Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Bodies, Bombshells, and Berlin

When I learned recently that lovely South African actress Charlize Theron would be starring in a movie titled Atomic Blonde, I was, well, more than a bit perplexed. After all, I associated that playful title with the notably racy 1963 paperback shown above, credited to author Monte Steele (which may or may not have been a pseudonym). As Michael Hemmingson explains in his blog, Those Sexy Vintage Sleaze Books, Steele’s yarn—which carries cover art by Robert Bonfils—focuses around a “tongue-in-cheek tough guy, murder, and lots of sex.” He goes on to offer this plot brief:
The narrator of Atomic Blonde is Johnny Stone, an insurance fraud investigator in Desert City, Nevada, who happens upon a platinum blonde bombshell with a flat tire and a pink Caddy. He offers to help fix the flat but she keeps telling him no; but, being the ladies’ man and gentleman he is, with the possibility of getting some blonde pussy, Johnny doesn’t listen to her—and when he opens her trunk to get the jack, he finds the … dead body of a man and a diamond head rattlesnake.

The blonde takes off in his car.

Then two thugs try to kill him—they keep trying to kill him throughout the book, which takes place in 48 hours.

In that 48 hours, Johnny has sex with half a dozen women, from maids to whores to the blonde and his own girlfriend, Carol, who has no idea what a pussyhound he is—or does she? She does get him to marry her in the end.
As you might have surmised by this point, Steele’s “mindless entertainment” of a novel was not the inspiration for Theron’s Atomic Blonde. Instead, the screenplay was inspired by a 2012 graphic novel, The Coldest City, by Antony Johnston. Wikipedia says “the film takes place in Berlin, 1989, on the eve of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the shifting of superpower alliances. Lorraine Broughton [Theron], a top-level spy for MI6, is dispatched to Berlin to take down a ruthless espionage ring that has just killed an undercover agent for reasons unknown. She is ordered to cooperate with Berlin station chief David Percival [James McAvoy], and the two form an uneasy alliance, unleashing their full arsenal of skills in pursuing a threat that jeopardizes the West’s entire intelligence operation.”

This action-oriented spy picture also stars John Goodman, Toby Jones, and Sofia Boutella. It’s set for a July 28 U.S. release. (You can watch a trailer here.) The only things it may have in common with Steele’s 54-year-old softcover tale are what Hemmingson defines as “prolonged sex scenes and moments of hard-boiled violence”—two elements that are much in demand by today’s film-goers.

READ MORE:The Coldest City Warms Up to Atomic Blonde, and Charlize Keeps Spying,” by Matthew Bradford (Double O Section).

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Finds: “Be Still My Love”

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

Be Still, My Love, by June Truesdell (Dodd, Mead, 1947).
Illustration by Denis McLoughlin.

What a brilliantly evocative dust jacket this is, with its vintage sedan stopped at night along a sheer coastline, the beams from its headlights leaping far beyond the land’s end and reflected in the water. This could have been the poster artwork promoting any number of mid-20th-century noir films. Indeed, author June Truesdell’s suspense yarn became the basis for a 1949 Paramount motion picture retitled The Accused, which Variety said offered “high grade melodrama,” and starred Loretta Young, Robert Cummings, Wendell Corey, and Sam Jaffe. First, however, Be Still, My Love appeared in print in 1947, one of at least three crime novels attributed to Truesdell (1918-1996), the others being The Morgue the Merrier (1945) and Burden of Proof (1951).

In his excellent blog, Reading California, retired historian Don Napoli opines that Be Still, My Love “manages to be bad and fascinating at the same time.” Here’s his summation of Truesdell’s plot:
Wilma Tuttle, thirty-year-old psychology professor at a Los Angeles college, lives in terror of the real world. Small, frugal and constrained, she’s experienced none of the joys of everyday life. One day an arrogant and maliciously flirtatious student, Frank Parry, asks her out to dinner. They drive up the coast, where eventually Frank tries to rape Wilma. She kills him then tries to make the death look like an accident. Back home she soon must lie to Frank’s wannabe girlfriend, Connie Bradlet, who wonders why he’s broken a date. Meanwhile, a police investigation is underway. Tad Gowan, head of the LAPD homicide division, tricks the coroner’s jury into declaring the death an accident, hoping to put the killer off guard. Helping him build a case for murder is Warren Ford, tall and ruggedly handsome lawyer for the Parry family. When they ask Wilma, who’s teaching criminal psych that semester, to join them, she sees a chance to solidify her deception.
One brief online review of Hollywood’s adaptation of this tale makes clearer the inspiration for the dramatic cover illustration shown above: “When Perry* tries to rape Tuttle, she beats him to death with a tire iron. She covers up her crime by making it seem as though Perry was killed while diving into the sea from a precipitous cliff.” Unfortunately for the naïve Miss Tuttle, in the end her conscience—as well as her “burgeoning romance” with attorney Ford—undermine her desperate efforts to escape a murder conviction.

