Monday, November 18, 2019

A Cry in the Night (aka All Through the Night)

Whit Masterson was a pseudonym for the literary collaborations of Bob Wade and Bill Miller, who were also prolific under their other pen name, Wade Miller. “A Cry in the Night” was a 1955 kidnapping thriller released as a Bantam paperback that was also titled “All Through the Night” in hardcover and adapted into a film starring Raymond Burr and Natalie Wood in 1956. The novel remains available today as a cheap eBook - free, in fact, if you have Kindle Unlimited.

“A Cry in the Night” opens just after midnight where our villain, a perverted sociopath, is lurking around the lover’s loop on a hill above a Southern California harbor. He’s a ghoulish creep - sneaking up to the windows of cars containing couples, so he can better listen to their passionate gasps for his own solo sexual thrills. A confrontation with a couple of lovers goes sideways, and he ends up driving away with young Liz while leaving her boyfriend unconscious in the dirt. The perv has inadvertently become a kidnapper.

When the boyfriend regains consciousness, he is disoriented and concussed. The police pick him up wandering the streets in the middle of the night and throw him in the drunk tank to await court in the morning. After realizing that he’s not just some wino, the cops begin to piece together that something sinister and awful must have happened to the missing Liz at the make-out spot. An early plot twist reveals the personal nature of the investigation for the department’s leadership.

The police characters are just awesome. There’s a pair of patrolmen who know each other so well that they can finish each other’s sentences. There’s a Lieutenant nicknamed Old Ironhead who appears to be a tactical genius dispatching police resources where they can do the most good. There’s a sex crimes detective awakened to provide subject matter expertise to save Liz before it’s too late. “A Cry in the Night” is one of the best police procedural novels I’ve ever read as it shows the teamwork involved in a proper critical incident response.

This is a compressed-time paperback in which all the action transpires over a five-hour period with each chapter designating the turning of a new hour. Third-person perspective changes allow the reader to follow the sequential events through the eyes of several characters. The writing is smooth and the pages really fly by. The cop scenes depict a logical and competent investigation conducted with great urgency. The scenes with the kidnapper and victim recall a horror novel - or, at the very least, a dark suspense story filled with menace and terror. Wade and Miller created one of the most disturbing psychos since Norman Bates.

The cat and mouse game between the police and the kidnapper comes to a satisfying conclusion at the novel's climax. I can quibble with some of the law enforcement choices made, including the involvement of a civilian in a tactical operation, but why bother? After all, it’s just pulp fiction.

Wade and Miller wrote a hell of a lot of books together, and I have only scratched the surface of their body of work. However, I can comfortably say that “A Cry in the Night” is the best of their novels that I have read thus far. Highly recommended.

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Friday, November 15, 2019

Running Target

Steve Frazee (1908-1992) was a Colorado native and major contributor to the pulp and paperback western genre. The author wrote a number of Disney tie-in novels like “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Zorro”. He even authored a series of adventures starring television canine “Lassie”. Frazee wrote very little crime-noir other than “Running Target”, his 1957 novel published by Fawcett Gold Medal. After hunting down a copy, it's really just a simple western in disguise.

Oddly, “Running Target” doesn't feature a chief protagonist. Instead, it's an ensemble cast featuring a group of man-hunters searching a dense mountain range for four escaped prisoners. Led by the noble Sheriff Rudd, the players are:

Newton – Deputy Sheriff; pacifist who refuses to kill

Pryor – Deputy Sheriff; proud Sheriff's son

Jaynes – Voluntary Deputy; local businessman and sociopath

Smitty – Volunteer; female business owner who was robbed by one of the prisoners

Frazee's narrative style is very elementary. It is 160-pages of...man-hunting. The book follows the group as they track the prisoners through the forests. Between waking up and making coffee to the hiking and camping, the author spends extraordinary amounts of time beating around the bush (pun intended) without any story development. One could argue that the constant complaining, bickering and insults could be the focus, but why?

There's an interesting side story of Smitty carrying a small, curiously wrapped package in her bag. The author hints there will be some big reveal, and honestly this literary gambit kept me hanging in there page after page, but he pisses the whole idea away with three sentences three-fourths into the novel. Spoiler – it amounts to absolutely nothing.

