Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Drygulch Town

“Drygulch Town” was originally released in 1963 by Ace as a double with “Prairie Raiders”. Both were written by the king of paperbacks, Harry Whittington. It was later re-released by Ace in 1972 with alternate artwork. In 1980, Tempo Books reprinted the novel again with alternative cover art. Does the book warrant three printings? Sadly, no. 

The novel begins with an exciting intro as attorney Steve Garrison rides into the small town of Carmack. He's warned to steer clear of the town with a few cautionary rifle shots. Garrison, determined to accept his position as defense attorney, ignores the shots and goes in the local bar to share his story with a local named Hawgans. 

Garrison is a lawyer from Cheyenne who's been hired to defend Kiner, a young man accused of killing Bryce Carmack's son Junior. It's a tough position to defend considering Bryce owns the town and all of the oil leases. In fact, Bryce had already taken it upon himself to lead a lynch mob to hang Kiner but it was disrupted by sheriff Waggner. The murder occurred after Kiner won a legit game of poker and left with the winnings. He claims Junior and another man attacked him in an alley and Kiner's fatal shot was in self-defense. The town, fearing backlash from Bryce, is in favor of hanging Kiner regardless of any evidence.

Whittington has a great opportunity here to leverage “Drygulch Town” into a stirring mystery regarding this unknown second assailant. I was envisioning a captivating narrative that explored Garrison's probing as an attorney/detective while receiving the obligatory death threats and attempts on his life. That would have been interesting and altogether a much more satisfying direction to take. Instead, Whittington waters this down with a recycled chain of events that finds the town just beating up Garrison, leaving him for dead, and then Garrison rehabilitating only to have it recycle two more times. There's very little investigation or defense here. Sheriff Waggner is the complacent white hat that serves no real purpose other than nursing wounds. Frustrating.

Overall, it's a short read that isn't cumbersome or painful to get through. It's an okay western that had a lot more potential. If you love Whittington then this may be something you feel obligated to read. If it is just a great western you are reaching for...just go right or left on the shelf but leave this alone.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Tears Are For Angels

During the paperback explosion of the 1950s, many writers of different stripes tried to ride the post-pulp cultural wave with varying success. Fawcett Gold Medal released three stand-alone noir paperback original novels by New York Times columnist Tom Wicker using the pseudonym Paul Connolly, including the 1952 effort, “Tears are for Angels.”

When we meet our narrator, Harry London, he’s only got only one arm, and he’s alone in a remote cabin - drunk and depressed about something to do with his ex-wife. He’s visited by an attractive female named Jean Cummings whom he greets with suspicion and violence when she wants to hear his story. These opening scenes are a bit frustrating because the reader has no idea what’s happening or how Harry got into this position. Stick with it, though. You’re in for quite a ride.

It’s midway through chapter five - about 15% into the paperback - that the flashback begins enlightening the reader about how London finds himself in such a bad place. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s an infidelity, a murder, a frame-up, and a cover-up followed by a scheme to exact revenge. There are many clever plot twists here that you must read to experience. This a great book written by an author with clear literary aspirations and an ability to craft a plot utilizing prose far exceeding most of the era’s noir stories. Things get a bit melodramatic towards the end, but the quality of the writing never fails. 

“Tears are for Angels” really is a quality work of forgotten noir fiction that hasn’t been legally reprinted since its release over 66 years ago. It would be a natural fit for a modern release at the hands of Stark House or Hard Case Crime. For the rest of us, it’s just great reading. Recommended. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Strange Intruder

Arthur Catherall (1906-1980) was an adventurer at heart. From climbing mountains in Lapland and Algeria to sailing trawlers in the Atlantic and Arctic, the British author certainly had many life experiences to inspire his literary work. Utilizing over six different pseudonyms, Catherall wrote a high volume of young adult novels like “The Strange Intruder”. This sweeping 1964 adventure tale was first released as “The Strange Invader” before being reprinted by Archway as “The Strange Intruder” in 1968.

While never specifying a time period, the novel seems to be set in the present day (1964). The wind-swept location is the chilly Faroes Islands, geographically positioned north of the British Isles and just Southeast of Iceland. In the book's opening pages we read that the 900-ton schooner Faroes Seeker has struck an old wheelhouse assembly and torn the ship's hull. Miles off coast, the crew becomes stranded and forced to use battered sails on storm-ravaged seas. 

The book's young protagonist is Sven Klakk, a 16-year old fishermen learning the trade with his uncles. He's part of a small village living on the islands and has enough experience with a plethora of rigging, climbing, fishing and...adventuring. In some ways Sven is the life of the island, always there to help the elders while slowly evolving into a full-time role as statesman. Sven and his father see the ship and eventually round up the village to start making supplies available for the surviving crewmen.

In a wild turn of events, the villagers spot a crew member jumping from the ship and swimming to a storm-battered enclave. Sven, panicking to save the swimmer, races to the cliffs and the narrative really builds steam as we learn the crew member is actually a polar bear escaping captivity from the ship. Once Sven meets the bear...the fight is on. With very little supplies, an old shotgun and the storm raging on the island, the story has Sven and the villagers fighting off a ravenous polar bear that's angry out of his element.

Like most of Catherall's work, this is a coming of age tale about a young man saving his village. Metaphorically, the bear is Sven's own childhood raging to break free. With the backdrop of swollen seas, rocky cliffs and island life, the author creates a vivid, enjoyable adventure read for anyone. I'm passing it on to a 67-year old to read next. The kid in us never really ages.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Everybody's Watching Me

“Manhunt Magazine” was a hardboiled crime fiction digest that first hit the shelves in January 1953. The first four issues featured a serialized short novel by Mickey Spillane called “Everybody’s Watching Me” that was also reprinted by Manhunt in 1955. The story runs about 100 pages and was brought back for yet another Manhunt encore in 1964 under the new title, “I Came to Kill You.” It exists today as an affordable eBook and a paperback reprint.

“Everybody’s Watching Me” isn’t a Mike Hammer story but instead is told by a young laborer named Joe who delivers a threatening message to a local gangster named Renzo from an enigmatic killer named Vetter. The mobster is a “kill the messenger” kinda guy who beats young Joe unconscious for the audacity of simply delivering the note.

The note is from the mysterious Vetter is taken seriously since he recently knocked off a mob underboss and has everyone in the underworld on edge. What is Vetter’s agenda? Is he a rival godfather looking to take over the local rackets? Renzo suspects that Joe knows more than he’s admitting regarding Vetter, and he has Joe followed by surveillance goons hoping that the kid will lead the mobster to Vetter.

Joe has no information to provide anyone about this “assassin of mobsters,” and he - along with a sexy showgirl he meets along the way - finds himself in the middle of underworld tensions and the police. All these concerned parties are hoping that the naive Joe will lead them to Vetter.

Despite a cool setup, the story of Joe running around both manipulating and being manipulated at the eye of a mafia storm isn’t all that compelling. However, the last scene of this novel is just awesome and features a plot twist that I never saw coming. Ultimately, I suppose it was worth the hundred pages of my attention.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Cold Night's Death

Author Barbara Harrison is mostly known for historical literary works and contemporary romance novels. In 1973, Award Books assigned her the job of creating a novelization of an ABC made-for-television movie entitled “A Cold Night's Death”. Typically, movie novelizations are reserved for big screen releases or higher budget films needing additional marketing. It's a mystery on why Award wanted an ABC “movie of the week” in print, but alas here it is. I haven't seen the film (it's on YouTube) but couldn't resist the cover and promises of “Icy terror, suspense and violence”. 

Again, I haven't seen this film. But based on what I endured for 156-pages...I will never watch it. Perhaps Barbara Harrison was welded to the film's restraints, but reading “A Cold Night's Death” felt exactly like the novel's title. This is a lethargic, dull narrative where two scientists are literally thousands of miles from civilization and have nothing else to do but bicker with each other. And they drag you and I into it against our will. I wanted the suspenseful mystery that was teased to me during the novel's opening chapters.

Tower Mountain sits 14,000 feet into the thin air of Northern California. It's a snowy, wind-swept Hell where a small research station houses a lone scientist. For reasons the reader doesn't know (spoiler: you never know), this scientist is at the peak of madness and broadcasting on the short-wave radio for help. Why? What has happened? 

In chapter two we are introduced to the book's two protagonists, Frank and Robert. Both are esteemed scientists that have worked together for a number of years on a dozen projects. Dr. Horner, the research leader (at ground control), has asked that Frank and Robert fly to this frozen wasteland to determine what has happened to the missing scientist and the monkeys that are being used for the grant experiment - the effects of high altitudes and stress on humans. Against their better judgment, both agree to the assignment.

Chapter three begins with Frank and Robert arriving at the ice station and learning the whereabouts of the missing scientist. The mysteries here are aplenty – who locked the scientist in, why is there a window open, who destroyed the interior and how did the scientist die. I was hoping for an engaging hybrid of sleuth, murder and locked room mystery. The end result is nearly a three-month stay for Robert and Frank that includes a lot of experimentation on monkeys, radio dialogue with Dr. Horner and the two main characters jousting at each other like The Honeymooners. 

Barbara Harrison has nothing to offer more than Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg's screenplay (no it isn't our beloved Lee Goldberg). That's the whole issue here...there's nothing to add because nothing really ever happens. There's some bump in the night suspense here and there, a few items knocked over and a lot of accusations tossed about. At the end I was dog-tired from this pointless exercise. Absolutely steer away from “A Cold Night's Death”. It's a soul killer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Cheaters

As an author, Orrie Hitt is often dismissed as being “sleaze fiction” but this designation fails to recognize the fundamental truth that he was a superb writer and that his plots often incorporated noir and crime fiction elements beside the soft-core sex scenes. A perfect example is his 1960 paperback, “The Cheaters” that has been re-released by Stark House for modern consumption.

Clint Mayer is 24 and broke when he lands a job at a dive bar in a scummy neighborhood of an industrial town. The owner confides in Mayer that the bar subsidies its bottom line by taxing a trio of prostitutes who use the tavern as a home base of flesh-peddling operations. A crooked local cop shaking down the girls for protection money casts a malevolent shadow over the whole enterprise.

Mayer has a girl who he’s been with for years ever since he took her virginity. She wants to marry, and he lacks enthusiasm for that institution. Meanwhile, his new boss has a young and desirable wife named Debbie who seems hot to trot with the new help. This, of course, becomes an obsession for Mayer who needs to balance his desires with his need to put bread on the table.

As Mayer and Debbie grow closer, the topic of Debbie’s dissatisfaction with her own marriage and and an existing life insurance policy on her husband, you just know that this erotic tease of a novel is about to take a dark turn into James M. Cain territory. Hitt writes his sex scenes with a high level of eroticism without ever being as graphic as the most tepid Longarm western - a cool trick that the author honed in over 150 published novels.

In case you get deceived by the romance novel cover art, rest assured that there is some no-shit violence in this tricky little paperback. For example, there’s a beating scene that will stay with you long after you finish the book - you’ll know what I mean when you read it.

I liked this paperback quite a bit. Admittedly, “The Cheaters” is basically a ripoff of Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” but it’s a damn fine ripoff. After all, who doesn’t like a like a great cover band? You’ll see the twist ending coming from a mile away, but the ride to get there sure is a lot of fun. Recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Fargo #05 - Wildcatters

Author Ben Haas (as John Benteen) utilized the blend of action, adventure and western genres to perfect his long-running 'Fargo' series. I've heard collectors and fans describe the series as the 'Conan' of westerns. It's a fitting description for this sort of troubadour adventure, a formula that's never failed to thrill and excite me. The fifth of this series, “Wildcatters”, is no different. 

John Fargo rides into a new Oklahoma boomtown looking for work. The journey to town has Fargo reuniting with an old flame named Tess, now a business woman running a prostitution operation. Tess introduces Fargo to her beautiful niece Maggie with the warning that Maggie isn't for sale – she's a respectable woman looking for a suitable husband. This part is important to know.

Soon, Fargo's reputation (and an earlier brawl) catches up with him and he is solicited by the town's oil tycoon Brasher. He's struck black gold and now wants to aggressively expand his operation further. The missing piece is a presumed oil well outside of town owned by a rival named Russell. There's a backstory here of Brasher and Russell's father being former business partners that resulted in Russell's father being murdered and Brasher escaping any legal charges. Brasher is now brutish, wealthy and forcing Russell into bankruptcy. 

After declining Brasher's proposition of joining the oil empire as a hired gun, Fargo learns that his gun fighting equal and friend Friday has signed on with Brasher. He's as tough as bedrock. After aligning with Rusell, Fargo borrows $20,000 from Teddy Roosevelt (seriously!) and starts the drilling process to defy Brasher/Friday.

The narrative follows a few gunfights and forays between Fargo's oil workers and Brasher's enforcers. Of course it wouldn't be a Fargo novel without plenty of Fox shotgun work. In one explosive scene we see Fargo discharge his .10 Gauge point blank at two riders, cutting them in half! A rather clever scene finds Fargo outgunned by a posse on a river bank. Let's just say floating a crate of dynamite down the river and popping it from afar with a Winchester leaves plenty of...entrails on the trail. There's a rekindled love interest with Tess to soften the violence, as well as a flair of mystery behind Maggie's outward appearance. 

Overall, another stellar Fargo entry in what has become my guaranteed reading pleasure. Quick, fast-paced and thrilling, “Wildcatters” just doesn't disappoint.