Friday, August 23, 2019

Stool Pigeon (aka Shakedown Strip)

Author Louis Malley (1922-1962) was raised in the Bronx, Harlem and the Little Italy neighborhoods of New York City. Malley authored four gritty crime novels that paralleled his own life. As a former gang member, the books are written with a sense of authenticity. This is clearly evident with the author's 1953 novel “Stool Pigeon,” which was reprinted in 1960 as “Shakedown Strip.” In July 2019, Stark House Press reprinted the novel as the 21st paperback under their Black Gat imprint.

The book's protagonist is Vincent Milazzo, a Detective First-Grade investigating the murder of criminal heavyweight, Tony Statella. As a native of Little Italy, everyone knows Milazzo and his family, an aspect that has both advantages and disadvantages in his line of work. As a police procedural, the author weaves portions of Milazzo's personal history into the narrative. Milazzo's father was a shop keeper and often tangled with the mob. His uncle ran a factory and may have had ties to the city's underworld. His ex-girlfriend Gina was often close company for one of the city's biggest criminals, Rocky Tosco. Milazzo carries some heavy baggage with the badge.

Milazzo's focus is interviewing Statella's colleagues and cohorts, ranging from the higher echelons like Tosco to the gutter pigeons that talk for a nickel. With his partner Whiteman, the duo begins piecing together a dark web of pornography, prostitution and money laundering that seemingly connects to Tosco. However, Tosco won't talk and Milazzo starts to feel the pressure from his Chief. When Statella's murder suspect is revealed, it has a close connection to Milazzo's past and creates a fun plot twist for the reader.

“Stool Pigeon” is a good crime-fiction novel. While it bears similarities to the greats – Ed McBain (Evan Hunter) and David Goodis, it never quite reaches that skill-level. I think it is a fair assessment considering few authors could achieve that remarkable storytelling. The personal conflicts in Milazzo's life – the shedding of his wholesome identity – is probably the richest vein to explore. The blending of the character's inner turmoil with the investigation and media frenzy was a well-calculated mix that I enjoyed. Overall, you can do much worse than Louis Malley.

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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Quarry #01 - The First Quarry

Esteemed author Max Allan Collins is a heavy contributor to the gritty hard-boiled line of mystery fiction. His well-respected creations include ‘Nate Heller’, ‘Nolan’, ‘Mallory’ and the subject at hand, ‘Quarry’. The Thrilling Detective blog cites ‘Quarry’ as the first hired killer series, predating Loren Estleman’s ‘Peter Macklin’ and Lawrence Block’s ‘Keller’. Collins released the debut, “The Broker” (aka “Quarry”), in 1976. After four more novels, and a ton of fan mail requests, the author began releasing series installments again in 2006.  Contrary to “The Broker” as sequentially the first ‘Quarry’ novel by publication date, it isn’t the chronological beginning. Quarry’s fictional accounts begin in this origin novel, “The First Quarry” (2008), and seemingly ends with “The Last Quarry” (2006). But aside from those bookends, the series can be read in any order from 1976 through last year’s entry, “Quarry’s Climax”. Thus, the explanation behind the numbered order featured here at Paperback Warrior. We are using a chronological reading sequence to encompass our review of the entire series.

Collins introduces our killer on a frosty December night in 1970. Quarry is a 5’-10”, 155-pound average build and a former U.S. Marine sniper. His experiencing killing Vietcong for low money has now extended domestically with a new business model and booming sales potential. In a brief recap, the reader learns that Quarry returned home after ‘Nam only to find his bride under a mechanic in the sack. In the blunt revenge tactic, Quarry catches the mechanic under a car…and ruthlessly kicks the jack out. The murder is widely publicized, but Quarry somehow gets off. This book’s opening pages has Quarry camped in a new suburban neighborhood in Iowa City performing surveillance. The homework is an effort to kill a college professor named K.J. Byron, ultimately Quarry’s first job offer in this new career opportunity.

An assassination service headed by the name The Broker offers Quarry the assignment to kill Byron after learning about his cold-blooded mechanic murder in the media. The Broker receives kill-jobs from needy clients which are then commissioned to hitmen. In what would become a staple of the series, The Broker simply calls our narrator “Quarry” with no indication if it’s meant as a first or last name. Regardless, this unnamed trait is formula for the genre, evident in Dashiell Hammet’s ‘Continental Op’ and Bill Pronzini’s ‘Nameless Detective’. To size up Quarry’s expertise, the first assignment is killing this professor. The client’s daughter, Annette, has been collaborating with Byron on a book in exchange for working her young pupil hips and lips. While this is enough to maintain any fatherly vendetta, the larger piece is a manuscript outlining mafia action Annette has witnessed in the family business. Killing Byron and destroying the manuscript is imperative…but proves to be an arduous task for Quarry.

In true hard-boiled fashion, this first-person narrative has the protagonist displaying the sturdy antihero archetype. He’s completely void of morality, often breaking conventional ethics and driven by self-interest. While bravado fueled novels like Don Pendleton’s “War Against the Mafia” defines rigid boundaries and a sense of right and wrong, Collins leaves Quarry dissolute; youth gone wild in all it’s moral erosion. Quarry sleeps with the client’s daughter and the professor’s wife, endangering an already fragile working relationship. He sucker-shoots, lies, cheats and steals to overcome his lack of physical superiority (noted in one scene where he can’t fight two African-American mobsters). As the elementary assignment becomes further entangled in scorned love and rival gangs, Collins is quick to remind us the web isn’t a complex weave. His quick summaries of busy, violent chapters are stylishly funny - “The good news was the girl wasn’t dead. The bad news was everything else.” Quarry is wicked and never out of morbid one-liners for the reader. He’s likable but deadly, repulsive but delightful and the “good” bad guy we all want to win.

For the lack of a better term…Quarry simply kills.

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Box 100

Frank Leonard was a former New York City Welfare Department worker turned author who was nominated for an Edgar Award in 1972 for his debut crime novel, “Box 100.” It’s not clear to me what happened to the guy, but I found some mass-market non-fiction books from the same era about male sexuality and psychiatric wards that might be the same writer. Nevertheless, the important thing to know is that “Box 100” is an interesting time capsule that captures the dysfunction of 1970s New York City in a mystery surrounding the welfare system and its inhabitants.

The narrator is Ross Franklin, a new investigator with a second-tier agency called the New York City Department of Investigation that functions as a local Inspector General’s office addressing waste, fraud, and abuse in city government. This being 1972, anonymous complaints regarding government services can be mailed to P.O. Box 100 in NYC, and it’s Ross’ job to open the mail and assess the legitimacy of the incoming complaints for their investigative value.

The cynicism of civil service workers is thick at the Box 100 department. Investigators spend their days mocking constituents and writing up fake investigative reports to create the illusion of productivity. It’s hilarious to read while also tragic to consider that such government agencies may have existed then and now.

Because Ross is the new guy at work, he decides to take his job seriously, and his first Box 100 investigation involves a simple complaint about a Brooklyn resident receiving and negotiating duplicate welfare checks in one month. Ross takes a deep dive into the NYC 1970s welfare system and the black ghettos it subsidized with the insider knowledge that only a former welfare department worker could muster. You can almost imagine the author sitting at his metal desk working his soul-crushing job thinking, “This is crazy. I should write a book about this.” You’ve probably thought that about your job too. The difference is that this guy actually wrote the book.

Ross pulls on the thread of what is essentially a check fraud case and unravels a conspiracy of corruption and double-dealing inside city government and beyond. Leonard was a good writer, but none of this really amounted to all that compelling of a story. It’s likely that the author hoped “Box 100” would launch a mystery series, but it never came to pass. The paperback just wasn’t interesting enough to generate much demand. If you find this at a thrift store for a quarter, it might be worth your time, but don’t sell your spare kidney to score a rare copy.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Super Cop Joe Blaze #02 - The Concrete Cage

“The Concrete Cage” is the second in a three-volume series entitled 'Super Cop Joe Blaze'. Belmont Tower, motivated by the success of tough guy cop films like “Dirty Harry”, wanted a vigorous, tough as nails hero for their consumers. Nothing is really explained in the series debut, “The Big Payoff”, other than Joe Blaze is a New York City Detective Sergeant who works closely with his partner Ed Nuthall and Lieutenant Danny Coogan. It's really a neanderthal sort  of police procedural, written under house name Robert Novak, who may or may not be Nelson Demille.

In this second installment, a group of ex-convicts and low-level criminals conspire to kidnap ten women randomly. The book's opening pages has the group operating in a high traffic area of the city. Using the disguise of an ambulance, the cons usher the women into the ambulance at gunpoint. After one captive defiantly refuses, she's fatally shot in the chest. The murder of the innocent woman loops Blaze into the investigation.

In standard procedural plotting, Blaze tracks down a prostitute who may have a brother tied into the gang. Using this lead, Blaze and his two colleagues find an informant connected to the kidnapping. The group plans to use the captives as a new selection of coerced hookers - women who will be utilized to fulfill the needs of a violent, more sadistic clientele. Blaze, perplexed by the crime, arrests the informant but the news is leaked to the criminals. They want the informant released back to their fold or the women will be killed individually and left throughout the city.

This novel is certainly not for the squeamish. When Blaze's negotiation with the crooks stalls, the gang begins chopping up the victims. The narrative eventually moves into a rather grim decision for Blaze and the department – give the informant back to the crooks knowing he will be violently killed, or continue to track the crime ring in hopes of disposing of it with violent force.

While not as enjoyable as the series debut, “The Concrete Cage” was an entertaining, short read. The author uses a lot of tough cop characteristics to propel the narrative – car chases, seedy apartment gun fights and brawls. Lots of brawls. I found the book's finale a little lackluster, but I'll probably stick it out and read the last novel. It is written by the talented Len Levinson ('The Rat Bastards', 'The Sergeant').

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Bullet for Cinderella

“A Bullet for Cinderella” from 1955 was John D. MacDonald’s 14th novel. When he originally submitted the stand-alone crime thriller for publication, it was titled “On the Make,” and Dell Books eventually reprinted the paperback with the author’s original title for later editions starting in 1960. Since then, the paperback has been re-released several times under both names. If you’re seeking a used copy, you should have plenty of luck - just search both ways.

The story begins with our narrator, Talbert (“Tal”) Howard, arriving in a town called Hillston and checking into a motel. When he was a prisoner during the Korean War, a fellow POW named Timmy confided that he had buried a ton of stolen cash in Hillston without providing specifics about a precise location. Timmy never made it home from the war, and Tal is now in Hillston looking for the loot.

Upon arrival, Tal quickly learns that another POW from the camp named Fitz arrived in Hillston before him. While in captivity, Tal and Fitz were enemies because Fitz refused to help his fellow American G.I.s work toward their collective survival in the camp. And now Fitz is curiously in Hillston. Could he be searching for the same buried cash as Tal?

Although “A Bullet for Cinderella” is basically a treasure hunt story, it’s not an Indiana Jones type of adventure. Instead, Tal does a deep dive into Timmy’s past to unearth logical places for burying the loot. For the reader, this gets a bit melodramatic at times as historical romances and family dramas are mined for clues, and secrets of the past are revealed. I was never bored, but understand that this is a mystery, not an action novel. To be sure, there are some grisly murders and a rather terrifying, sociopathic bad guy, but we are still firmly in mystery-suspense territory here.

A paperback like “A Bullet for Cinderella” is only as good as its ending, and MacDonald delivers a violent and compelling conclusion that will stay with the reader. I don’t think this novel was necessarily peak MacDonald, but even a second-tier book by the Florida author is a damn sight better than most of the stuff I read these days. As such, it’s an easy recommendation for you.

A feature on Richard Matheson aired on the seventh episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 7

On this episode we are examining the noir work of successful author Richard Matheson, who's predominantly known for his horror and science-fiction work. We have two new reviews for you, 1955's "A Bullet for Cinderella" by John D. MacDonald and William W. Johnstone's 1984 western "The Last Mountain Man". Stream the episode below or wherever podcasts are streaming. Direct downloads are HERE.

Listen to "Episode 07: Richard Matheson" on Spreaker.

Strongarm

“Strongarm” is an early stand-alone novel from esteemed crime-noir author Dan J. Marlowe (1917-1986). From 1959 until 1961, Marlowe wrote a five-book series starring hotel detective Johnny Killain. Marlowe's first stand-alone, “Backfire”, was released by Berkley in 1961. In 1962, the author penned his magnum opus with “The Name of the Game is Death”, the first of a long-running series of action-adventure novels starring heist extraordinaire Earl Drake. 1963's “Strongarm” is the second stand-alone entry in Marlowe's impressive bibliography. Written on the heels of his masterpiece, does “Strongarm” possess the same level of quality?

In Earl Drake fashion, Marlowe presents an unnamed protagonist using the alias Pete Karma. Pete graduated from Ohio State and served his father during a successful political run that colored by some minor affiliations with the mob. After his father died, Pete served in the Korean War, fighting in the Chosin Reservoir as a U.S. Marine. After his discharge, Pete joined his father's successor, Charlie Risko, in a crime-ridden political reign. This is where things really turn sour.

As an assumed enforcer, Pete is asked to rough up a labor representative suspected of conspiring with the press exposing mob interference in local politics. After a journalist is found murdered in a hotel, Risko arranges for Pete to take the fall. Sentenced to a 15-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, Pete begins making plans to escape. After two and a half years behind bars, Pete alligns with Risko's rival kingpin in Tony Falcaro. Together, Falcaro and Pete escape prison with a promise from Falcaro's gang that they will always be there for Pete if he needs any future favors. This would prove to be an important commitment.

Pete goes to work in Chicago as a bartender, carefully avoiding attention while planning his vengeance on Risko, his attorney Foley and a henchman named Joe Williams. However, Marlowe really throws a wrench in the gears and switches the narrative with a surprising plot twist. While trailing Williams, Pete witnesses a fiery car crash. Among the wreckage is an arm handcuffed to a briefcase containing foreign documents and $750,000 in cash. Is Pete now the target of a number of warring factions? 

Very few crime novels of this era can match Marlowe's influential caper novel. However, like most of the author's stand-alone works, his ability and talent certainly stands out even in a crowded room of his contemporaries. I would speculate that Marlowe recycled some of this novel's elements in future works. This novel's Gussie character resembles the 70s spunky flower child Chryssie from “Operation Flashpoint” (1970). The recruitment of various Falcaro mobsters is reminiscent of Earl Drake's alliance with anti-Castro factions in “Operation Fireball” (1969). Pete's ability to remove a lower dental plate reflects the disguise Drake would use with his hairpiece. In fact, the very idea of an unnamed protagonist serving time in a mental hospital can be found in both “In the Name of the Game is Death” (1962) and it's sequel, “One Endless Hour” (1969). It's safe to assume “Strongarm” had a lot of influence on the Earl Drake novels.

In terms of early Marlowe work, “Strongarm”, along with 1966's “Four for the Money,” are mandatory reads for crime-noir fans. The more I delve, collect and read 1960s crime novels, authors like Dan J. Marlowe and John D. MacDonald certainly appear to be the cream of the crop. Do yourself a favor and buy, download or borrow this book. It's a real treasure.

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