Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Gail #02 - To Love and Yet to Die

When book one of the 'John Gail' spy series opened, Gail was a financially-ruined encyclopedia salesman who answered an ad and became a spy for a private consortium of benevolent millionaires operating a clandestine espionage agency. The opening of the second installment of the series from 1966 finds Gail in an entirely different position. He is now a wealthy man living on a secluded beach villa in Spain with two lusty girlfriends at his disposal. It’s a good life, and Gail has no desire to re-enter the world of espionage. He finds the whole enterprise unseemly - even if it did bring him wealth.

Unlike a lot of spy books of this era, it’s really helpful to read the first 'John Gail' paperback before diving into the second. There are some plot developments and characters with powerful scenes in book two that won’t make much sense unless you know Gail’s recent history. You won’t be completely lost, but it’s just a more fulfilling read with a little context.

Gail’s aspirations to live a life of sexy threesomes in the salty Spanish air are interrupted by a visitor from his clandestine agency in London. They need him for an assignment, and he must leave at once. When asking politely fails, the agency resorts to threats and blackmail to cajole Gail back to work. In London, Gail learns that the assignment involves a paper marriage to a woman he’s never met before followed by a period of keeping her safe from a malevolent group trying to harm her. Think of it as a witness protection program where the protector gets laid. There’s a rather sappy romance that develops between Gail and Diana, his new bride/protectee, and the whole time the reader is waiting for the other shoe to drop and the violent bloodbath to begin as it did in Gail’s first adventure.

Once again, the author does not disappoint. Diana knows a secret that makes her a target of the enemy’s intel service that she won’t even tell Gail (or the reader) until well into the novel. His efforts to keep her safe make for genuinely exciting reading and the violence escalates to some intense scenes of torture and brutality as the story progresses. Gail is an everyman reluctant hero who is put through a good bit of Hell leading up to the paperback’s climactic and satisfying ending.

Stephen Frances honed his chops in the 1940s and 1950s writing the 'Hank Jansen' thrillers, and the 'John Gail' books show a real knack for pacing and placing the hero in exciting situations. It’s crazy that the inferior 'Nick Carter' series was such a phenomenon while the nearly-perfect 'John Gail' books only lasted seven installments. As it was never reprinted, this Gail adventure installment may be a bit hard to find, but you won’t be disappointed with the story. Highly recommended.

Postscript:

Although this was a fantastic novel, the cover art is problematic. It seems to depict John Gail wearing white boxer shorts - probably with an erection - while ninja klansmen clad in white robes shoot him with arrows. I’m happy to report that this scene never happens in the book. All that said, I’d like to thank Award Books for ensuring my embarrassment every time someone glanced at what I was reading for the few days I was carrying around this abominably-packaged paperback.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Traveler #04 - To Kill a Shadow

D.B. Drumm (author John Shirley) continues his trek with 'Traveler' entry “To Kill a Shadow” (1984 Dell), the fourth volume of the 80s post-apocalyptic series. The book picks up in the early part of 2005 and finds our hero in California hunting his arch enemies The Black Rider and Major Vallone. Other genre series' will stick to more realistic plot schemes like forging for food and supplies, exploring the barren landscape or just fighting warring bandits. Shirley certainly injects those elements into this series, but has a lot of fun creating horrific mutants and monsters and placing them into the battle sequences to propel the action. “To Kill a Shadow” prominently displays all of the genetic freakshows and monstrosities we've come to love about Shirley's vivid “splatterpunk” style.  

Just nine pages into our narrative Traveler and his “meat wagon” (fortified van) go into battle against giant Cen-Cars. What is that? Well, think of the Greek mythos of Centaurs, those men with human torsos atop a horse body. Now, do the same thing but substitute a car in place of the horse. These Cen-Cars are running rampant all over California devouring humans and animals and utilizing them as fuel sources to propel their car bodies. Wow! In an exhilarating car chase Traveler battles the Cen-Cars and frees human capital from an abandoned diner. The freed prisoners accompany Traveler back to a religious compound ran by a faux Messiah named Brother John.

