You knew those Reese's Cups were mine but you ate them anyway! Was it worth it? Well? Was it worth it?
This is a rarity on mid-century paperbacks—the strangler on Edward Vebell's cover for the 1951 thriller The Candy Kid is the protagonist. We almost never see one like this where the aggressive male isn't the villain, but it happens. In this case, he thinks the femme fatale has murdered his cousin. But he gets ahold of himself after a few seconds and gives her a chance to convince him that he's wrong. Telling you that isn't a spoiler, because the rear cover text reveals the murder anyway, and the hero's reaction isn't a turning point within the plot. He's pissed. But he gets over it.
The Candy Kid was written by the respected Dorothy B. Hughes, and she sticks close to the American southwest she explored in books such as 1946's Ride the Pink Horse. Here her main character, José “the Strangler” Aragon, is randomly selected on the streets of El Paso by upper class beauty Dulcinda “Sore Neck” Farrar to do a shady favor—take an envelope to across the border to Ciudad Juarez and exchange it for a package to be returned to her. She's chosen him because he looks like an itinerant laborer, like someone who needs, “un poco dinero.”
Actually, though, Aragon is a well-to-do rancher. He'd just gotten back from cowpunching when Dulcinda saw him, and he was sweaty and covered in grime. The whole thing was a joke to him. Based on her assumption, he'd pretended to be an immigrant day laborer, planning to reveal himself as a man of means to the pretty gringa later. But he takes more and more interest in this package business, and ends up performing the errand. Then the package is stolen from him.
What follows is a mystery involving a Greek crime kingpin, murder and revenge, twists and surprises, and unsolved crimes across the border. The odd title of the book comes from Dulcinda's name. Everyone calls her Dulcy, which in Spanish sounds like “dulce,” which means “sweet,” which causes one of the Mexican characters trying to remember her name to say, “that candy kid.” It's an involved journey. But then so is the tale.
We'll just come out and say it isn't Hughes' best, but she's always a fascinating author, particularly here, where she deftly captures the border atmosphere and attempts to portray a Mexican-American character who speaks Spanish and is comfortable on either side of the Rio Grande, yet is culturally distinct from his cousins down south. Some of those interactions have subtle class tensions that make them among the most interesting in the book. Other areas of the story are less successful. The biggest flaw is character motivation—Aragon has no compelling reason to get involved in Dulcy's troubles until his cousin dies, at the halfway mark. Following through on a prank just isn't enough.
But you can't fault the level of technical skill on display, although Hughes writes in an unusual style filled with comma splices: It would have been funny, he was always the one who delayed the crowd, he knew everyone from Chihuahua to Mesa Verde. It works fine, which proves that if done just right an author can break any rule they want. Well, almost any rule. A crucial one for genre fiction is: make sure your protagonist really wants something. Even Hughes wasn't able to break that one and get away with it.
Vintage paperback violence gets up close and personal.
We have another collection today as we prepare to jet away on vacation with the girls. Since the place we’re going is known for rowdy British tourists (what place isn’t known for that?), we thought we’d feature some of the numerous paperback covers featuring fights. You’ll notice, as with our last collection, the preponderance of French books. Parisian publishers loved this theme. The difference, as opposed to American publishers, is that you almost never saw women actually being hit on French covers (we’d almost go so far as to say it never happened, but we’ve obviously not seen every French paperback ever printed). The French preferred man-on-man violence, and when women were involved, they were either acquitting themselves nicely, or often winning via the use of sharp or blunt instruments.
Violence against women is and has always been a serious problem in the real world, but we’re just looking at products of the imagination here, which themselves represent products of the imagination known as fiction. Content-wise, mid-century authors generally frowned upon violence toward women even if they wrote it into their novels. Conversely, the cover art, stripped of literary context, seemed to glorify it. Since cover art is designed to entice readers, there’s a valid discussion here about why anti-woman violence was deemed attractive on mid-century paperback fronts, and whether its disappearance indicates an understanding of its wrongness, or merely a cynical realization that it can no longer be shown without consequences. We have another fighting cover here, and you may also want to check out our western brawls here.