Tuesday, August 21, 2018

No Harp for My Angel

Carter Brown (real name: Alan Yates) was a British author living in Australia who wrote mystery paperbacks about American detectives. His most popular character was police detective Al Wheeler, and the books in that series were a ton of fun.

It was quite a publishing coup when Stark House Books won the right to reprint early Al Wheeler books that were never published in the U.S. The second volume of Stark House’s Carter Brown collection contains a helpful introduction by Rick Ollerman followed by three Al Wheeler books originally published in Australia in 1956:

    “No Harp for My Angel”
    “Booty for a Babe”
    “Eve, It’s Extortion”

The story synopsis said that “No Harp for My Angel” takes place in Florida (home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters), so that was the one I chose to read and review this round.

As advertised, the short novel opens with California police detective Al Wheeler on holiday in Ocean Beach, Florida. Because he’s on vacation and because this is a Carter Brown book, he spends a fair amount of his vacation time trying to get laid. This quest leads Wheeler to hit on a hot chick in a bar whose date is Johnny Lynch, the mysterious new tough guy in Ocean Beach who owns a gambling joint. An altercation ensues putting Wheeler on the wrong side of Lynch’s ire - as well as Zero, Lynch’s right hand man, who looks and acts like an “overgrown gorilla.”

With the central conflict of the paperback firmly established, Wheeler is pressed into service to investigate the disappearances of several young women in Ocean Beach since Lynch and his goons blew into town. Because Wheeler has no legal authority in Florida, he assumes an undercover persona to conduct his investigation.

Thereafter, it’s a pretty standard mystery novel. The sex in 1950s Carter Brown is rather toned down compared to his work in later decades, but the story structure is about the same. His work has always been an easy - but satisfying - read. He wasn’t necessarily a master of the genre, but once he figured out his formula for success, he rode that pony for a long time and sold a lot of books in the process. No harm done there.

As time has gone by, Carter Brown paperbacks have become scarce on used bookstore shelves. As such, the Stark House revival of his work is coming at exactly the right time, and “No Harp For My Angel” is a fine entry-point into this iconic series. Recommended. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Narc #01 - Narc

'Narc' was a violent 7-book run published between 1973-1975. The debut, simply titled “Narc”, was released by Lancer ('Enforcer', 'Conan'). The remainder of the series was published under the Signet brand. The author's name on the cover is Robert Hawkes, but this is really Marc Olden of 'Black Samurai' fame. 

The “Narc” is John Bolt, a former New York City blue who comes down hard on police corruption. Lying in a hospital bed, Bolt meets a guy named Craven and is told about the Department of Dangerous Drugs (D3). They offer him $25,000 a year, ten weeks of training in DC and assignments all over the world working strictly narcotics. The book opens six years into Bolt's career with D3. Our hero is in La Playa with five other narcotics agents to arrest Antoine Georges Peray, a major player pushing $2 billion in heroin. This opening scene has a convoy of cars carrying Peray, Bolt, agents and local enforcers to the airport. Peray's guerilla fighters descend on the convoy in an effort to free their man. In what could be the best opening pages of any book, we find Bolt using a .45 and sawed-off shotgun as he weaves between and under cars cutting off the guerillas at the knees. His own men turn on him and we immediately realize that Bolt is an absolute badass. It's a massive firefight that has Bolt utilizing grizzly methods to bring Peray into the US. Unfortunately, this opening scene is really the best part of the book. The rest is about average. 

The novel focuses on a high-profile dealer in the US named St. James Livingston. Livingston has shut down all of the drug traffic in NYC while awaiting a massive shipment from Peray. His drought has increased tensions and hostilities in the city with users needing fixes and dealers needing cabbage. With Bolt capturing Peray, it clogs up the pipeline. Needing the drugs and the big payout, Livingston puts hits on Bolt, including targeting Bolt's girlfriend Pavanne. There's numerous side stories including Peray's daughter and a former colleague named Zan. The narrative is propelled with Bolt infiltrating gangs, Narc teams and collaborating with local law enforcement to stop Peray's shipment of white death into New York. 

This 'Narc' debut is an effective, gritty 1970s action vehicle. While the beginning is clearly the best Olden has to offer, the average continuation of the storytelling is worth the price of admission. With Olden's writing style I was reminded of the equally good 'The Liquidator' run by Larry Powell. It's a similar character with both authors writing in the same vein. Quick, punchy with equal shares of dialogue and action – 'Narc' is definitely a good start to a well-respected series.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Hunter #02 - Night of the Jackals

The prior 'Hunter' novel, debut “Scavenger Kill”, introduced us to former Green Beret John Yard. In that book, Yard is presented as a wealthy entrepreneur who guides big game hunts in the Nairobi area of Africa. He teamed with his colleague, African police officer Moses Ngala, to stage the first “vigilante” styled hunt and kill. The target was an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company headed by a gelatinous villain named Lavalle. “Scavenger Kill” was on an international scope, ranging from Canada to London. I liked Ralph Hayes ambition to write in a more epic fashion and he continues that trend with this second series installment. 

“Night of the Jackals” begins at Camp Pritcher Army base in Georgia. It's a special forces training facility ruled by a notorious Hitler-like Captain named Ernst Rohmer. The opening has a young black man, Wendell Jefferson, ordered to do the old “dig a grave and then fill it back in” routine. His superior, Sergeant Pruitt, issues an abundance of thunderous racial slurs and threats, provoking Jefferson to attack him. The end result is imprisonment in the stockade.

Wendell's brother, Aron, a decorated Vietnam veteran, visits the stockade demanding to know what has happened. He quickly discovers Pruitt's racism and that Rohmer is running the base. It's here where we learn that Rohmer had fought for the Third Reich, and later contracted his services all over the globe as a commanding soldier of fortune. Aron experienced Rohmer's atrocities in Vietnam firsthand and questions why the Army would want a cutthroat dictator training it's men (the reader does too).

Later, a drunken Pruitt and Rohmer fatally beat Wendell in his cell. They politically escape punishment, track down Aron and leave him battered and near death. How does this connect to 'The Hunter'? Aron and Moses Ngala (the series' co-hunter/hero) are old friends. Aron knows Moses is in law enforcement, so he reaches out to him (in a weird scene where it seems Aron ran into Moses by accident). Regardless, Moses and the series protagonist, John Yard, discuss the events from the prior book and decide to do another vigilante job to kill Rohmer and end his reign of terror.

Without spoiling too much of the second half, Yard and Moses travel from Africa to Paris trailing Rohmer. The result has both of them fighting for the Syrians over the Israel border. It's a wild chain of events that completely spins “Night of the Jackals” from vengeful vigilante to espionage thriller before covering a battlefield saga and planting the story in a brutal prison. Author Ralph Hayes hits every single sub-genre of Men's Action Adventure in one fell swoop.

Like his 'Stoner' series, the action shares some of the same exotic locations – African deserts and villages like Lagos and Nairobi. Hayes has mastered “prison fiction”, perhaps building off of 'Buffalo Hunter' debut “Hellhole”, a gritty western set in a ruthless Mexican prison. Additionally, 'Stoner' installment “The Satan Stone” mirrors that same prison scenario in Africa. Now, the finale of this novel has both Yard and Moses inside a violent prison-styled base ran by the sadistic Rohmer. It's repetitive, often using the same sequence of events, but Hayes does it so well that it's the story we want him to tell. At this point in time, this author could be my favorite of the genre. It's a bold statement, but I'm not searching the used stores this hard for any other author.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Death Pulls a Doublecross (aka Coward's Kiss)

In 1961 - around the beginning of his crime fiction career - Lawrence Block submitted a hardboiled private eye novel to Fawcett Gold Medal called “Coward’s Kiss.” When it was finally published, someone at Fawcett changed the title to “Death Pulls a Doublecross.” Decades later when Block began reprinting his early works, he changed the title back to “Coward’s Kiss” where it remains available today as a Kindle eBook and a well-performed audiobook.

Ed London is a stereotypical hardboiled private-eye and when we meet him, he is working on an unusual assignment. He is tasked with quietly removing the corpse of a sexy female murder victim from a Manhattan apartment and then dumping the body in Central Park for later discovery by authorities.

We quickly learn exactly why an otherwise good and ethical PI would do something so uncharacteristically evil. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a satisfying enough reason that drives the rest of the story. The other big driving storyline is a missing briefcase with unknown contents that good guys and bad guys are both trying to locate - giving the paperback the feel of a NYC treasure hunt inside a standard whodunnit.

It’s fun to read Lawrence Block’s early work with the knowledge that he went on to be a grandmaster of the mystery genre. No one would classify this book as one of his greatest hits, but you can see the greatness in its infancy. The book was never boring and had plenty of violence, gunplay, blood, and death. A nice romantic sub-plot develops and our hero gets laid a couple times. There really is something for everyone in this short paperback. 

If you’ve ever read a mystery novel before, you won’t have much difficulty solving this one. However, the joy of a Lawrence Block book isn’t the destination, it’s the ride. This one is a fun journey. Recommended. 

Postscripts

“Death Pulls a Doublecross” (or “Coward’s Kiss” if you prefer) was originally written as a TV tie-in novel based on “Markham,” a private-eye series starring Ray Milland that aired for one season in 1959–1960. Block liked the finished product so much, he never submitted the TV tie-in version and edited it as a stand-alone mystery novel for Fawcett Gold Medal.

The character of Ed London would have been a natural for a series of hardboiled mystery novels. Block never brought the character back for any more paperbacks, but London starred in three novellas published in Men’s Adventure Magazines in the 1960s. All three novellas have been compiled in Block’s collection of his early short fiction, “One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.”

The other Ed London stories are:

“The Naked and the Deadly” from “Man’s Magazine,” October 1962, reprinted in “Guy, December 1963.

“Stag Party Girl” from “Man’s Magazine,” February 1963, reprinted in “Guy,” February 1965. 

“Twin Call Girls” from “Man’s Magazine,” August 1963, reprinted in “Guy,” August 1965.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Deathwatch

Author Robb White concentrated on juvenile fiction, writing nearly 30 novels between 1935-1985 (he passed away in 1990). Along with novels, he teamed with horror director William Castle to pen screenplays, including classics like “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler”, both featuring the iconic Vincent Price. Along with feature films, he wrote television scripts for “Perry Mason”, “The Silent Service” and “Men of Annapolis”. His 1956 novel “Up Periscope” was adapted to film in 1959 starring James Gardner (later to be spoofed in 1996's film “Down Periscope”). His most identifiable work is the 1972 young adult title “Deathwatch”, a Scholastic mainstay in school libraries in the 70s and 80s. The novel was adapted for film twice – 1974's “Savages” starring Andy Griffith and 2015's “Beyond the Reach” starring Michael Douglas. The fact that it received film treatments twice speaks volumes. It's simply a fantastic story.

Young Ben is a college student who works as a hunting guide in what I presume is a California desert. His client is a pompous Los Angeles businessman named Madec, who is in the desert for a week with Ben hunting bighorn sheep. In the opening chapter, Madec claims he sees horns on a mountainside and fires. Unfortunately, Madec mistakenly shot an elderly prospector. Ben hands his own rifle to Madec and hikes down the mountain to gather a sheet for the body and to drive the Jeep a little closer. Upon return to the corpse, Madec makes a plea and attempts to bribe Ben into disposing of the body and continuing on the hunt. Ben refuses and things get rather grim quickly.

Madec then leaves Ben in the desert in his underwear with no food or water. He knows Ben will never make the exhausting 40 mile trek to freedom, but will stand by and “harass” Ben. Thus, White's narrative is fully developed. Ben makes a run for it, hoping to survive harsh conditions and Madec's rifle shots. The bulk of the story is Ben's will to survive under the most extreme conditions. While catering to young adults, it cuts no corners. Ben's feet start to erode off as he walks on hot and jagged rocks, losing blood while becoming dehydrated. His saving grace is finding an old sling-shot, which he uses to his advantage to hunt and defend.

While the “hunt human prey” adventure story is compelling, the author steps up with the book's closing chapters. Seamlessly, the book changes locations from desert to sheriff's office. It's this portion that showcases more of a legal drama, recapping the events from both Ben and Madec's points of view. It's just as fascinating as the fast-paced desert survival yarn. Overall, White's “Deathwatch” is a classic adventure tale that's still in print.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

File on a Missing Redhead

During his career, Lou Cameron wrote all sorts of men’s adventure fiction, but his 1968 paperback, “File on a Missing Redhead” was a pretty straightforward - and excellent - whodunnit police procedural mystery. Because it’s a Cameron paperback, you know in advance it’s going to be well-written, tightly-plotted, and entertaining as hell.

Our narrator is Lt. Frank Talbot, a Detective with the Nevada Highway Patrol. Talbot is called to a Las Vegas auto wrecking yard where the corpse of a young woman is found stuffed into the forward trunk of an abandoned Volkswagen Beetle. The first order of business is identifying the victim - no small task because of her decomposition and the fact that her fingers and teeth had been removed and her face smashed to bits. The best lead is that her beautiful head of red hair was still in tact.

Things quickly get personal for Talbot when his ex-girlfriend surfaces claiming that a female skip-tracer she knows with fiery red hair has recently come up missing. This investigative path brings Talbot inside the world of professional skip-tracers and the insider’s view into that industry was fascinating to the uninitiated reader. But is this missing skip-tracer the same person as the redhead in the trunk?

The reader never really gets to know Talbot much as a person. He’s a reliable narrator and a fantastic police detective, but he is not given much of a personality outside of his ultra-competent investigative skills. As Talbot follows clues in a pretty straightforward homicide investigation, it becomes clear that he’s on the trail of an honest-to-goodness psychopath working in the seamy underbelly of Las Vegas casino life. The plot twists and turns making for a wild ride, and Cameron’s take on hardboiled detective narration is top-notch throughout the paperback.

I suspect that Cameron may have wanted to bring Lt. Talbot back more for additional novels, but “File on a Missing Redhead” likely wasn’t a gangbusters hit, relegating it to just another late-period Fawcett Gold Medal stand-alone paperback original. That’s a shame because it’s a fantastic police procedural packed with many interesting factoids - a rare mystery where you’ll walk away having learned a thing or two - right up to the mystery’s twisty resolution.

More unfortunately, this superb novel has not been reprinted or digitized since it’s 1968 release, so you’ll have to play detective yourself to track down a used copy. It’s worth the hunt as this one’s a total winner. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Hunter #01 - "Scavenger Kill"

Ralph Hayes was extremely active in the 1970s, enterprising a multitude of action adventure series' including 'Stoner', 'Buffalo Hunter', 'Agent for Cominsec' and 'Check Force'. The prolific author contributed to the 'Killmaster' series, penning eight novels under the Nick Carter name. While little is known about Hayes, his passion for traveling is conveyed in his writing. Often his books are international endeavors, capturing the full spectrum of the story-line with multiple locations and characters. That extensive storytelling is presented in 'The Hunter' series, debuting with “Scavenger Kill” in 1975 (Leisure).

Hayes introduces John Yard, the obligatory Vietnam war veteran. As a Green Beret, Yard “knew more ways to kill a man than he cared to remember”. He abandoned the Army, going AWOL after losing the cause altogether. My suspicion is that his immense inheritance contributed to his decision to ditch and run. With a deceased uncle's fortune, Yard sets up a travel company in New York that cleverly sends rich Caucasians to Africa to hunt big game. This fuels the hunter's manhood, but also allows Yard two hands in the money-jar; the left for the travel agency and the right as the hunting guide. It's in Africa that our story begins.

Yard is leading a lion hunt with an arrogant, inexperienced sportsman that can't complete the kill. After wounding the lion, it's up to Yard to enter dense foliage and finish off the hunter's deficiency. This is an important lesson for the hunter as well as the reader. This scene plays an important role in the book's thundering finale. After the hunt, Hayes receives word that his former Army buddy, Joe Algers, has experienced a horrifying sequence of events in New York. 

Chapter Two explains the nightmarish misfortune of the Algers family. Weeks after giving birth, Holly and Joe realize the child is a hairy mutant that may not have brain activity. In what amounts to a horror novel, Holly receives confirmation from the doctor, then drowns the baby in a bath and jumps to her death. The cause for these events is a medication called Moricidin manufactured by Maurice Pharmaceuticals. Despite warning signs, the medication was still on the market and the end-result of its dosage is creating mutant babies. The owner of the company is an obese, vile villain named Maurice Lavalle. 

With plot and villain in hand, Yard and his African police-friend Moses seek the whereabouts of Lavalle. The book is presented in grand scale, scouring places like London, New York, Nairobi and Canada for clues and contacts. While not overly erotic or graphic, there are two brief sex-scenes as Yard goes “undercover” with one of Lavalle's secretaries. Often Moses follows one lead while Yard tails another – on a different continent. The two have a number of physical confrontations on their globe-trotting odyssey, culminating in explosive gun-play at a high-rise before wrapping during an action-packed river firefight. It's these final scenes that run full-circle to the book's beginnings, proving Yard, while hunting big-game, was seemingly destined to become this vigilante.

Hayes would follow this debut with four additional series installments. Yard is often teaming with Moses in the series, righting the wrongs of 70s society while still being prominent in 2018. The blunt writing style, frequent action and unyielding protagonist makes 'The Hunter' debut a prized trophy.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Night for Screaming

Harry Whittington’s “A Night for Screaming” is a 1960 fugitive-on-the-run story told by Mitch Walker - an innocent man accused of murder - who is dodging the law and finds himself broke and hungry in a small Kansas town after being booted from a freight train the night before.

The local redneck fuzz is less of a concern to Mitch than psychotic Police Detective Fred Palmer who has been pursuing Mitch for the murder. Palmer is a fantastic character - a brilliant and brutal cop who can adeptly quarterback the pursuit, arrest, torturous interrogation, and conviction of any fugitive. When Detective Palmer arrives in Kansas to join the hunt, it’s Mitch’s worst nightmare.

Mitch takes refuge as a migrant worker on the mega-farm outside of town. The farm is staffed by hourly workers as well as forced labor consisting of local prisoners from the county. The owner of the farm is an enigmatic and fascinating character with a lusty and unstable wife who is always looking for a romp with the help.

The less you know about what goes on at the Great Plains Empire Farm, the better. This is a helluva story, and I’m not going to ruin it for you here. Suffice it to say that this one will keep you turning the pages long after you should be attending to your other human needs. Whittington wrote compelling books, and this is among his best. Today’s authors could learn a lot from Whittington’s knack for plotting a tightly-wound, fat-free story. The action in this novel is propulsive and starts from page one, and the unfolding events are never predictable. I read a lot of this stuff, and I never knew exactly where things were headed in this one.

In the beginning of the Stark House Noir Classics re-release of “A Night for Screaming,” there is a helpful bibliography of Whittington’s novels and the numbers are staggering. The Florida native wrote over 170 books between the years 1946 and 1988 making him the “King of the Paperbacks” during an important era of American literature. Stark House’s re-packaging of this classic also includes Whittington’s “Any Woman He Wanted” and an informative introduction by David Wilson. Highly recommended. Purchase a copy here.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

TNT #01 - TNT

'TNT' debuted in 1985 in the US via Charter Books. It ran seven volumes in the US, but the book's origin is in France where the idea ran for an additional two installments. In fact, this book was originally released there as early as 1978 (under “Les Sept Cercles”). Author Doug Masters is actually Pierr Rey and Loup Durand, and this US edition was translated by Victoria Reiter. Regardless of who developed it and country of origin, this book is absolutely a steaming turd. In fact, there are three levels of really horrendous turd fiction that might better explain where 'TNT' lies:

The most abysmal, senseless garbage is the top tier – 'Roadblaster'. 

The middle is a guaranteed turd but could have an enjoyable chapter. It is best represented by the series 'Phoenix'. 

The barely manageable level is 'Swampmaster'.

'TNT' is on the “Phoenix” level of underwear skid marks.

Anthony Nicholas Twin is TNT (call him Tony and it works). While we don't know how he became wealthy...he just is. The author takes great liberty with Marvel Comics and the early 1950's atomic frenzy that fueled pop culture at the time. TNT, being this rich reporter, globe hops to a barren island to photograph an atomic bombing. Miraculously, he hides behind a cement slab and survives the bombing...because concrete will definitely protect against 15 kilotons of TNT. Ask the Japanese. Because he was exposed to radiation, he becomes super-powered like Peter Parker, the Fantastic Four and Hulk. His new superpowers allow him to see in the dark, have Spidey-Sense and the ability to withstand an erection for days. That's the most important weapon...the woody. If the normal man has an erection for more than four hours, the commercials advise us to consult medical help. TNT just keeps on piledriving – so much that he brings one woman to orgasm 15 times. But, more on that later.

TNT is taken to some secluded military hospital where he lies in a coma only to awaken and t-bone the tending nurse. While we never read one single line of TNT's thoughts, we get the idea that he really has no idea who or where he is. He just mentions the term “October”, which we later learn is the name of his mentally challenged daughter. The baddie is Arnold Bennedict (get it?), a commander of some undisclosed military branch that wants to use TNT for secret missions. The first assignment? Break out of the hospital and escape. 

The middle has TNT align with some strange transcending Apaches in Mexico. There's a female character called Mercedes that makes books of human skin, enjoys lavish parties and plays with little boys using bobby pins. The author has no idea why, only that he has TNT jackhammer Mercedes until she begs for the orgasms to stop (before she dies from too many of them). Later, TNT is moved to some European castle where the military has taken October hostage. It is odd, because TNT can interact and walk with her hand in hand...but can't escape? There's a promise that the military can “heal” her, but none of it makes any sense...it doesn't have to. The authors had no idea anyone was reading this trash. TNT is asked to penetrate a compound and kill a man who can make vehicles run on water. Really?? 

Once inside he finds that this is all “The Running Man” game where levels are presented as wacky win or die routines. It is utterly absurd. He teams with a few other chosen representatives and penetrates the compound only to find there will be seven circles for TNT to win, each one consisting of cumbersome traps like insects, rotting corpses, razor blades, electricity and poisonous gas. However, the wildest part is that TNT must bring caged women to orgasm in order to advance to the next level. This tests his enormous, long-lasting erection and pushes him to his sexual peaks. My God, the horror.

At the end of the day, I'm never reading another 'TNT' novel. I made that promise with David Alexander's 'Phoenix' and I'm doing it here. I would have to contemplate the sanity of anyone holding this in high regard as a men's action-adventure entry. It is horribly written, with characters that serve no purpose or reason to exist. TNT becomes a shallow character because the reader is offered no insight on his condition or feelings. I just can't say enough bad things about this book. Stay away...for God's sake just stay away.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Secret Mission #15 - Haitian Vendetta

Don Smith’s “Secret Mission” paperback series spanned the decade between 1968 and 1978. The series wasn’t the cash cow for Award Books that “Nick Carter: Killmaster” was, but 21 installments by the same author certainly wasn’t a business failure. It’s clear that Award Books was trying to steal some of Killmaster’s shine as the front cover blurb promises, “A razor-sharp thriller from the publishers of the Nick Carter series!” while the back cover touts, “Violence and suspense to rival Nick Carter!”

The “Secret Mission” series hero - and narrator - is Phil Sherman, a resourceful international businessman who takes on assignments in foreign lands for the CIA. Nearly every book is titled for the name of the nation where the majority of the adventure takes place. As the series order doesn’t matter much, choosing which book to read based on one’s interest in the host country seems like a good system to me. So this time around, we go to Haiti.

In the later books of the series, including 1973’s “Haitian Vendetta,” Sherman is now an employee of the CIA and no longer an independent contractor. When we join Sherman, he is en route to Haiti to investigate a member of the Haitian Secret Police who may be planning a Cuba-supported coup. Sherman’s marching orders are to prevent the insurrection without shedding any blood. Sherman’s cover is that of an international business consultant scouting locations for corporate outsourcing of unskilled labor.

It doesn’t take long before Sherman is intercepted by the secret police who insist on saddling him with an interpreter (minder) even though Sherman speaks perfect French. It’s presented as a service that the new President-for-Life extends to visiting businessmen. The way that Sherman eventually shakes this tail was a pleasure to read. It’s also amusing that Sherman’s businessman cover fools no one on either side of this brewing conflict. Everyone just correctly assumes that he is CIA.

Another cool aspect of the story is Sherman’s Haitian CIA informant who provides our hero with the local flavor to help him complete his mission of political sabotage. Marcel’s sexy daughter - who may or may not be involved with voodoo - aspires to use Sherman as her personal sex toy. Humming in the background is the interesting cultural tug-of-war between the practitioners of Catholicism vs Voodoo, and the influence the Voodoo religion has over politics and power in Haiti.

At 184 big-font pages, “Haitian Vendetta” is a quick read. It was a cerebral spy story that never ventured into cartoonish territory (well, maybe once), nor was it dense or confusing like Robert Ludlum’s espionage fiction. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much action at all in the book for the first 130 pages. Sherman conducted a logical and compelling investigation to determine what, if any, insurrection plans were underway in Haiti, but the novel failed to live up to the promise that this paperback was “An adventure novel of violence and suspense to tie your nerves in knots!” I enjoyed the book, but my nerves remained unknotted for the majority of the reading experience.

The pace of the novel increases markedly over the last 50 pages, and it ends on a pretty exciting action set piece. I think for most readers sucked in by the inflated marketing blurbs and exiting cover illustration, the payoff is too little, too late. I can recommend this book - with reservations - because I love Sherman’s character and Smith’s writing, but this just isn’t a book for paperback adrenaline junkies.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Phony Hitman

Little is known about this little stand-alone crime novel “The Phony Hitman”. It was published in 1977 by the equally unknown author Joseph R. Pici, whose only other work seems to be “The Tennis Hustler”. The novel was released by Major Books, an unknown publisher to me until my acquisition of this book. According to Justin Marriott (“Hot Lead”, “Men of Violence”), this publisher may have been an imprint of Parliament, owned by artist Milton Luros, who also owned the Brandon House line at the time. Regardless of sporadic details regarding the book and author, what we now know is that “The Phony Hitman” is a really good 70s crime novel worthy of your time and efforts prowling those dusty shelves in dives, yard sales and flea markets. 

Tony Marks is a 34-year old ex-CIA assassin. He's recorded numerous kills in Saigon and Cambodia, and now lives as a remorseful retired vet working at a successful insurance company. To cope with his past, and the killing he did for the government, Tony runs a bizarre, yet interesting game – he does mock assassinations. The book's opening finds Tony entering a baseball stadium in New York with a disassembled rifle. From a concealed location in the left field bleachers, Tony “shoots” the Pope, who is performing a ceremony in front of fans and the flock. Tony writes it down in a book, a memento of how he could have killed the Pope if he wanted to. As we get further into the opening chapters, we learn that Tony has a massive book of fake assassinations ranging from movie stars to musical celebrities. No one else knows his secret game except his love interest Marylou, who somehow gets off on the fact that Tony can kill if he wants to. Tony utilizes the game as a way to redeem himself, not taking lives in exchange for the ones that he killed. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Soon, Tony begins to see some strongmen following him, and runs into one at an author "assassination" at a nearby college. They make Tony attend a meeting with local mobster Rico Petrello, who forcefully explains that Tony now works for him. He offers Tony a deal – he will let him live as long as he accepts this new position and a $100,000 check to kill a rival mobster named Anson Hawks. If Tony refuses, he will be hunted and killed by the Mob. If he partakes, he will need to accumulate knowledge and intel on Hawks, a media mogul who is fortified in a tower by goons, guards and guns. Did I mention he is surrounded by 24-hour surveillance and never leaves the tower? Tony realizes the job is nearly impossible, but must attempt this real assassination or die a gruesome death at the hands of Petrello.

“The Phony Hitman” moves at an intense pace and presents a really good narrative to explore. The reader is in Tony's shoes and contemplating how to survive the ordeal. The author, while not the best dialogue writer, creates some really intriguing situations and introduces some likable characters that provide an adequate dynamic to the propelling, central story. There's plenty of action, both with Tony attempting the break-in but also Petrello's enforcers roughing up Tony's friends as an intimidation factor. All of these elements really contribute to a fantastic story that has shades of “Quarry” without Collins' staggering talents and sense of humor. I think most fans of the genre will find “The Phony Hitman” is a genuine gem. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Frenzy

James O. Causey got his start in the 1940s writing short stories for “Weird Tales” and “Detective Story Magazine.” As the pulps died off, he became a highly-regarded, if not well-known, author of short, hardboiled crime novels. Stark House has compiled three of Causey’s classics into one volume for 21st Century audiences. The new trade paperback includes “The Baby Doll Murderers,” “Killer Take All,” and “Frenzy” as well as an introduction by Nicholas Litchfield.

Because I love a good con-man story, I pounced on “Frenzy” to read and review here. It’s important to note that Causey’s 1960 paperback “Frenzy” was not the basis of the 1972 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. Hitchcock adapted the unrelated 1966 book “Frenzy” by Arthur La Bern for his film.

Our narrator is Norman Sands, a two-bit con-artist and card cheat, who finds himself in hot water after a plan to steal a Casino boss’ girl and money fails spectacularly. Needing to lay low, Norman winds up in his childhood hometown where he becomes reacquainted with his struggling brother, Matt, who is convinced their crappy hometown is about to become an oil-rich boomtown. For his part, Matt is excited to have Norman back to be his business partner in a dicey real estate and oil drilling venture, and Norman quickly converts Matt’s plan into a series of profitable bunco schemes.

Growing up, Matt was always the “good son” who was shooting for honor roll while Norman was shooting pool. Early in the novel Norman tells us his teenage origin story, and it’s a doozy, rivaling the youthful flashback from Dan Marlowe’s “The Name of the Game is Death.” The first few chapters of “Frenzy” were very promising, but then things fizzled out quite a bit. 

Once Norman makes it home, the scams depicted in “Frenzy” - and there are many - mostly involve oil drilling rights, land speculation, and municipal contact fraud. The schemes get a little complex and hard to follow, and the morass of local political corruption that sweeps up the brothers wasn’t always an exciting read. Moreover, the plot was all over the place - the ups and downs and scams and schemes made for an exhausting and meandering read.

Despite problems of plot and pacing, Causey’s hardboiled, first-person prose is among the best. For example, His descriptions of acts of violence are vivid while also being matter-of-fact. Taking a professional beating in the groin, ribs, and kidneys is just an occupational hazard in this world, and those scenes were vivid as hell.

Despite some great writing and a smattering of amazing scenes, it’s hard to give “Frenzy” a full-throated recommendation. The plot was just too messy to gel into a coherent storyline. However, I’m not giving up on this author. I read enough great stuff to see that he was a unique noir talent. This one just wasn’t his masterpiece.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Terminator #02 - Silicon Valley Slaughter

Dennis Rodriguez, writing as John Quinn, produced a six-book series in the 80s called 'The Terminator'. With fonts, layouts and story design, it attempted to capitalize on Pinnacle's success with the superior 'The Executioner'. Whether it was successful or not remains to be seen, but judging from its limited run, I assume Rodriguez and 'The Terminator' met a bitter end.

The second entry in the series, “Silicon Valley Slaughter”, was released in 1983 and is set a few months after the debut events. Former CIA hitman Rod Gavin is now laying low, unemployed and living off of his savings in rural Colorado. He's still close friends with Dorn, an older mechanic colleague that assisted Gavin in the prior novel. Also Duffy, the NSA operative from the debut, once again aligns with Gavin to right a few wrongs – namely the kidnapping of Duffy's niece by the dastardly Yakuza, otherwise known as the Japanese mafia. 

The book opens with a killer named Shigata killing off the paid surveillance on Susan Billings, Duffy's niece and master computer programmer. We learn that both Shigata and another killer named Scanlon work for Clayton Edwards, a technology mogul who has a two-part plan to become wealthy, travel abroad and rape children. First, he has Billings kidnapped and her new coding on an encryption software will be sold to the highest global bidder. Second, he will then sell Billings to the Japanese for the sex slave trafficing. The problem is that Duffy, on a random visit to Billings, stumbles on the kidnapping taking place. Shigata and Scanlon rough up Duffy and leave him for dead – but not dead. Big mistake.

Gavin is now on the scene to find out what happened to Duffy and where Billings is being held. The action comes in waves beginning with Gavin throwing Edwards' thugs out of a hospital window, then running and gunning through an arcade to find where Billings is at. There's a partnership with Dorn that isn't necessarily expanded on, but provides a decent side-step to the action. There's an interesting scene where Edwards is controlling a robot aimed at stopping Gavin in a hallway...but the author drops the ball and that enjoyable conflict never comes to fruition. Oddly, for Gavin to be this impressive ex-CIA hitman, he manages to screw up repeatedly and eventually gets caught. Instead of a quick execution, the thugs just drive Gavin around in a van and eventually the tables are turned. 

While nowhere near as good as the series debut, “Silicon Valley Slaughter” is an enjoyable, par for the course 80s action novel. It's nothing special, but certainly can hold its own in the crowded vigilante market. I've read zillions of these things and at this point, I would pick up the next series entry with no qualms. 'The Terminator' is up there with the mid-era Bolans, Able Team, Phoenix Force, etc. Good guy vs baddies to prevent rape and ruin. I'll take it any day and twice on Tuesday.

Note - The cover is by Bruce Minney, a talented artist who contributed immensely to Men's Action & Adventure magazines. Paperback Warrior friend Bob Deis conducted an interview with Minney in 2011: https://bit.ly/2K2rCEE.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Hill Girl

In 1951, paperback original novels were still in their infancy as a medium and Fawcett Gold Medal was leading the charge by getting these short works of genre fiction into the hands of readers hungry for post-pulp entertainment. This was also the year that the reading public was introduced to the writing of Charles Williams with the release of his debut novel, “Hill Girl.”

“Hill Girl” is the story of 22 year-old Bob Crane’s return home to an isolated mountain community after a multi-year absence driven by his failed career as a college football lineman and later a losing prizefighter. After the death of his abusive father, Bob’s wild and irresponsible brother, Lee, inherited the family’s house in town, and Bob got the family’s farm in the “bottoms” between the mountains. Bob’s narration explains that the people outside of town “live off in the bottoms and rarely meet people other than the neighbors they have known all their lives.”

Before Bob left home, Angelina was a gangly teen living with her father in the rural hills. In his absence, Angelina somehow grew into a curvy sexpot, and Bob’s married brother has now become infatuated with the backwoods babe. Meanwhile, Angelina’s father is a whiskey bootlegging hillbilly who is insanely protective of his sheltered daughter.

Although the paperback is titled “Hill Girl,” it’s not the lusty femme fatale crime novel I was expecting. Instead, Williams wrote a short, literary novel about the complicated relationship between two brothers who come from a dysfunctional family dynamic and the Hill Girl who enters and further complicates their lives.

Williams is a far better writer than most of his cohorts in the Fawcett Gold Medal stable, and this is in full-effect in “Hill Girl.” The book is also smattered with several laugh-out-loud lines of dialogue. It’s hard to write in the voice of a hilarious protagonist if the author isn’t a funny guy himself, and I can only assume that Willams was a man filled with humor in life. Williams also knew his was around tragedy as also seen in this short paperback.

This was a fantastic book, but it wasn’t an adventure novel, a crime novel, or a mystery. There was also very little “action” compared to a typical novel covered here. The paperback was originally released before Williams began writing the maritime noir books that became his bread and butter. Instead, “Hill Girl” presents us with a fascinating and well-written family melodrama that is part romance and part coming-of-age tale. I can give this novel the highest endorsement without any reservations, but you just need to know what you’re getting. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Johnny Killain #01 - Doorway to Death

Before reaching the highest echelon with his 'Earl Drake' series of the 60s and 70s, Marlowe began his career with another series – 'Johnny Killain'. The series and author debut, “Doorway to Death”, was released by Avon in 1957. It was followed by four more titles over the course of  a two year period, all starring hotel strongman/detective Johnny Killain. 

Killain works the night shift at the Hotel Duarte in New York City. We learn about halfway through the book that Killain worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the early version of what we now call the CIA. Along with the hotel's owner, Willie Martin, the two scoured Europe in WWII working various espionage and wartime assignments. Later, the two joined a Partisan group working in France, Italy and Spain. After, Willie retired and invested in the Hotel Duarte and hired Killain to be the strongman of the place as a favor for pulling his ass out of the fire on missions. Aside from that, Marlowe really doesn't provide many other details about Killain or his past.

With muscles, good looks and a sense of mystery...the man rarely sleeps alone. His main squeeze is the hotel's switchboard operator, Sally. She's a loveable, innocent character who apparently lives to serve Killain at the hotel. Frequently she's behind the calls, listening for details and danger and reporting it to Killain. While not as strong or cunning, in some ways she's the predecessor for Earl Drake's love interest Hazel. This relationship is imperative because Killain can't be everywhere at once, and even the most valiant hero needs an ally. 


The narrative explores criminal activity that is encroaching on the hotel. In one remarkable scene, Killain is confronted in an elevator by two pimps wanting to run goods through the business. They strong-arm Killain into a close quarters fight in the cab. He dumps them in an alleyway, only to receive more threats and violence. After being blindsided by a couple of enforcers, Killain begins to unravel who's behind the intrusion and how the hotel's owner and guests factor into the deal. While Killain is disposing of the threats and refusing the bribes, the police offer a deal – join their cause and work as an informant. Killain refuses, but soon finds assistance from Lieutenant Dameron, a character that I hope will return in future books. 

With corpses in the kitchen and freezer, Killain eventually goes from bouncer to detective, prowling around hallways and rooms, staking out various suspects and piecing together clues to determine what sort of transaction is going down. It's this part of the narrative where the book excels. The action is sparse but really well written. It doesn't reach the heights of the 'Earl Drake' books, but most will agree this series is inferior to those books. The cast of characters are diverse and aren't all together needy or reliant on Killain. The character, coupled with Sally, is very enjoyable and provides just enough mystery to keep it intriguing. 

“Doorway to Death” is a compelling story brought to life by a true master of the genre. I continue to be in awe of Marlowe.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter

After the pulp magazines disappeared, they were largely replaced by a more gritty and realistic magazine genre collectively known as Men’s Adventure Magazines (MAMs). These glossy, color publications featured stories and artwork by the same people servicing the men’s paperback original market in the 1950s and 1960s. Magazines like “Adventure” and “Real Men” were filled with colorful illustrations and stories designed to appeal to working class men returning home from the wars of the Mid-20th Century.

The Men’s Adventure Library Journal is a labor of love for Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle with a mission of preserving the salacious stories and art from the MAMs in beautiful-themed compilations that both entertain and put the stories in some historical context. Their latest release is “Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter,” and it’s a total pleasure to read and own.

One of the conceits in MAMs is the fictional story presented as non-fiction, and several of the Cuba stories in this volume fall into that category. “Brotherhood of the Scar” is a fictional story from a 1959 issue of “Adventures for Men” by Jack Barrows that falsely claims to be “an eye-witness story of an ex-GI who was brutally tortured by Batista’s savage Gestapo and lived to join the secret underground army that swore vengeance at any price.” The story itself is a 33-page torturous bloodbath that will make fans of the men’s adventure series paperbacks of the 1970s and 1980s feel right at home.

Another highlight was “Kiss the Skull of Death My Beautiful Muchacha” allegedly by Linda Rogers as told to Jim McDonald (actually a work of complete fiction by McDonald). The story originally appeared in the September 1965 issue of “New Man” with graphic cheesecake art by the great Norman Saunders lovingly reproduced in this anthology. The soft-core sex opening grabs the reader as the American female nightclub singer is ravished by her Cuban lover during Fidel’s revolution. One thing leads to another and our heroine is captured and turned over to “El Toro” for torture and interrogation. This is exciting and lurid stuff for men of any era. 

The stories collected and preserved here were an important part of America’s literary history and the Men’s Adventure Library Journal guys are doing important work keeping this stuff available. Arguably, the violent and sexy art of this genre was just as historically significant as the stories themselves. Fortunately, the editors of “Cuba” have reproduced scads of cover art and interior illustrations to further give the stories further context and provide a feast for the reader’s eyes.

More information about the MAMs can be found at the website menspulpmags.com, and all of the themed reprint books compiled thus far can be bought on Amazon. In the meantime, “Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter” is an essential anthology for fans of sexy, blood-on-the-knuckles fiction and illustration art. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Terror in the Town

Edward S. Aarons released “Terror in the Town” in 1947, just two years after finishing his service in the US Coast Guard and nine years from his debut novel “Death in a Lighthouse”. While known prominently for his long-running espionage series 'Assignment', typically called 'Sam Durell', Aarons wrote nearly 30 mystery and thriller novels under the pseudonym Edward Ronns (among others) and his own. “Terror in the Town” utilizes Aarons' early experience with those genres to create a suspenseful Gothic thriller that shapes up as your typical whodunit.

A sleepy seaside town in the northeastern US sets the tone and pace of the novel. I hesitate to use the term “Gothic”, but it does seem to fit with the narrative's isolation and atmosphere – windswept dark streets, shadowed manors, suicide cliffs and robust rooms cast in deep shadow. The town has it's “terror” to contend with – a strangler on the loose knocking off citizens. Young and beautiful Verity is the import, new to the town and married to the newspaper owner Jess. Early on she learns that an escaped inmate from the local asylum, Manuel, may be on the loose and the killer behind the most recent murder. As the book plods along, more murders occur and Verity begins suspecting her own husband as the killer.

“Terror in the Town” left me lethargic in places, counting down pages until the murderer is revealed. There's a little backstory regarding a famed ship, a family secret and some lost diamonds, and that aspect might be just enough to lure in the mystery or action genre fans. For me, I was planning on enjoying an early slasher entry. It is, but just not a very exciting one. The seaside town harboring secrets with a killer on the loose is strong, but Aarons in his early development just boggles it all down to a lot of nonsense. Ultimately, the cover is far better than the book.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Odds Against Tomorrow

In addition to writing scripts for the TV shows “Kojak” and “Adam 12,” William McGivern also authored some highly-regarded crime fiction in the 1950s. I asked around and learned that his best noir novel is arguably 1957’s “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

The book is a classic heist thriller with an interpersonal twist. Earl Slater is a Texas ex-con who reluctantly joins a four-man crew planning a bank robbery with an estimated take of $200,000. The catch is that the outfit’s fourth man is an affable black guy named John Ingram (played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film adaptation), and Slater is more than a bit of a racist. Blame it on his humble, white-trash roots. Can Earl set aside his prejudices for the greater good of The Plan?

The man with the plan for this bank job is ex-cop-turned-crook, Dave Burke, and he’s thought of everything. He’s the consummate professional of the group. All he’s got to do is convince the crew to stick to the foolproof plan and convince Slater to set his bigotry aside for the duration of the job. If you’ve ever read a heist novel, you can guess that things go sideways and that no plan is truly foolproof.

For his part, McGivern does a fantastic job of introducing us to the key members of the heist crew, their backgrounds, and motivations. The flashbacks and exposition happens fast and never diminishes the excitement of the planning, the heist, and the getaway. The scenes depicting the canny local sheriff who senses that trouble is brewing are also terrific and really bring the “will they get away with it?” pot to a rolling boil. Some of the post-heist sequences dragged a bit, but the conclusion landed on solid ground.

Fans of heist paperbacks would rightly cite Lionel White and Richard Stark as the high-water marks in the genre. “Odds Against Tomorrow” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it’s a worthwhile effort and a fun ride. Recommended.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Terminator #01 - Mercenary Kill

According to Bradley Mengel's resourceful “Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction”, author John Quinn is a pseudonym for Dennis Rodriguez. Rodriguez worked with Ed Wood Jr. at Pendulum Press and served as editor for XXX mags. Other than the novel “Pachuco”, I can't locate any other titles that Rodriguez wrote. Further, it's odd that his debut of the six-book series 'The Terminator' doesn't feature anything that would connect him to his “day job” work as porn editor. No explicit hanky-panky in “Mercenary Kill”. Fans of the genre may require that stuff...but I've never needed it. 

Protagonist Rod Gavin was a Marine in Vietnam and now works assignments as an assassin for the CIA. His contract with Langley, under supervisor Chet Barnes, requires eight hits before he can either retire or opt into another military branch. After departing his rural home in High Card, Colorado, he receives some intel regading his eighth and last assignment – kill Jorge de Leon, a supposed rogue trooper under command of Colonel Rojas in Costa Bella. What the reader knows that Gavin doesn't is that de Leon hasn't gone rogue, instead he's an inside man sent by the US President to spy on Costa Bella's government and their treatment of the civilian uprising. So, why is the CIA interested in killing a US operative? Because Barnes and Rojas are connected on a backdoor deal that funnels drugs and money into the US. Unfortunately, de Leon is an unwanted accessory and needs to be removed. 

Gavin, none the wiser, enters this country and kills de Leon...but has doubts on what exactly is happening and if he's been crossed up by Barnes. Soon, Gavin not only has Colonel Rojas and his militants on his back trail, he must also contend with escaping the country without the aid of the US. This pushes him into propelling firefights with Costa Bella's army and the armed rebellion. Teaming with Duffy, Gavin eventually makes it to the US only to discover a contract on his head from Mob enforcers working for Barnes. 

I have to wonder how many casual readers picked these titles up thinking they were 'The Executioner'? Published by Pinnacle in 1982, the font and layout is identical with artwork created by Bolan mainstay Gil Cohen. In terms of quality, I'm shocked that Rodriguez didn't write more novels. “Mercenary Kill” offers a plethora of gunfights and espionage while cruising at a high-octane pace. At the typical 180-pages, there is a lot of events to unpack for the reader. The skeleton is this character, Rod Gavin. I really like him and love the fact that throughout this book his eyes are on the prize – finish the kill, end the career, retire to peaceful tranquility in the Colorado mountains. In a way, Gavin is a human character that we can all relate to. I really enjoyed this book and will be actively searching for more of the series out in the wild.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

John Gail #03 - The Ambassador's Plot

It would be difficult to overstate how much I enjoyed the first two books in the 'John Gail' series of British espionage paperbacks by Stephen Frances, so I was beside myself with excitement to begin book three. The paperback was originally released in the U.K. as “The Sad and Tender Flesh” and then in America by Award Books (home of Nick Carter: Killmaster) as “The Ambassador’s Plot.”

The setup for the series is pretty simple: John Gail was an unremarkable everyman who answered a mysterious job posting and found himself working as an operative for a non-governmental spy agency funded by a cabal of benevolent millionaires. Gail is an imperfect and amateur spy who makes a lot of mistakes. The first two books were sexy thrillers peppered with scenes of shocking torture and violence bringing about awful outcomes for the women with whom Gail developed romantic relationships. The dreadful things that happen to women in these books cannot be understated, and they significantly raise the stakes for our hero in these international adventures.

“The Ambassador’s Plot” was released in 1970 - five years after the first installment in the series - and we find Gail in Paris recovering from the events of Book 2 (This is a series best read in order). His controller comes to visit with an unusual assignment: embarrass and discredit a British ambassador to France who has gone rogue and is taking independent actions that could spark a bloody Arab war. The plan is for Gail to photograph the ambassador having sex with a teenage girl in hopes of blackmailing him into resigning his governmental position before the ambitious ambassador can mount a political rise that might produce the next Hitler.

The catch is that Gail is responsible for the care and feeding of plucky 15 year-old Lilly, the teenage temptress recruited for the seduction job. The interaction between Gail and Lilly combined with the horror John feels for orchestrating a sex sting involving a teen is pure gold. Their partnership on this assignment eventually catapults them into a “couple on the run” plot peppered with extreme violence throughout the 160 page paperback.

It wouldn’t be a “John Gail Spy Chiller” if it didn’t have at least one brutal, stomach-churning torture scene, and this novel has a handful. While these scenes are all in service of the plot, you’ll still need a strong constitution to get through the most gory of them. Consider yourself warned.

When he was writing bawdy hard-boiled crime novels as Hank Janson, Stephen Frances sold upwards of 10 million copies. The John Gail books were substantially less commercially successful, but it really is a stellar series that holds up nearly 50 years later with no diminishing returns in this third installment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Earl Drake #04 - Flashpoint

1970's “Flashpoint” is the fourth novel in Dan J. Marlowe's 'Earl Drake' series. It's in the series minority as only one of three books in the 11-book run not to adopt the title of “Operation” something or another (although the reprinted Prologue version adds "Operation"). The book's predecessor was “Operation Fireball” and it's successor is “Operation Breakpoint”. While most Marlowe fans will look to the early series as the author's best work (“The Name of the Game is Death”, “One Endless Hour”), the heist-gone-spy formula is still enjoyable knowing it's a decline in quality compared to those genre classics. I'm probably in it for the long run just because I enjoy the Drake character so much and coupled with Marlowe's gift of storytelling...well there aren't many negatives to the series thus far.

In “Flashpoint”, Drake boards a plane in New York headed to Las Vegas. His girlfriend, series mainstay Hazel, has asked that he transport $75K and deliver it in person to an unknown individual. None of this is important, because the plane is hijacked in flight by Turks. They kill the jews, stewardess and pilot, take all the cash and valuables from the passengers (including the 75K) and force the plane down in a stretch of rural desert. Drake, pulling his .38 (it was a flight of hardmen that I couldn't quite figure out), shoots one of the hijackers but the rest escape. Drake heads back to Hazel's ranch and explains how he lost the cash.

Soon, Drake's old pal Karl Erikson shows up at the ranch. In the prior book, Erikson was an undercover operative that swayed Drake into assisting him in stealing money from Cuba. Drake didn't realize until the end that it was a government job and that Erikson was on the up and up. To show his appreciation, Erikson agreed to sort of wipe the slate clean on Drake's criminal record and keep law enforcement off of his back trail. In a threatening way, Erikson asks that Drake join him on a hunt for the hijacker given he's the only passenger on board that really got a good look at the gunmen.

From here, the show takes off to New York City where Erikson puts Drake on the trail of the hijacking coordinator, a Middle-Easterner who is running drugs in the city for profits that go back home to train terrorists to fight Israel. 1970. Nothing ever changes. Drake scouts a bar for a number of days and eventually finds the money runner, a horse-hooked beauty that Drake boinks on three occasions. With her help, Drake infiltrates the network and does what he does best – the old bank heist routine.

Marlowe gives us a great deal to snack on with “Flashpoint”. He knows his audience and he puts Drake into the heist bit to please the readers. As an added bonus, there's the safe cracking adventure and a unique scene where an envelope's contents must be captured without breaking the glued seal. Fascinating. The author also gives us a pitiful, doped up flower child that Drake attempts to rehabilitate. The negative is the slow build in the bar scenes, the lengthy stake-out that even has Drake wondering if he should just walk away out of boredom. There's also really odd scenes where Drake is peeping on a nude-shoot that takes place next to Erikson's office. Later, he comes back with a camera and films a covert porn scene from a janitor closet. These scenes don't necessarily add anything to the narrative and seem like filler to get the book to the required 180-page objective. 

“Flashpoint” is a fine 'Earl Drake' entry, slightly better than “Operation Fireball” with an ode to what makes this series and character great – bank heists, safe cracking, moving money and violence. I hope to see more Hazel next time though.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Tonto Woman

I have a confession to make: I’ve always thought the crime novels of Elmore Leonard were total crap. They are filled with smarmy characters passing themselves off as “quirky” with cartoonish villains, garbage dialogue, and hack plots. They’re written with a self-assured prose that only a bestselling author can muster - a wealthy guy phoning it in with the knowledge that whatever garbage he squeezes out will be clogging airport bookstore shelves for generations.

No thanks for me.

Then there are Elmore Leonard’s Westerns.

Pure genius. Man, this guy is a true talent who knocks it out of the park every time. Leonard began writing Western stories for the pulps in the 1950s and continued quietly cranking out brilliant genre work well into the 1980s while making his living selling crappy crime novels to dimwits at the airport.

In 2004, HarperCollins released an essential collection called “The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.” The beautifully-packaged 500+ page volume contains an interview with Leonard and then 30 of his Western short stories spanning the length of his writing career. It would be hard to overstate how great this collection is. 

My favorite Leonard story collected in this volume is “The Tonto Woman.” It was also compiled in a smaller 1998 collection called “The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories” as well as a 1982 Western Writers of America anthology. But don’t be a cheapskate. Shell out the couple extra bucks for the big collection. You won’t regret it. 

“The Tonto Woman” tells the story of a roustabout, horse thief, and womanizer named Ruben Vega who spots a topless woman bathing at a water pump in the desert one day. He notices that the woman’s face is tattooed with strange lines marring her otherwise attractive features.

Ruben quickly learns that the woman is Mrs. Sarah Isham, and she was forcibly tattooed by Indians in the wild. Her wealthy husband sent her away to live in exile in the desert because he’s embarrassed of her looks. Ruben takes the time to befriend her, and a relationship of sorts develops.

It’s a sweet story with very human characters, some Old West violent tension, and a good bit of humor. Moreover, Leonard navigates this simple story with some great writing and a fantastic final line that will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Someone adapted “The Tonto Woman” into a 38-minute short film in 2008. Maybe I’ll seek it out, but nothing will replace the pure joy this short story provides. Essential reading. Highest recommendation.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Alone at Night

Author Marijane Meaker was also Ann Aldrich, M.E. Kerr, Mary James, M.J. Meaker and Laura Winston. However, the most popular pseudonym she donned was the Vin Packer one, which she used to pen nearly 20 novels between 1952-1966. The success of “Women's Barracks”, by author Tereska Torres, led to Meaker writing a great deal of lesbian fiction. Her highlight, “Spring Fire” (under Ann Aldrich) led to a big audience and an additional five books with lesbian themes. However, fans of the Gold Medal crime novels have an assortment of goodies to choose from including “Alone at Night”, originally published in 1963 and then reprinted by Stark House Press in 2005.

In the novel, we learn about the sleepy town of Cayuta. In it are two warring companies – Burr Manufacturing Company (BMC) and Leydecker Electric (LE). Slater Burr grew up in a poor household but worked hard his whole life. Eventually, he was able to take over the company he worked at, Stewart, and transform it into BMC. He earned wealth and power, but due to a decline in productivity he's on the outs. His competitor is Kenneth Leydecker, owner of LE who has ties to Slater – Kenneth's father employed Slater's father back in the day. In fact, he stole his ideas for his own gain, building a fortune for himself while the Burrs were penniless. Thus, the two companies are at odds for real estate, growth and personnel. 

This is a crime novel, so where's the crime? In prior events, we learn that Slater and his former wife Carrie were having issues and that Slater cheated on her with his current wife Jen. Carrie is killed in a drunk driving accident caused by Buzzy Cloward, but there's a mystery there on how this came to be and if Buzzy was really the man behind the wheel. Regardless, Buzzy is sentenced to eight years in prison and returns to Cayuta in the books opening chapters. Along with the immense back story on the Burr/Leydecker feud we get the telling of Buzzy's life. Leydecker's daughter fell in love with Buzzy before Carrie's death despite her father's intense scolding. The rich Leydeckers don't mingle with the poor Clowards. But before the wedding, Buzzy and Carrie meet their doom and this is the end result of that fateful night eight years ago.

“Alone at Night” is a 150 page soap opera. It's who's cheating with who, where and how it relates to the other people who are in their own vicious love affairs. The central storyline is Buzzy piecing it all together, but he's dimwitted and needs to be coaxed into remembering events by the town's beer swilling bar hoppers. There's Jen and Burr's relationship, rocky as it is, and Jen starting to realize things aren't what they seem. There's tiny side stories regarding various characters that play pivotal roles in the book's eventual unveiling. Who killed Carrie? Will Buzzy remember? Is Burr a criminal? Why is Leydecker's daughter strange? The author asks a lot of her reader to remember it all...but I did with some notes and mental effort. 

It's an enjoyable read that doesn't shake the walls of the literary community. It's a small town mystery crime novel and for that...Vin Packer does alright. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Gail #02 - To Love and Yet to Die

When book one of the 'John Gail' spy series opened, Gail was a financially-ruined encyclopedia salesman who answered an ad and became a spy for a private consortium of benevolent millionaires operating a clandestine espionage agency. The opening of the second installment of the series from 1966 finds Gail in an entirely different position. He is now a wealthy man living on a secluded beach villa in Spain with two lusty girlfriends at his disposal. It’s a good life, and Gail has no desire to re-enter the world of espionage. He finds the whole enterprise unseemly - even if it did bring him wealth.

Unlike a lot of spy books of this era, it’s really helpful to read the first 'John Gail' paperback before diving into the second. There are some plot developments and characters with powerful scenes in book two that won’t make much sense unless you know Gail’s recent history. You won’t be completely lost, but it’s just a more fulfilling read with a little context.

Gail’s aspirations to live a life of sexy threesomes in the salty Spanish air are interrupted by a visitor from his clandestine agency in London. They need him for an assignment, and he must leave at once. When asking politely fails, the agency resorts to threats and blackmail to cajole Gail back to work. In London, Gail learns that the assignment involves a paper marriage to a woman he’s never met before followed by a period of keeping her safe from a malevolent group trying to harm her. Think of it as a witness protection program where the protector gets laid. There’s a rather sappy romance that develops between Gail and Diana, his new bride/protectee, and the whole time the reader is waiting for the other shoe to drop and the violent bloodbath to begin as it did in Gail’s first adventure.

Once again, the author does not disappoint. Diana knows a secret that makes her a target of the enemy’s intel service that she won’t even tell Gail (or the reader) until well into the novel. His efforts to keep her safe make for genuinely exciting reading and the violence escalates to some intense scenes of torture and brutality as the story progresses. Gail is an everyman reluctant hero who is put through a good bit of Hell leading up to the paperback’s climactic and satisfying ending.

Stephen Frances honed his chops in the 1940s and 1950s writing the 'Hank Jansen' thrillers, and the 'John Gail' books show a real knack for pacing and placing the hero in exciting situations. It’s crazy that the inferior 'Nick Carter' series was such a phenomenon while the nearly-perfect 'John Gail' books only lasted seven installments. As it was never reprinted, this Gail adventure installment may be a bit hard to find, but you won’t be disappointed with the story. Highly recommended.

Postscript:

Although this was a fantastic novel, the cover art is problematic. It seems to depict John Gail wearing white boxer shorts - probably with an erection - while ninja klansmen clad in white robes shoot him with arrows. I’m happy to report that this scene never happens in the book. All that said, I’d like to thank Award Books for ensuring my embarrassment every time someone glanced at what I was reading for the few days I was carrying around this abominably-packaged paperback.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Traveler #04 - To Kill a Shadow

D.B. Drumm (author John Shirley) continues his trek with 'Traveler' entry “To Kill a Shadow” (1984 Dell), the fourth volume of the 80s post-apocalyptic series. The book picks up in the early part of 2005 and finds our hero in California hunting his arch enemies The Black Rider and Major Vallone. Other genre series' will stick to more realistic plot schemes like forging for food and supplies, exploring the barren landscape or just fighting warring bandits. Shirley certainly injects those elements into this series, but has a lot of fun creating horrific mutants and monsters and placing them into the battle sequences to propel the action. “To Kill a Shadow” prominently displays all of the genetic freakshows and monstrosities we've come to love about Shirley's vivid “splatterpunk” style.  

Just nine pages into our narrative Traveler and his “meat wagon” (fortified van) go into battle against giant Cen-Cars. What is that? Well, think of the Greek mythos of Centaurs, those men with human torsos atop a horse body. Now, do the same thing but substitute a car in place of the horse. These Cen-Cars are running rampant all over California devouring humans and animals and utilizing them as fuel sources to propel their car bodies. Wow! In an exhilarating car chase Traveler battles the Cen-Cars and frees human capital from an abandoned diner. The freed prisoners accompany Traveler back to a religious compound ran by a faux Messiah named Brother John.

The middle of the story is typically a slow-burn with building characters and relationships, but Shirley keeps the pedal down and rolls right into more action. The fire fights increase between Brother John's followers/Traveler and the dastardly Glory Boys/The Black Rider (Major Vallone's soldiers). It's Shirley's show, which means that giant snakes with human heads are incorporated into the battle along with more Cen-Cars and an elephant-sized kitty cat. There's plenty of mind control, ESP, telekinesis and spiritual jargon mixed into the story...but again there's giant snakes, human cars and enormous cats to devour all of that nonsense. The author even attempts to humanize the typically immortal Traveler hero, this time keeping him blind for a large portion of the book. Additionally, Traveler takes on a needy child protegee and shows off some emotional depth.

The Vallone/Black Rider mythos may have ended with this installment. It's absorbed most of the first four books and I'm anxious to see if the series will focus on a new direction starting with book five. There's mention of Traveler heading back to Arizona to bed down with his Native American beauty Jan. Wherever Traveler and Shirley go...I'm sure there is some nightmarish ordeal for the reader to enjoy. Fun stories, enjoyable series, talented author – this is why we love the genre.