Louis Brennan's disaster thriller is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma inundated by a flood.
Louis A. Brennan's thriller Death at Flood Tide, first published in 1958 by Dell, has a cover illustration by Bob Abbett, whose work probably needs no introduction. But if he does, look here. This piece is almost on the level of a sketch compared to some of the more realistic scenes he's painted, yet it remains stylistically familiar.
The novel tells the story of Barry Coplyn, who during the flooding of an Ohio town is deputized to help the local police, is tasked to follow up the report of a body, finds a nude woman murdered in a house, and subsequently realizes he's suspected of the murder. If he'd simply been arrested he would have had a right to a lawyer and possibly bail, but as a deputy serving the county he has to obey his new boss or be jailed for dereliction of duty. It's a clever gambit by the sheriff to keep Coplyn close and talking while attempting to gather enough evidence to fry him.
The first murder reopens the file on an identical murder two years earlier, and the sheriff thinks Coplyn committed that one too—which is a realization exactly an eternity too late for the man he railroaded into the electric chair. But he isn't too broken up about finding out he was wrong. Instead, he thinks he can make up for the error by sending Coplyn to die—the other man was poor and black, while Coplyn comes from a wealthy white family. This is supposed to balance the cosmic and sociological scales. All of this occurs against the backdrop of the inundated town, with the flood providing hinderances to police, but opportunity to the murderer.
Another interesting aspect of the narrative concerns slaps of the face. Coplyn slaps his girlfriend Jay Jay twice, then spends the entire book trying to excuse this, with none of his explanations remotely adequate. He even wallows in self pity, claiming the slaps hurt him worse than they hurt her. Jay Jay comes to understand she's being unreasonable and forgives him, which we can't condone, but that's the way it goes in mid-century books. In the end she's key to solving the crimes, not through happenstance or device, but through intelligence and insight, so at least Brennan gave her that.
Brennan remains a solid author in this second outing we've taken with him, after the Ohio frontier adventure The Long Knife—though he seems a bit more sure-footed in the old than modern midwest. The main flaw for us is that we had to work hard to like Coplyn and the sheriff, who both suffer from the affliction of callousness portrayed as manliness. We think compassion and restraint show strength, while cathartic emotions like self-pity and fury show weakness, so we were hoping the sheriff would pay for his frame-up, and Coplyn would fail to get the girl. But neither of those outcomes is a possibility. Even so, Death at Flood Tide is pretty good.
You paid the cover charge to get in. Now you have to pay the uncover charge or get out.
The brush behind this cover for Wade Miller's 1946 debut thriller Deadly Weapon was paperback vet Bob Abbett, and it's one of his better pieces in a portfolio filled with top efforts. The book is good too. It's about an Atlanta detective who drives to San Diego to avenge the death of his partner, and as befits such a concept, features excellent Sam Spade-like repartee between main character Walter James and a local cop named Austin Clapp. Some of the action is centered around a burlesque theatre and its headlining peeler Shasta Lynn, but the deadly weapon isn't a femme fatale, as implied by the art, but Walter James himself. The man is hell on wheels. He even uses his car to ram another auto and its occupants over a cliff. Overall, Deadly Weapon is well written, well paced, and well characterized (if a bit saccharine in the romantic subplot). Wade Miller—who was really Bob Wade and Bill Miller acting as one—started his/their career on a good note with this one.
I was hoping you had time to handle a couple of things for me right now.
The artist who painted this cover for Curt Aldrich's 1966 sleazer Anytime Girl didn't receive credit, which is not surprising, because it's a simplified copy of a Bob Abbett cover for the 1959 William Campbell Gault novel Sweet Wild Wench. But on the other hand, the cover for Sweet Wild Wench is a simplified copy of a frame from the 1958 Brigitte Bardot film En cas de malheur, aka Love Is My Profession. You'll see what we mean if you look here. We still like this cover, though. Greenleaf Classics and its various imprints—Evening, Candid, Midnight, Ember, Nightstand, et al—had a way of reducing cover concepts to their primal essence. Back then the results were considered tastelessly funny. Probably not so much today, but that's one reason we share these—for the cultural contrast between then and now. If you think society has progressed since then, here's a bit of evidence why that's true. And if you think everyone has simply turned into humorless drones, ditto. Want to see our greatest hits of Greenleaf Classics? Top ten: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Debate and discuss. We'll be back tomorrow to help dispose of the bodies.
Alarms, security, police... As a master jewel thief I thought I'd considered every possible obstacle. Just goes to show.
This Avon Publications cover for The Deadly Game by Norman Daniels was painted by Bob Abbett. The book has a promising premise, though there's no nude that interrupts a safe cracking. The story concerns a high society jewel thief who's being constantly dogged by a determined police detective, and who decides to get revenge by bedding the cop's wife, then, for good measure, implicating her in his next heist. It's revenge to the nth degree—cuckold the cop, further humiliate him by succeeding with the crime, then railroad his wife to prison. We're talking cruel. Too bad this one is undone by substandard writing. But it wasn't bad enough to stop us from sticking with it until the end and finding out how it all resolved. If you find it for five bucks or less, it's probably worth taking the plunge.
I said I need to stretch my legs. I didn't say you need to stand there and stare at them while I do it.
The cover blurb makes James McKimmey's The Long Ride sound as if the trip taken involves a total of one woman and three men. Actually there are seven travelers, headed cross country to San Fransisco, three of whom are involved in a bank robbery and murder in different ways. Obviously, there's the robber. There's also the person whole stole the loot from the robber. And there's—well, we won't say, because this is a good tale that deserves to surprise you. It reminded us tangentially of John D. MacDonald's The Damned, though the ensemble here is much smaller. However, the crucible aspect is similar. In The Damned everyone is stuck at a closed river crossing, whereas here everyone spends much of their time in a station wagon (with a motel or two mixed in). We read a review of this that said the three main characters ending up in the same car defied credulity. That person must have skimmed the book. It makes perfect sense that they're together, as does every other aspect of the plotting. The only flaw for us was an over-written lonely heart librarian, but otherwise we thought The Long Ride was a thrill ride, not long at all, if anything too short. This Dell paperback is from 1961 with leggy art from Bob Abbett.
Let's briefly consider someone else's feelings. How do you think your rejection of my inappropriate sexual advances made me feel?
We thought we'd exhausted the supply of therapist sleaze novels, but not quite. Above you see The Glass Cage by Edward Ronns, which is about a Park Avenue shrink who finds himself in sticky situations with upper crust women. This was published in 1962 with Bob Abbett cover art. We don't have our shrink sleaze covers keyworded, which means if you want to see the others we'll have to usher you to them ourselves. They're to be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.
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.
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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