Wednesday, December 12, 2018

One Is A Lonely Number

Bruce Elliott is probably best remembered by fans of pulp fiction for writing a handful of unremarkable stories for 'The Shadow' magazine, but Stark House has rediscovered and rereleased his 1952 noir novel “One Is A Lonely Number,” originally a Lion Books paperback. The new edition is paired with “Black Wings Has My Angel” by Elliott Chaze, a highly-regarded novel that I hope to read and review soon.

The writing in “One Is A Lonely Number” begins promisingly: “It was stinking hot, Chicago hot, whore house hot. The dribble of sweat combining on both their bodies was slimy.” The vivid descriptors continue with a prostitute exhibiting “too-full breasts that slopped over each side of her rib cage.” Right away, it’s clear that author Bruce Elliott intends to bring his A-Game game to noir fiction writing.

Larry is one of ten escaped convicts from Joliet prison following nearly five years inside. After getting laid with a hooker, his next order of business is to get down to Mexico. This isn’t just a tropical place to enjoy freedom for Larry, but a necessary move for his respiratory health. While incarcerated, one of his lungs was removed due to tuberculosis, and the warm Mexican air will be easier on his taxed remaining lung.

As he makes his way down south, he finds himself in a small town enjoying the company of multiple voluptuous and willing women while working at a local bar and eatery. The female characters in this book are all filled with treachery and emotional instability. The femmes are fatale, but they never pretend to be innocent or honorable. This is also a highly sexual - if not always graphic - fugitive story, but Elliott’s excellent writing makes the misogyny sing. This dim view of fictional females isn’t unusual given the genre and the 1952 publication date, but “One Is a Lonely Number” probably isn’t the wisest anniversary gift for your new bride.

Eventually, the opportunity to commit some profitable crimes is presented to Larry, and the allure of some easy cash to stake his trip to Mexico is too attractive to decline. There’s a plot twist regarding one of the women that is a real curve ball, and Larry’s reaction to it is totally depraved. This is a book that could never have been published in today’s climate as the societal norms have shifted too greatly.

“One Is A Lonely Number” is a total blast of a crime novel. It’s weird as all hell and unlike any other book of the era that I can recall. The plot holes can be overlooked because the fast-moving paperback is just so damn full of surprises. A giant standing ovation for Stark House for bringing this lost classic back to life. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Wild Sky

The 1962 Ace Double featured Tom West's (Fred East) “Dead Man's Double Cross” and Harry Whittington's “Wild Sky”. Whittington, the king of the paperbacks, wrote about 30 westerns in his impressive career and proved he had a knack for the genre with another stellar outing in “Wild Sky”. 

The beginning of the novel introduces readers to Josh, his pregnant wife Fran and four-year old daughter Joanie. It's the young family's 33rd day of travel from the East coast, a long and perilous journey to Wyoming. Whittington paints this rather basic introduction with heightened tension, an impending doom that is evident with Josh's frequent glances over his shoulder. Soon, a young Native-American rides towards the wagon, non-pleasantries are exchanged and soon Josh and the family are riding away as the brave lies defeated with a broken arm. This brief exchange proves the validity of our protagonist – Josh is a fighter.

The family settles on a beautiful stretch of valley with Josh building a cabin and planting crops. I really enjoyed the author's descriptive narrative on hunting deer and tracking through the mountains. It's these scenes that are often ignored by western writers, something that L'Amour excelled at with his early Sackett frontier stories. Once settled, Josh reflects on why his family has retreated to the wilderness.

Back east, Josh ran a mercantile store with Fran and the two had a picturesque life together. One night while leaving work both Josh and Fran are attacked by a belligerent man named Can Kirby. It's a brief encounter, but Kirby strongly advises Josh that he will kill him soon and encourages him to start wearing a gun. Josh, at this point a pacifist, doesn't accept violence as the answer. But, this is the 1800s wild-west and Josh has a family to protect. Why has he sworn off violence? Why does he keep his pistol in a bag under the bed?

Ultimately, Whittington creates an interesting story that uses the “past catching up” theme to place Josh and his family in dire straits. We know that he can't run from his past, but it is interesting to see how it creeps up from behind. While only 103-pages, the author writes a propulsive narrative that incorporates another wilderness family to pad out the dialogue (and create alliances for the impending doom). Overall, a solid western tale worth pursuing.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Golden Hawk #01 - Golden Hawk

In order to keep up with the demanding production schedule at Paperback Warrior, I sometimes turn to audiobooks as a means to fill my idle moments by mainlining pulp fiction into my skull through my ears rather than through my eyes. I was pleased to find that the ‘Golden Hawk’ Adult Western series by Will C. Knott was available on audio, so I decided to give it a listen. 

There were nine installments in the ‘Golden Hawk’ series published from 1986 to 1988. My expectations were tempered because I wasn’t terribly fond of Knott’s work in the Longarm series (he also contributed installments to the Trailsman and Slocum brands that I haven’t read), but I wanted to see what he could do with a universe of his own to control.

The prologue introduces us to the Thompson family who are settlers en route from Kentucky to Texas with their kids, Jed and Annabelle. The family runs into a bunch of bloodthirsty Comanches who torture and murder the parents while kidnapping the children. When we rejoin Jed and Annabelle a decade later, they have been raised as slaves by the Comanche. Along the way, Jed - now known as “Scowls At The People” - learns the language and fighting skills of the savages without ever letting go of his secret hatred of the tribal war party who scalped his parents years ago.

The problem is that Annabelle - now known as “Sky Woman” - is of marrying age and Comanche trade her to Mexicans. The human traffickers resell her to another tribe where she is destined for a life of servitude and no-foreplay-porking by a native husband with a dim view of marital equity. As Annabelle is taken away, Jed promises to find and rescue her. This pledge appears to be the driving motivation behind this short novel.

But first, Jed needs a horse, supplies, and the opportunity to give his Indian enslavers the slip. The surest way to make this happen is for Jed to convince the Chief of his loyalty, so he could join a tribal war party. His bravery in the battle earns him the new name, “Golden Hawk” and an opportunity to steal a horse and leave his captor tribe.

About halfway through the audiobook, I realized that there was something missing. This was supposed to be an “Adult Western” book which means graphic sex scenes periodically occur (I see this as a feature, not a bug). Meanwhile, the audiobook has plenty of willing women that Jed encounters, but the scenes all awkwardly - and chastely - fade to black before anyone gets naked. 

Comparing the audiobook to the paperback, I now realize that I was ripped off. The audio production by “Books In Motion” of Spokane clumsily edits out all the sex scenes, yet labels the audiobook as “unabridged.” I can only assume that this was done at the direction of Knott or his estate (the author died in 2008), but this haphazard abridgment comes at a cost of important plot points and character development as the original text drew a clear distinction between Jed’s ethics and the violent way that the Comanches treat women.

So, I didn’t get my beloved Adult Western sex scenes. Cry for me. Despite this, ‘Golden Hawk’ is still a fairly poorly-plotted Western. It takes half the book for Jed to start looking for his missing sister and the book ends without safely recovering Annabelle. I can only assume that the search for the missing sister is the thread that holds these nine adventures together, but I’ll never know because I am done with both ‘Golden Hawk’ and Will C. Knott.

I sent an email to “Books in Motion” seeking comment regarding their misleading claim that the audiobook is unabridged, and they have declined to comment for this article. In any case, you can safely pass on this one. Your paperback (and audiobook) budget is better spent elsewhere.

Friday, December 7, 2018

This Man Dawson

“This Man Dawson” was a short-lived television show that aired during 1959-1960. It lasted one season and produced 33 half-hour episodes. The show was loosely spawned from the Universal Studios movie “Damn Citizen” (1958). That film utilized actor Keith Andes to portray a Louisiana State Police Superintendent. The production company liked that overall theme and changed the story-line to Andes playing a former US Marine Corps colonel, Frank Dawson, who's now the Chief of Police at an undisclosed city.

Writer Henry Edward Helseth (writing as H.E. Helseth) wrote one television tie-in to the show, the eponymous “This Man Dawson”, in 1962. The fairly unknown author previously wrote a handful of crime novels before this book's release and would later go on to write two screen-plays - “Outside the Wall” and “State Penitentiary”. His writing is fast-paced and somewhat technical in terms of the police procedural, giving “This Man Dawson” a heightened sense of realism despite it's rather pulpy overtone.

Helseth doesn't reveal much depth for Dawson other than he fought at the Battle of the Bulge, has a rigorous work ethic and has a reputation that warrants nicknames like Big Chief, Rock and Ironhand. He has several close characters that blend into the narrative including Crawford, a “kid” marine sergeant in Korea who now serves as police detective 1st grade and patrolman Fliegel, whom  Dawson refers to as his chauffeur. 

The book's beginning has both Dawson and Crawford receiving a message from a former boxer named Malone. The former Welterweight turned bodyguard asks that his client, retired mobster Welkin, wishes to meet with Dawson later that night. Unfortunately, when they arrive at Welkin's house that night they find Welkin has seemingly been kidnapped and Malone has been shot to death. Thus, Dawson's case is presented. 

The story-line runs at a furious pace and I often had to circle back to determine which character was which. There's so many faces mixed into the investigation that I was thoroughly confused in some portions (I'm foggy brained as it is). In what I can only describe as a pulpy format (with plenty of “sock'ems”), two mobsters have kidnapped Welkin for ransom money. They plan the deal to incorporate Welkin's estranged wife and his former Syndicate lieutenant. Both parties are trailed, eventually leading to an abandoned warehouse building and “File 98”, a mythical rap sheet on all the Syndicate rings in the city.

Often, this reminded me of 'Dick Tracy' with charismatic mobsters that come across as bumbling money-hungry villains. While pulpy in places, it was still distinctly a police procedural. As mentioned earlier, the pace is lightning quick and it's a one-session read at 120 pages. Helseth's writing style made me feel as if I was a lowly assistant sitting at the precinct house just watching the flurry of activity while grabbing coffee for Dawson's men. My ignorance on the case, dense brain and lack of experience probably would have forced me out quickly. But, thankfully Helseth allowed me a quick peek at these inner workings and “This Man Dawson” was an enjoyable read. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Tunnel Rats #02 - Mud and Blood

There were only two books in the short-lived Tunnel Rats series by Stephen Mertz (writing as Cliff Banks), and that was a real shame because they are both exciting Vietnam War combat adventure paperbacks. In the second installment, Mertz does a great job of getting the reader up to speed about the team combatting the Vietcong’s unusual guerrilla war tactic of employing underground tunnels, so a new reader is never lost by jumping into the action without having read the preceding paperback.

“Mud and Blood” was released by Popular Library in 1990 and features the same four-man team combatting the Vietcong in the boobytrapped jungle. The foursome consists of Gaines, DeLuca, Hildago, and their Vietcong defector scout, Bok Van Tu. Together they form a highly-classified special forces team with the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Section of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division - a team known as the Tunnel Rats.

The lean paperback wastes no time throwing the reader squarely into the action with Gaines garroting an enemy sentry before snapping his neck with bare hands. Mertz writes vivid combat violence about as well as I’ve ever read. The threat to the team’s success are the trained battalions of Vietcong soldiers who hide underground in the labyrinth of man-made tunnels - over 200 miles worth - beneath the view of the U.S. soldiers around Saigon.

Despite his relative youth as a 25 year-old, Gaines is a formidable leader naturally-suited to the close-quarters combat in the claustrophobic tunnels because of his unique upbringing exploring the mineshafts in his Montana hometown. DeLuca is a somewhat stereotypical New York Italian, and Hidalgo is a SoCal Chicano also straight out of central casting. Meanwhile Tu brings to the table language abilities and a working knowledge of the tunnel system coupled with his sincere desire for a democratic Vietnam. They all have lean bodies suitable for combat operations inside the narrow, claustrophobic tunnels.

The mission at the heart of “Mud and Blood” involves a Vietcong Captain named Quang who is hiding in the underground tunnel system with a group of his own soldiers waiting to kill American troops. The Army needs the Tunnel Rats to drive Quang and his troops out of the tunnels where they can be captured by U.S. forces.

The action occasionally shifts to Quang who has made a home and base of operations in an underground lair. The Americans have no idea that Quang’s troops are expanding the tunnel system with the intention of stretching the beneath a U.S. base - giving the enemy easy access to the heart of local U.S. Army operations. Can the Tunnel Rats stop Quang’s underground activities before it’s too late?

“Mud and Blood” is a terrific, high-stakes action novel with real heroes and a diabolical - but nuanced - villain. The combat set-pieces were written with a cinematic flair for choreographing literary excitement without being overly wordy. This is a fast-moving popcorn novel for fans of pulpy adventure fiction. 

Still an active author, Mertz has been very forward-leaning when it comes to making his historical body of work available as reprints and eBooks for modern audiences. I tracked the author down to ask him if there were any plans to reprint and digitize the two Tunnel Rats novels, and he responded that he’d need to look into who owns the intellectual property rights pursuant to the contract he signed with Popular Library nearly 30 years ago. I, for one, am hoping that these books see the light of day again solely because it would be a shame for combat adventure yarns this good to be lost to the ages. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

M.I.A. Hunter #06 - Blood Storm

Author William Fieldhouse utilized pseudonyms like Chuck Bainbridge and John Lansing for the action series' 'Hard Corps' and 'Black Eagles'. As Gar Wilson, he penned over 30 'Phoenix Force' novels. Fieldhouse contributed to the Mack universe with six 'The Executioner' titles and a handful of 'Stony Man' entries. In 1986, Fieldhouse stepped in as house name Jack Buchanan to draft “Blood Storm”, the sixth volume of Stephen Mertz's 'M.I.A. Hunter' series.

While many of these books focus on Mark Stone's trek into Laos, Columbia or Vietnam to rescue P.O.W.s, “Blood Storm” really expands on that idea with a more dynamic presentation. Under Fieldhouse's vision, the narrative branches out to incorporate drug smugglers, a C.I.A. kill team, a team traitor and the obligatory prisoner rescue. Mertz's editing keeps the book cemented in series mythology, but the story is a different one this time.

Due to Hog Wiley's injury in “Exodus from Hell”, Stone and Loughlin are forced to recruit a new third member for their rescue mission into Laos. A mercenary by the name of Gorman requests a meeting at a dive bar called Golden Butterfly in Thailand. Loughlin hates Gorman right off the bat, but the three come to a monetary arrangement and the mission is set. Before they can exit the bar, hardmen burst in and a raging gun fight fills up Chapter Three. Loughlin suspects Gorman is behind it, allowing the author to utilize the mystery to propel the storyline. 

After the typical weapon purchases at An Khom's house (where Stone often retrieves his intel and firepower), Stone heads off to sever a C.I.A. operation that he thinks was behind the Golden Butterfly assault. After a heated exchange with old nemesis  Coleman, Stone heads to the rescue party with Loughlin and Gorman. There's a bit of a plot spoiler here with Gorman's background, but I'm going to save it for you to discover on your own.

Soon, the rescue attempt is in full-swing in Laos. There's exciting gunplay with Laotian leader Captain Luang, including some brutal scenes of torture involving simple thorns and branches (those Inquisition guys had it all wrong). Up until this book we've seen Stone in some precarious situations but those pale in comparison to the happenings here. Mixed into the break-out are opium dealers who want to capture Stone alive to sell to the highest bidder – the C.I.A., K.G.B. or Vietnam. This all culminates into a pretty hefty storm as the book finalizes with a surprise visit from series mainstay Hog. 

The bottom line, “Blood Storm” is yet another entertaining installment of this beloved series. Mertz's series continues to gain new readers and the books have been reprinted for mass consumption in our digital age. Grab it for a buck. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Wench is Dead

Fredric Brown was an interesting figure in the world of pulp fiction because he had equivalent success in both the mystery science fiction genres. As a teenager, I was a huge fan of his SF work. As I grew into classic crime fiction, I was pleased to rediscover one of my favorite authors as a hardboiled noir master.

“The Wench is Dead” began its life as a short story and was later expanded into a full novel for a 1955 Bantam Books paperback release. The extreme skid row setting seems to be influenced by the work of Brown’s contemporary, David Goodis, who made a living writing gritty crime novels set among the drunks, junkies, and whores within America’s urban poor.

In “The Wench is Dead,” Brown’s narrator, Howard Perry, was a Man of Letters with a wealthy father, a good education, and a promising future in Chicago. But all that was before he discovered the allure of booze. Now, Howard is a stewbum living in a Los Angeles flop house, getting drunk as much as possible, and intermittently working as a dishwasher.

Howard has a girlfriend of sorts (more of an f-buddy) named Wilhelmina Kidder (“Billie the Kid”) who supplies him with alcohol, casual sex, and loaned money. Howard is smart enough to recognize that he treats Billie poorly and that she deserves better, but he’s the kind of wino who listens to the booze more than he listens to his own conscience. I found the evolving relationship between Howard and Billie to be the most compelling aspect of this paperback.

One day, Howard goes to see Billie hoping to score a drink and maybe get lucky. Billie sends Howard to grab a bottle of booze from a heroin-addicted mutual friend named Mame who is found murdered shortly after Howard leaves her apartment. This makes Howard the only likely suspect in the killing. Rather than enduring a torturous police interrogation, Howard - with Billie’s help - decides to remain free from police long enough to solve the murder himself.

The final solution to the crime wasn’t particularly satisfying, but the short book was an enjoyable read nevertheless. Like Goodis, Brown did a nice job of capturing the despair and hopelessness of extreme poverty and addiction while humanizing the winos and junkies generally ignored by polite society. Mostly, Fredric Brown is just a pleasure to read, and fans of his work should enjoy this story just fine. Recommended.