Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Buchanan #02 - Buchanan Says No

Crime writer William Ard experienced 1960s success with his private eye characters Barney Glines, Timothy Dane, Lou Largo and Johnny Stevens. His impressive 10-year peak run of writing included pseudonyms Ben Kerr and Mike Moran. But, the then Florida resident turned his attention to the western genre by adding a W to his last name and becoming Jonas Ward. He combined that with his ad exec experience at the Buchanan Ad Agency and created the loner cowboy Tom Buchanan for an astounding 23-book series simply called 'Buchanan'. The debut, “Names's Buchanan”, was published in 1956 and it's 1957 sequel is the subject at hand, “Buchanan Says No”. 

The book begins after a tiring and exhaustive 40 day cattle drive that promises to pay Buchanan, his kid protegee Mike Sandoe and the whole crew a nice $400 payday. But, after a day of waiting at the end of the drive, the payroll guy hasn't shown up. Buchanan learns that the payer, Boyd Weston, is in the nearby town of Bela so he and Sandoe head for the town. From here we gain some insight on Bela, and it's splitting between power hungry Frank Power and his partner Bernie Troy. The cattle drive was arranged as a backwoods deal – cattle to the US Army for guns that will later be traded to Mexico to in turn fight the US Army. It's a vicious circle but Troy and Power trust Weston to arrange the whole thing. Unfortunately, Weston blew the whole payroll pot on a poor night of gambling. Instead of ponying up the shortfall, Power and Troy agree to give the crew of laborers 10% of their promised payout as a final and only payment. 

While the plot could be construed as elementary from the surface – the “good guys” want the rich to pay – it has some deeper layers that keep it from being average. First, Sandoe is contracted by Power to provide the 10% news to the crew. Partly because he is the fastest hand in town but also because he needs to be divided from the deceptive and dangerous Buchanan. This turns the narrative into the teacher facing his student. But, there's the political portion of the town to contend with as well as two beauties that Buchanan must handle. In Ard's humorous “wink wink” fashion, Buchanan fondles one woman while another waits at the door for her turn. It's brilliant storytelling that left me laughing (and Buchanan was too at his incredible fortune). The story builds with intrigue, but laced with a number of fighting scenes that propels the inevitable showdown between Buchanan and Sandoe.

“Buchanan Says No” is my first sampling of this much beloved western series. In fact, it's my first taste of Ard's work as a whole. He's a fantastic storyteller here, creating a rich tapestry of action and intrigue that should please fans of the action-adventure genre. I have a lot of Buchanan books to devour, and like everything else, it's just simply a timing issue that I haven't read more. Look for more Buchanan and Ard reviews here soon. In the meantime, check out this fascinating reveal on the life and work of William Ard:

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Parker #06 - The Jugger

Most of the novels in the 'Parker' series by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake) are straight-up crime stories that follow Parker and a crew of professional thieves through the planning, execution, and aftermath of a big-dollar heist. However, the sixth installment of the series, “The Jugger” from 1971, is a very different kind of adventure for Parker: an actual mystery to be solved.

The mystery concerns an elderly colleague of Parker’s named Joe Sheer. Fans of the series will recognize the name because Sheer was a former “Jugger” (the underground parlance for a safecracker) who left his career behind for retirement. For several of the early installments in the series, Sheer serves as an answering service for Parker. If someone wants Parker to join a crew for an armed robbery, calling Sheer will get the message delivered.

After receiving an uncharacteristic and worrisome letter from Sheer indicating he was in trouble and needed help, Parker travels to Sheer’s adopted hometown only to learn that Sheer recently died of natural causes and was buried right before Parker’s arrival. For reasons mostly of self-preservation, Parker sets out to learn Sheer’s actual cause of death and the problems that prompted the letter sent to Parker. 

Along the way, Parker encounters a police chief with an unprofessional interest in Sheer’s life as well as a fellow thief also investigating Sheer’s final days. Could there be a missing fortune to recover? Why would Sheer break normal protocols and send such a worried letter to Parker? What was Sheer’s actual cause of death?

The excellent website, “The Violent World Of Parker,” disclosed that “The Jugger” was Westlake’s least favorite installment in the series. This is where I part ways with the author. Although I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this installment, I found the novel to be fascinating and the mysteries driving the plot forward were completely riveting. Bearing witness to one of my favorite anti-heroes in crime fiction shift gears and play detective was a fascinating change of pace.

Although the plot is completely unique within the series, the format of “The Jugger” remains true to the Stark formula. The action follows Parker through third-person narration until the Part Three flashback where the perspective changes and the motives of others are revealed to the reader. In this case, the payoff (i.e. solutions to the underlying mysteries) is outstanding.

If you’re considering skipping this one for fear that a mystery novel starring Parker may lack the visceral brutality of other volumes, rest assured that there is plenty of bloodshed for you to enjoy here. In fact, Parker’s solution to one of the book’s central puzzles concludes with an act of brutality so extreme and unexpected, it will stay with you for quite awhile. You’ll know what I mean as soon as you read it.

If you’re in the mood for a traditional heist novel, perhaps “The Jugger” isn’t the best choice. If, however, the idea of an exciting crime novel exploring the occupational hazards of being a criminal safecracker in retirement sounds interesting, you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did. It’s a shame Westlake didn’t like “The Jugger,” but he wrote it for you and me, not for himself. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Mantrackers

Author William Mulvihill (1923-2004) was a Cornell graduate that penned a dozen books during his career. Born in New York, Mulvihill joined the Army and acquired the rank of corporal and squad leader during WWII combat at the Battle of the Bulge. After, he settled on Long Island and taught history at Glen Cove High School for 32 years. His emphasis was on African history, stemming from his visits to the continent in the 1960s and 70s. He owned a robust collection of books about Africa and became a scholar and expert on it's natural history. He utilized this passion to fuel his 1960 adventure novel “The Mantrackers”, which later would be re-titled “Serengeti” for the 1995 reprinting. 

The book introduces us to Captain Pfeffer, who on this January day in 1910 is serving the German Imperial Army in Tanganyika. The hotheaded Pfeffer has a dozen years of wartime in Africa, fiercely fighting in Herero, Bushman and Masai on his destiny to become general. He's a young German enigma, captivating military minds with his fighting prowess, grim determination and career mindset. But, on this day things take a drastic turn for Pfeffer. While hunting, a leopard takes him by surprise, severely mauling and disfiguring him before he can be rescued by soldiers. Hinging on life and death, Pfeffer is taken to a hospital for a long rehabilitative stint. Once Pfeffer heals, the German military discharges him from service due to his appalling appearance. Pfeffer, furious with himself, the military and Africa, returns to the bush as a solo hunter, determined to kill every animal on the continent. 

With Pfeffer on a seemingly endless killing tear through African game, the news finds former fighting man John Thrustwood. Thrustwood, along with his friend and servant Chapupa, campaigned as trader, farmer and mercenary for the British Army, serving in the Boer War and later establishing himself as one of Africa's premier hunters. Thrustwood, finding Pfeffer's vendetta and mission unacceptable, vows to track and stop him. Soon, Thrustwood, Chapupa and friend Quinell find and confront Pfeffer in the jungle. After disarming him, they take Pfeffer to African officials who place him on a ship to England. Pfeffer escapes and resumes his bloody tirade through the African countryside. Thrustwood and Chapupa now realize they must hunt and kill Pfeffer to end the carnage.

Mulvihill is an unusual but talented writer. In “The Mantrackers”, his love of history and African landscapes is awe-inspiring. But, his delivery is of one purpose – simply the storyline. The book has a distinct absence of humor, witty dialogue or a focus on character development. Mulvihill is very serious with his presentation, almost scholarly in the telling of the tale. It was an adjustment for me, the avid reader of more vivid displays of bravado, to accept this storytelling early on. But, a fourth of the way in I not only accepted it – I found it to be personally enjoyable. This is a fantastic adventure story that builds to a fiery crescendo. Pfeffer vs Thrustwood/Chapupa is the main event and Mulvihill pulls no punches. For that, I applaud the author and look forward to hunting down more of his works. For now, “The Mantrackers” is a respectable and entertaining read from a unique writer.

