Friday, July 19, 2019

Leo Guild #01 - Guild

Edward Gorman (1941-2016) authored over 60 novels in a wide variety of genres ranging from horror to crime. His many pseudonyms included E.J. Gorman, Daniel Ransom and Robert David Chase. Some of his most beloved literary contributions are westerns, notably the four volume 'Leo Guild' series published between 1987 and 1991 by Ballantine.

The series debut, “Guild,” introduces readers to bounty hunter Leo Guild. In a backstory, we learn that Guild was a lawman who accidentally killed a young girl while pursuing criminals (like Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder). Mercifully, Guild is found innocent of murder and is released to face his own demons. Burdened by heavy guilt while seeking retribution, Guild is now a middle-aged bounty hunter in the 1890s.

The story begins with Guild escorting a prisoner into the small town of Danton. Guild stumbles onto a murder mystery as a local banker is found dead. The culprit seems to be a drunken ex-circus performer named Earle, but Guild has second thoughts after talking with the man's young friend, Annie. Having no real allies, Guild agrees to look into the murder for Annie but is surprised to find that Earle has apparently committed suicide by hanging himself. Fearing that the law may be covering up the real murderer, Guild's pursuit of justice makes up the novel's narrative.

Like many westerns before and after Guild, the plot introduces the stereotypical villain in a rich playboy named Frank. As the son of wealthy land developer Mason Cord, Frank's silver spoon is Danton's bank. Guild learns that Frank had gambled and lost four-thousand dollars to Earle. Further, Frank is apparently draining the bank's assets in a frivolous attempt to purchase liberal amounts of both whiskey and prostitutes. This overwhelming evidence points Guild's guns at Frank in hopes of bringing justice and peace to Annie and her slain friend.

While telling a familiar tale, Gorman writes with enough conviction to captivate readers. I read  the 184-page novel in nearly one sitting, as evidence of the book's easy flow. There's a number of interesting characters – the rehabilitating criminal Maloney, the endearing widow Ruby, lovable Annie and of course our sole hero, the darkly complex Leo Guild. For action fans, Gorman injects a fair amount of gun play, but the storytelling and character development is the real trophy here.

“Guild” is a rock solid treat for western fans.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Crooked Window (aka Blood Lust Orgy)

In 1956, Harry Whittington wrote a manuscript called “The Crooked Window” that went unsold for a decade until March 1966 when it was adapted into a Nightstand Book called “Blood Lust Orgy.” The original 30,000 word novella was later published in Shell Scott Mystery Magazine’s November 1966 issue under the original title. I found a copy of the Shell Scott magazine containing the novella at a nice price on eBay whereas the lusty paperback tends to fetch insanely-high collector prices.

Readers expecting an actual orgy of blood and lust will probably be pretty disappointed, but “The Crooked Window” is a compelling mystery story typical of the digests of the late 1960s. It opens with Bill dropping off Marge at a local department store while he waits in the car for her. She needs to do some shopping before they return to their motel to resume daytime boning. Oddly, Marge never emerges, and Bill wonders why his girlfriend is taking so long.

Through a flashback montage, we learn that the relationship between Bill and Marge is a forbidden love. Marge is a married woman in an unhappy and abusive relationship. Her heel of a husband won’t give her a divorce, so her romance with Bill is driven underground. They meet periodically in secret to enjoy a few stolen hours together, and that’s exactly what they were doing when Marge inconveniently disappears inside the department store.

After verifying that Marge is nowhere inside the store, Bill is forced to make some tough decisions. Should he get the police involved? After all, he really as no legitimate standing in her life in his capacity as secret boyfriend. As day turns to night, Marge’s husband eventually calls the cops. Her disappearance becomes big local news, yet Bill remains paralyzed with fear - not wanting to step forward to reveal what he knows to police for fear of exposing Marge’s extra-curricular romance. The moral dilemmas and mysterious happenings unfold from there.

Again, this is a decent mystery but nothing particularly special. It’s not much better or worse than the stories you’d find in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine around that same era. Most importantly, “The Crooked Window” just isn’t up to the caliber of Harry Whittington’s greatest hits, and it’s certainly not worth the price bonehead collectors have been paying for rare copies of “Blood Lust Orgy.” If you can find a copy of the digest cheap, you should certainly buy the magazine and read the story. Just control your expectations and don’t expect a masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Dusky MacMorgan #01 - Key West Connection

Randy Wayne White became a New York Times bestselling author with his 25-book ‘Doc Ford’ series. Launched in 1990, the modern series stars a government agent turned marine biologist who fights crime in the Caribbean. However, before White went mainstream, he authored two men's action-adventure paperback series in the 1980s – 11 novels in the 'Hawker' series written as Carl Ramm and seven for the 'Dusky MacMorgan' series under the name Randy Striker.

