Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter

After the pulp magazines disappeared, they were largely replaced by a more gritty and realistic magazine genre collectively known as Men’s Adventure Magazines (MAMs). These glossy, color publications featured stories and artwork by the same people servicing the men’s paperback original market in the 1950s and 1960s. Magazines like “Adventure” and “Real Men” were filled with colorful illustrations and stories designed to appeal to working class men returning home from the wars of the Mid-20th Century.

The Men’s Adventure Library Journal is a labor of love for Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle with a mission of preserving the salacious stories and art from the MAMs in beautiful-themed compilations that both entertain and put the stories in some historical context. Their latest release is “Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter,” and it’s a total pleasure to read and own.

One of the conceits in MAMs is the fictional story presented as non-fiction, and several of the Cuba stories in this volume fall into that category. “Brotherhood of the Scar” is a fictional story from a 1959 issue of “Adventures for Men” by Jack Barrows that falsely claims to be “an eye-witness story of an ex-GI who was brutally tortured by Batista’s savage Gestapo and lived to join the secret underground army that swore vengeance at any price.” The story itself is a 33-page torturous bloodbath that will make fans of the men’s adventure series paperbacks of the 1970s and 1980s feel right at home.

Another highlight was “Kiss the Skull of Death My Beautiful Muchacha” allegedly by Linda Rogers as told to Jim McDonald (actually a work of complete fiction by McDonald). The story originally appeared in the September 1965 issue of “New Man” with graphic cheesecake art by the great Norman Saunders lovingly reproduced in this anthology. The soft-core sex opening grabs the reader as the American female nightclub singer is ravished by her Cuban lover during Fidel’s revolution. One thing leads to another and our heroine is captured and turned over to “El Toro” for torture and interrogation. This is exciting and lurid stuff for men of any era. 

The stories collected and preserved here were an important part of America’s literary history and the Men’s Adventure Library Journal guys are doing important work keeping this stuff available. Arguably, the violent and sexy art of this genre was just as historically significant as the stories themselves. Fortunately, the editors of “Cuba” have reproduced scads of cover art and interior illustrations to further give the stories further context and provide a feast for the reader’s eyes.

More information about the MAMs can be found at the website menspulpmags.com, and all of the themed reprint books compiled thus far can be bought on Amazon. In the meantime, “Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter” is an essential anthology for fans of sexy, blood-on-the-knuckles fiction and illustration art. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Terror in the Town

Edward S. Aarons released “Terror in the Town” in 1947, just two years after finishing his service in the US Coast Guard and nine years from his debut novel “Death in a Lighthouse”. While known prominently for his long-running espionage series 'Assignment', typically called 'Sam Durell', Aarons wrote nearly 30 mystery and thriller novels under the pseudonym Edward Ronns (among others) and his own. “Terror in the Town” utilizes Aarons' early experience with those genres to create a suspenseful Gothic thriller that shapes up as your typical whodunit.

A sleepy seaside town in the northeastern US sets the tone and pace of the novel. I hesitate to use the term “Gothic”, but it does seem to fit with the narrative's isolation and atmosphere – windswept dark streets, shadowed manors, suicide cliffs and robust rooms cast in deep shadow. The town has it's “terror” to contend with – a strangler on the loose knocking off citizens. Young and beautiful Verity is the import, new to the town and married to the newspaper owner Jess. Early on she learns that an escaped inmate from the local asylum, Manuel, may be on the loose and the killer behind the most recent murder. As the book plods along, more murders occur and Verity begins suspecting her own husband as the killer.

“Terror in the Town” left me lethargic in places, counting down pages until the murderer is revealed. There's a little backstory regarding a famed ship, a family secret and some lost diamonds, and that aspect might be just enough to lure in the mystery or action genre fans. For me, I was planning on enjoying an early slasher entry. It is, but just not a very exciting one. The seaside town harboring secrets with a killer on the loose is strong, but Aarons in his early development just boggles it all down to a lot of nonsense. Ultimately, the cover is far better than the book.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Odds Against Tomorrow

In addition to writing scripts for the TV shows “Kojak” and “Adam 12,” William McGivern also authored some highly-regarded crime fiction in the 1950s. I asked around and learned that his best noir novel is arguably 1957’s “Odds Against Tomorrow.”

The book is a classic heist thriller with an interpersonal twist. Earl Slater is a Texas ex-con who reluctantly joins a four-man crew planning a bank robbery with an estimated take of $200,000. The catch is that the outfit’s fourth man is an affable black guy named John Ingram (played by Harry Belafonte in the 1959 film adaptation), and Slater is more than a bit of a racist. Blame it on his humble, white-trash roots. Can Earl set aside his prejudices for the greater good of The Plan?

The man with the plan for this bank job is ex-cop-turned-crook, Dave Burke, and he’s thought of everything. He’s the consummate professional of the group. All he’s got to do is convince the crew to stick to the foolproof plan and convince Slater to set his bigotry aside for the duration of the job. If you’ve ever read a heist novel, you can guess that things go sideways and that no plan is truly foolproof.

For his part, McGivern does a fantastic job of introducing us to the key members of the heist crew, their backgrounds, and motivations. The flashbacks and exposition happens fast and never diminishes the excitement of the planning, the heist, and the getaway. The scenes depicting the canny local sheriff who senses that trouble is brewing are also terrific and really bring the “will they get away with it?” pot to a rolling boil. Some of the post-heist sequences dragged a bit, but the conclusion landed on solid ground.

Fans of heist paperbacks would rightly cite Lionel White and Richard Stark as the high-water marks in the genre. “Odds Against Tomorrow” doesn’t quite reach those heights, but it’s a worthwhile effort and a fun ride. Recommended.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Terminator #01 - Mercenary Kill

According to Bradley Mengel's resourceful “Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction”, author John Quinn is a pseudonym for Dennis Rodriguez. Rodriguez worked with Ed Wood Jr. at Pendulum Press and served as editor for XXX mags. Other than the novel “Pachuco”, I can't locate any other titles that Rodriguez wrote. Further, it's odd that his debut of the six-book series 'The Terminator' doesn't feature anything that would connect him to his “day job” work as porn editor. No explicit hanky-panky in “Mercenary Kill”. Fans of the genre may require that stuff...but I've never needed it. 

