I take it from the way you're sprawled across the front seat that dinner and a movie is no longer the plan.
April Evil is a book that showcases John D. MacDonald on literary cruise control, as he confidently weaves together the tale of an elderly, widowed ex-doctor whose has a safe in his study filled with cash, the greedy relatives that hope he leaves his loot and property to them, and how, because rumors of the money have spread, three criminals decide to rob his house. Matters are even more complicated because the doctor has taken in a young married couple, and while the wife is not scheming to get his fortune, the husband is, and he has a big mouth. That mouth entices a psychopathic killer into hijacking the robbery scheme, with the ultimate plan of killing both his partners and—probably—everyone living in the house. For people acquainted with MacDonald but who haven't read April Evil, the approach will be familiar, particularly the character crosscurrents and fateful timing. It's well written, enjoyable, and free of pseudo-sociological content, which we consider to be a problem with McDonald's Travis Magee novels. We recommend it, even more so if you can score Dell's 1956 edition with Robert McGinnis cover art.
Lines in the sand have a way of getting crossed.
Considering our website's focus on beautiful art, you must be asking how we came to read Stanley Ellin's 1970 novel The Bind, with its beige post-GGA cover treatment by Joe Lombadero. What happened was we decided to watch the 1979 Farrah Fawcett movie Sunburn, but stopped during the opening credits when we saw that it was based on a novel. We'd decided to see the movie because it was helmed by cult director Richard C. Sarafian, and also because its premise interested us, but we figured that premise was probably more fully and interestingly developed in the source novel. We won't know for sure until we watch the film, but it's pretty much a given when you compare literature to cinema.
Here's the premise: insurance investigator Jake Dekker needs to get close to a secretive family to disprove a verdict of accidental death and save his employers a $200,000 payout, so he rents a house in their tony Miami enclave and hires an actress to pose as his wife. The family would be suspicious of a single man, but not a married couple. He's carried out similar scams and worked with the same actress over and over, but when she can't make the gig she instead sends down-on-her-luck colleague Elinor Majeski as a replacement. The fake wife aspect of Jake's scheme immediately gets complicated, both because this new actress is smarter and more curious than is convenient, and because she's unusually lovely. Uh oh. Professional comportment—out the window.
Ellin pushes his ripe premise for all it's worth. Jake insists on realism, which involves he and Elinor getting comfortable around each other, whatever intimate circumstances might arise. The only line they aren't to cross is sleeping in the same bed. Heh. How long do you think that lasts? Actually, it lasts a long while. Jake's shell is hard. He's borderline mean to Elinor, and therein lies the balancing act in the narrative. He's mean, but occasionally charming. Ellin's writing treads that crucial line well, but the book is overlong and its climax goes in a direction we didn't like. But we'd read him again. In any case, now we'll have to see what the filmmakers did with Farrah in the role of Elinor. Charles Grodin co-stars, so we expect the movie to be a bit silly, but who can resist Farrah?
What! A big bubble? Well, yours looks like five pounds of potatoes in a ten pound sack!
It seems like Florida novels are a distinct genre of popular fiction, and most of the books, regardless of the year of their setting, lament how the state is being drawn and quartered in pursuit of easy money. But those complaints are usually just a superficial method of establishing the lead characters' local cred. Theodore Pratt, in his novel The Big Bubble, takes readers deep inside early 1920s south Florida real estate speculation in the person of a builder named Adam Paine (based on real life architect Addison Mizner), who wants to bring the aesthetic of old world Spain to Palm Beach—against the wishes of longtime residents.
Paine builds numerous properties, but his big baby is the Flamingo Club, a massive hotel complex done in Spanish and Moorish style. He even takes a trip to Spain to buy beautiful artifacts for his masterpiece. This was the most interesting part for us, riding along as he wandered Andalusia (where we live), buying treasures for his ostentatious palace. He buys paintings, tapestries, sculptures, an ornate fireplace, an entire staircase, basically anything that isn't nailed down, even stripping monasteries of their revered artifacts. His wife Eve is horrified, but Paine tells her he's doing the monks a favor because they'd otherwise go broke.
You may not know this, but Spain is pretty bad at preserving its ancient architecture. That's another reason The Big Bubble resonated for us—because Spain is very Floridian in that it's being buried under an avalanche of cheap, ugly developments. We love south Florida's Spanish revival feel. What's metastasized in Spain is a glass and concrete aesthetic that offers no beauty and weathers like it's made of styrofoam. The properties are basically glass box tax dodges. The point is, reading The Big Bubble felt familiar in terms of its critique of real estate booms, but simultaneously we saw Paine as a visionary. He made us wish Spanish builders had a tenth of his good taste.
Since the book is set during the 1920s (and its title is so descriptive) you know Florida's property bubble will burst. Paine already has problems to deal with before the crash. Pratt resolves everything in interesting fashion. He was a major novelist who wrote more than thirty books, with five adapted to film, so we went into The Big Bubble expecting good work, and that's what we got. And apparently it's part of a Palm Beach trilogy (though he set fourteen novels in Florida total). We'll keep an eye out for those other two Palm Beach books (The Flame Tree and The Barefoot Mailman). In the meantime, we recommend The Big Bubble. Originally published in 1951, this Popular Library edition is from 1952 with uncredited art.
Southwest Florida gets obliterated but most of the wreckage is human in MacDonald disaster drama.
The three weather based thrillers we've discussed—A Town Is Drowning, Tropical Disturbance, and Death at Flood Tide—represent a minor fraction of the total in mid-century fiction. It's no surprise, then, that an author as prolific as John D. MacDonald also tested the waters. Murder in the Wind, also known as Hurricane, came in 1956 during the more fertile, less censorious period for MacDonald, and presents readers with a disparate selection of people who all hole up in an abandoned house during a hurricane named Hilda. Eventually the house is swept away entirely, but the story is never less than solidly grounded and engrossing. If your time is limited you might skip this one in favor of The Damned, which is a close cousin, conceptually speaking, but otherwise Murder in the Wind is a necessary read. You get all the fulfillment you'd want from a disaster drama.
Burlesque sensation Blaze Starr takes the obvious next step in nudity related activities.
Blaze Starr was one of the most famous burlesque dancers of the mid-century era thanks to both her on- and off-stage activities. She began headlining in clubs during the early 1950s, soon earned the sobriquet “The Hottest Blaze in Burlesque,” and later became not just famous, but infamous, due to having embarked on a tempestuous affair with Louisiana’s impulsive governor Earl Long, who she was still seeing when he died of a heart attack in 1960. Above is a promo poster for Blaze Starr Goes Nudist, which premiered today in 1962, well after Starr had become a household name.
In the film, Blaze, who plays a mainstream actress rather than a stripper, decides she needs a break from her demanding career and busy public life. She decides to spend weekends at the Sunny Palms Lodge in Homestead, Florida in order to enjoy a little nude rest and recreation under the phony name Belle Fleming. Her sinister looking agent/fiancée is apoplectic about this, but he'd be really annoyed if he knew Starr and the camp administrator were making googly eyes at each other. Aside from flirting, Starr indulges in the usual nudist colony activities—sunbathing, archery, dozing in a hammock, tiptoeing around the communal pool, taking romantic walks in the mosquito infested woods, and listening to some schlub play an accordion.
Forget anything resembling acting ability here—everyone is atrocious, and Starr is worst of all. The blame may not be entirely hers, though. The movie was obviously made fast and cheap, and it was directed by Doris Wishman, who helmed such epics as Nude on the Moon and Bad Girls Go to Hell, and is considered by some to be one of the worst practitioners of her craft ever. But we all know the movie is simply meant to be eye candy. On that score it works. Considering the unflattering range of bodies possessed by normal humans, it's clear that most of the female nudists involved in this production are models, and probably some of the males too. Starr looks pretty good herself, even with her wonky boobs and ridiculous helmet of flaming red hair.
The movie is meant not only to display Starr, but to espouse and promote the nudist lifestyle—and really, considering that there's a little plug for Sunny Palms at the outset, it could actually be considered a long form advertisement for the colony. We bet the membership—so to speak—really expanded—so to speak. We can't say Blaze Starr Goes Nudist is a good movie, but it's totally harmless and infectiously fun. There can never be too much of those things in the world. You can see more of Starr at the bottom of this post, and you can see a fascinating piece of Starr memorabilia here (sent to us by a reader way back before our Reader Pulp uploader bit the dust).
I agree we should put off getting married. For one thing, we'd both have to get divorces first.
We've said it before—you never what you're going to get when you buy vintage paperback digests. The cover art, as in the case of James Clayford's 1949 novel Marriage Can Wait, often has nothing to do with the content. This looks straightforward but it's one of the stranger tales you'll come across. It was written by Peggy Gaddis under her Clayford pseudonym, and it's about a hard partying yacht trip from New York City to Jacksonville, peopled by six jet-set types and one everyman named Tony Ware.
As the only unwealthy person aboard aside from the crew, Tony takes it badly when the yacht's owner Elaine Ellison jilts him one night. She'd invited him to her cabin for nocturnal fun, but he arrived to find another man there. In embarrassment and disgust he jumps overboard and swims ashore. He thinks he's swimming to the Florida mainland. He actually ends up on an island nudist colony. He's horrified, but since supply boats come only once a month the only way he can eat is to doff his garments and join the colony. And it's there that he finds true love in the form of Eve Darby.
