Kill Me, Sweet

Kill Me Sweet 1960 - Cover Art

Jess Wilcox – actually ‘Jessica Wilcox’ – was one of Morris Hershmann’s many pen names, which also included Evelyn Bond, Sara Roffman, Janet Templeton and Lionel Webb.

Most of the female pseudonyms were used for 1960’s era gothic romances (you know, those familiar ‘girl running from house’ novels) and some historical romance ‘bodice rippers’, but here ‘Jessica’ was shortened to a gender-neutral ‘Jess’ for Kill Me, Sweet …which really is a pretty cool title.

Kill Me Sweet 1960

This 1960 paperback original is an Elvis Horn novel, perhaps intended to be the first in a series. Hershmann/Wilcox’ Elvis Horn was a private eye with a peculiar handle (Elvis?), especially since he was intended to be a suave and debonair operator like Peter Gunn or The Saint. In Kill Me, Sweet, Horn’s vacationing in Las Vegas when he’s hired by a mob boss and sent back east to look for a missing New York nightclub owner. The private eye’s search takes him to Paris (and a romance with one Anne Jones) and then to Rome (and another romance, this time with Karen Albert) and some bruising run-ins with mysterious thugs along the way. Morris Hershmann – Jessica/Jess Wilcox’ 1960 Kill Me, Sweet may not have earned a series and may even be a forgettable book, but it sure had a great title, and lucked out with some terrific cover art that ought to help it live on among genre fans.

As for the cover — I’d have assumed a Robert Maguire illustration based on the composition: specifically, the figure’s stance and against a vignetted background, which is something Maguire did on a number of illustrations. Even the woman’s face and hair style are reminiscent of other Maguire covers. But the brushwork? Okay, maybe not. But this book isn’t shown on the Maguire website checklist, and I’d trust that way more than any assumptions of my own. Maybe some vintage paperback and illustration expert can weigh in?

The Master At 101 Years

Kiss me Deadly

Shame on me, but I screwed up my post scheduling, so this was meant to appear on Saturday.

A belated birthday acknowledgment to Frank Morrison Spillane, better known as Mickey Spillane, born 101 years ago on March 9th, who sadly left us in 2006. Loved by readers, resented by writers (to this day), reviled by critics, spoofed by himself and many others, the man was actually an instrumental part of building the postwar paperback marketplace. I’ll argue that he played a part in revitalizing — maybe even redefining —  the hard-boiled private eye novel for the second half of the twentieth century, and along the way, sold a mere 225 million books.

Crime Reads Screen Cap

Crime Reads editor Molly Odintz has a very interesting piece at Crimereads.com, “The Ten Best And Pulpiest Mickey Spillane Covers”  – do log on and check it out. The covers shown here aren’t the ones Odintz presents, and some might say her choices aren’t anywhere near as pulpy, weird or downright pervy as some Spillane covers can be. Molly Odintz acknowledges that while commercial success should never be a measure of literary merit, Spillane’s recent centennial and various authors (Max Allan Collins key among them) arguing for a reassessment of the writer’s importance begs for publishers to reissue his work, but in different cover art, “…so that folks like me will actually want to read him in public. Can you imagine bringing one of these on the subway?” But she continues, and this is crucial to understanding Spillane and his work: “But Mickey Spillane didn’t care about what people thought of his cover designs, or the literary merit of his books, and paid no attention to any censorial judgments whatsoever, so perhaps the best way to celebrate the iconic writer’s birthday would indeed be to bring one of these on the subway – and not care what anyone thinks”.

Vengeance Is Mine

Odintz showcases ten Spillane covers she considers particularly weird, pulpy or tawdry. Anyone familiar with postwar pulp magazine and paperback cover art may consider them surprisingly tame. I’ll concede, Spillane’s One Lonely Night was almost always packaged with particularly disturbing cover art of a bound and partially stripped woman. The 1960’s – 70’s era Spillane reissues followed that period’s trend towards photo cover art, and typically employed provocatively posed near-nude women with no relation to the title, story or…well, anything at all, simply beckoning to the reader with ‘come-hither’ expressions. Some European editions of Spillane novels went way beyond anything that would be allowed in the U.S. market. And the fact is, many 1950’s era mystery/crime fiction paperbacks (and certainly the remaining pulps from the same era) can completely out-weird, out-sex, out-perv most any Mickey Spillane cover art, with one after another depicting menacing thugs and lover-boy private eyes threatening or otherwise taking advantage of a gallery of women-as-victims and women-as-eye-candy, invariably undressed or undressing in fetishistic detail, restrained, terrified…or often as not…dead.

One Lonely Night

Do we blame the writers? The publishers, their art directors, the illustrators? Do we blame the culture of the time? Do we blame anyone at all, or do we just recognize that they’re artifacts from another era? Don’t ask me…I’ll have to leave vexing questions like that to smarter folks than I. But I won’t apologize for appreciating Mickey Spillane. I have all of the Mickey Spillane novels, with doubles and triples of a few from different eras, along with the unfinished works completed by Max Allan Collins, some few books about Spillane, the complete Mike Hammer comic strip book and sundry other Spillane items. Call me a fan.

The Body Lovers

While I don’t ride the subway, I fully understand what Molly Odintz is saying, and there are more than a few (maybe most) of my Spillane books that I’m not too eager to whip out in the coffee shop, just so I can watch fellow patrons ease their chairs away from me. But the same goes for other vintage paperbacks I have, and quite a few contemporary books, now that I think of it.

Cheap used bookstore copies of the first few Mike Hammer novels were actually what lured me into the mystery/crime fiction genre in the first place, and for that I’ll be forever grateful. Spillane’s no-nonsense prose and plot-first writing style guides me in my own humble writing attempts, particularly whenever I get ‘writerly’. I don’t know if, like Molly Odintz, I’d like to see Mickey Spillane’s body of work reissued in ‘tamer’ packaging, or just as she speculates, if the hard-boiled crime fiction master’s work indeed should be reissued, but in cover art that celebrates all the violent, sexy, tawdry, pulpy storytelling each book contained.

The Long Wait

 

The Brass Halo

the brass halo jack webb

Around the time of the publication of John D. McDonald’s The Brass Cupcake in 1958, there was a slew of other books with ‘Brass’ in their titles. Coincidence? Publishers scrambling to capitalize on the success of one particular book? Who knows.

Just one of many was Jack Webb’s (no, not the actor/director/producer Jack Webb of Dragnet fame) The Brass Halo, originally published in hardcover in 1957, then in paperback in 1958. Jack Webb (1916-2008), who also worked under the pen name John Farr, wrote 9 Golden-Shanley mysteries between 1952 and 1963 featuring homicide detective Sammy Golden and and unlikely sidekick, kindly Catholic Priest Father Shanley. In this book, the duo team up to solve a less-than-honest private eye’s murder after he’s found knifed in a nightclub torch singer’s dressing room, the chanteuse gone missing.

The Brass Halo

I haven’t read it, and will confess that my interest in the book is less about Webb’s novel and more about Robert Maguire’s cover art, this particular cover illustration among the artist’s best, in my opinion.

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

The Big Book Of Female Detectives

From the well-known anthologist, author and master of all things mystery, Otto Penzler: The Big Book Of Female Detectives, which proudly claims to be “The Most Complete Collection Of Detective Dames, Gumshoe Gals & Sultry Sleuths Ever Assembled”. I’m not qualified to say if it is or it isn’t, only to point out that it is indeed one big, fat book at 1,115 pages.

Now keep in mind that this isn’t necessarily a collection of tales written by women, but about women detectives, cops, reporters and various sleuths, and understandably the women writers are better represented in more of the contemporary material.

The book includes 74 stories, arranged chronologically with each section and story accompanied by informative introductions written by the master himself. Victorian/Edwardian – British Mysteries and Pre-World War One – American Mysteries comprise the early era. Those are followed by The Pulp Era, The Golden Age and The Mid-Century, and the longest section, The Modern Era. But Penzler’s not done yet, and closes with a final section devoted to women on the other side of the law, Bad Girls. Of course, there’s no way to assemble a book like this without some critics complaining that their favorite character was left out or questioning why a particular writer was included at all. So let them quibble. For myself, I’ll confess that I sped through the early eras’ sections and really get hooked in The Pulp Era, with one of my personal favorites from that period, Lars Anderson’s Domino Lady in “The Domino Lady Collects”, and surprised to see two Adolphe Barreaux Sally The Sleuth strips, including “Coke For Co-Eds”…you just have to love that title. Familiar names crowd the Modern Era, including Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Laura Lippman, Max Allan Collins, Nevada Barr, Lawrence Block and others.

I got this book before the holidays and only just wrapped it up now, dipping in for a story here and a story there at a leisurely pace. Finishing it was almost bittersweet – I got used to seeing that big ol’ book on the endtable. If you see it, get it. I can’t think of better ‘textbook’ overview of women detectives (and crooks!) in one book.

 

Benicio’s Girls With Guns

Jose Luis Benicio 1

It’s a peculiar American conceit: We think we dominate everything. No question, sometimes we do. In the vintage art and illustration arenas for comics, pulp magazines and book covers, titans like McGinnis, Maguire, Steranko, Kirby, Adams and so many others created a remarkable legacy of mid-twentieth century pop-cultural visuals. A person could spend a lifetime studying these artists and their work. But, I also like to snoop around Euro-Sleaze magazines, Giallo digests, and pop illustration in other markets from the UK to Australia and Mexico to South America. There’s a lot to be appreciated.

Centro Commercial

For example, commercial art studios in Spain reached out across Europe — and across the Atlantic as well – to become a powerful force in 1960’s – 70’s comic art art and illustration, most evident in the American market among the many magazine-sized monthlies from Warren Publishing like Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, along with competing titles from Marvel and Skywald. Meanwhile, the work of talented young artists from Brazil and Venezuela made it into the regular U.S. comic book scene and the paperback cover market, though the latter was contracting so fast at the time, many U.S. artists had already migrated into more lucrative advertising and movie studio work.

Jose Luis Benicio 2

Consider Brazilian artist Jose Luis Benicio, apparently regarded as the ‘King Of The Pinups’ in his own country, though his work actually dealt more with Brazilian film studio posters and regular advertising assignments. Perhaps he really ought to be known as the painter of ‘Girls With Guns’, for his extensive work on period-sexy action/espionage paperback series.

Jose Luis Benicio 3

Born in 1936 near Rio Prado, Benicio originally planned on a career in music, but abandoned the piano for a paint brush, initially starting out as an apprentice in Porto Alegre at only 16, then hitting the big time in Rio de Janeiro in the mid-1950’s. There he worked for various studios and small agencies, eventually forging a lucrative long-term relationship with the Brazilian office of McCann-Erickson advertising by 1961, which led to work for Coca Cola, Esso and others. Tireless in his prime, Benicio also produced, by his own reckoning, over 300 movie posters for the government-backed Embrafilme Studios.

Jose Luis Benicio 5

At the same time, Benicio worked for various publishers on popular Modesty Blaise-style knock-off series like Giselle and Bridgette In Action, nearly all featuring the series’ provocatively posed heroines brandishing a gun. Tame by both U.S. and European standards, these ubiquitous ‘Girl-With-A-Gun’ covers actually brought him some unwelcome attention from the conservative military government. Eventually political changes in Brazil brought an end to the government backed film studio system, and portions of Benicio’s lucrative movie marketing work dried up. He began working with some American publishers, but by this time, digital graphics were already sounding the death knell for traditional illustration.

Jose Luis Benicio 6

Benicio normally worked in gouache, today considered by many to be a dying art. Gouache, which is more or less ‘fine-arts’ tempera paint, combines the brilliance of the purest oils but with unparalleled opacity. Due to its quick drying time, it’s the perfect medium for commercial illustrators. I worked with it a little back in school days, and was impressed with its bright, intense colors and buttery viscosity, but found it pretty tricky to handle. (Which is probably among the many reasons why I’m not a successful commercial illustrator!) More of the well-known vintage U.S. paperback and pulp magazine covers than you’d think were actually done in gouache, not oils.

Jose Luis Benicio 4

To be clear, ‘girls with guns’ aren’t the only thing Benicio painted. But they are among the familiar pop culture images the artist is widely known for, particularly in the South American market. Do dig around a bit on your own if you’d like to see more of the Brazilian illustrator’s work. There are two books on Jose Luis Benicio, though neither is likely to be on a shelf at your local bookstore: Sex & Crime: The Book Cover Art Of Benicio by Reference Press, 2011 and Benicio Created The Woman by Goncalo Junior, originally published in 2006 and re-released in 2012.

Jose Luis Benicio 1stJose Luis Benicio 8Jose Luis Benicio 7

Blues For A Dead Lover

Blues For A Dead Lover albert nuetzel cover 1962

Never read it. Never even saw an actual copy. For all I know, it might be wonderful…or unreadable trash. A lot of vintage sleaze and retro-racy crime novels are, after all. (The latter, that is.)

But I absolutely adore that title, Blues For A Dead Lover. And the saucy cover illustration by Albert Nuetzel ( 1901 – 1969) on this 1962 Uptown Books paperback is pretty nice too. Nuetzel was a movie studio artist and painting instructor in Los Angeles, and unlike this cover art example, best known for his science fiction pulp magazine and paperback illustrations.

Mystery Scene

Mystery scene

Finding a new issue of Mystery Scene magazine in the mail is just like getting an unexpected present. I spent a pleasant Sunday evening with this new Winter 2019 issue, as well as the morning after to finish it up (once through the pre-dawn Dunkin’ Donuts drive-thru en route to work, the car eater going full blast this Monday AM). I haven’t read anything by the cover story feature, Laura Benedict, but plan to now. Many writers have peculiar rituals as part of their work habits. Benedict’s compelled to clean and de-clutter her house from top to bottom before commencing a new novel. “Horace McCoy: Noir’s Forgotten Founding Father” by Michael Mallory made me think about an unsung hero of the genre, McCoy not the most prolific writer, but the author of the Depression-era novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They which made him a darling among the European literary philosopher set. Of course the issue had the usual features and pages and pages of new release reviews…all in all, a pleasant end to a cold weekend (and a helpful start to a frigid work week).

Stumptown

Stumptown-5

One way for rabid readers to keep from going broke is to learn to love their public library. I have. The one closest to me is a charming and well-designed facility, though all that décor apparently left no funds for books. But the next library over is an enormous two-story treasure trove, and its graphic novel section could outdo many comics shops. That’s where I came across writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth’s great contemporary hard-boiled series, Stumptown.

Stumptown 1

Dex Parios is my favorite kind of ‘stiletto gumshoe’: Wonderfully flawed. Army vet and inveterate gambler, Dex is both bad-ass and wise-ass, and occasionally a bit of a screw-up. It makes for a lethal combo.

Stumptown 4

Sounds like near-future small screen options won’t be short of intriguing girlz-with-guns and lethal ladies, even though I’m still processing the sad news that Netflix cancelled the amazing Jessica Jones series with Krysten Ritter.

Cobie Smulders

ABC just announced a new Stumptown series by Jason Richman and Ruben Flesicher. Hard-boiled Dex Parios will be played by Canadian actress Jacoba Francisca Maria Smulders, better known as Cobie Smulders. Marvel universe fans know Cobie as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill from the Avengers. TV channel surfers know her as Robin Scherbatsky from syndicated-everywhere How I Met Your Mother sitcom reruns. Seems like a good casting decision to me, and I’m betting she can bring Dex Parios’ hard-boiled grit and glimpses of vulnerability to life on screen just fine. Looking forward to this one. And still enjoying Rucka and Southworth’s comics.

Stumptown Hardcover

David Goodis

Goodis Midnight Classics

Hard-boiled, noir, pulp, crime novelist and screenwriter David Goodis was born today, March 2nd back in 1917.

My own introduction to Goodis’ work was The Blonde On The Street Corner and The Moon In The Gutter in used bookstore 1990’s trade paperback editions from Midnight Classics (wish I still had those). From there I looked for more of his work, and confess to finding it a little uneven. Digging deeper, I discovered I wasn’t alone in that conclusion.

Four David Goodis Novels

Goodis, apparently, almost seemed to emulate one of the characters in the bleak, noir-ish world of his writing, hanging out in lowlife taverns and greasy spoons, poorly dressed, prone to depression and bouts of anger, and unlucky in love. But after laboring for years over low-paying aviation and adventure pulp magazine stories, Goodis was finally at the top of his game by the mid-1940’s. He had a couple successful hardcover novels to his credit, a lucrative six-year Warner Bros. screenwriting contract, and a hit movie based on his own novel, Dark Passage, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Yet within a couple years, he left Hollywood behind, had to move in with his parents in Philadelphia, and spent the remainder of his life cranking out paperback originals for Gold Medal and Lion Books along with – once again – pulp magazine stories. A lawsuit against the producers of the hit TV series The Fugitive, which Goodis asserted was based on his work, wasn’t resolved until just after his death. And by that time, not one of his books was even in print in the U.S. Yet, he was revered in Europe, with nearly a dozen critically acclaimed novels in France alone.

Goodis A Life In Black & White

David Goodis: A Life In Black And White by French writer Philippe Garnier was published in France in the mid-eighties, but wasn’t translated and published in the U.S. until 2013. It’s available through the Film Noir Foundation (it was edited by Eddie Muller), and at Amazon. In the mean time, you’ll find that “The Mysterious Life Of David Goodis” by Andrew Nette in a February 2015 edition of the Los Angeles Review Of Books (link below) provides a terrific capsulized overview of who Goodis was, what was great and not-so-great about him and his work, and even why European readers honored him so much more than his own American compatriots.

https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/mysterious-life-david-goodis/ – !

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