Thursday, January 31, 2019

Classification Homicide

In February 1955, “Classification: Homicide” began its publication history as the first of Jonathan Craig’s ‘Police File’ stories featured in Manhunt magazine. In 2016, the story was repackaged for the first time in paperback by Armchair Fiction as the B-Side of a double along with Dexter St. Clare’s “Saratoga Mantrap.” In it’s trade paperback incarnation, Craig’s “full novel” weighs in at 76-pages for a quick, breezy, and enjoyable read.

Before the review, some historical context:

In the 1950s, “Manhunt” magazine was the premier digest for hardboiled crime and mystery stories. For 35 cents, a reader would get a full novel (really a novella by today’s standards) and a handful of short stories by America’s top genre writers. It was quite a bargain and provided a ton of quality reading each month for a nice price. Because of Manhunt’s important place in America’s literary history, copies of the magazine are scarce today and worth a small fortune to collectors.

Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank E. Smith) wrote a series of seven short novels and short stories that were published in Manhunt between February 1955 and January 1956 tagged as the ‘Police File’ series. My theory is that the ‘Police File’ stories served as a literary precursor to Craig’s ‘Pete Selby & Stan Rayder’ police procedurals originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal starting in November 1955 and later repackaged by Belmont Tower in the 1970s as the ‘Sixth Precinct’ series - likely to capitalize on the success of Ed McBain’s bestselling ‘87th Precinct’ books.

And now the book review:

NYPD 20th Precinct detectives Steve Manning and his partner are called upon to investigate the stabbing death of a young woman whose body is discovered on the roof of a nine-story building on 69th Street. Manning is our narrator, and he follows all the logical steps one would expect to identify the victim and further learn what occurred.

Through canvassing neighbors in the apartment building, Manning learns that the deceased was a resident of the building and struggling fashion model and that she used to date a guy down the hall. In fact, her ex is the one who found her on the roof. A suspect, perhaps? Now we’re getting somewhere! Unfortunately, it’s never that easy.

The police procedural storytelling approach employed by the author owes a lot to the “Dragnet” TV show which premiered four years earlier in 1951. It’s an emotionless style driven by proven investigative methodology and professionalism rather than the overwrought emotionalism popular today. There’s none of this “I’m trying to stay objective, Sarge, but I just care too damn much!” bullshit in a ‘Police File’ story. Realism is the selling point.

That's not to say that Manning is without personality. In his narration, he takes the time to provide the reader with tips about best practices, conventional wisdom, and generalities about what cops know that seem credible, reasonable, and helpful to a lay reader. He also shows real compassion to witnesses and suspects who’ve gotten tough breaks in life.

The mystery takes us through the medical examiner’s conclusions, the lab team’s processing of the crime scene, and interviews of witnesses and suspects. But because this was a 1950s story, all this is done with a keen efficiency, and the reader never has time to get bored or mired in the minutiae of forensic details. “Classification: Homicide” moves forward without unnecessary diversions, and the mystery’s solution springs solely from the narrator’s own wits.

It’s not an action novel, though - it’s a straight-up mystery with clues, suspects, and lucky breaks. The cops and suspects were all great characters, and the solution at the end is satisfying and unambiguous. There was really nothing not to like about this well-written little mystery. In fact, I’m excited to one day read the other stories in this series. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

Further Reading:

It seems that “Classification: Homicide” is the only ‘Police File’ story to be converted to paperback as of this writing. Nevertheless, here are the ‘Police File’ stories in order, and the months they appeared in Manhunt:

“Classification:Homicide” - February 1955

“The Punisher” - March 1955

“The Babystiier” - July 1955

“Cast Off” - September 1955

“The Spoilers” - October 1955

“The Man Between” - November 1955

“The Cheater” - January 1956

Without spending a mint on old copies of Manhunt, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to read about the further adventures of Detective Manning and his crew. I’m really hoping that some enterprising eBook entrepreneur will rescue these orphaned works from the dustbin of history and release them all in one, affordable volume. If that happens, they can count me in as a customer.

Jonathan Craig and the Police File series is on the third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.

Buy a copy of the book HERE 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Specialist #01 - A Talent for Revenge

Along with writing for rock act Blue Oyster Cult and sci-fi/horror genres, John Shirley kept fairly busy in the 80s authoring a number of men's action adventure works. As D.B. Drumm, Shirley wrote a majority of post-apocalyptic books in the 'Traveler' series. As John Cutter, Shirley wrote an 11-volume series entitled 'The Specialist' for Signet. The series debut, “A Talent for Revenge”, was released in 1984.

The central theme of the series is “toughest action hero of them all” Jack Sullivan's quest to find his wife's murderer(s). Along the way there's plenty of high-stakes adventure and assignments to pad the series. While there isn't a lot of detail in the debut, we do learn that Sullivan is a Vietnam veteran. We also come to the realization that he was involved in the C.I.A. and fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Born in Missouri, Sullivan was raised to do the right thing and help others. His father routinely advised him that “the world is kept from falling apart only by people who help other people without being told to”. Now, in the present day, Sullivan is a mercenary fulfilling the needs of those seeking revenge. The adage of pretending to do it for the money helps rebuke those looking to take advantage. His assistant is a former C.I.A. operative named Malta, who's more of a supplier than a fighter. 

“A Talent for Revenge” has Sullivan accepting a job from Julia Penn. Her sister was killed by a terrorist named Ottoowa, a former African madman who now resides off the coast of France. Penn wants Sullivan to break into Ottoowa's sea-side fortress, decapitate him and bring the head to her on a platter. Seriously. John Shirley seemingly always looks to jump the shark. Built into the narrative is a diverse cast of characters ranging from former allies turned criminal, aspiring madmen, a young beauty/love interest fodder and the cops – the cops who really just stand in the way of justice when it comes to this specific genre.

At 186-pages, and smaller fonts, Shirley pads the novel to a rather unnecessary length. Considering the font size, this should have briskly passed the time at 160ish pages. Often, I felt the climax was above the glass ceiling. I knew the fortress invasion was inevitable, but counted pages until the boots hit the sand. Shirley kept things interesting with plenty of firefights and a tongue in cheek presentation that lightens the mood. Sullivan toys with the bad guys, ridiculing them into killing each other or accepting his challenge despite inexperience. It's these elements that kept me in the fight to the finish.

“A Talent for Revenge” is entertaining and adds a little bit of humor to what is ordinarily just another good guy with a gun prose. There's a contribution to the bigger mystery here, a compelling puzzle piece that may lead Sullivan to his wife's killer. The second book was already written upon this book's release. That allows the reader a sneak peek of “Manhattan Revenge” in the closing pages. Overall, a solid story that left me wanting a sequel. 

Note - A 1994 film entitled "The Specialist" is based on this series. The movie starred Sylvester Stallone as "specialist" Ray Quick. I can't find anything from that film's plot that mirrors events from this book.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Quarry #14 - Quarry's Climax

Released in 2017, Quarry’s Climax is the 14th novel in the Max Allan Collins series starring the nameless Vietnam veteran hitman code-named Quarry. The chronology of the series is a bit of a morass, but if such things are important to you, this one takes place in 1975 - five years into Quarry’s domestic murder-for-hire career when he was still taking assignments from The Broker.

The paperback begins with Quarry and his sometimes work partner Boyd at the apex of a posh assignment in Las Vegas. This gig serves to reintroduce the reader to the business model within which Quarry works. Oddly, the Las Vegas vignette doesn’t really tie into the plot of the novel at all. Consider it a bonus short story.

The heart of the paperback is a different assignment taking place in Memphis. As most Quarry novels are set in the Midwest (Iowa, usually), the change in scenery is significant and is a bit of a dog whistle to hardcore Quarry fans. You see, Showtime launched a Quarry TV series in 2016 and reset the series in Memphis (sinfully, if you ask me), so my guess is that Collins set the action of Quarry’s Climax in Memphis as a nod to the alternative continuity of the TV show. Some people liked the show. I thought it was awful. It wasn’t renewed for a second season, so that’s that.

Back to the novel. Quarry and Boyd find themselves in Memphis assigned to thwart the killing of a Larry Flint-like a pornographer named Max Climer who owns a strip club and filthy magazine called “Climax.” For personal and economic reasons, The Broker needs Quarry to neutralize an assassination team hired to kill the embattled porn king. However, killing hit men is only a temporary solution to the problem at hand, and Quarry also needs to identify and neutralize the client who is paying good money to see Climer dead.

