Modesty Blaise is mmm mmm good.
A Taste for Death was an entry in Peter O'Donnell's famed Modesty Blaise series, about an international criminal-turned-black ops death dealer. The previous three books featured Robert McGinnis fronts on the paperback editions, which you can see here, here, and here, but by the time this one appeared the paperback industry was shifting toward cheaper art—first photographic covers, and eventually computer graphics. The relentless pursuit of increased profits has cost society a lot, from beautiful urban cinemas to livable wages to entire forested mountaintops. Traditional paperback art isn't that important when measured against all the other losses, but it still represents the extinction of something enriching and fun. A Taste for Death was first published in 1969. This edition came from Fawcett Crest in 1972, with uncredited art which we consider to be the last painting of merit to appear on an English language Modesty Blaise paperback. More McGinnis pieces appeared on foreign editions, and we'll share those later. Also, some of the photo covers in the series are nice, and we may share those too.
The book brings back a villain Blaise and her sidekick Willie Garvin thought they had defeated in installment one, the nasty international jewel thief Gabriel, who this time is teamed up with a gorilla of a man named Simon Delicata in a plot to wrest the ancient and priceless Garamantes jewels from an Algerian archaeological dig. They've kidnapped Garvin's girlfriend Dinah Pilgrim, who can find precious metals and gems using dowsing rods and heightened senses. It's a typically imaginative set-up from O'Donnell, who we mentioned before creates villains fit for a James Bond movie. They're never just bad guys—they're freaks of criminality and terrifying physical specimens. Blaise and Garvin always have their hands full, and that's especially true in A Taste for Death, which features not only the wily Gabriel and the beast Delicata, but a master fencer named Wenczel eager to pincushion the heroes. We suggest you get a taste for Modesty Blaise. As fanciful spy capers go, her adventures usually hit the spot.
What a perfect day. It's days like this that make me glad we invested early in cryptocurrency and retired before thirty.
Above is a Charles Binger cover for John D. MacDonald's 1959 novel The Beach Girls. At this point, we know anything he wrote pre-Travis McGee is going to be good, and even the McGee books are mostly entertaining despite the main character's off-putting social judgments. The Beach Girls is a bit different from other MacDonalds we've read, largely written in a sort of round robin style where the final words of each chapter lead mid-sentence into the first words of the next, but with a change in first person point-of-view. The book cycles through numerous characters via this interesting trick before settling into standard third person narration for the finish.
The story deals with the inhabitants of a marina in fictional Elihu Beach, Florida, some of whom are friends, others enemies, some longtime residents, others newcomers, and how jealousy and resentment lead to a shocking act of violence. From the earliest pages you know this event is coming, and as the book wears on you become pretty sure who's going to be the unfortunate though deserving recipient, and who's going to be the giver. The main question becomes whether MacDonald will subvert these expectations and throw readers a curve. We'll just say it wasn't a predictable tale.
The only thing we don't get is why it's called The Beach Girls. The nearby beach area of the town is mentioned only a few times, no scenes are set there, and the book has an ensemble cast, with the women no more important than the men. There are groups of tourist women that pop up here and there, but they don't impact the story at all. Oh well. The title is a mystery, but an unimportant one. We'll get back to MacDonald a bit later. These 1950s efforts of his have been very worthwhile.
I have to admit, you're pretty good in the sack for a capitalist running dog lackey.
Heat, guns, passion, and politics. What more do you need for an adventure novel? Paul Edmondson's 1959 potboiler The Little Revolution is set on the fictional island of Caimanera, which is of course modeled after Cuba, where American wife Fidessa Broughton gets tangled up in a rebellion via her choice of a bedroom partner, even as her husband goes astray with a local woman, and a military captain's daughter rebels as well, in that way all teenagers do. The excellent art on this is by the eclectic Mitchell Hooks. We discussed his singular genius in detail a while back.
Your partners all voted and decided to demote you to this shallow grave.
