Friday, September 13, 2019

Peter Crane #01 - Red Heroin

Jerry Pournelle (1933-2017) was primarily known as a successful science fiction author, science fact writer, and compiler of SF anthologies. However, his first published novel was a spy thriller from 1969 titled “Red Heroin” that was originally published under the pseudonym Wade Curtis and has since been reprinted under the author’s proper name. In addition to multiple paperback printings, the short novel is also available as an eBook and an audiobook from the usual suspects.

Paul Crane is a civil engineer in Seattle whose friend Danny was just named Chief of Police in the small town of Lathrop, Washington. It’s a part-time gig, and Danny wants Crane to be his part-time deputy. Neither guy has any police training, but the town’s mayor wants a couple cops on staff to arrest a drunk every now and then or ticket a speeder on weekends. The job doesn’t pay, but Crane will get a badge that can be used to get out of speeding tickets, so he agrees to help Danny. Soon thereafter they head out to Lathrop for a night of police hijinks in a small town.

It doesn’t take long for the two quasi-cops to find themselves in the middle of a real bloodbath of trouble. The violence propels Crane into the hands of the CIA who recruit him as an operative for an assignment. The upshot is that the Red Chinese are funding their U.S. intel operations by refining poppies into heroin for the American market. It’s a twofer for the Chinese: Drug sales generate U.S. dollars for espionage operations while also getting a generation of American youth hooked on the junk. The Agency wants Crane to get himself recruited as a smuggler for the Chinese while actually serving as a double agent for the CIA.

The transition from unqualified cop to unqualified spy was a bit clunky and requires some suspension of disbelief, but the payoff is great. The CIA wants Crane to ingratiate himself with a leftist student group at the local university hoping that will be the gateway to the Chinese commies. The plan is for Crane to spread the word that he’s buying a boat to attract the student radicals into utilizing him to smuggle the Chinese heroin from Canada.

Along the way, Crane meets a hot hippie chick tied into the student group. Between off-page lovemaking sessions, he really begins to fall for her. Is she just a sincere do-gooder or a tool of Chinese spies? His CIA contact agent for this assignment is a sassy young woman with real sex appeal as well, and her character was my favorite in the novel.

If Pournelle wasn’t such a well-known author, I’d really suspect that “Red Heroin” was pseudonymous work by Donald Hamilton, author of the ‘Matt Helm’ series. His knowledge of hunting rifles and their loads - along with sailing - rivals Hamilton’s own expertise, and the first-person narration has the matter-of-fact, logical self-confidence of many Hamilton protagonists. It’s likely that Pournelle was a fan of the Matt Helm books and set out to write “Red Heroin” as a Helm tribute with a very different origin story. It was also a novel steeped in realism - unlike, say, a ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ adventure. When things get violent towards the climax, there’s a gritty realism to the carnage that made for satisfying reading.

“Red Heroin” is a thinking-man’s espionage novel rather than a high-speed action killfest, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The sequel “Red Dragon” (unrelated to Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector novel) came out in 1970, and I will definitely check it out. This first Paul Crane adventure is an easy recommendation and probably the best book of its ilk that I’ve read in quite some time. The paperback deserved a better cover from the various publishers, but it’s what’s inside that counts.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Avenger #01 - Justice, Inc.

Wanting to capitalize on the success of 'The Shadow', publisher Street & Smith imagined a masked hero that would essentially be a hybrid of their own pulp hero, 'Doc Savage' and 'The Shadow'. Using Doc Savage authors Lester Dent and Walter B. Gibson for advisors, the publisher hired author Paul Ernst (1899-1985) to write 'The Avenger' pulp magazine from 1939-1942. The character would later appear in “Clues Detective Magazine” (1942-1943) and a 1943 issue of “The Shadow Magazine.” Launching the series in an era of the pulp demise, The Avenger was well liked but seemed an unnecessary edition to an already crowded pulp hero market.

“Justice, Inc.” was the debut Avenger story, appearing in September 1939 and later reprinted in paperback novel format by Paperback Library in 1972. In 1975, DC Comics published a comic called “Justice, Inc.” starring The Avenger. The 1972 paperback debut is my first experience with the character. While enjoying Doc Savage, and other pulp heroes, I managed my expectations expecting the novel to be a failure.

Much to my surprise, I absolutely loved this book. “Justice, Inc.” contains many of the rewarding elements I enjoy from the 1950s and 1960s crime-noir novels. In fact, I'd speculate that beyond the Avenger's fantastic ability to morph his facial features, this is essentially just a crime novel with a pulp gimmick.

The paperback introduces us to protagonist Richard Benson, a wealthy, seasoned adventurist who has settled into a life of domestic tranquility. While commuting via a commercial flight to Montreal, Benson's wife and young daughter seemingly disappear while Benson is in the lavatory. As he begins asking passengers and staff questions, they inform him that he was the only passenger that boarded the plane. Pulling a gun from his side, Benson is knocked unconscious by the co-pilot wielding a fire extinguisher.

Awakening from a three-week coma, Benson finds that his face is now paralyzed. This paralysis allows him to shape his facial skin and muscles into new forms. The paralysis holds the tissues in place, allowing him the ability to easily transform himself into different facial disguises. After his hospital release, Benson begins interviewing and probing for answers to learn where his family were taken. After talking with a number of airline employees, the only consistent story is that Benson was on the plane alone. Knowing this is inaccurate, Benson teams with a Scottish airline mechanic named Fergus MacMurdie and a giant of a man named Algernon “Smitty” Smith.

Using his new allies and disguises, Benson senses there is a criminal element to his family's tragedy. After learning that many wealthy stockholders have gone missing, Benson goes to work on the perpetrators with two weapons. “Mike” is a .22 caliber short pistol and “Ike” is a slender throwing knife. Both are used to stun the enemy, but Benson is opposed to killing. The novel is a swift read consistent with crime fiction tropes – the crime, notable suspects, gunfights, car chases and the obligatory mystery. Without giving away too much, let's just say Benson doesn't necessarily find all of the answers. The unresolved elements provide the motivation to create a crime fighting trio based in New York City as the launch of the pulp series.

Warner Brothers’ Paperback Library reprinted all 24 Avenger titles in paperback from 1972-1975, including 12 additional stories authored by Ron Goulart. Although I'm not a big pulp enthusiast, Ernst's suspense and rapid-fire delivery was very entertaining. I've purchased a number of these paperbacks and I'm really excited to learn more about the series and characters. I'm sure it's sacrilege, but I enjoyed “Justice, Inc.” more than the two 'Doc Savage' titles I read. Long live The Avenger!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Peter Styles #01 - The Laughter Trap

Judson Philips (1903-1989) was a New England mystery writer who began his career writing stories for the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s. He was well-positioned to transition into the paperback original fiction market of the 1950s when most of his novels were credited to his successful pseudonym Hugh Pentecost. Between 1964 and 1982, he authored an 18-book mystery series starring investigative journalist Peter Styles that was published under his own name and reprinted with men’s adventure packaging by Pinnacle Books in the 1970s.

The primary setting of the first installment, “The Laughter Trap,” is a remote upscale ski resort in Vermont’s Green Mountains. A year earlier, Styles lost his leg and his father in an automobile accident on the winding road leading up to the lodge. Two men in a dark sedan - one of them cackling with laughter over the roar of the engines - forced Styles’ car over an embankment killing his father in the passenger seat and costing Styles a leg. The police never found the other car or its joy-killer occupants and justice has become a bit of an obsession for Styles over the past year. In any case, our one-legged hero has returned to the mansion on the hill to help rehab his damaged psyche.

