Friday, May 25, 2018

The Defender #01 - The Battle Begins

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

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

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Executioner #08 - Chicago Wipe-Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Deadly Welcome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Shadow #02 - The Eyes of the Shadow

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

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

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Hitman #03 - Nevada Nightmare

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 18, 2018

Shell Scott #12 - Strip for Murder

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 17, 2018

.357 Vigilante #02 - Make Them Pay

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Whiskey Smith #05: Rampage in Whiskey Smith

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A Swell Looking Babe

“A Swell Looking Babe” was a mid-career paperback original from hard-boiled king Jim Thompson that was originally released in 1954 by Lion Books. It has a heist, a femme fatale, double-crosses, incest, rape, mobsters, cops, and it’s a bit of a mess.

Bill “Dusty” Rhodes is our wide-eyed and innocent hero who works as the overnight bellhop in the fancy, 400-room Manton Hotel. He dropped out of college to care for his infirmed father who suffered a breakdown after being accused of having communist sympathies during a local Red Scare. At the book’s beginning, Dusty is a blameless young saint of a man - a non-drinking, hard-working boy so handsome that the high-end, female hotel guests just can’t stop hitting on him. However, Dusty never takes the bait because it’s against the rules, and he’s the bellhop with the heart of gold.

The hotel is filled with colorful characters including an ex-mobster named Tug who plays a big-brother role in Dusty’s life and a night desk clerk with a mysterious past. Because The Manton caters to a high-end clientele who can afford the steep $15 per night room rate, they also have a secure safe deposit system in the lobby that every reader will immediately assume to be the target of an attempted heist later in the story.

The Swell Looking Babe of the title is a new guest named Marcia whose mere presence at The Manton makes Dusty rethink his policy of rejecting the advances of the comely, female patrons. Things go rapidly sideways one night when Dusty goes to her room, and he needs to call upon the services of his resourceful ex-mobster friend to bail him out of a jam. This leads to a convoluted heist plot, which is the best part of this book.

Crime novels of this era usually forgo a lot of character development, but the author doesn’t skimp here. We get pages and pages of background and flashbacks that explain Dusty’s character, family, and upbringing. Because it’s a Jim Thompson book, this background is filled with dysfunction and twisted infrafamilial sexuality. We also are forced to endure the interminable side-plot involving Dusty’s father and the circumstances surrounding the alleged communist sympathies that lead to his unemployment. These flashbacks and side-plots slow down the novel considerably making the reader hungry to get back to the swell looking babe, the heist, and its twisty aftermath.

For his part, Thompson was probably excited to write a novel from the perspective of a hotel bellhop as he worked in that field himself as a teen. I can only imagine that by this point in his writing career, Jim Thompson wasn’t at the mercy of editors telling him to clean up his convoluted plots. There’s certainly a good crime novel in this short book, but you need to tune out a bunch of static to hear the noise. Read this one only if you’re a Jim Thompson completest. Otherwise, you can safely take a pass.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Rogue Lawman #01 - Rogue Lawman

Peter Brandvold's eponymous debut, “Rogue Lawman” was a very fine adult western. It’s not adult in the sense that there’s a sex scene every fifty pages (there isn’t). It’s adult in the sense that the characters are fleshed out enough to seem like real people rather than pulp archetypes. Much of the book’s action is prompted by a tragedy which is conveyed with a lot of depth and sensitivity. That’s a mark of fine writing, but the tragedy is *so* sad that the ensuing drama and action are somewhat less entertaining to read, although the trade-off is that I was rooting for the protagonist all the more. 

I was hoping the title character would be sort of an Old West vigilante, and that’s essentially what I got. Pacing and plotting were very good, and the book ends pretty much the way I wanted it to. I visualized John Russell (of the early '60s show 'Lawman') in the leading role, and I think he fits. I’ve already begun buying up the other five books in this series. Sometimes all I want from a western is lightweight Jim Hatfield shoot-‘em-up pulp material, but when I do want a western with more meat on its bones, this will be the series to turn to.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Protector #02 - The Porn Tapes

At the close of Rich Rainey's series debut, “Venus Underground”, the reader was left wondering how Alex Dartanian and his team would continue. In that novel, ICE (Inner Court Executions) nailed a sex slavery ring involving Senator Barrington's daughter. In the final pages I assumed that The Protector would concentrate on hunting more of the slavers and possibly utilizing Barrington as a conductor in this symphony of destruction. The second book is titled “The Porn Tapes” (1983) and from the surface it looks like a continuation of the debut's rather effective, albeit disturbing, content. While equally as good (if not totally surpassing) “Venus Underground”, the concept behind “The Porn Tapes” isn't what I had in mind. Instead we have a porn star being hunted by a criminal preacher. Huh? 

Just like the prior entry, Rich Rainey absolutely excels in this team-based violence extravaganza. Similar to stellar heavyweights like Stephen Mertz, Len Levinson and Dan Schmidt, Rainey incorporates multiple members of ICE into a supreme fighting force. While team-based concepts are a dime a dozen, these authors orchestrate the violence on multiple levels, carving out meaty slabs of destructiveness to match the various traits and characteristics of the team's members. It works well for 'The Protector', enhancing this crime novel and making it an enjoyable genre read.

In surprising fashion, the novel opens with Dartanian taking on a hired gun assignment. The mission? Protect a high-profile porn actress named Melonie Grand from killers. This is a different direction from what I envisioned, but nevertheless it is a neatly trimmed opening for a somewhat elementary plot. But, things prove to be a bit more complex for Dartanian and his ICE mainstays Sin Simara, Val Wagner and Mick Porter.

As the mystery thickens on who is attempting to snuff Grand, other porn stars are getting murdered. The first half delivery is like a good hard-boiled mystery with Dartanian trying to figure it all out. The reader doesn't know who the killer is until the second half, although it's somewhat mentioned in the book's synopsis splashed across the back cover. Reverend Luke Revere is a religious hack preying on the praying, designing a multi-million dollar empire built on sex, drugs and lies. It's clear that the author finds the reality of this industry appalling and holds nothing back. Revere made an early skin flick with Grand and the movie is about to be re-issued due to Grand's new super-stardom. Revere wants to kill her and the movie distributors. 

While all of this is more entertaining than it ever has the right to be, the author incorporates a lot of information about the porn industry of the 70s and early 80s. In some ways I couldn't help but place Grand in the same scenario as Traci Lords, young, exploited but going straight without porn's backing. It's a gripping and intriguing portrait of smut, laced with sex throughout it's 200-pages and brimming over with action and mystery. Dartanian is written well while never being too cavalier or overly admirable (these guys admit enjoyment watching live sex scenes and reviewing the details of porn videos). They exhibit normalcy while stalking the bad guys. There's a little gun porn among the porn, some hard-boiled staging and a high-octane firefight for the finish. 

Next up is “Hit Parade”. I'm marching to it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Kitten With A Whip

Author Wade Miller was the pen name for the writing partnership of Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller, who collaborated on over 30 novels, also writing under the name Whit Masterson. “Kitten with a Whip” was their 1959 novel that was packaged as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback designed to titillate male readers. “She had a child’s mind in a lush woman’s body and she reached for evil with both hands,” the blurb promises. This must be the hottest S&M crime book of all times, right?

Not really, but it’s a decent suspense novel in the Gold Medal tradition. Our protagonist is paunchy, 33 year-old, San Diego suburbanite David Patton. As the book opens, he is giddy with excitement at the possibilities of the adventures that await him while his wife and daughter are out of town on a trip. He knows in reality that a weekend home alone is usually just a lonelier version of a weekend with the family, but a working man is entitled to dream.

His dream of an adventure begins to take focus when he awakens to find a hot 17 year-old chick wearing a nightgown prowling inside his house. We quickly learn that her name is Jody, and she is a runaway from the local girl’s reformatory who broke into David’s place looking for a change of clothes and somewhere to sleep. Instead of turning the young, sexy fugitive into the authorities, David decides to show her some hospitality. The central tension of the book’s opening act is David playing chicken with his desire to have sex with this troubled teen.