In 1980, publishing heavyweight Signet was seeking a vigilante-styled series that would hopefully capitalize on the tremendous success of Mack Bolan. The publisher envisioned a hero with a distinct set of characteristics: Vietnam vet, Key West resident, handsome, and freakishly strong - consistent with 70s and 80s action-adventure pop-culture. They wanted the series to extend into a mammoth amount of volumes split up between four rotating authors.

A Signet editor spotted a short-story by White in an issue of Outside Magazine. As a possible candidate to join their writing foursome, the publisher pitched their paperback he-man hero to White and asked for three chapters. White, a Florida coastal resident and charter boat captain at the time, ran with the idea and wrote the series' first volume, “Key West Connection,” in just nine days. The publisher loved the book and quickly declared White to be the sole author of the project. The 'Dusky MacMorgan' series didn't gain enough sales success, but ran a total of seven installments from 1981-1982. The series served to provide some adequate writing experience for White, who would begin the longer-running 'Hawker' series for Dell in 1984.

In “Key West Connection”, readers are introduced to MacMorgan on his fishing vessel Sniper. Through some backstory segments we learn that MacMorgan was a child circus performer who lost his family in a big-top fire. Joining the Navy Seals at age 16, MacMorgan would go on to serve three combat tours in Vietnam. Retiring from service, he married an actress named Janet, moved to Key West and fathered twin sons. Now, MacMorgan runs a successful fishing charter for snowbirds looking for warm weather sport.


After hearing that his best friend Billie Mack had been murdered, MacMorgan tracks the killers to Mack's captured boat. In a graphic, violent display of MacMorgan's experience, he quickly catches the killers and learns they are drug runners for a corrupt U.S. Senator. Building a small empire in South America, the career politician targets MacMorgan's family, blowing up the family car and killing Janet and their two sons. Their deaths are the catalyst for MacMorgan's vendetta against the Senator and later the various crime rings in and around the Caribbean.

White writes at a tremendous pace and provides an average revenge styled thriller. Looking at the series longevity, White has MacMorgan team with a shadowy government agency to exploit and terminate island criminals. “Key West Connection” sets the bar fairly low but introduces a handful of characters that aid in making the story a little more dynamic. White describes MacMorgan as a “duck and fuck” series – the hero dodges bullets and screws a heroine in alternating chapters. I'd speculate that's about par for the course in terms of 80s men's action-adventure paperbacks. I prefer White's 'Hawker' series based on my small sample size of Dusky MacMorgan. I disliked the Hawker series debut, “Florida Firefight,” but later installments improved markedly. Maybe MacMorgan will find some traction and improve in later books. I'm in no real hurry to find out.

This novel was featured on the second episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast on July 15, 2019. 

Buy a copy of this novel HERE

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Bodyguard #06 - The Model Body

Richard Reinsmith (sometimes spelled Richard Rein Smith) authored several science fiction and romance novels under pseudonyms including Damon Castle, Ann Taylor, and Dan Elliott. He also wrote a tie-in novel in 1985 titled “Tarzan and the Tower of Diamonds.” His foray into the 1980s men’s adventure gold rush consisted of eight books in ‘The Bodyguard’ series published by low-end paperback houses, Tower and Leisure Books. Because series order really doesn’t matter here, my entry point is the sixth installment, “The Model Body” from 1984.

The bodyguard narrator, Ray Martin, is hired to protect a nymphomaniac model and porn magazine publisher that someone is trying to kill. Heather is a redhead version of Marilyn Monroe who has recently survived two attempts on her life, and Ray needs to make sure the third attempt doesn’t hit the target. The secret to Ray’s success is a type of ESP that helps him detect when an attempt on his client’s life is about to happen. The author doesn’t overdo the psychic stuff. The early-warning system seems to work like Spidey-Sense and is intended to illustrate that Ray is a next-level kinda bodyguard.

As attempts on Heather’s life continue, it becomes clear that Ray’s smartest course of action is to identify and neutralize the person behind the killers rather than acting as a hockey goalie for bullets headed toward his client. The investigative aspect of “The Model Body” places the novel squarely into the realm of private detective fiction and reminded me of a Carter Brown mystery where a professional investigator is thrust into a world of sexual eccentrics to solve a mystery. In this case, Ray is plunged into a subculture of pornography, S&M dungeons, and snuff films to discover who wants his client dead.

And mostly it worked. The first-person narration is decent and conversational. Ray is a brave and competent hero. To be sure, there are some really dumb elements to the book. For example, Ray goes to great pains to explain that carrying one Beretta in each hand is somehow a good idea. This, of course, is moronic. There’s a reason you don’t see real cops and soldiers blasting away with two pistols at the same time. Ray also gets laid a lot in fairly graphic detail and not always in service of the plot. At times, this felt like fan-service filler meant to pad the page count.

Here’s the bottom line: Don't special order this paperback from afar. Don’t buy a copy encased in plastic from a fine books dealer. Don’t choose this paperback for your monthly book club selection with your fancy friends. However, if you find a copy at a yard sale for a buck or less and you want a big-font, non-challenging read, you’ll probably enjoy “The Model Body” just fine.

Addendum

The Bodyguard series consist of:

1. Bury the Past (1979)
2. The Blonde Target (1980)
3. An Extra Body (1980)
4. Somebody to Kill (1983)
5. A Body in Paradise (1984)
6. The Model Body (1984)
7. Nobody’s Perfect (1984)
8. A Body for Christmas (1984)

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 15, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 02

In this episode, Tom and I discuss the origins of the paperback book in 1939. Our feature is the widely successful publisher Fawcett Gold Medal, a cornerstone of crime-noir in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. We also look at “Black Wings Has my Angel” by Lewis Elliott Chaze and the debut ‘MacMorgan’ novel by Randy Wayne White. Play the episode below or stream at any of these services: Apple, Spreaker, Stitcher, Soundcloud, Radio Public, YouTube and Castbox.


Listen to "Episode 02: Fawcett Gold Medal" on Spreaker.

Siberia 10

Clark Howard (1932-2016) wrote 16 novels, six books of non-fiction and two collections of short stories during his 40-year career. As an amateur boxer and juvenile delinquent, Howard bounced around in his mid-teens before eventually joining the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17. During his three year tour in Korea, Howard was one of only eight survivors in his platoon during the Battle of the Punchbowl. His experience in the USMC led to a number of Howard's war stories including “Siberia 10,” published by Pinnacle in 1973.

Siberia 10 is a fictional USMC stockade in San Diego, California. In the novel's opening pages, Private Zangari escapes from the prison in a rather clever ruse that leads to his eventual capture on the steps of a local newspaper. This opening chapter explains to readers that Siberia 10 is run by brutal leadership, recounting violent everyday experiences for American soldiers.

The political climate inside is a tumultuous storm where black prisoners have formed a faction of Black Panthers. These soldiers have filed a formal complaint with the NAACP charging that they are recipients of racially charged abuse from the white guards. Simultaneously, the white prisoners have formed a petition stating they are being brutalized by the black prisoners. All of this comes under the watch of officers that spend their days drunk, womanizing, gambling and abusing the camp’s prisoners.

Chapter two introduces the book's protagonist, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Hannon. His first appearance is in the Dai Tet countryside of Vietnam running a strategic seek and destroy operation on the Vietcong. After being dismissed from his platoon, Hannon is summoned to Washington D.C. and introduced to an unnamed Commandant. For validity, the Commandant reads Hannon's own resume to Hannon, highlighting his superior fighting strength and leadership in Korea, Manilla, Cuba and Vietnam. The Commandant promotes Hannon to the temporary rank of Brigadier General and asks him to assume the new leadership at Siberia 10. While deeply troubled by the stockade's black eye in the media, the Commandant wants the USMC to fix their own mistakes before the panic escalates. Hesitantly, Hannon accepts the job.

As a seasoned paperback enthusiast, I've consistently came across various literary works that prompted me to think of movie adaptations. That idea was etched in my mind throughout my reading experience of “Siberia 10”. This 300-page novel demands to be a successful television show. There are numerous story threads woven into the larger story arc of Hannon rehabilitating Siberia 10. These threads ultimately consume the narrative, but they are so intriguing and engaging that I was hooked like a housewife watching the soaps.