On his first night at the resort, Styles hears distinct laughter in the distance that convinces him that the driver of the car who forced him off the road a year earlier is presently a fellow guest at the resort. The madman may have also slaughtered two women in their cabin bringing law enforcement to the resort to investigate. Efforts to locate the laughing maniac at the crowded but secluded ski resort form the central mystery of the novel.

The first thing that jumps out at the reader when beginning the paperback is that the novel is written in first-person, but the narrator is not Styles. Instead the story is told by Jim Tranter, and the origin story of Tranter’s relationship with Styles is covered in Chapter 3 (no spoilers here). It’s a pretty advanced literary technique that one can compare to Dr. Watson’s narration of the Sherlock Holmes books or Archie Goodwin telling the Nero Wolfe stories. As a result of this narrative choice, much of the on-page gumshoe work is done by Tranter, not Styles.

Notwithstanding the lurid Pinnacle cover art, “The Laughter Trap” is just a pretty basic mystery novel, not an “exciting world of violence and suspense” as promised. The handful of murders that occur in the paperback are plenty gruesome, but they mostly happen off-page. The whodunnit trope of a bunch of people trapped in a winter lodge with a murderer among them is a tale as old as time, yet the author does a nice job with the plotting and the solution is satisfying enough.

Styles and Tranter are interesting characters, and I wouldn’t mind reading more books about them. You’ll probably like this book as long as you know what you’re getting - a basic murder mystery, not an action-packed paperback spectacle.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Fred Fellows #02 - Road Block

Hillary Waugh (1920-2008), a Mystery Writers of America Grand Master and a Navy Air Corp veteran, began writing his first novel, “Madam Will Not Dine Tonight,” in 1947. The book propelled Waugh's literary career forward and was followed by over 45 novels of mystery and suspense between 1947 and 1988. Along with series creations like 'Homicide North', 'Simon Kaye' and 'Sheridan Wesley', Waugh authored 11 novels starring a small town Connecticut police chief named Fred Fellows. The series debut, “Sleep Long My Love”, was published in 1959 and adapted for the screen under the title “Jigsaw” in 1962.

My first experience with Waugh and his Fred Fellows character is the second installment, “Road Block”, published by Popular Library as a “Crime Club Selection” in 1960. The series can be read in any order, but there is a brief mention in “Road Block” recalling Fellows' murder investigation from the debut. The really interesting aspect of Waugh's writing is the emphasis on procedure. Known for his extensive detailing of investigations, the author divides “Road Block” into two point-by-point halves – one as a heist in planning and the other as the subsequent investigation of the heist.

The first 80-pages solely chronicles the actions of the criminals. Unlike his contemporaries, Waugh doesn't switch the perspective to various characters or alternate chapters between characters. The first half of the book centers around a criminal trio of Pete, Lloyd and Joe. During a temporary stop between jobs, Lloyd talks with a security guard in Stockton, CT (conveniently the jurisdiction of Fred Fellows) over beer. For $5,000, the guard is willing to leave a door unlocked at a nearby manufacturing plant. Lloyd's goal is to rob the payroll of its weekly $93,000 delivered by armored truck to a precise location within the plant. The trio then spends 40 or so pages planning the heist and building a crew to enact the plan.

The second half of the book, aside from one chapter, is solely devoted to Fred Fellows and his staff. After the reported heist, Fellows works closely with the state troopers to bottleneck Lloyd and his cohorts before they reach the expansive Merritt Parkway. While ordering the mandatory road blocks, Fellows interviews plant employees and guards to determine how the heist was executed and to forecast which back roads Lloyd will utilize for the getaway.

While certainly enjoyable, “Road Block” didn't overly impress me. I found it to be more of an event timeline (like “Dragnet”) than an actual story. Unless “Sleep Long My Love” served as an origin story, I felt that this second installment should have provided some backstory on Fred Fellows, as brief as that might be. His police procedures, including the geographical deductions, were entertaining but I never deduced that Fellows was necessarily the star of the show. In terms of police procedural novels, Waugh certainly isn't Ed McBain (Evan Hunter). “Road Block” was an easy, quality read, but this isn’t a series I'd necessarily pursue further.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 9, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 10

It's our 10th episode! On this show we'll discuss author Carter Brown's career and his novel "The Loving and the Dead". Eric reviews a 70's team-commando novel called "Killer Patrol" and Tom talks about his "wipe out" shopping spree in Chicago. Stream it below, listen on any popular streaming service or download directly LINK Listen to "Episode 10: Carter Brown" on Spreaker.

