Ninety-Nine Candles For The Master: Robert Maguire.

Robert Maguire 1

Let’s honor the postwar master artist/illustrator Robert Maguire (8.3.1921 – 2.26.2005), who only has one more to go before the century mark, and is credited with over 1,200 paperback covers in addition to his work in magazines, advertising and other media. Maguire was attending Duke University when the U.S entered WWII, and ended up in the infantry in the Italian campaign. Once mustered out, he studied at the Art Students League, graduating in 1949 and quickly finding work, first with Trojan Publications’ “pocket pulps” like Hollywood Detective Magazine.

Robert Magure the damned lovely 1955

Sadly, (but very understandably) the Robert Maguire website at ramaguirecoverart.com (a terrific site cataloging the master’s work and showcasing intriguing studio photos, sketches and more) was shuttered not all that long ago. You can still land at the URL, and see for yourself why it had to be taken down. Doubly sad that Maguire’s and so many of his revered postwar era peers’ work has been ‘appropriated’ by the less than scrupulous, showing up with frightening frequency on quickie sex and crime ebook covers and online ‘sale-ables’.

Dames Dolls & Gun Molls

Jim Silke’s 2009 Dames, Dolls And Gun Molls – The Art Of Robert Maguire is a treasured tome in my writing lair’s bookcases.  It would be impossible for me to load up all my favorite Maguire covers here, so only a few will have to do, like The Damned Lovely up above from 1955, The Brass Bed from 1960 and Mona Knox from 1962 below. It’s barely scratching the surface of this talented artist’s many works and diverse styles, but it’s good to remember – and honor – one of the very, very best of the 1950’s-60’s era PBO cover artists, whose work graces so very many mystery and crime fiction classics and quirky cult faves often seen here and at fellow noir culture fans’ sites. I’m sure someone (or someones) much better informed and scholarly than I will have suitable tributes come this time next year.

Robert Maguire 3 The Brass Bed 1960Robert Maguire 2 Mona Knox

No, Really: Where Did Marla Go?

Private eyeful 1

Not a collector but always acquisitive, I once had four editions of Henry Kane’s Private Eyeful, (none pristine collectibles, mind you) including the striking 1960 UK version with its Denis McLoughlin cover at, the original 1959 US paperback edition with a frequently seen Robert Maguire illustration, a 1960 reissue with Mort Engle cover art, and even a Lancer pb edition from years later (75 cent cover price, so let’s guess late 1960’s or even 1970’s) with a period-sexy nearly nude model posing in no more than a holster for the Howard Winters cover photo.

But a years-ago mishap with apartment windows left open all day while at work – a day plagued by thunderstorms – turned my Private Eyefuls and a number of other books into soggy messes with nowhere else to go but the trash. All I have now is an inexpensive replacement copy of that awful Lancer photo cover edition, a disintegrating book at that, with all but a few pages completely loosened from the binding. Proof once again why it’s best that I never became a collector.

Private eyeful 2

Now, not everyone’s a Henry Kane (1918 – 1988) fan, but I’ll admit to being one. Like writers as diverse as pulp maestro Robert Leslie Bellem (Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective) and eminent literary bad-boy James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, etc., etc.), Kane’s writing has a uniquely musical quality to it. Not quite Runyon-esque, but sometimes syncopated and sometimes sing-songy, it almost demands to be read out loud, and then could get your fingers snapping once you find the writer’s rhythm. If some critics assert that the prodigiously productive pulp and paperback original writing machine (like Erle Stanley Gardner, Scott Turow, John Grisham and others, originally a lawyer before he was a writer) can be painfully smarmy or annoyingly glib, I’d only counter that countless postwar era mystery/crime fiction writers were as well, the spinning paperback racks crammed with wise-cracking coastal private eyes like Kane’s Peter Chambers back then.

Roughly midway in the writer’s successful series of smart-assed NYC gumshoe novels, Henry Kane paused to crank out Private Eyeful in 1959. Why? Who knows. Prodded by an agent or editor, perhaps, hoping to give “G.G. Fickling’s” Honey West some competition. But let’s be frank: Henry Kane, like so many other writers from the same era, could be dismissive at best and downright misogynistic at worst when it comes to female characters, so the decision to write an entire novel about a female private eye remains a puzzler to me.

Private eyeful 3

Kane’s Marla Trent is the super-successful owner of Manhattan’s Marla Trent Enterprises, capably assisted there by big, smart and handsome William Winkle (AKA Wee Willie) and stern middle-aged secretary Rebecca Asquiff. This is no struggling pair of gumshoes dodging bill collectors. The agency’s offices are plush and well located, the revenue stream steady and lucrative, and as for Marla Trent herself? She’s blue-eyed and blonde-haired with curvy measurements that are incessantly relisted, a one-time beauty pageant contestant but also a Vassar graduate, with a Masters from NYU and a PhD from Columbia. Previously (and briefly) married to Andrew King, then of the FBI and now of the NYPD, 28-year-old Marla Trent is quite comfortable with her luxurious Manhattan penthouse, sports car and seemingly endless wardrobe courtesy of a large six-figure inheritance from her deceased inventor father.

Let’s be clear: Marla Trent is smart, savvy and capable, but most of all, Marla is attractive, as the reader is reminded over and over and over again as characters fawn over her, flirt with her, attempt to seduce her and literally are dumbfounded by her looks, all in increasingly squirm-worthy ways throughout the novel.

In Private Eyeful, Trent deals with one case in the book’s opening pages that swiftly morphs into an altogether different – and more troubling – case, initially helping model and actress Katrina Jurillo prove her ne’er-do-well brother’s innocence in an armed robbery (said brother already doing time in Sing-Sing). But this turns into an even more serious situation when his appeal goes bad and the assistant D.A. is shot dead right in the court room. Marla has to navigate a particularly puzzling (and loooong) list of culprits, lots of red herring clues, goofy coincidences and leering late fifties naughtiness, culminating in a credulity-straining trial scene. Most of the nod-and-a-wink sauciness leads nowhere, though there’s an oddly unexpected romp with Marla’s ex right in his precinct office during the work day, and the novel does end as bedroom hijinks are about to commence (this time with a handsome doctor who popped up late in the tale to facilitate all that strained credulity in the climactic court room scene).

Is it a good mystery, or even good P.I. crime fiction? Well, I’ll let readers decide on their own if they choose to dig up their own copy of Private Eyeful. Henry Kane’s novels are an acquired taste, as are so many postwar private eye series. I’m not about to canonize Brett Halliday, Carter Brown or Frank Kane either. But I happen to have a fascination with the much-too-short list of mid-twentieth century ‘stiletto gumshoes’ from the pre-Grafton and Paretsky era, even if digging up their novels, pulp tales, comics, movies and TV shows can feel like an archeological dig. They’re not all high-art, but for me they are pop-cultural touchstones.

Private Eyeful 4

Like Henry Kane’s Peter Chambers novels, Private Eyeful and the Marla Trent character are sorta fun and kinda sassy in a silly way, period pieces with all of the baggage that implies. That the book is set in 1959, the same year I open my own The Stiletto Gumshoe works-in-progress, is more coincidence than inspiration, and I’d be quick to point out that Kane’s blonde bombshell and my own Sharon Gardner (real name: Sasha Garodnowicz) have no more in common than occasionally running down the bad guys in heels.

So, why just the one Private Eyeful novel? Again, who knows. It may have been no more than a whim for Henry Kane. It might not have sold well enough to interest Pyramid Books in a series. The novel’s much better than many mystery/crime fiction PBO’s I’ve read from that era, and no worse than others, though no one would consider it a crime fiction classic. Maybe male readers preferred their saucy crime hijinks told from a comfortably male POV, while female readers were too smart to fall for sexified cartoons. So, Henry Kane’s Marla Trent had its one shot in 1959 (with reissues) but otherwise vanished.

Or did she? Tune in tomorrow for Marla’s return…

Merry Maguire.

This Is Santa Claus 1956

“Stag Fiction” by Jack Q. Lynn in a 1956 issue of Stag magazine – This Is Santa Claus: “…The city was in Christmas wrapping, budding with bubbling brats, struggling parents, bells, hymns and good will. Only I wasn’t having any…I was going to collect plenty of Christmas loot, thanks to a ripe sucker, a tape recorder and two lush dames.”

Ho-ho-ho to you too. I’m no fan of the so-called ‘mens sweats’, but who can overlook a Robert Maguire illustration not often seen, the master artist known for so many and memorable paperback original covers, but clearly just as adept with a one-color palette and a horizontal canvas.

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.

No Luck For A Lady.

no luck for a lady

My copy of Floyd Mahannah’s No Luck For A Lady is a 1958 second printing of the 1951 paperback (of the 1950 hardcover titled The Golden Hearse) and my scan above doesn’t do the gorgeous Robert Maguire cover art justice. The original edition (don’t know the artist on that one, sorry) is shown below.

Some sites bill the book as a ‘Cassie Gibson’ detective novel, but that’s stretching it a bit. Oh, there’s a character called Cassie Gibson, and she really is a private detective. But the novel’s really Nap Lincoln’s story, a fellow en route to San Francisco to embark on a year-long South American construction job when he loses his shirt in Reno. Broke and hitchhiking at night, he’s picked up by a big yellow Cadillac convertible driven by a beautiful redhead – Miss Cassandra Gibson (strangely, she’s described as both a redhead and a blonde in an example of some very rushed copy editing). But Cassie’s Caddy has a flat, and when Nap looks in the trunk for the spare, he discovers a corpse and a stash of narcotics. Nap learns that Miss Gibson is a licensed P.I. who’s trying to keep the agency her father started afloat, now on a case that has her mixed up with gamblers and gangsters. Soon enough Cassie and Nap are on the run from the local law while duking it out with some mighty scary Reno crooks.

no luck for a lady - original

This ought to be Cassie’s book, but Nap Lincoln is the hero of ths ‘Cassie Gibson Detective Novel’, with the lady P.I. playing second fiddle all the way. It’s too bad, because her character is an interesting one. It’s all the more frustrating then to read the closing scene, with Cassandra and Nap about to go their separate ways, only to ‘fess up about their feelings for one another. Before they have the last paragraph’s climactic kiss, Cassie tells Nap, “I’ve had enough detecting to last the rest of my life. I don’t want to be a detective, Nap. I want…to be a woman.”

The two being mutually exclusive in 1950, apparently.

 

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