Possession is nine-tenths of breaking the law.
We're back to Richard Himmel today and his franchise character, Chicago tough guy lawyer Johnny Maguire. I Have Gloria Kirby came third in the Maguire series, first appearing as this Gold Medal original edition with uncredited cover art in 1951. As we mentioned before, Maguire is a lawyer, but Himmel basically treats him as a detective, and his narrative follows all the expected forms of private dick novels.
As with the earlier books, there are some good moments here. There's an excellent scene that comes after Maguire and his occasional love Tina, who works in a stenographer's office in Maguire's building, have just narrowly escaped a brutal maiming. Maguire has finished explaining to the confused and terrified Tina why everything has been happening, including why he made her burn a mink coat in the building incinerator a couple of days earlier. It's all about seventy thousand missing dollars:
“Do you know where it is, Johnny?”
“Sure. Sure, I know where it is.”
I dropped my gun on the desk. “You've got it.”
“What did you say?”
“I said you've got it. It's in your office. I put it there myself.”
Tina passed out. She went limp and collapsed to the floor. I let her lie there. She needed the rest. I went into my bottom drawer for the bottle. That bottle had been getting a hell of a workout. Out in the hall I rang for the elevator.
When I went back in my office, Tina was sitting up on the floor drinking out of the bottle. “For people that burn mink coats and have seventy thousand dollars lying around, we sure drink cheap liquor,” she said.
That's pretty good. The book isn't at that level all the way through, but it's well written and keeps the tension cranked to high. The final showdown between Maguire and his organized crime nemesis is highly unlikely, but not to the extent that it ruins the tale. As mid-century detective—er, lawyer—novels go, we think I have Gloria Kirby is in the upper half of the distribution.
With nothing more than my superhuman will I'm going to transform this primitive land into... zzzzzzzzz.
We've had two go-rounds with Dan Cushman, and he's an enjoyable author, but we decided we didn't need three engagements with him, so we didn't buy this copy of his 1952 thriller Savage Interlude. Like many others who worked this premise, Cushman's central theme was often: great men in the tropics laid low by heat, women, liquor, illness, and inscrutable natives. His work has the usual flaws of colonial centered fiction from the era, however in his favor, he knew the far flung realms of which he wrote better than most, and he was sometimes quite funny. But we've read enough to last us for a while. Want to know more about Cushman? Check here, then here.
It's lovely out here, but the serenity and quiet just magnify everything about each other we dislike.
Barye Phillips handled the cover chores for Ted Stratton's 1954 novel Wild Breed, and as you can see by looking at the original reproduction we've included, the piece he produced was fine art adjacent. At least it looks that way to us. Compared to much of his other work, the detail here suggests a different frame of mind in execution, if not even a planned usage outside the realm of paperback covers for the finished piece. Its dimensions normally would have required that the work be radically cropped, but Fawcett Publications solved that by placing a solid rectangle at top to hold the text and Gold Medal logo, reducing the required trimming to a minimum. The editors knew quality when they saw it.
Chinese communists try to whip Americans in the nuclear race.
The Chinese Keyhole, Richard Himmel's second novel starring his creation Johnny Maguire, finds the ass kicking lawyer immersed in intrigue in Chicago's Chinatown district, where a mission to deliver a coded message reveals a conspiracy centered in a strip bar. Turns out communists, including a whip wielding psycho, are trying to steal nuclear secrets. Maguire is no longer just a lawyer, but a government agent with his law practice as a front. We don't remember that from the first book, but maybe we missed it.
As in the debut outing Maguire is a guy who takes what he wants, never really asking permission before laying his lips on a nearby woman, and always, of course, he's correct in his assumption that he's sexually desired. Faithful Tina from book one returns to be shabbily treated again, and as before the romantic subplots blossom into full-blown melodrama that would fit perfectly in a Harlequin novel.
We probably don't need to mention that any mid-century book with Asian characters is going to cross some lines, and Maguire doesn't defy expectations on that front, nor does he miss an opportunity to disparage homosexuality. If you haven't read many of these old thrillers you might think that was the norm, but actually it's rare because gay characters don't figure in most of the books. When they did, well, the language got baroque, to say the least. Culturally we've arrived at a better—though still imperfect—place in time.
Flaws aside, we thought The Chinese Keyhole was better written than Himmel's first Maguire novel I'll Find You. Even with this mostly hackneyed commie conspiracy potboiler, he's intrigued us enough to take another ride with his interesting lawyer/lothario/secret agent, so we'll read the third book I Have Gloria Kirby and see where that leaves us. The art on this Gold Medal edition is by Barye Phillips and it dates from 1951.
I've almost got you! After I rescue you please don't feel any sense of gratitude that becomes confusingly sexual!
Yup, it's another disaster thriller. We told you we can't resist these. Rain of Terror was published in 1955 and came from Malcolm Douglas in a Gold Medal Edition fronted by James Meese cover art. The story takes place partly in Rome, but mainly in the fictitious Italian town of Asceno. We're always baffled when authors don't just choose a real town, but whatever. The Asceno area is being battered by a weeklong rainstorm, with flooding, looting, and chaos. Newspaperman Jake Abbott is sent to get the story. Once there, the waters nearly destroy the town, and a cache of long lost jewels appears, along with two Botticellis. The fight over these riches is predictable, but what isn't is Abbott's almost Kafkaesque nightmare as he's trapped in a town that becomes like a labyrinth. His misadventures, romantic entanglements, arrests, beatings, and wrong turns read like farce or metaphor. Rain of Terror isn't as good as other disaster thrillers we've read, but it's memorable.
It's you and me, baby, ’til death do us part. What's your name again?
Here's a quick quiz for you. Is the following passage from a crime novel or a romance? There was one truth between us, one truth that would never be untrue. Whatever this animal thing inside me was, there was something inside her that was a mate for it. I felt that nothing could ever change that. It had to be brought alive again. It had to live and burn its own fire and be electric with its own voltage.
Those lines are from Richard Himmel's 1950 thriller I'll Find You, aka It's Murder, Maguire, first in a series of books starring mobbed up Chicago lawyer Johnny Maguire. The passage illustrates something we've noted before—that crime novels and romance novels sometimes intersect. Fictional tough guys occasionally fall head over heels in love, and when they do, the prose describing that love—in some author's hands—can be as overwrought as what you'd find in any romance novel.
In this story, Maguire, who must be one of the dumbest smart characters in crime fiction, falls for a deceased friend's wife who later fakes her own suicide. While the police believe she's dead, he never buys it, and risks his career and safety to locate her. He finds her living under a new identity and refuses to let her get away from him again—which is exactly as stalkerish as it sounds, considering he barely knew her before she vanished. She eventually submits to his overbearing attentions, but sadly, malign actors may ruin their love story.
It's surprising to us that there was a sequel, but Himmel's crime-romance must have struck a nerve with the reading public. It didn't strike one with us, but we didn't dislike it. We felt that it was eye-rollingly saccharine, and we found Himmel's dialogue a bit stilted. On the plus side, Maguire is funny at times, and his friend-with-benefits relationship with a supporting character named Tina has the potential to be engaging, assuming she hangs around. We'll see what develops in book two.
Would you go through a nightmare to make a dream come true?
Lawrence Block's 1961 novel Mona, which has also been published as Grifter's Game and Sweet Slow Death, is the old classic: a husband, a wife, and a lover talked into murder. The suspension of disbelief test here comes at the outset, when longtime grifter Joe Marlin steals a suitcase that happens to contain a fortune in heroin, then accidentally meets and starts an affair with the eponymous sexpot Mona, who's married to the suitcase's owner. Quelle coïncidence. Or not. Marlin has lived by wits and deceit for a long time, and his instincts scream for him to gallop out of town with the horse. Instead he braves organized crime retribution because he's fallen in love. Dames'll be your ruin every time. Good stuff from Block, fast and fun, with a crisp twist at the end. The cover art on this Gold Medal edition is uncredited.
So that whole brains over brawn thing? I gather you're not a big believer.
Above you see a cover for Peter Rabe's 1955 thriller Benny Muscles In. Rabe had previously debuted with Stop This Man! and would go on to write thirty novels, but he's still green here, and it shows. In the story, Benny Tapkow, a collector for the mob, decides to kidnap his boss's daughter Pat for a rival mobster. Everything goes ridiculously wrong, starting with the rival's henchmen making off with the wrong woman, and continuing with Pat getting hooked on heroin. Overall the book felt like Rabe, early in his authorial career, didn't know quite where to go with these ideas. There's plenty of grit, but not enough precision. We did like the bit, though, where Benny got all quantum: [She] isn't dead. And she isn't alive. She's right between, and the more Pendleton stalls, the worse it'll be for her. Well, maybe that isn't exactly quantum, but it's close, if unintentional. But Rabe would make legit quantum leaps with later works. The art on this Gold Medal edition is by Lu Kimmel.
The cover art for Murder in the Wind changes like the weather.
