Friday, September 28, 2018

The End of the Night

John D. MacDonald’s 1960 paperback, “The End of Night” is often cited as one of his finest stand-alone novels. This is a bold claim as MacDonald produced so many excellent stories outside his acclaimed Travis McGee series. While picking a best JDM book is likely a fool’s errand, there is no doubt that the short novel is a crime fiction classic.

The story opens with a prison official marveling that his institution just sent four inmates - one being a female - to their deaths in the electric chair. But that’s really where this story ends as the majority of the novel is one long flashback explaining how and why this foursome were eventually put to death for their crimes. This is a fairly bold literary choice for MacDonald that effectively steals the “will they get away with it?” thunder from the crime fiction plot.

Never fear, the story leading to the death house has plenty of twists and turns along the way. “The End of Night” is essentially the inside story of four post-adolescents dubbed “The Wolf Pack” by the media who set out on a cross-country crime spree culminating in a murder.

By 1960, MacDonald was a good enough writer that he told the story of The Wolf Pack through a show-offy narrative trick. The narration is told through letters, memos, and memories of various side characters bearing witness to the juveniles’ spree and its aftermath. The death-row executioner, the defense attorney, the sheriff and others tell their portions of the story in a way that gives the readers the pieces of the crime story puzzle. While we all know by page 10 that the killer foursome (Kirby Stassen, Nanette Koslov, Robert Hernandez, Sander Golden) are caught, there's a heartfelt need to determine if the hopeful young Helen Wister survives the brutish quartet.

In a way, “The End of the Night” is staged as an amorphous display of unbridled youth. Despite  social class (Stassen from wealth, Koslov from poverty, Sander is the bored middle class intellectual), the four collectively create a firestorm of frenzied rebellion that spills into murder. There are drugs - a consistent daily flow of drugs - but it's the condescending disposal of empathy that's MacDonald's bold expression. In fact, as Helen Wister pleads for her life, Stassen casually remarks, “We're expressing aggression and hostility, miss.”

For 1960, this is a gritty, powerful crime novel that prefaces a turbulent time in American culture. Shockingly, the culprits, while not affluent in any sort of transcendent religious rite, exhibit psychotic tendencies that re-appear just nine years later with the Manson Family murders. It's not a far-cry to see how the novel may have inspired horror writers like Stephen King, Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon. King went as far as to declare the book one of the finest novels of the 20th Century. It's a well-deserved praise. “The End of the Night”, while disturbingly fitting the mold of “entertainment”, is an obligatory read for anyone claiming to love the American Crime Novel.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

High Citadel

British author Desmond Bagley was a respected practitioner of the “high adventure” sub-genre of thriller fiction along with fellow British writers Alistair MacLean, Jack Higgins, and Duncan Kyle. To Bagley’s credit, it’s hard to get a straight answer when you ask knowledgeable readers which of his many books is his masterpiece, but his second novel, 1965’s “High Citadel,” is often recommended by those in-the-know.

“High Citadel” stars a heroic Irish pilot named Tim O’Hara, a Korean War veteran who has crawled into a bottle and lives a subsistence existence flying for a dodgy, cut-rate airlines near the Andes mountain range in South America. When a luxury 727 filled with international passengers makes an emergency landing at O’Hara’s home airfield, a business opportunity knocks for O’Hara’s boss who wants him to fly the respectable passengers over the range to their desired destination.

While flying the overloaded and non-pressurized aircraft over the mountains, one of the people on board hijacks the flight by gunpoint and forces O’Hara to make a dangerous landing on an abandoned airstrip high in the mountains near a defunct mining camp. Bagley provides some white-knuckle aviation writing as this scene unfolds. The crash landing is harrowing, and O’Hara’s role as hero becomes fully formed.

After the terrifying landing destroys the rickety plane, we get to meet the international cast of survivors that includes a sexy Latina babe and her enigmatic uncle, a loudmouth American drunk, a British professor of medieval history, an elderly spinster, and a brainy physicist. As the motive for the hijacking becomes clear, we learn that not all the passengers are who they claim to be. Despite their differences, it’s necessary to band together to survive as a team.

The man vs. nature story becomes a man vs. Army tale as the plane survivors encounter hostile forces in the mountain wilderness and are forced to fight for survival with improvised weaponry. Bagley sure knew how to keep the plot moving, and “High Citadel” is a fat-free story filled with action, intrigue, and heroism in a freezing mountain terrain.

Some of my favorite scenes of the book involved the “council of war” meetings in which the survivors must decide whether - and how - to combat the hostile attackers. This a challenging review to write since I’m going to great lengths to not spoil any of the plot developments that are foolishly disclosed on the various iterations of the book cover descriptions and art. If you can go into this one cold, you’re in for several treats.

Reading this 53 year-old paperback, I was constantly reminded of the 1984 film, “Red Dawn” in which a bunch of outgunned and outmanned American high school kids repel a Soviet invasion in their town. “High Citadel” plays with the same idea in a timeless story showing that heart, bravery and ingenuity can triumph against any enemy. You’ll love this one. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Buchanan #02 - Buchanan Says No

Crime writer William Ard experienced 1960s success with his private eye characters Barney Glines, Timothy Dane, Lou Largo and Johnny Stevens. His impressive 10-year peak run of writing included pseudonyms Ben Kerr and Mike Moran. But, the then Florida resident turned his attention to the western genre by adding a W to his last name and becoming Jonas Ward. He combined that with his ad exec experience at the Buchanan Ad Agency and created the loner cowboy Tom Buchanan for an astounding 23-book series simply called 'Buchanan'. The debut, “Names's Buchanan”, was published in 1956 and it's 1957 sequel is the subject at hand, “Buchanan Says No”. 

