Friday, October 12, 2018

Rig Warrior #01 - Rig Warrior

The paperback shelf at your used book store is typically going to feature plenty of titles from the William W. Johnstone empire. If you are a fan of the author (s), there's a plethora of goodies to devour. If you aren't, you are stuck weeding through stacks and stacks of the stuff hoping to find other writers. It's just the nature of the paperback reseller. 

'Rig Warrior' was a short-lived series that debuted in 1987. The self-title released that year, followed by two sequels in 1988 - “Wheels of Death” and “Eighteen-Wheel Avenger”. The books were repackaged with different artwork and reprinted for modern audiences. It's similar to Bob Hamm's 'Overload' series in the way it drills down to vigilantes driving freight trucks and fighting the mob. It's really as simple as that, although this series adds a slightly new dynamic to it by the second novel. 

Barry Rivers is a Vietnam Vet and ex-Special Forces officer. He's won numerous medals and gained a universal knowledge for killing. After service, Rivers went into consulting work and established an extremely profitable firm. His father is an owner operator for Rivers Trucking, an employer that Barry drove for before going to Vietnam. Barry learns that the business has been targeted by the Mob and that his father was badly beaten. It sounds like we have ourselves a vigilante novel.


Barry takes a vacation from the firm and starts driving for his father's business again. Soon, he learns that the business is running government contracts and that certain parts of the FBI are shipping drugs in the freight. It's an elementary story line until we realize that there's mad scientists involved and, along with the drug traffic, it is an expansive operation involving corpses being used in freakish experiments. Rivers Trucking unknowingly supplies the labs with these cadavers and in turn they are subjected to “Frankenstein” experiments in a weird “Universal Soldier” concept. 

Johnstone is in ultra-conservative mode here and takes some of the political turns that saw his 'Out of the Ashes' series go extremely red. It's very pro-gun, Republican and prepper friendly with the typical “the government and police can't be trusted” phobia. It's silly, poorly written and comes across as rather immature. However, by the end of the book there's a twist that I won't ruin for you. It's this twist that makes me rethink the book's staying power. Because of this, I think I may jump on the second novel just to see if the series improves under the new dynamic. The verdict is still out, but based on this only lasting three books I'm thinking it was a failed attempt.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

You'll Die Next

I’ll never live long enough to read the approximately 170 books that Harry Whittington wrote during his prolific career. Instead, I rely on others to identify his Greatest Hits, so I can use my limited reading time wisely. His 1954 paperback, “You’ll Die Next!”, was first published as half of an Ace Double (paired with “Drag the Dark” by Frederick C. Davis), and was recommended to me as being one of Whittington’s better noir novels.

Henry and Lila are a normal, suburban couple. One morning while Henry is enjoying Lila’s famous popovers for breakfast, the doorbell rings. When Henry opens the door, an unknown thug on his front stoop pulls him outside and beats the stuffing out of him. As the muscle leaves, he delivers Henry an ominous and threatening message from “Sammy.”

But who the hell is Sammy?

Henry quickly begins to suspect that it’s Lila with the secret in her past that inspired the beating. You see, Lila used to be a lounge singer, and she married Henry six months ago in a whirlwind romance. This always puzzled Henry because his sexy wife is way out of his league looks-wise. In any case, Lila denies knowing anyone named Sammy who would arrange for a savage beating like this.

More weirdness follows Henry that day including a mysterious letter, an attempt on his life, and an unjust suspension from work. Someone is trying to turn Henry’s life upside-down but why? Henry’s only play is to become his own investigator and locate the elusive Sammy. As the hunt unfolds, Henry’s problems escalate until he finds himself a man on the run - wanted for a crime he didn’t commit with police on his tail.

Whittington sets up the story nicely as a noir mystery, and, for the most part, the novel holds the reader’s attention quite nicely. But the worthiness of a book like this can be judged by the quality of the payoff at the end. Either the solution to the novel’s central mystery is reasonable and clever or you’ve just wasted your time on a pleasant flight without a smooth landing.

Unfortunately, Whittington fails the “clever solution” test in this particular mystery, and “You’ll Die Next!” left me feeling like I got a bum steer from whomever recommended it to me. The bad guys orchestrating Henry’s torment are wooden, and their motivation is rather silly. There are some decent scenes in this short book, but the payoff lands with a thud. As such, I need to file this one in the “don’t bother” pile. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Earl Drake #05 - Operation Breakthrough

After the success of 1969's “One Endless Hour”, the sequel to “The Name of the Game is Death”, author Dan J. Marlowe placed all of his writing endeavors firmly on the path of “Drake”, the robber turned spy. Beginning the spy portion of the series in 1969's “Operation Fireball”, Marlowe went on to write nine more Drake titles. The only non-Drake novel he wrote after 1969 was a 1982 installment of 'Phoenix Force' as Gar Wilson (“Guerilla Games”). Marlowe then wrote short stories until his death in 1986.

The series fifth title, “Operation Breakthrough”, is a really fun exercise in the jailbreak formula. The novel begins with Drake and his colleague Karl Erikson breaking into a Caribbean bank in Nassau. Erikson, a makeshift spy in his own right, made his series debut in “Operation Fireball”. He quickly made friends with Drake and has assigned him to global bank heists for government checks. Thus, the novel's beginning makes sense to longtime readers. However, as the two snatch highly secure documents from the vault, Erikson is nabbed by authorities as Drake makes the escape.

Stuck on the island with swarms of police, Drake crashes with a former associate named Candy, an African-American kung-fu gambler that was introduced briefly in “Operation Flashpoint”. Drake takes no time bedding down a massage parlor mistress before eventually escaping the island and the hook. Game over so soon? Not hardly.

Drake has the secure documents in a briefcase but has no idea where to return it. The problem is that Drake was never supplied any credentials or contacts for Erikson or the department he works for. Returning the suitcase and documents is a cumbersome endeavor. From New York to DC, Drake hits brick walls attempting to locate Erikson's branch and personnel. Dropping the suitcase randomly (a hilarious chapter), Hazel and Drake are back on the trail to break Erikson out of the clink. Thus the “bank heist” formula these books utilize is still in place. From here it is recruitment of the pieces and then ultimately the jailbreak adventure. Marlowe knows where the meat and potatoes are for his guests. 

“Operation Breakthrough” is extremely enjoyable with Marlowe practicing all of the strategy and game play the series is known for. He's a master storyteller and this adventure really throws out the exciting - yet familiar - elements that we expect. Intrigue, danger, cops, robbers and banks. This one is recommended if not altogether predictable. I'm good with it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

High Stakes

The intersection of gambling and crime is fertile ground for fiction writers and serves as the theme for “High Stakes,” a 2003 anthology of eight short stories edited by Robert Randisi. Three of my favorite authors are among the contributors, so I decided to read and review the stories by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Randisi himself.

“Let’s Get Lost” by Lawrence Block

Block’s contribution features his popular NYC private eye Matt Scudder, the hero of Block’s most acclaimed series of novels. This particular story originally appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.”


“Let’s Get Lost” is a throwback to a time when Nixon was president, and Scudder was a married NYPD detective who drank too much. One night watching a baseball game at home, Matt is summoned to the apartment of a prostitute with whom he has a personal relationship (Elaine becomes a significant character in later books of the series). As a favor to a client, she needs Matt to clean up a mess at a home poker game in a Manhattan brownstone.

The mess in question involves one of the poker players who winds up with a switchblade buried in his chest - dead by the time Matt arrives. The unusual circumstances of the murder cause Matt to advocate staging the crime scene along with the poker guys to create a more coherent story for the soon-to-be-responding officers. Is Matt being a crooked cop or does he have an ulterior motive?

Matt Scudder stories - long or short - are always fantastic, and this one is no exception. The Scudder P.I. novels contain many references to his days on the NYPD, but it’s interesting to actually read a story where Scudder is on the job as a cop and Elaine was just his favorite hooker.

“Breathe Deep” by Donald E Westlake

Westlake’s entry in the anthology first appeared in the July 1985 issue of Playboy where you also could have seen Grace Jones naked if you had $3.50 burning a hole in your pocket.

Chuck is a Las Vegas blackjack dealer standing at attention behind a $10 table with no players at 3:30 in the morning. Out of nowhere, he is approached by an old man that Chuck suspects is a derelict who wandered into the upscale casino on the Strip.

The conversation veers toward the urban legend (which may be true, for all I know) that casinos pump oxygen onto the gaming floor to keep the gamblers energized and awake. The story poses the question: what if someone wanted to use that knowledge as a weapon?

Westlake is always a good author, but at seven pages, this story was too short to really build up any momentum or tension. And without spoiling the ending, I’m not sure that the violent plan being executed would have actually worked in real life.

“Henry and the Idiots” by Robert J. Randisi

As the creator of several highly-regarded mystery series characters (Miles Jacoby, Nick Delvecchio, and Joe Meough, to name a few) Robert Randisi knows his way around a good crime story. “Henry and the Idiots” appears for the first time in the “High Stakes” anthology and has also found a second life as a $2 Kindle eBook.

While playing Caribbean stud poker on board a Mississippi riverboat casino, Henry Simon wins $257,000 in one hand and plans his escape from his miserable nag of a wife and her idiot brothers who all share the same trailer. Instead of going home with the money. Henry takes the cash and splits on a tour of casinos west of the Mississippi en route to Reno.

Meanwhile, back at the trailer, Henry’s wife dispatches the idiots to find Henry and figure out why he didn’t come home from the casino the night before. When she catches wind of Henry’s big gambling win, she’s ever more motivated to find her husband - and the money. Things come to a head in Reno once the idiots catch up with Henry and the security of the money falls into serious jeopardy.

The lighthearted story ends up with some fun twists and was a nice way to kill a half-hour.

The other five stories in “High Stakes” were written by Leslie Glass, Jeff Abbott, Judith Van Gleason, and Elaine Viets, and I’m sure they are all solid mystery tales. Based on the three stories I read, this fun anthology is an easy recommendation. Nothing revelatory, but some enjoyable short stories from a handful of the genre’s modern titans.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Hawker #06 - Vegas Vengeance

Randy Wayne White wrote the first ‘Hawker’ novel, “Florida Firefight”, in 1984 under the moniker Carl Ramm. White would later go on to achieve much bigger success with his 'Doc Ford' series. While the debut left a lot to be desired, the series drastically improved into a stylish private eye action formula. The sixth title, “Vegas Vengeance”, continues that trend.

The book begins with Hawker making a phone call to Barbara Blaine. She owns a successful prostitute house on the strip aptly titled The Doll House. Through the conversation we learn that Hawker was tipped off about murder and extortion tactics leveraged against Blaine and her company. Blaine, concerned this is another crafty attempt to weaken her defenses, agrees to dinner after hearing Hawker's background. From there, the wheels are set into motion.

Before Hawker can meet Blaine, he's met with a high-speed, high-octane shootout on a dirt road southwest of Vegas. It's Hawker in a Jaguar XKE convertible and the baddies sporting a Datsun 280Z. White holds nothing back as the two race through the canyon, all guns blazing until Hawker derails the Datsun's quest. These two guys know about Hawker's assignment and the protection he's ultimately offering Blaine. 

As a typical private-eye yarn...this one hits all cylinders. Hawker learns who's shaking down The Doll House and why. Through shootouts and an intricate investigation, Hawker tracks the enforcers to a mining camp. Before that there's the obligatory mattress romp in the dark with what the reader assumes is Blaine. That mystery remains until the last few pages, a nice touch that adds a little more depth to the saga. 

Overall, “Vegas Vengeance” is another well-told Hawker story. While easily infringing on many detective novels (this is the 80s) that came before it, there's still enough identity here to make this a winner. I can't stay away from these books and I've been storing them in the vaults hoping I don't run out of the series too quickly. If you need a light read...Hawker is it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Killing Suki Flood

In 2015, Hard Case Crime author Ken Bruen wrote an article in Publisher’s Weekly called “10 Best Noir Novels” with the #1 slot occupied by a 1991 book and author unknown to me: Killing Suki Flood by Rob Lieninger. The reviews were also universally positive for this hardboiled crime stand-alone, so I decided to give it a shot.

Although the story takes place in 1989, the novel has the feel and plot structure of a Fawcett Gold Medal crime paperback from the 1950s. 54 year-old trucker Frank is driving to his New Mexico hideout with $77,000 in crime proceeds stashed in the camper he’s pulling when he comes upon a sexy 18 year old girl broken down on the side of the road. Because this is a quasi-throwback crime story in need of a femme fatale, Frank stops to help the comely Suki.

Frank is 5’8” tall, 225 pounds and built like a tank, and Suki is sex-on-fire in a hot little outfit. One thing leads to another, and Suki winds up in Frank’s truck without knowing that she’s joining him on a getaway from a profitable crime. Their patter between dim bulb Suki and wisecracking curmudgeon Frank is hilarious, and the evolution of their relationship is a joy to witness. 

It turns out that Frank isn’t the only one of the pair on the run. Suki s being pursued by goons working for a wealthy and abusive ex-boyfriend allegedly for transgressions having to do with her ex’s car. All this over a Trans-Am? This seems a bit extreme to Frank. Could there be more to Suki’s story that she’s not sharing?

At 244 pages, this isn’t a long book by modern standards, but it still could have used some tightening up. The first third of the book, for example, is basically Frank and Suki getting to know each other in a hiding spot while goons methodically search the New Mexico desert for them. I wasn’t bored because the characters are all vividly written, but the pacing of the action was a bit off. “Killing Suki Flood” is basically one long cat-and-mouse game about an unlikely pair being hunted for their recent criminal actions.

Eventually, the hunted become the hunters and the action increases markedly in the novel’s second half. Once we understand the cast of characters, their secrets, and motivations, the second half of the book is a wild ride. Frank makes for an unlikely gallant hero, and the main villains are suitably reprehensible. The character of Suki’s crazy ex-boyfriend was prone to long monologues and theatrical torture - a bit much for my tastes, but the character was vividly evil enough to inspire loathing in any sane reader.

Even though this isn’t the greatest noir novel of all time (a high bar to set), it’s an inventive and well-written take on a classic pursuit thriller, and the final conflict between the adversaries remains one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever read. Lieninger is often compared to Elmore Leonard because both write quirky characters, but I actually preferred Lieninger’s writing because he keeps it hardboiled and never cartoonish. “Killing Suki Flood” is available today as a paperback, an eBook, and a freebie for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Recommended.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

This Gun is Still

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) was a popular and highly respectable author of over 300 stories for more than 40 pulp magazines. Sometimes writing as Stephen Acre, John K. Vedder or Charles K. Boston, Gruber completed a massive outpouring of paperback titles. While known for his detective and crime stories, the author's most popular genre was the western, a genre he was claimed to have described as only able to deliver seven distinct story types. Despite what he felt were its shortcomings, Gruber wrote over 30 western novels including “This Gun is Still”, published by powerhouse Bantam Books in 1967.

The book begins with what could be the best opening pages of any western I've personally read. It's a bold statement – but absolutely true. A Wells Fargo stagecoach is racing across the hot White Sands as Apache warriors descend from the hills. In a rapid-fire delivery, we read that the stagecoach driver is killed and the carriage is tipped onto its side. With at least a dozen warriors outside, the two passengers, Jim Forester and Lily Bender, prepare for death. Forester, with only six bullets and a Navy Colt, begins firing from the window, hitting warriors within 10 feet of the coach. He makes five shots deadly, but debates the final shot – kill the girl so he alone can be tortured and ravaged by the Apaches or fire one more deadly shot at the braves and await the grizzly inevitable. Thankfully, a lone cowboy rides in with a Winchester rifle and kills enough warriors to make the war party scatter. Jim Forester meets Wes Morgan. 

We learn that Forester works for a bank in Chicago called Davenport. He's come to the town of Stanton to collect on a default loan from one of two store owners. After the owner dismisses the delinquent $8K, Forester obtains a warrant to shut the store and owner down. The Justice of the Peace provides an interesting backstory on Stanton's rather odd situation. The town's wealth lies in two factions, Bender and Deever. Bender has a large and very profitable cattle ranch and is a passive man. Deever is a former Major who makes his living stealing from Bender and running his own cattle ranch off the theft. Bender has enough wealth and cattle and simply doesn't care. However, Deever, in a rather bold authority, hates Bender and only wants the town to support him. Deever asks that Forester and his company only conduct county business with him, starving and depleting the other businesses and ultimately “gifting” the town to Deever. Forester refuses and that's where the story thickens. 

In a wild chain of events, Forester quits his job and takes over the store as its new owner – partly for a change of scenery but also because he refuses to see Deever win. Complicating things is Wes Morgan, a wanted outlaw who saved Forester but who may be working with Deever. Discombobulating it further is the lovely Lily, Bender's daughter and former Morgan lover. She may or may not be falling for Forester, who has a number of decisions to make once Deever and his hired guns start threatening violence. Tuck tail and run, align with the law or fight Morgan and Deever. It's a western, so you know which way it will eventually go...but it is a thrilling journey to get there. 

Overall, Frank Gruber is fantastic here and expels just enough drama, romance and courtroom intrigue (yes, I said courtroom) to make this a really well-told western. If you are looking for something that isn't the traditional western fare, this one is a must-read. Recommended.