Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Strike Terror

Hy Steirman (1921-2009) was born in Canada and settled in New York City, where he became an editor for the publisher Street and Smith during the twilight of the pulp era and later served as chairman of publishing at Warner Books. He wrote a few himself, including a spy series starring an ex-FBI man named Zachary Jones that only lasted two installments, the first being Strike Terror from 1968.

Zach Jones is a former FBI agent and widower doing his best to be a single father to a young son. He is pressed back into service by his former boss when a woman he used to know is injured in an accident while possessing deadly weapons and bombs. The KGB has dispatched five trained assassins to blend in with American culture to assassinate a U.S. Counterintelligence chief. Could this woman from Zach’s past be part of this deadly conspiracy?

Zach is a very interesting three-dimensional character that isn't often seen in men’s adventure paperbacks, and the novel’s villains are completely awesome in their originality. The Soviet assassins are sleeper agents born and raised in the U.S. with skills cultivated literally from the womb awaiting activation from Mother Russia.

The author toggles between Zach’s third-person perspective and the perspective of his Soviet-controlled adversaries. While this takes a bit of the mystery away from the plot, it certainly enhances the cat-and-mouse game at play throughout the fast-moving paperback. The plotting is more pulpy than a John LeCarre espionage thriller, but it’s way smarter than a Nick Carter: Killmaster disposable paperback.

The novel plays with many of the tropes one often sees in the genre, including a female partner who is not entirely trustworthy but oozes sex appeal. Watching Zach and his FBI friends thwart one assassination attempt after another made for some fun reading - even when the traps set for them veer into the kind of silliness often seen in The Destroyer series. To be sure, you’ll need to repeatedly suspend your disbelief as the novel progresses, but that’s part of the enjoyment of a men’s adventure series paperback.

Overall, Strike Terror is a winner with some outstanding action scenes, and I look forward to diving into the sequel, Cry of the Hawk, from 1970. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Conan - The Hall of the Dead

As most Robert E. Howard fans know, literary agent Glenn Lord located several boxes of the author's unfinished manuscripts in 1966. In an effort to collect the manuscripts into printable short stories, Lord acquired the talents of Howard scholars Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp to assist in editing and re-writing these stories. 

One of these stories, “The Hall of the Dead”, was a fragmented Conan the Cimmerian document created by Howard and then re-worked by L. Sprague de Camp. This version was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction's February 1967 issue. It was also placed in the popular Conan paperback published by Lancer in 1967 and later reprinted by Ace. It also appears in 1989's Sphere publication The Conan Chronicles. Howard's original version, unedited by de Camp, was later published in the 2000s in two separate omnibus editions, The Conan Chronicles Vol. 1 and Conan of Cimmeria Vol 1.

Like many other stories, the era of “The Hall of the Dead” is set during Conan's thieving years, around 18-20ish. It picks up when Conan enters an abandoned, ancient city called Larsha. In a hot-pursuit is a group of Zamorian soldiers who have been assigned to arrest Conan for theft. These soldiers are led by Captain Nestor, who somehow escapes a trip-wire that befalls the entire group of men with an avalanche of rocks. With Conan in the abandoned city, Nestor enters hoping to solely capture him. 

de Camp is often criticized for not “getting” Conan, and there may be sufficient evidence for that argument, but in stories like “Hall of the Dead”, it is all about telling an exciting story. Whether it was Howard or de Camp describing the empty streets, desolate houses, crumbled buildings, etc., the visual imagery is very evocative. It sets up the story and the atmosphere quite well. 

As Conan engages in urban exploration, a giant slug squirms into the narrative to wreak havoc on the trespasser. This is typical “boss level” writing for sword-and-sandal or fantasy, when the hero matches power and strength with a big baddie. But, alas, this isn't the final boss. When the two characters decide to team-up and steal precious, forgotten treasures in Larsha's Royal Palace, a host of scary monsters appear to harass the thieves. This sets up the final boss battle.

There's nothing to really dislike about “The Hall of the Dead”, but loyalist complaints favor Howard's original version, which is shorter and features some differences in Nestor's actions in the story and the disappearance of the giant slug. In essence, I felt the story as a whole, regardless of writer, effectively placed Conan in a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting of an abandoned city, albeit a very short visit. Fans of Conan literature will easily recognize the moral preaching – bad things come to thieves. It's a recurring theme for these stories that feature a criminal-minded Conan on a self-serving mission to steal treasure. But, the fun is watching the struggle and inevitable loss. For that reason alone, “The Hall of the Dead” is worth the price of admission. Recommended. 

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Caretaker of Lorne Field

Dave Zeltserman, (born: 1959) is a highly-regarded contemporary noir author from Boston who’s won a Shamus award and critical acclaim for books written under his own name and his Jacob Stone pseudonym. His 2010 novel, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, is a departure into the world of horror and dark fiction.

Jack Durkin receives $8,000 per year and a free shack to pull the weeds at Lorne Field. It’s a seemingly simple job for a simple man, but Jack is convinced his job is saving the world. For over 300 years, the men of the Durkin family have held the same job, and it used to be a highly-respected position revered in the town for the heroism and sacrifice the task entailed. Nowadays, Jack is treated as an oddity or a joke.

Jack and his ancestors are convinced that these aren’t any ordinary weeds. He believes that they are monsters known as Aukowies. If permitted to grow to size, they will uproot and take over the world. Back in the 1700s, the town entered a contract with the Durkin family to have the oldest son weed the field daily killing all the baby Aukowies that pop up through the earth - seemingly as weeds. Jack is still a believer in the importance of his job, but no one else seems to believe anymore, including his wife and eldest son.

The idea of killer plants has been explored before in fiction — Day of the Triffids, The Ruins, Little Shop of Horrors — but the author sprinkles ambiguity throughout the book, so the reader is never quite sure (until the end) if the weeds are aliens or if Jack is suffering from a generational delusion. Contemporary horror author Paul Tremblay also plays with that same ambiguity in his fiction to similar effects. Is this supernatural horror or a novel about collective mental illness?

This is an easy-to-read and fascinating book about man vs. monsters, but also about the power of faith and traditions. What happens when society stops believing in the stories we’ve told ourselves for generations to explain our illogical behaviors? The paperback may have worked better as a tight novella, but I was generally pleased throughout the novel’s entirety. Recommended. 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Conan - The Treasure of Tranicos

The first issue of the short-lived Fantasy Magazine was published in February, 1953. It's a notable issue  due to the inclusion of a previously unpublished Robert E. Howard story, “The Black Stranger”. The backstory on how this story appeared in the magazine, and its evolution into the later, novella-length version, The Treasure of the Tranicos, is interesting. 

“The Black Stranger” in the 1930s:

Like many of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, “The Black Stranger” was submitted to various publishers in the 1930s, but wasn't purchased for print. Re-working the story without Conan, Howard morphed “The Black Stranger” into “Swords of the Red Brotherhood”, a pirate story featuring one of his lesser known heroes, a 17th century Irish peasant named Terence Vulmea, or simply Black Vulmea. This story wasn't published in Howard's lifetime, instead first appearing in the 1976 hardcover Black Vulmea's Vengeance in 1976 by Donald M. Grant.

“The Black Stranger” and “The Treasure of Tranicos”:

According to L. Sprague de Camp's introduction in Conan the Usurper, a 1967 Ace paperback collection first featuring “The Treasure of Tranicos”, de Camp discovered unpublished manuscripts written by Howard in 1951. With one of the manuscripts, “The Black Stranger”, de Camp took the liberty of editing and re-writing the story as an adaptation into the Conan saga, specifically Aquilonian revolution. Lester del Rey, editor of Fantasy Magazine, made further additions and deletions and published the manuscript as “The Black Stranger”. The story was re-titled to The Treasure of Tranicos and included the same year in a Gnome Press hardcover omnibus called King Conan. de Camp explained that the title change was a result of too many of Howard's Conan stories containing the word “black” in their titles.

The Treasure of Tranicos after 1953:

In Conan the Usurper's introduction, de Camp further explains he edited and revised the original “The Black Stranger” manuscript again for its inclusion into Ace's collection. He elaborates that he omitted del Ray's edits and additions to align the story even more with the Conan mythology. It was this version that was released as an Ace paperback in 1980. Howard's original manuscript, before any of de Camp's edits, was included in the Tor novella collection Echoes of Valor in 1987. It has since appeared in numerous collections and omnibus editions.

Review:

My review of The Treasure of Tranicos is based on the story's appearance in Conan the Usurper. It is essentially the “truest” version that relates to Conan. In the story's beginning, the titular hero is running through the Pictish Wilderness, crossing Thunder River and brushing up against the Western Sea. Chased by Picts, Conan is shocked when the painted, savage warriors refuse to venture forward. Instead, as if scared of this part of the mountainous shoreline, they retreat. Conan, puzzled by the experience, finds a wooden door recessed into the mountain. Forcing it open, he discovers a dark cavern filled with preserved bodies and shiny piles of hidden treasure. But, he's quickly choked by hands that appear out of a dark mist. Then, Conan disappears for the bulk of the narrative's first half. 

In the next chapters, readers learn that this shoreline is a residence inhabited by Count Valenso. The Count, and his people, became shipwrecked and trapped on the shore months ago. Caught between the ocean and the savage Picts, the Count built a fort and has defended it since. Two rivals appear before the Count's fort, both greedy, savage pirates with a multitude of nefarious crewmen. It turns out that they have read pieces of a treasure map that points to the shoreline's location as home to hordes of precious loot. But, as Conan learned, it might come with a deadly price.

I can see that Howard's original manuscript was borderline Conan material. The Cimmerian isn't necessarily integral to the story, but by adding in a few descriptive details, and a brief mention of Aquilonian history, it works as another installment of the Conan mythos. As an aside, Howard scholars have previously noted that Howard's story has a western-frontier feel to it. Conan is mentioned as a “white man” and it isn't lost on readers that the Picts could be Native Americans. The shoreline fort is similar to the American southeast, notably the Carolinas and Floridian forts braced for French, Spanish, and English invasions. 

If you enjoy a rousing, men's action-adventure story or novella, then The Treasure of Tranicos is sure to please. Conan fans, like myself, will obviously flock to anything written, or partially created, by Robert Howard. As a Conan tale, it's a little off-center, but possesses enough villains, sorcery, and barbaric action to keep it within the realm.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Silver Canyon

"Riders of the Dawn" originally appeared as a short story in Giant Western's June, 1951 issue. L'Amour expanded the story into a full-length novel, Silver Canyon, in 1956. I typically struggle with the old-fashioned range-war westerns, and this novel, like many of L'Amour's works, uses that same, well-worn plot device. I've always found the concept uninspiring and dull, but I was hopeful this one would surprise me. 

Silver Canyon lies near a fertile, plentiful range that is perfect for growing burgers and steaks. The issue is that it's divided three ways. The Two-Bar is a ranch on the eastern side. The Boxed M, and the CP brand make up two separate ranches on the west. In the middle is water, a place named Cottonwood Wash, which is almost completely controlled by the Two-Bar “good guy”. He wants peace and prosperity, but the other two need him out, thus they can continue their fight over what's left. The deciding factor could be a lanky, gun-fighting drifter named Matt Brennan.

L'Amour makes it clear that Brennan is a seasoned pro, a man's man that has worn many different hats over the years. He's been a gambler, lawman, gun-fighter, cowpoke, and a plain 'ole fighter for many years. So, another range-war isn't anything new. Brennan's name proceeds him, so when he arrives in town the ranges immediately want to hire his gun. Quickly, Brennan finds that the old man solely running the Two-Bar is an honest, hardworking rancher that just wants lines clearly defined between right and wrong. If there is any allegiance to be had, Brennan wants to back the Two-Bar. 

Brennan makes a deal with the old man. He can own a small piece of the Two-Bar, settle down, and raise some beef if he can assist in the ranch's defense. It all goes as planned until Brennan finds the old man a bloody heap full of holes. Surprisingly, the old-timer leaves Brennan the whole ranch as his dying wish. But, nothing has really changed other than Brennan is the new target for the rival ranches. Can he survive the onslaught? Further, can he successfully sway one of the rival rancher's daughters into marriage?

While not being innovative, or particularly fresh, Silver Canyon was still a lot of fun to read. The range-war stuff, while not my favorite dish, was still easily digestible. The reason is that L'Amour adds a murder mystery into the narrative, one that involves a murdered man prior to Brennan's arrival in town. This man apparently possessed clues that something beyond river water is what the ranches all want. It's no secret based on the book's title what the main objective is. It doesn't spoil any reading pleasure. Silver Canyon is recommended.

Monday, November 28, 2022

Best of Manhunt: Volume 3

The good people at Stark House Press have blessed us with another compilation of hardboiled crime stories from the pages of Manhunt Magazine, the premier digest for crime noir fiction in the 1950s and 1960s.

The introduction by scholars Jeff Vorzimmer and David Rachels tackles the literary mystery of the identity behind the house name of Roy Carroll, a pseudonym employed by the Manhunt editors when an author had more than one story in a single issue. The thought was that magazine readers desired a great diversity of names in the Table of Contents and would somehow feel ripped off if the same author appeared twice.

Several of the Roy Carroll stories in Manhunt are now known to be written by Robert Turner - but not all. The editors performed some investigative legwork worthy of Paperback Warrior to firmly-establish that the Roy Carroll story appearing in the November 1956 issue under the title “Death Wears a Grey Sweater” was, in fact, written by fan-favorite Gil Brewer for which Brewer was paid a tidy sum of $260.

With that mystery about a mystery solved, it’s only fair that we begin our tour of this anthology with the story itself.

Death Wears a Sweater by Gil Brewer writing as Roy Carroll (November 1956)

The story opens with the horrific death of an 11 year-old girl in a broad daylight hit-and-run while her father watches helplessly nearby. After verifying that his little girl is, in fact, dead, her dad — his name is Irv Walsh — goes bananas, hops in his car, and begins pursuing the hit-and-run driver. The confrontation with the car occupants goes poorly for Walsh, and his quest for quick justice is thwarted while his desire for revenge burns hot.

As vendetta stories go, this one is pretty dark, gruesome and sadistic. Brewer’s strongest works were his short stories and this one is no exception. It’s a tough and tension-filled read that packs the appropriate emotional punch.

Services Rendered by Jonathan Craig (May 1953)

Henry Callan is a crooked, hard-drinking police lieutenant investigating the murder of a florist. A suspect named Tommy is in custody, but refuses to talk. The dirty cop visits Tommy’s wife and makes her an offer of regular sex with Henry in exchange for Tommy’s freedom and avoidance of the electric chair.

This is the kind of dark and twisted story that made Manhunt great. Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank Smith) is always a reliably great writer, and this story is consistent with his hardboiled output. Don’t skip this one.

Throwback by Donald Hamilton (August 1953)

Donald Hamilton was the author of the esteemed Matt Helm spy series, but this short story predates his groundbreaking Death of a Citizen by nearly seven years. “Throwback” is an unusual story for both Hamilton and Manhunt as it is a post-apocalyptic story set shortly after the atomic destruction of the USA.

George Hardin and his wife are among the shambling survivors wandering among the smoldering ruins of a freshly-destroyed America. Hamilton’s writing is characteristically beautiful and descriptive. Unfortunately, a coherent plot never comes together, making this story perfectly skippable.

The Red Herring by Richard Deming (December 1962)

Richard Deming appears twice in this Manhunt compilation, and “The Red Herring” won the coin toss for the prestigious Paperback Warrior review. The story stars a Private Detective named Matt Gannon, who is engaged by a corporate CEO.

The company manufactures a radiation detector similar to a Gieger counter but way more sensitive. The company bought the technology from the inventor for a song, and now the creator is apparently sending threatening notes. Gannon is hired to make the case. As expected, Deming does a fine job with a compelling, if rather standard, PI mystery.

The Verdict

The brain-trust behind these Stark House Manhunt anthologies has another winner on their hands. I hope these collections never stop, and they expand to the other hardboiled magazines that popped up in the wake of Manhunt’s success. These short crime stories are an important part of American literary history and need to be preserved for modern audiences and future generations. 

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Conan - The God in the Bowl

Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian short story “The God in the Bowl” wasn't published in the author's lifetime. It was rejected by pulp magazine Weird Tales, and after Howard's death, went undiscovered until 1951. It was then edited by L. Sprague de Camp and first published in Space Science-Fiction's September, 1952 issue. It has since appeared in collections like The Coming of Conan (1953), Conan (1967), and Conan of Cimmeria: Volume One (unedited, 2022) among others. 

Of the Howard Conan short stories, “The God in the Bowl” is easily one of the strangest. It doesn't really feel like a Conan story and fails to represent what we all know and love about the savage hero, or anti-hero. The premise reveals that “thief” Conan accepts a job from Nemedia's Governor's son to break into an antique house to steal a precious diadem. This diadem is being kept in a sarcophagus that was apparently discovered in the dark realm of Stygia. But why hire Conan? I assume the nobleman owes money for gambling debts or whoring and he wants the job done discreetly and efficiently. 

There's a sense of Golden Age Detective fiction when the antique house's overnight clerk is found dead. All fingers point to Conan as the murderer, and in a unique twist, the titular hero is forced to defend himself verbally. The accusation that Conan killed the clerk is hotly debated inside the museum, but as the discussion intensifies, things seem to be amiss. Between the police, the nobleman, and Conan, lies a monster in waiting. By the story's end, Conan is the victor, but it's an odd trip to get there. 

Other than the boss fight at the end, and a well-timed decapitation, this isn't your typical Conan story. Howard depicts Conan in a way that makes him seem weak, indisposed, and timid. At one point, the hero struggles with the conversation and is described as just shaking his head in puzzlement. It's similar in the way that Howard describes Conan in “Rogues in the House”. In that story, there's a scene where this priest is explaining a series of tubes he created that uses mirrors to create an illusion. Conan doesn't understand it and dismisses it as witchcraft. There's a difference between savagery and neanderthal dumbness, which is sometimes blurred in these stories, but I also understand that a hint of humor is injected through the befuddlement. That was Howard's intent, but I thought it cast a poor light on the hero here. 

Overall, I can recommend “The God in the Bowl”, but there are plenty of other Conan stories you should be reading before this one. Your mileage may vary. 

Friday, November 25, 2022

The Stalkers

The Stalkers, which sounds like a Matt Helm title, is a western paperback by Philip Ketchum, originally published as a paperback by Berkley in 1961 (#6510). In 1964, Berkley reprinted the paperback with different artwork (#Y930, pictured). Thankfully, I received this vintage western as a gift from a friend, and I'm a Ketchum fan, evident on the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Episode 94

The book stars Captain Sherman Galway, an American Civil War veteran that has received a special assignment from the U.S. Government. Galway's task is to locate $50,000 in missing gold. It is explained to Galway, and readers, that 20 years prior, a stage coach containing the gold was attacked by an Apache war-party. Despite the coach's military accompaniment, the Apache killed everyone in what is referred to as The Table Mountain Massacre. The gold went missing, but officials believe they now have clues that point to Iron City, a small desert town, as a place the gold may be hidden. 

In the book's opening pages, Galway is en route to Iron City when he's ambushed and nearly killed by an old nemesis named Rostig. With the help of an elderly outlaw, who happened to be in the vicinity, Galway is able to kill two of Rostig's men. Later, Galway runs into Rostig and realizes he's created another trio in an attempt to kill him. 

The book's narrative has Galway, the old outlaw, simply known as The Loner, and a beautiful woman all on a perilous journey to find the gold. The path to riches is filled with bad guys, pursuing lawmen, some romantic chemistry, and a load of violence. The book's finale is 30 pages of double-crosses, uneven alliances, and discarded friendships as greed overtakes goodwill.  

Ketchum's westerns tend to rely on female characters, and The Stalkers is no different. Galway's on and off connection with the woman is intriguing and makes for a mostly happy conclusion (barring a few key deaths). There's some thoughtful elements to the story that allow for personal conflict, mostly centered around Galway's allegiance to his job and mission versus “take the money and run” spontaneity. The old outlaw character provides insightful questions on morality. Overall, The Stalkers is an easy recommendation. If you enjoy the not-so-traditional western, then Philip Ketchum is your guy. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Gingerbread Girl

Stephen King’s novella “The Gingerbread Girl” first appeared in the July 2007 issue of Esquire Magazine. It was later compiled into King’s 2008 short story collection, Just After Sunset. The publisher also sells the story separately as a two-hour audiobook.

Our heroine is Emily, and she’s in a pretty bad emotional state due to the recent crib death of her infant daughter. The trauma of her child’s demise triggers the end of her marriage, and the only thing keeping her sane is running.

To regroup and rebuild her life, Emily embarks on a three-week solitude retreat at her father’s “conch shack” on the beach in Florida not too far from Naples. The shack and the beach are pretty isolated, so it’s the perfect place to go for long runs while mourning her kid and contemplating her next moves. She also has time to read vintage paperbacks by Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain and John D. Macdonald.

On one of her jogging jaunts, Emily is overcome with a bout of nosiness and spots a dead girl in the open trunk of a car parked at a house down the beach. Before she can decide what to do, Emily is conked on the head and awakens tied to a chair in the maniac’s kitchen. The villain is the kind of loathsome creep you often encounter in King’s stories, and Emily’s dilemma is not unlike the “escape or die” problems tackled in Misery, Cujo and Gerald’s Game.

The plot is familiar territory for King, and that’s good news for the reader because he’s the absolute best at this kind of tense suspense. In that respect, “The Gingerbread Girl” delivers exactly the kind of scary, bloody, frightening thrills you’ve come to expect from the author. If this one slipped by you, do yourself a favor, circle back, and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Conan - The Tower of the Elephant

Robert E. Howard scholars typically cite “The Tower of the Elephant” as the best representation of Conan the Cimmerian literature. The story first appeared in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales. It later appeared in the 1946 Arkham collection Skull-Face and Others, the 1953 Gnome Press hardcover The Coming of Conan, the 1968 Lancer paperback Conan, and a 1975 hardcover collection by Donald Grant simply titled The Tower of the Elephant. It was adapted into comic form three times, Conan the Barbarian #4, Savage Sword of Conan #24, and Conan #20-22

The story begins with a young Conan arriving in Arenjun, the “City of Thieves”. It’s in this city that he overhears a conversation involving some drunk men talking about theft and coveted wealth. A boisterous Kothian mentions a place called The Tower of the Elephant, and the impossibility of ever robbing it of its vast riches. Conan, who loves a sparring challenge, disputes the notion, matching wits with the Kothian over the possibility. Agitated with the conversation, a candle is extinguished and Conan quickly kills the loud-mouthed Kothian under cover of darkness. Challenge accepted - rob the Tower of the Elephant!

At night, Conan begins his attempt to climb the smooth-walled tower. He finds that the structure itself is surrounded by rings of thick shrubbery, like a grassy moat. Surprisingly, another thief, a seasoned pro named Taurus, “Prince of Thieves”, has the same plan to infiltrate the tower and runs into Conan. Taurus kills deadly, fierce lions with poison gas and Conan strangles one of the guards. Using a grappling hook, both Taurus and Conan ascend the tower and enter through a window. It’s here that Taurus is somehow poisoned in a doorway, and Conan finds an alien being named Yag-kosha. This alien explains to Conan that he became imprisoned in the tower by an evil sorcerer named Yara. For Conan to capture the riches, and a famed ruby elephant heart, he must contend with the sorcerer, a giant, hideous spider, and figure out a way to free Yag-kosha.

Howard’s endless imagination just flows onto the page with this wild, action-packed adventure. It quickly pulls you into the story with just a few opening paragraphs. The author's prose is just so smooth and stimulating, providing excellent plot development and pacing. 

Considering this is a tale concerning a savage, alpha male, Howard is still able to create a colorful, cautionary tale about greed and its effect on the human condition. Metaphorically, Yag-kosha could be the billionaire trapped by his own wealth. Or the idea that the upper class is a very ugly thing. Conan’s role as the anti-hero, purely a rouge scoundrel that's self-serving, justly receives his comeuppance. Regardless of its social, not-so-preachy commentary, "The Tower of the Elephant" is an enjoyable, rousing pulp sword-and-sorcery tale that lives up to its long-lasting legacy. It doesn’t get much better than this. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Burning Hills

Louis L'Amour's fourteenth novel was The Burning Hills. It was published in 1956, sandwiched between the end of the innocence novel To Tame a Land (1955) and a range war tale in Silver Canyon (1956). The book's premise is a popular one, the traditional man-on-the-run story or, more often than not, a fugitive attempting to outrun justice. L'Amour typically does the concept well, so The Burning Hills seemed like an easy choice to read and review.

Trace Jordan and his partner began working together in the Texas plains rounding up unbranded horses. After compiling a sizable  herd, the duo branded the horses and prepared to sell. When Jordan returned from a trip to town, he discovered the campsite destroyed, his partner dead, and the horses gone. Tracking the thieves back to town, Jordan finds a man riding one of his branded horses. A scuffle ensues and Jordan shoots and kills the man. 

In an effort to prove the horses belonged to him, Jordan becomes a wanted man and is forced on the run from a mob led by a skeptical lawman. In a fight with the posse, Jordan receives two bullets, but is able to escape into the desert where he can simply lie down and die. Thankfully, a beautiful Mexican woman named Maria finds him and nurses him back to health in an outlaw hideaway in the rocks. But, the posse catches up to Maria and begins to bully both her and her brothers on their rural sheep farm. 

The narrative is a bit twisty as Jordan heals while watching the posse impose their will on Maria's family and home. He can continue to run, and hopefully escape the law, or come to Maria's aid. Considering he's the reason for her misfortune, it's pretty easy to see where the story will end. 

I thought The Burning Hills was slightly below average. I found Jordan to be a pompous jerk and a womanizer (even when considering this was a different era when the book was written). I didn't particularly care for the “hero” and I found Maria to be brave but very foolish. The other disappointment was her fast-draw brother, who seemed to have a larger role to play, but then is featured off page. While the story was constantly advancing forward, I found the plot itself just fragmented without a real groove. 

I'm glad I read it, but it isn't one of L'Amour's best. With his robust bibliography, they can't all be Hondo and Flint

Friday, November 18, 2022

Motel Trap

The book is called Motel Trap, with a blurb suggesting its contents are prostitutes, pimps, and sex elements. But, the whole “motel” thing happens on page 147 of 155 pages. You might ask what the first 147 pages of the book are about, right? Try this on for size – its about the pantyhose industry. 

Motel Trap is essentially an episode of Mad Men as protagonist Dave Shelton wheels and deals his company's silk pantyhose to retail chains hoping to reverse the company's downward spiral. The narrative focuses on marketing ideas, photo shoots, women's catalogs, etc. Not exactly provocative or riveting reading.

Western novelist Lee Floren, who authored Motel Trap under one of his many pseudonyms, Matt Harding, was well outside of his element to tackle softcore, sleazy romance titles. This novel was published by Beacon in 1962, a company that was notorious for hundreds of romance paperbacks, each with gaudy blurbs like, “Her office was a motel room!” 

Kudos to Floren for at least attempting to write a serious novel, like Beacon's own Charles Boeckman, who was writing the same type of books for the publisher as Alex Carter. But, unlike Boeckman, Floren's novel is predictable, penned in a pedestrian style that doesn't captivate the reader. 

While its not a Hall of Shame candidate, Motel Trap is certainly lodging in the vicinity. Unless you are collecting this stuff, with “artist unknown” cover art, then for God's sake just stay away. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Posse from Hell

After enjoying Clair Huffaker's (1926-1990) paperback western Seven Ways from Sundown, I was anxious to read another of his books. My biggest obstacle is quantity – I just don't own many of his novels. The other ones I own are a ratty copy of War Wagon, which was adapted into the John Wayne/Kirk Douglas film, and a 1975 Futura paperback edition of Posse from Hell, originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1958. I opted for the latter in hopes that it would be as good as Seven Ways from Sundown. News flash – it was much better! 

The book's premise, set-up, and plot development arrives at the novel's first seven pages. There are authors that spend 60 pages just explaining to readers how the plot development will begin. Sometimes that is okay, but for a thin paperback western, I want to gallop quickly. Huffaker is off to the races when four violent men descend on the small, peaceful town of Paradise and unleash a blazing Hell on the population. With shotguns and revolvers, the men kill the lone Sheriff and then take over the local saloon. Like a gritty 1970s men's action-adventure novel, they begin executing these happy townsfolk one by one. After capturing a young woman, then doing what a witness describes as “dirty things to her”, they rob the bank and leave town to take the assault to the next destination, a place called Pineville.

In Chapter Three, readers are introduced to Banner Cole. He is 21 years old, but wise beyond his years. He became a U.S. Deputy Marshall a mere eight days ago. After leaving Paradise for a few days on business, he returns to find the town on fire and bodies seemingly everywhere. The town is quick to point out that he wasn't there when they needed him. They explain what happened, the death of the Sheriff (a friend of Cole's), and that these four men have captured a girl from town. Cole learns that the men are sadistic killers that escaped prison. Surprisingly, they headed in a direction that seemed unlikely. 

Cole knows the group's next stop is Pineville and that he will need a posse of at least 20 men. As he starts to ask the most capable men in Paradise's population, the message rings loud and clear – Paradise is filled with cowards. They point their fingers and claim an injustice, but will do nothing to help. The 20-man posse Cole hoped to form turns out to be just six men, one of which is an old retired military leader that is incompetent. Another is a representative of the bank, a man named Kern, that can't even ride a horse properly. 

From a sky-level, Posse from Hell's narrative is elementary. It's the good guys tracking the bad guys. But, Huffaker's assemblage of characters is absolutely brilliant. The inner workings of this posse create an interesting combination of very different men with clashing ideas. 

The old military man, Captain Brown, is incompetent and cowardly. He constantly scolds Cole on his decision making and at one point nearly has the posse kill an innocent man. Cole and Brown's clash is just brimming over with tension and hostility. Additionally, there's some racist animosity towards Cado, a Native American that Cole can rely on for tracking. Yet, Cado's greatest enemy may be the men he aligned with. Perhaps the best chemistry is developed between Cole and the wet-behind-the-ears corporate businessman Kern. Despite his failure to properly ride a horse, or even shoot straight, his courage is admirable. Facing the most abusive, violent, and torturous events in his life, Kern's heart and endurance is exceptional, proving he is just the man Cole needs. But, his shortcomings could lead to disaster.

As you can gather, I loved this book and found it exciting, purposeful, and just saturated in subtext on humanity and the trials and tribulations we all face. It's not the size of the gun, but the size of the heart. The novel's closing chapters read like an essay on our current times. The lawman in this case faces heavy scrutiny from the public, a condescending, arrogant view on decisions that could have been better in the midst of violent assaults, horrifying conditions, and a grueling attempt to keep justice prevalent. The public is quick to point out what they all would have done differently, yet none of them wanted to actively contribute to the defense of their neighbors, friends, and town. Huffaker's condemnation of hypocrisy and second-guessing professionals isn't lost on the reader, but it doesn't ruin the story either. This is an easy recommendation from me. Posse from Hell will be the best book you've read in ages. 

Note - While I'm not a classic movie fan, Posse from Hell was adapted into a film in 1961 starring Audie Murphy and John Saxon. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Conan - Rogues in the House

The Conan the Cimmerian short story “Rogues in the House” first appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in January, 1934. That same year, it was also featured in a short story collection, Terror by Night, published by Selwyn and Blount. Other appearances of the story can be found in Skull-Face and Others (1946), More Not at Night (1961), Conan (1967), and The Conan Chronicles (1989). Additionally, the story was adapted into comics by both Marvel and Dark Horse. 

A lot of Conan scholars and fans point to “Rogues in the House” as a prime example of Robert E. Howard's literary greatness. Visually, Frank Frazetta's  cover art for the 1967 Lancer paperback Conan depicts the famed scene from the story when Conan is fighting Thak, the hideous ape-creature. That may resonate in some way with fans gravitating to the story as well. But, there's no denying that it is a fantastic Conan offering and one that is certainly treasured for specific reasons.

The premise is that an aristocrat named Murilo has committed illegal affairs with foreign powers. A priest named Nabonidus, who is probably involved in the corruption as well, threatens Murilo by gifting him a box containing a co-worker's bloody ear. Murilo understands that he could be on a hit list and needs protection. Murilo visits Conan, who has been arrested for public intoxication, in the local jail. He bribes him that he will provide an escape as long as Conan agrees to kill Nabonidus that night. 

Things don't necessarily go as planned, and the subsequent events all culminate with Murilo, Conan, and Nabonidus all meeting at the priest's cavernous house. In a wild exchange, Conan and Murilo learn that Nabonidus has laid out a number of deadly traps throughout his house to enslave or kill rivals. One of these traps is a large enclosure where Thak, a wild ape-creature, prowls around. When Nabonidus' and Murilo's rivals arrive at the house, the trap is set for Thak to kill them. Again, things don't go as planned and the three are caught in their own trap with the savage Thak.

As I mentioned above, this is a great Conan story with a well designed plot considering the story's length. The political intrigue at the story's beginning propels the story, which leads to a familiar exchange between a government leader and Conan. In stories like “The Hall of the Dead” and “The God in the Bowl”, readers see that Conan is often sought after by government officials or becomes a partner in some sort of heist. This extends that theme with Conan and Murilo's mutual agreement that each needs something the other has – assassination skills and freedom. It's a wonderful criminal balance.

The complex housing structure that Nabonidus has created hosts the bulk of the story. With the addition of Thak, a wild creation by Howard, the story features the inevitable showdown between man and beast. The action is blood-soaked as Conan battles Thak with a razor sharp poniard, a scene that seemingly channels Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, which was published 22 years before this Conan story. The government treachery, dialogue, and awe-inspiring action is a great blend that easily catapults “Rogues in the House” into the top echelon of Howard's Conan stories. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Pitfall

Jay Dratler (1911-1968) was a graduate of University of North Carolina and an Academy Award winning screenwriter. He also wrote six novels, including The Pitfall from 1948 which was made into a movie starring Raymond Burr called Pitfall. The paperback has been reissued by Stark House as part of the publisher’s Film Noir Classic series. 

Our narrator is Jon Forbes, a screenwriter for 20th Century Fox with an attractive blonde, pregnant wife. One day Jon is asked to meet with his friend, a police detective named Mac. The cop has a weird request for Jon. He’s become fixated on a girl named Mona and wants Jon’s help to land the dame. Mac’s plan is to have Jon ask Mona out and make the introduction when they “accidentally” run into the cop on their date. 

Jon reluctantly agrees, asks Mona on a date and immediately falls in love with her. This is problematic because Jon is happily married, his cop friend wants Mona, and Mona’s husband is in prison for purse snatching. Jon and Mona must deal with the guilt of their forbidden love, and Jon’s life is complicated by his cop friend who also wants a piece of Mona. Then there’s Mona’s husband, who won’t be in jail forever. 

Dratler is an excellent writer who conveys romantic longing as well as anyone I’ve ever read. I’m sure the impact of a love story complicated by infidelity was more impactful in 1948, but the moral dilemma remains great today. 

Jon is trapped in his own head playing chicken with the rules of marital fidelity. Once that line is crossed, the impossibility of the situation slaps him in the face with reality check after reality check until it culminates in violence. The paperback isn’t a crime novel or an action story, but can be seen as a cautionary tale about the real-world consequences of infidelity. 

The Pitfall reminded me of a more-literary version of an Orrie Hitt book where extramarital lust opens the door to criminal violence. You’ll see the twist ending coming from a mile away, but it was still a very compelling read if you’re looking for a morality melodrama for men. Recommended. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

The Assassin #01 - Manhattan Massacre

Peter McMurtin authored the three-book series The Assassin for Dell in 1973. Double-dipping into the cookie jar, the author was also employed to write and edit for rival publisher Belmont. McMurtin cleverly used the character he created in this The Assassin trilogy for his long-running The Marksmen series for Belmont. In The Assassin, the character is Robert Briganti while in The Marksmen the name is simply changed to Philip Magellan. Same guy, same origin. Not to totally sweep-kick readers, but some of McMurtin's Sharpshooter series would feature the same character sprinkled in occasionally as Johnny Rock. 

This first installment of The Assaassin, titled Manhattan Massacre, plays out like your standard 1970s revenge yarn. There's nothing separating it from an early Bolan, or something akin to Death Wish, The Revenger, The Vigilante, etc. In this origin tale, Robert Briganti is introduced as a former trick shooter that worked the carnival circuit. Later, he began selling arms internationally for a firearms company while having some sort of connection to the CIA. Becoming a family man, Briganti settled down in Connecticut to run a sporting goods store.

A mobster named Joe Coraldi stops into Briganti's store and asks for a favor. He advises Briganti that his particular portion of the empire needs weapons. The deal is Briganti will be paid well, Coraldi gets the boom-boom and all is fair in war. But, Briganti declines the generous offer. Coraldi leaves, then later has his goons shoot up Briganti's car on the highway, shredding wife and kid and somehow sparing Briganti. 

Then, two-thirds of the narrative has Briganti arming himself and going after each of the men who murdered his family. The deaths are bloody carpet-soakers with the obligatory leaky heads and destroyed diaphragms. The funny stuff is that Briganti is running around with a monster boner and nearly explodes with one touch from a New York hooker. McMurtin also introduces a wild character named Mwalimu that provides a 14-page lecture to students about alternative history. His take is that Christopher Columbus was black and the reason the slaves willingly came to the U.S. was to get laid by white women. It's nuts, but ties into Briganti's final ploy to kill Coraldi. 

If Manhattan Massacre is a sign of things to come, then I'm in for an obnoxious, over-the-top kill-thrill as I waddle my way through two more Assassin entries before stepping over to The Marksmen. If the target is to be entertained with disposable fiction, then McMurtin scored a bullseye.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Executioner #12 - Boston Blitz

Don Pendleton's The Executioner storms into the American Northeast with its 12th installment, Boston Blitz. After Bolan's flourish of successful run 'n gun tactics on the West Coast, he learns of some troubling news from his old ally and undercover mobster Leo Turrin. Remember Bolan's little brother? That 14 year-old kid named Johnny from the series debut War Against the Mafia? He's been kidnapped from his secretive witness protection blanket at a prep school. Worse, Bolan's “love of his life”, Val, has been captured as well. Remember Val? I don't. But, in looking at the series order, apparently Val was one of three hotties Bolan was banging way back in the debut. I don't remember her since then, but Bolan sure does. 

In one of the strangest novels of Pendleton's early contributions, Bolan invades Boston and kills over 60 thugs over the course of 30ish hours. He guns through the strip joints, gambling dives, whore houses, bars, mobster pads, country clubs, and so forth. None of it is really told in a compelling narrative, only mentioned to the reader as past events. The reader is disconnected from the action. It's an odd book, and a bizarre way of presenting the story. My biggest problem with it is that I still don't know what the book was about as I read the last few lines. 

From what I can gather, there's a criminal named Al 88 that has risen through the underworld ranks to capture some coveted Boston territory. Harry “The Skipper” Sicilia doesn't want this Al dude to start grabbing huge swaths of prime real-estate, so he kidnaps Johnny and Val to lead Bolan to Boston to start mowing down baddies. Or, did Al 88 kidnap Johnny? None of these people are featured as actual characters in the book (that I can remember), only names dropped in fragmented dialogue. There's Al's wife thrown in the mix that loves her husband, but then helps Bolan's execution. Also added for laughs (?) is this Books Figarone, “Attorney-to-the-Mob”, fellow that Bolan saves and uses as a ploy to lead more mobsters to the chatter gun. 

Boston Blitz isn't particularly memorable, but features some old names that we haven't seen in Bolan books for a long time. There's also a mention of Hal Brognola to part the seas and guide Mack Daddy to his next destination, Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hell. Wait, that was a Penetrator novel. But, yeah, D.C. is next for Bolan.

Monday, November 7, 2022

The Smuggled Atom Bomb

Philip Wylie (1902-1971) was a prolific author of the pulp era whose fiction inspired the creation of the characters Superman and Doc Savage. His 1948 thriller, The Smuggled Atom Bomb, has been reprinted many times over the past 70 years and remains available today.

Duff Bogan is a boarder in the home of the wheelchair-bound widow named Mrs. Yates. Duff is a Physics grad student at the University of Miami, and he loves doing housework and landscaping for Mrs. Yates for reduced rent. The household also features a beauty queen daughter named Eleanor (you see where this is going immediately) and a mysterious tenant named Harry who works for a trucking company.

One day while cleaning the house, Duff notices a new lock on the closet door in Harry’s room. Conveniently for the novel’s plot, Duff is also an amateur locksmith hobbyist. As such, he easily breaks into Harry’s closet where he finds, hidden inside a hatbox, what appears to be a metallic container filled with uranium and what appears to be the core of a small atomic bomb. Could the quiet tenant be a spy or a terrorist?

Duff shares his suspicions with the lovely Eleanor and makes an appointment with the local FBI field office. The special agent conducts a preliminary inquiry and comes to the conclusion that Duff was likely mistaken in his assessment. This basically leaves Duff and Eleanor to solve the mystery themselves - just like an Encyclopedia Brown/Nancy Drew crossover.

Despite the sweet innocence of the amateur sleuthing, Young Duff does a nice job following logical leads in a high-stakes situation. Thankfully, things become a bit more edgy as the story unfolds. The dirty bomb conspiracy was solid, but the interpersonal drama between Duff, Eleanor, and her myriad of suitors was a teen-drama snooze.

The Smuggled Atom Bomb is a basic and straightforward thriller for the easy-reading crowd. The story held my interest, but no one will mistake this for a genre classic. It’s interesting how enduring the paperback has been with multiple reprints over the decades when so many superior works have fallen out of print. At best, this Wylie paperback can be seen as an enjoyable, wispy diversion to be read between more substantial works. 

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Searcher

I've been buying a lot of F.M. Parker westerns lately He's an author that seems to have a fairly strong following and consecutively receives good reviews. While I have just read his Coldiron series, I wanted to branch out and try a stand-alone novel. I chose The Searchers, originally published as a hardcover by Doubleday in 1985 and published as a paperback by Signet in 1986 (with awesome artwork by the talented Ken Laager). 

It is 1871 and 16 year-old Sam Tollin is helping his father cut trees in the Pecos River Valley. His 13 year-old sister Sarah is helping her mother inside the family's cabin. Out of nowhere, a band of Native Americans, and white men, ride onto the property and guns start blazing. In a heroic display of parenthood, Sam's mother and father agree to stay behind and sacrifice themselves to buy time for Sam and his sister to ride off. Thankfully, they get away, but the duo is quickly separated and Sarah is taken by Mexican bandits. 

Sam's journey, and the bulk of the book's narrative, transforms into a long rescue mission. However, to get Sarah back, Sam agrees to join a heist crew that is headed to California to steal horses and/or mules. Why is he headed to California instead of Mexico? The heist crew originally plans to kill Sam, but he agrees to join their crew to stay alive. In doing so, Parker strengthens the book's story with an additional element of boy-becomes-man, or the end of innocence. Sam learns the way of the gun and the differences between right and wrong while committing crime. 

The Searcher is similar to a Louis L'Amour traditional western tale with its premise of youngster growing into manhood after a violent encounter and then skirting the edges of criminality in an effort to regain what is lost. It is mostly enjoyable, but at 220-pages I found it to be longer than it needed to be. I'm not a fan of cattle-drive westerns and the travels between point A and B seemed extremely long and mostly dull. The action scenes at the beginning and end were great, but getting there was a bit cumbersome. Parker's injections of little tidbits of frontier knowledge were real highlights to me. 

Overall, The Searcher is a good western story, albeit with less action than I typically desire. Parker continues to be enjoyable and I'm happy that I have at least 18 more of his novels to enjoy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

George Smiley #01 - Call for the Dead

John Le Carre’s real name was David John Moore Cornwell (1931-2020), and he is regarded as one of the fathers of British espionage fiction. His first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), was also the debut of his iconic series character, George Smiley. 

The opening chapter is “A Brief History of George Smiley” in which the novel’s hero is said to resemble a poorly-dressed bullfrog. He’s a British Intelligence Officer with the Secret Service and a keen interest in academic incursions into the mysteries of human behavior. He served admirably in Germany during the run up to WW2, recruiting human assets, and now he’s back at the Home Office in London handling administrative tasks including conducting security interviews of employees. In fact, it’s one of those security interviews that kicks off the paperback’s action. 

The Service receives an anonymous letter accusing an operative named Samuel Fenman of being part of a Marxist student organization decades ago at Oxford during the 1930s. Smiley handles the security interview and finds no reason to be concerned with Fenman’s adulthood loyalty to the British Crown. The entire conversation is cordial, and Smiley is satisfied that his Foreign Office colleague isn’t a security threat. 

For this reason, Smiley is shocked a few days later when Fenman is found dead by suicide. The note he left behind cites Smiley’s benign security interview as the spark that triggered him to blow his brains out. None of this makes much sense to Smiley, who is called into the office by his concerned and confused supervisors. They send Smiley to Fenman’s hometown to visit the widow and determine exactly what occurred. 

Smiley quickly comes to the conclusion that Fenman’s death was no suicide, and we have a real mystery on our hands with unknown parties working in the shadows to ensure Smiley fails in his quest to learn the truth. There’s some violence, deceit, and spy tradecraft along the way. 

I’d always steered away from LeCarre’s works under the assumption that his writing was dense, slow and hard to follow. It’s certainly British and written with a level of sophistication beyond a Killmaster paperback, but there was nothing impenetrable about this debut novel. It was a perfectly straightforward murder mystery told with the backdrop of Britain’s premier spy agency. While the motivations of many characters involve espionage, the paperback doesn’t particularly read as a spy novel. 

Worth reading? I suppose so. Le Carre was a good writer, but there was nothing really special about this debut. It was good enough to make me want to read a pure Smiley espionage classic such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Others have recommended reading Call for the Dead as a prequel after enjoying the author’s superior spy novels. That strikes me as a good idea.