Tuesday, March 20, 2018

To Kiss, Or Kill

Along with contemporaries Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and Peter Rabe, the Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original crime novels were defined by the work of author Day Keene (real name: Gunard Hjertstedt). Between 1949 and 1973, dime-store spinner racks were filled with affordable paperback output from Keene and his cohorts. 

“To Kiss, Or Kill” (1951) was Keene’s fifth published novel, and the setup is rather familiar: Our hero finds the corpse of a sexy, nude blonde in his Chicago hotel room and endeavors to clear his name since no one would ever believe that he didn’t snuff the dame. In this case, our wrongfully-accused hero is a former Polish-American heavyweight boxing sensation, Barney Mandell, who is freshly released from an extended stay in an insane asylum. Mandell can’t even be 100% sure he didn’t kill the blonde due to his drunkenness at the time of the discovery as well as his awareness that he’s - until recently, at least - certified crazy.  

Mandell’s quest to get to the bottom of the situation takes him into the world of his own humble beginnings before he was a famous prize fighter. One of the fun aspects of this story is that even though he’s been out of the ring for awhile, Mandell is a sports celebrity. People know him and vividly recall his 42 consecutive knockouts in the ring, and while he’s on the run, he’s also encountering fawning fans seeking autographs. 

Did Mandell kill the blonde and then suppress the memories? Why was he committed to an asylum? Why are the Feds creeping around this case? What does Mandell’s estranged wife have to do with all this? These are the questions that Keene teases out over the course of the thin paperback. 

Unfortunately, instead of a tidy and fast-moving investigation to find the killer, the novel puts the reader through long, rather dull, narrative stretches of exploring Mandell’s own sanity. Does an insane man have the introspection to know he’s crazy? As the bodies around him begin to pile up, it’s clear that Mandell is either completely loony or he’s being set up for multiple homicides. 

The ultimate solution to the novel’s central mystery is a bit of a let-down, and the road to get there has lots of dull, talky, repetitive stretches. “To Kiss, Or Kill” would have been a better 40-page Manhunt Magazine novella, but it felt padded at 160 pages. It’s not an awful book, but there are many better options with similar themes from the same era. 

Keene has done better, and so can you. Best to take a pass on this one.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Wilderness #05 - Tomahawk Revenge

The fifth book in the 'Wilderness' series, “TOMAHAWK REVENGE”, is another winner from author David Robbins (writing as David Thompson). 

The series is set in the late 1820s, and follows the adventures of Nate King, a nineteen-year-old New Yorker who follows an uncle to the remote Rocky Mountains and decides to stay. By this point in the saga, it’s time for Nate to learn how to make a living, and that means fur trapping. But that education is interrupted by a Blackfoot war party, and what happens next--- in fact, all the way to the end of the book--- is harrowing, savage and bloody.

As good as this series is, there might be a crack or two in its foundation now. After depicting a wide variety of dangers and adventures throughout the first four books, a touch of déjà vu is creeping in. There’s yet another grizzly bear attack, the third so far. (I’m tempted to claim that Nate King is attacked by grizzlies as often as Mack Bolan gets shot at, but that’d be a stretch.) And once again Nate faces hostile Indians. Boy oh boy, are these Indians hostile!

In “TOMAHAWK REVENGE”, Nate and his companions are not only attacked, but taken prisoner and subjected to various grueling tortures. It’s easily the most intense Indian action of the series so far, and I don’t know how Robbins will be able to top it (but I’m sure he’s up to the task). Imagine staggering naked through the woods, bleeding from an arrow wound, as shrieking, kill-crazy Indians bear down on you, advancing closer and closer. 

This novel isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s definitely powerful. The level of brutality and general misery here may be tough for some readers to take, and there’s also a bleakness that we hadn’t seen thus far. But don’t let that scare you off.

While most action/adventure series are about wish fulfillment (punishing the guilty, rescuing the vulnerable, accomplishing a vital mission or just getting rich), the Wilderness books are simply about the challenge of survival, the struggle to not get killed. They’re also a lot more compelling than the ordinary pulp action series. If you’ve never had a paperback grab you by your shirt and throw you across the room, get ready for “TOMAHAWK REVENGE”.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Stoner #02 - The Satan Stone

“The Satan Stone” is the second installment of Ralph Hayes' 1970s treasure hunting action series 'Stoner'. Our hero is Mark Stoner and this four book series focuses on the character attempting to find precious stones – thus the name could be duel usage. This book is my first taste of the series, but I've enjoyed the author's exceptional line 'The Hunter' (sometimes called 'John Yard'). It shares a lot of the same exotic locations as this series – sweeping African deserts and rowdy towns like Lagos and Nairobi. It wouldn't surprise me to see crossovers from each line, but I'm not sure Hayes' had publishing permission or the motivation. As I delve into each series more, I'd love to see a reference to the other books somewhere. I could easily imagine John Yard crossing paths with Stoner or even Yard's colleague Moses. These two series' run parallel to each other, so it would make rational sense to have them entwined.

The first 37-pages of “The Satan Stone” is intriguing and presents a phenomenal problem – how do you smuggle a 1,000-carat diamond out of a mining prison? That's the issue at hand for an engineer named McMillan. He has come to the mining prison of Shoshong, in the South African desert, to provide a new sorting machine. The arrangement is he receives profit sharing for a year in trade for this new machine. De Villiers, the book's dictator/prison warden welched on the deal and now a dejected McMillan is leaving the camp with nothing. Kicking some dirt and dust, he miraculously discovers an egg-sized diamond. The prison is notorious on security, and routinely beats (or murders) thieves. McMillan, fearing that he will be caught, hides the diamond on the undercarriage of a bulldozer with hopes of retrieving it and escaping. 37-pages later, the diamond is still securely dozing and McMillan has killed a helicopter pilot while escaping through the desert.

Thankfully, chapter three gives us a brief introduction of Mark Stoner. He's an adventurer and exporter based out of Key West (home of author Ralph Hayes). He globe-trots buying precious gems and artifacts. While wealthy and free-spirited, he's still a hunter for allusive treasures and antiquities. Thus, McMillan and his awareness of the prized diamond are an inviting challenge for Stoner. 

McMillan contracts with Stoner to have the diamond retrieved from Shoshong. The issues are aplenty – breaking in and out, passing security and dodging the mine's Gestapo-like cartel called The International Diamond Security Organization (IDSO). Plans are concocted to put Stoner inside the prison under the guise of a recently killed security inspector from the IDSO. Once Stoner infiltrates the prison, his exploits to retrieve the diamond are a bulk of the story. Hayes' is masterful in the cat-and-mouse tactics and leads the reader on numerous paths speculating the outcome. While not sounding overly complex, there's several side-stories that enhance the narrative – a suspicious guard, an inmate/laborer in the know and McMillan's own struggles escaping the IDSO in Nairobi. Surprisingly, this novel may have the most exhilarating scene ever involving a simple phone call. It's so elementary, yet the entire white-knuckle finale hinges on it. 

I've said this previously in my reviews of Ralph Hayes extensive catalog. The author takes seemingly normal, everyday people and places them in extraordinary circumstances to see how they react. It works well here as Stoner doesn't necessarily have the fighting skills or know how to solve difficult issues. Like 'The Hunter' and 'Buffalo Hunter', often Hayes leaves it to complete ignorance on the part of the characters or sheer luck to decide life or death situations. It's this aspect that makes his writing so enjoyable. It might be nonsensical, but you have to at least believe there's a “lucky shot”. That's the Hayes' style. 

I'm on my very own treasure hunt now, fueled by the anticipation of securing the entire series for my paperback museum. 

Stoner #01 - The Golden God

Ralph Hayes' 'Stoner' series kicks off with 1976's “The Golden God”. Like a majority of the author's work, it was released by publishing house Manor (which questionably may have been a tax dodge for Belmont/Leisure or a Mafia money laundering scheme). Regardless, the Hayes/Manor combo was a successful one for genre buffs and fans, producing nearly 25 titles that are still discussed nearly 40 years later. Along with series' like 'Buffalo Hunter' and 'The Hunter', 'Stoner' introduces another hefty dose of bravado in Mark Stoner, a treasure hunting exporter that is just damn good at everything. This novel in particular is a bit pulpy, capturing exotic jungles, ancient ruins and cursed relics. It's all plot bait to set-up Stoner versus a bunch of baddies. 

