Sunday, May 24, 2009

Strange Bargain, by Harry Whittington


I’ve been sitting on this fantastic 1959 cover from Harry Whittington’s Strange Bargain for several months now, trying to figure out who was responsible for the jacket illustration. But I’ve had no luck thus far. If it was necessary to hazard a guess, I’d say it was the dramatically executed work of prolific paperback artist Robert Maguire (some of whose work can be seen here). But it might instead have been executed by artist Barye Phillips, who was much in demand by soft-cover publishers back in the 1950s and ’60s, and who created fronts for several other Whittington works (including Saturday Night Town and Desire in the Dust). Then again, the Strange Bargain jacket could have been created by James Meese, whose front for M.E. Chaber’s A Hearse of Another Color was featured on this page just a few weeks ago. The problem, of course, is that there’s no credit given in the book for this cover art. Paperback publishers of that era didn’t necessarily foresee a day when their products would be collector’s items, so they weren’t conscientious about making sure that credit was given where it was due.

That’s certainly too bad in this instance.

For readers unfamiliar with Harry Whittington’s work, you should know, first, that this is not the same Whittington who Dick Cheney filled full of birdshot during a hunting incident three years ago. No, author Harry Benjamin Whittington was born in the north Florida town of Ocala in 1915, served with the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, married in 1936, and put in stints as a copywriter and editor before “retiring to write full-time in 1975.” According to a biographical note at the Web site of publisher Stark House Press, which has brought several of Whittington’s novels back into print over the last several years, as a boy the author “survived his family’s rural poverty by reading books and sneaking into the local movie theater. Another escape was his writing. Ultimately, the versatile Whittington would become known as ‘King of the Paperbacks,’ publishing over 170 original paperback novels, using nearly 20 different names.” Under those noms de plume, he published hard-boiled crime novels, more formulaic mysteries, westerns, and soft-core porn novels. “Before his death in 1989,” Stark House adds, “Whittington also carved out a second career writing Southern historical novels as Ashley Carter. Today he is best known for the lurid and brisk noir novels he wrote between 1950 and 1960.”

Novelist Ed Gorman wrote in Mystery*File a few years ago that
Back in the 1950s you could run but you couldn’t hide from Harry Whittington. Those were the days when many if not most paperbacks were sold in wire racks found in drug stores, grocery stores and what were then called dime stores.

Harry told me that he’d once seen five books of his displayed on the same rack, all published that month. He worked for everybody, from Gold Medal all the way down to Carnival. He did westerns, nurse romances, tie-ins, war stories and of course crime novels. The last was his true calling. There ... was no sub-genre of suspense/mystery he didn’t like. Or apply
himself to.
Today, Whittington’s work is largely forgotten, and mostly long out of print. But Texas author Bill Crider, who includes Whittington among his favorite paperback novelists (and has assembled a remarkable collection of that author’s book covers at Flickr), cites 1960’s A Night for Screaming as a work well worth discovering. “One thing Whittington can do about as well as anybody ever could,” Crider opined in a blog post about Screaming, “is begin the book with a tense situation and then dial up the tension on every succeeding page. He can put his protagonist into a situation that seems as bad as it can get, and then he can make it worse. And after that, he can make it worse still. In this book he takes a seemingly simple situation and complicates it more with every chapter, throwing in a few reversals and surprises along the way. If you ever run across a copy of A Night for Screaming, don’t pass it up. You’ll be sorry if you do.” (Fortunately, Stark House Press reissued A Night for Screaming--along with another of Whittington’s 1960 works, Any Woman He Wanted--in a combined trade paperback edition three years ago.)

When asked about Strange Bargain, Crider admits he “read the book so long ago that I can’t remember much about it.” However, the Avon Books cover--with its image of a man and a trenchcoated blonde caught in seemingly intimate contact, and not pleased at all by the interruption (that’s my surmise, anyway, judging by the fact that the man is reaching for a gun on the floor)--supplies the tale’s gist: “The suspenseful story of a woman’s terrible choice between the two men who claimed her!” And the back jacket copy offers more:
TWO MEN AND ONE WOMAN--in a stark tale of love and hate:

THE HUSBAND, who faced death, yet thought only of a plan to destroy his rival.

THE WIFE, who could save her husband only by bargaining with a man who had but one desire--a woman.

THE LOVER, who knew love only as a wild, fierce hunger too long denied him.

On a barren, windswept mountain, these three are caught in a timeless drama that must end in shattering violence.
That’s the sort of teaser that would get you to read Strange Bargain, no matter who illustrated its jacket.

THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY: Apparently, British publisher Panther thought enough of the Strange Bargain cover, that in 1962 it “borrowed” its artwork for the front of Peter Rabe’s Anatomy of a Killer, an entry in its Crime Circle paperback line. You will find the front and back of Rabe’s novel here.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not Maguire, not Phillips. Pretty sure it's Ernest Chiriacka, who signed his ob work "Darcy"
Art Scott

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Hey, Art:

The artist here could well be Ernest Chiriacka. The bold lines of this illustration are similar to his work. But I don't find his name (or his pseudonym, "Darcy") associated with Strange Bargain anywhere on the Web. Chiriacka created the front for at least one other Whittington novel, Slay Ride for a Lady (http://www.flickr.com/photos/
macavityabc/209170548/in/set-72157594227779552/). He may have been persuaded to do this one, too. Unfortunately, as I said in the piece, he isn't credited in the book, and I don't see his signature on the artwork itself.

Cheers,
Jeff