Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Cut Me In

According to Stark House Press, the publisher that reprinted Cut Me In (1959) via their subsidiary Black Gat Books, Jack Karney was born in New York in 1911 and specialized in crime-fiction. He was married with three children and spent his entire life in the same Lower East Side neighborhood in New York City. He tried out for the police department, but ultimately ended up working in the Civil Service within the District Attorney's office. He authored a number of titles like Tough Town (1952), Cop (1952), and Knock 'em Dead (1955). As Mike Skelly he authored the novel There Goes Shorty Higgins (1953). Cut Me In is my first experience with Karney's work.

This novel is similar to other 1940s and 1950s crime-fiction where the rise from rags to riches becomes a captivating look at criminality. Like Benjamin Appel's The Life and Times of a Tough Guy (1960) and Ed McBain's Big Man (written as Richard Marsten, 1959), Jack Karney centers his narrative on Coley Walsh, a young beat cop working the New York streets. His wife died, and now he raises his crippled son while living with his mother on swing shifts. Coley's righteous path becomes corrupt with the simple longing for a patrol car and a promotion to investigator. Coley decides to cut some corners on the way to the top.

While working the beat, Coley saddles an armed robber that is fleeing from the police. In a devilish conversation, Coley learns that the police precinct is corrupt with several key personnel working hand-in-hand with the Syndicate. They run the protection rackets, gambling joints, and swindle politicians to do their bidding. Coley conceives the idea that he should assemble a small group of police officers willing to push the Syndicate out. But, these criminal elements would then be replaced by Coley and his guys. Instead of looking out for the Syndicate, they should become a new Syndicate. 

Through 200 pages, Karney documents Coley's rise through the ranks from small time to the big man. The most compelling portions concern Coley's relationship with a small business owner named Joseph Cantor and his adopted daughter. Coley looks out for Cantor, and understands he represents everything right about America – work hard, build a legitimate owner-operator business, serve the community. In creating his criminal empire, Coley realizes guys like Cantor are prime targets for protection rackets, thus an emotional conflict arises within Coley's pursuit of fortune. It's this conflict that really propels Karney's well-written narrative.

Cut Me In was a wonderful reading experience laced with criminal plans, fall-guys, payoffs, heartbreaks, and violence. Karney's writing style relies heavily on dialogue to tell the tale, and the author created enough diverse characters to keep the story alive and moving. The book's beginning and ending are its strongest parts, with the finale a real barn-burner with flourishes of action and cool-headed resolve. The balance was exceptional, and a difficult feat considering the moving parts. Karney was a pro and Cut Me In must surely represent some of his best work. Recommended. 

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Blood of my Brother

Roll out the red carpet. Vacuum it. Fluff it a little with the heel of your shoe. Why? The festivities are about to begin. The Hall of Shame is receiving its newest member, the 1963 paperback Blood of my Brother, written by the very talented Stephen Marlowe. Only, Marlowe didn't want to use his name for this turd. Instead, he used the name C.H. Thames. To rub salt in the wound, Armchair Fiction reprinted this book. 

In the opening chapter, spoiled college kid Johnny Baxter is with an unknown person cracking a safe in a mansion. Next chapter, Johnny is found floating in the ocean. Dead. His car went off of an embankment and crashed into the lake. Johnny's father is devastated and regrets some of his fatherly decisions in life. Johnny's step-brother Dave is a modest attorney in town and the star of the family. He goes to identify the body and believes his brother was murdered. 

Dave believes there is foul play because Johnny's car is turned the wrong way in the lake. That's it, that is the big piece of evidence. Pay no mind to the flask, the fact that his brother was an alcoholic, the reckless lifestyle, the fast Jaguar. Just the wrong direction in the lake. The next 129 exhausting pages consist of Dave interviewing the college faculty, Johnny's roommate, the fraternity brothers, and Johnny's father. Readers already know that Johnny was stealing money from his father, so that little little morsel is quickly chewed up and dismissed. Second, if Dave can't figure out that Johnny's roommate, Tony, is the killer, then there is no reason for him to be an attorney. Here's some clues:

1 – Tony is flatass broke. 
2 – Tony has clothes and jewelry belonging to Johnny.
3 – Tony has a freakin' gun under his bed.
4 – Tony won several medals for killing a ton of bad guys in the Korean War.
5 – Tony tells lies.
6 – Tony seems jealou....nevermind, you get the idea. TONY IS THE DAMN KILLER! 

But, Dave interviews hundreds of people and discovers that Johnny has cleverly blackmailed every one of them. He's taken photos of them doing the humpty-hump, caught them in elaborate forgeries, threatened to report cheating to the faculty, and on and on. It's ridiculous to think Johnny Baxter has this many blackmailing schemes in the works and that this little California college is hosting this many blackmailing schemes. These people aren't that interesting. But, none of it matters! Pages 12 through 141 serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever. You can read the first 12 pages and the last 9 and that's the book. Open, shut, the end. A pointless endeavor. My suspicion is that Marlowe knew this book sucked. That's why he didn't want his name associated with it. I also think that he gave his readers a secret code so they would stay away from this novel - the title. The acronym is B.O.M.B. 

