Friday, August 7, 2020

Betty Zane (aka The Last Ranger)

The books of Zane Grey (real name Pearl Zane Grey, 1872-1939) are considered to be a cornerstone of western fiction. His best-selling novel Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) may be the most popular western of all time, a genre-defining work that has been adapted to film five times. As a longtime fan of westerns, I often found Grey as being an antiquated voice with whom I couldn't connect. However, after many years of passing by his books on the shelves, I decided to try his very first novel, Betty Zane. It was originally published in 1903 and later reprinted for modern audiences in 1974 as The Last Ranger.

Betty Zane is the author's attempt to organize and recount his own family's history. Grey's great-grandfather, Colonel Ebenezer Zane, is memorialized in Wheeling, WV for his imperishable defense of Fort Henry on September 11, 1782. The novel, while not exactly a western tale, describes the rugged frontier life of early pioneers. Their labors, triumphs and intestinal fortitude is described in the days leading up to that violent, awe-inspiring event in American history. The novel is a fantastic historical presentation that can be enjoyed as a stand-alone title, but the characters continue in Grey's sequels, The Spirit of the Border (1906) and The Last Trail (1909). These books make up what is often referred to as Grey's Frontier Trilogy or Ohio River Valley Trilogy.

Despite it's original title of Betty Zane, the novel features an assortment of characters who reside at Fort Henry, a border settlement on the eastern side of the Ohio River. On the western side lies numerous Native American tribes and their French allies. Ebenezer Zane has four brothers residing at the fort with him, Silas, Andrew, Jonathan and Isaac, as well as one sister, Betty. The book also introduces the McColloch and Wetzel family as well as a love interest for Betty in Alfred Clarke. All of these characters form the fabric of this settler’s tale. The reader bears witness to them defending the fort, attacking nearby tribes or - in Isaac's case - escaping from the Wyandot tribe.

Perhaps my favorite character in this book, and probably the entire trilogy, is Lew Wetzel. In the introduction to Spirit of the Border, the author candidly describes the character:

“He was never a pioneer but always a hunter after Indians. When not on the track of the savage foe, he was in the settlement with his keen eye and ear always alert for signs of the enemy.”

The author's astute perception of Wetzel as a hunter is important. While the real-life characters that make up Betty Zane are resilient, Wetzel is a different breed. In any violent vigilante or Syndicate-themed novel of the 60s, 70s or 80s, one would be hard pressed to find a more barbaric, ruthless aggressor than Lew Wetzel. His hardened soul binds his fate as a man who knows no other way. He repeatedly turns away Betty's advances and explains that he only exists as a forest predator, never to be domesticated or ruled. The characterization is emphasized in the book's closing pages as Wetzel rips off his hunting shirt and cleaves his enemy to death with an axe. To quote Grey, “...he had forgotten that he was defending the Fort with its women and its children. He was fighting because he loved to kill.”

Zane Grey was learning to write a novel and was probably frustrated that Betty Zane wasn't a smooth telling. Despite its fragmented delivery, the novel is loaded with action and busy frontier life. From Betty's adventures in helping in the fort's defense to Isaac's capture and imprisonment, the narrative comes to life extremely well and makes for an easy, pleasant reading experience once readers adjust to Grey's writing style. In pairing the plot with the history of the country, the tumultuous territory and the hardened people that lived there, Grey's novel is a true testament to both the early settlers and the Native Americans. Both parties were desperately grasping for independence in a rugged, unsettled frontier and that sentiment is echoed masterfully by Grey's novel. Betty Zane is an absolute classic.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Pack (aka The Long Dark Night)

Horror novels of the 1970s often had an irresistibly cheesy quality about them, but that doesn’t foreclose the possibility that the books were genuinely scary and well-crafted. David Fisher’s The Pack from 1976 was popular enough to sustain multiple printings and inspire the film adaptation The Long Dark Night in 1977. Today, The Pack has received a resurgence in popularity thanks to a reprint by Valencourt Press as part of the publisher’s Paperbacks from Hell series of reissues.

The prologue begins at the end of the summer season on Burrows Island across New York’s Long Island Sound. A family has a “summer dog” named Jake adopted to keep the kids occupied during their extended vacation on the island. Rather than taking Jake back to the city for the winter, dad ties the pup to a tree (no, really) leaving him behind while the family ferries off the island. The hope is that Jake can work himself free of the rope and fend for himself in the wild. It’s a heartbreaking scene that made me feel that these humans deserve whatever is coming their way.

Evidently, the abandonment of domesticated dogs is not unusual on the island. The orphaned pups form a pack of newly-wild Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, German Shepherds, Collies and more to hunt deer and survive on the Island throughout the harsh winter. The author went to great pains to make the ferocious pack of hounds among the sweetest breeds on Earth. Seeing the setup, you know this paperback is going to be a whole lot of fun and probably not take itself too seriously.

We then meet the Hardman family. They’re Manhattan fancies who are bringing their kids - as well Dopey the basset hound - to the island for a two-week winter vacation with the knowledge that the place will be darn-near deserted in the snowy off-season. Larry Hardman is a reasonable fellow, and his wife Diane is a spoiled Bloomingdales shopper who I wanted ripped to shreds by wild toy poodles from the moment she was introduced. Larry’s parents live year-round on the island, so three generations of the Hardman clan will be reunited on this trip before the killing begins.

