Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summertime, and the Dying Is Easy

I spent most of the last week in Minneapolis, Minnesota, visiting with my best friend from college, Byron Rice, and his family. In addition to transiting through the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (the site of Republican U.S. Senator Larry Craig’s “wide stance” humiliation), touring an exhibit of Titanic artifacts at the Science Museum of Minnesota, and gleefully licking my way around a few scoops of Sebastian Joe’s ice cream, I paid a couple of calls at Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore on Chicago Avenue South.

These were hardly my first opportunities to darken the doorway of Uncle Edgar’s, and they won’t be my last. But I went to the store most recently with a different game plan. Rather than browsing for new crime fiction, I sought out older works, including some by authors I’d not had the chance to read before. Uncle Edgar’s boasts a mammoth selection of classic and forgotten novels, some of them in excellent shape. Among the treats I ultimately had to find room for in my luggage were Richard Dougherty’s 1962 novel, The Commissioner (which was turned into the Richard Widmark film Madigan), a Mark Kilby private-eye novel penned by Robert Caine Frazer (aka John Creasey), one of David Alexander’s Bart Hardin showbiz mysteries, and works by Robert Kyle, Harold Q. Masur, and Frank Kane.

Kane was a new discovery for me this year, so I’ve had lots of catching up to do. Although his series about New York City gumshoe Johnny Liddell sometimes tests the limits of reason (I mean, really, how many winsome lovelies can a P.I. bed betwixt paperback covers?), and Kane isn’t above repeating what he must have thought were pithy lines, he rarely fails to deliver high-tension circumstances, tight plots, and ... well, curvaceous clients. He introduces one of those right off the bat in “Dead Set,” the opening yarn in his 1961 short-story collection, Stacked Deck:
Lydia Johnson was this year’s Marilyn Monroe--a few years ago completely unknown, this year, by the alchemy of constant publicity, a sensation. The movie magazine that had failed to adorn its cover with her likeness was as rare as a war-novel without four-letter words. The tilt of her breast was more familiar to the average American male than the name of the Secretary of State.

And she was in trouble.
Of course she was. Women in trouble are Liddell’s bread and butter, and his relief from otherwise lonely nights. Stacked Deck (the title obviously suggesting the mammarial endowments of its leading ladies) contains eight brief mysteries for Johnny to solve, all of them featuring redheaded ladies in varying states of distress and undress. Pornographers, bookies, shakedown artists, drug addicts, and washed-up boxers threaten our hero’s limbs and livelihood, only to eventually be brought down by the sardonic, smooth-talking, and hard-fisted shamus and turned over to his favorite police colleague, white-maned Inspector Herlehy. Formulaic? Hell, yes. But Kane (1912-1968) had a sense of drama and an eye for the absurd that makes his Liddell books worth reading, even four decades after the author went to his grave.

However, it wasn’t simply the stories in this slender volume that caught my attention: it was also the cover, its sunglasses and swimsuit and torrid hues as evocative of summer’s pleasures and intrigues as the front of any book on my shelves. Kane was lucky to have some of the best paperback illustrators of the mid-20th-century working on his jackets, people such as Robert McGinnis, Harry Bennett, Victor Kalin, Ron Lesser, and Victor Livoti. The art introducing the 1968 Dell edition of Stacked Deck, shown atop this post, is credited to Roger Kastel--the same Roger Kastel who later created the ill-omened 1975 paperback cover of Peter Benchley’s Jaws and the Gone with the Wind-style poster for the 1980 Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Kastel also gave us the front of Kane’s 30th and final Liddell novel, Margin for Terror (1967).

Thinking about this cover from Stacked Deck led to me track down other vintage paperback novels, the fronts of which celebrate the promise and perils of summer--a season that finally commences in the Northern Hemisphere this coming Sunday, June 21 (although the weather has been so fine here in Seattle of late, that shorts and T-shirts are already commonplace attire). The majority of the book jackets below can be categorized as crime or at least adventure fiction. Interspersed among them, though, are a few specimens that would probably have been hidden away in the “for men only” section of old bookshops. The talents of McGinnis are well represented among the covers embedded below, as are those of Barye Phillips, Robert Bonfils, Paul Rader, Mitchell Hooks, Charles Copeland, J. Oval, George Ziel, Harry Barton, Charles Binger, and others.

And then there’s Casey Jones’ comical, 1965 Gold Medal cover of The Diamond Bikini, one of Charles Williams’ “backwoods noir” novels (and a work that anticipated the roll-out of a real, $30 million diamond bikini, modeled several years ago in Sports Illustrated by Molly Sims.) It’s hard to know, in Jones’ painting, exactly where that gem might have been stored.

Click on any of these covers to open an enlargement.

Obviously, these book covers represent a mere fraction of the fair-weather fiction published in paperback over the last few decades. But there are plenty of good options here for seasonally appropriate reads. Just try to keep the coconut oil off the pages, OK?

READ MORE: Killer Covers’ “The Heat Is On” Series.


Frank Loose said...

Great article. I have a couple Liddel's but have not read them yet. The covers you posted are terrific. You've given me the fever!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little more familiar with the earlier 1961 cover by Robert McGinnis. Check it out here:


Toby Roan said...

Roger Kastel did indeed do the JAWS cover, which became the movie poster.

Pericles said...

That GOLD IN HER EYES cover is almost hypnotic...

Gram said...

I still have A Tan and Sandy Silence...and all of the series in paperback except the last one in hardcover which I not read yet.