If the artistic style of this book front appears familiar, it’s likely because the painting was done by Denis McLoughlin (1918-2002), one of the most prolific and now revered British illustrators of the 20th century. David Ashford, who put together a handsome 2012 volume called The Art of Denis McLoughlin (Book Palace), declared that “In the history of British Illustration there is no one who can be reasonably compared to him.” McLoughlin’s contributions to comic books, pulp magazines, and especially hard-boiled crime novels have won him a worldwide following, though his name is rather less familiar than the art he left behind.

Born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, and asthmatic as a child, McLoughlin won a scholarship to a local art school at age 14. Yet soon afterward, he took a job drawing for a Manchester-based mail-order company. In 1940, near the start of World War II, McLoughlin was called up to military service as a gunner with the Royal Artillery Depot at Woolwich (near London). “However,” explains this informative Web biography, “because of his safe posting and his skills with a brush, he soon found himself painting murals on canteen walls, and making a bob or two by sketching officers’ portraits. More importantly, his billet also gave him an unwarranted freedom to go up to London and show his artwork to various publishers.” After first wielding his paints and pens on behalf of publisher Wells Gardner, Darton & Company, in the mid-1940s McLoughlin made the commercial contact that would eventually bring him renown, with UK publisher T.V. Boardman Ltd. (aka Boardman Books). It was for Boardman that he developed three-color rotogravure comic series starring private investigator Roy Carson and science-fiction hero Swift Morgan, plus a best-selling succession of Buffalo Bill Annuals that drew on McLoughlin’s great interest in the American West. For the same house, he also became a fast but inventive painter of novel fronts.

The Guardian’s 2002 obituary of this artist notes that “During 20 years with T.V. Boardman, then the fifth largest British publisher, McLoughlin produced 700 dust jackets, scores of paperback and magazine covers, strips and illustrations … It was McLoughlin who designed the pipe-smoking, deerstalker-wearing Bloodhound emblem”—shown on the left—“that graced the Boardman Bloodhound Mystery series, and a total of some 600 crime novels alone, most of them featuring his distinctive, lower-case signature.”

That same obit says that McLoughlin’s early books “featured fully air-brushed art (around 1957, the color was reduced to save money) … Later books were pen and ink drawings, another cost-cutting decision, but McLoughlin was able to get the maximum potential from each medium. Over the years, his work ranged from fully painted action illustrations to minimalist designs. He was not frightened to experiment with layouts, incorporate photographs, or mix realism and metaphor. With his brother Colin, he often acted out scenes for reference photographs, and both starred in more than one cover.”

There are so many McLoughlin dust jackets from which to choose, it would take a book-length study such as David Ashford’s to do his portfolio justice. But I can at least offer here a few other examples of his talent—books by authors such as Henry Kane, Thomas B. Dewey,  Richard Deming, Ed McBain, and yes, one other by June Truesdell.

(Enjoy more of McLoughlin’s artistry here, here, and here.)

Wikipedia’s McLoughlin page points out that the artist’s career “spanned eight decades” but concluded sadly:
Like many others who devoted their life to commercial art in the first half of the 20th century, Denis McLoughlin was never paid a great deal for his work. Many pieces of his artwork, the Boardman book covers in particular, which Denis had been promised would be returned to him, were either lost or ended up in private collections. While he made a living, Denis never accumulated much money. Although he had a pension from the British government, he was forced to augment his income by working long past retirement age. He once commented that he never particularly liked illustrating military topics and yet that is what he found himself doing for the last 20 years of his life. Perhaps, had he been given cowboy stories to illustrate, he might have been happier.
According to this piece in Nick Jones’ blog, Existential Ennui, Denis McLoughlin committed suicide at age 84, “shooting himself … with ‘the only non-replica gun that he possessed and for which he had only the one bullet’ … because he was ‘worried about the loss of feeling in his right arm and feared that he wouldn't be able to draw again.”

* There seems to have been a change in the spelling of student Frank Parry’s last name. The novel apparently gives it as Parry with an “a,” while reviews of the movie spell it “Perry.” The things Hollywood does—go figure.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

After posting my most recent “Two-fer Tuesdays” feature, which included Will Cook’s 1959 racing-themed novel, We Burn Like Fire, I realized I had several other examples of speedway fiction in my book-cover files. Being the generous sort, allow me to share my three favorites. The artists responsible for these are not identified.

The Young Racers, by Harold Calin (Lancer, 1963). The novel’s story was evidently rooted in the script for Roger Corman’s film of the same name. You’ll find the back cover here.

Love Me Quick, by Wayne Hunter (Beacon, 1964)

The Speed Set, by S.R. Fontaine (Midwood, 1966). You can enjoy a gander at the back cover by clicking here.