Monday, February 18, 2019

Soldier of Fortune #01 - Massacre at Umtali

During his literary career, Peter McCurtin served as an author, editor, collaborator, and house name. When McCurtin’s name appears on a paperback cover, his actual input into the final product is often shrouded in mystery. With regards to the 1970s iteration of his Soldier of Fortune series, paperback anthropologist Lynn Munroe has done the heavy lifting for us. Books 1-3 were written by McCurtin the man, and books 4-9 were ghostwritten by Ralph Hayes as McCurtin the house name and edited by McCurtin the editor.

The ‘Soldier of Fortune’ paperbacks star - and are narrated by - mercenary Jim Rainey, and each novel finds Rainey in another war-torn hellhole engaging in combat-for-pay. The series was rebooted by McCurtin in the 1980s - also starring Rainey - but I confess that I haven’t done my homework on the backstory regarding that string of novels.

The series kicks off with “The Massacre At Umtali,” from 1976, and a helpful prologue brings ignorant readers like myself up to speed on the history of colonialism, racial strife, and civil war in Rhodesia where the novel’s action takes place. Rainey is our narrator, an ex-marine from Beaumont, Texas, who is engaged to serve as the leader of an anti-insurgent force of mercenaries serving the Rhodesian Army (white European colonialists) fighting terrorist guerrillas (black African insurgents) for $2,000 per month.

McCurtin writes Rainey’s narration in a pleasing conversational style, so it feels like you’re listening to a badass buddy in a tavern telling you about a foreign adventure he experienced. Rainey puts together a slapdash team of fellow mercenaries (“fuck ups and killers”) for his anti-terror mission, and watching the misfit fighters come together as a team was a particularly cool aspect of the story. The mission itself involves finding and removing a particularly reprehensible terrorist leader hiding in a jungle stronghold.

This book has it all: badass main character, fascinating setting, instant readability, and blood-soaked violence. The racial characterizations in the novel are a product of an earlier time - 1976 - that probably wouldn’t fly today, and the morality of European colonialism in Africa is never questioned. However, nuanced social criticism isn’t what you’re looking for in a Belmont Tower shoot-em-up paperback from that era. This cheap-o novel is intended solely for pure escapism, and it succeeds in that mission. This is a remarkably exciting war story with some great twists and turns along the way. 

As for me, I’m all-in for this series. I’m particularly looking forward to see what author Ralph Hayes does with the concept in later volumes. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, February 15, 2019

Sleep With the Devil

Gunard Hjertstedt (March 28, 1904 - January 9, 1969), better known by pen name Day Keene, wrote over 50 novels and is widely viewed as a literary giant within the crime genre community. “Sleep With the Devil” is a mid-career book published in 1954 by Lion. In April of 2017, Stark House Press re-printed this novel as a three-in-one alongside “Joy House” (1954) and “Wake Up to Murder” (1952).

Keene introduces us to the charismatic Ferron, an enforcer for a NYC loan shark named Bennett. Ferron's unwavering commitment has most recently been evident with his deadly beating of a young African American debtor. Now, Ferron is contemplating killing his boss Bennett and doing the proverbial “take the money and run” routine. The only issue is a connection to his greasy lover Lydia, who unfortunately can't live without him.

As we begin to digest Keene's malefactor, we soon realize that there's a deep dynamic with this character. Ferron has an entirely new life in creation under the identity of Paul Parrish. Unlike Ferron, Parrish is a devout Christian bible-seller that lives in a the tiny upstate New York town aptly titled New Hope. There, he's to wed the virgin beauty Amy under the giving but watchful eye of her wealthy father Wayne. Once the wedding bells ring, Ferron/Parrish will inherit a productive farm, new car and the beautiful Amy. 