There’s not much fat or foreplay in this paperback. Things go sideways and get bloody rather quickly and the mayhem keeps coming thereafter. The Pack has fantastic tension - mostly due to the threat the mad dogs pose to the family’s most vulnerable members. As a horror novel, it’s not particularly realistic but there’s nothing supernatural happening here either. The paperback reminded me of Cujo meets Night of the Living Dead with vivid characters being called to unlikely acts of heroism.

I could quibble with this or that within the paperback, but why bother? The Pack was a successful thrill ride and a lot of fun to read. Too much analysis would spoil things, and this bit of disposable escapism was meant to be enjoyed. Kudos to Valencourt Press for making it available to modern audiences. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Hawker #07 - Detroit Combat

The seventh installment of Randy Wayne White's Hawker series was published by Dell in 1986. Authored under the pseudonym of Carl Ramm, Detroit Combat once again places the series protagonist in a vigilante role. Unlike the prior novels, this entry excludes the mysterious butler Hendricks (my favorite character) and Hawker's wealthy boss Hayes. Other than just a brief mention about a prior conversation, Hawker's instructions and mission has already been established by the novel's first page.

In the opening chapters, readers find James Hawker stripping at a suite in a downtown Detroit office building preparing to have sex against his will. He's there to investigate missing girls, an assignment brought to him by Detroit police because legal obstacles have blocked their path to justice. These women are being captured and forced into sex slavery and trafficking by a woman known as Queen Faith. This downtown suite offers a portion of the puzzle – a discreet porn studio where Hawker has tracked one of the missing girls.

Whether intended or not, the opening chapters have Hawker captured by the sex slavers and forced into a porno shoot with an ugly female sporting a purple mohawk and a penchant for violent sex. At gunpoint, Hawker is forced to accept fellatio before finally breaking his restraints and liberating the girl from the sex racket.

After further investigation, Hawker teams up with two detectives to learn the whereabouts of Queen Faith. In the narrative's interesting, non-violent sections, one of the female detectives attempts to arrest Hawker for his vigilante justice. The two square off in a heated debate over the pros and cons of police procedures. Of course she's ultimately thrown into the novel as a mattress for Hawker, but kudos to White for examining vigilante justice in a debate forum.

Anyone who's familiar with the series, or these types of rapid-fire lone-justice novels, know the pattern and formula. Detroit Combat isn't any different and White proves to be a capable writer throughout the series. The book's fiery finale, set in an enormous mansion, delivers the expected thrills in grand fashion. The book is a testament to the elementary approach to the series: Hawker is a few-brains, all-bullets action-adventure series.

Easter Egg:

The author places a character in the book named Randy White. In one scene, it is said that White "wrote the book on the subject".

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Easy Gun

Elmer Merle Parsons enjoyed a career as a script writer, newspaper editor and author. While in prison for grand theft auto and check fraud, Parsons developed his writing skills, eventually selling his first novel, Self-Made Widow, to Fawcett Gold Medal. His crime fiction output was published using the pseudonym Philip Race, and his three western novels were under the name E.M. Parsons. The last of these, The Easy Gun, was published in 1970 by Fawcett Gold Medal.

The Easy Gun is a unique western as it never fully discloses any clear-cut hero or villain. True accounts of America in the 1800s reflect a striking contrast to fictional western storytelling. In most cases, there were no white or black hats – no heroes or villains. Just simply people enduring and surviving in a merciless place and time in history. Parsons positions his novel's key characters on neutral ground. Little Easy is a confused, troubled young man, and Long Gone Magoffin is a successful businessman saddled with enormous misfortunes.

In the book's beginning, readers find Little Easy in an El Paso jail cheating his fellow cellmates out of money, guitars and pride. After a few days of debauchery, Easy finds himself headed to a long-term prison sentence. However, his father, Big John Easy, pleads with the judge to allow his son one more opportunity to find righteousness. That opportunity involves a large herd of Mexican cattle that John has found and agreed to sell to Long Gone Magoffin, a cattle dealer. John and the judge agree that Little Easy's rightful place is on the range roping cattle instead of liquor and cards. Little Easy departs jail and heads to the range to count cows.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Unfortunately, Big John makes many of the same mistakes that his son does. After Magoffin finds that the cattle are covered in ticks, he refuses to purchase them. Big John, in a drunken rage, confronts the cattle dealer and demands his money. Magoffin, being sensible, attempts to talk Big John off the ledge. A fight ensues and Magoffin is forced to fatally shoot Big John. When word reaches Little Easy, he sets out to avenge his father's murder despite the misinformation that it was a cold-blooded slaying.

Parsons utilizes many of the same elements that makes his crime-fiction engaging – gambling scenes, flawed heroes and villains and numerous characters that serve as a backdrop for his protagonists’ interactions. Once the action moves to a dusty town called Ellsworth, the reader is thrust into an emotional conflict: is Easy justified in his quest for vengeance or is Magoffin the cool-headed businessman that made a tough, but right, choice? I think both characters represent the late 1800s – Easy as the more primitive, unsettled frontiersman and Magoffin the embodiment of the progressive modern west.