Friday, September 21, 2018

True Fiction

Lee Goldberg began his literary career in 1985 with his '.357 Vigilante' series of men’s adventure novels published under the pen name of Ian Ludlow. (Fun Fact: Goldberg chose the Ludlow name, so the books would be shelved next to Robert Ludlum.) The series lasted four installments and then disappeared without much fanfare. Thirty years later, Goldberg re-released the books under his own name as 'The Jury' series for modern audiences.

Everyone figured that was the last we’d ever hear from Ian Ludlow. Goldberg went on to have a successful career as a television writer and producer for shows including Diagnosis Murder, Psych, and Monk. He continued to write mystery and suspense novels until he struck literary gold by co-authoring a commercially-successful series of humorous mysteries with the already-famous Janet Evanovich.

Understanding this basic bio for Goldberg helps give the reader some context for the literary stunt he pulls in his latest novel, “True Fiction.” The plot is about a thriller author named Ian Ludlow who gets sucked into the kind of save-the-world adventure that the fictional Ludlow writes in his own novels. Goldberg penning an action thriller about an author named Ian Ludlow is like if Stephen King wrote a horror novel about an author named Richard Bachman.

“True Fiction” opens with a horrific terrorist attack in which a commercial jetliner is flown into a high-rise hotel causing mass carnage. The reader quickly learns that the attack was secretly orchestrated by a malevolent corporation named Blackthorn that aspires to be the recipient of a massive outsourcing contract from the CIA in the same manner that the Department of Defense outsourced duties to Blackwater for the Iraq War. Blackthorn sets up some innocent Muslims to take the fall for this 9/11 sequel, and the corporation puts itself in the position to crack the case for the U.S. government while showing off its superior private-sector intelligence abilities.

When we meet our hero, Ian Ludlow is at a sparsely-attended book signing in Seattle where he is promoting his new action novel. We learn that Ludlow writes thrillers in the same vein as the 'Jack Reacher' series, but the nebbish author is no hero himself. For the Seattle leg of his book tour, he is accompanied by an attractive escort (not that kind of escort) named Margo hired by the publisher to shepherd the author from one book signing to another.

When Ludlow learns about the circumstances surrounding the recent air attack on the hotel, he is taken aback because it perfectly mimics a storyline for a terrorist incident that he presented to the CIA at a “what-if” focus group years earlier. Ludlow becomes convinced that the recent mass-causality incident was actually orchestrated by the CIA as a false flag operation and that he is a marked man for knowing this fact.

This kicks off a breakneck exciting “couple on the run” story as Ludlow and Margo avoid assassins from Blackthorn while thinking they are actually being pursued a CIA kill squad. The cat-and-mouse scenes in Seattle were especially gratifying as Goldberg incorporates a lot of unique features of the city into the action.

Fans of men’s adventure paperbacks will find “True Fiction” to be filled with Easter eggs and references to the genre’s greatest hits, including 'The Executioner', 'James Bond', 'The Destroyer', and, if you pay close attention, '.357 Vigilante'. There’s also a fun backstory about Ludlow’s history of writing for crappy TV mystery and cop shows - a plot point that becomes important as the novel progresses - that recalls Goldberg’s own career trajectory. 

At times, it’s hard to figure out where Goldberg ends and Ludlow begins. We have an action-adventure novelist writing about an action-adventure novelist who becomes an action-adventure hero by drawing inspiration from his own action-adventure hero. It’s a house of mirrors, but it’s also a real blast to read. The book is written with real cinematic potential, and you can imagine this being a big-budget, Hollywood summer blockbuster one day

Goldberg toggles from violent, propulsive action into comic relief quite adeptly. “True Fiction” is both exciting and hilarious with no slow parts to weigh it down. The only criticism I can muster involves a scene towards the end of the book involving a car chase that veered too far into slapstick, but it didn’t derail the book for me. The samples of Ludlow’s own writing interspersed throughout the novel serve as a particularly hilarious send-up of the modern state of the action thriller genre.

Throughout the book, Goldberg pokes fun at the tropes and excesses of modern thrillers without ever descending into full farce. “True Fiction” is a successful author’s love letter to a genre he truly adores, and I was excited to see that Ian Ludlow is coming back for a second installment in 2019. In the meantime, be sure to check this one out as it was written just for a guy like you.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Warlock #01 - Autofire Blitz

“Adrenalin pumped through his system as he prepared to lock horns with scumbags who didn't deserve to keep sucking God's good air.”

With that kind of testosterone, Mark Allen's debut 'Warlock' novel, “Autofire Blitz”, is the perfect companion piece to 80s action movies and books. In what he considers an ode to the pop culture that inspired him, Allen created Damien “Warlock” Locke, a bullet spewing vigilante with purpose.

The book begins with a swift flashback to January 17th, 2011. Locke finds himself an amnesiac left for dead in Afghanistan. With no prior knowledge of his life, or who put the bullet crease in his head, Locke is left with a clean slate on life. He has tattooed names of “Damian Locke” and “Warlock” on his Locke and Allen are running with that. Experience fighting bad guys? Yeah, Locke has it in spades. He can only guess that he's had explicit training with the Navy Seals or Delta Force, and from the action sequences here...I'd say that skill-set and more.

Fast forward to present day and Locke's current mission – rescue a 10-year old boy from the clutches of a drug cartel. The only problem is that this particular cartel has deep, corrupt ties to the DEA. As Locke hits various pool halls, bars and alleys, the story starts to expand and “flesh” out – meaning long, descriptive explanations of bullets penetrating organs (like when horror authors dish out pink-gray froth for their intended victims). That's really what sets Allen apart from the 80s and early 90s vigilantes. This author is way over-the-top in terms of rapid fire delivery and graphic violence. I can't help but compare it to horror novelists like Edward Lee or Jack Ketchum (and Allen himself dabbles in the horror genre as well). It's say the least. Whether you like or dislike that sort of thing is the measuring stick on your entertainment value here. For me personally, I can run with over-the-top if it is fun, senseless and has some boundaries.

“Autofire Blitz” is a fun, compelling and gritty read from an author who is clearly a fan of the action and adventure genre. While Paperback Warrior typically doesn't read or review contemporary (maybe TWO A YEAR), this was an entertaining novella that fueled my desire to check out more of Allen's work. You can find him and his books on his Amazon page.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ranger Kirk

It’s hard to guess why William Crawford adopted the pseudonym of W.C. Rawford for his 1974 stand-alone western, “Ranger Kirk.” The copyright page says it’s by William Crawford and the book is dedicated to “Robert Gene Crawford, my brother.” Moreover, the pen name of W.C. Rawford isn’t really throwing pseudonym sleuths off the scent. Who was he fooling?

My best theory is that maybe he thought that “Ranger Kirk” was a crappy novel he could unload on Zebra Books - and later Pinnacle Books - without the stench of the paperback following him to his grave. The publication of “Ranger Kirk” also coincided with the debut of his 'Stryker' series, and Pinnacle Books really thought they had a hit on their hands with Stryker (Spoiler: They didn’t). Crawford was also Pinnacle’s choice to replace Don Pendleton as the author of the Mack Bolan series during a time when Pendleton was feuding with his publisher. In fact, Crawford authored The Executioner #16: “Sicilian Slaughter” published under the pseudonym of Jim Peterson, a controversial installment in the iconic series that still has hardcore Pendleton loyalists seeing red.

Whatever the case, I figured I’d give “Ranger Kirk” a fair hearing and see if this good-looking paperback is a lost literary treasure or best-forgotten garbage. The character of Ranger Kirk is Sergeant Tom Kirk, an Old West Texas Ranger with the Frontier Battalion along the Mexican border who approaches his job the way a modern intel officer might. He deploys undercover agents into Mexico to gather information about criminal activity. This clandestine approach to law enforcement makes Kirk an oddity among his colleagues who are more of a shoot first and ask questions later bunch of guys. Moreover, Kirk’s spy operations have been going poorly and three consecutive operatives are slaughtered and mutilated by the enigmatic Mexican crime lord, Tuerto.

As the reader gets to know our hero, we quickly discover that Kirk is a flaming asshole. He’s that friend of yours who starts taking swings at you after he has a few drinks in him. His abhorrent behavior crosses the line one too many times, and he is forced to give up his Ranger badge. This leads to a fairly clever and unexpected series of events that brings Kirk right into the heart of Tuerto’s operational base in Mexico.

When Kirk finally meets Tuerto face-to-face, it’s a surprising encounter. Once again, the author chooses a plot turn quite unexpected and somewhat more satisfying than the typical western showdown the reader expects. Tuerto is a fascinating character, and Crawford should have done more with him. Along the way, there are Indian attacks, a damsel in distress, and the eventual redemption of our hero.

Even with all this, “Ranger Kirk” is a pretty lousy novel. The story never really comes together into anything particularly interesting. The action scenes are poorly-written, and Kirk never turns the corner fully into a likable character. The upside is that it’s a blessedly-short paperback at 160 big-font pages with blank page between each chapter for further padding. In fact, the brevity of the book is the only reason I finished it. Finally, the cover art by George Gross is outstanding, but this paperback isn’t worthy of its own packaging.

Final assessment: Don’t bother.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Blonde Bait

Ed Lacy was a pen name used by author Leonard S. Zinberg. Lacy wrote over 25 novels between 1951 and 1969. He was credited by creating one of the first African-American detectives – Tony Moore, who debuted in the 1957 novel “Room to Swing”, which also won the Edgar Ward for best novel. “Blonde Bait” was released mid-career in 1959 by Zenith with an alluring premise: “She had to buy protection and her payment was her body”. Okay, I'm in.

The book begins with a troubadour named Mickey reuniting with his old friend Hal in Haiti. Mickey proudly tells Hal of his new lover Rose and his new boat, The Sea Princess. He loves both equally and soon we realize that Mickey and Hal were former business partners. Hal chose married life and quietly settled in New York. Mickey chose freedom – sailing around the Caribbean and up the east coast. Being a lackadaisical sailor costs money, and that's really the central emphasis of the novel. Money. How to get it? What to do with it? Lacy begins to tell this romantic story to us - the curious readers - on how Rose and Mickey became wealthy.

Rose is a tall blonde that is often described as a “big woman” by the author. Mickey finds her washed ashore in the Keys hungry, lonely and desperate. After a few odd conversations between the two, and a rain storm, they become friends. Mickey suspects Rose is carrying emotional baggage – evident from her secrecy regarding a suitcase on board and a book written in French. As the two sail and island hop, engaging in their life stories, we learn that Rose was a down and outer, doing stripping and service work before meeting an elderly French man. He needed her companionship, she needed a consistent residence. While not exactly love, the two made it work until he was murdered. After finding a suitcase in her strip club locker, the police and FBI began harassing her about his death and where the suitcase is hidden. After repeated attempts on her life, she bought a boat and sailed away.

I won't spoil it for you. The suitcase is important, as well as the book. It takes some time and patience on the reader's part to slog through the dialogue between Rose and Mickey. There's a payoff, but the author does a tremendous job staying reserved in his storytelling. Eventually, Mickey finds himself running from the feds and goons as he learns the secret behind Rose's murdered lover. The action takes us from the Keys to Virginia Beach to New York, propelling the narrative with different locations and outcomes for Mickey and Rose's flight. The end result is a really engaging story with enough momentum and intrigue to keep it fresh and entertaining throughout. This was my first Ed Lacy book and I'm already planning which of the author's works to read next.