It brings me great pleasure to return this book to its little plastic book condom, complete with a piece of sticky scotch tape across the horizontal flap. I have no plans to ever open it again. I'm placing it in our virtual purgatory for bad books. Thus, the Hall of Shame remains open. This book does not.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 99

On this last double-digit episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Tom and Eric delve into the life and career of an underrated crime-fiction author named James McKimmey. Tom talks about a new Day Keene reprint and Eric discusses two brand new Stark House Press editions. Reviews include a 1984 spy novel called The Girl from Addis by Ted Allbeury and House of Evil, a 1954 crime-noir by Clayre and Michael Lipman. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 99: James McKimmey" on Spreaker.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Dark December

According to Wikipedia, Alfred Coppel, real name Jose de Arana-Marini Coppel (1921-2002), served as a fighter pilot in the United States Army Air Forces during WWII. The Oakland author then began a prolific writing career using pseudonyms like Alfred Coppel, Robert Cham Gilman, and A.C. Marin while writing for pulp magazines. Coppel is mostly known for science-fiction, but he also authored action-adventure and espionage. He transitioned into full-length original novels, including his bestseller, Thirty-Four East, about the Arab-Israeli conflict. My first experience with the author is his post-apocalyptic novel Dark December, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1960. 

U.S. Major Kenneth Gavin spent WWIII in an underground bunker in Alaska. From that safe and secure location, Gavin was a “missile-man”, a launch pad operator in charge of firing nuclear warheads at the Soviet Union and other foreign enemies. After two long years of global destruction between warring countries, the military, and ordinary life, has crumbled. Sensing no real purpose to the missile launches, Gavin is released from his service in Alaska.

It is Gavin's intention to travel south into San Francisco to finally reunite with his wife and daughter. It has been months since he had spoken with them and he just wants to return home. But, the journey won't be easy. Most of the population has descended into anarchy, with diseases, malnutrition, and radiation being catalysts for humankind's ruin. There is still a military presence available, so Gavin aligns with a military patrol led by Major Collingwood, an arrogant, mentally unstable superior that feels right at home within the destruction and chaos. When Gavin witnesses Collingwood ordering a group of bandits to be executed, the two come to a disagreement. The end result – Collingwood swears he will murder Gavin. 

Escaping from Collingwood, Gavin meets up with a young woman and a boy and the three form a partnership to travel safely through California. Unfortunately, they run into a fanatical group of teenagers that have a penchant for torture and depravity. When Gavin discovers they have a Soviet pilot locked in a shed, he learns just how dark and sadistic civilization has become.

Alfred Coppel does everything right in his nightmarish look at a bombed out America. It's the traditional monomyth featuring the lone hero on a quest through a perilous landscape, essentially the oldest storytelling formula. Coppel's examination of humankind's descent into sadism and nearly Neanderthal behavior is the book's real strength. Gavin is the unconventional hero, a man who has seemingly killed millions with the press of a button, but now can't cope with the idea of taking another life. His journey through the wasteland, as a pacifist, is really a unique twist on what would otherwise be an “all guns blazing” survival tale like the numbered men's action-adventure titles that would arrive 20+ years later – The Survivalist, Deathlands, The Last Ranger, Phoenix, etc. Coppel's writing is more insulated, concentrating on human psychosis or the boundaries of sanity when threatened with extinction. It's smart.

If you enjoy post-apocalyptic novels, then this is an easy recommendation. But, if you enjoy books ranging from Lord of the Flies to novellas like Heart of Darkness, then this should be an appealing, disturbingly entertaining read as well.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Thirty Pieces of Lead

It's hard to believe that just down the road from me, here in the Sunshine State of Florida, the Nazis invaded. It's a little known fact, something that isn't often discussed in the history books. But, on June 16th, 1942, a submarine assisted four German spies to step on the sands of Ponte Vedra Beach, just south of Jacksonville. Their mission was to destroy bridges and the parts of the railroad system using dynamite. Thanks to the efforts of the FBI, they were captured and executed before their mission was accomplished.

Using this unique piece of history, Frank Kane, author of the successful Johnny Liddell private-eye series, constructed a short-story called "Thirty Pieces of Lead" for the September, 1945 issue of Crack Detective Stories. To my knowledge the story has never been reprinted, but you can read it for free HERE or scrolling below.

At the story's beginning, an Italian prisoner-of-war named Musico is being interrogated by a Gestapo colonel. Musico has served time in a concentration camp, along with his mother and wife. The bullish interrogator suggests that Musico was separated from them at some point, and would probably wish to visit with them again. Musico tells himself that he already knows the fate of his loved ones. But, he plays along. The colonel explains that a group of highly trained professionals is planning a landing on the American coastline, and they want Musico to assist them. In return, Musico will get to see his wife and mother again. 

Musico is an ex-mob runner that ran bootleg products out of Chicago ten years ago. Musico tells the colonel to call his old mob boss, and explain the landing operation and ask that they pave the way with the police and Coast Guard. To insure the request is legit, Musico provides his interrogator a password so the mobster will know the request came from him. Musico says the mob has no loyalty to America and will work with the Nazis. Further, Musico volunteers to join the landing in an effort to accomplish the mission and to see his loved ones again. But, Musico has a clever plan for revenge in mind. 

At just a few pages, this story has so much life in it. It explodes with detail and ties into this little piece of history in a really unique way. I love the mobster aspect to it, and the idea that the mob and the Nazis are featured in the same story – two despicable factions that are being combated by this courageous, yet defenseless prisoner. Short stories can really be hit or miss, but this one was a sure-fire winner. Recommended!

