Friday, May 25, 2018

The Defender #01 - The Battle Begins

Jerry Ahern penned a number of action-adventure series' including 'Track', 'Takers' and the post-apocalyptic 'The Survivalist' run. 'The Defender' ran 12 volumes from 1982-1990. Some readers had complained about a right-wing bias in this debut, “The Battle Begins”, so I was looking for one but never really found it. I had no problem with the premise of this book (the co-hero is a black guy, by the way), since heavily-armed vigilante crime-fighting is pretty much what men's action-adventure fiction is all about.

In this one, Soviet agents use American street gangs to slowly strangle lawful authority in America, gradually taking over the country with shock massacres and terrorist attacks. Military veterans and other law-and-order devotees band together to resist, even though the law sees them as armed criminals who are just as dangerous as the terrorists! There’s plenty of dramatic potential here, but somehow it never really worked for me (although the book does conclude with a pretty good action sequence, a counter-attack at a nuclear reactor). It’s not the fault of the plot or the characters. I’m not sure Ahern’s style is well-suited for what should be a breathless, fast-paced action tale. Maybe he’s just laying a lot of ground work for future installments of this saga. I hope so. The book isn’t bad. But I wasn’t as engaged in it as I wanted to be. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Executioner #08 - Chicago Wipe-Out

Fresh off destroying New York's Gambella family, Mack heads to the mid-west for 'The Executioner #08: Chicago Wipe-Out”. Pendleton could have titled this “Chicago Whiteout” with all of the action blanketed in a heavy snowstorm that's paralyzing the city. With the usual blend of mobsters, cold steel and a beauty on the run, the author creates another stellar entry in what has become the defining series of the vigilante genre. 

The novel's prologue wisely outlines the prior seven novels with one paragraph dedicated to each book. This was a pleasant surprise that showcases Pendleton's vision of the character and Bolan's experience in the fight. The cosmically poetic closing lines of the prologue sets the tone for Chicago:

“It's going to be a wipe-out...them or me. I have lost the ability to judge the value of all this. But I'm convinced that it matters, somewhere, which side wins. It matters to the universe. I consign my fate to the needs of the universe.” 

The opening chapter is a violent exercise as Bolan sets up shop near a large house owned and operated by the Mob. As each bolt rams home the Weatherby .460, Pendleton is sure to describe the end result. One by one the bullets penetrate the Mafia's defenses before Bolan is forced to crawl from the house and move to face to face action with a Beretta. This is an intense, exhilarating opening chapter that finds Bolan rescuing the evening's entertainment, a young and beautiful girl named Jimi. The hunt is on for a safe spot to place her, but first there's an obligatory shower scene where Jimi thanks Bolan for the save. 

One of the best scenes of the first eight books is here, with Bolan and Jimi surrounded by thick snow and the Mob's gunners outside their motel room. Bolan provides quick instructions for Jimi and the two quietly creep through the darkness to escape. The action is from Jimi's point of view, blinded by darkness and fear while she hears Bolan's suppressed shots in the night. As  the bodies fall, the two flee to a nearby attorney named Leopold Stein. Stein has been put out of business by crooked Chicago politicians and Mob heads despite his outpouring of testimony and evidence citing the Mob's influence on the city. Bolan deposits Jimi here as he prepares for the final battle with Chi-Town's evil.

While the first half was all-out war, built on an incredible pace and the proverbial “all-guns-blazing”, the second half is a cat-and-mouse effort penned perfectly. Bolan dons a disguise and cleverly walks into the lion's den. Once he sets the Mob and police against each other, it's a race to the finish with Bolan's firepower in the front seat of the Warwagon. This is an effective, well-written finale that finds Bolan finishing his mission while still moving the chess pieces for his own gain. While not as fulfilling as the book's opening half, the finale left nothing on the table in its annihilation principles. This is seriously one of the best books of the genre and is just another testimony to Don Pendleton's staggering talent. This one is a mandatory read.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deadly Welcome

The Travis McGee series defined John D. MacDonald as a master of the crime and mystery genre, but he wrote a ton of excellent stand-alone novels as well. His 1958 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original mystery, “Deadly Welcome”, is among his best.

The book follows U.S. State Department special operative Alex Doyle who is pulled away from an overseas assignment and loaned to the Pentagon for a special mission involving a talented military scientist on medical retirement in Ramona Beach, Florida. The Pentagon wants to get the scientist back to Washington, so he can return to the weapons science game. However, the scientist isn’t inclined to leave his beachfront bungalow where his is mourning the loss of his recently murdered wife, Jenna. Alex is asked to use his manipulative people skills to convince the scientist to leave Florida when others have tried and recently failed.

Alex is uniquely qualified for this assignment because he was born and raised in the redneck, dead-end town of Ramona. The hope is that if Alex can solve Jenna’s murder, the scientist will snap out of his depression and get back to work. For his part, Alex has a complicated relationship with the town of Ramona and the deceased Jenna. Alex’s family was swamp trash, and he left in a cloud of scandal that still haunts him. The idea of going back to the land of his painful childhood is too awful for Alex to contemplate.

As you may have guessed, the Pentagon isn’t concerned with Alex’s psychic scars from 15 years ago, and he’s ordered to Florida to do his job. Upon arrival, he finds the gossipy pettiness and police corruption of the small town working against him every step of the way as he tries to uncover the truth about Jenna’s death as a lever to coax the scientist out of his stupor. Alex treats this as a quasi-undercover assignment where he is playing the role of a less-accomplished version of himself.

MacDonald’s work is always a notch higher on the literary writing scale than most of his paperback original contemporaries, and “Deadly Welcome” is no exception. There are many poignant passages of excellent introspection about the strong emotions that go along with returning to one’s hometown years after maturity has done its job. It’s refreshing to find an exciting mystery novel with so much to say about the human condition.

There’s violence and intrigue and romance and humor - everything you’ve come to expect from a JDM novel. There’s also a genuinely loathsome and violent villain that will have the reader invested in his comeuppance. The romantic interest is sufficiently lovable and the scenes of violence are bone-cracking good. 

“Deadly Welcome” is an incredibly satisfying read and should be placed at the top of your JDM to-read stack. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Shadow #02 - The Eyes of the Shadow

Walter B. Gibson's (as Maxwell Grant) “The Eyes of the Shadow”(1931) is the second of 'The Shadow' books and I guess my expectations were too high. It’s unnecessarily long for a pulp novel, there are too many characters, and Gibson’s tendency toward padding really made this one drag. 

As with the earlier book, debut “The Living Shadow”, what we have is a routine old-timey mystery story which suddenly becomes dynamic and fascinating whenever the Shadow appears. It lurches back into tedium as soon as he’s gone, and his absences are frequent and lengthy. There are some interesting things here and there, though, including the first appearance of “Lamont Cranston,” laid up with a serious injury. One of the villains has an “ape-man” assistant whom I kept expecting would be revealed to be human, but he never was! The reader is left to wonder just what species this assistant belongs to. 

The action climax is pretty good, with the Shadow’s long-suffering agent Harry Vincent nearly stretched to death on a medieval torture rack. But it’s a long slog to get there, and Gibson’s stodgy prose is a liability. It’s not an awful book, but it’s probably not worth reading again. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Hitman #03 - Nevada Nightmare

After reading Norman Winski's debut 'The Hitman' novel, “Chicago Deathwinds”, I decided this series wasn't worth a wooden nickel. So, like many completely disposable pieces of literature, I'm right back to Winski and 'The (S)Hitman' all over again. Why? I wish I had an answer for this and other perplexing questions like, “Daddy, what's wind really?” Sometimes, Paperback Warriors can't provide all of the answers.

“Nevada Nightmare” is the third and final book in the 1984 series 'The Hitman'. It's not to be confused with Kirby Carr's 1970s series of the same name. I assume poor sales for Pinnacle combined with the decline of the genre in the 80s lead to the killshot for our protagonist Dirk Spencer. While I critically dissected, bashed and wiped the filth from “Chicago Deathwinds”,  in retrospect I'd have to ask myself if it was really that bad.

“Nevada Nightmare” is an improvement on the series debut, staying more in the pocket with action and plot instead of wasting pages and pages on guns, clothing and location. Winski jerks the curtain with a stage consisting of “Cult Leader Psychopath”, “Damsel in Distress” and “Dirk!” and writes the script with “bang goes cult member 1, 2, 3, etc.”. Look, I'm not buying 'The Hitman' for the photos. Like Ralph Hayes, Dan Schmidt, whoever is writing William W. Johnstone and Jerry Bruckheimer...I just want a lot of man-boom. It's here. 

Book number two, “L.A. Massacre”, is still MIA from my libraries, but apparently it wasn't anything special. In “Nevada Nightmare”, Dirk reflects on the events of “Chicago Deathwinds” and says nothing about his excursion to Hollywood. Key characters from the series like Tad (Chicago Tribune journalist) and Valerie (reporter, moist hole) are featured in this installment set in the mountains of Nevada. A religious cult psycho named Zarathustra has rose to prominence, built a mountain fortress (called Shangri-la) and recruited 900 clergy men and women to follow his radical extremist footsteps. This lunatic uses cassette tapes to lure his people into trance-like states where he can deem them “Moonchild” before bedding them in his posh penthouse. Dirk gets involved when Zarathustra kidnaps his friend Tad and his daughter Melody. The mission: bang Valerie on autopilot above the Sierras, infiltrate the cult, rescue Tad and Melody, flea to to flea-market obscurity. 

Oddly, pages 81-83 are step by step instructions on creating napalm. We become curious protegees while watching Dirk make a bomb with aluminum foil, a hairspray bottle and some soap flakes (and more ingredients that I won't provide here). Today's publishing world would never permit this bomb-making tutorial to make print (and probably report the author to authorities), but in 1984 I guess we were all just busy hoping the Cubs would get there. While Winski provides the step-by-step on something like this, I cringed reading, “The .357 Magnum spit 9mm slugs”. Amazing. Equally baffling is Dirk's ability to drive at high-speed on an icy road with a bimbo straddling the driver's seat because she just can't live without Dirk's junk. 

At the end of the day, Dirk is The Hitman. The guy with all the money, tail and a three-book series dedicated to his “wetwork”. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Shell Scott #12 - Strip for Murder

Richard Prather built a career on his 'Shell Scott' character with around 35 novels spanning from 1950 to 1987. Countless short stories appeared in the pages of 'Manhunt' and 'Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine', and there was even a short-lived 'Shell Scott Mystery Magazine' that existed for a bit in the 1960s.

The 'Shell Scott' paperbacks have gone through multiple printings over the past half century with some beautiful cover art by Robert McGinnis as well as some weird photo covers featuring an odd-looking model in a silver wig. I’m told that the best 'Shell Scott' stories were the early ones published by Fawcett Gold Medal. Later editions either suffered from too much madcap comedy or injections of Prather’s own conservative politics into the stories. My informal polling - and an article by the late Ed Gorman - told me that 1955’s Shell Scott #9: “Strip For Murder” was among his best.

The setup in “Strip For Murder” is fairly proforma: After a young heiress impulsively marries a man she hardly knows, her wealthy mother hires Los Angeles private detective Shell Scott to investigative his background. Is this a case of true love or is the new husband a conniving gold digger? The danger of this assignment lies in the fact that Scott isn’t the first investigator on the case. His predecessor was found murdered on a rural road during the course of his investigation, so our hero also has at least one murder to solve along the way.

Scott is the stereotypical, wise-cracking, skirt-chasing private eye. He’s hard-boiled but funny.
Because this is a 'Shell Scott' novel, the action quickly moves to a nudist camp where Scott is called upon to go undercover as the naked fitness director. It should come as no surprise to the reader that every woman (or tomato, as he often calls them) at the camp is beautiful, luscious, and willing. Comedy set pieces throughout the book pad the paperback’s length without compromising the plot.

Other than some wacky situations, this is a pretty standard private eye novel. Scott follows logical leads, gets laid, and has his life repeatedly threatened as he gets closer to the truth. There are red herrings, bar brawls, and sunbathing contests adding to the fun, but the core mystery is nothing you haven’t seen before if you’ve ever read 'Milo March', 'Mike Shayne', or the works of Carter Brown. This genre is comfort food, and this execution of the craft in “Strip for Murder” was good reading - just don’t expect a masterpiece.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

.357 Vigilante #02 - Make Them Pay

Writing good vigilante fiction isn’t just about telling an interesting story. The author has to make the reader identify with the vigilante. He also has to sell us on the need for vigilante action. Lee Goldberg understood those requirements when he wrote the second book in his .357 Vigilante series, “Make Them Pay”. And though he was still a college student at the time, he did a fine job with this.

In fact, I liked it better than the debut book, “.357 Vigilante”, which went overboard on superhuman action exploits in its final chapters. This time around, our hero is more down to Earth, a little more vulnerable, and prone to making a mistake now and then. In fact, he’s dangerously close to being mellow.

A kiddie porn racket is operating in Los Angeles, using kidnapped children who are put before the cameras, raped to death and then discarded around town. The mayor has so little faith in his own criminal justice system that he puts a discreet call out to “Mr. Jury,” the vigilante who took down a bunch of bad guys in the previous book. Our vigilante hero agrees to take on the case, and you pretty much know how things will go from there. But the journey is satisfying, partly because he’s also got to keep a sexy but suspicious reporter from finding out about his hobby. After all, even in the world of men’s action/adventure fiction, a vigilante can go to prison for killing low-life shitbags if he’s not careful.

As in the first book, “Make Them Pay” is dotted with welcome 1980s cultural references, and while there’s less suspense and general intensity than before, I appreciated its more relaxed tone. The emotional anguish of the first book is pretty much over with now. 

For example, one day Mr. Jury is boinking his girlfriend (using chocolate ice cream as an innovative lubricant). The next day she gets obliterated in a car bomb, and three days later he’s boinking the sexy reporter. Whether this sort of thing is a step in the right or wrong direction is up to the reader. Personally, I didn’t mind. (Full disclosure: I read this while dealing with the flu, so I was glad for the lightweight approach.)