Monday, February 19, 2007

Leigh Brackett;Cover paintings; Gore Vidal

Best sentence I've read all day:

A bad whipping wind--
"Somewhere a screen door slammed with the protesting futility of a dying bird beating its wing."

Chandleresque to be sure but then Leigh Brackett never tried to disguise the debt her crime fiction owed to him. Brackett wrote a number of fine crime novels and stories--the quote is from "I Feel Bad Killing You"--as well as a great deal of science fantasy and a number of screenplays, most famously "The Big Sleep" with Wm. Falkner and Jules Furthman and the first draft of the third Star Wars.

A Tiger Among Us is my favorite of her crime novels though I like them all.


Interesting piece on Galleycat today about writers and the covers their books get. Publishers seem more comfortable covering a book with a painting that suggests a particular genre, even when the book itself doesn't belong in that genre. I understand the thinking behind this and to a degree I see it as a necessary evil. Books that fall between genres are probably harder to pitch to wholesale buyers, no matter their merit. (I guess--how the hell do I know?) But it does get ludicrous sometimes. I remember picking up a western novel that was pitched as an authentic tale of Kansas right after the Civil War. It was Gone With The Wind done by Monogram Studios.


I read the piece on the fiction of E. Howard Hunt in the NY Times today and found it moderately interesting. At the end Gore Vidal is quoted as saying that he and Truman Capote were up against Hunt in 1947 for a Guggenheim grant and that since he lost he's never had much faith in awards since.

In my college days I thought Vidal was a pretty cool guy. But as I've grown older I've realized two things about him. One, he is the same sort of person his arch enemy Wm. F. Buckley is--patrician, eliitist and totally irrelevant as an observer of how most of us live. And second, he is a terrible fiction writer. His coldness as a TV personality is all too much present in his fiction. I've never read a novel or a short story of his I thought was worthwhile. They're either political potboilers sanctified by the endless research he boasts of or they're stunts ala Myra Breckenridge.

I say this with all sincerity--Alfred Knopf was right to get excited about Hunt's two initial novels (Knopf published both of them). They are fine novels. And even his potboilers are better than Vidal's, though get ready for crazed conspiracy theories that will give you headaches and maybe even crabs.

This boy was ready for a padded cell long before he a) offered to parachute into Cuba wearing a red wig and assassinate Fidel Castro and b) decided the guy he wanted as his number two on the Watergate break-in was G. Gordon Liddy. (On that fateful night when they were a block from the Watergate, a cop car came along and Hunt and his henchmen ducked into a deep doorway. Liddy, afraid the cops might spot them, suggested they shoot out the streetlights. Cops never notice streetlights that get shot out when the squad car is about thirty feet away.)


Anonymous said...

I've concluded that cynically marketed books, with deceptive covers, have harmed the whole mass-market industry, and especially westerns, which have been particularly victimized by crooked covers, nearly all of which feature a cowboy with a gun.

I believe every book should be sold on its merits. The art depicts the real contents. The title does not mislead, and the cover text accurately describes what is inside. I believe that would result in more sales, not fewer.

A few years ago I wrote a western called Yancey's Jackpot. A shy prospector discovers bonanza gold directly under a hospital run by the Sisters of Charity in a ridgetop mining town, and tells the sisters about it. Soon every schemer in town is trying to oust the sisters from their land. The heroine is the senior nun, who deals with all this with remarkable courage and skill.

So the publisher renamed it Vengeance Valley, though it was set on a mountain top and had no vengeance in it. And, you guessed it, the cover had a cowboy brandishing a gun, even though there were no cowboys in the mining town. The title and cover were so notorious that the mistress of ceremonies at the Spur Awards banquet (the book had won a Spur) made comic reference to it.

Richard Wheeler

Anonymous said...

Richard, This strikes a heartfelt chord! I'm deeply grateful that my publisher (UK indie Robert Hale) still takes westerns, but the covers often disappoint me, especially when the art is poorly executed and has little to do with the novel it fronts. My latest, SONS AND GUNSLICKS, is in this category. (More about the book and lots else at Thanks, too, for letting us know that VENGEANCE VALLEY was not your title. I had always been struck by its complete lack of originality.