Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Saturday Night Town

“Saturday Night Town” was Harry Whittington’s 1956 release with Fawcett World Library’s imprint, Crest Books, featuring an attractive cover art by Barye Philips. It’s an anomaly in the vast library of Whittington in that it’s a highly-regarded novel that has never been reprinted since it’s debut 62 years ago. It’s been reported that the short book was Kathryn Whittington’s favorite of her husband’s work.

The action in “Saturday Night Town” takes place over a single April evening in rural and rainy Cottonseed, Florida. For a small town, Saturday nights in Cottonseed are generally hopping social events sandwiched between Friday’s farming and Sunday’s church services.

Bill Beckmon is a good doctor who cares deeply about the well-being of his patients. Despite this, he is passed up for a promotion in the local hospital much to his own disappointment and his wife’s frustration. This has got him thinking about leaving town and the people who need his services. Most of Dr. Bill’s practice is made up of poor crackers who can’t afford to pay their medical bills. A rundown of Dr. Bill’s patients - rich and poor - is the means by which Whittington introduces the reader to the first wave of the ensemble cast of characters in this book.

And there sure are a lot of characters in “Saturday Night Town.” I needed a cheat sheet to keep track of them all. The book is only 144 pages but the army of named characters moving the plot - or plots - forward made it feel a bit like “Game of Thrones.” Within the first 30 pages, we meet 20 characters of varying significance. It was like a soap opera with throngs of protagonists.

And it was all too much for me. Things happen. Storylines cross. Conflicts escalate and erupt. Couples form and others break it off. But it was all a bit of a jumbled mess and a slog to read. I love Harry Whittington, but this isn’t one of his best despite what you may have heard. There’s a good reason it was never reprinted - it’s just no good. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Spenser #01 - The Godwulf Manuscript

The beloved 'Spenser' series of private eye novels originated in 1973 with “The Godwulf Manuscript.” Parker wrote 40 entries in the series until his death in 2010. His last Spenser was “Sixkill”, published posthumously, and an unfinished manuscript entitled “Silent Night”, later completed by literary agent Helen Brann in 2013.

Spenser is often cited as Parker's take on the Southern California private eyes of the 1930s and 40s, modernized for the 70s audience and positioned in Boston. The series is hardboiled, with an intense, fast-moving pace that eventually caught the eye of the television lens in 1985. ABC's “Spenser: For Hire” starred Robert Ulrich as the Boston gumshoe, and gained some footing with audiences for three seasons, 66 episodes and four films for Lifetime. Joe Mantegna would later capture the role for three television movies on the A&E network. Parker once described the impact of the television show on his work as “no more effect on my writing than Monday Night Football.” (TV Guide June 20, 1987)

Very little is revealed in terms of Spenser's backstory. In this debut novel, we learn that he was a former cop who was fired for insubordination. The first name is never revealed for the length of the series, but questions about the last name are quickly erased as Spenser introduces himself to a college dean; “It's with an S, not a C. Like the English poet, S-p-e-n-s-e-r.” There's mention of an estranged lover and that he was in the military in Korea. His office is in Boston, he drives a rag-top convertible, works out, has a penchant for cooking and loves beer. You now know just as much as the next Spenser fan.


The first assignment has Spenser hired by a Boston university to locate stolen property referred to as The Godwulf Manuscript. The culprit is suspected as SCACE, a far-left fringe group just looking for a cause in the form of the Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation. Spenser gets a lead on a young student named Terry Orchard, who is later found drugged with a smoking gun beside her dead boyfriend. The Boston PD, who really hate Spenser, finger Orchard for the crime but Spenser has reason to believe that the person who stole the manuscript is behind the murder. The investigation leads our main character through the bowels of the university, from a drug dealing professor to a local mobster, while carefully traipsing through the posh neighborhoods of Boston tracking Orchard's family and friends.

This is a speed-read at 180 pages, high on action and intensity, fueled by Parker's remarkable writing style. The author writes Spenser in the first person, but the truly incredible part of his technique is relaying to the reader everything Spenser sees in these characters and places. It's almost a left to right visualization that easily placed me in the sticky gumshoes of this captivating man named Spenser. The masters can do this well and Parker proves he's easily in that elite company.

Further, Spenser's witty and sarcastic dialogue is priceless. Whenever he faces stiff superiors (although he boldly dismisses any hierarchy), he throws out delightful one-liners like, “Can I feel your muscle?” or his own profession's ridicule like, “The ones with phones are in the yellow pages under SLEUTH”. In some ways I can't help but think Spenser had an impact on Max Allan Collins' creation of the equally sarcastic 'Quarry' or maybe how “X-Files” creator Chris Carter developed FBI agent Fox Mulder (who, in his own right, had some great dialogue with superiors).

Based on my limited experience of reading just this one lone Spenser novel, I could foresee easily reading 10-12 of these in quick succession over a short period of time. I have 40ish novels to enjoy, so I'm going to pace myself. “The Godwulf Manuscript” is one of the best of the best.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Parker #07 - The Seventh (aka The Split)

“The Seventh” by Richard Stark (a pseudonym of Donald Westlake) was released in 1966 as the seventh book in the Parker series. The book was re-released in 1968 as “The Split” - with far superior cover art - coinciding with the movie adaptation starring Jim Brown in the Parker role.

As the novel opens, Parker is laying low in a girl’s home with the cash proceeds from a recent seven-man heist. He steps out for a few minutes to run an errand and upon his return, finds his hostess/sex partner murdered with a ceremonial sword and the heist proceeds missing. Did someone come to steal the loot and decide to kill the girl? Or did someone come to kill the girl and hit the jackpot by lucking into $134,000 in heist proceeds? This is the novel’s central mystery for Parker to solve.

Like many Parker novels, “The Seventh” is told in a manner that is unstuck in time. The reader gets to see selected scenes multiple times from the perspectives of various characters. It’s a narrative stunt that works because Westlake could write his ass off.

The flashback to the heist makes for awesome reading. The seven-man crew successfully robs the gate receipts from a stadium on college football Saturday. The plan was for Parker to hold the dough until the heat subsides and then each member of the crew would get their seventh. The theft of the money from Parker’s hideout throws a monkey-wrench in that plan.

Parker plays detective as he tries to solve the murder of his temporary girlfriend and recover the money with the assistance of his irritated crew. Meanwhile, the local police are also trying to solve both the homicide and the robbery of the stadium cash room. It’s a legitimate whodunnit executed perfectly by Westlake with the best scene being Parker’s brazen and audacious handling of the local cops.

There’s plenty of blood and gunplay in this one, and the violent ending setpiece is among the best in the series. Westlake was at the top of his game with “The Seventh” and fans of the series should consider it a “must-read.” Highly recommended.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Red Scarf

Stark House Press has just released a reprinting of Gil Brewer's 1958 novel “The Red Scarf” and his 1954 book “A Killer is Loose”. The two works are packaged together with a forward from the esteemed Paul Bishop, author of “Lie Catchers” and “Deep Water”. Brewer is a staple of the crime paperback empire, writing over 30 novels in a career that spanned 1951-1970. Despite being a fixture in the genre, his selling prowess never came to fruition. 

“The Red Scarf”, the subject of this review, is described by Bishop as “noir at its finest – comparable to any exploration of human darkness before or since”. While I wasn't as moved as much as Bishop, I found this crime novel intriguing in its dissection of greed and its effect on the human condition. It's a familiar and rather elementary story involving a briefcase of stolen cash from the mob. It seems to be the premise of nearly every noir crime, some sort of heist that goes incredibly wrong for the inexperienced planner and performer. 

Roy Nichols and his wife Bess are in a tough spot. They own a roadside motel that doesn't actually feature a road. The acquisition of the motel was in hopes that a planned road would be built through town. However, the city has nixed the idea and Roy has been rejected for additional loans by the bank and his own brother. Roy runs into Teece and his wife Vivian on a lonely stretch of road. Teece is running money for the mob from state to state and has decided to steal a briefcase of cash. After wrecking and seemingly dying, both Roy and Vivian escape unhurt and venture to Roy's motel in Florida with the money. It's here that things get somewhat complicated.

Teece wants to pay Roy to keep her safe at the motel. She's fearing the mob will find her and the money. Roy, hoping to keep all of this a secret from Bess, agrees but second guesses everything. He is constantly looking over his shoulder for the police, mobsters and even a dead Teece in fits of paranoia that may not be worth the price. When the police and a hitman start snooping around the motel...things get wacky and unhinged.

Brewer tinkers with everyday people and puts them in precarious situations. Thus, “The Red Scarf” wraps snugly around the reader, tightening in just the right places to make this one a stressful, high-tension read. The police interrogations are worth the price of admission and watching Roy's nervous antics and jitterbug dances between Bess, Vivian and the law were particularly enjoyable. While there isn't a great deal of action, suspenseful negotiating more than makes up for the absence of guns and fists. I'd recommend “The Red Scarf” to anyone looking for suspenseful fiction. Buy your copy here.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Embezzler

There is widespread agreement that the Big Three masterpieces in James M. Cain’s body of work are “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Double Indemnity,” and “Mildred Pierce.” However, I’m told there are plenty of gems in Cain’s back-catalog worth exploring. “The Embezzler” was a short novel by Cain that was written in 1938 and sold as a serial to a publication called “Liberty” followed by reappearance as a stand-alone paperback,many compilations and paperback doubles. At times, the book was also released as “The Money and the Woman.”

The story is told by a bank executive named Dave who is sent to Glendale to investigate unusually high deposit activity in the bank’s smallest branch. Dave meets the man responsible for the booming deposit business, the head teller named Charles Brent, whose explanation is that he strongly encourages the local workers to save their money in the bank rather than squander it. Seems reasonable enough.

A few weeks later, Dave is visited at his home by Brent’s very pretty wife, Sheila. She tells Dave that Brent is sick and needs medical treatment. The only way Brent will seek help is if he knows someone trustworthy will be temping for him while he’s away. Brent suggests that she knows the job well enough to do it in his absence. Dave likes the idea of having pretty Sheila around for a couple weeks and agrees.

Relationship-wise, you can see where this is heading. With Dave and Sheila working closely together while Brent is in the hospital, the co-workers become closer and a level of inappropriate intimacy arises. Then, all of a sudden, Dave stumbles upon an apparent embezzlement scheme at the bank that appears to have been orchestrated by Brent, Sheila, or both.

That’s the set-up. A hardboiled forensic accounting crime story will only thrill readers so much without something special added to the mix. In this case, it’s Dave’s starry-eyed infatuation with Sheila that drives his bad decisions into golden noir territory. What happens next is a tension-filled white-collar crime novel that culminates in an explosion of violence and criminality. Recommended.

Appendix:

In addition to a couple stand-alone paperback printings, “The Embezzler” (aka “The Money and The Woman”) appeared in the following James M. Cain compilations:

Three of a Kind
The Baby in the Icebox
Everybody Does It
The Complete Crime Stories
Two Novels (with Double Indemnity)

There are likely others. If you own a Cain compilation, check it out as there’s a good chance this terrific little gem is included.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Hard to Kill

1975's Fawcett Gold Medal crime novel “Hard to Kill” was penned by Duane Schermerhorn using the pseudonym James Marcott. The little known Canadian writer also wrote two entries for the 'C.A.T.' series as Spike Andrews before moving into action and adventure obscurity. Over the years, Schermerhorn has contributed to information technology literature as well as dabbling in plays, music lyrics and reviews. While fans ponder his absence from the genre, we're left with a fantastic heist yarn that practically begs for a sequel or subsequent adventure starring specialist Richard Decker (the series could have been DECKER!). 

Jailbreak aficionado Decker summarizes his latest assignment, springing high-profile criminal Gunnert from a Toronto jail: “This is the toughest job I ever heard of, and I haven't even seen the jail yet. My God, you want the guy sprung right away, and I'll have to do it before Browning does. On top of that the guy's a cop-killer, I've got no connections inside, and Farrell has his whole gang gunning for me. The cops could be keeping Gunnert in a paper bag and this would be tough. I'm letting myself in for a lot of trouble spinning him. I wouldn't touch this for less than a hundred Gs.”

By 1975, the heist novels had been perfected already by 60s heavyweights like Dan J. Marlowe and Donald Westlake. So, it's hard to be innovative and original using well-worn conventions. Honestly, “Hard to Kill” isn't. But, it's strength lies in the characters and narrative and with these elements Schermerhorn excels. It's a blistering 140-page burner that never lifts off the gas. 

Decker is hired by a crime lord named Ryerson to spring a notable cop-killer named Gunnert. While the importance of the criminal is a secret to Decker and the reader, by book's end we're all in the know. Arriving at that point has our protagonist facing Ryerson's enemy Farrell, who has his own men and agenda to retrieve Gunnert first. It's no easy task, as Decker learns while casing the facility. It's multiple stories with a lot of personnel, brick and mortar. Increasing the difficulty level is the high-profile “protection” aspect. Gunnert is a bit of a prized catch for the Toronto PD. Considering the risks, Decker asks for $100Gs to make the break.

Like any good crime novel, we need accomplices and a girl. In this case Decker recruits the equally able Yorkin and Anderson while falling in love with a colleague's sister, the lovable Valery. In a backstory, we learn that Decker grew up pushing drugs. His kid sister got hooked on his own stock and became a street junkie. Now, Decker hates drugs and pushers and must walk a thin line between right and wrong – which eventually puts him at odds with the job he's accepted. 

The novel is loaded with the familiar tropes – recruitment, gunfights, car chases, romance and the inevitable double-cross. But from who and when? That's where the novel eventually gains momentum, unwinding a slick story that never becomes trapped in the details or chores. Decker and his creator showcases enough talent to prove it isn't “Hard to Thrill”. Hunt down a copy of this old paperback. It's worth the time and monetary investment.

A Paperback Warrior Unmasking: James Marcott & Spike Andrews

In 1975, Fawcett Gold Medal published a stand-alone action-crime paperback called “Hard to Kill” by James Marcott. The enjoyable novel concerned a jailbreak expert named Richard Decker hired by a crime lord to spring a high-profile criminal from prison. The book was a fun read, but it wasn’t a commercial success. It never saw life beyond the initial 8,000 copy print-run. Copies remain available in used bookstores, and are often traded among vintage paperback collectors and readers, but it has mostly fallen into obscurity.

And the world never heard from James Marcott again – whoever he was. 

Jump forward to 1982. Warner Books had a hit on their hands with the ‘Dirty Harry’ paperbacks and wanted to create a buddy-cop series along the same lines as part of the publisher’s new “Men of Action” brand. This was the genesis of the C.A.T.: Crisis Aversion Team series by Spike Andrews. The books featured frenetic action, sex, and violence to satisfy the men’s adventure market that was thriving in the early 80s. The plan was to release a monthly C.A.T. book and watch the cash pour in. Unfortunately, due to floundering sales, new editors at Warner Books decided to cancel publication after only releasing three installments.

And the world never heard from Spike Andrews again – whoever he was.


Connecting the dots between James Marcott and Spike Andrews required a deep dive into U.S. Copyright records that listed the name Duane Schermerhorn as the man behind both pseudonyms. Some further Google searches located a man by that name in Canada who is now a highly-regarded local photographer. Could this be the same guy? It seemed like a promising lead as “Hard to Kill” took place in Toronto – an unusual setting for an action novel at the time.  I found a Flikr page showcasing Schermerhorn’s photos and sent him a message through the app to find out if he was hidden author I was seeking.

Hours later, I received a message from Schermerhorn confirming that we was, in fact, the man behind the James Marcott and Spike Andrews pen names.

 “I had been a reader of mysteries all my life,” he explained, “and when I graduated from college, I decided to try my hand at writing them. I tried a number of different genres - eccentric amateur detective, private eye, innocent guy caught in a conspiracy - but it wasn't until I tried the anti-hero genre that I got a work published.” 


Schermerhorn created Richard Decker as a logical series character. “When I conceived ‘Hard to Kill,’ I was modeling the character, and to a large degree the story, on Richard Stark's Parker books. That series was, to my mind, the pinnacle of the anti-hero stories. I was thrilled to be accepted by Fawcett, and was very much aware of their role in the field. I was particularly fond of John D. MacDonald's books, and thought that most of Donald Hamilton's books in the Matt Helm series were better than their hardcover equivalents. It was, of course, a fantasy of mine to join the ranks of the legendary paperback-original writers.”

Both Schemerhorn and his literary agent were excited at the prospect that the Decker series may have a future “After I submitted the second manuscript in the series, my agent told me that there was interest in making the first into a movie with Roy Scheider playing the lead. Nothing materialized, which isn't uncommon for these sorts of projects.” 

Schemerhorn wrote a total of three books in the Decker series but after “Hard To Kill” failed to catch fire, there wasn’t much interest in publishing the other two books. They never saw the light of day and exist as pages collecting dust among the author’s unpublished works.

Even though Decker failed to make Schemerhorn – or James Marcott, rather – the next Richard Stark, it wasn’t all a loss. “It got me a New York literary agent, which was a big step forward.” This publishing industry contact opened the door to Warner Books who was looking for a buddy cop series, and the C.A.T. series was born. 

“I met with the editor to understand what sort of series this was to be.  He wanted a high-volume series, with books being published every couple of months.  This sort of pace basically cannot be maintained by a single writer, so there was to be at least two in the C.A.T. series - more if the series took off.  The two of us were contracted to write three books each. I wrote 1, 3, and 5 and a writer in North Carolina [George Ryan] was to write 2, 4, and 6.”

Schemerhorn wrote the ‘bible’ for the C.A.T. series to ensure continuity among the other authors who would one day be brought on board as the series achieved the literary status of The Executioner and The Destroyer. “After the release of C.A.T. #1, the editor sent a note requesting more sex and violence. So in #3, I raised the level to near-parody,” Schemerhorn confessed. “I wrote all three of the books I was contracted for and I assume my co-author did the same. But the series didn't do well, and I think only the first three were actually published.”

And that was the end of the C.A.T. series. Books 1-3 came and went without much fanfare and only exist today as collector’s items for men’s adventure paperback fanatics. Books 4-6 never saw publication, and it’s unlikely that they will ever be read by anyone. 

“After awhile, my interest in the genre waned and I moved away from novels. I wrote short stories, a screenplay, a play, and many poems. I had limited success - published poems and a play that was workshopped - but not enough to earn a living as a writer. So I left the profession all together.” Schemerhorn shifted gears in his artistic pursuits and found success as a photographer whose work is currently shown in Canadian art galleries.

The C.A.T. books were work-for-hire gigs for Warner Books, so Schemerhorn did not maintain the intellectual property rights to the characters, the stories, or the books that he sold to the publisher. “Hard to Kill” is a different story. Fawcett Gold Medal permitted authors to keep the rights to their work, which is why we still have the Matt Helm and Parker books available to us today as reprints.  As such, Schemerhorn still owns the rights to “Hard to Kill” as well as the two unpublished books in the Decker series. With the eBook and self-publishing revolution of the past decade, is it possible that the world may see the full Decker series available for modern readers?

“Yeah, it does sound interesting and appealing. I'd have to look into what all is involved. But I think I might have a look.”
Fingers crossed.

Acknowledgement: 


After jumping through the hoops and doing the online research to unmask Mr. Schemerhorn, I was embarrassed to see that the work had already been done by the excellent Trash Menace blog in their review of C.A.T. #1. So, a humble hat tip in to our colleagues over there for beating us to the scoop. Cheers!

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Brad Dolan #05 - Miami Manhunt

Between 1954 and 1959, Florida author William Fuller wrote six Brad Dolan mystery paperbacks for Dell about an American playboy who finds mystery and adventure while bumming around the Caribbean in his rickety houseboat. “Brad Dolan’s Miami Manhunt” is the fifth book in the series from 1958, but there’s no particular reason why they need to be read in order.

As a hero, Dolan is a can-do guy in a laid-back shell. His only ambitions are “blue water, sunshine - and freedom.” In practice, Dolan funds his freedom by doing some low-level smuggling throughout the Caribbean - mostly guns, booze, smokes, and people. As required, he’s got an eye for the ladies and very specific feelings about the appropriate breast size. And while he’s unlikely to ever get booked on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” he’s quick with a funny wisecrack at just the right times.

In this Miami-based adventure, Dolan finds himself on vacation while his boat is being repaired. Upon arrival at his hotel, he meets a stripper with all the correct proportions who asks him to help recover money that her dead husband squirreled away before his demise. Faster than you can say “Travis McGee,” Dolan is on the case. The stripper - Marta is her name - thinks she knows where the money is stashed, but bad guys are after her to get that information. She offers to split the dough - a cool quarter million - with Dolan, which will help fund his roustabout lifestyle for years into the future.

Almost right away, things go sideways. Dolan is tailed by an unknown shadow and he is questioned by police for a crime he didn’t commit. The hidden cash is somehow tied into an airline pilot who recently went missing in a Caribbean banana republic, and Dolan turns gumshoe to get the straight dope on the pilot’s disappearance in hopes that it will open the door to the hidden fortune. 

I don’t know much about the author, William Fuller, but he was likely very different than most of the genre paperback scribes of the 1950s. The back of “Brad Dolan’s Miami Manhunt” has a photo of the impossibly handsome, shirtless, muscular writer with the bio, “Like his fictional creation, Fuller’s been around himself - merchant seaman, hobo, movie bit player, infantryman on Guam, Leyte, and Okinawa. He now lives in Winter Haven, Florida.” It sounds like Fuller lived a remarkable life and channeled his experiences into his fiction.

At 160 stubby Dell pages, this Brad Dolan adventure wasn’t a huge time-commitment, but it was a lot of fun to read. Given Fuller’s looks, charisma, and talent, the real mystery may be why he remains largely unknown today. At the very least, it was good enough to motivate me to seek out the other five books in the series. Recommended.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Deathlands #04 - Crater Lake

Gold Eagle brought us the fourth volume of Laurence James' 'Deathlands' saga in August of 1987. “Crater Lake” picks up after the happenings of the third book, “Neutron Solstice”. From the hot Mississippi basin, the group entered the redoubt only to emerge in frigid Oregon. It's a return back to the harsh winter elements found in “Red Holocaust”. After a quick hike down the road they come to the bizarre little town of Ginnsburg Falls.

The town is strictly organized into a hierarchy that places women well below social classes. In Ginnsburg Falls, women exist for breeding and slavery. This theme has run rampant in doomsday and prepper fiction so it's nothing too original or innovative. Quickly, series' mainstays Lori and Krysty are placed in holding pens and it's just a matter of time before Ryan fights back. After a stoning ritual, the team manages to escape security and heads into the forbidden north region, a volcanic island called Crater Lake. 

The team stumbles on what appears to be another redoubt in an area called the Wizard Island  Complex for Scientific Advancement. Essentially, it's a fortified lab that once housed over 1,500 scientists. Cutting themselves off from civilization, the group resulted to inbreeding over the years and now the remaining party is 60 psychos that are hoping to destroy the Earth again. After targeting Jak for research, the team find themselves prisoners on the island with another “escape the bad guys” narrative.

The book is really two story-lines that are very comparable to each other. One, escape Ginnsburg Falls and the second is the island fiasco. There's the prison aspect, a few firefights and an enjoyable adventure to be found, but it's really starting to become redundant and borrowed at this point. I hope the series does improve, but based on this book alone I may be ready to retire early. Of note is a hint of who and where Doc originally came from as well as the death of a major character. No spoilers here.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Star Trap

Although he never rose to the commercial success of his contemporaries, Robert Colby was a productive author of paperback original novels for Fawcett Gold Medal and Ace during the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, he was also a regular contributor of short stories to ‘Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine’ and ‘Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.’ “The Star Trap” was Colby’s 1960 release for Fawcett Gold Medal. The book was also reprinted by Manor Books in 1974, and it exists as an affordable eBook today.

Our narrator is Hollywood B-list actor Glenn Harley who is awakened by a 3 a.m. hysterical phone call from starlet Nancy Rhymer - a mere acquaintance - needing help. Glenn rushes to Nancy’s home to find her in a revealing nightgown with a fellow actor lying dead on the floor with a knife wound in his chest. For reasons not fully revealed at first, Nancy wants Glenn’s help in concealing the murder.

The act of stashing a body to get in good with a beautiful girl inevitably involves complications, and it wouldn’t be a femme fatale noir story without them. I won’t give away the store in this review, but suffice to say I found myself muttering, “Oh man, this is getting good,” several times throughout the short novel. At points, there is a disappearing corpse, a missing bundle of cash, some crooked cops, and an honest-to-goodness nymphomaniac. Fun for everyone.

“The Star Trap” isn’t a masterpiece of the genre by any means, but it’s a pretty enjoyable - and very short - paperback to kill a few hours. I’ve heard that Colby’s best work was his 1959 thriller, “The Captain Must Die,” and I intend to check that one out in the near future. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Red is for Courage

Author Steve Fisher's novel “Red is for Courage” was published by Argosy in November, 1943. It was written as a testament to the Red Cross and their sacrifices during WWII. Fisher, known for his pulp runs and military fiction in the 30s, 40s and 50s, had many of his works adapted for film. Arguably the most notable is the 1943 submarine themed “Destination Tokyo” starring Cary Grant. “Red is for Courage” was purchased by 20th Century Fox with the intention of an adaptation called “Red Cross Girl”. From my understanding the film never came to fruition.

In many ways this is a classic love story, a turbulent and rocky romance using WWII battlefields as the backdrop. It's told from the first person perspective of Willie, a Red Cross volunteer who's serving in battle scarred Madrid. Willie is best friends with fellow nurse Tony, who's in love with a female nurse named Noel who in turn loves Willie. This love triangle is the basis of the book. Both Tony and Willie are introduced to a war journalist named Kadi Rogers and then the triangle becomes a rather complicated thing. 

Willie declares his love for Kadi after an eventful and romantic evening. Kadi rejects his advances and soon leaves for Paris. The story then takes a fast track, covering a lot of battles and a whole lot of bandages and blood. Over the course of a few years we follow Willie's progress through the war and his eventual relocation back to New York to become a private practice physician. It's a long but memorable journey following Tony, Willie, Noel and Kadi's wartime service and their eventual post-war lives. 

From a romance genre perspective, this one nails it. But, this is a Men's Action Adventure blog and I'm sure you're all scratching your heads. I will say that there's enough battlefield action here to please genre fans. In fact, the whole climax of the book is a stirring recount of the Battle of Dunkirk, reliving a harrowing quest to ship soldiers across the canal and away from the incoming German forces. This portion is worth the price of admission. Overall, I really enjoyed this story and will probably re-read it at some point. 

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Rogue Cop

William P. McGivern (1918-1982) started his writing career authoring science fiction and fantasy stories for the pulps. By the time he turned to paperback novels, crime fiction became his preferred genre with a high water mark being his 1954 release, “Rogue Cop.” The book was adapted that same year into a well-regarded movie starring Robert Taylor and a pre-Psycho Janet Leigh.

The book’s protagonist is Detective Sergeant Mike Carmody, a police officer in the employ of his big-city police department (feels like Philadelphia to me) and the local mobster, Dan Beaumonte. Carmody has an idealistic kid brother named Eddie who is also a cop, but one who honors his oath of office and plays by the rules. As you can imagine, their relationship is distant and chilly due to the sizable gulf between their core values.

As the novel opens, Carmody has a real dilemma on his hands. His brother Eddie is preparing to testify against a low-level mobster working for Beaumonte, and the racketeer is nervous that the defendant is going to flip if convicted. Beaumonte enlists Carmody’s help to have Eddie keep his mouth shut...or else.

When Carmody explains the risks of testifying to Eddie, the Super-Catholic younger brother doesn’t want to hear it as he can’t be bought or swayed. Carmody is forced into quite a bit of soul-searching regarding his own reputation in the department as a dirty cop while devising a plan to placate his mob boss and keep Eddie alive. Carmody enlists Eddie’s girlfriend into his scheme to keep his brother safe using his own knowledge of the girl’s checkered past. 

This really is a fantastic novel. McGivern brings his A-game when it comes to creating tension and making Carmody’s redemption tale a roller-coaster ride of conflicting interests. The mobsters are menacing without being cartoonish, and the scenes of reckoning between the brothers are emotionally wrenching. McGivern had a real knack for propulsive plotting, and this story is tight as a drum. 

“Rogue Cop” is more than just a kick-ass tale of cops and crooks (although plenty of asses do get kicked). It’s also a story of a man fighting for his own redemption - both professionally and spiritually. There’s a lot going on in this short novel, and it’s way smarter than most genre paperbacks of that era.

I haven’t seen the movie adaptation because they always seem to be a letdown, but I may seek this one out. But you shouldn’t cheat yourself out of a great page-turner. If you’re looking for a fast-moving hardboiled crime story without an ounce of fat, please consider “Rogue Cop” to be essential reading. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tokyo, 1941

Cornell Woolrich wrote nearly 30 novels from 1926-1960. His most notable work is the 1942 short story “It Had to be Murder”, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcok as “Rear Window” in 1954. One of his shorts, “Tokyo, 1941”, was written in 1960 and later featured in two compilation books by Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg - “The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels” (1986) and “13 Short Espionage Novels” (1985).

The book begins in a Hong Kong hotel room as an American secret agent/spy named Lyons transfers some vials to a Caucasian male under the guise of selling a camera. There's a Chinese woman in the room with Lyons and we quickly learn that he's married but quite the ladies man. Adding to his rather unlikable nature is that he's a liar and a cheat, which are probably great traits for a spy to possess, but ultimately makes for a lousy human. After low-balling and cheating a shop owner out of a valuable diamond, Lyons makes his way back to suburban life in Azabu-ku.  

Returning to the normal 9-5 day job at the Acme Travel Agency, Lyons argues with his wife Ruth consistently. She doesn't know about his secret agent night life and Lyons, while being a real hothead, has no need to tell her his whereabouts. She thinks he's out bedding tramps...and she's fairly accurate in her appraisal. The reader can sense that the marriage is nearing its final end.

The story then takes a right turn by introducing us to a beautiful Japanese woman named Tomiko. She arrives at the equivalent of Japan's Secret Service upon request by Colonel Setsu. He demands she sacrifice herself to the Emperor by becoming Lyons lover. She'll submit her body in an effort to grab an important radio transmitter. It's all silly espionage stuff – secret vials, radios and handshakes – but it makes for an effective story. Gaining Lyons attention is no difficult task, and soon the story reaches a climactic point in a lakeside cabin. Lyons may be working for the Russians, Ruth may be on to Lyons game and this Japanese woman...well she's really just the connecting point. 

I'm not sure really what Woolrich had in mind when writing the story. It's certainly steeped in spy mythology, but comes across as social subtext on failed marriage. The Russian/US/Japan circus is prevalent, but there's the diamond portion and a slight prison angle that makes this wishy-washy at best. It's a myriad of story arcs that really doesn't lead to anything other than just an average story. Nothing more, nothing less. Paperback Warrior will continue the search for a satisfying Woolrich read.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Rip-Off!

Under the pseudonym of Mallory T. Knight, author Bernhardt J. Hurwood (1926-1987) wrote nine bawdy, tongue-in-cheek spy paperbacks in ‘The Man From T.O.M.C.A.T.’ series that ended in 1971. He then began writing paperback originals for the Fawcett Gold Medal imprint, including the stand-alone 1972 thriller, “Rip-Off!”

As the novel opens, former CIA spy Peter Ross is bored as hell in his current position as a federal prosecutor in New York’s U.S. Attorney’s Office targeting “second-rate losers who had run afoul of federal law.” Ross becomes obsessed with a spate of recent domestic terrorist incidents, burglaries, and bank robberies attributed to the shadowy, left-wing Revolutionary Action Party (RAP). As luck would have it, his politically-ambitious boss gives Ross a secret assignment to neutralize RAP, even if it means breaking the rules.

Leaving aside the author’s ignorance regarding the role of an Assistant U.S. Attorney and the machinations of the U.S. justice system, all of this seemed like a promising set-up - like Mack Bolan vs. The Hippies. Early in the novel, Ross catches a break when a young, female RAP member named Holly is captured alive at a bank robbery attempt. Ross takes Holly into his personal custody with the goal of flipping her to the side of Team America. Did I mention that Holly is super-sexy? Can you see where this is headed?

Hurwood’s written dialog is super-clunky, and his characters aren’t particularly likable or interesting. Ross is a charmless hero who does a lot of his speaking in sentences that end in unnecessary exclamation points (just like the title), so the reader is forced to imagine the ex-spook shouting in every conversation. It’s also clear that the author had some real animus towards left-wing hippies of the early 70s and used the verbal jousting between Ross and Holly as a way to score political points largely irrelevant to a modern reader.

The main problem with the novel is nothing really happens for the first 146 pages of this 160-page paperback. It almost feels like a romance novel where the federal prosecutor runs off with the hippie terrorist for an extended getaway with a lot of chit-chat between tepid sex scenes. Ross seems to take his sweet time actually getting anything worthwhile during his questioning of Holly. A single action sequence at the end of the book lands with a thud because of the dreadful slog it takes to get that far. Hurwood constructed the final scene to introduce the possibility of a series starring Peter Ross, but the character thankfully never appeared in any other books, to my knowledge. 160 pages of this dullard was more than anyone should have to endure.

Another issue with “Rip-Off!” is that my expectations are just higher for Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks. Even accepting that the quality of their output diminished by the 1970s, this felt like the kind of hastily-written one-off that Manor Books was releasing around the same time. Upon finishing the paperback, I felt cheated out of a few weekend hours and had an overwhelming feeling of being, well, ripped off. Don’t make the same mistake and waste a second of your time with this one.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Rig Warrior #01 - Rig Warrior

The paperback shelf at your used book store is typically going to feature plenty of titles from the William W. Johnstone empire. If you are a fan of the author (s), there's a plethora of goodies to devour. If you aren't, you are stuck weeding through stacks and stacks of the stuff hoping to find other writers. It's just the nature of the paperback reseller. 

'Rig Warrior' was a short-lived series that debuted in 1987. The self-title released that year, followed by two sequels in 1988 - “Wheels of Death” and “Eighteen-Wheel Avenger”. The books were repackaged with different artwork and reprinted for modern audiences. It's similar to Bob Hamm's 'Overload' series in the way it drills down to vigilantes driving freight trucks and fighting the mob. It's really as simple as that, although this series adds a slightly new dynamic to it by the second novel. 

Barry Rivers is a Vietnam Vet and ex-Special Forces officer. He's won numerous medals and gained a universal knowledge for killing. After service, Rivers went into consulting work and established an extremely profitable firm. His father is an owner operator for Rivers Trucking, an employer that Barry drove for before going to Vietnam. Barry learns that the business has been targeted by the Mob and that his father was badly beaten. It sounds like we have ourselves a vigilante novel.


Barry takes a vacation from the firm and starts driving for his father's business again. Soon, he learns that the business is running government contracts and that certain parts of the FBI are shipping drugs in the freight. It's an elementary story line until we realize that there's mad scientists involved and, along with the drug traffic, it is an expansive operation involving corpses being used in freakish experiments. Rivers Trucking unknowingly supplies the labs with these cadavers and in turn they are subjected to “Frankenstein” experiments in a weird “Universal Soldier” concept. 

Johnstone is in ultra-conservative mode here and takes some of the political turns that saw his 'Out of the Ashes' series go extremely red. It's very pro-gun, Republican and prepper friendly with the typical “the government and police can't be trusted” phobia. It's silly, poorly written and comes across as rather immature. However, by the end of the book there's a twist that I won't ruin for you. It's this twist that makes me rethink the book's staying power. Because of this, I think I may jump on the second novel just to see if the series improves under the new dynamic. The verdict is still out, but based on this only lasting three books I'm thinking it was a failed attempt.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

You'll Die Next

I’ll never live long enough to read the approximately 170 books that Harry Whittington wrote during his prolific career. Instead, I rely on others to identify his Greatest Hits, so I can use my limited reading time wisely. His 1954 paperback, “You’ll Die Next!”, was first published as half of an Ace Double (paired with “Drag the Dark” by Frederick C. Davis), and was recommended to me as being one of Whittington’s better noir novels.

Henry and Lila are a normal, suburban couple. One morning while Henry is enjoying Lila’s famous popovers for breakfast, the doorbell rings. When Henry opens the door, an unknown thug on his front stoop pulls him outside and beats the stuffing out of him. As the muscle leaves, he delivers Henry an ominous and threatening message from “Sammy.”

But who the hell is Sammy?

Henry quickly begins to suspect that it’s Lila with the secret in her past that inspired the beating. You see, Lila used to be a lounge singer, and she married Henry six months ago in a whirlwind romance. This always puzzled Henry because his sexy wife is way out of his league looks-wise. In any case, Lila denies knowing anyone named Sammy who would arrange for a savage beating like this.

More weirdness follows Henry that day including a mysterious letter, an attempt on his life, and an unjust suspension from work. Someone is trying to turn Henry’s life upside-down but why? Henry’s only play is to become his own investigator and locate the elusive Sammy. As the hunt unfolds, Henry’s problems escalate until he finds himself a man on the run - wanted for a crime he didn’t commit with police on his tail.

Whittington sets up the story nicely as a noir mystery, and, for the most part, the novel holds the reader’s attention quite nicely. But the worthiness of a book like this can be judged by the quality of the payoff at the end. Either the solution to the novel’s central mystery is reasonable and clever or you’ve just wasted your time on a pleasant flight without a smooth landing.

Unfortunately, Whittington fails the “clever solution” test in this particular mystery, and “You’ll Die Next!” left me feeling like I got a bum steer from whomever recommended it to me. The bad guys orchestrating Henry’s torment are wooden, and their motivation is rather silly. There are some decent scenes in this short book, but the payoff lands with a thud. As such, I need to file this one in the “don’t bother” pile. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Earl Drake #05 - Operation Breakthrough

After the success of 1969's “One Endless Hour”, the sequel to “The Name of the Game is Death”, author Dan J. Marlowe placed all of his writing endeavors firmly on the path of “Drake”, the robber turned spy. Beginning the spy portion of the series in 1969's “Operation Fireball”, Marlowe went on to write nine more Drake titles. The only non-Drake novel he wrote after 1969 was a 1982 installment of 'Phoenix Force' as Gar Wilson (“Guerilla Games”). Marlowe then wrote short stories until his death in 1986.

The series fifth title, “Operation Breakthrough”, is a really fun exercise in the jailbreak formula. The novel begins with Drake and his colleague Karl Erikson breaking into a Caribbean bank in Nassau. Erikson, a makeshift spy in his own right, made his series debut in “Operation Fireball”. He quickly made friends with Drake and has assigned him to global bank heists for government checks. Thus, the novel's beginning makes sense to longtime readers. However, as the two snatch highly secure documents from the vault, Erikson is nabbed by authorities as Drake makes the escape.

Stuck on the island with swarms of police, Drake crashes with a former associate named Candy, an African-American kung-fu gambler that was introduced briefly in “Operation Flashpoint”. Drake takes no time bedding down a massage parlor mistress before eventually escaping the island and the hook. Game over so soon? Not hardly.

Drake has the secure documents in a briefcase but has no idea where to return it. The problem is that Drake was never supplied any credentials or contacts for Erikson or the department he works for. Returning the suitcase and documents is a cumbersome endeavor. From New York to DC, Drake hits brick walls attempting to locate Erikson's branch and personnel. Dropping the suitcase randomly (a hilarious chapter), Hazel and Drake are back on the trail to break Erikson out of the clink. Thus the “bank heist” formula these books utilize is still in place. From here it is recruitment of the pieces and then ultimately the jailbreak adventure. Marlowe knows where the meat and potatoes are for his guests. 

“Operation Breakthrough” is extremely enjoyable with Marlowe practicing all of the strategy and game play the series is known for. He's a master storyteller and this adventure really throws out the exciting - yet familiar - elements that we expect. Intrigue, danger, cops, robbers and banks. This one is recommended if not altogether predictable. I'm good with it.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

High Stakes

The intersection of gambling and crime is fertile ground for fiction writers and serves as the theme for “High Stakes,” a 2003 anthology of eight short stories edited by Robert Randisi. Three of my favorite authors are among the contributors, so I decided to read and review the stories by Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and Randisi himself.

“Let’s Get Lost” by Lawrence Block

Block’s contribution features his popular NYC private eye Matt Scudder, the hero of Block’s most acclaimed series of novels. This particular story originally appeared in the September/October 2000 issue of “Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.”


“Let’s Get Lost” is a throwback to a time when Nixon was president, and Scudder was a married NYPD detective who drank too much. One night watching a baseball game at home, Matt is summoned to the apartment of a prostitute with whom he has a personal relationship (Elaine becomes a significant character in later books of the series). As a favor to a client, she needs Matt to clean up a mess at a home poker game in a Manhattan brownstone.

The mess in question involves one of the poker players who winds up with a switchblade buried in his chest - dead by the time Matt arrives. The unusual circumstances of the murder cause Matt to advocate staging the crime scene along with the poker guys to create a more coherent story for the soon-to-be-responding officers. Is Matt being a crooked cop or does he have an ulterior motive?

Matt Scudder stories - long or short - are always fantastic, and this one is no exception. The Scudder P.I. novels contain many references to his days on the NYPD, but it’s interesting to actually read a story where Scudder is on the job as a cop and Elaine was just his favorite hooker.

“Breathe Deep” by Donald E Westlake

Westlake’s entry in the anthology first appeared in the July 1985 issue of Playboy where you also could have seen Grace Jones naked if you had $3.50 burning a hole in your pocket.

Chuck is a Las Vegas blackjack dealer standing at attention behind a $10 table with no players at 3:30 in the morning. Out of nowhere, he is approached by an old man that Chuck suspects is a derelict who wandered into the upscale casino on the Strip.

The conversation veers toward the urban legend (which may be true, for all I know) that casinos pump oxygen onto the gaming floor to keep the gamblers energized and awake. The story poses the question: what if someone wanted to use that knowledge as a weapon?

Westlake is always a good author, but at seven pages, this story was too short to really build up any momentum or tension. And without spoiling the ending, I’m not sure that the violent plan being executed would have actually worked in real life.

“Henry and the Idiots” by Robert J. Randisi

As the creator of several highly-regarded mystery series characters (Miles Jacoby, Nick Delvecchio, and Joe Meough, to name a few) Robert Randisi knows his way around a good crime story. “Henry and the Idiots” appears for the first time in the “High Stakes” anthology and has also found a second life as a $2 Kindle eBook.

While playing Caribbean stud poker on board a Mississippi riverboat casino, Henry Simon wins $257,000 in one hand and plans his escape from his miserable nag of a wife and her idiot brothers who all share the same trailer. Instead of going home with the money. Henry takes the cash and splits on a tour of casinos west of the Mississippi en route to Reno.

Meanwhile, back at the trailer, Henry’s wife dispatches the idiots to find Henry and figure out why he didn’t come home from the casino the night before. When she catches wind of Henry’s big gambling win, she’s ever more motivated to find her husband - and the money. Things come to a head in Reno once the idiots catch up with Henry and the security of the money falls into serious jeopardy.

The lighthearted story ends up with some fun twists and was a nice way to kill a half-hour.

The other five stories in “High Stakes” were written by Leslie Glass, Jeff Abbott, Judith Van Gleason, and Elaine Viets, and I’m sure they are all solid mystery tales. Based on the three stories I read, this fun anthology is an easy recommendation. Nothing revelatory, but some enjoyable short stories from a handful of the genre’s modern titans.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Hawker #06 - Vegas Vengeance

Randy Wayne White wrote the first ‘Hawker’ novel, “Florida Firefight”, in 1984 under the moniker Carl Ramm. White would later go on to achieve much bigger success with his 'Doc Ford' series. While the debut left a lot to be desired, the series drastically improved into a stylish private eye action formula. The sixth title, “Vegas Vengeance”, continues that trend.

The book begins with Hawker making a phone call to Barbara Blaine. She owns a successful prostitute house on the strip aptly titled The Doll House. Through the conversation we learn that Hawker was tipped off about murder and extortion tactics leveraged against Blaine and her company. Blaine, concerned this is another crafty attempt to weaken her defenses, agrees to dinner after hearing Hawker's background. From there, the wheels are set into motion.

Before Hawker can meet Blaine, he's met with a high-speed, high-octane shootout on a dirt road southwest of Vegas. It's Hawker in a Jaguar XKE convertible and the baddies sporting a Datsun 280Z. White holds nothing back as the two race through the canyon, all guns blazing until Hawker derails the Datsun's quest. These two guys know about Hawker's assignment and the protection he's ultimately offering Blaine. 

As a typical private-eye yarn...this one hits all cylinders. Hawker learns who's shaking down The Doll House and why. Through shootouts and an intricate investigation, Hawker tracks the enforcers to a mining camp. Before that there's the obligatory mattress romp in the dark with what the reader assumes is Blaine. That mystery remains until the last few pages, a nice touch that adds a little more depth to the saga. 

Overall, “Vegas Vengeance” is another well-told Hawker story. While easily infringing on many detective novels (this is the 80s) that came before it, there's still enough identity here to make this a winner. I can't stay away from these books and I've been storing them in the vaults hoping I don't run out of the series too quickly. If you need a light read...Hawker is it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Killing Suki Flood

In 2015, Hard Case Crime author Ken Bruen wrote an article in Publisher’s Weekly called “10 Best Noir Novels” with the #1 slot occupied by a 1991 book and author unknown to me: Killing Suki Flood by Rob Lieninger. The reviews were also universally positive for this hardboiled crime stand-alone, so I decided to give it a shot.

Although the story takes place in 1989, the novel has the feel and plot structure of a Fawcett Gold Medal crime paperback from the 1950s. 54 year-old trucker Frank is driving to his New Mexico hideout with $77,000 in crime proceeds stashed in the camper he’s pulling when he comes upon a sexy 18 year old girl broken down on the side of the road. Because this is a quasi-throwback crime story in need of a femme fatale, Frank stops to help the comely Suki.

Frank is 5’8” tall, 225 pounds and built like a tank, and Suki is sex-on-fire in a hot little outfit. One thing leads to another, and Suki winds up in Frank’s truck without knowing that she’s joining him on a getaway from a profitable crime. Their patter between dim bulb Suki and wisecracking curmudgeon Frank is hilarious, and the evolution of their relationship is a joy to witness. 

It turns out that Frank isn’t the only one of the pair on the run. Suki s being pursued by goons working for a wealthy and abusive ex-boyfriend allegedly for transgressions having to do with her ex’s car. All this over a Trans-Am? This seems a bit extreme to Frank. Could there be more to Suki’s story that she’s not sharing?

At 244 pages, this isn’t a long book by modern standards, but it still could have used some tightening up. The first third of the book, for example, is basically Frank and Suki getting to know each other in a hiding spot while goons methodically search the New Mexico desert for them. I wasn’t bored because the characters are all vividly written, but the pacing of the action was a bit off. “Killing Suki Flood” is basically one long cat-and-mouse game about an unlikely pair being hunted for their recent criminal actions.

Eventually, the hunted become the hunters and the action increases markedly in the novel’s second half. Once we understand the cast of characters, their secrets, and motivations, the second half of the book is a wild ride. Frank makes for an unlikely gallant hero, and the main villains are suitably reprehensible. The character of Suki’s crazy ex-boyfriend was prone to long monologues and theatrical torture - a bit much for my tastes, but the character was vividly evil enough to inspire loathing in any sane reader.

Even though this isn’t the greatest noir novel of all time (a high bar to set), it’s an inventive and well-written take on a classic pursuit thriller, and the final conflict between the adversaries remains one of the best fight scenes I’ve ever read. Lieninger is often compared to Elmore Leonard because both write quirky characters, but I actually preferred Lieninger’s writing because he keeps it hardboiled and never cartoonish. “Killing Suki Flood” is available today as a paperback, an eBook, and a freebie for Kindle Unlimited subscribers. Recommended.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

This Gun is Still

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) was a popular and highly respectable author of over 300 stories for more than 40 pulp magazines. Sometimes writing as Stephen Acre, John K. Vedder or Charles K. Boston, Gruber completed a massive outpouring of paperback titles. While known for his detective and crime stories, the author's most popular genre was the western, a genre he was claimed to have described as only able to deliver seven distinct story types. Despite what he felt were its shortcomings, Gruber wrote over 30 western novels including “This Gun is Still”, published by powerhouse Bantam Books in 1967.

The book begins with what could be the best opening pages of any western I've personally read. It's a bold statement – but absolutely true. A Wells Fargo stagecoach is racing across the hot White Sands as Apache warriors descend from the hills. In a rapid-fire delivery, we read that the stagecoach driver is killed and the carriage is tipped onto its side. With at least a dozen warriors outside, the two passengers, Jim Forester and Lily Bender, prepare for death. Forester, with only six bullets and a Navy Colt, begins firing from the window, hitting warriors within 10 feet of the coach. He makes five shots deadly, but debates the final shot – kill the girl so he alone can be tortured and ravaged by the Apaches or fire one more deadly shot at the braves and await the grizzly inevitable. Thankfully, a lone cowboy rides in with a Winchester rifle and kills enough warriors to make the war party scatter. Jim Forester meets Wes Morgan. 

We learn that Forester works for a bank in Chicago called Davenport. He's come to the town of Stanton to collect on a default loan from one of two store owners. After the owner dismisses the delinquent $8K, Forester obtains a warrant to shut the store and owner down. The Justice of the Peace provides an interesting backstory on Stanton's rather odd situation. The town's wealth lies in two factions, Bender and Deever. Bender has a large and very profitable cattle ranch and is a passive man. Deever is a former Major who makes his living stealing from Bender and running his own cattle ranch off the theft. Bender has enough wealth and cattle and simply doesn't care. However, Deever, in a rather bold authority, hates Bender and only wants the town to support him. Deever asks that Forester and his company only conduct county business with him, starving and depleting the other businesses and ultimately “gifting” the town to Deever. Forester refuses and that's where the story thickens. 

In a wild chain of events, Forester quits his job and takes over the store as its new owner – partly for a change of scenery but also because he refuses to see Deever win. Complicating things is Wes Morgan, a wanted outlaw who saved Forester but who may be working with Deever. Discombobulating it further is the lovely Lily, Bender's daughter and former Morgan lover. She may or may not be falling for Forester, who has a number of decisions to make once Deever and his hired guns start threatening violence. Tuck tail and run, align with the law or fight Morgan and Deever. It's a western, so you know which way it will eventually go...but it is a thrilling journey to get there. 

Overall, Frank Gruber is fantastic here and expels just enough drama, romance and courtroom intrigue (yes, I said courtroom) to make this a really well-told western. If you are looking for something that isn't the traditional western fare, this one is a must-read. Recommended.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Titus Gamble

A freed slave returns to his East Texas hometown as the town’s new lawman. Will the townsfolk be able to set aside their prejudices and allow the black constable to keep the peace? No, this is not a novelization of “Blazing Saddles” but rather the 1977 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original, “Titus Gamble” by Peter Gentry, a pseudonym of collaborators Frank Schaefer and Kerry Newcomb.

Titus Gamble began his freedom as a teenage runaway slave fleeing the Shannon Plantation in Brennanburg, Texas after a sexual encounter with the master’s comely daughter. Hungry and exhausted, Titus stumbles upon a Union encampment with a small regiment of black soldiers among them. Titus figures this is the best way to create distance between himself and his pursuers and joins the Union Army to fight the rebs.

The action then cuts four years later, and we meet the Brennan family, owners of the Shannon Plantation. The Civil War is over and the plantation’s black servants are no longer regarded as slaves. Drium is the Brennan patriarch, and his two sons - Rury and Dub - have returned from the war where they fought for the Confederacy. Dub got the worst of it and returned from the war with one fewer arm than when he enlisted. Finally, we meet Fianna, the red-haired Irish-American daughter who has taken on the role of matriarch since her mother’s death.

Early in the paperback, the reader is given clues that the Brennan family is a dysfunctional bunch. For starters, Fiona seems to get her kicks by traipsing around the mansion wearing next to nothing and staging nipple slips to drive her one-armed brother crazy with incestuous lust. Then there’s Rury whose idea of a good time is to ride over to Shreveport and murder freed slaves in their sleep.

The black laborers on the Shannon Plantation continue to work despite their freedom in exchange for food, clothing, housing, and small wages. This dependency arrangement barely sustains life for the newly-freed and serves to keep them in their place as sure a whip did when they were another man’s property. Other blacks survive by subsistence farming on plots of land forcibly taken from plantation owners by Union soldiers and provided to freed slaves to give them a fresh start as homesteaders. You can imagine that the plantation owners whose lands were seized in this arrangement aren’t thrilled with their new neighbors.

Due to a Civil War casualty, the town of Brennanburg is in need of a lawman to keep the peace. The military governor of the State of Texas names black (actually mulatto, but same difference to the local whites) war hero Titus for the position. The town residents aren’t enthusiastic about this appointment, and this is where the book shifts into the familiar territory of a Western novel. Titus strives to wrangle lawless poor blacks in the shantytown by the river while avoiding a lynching by the town’s conniving whites loyal to the wicked Shannon Plantation.

“Titus Gamble” is a plantation drama in addition to a Western novel, and it treads on well-established ground for the slavery gothic paperbacks. The shame and secrets that arise from forbidden interracial sex is the fuel that drives much of the interpersonal conflicts. There is also a good bit of violence and intrigue among the characters. It’s clear that the authors studied the ‘Blackoaks’ and ‘Falconhurst’ novels of Harry Whittington (writing as Ashley Carter), and they do a great job of re-creating that story structure. Like Whittington’s books, the writing here is superb and the plotting is compelling and easy to follow.

The plantation gothic paperbacks provide modern readers a prurient glimpse into the ghastly culture of American slavery in a manner that never glorifies or belittles the horror inflicted on the victims. “Titus Gamble” uniquely shines a light on the difficulties that southerners - white and black - had while adjusting to the new normal in the early days of reconstruction after the Civil War settled the issue of slavery’s legality.

This was a good novel but not a perfect one. The authors’ habit of writing the black dialogue phonetically (“He got hisse’f a followin’ a’ rowdies an’ de lahk, campin’ down by de riber...) made for a cumbersome read at times. The authors also tended to use a lot of tortured metaphors in the perfectly graphic sex scenes (“The delicate umber forest of her womanhood...His tumescent shaft...,” etc.).

Meanwhile, the action scenes are vivid and brutal - filled with gunplay, knife-fighting, and bare-knuckle brawling. The novel really succeeds as a Western about a new constable working to civilize a lawless town against great adversity.

“Titus Gamble” is an entertaining page-turner by a highly-talented writing pair. I was never bored, and I learned quite a bit about the era. This isn’t a masterwork of historical fiction, but you won’t regret the time you spend reading about the adventures of this unlikely hero. Recommended.

Postscript:

“Titus Gamble” is available to buy on the Amazon Kindle or borrow via the Kindle Unlimited program under the authors’ real names. You lose the vivid 1977 cover art, but you’ll avoid the awkward glances from people around you. Your call.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

This Day's Evil

Jonathan Craig was a pseudonym utilized by author Frank Smith. Known for his police procedural series '6th Precinct', which ran ten installments from 1955-1966, Smith was also a contributor to 'Alfred Hitchcock Magazine', submitting five total stories over the course of 1964 through 1970. His first, “This Day's Evil”, was featured in the March, 1964 issue and reprinted again numerous times in the popular paperback anthology formula.

The short-story begins where all good crime novels should – a planned robbery. In this case, it is the young Earl Munger, a small-town crony who's tired of blue-collar labor and slim paydays. After being humiliated by his date, who feels ashamed to ride in Earl's smelly farm truck, the young man decides to rob the wealthy Charlie Tate, a prominent businessman and property owner. 

Right before Earl's planned burglary, the sheriff arrives for a mysterious encounter that leaves Earl torn – wait until the sheriff's departure, bag the old man and take the goods or conservatively plan for another night. After a quick meeting, the sheriff leaves and Earl goes through with the robbery. In turn, Tate is knocked unconscious with what looks to be a deadly blow and Earl makes off with about $20K in bundled bills. Where's the mystery and intrigue that only Alfred Hitchcock's people can deliver? The next day, Earl overhears the sheriff explaining to a local store owner that Charlie left a suicide note before killing himself with poison.

This quick read delivers the goods in an entertaining fashion. Earl must learn how Charlie died, and ultimately how to hide the cash and himself in what could be either a murder or suicide investigation. Everything isn't what it seems and the reader is left guessing until the very end. Frank Smith is a solid writer and this one is just a lot of fun. Looking for a breather between those 180-page action novels? Give it a free read at http://www.luminist.org/archives/PU/.

Monday, October 1, 2018

87th Precinct #04 - Con Man

The '87th Precinct' novels by Ed McBain are a blast to read - particularly the early ones. They are short, snappy, and clever books told by a disembodied third-person narrator who provides personality and commentary along the way without ever actually being an active character in the books - think Rod Serling in “The Twilight Zone.” Meanwhile, the ensemble cast of police detectives working the cases prevents the series from ever falling into a rut due to character burn-out. The rotating line-up of featured performers keeps the novels evergreen.

“The Con Man” from 1957 is the fourth book in the series, and finds the citizens of the 87th being victimized by a bunco artist using deception to cheat good people out of their money. Meanwhile, a bloated and water-logged woman’s body washes up on the city’s riverbank. Could this mysterious death somehow be connected to the con artist working the neighborhood?

The Lebron James of the 87th Precinct is Detective Steve Carella (Did you think I was going to say Meyer Meyer?), and he is assigned the case of the mysterious floater. The clues are sparse because the river has claimed the hair on her head (Pubic hair: blonde, he notes), and the body is a distended mess. The corpse’s only remaining clothing is a bra stretched to the breaking point by the bloating torso, but a tell-tale tattoo might provide a lead. Through Carella’s eyes, McBain goes into great detail about the medical examiner’s autopsy and the inherent challenges involved with identifying a floater. I can only assume that McBain did his homework because it’s fascinating stuff - but not for the squeamish.

About a third of the way through the book, our omniscient narrator opines that the 87th’s big problem was the floater, and the 87th’s little problem was the con man. McBain structures the narrative like the A story and the B story of a TV cop show, and an astute reader is not surprised when the story of the con man somehow merges with the story of the floater.

As usual, McBain’s writing is superb. His descriptions of the action are vivid and his knack for dialogue - even when it’s just cops bullshitting in the squad room - is spot-on. Like his contemporaries Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake, McBain’s writing is a national treasure. Recommended.