Friday, February 22, 2019

Frantic

In 1956, French hardboiled crime author Noel Calef wrote a paperback called “Elevator to the Gallows” (“Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud”) that was followed by a highly-regarded French film adaptation with a Miles Davis soundtrack. The novel was translated into English and released by Fawcett Gold Medal under the title “Frantic” in 1961. The book was not reprinted for decades thereafter and is regarded as a crime fiction rarity coveted by serious paperback collectors. Black Gat Books (a Stark House imprint) recently re-released the novel in English sparking a major literary event for fans of classic noir fiction.

Julien Courtois is a successful owner of a Paris-based import-export firm who is working late on a Friday night. He has a dutiful wife at home and a desirable secretary at work. He also owes a good bit of money to the loan shark who works one floor above his office in a high-rise urban building. In the novel’s opening scene, Julien executes an exquisitely-planned murder of the loan shark whose body is sure to be found at the office when people return to work on Monday.

The novel’s central action begins when Julien attempts to make his getaway from the office building and finds himself stuck in the building’s elevator. Remember, it’s after-hours before a weekend and there’s a corpse upstairs waiting to be found. Moreover, this is before cell phones and modern alarm systems, so Julien has a real dilemma on his hands as the minutes become hours alone inside the small elevator’s compartment.

“Frantic” reminded me of a very good episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” in which the everyday hassles of life create the twists and turns spoiling an otherwise successful crime. The translation of the prose from the French by R. F. Tannenbaum is serviceable, but it’s clear that you’re reading a translated work. In any case, the core plot is pretty great and a reader is never lost as Julien deals with his confined-space dilemma.

While Julien is confined to an elevator, the events of the short novel are not. The action shifts to Julien’s wife who is convinced that her husband’s absence is proof of an affair, and sets out to find her missing man. The central story about a killer trapped in an elevator was terrific. However, the author filled out the novel with side plots involving several couples navigating their relationship issues that made for a cumbersome read at times. I kept wanting to skim over those sections to get back to the main plot. All the storylines converge later in the novel, so I suppose the filler was ultimately forgivable.

Black Gat Books is to be commended for rescuing this novel from the dustbin of history and preserving the original cover art for this re-release. I don’t think the book was a crime fiction masterpiece, but it wasn’t dreadful either. It was interesting to see what the French version of a Fawcett Gold Medal crime novel was like, so I suppose it was worth my time. Consider this a weak recommendation.

But a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Nothing in Her Way

The industry often cites heavyweights like Keene, Brewer and Whittington as literary kings within the crime fiction genre. While never as commercially successful, author Charles Williams was equally as masterful, penning a number of 1950s paperback classics. One of these, “Nothing in Her Way” (1953), has been reprinted as a Stark House Press double with “River Girl” (1951).

The novel can be viewed in two separate halves with connecting characters and stories. Ideally, it's a heist novel with two different pitches – one involving a risky, elaborate real estate deal and the other a “fixed” horse race. The two heists are thickly woven with a robust cast of scoundrels, each with their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the rather dense, but easily digested, story arcs.

Mike (obligatory first person protagonist) and Cathy are out to avenge their fathers' wrongdoing in a botched business transaction. Their fathers worked at a building firm that reached its pinnacle of success supplying infrastructure in Central America. Both men were pinned under a rather scrupulous business arrangement that sent them both to prison while partners Goodwin and Lachlan made off as wealthy benefactors. Fast-forward 16 years and Cathy has formed a fairly spectacular heist-revenge caper.


In the book's opening pages, Mike is recruited by Cathy and a seasoned con man in Bolton. The ploy? Oddly, to con Goodwin into purchasing land he already owns from Mike. While the idea seems preposterous to Mike and the reader, the narrative explores Mike pretending to be a chemist studying sand in a small desert town – desert owned by Goodwin. How does it shake up? No spoilers here, let's just say the first half ends in a fiery crescendo of fists, bullets and a complex getaway. 

