Friday, August 31, 2018

Hardman #01 - Atlanta Deathwatch

Atlanta native and author Ralph Dennis launched the 'Hardman' series in 1974 for Popular Library. The debut, “Atlanta Deathwatch”, introduces us to the series hardmen, the aptly titled Jim Hardman and his African-American “protector” in Hump Evans. The series ran 12 volumes, finishing with “The Buy Back Blues” in 1977. In December 2018, Lee Goldberg’s Brash Books imprint will reprint these classics starting with the debut: https://bit.ly/2C4BASi

While certainly dressing the part as the typical 1970s armed-action fare, this debut showcases a much deeper narrative that doesn't quite match the stereotypical cover. Sure, the book has the #1 plastered on the jacket, complete with a painting of guns, car chases and a female hostage, but under all that, I would theorize that these books were planned as stand alone mystery novels that happened to feature the same sleuths. With the popularity of 'The Executioner', I'm sure the publisher rode the marketing wave and presented this as another men's adventure series instead of the straightforward mystery that truth-in-advertising ethics would dictate. 

Jim Hardman was an Atlanta detective who lost his gig when his girlfriend Marcy fingered him as an accomplice for her crooked employer. Now, Hardman is an out of shape, financially-strapped everyman taking odd jobs for cash. With a bit of anti-hero flavoring, Dennis has Hardman running drugs up to New York for cash while taking “private eye” type jobs to pay the rent. 

Accompanying him is Hump Evans, an ex-NFL player who hit hard times and is in financial dire straits himself. Evans is the enforcer, often playing strongman to protect Hardman from the inherent danger of these odd jobs. For 1970s Atlanta, there is plenty of racial tension that spills over into the investigations. Often, Hardman is canvassing black bars and needs Evans front and center. Other times, it's Evans as the minority in the all-white bars probing bit characters for info. So, what exactly is this Atlanta Deathwatch? Well, that part of it is fairly complex.

Hardman takes on a small job watching Georgia Tech student Emily Campbell's activities. Her father is concerned with her well-being and poor academics and pays Hardman to play spectator. It seems innocent enough until Emily winds up dead in the backseat of a car. Before Hardman can even begin piecing together clues, he's forced into a job by a black crimelord simply called The Man. This mysterious criminal was Emily's lover and he's paying Hardman and Evans to locate her killer. Along the way, they run into Emily's former lover along with more criminals associated with The Man. Emily's father, ex-lovers and politicians are all suspects, but as the clues pile up...so do the bodies.

Ralph Dennis has a real passion for the mystery genre and 'Hardman' possesses all of the key elements that make up the genre – plenty of suspects, a riveting whodunit question, strong characters and enough momentum to keep the reader second-guessing the prior clue's validity. What really sets these characters apart from the jacket's misconception is just how average they are. In one hilarious scene, Hardman is attacked by two enforcers in a car. It's written in the first person and our protagonist reminds us that in these unfortunate situations, the only thing he can do is fart while vomiting all over himself. 

Hardman is a poor lady's man – losing Marcy and then somehow gaining her affection/sympathy again. There's not even big guns, knives or fists here. Hardman carries a .38 revolver, and former star athlete Evans is a shotgun man. In fact, the author could have easily ran with Evans being the stereotypical 70s black guy. However, Evans isn't conveyed that way to the reader. I kept thinking of an O.J. Simpson sort of character...”gray” in a time when black and white were clearly defined. 

Some have compared the Hardman series to both Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' as well as Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled 'Mike Hammer'. Regardless of influence, Ralph Dennis clearly has a lot of talent and provides the reader with an enjoyable mystery novel that finishes with a bang. I'm already on the lookout for book two.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Run, Brother, Run!

Between 1947 and 1966, Thomas B. Dewey wrote dozens of hardboiled mystery novels - most of which featured successful P.I. series characters, Pete Schofield and Mac. He also wrote a couple stand-alone crime novels under the pseudonym “Tom Brandt,” including 1954’s “Run, Brother, Run!” The original 25 cent paperback may be hard to find, but Wildside Press now has it available as an eBook for a buck and a paperback reprint for a ten-spot.

As the novel opens, Jim Stuart is a financially-struggling Chicago private investigator working undercover in a prison as an inmate for an insurance industry client. He’s monitoring the activities of a prolific jewel thief named Big John Halloran, whose latest heist landed Big John in prison but failed to recover any of the valuable jewels he stole. As such, the insurance company hired Jim to pose as an inmate in hopes that Big John would provide a clue leading to the recovery of the stolen jewels.

Jim’s inmate cover is that of a bank robber, and this attracts Big John’s attention. Things get complicated when Big John hatches a prison break plan with his crime partner that relies on Jim’s participation. Killing a prison guard would create unwanted collateral damage in the undercover assignment, but escaping with Big John might lead Jim to the hidden jewels.

The prison break and getaway occur fairly early in the novel, so a sizable segment of the fast-moving book’s first half occurs while the crew is hiding out in Big John’s secluded mountain lodge. Big John imports a group of girls to entertain the escapees with bawdy songs, striptease acts, and sex. This creates a dilemma for Jim as one of the girls knew him years ago in Chicago under his real name. Will she remember him, alert Big John, and blow the assignment? And then how can he ensure her silence?

Eventually, Big John invites Jim to participate in a heist that a repugnant criminalassoxiTe has planned. Although this goes beyond the scope of Jim’s undercover assignment, he agrees in hopes that his involvement and proximity to Big John may lead him to the jewels and the successful completion of this assignment.

The plot twists and turns in some interesting ways, and to the novel’s credit, I was never really sure where it was headed. Dewey’s writing is superb, and Jim’s undercover high-wire act is perpetually nerve-wracking for the reader to experience through the first-person narration of the protagonist. Finally the ending was sufficiently bloody and violent to please the action junkies along for this ride. Overall, a solid crime novel from a reliable author in classic era. Recommended.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Face of the 80s: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

It's hard not to find model Steve Holland's likeness when browsing the 50s, 60s and 70s Men's Adventure line. The American actor portrayed the iconic Flash Gordon in 1954, appearing in 39 episodes. Switching from actor to male model, he appeared in several comics released by Fawcett and Gold Key as well as manly magazines like 'Men' and 'Man's Story'. Holland's biggest contribution was the paperback action genre, with his likeness adorning covers for 'The Executioner', 'The Man from O.R.G.Y.', and 'Jason Striker'. His most renowned work is modeling as “The Man of Bronze”, the pulp fiction hero 'Doc Savage' for Bantam's paperback reissues. 

Holland's face can be found on countless comics, magazines and books, but when the 80s hit, was there a new version of Steve Holland? In 1985, New York model Jason Savas originally posed as 'M.I.A. Hunter' Mark Stone for the publisher Jove. The curly black hair, smooth shave, Bruce Wayne chin and high cheekbones was the perfect image of the 80s self-reliant hero. Vigorous, bold and exhibiting droves of masculinity, action readers needed this bravado to match the bullets. Savas was that guy, and his likeness adorns a majority of Stephen Mertz's 16-book series. 

Savas was an extremely popular model for cover artists to use throughout the 80s and early 90s. In fact, in the late 80s it is hard to find an action series that doesn't feature a painting of Savas, geared in fatigues and headband with the always present CAR-15. He's always grinding his teeth, ready for battle and exhibiting the internal fortitude to fight your fight. It wasn't always in Southeast Asia or Colombia against drug cartels and communists. No, you could find Savas riding the range (Louis L'Amour), six-shooter in hand with a Winchester in the scabbard. He was there as a street savvy vigilante (Avenger), an ex-CIA mercenary (Eagle Force), a doomsday warrior (Out of the Ashes) or the Vietnam grunt (Vietnam: Ground Zero). Savas knows more about our genre than we do. So much that he wrote his own action novel in 1999. "The Messenger" features a Gulf War veteran working as a bike messenger and fighting crime in New York City.

How Savas was able to become the face of the 80s is anyone's guess. Unfortunately, this Paperback Investigation hit a cold trail. We can't locate an address or anyone who is familiar with his whereabouts. If you or someone you know has a contact, send them our way. In the meantime, we have tons of paperbacks to remind us that Savas is Mark Stone, Matt Hawke, Ben Raines...and you and I.


Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Parker #05 - The Score

“The Score” by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake) was the 1964 entry in the series starring the gruff and businesslike thief known only as Parker. The novel was later released under the name “Killtown,” and in the book’s opening scene, Parker kills a man with his bare hands while walking down a New Jersey street. This sets the tone for both Parker as a no-nonsense character and the events that follow.

He’s in New Jersey to be pitched a plan for an audacious and complex heist promised to bring in $250,000. The idea is to take over an entire desolate North Dakota town and steal everything - the bank vault contents, loan company cash, the jewelry stores, and the payroll of the local mining company. To pull this off, a lot of good men will be needed for the job. The problem: the guy who identified the target and assembled the initial team is an amateur with unknown motives. Can he be trusted?

Parker devises a plan that would rely on 12 men working in concert over one night to paralyze the town and make off with the loot. The dozen trusted thieves assembled for the job are a wonderful cast of characters - especially when they are chewing the fat about their chosen profession. One conversation about the importance of paying income taxes on ill-gotten gains was particularly hilarious and insightful.

“The Score” also features the first appearance of Alan Grofield, the summer stock actor who finances his dramatic pursuits by pulling heists. Grofield serves as the comic relief in this novel, and the reader is treated to his origin story. He reappears in later Parker installments and even had a four-book spin-off series of his own. In this one, Grofield makes some problematic choices along the way that compromise the success of the mission, and the reader learns a lot about him as a person. 

“The Score” is structured pretty much like other Parker heist novels: Recruitment, Planning, Execution, Getaway, Resolution. Part Three of the story places the reader in the narrative heads of characters other than Parker, and this was especially fascinating because of the intricacy involved with the moving parts of a 12-man crew. The weaving of the female characters into the story arc was particularly well done and served to humanize the hardboiled guys in the story.

A heist novel without bumps in the road would be tiresome, and some curve-ball compilations arise in “The Score.” I won’t give them away here other than to say that the problems that manifest themselves in this one were my favorite parts of the story and elevate this paperback among its genre cohorts.

Although this was the fifth entry in the Parker series, it stands alone nicely as a self-contained novel without reliance on prior installments. It’s a fairly perfect series, and pitting one installment against another is a fool’s errand - you might as well read them all. In any case, suffice it to say that “The Score” is absolutely essential reading for hardboiled fiction fans. Highest recommendation.

Postscript:

Fans of the Richard Stark books would be well-served to visit the fan site “The Violent World of Parker” which dissects his work with an impressive academic rigor.

The website is: www.violentworldofparker.us

Monday, August 27, 2018

Killsquad #01 - Counter Attack

In 1989, author Dan Schmidt launched his 9-book run of military action in 'Eagle Force'. Before  that series, the writer created a similar series in 1986 – 'Killsquad' (not to be confused with the Manor 1975 series). This series ran 9 installments on the Avon label and utilizes Schmidt's knack for team-based combat yarns. He's a meat and potatoes writer, low on plot and big on run 'n gun episodes of violent warfare. That's essentially what we get with this series debut, “Counter Attack”.

In 'Eagle Force', a hardened Vietnam veteran named Vic Gabriel recruits three mercenaries to forge a global fighting force. 'Killsquad' was the apparent template, with John Smith as the hardman on the recruiting frontlines for the first half of this novel. Smith's resume is an impressive one – anti-terrorism at Camp Peary, five years as a paramilitary operative in Central and South America, Special Forces sniper, fifth-degree black belt and a need to avenge the murder of his French girlfriend years ago. The CIA is now running a World Strike Force and ask Smith to recruit six men from death row. In “Dirty Half-Dozen” style, the book explores each character and their training for these clandestine missions. 

Williams is a former bank robber with a murder streak and an eye patch. Schnell is a big German soldier of fortune (and a racist). White is a former KKK henchman (Schmidt teams three whites vs three blacks). Barnes is a hit man from Harlem. Walker is a former boxing champion. Jackson is the wildcard, a seemingly innocent fisherman from Florida who was fingered for a murder he didn't commit. What's interesting is the fact it's an 80s team-based action novel that doesn't feature a single Vietnam veteran. Shocking.

With the meet and greet, we immediately realize there will be inner turmoil on the team. Diversity and guns don't mix well with these books and this one is no exception. The general idea is watching Smith whip the guys into shape and prepare them for the first mission. The curveball is that Smith's superiors cut training to only a week and spring two missions on him. The first involves Smith running a solo mission to liberate a hijacked 747 in Athens. The second is the six men running their own assignment by destroying a Syrian terrorist compound with the aid of a gunship. Will the death row inmates cut and run or will they stick around and complete the mission? Can Smith knock out the Islamic terrorists before they rape and kill every jew on board the plane? These are all in the mix as 'Killsquad' presents it's first entry.

If you like Schmidt's writing then this series is probably mandatory. Genre fans know his 'Stony Man' and 'The Executioner' work, as well as stuff like 'Hellrider' and 'Eagle Force'. “Counter Attack” moves at a brisk pace and covers a lot of ground in the Middle East, Greece and the US. There are a few side stories with the German member as well as Smith's conflicts with his own department. In the future, the internal conflict and deception within the World Strike Force will probably be center stage. I'm on board for this one. “Counter Attack” is an absolute winner!

Saturday, August 25, 2018

The Greatest Men’s Adventure Series Ever: A Paperback Warrior Poll

The Greatest Men’s Adventure Series Ever: A Paperback Warrior Poll

In November 2017, Paperback Warrior conducted a highly-scientific and totally statistically valid poll of members of the Men’s Adventure Paperbacks Facebook Group asking the 4,000+ members to list their Top 3 genre series names of all time.

The results were weighted based upon the respondents’ preference rankings, and the results were audited by the accounting firm of Simon & Compton LLC to ensure mathematical purity and scientific rigor.

The complete results for the “Best Series Ever” poll are listed below:

1. Parker - Richard Stark

2. Matt Helm - Donald Hamilton

3. Travis McGee - John D. MacDonald

4. Quarry - Max Allan Collins

5. Destroyer- Murphy & Sapir

6. Doc Savage - Kenneth Robeson

7. Matt Scudder - Lawrence Block

8. 87th Precinct - Ed McBain

9. Burke - Andrew Vachss

10. Tarzan & Martian (tie) by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Friday, August 24, 2018

Talmage Powell: King of the Shorts?

During his life, Talmage Powell (1920 - 2000) wrote over 500 short stories published in the pulps and the digests. He also wrote a handful of highly-regarded crime novels, but mostly he is remembered for his short fiction. I sampled a handful of Powell stories from various anthologies to assess the quality of his work.

The Alfred Hitchcock brand of short fiction has been an enduring legacy since the 1956 launch of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine (AHMM) followed by countless paperback short story anthologies published by Dell with cheeky titles and attractive cover art. Over the years, I’ve found these anthologies a great way to sample authors before investing time and treasure into their novels. Powell’s stories were a regular fixture of both AHMM and the related paperback compilations.

Another great way to collect a ton of Powell short stories on-the-cheap is to check out the Kindle editions of the “Talmage Powell Crime Megapacks” from Wildside Press. There are two of them, each containing 20 short stories from Powell’s vast body of work in the genre. Best of all, they are only a buck each on Kindle.

Powell’s crime short stories pack a quick punch - most of them are only a dozen pages or so. They are supposed to have been easy reading and generally very good. Having never consumed Powell’s crime fiction, I read a handful of his entries from multiple anthologies for these capsule reviews:

“Lone Witness”

Before appearing in the 1971 Hitchcock short-story collection, “Down by the Old Bloodstream,” this one was published in AHMM in January 1966. It is also included in the first volume of the “Talmage Powell Crime Megapack” for your Kindle.

Marco and Timothy are ostensibly best friends and business partners, but Marco secretly hates Timothy over a stolen girl. This presents a world of opportunities when Timothy comes to Marco’s house and confesses that he has just killed a man.

Marco snaps into action to leverage the situation and get rid of his frenemy for good. Unfortunately, it’s just not that simple. This short-short story is a total delight, and the twist ending is consistent with the Hitchcock brand.

“Mac Without a Knife”

The May 1965 issue of AHMM was the first appearance of this story, and it made the cut for the Hitchcock paperback, “Let It All Bleed Out” from 1973 - making the story a Bobby Darin reference inside a Rolling Stones pun.

The “Mac” is question here is our narrator, an ex-con fresh out of the joint named MacKensie who has taken a job at a low-end roadside aquarium at the insistence of his parole officer. The failing business is hemorrhaging money, and the boss is forced to sell the porpoise to make ends meet. It’s Mac’s job to catch the mammal in its tank and get it ready for the transfer without killing it.

Things go sideways quickly as we learn the truth of the boss’ real intentions, and Mac is trapped in the tank with the aquarium’s hungry shark, Atlilla. This was a very exciting adventure story - a classic man vs. man vs. shark tale in a confined environment. You definitely should check this one out.

“Old Man Emmons”

The 1970 Hitchcock anthology, “Get Me to The Wake on Time,” reprinted the story, “Old Man Eammons” after it initially appeared in AHMM in February 1962. It is also compiled in the first “Talmage Powell Crime Megapack.”

Charlie and Laura are newlyweds. Before the marriage, Charlie agreed that Laura’s sickly father could live with them, so Laura could give the old man the compassionate care of a loving daughter. The problem is that the old man is driving Charlie nuts. He decides that Old Man Eammons has to go, but what would Laura think?

This tale is a great example of Powell’s knack for economical storytelling. Over the course of nine pages, we get to read the setup, the plan, and the execution of deadly crime. Unfortunately, the twist ending to this one was a bit of a letdown.

“I Had A Hunch And...”

This supernatural crime story originally appeared in the May 1959 issue of AHMM and was later compiled in the Hitchcock anthology, “Witches Brew” In 1965. 

At the opening of the story, Janet realizes she’s dead and her ethereal form is floating around her suburban estate where her freshly-murdered body is awaiting discovery . She recalls that she was murdered by a servant after catching him stealing her jewelry from a safe. It becomes clear to Ghost Janet that her spirit won’t be free until the servant pays for his crimes.

This was an cute ghost story likely aimed at female mystery readers. Once again, Talmage’s prose was superb. The ending was clever enough to leave any reader happy to have invested 15 minutes enjoying this light tale.

“The Vital Element”

This Powell story of murder and its aftermath originally ran in November 1967’s AHMM and was included in Hitchcock’s 1978 “Rogue’s Gallery” anthology. It is also included in Wildside Press’ “Second Talmage Powell Megapack” for Kindle.

The first-person story opens with a scuba diver examining a woman’s corpse at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico with her ankles bound by rope attached to a cement block. The reader quickly learns that the discovery of the sunken corpse was no accident, and the diver is trying to solve the problem of the fraying rope that will eventually snap and lead to the discovery of the body when she pops up like a cork.

Just when the reader has it all figured out, the story ends with a twist on top of a twist. While the ending is a bit abrupt, it’s dark and diabolical stories like this that put Alfred Hitchcock on the map.

“The Heir”

In August 1969, AHMM ran the story “The Heir,” and it was selected for inclusion in the Hitchcock Dell paperback collection, “I Am Curious (Bloody)” published in 1971.

This is a really odd story and it took quite a few pages before revealing the direction it was headed. Richie and his friends are teenage juvenile delinquents (maybe more like at-risk youth) who are given an opportunity to live on the estate of a wealthy, do-gooding eccentric named Mrs. Duffield. The boys help her with chores but mostly get to loaf around her pool and grounds.

Mrs. Duffield takes a special liking to teenage Richie, and confides in him that she’s heartbroken that her son is an ungrateful hippie who has forsaken his mother. Out of a sense of loyalty to the woman who has extended her kindness to him, Richie decides to find out the deal behind her estranged son - and things get strange. This is another satisfying story that successfully captures a unique period in America’s counterculture with a sinister edge.

“Somebody Cares”

This story originally appeared in the December 1962 issue of “Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine” and was later collected in two excellent anthologies: “A Century of Noir” edited by Max Allan Collins and Mickey Spillane and “The Arbor House Treasury of Mystery and Suspense” edited by Bill Pronzini, et al.

It’s a police procedural about a new detective who is assigned to be partners with a seasoned veteran with decades of experience. A young girl Is found dead in a park, and the reader gets to ride along as the pair of detectives solve the case.

The beautiful thing about this story is that it does a very realistic job of portraying the drudgery associated with a police neighborhood canvass, yet the story itself is never boring. Powell’s first-person writing is superb, and the life lessons embedded in this mystery will stay with you long after the final page. 

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Buffalo Hunter #06 - Vengeance is Mine

“Vengeance is Mine” is the sixth 'Buffalo Hunter' book. It was released by Manor in 1978 and continues the saga of vigilante/hunter O'Brien. Author Ralph Hayes loves creating impossible moments for this protagonist and “Vengeance is Mine” is no different.

The opening pages has O'Brien out hunting for buffalo with his trademark Sharps. He receives some unwanted visitors at his campfire and quickly finds himself staring down three barrels. Two are Cameron boys – an older brute named Darcy and his violent 12-year old brother Billy Joe. The third, Emmett, is a hand on the Cameron farm. When the shooting begins, O'Brien ducks behind some horses and can only watch as Darcy accidentally shoots Billy Joe. O'Brien then kills Darcy. Emmett runs off to the Cameron ranch to report that O'Brien killed Darcy and Billy Joe in cold blood.

Ranch owner and father Silas Cameron and his two remaining sons put a warrant out for O'Brien's arrest. Soon, a posse catches up to the surprised O'Brien and they violently assault him. On the verge of death, O'Brien is then tied to a horse and dragged through the desert rocks. Emmett and the posse leave O'Brien to die under the hot sun. But it will take more than that to kill this seemingly immortal cowboy. 

An old rancher named Jarvis stumbles on the dying O'Brien and brings him back to his house. After nursing him back to health, O'Brien gains his strength and begins to help the old man with hunting and farming as repayment. While he's out hunting, more baddies stumble upon Jarvis, tie him to a chair and ruthlessly beat him. When they learn that Jarvis has no money or belongings, the group decides to kill him. But, O'Brien is hunting them from outside and Ralph Hayes absolutely shows no mercy. Our Buffalo Hunter SLAUGHTERS the group with a combination of knife, fists and bullets. This is the 70s and this western series is about as violent as it gets. 

As O'Brien is getting back on the buffalo trail, he's arrested in Willow Creek by a backwoods sheriff and deputy. They throw him in jail and then work out a way for the town to lynch him by spreading rumors that O'Brien is a child killer. Meanwhile, Silas has paid a quick draw gunfighter named Waco Kid to hunt down O'Brien and kill him. As O'Brien is treed with a noose at the hands of the town, the Waco Kid shows up to save O'Brien...just so he can drag him back to Cameron and kill him there. Later, O'Brien kills Waco only to find that he is now hunted by the law, Cameron and a ton of drifters and hardmen looking for O'Brien's head for reward money.

On the run with his Sharps, knife and Winchester rifle, O'Brien finds that a specific bounty hunter named Certainty Sumner is on his back trail. He heads to the town of Sulphur Creek, a familiar place to fans of the series. This town was freed from outlaws by O'Brien in the first book, “Gunslammer”. Only now the town has reversed their outlook and wants to sling up O'Brien for money. The finale has a vicious cycle of violence as events come full circle and O'Brien fights a town, the law, bounty hunters and Cameron.

What is really interesting about this book is the appearance of Certainty Sumner. In this one, Sumner is a bounty hunter and really a bad guy. But, Hayes has two later novels featuring a bounty hunter named Wesley Sumner (“Lawless Breed”, “Way of the Gun”) – who may or may not be the same guy. In those books, Sumner is a more likable character but still a killer. If you read this particular novel...well you get what eventually happens to Sumner. But I won't ruin it for you.

If you like Ralph Hayes, then you will certainly love this novel. It has all of the characteristics that make this author so enjoyable – clearly defined good guy, vile criminals, over-the-top violence and a lighting fast pace. “Vengeance is Mine” is just about the best of the series, but I still have a handful of these books left to read including a few that Hayes says are at the top of his writing game. We'll see how it shakes out...but this one is really hard to beat.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

John Gail #04 - Hate is for the Hunted

Stephen Frances apparently sold over 10 million copies of his popular “Hank Janson” series, but his “John Gail” spy novels never gained much sales traction during their seven-book run. This is a particular shame as the novels were a gritty and human take on the James Bond spy craze that dominated men’s adventure fiction in the 1960s.

John Gail is an operative for PLEADON, a shadowy, private spy organization financed by a group of benevolent millionaires seeking greater justice and security around the world. As “Hate is for the Hunted” opens, Gail is growing bored and restless in London living the life of a millionaire on his benefactor’s dime. He is itching for more assassin work and wants his next clandestine assignment. This is particularly fascinating since he started the series as a broke, pacifist, Philosophy major selling encyclopedias door-to-door in London.

The new assignment involves locating and rescuing a sexy female PLEADON operative who has fallen off the grid during an undercover assignment as a prostitute in a high-end brothel. Could the female agent’s disappearance somehow tie into the recent death of another operative who was involved with exclusive and secretive hedonist society?

While the first three John Gail books were espionage and political adventures, this one is more of a straightforward undercover investigation novel. The secret society penetrated by Gail is pretty interesting - think “Eyes Wide Shut” meets “Django Unchained” - until the story evolves into “The Most Dangerous Game” territory. Frances’ plotting and pacing are superb. My only quibble with his writing style is his instinctive pulp author habit of using exclamation points to build excitement in the narrative! This was a practice that action writers should have outgrown by 1968! Although it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, it was definitely hard to ignore!

Overall, this was a decent paperback for the genre and era, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good as books 1-3 of the series. This one stands alone as its own story more so than the first three novels, but the overall quality is diminished a tad. It’s still a good, action-filled story with plenty of kinky sexual situations and shocking violence - as well as an excellent final 50 pages. Recommended.

Postscript - Series Order Controversy:

There is some confusion regarding the proper numbering of the John Gail books. According to Stephen Frances’ biographer, Steve Holland (author of “The Trials of Hank Janson”), the John Gail series was originally released by U.K.’s Mayflower Books in the following order:

    This Woman Is Death
    To Love and Yet to Die
    The Sad and Tender Flesh (The Ambassador’s Plot)
    Hate is for The Hunted
    The Sweet Shame of Fury
    The Caress of Conquest
    Cry for my Lovely

However, Award Books only released volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 in the United States. You’ll need to find British editions of books 5 and 7 to be a completist. Moreover, none of the paperbacks have been digitized into eBooks, and my sources in contact with the author’s estate tell me there are no plans to give the John Gail books a new life in the 21st Century. And that’s a shame.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

No Harp for My Angel

Carter Brown (real name: Alan Yates) was a British author living in Australia who wrote mystery paperbacks about American detectives. His most popular character was police detective Al Wheeler, and the books in that series were a ton of fun.

It was quite a publishing coup when Stark House Books won the right to reprint early Al Wheeler books that were never published in the U.S. The second volume of Stark House’s Carter Brown collection contains a helpful introduction by Rick Ollerman followed by three Al Wheeler books originally published in Australia in 1956:

    “No Harp for My Angel”
    “Booty for a Babe”
    “Eve, It’s Extortion”

The story synopsis said that “No Harp for My Angel” takes place in Florida (home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters), so that was the one I chose to read and review this round.


As advertised, the short novel opens with California police detective Al Wheeler on holiday in Ocean Beach, Florida. Because he’s on vacation and because this is a Carter Brown book, he spends a fair amount of his vacation time trying to get laid. This quest leads Wheeler to hit on a hot chick in a bar whose date is Johnny Lynch, the mysterious new tough guy in Ocean Beach who owns a gambling joint. An altercation ensues putting Wheeler on the wrong side of Lynch’s ire - as well as Zero, Lynch’s right hand man, who looks and acts like an “overgrown gorilla.”

With the central conflict of the paperback firmly established, Wheeler is pressed into service to investigate the disappearances of several young women in Ocean Beach since Lynch and his goons blew into town. Because Wheeler has no legal authority in Florida, he assumes an undercover persona to conduct his investigation.

Thereafter, it’s a pretty standard mystery novel. The sex in 1950s Carter Brown is rather toned down compared to his work in later decades, but the story structure is about the same. His work has always been an easy - but satisfying - read. He wasn’t necessarily a master of the genre, but once he figured out his formula for success, he rode that pony for a long time and sold a lot of books in the process. No harm done there.

As time has gone by, Carter Brown paperbacks have become scarce on used bookstore shelves. As such, the Stark House revival of his work is coming at exactly the right time, and “No Harp For My Angel” is a fine entry-point into this iconic series. Recommended. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Narc #01 - Narc

'Narc' was a violent 7-book run published between 1973-1975. The debut, simply titled “Narc”, was released by Lancer ('Enforcer', 'Conan'). The remainder of the series was published under the Signet brand. The author's name on the cover is Robert Hawkes, but this is really Marc Olden of 'Black Samurai' fame. 

The “Narc” is John Bolt, a former New York City blue who comes down hard on police corruption. Lying in a hospital bed, Bolt meets a guy named Craven and is told about the Department of Dangerous Drugs (D3). They offer him $25,000 a year, ten weeks of training in DC and assignments all over the world working strictly narcotics. The book opens six years into Bolt's career with D3. Our hero is in La Playa with five other narcotics agents to arrest Antoine Georges Peray, a major player pushing $2 billion in heroin. This opening scene has a convoy of cars carrying Peray, Bolt, agents and local enforcers to the airport. Peray's guerilla fighters descend on the convoy in an effort to free their man. In what could be the best opening pages of any book, we find Bolt using a .45 and sawed-off shotgun as he weaves between and under cars cutting off the guerillas at the knees. His own men turn on him and we immediately realize that Bolt is an absolute badass. It's a massive firefight that has Bolt utilizing grizzly methods to bring Peray into the US. Unfortunately, this opening scene is really the best part of the book. The rest is about average. 

The novel focuses on a high-profile dealer in the US named St. James Livingston. Livingston has shut down all of the drug traffic in NYC while awaiting a massive shipment from Peray. His drought has increased tensions and hostilities in the city with users needing fixes and dealers needing cabbage. With Bolt capturing Peray, it clogs up the pipeline. Needing the drugs and the big payout, Livingston puts hits on Bolt, including targeting Bolt's girlfriend Pavanne. There's numerous side stories including Peray's daughter and a former colleague named Zan. The narrative is propelled with Bolt infiltrating gangs, Narc teams and collaborating with local law enforcement to stop Peray's shipment of white death into New York. 

This 'Narc' debut is an effective, gritty 1970s action vehicle. While the beginning is clearly the best Olden has to offer, the average continuation of the storytelling is worth the price of admission. With Olden's writing style I was reminded of the equally good 'The Liquidator' run by Larry Powell. It's a similar character with both authors writing in the same vein. Quick, punchy with equal shares of dialogue and action – 'Narc' is definitely a good start to a well-respected series.

Friday, August 17, 2018

The Hunter #02 - Night of the Jackals

The prior 'Hunter' novel, debut “Scavenger Kill”, introduced us to former Green Beret John Yard. In that book, Yard is presented as a wealthy entrepreneur who guides big game hunts in the Nairobi area of Africa. He teamed with his colleague, African police officer Moses Ngala, to stage the first “vigilante” styled hunt and kill. The target was an unscrupulous pharmaceutical company headed by a gelatinous villain named Lavalle. “Scavenger Kill” was on an international scope, ranging from Canada to London. I liked Ralph Hayes ambition to write in a more epic fashion and he continues that trend with this second series installment. 

“Night of the Jackals” begins at Camp Pritcher Army base in Georgia. It's a special forces training facility ruled by a notorious Hitler-like Captain named Ernst Rohmer. The opening has a young black man, Wendell Jefferson, ordered to do the old “dig a grave and then fill it back in” routine. His superior, Sergeant Pruitt, issues an abundance of thunderous racial slurs and threats, provoking Jefferson to attack him. The end result is imprisonment in the stockade.

Wendell's brother, Aron, a decorated Vietnam veteran, visits the stockade demanding to know what has happened. He quickly discovers Pruitt's racism and that Rohmer is running the base. It's here where we learn that Rohmer had fought for the Third Reich, and later contracted his services all over the globe as a commanding soldier of fortune. Aron experienced Rohmer's atrocities in Vietnam firsthand and questions why the Army would want a cutthroat dictator training it's men (the reader does too).

Later, a drunken Pruitt and Rohmer fatally beat Wendell in his cell. They politically escape punishment, track down Aron and leave him battered and near death. How does this connect to 'The Hunter'? Aron and Moses Ngala (the series' co-hunter/hero) are old friends. Aron knows Moses is in law enforcement, so he reaches out to him (in a weird scene where it seems Aron ran into Moses by accident). Regardless, Moses and the series protagonist, John Yard, discuss the events from the prior book and decide to do another vigilante job to kill Rohmer and end his reign of terror.

Without spoiling too much of the second half, Yard and Moses travel from Africa to Paris trailing Rohmer. The result has both of them fighting for the Syrians over the Israel border. It's a wild chain of events that completely spins “Night of the Jackals” from vengeful vigilante to espionage thriller before covering a battlefield saga and planting the story in a brutal prison. Author Ralph Hayes hits every single sub-genre of Men's Action Adventure in one fell swoop.

Like his 'Stoner' series, the action shares some of the same exotic locations – African deserts and villages like Lagos and Nairobi. Hayes has mastered “prison fiction”, perhaps building off of 'Buffalo Hunter' debut “Hellhole”, a gritty western set in a ruthless Mexican prison. Additionally, 'Stoner' installment “The Satan Stone” mirrors that same prison scenario in Africa. Now, the finale of this novel has both Yard and Moses inside a violent prison-styled base ran by the sadistic Rohmer. It's repetitive, often using the same sequence of events, but Hayes does it so well that it's the story we want him to tell. At this point in time, this author could be my favorite of the genre. It's a bold statement, but I'm not searching the used stores this hard for any other author.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Death Pulls a Doublecross (aka Coward's Kiss)

In 1961 - around the beginning of his crime fiction career - Lawrence Block submitted a hardboiled private eye novel to Fawcett Gold Medal called “Coward’s Kiss.” When it was finally published, someone at Fawcett changed the title to “Death Pulls a Doublecross.” Decades later when Block began reprinting his early works, he changed the title back to “Coward’s Kiss” where it remains available today as a Kindle eBook and a well-performed audiobook.

Ed London is a stereotypical hardboiled private-eye and when we meet him, he is working on an unusual assignment. He is tasked with quietly removing the corpse of a sexy female murder victim from a Manhattan apartment and then dumping the body in Central Park for later discovery by authorities.

We quickly learn exactly why an otherwise good and ethical PI would do something so uncharacteristically evil. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a satisfying enough reason that drives the rest of the story. The other big driving storyline is a missing briefcase with unknown contents that good guys and bad guys are both trying to locate - giving the paperback the feel of a NYC treasure hunt inside a standard whodunnit.

It’s fun to read Lawrence Block’s early work with the knowledge that he went on to be a grandmaster of the mystery genre. No one would classify this book as one of his greatest hits, but you can see the greatness in its infancy. The book was never boring and had plenty of violence, gunplay, blood, and death. A nice romantic sub-plot develops and our hero gets laid a couple times. There really is something for everyone in this short paperback. 

If you’ve ever read a mystery novel before, you won’t have much difficulty solving this one. However, the joy of a Lawrence Block book isn’t the destination, it’s the ride. This one is a fun journey. Recommended. 

Postscripts

“Death Pulls a Doublecross” (or “Coward’s Kiss” if you prefer) was originally written as a TV tie-in novel based on “Markham,” a private-eye series starring Ray Milland that aired for one season in 1959–1960. Block liked the finished product so much, he never submitted the TV tie-in version and edited it as a stand-alone mystery novel for Fawcett Gold Medal.

The character of Ed London would have been a natural for a series of hardboiled mystery novels. Block never brought the character back for any more paperbacks, but London starred in three novellas published in Men’s Adventure Magazines in the 1960s. All three novellas have been compiled in Block’s collection of his early short fiction, “One Night Stands and Lost Weekends.”

The other Ed London stories are:

“The Naked and the Deadly” from “Man’s Magazine,” October 1962, reprinted in “Guy, December 1963.

“Stag Party Girl” from “Man’s Magazine,” February 1963, reprinted in “Guy,” February 1965. 

“Twin Call Girls” from “Man’s Magazine,” August 1963, reprinted in “Guy,” August 1965.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Deathwatch

Author Robb White concentrated on juvenile fiction, writing nearly 30 novels between 1935-1985 (he passed away in 1990). Along with novels, he teamed with horror director William Castle to pen screenplays, including classics like “House on Haunted Hill” and “The Tingler”, both featuring the iconic Vincent Price. Along with feature films, he wrote television scripts for “Perry Mason”, “The Silent Service” and “Men of Annapolis”. His 1956 novel “Up Periscope” was adapted to film in 1959 starring James Gardner (later to be spoofed in 1996's film “Down Periscope”). His most identifiable work is the 1972 young adult title “Deathwatch”, a Scholastic mainstay in school libraries in the 70s and 80s. The novel was adapted for film twice – 1974's “Savages” starring Andy Griffith and 2015's “Beyond the Reach” starring Michael Douglas. The fact that it received film treatments twice speaks volumes. It's simply a fantastic story.

Young Ben is a college student who works as a hunting guide in what I presume is a California desert. His client is a pompous Los Angeles businessman named Madec, who is in the desert for a week with Ben hunting bighorn sheep. In the opening chapter, Madec claims he sees horns on a mountainside and fires. Unfortunately, Madec mistakenly shot an elderly prospector. Ben hands his own rifle to Madec and hikes down the mountain to gather a sheet for the body and to drive the Jeep a little closer. Upon return to the corpse, Madec makes a plea and attempts to bribe Ben into disposing of the body and continuing on the hunt. Ben refuses and things get rather grim quickly.

Madec then leaves Ben in the desert in his underwear with no food or water. He knows Ben will never make the exhausting 40 mile trek to freedom, but will stand by and “harass” Ben. Thus, White's narrative is fully developed. Ben makes a run for it, hoping to survive harsh conditions and Madec's rifle shots. The bulk of the story is Ben's will to survive under the most extreme conditions. While catering to young adults, it cuts no corners. Ben's feet start to erode off as he walks on hot and jagged rocks, losing blood while becoming dehydrated. His saving grace is finding an old sling-shot, which he uses to his advantage to hunt and defend.

While the “hunt human prey” adventure story is compelling, the author steps up with the book's closing chapters. Seamlessly, the book changes locations from desert to sheriff's office. It's this portion that showcases more of a legal drama, recapping the events from both Ben and Madec's points of view. It's just as fascinating as the fast-paced desert survival yarn. Overall, White's “Deathwatch” is a classic adventure tale that's still in print.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

File on a Missing Redhead

During his career, Lou Cameron wrote all sorts of men’s adventure fiction, but his 1968 paperback, “File on a Missing Redhead” was a pretty straightforward - and excellent - whodunnit police procedural mystery. Because it’s a Cameron paperback, you know in advance it’s going to be well-written, tightly-plotted, and entertaining as hell.

Our narrator is Lt. Frank Talbot, a Detective with the Nevada Highway Patrol. Talbot is called to a Las Vegas auto wrecking yard where the corpse of a young woman is found stuffed into the forward trunk of an abandoned Volkswagen Beetle. The first order of business is identifying the victim - no small task because of her decomposition and the fact that her fingers and teeth had been removed and her face smashed to bits. The best lead is that her beautiful head of red hair was still in tact.

Things quickly get personal for Talbot when his ex-girlfriend surfaces claiming that a female skip-tracer she knows with fiery red hair has recently come up missing. This investigative path brings Talbot inside the world of professional skip-tracers and the insider’s view into that industry was fascinating to the uninitiated reader. But is this missing skip-tracer the same person as the redhead in the trunk?

The reader never really gets to know Talbot much as a person. He’s a reliable narrator and a fantastic police detective, but he is not given much of a personality outside of his ultra-competent investigative skills. As Talbot follows clues in a pretty straightforward homicide investigation, it becomes clear that he’s on the trail of an honest-to-goodness psychopath working in the seamy underbelly of Las Vegas casino life. The plot twists and turns making for a wild ride, and Cameron’s take on hardboiled detective narration is top-notch throughout the paperback.

I suspect that Cameron may have wanted to bring Lt. Talbot back more for additional novels, but “File on a Missing Redhead” likely wasn’t a gangbusters hit, relegating it to just another late-period Fawcett Gold Medal stand-alone paperback original. That’s a shame because it’s a fantastic police procedural packed with many interesting factoids - a rare mystery where you’ll walk away having learned a thing or two - right up to the mystery’s twisty resolution.

More unfortunately, this superb novel has not been reprinted or digitized since it’s 1968 release, so you’ll have to play detective yourself to track down a used copy. It’s worth the hunt as this one’s a total winner. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Hunter #01 - "Scavenger Kill"

Ralph Hayes was extremely active in the 1970s, enterprising a multitude of action adventure series' including 'Stoner', 'Buffalo Hunter', 'Agent for Cominsec' and 'Check Force'. The prolific author contributed to the 'Killmaster' series, penning eight novels under the Nick Carter name. While little is known about Hayes, his passion for traveling is conveyed in his writing. Often his books are international endeavors, capturing the full spectrum of the story-line with multiple locations and characters. That extensive storytelling is presented in 'The Hunter' series, debuting with “Scavenger Kill” in 1975 (Leisure).

Hayes introduces John Yard, the obligatory Vietnam war veteran. As a Green Beret, Yard “knew more ways to kill a man than he cared to remember”. He abandoned the Army, going AWOL after losing the cause altogether. My suspicion is that his immense inheritance contributed to his decision to ditch and run. With a deceased uncle's fortune, Yard sets up a travel company in New York that cleverly sends rich Caucasians to Africa to hunt big game. This fuels the hunter's manhood, but also allows Yard two hands in the money-jar; the left for the travel agency and the right as the hunting guide. It's in Africa that our story begins.

Yard is leading a lion hunt with an arrogant, inexperienced sportsman that can't complete the kill. After wounding the lion, it's up to Yard to enter dense foliage and finish off the hunter's deficiency. This is an important lesson for the hunter as well as the reader. This scene plays an important role in the book's thundering finale. After the hunt, Hayes receives word that his former Army buddy, Joe Algers, has experienced a horrifying sequence of events in New York. 

Chapter Two explains the nightmarish misfortune of the Algers family. Weeks after giving birth, Holly and Joe realize the child is a hairy mutant that may not have brain activity. In what amounts to a horror novel, Holly receives confirmation from the doctor, then drowns the baby in a bath and jumps to her death. The cause for these events is a medication called Moricidin manufactured by Maurice Pharmaceuticals. Despite warning signs, the medication was still on the market and the end-result of its dosage is creating mutant babies. The owner of the company is an obese, vile villain named Maurice Lavalle. 

With plot and villain in hand, Yard and his African police-friend Moses seek the whereabouts of Lavalle. The book is presented in grand scale, scouring places like London, New York, Nairobi and Canada for clues and contacts. While not overly erotic or graphic, there are two brief sex-scenes as Yard goes “undercover” with one of Lavalle's secretaries. Often Moses follows one lead while Yard tails another – on a different continent. The two have a number of physical confrontations on their globe-trotting odyssey, culminating in explosive gun-play at a high-rise before wrapping during an action-packed river firefight. It's these final scenes that run full-circle to the book's beginnings, proving Yard, while hunting big-game, was seemingly destined to become this vigilante.

Hayes would follow this debut with four additional series installments. Yard is often teaming with Moses in the series, righting the wrongs of 70s society while still being prominent in 2018. The blunt writing style, frequent action and unyielding protagonist makes 'The Hunter' debut a prized trophy.

Friday, August 10, 2018

A Night for Screaming

Harry Whittington’s “A Night for Screaming” is a 1960 fugitive-on-the-run story told by Mitch Walker - an innocent man accused of murder - who is dodging the law and finds himself broke and hungry in a small Kansas town after being booted from a freight train the night before.

The local redneck fuzz is less of a concern to Mitch than psychotic Police Detective Fred Palmer who has been pursuing Mitch for the murder. Palmer is a fantastic character - a brilliant and brutal cop who can adeptly quarterback the pursuit, arrest, torturous interrogation, and conviction of any fugitive. When Detective Palmer arrives in Kansas to join the hunt, it’s Mitch’s worst nightmare.

Mitch takes refuge as a migrant worker on the mega-farm outside of town. The farm is staffed by hourly workers as well as forced labor consisting of local prisoners from the county. The owner of the farm is an enigmatic and fascinating character with a lusty and unstable wife who is always looking for a romp with the help.

The less you know about what goes on at the Great Plains Empire Farm, the better. This is a helluva story, and I’m not going to ruin it for you here. Suffice it to say that this one will keep you turning the pages long after you should be attending to your other human needs. Whittington wrote compelling books, and this is among his best. Today’s authors could learn a lot from Whittington’s knack for plotting a tightly-wound, fat-free story. The action in this novel is propulsive and starts from page one, and the unfolding events are never predictable. I read a lot of this stuff, and I never knew exactly where things were headed in this one.

In the beginning of the Stark House Noir Classics re-release of “A Night for Screaming,” there is a helpful bibliography of Whittington’s novels and the numbers are staggering. The Florida native wrote over 170 books between the years 1946 and 1988 making him the “King of the Paperbacks” during an important era of American literature. Stark House’s re-packaging of this classic also includes Whittington’s “Any Woman He Wanted” and an informative introduction by David Wilson. Highly recommended. Purchase a copy here.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

TNT #01 - TNT

'TNT' debuted in 1985 in the US via Charter Books. It ran seven volumes in the US, but the book's origin is in France where the idea ran for an additional two installments. In fact, this book was originally released there as early as 1978 (under “Les Sept Cercles”). Author Doug Masters is actually Pierr Rey and Loup Durand, and this US edition was translated by Victoria Reiter. Regardless of who developed it and country of origin, this book is absolutely a steaming turd. In fact, there are three levels of really horrendous turd fiction that might better explain where 'TNT' lies:

The most abysmal, senseless garbage is the top tier – 'Roadblaster'. 

The middle is a guaranteed turd but could have an enjoyable chapter. It is best represented by the series 'Phoenix'. 

The barely manageable level is 'Swampmaster'.

'TNT' is on the “Phoenix” level of underwear skid marks.

Anthony Nicholas Twin is TNT (call him Tony and it works). While we don't know how he became wealthy...he just is. The author takes great liberty with Marvel Comics and the early 1950's atomic frenzy that fueled pop culture at the time. TNT, being this rich reporter, globe hops to a barren island to photograph an atomic bombing. Miraculously, he hides behind a cement slab and survives the bombing...because concrete will definitely protect against 15 kilotons of TNT. Ask the Japanese. Because he was exposed to radiation, he becomes super-powered like Peter Parker, the Fantastic Four and Hulk. His new superpowers allow him to see in the dark, have Spidey-Sense and the ability to withstand an erection for days. That's the most important weapon...the woody. If the normal man has an erection for more than four hours, the commercials advise us to consult medical help. TNT just keeps on piledriving – so much that he brings one woman to orgasm 15 times. But, more on that later.

TNT is taken to some secluded military hospital where he lies in a coma only to awaken and t-bone the tending nurse. While we never read one single line of TNT's thoughts, we get the idea that he really has no idea who or where he is. He just mentions the term “October”, which we later learn is the name of his mentally challenged daughter. The baddie is Arnold Bennedict (get it?), a commander of some undisclosed military branch that wants to use TNT for secret missions. The first assignment? Break out of the hospital and escape. 

The middle has TNT align with some strange transcending Apaches in Mexico. There's a female character called Mercedes that makes books of human skin, enjoys lavish parties and plays with little boys using bobby pins. The author has no idea why, only that he has TNT jackhammer Mercedes until she begs for the orgasms to stop (before she dies from too many of them). Later, TNT is moved to some European castle where the military has taken October hostage. It is odd, because TNT can interact and walk with her hand in hand...but can't escape? There's a promise that the military can “heal” her, but none of it makes any sense...it doesn't have to. The authors had no idea anyone was reading this trash. TNT is asked to penetrate a compound and kill a man who can make vehicles run on water. Really?? 

Once inside he finds that this is all “The Running Man” game where levels are presented as wacky win or die routines. It is utterly absurd. He teams with a few other chosen representatives and penetrates the compound only to find there will be seven circles for TNT to win, each one consisting of cumbersome traps like insects, rotting corpses, razor blades, electricity and poisonous gas. However, the wildest part is that TNT must bring caged women to orgasm in order to advance to the next level. This tests his enormous, long-lasting erection and pushes him to his sexual peaks. My God, the horror.

At the end of the day, I'm never reading another 'TNT' novel. I made that promise with David Alexander's 'Phoenix' and I'm doing it here. I would have to contemplate the sanity of anyone holding this in high regard as a men's action-adventure entry. It is horribly written, with characters that serve no purpose or reason to exist. TNT becomes a shallow character because the reader is offered no insight on his condition or feelings. I just can't say enough bad things about this book. Stay away...for God's sake just stay away.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Secret Mission #15 - Haitian Vendetta

Don Smith’s “Secret Mission” paperback series spanned the decade between 1968 and 1978. The series wasn’t the cash cow for Award Books that “Nick Carter: Killmaster” was, but 21 installments by the same author certainly wasn’t a business failure. It’s clear that Award Books was trying to steal some of Killmaster’s shine as the front cover blurb promises, “A razor-sharp thriller from the publishers of the Nick Carter series!” while the back cover touts, “Violence and suspense to rival Nick Carter!”

The “Secret Mission” series hero - and narrator - is Phil Sherman, a resourceful international businessman who takes on assignments in foreign lands for the CIA. Nearly every book is titled for the name of the nation where the majority of the adventure takes place. As the series order doesn’t matter much, choosing which book to read based on one’s interest in the host country seems like a good system to me. So this time around, we go to Haiti.

In the later books of the series, including 1973’s “Haitian Vendetta,” Sherman is now an employee of the CIA and no longer an independent contractor. When we join Sherman, he is en route to Haiti to investigate a member of the Haitian Secret Police who may be planning a Cuba-supported coup. Sherman’s marching orders are to prevent the insurrection without shedding any blood. Sherman’s cover is that of an international business consultant scouting locations for corporate outsourcing of unskilled labor.

It doesn’t take long before Sherman is intercepted by the secret police who insist on saddling him with an interpreter (minder) even though Sherman speaks perfect French. It’s presented as a service that the new President-for-Life extends to visiting businessmen. The way that Sherman eventually shakes this tail was a pleasure to read. It’s also amusing that Sherman’s businessman cover fools no one on either side of this brewing conflict. Everyone just correctly assumes that he is CIA.

Another cool aspect of the story is Sherman’s Haitian CIA informant who provides our hero with the local flavor to help him complete his mission of political sabotage. Marcel’s sexy daughter - who may or may not be involved with voodoo - aspires to use Sherman as her personal sex toy. Humming in the background is the interesting cultural tug-of-war between the practitioners of Catholicism vs Voodoo, and the influence the Voodoo religion has over politics and power in Haiti.

At 184 big-font pages, “Haitian Vendetta” is a quick read. It was a cerebral spy story that never ventured into cartoonish territory (well, maybe once), nor was it dense or confusing like Robert Ludlum’s espionage fiction. 

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much action at all in the book for the first 130 pages. Sherman conducted a logical and compelling investigation to determine what, if any, insurrection plans were underway in Haiti, but the novel failed to live up to the promise that this paperback was “An adventure novel of violence and suspense to tie your nerves in knots!” I enjoyed the book, but my nerves remained unknotted for the majority of the reading experience.

The pace of the novel increases markedly over the last 50 pages, and it ends on a pretty exciting action set piece. I think for most readers sucked in by the inflated marketing blurbs and exiting cover illustration, the payoff is too little, too late. I can recommend this book - with reservations - because I love Sherman’s character and Smith’s writing, but this just isn’t a book for paperback adrenaline junkies.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

The Phony Hitman

Little is known about this little stand-alone crime novel “The Phony Hitman”. It was published in 1977 by the equally unknown author Joseph R. Pici, whose only other work seems to be “The Tennis Hustler”. The novel was released by Major Books, an unknown publisher to me until my acquisition of this book. According to Justin Marriott (“Hot Lead”, “Men of Violence”), this publisher may have been an imprint of Parliament, owned by artist Milton Luros, who also owned the Brandon House line at the time. Regardless of sporadic details regarding the book and author, what we now know is that “The Phony Hitman” is a really good 70s crime novel worthy of your time and efforts prowling those dusty shelves in dives, yard sales and flea markets. 

Tony Marks is a 34-year old ex-CIA assassin. He's recorded numerous kills in Saigon and Cambodia, and now lives as a remorseful retired vet working at a successful insurance company. To cope with his past, and the killing he did for the government, Tony runs a bizarre, yet interesting game – he does mock assassinations. The book's opening finds Tony entering a baseball stadium in New York with a disassembled rifle. From a concealed location in the left field bleachers, Tony “shoots” the Pope, who is performing a ceremony in front of fans and the flock. Tony writes it down in a book, a memento of how he could have killed the Pope if he wanted to. As we get further into the opening chapters, we learn that Tony has a massive book of fake assassinations ranging from movie stars to musical celebrities. No one else knows his secret game except his love interest Marylou, who somehow gets off on the fact that Tony can kill if he wants to. Tony utilizes the game as a way to redeem himself, not taking lives in exchange for the ones that he killed. Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Soon, Tony begins to see some strongmen following him, and runs into one at an author "assassination" at a nearby college. They make Tony attend a meeting with local mobster Rico Petrello, who forcefully explains that Tony now works for him. He offers Tony a deal – he will let him live as long as he accepts this new position and a $100,000 check to kill a rival mobster named Anson Hawks. If Tony refuses, he will be hunted and killed by the Mob. If he partakes, he will need to accumulate knowledge and intel on Hawks, a media mogul who is fortified in a tower by goons, guards and guns. Did I mention he is surrounded by 24-hour surveillance and never leaves the tower? Tony realizes the job is nearly impossible, but must attempt this real assassination or die a gruesome death at the hands of Petrello.

“The Phony Hitman” moves at an intense pace and presents a really good narrative to explore. The reader is in Tony's shoes and contemplating how to survive the ordeal. The author, while not the best dialogue writer, creates some really intriguing situations and introduces some likable characters that provide an adequate dynamic to the propelling, central story. There's plenty of action, both with Tony attempting the break-in but also Petrello's enforcers roughing up Tony's friends as an intimidation factor. All of these elements really contribute to a fantastic story that has shades of “Quarry” without Collins' staggering talents and sense of humor. I think most fans of the genre will find “The Phony Hitman” is a genuine gem. 

Monday, August 6, 2018

Frenzy

James O. Causey got his start in the 1940s writing short stories for “Weird Tales” and “Detective Story Magazine.” As the pulps died off, he became a highly-regarded, if not well-known, author of short, hardboiled crime novels. Stark House has compiled three of Causey’s classics into one volume for 21st Century audiences. The new trade paperback includes “The Baby Doll Murderers,” “Killer Take All,” and “Frenzy” as well as an introduction by Nicholas Litchfield.

Because I love a good con-man story, I pounced on “Frenzy” to read and review here. It’s important to note that Causey’s 1960 paperback “Frenzy” was not the basis of the 1972 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. Hitchcock adapted the unrelated 1966 book “Frenzy” by Arthur La Bern for his film.

Our narrator is Norman Sands, a two-bit con-artist and card cheat, who finds himself in hot water after a plan to steal a Casino boss’ girl and money fails spectacularly. Needing to lay low, Norman winds up in his childhood hometown where he becomes reacquainted with his struggling brother, Matt, who is convinced their crappy hometown is about to become an oil-rich boomtown. For his part, Matt is excited to have Norman back to be his business partner in a dicey real estate and oil drilling venture, and Norman quickly converts Matt’s plan into a series of profitable bunco schemes.

Growing up, Matt was always the “good son” who was shooting for honor roll while Norman was shooting pool. Early in the novel Norman tells us his teenage origin story, and it’s a doozy, rivaling the youthful flashback from Dan Marlowe’s “The Name of the Game is Death.” The first few chapters of “Frenzy” were very promising, but then things fizzled out quite a bit. 

Once Norman makes it home, the scams depicted in “Frenzy” - and there are many - mostly involve oil drilling rights, land speculation, and municipal contact fraud. The schemes get a little complex and hard to follow, and the morass of local political corruption that sweeps up the brothers wasn’t always an exciting read. Moreover, the plot was all over the place - the ups and downs and scams and schemes made for an exhausting and meandering read.

Despite problems of plot and pacing, Causey’s hardboiled, first-person prose is among the best. For example, His descriptions of acts of violence are vivid while also being matter-of-fact. Taking a professional beating in the groin, ribs, and kidneys is just an occupational hazard in this world, and those scenes were vivid as hell.

Despite some great writing and a smattering of amazing scenes, it’s hard to give “Frenzy” a full-throated recommendation. The plot was just too messy to gel into a coherent storyline. However, I’m not giving up on this author. I read enough great stuff to see that he was a unique noir talent. This one just wasn’t his masterpiece.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Terminator #02 - Silicon Valley Slaughter

Dennis Rodriguez, writing as John Quinn, produced a six-book series in the 80s called 'The Terminator'. With fonts, layouts and story design, it attempted to capitalize on Pinnacle's success with the superior 'The Executioner'. Whether it was successful or not remains to be seen, but judging from its limited run, I assume Rodriguez and 'The Terminator' met a bitter end.

The second entry in the series, “Silicon Valley Slaughter”, was released in 1983 and is set a few months after the debut events. Former CIA hitman Rod Gavin is now laying low, unemployed and living off of his savings in rural Colorado. He's still close friends with Dorn, an older mechanic colleague that assisted Gavin in the prior novel. Also Duffy, the NSA operative from the debut, once again aligns with Gavin to right a few wrongs – namely the kidnapping of Duffy's niece by the dastardly Yakuza, otherwise known as the Japanese mafia. 

The book opens with a killer named Shigata killing off the paid surveillance on Susan Billings, Duffy's niece and master computer programmer. We learn that both Shigata and another killer named Scanlon work for Clayton Edwards, a technology mogul who has a two-part plan to become wealthy, travel abroad and rape children. First, he has Billings kidnapped and her new coding on an encryption software will be sold to the highest global bidder. Second, he will then sell Billings to the Japanese for the sex slave trafficing. The problem is that Duffy, on a random visit to Billings, stumbles on the kidnapping taking place. Shigata and Scanlon rough up Duffy and leave him for dead – but not dead. Big mistake.

Gavin is now on the scene to find out what happened to Duffy and where Billings is being held. The action comes in waves beginning with Gavin throwing Edwards' thugs out of a hospital window, then running and gunning through an arcade to find where Billings is at. There's a partnership with Dorn that isn't necessarily expanded on, but provides a decent side-step to the action. There's an interesting scene where Edwards is controlling a robot aimed at stopping Gavin in a hallway...but the author drops the ball and that enjoyable conflict never comes to fruition. Oddly, for Gavin to be this impressive ex-CIA hitman, he manages to screw up repeatedly and eventually gets caught. Instead of a quick execution, the thugs just drive Gavin around in a van and eventually the tables are turned. 

While nowhere near as good as the series debut, “Silicon Valley Slaughter” is an enjoyable, par for the course 80s action novel. It's nothing special, but certainly can hold its own in the crowded vigilante market. I've read zillions of these things and at this point, I would pick up the next series entry with no qualms. 'The Terminator' is up there with the mid-era Bolans, Able Team, Phoenix Force, etc. Good guy vs baddies to prevent rape and ruin. I'll take it any day and twice on Tuesday.

Note - The cover is by Bruce Minney, a talented artist who contributed immensely to Men's Action & Adventure magazines. Paperback Warrior friend Bob Deis conducted an interview with Minney in 2011: https://bit.ly/2K2rCEE.