Friday, June 28, 2019

Tall Dark and Dead

Last year, I read and reviewed the Stark House reprint of Kermit Jaediker’s “Hero’s Lust.” I loved the book so much I moved heaven and earth to buy an expensive used copy of his only other novel, “Tall Dark and Dead.” Just my luck, Stark House has released this rare and collectible book as part of another Lion Books three-pack along with “The Savage Chase” by Frederick Lorenz and “Run the Wild River” by D.L. Champion. The new edition also features a fascinating interview with Lion Books editor and author, Arnold Hano

“Tall Dark and Dead” began life as a hardcover mystery published in 1947 when Jaediker was moonlighting from his newspaper reporter job into more creative pursuits, including comic books and crime novels. In 1951 when paperbacks were the hot new entertainment product, Lion Books reprinted the short mystery with a salacious painted cover by illustrator Robert Maguire that has been restored for the Stark House trade paperback 68 years later.

Lou Lait is a Hollywood private investigator who is engaged by a wealthy woman to recover (i.e. steal) four letters locked in a man’s safe. You see, her husband was a WW2 fighter pilot who went missing in action and was presumed dead. She began seeing another man - a local society columnist - and wrote him some romantic letters. Of course, her husband resurfaces and comes home to resume life with his bride. The ex-boyfriend doesn’t want to let go, and begins extorting money from the woman with her letters as his proof of the accidental infidelity. If Lait can just swipe the letters from the ex-boyfriend’s safe, problem solved.

Luckily for Lou (and the reader), he’s pals with an expert safecracker whose always willing to take on a job like this for an extra buck or two. However, while in the apartment for the burglary, Lou finds the lifeless body of the blackmailer with a knife stuck in his back. Lou has no legit reason to be in the apartment with his safecracker friend, and his client is an obvious suspect. Thereafter, it’s up to Lou to solve the murder.

“Tall Dark and Dead” is a good, if largely unremarkable, 1940s private eye mystery. It’s better than some and not as good as others. It’s certainly nowhere near as great as Jaediker’s 1953 masterpiece, “Hero’s Lust.” I feel the paperback original crime novels of the 1950s were way edgier and more interesting than 1940s output. If you’re looking for a fundamentally solid private eye story, give this one a shot. I’m certainly going to tackle the other novels in the new three-book collection because I have faith in the quality of Lion Books and, by extension, Stark House.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Killer

Authors Robert Wade (1920-2012) and Bill Miller (1920-1961) collaborated under the pseudonyms Whit Masterson, Dale Wilmer, Will Daemer and Wade Miller. Together, the duo wrote over thirty novels including the 1951 Fawcett Gold Medal noir novel “The Killer,” now available as an affordable reprint through Stark House.

“The Killer” refers to protagonist Jacob Farrow, a successful American safari guide living in Africa. After an infraction on his hunting license, Farrow finds he has some additional free time on his hands. This proves to be convenient as an attorney from the U.S. arrives at Farrow's African home to offer a perplexing opportunity. His client wishes to employ Farrow for a hunt in North America. The payday is a cool 5K to accept the offer, and another 10K if Farrow can kill the intended prey.

Accepting the offer, Farrow arrives in New York to discover the attorney’s client is a customer who Farrow guides in Africa every two years, a skillful hunter named Stennis. Farrow learns that Stennis' son was killed in an armed robbery by a gang leader named Clel Bocock. Stennis, hoping to avenge his son's death, hires Farrow to hunt Bocock, make the kill, provide proof, and collect the payment. The gig is complicated by the fact that Bocock is a high-profile criminal wanted in several states for various robberies. To find Bocock, Farrow will need to remain a few days ahead of law enforcement.

As a 1951 paperback with a sultry cover, the story practically demands an inclusion of a beautiful woman. The authors certainly deliver with Marget, Bocock's estranged wife. In Georgia, Farrow stumbles on the drunken Marget and rescues her from the clutches of a seedy “fencer” who had a personal agenda in locating Bocock's whereabouts. With Marget at his side, Farrow searches from Georgia swamps to Chicago before moving to the rural mountains of Yellowstone park. It's a national whirlwind of hunting, chasing and shooting as the duo attempt to find Bocock's gang.

There's a number of things that work extremely well in “The Killer.” Farrow is a likable hero with an unsettling problem – killing a human after decades of hunting defenseless animals. Not only is it a new, more physical challenge (and illegal), but an overly emotional one. The authors spend a great deal of time focusing on Farrow's internal conflict, while also introducing a ravishing love interest in Marget. However, I found the final scenes rather dull and uninspiring despite a clever twist that brought the storyline a bit more depth.

“The Killer” is simply another 1950s crime novel that shouldn't be altogether avoided, but certainly shouldn't be too high on your essential reading list. The Stark House reprint includes an additional Wade Miller novel in “Devil on Two Sticks,” also known as “Killer's Choice,” originally released in 1949. Both are introduced by the esteemed crime noir enthusiast David Laurence Wilson.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Red File for Callan (aka A Magnum for Schneider)

The U.K. television series “Callan” lasted for four seasons between 1967 and 1972 on Thames Television. The series creator was James Mitchell (1926-2002) who also authored five books and several short stories starring his government assassin character, David Callan. The first paperback in the series from 1969 was originally titled “A Magnum for Schneider” and was re-issued as “A Red File for Callan.” If you’re looking for a copy, check under both titles, and you’ll probably have some luck.

The setup is that Callan is an assassin for a shadowy government intel agency accepting his assignments from an enigmatic, bureaucratic handler. If this sounds familiar, it’s pretty much the same premise as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series. Helm answers to Mac, and Callan takes orders from Hunter. And just like the Helm series, “Red File for Callan” begins after the main character has been away from the killing game for awhile and is pressed into service by his boss as a contractor of sorts. However, outside of the org chart similarities, the character of Callan isn’t much like Helm at all. 

Callan’s hang-up is that he wants to know why Hunter orders the target killed. Hunter wants Callan to simply follow orders and put a bullet between the bloke’s eyes. This drives Hunter crazy and was the reason Callan left the agency before his provisional return at the beginning of this story. It’s Hunter who decides who merits a red file (meaning: targeted for death), and Callan is simply the weapon tasked with carrying out the hit without a lot of messy questions. Callan is also more pensive and thoughtful than most fictional government assassins. Killing seems to be his only marketable skill, but he doesn’t relish the act. He’s a worrier with a big conscience.

For this return to government work, Callan’s target is Rudolf Schneider, a tough and shrewd German businessman living in London with a love of military history, a sense of humor, and an air of danger surrounding him. Because of his personal ethics, Callan must investigate to learn what Schneider has done to merit a red folder. If Schneider deserves to die, Callan will pull the trigger. If not, then no deal. This dynamic turns the novel into an interesting hybrid between a mystery with a puzzle to be solved and later a thriller with a government agent on a mission.

A fair amount of the book’s first half is designed to present Callan’s origin story - as a commando, as a thief, as a prisoner, and as an assassin. There’s not a ton of action, but there is way more character development than other 1969 paperbacks of this ilk. It also must have been a pain in the ass to acquire a handgun in London 50 years ago because an inordinate amount of the book’s first half is spent trying to score a weapon. After about 90 pages of setup, the plot moves forward considerably.

Mitchell was a good writer, but “Red File For Callan” was a pretty slow read. It sets up the characters and setting very well, but it was all a bit of a snooze. That said, I’m glad I read it because people in-the-know tell me the second book, “Russian Roulette” is much better. Moreover, the short stories in the “Callan Uncovered” compilations are allegedly sheer masterpieces. I think the forced economy of a short story would work very well for this character, and I pledge to dive back into Callan’s world with his anthologies.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Rackets Incorporated (aka Blood on My Shadow/The Organization)

John S. Glasby (1928-2011) was a U.K. author whose body of work includes dozens of novels in various genres throughout his career. Using the pseudonyms Chuck Adams and Tex Bradley, Glasby wrote over 30 western paperbacks. Under the name of Manning K. Robertson, the author created the six-book spy series 'Steve Carradine' while also dabbling in the H.P. Lovecraft mythos with short-stories and a compilation entitled “Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth”.

His 1956 noir crime novel, “Blood on My Shadow”, was written under the name A.J. Merak. The paperback was later reprinted as “Rackets Incorporated” as part of the Badger Mystery line featuring authors such as Harry Whittington and Brett Halliday. To capitalize on the success of “The Godfather” film, the novel was again re-released as “The Organization” under the name A.D. Brent. Glasby later utilized the novel's central character, Johnny Merak, as the basis for a private-eye series totaling six books.

In the book's opening pages, we're introduced to Merak as he steps off of a plane near Orange County, California. As a former enforcer, Merak worked for Syndicate kingpin Maxie Temple. Through corrupt real estate purchases, Maxie controlled the hotel industry on Balboa Beach. Merak's role, while often physical, was more of an influence peddler within the city's political structure. With escalating pressure from the feds, Maxie fled to Mexico leaving Merak as a scapegoat. After serving a three-year prison stint, Merak wants Maxie to pay for his betrayal.

“Rackets Incorporated” serves readers the average revenge narrative. While treading familiar territory, we find that Maxie has already been killed by one of his former trustees. Fearing that his name is on some incriminating evidence, Merak wants to locate Maxie's killer and retrieve the documents. Along the way, he falls in love with an innocent beauty, who is later utilized as ransom bait by Maxie's ex-hitman Clancy Snow. Although the novel is written in elementary prose, the numerous moving parts in the plot makes for a complex and cumbersome reading experience.

With over 300 novels to his credit, I'm sure Glasby couldn't hit grandslams with every swing. If you're looking for a tightly-paced crime novel with an original concept, “Rackets Incorporated” isn't it. At just 157-pages, it took me a week to grind through it. There are much better books out there.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, June 24, 2019


In a just world, Fredric Brown (1906-1972) would be a household name, and his body of work would be available in perpetuity. During his career, Brown conquered the world of crime and science fiction with novels and stories of consistently high quality, yet he is largely unremembered today by the general public. Stark House’s Black Gat imprint is doing its part to keep Brown’s memory alive by reprinting his 1953 carny heist novel, “Madball” for 21st century paperback consumption.

As the novel opens, veteran carnival worker Mack Irby is very pleased with himself. He’s walking around the midway watching the marks throw balls at milk bottles to win a kewpie doll as a line forms to see the alligator boy in a darkened canvas tent. Mack is pleased because he just successfully robbed a bank and has stashed $42,000 of the take until the season ends and the heat dies down. He’s hoping his newfound luck will extend to getting laid by one of the hotties from the hoochie-cootchie tent.

Meanwhile, there is a murderer among the carnies (preferred weapon: tent stake) whose secret is being kept by a female entertainer with a lot to lose. The carnival’s fortune teller (a “Madball” is carny lingo for his crystal ball) suspects that there may be a connection between the murder and the recent bank robbery. He uses his inside knowledge of the traveling staff with his practiced skills of intuition to learn the truth before the police get to the bottom of the mysteries.

The carnival setting of “Madball” is such a joy to read as the author peppers the narrative with inside-industry stuff as well as tons of carny lingo - marks, grinds, talkers, tops, doniker, etc. It’s a fun world for 198 pages, and the colorful characters make for some great company. As a mystery novel, “Madball” is imperfect - too many characters, too many POV shifts - but the main attraction here is the rich setting and era. If you have an interest in the 1950s traveling carnival subculture, there’s a lot to enjoy in this reissue.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, June 21, 2019

The Man All America Hated

At the dawn of paperback original novels in the early 1950s, Gordon Landsborough (1913-1985) was top of the heap in Great Britain. He was a prolific writer and publisher who capitalized on the hot new storytelling medium using a variety of pseudonyms and genres - like a British Norman Daniels or Lou Cameron. New Ebook Library has just released a “lost” 1952 contemporary adventure novel originally published under Landsborough’s “Mike M’Cracken” pseudonym usually reserved for his Western novels.

