Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Best Face Forward

Perhaps you haven’t noticed them yet, but The Rap Sheet’s 20 nominees for “best crime novel cover of 2014” were posted earlier today. You can take a cruise through the gallery here.

I spent the last 12 months gathering possible contenders for this annual competition. To those, I recently added suggestions from Rap Sheet readers, and then cut the list in half (a painful process, believe me). The finalists this year include book fronts produced on both sides of the Atlantic, boasting a wide variety of designs--from covers that emphasize creative uses of type to others on which moody photographs or illustrations are central. Although I have my favorites among the bunch, I think any of them is qualified to win.

But you be the final judge. Click here and choose as many covers as you think are deserving of praise. Voting will remain open until midnight on Sunday, December 21, after which the results will be tallied and announced in The Rap Sheet.

What are you waiting for? Cast your ballot now!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Borrowed Beauty?

Twice over the last four months, the pop-culture blog Pulp International has exhibited paperback book fronts featuring the work of French illustrator James Hodges--first here, and now here. That second post collects 15 of Hodges’ Détective Pocket covers, most if not all of which were published during the 1960s. There’s no question that Hodges created eye-catching book façades, but three of those Pulp International showcases bear a rather startling resemblance to work that has appeared before on this page by other artists.

Above, for instance, you will see Hodges’ effort for Festival des Maccabees, which looks more than a little like the work Harry Bennett did for Alone at Night, a 1963 Gold Medal paperback by Vin Packer (aka Marijane Meaker). Below, Hodges’ cover from Razzia Sur le Drogue is compared with the 1960 Bantam edition of Ross Macdonald’s The Three Roads (which I once applauded here), while his art for Pieges a Loup is matched up with Mitchell Hooks’ front for The Long Saturday Night, by Charles Williams (Gold Medal, 1962). Far be it from me to suggest Hodges supplemented his imagination by cribbing from the work of American book-cover artists, but …

You can ogle more of Hodges’ artistry here.

Lehr’s Epic Eye

Yes, they’re decorating science-fiction yarns rather than crime novels, but Paul Lehr’s paintings are nicely highlighted in this post from Battered, Tattered, Yellowed & Creased. Another site, Melt, offers additional artwork by Lehr--“one of the greatest future-fantasist painters of the post-pulp era”--right here.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Two-fer Tuesdays: One-Two Punch

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

People who ask too many questions have a habit of paying for their inquisitiveness with bruises and broken bones. Or worse. That seems especially true in crime and mystery fiction, where protagonists often sustain injuries far more numerous and serious than those of us in the real world might be willing to endure. Just consider these two covers as cautions against being too nosy in the presence of suspects or lawbreakers. Likewise the paperbacks showcased above.

The first novel façade under consideration--from the 1953 Dell Books edition of The Big Fist, by Clyde B. Ragsdale--was painted by Carl Bobertz (1899-1974), whose résumé also included fronts for paperbacks by Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, Helen Nielsen, Frank Kane, A.A. Fair (aka Erle Stanley Gardner), and others. (You can enjoy more of Bobertz’s covers here.) It provides a rather, uh, punchy introduction to a tale that a review in Ohio’s Toledo Blade said “exemplifies a novel written in the undergrowth of the jungle of American life in a chaotic era.” That critique, by Robert A. Brainerd, appeared in print on July 16, 1950, and goes on to explain that The Big Fist focuses around Hosy Whittle, a guy who follows his father’s simple philosophy (“A good pair of dukes is a man’s best friend. You can’t go wrong with a good fist to back you up.”) as he
stomps boldly and mercilessly through a life of murder and cruelty, against law and against men who become obstacles along the way to Easy Street. Easy Street is the dominating and propelling force of Hosy Whittle’s existence. … From an Oklahoma city, to the oil lands of Texas, to the cotton fields of Southern California, Hosy Whittle bootlegs in the days of the Volstead Act and lives the way of “the big fist.” His aliases are changes of name only.

The steel and muscle of the boom in a Texas oil town, uncertain and shadily flamboyant, provides Hosy Whittle with a setting that heightens the drama of his character. Those elements in other men that are similar to his own, he can understand. Battles are won for him by preying on the weaknesses of his opponents and forcing their like strengths into physical combat. … Hosy Whittle’s saga of big fists and Easy Street unwinds in the manner of the ballad, a ballad of rambling proportion, of many climaxes, of erratic pitch.

