Friday, March 29, 2019

Into the Valley

Author John Hersey (1914-1993) wrote 25 books in his lifetime and was considered one of the first writers to incorporate story-telling techniques into a non-fiction novel. Working as a war journalist for prominent news magazines like Time and Life, Hersey was able to write bold, non-fiction “novels” based on his experiences. In 1959, Dell published “Into the Valley”, a harrowing account of Hersey's time with the US marines on Guadalcanal Island during WW2. The paperback features poignant illustrations by USMC Major Donald Dickson.

Billed as “A Skirmish of the Marines”, Hersey's “Into the Valley” is a vivid account of a three-day battle between US Marines and Japanese troops on the Matanikau River. This isn't a historically important struggle and Heresy admits it was really just another battle, another week, another moment for these veteran fighters. But the sense of realism, the sweaty, exhausting, all-consuming effort, is a time capsule of just how difficult fighting in the Pacific Theater.

The book is written first-person, placing Hersey onto the jungle trek with American soldiers. While often detailing the battle plans, Hersey introduces a solid half-dozen characters that make up this endeavor. The journey is well-documented, offering first-hand accounts of preparation and design while still creating an entertaining war novel. Once the troops hit the river, the war-torn horror is a thick fog enveloping Hersey and the reader.

Being raised in a military family myself, I've always been drawn to non-fiction books on US history, especially WW2 and Vietnam. While “Into the Valley” isn't an exceptional literary work, it is a short, vivid read on the tropical battles that made up the war on the Pacific. It provided enough details and descriptions of battle to keep me actively engaged and anticipating the inevitable retreat (or defeat). Does anyone really ever win? Vintage art aficionados should enjoy the illustrations immensely.  Dickson defied trends by offering more realistic looks at the life of the American soldier. The spit 'n polish look is replaced with a more genuine approach. Later, Dickson would illustrate a national comic strip entitled “Sgt Stoney Craig”. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Drawn to Evil

Harry Whittington’s “Drawn to Evil” first appeared in 1952 as half of an Ace Double packaged with “The Scarlet Spade” by Eaton K. Goldthwaite. The Whittington half has been reprinted as an eBook from Simon & Schuster’s Prologue Books imprint and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

“Drawn to Evil” is narrated by a Tampa Police homicide detective named Marty Carter who was passed up for the position of division chief because he was just too brutal. A beloved and respected state senator is murdered in cold blood, and Marty vows to catch the killer. In the aftermath of the senator’s murder, Marty meets Liza, the deceased’s grieving wife, and immediately becomes infatuated with her. Because this is a Harry Whittington novel, Liza’s a sultry, young looker. And because this is 1952, Marty has to slap her around a bit to get her attention after they first meet. Times do change.

Marty’s plan is that he’ll be the detective who solves the murder, and the Liza will be his prize. The problem is that Marty’s boss wants his help on the investigative team but has banned Marty from using his usual rubber hose tactics. So the cop who is normally a powder keg of violence races to solve the murder using pretty standard police procedures. Of course, a promise of restraint like that only can last so long. Marty is a fun character to ride along with because he is so filled with menace while trying (and failing) to do the right thing. He is pure id - fueled by lust and ambition.

The mystery takes Marty into the details of the senator’s personal life and into the bowels of Tampa’s crime syndicate. The action moves fast, and there are plenty of dysfunctional and twisted characters to gawk at along the way. More so than Whittington’s later crime novels, “Drawn to Evil” is a pretty conventional mystery - with a murder, clues, suspects, motives and a solution. However, things take a very dark and Whittington turn with about 30 pages left in the paperback when we leave Mike Shayne territory and go to a perverse and violent place at last. 

As I wind my way through Harry Whittington’s body of work, I’d put “Drawn to Evil” in the top-tier of his crime fiction writing. It had the requisite amount of sex, violence, amorality and darkness to declare this one a true noir fiction classic. The fact that it’s basically free as an eBook makes this a no-brainer must-read for fans of this type of thing. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Bastard Bannerman

By 1964, crime fiction heavyweight Mickey Spillane was pushing millions of copies for his hard-nosed detective series 'Mike Hammer'. The 1947 debut, “I, the Jury”, exceeded six-million sales alone. It's no wonder that the magazine Saga, which debuted in 1959, would feature a 1964 issue declaring “New Mickey Spillane Mystery – Mickey at his Best”. The 65-page novella was “The Bastard Bannerman”, which later appeared in the Spillane compilation book “The Tough Guys” alongside “Kick It or Kill” (1963) and “The Seven Year Kill” (1964).

The first-person narrative features the bastard Bannerman, Cat Cay, returning home after two wars and a life better led elsewhere. His family are mobsters and Cay, being born out of wedlock, was the runt of the litter. The story follows Cay's investigative work as he learns more about who his family is tying in with now. Historically the Bannermans have been a strong empire that was feared and respected. Now, the family has fallen on dire straits and conducting business with what Cay thinks are criminals of the lower echelon. 

While all of that is engaging, the heart of the story is the death of Cay's friend. Spillane's original idea is brilliant – the knife used to kill his friend has Bannerman fingerprints all over it. However, the family's new business partners snatch the knife from the murder scene before the cops arrive. Now, they want the Bannermans to pay a million-dollars or they bring it to the police. It's a cool blackmail scheme that forces Cay to help his family despite their indifference.

Spillane writes at a slower pace, heavy on dialogue and the obligatory gangster talk like “rods” and “hot”. That seems a little dated even for 1964, but easily ignored. It's a fine Spillane story that delivers the goods. It's certainly entertaining enough to interest any crime fiction fan.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 26, 2019


There’s a beautiful reference guide compiled by Paul Bishop and Scott Harris titled “52 Weeks - 52 Western Novels” with an essay by author Peter Brandvold gushing about a 1953 paperback called “.44” by H.A. DeRosso. Brandvold makes the point that the short book is really a noir novel wrapped in western packaging. A western noir? Now, you’re speaking my language.

Dan Harland is a cowboy turned gunslinger turned assassin-for-hire. As the novel opens, a paid hit veers in an unexpected direction when his intended target - a fast draw named Lancaster - allows himself to be killed by Harland without putting up any resistance. Why would someone do that? It amounts to suicide and it begs a lot of questions that Harland wants answered. The experience of murdering a willing victim was profound enough to bring Harland to the conclusion that he’s had enough of the killing game. Lancaster could have easily shot Harland but instead chose to die. By Harland’s old-fashioned honor code, he owes Lancaster his life.

Harland was hired for the Lancaster hit by a middleman who refuses to share the identity of the ultimate client who paid for the job. Harland becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the hidden client, and he goes on an investigative quest to settle the score in Lancaster’s memory.

