Friday, October 19, 2018

The Star Trap

Although he never rose to the commercial success of his contemporaries, Robert Colby was a productive author of paperback original novels for Fawcett Gold Medal and Ace during the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, he was also a regular contributor of short stories to ‘Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine’ and ‘Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.’ “The Star Trap” was Colby’s 1960 release for Fawcett Gold Medal. The book was also reprinted by Manor Books in 1974, and it exists as an affordable eBook today.

Our narrator is Hollywood B-list actor Glenn Harley who is awakened by a 3 a.m. hysterical phone call from starlet Nancy Rhymer - a mere acquaintance - needing help. Glenn rushes to Nancy’s home to find her in a revealing nightgown with a fellow actor lying dead on the floor with a knife wound in his chest. For reasons not fully revealed at first, Nancy wants Glenn’s help in concealing the murder.

The act of stashing a body to get in good with a beautiful girl inevitably involves complications, and it wouldn’t be a femme fatale noir story without them. I won’t give away the store in this review, but suffice to say I found myself muttering, “Oh man, this is getting good,” several times throughout the short novel. At points, there is a disappearing corpse, a missing bundle of cash, some crooked cops, and an honest-to-goodness nymphomaniac. Fun for everyone.

“The Star Trap” isn’t a masterpiece of the genre by any means, but it’s a pretty enjoyable - and very short - paperback to kill a few hours. I’ve heard that Colby’s best work was his 1959 thriller, “The Captain Must Die,” and I intend to check that one out in the near future. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Red is for Courage

Author Steve Fisher's novel “Red is for Courage” was published by Argosy in November, 1943. It was written as a testament to the Red Cross and their sacrifices during WWII. Fisher, known for his pulp runs and military fiction in the 30s, 40s and 50s, had many of his works adapted for film. Arguably the most notable is the 1943 submarine themed “Destination Tokyo” starring Cary Grant. “Red is for Courage” was purchased by 20th Century Fox with the intention of an adaptation called “Red Cross Girl”. From my understanding the film never came to fruition.

In many ways this is a classic love story, a turbulent and rocky romance using WWII battlefields as the backdrop. It's told from the first person perspective of Willie, a Red Cross volunteer who's serving in battle scarred Madrid. Willie is best friends with fellow nurse Tony, who's in love with a female nurse named Noel who in turn loves Willie. This love triangle is the basis of the book. Both Tony and Willie are introduced to a war journalist named Kadi Rogers and then the triangle becomes a rather complicated thing. 

Willie declares his love for Kadi after an eventful and romantic evening. Kadi rejects his advances and soon leaves for Paris. The story then takes a fast track, covering a lot of battles and a whole lot of bandages and blood. Over the course of a few years we follow Willie's progress through the war and his eventual relocation back to New York to become a private practice physician. It's a long but memorable journey following Tony, Willie, Noel and Kadi's wartime service and their eventual post-war lives. 

From a romance genre perspective, this one nails it. But, this is a Men's Action Adventure blog and I'm sure you're all scratching your heads. I will say that there's enough battlefield action here to please genre fans. In fact, the whole climax of the book is a stirring recount of the Battle of Dunkirk, reliving a harrowing quest to ship soldiers across the canal and away from the incoming German forces. This portion is worth the price of admission. Overall, I really enjoyed this story and will probably re-read it at some point. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rogue Cop

William P. McGivern (1918-1982) started his writing career authoring science fiction and fantasy stories for the pulps. By the time he turned to paperback novels, crime fiction became his preferred genre with a high water mark being his 1954 release, “Rogue Cop.” The book was adapted that same year into a well-regarded movie starring Robert Taylor and a pre-Psycho Janet Leigh.

The book’s protagonist is Detective Sergeant Mike Carmody, a police officer in the employ of his big-city police department (feels like Philadelphia to me) and the local mobster, Dan Beaumonte. Carmody has an idealistic kid brother named Eddie who is also a cop, but one who honors his oath of office and plays by the rules. As you can imagine, their relationship is distant and chilly due to the sizable gulf between their core values.

As the novel opens, Carmody has a real dilemma on his hands. His brother Eddie is preparing to testify against a low-level mobster working for Beaumonte, and the racketeer is nervous that the defendant is going to flip if convicted. Beaumonte enlists Carmody’s help to have Eddie keep his mouth shut...or else.

When Carmody explains the risks of testifying to Eddie, the Super-Catholic younger brother doesn’t want to hear it as he can’t be bought or swayed. Carmody is forced into quite a bit of soul-searching regarding his own reputation in the department as a dirty cop while devising a plan to placate his mob boss and keep Eddie alive. Carmody enlists Eddie’s girlfriend into his scheme to keep his brother safe using his own knowledge of the girl’s checkered past. 

This really is a fantastic novel. McGivern brings his A-game when it comes to creating tension and making Carmody’s redemption tale a roller-coaster ride of conflicting interests. The mobsters are menacing without being cartoonish, and the scenes of reckoning between the brothers are emotionally wrenching. McGivern had a real knack for propulsive plotting, and this story is tight as a drum. 

“Rogue Cop” is more than just a kick-ass tale of cops and crooks (although plenty of asses do get kicked). It’s also a story of a man fighting for his own redemption - both professionally and spiritually. There’s a lot going on in this short novel, and it’s way smarter than most genre paperbacks of that era.

I haven’t seen the movie adaptation because they always seem to be a letdown, but I may seek this one out. But you shouldn’t cheat yourself out of a great page-turner. If you’re looking for a fast-moving hardboiled crime story without an ounce of fat, please consider “Rogue Cop” to be essential reading. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tokyo, 1941

Cornell Woolrich wrote nearly 30 novels from 1926-1960. His most notable work is the 1942 short story “It Had to be Murder”, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcok as “Rear Window” in 1954. One of his shorts, “Tokyo, 1941”, was written in 1960 and later featured in two compilation books by Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg - “The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels” (1986) and “13 Short Espionage Novels” (1985).

The book begins in a Hong Kong hotel room as an American secret agent/spy named Lyons transfers some vials to a Caucasian male under the guise of selling a camera. There's a Chinese woman in the room with Lyons and we quickly learn that he's married but quite the ladies man. Adding to his rather unlikable nature is that he's a liar and a cheat, which are probably great traits for a spy to possess, but ultimately makes for a lousy human. After low-balling and cheating a shop owner out of a valuable diamond, Lyons makes his way back to suburban life in Azabu-ku.  

Returning to the normal 9-5 day job at the Acme Travel Agency, Lyons argues with his wife Ruth consistently. She doesn't know about his secret agent night life and Lyons, while being a real hothead, has no need to tell her his whereabouts. She thinks he's out bedding tramps...and she's fairly accurate in her appraisal. The reader can sense that the marriage is nearing its final end.

The story then takes a right turn by introducing us to a beautiful Japanese woman named Tomiko. She arrives at the equivalent of Japan's Secret Service upon request by Colonel Setsu. He demands she sacrifice herself to the Emperor by becoming Lyons lover. She'll submit her body in an effort to grab an important radio transmitter. It's all silly espionage stuff – secret vials, radios and handshakes – but it makes for an effective story. Gaining Lyons attention is no difficult task, and soon the story reaches a climactic point in a lakeside cabin. Lyons may be working for the Russians, Ruth may be on to Lyons game and this Japanese woman...well she's really just the connecting point. 

I'm not sure really what Woolrich had in mind when writing the story. It's certainly steeped in spy mythology, but comes across as social subtext on failed marriage. The Russian/US/Japan circus is prevalent, but there's the diamond portion and a slight prison angle that makes this wishy-washy at best. It's a myriad of story arcs that really doesn't lead to anything other than just an average story. Nothing more, nothing less. Paperback Warrior will continue the search for a satisfying Woolrich read.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Rip-Off!

Under the pseudonym of Mallory T. Knight, author Bernhardt J. Hurwood (1926-1987) wrote nine bawdy, tongue-in-cheek spy paperbacks in ‘The Man From T.O.M.C.A.T.’ series that ended in 1971. He then began writing paperback originals for the Fawcett Gold Medal imprint, including the stand-alone 1972 thriller, “Rip-Off!”

As the novel opens, former CIA spy Peter Ross is bored as hell in his current position as a federal prosecutor in New York’s U.S. Attorney’s Office targeting “second-rate losers who had run afoul of federal law.” Ross becomes obsessed with a spate of recent domestic terrorist incidents, burglaries, and bank robberies attributed to the shadowy, left-wing Revolutionary Action Party (RAP). As luck would have it, his politically-ambitious boss gives Ross a secret assignment to neutralize RAP, even if it means breaking the rules.

Leaving aside the author’s ignorance regarding the role of an Assistant U.S. Attorney and the machinations of the U.S. justice system, all of this seemed like a promising set-up - like Mack Bolan vs. The Hippies. Early in the novel, Ross catches a break when a young, female RAP member named Holly is captured alive at a bank robbery attempt. Ross takes Holly into his personal custody with the goal of flipping her to the side of Team America. Did I mention that Holly is super-sexy? Can you see where this is headed?

Hurwood’s written dialog is super-clunky, and his characters aren’t particularly likable or interesting. Ross is a charmless hero who does a lot of his speaking in sentences that end in unnecessary exclamation points (just like the title), so the reader is forced to imagine the ex-spook shouting in every conversation. It’s also clear that the author had some real animus towards left-wing hippies of the early 70s and used the verbal jousting between Ross and Holly as a way to score political points largely irrelevant to a modern reader.

The main problem with the novel is nothing really happens for the first 146 pages of this 160-page paperback. It almost feels like a romance novel where the federal prosecutor runs off with the hippie terrorist for an extended getaway with a lot of chit-chat between tepid sex scenes. Ross seems to take his sweet time actually getting anything worthwhile during his questioning of Holly. A single action sequence at the end of the book lands with a thud because of the dreadful slog it takes to get that far. Hurwood constructed the final scene to introduce the possibility of a series starring Peter Ross, but the character thankfully never appeared in any other books, to my knowledge. 160 pages of this dullard was more than anyone should have to endure.

Another issue with “Rip-Off!” is that my expectations are just higher for Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks. Even accepting that the quality of their output diminished by the 1970s, this felt like the kind of hastily-written one-off that Manor Books was releasing around the same time. Upon finishing the paperback, I felt cheated out of a few weekend hours and had an overwhelming feeling of being, well, ripped off. Don’t make the same mistake and waste a second of your time with this one.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Rig Warrior #01 - Rig Warrior

The paperback shelf at your used book store is typically going to feature plenty of titles from the William W. Johnstone empire. If you are a fan of the author (s), there's a plethora of goodies to devour. If you aren't, you are stuck weeding through stacks and stacks of the stuff hoping to find other writers. It's just the nature of the paperback reseller. 

'Rig Warrior' was a short-lived series that debuted in 1987. The self-title released that year, followed by two sequels in 1988 - “Wheels of Death” and “Eighteen-Wheel Avenger”. The books were repackaged with different artwork and reprinted for modern audiences. It's similar to Bob Hamm's 'Overload' series in the way it drills down to vigilantes driving freight trucks and fighting the mob. It's really as simple as that, although this series adds a slightly new dynamic to it by the second novel. 

Barry Rivers is a Vietnam Vet and ex-Special Forces officer. He's won numerous medals and gained a universal knowledge for killing. After service, Rivers went into consulting work and established an extremely profitable firm. His father is an owner operator for Rivers Trucking, an employer that Barry drove for before going to Vietnam. Barry learns that the business has been targeted by the Mob and that his father was badly beaten. It sounds like we have ourselves a vigilante novel.


Barry takes a vacation from the firm and starts driving for his father's business again. Soon, he learns that the business is running government contracts and that certain parts of the FBI are shipping drugs in the freight. It's an elementary story line until we realize that there's mad scientists involved and, along with the drug traffic, it is an expansive operation involving corpses being used in freakish experiments. Rivers Trucking unknowingly supplies the labs with these cadavers and in turn they are subjected to “Frankenstein” experiments in a weird “Universal Soldier” concept. 

Johnstone is in ultra-conservative mode here and takes some of the political turns that saw his 'Out of the Ashes' series go extremely red. It's very pro-gun, Republican and prepper friendly with the typical “the government and police can't be trusted” phobia. It's silly, poorly written and comes across as rather immature. However, by the end of the book there's a twist that I won't ruin for you. It's this twist that makes me rethink the book's staying power. Because of this, I think I may jump on the second novel just to see if the series improves under the new dynamic. The verdict is still out, but based on this only lasting three books I'm thinking it was a failed attempt.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

You'll Die Next

I’ll never live long enough to read the approximately 170 books that Harry Whittington wrote during his prolific career. Instead, I rely on others to identify his Greatest Hits, so I can use my limited reading time wisely. His 1954 paperback, “You’ll Die Next!”, was first published as half of an Ace Double (paired with “Drag the Dark” by Frederick C. Davis), and was recommended to me as being one of Whittington’s better noir novels.

Henry and Lila are a normal, suburban couple. One morning while Henry is enjoying Lila’s famous popovers for breakfast, the doorbell rings. When Henry opens the door, an unknown thug on his front stoop pulls him outside and beats the stuffing out of him. As the muscle leaves, he delivers Henry an ominous and threatening message from “Sammy.”

But who the hell is Sammy?

Henry quickly begins to suspect that it’s Lila with the secret in her past that inspired the beating. You see, Lila used to be a lounge singer, and she married Henry six months ago in a whirlwind romance. This always puzzled Henry because his sexy wife is way out of his league looks-wise. In any case, Lila denies knowing anyone named Sammy who would arrange for a savage beating like this.

More weirdness follows Henry that day including a mysterious letter, an attempt on his life, and an unjust suspension from work. Someone is trying to turn Henry’s life upside-down but why? Henry’s only play is to become his own investigator and locate the elusive Sammy. As the hunt unfolds, Henry’s problems escalate until he finds himself a man on the run - wanted for a crime he didn’t commit with police on his tail.

Whittington sets up the story nicely as a noir mystery, and, for the most part, the novel holds the reader’s attention quite nicely. But the worthiness of a book like this can be judged by the quality of the payoff at the end. Either the solution to the novel’s central mystery is reasonable and clever or you’ve just wasted your time on a pleasant flight without a smooth landing.

Unfortunately, Whittington fails the “clever solution” test in this particular mystery, and “You’ll Die Next!” left me feeling like I got a bum steer from whomever recommended it to me. The bad guys orchestrating Henry’s torment are wooden, and their motivation is rather silly. There are some decent scenes in this short book, but the payoff lands with a thud. As such, I need to file this one in the “don’t bother” pile. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Earl Drake #05 - Operation Breakthrough

After the success of 1969's “One Endless Hour”, the sequel to “The Name of the Game is Death”, author Dan J. Marlowe placed all of his writing endeavors firmly on the path of “Drake”, the robber turned spy. Beginning the spy portion of the series in 1969's “Operation Fireball”, Marlowe went on to write nine more Drake titles. The only non-Drake novel he wrote after 1969 was a 1982 installment of 'Phoenix Force' as Gar Wilson (“Guerilla Games”). Marlowe then wrote short stories until his death in 1986.

The series fifth title, “Operation Breakthrough”, is a really fun exercise in the jailbreak formula. The novel begins with Drake and his colleague Karl Erikson breaking into a Caribbean bank in Nassau. Erikson, a makeshift spy in his own right, made his series debut in “Operation Fireball”. He quickly made friends with Drake and has assigned him to global bank heists for government checks. Thus, the novel's beginning makes sense to longtime readers. However, as the two snatch highly secure documents from the vault, Erikson is nabbed by authorities as Drake makes the escape.

Stuck on the island with swarms of police, Drake crashes with a former associate named Candy, an African-American kung-fu gambler that was introduced briefly in “Operation Flashpoint”. Drake takes no time bedding down a massage parlor mistress before eventually escaping the island and the hook. Game over so soon? Not hardly.

Drake has the secure documents in a briefcase but has no idea where to return it. The problem is that Drake was never supplied any credentials or contacts for Erikson or the department he works for. Returning the suitcase and documents is a cumbersome endeavor. From New York to DC, Drake hits brick walls attempting to locate Erikson's branch and personnel. Dropping the suitcase randomly (a hilarious chapter), Hazel and Drake are back on the trail to break Erikson out of the clink. Thus the “bank heist” formula these books utilize is still in place. From here it is recruitment of the pieces and then ultimately the jailbreak adventure. Marlowe knows where the meat and potatoes are for his guests. 

“Operation Breakthrough” is extremely enjoyable with Marlowe practicing all of the strategy and game play the series is known for. He's a master storyteller and this adventure really throws out the exciting - yet familiar - elements that we expect. Intrigue, danger, cops, robbers and banks. This one is recommended if not altogether predictable. I'm good with it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

High Stakes

The intersection of gambling and crime is fertile ground for fiction writers and serves as the theme for “High Stakes,” a 2003 anthology of eight short stories edited by Robert Randisi. Three of my favorite authors are among the contributors, so I decided to read and review the stories by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Randisi himself.

“Let’s Get Lost” by Lawrence Block

Block’s contribution features his popular NYC private eye Matt Scudder, the hero of Block’s most acclaimed series of novels. This particular story originally appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.”


“Let’s Get Lost” is a throwback to a time when Nixon was president, and Scudder was a married NYPD detective who drank too much. One night watching a baseball game at home, Matt is summoned to the apartment of a prostitute with whom he has a personal relationship (Elaine becomes a significant character in later books of the series). As a favor to a client, she needs Matt to clean up a mess at a home poker game in a Manhattan brownstone.

The mess in question involves one of the poker players who winds up with a switchblade buried in his chest - dead by the time Matt arrives. The unusual circumstances of the murder cause Matt to advocate staging the crime scene along with the poker guys to create a more coherent story for the soon-to-be-responding officers. Is Matt being a crooked cop or does he have an ulterior motive?

Matt Scudder stories - long or short - are always fantastic, and this one is no exception. The Scudder P.I. novels contain many references to his days on the NYPD, but it’s interesting to actually read a story where Scudder is on the job as a cop and Elaine was just his favorite hooker.

“Breathe Deep” by Donald E Westlake

Westlake’s entry in the anthology first appeared in the July 1985 issue of Playboy where you also could have seen Grace Jones naked if you had $3.50 burning a hole in your pocket.

Chuck is a Las Vegas blackjack dealer standing at attention behind a $10 table with no players at 3:30 in the morning. Out of nowhere, he is approached by an old man that Chuck suspects is a derelict who wandered into the upscale casino on the Strip.

The conversation veers toward the urban legend (which may be true, for all I know) that casinos pump oxygen onto the gaming floor to keep the gamblers energized and awake. The story poses the question: what if someone wanted to use that knowledge as a weapon?

Westlake is always a good author, but at seven pages, this story was too short to really build up any momentum or tension. And without spoiling the ending, I’m not sure that the violent plan being executed would have actually worked in real life.

“Henry and the Idiots” by Robert J. Randisi

As the creator of several highly-regarded mystery series characters (Miles Jacoby, Nick Delvecchio, and Joe Meough, to name a few) Robert Randisi knows his way around a good crime story. “Henry and the Idiots” appears for the first time in the “High Stakes” anthology and has also found a second life as a $2 Kindle eBook.

While playing Caribbean stud poker on board a Mississippi riverboat casino, Henry Simon wins $257,000 in one hand and plans his escape from his miserable nag of a wife and her idiot brothers who all share the same trailer. Instead of going home with the money. Henry takes the cash and splits on a tour of casinos west of the Mississippi en route to Reno.

Meanwhile, back at the trailer, Henry’s wife dispatches the idiots to find Henry and figure out why he didn’t come home from the casino the night before. When she catches wind of Henry’s big gambling win, she’s ever more motivated to find her husband - and the money. Things come to a head in Reno once the idiots catch up with Henry and the security of the money falls into serious jeopardy.

The lighthearted story ends up with some fun twists and was a nice way to kill a half-hour.

The other five stories in “High Stakes” were written by Leslie Glass, Jeff Abbott, Judith Van Gleason, and Elaine Viets, and I’m sure they are all solid mystery tales. Based on the three stories I read, this fun anthology is an easy recommendation. Nothing revelatory, but some enjoyable short stories from a handful of the genre’s modern titans.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Hawker #06 - Vegas Vengeance

Randy Wayne White wrote the first ‘Hawker’ novel, “Florida Firefight”, in 1984 under the moniker Carl Ramm. White would later go on to achieve much bigger success with his 'Doc Ford' series. While the debut left a lot to be desired, the series drastically improved into a stylish private eye action formula. The sixth title, “Vegas Vengeance”, continues that trend.

The book begins with Hawker making a phone call to Barbara Blaine. She owns a successful prostitute house on the strip aptly titled The Doll House. Through the conversation we learn that Hawker was tipped off about murder and extortion tactics leveraged against Blaine and her company. Blaine, concerned this is another crafty attempt to weaken her defenses, agrees to dinner after hearing Hawker's background. From there, the wheels are set into motion.

Before Hawker can meet Blaine, he's met with a high-speed, high-octane shootout on a dirt road southwest of Vegas. It's Hawker in a Jaguar XKE convertible and the baddies sporting a Datsun 280Z. White holds nothing back as the two race through the canyon, all guns blazing until Hawker derails the Datsun's quest. These two guys know about Hawker's assignment and the protection he's ultimately offering Blaine. 

As a typical private-eye yarn...this one hits all cylinders. Hawker learns who's shaking down The Doll House and why. Through shootouts and an intricate investigation, Hawker tracks the enforcers to a mining camp. Before that there's the obligatory mattress romp in the dark with what the reader assumes is Blaine. That mystery remains until the last few pages, a nice touch that adds a little more depth to the saga. 

Overall, “Vegas Vengeance” is another well-told Hawker story. While easily infringing on many detective novels (this is the 80s) that came before it, there's still enough identity here to make this a winner. I can't stay away from these books and I've been storing them in the vaults hoping I don't run out of the series too quickly. If you need a light read...Hawker is it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Killing Suki Flood

In 2015, Hard Case Crime author Ken Bruen wrote an article in Publisher’s Weekly called “10 Best Noir Novels” with the #1 slot occupied by a 1991 book and author unknown to me: Killing Suki Flood by Rob Lieninger. The reviews were also universally positive for this hardboiled crime stand-alone, so I decided to give it a shot.

Although the story takes place in 1989, the novel has the feel and plot structure of a Fawcett Gold Medal crime paperback from the 1950s. 54 year-old trucker Frank is driving to his New Mexico hideout with $77,000 in crime proceeds stashed in the camper he’s pulling when he comes upon a sexy 18 year old girl broken down on the side of the road. Because this is a quasi-throwback crime story in need of a femme fatale, Frank stops to help the comely Suki.

Frank is 5’8” tall, 225 pounds and built like a tank, and Suki is sex-on-fire in a hot little outfit. One thing leads to another, and Suki winds up in Frank’s truck without knowing that she’s joining him on a getaway from a profitable crime. Their patter between dim bulb Suki and wisecracking curmudgeon Frank is hilarious, and the evolution of their relationship is a joy to witness. 

It turns out that Frank isn’t the only one of the pair on the run. Suki s being pursued by goons working for a wealthy and abusive ex-boyfriend allegedly for transgressions having to do with her ex’s car. All this over a Trans-Am? This seems a bit extreme to Frank. Could there be more to Suki’s story that she’s not sharing?

At 244 pages, this isn’t a long book by modern standards, but it still could have used some tightening up. The first third of the book, for example, is basically Frank and Suki getting to know each other in a hiding spot while goons methodically search the New Mexico desert for them. I wasn’t bored because the characters are all vividly written, but the pacing of the action was a bit off. “Killing Suki Flood” is basically one long cat-and-mouse game about an unlikely pair being hunted for their recent criminal actions.

Eventually, the hunted become the hunters and the action increases markedly in the novel’s second half. Once we understand the cast of characters, their secrets, and motivations, the second half of the book is a wild ride. Frank makes for an unlikely gallant hero, and the main villains are suitably reprehensible. The character of Suki’s crazy ex-boyfriend was prone to long monologues and theatrical torture - a bit much for my tastes, but the character was vividly evil enough to inspire loathing in any sane reader.

Even though this isn’t the greatest noir novel of all time (a high bar to set), it’s an inventive and well-written take on a classic pursuit thriller, and the final conflict between the adversaries remains one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever read. Lieninger is often compared to Elmore Leonard because both write quirky characters, but I actually preferred Lieninger’s writing because he keeps it hardboiled and never cartoonish. “Killing Suki Flood” is available today as a paperback, an eBook, and a freebie for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Recommended.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

This Gun is Still

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) was a popular and highly respectable author of over 300 stories for more than 40 pulp magazines. Sometimes writing as Stephen Acre, John K. Vedder or Charles K. Boston, Gruber completed a massive outpouring of paperback titles. While known for his detective and crime stories, the author's most popular genre was the western, a genre he was claimed to have described as only able to deliver seven distinct story types. Despite what he felt were its shortcomings, Gruber wrote over 30 western novels including “This Gun is Still”, published by powerhouse Bantam Books in 1967.

The book begins with what could be the best opening pages of any western I've personally read. It's a bold statement – but absolutely true. A Wells Fargo stagecoach is racing across the hot White Sands as Apache warriors descend from the hills. In a rapid-fire delivery, we read that the stagecoach driver is killed and the carriage is tipped onto its side. With at least a dozen warriors outside, the two passengers, Jim Forester and Lily Bender, prepare for death. Forester, with only six bullets and a Navy Colt, begins firing from the window, hitting warriors within 10 feet of the coach. He makes five shots deadly, but debates the final shot – kill the girl so he alone can be tortured and ravaged by the Apaches or fire one more deadly shot at the braves and await the grizzly inevitable. Thankfully, a lone cowboy rides in with a Winchester rifle and kills enough warriors to make the war party scatter. Jim Forester meets Wes Morgan. 

We learn that Forester works for a bank in Chicago called Davenport. He's come to the town of Stanton to collect on a default loan from one of two store owners. After the owner dismisses the delinquent $8K, Forester obtains a warrant to shut the store and owner down. The Justice of the Peace provides an interesting backstory on Stanton's rather odd situation. The town's wealth lies in two factions, Bender and Deever. Bender has a large and very profitable cattle ranch and is a passive man. Deever is a former Major who makes his living stealing from Bender and running his own cattle ranch off the theft. Bender has enough wealth and cattle and simply doesn't care. However, Deever, in a rather bold authority, hates Bender and only wants the town to support him. Deever asks that Forester and his company only conduct county business with him, starving and depleting the other businesses and ultimately “gifting” the town to Deever. Forester refuses and that's where the story thickens. 

In a wild chain of events, Forester quits his job and takes over the store as its new owner – partly for a change of scenery but also because he refuses to see Deever win. Complicating things is Wes Morgan, a wanted outlaw who saved Forester but who may be working with Deever. Discombobulating it further is the lovely Lily, Bender's daughter and former Morgan lover. She may or may not be falling for Forester, who has a number of decisions to make once Deever and his hired guns start threatening violence. Tuck tail and run, align with the law or fight Morgan and Deever. It's a western, so you know which way it will eventually go...but it is a thrilling journey to get there. 

Overall, Frank Gruber is fantastic here and expels just enough drama, romance and courtroom intrigue (yes, I said courtroom) to make this a really well-told western. If you are looking for something that isn't the traditional western fare, this one is a must-read. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Titus Gamble

A freed slave returns to his East Texas hometown as the town’s new lawman. Will the townsfolk be able to set aside their prejudices and allow the black constable to keep the peace? No, this is not a novelization of “Blazing Saddles” but rather the 1977 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original, “Titus Gamble” by Peter Gentry, a pseudonym of collaborators Frank Schaefer and Kerry Newcomb.

Titus Gamble began his freedom as a teenage runaway slave fleeing the Shannon Plantation in Brennanburg, Texas after a sexual encounter with the master’s comely daughter. Hungry and exhausted, Titus stumbles upon a Union encampment with a small regiment of black soldiers among them. Titus figures this is the best way to create distance between himself and his pursuers and joins the Union Army to fight the rebs.

The action then cuts four years later, and we meet the Brennan family, owners of the Shannon Plantation. The Civil War is over and the plantation’s black servants are no longer regarded as slaves. Drium is the Brennan patriarch, and his two sons - Rury and Dub - have returned from the war where they fought for the Confederacy. Dub got the worst of it and returned from the war with one fewer arm than when he enlisted. Finally, we meet Fianna, the red-haired Irish-American daughter who has taken on the role of matriarch since her mother’s death.

Early in the paperback, the reader is given clues that the Brennan family is a dysfunctional bunch. For starters, Fiona seems to get her kicks by traipsing around the mansion wearing next to nothing and staging nipple slips to drive her one-armed brother crazy with incestuous lust. Then there’s Rury whose idea of a good time is to ride over to Shreveport and murder freed slaves in their sleep.

The black laborers on the Shannon Plantation continue to work despite their freedom in exchange for food, clothing, housing, and small wages. This dependency arrangement barely sustains life for the newly-freed and serves to keep them in their place as sure a whip did when they were another man’s property. Other blacks survive by subsistence farming on plots of land forcibly taken from plantation owners by Union soldiers and provided to freed slaves to give them a fresh start as homesteaders. You can imagine that the plantation owners whose lands were seized in this arrangement aren’t thrilled with their new neighbors.

Due to a Civil War casualty, the town of Brennanburg is in need of a lawman to keep the peace. The military governor of the State of Texas names black (actually mulatto, but same difference to the local whites) war hero Titus for the position. The town residents aren’t enthusiastic about this appointment, and this is where the book shifts into the familiar territory of a Western novel. Titus strives to wrangle lawless poor blacks in the shantytown by the river while avoiding a lynching by the town’s conniving whites loyal to the wicked Shannon Plantation.

“Titus Gamble” is a plantation drama in addition to a Western novel, and it treads on well-established ground for the slavery gothic paperbacks. The shame and secrets that arise from forbidden interracial sex is the fuel that drives much of the interpersonal conflicts. There is also a good bit of violence and intrigue among the characters. It’s clear that the authors studied the ‘Blackoaks’ and ‘Falconhurst’ novels of Harry Whittington (writing as Ashley Carter), and they do a great job of re-creating that story structure. Like Whittington’s books, the writing here is superb and the plotting is compelling and easy to follow.

The plantation gothic paperbacks provide modern readers a prurient glimpse into the ghastly culture of American slavery in a manner that never glorifies or belittles the horror inflicted on the victims. “Titus Gamble” uniquely shines a light on the difficulties that southerners - white and black - had while adjusting to the new normal in the early days of reconstruction after the Civil War settled the issue of slavery’s legality.

This was a good novel but not a perfect one. The authors’ habit of writing the black dialogue phonetically (“He got hisse’f a followin’ a’ rowdies an’ de lahk, campin’ down by de riber...) made for a cumbersome read at times. The authors also tended to use a lot of tortured metaphors in the perfectly graphic sex scenes (“The delicate umber forest of her womanhood...His tumescent shaft...,” etc.).

Meanwhile, the action scenes are vivid and brutal - filled with gunplay, knife-fighting, and bare-knuckle brawling. The novel really succeeds as a Western about a new constable working to civilize a lawless town against great adversity.

“Titus Gamble” is an entertaining page-turner by a highly-talented writing pair. I was never bored, and I learned quite a bit about the era. This isn’t a masterwork of historical fiction, but you won’t regret the time you spend reading about the adventures of this unlikely hero. Recommended.

Postscript:

“Titus Gamble” is available to buy on the Amazon Kindle or borrow via the Kindle Unlimited program under the authors’ real names. You lose the vivid 1977 cover art, but you’ll avoid the awkward glances from people around you. Your call.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

This Day's Evil

Jonathan Craig was a pseudonym utilized by author Frank Smith. Known for his police procedural series '6th Precinct', which ran ten installments from 1955-1966, Smith was also a contributor to 'Alfred Hitchcock Magazine', submitting five total stories over the course of 1964 through 1970. His first, “This Day's Evil”, was featured in the March, 1964 issue and reprinted again numerous times in the popular paperback anthology formula.

The short-story begins where all good crime novels should – a planned robbery. In this case, it is the young Earl Munger, a small-town crony who's tired of blue-collar labor and slim paydays. After being humiliated by his date, who feels ashamed to ride in Earl's smelly farm truck, the young man decides to rob the wealthy Charlie Tate, a prominent businessman and property owner. 

Right before Earl's planned burglary, the sheriff arrives for a mysterious encounter that leaves Earl torn – wait until the sheriff's departure, bag the old man and take the goods or conservatively plan for another night. After a quick meeting, the sheriff leaves and Earl goes through with the robbery. In turn, Tate is knocked unconscious with what looks to be a deadly blow and Earl makes off with about $20K in bundled bills. Where's the mystery and intrigue that only Alfred Hitchcock's people can deliver? The next day, Earl overhears the sheriff explaining to a local store owner that Charlie left a suicide note before killing himself with poison.

This quick read delivers the goods in an entertaining fashion. Earl must learn how Charlie died, and ultimately how to hide the cash and himself in what could be either a murder or suicide investigation. Everything isn't what it seems and the reader is left guessing until the very end. Frank Smith is a solid writer and this one is just a lot of fun. Looking for a breather between those 180-page action novels? Give it a free read at http://www.luminist.org/archives/PU/.

Monday, October 1, 2018

87th Precinct #04 - Con Man

The '87th Precinct' novels by Ed McBain are a blast to read - particularly the early ones. They are short, snappy, and clever books told by a disembodied third-person narrator who provides personality and commentary along the way without ever actually being an active character in the books - think Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone.” Meanwhile, the ensemble cast of police detectives working the cases prevents the series from ever falling into a rut due to character burn-out. The rotating line-up of featured performers keeps the novels evergreen.

“The Con Man” from 1957 is the fourth book in the series, and finds the citizens of the 87th being victimized by a bunco artist using deception to cheat good people out of their money. Meanwhile, a bloated and water-logged woman’s body washes up on the city’s riverbank. Could this mysterious death somehow be connected to the con artist working the neighborhood?

The Lebron James of the 87th Precinct is Detective Steve Carella (Did you think I was going to say Meyer Meyer?), and he is assigned the case of the mysterious floater. The clues are sparse because the river has claimed the hair on her head (Pubic hair: blonde, he notes), and the body is a distended mess. The corpse’s only remaining clothing is a bra stretched to the breaking point by the bloating torso, but a tell-tale tattoo might provide a lead. Through Carella’s eyes, McBain goes into great detail about the medical examiner’s autopsy and the inherent challenges involved with identifying a floater. I can only assume that McBain did his homework because it’s fascinating stuff - but not for the squeamish.

About a third of the way through the book, our omniscient narrator opines that the 87th’s big problem was the floater, and the 87th’s little problem was the con man. McBain structures the narrative like the A story and the B story of a TV cop show, and an astute reader is not surprised when the story of the con man somehow merges with the story of the floater.

As usual, McBain’s writing is superb. His descriptions of the action are vivid and his knack for dialogue - even when it’s just cops bullshitting in the squad room - is spot-on. Like his contemporaries Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake, McBain’s writing is a national treasure. Recommended.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The End of the Night

John D. MacDonald’s 1960 paperback, “The End of Night” is often cited as one of his finest stand-alone novels. This is a bold claim as MacDonald produced so many excellent stories outside his acclaimed Travis McGee series. While picking a best JDM book is likely a fool’s errand, there is no doubt that the short novel is a crime fiction classic.

The story opens with a prison official marveling that his institution just sent four inmates - one being a female - to their deaths in the electric chair. But that’s really where this story ends as the majority of the novel is one long flashback explaining how and why this foursome were eventually put to death for their crimes. This is a fairly bold literary choice for MacDonald that effectively steals the “will they get away with it?” thunder from the crime fiction plot.

Never fear, the story leading to the death house has plenty of twists and turns along the way. “The End of Night” is essentially the inside story of four post-adolescents dubbed “The Wolf Pack” by the media who set out on a cross-country crime spree culminating in a murder.

By 1960, MacDonald was a good enough writer that he told the story of The Wolf Pack through a show-offy narrative trick. The narration is told through letters, memos, and memories of various side characters bearing witness to the juveniles’ spree and its aftermath. The death-row executioner, the defense attorney, the sheriff and others tell their portions of the story in a way that gives the readers the pieces of the crime story puzzle. While we all know by page 10 that the killer foursome (Kirby Stassen, Nanette Koslov, Robert Hernandez, Sander Golden) are caught, there's a heartfelt need to determine if the hopeful young Helen Wister survives the brutish quartet.

In a way, “The End of the Night” is staged as an amorphous display of unbridled youth. Despite  social class (Stassen from wealth, Koslov from poverty, Sander is the bored middle class intellectual), the four collectively create a firestorm of frenzied rebellion that spills into murder. There are drugs - a consistent daily flow of drugs - but it's the condescending disposal of empathy that's MacDonald's bold expression. In fact, as Helen Wister pleads for her life, Stassen casually remarks, “We're expressing aggression and hostility, miss.”

For 1960, this is a gritty, powerful crime novel that prefaces a turbulent time in American culture. Shockingly, the culprits, while not affluent in any sort of transcendent religious rite, exhibit psychotic tendencies that re-appear just nine years later with the Manson Family murders. It's not a far-cry to see how the novel may have inspired horror writers like Stephen King, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. King went as far as to declare the book one of the finest novels of the 20th Century. It's a well-deserved praise. “The End of the Night”, while disturbingly fitting the mold of “entertainment”, is an obligatory read for anyone claiming to love the American Crime Novel.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

High Citadel

British author Desmond Bagley was a respected practitioner of the “high adventure” sub-genre of thriller fiction along with fellow British writers Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and Duncan Kyle. To Bagley’s credit, it’s hard to get a straight answer when you ask knowledgeable readers which of his many books is his masterpiece, but his second novel, 1965’s “High Citadel,” is often recommended by those in-the-know.

“High Citadel” stars a heroic Irish pilot named Tim O’Hara, a Korean War veteran who has crawled into a bottle and lives a subsistence existence flying for a dodgy, cut-rate airlines near the Andes mountain range in South America. When a luxury 727 filled with international passengers makes an emergency landing at O’Hara’s home airfield, a business opportunity knocks for O’Hara’s boss who wants him to fly the respectable passengers over the range to their desired destination.

While flying the overloaded and non-pressurized aircraft over the mountains, one of the people on board hijacks the flight by gunpoint and forces O’Hara to make a dangerous landing on an abandoned airstrip high in the mountains near a defunct mining camp. Bagley provides some white-knuckle aviation writing as this scene unfolds. The crash landing is harrowing, and O’Hara’s role as hero becomes fully formed.

After the terrifying landing destroys the rickety plane, we get to meet the international cast of survivors that includes a sexy Latina babe and her enigmatic uncle, a loudmouth American drunk, a British professor of medieval history, an elderly spinster, and a brainy physicist. As the motive for the hijacking becomes clear, we learn that not all the passengers are who they claim to be. Despite their differences, it’s necessary to band together to survive as a team.

The man vs. nature story becomes a man vs. Army tale as the plane survivors encounter hostile forces in the mountain wilderness and are forced to fight for survival with improvised weaponry. Bagley sure knew how to keep the plot moving, and “High Citadel” is a fat-free story filled with action, intrigue, and heroism in a freezing mountain terrain.

Some of my favorite scenes of the book involved the “council of war” meetings in which the survivors must decide whether - and how - to combat the hostile attackers. This a challenging review to write since I’m going to great lengths to not spoil any of the plot developments that are foolishly disclosed on the various iterations of the book cover descriptions and art. If you can go into this one cold, you’re in for several treats.

Reading this 53 year-old paperback, I was constantly reminded of the 1984 film, “Red Dawn” in which a bunch of outgunned and outmanned American high school kids repel a Soviet invasion in their town. “High Citadel” plays with the same idea in a timeless story showing that heart, bravery and ingenuity can triumph against any enemy. You’ll love this one. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Buchanan #02 - Buchanan Says No

Crime writer William Ard experienced 1960s success with his private eye characters Barney Glines, Timothy Dane, Lou Largo and Johnny Stevens. His impressive 10-year peak run of writing included pseudonyms Ben Kerr and Mike Moran. But, the then Florida resident turned his attention to the western genre by adding a W to his last name and becoming Jonas Ward. He combined that with his ad exec experience at the Buchanan Ad Agency and created the loner cowboy Tom Buchanan for an astounding 23-book series simply called 'Buchanan'. The debut, “Names's Buchanan”, was published in 1956 and it's 1957 sequel is the subject at hand, “Buchanan Says No”. 

The book begins after a tiring and exhaustive 40 day cattle drive that promises to pay Buchanan, his kid protegee Mike Sandoe and the whole crew a nice $400 payday. But, after a day of waiting at the end of the drive, the payroll guy hasn't shown up. Buchanan learns that the payer, Boyd Weston, is in the nearby town of Bela so he and Sandoe head for the town. From here we gain some insight on Bela, and its splitting between power hungry Frank Power and his partner Bernie Troy. The cattle drive was arranged as a backwoods deal – cattle to the US Army for guns that will later be traded to Mexico to in turn fight the US Army. It's a vicious circle but Troy and Power trust Weston to arrange the whole thing. Unfortunately, Weston blew the whole payroll pot on a poor night of gambling. Instead of ponying up the shortfall, Power and Troy agree to give the crew of laborers 10% of their promised payout as a final and only payment. 

While the plot could be construed as elementary from the surface – the “good guys” want the rich to pay – it has some deeper layers that keep it from being average. First, Sandoe is contracted by Power to provide the 10% news to the crew. Partly because he is the fastest hand in town but also because he needs to be divided from the deceptive and dangerous Buchanan. This turns the narrative into the teacher facing his student. But, there's the political portion of the town to contend with as well as two beauties that Buchanan must handle. In Ard's humorous “wink wink” fashion, Buchanan fondles one woman while another waits at the door for her turn. It's brilliant storytelling that left me laughing (and Buchanan was too at his incredible fortune). The story builds with intrigue, but laced with a number of fighting scenes that propels the inevitable showdown between Buchanan and Sandoe.

“Buchanan Says No” is my first sampling of this much beloved western series. In fact, it's my first taste of Ard's work as a whole. He's a fantastic storyteller here, creating a rich tapestry of action and intrigue that should please fans of the action-adventure genre. I have a lot of Buchanan books to devour, and like everything else, it's just simply a timing issue that I haven't read more. Look for more Buchanan and Ard reviews here soon. In the meantime, check out this fascinating reveal on the life and work of William Ard: https://bit.ly/2NfqTO5

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Parker #06 - The Jugger

Most of the novels in the 'Parker' series by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake) are straight-up crime stories that follow Parker and a crew of professional thieves through the planning, execution, and aftermath of a big-dollar heist. However, the sixth installment of the series, “The Jugger” from 1971, is a very different kind of adventure for Parker: an actual mystery to be solved.

The mystery concerns an elderly colleague of Parker’s named Joe Sheer. Fans of the series will recognize the name because Sheer was a former “Jugger” (the underground parlance for a safecracker) who left his career behind for retirement. For several of the early installments in the series, Sheer serves as an answering service for Parker. If someone wants Parker to join a crew for an armed robbery, calling Sheer will get the message delivered.

After receiving an uncharacteristic and worrisome letter from Sheer indicating he was in trouble and needed help, Parker travels to Sheer’s adopted hometown only to learn that Sheer recently died of natural causes and was buried right before Parker’s arrival. For reasons mostly of self-preservation, Parker sets out to learn Sheer’s actual cause of death and the problems that prompted the letter sent to Parker. 

Along the way, Parker encounters a police chief with an unprofessional interest in Sheer’s life as well as a fellow thief also investigating Sheer’s final days. Could there be a missing fortune to recover? Why would Sheer break normal protocols and send such a worried letter to Parker? What was Sheer’s actual cause of death?

The excellent website, “The Violent World Of Parker,” disclosed that “The Jugger” was Westlake’s least favorite installment in the series. This is where I part ways with the author. Although I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this installment, I found the novel to be fascinating and the mysteries driving the plot forward were completely riveting. Bearing witness to one of my favorite anti-heroes in crime fiction shift gears and play detective was a fascinating change of pace.

Although the plot is completely unique within the series, the format of “The Jugger” remains true to the Stark formula. The action follows Parker through third-person narration until the Part Three flashback where the perspective changes and the motives of others are revealed to the reader. In this case, the payoff (i.e. solutions to the underlying mysteries) is outstanding.

If you’re considering skipping this one for fear that a mystery novel starring Parker may lack the visceral brutality of other volumes, rest assured that there is plenty of bloodshed for you to enjoy here. In fact, Parker’s solution to one of the book’s central puzzles concludes with an act of brutality so extreme and unexpected, it will stay with you for quite awhile. You’ll know what I mean as soon as you read it.

If you’re in the mood for a traditional heist novel, perhaps “The Jugger” isn’t the best choice. If, however, the idea of an exciting crime novel exploring the occupational hazards of being a criminal safecracker in retirement sounds interesting, you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did. It’s a shame Westlake didn’t like “The Jugger,” but he wrote it for you and me, not for himself. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Mantrackers

Author William Mulvihill (1923-2004) was a Cornell graduate that penned a dozen books during his career. Born in New York, Mulvihill joined the Army and acquired the rank of corporal and squad leader during WWII combat at the Battle of the Bulge. After, he settled on Long Island and taught history at Glen Cove High School for 32 years. His emphasis was on African history, stemming from his visits to the continent in the 1960s and 70s. He owned a robust collection of books about Africa and became a scholar and expert on it's natural history. He utilized this passion to fuel his 1960 adventure novel “The Mantrackers”, which later would be re-titled “Serengeti” for the 1995 reprinting. 

The book introduces us to Captain Pfeffer, who on this January day in 1910 is serving the German Imperial Army in Tanganyika. The hotheaded Pfeffer has a dozen years of wartime in Africa, fiercely fighting in Herero, Bushman and Masai on his destiny to become general. He's a young German enigma, captivating military minds with his fighting prowess, grim determination and career mindset. But, on this day things take a drastic turn for Pfeffer. While hunting, a leopard takes him by surprise, severely mauling and disfiguring him before he can be rescued by soldiers. Hinging on life and death, Pfeffer is taken to a hospital for a long rehabilitative stint. Once Pfeffer heals, the German military discharges him from service due to his appalling appearance. Pfeffer, furious with himself, the military and Africa, returns to the bush as a solo hunter, determined to kill every animal on the continent. 

With Pfeffer on a seemingly endless killing tear through African game, the news finds former fighting man John Thrustwood. Thrustwood, along with his friend and servant Chapupa, campaigned as trader, farmer and mercenary for the British Army, serving in the Boer War and later establishing himself as one of Africa's premier hunters. Thrustwood, finding Pfeffer's vendetta and mission unacceptable, vows to track and stop him. Soon, Thrustwood, Chapupa and friend Quinell find and confront Pfeffer in the jungle. After disarming him, they take Pfeffer to African officials who place him on a ship to England. Pfeffer escapes and resumes his bloody tirade through the African countryside. Thrustwood and Chapupa now realize they must hunt and kill Pfeffer to end the carnage.

Mulvihill is an unusual but talented writer. In “The Mantrackers”, his love of history and African landscapes is awe-inspiring. But, his delivery is of one purpose – simply the storyline. The book has a distinct absence of humor, witty dialogue or a focus on character development. Mulvihill is very serious with his presentation, almost scholarly in the telling of the tale. It was an adjustment for me, the avid reader of more vivid displays of bravado, to accept this storytelling early on. But, a fourth of the way in I not only accepted it – I found it to be personally enjoyable. This is a fantastic adventure story that builds to a fiery crescendo. Pfeffer vs Thrustwood/Chapupa is the main event and Mulvihill pulls no punches. For that, I applaud the author and look forward to hunting down more of his works. For now, “The Mantrackers” is a respectable and entertaining read from a unique writer.

Friday, September 21, 2018

True Fiction

Lee Goldberg began his literary career in 1985 with his '.357 Vigilante' series of men’s adventure novels published under the pen name of Ian Ludlow. (Fun Fact: Goldberg chose the Ludlow name, so the books would be shelved next to Robert Ludlum.) The series lasted four installments and then disappeared without much fanfare. Thirty years later, Goldberg re-released the books under his own name as 'The Jury' series for modern audiences.

Everyone figured that was the last we’d ever hear from Ian Ludlow. Goldberg went on to have a successful career as a television writer and producer for shows including Diagnosis Murder, Psych, and Monk. He continued to write mystery and suspense novels until he struck literary gold by co-authoring a commercially-successful series of humorous mysteries with the already-famous Janet Evanovich.

Understanding this basic bio for Goldberg helps give the reader some context for the literary stunt he pulls in his latest novel, “True Fiction.” The plot is about a thriller author named Ian Ludlow who gets sucked into the kind of save-the-world adventure that the fictional Ludlow writes in his own novels. Goldberg penning an action thriller about an author named Ian Ludlow is like if Stephen King wrote a horror novel about an author named Richard Bachman.

“True Fiction” opens with a horrific terrorist attack in which a commercial jetliner is flown into a high-rise hotel causing mass carnage. The reader quickly learns that the attack was secretly orchestrated by a malevolent corporation named Blackthorn that aspires to be the recipient of a massive outsourcing contract from the CIA in the same manner that the Department of Defense outsourced duties to Blackwater for the Iraq War. Blackthorn sets up some innocent Muslims to take the fall for this 9/11 sequel, and the corporation puts itself in the position to crack the case for the U.S. government while showing off its superior private-sector intelligence abilities.

When we meet our hero, Ian Ludlow is at a sparsely-attended book signing in Seattle where he is promoting his new action novel. We learn that Ludlow writes thrillers in the same vein as the 'Jack Reacher' series, but the nebbish author is no hero himself. For the Seattle leg of his book tour, he is accompanied by an attractive escort (not that kind of escort) named Margo hired by the publisher to shepherd the author from one book signing to another.

When Ludlow learns about the circumstances surrounding the recent air attack on the hotel, he is taken aback because it perfectly mimics a storyline for a terrorist incident that he presented to the CIA at a “what-if” focus group years earlier. Ludlow becomes convinced that the recent mass-causality incident was actually orchestrated by the CIA as a false flag operation and that he is a marked man for knowing this fact.

This kicks off a breakneck exciting “couple on the run” story as Ludlow and Margo avoid assassins from Blackthorn while thinking they are actually being pursued a CIA kill squad. The cat-and-mouse scenes in Seattle were especially gratifying as Goldberg incorporates a lot of unique features of the city into the action.

Fans of men’s adventure paperbacks will find “True Fiction” to be filled with Easter eggs and references to the genre’s greatest hits, including 'The Executioner', 'James Bond', 'The Destroyer', and, if you pay close attention, '.357 Vigilante'. There’s also a fun backstory about Ludlow’s history of writing for crappy TV mystery and cop shows - a plot point that becomes important as the novel progresses - that recalls Goldberg’s own career trajectory. 

At times, it’s hard to figure out where Goldberg ends and Ludlow begins. We have an action-adventure novelist writing about an action-adventure novelist who becomes an action-adventure hero by drawing inspiration from his own action-adventure hero. It’s a house of mirrors, but it’s also a real blast to read. The book is written with real cinematic potential, and you can imagine this being a big-budget, Hollywood summer blockbuster one day

Goldberg toggles from violent, propulsive action into comic relief quite adeptly. “True Fiction” is both exciting and hilarious with no slow parts to weigh it down. The only criticism I can muster involves a scene towards the end of the book involving a car chase that veered too far into slapstick, but it didn’t derail the book for me. The samples of Ludlow’s own writing interspersed throughout the novel serve as a particularly hilarious send-up of the modern state of the action thriller genre.

Throughout the book, Goldberg pokes fun at the tropes and excesses of modern thrillers without ever descending into full farce. “True Fiction” is a successful author’s love letter to a genre he truly adores, and I was excited to see that Ian Ludlow is coming back for a second installment in 2019. In the meantime, be sure to check this one out as it was written just for a guy like you.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Warlock #01 - Autofire Blitz


“Adrenalin pumped through his system as he prepared to lock horns with scumbags who didn't deserve to keep sucking God's good air.”

With that kind of testosterone, Mark Allen's debut 'Warlock' novel, “Autofire Blitz”, is the perfect companion piece to 80s action movies and books. In what he considers an ode to the pop culture that inspired him, Allen created Damien “Warlock” Locke, a bullet spewing vigilante with purpose.

The book begins with a swift flashback to January 17th, 2011. Locke finds himself an amnesiac left for dead in Afghanistan. With no prior knowledge of his life, or who put the bullet crease in his head, Locke is left with a clean slate on life. He has tattooed names of “Damian Locke” and “Warlock” on his arm...so Locke and Allen are running with that. Experience fighting bad guys? Yeah, Locke has it in spades. He can only guess that he's had explicit training with the Navy Seals or Delta Force, and from the action sequences here...I'd say that skill-set and more.

Fast forward to present day and Locke's current mission – rescue a 10-year old boy from the clutches of a drug cartel. The only problem is that this particular cartel has deep, corrupt ties to the DEA. As Locke hits various pool halls, bars and alleys, the story starts to expand and “flesh” out – meaning long, descriptive explanations of bullets penetrating organs (like when horror authors dish out pink-gray froth for their intended victims). That's really what sets Allen apart from the 80s and early 90s vigilantes. This author is way over-the-top in terms of rapid fire delivery and graphic violence. I can't help but compare it to horror novelists like Edward Lee or Jack Ketchum (and Allen himself dabbles in the horror genre as well). It's expressive...to say the least. Whether you like or dislike that sort of thing is the measuring stick on your entertainment value here. For me personally, I can run with over-the-top if it is fun, senseless and has some boundaries.

“Autofire Blitz” is a fun, compelling and gritty read from an author who is clearly a fan of the action and adventure genre. While Paperback Warrior typically doesn't read or review contemporary (maybe TWO A YEAR), this was an entertaining novella that fueled my desire to check out more of Allen's work. You can find him and his books on his Amazon page.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ranger Kirk

It’s hard to guess why William Crawford adopted the pseudonym of W.C. Rawford for his 1974 stand-alone western, “Ranger Kirk.” The copyright page says it’s by William Crawford and the book is dedicated to “Robert Gene Crawford, my brother.” Moreover, the pen name of W.C. Rawford isn’t really throwing pseudonym sleuths off the scent. Who was he fooling?

My best theory is that maybe he thought that “Ranger Kirk” was a crappy novel he could unload on Zebra Books - and later Pinnacle Books - without the stench of the paperback following him to his grave. The publication of “Ranger Kirk” also coincided with the debut of his 'Stryker' series, and Pinnacle Books really thought they had a hit on their hands with Stryker (Spoiler: They didn’t). Crawford was also Pinnacle’s choice to replace Don Pendleton as the author of the Mack Bolan series during a time when Pendleton was feuding with his publisher. In fact, Crawford authored The Executioner #16: “Sicilian Slaughter” published under the pseudonym of Jim Peterson, a controversial installment in the iconic series that still has hardcore Pendleton loyalists seeing red.

Whatever the case, I figured I’d give “Ranger Kirk” a fair hearing and see if this good-looking paperback is a lost literary treasure or best-forgotten garbage. The character of Ranger Kirk is Sergeant Tom Kirk, an Old West Texas Ranger with the Frontier Battalion along the Mexican border who approaches his job the way a modern intel officer might. He deploys undercover agents into Mexico to gather information about criminal activity. This clandestine approach to law enforcement makes Kirk an oddity among his colleagues who are more of a shoot first and ask questions later bunch of guys. Moreover, Kirk’s spy operations have been going poorly and three consecutive operatives are slaughtered and mutilated by the enigmatic Mexican crime lord, Tuerto.

As the reader gets to know our hero, we quickly discover that Kirk is a flaming asshole. He’s that friend of yours who starts taking swings at you after he has a few drinks in him. His abhorrent behavior crosses the line one too many times, and he is forced to give up his Ranger badge. This leads to a fairly clever and unexpected series of events that brings Kirk right into the heart of Tuerto’s operational base in Mexico.

When Kirk finally meets Tuerto face-to-face, it’s a surprising encounter. Once again, the author chooses a plot turn quite unexpected and somewhat more satisfying than the typical western showdown the reader expects. Tuerto is a fascinating character, and Crawford should have done more with him. Along the way, there are Indian attacks, a damsel in distress, and the eventual redemption of our hero.

Even with all this, “Ranger Kirk” is a pretty lousy novel. The story never really comes together into anything particularly interesting. The action scenes are poorly-written, and Kirk never turns the corner fully into a likable character. The upside is that it’s a blessedly-short paperback at 160 big-font pages with blank page between each chapter for further padding. In fact, the brevity of the book is the only reason I finished it. Finally, the cover art by George Gross is outstanding, but this paperback isn’t worthy of its own packaging.

Final assessment: Don’t bother.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Blonde Bait

Ed Lacy was a pen name used by author Leonard S. Zinberg. Lacy wrote over 25 novels between 1951 and 1969. He was credited by creating one of the first African-American detectives – Tony Moore, who debuted in the 1957 novel “Room to Swing”, which also won the Edgar Ward for best novel. “Blonde Bait” was released mid-career in 1959 by Zenith with an alluring premise: “She had to buy protection and her payment was her body”. Okay, I'm in.

The book begins with a troubadour named Mickey reuniting with his old friend Hal in Haiti. Mickey proudly tells Hal of his new lover Rose and his new boat, The Sea Princess. He loves both equally and soon we realize that Mickey and Hal were former business partners. Hal chose married life and quietly settled in New York. Mickey chose freedom – sailing around the Caribbean and up the east coast. Being a lackadaisical sailor costs money, and that's really the central emphasis of the novel. Money. How to get it? What to do with it? Lacy begins to tell this romantic story to us - the curious readers - on how Rose and Mickey became wealthy.

Rose is a tall blonde that is often described as a “big woman” by the author. Mickey finds her washed ashore in the Keys hungry, lonely and desperate. After a few odd conversations between the two, and a rain storm, they become friends. Mickey suspects Rose is carrying emotional baggage – evident from her secrecy regarding a suitcase on board and a book written in French. As the two sail and island hop, engaging in their life stories, we learn that Rose was a down and outer, doing stripping and service work before meeting an elderly French man. He needed her companionship, she needed a consistent residence. While not exactly love, the two made it work until he was murdered. After finding a suitcase in her strip club locker, the police and FBI began harassing her about his death and where the suitcase is hidden. After repeated attempts on her life, she bought a boat and sailed away.

I won't spoil it for you. The suitcase is important, as well as the book. It takes some time and patience on the reader's part to slog through the dialogue between Rose and Mickey. There's a payoff, but the author does a tremendous job staying reserved in his storytelling. Eventually, Mickey finds himself running from the feds and goons as he learns the secret behind Rose's murdered lover. The action takes us from the Keys to Virginia Beach to New York, propelling the narrative with different locations and outcomes for Mickey and Rose's flight. The end result is a really engaging story with enough momentum and intrigue to keep it fresh and entertaining throughout. This was my first Ed Lacy book and I'm already planning which of the author's works to read next.