Monday, March 30, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 37

It’s time for Episode 37 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast! This week we take a look back at the best books we read and reviewed for the month of March. Tom presents an unmasking of a rockabilly musician who also wrote genre fiction. We review vintage paperbacks from Borden Deal and Ivor Drummond. Join the fun on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 37: 99 Chicks" on Spreaker.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Skip Bomber

Lloyd E. Olson worked as a technical writer for news articles and served as the editor for a university news bureau. Olson served in the U.S. Air Force during WW2 and used that experience to author his one and only novel, 1960's Skip Bomber published by Ace. In the book's opening notes, Olson reveals that he used the story's location in New Guinea due to it being the least known battle of WW2's brutal Pacific Theatre. He poignantly described it as “an area where the Stone Age and Twentieth Century met.”

Skip Bomber introduces readers to Captain McGurk and his crew of the Fertile Myrtle, an American B-17 bomber. In a lot of ways the story is about this flying fortress and it's steadfast resistance to the elements, mechanical deficiencies, a stern Captain and Japan's robust naval fleet. For perspective, this bomber's wing area was 1,420 feet and powered by four engines each pushing 1000 horse-power. It's top speed was 325 mph at 25,000 feet. It's cargo? 6,500 pounds of explosives. Needless to say, the B-17 was a fire-breathing behemoth.

McGurk's mission is to consistently defend an area known as Port Moresby in New Guinea. During the war, this was a city of about 1,300 people sitting a mere 80 miles from Australia. For the strategist, it was an important area for the Allied forces but also critical in the defense of Australia. While Olson summarizes the history and importance of the area, don't forget this is an action-adventure fiction paperback.

Aside from a few fun excursions, each chapter is dedicated to one flying mission for McGurk and his crew. The author doesn't provide much insight on the characters' personal lives, choosing instead to simply tell an exciting series of stories. Through instrument panels, tailgunner pivots, belly bombs and McGurk's perspective, readers are thrust into these exciting bombing campaigns. Missions vary from defense measures around American ships to assault runs across Japanese fleets. Interesting enough, there's even a bombing run on a volcano.

While Skip Bomber is a lot of fun, I was hoping for a central plot to develop. Additionally, having some sort of backstory on these characters may have prompted a more emotional investment. The story ends appropriately enough, but I couldn't resist contemplating a better ending or thinking of a potential sequel or follow-up tale. Regardless, at 180-pages, this 35-cent Ace paperback packs a punch. Skip Bomber is a fun, exciting look at a lesser known WW2 campaign. Bombs away!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Memory of Passion

The literary works of crime-fiction master Gil Brewer have slowly become reprints by publishers like Hard Case Crime and Stark House Press. In 2006, Stark House Press reprinted two of Brewer's novels as one volume - 1960's "Nude on Thin Ice" (reviewed here) and 1962's "Memory of Passion". I've found Brewer's work to be slightly above average aside from what could be the genre's most impressive title, 1958's "Vengeful Virgin" (1958). The Stark House reprint offers an introduction by David Rachels where he proclaims that "Memory of Passion" contains characters that are "Brewer's ultimate portrayal of the male condition". Considering that Brewer's underlining emphasis is sex, I was curious to read it.

The novel features 11 total sections with each section containing a line from the song "Where or When" (from the musical "Babes in Arms"). Like many crime-noirs, Brewer's protagonist is a frustrated married man sailing the rough seas of domestic life. Bill Sommers is a wealthy artist and father living in a posh neighborhood. He drives a Porsche, is generally well-liked by his community, yet his wife Louise presents a consistent daily struggle. Often she's at neighborhood parties, displaying a fleshly fondness for the couple's circle of friends. Sommers mental solitude is dwelling on his first love, a teenage fling with a lover named Karen. The two were intimately best friends and Sommers feels she may have been the love of his life. But that was 20+ years ago and he hasn't spoken to Karen since. Until the phone rings...

Oddly, Sommers begins receiving calls from a teenage girl who claims she is Karen. After agreeing to meet her, Sommers is shocked to find that somehow Karen is ageless! She's still the teenage beauty queen from his youth. After refusing her advances and questioning his sanity, Sommers can't fight that feeling anymore. The two begin a hot-blooded affair that leaves the main character a shell of a man. He's plagued by guilt, wrecked with emotion and morally torn by his animalistic lust.

While Brewer injects his novel with a carnal energy, the narrative's pace eventually leads to a crime. Karen's mysterious presence leads to a deadly altercation that propels the novel's second half. With a sex-killer prowling suburban streets, Karen becomes the next target. But with Sommers caught in a love affair, he too begins to be ensnared by the killer. The author's presentation then becomes the view point of three characters – Karen, Sommers and the killer. And that very well may have been the book's ultimate demise.

Shockingly, I found this book to be well below average for a Gil Brewer work. He's certainly had some sleepers (“Flight of Darkness”), but “Memory of Passion” rests too much on the killer's thought pattern and behavior. Often I was reminded of provocative horror authors like Edward Lee and Richard Laymon. They were probably inspired by Brewer and/or crime-noir and this novel presents the raw sexual intensity that those two authors often utilized. I found that I didn't particularly like any of the characters and was never absorbed by Sommers' moral dilemma – I found him to be a rather lifeless character without any heroic traits. While advocates aren't mandatory, they sure can elevate a narrative saturated in depravity.

Overall, this is a Gil Brewer novel that I'll quickly forget. Thankfully Stark House Press offers an affordable reading option, but I can't fathom purchasing a high-dollar original paperback. “Memory of Passion” just isn't any good. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Chester Drum #01 - The Second Longest Night

Milton Lesser (better known as Stephen Marlowe, 1928-2008) authored over 20 stand-alone novels including a number of respected science-fiction stories. After authoring his first full-length crime-noir novel, 1954's Catch the Brass Ring, Marlowe went on to create his most notable literary work. Beginning with 1955's Fawcett Gold Medal paperback The Second Longest Night, Marlowe launched a 20-book series of hardboiled crime novels starring Washington, DC private-eye Chester Drum. Marlowe's collaboration with Richard Prather created a paperback sensation called Double in Trouble. It was a unique pairing of two bestselling literary characters – Prather's Shell Scott and Marlowe's Drum. My only experience with the character is the series debut.

The Second Longest Night introduces Drum as a 30-year old divorcee working in Washington, D.C. as a private-eye. In the opening pages, readers learn that Drum was married to Deidre Hartswell, the daughter of a U.S. Senator. The two became disenchanted with each other and became divorced shortly after their wedding. Six-months after the divorce, Deidre was found dead in a bathtub. Her death was ruled as a suicide but her father has doubts. He hires Drum to investigate her death and if there was any foul play.

In the book's first-half narrative, Drum connects Deidre to the Communist Party and a lover named Francisco del Rey. After one of Drum's informants is murdered by del Rey, the book's locale changes from snowy Washington DC to the hot, humid jungles of Venezuela. The author takes an odd storytelling angle by pairing Drum with Deidre's twin-sister Lydia and her husband Ralph. Together, the three visit del Rey where Drum begins to connect a lucrative oil contract with the Hartswell family. But just as things seem to wrap up, the action globetrots to a mountain range in Northern California as Drum, Lydia and Ralph ascend the slopes to determine Deidre's mysterious death.

Stepping into the novel, I had just assumed it would be a localized story with Drum's procedural investigation conducted in the urban areas of Washington DC. After researching the series for this review, I discovered that most of the Drum novels are international mysteries featuring espionage and intrigue. In fact, the series' last five installments apparently read more like James Bond than the stereotypical private-eye whodunit. This Drum debut was surprisingly more adventurous that I had anticipated, evidenced by the character's battles in and around a remote river basin. While not physically domineering, Drum's quick responses are some of his best weapons. Drum isn't intentionally written as humorous character, but the character's lashing, verbal responses are sarcastic and border on being patronizing. As a fan of Robert Parker's Spencer, I found this character trait appealing.

The Second Longest Night isn't the perfect hardboiled crime novel, but it definitely showcased Marlowe's skill-set as a successful storyteller. I imagine like many authors, the quantity eventually led to quality. I'd be mildly curious to read mid-series entries like Violence is my Business (1958) or Peril is my Pay (1960) to judge how well the series developed. With international espionage, communist plots and crooked politicians, I'm not in a huge rush to read more of Chester Drum's exploits. I much prefer small-town crime-noir, domestic disputes or more urban, localized private-eye novels. I'll continue pursuing Frank Kane's Johnny Liddell, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and Dan Marlowe's Johnny Killain novels before devoting more time to Stephen Marlowe.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Hunt the Killer

Along with Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and John D. MacDonald, Day Keene (real name Gunnard R. Hjerstedt) presented many of his crime-noir novels in Florida locations. These prolific authors were Florida natives or had simply adopted the state as their home. Often, these crime-fiction talents would even spend weekends together swapping ideas and fishing along Florida's Gulf Coast. So, it's only natural that their literary works were spotlighted by the Sunshine State. Day Keene's “Hunt the Killer” (1952) exemplifies that trait.

When readers first meet Charlie White, it's on the last day of his prison sentence. As he is stepping out of a Florida prison, there's a backstory explaining why White wore stripes for four-years. White, a WW2 veteran, owned a fishing boat and was making a meager living hauling in fish from warm Gulf Coast waters. Married to Beth, the two lived in an older Victorian styled house on a small island near Tampa. With dreams of escaping normality's prison, White was delighted to receive an anonymous call from a man simply calling himself Senor Peso. This unusual caller asked White if he would like to make $2,000. The $2,000 quickly snowballed as White found himself illegally importing goods, duty free, into Tampa.  After a few successful imports, White was caught by the Coast Guard and sentenced to prison.

Upon his release, White is picked up by the beautiful Zo, a Cuban woman that White was having an affair with before his capture. The two head to a coastline cabin to celebrate White's release. However, White discovers a letter that his wife wrote him advising that she has forgiven him for his past discretion and would like to reconcile their marriage. Truly loving Beth, White breaks off the fling with Zo. Shortly thereafter, White finds himself unconscious in the cabin with a gun he doesn't own. Readers aren't as surprised as White when he finds Zo's corpse riddled with bullets near by. Who shot Zo?

It's the age-old genre trope – the innocent man wakes up with a corpse. In the skillful hands of Day Keene, it's still an entertaining retelling. The novel's first half focuses on White's flee from the police across Florida, transporting readers into rural and tropical locations like Ocala, Ybor City, Fort Myers and Palmetto City. There's a satisfying relationship that White strikes up with an old trucker named Kelly. But, it's White's visit with his wife Beth that ratchets up the suspense. Keene's atmosphere –  an old, desolate mansion shrouded in Spanish moss – is nearly a main character as the “hunt for the killer” propels the narrative. The eventual reveal of Senor Peso was well worth the price of admission.

Thankfully, this novel has been reprinted by Stark House Press as a three-in-one volume that also contains two of his 1959 novels, “Dead Dolls Don't Talk” and “Too Hot to Hold.” There's no reason why you shouldn't own this in your collection. Purchase a copy HERE

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Mercenaries #01 - Black Blood

British author John Harvey's most notable literary work is a series of police procedural novels starring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick. The series began in 1989 with Lonely Hearts and ran an impressive 13 installments through 2014. In the early 1970s, Harvey wrote two biker-adventure novels under the name Thom Ryder and also authored a three-book WW2 series called Death Shop. My first experience with the author is his The Mercenaries series of team-based combat novels written under the pseudonym Jon Hart. The series ran five total installments with the debut paperback, Black Blood, published in 1977 by Mayflower.

Black Blood has an auspicious beginning as the author introduces a character named Dick Thompson, a young boy who's being brutalized by his peers. After the beating, Thompson returns home where he discovers his mother is having adult-relations with a man. As Thompson runs out of the house, he collides with his father. Fast-forward to present day and we find Thompson working in Africa as a mercenary. Through thick foliage, Thompson spies a black woman breastfeeding her baby. Cautiously, Thompson enters the hut, rapes the woman, threatens her baby at knife-point and then leaves. The odd thing is that Thompson is a Lieutenant in the author's band of mercenaries called Five Commando.

I was hoping for something remarkable considering Harvey's respectability as a talented author. However, once another character was introduced as antisemitic and the son of a Nazi soldier who assisted in the mass extermination of Jews, I was immediately turned off. With Black Blood, the author's idea was to establish an action-adventure series starring criminals. Five Commando is made up of despicable characters that are led by a cunning negotiator named Major Kane. The debut mission is Kane's contract with an African leader who is attempting to resist a strong rebellion. After hiring Kane's mercenaries for 70 pages, Five Commando kills all of the rebels and take on a second mission of protecting a monastery of nuns. By the 100th page, I had completely lost interest.

At 125-pages, this book was the pits. The writing was disjointed and unnecessarily gory. Often I had trouble placing where the team members were in battle and in some cases I couldn't ascertain whether Kane had just five Mercenaries or five-hundred. There were brief portions of the narrative where team members are interacting with other allies. This was extremely confusing from a reader's perspective and left me disenchanted with the storytelling. The end result is a low-brow fictional effort that shouldn't be in your hands on or on your bookshelf. We have a special place for these abysmal literary efforts – the Paperback Warrior Hall of Shame. Black Blood, welcome to your permanent home.

The Life, Literature, and Death of Ron Haydock: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

I recently bought a large lot of vintage paperbacks on eBay. The bundle of books was priced right, and my lowball offer was honored by the seller - much to my joy and amazement. Among the stacks of Fawcett Gold Medals and Ace Doubles was an oddity I’d never seen before: a pseudo-sleaze paperback with a plot synopsis hinting at it being a sexy caper novel titled “Scarlet Virgin” by someone named Don Sheppard. While the packaging of this tawdry-looking paperback does nothing to inspire confidence in its quality, the story behind the author is noteworthy and worth exploring.

The first thing to understand is that the paperback is an April 1962 printing by low-end publisher, Pike Books of Van Nuys, California, distributed by an outfit called Paragon News. The photo of the cover model was taken by Bob Pike, who I presume was the owner of this less-than-prestigious publishing house, and I bet that snapping pictures for sexy paperbacks was his favorite perk of the job.

However, the real interest here is the author. As you may have gathered, the writer here is not, in fact, someone named Don Sheppard. A bit of internet digging answered the first question of this sleazy authorship mystery: Who the hell was Don Sheppard?

According to U.S. Copyright records, the real author was Chicago native Ron Haydock, and if you’re not familiar with that name, please allow me to get you up to speed. First, go ahead and listen to the song “99 Chicks” by Ron Haydock and The Boppers. It’s available on Spotify or you can just check it out here:

                       

That’s a pretty awesome song, right? The rockabilly single was released as a 45 RPM in August 1959 by Cha-Cha Records. It wasn’t much of a hit, but the disc remains a rarity sought-after by collectors. The group performed the song on an episode of “Chicago Bandstand” before Haydock left his Windy City hometown to chase fame in Hollywood.

A lifelong fan of horror movies, Haydock began editing a column in a film-buff magazine called “Famous Monsters of Filmland” published by Forrest J. Ackerman before launching his own knock-off publication that ran from 1961 to 1964 called “Famous Monsters of the Films.” He also co-hosted a weekly Los Angeles talk radio show geeking out over horror films. 



His knack for writing prose opened the door to a career as an author. He wrote two sleaze novels for Bob Pike published in March and April of 1962: “The Flesh Peddlers” and the aforementioned “Scarlet Virgin” - both released under the pen-name Don Sheppard. If he received the going rate at the time, it’s likely that Pike paid Haydock about $500 per manuscript. Maybe less. Over the subsequent six years, Haydock continued his career as a novelist by co-authoring 11 straight-up porno books under the name Vin Saxon, a pseudonym he shared with Jim Harmon. His body of work from this era includes “Caged Lust,” a 1967 effort in which, if the cover is any indication, a zoo gorilla has carnal relations with at least two lusty babes. The novel was also released under the name “Ape Rape.”

Haydock also acted in a handful of schlock cinema B-movies in the 1960s, including “Rat Pfink a Boo Boo” from 1966 with a soundtrack featuring several of Haydock’s songs. He co-authored the screenplay and acted in two roles in the film, including one credited to “Vin Saxon,” the pseudonym he used to publish the
gorilla porn novel.

As his dreams of Hollywood success faded, Haydock returned to Chicago in 1967 to work on his music career. He also wrote some stories for “Creepy” magazine and drafted the copy for the backs of a 55-unit trading card series issued by Topps in 1968 called “Land of the Giants,” cards that fetch a pretty penny on the collector’s market today.

Haydock briefly returned to acting in the 1971 horror film, “Blood Shack” directed by his long-time friend and collaborator, Ray Dennis Steckler. He continued to be part of the world of horror film fandom by serving as associate editor and writer of a short-lived publication called “Monsters of the Movies” that came and went in 1974.

“I'm out for kicks in life, doing whatever I want whenever I want, on the move like there's no tomorrow, I'm living like there's only today,” Haydock said. “Yeah, that was the right word for what I wanted out of life - kicks. And I never had to look very far or very hard to find them. Somehow, they always managed to find me.”

The details aren’t entirely clear, but 1977 was a bad year for the author, actor, musician, and film fan. His mental health began to slip and on August 14, 1977, he was walking down an interstate highway exit ramp in San Bernardino County, California when he was struck and killed by an 18-wheeler truck. He had been visiting his filmmaker friend Steckler in Las Vegas and was in the process of hitchhiking his way to L.A. when the accident occurred. He died two days before Elvis Presley met his own too-soon demise. Haydock was 37. Presley was 42.

Haydock is buried in Resurrection Catholic Cemetery near Midway Airport on Chicago’s south side. In 1996, Norton Records compiled 28 of Haydock’s songs and demos - previously released and unreleased - into a career retrospective CD called “99 Chicks.” The 29-track compilation remains available today on every major music streaming service.

His literature, however, remains lost to the ages. That is until a deep-discount eBay paperback lot brought “Scarlet Virgin” by Don Sheppard into my library and life.

The 158-page, big-font paperback is narrated by Biff Elliott, a 34 year-old “knight of the world” who was a freelance soldier in the Cuban revolution and experienced “wild times in the Orient.” As the novel opens, Biff finds himself held at gunpoint by a sexy redhead who is convinced he’s someone else. One thing leads to another, and Biff is thrust into a fantastic adventure involving a primitive society worshiping a megalomaniac white man as their god, and a missing idol that could unravel the whole enterprise. As you can imagine, the short novel is full of kinky nymphs for Biff to boff along the way.

This Paperback Warrior Unmasking would be so much better if it turned out “Scarlet Virgin” was a lost classic that demanded wider readership. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Haydock’s writing is fairly amateurish and in desperate need of an editor. The narration is littered with sentence fragments and exclamation points as an indicator of something exciting happening. I think he was trying to emulate a Doc Savage styled adventure, but the whole thing felt very rushed and poorly outlined.

The best thing that can be said about “Scarlet Virgin” is that it could have been a good first draft of a novel in the hands of the right publisher, but Pike Books clearly didn’t care enough to spruce it up. Ron Haydock deserved better.

The biggest upside of this forgotten little book is that it prompted me to learn quite a bit about this ambitious young man who wanted to make it big in the arts before his life was cut short. Haydock said that all he wanted out of life were kicks, and I hope he found some along the way.