Monday, March 19, 2018

Wilderness #05 - Tomahawk Revenge

The fifth book in the 'Wilderness' series, “TOMAHAWK REVENGE”, is another winner from author David Robbins (writing as David Thompson). 

The series is set in the late 1820s, and follows the adventures of Nate King, a nineteen-year-old New Yorker who follows an uncle to the remote Rocky Mountains and decides to stay. By this point in the saga, it’s time for Nate to learn how to make a living, and that means fur trapping. But that education is interrupted by a Blackfoot war party, and what happens next--- in fact, all the way to the end of the book--- is harrowing, savage and bloody.

As good as this series is, there might be a crack or two in its foundation now. After depicting a wide variety of dangers and adventures throughout the first four books, a touch of déjà vu is creeping in. There’s yet another grizzly bear attack, the third so far. (I’m tempted to claim that Nate King is attacked by grizzlies as often as Mack Bolan gets shot at, but that’d be a stretch.) And once again Nate faces hostile Indians. Boy oh boy, are these Indians hostile!

In “TOMAHAWK REVENGE”, Nate and his companions are not only attacked, but taken prisoner and subjected to various grueling tortures. It’s easily the most intense Indian action of the series so far, and I don’t know how Robbins will be able to top it (but I’m sure he’s up to the task). Imagine staggering naked through the woods, bleeding from an arrow wound, as shrieking, kill-crazy Indians bear down on you, advancing closer and closer. 

This novel isn’t necessarily fun, but it’s definitely powerful. The level of brutality and general misery here may be tough for some readers to take, and there’s also a bleakness that we hadn’t seen thus far. But don’t let that scare you off.

While most action/adventure series are about wish fulfillment (punishing the guilty, rescuing the vulnerable, accomplishing a vital mission or just getting rich), the Wilderness books are simply about the challenge of survival, the struggle to not get killed. They’re also a lot more compelling than the ordinary pulp action series. If you’ve never had a paperback grab you by your shirt and throw you across the room, get ready for “TOMAHAWK REVENGE”.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Stoner #02 - The Satan Stone

“The Satan Stone” is the second installment of Ralph Hayes' 1970s treasure hunting action series 'Stoner'. Our hero is Mark Stoner and this four book series focuses on the character attempting to find precious stones – thus the name could be duel usage. This book is my first taste of the series, but I've enjoyed the author's exceptional line 'The Hunter' (sometimes called 'John Yard'). It shares a lot of the same exotic locations as this series – sweeping African deserts and rowdy towns like Lagos and Nairobi. It wouldn't surprise me to see crossovers from each line, but I'm not sure Hayes' had publishing permission or the motivation. As I delve into each series more, I'd love to see a reference to the other books somewhere. I could easily imagine John Yard crossing paths with Stoner or even Yard's colleague Moses. These two series' run parallel to each other, so it would make rational sense to have them entwined.

The first 37-pages of “The Satan Stone” is intriguing and presents a phenomenal problem – how do you smuggle a 1,000-carat diamond out of a mining prison? That's the issue at hand for an engineer named McMillan. He has come to the mining prison of Shoshong, in the South African desert, to provide a new sorting machine. The arrangement is he receives profit sharing for a year in trade for this new machine. De Villiers, the book's dictator/prison warden welched on the deal and now a dejected McMillan is leaving the camp with nothing. Kicking some dirt and dust, he miraculously discovers an egg-sized diamond. The prison is notorious on security, and routinely beats (or murders) thieves. McMillan, fearing that he will be caught, hides the diamond on the undercarriage of a bulldozer with hopes of retrieving it and escaping. 37-pages later, the diamond is still securely dozing and McMillan has killed a helicopter pilot while escaping through the desert.

Thankfully, chapter three gives us a brief introduction of Mark Stoner. He's an adventurer and exporter based out of Key West (home of author Ralph Hayes). He globe-trots buying precious gems and artifacts. While wealthy and free-spirited, he's still a hunter for allusive treasures and antiquities. Thus, McMillan and his awareness of the prized diamond are an inviting challenge for Stoner. 

McMillan contracts with Stoner to have the diamond retrieved from Shoshong. The issues are aplenty – breaking in and out, passing security and dodging the mine's Gestapo-like cartel called The International Diamond Security Organization (IDSO). Plans are concocted to put Stoner inside the prison under the guise of a recently killed security inspector from the IDSO. Once Stoner infiltrates the prison, his exploits to retrieve the diamond are a bulk of the story. Hayes' is masterful in the cat-and-mouse tactics and leads the reader on numerous paths speculating the outcome. While not sounding overly complex, there's several side-stories that enhance the narrative – a suspicious guard, an inmate/laborer in the know and McMillan's own struggles escaping the IDSO in Nairobi. Surprisingly, this novel may have the most exhilarating scene ever involving a simple phone call. It's so elementary, yet the entire white-knuckle finale hinges on it. 

I've said this previously in my reviews of Ralph Hayes extensive catalog. The author takes seemingly normal, everyday people and places them in extraordinary circumstances to see how they react. It works well here as Stoner doesn't necessarily have the fighting skills or know how to solve difficult issues. Like 'The Hunter' and 'Buffalo Hunter', often Hayes leaves it to complete ignorance on the part of the characters or sheer luck to decide life or death situations. It's this aspect that makes his writing so enjoyable. It might be nonsensical, but you have to at least believe there's a “lucky shot”. That's the Hayes' style. 

I'm on my very own treasure hunt now, fueled by the anticipation of securing the entire series for my paperback museum. 

Stoner #01 - The Golden God

Ralph Hayes' 'Stoner' series kicks off with 1976's “The Golden God”. Like a majority of the author's work, it was released by publishing house Manor (which questionably may have been a tax dodge for Belmont/Leisure or a Mafia money laundering scheme). Regardless, the Hayes/Manor combo was a successful one for genre buffs and fans, producing nearly 25 titles that are still discussed nearly 40 years later. Along with series' like 'Buffalo Hunter' and 'The Hunter', 'Stoner' introduces another hefty dose of bravado in Mark Stoner, a treasure hunting exporter that is just damn good at everything. This novel in particular is a bit pulpy, capturing exotic jungles, ancient ruins and cursed relics. It's all plot bait to set-up Stoner versus a bunch of baddies. 

Oddly, the synopsis on back of the book mentions an Erik von Richter. There's no character by that name in the book. Instead, this Richter guy is actually Johann Strasser. I'm not sure if this was a late edit of the name or just a major miscommunication from the editor to artist. Regardless, the book has esteemed archaeologist Strasser acquiring a small Peruvian golden statue (The Golden God) called the Cuzcapac. I'm calling it “Goldie” for the sake of simplicity. The prior owner, an Indian named Idilio, is killed off by a duo named Diablo and Maltese, so it's just a matter of time for the next owner to be hunted and killed. The evil exporters are after Goldie and soon make a play on Strasser. Not only do they want Goldie's riches, but also the location of ruins where the statue was found. Big money, big money, no whammies.

Before Strasser is inevitably murdered, he passes Goldie to Stoner in Key West. With the treasure and a semblance of where the ruins are located in Peru, he travels to Buenos Aires to hook-up with Strasser's attractive daughter Ursula. Together, the two strike a bond and travel into the Peru jungles to locate the ruins. Maltese, Diablo and some goons simultaneously strong-arm their trek to the ruins, setting up the impending confrontation for the last 10-pages.

Hayes is a meat and potatoes writer and “The Golden God” emphasizes that. At 180-pages of exotic adventure, soldiers of fortune and buried treasure, Hayes delivers the goods. While the story-line is boiled down, the action is intense and moves at a rapid-fire pace. I read the book in a few hours and was thoroughly entertained. The book's sequel, “The Satan Stone”, is miles better than this, but the series grasps a good foothold here. Those looking for more pulp adventure will find plenty to like in this series.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

River Girl

America is a big country, and in the 1950s Americans still didn’t know one another all that well. To an untraveled guy from Boston, a West Virginian may as well have been a space alien for all the commonalities between their lives. This familiarity divide gave birth to a slew of erotic noir crime novels with the selling point that rural America was filled with hidden, unsophisticated, hot and horny babes ready for action with townies willing to venture into the woods. Sprinkle in some blackmail, murder, and a plot twist - and a crime fiction classic is born. This must have been a successful formula because books like “Backwoods Teaser”, “Swamp Nymph”, “Hill Girl”, “Shack Road Girl”, and “Cracker Girl” - complete with lurid, painted covers - apparently filled the drugstore spinner racks of the 1950s. 

Charles Williams’ 1951 entry into this arena was his third novel, “River Girl” (later re-released as “The Catfish Tangle”). Williams’ later books featured nautical themes and  brought him success and movie adaptations, but “River Girl” was before all that. Like many of the best from the era, “River Girl” was released as a paperback original by Fawcett Gold Medal and has found new life thanks to a reprint from Stark House Books, packaged as a double along with Williams’ 1954 release, “Nothing in Her Way”. 

The short novel stars Jack Marshall as a somewhat crooked deputy working for a very crooked small-town sheriff. Jack serves as the boss’ troubleshooter and bagman for graft collected from the local backroom gambling parlors and whorehouses selling “too-young” merchandise. Despite his supplementary income, Jack is going broke and restless with a disinterested wife at home who doesn’t appreciate him. 

During a solo fishing trip down the river, Jack finds a shack deep in the swamp where an unlikely couple lives. After meeting Doris for the first time while her husband is away, Jack is immediately smitten. All he can think about is Doris despite the intense pressure he’s under from a preacher working to shut down the town’s sin parlors and a grand jury convening to investigate local corruption. When Jack’s infatuation with comely Doris is too much to handle, he pays her another visit and learns that the river girl’s story is far more complex than he ever imagined. Even with the impossible hurdles, could they have a life together?

Man, Charles Williams sure could write. The lust, humidity, and pressure Jack experiences throughout this short novel is palpable. The sexual chemistry between Jack and Doris is hot but never graphic, and the culture of rationalized small town corruption is fully realized thanks to Williams ability to put us squarely in Jack’s narrative mindset. The plot twists are ingenious and largely realistic and the tension builds to a violent, action-packed climax. Throughout the book, Williams adeptly walks the line between a noir crime novel and a forbidden romance story and it works quite well - all the way up to the satisfying conclusion. 

Put this one in your “must read” pile.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Survivalist #02 - The Nightmare Begins

Jerry Ahern’s post-apocalyptic series 'The Survivalist' showed promise in its debut novel, “TOTAL WAR”. Early on in the book, nuclear war breaks out between the Soviet Union and the United States. I won’t give away which side wins; let’s just say we finish in the top two.

Our hero is John Rourke, a trained physician and former CIA agent. A massive nuclear explosion hits while he’s traveling across the country on a commercial flight, and the glare of the blast blinds both of the pilots. Rourke steps up and manages to land the plane by himself somewhere in the New Mexico desert, and the rest of the book is all about protecting the passengers, scavenging the area for guns, and finally heading east in hopes of finding his family back home in Georgia. Near the start of that journey, he and a friend are confronted by a huge motorcycle gang, and in a memorable if unlikely finale, our heroes blow away every last biker.

The second book, “THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS”, is similarly packed with adventure. Rourke has reached Texas, and will have to deal with radiation poisoning, armed paramilitary squads, an even bigger contingent of heavily-armed outlaws, and other perils. Meanwhile, his wife and small children are facing some of the same problems back home, and if anything the drama is even more effective on that front. The book ends on a strong and surprisingly poignant note, setting us up for more adventure in the next volume. 

Both books are good. But they’re not great, and they really ought to be. All the ingredients are there for some solid, breathless action/adventure fiction. Somehow, though, the books are interesting without being exciting, and the hero is very capable but he’s lacking in star power.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s something about the author’s style that kept me at arms’ length from the material, I don’t know. I felt the same way about “THE BATTLE BEGINS”, the first book in Ahern’s 'The Defender' series, another post-apocalypse epic whose hero might as well be John Rourke’s twin brother. In both series, the material was just fine but the kettle never really came to a boil.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by other post-apoc series which were written later on, things like 'The Last Ranger' and 'Phoenix', in which there are mutants and cannibals running around and things are much crazier than what we get from Ahern. 

Don’t get me wrong. Overall, these Survivalist books are better than average, and I’ll certainly continue on to the next installment. I have a feeling things will get more... well, nightmarish.

“THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS” is worth your time, and very likely you’ll dig it more than I did, especially if you’re a gun enthusiast and you enjoy reading about the specs of various firearms. Take your reading pleasure to the next level by playing the Survivalist Drinking Game: every time you see the brand name Detonics, take another drink. By the time the book is over, you’ll be so woozy you won’t know whether you’d read it or dreamed it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Buffalo Hunter #04 - Hellhole

The Leisure first edition version from 1973 lists “Hellhole” as 'Buffalo Hunter' number one (note Belmont Tower also released the book with a different cover in 1973). It's in bold black ink on page three.

We know from front cover images floating on used online sellers that 1973's “Four Ugly Guns” has a clear “#2” printed with the series logo on the cover. However, there's evidence that states the first printing was in 1970. It would seem as if it was released first, yet later the publishers deemed it as second in the series. The same can be said for 1973's “Gunslammer” (aka “Secret of Sulphur Creek”) boasting a “#3” on it's cover and evidence of an original printing in 1970. I'm not sure why the publishers would have flipped the series order, but the author advised me the correct order is "Gunslammer", "Four Ugly Guns", "The Name's O'Brien" and this fourth book, "Hellhole".

Deep online excavating shows a title called “Hunter's Moon” released by Lenox Hill Press in 1971. The blurb from that states, “The days of the buffalo hunters are recreated in this novel about a man named O'Brien”, the series protagonist. For some reason, the publishers failed to include this book in the series. It doesn't achieve a numerical place in the series chronology and seemingly has been skipped. Robert Hale Limited also released a version of the book in 1974 and apparently didn't include a number or any indication it was part of a series.

Regardless of how we approach the series, or in what order we read, “Hellhole” is a very enjoyable western novel. The opening chapter has O'Brien fingered as the man who murdered two men and a young girl. The reader knows the Latimer gang committed the atrocity, we were there. But the backwoods sheriff and deputy don't, thus a harsh and speedy sentencing that puts O'Brien in hard labor at the notorious Bradenton prison.

Two-thirds of the book is the brutal day to day of O'Brien overcoming adversity and finding reason to rise and exist each day. He's put under torturous conditions by the sadistic prison warden and forced to fight for meals while mining underground for long, grueling hours. The plot develops into the inevitable “escape and payback” routine but Hayes smoothly builds the tension and mood. Will he escape? Where does he run? Who's Latimer? These are all questions that both the reader and O'Brien pose. Hayes sorts it all out for us, but paces the story effectively that we just snack to fill up. Fans of brisk, yet calculated westerns should love “Hellhole”.

Buffalo Hunter #08 - Revenge of the Buffalo Hunter

I hold Ralph Hayes' early western series 'Buffalo Hunter' in high regard. I've read and posted rave reviews here for the series first, second and fourth books - “Gunslammer”, “Four Ugly Guns” and “Hellhole”. I've yet to see any other books of the series in the wild except the eighth title, “Revenge of the Buffalo Hunter”. While the first seven books, from what I can gather, were penned in the 70s, Hayes took most of the 80s off due to the action genre tanking. He practiced law and his wife was a successful artist, so I'd take the stance that he may have used this book to get the creative flow going again. Unlike the prior titles, which were strictly Leisure/Belmont, this book was released by Pinnacle in 1992. Does it have the same impact as the 70s entries? Hell no.

While enjoyable enough for a paperback western, this isn't on the same magnitude as the prior books. O'Brien, the Buffalo Hunter, is still the protagonist, but he's written a little differently. Unlike previous character conventions, this O'Brien has way too many friends, talks a little differently (way more profanity than usual) and relies on a boot knife. The last part is trivial, but it defies the character's violent means to an end – Sharps rifle, Remington lever and 10-gauge sawed-off. His ability to maim and throw a heavy boot knife is symbolic of the creative liberties taken with an already well-defined character. It just isn't my O'Brien.

The premise of the book is a dodgy duo of outlaws – the Gabriel Brothers. They rape, kill and rob everything in Arizona and New Mexico, seemingly with no opposition. While this is a factor that is in heavy rotation with Hayes' westerns, it's way too convoluted for its own good. They end up killing O'Brien's friend and raping the daughter, which puts our character on the hunt. While that's simplistic and an easy tale to tell, this narrative builds in the extraordinary – we have Pat Garrett and the Earps. As if Hayes needed to include iconic cowboys, he has Garrett corresponding with O'Brien multiple times, and an unnecessary scene with Virgil Earp. The action is uneven and spread throughout multiple locations, and introduces a crowded cast featuring bounty hunter Sumner and a hunting partner McGraw. There's a spiritual element included about a white buffalo enigma that's a load of nonsense. 

If I hadn't read any prior 'Buffalo Hunter' titles, I may have a higher level of patience for this novel. Knowing the history of the character, and it the entertainment factor of the prior books, this one is just lukewarm on the scale. It's a good read for new fans of the genre, but far better series novels exist and more impressive Hayes novels are out there.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Someone Is Bleeding

You know that feeling when a friend starts dating a totally hot but totally crazy girl? You can see the crazy right away, but all he sees is the hot? You know it’s gonna go sideways, and you want to scream at him to be careful, but you know it’ll fall on deaf ears. 

That’s what it was like reading Richard Matheson’s first published novel, “Someone Is Bleeding”. 

During his life, Matheson mastered several genres from science fiction (“The Shrinking Man”), horror (“I Am Legend”, “Hell House”) and westerns (“Journal of the Gun Years”). “Someone Is Bleeding” was published in 1953 by Lion Books, but it has the story structure of a Fawcett Gold Medal crime paperback where an Everyman is plunged into a world of violence by falling for a femme fatale. 

In this case our hero-narrator is Los Angeles novelist Dave Newton. On a quiet day at the beach, Dave sees the irresistible Peggy sunbathing and decides he has to meet her.  The reader quickly realizes that Peggy is a hot mess filled with neurosis and sexual hang-ups.  It seems that every relationship in her life has been filled with dysfunction and sexual abuse -  her ex, her lawyer, her father, her landlord – no one knows how to function around Peggy in a proper manner, but Nice Guy Dave is sure going to try. 

The first quarter of the novel is mostly a tepid relationship drama as Dave learns to navigate the cyclone of man-drama that follows Peggy everywhere. It’s not until a character winds up murdered with an ice-pick in the eye that the action and intrigue begins. Dave knows that Peggy is damaged goods and even finds himself asking if a woman can be “rape prone” in the same way that some men are accident prone (these were less compassionate times regarding such matters, it seems).

As the bodies pile up within Peggy’s orbit, a compelling murder mystery evolves for Dave to solve. Could Peggy be murdering these people? Or is a bigger conspiracy afoot? The novel’s violence escalates with vivid villains and some great action sequences making the reader grateful for not bailing during the first quarter’s tale of tormented romance. 

Matheson was a remarkable talent, and it’s fun to visit his humble beginnings in this short crime story. Finding the original paperback is a pricey proposition, but the book has been reprinted as an eBook and in a compilation titled Noir. This one is definitely worth your time.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Buffalo Hunter #01 - Gunslammer (aka Secret of Sulphur Creek)

Locating a complete bibliography of Ralph Hayes work is eclipsed only by the maze of riddles and investigations into the storied treasure on Oak Island. In other words, it's an absolute mess. None of his series' could be as convoluted as 'Buffalo Hunter'. The Leisure first edition version from 1973 lists “Hellhole” as 'Buffalo Hunter' #1 (note Belmont Tower also released the book with a different cover in 1973). It's in bold black ink on page three as #1. Big as Ike. 

We know from front cover images floating on used online sellers that 1973's “Four Ugly Guns” has a clear “#2” printed with the series logo on the cover. However, there's evidence that states the first printing was in 1970. It would seem as if it was released first, yet later the publishers deemed it as second in the series. The same can be said for 1973's “Gunslammer” (aka “Secret of Sulphur Creek”) boasting a “#3” on it's cover and evidence of an original printing in 1970. I'm not sure why the publishers would have flipped the series order, but they did and that's our burden to carry as genre enthusiasts and fans. Our shelfie-selfies will show the wrong order, but we'll know the truth.

In a letter from author Ralph Hayes in February of 2018, he provided a chronological order of his westerns and 'Secret of Sulphur Creek' is the first. Later, Leisure (and maybe Belmont) stamped the title of “Buffalo Hunter #3: Gun Slammer”. I'm calling this the first book and it introduces us to the series protagonist, O'Brien. While none of the books provide much background on the character, the series follows the familiar serialized formula of just placing one heroic badass in the midst of a firestorm of corruption and evil. That is the series' strength, thus “Gunslammer” or “Secret of Sulphur Creek” is absolutely perfect.

The novel has three ruthless outlaws riding into Sulphur Creek. Eli, Crazy Jake and Hotshot Lacy immediately kill every living thing that backtalks. The barbaric carnage originates from the town's nearby gold mine, now hidden away due to the number of deaths related to digging and blasting. The town, thinking death was the curse of greed, swore to secrecy and stoutly refuse revealing the location of the mine. Eli systematically kills until someone will provide the location. The town is stubborn as a mule and soon the streets are running red.

Meanwhile, O'Brien is on a nearby buffalo hunt and runs out of water. Dying in the desert, a deputy stumbles upon O'Brien and nurses him back to makeshift health. In a hilarious scene, O'Brien takes the man's water, then jerks his gun, empties it and hands it back to him. Then he takes his horse and asks the deputy if he wants a ride back to town. The deputy - in utter shock - stupidly asks, “You want me to ride into town on the back of my own horse?”. Hilarity continues to ensue as O'Brien, never caring for the human population, just ignores the outlaws and the killing. He wants to fetch liquor and get sloshed while waiting for his supplies to arrive. He walks into the bar, past the outlaws, steps around a dead woman and man (the horror!) and grabs two bottles of whiskey off the back shelf. He asks the three hardmen where the bartender is and Eli – mystified - responds, “We killed him”. O'Brien, ignoring utter chaos, just says “Nobody to pay then” and walks out. 

Eventually, he gets caught up in the entanglement of the secret mine, outlaws and a crooked horse trader that becomes an ally. The narrative has the young deputy facing the three killers alone. There's some backstory on O'Brien's hunting partner Shanghai Smith, who shows up to face O'Brien/align with the baddies.  Often, O'Brien is just on the cusp of goodness, debating on killing the outlaws or just staying drunk in bed. It's the Buffalo Hunter charm, or lack thereof, that just makes this series incredibly enjoyable. It's wicked, violent, hilarious and one of the best westerns I have read. I was tempted to flip the last page to the first and read it all over again. Get this one.

Buffalo Hunter #02 - Four Ugly Guns

Ralph Hayes ('The Hunter', 'Stoner'), has an unknown number of these 'Buffalo Hunter' books. As I alluded to in my review for the first book, “Gunslammer”, this series' is mired in controversy. The numbers on the front cover aren't necessarily the chronological order they were written. For example, this book's page 43 states O'Brien had never been locked up before. This defies the whole plot of the publisher stamping #1 on “Hellhole”, which has O'Brien locked away in a brutal prison. This is illogical and irritating to my completest psyche. The only solution is the fact that continuity has no bearing on any of these stories. Hayes, in a letter from February of 2018, provided me a chronological order of his westerns and this would be the second book, sandwiched between "Gunslammer" and "The Name's O'Brien".

“Four Ugly Guns” fires away with O'Brien avenging the murder of Ethian Tobias. In the opening pages, O'Brien discovers Tobias and his family rotting in a cabin, and has a lead on four very ugly killers. It's a simple plot, with Hayes letting us tag along for the 'ole “kill the killers” shtick. The reader's investment is trailing the four, and watching the political intrigue unfold. A despicable villain we love to hate, The Kidd, is running a bank robbing scheme with the mayor while possessing the town. The foursome kill, rape and slosh the joy juice, seemingly waiting for O'Brien to arrive.

What I find so entertaining about this series is the legitimacy of the hero. O'Brien, while husky and good with a gun, isn't invincible. He is careless, and narrowly escapes death by sheer luck. This book finds him jailed, aggressively beaten by vigilantes and horseless in the desert. He finds a way to survive, but often he needs assistance from store clerks, doctors, a rehabilitated criminal or some divine deity. While believable in a sense, the action sequences are over-the-top. Hayes over utilizes O'Brien's girth often, but by that point we hate the villain so much that we are complacent with the physical advantages. 

Overall, another brilliant piece of western fiction by an author that continues to impress me. These books are becoming very difficult to find even using online retailers like Abebooks. I paid nearly $10 for this one - battered, broken and abused. 

Monday, March 12, 2018

Gregory Hiller #01 - A Silent Kind of War

Following the success of Ian Fleming’s novels, nearly every paperback publisher of the 1960s commissioned espionage series novels with varying results. Belmont Books took a whack at a spy series from 1964 to 1966 with five books starring CIA operative, Gregory Hiller. The literary arms race to crown the American James Bond had no clear winner (Matt Helm, perhaps), but this obscure series sure had some great moments.

Author Jack Laflin is a fine writer, but he didn’t leave Belmont Books with an easy task to market this series. In book one of the series, “The Spy Who Loved America”, we meet a Soviet KGB undercover spy, Pyotr Grigorivitch Ilyushin, who was training in Russia for a long-term undercover assignment in the USA. He receives plastic surgery to alter his Slavic appearance and attends a secret academy designed to teach undercover spies how to act credibly American, a fun concept later co-opted by Nelson Demille in his excellent novel, “The Charm School”. 

(A few spoilers from the inessential Book 1 of the series follow:)

Grigorivitch’s training worked too well, and he began to think and act like an American. Pretty quickly upon his arrival in the US, he is captured by the CIA and informed that he’s fooling no one. The CIA convinces this Russian Spy Who Loved America to change his name to Gregory Hiller and work as a CIA spy. The novel ends rather abruptly thereafter.

Do you see the marketing problem here?

Technically, Book 1 of the 'Gregory Hiller' series is “The Spy Who Loved America”, but the words “Gregory Hiller” don’t appear until the last page of the book. The knowledge that a Gregory Hiller series even exists kinda spoils the ending of Book 1. It’s probably more helpful to conceptualize “A Silent Kind of War” as 'Gregory Hiller' Book 1 and “The Spy Who Loved America” as a prequel/origin story.

In any case, A Silent Kind of War (aka: “Piotr Grigorivitch Ilyushin #2” or “Gregory Hiller #1”) is a spy novel representing Hiller’s first mission as a CIA operative. The job takes him to Hawaii with a mission to uncover a commie plot to sew unrest into the fabric of the 50th state’s newly-Americanized, yet very Oriental, culture. He poses as a writer and tourist with directions to liaison with two well-connected CIA operatives permanently stationed in Hawaii as points-of-contact. Hiller is specifically chosen for this assignment because he knows how the communist mind works.

The mystery of who is behind this plot against Hawaii is quickly given some clarity when Hiller runs into a freelance Hungarian spy he knew in his previous life. The last time that Hiller (as Piotr) saw Anton Korzenyi, it was 1958 in East Berlin when Korzenyi was using a mallet on the testicles of a would-be defector to extract information. Korzenyi’s presence in Honolulu lends a greater sense of urgency to Hiller’s mission since now both democracy and testicles are now at stake.

The stakes rise when happenstance brings Hiller into possession of an important object belonging to Korzenyi that the Hungarian desperately wants returned. This cat and mouse game drives the novel’s actions for the first hundred pages. Along the way, Hiller meets and falls for a tourist girl whose safety later becomes compromised by Hiller’s Cold War mission.

There are some very violent torture and fight scenes in this short novel, and the sense of urgency to Hiller’s mission is palpable. Another fun element is that this is Hiller’s first assignment for the CIA, and he screws it up quite a bit along the way. Good people die because of his inexperience and ineptitude. This isn’t a normal spy novel starring a perfect American superman. Hiller is vulnerable and very human.

Granted, the author deployed some lazy narrative devices along the way including the trope of a villain who takes the time to present a long monologue about his evil master plan before attempting to kill the hero. The dialogue was fairly clunky at times and could have benefited from a more critical editor. But at 159 pages, “A Silent Kind of War” is a quick and easy read - not a masterpiece of the genre but a fun diversion for espionage fiction fans.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Edge #05 - Blood on Silver

Working under the pen name George G. Gilman, Terry Harknett had a handful of good ideas in mind for his new 'Edge' western, “BLOOD ON SILVER”. He created a couple of unique characters (one is a giant Zulu in a derby, and the other is a kill-crazy Quaker whose thundering speech is peppered with “thee” and “thy”), along with two or three very strong action sequences.

But as it is when children pound on the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to make them fit, these elements don’t really come together very well, and the plot lacks cohesion. As soon as you get a feel for the story, it’s suddenly about something else, and before you’ve really made the adjustment, it’s turned into something else again. 

It could be argued that nobody reads an 'Edge' novel for the story. This series is famous (or notorious) for its over-the-top gory violence, and I guess there were Edge readers who salivated over the grisly depictions of pain and suffering the way Longarm readers sought stimulation in the extensive sex scenes. You pretty much have to expect violence in a paperback western, and usually that sort of action keeps things lively. But the Edge novels are something else. Virtually every character the reader encounters, no matter how trivial, will be killed off in excruciating ways, and innocent bystanders often get it worse than the bad guys. There’s a difference between two-fisted action and brutality porn, and this series leans toward the latter.

In the opening pages of “BLOOD ON SILVER”, for instance, Edge watches indifferently from the safety of a barn as an entire wedding party is slaughtered by the Quaker and his gang. It’s a powerful sequence. But Harknett cranks it up to eleven. Before it’s over, the bride has been seized, stripped, tied upside down to the pulley rope of a water well, nearly drowned over and over, then tortured with a lit cigar (you can guess where that cigar is ultimately applied as the lusty gang crowds around to watch), before she’s finally killed. 

Again, for some readers this will be the visceral highlight of the book. For the rest of us, it’s nasty overkill which gets in the way of enjoying the story. Harknett isn’t a hack. He can deliver action, color and suspense without soaking everything in blood, as his 'Adam Steele' series proves. But Pinnacle Books demanded crazy violence for the 'Edge' series. (Why? For readers in prisons and psych wards?) So we get exactly that.

There are other idiosyncrasies on display here. One is the author’s insistence on ending every chapter with somebody (usually the humorless Edge) making a wincingly unfunny wisecrack. There’s also a little sloppiness here and there, as when Edge watches a wagon load of silver disappear into a lake and mutters, “Hi-yo silver, away” in a story set decades before the Lone Ranger was created.

For a really good 'Edge' western, try the third book, “APACHE DEATH”. It’s plenty violent, without wallowing in pointless sadism, and everything that’s good about this series is distilled into that novel. The things that work a bit less successfully can be found in “BLOOD ON SILVER”.  

Friday, March 9, 2018

One Monday We Killed Them All

Excluding science fiction, author John D. MacDonald penned over 50 thrillers, including his long-running salvage-consultant series 'Travis McGee'. His 1960 novel, “The End of the Night”, was described by mammoth bestseller Stephen King as “the greatest novel of the 20th century”. The 1958 novel, “The Executioners”, was adapted twice for film under the well-known title of “Cape Fear”. While new to the crime genre, I'm beginning my MacDonald run with 1961's bold-named “One Monday We Killed Them All”. 

The novel is set in the fictional locale of Brook City, in an unnamed state. My guess, based on process of elimination, puts the book in a rural stretch of Pennsylvania, surrounded by hill country. Brook City is robust, netting large press and a hefty police force. Gravitation from northeastern criminals makes the city more of a landing pad, trafficking the hardened through the softer clutches of mainstreet America. It's a controlled city, with police leveraging criminal supplier Jeff Kermer to run the red lights. The leash has plenty of slack, allowing him and canaries to limit outsiders to mere spectators.  Categorically, the police work for the newspapers.

Our first-person narrator is Lieutenant Fenn Hillyer, an admirable family man and career cop. He's in the precarious situation of career and family colliding, choosing sides and picking up the pieces. The opener has Fenn escorting his brother-in-law, Dwight, from the Brook County Prison. Dwight is a career criminal, physically built for violence but possessing a deceptive coolness that has fooled his sister Meg for a lifetime. Fenn describes his smile as “that of a cat in a fish supermarket”. Fenn and Dwight are at odds, cop vs goon, but share the same household. Meg insists Dwight live with them and Fenn, being a devout husband and father apprehensively agrees.

Dwight's backstory is a familiar one – bad childhood, early arrests, misfortune. The three eventually led to Dwight's role as beefy enforcer for Kermer. He winds up killing an ex-girlfriend that has close ties to the town – she's the newspaper owner's daughter. The pressure is two-fold – Meg's diligence to defend Dwight while the force and press want him out of Fenn's house, out of town and off the radar. The two have escalating conversations, some one-sided, like this stiff-shouldered command from Fenn:

“Come at me boy, and I'll backpedal fast, and I'll be lifting out the Special, and I'll blow your knee into a sack of pebbles and kick your mouth sideways as you go down”.

It's a small sample size of the impact MacDonald has with his story-telling violence. While the book's nucleus is family affairs and it's worrisome burden, the gritty crime-thriller builds to an explosive climax. Dwight's cerebral tension spills over into a procedural pace, marking boundaries, staking out, planning and commitment. Without ruining it for you, which I couldn't live with, the book's last 40-pages builds to a furious stand-off in hill country. This alone is worth the price of admission. As a MacDonald first-timer, I'm unquestionably going back for seconds.

Soft Touch

Florida’s John D. MacDonald was best known for his popular 'Travis McGee' series, but he also wrote a slew of stand-alone crime fiction paperbacks worth reading. His 1958 heist novel, “Soft Touch”, was among the best from that era of his career. 

Our hero Jerry hates his job, his wife and his life. He wants money, freedom and the hot secretary at work. Then a long-lost war buddy shows up with a foolproof plan that could change Jerry's life: a multi-million dollar heist that will allow Jerry to upgrade both his life and his wife.

Because this is a crime novel of the 1950s from Florida's literary noir master, you can guess that everything doesn't go as planned. This is familiar territory previously mined by Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and other contemporaries from the Fawcett Gold Medal era, but MacDonald keeps it fresh with vivid characters and crisp writing.

The malaise of suburbia with irritating in-laws and busy-body neighbors was well illustrated. The fallacy of “money that no one will ever miss” is put to the test. And while the short novel's ending was imperfect, the ride to that conclusion was filled with compelling bumps in the road for our anti-hero to navigate.

Recommend without hesitation to fans of the genre and John D. MacDonald’s early work. 

Earl Drake #02 - One Endless Hour

It took seven years for author Dan J. Marlowe to release the sequel to his masterpiece, 1962's caper novel “The Name of the Game is Death”. Between 1962 and 1969 he would release seven stand-alones, all through the Fawcett Gold Medal line and in the crime/caper genres. 1969's “One Endless Hour” picks up with a slightly modified prologue of the prior book's last chapter. In it, a severely burned Chet Arnold (later to go by the name Earl Drake for this and the series) survives a car chase and firefight, and ends up behind bars in a prison's hospital wing. 

The opening third of the novel is an elaborate but articulate escape plan hatched by Drake. These events purposely recalls Drake's turbulent childhood and defiance of authority. He's had back against the bricks numerous times and, aside from a few potential hangups, can escape prison. There's an immense story surrounding a surgeon from Pakistan and Drake's disfigured face and hands. In an unbelievable series of events, the surgeon is able to cosmetically repair most of Drake's face while returning use back to his hands. This was a bit of hyperbole on Marlowe's part and probably detracted from the story. We'll let it pass because it's conducive to the overall series. 

The middle of the novel is Drake's financial misfortune (with a little payback) and immense scouting and planning of the next bank job. He meets up with a couple of recommended accomplices and sacks a makeup artist briefly (Marlowe is never explicit here). The next bank job is a large facility in Philadelphia, but the three do a quick run at a smaller bank and score a measly $6K. 

The last third is the saving grace and makes up for the slower concoction of scout, plan rehabilitate. The bank job has the mandatory “wrench in the gears” and it's fun to watch the characters perform under stressful conditions. The wild ending is an absolute shocker that once again sets up the obligatory continuance in book three, 1969's “Operation Fireball”. While inferior to it's predecessor, this one is still highly recommended. Marlowe and Drake are an entertaining couple that deliver the goods. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Matt Helm #17 - The Retaliators

Donald Hamilton started his fiction writing career in the later 1940s coinciding with the introduction of paperback original novels into the American literary marketplace. After a series of decent stand-alone mystery, western, and adventure novels, he finally found critical and commercial success with his 'Matt Helm' espionage series that spanned for 27 novels released between 1960 and 1993. The character of Matt Helm was poorly-adapted for the screen in a handful of awful James Bond parody films starring Dean Martin. Those films failed to capture anything that was great about the books. The series never got the film adaptation it deserved.

“Matt Helm #17: The Retaliators” (1976) was a mid-series great installment in the adventures of the cynical-realist assassin. This novel followed a string of tepid, over-long, and convoluted Helm installments apparently designed to showcase Donald Hamilton’s nautical knowledge. Thankfully, the series found its legs again in this land-based propulsive action story.

In the novel, Matt Helm and two U.S. government assassin colleagues are on-the-run and suspected of treason after internal investigators discover mysterious large cash deposits into their bank accounts. The action quickly turns to Mexico where the seeds of the plot against Helm and his co-workers were planted. Many double-crosses and compelling characters surface. Blood flows. Matt gets laid. All good stuff.

Although it wasn’t the best book in the series, “The Retaliators” was nominated for an Edgar award for Best Paperback Original - probably as a means for recognizing Donald Hamilton’s lifetime of quality genre fiction. In any case, it was great to see this beloved series regain the high-quality action that Hamilton was capable of delivering. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Tunnel Rates #01 - Tunnel Rats

One of the most harrowing aspects of the Vietnam War became the basis for an obscure paperback series. The Vietcong dug some incredibly extensive tunnel systems beneath the jungle, in which soldiers and war supplies could be hidden for surprise attacks on American troops. Tunnel openings were cleverly concealed, and the tunnels themselves were riddled with booby traps (not to mention armed sentries lurking in the darkness), making these underground systems hard to find and harder still to penetrate.

There’s a lot of potential there for some good action/adventure fiction. Can author Cliff Banks deliver?

Well, Banks is actually Stephen Mertz (creator of the excellent M.I.A. Hunter series), so we’re in good hands, and the debut novel 'TUNNEL RATS' is outstanding. The only disappointing thing is that this would prove to be a very short-lived series, with just one more novel to come before an impatient Popular Library killed the franchise. If sales were soft, I blame the cover designs, not the writing.

Our heroes are a three-man squad who are selected for their general fighting ability, along with a Vietcong defector who trains them and accompanies them on their first assignment. One of the men is too proud to admit that he suffers from claustrophobia, and that’s going to be problematic later on, once they’re snaking their way through a tight VC tunnel system on their bellies in total darkness. Another guy in the squad has a bad feeling about the defector, who may or may not betray them. 

There’s a lot more to the novel than just crawling around in tunnels. We get a jungle firefight, go-go dancers, a Saigon bar brawl and an incredible interrogation scene up in a helicopter, all before any of the tunnel stuff even begins. But everything that really matters is underground, and Mertz knows how to keep the reader wide-eyed and turning those pages. He maintains the perfect balance between action (to propel the narrative) and detail to help us feel like we’re down in those hot, stifling, terrifying tunnels ourselves, dealing with the snakes, the rats, the punji sticks and the rest of it. 

I found myself holding my breath during a few of the most powerful passages. That’s the mark of truly great pulp fiction, and I doubt there are many action/adventure books that can top 'TUNNEL RATS' for tension.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Earl Drake #01 - The Name of the Game is Death

Dan J. Marlowe was cursed with the wrong last name. Many in the genre, including myself, confused the author with Stephen Marlowe and Chandler's own iconic character Philip Marlowe. It's unfair, but some of the burden falls on the fan/reader's own ignorance. I fall into that category every time. Marlowe was an odd bird, with a lifespan that's rather peculiar and complex. Born in 1914, he was an accountant and avid gambler, validating his inclusion of poker and horses in his work as influences through experience. His wife died in 1956 and things drastically changed from there.

His love for writing and booze were support mechanisms that provoked his move to New York to write full-time. After five books about hotel detective Johnny Killian, Marlowe would go on to write the influential masterstroke - “The Name of the Game is Death”. It's an influential caper novel firmly entrenched under the much broader crime genre umbrella. Megaseller Stephen King dedicated his own noir work, “The Colorado Kid”, to Marlowe deeming him the “hardest of the hard-boiled”. The book is worthy of King's praise.

In the hard-boiled tradition of the first person narrative, we are introduced to the man with no name. Later, as the series continued (and arguably declined), the character is referred to as Earl Drake. In this book he uses an alias of Chet Arnold, fundamentally a loner who does bank jobs for a living. The story opens with Arnold and his mute partner Bunny knocking over a Phoenix bank. The hired driver panics and is fatally shot while Arnold takes one in the shoulder in an escape with Bunny. Most of the bag goes to Bunny, along with instructions for his partner to drive to Florida's gulf coast, find a small town and mail a thousand in hundreds to him. Once Arnold (at this point going by Roy Martin) heals, they will meet up. That plan goes to Hell in a handbag.

After one week of cabbage by mail, a letter arrives from Bunny saying he is in trouble and for Arnold to lay low until things clear up. The kicker – Bunny says he will call Arnold. Bunny is mute. After healing up, the novel then converts from recovery to road trip, encompassing Arnold's drive from Arizona to Hudson, Florida. It's this road venture that allows Marlowe to explain Arnold's past – equally as absorbing and intriguing as Bunny and the missing cash. We learn Arnold is 100% a loner, dedicated to solo strength and perseverance. His childhood is a suburban oddity, from a dead pet to knocking over convenience stores. Arnold did five years of hots and a cot, and swore he would never go back. 

The book then moves to a bit of a slow, but entertaining burn as Arnold acclimates himself with the tiny town and has a fling with the lovable and fiery barkeep Hazel. There's a side-story on an underground illegal supplier from Alabama, while the story unfolds on Bunny's whereabouts and the missing $200K. The finale doesn't disappoint and has Arnold hammer back, pedal down in a whirlwind of headlights and gunfire. The book's ending defiantly pronounces Arnold's journey is far from over. 

Again, it's Marlowe's masterpiece, a tour-de-force that showcases everything we love and cherish in the crime and caper epic. Arnold/Drake is the perfect anti-hero – methodical, calculating, ruthless but altogether lovable - from across town. The supporting cast of Hazel, corrupt deputy Blaze, the luscious Lucille and the spunky youngster Jed enhance the story with small town charm. It's this tease that puts Arnold teetering ever so close to the brink of normalcy.  The novel's sequel is “One Endless Hour” before Drake and Marlowe take the series and character into the spy genre. Both “The Name of the Game is Death” and “One Endless Hour” have been reprinted as an omnibus through Stark House Press. 

Kudos to author Paul Bishop for writing a terrific piece on Marlowe here.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Black Samurai #01 - Black Samurai

When African-American author Marc Olden began his fiction writing career in the early 1970s, he juggled two different action-adventure series characters. As Robert Hawke, the nine books in his 'Narc' series spanned from 1973 to 1975. Meanwhile, his 'Black Samurai' series lasted eight installments - all released in 1974 and 1975, a heavy production schedule for a relatively new author. 

“Black Samurai #1” is a terrific introductory novel from an author who clearly understood the genre. The story opens in 1973 with an action-packed massacre at a Samurai training camp outside Tokyo. After being banished from the U.S. Army for Vietnam war crimes, Colonel Leo Tolstoy (an odd literary reference never fully explained), along with a group of rogue commandos and a pack of attack dogs launch a bloody raid on the Samurai encampment. 

The slaughtered Samurai students and master in the camp were all Japanese with the exception of the one survivor, our hero, Robert Sand. The reader is quickly presented with a few flashbacks that explain how an American Black Guy became a Black Samurai with a paperback series of his own. 

As a character, Sand is not exactly brimming with personality, but he sure knows how to kick ass. The action sequences featuring Sand’s quest for vengeance are really well-written. They are the perfect blend of bloody martial arts fighting and gory gun-play. Sand is an earnest man of honor who is intelligent, gallant, courageous and highly-skilled in every martial arts discipline. 

However, this inaugural 'Black Samurai' novel really succeeds because of the addition of two key characters: an outstandingly diabolical villain and a powerful billionaire benefactor. 

First the villain: Colonel Tolstoy is one of the best bad guys ever appearing in 1970s numbered paperbacks. His suicide squad of lethal toadies includes an Arab terrorist, an IRA gunman, a Vietnamese torture specialist and an American black militant - all lead by a U.S. Army officer bent on revenge. He is a growling, loathsome, genocidal maniac and the reader really becomes invested in his eventual downfall. 

Early in the novel, the reader is also introduced to its most interesting character, former two-term U.S. President William Baron Clarke. He was responsible for discharging Colonel Tolstoy from the Army following atrocities in Vietnam, and now uses his money and influence to save the world behind the scenes. He’s a brash Texan running an off-the-books intelligence apparatus and sponsoring capable action heroes to prevent global tragedies. His working relationship with the Black Samurai is the richest relationship in the short novel. 

The plot is extremely well-executed and structured similarly to an early Mack Bolan novel. Good guy scenes and bad guy scenes alternate leading to a satisfying and violent conclusion. Blood is shed. Women are laid. Ethnic stereotypes abound. But it’s a formula that works because Olden is such a good writer who can spin a tale filled with interesting characters, vivid action and creative bloodshed.  Book one of this series will definitely make the reader want to tap into future Black Samurai adventures. 

After Robert Olden’s death in 2003 and the subsequent digital fiction revolution, the author’s heirs did something very smart: they kept his work alive by making his books available on eBook and audio platforms at affordable prices. It’s astounding that more rights-holders haven’t gone this route to monetize and preserve genre fiction stories from this era. Modern readers who want to explore his fiction don’t need to scour used bookstores for scarce and decaying paperbacks. For 'Black Samurai', some great action is only a click away. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Trailsman #205 - Mountain Mankillers

'The Trailsman' was a very long-running series (398 novels!), employing multiple authors writing under the house name Jon Sharpe. Almost inevitably, the level of quality varies from book to book, sometimes markedly. 

David Robbins was one of the better writers in the Trailsman stable, so I selected one of his books to read, since I’m already a big fan of his 'Wilderness' series. (He actually wrote more Trailsmans than Wilderness novels.) 

“Mountain Mankillers” is set in the Rockies, where a minor gold rush is underway and a bustling tent city has been established. Skye Fargo stops by, and is very soon caught up in violence and mystery. A number of miners have disappeared, including the father of two sexy sisters, and Fargo helps them out by investigating. It’s pretty clear that the town’s corrupt establishment has something to do with it all, but pulling the strings is an unknown Mr. Big. Who could it be?

Well, a modestly attentive reader won’t be kept in suspense very long, because Robbins telegraphs the identity of Mr. Big on page 130, leaving the remaining thirty-two pages of text a bit anti-climactic. That’s not to say the book is ruined. It’s still a notch or two above average, thanks partly to a couple of vividly violent sequences. One is a brutal beating on a very muddy street, and the other is a savage lashing by a bullwhip-wielding bad guy. Unfortunately for Fargo, he’s on the receiving end of both of these assaults, each of which is nearly fatal. But don’t feel too sorry for him, as he’s rewarded by the author with some mighty steamy interludes with the sexy sisters.

There’s actually a third sister too, a likable ten-year-old who befriends Fargo and is in turn watched over by him. Their scenes together are very charming, and help differentiate this character from the usual two-fisted, fast-on-the-draw western stereotype we’ve seen so many times before. (My inner casting director put Rory Calhoun in the role of Fargo, and that seemed to help bring the character to life too.) The author showed a welcome light touch in another way: Fargo keeps running into strangers who embarrass him with gushing praise for the exploits recounted in earlier novels!   

Anyway, there may be better Trailsman books out there (and there are), but you could do a lot worse than “Mountain Mankillers”.   

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Deathlands #03 - Neutron Solstice

Gold Eagle released “Neutron Solstice” in March of 1987. The novel is the third installment in the long running post-apocalyptic series 'Deathlands' and is penned by Laurence James (as James Axler). The last book, “Red Holocaust”, had our magnificent seven entering a redoubt in Alaska, with the last page promising that the exit would be hot. Thus the stage is set for this book, “Neutron Solstice”, which has it's location in the balmy swamps of Louisiana.

At 254-pages, this book could have shaved 50+ pages off. Aside from a few firefights, it's lacking any forward pacing or substantial plot development. Instead, it methodically sets up exploration, locations and the familiar “kidnap and torture” premise that's overly utilized. Voodoo themes, telekinesis and even the walking dead are par for the course for any destructive fantasy set on the bayou, yet even those factors don't elevate the book to an enjoyable pace. The end result finds this one average at best.

The story has Ryan and his crew facing a squad of bullies led by the tall, crippled Baron Tourment (get it?). He has a physic mutation and fears that his kingdom will fall to a man with one eye – Ryan. The Baron is camped in a Best Western hotel with troops and a lieutenant named Mephisto. Across the village at Holiday Inn lies our heroes, now six after losing a member. There's endless scouting and planning, that ultimately leads to Krysty and Lori being captured and used as rape bait. Ryan's team aligns with a ragtag group of survivors led by Jak Lauren, an albino teenager that has a knack for killing. The finale is entertaining but highly predictable. 

Embedded in the narrative is some backstory on Ryan. His home is in Front Royal, VA and he escaped death at the hands of his evil brother Harvey. This sinister sibling killed Ryan's older brother Morgan and is also the culprit behind Ryan's missing eye. Harvey also sired a child with his father's wife. It's messy and will eventually be expanded in the fifth novel “Homeward Bound”. In between is the fourth title, "Crater Lake". I'm on it.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Shadow #24 - Six Men of Evil

There’s a real paradox about 'The Shadow', especially in the first few years of his pulp adventures. Even in these early novels - which, as any fan will tell you, are the better ones - the stories tend to be clunky and old-fashioned, with lots of cardboard characters and stiff, unrealistic dialogue. Walter B. Gibson, who wrote the 1931 debut novel and most of the rest, can really pad things out and his editors seem not to have tightened up his manuscripts very much.

And yet… the Shadow books are tremendous, because the Shadow himself is possibly the single most compelling character in the entire 125-year history of pulp fiction. Part-detective, part-vigilante, he’s an incredibly secretive figure obsessed with bringing down the most ambitious criminals in the country.

Gibson’s limitations vanish whenever he’s describing the Shadow, or anything he’s doing. These passages are beautifully written, and richly evocative of mystery and eeriness. Except when in disguise, the Shadow operates at night or in dim, gloomy places. He doesn’t walk, he glides silently. He doesn’t shout, he speaks in a commanding husky whisper. He doesn’t hide, he simply melts into the shadows. He comes and goes like a ghost, and if he’s after you, you’d better believe he’ll find you…and you won’t know it until you hear the low chuckle of the dark figure standing behind you. 

All of this begins to unravel about 1937, after the overworked Gibson had pounded out upwards of twenty novels a year for several years, and a lot of the Shadow’s mystery and menace starts slipping away. But it’s hard to overstate how captivating the Shadow is in his prime. Take “Six Men of Evil” for instance. It’s the 24th novel in the series, published in 1933, and while he’s hardly more than a spooky supporting character in the very earliest stories, by now he’s taken center stage. The plot is kind of quirky, kind of silly. The action sequences are quite good this time around, and upwards of a dozen crooks will get blasted by the Shadow’s twin automatics before it’s all over. As usual, there’s something very unique about the gang that he’s stalking, and he’ll have to travel all the way to a remote corner of Mexico to uncover its secret. The hunt ultimately leads him to San Francisco, where we’ll get a showdown in Chinatown and a memorable finale. The book’s greatest appeal, though, are in all the passages that show how the Shadow operates, and how he confronts the bad guys. There’s also a great interlude in which he appears in the guise of “Lamont Cranston”, one of the personas he adopts when he needs to work openly in broad daylight. 

As Shadow novels go, “Six Men of Evil” has its shortcomings but is more than strong enough to hold the reader’s interest. Forget the narrative, though. The main attraction here is the Shadow himself, the most fascinating, most dynamic character to ever haunt the pages of pulp fiction.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Quarry #08 - Quarry's Ex

“Quarry's Ex” is an excellent entry in the 'Quarry' series by Max Allan Collins. The series is about an anti-hero murder-for-hire hit-man. As with all the novels in the series, the first-person narration is conversational , humorous, and compelling.

There are two kinds of Quarry novels: The first type is where Quarry is hired to kill someone, the second is where Quarry is hired to stop another hit-man from killing someone. Both types are equally great. In “Quarry's Ex”, our hero follows a hit-man to the on-location filming of a movie to determine who is about to be killed and prevent the murder from happening. Along the way, he gets entangled with a woman from his past, several Hollywood bozos, and a mobster B-movie financier. There’s plenty of sex and violence along with an actual mystery to be solved.

The books were written in both the 1970s and the 2000s with a large publication gap in the middle of the series. The publication order is not the series order. The series begins and ends respectively with “The First Quarry” and “The Last Quarry”. Beyond that, reading order doesn’t really matter. There is no discernible difference in quality between the 1970s installments and the 2000s. All of them take place in the post-Vietnam 1970s and early 1980’s.

I’ve never read a bad Quarry novel, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Highly recommended for hard-boiled genre fans.

Quarry #09 - The Wrong Quarry

There are two types of Quarry novels: The first is when hit-man Quarry is hired to kill someone and the second are the ones where Quarry tries to kill another hit-man to protect a client. “The Wrong Quarry”, the series' ninth entry, is one of the second variety and perhaps the best of that bunch. It was published as a Hard Case Crime novel in 2014, and is written by Max Allan Collins. We are utilizing a chronological reading order of these novels, thus our interpretation as "Quarry 09". Aside from the first novel, readers can enjoy the series in any order. 

Quarry finds himself in Missouri stalking a hit-man who, in turn, is stalking a gay dance instructor who is suspected of causing the disappearance of a teenage girl. All the humor and sex from other Quarry novels is present in this one, but there is also a compelling mystery involving the identity of the person wanting to kill the dance teacher and the whereabouts of the missing girl.

The characters in this one are vivid and realistic. The female leads are sexy as hell. The plot twists are unexpected and realistic. The scenes of violence are brutal and bloody. This is one of the best of the series and not to be missed.