Regardless of where your allegiance lies, The Easy Gun is a fantastic story. Sadly, it was published the year of Parsons death. With just a trio of westerns notched on his gun, I imagine that Parsons could have delivered a lot of quality stories given more time. Nevertheless, The Easy Gun is a testament to his talent.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 3, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 55

Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 55 delves into the world of heist fiction with a discussion of Lionel White. Also discussed: Annoying Price Stickers! Louis A. Brennan! Music to Accompany a Good Book! Donald Westlake! Skylark Mission by Ian MacAlister! And much, much more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE: Listen to "Episode 55: Lionel White" on Spreaker.

Friday, July 31, 2020

A Game for Heroes

Using the names Jack Higgins, Martin Fallon, and Hugh Marlowe, Henry Patterson had a successful, early literary career throughout the 1960s and early 1970s with a high-adventure template utilized by Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley and Hammond Innes. Five-years prior to Patterson becoming a household name with The Eagle Has Landed (as Jack Higgins, 1975), he used the name James Graham to write a traditional WW2 adventure novel called A Game for Heroes (1970). It was published as a hardcover in 1970 by Macmillan and reprinted countless times over by the likes of Dell, Harper Collins and Penguin. It remains in print today in both physical and digital versions.

The novel stars Owen Morgan, a British special forces expert who served valiantly in the heart of WWII. After losing an eye, Morgan was shipped back home at the tail end of the war. After finding love and harmony, Morgan is asked to rejoin British forces for a daring mission on St. Pierre, a fictional island in the German-occupied British Channel. After fighting as a spy in harrowing, bloody campaigns, Morgan is skeptical of leading a mission that takes him back into battle. First, it's 1945 and the Russians are knocking on Hitler's door in Berlin signaling that the war is nearly over. Second, Morgan feels as if his reflexes and physical limitations will impact his success. However, the wild card is a former lover named Simone.

Morgan grew up on St. Pierre and his father was an excellent sailor who died attempting to rescue boaters during a stormy, high-seas operation. His love was Simone, daughter of the island's leader. After learning that Simone is one of 60 islanders remaining, Morgan hopes to visit Simone one final time. If successful, this military operation will allow Morgan to penetrate the island's fortifications and learn more about the Germans' underwater positioning and a unique project called “Operation Nigger” (specifically named after the British black labrador). While Morgan will face the opposition alone, he will work with a specialized international team of demolition experts to create diversions by blowing up smaller sea-craft.

Like a lot of Higgins novels, the opening chapter is the middle of the story. In it, we learn that Morgan has been captured by the Germans and is awaiting execution along with a portion of the demolition squad. As Morgan contemplates his future, he tells the story of how he came into the operation and the events that eventually led to his capture. While this is traditional Higgins' storytelling (in first person perspective), the story condenses into a rather surprising narrative. Despite the book's cover, A Game for Heroes is more of a nautical tale that has Morgan reflecting on his father's naval exploits as well as his own. There's a savage, climactic sea rescue but I would be a fool to spoil it for you here. The book's narrative ultimately leads to a wind-swept, stormy finale, but the lead-up is worth the wait.

A Game for Heroes is set in an interesting era of World War II history. It's the end, the final theater, the 1945 closing of one of Earth's most important events. Higgins presents readers with a really interesting scenario – what happens to old soldiers at the end of the journey? With guns pointing at each other, what does the end look like for combatants? There's an amazing scene where the BBC radio announces Hitler has been killed to dozens of German soldiers and their British prisoners. But without any real guidance, how do the two warring factions interact? This is Higgins masterful prose, a reading experience that delivers adventure, calculated risk and lost love but isn't afraid to ask some important questions. For this reason alone, A Game for Heroes is a game worth playing. Under any name, Higgins is extraordinary.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 30, 2020

87th Precinct #08 - Lady Killer

Ed McBain, a pseudonym of Evan Hunter, found the pinnacle of his literary success in his 87th Precinct series of police procedural mysteries. The fictionalized version of NYC, the chatty omniscient narrator, and the ensemble cast of worldly-wise police detectives are all ingredients that make the series a lot of fun to read. I’ve been enjoying the thinner early novels in random order, so today we join the series with the eigth installment, 1958’s Lady Killer.

It’s a suffocating summer in the 87th Precinct, and a someone is threatening to kill a lady tonight at 8:00. The threat came to the police station in an anonymous letter. Is the letter legit or the work of a crank? With not much to go on and only 12 hours until 8pm, the cops use the letter itself for leads. Fingerprints? Identification of the delivery boy? And who’s the lady?

Detective Cotton Hawes takes the wheel as lead investigator of the death threat. Hawes is a hard-nosed interrogator who really leans into every interview like he’s shooting for a one-punch knockout. Series mainstay Steve Carella plays second fiddle in the case. Steve is the best detective in the 87th, and a recurring hero in the series. He’s also the smartest mind in the 87th, and his scenes tend to be the best. Watching Cotton and Steve evolve as new friends and partners was a joy to read.

The mystery itself is really two-pronged as the detectives need to identify both the would-be murderer and his intended victim. There are some great action sequences as the cat and mouse game intensifies and bullets start to fly.

To date, Lady Killer is my favorite of the 87th Precinct novels. McBain tightened up his storytelling and let the cast of detectives focus on one important case. There are no significant subplots or a b-story crime to solve, and the final solution was logical, plausible, and satisfying. This one’s a total winner.