I couldn’t find any listing of “The Man All America Hated” in any bibliography of Landsborough’s body of work, so I reached out to the British literary agent of his estate, Philip Harbottle, who pointed me to the February 2019 issue of “Paperback Parade” where Harbottle details the story of this historical literary oddity. Harbottle, an avid book collector himself, recently found a copy of the 1952 paperback by his client and was previously unaware it existed. A records search in the British equivalent of the copyright office produced no indication that the book was ever registered - a common oversight in postwar England during the rebuilding years. The paperback also likely suffered from a small print run leaving few surviving copies for modern readers and collectors to enjoy. Harbottle went to work finding the right imprint to republish the fast-moving story and found the New Ebook Library, who has been doing a great job bringing old and new pulp fiction to market at the 99 cent price point.

The premise of the novel is pretty damn cool. Alec McCrae is “The Man All America Hated” and with good reason. In World War 2, he acted as an intelligence officer for the Japanese and tortured American prisoners of war. McCrae disappeared after Japan’s surrender and has become a folk hero fugitive in the same manner that Osama Bin Ladin became half a century later. As such, the international passengers on a plane crossing the Pacific to Australia are surprised to find that McCrae is a fellow passenger flying under an assumed name along with three companions.

Once discovered, McCrae hijacks the plane and forces a crash landing on a desolate island in the Pacific between Hawaii and Australia. It seems that McCrae’s plan is to murder the survivors and escape from the island while he is presumed dead to the world. The survivors aren’t excited by this plan and mount a defense against the traitorous American villain. A leader quickly emerges among the survivors, and a battle plan is formed.

“The Man All America Hated” is a wilderness survival tale and a man-hunting-man story. At about 111 modern pages, there’s not a lot of character development, but the suspense and action are front and center the whole time. There are things that could have made the book way better. For example, McCrae’s traitorous time in WW2 is glossed over in a single paragraph or two to establish the character as a villain. More backstory would have been interesting.

Despite these quibbles, stories of adversaries trapped together on a deserted jungle island trying to kill each other with rudimentary weapons are tales as old as time, but this one really worked for me. It’s certainly not a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s a lot of violent fun to read, and I’m thrilled that it’s now widely available for less than a buck. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 20, 2019


Deemed as “America's Favorite Storyteller”, Louis L'Amour wrote 89 western novels in his lifetime. Many fans and genre enthusiasts have compiled lists documenting the author's most outstanding literary works. These lists vary depending on the creator, but nearly all of them contain one fixture – 1960's “Flint”.

The book introduces us to James T. Kettleman, a successful stockbroker from New York who has journeyed by train to New Mexico. Dying from an undisclosed illness (symptoms of cancer or tuberculosis), Kettleman plans to spend his dying days tucked away in a desert oasis reading his favorite books. We can imagine that Paperback Warrior readers are sympathetic to that impulse.

Through flashback sequences, we learn that Kettleman was snatched from a burning wagon train at the age of two by a man known as Flint. Passed around from family to family as an orphan, Kettleman became an exceptional student. Reuniting with Flint in his teen years, Kettleman learns how to fight and adapt in the hostile desert. These attributes eventually lead to Kettleman avenging the murder of Flint. Although that backstory alone would make for a great novel, again these are just flashback sequences that expand into a much broader narrative.

Kettleman's doomsday euphoria of peacefully dying in the desert surrounded by books is disrupted by Port Baldwin, the stereotypical land baron who desires the Kaybar ranch. Its owner is Nancy Kerrigan (not the figure skater), a strong-willed fighting woman who grew up on the ranch. Her property has no official deed, a common element found in real estate transactions with Indians. With land grabbers migrating from the east, her ownership is under heavy scrutiny.

As Kettleman finds himself an ally of the Kaybar ranch, he quickly finds he has feelings for Kerrigan. Using the moniker of “Flint,” Kettleman becomes the mysterious protector that engages in battle with Baldwin's faction. Utilizing numerous gun fights and the obligatory fistfight, L'Amour's portrait of the American west is a violent and gritty one. L'Amour thrives with the range war narrative and “Flint” doesn't disappoint.

It's easy to see why “Flint” ranks among L'Amour's best work. It is fundamentally the perfect western. Seasoned readers are very familiar with this type of story and the Western fiction tropes, yet “Flint” proves to be a remarkable story worth retelling again and again. It's a valuable cornerstone for not only L'Amour's work, but the western genre as a whole.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Black Pudding

“Black Pudding” by David Goodis (1917-1967) began its literary life as a novella in the December 1953 issue of “Manhunt Magazine.” The story was also included in Bill Pronzini’s essential 1995 anthology, “Hard-Boiled” and was a bonus story tacked onto the 2006 paperback reissue of Goodis’ “Black Friday.” 

The mandatory sad-sack loser in this Goodis work is Ken Rockland, a Philiadelphia street person with 31 cents to his name dreaming of a day he can scrape together 80 cents for some egg-foo-young. Through an expository flashback, we learn that Ken wasn’t always a skid row bum. He was once part of a successful armed-robbery crew in California before a double-cross landed him in San Quentin for the past nine years. Now that he’s out, two of his old crew-mates have located him and want him dead as a preemptive strike against anticipated retaliation from Ken.

Ken ducks the first attempt on his life and takes to ground on the mean streets of Philly in this fast-moving manhunt story. He finds sanctuary with a physically and emotionally scarred woman named Tillie who offers tactical and logistical help to friendless Ken. Once it’s established where his former partners are hiding, Ken needs to decide whether to keep his distance or control his own fate with some bloody vengeance.

You can imagine which option makes for more compelling action, and “Black Pudding” (a metaphor for revenge) does not disappoint. The writing is terse and to the point, and Goodis makes his loser heroes jump off the page with real humanity peppered with their bad decisions. At about 30 pages, you won’t be disappointed by this essential entry into a noir master’s body of work. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this short-story HERE

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Vigilante #06 - Washington, D.C.: This Gun for Justice

'The Vigilante' series was written by Robert Lory and released by the popular men's action adventure publisher Pinnacle. This six-book run began in 1975 with Joe Madden's descent into vigilance after witnessing his fiance's brutal murder on a New York City subway car. Each book's release constitutes one week in Madden's life since the slaying occurred, but also pinpoints one geographical city where Madden performs consulting work for an engineering firm. The daytime career simply gives him a clever outlet to become a night vigilante ridding the streets of crime. His forages include New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Detroit and now, for this final installment, the nation's capital. 

