Friday, February 14, 2020

Handyman #01 - The Moneta Papers

Along with authoring entries in the 'Nick Carter: Killmaster' series, Jon Messman kept a productive schedule in the 1970s with a successful series run with 'Revenger' before achieving commercial success with the popular adult western series 'The Trailsman'. Perhaps one of the best of Messman's literary career is the six-volume paperback series 'Jefferson Boone: Handyman'. It was published by Pyramid Books and debuted in 1973 with “The Moneta Papers”.

Jefferson Boone is a silky, posh hero that works inconspicuously with the U.S. State Department. His father was a career diplomat and had mentioned to his son that the department needed a behind the scenes “handyman” that can plug holes for America's foreign allies. Working with a government liaison named Charley Hopkins, Boone is offered a variety of international assignments that conveniently pads out the series. The first assignment that's revealed to readers is “The Moneta Papers”, a carefully construed Italian mission that features a real estate transaction as the launching point. But, as readers quickly learn, there's nothing ordinary about this property purchase.

Boone's female friend Dorrie is a wealthy European playmate working to secure her fourth marriage. Dorrie owns a number of remote islands that remain as a lease-to-purchase for the U.S. government. After a number of years, Dorrie has finally agreed to gift the islands to the U.S. provided they can arrange a paper transaction. The problem is that every delivery man has been murdered in route to secure the transaction. The suspect? Dorrie's fiance Umberto, a spoiled kid who has aligned himself with a career politician that aspires to be the next Mussolini.

Boone's first endeavor is to learn if Dorrie is involved with the failed delivery attempts. Second, Boone must investigate Umberto's past and current political allies. Using disguises, a fast Ford Mustang and his snub-nosed .38, Boone embarks on a perilous mission to learn the truth. Messman's writing incorporates Formula 1 racing, various shootouts, a Swiss Alps skiing adventure and sexcapades (albeit more topical than descriptive) to propel the narrative.

Fans of 'James Bond' and 'Nick Carter' should like Messman's protagonist. While Boone is an international, intellectual hero, the author carefully avoids pure snobbery. In fact, Boone's budding romance with a small-town Indiana school teacher helps ground the hero with more American wholesomeness. By 1973, it was a crowded market for these types of globe-trotting champions. Thankfully, Messman's series and character stands the test of time. This was an excellent novel.

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Thursday, February 13, 2020

Larry Kent #642: Curves Can Kill

Between 1954 and 1974, there were hundreds of novellas and paperback original novels produced in Australia starring hardboiled New York Private Eye Larry Kent. The series was published by the same company that brought the world the Carter Brown mysteries and packaged with salacious cover illustrations similar to the Hank Janson books. The primary authors were Don Haring and Des Dunn, but all the books were released under the house name Larry Kent. Piccadilly Publishing has been reprinting Larry Kent’s adventures as affordable eBooks while maintaining the original cheesecake cover illustrations. I’m starting the series with #642: “Curves Can Kill,” a 1965 installment written by Don Haring.

The character of Larry Kent started as a newspaper reporter in 1950 on a popular Australian radio drama called, “I Hate Crime.” The popularity of the radio show launched the novellas and eventually the novels. Kent’s character became a private investigator in the mold of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. As time went on, the writers borrowed a page from Stephen Marlowe’s Chester Drum and Michael Avallone’s Ed Noon when the hero began accepting espionage assignments from the CIA in selected novels. A variation on this “private eye as spy” gambit is the storyline at work in “Curves Can Kill.”

The action opens with Kent tied to a chair being worked over by a Romanian goon wanting to know what Kent knows about “Z Detail.” Unfortunately for the wisecracking Kent, he doesn’t know much, so he must continue to suffer the abuse - from both fists and a switchblade - with no reprieve. It’s a brutal and violent opening scene that will play well for readers who like their pulp fiction more extreme than Carter Brown could ever offer.

Fortunately, we don’t need to sit through 120 pages of Kent being carved up with a switchblade. He is rescued and finds himself in the hands of Z Detail, an America-friendly private intelligence outfit with close ties to the CIA. The Z-boys want to hire Kent as a contract operative for the vast sum of $300 per week.

His first mission as a contract operative for Z Detail involves befriending a woman in New York. Kent’s version of befriending looks a lot more like a Carter Brown novel, and the swinging sixties attitude toward women is on full display. None of this would fly today, but that’s part of the fun of vintage fiction. Anyway, the woman has access to a secret that Kent needs to learn, and giving any more info away would spoil the fun for you. Suffice to say that all this eventually ties back to the Romanian goons who tried to filet Kent in the opening chapter.

This is one of those great books that kept surprising me with the quality of the prose and story. I had been misled to believe that the Larry Kent series was disposable fiction with a production schedule too aggressive to be among the outstanding works of pulp fiction. Instead, as I read “Curves Can Kill,” I found myself repeatedly muttering, “Wow, this is really good.” Fans of violent spy-mysteries with major twists and turns will love this book as much as I did.

There are some slow sections but no boring ones in this Larry Kent mystery-adventure. It all leads up to a shockingly violent bloodbath of a climax - one of the finest I’ve read in ages. Overall, I was very impressed by this paperback, and I’m excited to read some more. With over 800 installments, we are unlikely to run out of Larry Kent content in this lifetime. It’s great to discover a new series with an endless amount of content to enjoy. Highly recommended.

Purchase a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

The Chase (aka Pursuit/Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry)

“Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” was a 1974 film that capitalized on America's car chase fascination spawned by cinema hits like “Bullitt” and “The French Connection”. The movie became a cult hit, leading fans to learn more about the film's source material, a crime-fiction novel by Richard Unekis titled “The Chase”. The book was originally published in 1963 by Gollancz, then again in 1964 by Signet under the title “Pursuit”. Once the film was released, the novel experienced another identity crisis with a re-release under the name “Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry” by publisher Panther. Oddly, it was Unekis' only literary work.

The first thing to realize is that “The Chase” novel is vastly different from its theatrical counterpart. In fact, Dirty Mary isn't even a character in the book. Instead, the film features two ex-convicts, Grozzo and Rayder, robbing a small midwestern grocery store and subsequently trying to outrun the dragnet. Unekis utilizes 1968's explosion of muscle cars (V8s in smaller frames), the rural dirt roads of America's farmland and more modern police techniques as opposed to one-dimensional road block snares. In a way, the book is a technical manual of procedures which eventually leads to its own mediocrity.

The actual heist was way more compelling than the subsequent 100 pages of car chases. The author's description of the grocery store's management and payroll practices was intriguing. In essence, it was the perfect target for an appealing $80,000 grab and go robbery. While the store manager is featured sporadically in the book's beginning, he becomes wasted fodder as the narrative moves from heist to fast getaway. On film, flinging gravel and the sounds of tires screeching and engines roaring probably made for an entertaining 90-minutes. But high RPMs don’t necessarily make for a riveting page-turner.

There are far better crime-fiction and heist novels than “The Chase”. In fact, a greatly improved version of this same story is Hillary Waugh's 1960 novel “Road Block” reviewed HERE. If you still feel the need to pursue this story, the film is probably a better use of your time than the paperback.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Croc

David Hagberg died on September 8, 2019 at age 76 in Sarasota, Florida. In addition to a successful spy-fiction career under his own name, he also wrote 22 top-flight installments in the ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ series and 6 paperback Flash Gordon novels. In 1976, low-end paperback publishing house Belmont Tower released an early-career Hagberg thriller called “Croc” under the pseudonym (or truncation), David James.

In the 1970s, the public’s imagination was captured by urban legends about kids flushing baby crocodiles down the toilet and the reptiles growing to giant size in the sewers by feasting on rats and other vermin. Hagberg’s fictional take on this trope stars New York City Division of Sewer Maintenance workers Peter Boggs and Marian Fascetti who handle maintenance and upkeep of the labyrinth of tunnels under the Big Apple streets. Boggs has been doing the job for 35 years and has grown cautious over time whereas Fascetti is the young, hotshot risk-taker of the pair with a beautiful and pregnant wife at home.

In the first chapter, the partners are investigating a cave-in in an old tunnel where runoff flows into the Hudson River. Always the cowboy, Fascetti goes beyond the debris pile to investigate further when he is eaten by a giant reptilian creature while Boggs watches from a safe distance. It’s a bloody, scary and violent scene that sets up the novel’s action for 211 big-font pages.

For reasons not entirely clear, Boggs doesn’t tell his boss that his partner was just eaten by a 30-foot subterranean crocodile. He lies about the dead man’s whereabouts and keeps the existence of the monster a secret. It’s implied that this has something to do with Boggs’ alcoholism and the idea that no one would believe him if he tells the truth. His reaction and the cover-up weren’t entirely realistic to me, but then I remembered I’m reading a 1976 paperback about a dinosaur-sized crocodile in the sewers, so I should probably shut up and pick my battles for realism elsewhere.

Hagberg trots out the genre tropes for this one. We have the 38 year-old college-educated supervisor always riding Boggs’ ass about this and that. We have a screw-up cop assigned to investigate the missing workers in the sewers. We have the investigative reporter from the New York Post hip-deep in the story (and sewer water) determined to get the full scoop.

It’s also important to remember that Hagberg wrote “Croc” during the height of the “Jaws” craze, and he borrows a lot of the same themes, including bureaucratic skepticism of the threat, for this reptile-based thriller. The good news is that Hagberg had great plotting skills even in this early effort.

As the paperback’s cover art and basic premise indicates, “Croc” is a helluva lot of fun to read, and the story is never dull or repetitive. Providing the reader goes into it with the right attitude, there’s a lot to enjoy in this underground labyrinth of glorious tension and violence. Recommended.

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Monday, February 10, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 30

On our 30th episode, it's a Fawcett Gold Medal All-Review Extravaganza! We discuss vintage paperbacks by John D. MacDonald, Lionel White, Dan J. Marlowe, Basil Heatter and more! We are available on all podcast platforms or stream below. Download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 30: Fawcett Gold Medal All-Review Extravaganza" on Spreaker.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Doomsday Mission

The king of the paperbacks, Harry Whittington, is often described by fans as a master of crime-noir. The talented author penned a number of crime-noir and suspense novels, but also contributed to other genres like romance, sleaze, plantation (slave gothics) and westerns. But, like his contemporary Charles Runyon, Whittington authored just one military fiction novel, “Doomsday Mission”, published by Banner in 1967.

The book begins as a chopper touches down in the Phuoc Long Province, a heavily trafficked area along the Cambodian border during the early days of the Vietnam War. U.S. Army Lieutenant Robert Edwards and three sergeants emerge from the helicopter and meet with 40 Vietcong defectors intent on assisting US factions. The plan is to march up the Ho Chi Minh Trail into a village ripe with North Vietnamese Army (NVA) underground supply tunnels.

Lieutenant Edwards is a rookie combatant who immediately clashes with his three sergeants. They want to navigate this long trek to the side of the road, hacking through dense foliage in lieu of walking a visible path. Edwards refuses and the large platoon is immediately under heavy fire from the NVA. The narrative's pace is simply driven by the various gunfights and skirmishes the platoon encounters. By presenting the story in that fashion, it comes across uneven and disjointed.

Any author who maintained a high-volume of literary works like Whittington will surely deliver variable quality. In this instance, “Doomsday Mission” just isn't very good. The characters were never developed enough for an invested reader to care about their future. Additionally, there is a 10-page story arc that features one of the sergeants bathing a Vietnamese woman in a seductive fashion. It was an ill-advised attempt for the author to break from the action.

You can read much better Harry Whittington books than "Doomsday Mission".

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Thursday, February 6, 2020

My Old Man's Badge

Pennsylvanian Charles Weiser Frey (1910-1963) authored six crime fiction books during the 1950s under the pseudonym of Ferguson Findlay. The first of these was his 1950 novel, “My Old Man’s Badge” that was also re-released in 1959 as “Killer Cop.” The story was adapted into a 30-minute episode of the long-forgotten TV show, “Suspense,” and (most relevantly) recently reprinted by the good people at Black Gat Books for modern consumption.

Our narrator Johnny Malone is a rookie New York City street cop. The heroic thwarting of a robbery in progress thrusts Johnny into the position of detective long before the promotion would have happened otherwise. Johnny continues to live in the shadow of his late father - also a handsome Irish cop - who was killed on the job 14 years earlier when Johnny was 11. The crumb who shot Dad was never caught and revenge becomes the driving force of “My Old Man’s Badge” now that Johnny has made detective.

The cops know that it was a German national named Rudy Hoffmann who killed Johnny’s dad, but they never caught the elusive kraut. The German’s backstory is fantastic - one of the most compelling bad guy origin stories I can recall from this era’s fiction. When Johnny is informed that the killer is back on the New York streets, living in the shadows, and gunning for Johnny, the young detective asks to be assigned the case to bring Hoffmann to justice. As such, the reader is treated to a vendetta story swathed in a police procedural wrapper.

Chasing the only lead he has, Johnny goes undercover as a Bowery bum living among the human refuse looking for clues. Hoffmann has an axe to grind with the Malone family, and Johnny wants to neutralize the German before he gets killed just like his father. The path from Johnny to Hoffmann is a circuitous one, and Johnny joins a dope-distribution gang in his undercover capacity to generate leads.

The beginning and end of “My Old Man’s Badge” are both excellent - among the best scenes you’ll read. The middle, however, dragged a bit for me. Johnny’s descent into the undercover life of crime was a bit convoluted and the plot had way too much gangland drama in the dope ring. Things get back on track once Johnny finds his dad’s killer, and the climactic, but predictable, ending is extremely well done.

Overall, the paperback is definitely worth your time, but it could have used a stronger editorial hand 70 years ago. In any case, I’m glad I read it, and Black Gat should be lauded for resurrecting the novel.

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