Friday, November 16, 2018

Hero's Lust

Kermit Jaediker was a newspaper reporter and Golden Age comic book writer during who shifted genres to write a paperback original crime novel called “Hero’s Lust” that was released in 1953 by upstart publisher Lion Books. Jaediker’s noir novel has recently been given new life through a reprint by Stark House who co-packaged the short book with two other Lion releases from the 1950s.

Red is a newspaperman covering city hall in corrupt Crescent City. Since he was a young reporter, Red has been taking bribes to write stories in the paper favorable to the local political machine and the all-powerful Mayor - fake news before it was a thing. As a result of his boosted income and status, Red is a real man about town driving a convertible and bedding lots of fine dames.

Red’s comfortable life as a hack for the current administration is placed in jeopardy by an anti-corruption mayoral candidate who appears to be gaining traction with the voters. The Mayor has a plan that will ensure his victory and needs Red’s help to hype it. The plan is to campaign on his administration’s crowning achievement - a state-of-the-art hospital complex for the poor in the city’s second ward.

(As an aside, everything about this novel makes me think it’s really about Chicago’s powerful political machines, and the hospital in question is really Cook County Hospital. However, the author was an east coast guy, so it’s also entirely possible that I’m just full of beans.)

The Mayor wants Red to do a series of articles trumpeting the hospital’s positive impact on the community. Red’s counter-proposal is to make the articles a series of human interest stories following a single patient through the hospital’s treatments. Red thinks the articles will have more impact if the sympathetic patient is “A dame. Pretty. Stacked.”

Enter Ann Porter. Pretty. Stacked. And suffering from tuberculosis so bad that she needs to have part of her lung removed. Red is to be her shadow through the procedure while documenting it all for his newspaper readers to illustrate the societal worth of the new hospital and delivering the Mayor an easy re-election. In the process of documenting Ann’s medical procedures, an intimacy between Red and Ann develops that helps illustrate Red’s humanity but opens the door to all sorts of derivative problems for the compromised reporter. 

Meanwhile, Red is being courted by a rival newspaper with a reform agenda interested in leveraging Red’s political knowledge to expose the Mayor’s corruption. Is Red willing to risk his comfortable life of status to be a real investigative reporter? What are the risks of being a snitch against the political machine who gave him everything? This is one of those stories where a morally-compromised man finds himself at a fork in the road and needs to make a tough choice between right and wrong with life-or-death consequences. 

“Hero’s Lust” is filled with inside info on the operations of the 1950s newspaper business and the blood-on-the-knuckles operation of a corrupt urban political machine. It’s a fascinating read and Jaediker’s writing is top notch. Anyone who considers himself a fan of 1950s hardboiled crime, should consider this one required reading. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Hunter #03 - A Taste for Blood

Author Ralph Hayes has penned an incredible amount of action novels. He launched his vigilante inspired series 'The Hunter' in 1975. Adding to the surplus of genre paperbacks, Leisure released five books of the series that same year. With book number three, “A Taste for Blood”, the formula is altered. Instead of series heroes John Yard and Moses Ngala tracking criminals, the two are thrust into a harrowing survival yarn that doesn't involve firearms.

The book's opening introduces us to the various characters that will eventually be partnered with Yard and Moses in the African swamps:

-Liu Chi-Han, a hatchet man for budding terrorist groups
-Wealthy married couple Demetrios and Lisa Tzanni
-Vacationer Kanak Rawal and 10-yr old son Nahki
-Israeli policeman Yigael Bialik and his Islamic terrorist prisoner Osman
-Brush pilot Colin Bourke

This cabaret of characters, including Yard and Moses, boards a Cesna plane in Narobi departing for the city of Khartoum in Sudan. Yard, suspecting the plane requires much needed repairs, hesitantly agrees to board while questioning Bourke's flying skills. About 200 miles north of Juba the plane crashes into a desolate stretch of swampland.  Very little water and food forces the group on a trek to civilization. That's Hayes backdrop, and he does a splendid job fashioning an action-adventure story out of a plane crash survival recipe. 

There's immediate discord in the ranks as the arrogant Bourke refuses to leave the plane. Factions are formed and eventually they all agree to designate Yard the leader. Soon, Chi-Han begins to calculate rations and bodies, positioning himself to conveniently kill a few of the group in the night. Osman's background as a terrorist makes for an easy alliance, and the book eventually moves into Yard/Moses vs Chi-Han while supplies run out. 

Hayes is terrific here, making 'The Hunter' series 3 for 3. The intrigue, deception and fortitude are all variables in this human experiment. Sure, the jungle adventure has been done to death (Hayes may have taken liberties with Robert Westerby's 1969 novel “The Jungle”) but the last 25-pages places the action on urban streets and plays on the general vigilante theme of the first two novels. The end result is another stellar effort from an under-rated author.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Pepperoni Hero #01 - Sandwiches Are Not My Business

The three-book Pepperoni Hero series debuted in 1975 and was probably the oddest named series in the men’s adventure genre. It’s hard to learn much about the author, Bill Kelly (Copyright: William Kelly), because there have been dozens of novelists with the same name over the past 50 years. The hard-to-acquire series is a running joke among collectors and fans of the genre, but I’ve never met anyone who has actually read one. I decided to take the plunge.

First, Pepperoni Hero is his real name. The first name is from a drunken father and the last name was historically truncated from Heropoulus by a Greek immigrant ancestor, yet his friends call him Pep or Pepper. The novel is a low-rent tribute (okay, rip-off) to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. For example, McGee’ houseboat, “The Busted Flush,” is named after the poker hand that won him the boat. Pepper’s houseboat is called “Crap” because he won his boat in a dice game. On the book’s first page, Pep is in bed reading “John D. MacDonald’s latest Travis McGee satire,” and Pep drinks Plymouth Gin on the rocks, just like McGee. At times, its difficult to tell if this book is outright parody, fan fiction or just an earnest - but inferior- cover band.

Like McGee, Pep is a boat bum with the unusual twist that he’s doing it in Chicago while moored at Navy Pier Marina. He works as an adventurer for hire helping people who can’t enlist the help of the law for one reason or another. This 188-page paperback is one long flashback with Pep recounting his life story to the reader. Some of the stories he tells about his checkered past are very compelling, but I kept wondering when the novel was going to start. Then, all of a sudden, I realized that one of those old war stories was, in fact, the plot of the novel.

The plot deals with Pep helping an old Vietnam War buddy who wants Pep to use his superior poker skills to clean out his wealthy brother-in-law. The reason this is important involves a convoluted and rather stupid sibling rivalry and a dead man’s will with millions at stake. This turns into a murder plot with an impotent bad guy involved in sexual torture, homemade porno movies, and blackmail. Meanwhile, Pep gets laid a lot.

Kelly is actually a pretty good writer but his plotting is an abomination. He does seem to know his way around the neighborhoods and norms of Chicago. The action scenes are well-described, and Pep is a credible badass. The sex scenes, and there are many, are plenty graphic. Finally, the author gives Pep an eight-inch dong - consistent with the league minimum for numbered 1970s paperbacks.

Despite these mitigating factors, the bottom line is that no one in his right mind would ever recommend this mess of a novel to you for anything other than the novelty of the cover. By all means, buy it and display it proudly. But for heaven’s sake, please don’t read it. Only one of us should have to endure this mess of a paperback.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Long Night

Julian Mayfield (1928-1984) was an Army vet, taught at Cornell and spent the majority of his life as civil rights activist. He was often associated with communist sympathizers and was even invited to Cuba by Fidel Castro. The South Carolina native wrote a number of plays, adapting one (“417”) into his debut novel, “The Hit”, in 1957. Mayfield's most profound novel of his published trio is “The Long Night”, published in 1958 by Vanguard. 

With the description and book cover, it's easy to lump this novel into the crime paperback movement of the 1950s. The tag: “His gang turned on him, the cops were his enemies – the powerful, grim story of a kid on the run in the Harlem jungle.” Blanketing the novel with the sexy heels and mini skirt may have improved sales. Regardless of the clever crime marketing signatures, this novel shouldn't be misplaced into the genre. It just doesn't fit and I'm kicking myself for including it here. But, there's pieces that may appeal to genre fans so I continue.

Main character Fredrick Brown is a ten-year old lieutenant in a dominant Harlem neighborhood gang called The Comanche Raiders. It's a hot Friday night and Brown, nicknamed Steely by his gang, picks up $27 cash for his mother. She won it in some sort of game or street hustle and has trusted him to carry this money back home to her (shades of Jack & The Beanstalk). On his return trek, he runs into members of his own gang who physically assault him. The money is stolen and Brown is forced to locate $27 before he can return home.

Harlem's grime is on full display here. Mayfield isn't restrained, positioning young Brown in precarious situations. Hoping to score quick bucks, Brown robs a woman, steals a bike and receives another assault from a rival gang. The police don't assist, and soon Brown finds himself on the mean streets at midnight with little hope. In emotional flashbacks, we learn that Brown's father left the family to pursue college. Brown recalls various times of his young life and his interaction with his mother. The end is a bit of a surprise and wrapped the narrative up in an open-ended conclusion. 

This isn't a gem by any means, but could be viewed as a decent coming of age tale. Considering the timing of its release, Mayfield does a good job displaying the rough and tumble battles between inner city ethnic groups. At 140-pages and large font, it's an easy way to pass the time.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Quarry #02 - Quarry's Choice

“Quarry’s Choice” by Max Allan Collins is a 2015 installment in the hit-man series, yet it takes place in 1972. The popular paperbacks have always been unstuck in time, and the reading order doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you do, in fact, read these books because 'Quarry' is among the best genre series characters ever written.

This one takes place after Vietnam vet Quarry has been accepting assassination assignments from the Broker for about a year. During a standard business meeting in Iowa, a couple of hired killers try to murder the Broker but are foiled by Quarry’s quick action. It’s an exciting opening scene that sets the pace for the remainder of this propulsive installment.

Soon thereafter, the Broker engages Quarry to kill the man behind the assassination attempt - a junior varsity racketeer named Killian in Biloxi’s Dixie Mafia. Killian is in the process of trying to consolidate power, and he views the Broker as a loose end requiring elimination. The ever-resourceful Broker has an inside track to get Quarry a job - in an undercover capacity - as one of Killian’s bodyguards to bide time until Quarry is properly positioned to eliminate this well-protected threat.

In Biloxi, Quarry is assigned a stripper/prostitute, who uses the name Lolita, to be his escort as he learns his way around town. As a writer, Collins is notoriously good at writing fantastically graphic sex scenes, so Lolita’s version of southern hospitality is a welcome edition to this otherwise violent and tense paperback. Beyond the sex scenes, the relationship that develops between Quarry and the whore is one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel and underscores the basic goodness and humanity of our antihero hitman.

Biding his time for an opportunity to take out Killian, Quarry is given assignments from his target to thin the herd of criminal competition in Mississippi, and Quarry must make some tough choices concerning conflicts of interest and the ethics serving two masters. The strip clubs and illegal gambling operations servicing the nearby Air Force base in Biloxi serve as a fascinating cultural study of regional crime.

As you may have figured, “Quarry’s Choice” is another fantastic and perfectly-written novel in this flawless series. It’s short enough that it never drags, and Collins’ writing crackles with good humor and compelling bloodshed. The twists and turns as the book approaches its climax are genuinely surprising. The paperback’s conclusion is gratifying and leaves the reader wanting another helping of Quarry action. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Avenger #01 - The Avenger

Nebraska native Chet Cunningham penned over 450 books in his lifetime. The prolific author served as a mortar gunner in the Korean war before obtaining a master's in journalism at Columbia University. His first novel was published in 1968, the first of many westerns he would compile in his bibliography. My first introduction to his writing was Stephen Mertz's 'M.I.A. Hunter' books, and much later the 1980s vigilante series 'The Avenger'. 

The eponymous debut was released by Warner Books in 1987 and would continue for three sequels through December of 1988. The “Avenger” here is Matthew Hawke, who at the beginning of the series is a DEA agent in San Diego. The opening pages has Hawke masterminding a sting operation in a derelict neighborhood. Barging into a warehouse office, Hawke finds the Mob's hands bloody – with his wife's tortured corpse lying discarded on a desk. After a quick shootout, Hawke's colleagues arrive just in time to accept his badge and gun. Hawke resigns from the force. 

The same night, Hawke aligns himself with the lovable Brandy, a 17-yr old prostitute that he has kept tabs on during his career. Daylighting at her place allows him to moonlight as the vengeful avenger, wreaking havoc on drug cartel kingpin Ramon Raimundo. Hawke begins by dismantling the trafficking trails and knocking out mid-level bosses. The author typically uses a chapter to set up the hit, then moves to a quick close with Hawke dealing the deathblow. The chapters and elimination of the cartel eventually moves to the streets of Tijuana and Ramon's fortress. 

Cunningham is a good writer for “popcorn” action, adventure and westerns. He's certainly no literary mastermind, but his books serve genre readers with enough bravado and gun toting heroes to satisfy any casual fan. 'The Avenger' is recommended for fans of 'The Executioner', 'The Vigilante', 'Hawker' and 'The Hitman'.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Girl with the Long Green Heart

“The Girl with the Long Green Heart” was a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novel by Lawrence Block released in 1965 that was brought back as a Hard Case Crime reprint in 2005 with a new cover by the great Robert McGinnis (although the original cover art was quite fetching). It’s a con-man story in the same vein as “The Sting” and it’s an absolutely terrific read.

Johnny Hayden is a master of the long con with a specialty in land and stock scams. After a stretch in the joint, he’s working in a bowling alley futilely saving his pennies so he can one day break into the hotel business. Johnny receives a visit from a younger, less-experienced fellow grifter named Doug Rance who comes with a proposition for a job. Rance has identified a mark named Wallace Gunderson who is ripe for the picking, but he needs Johnny’s help to make it happen.

Johnny is a great first-person narrator, but it wouldn’t have been much of a story if he declined Rance’s offer and went back to polishing his balls at the bowling alley. Instead, he’s back in the game honing and tweaking Rance’s plan to engage in a little theft by deception. After the initial setup and planning, it’s off to upstate New York to meet the mooch. A good bit of the action also takes place in Toronto, an underused setting in classic crime fiction.

I won’t give too much of the con away here other to say it involves land in Canada that may or may not be of interest to speculators interested in uranium mining. Gunderson is a jackass and a blowhard, so you don’t feel a bit sorry for him as Johnny and Rance work their magic. Rance enlists the help of Gunderson’s secretary, Evelyn, who has her own score to settle with her boss. Evelyn is a scorned woman with larceny in her long green heart and a real looker to boot. She needs to work closely with Johnny to make this scam happen, and, well, you can probably see where this is going.

If you like con-man novels, “The Girl With the Long Green Heart” will be right up your alley. The story’s big twist wasn’t a huge surprise and the conclusion was a bit anti-climactic, but it was a blast to read from beginning to end. It’s another early-career winner from Lawrence Block. Recommended.