Dan J. Marlowe gives readers an immersive experience.
Death Deep Down, a thriller from the typewriter of the prolific Dan J. Marlowe, was published in 1965, which is a significant year compared to the books from the ’40s and ’50s we typically read. Books from the mid-sixties and later usually have pacing more similar to today's novels, with faster movement and more action-oriented plot beats. That's true here, and combined with good writing skill, the result is that there isn't a single page Marlowe has written that readers would likely be tempted to gloss over at any point. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.
The story revolves around a potential fortune-making modification to scuba equipment (or SCUBA if you prefer), and the various forces—business, government, and non-aligned—that all want the rights to it. When you think scuba you think warm waters, and the cover illustration reinforces that notion, but all the aquatic action is in the freezing waters of Long Island Sound, off Oyster Bay. The protagonist Rocky Conrad, a marine on leave from the Vietnam War, is drawn into the plot when his half brother, who developed the gear, is tortured to death. This is juxtaposed against an inheritance drama within a wealthy family, while lurking in background are mysterious assassins of sadistic bent, who flay skin, break bones, and cut out eyes. Who they're working for is one of several mysteries Rocky needs to unravel. He goes about it the way you'd expect of a guy with his name—fists first.
This was Marlowe's tenth novel, and he knew exactly what he was about. There aren't many flaws, though it's at times jarringly pervy, with female characters getting fully or partly naked according to flimsy authorial pretexts. We love nudity, but within the narrative flow. Rocky's asides get a little digressive. Even so, the female characters play important roles both behind the scenes of the caper, and front and center in the action. One such instance involves a vicious fight. We just mentioned how rarely authors write truly knock-down drag-out battles between two women, and presto—here you go. This fight is amazingly hateful, with face scratching, hair ripping, and the combatants rolling off a deck. At the end both require serious medical attention and are likely to be scarred for life. It's a nice punctuation in a book filled with good action. Turning to the striking cover, this Gold Medal edition features the instantly recognizable work of Robert McGinnis, and his genius shines through even on what is an understated effort by his standards. As often occurs with mid-century paperbacks, the blurb is misleading. Topside she was all honey and sex and woman—underwater she had the conscience of a shark. That's every woman in the book apart from the main love interest Dulcie, which makes it potentially foolish that Rocky treats them all dismissively. The only thing more dangerous than a femme fatale is, like, three of them. We're going to try another Marlowe. Based on how involved we got in Death Deep Down, more is mandatory.
Do you ever put the gun away? I'm just wondering because you'll probably need two hands for what I have planned.
We recently called Barye Phillips a ubiquitous illustrator, but we keep running into Robert McGinnis too. Which mid-century artist do you suppose painted the most paperback covers? Surely both Phillips and McGinnis have to be in the running. Here's the latter's masterful work on the cover of William Ard's Wanted: Danny Fontaine, a 1960 re-issue of 1959's As Bad As I Am. In this novel the title character has just been paroled after his third prison stint. Because his crimes always involve helping damsels in distress, a provision of his parole is that he must stay away from women for eighteen months. That's not easy. He has movie star looks on a six-four frame, and an overt but non-aggressive masculinity wrapped inside a genuine charm that verges on innocence. All of that makes him irresistible to women. But the fact that his probabtion officer can't wait to send him back to prison offers all the motivation he needs to keep his life unentangled. Unfortunately, Fontaine gets entangled anyway. He gets involved in a cop killing, at which point a beautiful actress named Gloria Allen risks everything to come to his aid. We thought it was a clever thematic reversal by Ard after taking such lengths to portray Fontaine as a habitual white knight. The man who's gone to prison three times rescuing women is doomed unless a woman helps him—and at great risk to herself, since the police have gone full vigilante in an attempt to avenge one of their own. While the plot Ard spins is unlikely in parts, and there are some of the issues regarding race that are endemic to vintage fiction, Danny Fontaine and Gloria Allen are both winning creations, the supporting cast is good, and the story is propulsive. With this one on his ledger, plus the excellent Club 17 and Deadly Beloved, we may have to elevate Ard to our top rank of vintage crime authors, that lofty designation we like to call “trusted."
Just my luck. I go to the trouble of hiring a bodyguard and end up with one who doesn't even notice my body.
Hillary Waugh wrote more than forty novels and eventually earned a Grand Master designation from the Mystery Writers of America. His 1958 thriller The Girl Who Cried Wolf shows why, as he takes a standard detective novel premise and adds a touch of girl-crush cuteness to it. A rich co-ed named Patty Merchant has fallen hard for gumshoe Phil Macadam. She's never met him. He gave a lecture to her class and she went starry eyed over him. She hatches a phony stalking story in order to hire him and be close to him, which works fine until she's grabbed by actual kidnappers.
The Robert McGinnis cover art on this 1960 Dell edition—and the alternate version below—vibes femme fatale, but Patty Merchant is no man eater. She's shy, sweet, smart in school but a bit clueless in romance. You can't help but like her, and neither can Macadam. Which is good because he goes through the entire wringer and then some trying to locate and rescue her. The Girl Who Cried Wolf is a good, fast paced read, more soft-boiled than hard, but very entertaining. This being our first Waugh, we're already planning to pick up more of his work.
I have something very serious to ask you. I'm ready. And our relationship is ready. Darling... will you lend me your car?
Above: Robert McGinnis cover art for Eugene Mirabelli's 1959 novel The Burning Air, with this Eagle Books edition coming in 1960. It's basically a drama about a young couple with some tricky relationship issues to work out. Like how he's going to get home when she leaves him there.
Why am I on the beach this morning in lingerie and one shoe? Let's just say the ball didn't end at midnight.
This piece of art for Lee Roberts' If the Shoe Fits was painted by Robert McGinnis and it's one you see around often, probably because it's a top effort, at least in our view. In addition, the lettering is wonderful, with its two red dots over each “i.” The Crest Books paperback, we understand by looking around online, is usually copyright 1960, but our copy carries a date of 1959. The art relates to the novel only tangentially—missing high heels and whom they might fit are a key element, however they were worn by a fully dressed woman, not by a lingerie clad femme fatale. But as always the final result from McGinnis is amazing. It's possible he custom painted it for the story—with a bit of artistic license taken.
Between the covers, Roberts, aka Robert Martin, spins the tale of a smalltown murder. Young playboy Paul Anway has his head bashed in while sitting lakeside in his convertible, and certain people had reason to hate him—the gamblers to whom he owed four grand, the two women he was dating, the jilted boyfriend of one, a sleazy detective hired for strongarm work, and possibly others. As it happens, all of them had the opportunity to kill Anway, a feat achieved though the gimmick of having him tailed to the secluded site of his eventual murder by three cars at the same time, with two of the drivers unaware that they're involved in a coincidental caravan. It sounds strange, but it works, particularly because the existence of these tails is revealed only in flashback.
The one person who isn't tailing Anway is the protagonist Clinton Shannon—local doctor, county coroner, and all around nice guy. Conceiving Shannon as both a trusted doctor and a city official allows Roberts to provide the character access to almost every event that occurs, a useful trick in a murder mystery. Shannon makes a couple of decisions that might raise an eyebrow—rashly disclosing confidential evidence to the victim's father, for example—but for the most part Roberts writes him as exactly the sort of capable hero stories like this rely upon. With its likeable lead and involving plotline, we think If the Shoe Fits will fit your reading list.
Sometimes to find yourself you need to lose yourself.
It's probably fair to call Beebo Brinker a legendary novel—or at least a notable one. Last in a series of lesbian themed tales written by Ann Bannon, née Ann Weldy, but written as a prequel to the other books, it came out in 1962 and follows young Beebo as she arrives in New York City's Greenwich Village and quickly becomes the most intriguing and sought after denizen of the local scene, searching for and finding herself with the help of her roommate Jack Mann, and a trio of diverse sexual partners.
