JACK LISTON – Man Bait. Dell First Edition B158, paperback original, June 1960.

   Unless you’re collector of paperback books for their covers, you’ve probably never heard of Jack Liston. Man Bait may have been the only book he wrote under that name. But according to his online biography at Bowling Green University, where his literary papers are held — under his real name Ralph Maloney (1927-73) — he wrote six books and “was a contributor of short stories to The Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals. He also wrote documentary film scripts for British television.”

   The only other novel he wrote that’s included in Al Hubin’s Crime Fiction IV, though, is The Nixon Recession Caper (Norton, 1972), which sounds interesting enough, I suppose, but I don’t think it warrants a cover like the one you see above and to the right. It’s truly a work of art, and no wonder. It’s by famed artist Robert Maguire, whose covers invariable featured some of the most beautiful women in the world. (Follow the link and scroll down.)

   Unfortunately neither the title nor the cover are really all that appropriate. Bill Madden, who tells his own story, is a seaman by trade who finds himself in New York City longer than he expected. He’s recovering from an allergic reaction to a bad dose of penicillin, which was designed to cure the clap, and where he got the latter, he declines to say.

   Working as a bartender in a joint across from his hotel is Marcia, she of the “angry apple upthrust breasts,” and before the evening is over, she is up in his hotel room, staying the night. It’s an unusual type of affair. Each in their way is dependent on the other. Love may come into it, but these two are real people, with real concerns and desires, and romance is not really at the top of either of their priorities, not at first, at least.

   Marcia is not at all pretty. Bill describes her as a stringy sort, and he never sees her as attractive. But she knows the city inside and out, including some marginal underworld characters, and by association, some not so marginal. Bill’s other problem, besides hands and feet that swell when he is too active, is that he is a gambler, and gambling is no way to make a living when he can’t get back to his ship at sea.

   He hits bottom on page 110. What else is there to do but try his hand at crime? Up to now, we the reader may not have known where the story is heading, even with an itchy under-the-skin sort of suspense that’s continually been building up, but from this point one, now we know for sure, and there’s no turning back.

   As a bit of a warning, though, it may take some patience to get to this point. The downhill spiral the two almost-lovers find themselves in is developed oh-ever-so slowly and carefully. It is in their nature and the flaws in their characters that makes their destiny all the more predetermined and real — painfully so.

   I enjoyed this one. And what the heck. Here’s the cover again: