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.
Owning a whorehouse has been fun, ladies, but a man of my wickedness has a destiny. I'm running for Congress.
Above is a cover by Lu Kimmel, an artist we've featured only once before, but who painted many paperback fronts, and delved as well into advertising, portraiture, and fine art. We'll see him again later. Joseph Millard's The Wickedest Man was originally published as The Gentleman from Hell and was based on real-life figure Ben Hogan—not the golfer. So what did the evil Hogan do? He was a con man, a murderer, a spy for both the Union and Confederate armies during the U.S. Civil War, a brawler, a jury tamperer, a whorehouse proprietor, and worst of all—as indicated by our subhead—a politician. There are several books about the guy, but Millard's is probably the best known. This Gold Medal edition came in 1954.
Sure, you can call me. I'm at Northside u-r-a-zero. And let me give you a fake name to go along with that.
We have a few Richard Prather novels but they haven't managed to fully enthrall us. This is the fourth book in his Shell Scott series, in which the wackiest dick in the west heads to Las Vegas on a missing persons case. Prather was one of the best selling authors of the 1950s, so we're confident we'll soon find a book that makes us see the light (and with three dozen in the Shell Scott series alone there are many from which to choose), but this one didn't quite get there. It was published in 1951 and this excellent piece of cover art is uncredited.
It's a man's man's man's world, but it wouldn't be nothing without a woman... to fight over.
When Fawcett Publications launched its Gold Medal line, Man Story was the second paperback it put out. It's a fiction anthology culled from the pages of True magazine, which was part of the Fawcett stable, and it came out in 1950 numbered 102 on the cover because the series began at 101. There are heavyweight, widely published authors in this collection, including William Attwood, Daniel Mannix, and Barnaby Conrad. Of special note are Philip Wylie, who wrote Gladiator, Paul Gallico, who wrote The Poseidon Adventure, and MacKinlay Kantor, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Andersonville.
The Gold Medal line actually helped bring about the demise of pulp magazines. This was due partly to the sheer number of books it published (it went from 35 titles in 1950 to 66 the next year and never looked back), as well as to the shift in tone from the pulps it represented. Some of the writers published by Gold Medal would become huge names moving forward, including John D. MacDonald, Louis L'Amour, Richard Prather, and Charles Williams. Yet for all the importance of this second Gold Medal paperback, it's cheap as hell. We saw it selling for five dollars, which is a pretty nice price for the motherlode of testosterone fiction.
Once she gets her lips on you it's over.
This Gold Medal paperback of Gil Brewer's 13 French Street has a cool wraparound cover, which you see in its entirety below. It looks very much like a painting but is actually a photo. Brewer is a fun writer. What he attempts to do here is tell the story of a succubus. The character, named Petra, isn't an actual mystical creature, but she's so demanding, sexually predatory, and emotionally manipulative that men involved with her slowly lose their vitality, becoming withered, shuffling shells of their former selves. Brewer imbeds a love triangle in this odd premise, pitting two old friends against each other, and adds in murder and blackmail. The result is interesting and fun, though not wholly successful, in our view. But Brewer would hit the mark solidly with later efforts. This one is copyright 1951.
She's got this caper in the bag.
What does the Devil drive? People, apparently. Robert Ames' thriller The Devil Drives, for which you see a nice Barye Phillips cover above, has a labyrinthine plot at the center of which is one of the most duplicitous femmes fatales ever, a bad woman named Kim Bissel. In a small Florida town, numerous people are after bags of money from a deadly armored car robbery, loot that went missing after the getaway boat crashed and upended. Cold-blooded Kim wants the cash more than her male rivals can possibly comprehend, yet they continue to underestimate her—at their mortal peril. We've noted before that the only true respect women received in mid-century fiction and cinema was as deadly criminals. Pyrrhic, considering the possible punishments in store, but you'll find yourself on this feminist fatale's side as she tries to beat the odds. While the plot is improbable, the book works because of Ames' hallucinatory, irony filled, interior monologue driven prose. Recommended stuff, from 1952.
This is a Dior blouse you've managed to ruin, FYI, just in case you have anything resembling a human soul.
The lead character in Peter Rabe's Stop This Man is a jackass, but he isn't a rapist. This cover by Darcy, aka Ernest Chiriaka, does capture his essential nature, though, as he's bossy as hell and sees woman mainly as objects to be possessed or manipulated. When he intrudes into the back room of a club and encounters a female employee changing clothes he intimidates her into continuing so he can see her naked. As often happens in mid-century crime novels, she decides this makes him a real man and falls for him. It's not rape but it's definitely rapey. But of course us modern readers are aware of this going in, right? The sexism, the racism, all the rest, are features of 1950s crime literature. Each person needs to decide whether there's something to be gained in the fiction despite its affronts to societal values.
In Stop This Man lots of people are trying to stop Tony Catell, but not from harassing women. They want to thwart his criminal master plan. In mid-century crime fiction the main character is often in possession of an ill gotten item he expects to open the gateway to a better life. It may be money or bearer bonds or a rare diamond. Here the item is a thirty-six pound ingot of stolen gold. Catell hopes to fence it but the trick is to find an interested party who will give him a good price. Did we forget to mention that it's radioactive? There's always a catch, right? People who come into extended contact with this brick of gold die, but that doesn't stop Catell. He wraps it in an x-ray technician's lead lined apron and travels from Detroit to L.A. seeking a buyer for this lethal hunk of heavy metal.
Catell is kind of radioactive too, actually, in the sense that he's bad news through and through. He plans to sell his killer treasure, but has no idea the radiation is turning it into mercury. It's a cool set-up for a thriller by the experienced Rabe. You may be thinking 1952's Kiss Me, Deadly did it first, but Spillane's novel does not have the radioactive suitcase made famous by the movie adaptation, so this could be—could be, because we haven't read every book out there—the first time this nuclear gimmick appeared. It was originally published in 1955, which means it's also possible the nuclear angle was influenced by Kiss Me Deadly the film, which appeared in May the same year. But while Stop This Man is cleverly set up and is as hard-boiled as any crime novel we've come across, overall we felt it should have been executed at a higher level.
Any of you hardened felons seen my beautiful virginal daughter lately?
Mitchell Hooks handles the cover work on this Gold Medal edition of the 1957 Tarn Scott thriller Don't Let Her Die. The book concerns a well connected prison inmate who uses his outside-the-walls contacts to kidnap the warden's daughter and maneuver for a pardon in exchange for her life. We say maneuver rather than demand because the convict keeps deniability throughout, claiming to know nothing even as the warden daily receives anonymous ultimatums, with a little extra motivation provided by photos of his terrified daughter nude. The warden caves pretty quickly, appeals to the governor for the pardon, is refused, and that's where things get interesting. There's more grit than usual here, but certain lines will not be crossed, and the reader is well aware of that, despite all the menace injected into the prose. Even so, Scott—a pseudonym used by Walter Szot and Peter G. Tarnor—certainly showed promise. Sadly, the pairing only produced a few books.
Get behind me, ma'am. You'll be safe. I didn't jog and bike and do the paleo diet just to get gunned down in this stinking saloon.
They Died Healthy is a great title for a western. Logan Stewart was actually a pseudonym for an author named Les Savage, which we think is a far better name for a writer of westerns than Logan anything. Stewart/Savage authored more than twenty books and something like ninety published stories before dying young at age thirty-five. Was he gunned down healthy? Not so much— he was in poor health for a while due to diabetes and high cholesterol before succumbing to a heart attack. But his fiction lives on. He's considered by many to be one of the better western writers of his day. They Died Healthy is copyright 1951 with art by unknown.
Maybe all those stars are why none of the killers can seem to nail this chump.
Donald Hamilton's 1965 novel Assassins Have Starry Eyes was originally published in 1956 as Assignment: Murder. This could have been better. The lead character here, Dr. James Gregory, is a tough-guy physicist who sits so much he “wears his pants shiny,” yet has no problem physically outmatching adversaries in various deadly situations. We'll buy it, since the author asks it, but there's another issue with Dr. Gregory—he's a dick, all the more so as the narrative wears on.
Some sharp edges are to be expected, since people are trying to kill him—possibly due to his involvement in a government project tasked with creating an atomic super weapon—but he's snide and superior even in his interior dialogues and reminiscences. He especially hates peace protestors because they simply don't understand the need for world-threatening super weapons. Bah! Morons!
Books with difficult men are often fun, but it's clear Hamilton thinks he's writing Dr. Gregory not as an anti-hero, but as a no-nonsense everyman. The guy was impossible for us to like. We finished Assassins Have Starry Eyes mainly to see if he got his brains blown out. As for Hamilton, his writing is fine, so maybe he'll do better with a different character (like Matt Helm, who he's remembered for creating). We'll try one down the line.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1914—Aquitania Sets Sail
The Cunard liner RMS Aquitania, at 45,647 tons, sets sails on her maiden voyage from Liverpool, England to New York City. At the time she is the largest ocean liner on the seas. During a thirty-six year career the ship serves as both a passenger liner and military ship in both World Wars before being retired and scrapped in 1950.
1914—RMS Empress Sinks
Canadian Pacific Steamships' 570 foot ocean liner Empress of Ireland is struck amidships by a Norwegian coal freighter and sinks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with the loss of 1,024 lives. Submerged in 130 feet of water, the ship is so easily accessible to treasure hunters who removed valuables and bodies from the wreck that the Canadian government finally passes a law in 1998 restricting access.
1937—Chamberlain Becomes Prime Minister
Arthur Neville Chamberlain, who is known today mainly for his signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938 which conceded the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany and was supposed to appease Adolf Hitler's imperial ambitions, becomes prime minister of Great Britain. At the time Chamberlain is the second oldest man, at age sixty-eight, to ascend to the office. Three years later he would give way to Winston Churchill.
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