Of the three, her true love is Paula Ash, who arrives too soon to hold on to a Beebo bent on exploring her boundaries. Part of that exploration involves following a famous actress named Venus Bogardus to Los Angeles, where she's contracted to star in a television show called Million Dollar Baby (no relation to the Clint Eastwood movie). Having found her way out of the closet in Greenwich Village, in Hollywood Beebo has to go right back in to protect Venus's public persona.
Beebo Brinker is a talky book, melodramatic in parts, and highly romantic as well, which Bannon manages to make work thanks to better than average authorial skills, a good sense of Village life, and of course an excellent feel for her main character. Even so, we can't recommend it for everyone simply because it's a tale of self discovery and those tend to be more compelling for people below a certain age. If you've compiled a lot of life experience you probably won't find Beebo's groping her way to sexual awakening very fascinating. But objectively, it's a good book, and we liked it.
The cover on this Gold Medal edition, if you didn't recognize the style immediately, is by Robert McGinnis, and the image is custom made for the novel, showing Beebo upon her arrival in the Village with a wicker suitcase and no idea where to go, standing on the corner of Bleecker and Gay Streets. If you've spent time in the Village you know that Bleecker and Gay don't intersect in reality, so that was McGinnis taking a little license. His cover is, in all respects, excellent work.
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.
Only a king of cover art is fit for a queen of espionage.
We said we'd show you a Brazilian Robert McGinnis cover for a Modesty Blaise novel, and here it is. What a nice piece of art. The English language editions lost their McGinnis fronts with book three of the Blaise series in 1969, but somehow Grupo Editorial Record managed to get his art for A virgem intocada, known in English as The Impossible Virgin, fifth in the series, 1971. Why the U.S. and British editions did not get this art is a mystery. We debated reading this tale and talking about it a bit, but by now you've gotten the gist of Modesty and Co. If not, just check here, here, here, or here.
Also, you see here a clean version of the art. We talked before about how we suspect Editorial Record sometimes used but didn't actually license art for its covers. Notice how the clean art, even at smaller size, has more detail—almost like Record had a McGinnis lithograph they photographed and reprinted? Seems to us that if the company had paid for the art they'd have ended up with a fully detailed cover. Circumstantial evidence—yes. But incriminating. Or maybe the printing process was simply not top level and detail was lost. Still, a nice cover.
From moment to moment everything can change.
Donald MacKenzie's Moment of Danger, also known as Scent of Danger, appeared in 1959 as a Dell paperback with a front painted by the busy Robert McGinnis, always the man to employ for elevated cover art. In this case, his pistol packing, sarong clad femme fatale lounging behind a spider plant stands as a top effort. And by the way, we only know what a spider plant is because we have six large ones busily propagating around palatial Pulp Intl. HQ.
The tale follows a double-crossed jewel thief named Macbeth Bain (you gotta love that) who vows revenge on the partner who ditched him after a big heist and put the cops onto him. The double-cross is only half successful. The partner gets away with the loot, but through a stroke of luck, the evidence that was supposed to put Bain behind bars never materializes. Now he's free, furious, and tracking his missing partner from London to Gibraltar, Tangier, and Malaga, seeking to even the score. Along for the adventure is the partner's wife, also intent upon revenge after being ditched for another woman.
This is a densely written tale, heavy on narrative and light on dialogue, told from Bain's point of view as he struggles with fear of his uber-competent partner, and attraction toward his beautiful sidekick. He's a curious character, hard to like at first because his emotions range from anger at his betrayal to resentment that a woman is tugging at his heart, but you eventually root for him. The book ends almost anti-climactically, mid-scene at a crucial moment, but it remains a decent whirlwind thriller that passes through several exotic cities, and is worth the reading time, imperfections and all.
Hollywood agreed. The big brains out in Tinseltown liked Moment of Danger enough to option it and make it into a 1960 movie titled Malaga, starring Trevor Howard and Dorothy Dandridge. We'll definitely watch it because it's a noteworthy film, representing a rare leading role for an African American actress, and in fact was Dandridge's last movie. Our film watching résumé is a bit thin on the Dandridge front anyway, so we now have a good reason to address that. We'll of course report back.
