Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday Finds: “Frenzy”

Another in our growing line of vintage book covers we love.

Frenzy (original title: Junkie!), by Jonathan Craig (Lancer, 1962).
Illustration by Harry Schaare.

The author “Jonathan Craig” was actually Frank E. Smith (1919-1984). Born in Santa Barbara, California, he moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri, in the midst of the Great Depression. According to this translated page in the French version of Wikipedia (why there’s no similar biographical information in the English version is beyond me), Smith worked as a clerk for the Kansas City Star newspaper and then relocated to Washington, D.C., to take jobs with the U.S. government. During World War II he joined the navy and, despite still being in his mid-20s, was apparently appointed as head research analyst for the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It’s said Smith later served as President Harry Truman’s advisor at the 1945 Potsdam Conference, during which representatives of the Allied powers met to determine what would become of defeated Nazi Germany and how peace would be restored in  Europe.

I’m not clear on exactly when Smith began penning fiction (though it was at least by the late ’40s), or why he adopted the Craig nom de plume, but in 1952 he finally left government service to devote himself to the art and business of writing. He penned short stories for both Western-fiction periodicals (Mammoth Western, Thrilling Western, etc.) and others, such as Manhunt, that specialized in tales of crime. “Given that the editor of Manhunt was keen to have his authors be seen as leading colorful, even mildly gamey lives,” editors Jack Adrian and Bill Pronzini remarked in their 1995 book, Hard-boiled: An Anthology of American Crime Stories, “it’s difficult to ascertain the truth about Craig’s history. But without a doubt Craig clearly had more than enough experience of the hard end of life to become one of the leading chroniclers of the ‘JD’ (juvenile delinquest), or ‘juvie,’ genre, which was so popular with editors and readers in the ‘rebel without a cause’ era of the mid-1950s. He combined a gritty realism with a sardonic outlook and mastered a style that was spare, while at times hinting at lushness and moral decay.” Readers ate up whatever Craig could serve them.

Nowadays, folks who are familiar at all with Jonathan Craig usually think of him in association with his 10-book police procedural series centered on New York City’s Sixth Precinct, the opening installment of which is 1955’s The Dead Darling. “The two detective leads are Pete Selby, who serves as narrator, and his partner Stan Rayder,” explains John “J.F.” Norris in his blog, Pretty Sinister Books. “The police methods are some of the most methodical and bureaucratic I've read in an early novel of this type. Before anyone says, ‘Oh yeah, Ed McBain did that kind of thing and with a bigger cast of cop characters,’ it should be said that the first 87th Precinct novel (which uses a fictitious city based on New York) was published in 1956. Craig started his series of cop novels in 1954 and dares to use the real New York as his setting. McBain has said that he was inspired by the Dragnet TV series. I can’t say where Craig got his inspiration, but he beat McBain at this idea by a couple of years.” The Sixth Precinct series continues through Case of the Brazen Beauty (1966).

But before Craig sent cops Selby and Rayder out on their first call, he produced the noteworthy standalone works Junkie! (1952), Red-Headed Sinner (1953), and Alley Girl (1954, also published as Renegade Cop). The first of those, Junkie! (aka Frenzy), is described by Kirk Reichenbaugh in The Ringer Files blog as a “tawdry little tale of love among squalor … likely written to cash in on the Beat craze going on thanks to [Jack] Kerouac and the gang …” It seems Smith/Craig’s “experience of the hard end of life” came in handy when he was concocting this novel. Here’s Reichenbaugh’s plot synopsis:
It’s set among the jazz alleys and clubs of Washington, D.C., in the ’50s instead of the standard hangouts like Greenwich Village or North Beach. Steve Harper is a horn man, one of the best, who’s burning a torch for a former call-girl and heroin junkie named Kathy. Kathy came out to the big city to find success, but found the needle in a brothel instead. Soon as she meets Steve things start to look up. Sure, Steve has some existential angst and all, falling in love with a prostitute, but damn! Kathy lets Steve have his way with her on their first night together. Well, a bit more than that actually. Steve’s big moment of passion is pretty much raping Kathy in the front seat of his car. He figures in some psychotic way that going all caveman on her is what one does to a chick that’s peddling it for everyone. A good bout of self-loathing immediately follows. Kathy thinks Steve [is] something of a lost and tortured soul. Just the sort of cat to kick the needle for, and ‘toots-sweet,’ Cupid’s flinging arrows at them. There was no mention of how much scratch changed hands, but she definitely leaves some deep scars in his heart.

Jump ahead a couple months and Steve is mooning over Kathy after sleeping with one of his gal-pals, Lois. Lois is a trip. Lois is one of those wound-up kittens who like to scratch too. Not only that, but Lois plays a hell of a boogie on the ivories, and once upon a time Steve could have really gone for her. But Lois ups and marries a clown with dough instead. Lois decided that banging the ivories in reefer joints is the slow boat to Endsville, so why not take a short cut and marry some rich moke for his money. That was the plan, anyway. But Lois’ hubby, Mel, has a problem with the sauce. He drinks and likes to get rough. He’s also got a jealous streak. So it’s not long after the wedding bells stop ringing that Lois resumes slinking around Steve’s pad, sitting around in her sexy underwear, smoking reefers and playing Steve’s records and torturing him about Kathy dumping him. And that’s the scene, until one night a cop friend of Steve’s calls him up and drops the news that Steve’s old mentor Wally Haynes was given the dirt nap. And the chief suspect is … Kathy!

What follows is pretty much Steve running around town playing gumshoe trying to find Kathy, while also trying to nail the gink who offed Wally.
Interestingly, when Junkie! was released by Falcon Books, it was one of two drug-associated novels in that publisher’s 1952 line; the other was The Evil Sleep!, Ed McBain’s earliest adult novel (recently reissued by Hard Case Crime as So Nude, So Dead). I have embedded the cover from the original Falcon edition of Junkie! above and on the left, featuring artwork credited to one Ketor Seach. Meanwhile, at the top of this post is the more artistically refined front from Lancer’s 1962 edition of the book, using the title Frenzy. Illustrator Harry Schaare does his best on that façade to capture the tone and components of Craig’s yarn, giving us a bit of jazz trumpet, a nighttime encounter between hard men fragrant of trouble, and a young brunette (presumably junkie-turned-hooker Kathy) who’s shedding her clothes with an obvious lack of urgency or interest. It’s a beautiful book front, and if I ever find a print copy of that edition to add to my library, you can bet I will--though I imagine it’ll set me back way more than Lancer’s original 40-cent price.

Of course, you needn’t search used book stores to find Jonathan Craig’s 1952 novel. If you don’t mind reading books on some electronic device, you can buy a copy of Junkie!--featuring Schaare’s cover art--for 99 cents from e-book publisher PlanetMonk Pulps.


Ed Gorman said...

I want to thank you sincerely for all your eminently readable and fascinating scholarship visited on both forgotten writers and cover artists. Honest to God Jeff when you finally put this material in a book it will become a staple for generations to come. I ain't just woofin', either.

Bill Crider said...

Great info. I have copies of both FRENZY and JUNKIE!, though I've never read either of them. I'm a big fan of the Pete Selby novels, and in fact just reread one of them (TCOT THE NERVOUS NUDE) the other day. My thoughts about that one will appear in a blog post one of these days.