Friday, March 30, 2018

Dakota #02 - Red Revenge

“Red Revenge” is another top-notch effort from author Gilbert Ralston. It was released in 1974 through the popular Pinnacle Adventure line and marks the second installment of modern western series 'Dakota'. As I mentioned in my review of the series debut, “Dakota Warpath”, this character is strikingly similar to what Craig Johnson would do years later with his 'Longmire' character. 

This book mentions some of the events that transpired in the series opener. Ralston almost has a hometown feeling to the book, by outlining and describing all of the characters that make up this colorful Carson Valley town. Some were introduced in the prior book, some are new. Dakota has a love interest here named Alicia, and based on the book's ending she could be a recurring character throughout the series. The storyline of Dakota's sick father continues and concludes in this book. Also, the young Native American that Dakota assisted in the prior novel is a steadfast character here - sort of the action-assistant or inexperienced ally. Louis serves as a dialogue direction as Dakota explains to the reader what he's doing with the case.

The Board of Directors of Grayson Electric have been kidnapped for ransom in Lake Tahoe. The employees' families reach out to Dakota to offer assistance. They need to pay three-million in bearer bonds to the kidnappers, or heads will roll. While they sort out the collateral, Dakota starts the search for where the men are being held. This is about half of the book and is a really entertaining nod to detective fiction – checking leads, interviewing potential witnesses, etc. Eventually, Dakota taps a location and loads the guns.

Dakota, being Shoshone, has two blood brothers that join him for the rescue attempt. Ralston absolutely nails the liberation, from hunting and killing to an all-out assault. It's done remarkably well, and includes a fair amount of car run 'n gun and a robust body count. After the high-impact finale, Ralston doesn't just throw the sheets on the corpse. He lets us stick around for 20-more pages while the story is ironed out, bodies are named and Dakota himself explains his actions to law-enforcement. It's a unique angle that few authors rarely conceive and deliver. What happens when the smoke clears and the hero has killed the bad guys? It's not as black and white as the end credits make it seem. Ralston understands that and I applaud him for giving us a little more than standard volume feedback. 

Dakota hits the Big Apple next for “Cat Trap”. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A Hell Of A Woman

Among the crime authors who rose to prominence in the 1950s, Jim Thompson seems to get more modern praise in literary circles than his paperback original contemporaries. His work is spoken with a kind of reverence that Harry Whittington, Charles Wileford, and Bruno Fischer never seem to receive. Was Jim Thompson really that much better?

“A Hell of a Woman” was a Lion Books 1954 mid-career effort from Thompson. It’s a 200-page, first-person con-man story told from the perspective of Frank “Dolly” Dillon, a door-to-door salesman working for Pay-E-Zee - essentially a walking department store peddling goods on credit installment plans to rural rubes. As the novel opens, we learn that Dillon is working himself into a financial hole and has been skimming cash from his collections to make ends meet with a lazy, dumpy wife in his roach-infested home. 

Thomson doesn’t waste any time getting into the intrigue. In the first chapter, Dillon is trying to sell silverware to an old lady and immediately finds himself in a dark and sexualized situation with the old lady’s buxom niece, Mona. We learn that the old woman’s practice of pimping Mona for sex to traveling salesmen in exchange for consumer products is nothing new, and smitten Dillon promises to rescue the girl from this life of perpetual sexual trauma. 

Thompson’s willingness to mine the depths of human depravity must have been one of the things that set him apart from his crime novelist cohorts. And the murders that take place in this short work are more shocking and violent than others from this era. However, a mere race to the bottom would have been meaningless if he wasn’t such a damn fine writer. The text is very raw, and his descriptions of women, for example, are simply brutal. Dillon’s first person narration is conversational, but it’s also the vehicle for a deeper understanding of his nature - he’s a grifter with a real - though easily compromised - conscience. 

Thompson employs a first-person literary perspective trick halfway through the novel and periodically thereafter that bolsters the idea that he wanted his pulpy crime novel to be more literary than other books of the time. But otherwise, this is just a very entertaining, well-written, gritty noir novel filled with anti-heroes, femme fatales, and double-crosses. It’s a great read and a terrific introduction to Thompson’s body of work. Maybe it’s not breaking new ground, but if the paperback original crime fiction of this era is your thing (and it really should be), “A Hell of a Woman” is truly essential reading.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

87th Precinct #01- Cop Hater


It's intimidating to write a literary critique for Ed McBain's kickstarter “Cop Hater”. Written by Evan Hunter, it's the mantle piece for the police procedural book and the debut of the highly respectable '87th Precinct' series. According to the author, it was written in 1955 after spending a lengthy amount of time within the NYPD researching and planning. In the Thomas & Mercer re-print, Hunter's introduction provides an intimate peek at the book's development (which you can read for free as an Amazon download sample) and the conception of the pseudonym McBain.

While the police procedural could probably be linked to a handful of novels a decade before, the '87th Precinct' series was probably only rivaled by the show that influenced it – Dragnet. While detective Steve Carella is featured as a main character, the series is one of the first (if not first) to feature a conglomerate hero, the squad of cops that make up the fictional 87th Precinct. The squad is a character just as much as the unnamed fictional city is. Hunter, while struggling with placing the series in New York City, found it much easier to fictionalize the city while using NYC as a primary blueprint.

While not ruining it for the new reader, the concept of “Cop Hater” is essentially that – a madman targeting police officers of the 87th Precinct. Like a good Agatha Christie whodunit, the mystery enlarges as the corpses stack up. While never explicit or terribly violent (or I'm just numb), we familiarize ourselves with these officers only to find them shockingly killed off before our very eyes. We're at the scene of the crime, but never know the killer's identity until the end. It's not a first-person narration like a majority of detective fiction, instead it's the author leading us through the alleys, buildings and squad rooms of this sweltering city. Detective Steve Carella is firmly embedded in the action, introduced here along with his fiance, the lovable Theodora Franklin.

The muggy July heat plays havoc on these characters, eroding patience, love and goodwill with a toxic, febrile blanket of exhaustion. Hunter would steadfastly utilize weather as a character itself, inserting climatic changes to these stories to enrich and enhance the atmosphere. At times the dialogue is as simple as the police interviews – Who, Where, What and the allusive Why. It's our struggle every bit as much as the cops. By the closing pages it's all a frantic chase for the pre-smoking barrel, stopping the .45 slug from finding the next blue shirt. 

“Cop Hater” is masterfully penned, properly paced and is worthy of the praise heaped on it for half a century.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Enforcer #03 - Kill City

Andrew Sugar's third entry in his vigilante series 'Enforcer' is “Kill City”, released in 1973 by Lancer. Like the prior two books, “Kill City” was purchased by Manor and reprinted in 1976 with new, more superior artwork courtesy of George Gross (who did early 'Executioner' books before Gil Cohen took over). Gross's artwork really captures the feel of the book, detailing many of the action sequences found within. The red, white and blue color scheme is important to the story fundamentals – Enforcer Jason is preventing a mass terrorist attack on major US cities. With the obligatory ticking time bomb comes some political intrigue and subtext regarding a nation divided by color.

Like the series debut “Caribbean Kill”, the novel starts by revealing a wounded Jason after the finale showdown. The author paints enough sketchy brush strokes to give us a feel of the story, but leaves all the details and plot planning for subsequent chapters. In those, Jason is mugged off-assignment and rescued by a vigilante force called The Patrol. In the incident, the mugger shockingly turns the gun on himself, committing suicide on the sidewalk. Perplexed, Jason takes the mystery to the institute (the place where they make a new body for Jason every 90 days in an effort to fight crime worldwide). Collectively, the institute formulates a tactical infiltration of The Patrol. 


Combining the institute's resources, Jason utilizes a black associate named Calvin to tackle the assignment. The Patrol is actually the Caucasian vigilante force. There's also an African-American version stereo-typically deemed Brigade of Brothers. While the surface level indicates no foul play, Jason and Calvin infiltrate the two forces, black and white, and unveil a global conspiracy to detonate Suicide Stimulators (called Suzies) across major US cities. The overall effort is conducted by one of Jason's rivals from the first book. 

Sugar really nails this one, fetching the same sort of intrigue, mystery and explosive action as the predecessor, “Calling Doctor Kill”. While the clone bodies, Jason's body jumping and his masterful art of Ki have all been elements of the prior installments, these inclusions are more expanded with “Kill City”. Beyond what we already knew, Jason stumbles on a few new tricks while fumbling with the two criminal factions. Sugar, always explicit, throws in some X-Rated steam as Jason works over Janet, his love interest from book two. 

Overall, “Kill City” is a thrill-ride of epic proportions and continues to catapult the series into the higher echelon of the genre.

Thanks to Bob Deis of MensPulpMags.com for the assistance on the book's artist and artwork.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The D.C. Man #02 - Search and Destroy

'The D.C. Man' was a four-book action series released in 1974 and 1975 by a former Roman Catholic priest named Peter Rohrbach under the name James P. Cody. The series tracks the adventures of a Washington lobbyist and political troubleshooter named Brian Peterson who uses guns, political connections and brains to solve sensitive problems for Capital Hill big shots. One doesn’t need to read 'The D.C. Man' books in any order as they stand well on their own, and relevant facts from the hero’s backstory are well explained in the first few chapters.

In this second installment, Peterson is hired by the attractive daughter of a US Senator to investigate the validity of her father’s recent suicide. At first, Peterson is skeptical that the Senator’s gun-in-the-mouth routine was anything other than self-inflicted, but the reader can see where this is heading once we learn that the Senator has been quietly investigating the scourge of 1970s men’s adventure fiction: The Mafia.

The setup and setting for 'The D.C. Man' books provided the author great flexibility for story ideas - credibly toggling between espionage, crime, and political intrigue. This one is more of a straightforward private eye novel. Peterson follows leads diligently moving from person-to-person conducting interviews. Periodically, unidentified goons try to hurt or stop him, and those scenes of violence are always well-written and exciting. A sexual interest arises with a comely female character, and the resulting coupling is slightly more graphic than most crime novels from that era (but less explicit than, say, a 'Longarm' western). In other words, there’s not much to distinguish this story from a solid, workmanlike P.I. novel starring Mike Shayne, Johnny Liddell, or Peter Chambers.

One thing that sets 'The D.C. Man' apart from its contemporaries is the setting and era. The smoke of distrust and corruption of post-Watergate Washington, DC is thick in this story. Peterson spends a lot of physical and mental energy to figure out if the Senator killed himself because he feared the exposure of his own corruption or whether his corruption lead to his murder. The idea that the late Senator deserves a fair shake isn’t even an option for Peterson until a character confronts him about his anti-politician bias several chapters into the book. The symbiotic relationship between elected officials, their staffs, lobbyists, and the press is the fuel that feeds The D.C. Man books. This is a sexy, violent thriller for American political junkies.

By the time Peterson solves the novel’s central mystery concerning the reasons for the Senator’s death, the body count begins climbing exponentially. The brutality of each subsequent death appears to increase as our hero veers deeper into Mack Bolan territory - a lobbyist’s war against the mafia, if you will. The many action scenes are legitimately exciting and filled with gunplay and gripping suspense.

Overall, this second book in 'The D.C. Man' series was another winner in a series that deserves more accolades than it ever received as a new release in the 1970s.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Earl Drake #03 - Operation Fireball


 The general consensus is that Dan J. Marlowe's “The Name of the Game is Death” and “One Endless Hour” make the best of list for the hard-boiled genre. Those novels, released in 1962 and 1968, were riveting caper romps that symbolized everything we loved about the genre – peril, betrayal, guns and money. It's first person narration from the man with no name (or face!) was mesmerizing, painting a lifespan mired in corruption, vengeance, angst and adversity. While not overly complex, it was deep reading that allowed the reader a spot in the hotseat. We were staring down the barrel as much as the storyteller – the smoking gun a cautionary warning of the hot winds of Hell. While both of Marlowe's novels are held in high regard, those opinions are much weaker for the third and subsequent books of the 'Drake' series. Instead of jerking a .38 Special and navigating vault rooms, 1969's “Operation Fireball” provides M-16s, claymore mines and dodging MIG-17s. It's just a totally different style that isn't altogether bad...it's just seeing the characters on a different stage.

