A Justly Forgotten Imprint? The Tiny Saga of Airmont Books

Mystery book, mystery publisher.

It’s become a hobby for book lovers to bemoan the shrinking world of print books and grieve all that’s lost, namely bookstores and print publishers. Bookstores are always worth your tears, but print publishers — not always the case. Proof positive? Airmont Books.

It’s unusual for me to happen upon a mid-century U.S. paperback publisher I’m unfamiliar with, but I’d never even heard of Airmont Books until I ran across a 1960s Edgar Allan Poe collection from the imprint. The only thing impressive about the book was the cover:

Okay, so maybe that’s not an impressive cover, but it was pretty groovy for 1962, and I was sufficiently intrigued to go searching for what I could about Airmont Books.

What I found was little to nothing, and courtesy of the Book Scans Database, where the indefatigable Kenneth R. Johnson reports that Airmont Books were:

published by Thomas Bouregy & Co., primarily a lending library publisher, sometimes under the imprint Avalon Books. With the exception of the Classics series, all the Airmont Books were reprints of Bouregy’s own hardcovers, issued without any additional payment to the authors. 

The bolding at the end is my own.

You can see an assortment of Airmont’s offerings at Book Scans. The pickings are slim, to say the least — aside from the Classics series, which offered the usual menu of Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells and Charles Dickens, et. al., the rest of the Airmont catalog is comprised of obscure romance, mystery and western titles, with a few sci-fi gems. The sci-fi gems came from Avalon, which was an important publisher of sci-fi in the 1950s, and one of the first imprints to offer sci-fi in hardback.

I’d love to know whether Airmont existed to bring hardback library-aimed titles to book buyers or to provide lending libraries with paperbacks, but can’t unearth anything in that vein. Either way, the intent was apparently to buy low and sell high. Everything about the imprint’s books looks slapdash and cheap; compare the Airmont Classics to the Signet or Penguin Classics from the same period, and you’ll see what I mean. And if the paperback versions of the Bouregy and Avalon hardbacks were sold without additional payment to the authors… well, use your own judgment there.

According to Johnson, the Airmont imprint was active from around 1962 until the mid-1970s.  Avalon, the primary imprint for the Bouregy Company, sold almost exclusively to libraries before being bought by Amazon in 2012.

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Review: How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar

howlikeanangel2

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!”  William Shakespeare, Hamlet

It’s pure supposition that Margaret Millar took the title of her 1962 mystery masterpiece How Like An Angel from Hamlet, but the quote fits the book so well that it’s hard to chalk this up to coincidence.

Like the best of Shakespeare’s works, How Like An Angel is dark and darkly funny, tightly plotted and populated with characters that need no more than one or two lines to become real. Like the best mysteries, the ending is so perfect that you know it couldn’t have ended any other way.

How Like An Angel begins with P.I. Joe Quinn hitchhiking out of Reno, broke and out of a job. When his ride drops him just outside of The Tower, a cult-like religious order, Quinn finds himself taking on an assignment from one of The Tower’s residents. Sister Blessing asks only that Quinn go to a small town in California and find out what became of Patrick O’Gorman. It seems an easy enough assignment, but when Quinn gets to Chicote, he finds the mystery of Patrick O’Gorman’s disappearance five years ago is still a sore subject to more than one resident of the town.

As the story of O’Gorman’s disappearance becomes more tangled, Quinn makes more trips between Chicote and The Tower, and with each trip, the compound’s brothers and sisters seem less like the weirdos than the residents of Chicote. By the last third of the book, How Like An Angel seems less like a mystery than psychological horror, more akin to The Yellow Wallpaper than to The Big Sleep.

To say much more about the book’s plot would be a disservice to the reader, but suffice to say that even if you see the book’s mystery begin to unravel halfway through the book, you’re still in for a surprise at the end.

You’re in for a surprise, regardless.

No synopsis of How Like An Angel can prepare you for what you’ll find between the covers, nor do the first few pages. The book’s sparkling dialogue and pithy but affecting prose elevate it from pulpy detective novel to an unforgettable snapshot of postwar California. The mystery often plays second fiddle to the characters, from thoughtful, soft-hearted Quinn to Sister Karma, who just wants some acne cream, and Connelly, who employs Quinn to protect his boat from the ex-wife whom he hates in the morning (when he’s sober) and loves in the evening (when he’s drunk).

The book’s most memorable character, however, is California. Of the fictional Chicote, which could stand in for almost any mid-century California boomtown, Millar writes:

Fringed by oil wells and inhabited by the people who lived off them, it lay flat and brown and hard like something a cook had forgotten to take out of the oven… It was in the teenagers that Quinn saw the uneasiness caused by a too quick and easy prosperity. They cruised aimlessly up and down the streets in brand new convertibles and and ranch wagons. They stopped only at drive-in movies and drive-in malt shops and restaurants, keeping to their cars the way soldiers in enemy territory kept to their tanks.

Only the California of the late 1950s-early 1960s could have spawned The Tower, the true mystery of How Like An Angel. The 21st century reader cannot help but place How Like An Angel in the context of the religious cults and communes that sprung up around California and the rest of the U.S. in the decades following Millar’s book; that Millar declines to pass judgment on The Tower’s followers or beliefs is a testament to Millar’s skill. She makes it achingly clear how the weary, the kind and the vulnerable could be attracted to promises made by “Masters” like the one who presides over The Tower, and leaves it to the reader to decide whether The Tower’s Master is hero or villain. If you still can’t decide when the book is done, you’re not alone.

 

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