Monday, December 10, 2018

Golden Hawk #01 - Golden Hawk

In order to keep up with the demanding production schedule at Paperback Warrior, I sometimes turn to audiobooks as a means to fill my idle moments by mainlining pulp fiction into my skull through my ears rather than through my eyes. I was pleased to find that the ‘Golden Hawk’ Adult Western series by Will C. Knott was available on audio, so I decided to give it a listen. 

There were nine installments in the ‘Golden Hawk’ series published from 1986 to 1988. My expectations were tempered because I wasn’t terribly fond of Knott’s work in the Longarm series (he also contributed installments to the Trailsman and Slocum brands that I haven’t read), but I wanted to see what he could do with a universe of his own to control.

The prologue introduces us to the Thompson family who are settlers en route from Kentucky to Texas with their kids, Jed and Annabelle. The family runs into a bunch of bloodthirsty Comanches who torture and murder the parents while kidnapping the children. When we rejoin Jed and Annabelle a decade later, they have been raised as slaves by the Comanche. Along the way, Jed - now known as “Scowls At The People” - learns the language and fighting skills of the savages without ever letting go of his secret hatred of the tribal war party who scalped his parents years ago.

The problem is that Annabelle - now known as “Sky Woman” - is of marrying age and Comanche trade her to Mexicans. The human traffickers resell her to another tribe where she is destined for a life of servitude and no-foreplay-porking by a native husband with a dim view of marital equity. As Annabelle is taken away, Jed promises to find and rescue her. This pledge appears to be the driving motivation behind this short novel.

But first, Jed needs a horse, supplies, and the opportunity to give his Indian enslavers the slip. The surest way to make this happen is for Jed to convince the Chief of his loyalty, so he could join a tribal war party. His bravery in the battle earns him the new name, “Golden Hawk” and an opportunity to steal a horse and leave his captor tribe.

About halfway through the audiobook, I realized that there was something missing. This was supposed to be an “Adult Western” book which means graphic sex scenes periodically occur (I see this as a feature, not a bug). Meanwhile, the audiobook has plenty of willing women that Jed encounters, but the scenes all awkwardly - and chastely - fade to black before anyone gets naked. 

Comparing the audiobook to the paperback, I now realize that I was ripped off. The audio production by “Books In Motion” of Spokane clumsily edits out all the sex scenes, yet labels the audiobook as “unabridged.” I can only assume that this was done at the direction of Knott or his estate (the author died in 2008), but this haphazard abridgment comes at a cost of important plot points and character development as the original text drew a clear distinction between Jed’s ethics and the violent way that the Comanches treat women.

So, I didn’t get my beloved Adult Western sex scenes. Cry for me. Despite this, ‘Golden Hawk’ is still a fairly poorly-plotted Western. It takes half the book for Jed to start looking for his missing sister and the book ends without safely recovering Annabelle. I can only assume that the search for the missing sister is the thread that holds these nine adventures together, but I’ll never know because I am done with both ‘Golden Hawk’ and Will C. Knott.

I sent an email to “Books in Motion” seeking comment regarding their misleading claim that the audiobook is unabridged, and they have declined to comment for this article. In any case, you can safely pass on this one. Your paperback (and audiobook) budget is better spent elsewhere.

Friday, December 7, 2018

This Man Dawson

“This Man Dawson” was a short-lived television show that aired during 1959-1960. It lasted one season and produced 33 half-hour episodes. The show was loosely spawned from the Universal Studios movie “Damn Citizen” (1958). That film utilized actor Keith Andes to portray a Louisiana State Police Superintendent. The production company liked that overall theme and changed the story-line to Andes playing a former US Marine Corps colonel, Frank Dawson, who's now the Chief of Police at an undisclosed city.

Writer Henry Edward Helseth (writing as H.E. Helseth) wrote one television tie-in to the show, the eponymous “This Man Dawson”, in 1962. The fairly unknown author previously wrote a handful of crime novels before this book's release and would later go on to write two screen-plays - “Outside the Wall” and “State Penitentiary”. His writing is fast-paced and somewhat technical in terms of the police procedural, giving “This Man Dawson” a heightened sense of realism despite it's rather pulpy overtone.

Helseth doesn't reveal much depth for Dawson other than he fought at the Battle of the Bulge, has a rigorous work ethic and has a reputation that warrants nicknames like Big Chief, Rock and Ironhand. He has several close characters that blend into the narrative including Crawford, a “kid” marine sergeant in Korea who now serves as police detective 1st grade and patrolman Fliegel, whom  Dawson refers to as his chauffeur. 

The book's beginning has both Dawson and Crawford receiving a message from a former boxer named Malone. The former Welterweight turned bodyguard asks that his client, retired mobster Welkin, wishes to meet with Dawson later that night. Unfortunately, when they arrive at Welkin's house that night they find Welkin has seemingly been kidnapped and Malone has been shot to death. Thus, Dawson's case is presented. 

The story-line runs at a furious pace and I often had to circle back to determine which character was which. There's so many faces mixed into the investigation that I was thoroughly confused in some portions (I'm foggy brained as it is). In what I can only describe as a pulpy format (with plenty of “sock'ems”), two mobsters have kidnapped Welkin for ransom money. They plan the deal to incorporate Welkin's estranged wife and his former Syndicate lieutenant. Both parties are trailed, eventually leading to an abandoned warehouse building and “File 98”, a mythical rap sheet on all the Syndicate rings in the city.

Often, this reminded me of 'Dick Tracy' with charismatic mobsters that come across as bumbling money-hungry villains. While pulpy in places, it was still distinctly a police procedural. As mentioned earlier, the pace is lightning quick and it's a one-session read at 120 pages. Helseth's writing style made me feel as if I was a lowly assistant sitting at the precinct house just watching the flurry of activity while grabbing coffee for Dawson's men. My ignorance on the case, dense brain and lack of experience probably would have forced me out quickly. But, thankfully Helseth allowed me a quick peek at these inner workings and “This Man Dawson” was an enjoyable read. 

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Tunnel Rats #02 - Mud and Blood

There were only two books in the short-lived Tunnel Rats series by Stephen Mertz (writing as Cliff Banks), and that was a real shame because they are both exciting Vietnam War combat adventure paperbacks. In the second installment, Mertz does a great job of getting the reader up to speed about the team combatting the Vietcong’s unusual guerrilla war tactic of employing underground tunnels, so a new reader is never lost by jumping into the action without having read the preceding paperback.

“Mud and Blood” was released by Popular Library in 1990 and features the same four-man team combatting the Vietcong in the boobytrapped jungle. The foursome consists of Gaines, DeLuca, Hildago, and their Vietcong defector scout, Bok Van Tu. Together they form a highly-classified special forces team with the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Section of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division - a team known as the Tunnel Rats.

The lean paperback wastes no time throwing the reader squarely into the action with Gaines garroting an enemy sentry before snapping his neck with bare hands. Mertz writes vivid combat violence about as well as I’ve ever read. The threat to the team’s success are the trained battalions of Vietcong soldiers who hide underground in the labyrinth of man-made tunnels - over 200 miles worth - beneath the view of the U.S. soldiers around Saigon.

Despite his relative youth as a 25 year-old, Gaines is a formidable leader naturally-suited to the close-quarters combat in the claustrophobic tunnels because of his unique upbringing exploring the mineshafts in his Montana hometown. DeLuca is a somewhat stereotypical New York Italian, and Hidalgo is a SoCal Chicano also straight out of central casting. Meanwhile Tu brings to the table language abilities and a working knowledge of the tunnel system coupled with his sincere desire for a democratic Vietnam. They all have lean bodies suitable for combat operations inside the narrow, claustrophobic tunnels.

The mission at the heart of “Mud and Blood” involves a Vietcong Captain named Quang who is hiding in the underground tunnel system with a group of his own soldiers waiting to kill American troops. The Army needs the Tunnel Rats to drive Quang and his troops out of the tunnels where they can be captured by U.S. forces.

The action occasionally shifts to Quang who has made a home and base of operations in an underground lair. The Americans have no idea that Quang’s troops are expanding the tunnel system with the intention of stretching the beneath a U.S. base - giving the enemy easy access to the heart of local U.S. Army operations. Can the Tunnel Rats stop Quang’s underground activities before it’s too late?

“Mud and Blood” is a terrific, high-stakes action novel with real heroes and a diabolical - but nuanced - villain. The combat set-pieces were written with a cinematic flair for choreographing literary excitement without being overly wordy. This is a fast-moving popcorn novel for fans of pulpy adventure fiction. 

Still an active author, Mertz has been very forward-leaning when it comes to making his historical body of work available as reprints and eBooks for modern audiences. I tracked the author down to ask him if there were any plans to reprint and digitize the two Tunnel Rats novels, and he responded that he’d need to look into who owns the intellectual property rights pursuant to the contract he signed with Popular Library nearly 30 years ago. I, for one, am hoping that these books see the light of day again solely because it would be a shame for combat adventure yarns this good to be lost to the ages. Recommended.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

M.I.A. Hunter #06 - Blood Storm

Author William Fieldhouse utilized pseudonyms like Chuck Bainbridge and John Lansing for the action series' 'Hard Corps' and 'Black Eagles'. As Gar Wilson, he penned over 30 'Phoenix Force' novels. Fieldhouse contributed to the Mack universe with six 'The Executioner' titles and a handful of 'Stony Man' entries. In 1986, Fieldhouse stepped in as house name Jack Buchanan to draft “Blood Storm”, the sixth volume of Stephen Mertz's 'M.I.A. Hunter' series.

While many of these books focus on Mark Stone's trek into Laos, Columbia or Vietnam to rescue P.O.W.s, “Blood Storm” really expands on that idea with a more dynamic presentation. Under Fieldhouse's vision, the narrative branches out to incorporate drug smugglers, a C.I.A. kill team, a team traitor and the obligatory prisoner rescue. Mertz's editing keeps the book cemented in series mythology, but the story is a different one this time.

Due to Hog Wiley's injury in “Exodus from Hell”, Stone and Loughlin are forced to recruit a new third member for their rescue mission into Laos. A mercenary by the name of Gorman requests a meeting at a dive bar called Golden Butterfly in Thailand. Loughlin hates Gorman right off the bat, but the three come to a monetary arrangement and the mission is set. Before they can exit the bar, hardmen burst in and a raging gun fight fills up Chapter Three. Loughlin suspects Gorman is behind it, allowing the author to utilize the mystery to propel the storyline. 

After the typical weapon purchases at An Khom's house (where Stone often retrieves his intel and firepower), Stone heads off to sever a C.I.A. operation that he thinks was behind the Golden Butterfly assault. After a heated exchange with old nemesis  Coleman, Stone heads to the rescue party with Loughlin and Gorman. There's a bit of a plot spoiler here with Gorman's background, but I'm going to save it for you to discover on your own.

Soon, the rescue attempt is in full-swing in Laos. There's exciting gunplay with Laotian leader Captain Luang, including some brutal scenes of torture involving simple thorns and branches (those Inquisition guys had it all wrong). Up until this book we've seen Stone in some precarious situations but those pale in comparison to the happenings here. Mixed into the break-out are opium dealers who want to capture Stone alive to sell to the highest bidder – the C.I.A., K.G.B. or Vietnam. This all culminates into a pretty hefty storm as the book finalizes with a surprise visit from series mainstay Hog. 

The bottom line, “Blood Storm” is yet another entertaining installment of this beloved series. Mertz's series continues to gain new readers and the books have been reprinted for mass consumption in our digital age. Grab it for a buck. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Wench is Dead

Fredric Brown was an interesting figure in the world of pulp fiction because he had equivalent success in both the mystery science fiction genres. As a teenager, I was a huge fan of his SF work. As I grew into classic crime fiction, I was pleased to rediscover one of my favorite authors as a hardboiled noir master.

“The Wench is Dead” began its life as a short story and was later expanded into a full novel for a 1955 Bantam Books paperback release. The extreme skid row setting seems to be influenced by the work of Brown’s contemporary, David Goodis, who made a living writing gritty crime novels set among the drunks, junkies, and whores within America’s urban poor.

In “The Wench is Dead,” Brown’s narrator, Howard Perry, was a Man of Letters with a wealthy father, a good education, and a promising future in Chicago. But all that was before he discovered the allure of booze. Now, Howard is a stewbum living in a Los Angeles flop house, getting drunk as much as possible, and intermittently working as a dishwasher.

Howard has a girlfriend of sorts (more of an f-buddy) named Wilhelmina Kidder (“Billie the Kid”) who supplies him with alcohol, casual sex, and loaned money. Howard is smart enough to recognize that he treats Billie poorly and that she deserves better, but he’s the kind of wino who listens to the booze more than he listens to his own conscience. I found the evolving relationship between Howard and Billie to be the most compelling aspect of this paperback.

One day, Howard goes to see Billie hoping to score a drink and maybe get lucky. Billie sends Howard to grab a bottle of booze from a heroin-addicted mutual friend named Mame who is found murdered shortly after Howard leaves her apartment. This makes Howard the only likely suspect in the killing. Rather than enduring a torturous police interrogation, Howard - with Billie’s help - decides to remain free from police long enough to solve the murder himself.

The final solution to the crime wasn’t particularly satisfying, but the short book was an enjoyable read nevertheless. Like Goodis, Brown did a nice job of capturing the despair and hopelessness of extreme poverty and addiction while humanizing the winos and junkies generally ignored by polite society. Mostly, Fredric Brown is just a pleasure to read, and fans of his work should enjoy this story just fine. Recommended.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Hardman #02 - The Charleston Knife is Back in Town

Author Ralph Dennis began the 'Hardman' series in 1974 with "Atlanta Deathwatch". The book would kick-start a beloved 12 volume run of detective novels. Dennis used racy Atlanta as the backdrop for his two crime-fighters - Jim Hardman and Hump Evans. Recently, author and genre enthusiast Lee Goldberg acquired the publishing rights to 'Hardman' for his imprint, Brash Books.

You can read the review for “Atlanta Deathwatch” here. The second entry, “The Charleston Knife is Back in Town” (1974), features an introduction by author Joe R. Lansdale for its reprinting. It's the same intro used on the reprinting of the series debut, one where Lansdale clearly segregates the 'Hardman' series from what he considers a rather disposable 70s men's action-adventure genre (he has some disdain for adult westerns and his own work on the 'M.I.A. Hunter' titles). Lansdale is a fan of Dennis and his opening remarks about the series are
spot-on. 

“The Charleston Knife is Back in Town” starts with the obligatory heist. This time Hump Evans is invited to a posh neighborhood for a little gambling party post-prize fight. Once there, he's escorted by gunpoint to a dark room sans his $700 of WAM (that's slang for Walk Around Money). After the robbers leave and the cops arrive, Evans embarrassingly shows up at Hardman's house to explain his night's turn of bad luck. It turns out that the gambling festivities involved many underworld honchos – all taken for over $700K in assets. Heads will roll. 

Soon, Hardman and Hump are contacted by a friend's sister with a possible connection to the heist. She fears that her young nephew was behind the robbery and may be a mob target. Our two detectives accept some payment and learn that the mob is coming down hard on the robbers. They have big money in place with a demand that the heist crew be taken down...real messy. The novel is a smooth and calculating read as Hardman and Hump navigate whore houses, strip clubs and dives to track down the robbers before the hired slasher.  

This series, and its second installment, showcases this Atlanta author's penchant for the crime noir. Building the novel around the heist is a vintage staple, but the spin here is having the protagonist attempting to save the crook. The sense of urgency increases with each chapter as the hired killer devours the clues. Ultimately, you know Hardman and this knife-wielder will face off - but it's how and where they meet that makes for an intriguing development. Kudos to Ralph Dennis, and Lee Goldberg, for recognizing what makes the detective formula effectively click. This is a mandatory read.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Man on the Run

In 1958, Fawcett Gold Medal released a new paperback original by noir fiction master Charles Williams called “Man on the Run.” Mysterious Press has kept the book alive - along with most of the author’s greatest hits - as an eBook for fans who don’t want a 60 year-old vintage paperback disintegrating in one’s hands.

Like a lot of books I tend to read, the novel opens with the narrator jumping off a moving train and taking refuge in a nearby cottage. Russell Foley is being relentlessly pursued by the police because they think he’s a cop killer. If you’ve never read a book before, you might be surprised to learn that Foley is, in fact, an innocent man who has been wrongfully-accused. This is one of those novels where the fugitive hero must solve the murder himself to clear his own name and hopefully resume life as a free and innocent man.

Foley is assisted in his quest for justice by the sexy female owner of the cottage after she comes home like Goldilocks to find rough-looking Foley in her place. Actually, the Meet Cute was more involved than that, but I won’t spoil it for you here. Suzy is a leggy blonde looker with an unflappable and seductive nature (of course), and she comes to accept Foley’s claim of innocence. She’s a great character and the best part of the book. 

Once the relationship is formed, we have a pretty basic mystery novel here with the couple trying to solve the murder of the cop without getting Foley nabbed by the police in the process. There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but there’s nothing particularly innovative here either. It’s a serviceable novel by an author capable of much better. 

It’s important to remember that Williams was among the best of his era. However, “Man on the Run” is not his best book by a long shot. If you’re looking for a quick and easy noir read, I suppose you could do a lot worse.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Desert Stake-Out

Harry Whittington (1915-1989) is the king of the paperbacks. He wrote over 200 novels and utilized nearly 20 pseudonyms throughout his career. While immersing himself in the crime genre, the author also penned around 20 westerns including this 1961 Fawcett Gold Medal novel, “Desert State-Out”. It was reprinted in May of 1989 with alternate artwork for Avon Books. 

Whittington introduces readers to Blade Merrick, a former Confederate soldier who's contracting with the U.S. Army to haul valuable medical supplies to the town of San Carlos. Beginning at Fort Ambush, Blade must venture through the hot California desert amidst the dreaded Apache...solo. Why Blade has been chosen for this mission remains a mystery until the closing chapters. The mystery, intrigue and suspense is a solid wind-up through the middle  portions of the narrative.

After a few days on the journey, Blade stops at a rocky watering hole called Patchee Wells. It's there that he stumbles on three outlaws – elderly Charley Clinton, his son Billy and the gunfighter Perch Fisher. They in turn have stumbled up on the gutshot Jeff Butler and his wife Valerie. When Blade joins the group to assist, he learns they were attacked by the Apache with a second round of attacks coming. While Blade digs the bullet out of Butler, the table is densely set for alliances and betrayals. 


The outlaws want to steal Blade's horses and supplies to head north away from the Army and Apache. Blade thinks they are the three guys that robbed a bank in Tucson. Butler's wife wants  Blade's help to return to Fort Ambush where her husband can receive proper care. She fears that the outlaws will kill Blade, rape her and make off with all of the supplies. Blade is stuck in a hard place knowing that San Carlos is experiencing a plague that desperately needs his supplies. But ultimately none of them will survive another Apache assault outnumbered and outgunned. 

First, if you are looking for the rip-roaring “Cowboys and Indians” western shootout I'm here to tell you “Desert Stake-Out” isn't it. Instead, this is a balance beam of thriller and suspense with the reader navigating the emotional states of these desperate characters. It increases tension and dread in all the right places, emphasizing how precarious the situation is for these six individuals. Just when you think you've figured it out, Whittington throws in a wild card; a grave that's been dug right there in Patchee Wells by Blade himself. Who's buried? Did Blade know these outlaws prior to meeting them at the watering hole? Little puzzle pieces are revealed as the reader sits in the rocks and dust waiting for everything to come full circle. The ending was extremely satisfying and painted a detailed portrait of this mysterious protagonist. I can't say enough good things about this one.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Case of the Cop's Wife

During a writing career that spanned from 1946 to 1960, Milton Ozaki, a Japanese-American author from Wisconsin, authored a few dozen crime novels under his own name and using the pseudonym of Robert O. Saber. The majority of his books were private eye stories, but he also wrote a handful of well-regarded stand-alone crime novels, including a 1958 paperback original for Fawcett Gold Medal titled “Case of the Cop’s Wife.”

As the book opens, we meet Chicago Police Lieutenant Robert Fury who is preparing to take some vacation time coinciding with the upcoming birth of his first child. His pregnant wife is the former Mary Ellen Quinn, daughter of a famous wealthy businessman in Chicago.

Meanwhile, a heist crew has an elaborate plan to knock over a large department store at opening time on payday when the armored truck arrives with the cash. The crew is filled with basic malevolent thugs plus a hot babe getaway driver who gets super-horny when whipped with a belt. So, there’s that.

A confluence of events involving a Chicago crime lord, rogue cops, and pregnant Mary Ellen being at the wrong place at the wrong time conspire to turn the heist into a total bloodbath. One thing leads to another and Mary Ellen - the very pregnant wife of Chicago Police Lieutenant Fury - is snatched away by one of the robbers and taken as a hostage.

The action shifts nicely from character to character with the core being Mary Ellen with the heist crew while Lt. Fury tries to find his missing bride before she goes into labor. The Chicago Police are also hot-to-trot to catch the bad guys, which makes for a nice police procedural aspect to the story.

This is exciting stuff, and Ozaki keeps the story moving with short scenes that cut from one third-person POV to another - a literary technique effectively employed by Stephen King years later. I was left with the impression that Ozaki was a way better writer than most of his contemporaries, yet oddly he’s never remembered for the quality of his plotting. I’ve heard that his stand-alone crime novels are superior to his series books, and this paperback supports that theory nicely.

If “Case of the Cop’s Wife” is a fair representation of Ozaki’s talent as an author, he really was something special. In any case, this is a terrific novel that crime-suspense-heist-police procedural fans are sure to love. It’s certainly one of the most compelling books I’ve read this year. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Death Squad #01 - Gang War

Dan Streib penned a short-lived two book series entitled 'Death Squad' in 1975. This Belmont Tower publication was written under the name of Frank Colter and had a similar outline as the 1975 five volume series “Kill Squad”, also written by Streib as Mark Cruz (credit to Glorious Trash blog for that tidbit of info). The idea is a familiar one – three cops take to the streets to fight crime without a uniform. The idea is that they can accomplish far more by spending their own personal time and fortunes on fighting crime than the pension/benefit loaded daytime gig. Thus the debut, “Gang War”, comes to fruition.

The novel is set in San Diego with an opening scene involving a 15-yr old girl being raped by a trio of young men. Officers Paul Scott and protagonist Mark Sanders (Mike or Mark, the author changes the first name nearly every chapter) arrive on the scene just in time for Scott to be shot to death in the groin. Another two officers, Sam Durham and Raul Gomez, arrive on the scene and all agree to either take a week off or dip into their sick-leave bank as the best course of action. 

Together, the two piece together the rape scene and trail the whereabouts of a pin that was found by the girl. It's a yacht club pin and Sanders knows the location. Once there, he stumbles on a high-society group of young Berkley kids who are all members of a violent union entitled Terrorist Liberation Army. Those chapters find Sanders and Durham on a high-speed boat chase off the coast tracking a young terrorist/rapist. Afterwards, the trio gets hit with a browbeating by their superiors.

In a scene worth expansion, Sanders beds down a young woman named Jessica, suspecting she may be an involuntary member of the group. Afterwards, Sanders apartment is bombed with the author's gory explanation of eyes and limbs flying. Knocked off in the blast is a housekeeper. Next, the trio are lured into a hostage negotiation at the city zoo where Sanders is ambushed and pushed into a deadly firefight among the zoo's many tourists. The author has one grandmother slayed with a point blank face shot while another man is mowed down by whirling helicopter blades. 

The finale has Sanders facing the last remaining terrorists in a warehouse. Shockingly, the author has a penchant for groin shots and has a woman mercilessly shot in the vagina (with the prior shot severing a breast!) and another man shot through the scrotum. That's three distinct genitalia shots if you are keeping score at home. The suspense build-up is just the idea that Jessica could be an innocent pawn in the terrorist front or the dreaded mastermind. I'll leave the conclusion for you to discover. 

Streib is an average writer at best. “Gang War” comes across as a cookie-cutter team-based vigilante yarn. Take it or leave it if you are into that sort of thing. Being only two books, I'll probably read the sequel for giggles. 

Note – Despite the cover, Sanders does not utilize a miniature lightsaber. 

Monday, November 26, 2018

Whom Gods Destroy

Clifton Adams (1919-1971) was primarily known as a western writer in the 1950s and 1960s, but he also authored a handful of solid noir crime paperbacks that were largely forgotten until they were resurrected by reprint publisher Stark House. “Whom Gods Destroy” from 1953 was a Fawcett Gold Medal original that has been re-released as a double along with “Death’s Sweet Song.”

Our narrator, Roy Foley, is a fry cook at a diner who receives word that his father has just died. Roy reluctantly takes a Greyhound bus back to Oklahoma to make the burial arrangements for the town’s drunken cobbler. This brings back a flood of good and bad memories from Roy’s youth that drive the plot in this thin paperback. 

A flashback chapter fills the reader in on Roy’s background. He grew up barefoot and dirt poor in the hard-scrabble part of town. Despite these humble origins, Roy was the town’s star quarterback and smarter than most of the rich kids in his school. He had a crush on the wealthy Lola and dreamed of going to college on a scholarship and making something of himself.

All this came crashing down when Lola laughed in his face at the prospect of them ever being together. Disgraced, Roy left town and never returned until it became time to bury his father 14 years later. Upon his return to his hometown, he learns that Lola is married to a highly-regarded pillar in the community.

After the Volstead Act ended prohibition in the U.S., Oklahoma was one of two states that continued to outlaw alcohol - a practice that continued for over twenty years thereafter. This kept booze bootleggers in business in Oklahoma and presents a money-making opportunity for Roy when he meets up with an old high school buddy in the smuggling business. Roy wants to get in the illegal liquor racket figuring it will make more than fry-cooking and might just show Lola that he isn’t actually white trash.

The bootlegging business is intertwined with local public corruption, and that brings Roy and Lola back into the same orbit. The hurt and hard feelings from a high school snub never fully go away and motivate Roy to climb his way up the bootlegging ladder as a form of comeuppance. His obsession with Lola never dissipates and fuels many bad decisions over the course of the novel. 

Like his other noir books, “Whom Gods Destroy” is compelling as hell. The only problem is that Roy is more than a bit of a jackass, and it’s hard to root for him knowing that everything he does is motivated by avenging hurt feelings from his adolescence. You really have to be comfortable with a seriously-flawed main character to enjoy this paperback. Even so, the plot twists and turns in delightful ways that keep the pages turning long after bedtime. Highly recommended.

Postscript:

I wish Clifton Adams wrote more crime novels in his career. I’m only aware of five:

Death’s Sweet Song
Whom Gods Destroy
Never Say No To A Killer (as Jonathan Gant)
The Very Wicked (as Nick Hudson)
The Long Vendetta (as Jonathan Gant)

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Death Rides a Black Horse

Author Lewis B. Patten (1915-1981), born in Denver, Colorado, served in the U.S. Navy from 1933-1937. Later, he was educated at the University of Denver and became an auditor for the Colorado Department of Revenue. It was in this 1940s period that he began his writing endeavors. His first novel, “Massacre at White River”, was published in 1952. It was the first of more than 90 western novels, three of which won Golden Spur Awards. My first Patten review is a 1978 coming of age tale entitled “Death Rides a Black Horse”.

We're introduced to 15-year old Frank Halliday and his father Walter. The two live on a sweeping 200,000+ acre ranch in Wyoming. The ranch foreman is Rafe and his second command is Standing Bear. This is important in the ranch hierarchy due to Walter's fatal fall from a horse. Frank attends the reading of the will and finds that his father has left a house and plenty of farm land to a neighboring girlfriend. The ranch and lucrative funds are trusted to Frank for distribution on his 21st birthday. Rafe, dedicating the majority of his life to the Halliday Ranch, is left with 5K and a lifetime job. The kicker – the entire spread goes to Rafe in the event of Frank's death prior to age 21. This opens the door for Patten's jealousy ridden murder narrative to fully develop.

Frank, understanding Rafe's disappointment, senses that his life may be in danger. Soon, he's asked to ride out and check one of the springs. He's ambushed by two rustlers and forced to kill them in the attack. In his confusion, Frank runs away fearing that Rafe and Standing Bear will kill him upon his return to the ranch. The book drifts into Frank hopping trains, stealing horses, befriending Cherokees and eventually meeting the love interest Susan. This middle portion reads like a brisk adventure tale.

The book's final quarter has Frank shooting it out with more hired killers, realizing that his father's own money (remember the 5K to Rafe?) is being utilized to murder him. While the reader suspects the finale will be a whirlwind firefight in the mountains, it actually equates to a jail scene with an angry mob hungry for a lynching. How we get there is an interesting twist, proving that Patten had a few cards up his sleeve to avoid the generic western formula. 

Again, this is my first foray into the bibliography of Patten. Like my recent Frank Gruber read, I just find it amazing that so many great westerns and western writers are out there even when you look beyond genre cornerstones like Zane Grey, L'Amour and Johnstone. For me, I've already purchased six more Pattens and have read that some of his finest works are “A Killing at Kiowa” (1972) and “Ride a Crooked Trail” (1976). I'm on it!

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Robert O. Saber and the Con-Games of Milton Ozaki: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

Between 1949 and 1956, thirteen original crime novels were released under the name Robert O. Saber by a variety of paperback publishing houses. Most of these were private eye books starring an assortment of hardboiled heroes including Phil Keene, Hal Cooper, Max Keene, and Carl Good.

Consistent with the era, the covers of Saber’s paperbacks featured lushly-painted illustrations depicting scantily-clad women, square-jawed heroes, and often a murder weapon nearby. When compared to the lousy cover art we see today, the packaging of these vintage novels demand that the books be purchased and read. Quite deservedly, the author was also a member of the Mystery Writers of America.

All of this begs the question: Who the hell was Robert O. Saber?

Milton Ozaki was a Wisconsin-born, Japanese-American crime fiction author who wrote mass-market paperbacks under his own name as well as the pseudonym Robert O. Saber in the 1950s while living in Chicago and also operating two beauty shops. The economic realities of the publishing world of the 1950s forced many writers to employ pseudonyms to make a living. Handi-Books, for example, probably didn’t want to flood the market with books by Ozaki, so about half of his novels were published under the Saber pen-name. No harm. No foul. Everybody wins.

However, it appears that his double-identity and 27 published novels - plus women’s hair styling - failed to bring Ozaki the lifetime of financial security he desired. As such, he decided to channel his creative energies elsewhere. Life began imitating art as the man who was author of many heist and con-man stories began to turn his fiction into a dark reality.

In the 1970s, Ozaki began operating a “diploma mill” mail-order scam involving the issuance of phony college degrees from non-existent universities including “Colorado State Christian College” and “Hamilton State University” in exchange for a $100 donation to the fake schools. Campus life at these universities must have been rather mundane since they were nothing but post office boxes in Colorado (As an aside, if your urologist received his degree from either university, you may want to get your vasectomy elsewhere). After realizing $70,000 from the scam, the courts ordered him to knock it off in 1974, according to an article by Mike Royko in the Chicago Daily News.

It seems that 1974 was a doubly-bad year for Ozaki who was also sued by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office for another con-game he operated. Ozaki was director of “Ko-Zee Products Corporation” where he sold a phony “mini-turbo charger” guaranteed to give your car 37% better gas mileage. The device didn’t work, but the government’s action did. The former crime writer turned scammer was put out of business, again.

Additionally, Ozaki ran a mail-order school teaching paying students how to develop their powers of E.S.P. and hypnosis. Given this skill set, you’d think Ozaki would have seen the government investigations coming. 

Regarding his multitude of failures as a professional grifter, Ozaki said, “We are trying to do good work, and we just ran afoul of these archaic-minded bureaucrats.” This quote sounds like a re-working of the famous lament of criminals from the Scooby-Doo universe, “And it would have worked if it weren’t for you meddling kids.”

Ozaki died in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1989 at the age of 76, and many of his mystery books are still available as eBooks and paperback reprints.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Escape from Devil's Island

Irish born Peter McCurtin moved to America in the early 1950s. After co-owning a bookstore, he launched his writing career with “Mafioso” in 1970. While his novels were typically westerns and mob-inspired action, he wrote the WW2 prison novel “Escape from Devil's Island” in 1971 for Belmont. It was republished with alternate artwork in 1974 to capture “Papillon” movie fans from the prior year. Ironically, that book cover not only mentions “...in the savage tradition of Papillon!” but features artwork of two men bearing the likeness of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The novel and movie are both based on the real life Henri Charriere's time in the French Guyana penal system.

The novel introduces us to the notorious Devil's Island in the late 1930s French Guyana. Both Captain Boudreau and Colonel Gamillard run the prison, both sadistic foremen that seemingly enjoy their time lopping off heads at the guillotine. As one prisoner meets his demise, American inmate Gendron is introduced to the reader. He was a former Marine Lieutenant working at the Paris Embassy when he was approached by a wealthy businessman to become his personal bodyguard. Gendron ends up in the sack with the man's young wife, a fight ensues and Gendron shoots and kills the man. But, there's early hints that maybe Gendron was just covering for the vengeful lover and took the time. He's now the only American in the prison colony, and an easy target for Colonel Gamillard and the inmates.

Make no bones about it, “Escape from Devil's Island” is emphatically brutal. It's surely not written for sensitive readers, and this author utilizes homosexuals as villains – unfortunately. It's a product of the time, and like a lot of jailbreak books, it features gay rape in some extremely violent scenes. When choosing factions, there's a gay rapist union backed by sadomasochist officer Ducharme. The group, backed by Boudreu and a Belgian ex-boxer named Radisson, target Gendron. This culminates in one of the best fisticuffs I've read in a while (13 pages worth!), leading to a brutal “tiger cage” month for our protagonist. 

Inevitably, we know this is a jailbreak novel. As the pacing picks up, Gendron makes the decision to escape. Staying on the island is certain death, and there are rumors of the Nazis occupying the prison in the coming days. Alliances are made, plans are constructed and soon there's an exciting gun fight in the works. 

The bottom line - McCurtin delivers one of the better escape novels I've read. Adventure, survival, gun fights and brawls are the chief ingredients that make this sort of book rise above the norm. At an easy 150-pages and manageable font size, there's no reason not to work this one into your “need to read” list.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Hero's Lust

Kermit Jaediker was a newspaper reporter and Golden Age comic book writer during who shifted genres to write a paperback original crime novel called “Hero’s Lust” that was released in 1953 by upstart publisher Lion Books. Jaediker’s noir novel has recently been given new life through a reprint by Stark House who co-packaged the short book with two other Lion releases from the 1950s.

Red is a newspaperman covering city hall in corrupt Crescent City. Since he was a young reporter, Red has been taking bribes to write stories in the paper favorable to the local political machine and the all-powerful Mayor - fake news before it was a thing. As a result of his boosted income and status, Red is a real man about town driving a convertible and bedding lots of fine dames.

Red’s comfortable life as a hack for the current administration is placed in jeopardy by an anti-corruption mayoral candidate who appears to be gaining traction with the voters. The Mayor has a plan that will ensure his victory and needs Red’s help to hype it. The plan is to campaign on his administration’s crowning achievement - a state-of-the-art hospital complex for the poor in the city’s second ward.

(As an aside, everything about this novel makes me think it’s really about Chicago’s powerful political machines, and the hospital in question is really Cook County Hospital. However, the author was an east coast guy, so it’s also entirely possible that I’m just full of beans.)

The Mayor wants Red to do a series of articles trumpeting the hospital’s positive impact on the community. Red’s counter-proposal is to make the articles a series of human interest stories following a single patient through the hospital’s treatments. Red thinks the articles will have more impact if the sympathetic patient is “A dame. Pretty. Stacked.”

Enter Ann Porter. Pretty. Stacked. And suffering from tuberculosis so bad that she needs to have part of her lung removed. Red is to be her shadow through the procedure while documenting it all for his newspaper readers to illustrate the societal worth of the new hospital and delivering the Mayor an easy re-election. In the process of documenting Ann’s medical procedures, an intimacy between Red and Ann develops that helps illustrate Red’s humanity but opens the door to all sorts of derivative problems for the compromised reporter. 

Meanwhile, Red is being courted by a rival newspaper with a reform agenda interested in leveraging Red’s political knowledge to expose the Mayor’s corruption. Is Red willing to risk his comfortable life of status to be a real investigative reporter? What are the risks of being a snitch against the political machine who gave him everything? This is one of those stories where a morally-compromised man finds himself at a fork in the road and needs to make a tough choice between right and wrong with life-or-death consequences. 

“Hero’s Lust” is filled with inside info on the operations of the 1950s newspaper business and the blood-on-the-knuckles operation of a corrupt urban political machine. It’s a fascinating read and Jaediker’s writing is top notch. Anyone who considers himself a fan of 1950s hardboiled crime, should consider this one required reading. Highly recommended.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Hunter #03 - A Taste for Blood

Author Ralph Hayes has penned an incredible amount of action novels. He launched his vigilante inspired series 'The Hunter' in 1975. Adding to the surplus of genre paperbacks, Leisure released five books of the series that same year. With book number three, “A Taste for Blood”, the formula is altered. Instead of series heroes John Yard and Moses Ngala tracking criminals, the two are thrust into a harrowing survival yarn that doesn't involve firearms.

The book's opening introduces us to the various characters that will eventually be partnered with Yard and Moses in the African swamps:

-Liu Chi-Han, a hatchet man for budding terrorist groups
-Wealthy married couple Demetrios and Lisa Tzanni
-Vacationer Kanak Rawal and 10-yr old son Nahki
-Israeli policeman Yigael Bialik and his Islamic terrorist prisoner Osman
-Brush pilot Colin Bourke

This cabaret of characters, including Yard and Moses, boards a Cesna plane in Narobi departing for the city of Khartoum in Sudan. Yard, suspecting the plane requires much needed repairs, hesitantly agrees to board while questioning Bourke's flying skills. About 200 miles north of Juba the plane crashes into a desolate stretch of swampland.  Very little water and food forces the group on a trek to civilization. That's Hayes backdrop, and he does a splendid job fashioning an action-adventure story out of a plane crash survival recipe. 

There's immediate discord in the ranks as the arrogant Bourke refuses to leave the plane. Factions are formed and eventually they all agree to designate Yard the leader. Soon, Chi-Han begins to calculate rations and bodies, positioning himself to conveniently kill a few of the group in the night. Osman's background as a terrorist makes for an easy alliance, and the book eventually moves into Yard/Moses vs Chi-Han while supplies run out. 

Hayes is terrific here, making 'The Hunter' series 3 for 3. The intrigue, deception and fortitude are all variables in this human experiment. Sure, the jungle adventure has been done to death (Hayes may have taken liberties with Robert Westerby's 1969 novel “The Jungle”) but the last 25-pages places the action on urban streets and plays on the general vigilante theme of the first two novels. The end result is another stellar effort from an under-rated author.

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.

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Vigilante #04 - Chicago: Knock, Knock, Your're Dead

'The Vigilante' installment “Knock, Knock, You're Dead” is the fourth book of Robert Lory's action series. It was released in 1976 by Pinnacle and is the first of the series to feature a painted cover. Thankfully, Lyle Kenyon Engel disposed of the silly photography and model from the first trio of books, moving to painted covers for the second half of this six-book series. 

Surprisingly, “Knock, Knock,...” is positioned just three weeks from the horrendous subway assault on protagonist Joseph Madden. New readers will quickly understand that Madden is The Vigilante, avenging the murder of his wife by visiting various locales and thwarting crime with a .38 revolver. The excuse for the travel? Madden works for a security firm and provides consulting to clients nationwide. Thus, the first week was hot lead in NY, followed by death and destruction in LA and San Fran and now, this third week, a consulting trip to Chicago for a new client. It's a massive body count but the author manages to hold on to some semblance of Madden's vulnerability and weakness. Honestly, he's just an average guy that blunders his way through gun fights.

This novel is fairly elementary – stop some baddies from blowing up a building. It's a thin plot, hampered by sketchy details that just leads to Madden versus the bomber. There's a few fights, some investigative work and then the inevitable gun fight. Our vigilante upgrades to a Mauser .32 pistol, effectively demonstrated in a comparison scene where Madden must choose between the revolver's performance stability and the Mauser's bullet capacity. This was a nice change of pace and adds to the series' evolution of a “rookie” Madden ascending through the ranks of vigilante classes (there is such a thing in this genre!).

Unlike the first two novels, “Knock, Knock,...” continues to include more and more sex. Like other genre offerings of this era, the women are simply sexual fodder. Here, Madden decides he “will have” a beautiful waitress. The two flirt and eventually Madden stomps in and finds that the waitress is simply waiting all day at the coffee maker for Madden to bed her down. In another scene, Madden punishes a crime queen by bringing her to orgasm multiple times (the horror!). It's cheesy, ridiculous...but I keep reading them. I'm already scoping out books five and six on my bookshelf.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Canyon O'Grady #01 - Dead Men's Trails

Writing as Jon Sharpe, author Jon Messman was the primary architect and ghostwriter behind the popular adult western series, ‘The Trailsman.’ In 1989, Signet Books launched a new series called ‘Canyon O’Grady’ also using the Jon Sharpe house name, so it only made sense to have Messman pen the inaugural installment.

The premise of the Canyon O’Grady books is pretty interesting, and it’s quite similar in structure to Longarm. Canyon is a “U.S. Government Agent” who gets his investigative assignments directly from U.S. President James Buchanan. For instance, in Book 2, POTUS asks Canyon to protect the man working on a new invention called “the machine gun” before the device falls into the wrong hands. Book 5 finds Canyon working double duty to protect political rivals Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln from terrorists seeking to disrupt the next U.S. presidential election.

When asked the difference between a federal marshal and a U.S. Government agent, Canyon explains: “A federal marshal arrests people and brings them in. Sometimes he does some law-keeping. Mostly, though, he’s the arresting arm of the federal government. A government agent tracks down trouble and troublemakers anywhere and everywhere. Federal marshals have a territory. I go anywhere the trail takes me.”

The first book in the series takes place along the wild and lawless Kentucky-Tennessee border in 1859 where Canyon is undercover on a special assignment from the President involving the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis & Clark fame 50 years earlier - a cold-case homicide that becomes a manhunt and a treasure hunt.

Shortly after his arrival into a small Kentucky town, Canyon witnesses a targeted murder of a man who might have some answers regarding Lewis’ death. It turns out that the victim is one of several close associates suffering assassinations at the hands of hired hit squads because of a shared secret in their past. Only one of the group has survived and his comely daughter wants Canyon to find her reclusive and hidden father before it’s too late.

Because this is an adult western, you can count on regular breaks in the action for some mandatory graphic sex scenes. It took 37 pages for Canyon to get laid in the debut, so you know the author was really committed to the main plot. However, never fear - there’s also a substantial amount of cinematic and grizzly violence to keep the pages flying by.

Messman includes lots of details and backstory regarding our hero. Canyon was conceived in Ireland and born in the U.S. His father was an Irish revolutionary fleeing British rule with a price on his head. Canyon was classically educated by wise and learned Catholic friars and often quotes ancient Greek poets and sings Irish folk songs. He rides a beautiful palomino horse named Cormac after the Irish king of the 8th Century.

A fair amount of the novel is Canyon traveling through the wilderness accompanied by a beautiful girl in search of her father. They encounter many obstacles along the way requiring Canyon to save the girl’s bacon from mountain lions and rapey fur trappers. At times, the intensity of the violence approaches the level of the Edge series when the bullets begin to fly and the blood starts to flow. Meanwhile, the central mystery regarding the assassinations is remarkably compelling for a pulpy paperback.

The Canyon O’Grady series lasted for 25 books before folding in 1993. The authors changed hands with Chet Cunningham writing several and Robert Randisi delivering the final eight books. Canyon O’Grady and Skye “Trailsman” Fargo actually team up in Trailsman #100. As for this first episode, it’s an outstanding debut that makes the reader want to dig deeper into this fascinating hero. Recommended.