Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Duped: “A Fistful of Death”

The latest installment in Killer Covers’ “haven’t we seen this front someplace before?” series. Previous entries are here.

Crime novelist Henry Kane (1908-1988) has always pissed me off. Just a wee bit. While the rest of the 20th-century fiction-writing world easily adopted terms such as “private eye” (inspired, presumably, by the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency’s original logo, featuring an unblinking human eye above the slogan “We Never Sleep”), “private investigator” (aka P.I.), and “gumshoe” when referring to those myriad determined, frequently down-on-their luck, and sometimes intoxicated freelance sleuths assigned to solve imaginary mysteries and rescue comely dames in danger, Kane habitually referred to them as “private richards.” I assume this was intended as a witty twist on “private dick,” but it comes off as a silly affectation. Whether Kane was the sole detective-fictionist to employ this cognomen, I don’t know (he may simply have been the only one to not deliver it with a broad wink), but I’m always stopped cold when I stumble across the term in one of his stories, be it a Peter Chambers mystery or his 1960 TV tie-in novel, Peter Gunn. (It has been said--by no less than Lawrence Block--that Chambers was actually the inspiration for Blake Edwards’ jazz-loving shamus.)

The fashionable, swinging Mr. Chambers made his debut in 1947’s A Halo for Nobody, and managed to keep up his popular run (as well as his pursuit of curvaceous women) through dozens of short stories, a 1954 radio series titled Crime and Peter Chambers (starring Dane Clark), and at least 29 novels, including A Corpse for Christmas (1951), Too French and Too Deadly (1955), Death of a Flack (1961), and Nobody Loves a Loser (1963). “Chambers’ adventures are usually set in New York,” explains Prologue Books, which has re-released a number of them in print and e-book versions. “His secretary, Miranda Foxworth, is ‘built like an old-fashioned icebox but colder.’ Pete frequents Trennan’s Dark Morning Tavern, a local bar. Chambers characterizes himself as, ‘A wiseguy private eye. Talks hard with the tough guys, purrs with the ladies. All the girls fall for him. You know, like what you read about.’ Needless to say, one of Chambers’ distinguishing traits is his sense of humor and love for word play. … In 1969, with the sexual revolution beginning and censorship regulations loosening, Peter Chambers joined right in, and became one of the first X-rated private eyes. These novels were published by Lancer books, a soft-core publishing house, and began with Don’t Call Me Madame (1969). Later titles include The Shack Job (1969), The Glow Job (1971), and The Tail Job (1971).”

Fistful of Death was the ninth entry in Kane’s Chambers series. I don’t own a copy, but Prologue offers this brief plot synopsis:
The proposition sounded like a pushover. All Peter Chambers had to do was find out where a teen-aged chorine had been for the past month and why. And for that information the girl's father, a prosperous banker, would pay Chambers a cool thousand dollars. It was a quick way to earn some easy money. So Chambers thought … until he found out that the fistful of cash carried a little something extra along with it--A FISTFUL OF DEATH.
The cover shown at the top of this post was taken from the apparently original, 1958 Avon Books version of Fistful of Death. It features an illustration by Raymond Johnson, whose artwork I have periodically showcased in Killer Covers, but about whom I can find little background information on the Web. (If anyone out there knows more about his life or career, please drop me a line).

That same Johnson painting was employed--only in reverse--a year later by UK publisher Panther Books on its paperback edition of The Deadly Miss Ashley, a novel that had first been brought out by Doubleday & Company in 1950. When it debuted, The Deadly Miss Ashley carried the byline of Frederick C. (1902-1977), a pulp writer who, being quite prolific, also wrote as “Murdo Coombs,” “Curtis Steele,” and “Stephen Ransome.” Panther’s version of the novel, displayed on the right, carries the Ransome pseudonym.

The Deadly Miss Ashley was the opening entry in Davis/Ransome’s series starring Luke Speare, the brains behind the New York City-based Cole Detective Agency, and his boss, Schyler Cole. In this one, notes the blog Pulp International, “Miss Ashley is actually a missing person who Cole and Speare need to locate.” The pair went on to lead five more novels, among them Another Morgue Heard From (1954). Not bad for a couple of fly-by-the-seat-of-their-britches private eyes. Or should I say, private richards?

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