Friday, January 18, 2019

The Strange Intruder

Arthur Catherall (1906-1980) was an adventurer at heart. From climbing mountains in Lapland and Algeria to sailing trawlers in the Atlantic and Arctic, the British author certainly had many life experiences to inspire his literary work. Utilizing over six different pseudonyms, Catherall wrote a high volume of young adult novels like “The Strange Intruder”. This sweeping 1964 adventure tale was first released as “The Strange Invader” before being reprinted by Archway as “The Strange Intruder” in 1968.

While never specifying a time period, the novel seems to be set in the present day (1964). The wind-swept location is the chilly Faroes Islands, geographically positioned north of the British Isles and just Southeast of Iceland. In the book's opening pages we read that the 900-ton schooner Faroes Seeker has struck an old wheelhouse assembly and torn the ship's hull. Miles off coast, the crew becomes stranded and forced to use battered sails on storm-ravaged seas. 

The book's young protagonist is Sven Klakk, a 16-year old fishermen learning the trade with his uncles. He's part of a small village living on the islands and has enough experience with a plethora of rigging, climbing, fishing and...adventuring. In some ways Sven is the life of the island, always there to help the elders while slowly evolving into a full-time role as statesman. Sven and his father see the ship and eventually round up the village to start making supplies available for the surviving crewmen.

In a wild turn of events, the villagers spot a crew member jumping from the ship and swimming to a storm-battered enclave. Sven, panicking to save the swimmer, races to the cliffs and the narrative really builds steam as we learn the crew member is actually a polar bear escaping captivity from the ship. Once Sven meets the bear...the fight is on. With very little supplies, an old shotgun and the storm raging on the island, the story has Sven and the villagers fighting off a ravenous polar bear that's angry out of his element.

Like most of Catherall's work, this is a coming of age tale about a young man saving his village. Metaphorically, the bear is Sven's own childhood raging to break free. With the backdrop of swollen seas, rocky cliffs and island life, the author creates a vivid, enjoyable adventure read for anyone. I'm passing it on to a 67-year old to read next. The kid in us never really ages.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Everybody's Watching Me

“Manhunt Magazine” was a hardboiled crime fiction digest that first hit the shelves in January 1953. The first four issues featured a serialized short novel by Mickey Spillane called “Everybody’s Watching Me” that was also reprinted by Manhunt in 1955. The story runs about 100 pages and was brought back for yet another Manhunt encore in 1964 under the new title, “I Came to Kill You.” It exists today as an affordable eBook and a paperback reprint.

“Everybody’s Watching Me” isn’t a Mike Hammer story but instead is told by a young laborer named Joe who delivers a threatening message to a local gangster named Renzo from an enigmatic killer named Vetter. The mobster is a “kill the messenger” kinda guy who beats young Joe unconscious for the audacity of simply delivering the note.

The note is from the mysterious Vetter is taken seriously since he recently knocked off a mob underboss and has everyone in the underworld on edge. What is Vetter’s agenda? Is he a rival godfather looking to take over the local rackets? Renzo suspects that Joe knows more than he’s admitting regarding Vetter, and he has Joe followed by surveillance goons hoping that the kid will lead the mobster to Vetter.

Joe has no information to provide anyone about this “assassin of mobsters,” and he - along with a sexy showgirl he meets along the way - finds himself in the middle of underworld tensions and the police. All these concerned parties are hoping that the naive Joe will lead them to Vetter.

Despite a cool setup, the story of Joe running around both manipulating and being manipulated at the eye of a mafia storm isn’t all that compelling. However, the last scene of this novel is just awesome and features a plot twist that I never saw coming. Ultimately, I suppose it was worth the hundred pages of my attention.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Cold Night's Death

Author Barbara Harrison is mostly known for historical literary works and contemporary romance novels. In 1973, Award Books assigned her the job of creating a novelization of an ABC made-for-television movie entitled “A Cold Night's Death”. Typically, movie novelizations are reserved for big screen releases or higher budget films needing additional marketing. It's a mystery on why Award wanted an ABC “movie of the week” in print, but alas here it is. I haven't seen the film (it's on YouTube) but couldn't resist the cover and promises of “Icy terror, suspense and violence”. 

Again, I haven't seen this film. But based on what I endured for 156-pages...I will never watch it. Perhaps Barbara Harrison was welded to the film's restraints, but reading “A Cold Night's Death” felt exactly like the novel's title. This is a lethargic, dull narrative where two scientists are literally thousands of miles from civilization and have nothing else to do but bicker with each other. And they drag you and I into it against our will. I wanted the suspenseful mystery that was teased to me during the novel's opening chapters.

Tower Mountain sits 14,000 feet into the thin air of Northern California. It's a snowy, wind-swept Hell where a small research station houses a lone scientist. For reasons the reader doesn't know (spoiler: you never know), this scientist is at the peak of madness and broadcasting on the short-wave radio for help. Why? What has happened? 

In chapter two we are introduced to the book's two protagonists, Frank and Robert. Both are esteemed scientists that have worked together for a number of years on a dozen projects. Dr. Horner, the research leader (at ground control), has asked that Frank and Robert fly to this frozen wasteland to determine what has happened to the missing scientist and the monkeys that are being used for the grant experiment - the effects of high altitudes and stress on humans. Against their better judgment, both agree to the assignment.

Chapter three begins with Frank and Robert arriving at the ice station and learning the whereabouts of the missing scientist. The mysteries here are aplenty – who locked the scientist in, why is there a window open, who destroyed the interior and how did the scientist die. I was hoping for an engaging hybrid of sleuth, murder and locked room mystery. The end result is nearly a three-month stay for Robert and Frank that includes a lot of experimentation on monkeys, radio dialogue with Dr. Horner and the two main characters jousting at each other like The Honeymooners. 

Barbara Harrison has nothing to offer more than Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg's screenplay (no it isn't our beloved Lee Goldberg). That's the whole issue here...there's nothing to add because nothing really ever happens. There's some bump in the night suspense here and there, a few items knocked over and a lot of accusations tossed about. At the end I was dog-tired from this pointless exercise. Absolutely steer away from “A Cold Night's Death”. It's a soul killer.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Cheaters

As an author, Orrie Hitt is often dismissed as being “sleaze fiction” but this designation fails to recognize the fundamental truth that he was a superb writer and that his plots often incorporated noir and crime fiction elements beside the soft-core sex scenes. A perfect example is his 1960 paperback, “The Cheaters” that has been re-released by Stark House for modern consumption.

Clint Mayer is 24 and broke when he lands a job at a dive bar in a scummy neighborhood of an industrial town. The owner confides in Mayer that the bar subsidies its bottom line by taxing a trio of prostitutes who use the tavern as a home base of flesh-peddling operations. A crooked local cop shaking down the girls for protection money casts a malevolent shadow over the whole enterprise.

Mayer has a girl who he’s been with for years ever since he took her virginity. She wants to marry, and he lacks enthusiasm for that institution. Meanwhile, his new boss has a young and desirable wife named Debbie who seems hot to trot with the new help. This, of course, becomes an obsession for Mayer who needs to balance his desires with his need to put bread on the table.

As Mayer and Debbie grow closer, the topic of Debbie’s dissatisfaction with her own marriage and and an existing life insurance policy on her husband, you just know that this erotic tease of a novel is about to take a dark turn into James M. Cain territory. Hitt writes his sex scenes with a high level of eroticism without ever being as graphic as the most tepid Longarm western - a cool trick that the author honed in over 150 published novels.

In case you get deceived by the romance novel cover art, rest assured that there is some no-shit violence in this tricky little paperback. For example, there’s a beating scene that will stay with you long after you finish the book - you’ll know what I mean when you read it.

I liked this paperback quite a bit. Admittedly, “The Cheaters” is basically a ripoff of Cain’s “Double Indemnity,” but it’s a damn fine ripoff. After all, who doesn’t like a like a great cover band? You’ll see the twist ending coming from a mile away, but the ride to get there sure is a lot of fun. Recommended.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Fargo #05 - Wildcatters

Author Ben Haas (as John Benteen) utilized the blend of action, adventure and western genres to perfect his long-running 'Fargo' series. I've heard collectors and fans describe the series as the 'Conan' of westerns. It's a fitting description for this sort of troubadour adventure, a formula that's never failed to thrill and excite me. The fifth of this series, “Wildcatters”, is no different. 

