While gathering a collection of vintage book cover paintings for a special event in her quaint Rhode Island bookshop, Penelope discovers a spooky portrait of a beautiful woman, one who supposedly went mad, according to town gossip. Seymour, the local mailman, falls in love with the haunting image and buys the picture, refusing to part with it, even as fatal accidents befall those around it. Is the canvas cursed? Or is something more sinister at work?
For answers, Pen turns to an otherworldly source: Jack Shepard, PI. Back in the 1940s, Jack cracked a case of a killer cover artist, and (to Pen’s relief) his spirit is willing to help her solve this mystery, even if he and his license did expire decades ago.
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About the Author
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A dead man is the best fall guy in the world. He never talks back.
-Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Quindicott, Rhode Island
They say you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but my customers did it all the time.
Most of them say they're looking for books that are well written and insightful, books filled with characters to connect with, and stories that thrill, amuse, enlighten, and entertain. Unfortunately, these intangible properties aren't things you can see from across a room, let alone place in a shop window. A striking cover, on the other hand, you can't help noticing.
During my short career in New York publishing, my more recent years as a bookseller, and my lifetime as an avid reader, I've watched book covers change with the times and the fashion.
Decades ago, painted pictures were enough to grab a reader's attention. Genre-specific cover art (you know what I mean: the clinch for romances, rockets for science fiction, cowboys and horses for Westerns, tough guys and femme fatales for detective stories) represented the work of America's finest illustrators.
As time marched on, big publishers devoured little ones, and art direction changed. Graphics and photoshopped stock images became speedy, economical alternatives to traditional painted scenes. Brand-name authors were packaged with covers displaying little more than spot art and a title beneath their prominent author moniker.
Then came the evolution of digital and print-on-demand technologies, which allowed self-published authors and pop-up micropublishers to flood the literary landscape. The big New York publishers tried to keep up, launching digital-only imprints and expanding their lists to compete, until the book business began to feel (honestly?) a little bit frantic.
In any competitive business, whenever a new idea proved successful, it was usually mimicked. Publishing was no different, but the digital age had spawned a gaming-the-system mentality not seen since the bad old days of pulp magazine. And some players were clearly less concerned about achieving a creative ideal than with the factory-like grinding out of product-and profit.
Sure, healthy competition was good. Unhealthy competition, not so much. A business could withstand only so many predatory participants, people who treated it less like a legitimate trade and more like, well, what a spirited friend of mine might call-
A racket. Is that the word you're looking for?
"Yes, Jack. If racket means caring more about money than meaning."
Money ain't a curse word, honey.
"I'm not claiming it is. We all have to make a living-"
Not all of us. Not anymore.
With a shiver, I conceded Jack was right, in more ways than one.
There was no living to be made when you weren't living. And Jack would know, since he was a ghost.
I didn't mean that he was stealthy or sneaky, or that he "ghosted" me by refusing to return my texts. I meant Jack Shepard was an actual dead man-a specter, a spirit, the departed soul of a murdered detective, gunned down on these premises in 1949 while pursuing a lead in a case.
Raymond Chandler once wrote that a dead man was the best fall guy in the world because he never talked back.
I begged to differ.
On the other hand, there was a possibility that Jack wasn't real at all. That he was no more than a figment of my fervent reader's imagination.
Any therapist would say as much. "Jack is a syndrome," they'd proclaim. The gruff, masculine voice in my head was an alter ego, my way of coping with the stresses of modern living. This hard-boiled "ghost" was merely a distillation of all the colorful characters I'd grown up reading about in my father's library, the kind of spirited soul who was brave enough to speak the blunt or off-color thoughts that I was too polite to think, let alone permit myself to say.
As far as the "stresses" of modern living, I couldn't deny I had a few. Being a widow, I'd endured my share of grief. Now a single mom, I was raising a headstrong boy, who lately enjoyed giving me some. And as a bookseller, well . . . let's just say I was still alive, though the twenty-first century sometimes seemed determined to ghost me.
"We're not dead yet!" my aunt Sadie Thornton liked to declare, usually in a Monty Python accent with a cheeky twinkle in her Yankee eye.
She and I were co-owners of a landmark bookshop in the small town of Quindicott, Rhode Island. And as I rolled out of bed one crisp autumn morning, I had the history of modern book covers on my mind for a specific reason.
Turns out, I wasn't the only one.
Yawning my way across the living room, I heard my eleven-year-old son's voice blasting out of the kitchen. He was chatting loudly on the phone, unusual for seven a.m. on a Monday. And my typically morning-grumpy child was actually giggling.
"I'm not kidding!" he squealed. "It's a book cover! Here's another one: The picture shows a gorilla . . . No, a real gorilla, like King Kong, throwing a guy into a crowd of people way down on the ground. And he's wearing a tuxedo!"
Spencer paused to hear a reply. "No, it's the monkey wearing the tuxedo. His name is funny, too. He's called the Whispering Gorilla."
I stopped in my tracks in the middle of the living room, wondering why the coffee-table book, which I'd left (where else?) on the coffee table, was no longer there. My mobile phone was present and accounted for, as were my empty teacup and black-framed glasses, but the valuable book that had been specially delivered to our shop last night-the one with my handwritten Post-it note that read Do Not Touch-was gone.
"This next cover is titled 'Batman,'" Spencer continued, "but it doesn't look like any Batman I've ever seen. There's a dead guy hanging from a rope, with his tongue sticking out. And there's a girl on the floor underneath him." His voice lowered to a whisper. "She's in her underwear. It says Spicy Mystery on top of the picture."
I grabbed my glasses, shoved them on, and headed to the kitchen, where I found Spencer still on the phone, standing at the table with his back to me. Before he knew it, I was pulling the oversize volume out of his hand.
"This is not a book for you, young man. And you know that. Who's on the phone?"
"Amy," he replied.
"Tell Amy I'm looking forward to her visit this weekend and say good-bye."
Tapping my foot, I retied my robe twice while I waited for my son to finish his call.
"Now go to school."
"It doesn't start for an hour!"
"Then have breakfast."
"I had breakfast."
"All right, then you can sit down and watch me eat mine."
When your mother asks, "Do you want a piece of advice?" it's a mere formality. It doesn't matter if you answer yes or no. You're going to get it anyway.
While I ladled up steel-cut oatmeal from my aunt's slow cooker, my son collapsed into a chair with a frustrated sigh. Once the air went out of him, so did the fight.
"I'm sorry, Mom. I didn't mean to make you angry."
The sincere apology melted me. Spencer was a good kid. Disciplining him never gave me joy. But every child needed boundaries, and since I was his only parent now, I had to hold the line.
"I'm not angry. But I will be if you ignore another note of mine."
He promised. "I was curious, that's all."
I didn't doubt it. When I returned to the kitchen table with a bottle of honey and jar of walnuts, I found Spencer still focused on the big book.
"What is this exactly?"
"It's an advance copy of a fancy art book that celebrates the history of American book covers. We're hosting a launch party for the authors. It's going to be a very big deal."
"Is that why you and Aunt Sadie have been talking for days about artists I never heard of? And our shop was on TV yesterday morning? Because of this book?"
"I knew you had a high IQ. You make me so proud." I mussed his hair-copper, like mine and my late father's.
"Quit kidding." He pulled away.
"You're a kid who's fun to kid."
"Ha-ha," he said dryly. Then he shifted, uncomfortably I thought, though his freckled face was earnest. "Mom, why don't you sell those books?"
"The ones I was telling Amy about. Books like Spicy Mystery? I've never seen them in the store."
"That's because those aren't books, Spencer. They're pulp magazines, and they were published a long time ago, before modern mass market paperback books, which is the kind we sell."
"Are the magazines you're talking about like the ones in the attic? Those old magazines that belonged to Grandpa?"
"Yes, those were pulps he collected. Black Mask, mostly."
"They smell funny."
"That's because the acetone in the paper is making them rot . . ." (I did my best to preserve what I could with acid-free bags, but some of the magazines were already too far gone.) "Pretty soon, nothing will be left but dust."
Spencer fell silent, thinking about that. "So this new art book is a way to keep people from forgetting how cool those pulp covers were?"
"That's the idea."
"And the art show downstairs will have pictures from Spicy Mystery?"
"I think they're cool. Scary and weird, but really cool, too. I want Amy to see them."
"Oh, no, you don't. The last thing I need is a call from Amy's mother, accusing my son of showing her daughter adult things."
"Those old pulps were for adults only, then?"
"They sure were, Spence."
Now, that's a truckload of baloney, and you know it.
I gritted my teeth, relieved my son couldn't hear the ghost in my head. Stay out of this, Jack, I silently warned.
Why? You know I'm right. Lots of boys his age read pulps. They were sold in every drug and dime store, not to mention every penny-ante newsstand in the country.
That was another time, I told the ghost. And times have changed.
Change ain't always for the better. From my perspective, the march of time has trampled sanity and nearly all common sense.
Your perspective isn't relevant.
Because you're not alive.
So? You don't have to be a part of time to have an opinion about it.
Yes, you do.
No, you don't.
While the ping-pong match went down inside my head, Spencer's stubborn Thornton streak rose up. Sitting straight in his chair, he declared-
"You can stop me from showing Amy the covers, but I'm going to see them!"
I wasn't in the mood for another debate, and thanks to Aunt Sadie, there was no need.
"See what?" she asked, breezing into the kitchen.
I tapped the table. "I found Spencer in here, looking at the book that arrived last night."
"The one Salient House sent you?" Sadie raised an eyebrow as she dished up her own bowl of oatmeal. "I'll bet some of those Robert McGinnis cover girls caught his eye."
"He didn't get that far. Mr. Curious got stuck in the Spicy Mystery section."
Sadie laughed. "Well, those old magazines were naughty, but no naughtier than what's on cable these days."
I told you, Jack gloated. You should listen to your auntie. She's a wise old bird.
I got the smug treatment from Spencer, too. "See, Mom!"
"I'll tell you what I see. A boy who's already not allowed to watch certain channels without my say-so, and"-I pointed at the wall clock-"one who's going to be late for his school bus if he doesn't get a move on."
"I'm going. Bye, Mom! Bye, Aunt Sadie!"
A minute later, we heard my son's sneakers hitting the stairs.
Sadie sat down. "Are you all set with the babysitter tonight?"
"Bonnie Franzetti can't make it, so I'm using her friend Tracy."
"Tracy?" Sadie thought for a moment. "You mean that girl with the blue hair?"
"Don't look so worried. Tracy Mahoney is a very nice young woman. She's in one of our new book groups, and she likes the same video games as Spencer, so they should have a good time."
Aunt Sadie touched my hand. "I'm sorry I can't go to Blackstone Falls in your place. I just couldn't let Bud go to the Retail Hardware Association dinner stag. Not after he asked me so sweetly to be his date."
"You and Bud deserve a night out. Spencer will be fine. And I'm happy to pick up those paintings. After all, it's part of my job, not yours . . ."
And so it was, because I was the shop's "events manager," a position I'd created after setting up our first-ever event space. The multipurpose room, which we also rented to community groups, was just one part of our grand store makeover, a plan I'd launched after moving back to Quindicott from New York.
With a bank account full of my late husband's insurance money, I'd convinced my aunt to trust my ideas on saving her failing bookstore. Together we overhauled the inventory as I spearheaded restoration of the interior and exterior, replaced the old metal displays with beautiful oak bookshelves, added comfy reading chairs and floor lamps, and expanded the business into the adjoining storefront.
Newly christened Buy the Book, thanks to my precocious son, the Thornton family's tired "We Buy and Sell Books" soon became a hot regional store and vital online business. We blew up Sadie's customer base to a worldwide collectors' market. We formed reading groups, reached out to local authors for signings, coordinated events with St. Francis University, and booked big-name writers on national tours. To wit-
This coming weekend, we were hosting a launch party for By Its Cover: A History of Modern Book and Magazine Illustration. Writers, artists, and academic critics were coming, along with the press. And it wasn't just because this gorgeous, full-color book presented a celebration of cover artists though time.
The authors, Liam and Sally Palantine, were a renowned and highly respected power couple of New York publishing. After decades in the business, they'd retired to their summer home in nearby Newport, which was lucky for us. As loyal customers of our shop, they were only too pleased to entrust our store with their launch-party plans.
Given their publicity savvy, the Palantines were the ones to suggest we stage an art exhibit to go with their launch, featuring some of the original cover paintings included in their book. The publisher guaranteed national coverage, and they delivered. A CBS news producer sent out a crew for B-roll footage of our shop, which Sadie, Spencer, and I watched excitedly on yesterday's Sunday Morning profile of the Palantines.