Monday, November 22, 2010

Whodrewit? I Like It Cool, by Michael Lawrence

Welcome once again to the continuing series “Whodrewit?” in which we look at noteworthy vintage paperback covers that are sadly bereft of illustrator acknowledgments. Today’s subject is the front of I Like It Cool, a 1960 Popular Library original credited to Michael Lawrence. This is one of only two suspense novels featuring New York City investigator Johnny Amsterdam, the “[private] eye with a beard.”

Unlike the previous Amsterdam outing, Naked and Alone (1953), the cover of Cool includes an image of the hirsute sleuth himself, leaning back with a cigarette, a shoulder holster and gun, and a playfully lifted left eyebrow that squares well with the back jacket copy (see the image at right), which begins: “Call Me Amsterdam ... In fact, call me anything just so you call me for fun and games.” Like Frank Kane’s Johnny Liddell, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Brett Halliday’s Mike Shayne, and assorted other mid-20th-century American gumshoes, Amsterdam--a Korean War veteran, partnered with the smart but unremarkable-looking Dave Gross (he “could tail a man into his own living room without being noticed”)--enjoyed the carnal courtesies of many a well-rounded miss. He had a slick patter, a quick temper and a couple of solid fists, and what appears on the cover of Cool to be a handlebar mustache with a goatee. Amsterdam was no slouch in the snooping department, and he seemed to move comfortably through all echelons of New York society, from the “coolsville” pads of Greenwich Village, to Manhattan boardrooms, to Park Avenue bedrooms. However, he may be best recalled for that gimmick of the “chin shrubbery,” which Amsterdam seems not to have been wearing in Naked and Alone, but that left observers in this second adventure unsure of whether to treat him like a beatnik, a bum, or a bruiser.

In I Like It Cool, Johnny Amsterdam sets out to help Sandra Tyson, the sexy, club-singing younger sister of a deceased army buddy, who wants him to track down Helen Tate, a Hollywood fashion model who was on her way to visit Sandra, but never turned up. “She was supposed to contact me as soon as she arrived [in New York], two days ago,” Sandra tells Amsterdam. “I’m afraid something’s happened to her. I’ve got to find her. Right away.” Naturally, the case is nowhere near as easy or straightforward as it sounds. There are homicides and deceptions and one embittered or lost soul after the next with whom Amsterdam and Gross must contend. Lawrence wasn’t Raymond Chandler, but he claimed enough of a cynical tone for a detective yarn of his era:
We walked uptown together, along Fifth Avenue where the summertime crop of rustic sightseers gaped and gawked at the elegant shop windows. You could pick them out easily. They were wide-eyed with wonder, their necks craned to see the sights, their inevitable cameras hung from their shoulders. To the discerning eye, the rubes stood out like cactus growing on Fifth Avenue.

They would be easy marks for the shake-down boys of the city. They would be plucked and skinned by a variety of grifters, easy meat for the professional con man. And Helen Tate? Was she sophisticated enough to avoid the snares, to bypass the wandering wolves? Every year great coveys of young quail slip into the big town in search of careers, only to wind up behind the moral eight ball as commercial tosses in the trade of the tart. Every year they come and go, some lucky, others in bad trouble. The pretty gals often fall faster. And Helen Tate was damn pretty.
It’s a shame there are only two Johnny Amsterdam books. I, for one, would like to see more of what this whiskered wonder had to offer.

Now, if you’ve never heard of Michael Lawrence, don’t be embarrassed. That wasn’t his real name, and novel-writing wasn’t even his principal occupation.

“Michael Lawrence” was just one of several pseudonyms employed by Brooklyn-born “master cartoonist” Lawrence Lariar (1908-1981). “In the 1930s,” reports one source, Lariar “drew the comic strip Barry O’Neill, that was also published in early National/DC titles. In the 1940s and 1950s he scripted syndicated features like Ben Friday (later Bantam Prince, with John Spranger) and The Thropp Family (with Lou Fine and Don Komarisow). He created Inspector Keene for Young American Magazine.” The Stripper’s Guide, a blog devoted to the history of American newspaper comic strips, explains that Lariar trained early at the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, and subsequently “went to Paris on a scholarship to the school of dynamic symmetry.” In 1935 he married his agent, Susan Mayer (who specialized in “magazine gag panel” artists), and together they had two children. During various stages of his career, Lariar produced work for Collier’s magazine and The New Yorker, served as the cartoon editor of Liberty, “contributed political cartoons to the New York Journal-American,” and “did advertising and direct-mail cartoons.” The New York Times added in its 1981 obituary of the man that “For more than 20 years Mr. Lariar was cartoon editor of Parade magazine ...” On top of all that, says The Stripper’s Guide, “he emceed the CBS television show, Draw Me Another, in 1947, and created the Happy Headlines show.” Oh, and he was the president of the American Society of Magazine Cartoonists (1943-1946).

In what free time he could find (and really, it’s amazing that he found any), Lariar did a bit of mentoring. African-American novelist Charles Johnson (Middle Passage), who early in his life wanted to be a cartoonist and illustrator, recalled in an essay that in 1962 he initiated a correspondence with Lariar, whom he’d read about in Writer’s Digest. Johnson’s father had discouraged his dreams (“Chuck, they don’t let black people do that”), and the boy wanted reassurance from somebody in the business that he might realize his ambitions. “I told [Lariar] what my father said,” Johnson wrote. “Within a week Lariar mailed me a spirited reply: ‘Your father is wrong. You can do whatever you want with your life. All you need is a good teacher.’ To shorten a long story, Lawrence Lariar, a liberal Jewish man ... who frequently infuriated his neighbors by inviting black artists to his Long Island home, where he instructed them, became my teacher. (My dad, after seeing Lariar’s letter, backed off and paid for my lessons.) Two years later I was publishing illustrations for the catalog of a Chicago company that sold magic tricks, and I won two awards in a national competition, sponsored by a journalism organization, for high school cartoonists.”

Lariar harbored ambitions of his own. After more than a decade and a half of cartooning, in 1942 he began editing an annual series of books titled Best Cartoons of the Year. That was the same year in which he’s supposed to have started penning hard-boiled crime and mystery novels, using the Michael Lawrence moniker, as well as “Adam Knight” and “Michael Stark.” Among the works attributed (under those various bylines) to Lariar are Death Is the Host (aka Death Paints the Picture, 1943); The Man with the Lumpy Nose (1944), which featured protagonist Homer Bull, a comic-strip writer, and won the Dodd Mead Red Badge Prize; Friday for Death (1949); Murder for Madame (1951), Stone Cold Blonde (1951), and six additional books starring short-but-scrappy P.I. Steve Conacher; The Girl with the Frightened Eyes (1956); and Sugar Shannon (1960), built around his female private eye of the same name--an “obvious imitation of G.G. Fickling’s Honey West,” as The Thrilling Detective Web Site puts it.

By the time of his death in Connecticut in 1981, at age 72, Lariar was credited as the “author of more than 100 books.”

One of the best covers on a Lariar book, I think, can be found on I Like It Cool. It’s well-balanced and quite striking, and the typography--particularly the up-and-down arrangement of the title--adds to its appeal. Unfortunately, no signature is visible on the illustration, and nowhere inside is a credit given. If anybody out there knows who is responsible for the artwork, I hope you’ll drop word into the Comments section of this post.

UPDATE: The Today’s Inspiration Group Facebook page identifies Ted CoConis as the artist responsible for the cover of I Like It Cool.


Snidely Whiplash said...

Each to his own, I guess, but Lariar's work seems a little caricaturish and too friendly for crime/ mystery titles though it's easy to see him producing some very good cartoons.
Thanks for Kalin, I'd never heard of him, his bold forms really have the drama and menace that makes for a great cover in this genre

Unknown said...

I just stumbled across your blog tonight and I REALLY look forward to diving in. There's nothing I love more than a good book cover!

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