1960 jazz novel soars to great heights.
Told over a span of years wrapped around World War II, Lou Cameron's novel Angel's Flight appeared in 1960 and was set in the mid-century jazz scene. Cameron writes in a beat style, imbues his prose with a powerful sense of place, fills it with factual anecdotes, colorful characters, and wild slang, ultimately weaving a sprawling tale of rags to riches, hope and struggle, and one man's determination to maintain his integrity in a cutthroat world.
We realized we were reading something really good during a scene a quarter of the way through in which the main character, Ben, is chatting with his nemesis Johnny in the parking lot of a movie studio. Johnny is trying to get Ben to understand something elemental about how to achieve success. Ben isn't getting it. Johnny says, “Watch this. You'll learn something.” He grabs Ben's panama hat from his head and sails it away.
Ben: “Hey, that cost me eight bucks!”
The wind takes the hat, and it skips and rolls away. But a nearby man chases it down, and, huffing and puffing, eagerly returns it to Ben. After the man leaves, Johnny explains that the good samaritan was no random guy, but was the production chief, one of the top guys at the studio. Yet despite his position, he chased the hat. “He'd have done that for any grip on the goddamn lot,” Johnny says.
Ben: “So he's democratic.”
“You still don't dig me? Christ, you're thick!”
Johnny goes on to explain that the studio exec chased the hat because it was a reflex, just like Pavlov's dog. And if you understand people's reflexes you can control them. “They don't think," he says. "They react. Show them a picture of a blind girl with a puppy and they get lumps in their throats. Wave a flag and they stand. Show them a picture of Hitler and they hiss. Are you getting the picture? Do you dig what I'm saying?”
But no, Ben doesn't get it. He is thick. And his reply almost put us on the floor laughing:
“All I dig, you bastard, is that you used my hat! Next time gives a fat lip!”
It's a funny, insightful, cleverly conceived scene, and from that point forward we settled in for what we knew would be an amazing ride. Another funny exchange involves Ben's roommate and occasional sex partner Dorothy, who works as a nude art model and often can't be bothered to wear clothes around the apartment. Note: in the dialogue below, “Read from a map,” is slang for reading sheet music.
I asked Dorothy if she knew a cat who could read from a map. She thought prettily for a moment and said, “There's my husband, Tom. He used to play cello.”
"Don't you know anybody but your husband? He's liable to take a dim view of life as he finds it on the Sunset Strip.”
“Oh, Tom won't mind. He's very progressive.”
“He'd have to be. Is there anybody you haven't slept with who reads music? For that matter, is there anybody you haven't slept with?”
That's funny stuff. Ben had no idea until that moment Dorothy was even married. But he really needs someone who can read music, so his desperation causes him—save for a touch of exasperation—to ignore Dorothy's surprising revelation and all its strange implications, which makes the scene all the funnier.
But Angel's Flight isn't a comedy. It's a gritty tale about a jazz musician trying to make it in L.A., and mixed into the narrative is crime, betrayal, and drugs, along with harsh racial and homophobic language. But it also features many ethnic and gay characters in actual three-dimensional speaking roles, rather than as exotic ornaments. The white characters aren't spared racial insults either. In the end, each reader needs to decide whether to endure rough content, or say no to a significant piece of vintage literature.
Those who forge ahead will read a memorable story. They'll learn about the origins of jazz and the mechanisms of the music industry, from forming bands, to gigging, to pressing records, to earning radio play. They'll also discover that the title Angel's Flight is metaphorical on multiple levels. The villain is Johnny Angel, bi-sexual hustler extraordinaire. The song that secures his fame is called “Angel's Flight.” And of course the title predicts his meteoric rise in the music industry.
But most importantly, the book's title also references the vintage Angels Flight funicular in downtown Los Angeles. Ben has never been on it. He wonders what's at the top. He rides it one night and finds that at the end of the line there's nothing. Just a dark street. And lonely ambition. This is a highly recommended book. The Gold Medal edition, which you see above, has Mitchell Hooks cover art.
Fine, one last story. There once was an army of biting ants and they ate your husband's ballsack. Can we go back to the car now?
Fawcett Publications kept illustrator Barye Phillips mighty busy with its Gold Medal line, and here his work is yet again, on the cover of John D. MacDonald's 1952 thriller The Damned. The creekside setting doesn't actually capture the mood of the book, but it's a very nice, ominously serene piece of art. Beyond the cover readers will encounter MacDonald wrestling with what we considered to be a very literary concept. An automobile ferry develops various issues, leaving a long line of cars stuck at a Mexican river crossing most of a day and all of a night. Except for the few people who had driven there together, none know each other, but on that desolate roadside they interact in life-changing ways, ranging from budding love to betrayal to abandonment to sudden death. With more than a dozen stories interwoven, none are truly resolved, but most characters end up pointed toward destinies that can be guessed. As we've mentioned before, the farther you go back into MacDonald's bibliography the less didactic he tends to be. The Damned is his fifth novel, and its freshness of concept speaks to a writer spreading his wings and reveling in the purity of creative flight. This is the MacDonald we think newcomers to his work will enjoy most.
