Monday, June 17, 2019

Secret Mission #17 - The Libyan Contract

Don Smith’s ‘Secret Mission’ books star Phil Sherman, an international businessman turned CIA operative on a variety of international assignments for 21 paperbacks spanning 1968 to 1978. It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but I think the ‘Secret Mission’ books are consistently better than Edward Aarons’ similar, but more successful, ‘Assignment’ books starring Sam Durrell.

The series can be enjoyed in any order, so I picked the 17th installment, “The Libyan Contract” from 1974 for my next adventure with Sherman. The book opens with a Swiss bank receiving a $200,000 wire transfer from Dallas into the numbered account belonging to a South African assassin who recently escaped from prison. In 1974, the JFK assassination was enough of a fresh wound that when “Dallas and assassin” are mentioned together, the banker quietly notifies Interpol.

News of this mysterious money transfer eventually makes its way to the desk of Sherman’s boss at the CIA who is appropriately worried that the assassin, a notorious racist, may be targeting a U.S. black leader. Because of the potential domestic threat, Sherman teams up with an FBI agent to investigate the situation. The disparity of the by-the-book FBI man and freewheeling Sherman is one of the many pleasures in the narrative.

The manhunt for the assassin quickly becomes international and the FBI is left behind on U.S. soil while Sherman handles the globetrotting operation. Sherman suspects that the target of the assassination is a middle-eastern leader and tracks the killer through England, Brussels, Italy, and Malta (oddly, given the title, not Libya). There’s also plenty of sex and violence along the way leading up to the climactic final confrontation between Sherman and the would-be killer.

For reasons unclear to me, the Secret Mission novels have never been reprinted or digitized since their original release. This is a shame because it’s a quality series that deserves to be remembered. However, “The Libyan Contract” just isn’t the best of the bunch. The plotting was choppy and generally imperfect leading up to a rather abrupt ending. If you’re working your way through the series, you still should read this one as it wasn’t bad. However, “Secret Mission: North Korea” was a way better installment if you want to get started.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Terminator #04 - Crystal Kill

In an effort to cross-promote to their own 'The Executioner' consumers, publishing house Pinnacle utilized the same fonts and artistic covers for their short-lived 'The Terminator' series. The books, written by porn editor Dennis Rodriguez as John Quinn, lasted for six installments from 1983-1984. The series features an ex-CIA assassin named Gavin, whose attempts to marry and settle-down were suspended after being set-up on his last assignment (told as an origin story in the series debut “Mercenary Kill”). Now, he's a semi-fugitive living under the assumed name of Bob Evans in a Colorado mountain town. Without his modest retirement benefits and pension, Gavin takes on private investigator jobs for money.

The novel begins with a hired killer named Soto violently murdering a family in Miami. After reconvening with his boss, kingpin El Jefe, Soto is advised to take a new assignment on Catalina Island, off the California coast. A movie director turned drug dealer has received a large amount of product, yet hasn't provided payment for the goods. Soto's job is to become the enforcer and make the man pay. But how does any of this involve Gavin?

A scorned lover has employed Gavin to find her book-selling husband. He ran off with a publishing rep and was last seen on Catalina Island. Gavin, not enthused about his role in a marital dispute, bitterly accepts the assignment for the lucrative payout. Convenient, yet it seems like a lackluster way for the author just to connect beacon points between mafia enforcers and The Terminator.

Once Gavin arrives on the island, he reaches out to his old friend Doug and Doug's wife Marie. Gavin learns that Doug has apparently been killed while fishing offshore. The grieving Marie feels there's more to the story and provides details to Gavin. Combining Doug's hefty business debts with the fact that the body was never found leads Gavin to believe there was malicious intent involved.

Connecting the dots, readers learn that El Jefe and Soto are both after Pierce, an ex-Universal Studios director who's debauchery has pushed him from Hollywood elitist to grindhouse hack. Pierce's distributor has gone missing (readers suspect it is Gavin's friend Doug) with an enormous supply of cocaine, putting Pierce in arrears financially with wholesaler El Jefe. When bone-breaker Soto arrives on El Jefe's behalf, he finds that Pierce is protecting himself with his own team of enforcers.

