Part of me really loves nature and solitude. But then part of me wants a frappuccino and a cheese danish.
Frisco Dougherty is back, and as impressed with himself as ever, if we judge by how many times he refers to himself in the third person. Last seen in 1951's Jewel of the Java Sea, he's still knocking around Indonesia in 1960's The Half-Caste, eternally seeking the big score that will earn him enough money to escape the tropics for San Francisco. His newest chance comes in the form of a trio of Americans who have arrived in Java to repatriate the bones of an anthropologist who died in the jungle. Dougherty suspects the coffin they plan to recover contains not a body, but a treasure, and formulates a complicated plan to steal whatever is inside. He follows the group into deepest Borneo, funded by the Wuch'ang crime cartel, who he also plans to betray.
There are two main positives to The Half-Caste. First, the exotic setting mixed with deep background concerning the Dutch East Indies evolving into an indepedent Indonesia influenced by a rising China is interesting; and second, the contents of the coffin are a clever surprise. Overall, though, we considered the book an unworthy sequel to Jewel of the Java Sea. Dougherty always verged on caricature, but now he's fully up that river. While still calculating, bigoted, chauvinistic, and pervy, he's bereft of charm, which used to be his saving grace. We suspect Cushman wanted to show how the tropics had decayed Dougherty's psyche since the first book, but he comes across too unsympathetic. It feels as if Cushman returned to the character unwillingly.
As for the half-caste of the title—Annalee, aka Sangra Brueger—she's one of the trio of coffin seekers, but because Dougherty spends nearly the entire book tracking the group from afar, she's barely in the narrative physically until the last forty pages. Dell Publications used Annalee's meager presence, with an assist from Robert McGinnis cover art, to lure readers, but it's a slight misrepresentation. The book is basically all Dougherty, along with his two male partners. During the era of good girl art there were nearly always women on paperback covers, no matter how flimsy the rationale, so you have to expect this sort of thing. We can't really complain, because certainly, the art is brilliant. We're happy to have it.
Zumba, huh? Never heard of it. But anything that involves dancing around in this heat I'll take a pass on.
A glance at this Barye Phillips cover for Dan Cushman's 1951 novel Jewel of the Java Sea and you immediately expect it to be filled with lyrical old place names, with their romantic connotations for Westerners of a certain age—Siam, Burma, Celebes, Dutch East Indies, and broadly “the Orient,” names that have dissipated into history, though colonial memory continues to associate them with riches, adventure, and freedom. The name Java is still in use, and that's where Frisco Dougherty, a musician by training, but a fortune hunter and brawler in practice, has been knocking around for fifteen years attempting to make his fortune.
Dougherty has had little luck at this, which is why when he comes into possession of a yellow diamond said to be part of a priceless larger set, he goes into treasure hunter mode with sharp tongue, clenched fists, and hot lead. This jewel he's stumbled upon is supposedly one of five known collectively as the Taj Nipa, with those in turn married to a larger diamond called the Taj-i-nur. The whole kit and caboodle is presumed to reside in the vault of the Maharajah Sir Jagadipendra Bahadur, G.S., C.I., C.C.E.I., LMNOP. But that presumption could be wrong. Maybe the stones were liberated from their vault, though nobody has reported a theft.
Such capers are the core of these types of books, but there are also women. Anna, a Dutchwoman cast adrift in the islands, tells Dougherty she's searching for her missing father, an army major. She's important, but Dougherty is particularly intrigued by Locheng, an exotic dancer in the town of Pontianak, Borneo, and to his eye, a mix of all things good about Asia. He tells the reader she's, “Indo-Chinese, Malay, child of the melting pot, and [with] white blood, enough white blood make her vivid, give her fire.” Uh huh, Frisco loves him some Locheng, though he has a mighty brusque way of showing it:
He decided not to knock. He swung the door open. She sprang up to face him. She was naked. He took a deep breath and looked at her. She seized her sarong and swung it around her hips, tucked it tightly around her waist. Her breasts remained bare, after the fashion of native women.
“Why did you do that?” he asked. “Is it the Western influence that makes you think a body should be hidden? Let me see you as you were. You are so beautiful.”
The Western influence. We didn't notice him wandering around naked to demonstrate his liberation. But maybe that's his point—he's too corrupted to be free, but luckily—his luck, not hers—she isn't. At this point he's met Locheng exactly once before, and she called him a hodah orang—ugly man, according to the book, though not according to Google translate—and showed him the door. But he clearly thinks being cursed out was just a flirtatious prelude to his inevitable conquest of Locheng, and indeed, as these South Seas novels are usually male literary fantasies, that conquest will come soon enough.
Dougherty is interesting. He's impulsive and self-entitled; bigoted, though this appears to be more class than skin based; and sexist, to which we add no qualifiers considering he always wants women to parade around naked. But he's also sentimental and defends the underdog. We think he's an accurate depiction of a certain type of wayfaring American male endemic to the wilder reaches of the world. As former inhabitants of a couple of those reaches ourselves, we've met the type. Cue the Pulp Intl. girlfriends: “Met? You are the type.” Well, not really, though. We've always sought adventures, but our resemblance to Dougherty stops where he demands unearned respect, crosses lines of consent, and calls grown men, “boy.”
In the end, Jewel of the Java Sea is a South Asian thriller that sits neither at the top nor bottom of the genre. Frisco Dougherty might be worth having a beer with, but only until he says something offensive and refuses to apologize. What we'd prefer to hear from him are reflections about something other than how Western influence has ruined his chances to enjoy boobs al fresco. That may yet happen. Reading the book, we got the feeling he was supposed to become a franchise. A series never took root, but he did pop up in one sequel, 1960's The Half-Caste, also set in Asia. We already purchased it a little earlier today, because Cushman can write. What will be interesting is to see if Dougherty can grow.
It isn't somewhere you want to spend a lot of time.
This photo shows a mushroom cloud in the process of rising to a height of 52,000 feet after a 100 kiloton yield nuclear bomb was dropped from a B-52 bomber near Christmas Island, a coral atoll south of Java, Indonesia, and now part of the Republic of Kiribati. The bomb was set off by the U.S. as part of Operation Dominic today in 1962. As we've mentioned before, the western powers are in the midst of another nuclear arms race, a fact that seems to get lost in a swirl of far less important news. Since mid-century crime fiction and films often touch upon the original nuclear arms race and its enveloping Cold War, we occasionally take a moment to look at these tests, and to remind people that nuclear weapons are pointless and stupid. Have a good day.
We're both starving, and frankly, the way he's behaved he's given us absolutely no reason not to eat him.
During the mid-century period, high quality cover art was seen as the key to paperback sales, thus many types of books received makeovers. Aussie novelist Ronald McKie's The Survivors is an example. You'd assume it was fiction but it's actually the true story of the Battle of Sunda Strait, which occurred in Indonesia between the islands of Java and Sumatra during World War II and pitted two Aussie cruisers against a major Japanese naval force. During a battle in which the outgunned Aussie ships fared better than could have been reasonably expected, both were sunk. In the aftermath a group of stranded men battled innumerable hazards in an attempt to survive. The book sprang from the handwritten account of an Aussie sailor who spent four years in a Japanese POW camp. He was a friend of McKie's, and when the author read the dairy pages he immediately decided to write a full accounting of the battle. As far as we know nobody ate anyone, but raft rides get pretty rough. The Survivors came out in hardback in 1953, with this Popular Library paperback appearing in 1954.
Gemser heats up the deserts of Egypt.
Cinematic sleaze was often fueled, the same as was mainstream filmmaking, by star power, so it was natural to bring two popular erotic performers like Laura Gemser and Annie Belle together. It happened today in 1976 with the Italian premiere of Velluto nero. At some point after its theatrical release it was renamed for English speaking audiences Black Emmanuelle, White Emmanuelle. Gemser was actually Indonesian, born in Surabaya, East Java, however 1976 was the blaxploitation era and everybody wanted a piece of that pie, including, obviously, Gemser's production company Rekord Films. Gemser could have played anything from half black to Persian to southern Italian to Hawaiian to Latina, so it was a canny—if cynical—bit of cultural appropriation. But back then it was seemingly no harm no foul. Audiences wanted to see her naked, and she always delivered.
In Velluto nero Gemser plays a model who vacations in Egypt with her horrible husband and meets the free-spirited Belle, who awakens her to better possibilities in life—ones that don't include her criminally abusive spouse. It's generally agreed that this is one of Gemser's most tepid Emanuelle entries. We have to concur. But Gemser and Annie Belle in the same movie are worth something, at least, and the Egyptian scenery is compelling. We also like that Belle's multi-colored sweater makes another appearance. She must have lifted it from the costume department when she filmed Laure. Velluto nero isn't the last we'll see of her or Gemser, and we'll just have to hope the next encounter is an improvement over this one.
Once you go Black Emanuelle you never go back.
Javanese beauty Laura Gemser isn't black in the ethnic sense, but you know that going into Black Emanuelle, first of the Italian-made sexploitation series that borrowed the French Emmanuelle concept and took it to places its originators could never have imagined. Gemser could actually be half black or mostly black, going by skin tone alone, but in a way her being South Asian in real life becomes the whole point, as it makes all her love scenes titillatingly interracial, whether she's getting it on with Africans or white foreigners. This is the tamest of the series—before poor Emanuelle was beset by voodoo priests, cannibals, and worse. In addition to the honeyed Gemser in the starring role you get a scoop of vanilla Schubert on top—German actress Karin Schubert. We aren’t going to bother to tell you about the plot of this one—it follows the form of other movies about westerners who get freaky in the African bush and eventually leave with profound insights and fond memories (cue shot of dreamy eyed actress gazing out airplane window as dark, mysterious Africa recedes below). In addition to the Japanese poster above we were able to locate quite a few promo images, including two of Gemser and Schubert doing field tests of Newton’s laws of physical motion. See below. Black Emanuelle opened in Japan today in 1976.
Laura Gemser was one of Italy’s undisputed Queen B's.
You know we love our b-movies around here, and one of the all-time b greats is the lovely Laura Gemser. Originally from Java, Indonesia, she earned her fame acting in the Italian-produced Black Emanuelle franchise, which featured such memorable entries as Emanuelle on Taboo Island, Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals, and Black Emanuelle’s Box (not what you think). After more than a decade in sexploitation, Gemser turned to costume design—ironic, considering costuming was one thing she didn’t need very often as Emmanuelle. After several years designing for Italian films, Gemser retired in Rome. But out of sight is not out of mind. Erotic cinema may be gone, but it isn’t forgotten. And neither is Laura Gemser. She turned 59 today.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1952—Chaplin Returns to England
Silent movie star Charlie Chaplin returns to his native England for the first time in twenty-one years. At the time it is said to be for a Royal Society benefit, but in reality Chaplin knows he is about to be banned from the States because of his political views. He would not return to the U.S. for twenty years.
1910—Duke of York's Cinema Opens
The Duke of York's Cinema opens in Brighton, England, on the site of an old brewery. It is still operating today, mainly as a venue for art films, and is the oldest continually operating cinema in Britain.
1975—Gerald Ford Assassination Attempt
Sara Jane Moore, an FBI informant who had been evaluated and deemed harmless by the U.S. Secret Service, tries to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford. Moore fires one shot at Ford that misses, then is wrestled to the ground by a bystander named Oliver Sipple.
1937—The Hobbit is Published
J. R. R. Tolkien publishes his seminal fantasy novel The Hobbit, aka The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Marketed as a children's book, it is a hit with adults as well, and sells millions of copies, is translated into multiple languages, and spawns the sequel trilogy The Lord of Rings.
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