Three-fourths of Marlowe's “Operation Fireball” runs the same playbook as “One Endless Hour”. Earl Drake (his real name was never provided by the author) takes a heist job to steal millions from a Cuban military compound. Replace a Philly bank with a Cuban stronghold and you get the same strategy. The majority of the book is the assembly of players – Drake, Hazel (Drake's lover from the first two novels), Erikson, Wilson and Slater. Each have a role in the heist, complete from transmission, boats, firearms, locks and funding. The book methodically assembles the team, outlines the mission and provides the stakes in much the same way Marlowe aligned the team in the last book. It's the closing chapters that really set it apart.

International waters shows a metamorphosis from caper to spy. Drake is faking his way onto a US Destroyer ship, then faking his way into the Cuban military. From brothels to bars, the team penetrates Havana while dodging firing squads, fighter jets, machine guns and mines. Essentially, it's a new breed of Drake fiction that really showcases a completely different type of storytelling. The book's ending conclusively proves that the series is taking a different direction in much the same way Bolan transformed at number 39. It isn't necessarily a reflection of poor writing, as those books and this specific book still provide entertainment and enjoyment. It's just a different way to park the horse. Whether you continued the series post-1968 or not, Marlowe delivered quality storytelling on “Operation Fireball”. I've yet to explore the rest of the series or any of Marlowe's stand-alones, but based on this entry, I'm probably all in.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Executioner #77 - Hollywood Hell

“HOLLYWOOD HELL”, the 77th book in the durable Mack Bolan saga, is a transitional novel, sitting at the half-way point between Don Pendleton’s original vision and the quasi-secret agent stories we'll get later in the series. 

The novel keeps it vague, but Bolan seems to be working as a hired gun this time. The assignment is to find the wayward daughter of a Senate candidate, and get her out of the porno underworld. Actually, she’s in something like the underworld beneath that underworld, where drugged-up prisoners are forced into all sorts of awful things before being killed on-camera.

That’s a pretty strong premise, but what makes it better is that Bolan is back in Mafia-busting mode, because the local crime family is running the whole scummy show. In fact, it’s the very same family Bolan took down in the third book of the series, BATTLE MASK, now re-organized with more sleaze than ever before. On the other side of the law, Bolan’s old police nemesis Captain Braddock is still on the force, and he just might be willing to play a role in the big take-down Bolan is planning. 

Author Mike Newton keeps things moving pretty well, but the most interesting things aren’t the inevitable gun battles. Far more memorable are various scenes in which Bolan seeks out the kingpins of the flesh trade. There’s a great confrontation sequence in one of those ratty old Hollywood apartment buildings which escalates into a brawl involving mobsters, Mohawked punks and bikers. Another highlight comes when Bolan attends an invitation-only screening of a snuff film, and his rage against the masturbating creeps around him boils over. Scenes like these make his mission personal, and a little more meaningful than your typical Gold Eagle testosterone party.

So the book has its strengths, but I found the author’s prose to be clunky and long-winded. He also had an annoying habit of ending sentences with the word “right,” which I guess was meant to lend a conversational tone. (It works okay when you’re talking to someone in person, right? But when the narrator of a novel uses it over and over, it comes across as contrived and irritating, right?) The book’s dialogue was pretty good, but there wasn’t nearly enough of it. My final beef is with the climax. Without giving too much away, Bolan’s brother Johnny takes part in the big final showdown. Guns are still blazing when Mack is forced to leave the scene, and he takes us with him. As to whether Johnny lives or dies, who knows? He’s never mentioned again.

