Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ryker #02 - The Hammer of God

Like its predecessor (“The Sniper”), this second book in the 'Ryker' series is about a murderous psycho on the loose, and the efforts of police detective Joe Ryker to bring him down. The lunatic this time is a hulking fanatic clad in a monk’s robe, who considers himself God’s executioner. He stalks and kills anyone he believes to be a witch, pounding a stake through each victim’s heart for good measure.

As before, no matter how interesting the serial killer is, Ryker himself is even more fascinating. He’s the perfect human metaphor for the jungle he inhabits, the sleazy, dangerous, brutal New York City of the early 1970s. At his best, he’s gruff and sarcastic. At his worst, he’s a hot-tempered, hard-drinking bully who thinks nothing of smacking around anyone who gets in his way. Yet somehow he’s the Archie Bunker of pulp fiction, hilarious and likable no matter how outrageous his conduct is.

There isn’t really a whole lot of plot to this novel, maybe only sixty pages’ worth. But that’s okay! The other three-quarters of the book consist of random vignettes, a bit of color commentary and lots of dialogue. It’s all so entertaining that you won’t mind, trust me. I was so delighted with all the ribald, coarse and cranky dialogue that I was always a little disappointed to be pulled away from it for new plot developments.

The police have nothing to go on but a physical description, and since the killer never leaves his ratty studio apartment (except when he’s out killing someone), they can’t find him. So Ryker investigates the secretive occult underworld of the city, and schemes to draw out the psycho. It gets a little involved, but basically Ryker manipulates his partner into going deep undercover, joining the creepiest coven in the city, one which will soon hold a black mass extravaganza with religious desecration, drugs, an orgy and all kinds of weird stuff. It’s a little unclear whether these people are Wiccans, Satanists, or what, but who cares? The point is that Ryker knows the killer won’t be able to resist appearing at the black mass to wreak vengeance, and the cops can then swoop in and nab him. But things don’t go according to plan…

One prominent pulp reviewer complained that “The Hammer of God” is short on action and thrills. Well, I don’t know, maybe it is (not that I minded). But we do get a big harrowing climax that’s soaked in blood and gore, with enough shock and suspense to make it far more riveting than your average Mack Bolan shoot-‘em-up sequence. In any case, the action is really just the icing on the cake. What really makes this book outstanding are the skillful characterization, dialogue and pacing. And it flows so smoothly that it’s an effortless read. When you think you’ve read twenty pages, you’ll be surprised to see that it was fifty instead.

All of these are hallmarks of great writing. The author here is Nelson De Mille, who knocked out a handful of these pulpy paperbacks when he was young and getting himself established. Today, he’s a big successful mainstream author and I’m happy for him, but it sure would’ve been nice if he’d kept struggling long enough to bat out a few dozen of these 'Ryker' books!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Dakota #03 - Cat Trap

I've really enjoyed this 'Dakota' series written by Gilbert Ralson. Third entry, “Cat Trap”, was released by Pinnacle in September, 1974. While the previous two novels escalated the action over the mystery, “Cat Trap” reverses the formula and puts our Shoshone detective on the cusp of finding a killer through more procedural methods than hot lead. This version of Dakota reads more like a Perry Mason story than anything else. 

The intriguing part of this series is that each novel is married to it's predecessor. Here, some of the events from the second book are outlined, with the same supporting cast from the first two installments visible throughout this book. In fact, pieces of the series debut, “Dakota Warpath”, remain unsolved and return in this novel. It's like a brutal version of “Cheers” - everybody knows your name and who shot you. The narrative follows Dakota as he runs coast to coast from New York to California chasing the killer behind two dead bodies in Lake Tahoe. Again, the action is secondary for three-fourths, but the cast of characters is robust. Too robust.

I honestly just lost track of the story. It could be that I was traveling while reading it, or that Ralston just crams way too many characters into 185-pages. I kept confusing the dead bodies with the live ones, and at the end of the day I'm still not sure who was the finger man (and I'm not sure the author knows either). But like the prior novels, book four will probably contain remnants of this story-line – finished or not. 

While “Cat Trap” is entertaining and diverse, it's an unfocused delivery flawed with too much too fast. On the strength of the first two books, this one isn't deterring me from the series. Overall, it's an impressive run.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Never Say No To A Killer

Stark House Books imprint Black Gat has reissued this lost classic 1956 crime novel by Clifton Adams, a hardboiled paperback author best known for his Westerns. The short novel is fast-paced and ultra-violent. Fans of Men's Action Crime Pulps will find a lot to enjoy here.

In the opening chapter we meet Roy, a violent inmate contemplating a bloody break from his life as a chain gang prisoner. The crisp first-person narration recalls Dan Marlowe's Drake series in that the reader finds himself rooting an unapologetic sociopath.

The aftermath of the chain gang escape attempt thrusts Roy into a "Man on the Run" story with plenty of twists and turns. His desire to indulge his sexual appetite after a five-year prison hiatus while making some quick cash drives much of the plot's tension. There is an interesting subplot involving an S&M sex partner that made the story veer into a "50 Shades of Mack Bolan" theme. The erotic scenes were ahead of their time in that regard.

Roy is a thinking-man's violent sociopath. He is more amoral than immoral, and has adopted the philosophy of Marquis de Sade and Fredrich Nietzsche as a rationalization for his blackmail, lies, and murderous tendencies.

Man, this is a great novel. There's not a slow moment in it. The violent scenes are vivid and blood-soaked. The pace runs into overdrive through the final page. Do yourself a favor and read this book as soon as possible. It will make you want to do a deep dive into Clifton Adams' other fiction.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Endworld #01 - The Fox Run

Very early in his career, David Robbins wrote a 500-page epic, set a hundred years after World War III. He submitted the manuscript, and the publisher proposed dividing it up into segments: each segment would be a separate book in a new series. With mouths to feed at home, and eager to please the publisher, Robbins re-wrote his epic and padded it out to four volumes, and thus his 'Endworld' saga was born.

That was great news for Robbins, but it’s a mixed blessing for the reader. The first book in the series, “THE FOX RUN”, is 255 pages long but it’s like a dollar-menu hamburger, 50% meat and 50% fat. 

The meat is in the basics of Endworld. A community of survivors lives in a huge walled compound in what used to be Minnesota, where they’re safe from the mutant wild animals that roam everywhere. Our protagonist, Blade, heads a three-man security force which ventures outside from time to time to hunt food. There’s quite a bit of good material about the origins of the compound, the ways the survivors’ society differs from ours, and so forth. Eventually, it’s time for a plot, so raiders from an unknown settlement swoop in and kidnap some women, and our three heroes set out to rescue them. All of this stuff is pretty good, and the climactic confrontation is terrific. 

But the fat is larded through absolutely everything. There are endless conversations in which nothing very meaningful is communicated. Details about life in the compound are explained at great length, including a lot of stuff that isn’t very interesting and really doesn’t matter. The introduction of a solar-powered Hummer-like vehicle consumes a staggering number of pointless pages. The extraneous material isn’t necessarily boring, but the pace of the novel is pretty draggy as a result. Robbins is one of my favorite action/adventure writers, and ordinarily I breeze right through his books, but this one tried my patience.

There’s another key shortcoming, which is that the leading characters aren’t very three-dimensional. If Robbins had to pad out the book, I wish he’d have done it by giving us extra background and insights that would have made the characters more human and more sympathetic. I was never able to really identify with any of them, and in fact one or two of them are a little annoying. Oddly, our heroes are so sheltered and innocent that they can’t imagine why the burly interlopers have run off with the women in the first place.

To be clear, though, this isn’t a bad book. It dawdles around on the way to where it’s going, but that’s a lot better than a book that has nowhere to go at all, wasting your time with hundreds of pages about nothing. There’s a lot of potential here, and I’ll be very surprised if the later volumes aren’t up to Robbins’ usual high standard. 

As post-apocalypse epics go, this one is pretty realistic but also relatively tame. Even before the bloody climax there’s a pretty fair amount of gun and knife action, especially once the greasy invaders show up. But while other series (like 'Doomsday Warrior' and 'Phoenix') have so much berserk sex and gory splatter in them that I’d better hide them from my wife, “THE FOX RUN” is strictly PG-13.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Fargo #03 - Alaska Steel

Ben Hauss is back for this third entry in the long-running 'Fargo' series. Under house name John Benteen, he penned “Alaska Steel” for Tower in 1969. I've had a blast with these books so far. It's a popcorn western series with predictable plots and characters. While there are far more superior books to discover, it's really enjoyable to steer your brain to the off ramp and enjoy a good adventure. “Alaska Steel” allows that.

Fargo is hired by actress Jane Deering to locate her estranged husband Hal Dolan. Deering and Dolan got married at early ages leading to financial distress - Deering worked as a prostitute and Dolan searched for gold. Dolan's parents are sod-busting hillbillies that bought some land in Texas and then passed away. Deering went on to work in Hollywood while Dolan, apparently obsessed with locating gold, stayed on as a recluse in and around Circle City, Alaska. The two, while married, haven't spoken to each other in four years and Deering has no idea if her husband is dead or alive. In reality, she doesn't care either way, but the land her in-laws owned has struck oil and is worth a fortune. She needs to locate Dolan before she can get both hands into the cookie jar.

Fargo and Deering head north to Alaska to inquire about Dolan's whereabouts. After a series of clues, Fargo learns about a vigilante force known as the Circle of Ten. The group is based out of Circle City, a landing pad for wanted men, outlaws and low-class heathens. The town is ran by your garden variety paperback bully – Whetstone. He owns everything, shortchanging the citizens and strong-arming the town. As Fargo digs into the mysterious Dolan, he learns more about the Circe of Ten and the connection between Whetstone and Dolan.

The story-line and plot can be seen from miles away, and I nailed the ending halfway through. Hauss obliges readers with exactly what we want – fists, guns and loud mouths. While the previous two books placed the action in hot and muggy Mexico and Panama, it was a welcome change to see Fargo perform under frosty conditions. There's a bit of a survival element to the story and I would love to see more of that. Overall, “Alaska Steel” delivers the goods. Next stop is Asia with “Massacre River”.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Naked Jungle

The deeper and deeper I dive into 1950s paperback crime fiction, the more I’m convinced that Harry Whittington is the best among them. Better than Jim Thompson. Better than Charles Williams. Better than Cornell Woolrich. However, Whittington doesn’t receive the critical acclaim of his contemporaries, and my theory is that has everything to do with his tremendous output. After all, the man produced over 150 novels with a myriad of pseudonyms in a variety of genres. His legacy as a master is a victim of his profound work ethic. For my money, I will put the 20 best Harry Whittington novels against anyone else’s top 20 from that era. 

“The Naked Jungle” was Whittington’s 1955 Ace Books release that survives today as an ebook from vintage crime reprinter Prologue Books. The plot is simple: a plane flying from Honolulu to Sydney crashes in the South Pacific and strands three survivors on a life raft and then a deserted tropical island.

The cast of this very special episode of “Lost” is:

Krayer is a brilliant know-it-all fueled by logic and a will to survive. It’s his skill that guides his two companions to survival when lost at sea and later stranded on the island. He’s also a loathsome jackass and dangerous control freak.

Fran is his sexy wife. She had finally made her decision to leave Krayer right before the plane went down into the ocean. How will her reliance on her husband to remain alive impact her decision to be rid of him?

And there’s Webb, our enigmatic protagonist running away from his past. He becomes instantly beguiled by Fran from the first time he saw her on he plane. Now he’s marooned with the woman of his dreams and a cunning sociopath who won’t let her go.

The threesome must join together to survive their hostile environment and the growing dysfunction between them. The original cover art of this paperback looks like a cheap-o romance novel, but it’s way more than that. It’s a novel of survival - on the inflatable raft and the inhospitable island. It’s also a psychological suspense novel as Krayer and Webb jockey for position to be the Alpha Male between them with luscious Fran as the prize.

Make no mistake about it, this book is sexy as hell. Because it was 1955, there are no graphic descriptions of coupling, but Whittington knew what he was doing when devising a plot with a high-voltage, erotic charge. There are scenes in this book that you’ll replay in your mind long after you read them because of the palpable sexual energy they emit. You’ll totally understand why Webb wants Fran bad enough to risk his life to have her.

Whittington’s three-person take on “Lord of the Flies” is a total blast to read. The tension and power dynamics among the three characters was a completely suspenseful reading experience. The man against nature story alone would have been plenty exciting, but the chess game, cruelty, and graphic violence among these three castaways makes this paperback a next-level pleasure. 

Highly recommended. Essential reading. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

House of Evil

A lot of publishers were quick to embrace the new concept of paperback originals in the 1940s and 1950s. Houses like Pocket Book, Dell, Ace, Popular Library and our cherished Fawcett Gold Medal were all competing as the leader of this new publishing trend. They all created an identifiable marketing niche. Ace did doubles (for a dime more), Avon tried appealing art and Fawcett attracted authors with up front cash. It resulted in a massive catalog of titles. But in the midst of this publishing competition came a multitude of smaller publishers that just didn't make it. Zenith, Hillman, Quick Reader, etc. One of those publishers, Lion Books, only lasted nine years, 1949 to 1957, but released an abundance of noir fiction in their 223 offerings. In fact, some of the genre's leading pioneers contributed books to Lion. Stalwarts like Jim Thompson, Day Keene, Robert Bloch, David Goodis and Richard Matheson. Regardless of the short life span, that's an incredible offering. 

Lion Books would later fold, due in large part to it's founder, Martin Goodman, owning Timely Comics, which by 1960 would be a little 'ole comic company called Marvel. Needless to say, Goodman made bank, sold it and retired. All of this information, and detailed backstory on Lion Books' development and demise, is culled from Stark House's 2016 reprinting of three “sleeper” noir titles released by Lion - “Hero's Lust” (1953) by Kermit Jaediker, “The Man I Killed” (1952) by Shel Walker and the subject of this review, “HOUSE OF EVIL” (1954) by Clayre and Michael Lipman. Included as a bonus is an introduction and “skim” review of these books by Gary Lovisi, the author/collector behind genre zine the Paperback Parade. 

To say that “House of Evil” is bleak is an understatement. It's as dark as a mortuary drape and profoundly lives up to its name. The opening sentence ushers us into a world of depravity, grime and ultimately...death: “The girl at The Red Parrot was a slut”. And we quickly learn about her. 

Nina Valjean is a prostitute, peddling her washed up goods at the Red Parrot, where Bennie the bartender is pimping and Vernie is flashing a different kind of shot in the corner. Nina's arms prove she's a prisoner of Hell, and she's over 24-hours removed from her last fix. She doubles her asking price for “Smith”, a rough customer she's rode before. Hesitantly, she takes the cash, gets her fix and then gets in another fix a few hours later – strangled to death in an empty apartment.   

Our protagonist Roman is then introduced. He's a swell town guy, working as an engineer and climbing the ranks at a local firm. His girl, Joyce, is out of town for a reason. They have reached the crossroads and Joyce is ready to move on. Roman doesn't want her to, and it's that gloomy depression that envelopes Roman, the book and the reader. After Roman stops by Joyce's empty apartment for a suitcase, he finds the strangled stranger (which we know is Nina) and becomes paranoid that the authorities will suspect him as the killer. Refusing to report the crime, Roman heads out as a solo gumshoe, converting the book from thriller to whodunit and back to thriller when the killer strikes again. 

As the mystery thickens, the authors present a weird dreamlike delivery of the killer's thoughts. It's an abysmal, terrifying portrait of dead babies, bodies on meat-hooks and books of blood. It's Lovecraft on absinthe. We know the killer's thoughts and eventually who the next target is. While we wrestle with the killer's true identity, Roman and a stripper named Cecille team up to stop the killer before Joyce becomes the next victim. 

“House of Evil” presents everything we love about noir fiction. It's the dark suspense that Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Richard Laymon and even today's masters like Dean Koontz feed on. At about 150-pages, it's a short read that utilizes a slow reveal to the end. I read it in one fell swoop and was thoroughly invested. Oddly, these married authors never wrote another book. The two did write a 1943 play and six shorts that appeared in various zines like 'Ellery Queen'. It's a shame because the strength of the story-telling would have warranted a potentially good career. But, as they always say, everyone has at least one book in them. It's that second effort that's so allusive.

You can obtain a copy of the Stark House book here