The Big Bite

In his day, Louis Trimble (1917-1988) was a highly-regarded Seattle author of mystery, western, and science fiction novels. Like many writers of the era, he increased his output and avoided over-saturating the paperback market by using multiple pen names. He published three crime-adventure novels using his ‘Gerry Travis’ pseudonym, the last of which was titled “The Big Bite,” initially released in hardcover in 1957 and then as half of an Ace Double paperback in 1958 (paired with “The Deadly Boodle” by J.M. Flynn). “The Big Bite” remains available today as an eBook - for some reason still under the Gerry Travis name.

The short novel opens with a small boat in Mexican waters beginning a nighttime voyage with an unconscious man aboard named Orvil Curtis. The crew’s mission is to abandon Orvil on a thorny little island in the midst of brackish, fetid waters. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on at first, but it’s apparent that this Orvil fellow is in a rough spot and will probably not survive the island. The crew leaves Orvil to die and reports back to their boss, the sexy female captain of the ship using the name Natalie.

We are then introduced to our hero, Paul Knox, an independently-wealthy spy with a private corporation called World Circle that serves as an adjunct intelligence service to many righteous nations. It turns out that unconscious Orvil from the opening scene was a World Circle operative. Knox learns that Natalie, the female boat captain in Mexico, is a Soviet agent working to destabilize Cuba while setting up the island nation for a commie takeover (farfetched, I know.).

Using the cover of an insurance investigator on a missing person case, Knox travels to the Mexican coastal village to investigate his missing colleague and the enigmatic female boat captain. There’s not a ton of action, and things get rather convoluted with the jockeying for position among the cast of spies, opportunists, and liars in the Mexican town. The sizable cast of characters and amount of subterfuge at work made for a muddled plot, but Knox’s search for the truth about Orvil’s disappearance was a satisfying thread that I enjoyed immensely.

“The Big Bite” felt more like a mystery than an espionage adventure - minimal gunplay but plenty of cocktail parties filled with lies and half-truths among the attendees. Trimble’s prose is pretty excellent, and debonair spy Paul Knox is a cool hero who never appeared in any other books, to my knowledge. That’s a shame because he deserves a way better plot than this one delivered.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, September 6, 2019

Blood Patrol

Very little is known about the literary career of former U.S. Army Special Services Security Agent George Fennell. In 1970, his men's action-adventure novel “Blood Patrol” was published by Pinnacle. At the time, the publisher wanted a war novel, and like so many paperbacks of its time, “Blood Patrol” featured a very familiar marketing pitch. The cover suggested that the contents were comparable to the successful 1961 film “The Guns of Navarone”, based on Alistair MacLean's 1957 novel. Fennell's novel is really nothing of the sort, but Pinnacle reprinted it in 1974 with an alternative, team-based commando cover hoping for a more lucrative return.

I don't know if Fennell had any plans for a series, but a sequel was released in 1970, “Killer Patrol”. That book was also auspiciously reprinted by Pinnacle in 1974, with mercenary-styled artwork and the promise that this installment was the second in a new exciting Mike Brent series. In “Blood Patrol”, the main character's name isn't mentioned until page 202...and it's Gunner Brent. That leads me to believe these were just two novels penned by a part-time author. Pinnacle's marketing scheme was probably just to release the two books as a series knowing there was never a third installment. Those gullible to invest blue-collar wages on this promising new series were probably disappointed to learn there were no more titles.