What we have here is a genuinely unique mystery where the murderer himself is on a journey to solve his own victim’s murder. The “hitman searches for his mystery client” story later became a recurring plotline in Max Allan Collins’ ‘Quarry’ series, but DeRosso’s take is a way darker, almost melancholy, work of noir fiction.

The mystery is intensified by the sheer number of people falsely confessing to Harland that they are his secret client. Was the motive a cattle rustling dispute? A gambling debt? Or could it have something to do with the recent big-money train robbery? And most importantly - who is the puppet master convincing these people to run interference with cock-and-bull stories crafted to keep Harland away from the truth?

Folks, this is a great Western. One of the best I’ve read in ages. It’s also one of the best noir mysteries I’ve read. It made me want to explore the rest of DeRosso’s body of work. Sadly, the author died in 1960 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Since the novel’s Lion Books release in 1953, “.44” has been reprinted several times and is currently available as an eBook. This is great news since the book is a masterpiece and should be required reading for noir and Western fans. Highest recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 25, 2019

Russell Davis - The Ghost behind the Books: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

It all began with a haircut.

I was waiting my turn at the barbershop reading a 1970s vigilante paperback, and the guy sitting next to me said, “Have you ever heard of a series of novels called The Executioner about a guy named Mack Bolan?”

I told him that I was very familiar with the series and regarded myself as a fan. In fact, I write for a wildly-popular blog covering vintage men’s fiction.

Then the guy said, “I wrote many of them. And lots of other books like that, too.”

He introduced himself as Russell Davis, a name I confess I didn’t know. It turns out that his anonymity as an author of genre fiction was no accident, and my investigation into his body of work uncovered some interesting business practices among house name authors. His story illuminates the difficulty in unmasking the real authors behind the legendary pseudonyms of men’s adventure fiction.

I checked the guy out with some writers and editors in the genre, and Davis’ claims checked out. He was the real deal. We met for coffee, and I heard his story.

His first sale was a science fiction short story in a 1998 anthology edited by Ed Gorman and Martin Greenberg called “The UFO Files.” The story was published under Davis’ real name.. “I received a letter from a guy in prison who read my UFO story. The guy’s letter was rambling, but the theme – as far as I could tell – was that the creatures we perceive as aliens from outer space are actually angels sent by God. I had young kids at the time and felt increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of unbalanced readers posing a threat to my family, so I opted for pseudonyms wherever feasible going forward. Most of my short fiction has been under my name, though not all of it, and all but a few of the novels I’ve written have been under various pseudonyms.”

His first novel sale came in 2001 as co-author of “Tom Clancy’s Net Force Explorers #17: Cloak and Dagger,” and the success of that book opened new doors for Davis in the world of house-name fiction. “My mom met Tom Clancy before he died and told him that her son wrote one of his books,” Davis said. “Needless to say, Mr. Clancy was not amused.”

For Davis, 2008 was a big year for his writing career as a professional ghost. He sold two novels in Gold Eagle’s ‘Room 59’ spy series published under the house name Cliff Ryder. Gold Eagle, a Harlequin imprint, had always been generous with giving the real authors a writing credit on the copyright page. But having learned his lesson from his prison fan mail experience a decade earlier, Davis opted to have the writing credit go to a pseudonym he created to hide beneath the house name. “I began using the names Garrett Dylan and Dylan Garrett for the house name books I wrote to preserve my anonymity,” he said.

At the barbershop, Davis told me that he wrote two adult Western novels in ‘The Trailsman’ series as Jon Shape, but I was unable to find any record that this was true. Weeks later at coffee, I asked him about this, and he let me in on an industry secret. “Ed Gorman was contracted to write two books in The Trailsman series, but he was swamped with work at the time,” he said. “Ed called me and asked if I’d be willing to write the books for him in exchange for $2,000 per novel. Ed was probably making $4,000 per book for the job, so it was a win-win. I asked him if he’d created plot outlines, and he said he’d sold them on the basis of the titles alone – ‘Louisiana Laydown’ and ‘California Crackdown’ - so I had to write them with no guidance other than the titles. I finished the books quickly, and the publisher was never the wiser. Subcontracting your house-name work to other ghostwriters for a reduced fee was a common practice, but it was rarely discussed in public.”

Davis’ ability to write fast, high-quality genre fiction landed him an opportunity to work on the legendary Don Pendleton series, ‘The Executioner.’ “I was a fan of the series from way back, but I hadn’t read one in years,” he said. “The editor sent over a box of recent Bolans, so I could get a feel for the current format, and I got to work on my first one.” His initial outing was published in 2009 as “The Executioner #371: Fire Zone,” and the going rate for a Pendleton ghost at the time was a flat $4,000 fee per book. “I can only assume that the more seasoned and popular authors of the series – like Michael Newton or Mel Odom – commanded a higher fee,” Davis said. The success of his first venture lead Davis to author a total of eight installments of ‘The Executioner’ series as well as double-sized ‘Super-Bolan’ paperback.

Gold Eagle worked hard to maintain a continuity in the Mack Bolan universe. When Davis wrote a scene in ‘Super Bolan #148: Decision Point’ (March 2012) that found Mack flying an airplane, he quickly heard from an editor at Gold Eagle. “Mack can’t fly a plane,” the editor said, and this was news to the author. “I told her that he could fly a helicopter,” he said. “Why not a plane? She replied that it was in the Bolan bible. The problem was I had never been provided the document telling me what Mack could and couldn’t do. I’d learned on-the-job by reading books in the series. Despite my argument, rules are rules, and the airplane scene was cut.”

In keeping with his low-profile approach, Davis’ work on the Mack Bolan brand was credited to either Dylan Garrett or Garrett Dylan on the copyright pages. “And then for one book, Gold Eagle screwed up and gave me credit under my real name,” he said. “The moderator of the Mack Bolan fan website somehow put it all together and sent me an email asking if I had written all the Dylan Garrett titles in the series. I told the truth, and he amended his website crediting me for the books I wrote. Basically, I was outed.”

Davis has also worked on media tie-in novels connected to The Transformers, The Librarian, and The Twilight Zone. He’s also been active in the science fiction writing community, and is a former president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). These days he spends his time working on screenplays and as a university professor at a Master of Fine Arts Program for Genre Fiction. “If you want a master’s degree in how to write paranormal vampire romances, I guess I’m your guy,” he said. “I’m also going to be back writing original novels soon, and there are some announcements coming very soon on that front.”

In any case, Davis’ days as a ghost writer for media tie-in books are likely over. “I enjoyed the work while I was doing it, and it was a good way to make some money. But there’s only so many hours in the day I can spend writing, and the idea of doing my own thing with screenplays and original novels is ultimately more fulfilling from an artistic standpoint.”

Selected Men’s Adventure Bibliography of Russell Davis

‘Net Force Explorers’ as Tom Clancy:
- #17: “Cloak and Dagger” (2001)

‘The Trailsman’ as Jon Sharpe:
- #319: “Louisiana Laydown” (2008)
- #324: “California Crackdown” (2008)

‘Room 59’ as Cliff Ryder
- #2: “Out of Time” (2008)
- #4: “The Ties That Bind” (2008)

‘The Executioner’ as Don Pendleton
- #371: “Fire Zone” (2009)
- #392: “Shadow Hunt” (2011)
- #395: “Hazard Zone” (2011)
- #405: “Lethal Diversion” (2012)
- #415:  “Ivory Wave” (2013)
- #416:  “Extraction” (2013)
- #428:  “Desert Impact” (2014)
- #436:  “Perilous Cargo” (2015)

‘Super Bolan’ as Don Pendleton
- #148: ‘Decision Point” (2012)

Friday, March 22, 2019

Drive East on 66

Richard Wormser (1908-1977) was a Princeton man and a pulp author who wrote 17 of the original Nick Carter books for Street & Smith (long before the Killmaster era) as well as several popular Westerns under the pseudonym of Ed Friend. He also wrote two paperback originals starring Southern California police Lieutenant Andy Bastion: “Drive East on 66” (1961) and “A Nice Girl Like You” (1963).

The premise of “Drive East on 66” is awesome. A California real estate tycoon hires Andy away from his police duties for a two weeks side job. The assignment is for Andy to drive Ralph, the businessman’s troubled 16 year-old son, to an insane asylum in Kansas. The family also hires an attractive psychology grad student named Olga as the teen’s caregiver during the trip.

Along the way, Andy notices that their car is being followed by a mysterious maroon Buick. Is the tail planning a robbery? Was it sent by dad to keep an eye on them? Or is the pursuer determined to make sure they don’t make it to Kansas alive?

Andy, Ralph, and Olga are three vividly-drawn characters for the reader to join on this thousand-mile road trip. Although Ralph’s mental illness isn’t specifically defined, it feels like he’s an autistic savant of sorts - highly intelligent but prone to unexpected outbursts. Olga is a beauty trying hard to be professional during this unusual assignment, and Andy the cop is a top-notch pro with a good sense of humor. The competent officer provides the likable narration for the 150-page pursuit mystery.

The book opens great and ends with some satisfying plot twists. There’s a bit of filler in the middle, but nothing too cumbersome. Overall, “Drive East on 66” was a good natured coming of age mystery that lacked any real edge or violence, but it was enjoyable enough if you’re not looking for a hardboiled bloodbath. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Chopper Cop #01 - Chopper Cop

'Chopper Cop' debuted in 1972 as a Popular Library paperback. Author Paul Ross is actually Dan Streib, the man behind 70s action oriented series' like 'Killsquad', 'Hawk', 'Steve Crown' and 'Death Squad'. The series would last three installments with Streib writing the first two. While the cover, font and badge logo would indicate a high-paced action formula fitting of Streib's writing style, the end result is an entirely different type of story. Personally, I think this was probably a grand misplacement of what literary power-broker Lyle Kenyon Engel envisioned when hiring Streib. Engel would later denounce the author, furthering the theory that the supply didn't meet the demand.

Think of series debut, “Valley of Death”, as an eerie, Gothic investigative novel. Odd I know, but Streib's use of heavy sea fog, moonlit graveyards, old mansions and an abandoned mining town are the perfect backdrops for this dense thriller. They are almost characters themselves, springing up from time to time to introduce darkness and death.

No, this isn't the long-haired, biker riding “Easy Rider” that's depicted on the book cover, but our hero Terry Bunker does dress the part. He works for the California Governor, sort of a special operative piece that is utilized by leadership as an official State Department of Criminal Investigation...investigator? He receives requests from the Governor to solve crimes. He's extremely successful, allowing him to refer to leadership as “hey guv” despite hatred from his departmental peers.

The debut mystery is a rather grim one; young wealthy women are committing suicide in San Francisco and Sacramento. Yet, they are reaching out to their loved ones posthumously through bizarre phone calls or supernatural apparitions lurking just outside the window. The crime? Whoever is behind the ghostly apparitions are ransoming the return of these resurrected dead girls for millions of dollars. The culprit might be a strange seaside cult that's sacrificing drugged women for cash. But that doesn't explain the seemingly life after death undertaking of these heists.

Bunker isn't as funny as say...Kolchak, Fox Mulder or Carter Brown's bumbling detective Al Wheeler. But he's no Shaggy either. This character is vulnerable, even scared at times as he navigates ghosts and graves to find the criminal leader. But he can get the job done. It's a slap in the face to readers looking for a hard-edged, bone-breaking chopper cop. But once you can forgive the creator, this is a really fun mystery that had some longevity. I could see this sort of thing working on multiple levels, whether supernatural or just a “crime of the week” featuring some abstract scenario. Unfortunately, the struggle between publisher and author led to this being canned shortly thereafter. I'm on the hunt for book two.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Good Time Girl

Don Kingery (1924-2014) was an award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist in Southwest Louisiana with a career spanning over 50 years. He also played for the Detroit Lions during the early days of the NFL. Along the way, he also authored four paperback originals between 1956 and 1960 with plots in the same vein as James M. Cain and Erskine Caldwell. His final novel was a swamp noir paperback original titled “Good Time Girl” from 1960 published by Dell.

The novel opens in the aftermath of an alleged rape in rural Louisiana that is quickly becoming a major news story. Our narrator is Jack Candless, an alcoholic New Orleans newspaper reporter who travels to cover the salacious story while struggling with his own sobriety.

Cora Sill, age 19, claims that she was raped by a farmhand named Boad Gentry while the girl was swimming in an irrigation canal. Cora’s claim that Boad swam underwater to attack her has earned him the nickname “the frog man rapist” from newspapers seeking to sensationalize the story.

Upon arrival in the small town swarming with media, Jack comes to the conclusion that there may be more to the story. First, the police chief is a moron who couldn’t find his ass in the shower with a map. Second, Boad claims that he’s innocent and was set up by Cora when he hopped into the canal after she called for help. Meanwhile, the police chief seems to be enjoying his newfound celebrity too much to actually investigate the crime. Because this was written over 50 years before “believe all women” was a thing, Jack decides to look deeper into the crime himself.

The rape story becomes more problematic once it becomes clear that Cora is, in fact, the town’s titular Good Time Girl. Moreover, there’s a lot of economic incentive for the police, the media, the attorney, and Cora’s family to have the rape story be true. The moral bankruptcy of the news media in this novel is fascinating and creates the core of the moral dilemma for Jack. Fake news creates unintended consequences that, in turn, create new victims. It’s also remarkable how so many of the same issues surrounding the public’s rush to judgement and the problems involving unsubstantiated claims of victimhood are still being debated 60 years later.

“Good Time Girl” is well-written but it’s not without problems. For starters, there are far too many characters for a 160 page novel, and the paperback is fairly devoid of action or real suspense - but has plenty of melodrama. It’s a book about moral quandaries in the news industry and the eternal battle between a slavish devotion to accuracy and the quest for a good story. The fact that the book was written by a long-time newsman helps push this book just into the recommended column for me, but it shouldn’t be confused with a noir masterpiece. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

No Law Against Angels (aka The Body)

Beginning in 2017, Stark House Press began releasing the Al Wheeler series by author Alan Yates, better known as paperback extraordinaire Carter Brown. These 1950s mysteries are easy reads about a West Coast lieutenant who assists the commissioner on difficult whodunits. Stark House released the first volume in 2017, containing Wheeler entries 1-3. That followed in 2018 with the 4-6 installments. In March of 2019, books 7-9 were released. When choosing an affordable Stark House collection ($20 paper, $6 digital), pay no mind to series order because there isn't one. Al Wheeler is a cop. There's beautiful women. A crime needs to be solved. These aren't labor intensive. 

Wheeler is summoned by the commissioner to assist an arrogant homicide detective named Hammond. Wheeler, always holding Scotch, is to locate the murderer of two women found dead in San Francisco alleyways. The only clue is that each have a snake tattoo and they are from out of town. Never a strongman, our bumbling sleuth somehow backs himself into a call girl racket that involves mortuaries, hair salons and a hilltop mansion that might hold the answers.

The scenic coastline provides a beautiful backdrop for Wheeler's actions. The investigation eventually leads to fisticuffs, but not before both Wheeler and Hammond verbally spar on who's right and wrong. Of course Wheeler is attempting to get laid, but never settles to just pay for it (a prostitute practically wants to pay him!). It's when he meets the stunning goddess Jo Dexter that his sex-drive hits overdrive. But this is the tame paperback kingdom of the 1950s, so that sort of thing is more suggested than described. 

Carter Brown is firmly master of his domain and proves it with “No Law Against Hair-Dye”....I mean “Angels”. This was a gripping, short read that I read in nearly one sitting. Al Wheeler is hilarious with his endless sarcasm, never completely in control but somehow being three steps in front of the bad guys and the reader. This is absolutely entertaining and a must read.

Note - This U.K. book was released in the US in 1958 as "The Body".

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 18, 2019

Ian Ludlow #02 - Killer Thriller

“Killer Thriller” is the 2019 follow-up to Lee Goldberg’s comedic action bestseller, “True Fiction” about Ian Ludlow, a men’s adventure novelist who is unexpectedly thrust into the life of a bona fide action hero. Like the first installment, the novel straddles the line between being a parody of the Jack Reacher-style of adventure paperbacks and delivering a genuine kick-ass thrill-ride of a novel.

The character of Ian Ludlow is a fictionalized version of Goldberg himself - a TV mystery scriptwriter turned successful novelist. In fact, Goldberg began his career writing the macho “.357 Vigilante” series using the pseudonym of Ian Ludlow. “Killer Thriller” begins with Ludlow on a book tour hyping his latest testosterone-fueled novel, and Goldberg does a nice job of getting readers up to speed on the events of “True Fiction,” so no one is left behind.

Because Ludlow’s fiction has an uncanny way of becoming fact, he is approached by the CIA to become an operative using his writing job as cover. And because this is a fun - and sometimes silly - action novel send-up, Ludlow is soon in the mix with an international conspiracy to cripple America in a manner similar to a novel Ludlow is currently outlining.

The backdrop of “Killer Thriller” is a potential trade war with China during an internal U.S. policy debate over free trade vs. protectionism. Meanwhile, Chinese interests are putting a giant thumb on the scale with political assassinations in the U.S. and the kidnapping of Hong Kong’s best and brightest business minds. Production is also beginning in Hong Kong on a film based on Ludlow’s recurring character, which gives Goldberg a chance to poke some fun at Hollywood preposterous adaptations of outlandish contemporary men’s fiction and the influence of the China market on modern Hollywood.

As with the first installment, there are tons of Easter eggs in the novel for genre fanatics. For example, the movie studio adapting Ludlow’s novel is “Pinnacle Pictures” - presumably a nod to the iconic 1970s paperback house. Current events also get a send-up with a billionaire fictional U.S. President tweeting too much while alienating our NATO allies.

Joined by his hot and heroic lesbian sidekick Margo, Ludlow is off to China to monitor the adaptive filming of his old novel while researching the plot of his next one. As expected, he gets swept up in a real-life Chinese conspiracy that eerily mirrors his own plot outline for an unwritten novel.

Like it’s predecessor, “Killer Thriller” is a helluva lot of fun to read. The plot and action sequences are both absurd and absorbing. If you’re a fan of men’s action novels and their film adaptations, you are the intended audience for this love letter to our genre. Time will tell how many times Goldberg will be able to go to this same well, but I’m all-in for the Ian Ludlow thrillers. Highly recommended.

Buy this book HERE

Friday, March 15, 2019

Super Bolan #04 - Dirty War

In Don Pendleton's “Death Squad” (1969), the second of the long running vigilante series 'The Executioner', we are introduced to Mack Bolan's Vietnam colleagues - Bill Hoffower, Tom Loudelk, Angelo Fontenelli, Juan Andromede, Gadgets Schwartz, Pol Blancanales, Jim Harrington and George Zitka. While it's a short-lived cameo, this death squad assists Bolan with a Mafia hit that goes south. While the entire team is nearly wiped out, it was an interesting concept that would eventually lead to more team-based action in its affiliates like Able Team, Stony Man and Phoenix Force.

Pendleton would pen 37 of the first 38 Executioner novels before handing Gold Eagle the rights to produce the books using a myriad of authors. The stipulation that the author's name be printed on the copyright page is important, allowing fans like myself an easy peek at the book's creator without having to roll the sleeves up for a paper trail (I'm talking to you Killmaster). After 60 volumes of 'The Executioner' (titled 'Mack Bolan' at this point), Gold Eagle decided that they could increase the profits from $2.25 per book to $3.95 by increasing the size to 350+ pages under the 'Super Bolan' series. These were simultaneously released at the same time Executioners were flooding the market, providing plenty of paperback Bolans to meet reader demands.

Writer Stephen Mertz was a Pendleton prodigy and by the early 1980s was knee-deep in the Bolan universe. His resume and experience with Bolan provoked a “retcon” idea of re-imagining earlier events in Bolan's life. Thus, “Super Bolan #4 – Dirty War” is written as a time capsule piece depicting events that would happen to the character during his second tour in Vietnam. The idea of a sprite young Bolan in the hands of a veteran author like Mertz is altogether intriguing. The stars aligned to even have veteran artist Gil Cohen design the cover, the ultimate Bolan fan's dream.

The book begins in the present day as Bolan is thinking back to his Death Squad's unfortunate deaths. He's on a Mafia hit of his own and thinking back to his time in Vietnam as sergeant and the various missions that his men performed. In a unique chapter one, 30-yr old Bolan is at Pittsfield Municipal Airport in Massachusetts with his family. We know this would be the last time he would see his parents/sister and Mertz writes this into the narrative. Bolan has premonitions that he won't see his family again. Kudos to the author for also allowing some backstory on Mack's father Sam and his early fights with the mob enforcers. At one point, before Mack's departure, Sam is attacked and Mack comes to his aid. It's this aspect that I don't think was conveyed by Pendleton – that Mack knew what was happening back home prior to the first few letters arriving on his second tour. In this re-imagining, he knew all along. 

The action heats up in Vietnam as we see Bolan and his death squad liberating a young woman and child from a NVA stronghold near the Cambodian border. It's intense cat-and-mouse tactics that mirror Bolan's solo fights much later in life. But here we have Bolan as squad leader, effectively orchestrating the Hell that is unleashed on the NVA base. In a neat fan experience, Mertz provides a cameo of pilot Jack Grimaldi. Familiar readers will know that Grimaldi and Mack originally meet in Executioner #10, later to become longtime allies within the Stony Man group. Retconning that exchange, Mertz has Grimaldi rescue the Death Squad from the NVA fight and pilot the group to safety. While Grimaldi and Bolan never officially meet here, both are respectful to each other leading Grimaldi to think to himself, “I wonder if our paths will ever meet again”. This is fun stuff. 

“Dirty War” eventually tangles with plenty of firefights and escapes, building in a hot lead assault on Bolan's camp, a hunt and destroy mission and the eventual escape from enemy patrols in Cambodia. At 376-pages, it never gets too exhausting with dialogue or slow motion. This is 80s Bolan – 1,2,3,Kill at its finest. Mertz is clearly having a lot of fun with the concept and adds tremendous depth to the characters that made up that original Death Squad. Without giving away the spoilers, we know that Gadgets and Pol would survive that Mafia battle and go on to form Able Team (launched in 1982 by Gold Eagle).

Fans of the Bolan universe, this is simply mandatory reading. It's fun, indulgent and clever. It's clearly designed for the series' fans but should be considered an important part of the Bolan origin story. If you are new to the series, I would start here and then work into Executioners 1 and 2. But regardless of order, just read it.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Lady Gunsmith #6 - Roxy Doyle and the Desperate Housewife

Thanks to the guiding hand of creator and author Robert Randisi (writing as J.R. Roberts), the Gunsmith series of Adult Westerns has the most consistently high-quality stories of the genre. Not coincidentally, it’s also the only long-running series still around today. In 2017, Randisi launched a spin-off series starring Roxy Doyle, the ‘Lady Gunsmith’, and two years later, we are now six installments deep into the series.

Book six is playfully titled “Roxy Doyle and the Desperate Housewife,” and the plot initially leans on the series’ central thread - Roxy’s search for her missing bounty hunter father. She finds herself chasing a rumor to a small Wyoming town where dad was allegedly headed. This being an Adult Western, Roxy wastes no time getting laid as soon as she gets off the trail before settling in to wait for her father’s arrival. 

While Roxy is on the lookout for Dad, a woman named Jane arrives in town looking for Roxy. Once they meet, Jane discloses that she’s been married to Roxy’s elusive father for a few months, and they live just a short ride away. The next morning Roxy rides to the town Jane described, and no one there knows anything about Jane or Roxy’s dad. Why would this strange woman give Roxy a bum steer? Is she really Roxy’s step-mom?

The mystery moves to Idaho and is unraveled over subsequent chapters among traditional Western action. I won’t spoil the details here, but it involves a ton of cash from a bank robbery and a gang of outlaws seeking to recover the loot. There are double-crosses galore culminating in a satisfying conclusion leaving Roxy to ride another day. 

Lady Gunsmith #6 is a quick and entertaining read - short chapters, lots of dialogue, plenty of graphic sex and explosively violent action. Randisi is a seasoned literary entertainer, and he’s got the Adult Western formula down pat. His series books are crafted in such a manner that they don’t require sequential reading, so “Roxy Doyle and the Desperate Housewife” is as good an entry point as any. Recommended.

Purchase this book HERE

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Death House Doll

Author Day Keene, real name Gunard Hjertstedt (1904 -1969) wrote over 50 novels and is often placed in the top echelon of crime fiction along with Gil Brewer, Harry Whittington (he shared an agent with Keene) and David Goodis. Keene's “Death House Doll” was one of ten books the author released over the two-year span of 1953/1954. It's an astonishing feat for any writer, especially considering the magnitude and levels for which Keene was writing. Released by Ace in 1953, the book was re-printed by Prologue Books in 2012 in both physical and digital versions. 

The novel concerns a Chicago woman on death row who was convicted of fatally shooting a diamond salesman. Her only opportunity to escape the chair is Army Sergeant Mike, her lover's brother that made a promise he's determined to keep. As the book opens, Mike visits inmate Mona and advises that his brother, in a dying breath, asked Mike to look after Mona and their baby. Unbeknownst to him, Mona was forced into prostitution by mobster Joe LaFanti after Mike's death. She might have gone one step further and taken the rap for the murder. But why plead guilty all the way to death row? What precious life is worth more than her own?

Keene writes at a whirlwind pace, consistently placing “Death House Doll” and its readers one step from the determined Captain Corson, the lead on Mona's conviction. While Mike gets further entangled in Mona's case he becomes the enemy to both LaFanti and Corson, both convinced that he's the benefactor of the murder – the man's diamonds weren't found with the body. With this much treasure still escaping the bad guys, LaFanti puts his men on Mike in a rough and tumble action spree that seemingly envelopes the book's second-half. 

“Death House Doll” is another fine example of Keene's writing style – a blend of mystery, action and compelling characters. While Mike is the distinct good guy, the other characters have enough depth to blur the lines between right and wrong. It isn't necessarily cookie-cutter in its presentation, instead thrusting the story into the hands of readers in the same fashion as Mona's surprising circumstances are heaved onto Mike. We, along with Mike, never have a moment of composure. The race is on to free Mona, or at least find the definitive answer to the diamond murder. It's a dense narrative with a number of plot threads, but this author is a smooth read and knows his audience. 

Engaging, entertaining...Keene absolutely delivers the goods. Again.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

A Time to Scatter Stones

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder series about an alcoholic ex-NYPD Detective working as an unlicensed private detective started in 1976 and has been a reliably great crime fiction character arc over the past 43 years. Scudder has more-or-less aged in real time over the course of the series which is why I was so intrigued to read Block’s 2019 take on Scudder in the new 160-page novella, “A Time to Scatter Stones.”

As we join our hero narrator, he’s still sober and still married to Elaine at age seventy-something. His bad knees generally don’t stop him from walking around Manhattan, but an ice pack is needed to ease the pain when he gets home. Block does a nice job getting readers up to speed on Scudder and Elaine’s backstories. Elaine is a former prostitute who just started attending her own support-group meetings for women who were in the life - an analogous situation to Scudder’s own AA meetings that he’s been attending for 35 years.

Elaine is sponsoring a young ex-prostitute named Ellen who recently quit escorting. The problem is that she has one client who is not taking no for an answer and insists on seeing for paid sex her despite her demure protestations. She wants Scudder’s help to make the creep lay off and go away. The stakes are increased as his behavior becomes increasingly stalky. 

The first problem is identifying the stalker because it turns out that johns don’t always give their prostitutes their real names. The second problem is that 2019 Scudder is not the same ass-kicker as 1989 Scudder. It’s fun to see a beloved PI who is physically past his prime engaging in old-school gumshoe work, as the story drives toward a satisfyingly violent confrontation and a sexy conclusion. 

I’m pleased to report that even at age 80, Lawrence Block still has his writing chops. His knack for snappy dialogue is better than ever, and his plotting is flawless. Block is a mystery fiction grandmaster and a national treasure. If “A Time to Scatter Stones” turns out to be Scudder’s last appearance, Block can rest easy knowing the journey of this beloved character ended on a high note. Highly recommended.

Purchase this book HERE

Monday, March 11, 2019

Like a Hole in the Head

The king of European thrillers might be an unrecognizable name: Rene Lodge Brabazon Raymond. That's reality, but better recognition would be the fictitious name of James Hadley Chase (1906-1985). In fact, Raymond utilized Chase, James L. Docherty, Ambrose Grant and Raymond Marshall pseudonyms to write 90 novels. Using the sound strategy of picking at random, my first Chase novel is 1970's “Like a Hole in the Head”. 

Protagonist James Benson is a Vietnam veteran and former Army sniper. With a distinguished career of 80+ kills, the retired Benson and his wife Lucy are now settling into their new home in Miami, Florida. Benson has purchased a derelict gun range in hopes that his post-military career will be a lucrative one. With only a handful of students and overwhelming repairs, the two are scraping to make ends meet.

Benson is approached by savvy businessman Savano with a rather interesting proposal. Savano claims that he is in a half-million dollar wager that his son, Timoteo, can outshoot a rival's son. One would assume Timoteo is a decent marksman, right? The fact is that Savano was a little inebriated when making the wager – his son can't even lift a rifle much less make a tremendous display of shooting. The offer is for Benson to train Timoteo to shoot. The issue is that the competitive shooting takes place in just nine days. Benson, learning that Timoteo isn't a trained shooter, refuses the job. It's a good move on his part...until money talks.

Savano is a convincing man and soon introduces Timoteo to Benson. Immediately, Benson refuses the job again knowing that Savano's son is a sissy. The boy has a sense of entitlement and a spoiled lethargy that makes him detest guns. After the meeting, Benson refuses the job...AGAIN. Savano, stating that money can perform miracles, offers Benson $25K to train Timoteo. Benson AGAIN refuses and the offer is doubled. Now, Benson knows there's just too much at stake to refuse the deal. Benson must make Timoteo his equal on the range in exchange for $50K. That's a story the reader can't put down.

But, like all of these action-thrillers, the story isn't all that it seems. In fact, this story really becomes entwined with Savano's empire and a wager that is soaked in blood instead of money. Is Savano telling the truth about the wager, or is there something way more dangerous on the line? With Lucy being used as a bargaining chip, the story takes a number of twists and turns that left me reeling. I couldn't put this book down.

I'll repeat that this is my first foray into the world of James Hadley Chase. The man is way more talented than what these sultry (trashy) covers suggest. With an enticing plot development, the author rides these characters to the grave, screaming from the hearse long after the last shots are fired. It's these characters that Chase toys with, placing ordinary people into extreme circumstances to see what will break. That's “Like a Hole in the Head”. This is a must read for action fans...but with fair warning: This book will evaporate your day.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Kidnaper

Because of the association with his mentor H.P. Lovecraft and the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” author Robert Bloch (1917-1994) is remembered as a horror writer, but he also did a lot of work in the crime fiction genre. In fact, I would maintain that “Psycho” is more of a suspenseful crime fiction story than a horror novel anyway, but that’s a different argument for a different day.

Bloch’s novel “The Kidnaper” was released by upstart crime fiction paperback house, Lion Books in 1954 - five years before “Psycho.” It was reprinted by Tor Books in 1988 with a horror-themed cover and a modernized spelling of the title as “The Kidnapper.” Decades later, Bloch cited the novel as among his best work.

Our narrator is Steve Collins, a freight train riding drifter and petty criminal who breezes into town and lands a job working the night shift at a factory. Steve’s not a very nice guy, and you need to be comfortable spending 180 pages with a cold antihero operating with a severely-busted moral compass. If you need a white-hat protagonist in your fiction, look elsewhere.

Shirley Mae is the four year-old daughter of a wealthy businessman in town. Steve’s new girlfriend is the kid’s nanny, and he sees this as a real opportunity to make some big cash in a kidnapping and ransom gambit. He enlists the help of his dimwitted friend in the execution of the scheme which goes very wrong, and the majority of the novel is Steve’s attempts to salvage the operation, get the dough, and get lost.

This is a seriously dark noir novel that was clearly inspired by Jim Thompson, who was doing basically the same thing at the same time. It was also an excellent book if you’re looking for something gritty as hell to read. Steve is an unapologetic sociopath but otherwise logical and level-headed, so the book doesn’t force you into a mentally ill mind for the narration as in many of Thompson’s paperbacks. Bloch does a fantastic job keeping the action moving, and the tension-filled pages really fly by.

As long as you know what you’re getting and are comfortable with untidy crimes in your crime fiction, “The Kidnaper” is an easy recommendation.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Top Man with a Gun

“Top Man with a Gun” is a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback first released in 1959. It was re-released again in 1981 with alternative cover art. The author, western enthusiast Lewis B. Patten, wrote a tremendous amount of genre entries from 1952 through 1982 including four titles alone in 1959. While “Top Man with a Gun” isn't a standout western, it continues Patten's traditional western flair for violent and grim journeys by young protagonists. 

The harrowing adventure begins with young Clay living in Lawrence, Kansas with his father and sister. Set in 1863, historians could probably guess what was about to unfold. Confederate militia, led by guerrilla fighter William Quantrill, descends on the city to root out the anti-slavery movement. The end result, known now as the Lawrence Massacre, left over 180 men dead and nearly 200 buildings burned. In the chaos, Clay is wounded and must watch his father's murder and his sister's subsequent suicide. He sees the face of the rider and vows to avenge their deaths. 

As a classic Patten, the book is straight-laced with violence, vengeance and a good sense of western brutality. As the author plunges readers into the narrative, we learn more about the man Clay is becoming. Forced to ride with his sister's boyfriend Lance, the two are engaged in combat with Union officers, forcing deserter Lance to kill one of his own men. With both Clay and Lance on the run, the novel starts to find its own footing. 

Soon, the duo rescue the beautiful Dolly from three armed criminals before heading across the frosty mid-west tundra to escape Indians, Union soldiers and law enforcement. While the first half ends with Clay and Dolly falling in love, the second half briskly moves the location to Texas and a robust cattle drive being handled by Clay and farmhands. Here the action heats up as Clay is forced to fight three men and a spoiled woman whom Clay rejected. This scorned lover's vengeance is about par for the course for a 1960s Gold Medal paperback – a fitting element that enhances this ordinary western tale. 

This is my third Patten novel to date and I've really enjoyed all three. There's similarities in Patten's writing style – the weather elements, young heroes, revenge – but they are reminiscent of just about any good western story. Plus, Patten penned over 100 novels under his name and others. Being innovative and original could be challenging under these genre tropes. Regardless, at 133-pages, “Top Man with a Gun” is an entertaining, action-packed western that didn't disappoint. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Escape from Yuma

Author Frank Castle (1910-1994) began his writing career like most of his contemporaries, writing for pulp magazines as early as the 1940s. With a number of western entries in titles like “Mammoth Western” and “.44 Western”, Castle would later venture into the crime fiction genre. Throughout the 50s and 60s the author penned paperpack novels for Fawcett Gold Medal, some using the pseudonyms Steve Thurman and Val Munroe. While being a diverse writer, his primary body of work is westerns. My first sampling of Castle is the 1969 western “Escape from Yuma”, billed by publisher Tower as a “Big T Western”.

Our introduction to Boone Wade is a rather cramped one – tucked inside the cold steel of Yuma prison. Wade, just the average Joe, was a rancher who joined criminal McGare for a one-time train robbery. The hit and run went off as expected for everyone but Wade. McGare's gang made a successful break and Wade was left behind to face the worst prison in the west.

The 24-year old has become hardened after two years of breaking rocks and succumbing to nightly beatings. So it's with great surprise that Wade finds that someone has tossed him the keys to his cell in the dead of night. After running towards the river, Wade finds a woman and her grandfather waiting with a boat to usher him to freedom. What's the price of his freedom?

Frank Castle uses a familiar crime fiction ploy to lure readers into this engaging western tale. A lawman named Rambo (Frank Castle and Rambo in the same book!) has rigged the escape from Yuma as bait to lure McGare. Rambo wants Wade to rob three trains, all fabricated to the highest degrees of safety by Rambo and his men. Once the news of the robbery, combined with the prison escape, reaches McGare's gang they will want in on the action. That's when Rambo will swoop in for the snatch and convince judges to pardon Wade. But can Rambo be trusted? Perhaps he's really a criminal himself and the train robberies are legit. That's the ultimate question as Wade is forced to choose between cooperating with what he hopes is the law or furthering his escape by fleeing into Mexico.

At 155-pages of intense action, it's hard to put this one down. I nearly read it in one sitting and found Castle's writing to be intriguing. He doesn't spill the beans until the end, using patience to make for a more entertaining finish for his readers. It's this reservation that glues the book together. Will Wade flee, fight or submit in hopes of the greater good? That's the focus of the narrative and it's enough to create a winning formula. Western and crime fiction fans should equally enjoy “Escape from Yuma”.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Richard Blade #26 - City of the Living Dead

The Richard Blade series was published under house name “Jeffrey Lord” and ran for 37 English-language installments between 1969 and 1984. Lyle Kenyon Engel’s Book Creations, Inc. launched the series in which an operative from Britain’s MI6 is transported via government technology into “Dimension X” where he inevitably wages battles and gets laid among different primitive and advanced societies. Every book ends with Blade beaming back to the U.K. with knowledge or technology meant to benefit the British empire. It’s basically James Bond meets Conan.

It’s hard to give this series a full-throated endorsement as the books are mostly pretty bad and rather cheesy. Despite that, I’ve read a handful and found myself enjoying them in a guilty-pleasure sorta way. After Manning Lee Stokes stopped authoring the series, other writers took over the formula including a science fiction writer named Roland J. Green who later wrote a handful of Conan books in the 80s and 90s. I randomly picked Richard Blade #26: “City of the Living Dead” from 1978 to give Green’s work a fair hearing.

As with all the books in the series, the novel opens with Richard Blade in an MI6 bunker far below the Tower of London while scientist Lord Leighton straps the electrodes to his skin that hurl Blade into Dimension X for the 26th time using a new device called “a computer.” The first chapter of every Blade paperback does a nice job of getting the reader up to speed and very few of the storylines carry forward from book to book. The upshot is that the series can be read in any order.

After a false start, Blade awakens in Dimension X. The cool thing about this realm is that it’s different every time, so the authors of the series usually start with a fairly blank canvass upon which they build their story for our hero. This iteration of Dimension X initially reminded me of Mongolia around the time of Genghis Khan - marauding primitive armies lead by warlords plundering peaceful villages for women and food while accompanied by unearthly monsters. Blade rescues a voluptuous female prisoner named Twana from the marauders, and she becomes his first graphic sex partner and tour guide through this strange world. Conveniently, the inhabitants of Dimension X all speak English to Blade’s ears.

Blade and Twana find an urban community surrounded by a giant wall (think “Game of Thrones”). Rumors shared by Twana are that the city beyond the wall is guarded by giant mechanical killer robots. To Blade, these legends hint at an advance society behind the wall in stark contrast to the hordes of savages living on the outside.

I won’t spoil what’s on the other side of the wall for you (the back cover gives away too many cool plot points), but suffice it to say that it’s pretty inventive. The science fiction “City of Peace” inside the walls was a nice contrast to the fantasy world on the outside. Coincidently, the central dilemma in the city thematically reminded me a bit of Pixar’s “Wall-E.” You can decide if that’s a good thing. 

I found myself enjoying Green’s imaginative writing and plotting way more than the early installments of the series by Stokes. I recognize this bucks the conventional wisdom regarding the Richard Blade adventures, but “City of the Living Dead” is my favorite among those I’ve read. The author finds a nice mid-point between the family-friendly entertainment of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ ‘John Carter of Mars’ books and the repugnant misogyny of John Norman’s ‘Gor’ series with lots of fun action and bloodshed along the way. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 4, 2019

Cheyenne #01 - Arrow Keeper

Author Judd Cole experienced success in the 1990s with his Native American themed western series 'Cheyenne'. Beginning with the debut, “Arrow Keeper” (1992), the series ran for 22 installments. Additionally, Cole's name appears on another series entitled 'Wild Bill', which ran from 1999-2001 encompassing eight novels. Digging into the author's past reveals that Judd Cole is actually John Edward Ames, a journeyman who has written horror titles as well as other western entries under the name Ralph Compton and Dodge Tyler. 

“Arrow Keeper” is a superb western novel that should appeal to fans of the Piccadilly Cowboys' 'Apache' series of the 1970s. While less violent and more commercially accessible to all ages, the series and its debut centers around a young Cheyenne who was raised by a white family. Centralizing the coming-of-age archetype, “Arrow Keeper” is a sweeping 1840s adventure tale set in and around Powder River, Wyoming.

The book's prologue sets the series off with a whirlwind of action between Pawnee scouts, the U.S. Army and a defending Cheyenne tribe. The battle leaves just one Cheyenne survivor, tribal leader Running Antelope's infant son. An Army lieutenant brings the baby back to Fort Bates and gifts the child to mercantile store owners John and Sarah Hanchon, who raise Matthew Hanchon as their son.

Chapter one leads into the book's narrative, the eventual return of 16-yr old Matthew Hanchon to his people. Raised by white men around Fort Bates, Matthew endures the typical racial injustice of being a lone Native American. Never learning his true origin, Matthew's experience is simply farming, devoid of any rich ancestral skill-sets. After losing a fight, and a lover, Matthew eventually runs away from home and heads into rural Wyoming to seek out his Cheyenne brotherhood.

“Arrow Keeper” really comes into its own as a “fish out of water” story. Matthew finds solace within a Cheyenne tribe but is quickly brutalized in what tribesmen feel is a ploy by the Army to place a spy in their ranks. Facing near death, the tribe's leader, Arrow Keeper, receives a vision that Matthew is indeed Running Antelope's son. Thus, Matthew must endure the trials and tribulations to become a full-fledged member of the tribe and prove his loyalty.

Ames does a fantastic job by painting the indifference between white settlers and Native Americans at this point in American history. His parallel concept of depicting Matthew's loss of a true home both with white men and Native Americans is an intriguing concept that really works under his writing style. Ames, a stirring storyteller, blends customs, rituals and chants within the narrative to provide an authentic look at the life of a Cheyenne warrior. Of course these trials and tribulations are painful, but eventually sets the stage for a rousing battle to close out this book's story-line. 

I'm really excited about this series and I've collected the first few books. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and found it's pace, historical depth and side-stories maximized what the genre is capable of in the right hands. I can't say enough good things about this book and it's series potential. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, March 1, 2019

The War Heist (aka MacTaggart's War)

Atlanta native Ralph Dennis launched the 'Hardman' series in 1974 for Popular Library. The paperback originals ran 12 volumes, finishing with “The Buy Back Blues” in 1977. In December 2018, Lee Goldberg’s Brash Books began reprinting the Hardman classics starting with the debut. Additionally, one of the other acquisitions by Brash Books was a stand-alone heist novel by Dennis originally entitled “MacTaggart's War.”

The story behind “MacTaggart's War” and it's transformation into today's “The War Heist” is a noteworthy literary accomplishment. Originally this novel was released in hardcover in 1979. The book failed to receive commercial success or critical notice, so the novel simply came and went like many new releases do. By the time the author died in 1988, Dennis was operating an Atlanta bookstore with a file cabinet full of unpublished novels adding to his published works that failed to gain traction with the reading public.

A few years ago, New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg began negotiating with Dennis’ estate for the publication rights to the author’s complete body of work – published and unpublished – with the initial goal of releasing the 'Hardman' series on the Brash Books imprint. After reading “MacTaggart's War” and seeing the possibilities, Goldberg edited the novel’s composition and structure – deleting entire chapters and re-arranging others - to make the book more interesting to modern thriller readers. The end result of this posthumous collaboration is what we have today, a souped-up and streamlined new novel entitled “The War Heist.” At a whopping 407-pages, this isn't your standard 170-page Fawcett Gold Medal quickie. I can’t imagine how much padding the book contained in its original form before Goldberg culled the fat and was still left with such a weighty novel.

Sadly, the end result is a pretty bland and over-plotted narrative that failed to really excite. In all fairness, I'm not a superfan of high adventure paperbacks by Jack Higgins, Desmond Bagley or Alistair Maclean, so a lengthy novel with a WW2 backdrop felt like a heavy lift from the start. The heist aspect of the plot speaks to fans of crime-noir stories of the 1950s and 1960s, but the intricate theft is cloaked in the dense wrapper of an epic novel.

The story leverages an actual event in WW2 history – a simply remarkable mission known as Operation Salt Fish. In 1940, Winston Churchill and his cabinet felt that the United Kingdom was at real risk of being overrun by Hitler’s Germany. Fearing an imminent invasion and subsequent loss, the British conceived plans to ship their liquid assets to Canada by boat for safekeeping. The idea was that Churchill and his colleagues would continue coordinating the fight against Germany from the safety of Montreal. This continuation of the United Kingdom’s governmental continuity would be funded by 2.5 billion in gold and bonds transferred across the Atlantic through a sea of German U-Boats. Miraculously, not one ship was lost in this secret transfer of assets abroad.

Ralph Dennis utilizes this remarkable piece of history as the backdrop for a fictional heist by U.S. Army personnel attempting to rob the millions in British gold from the shipment. The robust novel covers the planning, recruitment and operation to grab the loot during the transfer from boat to train on Canadian soil. There's more than a dozen characters blurring the lines between valiant heroes and despicable villains. After so much planning – spanning chapter upon chapter – the book's final 90-pages have many of the elements of a top-notch action thriller. Nevertheless, the expansive story leading up to the climax failed to fully grasp my attention, so the final payoff left me feeling weary from the long road to Canada.

Despite my own misgivings, “The War Heist” should have much greater appeal to hardcore fans of classic high adventure thrillers. Kudos to Lee Goldberg and Brash Books for re-introducing Dennis’ forgotten novels to a new generation of readers. I sincerely hope that his body of work is discovered by a modern fan base. Moreover, I'm excited to explore the other unpublished manuscripts from Dennis currently in Goldberg’s possession, and I hope that Brash Books continues their commitment to publish the author’s complete catalog in the years to come.

Buy a copy of this book HERE