Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Gold Medal 199 (1951)

Title : Sumuru
Author : Sax Rohmer
Cover art : Barye Phillips
   [Greenwich, Conn. : Fawcett Gold Medal, 1951. No. 199. Paperback original. Mystery featuring the Sax Rohmer character, a Fu Manchu-like enchantress with quasi-supernatural powers who enslaves men and can turn people to stone].

style ***
substance **
collectibility ***

    The character of Sumuru has always benefitted from colorful front cover art (movie posters too). See here for a sampling. The quintessential Oriental villainess with supernatural powers seemed ready-made for the splashy 1950s paperback treatment, especially with Gold Medal as the publisher, whose stable of very capable artists included James Meese and Barye Phillips.

   At the same time there was a there was a burgeoning lesbian paperback surge in the 1950s* - the novels of Packer, Bannon, et. al were very popular at the time (and much commented on today in the print and online literature). But perhaps even more fascinating though much less frequently referenced is the appearance of lesbian themes and ideas in mainstream novels of the time, a case in point being our present title of interest, Sumuru (inasmuch as stories about Oriental arch-enchantresses with super-human powers could be mainstream).

   The Cover art for GM 199 depicts an exotic-looking brunette (presumably the title character) beckoning with a finger to a half-naked, draped (Caucasian?) redhead, who peers from a distance from behind a half-opened curtain. The Asian woman holds a gold chain in he her left hand and what appears to be an opium pipe in her right hand, while smoke from the pipe gently wafts nearby, all providing a nice atmosphere of forbidden Eastern exoticism (and perhaps eroticism, as well). Barye Phillips' cover art takes the Mysterious East theme a risqué step further by subtly suggesting a hint of lesbianism with the depiction of two beautiful, scantily clad women, the Eastern woman's come-hither gesture, and the other woman's glance back at her.

   I’m not qualified to say whether any lesbian themes actually appear in the novel, as I’ve not read the ‘Sumuru’ stories. But my guess is probably not. This was the vintage pb era, and they tended to put more spice on the covers than in the book's contents. -- BCS

   * With the conspicuous exception of the various sleaze publishing houses, the cover art for books by said and other authors tended to be fairly restrained and tasteful, usually far less suggestive than Phillips’ rather daring imagery for GM 199.