Friday, August 29, 2014

“Not Dead Drunk, Just Dead”



I’m pleased to see that independent publisher Raven’s Head Press has recently released a new edition of Harold Q. Masur’s first novel, Bury Me Deep. That 1947 book, which introduced Masur’s long-active lawyer-detective protagonist, Scott Jordan, was also given a favorable write-up this morning in John “J.F.” Norris’ Pretty Sinister Books blog. He explains that the novel opens with Jordan returning home to discover “Verna [Ford] in her lingerie helping herself to expensive brandy in the appropriate snifter.
She’s been waiting for someone in Jordan’s apartment but it can’t possibly be him. He was away in Miami and cut his trip to come home. No one was expecting him. Verna tries to put the moves on Jordan but he won’t have any of it. Then she downs her brandy and immediately passes out. Jordan foolishly takes her to a cab, bribes the driver to baby sit her until she comes to and asks him to let her out at her home. But the driver soon discovers Verna is not dead drunk, just dead. The lawyer is immediately suspected of doing her in and trying to dispose of the body. So he decides to find out who she is, why she was in his apartment and who poisoned her brandy. The case becomes a lot more complicated than that as it turns out Verna was involved in a legal battle involving a will that will provide millions of dollars to the proper surviving relative of a husband and wife who died in a car crash. Lots of down and dirty action that turns pretty nasty. Villainy and double crossing galore! It’s a corker, gang.
I wholeheartedly agree! And it’s a kick to see the cover illustration on Raven’s Head’s reprint, done by artist Doug Klauba, following the sexy example set by previous editions of Bury Me Deep--though I think this 1984 Quill paperback cover still has the new one beat. I’m only hoping that somebody at Raven’s Head caught the egregious typo on the back cover of this edition before it went to press. As you’ll note in the image above (click on it for an enlargement), the last line of the copy reads, “Under suspicison of murder, Scott Jordan, newest detective sensation, raced the police to a desperate killer in this rapid biting tale of pulp fiction.” Oops!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two-fer Tuesdays: Floor-to-Floor Fears

A twice-monthly pairing of book covers that just seem to go together. Click on either of these images to open up an enlargement.



Have you ever noticed how often stairways are employed to create apprehension on vintage paperback book fronts? An unsuspecting women might find herself menaced at the base of an innocent-seeming cascade of steps by a man with a pistol. Or she might have been pushed down those steps to become a heap of laundry and bloodied limbs at the bottom. Or perhaps she is surprised at the top of a staircase by somebody who intends her significant harm. It is rarely men being menaced as they passed from one story to another; women bear the overwhelming brunt of these flights to fright.

Two examples appear at the top of this post. On the left, you’ll see the cover from the 1955 Bantam edition of Death’s Long Shadow, a novel originally published in hardcover two years before as Dear, Dead Days. It’s credited to “Jay Barbette,” which was a pseudonym used by Bart Spicer (1918-1978). Spicer is best known for penning half a dozen Chandleresque novels about Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, private eye Carney Wilde (introduced in 1949’s The Dark Light). But he and his wife, Betty Coe Spicer, also turned out four books starring newspaper reporter Harry Butten--of which Dear, Dead Days was the second (after Final Copy, 1950). I don’t own a copy of the book, but a short review on Amazon’s Goodreads site says it’s “the story of photographer Mike Chaney and his partner Dorothy Baird…
Essentially it’s a murder mystery. Mike and Dorothy become tangled in someone else’s murder and they enlist the help of Harry Bullen and his newspaper contacts to get to the bottom of things. The plot is intelligently laid out and takes place in Devon/New Devon USA.

It’s an easy read with twists and turns, which don’t break the logical plot line, that keeps your attention to the final climax in the office conference room with an unexpected ending.
Credit for the artwork that fronts Death’s Long Shadow--and graphically supports its title--belongs to the highly talented Mitchell Hooks, about whom I’ve written before on this page.

