Monday, January 22, 2018

Winner Take All

Mark Steele is an out-of-work Man of Adventure bumming around San Francisco when he hears a knock at the door. The man on the other side of the door is a stranger - but one who looks exactly like Steele. This is the opening scene of James McKimmey’s 1959 Dell paperback, “Winner Take All”. This obscure crime novel has been given a second life through a 2018 re-release from Stark House Crime Classics. This new re-issue is packaged with a 1957 “innocent man accused” novel called “Perfect Victim”, also by McKimmey, as well as a 2004 interview with the author (by “Noir Originals” scribe and author Allan Guthrie). This review focuses solely on “Winner Take All” with a review forthcoming for “Perfect Victim”. 

It turns out that Steele’s doppelgänger is a heretofore unknown twin brother who was separated at birth. And while Steele lived a hardscrabble life fighting in wars and taking care of himself, Byrd planted his flag into the privileged trappings of the idle rich - trust funds, women, booze, and gambling. As hardboiled genre fiction fans might expect, the reason that Byrd seeks out Steele was not for a tearful brotherly reunion. He comes with an offer: Can Steele pose as Byrd to negotiate a settlement on a large gambling debt owed to the mob? Seeing an opportunity to turn a buck and find some action, the braver brother accepts, and the story is off and running. 

It would have been easy for McKimmey to structure the novel differently - by having the non-violent brother drafted to take the place of his soldier-of-fortune twin and find his own manhood in the process. Instead, the author puts us into the mind of the brother who is more comfortable in a world of violence and unpredictability, and that adds to the fun of this one. While the set-up of this short novel is rather contrived, the execution is superb - mostly due to the author’s skill with first-person crime novel narration. The book has all the trappings of the hardboiled crime stories of the paperback original era - thuggish mobsters, a sexy femme fatale (or two) and twisty double-cross plot devices. It’s a blast of a story - violent, sexy, and compelling - and well worth your time. 

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Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Executioner #07 - Nightmare in New York

The seventh installment of ‘The Executioner’ series is 1971’s “Nightmare in New York”. Finally, the riveting action arrives both domestically and sequentially in this triumphant return to form for author Don Pendleton. After the series’ debut quartet, “War…”, “Death…”, “Battle…” and “Miami…”, which are held in high esteem by fans of the series and genre, the thrill-ride slowed as it was exported to Europe. The fifth and sixth volumes, “Continental…” and “Assault…”, were off-target for Bolan and his experienced skill-set. Humor, perverse sexcapades and a bizarre treatment of the character left plenty to be desired. With “Nightmare…”, the series experiences a revival with one of the best entries in Pendleton’s initial 38-title run.

A dark, ominous tone is set in the book’s prologue. Pendleton recaps the first six books and advises that Phase One and Phase Two of the Mafia War, which he calls “The War of Attrition”, has ended. He promises readers that Phase Three is here and it’s “The War of Destruction”. Pendleton prophesizes, “He will hit them now in their omniscience, in their omnipotence; their omnipresence, he reasons, will then fold under its own weight. Bolan is in the saddle, his mount is destiny, his target is the Kingdom of Evil – wherever its ugly head may rise”. The grim nature at the beginning spills into the book’s opening scenes of Bolan arriving stateside through Kennedy International airport. Flanking the emerging Bolan is Sam “The Bomber” Chianti and his Manhattan-based Gambella Family. In a strange, yet superbly written encounter, Bolan exits a helicopter into a hail of gunfire. He escapes - with hot lead in the shoulder and a small tear in his hip - thanks to a trio of young beauties.

The book starts to settle in as Bolan is nursed back to health by the three young women. The author takes the opportunity to establish a relationship and continue to build on Bolan’s need for love despite hopeless abandonment of normalcy. The Gambella Family is now the primary target for Bolan, particularly Chianti’s lifelines. In Bolan’s acute awareness of Mafia operations, he leisurely kills three hired hands in a hotel, stuffing them in a trunk before shaking up the mob shops and racketeering joints. In hilarious scenes, we see Bolan talk the talk and walk the walk right into the lairs of lieutenants and Mob don Freddie Gambella (snatching a cool 25K on the way out). Frequently, he kills and leaves his trademark marksman badges. This is the classic Bolan we saw in Phase One and Phase Two, that slick and violent destroyer; the swift and cold hand delivering point blank justice.

After learning of the brutal rape, torture and death of one of the trio of young girls, Bolan is the grimmest we’ve seen him since the original “War Against the Mafia”. He hits the mob hard in a meat packing plant, at one-point firing round after round into the head of a deceased enforcer. Her age, beauty and prior friendship sets Bolan on a vengeance trail. He calls a local television station and coolly warns, “I am going to destroy the Gambella Family. One by one, crew by crew, business by business – I am going to wipe them. I will not be bought off or scared off by threats against defenseless and innocent persons, and if one more sweet kid is turned to turkey because of me, then these turkeymakers are going to discover what a real nightmare is all about. There is no escape for these people. I know each of them, I know where they go and what they do, and I am going to hunt them down, all of them, and I am going to execute them.”

This book not only flashes the same gritty badge as the early part of the series, it also recalls key characters. Bolan has a verbal exchange with undercover enforcer Leo Turrin, an older ally from the opening quartet. He asks Turrin about Valentina and the status on his younger brother (whom we haven’t heard much about until now). I love how Bolan explains to Turrin in the exchange, “I’m no detective. I’m an infantryman”. No truer words have been spoken about this turbulent character. The book’s finale captures Bolan’s barbarous assault on Stoney Lodge, the Gambella headquarters. The heated exchange leaves Bolan with only one choice – go fight the next battle in a war he can’t win. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Black Friday

After his 2004 death, the estate of William W. Johnstone - under the direction of his niece, J.A. Johnstone - kept the family business alive by turning the Johnstone name into a successful fiction factory. The company hires talented genre authors to craft action and western novels published under the house names of William Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone. Unlike James Patterson’s similar business model, the actual authors are given no credit. The ghost writers are sworn to secrecy through non-disclosure agreements and the promise of future work if they keep their mouths shut about their contributions to the family business while fostering the illusion that William and J.A. are actually authoring these paperback originals. The ghost-written Johnstone westerns are pretty standard fare, but the contemporary action novels ("Treason", "Stand Your Ground", etc.) tap into the growing market of politically-conservative adventure tales marketed to the Fox News-Breitbart crowd. The formula: common-sense American heroes battle crime, immigrants, and Muslim terrorists as well as the politically-correct liberals standing in their way of success. These stand-alone novels celebrate the triumph of conservative American values over progressive societal chaos. Commercially, this formula has been extremely successful. The unknown authors would never have gotten their books into every 7-11, grocery chain, and big box store if they weren’t leveraging the Johnstone house name and the right-wing wish fulfillment thriller formula.

2016’s "Black Friday" is the most recent Johnstone thriller to dominate the non-bookstore bookshelves in this successful sub-genre. It’s the story of a Muslim terrorist attack on a middle-America shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. The unknown author introduces us to a cast of characters - several war veterans, an ex-con with a heart of gold, a Catholic Priest, a cowardly school teacher, and others - who all head to the mall on the busiest shopping day of the year. Little did the heartland customers know, but Islamic terrorists (a 100 man cell!) were planning a mass-casualty attack that day at in the name of Allah. Things quickly devolve into a barricade situation with the cartoonishly inept law enforcement outside (paralyzed by their politically-correct bosses) while a core group of hostages, armed with their own weapons and those taken from a sporting goods store, mount a stand.

Politics aside, this is an excellent action novel. Think of it as “GOP Die Hard in a Mall.” There is plenty of blood-spurting violence throughout the book. The heroic characters were well-developed and sympathetic, and the bad guys were all suitably reprehensible. The unknown author did a fantastic job of moving the plot forward from one violent set-piece to another. The novel’s conservative politics didn’t detract from the quality of the adventurous tale conceived by the author. At worst, they came off as a distraction when awkwardly shoe-horned into otherwise great scenes (one character growls, “Thank God for the Second Amendment” as he’s raining bullets on terrorist intruders, for example). There’s nothing factually incorrect about that sentiment given the context, but these asides can take the reader out of the story for a moment - a disservice to the suspenseful sequence underway.

As with many propulsive action stories, there needs to be some suspension of common sense and disbelief. Mall anchor stores tend to have more exits than the author allows. And a law enforcement response in real life is (thank goodness) way better than this fiction depicted. But why quibble with a Walmart paperback? "Black Friday" is a truly exciting and violent book that will please fans of classic 20th Century Men’s Adventure literature. If you find the occasionally awkward conservative talking-points bothersome, just remind yourself that this book is filed under fiction, and enjoy the thrilling ride.

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.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Spur #15 - Hang Spur McCoy!

There were over 40 volumes of the western series ‘Spur’. The Leisure house name was Dirk Fletcher but these were actually written by journeyman writer Chet Cunningham (‘Jim Steel’, ‘Outlaws’, ‘Pony Soldiers’). “Hang Spur McCoy!” is book number 15 and was suggested as a good starter for new readers. There’s a brief introduction in the opening chapter, but later expanded as a sufficient backstory in Chapter 12. Spur McCoy grew up in New York as the son of a wealthy merchant and importer. After graduating from Harvard, Spur took a commission in the infantry during the Civil War. As a captain, Spur was appointed as one of the first US Secret Service Agents. For validity, the author states Spur was chosen out of ten finalists for his horse riding and service pistol marksmanship. After exceptional service in Washington, he was transferred to St. Louis to manage all of the action west of the Mississippi. Thus, a series was born with a legitimate character, purpose and the open-ended ability to place him in any sort of drama and adventure in the perilous west. 

Cunningham kickstarts “Hang Spur McCoy!” with a bang. Our government agent is firing at an outhouse with a Spencer repeater. During the exchange Spur is wounded badly with a leg shot and awakens in the midst of a noose-ready posse. The sheriff and three make-shift lawmen have sentenced Spur to a lynching after accusing him of rape and murder. Once he successfully defends his position, the sheriff comes to Spur’s aid only to be outnumbered by the hostile trio. With a bound sheriff, the three struggles tying a noose. The sheriff assists, but cleverly ties a Murphy’s Knot to allow a faux presentation of Spur hanging. The deed is done and the three ride off with the sheriff staying behind for the pulse check. Other than a horrendous rope-burn and a bum leg, Spur is ready to complete his mission.

Some authors may be complacent with this being a simplistic and over utilized plot. Stretching out a revenge yarn for 200-pages is quite manageable and most authors worth their salt can milk this. While the author has Spur tracking those responsible for his hanging, the bulk of the story is the assignment – solving a counterfeiting racket in Twin Falls, Idaho. It’s slightly convenient that one of the hangmen is directly associated with the counterfeiting, but it’s forgivable. The action has Spur in detective mode sourcing the operation from start to finish. Along the way is a plethora of lovely ladies for the inevitable mattress romps. Fans of the series understand (need?) the obligatory 10% sex inclusion and it certainly spaces out the gumshoe portions in pleasant fashion. The finale has Spur unarmed in the forest facing adversity…and two armed gunmen. While Cunningham heats the barrels, “Hang Spur McCoy!” pauses for a tender moment as Spur shows compassion for one of the accused. This unique angle is one of the many little nuances that makes Cunningham’s work so enjoyable.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Wilderness #01 - King of the Mountain

“King of the Mountain” is the excellent debut of David Robbins' ‘Wilderness’ series. It was released by Leisure in 1990 under Robbins’ pseudonym David Thompson. The series ran 66 volumes over the course of 20 years, and also extended to “giant” versions as well as omnibus collections. Set in New York City (population 100,000) in 1882, Nate King is a low-level accountant with a crappy boss and a job with limited upward mobility. His girlfriend is a materialistic pain in the neck who will only marry him if he can establish that he has the capacity to support the spoiled girl. A solution to this problem presents itself in the form of a letter from Nate’s long-lost Uncle Zeke, the family pariah who ventured west to pursue frontier adventures. Zeke wants Nate to meet him in St. Louis and promises a share of the “treasure” Zeke has amassed. Driven by his own wanderlust and greed, Nate sets off on a horseback adventure to meet Uncle Zeke in St. Louis. From there the adventure continues westward. This is basically an origin and travel story where a city dandy learns the ways of a wilderness mountain man on a cross-country horseback adventure. The mentor/student scenes are both enlightening and captivating. The road adventures include run-ins with dangerous wildlife, kindly Native Americans, scalp-hunting savages and conniving road thieves. There are plenty of scenes of explosive, bloody violence and tension-filled stand-offs. The author also injects several interesting historical tidbits of pre-cowboy frontier life in the unsettled west - you’ll be thrilled while learning a thing or two. This debut was a straight-up, nearly perfect genre novel and it will make you want to continue the story into book two and beyond.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Wasteworld #01 - Aftermath

U.K. author *Laurence James has become a regular staple here at Paperback Warrior. I’ve covered a host of his novels ranging from the ‘Apache’ western series to his popular post-apocalyptic runs on ‘Deathlands’ and ‘Survival 2000’. The “Piccadilly Cowboy” had a knack for science-fiction and the post-nuke formula, evident as early as 1983 with the four-book series ‘Wasteworld’. It’s debut, “Aftermath”, was released in the U.K. by the Granada publishing house under one of James’ many house names, James Barton. Collaborating with Granada is popular British artist Richard Clifton-Dey (Blue Oyster Cult, Ray Bradbury). The talented painter showcases a barren, dismal “wasteworld”, accenting hero Matthew Chance’s post-apocalyptic struggle perfectly. With rather large print at 128 pages, this is two-hours…spent.

Like any post-nuke worth its salt, “Aftermath” curtain jerks with a paragraph explaining Afghanistan was invaded, the US took the banana countries and a war was fought over Cuba. The breaking point was an invasion into Libya as the parts of the world experienced oil shortages. The bombs went up and down…and now most of the world is riddled with radiation, disease and devastation. Marine Air Corps pilot Matthew Chance was fighting in a campaign over the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean when the nukes exchanged. Apparently, the bombs really had no effect on Matthew or the surrounding area. Surviving the ordeal, he somehow ends up in Mexico (told to the reader through a verbal exchange with a mutant) where very little devastation has occurred. Other than the air bases, Mexico has very little radiation or physical stress. As charming as it sounds, Matthew has to get to Texas to find his ex-wife and their two children.

The book’s opening chapters has Matthew washing up on a shore in New Orleans. He’s somehow sunk a cigarette boat in the gulf with kilos of cocaine and gallons of fuel. His bartering goods are ultimately destroyed and the only possession he can carry to shore is a fighting knife. This quickly comes in handy as Matthew fights off a gang of deadly, feral cats to prove his validity. Soon, he’s exploring the city only to find New Orleans is now ran by a voodoo priest named Amos. The African Americans have actually enslaved the white survivors and now serve as labor and enforcement for “king” Amos. After seeing Caucasians being buried alive, pale-faced Matthew quickly runs for safety. He runs into a swarm of 7-foot hunchback ogres and mutant, rabid dogs. His only safety is in the sewers where he befriends a female mutant named Alice Adams. In a wacky scene we learn Alice can only communicate by ESP and she’s a permanent resident – her mutant deformity is that she is bloated to a supersized blob of lethargic fat. With that size comes great stress – she can’t fit through the sewer exits.

Alice offers to aid Matthew in his journey to Texas (how?) if he will simply go kill Amos. Matthew makes a failed attempt only to be awarded with the obligatory jail time. Amos forces Matthew to shoot a few white prisoners while requiring him to fly a Cobra helicopter into the bayou to kill an army of Cajun opposition. It’s utterly ridiculous, made even more convoluted by an insane decision on the part of Matthew to blow the helicopter up. Why not just fly the damn thing to Texas and save the family? Instead, Matthew wastes an entire helicopter fighting rabid dogs and mutants near the sewer entrance. In the book’s finale, Matthew, now teaming with the very mutants he was fighting, attempts to exchange Amos for some Cajun prisoners.

I loved the brief backstory on Matthew and the mono myth creation. This really set the book up well, and despite our hero fighting cats, he’s introduced as a likable guy. The chase scenes within the brothel and wine cellar were very effective and bordered on horror’s penchant for dark spaces and hypertension. I found James really ahead of the game with an early style of writing in describing residency. A lot of the zombie fiction of the 00s would depict characters entering homes and finding dead bodies. I always found that part of zombie fiction entertaining…although oddly anonymous and thought provoking. Here, Matthew enters a number of homes and finds the same scenario. Often, he simply drags the bodies into a room or piles them up downstairs. I thought this was a unique aspect considering the time of release – 1983. By the middle of the book James’ throws the baby out with the bath water. Alice Adams is absolutely bizarre and the vile villain is dull and lifeless. Where the book’s beginning made Matthew interesting and somewhat respectable…the closing chapters are studies in character erosion. The book’s cover painting and slim design makes it collectible…but I would never read this again.

* Justin Marriott of Paperback Fanatic, Sleazy Reader, Men of Violence, etc. suggests that this book may have been written by a different Piccadilly Cowboy in Angus Wells. He cites two different sources for pegging Wells as the author. First was an interview he did with crime writer James Harvey, who had worked with Wells and James on prior work. Second is the fact that Laurence James excludes 'Wasteworld' from his bibliography submitted to Paperback Parade.