Devil May Care
The old saying goes that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, which is a nice sentiment and all, but doesn’t usually hold water as far as actual books. Yes, occasionally a great book is hiding behind a terrible illustration, but more often, as my first born Darian says, “it turns out that no.” A bad cover might mean the publisher either didn’t have their act together or didn’t believe enough in the product to bother hiring a good artist.
Or it might mean that the novel isn’t marketed for you… or that it was marketed in another time.
A case in point is this great adventure novel from the 1950s by the writing team of Wade & Miller. They’re one of my favorites from Chris Hocking’s pulp list, and I hope to go into detail about them later this year. But judging from that cover, which suggests some kind of romance with a hot dame and a brooding lunk, I’d never have picked it up.
Then consider the cover copy: “You could trust him with your life but never with your woman” or the promotional words on the back: “He was the kind of guy you should meet — once. He was Too Fast with his money — Too Fast with a girl — Too Fast with a gun. He was doing all right, until he met a hungry blonde in a bar in Mexico. She was hungry for his money, hungry for him and even hungrier for his gun.”
Pretty terrible, right? Well, the book isn’t, and is only tangentially related to any of that text. For instance, our protagonist DOES meet a woman in a bar in Mexico, but she’s not especially interested in him, and he’s actually pretty careful with his money.
This book wasn’t marketed at me, but at male readers in 1950, and it went through at least six printings, with cover changes. None of those covers would do much to entice me if I didn’t know just how excellent Wade & Miller were.
This is one of their books I read that made me search out almost every novel the two ever wrote together, and it just kept surprising me. Who knew I’d be interested in an aging mercenary headed to Mexico in 1950, or his troubles with an old frenemy, or his romantic entanglements? Wade Miller veered the narration into uncomfortable places and then barely steered clear, providing us with complex characters who grew as people and came through for each other — or showed their true colors — in astonishing ways. The narrative drive just just kept charging on.
I liked it so much I sent my first copy off to a friend and picked up another.
And I just finished a second reading and loved it even more. I think it’s one of Wade Miller’s very strongest titles. If you’re at all interested in hard boiled fiction, or adventure novels from the ’50s, or good thriller writing, you should track down a copy. You’re lucky, because they’re plentiful. The usual warnings about sexist and racist stuff from older times apply — except that those attitudes appear only to be those of the characters and not the writers. For instance, that “hungry blonde” comes across as a real person rather than the object the protagonist first assumes her to be. You won’t find modern women in here, but you’ll find women of the ’50s depicted as real people, or at least in a far more realistic way than you’d assume from that terrible cover…