You want me to be a good girl? I can do that. But it'll cost you extra.
We run into Robert McGinnis everywhere. In fact, we suspect his art is so collectible that his covers are the reason some vintage paperbacks avoid oblivion. But Don Kingery's Good Time Girl, though obscure, deserves to survive on its own merits. It's a good book. The story, which is set in a small Louisiana town called Bay Ste. Marie, deals with a journalist named Jack Candless who agrees to push a false story of rape in order to advance his flagging career. The alleged victim is the town prostitute, but Candless helps make her over into a virginal good girl. The whole scheme is supposed to last only a few days, but of course it spirals completely out of control—not least because Jackie blue is a blackout drunk. This is the first time we've read Kingery, but hopefully not the last. Good Time Girl is confidently written, compellingly plotted, interestingly peopled, emotionally believable in terms of alcoholism, and has a convincing sense of place that makes clear Kingery knows the dirty south well. Top marks.
The Devil went down to Southeast Asia looking for fortunes to steal.
1969's I, Lucifer is Peter O'Donnell's third Modesty Blaise novel, and it's a series we're going through mainly to highlight the great cover art by Robert McGinnis. He didn't illustrate all the books. In fact, this might be the last, which means we'll probably move on to other authors. But that won't be because the Blaise books aren't good. In fact, for the sexy spy genre they're top notch—exotically located, compellingly plotted, and peopled by wacky Bond-style supervillains. Case in point: the titular character in I, Lucifer is a a man suffering from a psychotic delusion that's he's Satan. The funny part is he isn't even bad. The real bad guy is Seff, the opportunist who launches a global extortion scheme that hinges on faux-Lucifer's participation even though his delusion prevents him having a clue what he's really doing. He might be the only villain in the Blaise novels who's a victim.
When Seff's murderous extortion hits too close to home for Modesty, she and sidekick Willie Garvin gear up and eventually end up in the Philippines, where they right some wrongs, explosively. As usual Modesty uses sex to get over on the bad guys, and it's a major part of what readers enjoyed about the series. At one point she ponders whether a colleague thinks she's promiscuous. Well, no, she isn't by 1969 standards. But the joy of literature is she can be unpromiscuous, yet we can be there in the room for every encounter. This book is particularly amusing along those lines, as it brings two of Modesty's lovers together to be uncomfortable and/or jealous as they're displaced by a third. But sleaze fans will need to look elsewhere. O'Donnell is subtle—if not poetic—with his sex scenes.
Though the sexual aspects of Modesty Blaise were a major attraction of the novels, we enjoy even more the tactical nature of O'Donnell's action, which is probably an influence from his military service in Iran, Syria, Egypt, Greece and other places. It's also probably why so much of the Blaise series is connected to that region. While the tales are always exotic, this entry is even wilder than usual. How wild? It involves precognition, trained dolphins, Moro mercenaries, and body implants that kill remotely, yet it all works. That's because as always, in the center of the chaos, you have Blaise and Garvin, perfect friends, platonic soulmates, and two armed and extremely deadly halves of a razor sharp fighting machine. Abandon all hope ye who cross them.
So I couldn't help noticing all the notches on your bedpost. What are those about?
Today we have more elongation for you from the brush of grandmaster illustrator Robert McGinnis. This cover for the 1959 thriller Epitaph for a Tramp features one of his deliberately out-of-proportion femmes fatales, with a long lower half and a small head. He would stretch his girls to freakish lengths as time went by, but we especially like this phase from him. For an example of how unusual his women would get, check out these four examples we shared a while back. And if those intrigue you, there are also numerous examples of later McGinnis on the website of Hard Case Crime, with the best ones appearing here, here, and here.
Epitaph for a Tramp was written by David Markson, and the story involves a detective who finds himself drawn into danger when a mortally stabbed woman staggers through his door and dies. She's the tramp of the title, a woman who in one year of marriage cheated on her husband with—count em—thirteen men. Her cuckolded husband is occasionally sympathetic toward her, which is a bold writerly move for a period when most people—male and female—subjected women to ugly judgments for perceived sexual availability. But Markson was an ambitious author who would go on to become a celebrated literary figure with tales such as This Is Not a Novel and the acclaimed Wittgenstein's Mistress.
Here he does hard-boiled with a cleverness of phrasing that's rare, but often misses the mark too. For example, quips like, “Bare lightbulbs helped the hallway look like something other than the esophagus of a submerged whale,” just don't work. Sometimes a dim hallway can just be a dim hallway. But the story is reasonably interesting and the main character Harry Fannin fits the private dick mold well. As he tries to unmask a murderer he also unmasks a complex, troubled victim, a character who in our experience is unique in mid-century fiction. That's worth a lot, even if the book isn't perfect. We'll see if Markson did better with his second detective entry Epitaph for a Dead-Beat.
Good thing we're in a district that opted for in-person classes. This wouldn't be nearly as pleasurable online.
With R.V. Cassill's 1961 novel Night School we return once again to the time-honored pop fiction subject of teachers engaging in extracurriculars with students. Such affairs are nearly always frowned upon in these books, so don't go thinking these explorations represent any sort of endorsement. The authors generally come up with creative ways to get their protagonists into (and sometimes out of) seriously deep shit.
But as it turns out Night School isn't even teacher sleaze. It deals in serious fashion with a once-acclaimed novelist whose run of recent hard luck finds him teaching a dead end night school course where he must deal with an assortment of students and their various issues. There's sexual content, but not much. Sleaze novels can be quite fun, but there's little more disappointing than a novel that promises then doesn't get there.
But we weren't actually surprised Night School was more literary than the teaser suggests, because the legendary Robert McGinnis—the cover artist here—has never to our knowledge had his work front a sleaze novel (his romance covers don't count). We've shared several teacher sleaze covers over the years. If you want to see the best examples look here and here. And here too.
Hollywood gets wholly weird in Bill Gault's show business thriller.
With Death Out of Focus, which is our third reading of Bill Gault, aka William Campbell Gault, we're thinking he can be moved into the trusted bin. He once more documents the decadent ins and outs of Southern California, this time centering his tale around a movie production. When director Stephen Leander's leading man ends up in the wreckage of his car at the foot of a cliff in Pacific Palisades and police call it an accident, a determined insurance investigator launches his own inquiry and begins turning up what looks like evidence of murder. Leander joins forces with the insurance guy to uncover the truth. Fun to read, quick of pace, and quirky the way a Hollywood thriller should be, Death Out of Focus takes various Tinseltown archetypes—the aging actress, the tyrannical producer, the sexy ingenue, the loyal industry wife—adds money motivations and showbiz ambitions, and ends up with a nice concoction. Like a typical Hollywood movie, it doesn't strive to be unique or lofty, but with so many literary duds out there, good enough is good enough. This Dell edition is from 1960 and the cover is by Robert McGinnis.
There's nothing in her way except a huge red box.
Above you see a wonderful alternate cover for Nothing in Her Way by Charles Williams, with the great Robert McGinnis on the brush chores. We personally don't mind that Gold Medal covered McGinnis's femme fatale with a box of text, but we imagine McGinnis purists do. Considering this cover dates from 1963, it's perhaps a little too much to expect a publisher to feature a practically naked woman on a mainstream novel—and make no mistake, Charles Williams was a mainstream author who sold piles of books. Gold Medal obviously made concessions for the puritans, of which there have always been many in the U.S. But never fear. The case of the censored femme fatale was easy to solve. Just look below, where we've composited together a complete version, not to be found on any other website. Pretty good, no? We're not just pretty faces. See the earlier Gold Medal cover here.
You think you're the first spurned woman to try shooting me? Baby, that's how my ex-girlfriends all say hello.
Above is the Fawcett Publications 1967 edition of Richard Stark's, aka Donald E. Westlake's landmark crime thriller Point Blank, which was originally published in 1962 as The Hunter and was first in the long-running Parker series. Parker was one of the cruelest and most sociopathic anti-heroes in mid-century literature. The Robert McGinnis cover makes him look like some kind of sophisticated rogue, but don't let the art fool you—Point Blank is rough stuff. You like Jack Reacher? Reacher has the personality of a yoga instructor in comparison. This was our first Parker, but we've read another since and it looks like we're going to have a long, entertaining relationship with this character.
When an evil mastermind plans to take a bite out of the Middle East, only Modesty Blaise stands in his way.
Above you see a cover for Peter O'Donnell's Sabre-Tooth, his second Modesty Blaise novel, and as with the first book Modesty Blaise, Fawcett Publications managed to land Robert McGinnis for the cover chores. He chose a scene from the narrative in which Blaise uses “the nailer,” a move in which she walks into a room topless, and in the split seconds gained by shock and awe, proceeds to kill everyone in sight. This could only happen in an erotic style adventure, but instead of keeping things as light as the debut novel, O'Donnell veers in a darker direction. There's still plenty of waxing about his main character's physical beauty and sexual prowess, but in terms of actual plot, he takes things in a radically non-erotic direction, and in so doing attempts to show just how far Blaise will go in her pursuit of justice. We won't say what she does, or whether it's realistic, but we'll hint that if a mainstream writer did it today it would spark an online conflagration the intensity of an Australian wildfire.
One thing O'Donnell does well is villains and their henchmen. In this book the main malefactor is a brutal would-be king named Karz who plans to invade and take over Kuwait. His top henchmen are Lok and Chu. Get this: they're twins born conjoined at the shoulder. They lived much of their lives that way, grew to hate each other, but learned to fight and defend themselves in tandem as a matter of mutual survival. When they were finally separated they realized they had no purpose apart, and now go about wearing a leather harness that keeps them conjoined. They still hate each other, but also give each other purpose. As killers they fight back to back and side by side, switching configurations, baffling opponents. That entire concept is O'Donnell in full flower. Take Karz and his twin killers, add the Kuwait takeover, sprinkle in an international mercenary army holed up in an Afghan stronghold, and finally fold in equal portions of Blaise and deadly sidekick Willie Garvin, and you've got yourself a thrill ride worth reading.
The view is amazing but the amenities are sorely lacking.
Charles Williams has made us love seagoing thrillers, so whenever see a book that seems to be along those lines, we grab it. When we saw this Robert McGinnis cover for Basil Heatter's Virgin Cay, we were immediately sold. And in fact, the novel feels like a lost Charles Williams tale, thanks not only to its aquatic focus, but the fact that it's written to a nearly Williamsian skill level.
The set-up is great. A guy washes up on a chi-chi Caribbean Island after his sailboat sinks, and his appearance from out of the sea, a stranger in a community where everyone knows each other, gives one resident the idea to entice him into a foolproof murder plot by promising him enough money to buy another boat. Since the castaway is not rich, and it would take him a lifetime to save for a replacement vessel, he's mightily tempted. It's from there that things get complicated.
The art on this Gold Medal paperback, in addition to its obvious beauty, reveals an important aspect of the plot—woman alone on an isolated hump in the sea with little more than a can of water. But how do we get from a shipwrecked sailor to a woman marooned on an island? Well, if you look at the rear cover, it's clear someone deliberately leaves her there. We won't say more. Nice effort from Heatter, definitely worth a read.
I think this book will win me the ignoble prize.
Robert McGinnis shows his unique skills again, this time on a 1960 cover for The Girl on the Best Seller List by Vin Packer, who is in reality the prolific Marijane Meaker. The art is a hair misleading, since the author character in question is well into middle age, and is an everyday woman, not a lithe McGinnis beauty. It's important, because the reason she writes a book in the first place is because her dreary existence in a medium sized town filled with depressingly mediocre people becomes unbearable. When she slams virtually everybody she knows, including her own husband, the townsfolk get plenty angry. Revenge may be on the agenda. A vindictive author and a town full of dreary people means there's nobody truly worth rooting for in the story, but Best Seller List is still interesting as a chronicle of a rural enclave that's had its illusions of goodness ripped apart. If you find it cheap, it's worth a read.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1961—Plane Carrying Nuclear Bombs Crashes
A B-52 Stratofortress carrying two H-bombs experiences trouble during a refueling operation, and in the midst of an emergency descent breaks up in mid-air over Goldsboro, North Carolina. Five of the six arming devices on one of the bombs somehow activate before it lands via parachute in a wooded region where it is later recovered. The other bomb does not deploy its chute and crashes into muddy ground at 700 mph, disintegrating while driving its radioactive core fifty feet into the earth, where it remains to this day.
1912—International Opium Convention Signed
The International Opium Convention is signed at The Hague, Netherlands, and is the first international drug control treaty. The agreement was signed by Germany, the U.S., China, France, the UK, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, and Siam.
1946—CIA Forerunner Created
U.S. president Harry S. Truman establishes the Central Intelligence Group or CIG, an interim authority that lasts until the Central Intelligence Agency is established in September of 1947.
1957—George Metesky Is Arrested
The New York City "Mad Bomber," a man named George P. Metesky, is arrested in Waterbury, Connecticut and charged with planting more than 30 bombs. Metesky was angry about events surrounding a workplace injury suffered years earlier. Of the thirty-three known bombs he planted, twenty-two exploded, injuring fifteen people. He was apprehended based on an early use of offender profiling and because of clues given in letters he wrote to a newspaper. At trial he was found legally insane and committed to a state mental hospital.
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