Tuesday, August 21, 2018

No Harp for My Angel

Carter Brown (real name: Alan Yates) was a British author living in Australia who wrote mystery paperbacks about American detectives. His most popular character was police detective Al Wheeler, and the books in that series were a ton of fun.

It was quite a publishing coup when Stark House Books won the right to reprint early Al Wheeler books that were never published in the U.S. The second volume of Stark House’s Carter Brown collection contains a helpful introduction by Rick Ollerman followed by three Al Wheeler books originally published in Australia in 1956:

    “No Harp for My Angel”
    “Booty for a Babe”
    “Eve, It’s Extortion”

The story synopsis said that “No Harp for My Angel” takes place in Florida (home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters), so that was the one I chose to read and review this round.

As advertised, the short novel opens with California police detective Al Wheeler on holiday in Ocean Beach, Florida. Because he’s on vacation and because this is a Carter Brown book, he spends a fair amount of his vacation time trying to get laid. This quest leads Wheeler to hit on a hot chick in a bar whose date is Johnny Lynch, the mysterious new tough guy in Ocean Beach who owns a gambling joint. An altercation ensues putting Wheeler on the wrong side of Lynch’s ire - as well as Zero, Lynch’s right hand man, who looks and acts like an “overgrown gorilla.”

With the central conflict of the paperback firmly established, Wheeler is pressed into service to investigate the disappearances of several young women in Ocean Beach since Lynch and his goons blew into town. Because Wheeler has no legal authority in Florida, he assumes an undercover persona to conduct his investigation.

Thereafter, it’s a pretty standard mystery novel. The sex in 1950s Carter Brown is rather toned down compared to his work in later decades, but the story structure is about the same. His work has always been an easy - but satisfying - read. He wasn’t necessarily a master of the genre, but once he figured out his formula for success, he rode that pony for a long time and sold a lot of books in the process. No harm done there.

As time has gone by, Carter Brown paperbacks have become scarce on used bookstore shelves. As such, the Stark House revival of his work is coming at exactly the right time, and “No Harp For My Angel” is a fine entry-point into this iconic series. Recommended. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Narc #01 - Narc

'Narc' was a violent 7-book run published between 1973-1975. The debut, simply titled “Narc”, was released by Lancer ('Enforcer', 'Conan'). The remainder of the series was published under the Signet brand. The author's name on the cover is Robert Hawkes, but this is really Marc Olden of 'Black Samurai' fame. 

The “Narc” is John Bolt, a former New York City blue who comes down hard on police corruption. Lying in a hospital bed, Bolt meets a guy named Craven and is told about the Department of Dangerous Drugs (D3). They offer him $25,000 a year, ten weeks of training in DC and assignments all over the world working strictly narcotics. The book opens six years into Bolt's career with D3. Our hero is in La Playa with five other narcotics agents to arrest Antoine Georges Peray, a major player pushing $2 billion in heroin. This opening scene has a convoy of cars carrying Peray, Bolt, agents and local enforcers to the airport. Peray's guerilla fighters descend on the convoy in an effort to free their man. In what could be the best opening pages of any book, we find Bolt using a .45 and sawed-off shotgun as he weaves between and under cars cutting off the guerillas at the knees. His own men turn on him and we immediately realize that Bolt is an absolute badass. It's a massive firefight that has Bolt utilizing grizzly methods to bring Peray into the US. Unfortunately, this opening scene is really the best part of the book. The rest is about average. 

The novel focuses on a high-profile dealer in the US named St. James Livingston. Livingston has shut down all of the drug traffic in NYC while awaiting a massive shipment from Peray. His drought has increased tensions and hostilities in the city with users needing fixes and dealers needing cabbage. With Bolt capturing Peray, it clogs up the pipeline. Needing the drugs and the big payout, Livingston puts hits on Bolt, including targeting Bolt's girlfriend Pavanne. There's numerous side stories including Peray's daughter and a former colleague named Zan. The narrative is propelled with Bolt infiltrating gangs, Narc teams and collaborating with local law enforcement to stop Peray's shipment of white death into New York. 

