Hear no evil, see no evil, and definitely report no evil to the cops.
As we continue our readings in vintage crime fiction, some authors emerge more than others as creators to specifically seek out. Lionel White has just moved from the “worth a read” category to the “trusted” category based on his 1956 thriller The House Next Door. Not only is this a good tale, but it's high concept, and told with style. The sprawling narrative deals with a pair of bank robbers who hole up in a suburban house to wait for the heat from their latest heist to dissipate. Late that night, after some heavy drinking, a neighbor loses his keys and is forced to climb in his side window. But it isn't his house. They all look similar, and he's new to the subdivision. He discovers he's in the wrong place only after turning on a light and finding a freshly murdered corpse—one of the bank robbers. He dives out a window just as he's about to be caught, later reports what he saw to the police, and for his efforts becomes the prime suspect in a completely different random murder. There's plenty more to the book, but in short White works with numerous characters, narrates from multiple points of view, juggles various plotlines, and weaves a tale that engrosses from beginning to end. Highly recommended.
When I ask you to disrobe it doesn't seem like you get excited the way you used to.
The sprawling 1925 medical novel Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1926, but no book was so lofty it couldn't be reworked to fit the pulp paperback aesthetic of the 1950s. We read this way back when we attempted to go through the entire Pulitzer list in order. Some of those books were amazing, like Edna Ferber's So Big, and others made us almost abandon the project. Arrowsmith was somewhere in the middle for us. The subtly sexual art by Barye Phillips fits this classic, because the main character Martin is sort of a serial romancer who can't stick with one woman even when he tries.
Did we ever finish that Pulitzer list? No. Once we learned that even among the best books ever written some are markedly better than others, we began skipping ahead and finally stopped after To Kill a Mockingbird and The Edge of Sadness. Those two very different and indescribably awesome novels completed our interest in deep examinations of the human experience. After those, we wanted to have fun when we read. We moved on to the frights, thrills, and speculations of horror, vintage crime, and sci-fi, and that's where we mainly reside today. But Arrowsmith was interesting and we recommend it for a compelling read.
A love blooms in Harlem.
Chester Himes' wild Harlem crime novel For Love of Imabelle, which we talked about last year, was originally published in 1965. This Signet edition is from 1974. We rarely like ’70s covers, but this is great, with its expansive afro used as a background for the text. The art is by the same person who illustrated this Himes cover, but both, unfortunately, are uncredited.
And the verdict is—indispensable, as charged.
Above is a second Lu Kimmell cover for Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled Mike Hammer thriller I, the Jury, notable because you don't usually see the same artist paint different covers for the same paperback. But we're actually sharing this not just for the art, but because holiday travel season is here again, and it seems like a good time to reiterate the fact that if you're flying inside of or to the U.S. pulp novels can be a travel necessity. We're giving you pearls of wisdom. Check here.
Certain breeds of insects are going extinct, according to scientists. We didn't need their help to figure that out.
Above is an alternate cover for James M. Cain's racy 1947 novel The Butterfly. The edition we showed you previously (paired with a short write-up of the disastrous movie starring Pia Zadora) was from Dell, with art by Frank McCarthy. This one came from Signet in 1955, and it's really hard to find. By far it's the rarest of any of Cain's Butterfly editions. But it's worth seeking out because the cover is great. It's uncredited, though. See the previous cover here.
If I'd known being a virgin would lead to this I'd have considered that proposition from my dad's fishing buddy.
Do people still make chastity pledges? Well, if the pledge is to a cruel Aztec jaguar god that wants you to serve as his bodily vessel, don't do it. The Living Idol, which explores that precise possibility, is a novelization of a 1957 movie of the same name starring Liliane Montevecchi. We discussed it a while back. The novel came from Signet with Robert Maguire on the cover chores, and we've seen copyrights of 1956 on this, so it may have preceded the film as a means of generating interest. You can find out everything you need to know about the book by reading our bit on the movie here.
Himes' Harlemites take the prize.
Above is an unusual orange cover by an uncredited artist for Chester Himes' crime yarn The Big Gold Dream. We're Himes fans, but for us this wasn't as enjoyable as For Love of Imabelle or The Real Cool Killers, nor as well written, in our opinion, but the author's flair is undiminished in a tale about a lottery winner whose $36,000 cash prize is stolen. The most interesting character here is Dummy, a man permanently deaf from a beating and mute from having his tongue cut out, but whose disrespectful nickname belies his tenacity. And of course franchise detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones also star. There are caricatures many readers will find offensive, but that just makes Himes like most writers of the period. No matter what, with him you can count on a portrayal of Harlem that's quirky and insightful, and that's probably reason enough to read the book. It originally appeared in 1959, and this Signet edition dates from 1975.
Always get out while the getting is good.
Jim Thompson's thriller The Getaway was made into a movie twice, the first time in 1972 with Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw, and the second time in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Both versions opted to change the thrust of Thompson's tale, so if you've seen either movie reading the novel might provide an interesting experience. It's a crime novel with several deeper themes. For example, Thompson expresses social isolation in the starkest terms, such as here, when writing about a group of poor country folk:
Their existence was centered around existing. They had no hope of anything more, no comprehension that there might be anything more. In a sense they were an autonomous body, functioning within a society which was organized to grind them down. The law did not protect them; for them it was merely an instrument of harassment, a means of moving them on when it was against their interest to move, or detaining them when it was to their disadvantage to stay.
Against this hostile backdrop the two main characters, Doc and Carol, are—unlike in the movies—unambiguously amoral people, a couple who are certain only that the world is institutionally corrupt, and that their only hope for survival is each other. What starts as a standard heist-and-flight tale becomes an allegorical descent into hell, complete with images borrowed from various religious myths. This makes the latter third of the novel something far weirder than expected going in, but the ultimate idea of crime as a soul-killer comes across crystal clear.
You really can't go wrong with Thompson. While The Getaway is perhaps not as top flight as Pop. 1280 or some of his other books, it's still one to fit into your reading schedule at some point. It was originally published in 1958, and the above edition came from Signet in 1959 and features a nice orange cover from the incomparable Bob Abbett. If you're interested in seeing him at his best, check the small cover collection we put together here.
Disturbed characters populate pointlessly offensive book about a traveling circus.
It's been a long time since we saw any cover art from Stanley Zuckerberg—almost ten years, or about fifty-seven in cat years. Zuckerberg's work fronts Edward Hoagland's Cat Man, a gritty 1958 novel that delves into the world of the traveling circus and life of the lead character who works with the big cats. Hoagland had the same job in real life for a while and he wants you to know it, which is why his book is dense with circus jargon. It's also dense with racism. If there were a point being made à la William Styron or Ben Winters, then okay, but there isn't. The novel earned some acclaim, which doesn't surprise us—pointlessly racist books often did back then. But this example is especially indefensible.
We know what some would suggest—that the attitudes on display are historical realism. But that hoary old excuse doesn't hold water, considering Hoagland takes the time to create detailed characters of Native American and Latino descent. Those portrayals are—of course—caricatures by today's standards, but Hoagland does try to make them resonate. The African-American characters, conversely, are just rabble in the background, referred to only collectively, and using the most offensive possible terminology. Worse, at least a dozen of the circus animals have names and personalities, while the black characters have neither. We're not joking—the animals are more human than anyone with a black skin. This was Hoagland's first novel and he later went on to become a respected nature essayist. Hopefully he learned something about the nature of people.
Sorry to disappoint you, but we're into each other.
Well no, Leonhard Frank's novella Desire Me isn't about two men in love, but we think it should be, based on the cover art. It's actually a story centered around a clever idea that has been borrowed often since it was first written by Frank in 1926 as the play Karl und Anna. Basically, two men in a prison camp have plenty of idle time to get to know each other. The married prisoner speaks in detail about his wife. When the unmarried one escapes, he seeks out the married one's wife and the two fall in love. Naturally the husband, who his pal had claimed was dead, eventually resurfaces in the town to complicate matters.
This prison identity theft concept is the basis or backstory of many movies, including The House on Telegraph Hill. Returning from presumed wartime death to ruin a wife's new love affair has also been used often, notably in Casablanca. Frank was considered a leading German writer, but his legacy was destroyed when his books were burned by the Nazis before World War II. He actually wrote about this later and noted that even though Hitler lost the war, he largely succeeded in altering Germany's literary history, because many of the authors whose works were burned never regained their former stature. Frank's is a cautionary example about censorship—governments do it because it works.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
NBC radio broadcasts the cop drama Dragnet for the first time. It was created by, produced by, and starred Jack Webb as Joe Friday. The show would later go on to become a successful television program, also starring Webb.
1973—Lake Dies Destitute
Veronica Lake, beautiful blonde icon of 1940s Hollywood and one of film noir's most beloved fatales
, dies in Burlington, Vermont of hepatitis and renal failure due to long term alcoholism. After Hollywood, she had drifted between cheap hotels in Brooklyn and New York City and was arrested several times for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. A New York Post
article briefly revived interest in her, but at the time of her death she was broke and forgotten.
1962—William Faulkner Dies
American author William Faulkner, who wrote acclaimed novels such as Intruder in the Dust and The Sound and the Fury, dies of a heart attack in Wright's Sanitorium in Byhalia, Mississippi.
1942—Spy Novelist Graduates from Spy School
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, graduates from Camp X, a training school for spies located in Canada. The character of Bond has been said to have been based upon Camp X's Sir William Stephenson and what Fleming learned from him, though there are several other men who are also said
to be the basis for Bond.
1989—Oliver North Avoids Prison
Colonel Oliver North, an aide to U.S. president Ronald Reagan, avoids jail during the sentencing phase of the Iran-Contra trials. North had been found guilty of falsifying and destroying documents, and obstructing Congress during their investigation of the massive drugs/arms/cash racket orchestrated by high-ranking members of the Reagan government.
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