So, I'm off to that crucial business meeting with— Wow, that thing's transparent, isn't it? Well, money can wait.
Above, a beautiful Bob Abbett cover for William Campbell Gault's Sweet Wild Wench, published by Crest Books in 1959. Abbett used a still of Brigitte Bardot from the 1958 film En cas de malheur as his inspiration. It certainly worked on us—we wanted to read this entirely because of the cover art. The story deals with a promiscuous private eye named Joe Puma who's hired to look into the activities of a Los Angeles cult, but soon finds himself tangled up in two murders, multiple lovers, and various pulp fiction tropes, which his main character actually refers to in his interior monologues as being like “something out of the pulps.” We appreciated the meta touch, the narrative has a nice L.A. feel, and there's a pretty good fight scene about three quarters of the way through, but the long and winding mystery resolves with a fizzle. Two Gaults down, two meh results. We'll dutifully try another.
Always get out while the getting is good.
Jim Thompson's thriller The Getaway was made into a movie twice, the first time in 1972 with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, and the second time in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Both versions opted to change the thrust of Thompson's tale, so if you've seen either movie reading the novel might provide an interesting experience. It's a crime novel with several deeper themes. For example, Thompson expresses social isolation in the starkest terms, such as here, when writing about a group of poor country folk:
Their existence was centered around existing. They had no hope of anything more, no comprehension that there might be anything more. In a sense they were an autonomous body, functioning within a society which was organized to grind them down. The law did not protect them; for them it was merely an instrument of harassment, a means of moving them on when it was against their interest to move, or detaining them when it was to their disadvantage to stay.
Against this hostile backdrop the two main characters, Doc and Carol, are—unlike in the movies—unambiguously amoral people, a couple who are certain only that the world is institutionally corrupt, and that their only hope for survival is each other. What starts as a standard heist-and-flight tale becomes an allegorical descent into hell, complete with images borrowed from various religious myths. This makes the latter third of the novel something far weirder than expected going in, but the ultimate idea of crime as a soul-killer comes across crystal clear.
You really can't go wrong with Thompson. While The Getaway is perhaps not as top flight as Pop. 1280 or some of his other books, it's still one to fit into your reading schedule at some point. It was originally published in 1958, and the above edition came from Signet in 1959 and features a nice orange cover from the incomparable Bob Abbett. If you're interested in seeing him at his best, check the small cover collection we put together here.
This is going to hurt you considerably more than it's going to hurt me.
Some years ago one of us bought a bullwhip. The opportunity was there to acquire a twelve foot version and be taught to use it by someone who made his living by wielding them at medieval fairs, so we leapt at the chance. As you may know, the crack comes from part of the whip breaking the sound barrier. It seemed like a cool idea to sew a piece of piano wire onto the end, which made the whip capable of gouging chunks out of trees. Generally, it only worked for five or six strikes before the wire tore loose from the tip, but it seemed like good, clean, twenty-something stupid-fun.
Whip Hand reminded us that bullwhips are no joking matter. Preferred instrument of torture for slave owners of the American south, they become central to the narrative of W. Franklin Sanders', aka Charles Willeford's Texas-based thriller when a character has his face flayed to pieces by an angry whip master. It's a brutal and bloody sequence in an uncompromising book constructed around a multi-p.o.v. first person narrative, each participant telling their own part, with not all of them managing to survive until the end.
The thrust of the story involves a kidnapping-turned-murder, a theft of the ransom money, and a chase to recover the stolen cash. The whip is never used by any of the female characters as suggested by the cover, but when it comes to paperbacks from the mid-century period you have to expect a bit of hyperbole. In this case the art is by the always brilliant Bob Abbett. Even without whip wielding femmes fatales, overall we liked Whip Hand. It's often barely realistic and isn't brilliantly written, but it's the type of tale that will get your attention and keep it. You can see some more whip themed paperback covers here.
A history of Rome in three volumes.