When the cat's away the mice will play, so the saying goes, and in Kill the Boss Good-By San Pietro crime kingpin Tom Fell goes missing for a month and a subordinate tries to take over his operation. When Fell reappears a power struggle ensues, while the top bosses in L.A. decide to wait and see who will come out on top. What makes the book a bit different is the reason Fell was missing—he was in a mental institution recovering from a breakdown with the aid of electroshock treatments. The new brain-scrambled Fell is calmer than the old Fell, but is he cured or is he worse? His enemies soon find out. Interesting hard boiled stuff from Peter Rabe, driven primarily by dialogue mixed with simple descriptive passages revealing a—dare we say it?—strong Hemingway influence. 1956 with cover art by Barye Phillips.
365 days in the year and just her luck she's in Greyton today.
There's never an untimely moment for a great cover. This unusual piece fronts Mark McShane's Untimely Ripped, which as you can surely guess involves a Jack the Ripper type killer. The first victim in the fictional English village of Greyton is a prostitute, and the terror is due to the fact that in a place so small there are no strangers, which means the killer is someone known and loved—the priest, the constable, who knows? It gets worse. Not only is the killer seemingly someone they all know, but the first murder begins to look non-random when the victim's sister is killed and mutilated. Then a third victim suffers the same fate. We won't tell you more. Well, we'll tell you this: McShane uses the fifth longest word in the English language: praetertranssubstantiationalistically. What does it mean? Hah. Whatever he wants, because he made it up. The cover art on this Crest paperback is uncredited, which is a crime all its own.
A man in love can talk himself into anything.
Above is a top notch Mitchell Hooks cover for the classic Chester Himes thriller For Love of Imabelle, which is about a good-hearted but simple man named Jackson who's conned out of his life savings. Get this: he actually believes a man can change the denomination of paper money by cooking it in an oven. In goes ten-dollar bills, turn up the heat, and—presto—out come one-hundred dollar bills. The scam, of course, is that the tens are pocketed before cooking and switched for counterfeit hundreds. Silly perhaps, but Himes wrote things he knew, so this con doubtless existed. The basic thrust of the plot is twofold: how to get the money back before Jackson's life is ruined, and whether our hapless hero's now missing girlfriend Imabelle is a fellow victim or a heartless participant in the scam. In Himes' hands everything unfolds with great style. Check this sentence:
Jackson looked up at the clock on the wall and the clock said hurry-hurry.
Only a unique talent could pull off something so jazzy. We were less impressed with his third novel The Crazy Kill—which was the first of his books we read—but with his award winning Imabelle we've gone back to the beginning of his Harlem cycle and he's got us hooked now, especially since he's actually written a conventional good guy. In The Crazy Kill there are few legitimately sympathetic characters, but in this one you can really root for poor overmatched Jackson. Himes' franchise detectives Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones also play significant roles, and in fact Imabelle contains the defining moment of Coffin Ed's career. The story is topped off by a chaotic action movie style climax that's both thrilling and appalling. The Fawcett Gold Medal paperback at top appeared in 1957, and a later reissue as A Rage in Harlem came in 1965. And then there's the movie. Maybe we'll talk about that later.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
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.
1964—Mass Student Arrests in U.S.
In California, Police arrest over 800 students at the University of California, Berkeley, following their takeover and sit-in at the administration building in protest at the UC Regents' decision to forbid protests on university property.
1968—U.S. Unemployment Hits Low
Unemployment figures are released revealing that the U.S. unemployment rate has fallen to 3.3 percent, the lowest rate for almost fifteen years. Going forward all the way to the current day, the figure never reaches this low level again.
1954—Joseph McCarthy Disciplined by Senate
In the United States, after standing idly by during years of communist witch hunts in Hollywood and beyond, the U.S. Senate votes 65 to 22 to condemn Joseph McCarthy for conduct bringing the Senate into dishonor and disrepute. The vote ruined McCarthy's career.
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