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

A Night for Treason

Before John Jakes struck gold with his Civil War epic North and South, he was a paperback author for dudes like us. A Night for Treason was a 1956 spy thriller that was released as an Ace Double with many subsequent reprints over the years. 

Our hero is an American secret agent named Max Ryan. The novel begins with an exciting action set-piece with Max hijacking a truck filled with military supplies. It’s a violent and fast-paced opening that sets the tone for this short, peppy paperback. 

We are quickly introduced to our villains: a shadowy European-based organized crime and intelligence cabal known only as The Combine seeking to steal American industrial secrets for its own profit and benefit. The focal point for this showdown between The Combine and Max’s agency is an Atomic energy conference hosted on the estate of an Air Force colonel. It’s up to Max to figure out who the technology thieving Combine spies are among the guests and neutralize them without getting whacked himself. 

The Air Force colonel has a sexy, 26 year-old niece named April who is the hostess of the conference and a pivotal player in the weekend’s intrigue. John Jakes keeps the narrative exciting with well-crafted action scenes every few pages. His plotting is basic but serviceable. 

Overall, this early work from a future famous author is about as good as one of the better Nick Carter: Killmaster installments. If you can score a cheap copy of A Night for Treason, you won’t regret reading it. However, it’s unlikely you’ll remember it for long after you’ve moved onto the next paperback in your stack.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Whiteout #01 - The Snow

Flint Maxwell is an Ohio native and author of horror and fantasy titles. He's authored a post-apocalyptic series called Jack Zombie, co-wrote the Midwest Magic Chronicles novels, and contributed to the short-story collection 25 Gates of Hell featuring horror authors like Brian Keene. The author's own short-story collection, The Bitter Cold, was published in 2018. My first experience with the author is his 2020 five book series of post-apocalyptic novels, Whiteout. I'm starting with the series debut, The Snow, published in multiple formats by Dark Void Press.

Through first-person perspective, readers are introduced to Grady Miller, an Ohio firefighter that experienced a harrowing tragedy that left a little boy dead. Trying to recover from the trauma, Grady pals around with his two childhood friends, Stone and Jonas. The three buddies want to celebrate July 4th in tradition in a lakeside cabin at fictional Prism Lake. The festivities of drinking beer and telling stories is fun for the trio, and the author conveys their friendship and inner-loyalty to the printed page quite well. However, “The Three Musketeers” are about to experience outright horror.

The three awaken to find that it's snowing. On the fourth of July. In Ohio. Once the snow starts falling, it never stops. The friends soon learn that the radio stations and internet are out and soon the power begins to fade. As a blizzard soaks the landscape, the three also learn that their fears, the things that trouble them the most, are becoming real things outside. The dead kid begins calling to Grady from the snow. Dark figures are seen in the distance. Spiders as large as cars start crawling. It's a nightmare scenario. But, is it any good?

For the most part I enjoyed the book for what it was. This is clearly the origin tale, and it ends right when the action begins to escalate. The setup was appropriate, the characters introduced, and doomsday ushered in to create the backbone of the series. I found it to be truly scary at times, but for the most part it's just gloomy and depressing. Like most post-apocalyptic tales, the team-building is a necessity and the survivors have to possess some sort of past tragedy to overcome in the post-apocalypse. It suspiciously reminded me of Christopher Golden's more superior novel Snowblind, which has nearly the same concept.

I plan on reading the next installment soon. I found The Snow to be enjoyable enough to warrant an extended look at the series. Flint Maxwell is creative, has a plan, and forms the story well. Recommended.

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Big Steal

Irish author Athwill William Baker used pseudonyms like Howard Baker, W. Howard Baker, W.A. Ballinger, John Long, Desmond Reid and Richard Williams to write crime-fiction, science-fiction, and espionage novels. He began his career as a journalist, joined the Army during WWII, and later became the editor in charge of Panther Books. He's mostly remembered for his contributions to the serial police procedural Sexton Blake, inspired by Sherlock Holmes. He also authored a 16 book series starring Richard Quintain, a British Secret Service agent. My first experience with the author is his stand-alone caper novel The Big Steal. The book was published in 1964 and has been printed a total of four times, each with different artwork and different publishers.

Sep Ryder was an Italian veteran of WWII that fought for the Fascists and personally knew Mussolini. Due to his violent behavior, and military record, he was placed in the mental institution Broadmoor by the British government. However, he escapes the facility and puts together a plan to rob $2.5 million from Heathrow Airport. But, he needs a team.

Baker writes this short novel as one long series of introductions. We meet Phineas Norton and his wife Marcia and quickly learn that Ryder and Marcia are having an affair. Then there is Bill Simmons of the Daily Post, his ex-wife, guys named Bruno and Clifford, and the list goes on and on. The plan is for Phineas to become a passenger on board one of the aircraft landing at Heathrow. He will warn the crew that he has a bomb on the plane. This puts the entire airport on lockdown and a lot of people on the ground preparing for the plane's arrival – ambulances, cops, journalists, etc. While all of this commotion is happening, Ryder and his drivers, gunmen, and strong guys will rob the place and drive an ambulance out of town. Phineas then will tell them he made the whole thing up. Because there is no bomb. Until there is one.

This book was mostly enjoyable and could have been something special if the cast of characters was cut in half. The pacing was a frenzy of activity, propelling the plot and creating a lot of drama, intrigue, and excitement for the book's payoff. But, there's just so many characters that it was hard to keep track of histories and where all of these people are in the plan. I spent a majority of my reading experience confused, but Baker's writing was really good and kept me interested. In the future, I'd like to read another Baker novel to compare quality. Lukewarm recommendation for The Big Steal

Friday, July 29, 2022

The Deadly Deep

Jon Messmann created and authored the long-running adult western series The Trailsman. He authored series titles like The Revenger and Jefferson Boone: Handyman. He also wrote novels in genres like gothic, romance, and espionage. At the height of the Jaws frenzy, Messmann authored an aquatic horror novel called The Deadly Deep. It was published by Signet in 1976. 

The book stars a journalist named Aran, who specializes in complex scientific discoveries. He has a unique talent of describing these highly intelligent theories and results in an easily understandable language for casual readers. This talent has led to Aran being a notable journalist and literary awards winner. But, Aran is about to take on his most difficult writing assignment – chronicling the end of the world. 

Across the globe, the fishing and tourism industry is suffering serious setbacks due to violent deaths in oceans and rivers. The cases range from people swallowed by whales, consumed by lobsters, or severely bitten by an array of historically docile fish. There is no central location for the occurrences, although Aran specializes his research in the American Northeast. There are a number of controversial theories from professionals in various lines of work, but no one has the answer. Does Aran?

What I really loved about The Deadly Deep was the very last page. It closed a chapter of my life that I never want to remember. I believed Messmann was the invincible wordsmith, a literary hero of epic proportions. But, this novel proves he was less than perfect, which is totally acceptable considering the amount of novels he cranked out year after year. 

In 220 pages of plodding, directionless writing, Messmann places his protagonist on the phone with various authorities agreeing or disagreeing with numerous theories on aquatic animals and trends. There are attacks sprinkled throughout the narrative, but these characters are never properly introduced, so their dismemberment by crabs doesn't have much meaning. At one point I expected some hero to jump in and save the day, but the whole novel is just endless discussions about sea life. 

The Deadly Deep is deep boredom. Don't waste your time. This one is nothing short of awful. 

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Matt Helm #05 - Murderer's Row

Murderer's Row, the fifth installment in Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm series of spy-fiction, was published in 1962 by Fawcett Gold Medal. The novel was loosely adapted into a film of the same name in 1966. I've mostly enjoyed the series and Hamilton's writing, so I'm continuing in proper order with this installment.

Like the last entry, The Silencers, the next dangerous mission involves a female agent working for the same three-lettered, clandestine organization as Helm. Mac, Helm's boss, explains that the coast of Virginia – Chesapeake Bay – is experiencing an elevated amount of foreign vessels. The theory is that the area is hosting a trafficking operation with foreign powers extracting key personnel from the U.S., including a top-rated scientist with important knowledge regarding American security. The agency wants to locate the scientist and either retrieve or kill him.

A female agent has been inserted into the operation to gain intelligence, however, her perceived credibility has been compromised. Mac, and the agency, need her to regain credibility through nefarious means. Helm is to travel to her hotel room and dish out a scolding punishment from the agency, a savage, violent beating to whip her into shape. The room is bugged by the bad guys, so they will hear and see the beating and realize that this agent does in fact work for the U.S. and is being reprimanded for her poor performance. Mac's last agent, a young rookie sensation, failed miserably on the assignment. Helm is pulled from a Texas vacation to do the job right. Mostly, it all goes accordingly until the female agent unexpectedly dies during the beating.

Helm “killing” a fellow agent creates a tidal wave of issues for him and the agency. Mac attempts a retrieval, and at one point Helm is set-up in an attempt to bring him back to Washington. Helm wants to complete the mission, his superiors feel he is unable to. Against orders, and without support, Helm eventually finds the scientist's daughter, and gets tangled in a wild set of circumstances where he pretends to be a mob hitman named Petroni. There's a dense, complicated family affair between the woman, the scientist, and a bitter married couple. Individually, they each want to pay Helm/Petroni to kill another family member. Surprisingly, Helm accepts the jobs.

Hamilton really threw a curveball into this series installment by creating a unique, nearly comedic approach to the typical spy formula. The female agent dying during the beating was shocking, but where Helm goes after that opening event was just so bizarre and entertaining. Helm's insertion into a high-level, deadly family dispute was amazing, especially considering he agrees to kill two family members for money. It's all for show, of course, but the means to an end is an exciting chain of events that eventually leads from hotels to back-roads, then jail to a boat, then a massive hurricane that bounces the characters around during the book's rousing finale. It was superb pacing and plot development. 

Murderer's Row is probably a high-point in the Matt Helm series. It has a really clever storyline, a plausible sequence of extraordinary events, and a deep character study of the family dynamic and the strenuous ties that bind. This one is just fantastic and highly recommended.  

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Steve Bentley #04 - Mistress to Murder

Mistress to Murder, the fourth installment in the Steve Bentley series, was published in 1960 by Dell. The book's author, E. Howard Hunt, wrote the series using the pseudonym Robert Dietrich. Bentley is former military and runs a successful accounting business in Washington D.C.'s turbulent political beltway. While dabbling with stocks and blondes, Bentley always finds himself as a pseudo private-eye working random cases that fall into his lap. In the aptly titled Mistress to Murder, now available in a brand new edition by Cutting Edge, Bentley becomes entangled with a wealthy international family in the posh D.C. suburbs. 

From a rural stretch of Northern Virginia blacktop, Bentley sees a young woman fall from her horse. After running to her aid, Bentley is stopped by the woman's chauffeur. Helping the woman into the car, the chauffeur becomes aggravated with Bentley's assistance and nearly K.O.'s him with one punch. Thankfully, Bentley memorizes the vehicle's license plate. Later, back at his home, Bentley discovers that the woman secretly placed a necklace in his pocket.

Consumed with the woman's odd behavior and injury, Bentley hires his old PI friend, and series staple, Artie to locate the vehicle's residence. It belongs to Baron Alejandro Esquivel, located in the high-end district of Georgetown. Bentley goes to the home, receives a cool welcoming, and meets Esquivel's young wife Anita, which eventually leads to a quick make-out session. Bentley pries himself away from Anita and is re-introduced to 19-yeard old Megan, the woman Bentley helped previously. Megan behaves normally, is “sick in bed” due to the fall, and both Anita and The Baron are keeping watch. But, Megan slips a note to Bentley asking him to meet her that night.

At the meeting, Bentley learns that Megan, and her half-sister Anita, are originally from Venezuela. Their father, the original Baron, was partners with Esquivel in a shady, yet lucrative, business. Long story short, their parents were suspiciously killed, Esquivel became the new, yet fraudulent Baron, married Anita and now the three of them live unhappily ever after. Anita cheats on Esquivel and Megan is the princess trapped in the castle. But, the wrench in the gears is a string of pearls that are internationally coveted and now owned by Esquivel. They are a sort of collector's piece worth well over $100K. Like these things tend to go, murders begin, the pearls are stolen, and Bentley is caught up in the deadly ruckus.

Hunt borrows similar plots of the first two Bentley novels. In the series debut, Murder on the Rocks, the plot involves a precious emerald, a South African ambassador and two women searching for the stone. In the series second installment, End of a Stripper, a man being dragged from a strip club discreetly places a small camera in Bentley's pocket. The camera is then traced back to the man and the purpose of the novel. However, Hunt writes Bentley so well that the recycled elements can be easily overlooked. 

Mistress to Murder, and the Steve Bentley series as a whole, is excellent crime-fiction written by an experienced, seasoned pro. While Bentley doesn't receive the same fanfare as other private-eye literary heroes, I think his steadfast willingness to do good things for people in peril is unmatched. The crimes are detailed, the characters dynamic, and the pace is flawless. All of the elements contribute to Mistress to Murder's success. This is just another great novel proving that this series is a cut-above your average gumshoe procedural. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

The Devil's Collector

Between 1975 and 1980, Robert Colby (1916-2006) authored six stories starring a mercenary vigilante named Brock — all published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. The stories — along with a previously-unpublished installment — have been compiled into a single volume called The Devil’s Collector.

Each of the stories is titled “Paint the Town…” followed by a color. So, the first story is “Paint the Town Black” and the last one is “Paint the Town Aquamarine.” When we meet Brock in the opening story, he’s dressed as a fancy dandy walking into a roadhouse bar in a seedy part of town. After attracting all sorts of attention from the rough characters inside, Brock leaves the tavern and walks toward the city.

Of course, some hoods accost the soft target on the street, and Brock goes Charles Bronson on the punks taking their money in the process. Later in the story, he dispatches another thief while also swiping the cash and explaining, “There is a tax on evil…and I am the collector.”

Colby was clearly influenced by the men’s adventure vigilante paperback craze of the 1970s, when he crafted the first story. His innovation was making the vigilante a foppish gentleman seeking to line his own pockets with crime money rather than a ‘Nam vet with a vendetta.

In later stories, Brock graduates from street punks and begins targeting con-artists, counterfeiters, and thieves. These stories (including “Green”) are more con-man tales where Brock’s cleverness wins the day, recalling the Saint series by Leslie Charteris. In other stories (“White”), he’s more of a Travis McGee salvage consultant who recovers stolen loot for a victim while extracting his “tax” for himself.

Overall, The Devil’s Collector is an innovative short story collection with a unique lead character given room to evolve over seven stand-alone stories. You may or may not want to mainline all these short works back-to-back. I think the collection would be more satisfying as a palate cleanser between longer pieces. In any case, call it a winner. Recommended. 

Monday, July 25, 2022

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 98

Gil Brewer is a fixture of mid-20th century crime-fiction, and on this episode, Eric and Tom discuss his life and career. Tom tells listeners about a new collection of short-stories by Robert Colby and Eric highlights the career of crime-noir writer James M. Fox. Reviews include a post-apocalyptic novel that was the basis for the 1979 film Ravagers and a Manning Lee Stokes classic. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 98: Gil Brewer" on Spreaker.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Invitation to Violence

During his literary career, Lionel White (1905-1985) was a master of the heist caper novel, with over 35 books to his name before his death in Asheville, North Carolina. Invitation to Violence was a 1958 paperback that has recently been reprinted by Stark House with an informative introduction by paperback scholar Cullen Gallagher. 

As the novel opens, Vince Dunne is a 19 year-old hoodlum pulling off an elaborate jewelry heist with his crew. As usual, the author does a tremendous job bringing the reader along for the ride. As often happens in paperback heists, things go crazy sideways when the cops arrive and the whole joint becomes a shooting gallery. Vince narrowly escapes the chaotic crime scene with the bag of jewels. 

Meanwhile, our “hero” (of sorts) is Gerald Hanna, an insurance actuary and all-around square. Fate brings Gerald into the orbit of Vince as the young thief is making his escape from the heist gone sour. While driving home from his Friday night poker game, Gerald finds himself in the middle of the shootout between the cops and the hoods. Young Vince jumps into Gerald’s car and forces the insurance man at gunpoint to be his getaway driver. As they are escaping the scene, a wayward bullet ends Vince’s life, leaving Gerald driving away with a dead heist man and an assload of hot jewels in his passenger seat. 

In a moment of impulsive greed, Gerald dumps the Vince’s lifeless body on the side of the road and drives home with the dead man’s pistol and the stolen jewels. Gerald initially takes shelter in his tiny apartment with the hot rocks that everybody spends the rest of the novel seeking. 

We are introduced to a small cadre of side characters, including  Gerald’s pain-in-the-ass fiancĂ© and Dead Vince’s genuinely sweet twin sister. There are cops and robbers on the hunt. The author toggles between the third-person perspectives of all these competing parties jockeying for the truth and the jewels. 

I enjoyed Invitation to Violence quite a bit. It’s not the best Lionel White offering due to the lack of much violence, action or plot twists, but the machinations of all these characters positioning themselves to come out ahead was very compelling. The ending was tidy and largely satisfying making this one an easy recommendation. 

Thursday, July 21, 2022

High Priest of California

Charles Willeford (1919-1988) began his career authoring novels while serving in the U.S. Air Force. His most popular literary work starred Miami Police Homicide Detective Hoke Moseley. Before that series, Willeford concentrated his efforts on crime-fiction novels that blur the genre's boundaries. Fans and scholars point to Willeford as an author that doesn't necessarily write “genre”, similar to science-fiction author Philip K. Dick's novels that defy a specific genre. The most striking evidence to support this theory is Willeford's first published novel, High Priest of California. It was published by Royal Books in 1953 as a double with Talbot Mundy's Full Moon. Later, it was published by Beacon as a double with Willeford's Wild WivesHigh Priest has been reprinted by Phocion Publishing as a $2 ebook.

Russell is a San Francisco used car salesman that embraces his bachelor life. He owns 50 suits, lives in a small apartment, and spends his time reading highbrow literature, deciphering chess movements and translating long, archaic words into modern use while playing stacks of classical music and jazz records. But, Russell has another hobby. He toys with vulnerable women.

At a nightclub, Russell meets Alyce and asks her to dance. He can sense that she's not comfortable under the loud music and lights, so he suggests they go someplace quiet and talk. Russell learns that Alyce was married for several years, single now, works as a cashier and lives with a roommate named Ruthie and several cats. She's an odd bird, but she's slightly attractive. 

As the days go on, Russell begins a strained relationship that seems one-sided. Alyce enjoys Russell's company, but refuses intimacy. Things become weird when Russell notices she won't let him inside her apartment. On some dates, he has to drop her off a block away. One night he surprises Alyce and forces his way inside. He's shocked to find that she may have been lying to him the whole time. A man is in her apartment, sitting comfortably in front of the television and behaving like a small child. What's Alyce's secret?

Willeford constructs High Priest of California as a character study. Russell isn't a lunatic, but he has a number of mental issues that are catalysts for his disturbing behavior. While Alyce should be the faulty, deceitful character, Willeford flips the narrative to see which bizarre character can outdo the other. There's a sense that right and wrong are somehow contained in the same scenario, a challenge to the moral code and a misdirection for the moral compass. Willeford plays the characters to tilt, warring them with each other with a type of psychological jousting. Other than Russell's innocent housekeeper, every character has a dark side that either elevates or suppresses their otherwise meager existence. 

High Priest of California might be the strangest novel you will ever read. But, at the same time, it could be the one of the most compelling. Russell proves to be one of the most complicated protagonists in my recent memory - a multi-layered, mentally bent character with no empathy blessed with an uncanny power of persuasion. It's Willeford's main ingredient, and the main reason to read this unconventional crime-noir. If that's your thing, this book is a necessity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

A Friend of Mary Rose

I read and reviewed a 1963 suspense novel, The Make-Believe Man (1963) by Elizabeth Jane Phillips. The author wrote this novel, and many others, under a pseudonym of Elizabeth Fenwick. That novel was issued in a new edition in 2022 as a twofer with another of Phillips' novels, A Friend of Mary Rose, originally published in 1961 and the subject of this review. This edition also features an introduction by literary scholar Curtis Evans. 

Mr. Nicholas is a blind, 83 year old man that lives with his son and daughter-in-law. The three of them are moving across town and, as the book begins, the movers are loading up the truck. In keeping Mr. Nicholas out of harm's way between the boxes, handcarts, and movers, Nicholas is ushered into a neighbor's house for safekeeping. Long story short, he spends the night there to reconvene with his son the next day. 

Nicholas has some trunks in the attic that he is really fond of. In hopes they have been successfully moved, Nicholas decides to wait until the neighbor is asleep to journey back to the empty house to investigate. When he enters this dark, empty house in the middle of the night, he hears footsteps in the attic. After wandering up the stairs, and into the attic, he discovers a young girl there. She warns him that a harmful man is downstairs in the house and he is searching for her. Nicholas realizes he's walked into some sort of twisted nightmare with this strange girl and this unknown intruder. 

I wanted this to be something it's not. A Friend of Mary Rose squanders the opportunity to be this white-knuckle, suspenseful tale of cat-and-mouse between a blind guy, a young girl he's trying to protect, and an intruder. It would have been the ultimate home-invasion story, a plot that would loosely be used in the 1966 play Wait Until Dark, which was adapted into the classic Audrey Hepburn thriller. But, Phillips' doesn't capitalize on this plot thread, but instead just jogs in place with little forward progress. By the book's end, I had become fatigued with the plot development and the safe space Phillips created for these very vulnerable characters. 

As a twofer, The Make-Believe Man is a more superior novel and worth the price of admission. A Friend of Mary Rose is a free bonus that isn't a mandatory read, but may be worth exploring if you like Phillips' brand of writing.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Penetrator #03 - Capitol Hell

We've covered the first two Penetrator novels, authored by Mark K. Roberts (odd numbered installments) and Chet Cunningham (even numbered installments) using the pseudonym Lionel Derrick. This was a long-running men's action-adventure series published by Pinnacle in the style of The Executioner and The Butcher (among others). Mostly, this is just fun escapism that's completely disposable. The series is available in audio book format through Books in Motion, narrated by Gene Engene or Kevin Foley, which is typically how I enjoy this series, and in digital by Wolfpack.

In the series third novel, Capitol Hell, Mark Hardin (The Penetrator) witnesses a car crash involving a Mob goon. The criminal's dying breath whispers the word “SIE”, which leads Hardin to a special Washington D.C. club called Societe International d'Elite. This reminded me of Ian Fleming's Moonraker, when James Bond is invited to join the posh club at Blades in London. Hardin not only wants to learn more about the club and its relation to the dead mobster, but also who assassinated the press secretary to the President of the U.S., which just so happened to be Hardin's buddy. 

There's an oddball cast of club members that have established a secret club within the club. They dress in robes, partake in weird chants, and have obligatory plans to take over the world. This club nonchalantly provides hypnotic drugs to the VP and have a strategy to blow-up Airforce One, which is utterly ridiculous. Also, once the club takes control of the U.S. (and I guess the Speaker of the House, Senate leader, and Secretary of State) they will force more military chaos in Latin America to increase their profits.

For the most part, Capitol Hell is a fun ride filled with outrageous moments of unintentional hilarity and wild action-adventure. Hardin is nearly indestructible, gets laid by two women, and fights this clandestine cult-club on a golf course and in old Williamsburg, Virginia. His tools of the trade are his trusty Colt Commander .45 and a dart gun (1 dart for sleepy, 2 for death!). These books tend to connect to each other in small ways, and Capitol Hell connects to the last two events in Los Angeles and Vegas. It isn't necessary to read them in order I suppose, but why not? If you are taking the trouble to track down the series, buy them in sequential order.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Matthew Scudder #04 - A Stab in the Dark

It is revealed in A Stab in the Dark (1981), Lawrence Block's fourth Matthew Scudder installment, that a psycho-killer wielding an ice pick savagely murdered eight young women. Scudder recalls the murders, a killing season that paralleled Scudder's own service with the New York Police Department. But, nine years have passed, Scudder is now an unlicensed, unemployed private-eye doing investigative work for favors or money. He's surprised when the murders are brought to his attention again by a stranger named Charles London.

London approaches Scudder in a diner and introduces himself using a reference from Detective Francis Fitzroy, one of Scudder's previous co-workers on the force. London explains that his daughter, Barbara, was the sixth victim of the “Ice Pick Murderer”. London reminds Scudder that recently a criminal was retrieved by the police that confessed to being the killer. He possessed enough pertinent information about the crimes to legitimately be the infamous killer. However, he presented enough testimony to convince the police that he did not kill Barbara.

In mournful fashion, London advises to Scudder that he is grieving again, as if her murder just happened considering the negative identification of her killer. He expresses that he feels a deep remorse for the way her investigation was treated, and how he has been blindly shuffled to different departments about re-opening her cold case. The police suggest there isn't enough evidence to warrant a new investigation, but London is experiencing mental anguish knowing that someone else killed Barbara for a reason that's simply unknown. He pays Scudder to look into it despite Scudder's warning that this could be a waste of time.

Scudder's trail is ice-cold, and weaves in and out of Barbara's prior life – former neighbors, husband, employer, and friends. It's a slow-pace, with a tepid action scene mixed in, but these Scudder novels emphasize mood, a certain darker ambiance than your typical gumshoe fisticuffs. Block drapes the novel in darkness and a bleak atmosphere that envelopes Scudder's own revered past and its similarities to another ex-cop named Burt. There is also brief comparison to a female artist named Jan, who suffers from alcoholism and a strained relationship with her kids.

A Stab in the Dark is another outstanding installment in the Matthew Scudder series and further proof that Lawrence Block is one of a kind. His character shading, plot development, and crime methodology are superb. If you aren't reading Block...well then you just aren't reading.

Friday, July 15, 2022


Cleve Adams (1895-1949) was originally a pulpster that broke into writing in the 30s, along with contemporaries like Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich. Adams was the co-founder of a Hollywood literary club called The Fictioneers, made up of other authors like Erle Stanley Gardner, Richard Matheson, and Frank Bonham. Adams transitioned from the pulps into paperback original novels. His serialized pulp story Sabotage, starring private-detective Rex McBride, was converted into a novel version in 1940. It has been reprinted several times, including this 1957 Signet reprint with cover art by Robert Schulz. It can also be found as a trade paperback offered by Altus Press.

The Alliance of Southwest-Pacific Underwriters, which is an insurance company, hire McBride to investigate a high number of costly incidents in Palos Verde, California. The company has insured a construction company to build a large dam. The problem is that the company is bleeding money now due to workers being killed on the job, faulty machinery, and numerous other expensive setbacks. 

McBride is considered one of the most repugnant heroes of detective-fiction, with many readers and literary scholars pointing to Adams' racist, fascist, rude, and disparaging characteristics. In Sabotage, McBride gets black-out drunk, quits the job after nearly dying (sort of), and makes passes at every female character. However, Adams presents it in a non-abrasive way that came across innocently enough as nothing more than a humorous flavor. 

Unlike the shining stars of detective-fiction, often mantlepieces of brave perfection, McBride is an average guy that routinely gets beaten, arrested, and caught – with his pants down. I think this heavily flawed, often hilarious character is a shining star of imperfection, thus making him immensely enjoyable. His abstract investigation leads through a spiral-network of shady characters and brutish town cops, but somehow makes sense by the book's conclusion. 

Sabotage is over-the-top, pulpish, and completely unnecessary. That's why it's a necessity to read if you love this era of crime-fiction. Recommended.

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Paperback Warrior Primer - Day Keene

Along with the likes of Gil Brewer, Talmage Powell, Charles Williams, and Lionel White, Day Keene is considered a staple of mid-20th century crime-fiction literature. Keene was one of the most prolific authors of that era and authored a slew of paperback originals during the 1950s and 1960s. His body of work is still respected today, evident with the number of reprint houses clamoring for his estate or orphaned novels. In this Paperback Warrior Primer, we are presenting an overview of his life and career:

Day Keene's parents arrived in the U.S. as immigrants from Sweden. Gunart Hjerstedt was born shortly after in Chicago in 1903. Hjerstedt would later use a modified version of his mother's maiden name of Daisy Keeney to establish his legal name as Day Keene.

Keene became a traveling stage actor in the 1920s, performing under the names of Keene and his Hjerstedt name. His notable role was Rosencranz in a traveling production of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. In 1931, Keene was living in New York and sold his first story to the pulp magazines. His first sales were to Detective Fiction Weekly and West magazine. He returned to Chicago later in the 1930s and started writing for radio shows, including Little Orphan Annie and Kitty Keene, Inc., a program about a female private detective that first aired on CBS and later the Mutual Radio Network from 1937-1941. 

In 1938, Keene relocated from Chicago to St. Petersburg, Florida with his second wife, Irene, who had been a Chicago school teacher. For a while, Keene attempted writing radio scripts remotely, but eventually shifted all of his creative energy to penning stories for the pulp magazines. Keene's writing slowed for a time in 1942 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Pinellas County, Florida.  

During his pulp fiction era of 1940 to 1952, Keene authored 250 published short stories. He sold another 16 short stories to the digests after the pulp magazines died off in the 1950s. He used the pseudonym John Corbett for stories when there was already a Day Keene story appearing in the issue. Ramble House has a number of Day Keene's short stories compiled into trade paperbacks. You can get them HERE. In the late 1940s, Keene relocated to Los Angeles and subsequently bounced between there and St. Petersburg. 

The birth of the paperback original was a catalyst for Keene to switch from short stories to full-length novels. Keene's first novel, Framed in Guilt, originally released as a hardcover - but then quickly re-released as a paperback from Graphic Books. As an aside, Framed in Guilt was released in Great Britain under the title Evidence Most Blind and remains in print today from Stark House Press. In 1951, Keene collaborated with Gil Brewer to write the published novel Love Me and Die

The recycling and expansion of short stories into full novels was common during that time. Keene sold a story called “She Shall Make Murder” to Detective Tales in November 1949. That became the basis for the Keene novel, Joy House, that was written in 1952, rejected by multiple publishing houses, and finally published in 1954 by Lion Books. The novel has also been reprinted by Stark House Press and remains available today. The editor of the novel at Lion Books was none other than Arnold Hano, and our review of that book is HERE. His story "Wait for the Dead Man's Tide" was featured in the August 1949 issue of Dime Mystery. It was later re-worked into the novel Dead Man's Tide, which was reprinted by Stark House Press.

Early in his career as a writer, Keene signed on with a literary agent named Donald MacCampbell, who also represented a fellow St. Petersburg, Florida author named Harry Whittington. Keene and Whittington became lifelong friends and socialized in the same Florida writing clique as Gil Brewer and Talmage Powell. Using MacCampbell, Keene's novels were first offered to Fawcett Gold Medal, who had right of first refusal. If they declined the novel, it would be shuffled down the hierarchy to other publishers like Lion, Ace, Avon, Pyramid, and Graphic Books. In the 1960s, Keene switched from shorter crime-fiction novels to denser, more mainstream novels like L.A. 46 and Chicago 11.

Keene died in North Hollywood, California on January 9, 1969. 

In his life he wrote about 50 novels, over 250 short stories, and 1500 radio scripts. Thanks to reprint houses like Stark House Press, Armchair Fiction, and Wildside Press, many of his greatest hits are still available today.

You can read all of our reviews of Day Keene's novels, including our podcast feature, HERE. For further reading, we recommend Cullen Gallagher at Pulp Serenade. Gallagher wrote an excellent introduction called "Run for Your Life: Day Keene's Wrong Men" for a Stark House Press reprint, which was the source material for this Primer.