The copy we read of John D. MacDonald's natural disaster thriller Murder in the Wind a while back had a front painted by George Gross. The two covers you see above were painted by Bob Abbett and Robert McGinnis. Their art goes in different directions. Abbett's shows nothing related to bad weather but uses a dilapidated background to imply that his cover figure is stranded, while McGinnis went for an outdoor setting cut by slanting rain, also using a dilapidated house motif. Both efforts are excellent, and the book is good too, as we mentioned here.
If it helps to persuade you, when you're an old woman you'll look back on even your worst one night stands with nostalgia.
Vintage thrillers and films often used Mexico as a setting, and we very much enjoy when that happens, due to our own numerous trips to the country and the many fond memories they produced. Wade Miller's 1950 novel Devil May Care takes readers to Mexico and does a better job of it than most books we've read. The trip happens when soldier of fortune Biggo Venn is sent to Ensenada on a mission that promises to profit him $10,000. Unfortunately, Biggo's contact turns up murdered, and out of caution he decides the smartest move is to wait for the unknown killer or killers to reveal themselves. He lays low and plays the role of gringo tourist. While doing so he meets up with a hard luck American named Jinny and a beautiful local named Pabla, both of whom are romantic interests, though in Jinny's case it's a love-hate dynamic.
Plenty happens with Jinny and Pabla, but Biggo's most portentous encounter is with fellow soldier of fortune Lew Hardesty, who's not only a rival suitor for both women, but keeps trying to horn in on Biggo's caper. The two eventually get into a vicious fight that settles nothing except that Biggo, who's ten years older, is losing his edge (though he dislocates Hardesty's jaw before the man pushes it back into place and comes at Biggo like a whirlwind). It's a good scene in a fun book. In fact, we think Devil May Care is Wade Miller (a pseudonym for authors Bob Wade and Bill Miller) at his/their best. The story is well paced, exciting, sometimes sad, and often funny. The authors use the rough-edged mercenaries-at-large premise brilliantly, as in this exchange between Biggo and Hardesty:
Biggo growled, “I thought you were in Bolivia.” Just because he had met one of his own kind made the outlook no brighter. Hardesty was a comrade but something less than a friend. He had a knack for showing up where he wasn't wanted.
“I was. Now I'm here.”
“Have you ever spent a summer in Bolivia? Very hot.”
Biggo understood the old pattern. Hardesty had been on the wrong side, whichever side happened to be losing that year. “Yes, Lew, I was thinking about you only the other night.”
“I love you too.”
“I know that. I remember the time you let me go out after that tiger in the Malay with a jimmied gun.”
Hardesty laughed. “That was a fine joke. Those man-killers are always old tigers, anyway. You've got more teeth than he had. Was that any worse than shipping me that opium in Transjordan? I sat in that mud jail for two months until one of your shells knocked out a wall.”
Biggo laughed in turn. “That was the gunner's fault. He'd promised me a direct hit.”
Much of the dialogue features similar banter, and not just between the soldiers. Hard luck Jinny can quip with the best of them:
Jinny said faintly, “I thought you went to jail.” She looked ready to be sick. She held a cracker halfway to her mouth, forgotten.
“Can't keep a good man down, honey.”
“What's that got to do with you?”
In the end the killers reveal themselves and Biggo—by now seeking revenge as well as a payoff—brings hell directly to their doorstep, or in this case to their yacht in the harbor. The climax brings a surprise or two, and Biggo's fate hinges upon who to trust, and who not to. Devil May Care is a wide-open sort of tale about dangerous men, but its title proves to be contradictory. Biggo pretends not to care about anything except the next mission and the next exotic port of call, but his acceptance of his own aging and his slim hope for retirement and a restful old age matter—in the end—more than anything else. The book has some moments that might make modern readers quail, but all the portrayals and reactions make sense in context. We loved this one.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1936—Crystal Palace Gutted by Fire
In London, the landmark structure Crystal Palace, a 900,000 square foot glass and steel exhibition hall erected in 1851, is destroyed by fire. The Palace had been moved once and fallen into disrepair, and at the time of the fire was not in use. Two water towers survived the blaze, but these were later demolished, leaving no remnants of the original structure.
1963—Warren Commission Formed
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson establishes the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However the long report that is finally issued does little to settle questions
about the assassination, and today surveys show that only a small minority of Americans agree with the Commission's conclusions.
1942—Nightclub Fire Kills Hundreds
In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire
in the fashionable Cocoanut Grove nightclub kills 492 people. Patrons were unable to escape when the fire began because the exits immediately became blocked with panicked people, and other possible exits were welded shut or boarded up. The fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country, and the club's owner, Barney Welansky, who had boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
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