Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Killer

Authors Robert Wade (1920-2012) and Bill Miller (1920-1961) collaborated under the pseudonyms Whit Masterson, Dale Wilmer, Will Daemer and Wade Miller. Together, the duo wrote over thirty novels including the 1951 Fawcett Gold Medal noir novel “The Killer,” now available as an affordable reprint through Stark House.

“The Killer” refers to protagonist Jacob Farrow, a successful American safari guide living in Africa. After an infraction on his hunting license, Farrow finds he has some additional free time on his hands. This proves to be convenient as an attorney from the U.S. arrives at Farrow's African home to offer a perplexing opportunity. His client wishes to employ Farrow for a hunt in North America. The payday is a cool 5K to accept the offer, and another 10K if Farrow can kill the intended prey.

Accepting the offer, Farrow arrives in New York to discover the attorney’s client is a customer who Farrow guides in Africa every two years, a skillful hunter named Stennis. Farrow learns that Stennis' son was killed in an armed robbery by a gang leader named Clel Bocock. Stennis, hoping to avenge his son's death, hires Farrow to hunt Bocock, make the kill, provide proof, and collect the payment. The gig is complicated by the fact that Bocock is a high-profile criminal wanted in several states for various robberies. To find Bocock, Farrow will need to remain a few days ahead of law enforcement.

As a 1951 paperback with a sultry cover, the story practically demands an inclusion of a beautiful woman. The authors certainly deliver with Marget, Bocock's estranged wife. In Georgia, Farrow stumbles on the drunken Marget and rescues her from the clutches of a seedy “fencer” who had a personal agenda in locating Bocock's whereabouts. With Marget at his side, Farrow searches from Georgia swamps to Chicago before moving to the rural mountains of Yellowstone park. It's a national whirlwind of hunting, chasing and shooting as the duo attempt to find Bocock's gang.

There's a number of things that work extremely well in “The Killer.” Farrow is a likable hero with an unsettling problem – killing a human after decades of hunting defenseless animals. Not only is it a new, more physical challenge (and illegal), but an overly emotional one. The authors spend a great deal of time focusing on Farrow's internal conflict, while also introducing a ravishing love interest in Marget. However, I found the final scenes rather dull and uninspiring despite a clever twist that brought the storyline a bit more depth.

“The Killer” is simply another 1950s crime novel that shouldn't be altogether avoided, but certainly shouldn't be too high on your essential reading list. The Stark House reprint includes an additional Wade Miller novel in “Devil on Two Sticks,” also known as “Killer's Choice,” originally released in 1949. Both are introduced by the esteemed crime noir enthusiast David Laurence Wilson.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Red File for Callan (aka A Magnum for Schneider)

The U.K. television series “Callan” lasted for four seasons between 1967 and 1972 on Thames Television. The series creator was James Mitchell (1926-2002) who also authored five books and several short stories starring his government assassin character, David Callan. The first paperback in the series from 1969 was originally titled “A Magnum for Schneider” and was re-issued as “A Red File for Callan.” If you’re looking for a copy, check under both titles, and you’ll probably have some luck.

The setup is that Callan is an assassin for a shadowy government intel agency accepting his assignments from an enigmatic, bureaucratic handler. If this sounds familiar, it’s pretty much the same premise as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series. Helm answers to Mac, and Callan takes orders from Hunter. And just like the Helm series, “Red File for Callan” begins after the main character has been away from the killing game for awhile and is pressed into service by his boss as a contractor of sorts. However, outside of the org chart similarities, the character of Callan isn’t much like Helm at all. 

Callan’s hang-up is that he wants to know why Hunter orders the target killed. Hunter wants Callan to simply follow orders and put a bullet between the bloke’s eyes. This drives Hunter crazy and was the reason Callan left the agency before his provisional return at the beginning of this story. It’s Hunter who decides who merits a red file (meaning: targeted for death), and Callan is simply the weapon tasked with carrying out the hit without a lot of messy questions. Callan is also more pensive and thoughtful than most fictional government assassins. Killing seems to be his only marketable skill, but he doesn’t relish the act. He’s a worrier with a big conscience.

