3 Odd Books

Pardon My Body (1952) by Dale Bogard.

Don’t kick yourself for not sending a card, but last year was the 60th anniversary of Harlequin, the press that has been best known over the years for its line of romance titles.  Turns out Harlequin published a much more diverse range of genres in its early years, including a few crime pulps.  As part of the anniversary celebration, Harlequin reprinted six of these titles last year. 

Pardon My Body seemed like a good place to begin.  I mean, come on, pardon my body!  Starts out okay:  a guy is driving around one night minding his own business when suddenly he finds a nymphomaniac passed out in the middle of the road (hence, "pardon my body").  Who can’t relate to that?   But then the story devolves into a rather boring account of what I think the gumshoes used to call “leg work.”  As sometimes happens in a really terrible book, I hit that point where I realized I had been “reading” for 20 or so pages and had no idea what was going on anymore.  Case closed, whoever you are, I’m going to go make a sandwich.   

I wanted to give another title in the series a chance…but then I found this little nugget over at the Harlequin website.  

Remember, our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior—such as hitting a woman—that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership.

No wonder Pardon My Body was so terrible.  Thank you, Harlequin, for completely negating the entire purpose of reprinting these books.  I agree it’s totally unacceptable to hit a woman, but if I was going to pummel one with cruel mockery, it would be the editorial schoolmarm who decided that a gangster slapping a cocktail waitress around is somehow more offensive than a company churning out a half-century of pornography designed to enslave women in the fantasy that they might one day be transported to a fundamentally impossible emotional universe.  Which is worse?  To encounter an ugly convention of the post-war pulp in its period context, or to read the more “modern” Harlequin titles that promise a handsome Italian surgeon will suddenly materialize in the kitchen to save you from all the half-finished wine coolers, stray candy wrappers, and Shiztu fur that covers the apartment?

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The G-Men Smash The Professor’s Gang by William Engle (1937) 

Still stinging from John Williams’ rather bleak portrait of professorial life in Stoner (1965), I thought a quick cruise through this title might be a bit more inspiring.  As the title suggests, this book dates from an era when professors could still inspire fear and respect by threatening to use their superior intellect to terrorize the city, nation, or world.  There’s a great scene toward the end of the new Sherlock Holmes movie where Holmes, summarizing his various deductions, reveals that his next adventure will be against the dreaded Professor Moriarty—whom he identifies by  chalk dust on the lapel.  Ah, to diagram sentences in the morning, take lunch at the faculty club, and then hold London hostage in the afternoon with some manner of death ray.  That’s living, my friend.  Today, sadly, even professors who know how to do really scary stuff, like re-sequence your genome or trick you into studying anthropology, are generally figures of ridicule—best known for their tweed patches, constantly misplaced car keys, and complete lack of interest in Brad and Jen’s impending reconciliation.   

Obviously, the title here reveals that this particular professor and his gang will be “smashed” in the end…but still, the fantasy of a Ph.D. having a “gang” and temporarily sticking it to Johnny Law was a strong lure.   Expectations diminished quickly, however, when Engle introduces the professor as “little, twisted, and gnome-like.”  Oh well. 

Hollywood famously caught a lot of flak after Little Caesar (1931) and Public Enemy (1931) made the gangster life look—if not necessarily viable—at least noble and heroic.  Aimed at younger readers, this book—like the film G-Men (1935)-- appears to be part of the era’s larger campaign to de-glamorize criminal life and force impressionable kids to identify with the police.  Lots of emphasis here on all the cool gadgets and neat-o techniques G-Men have at their disposal.  And yes, the professor and his gang end up well and truly smashed.     

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The Twisted Drives of Victoria McCall by “Tony Trelos” (1967) 

Victoria McCall wasn’t like other girls.  She was fat. She also had a storm of passion waiting to be unleashed.  It didn’t happen until she dieted.  Then nothing could prevent her unnatural fling… 

Best just to go straight to the plot here: Vicky lives with her mom who is frequently abused by the strange men she brings to the house.  To escape this harsh world, Vicky eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and has become rather heavy.  When not eating, she fantasizes about becoming a beautiful starlet—the kind of woman to whom she is increasingly attracted. After catching mom in bed with a particularly disgusting guy, she runs away from home.
Happily she meets a dyke named Toni on the subway and accepts an invitation to live on her houseboat.  Vicky is in love, but dares not say anything.  When she finds Toni in bed with another woman, she has to run away again. 

A year later, Vicky is back.  Dieting and exercise have transformed her into a bombshell, and she uses her new allure to get a high-paying gig as a topless dancer in a swinging New Jersey cabaret.  Here she becomes the “property” of Ronnie, the club’s “butch in disguise” owner.  Things are going pretty good until Vicky decides to see what sex with a man might be like, perversely picking one of the same men who used to beat up her mother.  Ronnie finds out, they get in a fight, and Vicky quickly leaves in the escort of a rich older lesbian from Manhattan.     

But Vicky soon gets bored with her new lover and all her snooty, artsy, intellectual friends.  Then one night at a particularly boring party, Vicky thinks one of the men is hitting on her and so she decides to take him into a back room to seduce him.  But—in a scene ripped right out of Now, Voyager—it turns out this man is actually a psychiatrist who has been invited to the party to evaluate Vicky’s growing malaise. Yep, Vicky sure is screwed up, opines Dr. "Get Your Hand Off My Junk." Humiliated and angry, Vicky has no choice but to run away once again. 

Cut to a seedy bar somewhere in the Village.  The bartender, whom we haven’t met before, has just sold the joint and can’t wait to get away from all the “degenerates” that hang out there every night.  Someone comes in looking for “Vicky,” whom the bartender only knows as that sweet but sad fat girl who has been a regular for the past couple of years, turning tricks with anyone at anytime for a ten-spot. Nope, he hasn’t seen her.  Then a policeman comes in.  They just pulled a woman out of the river—a suicide.  “Fat girl.  Really big.  Her name’s Vicky McCall.”  THE END.   

Oddly, this book is available as a $2 buck download, which means someone had to scan The Twisted Drives of Victoria McCall page by page. Why someone would invest the time and money to do so remains a mystery.    

So there you have it.  I’ve read them so you don’t have to (except for Pardon My Body, which was too horrible to finish).  You’re welcome. 

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