Protagonist Rod Gavin was a Marine in Vietnam and now works assignments as an assassin for the CIA. His contract with Langley, under supervisor Chet Barnes, requires eight hits before he can either retire or opt into another military branch. After departing his rural home in High Card, Colorado, he receives some intel regading his eighth and last assignment – kill Jorge de Leon, a supposed rogue trooper under command of Colonel Rojas in Costa Bella. What the reader knows that Gavin doesn't is that de Leon hasn't gone rogue, instead he's an inside man sent by the US President to spy on Costa Bella's government and their treatment of the civilian uprising. So, why is the CIA interested in killing a US operative? Because Barnes and Rojas are connected on a backdoor deal that funnels drugs and money into the US. Unfortunately, de Leon is an unwanted accessory and needs to be removed. 

Gavin, none the wiser, enters this country and kills de Leon...but has doubts on what exactly is happening and if he's been crossed up by Barnes. Soon, Gavin not only has Colonel Rojas and his militants on his back trail, he must also contend with escaping the country without the aid of the US. This pushes him into propelling firefights with Costa Bella's army and the armed rebellion. Teaming with Duffy, Gavin eventually makes it to the US only to discover a contract on his head from Mob enforcers working for Barnes. 

I have to wonder how many casual readers picked these titles up thinking they were 'The Executioner'? Published by Pinnacle in 1982, the font and layout is identical with artwork created by Bolan mainstay Gil Cohen. In terms of quality, I'm shocked that Rodriguez didn't write more novels. “Mercenary Kill” offers a plethora of gunfights and espionage while cruising at a high-octane pace. At the typical 180-pages, there is a lot of events to unpack for the reader. The skeleton is this character, Rod Gavin. I really like him and love the fact that throughout this book his eyes are on the prize – finish the kill, end the career, retire to peaceful tranquility in the Colorado mountains. In a way, Gavin is a human character that we can all relate to. I really enjoyed this book and will be actively searching for more of the series out in the wild.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

John Gail #03 - The Ambassador's Plot

It would be difficult to overstate how much I enjoyed the first two books in the 'John Gail' series of British espionage paperbacks by Stephen Frances, so I was beside myself with excitement to begin book three. The paperback was originally released in the U.K. as “The Sad and Tender Flesh” and then in America by Award Books (home of Nick Carter: Killmaster) as “The Ambassador’s Plot.”

The setup for the series is pretty simple: John Gail was an unremarkable everyman who answered a mysterious job posting and found himself working as an operative for a non-governmental spy agency funded by a cabal of benevolent millionaires. Gail is an imperfect and amateur spy who makes a lot of mistakes. The first two books were sexy thrillers peppered with scenes of shocking torture and violence bringing about awful outcomes for the women with whom Gail developed romantic relationships. The dreadful things that happen to women in these books cannot be understated, and they significantly raise the stakes for our hero in these international adventures.

“The Ambassador’s Plot” was released in 1970 - five years after the first installment in the series - and we find Gail in Paris recovering from the events of Book 2 (This is a series best read in order). His controller comes to visit with an unusual assignment: embarrass and discredit a British ambassador to France who has gone rogue and is taking independent actions that could spark a bloody Arab war. The plan is for Gail to photograph the ambassador having sex with a teenage girl in hopes of blackmailing him into resigning his governmental position before the ambitious ambassador can mount a political rise that might produce the next Hitler.

The catch is that Gail is responsible for the care and feeding of plucky 15 year-old Lilly, the teenage temptress recruited for the seduction job. The interaction between Gail and Lilly combined with the horror John feels for orchestrating a sex sting involving a teen is pure gold. Their partnership on this assignment eventually catapults them into a “couple on the run” plot peppered with extreme violence throughout the 160 page paperback.

It wouldn’t be a “John Gail Spy Chiller” if it didn’t have at least one brutal, stomach-churning torture scene, and this novel has a handful. While these scenes are all in service of the plot, you’ll still need a strong constitution to get through the most gory of them. Consider yourself warned.

When he was writing bawdy hard-boiled crime novels as Hank Janson, Stephen Frances sold upwards of 10 million copies. The John Gail books were substantially less commercially successful, but it really is a stellar series that holds up nearly 50 years later with no diminishing returns in this third installment. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Earl Drake #04 - Flashpoint

1970's “Flashpoint” is the fourth novel in Dan J. Marlowe's 'Earl Drake' series. It's in the series minority as only one of three books in the 11-book run not to adopt the title of “Operation” something or another (although the reprinted Prologue version adds "Operation"). The book's predecessor was “Operation Fireball” and it's successor is “Operation Breakpoint”. While most Marlowe fans will look to the early series as the author's best work (“The Name of the Game is Death”, “One Endless Hour”), the heist-gone-spy formula is still enjoyable knowing it's a decline in quality compared to those genre classics. I'm probably in it for the long run just because I enjoy the Drake character so much and coupled with Marlowe's gift of storytelling...well there aren't many negatives to the series thus far.

In “Flashpoint”, Drake boards a plane in New York headed to Las Vegas. His girlfriend, series mainstay Hazel, has asked that he transport $75K and deliver it in person to an unknown individual. None of this is important, because the plane is hijacked in flight by Turks. They kill the jews, stewardess and pilot, take all the cash and valuables from the passengers (including the 75K) and force the plane down in a stretch of rural desert. Drake, pulling his .38 (it was a flight of hardmen that I couldn't quite figure out), shoots one of the hijackers but the rest escape. Drake heads back to Hazel's ranch and explains how he lost the cash.

Soon, Drake's old pal Karl Erikson shows up at the ranch. In the prior book, Erikson was an undercover operative that swayed Drake into assisting him in stealing money from Cuba. Drake didn't realize until the end that it was a government job and that Erikson was on the up and up. To show his appreciation, Erikson agreed to sort of wipe the slate clean on Drake's criminal record and keep law enforcement off of his back trail. In a threatening way, Erikson asks that Drake join him on a hunt for the hijacker given he's the only passenger on board that really got a good look at the gunmen.

From here, the show takes off to New York City where Erikson puts Drake on the trail of the hijacking coordinator, a Middle-Easterner who is running drugs in the city for profits that go back home to train terrorists to fight Israel. 1970. Nothing ever changes. Drake scouts a bar for a number of days and eventually finds the money runner, a horse-hooked beauty that Drake boinks on three occasions. With her help, Drake infiltrates the network and does what he does best – the old bank heist routine.

Marlowe gives us a great deal to snack on with “Flashpoint”. He knows his audience and he puts Drake into the heist bit to please the readers. As an added bonus, there's the safe cracking adventure and a unique scene where an envelope's contents must be captured without breaking the glued seal. Fascinating. The author also gives us a pitiful, doped up flower child that Drake attempts to rehabilitate. The negative is the slow build in the bar scenes, the lengthy stake-out that even has Drake wondering if he should just walk away out of boredom. There's also really odd scenes where Drake is peeping on a nude-shoot that takes place next to Erikson's office. Later, he comes back with a camera and films a covert porn scene from a janitor closet. These scenes don't necessarily add anything to the narrative and seem like filler to get the book to the required 180-page objective. 

“Flashpoint” is a fine 'Earl Drake' entry, slightly better than “Operation Fireball” with an ode to what makes this series and character great – bank heists, safe cracking, moving money and violence. I hope to see more Hazel next time though.

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Tonto Woman

I have a confession to make: I’ve always thought the crime novels of Elmore Leonard were total crap. They are filled with smarmy characters passing themselves off as “quirky” with cartoonish villains, garbage dialogue, and hack plots. They’re written with a self-assured prose that only a bestselling author can muster - a wealthy guy phoning it in with the knowledge that whatever garbage he squeezes out will be clogging airport bookstore shelves for generations.

No thanks for me.

Then there are Elmore Leonard’s Westerns.

Pure genius. Man, this guy is a true talent who knocks it out of the park every time. Leonard began writing Western stories for the pulps in the 1950s and continued quietly cranking out brilliant genre work well into the 1980s while making his living selling crappy crime novels to dimwits at the airport.

In 2004, HarperCollins released an essential collection called “The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.” The beautifully-packaged 500+ page volume contains an interview with Leonard and then 30 of his Western short stories spanning the length of his writing career. It would be hard to overstate how great this collection is. 

My favorite Leonard story collected in this volume is “The Tonto Woman.” It was also compiled in a smaller 1998 collection called “The Tonto Woman and Other Western Stories” as well as a 1982 Western Writers of America anthology. But don’t be a cheapskate. Shell out the couple extra bucks for the big collection. You won’t regret it. 

“The Tonto Woman” tells the story of a roustabout, horse thief, and womanizer named Ruben Vega who spots a topless woman bathing at a water pump in the desert one day. He notices that the woman’s face is tattooed with strange lines marring her otherwise attractive features.

Ruben quickly learns that the woman is Mrs. Sarah Isham, and she was forcibly tattooed by Indians in the wild. Her wealthy husband sent her away to live in exile in the desert because he’s embarrassed of her looks. Ruben takes the time to befriend her, and a relationship of sorts develops.

It’s a sweet story with very human characters, some Old West violent tension, and a good bit of humor. Moreover, Leonard navigates this simple story with some great writing and a fantastic final line that will stay with you long after you finish reading.

Someone adapted “The Tonto Woman” into a 38-minute short film in 2008. Maybe I’ll seek it out, but nothing will replace the pure joy this short story provides. Essential reading. Highest recommendation.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Alone at Night

Author Marijane Meaker was also Ann Aldrich, M.E. Kerr, Mary James, M.J. Meaker and Laura Winston. However, the most popular pseudonym she donned was the Vin Packer one, which she used to pen nearly 20 novels between 1952-1966. The success of “Women's Barracks”, by author Tereska Torres, led to Meaker writing a great deal of lesbian fiction. Her highlight, “Spring Fire” (under Ann Aldrich) led to a big audience and an additional five books with lesbian themes. However, fans of the Gold Medal crime novels have an assortment of goodies to choose from including “Alone at Night”, originally published in 1963 and then reprinted by Stark House Press in 2005.

In the novel, we learn about the sleepy town of Cayuta. In it are two warring companies – Burr Manufacturing Company (BMC) and Leydecker Electric (LE). Slater Burr grew up in a poor household but worked hard his whole life. Eventually, he was able to take over the company he worked at, Stewart, and transform it into BMC. He earned wealth and power, but due to a decline in productivity he's on the outs. His competitor is Kenneth Leydecker, owner of LE who has ties to Slater – Kenneth's father employed Slater's father back in the day. In fact, he stole his ideas for his own gain, building a fortune for himself while the Burrs were penniless. Thus, the two companies are at odds for real estate, growth and personnel. 

This is a crime novel, so where's the crime? In prior events, we learn that Slater and his former wife Carrie were having issues and that Slater cheated on her with his current wife Jen. Carrie is killed in a drunk driving accident caused by Buzzy Cloward, but there's a mystery there on how this came to be and if Buzzy was really the man behind the wheel. Regardless, Buzzy is sentenced to eight years in prison and returns to Cayuta in the books opening chapters. Along with the immense back story on the Burr/Leydecker feud we get the telling of Buzzy's life. Leydecker's daughter fell in love with Buzzy before Carrie's death despite her father's intense scolding. The rich Leydeckers don't mingle with the poor Clowards. But before the wedding, Buzzy and Carrie meet their doom and this is the end result of that fateful night eight years ago.

“Alone at Night” is a 150 page soap opera. It's who's cheating with who, where and how it relates to the other people who are in their own vicious love affairs. The central storyline is Buzzy piecing it all together, but he's dimwitted and needs to be coaxed into remembering events by the town's beer swilling bar hoppers. There's Jen and Burr's relationship, rocky as it is, and Jen starting to realize things aren't what they seem. There's tiny side stories regarding various characters that play pivotal roles in the book's eventual unveiling. Who killed Carrie? Will Buzzy remember? Is Burr a criminal? Why is Leydecker's daughter strange? The author asks a lot of her reader to remember it all...but I did with some notes and mental effort. 

