Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Pepperoni Hero #01 - Sandwiches Are Not My Business

The three-book Pepperoni Hero series debuted in 1975 and was probably the oddest named series in the men’s adventure genre. It’s hard to learn much about the author, Bill Kelly (Copyright: William Kelly), because there have been dozens of novelists with the same name over the past 50 years. The hard-to-acquire series is a running joke among collectors and fans of the genre, but I’ve never met anyone who has actually read one. I decided to take the plunge.

First, Pepperoni Hero is his real name. The first name is from a drunken father and the last name was historically truncated from Heropoulus by a Greek immigrant ancestor, yet his friends call him Pep or Pepper. The novel is a low-rent tribute (okay, rip-off) to John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. For example, McGee’ houseboat, “The Busted Flush,” is named after the poker hand that won him the boat. Pepper’s houseboat is called “Crap” because he won his boat in a dice game. On the book’s first page, Pep is in bed reading “John D. MacDonald’s latest Travis McGee satire,” and Pep drinks Plymouth Gin on the rocks, just like McGee. At times, its difficult to tell if this book is outright parody, fan fiction or just an earnest - but inferior- cover band.

Like McGee, Pep is a boat bum with the unusual twist that he’s doing it in Chicago while moored at Navy Pier Marina. He works as an adventurer for hire helping people who can’t enlist the help of the law for one reason or another. This 188-page paperback is one long flashback with Pep recounting his life story to the reader. Some of the stories he tells about his checkered past are very compelling, but I kept wondering when the novel was going to start. Then, all of a sudden, I realized that one of those old war stories was, in fact, the plot of the novel.

The plot deals with Pep helping an old Vietnam War buddy who wants Pep to use his superior poker skills to clean out his wealthy brother-in-law. The reason this is important involves a convoluted and rather stupid sibling rivalry and a dead man’s will with millions at stake. This turns into a murder plot with an impotent bad guy involved in sexual torture, homemade porno movies, and blackmail. Meanwhile, Pep gets laid a lot.

Kelly is actually a pretty good writer but his plotting is an abomination. He does seem to know his way around the neighborhoods and norms of Chicago. The action scenes are well-described, and Pep is a credible badass. The sex scenes, and there are many, are plenty graphic. Finally, the author gives Pep an eight-inch dong - consistent with the league minimum for numbered 1970s paperbacks.

Despite these mitigating factors, the bottom line is that no one in his right mind would ever recommend this mess of a novel to you for anything other than the novelty of the cover. By all means, buy it and display it proudly. But for heaven’s sake, please don’t read it. Only one of us should have to endure this mess of a paperback.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Long Night

Julian Mayfield (1928-1984) was an Army vet, taught at Cornell and spent the majority of his life as civil rights activist. He was often associated with communist sympathizers and was even invited to Cuba by Fidel Castro. The South Carolina native wrote a number of plays, adapting one (“417”) into his debut novel, “The Hit”, in 1957. Mayfield's most profound novel of his published trio is “The Long Night”, published in 1958 by Vanguard. 

With the description and book cover, it's easy to lump this novel into the crime paperback movement of the 1950s. The tag: “His gang turned on him, the cops were his enemies – the powerful, grim story of a kid on the run in the Harlem jungle.” Blanketing the novel with the sexy heels and mini skirt may have improved sales. Regardless of the clever crime marketing signatures, this novel shouldn't be misplaced into the genre. It just doesn't fit and I'm kicking myself for including it here. But, there's pieces that may appeal to genre fans so I continue.

Main character Fredrick Brown is a ten-year old lieutenant in a dominant Harlem neighborhood gang called The Comanche Raiders. It's a hot Friday night and Brown, nicknamed Steely by his gang, picks up $27 cash for his mother. She won it in some sort of game or street hustle and has trusted him to carry this money back home to her (shades of Jack & The Beanstalk). On his return trek, he runs into members of his own gang who physically assault him. The money is stolen and Brown is forced to locate $27 before he can return home.

Harlem's grime is on full display here. Mayfield isn't restrained, positioning young Brown in precarious situations. Hoping to score quick bucks, Brown robs a woman, steals a bike and receives another assault from a rival gang. The police don't assist, and soon Brown finds himself on the mean streets at midnight with little hope. In emotional flashbacks, we learn that Brown's father left the family to pursue college. Brown recalls various times of his young life and his interaction with his mother. The end is a bit of a surprise and wrapped the narrative up in an open-ended conclusion. 

This isn't a gem by any means, but could be viewed as a decent coming of age tale. Considering the timing of its release, Mayfield does a good job displaying the rough and tumble battles between inner city ethnic groups. At 140-pages and large font, it's an easy way to pass the time.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Quarry #02 - Quarry's Choice

“Quarry’s Choice” by Max Allan Collins is a 2015 installment in the hit-man series, yet it takes place in 1972. The popular paperbacks have always been unstuck in time, and the reading order doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that you do, in fact, read these books because 'Quarry' is among the best genre series characters ever written.

This one takes place after Vietnam vet Quarry has been accepting assassination assignments from the Broker for about a year. During a standard business meeting in Iowa, a couple of hired killers try to murder the Broker but are foiled by Quarry’s quick action. It’s an exciting opening scene that sets the pace for the remainder of this propulsive installment.

Soon thereafter, the Broker engages Quarry to kill the man behind the assassination attempt - a junior varsity racketeer named Killian in Biloxi’s Dixie Mafia. Killian is in the process of trying to consolidate power, and he views the Broker as a loose end requiring elimination. The ever-resourceful Broker has an inside track to get Quarry a job - in an undercover capacity - as one of Killian’s bodyguards to bide time until Quarry is properly positioned to eliminate this well-protected threat.

In Biloxi, Quarry is assigned a stripper/prostitute, who uses the name Lolita, to be his escort as he learns his way around town. As a writer, Collins is notoriously good at writing fantastically graphic sex scenes, so Lolita’s version of southern hospitality is a welcome edition to this otherwise violent and tense paperback. Beyond the sex scenes, the relationship that develops between Quarry and the whore is one of the most satisfying aspects of the novel and underscores the basic goodness and humanity of our antihero hitman.

Biding his time for an opportunity to take out Killian, Quarry is given assignments from his target to thin the herd of criminal competition in Mississippi, and Quarry must make some tough choices concerning conflicts of interest and the ethics serving two masters. The strip clubs and illegal gambling operations servicing the nearby Air Force base in Biloxi serve as a fascinating cultural study of regional crime.

As you may have figured, “Quarry’s Choice” is another fantastic and perfectly-written novel in this flawless series. It’s short enough that it never drags, and Collins’ writing crackles with good humor and compelling bloodshed. The twists and turns as the book approaches its climax are genuinely surprising. The paperback’s conclusion is gratifying and leaves the reader wanting another helping of Quarry action. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Avenger #01 - The Avenger

Nebraska native Chet Cunningham penned over 450 books in his lifetime. The prolific author served as a mortar gunner in the Korean war before obtaining a master's in journalism at Columbia University. His first novel was published in 1968, the first of many westerns he would compile in his bibliography. My first introduction to his writing was Stephen Mertz's 'M.I.A. Hunter' books, and much later the 1980s vigilante series 'The Avenger'. 

The eponymous debut was released by Warner Books in 1987 and would continue for three sequels through December of 1988. The “Avenger” here is Matthew Hawke, who at the beginning of the series is a DEA agent in San Diego. The opening pages has Hawke masterminding a sting operation in a derelict neighborhood. Barging into a warehouse office, Hawke finds the Mob's hands bloody – with his wife's tortured corpse lying discarded on a desk. After a quick shootout, Hawke's colleagues arrive just in time to accept his badge and gun. Hawke resigns from the force. 

The same night, Hawke aligns himself with the lovable Brandy, a 17-yr old prostitute that he has kept tabs on during his career. Daylighting at her place allows him to moonlight as the vengeful avenger, wreaking havoc on drug cartel kingpin Ramon Raimundo. Hawke begins by dismantling the trafficking trails and knocking out mid-level bosses. The author typically uses a chapter to set up the hit, then moves to a quick close with Hawke dealing the deathblow. The chapters and elimination of the cartel eventually moves to the streets of Tijuana and Ramon's fortress. 

Cunningham is a good writer for “popcorn” action, adventure and westerns. He's certainly no literary mastermind, but his books serve genre readers with enough bravado and gun toting heroes to satisfy any casual fan. 'The Avenger' is recommended for fans of 'The Executioner', 'The Vigilante', 'Hawker' and 'The Hitman'.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Girl with the Long Green Heart

“The Girl with the Long Green Heart” was a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novel by Lawrence Block released in 1965 that was brought back as a Hard Case Crime reprint in 2005 with a new cover by the great Robert McGinnis (although the original cover art was quite fetching). It’s a con-man story in the same vein as “The Sting” and it’s an absolutely terrific read.

Johnny Hayden is a master of the long con with a specialty in land and stock scams. After a stretch in the joint, he’s working in a bowling alley futilely saving his pennies so he can one day break into the hotel business. Johnny receives a visit from a younger, less-experienced fellow grifter named Doug Rance who comes with a proposition for a job. Rance has identified a mark named Wallace Gunderson who is ripe for the picking, but he needs Johnny’s help to make it happen.

Johnny is a great first-person narrator, but it wouldn’t have been much of a story if he declined Rance’s offer and went back to polishing his balls at the bowling alley. Instead, he’s back in the game honing and tweaking Rance’s plan to engage in a little theft by deception. After the initial setup and planning, it’s off to upstate New York to meet the mooch. A good bit of the action also takes place in Toronto, an underused setting in classic crime fiction.

I won’t give too much of the con away here other to say it involves land in Canada that may or may not be of interest to speculators interested in uranium mining. Gunderson is a jackass and a blowhard, so you don’t feel a bit sorry for him as Johnny and Rance work their magic. Rance enlists the help of Gunderson’s secretary, Evelyn, who has her own score to settle with her boss. Evelyn is a scorned woman with larceny in her long green heart and a real looker to boot. She needs to work closely with Johnny to make this scam happen, and, well, you can probably see where this is going.

If you like con-man novels, “The Girl With the Long Green Heart” will be right up your alley. The story’s big twist wasn’t a huge surprise and the conclusion was a bit anti-climactic, but it was a blast to read from beginning to end. It’s another early-career winner from Lawrence Block. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Lead with Your Left

New York author Leonard Zinberg utilized the pen name Ed Lacy for his solid run of 1950s and 1960s crime paperbacks. He wrote nearly 30 novels in this span, including “Lead with Your Left”, published in 1957. Like a majority of Lacy's work, it features a former boxer as a main character. 

While firmly entrenched in the mystery and crime genre, “Lead with Your Left” is a poignant study of young marriage. It's the trials and tribulations of young love weighed against the financial burdens of new careers. For me, that's the thread weaving this enjoyable crime novel together. Lacy speaks from the heart with a realistic, grim approach to his storytelling. Much like popular contemporary David Goodis, Lacy is swept up with famine, love, loss and the proverbial triumph over adversity. 

The novel's protagonist is Dave Wintino, a baby-faced rookie detective in NY who is striving to survive in the battle ground of marriage, work and bills. From the book's opening we learn that Dave and his wife Mary are at odds over his career choice. Mary, hoping her spouse would join her uncle's fabric business, is embarrassed to be a “cop's wife” and that his youth and smarts are wasted on what she perceives as meaningless work. Adding more abrasion, Dave's peers at the precinct refuse to accept him based on his size and young appearance. But, we quickly come to understand this character – former Army vet and ex-boxer with an iron determination to complete a job or assignment at any cost. 

Dave's case is the death of retired detective Owens. He was found shot with nonnegotiable bonds in an alleyway. While the senior detectives work around Dave as if he is an obstruction, the young detective takes it upon himself to solve the crime on and off the payroll. He finds that both Owens and his partner Wales put away a murderer/gangster years ago and there may be a connection. Running with a revenge scenario, Dave's investigation ascends the ranks once Wales is found murdered as well. While working with family and former colleagues, Dave is able to connect the dots and determine that all isn't what it appears to be. 

Lacy's positioning of a failing marriage into the narrative is important. As the Owens investigation continues, Dave is assigned a watchmen role for a young journalist who is harassed by a company she is exposing in print. Lusting after the young woman, Dave bounces freedom and individuality off the marriage brick house, contemplating his life and career choices. The book's pivotal point is finding the surprise connection between the two cases. Once that's established, the book races to a fiery crescendo as Dave faces the murderer without the precinct's help. 

The bottom line – Lacy is a master of his domain. I thoroughly have enjoyed his work and continue to seek out his name on those dusty store shelves. “Lead with Your Left” is a compelling and enjoyable read. Recommended. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Death and the Dancing Shadows

The March 1980 edition of ‘Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine’ (MSMM) featured a “New Novelette” by reliably great Texas writer James Reasoner called “Death and The Dancing Shadows.” The story was later reprinted in the essential 1987 collection, “The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction,” and it’s also now available as a stand-alone story on Kindle for a buck. Since I count myself as a Reasoner superfan, I was excited to read it.

This was one of five “Markham P.I.” stories that Reasoner wrote during the 1980s. Markham is a Hollywood-based private eye who serves as a troubleshooter for clients - mostly in the entertainment industry. This time around, Markham’s client is aging movie cowboy Lucky Tremaine who’s being blackmailed by an unknown adversary. The blackmailer has a sex tape starring Lucky’s beloved 18 year-old granddaughter, and he wants $10,000 or he’ll release the tape to the world. (Evidently this story was written before sex tapes were a door to wealth and fame as a reality TV star.)

The more Markham learns about the situation, the more cause for concern arises. The granddaughter is a student at USC, but she’s been missing for three days. Markham endeavors to find the missing girl and identify and neutralize the blackmailers. All of this eventually leads to a murder that Markham is also obliged to solve. He’s a P.I. with a lot to do, and only a handful of “Novelette” pages to get it all done.

An average reader of private eye stories will probably see the first big plot twist coming, but the subsequent twists were legitimately surprising and made for an exciting read. This is a testament to Reasoner’s writing talents as he clearly has been both a student and a practitioner of pulp fiction mystery writing for his entire life.

“Death and The Dancing Shadows” ends with a satisfying conclusion answering the one remaining mystery left unsolved in the story. As a hero, Markham is a decent character but is largely indistinguishable from many other fictional American private eyes. This could have just as easily been a Mike Shayne, Peter Chambers, or Johnny Liddell story, and if you’re a fan of that type of thing, there’s a lot to enjoy here as well.

Mostly, it’s cool that this “Novelette” has stood the test of time and is still available for purchase at a reasonable price 38 years after its original publication. There’s nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking here, but it’s a solid private eye mystery and an easy recommendation.