Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Gem of a Murder, by Carlton Keith


Harry Schaare isn’t as well-recognized an American paperback artist as, say, Robert McGinnis or Robert Maguire, Mitchell Hooks or Rudolph Belarski. But as evidenced by his outstanding cover illustration for the 1959 Dell edition of A Gem of a Murder, penned by Carlton Keith (aka Keith Robertson), Schaare was no less adept than those other painters at delivering punch, foreboding, violence, and dark seduction within the compact frame of a book front.

Born in Jamaica, New York, in May 1922, Schaare is said to have studied architecture at New York University, but graduated from the Pratt Institute, a prominent art school, in 1947. One Web site says that during World War II, “he served as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps and has since worked as an artist for the U.S. Air Force.” During the post-war years, as cheap paperback crime-fiction releases flooded onto the market, Schaare took assignments to illustrate the jackets of both hard- and softcover books from publishers such as Avon, Dell, Monarch, Popular Library, Bantam, and Signet. He also did a lot of work for magazines, not only for The Saturday Evening Post, Boy’s Life, Sports Illustrated, and Reader’s Digest, but also for periodicals--Male, as one example, and Action Life--that were geared primarily toward men with a taste for adventure, or at least a taste for reading about other men who led adventurous lives.

“Schaare was comfortable with just about any subject matter, from noir stories to westerns, romance to suspense,” explains the Web site of Scottsdale, Arizona’s Jay and Carole Rosenblatt Artistic Gallery, which represents some of his fine-art pieces. (To view more examples of his non-book work, click here.) In the crime-fiction field, Schaare’s paintings graced paperback novels by such familiar authors as Robert Kyle (Nice Guys Finish Last), Bruno Fischer (Stairway to Death), George Harmon Coxe (Man on a Rope), and John Trinian (né Zekial Marko, The Big Grab). Two of my favorite Schaare jackets--for Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Judge and His Hangman and Thomas Wills’ You’ll Get Yours--are shown on the right. Other of this artist’s covers can be seen here, here, and here.

The jacket illustration Schaare created for A Gem of a Murder--a novel originally published in 1958 as The Diamond-Studded Typewriter--boasts the two most vital components for a mid-20th-century paperback front: a shapely femme fatale, and the suggestion of violence. The woman on the cover, complete with soft cocked hip, burning cigarette, and conspicuous air of indifference, contrasts dramatically against the less well-defined background image of a fin-tailed coupe and two men, one of whom has clearly been hurt. Or perhaps killed. While we don’t know the cause of his injuries, at first glance, we can guess that it has something to do with Schaare’s red-wrapped vamp.

That’s so often the way these things happen.

I don’t own a copy of Carlton Keith’s A Gem of a Murder, and have had difficulty finding out much about this story’s plot. However, the teaser line on the front of Dell’s 1959 paperback edition--“The dead man had a seamy secret life, and a fortune in stolen jewels”--provides some clues. As might a too-abbreviated synopsis of an episode from the 1958-1959 NBC-TV series The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen. It seems that for the December 5, 1958, installment of that Friday night show, Manfred B. Lee and Frederick Dannay--creators of brainier-than-thou amateur sleuth Ellery Queen--adapted Carlton Keith’s tale for the small screen. Unfortunately, the synopsis of their own “The Diamond-Studded Typewriter” reads only: “Alice Anthony asks handwriting expert Jeff Green to help her prove that the late James Gavin is her father, who deserted her and her mother years ago.”

It’s much easier finding out about author Carlton Keith/Keith Robertson himself. According to the Web site of the University of Iowa Libraries, which has archived at least some of his correspondence and typescripts,
Keith Carlton Robertson was born in Dows, Iowa, in 1914. He graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1937 and served in World War II in both [the] Atlantic and Pacific theatres as the captain of a destroyer. He stayed in the Naval Reserve until his retirement at age 62. He married Elizabeth Woodburn, a rare books dealer, and they had one son and three daughters.
Following World War II, Robertson turned his hand to writing fiction for children. He saw his first novel, Ticktock and Jim, published in 1948, and thereafter composed a series of four books about a pair of trouble-attracting New Jersey boys, Neil and Swede, beginning with The Mystery of Burnt Hill (1952). Yet Robertson is better remembered for penning five novels about Henry Reed, the young son of a U.S. diplomat, who spent his summers with his grandparents in New Jersey trying to think up money-making schemes for himself and his slightly more junior, tomboyish friend, Midge Glass. “In all of the books,” explains Wikipedia, “events spiral out of control, leading to chaotic and humorous misadventures. Henry and Midge are usually the unintentional cause of these adventures, although they’re not deliberately mischievous.” The first Henry Reed novel, Henry Reed, Inc. (1958), won the William Allen White Children’s Award in 1961 (bestowed by a vote of Kansas schoolchildren), and Henry Reed’s Babysitting Service (1966) picked up that same commendation in 1969. The last entry in the series, Henry Reed’s Think Tank, saw print in 1986.

In addition to those children’s adventures, Robertson wrote half a dozen adult murder mysteries as “Carlton Keith.” The Diamond-Studded Typewriter was his first. Another, 1966’s The Crayfish Dinner (aka The Elusive Epicure), was featured in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor’s A Catalogue of Crime (1971) as one of 90 mystery and suspense novels, published between 1900 and 1975, that the authors deemed “classics of crime.” Periodically, you’ll happen across one of the Keith standalones--the last of which was A Taste of Sangria (1968)--at a used bookstore or flea market; and they’re frequently available through online book retailers. But they’ve been largely forgotten by readers.

Author Robertson himself disappeared in 1991, succumbing to cancer in Hopewell, New Jersey, less than a year after the demise of his wife. But as far as I can tell from doing research on the Web, the artist whose work helped sell A Gem of Murder off bookstore shelves--artist Harry Schaare--is still alive at age 87.

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