This 'Narc' debut is an effective, gritty 1970s action vehicle. While the beginning is clearly the best Olden has to offer, the average continuation of the storytelling is worth the price of admission. With Olden's writing style I was reminded of the equally good 'The Liquidator' run by Larry Powell. It's a similar character with both authors writing in the same vein. Quick, punchy with equal shares of dialogue and action – 'Narc' is definitely a good start to a well-respected series.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Hunter #02 - Night of the Jackals

The prior 'Hunter' novel, debut “Scavenger Kill”, introduced us to former Green Beret John Yard. In that book, Yard is presented as a wealthy entrepreneur who guides big game hunts in the Nairobi area of Africa. He teamed with his colleague, African police officer Moses Ngala, to stage the first “vigilante” styled hunt and kill. The target was an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company headed by a gelatinous villain named Lavalle. “Scavenger Kill” was on an international scope, ranging from Canada to London. I liked Ralph Hayes ambition to write in a more epic fashion and he continues that trend with this second series installment. 

“Night of the Jackals” begins at Camp Pritcher Army base in Georgia. It's a special forces training facility ruled by a notorious Hitler-like Captain named Ernst Rohmer. The opening has a young black man, Wendell Jefferson, ordered to do the old “dig a grave and then fill it back in” routine. His superior, Sergeant Pruitt, issues an abundance of thunderous racial slurs and threats, provoking Jefferson to attack him. The end result is imprisonment in the stockade.

Wendell's brother, Aron, a decorated Vietnam veteran, visits the stockade demanding to know what has happened. He quickly discovers Pruitt's racism and that Rohmer is running the base. It's here where we learn that Rohmer had fought for the Third Reich, and later contracted his services all over the globe as a commanding soldier of fortune. Aron experienced Rohmer's atrocities in Vietnam firsthand and questions why the Army would want a cutthroat dictator training it's men (the reader does too).

Later, a drunken Pruitt and Rohmer fatally beat Wendell in his cell. They politically escape punishment, track down Aron and leave him battered and near death. How does this connect to 'The Hunter'? Aron and Moses Ngala (the series' co-hunter/hero) are old friends. Aron knows Moses is in law enforcement, so he reaches out to him (in a weird scene where it seems Aron ran into Moses by accident). Regardless, Moses and the series protagonist, John Yard, discuss the events from the prior book and decide to do another vigilante job to kill Rohmer and end his reign of terror.

Without spoiling too much of the second half, Yard and Moses travel from Africa to Paris trailing Rohmer. The result has both of them fighting for the Syrians over the Israel border. It's a wild chain of events that completely spins “Night of the Jackals” from vengeful vigilante to espionage thriller before covering a battlefield saga and planting the story in a brutal prison. Author Ralph Hayes hits every single sub-genre of Men's Action Adventure in one fell swoop.

Like his 'Stoner' series, the action shares some of the same exotic locations – African deserts and villages like Lagos and Nairobi. Hayes has mastered “prison fiction”, perhaps building off of 'Buffalo Hunter' debut “Hellhole”, a gritty western set in a ruthless Mexican prison. Additionally, 'Stoner' installment “The Satan Stone” mirrors that same prison scenario in Africa. Now, the finale of this novel has both Yard and Moses inside a violent prison-styled base ran by the sadistic Rohmer. It's repetitive, often using the same sequence of events, but Hayes does it so well that it's the story we want him to tell. At this point in time, this author could be my favorite of the genre. It's a bold statement, but I'm not searching the used stores this hard for any other author.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Death Pulls a Doublecross (aka Coward's Kiss)

In 1961 - around the beginning of his crime fiction career - Lawrence Block submitted a hardboiled private eye novel to Fawcett Gold Medal called “Coward’s Kiss.” When it was finally published, someone at Fawcett changed the title to “Death Pulls a Doublecross.” Decades later when Block began reprinting his early works, he changed the title back to “Coward’s Kiss” where it remains available today as a Kindle eBook and a well-performed audiobook.

Ed London is a stereotypical hardboiled private-eye and when we meet him, he is working on an unusual assignment. He is tasked with quietly removing the corpse of a sexy female murder victim from a Manhattan apartment and then dumping the body in Central Park for later discovery by authorities.

We quickly learn exactly why an otherwise good and ethical PI would do something so uncharacteristically evil. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a satisfying enough reason that drives the rest of the story. The other big driving storyline is a missing briefcase with unknown contents that good guys and bad guys are both trying to locate - giving the paperback the feel of a NYC treasure hunt inside a standard whodunnit.

It’s fun to read Lawrence Block’s early work with the knowledge that he went on to be a grandmaster of the mystery genre. No one would classify this book as one of his greatest hits, but you can see the greatness in its infancy. The book was never boring and had plenty of violence, gunplay, blood, and death. A nice romantic sub-plot develops and our hero gets laid a couple times. There really is something for everyone in this short paperback. 

If you’ve ever read a mystery novel before, you won’t have much difficulty solving this one. However, the joy of a Lawrence Block book isn’t the destination, it’s the ride. This one is a fun journey. Recommended. 

Postscripts

“Death Pulls a Doublecross” (or “Coward’s Kiss” if you prefer) was originally written as a TV tie-in novel based on “Markham,” a private-eye series starring Ray Milland that aired for one season in 1959–1960. Block liked the finished product so much, he never submitted the TV tie-in version and edited it as a stand-alone mystery novel for Fawcett Gold Medal.

The character of Ed London would have been a natural for a series of hardboiled mystery novels. Block never brought the character back for any more paperbacks, but London starred in three novellas published in Men’s Adventure Magazines in the 1960s. All three novellas have been compiled in Block’s collection of his early short fiction, “One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.”

The other Ed London stories are:

“The Naked and the Deadly” from “Man’s Magazine,” October 1962, reprinted in “Guy, December 1963.

“Stag Party Girl” from “Man’s Magazine,” February 1963, reprinted in “Guy,” February 1965. 

“Twin Call Girls” from “Man’s Magazine,” August 1963, reprinted in “Guy,” August 1965.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Deathwatch

Author Robb White concentrated on juvenile fiction, writing nearly 30 novels between 1935-1985 (he passed away in 1990). Along with novels, he teamed with horror director William Castle to pen screenplays, including classics like “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler”, both featuring the iconic Vincent Price. Along with feature films, he wrote television scripts for “Perry Mason”, “The Silent Service” and “Men of Annapolis”. His 1956 novel “Up Periscope” was adapted to film in 1959 starring James Gardner (later to be spoofed in 1996's film “Down Periscope”). His most identifiable work is the 1972 young adult title “Deathwatch”, a Scholastic mainstay in school libraries in the 70s and 80s. The novel was adapted for film twice – 1974's “Savages” starring Andy Griffith and 2015's “Beyond the Reach” starring Michael Douglas. The fact that it received film treatments twice speaks volumes. It's simply a fantastic story.

Young Ben is a college student who works as a hunting guide in what I presume is a California desert. His client is a pompous Los Angeles businessman named Madec, who is in the desert for a week with Ben hunting bighorn sheep. In the opening chapter, Madec claims he sees horns on a mountainside and fires. Unfortunately, Madec mistakenly shot an elderly prospector. Ben hands his own rifle to Madec and hikes down the mountain to gather a sheet for the body and to drive the Jeep a little closer. Upon return to the corpse, Madec makes a plea and attempts to bribe Ben into disposing of the body and continuing on the hunt. Ben refuses and things get rather grim quickly.

Madec then leaves Ben in the desert in his underwear with no food or water. He knows Ben will never make the exhausting 40 mile trek to freedom, but will stand by and “harass” Ben. Thus, White's narrative is fully developed. Ben makes a run for it, hoping to survive harsh conditions and Madec's rifle shots. The bulk of the story is Ben's will to survive under the most extreme conditions. While catering to young adults, it cuts no corners. Ben's feet start to erode off as he walks on hot and jagged rocks, losing blood while becoming dehydrated. His saving grace is finding an old sling-shot, which he uses to his advantage to hunt and defend.

While the “hunt human prey” adventure story is compelling, the author steps up with the book's closing chapters. Seamlessly, the book changes locations from desert to sheriff's office. It's this portion that showcases more of a legal drama, recapping the events from both Ben and Madec's points of view. It's just as fascinating as the fast-paced desert survival yarn. Overall, White's “Deathwatch” is a classic adventure tale that's still in print.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

File on a Missing Redhead

During his career, Lou Cameron wrote all sorts of men’s adventure fiction, but his 1968 paperback, “File on a Missing Redhead” was a pretty straightforward - and excellent - whodunnit police procedural mystery. Because it’s a Cameron paperback, you know in advance it’s going to be well-written, tightly-plotted, and entertaining as hell.

Our narrator is Lt. Frank Talbot, a Detective with the Nevada Highway Patrol. Talbot is called to a Las Vegas auto wrecking yard where the corpse of a young woman is found stuffed into the forward trunk of an abandoned Volkswagen Beetle. The first order of business is identifying the victim - no small task because of her decomposition and the fact that her fingers and teeth had been removed and her face smashed to bits. The best lead is that her beautiful head of red hair was still in tact.

Things quickly get personal for Talbot when his ex-girlfriend surfaces claiming that a female skip-tracer she knows with fiery red hair has recently come up missing. This investigative path brings Talbot inside the world of professional skip-tracers and the insider’s view into that industry was fascinating to the uninitiated reader. But is this missing skip-tracer the same person as the redhead in the trunk?

The reader never really gets to know Talbot much as a person. He’s a reliable narrator and a fantastic police detective, but he is not given much of a personality outside of his ultra-competent investigative skills. As Talbot follows clues in a pretty straightforward homicide investigation, it becomes clear that he’s on the trail of an honest-to-goodness psychopath working in the seamy underbelly of Las Vegas casino life. The plot twists and turns making for a wild ride, and Cameron’s take on hardboiled detective narration is top-notch throughout the paperback.

I suspect that Cameron may have wanted to bring Lt. Talbot back more for additional novels, but “File on a Missing Redhead” likely wasn’t a gangbusters hit, relegating it to just another late-period Fawcett Gold Medal stand-alone paperback original. That’s a shame because it’s a fantastic police procedural packed with many interesting factoids - a rare mystery where you’ll walk away having learned a thing or two - right up to the mystery’s twisty resolution.

More unfortunately, this superb novel has not been reprinted or digitized since it’s 1968 release, so you’ll have to play detective yourself to track down a used copy. It’s worth the hunt as this one’s a total winner. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Hunter #01 - "Scavenger Kill"

Ralph Hayes was extremely active in the 1970s, enterprising a multitude of action adventure series' including 'Stoner', 'Buffalo Hunter', 'Agent for Cominsec' and 'Check Force'. The prolific author contributed to the 'Killmaster' series, penning eight novels under the Nick Carter name. While little is known about Hayes, his passion for traveling is conveyed in his writing. Often his books are international endeavors, capturing the full spectrum of the story-line with multiple locations and characters. That extensive storytelling is presented in 'The Hunter' series, debuting with “Scavenger Kill” in 1975 (Leisure).

Hayes introduces John Yard, the obligatory Vietnam war veteran. As a Green Beret, Yard “knew more ways to kill a man than he cared to remember”. He abandoned the Army, going AWOL after losing the cause altogether. My suspicion is that his immense inheritance contributed to his decision to ditch and run. With a deceased uncle's fortune, Yard sets up a travel company in New York that cleverly sends rich Caucasians to Africa to hunt big game. This fuels the hunter's manhood, but also allows Yard two hands in the money-jar; the left for the travel agency and the right as the hunting guide. It's in Africa that our story begins.

Yard is leading a lion hunt with an arrogant, inexperienced sportsman that can't complete the kill. After wounding the lion, it's up to Yard to enter dense foliage and finish off the hunter's deficiency. This is an important lesson for the hunter as well as the reader. This scene plays an important role in the book's thundering finale. After the hunt, Hayes receives word that his former Army buddy, Joe Algers, has experienced a horrifying sequence of events in New York. 

Chapter Two explains the nightmarish misfortune of the Algers family. Weeks after giving birth, Holly and Joe realize the child is a hairy mutant that may not have brain activity. In what amounts to a horror novel, Holly receives confirmation from the doctor, then drowns the baby in a bath and jumps to her death. The cause for these events is a medication called Moricidin manufactured by Maurice Pharmaceuticals. Despite warning signs, the medication was still on the market and the end-result of its dosage is creating mutant babies. The owner of the company is an obese, vile villain named Maurice Lavalle. 

With plot and villain in hand, Yard and his African police-friend Moses seek the whereabouts of Lavalle. The book is presented in grand scale, scouring places like London, New York, Nairobi and Canada for clues and contacts. While not overly erotic or graphic, there are two brief sex-scenes as Yard goes “undercover” with one of Lavalle's secretaries. Often Moses follows one lead while Yard tails another – on a different continent. The two have a number of physical confrontations on their globe-trotting odyssey, culminating in explosive gun-play at a high-rise before wrapping during an action-packed river firefight. It's these final scenes that run full-circle to the book's beginnings, proving Yard, while hunting big-game, was seemingly destined to become this vigilante.

Hayes would follow this debut with four additional series installments. Yard is often teaming with Moses in the series, righting the wrongs of 70s society while still being prominent in 2018. The blunt writing style, frequent action and unyielding protagonist makes 'The Hunter' debut a prized trophy.