To the right, above, you’ll see the cover from the 1958 Pyramid Books edition of House of Hate, by W. Craig Thomas (not to be confused with the late Welsh thriller writer, Craig Thomas). Again, this novel bore a different name in hardcover: The Gregory Hill (1957). A Kirkus Reviews write-up on the book supplies this plot summation:
Passions, loosely controlled, combat intelligence and love in the life of young Paul Gregory whose father’s death is judged to be an accident, but which he knows is murder at the hands of Aaron Layton. Aaron’s son, Roger, is willing to ally himself with Paul against his father, but Paul, heeding his dead father’s last wishes, tries to help and protect his mother, Lela, who, a very short time later, marries Aaron. Aaron’s humiliation when he learns that the Gregory Place is destined for Paul, not him, makes firm his efforts to thwart Paul’s dedication for carrying on his father’s ideas about the farm; Lela hardens when she is ostracized by the valley people; Roger furthers the discord by his desire for her and for discrediting his father. Aaron’s ruttish pursuit of Lela to get her to bear his child, [and] his try at killing Paul, have their climax in the truth about Lela's part in the murder and in Aaron’s permanent death-in-life from the horses who fear him, and chain Paul, Lela and Roger to a cripple whose loathing will always be a weapon. An unidentified locale, a narrow range of hatred, weakness and selfishness that almost spell defeat, limit this to morbid tastes.
Hmm. Not exactly an unstinting recommendation, is it? Still, the cover of that paperback is quite captivating. Coincidentally, it’s a second work by Arthur Sussman, an illustrator I first mentioned last month in another “Two-fer Tuesdays” post.

And now, because you are such a fine audience, I’m going to violate my usual twinned-covers format for these posts and offer you a third front (right) that also fits this week’s theme: the façade of Berkley’s 1958 edition of The 31st of January, by Julian Symons. The painting in this case is by Robert Maguire.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Down to Airth



I have been following the work of South African-born novelist Rennie Airth since 1999, when I picked up the UK edition of River of Darkness, his first novel starring then Scotland Yard inspector John Madden. I enjoyed that book so much, I reviewed it for January Magazine, and have been reading Airth’s sequels ever since.

Last week, publisher Viking released a new installment in Airth’s series, The Reckoning, about which I wrote earlier in Kirkus Reviews:
Although he’d planned only a trilogy of novels about Scotland Yard inspector John Madden, beginning with 1999’s River of Darkness and concluding with 2009’s underappreciated The Dead of Winter, Airth has suddenly introduced this fourth entry into the series. And a welcome addition it is. Set in 1947, it ropes Madden--who’s currently enjoying retirement with his village-doctor wife in the Surrey countryside--into a case of apparently random killings. The first victim was an unassertive banker, shot in broad daylight. The second was a Scottish physician, executed in like manner and perhaps with the same weapon. As Insp. Billy Styles, Madden’s erstwhile protégé, investigates these homicides and more in their wake, he’s disturbed by a note the banker left behind, unfinished, requesting contact information for Madden. The ex-cop insists he knew neither victim. Despite that, he joins Styles and a rare female detective on the London force, Lily Poole, to determine what ties the killer’s targets together, and whether they can prevent more fatalities to come.
I count this among my favorite Airth novels, made even more interesting by its rather creepy cover illustration, created by British artist Matthew Taylor (previously applauded for his efforts on a set of seven John Le Carré re-releases). Taylor also produced art for Penguin’s repackaged paperback editions of Madden’s previous three adventures. They were all inspired by the work of Jessie Gillespie, who illustrated the 1918 book Soldier Silhouettes on Our Front, by William Le Roy Stidger. You’ll find that book online here.


Do You Know the Way ...

In a world where it’s sometimes hard to find your way--not only geographically, but also philosophically and ethically--is it any wonder that maps have become such a popular cover-design feature? Dan Wagstaff of The Casual Optimist takes us on a tour through a gallery of the best examples of this breed.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Seeing the Sites

• East meets West in Pulp International’s gallery of Asia-themed paperbacks, featuring 23 examples of the breed. “Much of the fiction here is offensive on some level,” the blog remarks, “but then quite a bit of the old literature falls into that category. The art, on the other hand, is somewhat easier to look at dispassionately.” I’d seen most of these fronts before, with the notable exception of Kill Me in Atami (1962), one in a series of “travelogue and sexcapade book[s] disguised as … private eye novel[s],” penned by Earl Norman during the 1950s and ’60s. (The first book was Kill Me in Tokyo.) I can’t seem to locate any information online about the artist responsible for Kill Me in Atami’s cover, but I appreciate the work’s juxtaposition of beauty, delicacy … and “sudden death.”

• Are these five book covers really the worst ever? I agree that the Wuthering Heights front is pretty darn bad, but the lurid 1950s cover of George Orwell’s 1984 (evidently highlighting the tale’s “Anti-Sex League,” and intended to draw readers who might not otherwise have looked twice at this dystopian yarn) is neither the handsomest nor the ugliest face that novel has ever worn. In fact, I rather like it. The Guardian’s Sian Cain could almost certainly have dug up some more atrocious examples of book façades, including this one.

• Unlikely to appear on anybody’s list of ugly paperbacks are these four, with cover paintings by the great Harry Bennett.

• I am not a young-adult fiction reader, but if I were, I’d be happy to see these 20 book jackets awaiting me in bookstores. I am particularly fond of the skewed-perspective photographic front of Imaginary Girls, by Nova Ren Suma.

• And in Canada’s Globe and Mail, book-design blogger Dan Wagstaff (The Casual Optimist) writes about recent trends in cover art and picks a few of his favorite wrappers from the year so far. I’m pleased that he mentions Jamie Keenan’s design for The Metamorphosis--an edition I had to purchase for its creepy look.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Two-fer Tuesdays: Oceans of Trouble

A twice-monthly pairing of book covers that just seem to go together. Click on either of these images to open up an enlargement.



Ahoy there, readers! With my hometown of Seattle, Washington, having just concluded its annual summer celebration, the nautical/pirate/Navy-themed Seafair, I’ve decided to showcase a couple of novels this week with distinctly seafaring fronts. The first is the 1950 Pocket Books edition of Perilous Passage, by Arthur Mayse. (That work had been released in hardcover the previous year by William Morrow, and at least two parts of the tale had appeared in successive issues of The Saturday Evening Post in May 1949.)

A 1949 critique posted in Kirkus Reviews calls Perilous Passage a “thriller, adventure packed,” set in the Pacific Northwest:
Two young people become enmeshed in some mysterious and questionable activities. One is a youth wanted by the police for escape from a reform school; the other a girl trying to be man of the family in her dead father’s stead, and to buck the predatory activities of her dissolute stepmother. This phase of the story alone might raise question[s] of suitability in some minds--so a word of warning. On the adventure side, and the really unusual handling of a rocky road to romance, the story will appeal to the upper teens as well as to adults.
According to biographical sketches here and here, author Arthur William (“Bill”) Mayse was born in Manitoba, Canada, in 1912, but spent his teenage years in a couple of British Columbia towns: modest Nanaimo and much larger Vancouver. He attended the University of British Columbia, where he became “a prize-winning poet,” but left school “one course short of graduation” in order to work as an “ace reporter” for Vancouver’s best-selling newspaper, The Province. He later moved over to covering labor and politics stories for The Vancouver Sun, before taking the position of fiction editor at Maclean’s magazine in Toronto, Ontario. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Mayse peddled short stories to both Canadian and American periodicals, and published not only Perilous Passage, but also, in 1952, an adventure yarn titled The Desperate Search, which was soon after made into a motion picture starring Howard Keel and Jane Greer. In later years, Mayse and his family moved back to B.C., where he penned a column for the Victoria Daily Times and wrote scripts for The Beachcombers, a long-running CBC TV series. He died in 1992.

Oh, and the façade of Perilous Passage? That was done by the prolific James R. Bingham, about whom more can be learned here.

