Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You CAN Tell A Book By Its Cover

Charles Ardai, the head honcho at Hard Case Crime, is -- as I've said before -- a talented writer, as Richard Aleas (Little Girl Lost, Songs of Innocence) and a brilliant editor. But what he really does best is to commission sexy covers from great artists.

The cover for THE CORPSE WORE PASTIES, the latest adventure written by and starring the inimitable Jonnie Porkpie, the co-creator and master of ceremonies of New York's celebrated Pinchbottom burlesque troupe, called "the best burlesque show in town" by the Village Voice and named "Best of New York" by New York Magazine, is what first caught my attention: painter Ricky Mujica has managed to recreate and improve upon the covers of my youth -- paperbacks which I had to smuggle into our Bronx apartment hidden in my underwear.

Then, after a long look at Mujica's real-life models, I began to read the first chapter. The titular pasties didn't refer to the kind I knew in my first editing job -- on men's magazines such as Tab, Vue, Zest and Beauty Parade. Instead, they were the kind worn at strip joints where Jonnie Porkpie works.

Here's how the book begins:

The heel of the stiletto caught on the strap of the black lace bra she had dropped a few moments earlier. She kicked it out of the way without looking. The underwear skittered across the stage.

She held the bottle next to her breasts, so the audience could see that the pasties covering her nipples matched the skull-and-crossbones on the label. Then she lifted it to her face, and licked the large yellow letters on the label that spelled out the word POISON. She tilted her hand. Bright green liquid flowed out of the bottle and down across her chest. Green dripped down between her breasts, over her ribcage, around her navel, and soaked into the cloth of her panties.

She threw her head back, and lifted the bottle to her mouth. A strange look crossed her face as the green flowed past her lips. A trickle of green dripped out of the corner of her mouth, down her cheek, and along the sinews of her neck.

Cherries whispered something.

The woman on stage seemed to swallow, then suddenly stopped moving. Her eyes widened. She grabbed her throat, and spit the liquid all over the front row of the audience. The bottle fell from her hand, hit the stage with a dull thunk, and rolled in a lazy circle around her feet, liquid pooling in its wake.

Great. Forget paper towels, I was going to need a mop to clean up after this act.

She made a strangling sound, as if trying to scream, but instead started gagging.

I looked at Cherries Jubilee, who was standing next to me as I watched the act from the wings. She shook her head. "Not this part," she said. "At least, not exactly. She drinks from the bottle, but..." She let the sentence trail off.

The woman on stage stuck out her tongue and scraped at it with her fingernails, her mouth stretched in a convincing grimace of terror. Judging it purely on the basis of the performance—and I can’t tell you how much I hated to admit it, even to myself—this bit was actually quite good.

The music ended, but the number didn’t end with it. She kept going, flailing about the stage, pounding her chest, reaching out to the audience with a pleading look in her eyes. She jammed a finger into her mouth, two fingers, three fingers, and gagged again. She smeared the green across her face. Then her body went stiff and she fell to the stage, landing with her face in the cup of the brassiere she had just removed for our entertainment.

Great finale.

The audience thought so too. They clapped, cheered, whistled, hooted and hollered. A couple of people were actually standing up.

But she wasn’t done. Throughout the ovation, she stayed where she had fallen on the stage.

Not completely immobile; every few seconds, she would toss in a death spasm, which would set the audience clapping again, even louder.

Finally, having milked the bit for all it was worth, she lay still. The applause died down. She stayed where she was.

It took us all a minute to realize that it wasn’t part of the act.

By the time we did, she was dead.

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