Friday, June 29, 2018

The Plunge

Fans of classic hard-boiled and noir literature would be well-advised to keep a stack of short story anthologies handy to cleanse the pallet when you are between novels. Short fiction was an important medium for the best paperback authors to experiment with new ideas, find their voices, and put bread on the table.

During the 1940s and 1950s, noir master David Goodis wrote about losers and outsiders for a living. His short crime novels are, for the most part, brilliant works that captured the brooding imagination of French readers more than he ever caught fire in the U.S. In 1958, “Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine” published a Goodis short story called “The Plunge” that was later collected in a 2002 anthology edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins called “A Century of Noir.”

The story is about an honest police detective named Roy Childers who does his job honorably in a cesspool of police corruption. He’s a family man who avoids starches and sweets and only smokes after meals (Greetings from 1958!). After a transfer from Vice to Homicide, Childers remains disappointed with the widespread incompetence and graft among his fellow officers making him a bit of a loner on his squad. He prides himself on being a clean public servant in a dirty department.

“The Plunge” tracks Childers’ investigation of a payroll robbery turned homicide that he believes was conducted by his childhood friend turned hood, Dice Nolan (Editor’s Note: if you name your son Dice, buckle in for a wild ride). Childers returns to the slums of his childhood running down leads to capture the elusive Nolan until the trail leads to a woman who may or may not have answers.

Goodis really was a helluva writer and this is one of the finest short stories I’ve ever read. The ending is so real and so raw that it deserves to be remembered as a classic. Goodis knew his way around the grim and the hopeless better than anyone. If blues was prose, he was the Muddy Waters of American literature, and “The Plunge” is absolutely essential reading. 

For its part, “A Century of Noir” is a fat-free, 520-page anthology anchored by short stories from the best of the best. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Dakota #04 - Murderer's Money

While writing this, I'm about halfway through Gilbert Ralston's last 'Dakota' novel, “Chain Reaction”, and thinking that I want to be buried with these five novels. They are just that damn good (even the lukewarm third entry), but then I remember I'm being cremated and I can't bear the thought of these magnificent works perishing by fire. I'm not a paid spokesman on behalf of the Ralston family nor do I attain any monetary reward for my pulpit preaching. I'm here as a casual reader and stating this 'Dakota' series is absolutely a mandatory read. It should be produced digitally and placed into some sort of archive for future generations to explore.

The amazing aspect of this series is that the five books really make up one long case file. It puts you, the reader, in the dangerous (and coveted) spot of being the scene sleuth piecing it all together. Confused? Let me elaborate.

The first book, “Dakota Warpath”, had a sweeping main narrative of Shoshone detective Dakota rutting out an evil corrupt land baron. But, in that book Ralston sets up a cast of characters that play major and minor roles throughout the series. Further, he places little tidbits here and there that build to enormous plots later. For instance, the series debut has a three-page side-story that had Dakota visiting a disabled genius named Henry Bray. In that book, Henry wants to hire Dakota to protect him from his brother Jack, who he thinks is out to murder him. Dakota, thinking the man has dementia, accepts the deal but gives the money back and warns Jack that his brother is crazy. In book three, “Cat Trap”, the author provides one intriguing sentence by mentioning that Jack Bray has been shot and killed. The reader is left pondering those early scenes in book one, but they don't really come to fruition until this book, where that story is the complex plot. That's just the tip of the iceberg. “Cat Trap” also introduced us to a crooked casino owner named Larry Kinter, who has major roles in books four and five along with a paid killer named Guy Marten, who appears as early as book two. Oh what webs we weave.

“Murderer's Money” is the fourth series entry, written by Gilbert Ralston and released in 1975 by powerhouse publisher Pinnacle. It's probably the best and most epic of the books, putting Dakota in the hot seat in, around and on top of the Sierras, but placing the rousing finale on the mean streets of Oakland. As stated earlier, the premise is that Jack Bray has been found shot to death in his office and the chief suspect is the jailed brother, Henry Bray. Henry is a wheelchair bound genius that holds an infinite number of patents and has immense wealth. Dakota is hired to clear Henry's name and find Jack's killer. The problem? Henry was the only visitor Jack had that night. Henry's firearm was found at the scene. Henry's chair blanket shows two holes where the shots were fired from. Two witnesses say they saw Henry enter and leave Jack's office. Jack is the reason Henry is in a wheelchair for life. The odds are overwhelming that Henry is the shooter. Dakota doesn't think so.

But, these books never rely on a simple plot. This one moves at a fast pace, eventually involving a dead junkie named Carl Self, a suspicious Bray daughter named Melissa and money found at the scene that is directly connected to the Gerber Baby ransom-murder. It's a dense, calculating read but incredibly enjoyable. Just when you think you've got it figured out, another wild scenario takes place. As the action moves to Oakland, gangland violence and hired protection rackets become players, aligning Dakota with guys he would otherwise kill. Did I mention there's a middle stretch that has Dakota and Melissa Bray crash landing on top of the snowy Sierras? That side-story is captivating and simply...breathtaking. 

Don't get too caught up with the expansive narrative. It's a fun read clocking in at the typical 180-pages that the genre demands. But, prior knowledge of the three previous books is a prerequisite. Without it, events in this book won't have such an impact. The series finale, book five's “Chain Reaction”, continues the story presented here and transforms Dakota into a furious fighting machine, progressively altering the character to match his violent lifestyle. 

'Dakota' is simply the best of the best.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Widow

In 1952 and 1953, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials, also known as the Gathings Committee. The committee investigated the exploding paperback and comic book market with the goal of proving that these new forms of entertainment would drive men to rape the daughters of god-fearing American voters. Common sense apparently won out, and the Gathings Committee became a national laughingstock. In the face of government censorship, America chose books, and paperback original publishers doubled down on the sensational covers and sexy storylines.