We watched Frank Sinatra’s 1967 detective movie Tony Rome last week and, except for some nice Miami exteriors and the presence of Jill St. John, it was strictly average. But it did give us the idea of digging up the source material, so above you see the covers of the three popular books in the literary series, published in 1960, ’61, and ’62. In an attempt to make readers think the tales were real-life adventures they’re credited to Anthony Rome, but they were actually written by veteran author Marvin H. Albert, who churned out more than one hundred books in the western, mystery, spy, and history categories. In addition to writing as Rome, he published as Albert Conroy, Al Conroy, Nick Quarry, Ian MacAlister, and J. D. Christilian. The cover art above is by, top to bottom, George Porter, Bob Abbett, and Victor Kalin. A while back we published a rare promo image from the film version of Lady in Cement and you can see that rather unusual shot here.
Faced with this position surrender is the only option.
Here you see a pose that appears over and over in vintage paperback art—one figure looming menacingly in the foreground as a second cowers in the triangular negative space created by the first’s spread legs. This pose is so common it should have a name. We’re thinking “the alpha,” because it signifies male dominance and because of the A shape the pose makes. True, on occasion the dominator isn’t male, sometimes the unfortunate sprawled figure is depicted outside the A shaped space, and sometimes the art expresses something other than dominance, but basically the alpha (see, that just sounds right, doesn’t it?) has been used scores of times with only minor variation. You’ll notice several of these come from subsidiaries of the sleaze publisher Greenleaf Classics. It was a go-to cover style for them. We have twenty examples in all, with art by Bob Abbett, Robert Bonfils, Michel Gourdon, and others.
Does this look like one of the top sixty pulp book covers of all time to you?
No, it doesn’t look like that to us either. Don’t get us wrong. It isn’t bad. But top sixty? Ever? Yet we found it on a site that included it in its top sixty, along with a collection of other covers of which we can honestly say only three were excellent. There was not one Fixler or Aslan to be found. Nary a J. David, nor a Peff, nor even a hint of a Rader. Clearly, whoever put the feature together took sixty random images off Flickr (yet watermarked the art they borrowed) and called it a day. This highlights one of the main problems with the internet: it’s difficult to know which sites are primarily focused upon providing information, and which exist solely to generate traffic revenue. A site can do both (as we try to do here with our very minimal ad presence), but when some corporate pulp site that possesses endless resources somehow misidentifies the pulp era as lasting from the 1950s to 1970s, and asserts that the term “pulp” was popularized by the movie Pulp Fiction, it’s clear that information has not only taken a back seat to traffic revenue—it’s being dragged 100 feet behind the car on a rope. We would never presume to do something as subjective as select the best covers of all time, because who the hell are we? But we have, we hope, earned some credibility over the last three years. So on this, our official third anniversary, we're going to do a pulp cover collection of our own. We don't claim these are the best—only that we like them very much. We’re posting twenty-four because we’re too lazy to do sixty, but we think all of them are winners. A few have already appeared on our site; most have not. Got better ones? Use our reader pulp feature to send them. So here we go. And thanks to the sites from which we borrowed some of these.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1989—Anti-Feminist Gunman Kills 14
In Montreal, Canada, at the École Polytechnique, a gunman shoots twenty-eight young women with a semi-automatic rifle, killing fourteen. The gunman claimed to be fighting feminism, which he believed had ruined his life. After the killings he turns the gun on himself and commits suicide.
1933—Prohibition Ends in United States
Utah becomes the 36th U.S. state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution, thus establishing the required 75% of states needed to overturn the 18th Amendment which had made the sale of alcohol illegal. But the criminal gangs that had gained power during Prohibition are now firmly established, and maintain an influence that continues unabated for decades.
1945—Flight 19 Vanishes without a Trace
During an overwater navigation training flight from Fort Lauderdale, five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo-bombers lose radio contact with their base and vanish. The disappearance takes place in what is popularly known as the Bermuda Triangle.
1918—Wilson Goes to Europe
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sails to Europe for the World War I peace talks in Versailles, France, becoming the first U.S. president to travel to Europe while in office.
1921—Arbuckle Manslaughter Trial Ends
In the U.S., a manslaughter trial against actor/director Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle ends with the jury deadlocked as to whether he had killed aspiring actress Virginia Rappe during rape and sodomy. Arbuckle was finally cleared of all wrongdoing after two more trials, but the scandal ruined his career and personal life.
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