The second half, as you might have guessed, focuses on Lachlan. With Goodwin...ill-disposed...the tables are stacked to have Lachlan bet a fortune on a horse race that he perceives is fixed. The idea of a predetermined horse race seems impossible, but it's up to Mike and Cathy to don another disguise to con Lachlan into thinking it's legit. As complicated as that might be, it's further hampered by an old creditor named Donnelly wanting a piece of the stakes...or Cathy dead. 

I just can't say enough positive things about this Charles Williams masterpiece. After reading it, I immediately thought about how it would look as a film. In researching material for this review I discovered it was adapted for film already! In 1963 the book was adapted into the French comedy “Peau de banan”, which later released in the US as “Banana Peel”. Whether you track it down or not, don't skip out on this novel. The gem is available both physically and digitally and has been re-printed several times including the Stark House double.

Buy a copy of the book HERE 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Dead End

Under the pen name of Ed Lacy, author Len Zinberg wrote 28 novels between the years 1951 and 1969. In December 1958, “Mercury Mystery Magazine” ran a 100-page novella by Lacy called “Time Wounds All Heels.” The story was expanded and published as a hardcover in 1958 as “Be Careful How You Live” which was reprinted in 1959 as a paperback titled “Dead End.” It’s currently available as a cheap eBook in all formats.

As the story begins, two cops named Doc and Bucky (our narrator) are laying low in a filthy, roach-infested hideout with a million bucks cash in three ratty suitcases. How did they get there? What’s the story with all that cash?

Lacy slowplays the explanations over the course of the novel comprising mostly of flashbacks from Bucky’s youth and police career leading up to the million dollars in ill-gotten gains. The narrator cop grew up as a hard-scrabble youth with a troubled family background who learned to use his fists early in life. Eventually, he discovers police work and drifts into a life with problematic choices involving on-the-job graft.

Bucky’s moral descent is hastened once he latches onto Doc, a fellow police detective who becomes a father figure to Bucky. Doc’s expertise is making police work lucrative while also working hard to fight crime and solve important cases. All of this comes to a head when a big case brings a million bucks into the officers’ lives quite unexpectedly.

It took a bit for this novel to really grab me, but once it took off, it was a fantastic read. I suspect that the original 100-page novella was about perfect, and it was later filled out to novel length by adding flashbacks of Bucky’s youth and filler scenes delving into his complex relationship with his parents.

Either way, the crime story at the core of this novel is compelling as hell. Lacy’s writing is predictably top-notch, and the plot was never predictable. Mostly, I’m thrilled to see that there are people hard at work keeping Lacy’s fiction alive for today’s readers. This one is highly recommended for fans of fast-moving 1950s hardboiled crime fiction.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Blood on the Mink

Robert Silverberg is a successful science-fiction and fantasy author. His novellas “Nightwings” and “Born with the Dead” are among five works that gained industry acclaim as Hugo award winners. However, Silverberg cut his teeth on “non-fiction” fantasies and crime noir in his youth. These stories, penned under names like Dan Malcolm and Ray McKensie, were published by zines like “Guilty” and “Trapped”. One of those, the novella length “Blood on the Mink” (1960), was reprinted by Hard Case Crime in 2012 along with the shorts “One Night of Violence” and “Dangerous Doll”.

“Blood on the Mink” is a well-crafted peek at the inner-workings of the Philadelphia syndicate. The book, written in first-person,  introduces us to a federal agent who's donned the disguise of Vic Lowney, a successful California mob boss who's traveling to Philly to meet with a mobster named Klaus. Lowney, who's never met Klaus before, has an agenda of infiltrating Klaus' ring and nabbing a counterfeiter. Klaus' agenda is to pitch the counterfeiting idea to Lowney in hopes of selling him the fake currency for a quarter on a dollar. Easy, right? 

Things get rather complicated quickly. First, Lowney is approached by a rival New York mobster named Litwhiler. He wants Lowney to cooperate with him and steal the counterfeiter with the promise that he'll sell currency to Lowney at a reduced rate. Further, Lowney is then approached by Klaus' stacked lover with a pitch to kill Klaus, steal the counterfeiter and make a fast break. Lowney, while carefully balancing his government work with pleasure, navigates a series of twists and turns that soon incorporates another rival mobster named Chavez and the counterfeiter's beautiful daughter, Szekely. 

With all of these intricate allegiances and deceivers, is the book too dense to enjoy? No. Definitely not. Typically I struggle with a cast this robust with multiple threads. At 157-pages of large font, Silverberg takes it easy on his reader (and himself) by sticking to the facts and creating a brisk, easy read. “Blood on the Mink” shines with just enough action, dialogue and babes. In fact, I liked it so much that I read it in one sitting. While not the literary value of a Keene, Whittington or Brewer, this author sticks to the basics and delivers an excellent crime paperback. Nothing more, nothing less. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Monday, February 18, 2019

Soldier of Fortune #01 - Massacre at Umtali

During his literary career, Peter McCurtin served as an author, editor, collaborator, and house name. When McCurtin’s name appears on a paperback cover, his actual input into the final product is often shrouded in mystery. With regards to the 1970s iteration of his Soldier of Fortune series, paperback anthropologist Lynn Munroe has done the heavy lifting for us. Books 1-3 were written by McCurtin the man, and books 4-9 were ghostwritten by Ralph Hayes as McCurtin the house name and edited by McCurtin the editor.

The ‘Soldier of Fortune’ paperbacks star - and are narrated by - mercenary Jim Rainey, and each novel finds Rainey in another war-torn hellhole engaging in combat-for-pay. The series was rebooted by McCurtin in the 1980s - also starring Rainey - but I confess that I haven’t done my homework on the backstory regarding that string of novels.

The series kicks off with “The Massacre At Umtali,” from 1976, and a helpful prologue brings ignorant readers like myself up to speed on the history of colonialism, racial strife, and civil war in Rhodesia where the novel’s action takes place. Rainey is our narrator, an ex-marine from Beaumont, Texas, who is engaged to serve as the leader of an anti-insurgent force of mercenaries serving the Rhodesian Army (white European colonialists) fighting terrorist guerrillas (black African insurgents) for $2,000 per month.

McCurtin writes Rainey’s narration in a pleasing conversational style, so it feels like you’re listening to a badass buddy in a tavern telling you about a foreign adventure he experienced. Rainey puts together a slapdash team of fellow mercenaries (“fuck ups and killers”) for his anti-terror mission, and watching the misfit fighters come together as a team was a particularly cool aspect of the story. The mission itself involves finding and removing a particularly reprehensible terrorist leader hiding in a jungle stronghold.

This book has it all: badass main character, fascinating setting, instant readability, and blood-soaked violence. The racial characterizations in the novel are a product of an earlier time - 1976 - that probably wouldn’t fly today, and the morality of European colonialism in Africa is never questioned. However, nuanced social criticism isn’t what you’re looking for in a Belmont Tower shoot-em-up paperback from that era. This cheap-o novel is intended solely for pure escapism, and it succeeds in that mission. This is a remarkably exciting war story with some great twists and turns along the way. 

As for me, I’m all-in for this series. I’m particularly looking forward to see what author Ralph Hayes does with the concept in later volumes. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, February 15, 2019

Sleep With the Devil

Gunard Hjertstedt (March 28, 1904 - January 9, 1969), better known by pen name Day Keene, wrote over 50 novels and is widely viewed as a literary giant within the crime genre community. “Sleep With the Devil” is a mid-career book published in 1954 by Lion. In April of 2017, Stark House Press re-printed this novel as a three-in-one alongside “Joy House” (1954) and “Wake Up to Murder” (1952).

Keene introduces us to the charismatic Ferron, an enforcer for a NYC loan shark named Bennett. Ferron's unwavering commitment has most recently been evident with his deadly beating of a young African American debtor. Now, Ferron is contemplating killing his boss Bennett and doing the proverbial “take the money and run” routine. The only issue is a connection to his greasy lover Lydia, who unfortunately can't live without him.

As we begin to digest Keene's malefactor, we soon realize that there's a deep dynamic with this character. Ferron has an entirely new life in creation under the identity of Paul Parrish. Unlike Ferron, Parrish is a devout Christian bible-seller that lives in a the tiny upstate New York town aptly titled New Hope. There, he's to wed the virgin beauty Amy under the giving but watchful eye of her wealthy father Wayne. Once the wedding bells ring, Ferron/Parrish will inherit a productive farm, new car and the beautiful Amy. 

Keene weaves this intoxicating narrative together with barbed wire. Ferron is the seedy, vile criminal we love to jeer, yet Keene miraculously prompts the reader to cheer him on, hopeful that in just the right amount of moonlight this bad guy goes straight. While a fish out of water tale in its own right, the author's talent to blend the crime with passion, purpose and redemption is brilliant. I really enjoyed this book and I'm thankful that Stark House Press felt the same. This is a much-needed reprinting of a classic.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Big Red's Daughter

John McPartland (1911-1958) was born in Chicago and served in World War II and the Korean War. He joined “Life” magazine in the 40s and later penned a number of hard-boiled novels for publishers like Fawcett Gold Medal. One of his earliest novels, “Big Red's Daughter”, was released in 1953 and later re-printed by numerous publishers. Most recently the king of reprints, Stark House Press, released the book as a double with the author's most notable work, “Tokyo Doll”. 

McPartland incorporates a lot of 1950s teen angst into this rocky romantic thriller. There's a number of firm elements at play – hot rods, rebellious youth, drug use and plenty of snot-nosed kids from my 42-yr old vantage point. The main character is Jim Work, fresh out of service in Korea and drifting around the California coast. After a fender bender and some punches, Jim follows wealthy punk/bully Buddy Brown and his hot girlfriend Wild Kearny (Big Red's Daughter) to a party house. 

After refusing to pay for Buddy's car repairs (Jim wasn't in the wrong), the two square off in a fistfight where Buddy beats the Holy Hell out of Jim. However, Jim's real pain comes from his heart – he's fallen in love with Wild at first sight. In a rather wild chain of events, Wild's father arrives hoping to meet her newest boyfriend Buddy. But, Wild is ashamed of him so she introduces Jim – good looking war veteran - as her boyfriend. It turns out Big Red is a former longshoreman and controls some dock rackets. He's a pretty big deal.


Soon the truth is out about Buddy and Wild's relationship. After Big Red knocks Buddy's block off, Buddy storms off into the night. Wild and Jim go out for drinks only to return and find that Buddy has killed a young friend of Wild's with scissors – of all things. After knocking Wild unconscious in the struggle, Buddy scrams. In the tradition of “whoever smelt it dealt it”, the police are called and immediately point to Jim as the killer. All of this happens in the first-half!

The second-half is a whirlwind of action that blends a jailbreak, manhunt, extraordinary fights and suspense. As Buddy, Jim and Wild run from the law, there's a new story-line introduced about heroin trafficking. With all of these stirring elements, the author builds the action to match location. In the beginning, with more low-key action, the setting is shore-side in Carmel. But, as the action and intensity increases, the location is heightened to the cliffs and mountains above the sea. It's a clever design.

With “Big Red's Daughter” we see author McPartland certainly flirting with greatness. He wrote 11 novels in the 1950s and four screenplays. Dying at the young age of 47, I think McPartland's career didn't reach appropriate heights. Nevertheless, we have some fine novels as a testament to the strength of McPartland's writing. I certainly recommend this book, but at 128-pages you may want to purchase the Stark House double to gain “Tokyo Doll” with your money. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE