Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Enforcer #02 - Calling Doctor Kill!

There's no secret that I loathed the very existence of Andrew (Andrea) Sugar's 'The Enforcer' debut. It's preposterous plotting and dull narrative left a lot to be desired. The pretentious “enforcer” bit never came to fruition, nor did the Mafia or kill contracts per the appetizing front cover. In my review of that series debut, I requested “less spiders in a bag, less laser beams and much better writing” as my definitive closing statement for the jury. Thankfully, my willpower to read the second series entry, “Calling Doctor Kill!”, didn't evaporate as this novel is a pleasant surprise and a fair representation of what I had expected from the series name.

In this novel, protagonist Alex Jason is requested by the institute to infiltrate a complex hospital operated by the mysterious Syndicate. Jason is provided a new body (his brain can transfer bodies every 90 days) and an identity as a new doctor hired by the hospital. The mission is to free Dr. Rosegold, the brilliant mind behind the whole “transferring to a new body” routine. Rosegold is a brilliant entrepreneur with a tremendous skill-set, thus an easy target for the Syndicate. They have him captured in a coma-like state inside the heavily fortified hospital. It's an attempt to pry information on the body transfer process for an overall goal of creating seemingly immortal mobsters. Aim high, shoot high.

In the first novel, Sugar placed Jason in over his head as a combat-heavy jungle soldier without an ounce of military experience. That plodding, lifeless debacle of having him blow up an oil reserve in a banana country was absurd beyond words. In this book, Jason infiltrating a hospital using his brain instead of brawn makes logical sense. Instead of explosives and laser beams, this book is grounded with a solid dose of espionage, a thrilling pace and an effective setting that creates a sense of isolation and forthcoming doom. It's a chilling atmosphere, making Jason's undercover mission compelling, riveting and all-together just a damn fine read. Sugar never misses a beat. “Calling Doctor Kill!” finally showcases this writer's talent as well as a tremendous amount of potential for the series. 

Monday, January 29, 2018

Lucky at Cards (aka The Sex Shuffle)

During the heyday of paperback originals of the 1950s and 1960s, a prolific author could compound his income by selling books to multiple publishers under a variety of pseudonyms. It’s become the hobby of many modern fans to serve as detectives and pulp anthropologists to uncover the real authors of the genre novels of the era. Sometimes, a reprint publisher does the work for you. Hard Case Crime acquired the rights to reprint Lawrence Block’s sexy 1964 con-man caper novel, “The Sex Shuffle”, written under Block’s Sheldon Lord moniker. Hard Case Crime gave the book a new title, “Lucky at Cards”, and commissioned some new cover art for the re-release under the author’s own name. 

Our narrator and anti-hero Bill Maynard is a former magician and professional poker cheat known to his fellow con artists as Wizard.  When we meet Maynard, he is recovering from a beating in Chicago when he receives an invitation to a friendly game from his dentist. After practicing his fake shuffles and tricky deals in the mirror for awhile, he’s ready to thicken his wallet with his card manipulation skills. 

The reader is given a fascinating tour through the tricks and nomenclature of a professional card mechanic. At the game, Maynard brings in some good money dealing from the bottom of the deck (“a subway deal”) and bypassing the top card (“dealing seconds”) while the middle-class pigeons are none-the-wiser. The short con gets complicated when the  host’s trophy wife catches him and let’s Maynard know in con-man parlance that he’s been made without alerting the game’s other players. In a private conversation later, we learn that sexy femme fatale Joyce has a colorful past, and she’s grown sick of playing the role of a dutiful bride to her boring lawyer husband. 

After some fairly hot (by 1964 standards) forbidden coupling, Maynard and Joyce hatch a plot to make an end-run around the husband’s less-than-generous will to get his money and run away together. Complications - including a love triangle - arise along the way peppered by more lusty sex scenes. The con runs into problems and the reader is treated to plenty of twists and turns along the way. It’s a helluva good ride. Without spoiling anything, the final climactic scene of the novel was a contrived and corny let-down followed by a more satisfying and redeeming epilogue. 

Even early in his career, Lawrence Block had a knack for first-person narrative readability. The dialogue is snappy, and the conversational style makes this an easy and fun story. The action is all cerebral - more like The Sting or The Cincinnati Kid - than the violent crime novels of the era. The sex scenes are erotic without being graphic - a delicate needle to thread. 

There are probably better paperbacks to serve as an introduction to Block’s vast body of work, but The Sex Shuffle/Lucky at Cards is a worthwhile read for hardcore Lawrence Block fans. It’s a quick and easy read with lots of cool moments and vivid characters. 

Secret Agent X #1 - The Torture Test

If you ever find yourself burning out on the sullen anti-heroes of 1970's-80's paperbacks, and getting tired of the coldness, the sex and the cynicism in them, the vintage pulps are the perfect alternative. But while fabulous characters are all over the place in the pulps, finding great stories isn’t necessarily easy. 'Doc Savage', 'G-8' and 'The Spider' are classic heroes, but these stories were written for a young crowd - basically 12 to 16-years old. You get lots of action, weird villains and a brisk pace, but sometimes things collapse into such silliness that you become detached from the story rather than being carried along by it. At the other end of the spectrum are heroes like 'The Shadow' and 'The Phantom Detective'. Here the stories are a bit more adult and less fanciful, but sometimes the prose is dry, plodding and short on thrills. I love all of those characters. But I’ve found that the stories I tend to enjoy the most come from the middle of the spectrum, where you’ll find lesser-known heroes like 'Jim Hatfield', 'Operator 5' and 'Secret Agent X'.

Agent X makes his debut in “The Torture Trust” (1934), an imaginative and energetic novel full of action and atmosphere, menace and mayhem. It’s got naturalistic dialogue and there are no goofy sidekicks following the hero around. Paul Chadwick (as Brant House) handles this enigmatic character with skill, sharing Agent X’s thoughts and feelings just enough to make him human, without ever losing the aura of mystery that makes him fascinating. We’re told almost nothing about who he is (not even his name), where he came from or how he got into his dangerous profession.

In this adventure, Agent X battles an unknown trio of hooded extortionists who are terrorizing the city, torturing their victims with acid when they don’t pay up. At first, he has almost no clues to work with, but he methodically zeroes in on the villains’ identities and location, step-by-step, right through to an effective climactic confrontation. Chadwick must have realized he had something special here, because he would later recycle the story for another 'Secret Agent X' novel, “The Hooded Heroes”, in which the only real improvement was to make the villains even meaner, pouring molten lead down their victims’ throats! 

Like many of the great pulp heroes, Agent X frequently goes undercover, wearing disguises and elaborate make-ups as he conducts his operations. He really takes that work seriously in “The Torture Trust”, studying film footage and voice recordings of his subjects before meticulously applying many thin layers of makeup to complete his impersonation. This is quite a contrast to 'The Shadow', 'G-8', 'The Phantom Detective' (and Agent X himself in his later novels), whose make-ups are slapped together in a few moments, often in the dark or in moving vehicles. That attention to detail pays off, both for Agent X and the author and it helps set this thriller apart. Like all the best hero pulp stories, it’s grounded in the real world… but anything can happen on the next page.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Vigilante #01 - New York: An Eye for an Eye

This novel, “New York: An Eye for an Eye”, is the debut of a six-volume series entitled ‘Vigilante’. The house name is V.J. Santiago, but it’s written by Robert Lory of ‘John Eagle Expeditor’ fame. It’s a Pinnacle book, and was released in 1975 with easily one of the worst covers of the genre. It’s made painfully abysmal by the promise that it’s “More ruthless than The Executioner and more vengeful than Death Wish!”. Luckily, the book’s pretentious (boisterous) claims are overshadowed by quality writing and an engaging story. Surprisingly, this one is a solid representation of what makes this “revenge” sub-genre so compelling.

The book’s prologue quickly introduces us to a very violent East Seventy-Seventh Street in New York. A young woman named Janet is raped and killed across the street from our protagonist Joe Madden. It’s an eerie precursor of the horror awaiting Madden and his young wife Sara. Lory takes some time introducing us to Madden and building the obligatory relationship not only with his wife Sara, but the reader as well. We go through a hectic day in the life of Madden – business meetings, projects, deadlines in the hustle and bustle engineering field. The two leave a social engagement late and find themselves robbed and viciously assaulted on a vacant subway car. The result leaves Madden hospitalized and his young wife dead.

Lory crafts a progressive, well-developed novel around grief. It’s a portrait study of Madden’s mental state, painting the metamorphosis from shock to grief, heartbreak to hopelessness and ultimately anguish to vengeance. The author blankets each chapter in bleak realism, enveloping the reader in the downward spiral of this man. While “vigilante” is certainly a descriptive term, most of the book is the poignant sea of sorrow. Within the first week of the attack, Madden starts to create a campaign for vengeance. The author builds in a little know-how by explaining that Madden has killed before. He served in the Korean War and provides a little background on a memorable battle. Beyond this, the character knows nothing about crusading or righting the wrongs of lower-class America. He enters battle with a makeshift kitchen knife housed with tape inside of a cardboard sheath. His targets are of the low-life variety – muggers, purse-snatchers, etc. - but he averages a kill a night. Later, he pushes the envelope and keeps an assailant’s .38 revolver and uses it in a climactic killing of a trio of rapists.

The series could be misconstrued as a clone of the vigilante spawn of 1968. At least for this novel, that certainly isn’t the case. While probably not as relevant as an Elmore Leonard or Brian Garfield, the book is every bit as engaging as Messmann’s ‘Revenger’. While this “revenge the death” study in human behavior is captivating, the hardcore fans could shrug off it’s overutilized plot. I’d approach the book as more of a portrait of loss instead of the gritty, men’s action adventure that it professes to be.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Snowbound

Classic crime publisher Stark House Press has reprinted Bill Pronzini's 1974 stand-alone heist novel, “Snowbound”. This edition is also packaged with another short Pronzini novel called “Games”. “Snowbound” is a well-written short novel about a heist crew (think of Richard Stark's ‘Parker’) who decides to lay low at a safehouse in a small, wintery, mountain town where everybody seems to know each other. In addition to the hold-up crew, the town is also occupied by a boozy recluse with a mysterious past, a mayor with a sexual secret life, a horny housewife seeking companionship, a couple expecting their first child and a handful of secondary side-characters. The cast is vividly-realized as Pronzini takes the time to give them each actual subplots and character development - something often lacking in classic heist novels. A snowstorm and an avalanche seclude the snowbound town and creates the novel's central tension that drives the story forward. The plotting reminded me of Stephen King in the way a cast of independent characters converge in the novel's protracted, bloody climax. The easy-read story moves at a good clip, and the ending was very satisfying. Fans of heist novels and "confined space" suspense stories will find a lot to enjoy in “Snowbound”. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Trailsman #256 - High Country Horror

This ‘Trailsman’ adventure, “High Country Horror” (James Reasoner as Jon Sharpe), starts out being a wilderness survival story, as Skye Fargo meets a wagon train of settlers in serious trouble. They’ve been deceived by their guide, who steered them into the mountains far from the Oregon Trail before robbing and abandoning them just as the first blizzard of winter arrives. These opening chapters are superb, and they were so promising that I was a little disappointed that the book soon changes course. 

Instead of a Donner Party drama of hunger and slow death, we find Fargo leading the settlers to the shelter of an abandoned fort, where the crooked guide re-appears with his well-armed outlaw gang and terrorizes them all over again, though Fargo does his best to help. Amid this action are interludes with a death-dealing Sasquatch-like figure known as the Lost River Lurker, who appears from time to time to attack people before mysteriously disappearing. 

These narrative pieces don’t necessarily fit together perfectly, but the author’s gifts for atmosphere and suspense make it all work. The story concludes with a strong confrontation scene and then, as if to place a cherry atop the sundae, there’s a surprise twist. But that twist didn’t make much sense to me. I won’t give anything away, but the revelation we get is a bit hard to believe. Sometimes a sundae doesn’t need a cherry, and I think the novel would have been better had it ended half a page sooner. But overall, this was a gripping novel and the Lurker really helps it stand apart from the roughly 400 other ‘Trailsman’ stories.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Perfect Victim

Author James McKimmey’s debut novel, “Perfect Victim”, was released by Dell Books in 1957. Its re-issue is presented by Stark House as a two-in-one featuring his second novel, “Winner Take All”, and a 2004 interview conducted by Scottish author and editor Allan Guthrie. McKimmey would later go on to write numerous genre entries including westerns and science-fiction until his passing in 2011.

“Perfect Victim” embodies the small-town spirit of earlier works like “Winesburg, Ohio” (1919), “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1943) and the essential “Our Town” (1938). It’s setting is the tiny midwestern town of Willow Creek. McKimmey introduces us to several characters including the stereo-typical cast of journalist, sheriff, banker, bully and waitress. At the heart of the matter is the mysterious murder of the town beauty, young waitress Grace. While the reader isn’t asking who done it (we were voyeurs on the scene), the rest of Willow Creek is. Like many books and shorts of this style, the real essence of “Perfect Victim” is exposing the good-hearted with the bad intentions. Hardly anyone is particularly wholesome, including the fingered guy – a traveling salesman who’s innocent but immoral. The only protagonist is the media (by design?), represented by the admirable George Cary.

At 135-pages of physical media, this isn’t a hard-boiled or detective piece. It’s labeled as “crime” but it’s loosely a human exam on small town’s dark crevices. There’s a murder, a body and a small dose of procedure. The book’s closing pages has a dark and violent orchestration amidst a fiery, noose-hungry town. McKimmey brings us full circle from retribution to salvation in this quality, albeit simple, effort. 

Amazon - http://amzn.to/2G4Ca09
Publisher - http://starkhousepress.com/mckimmy.php

Monday, January 22, 2018

Winner Take All

Mark Steele is an out-of-work Man of Adventure bumming around San Francisco when he hears a knock at the door. The man on the other side of the door is a stranger - but one who looks exactly like Steele. This is the opening scene of James McKimmey’s 1959 Dell paperback, “Winner Take All”. This obscure crime novel has been given a second life through a 2018 re-release from Stark House Crime Classics. This new re-issue is packaged with a 1957 “innocent man accused” novel called “Perfect Victim”, also by McKimmey, as well as a 2004 interview with the author (by “Noir Originals” scribe and author Allan Guthrie). This review focuses solely on “Winner Take All” with a review forthcoming for “Perfect Victim”.

It turns out that Steele’s doppelgänger is a heretofore unknown twin brother who was separated at birth. And while Steele lived a hardscrabble life fighting in wars and taking care of himself, Byrd planted his flag into the privileged trappings of the idle rich - trust funds, women, booze, and gambling. As hardboiled genre fiction fans might expect, the reason that Byrd seeks out Steele was not for a tearful brotherly reunion. He comes with an offer: Can Steele pose as Byrd to negotiate a settlement on a large gambling debt owed to the mob? Seeing an opportunity to turn a buck and find some action, the braver brother accepts, and the story is off and running.

It would have been easy for McKimmey to structure the novel differently - by having the non-violent brother drafted to take the place of his soldier-of-fortune twin and find his own manhood in the process. Instead, the author puts us into the mind of the brother who is more comfortable in a world of violence and unpredictability, and that adds to the fun of this one. While the set-up of this short novel is rather contrived, the execution is superb - mostly due to the author’s skill with first-person crime novel narration. The book has all the trappings of the hardboiled crime stories of the paperback original era - thuggish mobsters, a sexy femme fatale (or two) and twisty double-cross plot devices. It’s a blast of a story - violent, sexy, and compelling - and well worth your time. 

Amazon - http://amzn.to/2G4Ca09
Publisher - http://starkhousepress.com/mckimmy.php

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Executioner #07 - Nightmare in New York

The seventh installment of ‘The Executioner’ series is 1971’s “Nightmare in New York”. Finally, the riveting action arrives both domestically and sequentially in this triumphant return to form for author Don Pendleton. After the series’ debut quartet, “War…”, “Death…”, “Battle…” and “Miami…”, which are held in high esteem by fans of the series and genre, the thrill-ride slowed as it was exported to Europe. The fifth and sixth volumes, “Continental…” and “Assault…”, were off-target for Bolan and his experienced skill-set. Humor, perverse sexcapades and a bizarre treatment of the character left plenty to be desired. With “Nightmare…”, the series experiences a revival with one of the best entries in Pendleton’s initial 38-title run.

A dark, ominous tone is set in the book’s prologue. Pendleton recaps the first six books and advises that Phase One and Phase Two of the Mafia War, which he calls “The War of Attrition”, has ended. He promises readers that Phase Three is here and it’s “The War of Destruction”. Pendleton prophesizes, “He will hit them now in their omniscience, in their omnipotence; their omnipresence, he reasons, will then fold under its own weight. Bolan is in the saddle, his mount is destiny, his target is the Kingdom of Evil – wherever its ugly head may rise”. The grim nature at the beginning spills into the book’s opening scenes of Bolan arriving stateside through Kennedy International airport. Flanking the emerging Bolan is Sam “The Bomber” Chianti and his Manhattan-based Gambella Family. In a strange, yet superbly written encounter, Bolan exits a helicopter into a hail of gunfire. He escapes - with hot lead in the shoulder and a small tear in his hip - thanks to a trio of young beauties.

The book starts to settle in as Bolan is nursed back to health by the three young women. The author takes the opportunity to establish a relationship and continue to build on Bolan’s need for love despite hopeless abandonment of normalcy. The Gambella Family is now the primary target for Bolan, particularly Chianti’s lifelines. In Bolan’s acute awareness of Mafia operations, he leisurely kills three hired hands in a hotel, stuffing them in a trunk before shaking up the mob shops and racketeering joints. In hilarious scenes, we see Bolan talk the talk and walk the walk right into the lairs of lieutenants and Mob don Freddie Gambella (snatching a cool 25K on the way out). Frequently, he kills and leaves his trademark marksman badges. This is the classic Bolan we saw in Phase One and Phase Two, that slick and violent destroyer; the swift and cold hand delivering point blank justice.

After learning of the brutal rape, torture and death of one of the trio of young girls, Bolan is the grimmest we’ve seen him since the original “War Against the Mafia”. He hits the mob hard in a meat packing plant, at one-point firing round after round into the head of a deceased enforcer. Her age, beauty and prior friendship sets Bolan on a vengeance trail. He calls a local television station and coolly warns, “I am going to destroy the Gambella Family. One by one, crew by crew, business by business – I am going to wipe them. I will not be bought off or scared off by threats against defenseless and innocent persons, and if one more sweet kid is turned to turkey because of me, then these turkeymakers are going to discover what a real nightmare is all about. There is no escape for these people. I know each of them, I know where they go and what they do, and I am going to hunt them down, all of them, and I am going to execute them.”

This book not only flashes the same gritty badge as the early part of the series, it also recalls key characters. Bolan has a verbal exchange with undercover enforcer Leo Turrin, an older ally from the opening quartet. He asks Turrin about Valentina and the status on his younger brother (whom we haven’t heard much about until now). I love how Bolan explains to Turrin in the exchange, “I’m no detective. I’m an infantryman”. No truer words have been spoken about this turbulent character. The book’s finale captures Bolan’s barbarous assault on Stoney Lodge, the Gambella headquarters. The heated exchange leaves Bolan with only one choice – go fight the next battle in a war he can’t win. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Black Friday

After his 2004 death, the estate of William W. Johnstone - under the direction of his niece, J.A. Johnstone - kept the family business alive by turning the Johnstone name into a successful fiction factory. The company hires talented genre authors to craft action and western novels published under the house names of William Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone. Unlike James Patterson’s similar business model, the actual authors are given no credit. The ghost writers are sworn to secrecy through non-disclosure agreements and the promise of future work if they keep their mouths shut about their contributions to the family business while fostering the illusion that William and J.A. are actually authoring these paperback originals. The ghost-written Johnstone westerns are pretty standard fare, but the contemporary action novels ("Treason", "Stand Your Ground", etc.) tap into the growing market of politically-conservative adventure tales marketed to the Fox News-Breitbart crowd. The formula: common-sense American heroes battle crime, immigrants, and Muslim terrorists as well as the politically-correct liberals standing in their way of success. These stand-alone novels celebrate the triumph of conservative American values over progressive societal chaos. Commercially, this formula has been extremely successful. The unknown authors would never have gotten their books into every 7-11, grocery chain, and big box store if they weren’t leveraging the Johnstone house name and the right-wing wish fulfillment thriller formula.

2016’s "Black Friday" is the most recent Johnstone thriller to dominate the non-bookstore bookshelves in this successful sub-genre. It’s the story of a Muslim terrorist attack on a middle-America shopping mall on the day after Thanksgiving. The unknown author introduces us to a cast of characters - several war veterans, an ex-con with a heart of gold, a Catholic Priest, a cowardly school teacher, and others - who all head to the mall on the busiest shopping day of the year. Little did the heartland customers know, but Islamic terrorists (a 100 man cell!) were planning a mass-casualty attack that day at in the name of Allah. Things quickly devolve into a barricade situation with the cartoonishly inept law enforcement outside (paralyzed by their politically-correct bosses) while a core group of hostages, armed with their own weapons and those taken from a sporting goods store, mount a stand.

Politics aside, this is an excellent action novel. Think of it as “GOP Die Hard in a Mall.” There is plenty of blood-spurting violence throughout the book. The heroic characters were well-developed and sympathetic, and the bad guys were all suitably reprehensible. The unknown author did a fantastic job of moving the plot forward from one violent set-piece to another. The novel’s conservative politics didn’t detract from the quality of the adventurous tale conceived by the author. At worst, they came off as a distraction when awkwardly shoe-horned into otherwise great scenes (one character growls, “Thank God for the Second Amendment” as he’s raining bullets on terrorist intruders, for example). There’s nothing factually incorrect about that sentiment given the context, but these asides can take the reader out of the story for a moment - a disservice to the suspenseful sequence underway.

As with many propulsive action stories, there needs to be some suspension of common sense and disbelief. Mall anchor stores tend to have more exits than the author allows. And a law enforcement response in real life is (thank goodness) way better than this fiction depicted. But why quibble with a Walmart paperback? "Black Friday" is a truly exciting and violent book that will please fans of classic 20th Century Men’s Adventure literature. If you find the occasionally awkward conservative talking-points bothersome, just remind yourself that this book is filed under fiction, and enjoy the thrilling ride.

Quarry #01 - The First Quarry

Esteemed author Max Allan Collins is a heavy contributor to the gritty hard-boiled line of mystery fiction. His well-respected creations include ‘Nate Heller’, ‘Nolan’, ‘Mallory’ and the subject at hand, ‘Quarry’. The Thrilling Detective blog cites ‘Quarry’ as the first hired killer series, predating Loren Estleman’s ‘Peter Macklin’ and Lawrence Block’s ‘Keller’. Collins released the debut, “The Broker” (aka “Quarry”), in 1976. After four more novels, and a ton of fan mail requests, the author began releasing series installments again in 2006.  Contrary to “The Broker” as sequentially the first ‘Quarry’ novel by publication date, it isn’t the chronological beginning. Quarry’s fictional accounts begin in this origin novel, “The First Quarry” (2008), and seemingly ends with “The Last Quarry” (2006). But aside from those bookends, the series can be read in any order from 1976 through last year’s entry, “Quarry’s Climax”. Thus, the explanation behind the numbered order featured here at Paperback Warrior. We are using a chronological reading sequence to encompass our review of the entire series.

Collins introduces our killer on a frosty December night in 1970. Quarry is a 5’-10”, 155-pound average build and a former U.S. Marine sniper. His experiencing killing Vietcong for low money has now extended domestically with a new business model and booming sales potential. In a brief recap, the reader learns that Quarry returned home after ‘Nam only to find his bride under a mechanic in the sack. In the blunt revenge tactic, Quarry catches the mechanic under a car…and ruthlessly kicks the jack out. The murder is widely publicized, but Quarry somehow gets off. This book’s opening pages has Quarry camped in a new suburban neighborhood in Iowa City performing surveillance. The homework is an effort to kill a college professor named K.J. Byron, ultimately Quarry’s first job offer in this new career opportunity.

An assassination service headed by the name The Broker offers Quarry the assignment to kill Byron after learning about his cold-blooded mechanic murder in the media. The Broker receives kill-jobs from needy clients which are then commissioned to hitmen. In what would become a staple of the series, The Broker simply calls our narrator “Quarry” with no indication if it’s meant as a first or last name. Regardless, this unnamed trait is formula for the genre, evident in Dashiell Hammet’s ‘Continental Op’ and Bill Pronzini’s ‘Nameless Detective’. To size up Quarry’s expertise, the first assignment is killing this professor. The client’s daughter, Annette, has been collaborating with Byron on a book in exchange for working her young pupil hips and lips. While this is enough to maintain any fatherly vendetta, the larger piece is a manuscript outlining mafia action Annette has witnessed in the family business. Killing Byron and destroying the manuscript is imperative…but proves to be an arduous task for Quarry.

In true hard-boiled fashion, this first-person narrative has the protagonist displaying the sturdy antihero archetype. He’s completely void of morality, often breaking conventional ethics and driven by self-interest. While bravado fueled novels like Don Pendleton’s “War Against the Mafia” defines rigid boundaries and a sense of right and wrong, Collins leaves Quarry dissolute; youth gone wild in all it’s moral erosion. Quarry sleeps with the client’s daughter and the professor’s wife, endangering an already fragile working relationship. He sucker-shoots, lies, cheats and steals to overcome his lack of physical superiority (noted in one scene where he can’t fight two African-American mobsters). As the elementary assignment becomes further entangled in scorned love and rival gangs, Collins is quick to remind us the web isn’t a complex weave. His quick summaries of busy, violent chapters are stylishly funny - “The good news was the girl wasn’t dead. The bad news was everything else.” Quarry is wicked and never out of morbid one-liners for the reader. He’s likable but deadly, repulsive but delightful and the “good” bad guy we all want to win.

For the lack of a better term…Quarry simply kills.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Spur #15 - Hang Spur McCoy!

There were over 40 volumes of the western series ‘Spur’. The Leisure house name was Dirk Fletcher but these were actually written by journeyman writer Chet Cunningham (‘Jim Steel’, ‘Outlaws’, ‘Pony Soldiers’). “Hang Spur McCoy!” is book number 15 and was suggested as a good starter for new readers. There’s a brief introduction in the opening chapter, but later expanded as a sufficient backstory in Chapter 12. Spur McCoy grew up in New York as the son of a wealthy merchant and importer. After graduating from Harvard, Spur took a commission in the infantry during the Civil War. As a captain, Spur was appointed as one of the first US Secret Service Agents. For validity, the author states Spur was chosen out of ten finalists for his horse riding and service pistol marksmanship. After exceptional service in Washington, he was transferred to St. Louis to manage all of the action west of the Mississippi. Thus, a series was born with a legitimate character, purpose and the open-ended ability to place him in any sort of drama and adventure in the perilous west. 

Cunningham kickstarts “Hang Spur McCoy!” with a bang. Our government agent is firing at an outhouse with a Spencer repeater. During the exchange Spur is wounded badly with a leg shot and awakens in the midst of a noose-ready posse. The sheriff and three make-shift lawmen have sentenced Spur to a lynching after accusing him of rape and murder. Once he successfully defends his position, the sheriff comes to Spur’s aid only to be outnumbered by the hostile trio. With a bound sheriff, the three struggles tying a noose. The sheriff assists, but cleverly ties a Murphy’s Knot to allow a faux presentation of Spur hanging. The deed is done and the three ride off with the sheriff staying behind for the pulse check. Other than a horrendous rope-burn and a bum leg, Spur is ready to complete his mission.

Some authors may be complacent with this being a simplistic and over utilized plot. Stretching out a revenge yarn for 200-pages is quite manageable and most authors worth their salt can milk this. While the author has Spur tracking those responsible for his hanging, the bulk of the story is the assignment – solving a counterfeiting racket in Twin Falls, Idaho. It’s slightly convenient that one of the hangmen is directly associated with the counterfeiting, but it’s forgivable. The action has Spur in detective mode sourcing the operation from start to finish. Along the way is a plethora of lovely ladies for the inevitable mattress romps. Fans of the series understand (need?) the obligatory 10% sex inclusion and it certainly spaces out the gumshoe portions in pleasant fashion. The finale has Spur unarmed in the forest facing adversity…and two armed gunmen. While Cunningham heats the barrels, “Hang Spur McCoy!” pauses for a tender moment as Spur shows compassion for one of the accused. This unique angle is one of the many little nuances that makes Cunningham’s work so enjoyable.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Wilderness #01 - King of the Mountain

“King of the Mountain” is the excellent debut of David Robbins' ‘Wilderness’ series. It was released by Leisure in 1990 under Robbins’ pseudonym David Thompson. The series ran 66 volumes over the course of 20 years, and also extended to “giant” versions as well as omnibus collections. Set in New York City (population 100,000) in 1882, Nate King is a low-level accountant with a crappy boss and a job with limited upward mobility. His girlfriend is a materialistic pain in the neck who will only marry him if he can establish that he has the capacity to support the spoiled girl. A solution to this problem presents itself in the form of a letter from Nate’s long-lost Uncle Zeke, the family pariah who ventured west to pursue frontier adventures. Zeke wants Nate to meet him in St. Louis and promises a share of the “treasure” Zeke has amassed. Driven by his own wanderlust and greed, Nate sets off on a horseback adventure to meet Uncle Zeke in St. Louis. From there the adventure continues westward. This is basically an origin and travel story where a city dandy learns the ways of a wilderness mountain man on a cross-country horseback adventure. The mentor/student scenes are both enlightening and captivating. The road adventures include run-ins with dangerous wildlife, kindly Native Americans, scalp-hunting savages and conniving road thieves. There are plenty of scenes of explosive, bloody violence and tension-filled stand-offs. The author also injects several interesting historical tidbits of pre-cowboy frontier life in the unsettled west - you’ll be thrilled while learning a thing or two. This debut was a straight-up, nearly perfect genre novel and it will make you want to continue the story into book two and beyond.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Wasteworld #01 - Aftermath

U.K. author *Laurence James has become a regular staple here at Paperback Warrior. I’ve covered a host of his novels ranging from the ‘Apache’ western series to his popular post-apocalyptic runs on ‘Deathlands’ and ‘Survival 2000’. The “Piccadilly Cowboy” had a knack for science-fiction and the post-nuke formula, evident as early as 1983 with the four-book series ‘Wasteworld’. It’s debut, “Aftermath”, was released in the U.K. by the Granada publishing house under one of James’ many house names, James Barton. Collaborating with Granada is popular British artist Richard Clifton-Dey (Blue Oyster Cult, Ray Bradbury). The talented painter showcases a barren, dismal “wasteworld”, accenting hero Matthew Chance’s post-apocalyptic struggle perfectly. With rather large print at 128 pages, this is two-hours…spent.

Like any post-nuke worth its salt, “Aftermath” curtain jerks with a paragraph explaining Afghanistan was invaded, the US took the banana countries and a war was fought over Cuba. The breaking point was an invasion into Libya as the parts of the world experienced oil shortages. The bombs went up and down…and now most of the world is riddled with radiation, disease and devastation. Marine Air Corps pilot Matthew Chance was fighting in a campaign over the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean when the nukes exchanged. Apparently, the bombs really had no effect on Matthew or the surrounding area. Surviving the ordeal, he somehow ends up in Mexico (told to the reader through a verbal exchange with a mutant) where very little devastation has occurred. Other than the air bases, Mexico has very little radiation or physical stress. As charming as it sounds, Matthew has to get to Texas to find his ex-wife and their two children.

The book’s opening chapters has Matthew washing up on a shore in New Orleans. He’s somehow sunk a cigarette boat in the gulf with kilos of cocaine and gallons of fuel. His bartering goods are ultimately destroyed and the only possession he can carry to shore is a fighting knife. This quickly comes in handy as Matthew fights off a gang of deadly, feral cats to prove his validity. Soon, he’s exploring the city only to find New Orleans is now ran by a voodoo priest named Amos. The African Americans have actually enslaved the white survivors and now serve as labor and enforcement for “king” Amos. After seeing Caucasians being buried alive, pale-faced Matthew quickly runs for safety. He runs into a swarm of 7-foot hunchback ogres and mutant, rabid dogs. His only safety is in the sewers where he befriends a female mutant named Alice Adams. In a wacky scene we learn Alice can only communicate by ESP and she’s a permanent resident – her mutant deformity is that she is bloated to a supersized blob of lethargic fat. With that size comes great stress – she can’t fit through the sewer exits.

Alice offers to aid Matthew in his journey to Texas (how?) if he will simply go kill Amos. Matthew makes a failed attempt only to be awarded with the obligatory jail time. Amos forces Matthew to shoot a few white prisoners while requiring him to fly a Cobra helicopter into the bayou to kill an army of Cajun opposition. It’s utterly ridiculous, made even more convoluted by an insane decision on the part of Matthew to blow the helicopter up. Why not just fly the damn thing to Texas and save the family? Instead, Matthew wastes an entire helicopter fighting rabid dogs and mutants near the sewer entrance. In the book’s finale, Matthew, now teaming with the very mutants he was fighting, attempts to exchange Amos for some Cajun prisoners.

I loved the brief backstory on Matthew and the mono myth creation. This really set the book up well, and despite our hero fighting cats, he’s introduced as a likable guy. The chase scenes within the brothel and wine cellar were very effective and bordered on horror’s penchant for dark spaces and hypertension. I found James really ahead of the game with an early style of writing in describing residency. A lot of the zombie fiction of the 00s would depict characters entering homes and finding dead bodies. I always found that part of zombie fiction entertaining…although oddly anonymous and thought provoking. Here, Matthew enters a number of homes and finds the same scenario. Often, he simply drags the bodies into a room or piles them up downstairs. I thought this was a unique aspect considering the time of release – 1983. By the middle of the book James’ throws the baby out with the bath water. Alice Adams is absolutely bizarre and the vile villain is dull and lifeless. Where the book’s beginning made Matthew interesting and somewhat respectable…the closing chapters are studies in character erosion. The book’s cover painting and slim design makes it collectible…but I would never read this again.

* Justin Marriott of Paperback Fanatic, Sleazy Reader, Men of Violence, etc. suggests that this book may have been written by a different Piccadilly Cowboy in Angus Wells. He cites two different sources for pegging Wells as the author. First was an interview he did with crime writer James Harvey, who had worked with Wells and James on prior work. Second is the fact that Laurence James excludes 'Wasteworld' from his bibliography submitted to Paperback Parade. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Enforcer #01 - The Enforcer

Lancer released “The Enforcer” in 1973. It was the debut of a series that lasted four volumes with the publishing group before Manor purchased the line and released two more (including reprinting some with better art). The series was written and created by Andrew Sugar, who would later contribute for Argosy as well as books in ‘The Israeli Commandos’ line. After one stand-alone title, “Yank”, the author seemed to retire from writing around 1979.  No other published works are known. Oddly, there’s some mystery behind this particular creator. Some have speculated that Andrew Sugar was actually a woman named Andrea Sugar. However, according to the Glorious Trash blog, a fan and former Sugar colleague states this is false. Blogger and author Paul Bishop discovered evidence from a court case (her lawsuit over naming rights of ‘Dirty Harry’ film franchise) that he lived his later years as a woman – Andrea Sugar.

While “The Enforcer” appears to be another entry in the popular “vigilante revenge” sub-genre, don’t let the cover fool you. There are very little comparisons contrary to the book’s obvious knock-off of ‘The Executioner’ styled covers. The cover suggests this is a “great new series”. It’s not. It also shows us a Mack Bolan clone holding a handgun. That’s not in the book. The tagline of, “The contract’s out from the Mafia masters – get the Enforcer before he gets us!” has absolutely nothing to do with this book. There’s no Mafia, no contract and the Enforcer isn’t out to get anyone. The book’s jacket is a scam just begging for you to spend your hard earned .95 cents on this guy instead of Bolan. I hope you didn’t.

Alex Jason is a successful author and lives in a nice apartment complex in New York. In the book’s opening chapters, we learn that Jason is in the final stages of stomach cancer and weights roughly 100-pounds. He’s not exactly in tip-top fighting shape regardless of his martial arts background. Aside from controlling his pain using inner self-control called Ki, he spends his dying days depleting his funds and having heavily detailed sex with his girlfriend (who at one-point wishes Jason had two penises to please her with). Jason entertains an offer from a mysterious hologram – he can live an additional two years if he can contribute his services to the John Anryn Institute. How is this possible for a terminal Cancer patient? Simple. A guy named Flack has invented successful body growing (and cloning). Frankenstein influences in a men’s action adventure tale?

In what of the most outrageous storylines of any genre series, Flack can simply place Jason’s mind in perfect bodies that he has grown from cells. While these bodies are healthy, strong and enamored with ginormous penises, they do have a flaw. After about 90 days the body will essentially melt and Jason will need to be replaced in a new body. Each time this happens…the brain waves become a little duller. It’s not a flawless process but Jason understands the risks. Soon Flack and his institute has Jason in laser beam training, an important part of his first mission – destroying oil wells in Cuba to spur a dictatorship’s downfall. After meeting, and screwing, a trainer named Brunie (also a cloned body), Jason is off to Cuba (?) to shoot the oil well with a laser beam. Unfortunately, his raft sinks along with most of his supplies. Considering Jason has no prior military experience and writes books for a living, he is soon captured by the dictator and forced into a three-month prison sentence of torture and penis flicking (by another man).

There are so many things wrong with this book that I can’t possibly outline them all here. First, why would the institute want Jason to do these things? It’s 1973, why not some Vietnam specialist or other military trained professional? Second, the author spends a bulk of the middle of this book just doing day to day stuff at the prison – very mild torture, hotbox occupancy, penis flicking – with very little payoff. How does our paperback warrior escape? Brunie and his laser beam trainer, Tutley, show up to spring him from the camp. However, the book continues for another 40 pages as the team learns there is an “Island of Dr. Moreau” thing happening in some secret laboratory on the island. Without proper supplies and arms (the laser beams have a max capacity of 15 shots), they literally walk into the laboratory and threaten the commander with a spider in a bag. No shit. I’m not making this up. Utterly ridiculous…and fascinating. The book’s finale, which can’t come soon enough, circles back to the novel’s opening pages of Jason melting away on a Caribbean beach. It’s hard to imagine where the series’ will go from here – but I’m hoping less spiders in a bag, less laser beams and much, much better writing. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Steel-Jacket

Vanderbilt scholar Merle Constiner was a pulp detective and western writer from the 1940s through his death in 1979. In the 40s, Constiner’s characters Dean Wardlow Rock and Ben Mathews were featured in the detective magazines, which later would also feature the writer’s ‘Luther McGavock’ series of stories. In the 1950s, Constiner had journeyed into the western genre contributing books for Ace. His last novel, “Steel-Jacket”, was released as Ace entry 78580 in 1972.

The book introduces us to 19-year old Joe Fugate, a rough-shod orphan that grew up on the streets. The opening chapter explains that Fugate is passing through Oklahoma after looking for work further south in Arkansas. He rides upon Mr. Dennis and his daughter Amy traveling by wagon to Stinson County, Oklahoma. Amy explains that her father purchased a ranch called Flying 8 and the two are off to live there and raise pigs. Fugate explains that the trek could be dangerous and Amy asks him to accompany them. Mr. Dennis refuses the offer and Fugate soon rides upon them again, only Mr. Dennis has been murdered and Amy is shooting at two killers.

In a rather nonsensical fashion, Constiner attempts to detail a strange transaction between owners of the Flying 8 and the Dennis family. Loosely, Mr. Dennis saved $15,000 in gold only to throw it away on a fraudulent letter he received from an unknown source. The letter explained that if he paid some mysterious train passenger the money, he could take over ownership of the ranch and live out his merry life as a pig farmer. It’s far-fetched to think this man saved money for half his life only to throw it away so easily. Fugate decides he will lead Amy to the ranch safely and resolve his own suspicions about the Flying 8. Along the way the two meet characters along the road, sleep in various towns and generally just waste the reader’s time. Eventually (and painfully), the two discover the mystery behind the ranch ownership and why killers were after Mr. Dennis.

It’s easy to recognize Constiner’s love for mysteries and detective work. “Steel -Jacket” is really a “who’s who” sort of story but jacketed (pun intended) inside the cloak of western fiction. There’s a couple of very quick action sequences but nothing that would quench the thirst of die-hard western fans. Aside from that, the book reads more like a young adult tale with both Fugate and Amy being very young and displaying “unexperienced” characteristics. It was the author’s last work and it’s fitting that his closure was this book’s rather tidy finish. I won’t revisit this one again.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Deathlands #02 - Red Holocaust

Laurence James (as James Axler) takes over full-time for the second entry in the post-apocalyptic series ‘Deathlands’. “Red Holocaust” was released in September of 1986, 90-days from the release of series debut “Pilgrimage to Hell”. This series is a conglomerate of science-fiction and post-nuke elements, neatly wrapped in a jacket of men’s action adventure tales. It’s a unique series, and with that comes an abundance of cheers and jeers from genre fans. I could fall in the middle as a borderline fan, but I’ve only fully digested the first two books. There’s plenty to unpack in the series with over 120 volumes making up this epic storyline.

“Red Holocaust” picks up from the end results of the first book. Ryan and the crew are emerging from a redoubt location they entered somewhere in the pacific northwest. They quickly find they are in a large stone chamber that houses cameras and speakers. While not directly threatened at this early junction, the group find they are in a precarious position. Soon, a mysterious voice comes on known as “The Keeper”. This voice commands they lay down weapons and exit the chamber or they will be gassed. The group is hesitant but continue through the exit. This redoubt is in the northern most point of Alaska and sits underground in a 70-mile long bunker. The author describes it as a large shopping mall complete with store fronts, supplies and endless media. This underground fortress is solely maintained by an old man, The Keeper, and his two wives Lori and Rachel. The three pose no immediate threat and allow Ryan and company to stay at the bunker as long as they like. The group rearms themselves using one of the shops. Ryan and Krysty take the time for lovemaking while the others rest up, watch old movies and reacquaint themselves into a regular lifestyle – as short as it may be.

Meanwhile, an army of Russians have moved into the Bering Strait area and are attempting to cross over into Alaska. These “Narodniki” (translated to proponents of Russian propaganda) are on a track to the US hoping that history books are correct. They feel that America is still firmly intact after the war, housing beautiful women, skyscrapers, large cities and immense wealth. The group is led by an imbecile named Uchitel and his brother. The author poses them as vile terrorists and makes their trek a primary piece of the book. The Narodniki take over small villages, rape everyone and engage in atrocious forms of torture and punishment. While this is happening, another group of Russian fundamentalists are in pursuit of the Narodniki – although we never really learn why. This army is led by Major Zimyanin and pieces of their trek is shown to the reader – albeit far less interesting.

At one point, Ryan is warned to never leave the bunker due to mutants prowling the outer walls. Obviously, he dismisses said warnings and journeys out only to be attacked immediately. Later, Ryan and Krysty find that there may be a pile of dead bodies inside the bunker and The Keeper and Rachel could be more dangerous than the initial observations. After leaving the armory (and seeing a crucified baby), the team is assaulted by The Keeper and Rachel and saved by an early warning from Lori. The group escape the bunker only to run into the Narodniki savages. The team is captured in a wild finale that features a nuclear bomb, Russian armies and a small earthquake. In what could be a future formula, the team “solves the crisis” and enters the redoubt once again. Book three will ultimately show the next destination and adventure.

From a development perspective, “Red Holocaust” provides plenty of thought provoking entertainment that sets more of the series’ mythology. We learn that Doc’s real name is Theophilus Tanner and that the redoubts can technically be time traveling portals. Doc explains that the government was perfecting the process but continually would lose travelers or pieces of the subjects each time they attempted forward or future travel. This book also thins out the herd a little by killing off a few members of Ryan’s team. We started with over 30…now we are down to a half-dozen. More importantly, the reader provides a lot of details regarding Krysty and her mutant powers. She has hair that can move and grasp things at her will while also allowing her incredible strength by calling on Mother Earth. I’m sure this will be expanded as we get further into the series. Next up is “Neutron Solstice” as the action moves into the deep south.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Revenger #01 - The Revenger

There’s no denying that Don Pendleton’s 1969 premier of ‘The Executioner’ series was the prime catalyst for the gritty, vigilante vengeance sagas. The early 70s was a fertile time period, growing numerous series’ that commonly referenced “er” ending titles (i.e. Butcher, Penetrator, Enforcer). Author Jon Messman had contributed to the genre as early as 1968 with five ‘Killmaster’ novels over a two-year period. After his own failed series, ‘Hotline’, Messmann was placed on a Signet debut called “The Revenger” in 1973. As Glorious Trash scribe Joe Kenney points out, initially this was probably a one-off novel that escalated into six total volumes. The book exhibits no signs of a continuation and is missing advertisements for the next book. There isn’t a display indicating “The Revenger” is the first of a series. These are typically publisher traits inviting readers to stick around for the next installment – with their cash in hand. Regardless how it was intended, “The Revenger” is pure quality.

Today, this plot has run its course and may have been treading familiar ground even in 1973. It’s the revenge yarn we’ve read and watched since the early pulp adventures and westerns. Messmann utilizes it really well by exploring the human emotions while simultaneously providing a very vulnerable “executioner”. Ben Martin is ex-military and served in Vietnam as a killer for various US branches including the CIA. In brief recollections, the reader tells us how Ben would wait patiently in rice patties or filthy jungles for days awaiting perfect shots. His skills were valuable and Ben served his time well. 

In the book’s opening pages, we see Ben as a produce shopkeeper in lower Manhattan. He’s happily married to Donna (they make love a lot) and they have a small son, Ben Martin Jr. Ben’s shop is experiencing the typical Mafia protection racket, this time extended by the Gennosanti family. They want payment for protection or the store owners will experience…stiffness. When they knock on Ben’s door, he sticks an envelope opener through a guy’s hand and disarms them. Coolly, he calls the police who ultimately are pressed by the attorneys to let the enforcers just walk.

This particular family is managed locally by Joe Colardi. The Colardi family presents itself as fine, upstanding citizens and attend PTA meetings and donate large sums to the school. Generally, they are well liked. Beneath the surface, Joe is under pressure to deliver results for the Don of the Gennosanti family. With Ben refusing to pay, roughing up his goons and generally resisting the mob’s presence, Colardi has Ben’s son kidnapped. After a brief phone exchange, Ben agrees to negotiate with the Colardi crew if they can safely return his son. Unfortunately, they accidentally allow the boy to walk off of a rooftop to his death. Colardi loses his mind knowing that the Don won’t be happy of the negligence and the kidnapping, which was unbeknownst to him.

The second half of the book starts to resemble ‘The Executioner’ debut “War Against the Mafia”. Ben becomes a bone-chilling assassin, seemingly dismissing life, marriage or any semblance of normality. His only purpose is to kill the mob. Like Bolan’s first planned assault, Ben purchases long guns and optics from a sporting goods store and camps out in the city taking out targets. Ben kills 13 enforcers in a few short hours and puts Colardi on the run in a city he has sworn to rule. Eventually, the Don becomes involved with a strategic plan to eliminate Ben’s explosive vendetta. The finale occurs on an early morning Ferry trip as Ben faces Colardi and Don’s enforcers.

Overall, this book works exceptionally well as the typical revenge yarn. It keeps at a brisk pace considering there is seldom any gunfire exchanges. Ben is the believable action hero - making mistakes, careless, vulnerability. In this book, he’s simply a human doing very human things. Emotions, debating strategy, recalling experiences while still trying to communicate with his wife Donna post-tragedy. The break-down from human to cold assassin is a slow burn, but a morbidly entertaining one. The book’s bloody closing pages sort of recycles Ben Martin’s life. Killer to family man to killer…and perhaps family man again? If only it were a stand alone novel. Five more entries prove that isn’t the case. Messmann would later go on to write most of the first 200 volumes of ‘The Trailsman’ while dabbling in other genres like science-fiction and horror.

Hawker #04 - Deadly in New York

Randy Wayne White, writing under Carl Ramm, wrote and released the fourth ‘Hawker’ novel, “Deadly in New York”, in 1984 via Dell Books. I’ve enjoyed this series for the most part and typically use it as breakage between team combat and post-apocalypse books. It’s a happy medium and for the most part an entertaining one. For those new readers that aren’t aware of ‘Hawker’ mythology – it’s fairly simple. Billionaire Jacob Montgomery Hayes provides resources to tough ex-Chicago policeman James Hawker. Hayes wants the wrongs righted and isn’t afraid to make Hawker an extension of his own vigilante hand. The book’s prior three entries placed Hawker against Florida mobsters, Los Angeles gangs and Irish terrorists. His fourth mission? Third Reich leftover Nazis posing as corporate real estate tycoons.

The book opens with an assassin named Renard seemingly murdering Hawker in a Caribbean bungalow. Of course, this was just a decoy piece of plaster. In a wild opening scene, Hayes and his mysterious butler Hendricks throw a scorpionfish at Renard, leaving him on the verge of death and dumped in the ocean. On the flight back from the Caymans, Hawker and the reader are brought up to speed on what’s so deadly in New York. It turns out a large corporation called Fister wants to reclaim a war-torn portion of The Bronx. To do this they are using illegal subsidiaries to capture government grants. With the federal funds the corporation will build large apartment complexes and office towers. Honestly, that isn’t really such a bad thing. Sure, it’s illegal but corporations do this all the time. But what puts it into the heart of a men’s action adventure story is that the inhabitants of these Bronx streets are ethnic Germans that are starting to rebuild the area, take it back from the goons and striving to create a better place free of corporate restraints. They won’t budge on leaving their homes…so Fister is bringing in the meat grinders to put tremendous pressure on the Germans to leave. The plot has been done to death…but now with Hawker in it.

Earlier, Hawker spent some time in New York surveilling the layout and hangout of the corporation’s mob enforcers. They are headquartered in a large warehouse near the river. Hawker, being a bit of a loose cannon here, loads up a knapsack, walks into the building and literally sprays every living creature with Ingrams submachine guns. Careless, ill-advised and doomed to fail, Hawker’s spraying puts him on the run inside the warehouse, climbing staircases and dodging gunfire. Thankfully, he places sausage rolls of C-4 as he goes. Once he hits the top…everything below him blows. Hawker escapes the burning warehouse with the help of a New York city cop named Calis who’s friends with Hawker’s old colleague in Los Angeles (second book). After a quick mattress romp with a thankful German beauty, Hawker jumps on a plane to rescue employer Jacob Hayes. Where’s he at? Great question.

In a backstory that is running behind Hawker’s deadly assault in New York, details finally emerge regarding Hayes’ mysterious butler Hendricks. The prior three books had always hinted there was more to the English chap than what was presented. This book reveals Hendricks’ past as a secret agent for the English during WW2. He actually entered Hitler’s sanctuary during the Soviet invasion, saw the body and removed a treasured relic from the dictator’s lap. In London, Hendricks consults a war buddy and puts the pieces together – Fister Corporation is operated by a Nazi named Fisterbaur and an old spy named The Druid. There’s a little more backstory here that could flesh out more of a future role for the butler. In the meantime, Hayes has been captured by Fister’s goons and tortured with surgical tubes and scalpels. The book’s finale has Hawker fighting back to back with Hendricks to save Hayes and crush the Nazi corporate raiders.

White throws an abundance of data at the reader in this fourth volume. Finally, we gain some insight on Hendricks and learn that he might gain a prominent role in future books. While there was a lot to unpack, the plot was fairly simple and, if not unoriginal, certainly carries the same “let’s bully the residents until they depart” theme that is heavily borrowed by other media. There was a rushed pace to the book and forced some scenes upon the reader. The New York ally in Calis was never expanded, the love interest was never developed and at the end of the day…we still don’t quite understand what this Druid role was within The Third Reich. Not a highlight of the series thus far but enjoyable nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Swampmaster #02 - Hell on Earth

“Hell on Earth” is the second novel in Jake Spencer’s (real name Jerome Preisler) post-apocalyptic trilogy ‘Swampmaster’ and was released by Diamond in 1992. Often compared to the ‘Mutants Amok’ series by David Bischoff (under house name Mark Grant), ‘Swampmaster’ is a senseless no-brainer, complete with mad scientists, Native American commandos and tumor covered mutants waging war in the Florida Everglades. It’s boneheaded Neanderthal action that makes very little sense to the reader…and author. But it exists, and by that fact alone I feel obligated to read and review it for the men’s action and adventure fans.

The series debut, “Swampmaster”, explained that nuclear war has devastated what was once the US. Since then, civilization as we know it has changed dramatically. By 2009, the country has been fragmented and now consists of 16 states that have unified to form The National Front (TNF). This TNF union is tyrannical and backed by big military. To live in one of these states is to ultimately sacrifice freedom and liberty; slavery and labor for food and shelter. While this is an umbrella theme through the series, the trilogy only focuses on Florida’s coastline and a small pocket of resistance led by a Seminole martial artist named John Firecloud…or Swampmaster depending on scene and page.

In the first novel Firecloud liberates a train carrying circus performers and uses the passengers as allies in his battle against The National Front in St. Augustine. “Hell on Earth” picks up a month or two later with Firecloud, acrobatic twins The Marcuses, Zeno and love interest Saralyn ambushing a convoy of heavily armed TNF troopers in the Everglades. In one outrageous scene, the Marcus twins handspring across the battlefield to draw fire away from Firecloud’s crew. Unbelievable. In another early scene a Dodge Colt station wagon emerges through the jungle carrying a carload of mutants dressed as clowns and wearing women’s wigs. These “White Trash” mutants are covered in tumors and festering sores and serve as slave mercenaries by TNF. It is this sort of stuff that carries “Swampmaster” into the realms of the ridiculous. I’m not sure if it propels the action or unintentionally serves as a distraction.

The premise for “Hell on Earth” is the TNF are setting up a new military compound off of Long Pine Key called Life Harvest. This is a laboratory sitting on an enormous oil well platform in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s a Dr. Guderian there who is playing mad scientist and allowing soldiers to remotely control mutants through brainwaves. Firecloud’s white stepbrother Bill Coonen is featured as a hired mercenary for TNF and proves to be a worthy opponent. Senior leader Groll, a recurring vile villain from the series’ opener, is in charge of the operation and routinely curses and kills his own men to show superiority while playing video games like ‘Hitler’s Legacy’ and ‘Auschwitz’. Opposing the over-the-top antagonists is the likable good guys. There’s Firecloud’s band and a cool little shopkeeper named Joe that just wants to help people.

Swampmaster learns of the existence of Life Harvest and leads The Marcuses and Saralyn in a high-speed assault featuring armed boats and jet skis. Both Saralyn and Swampmaster get captured and taken back to Life Harvest for the obligatory torture sessions. After strenuous and brutal exercises, Swampmaster is led to an arena where he must battle a seven-foot mutant that is controlled by Groll remotely. Saralyn attempts to free herself simultaneously as The Marcuses attempt to blow up the platform. It’s a climactic and awarding finale that sees all guns blazing in a rescue attempt, sea battle and a surprise twist that reveals itself to the shock of the reader. All of these elements play an important role in the book’s upgraded quality when compared to its predecessor. While certainly not top-tier literary fiction, “Hell on Earth” is enjoyable and rescues the series from the ‘Mutants Amok’ and ‘Roadblaster’ occupied cellar.