John Fargo rides into a new Oklahoma boomtown looking for work. The journey to town has Fargo reuniting with an old flame named Tess, now a business woman running a prostitution operation. Tess introduces Fargo to her beautiful niece Maggie with the warning that Maggie isn't for sale – she's a respectable woman looking for a suitable husband. This part is important to know.

Soon, Fargo's reputation (and an earlier brawl) catches up with him and he is solicited by the town's oil tycoon Brasher. He's struck black gold and now wants to aggressively expand his operation further. The missing piece is a presumed oil well outside of town owned by a rival named Russell. There's a backstory here of Brasher and Russell's father being former business partners that resulted in Russell's father being murdered and Brasher escaping any legal charges. Brasher is now brutish, wealthy and forcing Russell into bankruptcy. 

After declining Brasher's proposition of joining the oil empire as a hired gun, Fargo learns that his gun fighting equal and friend Friday has signed on with Brasher. He's as tough as bedrock. After aligning with Rusell, Fargo borrows $20,000 from Teddy Roosevelt (seriously!) and starts the drilling process to defy Brasher/Friday.

The narrative follows a few gunfights and forays between Fargo's oil workers and Brasher's enforcers. Of course it wouldn't be a Fargo novel without plenty of Fox shotgun work. In one explosive scene we see Fargo discharge his .10 Gauge point blank at two riders, cutting them in half! A rather clever scene finds Fargo outgunned by a posse on a river bank. Let's just say floating a crate of dynamite down the river and popping it from afar with a Winchester leaves plenty of...entrails on the trail. There's a rekindled love interest with Tess to soften the violence, as well as a flair of mystery behind Maggie's outward appearance. 

Overall, another stellar Fargo entry in what has become my guaranteed reading pleasure. Quick, fast-paced and thrilling, “Wildcatters” just doesn't disappoint.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Canyon O'Grady #05 - The Lincoln Assignment

Because the series order really doesn’t matter, my next foray into the world of adult western hero Canyon O’Grady is the fifth book in the series, “The Lincoln Assignment.” For this 1989 installment, veteran author Chet Cunningham serves as the writer behind the Jon Sharpe house name.

Someone is trying to kill U.S. Representative Abraham Lincoln before a scheduled series of debates with U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas as both men compete for the Senate seat currently held by Douglas. Meanwhile, a team of deadly assassins is also targeting Senator Douglas who has his eye on winning the White House in two years. The current U.S. President is James Buchanan, and he is concerned about this threat to the democratic process and dispatches his best man - Special Agent Canyon O’Grady - to Illinois to investigate and neutralize this threat. O’Grady’s presidential orders? “Stop the ruffians!”

Early in the paperback, O’Grady learns the identities of the assassins and the agenda of the puppet masters engaging their services. I won’t give it away, but the rationale was not too outlandish. The owlhoots hired to kill the politicians are a great set of villains that includes a sexy redheaded female, and this being an adult western, you can imagine where that leads. There’s also a female U.S. Government Agent thrown into the mix of this investigation which ads an interesting wrinkle to the story.

Mostly what we have here is a pretty exciting, sexy and violent action novel starring a U.S. Government Agent trying to prevent a pair of political assassinations. The fact that it takes place in August 1858 is almost inconsequential to the story. It’s a western because the hero rides a horse, but there are no Apache attacks of settlers in “The Lincoln Assignment.”

I’ve always preferred Chet Cunningham’s work in the western genre to his contemporary action paperbacks (“Spur” is better than “The Penetrator,” for example), and this Canyon O’Grady book is no exception. Cunningham was a talented literary entertainer who focused on solid plotting rather than flowery prose. He tackles his mandatory graphic sex scenes with real gusto, and they are well-woven into the plot. Moreover, the characters of Lincoln and Douglas are well-written and infused with human personalities. 

Canyon O’Grady is shaping up to be one of my favorite series characters in this genre. If you like adult westerns and historical fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Pro #01 - The $3-Million Turn-Over

The term “agent” is utilized frequently when describing men's action adventure paperbacks from the 1970s. Normally it would be in the context of a crime sequence involving a Federal Agent or a globe-trotting espionage affair. So, it's incredibly rare to see a different kind of agent featured in an action-adventure novel. In 1974, author Richard Curtis introduced us to Dave Bolt, a SPORTS AGENT who solves crime. “The $3-Million Turn-Over” is the debut of a four-book series entitled 'The Pro'.

We learn about series star Bolt through a few dialogue sequences scattered throughout the book. He was born in Texas, excelled at collegiate sports, served a stint in the Army and then became a successful wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. Other than being very athletic, Curtis doesn't attempt to build any validity into Bolt being an action hero. First and foremost, The Pro is a mystery series with some action sprinkled in to lure prospective shoppers. After a horrific ankle injury ends his career, Bolt engages in a two-year swim in the bottle before rehabilitating and finding work in the Cowboys front office. This eventually leads to a sports agency deal that now finds Bolt representing a number of clients across all major sports. 

Bolt's office is in NYC, a rather busy place that's kept in order by sexy secretary Trish. As the novel opens, Bolt receives a call from the father of a top basketball recruit. IL star athlete Richie Sadler wants to discuss contracts with Bolt. It's this early portion of the book that really caters to basketball fans. In 1974, when this book was published, the NBA and ABA were two separate leagues. The two competed with each other for fans, TV rights and endorsement deals. Bolt, along with Richie's family, has an interesting discussion about the two possibly merging and teams like the Nets eventually becoming NBA properties. All of this is marvelous to read considering the merger actually came to fruition two years later.

While all this is insightful and engaging as a sports read, readers want crime. As a precursor to the heist, Bolt begins contract negotiations on behalf of Sadler. The asking price is a lofty three-million for two years (preposterous in 1974) but it's done for a reason. This price is important because soon the Sadlers receive a ransom call demanding three-million in cash or Richie dies. Afraid to risk the FBI's help (the first place I would have turned to personally), Bolt and Richie's sister Sondra tangle in the sheets and streets trying to locate Richie's whereabouts. The book has Bolt combing NYC, Harlem and the city's outskirts while the ABA commissioner puts together the needed funds. 

Author Richard Curtis would go on to write another sports novel, “The Sunday Alibi”, as Ray Lilly and – oddly - the movie novelization for John Carpenter's “Halloween” (as the clever Curtis Richards). After eight novels, Curtis would go on to become a mid-tier literary agent and retire from writing. It's interesting to see such a short literary career considering the guy could write. The Pro reads like Robert B. Parker's 'Spenser' in that it is loosely a PI novel with northeastern ties. Further, Bolt displays some of the same characteristics that make Spenser engaging – sports car, humor, drinking, sex. Arguably, those traits are found with most detectives in fiction, but I found incredible similarities. 

The remaining books focus on hockey, baseball and football – America's most popular sports. The books are all available in digital format but good luck finding those old 70s paperbacks on store shelves. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Killer on the Turnpike

“Killer on the Turnpike” is a 63-page story by William McGivern that was originally serialized in the “Saturday Evening Post” in 1961 under the title “Murder on the Turnpike.” It was later the anchor of a five-story McGivern anthology paperback released by Pocket Books later in 1961. Finally, the story was collected in the Alfred Hitchcock compilation, “Stories to Be Read with the Lights On” from 1973.

“Killer on the Turnpike” takes place over a single night when a serial killer (before there was a term for that) is stalking, abducting, and killing motorists along a 100-mile length of interstate highway stretching south from New York. The state troopers patrolling the turnpike first notice an abandoned car followed by a dead body - with more mayhem to follow. Even still, it takes them awhile to piece together what’s happening. 

Adding to the tension is the fact that 45 miles of this highway will be traveled by the motorcade of the President of the United States later that night. Dan O’Leary is the earnest young state trooper who discovers the first abandoned car 200 yards away from a highway diner where his girlfriend works. He later spearheads the cat and mouse game between the police and the killer that is the centerpiece of this enjoyable story.

McGivern writes both tense suspense scenes as well as logical police procedural passages very well. The scenes jump from the killer to the police with smooth transitions. Perhaps it stretches realism when the President’s convoy isn’t rerouted while there’s an active manhunt happening on the turnpike, but what fun would that be?

In any case, “Killer on the Turnpike” is a fun way to kill some time with an old, crumbling paperback. Don’t spend a fortune on it, and you won’t be let down. Recommended.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Such Are the Valiant

“Such Are the Valiant”, perhaps John C. Andrews' only literary offering, was released in 1965 by Belmont Tower. It's a paperback war novel set in the Burmese Jungle during the Pacific-Asian Theatre of World War II. It is a short read at 155-pages but Andrews makes the most of it with a thrilling, action-packed narrative. 

The novel centers on a small British reconnaissance unit led by Captain Barrington, Sergeant McCallum and Lieutenant Fulton. This patrol is deep in the jungle probing Japanese lines to determine strengths and weaknesses. Utilizing terrain maps, the men are locating trails and pathways that are hidden from aerial intelligence. With this extreme scouting comes Japanese patrols, sweltering heat, insects and their own weaknesses from the excursion. 

The first 60-pages has the patrol navigating a river, assassinating a Japanese scout and climbing a rocky mountain ridge to root out a Japanese gun post. Andrews writes these scenes with a harrowing pace but pausing to inject a good amount of suspense. The dialogue and point of view is distributed evenly among the squad members, allowing the reader to see the whole squad as chief protagonist instead of an individual member. 

Eventually the patrol finds rest at a nearby village. After negotiation with the village elders, the tribesmen agree to help the Allies due to broken promises by Japanese leaders. Their much-needed rest is short-lived when a large Japanese battalion is spotted outside of the village. Knowing they can't fend off waves of enemy troops, Barrington makes the decision to send McCallum and two others through the lines to relay the news to HQ. This is where the narrative is split into two equally exciting portions.

The first has Barrington making quick preparations for the impending attack. He has a brief love interest with a village nurse that eventually leads into a quick history of her action during the war. As wave after wave of Japanese descend onto the village, the narrative switches to McCallum's trio desperately trying to venture back to camp for help. The chapters spend an equal amount of time telling us both fascinating tales. There's a riveting finale to the battle...but who wins?

The author's description of soaked boots, sucking mud and leech bites leaves me wondering if he spent wartime in Asia himself. There's a great sense of authenticity from the soldier's point of view – cumbersome Sten Sub-Machine guns (they were junk), the rattling of metal and the inner turmoil of killing another man.  Other than a 1981 WW2 photo album, I can't find any other work by this author. I'd suspect he is a former British soldier but have no basis of truth other than this captivating, authentic novel. “Such Are the Valiant” is a mandatory read for war fiction fans.

Monday, January 7, 2019

After Dark, My Sweet

Students of Jim Thompson’s career point to the 1950s as his most productive and commercially-successful period. “After Dark My Sweet” was a 1955 paperback published three-years after his best known work, “The Killer Inside Me” during a period where he was writing a new novel every year.

The narrator of “After Dark, My Sweet” is former pro-boxer turned drifter, William “Kid” Collins. He discloses to the reader that he has been institutionalized multiple times for neurosis and recently walked away (read: escaped) from a mental asylum to hit the road. It’s clear from Chapter One that taking this literary ride with an unbalanced and unreliable narrator is going to be an interesting trip.

On the road, Collins hooks up with a screwy lush of a dame named Fay Anderson who brings him home to her dilapidated house. She seems to have a few screws loose herself and introduces Collins to Uncle Bud, an ex-cop who serves as the the criminal “mastermind” of the story. These three dysfunctional - and rather irritating- characters form the core of the plot.

It takes forever to get there, but Fay and Uncle Bud finally bring Collins in on their money-making scheme: kidnap a little boy from a wealthy family and hold him until the ransom is paid. The execution of the plan is riddled with problems and unexpected obstacles - most of which arise from the fact that the threesome attempting this are a dangerous combination of crazy and moronic. 

In a better novel, this could have been fun. Instead, the reader is trapped inside the head of a neurotic lunatic for a narrator, and that makes for an exhausting read. There’s way too much examination of Collins’ mental illness and melodrama relating to his condition. The writing in Collins voice is well-done and the book was written with high literary aspirations. Unfortunately, it lacked the pop and the charm of a good crime novel as the clever stuff was just missing.

One can’t deny that Thompson was a great writer, but “After Dark, My Sweet” just isn’t his masterpiece. The great writing was just overshadowed by the author’s commitment to put the reader in the head of a narrator who overstays his welcome early in the book. Take a pass on this one. You deserve better.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Cardigan #02 - Hell's Paycheck

Author Will Murray ('Doc Savage') has a comprehensive analysis of the pulp fiction detective 'Cardigan' in “The Complete Casebook of Cardigan, Volume 1: 1931-32” (Altus Press 2013). In it, he chronicles writer Frederick L. Nebel's rise through the pages of “Black Mask” magazine and his early creation of “Tough Dick” Donohue of the Inter-State Detective Agency. When “Dime Detective” launched in 1933 it featured Nebel and a knockoff of his own pulp character Donohue, Detective Jack Cardigan of the Cosmos Detective Agency. 

In Cardigan's first adventure, “Death Alley” (what I am considering #1), Cardigan's first name is Steve. Later, his first name is given as Jack despite the author's original naming conventions. Murray does a fantastic job as Cardigan historian, even pointing out that by 1930 Dashiell Hammet's retirement of Continental Ops' Nameless Detective had left a void that even Raymond Chandler couldn't fill until 1933. Titles like Cardigan, Donohue and MacBride & John X of The Free Press kept the torch burning for detective fiction. 

The second Cardigan story, “Hell's Paycheck”, originally appeared in the December, 1931 issue of “Dime Detective Magazine”. The story's beginning has Cardigan hired by an unnamed small town resident (I assume by wire with very little story provided to Cardigan). After departing the train station, Cardigan is chauffeured by limo down some winding back roads. He smartly asks to stop at a nearby store for cigars, makes a call to the man to gain a description of the limo driver and then hurries back to the limo knowing the driver is a fake. There's a shootout, a chase and ultimately Cardigan makes his own way to the man's residence where he learns the limo driver was carjacked and the unnamed man is actually the town's mayor, Mr. Holmes. 

The quick synopsis is that the mayor is up for re-election and his son has engaged in a heated love affair with a corrupt woman. Holmes, hoping to buy her off, has provided her a check for $20,000 to go away. The woman has apparently cashed the check – she's driving a new sports car - but the check never cleared the bank. Holmes fears that a political opponent has provided the woman $20K and is now holding the paper check as an insurance policy. They can go to the tabloids proving Holmes paid off the woman or negotiate with the mayor to attain their agenda in an exchange for silence. 

Cardigan is faced with a variety of enemies. First, there is a pesky, violent reporter that's following the detective for clues. Second is the political opponent, who could very well be running in the election or a syndicate leader holding the mayor hostage. The most exciting “villain” facing Cardigan?'s the police. 

Nebel's makeshift novella (about 35-pages overall) is an exciting detective novel that puts two rightful forces against each other. The Cosmos Detective Agency is doing plenty of good, but they expect Cardigan to play by the rules and perform his due diligence within the confines of the law. Two town cops, Strout and Blake, really push Cardigan off the scent – seemingly tangling the investigation in bureaucracy and inexperience. It's Cardigan's navigation of the legal system that's just as exciting as the heated revolver once the narrative explodes in a fiery crescendo. 

I thoroughly enjoyed my first sampling of Cardigan. You can buy four volumes of “The Complete Casebook of Cardigan” that collects all of the stories from 1931-1937. These are available for about $30 each in softcover or $5 on Kindle. It's money well spent.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Devil in Dungarees

During his life, Marvin H. Albert (1924-1996) was a prolific writer of mystery, noir, Western, and high adventure novels using the pseudonyms of Nick Quarry, Anthony Rome, Ian McAlister, Albert Conroy, and others. He also wrote many books under his own name, including several movie novelizations. In 1960, Crest Books released a 198-page paperback original called “Devil in Dungarees” under the pen name, Albert Conroy. Automat Press has recently re-released the orphaned novel as a Kindle eBook for three bucks.

After nailing young Peggy - maybe 20, maybe younger - in a motel cabin, police officer Walt Bonner is feeling the nerves. You see, he agreed to participate in a bank heist with some guys he barely knows. If it works, Bonner and Peggy - the titular devil who wears her tight blue jeans without panties - can run away to Cuba together and spend their lives porking in a rum-induced haze.

We learn pretty early in the novel that Peggy’s not a completely loyal sex partner. In fact, she plans to take off with another member of the heist crew leaving Detective Bonner without a girl or his share of the loot. The bank robbery itself happens early in the story, and most of the book is dedicated to the aftermath. As far as literary heists go, this one was well-planned and professionally executed. The benefits of having a bent cop in on the planning becomes very apparent - until things go south. The author was clearly channeling the paperbacks of Lionel White and Richard Stark when he wrote this one, and he seems to have mastered the formula.

Albert’s wrote “Devil in Dungarees” in a wandering third-person narration that slides seamlessly from one character’s mind to another’s. There’s an admirable self-assurance to his style that lets the reader know you’re in good hands through the twists, turns, and double-crosses. The paperback’s action toggles between a heist getaway story and a credible police procedural. The sex scenes are well-described and the action is a few notches more graphically violent than most 1960 crime paperbacks.

Overall, I have nothing bad to say about “Devil in Dungarees.” It was a sexy, action-packed heist thriller among the best I’ve ever read. Marvin Albert was the real deal, and I now want to explore more novels by him. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

A Grifter's Song: Episodes 1 and 2

“A Grifter’s Song” is an ambitious contemporary literary project orchestrated by author Frank Zafiro. The idea is a series of 90-page short novels - released more or less monthly - about a con-artist couple on the run. Different authors are invited to write installments that are collected into “seasons” like a television show. The cover art is a gorgeous throwback style and the line-up of writers who have committed to the series looks promising.

Down & Out Books is the publisher of “A Grifter’s Song,” and their business model relies on selling subscriptions like Netflix with the latest edition being delivered monthly to your eReader device starting in January 2019. Individual installments will also be sold separately through the publisher or via Amazon Kindle. Hard copies will be published compiling three episodes in each paperback volume starting in July 2019.

Titles and authors for Season One are:

• The Concrete Smile by Frank Zafiro,
• People Like Us by JD Rhoades,
• The Whale by Lawrence Kelter,
• The Movie Makers by Gary Phillips,
• Lost in Middle America by Colin Conway,
• Losing Streak by Jim Wilsky.

Authors committed to Season Two (launching in 2020) are:

• Eric Beetner,
• Asa Maria Bradley,
• Eryk Pruitt,
• Holly West,
• Scott Eubanks,
• Frank Zafiro.

So, we have great cover art and a cool delivery gimmick, but this series will succeed or fail based on the quality of the books. I love con-artist stories, so I decided to check out the first two novellas.

A Grifter’s Song #01: The Concrete Smile by Frank Zafiro

In this inaugural episode, we meet long-con experts Sam and Rachel mid-sting In St. Louis. Sam has a blowhard businessman - who fancies himself as a real ladies man - on the hook. Meanwhile, Rachel - a real head turner - has a key role in the grift that is also one of the book’s best surprise reveals.

We learn that Sam and Rachel had some recent problems in Philadelphia when they conned a good chunk of change from some mafia types who aren’t excited to forgive and forget. The hope is that if they stay off the Philly mob’s radar screen long enough, they may be able to extend the useful life of their kneecaps well into the future.

An interesting subtext to this short novel - and likely the series - is the idea that Rachel leverages her intense sex appeal against the target, and this sparks pangs of jealousy in Sam despite the fact that Rachel is a total pro just playing her part. I hope future installments by the other authors tease out this idea as it creates a compelling inner conflict in Sam and tension between the principals.

The con itself is a rather complicated business transaction where the partners are gently manipulating the mark into buying a company that has no functional assets. The modest con turns into a possible big score - with added risks - along the way. The plot doesn’t get too bogged down in the details of the underlying transaction and instead chooses to focus on the human element of the coercion. The result is a fascinating character study of a con-game mechanics that recalls the glory days of Fawcett Gold Medal paperback originals from the 1950s.

The tension and excitement is ratcheted up considerably for the last act of the book with an interesting twist propelling the couple into their next installment. Overall, “The Concrete Smile” was an outstanding debut of a series that hopefully can sustain this level of quality in the hands of new writers who didn’t create the series from scratch.

A Grifter’s Song #02: People Like Us by JD Rhoades

The second installment in the “A Grifter’s Song” was penned by a Shamus Award winning mystery author from North Carolina named J.D. Rhoades. The shift in writing style from Zafiro to Rhodes is never jarring, nor does it take reader out of the story. The new author also provides a wider range of third-person perspectives throughout the novel beyond just Sam.

The action moves to Raleigh, North Carolina where Sam and Rachel team up with a grandmotherly grifter named Aunt Sally who Sam knew back when he was coming up in the game. Aunt Sally catches wind that there’s a contract on Sam and Rachel from the Philly mob and offers to bring them in on a con assuming that they needed a gig.

In this case, the target is a rich southerner with a fetish for Civil War memorabilia. The plan is to sell him a counterfeit long-sword of Stonewall Jackson while convincing the mooch that it’s the real deal. To do that, Sam needs to don a tweed jacket and become a fellow collector of American historical artifacts essentially vouching for the authenticity of the sword while driving up the price. Rachel plays the alluring female bait keeping the mark off-balance with lust.

If this book was just about a jackass getting fleeced by some expert grifters, it would have been perfect. Rhoades is clearly a talented writer who knows his way around a good plot structure. However, the author chooses to make this fun little crime story a political statement by wading into the unfortunate culture war currently plaguing the U.S.

You see, the Civil War loving target is a de-platformed history professor harboring regressive views about the treatment of black slaves in the south. This makes him a hero to the alt-right and a villain to the woke left when all I wanted to do was read a damn con-man story. After all, I read crime fiction to get away from the political culture war, and I suspect I’m not alone. Right wing straw men being ridiculed in a left-leaning thriller is just as creatively bankrupt as the bestsellers of Brad Thor and William Johnstone when they slaughter cartoonish fictional liberals. If I want a culture war, I have Twitter on my phone.

Of course, the author escalates the conservative craziness into a place where no right-thinking American could find a rooting interest in the race-war loving villains of this thriller. If that gives anyone a greater sense of comfort about injecting politics into the series, so be it. I’m just not sure that alienating half of one’s potential audience is a wise business strategy while trying to get a new series off the ground.

The shame is that the actual con-artist story here is otherwise well-executed. The violent aspirations of the manhunter from the Philadelphia mafia increase the stakes to make this grift work, and the conclusion was good enough to keep me interested in Episode 3.

Series Evaluation

“A Grifter’s Song” has the capacity to be a total blast of it sticks to clever cons and exciting thrills. The installments are the perfect length to never overstay their welcome, and con-artist stories give the authors plenty of room to spread their wings and get creative. Sam and Rachel are great leads, and the unsympathetic mooches chosen for their scams are worthy targets.

The idea of a loosely-affiliated network of grifters across the U.S. who know each other and occasionally collaborate is a fun universe in which to set a series. In that sense, “A Grifter’s Song” recalls Richard Stark’s Parker novels where heist pros gather to set up big scores as a team. The network of independent actors for these scams should keep the series fresh and evergreen.

The ongoing story arc that has Sam and Rachel one step ahead of hunters from the Philadelphia mafia ties these stand-alone con-man stories into a real series with a sense of urgency and continuity. That aspect reminded me of the old TV show “The Fugutive” or even “The A-Team.” No matter how well or poorly any fraud scheme goes, there’s still this unsolvable problem hanging over their heads.

Based solely on the first two installments, it appears that “A Grifter’s Song” has the potential to be a real winner. Hopefully, future episodes won’t poison the well with individual author’s worst instincts and personal agendas. A strong editorial hand should ensure the literary success of this ambitious project. I’m interested to see where this is headed. Recommended.

You can purchase these titles here