Keene weaves this intoxicating narrative together with barbed wire. Ferron is the seedy, vile criminal we love to jeer, yet Keene miraculously prompts the reader to cheer him on, hopeful that in just the right amount of moonlight this bad guy goes straight. While a fish out of water tale in its own right, the author's talent to blend the crime with passion, purpose and redemption is brilliant. I really enjoyed this book and I'm thankful that Stark House Press felt the same. This is a much-needed reprinting of a classic.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Big Red's Daughter

John McPartland (1911-1958) was born in Chicago and served in World War II and the Korean War. He joined “Life” magazine in the 40s and later penned a number of hard-boiled novels for publishers like Fawcett Gold Medal. One of his earliest novels, “Big Red's Daughter”, was released in 1953 and later re-printed by numerous publishers. Most recently the king of reprints, Stark House Press, released the book as a double with the author's most notable work, “Tokyo Doll”. 

McPartland incorporates a lot of 1950s teen angst into this rocky romantic thriller. There's a number of firm elements at play – hot rods, rebellious youth, drug use and plenty of snot-nosed kids from my 42-yr old vantage point. The main character is Jim Work, fresh out of service in Korea and drifting around the California coast. After a fender bender and some punches, Jim follows wealthy punk/bully Buddy Brown and his hot girlfriend Wild Kearny (Big Red's Daughter) to a party house. 

After refusing to pay for Buddy's car repairs (Jim wasn't in the wrong), the two square off in a fistfight where Buddy beats the Holy Hell out of Jim. However, Jim's real pain comes from his heart – he's fallen in love with Wild at first sight. In a rather wild chain of events, Wild's father arrives hoping to meet her newest boyfriend Buddy. But, Wild is ashamed of him so she introduces Jim – good looking war veteran - as her boyfriend. It turns out Big Red is a former longshoreman and controls some dock rackets. He's a pretty big deal.

Soon the truth is out about Buddy and Wild's relationship. After Big Red knocks Buddy's block off, Buddy storms off into the night. Wild and Jim go out for drinks only to return and find that Buddy has killed a young friend of Wild's with scissors – of all things. After knocking Wild unconscious in the struggle, Buddy scrams. In the tradition of “whoever smelt it dealt it”, the police are called and immediately point to Jim as the killer. All of this happens in the first-half!

The second-half is a whirlwind of action that blends a jailbreak, manhunt, extraordinary fights and suspense. As Buddy, Jim and Wild run from the law, there's a new story-line introduced about heroin trafficking. With all of these stirring elements, the author builds the action to match location. In the beginning, with more low-key action, the setting is shore-side in Carmel. But, as the action and intensity increases, the location is heightened to the cliffs and mountains above the sea. It's a clever design.

With “Big Red's Daughter” we see author McPartland certainly flirting with greatness. He wrote 11 novels in the 1950s and four screenplays. Dying at the young age of 47, I think McPartland's career didn't reach appropriate heights. Nevertheless, we have some fine novels as a testament to the strength of McPartland's writing. I certainly recommend this book, but at 128-pages you may want to purchase the Stark House double to gain “Tokyo Doll” with your money. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Enforcer #04 - Kill Deadline

Andrew Sugar's fourth entry in 'The Enforcer' series was released in 1973 by Lancer. The entire series was purchased and later reprinted by Manor. All of those reprints featured newly commissioned artwork except “Kill Deadline”. Further, Manor released this novel out of it's original series order, confusing readers by stamping #6 on the cover and misspelling the author's name. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the series premise, I highly recommend clicking on the Enforcer tag below to better understand why this vigilante series contains science-fiction elements. While not a traditional vigilante yarn, the idea of a company, such as Rosegold Institute, financing a war on crime certainly dresses the part. “Kill Deadline” expands on that formula and offers a fairly simplistic mystery for readers to digest.

The premise is that a wealthy entrepreneur is being assassinated on the tenth of each month by The Calendar Killer. These corporate executives represent successful companies that have refused to sell out or cooperate with the Mob. The latest victim is a friend to the institute, Daniel McBane. Upon his assassination, the company's controls are willed to Richards, who was injured during the murder. Our favorite “enforcer”, protagonist Alex Jason, conceives the idea of replacing Richards with a clone body that Jason inhabits. The mission is to lure the assassin out into the open so Jason's skill-set can capture or kill the hitman. 