Like walking barefooted on a steamy gravel road, flipping these pages was a painful, agonizing effort. But it also left me questioning a number of things. First, the fact that the armed pursuers are on horseback in the mountains makes this a traditional western. However, it's obviously set in the 1950s with the car, plane and radio that are mentioned and shown. Why even add those factors? Just call it a western and eliminate the contemporary setting. Second, could this novel have been a short-story the author originally wrote? Perhaps someone convinced him to pad the hell out of it to compose a full-length paperback. Sadly, I'd say that was probably the case as the padding was plentiful. It was probably a western too. But, Fawcett used popular paperback artist Mitchell Hooks to hook both crime-noir readers and their hard-earned money.

While I won't dismiss Steve Frazee's work, because I'm sure he has plenty of great westerns to his credit, “Running Target” has run right into our Hall of Shame. This book is an absolute turd.

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Thursday, November 14, 2019

David Hill #01 - Prison at Obregon

Bill Adkins, an author about whom I know next to nothing, wrote a three-book series of paperback adventures starring Cessna pilot David Hill. All three novels were released in 1976 by Popular Library and were quickly forgotten after failing to make a splash. The opening installment was “Prison at Obregon,” and the cover introduces Hill as a “high-flying adventurer who’ll dare anything for the right price in cash and kicks.”

The book opens with playboy business consultant David flying his Cessna to Acapulco with a chick he hardly knows. He invited her along solely because of her great legs - a decision that makes total sense based on the author’s description of the legs. The Acapulco trip was prompted by an invitation from David’s Mexican friend who offers the small-aircraft pilot $100,000 to smuggle a load of marijuana back into the U.S. in his plane for the Mexican Syndicate.

David accepts the assignment but chickens out after drawing unwanted attention from Mexican law enforcement. This turns David from a Mexican Syndicate ally to a loose end in the eyes of some dangerous hombres. Can David’s friend to broker a peace treaty with the Mexi-mob and have everybody make some some money in the process? Can they stay one step ahead of the federales?

Adkins’ writing is pretty good, but the plotting of this series debut sure needs some work. The first half of the paperback consists of false starts and aborted missions before the actual story begins in the novel’s second half. I also found it hard to root for the hero. He’s kind of an arrogant jackass who’s good in a fistfight and between the sheets but otherwise without charm or distinction. Moreover, he’s agreed to smuggle drugs into the U.S. just for kicks. The author was clearly a Cessna pilot as each “action” scene contains pages and pages of flight details - too many for my tastes.

The last 60 pages of the book form the real story, here - and set up the conceit for the remaining two books in the series. I’m in a tough spot because I don’t want to spoil the first, largely lousy, 110 pages for you that brings us to the “good part.” Let’s just say this: as the title indicates, there’s a prisoner locked up in a Mexican jail in the City of Obregon who needs to be busted loose. The airplane smuggling hi jinx story quickly becomes a jailbreak adventure. The scenes inside the Mexican prison where characters jockey for position within the inmate hierarchy were pretty great, and I wish there were more of that in the paperback.

Overall, “Prison at Obregon” is a total mess of a novel that could have been saved by a stern editor to rework the plot into something that flowed with greater coherence. There are some cool ideas explored and some of the action sequences were solid, but not enough to save this one. I have the other two books in the series, but I’m not sure if I can stomach them. For your purposes, your time and money are best spent elsewhere.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Sgt. Hawk #01 - Sgt. Hawk

The first “Sgt Hawk” paperback was published by Belmont Tower in 1979. The novel features a heroic, gruff US Marine Sergeant leading soldiers in the South Pacific Theater of World War 2. Not much is known about author Patrick Clay, but the book was apparently successful enough to warrant three sequels - “Return of Sgt Hawk” (1980), “Under Attack” (1981), and “Tiger Island” (1982). I'm a sucker for Belmont's military fiction and “Sgt Hawk” generally receives positive reviews. I'm digging in.

Like Len Levinson's 'Rat Bastards', Sgt Hawk's platoon is made up of hardened, battle-scarred grunts with vulgar mouths. Hawk is a country boy from Mississippi, thrust into leadership by wielding an uncanny fighting spirit. In many ways, Hawk could be a misplaced western hero superimposed onto war-torn Japanese Islands. He's a lovable character with a deep accent, an attribute that helps calm the civilian population while also motivating his troops. When readers are first introduced to Hawk, he's a monumental workhorse leading his men through dense foliage to destroy a pillbox. He takes the hardest route himself before risking his soldier's lives. Hawk's that kinda guy.

After an early skirmish, Hawk and fifteen troops are offered a special assignment. As the US pinches the eastern portion of the island, US intelligence fears that the Japanese will retreat to the northwest quadrant. Hawk's role is to protect a Dutch rubber plantation, an asset being utilized by the Allies. Once Hawk arrives at the plantation, the narrative settles into the cusp of the story – Hawk's interaction with the plantation's wealthy owner and family while trying to solve...a murder mystery.

The Van Speer family have owned and operated the plantation for fifteen years and don't immediately welcome Hawk and his men. Cut-off from the rest of Europe, the Van Speers don't fully grasp the war's impact. The family's oldest daughter, Gretchen, is smitten with Hawk and the two form a budding romance over the course of a few weeks. While Hawk and his men await the inevitable conflict, they appear to have an enemy on the farm. The platoon is slowly picked off one-by-one in a macabre “Ten Little Indians” series of murders. Could one of Hawk's men be a traitor? Or, is it an early advance of Japanese forces?

Patrick Clay does a tremendous job in maintaining the suspense until the very end. I had an early theory that panned out, but it kept me guessing for the majority of the book. The author propels the narrative in a multitude of ways. The romance between Hawk and Gretchen adds depth to these characters and allows the rock-solid Hawk character to become soft for readers. The murder mystery is slowly developed and adds a touch of eerie isolation. But, when the action hits, it's non-stop brutality that comes in waves.

“Sgt Hawk” delivers a gritty, violent war tale with a unique murder mystery as an added touch. The sequels are fairly pricey and, to my knowledge, aren't available as ebooks. In particular, the third book seems to be the rarest, pitching a double-digit prices online. Against my better judgement, I spent and arm and a leg to buy the remaining books. This is an exciting series with a ton of potential, and I'm excited to review the batch.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Boysie Oakes #06 - Traitor's Exit

British author John Gardner (1926-2007) enjoyed a literary career that flourished with a number of spy and espionage thrillers. The prolific author was chosen by Ian Fleming's estate to author 14 'James Bond' novels, successfully maintaining Fleming's approach and tone. While the James Bond empire kept Gardner gainfully employed throughout the 80s and 90s, his first foray into the spy genre was an eight-book series starring lovable, but intentionally incompetent British spy 'Boysie Oakes'. The debut, “The Liquidator”, was published in 1964, but my first taste is the sixth series installment, “Traitor's Exit”, originally published in 1970.

From what I gather, “Traitor's Exit” is unlike any other book in the series. In fact, Boysie Oakes isn't even the main character. Instead, the story is told in the first person by Rex Upsdale. Rex is a low-caliber author barely surviving off of royalties produced by his own spy series, “Gascoigne”. His bills are a Mount Everest of bad debt, and he's still holding out for anyone in Hollywood to actually adapt his series to film instead of signing worthless movie option contracts. Let's say that Rex isn't turning away any knocks on the door. Thankfully, after authoring a controversial magazine article about an authentic British spy named Kit Styles, Rex receives two visitors.

Kit Styles was the golden boy of British spies. Unfortunately, he defected to Russia during the Cold War, spilling numerous state secrets and propelling Russian momentum. The DI-5 (England's version of the CIA) have offered Rex the deal of a lifetime. They offer to pay off all of the author's debt, a check for $10K and the promise to never ask for favors again. But, what could possibly warrant this sort of cash? They want Rex to fly to Russia and interview Styles for a magazine article. Easy, peasy...who's got the checkbook?

Gardner's clever writing is a satirical look at the spy genre both from the stance as an author and reader. Rex describes his “Gascoigne” series as an exploitation on the spy boom, stating that anyone who could write got on the bandwagon. He even boasts that he wrote the second book in the series standing on his head. I think this is Gardner's unique insight into the era's publishing industry.

Once trouble arrives, which introduces Boysie Oakes into the plot, Rex often has a fantasy novel running through his mind as a form of mental escape. It's a unique writing style by having the reader not only engaged in “Traitor's Exit”, but also the swanky private-eye story that's running through Rex's thoughts (which is an obvious ode to Raymond Chandler). Gardner is also very conscious of his peers, with having two characters in the book namedrop 'Modesty Blaise', 'Matt Helm' and 'Callan'. Often Rex asks (screams) for these fictional characters to assist him in the most dire situations. Gardner is clearly having a blast with the story and characters. His presentation and dark humor is reminiscent of Jimmy Sangster, who penned two spy novels called 'Touchfeather'. It's these types of books that Gardner views as tongue in cheek.

Overall, this was just a fantastic, very funny novel with plenty of action-adventure to please the serious diehards. “Traitor's Exit” will be the perfect entrance into John Gardner's stellar work. This one is a must.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, November 11, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 19

In this episode, we have a hardboiled discussion regarding censorship in our favorite genres. Eric reviews “Bloody Jungle” by Charles Runyon and Tom covers “Modesty Blaise” by Peter O’Donnell. You don’t want to miss this one! Stream below or on your favorite podcasting service. Download the episode directly at (LINK)

Listen to "Episode 19: Hardboiled Censorship" on Spreaker.

Paul Chavasse #04 - Midnight Never Comes

Household name Jack Higgins, real name Henry Patterson, achieved mega-success with his novel “The Eagle Has Landed” in 1975. Selling 50 million copies, consumers then flocked to his books, prompting savvy publisher Fawcett Gold Medal to conceive a clever marketing design. Fawcett reprinted a much earlier series of hardback books starring British secret agent Paul Chavasse in 1978. The mainstream literary community didn't realize these novels were written by Harry Patterson under the pseudonym Martin Fallon, originally published between 1962 and 1978. The Fawcett series had new artwork and the author's name as the more familiar Jack Higgins. Thankfully, it wasn't just a cash grab because these books truly deserved a bigger audience.

In the series debut, readers learned that Paul Chavasse is a British operative working for a special organization called The Bureau. Paul works under the direction of Bureau Chief Mallory and takes on jobs that are too tough for MI-5 or Secret Service. There's not much history that is pertinent to the story. However, we learn that Paul's parents were French and English, he's fluent in most languages, and has been with The Bureau for 10 years going into “Midnight Never Comes,” the fourth series installment.

The novel opens with Paul weak and broken after an ill-fated assignment in Albania chronicled in the series third novel, “The Keys to Hell”. Paul has gunshot wounds and broken bones that haven't healed. Yet, The Bureau wants him to pass an endurance and shooting test. Ultimately, Paul fails and is seemingly put out to pasture. While on leave of absence, Paul reflects on his career and life and wants out of the espionage business. However, all of that is turned upside down in the opening chapters.

While in London, Paul finds himself in the middle of a robbery at an Asian restaurant. After Paul saves the restaurant and a young woman, the business owner volunteers to replenish Paul's stamina and health using ancient traditions. A few weeks later, Paul is as good as new and even passes the endurance test for The Bureau (which results in an exhilarating plot twist). His newest assignment is to stop a wealthy Australian terrorist named Donner from acquiring a new rocket prototype. The mission's locale is the northwest section of Scotland, a rural and rugged coastline with thick fog, battering winds and locals who love to kill strangers.

“Midnight Never Comes” is a more subdued Chavasse novel and downplays the globetrotting intrigue. The book reads like a rural adventure crossed with an unusual Gothic sensibility. In fact, Higgins paints the atmosphere with a cold mist and sets the climactic finale in an crumbling lakeside castle. Is it a spy novel or the next 'Doc Savage'?

Thankfully, readers will be delighted with the storytelling and suspense. Higgins seems to really enjoy this character and it's a triumphant installment in a highly rewarding series. I can't say enough good things about it. Either buy the originals, or pick up the mass market reprints from the 2000s.

Buy a copy of this book HERE