I’d still rather have something like “HOLLYWOOD HELL” than most of the later Mack Bolan books. For all its flaws, there’s some good stuff here. But if you haven’t read all of Don Pendleton’s original 'Executioner' novels yet (#1-15 and #17-38), get hold of those first.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Loving and the Dead


Beginning in the 1950s, Australia-based author Carter Brown (real name: Alan Yates) wrote over 300 short, sexy, formulaic, mystery novels starring largely-interchangeable American investigators including Al Wheeler, Danny Boyd, and Rick Holman. The books are great fun as long as the reader understands that these 120-page quickies are basically literary snack food. 

Between 1955 and 1974, Brown authored a dozen novels starring a sexy - but ditzy -female private eye named Mavis Seidlitz. These novels add a bit more humor to the mysterious mix, and they are often fan-favorites among Brown’s massive body of work. “The Loving and the Dead” (1959) was Brown’s fifth entry into the Mavis series, but these easy-reading novels can be enjoyed in any order. Unlike the books starring Brown’s male protagonists, the Mavis books are often laugh-out-loud funny with the patter clearly influenced by George Burns-Gracie Allen routines. Everyone that Mavis encounters quickly becomes the straight-man for her one-liners and double-ententes. 

In this one, the setup is simple and inspired by Agatha Christie. At the request of her partner, Johnny Rio, Mavis must go undercover for a long weekend as the wife of an heir to a great fortune. If the client and his “wife” can survive the family weekend, he stands to inherit millions. Participants and servants at the family retreat are occasionally murdered, and the killer is among them for Mavis to catch. If this doesn’t make much sense to you, please understand that this is a Carter Brown novel and the plot is a just pretext for sexy, madcap detective work among eccentric suspects. 

It’s no spoiler to reveal that Mavis gets laid, but this was written before Brown’s editors added graphic sex to his novels for U.S. consumption. She also has the opportunity to kick some ass and do some actual investigating in her push-up bra and short skirts. It’s hard not to feel real affection for Mavis who displays a likable combination of sweetness, naïveté, and toughness.

If there’s anything to criticize in this novel, it’s that things get a little too implausibly wacky at times. For example, there’s a character who walks around the whole time with a ventriloquist dummy, and the dummy does most of the talking for him. At it’s best, “The Loving and the Dead” feels like a comedic Donald Westlake crime novel, but there are times where the silliness descends into sheer farce. 

If you’re looking for a light, enjoyable, crime novel with some laughs, this one is a fine introduction to a lovable character with plenty to enjoy. Just don’t expect anything with more depth than an average episode of Scooby-Doo. Recommended if you want something light and insubstantial.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Violent Maverick (aka Wet Cattle)


Walt Coburn was first and foremost a cowboy. The Montana native was the son of Robert Coburn, the founder of Circle C Ranch. In the late 1800s, this was the largest ranch in the northwest (Montana didn't become a state until 1889). Coburn cut his teeth as a cowboy, and served in WWI before becoming a full-time writer in the 1920s. From that period through the 1940s, the author contributed over a hundred stories to the pulps, predominantly “Dime Western Magazine”. From the 1930s through the early 1970s, he wrote over 30 western novels, including “Wet Cattle” in 1955. In 1970, the novel's title was changed to the much more gritty sounding “Violent Maverick” via the Macfadden-Bartell line.

Penniless cowboy Pat Roper saved Mexican bandit Pablo Guerrero's life in a prior gun-battle. Pablo runs into Roper in a firefight over stolen cattle at the Arizona-Mexican border. Pablo gifts Roper the Two Block ranch, 25,000 acres of good feed, water and a some start-up cattle. The problem is that Pablo is running guns through it in an attempt to overthrow the Mexican government. Roper, not digging into the devil in the details, accepts the gift and takes the ranch. He later finds out that Pablo's lifetime enemy, Wig Murphy, borders the ranch with his own cattle empire, and he's crushing the Two Block ranch out.

Coburn's validity as a real cowboy is a catch-22. While his books possess dirty, dusty realism, they are written in “cowboy” terminology that's sometimes really hard to decipher. It's this element that dampened what was otherwise a well-crafted story in “Violent Maverick”. It's a short read at 140-pages, and has a breakneck pace that had me finishing it in less than two hours. Was I maniacally rushing so it was over quickly, or because I wanted to learn the fate of young sod-buster Pat Roper? Probably a little of both. The end result is just another dog-eared, yellowed western that passes the time.

Texas Fever

World War II veteran and author Donald Hamilton is best known for his 'Matt Helm’ spy series. That long running line ran from 1960 through the 1990s. Hamilton also contributed stand-alone crime novels in the 40s and 50s as well as six westerns penned in the mid 50s and early 60s. This novel, “Texas Fever”, was released by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1960, and reprinted again by the publisher in 1989 with a slightly modern cover (resembling something more akin to 80s Pinnacle or Zebra). At it's heart, “Texas Fever” is a coming-of-age tale, but it's wrapped in a dusty, rugged range war that emphasizes the “classic western” brand. 

Young Chuck McAuliffe is on a cattle-drive from Texas through Kansas. His father, Jesse is a Confederate veteran, as is his brother David. The family have been pushed hard, with their ranch nearing foreclosure. This drive hopes to net them $20 a head on a herd nearing 1,200. My guess on the time period is right around the late 1860s, a time when Texas and their steer were still considered scruff and repellent. Complicating matters is a cow disease that warrants the law and buyers to envelope the mid-west in a quarantine. After being forced west at numerous junctions, Jesse, back to the wall, stampedes the quarantine and is killed. 


The heart of the story is a cow theft operation that forces weary, tired and broke cattlemen to sell their stock at pennies on a dollar. Chuck sees through the scam, and takes his battle to the crooked preacher, deputy and outlaw. As Chuck is forced to mature and harden fast, he meets up with a con-woman who takes his virginity before trying to go clean in an alliance with him. Soon things get out of hand, and the barrels heat up.

Hamilton tells the tale well, pausing for backstory, to propel the narrative. The opening third is fisticuff action, all in the classic western mold – cattle thieves, cap and ball fire and well-defined “good guys”. The middle is bogged down with the convoluted alliances, a confused sheriff and the overall love-dove dialogue. The closing third returns to the prairie, with enough hard-charging mounts and gunfire to fully redeem itself. A quality, enjoyable read from a rare Hamilton western.

Stoner #04 - King's Ransom

Ralph Hayes conclusion to his four book series 'Stoner' was “King's Ransom”. It was released by Manor in 1978 and is the only entry that doesn't have the series name or number on the cover. I'm not sure why the publisher went this route considering the artwork leaves much to be desired. Perhaps that was the main issue? The lack of quality artwork to support the 'Stoner' title? While the previous three entries look fantastic, this one seems rather dull. But the contents offer us another quality entry in what amounted to a fantastic short-lived series.

Unlike the prior three novels, “King's Ransom” puts Stoner on the trail for a kidnapped corporate hotshot instead of a treasure or stolen relic. It's another urban installment, like the prior book “All That Glitters”. Set in Buenos Aires and Argentina, the novel has a militant group called the Mendoza Committee planning a snatch and run of Thurston King, head of an empirical oil company called AROCO. The terrorist group wants to rid corporate, and oil companies, from Argentina and wants to make an example out of King. The plot is to kidnap King and ransom him for three-million dollars. How this solves anything is debatable, but it's a surefire way to set up Stoner versus the baddies.

Argentina government contracts Stoner to assist the police in retrieving King. It's another $50K offer like the last jobs (I guess this is market rate for retrieval of stolen people and goods?) and Stoner takes the contract. On the flip-side, this Mendoza Committee ruthlessly kills King's son while mouth raping his wife. King is taken to a cottage in Buenos Aires, shot in the knee cap and left to starve, dehydrate and die while waiting for his employer to pony up. In a satirical way, the company finds King expendable and isn't going to pay a dime to liberate him. Thankfully, he has Stoner on the case.

This is probably the worst of the series, but the series is so good that even worst could be first when compared to other late 70s action offerings. While the first two books didn't showcase a whole lot of fighting skills from Stoner, these last two introduce a more formidable fighting force. Hayes, again completely oblivious to firearms, has the hero running around with the fictitious Magnum .38 revolver (he has it confused with the .357) and I cringed each time the bad guy screwed a suppressor on a revolver. It's trivial nonsense but as a firearm enthusiast it drives me batshit bonkers. Overall, you can't go wrong with “King's Ransom”. Hunt these four books down, turn your brain off and just have a damn good time.

Stoner #03 - All That Glitters

The third 'Stone' novel, “All That Glitters”, was released by Manor in 1977. I've grown fond of this rugged salvage hero, a loner that hunts treasure and thugs across the globe. Thus far, the second entry, “The Satan Stone”, has championed the series, but Hayes has a gift for storytelling and he has a lot of fun with this one.

“All That Glitters” runs that familiar scheme where everybody that touches the wealth is immediately killed by the next guy wanting to touch the wealth. It's a simple formula that has been done to death (even by 1977 standards) in all forms of media, but nevertheless it's entertaining. It revolves around the theft of the cherished Southern Cross, an ornamental bling-bling worth millions.

Hayes embeds us in the action very early. Zachariah Smith, a stealthy dealer, runs a museum heist, cleverly switching out a fake Southern Cross with the real one. He kills two guys in the exchange but pulls the snatch off with smooth expertise. It's only when he attempts to sell it to another nefarious dealer, Vlahos, that the chain of death commences. Before the transaction is complete, both are murdered and the treasure passes to the next criminal. This continues through a dozen hands, some planned, some sheer luck, throughout the alleys and backstreets of Athens. Stoner's involvement is a plush $50K to recover the cross and return it to the museum.

“All That Glitters” differs from the prior two books of the series. Those entries put the action in exotic locations in the jungles and deserts of Africa and South America. This book changes direction by placing Stoner in an urban environment. Instead of tanks, planes and horses, we get high speed car chases and alley sweeps. I like this change of direction and it adds a little more dynamic to Stoner's one-dimensional joystick of “punch, shoot, run”. The end result is another fine addition to a high-quality series.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

To Kiss, Or Kill

Along with contemporaries Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and Peter Rabe, the Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original crime novels were defined by the work of author Day Keene (real name: Gunard Hjertstedt). Between 1949 and 1973, dime-store spinner racks were filled with affordable paperback output from Keene and his cohorts. 

“To Kiss, Or Kill” (1951) was Keene’s fifth published novel, and the setup is rather familiar: Our hero finds the corpse of a sexy, nude blonde in his Chicago hotel room and endeavors to clear his name since no one would ever believe that he didn’t snuff the dame. In this case, our wrongfully-accused hero is a former Polish-American heavyweight boxing sensation, Barney Mandell, who is freshly released from an extended stay in an insane asylum. Mandell can’t even be 100% sure he didn’t kill the blonde due to his drunkenness at the time of the discovery as well as his awareness that he’s - until recently, at least - certified crazy.  

Mandell’s quest to get to the bottom of the situation takes him into the world of his own humble beginnings before he was a famous prize fighter. One of the fun aspects of this story is that even though he’s been out of the ring for awhile, Mandell is a sports celebrity. People know him and vividly recall his 42 consecutive knockouts in the ring, and while he’s on the run, he’s also encountering fawning fans seeking autographs. 

Did Mandell kill the blonde and then suppress the memories? Why was he committed to an asylum? Why are the Feds creeping around this case? What does Mandell’s estranged wife have to do with all this? These are the questions that Keene teases out over the course of the thin paperback. 

Unfortunately, instead of a tidy and fast-moving investigation to find the killer, the novel puts the reader through long, rather dull, narrative stretches of exploring Mandell’s own sanity. Does an insane man have the introspection to know he’s crazy? As the bodies around him begin to pile up, it’s clear that Mandell is either completely loony or he’s being set up for multiple homicides. 

The ultimate solution to the novel’s central mystery is a bit of a let-down, and the road to get there has lots of dull, talky, repetitive stretches. “To Kiss, Or Kill” would have been a better 40-page Manhunt Magazine novella, but it felt padded at 160 pages. It’s not an awful book, but there are many better options with similar themes from the same era. 

Keene has done better, and so can you. Best to take a pass on this one.

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.