Friday, December 13, 2019

Strangers on Friday

Paperback Warrior is fertile ground for plenty of insight into Harry Whittington's literary work. A portion of his body of work has been released as digital reprints over the last two decades. Yet, there are so many paperback originals written by Whittington, or one of his many pseudonyms, that a sizable portion of his writing remains out of print to this day. My case in point is the crime-noir “Strangers on Friday”, which was published by Zenith in 1959. It's a rare paperback that demands top dollar among collectors.

“Strangers on Friday” embodies many of the elements that made the author so spectacular and popular. Whittington's novel features small-town corruption, beautiful (but distressed) women, an embedded mystery and a lone hero. Of course, all of it is constructed perfectly while showcasing the psychological impact on the characters.

In other words, “Strangers on Friday” kicks total ass.

Mac Rivers is a WW2 veteran, a widow and a man without a purpose. Searching for something to live for, Mac hops the first available bus and strikes up a long conversation with a beautiful young woman. Without a destination, Mac steps off of the bus with the woman in the tiny mountain hamlet of Roxmount. Mac is surprised (experienced readers aren't) when the unnamed woman invites Mac for drinks and then a late night sleepover at the local motel. After a night of lovemaking, Mac journeys out for breakfast only to find himself arrested for killing a police officer the night before.

Sleeping with women before knowing their name is a “cart before the horse” endeavor that typically doesn't lead to an arrest. Mac didn't kill anyone, but in this case his alibi is condom thin. Mac, searching for this unnamed woman, eventually leads the sheriff to the local bar where he had drinks with the woman. She isn't there, but in sheer desperation he randomly points out another beautiful woman and claims she's the one. When the sheriff asks her to confirm Mac's story...she does! What kind of town is this?

Whittington cleverly weaves political corruption, robbery and a whodunit into this fast-paced, riveting narrative. Nothing is as it seems, the characters behave in a puzzling manner. Mac is thrust into the challenging role of “drifting trouble-maker” to make sense of it all. It's a tired cliché but it works wonders under Whittington's unique design. With this much mystery and intrigue, thankfully there's still an expansive plot to fit in the obligatory fisticuffs, car chases and gunfire. Despite the misleading cover, this is a crime-fiction novel and a damn fine one. Whether it is worth the collector’s high price tag is a painful dilemma. If you love his work, I'd say it is mandatory. If not, just give it a few decades for the affordable ebook.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shell Scott #02 - Bodies in Bedlam

With four decades of overwhelming commercial success, Richard Prather's 'Shell Scott' series is unquestionably one of the best private-eye series brands ever. While wacky and outlandish, the screwball style of the Shell Scott character was adored by crime-fiction and mystery readers. “Bodies in Bedlam” (1951) is an early Fawcett Gold Medal installment in what is arguably the most creative era of the series. It was the first of three Shell Scott novels written in 1951 – the others being “Everybody Had a Gun” and “Find This Woman.”

Shell Scott is basically the West Coast version of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, albeit not as serious. Operating out of Hollywood, many of Scott's cases revolve around the film industry. “Bodies in Bedlam” follows that familiar setting by placing Scott at a posh industry party in the Hollywood Hills where the paperback detective winds up in a scuffle with an aspiring actor...who is later found murdered. All fingers point to Scott as the killer, thus the narrative develops with Scott as his own client endeavoring to learn the identity of the real killer.

Like most of these titles, Scott's tongue in cheek approach to investigation is paired with his substantial sex appeal. Women dig the white hair. Four beautiful actresses throw themselves at Scott, begging to be fulfilled while being absolved of any wrongdoing. Scott begins to connect the dots that suggests the aspiring actor may have been selling nude photos of Hollywood's most-endowed performers. Is there a connection? Could one of these “bodies in bed...lam” really be capable of a heinous act?

This was my first experience with both Richard Prather and the Shell Scott character. I wasn't holding out for a huge payoff or an overly satisfying read. Shell Scott is a funny guy, shoots straight and has a flair for action. But, if I'm reading a cock-eyed detective story...I'd prefer Carter Brown. I own about fifteen Shell Scott novels, and I'm going to read more...but I'm in no hurry. “Bodies in Bedlam” was an elementary, sexy whodunit. Nothing more, nothing less.

Fun Fact: Soliciting nude photos of actresses in the crime-noir genre seems to be a recurring theme. William Ard's “You'll Get Yours” was published a year after “Bodies in Bedlam” and focuses on an aspiring actress and leaked nudie pics. The same for Louis Malley's “Stool Pigeon” from 1953. This was evidently before leaked photos and promiscuous videos were a catapult to stardom.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Avenger #02 - Houston Hellground

Journeyman Chet Cunningham authored a four book series from 1987-1988 titled 'The Avenger'. It's an odd title because the series was released by Warner Books, a publisher that already had another 'Avenger' title in their catalog. Warner published reprints and new titles of pulp hero 'Avenger' (released under the house name Kenneth Robeson) from 1972-1975, totaling 42 books. There's no connection otherwise between the two series, but it's nevertheless confusing.

The Avenger's second installment, “Houston Hellground”, was published in April 1988. I enjoyed the eponymous debut and this series does have a sense of continuity (unlike high-numbered titles like 'The Butcher'). The first novel introduced us to Matt Hawke, a San Diego DEA agent who finds his wife brutally murdered by drug cartels. Strained by the chains of bureaucracy, Hawke breaks free by quitting the DEA and running his own brand of unsanctioned justice. After annihilating West Coast drug distributors, he sets gun-sights on a Houston kingpin named Lopez.

Cunningham is the quintessential “meat and potatoes” author, simplifying the story and lacing it with high-caliber action. Hawke's mission is two-fold: Rescue a DEA agent from Lopez's grip and cut the distribution lines in and out of the nearby port city. Teaming with a beautiful ex-cop named Carmelita, the two become a destructive force under Cunningham's skilled hands.

“Houston Hellground” delivers a ton of gunplay, increasing the violence a notch or two to properly satisfy seasoned (read that as bloodthirsty) men's action readers. Remember, this is a late entry published in 1988. There's a brutal torture scene that involves sexual assault – not for queasy stomachs. Further, Hawke and Lopez (who's fighting a rival) collectively waste every adversary in vivid detail. Surprisingly, I was lucky enough to be one of the few survivors. “Houston Hellground” is another solid entry in an entertaining, yet neglected series.

Fun Fact – Artist Greg Olanoff did the covers for the entire series. His model was Jason Savas, the same model he used for the first five 'M.I.A. Hunter' books.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Dark Side of the Island

“The Dark Side of the Island” was Jack Higgins' (real name: Henry Patterson) eighth novel, originally published in hardcover by John Long in 1964. After the author's success with “The Eagle Has Landed” (1975), many of Patterson's earlier works were reprinted under the household name of Jack Higgins. “The Dark Side of the Island” was reprinted countless times and remains in print today. My copy is the 1977 Fawcett Gold Medal pictured.

The novel is divided into three separate sections, each showcasing a pivotal point in time for protagonist Hugh Lomax. The first section, “The Long Return”, introduces Englishman Lomax to readers as he docks on the tiny Greek island of Kyros. Lomax's history with Kyros is connected to a perilous mission he undertook as a Special Forces officer in World War 2. After Lomax's recent family tragedy, he wants to find himself again and believes that reconnecting with the islanders will help with the healing.

The first person Lomax finds is his ex-Special Forces partner Alexias Pavlo, a Kyros native who runs a bar called The Little Ship. It is there that Lomax sees a lot of familiar faces that aren't welcoming his arrival. When Alexias sees Lomax, all hell breaks loose and the crowd attempts to gut Lomax like a fish. At knife-point, Alexias explains that Lomax's war mission cost the island years of suffering in concentration camps and killed many of their friends and family. The shocked Lomax is rescued by the sheriff and begins to piece together the events of his past.

This riveting opener is just the tip of the iceberg. Segment two is called “The Nightcomer”, and, as you'd suspect, it showcases the harrowing 48-hour mission in Kyros during the war. It picks up as Lomax and Alexias, aided by Sergeant Boyd, undertake a secret mission in Kyros to destroy a radar station hidden in an old monastery. This is 50-pages of the best men's adventure fiction you'll ever read. Of course the mission is compromised, so the three men are assisted by Alexias' beautiful niece Katina and a famed author named Oliver Van Horn. Without ruining the story for you, let's just say Lomax gains an assist from many of the people that occupied The Little Ship in the opening segment. After all of these years, why would those people now hate Lomax?

“A Sound of Hunting”, the book's closing segment, explains what happened on Kyros after Lomax's covert mission – executions, concentration camps and separation. When the pieces begin to fit, Lomax finds himself a fugitive with his only aid being Katina and a young boy. As the hounds of justice howl, the town's torch lights come closer and closer as Higgins squeezes the narrative into one epic showdown...and absolutely nails it.

There's a handful of men's action-adventure novels that I would consider mandatory for the “deserted on an island” sort of crisis (or fantasy). Ralph Hayes' “The Satan Stone” (1975), Dan Marlowe's “The Name of the Game is Death” (1962) and Donald Hamilton's “Line of Fire” (1955) immediately come to mind, but I'd have to include this novel in the mix. It is a phenomenal piece of literature with one distinct purpose – to entertain the reader. Sometimes we just get caught up in searching for divine meaning or a subversive message to symbolize some sort of real world affair. What I love about this novel, and Higgins in particular, is that it's just action and adventure without an agenda. Nothing more, nothing less. It's an admirable entertain the paying consumers. For that, I applaud Higgins' efforts with “The Dark Side of the Island”. This is a mandatory read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, December 9, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 23

This episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast celebrates the worst 20th Century novels the publishing industry had to offer. From TNT to Phoenix, we explore how bad things need to get before a reader will throw a paperback into the ocean. Don’t miss the fun as we discuss the absolute pits in vintage genre fiction. Stream below or on any podcast platform. Download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 23: Hall of Shame" on Spreaker.

Dirge for a Nude

Jonathan Craig was a pseudonym for Frank E. Smith, who wrote a ton of crime novels and short stories during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of his short fiction work was published in “Manhunt Magazine,” the finest outlet for that type of thing. “Dirge for a Nude” began its life as a story from the February 1953 issue of “Manhunt” and has been reprinted as a stand-alone eBook as part of the “Noir Masters” line. I’ve always enjoyed the author’s work, and I had an extra 99 cents burning a hole in my pocket, so I decided to splurge.

The story is narrated by a jazz piano player named Marty Bishop who entertains fellow hep cats in an after-hours Greenwich Village dive. During a break between sets, Marty’s ex-girlfriend Gloria appears and tells him that she’s got twelve-grand in her bra, and she wants Marty to run away to Mexico with her. She’s a torch singer with questionable ethics who also gets around, and Marty is done with her. Gloria gets super-pissed when Marty turns her down, and they decide to talk it out in Marty’s car after he finished his gig.

When Marty finally gets to his Caddy, Gloria is waiting for him inside the vehicle - naked and dead. Learning who stripped and killed the girl (and why) is the heart of the story, and it takes Marty on a torturous ride. Could it be the psychotic prizefighter Gloria has been banging recently? Maybe a skid row jazzbo she helped cheat out of his songwriting royalties?

“Dirge For a Nude” is 26-pages of unrepentant Manhunt-style hardboiled violent action. Marty spends the bulk of the story driving around with a naked, dead girl in his caddy trying to solve her murder - rough, unpleasant stuff, but also visceral and effective. It’s surprising that the author never chose to inflate the story into a full novel - a common practice at the time - because this one is just fantastic. It’s definitely the best short story I’ve read in quite some time.

Don’t be a cheapskate. Shell out the 99 cents for this damn story on your Kindle. You won’t regret it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Searching Rider

Harry Whittington's talent for storytelling was unmatched even among prolific contemporaries including Gil Brewer and Day Keene. Whether it was a fierce love triangle, bank heist or white knuckle suspense, the Floridian author engaged readers with his masterful literary prose. While his crime-noir is often discussed, Whittington's contribution to the western genre is sometimes overlooked. I thoroughly enjoyed his western titles like “A Trap for Sam Dodge”, “Drytown Gulch”, “Wild Sky” and “Desert Stake-Out”. Therefore, I was excited to acquire a 1961 Ace double featuring both “Hangman's Territory” by Jack Bickham and Whittington's “The Searching Rider”.

Like many Whittington novels, “The Searching Rider” features a scorned lover, despicable villains and murder. It's a winning trifecta that the author injects with a more psychological edge to the classic frontier revenge formula. In fact, in the opening chapters the pursuit of three villains is a precursor to the real story – main character Matt Logan's quest to find the lone farmer pursuing the three villains. It's an odd reworking of the “owlhoot trail”, but the author keeps it a mystery until Logan's horse is shot out from under him. That's the cue to roll the flashback sequence.

We learn that a farm family living on a scorched trail to Tucson experience a horrific tragedy. Grief stricken, the farmer Kaylor sets out in pursuit of three bitter killers. His wife, in a state of shock, walks to town and asks her scorned lover Logan for help. Logan initially rejects her requests for help, but once he realizes the dire circumstances, Logan races to catch up with Kaylor before it is too late.

While this simple revenge tale could have easily been a toss-off dime western, Whittington makes it a unique and enjoyable read. Never settling for the ordinary prose, the Logan character is developed as the anti-hero, trading the proverbial white hat for a greedy poker hand. Kaylor's situation is compelling, a riveting blend of hot-headed anger combined with a stubborn tenacity. By placing the pursuit and subsequent gun play in a scorching desert, the author traps these characters into the inevitable confrontation. How readers arrive at the finale is the ultimate enjoyment.

“The Searching Rider” is another top-notch western from an author that rarely misfires. In a perfect world, this novel would receive a new publishing run by Stark House Press. Thus far, its just another tattered old paperback waiting to be found at a rummage sale.

Buy a copy of this book HERE