It's an enjoyable read that doesn't shake the walls of the literary community. It's a small town mystery crime novel and for that...Vin Packer does alright. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Gail #02 - To Love and Yet to Die

When book one of the 'John Gail' spy series opened, Gail was a financially-ruined encyclopedia salesman who answered an ad and became a spy for a private consortium of benevolent millionaires operating a clandestine espionage agency. The opening of the second installment of the series from 1966 finds Gail in an entirely different position. He is now a wealthy man living on a secluded beach villa in Spain with two lusty girlfriends at his disposal. It’s a good life, and Gail has no desire to re-enter the world of espionage. He finds the whole enterprise unseemly - even if it did bring him wealth.

Unlike a lot of spy books of this era, it’s really helpful to read the first 'John Gail' paperback before diving into the second. There are some plot developments and characters with powerful scenes in book two that won’t make much sense unless you know Gail’s recent history. You won’t be completely lost, but it’s just a more fulfilling read with a little context.

Gail’s aspirations to live a life of sexy threesomes in the salty Spanish air are interrupted by a visitor from his clandestine agency in London. They need him for an assignment, and he must leave at once. When asking politely fails, the agency resorts to threats and blackmail to cajole Gail back to work. In London, Gail learns that the assignment involves a paper marriage to a woman he’s never met before followed by a period of keeping her safe from a malevolent group trying to harm her. Think of it as a witness protection program where the protector gets laid. There’s a rather sappy romance that develops between Gail and Diana, his new bride/protectee, and the whole time the reader is waiting for the other shoe to drop and the violent bloodbath to begin as it did in Gail’s first adventure.

Once again, the author does not disappoint. Diana knows a secret that makes her a target of the enemy’s intel service that she won’t even tell Gail (or the reader) until well into the novel. His efforts to keep her safe make for genuinely exciting reading and the violence escalates to some intense scenes of torture and brutality as the story progresses. Gail is an everyman reluctant hero who is put through a good bit of Hell leading up to the paperback’s climactic and satisfying ending.

Stephen Frances honed his chops in the 1940s and 1950s writing the 'Hank Jansen' thrillers, and the 'John Gail' books show a real knack for pacing and placing the hero in exciting situations. It’s crazy that the inferior 'Nick Carter' series was such a phenomenon while the nearly-perfect 'John Gail' books only lasted seven installments. As it was never reprinted, this Gail adventure installment may be a bit hard to find, but you won’t be disappointed with the story. Highly recommended.

Postscript:

Although this was a fantastic novel, the cover art is problematic. It seems to depict John Gail wearing white boxer shorts - probably with an erection - while ninja klansmen clad in white robes shoot him with arrows. I’m happy to report that this scene never happens in the book. All that said, I’d like to thank Award Books for ensuring my embarrassment every time someone glanced at what I was reading for the few days I was carrying around this abominably-packaged paperback.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Traveler #04 - To Kill a Shadow

D.B. Drumm (author John Shirley) continues his trek with 'Traveler' entry “To Kill a Shadow” (1984 Dell), the fourth volume of the 80s post-apocalyptic series. The book picks up in the early part of 2005 and finds our hero in California hunting his arch enemies The Black Rider and Major Vallone. Other genre series' will stick to more realistic plot schemes like forging for food and supplies, exploring the barren landscape or just fighting warring bandits. Shirley certainly injects those elements into this series, but has a lot of fun creating horrific mutants and monsters and placing them into the battle sequences to propel the action. “To Kill a Shadow” prominently displays all of the genetic freakshows and monstrosities we've come to love about Shirley's vivid “splatterpunk” style.  

Just nine pages into our narrative Traveler and his “meat wagon” (fortified van) go into battle against giant Cen-Cars. What is that? Well, think of the Greek mythos of Centaurs, those men with human torsos atop a horse body. Now, do the same thing but substitute a car in place of the horse. These Cen-Cars are running rampant all over California devouring humans and animals and utilizing them as fuel sources to propel their car bodies. Wow! In an exhilarating car chase Traveler battles the Cen-Cars and frees human capital from an abandoned diner. The freed prisoners accompany Traveler back to a religious compound ran by a faux Messiah named Brother John.

The middle of the story is typically a slow-burn with building characters and relationships, but Shirley keeps the pedal down and rolls right into more action. The fire fights increase between Brother John's followers/Traveler and the dastardly Glory Boys/The Black Rider (Major Vallone's soldiers). It's Shirley's show, which means that giant snakes with human heads are incorporated into the battle along with more Cen-Cars and an elephant-sized kitty cat. There's plenty of mind control, ESP, telekinesis and spiritual jargon mixed into the story...but again there's giant snakes, human cars and enormous cats to devour all of that nonsense. The author even attempts to humanize the typically immortal Traveler hero, this time keeping him blind for a large portion of the book. Additionally, Traveler takes on a needy child protegee and shows off some emotional depth.

The Vallone/Black Rider mythos may have ended with this installment. It's absorbed most of the first four books and I'm anxious to see if the series will focus on a new direction starting with book five. There's mention of Traveler heading back to Arizona to bed down with his Native American beauty Jan. Wherever Traveler and Shirley go...I'm sure there is some nightmarish ordeal for the reader to enjoy. Fun stories, enjoyable series, talented author – this is why we love the genre.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pony Soldiers #01 - Massacre at Buffalo Creek

Chet Cunningham was a workhorse at writing action/adventure paperbacks, knocking out dozens and dozens of them in multiple genres (not to mention idiosyncratic non-fiction books with titles like “Three Simple Steps to Flatten Your Belly” and “Stopping Restless Leg Syndrome”.

Beginning in 1987, he was able to launch an interesting western series called 'Pony Soldiers', about cavalrymen in Texas and their dealings with outlaws and Indians. At first glance it looks like an 'Easy Company' knock-off, but it isn’t. Nor is it a horn-dog adult western series like the 'Spur' novels he was writing at this time. 

The first book, “Slaughter at Buffalo Creek”, immediately shoves the reader up against the wall and hits him with an exceptionally grim massacre perpetrated by Comanches. Supply wagons headed for Fort Comfort are looted after every last cavalryman escorting the train has been killed. Their bodies are stripped and mutilated, and then the warrior chief discovers something hidden under blankets in one wagon: the terrified wife and small children of the fort’s commander. He murders the little boy and the little girl is carried away, but not until after the wife has been gang-raped, slashed, killed and scalped. 

The grieving fort commander swears vengeance, and that’s what drives the series. But this particular novel goes in a different direction. There’s certainly a lot of material about searching for the Comanches, and about the contrasting ways of life at the fort and at the Indians’ camp. But now a new plot emerges, involving a bad lieutenant who’s discovered and stolen $8,000 in government gold, left behind in one of the wagons by the marauding Indians. 

This story about the lieutenant turns out to be even more interesting than the vengeance stuff, and it’s reminiscent of Cunningham’s fun 1970s series about gold-hungry schemer 'Jim Steel”. I won’t disclose whether the thief gets away with the loot or not, but once that narrative is resolved, the book is over. The vengeful commander will have to wait until the next novel (or later) to get even with the Comanches, and that’s going to irritate some readers. The rest of us can shrug it off and look for the next book, entitled “Comanche Massacre”.

“Massacre at Buffalo Creek” sags a little bit in the middle, but overall this is quite a strong novel. Unfortunately, the original paperbacks aren’t all that easy to find, but if the later installments are as good as this one, they’re well worth seeking out. The series is also available as ebooks. 

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Green Lama #01 - The Case of the Crimson Hand

Author Kendell Foster Crossen (writing as Richard Foster) was editing “Detective Fiction Weekly” in 1939 when he was asked to compete with the successful “The Shadow”, who's prominence began in 1931. By 1939, lots of publishing companies were attempting to cash in on the craze (“Centaur's Amazing Man”, “The Black Bat”), and Crossen was chosen to do so. Originally deeming him “The Gray Lama”, more vibrant, colorful artwork was requested and “Gray” became “Green”. The very first 'Green Lama' story, “The Case of the Crimson Hand”, appeared in “Double Detective” in April, 1940.

Crossen named his hero Jethro Dumont, a Harvard graduate with a Ph.D. in “oriental religions”. He inherits ten million, and then travels to China to study Buddhism. Miraculously, these studies allow Dumont to acquire a host of crime-fighting tricks and techniques that he carries back to New York to become THE GREEN LAMA. Dumont walks around in the daylight as Reverend Dr. Pali, and at night dons a green robe and hood, a red scarf and a ton of luck to become a vigilante. The Green Lama operates out of a penthouse laboratory and has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong. He also has an ally in the now reformed mobster Gary Brown. 

“The Case of the Crimson Hand” is a familiar one. An evil villain named The Crimson Hand has stolen a handful of Dr. Valco's deadly capsules. These capsules contain a lethal dose of radium that will wipe out a cubic mile of the population. The Crimson Hand and his squad of goons plan on releasing all of the capsules in major cities, thus killing off the population and making room for him to become...you guessed it...the ruler of the world. 

This short novella displays The Green Lama in all of his various techniques: he can touch a face and cause instant paralysis. He can hide in plain sight. He can choke but not kill with his handy red scarf. He can survive plane crashes, bombs, bullets and beatings, but he isn't immortal. He has a magic catchphrase of “Om! Ma-ni pad-me Hum! Om! Ma-ni pad-me Hum!”. I don't know what this does...but he says it a lot. Essentially, The Green Lama just goes from hideout to hideout routing out the bad guys, stopping their evil plans and putting The Crimson Hand behind bars. Lama teams with both Gary Brown and the secret, behind the scenes operative named  Magga, the mysterious lady from Lhasa. Collectively, they're rough and tumbling through 90-pages of pulp action mayhem. It is pulp for the pulp enthusiast, and in that regard fans and readers should have a great time. 

Altus Press has this story included in their 2013 release “The Green Lama: The Complete Pulp Adventures Volume 1”. Along with this story is “The Case of the Croesus of Murder”, “The Case of Babies for Sale”, The Case of the Wave of Death”, “The Case of the Man Who Wasn't There”, “The Case of the Death's Head Face” and “The Case of the Clown That Laughed”. The stories are prefaced by author Will Murray's introduction and professional commentary. Altus Press has a total of three volumes encompassing 16 total stories.

Friday, July 13, 2018

John Gail #01 - This Woman is Death

“Excellent financial rewards await young man, physically fit, reasonably intelligent, naturally non-conformist and totally devoid of any undue respect for the law. Write to box 503.” The ad appealed to London door-to-door encyclopedia salesman John Gail, and it became his door into the world of international espionage. That’s the premise of the 'John Gail' series by Stephen Frances. A consortium of millionaires has a well-funded secret spy agency working outside the boundaries of bureaucrats to save the world, and John finds himself suddenly on their payroll.

The first book in the series, “This Woman is Death” (1965) introduces us to John, an every-man guided by his unused education in philosophy who solves problems through logic and reason. Unlike most spies, he has deep moral problems with killing, which is the central driving conflict of this novel. John is paired with an impossibly sexy assassin named Vanda (the book’s best character) and given an assignment to kill - putting his pacifism to the test. The secret agency employing John is also fascinating and leaves the reader wanting to know more. John’s agency controller, George, is wise and shrewd. He is the adult in the room nudging John in the right direction.

This wasn’t a perfect novel - it was chatty and a bit slow - until the blood-soaked final set-piece where the author paints a mural of extreme violence with some excellent writing. John’s confrontation with the enemy - and his own ethics - was worth the wait.

There were seven books in this series. I’m dying to find out what happens next. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Fargo #04 - Massacre River

Under house name John Benteen, Ben Hauss crafts another adventurous entry in the long-running 'Fargo' series with “Massacre River”. This is fourth in the series for publisher Belmont Tower (different numbered order with other publishers), originally published in 1969 with a cool asking price of $1.50.

Wealthy Chinese entrepreneur Jonathan Ching asks to meet with Fargo for a rather odd proposition – he wants Fargo to escort his daughter, Jade, through a war-ravished stretch of the Philippines. The destination? Another wealthy Chinese man named Chea Swen-Tai, who has been promised the hand of marriage from Ching's daughter. Ching and Swen-Tai arranged the marriage before Jade was even born, so it's only fitting she despises the marriage. Fargo will do anything if it's the right price, and after negotiating over a few thousand our Paperback Warrior is ready for action.

During the Spanish-American War, the Philippines were ceded by Spain to the US. America didn't recognize the First Philippine Republic, thus war ensued. The rebellion against the US included the Republic of Negros, Tagalog Republic, Sulu and the main enemy in the book, the Moros (which are really just tribal and violent Muslims). Fargo served in the US Army in the Philippines and already knows the job is a perilous one. To assist on the 300-mile trek, he recruits a fighting Irishman named O'Bannon, whom he actually has to fistfight first. 

It wouldn't be a Fargo novel without sex, and we get that with the mandatory mattress romp with the client. Jade, fully westernized, pleads with Fargo to help her escape. It turns out she has already lost her virginity in London and Chea Swen-Tai will kill her once he realizes he is marrying used snatch. Fargo is faced with a moral dilemma, deliver the goods knowing she will be put to death or forget the money and liberate her. For one night, Fargo gets to think it over with Jade offering up her body. 

The trek itself is a typical adventure/road story with some natives fighting the convoy, some meet and greet with other Americans and ultimately...betrayal. The book's rowdy end has crazed Confederate soldiers refusing to accept the North's victory, attempting to rule parts of the Philippines and eventually capturing Fargo and company. We go from route preparation to road adventure to a “let's escape the lunatics” finale. It's a typical Fargo story...and that means it is absolutely a blast. We get a cannon fire competition, knife fights, nearly endless run 'n gun and a whole lot of brawling. I just can't get enough of this series and character. If you like adventure – and who doesn't - Fargo is your guy. Bring on the next entry, “The Wildcatters”.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Eliot Ness #01: The Dark City

Between 1987 and 1993, Max Allan Collins wrote four books starring Eliot Ness, the famed U.S. Treasury agent credited with busting Al Capone as fictionalized in “The Untouchables.” The Ness paperback series is more historical fiction based on the hero’s law enforcement adventures after prohibition, and the first installment, “The Dark City”, is an excellent opening novel.

After achieving G-Man fame, Ness separates from the federal government and accepts a post as Director of Public Safety in Cleveland, Ohio. He is tasked with cleaning up the corruption in the Cleveland Police Department while beheading the local crime syndicate with a stranglehold on the city’s lawful functionality. Collins presents Ness as incorruptible but also human and vulnerable. He forms alliances with a local reporter to gain public support for his anti-graft platform while also feeding his enormous ego with high-profile raids

Collins creates many divergent story threads that he successfully wraps up nicely over the course of the paperback’s 275 pages. There’s a con-man ripping off elderly immigrants in an elaborate bank fraud scheme. There’s Ness’ own deteriorating marriage and his interest in a comely secretary. Meanwhile, he’s also playing beat the clock to make some big police corruption arrests before the city council votes on a new budget. The biggest fish for Ness to identify and catch the shadowy “Outside Chief” who runs a crew of dirty cops like an unidentified crime lord with a badge. To his credit, Collins resolves all these plot threads very neatly allowing “The Dark City” to stand on its own as a fine mystery novel and not just the first chapter in a serial story.

Collins is an excellent writer, but I miss the first-person narration of his 'Quarry' series. The Quarry books feel subversive and dangerous whereas this Ness paperback feels rather polished and mainstream. There’s a cool cameo from another Collins series character that I won’t spoil here, and the raids that Ness conducts with his handpicked team are the novel’s action highlights.

If you are looking for bone-crunching adventure, maybe this one isn’t for you, but “The Dark City” a good mystery with plenty of political maneuvering through a dirty bureaucracy and a stalwart hero you can admire. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Down There (aka Shoot the Piano Player)

“Down There” was written by crime novel icon David Goodis and released in 1956. The title was reworked to “Shoot the Piano Player” for the 1960 French film adaptation. Starting in 1962, the book was published under both names with different artwork for each version. 

This is my first taste of a Goodis novel, and by sampling just this body of work, I'll certainly enjoy more of it. He's an incredible storyteller with a career literary emphasis on the tragic downfall of a performing artist (painter, pianist, singer, etc). In Brian Ritt's “Paperback Confidential” (Stark House), it notes that author Ed Gorman once described the Goodis novels as suicide notes. “Down There”, while thoroughly enjoyable, is a despairing portrait of one man's decline and fits Gorman's umbrella description well.

In the book's opening we are introduced to Eddie, an ill-starred pianist working a crummy bar in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. In the early introduction, Eddie is the lovable loser – a loner going with the flow, broke with his only friend being Clarice, an equally hapless prostitute that lives and works down the hall. As the reader is becoming acquainted with Eddie, in walks his troublesome estranged brother Turley. It's obvious he's running from the baddies, which are later explained as Mob enforcers after some stolen loot. They make the connection that Eddie and Turley are siblings. Eddie, consistently avoiding his family for years, is now tangled in his brother's affairs. On one snowy night, Eddie thinks to himself, “they take the piano away and they give you a gun. You wanted to make music, and the way it looks from here on in you're finished with that, finished entirely. From here on in it's this gun”.


We later learn about Eddie's prior undoing, from rough childhood through the war in the South Pacific. With the fighting came a miraculous talent for the piano, one that he utilized to make it all the way to Carnegie Hall. In one fell swoop...it's all taken from him. Eddie, with brothers Turley and Clifton as excess baggage, attempts to avoid the Mob while struggling with a pesky professional wrestler turned bouncer. With that comes violent episodes as Eddie fights in bars and streets while running from the Mob and the law. The book's finale is a firestorm, with one of the best gunfights I've read in recent memory. It's a Tommygun, shotgun and revolver pirouette in an old Jersey farmhouse. 

The heart of the story is Eddie's relationship with the inspiring waitress Lena. She sees something special in Eddie, beyond the ruggedness and street grime. Equally broke, down on her luck and lacking ambition, she finds in Eddie the strength to carry on. Ultimately, it is this story that Goodis is telling us. In fact, I think a lot of what we learn about Eddie is what we learn about David Goodis. He lived an unusual lifestyle, from Hollywood to Philadelphia, experiencing rags to riches to rags in a tumultuous lifestyle. In fact, this paragraph could mirror the author's personal experiences after his debut, “Retreat from Oblivion” (1939), was critically panned. It references a pianist that Eddie knows, one that worked hard only to find his one Carnegie Hall performance, his moment of greatness, lambasted by critics:

“Sure, he cried. Poor devil. You wait so long for that one chance, you aim your hopes so high, and next thing you know it's all over and they've ripped you apart, they've slaughtered you.”

“Down There” is exactly that.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Touchfeather #01 - Touchfeather

Following the success of Ian Fleming’s James Bond paperbacks, espionage novels with sophisticated and debonair heroes became all the rage. Over time, this morphed into a glut of spy novels starring sexy, female protagonists. Most of these were tongue-in-cheek affairs that parodied the espionage genre as much as they honored it. 'The Baroness', 'The Lady from L.U.S.T.', and 'Modesty Blaise' were some of the more popular titles of this literary fad.

British Author and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster threw his hat into the lady spy arms race with his 'Touchfeather' books, a series that lasted a mere two novels in 1968 and 1970. Thankfully, Lee Goldberg’s Brash Books imprint has brought these books back to life in paperback, ebook, and audio formats.

Katy Touchfeather is a sexy, undercover British operative for an unnamed government agency run by the mysterious Mr. Blaser. The gimmick is that Katy was recruited from her job as a stewardess (or air hostess, if you prefer), and she maintains this cover as it gives her access to foreign nations and horny male targets who fancy chatting up a comely member of the flight crew.

When we meet Katy - she’s our narrator - we learn she’s a seasoned operative who has been doing this awhile with great success. A fascinating flashback gives us her origin story and explains how a foxy, young stewardess with a robust sex drive becomes an international woman of mystery.

The current assignment has Katy traveling to Bombay as a flight attendant for Air India with the goal of attracting the attention of a technology professor who may or may not be stealing trade secrets and providing them to couriers working for foreign adversaries. Following a well-described lovemaking session, Katy catches feelings for the guy and becomes conflicted about her covert assignment. How can a man who rogers her so adeptly be an intellectual property thief? From there, the action bounces between several exotic and domestic locales.

Sangster was a notch above his cohorts in this sub-genre, and "Touchfeather" is surprisingly well-written. Thankfully, it never descended into silliness or parody. It wasn’t perfect - there were padded sections and the plot meandered a bit - even over the course of the lean 200 pages. However, all the novel’s shortcomings are redeemed by Katy Touchfeather herself. Sangster created a heroine so fun, charming and beguiling that it’s hard not to enjoy the imperfect story he gave her.

This was a good novel but not a masterpiece. I enjoyed it well enough that I’m promising myself to one day check out the sequel, “Touchfeather, Too.” I’ll keep you posted.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Dakota #05 - Chain Reaction

In 1969's “One Endless Hour”, the phenomenal crime novel by Dan J. Marlowe, there is a climactic sequence of events where the protagonist is working with hard-men to orchestrate an elaborate heist job. That sequence was a harrowing thrill-ride as the criminals transport a great deal of human capital to a central location in efforts to minimize the chances of being caught. It was an enormous undertaking by the author and the characters, and until now, I haven't seen anything as effective as that high-tension scene. 

Gilbert Ralston's final 'Dakota' novel, “Chain Reaction”, has this white knuckle chapter where the heroic Shoshone detective is moving the good and bad guys from Nevada to Arizona to Oakland. In that effort, we get a kidnapped corporate crony, a ruthless casino owner and dozens of vigilant Native Americans looking for revenge on the Mob. It mirrors the tension, pace and atmosphere of Marlowe's scene while still possessing its own identity and flavor. In other words...it kicks total ass. 

This closing chapter of the five-book 'Dakota' series focuses on its own mythology, coming full circle to link events from the prior four books into one epic and unforgettable story. It originates with the mysterious murder of Native American dockworker Aaron Costarella. From there, two ferocious killers track down and murder Costarella's wife (with disturbing imagery of her hanging from her thumbs riddled with burns and bruises). The Costarellas' daughter comes to Dakota with the case. It's his quest to find what the Costarellas were hiding, why they were murdered and how three ornamental daggers fit the puzzle. Add in a mysterious key, Marvin Kinter (the casino guy who tried to kill Dakota in books 2-4), an Oakland kingpin (Dakota's surprising ally from book 4) and a whole lot of fighting...and you get what is probably the best of the series (although my high praise is still heaped on the debut).

It's an engaging quest to find the killers, one that puts Dakota in Arizona, Nevada and California and aligned with a multitude of law enforcement and...bad guys. The Native Americans make for a great cast, aptly simplified to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in one comical scene. The interplay between characters is entertaining, exchanging differences to create a cohesive fighting force. Like prior books, there's a central theme that branches out into a number of remarkable and noteworthy adventures. Fighting? It's shipped in by the truckloads – there's dockyard brawls, bar fights, street fights, car chases and lots of “tie him to a chair and make him talk” stuff that's vintage brutality. 

At the end of the book, I'm not sure if Ralston had plans to continue. It certainly could have ventured on, continuing Dakota's risky and violent work ethic. As an ending to the series, it works out quite well and fits as a quality sendoff. I wish there were more books like 'Dakota'. It's an amazing series and prompts me to keep these five paperbacks forever. That's a testament to outstanding fiction. You just can't go wrong with this series.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Interrogator

Following the monster success of “First Blood,” author David Morrell probably could have spent the remainder of his adult life lounging around his mansion lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills. Instead, he continued writing intelligent thrillers and making a name for himself as a master of the suspense genre.

I recently read a 35-page short story by Morrell called “The Interrogator” that was first published in 2012 and later compiled by Ed Gorman in an anthology called “The Interrogator and Other Criminally Good Fiction.” The collection also has stories by Micky Spillane, Max Allan Collins, Lee Child, Bill Pronzini, and others. Alternatively, Amazon sells the Morrell story alone for a buck on your Kindle. Either way, you really can’t go wrong. 

“The Interrogator” is the story of a CIA operative named Andrew whose grew up learning tradecraft and spy lessons from his father, who was also with the Agency. When we meet Andrew in real time, he’s preparing to walk into a time-sensitive interrogation of a terrorist with knowledge of an imminent smallpox attack on a major city’s subway system. Andrew needs to elicit the details before innocent commuters die.

The interrogation methods employed by Andrew are both fascinating, realistic, and ethically complex. The story delves into the psychological manipulation and stress techniques that professional CIA interrogators reportedly employ and the folly of using torture to elicit important truths from trained adversaries. Morrell is a great writer and the tension he creates in the confined space of the story will stay with you long after the final page. 