This congressional farce set the stage for the successful literary career of Orrie Hitt and his 1950s publisher, Beacon Books. The sleaze paperback featured lurid, painted covers with promises of hot, sexy action inside the pulpy pages. Oddly, by today’s standards, the descriptions of sex acts in these novels are pretty tame. Chests heave and bodies grind, but seldom are private parts or their functions ever mentioned with any specificity. The books succeed or fail based on the quality of the writing and the stories justifying the erotic situations, and that’s why Hitt’s books endure to this day.

Stark House Books has reprinted two Hitt classics in one volume: Wayward Girl (1960) and The Widow (1959) with an introduction by Brian Greene. “The Widow” was originally packaged with a rapey-looking cover and the tag line, “The savage story of a man gone wrong and the woman who led him astray!” In fact, it’s a compelling femme fatale noir novel that will be familiar in structure to fans of the Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks of Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer or Day Keene.

The book follows a lothario loser named Jerry who suddenly finds himself terminated from his ditch-digging job after punching out his supervisor. He quickly meets an impossibly sexy married woman named Linda who is neglected by her mechanic husband. Linda sets Jerry up with a job working for her mother-in-law, a mean old lady who owns the local cabin motel and diner. This evolves into some heavy-duty sexual tension between Jerry and Linda as well as a murder plot to swipe the old lady’s nest egg. Throw in a seductive, 21 year-old nude model, and we have a compelling love triangle adding to the tension.

More than his contemporaries, Hitt knew how to dial the erotic intensity of his stories up to maximum volume. This is a straight-up sexy novel without ever being graphic or explicit - quite a trick, actually. Hitt’s writing is crisp and dialogue-driven, much like Lawrence Block’s style. Interestingly, Block also wrote erotic noir fiction for Beacon Books under the name Sheldon Lord at the same time Hitt was cranking out these paperback quickies. Hitt’s protagonist is a real heel, but his misdeeds only add to the dark, seamy feel of this softcore noir. 

The love triangle gets more attention than the murder plot, but both storylines are compelling enough to keep the pages turning fast. The twist ending wasn’t a complete surprise, but it didn’t really detract from the fun ride along the way. This one is an easy recommendation for anyone seeking to kill a few hours with an erotic crime novel from a bygone era. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this at https://amzn.to/2MspJie.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Way of the Gun

Ralph Hayes told me earlier this year that he began to seriously write in 1969. Here we are in 2018, and this 90-year old writer is still plugging away. I admire his work ethic and longevity. His newest novel,  “The Way of the Gun”, comes on the coat tails of last year's “Lawless Breed”, a western that introduced us to the main character Wesley Sumner. That book had Sumner released from prison after hunting and killing his Aunt's murderer. Picking up after those events, “The Way of the Gun” presents Sumner as a successful bounty hunter that takes on a different kind of job – rescuing a rancher's daughter from the bad guys.

Like Ralph's 'The Buffalo Hunter' books, this one follows a very familiar formula. It's vintage Hayes as he presents the good guy, three to four bad guys (including the brutish leader) and weak innocent people who can do nothing but run for cover or empty their pockets in defeat. The good guy is always a dead shot who gets in numerous fast-draws and always...always...takes a minor, flinching bullet wound in the side or shoulder. He's never seriously injured, but often ridiculed, bullied and forced into violence. That guy is Wesley Sumner. The bad guys are led by Duke Latham. The beauty in peril is Dulcie. The story is a simple one – Sumner sets out to retrieve Dulcie from the bad guys, only to find himself the hunted after safely securing her.

I will say that Ralph still has the passion and fire for good western storytelling. This is a vintage mono-myth with the likable hero journeying onward for one specific purpose. However, the older and more conservative version of Ralph Hayes is far tamer. This novel lacks the gritty, violent and profane edge that made his 70s and even 90s novels enjoyable. “The Way of the Gun” is a delight to read, but if you are comparing the different eras...I'll take the 70s. This novel is more like a good 'ole fashioned episode of “Bonanza”, “High Chaparral” or “Gunsmoke”. I'd suspect that may be the whole point, a more wholesome and less violent approach that can be enjoyed by young adults as well as the older crowd. I'd put this on par with William W. Johnstone's 'The Last Mountain Man' series in terms of play it safe fiction. Sumner is essentially Smoke Jensen...and I'm just fine with that.

You can get this title from Black Horse Western at www.bhwesterns.com.

Note – That's totally Christian Bale (“3:10 to Yuma”, “Hostiles”) on the cover.

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Longest Second

Former radio script-writer Bill Ballinger wrote around 30 novels in his career in the crime and espionage genres. His 1957 release, “The Longest Second,” was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel and has found new life as a re-release from Stark House Books, packaged as a double along with Ballinger’s “Portrait in Stone” from 1950.

“The Longest Second” relies on a literary trope - an amnesia victim tries to learn his own mysterious history - that may have been fresh back in the day. In this case, our hero is Vic Pacific (awesome hero name, by the way) who awakens in a hospital bed recovering from a slit throat rendering him mute combined with significant memory loss. Bad guys are evidently trying to finish the job, and Vic isn’t ready to roll over for their cause.

Ballinger does a nice job of conveying the terror and frustration Vic feels upon waking up in a hospital bed with all memories just beyond his grasp. The narration toggles between Vic’s first-person storytelling and short chapters told from the perspective of the police detectives trying to solve the slit throat mystery. POV changes in short novels can be irritating if not handled well, but by 1957 Ballinger was a a solid writer who pulls off the toggling of perspectives quite adeptly.

After Vic is discharged from the hospital with no voice or memory, he is befriended by an attractive woman with an even sexier roommate who gives Vic a place to stay with meager employment while he works on the mystery of his own identity. As Vic heals, clues present themselves from the recesses of his mind with the most perplexing being: Why does Vic have a basic working knowledge of the Arabic language?

The success or failure of a book like this rests almost entirely on how satisfying the Big Reveal is regarding the main character’s identity. The reveal comes at the end of the novel, and I found the punch-line pretty underwhelming. Many chapters of plodding, by-the-numbers investigative work lead the reader to an improbable, ho-hum solution presented as a shocking final sentence twist ending.

There’s nothing wrong with Ballinger’s writing style, but this one was all set-up with a lackluster payoff. Your time is better spent elsewhere. Get a copy of the book at https://amzn.to/2JQWFlX.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Last Ranger #10 - Is This the End?

Jan Stacy (using Craig Sargent) died from the AIDS virus in 1989. That same year, he finalized and released the 10th book in the 'Last Ranger' series, “Is This the End?”. I've said this before, but I really think the prior book, “The Damned Disciples”, was Stacy's own personal reflection on hospitals and drugs (which I'm thinking was a majority of his 1988-1989) period. In that book, an entire town is drugged out of their minds and forced to do nasty things they otherwise would never do. So, with this last book and it's title, one has to believe this is the author's personal question. Is This the End? Yes, sadly for Stacy it was. 

The book picks up a couple of days after events in “The Damned Disciples”. Martin Stone is weary, beaten and starving, making his way across dusty Texas on his Harley while toting his wounded dog Excaliber. Just a few pages in, all Hell breaks loose with a Texas tornado misplacing Stone, dog and hog. Once the three re-align, Stone finds a biker running from some baddies in the desert. After coming to the rescue, he learns the biker is Rasberry Thorn, a fiery blonde with eyes and a smile that's begging for pole action. In some wild chapters, Stone is taken hostage by the woman and taken to an all-female biker gang called The Ballbusters where they rape and eat men. No shit. 

Rasberry Thorn claims Stone as hers, takes him into her underground bedroom and screws his brains out. The others simply wait until their turn, knowing that after sex is a grand cannibal feast. Wild, wild stuff. Luckily, Stone is the only man that can bring Rasberry to orgasm, and because of this miraculous feat she allows him to escape through a secret tunnel. But, Stone doesn't get far before he's captured again. This time by his evil arch enemy...The Dwarf. 

In an underground base, The Dwarf is running a hodgepodge of medical torture, kinky sex, bizarre experiments and...the control panel for the entire Star Wars defense system (in other words he can nuke the planet a hundred times over). Stone is brought in, strapped to a table and electrocuted for pages and pages. Later, he learns that The Dwarf is actually marrying Stone's kidnapped sister April and plans to make Stone watch. In wacky scenes, a mad scientist promises that he will combine Stone and Excalibur, making a Dog Man that can help rule the world. But first, Stone and his mutt have to battle wild dogs and giants in arena combat. Will they survive? Will Stone and April finally find each other? Will Earth survive The Dwarf's bombastic nuking? That is your "stone" to flip for fun. 

This book and series is just one extremely entertaining post-apocalyptic run. Not all of the books are great, and there are a few turds, but at the end you can look back at the whole series as a really good effort by a talented writer. 'The Last Ranger' isn't for everyone – it is crude, violent, funny, stupid, perplexing, convoluted and ultimately senseless. But that's the whole point, right?

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mike Hammer #01 - I, the Jury

Like my review of the treasured '87th Precinct' series, I'm going in as both a series rookie and an intimidated literary critic for 'Mike Hammer'. Mickey Spillane's gritty, violent gumshoe was perhaps the last of the pulp fiction detectives. The series debuted in 1947 with “I, the Jury”, loosely influenced by Carrol John Daly's detective Race Williams. Spillane, who cut his teeth on comic books, originally intended Mike Hammer to be comic strip detective/hero Mike Danger. After failure to find a buyer, Spillane wisely transformed Danger to Hammer and wrote “I, the Jury” in six days. By 1953, it had sold over three-million copies.

Private detective Mike Hammer fought in the Pacific campaign of World War II. At the beginning of “I, the Jury”, Hammer walks onto a crime scene to see his friend and former war buddy Jack Williams lying in a pool of blood. Williams was belly shot with a .45 and died slowly as he crawled to his nearby rod (guns are frustratingly called rods). Hammer vows to find the killer and the novel's mystery is laid out within the first chapter.

My issue is that Hammer really contributes nothing terribly productive through the entirety of the book. He interviews a few suspects, has a mattress romp with a set of twins and seriously dates a psychiatrist named Charlotte. We're introduced to Hammer's quirky secretary Velda (who's obsessed with Hammer) and a police ally named Pat. Through a plodding narrative of character introductions, the reader can already nail the killer down. But Hammer is clueless, and bumbles his way through interviews while pointing guns at elevator attendants. His threats are seemingly meaningless and by the book's ending the killer's identity is practically plastered over each locale while Hammer chases cold leads. 

There's no doubt that the loud mouthed, profane Hammer is a catalyst for the more violent heroes we embraced in the 60s, 70s and early 80s. Respect is intended and well earned...I just need to find a Hammer novel that reels me in. In surface research, the general consensus is that the series really takes off after this novel. I'll certainly attempt another read, but may switch my mindset to anticipate what I'm ultimately getting in a Hammer book. Chronologically, “I, the Jury” is followed by the Spillane abandoned novel “Lady, go Die”, which was written/finished by Max Allan Collins and published in 2012. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Sergeant #03 - Bloody Bush

The only thing I didn’t care for about “BLOODY BUSH” was the title. Otherwise, this third entry in 'The Sergeant' series not only equals the first two books in excellence, but surpasses them in terms of narrative power and character development.

The first book, “DEATH TRAIN”, introduces us to Sgt. Clarence Mahoney and brings us along on an undercover demolition mission of his in Nazi-occupied France. That mission gets wrapped up surprisingly quickly, so then we tag along as he helps members of the French resistance fight back when the Germans besiege their headquarters. The action is solid and the storytelling is superb, and Mahoney is such a fascinating character that he himself is the best thing in the book. A gruff, cigar-chomping Superman in dirty fatigues, he’s all but invincible as the Germans throw everything they have at him. 

(The Mac Wingate series, which would debut a year later, chronicles the adventures of another American undercover he-man demolition expert tirelessly fighting the Nazis. Remarkable coincidence or cynical rip-off?) 

The Sergeant’s second book, “HELL HARBOR”, avoids the bifurcated narrative of “DEATH TRAIN” and tells one epic war adventure story, sending Mahoney deep into the revolting sewers of Cherbourg on a mission to prevent the Germans from blowing up a key harbor installation. Now Mahoney is more human, more nuanced, and more vulnerable. The story is cohesive but the plot isn’t very rigid. It’s related as a series of incidents, some combat-driven and some character-driven. The first book set the bar pretty high, but “HELL HARBOR” is even better.

And now “BLOODY BUSH” is the best one yet. Hoping for less risk to life and limb, Mahoney has transferred to a regular Army platoon and the secret missions are over. It’s July 1944, and the D-Day landings have been successful, but now the Americans need to push out of Normandy into the interior of France, and into the jaws of the waiting German army.

WWII buffs will appreciate how skillfully the novel blends fact and fiction, as the novel deals with both the Battle of the Hedgerows and the Battle of St. Lo. It’s not all about endless warfare, either; the narrative also involves Erwin Rommel and the plot to assassinate Hitler. In fact, Rommel, Hitler and George Patton all play extended supporting roles in this story. 

But you don’t have to be a history nut to enjoy this book. It’s classic masculine pulp, with lots of exciting combat sequences as well as some colorful confrontations between Mahoney and an arrogant army captain (I enjoyed these even more). Good war fiction pulls the reader into the action on an intellectual level, but really top-notch war fiction makes you feel it in your gut, with vivid details of everything from the flying dirt and shrapnel to the exhaustion, the fear and the sinking apprehension that today is your last day on Earth. The way the ground vibrates beneath a soldier during an artillery barrage, the panic and the adrenaline that take over in hand-to-hand combat, the psychological impact of weak leadership as opposed to confident leadership… it’s all here, painting the experience of war in both the broad strokes and in the little details. 

Author Len Levinson (writing as Gordon Davis) nails all of this with his usual skill. Even better, he further explores Mahoney’s complex persona, refining the characteristics we already knew about and developing a few new ones. Mahoney can bust a fellow soldier’s jaw in one chapter, kneel in prayer and carry a Bible under his shirt in another chapter, usurp a superior officer’s command in yet another chapter, and nevertheless there are no contradictions in him, just complexity. It’s rare to find such nuance in pulp fiction. It’s extraordinary. And so is this series. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Quarry #03 - Quarry in the Black

Fans of Men’s Adventure Fiction place Max Allan Collins’ 'Quarry' series in the top-tier of the genre along with Donald Hamilton’s 'Matt Helm' and Richard Stark’s 'Parker'. The former Vietnam War sniper turned hit-man debuted in 1976 and has been a source of great entertainment ever since. The best news is that the author remains alive and well, and he periodically cranks out another 200-page Quarry novel - coupled with outstanding Hard Case Crime cover art - to the delight of genre fans.

“Quarry in the Black” is the 2017 entry in the series, but the series has always been unstuck in time. This particular story takes place in 1972 when Quarry was still accepting assassination jobs from his original boss, The Broker. The arrangement always made a lot of sense: The Broker deals with the client, and Quarry deals with the victim - sometimes with a passive partner who handles the surveillance, leaving Quarry to manage the kill. Quarry’s favorite partner, the gay-before-it-was-fashionable Boyd, is assigned to work with Quarry on this hit. 

This one is a little different. Quarry is offered $25,000 to kill a charismatic black civil rights leader, Reverend Raymond Wesley Lloyd, who is campaigning for George McGovern to beat Richard Nixon in the 1972 U.S. Presidential Election. Quarry rightly recoils from the gig because Reverend Lloyd seems like an unobjectionable fellow - peaceful, anti-war, and espousing a strong anti-drug platform. Despite his chosen profession, Quarry has a decent moral compass and has no desire to become the next James Earl Ray. After The Broker gives Quarry some reason to believe that this Reverend isn’t the next Martin Luther King, he reluctantly takes the gig.

Collins does a fantastic job of capturing the zeitgeist of the post-burglary, pre-resignation, Nixon-Watergate era. He cites the era’s music blasting at Quarry’s every turn making me wish someone would create a classic-rock “Quarry in the Black” Spotify playlist to be used as a soundtrack while reading this paperback. Moreover, real-life public figures from the era have cameos in the novel adding to the authentic feel of this retro effort. Collins even gives a nod to current events as Quarry is forced to tangle with a violent white-power group based in the all-Caucasian enclave of Ferguson, Missouri.

The central mystery of this - and most - Quarry stories is the identity and true agenda of the client paying for the hit. The Broker always keep’s the client’s identity from Quarry as a buffer of deniability if a job should go sideways. Inevitably, the full story eventually is revealed, and it usually explains the complications and bumps in the road that Quarry is forced to endure. Like the other novels, Quarry gets laid a few times in deliciously explicit detail, and the first-person narration is predictably hilarious.

There’s really nothing bad to say about “Quarry in the Black.” It’s another perfect entry in a legendary series. Hopefully, Collins stays energized and continues to come up with new Quarry stories for years to come. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Man From U.N.C.L.E. - The Ghost Riders Affair

The 'Man From U.N.C.L.E. Magazine' was published from February 1966 through January 1968 as an effort to capitalize on and cross-promote the popular TV show. Instead of merely adapting screenplays into prose, the publishers made the decision to have each issue anchored by an original 60-page novella taking place in the U.N.C.L.E. universe written under the house name of Robert Hart Davis. Presumably, the authors of these stories had free reign to have fun with the characters as long as no one essential to the franchise gets killed in the action. The magazine enlisted some talented ghostwriters to pen these novellas, including John Jakes, Dennis Lynds, Talmage Powell, Bill Pronzini, and Harry Whittington. Each issue of the digest also contained short stories unrelated to U.N.C.L.E. but consistent with the genre’s themes.

My first foray into U.N.C.L.E. fiction was the first of the 16 successful stand-alone paperbacks for the series. “Man from U.N.C.L.E. Paperback #1” was written by Michael Avallone (Interestingly, the paperbacks were all published under the authors’ real names, but the digest novellas all adopt the Davis pseudonym), and the book was fantastic - even for a reader who had never watched the TV show or movie. Harry Whittington wrote the second paperback, “The Doomsday Affair,” and it was also a monster seller that put a ton of cash in the pockets of MGM, if not the author himself. Whittington also penned four of the magazine’s U.N.C.L.E. novellas, including “The Ghost Riders Affair” from the July 1966 issue of the digest.

For the uninitiated (myself included), all you need to know before walking into a 'Man From U.N.C.L.E.' novel or story is that there is a secret International spy agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) that employs a suave American spy named Napoleon Solo and a skilled Soviet spy named Illya Kuryakin to handle missions important enough for both sides of the Cold War to collaborate for the greater good. There is an enemy organization of villains, miscreants, and subversives called THRUSH (Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity) who often oppose U.N.C.L.E.’s efforts at law and order.

The central mystery of “The Ghost Riders Affair” involves the mysterious disappearance of a 15-car passenger train en route from Pittsburgh to Chicago. Meanwhile, a Wyoming rancher’s 1000 cattle apparently vanished into thin air without leaving a hoofprint behind. Soon thousands of others - famous and nobodies - also disappear without a trace. For jurisdictional reasons left unexplained, the investigation of these mysterious disappearances falls to U.N.C.L.E. who puts Solo and Kuryakin on the case.

At first glance, the investigative plan makes good sense: a duplicate train containing only Kuryakin and an engineer ride the same route on the same tracks at the same time in search of anomalies that might explain the disappearance. Meanwhile, Solo remains at the United Network Command monitoring the train’s progress on his super-advanced computer screen. When the train transporting Kuryakin also disappears, the tension deepens and the mystery intensifies. Was this a supernatural act? Could this have anything to do with THRUSH?

Unlike the full paperback novels, none of the characters get laid and the violence isn’t particularly graphic in the digest. However, you don’t really notice the PG nature of this story because Whittington’s plotting is absolutely superb. The story moves along at a great clip as Solo uncovers clues that bring him closer to discovering the truth about the mass vanishing act. Solo even gets to ride a horse through the untamed West - literary territory Whittington knows well. The story combines the spy world of James Bond with the fantastical pulp of Doc Savage in a novella that never has time to drag.

The good news is that this story is an easy recommendation. The downside is that it might be hard to acquire. MGM owns the U.N.C.L.E. intellectual property and has been disinterested in seeing the stories reprinted, digitized, or preserved for future generations. The full U.N.C.L.E. paperbacks sold well and used copies remain available at affordable prices. However, the digests containing the 60-page novellas can be hard to find and may cost you quite a bit on eBay or other outlets for vintage magazines. Happy hunting!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Wilderness #06 - Black Powder Justice

“Black Powder Justice” is yet another excellent, suspenseful 'Wilderness' novel, the sixth book in the series by David Robbins (under the name David Thompson). 

Evil whites have shot our mountain man protagonist Nate in the head(!), left him for dead and kidnapped his wife. Their scheme is to deliver a load of rifles (and Nate’s wife) to hostile Ute Indians in exchange for a fortune in beaver pelts. Nate will suffer more misery than ever before on his way to the resolution of this novel. Did I mention he’s already been attacked by wolves before the plot gets underway? 

This book is gripping and tense, and it’s so successful in depicting Nate’s various perils and agonies that it’s not always a perfectly delightful read. The never-ending progression of misery is almost too much. The book skillfully portrays Nate’s heroic resolve and indefatigable perseverance in the face of it all. But if he’d suffered even one additional painful aggravation, it might have tipped the literary scale into self-parody. Mind you, that doesn’t happen. This is a riveting novel. But at this point I’m beginning to wonder if Nate wasn’t better off back at his bookkeeping gig in New York, where the biggest danger he faced was a reprimand for coming back late from lunch. 

A less-gifted author would have cranked out something lively but unbelievable, and therefore not very engaging. Robbins has a talent for making a wildly over-the-top adventure story seem perfectly reasonable if not downright factual, and for keeping the reader on the edge of his seat from the first chapter to the last. “Black Powder Justice” maintains this series’ stellar batting average.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Night Visit

'ADAM' was an adults-only Australian men's magazine featuring about six short-stories or novellas, a handful of wacky and bizarre true stories and a slew of nudie pics that are mostly of the topless variety. Aside from the cover, a majority are in black and white and littered with “dirty” crude cartoons. “Night Visit”, by unknown author Grant Glastonbury (pseudonym?) appeared in the October, 1976 issue. It features a painting from an unknown artist.

“They came in the night. Four against one. But underestimated a man's love for his woman.”

That synopsis introduces us to this quick home-invasion styled story. These “barricade the windows” narratives were explored with George Romero's iconic 1968 horror film, “Night of the Living Dead”, and expanded on with a more realistic, gritty treatment by John Carpenter's “Assault on Precinct 13” (also 1976). In a way, it's the western genre's “circle the wagons” presentation. Glastonbury does that well, introducing us to Jeff, a Vietnam Vet who did two tours and has been out of the service for a year. He married Julie five weeks ago, and the two have been living in a rural stretch of Australia for just shy of two-weeks.  

The accompanying artworks presents the early stages as Jeff and Julie watch four hunters emerge from the darkness. Each are carrying a firearm and Jeff senses they are a bit unstable. With a sense of urgency, Jeff attempts to dismiss them only to find the peaceful and strategic exit could be just inviting them in for coffee. This passive mood instantly becomes hostile as the group puts their eyes and hands on Julie. When the four make for a false exit, Jeff and Julie find themselves trapped in the house with only a Ruger .22 rifle facing shotguns and long guns. 

Jim's battle sense is put to the test as the action moves from left to right inside the house. This is where the story finds it's atmosphere, alone in the darkness with this anonymous evil at the doorstep. It's fast-paced, violent, moody and overall extremely effective in it's storytelling. While it's easy to point, fire and move to an easy pick up the pieces finale, this one threw me for a loop and closes in a unique way. Kudos to the author for taking chances and making this a worthwhile read.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Line of Fire

Before defining his career with the excellent 'Matt Helm' series, Donald Hamilton wrote a bunch of satisfying crime and western novels for the robust paperback original market of the 1950s. His 1955 stand-alone thriller was “Line of Fire,” and it gives Matt Helm fans a glance into pre-Helm Hamilton as he was developing the narrative voice that later became the staple of his famous series.

“Line of Fire” is the story of a sniper named Paul Nyquist who we meet at a domestic assassination he’s handling. The novel opens with a job gone bad and very little information about Nyquist’s background or agenda. The intended target takes the round, but an attractive female witness interferes with the getaway. Our hero drags the girl along for the escape until he can decide what to do with her. She’s an innocent bystander at the wrong place at the wrong time, and Nyquist is an experienced shootist - but not a monster. From there the story goes in some quite unexpected places as we learn more about Nyquist, his intended target, and his motivation for taking the shot. Beyond that, anything else I tell you about the plot would be book reviewer malpractice. Suffice it to say that this is one of those clever novels where not all is as it seems. The twists, turns, and reveals along the way are a total delight. Leave it at that.

Hamilton had a love of guns and he often slipped interesting technical specifications into his novels, but somehow he’s always able to make them interesting to the layman. The firearms lessons never feel tiresome like the gun porn of Gold Eagle novels or contemporary men’s adventure fiction. Additionally, Hamilton throws a lot of good advice on proper marksmanship into the narrative. All of this is meant to illustrate that the protagonist is a consummate professional in his field. And the more we learn about Nyquist’s chosen profession, the more his odd decisions make perfect sense.

Fans of the Max Allan Collins Quarry series and Lawrence Block’s Keller books will enjoy this novel about another exceptionally-skilled gunman in a world filled with amateurs and thugs. “Line of Fire” has the same first-person, matter-of-fact narrative style as Quarry and Keller but without as much comedic whimsy. The style is more world-weary and slavishly logical - just like the Matt Helm books.

An economical 157 pages, “Line of Fire” is a quick read. It’s a worthy precursor to the Matt Helm series and a wild, violent ride filled with vivid characters and exciting situations. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Sundance #08 - Bring Me His Scalp

The western series 'Sundance' ran a 10-year span from 1972 through 1982, compiling a massive 43 installments. Book #8, “BRING ME HIS SCALP” (1973), is by 'Fargo' veteran Ben Haas writing as John Benteen. This is a very solid western, in which Sundance discovers there’s a price on his head. The story moves along at a brisk pace and there’s plenty of action and atmosphere. I enjoyed it, but maybe there was something missing that kept me from really loving it. What that was, I don’t know, but if Haas’ other 'Sundance' books are as good as this one, I want them all. Eye-opening highlights include one villain being cut in half while crawling under a boxcar that was suddenly jarred into motion, and a fight between Sundance and another villain, who not only gets killed but buried in cow manure as well.

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Liquidator #01 - The Liquidator

Author Larry Powell wrote two 'Nick Carter' novels, “Butcher of Belgrade” (#73, 1973) and “The Code” (#77, 1973) as well as one 'Able Team' novel in “Texas Showdown” (#3, 1982). As Lee Parker, he penned the three-book series 'Donovan's Devils' in 1974. The subject at hand is 'The Liquidator', a five-book series written by Powell as R.L. Brent from 1974-1978. 

The self-titled debut introduces the reader to hardened detective Jake Brand. Brand has plenty of skin in the game and is Hell-bent on crippling the Mob. In a detailed and much-needed backstory we learn that Brand's father was a beat cop, flat footing the streets until a junkie murdered him for fix money. Jake and his brother Roy grew up on the football field, Jake the strong guy blocker and Roy the lightning quick running back. Roy went on to excel off the field as well, working his way into law and cracking down hard on the mob. Too hard. Roy was gut shot and left for dead. Jake left college and joined the academy, eyes on the prize to be as tough as his old man and to fight the mob at every turn. Vengeance puddling with the blood.

What really keeps this book from being the typical early 70s imitator (ending with the letter R) is that it's a bit more epic in presentation. For example, pages 79-87 covers an astounding five year span. Detractors could argue this isn't a propelling story segment, and it could have been fleshed out a bit more. I'm not ruining it for you, but this story probably could have been mapped out to two books...but Award ('Nick Carter') probably needed some quick circulation to offset the mammoth Carter shelf monopoly. 

The spine of the story is Brand's quest for vengeance, toppling his neighborhood mob satellite before moving up to the bigger broadcast. There's some police procedural stuff, written like a young Evan Hunter (honestly), but it's short-lived. Informants are planted in seedy bars and strip joints, populating the story with some diverse characters. An important element is the lovable Captain Ellis, Brand's defacto father. The heart of the story, beyond the grit and gravel of revenge, is the relationship between Brand and his fiance Diane. This element enhances the story, slowing the pace to allow some emotion to settle in. If nothing else, it creates a little more connection for the reader and makes a very determined Brand seem human. I think that aspect was much-needed. 

Overall, 'The Liquidator' gets a thumbs up. It delivers what we would expect from the 70s vigilante yarns. There's some serious shakeups, surprises and a ton of action. Powell shows off his talents as a storyteller, painting wide brush-strokes for this backdrop of mob vengeance but giving us just enough depth to make it engaging and emotional. I need the rest of this series.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Generation of Blood

After the book “Mandingo” became a sensation in 1958, there was a slew of commercially-successful historical slavery exploitation novels. These books of varying literary merit illustrated the loathsome aspects of the American slave trade while horrifying and titillating readers with stories of brutality and sex in the treatment of the slaves. In the 1960s, interracial sex was a taboo topic, and these paperbacks made lust, desire, and rape among masters and slaves the centerpiece of both the cover art and plots. Many of the novels culminate in violent slave rebellions where the brutality tables are turned on the white masters.

I can’t attest to the historical accuracy of these books, and their quality varies widely. I do know that some respected men’s adventure authors wrote in the genre under pseudonyms including Harry Whittington, Lou Cameron and Norman Daniels. The slavery exploitation books I’ve read have been page-turners that were better written than the lusty covers would ever have you expect.

All of this brings me to the stand-alone plantation novel, “Generation of Blood” by I.A. Grenville published in 1969 by unremarkable New York paperback house Leisure Books with pretty amateurish cover art. Unlike many of the expansive slavery gothics, this one is a tight 188 pages. The real identity of I.A. Grenville remains a mystery to me. It is almost certainly a pseudonym, but none of my normal sources for unmasking pen-names provides any meaningful leads. I found references indicating that the book was also released under the names “Stud Slave” and “Karindu” and I know it was also translated into foreign languages for overseas markets. It’s a well-written novel that suffers from poor plotting.

The story begins at a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina. Young plantation owner William Holloman and his overseer of operations James Curtis are looking to buy a handful of slaves to bring back to their cotton farm. The awkward Holloman also wants to buy some female slaves to periodically have sex with at home. Among the handful of slaves purchased include the giant Karindu, a fresh-off-the-boat African of strength and intelligence far superior to the other offerings. It becomes clear early on that Karindu will be the hero of the story with Curtis as the cruel villain and Holloman as the pathetic villain.

You need to re-calibrate your modern sensibilities to read and tolerate this paperback as the n-word appears on nearly every page without fanfare or shock value. And because sex is front and center in the story, you get to enjoy detailed descriptions of the anatomy of Karindu and the other slaves. The cruelty and humiliation that the slaves endure at the hands of Curtis is also described in graphic detail with no whipping left to the imagination.

So, this cheap-o paperback touches all the same bases as it’s superior genre offerings (for my money, Harry Whittington writing as Ashley Carter is the high-water mark here), but the plot and pacing are an absolute mess. It takes half the book for the daisy chain of slaves and masters to even get back to the plantation where the action and drama begins. At times, it aspires to be a porno novel, but the sex scenes are neither hot or compelling. The power dynamics at the plantation are all mostly ridiculous as well.

It’s difficult enough to endorse this genre with any enthusiasm, but this disposable paperback was clearly a low-end cash grab seeking to capitalize on a brief literary fad. I never figured out who wrote it, but I can’t blame him for wanting to remain anonymous. Don’t bother with this one.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Fox #01 - The Press Gang

The first 'Fox' book by Kenneth Bulmer, writing as Adam Hardy, is about British seaman George Abercrombie Fox isn’t quite a traditional novel, as there’s no particular plot. It’s more like a sequence of incidents. Unlike a 1930s hero pulp, the incidents aren’t necessarily action sequences (although certainly many of them are). They illustrate what life was like for this sullen bulldog of a sailor: the brutality of Navy discipline, the hazards to life and limb during sea battles, the many small humiliations from the Navy’s command hierarchy, and so on. The author does a superb job of bringing Fox to life, so much so that it often feels more like a biography than a maritime adventure novel. The attention to historical detail is also very effective, but I’ll admit I was sometimes lost in a stew of nautical jargon related to the features of old sailing ships and archaic military procedure. If the author assumed I was already familiar with the architecture of 18th-Century British naval frigates, he was mistaken. But while the book is occasionally challenging, it’s also rewarding, and I’d like to sail with Mr. Fox again.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Nick Carter: Killmaster #01 - Run Spy Run

Nick Carter is a WW2 veteran who's employed as a secret agent for AXE. From what I gather in the opening pages of “Checkmate in Rio”, the third installment, AXE works as early penetration for the CIA. Carter's subordinate is a guy named Hawk, who in turn has his own higher authority that remains unnamed in this particular book. The goofy stuff? Carter has silly names for his weapons, and these names come up a lot in the narration. Wilhelmina is a 9mm Luger taken from a German soldier in the war. Hugo is an Italian stiletto. Pierre is a little marble that can be twisted to release deadly gas (which he carries on his scrotum in later books). The names aren't so bad, but I cringe when Carter yells things like, “Quick! Hand me Wilhelmina!”, or when the narrator tells us how good Carter is at everything due to his daily yoga routine. It reminds me of Doc Savage and his fantasy gym training leading to miraculous feats of wonder. It's bonkers, but enjoyable in an over the top way.

In this one, Nick and AXE agent Julia Baron get tangled up in a plot designed by staple arch enemy Judas to blow up world leaders to propel the Red Chinese. It's called “Project Jet” and simply places bombs on planes to kill off various targets. It's a rather elementary plot, but Nick and Julia need to find the perpetrator and the reasoning. The novel is dominantly placed in London with all of the red herrings and suspicious looking smarties. It's here that Nick and Julia get into the sack in an effort to foil the evil mastermind. The book's finale puts both Nick and Julia in an underground horror fest to square off against the steel-handed Judas (of course he is bald, wretched and has a steel hand) and his deformed stooge Braile. It's overly fantastical, but that's part of the charm. As the agents run from location to location, there's intrigue about the location of the next bomb and an exhilarating rush to stop the ominous tick-tock. The book's ultimate plot leads to a plan to assassinate the US President. Published in 1964, I wonder if Avallone/Engel/Moolman wrote this prior to Kennedy's assassination in November of 1963? If not, I would have thought it a bit taboo to resurrect that idea during a time of America's mourning.

Based on this debut, I'm at the table with spoon and fork for 'Nick Carter'. From what I have read, if you can stomach this pulpy fruit, the series only ripens for more tasty and modern flavors later. While book two is still missing in action for me, I'm already on to “Checkmate in Rio” with an eye on book four. Killmaster for life.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The House in Turk Street

Thanks to Hollywood, Dashiell Hammett’s characters Sam Spade (“The Maltese Falcon”) and Nick & Nora Charles (“The Thin Man”) have gone down in history as iconic characters in the hardboiled mystery genre. For my money, I’ve always preferred Hammett’s nameless detective character, The Continental Op, who premiered in a short story from “Black Mask Magazine” in October 1923.

The Op is an “operative” (private eye) for the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency, a nationwide outfit modeled after Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency, where Hammett himself once worked as an operative in his younger days. In total, there were 28 Continental Op short stories and two novels, “Red Harvest” and “The Dain Curse” - all of which have been collected in the mammoth 2017 Black Lizard compilation, “The Big Book of the Continental Op,” edited by Richard Layman and Julie Rivett.

The anthology contains possibly the best short story I’ve ever read. It’s called “The House In Turk Street” and despite the fact that it originally appeared in April 1924, it is the kind of tension-filled bloodbath one might expect from a story starring Richard Stark’s Parker or Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan. It’s a quick and exciting read that anyone could tackle in one sitting.

The setup is that The Op is hunting someone on an assignment and receives a tip that the person he’s seeking is hiding out on Turk Street in San Francisco. The Op comes up with a clever ruse to canvass the neighborhood door-to-door in a manner unlikely to tip off his prey. At one house, he is invited inside only to find that he has stumbled into the hideout of a heist crew fresh off a lucrative job. The Op is tied to a chair while the crew is planning their getaway, and this new addition of a hostage has thrown a wrinkle into their escape plans.

Without giving too much away, The Op is forced to silently bear witness to the crew’s departure planning as tensions run high and double crosses are set into motion. Meanwhile, he needs to figure out a way to leverage the situation to save his own bacon and come away the hero.

“The House In Turk Street” an amazingly tense and smart story that culminates in a fantastic conclusion that serves as a reminder why Hammett is regarded as the father of the genre nearly a century later. This story is a must-read for fans of men’s action-adventure fiction. Highly recommended.

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Butcher #12 - Killer's Cargo

I have to wonder whether this title belonged to another book, since there isn’t really any killer’s cargo anywhere to be found. The villain here is a shadowy figure known only as “Number One,” who’s kidnapped a scientist who recently discovered a lethal poison gas, and now threatens to turn the entire American population into violent lunatics. The early chapters deal with the Butcher’s investigations in France, tracking down clues, and none of this material interested me very much. A shift in locale to Mexico didn’t help, but then things really caught fire in the last fifty pages, redeeming the novel with a lengthy climactic sequence of betrayal, torture, surprise twists and lots of action. While the Butcher is more of a secret agent than the Executioner-style vigilante I was expecting, he has the same mindset. He definitely belongs to the Brut, Brylcreem and black turtleneck fraternity of 1970s action-adventure heroes, and I liked him more and more as the book went on.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Vigilante #03 - San Francisco: Kill or be Killed

“San Francisco: Kill or be Killed” (1976) is the third entry in 'The Vigilante' series by V.J. Santiago (really Robert Lory). What's interesting about this series is that each book is one week in the life of protagonist Joseph Madden. The debut, “New York: An Eye for an Eye”, was an emotional origin story that had Madden watching in horror as his wife was brutally murdered on a subway train. Later, attacked and left with a facial scar, the book focused on his recovery stage and the mental restraints lifting to become a nighttime vigilante. The close proximity Madden is to normalcy is astounding, but like a pulp character, he turns into a crime-fighter at night. It's this Jeckyl/Hyde sort of formula that propels the character and story. Otherwise, it's just a guy with a revolver shooting rapists. 

After a second week of coping/avenging in book two's “Los Angeles: Detour to a Funeral”, this third novel begins week three. It's awe-inspiring that Madden has killed 23 bad guys in just two weeks. Western singer Corb Lund's gloomy lyric, “Work that shovel with vigor grave digger and dig grave digger dig” comes to mind when describing Madden's robust killing spree. While the author concentrates on Madden's night life, it also describes in detail his real job of engineering at a large firm. It's this assignment that brings him to San Francisco to interview an Asian prospect for his employer, which ultimately is just a reason to give this story an Asian spin by placing it in Chinatown.

The story-line here is that a group of ruffians are forcing merchants and shop keepers to pony up cash for the old protection racket. The gang is called the Scarlet Fist and Madden goes to work identifying the culprit, who the next target is and reestablishing a friendship with his old Army buddy from the Korean War. Where this book's mood and narrative changes in contrast with the first two novels is...sex. Lots of sex. In fact, there is shockingly an 8 ½ page section dedicated to Madden's pleasure with two massage therapists and their sexy boss Marie. But it doesn't stop there, continuing on with several different interludes to attend to Madden's desires (in which he also brings Marie to ecstasy seven times in one 20-minute romp!). I think these scenes, while not necessary, added a little more dynamic to this rather cold and calculating killer. The end result is another quality entry in this series. 

Next stop is Chicago...because all vigilante series' visit the Windy City at least once.