Like the book's opening pages, which promises an inevitable confrontation between Jason and his nemesis Lochner, the mystery is fairly simple – locate the hitman and the eventual connection between his organization and Lochner. Along the way Sugar's writing introduces some new allies while surprising readers with a shocking death (that even I had to read twice!). Overall, this series is a brilliant undertaking and a really clever spin on the 70s men's action adventure staple. While it was short-lived, at just six total books, this author makes the most of the concept and writes spectacular fiction that is overwhelmingly entertaining. This is a mandatory read for action enthusiasts. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

You Can Call It Murder

In 1959 and 1960, NBC-TV aired a private eye show called “Markham” starring Ray Milland that ran for 59 episodes before cancellation. At the time, a young Lawrence Block was hired to write an original TV tie-in novel starring Markham that was finally released in 1961 - after the show had already been canceled. The paperback was originally published as “Markham: The Case of the Pornographic Photos,” but has since been re-released under Block’s original submitted title, “You Can Call It Murder.”

New York P.I. Roy Markham is engaged to find a missing 20 year-old girl named Barb who cleaned out her bank account and disappeared from her New Hampshire college. Her wealthy father is worried and wants Markham’s help to find his little girl. Barb runs with a fast crowd and loves to spend her daddy’s money, so its really just a question of what bad decision she’s made this time.

As always, Block’s writing is superb and Markam’s first-person narration recalls his early Matthew Scudder novels. Clear thinking, logic, and good detecting bring the P.I. closer to the novel’s solution. Markham isn’t a hardboiled detective cracking skulls along the way, but the underlying mystery takes him into the seamy underbelly of society giving the short novel enough gritty reality to keep the pages turning.

Although it was inconsequential upon its release, the original 1961 Markham paperback is now a collector’s item and will cost you a small fortune to buy. The paperback has been reprinted several times as “You Could Call It Murder” with rather generic covers that are readily available. Moreover, Block has been generous with his back-catalog and made the book available on Kindle for five bucks. Whatever the medium, this highly-enjoyable early novel is definitely worth your time. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, February 11, 2019

The Wolfer

Giles A. Lutz (1910-1982) was a prolific western contributor that penned 64 novels in his lifetime. Within his robust bibliography, he also utilized the names James B. Chaffin, Wade Everett, Alex Hawk, Hunter Ingram, Reese Sullivan and Gene Thompson. As Brad Curtis he wrote 11 erotic novels for sleaze publishers like Monarch. My first sampling of the author's work is western entry “The Wolfer”. The novel was originally released in 1968 by Tower and then re-printed with different packaging in 1972. 

“The Wolfer” is indeed the main character, an inexperienced and hot-headed rancher named Hobart. During a snowy Montana night, Hobart has a disagreement over a woman and becomes entangled in a drunken brawl with an Army captain. After slipping on ice, Hobart is knocked unconscious and awakens to find the captain knifed in the back. Accused of murder, shackles are slapped on and Hobart is sent to death row. Only this is the 1800s and death row is essentially a 24-hour recollection period before execution. The reader knows who really killed the captain, but it's up to Hobart to find the truth. 

After escaping jail, Hobart heads into a lonely, barren stretch of wilderness deemed The Breaks. It's a hodge podge of harsh men and women who have escaped society's ills by living in Canada's southwestern region. Hobart, stripped of all assets, seeks solace with a pack of wolf hunters. He learns to hunt for wolf hides while attempting to right the wrongs and clear his name. Despite the tag-line, he is not as merciless as the wolves he hunts. 

Even the most barren used book stores will typically have a rather large inventory of old, tattered westerns. It's a big genre filled with countless authors and titles. I'd like to think of “The Wolfer” as just another average western. Lutz isn't cutting edge by any means, offering readers a blunt edge narrative that's just plain dull. While building a story-line around this western rancher, we're immediately turned off by the character's neediness. He requires so much maintenance, from borrowing food, shelter and money to eventually losing fights he altogether should be most western stories. 

Again, this is my first experience with Lutz and I'm sure he is a terrific writer. I have a stack of the author's books in my collection, but based on the small sample size of “The Wolfer” I'm in no rush to read the next one.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, February 8, 2019

To Find Cora

In 1963, Harry Whittington sold a book titled “To Find Cora” to a sleaze publishing house after the novel had been rejected by Fawcett Gold Medal. The book was later released under the salacious title - “Cora Is A Nympho.” Three years later, the plot was slightly revised and re-sold as “Flesh Snare” by J.X. Williams published with a tawdry - and misleading -S&M cover.

In 2009, Stark House reprinted “To Find Cora” in a three-book compilation along with two other Whittington rarities and a fascinating introduction by David Laurence Wilson detailing Whittington’s foray in the 1960s porno book market. By today’s standards, the sex in “To Find Cora” is extremely tame, but it remains a damn fine noir novel that modern readers will no doubt enjoy.

“To Find Cora” is narrated by Joe who is searching for his estranged wife after she left him following a domestic dispute. We quickly learn that fights between Joe and Cora were not unusual occurrences, so nobody takes Joe seriously as he’s trying to find his bride following her disappearing act. The other issue is that Cora is quite a looker, and the working theory is that she’s found another man. This doesn’t dissuade Joe who is certain he can win Cora back if he can just speak to her for a few minutes.

Joe’s obsessive hunt for Cora brings him to a desolate Oklahoma farmhouse on a hot tip. Instead of Cora, Joe finds a young couple named Hall and Vy who are hiding out from the law. Vy is a lusty vixen fully disillusioned by her man while turning her eyes on Joe. Meanwhile, Hall is a savage paranoiac who won’t let Joe leave for fear that he’ll notify the police. As such, Joe finds himself taken prisoner in the couple’s farmhouse hideaway.

I can only imagine that readers looking for a cheap porno novel after purchasing “Cora Is A Nympho” or “Flesh Snare” were super confused as they were thrust into this suspenseful noir - almost horror - novel. Overall, “To Find Cora” is in the upper echelon of Whittington’s paperbacks. There’s a central mystery, a duplicitous and alluring femme fatale, a psychotic adversary, and an unstable tinderbox of violence waiting to explode. It’s both a hard novel to put down and an easy recommendation for you.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Johnny Killain #02 - Killer with a Key

Dan J. Marlowe's fans will quickly point to 'Earl Drake' as the author's finest work. However, before creating that 60s-70s series, Marlowe had a five-book run of hotel detective novels starring protagonist 'Johnny Killain'. The first, “Doorway to Death”, released in 1957 via Avon, followed by this sequel, “Killer with a Key”, the same year. 

Killain's detective work runs parallel  with the night shift duties at Hotel Duarte, an older establishment in New York City. The series debut convinced readers that Killain is the real deal – a no nonsense, tough guy that worked for the pre-cursor of the CIA during WWII. So, when Killain's ex-wife, Ellen Saxon, is found murdered in his hotel...we know heads will roll.

The novel's narrative has Killain rescue his ex-wife from a hail of bullets. After physically ripping a car door handle off in the firefight, Killain manages to hide Ellen in a hotel suite. It's only a matter of time before Killain finds her strangled to death on the bed. The culprit points to Killain's friend and co-worker Vic, but Vic may be taking the heat for another party. 

What Marlowe perfected in the series debut was the interplay between hot-headed Killain and the NYPD. Here, it is duplicated in the same fashion with equally entertaining results. While Detective Cuneo runs afoul of Killain's private investigation, he needs Killain to do the dirty work his department won't allow. The narrative follows Killain's hardboiled trail as he navigates an underworld of insurance rackets. The murder puts him at odds with not only the police, but friends and allies that may be involved in running a fraudulent business out of the hotel. 

While not as action-packed as Marlowe's Earl Drake, this series more than makes up for it with the lovable cast of characters. The hotel's staff, including Killain's lover, enhances the story with familiar faces that plays like an episode of “Cheers”. The heart of this story and series is Johnny Killain – the smart, loud, fist-fighting man's man. And, as billed, Marlowe is exceptional. This one is a recommended read for crime novel enthusiasts.

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Pete Selby #8 - Case of the Laughing Virgin

“The Case of the Laughing Virgin” by Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank E. Smith) is the eighth mystery-adventure starring NYPD Detective Pete Selby and his partner, Stan Rayder. The paperback was originally released by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1960 with a cheeky, swinging cover and was re-released in April 1974 by Belmont Tower as #6 in the “Sixth Precinct” series with a decidedly more menacing illustration.

There’s really no reason to tie yourself into knots trying to reading the series sequentially - particularly since the 1970s publisher couldn’t figure out the proper order anyway. This short installment begins with Selby (our narrator) and Rayder pulling a hysterical naked girl down from the roof of a Greenwich Village brownstone - only to discover her dead lover inside the apartment with three bullet holes in his chest. Did the naked lady plug her boyfriend? Sometimes in life it’s that easy but rarely in crime fiction.

Selby and Rayder logically put the pieces of what unfolded at the apartment together to generate logical leads in the case. It’s a pure police procedural and the paperback follows the course of the investigation with a brisk pace that is seldom boring. Also, sex is humming in the background of nearly every scene but no one seems to get laid here.

Over the course of 160 pages, the author does a great job of making 1960 New York City come alive, particularly when the investigation leads the police into the world of underground stag film production and sex clubs. Moreover, the interplay between the two police partners is pure gold. The problem is that this novel isn’t particularly exciting. It’s a serviceable police procedural where Selby and Rayder go from interview to interview running down logical leads. There was really nothing to grab the reader in a story about two honest cops doing their jobs very well.

I’m not giving up on this series. I regard Jonathan Craig as an unsung master of crime fiction, and I know he can do better. If you dive into the Pete Selby Sixth Precinct series, start with a different installment. For me, this one failed to deliver.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Utah Blaine

“Utah Blaine” is a 1954 western by genre heavyweight Louis L'Amour. It was originally released as part of an Ace double under the pseudonym Jim Mayo (the second book was “Desert Showdown” by Samuel A. Peeples as Brad Ward). In 1957, the novel was adapted for the silver screen by director Fred F. Sears and starred Rory Calhoun. 

The book, set in Arizona's Verde River Valley, introduces us to protagonist Utah Blaine in heroic fashion. Blaine, unarmed, listens closely as a vigilante army strings up rancher Joe Neal. Seemingly dead at the end of a noose, Blaine rescues Neal and learns he owns a large cattle outfit named The 46. After hiring a vigilant army to prevent cattle rustling, the valley's ranchers soon found the tables had turned – the army, greedy and chomping at the bit, selfishly wants the ranches. Blaine's reputation of slick gunfighter appeals to Neal, so the two come to an agreement to have Blaine run the 46 and fight Neal's battles for him. There's a large monetary reward and a head of 500 cattle if Blaine can get the job done.

This is traditional L'Amour at his finest. At a brisk 164-pages, the novel is absolutely loaded with gunfights. In what seems like a “Game of Thrones” chessboard of ranches, Blaine shakes out a dozen or more characters, each with their own agendas, skill-sets and history. It's these characters that each represent alliances and historical feuds involving money, land and...shockingly...even pretty women. While often I had to keep a scorecard on the dead and still-living, this book was  an exhilarating read. L'Amour's silver star shines bright with “Utah Blaine”. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Monday, February 4, 2019

One for Hell

Jada M. Davis (1919-1996) was a newspaperman in West Texas who saw plenty of crime and corruption in his day coinciding with the oil boom that transformed the character of sleepy small towns unprepared for rapid growth. His unique vantage point over the underbelly of society clearly sparked his imagination for the 1952 Fawcett Red Seal crime novel, “One For Hell.” The paperback was reprinted by Stark House in 2010 and remains available today as a trade paperback and eBook at reasonable prices.

The novel’s protagonist is Willa Ree, like the author, a man with a feminine-sounding name. He’s a flat-broke drifter and ex-con who bails out of a freight train in search of sustenance in the oil boomtown of Breton. Upon arrival, Ree meets a corrupt local city councilman who arranges for Ree to be hired by the local police force as a plain clothes detective with the understanding that Ree will keep the graft money flowing in the right direction.

Ree embraces the lifestyle of a crooked cop with real gusto, and the reader quickly realizes that he is a genuinely bad guy - not a charming antihero but a complete heel driven by greed and ambition. Ree’s government-sanctioned crime spree is plenty entertaining and involves a fair share of shocking, bloody violence that keeps the pages turning. So be warned: he’s a reprehensible guy and does some awful things within the pages of this paperback.

The novel’s main flaw is that there’s hardly anyone to root for among the graft-addicted politicians and crooked cops running the town. The fairly large supporting cast - as well as their wives and mistresses - are a loathsome bunch prone to bashing in each other’s heads when they interfere with each other. Can Ree rise to the top in such a filthy environment? Moreover, should we even be rooting for this guy?

“One from Hell” reminded me of the 1983 Al Pacino movie “Scarface” in that both stories track the rise of a sociopaths through the twists and turns of burning criminal ambitions. The Jada Davis paperback isn’t a crime-fiction masterpiece - the plot meanders too much for that - but it is a compelling and violent character study that is definitely worth checking out. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, February 1, 2019

The Late Mrs. Five

Richard Wormser (1908-1977) was a prolific pulp fiction writer, penning 17 'Nick Carter' adventures for Street & Smith before releasing a novel under his own name - “The Man with the Wax Face” (1934). Along with writing TV adaptations and screenplays, Wormser wrote over 20 crime and western novels. In 2017, Stark House released two of Wormser's classics as a double reprinting - “The Body Looks Familiar” (1958) and “The Late Mrs. Five” (1960). Both are prefaced with an introduction by esteemed Texas writer Bill Crider, one of the last things the author wrote before his death in February of 2018. 

“The Late Mrs. Five” is my first introduction to Richard Wormser. The book is a superb example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When we first meet protagonist Paul Porter, it's on a lonely stretch of mid-west flattop. Porter, a divorcee, is making the territory pitches as a factory rep for terracers (like a farm plow). In the small farming town of Lowndesburg, Porter stops to check on a display model of the terracer and to talk shop with a client, Mr. Gray.

Upon his arrival he learns that Mr. Gray has gifted his retail business to his son-in-lawn, town sheriff Otto McLane. After a quick inspection, McLane encourages Porter to talk with the wealthy businessman John Hilliard. In route, Porter shockingly spots his estranged ex-wife on main street. Up until this point Porter has no idea of her whereabouts...and very little interest after a bitter divorce that's robbed him of his life savings. After the surprise discovery, Porter continues to Hilliard's residence only to find it vacant.

Later that night, Sheriff McLane arrests Porter for killing his ex-wife! Coincidentally, she had remarried Hilliard and was murdered the same date as Porter's visit to the home. McLane puts the finger to Porter despite a solid alibi. Aligning with McLane's daughter, Porter is forced to run in a frantic attempt to solve the murder. As the pace quickens, the cast of characters are examined by Porter and the reader as the whodunit mystery races to an exhilarating reveal. 

Wormser blends a familiar prose – innocent man accused of murder – with small town charm. This hybrid of “Our Town” crossed with “Perry Mason” works brilliantly despite its shortcomings. We've read it before, but Wormser is an entertaining story-teller and works wonders with this elementary plot. The addition of shyster attorney Henry Lighton smooths out the morbid aspect of murder into a humorous subtext on the legal system's backward motions (paralleling present day). “The Late Mrs. Five” is highly recommended for someone just wanting a classic whodunit that isn't affixed to the names Gardner and Christie.

Buy a copy of the book HERE