The Long Knife portrays human nature red in thought and deed.
None of the westerns we've read since we started this website have been bad, but Louis A. Brennan's 1960 adventure The Long Knife almost had us quitting in the first two chapters. The thing that initially threw us is that Brennan narrates in western language filled with hankerings, gay-larkings, damnations, betwixts, narys, and more. The other westerns we've read had specific terminology, naturally, but were narrated more-or-less conventionally, with the linguistic color coming mostly in dialogue. Brennan, conversely, goes all-in with omniscient frontier voicing: Black as the devil come straight out of hell was Lew, without bothering to change to human skin. He never wore a cap and his hair was char and his buckskins were soot and his face was dead wood from the walnut hulls he'd stained it with for his scout. [snip] His shoulders fit in the doorway as snug as ball and patch in a rifle-gun barrel and his arms hung to his knees. You get the picture. But as we've said before, a good author teaches you how to read their fiction. Brennan's approach slowed us at first, but we soon got up to speed.
The main character is not the monster described above, but another frontier denizen, who moves between white and Indian society, living in the Ohio River Valley woods, something of a legend in his sylvan realm, hunting and wandering where he pleases. He's known by the tribes as “Flash in the Sun” because of his golden blonde hair. Whites know him as Cameron Galway. The plot deals with the machinations of westward spreading whites, and the savage ways of tribes. It begins with Galway's framing and wrongful arrest for murder, his burgeoning feelings for a pretty frontier girl named Meg Farney, his subsequent escape, and the unquenchable enmity of a cruel Army lieutenant named Thornwood (Red Locust to the Indians)—also the man behind the frame-up. When Thornwood suspects that Meg, who he plans to marry whether she wants it or not, likes Galway, hate blossoms into full-scale obsession. He plans to sign Galway off if it's the last thing he ever does.
We like our books to have a sense of real menace, and this one has it by wagonloads. It's dispassionate, utterly violent, continually shocking, and hard to read in parts, not because of the bloodletting, but due to Cam Galway's rigid aplomb as he goes through experiences that would emotionally cripple any normal man. Probably readers of a modern mindset will wonder whether Native Americans have a problem with this book. We don't generally presume to speak for others, but sometimes the answer is clear. The answer must be yes. The tribespeople here—mostly Shawnees—have no emotional depths beyond anger and ambition. We suspect that the people of those times were just as emotional as modern people, or at least were as prone to the same range of expression, but this is western literature, and pure grit is what readers want. There's plenty of that. The Long Knife is filled with hard, hard men.
Louis Brennan was a professor of archaeology, and presumably knew his history too. What seems very accurate here is the lack of conscience within military men and high ranking settlers. Thornwood/Red Locust at one point promises a Shawnee chief a barrel of whiskey and a barrel of beef if the tribe refrains from attacking his two-thousand acres of land for one year. The chief loves the deal. Only a single advisor thinks it's a foolish bargain: “You will not get one barrel of whisky nor one beef. Before it is time to pay, this Red Locust will lead his soldiers against our village and there will be none left to drink and eat.” The Shawnees are smart and even devious, yet distressingly naive, as they try to somehow forestall the advance of a culture that values endless accumulation and possesses neither moral scruples nor concerns about taking native lives.
Some of Brennan's scenes leap from the page. At one point Galway agrees to what he thinks is a one-on-one fight to the death with his Shawnee rival Catfishjaw, only to find that he's to face five knife-wielding braves—with no weapon of his own. They surround him and the resulting melee is brutal. This is a tale conceived by someone who was respected in a history-adjacent academic field, wrote noted theoretical papers that touched on American pre-history, and set his novel in the region of Ohio where he'd been born. Brennan puts all those aspects of his background to good use. On the minus side, the long final act, a frontier judicial proceeding that lasts chapters, drains the energy from what we expected to be a crackling climax. Even so, if you're willing to set aside the built-in racial issues of western fiction, The Long Knife is a good example of the genre, an intense portrayal of conflict in a land where the most savage man usually wins.
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