Tony's yachting pals, who are habitually hungover each day, assumed he'd abandoned them in port one morning and they'd simply slept through it. Nobody is concerned except Elaine, who realizes she behaved terribly toward him. Weeks later they sail to the nudist island thanks to a bizarre subplot that has them half-jokingly searching for Blackbeard's buried treasure. They don't know the place is inhabited, but they soon find out, and can only stay if they agree to become nudists, which Elaine and her five idle rich friends do in order to secretly search for the treasure.
They of course find the long lost Tony, and Elaine is ashamed at how she treated him, then smitten as she realizes she loves this newly bronzed hunk. The only way to try and win him over is to stay at the colony—plus the treasure might be there too—so she settles in for an extended nude sojourn. We'll stop the synopsis there except to say that you have to give Gaddis major points for creativity. The cover art, by the way, is uncredited.
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.
Hi, what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? Me, I'm trying to score some meth.
Mark Reed's 1952 thriller The Nude Stranger was going for eighty dollars on one website, but we got ours for five as part of a lot. Score. The book has a simple but effective cover painted by an uncredited artist. The story deals with the bizarre, complicated frame-up of a Florida private dick named Chet Egan, which commences when he finds a nude woman in his bed. He lives in a hotel, as people did back then, and she flees into his room from hers after trouble with a man, there to be discovered by Egan when he returns home. He gets the story from her, goes over to her room, takes care of the fella there with the old one-two, and has a corpse on his hands. And from there things go—as they always do—from confusing to confusingest, all written well enough, but unmemorable except for the labyrinthine nature of the central frame-up.
So what we have with The Nude Stranger is another so-so mystery, not a total waste of time, but nothing to go searching for either. And we'd be remiss if we didn't mention that it goes over the top with vicious homophobia. There are three gay males in the narrative, and they aren't referred to with anything other than an assortment of slurs except for one specific instance when Egan actually deigns to use one of their names. If you don't read a lot of old books it might surprise you to know that this level of disrespect is rare—not necessarily because the authors were enlightened on the subject, but because gay characters didn't feature much in vintage popular novels. The Nude Stranger, probably a completely forgotten book in the scheme of things, is notable in that respect. If you happen to be working on a thesis on homophobia in mid-century fiction, well, add this to your sources. You won't even believe it.
She could have simply gone to the grocery store to get them, but where would be the fun in that?
Back in 1924 the Florida Citrus Growers industry group decided they needed to do more to promote the Florida citrus industry. Getting people to drink more orange juice obviously meant more profit, so they created a goodwill ambassador known as the Florida Citrus Queen, who extolled the virtues of Florida citrus products nationwide. She was always beautiful and young, often a show business hopeful, and appeared at trade shows and fairs, hobnobbed with celebrities and politicians, and ruled over the annual Citrus Expo & Florida Citrus Festival. Above is a photo of Francis Layton, the 1957 Florida Citrus Queen, acrobatically reaching for an orange while speeding along on waterskis.
This photo is so strange. In fact, we aren't even sure how it was made. Did Layton actually waterski while reaching for low hanging fruit? It seems unlikely. How many attempts would that have taken? How many wipeouts? For that reason, we suspect the orange branch was held by someone standing on the same platform as the photographer, and the perspective sells the illusion. Or maybe the oranges were superimposed later. What's doubly interesting, Layton went on to marry champion water skier Dick Pope, Jr., a pioneer of barefoot skiing. Notice Layton is barefoot here. Was Pope somehow associated with this photo session? Possibly, but there's no info to that effect, so we'll have to mark this as another minor vintage mystery. What a cool shot.
Hemingway's lament for the downtrodden working class is supposed to be his worst novel. But is it really?
Don't let the cover blurbs fool you. In general To Have and Have Not is considered by critics to be Ernest Hemingway's worst novel. Originally published in 1937, it was completely rewritten and became a great 1944 movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. If you've already seen the movie but never read the book, hold onto your hats, because this is extraordinarily rough stuff from Hemingway, a tale of desperation and murder in the depths of the Great Depression. Harry Morgan is a Key West boat captain who's stiffed for $825 after his three-week charter skips town. That would be about $15,000 in today's money, so it's no surprise that losing this bundle means Morgan, who's married, has three kids, the usual assortment of bills and responsibilities, and has spent his life fighting to get ahead, is now destitute.