What we have here is a pretty straightforward mystery novel with Quarry playing the role of detective. Who would want to kill a stalwart defender of the First Amendment testing the bounds of pornographic liberty? Religious kooks? Radical feminists? A business associate? A jilted lover? It’s Quarry’s job to find breaks in the action to receive oral favors from a hard-working stripper earning some extra cash for college - among other great sex scenes. There’s also a pretty cool cameo by the under-appreciated band, Big Star, that I sure appreciated.

As usual, Collins first-person writing is excellent, and Quarry’s Climax fits in nicely within the prolific author’s body of work. I’m thrilled to see that new Quarry books keep coming. This is a series that never seems to get old. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Executioner #39 - The New War

There's no denying that Don PendletonDon Pendleton's The Executioner (1969) was the catalyst for 70s and 80s men's action-adventure fiction. The series went on to spawn hundreds of imitators with the majority fixed on the idea of “er” at the end. Thus, The Enforcer, The Butcher, The Punisher, The Avenger brands are born. Other than one novel, the first 38 books are penned by Don Pendleton (the oddity was the 16th entry, William Crawford's Sicilian Slaughter). After legal battles with publisher Gold Eagle, and maybe just lack of ideas, Pendleton left the series in 1980 to focus on Joe Copp and Ashton Ford installments. In turn, Gold Eagle continued on without Pendleton's pen, rebranding it as Mack Bolan with entry number 39, The New War

Like all great bands, there comes a time when the act either calls it quits or simply evolves into the next lineup featuring the “replacement” singer. They've all done it – AC/DC, Journey, Judas Priest, Iron seems to be the rite of passage. With 1981's The New War, Mack Bolan's life changes under new writers. The mission remains the same, but the methods vary drastically. Under writer Saul Wernick, familiar readers find Bolan fighting crazed terrorists in Central America – for the US government. 

Bolan, fugitive from justice, wanted by the F.B.I., C.I.A. and even a “Bolan Taskforce”, is now working for the US government. It would only make sense right? Can't beat them, join them. But it's the other way around here – the government is joining Bolan's fight. 

The book's opening pages is not only important to the direction of the series, but it also builds what we now consider the Bolan Universe – the series of Able Team, Phoenix Force and Stony Man gain a foundation here. The Executioner series regulars like April Rose and Hal Brognola are now in charge as a directive of the C.I.A. (sort of). Specifically, Mack Bolan no longer exists, instead he has been created as John Macklin Phoenix, a retired Colonel. The entire Phoenix Program is now a covert operation running out of a Virginia farm called Stony Man. It's officially a C.I.A. “quiet house” spread over 160 acres. 

Behind the curtain are plenty of familiar Mack Bolan allies. Carl Lyons, Hermann “Gadgets” Schwarz and Rosario “Pol” Blancanales are at Stony Man. These three would later collaborate as Able Team (series debut in 1982). Other Stony Man players are here as well, including Jack Grimaldi and Leo Turrin, both supporting characters as far back as single-digit entries in The Executioner. Billed as “Stony People”, they are mostly just spectators in The New War

Bolan's mission is to locate an American secret agent named Laconia. He's been captured by Islamic terrorists and imprisoned on a jungle base between Colombia and Panama. After days of intense torture he's hovering between worlds and the rush is on for Bolan to capture or kill him. Bolan, understanding the sense of urgency, is battling overwhelming forces and a looming hurricane that could play havoc for any air support. 

First and foremost, Saul Wernick isn't a remarkable writer. While average at best, his prose contains plenty of exclamation marks that were outdated and unnecessary even for 1981. Pulpy hyperbole isn't typical for a Bolan novel, thus Wernick's writing style alienates fans and creates even more abrasion. However, I'm probably committing an act of treason when I say that I want Bolan fighting internationally. I prefer Bolan vs Armed Terrorist more than any mafia war. I love Pendleton, but after more than 10 novels of Mack vs Mob...I needed some liberation. 

The New War introduces a lot of interesting ideas and expands the vigilante idea into a robust and entertaining concept. Even though this novel isn't written with a distinct literary prose, it's a much-needed new Bolan that introduces me to the Stony Man universe. From here, one can use The New War as an “origin” story. A simple reboot for a new generation of fans. I'm one of them.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, January 25, 2019

Pete Selby and The Sixth Precinct: A Paperback Warrior Primer

Pete Selby & The Sixth Precinct: A Paperback Warrior Primer

This year, we are launching a new feature we are calling “Paperback Warrior Primers” with a goal of giving you a mile-high overview of interesting series titles. Our hope is that you can use these Primers as a guide to decide if a series appeals to you while giving you enough knowledge to jump into the series mid-stream if you choose. We launch this feature with a primer on a noteworthy series from crime fiction author Jonathan Craig.

