Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Super Cop Joe Blaze #02 - The Concrete Cage

“The Concrete Cage” is the second in a three-volume series entitled 'Super Cop Joe Blaze'. Belmont Tower, motivated by the success of tough guy cop films like “Dirty Harry”, wanted a vigorous, tough as nails hero for their consumers. Nothing is really explained in the series debut, “The Big Payoff”, other than Joe Blaze is a New York City Detective Sergeant who works closely with his partner Ed Nuthall and Lieutenant Danny Coogan. It's really a neanderthal sort  of police procedural, written under house name Robert Novak, who may or may not be Nelson Demille.

In this second installment, a group of ex-convicts and low-level criminals conspire to kidnap ten women randomly. The book's opening pages has the group operating in a high traffic area of the city. Using the disguise of an ambulance, the cons usher the women into the ambulance at gunpoint. After one captive defiantly refuses, she's fatally shot in the chest. The murder of the innocent woman loops Blaze into the investigation.

In standard procedural plotting, Blaze tracks down a prostitute who may have a brother tied into the gang. Using this lead, Blaze and his two colleagues find an informant connected to the kidnapping. The group plans to use the captives as a new selection of coerced hookers - women who will be utilized to fulfill the needs of a violent, more sadistic clientele. Blaze, perplexed by the crime, arrests the informant but the news is leaked to the criminals. They want the informant released back to their fold or the women will be killed individually and left throughout the city.

This novel is certainly not for the squeamish. When Blaze's negotiation with the crooks stalls, the gang begins chopping up the victims. The narrative eventually moves into a rather grim decision for Blaze and the department – give the informant back to the crooks knowing he will be violently killed, or continue to track the crime ring in hopes of disposing of it with violent force.

While not as enjoyable as the series debut, “The Concrete Cage” was an entertaining, short read. The author uses a lot of tough cop characteristics to propel the narrative – car chases, seedy apartment gun fights and brawls. Lots of brawls. I found the book's finale a little lackluster, but I'll probably stick it out and read the last novel. It is written by the talented Len Levinson ('The Rat Bastards', 'The Sergeant').

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Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Bullet for Cinderella

“A Bullet for Cinderella” from 1955 was John D. MacDonald’s 14th novel. When he originally submitted the stand-alone crime thriller for publication, it was titled “On the Make,” and Dell Books eventually reprinted the paperback with the author’s original title for later editions starting in 1960. Since then, the paperback has been re-released several times under both names. If you’re seeking a used copy, you should have plenty of luck - just search both ways.

The story begins with our narrator, Talbert (“Tal”) Howard, arriving in a town called Hillston and checking into a motel. When he was a prisoner during the Korean War, a fellow POW named Timmy confided that he had buried a ton of stolen cash in Hillston without providing specifics about a precise location. Timmy never made it home from the war, and Tal is now in Hillston looking for the loot.

Upon arrival, Tal quickly learns that another POW from the camp named Fitz arrived in Hillston before him. While in captivity, Tal and Fitz were enemies because Fitz refused to help his fellow American G.I.s work toward their collective survival in the camp. And now Fitz is curiously in Hillston. Could he be searching for the same buried cash as Tal?

Although “A Bullet for Cinderella” is basically a treasure hunt story, it’s not an Indiana Jones type of adventure. Instead, Tal does a deep dive into Timmy’s past to unearth logical places for burying the loot. For the reader, this gets a bit melodramatic at times as historical romances and family dramas are mined for clues, and secrets of the past are revealed. I was never bored, but understand that this is a mystery, not an action novel. To be sure, there are some grisly murders and a rather terrifying, sociopathic bad guy, but we are still firmly in mystery-suspense territory here.

A paperback like “A Bullet for Cinderella” is only as good as its ending, and MacDonald delivers a violent and compelling conclusion that will stay with the reader. I don’t think this novel was necessarily peak MacDonald, but even a second-tier book by the Florida author is a damn sight better than most of the stuff I read these days. As such, it’s an easy recommendation for you.

A feature on Richard Matheson aired on the seventh episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

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Monday, August 19, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 7

On this episode we are examining the noir work of successful author Richard Matheson, who's predominantly known for his horror and science-fiction work. We have two new reviews for you, 1955's "A Bullet for Cinderella" by John D. MacDonald and William W. Johnstone's 1984 western "The Last Mountain Man". Stream the episode below or wherever podcasts are streaming. Direct downloads are HERE.

Listen to "Episode 07: Richard Matheson" on Spreaker.

Strongarm

“Strongarm” is an early stand-alone novel from esteemed crime-noir author Dan J. Marlowe (1917-1986). From 1959 until 1961, Marlowe wrote a five-book series starring hotel detective Johnny Killain. Marlowe's first stand-alone, “Backfire”, was released by Berkley in 1961. In 1962, the author penned his magnum opus with “The Name of the Game is Death”, the first of a long-running series of action-adventure novels starring heist extraordinaire Earl Drake. 1963's “Strongarm” is the second stand-alone entry in Marlowe's impressive bibliography. Written on the heels of his masterpiece, does “Strongarm” possess the same level of quality?

In Earl Drake fashion, Marlowe presents an unnamed protagonist using the alias Pete Karma. Pete graduated from Ohio State and served his father during a successful political run that colored by some minor affiliations with the mob. After his father died, Pete served in the Korean War, fighting in the Chosin Reservoir as a U.S. Marine. After his discharge, Pete joined his father's successor, Charlie Risko, in a crime-ridden political reign. This is where things really turn sour.

As an assumed enforcer, Pete is asked to rough up a labor representative suspected of conspiring with the press exposing mob interference in local politics. After a journalist is found murdered in a hotel, Risko arranges for Pete to take the fall. Sentenced to a 15-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, Pete begins making plans to escape. After two and a half years behind bars, Pete alligns with Risko's rival kingpin in Tony Falcaro. Together, Falcaro and Pete escape prison with a promise from Falcaro's gang that they will always be there for Pete if he needs any future favors. This would prove to be an important commitment.

Pete goes to work in Chicago as a bartender, carefully avoiding attention while planning his vengeance on Risko, his attorney Foley and a henchman named Joe Williams. However, Marlowe really throws a wrench in the gears and switches the narrative with a surprising plot twist. While trailing Williams, Pete witnesses a fiery car crash. Among the wreckage is an arm handcuffed to a briefcase containing foreign documents and $750,000 in cash. Is Pete now the target of a number of warring factions? 

Very few crime novels of this era can match Marlowe's influential caper novel. However, like most of the author's stand-alone works, his ability and talent certainly stands out even in a crowded room of his contemporaries. I would speculate that Marlowe recycled some of this novel's elements in future works. This novel's Gussie character resembles the 70s spunky flower child Chryssie from “Operation Flashpoint” (1970). The recruitment of various Falcaro mobsters is reminiscent of Earl Drake's alliance with anti-Castro factions in “Operation Fireball” (1969). Pete's ability to remove a lower dental plate reflects the disguise Drake would use with his hairpiece. In fact, the very idea of an unnamed protagonist serving time in a mental hospital can be found in both “In the Name of the Game is Death” (1962) and it's sequel, “One Endless Hour” (1969). It's safe to assume “Strongarm” had a lot of influence on the Earl Drake novels.

In terms of early Marlowe work, “Strongarm”, along with 1966's “Four for the Money,” are mandatory reads for crime-noir fans. The more I delve, collect and read 1960s crime novels, authors like Dan J. Marlowe and John D. MacDonald certainly appear to be the cream of the crop. Do yourself a favor and buy, download or borrow this book. It's a real treasure.

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Friday, August 16, 2019

Edge of the Law

Hardboiled crime author Richard Deming was one of the stable of writers represented by literary agent Scott Meredith who regularly produced muscular and twisty short stories for Manhunt Magazine in the 1950s. Later in his career, he presumably made a good living writing TV tie-in novels for shows including “Dragnet” and “The Mod Squad.” His original, full-length novels are a bit uneven - I’ve read both brilliant ones and mediocre ones. As I wade though his body of work, my next plunge is his stand-alone novel, “Edge of Law” from 1960.

Jud Sands is a man on the run bouncing from town to town with his head on a swivel waiting to be captured or killed. His pursuer is Miami racketeer Big Mark Fallon, a man with the resources to deploy goons anywhere in America to settle the score. The riff began with a gambling dispute that escalated to a violent confrontation wherein a gunshot to the arm resulted in an amputation for Big Mark. Now, the one-armed crime boss wants a piece of Jud’s ass, and our hero isn’t interested in making good on that debt.

The road takes Jud to the fictional town of Ridgeford, a city with plenty of backroom gambling and good-looking dames for Jud to sample. It doesn’t take long until he attracts the attention of Ridgeford’s local mob boss, Rizzo Amatti, who offers Jud a job as muscle for $250 a week. Jud needs the cash and figures that his new employer may provide him some protection from his old employer, so he joins up with Rizzo’s outfit.

Jud’s first assignment is to rough up a local tavern owner who refuses to play ball with the local syndicate. While delivering a message to the non-compliant proprietor, Jud learns that his old flame from back home is now married to the bar’s owner. The warm feelings for his old sweetheart change his mind and cause him to question his loyalty to Rizzo. Suddenly, he has a decision to make: keep working for the local mobster or join up with the few small businesses seeking to resist Rizzo’s stranglehold on Ridgeford? Meanwhile, will Jud’s Miami problem catch up to him in his current powder-keg?

By this point in his writing career, Deming really was at the top of his game. His tough-guy prose is perfect and his plotting is tight as a drum. As a protagonist, Jud is a man-in-full - crooked as hell but fiercely loyal to his friends with an unbending code of ethics. The conflicts arising in “Edge of the Law” are high-stakes for the participants and genuinely suspenseful for the reader. There’s plenty of action and violence along the way to keep the tension high and the pages turning. The ending was a bit abrupt for me, but that wasn’t unusual for this era and genre.

Best of all, the vintage paperback has been resurrected as an eBook priced at about four bucks or free with Kindle Unlimited. The Kindle edition doesn’t give you the alluring paperback cover art, but the product inside is good enough that you can forego a flashy wrapper. Recommended.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Azriel Uprising

Bantam Books maintained a torrid schedule of fantasy and science-fiction in the 1970s and 1980s. A lot of these literary works had more in common with the men's action and adventure line than real science-fiction. Case in point is the mislabeled 1982 post-apocalyptic novel “The Azriel Uprising”. The book is written by unknown author Allyn Thompson and features a familiar premise – American citizens attempting to survive in a nuked out United States. It has more in common with “Survival 2000”, “The Survivalist” and “Doomsday Warrior” than say...”Battlefield Earth”. Bantam Books' Science-Fiction label on the spine doesn't really do the book or it's author any justice.

“The Azriel Uprising” presents readers a 1980s America that has been nuked by the Soviet Union. The book picks up ten years after the bombing, in a United States that has now been firmly defeated by the enemy. Most of the US lies in “hot zones”, places that are no longer habitable for both survivors and the Russians. The safe-zones are parts of civilization that are now controlled and operated by the Russians in a bid to eventually control all of North America. These safe-zones feature concentration and labor camps for Americans and a skeleton of society for Soviet troops and sympathizers.

We're introduced to protagonist Donna Wallace, who uses code name Juanita, in the opening pages. She was once a prisoner in a labor camp, escaped torturous conditions and now functions as a courier relaying information to pockets of resistance up and down the East Coast. After blowing up a busload of Soviet troops in Texas, she becomes allies with a former US fighter pilot named Bo. Together, the two journey to Florida to rendezvous with a large unit of American soldiers. As a Florida resident, the recon meetings in overrun shopping malls and restaurants throughout Florida were personally enticing.

At 183-pages, the bulk of the book focuses on Donna and Bo as they travel from Florida to the Northeast gathering supplies and intel for an American resistance battle in the Gulf of Mexico. The campaign, to be launched on July 5th, will be the first to feature several organized survivor groups, including fighter jets and a Navy warship. Collectively, they hope to overrun a labor camp called Valdosta, liberate the prisoners and destroy the 1,200 man army of Soviets.

First and foremost, I've read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature. The radiation aspect, aligning survivalists and fighting the Soviets was extremely popular in 80s pop culture. “The Azriel Uprising” does nothing creative or terribly innovative for the genre or its experienced readers. The action is subdued, but still features a massive gunfight in the last 15-pages. This novel plods along like an apocalyptic road trip...yet somehow I found it surprisingly engaging.

Both Donna and Bo are likable characters and I felt I had a vested interest in all of the components. The small band of fighters reminded me of “Deathlands” to a degree, and the author's descriptive nature really painted a dismal landscape for these characters to exist (like trees and shrubs growing in an abandoned McDonalds).

With horrendous sub-genre series titles like 'Phoenix', 'Swampmaster' and 'Roadblaster', “The Azriel Uprising” is clearly a more entertaining and satisfying read.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Run for the Money

Robert Colby authored about 20 novels during his career - mostly in the 1950s and 1960s - but he never achieved the fame of his paperback original colleagues of the same era. As far as I can tell, his last published paperback was a 1973 ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ installment titled “The Death’s Head Conspiracy” co-authored with Gary Brandner. Thanks to the miracle of Kindle, many of his vintage paperbacks have been preserved as affordable eBooks, including his 1960 release, “Run for the Money.”

The novel opens with the daring and violent heist of an armored car from Jacksonville, Florida (coincidentally, home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters) delivering cash from the Federal Reserve to banks along the route. The crew successfully makes off with nearly a million in cash while leaving the bodies of the armored car guards behind.

We then meet our protagonist, Barry Lunsford, a sad sack living in a Florida rooming house while working a low-paying job at a department store. One day Barry finds a satchel discarded by the side of the road. Upon opening the bag, he learns that it is filled to the brim with $320,000 in cash. The reader figures that this is the stolen loot from the Chapter One heist, but neither the reader nor Barry knows why it was lying by the side of a road along the train tracks. With no real friends or family ties to Florida, Barry buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles and brings the cash with him to start a new life.

As you suspected, it’s never that easy. The robbers catch up to Barry as he’s living large with the cash in Hollywood. By this point, he has a girl, and she can be used as leverage by the bad guys to make Barry give up the dough. There’s plenty of blood and sadism to cement the idea that the bad guys are really bad guys. Can Barry figure out a way to keep the money and save the girl?

In “Run for the Money,” the author has taken a basic concept - something we’ve all fantasized about - and turned it into a compelling suspense story with some tidy twists and turns. Colby’s writing is solid, and the story is without fat or filler. The short novel flies by, and while it won’t be the best crime novel you’ve ever read, I can’t imagine anyone failing to enjoy every page of this cautionary tale. Recommended.

Postscript:

Prolific multi-genre author James Reasoner shares this story: “Robert Colby and I shared an agent during the 80s, and she got us together to work on a screenplay based on ‘Run for the Money.’ Colby was a very dignified guy, kind of reserved, but I liked him and thought this was a very good book. The agent tried to sell the screenplay but nothing ever came of it. He also wrote a series of stories in ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’ that I liked very much."

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