My experience with “Blood Patrol” is rather lukewarm. The novel begins with five American soldiers working for a man named Blaine, who in turn works in the Pentagon under some sort of secret, backdoor security operation. None of this is explained and maybe it doesn't have to be. We have five guys armed to the teeth parachuting into Ethiopia to kill a Russian operative. 1-2-3-Kill!

The novel's opener has Brent, in first person presentation, directing his crew with an emphasis on a wily German named Hans that states “Herr Kapitan” after everything he says. It's incredibly frustrating and I was praying this is one of those novels where team members can actually die. Unfortunately, Brent loses part of the team but Hans sticks to him like glue...for all 271-pages. After failing to secure their supplies during landing, the group must fend off dehydration, Russian sympathizers and a mission that's been compromised due to the 75 to 5 odds that Blaine failed to relay.

Fennell and his readers have a great deal of fun in the first 100-pages. There's a villager tortured and burned alive, an exhilarating firefight in the mountains and a lot of gritty, dusty fighting between warring factions. The second half of the book was drastically different and failed to maintain the momentum. In one goofy scene, Brent is captured, interrogated and then raped by a whip-snapping blonde cave wench. I think the author and I disagree on the definition of torture.

“Blood Patrol” is a light, easy read with plenty of action and bravado for seasoned adventure fans to enjoy. After the book's solid opening sequence, I thought it became too silly too fast. 'Able Team', 'Phoenix Force' and 'S.O.B.' all have die-hard fans for this type of literary fiction. If you enjoy that type of story, and I certainly do for the most part, you'll have some fun here. It's zany, over the top and brutally violent.

Buy a copy of this BOOK here

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Murder Me for Nickels

Peter Rabe was the pseudonym of Peter Rabinowtitch (1921-1990), a staple of the Fawcett Gold Medal line of yellow-spine crime fiction paperbacks during the 1950s and 1960s. In recent years, many of his classic novels have been reprinted by Stark House Books, including 1960’s “Murder Me for Nickels,” currently packaged as a double along with “Benny Muscles In” from 1955.

“Murder Me for Nickels” is narrated by Jack St. Louis, the right-hand man of Walter Lippit, the owner of every jukebox in every tavern for a 35-mile radius. Back in 1960, a musical artist getting a disc in the local jukebox was a big deal and fame often followed closely behind. This, of course, opened the door to payola, free sex with torch singers, supply-chain issues, and the kind of drama that could feed a crime novel like this one.

The paperback doesn’t waste any time getting into the plot. Walter’s regional jukebox monopoly is challenged by an electrician named Benotti, whose strong-arm tactics force bar owners into placing Benotti’s jukeboxes in their establishments. Jack and Walter aren’t racketeers, but Jack is perfectly willing to kick ass to protect Walter’s turf. But who is this Benotti? Is he just an opportunistic poacher or is the mob moving into the song-for-a-nickel business?

Like a lot of Rabe’s novels (such as “The Box”), “Murder Me for Nickels” is really about a power struggle in an insular community. The combatants - in this case jukebox vendors - jockey for position and the the upper hand with the tactics escalating over the course of the paperback.

Rabe is a very good, dialogue-heavy writer, and his characters are vivid and interesting. However, I’ve always found his plotting to be slow and “Murder Me for Nickels” is no exception. A paperback with this interesting set-up and clever characters shouldn’t have been this dull. I couldn’t help wishing it was Richard Deming, Lou Cameron - or even Milton Ozaki - painting on the canvass of a jukebox turf war. It would have been a much better novel.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wake Up to Murder

In 2017, Stark House Press released a three-pack featuring notable Day Keene (real name: Gunard Hjertstedt) literary works - “Sleep with the Devil” (1954), “Joy House” (1954) and “Wake Up to Murder” (1952). I had the opportunity to review “Sleep with the Devil” (1954) earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely. After reading his 1953 novel “Death House Doll”, I was anxious to turn the pages on another Day Keene crime-noir.

“Wake Up to Murder” introduces us to Jim Charters, an ordinary man living in the peaceful locale of Sun City, Florida. Jim has been married for ten years, lives a quiet existence in suburbia and works as a courier for a local attorney. But, below this average exterior...Jim is ready to explode.

Jim lusts after his co-worker, a fiery vixen named Lou. Longing to fulfill his heated desires, Jim battles his emotions everyday, living a fantasy within his own mind. On his birthday, His boss fires Jim for drinking with Lou and other co-workers after hours in the office. Later, he arrives home to find that his wife has apparently forgotten his annual anniversary of being alive. Wrecked with an evening of tasteless, tough liver and his recent termination, Jim's pressure cooker erupts after his sexual advancements are declined. Furious, Jim drives to the beach and begins a drunken night of debauchery.

The next morning, Jim awakens in a hotel bed with a massive hangover and a naked Lou lying by his side. While coming to grips with his situation, a man named Mantin shows up and provides $10,000 in cash to Jim. His only vivid remarks are, “So there you are, Jim. What we agreed on. Just like it come from the bank”. In a groggy, alcohol-fueled stupor, Jim accepts the money without asking any pertinent questions and Mantin departs. What did Jim promise Mantin he'd do to earn this robust reward?

Day Keene's crime-noir is saturated with repressed desires, sexual frustration and the elephant-sized burdens of life. Jim carries the weight of the world on his back...and in the cash-stuffed envelope he holds in his hands. The novel's narrative slowly unravels, peeling back the layers to expose Jim's marriage, career and past tragedies. But, this is a crime novel, and after Jim discovers Mantin murdered in a seaside mansion, the novel gains traction and propels the story into some surprising twists and turns.

Anyone familiar with Day Keene will quickly acclimate themselves to his storytelling. “Wake Up to Murder” possesses many of the author's tropes – an innocent crime suspect, easily obtainable riches (illegal of course), the scorned lover and a flawed protagonist attempting to right a wrong. Together, it's a winning formula and one that solidifies Keene's place in the higher echelon of crime-noir writers of this era.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Inquest

Before becoming involved in mail order scams, Milton Ozaki was an accomplished writer of crime and mystery novels under his own name as well as the pseudonym of Robert O. Saber. The Japanese-American author lived in the upper Midwest, and several of his novels are set in the fictional town of Stillwell, Wisconsin, including his 1960 Fawcett Gold Medal original, “Inquest,” now available as a Kindle eBook.

The concept of the novel is that Ozaki wrote this fictional story guiding the reader through a criminal case (like an episode of “Law & Order”) to illustrate the “old-fashioned and inept coroner system which still manages to bumble along in certain parts of our country.” The original back cover has a note from the editor promising that the novel “takes us behind the scenes for an electrifying glimpse into some of the most insidious double-dealings and gutter morals of our day!”

Of course, this was all just Fawcett Gold Medal hype. Ozaki likely wrote an interesting crime novel, and the Fawcett marketing team sold it as an allegorical exposé of a small-town criminal justice system. As one who was always confused when a 1950’s crime novel cuts to a scene at a coroner’s inquest, I was pleased to get a better understanding of that system in the context of this fun crime novel.

The paperback opens with a girl kicking the ever-loving shit out of an on-duty bartender in Wisconsin. Bottles are smashed, mirrors are shattered, and Eddie the bartender’s ass is whooped. By the time the police arrive, the girl is gone and eyewitnesses can’t agree on her age, height, weight, or clothing - not unusual in police work. Soon thereafter, a college sorority girl named Shirley, who matches the assailant’s general description, is arrested by police nearby.

The problem is that Shirley - a preacher’s daughter from nearby Sheboygan - wasn’t the girl who trashed the other bar, yet she is arrested and thrust into the criminal justice system due to misinformation. There’s also a secondary plot about a prisoner murdered in the county lockup and the police’s attempt to cover it up with the help of a bent coroner. An honest, rookie deputy who suspects the truth is the only one trying to do the right thing.

Stillwell is a corrupt town, but not initially in the over-the-top way you normally see in mid-Century crime novels. For example, the Sheriff’s Benevolence Association accepts donations from the local taverns and brothels, and a portion of that money goes into the pockets of the department brass. The local judge does special extra-legal favors for his kitchen cabinet installer. The graft is insidious due to the lack of any governmental oversight, and that’s the problematic web the virginal but plucky Shirley finds herself trapped within. Of course, the rot inside the town’s justice system becomes materially worse as the book progresses until its hard to tell the difference between the police and the criminals.

Ozaki’s writing is a dispassionate third-person narration that changes perspective with every short chapter. The creates a lack of emotional urgency, but it also adds to the horror as the reader is immersed in a broken system with every crooked governmental character acting as a cog in large and rotten wheel. There’s not much mystery or action in the book, but the investigation of a small-town’s corruption was very compelling.

Overall, I really enjoyed “Inquest.” Its not a crime fiction masterpiece, but it was very readable, and the short chapters made it fly by. If you like stories about crooked towns, I’m confident that you’ll find this one riveting and worth your time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 2, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 09

This episode features Tom's guide to building a "reader's library" for your home or office. We discuss the new reprint from Brash Books called "Spy Killer" (1967) by Jimmy Sangster and we look at "Bloody Vengeance" (1973) by Jack Ehrlich. We also look back at the month of August and some of our favorite titles. Stream it on any service, listen below or download here: Link Listen to "Episode 09: Building a Reader's Library" on Spreaker.

Foreign Exchange

The 'John Smith' spy novels were created by British author Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) in the late 1960s. Influenced by Ian Fleming's James Bond, Sangster's espionage flair propelled "Private I" to be published in 1967 and later adapted for film. That novel featured British secret agent John Smith's exploits in a China-Russia crossover that was funny, entertaining and engaging. NY Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman reprinted the novel as "The Spy Killer" this year under their Brash Books imprint.

"The Spy Killer" finale left our spy hero in dire circumstances. Thankfully, Sangster revisited the book just a year later, publishing the sequel, "Foreign Exchange," in 1968. It was also treated to a film adaptation, and Brash Books reprinted the novel for a new generation to experience this excellent duo of espionage thrillers.

Without an immediate answer to the events that occurred in the prior book, “Foreign Exchange” begins in similar fashion as it's predecessor – John Smith working as a destitute private investigator in London. In a hilarious sequence of events, Smith agrees to assist Harvey, his office neighbor and talent agent, in a pregnancy blackmail case. A young singer named Anne has accused Harvey of knocking her up, a problem she can solve if Harvey pays her some cash. Harvey claims he didn't have relations with her, only a business relationship. This leads Smith to the club circuit where he eventually locates Anne (who is smokin' hot/isn't pregnant) and attempts to sleep with her many times. Unfortunately, Anne claims Smith just isn't her type. This sequence only absorbs 30-pages but I would have been delighted if it consumed the whole book. But this is a spy thriller, so on with the show.

Smith's financial distress is explained as a reference back to the closing pages of the prior book. With Smith flat broke (and rejected by a sultry sex-pot), it's just a matter of time before he accepts another assignment from his former boss Max, the head of the Secret Service. The Service has a Russian double-agent that they have been utilizing for years to spill false intelligence back to the Russians. For many reasons, this agent is no longer useful and they want Russia to take him off of their hands (in lieu of a public trial and prison). To do this, they want Smith to be a planted spy to be captured and imprisoned in Russia. Then, Max will wheel and deal and trade the double-agent back to Russia in exchange for Smith. For Smith, it is a month vacation in Russia and the promise of a cool $10K for doing the job. But, can Max be trusted? What if Smith is abandoned and condemned to the salt mines?

