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.