Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Last Great Death Stunt

Author Clark Howard was a frequent contributor to the mystery magazine digests including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock. As a writer, war historian and boxer, Howard's shift into full-length novels often propelled his diverse characters into violent and extreme situations. I've had wonderful experiences with Howard's 1970s novels like The Last Contract and Siberia 10 and find him to be a true unsung hero in the world of men's action-adventure novels. One of Howard's most unusual books is the novel The Last Great Death Stunt. It was originally published by Berkley Medallion in 1977 with a story-line set in the not-too-distant future.

In Howard's premise, the world has evolved into two different political cultures – socialist and communist. Because of this tranquil world peace, people no longer care about winners and losers. Boxing, football, baseball and other popular sports have completely faded away. In this future the world has become obsessed with Death Stunts that feature “athletes” pushing their endurance to the very edge of existence. These fearless few propel themselves as close to death as humanly possible in daring stunts in front of colossal audiences for endorsement money and television payouts. The greatest Death Stunt performer them all? Jerry Fallon.

Almost supernaturally talented, Fallon had the heart, mind and body to perform the most awe-inspiring Death Stunts of all-time. From insane motorcycle jumps and thrilling auto races to the highest of high-wire acts, Fallon left behind a legacy proving he was the greatest of all-time. However, over the last few years, a new competitor has risen to the ranks as a true contender to Fallon's legacy – Nick Bell.

Bell has performed many of the same stunts as Fallon, only more dangerous and extreme to shatter the world's remembrance of Fallon's feats. In spectacular fashion, Fallon is now being called the best ever by the media but he has one more stunt to perform. On New Year's Eve, Fallon has promised the world he'll deliver the last great death stunt. He's taking a 220-foot plunge into the Pacific Ocean...off the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the book's opening chapter, a special report from the U.S. President is broadcast nationwide. On New Year's Day, Death Stunts will be banned across the country. Anyone performing a stunt will risk criminal charges and possible imprisonment. Because of this new law, Bell's promise to perform one more stunt is thrust into the national spotlight. California's law enforcement will barricade the bridge and a special wire mesh is designed to keep anyone from jumping. Fallon's chances of solidifying his daredevil legacy are slim. Can he overcome the authorities and make one last splash at fame and fortune?

At just over 200-pages, Clark Howard has so much to say in The Last Great Death Stunt. To fully appreciate his alternate or future United States one must understand 1970s pop-culture. Flamboyant daredevil Evel Knievel was flirting with disaster while entrancing and captivating Americans with his wild motorcycle stunts. His death defying feats included jumping canyons, rivers and obstacles and even jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper in New York. Knievel was often paid $25,000 per stunt and is recognized alongside Harry Houdini as a truly special performer who risked life and limb for his audience. Howard's idea of the government banning Death Stunts probably arose from an incident wherein state and federal authorities refused Knievel's request to jump the Grand Canyon in 1971.

Howard's novel also possesses a strikingly prophetic tone. In this alternate and not-too-distant future, movie theaters have closed due to theatrical releases now airing on television for nominal fees (pay-per-view didn't even exist at the time of Howard's writing) mirroring the 2021 film industry. Additionally, music concerts don't exist any longer and it's hinted that these performances are similar to the film industry – direct to television for a fee. There are other nuances like automobiles that run on alternative energy, the decline of sports audiences (look at today's NASCAR) and the overall idea of individuals performing solely for endorsement money (like our YouTube stars). While this future is mostly a positive one, there is also a strict rule on childbirth. Parents can only birth one child, a federal regulation that keeps the population manageable.

Beyond the current and future cultural implications, Howard's book makes for compelling fiction. The narrative centralizes around Bell's quest to leap off the Golden Gate Bridge and the political opposition he must face. There's a side story on the U.S. President placing the burden on California's Governor, who then promises San Francisco's Mayor political favor if he can prevent Bell's jump. It's a small portion of the narrative that's filled with some graphic sex and the more seedy side of American politics.

The highlight of The Last Great Death Stunt is Jerry Fallon. Large portions of the story center around Fallon and his family. The narrative showcases Fallon's career highlights and his uneventful retirement into the life of a suburban husband and father. As the press increases coverage of Bell's jump (including a mock of ABC's Live World of Sports), Fallon begins to mentally fragment. The idea of his legacy being erased or tarnished pushes Fallon into intense deliberation – should he try and beat Bell by doing the same stunt? Considering his plush retirement, the narrative tightens to marital disputes between Fallon and his wife April. She's thankful that Fallon survived his dangerous obsession. She doesn't want to relive the fear again. It's Howard's intimate writing that really helps clarify the allure of death and the addiction these performers face. The eternal conflict of cheating death by the thinnest of margins is constant throughout the narrative. It's also the age-old contest of old gunslinger versus the young fast hand. Simply who's better - Jordan or Lebron? Tyson or Jones? Norris or Lee? It's a fascinating comparison that exists every generation.

The Last Great Death Stunt is absolutely superb and once again proves that Clark Howard was an amazing writer. His premise is such an exciting and clever take on what was a pop-culture phenom at the time. Surely Evel Knievel was an inspiration, but Howard's not too distant future is the perfect backdrop for such an unusual tale. There's just so much to like about this novel and it's one that I think I'll probably re-read at some point in the future. Consider this the highest possible recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Nick Carter: Killmaster #104 - The Fanatics of Al Asad

During his career, Boston native Saul Wernick (1921-1982) authored a handful of pulpy horror and action paperbacks, most notably Executioner #39: The New War, a transitional novel in the Mack Bolan series. Wernick also contributed five novels to the Nick Carter: Killmaster franchise, including a 1976 title, The Fanatics of Al Asad, the 104th book in the long-running series. 

The paperback opens with an Arab terrorist strapped to a hospital bed being questioned by Nick Carter while being pumped full of truth serum. The President and Vice President have just been killed and the Speaker of the House is ascending to the presidency. This normal plan of secession is curtailed when the Speaker is kidnapped and held for ransom by a Palestinian terrorist group known as “Al Asad” (translation: “The Lion”). The terrorists want $100 million cash and arms reduction from Israel - who isn’t  excited about that idea - in exchange for his safe return.

The U.S. intelligence agencies need to neutralize Al Asad and rescue the Speaker - now technically the President - before the three-day deadline outlined in the ransom note. AXE’s best man Nick Carter receives the assignment, which is a good deal for us since he’s narrating the book. He’s assigned a partner from Israel’s intel service named Tamar, and she’s a super-hot babe (slim figure, full breasts) with an expertise in Islamist extremists. 

With Tamar in tow, Nick jets off to the University of Kansas for a quick lesson on Islam and the Koran because AXE doesn’t have a 1976 World Book Encyclopedia. An informant explains that the leader of Al Asad is a Soviet-trained terrorist named Sharif who fancies himself as the King of all Muslims with all the accompanying wickedness that idea conjures. Bottom line: he must be stopped. Secondary bottom line: He’s probably in New York City. 

The Fanatics of Al Asad reminded me of an episode of “24” complete with very specific time-stamps at the opening of each chapter. Despite the sense of urgency, there are time-outs for graphic 1970’s sex between Nick and the fair Tamar. At one point, Nick’s manhunt has him going undercover as a radical Muslim jihadi while cavalierly spouting off facts about Islam the author clearly gleaned from National Geographic. Mostly he spends the book’s first half skulking around Manhattan talking to informants without a ton of action. 

This is the easiest book in the world to pick apart. Dig this: The President and Veep are killed by terrorists and the Speaker of the House (the new, unsworn President) is being held hostage, so the U.S. intelligence community assigns just one guy to handle it? Really? Meanwhile, the rest of America seems to be going about its normal business eating dinner in restaurants, having unabandoned sex, keeping calm, and carrying on? We’ve seen that it doesn’t take much to drive our nation to paralyzed hysteria, but the country is pretty chill because Nick Carter has this handled? I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the stupidity leading to the book’s climax. 

There’s a lot of dumb stuff in this book that you’ll need to forgive, and I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to like this book, but it just kept getting dumber and dumber as the pages flipped. Toward the end, there were some decent action set-pieces, but the reader needs to suspend disbelief beyond reason to get there. The Fanatics of Al Asad squanders an outstanding premise. Don’t waste your time. You deserve better. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 12, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 86

On Episode 86 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we explore team-based action adventure series including Phoenix Force, Alpha Team, SOBs, and so many more. This is a jam-packed episode that men’s adventure paperback fans won’t want to miss. Listen on any podcast app or www.paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 86: Action-Adventure Teams" on Spreaker.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Race Williams #04 - Them That Lives by Their Guns

Race Williams was the first hardboiled detective to star in a successful series of stories in the pulp magazines. Thanks to some smart reprint houses and a popular paperback podcast, there has been a renewed interest in the work of series creator Carroll John Daly who died broke and unappreciated in 1958. Today we visit Race’s fourth adventure, Them That Lives by Their Guns, originally published in the August 1924 issue of Black Mask.

This time around, Race’s client is a wealthy man named P. Harrington Cardigan, and he’s hiring Race to find his missing daughter. The girl’s name is Gladys, and she moved away to California to find her fortune as a Hollywood starlet. When she failed to break into the business, dad sent her money for a ticket home to New York, but Gladys never showed. Instead, she called her father saying that she met a director who was taking her to Mexico for some filming projects.

It gets worse. Gladys met a man in Mexico and married him. The guy is a real louse: a gambler, an abuser, a killer, and a blackmailer. The husband - his name is Louis Rafaele- regularly sends Mr. Cardigan letters threatening to kill Gladys unless dad sends money to him in Mexico. Thus far, Cardigan has paid the brute. But that’s the thing about blackmailers - they never stop unless you hire a hero like Race Williams to make him stop and bring the girl home to daddy.

Race sets off via passenger train bound for the small Mexican town where Rafaele is known to be the town’s boss and the fastest gun. In the meantime there’s also a lot of skullduggery and tough-guy violence involving Race aboard the train chugging across America. Daly’s version of a 1924 Mexican border town is a lot like the settlements we see in western fiction - lawless, dangerous, and unpredictable. As the fastest gun in town, Race excels in this environment as he searches for the missing girl building toward a climactic bloodbath.

Once again, Race Williams is awesome. Them That Lives by Their Guns is an exciting and violent novella that stands the test of time. There were some convoluted plot aspects involving a Mexican bank that weren’t entirely clear, but the core of the story was Race rescuing the girl and vanquishing the villain. What’s not to enjoy about that?

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Straw Donkey Case

Beginning in 1948, author A.S. Fleischman developed the knack for writing. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, the author enjoyed a successful career authoring original crime-fiction paperbacks as well as children's fiction and even non-fiction books about stage magic. He graduated from San Diego State college, so it makes sense that his first published novel, The Straw Donkey Case, is set in San Diego. The book was published in 1948 by Phoenix Press as a digest-sized paperback originally sold for 25-cents.

A man named Mr. Ranson walks into Max Brindle's office looking for a good private-eye. Ranson explains that he is immensely wealthy and lives on a clifftop mansion with his niece and two nephews. Ranson “feels” that one of his family members is attempting to murder him to gain an early inheritance. After Brindle asks for evidence supporting his paranoia, Ranson produces no tangible proof and is asked to simply leave well enough alone. However, after Ranson pays Brindle a sizable sum of money to have dinner with his family, the private-eye's appetite increases.

After the uneventful dinner, Brindle proposes to Ranson to simply change the will to no financial distribution if he does dies by unnatural causes. Ranson agrees and shows up at Brindle's office the next day to declare that the will has been changed. The next day Ranson's body washes up on the beach as an apparent accidental fall from the cliffs. A few hours later, Ranson's well-endowed niece appears in Brindle's office wanting his services. She is inheriting millions but wants Brindle to prove that Ranson was murdered. If he was, she gets nothing. If it is an accident, the money is rightfully hers. Brindle tries to convince her to leave it as an accident and become a millionaire but this family proves to be a stubborn breed. Brindle takes this bizarre and abstract case.

By 1948, the crime-fiction paperback market started shifting to more mature stories for readers. The armchair sleuths and knit-quilting mysteries had slowly evolved into hard-hitting private-eye tales that displayed profanity, more sexual innuendo and an elevation in violence. The Straw Donkey Case isn't I, the Jury (Mike Hammer's debut), but it shares some of the same similarities. Brindle's secretary is in love with him and he's too busy to properly sex her up (or just doesn't want to). Like any good private-eye, Brindle is smart, but temperamental, and occasionally just walks into trouble before properly scouting the situation. He was far ahead of me on characters and motives but the narrative does move around a lot for readers. While the story isn't remarkable, it's a unique premise that expands into a compelling international thriller.

There's a reason why Fawcett Gold Medal was seducing Fleischman a few years later. Based on just this debut, it's easy to determine that the author was something special. Beginning in 1951, Fleischman would embark on a series of Fawcett paperbacks set in Asia's tropical locales. Most critics agree that these Far-East novels are the best of his career. However, The Straw Donkey Case is recommendable. To my knowledge there's no reprint of the book and that needs to change. Stark House and Cutting Edge...I'm talking to you.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Protectors #01 - The Petrova Twist

Sometimes referred to as the “Stephen King” of young adult fiction, Robert Lawrence Stine (R.L. Stine) is a true literary icon. He's written a number of young adult horror series titles like Goosebumps, Rotten School, The Nightmare Room, Fear Street, Mostly Ghostly as well as dozens of stand-alone titles. As Jovial Bob Stine, the author has released a slew of humorous joke books. In addition to his own creations, Stine has contributed series entries for G.I. Joe, Man-Thing, Masters of the Universe and the movie novelizations for Ghostbusters II, Spaceballs and Big Top Pee-Wee. How does any of this interest Men's Action-Adventure fans?

In February 1987, Scholastic published the first of a two book series called The Protectors. It was titled The Petrova Twist and was written by Stine under the pseudonym Zachary Blue. The idea was to cash in on the men's team-based commando popularity of the time period. Able Team, Phoenix Force, S.O.B. and other long-running series titles had tremendous marketing success in the 1980s. Using that idea, complete with similarly themed cover art, Stine introduced a team of high-school kids who are employed by the U.S. government to fight international crime. 

Here's the line-up:

- Matt O'Neal – He's an engineering genius. Think of Gadgets Schwarz of Able Team.

- Lu Golden – The martial arts guy from Vietnam.

- Riana Riggs – African-American girl with a photographic memory.

- Micky Malano – She's the master of disguises. A less violent Death Merchant Richard Camellion.

- John Wendell Waterford IV – The wealthy guy who can rub shoulders with high society.

In the book's opening chapters, each of these high-school students receive a special invitation from The White House to attend a special awards ceremony celebrating their tremendous academic success. Oddly, they can't bring any adults, and it's a solo trip for each of them (the 80s were so safe). 

Once they arrive in Washington D.C., the kids meet each other in a strange warehouse where they are introduced to Tiger Browne. He informs the kids that they have been carefully selected to serve in a government agency called CENTRAL. This agency will combat international crime and assist other government agencies on special assignments. Without any training, the team is assigned the task of helping a Soviet gymnast named Elena Petrova defect to the U.S. Will they succeed?

Mostly this book is fairly lousy. At almost 200-pages, the entire narrative takes place at an auditorium or the kids' hotel. This tight location setting left me feeling confined and limited in my imagination. Granted this is a young adult novel, I still found the action to be very minimal compared to other kids' fiction. Essentially, the team has no experience, receives no training or guidance and botches the whole thing up from start to finish. These types of high-octane action novels aren't meant to be plausible and The Protectors proclaims that limitation with an astounding voice. The entire plot is just senseless. There's a swerve ending that clears up most of my confusion regarding the narrative and story-line but I was still really disappointed. 

The last few pages of this book sets up the idea that CENTRAL becomes the elite PROTECTORS and must fight a terrorist group called CONQUEST in the next book, The Jet Fighter Trap. I'll probably still read it because I'm a completest, but you can do so much better with this genre.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Bodyguard

During his too-brief career as a writer, Roger Torrey (1901-1946) authored 280 short stories and novellas. Most of his output was hardboiled crime published in pulp magazines including Black Mask and Dime Detective. Black Dog Books has compiled a bunch of Torrey’s best stories in a collection anchored by “Bodyguard,” a novella originally from the December 1938 issue of Private Detective magazine.

As advertised, William Dugan is a professional bodyguard. His client is a corporate CEO named Mr. Arthur B. Miles, and someone took a shot at him yesterday prompting the call to Dugan, our narrator. Mr. Miles wants Dugan to investigate the threat while keeping the entire Miles family - a wife and two adult daughters - safe. One of the daughters is a bitch, and the other is the super-cute, friendly type named Angela. She has her eye on Dugan from the moment they meet, which leads to some fun scenes.

For a bodyguard, Dugan spends more time functioning as a private detective than he does jumping in front of bullets headed for his clients. He’s a great character - funny and plenty tough without the macho posturing of Mike Hammer or Race Williams. He conducts a logical and efficient investigation focusing on a handful of suspects who may have an axe to grind with Mr. Miles and his family.

The bodies pile up pretty quickly along the 50 pages leading to a solution. One reviewer described Torrey as “Dashiell Hammett Lite,” and I think that’s a reasonable comparison. His plotting in “Bodyguard” is solid, and Torrey’s knack for vivid supporting characters shines through among the suspects, witnesses and red herrings.

“Bodyguard” was a satisfying mystery, and I’m looking forward to reading additional entries in Torrey’s body of crime fiction work. Both Black Dog Books and Pulp Fiction Book store have been culling through his stories and creating Torrey compilations that allow modern audiences to discover his work - yet another reason why it’s a good time to be alive. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 5, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 85

On Episode 85 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we take a look at the life and work of Clifton Adams. Also discussed: Spur Award! Ninja Book Critic! Men’s Adventure vs. Crime Noir! Matt Helm! Nick Carter: Killmaster! Benedict & Brazos! Much more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE 

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 85: Clifton Adams" on Spreaker.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Secret of Devil's Cave

Frank E. Smith (1919-1984) had a number of career paths on the road to becoming a full-time novelist. He worked as a newspaper reporter for the Kansas City Star, was employed as a research analyst for the U.S. Pentagon and served in the Navy during WW2. By 1952, Smith began writing shorts for magazines like Mammoth Western and Manhunt mostly using the name Jonathan Craig. By the mid-1950s, Smith had found success with his police procedural series The Sixth Precinct. After using names like Carl Jacobi, Grant Colby and Elston Barrett, Smith adopted the name Jennifer Hale to cash in on the hot 1970s Gothic suspense genre. As Hale, Smith wrote five novels from 1971 through 1978 including The Secret of Devil's Cave. It was published by Magnum in 1973.

The book's protagonist is 20-year old Beth Nolan, a St. Louis resident who is coping with the recent loss of her father. After meeting with her father's attorney, Beth is astounded to learn that her inheritance includes a commercial cave and inn in the Missouri Ozarks. Her father never informed her that he owned any property outside of their residential home and antique store. This inheritance baffles Beth, warranting a visit to learn more about the property.

Upon Beth's arrival at Devil's Inn, she is introduced to the Bratchers, an eclectic family that has resided at the inn since Beth was three-years old. They run the inn and do guided tours of the accompanying Devil's Cave. Oddly, they convinced the town that they owned the entire establishment. So when Beth shows up to claim what is rightfully hers, the Bratchers become embarrassed and are forced to comply with her wishes. With this transition, Beth must decide if the Bratchers should stay and keep the business running or simply be replaced by new management due to the poor financial state it's in.

Here's the checklist of what Smith presents to Beth and readers that makes this the traditional Gothic 1970s paperback:

- Many years ago, the prior cave/inn owner's daughter died. In a unique rite of passage, the owner had her body laid in a glass casket and placed  on display in the cave. The town was outraged and threw the owner into the cave's endless pit deemed The Devil's Cistern.

- Years ago, a young girl was murdered in the cave and the killer was never found.

- Weeks ago, an inn resident seemingly vanished during a cave tour.

- Beth is warned by the town's wacky witch that she's already died years ago.

- Beth finds a bizarre life-like painting of herself in town with a date 20+ years ago.

- Beth finds a portrait of an unnamed gravestone in her father's possession.

- The cave and inn are apparently haunted by voices that can foreshadow death or danger.

There's a few other things tossed into the narrative like hidden Civil War treasure, a raven that keeps attacking Beth and the obligatory love interest between Beth and the wealthy town attorney. The bulk of the narrative dwells on the Bratchers and their odd behavior. There's a mentally unstable Bratcher named Flossie who Beth befriends and tries to protect. Of course power struggle is a constant with Earl Bratcher's knowledge and management of the business versus Beth's young inexperience as the conflict cornerstone. Villains are aplenty with Walt and Mark Bratcher both exhibiting murderous intentions and a potential risk to Beth.

The Secret of Devil's Cave resembles the book's mandatory cover – a young vulnerable female facing the inevitable danger. Whether it's supernatural or not helps to enhance the overall narrative. It's a sales pitch that always works wonders for this saturated genre. Is it a pillowcase over deceitful humanity or a genuine dreaded monster? Beth is an admirable character and there's a strong ensemble of characters that helps shore up any rough patches. Overall, this was an enjoyable experience and makes me want to read more of Smith's “Jennifer Hale” Gothics.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Harry Horne #01 - End of a J.D.

Robert Morton Terrall (1914-2009) is mostly remembered for his Ben Gates series written under the pseudonym Robert Kyle and his late-period Mike Shayne novels as Brett Halliday. He also authored a little-known three-book series as John Gonzales starring journalist Harry Horne starting with End of a J.D. from 1960.

Our narrator is Harry Horne, investigative reporter for a New York weekly news magazine, similar to Time (where the author started his own career as a professional writer). One night Harry returns home from a nightclub to find a beautiful young woman showering in his apartment naked - because that’s how people showered in 1960. After getting out of the bathroom and getting minimally dressed, she attempts to kill Harry in his own bachelor pad before taking off into the night. Who does that?

Before the attack, Harry had been working on a big story about juvenile delinquent gangs. He embedded with a youth gang called the Sorcerers who took a liking to Harry - until they decided they didn’t like his attitude. Harry sets out to determine who wants him dead employing a gambit that is one of the most clever I can remember in a vintage crime paperback. There are a lot of instances of cleverness and wit here, and Horne is a great narrator to guide the reader on this mystery.

Mostly, Death of a J.D. is a typical Terrall novel - well-written, smart, funny with a plot too convoluted for its own good. It’s also an artifact of its time when Americans were terrified of teenage delinquents with switchblades, pomade and rock-n-roll music. Now we just call that era “the good old days.” And in the big scheme of things, I suppose this yellowing paperback was a “good old book.” Recommended.

Appendix:

The Harry Horne books are:

1. Death of a J.D. (1960) - Recently re-released as an ebook retitled as “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Funeral” (Buy a copy of that book HERE)

2. Someone’s Sleeping in My Bed (1962)

3. Follow that Hearse (1963)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Masked Detective #01 - Alias the Masked Detective

Before he ventured into three decades of paperbacks, Norman Daniels was one of pulp’s most published authors. Along with writing adventures starring The Purple Scar, The Eagle and Phantom Detective, he used the byline of C.K.M. Scanlon for a late pulp arrival The Masked Detective. The magazine's first issue, featuring “Alias the Masked Detective”, was published in 1940 and would run 12 total issues (a 13th story appeared in Thrilling Mystery). Daniels wrote the first few issues before handing the project off to Sam Merwin Jr., W.T. Ballard and other work-horse authors of that era. I purchased The Masked Detective Archives Volume 1 from Thrilling Publications, published in 2017 and featuring reprints of the first three Masked Detective stories.

Essentially, The Masked Detective is a standard vigilante named Rex Parker. Unlike other pulp heroes of the time, Parker isn't a wealthy entrepreneur or district attorney. Instead, Parker is a newspaper reporter who practices martial arts in his spare time. Using the French art of la savate, Parker routinely gives Hell to a plastic mannequin in his apartment. When his friend and newspaper colleague Winnie Bligh witnesses his fists of fury on the dummy, she suggests that he utilize his skills to fight the city's rising crime problem. Parker agrees and the two decide that an eye mask (black bandanna with eye holes) and some make-up could transform the easily identifiable Rex Parker into the unidentifiable night vigilante The Masked Detective!

Along with the origin tale, “Alias the Masked Detective” also features Parker's first crime-fighting adventure. A criminal named Carson is “accidentally” knocking off professors, art critics and antique collectors thinking that they are rival gangsters. But are these accidental murders really just cases of mistaken identity? After this sequence of murders continues, Parker, Bligh and a homicide detective named Gleason team up to root out the real motive. There's a dense backstory about an art exhibit and precious jewels, but I didn't really care. Instead, I wanted a fist and feet vigilante flurry as Parker progresses to the inevitable fight with Carson.

I found this debut issue to be a really swift read with a propulsive narrative that was quite compelling. Beyond the far-fetched hi-jinks, which one has to overlook when reading this stuff, the story was presented in a gritty, violent way. In the opening pages, a professor is shot six times in the stomach and then two more times point blank in the skull. This was 1940, nearly 27-years before Mack Bolan began violently “executing” Syndicate snakes. When guys like Doc Savage and The Avenger mostly tend to repress lethal blows, Parker proves to be the opposite. As also seen in The Black Bat, Daniels isn't afraid of a little bloodshed.

If you love this era of pulp storytelling, there's no reason why The Masked Detective isn't in your library already. This was well-executed and just a real pleasure to read. You can buy a copy of this awesome omnibus HERE.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Luther McGavock #01 - Let the Dead Alone

Merle Constiner (1901-1979) had success as an author of mysteries and westerns for both the pulps and the paperback original era. His Luther McGavock series was about a Memphis-based private eye who solved mysteries in the Deep South in several 80-page novellas originally appearing in Black Mask Magazine and existing today as reprints. His first adventure was “Let the Dead Alone” from 1942.

Luther McGavock is not a likable guy. In fact, he’s one of those guys that people instantly dislike out of pure instinct. His sucky personality and demeanor have cost him a lot of jobs, and he was employed at nearly every major private investigative firm in America before landing at his current one in Memphis. For that reason, Luther generally works alone.

His current assignment is an emergency job for his boss. The chief’s cousin - a man named Malcom Jarrel - has gotten himself in a mess in a small hill-town called Bartonville on the Mississippi-Tennessee border. The details are sketchy, so the boss sends Luther on a bus to find out what’s happening and make things right.

Upon meeting Cousin Malcom, he explains that someone dumped the corpse of the town’s recluse on Malcolm’s lawn. For his part, Malcom covered the dead body with straw, called his cousin in Memphis, and waited for Luther to arrive. When Luther examines the body, he sees that a roofing nail has been driven through the skull penetrating the dead man’s brain. Luther encourages Malcom to loop in the police while Luther sniffs around town for leads.

Luther’s clutch investigative technique reminds me of Gregory McDonald’s Fletch. He puts on the exact fake persona he believes would have the greatest likelihood of eliciting the information he’s seeking. This makes for a fun and unpredictable read as Luther hops from one bluff to the next. Moreover, Contstiner’s atmospheric description of the life and people of the Deep South seems remarkably vivid - particularly from an author who called Ohio home for most of his life.

The problem with “Let the Dead Alone” is the same problem I find with most 1940s mysteries - it’s overly complex and littered with clues, red herrings and too many characters. The novella also climaxes with one of those scenes where all the suspects are gathered in a room together to listen to Luther’s monologue laying out the solution to the mystery as to which one is the murderer. That type of formulaic mystery may have been fresh in 1942, but I find it rather tired.

That said, if you’re looking for a solid, traditional mystery with great writing and a totally different detective leading the charge, Luther McGavock may be the PI you’ve been seeking.

Buy a copy HERE 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 84

Welcome to Paperback Warrior Episode 84! Our feature this week is Robert Terrall, who wrote mysteries as Robert Kyle, John Gonzales, and Brett Halliday. Also discussed: Nursing Noir, Manhunt Companion, E. Howard Hunt, Robert Bloch and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 84: Robert Terrall" on Spreaker.

Friday, March 26, 2021

From Carthage Then I Came (aka Eight Against Utopia)

Douglas Rankine Mason (1918-2013) was a as British science-fiction author who was fairly prolific in the 1960s and 1970s. His first published work was a short story called “Two's Company” that was featured in 1964's New Writings in SF 1. After this publication, Mason launched a career as full-time novelist writing books under his own name as well as the pseudonym John Rankine. Along with the six-book series of Dag Fletcher space operas, Mason also authored stand-alone novels including From Carthage Then I Came. It was originally published by Doubleday as a hardcover in 1966. It was reprinted by Popular Library under the title Eight Against Utopia in 1967 and reprinted in 1970. I found the premise of the book intriguing and decided to try it out.

In the far future, the Mediterranean city of Carthage exists as a large domed city. For 7,000 years the people of Carthage have simply been living their lives inside of this dome due to the government's strict warnings that ice covers the entire planet. Inside the dome, the city's population is divided into sectors like education, administration, recreation and residential. But unlike other modern societies, Carthage's citizens don't experience any privacy. All of their thoughts and actions are monitored by a supercomputer that serves as the city's President. The very thought of leaving the city would warrant federal charges and possible execution. Government employee Gaul Kalmar discovers a secret...the  frozen planet narrative is all a lie. Earth is perfectly habitable.

Together with seven other individuals, Kalmar formulates a plan to escape Carthage. Like any good prison break story, the book begins with the obligatory discovery of a security gap. Using this as a pivot, the group must contend with the secret police, the President, the monitoring system and the fact that one of them is a traitor to the cause. This exciting premise places readers in and out of the dome in a way that keeps the novel perfectly halved; the first part in the prison and the second showcasing the inevitable escape.

As good as this premise is, Mason's writing style is strange and abstract and fails to provide great storytelling. The narrative is saturated with senseless dialogue and descriptions of advanced circuitry and technical nuances that I simply can't comprehend or relate. I imagine most of it is just simply tomfoolery on the author's part to construct this Dystopian civilization as being an advanced people. Thankfully, it is a short book and the sequences that are nearly unreadable didn't enhance or deter the narrative. The plot was contrived and concluded in a way that I felt justified the interesting premise.

In terms of Dystopian fiction, there are hundreds of novels in the genre for you to enjoy. Even in 1967, there was an abundance of books that featured people trying to escape from some sort of fortress city or a controlling, technically-advanced state. As such, Eight Against Utopia isn't a mandatory read, but if you feel inclined to spend a few hours under the dome, it is mildly entertaining. Just don't expect this to be the next 1984. It absolutely isn't.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Blood Oath

Canadian-American author David Morrell wrote First Blood in 1972 as his first published novel. The book was adapted into the blockbuster film launching the successful Rambo film franchise. With nearly 30 novels to his credit, Morrell has practiced in multiple genres including horror, action-adventure, mystery and even comics. I've always enjoyed his work and have owned his 1982 novel Blood Oath for awhile. The back cover features a Stephen King blurb that says he defies readers not to finish this novel in a single sitting. Taking the horror icon's challenge, I opened to the first page.

Peter Houston is a successful novelist and college professor. As a child, his father lost his life in a French battlefield during WW2. Pete's mother insisted that his father was a great man who gave everything for his country. After his mother passes away, Pete and his wife Jan journey to France to visit his father's battlefield grave for the first time. But, after asking the cemetery's U.S. military administration about his father's grave, they have no record of it existing.

When probing various U.S. diplomatic correspondents, Pete receives no helpful information about his father’s final resting place. As this odd mystery begins to unfold, Pete begins to imagine that maybe his father was never killed in the battle and is possibly still alive. The only clue may lie with the name Pierre de St. Laurent, a French soldier who promised Pete's mother that he would always be the caregiver for his father's grave. When speaking with the French residents in and around the battlefield site, the locals nearly run in horror at the mention of St. Laurent's name. After Pete and Jan are attacked multiple times, their luck finally runs out and Jan is murdered by an unknown assailant. Knowing her murder is linked to the mystery, Pete sets  out to find his wife's killer and to locate the real history about his father.

Blood Oath is like this fantasy marriage of Hammond Innes and Dean R. Koontz. It mixes in WW2 history, Nazi gold, high-altitude adventure and the idea of the average citizen on the run from strange and shadowy government operatives. The action moves at a breakneck speed with very little time for dialogue or discussion. The bad guys (no spoiler here) send waves of assassins after Pete and force him to utilize the training and expertise he's acquired while researching his own novels. It parallels Morrell's own expertise in firearms, evasive driving, outdoor survival, crisis negotiation - all skills acquired by the author during his research. I thought the pacing, character development and story progress were superb, but the ending was a real letdown with its indulgent castle setting and stereotypical villain.

If you are looking for a high speed, high adventure yarn, Blood Oath is certainly entertaining. Morrell has better books (Creepers for example) and whether or not this is a mandatory read is going to depend on how deep of a fanboy you are for this author. As to Stephen King's challenge, this one took me two days and wasn't the same enthralling experience he predicted.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Barr Breed #01 - The Body in the Bed

Born William Sanborn Ballinger, Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980) wrote over 150 teleplays including episodes of The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Ironside. With most of his career spent in radio and television, Ballinger still found the opportunity to author nearly 30 novels. His first, The Body in the Bed, was published in 1948 and is the first of two books starring a Chicago detective named Barr Breed. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I couldn't resist the idea of a crime novel in Chi-Town.

Although the sign on his door reads Breed Detective Agency, Barr Breed isn't your typical private-eye. Instead, he runs a detective staffing agency that furnishes guards for warehouses and banks, detectives for railroads, secret shoppers for stores and payroll protection for long routes. So the last thing Breed wants is a murder case. But, when a guy named Gibbs knocks on his door, Breed becomes enthralled with his story.

Gibbs explains that he's been cheating on his wife for a number of years. As a commercial account executive, Gibbs is in and out of hotels all over the country. In Chicago, Gibbs has a main squeeze named MacCormick. Unfortunately, while Gibbs was in the shower, someone walked in, strangled her to death and then tucked her into bed. Gibbs discovers the dead broad and makes a beeline for a detective agency to figure this out. Breed doesn't buy in right away, but when Gibbs produces a wad of bills, Breed makes him this deal: The money will buy Gibbs seven days. During that seven day stretch, Gibbs needs to lie low and allow Breed to find someone else to be a suspect for the cops. Gibbs accepts the deal and takes a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest later that night. Later, Gibbs' own wife is found murdered as well. Who knocked-off this love triangle and what's Breed's commitment to the case? That's the main premise behind The Body in the Bed.

Honestly, I didn't particularly like Breed during the novel's first half. But as the story-line began to tighten, I changed my tune - he's a real badass. He fights hard, escapes from killers, endures some torture, is an excellent shooter and a real cool cat with the ladies. He's not a dimwit, but he does allow the problems to solve themselves. He does some sarcastic wisecracking and always seems to describe in great detail what he's eating and drinking. As a crime-fiction mystery, the novel works really well with a payoff finally coming at the very end. I was glued to the characters just trying to figure it all out.

Ballinger writes this in the first-person as Breed relays his experiences to readers. After the book's sequel, The Body Beautiful, the author changed his writing style to incorporate shifting first-person narrators from the various characters' perspectives. This sort of bobbling could make readers seasick, but I'm willing to test the waters. I haven't seen the last of Bill S. Ballinger.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Fresh Fiancés for the Devil’s Daughter

Before there was a term for “Extreme Horror” or “Splatterpunk” with amplified gore and violence, a man writing as Russell Gray was shocking and revolting readers with his graphic horror stories and novellas in the pulps. Gray was a pseudonym of author Bruno Fischer, and his most famous horror work was “Fresh Fiancés for the Devil’s Daughter,” originally from the May 1940 issue of Marvel Tales.

The story begins at a crowded and drunken literary party in a Manhattan apartment. Our narrator is literary agent Lester Marlin, and he can’t keep his eyes off a woman who just entered the party. She introduces herself as Tala Mag, and Lester is somehow able to fend off her wanton advances by citing his wife’s presence at the party.

The next morning Lester receives a note from the party’s hostess (his best client) asking him to meet with Tala Mag as she is an aspiring author in search of representation. A second note from Tala requests Lester to come to her Park Avenue penthouse later that day for the meeting. Despite his misgivings, he agrees to meet with Tala to appease his client.

At the meeting, Tala is in full seduction mode demanding that he read a story she wrote. Lester reads her manuscript, and it’s dark, vile, evil and unprintable. However, Tala is not the kind of lady who takes no for an answer. As he tries to escape her apartment, Lester is subdued, rendered unconscious, and later awakens naked and bound by chains inside Tala’s “room of torment.”

Beyond that, I don’t want to give much away. However, if you’re seeking a violent and kinky fantasy gone awry, this is the story for you. The torture story becomes a revenge story with an expanded cast of victims, sizzling breasts and a “most dangerous game” gimmick. Bruno Fischer is clearly having some fun pitting an author against a literary agent in a battle sparked by the rejection of the exact kind of story that Fischer himself wrote as Russell Gray.

Was “Fresh Fiancés for the Devil’s Daughter” extreme? Most definitely. Was it scary? Not really. It was definitely suspenseful and never boring, but torture porn was never my idea of a scary time. I liked the novella mostly because Fischer was such a talented writer who could write propulsive and exciting action sequences. Even at this early stage of his career, he could deliver a compelling story. By now you know whether this is your thing or not. If it is, you’ll dig this selection plenty.

Buyer’s Guide:

The 38-page novella began its life in the May 1940 issue of Marvel Tales and has been reprinted in anthologies several times over the past 71 years. If you don’t have $300 to buy the original pulp magazine, you can find the story in any of the following books:

Radio Archives eBook Reprint

Hostesses in Hell

Pulp Fiction Megapack

Monday, March 22, 2021

Paperback Warrior - Episode 83

On Episode 83 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we discuss the evolution of sexual content in genre paperbacks. Also discussed: Carter Brown, Adult Westerns, Ardath Mayhar, John Kildeer, Frank Cannon, Sam Spade, Wade Miller, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Jonathan Craig and much more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, at paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE 

Donate to the show HERE

 

Listen to "Episode 83: Paperback Sex" on Spreaker.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Virgil Tibbs #01 - In the Heat of the Night

New York native John Ball (real name John Dudley Ball Jr., 1911-1988) worked as a newspaper and magazine reporter, a part-time Los Angeles deputy and a book review columnist for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. In addition to his three Talon police procedural novels, Ball also authored a seven-book series of novels starring African-American homicide detective Virgil Tibbs. The author is memorialized for the series' debut title, 1965's In the Heat of the Night. The Edgar Award-winning book was adapted to cinema in 1967, capturing five Oscars including Best Picture. After enjoying Ball's first Talon novel, 1977's Police Chief, I was anxious to read what is considered his finest work.

The book begins by introducing readers to Wells, South Carolina. It's the proverbial 1960s Southern small town where they can still smell the Civil War powder burning and probably always will. It's here where young cop Sam Wood patrols the city's streets on the graveyard shift. After a midnight lunch break, Wood discovers a dead body lying in the highway. After notifying police chief Bill Gillespie, Wood is instructed to immediately prowl the area for strangers. In a dark and cavernous train station, Wood finds a black man casually reading a paperback book. After discovering the black man has a wallet of cash, Wood hauls him in as the prime murder suspect.

Perhaps one of Hollywood's most treasured movie quotes is found in the book's fourth chapter - “They call me Mister Tibbs.” After the police question the black man, they learn that he is Virgil Tibbs, a veteran homicide detective from Pasadena, CA. As the narrative tightens, readers learn that Tibbs was trained in martial arts with a specialty in karate, judo and aikido. In addition, he's a veteran of the Pasadena police force, becoming a homicide detective after five years of patrol. It's also hinted that he may have attended an FBI school. Tibbs is a polymath, like Ball's favorite literature hero Sherlock Holmes. He is astute at problem solving with an almost supernatural attention to detail. But in the deep South of the 1960s, Tibbs finds he's in a different world.

As one can imagine, Ball explores the line between racial hostility and small-town justice. After learning that Tibbs is a highly regarded detective, Gillespie asks for his assistance with the corpse. Through character interviews, Tibbs learns more about the case despite the town's opposition that a colored man is leading the investigation. Tibbs, knowing that Gillespie and Wood are both inexperienced, is extremely humble and complacently accepts his role as a victim of racism. This is where Ball absolutely shines as a storyteller. Tibbs doesn't particularly care about the injustice, the racial hostility or Gillespie's browbeating. He's far above all of that, never in the ditch but up on the road. Tibbs is consumed by the murder mystery. Through the book's 150-pages, I don't recall Tibbs stopping for rest. Instead, he ascends to a plane of existence that only contains him, the murdered and the murderer. Thankfully, Ball doesn't make readers rest in this headspace. Instead, he presents the story by centralizing Wood and Gillespie. Readers rarely ride with Tibbs but instead are presented his findings just like Wood and Gillespie.

I'm probably off base here, but for some reason I couldn't help but think of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer character. Tibbs isn't Archer, but the narrative's twists and turns reminds me of MacDonald's writing style. Or, it could just be that I'm aligning two West-Coast detectives. Nevertheless, In the Heat of the Night is a masterpiece of police procedural fiction. If you are a fan of the film, there are key differences in the novel. The film has Tibbs from Philadelphia, the murdered man as someone quite different and the suspects having different professions and roles. Most notably is that the film version presents Tibbs as an angered individual when faced with racism. As I alluded to earlier, the novel is the opposite. Thankfully, the old adage applies here: The book is better than the movie (or television show).

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Forever After

In May 1960, Winston Publications launched a short-lived horror literary digest called Shock: The Magazine of Terrifying Tales with a cover illustration by Jack Davis from EC Comics. The magazine mostly reprinted classic horror and suspense stories from Weird Tales and Argosy, but the debut issue also contained an original short story by Jim Thompson titled “Forever After.” The story has been reprinted on Kindle for a buck from Noir Masters.

Mrs. Ardis Clinton is having a sexual affair with Tony, the dimwit dishwasher from the diner across the alley from her apartment. As the story opens, Mrs. Clinton has it all figured out: Tony is going to murder her husband with a meat cleaver allowing her to enjoy the widow’s life complete with $20,000 in life insurance dough. They just need to stage the apartment to look like a struggle took place during a robbery to give the murder an air of authenticity.

In order to give the ruse a sense of authenticity, Dumb Tony needs to rough up Mrs. Clinton to make it appear she was injured in the home invasion robbery that killed her husband. Meanwhile, it’s important to Mrs. Clinton that she’s wearing a skimpy negligee when her husband gets home, so Mr. Clinton can see what he’ll be missing before Tony cleavers the old man into the hereafter. The story’s tension mounts until the doorknob turns welcoming Mr. Clinton home for the last time...

“Forever After” is a nasty little story lasting only about ten pages, so I’m not going to spoil the plot any further for you. There’s an unexpected twist at the end that explains why Thompson sold the story to a fledgling horror digest rather than, say, Manhunt. It was also compiled in the 1988 collection Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson. In any case, “Forever After” is definitely worth reading. The easiest way to get a copy is to plunk down a buck and buy the digital copy for your Kindle. You won’t regret it for a moment.

Buy a copy of this book HERE