The interpersonal dynamic between these two characters - the suburban shlub and the manipulative sex kitten - provides the novel’s central tension, and their relationship evolves over the course of the weekend as David ties his life into knots to avoid his neighbors and family from finding out about his uninvited guest. The psychological manipulation of one character over the other makes for some compelling suspense along the way, and watching David thread the needle on a volatile and delicate situation keeps the pages turning despite minimal action in the story until the explosively violent conclusion.

The authors play with two central ideas: fear of women and fear of adolescents. The premise is that neither group are entirely rational and that one’s use of logic and reason is an inadequate response to their innate impulsiveness. These aren’t themes that would play as well in today’s world, but they make for a satisfying glimpse into the mindset of 1950s America in this compelling novel.

“Kitten with a Whip” was adapted into a cheesy 1964 film starring John Forsythe and Ann Margaret. However, a more fun way to to enjoy the film would be the comedic Mystery Science Theater 3000 edit which, as of this writing, is available free on You Tube. In any case, read the book first. Stark House has reprinted it as a double packaged with Miller’s 1966 novel “Kiss Her Goodbye.” Recommended.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Jim Steel #05 - Gold Train

In 1972, Chet Cunningham was a young, struggling novelist collecting a pile of unwanted rejection slips. Hearing that westerns paid less than other genres, he figured there would be less competition in that field, so he began writing a western. He saw there were quite a few paperback series built around a particular character, so he conceived a hero who could go from one adventure to the next.

He sent the finished novel around, and got an acceptance letter from Pinnacle: “While this is not the best western I’ve ever read, we have decided to publish it.” “Gold Wagon” did get published that year, a story about a fortune in gold which may or may not be hidden in the wreckage of an old convoy of wagons. I’d have to agree that it’s not a world-beater. But it does have some excellent sequences, and I liked it overall.

The best thing about it is its hero, Jim Steel. Originally conceived as a secret agent out west, he’s actually more of an independent operator who goes around looking for lost or hidden caches of gold. He hops from one side of the law to the other, but for the most part he’s a reasonably good guy who just really loves gold, sort of a James Garner character with a relaxed charm and a fast draw.

Oddly, the Jim Steel series only ran for six books, published irregularly over a span of nine years. Yet they were successful enough to be reprinted; I’ve had three different editions of “Gold Wagon”, each under different imprints. Originally published under Cunningham’s name, at least a couple of the novels were also re-issued under the name Jess Cody.

Luckily for me, the first 'Jim Steel' I read was the outstanding ”Bloody Gold”, third in the series and first published in 1975. A highly suspenseful search for a fabled wall of pure gold, located somewhere deep in the homeland of extremely hostile Chiricahua Apaches, it’s a rollicking adventure story worthy of 'Indiana Jones'. I loved it.

“Bloody Gold” set the bar pretty high, and unfortunately the fifth book, “Gold Train” (1981) doesn’t quite get there. A mine owner hires Jim to protect a delivery of 152 gold bars from California to the U.S. Mint in Denver. You might be wondering why he’s hiring the gold-hungry Jim Steel of all people, but this time around Jim is more reformer than rogue. Besides, the paycheck is pretty good and he’s got his eye on the mine owner’s daughter, who’s headstrong enough to accompany him on the dangerous mission whether he likes it or not. 

Inevitably, ambitious crooks will try to grab all that gold, even if it means destroying the train it’s traveling on. What follows is one peril after another, each on a bigger scale than the last. This was a satisfying story, but I think it would have played even better as an action movie than as a novel. There was just something lacking. A more colorful master villain, maybe? Better dialogue? I don’t know. These factors kept this good story from being a great one. Even so, I wish there were a lot more of these 'Jim Steel' adventures left to discover.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Protector #01 - Venus Underground

Author Rich Rainey contributed to Mack's universe, penning three Super Bolans and nine 'The Executioner' titles through the 90s and 00s. Before those, he created a six-book series entitled 'The Protector'. It was released between 1982-1985 through the action oriented Pinnacle line. The idea was rather clever. Alex Dartanian, The Protector, is an ex-CIA agent that creates a “clearing house” called DSS (Dartanian Security Services). This agency allows over one-hundred government operatives to conduct private excursions and affairs outside of their normal government roles. He gives them an operation front and they provide him much-needed intel on his own missions, which are all conducted under a team called ICE (Inner Court Executions). All of this is conveniently outlined on the first book's second page, and kudos to Rainey for quickly explaining the idea behind the series. The plausibility of all this is just bonkers, but it allows our paperback hero the ability to hunt criminals and save humanity. That's the goods.

The series debut, “Venus Underground”, has a four-man team of sex-slavers kidnapping a young girl named Cindy Brooks. Led by the completely competent main man Jerry, the foursome make the cabbage by peddling wholesale butt to wealthy sickos who either utilize the girls for their own entertainment or re-sell them for profit. Cindy is snatched, but later they realize that the girl was using Brooks as her last name to disguise the fact she is a senator's daughter – Cindy Barrington. The four sell her to a vile creep named Storm in the Catskill Mountains. Soon, a ransom call is made to Senator Barrington who then contacts our guy Alex “The Protector” Dartanian. Ready. Set. Go!

I like the way Rainey writes. He's the meat and potatoes writer that I typically rave about (Dan Schmidt, Ralph Hayes) and his pacing is Formula-1. By page 30 we have the complete plot (rescue the girl!), who The Protector is and what his ICE team actually does. Further more, we get two characters that Alex chooses for the mission (it reminds me of that 80s cartoon M.A.S.K where they pick the characters best suited for the mission). Alex chooses the strongman of the team, Mick Porter, and a Japanese martial artist named Sin Simara. Make no bones about it, this trio of bad-asses rivals even Mark Stone and his MIA Hunters. Whether this is always the same trio remains to be seen, but the book introduces about a half-dozen members of ICE in an all-guns-blazing assault on a Montreal stronghold. 

“Venus Underground” is an invigorating genre entry that is fast-paced, gritty and provides just enough curiosity to warrant an additional look at the series. The final pages suggest that this series will remain firmly in the “stop sex-slavers” theme and the second book is entitled “The Porn Tapes”. Whether the team remains its own independent agency will be a question as readers journey further into the series. I'm theorizing that this Senator Barrington may commission the team to pursue the sex ring based on his personal vendetta. Regardless of direction, “Venus Underground” is a rock-solid debut for what looks to be a promising short-lived series. Cheers to artist George Wilson's cover art. He's best known for his "jungle art" with titles like 'Turok: Dinosaur Hunter' and 'Tarzan'.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Fury on Sunday

Five people with complex and intertwined sexual histories find themselves forced together in a New York apartment for several hours before a Sunday sunrise. The catch: one of them just escaped from an insane asylum and is bent on murderous revenge.

That’s the setup for Richard Matheson’s second novel, “Fury on Sunday” (1953). This was released long before Hollywood made Matheson famous by adapting novels such as “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “I Am Legend” for the screen. At the time, Matheson was cranking out noir crime stories and honing his craft as a novelist. “Fury on Sunday” began its life as a Lion Books release, but has been reprinted and compiled in various formats over the past 65 years. You should have no trouble finding an affordable copy.

In the novel’s opening we meet former classical piano prodigy Vincent Radin as he’s locked up in an insane asylum following a murderous rampage. He is plotting his escape because he has a score to settle on the outside. The escape sequence is well-told and bodes well for an exciting ride. 

Vincent’s obsession involves a happily married couple named Bob and Ruth, who are expecting their first child. We quickly learn that Ruth and Vincent used to be an item, and Vincent isn’t thrilled with the fact that she’s now with Bob. As such, Bob is a marked man if Vincent ever sees the light of day - or dark of night - again as a free man.

The other two pieces of this love pentagon are Stan and Jane, who are close friends with Bob and Ruth. They also knew Vincent before he went into the loony bin. Conveniently, Jane is a nymphomaniac, a disorder that apparently was rather common in 1950s men’s fiction and has been eradicated like polio over the past half-century. Were there telethons? I’m too young to remember.

Despite the fact that there are murders, suspense, and a lovesick lunatic with a gun, “Fury on Sunday” is essentially a relationship drama involving five characters that unfolds over a four hour period. The backgrounds and histories of this group of current and ex-lovers are told through flashbacks as the third-person perspectives change with each chapter.

“Fury on Sunday” has some decent violence, and the short novel never failed to hold my attention. However, it’s not Matheson’s best work, and there are certainly better ways for you to kill a few hours with a paperback. You can safely skip this one unless you are trying to be a Richard Matheson completist or planning an escape from an asylum.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Jim Steel #01 - Gold Wagon

Writing as Jess Cody, Chet Cunningham's series debut, "Gold Wagon" (1972) has Jim Steel searching the back trails of Arizona for a disguised Army wagon loaded with a fortune in gold. This first novel in the series isn’t a bad book at all, but it isn’t nearly as good as the third book, "Bloody Gold", so I was still a bit disappointed. The plot is a little skimpy, so Cunningham throws in a lot of red herrings and sends Steel scurrying hither and yon to pad out the length. The first and final few chapters are quite strong, though, and the book always held my interest. While it isn’t an “adult western” in the steamy tradition of 'Longarm' and friends, it’s still got a modern flavor, with a reasonably likable anti-hero who spends the entire novel doing his best to steal a lot of gold from the government. It’s worth reading again, but there are plenty of better books out there.

Jim Steel #03 - Bloody Gold

A superb Luis Dominguez wrap-around cover and the promise of an exciting gold-hunting story prompted me to start reading Chet Cunningham's third 'Jim Steel' novel “Bloody Gold” almost as soon as the mailman delivered it.

Jim Steel isn’t much different from the typical western series hero, except that he’s in the business of hunting for gold (which explains why the word “gold” is in the title of every novel in this series). This is a terrific, suspenseful tale about infiltrating Chiricahua country in search of a fabled wall of pure gold, and along the way Steel tries to find a young woman who’s been recently kidnapped by the Indians. Every time I thought I knew what was about to happen, I was completely and happily wrong.

There are a couple of standout sequences, one involving a character being tortured and killed by the Indians, and the other being the book’s climax in which Jim Steel himself faces a seemingly certain death. There’s a great deal of material about Steel’s wariness and stealth as he slowly penetrates Chiricahua territory, and that creates an atmosphere of dread, although it occasionally drags the pacing just a tad. That’s a minor quibble, though. Considering how obscure the series is, this is a surprisingly excellent western, well worth reading again.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Hell Rider #02 - Blood Run

Dan Schmidt's eponymous series debut introduced us to the bike riding, resilient bounty hunter Jesse Heller. His plight mirrors that of a hundred paperback heroes of the 70s and 80s – avenging the death of a family by vile henchmen. In this case, Heller was two weeks from leaving Vietnam when his family was murdered in the California mountains. Acquiring guns, a 1200cc Harley and a thirst for vengeance, Heller now travels the barren southwest hunting the killers. 

Fresh off of his explosive execution of the bikers in Satan's Avengers, Heller is biking through the Davis Mountains in a rural stretch of California desert. It's there that he stumbles on a hitch-hiking beauty named Lisa Stevens. Lisa is on the run from a biker gang called The Sinners (although the book's back cover synopsis says Grim Reapers) after witnessing her husband, a higher member in the gang, murder college kids over bad cocaine. It seems like a super stretch that Heller just happens to run across this girl, who can now connect him to another criminal biker gang to fight. Oddly, this club and its members had nothing to do with the murder of Heller's family, but our protagonist answers the call to duty and vows to protect Lisa. Our plot seems so simple. But behold...the plot thickens.

In what can only be considered a cautionary warning shot, every single character in “Blood Run” is suffering from bouts of PTSD related to Vietnam. We have state troopers, county police, detectives and Heller himself reliving nightmarish scenes of their time in the bush. Early on it feels like an important addition to explain the bikers behavior. But, more and more of this PTSD is evident with every male. In fact, nearly every chapter begins with some sort of flashback experience where a major or minor character is mowing down Cong or narrowly avoiding some nighttime jungle assault. It's interesting, then becomes over-utilized to the point of being irritating. This whole mess could have been saved with some free help at the VA. However, as much as the bikers are running around doing vile things, they profess their love of country and countrymen and have the flag patches to prove it. How about paying taxes to fix the roads you roam? Or, joining society in a positive way? It's a catch-22 with the author playing off of the war to build these criminals, but paints vets in a compromising light.

While our hero is running away with Stevens, the Sinners are forging alliances with other bikers and bad cops to hunt and kill Heller. These bad cops take up a majority of the network, intermittently inserted between pages and pages of uninteresting biker dialogue. Thrown in for good measure are the two Texas detectives from the last book. They want Heller to clear the black marks on their career path. With all of these characters vying for ad space, Heller doesn't get much air time. When he's nonstop gore.

Heller rides, shoots straight and speaks the truth. In violent episodes we see Heller racing bikers, sawing off helmets and heads with a shotgun while throwing dynamite over his shoulder. In an effective scene, Heller chainwhips the Hell out of a small band of bikers after they attempt to rape Stevens. As the book marches to a fiery finale, Heller begins to think of his life as a re-start, possibly incorporating a new wife in Stevens. In a shocking scene, all of that is blown to Hades and “Blood Run” seemingly just thrusts the hero into another fight by book's end. Here's where it gets perplexing.

“Blood Run” was published by Pinnacle in September of 1985. The last page of the book is a splash advertising, “Watch for The Guns of Hell, next in the Hell Rider series of books coming in December!” That leads me to believe the book was written and ready for release just 90 days after “Blood Run” hit shelves. Could it be possible that Schmidt hadn't written it, thus the series caved after only these two books? Or did he write the novel, and due to Pinnacle's financial ailing, the book and series was just scrapped? Regardless of the catalyst, “The Guns of Hell” never saw the light of day.

And with that tragedy, 'Hell Rider' comes to an incomplete end. It had enormous potential, and with Schmidt's “no bones about it” writing and pace, this series could have went into double-digits in a different environment. Sadly, “Blood Run” was Hell Rider's last run.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Secret Mission #08 - Secret Mission: North Korea

Between the years 1968 and 1978, Don Smith wrote 21 books in his 'Secret Mission' series for Award Books (the original publishing home of Nick Carter: Killmaster). These are espionage books narrated by an American international businessman named Phil Sherman. Phil isn’t a spy, but he occasionally takes freelance assignments for the CIA who enjoys his globetrotting day job as a ready-made cover.

“Secret Mission: North Korea” was released in 1970 as Assignment Number 8 in the series, and it’s the first one I’ve sampled. Other than Phil, the only other character you need to know is CIA supervisor Ross McCullough. Ross is the one who needs to hire, cajole, or blackmail Phil into taking these assignments at the beginning of each book. Their relationship is pretty hilarious because Phil is the ultimate reluctant spy. He never intended this to be his life’s work, and he’d be just as happy dealing with benign, international import-export deals.

In this case, Ross pretty much has Phil by the balls after Phil was peripherally involved in a Tokyo whorehouse brawl and finds himself in police custody on the eve of signing a large and profitable Japanese business deal. Ross magically appears at the interrogation room offering Phil a way out of his predicament by signing a temporary employment contract with the CIA.

The mission is a reprisal action to strike a blow at an increasingly hostile North Korean regime (Editor’s Note: This was 1970. The more things change...). The plan is for Phil to captain a large ship near North Korea in hopes that it will be seized by NoKo’s government. Phil and the crew are instructed to flee the ship right before the seizure takes place leaving the enemy with an abandoned boat secretly loaded with TNT. At port, the ship will explode destroying the pier and anyone nearby. Phil’s crew consists of seven ex-cons sprung from federal prison with the promise of a cash reward and a reduced sentence if they can make this work. Because Phil is in a tough spot himself, he accepts the gig.

The first third of the book involves roping Phil into this mission, meeting the crew of convicts chosen for the trip, and prepping the boat into a secret, floating bomb. There’s a great chapter where Phil and his boys hit a Japanese port-side bar looking for lady action, and our hero hooks up with a sexy, Japanese babe followed by some fully-realized sex scenes. Readers of a lot of classic spy fiction will find themselves asking if the girl is just a throw-away sex partner or is she somehow part of the intrigue?

Smith’s writing is smooth and easy to follow. He certainly understands Phil’s character by the time this economical 150-page paperback hit the shelves. However, his development of the secondary characters was pretty non-existent. Blame it on the economical writing style needed to keep the paperback thin and lean. However, my biggest ax to grind is with Award Books who spoils a key mid-novel plot development on the back cover description and the inside-the-front-cover teaser. This was a shameful marketing choice in a genre that relies on creative plot twists to keep the reader engaged. Ignore those spoilers if you can.

Once the boat sets sail, the paperback becomes a straightforward maritime and escape adventure - a cold-war clandestine mission on the water and under the watchful eye of a deadly enemy. Sherman’s confrontation with the North Koreans and the ultra-violent aftermath displays awesome adventure writing, and the book delivers plenty of action over the course of the final hundred pages. The story twists and turns in ways you’ll never expect with an abrupt but climactic ending. Fans of Donald Hamilton, Edward Aarons, and Ian Fleming will find a lot to enjoy here, and this mid-series entry-point will make you want to explore further into this largely forgotten series. Highly recommended.

Odd Postscript:

In 1959 - nearly a decade before Secret Mission #1 was released - it appears that Don Smith wrote a paperback called “Red Curtain” that was released under the pseudonym of Duncan Tyler. The novel featured a businessman named Phil Sherman thrust into a spy adventure. The answer to why Smith and Award Books decided to resurrect this obscure one-off character for a 21-Book series many years later is a mystery lost to the ages.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Rat Bastards #04 - Meat Grinder Hill

Never pick a fight with a guy named Nuttsy. That’s a key takeaway in “Meat Grinder Hill”, the fourth novel in the outstanding 'Rat Bastards' series by “John Mackie” (actually, Len Levinson). 

As with all of the earlier books, this is a top-notch WWII adventure set during the grueling fight to take Guadalcanal from dug-in Japanese troops. The situation this time forces the exhausted Americans to make one final push to capture the last remaining enemy stronghold on the island. Unfortunately, that stronghold is up in the hills, camouflaged and surrounded by dense jungle, and defended with banks of lethal machine gun nests. The Americans can’t see it, and anyone venturing too close gets chopped to pieces by the machine guns. Worse, the stronghold is oddly impervious to mortar rounds or aerial bombing. Oh, and the Japanese will defend it to the last man.

The reader knows why all the shelling has failed to obliterate that stronghold. Our protagonists in the recon platoon will have to find out the hard way, and that means with a hell of a lot of vicious and frequently desperate combat. Nobody’s a Superman here, and one key character will fall in battle. The action is relentless, and it’s charged with foreboding and suspense. The book isn’t a downer by any means, but it doesn’t let you remain a disinterested bystander either.

As a counterpoint to all the carnage, we leave Guadalcanal from time to time to see what’s happening on another island, where two men from the platoon (two of the best characters in this series) are recovering in an Army field hospital. One is an old war dog who’s restless and almost empty inside, believing that his place is on the battlefield and that he doesn’t belong anywhere else. He might be right. The other guy is at the opposite end of the scale, interested in nothing but seducing nurses and extending his reprieve from the war any way he can. (This leads to some erotic grappling that’s just as heated as the action back on Guadalcanal.)

Most of the guys in this book aren’t so lucky. The struggle against the Japanese is grueling, bloody and miserable. One soldier hopes to affirm his masculinity with feats of combat glory, but glory is in short supply on Guadalcanal. Frustrated and still hungry to prove his manhood, he turns his attack to the aforementioned Nuttsy, which proves to be both a bruising and enlightening experience, but fate isn’t finished with him yet.   

“Meat Grinder Hill” puts its characters through the wringer, but it’s much kinder to you, the reader. The men in the recon platoon get chewed up and spit out by the war. You, on the other hand, get a muscular, exciting adventure, which is all the more effective because you’re slogging through it right alongside these guys, with easy access to their hearts and minds. That makes all the difference. The 'Rat Bastards' aren’t the little green plastic army men you played with as a kid. You’ll know ‘em and love ‘em, and--- like me--- you’ll soon be reaching for the next book in this series.