Between 1950 and 1969, Louisiana native and WW2 veteran John Burton Thompson (1911-1994) authored and sold around 75 books. His paperbacks were considered to be so racy at the time that NYPD raided city bookstores and seized over a thousand copies of paperbacks written by Thompson and others. Thereafter, much of his writing was done using pseudonyms to remain marketable to skittish booksellers. By today’s cultural standards, the sex in Thompson’s work wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, and Lee Goldberg’s new publishing imprint, Cutting Edge Books recently put that to the test by reintroducing Thompson’s 1962 paperback “Kiss or Kill” back into print.
Our narrator is Jack McKnight looking back on his adolescent years when he was raised by his evil mother and his wicked half brothers from his mom’s previous relationship. His mother and siblings are bitter that dad left half the estate to Jack, his only biological heir, before dad’s early demise. His teen years are filled with disdain from mom and savage beatings from the brothers.
Young Jack has an ally in his late father’s best friend, Mr. Palmer, who explains the birds and the bees to Jack and seems genuinely invested in the young man’s well-being. As Jack pursues a variety of romances while moving into adulthood, there’s a lot of great fatherly advice that Mr. Palmer bestows upon Jack about life and women. I can’t remember a more satisfying “young man and adult mentor” relationship in any book I’ve read in ages.
However, there’s an real air of menace lurking in the background of this paperback. Jack’s mother and half-brothers become increasingly unhinged, and Jack worries with good reason that they are plotting to murder him to take over his half of his father’s estate. The violence - real and threatened - escalates throughout the novel building to a bloodbath of a climax.
“Kiss or Kill” is a really odd book. There are scenes of shocking violence, but it’s not an action novel. There are hot scenes of seduction, but it never felt like a graphic sleaze novel. There are a few genuinely romantic storylines, but it’s certainly not a romance novel. And so on. It’s really a fictional autobiography of a compelling character overcoming a difficult upbringing and becoming a man. In that sense, it’s a very mainstream novel masquerading as a tawdry 50-cent paperback.
Although this is pretty far afield from the classic crime-adventure novels we normally cover here at Paperback Warrior, I can enthusiastically recommend “Kiss or Kill” to anyone who enjoys a good vintage coming-of-age tale. Thompson is a way better writer and storyteller than either iteration of the novel’s packaging would lead you to believe, and I look forward to exploring his body of work in greater depth. Recommended.
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