Hannon's role as the new General begins with a whirlwind of opposition, in-fighting and subordination. After making the necessary adjustments to his staff, Hannon begins life lessons for a dozen or more supporting characters. His stout stance of duty and brotherhood serves like a fiery pulpit sermon on the importance and legacy of the USMC. It's patriotic, stirring and American. Hannon's treatment of Siberia 10 is reminiscent of coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) spurring that small Indiana school into champions in the 1986 film “Hoosiers.” It's an effective feel-good story about overcoming race, cultural differences and adversity that works just as well in 2019.

As an action-adventure piece, this isn't “The Great Escape” or “Papillon” by any means. While firmly entrenched behind bars, the novel's only action sequences are some boxing matches, an occasional brawl and some described brutality. Instead, the novel works like a more aggressive take on Richard Booker's 1968 book “MASH.” There are numerous comedic moments, an abundance of sex and the typical coarse language of a war novel. Like Clark Howard's “The Last Contract”, also published in 1973, the author proves to be a masterful storyteller no matter what approach he takes. I will probably read “Siberia 10” again...and again. It's that good.

Buy a copy of this novel HERE

Friday, July 12, 2019

Black Wings Has My Angel

Lewis Elliott Chaze (1915-1990) was an American WW2 veteran, journalist, and mainstream novelist who crafted a Fawcett Gold Medal crime novel in 1953 titled “Black Wings Has My Angel” that is regarded as one of the finest noir novels of the 1950s. The book has been reprinted several times over the past 66 years under the original title and as “One for the Money” and “One for My Money.” Stark House Books has brought the paperback back from literary hibernation along with the excellent “One Is A Lonely Number” by Bruce Elliott.

The novel opens with our narrator, using the name Tim Sunblade, finishing up a roughnecking job on a Louisiana river and ordering a whore to be delivered to his hotel room for some recreation. He’s surprised when the bellhop brings him Virginia, a stunning beauty with a taste for sex and money. After a few days of energetic banging, Tim decides to bring her on the road with him figuring that he can always ditch her at a rest stop if her company becomes tiresome. Virginia is quite possibly the most conniving femme fatale in the history of the noir genre. She’s truly a character you’ll never forget.  

Through his narration, we learn that Tim once received an expensive university education and is currently a fugitive following a daring prison escape. His road trip with Virginia takes them to Colorado, and the reader begins to get glimpses of what Tim has in mind: a daring heist. The plan is revealed in bits and pieces - Denver, an abandoned mine shaft, and a trailer large enough to fit an armored car. As a cover, Tim and Virginia set up shop in a solid working-class neighborhood posing as a married couple for the planning phase of the operation.

The heist itself was pretty good and the aftermath is legitimately compelling with periodic explosions of extreme violence. There’s plenty of bloodshed and betrayal to hold your interest, and the novel’s conclusion is genuinely sick, dark, and fantastic. For the entire ride, Chaze’s writing strikes a conversational tone and has many thoughtful insights about the human condition. At times his prose is rather beautiful and literary - a step above most of the writing in this genre.

Overall, I really don’t have a bad word to say about this compact and entertaining piece of noir history. It’s really up there with the classics of the genre, and we should all be thankful that Stark House has bought this important work of literature back into print. This is a must-read. Highly recommended.

This novel was featured on the July 15, 2019 episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Matthew Scudder #01 - Sins of the Father

Lawrence Block's most prolific and successful series character is Matthew Scudder. Throughout a 43-year span, the author wrote 17 novels, a short-story collection and a novella about the alcoholic ex-New York City detective. Many fans speculate that the Scudder novels are reflective of Block's own past struggles with alcohol. In Writer's Digest, Block wrote that when he created Scudder, "I let him hang out in the same saloon where I spent a great deal of my own time. I was drinking pretty heavily around that time, and I made him a pretty heavy drinker, too. I drank whiskey, sometimes mixing it with coffee. So did Scudder."

The series debuted in 1976 with the successful novel “The Sins of the Fathers.” In the book's opening pages, we find Scudder as a rather tortured soul bearing life's deep scars and the weight of a burdensome guilt. An alcoholic divorcee, the ex-New York City detective now lives as a recluse in the low-rent section of Hell's Kitchen. Scudder's fall from grace occurred when his bullet, intended for a fleeing criminal, went astray and killed a young girl. After leaving his family and career, Scudder now accepts jobs, and referrals from his former Lieutenant, as an unlicensed private investigator.

In a coffee shop in Midtown, Scudder meets with the father of a recently slain young woman. He asks Scudder to look further into his daughter's murder despite the open and shut appearance of the case. The woman was shredded with a straight razor by her male roommate. After the murder, the man was found wandering the street half-naked, covered in blood and speaking in gibberish about raping and murdering his own mother. After his arrest, the man committed suicide in his cell.

