Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Down in the Valley

With over 19 pseudonyms and over 350 novels, few have rivaled James Reasoner's blueprint on men's adventure fiction. Along with penning a number of adult western titles like 'Longarm' and 'Trailsman', Reasoner wrote a number of short stories for magazines and compilations. One of those, “Down in the Valley”, first appeared in “Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine” in September, 1979. In 1997 the story was included in the “American Pulp” compilation edited by Ed Gorman, Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg. 

“Forty-three men huddled in the back of the truck, cold and afraid. There was no moon and the canvas flaps on the side cut out what little starlight there was. It was pitch black inside and none of the men knew where they were headed.”

Beginning any literary work with that opening paragraph just demands that your audience sit up and pay attention. I was actually thumbing through this compilation and was immediately roped in by simply glancing at those few lines. Who are the men? Where are they headed?

Reasoner's story features a truck driver named Flood driving a truckload of illegal aliens from Mexico to San Antonio. The backstory has Flood, a bitter blue collar laborer, leaving his wife and newborn baby to pursue better money, fancy women and tasty whiskey. While his illegal pipeline work as a human trafficker is lucrative, he's found the women are harder to come by.

The story's second character displays the same determination, yet reaches for a different goal – working anywhere other than hot fields. Ramon has a lover in Mexico named Elena and he's pursing the American dream – regardless of which color the collar is. Exhausted from laboring in the hot sun, Ramon wants to escape to America to achieve his own goals and has paid Flood hard-earned money to deliver him to San Antonio. 

The night-time dash across the boarder evolves into hot-pursuit. Reasoner conveniently places a sting operation into the mix with state patrol officers coordinating a roadblock. Flood's off road driving will be put to the test as Ramon simply awaits his fate. As the story reaches a crescendo, we realize just how closely paralleled the two characters are and how far they will go to achieve success. 

At under 10-pages, Reasoner orchestrates a quick and overly entertaining short story. “Down in the Valley” should appeal to action fans but the heart of the story is providing insight on both Flood and Ramon. The author proves that we all may be headed to the same destination, sometimes on the same path, but the measures we use to reach success varies substantially.

Buy a copy of this compilation HERE

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Floater

“The Floater” is a police procedural novella by Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank E. Smith) that first appeared in the January 1955 issue of “Manhunt Magazine” and predates Craig’s similar ‘Police File’ and ‘Sixth Precinct/Pete Selby’ series titles from the same era. The novella has been reprinted by Black Cat Mysteries (a Wildside Press imprint) as a 99-cent eBook.

The story is told by NYPD homicide detective Jim Coren who, along with his partner, Paul Brader, is assigned the case of an 18 year-old female who washed ashore near Manhattan’s Pier 90. The author includes all sorts of interesting forensic science trivia about floaters that seems credible enough to me. The evidence convinces the fictional detectives that the girl was murdered before she was dumped in the water.

The officers follow a logical trail to determine if any missing persons match the demographics of the young floater. There’s something about a “Jonathan Craig” police procedural that’s so pure and logical that they’re always a pleasure to read. The detectives don’t have the colorful, fully-formed personalities of Ed McBain’s detectives of the 87th Precinct, but that approach places the evidence, procedures and suspects front-and-center. You can also count on the female victim of his stories to be involved in deviant or promiscuous sexual activity, and “The Floater” is no exception.

I’d be interested to know why the author was writing NYPD police procedurals during the same era for the ‘Police File’ series, the ‘Sixth Precinct/Pete Selby’ series and stand-alone stories like this one? Wouldn’t it have been better branding to pick one hero and ride him until he drops? It’s not like all these NYPD protagonists were differentiated in any meaningful way.

Sadly, Frank E. Smith died in 1984, so I’ll never get the chance to ask him about his career and the literary choices he made. It doesn’t seem as if he granted many interviews during his life or that anyone has made an exhaustive study of his writing. He was probably just one of those hard-working Florida authors at the time grinding out stories to feed his family. Anyway, the bottom line is that “The Floater” was a great story, and you should read it. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 22, 2019

A Texan Came Riding

Frank O'Rourke (1916-1989) was a Denver native who received his call for writing during WW2. His first novel, “E Company”, was released in 1945. He went on to write over 60 novels, three of which were adapted for film - “The Bravados”, “A Mule for the Marquesa” (film name “The Professionals”) and “The Great Bank Robbery”. My first sampling of his work is the 1958 Signet paperback “A Texan Came Riding”.

A hired gun named John Kearney arrives in the southwestern border town of Taos with a stack of letters. He presents these letters, some written by attorneys, judges and even a governor, to town sheriff Adolfo Montez. Kearney is searching for a criminal named Charles Malcolm, who's chosen Taos as a place to park all of his wealth. As the owner of the mine and half of the area farms, Malcolm is a significant citizen. While never fully explained to the reader, apparently Malcolm raped a woman in the mid-west and cheated hundreds of God fearing farmers out of land and stock. 

We are introduced to Charles Malcolm and quickly realize he's a lunatic. Further, he keeps a witch by his side to cast spells and curses on his enemies. Malcolm has laid over half of the women in town, some carrying his offspring over to Mexico, others...well he doesn't even know about. His most prized possession is Rachel Perez, who's he most recently knocked up and placed at a nearby ranch. 

Kearney aligns with a sheep herder named Ed Shaffer, Rachel and sheriff Montez to uncover Malcolm's corruption in the town. Discovering an important upcoming transaction between Malcolm and businessman Don Roberto proves to be the key to uncovering Malcolm's corruption. The book's finale has Malcolm on the run as Kearney and his allies hone in.

Despite its mere 128-pages, “A Texan Came Riding” is an exhaustive effort to digest. The narrative is just implausible. Kearny has authoritative letters from  various branches of jurisdiction citing Malcolm is a criminal. Why isn't he apprehended by the law? Why would Kearney, a rancher from Nebraska by trade, even be involved in this whole debacle? There's pages and pages of dialogue – displayed in lengthy paragraphs – between Malcolm, his witch and Don Roberto. Further, Kearney doesn't display any heroic traits whatsoever. Did I mention there is a damn witch in this book? 

“A Texan Came Riding” is terrible. I weep for the cover artist that designed this reprint. The contents doesn't match the impressive cover.

Buy this book HERE

Friday, April 19, 2019

For Money Received

The short fiction of Kansas native Fletcher Flora (1914-1968) was a regular fixture in “Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine” in the 1950s and 1960s as well as dozens of Hitchcock-branded anthologies. Wildside Press has compiled many of Flora’s greatest hits in two eBook compilations for the ridiculously low price of a buck-a-pop. “For Money Received” is a 31-page novelette that originally appeared in the October 1964 issue of AHMM. It was also included in the Hitchcock anthologies “Meet Death at Night” (1964) and “Murderer’s Row” (1975) and most recently in “The Second Fletcher Flora Megapack” from Wildside Press.

The story is narrated by cut-rate private investigator Percy Hand whose business is so slow that his receptionist is an electric buzzer. One day he’s visited by new client with an unusual request. Mrs. Coon believes her husband is being blackmailed by his mistress. The fact that her husband is straying doesn’t pose much of a problem, but the wife won’t settle for blackmail and hires Percy to get to the bottom of the matter.

An easy job soon becomes complicated after the secret lovers somehow spot Percy and give him the slip. Percy needs the money and must figure out a way to salvage this engagement and get to the bottom of the blackmail scheme that becomes a murder case. Percy is a great main character because he’s unusually focused on his own professional ethics - a challenge when engaging in the dirty business of tailing a cheating spouse. He’s also a legitimately funny and sarcastic narrator with a great self-deprecating nature, and I found myself laughing aloud several times over the course of this single-sitting mystery.

Flora is a fun author, and I suspect that shorter fiction plays to his strengths. “For Money Received” is a clever bit of short fiction that won’t change your life but serves as a great introduction to this largely-forgotten author’s body of work. It’s an easy recommendation and a breezy way to spend an hour. I also learned that Percy is the main character in other short stories and Flora’s full-length novel called “Leave Her to Hell” from 1958 that’s been reprinted by Stark House. I intend to check that one out soon. 

Buy a copy of this story HERE

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Flight to Darkness

In April, 2018, Stark House Press released a reprinting of Gil Brewer's 1952 novel “Flight to Darkness” and his 1954 book “77 Rue Paradis”. The two works are packaged together with a forward from Dr. Rachels, an English Professor at Newberry College that edited Brewer's short story collection, “Redheads Die Quickly and Other Stores” (2012 University Press of Florida). 

After Gil Brewer's wildly successful 1952 paperback, “13 French Street”, the author could have reserved time and effort for a monumental follow-up novel. Unfortunately, he didn't. Despite cautionary warnings from his literary agent, Brewer wrote “Night Follows Night”, later re-titled to “Flight to Darkness”, in a mere three days. I think the fact that he wrote this novel in such a short amount of time speaks volumes – it's an absolute stinker. 

My only prior experience with Gil Brewer was the ordinary crime novel “The Red Scarf”. Enjoyable enough, “Flight to Darkness” was not. It's a cumbersome narrative revolving around Korean War veteran Eric Garth. The book's opening pages explains that Eric has been hospitalized in a sanitarium due to frequent dreams and visions of killing his brother Frank with a wooden mallet. Bizarre, yes. The source of the dreams and visions is a battlefield incident where Eric thinks he murdered another soldier despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, that the man was killed by enemy gunfire. 

During his hospital stay, Eric falls for the cunning and beautiful Leda Thayer, his nurse. Her attraction to Eric stems from his family's wealth. Eric and his brother Frank, whom Eric hates, are the sole inheritors of the family's thriving loan business. Leda practically tells Eric she's only in it for the money, but often love is just headed for tragedy and this story is no different. 

Upon his release, Eric and Leda head to Alabama to vacation in a lakeside cabin. There, Eric is drug out of bed and arrested for a hit and run. The blood and hair matches Eric's fender. But Eric doesn't remember any of this and proclaims his innocence. He's taken to the local sanitarium where he lives for a number of weeks before escaping. His destination is the family's home in western Florida. There he learns that Leda has married Frank! 

Soon, Frank is found murdered with...a wooden mallet. All signs point to Eric as the killer and he soon goes on the run to prove his innocence...again. Hit and runs, wooden mallets, scrupulous lovers, lots of money – these should be the ingredients for a wild crime fiction novel. Unfortunately, the story is just tossed together and none of it really makes much sense. Granted, I'm not a huge fan of riding with a lunatic. It's why I don't read novels by the likes of Jim Thompson or Richard Laymon. The idea that Eric is probably insane really ruins it for me. I like my novels to involve normal, everyday characters that are thrust into insane situations. Because of that, “Flight to Darkness” was a real chore to read. I'm not terribly excited to open the next Brewer novel. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Black Friday

“Black Friday” is a 1954 short novel - originally published by Lion Books - by Philadelphia noir master David Goodis, an author who has become more appreciated since his 1967 death than he ever was when he was alive. He’s often called the “king of the losers” because his stories have such a grim, downbeat tone and his heroes are often drawn from ranks of skid row bums.

Hart is one such protagonist - slowly freezing to death on the streets of Philadelphia while trying to decide whether to mug a hobo for his overcoat, commit suicide or just keep shivering. His frigid wandering brings him to a man lying on the sidewalk bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. The stranger parishes after giving Hart the his wallet loaded with cash. However, the killers aren’t far behind, and Hart becomes their focus as they pursue him for the wallet and its contents.

This pretty simple setup brings Hart into the hideout of a heist crew that includes a violent ex-boxer and a buxom platinum blonde who immediately shows a sexual interest in Hart. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Hart’s background and it turns out he wasn’t always such a bum. He attended University of Pennsylvania and at one time owned a yacht. He’s on the run for a crime he either did or did not commit (no spoilers here) in New Orleans, so hiding out with this crew is actually pretty good timing. The big question is will Hart join the crew or just use them as a way-station en route to freedom?

Be warned: this is a dark and violent paperback that goes in some unexpected directions with beatings, murder, dismemberment, a sad skinny woman and a horny fat woman. It’s also sexy as hell in a non-graphic 1950s fashion. Goodis writes the novel is a dispassionate third-person, so the reader is really a fly on the wall watching the tense mayhem unfold and making guesses about characters’ secrets. There’s not a ton of action in the novel’s second act, but the interpersonal dynamics in the hideout never failed to hold my interest.

All this leads up to a compelling conclusion, and Goodis’ writing is particularly solid. “Black Friday” has been reprinted several times since its release 65 years ago. The 2006 edition may be of particular interest to Paperback Warrior readers as it contains several bonus stories Goodis wrote for the pulp and digest magazines. However you do it, don’t skip “Black Friday.” It’s something special.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Vengeance Rider

Lewis B. Patten (1915-1981), began his writing career in the 1940s. His first novel, “Massacre at White River”, was published in 1952. It was the first of more than 90 western novels, three of which won Golden Spur Awards. “Vengeance Rider”, the subject of this review, was originally published by Berkley Medallion in 1962. Since then the novel has been reprinted multiple times with different covers. 

Despite the lack of witnesses or evidence, rancher Ross Logan was convicted of killing his wife Ruth. Logan was sentenced to 15 hard years in prison. In Patten's opening pages, Logan is released from confinement after serving his full sentence. From high atop Cheyenne Ridge, Logan looks down at his condemner, the small town of Vail and what was originally his sprawling Horseshoe Ranch. He is determined to locate Ruth's killer and seek redemption from his former friends and peers. But as we quickly learn, the town has no interest in Logan's proclamation of innocence. They have simply moved on.

Out of money, food and supplies, Logan goes to work for the new operator of Horseshoe Ranch, a brutal man named Caine. Smitten with Caine's much younger wife, Lily, Logan begins earning just enough money and food to bide some free time to investigate Ruth's murder. Patten's panel of suspects seems promising: town founder Tobias Vail, judge Millburn and Logan's longtime friend Phil – all who have vested interests in Horseshoe Ranch.

The most likely suspect is Millburn, who was Logan's attorney 15-years ago. After Logan's conviction, Millburn sold the neglected Horseshoe Ranch cheaply to Caine to raise enough money for Logan's legal fees. But, after investigating the books, Logan learns that Millburn had Caine quickly sell the ranch back to him. Could Millburn have set the whole thing up to acquire the ranch for pennies on the dollar?

Determined to prove Millburn is the culprit, Logan begins to connect the dots while secretly meeting with Lily. Soon, Logan finds that's he's under arrest for yet another murder – Caine's! On the run from a posse and the law, Logan now must find who has killed Ruth and Caine or face the gallows. 

I can never provide enough praise for Lewis B. Patten. I've now read a handful of his western novels and all of them have been top notch. While never overly violent, Patten is a bit more subdued with “Vengeance Rider”. Here, the author uses a popular crime fiction element – the convicted defending their innocence – and places it in the harsh American West. Brimming with fights, romance and the thrill of the chase, Patten's “Vengeance Rider” works exceptionally well as both a western and a crime novel. Read it, you'll love it!

Buy a copy of this book HERE