At the 75-page mark, it's abundantly clear that the author is having a blast writing this. It's a funny, captivating chase story as Gavin and Pierce pursue Doug's whereabouts while tangling with mob killers. Specifically, the interplay between Pierce's two enforcers and El Jefe's hit-men is worth the price of admission. I had no issue that the foursome absorb most of the book's narrative. It seemed as though Gavin was an unnecessary fifth-wheel, but kudos to the writer for realizing where the story's true strengths are. This was thoroughly enjoying and highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Rex Brandon #1 - Death Warriors

In 1951 and 1952, British author Denis Hughes (1917-2008) wrote 12 novels under the pseudonym of Marco Garon starring international adventurer Rex Brandon. These were among the 50 titles Hughes wrote using a variety of pen names over the five year period between 1949 and 1954 for U.K. paperback publisher Curtis Warren. Thanks to a recently-launched business venture called New EBook Library (from the people behind Piccadilly Publishing), the 'Rex Brandon' series has been brought back to life with beautiful new cover art and a nice price for readers interested in the 100-page Indiana Jones-style adventures. “Death Warriors” is the first book in the series from 1951, and a Kindle copy cost me 99 cents. Was it worth the investment?

Rex Brandon is a geologist and big game hunter by trade but a swashbuckling adventurer at heart. “Death Warriors” finds Rex summoned to the heart of savage Africa by a French colonialist in the fictional African nation of Mandibarza. Brandon’s mission is to locate an explorer who went missing in the jungle while he was searching for irikum, a rare mineral valued for its potential to produce atomic energy.

Using the guise of a big game hunt with a goal of shooting gorillas (which, I guess, was a thing in 1951?), Rex and his small expeditionary team set off into the jungle to locate the missing explorer and the irikum. The reader also learns that another search party with the identical mission previously became lost and never returned from the wilds. The previous mission included a beautiful woman named Coralie, and you’d correctly surmise that she will be the damsel in distress requiring saving at some point.

In the jungle, it quickly becomes clear that there are others in the woods - beyond the man-eating lions - who wish to thwart the expedition. Members of the party start disappearing, and supplies are scarce. There’s not a ton of action in the novel’s first half, but the “Blair Witch Project” vibe of the thick and menacing woods is certainly unsettling. Things go from bad to worse for Rex and his companions when the war-painted, jungle savages (of the “ooga-booga” variety) make their inevitable appearance halfway through the adventure.

If the novel’s first half is mostly setup (although not uninteresting), the second half moves quickly from one pulpy action set-piece to another. Rex and his sidekicks are forced to tangle with every flavor of African jungle menace you can imagine, and it’s a cartoonish blast building up to a conclusion that leaves Rex alive to experience the next 11 adventures in the series. 

Fans of Tarzan and Doc Savage will feel right at home with Rex Brandon. Based on this short novel, it seems that pulp fiction from Great Britain in 1951 has a lot in common with American pulp fiction from the 1930s. While Americans were turning a page to the gritty realism of 1950s noir, British readers were still enjoying square-jawed heroes rescuing women from the jaws of killer crocodiles in the darkest realms of Africa. Whichever your preference, we should all be grateful that there are outfits like New EBook Library keeping these works of pulp literature alive in the 21st Century.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Pieces of the Game

Tracing the history of an aged paperback can sometimes prove to be problematic. Fawcett Gold Medal, creator of the paperback original novels we know today, published hundreds of titles in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Of those literary classics, a sizable number were written under pseudonyms or clever variations on the authors' real names. With 1960's adventure novel, “Pieces of the Game”, there's no clear indication of who author Lee Gifford really is. A pseudonym? A writing duo? Unfortunately, as of the publishing of this review, I can't provide any answers on the author's identity. However, what I will advise is that you stop what you are doing and locate a copy.

This novel kicks total ass.

The book begins in the then present day of 1960. World War 2 veteran and main character Jim Sheridan is working for the Great Western Importing Company specializing in lacquer and lumber. It comes as a great surprise when Sheridan is requested by his employer to originate a pearl importing business in Manilla. As a former lieutenant in and around the Battle of Bataan 13-years ago, Sheridan is unnerved by the request to re-visit old wounds but accepts the new proposal.

Nearing Caballo Bay, Sheridan meets the gorgeous Ellen, an aspiring singer who has accepted evening gigs at the Casa Grande Hotel. As an old stomping ground for Sheridan and his unit, Sheridan escorts Ellen to the hotel and meets his old ally and friend, Jacques Costeau, the hotel's owner. It's this memorable scene that offers a reflective moment from Sheridan. With just a small recollection, the reader receives a glimpse into Sheridan's past tragedies, the dismal fate of his unit and his lost lover Tulana. The book's synopsis and cover art conveys to the reader that this is a WW2 adventure novel, so these small looks at Sheridan's past serves as a teaser or pre-cursor to the action that we know will unfold. I call it literary foreplay from this skillful author.

The night of Sheridan's reunion with Costeau he finds an unexpected visitor in his room. The secretive intruder has a message disguised as a riddle inviting Sheridan to a seaside yacht to discuss pearls. Arriving at the yacht, Sheridan comes face to face with his former captor, retired Japanese Colonel Yamata. The two have a heated conversation that's a bit of a mystery to the reader at this early stage. As if on cue, Sheridan is knocked unconscious and the next 100-pages is a flashback to his life during the war.

As a young man, Sheridan was educated at Oxford and speaks a dozen languages. While on holiday in the Philippines, he falls in love with a night club singer named Tulana, but ends up joining the Allied forces and fighting with the Royal Air Force in the sweltering jungles of Bataan. As the Japanese forces surround the island, the US and Filipino forces dump all of Manilla's silver pesos into Caballo Bay along with guns, ammo and vehicle parts before surrendering. A watery, 100-foot grave for $8-million in assets (note this really happened according to US Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1958).

The Japanese transfer their enemy personnel to various prison camps in Asia, some as laborers, others just as starving prisoners awaiting death within dirty huts. Sheridan is saved from this fate due to speaking multiple languages – the Japanese insist on utilizing his skills as a translator. Knowing that Manilla's riches were thrown into the bay, Sheridan is given to Colonel Yamata to work with six US Navy divers in securing the silver. With bad equipment, grueling work loads and the threats of torture and death for failure, Sheridan's fate rests on his team's ability to locate and recover the treasure.

Lee Gifford's strength lies in his ability to tell an epic story. “Pieces of the Game” was like this grand cinematic experience. The opening events that eventually spills into a high-adventure military tale felt as if they were backed by a rich symphonic score. But the book's middle narrative is built on the slower, more emotive prison formula. The torture, confinement and survival elements are all equally important in providing a strong catalyst for the prison-break.

“Pieces of the Game” is like a deep-water, Clive Cussler treasure hunt crossed with the “The Great Escape” with enough intrigue and action to rival both. If it wasn't for Paperback Warrior's bustling publishing schedule I would have finished this and immediately turned to page one to relive the enjoyment all over again. This is one of the best books I've read in a very long time...and that's saying something.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Odds On

Before he was the famous author of bestsellers including “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park,” Michael Crichton was a medical student writing books on the side under the name of John Lange. Before his 2008 death, he granted Hard Case Crime reprint rights to these early works, including his first published novel, “Odds On” from 1966.

“Odds On” is a heist novel in which three seasoned criminals conspire to rob the guests of a luxury resort hotel in Spain with the help of a machine called a “computer” that will take the guesswork out of the planning. These days, there’d be an app for that, but computers in 1966 were the size of a battleship and had the computing power of your toaster.

Here’s the heist crew:

- Bryan is the British thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie with the ability to drive women into an orgasmic frenzy with just one look.

- Miguel is a former U.S. Army soldier turned underground arms dealer. If you need some dynamite and blasting caps for a job in Spain, he’s your man.

- Jencks is the Massachusetts computer nerd who knows just which data input cards to drop into the giant IBM producing all the heist variables onto the magnetic tape and the green and white striped output paper.

As a 1960s period piece, this book is a total blast. Beyond the antiquated information technology, the novel is thoroughly politically incorrect - particularly in its treatment of women - and the main characters are vividly drawn archetypes of masculinity’s various flavors. Crichton’s pacing is perfect, and no one who reads “Odd On” should be surprised that the he later became one of the bestselling authors in the history of the written word. He had real chops even when he was a student.

The heist itself is well-planned and a large cast of supporting characters - mostly hotel guests - fill in pieces of the novel’s puzzle. There are lots of compelling little subplots happening with the other guests at the hotel that eventually tie into the larger narrative of the upcoming score.

Unlike the jobs of Richard Stark’s 'Parker' books, the computer-derived plan in “Odds On” is intricate and complex - exactly as you’d expect a fictional 1966 computer output to be. This makes for fun reading as the three thieves need to exhibit their flawless execution like a synchronized swimming routine. However, nothing ever goes as planned in a heist novel.

Another fun aspect of the paperback is the conceit that the heist crew must decide which guest rooms are worth robbing and which are better ignored. This appraisal of vacationing victims’ liquid assets is mostly done by having as much sex with fellow guests and hotel staff as humanly possible between arrival and go-time. This paperback has so many sex scenes that it makes a 'Longarm' story look like a 'Hardy Boys' hardcover. I’m not complaining, but the lusty descriptions also serve to pad “Odds On” from a novella length to a full novel. Crichton was a good writer, and he certainly knew his way around a hot scene, but you should know what you’re getting into if you’re the type of reader who tends to blush.

Other than the action between the sheets, there aren’t a lot of thrills in “Odds On” until the execution of the heist at the very end. The planning and casing of the hotel was compelling with a lot of relationship drama happening at the same time, so you’ll have to temper your expectations if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure. Despite this, “Odds On” worked for me largely because Crichton’s plotting was very impressive, and the conclusion had a twist that I never saw coming. I intend to delve deeper into Hard Case Crime’s reprints of the John Lange body of work. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of "Odds On" HERE:

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Vigilante #05 - Detroit: Dead End Delivery

Despite the off-putting artwork, 'The Vigilante' series is surprisingly engaging. Debuting for men's action publisher Pinnacle, the series began its six-book journey in 1975 under the direction of paperback promoter Lyle Kenyon Engle and writer V.J. Santiago. The series' through story is everyman Joe Madden avenging his wife's murder over the course of six-weeks. Following the geographical format of long running series like 'The Executioner', 'The Butcher' and 'The Penetrator', each novel presents a new city to host Madden's vigilance. This fifth novel, “Detroit: Dead End Delivery”, was published in 1976 and is only the second series installment to feature a painted cover.

Madden, a structural engineer by day, utilizes his consulting firm as a useful cover. As a frequent flier, Madden's newest assignment is an awards show in Detroit to accept a career accolade. But the Motor City has a lot more to offer, evident in Madden's social engineering on a back-alley where the novel's traditional opening chapter pits the “The Vigilante” against a criminal duo.

Later, Madden meets with an old friend named Hart and a private detective, Voll. Hart works for Regius Developments, an innovative manufacturer designing a new concept in automotive engines. Hart explains to Madden that the company has experienced an inside theft of two-thirds of their development. Hiring the P.I. Voll, the two suspect that an executive named Elliott Tander is behind the theft. However, the suspicion seems slightly misplaced; Tanner is married to the company's majority owner. What's the motive?

The Vigilante certainly doesn't place its limelight on executive, white-collar crime. Within 100-pages, “Detroit: Dead End Delivery” gains genre traction when Madden discovers the crime-ring. From hired killers to gambling debts, Madden stumbles into a powerful Detroit Syndicate that may have ties to his prior wet-work in Chicago and New York.

This is an enjoyable sixth installment that sets the stage for the series finale in Washington D.C. Madden's self-reflection begins to gravitate from anger and grief to remorse. In one poignant scene, Madden is approached by an attractive woman who asks about his career. His guilt-ridden, somber response conveys the character's blackest emotions: “I Destroy”.

After five-weeks and 42 kills (4 of which were female), the series finale, “Washington D.C.: This Gun for Justice,” is shaping up to be an explosive finish. Coming soon...

Friday, June 7, 2019

So Young, So Wicked

Whenever I mention how much I enjoy the work of Jonathan Craig (a pseudonym of Frank Smith), my bookish friends tell
me his 1957 killer-for-hire novel, “So Young, So Wicked,” was his noir masterpiece. The Fawcett Gold Medal paperback had at least two printings - 1957 and 1960 but doesn’t appear to have seen publication since then.

Steve Garrity plays piano in a Manhattan after-hours nightclub. He also occasionally kills people when asked to do so by the local syndicate. While the career of a hired killer has provided Garrity with substantial creature comforts, its not a job that provides him with much personal satisfaction. However, saying no to the New York organized crime syndicate isn’t a recipe for longevity, so Garrity generally does as he’s told.

Garrity’s latest assassination assignment from his mob handler targets an impossibly-beautiful 15 year-old girl named Leda who lives in a small town in upstate New York. Complicating matters further is the order that Garrity must make Leda’s death look like an accident. Therefore, a rifle shot into the teenybopper jailbait’s bedroom window is strictly a no-go. Garrity has no clue why the mafia wants a pretty teen murdered, and his masters aren’t telling him. He just needs to know that he’s a dead man if he fails to make the hit, so upstate he goes.

The template for “So Young, So Wicked” is quite similar to Max Allan Collins’ excellent ‘Quarry’ series although Garrity is a way more reluctant angel of death than Quarry. When Garrity arrives in Leda’s hometown, he makes some interesting moves to ingratiate himself in the small town’s culture and with Leda herself. It turns out the teen is quite a seductress to the extent that I think the character’s name, “Leda Louise Noland,” is a hat tip to the female lead of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The heart of the paperback’s plot is Garrity unraveling the mystery of why the syndicate wants the teen girl iced.

There are so many great twists and turns in this short noir paperback that I wouldn’t even think of ruining the surprises for you here. I will say that the vintage cover art provides a misleading romantic impression to the reader when the reality is that this is a seriously dark and violent paperback. The writing is vivid and economical, and a lot happens over the course of 160 pages leading up to the satisfying conclusion. 

I’m amazed that “So Young, So Wicked” hasn’t been resurrected as an eBook, but an online search found several used copies available for under ten bucks. It’s worth the investment as this one’s a real noir winner. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE