Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dressing Up a McBain Classic

One of the more intriguing “new” crime-fiction releases this week is So Nude, So Dead, by Ed McBain. I’ve placed “new” in quotations marks, because this isn’t really a new novel at all. It was originally published in 1952 as The Evil Sleep! and its author was listed as Evan Hunter--McBain’s legally adopted name (he’d actually been born Salvatore Alberto Lombino). The Evil Sleep! was in fact Hunter’s first adult novel to see print. Four years later, in 1956, Crest Books reissued The Evil Sleep! under the much more tantalizing title, So Nude, So Dead, this time offering the byline “Richard Marsten,” another of Hunter’s pseudonyms. But only now--a decade after the author’s death back in 2005--has publisher Hard Case Crime finally attached Hunter’s best remembered nom de plume to this book, in a handsome trade-size paperback with cover art by Gregory Manchess.

There have been a number of write-ups posted recently about So Nude, So Dead, including this fine one by Cullen Gallagher and this other one by Ron Fortier. But the blog Crime Fiction Lover provides one of the most concise synopses of its plot:
The novel has a familiar beginning. A young musician and addict called Ray Stone wakes up in a strange room with little memory of the night before. In the bed beside him is a dead girl. Eileen Chalmers was an addict too. Through the panic, and withdrawal symptoms that gradually grow more intense, Stone is able to piece together a little of the night before. Eileen sang with a combo, and Ray met her between sets at a nightclub. They shared a cab back to her hotel room and got high together. Eileen had shown Ray 16 oz. of pure heroin before they fell into a narcotic-induced slumber. Examining her corpse, Ray discovers she was shot twice in the stomach and worse, from his selfish point of view at least, the heroin is gone.

Ray may be naïve but he knows he’s been set up. His first call is to his father, who agrees to meet him with some money. But dad still entertains hopes of getting his son back on the straight and narrow, and when the two meet Ray finds his father ;has invited the cops along too. Ray knows that if he goes along with them he’s more likely to be sent to death row than hospital for a detox, and barely makes his escape. Walking the mean streets of New York with the police after him, Ray knows he’ll have to find Eileen’s murderer himself. And he needs to do it quick, because when cold turkey really sets in he won’t be any use to anyone.

So Nude, So Dead carries us off into the seedy world [of] hophead jazz musicians, a world where a reefer stick can send a promising young pianist into the arms of heroin, and the arms of any number of amorous young women, be they half-Chinese strippers, supper club singers or just hangers-on. Of course it has dated. There is nothing in this book which would be remotely scandalous now, but there is enjoyment to be had in this. Never before have I read a book where so many women think they can rid an addict of his habit with a romp between the sheets.
What’s also interesting about So Nude, So Dead is the comparison between its Hard Case Crime cover and the front it bore for Crest back in 1956. The façade at the top of this post carries, of course, Manchess’ new painting, which shows an evidently deceased young brunette (odd, since Eileen Chalmers is described in McBain’s yarn as being blonde), sprawled upon a bed beneath a bare light bulb. Lower and on the right is the cover the great Mitchell Hooks (1923-2013) did for Crest, featuring not only the murdered Eileen, but also a very shaken Ray Stone, obviously in the midst of fleeing the scene of this crime. It’s tough to make the call on which of these images is the more engaging one. What do you think?


Art Taylor said...

Indeed a tough call! I need to pick up the new release myself, but both covers are nicely done.

I'm always curious if you have copies of all the books whose covers you talk about--envious of your collection, if so!

J. Kingston Pierce said...

I wish I did, in fact, own all of the vintage crime novels I write about. I don't, though I certainly have boxes of such paperbacks, and am working my slowly but delightedly through them all.


Bob said...

Regarding Hard Case Crime Books, 'you can't judge a book by it's cover' ..... but you can certainly buy one for it's cover!!