Newer editions of Lady Killer contain an insightful introduction by the author explaining how the novel came to be. The paperback was written over nine days during the summer of 1957 at a rate of 20 pages per day. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Motor City Blue

Loren D. Estleman (b. 1952) is a Detroit native and award-winning author. Cutting his teeth on westerns, Estleman has written over 25-westerns including a series starring U.S. Deputy Marshal Page Murdock. In the mid-80s, the author launched a series of high-octane action novels about a mob hit-man named Peter Macklin. However, Estleman's most praised literary work is his Amos Walker mystery series. The character was first introduced in 1980's Motor City Blue and has remained a highly-regarded character through 28-books. Unfamiliar with Walker, I started at the beginning.

Motor City Blue introduces readers to Amos Walker, a three-year veteran of the Vietnam War who experienced intense action in and around Cambodia. After Vietnam, Estleman became an MP and then later joined a Detroit police academy as a civilian. After being fondled in the shower by another trainee, Walker defensively beat-up the man and was booted from the academy. His next career choice was simply a private-eye gig which he does well. In the series debut, Walker is 32-years old and will age as the series progresses.

The novel's opening pages finds Walker working an assignment for an insurance company. Armed with a camera and a Smith & Wesson, Walker is photographing a man who may be faking an injury for claim money. But while working the assignment, Walker witnesses his old Army Captain being thrust into the backseat of a sedan by two burly men. Walker calls his best friend, Police Lieutenant John Alderdyce, to report the incident. It's an early, key event that plays a large role in the story's finale.

Later, Walker is summoned to meet a former mob boss named Ben Morningstar. The elderly retired gangster hires Walker to track down and locate a young woman named Marla. Morningstar raised Marla and had been financing her college expenses only to learn that she abruptly dropped out. Since then, she's seemingly disappeared and Morningstar doesn't trust the police to search for her. Morningstar shows Walker a photo of Marla that indicates that she has entered the sleazy world of pornography – either voluntarily or against her will. It's up to Walker to find Marla and determine just how she finds herself working in the smut industry.

Motor City Blue is an enthralling mystery that features many of the private-eye tropes that have been utilized since the 1940s. Estleman isn't reinventing the genre and never proclaimed to be. He's just presenting readers the traditional PI formula, a procedural investigation done by a valid, sarcastic hero who uses a police friend and ally for tips and tricks. Estleman's placement of the entire series in Detroit is fitting considering the author's scholarly knowledge of the city and its history. Using the cold, blue-collar city streets, Estleman has a wide canvas on which to draw. In Motor City Blue, the author submerges readers into the porn industry, complete with smut shops, adult theaters, sleazy trailers and the criminal elements often found on that side of the tracks.

Amos Walker may be the best of the 1980s private-eye characters. As an early introduction to the character (and author), readers unfamiliar with the series should start here. With a spiraling mystery, action fans should still appreciate the gun-play and fisticuffs employed by the hero. It's an absorbing read that has gained acclaim for good reason.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Paperback Warrior Unmasking - Philip Race

In the Cutting Edge Books reprint of the 1959 paperback Killer Take All, readers learn that author Elmer Merle Parsons (1926-1970) was as untamed as the criminals he fictionally fabricated. Born in Pittsburgh, Parsons was first convicted of burglary and grand theft auto at the age of 23. After serving three years in prison, Parsons began passing stolen checks. His freedom was short-lived, and Parsons was sentenced to San Quentin Prison for five years. While inside, Parsons discovered a dexterous ability to write, becoming the editor of the prison newspaper and crafting his first novel, Self-Made Widow (1958), which he sold to Fawcett Gold Medal for $3,500 under the pseudonym Philip Race.

While in prison, Parsons authored two novels starring a craps dealer named Johnny Berlin – 1959's Killer Take All and 1960's Johnny Come Deadly (published by Hillman Books). Both were published under the pseudonym Philip Race. Using the name E.M. Parsons, the author wrote a suspenseful romance novel called Dark of Summer (1961) as well as three western originals – The Easy Gun (1970), Fargo (1968) and Texas Heller (1959). Later, the talented writer went to work for Hollywood, writing scripts for a number of television shows like Bonanza, The Dakotas, The Virginian and Sea Hunt. I've always enjoyed the proverbial “small town drifter” story, so the synopsis of Killer Take All peaked my interest.

Review: Killer Take All

Johnny Berlin flees the bright lights of Las Vegas due to a love gone bad. When readers first meet Berlin, he's driving a fog-shrouded highway in rural Oregon in an effort to start a new life in Portland. After becoming lost on the midnight highway, Berlin is aided by a man named Donetti who directs him to spend the night in a small town called McKaneville. Surprisingly, when Berlin rolls into the tiny hamlet, he discovers it's a booming lakeside village ripe with gambling clubs.

Parsons' novel puts Berlin back behind the craps table for a struggling club owner named Dan Gurion. After meeting an old flame, Berlin agrees to assist Gurion in an effort to rekindle the business and keep his new boss from being forced to join a pushy racket called the Gambler's Protective Association. With the mob running a number of gambling halls throughout the area, Gurion is one of the last few holdouts to join the association. Partnering with Berlin, Gurion goes against the grain to defy the odds and beat the rackets. But, when Berlin is nearly murdered and the premier head of the Protective Association is killed, things aren't quite as black and white as readers might think.

