Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Sergeant #03 - Bloody Bush

The only thing I didn’t care for about “BLOODY BUSH” was the title. Otherwise, this third entry in 'The Sergeant' series not only equals the first two books in excellence, but surpasses them in terms of narrative power and character development.

The first book, “DEATH TRAIN”, introduces us to Sgt. Clarence Mahoney and brings us along on an undercover demolition mission of his in Nazi-occupied France. That mission gets wrapped up surprisingly quickly, so then we tag along as he helps members of the French resistance fight back when the Germans besiege their headquarters. The action is solid and the storytelling is superb, and Mahoney is such a fascinating character that he himself is the best thing in the book. A gruff, cigar-chomping Superman in dirty fatigues, he’s all but invincible as the Germans throw everything they have at him. 

(The Mac Wingate series, which would debut a year later, chronicles the adventures of another American undercover he-man demolition expert tirelessly fighting the Nazis. Remarkable coincidence or cynical rip-off?) 

The Sergeant’s second book, “HELL HARBOR”, avoids the bifurcated narrative of “DEATH TRAIN” and tells one epic war adventure story, sending Mahoney deep into the revolting sewers of Cherbourg on a mission to prevent the Germans from blowing up a key harbor installation. Now Mahoney is more human, more nuanced, and more vulnerable. The story is cohesive but the plot isn’t very rigid. It’s related as a series of incidents, some combat-driven and some character-driven. The first book set the bar pretty high, but “HELL HARBOR” is even better.

And now “BLOODY BUSH” is the best one yet. Hoping for less risk to life and limb, Mahoney has transferred to a regular Army platoon and the secret missions are over. It’s July 1944, and the D-Day landings have been successful, but now the Americans need to push out of Normandy into the interior of France, and into the jaws of the waiting German army.

WWII buffs will appreciate how skillfully the novel blends fact and fiction, as the novel deals with both the Battle of the Hedgerows and the Battle of St. Lo. It’s not all about endless warfare, either; the narrative also involves Erwin Rommel and the plot to assassinate Hitler. In fact, Rommel, Hitler and George Patton all play extended supporting roles in this story. 

But you don’t have to be a history nut to enjoy this book. It’s classic masculine pulp, with lots of exciting combat sequences as well as some colorful confrontations between Mahoney and an arrogant army captain (I enjoyed these even more). Good war fiction pulls the reader into the action on an intellectual level, but really top-notch war fiction makes you feel it in your gut, with vivid details of everything from the flying dirt and shrapnel to the exhaustion, the fear and the sinking apprehension that today is your last day on Earth. The way the ground vibrates beneath a soldier during an artillery barrage, the panic and the adrenaline that take over in hand-to-hand combat, the psychological impact of weak leadership as opposed to confident leadership… it’s all here, painting the experience of war in both the broad strokes and in the little details. 

Author Len Levinson (writing as Gordon Davis) nails all of this with his usual skill. Even better, he further explores Mahoney’s complex persona, refining the characteristics we already knew about and developing a few new ones. Mahoney can bust a fellow soldier’s jaw in one chapter, kneel in prayer and carry a Bible under his shirt in another chapter, usurp a superior officer’s command in yet another chapter, and nevertheless there are no contradictions in him, just complexity. It’s rare to find such nuance in pulp fiction. It’s extraordinary. And so is this series. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Quarry #03 - Quarry in the Black

Fans of Men’s Adventure Fiction place Max Allan Collins’ 'Quarry' series in the top-tier of the genre along with Donald Hamilton’s 'Matt Helm' and Richard Stark’s 'Parker'. The former Vietnam War sniper turned hit-man debuted in 1976 and has been a source of great entertainment ever since. The best news is that the author remains alive and well, and he periodically cranks out another 200-page Quarry novel - coupled with outstanding Hard Case Crime cover art - to the delight of genre fans.

“Quarry in the Black” is the 2017 entry in the series, but the series has always been unstuck in time. This particular story takes place in 1972 when Quarry was still accepting assassination jobs from his original boss, The Broker. The arrangement always made a lot of sense: The Broker deals with the client, and Quarry deals with the victim - sometimes with a passive partner who handles the surveillance, leaving Quarry to manage the kill. Quarry’s favorite partner, the gay-before-it-was-fashionable Boyd, is assigned to work with Quarry on this hit. 

This one is a little different. Quarry is offered $25,000 to kill a charismatic black civil rights leader, Reverend Raymond Wesley Lloyd, who is campaigning for George McGovern to beat Richard Nixon in the 1972 U.S. Presidential Election. Quarry rightly recoils from the gig because Reverend Lloyd seems like an unobjectionable fellow - peaceful, anti-war, and espousing a strong anti-drug platform. Despite his chosen profession, Quarry has a decent moral compass and has no desire to become the next James Earl Ray. After The Broker gives Quarry some reason to believe that this Reverend isn’t the next Martin Luther King, he reluctantly takes the gig.

Collins does a fantastic job of capturing the zeitgeist of the post-burglary, pre-resignation, Nixon-Watergate era. He cites the era’s music blasting at Quarry’s every turn making me wish someone would create a classic-rock “Quarry in the Black” Spotify playlist to be used as a soundtrack while reading this paperback. Moreover, real-life public figures from the era have cameos in the novel adding to the authentic feel of this retro effort. Collins even gives a nod to current events as Quarry is forced to tangle with a violent white-power group based in the all-Caucasian enclave of Ferguson, Missouri.

The central mystery of this - and most - Quarry stories is the identity and true agenda of the client paying for the hit. The Broker always keep’s the client’s identity from Quarry as a buffer of deniability if a job should go sideways. Inevitably, the full story eventually is revealed, and it usually explains the complications and bumps in the road that Quarry is forced to endure. Like the other novels, Quarry gets laid a few times in deliciously explicit detail, and the first-person narration is predictably hilarious.

There’s really nothing bad to say about “Quarry in the Black.” It’s another perfect entry in a legendary series. Hopefully, Collins stays energized and continues to come up with new Quarry stories for years to come. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Ghost Riders Affair

The 'Man From U.N.C.L.E. Magazine' was published from February 1966 through January 1968 as an effort to capitalize on and cross-promote the popular TV show. Instead of merely adapting screenplays into prose, the publishers made the decision to have each issue anchored by an original 60-page novella taking place in the U.N.C.L.E. universe written under the house name of Robert Hart Davis. Presumably, the authors of these stories had free reign to have fun with the characters as long as no one essential to the franchise gets killed in the action. The magazine enlisted some talented ghostwriters to pen these novellas, including John Jakes, Dennis Lynds, Talmage Powell, Bill Pronzini, and Harry Whittington. Each issue of the digest also contained short stories unrelated to U.N.C.L.E. but consistent with the genre’s themes.

My first foray into U.N.C.L.E. fiction was the first of the 16 successful stand-alone paperbacks for the series. “Man from U.N.C.L.E. Paperback #1” was written by Michael Avallone (Interestingly, the paperbacks were all published under the authors’ real names, but the digest novellas all adopt the Davis pseudonym), and the book was fantastic - even for a reader who had never watched the TV show or movie. Harry Whittington wrote the second paperback, “The Doomsday Affair,” and it was also a monster seller that put a ton of cash in the pockets of MGM, if not the author himself. Whittington also penned four of the magazine’s U.N.C.L.E. novellas, including “The Ghost Riders Affair” from the July 1966 issue of the digest.

For the uninitiated (myself included), all you need to know before walking into a 'Man From U.N.C.L.E.' novel or story is that there is a secret International spy agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) that employs a suave American spy named Napoleon Solo and a skilled Soviet spy named Illya Kuryakin to handle missions important enough for both sides of the Cold War to collaborate for the greater good. There is an enemy organization of villains, miscreants, and subversives called THRUSH (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) who often oppose U.N.C.L.E.’s efforts at law and order.

The central mystery of “The Ghost Riders Affair” involves the mysterious disappearance of a 15-car passenger train en route from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Meanwhile, a Wyoming rancher’s 1000 cattle apparently vanished into thin air without leaving a hoofprint behind. Soon thousands of others - famous and nobodies - also disappear without a trace. For jurisdictional reasons left unexplained, the investigation of these mysterious disappearances falls to U.N.C.L.E. who puts Solo and Kuryakin on the case.

At first glance, the investigative plan makes good sense: a duplicate train containing only Kuryakin and an engineer ride the same route on the same tracks at the same time in search of anomalies that might explain the disappearance. Meanwhile, Solo remains at the United Network Command monitoring the train’s progress on his super-advanced computer screen. When the train transporting Kuryakin also disappears, the tension deepens and the mystery intensifies. Was this a supernatural act? Could this have anything to do with THRUSH?

Unlike the full paperback novels, none of the characters get laid and the violence isn’t particularly graphic in the digest. However, you don’t really notice the PG nature of this story because Whittington’s plotting is absolutely superb. The story moves along at a great clip as Solo uncovers clues that bring him closer to discovering the truth about the mass vanishing act. Solo even gets to ride a horse through the untamed West - literary territory Whittington knows well. The story combines the spy world of James Bond with the fantastical pulp of Doc Savage in a novella that never has time to drag.

The good news is that this story is an easy recommendation. The downside is that it might be hard to acquire. MGM owns the U.N.C.L.E. intellectual property and has been disinterested in seeing the stories reprinted, digitized, or preserved for future generations. The full U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks sold well and used copies remain available at affordable prices. However, the digests containing the 60-page novellas can be hard to find and may cost you quite a bit on eBay or other outlets for vintage magazines. Happy hunting!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Wilderness #06 - Black Powder Justice

“Black Powder Justice” is yet another excellent, suspenseful 'Wilderness' novel, the sixth book in the series by David Robbins (under the name David Thompson). 

Evil whites have shot our mountain man protagonist Nate in the head(!), left him for dead and kidnapped his wife. Their scheme is to deliver a load of rifles (and Nate’s wife) to hostile Ute Indians in exchange for a fortune in beaver pelts. Nate will suffer more misery than ever before on his way to the resolution of this novel. Did I mention he’s already been attacked by wolves before the plot gets underway? 

This book is gripping and tense, and it’s so successful in depicting Nate’s various perils and agonies that it’s not always a perfectly delightful read. The never-ending progression of misery is almost too much. The book skillfully portrays Nate’s heroic resolve and indefatigable perseverance in the face of it all. But if he’d suffered even one additional painful aggravation, it might have tipped the literary scale into self-parody. Mind you, that doesn’t happen. This is a riveting novel. But at this point I’m beginning to wonder if Nate wasn’t better off back at his bookkeeping gig in New York, where the biggest danger he faced was a reprimand for coming back late from lunch. 

A less-gifted author would have cranked out something lively but unbelievable, and therefore not very engaging. Robbins has a talent for making a wildly over-the-top adventure story seem perfectly reasonable if not downright factual, and for keeping the reader on the edge of his seat from the first chapter to the last. “Black Powder Justice” maintains this series’ stellar batting average.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Night Visit

'ADAM' was an adults-only Australian men's magazine featuring about six short-stories or novellas, a handful of wacky and bizarre true stories and a slew of nudie pics that are mostly of the topless variety. Aside from the cover, a majority are in black and white and littered with “dirty” crude cartoons. “Night Visit”, by unknown author Grant Glastonbury (pseudonym?) appeared in the October, 1976 issue. It features a painting from an unknown artist.

“They came in the night. Four against one. But underestimated a man's love for his woman.”

That synopsis introduces us to this quick home-invasion styled story. These “barricade the windows” narratives were explored with George Romero's iconic 1968 horror film, “Night of the Living Dead”, and expanded on with a more realistic, gritty treatment by John Carpenter's “Assault on Precinct 13” (also 1976). In a way, it's the western genre's “circle the wagons” presentation. Glastonbury does that well, introducing us to Jeff, a Vietnam Vet who did two tours and has been out of the service for a year. He married Julie five weeks ago, and the two have been living in a rural stretch of Australia for just shy of two-weeks.  

The accompanying artworks presents the early stages as Jeff and Julie watch four hunters emerge from the darkness. Each are carrying a firearm and Jeff senses they are a bit unstable. With a sense of urgency, Jeff attempts to dismiss them only to find the peaceful and strategic exit could be just inviting them in for coffee. This passive mood instantly becomes hostile as the group puts their eyes and hands on Julie. When the four make for a false exit, Jeff and Julie find themselves trapped in the house with only a Ruger .22 rifle facing shotguns and long guns. 

Jim's battle sense is put to the test as the action moves from left to right inside the house. This is where the story finds it's atmosphere, alone in the darkness with this anonymous evil at the doorstep. It's fast-paced, violent, moody and overall extremely effective in it's storytelling. While it's easy to point, fire and move to an easy pick up the pieces finale, this one threw me for a loop and closes in a unique way. Kudos to the author for taking chances and making this a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Line of Fire

Before defining his career with the excellent 'Matt Helm' series, Donald Hamilton wrote a bunch of satisfying crime and western novels for the robust paperback original market of the 1950s. His 1955 stand-alone thriller was “Line of Fire,” and it gives Matt Helm fans a glance into pre-Helm Hamilton as he was developing the narrative voice that later became the staple of his famous series.

“Line of Fire” is the story of a sniper named Paul Nyquist who we meet at a domestic assassination he’s handling. The novel opens with a job gone bad and very little information about Nyquist’s background or agenda. The intended target takes the round, but an attractive female witness interferes with the getaway. Our hero drags the girl along for the escape until he can decide what to do with her. She’s an innocent bystander at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Nyquist is an experienced shootist - but not a monster. From there the story goes in some quite unexpected places as we learn more about Nyquist, his intended target, and his motivation for taking the shot. Beyond that, anything else I tell you about the plot would be book reviewer malpractice. Suffice it to say that this is one of those clever novels where not all is as it seems. The twists, turns, and reveals along the way are a total delight. Leave it at that.

Hamilton had a love of guns and he often slipped interesting technical specifications into his novels, but somehow he’s always able to make them interesting to the layman. The firearms lessons never feel tiresome like the gun porn of Gold Eagle novels or contemporary men’s adventure fiction. Additionally, Hamilton throws a lot of good advice on proper marksmanship into the narrative. All of this is meant to illustrate that the protagonist is a consummate professional in his field. And the more we learn about Nyquist’s chosen profession, the more his odd decisions make perfect sense.

Fans of the Max Allan Collins Quarry series and Lawrence Block’s Keller books will enjoy this novel about another exceptionally-skilled gunman in a world filled with amateurs and thugs. “Line of Fire” has the same first-person, matter-of-fact narrative style as Quarry and Keller but without as much comedic whimsy. The style is more world-weary and slavishly logical - just like the Matt Helm books.

An economical 157 pages, “Line of Fire” is a quick read. It’s a worthy precursor to the Matt Helm series and a wild, violent ride filled with vivid characters and exciting situations. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sundance #08 - Bring Me His Scalp

The western series 'Sundance' ran a 10-year span from 1972 through 1982, compiling a massive 43 installments. Book #8, “BRING ME HIS SCALP” (1973), is by 'Fargo' veteran Ben Haas writing as John Benteen. This is a very solid western, in which Sundance discovers there’s a price on his head. The story moves along at a brisk pace and there’s plenty of action and atmosphere. I enjoyed it, but maybe there was something missing that kept me from really loving it. What that was, I don’t know, but if Haas’ other 'Sundance' books are as good as this one, I want them all. Eye-opening highlights include one villain being cut in half while crawling under a boxcar that was suddenly jarred into motion, and a fight between Sundance and another villain, who not only gets killed but buried in cow manure as well.