There's no plan B. There's only payback.
Above you see a cover for The Avenger, written by Matthew Blood and published in 1952. It's a detective novel that reads like a parody. It was the first of two starring hard-boiled private dick Morgan Wayne, and it's immediately clear why the character lasted only two outings. In many hard-boiled detective books the hero is unrealistically tough and the women unbelieveably pliant, but here that's taken to a ridiculous extreme, only with poor writing that makes clear that this is not a parody, but a serious attempt at urban crime drama in the Spillane mold. At one point the anti-hero Wayne bites the head off a crook's prized goldfish then shoots him. This is all in pursuit of the person who killed Wayne's new secretary Lois, who he'd been looking forward to laying:
He concentrated fiercely on visualizing her as she must be waiting for him now. That was the only drawback to this affair. There hadn't been enough build-up. Not enough expectation. Nothing at all of the slow and delicious burning that gradually takes complete possession of a man during the period of delightful dalliance that generally precedes the consummation of a civilized love affair.
So much wrong with that paragraph. Delightful dalliance that precedes consummation? But we'll let it pass:
She must be waiting for him in her apartment now, damn it. Soaking up the warmth of a hot bath while she waited for him and anticipated his coming. He savagely cursed the circumstances that were keeping them apart, and unconsciously trod the accelerator closer and closer to the floor boards...
That's pretty bad too. Anyway, Wayne arrives at Lois's apartment to find her dead and mutilated, and along the road to solving the crime he's pursued sexually by a sixteen-year-old, her mother, and various other cock-starved characters, before climbing the ladder to the person who ordered the murder and taking care of business. It's all written in the same graceless fashion as the above examples. The amazing part is that Matthew Blood was a pseudonym for W. Ryerson Johnson and David Dresser. There's no excuse for two brains producing a half-witted book. We do like the cover art, though, and no wonder—it's Barye Phillips again.
This Cameron Kay fella might just amount to something one day.
Cameron Kay was a pseudonym used by literary leading light Gore Vidal when he was short of cash and needed to publish and get paid fast. He'd used other pseudonyms for this purpose, including Edgar Box and Katherine Everard. It took him about three weeks to produce 1953's Thieves Fall Out, and he made three grand on the deal. It's one of those books where a money-seeking rando goes to a foreign country and immediately inserts himself into the biggest caper going for hundreds of miles around—and does it, improbably, with great ease, while seeming to think, irrationally, that it's a good idea. This character, named Peter Wells, ultimately turns sour on the venture and must figure out a way to flee Egypt with his true love by his side.
Though Vidal is not at the heights he'd reach in his best writing, you already know that going in. In the final analysis he gets the job done, like a good carpenter working on a quick side project. We glanced at a few reviews after finishing the story and they seem to miss the point that Vidal does exactly what adventure fiction requires. Saying the book's plot is stock is like saying dance music is repetitive. It has to be that way to make you dance. Because of the identity of the author, it feels as if reviewers try to flaunt their intellectual bona fides by trashing the result. We're not going to do that. The book is satisfactory.
What Vidal does especially well is local color—though refracted through a wealthy Western prism that few Egyptians would appreciate. Yet it's clear he tries to be egalitarian, if imperfectly, and he crafts a tale with unique characters. There's a piano playing hunchback who hides behind a wall and looks at his nightclub through a peephole, a beautiful French countess who was once the mistress of Egypt's top Nazi, and a fresh young beauty who's the unrequited love of King Farouk of Egypt—who has her followed everywhere by his secret police. Those ideas are unusual, for sure, but they're not as farfetched as some reviewers would like you to think.
We make that statement confidently because we've lived in the wilder world. In Guatemala we met an ex-judge from a proximate country who had fled because of being targeted for death by the new ruling party, but who was a drunk who craved public enjoyment and had shaved his head and grown a beard in order to hang in dive bars unrecognized. Was his story true? Maybe. He had a judicial identification card he eventually showed us that looked real enough. Real enough, in fact, that we gave him a wide berth from then on, thinking that if he was assassinated we didn't want to be in the line of fire. It may not sound real, but there you go. It happened.
Therefore we don't agree with reviewers who think Vidal's characters are intentionally absurd, and that he was pushing the envelope of how bizarre he could make his cast. Such people exist. Vidal would have found them. They make Thieves Fall Out a fascinating read. The book isn't top of the genre, nor bottom, but it's unique, and has a fun climax tied into the burgeoning Egyptian revolution and the real-life fire that destroyed one of the most famous hotels in the world. Here's what Thieves Fall Out is in summation: readable, distracting, and just leftfield enough to let you know the author is someone with a different take on the world, who'd later distill his ideas into fiction that would make him a literary sensation.
They say no sacrifice is too great. She might disagree.
There's always the potential for spoilers when discussing books, but we don't have to worry about that with The Pyx, because the honchos at Fawcett Publications teased its weirdness on the front and rear covers, which means you can't help but know it isn't a standard crime novel. And if you're Catholic, you don't even need the teasers. The title is enough to suggest where the story goes.
John Buell's tale deals with a Montreal prostitute named Elizabeth Lucy who apparently commits suicide, but who we get to know via flashback chapters titled, “The Past.” As you'd guess, the other chapters are titled, “The Present,” and in those a police detective tries to determine whether Lucy leapt off a penthouse balcony, fell off by accident while high on heroin, or was pushed.
It's a good book, well written, heavily atmospheric and at times abstract, with cool little moments like, “The rhythm of the wipers was like time running ahead.” It's clear why it's been reprinted more than once, and why the book spawned a 1973 movie. We recommend it, and we suggest staying away from any detailed reviews (or any descriptions of the film) before you read it. It's from 1959 with Barye Phillips on the cover chores.
But I don't want to swim with you. Walking with you was already enough of an ordeal.
The front of Robert Wilder's Walk with Evil calls it the author's most exciting suspense novel. We wouldn't know, because we've read only this one, but it's good. The dispersed narrative follows a reporter who vacations in the environs of Palm Beach and stumbles upon one of the most famous missing persons in recent history—a federal judge who vanished without a trace years ago. Meanwhile, a recently paroled crime kingpin is cruising the Florida coast in a yacht. The missing-now-found judge and the kingpin are connected. The former once presided over the trial that sent the latter to prison.
Wilder's tale skips around between the kingpin and his henchmen, the judge and his daughter, the reporter, and an insurance investigator also poking around. We soon learn that the kingpin is searching for a million robbery dollars that are hidden somewhere along the coast, and that the judge may hold the key. The plot threads which inexorably twist into a knot of tension and danger are very competently managed by Wilder. The only weakness—as usual with these vintage thrillers—is the love story, which once again is perfunctory, with the woman given no concrete reason to fall for the hero other than that he's there.
But it's a minor issue. The story works, and the characters are interesting and diverse. We'll never know if Walk with Evil is really Wilder's most exciting novel unless we try a couple more, so maybe we'll do that, assuming we can find some with reasonable price tags. The cover art on this was painted by Barye Phillips—yes, again. The man was simply among the most ubiquitous illustrators of his era. The copyright is listed online as 1958, however ours says clear as day on the inside that the original publication year was 1957, with this Crest edition arriving in 1960.
They say vengeance is a dish best served cold. But hot works fine too.
Vengeance Is Mine is Mickey Spillane's third Mike Hammer novel, and sees the violence addicted shamus lose his investigative license, then a close army buddy, then be haunted when a woman enters his life who resembles his fiancée Charlotte Manning, who he killed in his debut outing I, the Jury. This new woman is named Juno Reeves, and as Hammer attempts to avenge the murder of his friend, she provides an unnerving reminder of his past. She'll be even more unnerving in his future, but that's all we'll say about her.
On the subject of revenge best served cold, forget it. Hammer wants white hot vengeance right now. The stark difference between Spillane's approach and that of other crime authors is that he writes Hammer as so mean the character is actually odious, but that's his game, and as a reader you go in accepting it. Sometimes, as in I, the Jury and Kiss Me Deadly, it's pulp gold. Vengeance Is Mine is more like silver, however it does have an incredible punchline ending you won't forget. The cover art here is by Barye Phillips, part of a set he painted for the series. You can see the others here.
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.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1916—Paris Is Bombed by German Zeppelins
During World War I, German zeppelins conduct a bombing raid on Paris. Such raids were rare, because the ships had to fly hundreds of miles over French territory to reach their target, making them vulnerable to attack. Reaching London, conversely, was much easier, because the approach was over German territory and water. The results of these raids were generally not good, but the use of zeppelins as bombers would continue until the end of the war.
1964—Soviets Shoot Down U.S. Plane
A U.S. Air Force training jet is shot down by Soviet fighters after straying into East German airspace. All 3 crew men are killed. U.S forces then clandestinely enter East Germany in an attempt to reach the crash but are thwarted by Soviet forces. In the end, the U.S. approaches the Soviets through diplomatic channels and on January 31 the wreckage of the aircraft is loaded onto trucks with the assistance of Soviet troops, and returned to West Germany.
1967—Apollo Fire Kills Three Astronauts
Astronauts Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee are killed in a fire during a test of the Apollo 1 spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Although the ignition source of the fire is never conclusively identified, the astronauts' deaths are attributed to a wide range of design hazards in the early Apollo command module, including the use of a high-pressure 100 percent-oxygen atmosphere for the test, wiring and plumbing flaws, flammable materials in the cockpit, an inward-opening hatch, and the flight suits worn by the astronauts.
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