Under the pseudonym of Jonathan Craig, Frank E. Smith wrote ten related hardboiled police procedural novels in the 1950s and 1960s that were originally marketed as “The Detective Pete Selby” series. As Selby’s partner began to play a larger role in the novels, they were rebranded as the “Pete Selby - Stan Rayder Detective Series.”

The stories are hardboiled police procedural mysteries that, more often than not, begin with the discovery of a murdered (but always totally hot) naked lady (Recall that nudity was a novelty in the 1950s). NYPD Detective Selby is our narrator guiding us through the twists and turns leading to the successful capture of the perps in a readable first-person style.

The original publisher of this commercially-successful series was the great Fawcett Gold Medal imprint, and the paperbacks were packaged with beautiful painted covers consistent with the era. The author was a prolific contributor to the short story digest market and much of his work appeared in “Manhunt” and “Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine,” but I think it’s fair to say that the ten Pete Selby books really put Jonathan Craig on the map.

He also wrote a series of seven novellas and short stories published in “Manhunt” between February 1955 and January 1956 tagged as the “Police File” series. My theory is that the “Police File” stories served as a literary precursor to the Pete Selby police procedurals. They are considerably harder to find but also worth checking out.

In the 1970s, Belmont Tower reprinted the Pete Selby mysteries with covers attempting to appeal to a Men’s Action-Adventure audience. The low-end publisher rebranded the series as “The Sixth Precinct Thrillers.” This was likely an effort to capitalize on the popularity of Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” series despite the fact that the Pete Selby books actually debuted first. In true Belmont Tower fashion, they screwed up the series order and numbered the books all wrong. The good news is that the series order doesn’t really matter, and the books seem to stand alone quite well.

Unfortunately, if you want to read the Pete Selby Sixth Precinct series, you’ll need to do some hunting for the rare Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks or the slightly cheaper Belmont Tower reprints. As of this writing, the novels have not been digitized as commercially-available eBooks.

For the record, here is the actual series order:

  The Dead Darling (1955)

  Morgue for Venus (1956)

  Case of the Cold Coquette (1957)

  Case of the Beautiful Body (1957)

  Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958)

  Case of the Nervous Nude (1959)

  Case of the Village Tramp (1959)

  Case of the Laughing Virgin (1960)

  Case of the Silent Stranger (1964)

  Case of the Brazen Beauty (1966)

Stay tuned to Paperback Warrior in the upcoming months for reviews of selected installments from the Pete Selby Sixth Precinct series.

We discuss the author and series on the third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.

You can buy a used copy of the third novel HERE

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Slater's Way

Charles G. West rose to prominence in the late 90s as an esteemed western writer. With an abundance of series creations, like 'Jason Coles', 'Little Wolf', 'Trace McCall' and 'Culver', we are starting to find West alongside other contemporaries like Ralph Compton and William Johnstone populating the retail aisles. While those names are now ghost-written, West remains actively writing full-time and is signed with powerhouse publisher Signet. My first introduction to the author is 2015's “Slater's Way”, one of over 15 stand alone western novels written by West.

At nearly 300-pages, “Slater's Way” is written as one long epic over the course of many years. As a coming-of-age tale, the reader seemingly grows with the young John Slater Engles. The book's beginning introduces us to Slater and his tumultuous household – Dad is a gambling drunk and Mom is a submissive fool. After a night of partying gone afoul, Slater's father is hung by a pole on the city streets. Slater takes his guns to town, unties his father and attempts to bury him. The town's vigilante committee takes offense, shots are fired and Slater leaves home for the Montana mountains. 

Soon, Slater pairs with Teddy Lightfoot, a white man who is living peacefully among the Crow. Both Teddy and his wife Red Basket welcome Slater to the tribe and together he learns the way of the Crow and the paths through the dense Absarokas mountains. It's this short section of the novel that grooms Slater as a mountain man, sort of a “Jeremiah Johnson” meets “Smoke Jensen” story. Fast forward a few years and the next phase of Slater's life begins.

Slater and Teddy find that the Crow tribe are targeted by the Sioux, a pocket of braves who are at war with the closest Calvary outpost. After a mountainside battle, Teddy is killed and Slater defensively kills a number of Sioux. Word of the battle reaches Iron Pony, who discovers that his brother was killed in combat with Slater. There's a score to be settled and about 150-more pages left. 

While it would be fairly simple for West to circle the revenge narrative of Iron Pony, West really enhances the mood and story by indulging in an epic prose. Mixed into the plot are a number of side stories featuring Slater as Calvary scout, his friendship and duties with Lieutenant Russell, repressed mourning and his relationship with the motherly Red Basket. Like any good western, the past will eventually catch up to our hero. Mixing this central storyline with Iron Pony's determination makes for a whirlwind of action and adventure. 

As a bulky western read, I can only imagine this as a series concept featuring various Slater adventures. Maybe at some point it will be, but considering three years have passed and there hasn't been a sequel...I'd speculate this is all that West intended to say about the character. Overall, this was a very satisfying read and an impressive sampling of West's work. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Bloody Vengeance

“Kill-crazed cops on a mission of vengeance - to wipe up the scum the law can’t touch” is the cover tagline of Jack Ehrlich’s 1973 stand-alone novel, “Bloody Vengeance.” Ehrlich was an Edgar Award-winning mystery writer whose 1972 Western, “The Fastest Gun in the Pulpit,” was adapted for the screen in a 1974 TV movie starring Slim Pickins.

I can only assume that “Bloody Vengeance” was Pocket Books’ attempt to capitalize on the vigilante fiction craze started a few years earlier by Don Pendleton’s successful series, “The Executioner.” Unfortunately, the publisher slapped a cheap photo cover on Ehrlich’s paperback, and it remains largely forgotten.

The novel itself is surprising compelling - largely due to the fact that Ehrlich wrote the narration of police Lieutenant Rob Royce in first-person as if it were a memoir. Through some solid police work, Royce is able to solve the murder of Mary Gunner, who had been dismembered and raped with a Coke bottle. Solid police work leads to the arrest of psycho subject, Harry Jako.

In a normal mystery novel, that would have been the satisfying ending, but it’s only the start of a vigilante paperback. You see, Jako beats the case and walks free thanks to some legal technicalities, and this understandably irritates the hell out of Royce who exacts a little - you guessed it - Bloody Vengeance with the help of his partner, Seargent Harry Willis.

Royce and Willis find the experience of frontier justice so satisfying that they decide to settle another old score with another deplorable criminal who also beat the system. It’s through these actions that the officers find their true north and reinvigorate their sense of right and wrong, good and evil. Word spreads around the department and other officers want to get in in the act.

Without spoiling anything, one man’s vigilante action evolves into a secret organization and then a movement. Imagine if the Guardian Angels were all off-duty cops who kick ass with the understanding that the on-duty cops were willing to look the other way? That’s the basic premise. The story evolves into an interesting parable about the corrupting nature of power and celebrity.

Downsides? The author fails to address many of the thorny issues that the premise of unchecked police power should beg. For the purpose of fictional escapism, that doesn’t pose a problem as long as this novel isn’t serving as a blueprint for a more perfect union. I’d also say that the first half of the book was far more exciting. When the vigilante action becomes a political movement, the action slows down a bit and it becomes a more thoughtful novel. 

But why quibble? Guys, this is a fantastic paperback. It’s a crime-fighting, right-wing, wish-fulfillment fable with awesome action scenes that never veer into cartoonish territory. I’d go so far as to call it among the best 1970s vigilante novels I’ve ever read - rivaling Pendleton’s “War Against the Mafia” for the top spot. It would have been a monster hit with a better cover, and that’s a damn shame. As of this writing, it’s not available on Kindle (another crime), so you’ll have to seek it out on the used paperback market. Please do. You won’t regret it.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Drygulch Town

“Drygulch Town” was originally released in 1963 by Ace as a double with “Prairie Raiders”. Both were written by the king of paperbacks, Harry Whittington. It was later re-released by Ace in 1972 with alternate artwork. In 1980, Tempo Books reprinted the novel again with alternative cover art. Does the book warrant three printings? Sadly, no. 

The novel begins with an exciting intro as attorney Steve Garrison rides into the small town of Carmack. He's warned to steer clear of the town with a few cautionary rifle shots. Garrison, determined to accept his position as defense attorney, ignores the shots and goes in the local bar to share his story with a local named Hawgans. 