After the prior novel's events in Detroit, Madden's face has appeared in drawings throughout Syndicate networks. His disposal of corruption has created some fractions within the mob and they want him eliminated. “Washington, D.C.: This Gun for Justice” looks as if it will continue that thread, evident in the book's intriguing opening pages. By circling back to events that started the series, the murder of Madden's fiance, the author revisits some familiar faces from New York City. Madden has finally tracked down a face he originally saw in police photos after the murder. Tracing his stolen credit card, Madden violently kills one of the original murderers, Willy Jefferson. That's 54 kills in 5 weeks for those keeping score at home. After contemplating the whereabouts of the final two killers, Madden eases back into his daytime role by accepting an assignment in D.C. He is to testify before Congress on illegal practices by big corporations. None of that matters as it's a convenient way to have Madden kills wrongdoers in a new town.

With an engaging opening, I was hopeful this book would have ends meet and wrap up this story-line in a rousing, bullet-ridden finale. Instead, the author inserts a 140-page shit pile of religious zealots running a small stretch of street in a D.C. suburb. As a 70s and 80s action enthusiast, I've had my fair share of evil preachers in fiction. This one involves the stereotypical Reverend Moses and his Church of the Divine Gift. The party in the front promises a new day of spiritual euphoria for its cult congregation, but the rear action has suitcases of heroin and cash being streamlined into black mobsters wanting a piece of the white majority's mob. 

Unfortunately, Santiago spends pages upon pages in senseless dialogue between Reverend Moses and his pulpit posse. It's unusual, as most of the dialogue and action in these books are traditionally spent with Madden. That's not the case with this entry and the end result left me exhausted and disappointed. 

There was so much left to unpack with this series, from the original detective who assisted Madden in the first book to tracking down the remaining NYC killers. The whole Mob hitman angle never reached fruition nor did Madden's full evolution from grieving fiance to ruthless vigilante. There was a lot left unsaid, but due to declining sales (and horrific artwork) this series was canceled. I'd like to provide closure for myself and think that detective Leo Delancy has put the map-dot pieces together and realized that Madden's vengeance has led to 60+ kills across the country. The book's final page does reveal that DeLancy is onto Madden. My fantasy conclusion has DeLancy meet Madden at the airport, arrest him and that is the logical conclusion. However...we'll never know Madden's fate. Six books, six weeks, six cities and approximately 900 pages later...still no closure.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Secret Mission #17 - The Libyan Contract

Don Smith’s ‘Secret Mission’ books star Phil Sherman, an international businessman turned CIA operative on a variety of international assignments for 21 paperbacks spanning 1968 to 1978. It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but I think the ‘Secret Mission’ books are consistently better than Edward Aarons’ similar, but more successful, ‘Assignment’ books starring Sam Durrell.

The series can be enjoyed in any order, so I picked the 17th installment, “The Libyan Contract” from 1974 for my next adventure with Sherman. The book opens with a Swiss bank receiving a $200,000 wire transfer from Dallas into the numbered account belonging to a South African assassin who recently escaped from prison. In 1974, the JFK assassination was enough of a fresh wound that when “Dallas and assassin” are mentioned together, the banker quietly notifies Interpol.

News of this mysterious money transfer eventually makes its way to the desk of Sherman’s boss at the CIA who is appropriately worried that the assassin, a notorious racist, may be targeting a U.S. black leader. Because of the potential domestic threat, Sherman teams up with an FBI agent to investigate the situation. The disparity of the by-the-book FBI man and freewheeling Sherman is one of the many pleasures in the narrative.

The manhunt for the assassin quickly becomes international and the FBI is left behind on U.S. soil while Sherman handles the globetrotting operation. Sherman suspects that the target of the assassination is a middle-eastern leader and tracks the killer through England, Brussels, Italy, and Malta (oddly, given the title, not Libya). There’s also plenty of sex and violence along the way leading up to the climactic final confrontation between Sherman and the would-be killer.

For reasons unclear to me, the Secret Mission novels have never been reprinted or digitized since their original release. This is a shame because it’s a quality series that deserves to be remembered. However, “The Libyan Contract” just isn’t the best of the bunch. The plotting was choppy and generally imperfect leading up to a rather abrupt ending. If you’re working your way through the series, you still should read this one as it wasn’t bad. However, “Secret Mission: North Korea” was a way better installment if you want to get started.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Terminator #04 - Crystal Kill

In an effort to cross-promote to their own 'The Executioner' consumers, publishing house Pinnacle utilized the same fonts and artistic covers for their short-lived 'The Terminator' series. The books, written by porn editor Dennis Rodriguez as John Quinn, lasted for six installments from 1983-1984. The series features an ex-CIA assassin named Gavin, whose attempts to marry and settle-down were suspended after being set-up on his last assignment (told as an origin story in the series debut “Mercenary Kill”). Now, he's a semi-fugitive living under the assumed name of Bob Evans in a Colorado mountain town. Without his modest retirement benefits and pension, Gavin takes on private investigator jobs for money.

The novel begins with a hired killer named Soto violently murdering a family in Miami. After reconvening with his boss, kingpin El Jefe, Soto is advised to take a new assignment on Catalina Island, off the California coast. A movie director turned drug dealer has received a large amount of product, yet hasn't provided payment for the goods. Soto's job is to become the enforcer and make the man pay. But how does any of this involve Gavin?

A scorned lover has employed Gavin to find her book-selling husband. He ran off with a publishing rep and was last seen on Catalina Island. Gavin, not enthused about his role in a marital dispute, bitterly accepts the assignment for the lucrative payout. Convenient, yet it seems like a lackluster way for the author just to connect beacon points between mafia enforcers and The Terminator.

Once Gavin arrives on the island, he reaches out to his old friend Doug and Doug's wife Marie. Gavin learns that Doug has apparently been killed while fishing offshore. The grieving Marie feels there's more to the story and provides details to Gavin. Combining Doug's hefty business debts with the fact that the body was never found leads Gavin to believe there was malicious intent involved.

Connecting the dots, readers learn that El Jefe and Soto are both after Pierce, an ex-Universal Studios director who's debauchery has pushed him from Hollywood elitist to grindhouse hack. Pierce's distributor has gone missing (readers suspect it is Gavin's friend Doug) with an enormous supply of cocaine, putting Pierce in arrears financially with wholesaler El Jefe. When bone-breaker Soto arrives on El Jefe's behalf, he finds that Pierce is protecting himself with his own team of enforcers.

At the 75-page mark, it's abundantly clear that the author is having a blast writing this. It's a funny, captivating chase story as Gavin and Pierce pursue Doug's whereabouts while tangling with mob killers. Specifically, the interplay between Pierce's two enforcers and El Jefe's hit-men is worth the price of admission. I had no issue that the foursome absorb most of the book's narrative. It seemed as though Gavin was an unnecessary fifth-wheel, but kudos to the writer for realizing where the story's true strengths are. This was thoroughly enjoying and highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Pieces of the Game

Tracing the history of an aged paperback can sometimes prove to be problematic. Fawcett Gold Medal, creator of the paperback original novels we know today, published hundreds of titles in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Of those literary classics, a sizable number were written under pseudonyms or clever variations on the authors' real names. With 1960's adventure novel, “Pieces of the Game”, there's no clear indication of who author Lee Gifford really is. A pseudonym? A writing duo? Unfortunately, as of the publishing of this review, I can't provide any answers on the author's identity. However, what I will advise is that you stop what you are doing and locate a copy.

This novel kicks total ass.

The book begins in the then present day of 1960. World War 2 veteran and main character Jim Sheridan is working for the Great Western Importing Company specializing in lacquer and lumber. It comes as a great surprise when Sheridan is requested by his employer to originate a pearl importing business in Manilla. As a former lieutenant in and around the Battle of Bataan 13-years ago, Sheridan is unnerved by the request to re-visit old wounds but accepts the new proposal.

Nearing Caballo Bay, Sheridan meets the gorgeous Ellen, an aspiring singer who has accepted evening gigs at the Casa Grande Hotel. As an old stomping ground for Sheridan and his unit, Sheridan escorts Ellen to the hotel and meets his old ally and friend, Jacques Costeau, the hotel's owner. It's this memorable scene that offers a reflective moment from Sheridan. With just a small recollection, the reader receives a glimpse into Sheridan's past tragedies, the dismal fate of his unit and his lost lover Tulana. The book's synopsis and cover art conveys to the reader that this is a WW2 adventure novel, so these small looks at Sheridan's past serves as a teaser or pre-cursor to the action that we know will unfold. I call it literary foreplay from this skillful author.

The night of Sheridan's reunion with Costeau he finds an unexpected visitor in his room. The secretive intruder has a message disguised as a riddle inviting Sheridan to a seaside yacht to discuss pearls. Arriving at the yacht, Sheridan comes face to face with his former captor, retired Japanese Colonel Yamata. The two have a heated conversation that's a bit of a mystery to the reader at this early stage. As if on cue, Sheridan is knocked unconscious and the next 100-pages is a flashback to his life during the war.

As a young man, Sheridan was educated at Oxford and speaks a dozen languages. While on holiday in the Philippines, he falls in love with a night club singer named Tulana, but ends up joining the Allied forces and fighting with the Royal Air Force in the sweltering jungles of Bataan. As the Japanese forces surround the island, the US and Filipino forces dump all of Manilla's silver pesos into Caballo Bay along with guns, ammo and vehicle parts before surrendering. A watery, 100-foot grave for $8-million in assets (note this really happened according to US Naval Institute Proceedings, March 1958).

The Japanese transfer their enemy personnel to various prison camps in Asia, some as laborers, others just as starving prisoners awaiting death within dirty huts. Sheridan is saved from this fate due to speaking multiple languages – the Japanese insist on utilizing his skills as a translator. Knowing that Manilla's riches were thrown into the bay, Sheridan is given to Colonel Yamata to work with six US Navy divers in securing the silver. With bad equipment, grueling work loads and the threats of torture and death for failure, Sheridan's fate rests on his team's ability to locate and recover the treasure.

Lee Gifford's strength lies in his ability to tell an epic story. “Pieces of the Game” was like this grand cinematic experience. The opening events that eventually spills into a high-adventure military tale felt as if they were backed by a rich symphonic score. But the book's middle narrative is built on the slower, more emotive prison formula. The torture, confinement and survival elements are all equally important in providing a strong catalyst for the prison-break.

“Pieces of the Game” is like a deep-water, Clive Cussler treasure hunt crossed with the “The Great Escape” with enough intrigue and action to rival both. If it wasn't for Paperback Warrior's bustling publishing schedule I would have finished this and immediately turned to page one to relive the enjoyment all over again. This is one of the best books I've read in a very long time...and that's saying something.

Note:  After the publishing of this review, a blog reader and paperback enthusiast reached out to Paperback Warrior with an interesting theory on Lee Gifford. In his experience, he feels that there is a 90% chance that Gifford was actually Lou Cameron. He cites the style, punctuation and male hubris of the storytelling as a match to Cameron's first-person adventure and thrillers from this era.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Odds On

Before he was the famous author of bestsellers including “The Andromeda Strain” and “Jurassic Park,” Michael Crichton was a medical student writing books on the side under the name of John Lange. Before his 2008 death, he granted Hard Case Crime reprint rights to these early works, including his first published novel, “Odds On” from 1966.

“Odds On” is a heist novel in which three seasoned criminals conspire to rob the guests of a luxury resort hotel in Spain with the help of a machine called a “computer” that will take the guesswork out of the planning. These days, there’d be an app for that, but computers in 1966 were the size of a battleship and had the computing power of your toaster.

Here’s the heist crew:

- Bryan is the British thrill-seeking adrenaline junkie with the ability to drive women into an orgasmic frenzy with just one look.

- Miguel is a former U.S. Army soldier turned underground arms dealer. If you need some dynamite and blasting caps for a job in Spain, he’s your man.

- Jencks is the Massachusetts computer nerd who knows just which data input cards to drop into the giant IBM producing all the heist variables onto the magnetic tape and the green and white striped output paper.

As a 1960s period piece, this book is a total blast. Beyond the antiquated information technology, the novel is thoroughly politically incorrect - particularly in its treatment of women - and the main characters are vividly drawn archetypes of masculinity’s various flavors. Crichton’s pacing is perfect, and no one who reads “Odd On” should be surprised that the he later became one of the bestselling authors in the history of the written word. He had real chops even when he was a student.

The heist itself is well-planned and a large cast of supporting characters - mostly hotel guests - fill in pieces of the novel’s puzzle. There are lots of compelling little subplots happening with the other guests at the hotel that eventually tie into the larger narrative of the upcoming score.

Unlike the jobs of Richard Stark’s 'Parker' books, the computer-derived plan in “Odds On” is intricate and complex - exactly as you’d expect a fictional 1966 computer output to be. This makes for fun reading as the three thieves need to exhibit their flawless execution like a synchronized swimming routine. However, nothing ever goes as planned in a heist novel.

Another fun aspect of the paperback is the conceit that the heist crew must decide which guest rooms are worth robbing and which are better ignored. This appraisal of vacationing victims’ liquid assets is mostly done by having as much sex with fellow guests and hotel staff as humanly possible between arrival and go-time. This paperback has so many sex scenes that it makes a 'Longarm' story look like a 'Hardy Boys' hardcover. I’m not complaining, but the lusty descriptions also serve to pad “Odds On” from a novella length to a full novel. Crichton was a good writer, and he certainly knew his way around a hot scene, but you should know what you’re getting into if you’re the type of reader who tends to blush.

Other than the action between the sheets, there aren’t a lot of thrills in “Odds On” until the execution of the heist at the very end. The planning and casing of the hotel was compelling with a lot of relationship drama happening at the same time, so you’ll have to temper your expectations if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure. Despite this, “Odds On” worked for me largely because Crichton’s plotting was very impressive, and the conclusion had a twist that I never saw coming. I intend to delve deeper into Hard Case Crime’s reprints of the John Lange body of work. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of "Odds On" HERE:

Monday, June 10, 2019

The Vigilante #05 - Detroit: Dead End Delivery

Despite the off-putting artwork, 'The Vigilante' series is surprisingly engaging. Debuting for men's action publisher Pinnacle, the series began its six-book journey in 1975 under the direction of paperback promoter Lyle Kenyon Engle and writer Robert Lory. The series' through story is everyman Joe Madden avenging his wife's murder over the course of six-weeks. Following the geographical format of long running series like 'The Executioner', 'The Butcher' and 'The Penetrator', each novel presents a new city to host Madden's vigilance. This fifth novel, “Detroit: Dead End Delivery”, was published in 1976 and is only the second series installment to feature a painted cover.

Madden, a structural engineer by day, utilizes his consulting firm as a useful cover. As a frequent flier, Madden's newest assignment is an awards show in Detroit to accept a career accolade. But the Motor City has a lot more to offer, evident in Madden's social engineering on a back-alley where the novel's traditional opening chapter pits the “The Vigilante” against a criminal duo.

Later, Madden meets with an old friend named Hart and a private detective, Voll. Hart works for Regius Developments, an innovative manufacturer designing a new concept in automotive engines. Hart explains to Madden that the company has experienced an inside theft of two-thirds of their development. Hiring the P.I. Voll, the two suspect that an executive named Elliott Tander is behind the theft. However, the suspicion seems slightly misplaced; Tanner is married to the company's majority owner. What's the motive?

The Vigilante certainly doesn't place its limelight on executive, white-collar crime. Within 100-pages, “Detroit: Dead End Delivery” gains genre traction when Madden discovers the crime-ring. From hired killers to gambling debts, Madden stumbles into a powerful Detroit Syndicate that may have ties to his prior wet-work in Chicago and New York.

This is an enjoyable sixth installment that sets the stage for the series finale in Washington D.C. Madden's self-reflection begins to gravitate from anger and grief to remorse. In one poignant scene, Madden is approached by an attractive woman who asks about his career. His guilt-ridden, somber response conveys the character's blackest emotions: “I Destroy”.

After five-weeks and 42 kills (4 of which were female), the series finale, “Washington D.C.: This Gun for Justice,” is shaping up to be an explosive finish. Coming soon...

Friday, June 7, 2019

So Young, So Wicked

Whenever I mention how much I enjoy the work of Jonathan Craig (a pseudonym of Frank Smith), my bookish friends tell
me his 1957 killer-for-hire novel, “So Young, So Wicked,” was his noir masterpiece. The Fawcett Gold Medal paperback had at least two printings - 1957 and 1960 but doesn’t appear to have seen publication since then.

Steve Garrity plays piano in a Manhattan after-hours nightclub. He also occasionally kills people when asked to do so by the local syndicate. While the career of a hired killer has provided Garrity with substantial creature comforts, its not a job that provides him with much personal satisfaction. However, saying no to the New York organized crime syndicate isn’t a recipe for longevity, so Garrity generally does as he’s told.

Garrity’s latest assassination assignment from his mob handler targets an impossibly-beautiful 15 year-old girl named Leda who lives in a small town in upstate New York. Complicating matters further is the order that Garrity must make Leda’s death look like an accident. Therefore, a rifle shot into the teenybopper jailbait’s bedroom window is strictly a no-go. Garrity has no clue why the mafia wants a pretty teen murdered, and his masters aren’t telling him. He just needs to know that he’s a dead man if he fails to make the hit, so upstate he goes.

The template for “So Young, So Wicked” is quite similar to Max Allan Collins’ excellent ‘Quarry’ series although Garrity is a way more reluctant angel of death than Quarry. When Garrity arrives in Leda’s hometown, he makes some interesting moves to ingratiate himself in the small town’s culture and with Leda herself. It turns out the teen is quite a seductress to the extent that I think the character’s name, “Leda Louise Noland,” is a hat tip to the female lead of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” The heart of the paperback’s plot is Garrity unraveling the mystery of why the syndicate wants the teen girl iced.

