Vintage Pulp Aug 27 2023
QUARTER OF A BILLION
You can't build an empire without breaking a few civilizations.


The Empty Quarter from 1962 is Lou Cameron's second novel, after his scintillating music and radio business drama Angel's Flight. Surprisingly, he leaves Southern California in the dust for the southern Arabian peninsula and the mid-century oil business, and the result is an excellent adventure dealing with a seismic surveyor who uses dynamite and aerial reconnaissance to pinpoint oil deposits. He's sent into Saudi Arabia's empty quarter to find what his backers hope is the motherlode of all gushers. Once out in the desert he deals with tough conditions and interpersonal conflict, while simmering in the background are religious zealotry, Sunni versus Shia rivalry, a race against looming war in the region, and much more. The scene of an oil worker running across the desert aflame stuck with us. Cameron can really weave a tale.

This is also a book with racial content that will make some readers cringe, with offensive slurs used possibly a hundred times by protagonists and antagonists alike. Of course, the attitudes reflected are certainly accurate for the time, but it's still hard to read these privileged characters viciously denigrating Arabs and Africans while hailing from countries that shattered the world as a result of unconscionable greed and disregard for human life. As fans of vintage literature you can guess where we stand on censorship. However, we also don't dismiss offended groups as simply thin-skinned. The language contained here, while giving the characters verisimilitude, also echoes centuries-old myths that were foundational to the genocides and slavery that killed hundreds of millions of human beings and led to the looting of entire lands.

So that's the elephant in the room concerning The Empty Quarter, and we wanted to address that. The killing and theft that fueled Western empires are hard for some to face, but it happened, and since this isn't Florida the facts can't be hidden or made illegal. We buy books with no detailed knowledge of what's in them. That would definitely spoil the fun. We don't even read the rear teaser text, for the most part. We buy books—only if the price is right—when we like the cover art, when the general opinion in the vintage book community is that it's a mandatory read, or when we've enjoyed previous efforts by the same author. We loved Angel's Flight, so another go-round with Cameron was on the cards. But because Angel's Flight was a bit saucy along racial lines, we weren't terribly surprised what was in The Empty Quarter. All in all, it's quite a book—for better and worse.
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Vintage Pulp Apr 15 2020
THE DARK WEB
All the worst things together in one place.


It's been a while since we got our hands on an Ace double novel. Ace Double 59 features Robert Bloch's Spiderweb and David Alexander's The Corpse in My Bed. The first has cover art by Harry Barton, and the second, despite looking painted by the same artist, is actually uncredited. Two decent books here. Spiderweb deals with a novice grifter who embarks on a long con under the tutelage of a devilish criminal mastermind. Pretty soon he's committing terrible deeds against his will, including setting up his own girlfriend's politician father for a scam. We were more than a little surprised when the book used the identical gag that we raved about in Lou Cameron's 1960 novel Angel's Flight, in which a hat blown by the wind becomes a crucial life lesson. Check here to understand what we mean. At first we thought Bloch had stolen the idea from Cameron, an assumption we made because Angel's Flight is a far superior book, but nope—Spiderweb predates Angel's Flight by two years. It goes to show that the old adage is true: good writers borrow, great writers steal.
The Corpse in My Bed, originally titled Most Men Don't Kill, tells the story of a former soldier who in his civilian career as a detective finds himself in the classic shamus pickle—standing over a corpse amidst possibly incriminating evidence. A war related head wound plus some booze leaves him unsure whether he merely found the body or caused it, so he goes into hiding while his partner Chet and an acquaintance nicknamed Tommy Twotoes try to get to the bottom of the puzzle. It isn't easy to come up with a character that really stands out in the pantheon of mid-century crime fiction. Twotoes—a 300-pound millionaire with a weird affinity for penguins—is one you'll remember for a while. We checked to see if Alexander used him in other novels, but as far as we can tell he didn't, though he seemingly showed up in a few short stories. Both Bloch and Alexander do good work here, a bit rough around the edges at times, but well worth a read. Just don't pay $350, like one vendor is charging. We got them for twenty bucks. Schwing! 
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Vintage Pulp Mar 2 2020
FLYING LESSONS
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.

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History Rewind
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
February 23
1945—Flag Raised on Iwo Jima
Four days after landing on the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, American soldiers of the 28th Regiment, 5th Marine Division take Mount Suribachi and raise an American flag. A photograph of the moment shot by Joe Rosenthal becomes one of the most famous images of WWII, and wins him the Pulitzer Prize later that year.
February 22
1987—Andy Warhol Dies
American pop artist Andy Warhol, whose creations have sold for as much as 100 million dollars, dies of cardiac arrhythmia following gallbladder surgery in New York City. Warhol, who already suffered lingering physical problems from a 1968 shooting, requested in his will for all but a tiny fraction of his considerable estate to go toward the creation of a foundation dedicated to the advancement of the visual arts.
February 21
1947—Edwin Land Unveils His New Camera
In New York City, scientist and inventor Edwin Land demonstrates the first instant camera, the Polaroid Land Camera, at a meeting of the Optical Society of America. The camera, which contains a special film that self-develops prints in a minute, goes on sale the next year to the public and is an immediate sensation.
1965—Malcolm X Is Assassinated
American minister and human rights activist Malcolm X is assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City by members of the Nation of Islam, who shotgun him in the chest and then shoot him sixteen additional times with handguns. Though three men are eventually convicted of the killing, two have always maintained their innocence, and all have since been paroled.
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