“The Big Fist” is the kind of novel a reader would expect of Clyde Ragsdale, once he is familiar with his background of riding freights and sleeping in grain fields through the boom and bust of the ’20s and ’30s.
Pulp International has more to say about the author’s history:
Ragsdale was editor of the Texas City Sun newspaper. He took a disliking to the gambling dens that had sprung up around Galveston County, because, in his view, tolerance for gambling would soon lead to prostitution, drugs, and worse. So he published editorials, had reporters write stories on the evils of gambling, publicly questioned the sheriff’s abilities, and even once led Texas Rangers to a hidden cache of 320 slot machines. To our knowledge, he was never beaten up in front of his girl like the unlucky fella on the cover of 1950’s The Big Fist, but he was targeted by threats serious enough to finally convince him to stick to writing.
Now let’s switch our focus to the second of today’s highlighted book fronts, from the 1960 Pocket edition of The Big Blackout, by Don Tracy (originally released in hardcover a year before that). An online biography of Tracy (1905-1976) explains that the author’s first novel, Round Trip (1934) “was an unblinking and unflattering look at a tough reporter, a drunkard whose vices leave him in the gutter more often than not,” but it was Tracy’s second work of fiction, Criss-Cross, that earned him special recognition--and even comparisons to James M. Cain. (Criss-Cross later became the basis of Burt Lancaster’s 1949 film noir of the same name.) August West, writing in Vintage Hardboiled Reads, offers these remarks about the plot of The Big Blackout, which he calls a “well-written and sharp” novel:
The story is about Johnny Thompson, who struggles to earn a decent buck during the 1930s Depression era. Right now he’s an ex-boxer with a flat nose working as an armored car delivery guard. His biggest problem is coming up with enough cash to take out the girl he is obsessed with, Anna. Anna loves money and the cushion[ed] life it brings. Johnny can’t compete with Slim, an acquaintance of his who has plenty of dough usually obtained by shady dealings. Anna ends up marrying Slim for his money, which tears the guts out of Johnny. But the trio continues a “friendly” relationship, and Slim takes a liking to Johnny. Eventually Anna and Johnny play around behind Slim’s back. Johnny knows he is being used by Anna, but he doesn’t care just as long he can spend time with her. Slim offers Johnny a chance to make some big money, by being the inside man in robbing a payroll carried by his delivery truck. Johnny takes the offer and it changes his life, and the lives of Anna and Slim, forever.
Credit for the artwork on this edition of The Big Blackout goes to Robert K. Abbett, whose efforts have been noted several times before on this page. Tracy’s yarn was adapted (very loosely) in 1960 as an episode of Thriller, Boris Karloff’s anthology TV series.

Don Tracy went on to compose a variety of other novels, including a nine-book series starring Giff Speer, “a master sergeant and undercover agent in the U.S. Army Military Police.” Among the Speer installments is the engagingly titled Naked She Died, which was featured in Killer Covers’ fifth-anniversary celebration.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Short Subjects

• It’s always interesting to see what different artists will do, when assigned to come up with covers for the same book. Here you’ll find three treatments for the front of Macamba, Lilla Van Saher’s novel (first published in 1949) about “a group of characters in Curaçao, and how one in particular struggles to deal with his biracial background as he grows to manhood.” Dance must be a chief feature of the book, because the illustrators all used it as a theme for their work.

• I have no memory of Del Rey Books’ three-volume cycle of Star Wars universe novels, published during the early 1980s and starring the character Lando Calrissian (played on-screen by Billy Dee Williams). Fortunately, Christopher Mills resurrects those paperbacks in Space: 1970. The cover paintings are by Williams Schmidt.

What a splendid novel façade by Harry Schaare!

This is beautiful horror-fiction artwork by Rowena Morrill.

• And Flavorwire collects two dozen covers from Jack London novels, all featuring wolves (with good reason, of course).

Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Seems Seasonally Appropriate

Murder for the Holidays, by Howard Rigsby (Pocket, 1952; originally published by William Morrow in 1951).
Illustration by George Mayers.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Two-fer Tuesdays: Lush Life

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

I’ve long been a fan of paperback fronts created by Ron Lesser. The Web site for publisher Hard Case Crime offers the following brief biography of this artist: “In addition to painting covers for numerous paperback crime novels in the 1950s and ’60s, Ron Lesser is a successful and versatile historical artist and created Western movie art for High Plains Drifter, Paint Your Wagon, and The Way West, and the storyboards for the dream sequence in A Man Called Horse. The highly respected New York Art Directors Club, in existence since 1921, has twice honored Lesser for Best Movie Art of the Year and The Society of Illustrators, founded in 1901, has bestowed on him numerous Gold Medals for his paintings.” To date, his work for Hard Case has decorated Lester Dent’s Honey in His Mouth, Max Allan Collins’ Quarry in the Middle, and Jack Clark’s Nobody’s Angel. But over his career, he has created façades for paperback tales by Frank Kane, Erle Stanley Gardner, Jonathan Craig, Richard S. Prather, Harold Q. Masur, Thomas B. Dewey, John D. MacDonald, and others. You’ll find additional selections from his portfolio here.

And of course, the cover of The Love Lush (Pyramid, 1965)--shown above and on the left--was executed by Lesser, as well. It’s an eye-catching piece, featuring a shapely brunette whose deceptive languidness conceals a raw animal energy. (OK, I may be reading a bit much into that art, but I’ve been staring at it for quite a while now.) It’s easy to see why Lesser’s canvases are often mistaken for the work of Robert McGinnis: Both men paint their female subjects with a loving appreciation for intimate details.

The Love Lush first appeared in 1957 under the title Bachelors Anonymous. A 2011 review of the book in Pornokitsch calls it “a novel of two halves. Or, more accurately, it is two completely different novels wrapped in the same cover. The first half is the silly story of ‘Hearts Ahoy’--a group that’s less ‘therapy for sex addicts’ and more an underground guerrilla movement battling the feminist overlords. The second half, called ‘The Three Mr. Browns,’ is a thoroughly serious tale of international espionage. The two are connected by a minor character and the glue of the book’s spine.”

Although you would not recognize it immediately from the byline, author Vivian Connell was a male--“an Irish writer who wrote a number of novels and plays. The Chinese Room (1942) was his biggest popular success, selling over 3 million copies,” reports this page about the late 1960s film adaptation of that book. “It was reprinted a number of times in hardback and paperback. The New Republic (9 November 1942) review said, in part: ‘A curious novel about the private life of a British banker that functions on three levels: as a mystery, as a clinical study of the disintegration and reintegration of a marriage, and as a what-not shelf for the sexy and exotic.’” Kirkus Reviews called The Chinese Room “an uninhibited novel largely about sex, which wanders now and again into perversion, psychiatry, and Oriental eccentricities. The publishers claim affinity with D.H. Lawrence, which might be recognizable only in the very obviously exerted efforts of the characters to find physical passion.”

Connell had previously penned A Man of Parts (1950) and Monte Carlo Mission (1954), the latter of which won him plaudits here as a “master of the sophisticated suspense novel. … Meet Corinna Lang, a goddess of the movies, who was bored with mammoth swimming pools, small MG’s, fat directors, and slim leading men. Bored with the whole great golden illusion of Hollywood, this smart cookie decides a mere vacation in Monte Carlo would be just too tame. She’s looking for adventure, and has the right amount of moxie and courage to take advantage of it when she finds it! Take a journey with this enchanting heroine to the wicked, extravagant Riviera where the golden Corinna, undertaker of a top-secret mission, lives in the shadow of international intrigue, and matches her quick wit with the most dangerous men in Europe.” That sort of yarn sounds a lot more up my alley than The Love Lush, but I still adore Lesser’s cover for the former release.

So let’s move over this week’s second paperback cover, from The Lady Is a Lush, by novelist Orrie Hitt--“the shabby Shakespeare of Vintage Sleazecore.” That novel was published by Beacon in 1960, and this review calls it “a dark one, a very good one.” I’ll leave it to you to read the entire critique, but I do want to quote the last, summarizing paragraph: “Love does not exist in an Orrie Hitt universe. People pretend at love, through the haze of booze and fornication and poverty. ‘Poverty and sex went hand in hand on the South Side’ is one line, and that seems to sum it all up in this bleak but great little lost novel of a lost American literature.” If you’d like to read more, note that in 2012 The Lady Is a Lush was made available in e-book format by Prologue Books. Unfortunately, the “teen romance” cover of that edition pales by comparison to the original, the artwork for which was reportedly unsigned.

Asian Archetypes to Amorous Attractions

Yes, yes, I know: I frequently draw attention to book jackets I’ve spotted in Pulp International. But that’s only because the people who keep that blog up and running (whoever they are--they don’t seem to identify themselves on the site) have such terrific taste. Which means, of course, that their taste is similar to mine.

The latest three posts of note in Pulp International are this one, showcasing “Asian-styled mid-century paperback fronts”; this other one, which focuses on “yet another subset of post-pulp literature”--the hot-rod or racing novel; and a third, looking back at 1970s soft-cover works that boast photographs of British actress-model Gillian Duxbury.

You can thank me later.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Illustrating the “Ultimate Reckoning”

Above is the latest book jacket credited to British artist Matt Taylor, whose illustration for the 2011 Penguin paperback reprint of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy won that edition top honors in The Rap Sheet’s 2012 Best Crime Novel Cover contest. Haunting, moody, with lovely color contrasts and nice fade-away details at the bottom of the image, this front for the UK version of David Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers (Viking) is even more captivating in relation to Little, Brown’s considerably less inspired U.S. release of Bezmozgis’ novel.

Here’s what Amazon says about the book’s plot:
These incandescent pages give us one fraught, momentous day in the life of Baruch Kotler, a Soviet Jewish dissident who now finds himself a disgraced Israeli politician. When he refuses to back down from a contrary but principled stand regarding the settlements in the West Bank, his political opponents expose his affair with a mistress decades his junior, and the besieged couple escapes to Yalta, the faded Crimean resort of Kotler's youth. There, shockingly, Kotler comes face-to-face with the former friend whose denunciation sent him to the Gulag almost forty years earlier.

In a whirling twenty-four hours, Kotler must face the ultimate reckoning, both with those who have betrayed him and with those whom he has betrayed, including a teenage daughter, a son facing his own moral dilemma in the Israeli army, and the wife who once campaigned to secure his freedom and stood by him through so much.

Stubborn, wry, and self-knowing, Baruch Kotler is one of the great creations of contemporary fiction. An aging man grasping for a final passion, he is drawn inexorably into a crucible that is both personal and biblical in scope.
I haven’t read Bezmozgis’ The Betrayers (which should not be confused with Donald Hamilton’s 1966 thriller of the same name), but Amazon’s write-up doesn’t make it sound like a crime or mystery novel. Which is too bad, because Taylor’s cover (with type design and art direction by Richard Bravery) might otherwise earn this work a place among the rivals for the 2014 Best Crime Novel Cover competition. Perhaps further investigation is needed.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Two-fer Tuesdays: Counterculture Combo

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

I seem to have read a great deal about the 1960s lately, between novels such as John Lawton’s Sweet Sunday and Walter Mosley’s Rose Gold, and Frank Rich’s essay in New York magazine about the troubled year, 1964. So it’s no surprise that my eyes were caught recently by a couple of cover images in my collection that remind me of that era of pot smoking and love-ins and anti-war protests.

First up is The Hippy Cult Murders (MacFadden-Bartell, 1970), by Ray Stanley. Evidently inspired by the twisted tale of Charles Manson, this is more a horror novel than anything else. A blog called The Mighty Blowhole (no, I didn’t make that up) describes its plot this way:
Pure Manson-sploitation in which a charismatic hippie named Waco gets a vision that fear is the greatest power, and the god of fear is Zember. Along with his friend Whitey he plans to gather a family of hippies and impregnate a “pure” girl with the son of Zember. They head off to L.A. where Waco brains a couple of girls with a meat-tenderizing hammer that Zember compelled him to buy, then he carves Z’s on their bodies … Waco slowly starts gathering a group together, targeting homeless teens (mostly girls, who all become group sex objects) and it gets too large to keep living in his bus and tent, so he decides he needs to rent some land. He finances this by murdering some wealthy couples during a wife-swapping orgy, raping and terrorizing them before stabbing them all to death. It all gets to be too much for Whitey, who also resents playing second fiddle to Waco all the time and thinks the “Zember” business is bullshit, so he starts causing trouble. Whitey’s disposition only gets worse when Waco cuts one of his fingers off and gangrene sets in. As cops follow the really sloppy trail Waco’s leaving (he’s too crazy to have much sense about covering his tracks and even does his crimes in a VW bus with flowers painted all over it), Waco’s planning an orgy where he’ll marry a young girl who’s “pure” enough … but Whitey’s fed up and planning to spoil things. There’s plenty of sex, violence, drugs, and weirdness, and it’s lurid enough not to be disappointing even though it’s still pretty restrained and not nearly as graphic as it could have been. The writing is solid, matter-of-fact stuff without a lot of flash to the style but plenty of detail, and it keeps the story compelling. It’s a very hard-to-find book I wouldn’t say it’s worth the crazy prices people are asking for it now (nothing is), but if you find an affordable copy then it’s well-worth the read.
Hmm. I don’t know. I’m still not sold on Stanley’s mass-market paperback, especially after reading this other review that says “The Hippy Cult Murders is not a particularly remarkable or memorable piece of work. It has enough cheap visceral thrills peppered throughout to at least keep you turning the pages, but you also get the feeling that the author (about whom nothing is known) is afraid to get his hands really dirty and take full advantage of all the potential he had at his fingertips.” The same critique notes, though, that the cover art--executed by somebody identified as “O’Brien”--“is a great piece of psychedelic sexual violence.” No question there.

Is it pure coincidence that “O’Brien” is also the last name of the author responsible for our next book? Tom O’Brien, that is. And the novel is Hippie Harlot (Cougar, 1967). I haven’t found much information about this “adults only” yarn, but this page says the story involves a guy named Jim, who has “just been released from the army and returns to his hometown of Patterson, New Jersey, to loaf around while he sets out on his (rather poorly realized) dream of being a writer.
Jim gets to make [passionate love with] a lot of broads before a couple of his friends die, in what passes for a plot in this pretty aimless tale. … There’s no real hippie theme in this book, other than the general desire of the central characters to write bad poetry rather than have to go to work. In fact it’s more of a beat-exploitation novel with its numerous references to hard drinking and hints of socialism. The novel ends with Jim declaring true love for his English-schoolteacher squeeze. Could we get a squarer ending? Bah, give me druggie housewives over this rubbish.
The story may be rubbish, but the cover--featuring a shapely guitar-strumming flower child--is a classic, having been reproduced on posters and refrigerator magnets. This book’s clever and altogether cute backside is no less remarkable. Unfortunately, I don’t see the artist’s name available online. For all I know, it’s “O’Brien,” too.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Month of McGinnis: Happy Halloween!

So we have finally come to the end of Killer Covers’ month-long tribute to American artist-illustrator Robert McGinnis.

When I was planning this project, I imagined posting occasional McGinnis paperback fronts in this blog, beginning on October 1 and continuing just past what was supposed to have been the October 28 release of the handsome new work, The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, by Robert E. McGinnis and Art Scott (Titan). However, it quickly became obvious that there were far too many exceptional choices, and that only daily installments in the series would suffice. Had I known a month ago that publisher Titan would, at the last minute, delay the debut of McGinnis and Scott’s book until November, if not December (due to printing and shipping problems), I would have waited to roll out this series. But I didn’t know, and it’s OK. I believe we have all enjoyed the last 31 days worth of McGinnis illustrations--63 paperback façades in total. And this week’s two-part posting of my interview with co-author Scott--Part I here, Part II here--was a challenge, but most satisfying. Even if I never get the opportunity to meet or talk with the now 88-year-old McGinnis, I have at least recognized the value of his life’s artistic endeavors through this effort.

To close out the series, I’ve been holding onto two Halloween-appropriate covers, both taken from Erle Stanley Gardner and starring his best-known protagonist, defense attorney Perry Mason. Enjoy!

Above: The Case of the Glamorous Ghost, by Erle Stanley Gardner (Pocket, 1962). Below: The Case of the Haunted Husband, by Erle Stanley Gardner (Pocket, 1962).

Incidentally, if you have favorite Robert McGinnis paperback fronts that I haven’t already written about over the last 31 days, please mention them in the Comments section at the end of this post. And if you can provide links to where scans of those covers might found on the Web, that would be great. Thanks so much.

READ MORE:Scaring Up a Finale,” by J. Kingston Pierce
(The Rap Sheet).

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Month of McGinnis: “24 Hours to Kill”

Part of a month-long celebration of Robert McGinnis’ book covers.

24 Hours to Kill, by James McKimmey (Dell, 1961).

McKimmey (1923-2011) was fortunate in having at least two of his paperbacks illustrated by Robert McGinnis. The other one I’m thinking of is The Wrong Ones, which I showcased earlier in this series. Art Scott, the co-author--with McGinnis--of the forthcoming book The Art of Robert E. McGinnis (Titan), remarked to me recently that “24 Hours to Kill gives off a manifest post-coital vibe! I'm surprised Dell let it go. Among the hundreds of sexy women on McGinnis covers this one ratchets up the sex a notch, or two.”

Month of McGinnis: “Leave Cancelled”

Part of a month-long celebration of Robert McGinnis’ book covers.

Leave Cancelled, by Nicholas Monsarrat (Dell, 1962).

Month of McGinnis: “Trouble—Texas Style”

Part of a month-long celebration of Robert McGinnis’ book covers.

Trouble—Texas Style, by John Bramlett, aka John Pierce
(Gold Medal, 1964).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Month of McGinnis: “Dead Wrong”

Part of a month-long celebration of Robert McGinnis’ book covers.

Dead Wrong, by George Bagby, aka Aaron Marc Stein (Dell, 1960).