The middle of the story is typically a slow-burn with building characters and relationships, but Shirley keeps the pedal down and rolls right into more action. The fire fights increase between Brother John's followers/Traveler and the dastardly Glory Boys/The Black Rider (Major Vallone's soldiers). It's Shirley's show, which means that giant snakes with human heads are incorporated into the battle along with more Cen-Cars and an elephant-sized kitty cat. There's plenty of mind control, ESP, telekinesis and spiritual jargon mixed into the story...but again there's giant snakes, human cars and enormous cats to devour all of that nonsense. The author even attempts to humanize the typically immortal Traveler hero, this time keeping him blind for a large portion of the book. Additionally, Traveler takes on a needy child protegee and shows off some emotional depth.

The Vallone/Black Rider mythos may have ended with this installment. It's absorbed most of the first four books and I'm anxious to see if the series will focus on a new direction starting with book five. There's mention of Traveler heading back to Arizona to bed down with his Native American beauty Jan. Wherever Traveler and Shirley go...I'm sure there is some nightmarish ordeal for the reader to enjoy. Fun stories, enjoyable series, talented author – this is why we love the genre.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pony Soldiers #01 - Massacre at Buffalo Creek

Chet Cunningham was a workhorse at writing action/adventure paperbacks, knocking out dozens and dozens of them in multiple genres (not to mention idiosyncratic non-fiction books with titles like “Three Simple Steps to Flatten Your Belly” and “Stopping Restless Leg Syndrome”.

Beginning in 1987, he was able to launch an interesting western series called 'Pony Soldiers', about cavalrymen in Texas and their dealings with outlaws and Indians. At first glance it looks like an 'Easy Company' knock-off, but it isn’t. Nor is it a horn-dog adult western series like the 'Spur' novels he was writing at this time. 

The first book, “Slaughter at Buffalo Creek”, immediately shoves the reader up against the wall and hits him with an exceptionally grim massacre perpetrated by Comanches. Supply wagons headed for Fort Comfort are looted after every last cavalryman escorting the train has been killed. Their bodies are stripped and mutilated, and then the warrior chief discovers something hidden under blankets in one wagon: the terrified wife and small children of the fort’s commander. He murders the little boy and the little girl is carried away, but not until after the wife has been gang-raped, slashed, killed and scalped. 

The grieving fort commander swears vengeance, and that’s what drives the series. But this particular novel goes in a different direction. There’s certainly a lot of material about searching for the Comanches, and about the contrasting ways of life at the fort and at the Indians’ camp. But now a new plot emerges, involving a bad lieutenant who’s discovered and stolen $8,000 in government gold, left behind in one of the wagons by the marauding Indians. 

This story about the lieutenant turns out to be even more interesting than the vengeance stuff, and it’s reminiscent of Cunningham’s fun 1970s series about gold-hungry schemer 'Jim Steel”. I won’t disclose whether the thief gets away with the loot or not, but once that narrative is resolved, the book is over. The vengeful commander will have to wait until the next novel (or later) to get even with the Comanches, and that’s going to irritate some readers. The rest of us can shrug it off and look for the next book, entitled “Comanche Massacre”.

“Massacre at Buffalo Creek” sags a little bit in the middle, but overall this is quite a strong novel. Unfortunately, the original paperbacks aren’t all that easy to find, but if the later installments are as good as this one, they’re well worth seeking out. The series is also available as ebooks. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Green Lama #01 - The Case of the Crimson Hand

Author Kendell Foster Crossen (writing as Richard Foster) was editing “Detective Fiction Weekly” in 1939 when he was asked to compete with the successful “The Shadow”, who's prominence began in 1931. By 1939, lots of publishing companies were attempting to cash in on the craze (“Centaur's Amazing Man”, “The Black Bat”), and Crossen was chosen to do so. Originally deeming him “The Gray Lama”, more vibrant, colorful artwork was requested and “Gray” became “Green”. The very first 'Green Lama' story, “The Case of the Crimson Hand”, appeared in “Double Detective” in April, 1940.

Crossen named his hero Jethro Dumont, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in “oriental religions”. He inherits ten million, and then travels to China to study Buddhism. Miraculously, these studies allow Dumont to acquire a host of crime-fighting tricks and techniques that he carries back to New York to become THE GREEN LAMA. Dumont walks around in the daylight as Reverend Dr. Pali, and at night dons a green robe and hood, a red scarf and a ton of luck to become a vigilante. The Green Lama operates out of a penthouse laboratory and has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong. He also has an ally in the now reformed mobster Gary Brown. 

“The Case of the Crimson Hand” is a familiar one. An evil villain named The Crimson Hand has stolen a handful of Dr. Valco's deadly capsules. These capsules contain a lethal dose of radium that will wipe out a cubic mile of the population. The Crimson Hand and his squad of goons plan on releasing all of the capsules in major cities, thus killing off the population and making room for him to become...you guessed it...the ruler of the world. 

This short novella displays The Green Lama in all of his various techniques: he can touch a face and cause instant paralysis. He can hide in plain sight. He can choke but not kill with his handy red scarf. He can survive plane crashes, bombs, bullets and beatings, but he isn't immortal. He has a magic catchphrase of “Om! Ma-ni pad-me Hum! Om! Ma-ni pad-me Hum!”. I don't know what this does...but he says it a lot. Essentially, The Green Lama just goes from hideout to hideout routing out the bad guys, stopping their evil plans and putting The Crimson Hand behind bars. Lama teams with both Gary Brown and the secret, behind the scenes operative named  Magga, the mysterious lady from Lhasa. Collectively, they're rough and tumbling through 90-pages of pulp action mayhem. It is pulp for the pulp enthusiast, and in that regard fans and readers should have a great time. 

Altus Press has this story included in their 2013 release “The Green Lama: The Complete Pulp Adventures Volume 1”. Along with this story is “The Case of the Croesus of Murder”, “The Case of Babies for Sale”, The Case of the Wave of Death”, “The Case of the Man Who Wasn't There”, “The Case of the Death's Head Face” and “The Case of the Clown That Laughed”. The stories are prefaced by author Will Murray's introduction and professional commentary. Altus Press has a total of three volumes encompassing 16 total stories.

Friday, July 13, 2018

John Gail #01 - This Woman is Death

“Excellent financial rewards await young man, physically fit, reasonably intelligent, naturally non-conformist and totally devoid of any undue respect for the law. Write to box 503.” The ad appealed to London door-to-door encyclopedia salesman John Gail, and it became his door into the world of international espionage. That’s the premise of the 'John Gail' series by Stephen Frances. A consortium of millionaires has a well-funded secret spy agency working outside the boundaries of bureaucrats to save the world, and John finds himself suddenly on their payroll.

The first book in the series, “This Woman is Death” (1965) introduces us to John, an every-man guided by his unused education in philosophy who solves problems through logic and reason. Unlike most spies, he has deep moral problems with killing, which is the central driving conflict of this novel. John is paired with an impossibly sexy assassin named Vanda (the book’s best character) and given an assignment to kill - putting his pacifism to the test. The secret agency employing John is also fascinating and leaves the reader wanting to know more. John’s agency controller, George, is wise and shrewd. He is the adult in the room nudging John in the right direction.

This wasn’t a perfect novel - it was chatty and a bit slow - until the blood-soaked final set-piece where the author paints a mural of extreme violence with some excellent writing. John’s confrontation with the enemy - and his own ethics - was worth the wait.

There were seven books in this series. I’m dying to find out what happens next. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Fargo #04 - Massacre River

Under house name John Benteen, Ben Hauss crafts another adventurous entry in the long-running 'Fargo' series with “Massacre River”. This is fourth in the series for publisher Belmont Tower (different numbered order with other publishers), originally published in 1969 with a cool asking price of $1.50.

Wealthy Chinese entrepreneur Jonathan Ching asks to meet with Fargo for a rather odd proposition – he wants Fargo to escort his daughter, Jade, through a war-ravished stretch of the Philippines. The destination? Another wealthy Chinese man named Chea Swen-Tai, who has been promised the hand of marriage from Ching's daughter. Ching and Swen-Tai arranged the marriage before Jade was even born, so it's only fitting she despises the marriage. Fargo will do anything if it's the right price, and after negotiating over a few thousand our Paperback Warrior is ready for action.

During the Spanish-American War, the Philippines were ceded by Spain to the US. America didn't recognize the First Philippine Republic, thus war ensued. The rebellion against the US included the Republic of Negros, Tagalog Republic, Sulu and the main enemy in the book, the Moros (which are really just tribal and violent Muslims). Fargo served in the US Army in the Philippines and already knows the job is a perilous one. To assist on the 300-mile trek, he recruits a fighting Irishman named O'Bannon, whom he actually has to fistfight first. 

It wouldn't be a Fargo novel without sex, and we get that with the mandatory mattress romp with the client. Jade, fully westernized, pleads with Fargo to help her escape. It turns out she has already lost her virginity in London and Chea Swen-Tai will kill her once he realizes he is marrying used snatch. Fargo is faced with a moral dilemma, deliver the goods knowing she will be put to death or forget the money and liberate her. For one night, Fargo gets to think it over with Jade offering up her body. 

The trek itself is a typical adventure/road story with some natives fighting the convoy, some meet and greet with other Americans and ultimately...betrayal. The book's rowdy end has crazed Confederate soldiers refusing to accept the North's victory, attempting to rule parts of the Philippines and eventually capturing Fargo and company. We go from route preparation to road adventure to a “let's escape the lunatics” finale. It's a typical Fargo story...and that means it is absolutely a blast. We get a cannon fire competition, knife fights, nearly endless run 'n gun and a whole lot of brawling. I just can't get enough of this series and character. If you like adventure – and who doesn't - Fargo is your guy. Bring on the next entry, “The Wildcatters”.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Eliot Ness #01: The Dark City

Between 1987 and 1993, Max Allan Collins wrote four books starring Eliot Ness, the famed U.S. Treasury agent credited with busting Al Capone as fictionalized in “The Untouchables.” The Ness paperback series is more historical fiction based on the hero’s law enforcement adventures after prohibition, and the first installment, “The Dark City”, is an excellent opening novel.

After achieving G-Man fame, Ness separates from the federal government and accepts a post as Director of Public Safety in Cleveland, Ohio. He is tasked with cleaning up the corruption in the Cleveland Police Department while beheading the local crime syndicate with a stranglehold on the city’s lawful functionality. Collins presents Ness as incorruptible but also human and vulnerable. He forms alliances with a local reporter to gain public support for his anti-graft platform while also feeding his enormous ego with high-profile raids

Collins creates many divergent story threads that he successfully wraps up nicely over the course of the paperback’s 275 pages. There’s a con-man ripping off elderly immigrants in an elaborate bank fraud scheme. There’s Ness’ own deteriorating marriage and his interest in a comely secretary. Meanwhile, he’s also playing beat the clock to make some big police corruption arrests before the city council votes on a new budget. The biggest fish for Ness to identify and catch the shadowy “Outside Chief” who runs a crew of dirty cops like an unidentified crime lord with a badge. To his credit, Collins resolves all these plot threads very neatly allowing “The Dark City” to stand on its own as a fine mystery novel and not just the first chapter in a serial story.

Collins is an excellent writer, but I miss the first-person narration of his 'Quarry' series. The Quarry books feel subversive and dangerous whereas this Ness paperback feels rather polished and mainstream. There’s a cool cameo from another Collins series character that I won’t spoil here, and the raids that Ness conducts with his handpicked team are the novel’s action highlights.

If you are looking for bone-crunching adventure, maybe this one isn’t for you, but “The Dark City” a good mystery with plenty of political maneuvering through a dirty bureaucracy and a stalwart hero you can admire. Recommended.