The book begins after a tiring and exhaustive 40 day cattle drive that promises to pay Buchanan, his kid protegee Mike Sandoe and the whole crew a nice $400 payday. But, after a day of waiting at the end of the drive, the payroll guy hasn't shown up. Buchanan learns that the payer, Boyd Weston, is in the nearby town of Bela so he and Sandoe head for the town. From here we gain some insight on Bela, and its splitting between power hungry Frank Power and his partner Bernie Troy. The cattle drive was arranged as a backwoods deal – cattle to the US Army for guns that will later be traded to Mexico to in turn fight the US Army. It's a vicious circle but Troy and Power trust Weston to arrange the whole thing. Unfortunately, Weston blew the whole payroll pot on a poor night of gambling. Instead of ponying up the shortfall, Power and Troy agree to give the crew of laborers 10% of their promised payout as a final and only payment. 

While the plot could be construed as elementary from the surface – the “good guys” want the rich to pay – it has some deeper layers that keep it from being average. First, Sandoe is contracted by Power to provide the 10% news to the crew. Partly because he is the fastest hand in town but also because he needs to be divided from the deceptive and dangerous Buchanan. This turns the narrative into the teacher facing his student. But, there's the political portion of the town to contend with as well as two beauties that Buchanan must handle. In Ard's humorous “wink wink” fashion, Buchanan fondles one woman while another waits at the door for her turn. It's brilliant storytelling that left me laughing (and Buchanan was too at his incredible fortune). The story builds with intrigue, but laced with a number of fighting scenes that propels the inevitable showdown between Buchanan and Sandoe.

“Buchanan Says No” is my first sampling of this much beloved western series. In fact, it's my first taste of Ard's work as a whole. He's a fantastic storyteller here, creating a rich tapestry of action and intrigue that should please fans of the action-adventure genre. I have a lot of Buchanan books to devour, and like everything else, it's just simply a timing issue that I haven't read more. Look for more Buchanan and Ard reviews here soon. In the meantime, check out this fascinating reveal on the life and work of William Ard: https://bit.ly/2NfqTO5

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Parker #06 - The Jugger

Most of the novels in the 'Parker' series by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake) are straight-up crime stories that follow Parker and a crew of professional thieves through the planning, execution, and aftermath of a big-dollar heist. However, the sixth installment of the series, “The Jugger” from 1971, is a very different kind of adventure for Parker: an actual mystery to be solved.

The mystery concerns an elderly colleague of Parker’s named Joe Sheer. Fans of the series will recognize the name because Sheer was a former “Jugger” (the underground parlance for a safecracker) who left his career behind for retirement. For several of the early installments in the series, Sheer serves as an answering service for Parker. If someone wants Parker to join a crew for an armed robbery, calling Sheer will get the message delivered.

After receiving an uncharacteristic and worrisome letter from Sheer indicating he was in trouble and needed help, Parker travels to Sheer’s adopted hometown only to learn that Sheer recently died of natural causes and was buried right before Parker’s arrival. For reasons mostly of self-preservation, Parker sets out to learn Sheer’s actual cause of death and the problems that prompted the letter sent to Parker. 

Along the way, Parker encounters a police chief with an unprofessional interest in Sheer’s life as well as a fellow thief also investigating Sheer’s final days. Could there be a missing fortune to recover? Why would Sheer break normal protocols and send such a worried letter to Parker? What was Sheer’s actual cause of death?

The excellent website, “The Violent World Of Parker,” disclosed that “The Jugger” was Westlake’s least favorite installment in the series. This is where I part ways with the author. Although I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this installment, I found the novel to be fascinating and the mysteries driving the plot forward were completely riveting. Bearing witness to one of my favorite anti-heroes in crime fiction shift gears and play detective was a fascinating change of pace.

Although the plot is completely unique within the series, the format of “The Jugger” remains true to the Stark formula. The action follows Parker through third-person narration until the Part Three flashback where the perspective changes and the motives of others are revealed to the reader. In this case, the payoff (i.e. solutions to the underlying mysteries) is outstanding.

If you’re considering skipping this one for fear that a mystery novel starring Parker may lack the visceral brutality of other volumes, rest assured that there is plenty of bloodshed for you to enjoy here. In fact, Parker’s solution to one of the book’s central puzzles concludes with an act of brutality so extreme and unexpected, it will stay with you for quite awhile. You’ll know what I mean as soon as you read it.

If you’re in the mood for a traditional heist novel, perhaps “The Jugger” isn’t the best choice. If, however, the idea of an exciting crime novel exploring the occupational hazards of being a criminal safecracker in retirement sounds interesting, you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did. It’s a shame Westlake didn’t like “The Jugger,” but he wrote it for you and me, not for himself. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Mantrackers

Author William Mulvihill (1923-2004) was a Cornell graduate that penned a dozen books during his career. Born in New York, Mulvihill joined the Army and acquired the rank of corporal and squad leader during WWII combat at the Battle of the Bulge. After, he settled on Long Island and taught history at Glen Cove High School for 32 years. His emphasis was on African history, stemming from his visits to the continent in the 1960s and 70s. He owned a robust collection of books about Africa and became a scholar and expert on it's natural history. He utilized this passion to fuel his 1960 adventure novel “The Mantrackers”, which later would be re-titled “Serengeti” for the 1995 reprinting. 

The book introduces us to Captain Pfeffer, who on this January day in 1910 is serving the German Imperial Army in Tanganyika. The hotheaded Pfeffer has a dozen years of wartime in Africa, fiercely fighting in Herero, Bushman and Masai on his destiny to become general. He's a young German enigma, captivating military minds with his fighting prowess, grim determination and career mindset. But, on this day things take a drastic turn for Pfeffer. While hunting, a leopard takes him by surprise, severely mauling and disfiguring him before he can be rescued by soldiers. Hinging on life and death, Pfeffer is taken to a hospital for a long rehabilitative stint. Once Pfeffer heals, the German military discharges him from service due to his appalling appearance. Pfeffer, furious with himself, the military and Africa, returns to the bush as a solo hunter, determined to kill every animal on the continent. 

With Pfeffer on a seemingly endless killing tear through African game, the news finds former fighting man John Thrustwood. Thrustwood, along with his friend and servant Chapupa, campaigned as trader, farmer and mercenary for the British Army, serving in the Boer War and later establishing himself as one of Africa's premier hunters. Thrustwood, finding Pfeffer's vendetta and mission unacceptable, vows to track and stop him. Soon, Thrustwood, Chapupa and friend Quinell find and confront Pfeffer in the jungle. After disarming him, they take Pfeffer to African officials who place him on a ship to England. Pfeffer escapes and resumes his bloody tirade through the African countryside. Thrustwood and Chapupa now realize they must hunt and kill Pfeffer to end the carnage.

Mulvihill is an unusual but talented writer. In “The Mantrackers”, his love of history and African landscapes is awe-inspiring. But, his delivery is of one purpose – simply the storyline. The book has a distinct absence of humor, witty dialogue or a focus on character development. Mulvihill is very serious with his presentation, almost scholarly in the telling of the tale. It was an adjustment for me, the avid reader of more vivid displays of bravado, to accept this storytelling early on. But, a fourth of the way in I not only accepted it – I found it to be personally enjoyable. This is a fantastic adventure story that builds to a fiery crescendo. Pfeffer vs Thrustwood/Chapupa is the main event and Mulvihill pulls no punches. For that, I applaud the author and look forward to hunting down more of his works. For now, “The Mantrackers” is a respectable and entertaining read from a unique writer.

Friday, September 21, 2018

True Fiction

Lee Goldberg began his literary career in 1985 with his '.357 Vigilante' series of men’s adventure novels published under the pen name of Ian Ludlow. (Fun Fact: Goldberg chose the Ludlow name, so the books would be shelved next to Robert Ludlum.) The series lasted four installments and then disappeared without much fanfare. Thirty years later, Goldberg re-released the books under his own name as 'The Jury' series for modern audiences.

Everyone figured that was the last we’d ever hear from Ian Ludlow. Goldberg went on to have a successful career as a television writer and producer for shows including Diagnosis Murder, Psych, and Monk. He continued to write mystery and suspense novels until he struck literary gold by co-authoring a commercially-successful series of humorous mysteries with the already-famous Janet Evanovich.

Understanding this basic bio for Goldberg helps give the reader some context for the literary stunt he pulls in his latest novel, “True Fiction.” The plot is about a thriller author named Ian Ludlow who gets sucked into the kind of save-the-world adventure that the fictional Ludlow writes in his own novels. Goldberg penning an action thriller about an author named Ian Ludlow is like if Stephen King wrote a horror novel about an author named Richard Bachman.

“True Fiction” opens with a horrific terrorist attack in which a commercial jetliner is flown into a high-rise hotel causing mass carnage. The reader quickly learns that the attack was secretly orchestrated by a malevolent corporation named Blackthorn that aspires to be the recipient of a massive outsourcing contract from the CIA in the same manner that the Department of Defense outsourced duties to Blackwater for the Iraq War. Blackthorn sets up some innocent Muslims to take the fall for this 9/11 sequel, and the corporation puts itself in the position to crack the case for the U.S. government while showing off its superior private-sector intelligence abilities.

When we meet our hero, Ian Ludlow is at a sparsely-attended book signing in Seattle where he is promoting his new action novel. We learn that Ludlow writes thrillers in the same vein as the 'Jack Reacher' series, but the nebbish author is no hero himself. For the Seattle leg of his book tour, he is accompanied by an attractive escort (not that kind of escort) named Margo hired by the publisher to shepherd the author from one book signing to another.

When Ludlow learns about the circumstances surrounding the recent air attack on the hotel, he is taken aback because it perfectly mimics a storyline for a terrorist incident that he presented to the CIA at a “what-if” focus group years earlier. Ludlow becomes convinced that the recent mass-causality incident was actually orchestrated by the CIA as a false flag operation and that he is a marked man for knowing this fact.

This kicks off a breakneck exciting “couple on the run” story as Ludlow and Margo avoid assassins from Blackthorn while thinking they are actually being pursued a CIA kill squad. The cat-and-mouse scenes in Seattle were especially gratifying as Goldberg incorporates a lot of unique features of the city into the action.

Fans of men’s adventure paperbacks will find “True Fiction” to be filled with Easter eggs and references to the genre’s greatest hits, including 'The Executioner', 'James Bond', 'The Destroyer', and, if you pay close attention, '.357 Vigilante'. There’s also a fun backstory about Ludlow’s history of writing for crappy TV mystery and cop shows - a plot point that becomes important as the novel progresses - that recalls Goldberg’s own career trajectory. 

At times, it’s hard to figure out where Goldberg ends and Ludlow begins. We have an action-adventure novelist writing about an action-adventure novelist who becomes an action-adventure hero by drawing inspiration from his own action-adventure hero. It’s a house of mirrors, but it’s also a real blast to read. The book is written with real cinematic potential, and you can imagine this being a big-budget, Hollywood summer blockbuster one day

Goldberg toggles from violent, propulsive action into comic relief quite adeptly. “True Fiction” is both exciting and hilarious with no slow parts to weigh it down. The only criticism I can muster involves a scene towards the end of the book involving a car chase that veered too far into slapstick, but it didn’t derail the book for me. The samples of Ludlow’s own writing interspersed throughout the novel serve as a particularly hilarious send-up of the modern state of the action thriller genre.

Throughout the book, Goldberg pokes fun at the tropes and excesses of modern thrillers without ever descending into full farce. “True Fiction” is a successful author’s love letter to a genre he truly adores, and I was excited to see that Ian Ludlow is coming back for a second installment in 2019. In the meantime, be sure to check this one out as it was written just for a guy like you.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Warlock #01 - Autofire Blitz


“Adrenalin pumped through his system as he prepared to lock horns with scumbags who didn't deserve to keep sucking God's good air.”

With that kind of testosterone, Mark Allen's debut 'Warlock' novel, “Autofire Blitz”, is the perfect companion piece to 80s action movies and books. In what he considers an ode to the pop culture that inspired him, Allen created Damien “Warlock” Locke, a bullet spewing vigilante with purpose.

The book begins with a swift flashback to January 17th, 2011. Locke finds himself an amnesiac left for dead in Afghanistan. With no prior knowledge of his life, or who put the bullet crease in his head, Locke is left with a clean slate on life. He has tattooed names of “Damian Locke” and “Warlock” on his arm...so Locke and Allen are running with that. Experience fighting bad guys? Yeah, Locke has it in spades. He can only guess that he's had explicit training with the Navy Seals or Delta Force, and from the action sequences here...I'd say that skill-set and more.

Fast forward to present day and Locke's current mission – rescue a 10-year old boy from the clutches of a drug cartel. The only problem is that this particular cartel has deep, corrupt ties to the DEA. As Locke hits various pool halls, bars and alleys, the story starts to expand and “flesh” out – meaning long, descriptive explanations of bullets penetrating organs (like when horror authors dish out pink-gray froth for their intended victims). That's really what sets Allen apart from the 80s and early 90s vigilantes. This author is way over-the-top in terms of rapid fire delivery and graphic violence. I can't help but compare it to horror novelists like Edward Lee or Jack Ketchum (and Allen himself dabbles in the horror genre as well). It's expressive...to say the least. Whether you like or dislike that sort of thing is the measuring stick on your entertainment value here. For me personally, I can run with over-the-top if it is fun, senseless and has some boundaries.

“Autofire Blitz” is a fun, compelling and gritty read from an author who is clearly a fan of the action and adventure genre. While Paperback Warrior typically doesn't read or review contemporary (maybe TWO A YEAR), this was an entertaining novella that fueled my desire to check out more of Allen's work. You can find him and his books on his Amazon page.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Ranger Kirk

It’s hard to guess why William Crawford adopted the pseudonym of W.C. Rawford for his 1974 stand-alone western, “Ranger Kirk.” The copyright page says it’s by William Crawford and the book is dedicated to “Robert Gene Crawford, my brother.” Moreover, the pen name of W.C. Rawford isn’t really throwing pseudonym sleuths off the scent. Who was he fooling?

My best theory is that maybe he thought that “Ranger Kirk” was a crappy novel he could unload on Zebra Books - and later Pinnacle Books - without the stench of the paperback following him to his grave. The publication of “Ranger Kirk” also coincided with the debut of his 'Stryker' series, and Pinnacle Books really thought they had a hit on their hands with Stryker (Spoiler: They didn’t). Crawford was also Pinnacle’s choice to replace Don Pendleton as the author of the Mack Bolan series during a time when Pendleton was feuding with his publisher. In fact, Crawford authored The Executioner #16: “Sicilian Slaughter” published under the pseudonym of Jim Peterson, a controversial installment in the iconic series that still has hardcore Pendleton loyalists seeing red.

Whatever the case, I figured I’d give “Ranger Kirk” a fair hearing and see if this good-looking paperback is a lost literary treasure or best-forgotten garbage. The character of Ranger Kirk is Sergeant Tom Kirk, an Old West Texas Ranger with the Frontier Battalion along the Mexican border who approaches his job the way a modern intel officer might. He deploys undercover agents into Mexico to gather information about criminal activity. This clandestine approach to law enforcement makes Kirk an oddity among his colleagues who are more of a shoot first and ask questions later bunch of guys. Moreover, Kirk’s spy operations have been going poorly and three consecutive operatives are slaughtered and mutilated by the enigmatic Mexican crime lord, Tuerto.

As the reader gets to know our hero, we quickly discover that Kirk is a flaming asshole. He’s that friend of yours who starts taking swings at you after he has a few drinks in him. His abhorrent behavior crosses the line one too many times, and he is forced to give up his Ranger badge. This leads to a fairly clever and unexpected series of events that brings Kirk right into the heart of Tuerto’s operational base in Mexico.

When Kirk finally meets Tuerto face-to-face, it’s a surprising encounter. Once again, the author chooses a plot turn quite unexpected and somewhat more satisfying than the typical western showdown the reader expects. Tuerto is a fascinating character, and Crawford should have done more with him. Along the way, there are Indian attacks, a damsel in distress, and the eventual redemption of our hero.

Even with all this, “Ranger Kirk” is a pretty lousy novel. The story never really comes together into anything particularly interesting. The action scenes are poorly-written, and Kirk never turns the corner fully into a likable character. The upside is that it’s a blessedly-short paperback at 160 big-font pages with blank page between each chapter for further padding. In fact, the brevity of the book is the only reason I finished it. Finally, the cover art by George Gross is outstanding, but this paperback isn’t worthy of its own packaging.

Final assessment: Don’t bother.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Blonde Bait

Ed Lacy was a pen name used by author Leonard S. Zinberg. Lacy wrote over 25 novels between 1951 and 1969. He was credited by creating one of the first African-American detectives – Tony Moore, who debuted in the 1957 novel “Room to Swing”, which also won the Edgar Ward for best novel. “Blonde Bait” was released mid-career in 1959 by Zenith with an alluring premise: “She had to buy protection and her payment was her body”. Okay, I'm in.

The book begins with a troubadour named Mickey reuniting with his old friend Hal in Haiti. Mickey proudly tells Hal of his new lover Rose and his new boat, The Sea Princess. He loves both equally and soon we realize that Mickey and Hal were former business partners. Hal chose married life and quietly settled in New York. Mickey chose freedom – sailing around the Caribbean and up the east coast. Being a lackadaisical sailor costs money, and that's really the central emphasis of the novel. Money. How to get it? What to do with it? Lacy begins to tell this romantic story to us - the curious readers - on how Rose and Mickey became wealthy.

Rose is a tall blonde that is often described as a “big woman” by the author. Mickey finds her washed ashore in the Keys hungry, lonely and desperate. After a few odd conversations between the two, and a rain storm, they become friends. Mickey suspects Rose is carrying emotional baggage – evident from her secrecy regarding a suitcase on board and a book written in French. As the two sail and island hop, engaging in their life stories, we learn that Rose was a down and outer, doing stripping and service work before meeting an elderly French man. He needed her companionship, she needed a consistent residence. While not exactly love, the two made it work until he was murdered. After finding a suitcase in her strip club locker, the police and FBI began harassing her about his death and where the suitcase is hidden. After repeated attempts on her life, she bought a boat and sailed away.

I won't spoil it for you. The suitcase is important, as well as the book. It takes some time and patience on the reader's part to slog through the dialogue between Rose and Mickey. There's a payoff, but the author does a tremendous job staying reserved in his storytelling. Eventually, Mickey finds himself running from the feds and goons as he learns the secret behind Rose's murdered lover. The action takes us from the Keys to Virginia Beach to New York, propelling the narrative with different locations and outcomes for Mickey and Rose's flight. The end result is a really engaging story with enough momentum and intrigue to keep it fresh and entertaining throughout. This was my first Ed Lacy book and I'm already planning which of the author's works to read next.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Anything But Saintly

I’ll confess that the cover art by Robert Abbett sucked me into opening the 1963 stand-alone paperback “Anything But Saintly” by Richard Deming. But in my defense, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of the handful of Deming’s novels I’ve read thus far. Deming was an under-appreciated master of crime fiction, and it’s a crime that few people know his work today.

“Anything But Saintly” is narrated by a fundamentally honest vice cop named Matt Rudd (Americanized from his given name of Mateusz Rudowski) who is playing gin with his partner in the squad room one day when a citizen barges in asking, “Is this where you come to report whores?” The citizen is a visitor from Houston who was rolled by a prostitute after consummating the transaction in his hotel room and wants his $500 back.

The investigation of this seemingly simple crime gets materially more complex for Rudd and his partner when they learn the identity of the whore and her pimp. It turns out that the pimp has some pretty heavy political connections, and this is particularly inconvenient for Rudd who is jockeying for a promotion in a town where the police board is politically appointed. “There are certain rackets we overlook because of the political influence of the racketeers”, Rudd explains.

The story takes place in the fictitious city of St. Cecilia, but it’s obvious this is a euphemism for Chicago, and Deming does a nice job of taking the reader into the incestuous alliance between the urban racketeers and the local politicians, a symbiotic relationship that was the real deal in 20th century Chicago.

The cover of the paperback gives away a fairly significant plot point that occurs around the 20% mark, but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice it to say that the stakes in this minor investigation increase markedly as the plot evolves into a murder mystery and the political alliances of the characters shift. This is very smart novel - smarter than it had to be for a cheapo paperback original from this era. The writing is excellent and the characters - particularly the call girls - are vividly drawn. The plot is fast moving and dialogue heavy with a good bit of action and gunplay. The murder mystery also has a nice twist with a satisfying solution.

If you can’t find the 1963 paperback, it’s also available as an eBook in all formats. Whatever the medium, “Anything But Saintly” is another straight-up winner for Richard Deming. Recommended.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Executioner #09 - Vegas Vendetta

It was only a matter of time before author Don Pendleton placed his beloved vigilante Mack Bolan into the city of sin. “Vegas Vendetta” is the ninth entry of 'The Executioner' and was released by Pinnacle in 1971. After what I would consider to be one of the early series standouts, 'Chicago Wipe-out', the bar was set rather high for the author to deliver another quality effort. Sadly, this installment is the worst of the series thus far. 

Other than the book's beginning, featuring Bolan in the familiar high ground situation of attack, there's absolutely no action. As I slogged through it, all 180 miserable pages, I found myself consistently checking what was left, measuring the amount of pages, checking page numbers...things no author would ever want to hear about his or her work. But, it's a genuine stinker because there's a skim plot to develop devoid of any interesting characters that would otherwise make the dialogue tolerable. 

Bolan infiltrates the mob after crippling the Talifero branch between Lake Mead and Las Vegas. After a brief reunion with his old ally Carl Lyons, Bolan settles on the strip utilizing the familiar cloak and dagger routine that worked so well in prior entries. There's pages and pages of Bolan ordering around mob goons (as Mr. Vinton), moving money and participating in daily rituals that ultimately just go nowhere. The mob boss here is “Joe the Monster”, whom Bolan wants to cut-off while liberating a comedian named Tommy Anders (who has an awesome commentary on politics and entertainment for a few pages). By book's end...some money changed hands. 

“Vegas Vendetta” works better than Nyquil. Leave it, skip it and seek out better books.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Bogus Hijack

In February 2018, Paperback Warrior published a feature article exposing that the author of “The D..C. Man” series of men’s adventure novels, “James P. Cody, ” was actually a former Roman Catholic Priest named Peter T. Rohrbach. There were four D.C. Man books published in 1974 and 1975, and they were thought to be the only genre writing that Rohrbach undertook using the Cody pseudonym before his 2004 death.

However, further investigation revealed that Rohrbach sold a short story called “The Bogus Hijack” that was printed in the December 1970 edition of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine under the Cody pen name. Placing this story into the timeline of his life, Fr. Rohrbach left the priesthood in 1966 and married in September 1970. This story likely would have been his first fiction sale as a married man free from the bonds of the priesthood.

First, some historical context for the short story: Skyjackings were fairly common in 1970 and did not have the dire consequences we associate with a mid-air takeover today. Fifty years ago, it was almost always some goofball looking to go to Cuba with a gaggle of inconvenienced Americans and an expensive jetliner along for the ride.

“The Bogus Hijack” is an enjoyable 14-page story told by an air traveler named Tom embarking on a Florida vacation with his family. At one point during the flight, our protagonist notices a Hispanic man walking closely behind a flight attendant toward the cockpit. After the pair disappears behind the first-class curtain, Tom whispers to his wife that he suspects the plane is about to be hijacked. Sure enough, they are now en route to Havana with little fanfare.

Upon arrival in Cuba, the hijacker is taken away while the passengers - including Tom and his family - are taken off the plane by local authorities and placed in a waiting area. While waiting at the airport, everyone is treated well and allowed to use the bathroom while the plane refuels. Soon thereafter, the passengers are reloaded and on their way to Miami no worse for wear.

However, our hero Tom notices something odd. One of the passengers on the unplanned flight from Havana to Miami isn’t the same person who landed with the other passengers in Havana. Did a switch occur in the airport bathroom to smuggle someone into the U.S.? Was this a real hijacking or a Trojan horse designed to smuggle a spy into America? The suspense later increases when Tom spots the suspicious passenger in Miami and disrupts his family vacation to tail the fellow - much to his wife’s annoyance.

“The Bogus Hijack” was a delightful little story of an everyman who stumbles into a world of intrigue that was clearly written by Rohrbach to be consistent with the Alfred Hitchcock brand. It never appeared in any of the Hitchcock anthologies, so if you want to read it, you’ll need to find it in the original magazine through collector’s channels.

For my part, I was glad to read the story and pass my copy of the magazine along to Rohrbach’s only daughter - now an adult - who was unaware that her dad had sold a story to the digest bearing Hitchcock’s name. I hope she enjoys the story as much as I did. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Island Feud

Hugh B. Cave was a key contributor to the pulp fiction class of the 1920s and 30s. The British born writer relocated to Boston in his childhood, later penning nearly 800 stories across the genres of western, romance, crime and adventure. Wildside Press launched the debut issue of 'Adventure Tales' in 2005 and featured an interview with Cave as well as two short stories - “Island Feud” and “The Man Who Couldn't Die”.

“Island Feud” was originally published by Argosy Magazine in December of 1953. It begins auspiciously enough in the coastal village of Teala Town. Three men are waiting for the arrival of Matt Martinsen on his ship The Witch. In a flashback sequence we learn that Martinsen has cheated the islanders by purchasing their copra (dried coconut kernels) at a below market price. The island doctor, Harty, is the makeshift governor of the people and proposes that Martinsen will purchase the goods at an elevated and fair cost. Martinsen declares a feud and secretly spreads rumors that Harty is a rapist (and other dastardly things) all over the isles. Circling back to the present day, the trio are seeing Martinsen return to the island. Is he returning to fight Harty? Or, is there something amiss with the crew? Thankfully, all is revealed in this short-story that features a bit of mystery and a decent fight (but I won't say between who for spoilers sake).

Purchase a digital or paper copy of this issue here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Parker #12 - The Sour Lemon Score

The twelfth installment of Donald Westlake’s 'Parker' series - published in 1969 under the pen-name Richard Stark - is a fantastic hardboiled crime novel with a plot that significantly diverts from the formula of a standard heist story with favorable results.

Unlike previous books in the series, the paperback opens mid-heist with Parker in a four-man crew successfully executing a bank robbery during an armored car delivery. The thieves flee to a hideout to split the cash when a violent double-cross occurs sending the betrayer, George Uhl, into the wind with the stolen loot. Parker survives the ordeal with a new mission: Find Uhl and get back the money.

Stranded with no cash, no car, and no gun, Parker uses his resourceful mind to hunt Uhl up and down the east coast in a multi-state, high-stakes game of cat and mouse. What follows is part treasure hunt, part vendetta tale, and part man-on-the-run story. Parker also leads the reader through a tour of the criminal underworld filled with gun-selling black marketeers, fences for stolen items, duplicitous homosexuals, and an underground banking system where guys like Parker can stash their nest eggs.

“The Sour Lemon Score” is a testament to Westlake’s versatility as a storyteller as the criminally-minded Parker serves as his own private investigator in a missing person case that, if successful, will culminate in the murder of his prey and the re-theft of ill-gotten gains. Westlake’s invention of a subculture where an informal network of professional thieves can be manipulated and leveraged against one of their own is utterly fascinating and filled with colorful characters and great moments.

On the hunt, Parker is perpetually irritated by the exasperating array people he encounters as he chases the leads to locate Uhl. For the most part, Parker lacks the charm, patience, and people skills to engage in the normal slow-dance that brings fictional investigators closer to the truth. However, a manhunt investigation conducted “Parker-style” makes for some exciting reading while turning the traditional P.I. genre novel on its ear.

The ultimate confrontation between Parker and Uhl is incredibly satisfying and fraught with further complications for our anti-hero. “The Sour Lemon Score” is a short book that seems even shorter because the propulsive nature of the events makes it hard to put down. Like all the Parker capers, consider this one required reading for fans of classic men’s adventure and crime fiction. Highest recommendation.

Postscript:

Check out the helpful blog from our friends at www.theviolentworldofparker.us for more in-depth literary analysis of the Richard Stark Universe.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Gladiator #01 - Hill of the Dead

'The Gladiator' is billed as “In the great tradition of Spartacus!”. It's debut, “Hill of the Dead” was released by Pinnacle in the US in December of 1975. The author's name of Andrew Quiller is a pseudonym utilized by writers Kenneth Bulmer, Laurence James and Angus Wells. It's tied to the American series called 'The Gladiator', but also to the European version deemed “The Eagles”. It's a five-book run that's supposedly penned completely by Bulmer (or at least the first three). 

The book's beginning is actually the ending. The reader is placed in a Roman Colosseum circa 75 a.d. A notorious gladiator named Vulpus the Fox is doing battle with a unnamed prisoner to the delight and roar of the crowd. As Vulpus is about to strike the bloody death blow...he hesitates. The combatant advises Vulpus, “Aye. It is Samuel ben Ezra. No ghost. Come brother, strike. I have had enough of debts”. And with that intriguing statement, Vulpus, Samuel and the reader go back in time to learn the history of both fighters and what events led to this battle.

Vulpus is actually Marcus Julius Britannicus, a young Roman soldier in the Tenth Legion. He was awarded the service by his father, Flavius Silva. Marcus' father is now dead and Marcus is committed to the Roman Army and to rising in the ranks of leadership. The legion is to wipe out the remaining Jewish forces in Jerusalem. The last fortress standing is Masada, fifty miles southeast of Jerusalem overlooking the Dead Sea. It's 1000 feet up and defended by the Zealots. Marcus, anticipating a strike on the fortress in the coming days, visits a Jewish whorehouse prior to battle. While in the act, Jewish troops descend on the building in an attempt to destroy Marcus and the Roman soldiers. Samuel ben Ezra, showing mercy on his soon-to-be attacker, allows Marcus to escape through a window. The two become friends and Marcus swears a debt to Samuel for saving his life. 

Later, Marcus is in charge of the first assault on Masada but is torn between annihilation of the Zealots (including Samuel) or an escape plan for Samuel and his sister to flee before the battle begins. The novel really comes alive in this finale, ripe with both action, intrigue and anticipation of the inevitable Marcus/Samuel showdown. The novel ends where it began and the reader is left with a cliffhanger. Hopefully, it continues this story-line in the second book “The Land of Mist”. 

Overall, Marcus is a worthy protagonist and a character with many different dynamics. His youth, experience and skills are central to the book's strengths. While emotional, the author incorporates many battle sequences featuring a sole Marcus or as a legion featuring the character. There's a love interest, the blood debt and the history of both Marcus and Samuel for the reader to absorb (or in my case devour). At just 162-pages and large print, this is an easy one day read that will leave you scanning auction and used store sites for the second entry. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Hostage for a Hood

“Hostage for a Hood” was a 1957 paperback by under-appreciated crime novelist Lionel White who specialized in fantastic heist and caper stories. The book has been reprinted for 21st century readers by Stark House as a double along with White’s “The Merriweather File” from 1959 and an introduction by Brian Greene.

“Hostage for a Hood” opens with a simple car accident - a bit more than just a fender-bender - in the suburban community of Brookside. The accident involves doting housewife Joyce Sherwood (and her poodle) striking a car containing Harry Cribbins and Karl Mitty (dressed as policemen) who are en route to meet others for their meticulously-planned armored car robbery. The tension of heist day is compounded by the accident, and the crooks kidnap Joyce to ensure that their robbery happens on the required timetable.

White employs a clever “time jumping” style in this one - like Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” - where the events of the novel aren’t always portrayed in exact chronological order. There’s also a good bit of third-person perspective jumping as well. It’s an effective storytelling trick that keeps the reader hungry to learn what brought the characters this far. White was an immensely talented writer, so the narrative is never confusing, and readers won’t be lost along the way. The story ping-pongs from the planning of the heist, to the missing person’s investigation, to the robbery’s aftermath where the thieves find themselves with an attractive, yet unexpected, guest for their getaway.

Cribbins and Mitty are colorful and well-drawn hoodlums. Cribbins is a criminal mastermind of sorts (think Richard Stark’s Parker), and Mitty is his hulking, dimwit sidekick. A handful of secondary characters - some important, others not - round out the robbery crew for this well-orchestrated caper. Through White’s adept perspective changes, the reader is also treated to an excellent police procedural story, as well as the tale of Joyce’s husband searching for his missing bride. I found the scenes with the police and the husband piecing the puzzle together to be among the most satisfying of the novel.

The tension of the story increases the longer the holdup crew occupies the safe house with their hostage. All this is builds to a violent conclusion, and the resolution is handled perfectly. It’s hard to read Lionel White without comparing his work to Richard Stark, and “Hostage for a Hood” can hang with the best of the heist sub-genre. Highly recommended.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Killsquad #02 - Mission Revenge

Along with plenty of Bolan affiliated action, Dan Schmidt wrote two military team-based series' – 'Eagle Force' and this one, 'Killsquad'. It launched in 1986 with the debut “Counter Attack”, eventually running through nine total installments on the Avon publishing label. This novel, “Mission Revenge”, is the second of the series picking up just 18 days since the events of “Counter Attack”.

The Hangman John Smith is recuperating with his half-dozen killers after the shake-downs in Algeria and Syria. While the World Strike Force is running the show, Killsquad is ultimately a trickle down effect with Smith commanding his team. As the series promises, we know “Mission Revenge” is just another assignment for Killsquad. The reader wants fireworks and Schmidt concocts a familiar story to set the tone.

Eli St. Judas is called The Preacher. He's a TV evangelist taking money from the poor and gullible and building his New Order Church regime in West Virginia. Coincidentally, this same set-up was used by Rich Rainey for his “The Protector #2: The Porn Tapes” using a vile character named The Reverend. Or by Norman Winski for his “Hitman #3: Nevada Nightmare”. Turns out placing a crooked, perverted preacher on the pulpit is a sermon action-adventure readers love to hear. The Preacher has built a mountain fortress in West Virginia and hired an ex-Green Beret team called Charlie Company to protect it (similar to Schmidt's use of Eagle Force vs Phantom Plague in “Eagle Force #3: Flight 666”). We know Charlie Company is going to fight Killsquad...but how much of The Reverend plowing his Queen from behind do we need before we get to the inevitable confrontation? Sadly, this one takes a great deal of patience.

Sometimes this author swings for the fences and lands the perfect combination of action and dialogue. With “Mission Revenge” it just all falls flat. There's a side-story of Russian soldiers being kidnapped and held for ransom...but by this point no one cares. Sure, it is Killsquad invading the religious compound to capture The Preacher but it's just a failed plot that's redundant and more convoluted than its own good. It's a hard pass from me. I carried that cross so you wouldn't have to. 'Killsquad' may not get a resurrection from me anytime soon. Stay away!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Hell Hath No Fury

In 1953, Fawcett Gold Medal released Charles Williams’ fourth published novel, “Hell Hath No Fury.” It was later reprinted several times under the alternative title of “The Hot Spot,” and under that name, it was adapted into a 1990 movie starring Don Johnson and directed by Dennis Hopper.

Our narrator is Harry Madox, the new-in-town, amoral car salesman who observes some odd behavior from the sexy 21 year-old girl in the dealership’s collection’s department. On the same day, he also notices an appalling lack of security at the small town’s local bank. And then there’s the matter of his boss’ voluptuous wife with her lusty eyes trained on Harry.

These three story threads (the girl, the bank, the boss’ wife) are all swirling around Harry’s head when he begins planning a bank heist. As a certified expert in crime fiction bank jobs, I give his plan, execution, and post-robbery actions a solid B+. The complications that arise thereafter are due to minor flaws in the planning amplified by drama with the two women in his life.

Williams’ writing is always top-notch and this is no exception. The prose is crisp, conversational and hardboiled. When one character tells another that he sticks out “like a cooch dancer at a funeral,” you know that you’re in literary good hands. The plot twists and turns were crafted by a master of noir who knows how to reveal great surprises along the way to the conclusion.

It’s hard to believe that Williams only authored 22 novels in his 24-year writing career before his 1975 suicide. His impact on the noir genre really can’t be minimized, and “Hell Hath No Fury” is a superb example of his early suspense work before he shifted gears to maritime-themed suspense books. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Little Saigon #01 - Abel's War

Author Nicholas Cain is a former US Army MP, sergeant and Vietnam Vet. After penning his experiences for the manuscript “Saigon Alley”, he was later rejected by publishers and convinced by Zebra to convert it to a series entitled 'Saigon Commandos', which ran 12 total books. Cain wrote the 'War Dogs' series as Nik Uhernik, eight entries of 'Chopper-1” as Jack Hawkins as well as writing three novels for 'Able Team' as Dick Stivers. In 1989, the 'Little Saigon' series debut, “Abel's War”, was launched by Lynx Books. It was the first of six novels starring Police Lieutenant Luke Abel, a former MP and Vietnam War vet. The character parallels the author's own life, but is it worth reading? Sadly...it's hit or miss.

Protagonist Luke Abel worked seven years in Old Saigon, three in Santa Ana and another ten years for the L.A.P.D. The book's beginning has Abel working for an elite Department of Justice arm called M.A.G. (Metro Asian Gang) task force. The traditional territorial boundaries between police and Sheriff's departments in the L.A. metropolitan area are largely ignored by M.A.G. The officers selected for this division are skilled veterans approved by the Justice Department and given free reign to conduct investigations as detectives. The book's premise is the rivalry between Chinese and Vietnamese gangs in Little Saigon as the Tet Lunar New Year festivities approach.

This debut plays out like a weird episode of 'ChiPS'. There's talk of the rivalry and a few centralized run-ins with a gang leader, but overall it is just a series of daily procedures in the life of a M.A.G. Officer. None of it is really that interesting and it has taken nearly 2 weeks to complete all 214 pages. It's a bit cumbersome with a lot of flashback sequences revealing Abel's MP work in Vietnam and his unfortunate separation from Xinh, the love of his life. I'm hesitant to agree with the book's title as there really isn't an “Abel's War” to be found here. It's just a standardized police procedural that sort of mucks along. Depending on how much you like the police sub-genre is the gauge on “Abel's War” entertaining you. 

I'll pass on the next volume but I'm giving a tip of the hat to Nicholas Cain. His volunteer service time in Vietnam (despite a high draft number) and as a Colorado state trooper is commendable. In 1990 he stopped writing to concentrate on private investigation.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Parker #09 - The Rare Coin Score

Extensive polling of Men’s Adventure Fiction fans has firmly established that the Parker series of heist novels by Donald Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) is the most popular series of all time. The ninth book in the series, “The Rare Coin Score”, is a great example of why this is the case. 

This 1967 installment finds Parker set for money but restless and bored. He’s running through loose and disposable women like old Kleenex while he awaits an invitation from his broker to join a promising heist crew for a good score. Instead, he meets Billy. 

Billy is an amateur and a fool putting together a crew of professionals to knock over a rare coin convention in Indianapolis. It’s a challenging heist because the convention will be in a hotel guarded by Pinkerton men. Moreover, collectible coins are hard to steal because they require the thieves to be able to distinguish the valuable ones from the dead weight. And then you’ll need to fence the coins with someone who will give fair value for the plunder. Despite his legion of shortcomings, Billy knows coins has the hookup for the fence, so Parker and other pros go forward with the planning despite their misgivings about the guy.

“The Rare Coin Score” is also the Parker novel where our hero meets Claire, the woman who becomes a significant figure in Parker’s life for the remainder of the series. Parker’s interest in Claire provides the tension of the novel because Billy has his eyes on her as well. Can everyone just set aside their pettiness, puppy love, and jealousy to rob a coin convention like professionals?

It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that the heist goes sideways. The Parker novels generally follow the same narrative structure in that most of the novel is told in third-person narration from Parker’s perspective. However, there’s always a section that puts the reader into the head of the other characters leading up to the heist before returning to Parker for the action-packed conclusion. It’s this insight into the secondary players that always reveals the egos, spite, and hidden agendas that ultimately undermine the smooth success of the job. Westlake was an amazing writer, and this literary revelation trick never fails to deliver excitement.

Some Parker paperbacks need to be read in specific order (the first three, for example) and others stand alone nicely. “The Rare Coin Score” is one of the better books in the series that does not require any historical knowledge of previous books. It’s a great origin story for Parker’s girl, and a damn fine heist novel by the master of the genre. Highly recommended.