The first thing to know about Parsons' writing style is that he introduces over a dozen characters in the narrative's opening half. It's a large cast to contend with, a habit that threw me off of the author's similar novel, Dark of Summer. Both paperbacks feature lakeside communities that are mired in business transactions, lover quarrels and a penchant for violence. Dark of Summer was a dense romantic fling whereas Killer Take All is more of a violent crime-noir complete with painted ladies and jaded faces.

While Berlin isn't the stout heavyweight crime-fighter that readers typically associate with these types of stories, the vulnerable protagonist enhances the overall concept – a flawed human fighting a flawed system complete with flawed justice. Where the characters are sometimes subdued and emotionally wilted, it's the author's storytelling talents that truly blossom.

Parsons wasn’t a remarkable writer as his saturation of characters can, at times, make for a burdensome read. However, he's a solid writer with a knack for great stories. With just a handful of published novels in his career, Killer Take All's affordability as a used paperback and digital reprint is well worth the price of admission. You won't be disappointed.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 27, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 54

On Episode 54 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we unmask author Philip Race and tell you about the mystery man behind the pseudonym. We also review novels by E.M. Parsons and Tedd Thomey plus a used bookstore excursion to Appalachia. Listen on your favorite podcast app or at Download directly HERE. Listen to "Episode 54: Philip Race" on Spreaker.

Friday, July 24, 2020

The Kill-Off

Jim Thompson (1906-1977) authored over thirty novels from the 1940s through the 1950s. Considered a legendary hardboiled crime writer, his most notable works often employ an abstract style of storytelling. His violent, often disturbing novels are typically devoid of any admirable, noble protagonists for readers to support or cheer. Instead, crime-fiction traditionalism is replaced with characters that typically range from the vile deviant to the casual wrongdoer. Nothing underscores these tropes more than The Kill-Off, Thompson's 1957 Lion Books release. The novel was adapted into film in 1990 and reprinted by Black Lizard in 1999.

The book takes place in the fictitious town of Manduwoc, a small coastal village in Northeastern New York. Due to economic hardship, this community has been downgraded from lavish resort community to a washed-up skeleton of despair and neglect. Thompson uses individual characters to tell their stories in alternating first-person narrations. The overall concept is a murder mystery slowly disclosing to the reader who killed an older woman named Luane Devore.

The robust cast of characters includes Luane's younger husband, the local doctor, the doctor's son and a real-estate contractor among others. Each chapter's account is a testimony to the shifting narrator's weakness, complete with shady histories, corruptible events, financial disruptions and, of course, sex. Hot, wild, untamed, interracial sex. But considering the number of historical accounts of these characters and their arms-length relationship with Luane, none of it is particularly interesting.

The Kill-Off is a slowly-developing story, and not particularly engaging. The presentation is unique, but the overall plot development was unexciting - robbing the reader of anything resembling a pleasurable experience. If you are a regular blog reader or podcast listener, you know that Jim Thompson isn't a Paperback Warrior favorite. The consensus here is that he’s overrated and saddles his novels with plodding and often senseless narratives. There’s nothing about The Kill-Off to change our minds.

Admittedly, Thompson is a good writer with a penchant for unusual characters. However, The Kill-Off showcases inept storytelling populated by uninteresting and unlikable characters. Even in death, Thompson has a rabid bunch of fans who come to his aid every time Paperback Warrior pans another one of his overrated, overwritten novels. I can’t help but wonder how they will defend trash like The Kill Off. The hate mail we’ll receive will certainly be more compelling than the solution to the book’s central murder. For the uninitiated, don’t bother.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Sacketts #05 - Ride the River

Paperback Warrior recently covered Louis L'Amour's quartet of books focusing on the early days of the fictional Sackett family. The first two of these books, Sackett's Land and To the Far Blue Mountains, focused on Barnabas Sackett and his journey from Europe to America circa 1599-1620.  The Warrior's Path featured Barnabas' sons Kin-Ring and Yance in the 1630s. The last of the four books took readers to America's far west with Barnabas' wayward son Jubal during the 1630s. Prior to L'Amour's passing in 1988, the author had hoped to tell more of these early origin stories, possibly bridging the gap between the 1600s and more dominant 1800s, where most of the Sackett series takes place.

Chronologically, the next installment in the Sackett series is Ride the River, originally published in 1983. While L'Amour's hopes of telling more of the Sacketts' origins never came to fruition, this novel is one of the only bridges in the series. The main character is Echo Sackett, a 16-year old young woman who becomes the aunt to three of L'Amour's most popular Sackett characters – Tell, Orrin and Tyrel. Echo is a fourth-generation Sackett living on the family's Tennessee home in 1840. After receiving a written notice of an inheritance, the book follows Echo's journey into Philadelphia and a subsequent frenzied trip back home.

L'Amour's novel is fairly basic in plotting and presentation. It’s a classic fish out of water story – the farm girl experiencing the hustle and bustle of city life. After a recent discovery of gold, a will proclaims that Barnabas has left the small fortune to his next of kin. This will is read and delivered to Echo by a shady attorney and his bully henchmen. On the precipice of being robbed of her inheritance, an aging attorney named Finian Chantry comes to Echo's aid. After assessing the situation and providing legal support, Echo gains the family funds and sets off for home. But, knowing that the wrongdoers and criminal cohorts will follow Echo, Finian sends his nephew Dorian to accompany Echo on the return trip.

