Abbett’s Silver-Age Masterpieces

run for doom robert abbett

Robert Abbett is but one of the many 20th century illustrators often eclipsed by more famous names like Robert McGinnis, Robert Maguire, James Avati, Belarski, DeSoto and others. And he’s also one of the many artists whose paperback cover and magazine illustration work represents but a tiny part of their artistic career, so many of these academically trained artists well-skilled in and much preferring to work in other subjects altogether…Western art for McGinnis and James Bama, Civil War historical painting for Mort Kunstler, and so on. In Abbett’s case, his illustration fame is definitely overshadowed by his renown as a wildlife, landscape and outdoors artist. Born in Hammond Indiana, Robert Kennedy Abbett (1926 – 2015) studied at the University of Missouri and Purdue University, and once he achieved some success in commercial illustration, relocated to Oakdale Farm in rural Connecticut in 1953. There he became entranced with the autumnal landscapes, hunting and wildlife scenes, which became his trademark in his post-illustration fine arts career.

In fact, even within paperback cover illustration, it’s probably his work on many Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Barsoom and Pellucidar books that brought him the most acclaim, much more than general fiction, crime fiction or any so-called ‘sleaze’ books, which so many illustrators had in their portfolios (even if hidden way in the back).

run for doom kane

Working in a style reminiscent of Mitchell Hooks and other ‘silver age’ artists, Abbett had a tremendous command of figure drawing, but still enjoyed abstracted or vignetted backgrounds and settings, which became the trend in the late 1950’s through mid-1960’s. Bird dogs in New England fields may be his primary legacy, but for me it’s the way so many of his characters look precisely like those I imagine for my own in-progress writing (which is set in 1959, after all). Above is the original art for Henry Kane’s Run For Doom from 1962, as well as a so-so found image of the book cover. Below is one of my favorites: Robert Carroll’s 1961 Champagne At Dawn. No, I don’t mean the book. I don’t have it and never read it, and I’m not sure I’d go looking for a readable copy about ‘fly now, pay later girls’. But change that hair color to a deep brunette shade, and that’s more or less Sharon Gardner, AKA Sasha Garodnowicz, AKA the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’. Well, maybe a slightly more ‘curvy’ version of Gardner/Garodnowicz/Gumshoe. I can forego a 1961 novel about stewardesses (I assume in 1961 they weren’t flight attendants yet), but I’d give anything to find a decent scan of the original art from that book!

Champagne At Dawn 1961

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.

 

The Lethal Sex

the lethal sex 1959

This important (and overlooked for decades) 1959 anthology was reissued by The Mystery Writers Of America in 2018, and is available in print and Kindle editions. Something tells me equal representation for women writers wasn’t top of mind for editors, publishers or even the MWA sixty years ago.

The original paperback edition showcases a wonderful Robert McGinnis cover illustration, though in keeping with the times and then prevailing trends, it’s a needlessly sexy picture for the deliciously dark but not necessarily saucy content of the 14 stories selected by MWA Grandmaster (though not at the time this book was done) and editor John D. MacDonald, who only broke out of the pulps himself and into the big time (relatively) just nine years earlier with The Brass Cupcake, then went on to bigger success with The Executioners, filmed as Cape Fear in 1962, and of course, his long running Travis McGee P.I. series. MacDonald provides a terrific introduction as well as lead-ins for each of the fourteen stories written by women, some of them full-time mystery/crime fiction writers, some working in other genres from science fiction to romance and even children’s books. MacDonald adopts an appropriately apologetic stance, noting that some of the talented writers in the anthology deserved much wider recognition.

Some did get it (back then, at least), while some, sadly, did not. So there are some names I’ve never heard of and been unable to learn more about. And there are luminaries from that era, like Margaret Millar, the 1956 Edgar Award winner for Best Novel, who wrote more than two dozen mystery novels including three different series. Somehow Millar (previously Margaret Sturm) managed to snag Mr. Kenneth Millar in between pounding out successful novels, the Mister better known as ‘Ross MacDonald’, hard-boiled maestro of Lew Archer fame.

Death In High Heels Montage

And there’s the incredibly prolific Christiann Brand, who wrote more books than I can count, with multiple mystery series, stand-alone novels, general fiction, children’s series and more. Her Death In High Heels (above) is a favorite. In fact, The Lethal Sex gives fair representation to U.S. as well as UK writers like Brand. The book was published later in Britain, though from the look of it, lost some of the stories along the way.

The LEthal Sex UK Edition

The complete US edition of The Lethal Sex also included stories by Ursula Curtis, Bernice Carey, Margaret Manners, Anthony Gilbert, Jean Potts, Miriam Allen DeFord, Gladys Cluff, Carolyn Thomas, Neda Tyre, D. Jenkin Smith, Veronica Parker Johns and Juanita Sheridan. I had a crumbling 1959 paperback bought on Ebay in a bulk-books purchase which barely made it through an initial reading, so I was thrilled to see that it was re-issued, and in mighty handsome packaging this time, even if it’s not a McGinnis painting. Look for this one. It’s a worthwhile read.

The Lethal Sex 2018 Edition

 

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

 

Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan

Dont You Weep Dont You Moan

Don’t You Weep, Don’t You Moan by Richard Coleman, a 1955 paperback edition shown here. I don’t know if it’s really “A novel of raw desire”. Originally published in 1935 and garnering good reviews at that time, even at the New York Times Book Review (still out there online), it might be called a torrid soap opera with literary leanings and set in Charleston, South Carolina’s African-American community.

Dont You Weep Dont You Mpan Cover 1935 - 1955

I assume the title’s a nod to the old spiritual, which was also turned into a folk song by Pete Seeger (“…Oh Mary, don’t you weep, tell Martha not to moan”). I don’t know the artist on this one, and couldn’t even trace it on a reliable go-to site like pulpcovers.com, but the illustration is handsome.

Gil Brewer Revisited

The Red Scarf-A Killer is Loose

The latest Mystery Scene magazine e-newsletter included Ben Boulden’s “2018 Reissues Roundup: Some Of The Best Books To Hit The Page (Again)”, starting with Stark House Noir Classics, nice looking trade paperbacks ranging from $17.95 – $21.95 US, most with reproductions of vintage postwar illustrations for their cover art (not necessarily the cover art from the novels’ original editions, though) and usually double books (two novels). Boulden’s article features Stark House’s republished version of two Gil Brewer novels, The Red Scarf and A Killer Is Loose from 1958.

A lot of Gil Brewer material deals with regular folks who are particularly unlucky, whether with money, jobs, love, marriage, you name it, and such is the case in The Red Scarf.

The Red Scarf Montage

Roy and Bess Nichols’ roadside motel looks out on a planned highway that never was built, so now they’re deep in debt, unable to borrow any more from the bank or family, and Roy’s taken to drinking too much. Doing just that at Al’s Bar-B-Q one night, Roy hitches a ride home with Noel and Vivian Teece, a bag man and his girl who’ve had a few themselves. When an accident kills Noel (or so it seems) Vivian grabs their satchel of mob money and holes up in Cabin No. 6 at Roy’s hotel, where Roy obsesses over the bag of dirty loot tied shut with her red scarf, even as the law and some very dangerous gangsters start to sniff around.

The Red Scarf

I’d read some Gil Brewer before, including Hard Case Crime’s edition of The Vengeful Virgin and Wild To Possess/A Taste Of Sin, another Stark House double. Brewer (1922 – 1983) was a Florida writer who usually set his fairly bleak tales in familiar turf, all of them a kind of ‘sun-drenched’ noir that neglects the glitz of Miami Beach for back roads, small towns, roadhouses and hot sheet hotels instead. My own work has me constantly stuck in a 1959 mindset, so some more late 50’s/early 60’s era Gil Brewer ought to go down swell right now.

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?

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