The view is amazing but the amenities are sorely lacking.
Charles Williams has made us love seagoing thrillers, so whenever see a book that seems to be along those lines, we grab it. When we saw this Robert McGinnis cover for Basil Heatter's Virgin Cay, we were immediately sold. And in fact, the novel feels like a lost Charles Williams tale, thanks not only to its aquatic focus, but the fact that it's written to a nearly Williamsian skill level.
The set-up is great. A guy washes up on a chi-chi Caribbean Island after his sailboat sinks, and his appearance from out of the sea, a stranger in a community where everyone knows each other, gives one resident the idea to entice him into a foolproof murder plot by promising him enough money to buy another boat. Since the castaway is not rich, and it would take him a lifetime to save for a replacement vessel, he's mightily tempted. It's from there that things get complicated.
The art on this Gold Medal paperback, in addition to its obvious beauty, reveals an important aspect of the plot—woman alone on an isolated hump in the sea with little more than a can of water. But how do we get from a shipwrecked sailor to a woman marooned on an island? Well, that murder thing. We won't say more. Nice effort from Heatter, definitely worth a read.
I think this book will win me the ignoble prize.
Robert McGinnis shows his unique skills again, this time on a 1960 cover for The Girl on the Best Seller List by Vin Packer, who is in reality the prolific Marijane Meaker. The art is a hair misleading, since the author character in question is well into middle age, and is an everyday woman, not a lithe McGinnis beauty. It's important, because the reason she writes a book in the first place is because her dreary existence in a medium sized town filled with depressingly mediocre people becomes unbearable. When she slams virtually everybody she knows, including her own husband, the townsfolk get plenty angry. Revenge may be on the agenda. A vindictive author and a town full of dreary people means there's nobody truly worth rooting for in the story, but Best Seller List is still interesting as a chronicle of a rural enclave that's had its illusions of goodness ripped apart. If you find it cheap, it's worth a read.
Musically speaking, I'm like a piano ballad and you're like a guy playing banjo with his dick. We just don't belong together.
Above, a cover for Nothing in Her Way, another excellent novel by the reliable Charles Williams, this one dealing with con men—and a masterful con woman. Like any book of this sort, the fun is in the scams within scams within scams. It starts as a real estate swindle, and broadens into thoroughbred racing, with numerous mini-stings mixed in, as the main character finds himself getting into deeper trouble trying to keep up with his slippery ex-wife. Good fun from beginning to end, tense, involving, surprising, and affecting. The copyright on this is 1953. We don't know who painted the cover, but since Barye Phillips was tapped for an entire set of Williams fronts for Gold Medal in the early 1950s, it's a reasonable bet he did this one too.
MacDonald paves the way for two brilliant film adaptations.
John D. MacDonald's The Executioners should be studied in screenwriting classes as an example of what great movie minds can do with good base material. The book was made into two movies, both called Cape Fear, the first in 1962 with Robert Mitchum playing an iconic villain, and the second in 1991 with a lean and terrifying Robert DeNiro in the same role. You probably know the novel's basic set-up: a young man's testimony sends a savage rapist to prison, but years later as a middle-aged lawyer, he's astonished to find not only that the rapist has earned an early parole, but that he has one thing on his mind—revenge. MacDonald gets the entire backstory of the rape, trial, and imprisonment built in the first twenty pages, then kicks the tale into high gear as the hero tries to save his family from several potentially horrible forms of retribution.
The book is great, but even so it's of minimal scope compared to both film adaptations. The 1962 Cape Fear rearranged the book's climax into something more intense and physical, while the 1991 Cape Fear, which was directed by Martin Scorsese, took the pedophile sexual predator subtext of the novel and dragged all its dark ugliness right out into the open. Both adaptations made wise, bold choices, both were acclaimed by critics, and both pushed the envelope while daring audiences to endure the ride. So what you have here is a book that is among MacDonald's best, and two movies based upon it that are both among the best cinema of their era. That's some trick. We suggest you make time for all three. It will be well worth it.
Taxes are still unavoidable. But depending on weather and traffic, death sometimes doesn't show up at all.
Above, front and rear covers painted by Mitchell Hooks for Lionel White's 1957 novel Death and Taxes. We considered buying this, but we have so many books and magazines piled up now it's just stupid. Also we already have a couple of other White novels, so we'll get back to him later. Check out our write-up on his novel The Big Caper.
On a map Route 66 runs east-west between L.A. and Chicago. In this book it turns sharply south and never stops.
We were pretty excited for Richard Wormser's 1961 novel Drive East on 66. It sounded like fun—a thriller set on an iconic U.S. road we've traveled parts of at least a dozen times. This road, for our international readers who may not know, was and remains for many Americans the embodiment of a specific type of freedom consisting of endless miles, open spaces, small towns, and the possibility of all sorts of adventure. It's a road where you'd expect to see strange sites and meet even stranger people. Which is pretty much what happens in Wormser's tale.