If you opt to read the book, make sure not to gloss over exactly how far in the hole Morgan is. $825 dollars would bend the morals of most people in 1937, just as $15,000 would today. After being cheated out of this cash he makes a fateful decision to turn criminal himself by running illegals from Cuba to Florida. That's when things go from bad to worse. If you look closely at the cover art on this Perma Books edition from 1953 you'll see what the result of Morgan's criminal foray was. That's one reason cover art is so interesting. The scene the artist chooses to depict—in this case it's Tom Dunn—can sometimes be so specific as to give away an important plot point. If you can't tell what we're talking about by looking at the art we'll give you a hint. What happens to Morgan is the also title of an earlier Hemingway book.
But moving on, To Have and Have Not is—we'll just come out and say it—brutally racist. There are some who would like to gaslight you into thinking you're seeing something that isn't there, and others who would prefer you to ignore this, but you shouldn't, because racism is actually pivotal in the narrative. Morgan's initial foray into crime is against people he clearly feels are subhuman. They and other ethnic groups are referred to with slurs, and these come not just from Morgan's mouth, and from his thoughts, but from the writer's thoughts too. There are places where Morgan uses actual names to refer to characters that Hemingway still refers to by slurs. Think: “Hey Joe, give me a hand with these poles,” said Harry. The [slur] put down his coffee and helped Harry with the poles. So while it's always good to separate the author from their fiction so they have freedom to create any sort of characters they wish, it still raises an eyebrow when you read something like that.
Another aspect of To Have and Have Not that may jar is its lack of sympathetic characters. Morgan's ex-prostitute wife Marie is probably the nicest person in the book, and even she drops n-bombs all over place. But you have to root for someone, so it's her and Harry. You do it because they're at the economic mercy of terrible people. Most of these folks—who are generally of a better class—wouldn't use racial slurs, but they also wouldn't think twice about ruining someone for a few dollars. And while Harry employs a black man and gets along with him fine, you can be sure none of his rich charters would let a black man deign to speak to them. So in its way, To Have and Have Not is relevant in 2020 by starring a working class character who's uncouth, uneducated, and devoid of genuine empathy, but who constantly deals with people that think they're better than him and really aren't.
This is why losing the charter and those $825 bucks is such a clever way to open the novel. The charter, Johnson, flies away and doubtless never gives what he did much thought, but in shafting a working man creates wreckage that crushes not just the man he cheated, but those around him. We think this is the way to focus on the book if you read it—acknowledge the obvious deficiencies of Harry Morgan, but pay close attention to the secondary characters. This is what Hemingway wanted, which is why Morgan's narration lasts for only a while. Everything after his first crime caper is told from outside his point of view. As the book goes on, Hemingway drags you deeper into the lives of these ancillary characters, dispassionately leaving a struggling Morgan to recede into the distance.
So is To Have and Have Not Hemingway's worst book? We don't like it as much as his other works, but with its changes in point-of-view, mood, and even narrative tense, it's also more challenging than those books. Ultimately, the most serious indictment of To Have and Have Not comes from the author himself—he thought it was his worst book too. And who are we argue with Ernest Hemingway? But on the other hand, when you write The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, and win a Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea, and later win a Nobel Prize for your body of work, your worst book can still be pretty good.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1964—Warren Commission Issues Report
The Warren Commission, which had been convened to examine the circumstances of John F. Kennedy's assassination, releases its final report, which concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy. Today, up to 81% of Americans are troubled
by the official account of the assassination.
1934—Queen Mary Launched
The RMS Queen Mary, three-and-a-half years in the making, launches from Clydebank, Scotland. The steamship enters passenger service in May 1936 and sails the North Atlantic Ocean until 1967. Today she is a museum and tourist attraction anchored in Long Beach, U.S.A.
1983—Nuclear Holocaust Averted
Soviet military officer Stanislav Petrov, whose job involves detection of enemy missiles, is warned by Soviet computers that the United States has launched a nuclear missile at Russia. Petrov deviates from procedure, and, instead of informing superiors, decides the detection is a glitch. When the computer warns of four more inbound missiles he decides, under much greater pressure this time, that the detections are also false. Soviet doctrine at the time dictates an immediate and full retaliatory strike, so Petrov's decision to leave his superiors out of the loop very possibly prevents humanity's obliteration. Petrov's actions remain a secret until 1988, but ultimately he is honored at the United Nations.
2002—Mystery Space Object Crashes in Russia
In an occurrence known as the Vitim Event, an object crashes to the Earth in Siberia and explodes with a force estimated at 4 to 5 kilotons by Russian scientists. An expedition to the site finds the landscape leveled and the soil contaminated by high levels of radioactivity. It is thought that the object was a comet nucleus with a diameter of 50 to 100 meters.
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