Friday, June 22, 2018

Last Ranger #10 - Is This the End?

Jan Stacy (using Craig Sargent) died from the AIDS virus in 1989. That same year, he finalized and released the 10th book in the 'Last Ranger' series, “Is This the End?”. I've said this before, but I really think the prior book, “The Damned Disciples”, was Stacy's own personal reflection on hospitals and drugs (which I'm thinking was a majority of his 1988-1989) period. In that book, an entire town is drugged out of their minds and forced to do nasty things they otherwise would never do. So, with this last book and it's title, one has to believe this is the author's personal question. Is This the End? Yes, sadly for Stacy it was. 

The book picks up a couple of days after events in “The Damned Disciples”. Martin Stone is weary, beaten and starving, making his way across dusty Texas on his Harley while toting his wounded dog Excaliber. Just a few pages in, all Hell breaks loose with a Texas tornado misplacing Stone, dog and hog. Once the three re-align, Stone finds a biker running from some baddies in the desert. After coming to the rescue, he learns the biker is Rasberry Thorn, a fiery blonde with eyes and a smile that's begging for pole action. In some wild chapters, Stone is taken hostage by the woman and taken to an all-female biker gang called The Ballbusters where they rape and eat men. No shit. 

Rasberry Thorn claims Stone as hers, takes him into her underground bedroom and screws his brains out. The others simply wait until their turn, knowing that after sex is a grand cannibal feast. Wild, wild stuff. Luckily, Stone is the only man that can bring Rasberry to orgasm, and because of this miraculous feat she allows him to escape through a secret tunnel. But, Stone doesn't get far before he's captured again. This time by his evil arch enemy...The Dwarf. 

In an underground base, The Dwarf is running a hodgepodge of medical torture, kinky sex, bizarre experiments and...the control panel for the entire Star Wars defense system (in other words he can nuke the planet a hundred times over). Stone is brought in, strapped to a table and electrocuted for pages and pages. Later, he learns that The Dwarf is actually marrying Stone's kidnapped sister April and plans to make Stone watch. In wacky scenes, a mad scientist promises that he will combine Stone and Excalibur, making a Dog Man that can help rule the world. But first, Stone and his mutt have to battle wild dogs and giants in arena combat. Will they survive? Will Stone and April finally find each other? Will Earth survive The Dwarf's bombastic nuking? That is your "stone" to flip for fun. 

This book and series is just one extremely entertaining post-apocalyptic run. Not all of the books are great, and there are a few turds, but at the end you can look back at the whole series as a really good effort by a talented writer. 'The Last Ranger' isn't for everyone – it is crude, violent, funny, stupid, perplexing, convoluted and ultimately senseless. But that's the whole point, right?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mike Hammer #01 - I, the Jury

Like my review of the treasured '87th Precinct' series, I'm going in as both a series rookie and an intimidated literary critic for 'Mike Hammer'. Mickey Spillane's gritty, violent gumshoe was perhaps the last of the pulp fiction detectives. The series debuted in 1947 with “I, the Jury”, loosely influenced by Carrol John Daly's detective Race Williams. Spillane, who cut his teeth on comic books, originally intended Mike Hammer to be comic strip detective/hero Mike Danger. After failure to find a buyer, Spillane wisely transformed Danger to Hammer and wrote “I, the Jury” in six days. By 1953, it had sold over three-million copies.

Private detective Mike Hammer fought in the Pacific campaign of World War II. At the beginning of “I, the Jury”, Hammer walks onto a crime scene to see his friend and former war buddy Jack Williams lying in a pool of blood. Williams was belly shot with a .45 and died slowly as he crawled to his nearby rod (guns are frustratingly called rods). Hammer vows to find the killer and the novel's mystery is laid out within the first chapter.

My issue is that Hammer really contributes nothing terribly productive through the entirety of the book. He interviews a few suspects, has a mattress romp with a set of twins and seriously dates a psychiatrist named Charlotte. We're introduced to Hammer's quirky secretary Velda (who's obsessed with Hammer) and a police ally named Pat. Through a plodding narrative of character introductions, the reader can already nail the killer down. But Hammer is clueless, and bumbles his way through interviews while pointing guns at elevator attendants. His threats are seemingly meaningless and by the book's ending the killer's identity is practically plastered over each locale while Hammer chases cold leads. 

There's no doubt that the loud mouthed, profane Hammer is a catalyst for the more violent heroes we embraced in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Respect is intended and well earned...I just need to find a Hammer novel that reels me in. In surface research, the general consensus is that the series really takes off after this novel. I'll certainly attempt another read, but may switch my mindset to anticipate what I'm ultimately getting in a Hammer book. Chronologically, “I, the Jury” is followed by the Spillane abandoned novel “Lady, go Die”, which was written/finished by Max Allan Collins and published in 2012. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Sergeant #03 - Bloody Bush

The only thing I didn’t care for about “BLOODY BUSH” was the title. Otherwise, this third entry in 'The Sergeant' series not only equals the first two books in excellence, but surpasses them in terms of narrative power and character development.

The first book, “DEATH TRAIN”, introduces us to Sgt. Clarence Mahoney and brings us along on an undercover demolition mission of his in Nazi-occupied France. That mission gets wrapped up surprisingly quickly, so then we tag along as he helps members of the French resistance fight back when the Germans besiege their headquarters. The action is solid and the storytelling is superb, and Mahoney is such a fascinating character that he himself is the best thing in the book. A gruff, cigar-chomping Superman in dirty fatigues, he’s all but invincible as the Germans throw everything they have at him. 

(The Mac Wingate series, which would debut a year later, chronicles the adventures of another American undercover he-man demolition expert tirelessly fighting the Nazis. Remarkable coincidence or cynical rip-off?) 

The Sergeant’s second book, “HELL HARBOR”, avoids the bifurcated narrative of “DEATH TRAIN” and tells one epic war adventure story, sending Mahoney deep into the revolting sewers of Cherbourg on a mission to prevent the Germans from blowing up a key harbor installation. Now Mahoney is more human, more nuanced, and more vulnerable. The story is cohesive but the plot isn’t very rigid. It’s related as a series of incidents, some combat-driven and some character-driven. The first book set the bar pretty high, but “HELL HARBOR” is even better.

And now “BLOODY BUSH” is the best one yet. Hoping for less risk to life and limb, Mahoney has transferred to a regular Army platoon and the secret missions are over. It’s July 1944, and the D-Day landings have been successful, but now the Americans need to push out of Normandy into the interior of France, and into the jaws of the waiting German army.

WWII buffs will appreciate how skillfully the novel blends fact and fiction, as the novel deals with both the Battle of the Hedgerows and the Battle of St. Lo. It’s not all about endless warfare, either; the narrative also involves Erwin Rommel and the plot to assassinate Hitler. In fact, Rommel, Hitler and George Patton all play extended supporting roles in this story. 

But you don’t have to be a history nut to enjoy this book. It’s classic masculine pulp, with lots of exciting combat sequences as well as some colorful confrontations between Mahoney and an arrogant army captain (I enjoyed these even more). Good war fiction pulls the reader into the action on an intellectual level, but really top-notch war fiction makes you feel it in your gut, with vivid details of everything from the flying dirt and shrapnel to the exhaustion, the fear and the sinking apprehension that today is your last day on Earth. The way the ground vibrates beneath a soldier during an artillery barrage, the panic and the adrenaline that take over in hand-to-hand combat, the psychological impact of weak leadership as opposed to confident leadership… it’s all here, painting the experience of war in both the broad strokes and in the little details. 

Author Len Levinson (writing as Gordon Davis) nails all of this with his usual skill. Even better, he further explores Mahoney’s complex persona, refining the characteristics we already knew about and developing a few new ones. Mahoney can bust a fellow soldier’s jaw in one chapter, kneel in prayer and carry a Bible under his shirt in another chapter, usurp a superior officer’s command in yet another chapter, and nevertheless there are no contradictions in him, just complexity. It’s rare to find such nuance in pulp fiction. It’s extraordinary. And so is this series. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Quarry #03 - Quarry in the Black

Fans of Men’s Adventure Fiction place Max Allan Collins’ 'Quarry' series in the top-tier of the genre along with Donald Hamilton’s 'Matt Helm' and Richard Stark’s 'Parker'. The former Vietnam War sniper turned hit-man debuted in 1976 and has been a source of great entertainment ever since. The best news is that the author remains alive and well, and he periodically cranks out another 200-page Quarry novel - coupled with outstanding Hard Case Crime cover art - to the delight of genre fans.

“Quarry in the Black” is the 2017 entry in the series, but the series has always been unstuck in time. This particular story takes place in 1972 when Quarry was still accepting assassination jobs from his original boss, The Broker. The arrangement always made a lot of sense: The Broker deals with the client, and Quarry deals with the victim - sometimes with a passive partner who handles the surveillance, leaving Quarry to manage the kill. Quarry’s favorite partner, the gay-before-it-was-fashionable Boyd, is assigned to work with Quarry on this hit. 

This one is a little different. Quarry is offered $25,000 to kill a charismatic black civil rights leader, Reverend Raymond Wesley Lloyd, who is campaigning for George McGovern to beat Richard Nixon in the 1972 U.S. Presidential Election. Quarry rightly recoils from the gig because Reverend Lloyd seems like an unobjectionable fellow - peaceful, anti-war, and espousing a strong anti-drug platform. Despite his chosen profession, Quarry has a decent moral compass and has no desire to become the next James Earl Ray. After The Broker gives Quarry some reason to believe that this Reverend isn’t the next Martin Luther King, he reluctantly takes the gig.

Collins does a fantastic job of capturing the zeitgeist of the post-burglary, pre-resignation, Nixon-Watergate era. He cites the era’s music blasting at Quarry’s every turn making me wish someone would create a classic-rock “Quarry in the Black” Spotify playlist to be used as a soundtrack while reading this paperback. Moreover, real-life public figures from the era have cameos in the novel adding to the authentic feel of this retro effort. Collins even gives a nod to current events as Quarry is forced to tangle with a violent white-power group based in the all-Caucasian enclave of Ferguson, Missouri.

The central mystery of this - and most - Quarry stories is the identity and true agenda of the client paying for the hit. The Broker always keep’s the client’s identity from Quarry as a buffer of deniability if a job should go sideways. Inevitably, the full story eventually is revealed, and it usually explains the complications and bumps in the road that Quarry is forced to endure. Like the other novels, Quarry gets laid a few times in deliciously explicit detail, and the first-person narration is predictably hilarious.

There’s really nothing bad to say about “Quarry in the Black.” It’s another perfect entry in a legendary series. Hopefully, Collins stays energized and continues to come up with new Quarry stories for years to come. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Ghost Riders Affair

The 'Man From U.N.C.L.E. Magazine' was published from February 1966 through January 1968 as an effort to capitalize on and cross-promote the popular TV show. Instead of merely adapting screenplays into prose, the publishers made the decision to have each issue anchored by an original 60-page novella taking place in the U.N.C.L.E. universe written under the house name of Robert Hart Davis. Presumably, the authors of these stories had free reign to have fun with the characters as long as no one essential to the franchise gets killed in the action. The magazine enlisted some talented ghostwriters to pen these novellas, including John Jakes, Dennis Lynds, Talmage Powell, Bill Pronzini, and Harry Whittington. Each issue of the digest also contained short stories unrelated to U.N.C.L.E. but consistent with the genre’s themes.

My first foray into U.N.C.L.E. fiction was the first of the 16 successful stand-alone paperbacks for the series. “Man from U.N.C.L.E. Paperback #1” was written by Michael Avallone (Interestingly, the paperbacks were all published under the authors’ real names, but the digest novellas all adopt the Davis pseudonym), and the book was fantastic - even for a reader who had never watched the TV show or movie. Harry Whittington wrote the second paperback, “The Doomsday Affair,” and it was also a monster seller that put a ton of cash in the pockets of MGM, if not the author himself. Whittington also penned four of the magazine’s U.N.C.L.E. novellas, including “The Ghost Riders Affair” from the July 1966 issue of the digest.

For the uninitiated (myself included), all you need to know before walking into a 'Man From U.N.C.L.E.' novel or story is that there is a secret International spy agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) that employs a suave American spy named Napoleon Solo and a skilled Soviet spy named Illya Kuryakin to handle missions important enough for both sides of the Cold War to collaborate for the greater good. There is an enemy organization of villains, miscreants, and subversives called THRUSH (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) who often oppose U.N.C.L.E.’s efforts at law and order.

The central mystery of “The Ghost Riders Affair” involves the mysterious disappearance of a 15-car passenger train en route from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Meanwhile, a Wyoming rancher’s 1000 cattle apparently vanished into thin air without leaving a hoofprint behind. Soon thousands of others - famous and nobodies - also disappear without a trace. For jurisdictional reasons left unexplained, the investigation of these mysterious disappearances falls to U.N.C.L.E. who puts Solo and Kuryakin on the case.

At first glance, the investigative plan makes good sense: a duplicate train containing only Kuryakin and an engineer ride the same route on the same tracks at the same time in search of anomalies that might explain the disappearance. Meanwhile, Solo remains at the United Network Command monitoring the train’s progress on his super-advanced computer screen. When the train transporting Kuryakin also disappears, the tension deepens and the mystery intensifies. Was this a supernatural act? Could this have anything to do with THRUSH?

Unlike the full paperback novels, none of the characters get laid and the violence isn’t particularly graphic in the digest. However, you don’t really notice the PG nature of this story because Whittington’s plotting is absolutely superb. The story moves along at a great clip as Solo uncovers clues that bring him closer to discovering the truth about the mass vanishing act. Solo even gets to ride a horse through the untamed West - literary territory Whittington knows well. The story combines the spy world of James Bond with the fantastical pulp of Doc Savage in a novella that never has time to drag.

The good news is that this story is an easy recommendation. The downside is that it might be hard to acquire. MGM owns the U.N.C.L.E. intellectual property and has been disinterested in seeing the stories reprinted, digitized, or preserved for future generations. The full U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks sold well and used copies remain available at affordable prices. However, the digests containing the 60-page novellas can be hard to find and may cost you quite a bit on eBay or other outlets for vintage magazines. Happy hunting!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Wilderness #06 - Black Powder Justice

“Black Powder Justice” is yet another excellent, suspenseful 'Wilderness' novel, the sixth book in the series by David Robbins (under the name David Thompson). 

Evil whites have shot our mountain man protagonist Nate in the head(!), left him for dead and kidnapped his wife. Their scheme is to deliver a load of rifles (and Nate’s wife) to hostile Ute Indians in exchange for a fortune in beaver pelts. Nate will suffer more misery than ever before on his way to the resolution of this novel. Did I mention he’s already been attacked by wolves before the plot gets underway? 

This book is gripping and tense, and it’s so successful in depicting Nate’s various perils and agonies that it’s not always a perfectly delightful read. The never-ending progression of misery is almost too much. The book skillfully portrays Nate’s heroic resolve and indefatigable perseverance in the face of it all. But if he’d suffered even one additional painful aggravation, it might have tipped the literary scale into self-parody. Mind you, that doesn’t happen. This is a riveting novel. But at this point I’m beginning to wonder if Nate wasn’t better off back at his bookkeeping gig in New York, where the biggest danger he faced was a reprimand for coming back late from lunch. 

A less-gifted author would have cranked out something lively but unbelievable, and therefore not very engaging. Robbins has a talent for making a wildly over-the-top adventure story seem perfectly reasonable if not downright factual, and for keeping the reader on the edge of his seat from the first chapter to the last. “Black Powder Justice” maintains this series’ stellar batting average.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Night Visit

'ADAM' was an adults-only Australian men's magazine featuring about six short-stories or novellas, a handful of wacky and bizarre true stories and a slew of nudie pics that are mostly of the topless variety. Aside from the cover, a majority are in black and white and littered with “dirty” crude cartoons. “Night Visit”, by unknown author Grant Glastonbury (pseudonym?) appeared in the October, 1976 issue. It features a painting from an unknown artist.

“They came in the night. Four against one. But underestimated a man's love for his woman.”

That synopsis introduces us to this quick home-invasion styled story. These “barricade the windows” narratives were explored with George Romero's iconic 1968 horror film, “Night of the Living Dead”, and expanded on with a more realistic, gritty treatment by John Carpenter's “Assault on Precinct 13” (also 1976). In a way, it's the western genre's “circle the wagons” presentation. Glastonbury does that well, introducing us to Jeff, a Vietnam Vet who did two tours and has been out of the service for a year. He married Julie five weeks ago, and the two have been living in a rural stretch of Australia for just shy of two-weeks.  

The accompanying artworks presents the early stages as Jeff and Julie watch four hunters emerge from the darkness. Each are carrying a firearm and Jeff senses they are a bit unstable. With a sense of urgency, Jeff attempts to dismiss them only to find the peaceful and strategic exit could be just inviting them in for coffee. This passive mood instantly becomes hostile as the group puts their eyes and hands on Julie. When the four make for a false exit, Jeff and Julie find themselves trapped in the house with only a Ruger .22 rifle facing shotguns and long guns. 

Jim's battle sense is put to the test as the action moves from left to right inside the house. This is where the story finds it's atmosphere, alone in the darkness with this anonymous evil at the doorstep. It's fast-paced, violent, moody and overall extremely effective in it's storytelling. While it's easy to point, fire and move to an easy pick up the pieces finale, this one threw me for a loop and closes in a unique way. Kudos to the author for taking chances and making this a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Line of Fire

Before defining his career with the excellent 'Matt Helm' series, Donald Hamilton wrote a bunch of satisfying crime and western novels for the robust paperback original market of the 1950s. His 1955 stand-alone thriller was “Line of Fire,” and it gives Matt Helm fans a glance into pre-Helm Hamilton as he was developing the narrative voice that later became the staple of his famous series.

“Line of Fire” is the story of a sniper named Paul Nyquist who we meet at a domestic assassination he’s handling. The novel opens with a job gone bad and very little information about Nyquist’s background or agenda. The intended target takes the round, but an attractive female witness interferes with the getaway. Our hero drags the girl along for the escape until he can decide what to do with her. She’s an innocent bystander at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Nyquist is an experienced shootist - but not a monster. From there the story goes in some quite unexpected places as we learn more about Nyquist, his intended target, and his motivation for taking the shot. Beyond that, anything else I tell you about the plot would be book reviewer malpractice. Suffice it to say that this is one of those clever novels where not all is as it seems. The twists, turns, and reveals along the way are a total delight. Leave it at that.

Hamilton had a love of guns and he often slipped interesting technical specifications into his novels, but somehow he’s always able to make them interesting to the layman. The firearms lessons never feel tiresome like the gun porn of Gold Eagle novels or contemporary men’s adventure fiction. Additionally, Hamilton throws a lot of good advice on proper marksmanship into the narrative. All of this is meant to illustrate that the protagonist is a consummate professional in his field. And the more we learn about Nyquist’s chosen profession, the more his odd decisions make perfect sense.

Fans of the Max Allan Collins Quarry series and Lawrence Block’s Keller books will enjoy this novel about another exceptionally-skilled gunman in a world filled with amateurs and thugs. “Line of Fire” has the same first-person, matter-of-fact narrative style as Quarry and Keller but without as much comedic whimsy. The style is more world-weary and slavishly logical - just like the Matt Helm books.

An economical 157 pages, “Line of Fire” is a quick read. It’s a worthy precursor to the Matt Helm series and a wild, violent ride filled with vivid characters and exciting situations. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sundance #08 - Bring Me His Scalp

The western series 'Sundance' ran a 10-year span from 1972 through 1982, compiling a massive 43 installments. Book #8, “BRING ME HIS SCALP” (1973), is by 'Fargo' veteran Ben Haas writing as John Benteen. This is a very solid western, in which Sundance discovers there’s a price on his head. The story moves along at a brisk pace and there’s plenty of action and atmosphere. I enjoyed it, but maybe there was something missing that kept me from really loving it. What that was, I don’t know, but if Haas’ other 'Sundance' books are as good as this one, I want them all. Eye-opening highlights include one villain being cut in half while crawling under a boxcar that was suddenly jarred into motion, and a fight between Sundance and another villain, who not only gets killed but buried in cow manure as well.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Liquidator #01 - The Liquidator

Author Larry Powell wrote two 'Nick Carter' novels, “Butcher of Belgrade” (#73, 1973) and “The Code” (#77, 1973) as well as one 'Able Team' novel in “Texas Showdown” (#3, 1982). As Lee Parker, he penned the three-book series 'Donovan's Devils' in 1974. The subject at hand is 'The Liquidator', a five-book series written by Powell as R.L. Brent from 1974-1978. 

The self-titled debut introduces the reader to hardened detective Jake Brand. Brand has plenty of skin in the game and is Hell-bent on crippling the Mob. In a detailed and much-needed backstory we learn that Brand's father was a beat cop, flat footing the streets until a junkie murdered him for fix money. Jake and his brother Roy grew up on the football field, Jake the strong guy blocker and Roy the lightning quick running back. Roy went on to excel off the field as well, working his way into law and cracking down hard on the mob. Too hard. Roy was gut shot and left for dead. Jake left college and joined the academy, eyes on the prize to be as tough as his old man and to fight the mob at every turn. Vengeance puddling with the blood.

What really keeps this book from being the typical early 70s imitator (ending with the letter R) is that it's a bit more epic in presentation. For example, pages 79-87 covers an astounding five year span. Detractors could argue this isn't a propelling story segment, and it could have been fleshed out a bit more. I'm not ruining it for you, but this story probably could have been mapped out to two books...but Award ('Nick Carter') probably needed some quick circulation to offset the mammoth Carter shelf monopoly. 

The spine of the story is Brand's quest for vengeance, toppling his neighborhood mob satellite before moving up to the bigger broadcast. There's some police procedural stuff, written like a young Evan Hunter (honestly), but it's short-lived. Informants are planted in seedy bars and strip joints, populating the story with some diverse characters. An important element is the lovable Captain Ellis, Brand's defacto father. The heart of the story, beyond the grit and gravel of revenge, is the relationship between Brand and his fiance Diane. This element enhances the story, slowing the pace to allow some emotion to settle in. If nothing else, it creates a little more connection for the reader and makes a very determined Brand seem human. I think that aspect was much-needed. 

Overall, 'The Liquidator' gets a thumbs up. It delivers what we would expect from the 70s vigilante yarns. There's some serious shakeups, surprises and a ton of action. Powell shows off his talents as a storyteller, painting wide brush-strokes for this backdrop of mob vengeance but giving us just enough depth to make it engaging and emotional. I need the rest of this series.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Generation of Blood

After the book “Mandingo” became a sensation in 1958, there was a slew of commercially-successful historical slavery exploitation novels. These books of varying literary merit illustrated the loathsome aspects of the American slave trade while horrifying and titillating readers with stories of brutality and sex in the treatment of the slaves. In the 1960s, interracial sex was a taboo topic, and these paperbacks made lust, desire, and rape among masters and slaves the centerpiece of both the cover art and plots. Many of the novels culminate in violent slave rebellions where the brutality tables are turned on the white masters.

I can’t attest to the historical accuracy of these books, and their quality varies widely. I do know that some respected men’s adventure authors wrote in the genre under pseudonyms including Harry Whittington, Lou Cameron and Norman Daniels. The slavery exploitation books I’ve read have been page-turners that were better written than the lusty covers would ever have you expect.

All of this brings me to the stand-alone plantation novel, “Generation of Blood” by I.A. Grenville published in 1969 by unremarkable New York paperback house Leisure Books with pretty amateurish cover art. Unlike many of the expansive slavery gothics, this one is a tight 188 pages. The real identity of I.A. Grenville remains a mystery to me. It is almost certainly a pseudonym, but none of my normal sources for unmasking pen-names provides any meaningful leads. I found references indicating that the book was also released under the names “Stud Slave” and “Karindu” and I know it was also translated into foreign languages for overseas markets. It’s a well-written novel that suffers from poor plotting.

The story begins at a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina. Young plantation owner William Holloman and his overseer of operations James Curtis are looking to buy a handful of slaves to bring back to their cotton farm. The awkward Holloman also wants to buy some female slaves to periodically have sex with at home. Among the handful of slaves purchased include the giant Karindu, a fresh-off-the-boat African of strength and intelligence far superior to the other offerings. It becomes clear early on that Karindu will be the hero of the story with Curtis as the cruel villain and Holloman as the pathetic villain.

You need to re-calibrate your modern sensibilities to read and tolerate this paperback as the n-word appears on nearly every page without fanfare or shock value. And because sex is front and center in the story, you get to enjoy detailed descriptions of the anatomy of Karindu and the other slaves. The cruelty and humiliation that the slaves endure at the hands of Curtis is also described in graphic detail with no whipping left to the imagination.

So, this cheap-o paperback touches all the same bases as it’s superior genre offerings (for my money, Harry Whittington writing as Ashley Carter is the high-water mark here), but the plot and pacing are an absolute mess. It takes half the book for the daisy chain of slaves and masters to even get back to the plantation where the action and drama begins. At times, it aspires to be a porno novel, but the sex scenes are neither hot or compelling. The power dynamics at the plantation are all mostly ridiculous as well.

It’s difficult enough to endorse this genre with any enthusiasm, but this disposable paperback was clearly a low-end cash grab seeking to capitalize on a brief literary fad. I never figured out who wrote it, but I can’t blame him for wanting to remain anonymous. Don’t bother with this one.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Fox #01 - The Press Gang

The first 'Fox' book by Kenneth Bulmer, writing as Adam Hardy, is about British seaman George Abercrombie Fox isn’t quite a traditional novel, as there’s no particular plot. It’s more like a sequence of incidents. Unlike a 1930s hero pulp, the incidents aren’t necessarily action sequences (although certainly many of them are). They illustrate what life was like for this sullen bulldog of a sailor: the brutality of Navy discipline, the hazards to life and limb during sea battles, the many small humiliations from the Navy’s command hierarchy, and so on. The author does a superb job of bringing Fox to life, so much so that it often feels more like a biography than a maritime adventure novel. The attention to historical detail is also very effective, but I’ll admit I was sometimes lost in a stew of nautical jargon related to the features of old sailing ships and archaic military procedure. If the author assumed I was already familiar with the architecture of 18th-Century British naval frigates, he was mistaken. But while the book is occasionally challenging, it’s also rewarding, and I’d like to sail with Mr. Fox again.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Nick Carter: Killmaster #01 - Run Spy Run

Nick Carter is a WW2 veteran who's employed as a secret agent for AXE. From what I gather in the opening pages of “Checkmate in Rio”, the third installment, AXE works as early penetration for the CIA. Carter's subordinate is a guy named Hawk, who in turn has his own higher authority that remains unnamed in this particular book. The goofy stuff? Carter has silly names for his weapons, and these names come up a lot in the narration. Wilhelmina is a 9mm Luger taken from a German soldier in the war. Hugo is an Italian stiletto. Pierre is a little marble that can be twisted to release deadly gas (which he carries on his scrotum in later books). The names aren't so bad, but I cringe when Carter yells things like, “Quick! Hand me Wilhelmina!”, or when the narrator tells us how good Carter is at everything due to his daily yoga routine. It reminds me of Doc Savage and his fantasy gym training leading to miraculous feats of wonder. It's bonkers, but enjoyable in an over the top way.

In this one, Nick and AXE agent Julia Baron get tangled up in a plot designed by staple arch enemy Judas to blow up world leaders to propel the Red Chinese. It's called “Project Jet” and simply places bombs on planes to kill off various targets. It's a rather elementary plot, but Nick and Julia need to find the perpetrator and the reasoning. The novel is dominantly placed in London with all of the red herrings and suspicious looking smarties. It's here that Nick and Julia get into the sack in an effort to foil the evil mastermind. The book's finale puts both Nick and Julia in an underground horror fest to square off against the steel-handed Judas (of course he is bald, wretched and has a steel hand) and his deformed stooge Braile. It's overly fantastical, but that's part of the charm. As the agents run from location to location, there's intrigue about the location of the next bomb and an exhilarating rush to stop the ominous tick-tock. The book's ultimate plot leads to a plan to assassinate the US President. Published in 1964, I wonder if Avallone/Engel/Moolman wrote this prior to Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963? If not, I would have thought it a bit taboo to resurrect that idea during a time of America's mourning.

Based on this debut, I'm at the table with spoon and fork for 'Nick Carter'. From what I have read, if you can stomach this pulpy fruit, the series only ripens for more tasty and modern flavors later. While book two is still missing in action for me, I'm already on to “Checkmate in Rio” with an eye on book four. Killmaster for life.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The House in Turk Street

Thanks to Hollywood, Dashiell Hammett’s characters Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”) and Nick & Nora Charles (“The Thin Man”) have gone down in history as iconic characters in the hardboiled mystery genre. For my money, I’ve always preferred Hammett’s nameless detective character, The Continental Op, who premiered in a short story from “Black Mask Magazine” in October 1923.

The Op is an “operative” (private eye) for the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency, a nationwide outfit modeled after Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, where Hammett himself once worked as an operative in his younger days. In total, there were 28 Continental Op short stories and two novels, “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse” - all of which have been collected in the mammoth 2017 Black Lizard compilation, “The Big Book of the Continental Op,” edited by Richard Layman and Julie Rivett.

The anthology contains possibly the best short story I’ve ever read. It’s called “The House In Turk Street” and despite the fact that it originally appeared in April 1924, it is the kind of tension-filled bloodbath one might expect from a story starring Richard Stark’s Parker or Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan. It’s a quick and exciting read that anyone could tackle in one sitting.

The setup is that The Op is hunting someone on an assignment and receives a tip that the person he’s seeking is hiding out on Turk Street in San Francisco. The Op comes up with a clever ruse to canvass the neighborhood door-to-door in a manner unlikely to tip off his prey. At one house, he is invited inside only to find that he has stumbled into the hideout of a heist crew fresh off a lucrative job. The Op is tied to a chair while the crew is planning their getaway, and this new addition of a hostage has thrown a wrinkle into their escape plans.

Without giving too much away, The Op is forced to silently bear witness to the crew’s departure planning as tensions run high and double crosses are set into motion. Meanwhile, he needs to figure out a way to leverage the situation to save his own bacon and come away the hero.

“The House In Turk Street” an amazingly tense and smart story that culminates in a fantastic conclusion that serves as a reminder why Hammett is regarded as the father of the genre nearly a century later. This story is a must-read for fans of men’s action-adventure fiction. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Butcher #12 - Killer's Cargo

I have to wonder whether this title belonged to another book, since there isn’t really any killer’s cargo anywhere to be found. The villain here is a shadowy figure known only as “Number One,” who’s kidnapped a scientist who recently discovered a lethal poison gas, and now threatens to turn the entire American population into violent lunatics. The early chapters deal with the Butcher’s investigations in France, tracking down clues, and none of this material interested me very much. A shift in locale to Mexico didn’t help, but then things really caught fire in the last fifty pages, redeeming the novel with a lengthy climactic sequence of betrayal, torture, surprise twists and lots of action. While the Butcher is more of a secret agent than the Executioner-style vigilante I was expecting, he has the same mindset. He definitely belongs to the Brut, Brylcreem and black turtleneck fraternity of 1970s action-adventure heroes, and I liked him more and more as the book went on.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Vigilante #03 - San Francisco: Kill or be Killed

“San Francisco: Kill or be Killed” (1976) is the third entry in 'The Vigilante' series by V.J. Santiago (really Robert Lory). What's interesting about this series is that each book is one week in the life of protagonist Joseph Madden. The debut, “New York: An Eye for an Eye”, was an emotional origin story that had Madden watching in horror as his wife was brutally murdered on a subway train. Later, attacked and left with a facial scar, the book focused on his recovery stage and the mental restraints lifting to become a nighttime vigilante. The close proximity Madden is to normalcy is astounding, but like a pulp character, he turns into a crime-fighter at night. It's this Jeckyl/Hyde sort of formula that propels the character and story. Otherwise, it's just a guy with a revolver shooting rapists. 

After a second week of coping/avenging in book two's “Los Angeles: Detour to a Funeral”, this third novel begins week three. It's awe-inspiring that Madden has killed 23 bad guys in just two weeks. Western singer Corb Lund's gloomy lyric, “Work that shovel with vigor grave digger and dig grave digger dig” comes to mind when describing Madden's robust killing spree. While the author concentrates on Madden's night life, it also describes in detail his real job of engineering at a large firm. It's this assignment that brings him to San Francisco to interview an Asian prospect for his employer, which ultimately is just a reason to give this story an Asian spin by placing it in Chinatown.

The story-line here is that a group of ruffians are forcing merchants and shop keepers to pony up cash for the old protection racket. The gang is called the Scarlet Fist and Madden goes to work identifying the culprit, who the next target is and reestablishing a friendship with his old Army buddy from the Korean War. Where this book's mood and narrative changes in contrast with the first two novels Lots of sex. In fact, there is shockingly an 8 ½ page section dedicated to Madden's pleasure with two massage therapists and their sexy boss Marie. But it doesn't stop there, continuing on with several different interludes to attend to Madden's desires (in which he also brings Marie to ecstasy seven times in one 20-minute romp!). I think these scenes, while not necessary, added a little more dynamic to this rather cold and calculating killer. The end result is another quality entry in this series. 

Next stop is Chicago...because all vigilante series' visit the Windy City at least once.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Inside McLeane’s Rangers: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

Unmasking the author behind a pseudonym is a bit of a pastime for modern readers of vintage adventure paperbacks. Recently, the desire to play armchair detective or cultural anthropologist lead to the discovery of the real man behind the somewhat obscure, five-book McLeane’s Rangers series written under the pen name of “John Darby.” A little digging revealed an accomplished journalist who later became a well-established writer in the mystery genre after authoring several other action novels many of you have undoubtedly collected and read. 

The choice of the John Darby pseudonym and McLeane’s Rangers series name is almost certainly a nod to WW2 U.S. Army hero William Orlando Darby who was fictionalized in a movie called “Darby’s Rangers” starring James Garner in 1958. The premise of the McLeane’s Rangers series from Zebra Books is similar to Len Levinson’s “Rat Bastards” novels or any number of the “team of badasses” war fiction subgenre in which a group of misfit military men participate in fictionalized versions of famous battles. In this case, the legendary conflicts involved pivotal moments in the Allied victories over Japanese forces.

Basic internet queries came up empty for any clues regarding the real identity of author John Darby. Likewise, the writing style didn’t provide much of a lead as all the books seemed to be written in the same voice (ergo: likely a pseudonym, not a house name).

All of this begs the question: Who the hell was John Darby?

While internet search engines provided no clues, a deep dive into the U.S. Library of Congress Copyright database revealed that the MacLeane’s Rangers series was authored by someone named Michael Jahn. 

Now we’re getting somewhere. 

According to Wikipedia, Jahn was hired as the first rock music journalist for the New York Times in 1968, a job largely unheard of at big-city newspapers at the time. In that capacity, the Times sent him to cover the now-legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969 among the 400,000 muddy attendees. He remained at the Times for three years covering rock for the “Paper of Record” during a remarkable time in music history. 

Jahn later shifted gears to mystery fiction where he won an Edgar Award in 1978 right out of the gate for his novel, “The Quark Maneuver,” about a homicidal Vietnam vet. This lead to a popular mystery series starring NYPD Chief of Special Investigations Captain Bill Donovan that spanned 10 books between 1982 and 2008. His papers and manuscripts are stored at the at the Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. 

Interestingly, no available bibliography of Jahn lists the McLeane Rangers series as part of his body of work. Luckily, I was able to track down Jahn, now 74, and ask him if he was, in fact, John Darby. 

“Guilty as charged,” he replied. “You’re the first to ever notice that they even existed.”

It turns out that McLeane’s Rangers wasn’t Jahn’s first foray into Men’s Adventure Fiction. Starting in 1975, Jahn wrote five TV tie-in “Six-Million Dollar Man” paperbacks, including the popular, “The Secret of Bigfoot Pass.” Fanboys of the Bionic Man praise Jahn’s adaptations for merging the divergent continuities of the TV series with the Martin Caiden’s “Cyborg” novels that inspired the show. 

Soon thereafter, Jahn wrote two paperbacks tied into the “Black Sheep Squadron” TV show that spun off from the movie “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” as well as a 1981 installment in the Nick Carter: Killmaster Series, “Cauldron of Hell” (#153).

All of this experience opened the door for his own original action series in 1983. “Those days I was friends with a bunch of guys who wrote military-related adventures and I had a history in the genre. Zebra Books was an imprint of Kensington, which was best known for romances. I was invited to write those but never did. I did the McCleane’s series plus four quickie novelty mysteries under another name for them. Zebra paid less than anyone but tended to like everything you did,” Jahn said. 

“When I had offered McLeane to Zebra, it seemed like a good fit. I don’t recall whose idea it was. The Zebra editor was not especially action-oriented. But I think they wanted something different than ‘Black Sheep Squadron,’ maybe an infantry thing suggestive of ‘Merrill’s Marauders.’ I was a fan of ‘Rat Patrol,’ so a handful of men was good.”

Although Jahn was the brains behind the series, the authorship remains a less-than-straightforward affair. “There was a friend of mine, an aspiring writer, who was on the verge of getting evicted and was desperate for money,” Jahn said. “I was up to my ass in work those days with lots of contracts, so I gave him McLeane’s to write and cooked up the byline John Darby. He struggled severely, and I had to re-write his work. After the first two books, I basically took the series back and finished it myself. So if the books seem a bit choppy, that’s the reason.”

Who are McLean’s Rangers? The team of American ass-kickers consists of:

- McLeane: the fearless leader of the group who takes his orders from the top and manages to have a good bit of graphic sex between adventures.

- Contardo: the violent, Brooklyn-born psycho is likely to fall into a deep depression if he doesn’t tear off someone’s face at least twice per week.

- Heinman: the hillbilly of the team earned a doctorate in Oriental Studies from Oxford. Conveniently, he’s also a martial arts expert and speaks several useful Asian languages. 

- O’Connor: the mandatory Chicago Irishman of the team is an explosives expert built like a bull with fists like hams. Spoiler alert: he’s not afraid to use them.

- Wilkins: the expert marksman of the group is also the youngest among them. He knows how to ventilate any enemy with his rifleman skills. 

During the fictional team’s time in WW2, the men covered a lot of ground:

#1 “Bougainville Breakout” - the group’s first adventure pits the Rangers against the entire Japanese garrison in Bougainville. The mission is to destroy a Japanese ammo depo invulnerable to American air attack while securing the release of a captured spy. 

#2 “Target Rabaul” - During World War II, Papua New Guinea was captured by the Japanese, and it became the main base of Japanese military activity in the South Pacific. McLeane’s Rangers are sent there to bring their jungle warfare talents to the Japanese stronghold. 

#3 “Hell on Hill 457” - McLeane and his men parachute into a heavily-fortified Japanese position around a mountain fortress that can only be dealt with using some heavy explosives. 

#4 “Saipan Slaughter” - Only McLeane’s elite commando unit has the skill and the nerve to penetrate the island of Saipan in advance of the pivotal U.S. invasion. 

#5 “Blood Bridge” - In this final adventure of McLeane’s Rangers, the team embarks on a mission to save China from a deadly invasion by the Japanese military juggernaut. 

The McLeane’s Rangers series touches all the important bases of 1980s Men’s Adventure Series Fiction - violence, drama, sex, gore, salty language, and excess testosterone. The paperbacks are generally well-written but clearly not the work of a professional historian or anyone with great inside knowledge of the U.S. Military. For example, the McLeane’s Rangers are a U.S. Marine Corps unit, yet the term “Rangers” is strictly a U.S. Army designation. For readers capable of suspending their disbelief and embracing some fictional escapism, there’s a lot to enjoy in Jahn’s version of WW2. 

For his part, Jahn is learning a lesson about the enduring legacy of Men’s Adventure Fiction of the era. “You know, there’s something going on that I never expected,” he said. “Despite my Edgar Award and the 10 Bill Donovan Mysteries, all of which were critically well recieved, what I’m being remembered for is the 70s and 80s paperbacks. There’s a whole thing about the Six Million Dollar Man. My 1982 space shoot-em-up book ‘Armada,’ which in my opinion was ripped off by the film ‘Independence Day,’ was nearly made into its own film a few years back. I’ve also been asked about Nick Carter. And now you’re asking about McLeane. This is fascinating to me.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Casca #02 - God of Death

The second 'Casca' novel finds the Eternal Warrior slipping out of the Roman Empire into the Barbarian lands, then north to the realm of the Vikings. Ultimately becoming a leader, he and his men sail across the Atlantic. Casca thus discovers America, but the book barely touches on this before the warriors continue south to what is now Mexico, where they become involved with the people there at the time of the Olmec civilization. 

I thought this was a very solid book, but it was lacking a certain something. Maybe I’m just too Eurocentric to get a charge out of ancient Mexico (and two-thirds of the book is spent there), but there was also a lull of fifty pages or so in which Casca gets accustomed to his new home and nothing much happens until the climactic battle that closes out the story. In any case, second-tier Casca is still better than the average action-adventure novel, and this will be worth reading again, but it would have benefited from some tighter editing.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Apache #02 - Knife in the Night

'Apache' was a gritty 1970s western series created by the U.K.'s Piccadilly Cowboy group. Mainly, the series was written by Terry Harknett and Laurence James, with both authors alternating entries. Later, Harknett departed and John Harvey took over his place. Overall, there were 27 novels total and all credited to house name William M. James. “Knife in the Night” was released by Pinnacle in 1974, penned by Laurence James, and appealed to fans of the more modern violent westerns like 'Edge'. It's packed to the gills with brutality, rape and bloodshed, yet none of it is over utilized to be a hindrance to the story. 

“Knife in the Night” picks right up with the closing of the series debut, “The First Death”. Our hero, Cuchillo, has fled from Fort Davidson after his wife and baby are killed by the US Army, led by the despicable Captain Pinner. Those events were prefaced by Cuchillo being accused of stealing an ornamental dagger from Pinner. After torturing Cuchillo and removing some fingers, the violence escalated with more attacks and the fiery finale that found Pinner and the group repelling and killing the Apache raid and leaving Cuchillo on the run at the Arizona and Mexican border.

Cuchillo watches helplessly as a Mexican raiding party wipes out most of Fort Buchanan, leaving the women raped and killed and most of the soldiers dismembered and scalped. The Army will believe it was the Apaches that committed the atrocities, continuing the hunt and massacre of the few remaining braves that Cuchillo considers his tribe. In one atmospheric chapter, Cuchillo hunts and kills all 14 Mexicans on a rainy night in the mountains. This smooth, calculated effort is masterfully penned by Harknett, increasing the tension to the breaking point without committing to an onslaught. It's one of the best scenes I've read in a long time. 

The remainder of the book has the Apaches raiding Fort Davidson (again) while Pinner is off buying steer. They systematically torture and kill (bordering on sadism) while Cuchillo attempts to free his life-long friend, white man John Hedges. The book sets up another confrontation between Cuchillo and Pinner, but in an effort to continue the series mythos, it will need to spill over into the next book (and maybe the next 24?). Overall, another quality U.K. western from those talented Piccadilly Cowboys. Next is “Duel to the Death”.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Slay Ride for a Lady

Before he was “King of the Paperbacks,” Harry Whittington worked as a copywriter in his home state of Florida (home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters). In 1943, he sold his first short story followed by his first novel, a western titled “Vengeance Valley,” in 1946. It wasn’t until 1950 that his first contemporary novel, “Slay Ride For A Lady” was published, kicking off a crime (fiction) spree that lasted decades and made him a favorite among fans of the genre, even if it inexplicably failed to make him a household name.

“Slay Ride For A Lady” begins in Honolulu where an ex-cop with a checkered past named Dan Henderson has successfully tracked down estranged wife Connice Nelson and her baby on behalf of her powerful mobster husband back in Tampa. Henderson is a fun narrator to take us on this ride as he is appropriately cynical about life. After Connice tells Henderson that he’s a nice guy, he explains, “I hate God’s world, and everybody in it.” Henderson has a great backstory that Whittington gives us piecemeal throughout the paperback.

Whittington was age 35 when this paperback was first published, and you can tell that he had a deep reservoir of cool ideas, scenes, and lines to draw upon for his inaugural crime novel, but it never really comes together as a compelling and readable novel. The plot is nothing revelatory: falsely accused of murder, Henderson needs to clear his own name and seek revenge on the man who framed him. With Whittington, it’s the execution that matters, and he has the raw makings of a master storyteller even at this early stage in his career. Had he written his novel in 1957, it would have likely been much better.

Is this one of Whittington’s best novels? Not by a long shot. You won’t necessarily feel cheated, but your time is better spent reading his 1959 masterpiece, “A Ticket to Hell.”

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Defender #01 - The Battle Begins

Jerry Ahern penned a number of action-adventure series' including 'Track', 'Takers' and the post-apocalyptic 'The Survivalist' run. 'The Defender' ran 12 volumes from 1982-1990. Some readers had complained about a right-wing bias in this debut, “The Battle Begins”, so I was looking for one but never really found it. I had no problem with the premise of this book (the co-hero is a black guy, by the way), since heavily-armed vigilante crime-fighting is pretty much what men's action-adventure fiction is all about.

In this one, Soviet agents use American street gangs to slowly strangle lawful authority in America, gradually taking over the country with shock massacres and terrorist attacks. Military veterans and other law-and-order devotees band together to resist, even though the law sees them as armed criminals who are just as dangerous as the terrorists! There’s plenty of dramatic potential here, but somehow it never really worked for me (although the book does conclude with a pretty good action sequence, a counter-attack at a nuclear reactor). It’s not the fault of the plot or the characters. I’m not sure Ahern’s style is well-suited for what should be a breathless, fast-paced action tale. Maybe he’s just laying a lot of ground work for future installments of this saga. I hope so. The book isn’t bad. But I wasn’t as engaged in it as I wanted to be. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Executioner #08 - Chicago Wipe-Out

Fresh off destroying New York's Gambella family, Mack heads to the mid-west for 'The Executioner #08: Chicago Wipe-Out”. Pendleton could have titled this “Chicago Whiteout” with all of the action blanketed in a heavy snowstorm that's paralyzing the city. With the usual blend of mobsters, cold steel and a beauty on the run, the author creates another stellar entry in what has become the defining series of the vigilante genre. 

The novel's prologue wisely outlines the prior seven novels with one paragraph dedicated to each book. This was a pleasant surprise that showcases Pendleton's vision of the character and Bolan's experience in the fight. The cosmically poetic closing lines of the prologue sets the tone for Chicago:

“It's going to be a wipe-out...them or me. I have lost the ability to judge the value of all this. But I'm convinced that it matters, somewhere, which side wins. It matters to the universe. I consign my fate to the needs of the universe.” 

The opening chapter is a violent exercise as Bolan sets up shop near a large house owned and operated by the Mob. As each bolt rams home the Weatherby .460, Pendleton is sure to describe the end result. One by one the bullets penetrate the Mafia's defenses before Bolan is forced to crawl from the house and move to face to face action with a Beretta. This is an intense, exhilarating opening chapter that finds Bolan rescuing the evening's entertainment, a young and beautiful girl named Jimi. The hunt is on for a safe spot to place her, but first there's an obligatory shower scene where Jimi thanks Bolan for the save. 

One of the best scenes of the first eight books is here, with Bolan and Jimi surrounded by thick snow and the Mob's gunners outside their motel room. Bolan provides quick instructions for Jimi and the two quietly creep through the darkness to escape. The action is from Jimi's point of view, blinded by darkness and fear while she hears Bolan's suppressed shots in the night. As  the bodies fall, the two flee to a nearby attorney named Leopold Stein. Stein has been put out of business by crooked Chicago politicians and Mob heads despite his outpouring of testimony and evidence citing the Mob's influence on the city. Bolan deposits Jimi here as he prepares for the final battle with Chi-Town's evil.

While the first half was all-out war, built on an incredible pace and the proverbial “all-guns-blazing”, the second half is a cat-and-mouse effort penned perfectly. Bolan dons a disguise and cleverly walks into the lion's den. Once he sets the Mob and police against each other, it's a race to the finish with Bolan's firepower in the front seat of the Warwagon. This is an effective, well-written finale that finds Bolan finishing his mission while still moving the chess pieces for his own gain. While not as fulfilling as the book's opening half, the finale left nothing on the table in its annihilation principles. This is seriously one of the best books of the genre and is just another testimony to Don Pendleton's staggering talent. This one is a mandatory read.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deadly Welcome

The Travis McGee series defined John D. MacDonald as a master of the crime and mystery genre, but he wrote a ton of excellent stand-alone novels as well. His 1958 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original mystery, “Deadly Welcome”, is among his best.

The book follows U.S. State Department special operative Alex Doyle who is pulled away from an overseas assignment and loaned to the Pentagon for a special mission involving a talented military scientist on medical retirement in Ramona Beach, Florida. The Pentagon wants to get the scientist back to Washington, so he can return to the weapons science game. However, the scientist isn’t inclined to leave his beachfront bungalow where his is mourning the loss of his recently murdered wife, Jenna. Alex is asked to use his manipulative people skills to convince the scientist to leave Florida when others have tried and recently failed.

Alex is uniquely qualified for this assignment because he was born and raised in the redneck, dead-end town of Ramona. The hope is that if Alex can solve Jenna’s murder, the scientist will snap out of his depression and get back to work. For his part, Alex has a complicated relationship with the town of Ramona and the deceased Jenna. Alex’s family was swamp trash, and he left in a cloud of scandal that still haunts him. The idea of going back to the land of his painful childhood is too awful for Alex to contemplate.

As you may have guessed, the Pentagon isn’t concerned with Alex’s psychic scars from 15 years ago, and he’s ordered to Florida to do his job. Upon arrival, he finds the gossipy pettiness and police corruption of the small town working against him every step of the way as he tries to uncover the truth about Jenna’s death as a lever to coax the scientist out of his stupor. Alex treats this as a quasi-undercover assignment where he is playing the role of a less-accomplished version of himself.

MacDonald’s work is always a notch higher on the literary writing scale than most of his paperback original contemporaries, and “Deadly Welcome” is no exception. There are many poignant passages of excellent introspection about the strong emotions that go along with returning to one’s hometown years after maturity has done its job. It’s refreshing to find an exciting mystery novel with so much to say about the human condition.

There’s violence and intrigue and romance and humor - everything you’ve come to expect from a JDM novel. There’s also a genuinely loathsome and violent villain that will have the reader invested in his comeuppance. The romantic interest is sufficiently lovable and the scenes of violence are bone-cracking good. 

“Deadly Welcome” is an incredibly satisfying read and should be placed at the top of your JDM to-read stack. Highly recommended. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Shadow #02 - The Eyes of the Shadow

Walter B. Gibson's (as Maxwell Grant) “The Eyes of the Shadow”(1931) is the second of 'The Shadow' books and I guess my expectations were too high. It’s unnecessarily long for a pulp novel, there are too many characters, and Gibson’s tendency toward padding really made this one drag. 

As with the earlier book, debut “The Living Shadow”, what we have is a routine old-timey mystery story which suddenly becomes dynamic and fascinating whenever the Shadow appears. It lurches back into tedium as soon as he’s gone, and his absences are frequent and lengthy. There are some interesting things here and there, though, including the first appearance of “Lamont Cranston,” laid up with a serious injury. One of the villains has an “ape-man” assistant whom I kept expecting would be revealed to be human, but he never was! The reader is left to wonder just what species this assistant belongs to. 

The action climax is pretty good, with the Shadow’s long-suffering agent Harry Vincent nearly stretched to death on a medieval torture rack. But it’s a long slog to get there, and Gibson’s stodgy prose is a liability. It’s not an awful book, but it’s probably not worth reading again. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Hitman #03 - Nevada Nightmare

After reading Norman Winski's debut 'The Hitman' novel, “Chicago Deathwinds”, I decided this series wasn't worth a wooden nickel. So, like many completely disposable pieces of literature, I'm right back to Winski and 'The (S)Hitman' all over again. Why? I wish I had an answer for this and other perplexing questions like, “Daddy, what's wind really?” Sometimes, Paperback Warriors can't provide all of the answers.

“Nevada Nightmare” is the third and final book in the 1984 series 'The Hitman'. It's not to be confused with Kirby Carr's 1970s series of the same name. I assume poor sales for Pinnacle combined with the decline of the genre in the 80s lead to the killshot for our protagonist Dirk Spencer. While I critically dissected, bashed and wiped the filth from “Chicago Deathwinds”,  in retrospect I'd have to ask myself if it was really that bad.

“Nevada Nightmare” is an improvement on the series debut, staying more in the pocket with action and plot instead of wasting pages and pages on guns, clothing and location. Winski jerks the curtain with a stage consisting of “Cult Leader Psychopath”, “Damsel in Distress” and “Dirk!” and writes the script with “bang goes cult member 1, 2, 3, etc.”. Look, I'm not buying 'The Hitman' for the photos. Like Ralph Hayes, Dan Schmidt, whoever is writing William W. Johnstone and Jerry Bruckheimer...I just want a lot of man-boom. It's here. 

Book number two, “L.A. Massacre”, is still MIA from my libraries, but apparently it wasn't anything special. In “Nevada Nightmare”, Dirk reflects on the events of “Chicago Deathwinds” and says nothing about his excursion to Hollywood. Key characters from the series like Tad (Chicago Tribune journalist) and Valerie (reporter, moist hole) are featured in this installment set in the mountains of Nevada. A religious cult psycho named Zarathustra has rose to prominence, built a mountain fortress (called Shangri-la) and recruited 900 clergy men and women to follow his radical extremist footsteps. This lunatic uses cassette tapes to lure his people into trance-like states where he can deem them “Moonchild” before bedding them in his posh penthouse. Dirk gets involved when Zarathustra kidnaps his friend Tad and his daughter Melody. The mission: bang Valerie on autopilot above the Sierras, infiltrate the cult, rescue Tad and Melody, flea to to flea-market obscurity. 

Oddly, pages 81-83 are step by step instructions on creating napalm. We become curious protegees while watching Dirk make a bomb with aluminum foil, a hairspray bottle and some soap flakes (and more ingredients that I won't provide here). Today's publishing world would never permit this bomb-making tutorial to make print (and probably report the author to authorities), but in 1984 I guess we were all just busy hoping the Cubs would get there. While Winski provides the step-by-step on something like this, I cringed reading, “The .357 Magnum spit 9mm slugs”. Amazing. Equally baffling is Dirk's ability to drive at high-speed on an icy road with a bimbo straddling the driver's seat because she just can't live without Dirk's junk. 

At the end of the day, Dirk is The Hitman. The guy with all the money, tail and a three-book series dedicated to his “wetwork”. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Shell Scott #12 - Strip for Murder

Richard Prather built a career on his 'Shell Scott' character with around 35 novels spanning from 1950 to 1987. Countless short stories appeared in the pages of 'Manhunt' and 'Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine', and there was even a short-lived 'Shell Scott Mystery Magazine' that existed for a bit in the 1960s.

The 'Shell Scott' paperbacks have gone through multiple printings over the past half century with some beautiful cover art by Robert McGinnis as well as some weird photo covers featuring an odd-looking model in a silver wig. I’m told that the best 'Shell Scott' stories were the early ones published by Fawcett Gold Medal. Later editions either suffered from too much madcap comedy or injections of Prather’s own conservative politics into the stories. My informal polling - and an article by the late Ed Gorman - told me that 1955’s Shell Scott #9: “Strip For Murder” was among his best.

The setup in “Strip For Murder” is fairly proforma: After a young heiress impulsively marries a man she hardly knows, her wealthy mother hires Los Angeles private detective Shell Scott to investigative his background. Is this a case of true love or is the new husband a conniving gold digger? The danger of this assignment lies in the fact that Scott isn’t the first investigator on the case. His predecessor was found murdered on a rural road during the course of his investigation, so our hero also has at least one murder to solve along the way.

Scott is the stereotypical, wise-cracking, skirt-chasing private eye. He’s hard-boiled but funny.
Because this is a 'Shell Scott' novel, the action quickly moves to a nudist camp where Scott is called upon to go undercover as the naked fitness director. It should come as no surprise to the reader that every woman (or tomato, as he often calls them) at the camp is beautiful, luscious, and willing. Comedy set pieces throughout the book pad the paperback’s length without compromising the plot.

Other than some wacky situations, this is a pretty standard private eye novel. Scott follows logical leads, gets laid, and has his life repeatedly threatened as he gets closer to the truth. There are red herrings, bar brawls, and sunbathing contests adding to the fun, but the core mystery is nothing you haven’t seen before if you’ve ever read 'Milo March', 'Mike Shayne', or the works of Carter Brown. This genre is comfort food, and this execution of the craft in “Strip for Murder” was good reading - just don’t expect a masterpiece.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

.357 Vigilante #02 - Make Them Pay

Writing good vigilante fiction isn’t just about telling an interesting story. The author has to make the reader identify with the vigilante. He also has to sell us on the need for vigilante action. Lee Goldberg understood those requirements when he wrote the second book in his .357 Vigilante series, “Make Them Pay”. And though he was still a college student at the time, he did a fine job with this.

In fact, I liked it better than the debut book, “.357 Vigilante”, which went overboard on superhuman action exploits in its final chapters. This time around, our hero is more down to Earth, a little more vulnerable, and prone to making a mistake now and then. In fact, he’s dangerously close to being mellow.

A kiddie porn racket is operating in Los Angeles, using kidnapped children who are put before the cameras, raped to death and then discarded around town. The mayor has so little faith in his own criminal justice system that he puts a discreet call out to “Mr. Jury,” the vigilante who took down a bunch of bad guys in the previous book. Our vigilante hero agrees to take on the case, and you pretty much know how things will go from there. But the journey is satisfying, partly because he’s also got to keep a sexy but suspicious reporter from finding out about his hobby. After all, even in the world of men’s action/adventure fiction, a vigilante can go to prison for killing low-life shitbags if he’s not careful.

As in the first book, “Make Them Pay” is dotted with welcome 1980s cultural references, and while there’s less suspense and general intensity than before, I appreciated its more relaxed tone. The emotional anguish of the first book is pretty much over with now. 

For example, one day Mr. Jury is boinking his girlfriend (using chocolate ice cream as an innovative lubricant). The next day she gets obliterated in a car bomb, and three days later he’s boinking the sexy reporter. Whether this sort of thing is a step in the right or wrong direction is up to the reader. Personally, I didn’t mind. (Full disclosure: I read this while dealing with the flu, so I was glad for the lightweight approach.)

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Whiskey Smith #05: Rampage in Whiskey Smith

Eric Allen (Eric Allen-Ballard) wrote a number of westerns including a five book series entitled 'Whiskey Smith'. Some of the books list the author as Gene Tuttle, but this could have been a pseudonym used by Allen as he also wrote under the name Jonathan Busby. These 'Whiskey Smith' books were all released as part of the Ace western line between 1968 and 1979. Are they worth a wooden nickel? Based on my experience of “Rampage in Whiskey Smith”...absolutely not.

Whiskey Smith is a powder keg town sitting between westward Cherokee Nation and Arkansas. The general consensus is that anyone wanting to commit acts of atrocity can jump over to the opposite territory when fingers are pointed. Criminals, land barons, Indian killers and back shooters gravitate to Whiskey Smith like moths to a flame. US Marshals keep tabs on their side of the fence, hanging and jailing most of the hardmen. The Cherokee council keeps tight reins on their own territory, delving out regulation duties to guys like Breen Drager.

Drager is the chief protagonist, a dull character that is a half-breed. He's serving the Cherokee Nation as a property manager, carving out plots of land and providing it to settlers, farmers, ranchers and “good white folk”. The narrative explores Drager's feud with former best friend Hawk Folsom, an equally dull character that made a smooch and grab on Drager's fiance. Drager breaks off the friendship and evicts Folsom from his rental of Cherokee land. Folsom teams with another dull and lifeless character named Tucker Bowden, and the two harass and disrupt Drager's everyday routine. There's another love interest thrown in for Drager, but by that point no one cares. I hated this book and found myself lacking sympathy for the dying as I routinely checked page numbers every two-minutes. 

Avoid at all costs. This is the poster child of "play it safe" fiction.