Seriously, don’t skip this one. Highest recommendation.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Doom Platoon

“You've got to hate those Germans, Albright. You've got to want to split their skulls and drink their blood. You've got to want to cut out their intestines and chew on them. And gouge out their eyeballs. And stomp on their balls. If you can get yourself in that frame of mind, boy, then maybe you'll be a soldier.”

And that is the essence of Len Levinson's “Doom Platoon”. Take it or leave it, but this is a cold bloody war novel about cold bloody war.  Straight to the point with no restraints, no apologies and no substitutes. It was written under the name Richard Gallagher and published by Belmont Tower Books in 1978. It was Levinson's first war novel, and after Zebra Publishing's president Walter Zacharius read it, he asked the author to pen a series about WWII in Europe. Thus, the stellar nine book series 'The Sergeant' was born, followed later by the equally magnificent 16 book run of 'The Rat Bastards'. 

But, “Doom Platoon” dug those trenches and sets the tone for what is Levinson's best skill – telling the reader about the gruesome, terrifying and utter devastation of war and the men who wage it. 

The book begins on December 16, 1944 with a platoon of the 25th Regiment reeling from a fierce campaign in Hurtgen Forest. This fighting force has been offered “rest” on the French front line in the Ardennes Forest. But, rest is not in the forecast as intense shelling begins to annihilate the troops. The main character is the gritty and defiant Sergeant Mazursky, 29-years old and an absolute badass. After surviving the shelling, Lieutenant Smith receives the impossible command of using his platoon as a rearguard action against an entire German Panzer division. 40 guys against the embodiment of mechanized warfare. The strategy is for the platoon to use a ridge line, concealment and heavy boulders as a defense. This high ground will allow them to immobilize the two front tanks, blocking the road and stalling the whole division until noon. This gives the rest of the regiment enough time to escape to Dillendorf to protect a precious oil reserve. The captain instructs Smith that it can be done, but later in private advises him that at noon he should surrender. It's a no win, no way out situation.

The “Doom Platoon” lives up to its name, taking the suicide mission under Sergeant Mazursky's brutish leadership. The end result? I can't tell you, but I will say that this book is constructed more like three different types of novels. The first is the rearguard battle with the Panzer division. The middle story, the best, is a prisoner-of-war epic, including the obligatory torture, famine, death and escape attempt. The last portion is a war-torn romance with the lust and sex just as graphic as Levinson's descriptions of war. These three parts make up a wholly enjoyable book that blends war, romance (really just a bunch of horny people screwing at the end of the world) and prison escape. While Levinson keeps it engaging with a number of war tragedies (we get introductions of characters that receive violent deaths a page later), he still injects a ton of humor. Morbidly so. I'd read the book again just to hear Mazursky insult Private Norwicki's dick, gun and girlfriend all over again. His BAR cleaning episode is just priceless stuff.

At the end of the day, Levinson is a master storyteller, on top of his game with “Doom Platoon”. Why his books never took off, why he isn't a household name or why he isn't rich is anyone's guess. “Doom Platoon” is about as good as it gets. Pick a tattered old paperback up somewhere, order it on Abe Books or go digital and buy it online for a few bucks.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Curt Stone #01 - The Cave of Chinese Skeletons

Author Jack Seward wrote several non-fiction books on his expertise: the culture and language of Japan. He put this knowledge to good use in a five-book Adventure series between the years 1964 and 1969 starring private investigator and spy-for-hire Curt Stone.

Stone runs Far East Investigations, a firm based in Tokyo primarily concerned with doing background checks on Japanese companies under consideration for joint ventures with their American counterparts. Stone is a former U.S. intelligence officer and all-around badass who is an expert in the Japanese culture and language (just like the author).

In his first novel, “The Cave of Chinese Skeletons,” Stone is hired by a secret U.S. Intel agency to assist them in locating a cache of hidden treasure plundered by the Japanese during WW2 and squirreled away by a group of rogue Japanese soldiers during the final days of the war. All of the soldiers who know the location of the hidden treasure are dead, but one has a college-age daughter who may add some value to the hunt. 

The main problem with this book is that it strives for too much realism and cultural accuracy. All too often, it read like a Fodor’s Guide to Japan. Somewhere in this book was an exciting and promising adventure tale, but the author was too preoccupied with teaching the reader everything we didn’t care to know about Japan that it ended up being a hard-to-finish snooze. Maybe he was able to suppress this instinct in later volumes. I may or may not ever find out. As for this one, don’t bother.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Nick Carter: Killmaster #03 - Checkmate in Rio

In May 1964, the third 'Nick Carter' book, “Checkmate in Rio”, was released through the Carter-heavy publisher Award Books. This time, Carter is assigned the case of the missing AXE agents. The opening sequence has Hawk (AXE's superior) providing the intel to Carter and the reader. In Rio de Janeiro, six agents have gone missing in an area that's low-hanging fruit for the notorious Red Countries. Carter and co-agent Rosalind Adler, whom Carter undressed with his eyes in the first paragraph, head to Rio disguised as wealthy enthusiasts soaking up the rays and local hospitality.

As opposed to the series opener, the enjoyable “Run Spy Run”, this book really pushes the envelope and moves Carter into a more violent version. In a remarkable scene where Carter is holding a dazed bad guy in a closet, he reminds himself that he is the KILLMASTER and must complete the assignment by doing just that. As he pushes Hugo, an Italian stiletto, into the enemy, we come to realize that Carter is becoming the slaughter-house spy. It's not always so dark and grim, in fact more changes occur undercover. 'Checkmate in Rio' includes four sex-scenes, with Carter doing the nasty with Adler twice as well as one of the missing agent's wives twice (once as a violent “take me now” screw).

Aside from the intrigue, espionage and sex comes loads of high-velocity action. Here, Carter and Adler get equal stage time in car chases, fisticuffs and gun battles. In one explosive scene we see Carter protecting a mother and child as waves of enemies assault the house. Or, in another, a tight-laced action scene is built around a gas bomb as Carter holds his breath in an attempt to escape the baddies. Whoever penned this...Michael Avallone or Valerie Moolman, it's a stellar entry in this well-respected series.