The protagonist is a lawman named Andy Bastian, who's paid $1,000 to drive a disturbed young man from California to a Kansas mental facility. Since the father wants to avoid publicity and the prospective patient is prone to violent freak-outs, flying or taking a train is not a possibility. That makes Route 66 the best way to go. It's a fertile premise but for the most part the book feels unrealized. Its plot is unlikely and its characterizations feel off-the-mark, particularly that of the student-psychiatrist along for the drive whose job is to keep the patient on an even keel. She's awful at her job, and the romance between her and Bastian is so clumsy an arranged marriage would feel more natural.
Wormser lost his way on this one, we think, but the book generated a follow-up, so there you go—our opinion means squat. If we had to guess, we'd say the concept alone helped put the story over for readers, because again, Route 66 is a piece of American iconography, and building a crime thriller around it will make up for a multitude of sins. Just not for us. The cover art here is uncredited, however some experts say it's by Mitchell Hooks, and we agree it looks like his work, but we're not experts. Absent official confirmation, mark it as unknown.
Elements and people mix dangerously in Theodore Pratt's weather driven drama.
We ordered Theodore Pratt's Tropical Disturbance long before hurricane season arrived, but as the timing worked out we read it during Dorian, and the news reports reminded us of what the author sometimes didn't. The main plot device here is a love triangle between a rich clod, a poor everyman, and a beautiful virgin who both of the guys would be better off without. Pratt didn't intend for the third to be true. He lost his way because of his desire to contrive a specific type of conflict. But the problem is we don't think a woman who's dating one man can begin dating another, deliberately keeping both on the hook, and act all oops-gee-whiz when everything goes pear-shaped. More importantly, we don't think the author can expect her to remain a sympathetic character the way he obviously intends.
Occasionally it's instructive to think about fictional situations with characters swapped or reimagined, just to be sure you're making objective judgments, and again, we don't think a man who's dating one woman, then starts dating another while telling the first she just has to wait around until he makes up his mind, would be labeled anything but a tremendous douche. But Tropical Disturbance is a good book anyway. When the anticipated hurricane finally comes those sequences are vivid and effective, and because Pratt has maneuvered all three members of his love triangle into the same house to weather the storm, almost anything can happen—and does. 1961 on this, with uncredited art, but which the experts say is by Robert McGinnis.
Unstoppable forces meet immovable opinions in John D. MacDonald's novels.
John D. MacDonald is a polemical writer. We've jumped around his lengthy bibliography enough to be intimately familiar with his strong opinions about a wide ranging array of subjects. His basic approach is, “I've thought about this social phenomenon/cultural development/historical factoid much more carefully than anybody and here's the ironclad dogma I've developed about it.” Which is fine, we guess. His observations about the inexorable direction of civilization remain insightful half a century later. We've built a house of cards and MacDonald took pains to point that out, with intelligence and some wit. But in seven books we've read, which he wrote in three different decades, he consistently cheats when writing about people, choosing in general to portray them as weak willed cardboard cutouts so they serve as foils for his sociological philosophizing.
This, more than any other reason, is why so many contemporary readers say MacDonald's writing hasn't aged well. But in our opinion he's still worth reading. There's real menace in his work, which is job one for a thriller author. In 1953's Dead Low Tide his hero is suspected of using a spear gun to skewer his boss, seemingly over either a real estate project or the man's slinky wife, and someone may be setting him up for the crime. His actual prospective love interest, a longtime neighbor, is drawn into the mess in her efforts to provide an alibi. MacDonald dishes out the twists, despairs the loss of Florida wilderness to fast-buck builders, and laments what's in the hearts of men. It's a good book, but you don't need us to tell you that. The man sold a skillion novels for a reason. We're moving on to The Executioners after this, which is the source material for the film adaptation Cape Fear, and we have high expectations.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1986—Jimmy Cagney Dies
American movie actor James Francis Cagney, Jr., who played a variety of roles in everything from romances to musicals but was best known as a quintessential tough guy, dies of a heart attack at his farm in Stanfordville, New York at the age of eighty-six.
1951—The Rosenbergs Are Convicted of Espionage
Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as a result of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. While declassified documents seem to confirm Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, Ethel Rosenberg's involvement is still a matter of dispute. Both Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
1910—First Seaplane Takes Flight
Frenchman Henri Fabre, who had studied airplane and propeller designs and had also patented a system of flotation devices, accomplishes the first take-off from water at Martinque, France, in a plane he called Le Canard, or "the duck."
1953—Jim Thorpe Dies
American athlete Jim Thorpe, who was one of the most prolific sportsmen ever and won Olympic gold medals in the 1912 pentathlon and decathlon, played American football at the collegiate and professional levels, and also played professional baseball and basketball, dies of a heart attack.
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