Many readers may recognize the Chantry name. Like the Talons and Sacketts, Chantry was another family that L'Amour often covered with the first Chantry novel being Fair Blows the Wind taking place circa 1590. Combining an aging Chantry with a young Sackett was clever, including the small piece of action dedicated to Chantry's impressive fencing skills in a dockside skirmish. There are also a few other Sackett characters that make brief cameos throughout the narrative.

The end result makes Ride the River an adventurous road trip that combines country roads and urban streets with a coming of age story-line. While the quality falls well below L'Amour's stellar western storytelling, I found it to be a serviceable read that offered a unique female viewpoint.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Sam Dakkers #02 - The Guilty Bystander

Michael Brett (1921-2000) was the author of the ten-book Pete McGrath detective series in the 1960s and a regular contributor to Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. It’s a little confusing because there were other mystery writers from the same era who utilized the name Michael Brett as a pseudonym, but the guy who wrote the Pete McGrath books was actually Michael Brett, the genuine article.

Before the success of his flagship series, Brett authored two crime novels starring a bald bookmaker named Sam Dakkers. Both were published in 1959 as Ace Doubles (inconveniently not paired together) under the name Mike Brett. Same guy, I promise. The first was titled Scream Street and the second was The Guilty Bystander, reviewed below.


Sam Dakkers is an sports bookmaker, a convicted felon, and a rather funny first-person narrator. One night he meets a loopy chick in a bar and winds up at her place. Right as he’s closing the deal, her apartment buzzer goes starts frantically buzzing. She says it’s probably her violent mobster boyfriend, and Sam makes for the fire escape. As he’s working his way down to the alley, he hears the gunshots from the girl’s apartment.

So, we’re dealing with a pretty basic and commonplace murder mystery setup here. The cops initially suspect Sam. The real killer is trying to kill Sam. Sam needs to save his hide by solving the case. This dire setup doesn’t prevent the author from thrusting Sam into several comedic set pieces with mistaken identities, sexy babes, and the like. Nothing hilarious, but often amusing. The central mystery is wrapped up tidily in a little more than a hundred pages with no heavy lifting involved for the reader.

Some books are fine dining. Others are cotton candy. The Guilty Bystander was the latter. The writing was simple and straightforward - never flashy but serviceable. The narrator was a lovable oaf surrounded by archetypes you’ve seen before in better novels. Despite its lack of distinction, I genuinely enjoyed the little book. It was an easy read to pass the time between more substantial novels. Sometimes cotton candy does the trick.


Both of the Sam Dakkers novels have been reprinted as trade paperbacks by Armchair Fiction (again, as doubles) for modern audiences. I enjoyed The Guilty Bystander just enough that I ordered Scream Street. Watch this space for a review sometime this decade. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

The Brass Cupcake

According to Urban Dictionary, the term “Brass Cupcake” refers to a person predisposed to living in a fantasy-like state which leads to inappropriate behavior in public. It’s also the title of the first published novel by John D. MacDonald from 1950 after he left the world of pulp magazine short fiction to find his fortune in the brave new world of paperback originals.

The novel takes place in the sunny beach town of Florence City, Florida hosted by our narrator, Cliff Bartells. He’s an insurance adjuster - the guy who determine the legitimacy of a claim’s economic damages - for a big company based in Connecticut. A girl named Liz was found murdered with all of her jewelry stolen - pieces insured by Cliff’s employer for $750,000 when that was a lot of money. Cliff is assigned to recover the stones, which really means investigating the murder, since the killer and the thief are probably the same person.

We quickly learn that Cliff isn’t a normal insurance man. He’s a World War 2 veteran who returned to his job as a police officer in corrupt Florence City. He was drummed out of the force for refusing to participate in the more heightened version of corruption adopted after the war. In jailhouse parlance, a “cupcake” is anything earned through breaking the rules. For Cliff, his police lieutenant badge was nothing but a brass cupcake - a piece of cheap metal earned through mild corruption and then taken away through greater dishonesty.

In his capacity as an insurance adjuster, Cliff functions as a salvage consultant in the same manner MacDonald’s Travis McGee character would 14 years later. Cliff gets paid for recovering the stones from the thief in a more formalized arrangement than McGee utilized in his series. Along the way, Cliff needs to leverage his relationships with police officers without ticking off the department’s management who still holds a grudge against our hero. Of course, there’s a local mobster who may or may not know something about the jewels.

It wouldn’t be a JDM novel if there wasn’t a sexy babe in the mix. In this paperback, that role and related bikini are filled by Melody Chance, the niece of the murder victim and early suspect for the murder and theft. Meanwhile, the police are scared that Cliff is going to find the jewels, buy them back to avoid paying the claim, and let a murderer skate. As the novel progresses, the official pressure to make Cliff buzz off increases exponentially with each passing chapter.

