has a mighty brusque way of showing it:
He decided not to knock. He swung the door open. She sprang up to face him. She was naked. He took a deep breath and looked at her. She seized her sarong and swung it around her hips, tucked it tightly around her waist. Her breasts remained bare, after the fashion of native women.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “Is it the Western influence that makes you think a body should be hidden? Let me see you as you were. You are so beautiful.”
The Western influence. We didn't notice him wandering around naked to demonstrate his liberation. But maybe that's his point—he's too corrupted to be free, but luckily—his luck, not hers—she isn't. At this point he's met Locheng exactly once before, and she called him a hodah orang—ugly man, according to the book, though not according to Google translate—and showed him the door. But he clearly thinks being cursed out was just a flirtatious prelude to his inevitable conquest of Locheng, and indeed, as these South Seas novels are usually male literary fantasies, that conquest will come soon enough.
Dougherty is interesting. He's impulsive and self-entitled; bigoted, though this appears to be more class than skin based; and sexist, to which we add no qualifiers considering he always wants women to parade around naked. But he's also sentimental and defends the underdog. We think he's an accurate depiction of a certain type of wayfaring American male endemic to the wilder reaches of the world. As former inhabitants of a couple of those reaches ourselves, we've met the type. Cue the Pulp Intl. girlfriends: “Met? You are the type.” Well, not really, though. We've always sought adventures, but our resemblance to Dougherty stops where he demands unearned respect, crosses lines of consent, and calls grown men, “boy.”
In the end, Jewel of the Java Sea is a South Asian thriller that sits neither at the top nor bottom of the genre. Frisco Dougherty might be worth having a beer with, but only until he says something offensive and refuses to apologize. What we'd prefer to hear from him are reflections about something other than how Western influence has ruined his chances to enjoy boobs al fresco. That may yet happen. Reading the book, we got the feeling he was supposed to become a franchise. A series never took root, but he did pop up in one sequel, 1960's The Half-Caste, also set in Asia. We already purchased it a little earlier today, because Cushman can write. What will be interesting is to see if Dougherty can grow.
Into battle, me mateys! And tonight for those who survive—extra portions of organic Chai tea!
Today is International Talk Like a Pirate Day, not an official holiday, sadly. We asked the Pulp Intl. girlfriends what they'd do if they were pirates and the answers weren't pretty. Making all the men walk the plank was the most charitable of their thoughts, with swords and whips coming into play pretty quickly after that. Good thing we're only supposed to talk like pirates. Arrr... let's tone down the homicidal thoughts, girls.
Above and below is a collection of vintage paperbacks with women pirates. Well, maybe the woman on the cover of Rafael Sabatini's The Fortunes of Captain Blood isn't a pirate so much as someone defending herself. But anyone who can handle two pistols at once is an honorary pirate, at the least. We found eleven examples, and the cover art on display is by Harry Schaare, Rudolph Belarski, Barye Phillips, Paul Anna Soik, and others.
Turns out Barye Phillips and Dom Lupo lived at the same address, but at different times.
We've talked often about vintage paperback art being copied. We have another example today involving Dom Lupo and Barye Phillips. Hearing those two names you'd think it was Phillips, who was a stalwart of mid-century paperback illustration, who'd been copied by Lupo, talented but lesser known. Nope—it's the other way around. Above is Lupo's cover for 13 French Street, which was used by Gold Medal Books in 1951. You also see here Phillips' cover for Little Tramp (larger version here), which dates from 1957. Naughty Barry.
But Lupo copied too, sort of. He seems to have used as his inspiration a promo photo of U.S. actress Rita Gam, below. Using photos as the basis for illustrations was pretty normal, as we've documented before, so Lupo was just doing what artists did. You can see he changed the angle a bit, so it's not a true copy so much as a template. There's an internet replication error we should note: a few places say the Gam photo is from her 1952 thriller The Thief. Which means, obviously, she could not have inspired Lupo unless she had a time machine. Since the poses are so similar, we assume the attribution to The Thief is simply wrong—though ironic, because in art, everyone is a little bit of a thief. Great work by all involved.
There are skeletons in the closet, and then there are entire graveyards.
Above is a nice Barye Phillips cover for Savage Bride, an alternate to the one we showed you last year, also painted by Phillips. This cover is far nicer, we think. The teaser tells the truth—this story is weird and terrifying. Well, not terrifying in the sense that it'll give you chills. More in the sense that you can't possibly imagine what you'd do if your wife were like the one in this book. You can read a bit more about it here.
The mob comes to California and spreads like a virus.
Above you see a piece of atypical Barye Phillips art on the cover of the 1957 crime thriller The Hoods Take Over, written by Ovid Demaris. We call it atypical because Phillips rarely painted in collage style, with multiple figures and elements crowded onto a canvas. In fact, this is the first we've seen of this technique from him, though we wouldn't be surprised if there are others. Working in this way, Phillips' beautiful visual style is simplified to the level of comic book art. We think it diminishes his genius, but hey, we bet it paid just as well as his other covers.
Turning to the story here, the title is perfectly descriptive—organized crime hoods are taking over L.A. But the overmatched cops are given a tool to check the rampant spread of lawlessness when a school teacher witnesses a brutal mob murder and—shockingly—is willing to testify even though it endangers his life. This is an excellent tale with a modern feel and pacing, told in numerous short chapters, and starring an array of characters. It hits the ground running, maintains a strong sense of dread, and never lets the tension abate.
We won't get into the plot too much except to say that we love novels where survivability for the good guys isn't guaranteed, and here you are in no way assured that the protagonists—embodied by that proud but possibly foolish teacher—will win. Will he stick to his principles when the mob comes a-knocking, threatening him and his pregnant wife? Most people wouldn't, but this particular citizen thinks he can make a difference. Because he never fought in World War II he believes the challenge now before him is how he's meant to contribute to the world's hard-won freedom.
The Hoods Take Over isn't a perfect novel. For one thing, its violent and messy ending is a shade on the improbable side, possibly conceived because Demaris felt it was the only way to conclude all his disparate character arcs in economical fashion. But unlikely or not, it's a slam-bang climax, and the book is very good overall. So good, in fact, that we immediately went online and located a couple more Demaris novels, and went way above our usual price ceiling for paperbacks to buy them. Guess we've come down with a bad case of Ovid.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1966—LSD Declared Illegal in U.S.
LSD, which was originally synthesized by a Swiss doctor and was later secretly used by the CIA on military personnel, prostitutes, the mentally ill, and members of the general public in a project code named MKULTRA, is designated a controlled substance in the United States.
1945—Hollywood Black Friday
A six month strike by Hollywood set decorators becomes a riot at the gates of Warner Brothers Studios when strikers and replacement workers clash. The event helps bring about the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which, among other things, prohibits unions from contributing to political campaigns and requires union leaders to affirm they are not supporters of the Communist Party.
1957—Sputnik Circles Earth
The Soviet Union launches the satellite Sputnik I, which becomes the first artificial object to orbit the Earth. It orbits for two months and provides valuable information about the density of the upper atmosphere. It also panics the United States into a space race that eventually culminates in the U.S. moon landing.
1970—Janis Joplin Overdoses
American blues singer Janis Joplin is found dead on the floor of her motel room in Los Angeles. The cause of death is determined to be an overdose of heroin, possibly combined with the effects of alcohol.
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