Oddly, the synopsis on back of the book mentions an Erik von Richter. There's no character by that name in the book. Instead, this Richter guy is actually Johann Strasser. I'm not sure if this was a late edit of the name or just a major miscommunication from the editor to artist. Regardless, the book has esteemed archaeologist Strasser acquiring a small Peruvian golden statue (The Golden God) called the Cuzcapac. I'm calling it “Goldie” for the sake of simplicity. The prior owner, an Indian named Idilio, is killed off by a duo named Diablo and Maltese, so it's just a matter of time for the next owner to be hunted and killed. The evil exporters are after Goldie and soon make a play on Strasser. Not only do they want Goldie's riches, but also the location of ruins where the statue was found. Big money, big money, no whammies.

Before Strasser is inevitably murdered, he passes Goldie to Stoner in Key West. With the treasure and a semblance of where the ruins are located in Peru, he travels to Buenos Aires to hook-up with Strasser's attractive daughter Ursula. Together, the two strike a bond and travel into the Peru jungles to locate the ruins. Maltese, Diablo and some goons simultaneously strong-arm their trek to the ruins, setting up the impending confrontation for the last 10-pages.

Hayes is a meat and potatoes writer and “The Golden God” emphasizes that. At 180-pages of exotic adventure, soldiers of fortune and buried treasure, Hayes delivers the goods. While the story-line is boiled down, the action is intense and moves at a rapid-fire pace. I read the book in a few hours and was thoroughly entertained. The book's sequel, “The Satan Stone”, is miles better than this, but the series grasps a good foothold here. Those looking for more pulp adventure will find plenty to like in this series.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

River Girl

America is a big country, and in the 1950s Americans still didn’t know one another all that well. To an untraveled guy from Boston, a West Virginian may as well have been a space alien for all the commonalities between their lives. This familiarity divide gave birth to a slew of erotic noir crime novels with the selling point that rural America was filled with hidden, unsophisticated, hot and horny babes ready for action with townies willing to venture into the woods. Sprinkle in some blackmail, murder, and a plot twist - and a crime fiction classic is born. This must have been a successful formula because books like “Backwoods Teaser”, “Swamp Nymph”, “Hill Girl”, “Shack Road Girl”, and “Cracker Girl” - complete with lurid, painted covers - apparently filled the drugstore spinner racks of the 1950s. 

Charles Williams’ 1951 entry into this arena was his third novel, “River Girl” (later re-released as “The Catfish Tangle”). Williams’ later books featured nautical themes and  brought him success and movie adaptations, but “River Girl” was before all that. Like many of the best from the era, “River Girl” was released as a paperback original by Fawcett Gold Medal and has found new life thanks to a reprint from Stark House Books, packaged as a double along with Williams’ 1954 release, “Nothing in Her Way”. 

The short novel stars Jack Marshall as a somewhat crooked deputy working for a very crooked small-town sheriff. Jack serves as the boss’ troubleshooter and bagman for graft collected from the local backroom gambling parlors and whorehouses selling “too-young” merchandise. Despite his supplementary income, Jack is going broke and restless with a disinterested wife at home who doesn’t appreciate him. 

During a solo fishing trip down the river, Jack finds a shack deep in the swamp where an unlikely couple lives. After meeting Doris for the first time while her husband is away, Jack is immediately smitten. All he can think about is Doris despite the intense pressure he’s under from a preacher working to shut down the town’s sin parlors and a grand jury convening to investigate local corruption. When Jack’s infatuation with comely Doris is too much to handle, he pays her another visit and learns that the river girl’s story is far more complex than he ever imagined. Even with the impossible hurdles, could they have a life together?

Man, Charles Williams sure could write. The lust, humidity, and pressure Jack experiences throughout this short novel is palpable. The sexual chemistry between Jack and Doris is hot but never graphic, and the culture of rationalized small town corruption is fully realized thanks to Williams ability to put us squarely in Jack’s narrative mindset. The plot twists are ingenious and largely realistic and the tension builds to a violent, action-packed climax. Throughout the book, Williams adeptly walks the line between a noir crime novel and a forbidden romance story and it works quite well - all the way up to the satisfying conclusion. 

Put this one in your “must read” pile.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Survivalist #02 - The Nightmare Begins

Jerry Ahern’s post-apocalyptic series 'The Survivalist' showed promise in its debut novel, “TOTAL WAR”. Early on in the book, nuclear war breaks out between the Soviet Union and the United States. I won’t give away which side wins; let’s just say we finish in the top two.

Our hero is John Rourke, a trained physician and former CIA agent. A massive nuclear explosion hits while he’s traveling across the country on a commercial flight, and the glare of the blast blinds both of the pilots. Rourke steps up and manages to land the plane by himself somewhere in the New Mexico desert, and the rest of the book is all about protecting the passengers, scavenging the area for guns, and finally heading east in hopes of finding his family back home in Georgia. Near the start of that journey, he and a friend are confronted by a huge motorcycle gang, and in a memorable if unlikely finale, our heroes blow away every last biker.

The second book, “THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS”, is similarly packed with adventure. Rourke has reached Texas, and will have to deal with radiation poisoning, armed paramilitary squads, an even bigger contingent of heavily-armed outlaws, and other perils. Meanwhile, his wife and small children are facing some of the same problems back home, and if anything the drama is even more effective on that front. The book ends on a strong and surprisingly poignant note, setting us up for more adventure in the next volume. 

Both books are good. But they’re not great, and they really ought to be. All the ingredients are there for some solid, breathless action/adventure fiction. Somehow, though, the books are interesting without being exciting, and the hero is very capable but he’s lacking in star power.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s something about the author’s style that kept me at arms’ length from the material, I don’t know. I felt the same way about “THE BATTLE BEGINS”, the first book in Ahern’s 'The Defender' series, another post-apocalypse epic whose hero might as well be John Rourke’s twin brother. In both series, the material was just fine but the kettle never really came to a boil.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by other post-apoc series which were written later on, things like 'The Last Ranger' and 'Phoenix', in which there are mutants and cannibals running around and things are much crazier than what we get from Ahern. 

Don’t get me wrong. Overall, these Survivalist books are better than average, and I’ll certainly continue on to the next installment. I have a feeling things will get more... well, nightmarish.

“THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS” is worth your time, and very likely you’ll dig it more than I did, especially if you’re a gun enthusiast and you enjoy reading about the specs of various firearms. Take your reading pleasure to the next level by playing the Survivalist Drinking Game: every time you see the brand name Detonics, take another drink. By the time the book is over, you’ll be so woozy you won’t know whether you’d read it or dreamed it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Buffalo Hunter #04 - Hellhole

The Leisure first edition version from 1973 lists “Hellhole” as 'Buffalo Hunter' number one (note Belmont Tower also released the book with a different cover in 1973). It's in bold black ink on page three.

We know from front cover images floating on used online sellers that 1973's “Four Ugly Guns” has a clear “#2” printed with the series logo on the cover. However, there's evidence that states the first printing was in 1970. It would seem as if it was released first, yet later the publishers deemed it as second in the series. The same can be said for 1973's “Gunslammer” (aka “Secret of Sulphur Creek”) boasting a “#3” on it's cover and evidence of an original printing in 1970. I'm not sure why the publishers would have flipped the series order, but the author advised me the correct order is "Gunslammer", "Four Ugly Guns", "The Name's O'Brien" and this fourth book, "Hellhole".

Deep online excavating shows a title called “Hunter's Moon” released by Lenox Hill Press in 1971. The blurb from that states, “The days of the buffalo hunters are recreated in this novel about a man named O'Brien”, the series protagonist. For some reason, the publishers failed to include this book in the series. It doesn't achieve a numerical place in the series chronology and seemingly has been skipped. Robert Hale Limited also released a version of the book in 1974 and apparently didn't include a number or any indication it was part of a series.

Regardless of how we approach the series, or in what order we read, “Hellhole” is a very enjoyable western novel. The opening chapter has O'Brien fingered as the man who murdered two men and a young girl. The reader knows the Latimer gang committed the atrocity, we were there. But the backwoods sheriff and deputy don't, thus a harsh and speedy sentencing that puts O'Brien in hard labor at the notorious Bradenton prison.

Two-thirds of the book is the brutal day to day of O'Brien overcoming adversity and finding reason to rise and exist each day. He's put under torturous conditions by the sadistic prison warden and forced to fight for meals while mining underground for long, grueling hours. The plot develops into the inevitable “escape and payback” routine but Hayes smoothly builds the tension and mood. Will he escape? Where does he run? Who's Latimer? These are all questions that both the reader and O'Brien pose. Hayes sorts it all out for us, but paces the story effectively that we just snack to fill up. Fans of brisk, yet calculated westerns should love “Hellhole”.