Garrison is a lawyer from Cheyenne who's been hired to defend Kiner, a young man accused of killing Bryce Carmack's son Junior. It's a tough position to defend considering Bryce owns the town and all of the oil leases. In fact, Bryce had already taken it upon himself to lead a lynch mob to hang Kiner but it was disrupted by sheriff Waggner. The murder occurred after Kiner won a legit game of poker and left with the winnings. He claims Junior and another man attacked him in an alley and Kiner's fatal shot was in self-defense. The town, fearing backlash from Bryce, is in favor of hanging Kiner regardless of any evidence.

Whittington has a great opportunity here to leverage “Drygulch Town” into a stirring mystery regarding this unknown second assailant. I was envisioning a captivating narrative that explored Garrison's probing as an attorney/detective while receiving the obligatory death threats and attempts on his life. That would have been interesting and altogether a much more satisfying direction to take. Instead, Whittington waters this down with a recycled chain of events that finds the town just beating up Garrison, leaving him for dead, and then Garrison rehabilitating only to have it recycle two more times. There's very little investigation or defense here. Sheriff Waggner is the complacent white hat that serves no real purpose other than nursing wounds. Frustrating.

Overall, it's a short read that isn't cumbersome or painful to get through. It's an okay western that had a lot more potential. If you love Whittington then this may be something you feel obligated to read. If it is just a great western you are reaching for...just go right or left on the shelf but leave this alone.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Monday, January 21, 2019

Tears Are For Angels

During the paperback explosion of the 1950s, many writers of different stripes tried to ride the post-pulp cultural wave with varying success. Fawcett Gold Medal released three stand-alone noir paperback original novels by New York Times columnist Tom Wicker using the pseudonym Paul Connolly, including the 1952 effort, “Tears are for Angels.”

When we meet our narrator, Harry London, he’s only got only one arm, and he’s alone in a remote cabin - drunk and depressed about something to do with his ex-wife. He’s visited by an attractive female named Jean Cummings whom he greets with suspicion and violence when she wants to hear his story. These opening scenes are a bit frustrating because the reader has no idea what’s happening or how Harry got into this position. Stick with it, though. You’re in for quite a ride.

It’s midway through chapter five - about 15% into the paperback - that the flashback begins enlightening the reader about how London finds himself in such a bad place. I don’t want to give too much away, but there’s an infidelity, a murder, a frame-up, and a cover-up followed by a scheme to exact revenge. There are many clever plot twists here that you must read to experience. This a great book written by an author with clear literary aspirations and an ability to craft a plot utilizing prose far exceeding most of the era’s noir stories. Things get a bit melodramatic towards the end, but the quality of the writing never fails. 

“Tears are for Angels” really is a quality work of forgotten noir fiction that hasn’t been legally reprinted since its release over 66 years ago. It would be a natural fit for a modern release at the hands of Stark House or Hard Case Crime. For the rest of us, it’s just great reading. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

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.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

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.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Thursday, January 10, 2019

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

Richard Curtis was a successful literary agent and author who wrote nearly fifty works of fiction and nonfiction. In 1974, Curtis authored The $3-Million Turn-Over, the debut of a four-book series starring sports agent Dave Bolt. Like the “newshound heroes” of the mid-20th Century, the idea of an amateur solving crimes and murder mysteries works like a quasi private-detective novel. Wolfpack Publishing has just reprinted The $3-Million Turn-Over for modern readers.

In the series debut, readers 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 wisely chooses not to validate Bolt as stereotypical 1970s action hero. 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.

The Pro reads like Robert B. Parker's Spenser in that it is loosely a PI series 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. These novels also work as a sort of precursor to Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar series of mysteries starring a former basketball star turned sports agent and “accidental detective.” The author even thanks Richard Curtis in the acknowledgment page of the series debut Deal Breaker (1995).

The Pro series would later focus on hockey, baseball and football – America's most popular sports. Curtis also wrote at least one other sports related novel, a stand-alone called The Sunday Alibi which was published under the pseudonym Ray Lilly.

Buy a copy of The $3-Million Turnover HERE

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.

Note: McGivern's turnpike story became a movie, "Nightmare in Chicago". It was directed by Robert Altman in 1964 and features Charles McGraw.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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.

Purchase this book HERE

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.

Purchase a copy of the book HERE

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.

Buy this book HERE

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