There are so many great twists and turns in this short noir paperback that I wouldn’t even think of ruining the surprises for you here. I will say that the vintage cover art provides a misleading romantic impression to the reader when the reality is that this is a seriously dark and violent paperback. The writing is vivid and economical, and a lot happens over the course of 160 pages leading up to the satisfying conclusion. 

I’m amazed that “So Young, So Wicked” hasn’t been resurrected as an eBook, but an online search found several used copies available for under ten bucks. It’s worth the investment as this one’s a real noir winner. Highly recommended. 

This book and a Jonathan Craig feature are on the third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Wasteworld #02 - Resurrection

The men's action-adventure genre of the 1980s was a license to print money capitalizing on Cold War hysteria. Pop-culture was consistently buzzing with what was conceived as an inevitable nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Films like “The Road Warrior” and “Mad Max” proved to be catalysts spurning the post-apocalyptic movement that eventually would permeate men's action fiction. With series' like 'Doomsday Warrior', 'Deathlands' and 'Out of the Ashes', the genre spiked by the mid-80s and created a number of shorter series titles and stand-alone novels.

U.K. authors Laurence James and Angus Wells were members of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, a faction of British writers that concentrated on violent western titles including 'Apache', 'Adam Steele' and 'Edge'. James was a tremendous contributor to the post-apocalyptic genre as well, penning a number of 'Deathlands' novels as well as a trilogy called 'Survival 2000'. Teaming with U.K. publishing house Granada, and his contemporary Angus Wells, James launched a four-book series called 'Wasteworld' in 1983 that featured vivid artwork from acclaimed illustrator Richard Clifton-Dey (Blue Oyster Cult, Ray Bradbury).

The second entry, “Resurrection”, features survivor Matthew Chance driving a worn-out Daitsu through rural Texas. Readers were first introduced to Chance in the series debut “Aftermath”, where Chance's background as United States Marine Corps pilot led to a subsequent post-nuke campaign in the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean. Making his way through Mexico, Chance was shipwrecked in New Orleans on a quest to find his ex-wife and family. After disposing of a defacto dictator and liberating a tunnel of mutants, “Resurrection” picks up seamlessly from those events.

The book's opening scenes pits the wiry Chance against a gigantic mutant spider. The harrowing fight is a tantalizing suggestion that this book may be an improvement over the series' disappointing debut. After the spider fight, Chance finds himself in what remains of Austin, now a fortified, smaller city ran by Chance's brutish former father-in-law, Garth Chambers. The survivor settlement is now ruled by Chambers and features only two classes – military and prisoner.

The plot of “Resurrection” solidifies when Chambers imprisons Chance leading to their ironic twists-of-fate; Chambers needs Chance as a pilot in servitude, and Chance needs the whereabouts of Chambers' daughter and grandchildren. In an unlikely alliance, Chance is forced to work with Chambers until he can learn the location of his family. That brings the book's rowdy finale into view – the inevitable showdown between the two forces. However, to avoid the elementary premise, the authors introduce a mutant army called The Nightmen that will be forced to choose sides. Ultimately, a bomb shelter housing a lone prospector named Fairweather proves to be the key in Chance's fight.

Unlike the debut, “Resurrection” is an explosive action-adventure that meets the needs of avid post-apocalyptic fiction fans. High-octane car chases, gunfights with bandits, mutant insects and two charismatic forces enhance this ordinary “bully versus drifter” western archetype. In terms of genre quality, it ranks up there with the best of 'The Last Ranger' books and equals the chaotic enjoyment of the 'Traveler' series.  These used books are expensive and difficult to find, but based on this entry, it might be a worthy investment.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Johnny Liddell #05 - Dead Weight

Frank Kane (1912-1968) was mystery author best known for his popular Johnny Liddell series of private detective tales. The character began his fictional career in 1944 with short stories in “Crack Detective Magazine” which evolved into 30 novel-length mysteries spanning through 1967 while the short story output never stopped. I decided to dive into the Liddell series with his fifth novel, “Dead Weight” from 1951 - largely because the alluring cover art.

Liddell is a stereotypical New York private eye with a smoked-glass office door and a sassy redheaded secretary. One day an elderly Oriental (remember: 1951) man visits Liddell with an interesting proposition. In exchange for $100, Liddell will safely store a package for the client, and return it when asked - no matter when the request is made. Neither Liddell nor the reader get to know the contents of the package when he agrees to this engagement.

Within a few hours of Liddell taking possession of the package, federal agents show up as his office with a warrant and seize it. Liddell sets off to identify and locate and notify his client (“the chink” - again: 1951) in Chinatown. Upon finding the client’s flophouse, Liddell enters the room and finds that the old man has been tortured and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion.

Things get even more interesting when it turns out that the men who confiscated the package weren’t actually feds, and the warrant they produced was a phony. Someone is trying to use Liddell as a patsy, and he’s not letting go of the case until he gets to the bottom of it. This is a great setup for a P.I. mystery. Can the author deliver a worthwhile, action-packed investigation and satisfying solution for the reader?

Not really. It was a decent private eye novel, but no one will ever confuse “Dead Weight” as being a classic of the genre. Liddell and his sidekick, a foxy newspaperwoman named Muggsy, follow a winding and convoluted route through the ins-and-outs of Chinese organized crime. The mystery’s final solution contains a national security curveball that I never saw coming, but that doesn’t make it particularly satisfying. Overall, I’d say that the novel failed to live up to the promise of the excellent opening chapters. As a reader, you deserve more. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Don't Get Caught

Richard Macaulay (1909-1969) was an esteemed Warner Bros. screenwriter. During his seven-year partnership with the studio, Macaulay produced 30 screenplays including 1942's “Across the Pacific” starring Humphrey Bogart. His novel, “Women Make Bum Newspapermen”, was filmed as “Front Page Woman” in 1935. Stoutly conservative, Macaulay gained notoriety during Hollywood's Blacklist era, naming 29 of Hollywood's elite as communists. Perhaps it was this notoriety that led to writing paperback originals for Fawcett Gold Medal under a pseudonym. Collaborating with his wife Mildred, Macaulay wrote “Don't Get Caught” as Carter Cullen in 1951.

The book's opening premise follows minor league baseball player Dave Morgan into Pacific Industrial Insurance Company. The meeting is a mystery to Morgan, but soon he realizes he's been invited into a sting operation involving his estranged twin-brother Al. The insurance company informs Dave that his brother has died in prison. Serving a ten-year prison sentence for armed robbery, Al perished from pneumonia three-months shy of parole. Dave, never having a close relationship with Al, isn't phased by the news until he hears the words “thirty-thousand dollars”.

Al and three armed gunmen knocked over a payroll worth $400,000. The money was never recovered and the trio never talked. With Al dead and the remaining two robbers on the verge of parole, the insurance company wants Dave to “become” Al. The prison's population never knew Al died thanks to a secretive, collaborative agenda between the prison's hospital, warden and the insurance company. It's a fitting time for Dave to inject himself into Al's life, become the prisoner and then team up with the other two who will surely go for the money once they're released. Dave, having no enforcement skills, knows it's high risk with a lucrative reward for success. The insurance company's efforts to reclaim the money rests in an inexperienced minor league ball player.

After a few weeks of intense, grueling memorization of Al's entire life, Dave is inserted back into the prison population as his brother. While talking with hardened prisoners becomes easy, Dave is torn when he meets Al's lover Natalie. She's beautiful, cunning and altogether a black widow riding crime's coat-tails for her portion of the payout. Once Dave is released on parole, he must acclimate himself into the life of a man who's been away from society for 10-years. That means giving Natalie ten-years of pent-up sexual release. While rewarding, it's an exhausting job satisfying Natalie's unquenchable lust.

Soon, Al's two cohorts are released and the trio begins arrangements for recovering the stolen money. The book's furious second-half is brimming with action as Dave is forced to comply with their wishes while struggling to protect an innocent girl who's been kidnapped as rape fodder by the sadistic Sprang, the trio's leader. The closing chapters provide a thrilling escape route through the mountains as Sprang and Dave are forced into the inevitable confrontation.

Written in 1951, the Macaulays utilize a lot of 1940s dialogue. Amateurs are “amachoors” and all women are dames. While it doesn't detract from the story, it left me feeling as if Richard Macaulay never adapted to the 1950s and it's more modern landscape. This is understandable considering how many screenplays he wrote in the 1940s, but great writers should adapt to the times. Otherwise, “Don't Get Caught” is a solid, well-told crime story with two standout characters.

As Carter Cullen, the Macaulay marriage would later produce one additional novel, “The Deadly Chase”, published in 1957 by Fawcett Gold Medal. The novel would be reprinted in 1975 by Belmont Tower as a seedy misleading “underworld” novel complete with cover artwork showcasing bullets and brawn.

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Monday, June 3, 2019

The Sergeant #4: The Liberation of Paris

During his career, Len Levinson wrote two iconic 1980s series titles documenting World War 2 combat adventures. ‘The Rat Bastards’ books written as John Mackie covers a team of misfits kicking Japanese ass in the Pacific. ‘The Sergeant’ series, written as Gordon Davis, follows maverick American infantryman Clarence J. Mahoney though the major battles of the European theater of war. Both are brilliantly-executed, but for my money, I think ‘The Sergeant’ is a slightly stronger series, mostly because Mahoney is such a colorful character. Your mileage may vary.

Book four of ‘The Sergeant’ series is “The Liberation of Paris” - originally published in 1981 - and as the novel opens, we join Mahoney and his sidekick, Edward Cranepool, in Summer 1944. They are enjoying some rest and recuperation time far from the front lines with Mahoney fighting in a G.I. boxing match defending the honor of the 15th Regiment. I love literary boxing scenes, and Levinson recounts every bruise-inducing blow like a pro.

The action cuts from Mahoney and his roughneck compadres to General Dwight D. Eisenhower who is planning exactly how the Allied forces are going to kick the Krauts out of Paris. Politically, it’s important that French Army fighters be seen as the ones liberating Paris, but they will be joined with a phalanx of French-speaking American soldiers, including Mahoney and Cranepool.

For the Paris mission, Mahoney is placed with a group of hand-picked U.S. specialists right out of central casting. We have black soldier Leroy Washington and Jewish-American fighter Mark Goldberg. You get the idea. Mahoney seems mostly excited about visiting the legendary whorehouses of Paris after the mission is completed. He’s also the one they rely upon to mow down any and all enemy combatants between the French front line and Paris.

We also get to know General Dietrich von Choltitz of Hitler’s army who heads the occupying force in Paris. Hitler has ordered the General to burn the city to the ground before letting it fall to the enemy. Choltitz is hesitant to preemptively destroy Paris, so the Fuhrer sends along a deadly piece of weaponry from Germany’s eastern front that could alter the direction of the war and push the Allies back to the English Channel. The German’s nickname this weapon, “Karl.” Not all the Germans are enthusiastic about destroying the city they’ve grown to love, and the interplay among several factions of the German occupiers made for some fascinating and dramatic reading.

Can Mahoney make it to Paris before Superweapon Karl does? Will the Hitler loyalists thwart the their soft-hearted countrymen in their goal to level the city? Will Mahoney get to bang a French whore after the job is done? I’ll try not to spoil it for you, but the fact that the people of Paris don’t currently conduct their lives speaking German might be a clue as to how this plays out. 

As with most historical fiction, it ain’t the destination, it’s the ride. And Levinson gives the reader an exciting ride all the way to Paris in this violent race to save Europe and its treasures. “The Liberation of Paris” is a fantastic war story filled with vivid characters (including cameos by Ernest Hemingway and Adolf Hitler), action set pieces, and graphic sex. It’s also a great entry point into the series if you don’t anticipate reading them all, and it’s currently available for a buck as an eBook from Piccadilly Press. Even if you’re not a history buff (I’m definitely not), the propulsive adventure will keep the pages turning until the end. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE