Thursday, September 16, 2021

Escape from Five Shadows

Elmore Leonard was a prolific author of crime-fiction and thrillers. A number of his works have been adapted to film, such as Get Shorty, Rum Punch and Out of Sight. However, he cut his teeth on classic western tales and novels. One of them, Escape from Five Shadows, was first released by Dell in 1956. It has since been reprinted by a variety of publishers many times.

The main character of the book, Corey Bowen, explains how he ended up in the dusty and dry workcamp of Five Shadows. After his father died, Bowen worked as a miner and a cattle herder. Between jobs, Bowen meets another cattleman named Manring in a bar. After learning from Bowen's experience, he hires Bowen to ride along with him on a small cattle drive. Bowen reviews Manring's bill of sale and determines that he legitimately bought the cattle. However, after only a couple of days on the trail, the law comes. Bowen and Manring are charged with stealing cattle and sentenced to years of hard labor at Five Shadows. 

This Arizona prison is run by a man named Renda. The government provides Renda .75 cents a day for each of the 30 prisoners and cash for supplies. Renda keeps a majority of the money and limits the prisoners to a small diet with very little accommodations. They sleep on blankets, eat wormy food, and suffer health conditions. Renda can't afford any of his prisoners to escape, thus his criminal empire will fold. 

Throughout the book's narrative, Bowen and Manring plan a prison break. This will not be easy due to the use of Apache Scouts and trackers around the camp's outer perimeter. However, in pocket narratives, Leonard creates some inner turmoil within the camp. The superintendent's wife is planning on exposing Renda, but she's being held against her will. She proposes that Bowen kill her husband and make a run for it. At the same time, a young woman named Karla has an attraction to Bowen. She wants to expose the corruption and Bowen's innocence through the courts. What method does Bowen use - escape from violence or patiently await a new trial in a judicial system that has already betrayed him once?

Leonard's western examines political corruption - greed, deceit, and the quest for power. Bowen's decision on how to escape the prison is an interesting one. There's a lot of moving parts and the novel requires the reader's concentration. The narrative isn't laced with action, but instead relies on strong characters and an intriguing story. I found both female characters to be determined to a fault - one craving violence and the other nearly angelic. The contrast was brilliant.

If you require an action-packed prison break story, Escape from Five Shadows is unlikely to satisfy you. If you want the complexity of crime and the slow unravel of authority, this novel will deliver the goods. It's a smart, well-written novel that offers a rather unique plot for the time period. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Mr. Cables

Mr. Cables is an 82-page novella from 2020 by horror author Ronald Malfi. The story is narrated by a successful horror author named Wilson Paventeau. At a bookstore signing, a fan asks him to sign a 1999 hardcover called “Mr. Cables” by Wilson Paventeau. The problem? Wilson never wrote the book.

He trades the mysterious hardcover for a copy of his new novel and brings the book home. It’s published by an unknown imprint that placed Wilson's photo on the author page with a mostly-accurate bio. Why would anyone go to this much trouble to create a counterfeit book?

Things start getting truly scary once the reader begins to understand the content of the book itself. I won’t spoil it for you here, but Malfi avoids the trap of using the “book inside a book” gambit and instead allows the reader to draw their own conclusion about why the novel scares its readers so much.

Late-book revelations shed satisfying light on what exactly is happening here as Malfi explores the sources of the authors’ ideas and inspiration. I enjoyed Mr. Cables quite a bit and found sections to be genuinely unnerving. As such, I can recommend this book to contemporary horror fans without reservation. This was my first experience with Malfi’s writing, but it won’t be my last. 

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Hole

William Meikle (b. 1958) is a prolific Scottish author of fantasy, science-fiction and horror short-stories and novels. He has created a number of series titles like Augustus Seton, Carnacki, and The Midnight Eye Files. Beginning in 2011, Meikle has authored seven Sherlock Holmes novels. I’ve read a number of Meikle’s horror novels, including The Hole. It was originally published in 2013 by Dark Fuse and now exists as an ebook and audio download through Crossroad Press.

The Hole concerns a large sinkhole that suddenly appears in a small rural town. From this deep recess is a piercing hum that begins to affect the town in different ways - nose bleeds, horrific visions, paranoia, etc. The two main characters, the town’s sheriff and doctor, begin interviewing and medically treating their town’s residents. But, when the hole begins to expand it’s up to these professionals to evacuate the town. What is the hole and what are the strange creatures climbing from its depths?

William Meikle delivers a taught, fast paced thrill ride with The Hole. The novel isn't a far cry from the formula concocted by the horror greats long ago. The sleepy setting is like many cookie cutter fictional towns plagued by paperback terrors. Meikle provides an average cast of characters who are placed in extraordinary circumstances to see how they react. It's the crime-noir logic that Stephen King has used for decades, the obligatory road map for authors to attack small towns with their horrifying creations. Meikle utilizes this horror trope remarkably well. His characters are admirable, genuine, and the reader has no recourse other than to care deeply about their fates. 

While the story itself is traditional, leaning on Lovecraft's "Old Ones", The Hole really excels in the pacing, a crucial element that seems to be lacking in fiction regardless of genre. The shorter length is a blessing compared to the 500+ page hardbacks that currently dominate the industry. Once this demonic chasm opens, the story unfolds quickly with a frantic pace that never becomes trapped in the details. Houses are swallowed, people are devoured and a small piece of the reader's nerves are crumbled like the outer edges of this small town. Meikle wraps it all up in a tight package that thrives in the darkest recesses, yet shines as another outstanding entry for this talented storyteller.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Crime Cop

Using the pseudonyms Larry Holden and Larry Heller, New Jersey native Lorenz F. Heller (1910-1965) authored two police procedural crime novels in 1959 and 1962 titled Crime Cop and Body of the Crime. Stark House Press has reprinted these lean thrillers in one volume with an introduction by retired LAPD detective and author Paul Bishop. As a huge fan of Heller’s writing, I was excited to plunge into Crime Cop.

Taking cues from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, Crime Cop is set in the fictional metropolis of Hudson. Heller does a nice job of mimicking McBain’s third-person narrative voice. Our featured cops are robbery Detectives Jeff Flavin and George Gilman (presumably before he wrote the Edge westerns), and they are busy dealing with actual crimes, chronic complainers and tips from chatty stoolies.

Amid the day-to-day chaos, Flavin is summoned to a boss’ office to be briefed on a big case. A series of residential home invasion robberies resulted in the death of a female homeowner. Homicide is working the killing, and they need Flavin and his partner to tackle the robberies providing the department with two avenues to solve the crime.

Beyond the normal procedural steps of interviewing potential witnesses, there is some interesting pre-computer police science elements to the plot that were completely fascinating. The compiling of clues and inferences gained from those clues is an exercise in pure Sherlockian deduction. As cops, Flavin and Gilman are logic machines and a pleasure to read.

Smart legwork by the crime cops - punctuated by vivid hardboiled dialogue - develops a viable suspect for the robberies and the killing. There are twists and turns along the way. We also get several vividly-drawn characters filling out the cast, culminating in a satisfying ending.

Crime Cop reminded me of an exceptional Ed McBain 87th Precinct cover band. In many ways, I preferred Heller’s writing and plotting to McBain’s work. The good news is that - thanks to Stark House - readers don’t need to choose. Read them both.

Fun Fact:

There’s a homicide detective in Crime Cop named Ben Tutchek who is the main character in the author’s Body of the Crime. Interestingly, the 1962 paperback was published under the quasi-pseudonym of Larry Heller. The author was setting himself up for a Marvel Universe (or 87th Precinct) of inter-connected cop stories from Pyramid Books, but tepid sales couldn’t justify a third novel. Thanks to Stark House for reuniting this two-book “series” into a single volume. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

One of Us

According to his Amazon home page, Thomas Simpson lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He wrote and directed the short film I, Alive, whose premiere took place in 2011. He is also a horror author with two self-published novels, One of Us (2019) and Blackened (2020). I borrowed a copy of One of Us from a friend, hoping for a good old-school novel about slashers.

Michael is slipping out of his daily office job. After taking some needed PTO, Michael heads out into the open air to soak up the sun, fish, drink beer and kill. That's right, kill. You see, Michael is a serial killer. He tortures and kills one person annually. After meeting Fred, both men formed a special bond that allowed them to enjoy this annual killing ritual. This year is pretty special. Michael is bringing his younger brother Jason to show him the ropes. Think of it as a gruesome internship. As a trio, they hope to earn a trophy in the wild.

While Michael, Jason and Fred are loading up for a vacation gorefest, Sarah is also looking forward to a vacation. She hopes the great outdoors is the remedy to heal her estranged relationship with her brother Kevin. They've recently lost their mother and are grieving. With two of Sarah's friends, the foursome arrive at the family cabin. With no electricity or cell phone service, these four may be the perfect prize for the killers.

It is clear that Simpson is a fan of horror, but above all a fan of the slasher subgenre. These three murderers (named after horror icons) attack a young woman before finding Sarah's friends. In addition, in the flashbacks, readers relive sessions of torture and murder of previous outings. These scenes are not for the squeamish. There are the mandatory chase scenes, the stigma of the final girl and the atmosphere and location of the classic outdoor slasher film.

With One of Us, Simpson creates the perfect horror novella, complete with compelling characters, a fast pace and plenty of grisly horror to please the diehards. 

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Pop. 1280

Jim Thompson (1906-1977) is a celebrated author of noir paperbacks from the 1940s through the 1950s. I've struggled with his writing style and haven't latched onto that one Jim Thompson novel that inspires me enough to fully appreciate his literature. Many point to Pop. 1280 as one of his finest works. It was originally published in 1964 by Fawcett Gold Medal and has been reprinted numerous times since. 

Nick Corey is Sheriff of Potts County, a rural riverside town with a population of 1,280. Corey sleeps late, drinks at work, accepts bribes from the local whorehouse and rarely carries out police work. He's the ultimate scoundrel. After years of being verbally and physically abused by two town pimps, Corey requests the aid of a nearby county sheriff named Ken Lacey. Corey sits down with Lacey to explain his dilemma. After ridiculing Corey, and providing a lot of racist comments, Lacey instructs Corey to become deadly aggressive. 

When Corey comes back to town, he takes Lacey's ill-informed advice to heart. He shoots and kills both pimps and tosses their bodies into the river. These murders push Corey to continue this vicious aggression and put caution to the wind. Corey also begins having an affair with his wife's friend Rose while simultaneously engaging in a sexual relationship with a town woman named Amy. Throughout Thompson's speech, Corey plans and kills people while ensuring his re-election in the upcoming vote.

If Pop. 1280 is Thompson's masterpiece, then I have little hope that I will ever like the author. I hate novels where I must reside in the mind of a psychopath. The novel is presented in the first person of Corey's perspective and I just wanted to escape his model of thinking. While these types of "ride with the killer" novels are popular, I just can't seem to enjoy them. With the killer, and the killer's intentions, in full display, there is no real mystery or suspense. It's like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Once it is out, it's out.

Like most of Thompson's novels, every character is a worthless human being devoid of any common decency. I didn't have any reason to love anyone, and I didn't care what happened to them. I need a well-written narrative with characters that I can identify with and sense a kind of connection with. I need to care about the characters. Thompson provides none of that. Instead, his objective is just to create excessive characters that are profane, too sexual and have very little common sense. In poor taste, he passes these characters off as an inbred race of rednecks.  

I know I don't understand the full significance of Thompson's writing and what makes it truly unique. That's okay, I don't have to understand it or like him. His dialogue, murderous viewpoint and morally flawed characters attract generations of worshiping fans. I'm glad he has a fan base. After trying to enjoy a handful of his novels, I probably will never open another one. This kind of literature seems beneath me. There are remarkable books from remarkable authors. From my perspective, Jim Thompson is not one of those.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Don't Speak to Strange Girls

Harry Whittington was a master of crime-noir, but wrote novels in many different genres like romance, sleaze, slave gothics and westerns. I've mostly been attracted to his crime novels and westerns, but I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and try something different. I decided to purchase his 1963 paperback Don't Speak to Strange Girls. It was originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal and now exists as an ebook by Prologue Press.

Clay Stuart is a 45 year old movie star living in Hollywood, California. Clay is from a poverty-stricken family in Nebraska and now lives a life of luxury. He's experienced decades of marquee film success as a leading man in war and westerns. In the first few pages, Clay attends the funeral of his longtime wife, Ruth. Back in his spacious mansion, Clay begins to receive the encouragement and greetings of his dedicated staff. His business manager is Marty, his agent is Marc and his assistant Kay deals with the rest. The trio urge Clay to mourn, but to get back to work as soon as possible. It will do him some good. 

Clay doesn't go back to work. Instead, he grieves with bottles of alcohol and a sense of displacement. His wife is dead. What happens now? Marty and Marc both attempt to cheer Clay up with hunting trips, prostitutes and a script for a new western called Man of the Desert. Even Clay's studio execs want him back. But Clay is despondent and can't find a reason to rise and exist each day. That's when Joanne Stark arrives.

The initial introduction is made over the telephone. One day, Clay responds to the phone and a young woman mysteriously charms him. Her questions are rather innocent, but she has a self-confidence that most women do not possess when chatting with celebrities. Clay wants to know how she obtained his unlisted number and she flirts around the answer. Eventually, he bids her farewell and dismisses the call as a starstruck fan who got lucky with a Hollywood insider. She'll never call again. But she does. And, for the first time in a long while, Clay feels excitement again. He gains a thrill that he hasn't experienced in decades. Joanne Stark is an amazing individual... by phone. Should they meet?

Against the advice of almost everybody, including his wise old butler, Clay invites this young woman into his home. When Joanne shows up, Clay is astounded by her beauty. She's like a living, breathing doll. Her behavior is both seductive and innocent, a rare combination which causes a reversal of roles. Clay is infatuated with Joanne. She explains that she has a love for Clay since she was little and that she wants what he has. She wants to become an actress, she wants to be famous, she wants to be rich.

Despite Kay's judgment, Clay and Joanne start a fire that burns for weeks. Both are madly in love and Clay, who could be Joanne's father, feels young again. As Whittington's narrative expands, Clay begins to suspect that Joanne may be using him to gain a shortcut into Hollywood. But he's so in love, he doesn't care about it. Is he able to maintain a one-way relationship with this young, beautiful woman? Once she gains her own fame and fortune, why will she still need Clay? After Clay's agent looks into Joanne's small town history, things begin to look rather bleak for Clay's future. This woman is a wildcat.

Whittington can write his ass off and Don't Speak to Strange Girls is exceptional. There's so many introspective aspects to the story that make it so compelling. Whittington wants to know what we could do for fame and fortune? He examines the Hollywood elite and how it compares to the daily lives of average Americans. It's a fish out of water story, but it goes both ways - Joanne caught up in the filthy rich and Clay adjusting to a younger generation. When each is exposed to the other's social world, it triggers a chain reaction that affects their emotions in several unusual ways.

Like the films A Star is Born and (ahem) Pretty Woman, Don't Speak to Strange Girls brilliantly exposes the consequences and fallout when the average human consumes too much too quickly. It's elementary, but not in the hands of Harry Whittington. Instead, it's one of his greatest novels and it doesn't contain a single murder. Well, maybe just that one near the end. But you should find out on your own. That's a pretty big invitation.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021


James Arthur Moore (b. 1965) is a Bram Stoker nominated author of horror, role-playing and television tie-in novels. The Atlanta native has multiple series titles, including Harvest and Bloodstained. After reading and enjoying his novels, Blood Red (2005) and Fireworks (2001), I purchased his 2008 novel Deeper. It was originally published by Necessary Evil in 2008 and then again by Berkley in 2009. 

The book is set somewhere on the New England coast and stars an elderly man named Joe. Joe charters fishing trips for tourists on his sizable yacht and mostly lives a quiet happy life with his wife. A professor and members of a nearby college faculty hire Joe to pilot them to a beachside town called Golden Cove. It's here the group can dive and explore a chain of underground caves rumored to exist. 

Joe wants to accept the job but is very hesitant about the route's ultimate destination. Over the years he has heard the sailor stories about the small coastal town. Supposedly, there are monstrous creatures that terrorize boats and crews off the reef. Additionally, rumors abound that the town's population behave aggressively to tourists. This isn't a cozy place where they leave the light on for you. When Joe ends up accepting the job, he discovers that the rumors are indeed true. There is a whole lot of terror waiting in Golden Cove. 

Deeper starts with a bang and ends with a really strong finish. However, I though the middle portions were a little slow. The narrative features action, a central mystery and an eerie ambiance with Moore detailing the fog enshrouded village of Golden Cove. I imagined those opening scenes from the Dark Shadows TV show depicting a high tide enshrouding the misty beach. Moore connects to H.P. Lovecraft fans as this book mentions Innsmouth and the Miskatonic University (both locations used in Lovecraft's literature). 

Overall, James A. Moore is a tremendous talent and Deeper is an entertaining read. If you love traditional horror or underwater terror, think of Deeper as a horrifying combination of Jaws and Cthulu.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Challenge the Widow-Maker and Other Stories of People in Peril

Clark Howard was a crime-fiction and true crime author that grew up as an orphan in Chicago's lower West Side. After surviving the Korean War's Battle of the Punchbowl, Howard became a full-time writer and a prominent contributor to mystery magazines like Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, and Mike Shayne. Thankfully, his estate has partnered with Mysterious Press/Open Road to offer two reprinted books collecting many of Howard's most well-known and award-winning short stories. 

The first is Challenge the Widow-Maker and Other Stories of People in Peril and the second is Crowded Lives and Other Stories of Desperation and Danger. Originally these were released as rather unattractive hardcover editions in 2000 by Five Star Publishing. Mysterious Press/Open Road reprinted these books in 2020 with modern covers in ebook format. My first peek at these is Challenge the Widow-Maker...

The book contains 12 short stories, including Ellery Queen Readers Award winners like "The Dakar Run", "Scalplock", "Animals" and his 1980 Edgar Award winner, "Horn Man". Most of the other stories were all nominated for various awards, including two Spur nominees in "The Plateau" and "Custer's Ghost". After reading the collection, here are a few highlights:

"Horn Man"

This story was probably influenced by the author's fondness of jazz, a genre he discovered in southern America in the 1940s. In the story's beginning, a former jazz star named Dix departs a Greyhound bus in New Orleans. After talking with an old friend, Dix explains that he has been in prison for 16 years after taking the fall for a woman named Madge. He asks his friend where Madge is now and that he wants to see her. His friend isn't sure if Dix is wanting to rekindle a relationship with the woman or murder her. It's an entrancing story as Dix is courted by both a jazz club owner and his friend to pick up an instrument again. When a seasoned cop becomes involved, this 31-page story speeds to an interesting finale where the sins of the past come to light. 

"The Plateau"

While this was nominated for a Spur award, it's not a traditional western. The story is set in a western town in the future. The last two living North American buffalo are owned by an old widowed man nicknamed Tank. The buffalo owner scratches out a meager living in a small Montana town with his daughter Delia. The state has created a lottery system where three winners will be allowed to hunt the last remaining buffalo in North America. But, when Tank realizes that one of the buffalo has died, he begins to gain a fondness for the remaining animal. Her name is Hannah and she's an old, female buffalo (cow) that has been in Tank's life for a long time. While he desperately needs the proceeds paid to him by the state, Tank attempts to smuggle Hannah into the rugged Black Hills ahead of the three hunters. The ensuing chase is a an exhilirating, and emotional read as Tank not only faces Hannah's extinction but also his own morality. It's an exceptionally well-written story.

"The Dakar Run"

Jack Sheffield is an aging race-car driver with a gambling addiction. Due to some bad luck, he's racked up a large debt owed to a French criminal named Marcel. One evening, his estranged daughter Chelsea appears and advises Jack that she's dating a race-car driver. She is requesting that Jack visit her boyfriend to review a super-car he's created for the famous, grueling race known as the Paris-Dacar Rally (today it's the Dacar Rally). It's an off-road endurance race that welcomes any driver and any vehicle. The event transpires across multiple countries, including a long stretch of the Sahara Desert. Jack has run the race before and lost, but his experience could prove valuable to Chelsea and her boyfriend. After Jack reviews the car, known as Max-One, he realizes it has a real shot at winning. The problem is that Marcel approaches Jack later and demands that he sabotage the car so that Marcel's large gamble on a marquee driver could potentially pay off. If Max-One wins, Jack's estranged daughter will benefit and his relationship with her could improve. If Max-One loses, Marcel will erase Jack's gambling debt from his books. I would love to reveal the surprise twist, but that wouldn't be fair to potential readers. This story was simply awesome and it possessed some of the same elements of Howard's stuntman novel The Last Great Death Stunt (1977).

Here is a complete listing of the book's stories and the original publication they were culled from:

"Horn Man" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine June 1980
"All the Heroes Are Dead" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine December 1982
"Puerto Rican Blues" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine April 1983
"Challenge the Widow-Maker" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine August 1990
"Animals" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine June 1985
"Scalplock" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 1986
"The Dakar Run" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine August 1988
"Custer's Ghost" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine May 1983
"The Plateau" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 1984
"Split Decisions" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine December 1994
"Mexican Triangle" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine October 1981
"The Dublin Eye"- Ellery Queen Prime Crimes February 1984

Overall, Challege the Widow-Maker...should be in your Kindle library right now. If it isn't, please use the below link and remedy that problem.

Friday, September 3, 2021

Aliens: Phalanx

The 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien spawned a superior big-budget sequel titled Aliens in 1986. Since then, the Twentieth Century Fox franchise has spawned additional films, comic books, video games, lunch boxes and around 40 media tie-in books all featuring Xenomorph monsters battling rivals for interplanetary domination.

Scott Sigler is a successful contemporary novelist specializing in violent and futuristic, original novels, so it’s natural that he was green-lit for an Aliens tie-in story of his own. His 2020 entry in the universe is a stand-alone action paperback called Aliens: Phalanx that has been getting high acclaim from horror fiction aficionados.

Like the film Aliens, the novel showcases a tough female protagonist driving the action. Her name is Ahiliyah Cooper and she’s the 19 year-old crew leader of a group of “runners” delivering supplies and messages among the humans on a mountainous jungle island called Ataegina. The island is home to multiple tribes of humans living in underground medieval fortresses distant from one another. There was a time in the past when there was order in this kingdom, but things have pretty much gone to seed.

Many of the novel’s opening chapters are dedicated to world-building, and the author does a great job with the all expositional stuff. The island of Ataegina reminded me of Westeros from Game of Thrones if every faction lived in hidden shelters and travel among the tribes for trade was perilous. The paperback is intentionally vague about the island’s location in the universe. Is this an Earth of the future? A colonized other planet? An alternate historical reality? Answers regarding the novel’s setting are revealed slowly, and you won’t get any spoilers here today.

Unfortunately, the island is infested with Xenomorph Aliens that the humans call demons. As we join the action, Ahiliyah’s tribe lives and survives in the safety of their fortress shelter. They are cautious about going out at night when the demons do most of their hunting. Ahiliyah’s dream is to learn enough about the demons that one day the humans can hunt the monsters instead of the other way around. The only upside is that man doesn’t fight man anymore. The fiefdoms generally get along and engage in free trade. The common enemy of the demons did the trick of ending human war.

After returning from a trading run, Ahiliyah is informed by her leaders that she’ll need to immediately depart on another run with her crew. A sickness has befallen her people and the necessary medication is only available for trade across the island with another tribe. Of course, that means covering many miles on foot without being killed - or worse - by the demons who roam and hunt the island.

From there, adventure awaits. The author was clearly influenced by otherworldly fantasy novels as well as popular young-adult fiction, including The Hunger Games. There’s plenty of gore and adult content to keep the splatter fans happy as well. Some of the dialogue was a bit wooden and juvenile, but the action-suspense scenes were top-notch. The most interesting thing is how little the novel had anything to do with the Alien universe beyond the description of the demons plaguing the island. The upside is that if you know nothing about the Alien films or their extended properties, you can still have a fun time reading Aliens: Phalanx.

Like all contemporary novels, the book is too damn long at 500+ pages, and would have been more effective at half that length. This isn’t anyone’s fault because it’s a 2020 novel, and that’s just how long books are these days. To the paperback’s credit, it was never boring. Fans of action-adventure fiction will find a lot to enjoy in Aliens: Phalanx making it an easy recommendation for Paperback Warrior readers. 

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Specialist #03 - Sullivan's Revenge

The Specialist is an 11 book series that ran from 1984 through 1985. The series was authored by John Shirley under the pseudonym John Cutter. These novels were originally published by Signet and are now available as affordable ebooks through Lume Publishing. I've read and reviewed the first two entries in the series and was happy to jump into the third installment to continue the series through-story. 

In the first two installments, Jack "The Specialist" Sullivan is featured as a vigilante that helps average citizens with various problems they experience. He never charges for these services but will gladly take any monetary handout. His experiences in Vietnam and Afghanistan enhance his resume significantly. Sullivan is an expert in weapons, hand-to-hand combat and military strategy. While he's performing these services, Sullivan also has a goal. He witnessed his wife's murder by a terrorist cell led by an individual known as The Blue Man. At the end of the second installment, Manhattan Revenge, Sullivan learns that The Blue Man may be running a terrorist training camp in the Oregon wilderness.

In Sullivan's Revenge, the third series entry, this backstory is resolved as Sullivan travels to rural Oregon to find The Blue Man. To accomplish the mission, he uses his friend Malta (his assistant in the first two books) to accompany him to the area to help plan the assault. Malta also recruits two hardened mercenaries to assist Sullivan.

Traditionally, men's action-adventure novels of this type require that the hero join the bad guys in an elaborate scheme to destroy the heinous organization from the inside out. Shirley's uses this genre trope to place Sullivan inside the terrorist camp. It's here that Sullivan passes a physical trial to join the organization. In doing so, he comes face to face with The Blue Man. A bulk of the narrative has Sullivan suppressing his rage to better coordinate an assault with his outside team. He also experiences a pleasurable relationship with The Blue Man's daughter. 

There's no real surprises here as Sullivan mows down the terrorists like a high-numbered Mack Bolan installment. Shirley is a great writer and I enjoyed the side story of Malta facing a group of racist local bullies. I don't own the fourth installment of this book, but the events in this novel's finale certainly seems to resolve this opening trilogy of stories. I found all three books to be enjoyable and a great way to propel this series into the upper echelons of men's action-adventure fiction. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Arm

Clark Howard authored short-stories for digest magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock. Beginning in 1967, Howard began writing full-length novels of crime-fiction and action-adventure. As a big fan of Howard's writing, I was anxious to learn that his literature has been reprinted in digital format by Mysterious Press. After reading several of his mid-career novels, I wanted to check out his first book to see how they compare. I purchased The Arm, a crime-noir novel originally published in hardcover in 1967 and then later reprinted as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback in 1970. In 1987, the novel was adapted into a film called The Big Town starring Matt Dillon, Tommy Lee Jones and Diane Lane.

J.C. Cullen, nicknamed "Cully", is a hayseed plow boy from Evansville, Indiana. In the book's opening pages, Cully arrives at a Chicago bus terminal with a battered briefcase and a curiosity for the big city lights. You see, Cully has what the gambling industry likes to refer to as "the arm". He's a craps thrower that can seemingly control the dice and make them dance. After racking up small town money, a retired gambler named Hooker refers Cully to a gambling racket in Chi-Town. Upon arrival, Cully follows his directions to a man named Ferguson.

In a room in the back of a bar, Cully learns that Mrs. Ferguson runs a craps gambling racket. The way it works is that Cully is provided a few hundred dollars each afternoon and it is his responsibility to play that money in illegal craps games all over the city. Why does Cully need Ferguson or a racket? Because Ferguson, and her blind husband (more on him in a moment), know where all the craps games are played and they have protection from the police to look the other way. In return, Cully has free money to bet, but his take of all winnings is 20%. The Fergusons keep 70% and 10% goes to Hooker, the referral source.

After just a few nights, Cully begins winning nearly every game and soon earns thousands of dollars. While Cully is working for the Fergusons, he's free to play games on his days off. Cully begins ascending through various levels of entry and intermediate level play. Eventually, Cully begins playing at a professional level, again illegally, where his peers are just as talented as he is. With a unique method of quick mathematical deduction, Cully starts winning tens of thousands of dollars in his free time. And seriously pissing off Chicago's finest craps shooters.

Remember Mr. Ferguson? His story is that he was once as good as Cully. But, a poor sport threw a pan of acid at him after a sizable loss. The incident burned Mr. Ferguson's eyes and permanently blinded him. The attacking player ran off and since then Mr. Ferguson has paid $100,000 to detectives and players hoping to locate him for some much needed payback. The only clue was that this man possessed a heart tattoo on his inner wrist. This ties into Cully because he meets a player that matches Mr. Ferguson's attacker. This revelation brings Cully to a crossroads - does he need favors and credit with Mr. Ferguson enough to sentence this seemingly nice player to death?

Beyond the narrative's grimy expose on backroom gambling and Cully's important decision making Cully's fiercest rival is a man named Cole. His main squeeze is a knockout stripper named Lorry. Cully becomes infatuated with the woman and soon finds himself in a dangerous, heated affair that elevates his competition with Cole. But when she pitches a murder scheme on him, Cully must decide if Lorry's love is worth the price of murder.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I loved this book. The Arm has so many crime-fiction elements, but also ties in a familiar genre trope with illegal gambling. Clark Howard's biography stated that he loved watching the craps shooters in and around Memphis and other parts of the deep south. His affection for the game bleeds onto the pages, from the pool halls and bars to the mental dynamics of dice rolling. I found myself down the YouTube rabbit hole learning more about craps shooting and its history.

Cully's evolution from poor country boy to rich city slicker was just a real pleasure to read. Like any fish out of water story, there's the inevitable downfall. When Howard reverses Cully's fortunes, it's done in a way that is similar to the author's future literary works - violent and unrestrained. In many ways, this could be Howard's best novel. That's surprising considering it was his full-length debut. 

If you love crime-fiction or just an abstract rags to riches story, The Arm delivers in spades. It's probably one of the better books I've read this year. I urge you to track down a used paperback or just snag the affordable digital version. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Those Across the River

In addition to being a comedian nicknamed Christoph the Insultor, Christoher Buehlman (b. 1969) is a renowned horror author, television writer, playwright and a poet. The Tampa, Florida native has written six novels for publishers like Tor, Berkley and Ace. My first experience with the author is his debut novel, Those Across the River, published by Ace in 2011.

The book takes place in 1920 and features Frank Nicols, a man who inherited an estate in a rural part of Georgian farmland. Part of this estate is an old plantation which previously belonged to his cruel great-grandfather. Frank struggles with a number of things, none of which is more enormous than his physical and mental scars from violent trench warfare in World War I. His dreams are tormented by the cruelties of war and his waking hours are spent with his fiancĂ© Eudora. 

As Frank learns the quirks of a sleepy nearby town, he stumbles upon a bizarre local tradition. Every season the town sends pigs across the river to a vast, rural forest. Frank is puzzled about why this ritual takes place and what is on the other side of the river in this dark forest. Further, he learns that during this time most of the town's locals board up their doors and windows.

Buehlman's story extends into this frightening segment where Frank, eager to find answers, wanders deep into the forest in search of answers. There he finds a naked boy. When the boy's sinister smile appears, it shocks him to see that the child's teeth are sharpened. From that moment on, Buehlman's propulsive plot plunges readers into this horrific town secret.

Weighing in at roughly 360 pages, Those Across the River had me glued to each and every word. I just could not put this book down, each page overflowing with rich storytelling that had so much character development and compelling background. From the military flashbacks to prior relationships, Buehlman makes readers truly care about the fates of these characters. The central mystery of what afflicts this small Georgian town is worth the cost of entry. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 93

On Episode 93, Eric presents the life and literary work of Edgar Award-Winning author Clark Howard. Eric reviews many of Howard's novels, including his 1970 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback The Arm. Tom reviews the 1959 paperback debut of the Psi-Power series and Eric reveals an embarrassing debt. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 93: Clark Howard" on Spreaker.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) is a beloved author with a lasting legacy that includes both screenplays, short stories and novels. His literary works crossed multiple genres like fantasy, science-fiction, horror and speculative fiction. I can remember reading a few of his shorts in grade school and promising myself, I would explore the author's bibliography. 30 years later, I've decided to read one of his most popular novels, Fahrenheit 451. It was originally published in 1953 and has been reprinted countless times over the years. It was adapted to film in 2018 starring Michael B. Jordan.

At 165 pages, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is set in a Dystopian future that reflects much of our daily lives today. In this rather bleak future, people have become seemingly anonymous. Most of the population spends a majority of their lives in their residence watching endless programming on their "wall video". Social interaction is limited and emotional feelings are suppressed. 

The main character is Guy Montag, a fireman who works for the government destroying anything deemed unacceptable by his employer. This is mostly books (and sometimes the people that possess them) and the homes they live in. Instead of the typical fireman extinguishing fires, Bradbury spins it and firemen in this society burn freedom. "It was a pleasure to burn" is Montag's opening statement, a statement that implies that he is enjoying his job and its sense of power and authority. 

When Montag meets a creative thinker named Clarisse, his entire perspective begins to change. She urges him to question his own existence and its purpose. Why do we burn books and live in a predictable world with little variance? With the seed planted, Montag begins to break down the barriers to expose not only his own freedom but others. 

The closing pages of Part One is absolutely remarkable. If you don't want to read this novel, at the very least I recommend reading a thought-provoking portion of the narrative. A Fire Chief explains how society arrived at this anonymous and cold existence and why his firemen burn books. I could probably write an essay on this part of Bradbury's novel. If you read nothing else, read that.

The book's prediction of flat screen TVs and earbuds is just the tip of the iceberg. The social commentary is mesmerizing and really kept me awake just analyzing the final closing pages. Bradbury's classic novel is an eerie prophecy that predicts so many aspects of our current day-to-day. It's an important reminder that freedom should never be taken for granted. At the same time, it's a tutorial on how to avoid Fahrenheit 451's nightmarish future. 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Too Many Bones

Ruth Sawtell Wallis (1895-1978) obtained her English degree from Radcliffe College in 1919. Later, she went on to graduate studies in anthropology and was employed by the University of Iowa. Wallis started writing mystery novels in 1943, often with her expertise in anthropology to improve her characters and stories. My first experience of Wallis is her first novel, Too Many Bones. It was first published by Dodd Mead in 1943 and re-printed by Dell in 1946. In 2020, Stark House Press reprinted the novel as two-in-one with her 1945 mystery Blood from a Stone.

Too Many Bones features a young anthropologist named Kay Ellis. In the opening pages, readers learn that Kay was referred to the small Midwestern town known as Hinchdale for employment. It is here that she will assist Dr. John Gordon with a unique research on famous bones at the Henry Proutman Museum. In the early 1920s, a large collection of ancient skeletons was smuggled out of Germany. Known as The Holtzerman Collection, these skeletons offer valuable insight into the culture and ancestral behavior of a village of mountainous Romanian people. In a rather bizarre turn of events, this famous bone collection was bought by a millionaire residing in this little rural town in the heart of America. Upon his death, his widow Zaydee Proutman inherited the museum.

When Kay arrives, the museum director is discouraged to learn that his new employee is a female. After some back and forth negotiation, Kay wins the job despite Zaydee's snobbish opposition. Over the weeks, Kay learns about the city - its quirks and subtleties - and her role as Gordon's assistant. As Kay and Gordon begin to have romantic chemistry, she discovers that Gordon and Zaydee are intimately involved. 

In a local restaurant, Kay is repeatedly distracted by a drunk vagabond named Randy. He advises Kay that he was Zaydee's lover and that she threw his life into chaos and left him heartbroken and penniless. But, when Randy's charred body is found in a car, Kay looks like the most likely suspect. The rope begins to tighten when Zaydee goes missing. The readers know that Kay is not the killer, but the chauvinistic sheriff is determined to pin two murders on her. Is it possible for her to find the real killer before she's arrested?

The first half of Too Many Bones is dedicated to Hinchdale and its eccentric residents. It's also a fish out of water story as Kay attempts to settle into this small town. To Kay's chagrin, she is often delegated to the positions below her level of education as an expert in statistics and anthropology. Much of this is due to Zaydee, a pompous, bigoted and dominating millionaire who exists simply to spend her late husband's fortune. She's perfectly designed to be the instant villain you love to hate. 

There are great characters in the storytelling, including touching and sincere attention to two African-American characters. It was rare for the period and a testament to Wallis as a warm and intelligent female author who fought for diversity. The central mystery, once developed, is similar to a cozy locked room mystery. There are suspicions, alibis, pointed fingers and fiery tension as Kay begins to analyze her colleagues, friends and neighbors. Wallis also displays a great sense of humor with some truly outrageous and funny scenes injected into the twisted narrative.

Too Many Bones is a fun murder mystery in a little town with endearing characters and a captivating storyline. Although it was published in the early twentieth century, forensic science and the use of anthropology are parallel to today's crime fiction. Wallis was ahead of her time and Too Many Bones exemplifies that.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Come With Me

Come With Me is the latest novel by horror fiction author Ronald Malfi. For this selection, he steps away from supernatural fiction to present the reader with a story of human grief and loss unfolding within a “hunt-the-serial-killer” procedural mystery.

Our narrator is Aaron, a man who discovers that his deceased reporter wife - her name was Allison - was secretly on the trail of a serial killer. For reasons he doesn’t understand, Allison’s amateur gumshoe work was kept a tight secret from Aaron and others in her life. Learning this does little to heal the crushing grief and loneliness Aaron feels for his bride’s death. After all, they had an awesome marriage. Why would she keep this obsession a secret?

Aaron takes up the hunt to learn more about his wife’s hidden infatuation and becomes enmeshed in the maniacal mystery himself. I would compare Come With Me favorably to the work of Harlan Coben or Linwood Barclay in which secrets of the distant past are brought to light by an everyman in the present.

The first half of the book is a slow-burn, but Malfi is an excellent and vivid writer, so the reader is never bored. The second half speeds up quite a bit as our narrator begins putting the pieces together and approaches a solution. At 400 pages, it could have used some trimming and would have been more impactful at a lean 300 pages.

There was a whole sub-genre of serial killer books after Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, and Come With Me can be counted as a late-entry in that category. Would-be amateur sleuths and fans of the current true crime podcast craze will also find themselves in familiar territory with this novel.

Overall, there’s nothing here not to like. The writing was superb. The protagonist was likable and sympathetic. The mystery’s solution and climactic ending were both very satisfying. It’s an easy recommendation for fans of contemporary suspense and mystery fiction.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Night Squad

Philadelphia author David Loeb Goodis (1917-1967) wrote excellent crime novels about skid row losers rising above their alcoholism and misfortune to find justice and normalcy in their violent world. Although Goodis never achieved fame in the U.S. during his life, the French had a keen appreciation for his particular brand of noir. Night Squad was his 1961 paperback original from Fawcett Gold Medal that has been reprinted by Stark House Noir Classics as one of three novels in a trade paperback reprint.

Five weeks ago, Corey Bradford was canned from his job as a police officer for taking bribes from lawbreakers. After the death of his honest police officer father, he was raised by a wino mom in the skid row alleys he now calls home. As we join him, Corey is a boozehound stewbum sleeping on the streets of a city that’s never given a name. Goodis is a master at atmospheric descriptions of the slime-filled slum called the Swamp where rats crawl in the bedroom windows and gnaw on sleeping babies in their cribs. Yes, it’s one of those kind of novels.

The Swamp is under the thumb of a gangster named Walter Grogan, who hires Corey to figure out who is trying to kidnap him. There are several violent set-pieces where Corey is thrust into action trusting his wits and police training to save his own skin as well as his client’s hide. For his part, Grogan is a muscular 56 year-old athlete with a 24 year-old trophy wife who is hot to trot for Corey. If Grogan had any inkling that Corey and his temptress bride were up to anything, it’s a safe bet Corey would disappear to the bottom of the city’s lake.

And then there’s the Night Squad itself. They are a shadowy team of cops operating out of City hall beyond the strict boundaries of the law and police oversight. They are willing to reinstate Corey and return his badge in order to nail Grogan. There’s some great backstory explaining the Night Squad’s hard-on for Grogan that includes one of the most violent vignettes I’ve read in ages. Can Corey serve two masters and rebuild his life?

To be sure, there are a few slow sections, but mostly Night Squad is a pretty exciting, yet thin, paperback with some crazy-violent scenes, backstabbing, torture, gunplay, hot dames, a treasure hunt, and a shot at redemption. Upon reflection, it’s a nearly perfect crime-noir paperback and another win for Stark House, the imprint at the top of the reprint game. Read this one ASAP.

Monday, August 23, 2021

The Slasher

Ovid Demaris is a mid-20th century author who wrote both true crime and crime-noir. Most of his novels have been reprinted by publishers like Stark House Press and Cutting Edge Books. In recent years, I have read and collected his writing. Thankfully, a friend gave me a tattered copy of the author's Fawcett Gold Medal paperback The Slasher. It was originally published in 1959. As far as I can tell, it was never reprinted.

The novel introduces Stanley Palke, a psychopathic lunatic who terrorizes a Californian city. Palke is gay and has a fondness for naval men and merchant seamen. This "slasher" usually picks up men from local dives or bars and then brutally attacks them with a knife. In the first pages of the book, the police find four dead sailors trapped in a car immersed in water. These appear to be Palke's victims.

Whereas the novel occasionally presents events from Palke's point of view, most of the narrative is from Paul Warren's perspective. Like any "downward spiral" story, Warren has developed an alcohol problem. He ends up being fired from his reporting job due to his inability to stay sober for his newspaper assignments. Feeling as if his life is over, Warren spends his days drinking in bars and refusing his wife's help. The stars unfortunately align when Palke spots Warren in a local dive and offers to buy him a drink. Warren awakens the next day in the hospital after being brutalized by Palke. 

The Slasher is mostly a crime-fiction book that highlights two homicide investigators attempting to locate Palke. As fun as that was, I think I enjoyed the more personal account of Warren's downfall. The fact that this suburban husband and father could socially and financially plunge to the depths of alcoholism and suicidal tendencies was riveting. While Demaris is mostly known for his books on organized crime, I felt he presented this emotional story in a way that was easily relatable to readers. 

The Slasher also features some really mature moments that were shocking to me considering this is a 1959 paperback. Palke's flirtation with men wasn't something that was common in literature or film for that time period. While not terribly graphic, Demaris presents some material that was probably taboo or controversial at the time. At one point Palke insinuates that heterosexual men all have a homosexual tendency at one point or another. Warren's wife even reflects on a personal relationship she had with another woman. Beyond that, the sexual crimes were disturbing. Palke's stabbing was comparable to intercourse, each penetration becoming a sexual crescendo that eventually leads to castration. This is all pretty bold stuff for 1959. None of this is really illustrated with the book's cover. Instead, the artwork suggests that the killer is preying on voluptuous women instead of men.

If you like crime-fiction, there's no reason that you won't enjoy The Slasher. Considering all of the elements at work here, Demaris is able to inject quite a bit into a relatively short 172-page novel. From graphic violence, sexual innuendo, police procedures and the aforementioned "riches to rags" personal story, The Slasher is a multifaceted, enjoyable paperback. 

Friday, August 20, 2021


Dennis J. Higman is a relatively unknown author from Idaho. After a deep dive online, the only information I could gather is that he wrote the horror novel Pranks in 1983 and a romance novel titled Laura Jordan in 1987. I love Halloween and vintage horror novels, so I was excited to borrow my friend's paperback copy of Pranks. It was published by Leisure, and not surprisingly, it's a horror novel that takes place on Halloween night. 

When the novel begins, residents of the small, cozy island town of Horsehead Point prepare for the night's Halloween festivities. There is a sense of isolation on the island, which is in Puget Sound off the foggy shore of Washington. It's here that young Bucky, Harry and Jeff are middle-schoolers running rampant on testosterone, boredom and a desire for reckless abandonment. While most of their misbehavior consists of a few Valium pills and nudie books, it is Bucky that proves to be psycho.

Despite Jeff and Harry's hesitation, Bucky ends up killing two elderly people on Halloween night. Higman's narrative showcases a police procedural that mistakenly rules the murders as accidents. But, Bucky's school teacher Jan feels that the child exhibits unusual behavior by drawing disturbing images of people being tortured. Once she talks with Bucky's mother, she learns that he has a history of psychotic behavior. Jan's father is also suspicious of the two deaths and feels that there may have been foul play involved

At a robust 431 pages, it's clear that Pranks could have been much shorter. I was hoping that this novel would possess some of the "killer kids" genre tropes of vintage horror paperbacks. While I was entertained, the idea of a child killing two elderly people and attempting to cover it up was not exactly a terrifying story. In some respects, Pranks may be more of a juvenile delinquent novel from the 1960s. 

If you manage your expectations, Pranks is an enjoyable crime-fiction novel. The fact that the book's cover is themed for Halloween has no impact on the actual story. While I wish the book was trimmed considerably, I have no regrets reading it. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE