Thursday, September 19, 2019

Dennison's War #04 - King of the Mountain

'Dennison's War' was a mid-80s men's action-adventure series published by Bantam. The books were written under house name Adam Lassiter by Steven M. Krauzer, a journeyman author who contributed four novels to the 'Executioner' series as well as penning the nine-volume western series 'Cord' (with William Kittredge). My jumping on point is the fourth entry, “King of the Mountain”, for no real reason other than the book's catchy cover art.

The idea behind the series is fairly straight-forward. Dennison is a US ex-military operative and Vietnam veteran. During the war he worked under Peter Chamberlain (probably CIA) and had a team of six to ten hardened warriors. Now Dennison's retirement consists of freelance opportunities to support Chamberlain on various assignments where an unofficial military presence is needed.

During the harrowing curtain jerker, armed commandos ascend a windswept, snowy mountainside in Glacier Park, Montana. The team quickly kills the US Secret Service squad before entering a posh ski-lodge to capture the US Vice-President. Then a call goes out to Washington D.C. that the team wants a chopper loaded with gold, a Russian prisoner and Dennison brought to the lodge in exchange for the Vice-President. That call then gets routed through command channels until it reaches Chamberlain. The reader must suspend his disbelief that anyone would bother to kidnap a Vice President. You might as well kidnap the White House pastry chef if you really want to make an impact in Washington. 

Chamberlain wants Dennison and his team to take out the bad guys and rescue the VP. But things get a little more convoluted when a backroom deal buys another team that ultimately wants to sacrifice Dennison's crew to the enemy while making the greedy grab and go during the crossfire. This plot-twist was used five years later in the fourth 'Eagle Force' novel “Red Firestorm”, which coincidentally was also published by Bantam and also used a snowy mountain setting for the action. It also used the same cover model for both books – Jason Savas. Go impress your friends.

“King of the Mountain” has a great beginning. The middle of the book is a long flashback scene involving Dennison and Chamberlain's operations in Vietnam and the double-cross by US operative Mitchell Horn, who is the villain of the book. Most of Krauzer's writing is of the espionage/spy variety which is surprising if you are looking for a simple 'Phoenix Force'/Able Team' sort of novel. At the standard 190-pages, the book seems a bit more dense than the average shoot'em up. It's not an easy read, but a worthwhile one if you really concentrate on the action. I'd be interested in reading more of the series.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Paperback Warrior Primer: The John Raven Mysteries

Considering the enormous success of series staples like “Mack Bolan,” “The Butcher,” and “The Penetrator,” it would make sense that publishers would want to steer their marketing and branding efforts into the look and feel of the Gold Eagle or Pinnacle product lines. Brutish bullies, fast cars and the damsel in distress surrounding bold fonts, a serial number, and an immortal gun-toting hero. These elements are the centerpiece of the book’s plot, so why not run with that for the marketing flair? Back in the day, every bookstore and pharmacy in America had a prominent display of these book covers depicting all of the above hallmarks of the 70s and 80s costume party known as the Men's Action-Adventure genre.

This packaging approach was an economic success story for a lot of publishers. But what exactly could publishers do when they didn’t really posses written content suitable for a Men’s Action-Adventure series? That seemed to be a problem confronted by Berkley Books back in the day, and they had an interesting solution to this lack of supply.

In 1981, book shoppers may have seen a new action hero adorning their paperback aisles. His name was Raven, and Berkley released “Raven #1 – Raven Settles a Score” in the US with a tag line that introduced “The playboy ex-cop in the sizzling new action series.” The cover design certainly dressed the part with the scantily clad woman, a sleek car, and a turtleneck-clad hero with gun-in-hand. New subscribers had a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor with this alluring new series. The problem with “Raven #1” is that it wasn't a new series at all. In fact, this novel was actually the sixth book in a pre-existing series originally marketed as the 'John Raven Mysteries' – and the story was a far cry from the cover’s promise of an extraordinary action-hero debut.

'Raven' author Donald MacKenzie received most of his official education at a hodgepodge of England, Canada and Switzerland's school systems. However, like so many of writers, his true education came through life experience. MacKenzie was jailed numerous times - once in the U.S. for five years and another time in England for three. In fact, his life was so tumultuous that he wrote two autobiographies chronicling his checkered past - “Fugitives” (1955) and “Gentlemen at Crime” (1956). He began writing stand-alone crime novels in the late 1950s, with titles like “Manhunt”, “Knife Edge” and “Double Exposure.” But it wasn't until 1974 that he really hit his stride.

The 'John Raven Mysteries' ran from 1974 through the writer's death in 1993. The series comprised 16 total entries about an ex-British Inspector named John Raven. It was published in England by Macmillan and featured standard and unremarkable mystery novel cover designs that bore zero resemblance to the gun-toting bold font and Raven branding that Berkley invented for this benign series. To their credit, the bland covers of the original novels made no attempt to deceive or rook their intended audience. The plots themselves are more international man of mystery stories. There's plenty of espionage, international escapades and a sense of heightened alert – but John Raven just isn't an action hero in even the broadest definition of the genre. They were more like Tom Clancy writing Sherlock Holmes starring Spenser. Not exactly 'Hawker' or 'The Revenger' as Berkley conveyed the series in their deceitful packaging.

The grift behind “Raven Settles a Score” was simple enough for Berkley. After obtaining the license from British publisher MacMillan, they falsely staged the books as a new American series by dressing them up in packaging dripping with testosterone. The publisher either didn't know the chronological order of the original stories, couldn't get the rights to the earlier books, or simply just didn't care. It appears that Berkley simply slapped a #1 on whatever book was handy to score some quick cash from ill-informed male book shoppers looking for some action.

Berkley’s opening shot, “Raven Settles a Score,” begins with a walk down memory lane among series regulars John Raven and Inspector Jerry Soo. The whole scene is confusing to the uninformed reader with talk about a recent marriage, Soo's current happenings and the presumed defeat of a villain named Drake. Later, some alliances form that were clearly the bi-product of some incidents in prior books from the British Raven mystery series. Any reader believing this was truly the opening episode in a new series is bound to be lost. To hamper things even more, the “Settles a Score” reference in the book's title actually refers to the prior book altercations between Raven and his nemesis, Drake - a malevolent figure in this book that Soo/Raven both want to defeat for the greater good. Again, there's very little action and most of the book is simply positioning characters in key locations where Korean Embassy officials are hiding bad deeds while utilizing drug squad members as cover. There's a damsel in distress, but she’s buried in dialogue and never actually seems to need Raven’s help all that much. In fact this whole novel (or the 95-pages I could tolerate) is really just a ton of dialogue among a humongous cast of characters with very little explanation or entertainment value.

Apparently, Berkley's ruse didn't generate an enthusiastic reaction among readers. The publisher ran only four titles before canceling the whole debacle:

Raven #1 - Raven Settles a Score (originally 1979's sixth entry)
Raven #2 – Raven in Flight (oddly the second novel from 1976)
Raven #3 – Raven After Dark (renamed from 1980's fifth book, Raven Feathers His Nest)
Raven #4 – Raven and the Paper Hangers (originally the seventh title from 1980)

The entire 'John Raven Mysteries' series:

Zaleski's Percentage (Macmillan, 1974)
Raven in Flight (Macmillan, 1976)
Raven and the Ratcatcher (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven and the Kamikaze (Macmillan, 1977)
Raven Feathers His Nest (Macmillan, 1980); US title Raven After Dark
Raven Settles a Score (Macmillan, 1979)
Raven and the Paperhangers (Macmillan, 1980)
Raven's Revenge (Macmillan, 1982)
Raven's Longest Night (Macmillan, 1984)
Raven's Shadow (Macmillan, 1984)
Nobody Here by That Name (Macmillan, 1986)
A Savage State of Grace (Macmillan, 1988)
By Any Illegal Means (Macmillan, 1989)
Loose Cannon (Macmillan, 1991)
The Eyes of the Goat (Macmillan, 1992)
The Sixth Deadly Sin (Macmillan, 1993)

Buy "Raven Settles a Score" HERE

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

The Woman Chaser

By 1960, author Charles Willeford (1919-1988) had already been an orphan at age 8, a school dropout at age 13, a U.S. Army combat veteran, a U.S. Air Force airman, a published poet and novelist. His writing always seemed more literate, humorous, and philosophical than his hard-boiled fiction cohorts. His seventh novel was submitted with the title “The Director” and was published in 1960 as “The Woman Chaser.”

The novel is narrated by a smooth-talking Los Angeles used car salesman turned lot owner named Richard Hudson, and it is written in a first-person narrative style in which Hudson regularly breaks the literary fourth wall to explain to the reader that he is writing this book using flashbacks and narrative hooks he learned from watching movies. At times the hilarious meta-narrative style begins to resemble Kurt Vonnegut which I really like, but your mileage may vary. There’s also lots of sexist content that makes the book a true throwback to its era: “Women are made for bed, and men are made for war,” a character observes. They certainly don’t write them like that anymore. You get to decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

Anyway, the book is so much fun to read, you almost lose track of the fact that the plot doesn’t really get off the ground until about halfway through the paperback. Richard is a fan of movies and decides that he’s got what it takes to write and direct a feature film. His step-father is connected within the industry and finds a studio that will back a production based on Richard’s harebrained plot synopsis. Anyone with an interest in film-making will find the paperback utterly fascinating.

“The Woman Chaser” is a great read but not much of a crime novel. It’s written in a hardboiled style, but it’s ultimately just the story of a schemer trying to get a movie made and released. To be sure, it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, but it’s not the kind of gun-fighting bloodbath we normally cover here. It’s just a damned interesting paperback by a crime novelist adapting his noir style to a mainstream plot with a dark ending.

Despite the publisher’s title, there’s really not much woman chasing happening within the pages. To be sure, the narrator gets laid, but not much cardio was involved in making it happen. Overall, “The Woman Chaser” was an excellent novel that I can highly recommend without reservations. But you should know what you’re getting before you purchase a copy for yourself.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 16, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 11

We're on the road to adventure! This episode, Eric discusses author Jack Higgins including his WW2 novel "The Dark Side of the Island" from 1964. Tom reviews "The President is Missing!", a 1967 book by Henry A. Milton. Eric tells listeners about hitting the jackpot at a flea market shop in Florida. Listen below or download directly LINK. Also, stream anywhere that offers podcasts. Listen to "Episode 11: Jack Higgins" on Spreaker.

Jason Striker #01 - Kiai!

In the early 1970s, every kid in America wanted to learn Kung Fu. From the magazines to the comics, martial arts as a whole were growing in popularity. With the rise of prominent Chinese film star Bruce Lee (Real Name: Lee Jun-fan), pop culture became fertile ground for martial artists to achieve their creative freedom. With Bruce Lee's “Enter the Dragon” (1973), the idea of exotic martial arts tournaments became a consistent theme within the genre. To capitalize, Berkley Medallion released the debut 'Jason Striker' novel, “Kiai!”, in 1974. It was the beginning of a six-book run that showcased an American “Master of Martial Arts” battling international criminals. The series was written as a collaborative effort between Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes. I decided to tackle the debut novel to see how much time and energy I wanted to invest in the short-lived series.

“Kiai!” introduces former Green Beret Jason Striker as a financially strapped Judo instructor. His protege, Jim, is scheduled to compete in a world class tournament held in Nicaragua. However, in a freak dojo accident, Jason accidentally injures Jim. Fearing judo would not be properly represented in the tournament, Jason agrees to replace Jim as a contestant.

This exotic martial arts tournament is held in Nicaragua and broadcast globally on television. It's a contest that pits representatives from various fighting styles into a no-holds barred tournament to win cash and firmly establish their style is superior. In many ways, it's “Enter the Dragon” minus the interesting parts. But more so, a lot of the tournament resembles an early prototype of what would later become the legitimate mixed martial arts sport. In 1974, styles didn't clash. Kickboxers, Muy tai fighters, Wrestlers, Boxers, Karate Masters and Judo specialists generally didn't fight opponents of other styles. This tournament forces each contestant to fight combatants of each style, sometimes twice, in an elaborate points system. As a fan of 90s mixed martial arts, I found this tournament to be somewhat innovative despite “Enter the Dragon” establishing the idea in the US.

Beyond just the wear and tear of fighting over the course of several weeks, “KiaI!” really fails to deliver anything else worthwhile. There's some side-stories regarding a multi-millionaire hiring Jason to teach his sexy daughter judo, a competition with a rival judo instructor and some intrigue behind the tournament, but none of this is remotely compelling. The end result is a first-person narrative from a rather weak protagonist. Kudos to the authors for not making Striker vulnerable and very human instead of over-the-top pulp. However, it isn't enough to warrant a search for any other books in the series. Like 'Ninja Master', I'll take a dive to avoid any of these.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, September 13, 2019

Peter Crane #01 - Red Heroin

Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017) was primarily known as a successful science fiction author, science fact writer, and compiler of SF anthologies. However, his first published novel was a spy thriller from 1969 titled “Red Heroin” that was originally published under the pseudonym Wade Curtis and has since been reprinted under the author’s proper name. In addition to multiple paperback printings, the short novel is also available as an eBook and an audiobook from the usual suspects.

Paul Crane is a civil engineer in Seattle whose friend Danny was just named Chief of Police in the small town of Lathrop, Washington. It’s a part-time gig, and Danny wants Crane to be his part-time deputy. Neither guy has any police training, but the town’s mayor wants a couple cops on staff to arrest a drunk every now and then or ticket a speeder on weekends. The job doesn’t pay, but Crane will get a badge that can be used to get out of speeding tickets, so he agrees to help Danny. Soon thereafter they head out to Lathrop for a night of police hijinks in a small town.

It doesn’t take long for the two quasi-cops to find themselves in the middle of a real bloodbath of trouble. The violence propels Crane into the hands of the CIA who recruit him as an operative for an assignment. The upshot is that the Red Chinese are funding their U.S. intel operations by refining poppies into heroin for the American market. It’s a twofer for the Chinese: Drug sales generate U.S. dollars for espionage operations while also getting a generation of American youth hooked on the junk. The Agency wants Crane to get himself recruited as a smuggler for the Chinese while actually serving as a double agent for the CIA.

The transition from unqualified cop to unqualified spy was a bit clunky and requires some suspension of disbelief, but the payoff is great. The CIA wants Crane to ingratiate himself with a leftist student group at the local university hoping that will be the gateway to the Chinese commies. The plan is for Crane to spread the word that he’s buying a boat to attract the student radicals into utilizing him to smuggle the Chinese heroin from Canada.

Along the way, Crane meets a hot hippie chick tied into the student group. Between off-page lovemaking sessions, he really begins to fall for her. Is she just a sincere do-gooder or a tool of Chinese spies? His CIA contact agent for this assignment is a sassy young woman with real sex appeal as well, and her character was my favorite in the novel.

If Pournelle wasn’t such a well-known author, I’d really suspect that “Red Heroin” was pseudonymous work by Donald Hamilton, author of the ‘Matt Helm’ series. His knowledge of hunting rifles and their loads - along with sailing - rivals Hamilton’s own expertise, and the first-person narration has the matter-of-fact, logical self-confidence of many Hamilton protagonists. It’s likely that Pournelle was a fan of the Matt Helm books and set out to write “Red Heroin” as a Helm tribute with a very different origin story. It was also a novel steeped in realism - unlike, say, a ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ adventure. When things get violent towards the climax, there’s a gritty realism to the carnage that made for satisfying reading.

“Red Heroin” is a thinking-man’s espionage novel rather than a high-speed action killfest, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The sequel “Red Dragon” (unrelated to Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector novel) came out in 1970, and I will definitely check it out. This first Paul Crane adventure is an easy recommendation and probably the best book of its ilk that I’ve read in quite some time. The paperback deserved a better cover from the various publishers, but it’s what’s inside that counts.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Avenger #01 - Justice, Inc.

Wanting to capitalize on the success of 'The Shadow', publisher Street & Smith imagined a masked hero that would essentially be a hybrid of their own pulp hero, 'Doc Savage' and 'The Shadow'. Using Doc Savage authors Lester Dent and Walter B. Gibson for advisors, the publisher hired author Paul Ernst (1899-1985) to write 'The Avenger' pulp magazine from 1939-1942. The character would later appear in “Clues Detective Magazine” (1942-1943) and a 1943 issue of “The Shadow Magazine.” Launching the series in an era of the pulp demise, The Avenger was well liked but seemed an unnecessary edition to an already crowded pulp hero market.

“Justice, Inc.” was the debut Avenger story, appearing in September 1939 and later reprinted in paperback novel format by Paperback Library in 1972. In 1975, DC Comics published a comic called “Justice, Inc.” starring The Avenger. The 1972 paperback debut is my first experience with the character. While enjoying Doc Savage, and other pulp heroes, I managed my expectations expecting the novel to be a failure.

Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved this book. “Justice, Inc.” contains many of the rewarding elements I enjoy from the 1950s and 1960s crime-noir novels. In fact, I'd speculate that beyond the Avenger's fantastic ability to morph his facial features, this is essentially just a crime novel with a pulp gimmick.

The paperback introduces us to protagonist Richard Benson, a wealthy, seasoned adventurist who has settled into a life of domestic tranquility. While commuting via a commercial flight to Montreal, Benson's wife and young daughter seemingly disappear while Benson is in the lavatory. As he begins asking passengers and staff questions, they inform him that he was the only passenger that boarded the plane. Pulling a gun from his side, Benson is knocked unconscious by the co-pilot wielding a fire extinguisher.

Awakening from a three-week coma, Benson finds that his face is now paralyzed. This paralysis allows him to shape his facial skin and muscles into new forms. The paralysis holds the tissues in place, allowing him the ability to easily transform himself into different facial disguises. After his hospital release, Benson begins interviewing and probing for answers to learn where his family were taken. After talking with a number of airline employees, the only consistent story is that Benson was on the plane alone. Knowing this is inaccurate, Benson teams with a Scottish airline mechanic named Fergus MacMurdie and a giant of a man named Algernon “Smitty” Smith.

Using his new allies and disguises, Benson senses there is a criminal element to his family's tragedy. After learning that many wealthy stockholders have gone missing, Benson goes to work on the perpetrators with two weapons. “Mike” is a .22 caliber short pistol and “Ike” is a slender throwing knife. Both are used to stun the enemy, but Benson is opposed to killing. The novel is a swift read consistent with crime fiction tropes – the crime, notable suspects, gunfights, car chases and the obligatory mystery. Without giving away too much, let's just say Benson doesn't necessarily find all of the answers. The unresolved elements provide the motivation to create a crime fighting trio based in New York City as the launch of the pulp series.

Warner Brothers’ Paperback Library reprinted all 24 Avenger titles in paperback from 1972-1975, including 12 additional stories authored by Ron Goulart. Although I'm not a big pulp enthusiast, Ernst's suspense and rapid-fire delivery was very entertaining. I've purchased a number of these paperbacks and I'm really excited to learn more about the series and characters. I'm sure it's sacrilege, but I enjoyed “Justice, Inc.” more than the two 'Doc Savage' titles I read. Long live The Avenger!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Peter Styles #01 - The Laughter Trap

Judson Philips (1903-1989) was a New England mystery writer who began his career writing stories for the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. He was well-positioned to transition into the paperback original fiction market of the 1950s when most of his novels were credited to his successful pseudonym Hugh Pentecost. Between 1964 and 1982, he authored an 18-book mystery series starring investigative journalist Peter Styles that was published under his own name and reprinted with men’s adventure packaging by Pinnacle Books in the 1970s.

The primary setting of the first installment, “The Laughter Trap,” is a remote upscale ski resort in Vermont’s Green Mountains. A year earlier, Styles lost his leg and his father in an automobile accident on the winding road leading up to the lodge. Two men in a dark sedan - one of them cackling with laughter over the roar of the engines - forced Styles’ car over an embankment killing his father in the passenger seat and costing Styles a leg. The police never found the other car or its joy-killer occupants and justice has become a bit of an obsession for Styles over the past year. In any case, our one-legged hero has returned to the mansion on the hill to help rehab his damaged psyche.

On his first night at the resort, Styles hears distinct laughter in the distance that convinces him that the driver of the car who forced him off the road a year earlier is presently a fellow guest at the resort. The madman may have also slaughtered two women in their cabin bringing law enforcement to the resort to investigate. Efforts to locate the laughing maniac at the crowded but secluded ski resort form the central mystery of the novel.

The first thing that jumps out at the reader when beginning the paperback is that the novel is written in first-person, but the narrator is not Styles. Instead the story is told by Jim Tranter, and the origin story of Tranter’s relationship with Styles is covered in Chapter 3 (no spoilers here). It’s a pretty advanced literary technique that one can compare to Dr. Watson’s narration of the Sherlock Holmes books or Archie Goodwin telling the Nero Wolfe stories. As a result of this narrative choice, much of the on-page gumshoe work is done by Tranter, not Styles.

Notwithstanding the lurid Pinnacle cover art, “The Laughter Trap” is just a pretty basic mystery novel, not an “exciting world of violence and suspense” as promised. The handful of murders that occur in the paperback are plenty gruesome, but they mostly happen off-page. The whodunnit trope of a bunch of people trapped in a winter lodge with a murderer among them is a tale as old as time, yet the author does a nice job with the plotting and the solution is satisfying enough.

Styles and Tranter are interesting characters, and I wouldn’t mind reading more books about them. You’ll probably like this book as long as you know what you’re getting - a basic murder mystery, not an action-packed paperback spectacle.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Fred Fellows #02 - Road Block

Hillary Waugh (1920-2008), a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and a Navy Air Corp veteran, began writing his first novel, “Madam Will Not Dine Tonight,” in 1947. The book propelled Waugh's literary career forward and was followed by over 45 novels of mystery and suspense between 1947 and 1988. Along with series creations like 'Homicide North', 'Simon Kaye' and 'Sheridan Wesley', Waugh authored 11 novels starring a small town Connecticut police chief named Fred Fellows. The series debut, “Sleep Long My Love”, was published in 1959 and adapted for the screen under the title “Jigsaw” in 1962.

My first experience with Waugh and his Fred Fellows character is the second installment, “Road Block”, published by Popular Library as a “Crime Club Selection” in 1960. The series can be read in any order, but there is a brief mention in “Road Block” recalling Fellows' murder investigation from the debut. The really interesting aspect of Waugh's writing is the emphasis on procedure. Known for his extensive detailing of investigations, the author divides “Road Block” into two point-by-point halves – one as a heist in planning and the other as the subsequent investigation of the heist.

The first 80-pages solely chronicles the actions of the criminals. Unlike his contemporaries, Waugh doesn't switch the perspective to various characters or alternate chapters between characters. The first half of the book centers around a criminal trio of Pete, Lloyd and Joe. During a temporary stop between jobs, Lloyd talks with a security guard in Stockton, CT (conveniently the jurisdiction of Fred Fellows) over beer. For $5,000, the guard is willing to leave a door unlocked at a nearby manufacturing plant. Lloyd's goal is to rob the payroll of its weekly $93,000 delivered by armored truck to a precise location within the plant. The trio then spends 40 or so pages planning the heist and building a crew to enact the plan.

The second half of the book, aside from one chapter, is solely devoted to Fred Fellows and his staff. After the reported heist, Fellows works closely with the state troopers to bottleneck Lloyd and his cohorts before they reach the expansive Merritt Parkway. While ordering the mandatory road blocks, Fellows interviews plant employees and guards to determine how the heist was executed and to forecast which back roads Lloyd will utilize for the getaway.

While certainly enjoyable, “Road Block” didn't overly impress me. I found it to be more of an event timeline (like “Dragnet”) than an actual story. Unless “Sleep Long My Love” served as an origin story, I felt that this second installment should have provided some backstory on Fred Fellows, as brief as that might be. His police procedures, including the geographical deductions, were entertaining but I never deduced that Fellows was necessarily the star of the show. In terms of police procedural novels, Waugh certainly isn't Ed McBain (Evan Hunter). “Road Block” was an easy, quality read, but this isn’t a series I'd necessarily pursue further.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 9, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 10

It's our 10th episode! On this show we'll discuss author Carter Brown's career and his novel "The Loving and the Dead". Eric reviews a 70's team-commando novel called "Killer Patrol" and Tom talks about his "wipe out" shopping spree in Chicago. Stream it below, listen on any popular streaming service or download directly LINK Listen to "Episode 10: Carter Brown" on Spreaker.

The Big Bite

In his day, Louis Trimble (1917-1988) was a highly-regarded Seattle author of mystery, western, and science fiction novels. Like many writers of the era, he increased his output and avoided over-saturating the paperback market by using multiple pen names. He published three crime-adventure novels using his ‘Gerry Travis’ pseudonym, the last of which was titled “The Big Bite,” initially released in hardcover in 1957 and then as half of an Ace Double paperback in 1958 (paired with “The Deadly Boodle” by J.M. Flynn). “The Big Bite” remains available today as an eBook - for some reason still under the Gerry Travis name.

The short novel opens with a small boat in Mexican waters beginning a nighttime voyage with an unconscious man aboard named Orvil Curtis. The crew’s mission is to abandon Orvil on a thorny little island in the midst of brackish, fetid waters. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on at first, but it’s apparent that this Orvil fellow is in a rough spot and will probably not survive the island. The crew leaves Orvil to die and reports back to their boss, the sexy female captain of the ship using the name Natalie.

We are then introduced to our hero, Paul Knox, an independently-wealthy spy with a private corporation called World Circle that serves as an adjunct intelligence service to many righteous nations. It turns out that unconscious Orvil from the opening scene was a World Circle operative. Knox learns that Natalie, the female boat captain in Mexico, is a Soviet agent working to destabilize Cuba while setting up the island nation for a commie takeover (farfetched, I know.).

Using the cover of an insurance investigator on a missing person case, Knox travels to the Mexican coastal village to investigate his missing colleague and the enigmatic female boat captain. There’s not a ton of action, and things get rather convoluted with the jockeying for position among the cast of spies, opportunists, and liars in the Mexican town. The sizable cast of characters and amount of subterfuge at work made for a muddled plot, but Knox’s search for the truth about Orvil’s disappearance was a satisfying thread that I enjoyed immensely.

“The Big Bite” felt more like a mystery than an espionage adventure - minimal gunplay but plenty of cocktail parties filled with lies and half-truths among the attendees. Trimble’s prose is pretty excellent, and debonair spy Paul Knox is a cool hero who never appeared in any other books, to my knowledge. That’s a shame because he deserves a way better plot than this one delivered.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, September 6, 2019

Blood Patrol

Very little is known about the literary career of former U.S. Army Special Services Security Agent George Fennell. In 1970, his men's action-adventure novel “Blood Patrol” was published by Pinnacle. At the time, the publisher wanted a war novel, and like so many paperbacks of its time, “Blood Patrol” featured a very familiar marketing pitch. The cover suggested that the contents were comparable to the successful 1961 film “The Guns of Navarone”, based on Alistair MacLean's 1957 novel. Fennell's novel is really nothing of the sort, but Pinnacle reprinted it in 1974 with an alternative, team-based commando cover hoping for a more lucrative return.

I don't know if Fennell had any plans for a series, but a sequel was released in 1970, “Killer Patrol”. That book was also auspiciously reprinted by Pinnacle in 1974, with mercenary-styled artwork and the promise that this installment was the second in a new exciting Mike Brent series. In “Blood Patrol”, the main character's name isn't mentioned until page 202...and it's Gunner Brent. That leads me to believe these were just two novels penned by a part-time author. Pinnacle's marketing scheme was probably just to release the two books as a series knowing there was never a third installment. Those gullible to invest blue-collar wages on this promising new series were probably disappointed to learn there were no more titles.

My experience with “Blood Patrol” is rather lukewarm. The novel begins with five American soldiers working for a man named Blaine, who in turn works in the Pentagon under some sort of secret, backdoor security operation. None of this is explained and maybe it doesn't have to be. We have five guys armed to the teeth parachuting into Ethiopia to kill a Russian operative. 1-2-3-Kill!

The novel's opener has Brent, in first person presentation, directing his crew with an emphasis on a wily German named Hans that states “Herr Kapitan” after everything he says. It's incredibly frustrating and I was praying this is one of those novels where team members can actually die. Unfortunately, Brent loses part of the team but Hans sticks to him like glue...for all 271-pages. After failing to secure their supplies during landing, the group must fend off dehydration, Russian sympathizers and a mission that's been compromised due to the 75 to 5 odds that Blaine failed to relay.

Fennell and his readers have a great deal of fun in the first 100-pages. There's a villager tortured and burned alive, an exhilarating firefight in the mountains and a lot of gritty, dusty fighting between warring factions. The second half of the book was drastically different and failed to maintain the momentum. In one goofy scene, Brent is captured, interrogated and then raped by a whip-snapping blonde cave wench. I think the author and I disagree on the definition of torture.

“Blood Patrol” is a light, easy read with plenty of action and bravado for seasoned adventure fans to enjoy. After the book's solid opening sequence, I thought it became too silly too fast. 'Able Team', 'Phoenix Force' and 'S.O.B.' all have die-hard fans for this type of literary fiction. If you enjoy that type of story, and I certainly do for the most part, you'll have some fun here. It's zany, over the top and brutally violent.

Buy a copy of this BOOK here

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Murder Me for Nickels

Peter Rabe was the pseudonym of Peter Rabinowtitch (1921-1990), a staple of the Fawcett Gold Medal line of yellow-spine crime fiction paperbacks during the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, many of his classic novels have been reprinted by Stark House Books, including 1960’s “Murder Me for Nickels,” currently packaged as a double along with “Benny Muscles In” from 1955.

“Murder Me for Nickels” is narrated by Jack St. Louis, the right-hand man of Walter Lippit, the owner of every jukebox in every tavern for a 35-mile radius. Back in 1960, a musical artist getting a disc in the local jukebox was a big deal and fame often followed closely behind. This, of course, opened the door to payola, free sex with torch singers, supply-chain issues, and the kind of drama that could feed a crime novel like this one.

The paperback doesn’t waste any time getting into the plot. Walter’s regional jukebox monopoly is challenged by an electrician named Benotti, whose strong-arm tactics force bar owners into placing Benotti’s jukeboxes in their establishments. Jack and Walter aren’t racketeers, but Jack is perfectly willing to kick ass to protect Walter’s turf. But who is this Benotti? Is he just an opportunistic poacher or is the mob moving into the song-for-a-nickel business?

Like a lot of Rabe’s novels (such as “The Box”), “Murder Me for Nickels” is really about a power struggle in an insular community. The combatants - in this case jukebox vendors - jockey for position and the the upper hand with the tactics escalating over the course of the paperback.

Rabe is a very good, dialogue-heavy writer, and his characters are vivid and interesting. However, I’ve always found his plotting to be slow and “Murder Me for Nickels” is no exception. A paperback with this interesting set-up and clever characters shouldn’t have been this dull. I couldn’t help wishing it was Richard Deming, Lou Cameron - or even Milton Ozaki - painting on the canvass of a jukebox turf war. It would have been a much better novel.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wake Up to Murder

In 2017, Stark House Press released a three-pack featuring notable Day Keene (real name: Gunard Hjertstedt) literary works - “Sleep with the Devil” (1954), “Joy House” (1954) and “Wake Up to Murder” (1952). I had the opportunity to review “Sleep with the Devil” (1954) earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely. After reading his 1953 novel “Death House Doll”, I was anxious to turn the pages on another Day Keene crime-noir.

“Wake Up to Murder” introduces us to Jim Charters, an ordinary man living in the peaceful locale of Sun City, Florida. Jim has been married for ten years, lives a quiet existence in suburbia and works as a courier for a local attorney. But, below this average exterior...Jim is ready to explode.

Jim lusts after his co-worker, a fiery vixen named Lou. Longing to fulfill his heated desires, Jim battles his emotions everyday, living a fantasy within his own mind. On his birthday, His boss fires Jim for drinking with Lou and other co-workers after hours in the office. Later, he arrives home to find that his wife has apparently forgotten his annual anniversary of being alive. Wrecked with an evening of tasteless, tough liver and his recent termination, Jim's pressure cooker erupts after his sexual advancements are declined. Furious, Jim drives to the beach and begins a drunken night of debauchery.

The next morning, Jim awakens in a hotel bed with a massive hangover and a naked Lou lying by his side. While coming to grips with his situation, a man named Mantin shows up and provides $10,000 in cash to Jim. His only vivid remarks are, “So there you are, Jim. What we agreed on. Just like it come from the bank”. In a groggy, alcohol-fueled stupor, Jim accepts the money without asking any pertinent questions and Mantin departs. What did Jim promise Mantin he'd do to earn this robust reward?

Day Keene's crime-noir is saturated with repressed desires, sexual frustration and the elephant-sized burdens of life. Jim carries the weight of the world on his back...and in the cash-stuffed envelope he holds in his hands. The novel's narrative slowly unravels, peeling back the layers to expose Jim's marriage, career and past tragedies. But, this is a crime novel, and after Jim discovers Mantin murdered in a seaside mansion, the novel gains traction and propels the story into some surprising twists and turns.

Anyone familiar with Day Keene will quickly acclimate themselves to his storytelling. “Wake Up to Murder” possesses many of the author's tropes – an innocent crime suspect, easily obtainable riches (illegal of course), the scorned lover and a flawed protagonist attempting to right a wrong. Together, it's a winning formula and one that solidifies Keene's place in the higher echelon of crime-noir writers of this era.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Inquest

Before becoming involved in mail order scams, Milton Ozaki was an accomplished writer of crime and mystery novels under his own name as well as the pseudonym of Robert O. Saber. The Japanese-American author lived in the upper Midwest, and several of his novels are set in the fictional town of Stillwell, Wisconsin, including his 1960 Fawcett Gold Medal original, “Inquest,” now available as a Kindle eBook.

The concept of the novel is that Ozaki wrote this fictional story guiding the reader through a criminal case (like an episode of “Law & Order”) to illustrate the “old-fashioned and inept coroner system which still manages to bumble along in certain parts of our country.” The original back cover has a note from the editor promising that the novel “takes us behind the scenes for an electrifying glimpse into some of the most insidious double-dealings and gutter morals of our day!”

Of course, this was all just Fawcett Gold Medal hype. Ozaki likely wrote an interesting crime novel, and the Fawcett marketing team sold it as an allegorical exposé of a small-town criminal justice system. As one who was always confused when a 1950’s crime novel cuts to a scene at a coroner’s inquest, I was pleased to get a better understanding of that system in the context of this fun crime novel.

The paperback opens with a girl kicking the ever-loving shit out of an on-duty bartender in Wisconsin. Bottles are smashed, mirrors are shattered, and Eddie the bartender’s ass is whooped. By the time the police arrive, the girl is gone and eyewitnesses can’t agree on her age, height, weight, or clothing - not unusual in police work. Soon thereafter, a college sorority girl named Shirley, who matches the assailant’s general description, is arrested by police nearby.

The problem is that Shirley - a preacher’s daughter from nearby Sheboygan - wasn’t the girl who trashed the other bar, yet she is arrested and thrust into the criminal justice system due to misinformation. There’s also a secondary plot about a prisoner murdered in the county lockup and the police’s attempt to cover it up with the help of a bent coroner. An honest, rookie deputy who suspects the truth is the only one trying to do the right thing.

Stillwell is a corrupt town, but not initially in the over-the-top way you normally see in mid-Century crime novels. For example, the Sheriff’s Benevolence Association accepts donations from the local taverns and brothels, and a portion of that money goes into the pockets of the department brass. The local judge does special extra-legal favors for his kitchen cabinet installer. The graft is insidious due to the lack of any governmental oversight, and that’s the problematic web the virginal but plucky Shirley finds herself trapped within. Of course, the rot inside the town’s justice system becomes materially worse as the book progresses until its hard to tell the difference between the police and the criminals.

Ozaki’s writing is a dispassionate third-person narration that changes perspective with every short chapter. The creates a lack of emotional urgency, but it also adds to the horror as the reader is immersed in a broken system with every crooked governmental character acting as a cog in large and rotten wheel. There’s not much mystery or action in the book, but the investigation of a small-town’s corruption was very compelling.

Overall, I really enjoyed “Inquest.” Its not a crime fiction masterpiece, but it was very readable, and the short chapters made it fly by. If you like stories about crooked towns, I’m confident that you’ll find this one riveting and worth your time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 2, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 09

This episode features Tom's guide to building a "reader's library" for your home or office. We discuss the new reprint from Brash Books called "Spy Killer" (1967) by Jimmy Sangster and we look at "Bloody Vengeance" (1973) by Jack Ehrlich. We also look back at the month of August and some of our favorite titles. Stream it on any service, listen below or download here: Link Listen to "Episode 09: Building a Reader's Library" on Spreaker.

Foreign Exchange

The 'John Smith' spy novels were created by British author Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) in the late 1960s. Influenced by Ian Fleming's James Bond, Sangster's espionage flair propelled "Private I" to be published in 1967 and later adapted for film. That novel featured British secret agent John Smith's exploits in a China-Russia crossover that was funny, entertaining and engaging. NY Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman reprinted the novel as "The Spy Killer" this year under their Brash Books imprint.

"The Spy Killer" finale left our spy hero in dire circumstances. Thankfully, Sangster revisited the book just a year later, publishing the sequel, "Foreign Exchange," in 1968. It was also treated to a film adaptation, and Brash Books reprinted the novel for a new generation to experience this excellent duo of espionage thrillers.

Without an immediate answer to the events that occurred in the prior book, “Foreign Exchange” begins in similar fashion as it's predecessor – John Smith working as a destitute private investigator in London. In a hilarious sequence of events, Smith agrees to assist Harvey, his office neighbor and talent agent, in a pregnancy blackmail case. A young singer named Anne has accused Harvey of knocking her up, a problem she can solve if Harvey pays her some cash. Harvey claims he didn't have relations with her, only a business relationship. This leads Smith to the club circuit where he eventually locates Anne (who is smokin' hot/isn't pregnant) and attempts to sleep with her many times. Unfortunately, Anne claims Smith just isn't her type. This sequence only absorbs 30-pages but I would have been delighted if it consumed the whole book. But this is a spy thriller, so on with the show.

Smith's financial distress is explained as a reference back to the closing pages of the prior book. With Smith flat broke (and rejected by a sultry sex-pot), it's just a matter of time before he accepts another assignment from his former boss Max, the head of the Secret Service. The Service has a Russian double-agent that they have been utilizing for years to spill false intelligence back to the Russians. For many reasons, this agent is no longer useful and they want Russia to take him off of their hands (in lieu of a public trial and prison). To do this, they want Smith to be a planted spy to be captured and imprisoned in Russia. Then, Max will wheel and deal and trade the double-agent back to Russia in exchange for Smith. For Smith, it is a month vacation in Russia and the promise of a cool $10K for doing the job. But, can Max be trusted? What if Smith is abandoned and condemned to the salt mines?

We covered David Morrell's short story “The Interrogator” (2011) [LINK] and praised it's effective, fascinating interrogation scenes. “Foreign Exchange” is boiling over with that gripping realism, with a lot of the narrative dedicated to interrogation scenes between Smith and his jailer Borensko. There's so much that Sangster builds into this fast-paced narrative. His conversational tone, dense with witty sarcasm and funny quips from Smith, enhances what is a rather dense plot. Thankfully, the author keeps the story moving well enough to allow brisk page turns - unlike, say, a technical espionage thriller that requires exhaustive notes and a deep knowledge of global alliances.

With sexy foreplay and an intriguing plot, “Foreign Exchange” is one of the best kept secrets of the spy genre. Thankfully, Brash Books has unearthed this treasure and is sharing it with the literary world.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

The Spy Killer

British author Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) was a successful screenwriter and director, contributing to Hammer Films' classics like “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), “Dracula” (1958) and “Lust for a Vampire” (1970). His passion for screenwriting was paralleled by his literary work. Capitalizing on the success of fellow Brit Ian Fleming's 'James Bond' empire, Sangster created the lady spy novel “Touchfeather” and the sequel “Touchfeather Too” in 1968 and 1970. Enjoying the espionage genre, the author wrote two novels featuring former British spy John Smith, “Private I” (1967) and sequel “Foreign Exchange” (1968). New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg has resurrected both novels for his Brash Books imprint, renaming “Private I” as “The Spy Killer.” Both are available with new artwork in digital and print versions.

“The Spy Killer” introduces readers to ex-British spy John Smith, now a lowly private-eye struggling to fulfill financial obligations to his creditors. To his surprise he obtains a paying client in the opening chapter – his ex-wife. She hires Smith to track down her new husband, Dunning, whom she fears may be having an affair with a man named Alworthy. Smith, giddy to receive money while relishing in his ex's misfortune,  agrees to tail her husband in hopes of photographing him and a lover.

Smith learns that Dunning is Principal Under-Secretary for Britain's Foreign Office and during a rather clever exercise, stumbles on the whereabouts of a meeting between both Dunning and his suspected lover, Alworthy. Arrriving at the residence with a camera, Smith is greeted by Alworthy as he bursts out of the couple's front door. Thanking Smith for arriving so quickly, the two hastily rush inside where Alworthy shows Smith the bloody dead corpse of Dunning! Alworthy, thinking Smith is a police officer, excuses himself to the kitchen while Smith awaits the police's arrival. Once there, all fingers point to Smith as they surprisingly confirm that there is no Alworthy in the house.

In jail, Smith fears that someone has blackmailed him. Through some backstory segments, we experience Smith's violent past, including the grim slaughter of a household of youths. It's a valued effort on the author's part to transcend the novel from sleuth private-eye into the international spy novel it aspires to be. As the novel moves into espionage, we learn that Smith has stumbled onto a plot by the Chinese to uncover American spies in their red state. Facing criminal charges for murdering Dunning, Smith is forced out of retirement by his notorious boss, Max. Temporarily freeing him, Max instructs Smith to find Alworthy, locate a stolen notebook and return it to Max. If the mission is a failure, Smith will either be killed or face a one-sided murder trial.

Sangster successfully runs the gambit of private-eye, murder mystery and international spy-thriller, creating enough depth and dynamics to propel “The Spy Thriller” into a suspenseful and engaging high-wire act. While utilizing a lot of moving parts, Sangster's spy hero fights and manipulates his enemies into a complex game of cat-and-mouse from London to Paris. Surprisingly, the book's strength lies in the fact that Smith is a very human, very flawed champion. His skill-set, while durable, is offset by his rather humorous clumsiness. Thankfully, this isn't the lovemaking, tuxedo-wearing international hero that saturated the market.

While not as  dominant as his contemporaries, Sangster proved he was a master craftsman. “The Spy Thriller” is exceptional. Critics agreed as both "Private I" and "Foreign Exchange" were adapted for film starring Robert Horton (Wagon Train).

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, August 30, 2019

Not Comin' Home to You

Lawrence Block authored three stand-alone novels between 1969 and 1974 under the pen name of Paul Kavanagh. The third of these books was titled “Not Comin’ Home to You” and has since been re-released in several printings under Block’s own name, including an affordable eBook currently available while supplies last.

The story is loosely based on an actual 1958 murder spree conducted by Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in Nebraska. Block originally thought his fictionalized version of the events would make a good screenplay, but he abandoned that idea in favor of making it work as a novel first. When the movie “Badlands” was released dramatizing the actual Nebraska murders, the idea of adapting Block’s novel for the screen was scrapped. Fortunately, the paperback lives on.

Before the lyrical title was conceived, Block originally called his crime spree tale “Just a Couple Kids.” The kids in question are Jimmie John Hall and Betty Dienhardt, two restless young people in 1974 America. When we meet Jimmie John, he is hitchhiking through Texas high on speed with nothing but the clothes on his back and no particular destination in mind. Eventually, Jimmie meets up with restless, corruptible, and virginal Betty, and the bad decisions become supercharged as the pair hits the open road together.

The main focus of “Not Comin’ Home to You” is the manipulation and gradual corruption of Betty as the body count rises in the road trip’s wake. There’s plenty of graphic sex between 22 year-old Jimmie John and 15 year-old Betty in scenes whose appropriateness has not aged well with time. However, I won’t waste your time wringing my hands concerning honor of a fictional teen girl. The loss of her innocence - in more ways than one - made for fascinating reading. The reader bears witness as Betty grows numb to the explosions of increasingly violent opportunism displayed by Jimmie John throughout the novel.

Although Block never cites it as an inspiration, it would be hard to believe that he wasn’t familiar with John D. MacDonald’s similar adolescent thrill-kill novel, “The End of Night” from 1960. One’s ability to enjoy either book relies on your willingness to spend time with young sociopaths. This is another book where there’s really no one to root for. You can feel sorry for naive Betty, but she’s no heroine.

Block’s writing and character development are predictably excellent, but this isn’t among his greatest hits. Nevertheless, the paperback is never dull and has plenty of violence. If you’re a fan of couple-on-the-run, juvenile delinquent, bloody pulp fiction, you’ll likely enjoy “Not Comin’ Home to You.”

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Stryker #01 - Stryker

William Crawford's first notable work was the infamous 'The Executioner' installment “Sicilian Slaughter”. By 1973, and after 15 successful series entries, Don Pendleton and his publisher Pinnacle had some discord regarding the future of Mack Bolan. Under fire, Pinnacle chose William Crawford (writing as Jim Peterson) as Pendleton's replacement for “Sicilian Slaughter”. The book took some liberties with the character, enraged fans, and thankfully Pendleton and Pinnacle negotiated to have Pendleton continue the series through the 38th installment.

But Pinnacle wasn't finished with Crawford.

Hoping to capitalize on the success of men's vigilante-styled fiction, like Bolan, Pinnacle hooked their cash-wagon to Crawford for a new series called 'Stryker'. Crawford, fresh off the “Sicilian Slaughter”, had just released a western-turd to Zebra entitled “Ranger Kirk” (under the clever pseudonym W.C. Rawford). Pinnacle, feeling confident that Stryker would be profitable, had Crawford write four books in the series - “Stryker”, “Cop Kill”, “Drug Run” and “Deadly Alliance” - between 1973-1975. The series was an utter failure. My research doesn't cite any specific cause for lackluster sales, but my suspicion is that William Crawford's disjointed writing style bewildered fans of men's action-adventure.

My first and only experience with the series is the debut, “Stryker”. The book's back cover has an Editor's Note promising that Styrker is the toughest guy you'll ever read about. It goes on to state, with conviction, that “this is the raw, unpolished realism of the street, where law meets crime and the stronger man (not necessarily the better man) wins.” On the book's front cover, Pinnacle assures readers that this is a revenge story about a brutal cop who's experienced the death of his wife and the blinding of his child by criminals.

It's easy to take the revenge story-line and run with it. The late 60s, 70s and 80s pop-culture was fueled on the revenge headline: “Family Murdered, Man Takes Action!” But Crawford buries the story in endless introductions to a host of characters that have no real purpose. Within the book's first 120-pages, there's so many characters and backstories that the central theme is disoriented. By the 120th page, Stryker's family is still alive and the whole narrative is bogged down by arrangements, criminal infrastructure and a dog-tired necessity to explain everyone in the room. Where's this whole vengeance thing?

The centerpiece, as lost as it is, is two bank robbers working for a mob kingpin named Sam. The two men, while not screwing each other, work a heist and hit list for Sam across the country. After Sam tangles with a bribery charge filed by Stryker's partner Chino, the two hit men are employed to kill both Sam and Chino. Only those two guys get killed off rather nonchalantly (after we read pages and pages of character backstory), and Sam employs another assassin to do the job. Eventually Stryker's family is killed (shamefully I was ecstatic when the moment finally arrived!), but the narrative then settles into a court case instead of the two-fisted, sawed-off shotgun violence I was anticipating.

William Crawford may shine in some other form of literary work. Within the confines of men's action-adventure, he's a dud. I have no intention of reading any more of the Stryker books. I've suffered so you don't have to. “Stryker” should be stricken from the record.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Code Seven

During his life, Lou Cameron (1924-2010) was one of the most reliably solid authors in the men’s adventure, crime, war, and western genres. His 1977 police fiction paperback “Code Seven” has a cover blurb that promises the book to be “All the crunching excitement of Walking Tall” while the back cover guarantees “a nerve-sizzling suspense novel.” As a fan of Cameron’s writing, crunching excitement, and sizzling nerves, I was excited to dive into this one.

Sean Costello is the new chief of police in the fictional city of Flamingo Beach, Florida, a town of about three square miles. His new job is a chance at redemption for the chief who was recently fired from his police gig in New Jersey - ostensibly due to budget cuts. He’s an honest cop singularly dedicated to keeping his little town safe despite a lack of resources or much staff.

In police parlance, “Code Seven” is a meal break, which is an odd choice for a title. In the paperback, Cameron’s character claims it means “off duty” which, I suppose, is close enough for government work. The relevance of title has something to do with the romance that develops between Costello and a wealthy widow in his new hometown. This story-line seemed rushed and not entirely credible, but that wasn’t the centerpiece of the paperback, anyway. The point is that Costello is so busy putting out small fires that he’s never truly off duty.

For the majority of the book, Costello deals with the normal, everyday headaches, threats, and small mysteries of the job: drunks, a floater, a mouthy runaway, a suicide attempt, a stalker case, etc. The police procedural aspects of the novel seemed realistic enough to me, so either Cameron did some homework or he’s good at faking it. However, I kept hoping that the many disjointed plot threads would eventually form a linear story for the reader to enjoy or a mystery for Costello to solve.

Unfortunately, a main plot never really comes together. Some of the smaller mysteries presented as subplots are solved, and some tie into each other. However, it was an odd novel filled with nothing but subplots - almost as if Cameron wanted to write several different short stories about this interesting cop in a small, coastal town. The author apparently shuffled these stories into one disjointed book rather than selling them individually to the mystery digest magazines? Just a theory.

Cameron’s writing is predictably good, but an odd editorial decision left the book without chapter breaks. There are white-spaces representing scene changes throughout the paperback, but all 219 pages are basically one long chapter. As a reader, this was more irritating than I anticipated it would be.

Despite the myriad of problems with the book, it never failed to hold my attention since many of the subplots were rather interesting. I just wish Cameron’s editors sent him back to the typewriter for a few more rounds of drafts and forced him to develop a compelling main plot. “Code Seven” could have been a great cop novel instead of the mess he left behind.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Johnny Fletcher #17 - Swing Low, Swing Dead

Between 1940 and 1964, talented pulp author Frank Gruber (1904-1969) wrote 18 novels starring down-on-his luck 'Johnny Fletcher'. Debuting in 1940, “The French Key” was a success that led to an eponymous film adaptation in 1946. Both NBC and ABC ran Johnny Fletcher mystery stories for the Golden Age of Radio. Beginning in 1964, Gruber signed a paperback deal with Belmont Tower for two more Johnny Fletcher books, “Swing Low, Swing Dead” and “The Corpse Moved Upstairs”. It appears that business arrangement led to a number of reprints of the Fletcher books for a new generation of fans. The misleading cover art paints Johnny Fletcher as a gun-toting detective instead of the bumbling, comical conman that Gruber intended.

My first experience with the series is the 1964 novel “Swing Low, Swing Dead”. While researching, I discovered that there are three fixtures with nearly every Fletcher novel. First, Fletcher's muscular sidekick Sam Cragg is featured in a bulk of the narrative and is just as important to the story as Fletcher. Two, the imprudent duo are always destitute, leading to charity from series character and hotel manager Mr. Peabody. For small favors, he allows them residence in New York's 45th Street Hotel. Lastly, the two always stumble into a mystery! That's really par for the course. Gruber takes some liberties and asks his readers to suspend their beliefs for the sake of a good story.

Discovering a craps game on the hotel's upper floor, both Fletcher and Cragg join the fun. In a fortunate streak of luck, Cragg bets borrowed money against a rock singer named Willie Waller. The musician, out of funds, bets a song manuscript against Cragg, promising it's worth hundreds of thousands. Quickly after losing the game and manuscript to Cragg, he dies from cyanide poisoning.

The bulk of the novel's 154-pages is Fletcher and Cragg determining the validity of the song and it's value. After cleared by the police of any suspicion, it's the duo's job to sell the song for the promised value. Once they stumble on a music producer and his client, a chart-topping musician named Al Donnely, they realize that either Willie's song was plagiarized or Willie ripped off the melody from Donnely. The answer Fletcher and Cragg are both seeking could be worth a small treasure due to the tune's rise to the top of the charts.

While all of this is fairly interesting from a music fan's standpoint, the idea of who killed Willie is the emphasis of this Fletcher mystery. With both Cragg and Fletcher seeking the true songwriter, they must contend with a shady record business and a scar-faced goon who might have his own motives for wanting the songwriter's identity. Again, despite Belmont's action-packed artwork...this is a lighthearted yarn - not the violent espionage or violent crime-noir story depicted on the cover.

Gruber's comedic approach connects Fletcher and Cragg to an Abbott and Costello sort of gag. The two are always counting pennies, shortchanging bartenders and begging Mr. Peabody for just one more buck. Their sole moneymaking endeavor is a snake-medicine bit with Cragg breaking chains and Fletcher selling a bogus book on how to gain super-strength in a few short weeks. “You can break chains too for a measly $2.90...no change back”. It's an entertaining short read that showcases Gruber's storytelling strength in the pulp fiction formula.

Through his characters, Gruber criticizes rock music as something that's immature and dumbed down for a new audience while praising the jazz era when music was...music. I think Gruber was probably comparing the mid-60s literary work of his new peers to the pulp fiction that paid the bills in his recent past. Regardless, Johnny Fletcher is elementary and a fun read if you keep your expectations minimal.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 26, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 08

In this episode, we discuss Frank Gruber's 1964 crime-mystery "Swing Low, Swing Dead" and Lou Cameron's police fiction novel "Code Seven" from 1977. Tom talks about his book shopping in San Antonio, Texas and offers listeners a tutorial on how to affordably acquire paperbacks. Stream it below or through any popular streaming service. Direct downloads: Link 

Listen to "Episode 08: Buying Affordable Paperbacks" on Spreaker.

Murder Squad

Not much is known about author Everard Meade. I learned he was born in 1917, and although I could find no obituary, the odds of his continued longevity aren’t promising. As far as I could tell, “Murder Squad” from 1978 was one of a handful of war and political thrillers he authored in that era. It was published by low-end paperback house Major Books of Canoga Park, California. I’m always hoping that I may have stumbled upon a lost classic of Men’s Adventure Literature, so I gave it a read.

Our narrator is unemployed Vietnam vet Mike Gordon who arrives at a secret farm quietly guarded by the U.S. Marines for a meeting with his former commanding officer. Gordon is offered a job as an independent operative for a top-secret government agency with an assignment of dismantling a Soviet operation in Italy counterfeiting U.S. currency. The Russian project has a goal of collapsing the American economy through injecting a tidal wave of funny money into global circulation. Destroying the counterfeiting operation in Italy is too thorny of an operation for the U.S. Treasury Department, so our leaders turn to the secret agency on the farm to handle the violent overseas mission.

After accepting the assignment, it’s time for Gordon to meet the team. We have a judo expert, a pistol marksman, a safecracker, an electronics expert, and a couple other guys whose skills just seem to be general badassery. Gordon is one of the fluent Italian speakers on the team, and he is trained on the manufacturing of U.S. currency by the Bureau of Printing and Engraving just in case the assignment needs an undercover man. The team is called “The Barbarians” after the warriors who vanquished Rome in the past.

As it becomes clear that The Barbarians intend to not only destroy the counterfeiting equipment but slaughter everyone involved in the engraving operation, Gordon begins to have some misgivings about the integrity of the mission. And that’s where “Murder Squad” diverges from other team-based action novels. Gordon is a man of ethics who comes to the realization that he’s joined up with a team of kill-crazy nutjobs, and he needs to figure out what to do next - a little like changing a tire on a moving car.

The author’s writing in “Murder Squad” was pretty good - nothing flashy, but serviceable. I also found the setup to be very compelling and the climax to be exciting. However, it lagged quite a bit in the middle when the Murder Squad was trying to infiltrate the counterfeiting operation in Italy. As such, the core of the paperback was fairly dull. Overall, the book was about as good as a mediocre Mack Bolan paperback - nothing special but not awful enough to hate. Should you read this one? Life is short. You can do better.

Buy a copy of this book HERE