Now let’s sail quietly over to this week’s second cover, shown above: So Young a Body, by Frank Bunce (Pocket, 1951). Again, I turn to Kirkus for a brief plot description:
Mousy Mr. Humble, on a vagabond cruise, finds that being known as a private detective is more glamorous than admitting he is an accountant, [but] takes it hard when he is asked to take charge of a murder--later another--aboard the coastwise freighter. Able assistance is rendered by a cocky, memory-trained girl, a frustrated actress, and a long-lasting haunting is cleared up when Mr. Humble latches onto the killer.
Unfortunately, finding out anything about the author of this work has proved frustrating. Not to be confused with the New Zealand rugby player of that same name, Bunce apparently composed at least one other novel during his career, 1962’s Rehearsal for Murder, as well as the short story “Too Big to Lick,” which featured in the January 1, 1938, edition of Argosy Weekly. Beyond that, though, I don’t see any biographical information available online or in the many resource books lining my shelves. The artist behind So Young a Body’s cover illustration is equally elusive. All I can say for sure is that the piece is credited to Casimer (“Cass”) Norwaish, who also did the front for the 1948 Bantam edition of Anthony Gilbert’s Murder Cheats the Bride. If anyone out there knows more background on Bunce or Norwaish, please share it with the rest of us.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Two-fer Tuesdays: Casualty Assurance

A twice-monthly pairing of book covers that just seem to go together. Click on either of these images to open up an enlargement.



My weekday morning routine goes like this: I somehow force myself out of bed, traipse down to the kitchen to make coffee, and then head to my office to fire up the computer and check out that day’s early news headlines. Today those headlines took me to Paul Rosenberg’s fascinating article in Salon about a new academic study that suggests conservatives are prone to see a different, rather more hostile world around them than liberals do. The study, written by John R. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska, appears in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences. As Rosenberg explains,
It advances three successive waves of evidence, which combine to show that conservatives differ from liberals by having stronger, more intense reactions to negative aspects of the environment--such as physical threats, or potential sources of disease--which are ultimately physiological. At the same time, with multiple forms of mass hysteria going on at once, American conservatives seem dead set on proving the scientists right, and underscoring the importance of the work they’re doing.

But here’s the twist: The scientists themselves insist that “citing differences in the psychological and physiological traits of liberals and conservatives is not equivalent to declaring one ideology superior to the other.” While this may be true in an abstract sense, and a mix of psychological tendencies makes a society more robust in the long run--balancing needs for caution and self-preservation with needs for exploration, innovation and renewal--in 21st-century America, things look strikingly different.

Conservative fears of nonexistent or overblown boogeymen--Saddam’s WMD, Shariah law, voter fraud, Obama’s radical anti-colonial mind-set, Benghazi, etc.--make it hard not to see conservatism’s prudent risk avoidance as having morphed into a state of near permanent paranoia, especially fueled by recurrent “moral panics,” a sociological phenomenon in which a group of “social entrepreneurs” whips up hysterical fears over a group of relatively powerless “folk devils” who are supposedly threatening the whole social order. Given that conservatism seems to be part of human nature--just as liberalism is--we’re going to need all the help we can get in figuring out how to live with it, without being dominated, controlled and crippled by it.
Hibbing posits that these conservative anxieties could be provoked by a combination of genetic as well as environmental factors. Indeed, children reared to fear the world and to think of themselves as potential victims of both change and the unexpected might well grow up to impart those same qualms to their offspring.

How does all of this figure into a post about vintage book covers? Because crime fiction commonly involves victims or one sort of another. That’s occasionally spelled out clearly in book titles, such as the two spotlighted above.

On the left we find the front from the 1956 Dell Books edition of Be My Victim, by Robert Dietrich (a pseudonym often employed by E. Howard Hunt, a U.S. intelligence agent and author who was implicated in Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal). Blogger Utter Scoundrel, at Lies! Damned Lies!, writes of this novel:
Local building contractor Bruce Kendall starts to get pushed around by local Florida hoods. That’s the basic set-up. What surprised me was how quickly Dietrich got the ball rolling with the action when other writers would have probably spent some more time establishing things and building up the action. I’m not complaining. I’m not a fan of wool-gathering when it comes to these types of novels.