The Brass Cupcake is a remarkably polished first novel, but it’s not a remarkably good John D. MacDonald book. It’s a basic, run-of-the-mill mystery without the human elements that makes the author’s body of work so special. The paperback is certainly worth reading, but it’s nowhere close to the best of his output. JDM was one of the greats, so the bar is set higher for him than his contemporaries. If you’re being a completist, definitely read and enjoy the novel. However, if devouring all the author’s books before you die isn’t going to happen, you can safely skip The Brass Cupcake without missing much.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 20, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 53

Kendell Foster Crossen was the creator of MILO MARCH and THE GREEN LAMA, and on Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 53, we discuss his work and life. Also discussed: Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Loren D. Estleman, Mickey Spillane, Robert Martin, Manhunt Magazine and much more! Listen on your favorite podcast app,, or download directly HERE Listen to "Episode 53: Kendell Foster Crossen" on Spreaker.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Matt Helm #02 - The Wrecking Crew

Eric's Review

Perhaps if U.S. President John F. Kennedy had been spotted reading Matt Helm instead of James Bond, the mainstream public would have elevated Donald Hamilton to a household name. Instead, Bond's creator Ian Fleming enjoyed the fame and fortune, and Hamilton settled for mid-tier literary status – royalties earned from a 27-book series that inspired five feature films and a failed television series. Not bad in a lifetime of work. The Matt Helm series kicked off in 1960 with Death of a Citizen. I found it lukewarm at best, but was anxious for the espionage eruption promised in the series' second installment, The Wrecking Crew, published by Fawcett Gold Medal the same year.

After the events of the series debut, Matt Helm has now returned to full-time work in the U.S. Intelligence community. His 15-year span as western author, photographer and family man was washed away in a bloody bathtub. Now, his wife and family have moved to Reno, Nevada, and Helm finds himself once again as a kill-on-command agent for the government. This is where we find Helm in the opening pages of The Wrecking Crew, hunting a Soviet leader/hit-man who's terminated a lot of U.S. agents and allies in and around Sweden (the author's birthplace).

The story has Helm teaming with two women, an American operative and a widow named Lou. The cover story is that Helm will be a very American tourist – cowboy hat, southern drawl, long-lens camera – touring the northern portion of Sweden with Lou. Her husband was killed by communist forces in East Germany and she is working with Helm to find the villain. There's some reflective interludes with Helm discussing his training at the farm, re-entry interviews with longtime boss Mac, and his thoughts on dropping the family act (although that will be a main theme in the series' next book).

I was enthralled with Hamilton's opening act, 50-pages explaining the mission, warring factions, key personnel and the candidates for Helm's sexcapades. Unfortunately, the momentum is swept away over the course of the next 70-pages. Helm interacts with the two women – scores with one – and traipses over Sweden taking pictures that he purposefully overexposes. He meets with a gorgeous female cousin who plays a part in the book's finale. There's a car wreck, a brief knife fight, and a woman is murdered. There's also a lot of dialogue that finds Helm no closer to his assassination target on page 51 than he is on page 151. The finale finds Helm being hand-delivered to the villain in a fight that's written the same length as a gas station coffee menu – short with few options.

Overall, I love Hamilton's writing style. It is an easy narrative to devour and the opening act is strong enough to warrant further reading. After finding Death of a Citizen average, I can't help but think The Wrecking Crew was more of the same. The series has a devout following and heaps of praise. At the end of the day, maybe my problems with Helm reflect my selfish desire for a speedy and explosive narrative. Hamilton knows his audience and his hero far better than I do. Who am I to judge? Read it and decide for yourself. 

Tom’s Rebuttal:

Eric, I’m seeking a court injunction to keep you at least 300 yards from further installments in the Matt Helm series. You’re certainly permitted to like what you like, but The Wrecking Crew is one of the best Matt Helm installments. If you didn’t enjoy it, there’s not much forthcoming that’s going to change your mind about the series.

Readers, for the love of all things holy, please read and enjoy this paperback. I promise that you’ll destroy your bedtime flipping the pages to learn what happens next in this literary masterpiece. I also promise that Eric is a fundamentally good man who has just lost his way. With love and support from the community, I know we can bring him around on this pivotal series.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 16, 2020

The Snatchers

Lionel White (1905-1985) was an unsung hero in the world of crime caper fiction. His first novel was The Snatchers from 1953, a thin paperback later adapted into the film The Night of the Following Day in 1968 starring Marlon Brando and Rita Moreno. The book has also been re-released as a double (along with his Clean Break) by Stark House Books.

Cal Dent is a planner. Like Richard Stark’s Parker, Dent is the guy who conceives a caper and brings a crew together to get it done. This particular job involves the kidnapping of a seven year-old rich girl on New York’s Long Island. The abduction itself happens off-page in chapter one and seems to go well. The assigned crew members bring the little girl and her sexy nanny to the hideout to begin the ransom negotiations.

Of course, the FBI and the media get involved, and the kidnapping becomes one of the biggest stories since the Lindbergh baby case. Meanwhile, there’s sexual tension at the hideout with the crew’s only female member and a couple of the hoods on the job. Add an affable local cop sniffing around, and you’ve got a tension-filled, high-stakes thriller.

White takes the time to draw a vivid picture of the individual members of the five-person kidnap and ransom crew. Some are sympathetic while others are twisted and dangerous. There’s a lot of waiting around in the hideout dealing with obstacles that arise. I found it suspenseful and fascinating, but it wasn’t exactly a breakneck bloodbath of an adventure until the final act. Rest assured, the climactic ending was absolutely worth the wait.