For this return to government work, Callan’s target is Rudolf Schneider, a tough and shrewd German businessman living in London with a love of military history, a sense of humor, and an air of danger surrounding him. Because of his personal ethics, Callan must investigate to learn what Schneider has done to merit a red folder. If Schneider deserves to die, Callan will pull the trigger. If not, then no deal. This dynamic turns the novel into an interesting hybrid between a mystery with a puzzle to be solved and later a thriller with a government agent on a mission.

A fair amount of the book’s first half is designed to present Callan’s origin story - as a commando, as a thief, as a prisoner, and as an assassin. There’s not a ton of action, but there is way more character development than other 1969 paperbacks of this ilk. It also must have been a pain in the ass to acquire a handgun in London 50 years ago because an inordinate amount of the book’s first half is spent trying to score a weapon. After about 90 pages of setup, the plot moves forward considerably.

Mitchell was a good writer, but “Red File For Callan” was a pretty slow read. It sets up the characters and setting very well, but it was all a bit of a snooze. That said, I’m glad I read it because people in-the-know tell me the second book, “Russian Roulette” is much better. Moreover, the short stories in the “Callan Uncovered” compilations are allegedly sheer masterpieces. I think the forced economy of a short story would work very well for this character, and I pledge to dive back into Callan’s world with his anthologies.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Rackets Incorporated (aka Blood on My Shadow/The Organization)

John S. Glasby (1928-2011) was a U.K. author whose body of work includes dozens of novels in various genres throughout his career. Using the pseudonyms Chuck Adams and Tex Bradley, Glasby wrote over 30 western paperbacks. Under the name of Manning K. Robertson, the author created the six-book spy series 'Steve Carradine' while also dabbling in the H.P. Lovecraft mythos with short-stories and a compilation entitled “Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth”.

His 1956 noir crime novel, “Blood on My Shadow”, was written under the name A.J. Merak. The paperback was later reprinted as “Rackets Incorporated” as part of the Badger Mystery line featuring authors such as Harry Whittington and Brett Halliday. To capitalize on the success of “The Godfather” film, the novel was again re-released as “The Organization” under the name A.D. Brent. Glasby later utilized the novel's central character, Johnny Merak, as the basis for a private-eye series totaling six books.

In the book's opening pages, we're introduced to Merak as he steps off of a plane near Orange County, California. As a former enforcer, Merak worked for Syndicate kingpin Maxie Temple. Through corrupt real estate purchases, Maxie controlled the hotel industry on Balboa Beach. Merak's role, while often physical, was more of an influence peddler within the city's political structure. With escalating pressure from the feds, Maxie fled to Mexico leaving Merak as a scapegoat. After serving a three-year prison stint, Merak wants Maxie to pay for his betrayal.

“Rackets Incorporated” serves readers the average revenge narrative. While treading familiar territory, we find that Maxie has already been killed by one of his former trustees. Fearing that his name is on some incriminating evidence, Merak wants to locate Maxie's killer and retrieve the documents. Along the way, he falls in love with an innocent beauty, who is later utilized as ransom bait by Maxie's ex-hitman Clancy Snow. Although the novel is written in elementary prose, the numerous moving parts in the plot makes for a complex and cumbersome reading experience.

With over 300 novels to his credit, I'm sure Glasby couldn't hit grandslams with every swing. If you're looking for a tightly-paced crime novel with an original concept, “Rackets Incorporated” isn't it. At just 157-pages, it took me a week to grind through it. There are much better books out there.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, June 24, 2019

Madball

In a just world, Fredric Brown (1906-1972) would be a household name, and his body of work would be available in perpetuity. During his career, Brown conquered the world of crime and science fiction with novels and stories of consistently high quality, yet he is largely unremembered today by the general public. Stark House’s Black Gat imprint is doing its part to keep Brown’s memory alive by reprinting his 1953 carny heist novel, “Madball” for 21st century paperback consumption.

As the novel opens, veteran carnival worker Mack Irby is very pleased with himself. He’s walking around the midway watching the marks throw balls at milk bottles to win a kewpie doll as a line forms to see the alligator boy in a darkened canvas tent. Mack is pleased because he just successfully robbed a bank and has stashed $42,000 of the take until the season ends and the heat dies down. He’s hoping his newfound luck will extend to getting laid by one of the hotties from the hoochie-cootchie tent.

Meanwhile, there is a murderer among the carnies (preferred weapon: tent stake) whose secret is being kept by a female entertainer with a lot to lose. The carnival’s fortune teller (a “Madball” is carny lingo for his crystal ball) suspects that there may be a connection between the murder and the recent bank robbery. He uses his inside knowledge of the traveling staff with his practiced skills of intuition to learn the truth before the police get to the bottom of the mysteries.

The carnival setting of “Madball” is such a joy to read as the author peppers the narrative with inside-industry stuff as well as tons of carny lingo - marks, grinds, talkers, tops, doniker, etc. It’s a fun world for 198 pages, and the colorful characters make for some great company. As a mystery novel, “Madball” is imperfect - too many characters, too many POV shifts - but the main attraction here is the rich setting and era. If you have an interest in the 1950s traveling carnival subculture, there’s a lot to enjoy in this reissue.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

The Man All America Hated

At the dawn of paperback original novels in the early 1950s, Gordon Landsborough (1913-1985) was top of the heap in Great Britain. He was a prolific writer and publisher who capitalized on the hot new storytelling medium using a variety of pseudonyms and genres - like a British Norman Daniels or Lou Cameron. New Ebook Library has just released a “lost” 1952 contemporary adventure novel originally published under Landsborough’s “Mike M’Cracken” pseudonym usually reserved for his Western novels.

I couldn’t find any listing of “The Man All America Hated” in any bibliography of Landsborough’s body of work, so I reached out to the British literary agent of his estate, Philip Harbottle, who pointed me to the February 2019 issue of “Paperback Parade” where Harbottle details the story of this historical literary oddity. Harbottle, an avid book collector himself, recently found a copy of the 1952 paperback by his client and was previously unaware it existed. A records search in the British equivalent of the copyright office produced no indication that the book was ever registered - a common oversight in postwar England during the rebuilding years. The paperback also likely suffered from a small print run leaving few surviving copies for modern readers and collectors to enjoy. Harbottle went to work finding the right imprint to republish the fast-moving story and found the New Ebook Library, who has been doing a great job bringing old and new pulp fiction to market at the 99 cent price point.

The premise of the novel is pretty damn cool. Alec McCrae is “The Man All America Hated” and with good reason. In World War 2, he acted as an intelligence officer for the Japanese and tortured American prisoners of war. McCrae disappeared after Japan’s surrender and has become a folk hero fugitive in the same manner that Osama Bin Ladin became half a century later. As such, the international passengers on a plane crossing the Pacific to Australia are surprised to find that McCrae is a fellow passenger flying under an assumed name along with three companions.

Once discovered, McCrae hijacks the plane and forces a crash landing on a desolate island in the Pacific between Hawaii and Australia. It seems that McCrae’s plan is to murder the survivors and escape from the island while he is presumed dead to the world. The survivors aren’t excited by this plan and mount a defense against the traitorous American villain. A leader quickly emerges among the survivors, and a battle plan is formed.

“The Man All America Hated” is a wilderness survival tale and a man-hunting-man story. At about 111 modern pages, there’s not a lot of character development, but the suspense and action are front and center the whole time. There are things that could have made the book way better. For example, McCrae’s traitorous time in WW2 is glossed over in a single paragraph or two to establish the character as a villain. More backstory would have been interesting.

Despite these quibbles, stories of adversaries trapped together on a deserted jungle island trying to kill each other with rudimentary weapons are tales as old as time, but this one really worked for me. It’s certainly not a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s a lot of violent fun to read, and I’m thrilled that it’s now widely available for less than a buck. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Flint

Deemed as “America's Favorite Storyteller”, Louis L'Amour wrote 89 western novels in his lifetime. Many fans and genre enthusiasts have compiled lists documenting the author's most outstanding literary works. These lists vary depending on the creator, but nearly all of them contain one fixture – 1960's “Flint”.

The book introduces us to James T. Kettleman, a successful stockbroker from New York who has journeyed by train to New Mexico. Dying from an undisclosed illness (symptoms of cancer or tuberculosis), Kettleman plans to spend his dying days tucked away in a desert oasis reading his favorite books. We can imagine that Paperback Warrior readers are sympathetic to that impulse.

Through flashback sequences, we learn that Kettleman was snatched from a burning wagon train at the age of two by a man known as Flint. Passed around from family to family as an orphan, Kettleman became an exceptional student. Reuniting with Flint in his teen years, Kettleman learns how to fight and adapt in the hostile desert. These attributes eventually lead to Kettleman avenging the murder of Flint. Although that backstory alone would make for a great novel, again these are just flashback sequences that expand into a much broader narrative.

Kettleman's doomsday euphoria of peacefully dying in the desert surrounded by books is disrupted by Port Baldwin, the stereotypical land baron who desires the Kaybar ranch. Its owner is Nancy Kerrigan (not the figure skater), a strong-willed fighting woman who grew up on the ranch. Her property has no official deed, a common element found in real estate transactions with Indians. With land grabbers migrating from the east, her ownership is under heavy scrutiny.

As Kettleman finds himself an ally of the Kaybar ranch, he quickly finds he has feelings for Kerrigan. Using the moniker of “Flint,” Kettleman becomes the mysterious protector that engages in battle with Baldwin's faction. Utilizing numerous gun fights and the obligatory fistfight, L'Amour's portrait of the American west is a violent and gritty one. L'Amour thrives with the range war narrative and “Flint” doesn't disappoint.

It's easy to see why “Flint” ranks among L'Amour's best work. It is fundamentally the perfect western. Seasoned readers are very familiar with this type of story and the Western fiction tropes, yet “Flint” proves to be a remarkable story worth retelling again and again. It's a valuable cornerstone for not only L'Amour's work, but the western genre as a whole.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Black Pudding

“Black Pudding” by David Goodis (1917-1967) began its literary life as a novella in the December 1953 issue of “Manhunt Magazine.” The story was also included in Bill Pronzini’s essential 1995 anthology, “Hard-Boiled” and was a bonus story tacked onto the 2006 paperback reissue of Goodis’ “Black Friday.” 

The mandatory sad-sack loser in this Goodis work is Ken Rockland, a Philiadelphia street person with 31 cents to his name dreaming of a day he can scrape together 80 cents for some egg-foo-young. Through an expository flashback, we learn that Ken wasn’t always a skid row bum. He was once part of a successful armed-robbery crew in California before a double-cross landed him in San Quentin for the past nine years. Now that he’s out, two of his old crew-mates have located him and want him dead as a preemptive strike against anticipated retaliation from Ken.

Ken ducks the first attempt on his life and takes to ground on the mean streets of Philly in this fast-moving manhunt story. He finds sanctuary with a physically and emotionally scarred woman named Tillie who offers tactical and logistical help to friendless Ken. Once it’s established where his former partners are hiding, Ken needs to decide whether to keep his distance or control his own fate with some bloody vengeance.

You can imagine which option makes for more compelling action, and “Black Pudding” (a metaphor for revenge) does not disappoint. The writing is terse and to the point, and Goodis makes his loser heroes jump off the page with real humanity peppered with their bad decisions. At about 30 pages, you won’t be disappointed by this essential entry into a noir master’s body of work. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this short-story HERE