Modernism On Main Street

American Pulp Scan

A 4.29.19 Inside Higher Ed article by Scott Jaschik (linked via Literary Hub) reports on Stanford University’s announcement that it will no longer support the school’s university press, which pulls in an impressive $5 million a year and publishes some 130 books annually, but still needs additional support from the university. Citing a smaller anticipated payout from the institution’s endowment, Provost Persis Drell announced and end to the press’ $1.7 million supplemental annual funding. That endowment, by the way, is worth more than $26 billion. $26 billion. I suppose all schools are watching their budgets more carefully now that film and television stars may be unable to grease the admission wheels for their privileged broods.

Jaschik’s article caught my eye because I’d just finished two books this week (always have more than one going at a time), one a university press title. Now, university press books can be a mixed bag, and it pays to skim them carefully before racing to the cashier. Topics can be diluted by rampant pedantry, and already dense text might be colored by pontificating professorial authors’ insistence on putting their own Marxist, feminist, deconstructivist or other ‘ist’ spins on otherwise interesting subjects. But none of that was the case with University of Minnesota professor Paula Rabinowitz’ excellent American Pulp – How Paperbacks Brought Modernism To Main Street (2014, Princeton Press).

Clearly, Paula Rabinowitz loves vintage paperbacks. Her fixation traces back to pre-teen years reading ‘grown up’ paperbacks swiped from her mother’s nightstand. No, not Harold Robbins, Mickey Spillane or Jacqueline Susann. Rabinowitz vividly recalls a sixth grade summer spent in her backyard with Doctor Zhivago. In fact, her particular interest in vintage paperbacks – as avid investigator, collector, reader and scholar – are the many classics and serious literary books the post-WWII publishers put out alongside the hundreds (make that thousands) of bloody mysteries, westerns, science-fiction and sundry seamy novels that can only be labeled ‘vintage sleaze’. Rabinowitz is especially intrigued by the evolution of serious and sometimes controversial literature, originally published in handsome pocketbooks with simple cover art created by leading graphic designers, which morphed into new editions sporting lurid cover illustrations that were right at home beside the hard-boiled dicks, serial adulterers and six shooter horse operas.

American Pulp was a perfect follow up to Richard Lingeman’s The Noir Forties that I’d recently finished (link below). Both books zero in on a tumultuous period in American history to probe how entirely new (or at least reinvented) media crept into the mainstream and reshaped pop culture, fine arts and society, from race relations to gender roles, sexual identities and more. Rabinowitz quotes a 1951 New American Library pocketbooks ad: “There is real hope for a culture that makes it as easy to buy a book as it does a pack of cigarettes”. In the case of Rabinowitz’ subject —the post-WWII paperback book – it’s particularly ironic that this seismic shift in Americans’ reading habits occurred precisely as the TV age began. Rabinowitz argues that 1940’s – 1960’s paperbacks didn’t simply mirror evolving social mores, but actually shaped them, providing crucial guideposts for the cultural underground, sexual liberation, gay women and men, anti-establishment rebels and others. And most importantly, not just in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but in Peoria, Oshkosh, Missoula and every little burg across the country. The books’ cover art often played vital roles in conveying the subtle cues and subliminal messages to intended audiences, and Rabinowitz explores this in depth. So it’s intriguing that American Pulp’s own cover isn’t lifted from a vintage paperback. No McGinnis, Maguire, Avati or DeSoto here. The book uses “Portia In A Pink Blouse”, a 1942 painting by Guy Bene Du Pois, depicting ‘Portia’ holding a paperback edition of her own novel.

Actually, the book is filled with illustrations, including a number of vintage paperbacks you don’t often see and some must-see period newsstand shots. And, it’s readable from beginning to end. But fear not! If you forget you’re reading a scholarly tome, this just-under 400 page hardcover devotes nearly a fourth of its page count to notes and appendices. So, it’s a university press book, all right. Just a very readable one, and a good one for any fan of postwar pop culture to check out.

Still, lets hope that Stanford University comes to its senses and funds its portion of the 125 year-old Stanford University Press. The last thing we need is another institution reallocating precious resources to athletic programs and costly capital campaigns while their core learning functions wither.

https://thestilettogumshoe.com/2019/04/07/the-noir-forties/

One Of My First: House Of Flesh

House Of Flesh - Original

This was one of the very first vintage paperbacks I ever bought. Only a teenager, with no knowledge at all of pulp magazines, barely a passing awareness of mid-twentieth century crime fiction and paperback originals, just starting to dig on retro hard-boiled and ‘noir-ish’ crime novels, I wouldn’t have known a Robert Maguire cover from a Robert McGinnis to save my life then. Cain vs. Kane? This MacDonald vs. that MacDonald or Chandler vs. Hammett? Only names that I was just beginning to digest. But I remember buying this book at a now long-shuttered strip mall used bookstore, the ancient (and kind of scary) proprietor eying me up suspiciously the entire time I browsed his cluttered aisles, probably a victim of too many smart-ass high school kids stuffing books down their pants. Looking back now, I’m surprised he didn’t shake his head no when I brought a handful of books to the register. I really expected him to, particularly once he eyed up the sorta-sleazy cover art on each one.

But he didn’t.

CC Beall House OF Flesh 1950 Art

And though I could read things that were a hundred times more explicit than Bruno Fischer’s 1950 House Of Flesh and in countless books right from the library (even the school library) or any Walgreens or grocery store book display, this one resonated with me. The cover art played a part in that, I’m sure. There’s just enough evocative detail in the painting to get a vintage-noir newbie revved up: The wrinkled bedsheet yanked off the seedy striped mattress…no more than a blurred brushstroke or two suggesting one black shoe lying loose on the floor…the young blonde’s blouse half-on and half-off and revealing a shadowy hint of her black slip or brassiere…holding onto that bottle of something-or-other clenched between her stockinged legs. Her entire stance looks world-weary, frustrated, anxious, even. Not frightened, but apprehensive, perhaps?

The book wasn’t in great shape when purchased, and college and multiple moves consigned it and too many other treasures to the trash. I’ve kept my eye out for an affordable (and sturdier) replacement copy. I know there’ve been other editions from Dell (with different cover art) and even one more current reissue from Black Mask books. Not a collector, as I’ve often noted here, I still need that original Dell #123 edition with what I now know to be a C.C. Beall cover painting.

House Of Flesh Dell 3rd Issue

I’d no idea at the time what the “Shudder Pulps” were, and surely assumed the novel I bought was going to be a tasty bit of retro saucy stuff. Well, based on that cover, at least. But the so-called Shudder Pulps are precisely where author Bruno Fischer (1908 – 1992) got his start with fiction. Fischer, who came to the U.S. from Germany as a toddler, was actually a rabble-rouser, ardent socialist, reporter and editor who took to writing pulp stories on the advice of a friend to make some extra money. And what were the Shudder Pulps? Also called “Weird Menace” pulps, those were the pre-WWII pulp magazines that offered a bit of horror, a bit of mystery, some exotic foreign adventures and various demonic cults, their covers typically adorned with unclad damsels in distress, ready to be abducted, ravished, tortured or killed by sinister foreigners and mad doctors. Fischer churned out dark mysteries for those rags along with some conventional hard-boiled crime fiction, ultimately penning over 300 pulp magazine stories through the 1950’s. But he began writing novels, including one private detective series, when he sensed the pulps’ heyday was waning. A referral from John D. MacDonald helped get House Of Flesh published by Dell’s new paperback original line.

House Of Flesh - New Dell Edition

This is a very weird but very good novel, chock full of pretty sinister and steamy stuff for its time. It’s not a straight crime novel, traditional mystery or even a horror novel. In fact, it’s been called “Male Gothic” by some, and I think that’s a pretty good label. Much like the gothic novels flooding the market throughout the 1960’s and 70’s – those ubiquitous ‘women running from houses’ paperbacks – House Of Flesh puts a relative innocent in a remote locale teeming with dark mystery, where forbidden love and hints of eerie goings-on abound. Only here the ‘innocent’ isn’t a young governess, the love interest isn’t a brooding Bronte-esque Heathcliff type, the forbidden love isn’t merely smoldering glances or fiery kisses, and all the dark mystery is pretty gritty stuff.

Still smarting from a bitter divorce and a humiliating championship defeat, pro athlete Harry Wilde escapes to the tiny town of North Set in upstate New York for the summer. But rural and remote don’t necessarily mean relaxing. An ominous mansion in the hills is home to a weird veterinarian who keeps a pack of vicious dogs. It’s also home to the vet’s second wife Lela, a classic noir femme fatale if ever you encountered one – brooding, demanding, manipulative and literally simmering with passion. The vet’s first wife? Rumor is the vet did her in and fed her remains to his dogs. When a local woman goes missing, and Harry discovers some human bones in the woods, suspicion falls on him, even while he and Lela flirt, spar and inevitably indulge in a passionate affair in smart banter and some splendid circa-1950 steamy prose. In their own way, Harry and Lela are as good a match as Walter Neff and Phyllis Dietrichson in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity or Frank Chambers and Cora Smith in his The Postman Always Rings Twice. And 1950’s pocketbook purchasers must’ve agreed, since House Of Flesh sold just shy of 2 million copies.

House Of Flesh Black Mask Books Reissue

No gunsels or mobsters, no gin joints or shadowy big city alleys here. This is noir, but a kind of horror-noir, dark rural noir, or even ‘Male Gothic’ if you prefer. This was one of the firsts for me, and I blame that striking piece of C.C. Beall cover art for luring me in. Heck, this book and a few others bought back then are responsible for my whole fixation. I’m grateful for that, and will keep up my search for a crisp, clean but affordable copy of that 1950 original, C.C. Beall cover art and all.

 

In Comes Death

In COmes Death 1951 copy

This 1952 paperback edition of Paul Whelton’s In Comes Death is actually an abridged version of his 1951 hardcover (also released in the UK in 1952), the last in his six-book Garry Dean series, Dean a tenacious, hard-nosed reporter for Belle City’s Press Bulletin.

In Comes Death Hardcovers

Here Dean witnesses a young woman faint right in the courtroom when she hears that her boyfriend, Leo Parrish, will be charged with manslaughter for the hit and run death of one David Muriel out on deserted Frog Lane. She knows he’s innocent, and although Dean’s editor and the police are sure Parrish is their man, the reporter investigates, coming up against some mighty dangerous types determined to frame young Parrish for the murder, and racing to protect Parrish’s girlfriend when she’s marked for death as well. The cover art (uncredited, as best I can verify) depicts an actual scene from the novel (now there’s a rarity!) with the real killer stealthily creeping up on the girl, about to strangle her with one of her own stockings.

Other novels in Paul Whelton’s Garry Dean series included Call The Lady Discreet, Women Are Skin Deep (AKA Uninvited Corpse) and Pardon My Blood.

Paul Whelton montage

 

Going To Glendale?

2019 Los Angeles Vintage Paperback Show

While I’m about to step out for some quick Saturday AM errands (which might include a bookstore stop…maybe) I’m not planning any two thousand mile treks this weekend. Anyway, there’s an annual vintage pulp, paperback and collectibles show ‘round these parts each Spring, if I was so inclined. I’ve gone to a couple of these shows to see the original cover art and illustration art exhibits, but kept my credit cards safely tucked away in my wallet. Fortunately, (being a fan of retro illustration and postwar crime fiction) I’m rarely gripped by the collector frenzy, which can be as dangerous as a gambling addiction for the weak-willed. But for those of you in the Los Angeles area, the Vintage Paperback Collectors Show & Sale in Glendale this Sunday sure looks like the place to be. And I do like that Robert McGinnis illustration chosen for their poster!

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.

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