It’s hard to believe that The Snatchers was a first novel for Lionel White as he really was something special right out of the gate. Moreover, his body of work that followed was consistently excellent. Don’t sleep on this debut paperback. Place it in the “must read” pile. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 15, 2020


Ian Kennedy Martin, born in 1936, was a prolific British screenwriter with a career spanning four decades. His most notable work is police drama The Sweeney (1975-1978), a television show that was critically acclaimed for its realism. Along with shows like The Onedin Line, The Capone Investment and Parkin's Patch, Martin also authored a dozen or more novels including the 1977 action-adventure paperback novel Rekill, published in the U.S. by Ballantine. It was issued as a $3 ebook in 2012. 

The first six-pages of Rekill set the tone for much of the novel's first half. Readers are spectators as an unknown man, possibly foreign, arrives on a rural Kansas farm to await a family's arrival. When a woman and two small children arrive, the stranger executes them in brutal fashion. Many hours later, the woman's husband comes home to find his family slaughtered and the intruder waiting. In later pages we learn he was tortured and executed and the farm house burned. This same style of execution repeats for three more families before readers are thrown into the thick of the narrative.

When a former North Vietnamese solder is identified as the killer, American brass orchestrate a plan to find and terminate the assassin. The man they choose for the mission is Leeming, a former U.S. Colonel who ran a special forces camp combating the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War. Leeming faced a court-martial and was later removed from service prior due to a particular incident. Now, Leeming, a widower, lives with his brother on a North Dakota farm. The military asks Leeming to train a special forces soldier to seek and destroy the foreign assassin. If he agrees, the government will remove the court-martial from his records. Leeming agrees and soon the narrative thrusts readers into espionage and intrigue in Paris.

The author had a number of great ideas for the book's plot design. Leeming's protege is interesting and the character allowed the author to create a really unique chemistry – the old warhorse training the younger soldier for a deadly mission. But by the book's second half, most of that story-line is wiped clean. The plot’s emphasis shifts to scouting and researching a known criminal to learn the whereabouts of the assassin. This part was rather redundant and dull after the enticing first half. The book's closing chapters were exciting, but nothing I haven't read before in international spy novels.

If you like slower, more developed international mystery and intrigue, Rekill might be for you. It's distinctively British – slower story, emphasis on planning, dry romantic encounter, high-adventure (there's rock climbing) – that recalled the work of Hammond Innes or a deep-discount Desmond Bagley story. Otherwise, I found Rekill retreading much of the same ground that we’ve all read before. The end result is an average action-adventure novel that should please most readers depending on their reading experience and frequency.

If nothing else, the paperback has a great cover. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Johnny Maguire #02 - The Chinese Keyhole

In the 1950s, Richard Himmel (1920-2000) wrote five books in the Johnny Maguire series about a lawyer who functions as a hardboiled detective and all-around troubleshooter. I loved the series debut, so I was excited to tackle the second installment, The Chinese Keyhole from 1951. The book was originally a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback and has been re-released by Cutting Edge Books.

The novel opens with Johnny telling the reader something he neglected to share in the first book. During World War 2, Johnny was recruited into the OSS, the wartime precursor to the CIA, and he’s periodically called upon to set aside his law practice to engage in espionage at the request of the U.S. State Department. Yes, our favorite hardboiled Chicago lawyer is evidently a spook as well. It’s almost as if the author had a cool idea for a spy novel and decided to slot Johnny Maguire into the lead role because he had an extra protagonist just lying around with no immediate plans. 

Anyway, Johnny’s handler instructs him to go to the Chinese Keyhole, a strip club in Chicago’s Chinatown, to deliver a coded message to an Asian stripper. One thing leads to another, and Johnny has a bloodbath on his hands. The only way to get close to the killers is to, well, sleep with a stripper. A part-time spy’s work is never done. 

Meanwhile, Johnny’s childhood friend Tom was recently plugged in the back six times with no leads as to the killer’s identity. Tom was a walking saint on earth, and who would want to kill a guy like that? If you’re familiar with the way 1950s plotting works, you’ve probably already guessed that Tom’s death is somehow tied into the nudie bar spy situation. A central mystery develops regarding the identity of the enemy spy ring boss, and the solution - a big reveal at the end - was pretty obvious to anyone paying attention. That said, the series of final confrontations with Johnny’s adversaries was pretty outstanding. 

Himmel was a great writer who knew how to keep a story moving, and The Chinese Keyhole is a sexy and exciting thin paperback. Readers should know that this 1951 work of disposable fiction has some retrograde things to say about Asians and gays. It didn’t bother me, but consider yourself warned that 1951 was, in fact, nearly 70 years ago. 

Richard Himmel deserves to be remembered, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that The Chinese Keyhole was the high-mark of his writing career. It’s a romantic and exciting bit of domestic spy fiction, and I’m thrilled that Cutting Edge Books has made the series available to a new generation. I’m also excited to read what Johnny Maguire is going to do next. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 13, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 52

How does the revival of an obscure western book series lead to allegations of criminality and fraud? Find out on Episode 52 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast. Also: Vintage finds in the wild! We review Dead Wrong by Lorenz Heller and Jack Higgins' A Game for Heroes! And much more! Listen to the show wherever you get your podcasts, stream below or download directly HERE. Listen to "Episode 52: The Morgan Kane Fiasco" on Spreaker.