Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Blonde Bait

Ed Lacy was a pen name used by author Leonard S. Zinberg. Lacy wrote over 25 novels between 1951 and 1969. He was credited by creating one of the first African-American detectives – Tony Moore, who debuted in the 1957 novel “Room to Swing”, which also won the Edgar Ward for best novel. “Blonde Bait” was released mid-career in 1959 by Zenith with an alluring premise: “She had to buy protection and her payment was her body”. Okay, I'm in.

The book begins with a troubadour named Mickey reuniting with his old friend Hal in Haiti. Mickey proudly tells Hal of his new lover Rose and his new boat, The Sea Princess. He loves both equally and soon we realize that Mickey and Hal were former business partners. Hal chose married life and quietly settled in New York. Mickey chose freedom – sailing around the Caribbean and up the east coast. Being a lackadaisical sailor costs money, and that's really the central emphasis of the novel. Money. How to get it? What to do with it? Lacy begins to tell this romantic story to us - the curious readers - on how Rose and Mickey became wealthy.

Rose is a tall blonde that is often described as a “big woman” by the author. Mickey finds her washed ashore in the Keys hungry, lonely and desperate. After a few odd conversations between the two, and a rain storm, they become friends. Mickey suspects Rose is carrying emotional baggage – evident from her secrecy regarding a suitcase on board and a book written in French. As the two sail and island hop, engaging in their life stories, we learn that Rose was a down and outer, doing stripping and service work before meeting an elderly French man. He needed her companionship, she needed a consistent residence. While not exactly love, the two made it work until he was murdered. After finding a suitcase in her strip club locker, the police and FBI began harassing her about his death and where the suitcase is hidden. After repeated attempts on her life, she bought a boat and sailed away.

I won't spoil it for you. The suitcase is important, as well as the book. It takes some time and patience on the reader's part to slog through the dialogue between Rose and Mickey. There's a payoff, but the author does a tremendous job staying reserved in his storytelling. Eventually, Mickey finds himself running from the feds and goons as he learns the secret behind Rose's murdered lover. The action takes us from the Keys to Virginia Beach to New York, propelling the narrative with different locations and outcomes for Mickey and Rose's flight. The end result is a really engaging story with enough momentum and intrigue to keep it fresh and entertaining throughout. This was my first Ed Lacy book and I'm already planning which of the author's works to read next.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Anything But Saintly

I’ll confess that the cover art by Robert Abbett sucked me into opening the 1963 stand-alone paperback “Anything But Saintly” by Richard Deming. But in my defense, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the handful of Deming’s novels I’ve read thus far. Deming was an under-appreciated master of crime fiction, and it’s a crime that few people know his work today.

“Anything But Saintly” is narrated by a fundamentally honest vice cop named Matt Rudd (Americanized from his given name of Mateusz Rudowski) who is playing gin with his partner in the squad room one day when a citizen barges in asking, “Is this where you come to report whores?” The citizen is a visitor from Houston who was rolled by a prostitute after consummating the transaction in his hotel room and wants his $500 back.

The investigation of this seemingly simple crime gets materially more complex for Rudd and his partner when they learn the identity of the whore and her pimp. It turns out that the pimp has some pretty heavy political connections, and this is particularly inconvenient for Rudd who is jockeying for a promotion in a town where the police board is politically appointed. “There are certain rackets we overlook because of the political influence of the racketeers”, Rudd explains.

The story takes place in the fictitious city of St. Cecilia, but it’s obvious this is a euphemism for Chicago, and Deming does a nice job of taking the reader into the incestuous alliance between the urban racketeers and the local politicians, a symbiotic relationship that was the real deal in 20th century Chicago.

The cover of the paperback gives away a fairly significant plot point that occurs around the 20% mark, but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say that the stakes in this minor investigation increase markedly as the plot evolves into a murder mystery and the political alliances of the characters shift. This is very smart novel - smarter than it had to be for a cheapo paperback original from this era. The writing is excellent and the characters - particularly the call girls - are vividly drawn. The plot is fast moving and dialogue heavy with a good bit of action and gunplay. The murder mystery also has a nice twist with a satisfying solution.

If you can’t find the 1963 paperback, it’s also available as an eBook in all formats. Whatever the medium, “Anything But Saintly” is another straight-up winner for Richard Deming. Recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Executioner #09 - Vegas Vendetta

It was only a matter of time before author Don Pendleton placed his beloved vigilante Mack Bolan into the city of sin. “Vegas Vendetta” is the ninth entry of 'The Executioner' and was released by Pinnacle in 1971. After what I would consider to be one of the early series standouts, 'Chicago Wipe-out', the bar was set rather high for the author to deliver another quality effort. Sadly, this installment is the worst of the series thus far. 

Other than the book's beginning, featuring Bolan in the familiar high ground situation of attack, there's absolutely no action. As I slogged through it, all 180 miserable pages, I found myself consistently checking what was left, measuring the amount of pages, checking page numbers...things no author would ever want to hear about his or her work. But, it's a genuine stinker because there's a skim plot to develop devoid of any interesting characters that would otherwise make the dialogue tolerable. 

Bolan infiltrates the mob after crippling the Talifero branch between Lake Mead and Las Vegas. After a brief reunion with his old ally Carl Lyons, Bolan settles on the strip utilizing the familiar cloak and dagger routine that worked so well in prior entries. There's pages and pages of Bolan ordering around mob goons (as Mr. Vinton), moving money and participating in daily rituals that ultimately just go nowhere. The mob boss here is “Joe the Monster”, whom Bolan wants to cut-off while liberating a comedian named Tommy Anders (who has an awesome commentary on politics and entertainment for a few pages). By book's end...some money changed hands. 

“Vegas Vendetta” works better than Nyquil. Leave it, skip it and seek out better books.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Bogus Hijack

In February 2018, Paperback Warrior published a feature article exposing that the author of “The D..C. Man” series of men’s adventure novels, “James P. Cody, ” was actually a former Roman Catholic Priest named Peter T. Rohrbach. There were four D.C. Man books published in 1974 and 1975, and they were thought to be the only genre writing that Rohrbach undertook using the Cody pseudonym before his 2004 death.

However, further investigation revealed that Rohrbach sold a short story called “The Bogus Hijack” that was printed in the December 1970 edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine under the Cody pen name. Placing this story into the timeline of his life, Fr. Rohrbach left the priesthood in 1966 and married in September 1970. This story likely would have been his first fiction sale as a married man free from the bonds of the priesthood.

First, some historical context for the short story: Skyjackings were fairly common in 1970 and did not have the dire consequences we associate with a mid-air takeover today. Fifty years ago, it was almost always some goofball looking to go to Cuba with a gaggle of inconvenienced Americans and an expensive jetliner along for the ride.

“The Bogus Hijack” is an enjoyable 14-page story told by an air traveler named Tom embarking on a Florida vacation with his family. At one point during the flight, our protagonist notices a Hispanic man walking closely behind a flight attendant toward the cockpit. After the pair disappears behind the first-class curtain, Tom whispers to his wife that he suspects the plane is about to be hijacked. Sure enough, they are now en route to Havana with little fanfare.

Upon arrival in Cuba, the hijacker is taken away while the passengers - including Tom and his family - are taken off the plane by local authorities and placed in a waiting area. While waiting at the airport, everyone is treated well and allowed to use the bathroom while the plane refuels. Soon thereafter, the passengers are reloaded and on their way to Miami no worse for wear.

However, our hero Tom notices something odd. One of the passengers on the unplanned flight from Havana to Miami isn’t the same person who landed with the other passengers in Havana. Did a switch occur in the airport bathroom to smuggle someone into the U.S.? Was this a real hijacking or a Trojan horse designed to smuggle a spy into America? The suspense later increases when Tom spots the suspicious passenger in Miami and disrupts his family vacation to tail the fellow - much to his wife’s annoyance.

“The Bogus Hijack” was a delightful little story of an everyman who stumbles into a world of intrigue that was clearly written by Rohrbach to be consistent with the Alfred Hitchcock brand. It never appeared in any of the Hitchcock anthologies, so if you want to read it, you’ll need to find it in the original magazine through collector’s channels.

For my part, I was glad to read the story and pass my copy of the magazine along to Rohrbach’s only daughter - now an adult - who was unaware that her dad had sold a story to the digest bearing Hitchcock’s name. I hope she enjoys the story as much as I did. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Island Feud

Hugh B. Cave was a key contributor to the pulp fiction class of the 1920s and 30s. The British born writer relocated to Boston in his childhood, later penning nearly 800 stories across the genres of western, romance, crime and adventure. Wildside Press launched the debut issue of 'Adventure Tales' in 2005 and featured an interview with Cave as well as two short stories - “Island Feud” and “The Man Who Couldn't Die”.

“Island Feud” was originally published by Argosy Magazine in December of 1953. It begins auspiciously enough in the coastal village of Teala Town. Three men are waiting for the arrival of Matt Martinsen on his ship The Witch. In a flashback sequence we learn that Martinsen has cheated the islanders by purchasing their copra (dried coconut kernels) at a below market price. The island doctor, Harty, is the makeshift governor of the people and proposes that Martinsen will purchase the goods at an elevated and fair cost. Martinsen declares a feud and secretly spreads rumors that Harty is a rapist (and other dastardly things) all over the isles. Circling back to the present day, the trio are seeing Martinsen return to the island. Is he returning to fight Harty? Or, is there something amiss with the crew? Thankfully, all is revealed in this short-story that features a bit of mystery and a decent fight (but I won't say between who for spoilers sake).

Purchase a digital or paper copy of this issue here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Parker #12 - The Sour Lemon Score

The twelfth installment of Donald Westlake’s 'Parker' series - published in 1969 under the pen-name Richard Stark - is a fantastic hardboiled crime novel with a plot that significantly diverts from the formula of a standard heist story with favorable results.

Unlike previous books in the series, the paperback opens mid-heist with Parker in a four-man crew successfully executing a bank robbery during an armored car delivery. The thieves flee to a hideout to split the cash when a violent double-cross occurs sending the betrayer, George Uhl, into the wind with the stolen loot. Parker survives the ordeal with a new mission: Find Uhl and get back the money.

Stranded with no cash, no car, and no gun, Parker uses his resourceful mind to hunt Uhl up and down the east coast in a multi-state, high-stakes game of cat and mouse. What follows is part treasure hunt, part vendetta tale, and part man-on-the-run story. Parker also leads the reader through a tour of the criminal underworld filled with gun-selling black marketeers, fences for stolen items, duplicitous homosexuals, and an underground banking system where guys like Parker can stash their nest eggs.

“The Sour Lemon Score” is a testament to Westlake’s versatility as a storyteller as the criminally-minded Parker serves as his own private investigator in a missing person case that, if successful, will culminate in the murder of his prey and the re-theft of ill-gotten gains. Westlake’s invention of a subculture where an informal network of professional thieves can be manipulated and leveraged against one of their own is utterly fascinating and filled with colorful characters and great moments.

On the hunt, Parker is perpetually irritated by the exasperating array people he encounters as he chases the leads to locate Uhl. For the most part, Parker lacks the charm, patience, and people skills to engage in the normal slow-dance that brings fictional investigators closer to the truth. However, a manhunt investigation conducted “Parker-style” makes for some exciting reading while turning the traditional P.I. genre novel on its ear.

The ultimate confrontation between Parker and Uhl is incredibly satisfying and fraught with further complications for our anti-hero. “The Sour Lemon Score” is a short book that seems even shorter because the propulsive nature of the events makes it hard to put down. Like all the Parker capers, consider this one required reading for fans of classic men’s adventure and crime fiction. Highest recommendation.

Postscript:

Check out the helpful blog from our friends at www.theviolentworldofparker.us for more in-depth literary analysis of the Richard Stark Universe.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Gladiator #01 - Hill of the Dead

'The Gladiator' is billed as “In the great tradition of Spartacus!”. It's debut, “Hill of the Dead” was released by Pinnacle in the US in December of 1975. The author's name of Andrew Quiller is a pseudonym utilized by writers Kenneth Bulmer, Laurence James and Angus Wells. It's tied to the American series called 'The Gladiator', but also to the European version deemed “The Eagles”. It's a five-book run that's supposedly penned completely by Bulmer (or at least the first three). 

The book's beginning is actually the ending. The reader is placed in a Roman Colosseum circa 75 a.d. A notorious gladiator named Vulpus the Fox is doing battle with a unnamed prisoner to the delight and roar of the crowd. As Vulpus is about to strike the bloody death blow...he hesitates. The combatant advises Vulpus, “Aye. It is Samuel ben Ezra. No ghost. Come brother, strike. I have had enough of debts”. And with that intriguing statement, Vulpus, Samuel and the reader go back in time to learn the history of both fighters and what events led to this battle.

Vulpus is actually Marcus Julius Britannicus, a young Roman soldier in the Tenth Legion. He was awarded the service by his father, Flavius Silva. Marcus' father is now dead and Marcus is committed to the Roman Army and to rising in the ranks of leadership. The legion is to wipe out the remaining Jewish forces in Jerusalem. The last fortress standing is Masada, fifty miles southeast of Jerusalem overlooking the Dead Sea. It's 1000 feet up and defended by the Zealots. Marcus, anticipating a strike on the fortress in the coming days, visits a Jewish whorehouse prior to battle. While in the act, Jewish troops descend on the building in an attempt to destroy Marcus and the Roman soldiers. Samuel ben Ezra, showing mercy on his soon-to-be attacker, allows Marcus to escape through a window. The two become friends and Marcus swears a debt to Samuel for saving his life. 

Later, Marcus is in charge of the first assault on Masada but is torn between annihilation of the Zealots (including Samuel) or an escape plan for Samuel and his sister to flee before the battle begins. The novel really comes alive in this finale, ripe with both action, intrigue and anticipation of the inevitable Marcus/Samuel showdown. The novel ends where it began and the reader is left with a cliffhanger. Hopefully, it continues this story-line in the second book “The Land of Mist”. 

Overall, Marcus is a worthy protagonist and a character with many different dynamics. His youth, experience and skills are central to the book's strengths. While emotional, the author incorporates many battle sequences featuring a sole Marcus or as a legion featuring the character. There's a love interest, the blood debt and the history of both Marcus and Samuel for the reader to absorb (or in my case devour). At just 162-pages and large print, this is an easy one day read that will leave you scanning auction and used store sites for the second entry.