Friday, May 18, 2018

Shell Scott #12 - Strip for Murder

Richard Prather built a career on his 'Shell Scott' character with around 35 novels spanning from 1950 to 1987. Countless short stories appeared in the pages of 'Manhunt' and 'Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine', and there was even a short-lived 'Shell Scott Mystery Magazine' that existed for a bit in the 1960s.

The 'Shell Scott' paperbacks have gone through multiple printings over the past half century with some beautiful cover art by Robert McGinnis as well as some weird photo covers featuring an odd-looking model in a silver wig. I’m told that the best 'Shell Scott' stories were the early ones published by Fawcett Gold Medal. Later editions either suffered from too much madcap comedy or injections of Prather’s own conservative politics into the stories. My informal polling - and an article by the late Ed Gorman - told me that 1955’s Shell Scott #9: “Strip For Murder” was among his best.

The setup in “Strip For Murder” is fairly proforma: After a young heiress impulsively marries a man she hardly knows, her wealthy mother hires Los Angeles private detective Shell Scott to investigative his background. Is this a case of true love or is the new husband a conniving gold digger? The danger of this assignment lies in the fact that Scott isn’t the first investigator on the case. His predecessor was found murdered on a rural road during the course of his investigation, so our hero also has at least one murder to solve along the way.

Scott is the stereotypical, wise-cracking, skirt-chasing private eye. He’s hard-boiled but funny.
Because this is a 'Shell Scott' novel, the action quickly moves to a nudist camp where Scott is called upon to go undercover as the naked fitness director. It should come as no surprise to the reader that every woman (or tomato, as he often calls them) at the camp is beautiful, luscious, and willing. Comedy set pieces throughout the book pad the paperback’s length without compromising the plot.

Other than some wacky situations, this is a pretty standard private eye novel. Scott follows logical leads, gets laid, and has his life repeatedly threatened as he gets closer to the truth. There are red herrings, bar brawls, and sunbathing contests adding to the fun, but the core mystery is nothing you haven’t seen before if you’ve ever read 'Milo March', 'Mike Shayne', or the works of Carter Brown. This genre is comfort food, and this execution of the craft in “Strip for Murder” was good reading - just don’t expect a masterpiece.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

.357 Vigilante #02 - Make Them Pay

Writing good vigilante fiction isn’t just about telling an interesting story. The author has to make the reader identify with the vigilante. He also has to sell us on the need for vigilante action. Lee Goldberg understood those requirements when he wrote the second book in his .357 Vigilante series, “Make Them Pay”. And though he was still a college student at the time, he did a fine job with this.

In fact, I liked it better than the debut book, “.357 Vigilante”, which went overboard on superhuman action exploits in its final chapters. This time around, our hero is more down to Earth, a little more vulnerable, and prone to making a mistake now and then. In fact, he’s dangerously close to being mellow.

A kiddie porn racket is operating in Los Angeles, using kidnapped children who are put before the cameras, raped to death and then discarded around town. The mayor has so little faith in his own criminal justice system that he puts a discreet call out to “Mr. Jury,” the vigilante who took down a bunch of bad guys in the previous book. Our vigilante hero agrees to take on the case, and you pretty much know how things will go from there. But the journey is satisfying, partly because he’s also got to keep a sexy but suspicious reporter from finding out about his hobby. After all, even in the world of men’s action/adventure fiction, a vigilante can go to prison for killing low-life shitbags if he’s not careful.

As in the first book, “Make Them Pay” is dotted with welcome 1980s cultural references, and while there’s less suspense and general intensity than before, I appreciated its more relaxed tone. The emotional anguish of the first book is pretty much over with now. 

For example, one day Mr. Jury is boinking his girlfriend (using chocolate ice cream as an innovative lubricant). The next day she gets obliterated in a car bomb, and three days later he’s boinking the sexy reporter. Whether this sort of thing is a step in the right or wrong direction is up to the reader. Personally, I didn’t mind. (Full disclosure: I read this while dealing with the flu, so I was glad for the lightweight approach.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Whiskey Smith #05: Rampage in Whiskey Smith

Eric Allen (Eric Allen-Ballard) wrote a number of westerns including a five book series entitled 'Whiskey Smith'. Some of the books list the author as Gene Tuttle, but this could have been a pseudonym used by Allen as he also wrote under the name Jonathan Busby. These 'Whiskey Smith' books were all released as part of the Ace western line between 1968 and 1979. Are they worth a wooden nickel? Based on my experience of “Rampage in Whiskey Smith”...absolutely not.

Whiskey Smith is a powder keg town sitting between westward Cherokee Nation and Arkansas. The general consensus is that anyone wanting to commit acts of atrocity can jump over to the opposite territory when fingers are pointed. Criminals, land barons, Indian killers and back shooters gravitate to Whiskey Smith like moths to a flame. US Marshals keep tabs on their side of the fence, hanging and jailing most of the hardmen. The Cherokee council keeps tight reins on their own territory, delving out regulation duties to guys like Breen Drager.

Drager is the chief protagonist, a dull character that is a half-breed. He's serving the Cherokee Nation as a property manager, carving out plots of land and providing it to settlers, farmers, ranchers and “good white folk”. The narrative explores Drager's feud with former best friend Hawk Folsom, an equally dull character that made a smooch and grab on Drager's fiance. Drager breaks off the friendship and evicts Folsom from his rental of Cherokee land. Folsom teams with another dull and lifeless character named Tucker Bowden, and the two harass and disrupt Drager's everyday routine. There's another love interest thrown in for Drager, but by that point no one cares. I hated this book and found myself lacking sympathy for the dying as I routinely checked page numbers every two-minutes. 

Avoid at all costs. This is the poster child of "play it safe" fiction.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Swell Looking Babe

“A Swell Looking Babe” was a mid-career paperback original from hard-boiled king Jim Thompson that was originally released in 1954 by Lion Books. It has a heist, a femme fatale, double-crosses, incest, rape, mobsters, cops, and it’s a bit of a mess.

Bill “Dusty” Rhodes is our wide-eyed and innocent hero who works as the overnight bellhop in the fancy, 400-room Manton Hotel. He dropped out of college to care for his infirmed father who suffered a breakdown after being accused of having communist sympathies during a local Red Scare. At the book’s beginning, Dusty is a blameless young saint of a man - a non-drinking, hard-working boy so handsome that the high-end, female hotel guests just can’t stop hitting on him. However, Dusty never takes the bait because it’s against the rules, and he’s the bellhop with the heart of gold.

The hotel is filled with colorful characters including an ex-mobster named Tug who plays a big-brother role in Dusty’s life and a night desk clerk with a mysterious past. Because The Manton caters to a high-end clientele who can afford the steep $15 per night room rate, they also have a secure safe deposit system in the lobby that every reader will immediately assume to be the target of an attempted heist later in the story.

The Swell Looking Babe of the title is a new guest named Marcia whose mere presence at The Manton makes Dusty rethink his policy of rejecting the advances of the comely, female patrons. Things go rapidly sideways one night when Dusty goes to her room, and he needs to call upon the services of his resourceful ex-mobster friend to bail him out of a jam. This leads to a convoluted heist plot, which is the best part of this book.

Crime novels of this era usually forgo a lot of character development, but the author doesn’t skimp here. We get pages and pages of background and flashbacks that explain Dusty’s character, family, and upbringing. Because it’s a Jim Thompson book, this background is filled with dysfunction and twisted infrafamilial sexuality. We also are forced to endure the interminable side-plot involving Dusty’s father and the circumstances surrounding the alleged communist sympathies that lead to his unemployment. These flashbacks and side-plots slow down the novel considerably making the reader hungry to get back to the swell looking babe, the heist, and its twisty aftermath.

For his part, Thompson was probably excited to write a novel from the perspective of a hotel bellhop as he worked in that field himself as a teen. I can only imagine that by this point in his writing career, Jim Thompson wasn’t at the mercy of editors telling him to clean up his convoluted plots. There’s certainly a good crime novel in this short book, but you need to tune out a bunch of static to hear the noise. Read this one only if you’re a Jim Thompson completest. Otherwise, you can safely take a pass.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Rogue Lawman #01 - Rogue Lawman

Peter Brandvold's eponymous debut, “Rogue Lawman” was a very fine adult western. It’s not adult in the sense that there’s a sex scene every fifty pages (there isn’t). It’s adult in the sense that the characters are fleshed out enough to seem like real people rather than pulp archetypes. Much of the book’s action is prompted by a tragedy which is conveyed with a lot of depth and sensitivity. That’s a mark of fine writing, but the tragedy is *so* sad that the ensuing drama and action are somewhat less entertaining to read, although the trade-off is that I was rooting for the protagonist all the more. 

I was hoping the title character would be sort of an Old West vigilante, and that’s essentially what I got. Pacing and plotting were very good, and the book ends pretty much the way I wanted it to. I visualized John Russell (of the early '60s show 'Lawman') in the leading role, and I think he fits. I’ve already begun buying up the other five books in this series. Sometimes all I want from a western is lightweight Jim Hatfield shoot-‘em-up pulp material, but when I do want a western with more meat on its bones, this will be the series to turn to.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Protector #02 - The Porn Tapes

At the close of Rich Rainey's series debut, “Venus Underground”, the reader was left wondering how Alex Dartanian and his team would continue. In that novel, ICE (Inner Court Executions) nailed a sex slavery ring involving Senator Barrington's daughter. In the final pages I assumed that The Protector would concentrate on hunting more of the slavers and possibly utilizing Barrington as a conductor in this symphony of destruction. The second book is titled “The Porn Tapes” (1983) and from the surface it looks like a continuation of the debut's rather effective, albeit disturbing, content. While equally as good (if not totally surpassing) “Venus Underground”, the concept behind “The Porn Tapes” isn't what I had in mind. Instead we have a porn star being hunted by a criminal preacher. Huh? 

Just like the prior entry, Rich Rainey absolutely excels in this team-based violence extravaganza. Similar to stellar heavyweights like Stephen Mertz, Len Levinson and Dan Schmidt, Rainey incorporates multiple members of ICE into a supreme fighting force. While team-based concepts are a dime a dozen, these authors orchestrate the violence on multiple levels, carving out meaty slabs of destructiveness to match the various traits and characteristics of the team's members. It works well for 'The Protector', enhancing this crime novel and making it an enjoyable genre read.

In surprising fashion, the novel opens with Dartanian taking on a hired gun assignment. The mission? Protect a high-profile porn actress named Melonie Grand from killers. This is a different direction from what I envisioned, but nevertheless it is a neatly trimmed opening for a somewhat elementary plot. But, things prove to be a bit more complex for Dartanian and his ICE mainstays Sin Simara, Val Wagner and Mick Porter.

As the mystery thickens on who is attempting to snuff Grand, other porn stars are getting murdered. The first half delivery is like a good hard-boiled mystery with Dartanian trying to figure it all out. The reader doesn't know who the killer is until the second half, although it's somewhat mentioned in the book's synopsis splashed across the back cover. Reverend Luke Revere is a religious hack preying on the praying, designing a multi-million dollar empire built on sex, drugs and lies. It's clear that the author finds the reality of this industry appalling and holds nothing back. Revere made an early skin flick with Grand and the movie is about to be re-issued due to Grand's new super-stardom. Revere wants to kill her and the movie distributors. 

While all of this is more entertaining than it ever has the right to be, the author incorporates a lot of information about the porn industry of the 70s and early 80s. In some ways I couldn't help but place Grand in the same scenario as Traci Lords, young, exploited but going straight without porn's backing. It's a gripping and intriguing portrait of smut, laced with sex throughout it's 200-pages and brimming over with action and mystery. Dartanian is written well while never being too cavalier or overly admirable (these guys admit enjoyment watching live sex scenes and reviewing the details of porn videos). They exhibit normalcy while stalking the bad guys. There's a little gun porn among the porn, some hard-boiled staging and a high-octane firefight for the finish. 

Next up is “Hit Parade”. I'm marching to it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Kitten With A Whip

Author Wade Miller was the pen name for the writing partnership of Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller, who collaborated on over 30 novels, also writing under the name Whit Masterson. “Kitten with a Whip” was their 1959 novel that was packaged as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback designed to titillate male readers. “She had a child’s mind in a lush woman’s body and she reached for evil with both hands,” the blurb promises. This must be the hottest S&M crime book of all times, right?

Not really, but it’s a decent suspense novel in the Gold Medal tradition. Our protagonist is paunchy, 33 year-old, San Diego suburbanite David Patton. As the book opens, he is giddy with excitement at the possibilities of the adventures that await him while his wife and daughter are out of town on a trip. He knows in reality that a weekend home alone is usually just a lonelier version of a weekend with the family, but a working man is entitled to dream.

His dream of an adventure begins to take focus when he awakens to find a hot 17 year-old chick wearing a nightgown prowling inside his house. We quickly learn that her name is Jody, and she is a runaway from the local girl’s reformatory who broke into David’s place looking for a change of clothes and somewhere to sleep. Instead of turning the young, sexy fugitive into the authorities, David decides to show her some hospitality. The central tension of the book’s opening act is David playing chicken with his desire to have sex with this troubled teen.

The interpersonal dynamic between these two characters - the suburban shlub and the manipulative sex kitten - provides the novel’s central tension, and their relationship evolves over the course of the weekend as David ties his life into knots to avoid his neighbors and family from finding out about his uninvited guest. The psychological manipulation of one character over the other makes for some compelling suspense along the way, and watching David thread the needle on a volatile and delicate situation keeps the pages turning despite minimal action in the story until the explosively violent conclusion.

The authors play with two central ideas: fear of women and fear of adolescents. The premise is that neither group are entirely rational and that one’s use of logic and reason is an inadequate response to their innate impulsiveness. These aren’t themes that would play as well in today’s world, but they make for a satisfying glimpse into the mindset of 1950s America in this compelling novel.

“Kitten with a Whip” was adapted into a cheesy 1964 film starring John Forsythe and Ann Margaret. However, a more fun way to to enjoy the film would be the comedic Mystery Science Theater 3000 edit which, as of this writing, is available free on You Tube. In any case, read the book first. Stark House has reprinted it as a double packaged with Miller’s 1966 novel “Kiss Her Goodbye.” Recommended.