Monday, April 6, 2009

Cain’s Woman, by O.G. Benson

I think the first time I came across mention of Cain’s Woman, the 1960 private-eye novel by O.G. Benson, was in a retrospective review in Vintage Hardboiled Reads. Blogger August West called it “one of the most creative P.I. novels ever written” and “an excellent P.I. novel in every way, with many surprises and a terrific ending.” But what caught my eye right off the bat, of course, was the cover illustration on that Dell paperback. It’s a captivating blend of sensuality and suspense, with its image of a seated young woman’s naked and shapely back and the teaser, “Her body was a portrait of beauty--but she used it as a weapon of death.”

Had I been old enough in 1960 to be handling money, much less mature enough to appreciate the promise of that artwork and blurb, I’d surely have plunked down my 25 cents for a copy of Cain’s Woman. No question about it.

It turns out that the cover was produced by an artist who, so far as I can tell, is still around, though he’s now in his mid-90s: Ernest Chiriacka, a gent who often worked under the pseudonym “Darcy” (as he’s credited on Cain’s Woman). According to a 2003 profile from Illustration magazine, “Ernest Chiriacka was born Anastassios Kyriakakos in New York City on May 11, 1913, and lived at 42 Madison Street on the Lower East Side.” The author of that piece, David Saunders, explains elsewhere that the future paperback illustrator changed his name to Ernest, because “many people presumed he was a girl” (Anastassios sounding too much like Anastasia, I suppose), and altered his surname because “Kyriakakos, was too hard for New Yorkers to pronounce.” A feature in The New York Times, published in 2003 in association with a pulp-art exhibition then being mounted at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, tells more about him:
Growing up on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century, Ernest Chiriacka was simply possessed by the need to draw, using whatever was available--a leftover lump of charcoal, a spent match or a piece of chalk at school.

As a teenager he became known as the Rembrandt of Third Avenue. As a young man, he had a thriving career doing illustrations for Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post. And later he made a handsome living from his studio here, painting landscapes and classic scenes of the American West.

But it is for his work illustrating the lurid tales of murder and intrigue that captivated Depression readers that he is about to be honored.
Over the years, Chiriacka was much in demand by paperback publishers, his work appearing on numerous cheap novels from such companies as Dell and Gold Medal. Two of his other crime-novel jackets--from the 1959 Pyramid release Cut Me In, by Jack Karney, and the 1958 Dell book Talk of the Town, by Charlie Williams--are featured on the left. As The New York Times explained, Chiriacka often used models when painting for the pulps--women who, to avoid scandal, might be accompanied by chaperones. The fact that he had lovely ladies posing in his studio, to help guide his mind and his paintbrush, helps explain why a femme fatale such as the one arranging her abundant dark tresses on Benson’s 1960 novel appears so curvaceously but credibly formed. It’s only too bad, that as Chiriacka told the Times, he pretty much gave up painting in his late 80s, after his wife passed away.

What of the story in Cain’s Woman, though? Well, I can’t say that I was as impressed as August West was, but at 160 pages long, with several pepperings of sex and violence, it’s a sufficiently engrossing read. The plot finds Chicago private dick Max Raven being employed by a woman named Naomi Cain, who claims that she’s being blackmailed by somebody in possession of sexually explicit photographs taken by a former lover. It’s all Raven can do to listen to these facts, though, so mesmerized is he by Naomi’s pulchritude. Here, the P.I. recalls first glimpse of her:
She was sitting in the office just out of my line of vision, cut off by the door frame. All I could see of her were her legs. Two of the longest, loveliest and most exciting legs since Marlene Dietrich drove the schoolmaster nuts in “Blue Angel.” The ones in my office were crossed, the hem of her skirt draping the tops of two softly rounded nylon knees. One of them moving idly back and forth like a metronome slowly marking time. ...

I went on in and everything that was there waiting to see me lived up to those legs. She hit you like a scented silken whip and it all breathed money. From the straw picture hat in her lap with the tiny white flowers around its wide brim to the gleaming Italian leather of her pointed toes, she exuded its distinctive aura. She was wearing a crisp, linen summer print with a snug, beautifully fitted bodice and wrist-length, spotless white gloves and a fine strand of pearls that had never heard of the word imitation or knew it existed. If she was annoyed at having had to wait, it didn’t show.

I would have guessed her as twenty-four or -five. She wore her hair long. It was dark, almost black, and hung halfway down her back in thick lustrous waves. Her eyes were as cool as the delicate astringency of her perfume and dark as her hair, set wide apart and slightly tilted in the flawless ivory of her face and fringed with soot dark lashes. They cruised over me slowly, but if there was any reaction to what they saw I wasn’t ever going to know.
One suspects that author Benson had a particular female in mind, himself, when he penned those appreciative sentences.

Anyway, Raven’s not-so-concealed drooling over Naomi Cain is stopped at least temporarily by the news that she’s Mrs. Cain, married to Jeremiah Cain, a big wheel in the pharmaceuticals industry who’s more than four decades her senior. She doesn’t want busy hubby to know about her current troubles; she just wants Raven to put an end to them. Quietly, and at whatever price is necessary. That leads our hero to dig into his client’s past, where he finds some rather unsavory details, precipitates his own beating, and forces open the still-bloody wound of his recent Reno divorce from the better-educated Joanie, a woman he’d known for only a couple of weeks before shipping out to fight in World War II. Joanie eventually left Raven for a widower who lived across the hall from their apartment, and after pursuing and trying to murder that new guy in her life (wow, that was some kind of rage!), the gumshoe retreated into a drunken stupor that did plenty of nothing to alleviate the sorrow he felt for himself. The whole experience left him vulnerable to being manipulated, and the seductive Naomi Cain seems to recognize that. She draws Raven into her supple embrace, and watches to see how that influences his commitment to her case. As the back jacket copy of this novel says, “Her trouble was blackmail. Raven’s trouble was her.”

I’m not going to give away the ending, but the plot doesn’t conclude as predictably as one might expect. As Anthony Boucher wrote in The New York Times back when this novel debuted, “Emphasis is less on the sexy and violent elements of the story than on the interesting people along the way and particularly on Raven’s efforts to understand, as he unravels [Naomi Cain’s] past, the complex woman who has come to dominate his life.” It’s the sort of endeavor that many crime novelists have taken on, but that few have accomplished quite so successfully as Benson does here.

Cain’s Woman evidently marked Max Raven’s solitary appearance in crime fiction, which is too bad. But even worse, this novel seems to have been the only one author O.G. (short for “Orwin Gaylord”) Benson ever saw published. Steve Lewis, who writes the Mystery*File blog, tells me that the first edition of Paperback Forum magazine from 1983-1984 included an article that mentioned Benson, his introduction to the editors at Dell by none other than John D. MacDonald, and how Benson had planned a Raven sequel, but was disappointed by editorial changes in Cain’s Woman and therefore abandoned work on the second book.

A painter during most of his life, O.G. “Ben” Benson* apparently died of cancer in November 2002. He was 74 years old. It would’ve been interesting to see what else he could have pulled out of his crime-writing hat, had he been more encouraged to create crime fiction. But that support appears to have been lacking. Fortunately, he was able to leave behind Cain’s Woman (republished in 1985 by Perennial Library under the more politically correct title, Cain’s Wife), a novel that, as one reader noted, was “little noticed upon its original release,” but is today “a minor classic and cult favorite.”

With one hell of a memorable 1960 cover, I must add.

* This is not the same Ben Benson, by the way, who penned Target in Taffeta (1953) and other books in the Wade Paris and Ralph Lindsay crime series.

READ MORE:Good-bye, Darcy,” by J. Kingston Pierce (Killer Covers).

1 comment:

Cullen Gallagher said...

All three of those Chiriacka covers are marvelous - I'm hoping to track them down.

Thanks for shedding light on yet another part of pulp history! I look forward to these posts every week.