Kendall turns out to be quite a tough cookie. He discovers a saboteur trying to blow up his yacht one night; accidentally kills him in self defense; decides to blow up the ship anyway, making it look like he was killed to the authorities; swims to shore; rescues a friend who’s being tortured by a thug; then pushes said torturer out of a speeding car in retribution.

All in a night’s work.
The cover image on Be My Victim is credited to Arthur Sussman (1927-2008), a Brooklyn-born artist who spent at least a decade in New York City working as a designer and illustrator, before eventually relocating to New Mexico. An online biography explains that “Much of [Sussman’s] personal work was inspired by stories from the Old Testament. Beginning in 1960 and continuing almost until his death, Arthur created numerous works of art based on Biblical teaching and stories.” There’s nothing remotely holy about his painting for Be My Victim, though--quite the contrary.

Meanwhile, the paperback façade above and on the right comes from The Perfect Victim, a 1958 Dell release by James McKimmey (1923-2011). In a piece for Allan Guthrie’s Noir Originals site, Bill Crider said that novel “demonstrates [McKimmey’s] ability to handle a large cast of characters while moving the story right along. The novel is set in a small Midwestern town that traveling salesman Al Jackson thinks is likely to be ‘about as lively as a Baptist church on a Monday morning.’ What Al doesn’t know, of course, is that the town is going to be really jumping before long, and Al’s going to wind up accused of the murder of Grace Amons, a popular waitress in a local café. It’s not giving away any secrets to say that Al’s not guilty. This book isn’t a whodunit, as the reader knows the killer’s identity. The question is one of whether the killer will get away with what he’s done. And for a good while, it looks as if he will.”

Responsibility for The Perfect Victim’s artwork goes to Robert K. Abbett, about whom I have written several times on this page, including here. Its moody blue imagery is enchanting--and nothing to be afraid of, I think, no matter how inclined one is to fear potential risks at life’s every turning.

The Heat Is On: Wake Up Dead

This concludes our two-week-long celebration of summer-related book fronts. Click here for the full set.


Wake Up Dead, by William Wall (Papillon, 1974).
Illustrator unknown.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Heat Is On: Tropical Disturbance

Celebrating the delights of summer. Click here for the full set.


Tropical Disturbance, by Theodore Pratt (Gold Medal, 1961). Illustration by Robert McGinnis.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Heat Is On: Zero Cool

Celebrating the delights of summer. Click here for the full set.


Zero Cool, by Michael Crichton, writing as John Lange (Hard Case Crime, 2013). Illustration by Gregory Manchess.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Heat Is On: Borrowed Lover

Celebrating the delights of summer. Click here for the full set.


Borrowed Lover, by Dorene Clark (Bedside Books, 1959). Illustrator unknown. Original painting here.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Heat Is On: Virgin’s Summer

Celebrating the delights of summer. Click here for the full set.


Virgin’s Summer, by Alan Marshall, aka Donald E. Westlake (Midwood, 1960). Illustration by Paul Rader.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Heat Is On: The Beach Girls

Celebrating the delights of summer. Click here for the full set.


The Beach Girls, by John D. MacDonald (Fawcett Gold Medal, 1963). Illustration by Charles Binger.

I’m posting this today in recognition of what would be author MacDonald’s 98th birthday, were he still alive (he died in 1986). A subsequent edition of the same novel can be seen here.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Heat Is On: You’re Lonely When You’re Dead

Celebrating the delights of summer. Click here for the full set.


You’re Lonely When You’re Dead, by James Hadley Chase
(Popular Library, 1951). Illustration by Willard Downes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Heat Is On: Illicit Desires

Celebrating the delights of summer. Click here for the full set.


Illicit Desires, by H.M. Appel (Quarter Books, 1949).
Illustration by George Gross.