Speculating that there is a clear culprit exposed, Scudder hesitantly accepts the job and promises to do a thorough examination of the evidence and report his findings to the woman's father. Block then pairs the reader with Scudder's investigation, structuring this 180-page novel into a familiar police procedural. We become spectators as witnesses, suspects and motives are inspected. As the plot thickens, the narrative expands into psychological suspense that propels the procedural process into an exciting murder mystery.


“The Sins of the Fathers” represents a transition between the wild 1960s crime noir into the more graphic and intense 1970s crime-fiction market. Lawrence Block captures America's moral erosion, the tearing down of the family structure and the wholesome ideals that came before it. Here, the author profiles the murderer as a homosexual necrophiliac with mother figure fascinations. Perhaps I'm pulling the wrong thread, but Block's deeper analysis of religion, guilt, family relations and youth are abstract, yet on-point for what was ultimately the new normal of the 70s.

With this series debut, Block has created a worthy, yet flawed protagonist who will compel readers to delve more and more into the series. While not a hard-hitting action formula, Scudder's tenacity and grim approach is more than enough to keep readers invested in Block's storytelling. This is a sold first step in what will become one of crime-fiction's most treasured series titles from a master of the genre.

The discussion of the novel was featured on the Paperback Warrior Podcast on July 8th, 2019 (LINK).

Buy a copy of this novel HERE

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Penetrator #14 - Mankill Sport

Chet Cunningham remains one of my favorite authors of pulpy men’s adventure fiction, but I’ve had trouble connecting with his popular series ‘The Penetrator’ written under the pseudonym of Lionel Derrick. The series ran for over 50 installments and was launched to capitalize on the success of Don Pendleton’s ‘The Executioner.” Cunningham’s take on the serial vigilante genre was mostly silly and over-the-top and usually not very good. For me, it’s always been a challenge to remain focused on the written page when I’m so busy rolling my eyes.

“Mankill Sport” from 1976 is the 14th installment in the series, and I was seduced by the plot synopsis which touts the book as a 1970s take on Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” in which a hunter stalks men through the deep woods as prey. It’s a premise that has been re-worked dozens of times over the past century, and I was curious to see what Cunningham would do with the concept. The book review is below and a discussion of the novel was featured on the Paperback Warrior Podcast on July 8th, 2019 (LINK).

For the uninitiated, Mark Hardin is The Penetrator, a half-Cheyenne former U.S. Army killing machine with a brilliant mind and expert marksman skills. As “Mankill Sport” opens, Hardin is two-and-a-half years into his one-man war in crime and has achieved folk hero status among millions of groupies worldwide. Early in the paperback, he receives an assignment from his mentor to target a Detroit drug lord and big game hunter named Johnny Utah.

At his best, The Penetrator recalls Detective Comics’ Batman - no super-powers but well-resourced, violent, and quick access to cool gadgets. The first half of “Mankill Sport” has Hardin following Utah’s trail across North America to force a deadly confrontation. Because it’s disclosed on the book’s cover, I’m comfortable telling you that Utah’s hobby is kidnapping innocent people and hunting them through the thick Canadian woods like animals, and the climax of the novel finds Hardin in the role of Utah’s prey. Can The Penetrator turn the tables and transform the hunter into the hunted?

I’ve read several paperbacks in ‘The Penetrator’ series, and this one is the best of the batch I’ve sampled. The premise is derivative as hell but it’s extremely well-executed and ultra-violent. Moreover, the entire series is available for purchase on your Kindle for super cheap. I can’t necessarily endorse other books in the series, but “Mankill Sport” is essential reading for men’s adventure fans.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Jigsaw

Everybody has at least one book they can write in their lifetime, right? I've heard that statement dozens of times. Apparently author Robin Sherman heard it as well. The former real estate agent contributed to the men's fertile action adventure genre in 1973. “Jigsaw”, her only known literary work, has the stereotypical attire that would accompany genre pieces of that era. It's published by Pinnacle (home of 'The Executioner') with a cover painted by the talented Gil Cohen ('The Executioner'). Is “Jigsaw” a diamond in the rough, a treasure buried in decades of used books? Or, simply a one-time use better served as kindling for your campfire?

Sadly, “Jigsaw” falls into the fire-starter category. 

The novel is set in London and consists of a crime syndicate using a stolen weapon to destroy government embassies. With a disposable narrative that begs for 'Killmaster', Sherman's writing is a complicated, contrived work that burdens readers with pages upon pages of cumbersome backstory on characters that have very little plot value. Each chapter is broken down into character conventions – brief history, identity and some connection - no matter how trivial – to the central theme. While readers are begging for a propelling story, Sherman focuses her efforts on mindless introductions. 

While not intended (who knows?), there are some enjoyable moments. In a humorous scene the chief intelligence officer for an unnamed British agency has his secretary randomly pick one of three agent files. As if performing a magic trick, the woman chooses rookie agent Brendon McCallie. For an important mission, like say government embassies exploding daily in London, the only solution to the problem is by choosing an agent randomly. It is a paradigm of how disposable the writing really is.

While there are some gripping action sequences, it's too little too late to save what is ultimately a dumbed-down effort. As of the time of this writing, Sherman had plans for a crime novel about a “racketeering” tennis player. Just roll your eyes and scan the shelves for something better.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 8, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 01

It’s the debut of the Paperback Warrior Podcast! In this episode, we’ll provide an introduction to our hosts Eric and Tom. Together, we look at the show’s primary focus on vintage fiction and our introductions to the genres. We’ll discuss the goldmine of paperback treasure, the famed Chamblin’s Book Mine in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as two novels - "Sins of the Fathers" by Lawrence Block and "Penetrator #14" by Chet Cunningham. Plus we look ahead at the upcoming episodes and highlight some content featured right here on our flagship site, paperbackwarrior.com. Stream the episode below or on Stitcher. Android users will find us on the Radio Public app. You may also visit us on the following services:

Spreaker, Soundcloud, YouTube, Direct Download, Castbox Listen to "Episode 01: Welcome to Paperback Warrior" on Spreaker.

John Marshall #01 - Shades of Gray

The John Marshall spy/assassin series lasted five installments between the years 1976 and 1981. The pseudonym used for these Pyramid Books was “Mark Denning,” but the actual author was John Stevenson (1926-1994). Genre fans may recognize Stevenson as the author of three ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ books as well as two of the ‘Sharpshooter’ novels by Bruno Rossi. Oddly, the series continued for an additional two books released only in Italian, but it’s unclear who wrote the foreign-language installments.

John Marshall is a CIA assassin allegedly adept in killing using a variety of methods (a Killmaster, if you will), and this skill set is particularly remarkable because he is missing his left hand. His assignments come from Mr. Cramer, his corpulent CIA supervisor and cantankerous father figure. The setup for the series has one foot firmly planted in the Matt Helm tradition and another in Edward S. Aarons’ CIA corporate structure.

Unlike most literary spies, Marshall isn’t chiseled and dashing. He’s a few pounds overweight, his hair is thinning, and his face isn’t particularly handsome. He gets laid, but it’s mostly off-the-page. The fact that his left hand was replaced with a hook doesn’t really add or detract from the story in any noticeable way.

In the series debut, “Shades of Gray,” Marshall is given two simultaneous assignments in San Francisco. First, he needs to figure out who is shipping combat tanks to South America. Second, Mr. Cramer gives Marshall a seemingly unrelated - and unofficial - assignment to locate and eliminate an unknown subject who is blackmailing Cramer’s niece. The blackmail plot is about 80% of the novel with the tank smuggling being almost an afterthought to our hero. Those unfamiliar with “books” might be surprised to learn that these two plot lines overlap and converge later in the novel, but I totally saw it coming.

The setup is well-done and the main character is cool enough. The problem Is that the plot is a bit of a snooze, and it’s really not much of a spy novel at all. Marshall is investigating two rather mundane mysteries as if he were a basic - and rather inept - private eye rather than a CIA killing machine.

By the time the novel ends, it was difficult to care much who was behind either scheme. Mostly, I was glad for it to be over. I may try another book in the series in the future, but it’s definitely not a priority after this tepid debut. Buyer beware.

Postscript: 

Thanks to the always-excellent “Spy Guys and Gals” website for doing the heavy-lifting and the background research regarding this series and author.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, July 5, 2019

Stark #01 - Funeral Rites

UK publisher Sphere launched in 1966 and rose to prominence with the 1976 printing of “Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker” by Alan Dean Foster (as George Lucas). But, action-adventure readers know the publisher's work through the myriad of 'Conan' and 'The Executioner' releases. The publisher gained the rights to release Don Pendleton's Executioner series, beginning with “War Against the Mafia” in 1973. Losing the series to rival English publisher Corgi, the company emulated 'The Executioner' motif for a new series entitled 'The Revenger'. 

The Revenger would run for 12 total books, the first ten written by Terry Harknett ('Adam Steele', 'Edge', 'Apache') and the last two by Angus Wells ('The Eagles', 'Jubal Cade'). The house name used by Sphere is Joseph Hedges. Later, Pyramid Books acquired the rights to reprint the books in the US but changed the series name to 'Stark' to avoid confusion with another The Revenger series written by Jon Messman. 

“Funeral Rites” is the debut novel of the series and was released in the UK in 1974 with a printing in the US a year later. The book introduces us to the criminal John Stark, a prison inmate in England. He robbed an electronics company while being employed by a criminal organization called The Company. To keep Stark quiet behind bars, they promise to continue the heroin drop into Stark's lover Carol. The Company henchmen aid Stark in his escape from prison so he can continue to do jobs for them.

After these events transpire in chapter one...this book turns into a real turd. 

Stark is brought to sea and reunited with his arch enemy Ryan. Oddly, Ryan provides Stark a bedroom and a nympho named Sheri. In my opinion, Stark loses credibility when he pounds away at Sheri while thinking of the love of his life, Carol. This just seems incredibly selfish, but considering the lack of depth in the book it makes sense the character is easily disliked. Shockingly, Ryan leaves Stark alone so he can set fire to the boat and escape with Sheri.


The author completely loses direction and focus and dedicates the next 100-pages to Stark sleeping, eating...and sleeping and eating. He goes on tangents about how Stark is ravished from hunger but there's no reason for it. He has money and there's food all over London! Ryan, being the book's villain, does nothing. Instead, the author has our antagonist thinking about his lover Jay and how he misses his vibrator. Ugh. In one astonishing, scene Ryan has a mistress flail him with a tree branch before “impaling” herself on him. It's absolutely bonkers.

Action? Well, there's a little here and there. In one wild scene we have Stark's Colt Python against the bad guy's Tommy – with Stark obviously the immortal hero. In a hilarious scene Stark accidentally elbows Jay, knocking him into a sink where he bleeds to death. To get answers to some question (I stopped following the senseless plot), he thrust Sheri's face into the wound while threatening to drown her in the gash if she doesn't tell the truth. Ridiculous.

I hated this book. And it isn't because the English spell “Pajamas” as “Pyjamas” or that they insult the good guys here by calling them a “Tinker's Cuss” (?). No, it isn't that. This character has absolutely no talent. Stark is a thief who was caught. End of story. There's nothing else to it. The Company wants to capture him, there's a bad guy named Ryan, a lover named Carol Burnett (!) and an effort on the author's part to bury 120+ pages in dialogue and trivial descriptions of tea cups and wall d├ęcor. 

How this series lasted 12 entries is beyond me. Why Pyramid felt the need to reprint it, God only knows. For me, this series lasted one book.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Rudd #01 - Vice Cop

To the extent that crime fiction author Richard Deming is remembered today, it’s for his many TV tie-in novels (Dragnet, Mod Squad, Starsky & Hutch) or his one-legged P.I. character, Manville Moon. However, he also wrote an interesting three-book series of hardboiled police procedurals starring Matt Rudd, a vice cop in the fictional city of St. Cecilia. The three Rudd novels are “Vice Cop” (1961), “Anything but Saintly” (1963), and “Death of a Pusher” (1964) - all of which are available today as cheap eBooks. 

In a 1960 interview, Deming said that his Matt Rudd character (real name: Mateuz Rudowski) was originally designed to steal market share from Richard Prather’s Shell Scott series. Other than both detectives solving mysteries in sexually-charged environments (Rudd is, after all, a Vice Cop), they really aren’t all that similar - other than the fact that first-person narration and the fact that both heroes get laid. For my money, Deming was a far better writer than Prather.

“Vice Cop” begins with a citizen showing up at the police station to report a society dame who hosts “marijuana parties” with sex orgies at her home attended by the idle wealthy. Because the world was a very different place in 1961, the department assigns Rudd to begin dating a sexy reefer user in an undercover capacity, so he could score an invite to this recurring pot party in a private home. (Your tax dollars at work, 1961 America.)

Although the premise is stupid by today’s standards, Deming is still able to weave this into a credible crime novel. As long as you can see this as a historical artifact, “Vice Cop” is a minimally compelling police procedural story with well-written prose and a highly-likable blue-collar main character in Rudd. He’s a funny, and self-deprecating cop who makes you wish you were his drinking buddy. Narration this good makes the 175 pages fly by, but it still wasn’t much of a great novel.

Last year, I read and reviewed the second book in the Matt Rudd series, “Anything but Saintly.” It was a far superior effort than “Vice Cop” and more worth your time. You can probably just skip this one and try some of Deming’s better works. After all, life’s too short to read so-do crime fiction.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

McHugh #01 - McHugh

“Deadlier than Mike Hammer. Sexier than James Bond. Meet McHugh”

I can't help but groan at the poor marketing choice made by Modern Promotions, a division of Unisystems Inc. Publishing. Perhaps that horrific tagline, or the equally horrific cover art, led to the short lifespan for paperback hero McHugh. 

The series, launched in 1959, lasted for five total books – all by author Jay Flynn. The series, rumored to have been created over a drunken lunch by both Flynn and original publisher Avon (who printed under improved artwork), stars US government agent McHugh operating out of a San Francisco watering hole called The Door. His boss is Burton Harts, who routinely sends McHugh chasing island dictators or downed Navy flyers. But the series debut, the eponymous “McHugh”, is a throwback to the hardboiled writing style. 

The book opens with FBI agents Murrell and Foote meeting McHugh at an airport. They want information on a quarry named Johnny Stover, an electronics expert who's gone missing. How is McHugh involved? Stover is dating the sister of McHugh's lover Loris. McHugh, fearing the danger might be too close to Loris, takes to gumshoeing in search of Stover's track. 

The book really gains footing when McHugh runs into San Francisco Inspector Kline. Stover, a hot rod enthusiast, may have purchased a car used in a 1936 gold heist. Some heavy mob players think that car contains clues on where the robbers hid a bulk of the heist. As McHugh becomes closer, both the mob and some heavy-handed criminals start squeezing in. The book's finale is a race to find Stover – hopefully alive holding keys to the car.

Jay Flynn was a talented writer with a penchant for quirky, over the top criminals. While never really pulpy or too contrived, these McHugh books seem wildly cartoonish. Oddly, this writing style or narrative flow doesn't detract from a thrilling story. Flynn's work with McHugh is a joy to read; entertaining, feisty and far from the “Mike Hammer Knockoff” description it unfairly receives from genre fans. While Flynn's life was tumultuous, and an adventurous novel in itself, his work on McHugh is admirable. It's what keeps the old guy turning those yellowed pages. 

Note – For the wild story on the life of Jay Flynn, read author Bill Pronzini's 1988 article HERE.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Monday, July 1, 2019

Target Manhattan

Brian Garfield died on December 29, 2018 at the age of 79, but he left behind a legacy of important work in the American action-adventure fiction cannon. His obituaries primarily focused upon the fact that he wrote “Death Wish” and “Hopscotch,” but he also authored several great westerns as well as many paperback originals that never received the Hollywood treatment.

After learning of his death, I felt moved to read one of his 70 novels, and I chose 1975’s “Target Manhattan,” which was originally released under the pseudonym Drew Mallory. Today, the short book is available from Mysterious Press under Garfield’s own name, and it’s well worth your time. 

The entirety of “Target Manhattan” is written in the form of transcripts from interviews conducted by a special commission established by the New York Civil Defense Emergency Control Board in the aftermath of a significant “disaster” in New York City. The reader is left to gain an understanding of the scope of the tragedy and the manner the events unfolded from the contents of the formal testimony comprising the book. It’s a brave literary approach that would have failed in the hands of a lesser author.

The incident in question - as depicted on the original Ballentine paperback cover art - involves a lunatic pilot in a WW2-era bomber plane circling Manhattan and threatening to bomb the city unless he receives a $5 million ransom. The scheme to get away with the dough is rather brilliant until he runs up against some pretty clever civil servants who hatch their own plan to stop him.

Beyond that, telling you any more about what happens would be book reviewer malpractice. However, I’m comfortable saying that this book is an unheralded classic of the suspense genre - a real, old-school, high-stakes disaster movie on paper. The government response sequences addressing this exigent threat reminded me a lot of the original “Independence Day” movie, and the after-the-fact interview format of the novel reminded me of Max Brooks’ “World War Z” novel. Perhaps the aircraft spec talk was a bit much for me as a layman, but it never distracted from the story.

Brian Garfield, you are missed - but your work lives on forever. And this one comes highly recommended.

Buy a copy of the book HERE