Monday, April 30, 2018

The Lost Traveler

Author Steve Wilson has written a number of non-fiction books about motorcycles. In 1978 he launched a trilogy of motorcycle mystery fiction loosely titled 'Jack the Dealer' - “Dealer's Move” (1978), “Dealer's War” (1980), Dealer's Wheels (1982). The novel that he's mostly associated with is an unusual hybrid of science-fiction, western and biker action known as “The Lost Traveler”. Originally published in 1977, it has been reprinted numerous times with different artwork (at one point the additional title of “Holocaust Angels”) including various accolades commending the author and story. In 2013 a Kindle version was released by Dr. Cicero Books that contained the complete novel and an interview with the author. My review is based on the original 1977 version...because I only want one copy of this thing.

I'm prefacing this review with two important reminders: One, I don't particularly care for science-fiction. Two, I really dislike what I refer to as “military campaign” fiction. This book incorporates both of those elements, enveloping the story's more pleasant coming of age nostalgia with too much “land grab conquering”. It's really disappointing because I really loved a fourth of this novel. Which leads me to think fans of the previously mentioned genres might really like it entirely. I didn't and that's okay. The book has plenty of admirers and at some point I'm sure Wilson has enjoyed some form of monetary success from it.

Like any post-apocalyptic formula, this novel begins with the big bang. Countries nuke the Hell out of each other, releasing bombs, drugs an chemicals in an all-consuming effort to destroy each other. This event is aptly titled BLAM. This offensive lottery is summarized in the opening pages, outlining how California's biker gang, Hell's Angels, just happened to run into the US President's convoy and join him as a gritty, beer-toting security force. As preposterous as it sounds, it really makes sense – the Angels aren't that intoxicated by the drugs and chemicals due to their over excessive indulgence through the 60s and 70s. The president embraces their culture and adopts the Hell's Angels into the head of state. The Angels and what's left of the US government create a massive sanctuary known as The Fief (an idea held in fief for the unborn and the future) in the San Joaquin Valley. Like most of the 80s doomsday yarns, this one sets up two warring factions – The Fief (California and it's slave camps, farms, tyranny) and it's neighboring, equally violent gang called Peregrine Gypsies, which have their own enforcer biker gang called The Gypsies. Fast forward 200+ years.

Like Robert Tine's (Richard Harding) later series 'Outrider', this novel showcases the warring factions in cardinal points. The South (Texas and the Gulf Coast) is controlling oil and petrol (a cherished commodity when using motorcycles as military) and that cartel is on a trade basis with The Gypsies, who control the East. A pipeline is considered too vulnerable for the preying nomads, so there is a Juice Route created for tankers to run 'n gun. The North isn't really mentioned much other than it's frosty and an undesirable location for anyone. The point to all this is that essentially Hell's Angels are the good guys and we are introduced to the central character Long Range.

Long Range is our young, coming of age hero that's accepting the monomyth invitation. This journey puts Long Range on the Juice Route into the East to grab a Professor Sangria. He has a green thumb and can miraculously grow crops in the charred landscape known as Dead Lands. He's the only guy that can do this, making him one of the most important men on the planet and a reason for gruesome warfare between the factions. Joining Long Range is a spry young adventurer named Milt and Long Range's nemesis Belial, who is fresh off of running a willing gang bang on the girl Long Range is fond of. Snooze you lose. Leading the charge is a truck driver named The Barrel, who will drive the boys and bikes deep into the East and let them off to run 'n gun to Sangria. It's these middle chapters that are outrageously fun.

The trio race through Gypsies, firing and fighting through various obstacles before being captured and imprisoned in an East labor camp. Along the way Long Range gives it up to a young Native American named Rita, whom he vows to love eternally after a few romps in the hay. The closing chapters of “the good part” puts Long Range in the company of a tribe of Lakotas, who are simply doing their own thing in a central, neutral area that isn't influenced or bribed by the surrounding gangs. It's here that the book stagnates into long bouts of Native American transcending wisdom about prophecies and impending battles. It's pages and pages of this nonsense that becomes so convoluted in its own message – just deeming Long Range as a Brave Doomsday Warrior, the hero of the day, the forthcoming savior of mankind...yada yada yada. I didn't need endless scriptures from guys like Black Horse Rider. From this point it only gets worse, trolling the most boring aspects of military campaigns and land grabs from the perspective of a Colonel Crocker baddie. 

What's really interesting about this novel, again released in 1977, is its impact on the doomsday fiction of the 80s. This book's “Dead Lands” could easily be a catch-all for the long-running 'Deathlands' series. The prior mention to Tine's 'Outrider' taking some liberties with the story's navigation, or the way Wilson writes Native American allies into the story in much the same way as Ryder Syvertsen wrote it in 'The Last Ranger' series (as Craig Sargent). Long Range's own appearance is similar to what Robert Kirkman injected into 'The Walking Dead' character Daryl Dixon (biker wielding crossbow). Beyond it's endurance as a post-apocalyptic catalyst, the book melds various cultures into a euphoric, stoner vibe that speaks volumes of the 70s - “You're Okay, I'm Okay”. The opening chapters of this narrative is a drugged out reverie, blurring the boundaries of fantasy fiction in some wacky biker mythology. It's narcotized to oblivion and back again, from free loving group orgies to Medicine Man puffiness to a weird God-like semblance to the finale – a far out gaze at Long Range Jesus. It's benumbing, all of it. Lost in the shuffle is a consistent plot that makes the uber-important prophecies that impacting. 

Mesmerizing? Yes. 
Entertaining. Luke-Warm Yes. 
Memorable? Get back to me in ten years.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, April 27, 2018

Ride the Nightmare

A murderous home invader with a score to settle descends on the home of suburban parents, Chris and Helen Martin. Is it a case of mistaken identity or has Chris been dishonest with his wife about his own checkered past? That’s the premise of the 1959 Richard Matheson novel, “Ride the Nightmare.” The short paperback was adapted into an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and later as the 1970 film “Cold Sweat” starring Charles Bronson. 

By telling the story largely from Helen’s perspective, Matheson plays with wives’ fears that they really don’t know their husbands all that well. As the suspense unfolds, Helen experiences the dawning realization that she may, in fact, be married to a Man of Violence and not just an upstanding member of the local Chamber of Commerce. Helen’s decisions among the tension provide the human element to this outstanding, hard-boiled novel. 

I can’t help but wonder if Donald Hamilton read this 1959 Matheson novel before writing his own masterpiece, 1960’s “Death of a Citizen” (Matt Helm #1). Both paperbacks have similar stories about family men needing to draw upon their violent talents to protect their loved ones when adversaries aren’t ready to allow them to make a new start. 

A good way to sample Matheson’s early crime work - including “Ride the Nightmare - is the three-book compilation “Noir” released in 2005. The original paperback remains pretty rare, but it’s been made available on Kindle for those who like their paperbacks without paper. 

By 1959, Matheson had found his voice and the quality of this exciting paperback is head-and-shoulders above Matheson’s other early-career forays into noir fiction. It’s not especially ground-breaking, but an extremely well-executed genre novel by an author at the top of his game. Recommended.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Ryker #02 - The Hammer of God

Like its predecessor (“The Sniper”), this second book in the 'Ryker' series is about a murderous psycho on the loose, and the efforts of police detective Joe Ryker to bring him down. The lunatic this time is a hulking fanatic clad in a monk’s robe, who considers himself God’s executioner. He stalks and kills anyone he believes to be a witch, pounding a stake through each victim’s heart for good measure.

As before, no matter how interesting the serial killer is, Ryker himself is even more fascinating. He’s the perfect human metaphor for the jungle he inhabits, the sleazy, dangerous, brutal New York City of the early 1970s. At his best, he’s gruff and sarcastic. At his worst, he’s a hot-tempered, hard-drinking bully who thinks nothing of smacking around anyone who gets in his way. Yet somehow he’s the Archie Bunker of pulp fiction, hilarious and likable no matter how outrageous his conduct is.

There isn’t really a whole lot of plot to this novel, maybe only sixty pages’ worth. But that’s okay! The other three-quarters of the book consist of random vignettes, a bit of color commentary and lots of dialogue. It’s all so entertaining that you won’t mind, trust me. I was so delighted with all the ribald, coarse and cranky dialogue that I was always a little disappointed to be pulled away from it for new plot developments.

The police have nothing to go on but a physical description, and since the killer never leaves his ratty studio apartment (except when he’s out killing someone), they can’t find him. So Ryker investigates the secretive occult underworld of the city, and schemes to draw out the psycho. It gets a little involved, but basically Ryker manipulates his partner into going deep undercover, joining the creepiest coven in the city, one which will soon hold a black mass extravaganza with religious desecration, drugs, an orgy and all kinds of weird stuff. It’s a little unclear whether these people are Wiccans, Satanists, or what, but who cares? The point is that Ryker knows the killer won’t be able to resist appearing at the black mass to wreak vengeance, and the cops can then swoop in and nab him. But things don’t go according to plan…

One prominent pulp reviewer complained that “The Hammer of God” is short on action and thrills. Well, I don’t know, maybe it is (not that I minded). But we do get a big harrowing climax that’s soaked in blood and gore, with enough shock and suspense to make it far more riveting than your average Mack Bolan shoot-‘em-up sequence. In any case, the action is really just the icing on the cake. What really makes this book outstanding are the skillful characterization, dialogue and pacing. And it flows so smoothly that it’s an effortless read. When you think you’ve read twenty pages, you’ll be surprised to see that it was fifty instead.

All of these are hallmarks of great writing. The author here is Nelson De Mille, who knocked out a handful of these pulpy paperbacks when he was young and getting himself established. Today, he’s a big successful mainstream author and I’m happy for him, but it sure would’ve been nice if he’d kept struggling long enough to bat out a few dozen of these 'Ryker' books!

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Dakota #03 - Cat Trap

I've really enjoyed this 'Dakota' series written by Gilbert Ralson. Third entry, “Cat Trap”, was released by Pinnacle in September, 1974. While the previous two novels escalated the action over the mystery, “Cat Trap” reverses the formula and puts our Shoshone detective on the cusp of finding a killer through more procedural methods than hot lead. This version of Dakota reads more like a Perry Mason story than anything else. 

The intriguing part of this series is that each novel is married to it's predecessor. Here, some of the events from the second book are outlined, with the same supporting cast from the first two installments visible throughout this book. In fact, pieces of the series debut, “Dakota Warpath”, remain unsolved and return in this novel. It's like a brutal version of “Cheers” - everybody knows your name and who shot you. The narrative follows Dakota as he runs coast to coast from New York to California chasing the killer behind two dead bodies in Lake Tahoe. Again, the action is secondary for three-fourths, but the cast of characters is robust. Too robust.

I honestly just lost track of the story. It could be that I was traveling while reading it, or that Ralston just crams way too many characters into 185-pages. I kept confusing the dead bodies with the live ones, and at the end of the day I'm still not sure who was the finger man (and I'm not sure the author knows either). But like the prior novels, book four will probably contain remnants of this story-line – finished or not. 

While “Cat Trap” is entertaining and diverse, it's an unfocused delivery flawed with too much too fast. On the strength of the first two books, this one isn't deterring me from the series. Overall, it's an impressive run.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Never Say No To A Killer

Stark House Books imprint Black Gat has reissued this lost classic 1956 crime novel by Clifton Adams, a hardboiled paperback author best known for his Westerns. The short novel is fast-paced and ultra-violent. Fans of Men's Action Crime Pulps will find a lot to enjoy here.

In the opening chapter we meet Roy, a violent inmate contemplating a bloody break from his life as a chain gang prisoner. The crisp first-person narration recalls Dan Marlowe's Drake series in that the reader finds himself rooting an unapologetic sociopath.

The aftermath of the chain gang escape attempt thrusts Roy into a "Man on the Run" story with plenty of twists and turns. His desire to indulge his sexual appetite after a five-year prison hiatus while making some quick cash drives much of the plot's tension. There is an interesting subplot involving an S&M sex partner that made the story veer into a "50 Shades of Mack Bolan" theme. The erotic scenes were ahead of their time in that regard.

Roy is a thinking-man's violent sociopath. He is more amoral than immoral, and has adopted the philosophy of Marquis de Sade and Fredrich Nietzsche as a rationalization for his blackmail, lies, and murderous tendencies.

Man, this is a great novel. There's not a slow moment in it. The violent scenes are vivid and blood-soaked. The pace runs into overdrive through the final page. Do yourself a favor and read this book as soon as possible. It will make you want to do a deep dive into Clifton Adams' other fiction.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Endworld #01 - The Fox Run

Very early in his career, David Robbins wrote a 500-page epic, set a hundred years after World War III. He submitted the manuscript, and the publisher proposed dividing it up into segments: each segment would be a separate book in a new series. With mouths to feed at home, and eager to please the publisher, Robbins re-wrote his epic and padded it out to four volumes, and thus his 'Endworld' saga was born.

That was great news for Robbins, but it’s a mixed blessing for the reader. The first book in the series, “THE FOX RUN”, is 255 pages long but it’s like a dollar-menu hamburger, 50% meat and 50% fat. 

The meat is in the basics of Endworld. A community of survivors lives in a huge walled compound in what used to be Minnesota, where they’re safe from the mutant wild animals that roam everywhere. Our protagonist, Blade, heads a three-man security force which ventures outside from time to time to hunt food. There’s quite a bit of good material about the origins of the compound, the ways the survivors’ society differs from ours, and so forth. Eventually, it’s time for a plot, so raiders from an unknown settlement swoop in and kidnap some women, and our three heroes set out to rescue them. All of this stuff is pretty good, and the climactic confrontation is terrific. 

But the fat is larded through absolutely everything. There are endless conversations in which nothing very meaningful is communicated. Details about life in the compound are explained at great length, including a lot of stuff that isn’t very interesting and really doesn’t matter. The introduction of a solar-powered Hummer-like vehicle consumes a staggering number of pointless pages. The extraneous material isn’t necessarily boring, but the pace of the novel is pretty draggy as a result. Robbins is one of my favorite action/adventure writers, and ordinarily I breeze right through his books, but this one tried my patience.

There’s another key shortcoming, which is that the leading characters aren’t very three-dimensional. If Robbins had to pad out the book, I wish he’d have done it by giving us extra background and insights that would have made the characters more human and more sympathetic. I was never able to really identify with any of them, and in fact one or two of them are a little annoying. Oddly, our heroes are so sheltered and innocent that they can’t imagine why the burly interlopers have run off with the women in the first place.

To be clear, though, this isn’t a bad book. It dawdles around on the way to where it’s going, but that’s a lot better than a book that has nowhere to go at all, wasting your time with hundreds of pages about nothing. There’s a lot of potential here, and I’ll be very surprised if the later volumes aren’t up to Robbins’ usual high standard. 

As post-apocalypse epics go, this one is pretty realistic but also relatively tame. Even before the bloody climax there’s a pretty fair amount of gun and knife action, especially once the greasy invaders show up. But while other series (like 'Doomsday Warrior' and 'Phoenix') have so much berserk sex and gory splatter in them that I’d better hide them from my wife, “THE FOX RUN” is strictly PG-13.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Fargo #03 - Alaska Steel

Ben Haas is back for this third entry in the long-running 'Fargo' series. Under house name John Benteen, he penned “Alaska Steel” for Tower in 1969. I've had a blast with these books so far. It's a popcorn western series with predictable plots and characters. While there are far more superior books to discover, it's really enjoyable to steer your brain to the off ramp and enjoy a good adventure. “Alaska Steel” allows that.

Fargo is hired by actress Jane Deering to locate her estranged husband Hal Dolan. Deering and Dolan got married at early ages leading to financial distress - Deering worked as a prostitute and Dolan searched for gold. Dolan's parents are sod-busting hillbillies that bought some land in Texas and then passed away. Deering went on to work in Hollywood while Dolan, apparently obsessed with locating gold, stayed on as a recluse in and around Circle City, Alaska. The two, while married, haven't spoken to each other in four years and Deering has no idea if her husband is dead or alive. In reality, she doesn't care either way, but the land her in-laws owned has struck oil and is worth a fortune. She needs to locate Dolan before she can get both hands into the cookie jar.

Fargo and Deering head north to Alaska to inquire about Dolan's whereabouts. After a series of clues, Fargo learns about a vigilante force known as the Circle of Ten. The group is based out of Circle City, a landing pad for wanted men, outlaws and low-class heathens. The town is ran by your garden variety paperback bully – Whetstone. He owns everything, shortchanging the citizens and strong-arming the town. As Fargo digs into the mysterious Dolan, he learns more about the Circe of Ten and the connection between Whetstone and Dolan.

The story-line and plot can be seen from miles away, and I nailed the ending halfway through. Hauss obliges readers with exactly what we want – fists, guns and loud mouths. While the previous two books placed the action in hot and muggy Mexico and Panama, it was a welcome change to see Fargo perform under frosty conditions. There's a bit of a survival element to the story and I would love to see more of that. Overall, “Alaska Steel” delivers the goods. Next stop is Asia with “Massacre River”.

Friday, April 20, 2018

The Naked Jungle

The deeper and deeper I dive into 1950s paperback crime fiction, the more I’m convinced that Harry Whittington is the best among them. Better than Jim Thompson. Better than Charles Williams. Better than Cornell Woolrich. However, Whittington doesn’t receive the critical acclaim of his contemporaries, and my theory is that has everything to do with his tremendous output. After all, the man produced over 150 novels with a myriad of pseudonyms in a variety of genres. His legacy as a master is a victim of his profound work ethic. For my money, I will put the 20 best Harry Whittington novels against anyone else’s top 20 from that era. 

The Naked Jungle was Whittington’s 1955 Ace Books release that survives today as an ebook from vintage crime reprinter Prologue Books. The plot is simple: a plane flying from Honolulu to Sydney crashes in the South Pacific and strands three survivors on a life raft and then a deserted tropical island.

The cast of this very special episode of Lost is:

Krayer is a brilliant know-it-all fueled by logic and a will to survive. It’s his skill that guides his two companions to survive when lost at sea and later stranded on the island. He’s also a loathsome jackass and dangerous control freak.

Fran is his sexy wife. She had finally made her decision to leave Krayer right before the plane went down into the ocean. How will her reliance on her husband to remain alive impact her decision to be rid of him?

And there’s Webb, our enigmatic protagonist running away from his past. He becomes instantly beguiled by Fran from the first time he saw her on the plane. Now he’s marooned with the woman of his dreams and a cunning sociopath who won’t let her go.

The threesome must join together to survive their hostile environment and the growing dysfunction between them. The original cover art of this paperback looks like a cheap-o romance novel, but it’s way more than that. It’s a novel of survival - on the inflatable raft and the inhospitable island. It’s also a psychological suspense novel as Krayer and Webb jockey for position to be the Alpha Male between them with luscious Fran as the prize.

Make no mistake about it, this book is sexy as hell. Because it was 1955, there are no graphic descriptions of coupling, but Whittington knew what he was doing when devising a plot with a high-voltage, erotic charge. There are scenes in this book that you’ll replay in your mind long after you read them because of the palpable sexual energy they emit. You’ll totally understand why Webb wants Fran bad enough to risk his life to have her.

Whittington’s three-person take on Lord of the Flies is a total blast to read. The tension and power dynamics among the three characters was a completely suspenseful reading experience. The man against nature story alone would have been plenty exciting, but the chess game, cruelty, and graphic violence among these three castaways makes this paperback a next-level pleasure. 

Highly recommended. Essential reading. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

House of Evil

A lot of publishers were quick to embrace the new concept of paperback originals in the 1940s and 1950s. Houses like Pocket Book, Dell, Ace, Popular Library and our cherished Fawcett Gold Medal were all competing as the leader of this new publishing trend. They all created an identifiable marketing niche. Ace did doubles (for a dime more), Avon tried appealing art and Fawcett attracted authors with up front cash. It resulted in a massive catalog of titles. But in the midst of this publishing competition came a multitude of smaller publishers that just didn't make it. Zenith, Hillman, Quick Reader, etc. One of those publishers, Lion Books, only lasted nine years, 1949 to 1957, but released an abundance of noir fiction in their 223 offerings. In fact, some of the genre's leading pioneers contributed books to Lion. Stalwarts like Jim Thompson, Day Keene, Robert Bloch, David Goodis and Richard Matheson. Regardless of the short life span, that's an incredible offering. 

Lion Books would later fold, due in large part to it's founder, Martin Goodman, owning Timely Comics, which by 1960 would be a little 'ole comic company called Marvel. Needless to say, Goodman made bank, sold it and retired. All of this information, and detailed backstory on Lion Books' development and demise, is culled from Stark House's 2016 reprinting of three “sleeper” noir titles released by Lion - “Hero's Lust” (1953) by Kermit Jaediker, “The Man I Killed” (1952) by Shel Walker and the subject of this review, “HOUSE OF EVIL” (1954) by Clayre and Michael Lipman. Included as a bonus is an introduction and “skim” review of these books by Gary Lovisi, the author/collector behind genre zine the Paperback Parade. 

To say that “House of Evil” is bleak is an understatement. It's as dark as a mortuary drape and profoundly lives up to its name. The opening sentence ushers us into a world of depravity, grime and ultimately...death: “The girl at The Red Parrot was a slut”. And we quickly learn about her. 

Nina Valjean is a prostitute, peddling her washed up goods at the Red Parrot, where Bennie the bartender is pimping and Vernie is flashing a different kind of shot in the corner. Nina's arms prove she's a prisoner of Hell, and she's over 24-hours removed from her last fix. She doubles her asking price for “Smith”, a rough customer she's rode before. Hesitantly, she takes the cash, gets her fix and then gets in another fix a few hours later – strangled to death in an empty apartment.   

Our protagonist Roman is then introduced. He's a swell town guy, working as an engineer and climbing the ranks at a local firm. His girl, Joyce, is out of town for a reason. They have reached the crossroads and Joyce is ready to move on. Roman doesn't want her to, and it's that gloomy depression that envelopes Roman, the book and the reader. After Roman stops by Joyce's empty apartment for a suitcase, he finds the strangled stranger (which we know is Nina) and becomes paranoid that the authorities will suspect him as the killer. Refusing to report the crime, Roman heads out as a solo gumshoe, converting the book from thriller to whodunit and back to thriller when the killer strikes again. 

As the mystery thickens, the authors present a weird dreamlike delivery of the killer's thoughts. It's an abysmal, terrifying portrait of dead babies, bodies on meat-hooks and books of blood. It's Lovecraft on absinthe. We know the killer's thoughts and eventually who the next target is. While we wrestle with the killer's true identity, Roman and a stripper named Cecille team up to stop the killer before Joyce becomes the next victim. 

“House of Evil” presents everything we love about noir fiction. It's the dark suspense that Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Richard Laymon and even today's masters like Dean Koontz feed on. At about 150-pages, it's a short read that utilizes a slow reveal to the end. I read it in one fell swoop and was thoroughly invested. Oddly, these married authors never wrote another book. The two did write a 1943 play and six shorts that appeared in various zines like 'Ellery Queen'. It's a shame because the strength of the story-telling would have warranted a potentially good career. But, as they always say, everyone has at least one book in them. It's that second effort that's so allusive.

You can obtain a copy of the Stark House book here

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dirty Harry #01 - Duel for Cannons

I’d put off reading this for nearly a year because I had a premonition that it wouldn’t be very good. I was right.

A vacationing Texas lawman gets gunned down in California, and “Dirty Harry” Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department thinks it was an assassination. It was indeed, and as Harry investigates further, a big conspiracy emerges involving an evil Texas businessman who’s got the whole San Antonio police department on his payroll, including its crooked chief. Those who don’t go along get killed by the businessman’s favorite assassin. Harry goes after them all, and you can guess how things end up.

The story has potential, and Dirty Harry is a terrific character, but somehow this book never got in gear for me. I didn’t care for the style of author Ric Meyers (using the name Dane Hartman), who writes as if he’s reading a screenplay and adapting it shot-by-shot into a novel. The result is that action sequences go on way too long, with lengthy descriptions of the physical landscape and details of each participant’s every motion. It’s always way more information than you need. For example, the book opens with the assassin killing that vacationing lawman. That simple sequence takes fourteen pages to describe.

Most of the story takes place in San Antonio, where Harry tries to rescue its last remaining honest lawman, who’s been kidnapped by the villains. This leads to a series of drawn-out gun battles in which nothing gets resolved. It also leads to Harry sleeping with the lawman’s worried wife (huh?), which I guess gives him something to do between gunfights. 

Weirdly, Harry then teams up with the assassin to invade the businessman’s mansion and kill him. After that battle, there’s a brief layover until the book’s final shoot-out, in which Harry and the assassin try to kill each other. This occurs at the Alamo, apparently after the tourists have gone home but before anyone locks up for the night, as Harry walks right through the front door for his gunfight appointment.

What follows is a lot of shooting until the ammo runs low, and then we come to the one scene in the book that I loved. It’s a reversal of the famous scene in the original movie, in which Harry levels his Magnum at a cringing low-life and gives that little speech ending with “You have to ask yourself a question: do I feel lucky?” This time it’s Harry who’s looking up at that lethal barrel, and it’s a terrific scene. Unfortunately we have to slog through 98.5% of an uninspired book to get there, but at least there’s that.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Evil Days

During the 1950s, Bruno Fischer was one of the mainstays of crime fiction. His bestselling novel, “House of Flesh,” sold 1.8 million copies following its 1950 release. After 21 years of writing, followed by a 14-year hiatus from new releases, Fischer’s “The Evil Days” (1974) was his last published book at the age of 62. Stark House Mystery Classics has repackaged the novel for modern audiences as a double along with Fischer’s “The Bleeding Scissors” (1948).

“The Evil Days” was marketed as a “novel of crime and suspense in the suburbs.” The plot setup is one we’ve seen before: Caleb Dawson’s wife finds a bag of jewels that she wants to keep to supplement the family’s meager income. Caleb thinks it’s a bad idea, but acquiesces to his money-hungry wife’s ill-conceived scheme. As you may have guessed, there are unsavory people who aren’t excited to just walk away from a lost fortune and want the jewels recovered. Meanwhile, there’s a violent murder in the same suburb that serves as the basis for a satisfying mystery. Could the two events be connected?

Fischer spent much of the 1960s working as an editor for two large publishing houses, and he puts his industry knowledge to good use in “The Evil Days.” Caleb works for a respected publisher that has been acquired by a large corporation. The inside baseball treatment of the publishing world is an interesting aspect to this novel for avid readers with an interest in the way a book is brought to market, and the way that editors speak about writers when they’re not around. The snappy dialogue feels authentic because Fischer has been there.

Another interesting way to read this novel is with the knowledge that Fischer was an honest-to-goodness Socialist. His early career was spent editing leftist publications, and he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1938 as the Socialist Party Candidate (spoiler: he lost). The ideas that workers are exploited by their bosses and that lust for money invites unhappiness are recurring ideas in his books and stories. “The Evil Days” has elements of both themes.

But even if you don’t read this paperback as a Marxist allegory, it remains a helluva mystery filled with moral dilemmas, poetic intrigue, sex, and murder. His politics aside, Fischer was an outstanding writer who honed his craft writing short-stories for the pulps, and that fat-free approach to storytelling carried forward for decades to this fine tale. It’s not filled with action or violence, but the Hitchcock-style mystery is plenty tense. Fischer was a pro at this game, and this final novel was a fitting close to a remarkable body of work. Highly recommended.

Bonus Tip:

The best work by Bruno Fischer that I’ve ever read was a 40-page novella called “We Are All Dead.” It’s about a fouled-up getaway after a heist. It’s only $1.49 on your Kindle, and it’s a damn masterpiece. Thank me later.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Swampmaster #03 - Unholy Alliance

If Paperback Warrior celebrated a Hall of Shame, then two of the three books in this 'Swampmaster' series would absolutely be inducted. David Alexander's hog piss 'Phoenix' would be in as well as the 'Roadblaster' atrocity committed by Paul Hofrichter (also known here as He Who Creates the Horror). I despised Jake Spencer's (real name Jerome Preisler) series debut (“Swampmaster”, Diamond 1992) and its 232-pages of utter nonsense. The author redeemed himself with a quality sequel called “Hell on Earth” the same year, moving the action from St. Augustine, Florida to the Gulf Coast. The book, while wildly ridiculous and equally nonsensical, had a good story to propel its over-the-top violence and mayhem. The third and final book in the series is “Unholy Alliance”, once again released by Diamond in 1992. 

Jerome Preisler, my God man. Why? Why did you write this?

In theory, a book showcasing a drug deal between post-apocalypse criminal factions at an abandoned Disneyworld is tantalizing. It's a fascinating concept – bad guys running around the most famous amusement park in the world while a war party featuring acrobatic twins and a Seminole (they are the good guys mind you) are attempting to stop them. Just for shits, throw in 8-pages of Black Bear vs Doomsday Cowboy, a gladiator game of motorcyclists mowing down human heads and a drooling wheelchair bound madman residing in Cinderella's Castle. 

I mean...Jerome, how do you screw this up? 

It's essentially like Peter North just showing up on the set and having no idea where to put it. This should be an easy one. Instead, it's pages and pages and pages of junk. Gun porn galore, mindless conversation about Cuban cartels, pointless backstories on meaningless characters that become decapitated in throwaway “cut” scenes. This is absolute garbage. It's worse than garbage. If garbage had a waste can that they put their own garbage in, then this book would be the filth-ridden wallpaper adorning its inner aluminum shell. 

Thankfully, this series was trash-canned, thrown onto the back walls of garage sales worldwide, finding solace in its obscurity and staying away from unknowing readers who might seek out the answer to “Who is Swampmaster”. He's John Firecloud and he'll rain on your Macy's parade every single Thanksgiving. He's the guy who hid the chocolate bunny on Easter and told you asparagus tastes great. He only left you a quarter for pulling that bloody stump of a tooth out of your pink gums and John Firecloud is the guy who crapped in the work toilet and left it there to dissolve knowing you'd see it and never unsee it. 

Jerome Preisler did all of that too. 

'Swampmaster' is the warning label for bad fiction: Contents inside may put you at risk of blindness, erectile dysfunction and lethargic bouts of coma-like fatigue. Do not operate heavy machinery if you are reading 'Swampmaster' and contact your physician or nearest urgent care if you reach page 10. In other words, don't read this, don't look at it, don't buy it...pretend it doesn't exist.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Adam Steele #04 - Valley of Blood

It was the cover art that got me intrigued enough to read this 'Adam Steele' western. For once, the cover is perfectly faithful to a scene in the story--- in fact, it’s the most eye-opening scene in the book--- so let’s take a look.

Our hero has come to a frontier town controlled by a greedy rancher and his henchmen. Four masked hardcases corner Steele one night. We know that these are the same creeps who’d gang-raped the book’s helpless young leading lady a couple of chapters back. Things go badly for Steele at first (he takes a punch to the stomach and a kick in the crotch), until he suddenly produces a three-inch “tie pin.” With it, he swiftly skewers the testicles of one bad guy, whose shrieks of agony distract the others long enough for Steele to get the drop on them. A fast gunfight leaves that trio dead, and Steele blows the head off Punctured Testicle Guy for good measure. Next, he strips all four of the thugs nude and hangs their bodies on a barbed-wire fence before castrating them.

I’ll leave it to others to speculate where the author’s fascination with groin trauma comes from, but the over-the-top violence isn’t a surprise. The book is credited to George G. Gilman, but the author is Terry Harknett, the British pulpster who wrote these 'Adam Steele' books along with the even more brutal 'Edge' westerns. Steele has a bit more humanity than Edge, but that’s not saying much considering what a stone-cold sociopath Edge is, and he shares Edge’s habit of cracking a bad pun at the end of most chapters.

Harknett’s characters exist in a stark spaghetti western landscape. That gives his stories a somewhat different flavor than what you get with conventional westerns by American authors. Tough-guy heroes are nothing new, but in these books the hero has a hard, cold core like an under-baked potato. The same traditional themes of good versus evil are here, but there’s an emotional detachment which makes it hard to really care about anyone, or about what happens to them. That’s just as well, because the author is fond of killing off virtually every named character in a given novel, and it happens here too.

Even the unfortunate leading lady gets killed off, casually and pointlessly. A beautiful young widow who’d helped him earlier in the book, Steele pauses to reflect on why he nevertheless feels nothing for her. “Sorry, ma’am,” he muses, “But I’m looking for the best and you were banged around too much.” Maybe it’s just as well that Steele doesn’t pause for reflection very often.

It all winds up in an action climax, but I found the ending pretty unsatisfying, and apart from the spasms of colorful violence this is a fairly dreary, downbeat book. The pacing is reasonably brisk and I was grateful for the brevity of its 148 pages, but reading “VALLEY OF BLOOD” just isn’t much fun.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Alley Girl (aka Renegade Cop)

The 1954 stand-alone novel “Alley Girl” by Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank Smith) was re-released in 1959 as “Renegade Cop.” I suspect that the book was written and published following the success of Jim Thompson’s 1952 masterpiece, “The Killer Inside Me”, as both novels feature sociopath cop protagonists.

The main character of “Alley Girl” is highly-regarded Detective-Lieutenant Steve Lambert, and the first time we meet him he is pounding whiskey before his morning shift while the naked 18 year-old he’s been banging is haranguing him about his bad habits.

The central mystery of the novel concerns Tommy Nolan who may or may not have killed somebody in a whiskey blackout. Detective Lambert is working the case and promised Tommy’s hot wife that he’d keep Tommy out of the electric chair if she sleeps with him. Classy guy, right? Meanwhile, someone else wants to make sure that Tommy is convicted for the crime and is willing to pay Lambert a ton of cash to make sure that happens. The detective has no ethical qualms about this conflict of interest and appears personally uninterested in the truth behind the allegations against Tommy.

Meanwhile, a good and honorable cop named Dave Kimberly wants to solve the murder for all the right reasons. His cop instincts won’t let him mind his own business and allow Lambert to work the case without the scrutiny of an honest colleague. Dave’s character is a ray of light in this novel filled with ill-will and corruption. Dave’s quest for the truth makes this crime novel a straight-up whodunnit mystery with a satisfying conclusion. 

Lambert is a reprehensible protagonist, and you need to be comfortable with that fact to make it through this short paperback. He feels like a 1950s prototype for the Vic Mackey character on the TV show, The Shield - a talented cop with no moral compass. If you can stomach spending so much time with a villainous main character who forces another man’s wife into depraved, coercive sex, you’ll find a pretty compelling police procedural here. I’m embarrassed to say that I enjoyed this book a lot. You might as well if you’re a twisted soul.

A couple postscripts:

The title “Alley Girl” makes no sense, and was likely the idea of someone at Lion Books rather than the author. There’s no obvious Alley Girl in the whole book. There’s a secondary female character of humble beginnings who could arguably be the Alley Girl, but naming the novel after her doesn’t add up. Blame the publisher. As a title, the 1959 Diamond Books re-release as “Renegade Cop” makes more sense even if it shows an utter poverty of imagination.

Jonathan Craig also wrote a bunch of police procedural novels called the '6th Precinct' series. The paperbacks spanned ten installments between 1955 and 1966. At first glance, it would seem that the series was trying to capitalize on the popularity of Ed McBain’s '87th Precinct' series, but Craig actually beat McBain to the punch by a full year. The '6th Precinct' novels follow two NYPD detectives - Pete Selby and Stan Rayder - through a series of murders that always seems to start with the discovery of a dead, nude woman. Craig’s series never saw the commercial success of McBain’s (both were inspired by “Dragnet”, it seems), but Craig was a solid talent and the books seem to be worth a shot. For what it’s worth, the late Bill Crider loved them, and the never-late Paul Bishop was lukewarm on the '6th Precinct'. I intend to break the tie and get back to you.

We have a feature on Jonathan Craig on the third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Felony Tank

Malcolm Braly's life ironically mirrors his 1961 prison novel “Felony Tank”. Braly was born in Portland in 1925 to the son of an automobile dealer. After that stint fell through, Braly's family hit hard times during the depression. Meaningless robberies eventually stacked up, culminating into multiple sentences in the clinger. While serving time in both Folsom Prison and San Quentin, Braly began to hone his craft – writing books about guys just like himself. Surprisingly, he wrote “Felony Tank” in 1961 behind bars. In fact, Braly went on to write two more in the pen - “Shake Him Till He Rattles” (1963) and “It's Cold Out There” (1966). All were originally released by Gold Medal due to editor Knox Burger convincing Braly to write during a visit to San Quentin. Arguably his best work was “On the Yard”, published in 1967 and adapted to film in 1979. Sadly, after Braly's parole, he only gained 15 years of freedom. He died in an auto accident at age 54.

“Felony Tank” follows a hopeless 16-year old named Doug, who in essence is simply Braly reliving his own helter-skelter youth. Doug's childhood and upbringing has led him to become a vagabond, riding the rails and hitchhiking to the next town and the next robbery. After leaving Phoenix, Doug arrives in the southwestern city of Ardilla (state never given). It's here that he commits nearly the same crime as the author – robbing a feed store for a few bucks before picked up by the police. He's taken to jail and placed in an upstairs “penthouse”, an ill-fated mid-point between county jail and prison. Most of the inmates at Ardilla are hardened lifers, they know the drill and are well-aware the next stop is a prison term. 

The book really becomes interesting with the internal politics. Without ruining it for you, deals are made, cigarettes are exchanged and Doug's cell of no-jobbers has a hacksaw blade. In a daring escape, the second half of the book begins with Doug and his older ruffian/mentor named Agnes on the run. Paralleling one of Braly's own robberies, the duo break into a laundromat to steal clothes (and a suit) and rob a nearby grocery store for what amounts to pennies. After sleeping in abandoned buildings and cars, the two find a warm hostess with stay-at-home mom Marion.

While the book possesses a turbulent blend of jail, escape and pursuit, the heart of the book is Doug's struggles with establishing some kind of existence. It's this moment when he meets Marion that really ebbs the tide. Marion is a mother of two, seemingly neglected at home by her husband, a sailor. With Marion's spouse gone for a few weeks, she invites the inexperienced Doug to her bed. He falls in love, but that's just another chapter in what amounts to be a full-circle novel that hopelessly reflects Braly's life behind bars. 

It had to be incredibly fulfilling, satisfying and all-together victorious for Braly to not only pen his own struggles, but to have a novel published by Gold Medal while in prison. “Felony Tank” is written from the heart on a gravel road of conviction and authenticity. It's a stellar first effort (nominated for an Edgar) and one that cements Braly's position in the “prison drama” niche of novels. While action and adventure fans may be swayed off course, Doug's story is so tragic that it warrants another page flip to see what's coming next. I highly recommend “Felony Tank” and it's available as both a Black Gat Books reprint (2016) or together in a Stark House collection with “Shake Him Till He Rattles/It's Cold Out There” (2016).

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Hell to Eternity

Edward S. Aarons started his writing career cranking out short stories for the pulps under the name Edward Ronns. The popularity of men’s paperback original novels in the 1950s gave Aarons a market to spread his wings with his stand-alone men’s crime and adventure books. His most successful venture was the Sam Durrell 'Assignment' series of spy novels that spanned over 40 installments between 1955 and 1970.

“Hell to Eternity” is an anomaly in Aarons’ body of work. It’s a 1960 Fawcett Gold Medal novelization of a screenplay (written by someone else) based on a true story from World War II. Although the events in the book ostensibly happened, the story has been filtered through the meat grinder of time and fictionalization: events occurred in 1944 that were recounted to a screenwriter 15 years later that were adapted for a book by the successful action novelist. This is good news for a reader who wants to enjoy a kick-ass war novel that reads nothing like a high school history textbook. The fact that the hero was a real guy is just an added bonus.

“Hell to Eternity” is the story of Hispanic USMC Private Guy Gabaldon and his experience at the Battle of Saipan during the war. For those without a deep knowledge of history, here’s what you need to know: Saipan is a small island in the Pacific about 135 miles from Guam and 1500 miles from Tokyo. The island was taken over by the Japanese during World War I and liberated by American troops during the sequel war. The isolated nature of this event allows the reader to enjoy the story of this battle without taking a deep dive into all the war’s machinations. It’s a bite-size story in a super-size war.

The reader is in good hands with Aarons as the storyteller. He introduces us to Gabaldon as he and his fellow Marines are positively terrified at the prospect of fighting the Japanese on the heavily-fortified island of Saipan. Flashbacks to Gabaldon’s childhood give us insight into his humble beginnings and the circumstances that taught a poor Los Angeles kid to speak fluent Japanese after he developed close relations in that immigrant community. As always, Aaron’s writing is superb, and the reader really comes to know young Gabaldon as a person while creating a rooting interest in his survival and success on this important mission.

For his part, Gabaldon is an understandable and imperfect hero. Fresh out of boot camp and scared out of his wits, he is far from a typical action star as he storms the beach on Saipan under enemy fire. He’s also conflicted as he sees Japanese soldiers dying at his feet because the immigrant community meant so much to him growing up. Flashbacks to Gabaldon’s life following Pearl Harbor and the internment of his Japanese-American friends add additional moral nuance to this exciting adventure story.

The interior of Saipan is a mountainous jungle pocked with caves deep into the woods. Those caves became fortifications and hiding places for the Japanese soldiers during the U.S. invasion. These hideouts serve as a great set-piece for Aarons to show us the way Gabaldon uses his language skills to coax enemy soldiers from the safety of their hiding places into surrender and interrogation. Meanwhile, there are plenty of bloody battles as the Marines fight Japanese Imperial soldiers armed with both guns and samurai swords. Aarons knows his way around a good action scene, and “Hell to Eternity” has plenty.

Later in life, Gabaldon went on to become a losing candidate for the U.S. Congress and the owner of a seafood business on Saipan where he lived as a civilian for 20 years before relocating to Florida for his final years. Before his 2006 death, Gabaldon wrote a non-fiction account of his war experiences called “Saipan: Suicide Island.” I don’t know much about Gabaldon’s own book, but there’s no way it’s more entertaining and exciting than Aaron’s fictionalized version of the story. “Hell to Eternity” is essential reading for fans of pulpy WW2 adventures. It will fit perfectly on the shelf next to Len Levinson’s 'Rat Bastards' series. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Black Eagles #01 - Hanoi Hellground

I’ll be honest with you. I’ll only read one or two thick doorstop books a year, because I hate taking the risk that I’ll be trapped in the middle of a long-ass book that isn’t going anywhere. And at 330 pages and a tiny typeface, “HANOI HELLGROUND” is more than twice the length of the standard action/adventure series novel. But I’ve had a lot of luck with Vietnam War pulp lately, and I love the grinning skull covers on these 'Black Eagles' novels, so I tore into this series’ debut. Fortunately, the book keeps moving from start to finish.

It’s basically “THE DIRTY DOZEN” in Vietnam. An elite squad is put together for special combat missions, and the first assignment is to seize a huge pagoda complex way up in North Vietnam, kill all the military bigshots inside, find a hidden code descrambler there, and get out of the country with it after blowing up the place. 

The pagoda is the headquarters of an evil, ambitious general who curries favor with his superiors by maintaining it as a party palace where they can do all the nasty things they can’t get away with in Hanoi. Most of those things happen behind closed doors and involve underage boys, but the general himself is fond of the ladies. (As the Black Eagles close in on the night of the raid, he’ll be busily boinking a young commie cutie; his heat-seeking moisture missile will deliver a payload six separate times, a feat which even Longarm might envy.) 

The book is a little schizophrenic. On the one hand, it wants to be a serious military/espionage story, and it’s loaded with lots of details about weapons, strategy, Vietnamese culture and so forth. For example, a sequence where the squad learns high-altitude parachuting isn’t covered in a couple of sentences, but in page after page of exacting detail. 

But then on the other hand, the book wants to be pulpy, and after a few mundane chapters one sordid shocker after another pops up. Some of them are lurid, like the female commando who dates a hated communist enemy just to castrate him and stuff his package into his mouth as he bleeds to death. Some are tragic, like the innocent Vietnamese tribesmen who are captured by the communists and tortured with electrodes attached to their scrotum. And occasionally they’re just psychotically evil, as when the communists punish nuns by forcing excrement down their throats, all for the crime of sheltering the orphans of non-communists. There’s a lot of excess here, and not all of it is fun to read. But like they say, war is hell.

Writing under the pen name of John Lansing, author Mark K. Roberts is clearly trying a different approach than the one employed in his lightweight, sexy 'White Squaw' westerns. For the most part, “HANOI HELLGROUND” works. I liked all the combat action, and the inventive ways in which the Black Eagles deal with various perils on this mission. There was also ample backstory material on each member of the team, which helped flesh them out. (I still wasn’t really able to keep all thirteen of these guys separate and distinct in my mind, but that’s probably my fault rather than the book’s. I was still able to differentiate them as The Black Guy, The Hispanic Guy, The Jewish Guy, The Vietnamese Defector Guy, etc.) 

There was one glaring flaw in the story. The pagoda is situated up in the mountains of northern North Vietnam. There’s no good, level place there for an Army helicopter to land, so the Black Eagles have to parachute down, about a day’s hike away from the target. Okay, fine. Once the mission is completed, they have 48 hours to reach a secret pickup location in a flatter area, where a chopper will land and carry them out of the country. But that pickup location is hundreds of kilometers away, down in the southern part of the country. Huh? There’s no other out-of-the-way place in all of North Vietnam where a chopper can land? That’s insane. But it gives the author a good excuse to extend the book by eighty pages or so, as the Black Eagles desperately hijack vehicles and race south, trying to elude the enraged North Vietnamese who are right on their heels, and hopefully get to the pickup location before it’s too late. Some of the book’s best material is in these eighty pages, including a brutal showdown with the depraved general on a racing locomotive, so I guess I shouldn’t complain.

Yes, the novel is longer than it needs to be. But it’s lively enough, and there’s some great action in it, so I didn’t mind much. Roberts did a good job with it. And although he didn’t write any of the later books in the series, I’m looking forward to exploring the later chapters of the 'Black Eagles' saga… none of which are nearly as lengthy as this one was.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Hell Rider #01 - Hell Rider

Author Dan Schmidt contributed a lot to the genre in the 80s. While subbing as Don Pendleton he penned over 20 'Executioner' titles. He penned double-digit installments for both Super Bolans and 'Stony Man'. The author seemed to specialize in the team based books. His 'Eagle Force' line of Bantam books ran nine issues and as Frank Garrett he wrote another nine volumes of his 'Killsquad' series. 'Hell Rider' looked like the birth of another long-running series, but the idea was shelved (or wasn't shelved) after only two installments. Both are under the fitting name of Dan Killerman. 

“Hell Rider” was released in 1985 by Pinnacle and follows the trend of vigilantes on bikes. The series is about bounty hunter Jesse Heller, a Vietnam vet who's trailing members of a biker gang called Satan's Avengers. While in transport from 'Nam back home, he learned that his entire family was killed on a camping trip in California by these ruffians and he wants revenge. He rides a bike in the mostly abandoned stretches of the southwest and carries an Interarms Virginia Dragoon .44. I like the gun, but Schmidt talks about it way too much. Essentially, the bike and this Dragoon are the trademarks for “Hell Rider”.

Schmidt is a meat and potatoes writer, heavy on action, low on plot and absolutely knew his 80s audience. Heller rides, shoots straight and speaks the truth and we all love that. Early in the book he gets to shooting, taking a hostage named Mitchell and learning the whereabouts of a secret meeting between the Satan's Avengers and a rival gang. There's a brief side-story about two Texas detectives and a sexy spot with The Madame, a whip wielding dominatrix that runs Mob coke and sex to the bikers. Heller befriends an old guy in the desert, loads up on explosives and meets the bikers head on in what could only fit into a “Mad Max” or “Road Warrior” type of climax. In fact, other than learning about Dallas police and a few citizens, “Hell Rider” could have easily just been a doomsday book. It's universally compatible with what we know of that genre – hot sand, blistering highways, biker combatants, lone warriors and no law. Interesting that Schmidt didn't commit completely to that vibe. 

Overall, we've read it, watched it and loved it all before. This story has been done to death in all sorts of media, but Schmidt writes high-octane stories and this is no different. If you are just needing that Saturday afternoon gunfire then “Hell Rider” has you covered. I'll definitely hunt down and read the second and last novel of the series - “Blood Run”. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Violent Hours

I’ve been beating my head against the wall trying to learn anything useful or interesting about the author of “Violent Hours”, Robert Walsh, but I’ve been coming up empty. I do know that he was a real guy, not a pseudonym. I also know that “Violent Hours” was his first published novel as a Signet paperback original in 1958, but it didn’t seem to be reprinted thereafter. I can find zero evidence that he ever wrote another book that ever saw the light of day.

“Violent Hours” is a half-decent crime novel that had the potential to be great. The story takes place over the course of 22 hours with each chapter comprising a small block of that time (kinda like Fox-TV’s “24”). At 126, big-font pages, it’s a quick novella-length read. 

Our setting is the sleepy, isolated, town of Sareto. Far away from the main highway, the establishment of Sareto doesn’t take kindly to strangers. When a Yankee named Bill Carney is stranded with car trouble, the local mechanic is compelled to report the presence of the stranger to Monty, the town’s sinister land baron. Carney’s first impression is that Monty may own the town, but it’s not much of a prize. To Carney, the town of Sareto looks “like a forgotten prop in a low-budget Western.” 

There is a tense and unsettling feeling to Sareto, and the dark underbelly of this dysfunctional town was the book’s strongest feature. We meet the sexy waitress, Marylou, who grew up with an unbalanced mother and a father who looked at her with lust in his eyes. It’s through Marylou’s perspective that we learn about Monty’s wealth and his history of deliberate cruelty. We later learn that the counterbalance to the Monty’s power is an earnest newspaperman who is preparing to blow the lid off Monty’s corruption through a tell-all article in the town’s paper. Soon enough, the journalist and the stranger meet and discuss a plan to expose Monty to the entire town. All of this is happening in the hours before, during, and after a town dance and beer fest sponsored by Monty to placate the townsfolk and ensure their continued loyalty. 

At its core, “Violent Hours” is just a western novel. In fact, I have a theory that the author may have written this short book as an 1800s western, and New American Library offered to buy it if he changed the setting to the 1950s by simply adding an automobile and a telephone. Consider this: A stranger rolls into a lawless town under the thumb a corrupt boss and a feckless sheriff. The mysterious stranger attempts to bring needed justice to the cowed townsfolk. Violence ensues. The time frame is really immaterial to the story.  

Unfortunately, after a promising start, “Violent Hours” quickly fizzles out. The writing is adequate but nothing special. The bad guys are truly reprehensible and our hero is sufficiently reluctant to get dragged into the internal workings of a small town’s drama before doing just that. The book just lacks originality or any character with real charisma. You’ve seen this story before in many different forms, most of which are more compelling than this iteration. 

Fun Fact: The cover art on “Violent Hours” was painted by Robert Emil Schulz, an artist whose claim to fame was drawing the Brawny Man on the paper towel rolls (good work if you can get it, I imagine). It’s a well-packaged, good-looking book worth owning for the cover alone. The story inside, while not terrible, just isn’t the best use of your time.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Rat Bastards #03 - River of Blood

This third novel in the 'Rat Bastards' series maintains the very high standards of the first two. The guys are still on Guadalcanal, still fighting the Japanese, and still getting the job done. But the mental and physical burdens get heavier all the time, and we’ll see several of them begin to break down.

The men are individually haunted by fears that they won’t survive the next firefight, that their women back home no longer care about them, that the Army won’t give them the material support they need, and that each new assignment is more impossible than the last. They’re rats trapped in a maze from which there’s no exit.

Don’t get the idea that this book is just some sort of downbeat psychological study. It isn’t. The action comes at you almost continuously, and it’s gritty, tense and exciting. It’s because the author has skillfully brought us into the hearts and minds of these men that we care about what happens to them, in and out of combat. And that’s why this novel is vastly better than your typical 'Abel Team' or 'Phoenix Force' bang-bang shoot-‘em-up story. You won’t be just observing the action. You’ll be in it with them. 

The cover says the author is John Mackie, but it’s really Len Levinson, and I’ve yet to read a book of his that was less than outstanding. He’s the gold standard. However, this book isn’t for everybody. If you’re concerned that graphic depictions of hand-to-hand jungle combat might make you queasy, or if references to “Japs” might be upsetting, you should read something else. (I suggest HOP ON POP; my toddler loves it.)

This is a novel grounded in both reality and humanity. Of course, it’s still pulp fiction, and the magnitude of the action is enhanced for dramatic effect. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing. You want history? Read a history book. You want a hell-for-leather, gut-churning, heart-pounding war saga that’ll keep you sweating through the action and devouring chapter after chapter way past your bedtime? You want RIVER OF BLOOD. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

River of Death

“River of Death” was a late-career release for Scottish adventure writer Alistair Maclean. It was his 27th book among the fiction and non-fiction contributions. By the book's release in 1981, Maclean had made it big, writing numerous international bestsellers and a few screenplays. Unfortunately, the author would pass away just six-years later at the age of 64 (strokes fueled by alcohol abuse).

Instead of frigid Arctic Circle atmosphere, “River of Death” is set in the scorching jungles of South America. This exotic adventure is prefaced with a peek at Germany's downfall in 1945. Two Nazi SS officers, Manteuffel and Spaatz, are stealing a fortune in Grecian treasure from peaceful monks. After loading the goods and burning the temples, Manteuffel leaves Spaatz high and dry, escaping in a submarine with the riches to parts unknown. Spaatz swears vengeance on the traitor.

Fast-forward twenty years and a multimillionaire named Smith hires an adventurer named Hamilton to escort him to the famed Lost City deep in the Brazilian rain forest. There's a host of last names beginning with H that really keeps the confusion at an all-time high – Hamilton, Hiller, Haller and Heffner. It's uncanny. Essentially, we all know who Smith really is and the reader would be a fool to think the Lost City holds anything other than Manteuffel, monkeys and monk money. Maclean isn't fooling anyone. The adventure includes cannibal tribes, an anaconda attack and a rip-roar ride on high-speed rapids. While all of this sounds exciting, it's as flat as Taylor Swift's chest. The obvious reveal and fizzled finale left me closing the book and pondering how to recoup four hours. “River of Death” is the river of boredom.