We covered David Morrell's short story “The Interrogator” (2011) [LINK] and praised it's effective, fascinating interrogation scenes. “Foreign Exchange” is boiling over with that gripping realism, with a lot of the narrative dedicated to interrogation scenes between Smith and his jailer Borensko. There's so much that Sangster builds into this fast-paced narrative. His conversational tone, dense with witty sarcasm and funny quips from Smith, enhances what is a rather dense plot. Thankfully, the author keeps the story moving well enough to allow brisk page turns - unlike, say, a technical espionage thriller that requires exhaustive notes and a deep knowledge of global alliances.

With sexy foreplay and an intriguing plot, “Foreign Exchange” is one of the best kept secrets of the spy genre. Thankfully, Brash Books has unearthed this treasure and is sharing it with the literary world.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

The Spy Killer

British author Jimmy Sangster (1927-2011) was a successful screenwriter and director, contributing to Hammer Films' classics like “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957), “Dracula” (1958) and “Lust for a Vampire” (1970). His passion for screenwriting was paralleled by his literary work. Capitalizing on the success of fellow Brit Ian Fleming's 'James Bond' empire, Sangster created the lady spy novel “Touchfeather” and the sequel “Touchfeather Too” in 1968 and 1970. Enjoying the espionage genre, the author wrote two novels featuring former British spy John Smith, “Private I” (1967) and sequel “Foreign Exchange” (1968). New York Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg has resurrected both novels for his Brash Books imprint, renaming “Private I” as “The Spy Killer.” Both are available with new artwork in digital and print versions.

“The Spy Killer” introduces readers to ex-British spy John Smith, now a lowly private-eye struggling to fulfill financial obligations to his creditors. To his surprise he obtains a paying client in the opening chapter – his ex-wife. She hires Smith to track down her new husband, Dunning, whom she fears may be having an affair with a man named Alworthy. Smith, giddy to receive money while relishing in his ex's misfortune,  agrees to tail her husband in hopes of photographing him and a lover.

Smith learns that Dunning is Principal Under-Secretary for Britain's Foreign Office and during a rather clever exercise, stumbles on the whereabouts of a meeting between both Dunning and his suspected lover, Alworthy. Arrriving at the residence with a camera, Smith is greeted by Alworthy as he bursts out of the couple's front door. Thanking Smith for arriving so quickly, the two hastily rush inside where Alworthy shows Smith the bloody dead corpse of Dunning! Alworthy, thinking Smith is a police officer, excuses himself to the kitchen while Smith awaits the police's arrival. Once there, all fingers point to Smith as they surprisingly confirm that there is no Alworthy in the house.

In jail, Smith fears that someone has blackmailed him. Through some backstory segments, we experience Smith's violent past, including the grim slaughter of a household of youths. It's a valued effort on the author's part to transcend the novel from sleuth private-eye into the international spy novel it aspires to be. As the novel moves into espionage, we learn that Smith has stumbled onto a plot by the Chinese to uncover American spies in their red state. Facing criminal charges for murdering Dunning, Smith is forced out of retirement by his notorious boss, Max. Temporarily freeing him, Max instructs Smith to find Alworthy, locate a stolen notebook and return it to Max. If the mission is a failure, Smith will either be killed or face a one-sided murder trial.

Sangster successfully runs the gambit of private-eye, murder mystery and international spy-thriller, creating enough depth and dynamics to propel “The Spy Thriller” into a suspenseful and engaging high-wire act. While utilizing a lot of moving parts, Sangster's spy hero fights and manipulates his enemies into a complex game of cat-and-mouse from London to Paris. Surprisingly, the book's strength lies in the fact that Smith is a very human, very flawed champion. His skill-set, while durable, is offset by his rather humorous clumsiness. Thankfully, this isn't the lovemaking, tuxedo-wearing international hero that saturated the market.

While not as  dominant as his contemporaries, Sangster proved he was a master craftsman. “The Spy Thriller” is exceptional. Critics agreed as both "Private I" and "Foreign Exchange" were adapted for film starring Robert Horton (Wagon Train).

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