Friday, January 18, 2019

The Strange Intruder

Arthur Catherall (1906-1980) was an adventurer at heart. From climbing mountains in Lapland and Algeria to sailing trawlers in the Atlantic and Arctic, the British author certainly had many life experiences to inspire his literary work. Utilizing over six different pseudonyms, Catherall wrote a high volume of young adult novels like “The Strange Intruder”. This sweeping 1964 adventure tale was first released as “The Strange Invader” before being reprinted by Archway as “The Strange Intruder” in 1968.

While never specifying a time period, the novel seems to be set in the present day (1964). The wind-swept location is the chilly Faroes Islands, geographically positioned north of the British Isles and just Southeast of Iceland. In the book's opening pages we read that the 900-ton schooner Faroes Seeker has struck an old wheelhouse assembly and torn the ship's hull. Miles off coast, the crew becomes stranded and forced to use battered sails on storm-ravaged seas. 

The book's young protagonist is Sven Klakk, a 16-year old fishermen learning the trade with his uncles. He's part of a small village living on the islands and has enough experience with a plethora of rigging, climbing, fishing and...adventuring. In some ways Sven is the life of the island, always there to help the elders while slowly evolving into a full-time role as statesman. Sven and his father see the ship and eventually round up the village to start making supplies available for the surviving crewmen.

In a wild turn of events, the villagers spot a crew member jumping from the ship and swimming to a storm-battered enclave. Sven, panicking to save the swimmer, races to the cliffs and the narrative really builds steam as we learn the crew member is actually a polar bear escaping captivity from the ship. Once Sven meets the bear...the fight is on. With very little supplies, an old shotgun and the storm raging on the island, the story has Sven and the villagers fighting off a ravenous polar bear that's angry out of his element.

Like most of Catherall's work, this is a coming of age tale about a young man saving his village. Metaphorically, the bear is Sven's own childhood raging to break free. With the backdrop of swollen seas, rocky cliffs and island life, the author creates a vivid, enjoyable adventure read for anyone. I'm passing it on to a 67-year old to read next. The kid in us never really ages.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Everybody's Watching Me

“Manhunt Magazine” was a hardboiled crime fiction digest that first hit the shelves in January 1953. The first four issues featured a serialized short novel by Mickey Spillane called “Everybody’s Watching Me” that was also reprinted by Manhunt in 1955. The story runs about 100 pages and was brought back for yet another Manhunt encore in 1964 under the new title, “I Came to Kill You.” It exists today as an affordable eBook and a paperback reprint.

“Everybody’s Watching Me” isn’t a Mike Hammer story but instead is told by a young laborer named Joe who delivers a threatening message to a local gangster named Renzo from an enigmatic killer named Vetter. The mobster is a “kill the messenger” kinda guy who beats young Joe unconscious for the audacity of simply delivering the note.

The note is from the mysterious Vetter is taken seriously since he recently knocked off a mob underboss and has everyone in the underworld on edge. What is Vetter’s agenda? Is he a rival godfather looking to take over the local rackets? Renzo suspects that Joe knows more than he’s admitting regarding Vetter, and he has Joe followed by surveillance goons hoping that the kid will lead the mobster to Vetter.

Joe has no information to provide anyone about this “assassin of mobsters,” and he - along with a sexy showgirl he meets along the way - finds himself in the middle of underworld tensions and the police. All these concerned parties are hoping that the naive Joe will lead them to Vetter.

Despite a cool setup, the story of Joe running around both manipulating and being manipulated at the eye of a mafia storm isn’t all that compelling. However, the last scene of this novel is just awesome and features a plot twist that I never saw coming. Ultimately, I suppose it was worth the hundred pages of my attention.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Cold Night's Death

Author Barbara Harrison is mostly known for historical literary works and contemporary romance novels. In 1973, Award Books assigned her the job of creating a novelization of an ABC made-for-television movie entitled “A Cold Night's Death”. Typically, movie novelizations are reserved for big screen releases or higher budget films needing additional marketing. It's a mystery on why Award wanted an ABC “movie of the week” in print, but alas here it is. I haven't seen the film (it's on YouTube) but couldn't resist the cover and promises of “Icy terror, suspense and violence”. 

Again, I haven't seen this film. But based on what I endured for 156-pages...I will never watch it. Perhaps Barbara Harrison was welded to the film's restraints, but reading “A Cold Night's Death” felt exactly like the novel's title. This is a lethargic, dull narrative where two scientists are literally thousands of miles from civilization and have nothing else to do but bicker with each other. And they drag you and I into it against our will. I wanted the suspenseful mystery that was teased to me during the novel's opening chapters.

Tower Mountain sits 14,000 feet into the thin air of Northern California. It's a snowy, wind-swept Hell where a small research station houses a lone scientist. For reasons the reader doesn't know (spoiler: you never know), this scientist is at the peak of madness and broadcasting on the short-wave radio for help. Why? What has happened? 

In chapter two we are introduced to the book's two protagonists, Frank and Robert. Both are esteemed scientists that have worked together for a number of years on a dozen projects. Dr. Horner, the research leader (at ground control), has asked that Frank and Robert fly to this frozen wasteland to determine what has happened to the missing scientist and the monkeys that are being used for the grant experiment - the effects of high altitudes and stress on humans. Against their better judgment, both agree to the assignment.

Chapter three begins with Frank and Robert arriving at the ice station and learning the whereabouts of the missing scientist. The mysteries here are aplenty – who locked the scientist in, why is there a window open, who destroyed the interior and how did the scientist die. I was hoping for an engaging hybrid of sleuth, murder and locked room mystery. The end result is nearly a three-month stay for Robert and Frank that includes a lot of experimentation on monkeys, radio dialogue with Dr. Horner and the two main characters jousting at each other like The Honeymooners. 

Barbara Harrison has nothing to offer more than Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg's screenplay (no it isn't our beloved Lee Goldberg). That's the whole issue here...there's nothing to add because nothing really ever happens. There's some bump in the night suspense here and there, a few items knocked over and a lot of accusations tossed about. At the end I was dog-tired from this pointless exercise. Absolutely steer away from “A Cold Night's Death”. It's a soul killer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Cheaters

As an author, Orrie Hitt is often dismissed as being “sleaze fiction” but this designation fails to recognize the fundamental truth that he was a superb writer and that his plots often incorporated noir and crime fiction elements beside the soft-core sex scenes. A perfect example is his 1960 paperback, “The Cheaters” that has been re-released by Stark House for modern consumption.

Clint Mayer is 24 and broke when he lands a job at a dive bar in a scummy neighborhood of an industrial town. The owner confides in Mayer that the bar subsidies its bottom line by taxing a trio of prostitutes who use the tavern as a home base of flesh-peddling operations. A crooked local cop shaking down the girls for protection money casts a malevolent shadow over the whole enterprise.

Mayer has a girl who he’s been with for years ever since he took her virginity. She wants to marry, and he lacks enthusiasm for that institution. Meanwhile, his new boss has a young and desirable wife named Debbie who seems hot to trot with the new help. This, of course, becomes an obsession for Mayer who needs to balance his desires with his need to put bread on the table.

As Mayer and Debbie grow closer, the topic of Debbie’s dissatisfaction with her own marriage and and an existing life insurance policy on her husband, you just know that this erotic tease of a novel is about to take a dark turn into James M. Cain territory. Hitt writes his sex scenes with a high level of eroticism without ever being as graphic as the most tepid Longarm western - a cool trick that the author honed in over 150 published novels.

In case you get deceived by the romance novel cover art, rest assured that there is some no-shit violence in this tricky little paperback. For example, there’s a beating scene that will stay with you long after you finish the book - you’ll know what I mean when you read it.

I liked this paperback quite a bit. Admittedly, “The Cheaters” is basically a ripoff of Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” but it’s a damn fine ripoff. After all, who doesn’t like a like a great cover band? You’ll see the twist ending coming from a mile away, but the ride to get there sure is a lot of fun. Recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Fargo #05 - Wildcatters

Author Ben Haas (as John Benteen) utilized the blend of action, adventure and western genres to perfect his long-running 'Fargo' series. I've heard collectors and fans describe the series as the 'Conan' of westerns. It's a fitting description for this sort of troubadour adventure, a formula that's never failed to thrill and excite me. The fifth of this series, “Wildcatters”, is no different. 

John Fargo rides into a new Oklahoma boomtown looking for work. The journey to town has Fargo reuniting with an old flame named Tess, now a business woman running a prostitution operation. Tess introduces Fargo to her beautiful niece Maggie with the warning that Maggie isn't for sale – she's a respectable woman looking for a suitable husband. This part is important to know.

Soon, Fargo's reputation (and an earlier brawl) catches up with him and he is solicited by the town's oil tycoon Brasher. He's struck black gold and now wants to aggressively expand his operation further. The missing piece is a presumed oil well outside of town owned by a rival named Russell. There's a backstory here of Brasher and Russell's father being former business partners that resulted in Russell's father being murdered and Brasher escaping any legal charges. Brasher is now brutish, wealthy and forcing Russell into bankruptcy. 

After declining Brasher's proposition of joining the oil empire as a hired gun, Fargo learns that his gun fighting equal and friend Friday has signed on with Brasher. He's as tough as bedrock. After aligning with Rusell, Fargo borrows $20,000 from Teddy Roosevelt (seriously!) and starts the drilling process to defy Brasher/Friday.

The narrative follows a few gunfights and forays between Fargo's oil workers and Brasher's enforcers. Of course it wouldn't be a Fargo novel without plenty of Fox shotgun work. In one explosive scene we see Fargo discharge his .10 Gauge point blank at two riders, cutting them in half! A rather clever scene finds Fargo outgunned by a posse on a river bank. Let's just say floating a crate of dynamite down the river and popping it from afar with a Winchester leaves plenty of...entrails on the trail. There's a rekindled love interest with Tess to soften the violence, as well as a flair of mystery behind Maggie's outward appearance. 

Overall, another stellar Fargo entry in what has become my guaranteed reading pleasure. Quick, fast-paced and thrilling, “Wildcatters” just doesn't disappoint.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Canyon O'Grady #05 - The Lincoln Assignment

Because the series order really doesn’t matter, my next foray into the world of adult western hero Canyon O’Grady is the fifth book in the series, “The Lincoln Assignment.” For this 1989 installment, veteran author Chet Cunningham serves as the writer behind the Jon Sharpe house name.

Someone is trying to kill U.S. Representative Abraham Lincoln before a scheduled series of debates with U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas as both men compete for the Senate seat currently held by Douglas. Meanwhile, a team of deadly assassins is also targeting Senator Douglas who has his eye on winning the White House in two years. The current U.S. President is James Buchanan, and he is concerned about this threat to the democratic process and dispatches his best man - Special Agent Canyon O’Grady - to Illinois to investigate and neutralize this threat. O’Grady’s presidential orders? “Stop the ruffians!”

Early in the paperback, O’Grady learns the identities of the assassins and the agenda of the puppet masters engaging their services. I won’t give it away, but the rationale was not too outlandish. The owlhoots hired to kill the politicians are a great set of villains that includes a sexy redheaded female, and this being an adult western, you can imagine where that leads. There’s also a female U.S. Government Agent thrown into the mix of this investigation which ads an interesting wrinkle to the story.

Mostly what we have here is a pretty exciting, sexy and violent action novel starring a U.S. Government Agent trying to prevent a pair of political assassinations. The fact that it takes place in August 1858 is almost inconsequential to the story. It’s a western because the hero rides a horse, but there are no Apache attacks of settlers in “The Lincoln Assignment.”

I’ve always preferred Chet Cunningham’s work in the western genre to his contemporary action paperbacks (“Spur” is better than “The Penetrator,” for example), and this Canyon O’Grady book is no exception. Cunningham was a talented literary entertainer who focused on solid plotting rather than flowery prose. He tackles his mandatory graphic sex scenes with real gusto, and they are well-woven into the plot. Moreover, the characters of Lincoln and Douglas are well-written and infused with human personalities. 

Canyon O’Grady is shaping up to be one of my favorite series characters in this genre. If you like adult westerns and historical fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Pro #01 - The $3-Million Turn-Over

The term “agent” is utilized frequently when describing men's action adventure paperbacks from the 1970s. Normally it would be in the context of a crime sequence involving a Federal Agent or a globe-trotting espionage affair. So, it's incredibly rare to see a different kind of agent featured in an action-adventure novel. In 1974, author Richard Curtis introduced us to Dave Bolt, a SPORTS AGENT who solves crime. “The $3-Million Turn-Over” is the debut of a four-book series entitled 'The Pro'.

We learn about series star Bolt through a few dialogue sequences scattered throughout the book. He was born in Texas, excelled at collegiate sports, served a stint in the Army and then became a successful wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Other than being very athletic, Curtis doesn't attempt to build any validity into Bolt being an action hero. First and foremost, The Pro is a mystery series with some action sprinkled in to lure prospective shoppers. After a horrific ankle injury ends his career, Bolt engages in a two-year swim in the bottle before rehabilitating and finding work in the Cowboys front office. This eventually leads to a sports agency deal that now finds Bolt representing a number of clients across all major sports. 

Bolt's office is in NYC, a rather busy place that's kept in order by sexy secretary Trish. As the novel opens, Bolt receives a call from the father of a top basketball recruit. IL star athlete Richie Sadler wants to discuss contracts with Bolt. It's this early portion of the book that really caters to basketball fans. In 1974, when this book was published, the NBA and ABA were two separate leagues. The two competed with each other for fans, TV rights and endorsement deals. Bolt, along with Richie's family, has an interesting discussion about the two possibly merging and teams like the Nets eventually becoming NBA properties. All of this is marvelous to read considering the merger actually came to fruition two years later.

While all this is insightful and engaging as a sports read, readers want crime. As a precursor to the heist, Bolt begins contract negotiations on behalf of Sadler. The asking price is a lofty three-million for two years (preposterous in 1974) but it's done for a reason. This price is important because soon the Sadlers receive a ransom call demanding three-million in cash or Richie dies. Afraid to risk the FBI's help (the first place I would have turned to personally), Bolt and Richie's sister Sondra tangle in the sheets and streets trying to locate Richie's whereabouts. The book has Bolt combing NYC, Harlem and the city's outskirts while the ABA commissioner puts together the needed funds. 

Author Richard Curtis would go on to write another sports novel, “The Sunday Alibi”, as Ray Lilly and – oddly - the movie novelization for John Carpenter's “Halloween” (as the clever Curtis Richards). After eight novels, Curtis would go on to become a mid-tier literary agent and retire from writing. It's interesting to see such a short literary career considering the guy could write. The Pro reads like Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' in that it is loosely a PI novel with northeastern ties. Further, Bolt displays some of the same characteristics that make Spenser engaging – sports car, humor, drinking, sex. Arguably, those traits are found with most detectives in fiction, but I found incredible similarities. 

The remaining books focus on hockey, baseball and football – America's most popular sports. The books are all available in digital format but good luck finding those old 70s paperbacks on store shelves.