Thursday, October 17, 2019

Nick Carter: Killmaster #211 - Mercenary Mountain

Dennis Lynds (1924-2005) authored nearly 80 novels in his career, achieving an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Primarily a mystery fiction writer, Lynds found his most successful character to be 'Dan Fortune', a private detective series that produced 19 installments from 1967 until 1995. As William Arden, Lynds created the 'Kane Jackson' series and as Mark Sadler, the 'Paul Shaw' novels. Surprisingly, my first taste of Lynds talents isn't an acclaimed detective series.

Lynds wrote nine volumes of the 'Nick Carter: Killmaster' series, beginning in 1974 with #91: “The N3 Conspiracy” and concluding with #222: “Blood of the Falcon” in 1987. In 1984, his spouse Gale Lynds, a successful author in her own right, made it a family affair by penning four novels in the series beginning with #190: “Day of the Mahdi”. The subject of this review is Dennis Lynds' 1986 series entry #211: “Mercenary Mountain”.

The novel's opening chapters feature a ragged villager falling into the dusty Ethiopian dirt. After a small dispatch of Ethiopian soldiers pass, the villager stands and rapidly ascends a dense hillside. Assembling a sniper rifle, the villager spots his target - a civilian wearing a U.N. emblem. The soldiers then drag a weak and clearly tortured victim into the clearing and the civilian fatally shoots him. The villager then shoots and kills the U.N. disguised civilian before soldiers begin their pursuit. Eliminating enemies as they approach the hillside, the fearful General calls off the search and the squad departs. The villager, who we now realize is Nick Carter, removes a small cylinder from the civilian's arm and then realizes the tortured man was a CIA operative. In the dirt, the operative had scrawled a clue: “MAMBA”.

Carter telephones AXE's David Hawk to report his findings, including the message and the murder of the CIA man. Hawk asks Carter to investigate, and this leads to a whirlwind of action as Carter teams with a mysterious band of aged fighters, a leftover WW2 French brigade that's part gangster, part thief and part hero. The narrative's focal point is Carter's investigation of multiple thefts of American aid. Who's stealing the supplies destined for the Ethiopian people? Who are the thieves selling the aid to? The clues all point to a grand army of mercenaries operating in Africa under the name The Black Mamba Brigade.

I'm not one to flock to the Killmaster series, but there's no denying Dennis Lynds is a tremendous talent. He goes to great lengths to really push this novel into a sweeping, epic adventure. Carter's weary alliance with the resistance group kept me fully engaged, including his love interest with fighting beauty Chantal. With a nearly nonstop action approach, Lynds propels the team throughout Africa while fighting jailers, mercenaries, Ethiopian soldiers and the criminal network. While the climactic finish retained some pulp flavor, it wasn't completely over the top theatrics.

If you are new to the series, or just simply a casual fan like myself, seek out the Dennis Lynds series novels. You won't be disappointed.

Dennis Lynds:

91: The N3 Conspiracy (1974)
103: The Green Wolf Connection (1976)
113: Triple Cross (1976)
206: The Execution Exchange (1985)
211: Mercenary Mountain (1986)
213: The Cyclops Conspiracy (1986)
215: The Samurai Kill (1986)
219: The Master Assassin (1986)
222: Blood of the Falcon (1987)

Gale Lynds:

190: Day of the Mahdi
194: The Mayan Connection
199: Pursuit of the Eagle
203: White Death 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Raker #01 - Raker

Have you ever started a men’s adventure paperback just knowing it’s going to suck? The ‘Raker’ series was a failed, two-books outing from Pinnacle published in 1982 under the pseudonym of Don Scott. The actual author was Lee Hays, whose prior claim to fame was writing TV tie-in novels for ‘Columbo’ and ‘The Partridge Family,’ so he must have thought that landing an original Pinnacle series was his ticket to the big time.

The cover art for the paperback did nothing to instill confidence as it depicts a very Aryan looking Raker exchanging gunfire with black people under the tag-line, “The American Hero Who Believes in America First.” Presumably, the lady with the bullet headed for her Afro is from Canada or Sweden. The plot synopsis on the back did little to assuage the sickening feeling as I opened the big-font, humongous margins, 185-page novel.

Raker works for a shadowy organization called The Company - sometimes called The Department - in New York City. It’s not clear if this is a governmental entity or a private outfit. He receives his assignments and a briefcase full of cash with an unnecessary level of spy tradecraft. The current assignment is to investigate the ambush murders of several police officers across the nation over the past five months. All of the murders have occurred in black neighborhoods, so at least we are starting with a promising lead. Raker’s job is to investigate the killings and neutralize the almost certainly black threat.

The author may or may not have been personally a bigot, but he sure wrote a book for that audience. In Raker’s universe, the “coloreds” live like animals. A wrong number to Raker’s phone sounds like a “fruit,” and Raker imagines the caller wearing a tight t-shirt, a bracelet, and an earring. On his commute to work, Raker notices a “Jap with a camera.” Chinese-Americans are “chinks” and probably reds. Raker is basically Archie Bunker meets Charles Bronson. Could this have been intended as parody? Somehow I doubt it. Parody books have some element of fun, and “Raker” is just a loathsome drag.

Raker does have a college-educated - Harvard, in fact - black man who serves as his partner or informant - the business relationship isn’t clear. His name is Lawson, and it’s explained to the reader that he’s a real Oreo - black on the outside but white on the inside. Lawson is the perfect partner for Raker because he can “talk black, speak jive” but otherwise he’s without black “speech, gait, or behavior.” Lawson’s theory is that the police assassinations are the work of the Black Liberation Army (BLA), and Raker tells him to hit the streets and uncover the truth. A better author would have made the BLA thing a red herring and developed a clever twist at the end, but that would have involved way too much effort for the untalented Mr. Hays.

Raker is a badass, and the reader is reminded of this fact several times in the first few chapters. If I were writing the book, I might have shown the reader how tough and cool Raker is by having him do some tough and cool stuff, but that’s not how this author rolls. In order to anticipate the time and location of the next cop killing, Raker does some guesswork coupled with social engineering in which he places some calls to police stations pretending to be a black man while talking like Amos-n-Andy.

The novel is essentially a parade of liberal and minority strawmen for Raker to hate and occasionally kill. A flashback to his college years depicts anti-war protestors as flag burning domestic terrorists looking to “off some pigs” and smoke reefer. All this is done without the gentle nuance and subtlety that William W. Johnstone’s ghost writers bring to the right-wish fulfillment school of men’s adventure fiction.

Here’s the thing: even if “Raker” wasn’t filled with tone-deaf racial tropes, the paperback would still suck. The action sequences were lame and tired, and the pacing of the novel was an abomination. Raker spends the majority of the paperback driving around, meeting with potential sources with pages upon pages of talk, talk, talk to fill out this paltry, crappy book. Every now and then, he gets to break a mugger’s arm, but those scenes felt like they were added in later drafts to appease Pinnacle editors dumb enough to pay Mr. Hays for an action novel.

“Raker” was easily the worst book I’ve ever read to completion. We read a lot of cheesy, bad books at Paperback Warrior, but I can’t recall one as joyless as this piece of literary excrement. There was a sequel published - also in 1982 - called “Raker #2: Tijuana Traffic.” However, I’d rather jog home from my own vasectomy than read a single word of it. You’re on your own.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Spenser #02 - God Save the Child

The debut 'Spenser' novel, "The Godwulf Manuscript", was released in 1973. The series launched a successful career for author and creator Robert B. Parker. With a spotlight on private eye Spenser, the author used traditional genre tropes but shifted the setting from Southern California to the Boston metropolis. Parker followed up the debut in 1974 with the series second installment, "God Save the Child".

Like “The Godwulf Manuscript”, its successor follows the gumshoe formula of Spenser accepting and investigating a theft. Instead of a valuable manuscript, the prize is a wealthy couple's son. 15 year-old Kevin Bartlett is missing and his parents hire Spenser to locate the boy. With a $500 retainer and a $100 daily fee, Spenser accepts the case and immediately hits a brick wall. The Bartlets seemingly know very little about Kevin and have sacrificed parenting to chase other goals. Kevin's mother is an alcoholic who chases men by hosting lavish parties. Her husband is a workaholic and generally dismisses the dysfunctional family to pursue more wealth.

Spenser strikes up a relationship with Kevin's guidance counselor, Susan Silverman, a love interest that will stay consistent as the series continues. Susan feels Kevin has gender identification issues and has an unsupported upbringing. As Spenser chases clues, a ransom note appears asking for $50,000 to return the boy safely. Once the family provides the funds, strange, macabre packages arrive hinting that Kevin may have been murdered. It is this turning point that propels the narrative into a more complex criminal investigation. Spenser aids the police and family while aligning with another series mainstay, Lieutenant Healey.

What I enjoy about Spenser, and Parker's writing style, is triumphant in this second installment: the over-indulgent, yet entertaining blend of sarcasm and humor that defines the character. With the familiar genre necessities – mystery, intrigue, love and sure-fire luck – Parker succeeds once again with an addictive, enjoyable thrill-ride for mystery readers.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 14, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 15

Welcome to our western-themed episode of Paperback Warrior. Eric visits through Half-Price Books' flagship store in Dallas as well as a diverse local shop called Lucky Dog. Tom presents a feature on the Adult Western genre as well as a review for "Epitaph for a Tramp.” Eric covers the first installment of "The Trailsman" and hangs out with Paperback Warrior's number one fan. (Music by Bensound) Stream below or anywhere where quality podcasts are offered. Download directly at: LINK Listen to "Episode 15: Adult Westerns" on Spreaker.

Malko #02 - Operation New York

The Malko spy series (known in France as the S.A.S. series) lasted for exactly 200 installments published between the years 1965 and 2013. The paperbacks were written in French by Gerard de Villiers and have been translated into several languages with 120 million copies in print. A dozen of the early installments were translated and published by Pinnacle in the 1970s with a new numbering scheme. Pinnacle’s Malko #2 from 1973 was “Operation New York,” originally released in 1968 as S.A.S. #11.

Malko Linge is a Harvard-educated Austrian prince who accepts espionage assignments from the American CIA to generate income for the renovation and restoration of his family’s royal castle in Austria. The opening scene in “Operation New York” is too awesome to spoil here. In general, Malko is accused of being a former Nazi war criminal and death camp administrator during WW2. The accusers have compelling proof that Malko is actually the Nazi fugitive Rudi Guern, and none of Malko’s words will change their mind.

In order to get to the bottom of the matter, Malko flies to Europe to gather information about the real Nazi which only seems to muddy the waters and amplify the suspicion that Malko and Guern are the same man. Despite the title, the overwhelming majority of the paperback takes place in Europe, not New York, as Malko investigates the life and possible whereabouts of Guern. While seeking witnesses or other substantive proof that he and the the Nazi are not one in the same man, he attracts the attention of actual Nazis and actual Nazi hunters.

One of the fun literary tricks de Villiers employs in his Malko books is the use of real people as fictionalized characters in the novels. One Pinnacle paperback has Henry Kissinger playing a sizable role and one of the later installments available as a reprint from Mysterious Press features Vladimir Putin as a significant character. In “Operation New York”, Malko interacts with holocaust survivor and real-life Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal in a particularly cool scene.

The action and violence in “Operation New York” is outstanding. The story never has time to get dull, and the author dreams up some very cool spy stuff that I’ve never read before. Even the basic plot of hunting a fugitive Nazi to prove you’re not the guy is a pretty darn innovative plot in a genre filled with retreads. This second adventure is another straight-up winner, and I’m going to be really bummed when I run out of English-language editions of this fantastic series. Malko is the real deal.

Fun Fact:

The Malko books remain in print in Italy under the series name “Segretissimo.” I just really like the sound of that.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, October 11, 2019

Brand of the Bullet

Orlando Rigoni (1897-1987), born in Utah, was a prolific author who contributed over 1,000 short stories to magazines and newspapers. Working in railroading, construction, mining and the Forest Service within California's Central Coast, Rigoni used his life experiences to fuel his writing. Under his own name, as well as pseudonyms including Leslie Ames, Carolyn Bell and James Wesley, the author penned several hundred novels in the war, detective, western and romance genres. My first sample of Rigoni's work is a 1970 paperback from Magnum Books entitled “Brand of the Bullet.”

The novel features interim US Marshall Mike Foster as the chief protagonist. Foster is a third generation lawman who hesitantly dons the badge in pursuit of a wanted criminal named Brag Cody. The outlaw escaped from the Rimrock jail, crippling Foster's father and killing the jailer. Trailing Cody to the town of Picaro, Foster and his longtime friend Buck find the town's saloon burning and a number of people dead. Discovering a scorched belt buckle with the initials B.C., Foster assumes Cody died in the fire.

Within a half-day's ride is Foster's extended family, including his cousin Carla. Making a quick stop, Foster learns that his family is mired in a bloody range war with the notorious Devlin clan. Like traditional western fare, the conflict stems from water and who owns the flow. Foster's family wants to dam the river, drying out the Devlins and forcing them to flee. However, it isn't that easy and soon Foster finds himself in the fight while learning more about Brag Cody's accomplice, Billy Childers.

Rigoni's action sequences are enjoyable, but nothing remarkable. “Brand of the Bullet” suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen, an overabundance of characters that don't play huge roles within the story. Due to that major flaw, the plot simply sinks into a convoluted mess that detracts from the action. My other complaint is that the author struggles writing engaging dialogue. However, he proves that there is plenty of reserved talent. For example, I love this portion of text in the opening pages:

“Mike was a lawman's son, raised in the shadow of the jail, haunted by the gaunt outline of the gallows, and burdened with a fear only the men who stand in the no-man's land between crime and the law can know.”

It's an impressive hint that Rigoni surely has better books. However...“Brand of the Bullet” sets a low bar.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Spiral Web

Jeffrey M. Wallman wrote two installments of the ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ series and a bunch of novels in the popular ‘Lone Star’ adult westerns series starring a horny female gunslinger and her kung-fu sidekick. He even produced some short Mike Shayne mysteries using the Brett Halliday pseudonym. Under his own name, he authored paperbacks in the historical romance, sword & sorcery, and western genres. This, however, is a review of his 1969 mystery-espionage stand-alone paperback, “The Spiral Web.”

Our narrator is Mike Faron, who is rudely awakened in his apartment by two gunmen in Silk City, New Jersey whom he escapes by running stark naked into a police patrol car parked outside. Silk City is presented as a festering and corrupt slum borne of apathy and neglect. Faron also has a chip on his shoulder against the police relating to some mistreatment he suffered years ago. Today, Faron is a management consultant who has returned to his hometown to help his war buddy’s new business get off the ground. The company is an international courier business that services defense contractors in the greater New York City area needing to securely move documents from one place to another (This was evidently a thing before PDFs.)

One thing leads to another, and Faron finds himself falsely accused of the double murder of two women - one is a courier in his pal’s business and the other is her neighbor. His alibi is weak, and the police feel strongly they’ve got the right guy. As you’d expect, Faron gives the cops the slip and escapes with the pressing need to solve the murder himself to clear his name. If you guessed that he falls in with a capable and buxom beauty who’s willing to help him investigate the matter, you’d be right. And if you think you’ve read this storyline many times before, you’re pretty much right again.

Okay, so the basic plot is cribbed from dozens of other tales of the wrongfully-accused men on the lam. Does the author at least do some interesting things with this tired template? Not really. The “courier of top-secret documents” thing was too obviously a planted plot point early in the novel for it not to be the crux of the mystery’s ultimate solution.

Wallman’s prose is dialogue-heavy and the action moves along at a fast clip. Although the paperback is a hefty 205 pages, the font is top-of-an-eye-chart huge, so it never feels like too much of a slog. It’s not a particularly bad novel, but it’s also nothing special or particularly worth your time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Watchmaker of Everton (aka The Clockmaker)

George Simenon (1903-1989) authored nearly 500 novels during his literary career. Simeon's most successful work was that of French police detective Jules Maigret. He authored 78 books starring the character, all in French with English translations by publisher Penguin Books. Unfamiliar with his writing, I decided on a popular stand-alone novel entitled “The Watchmaker of Everton.” The book was originally published in 1954 (in France as “L'horloger d'Everton”), but later was re-titled “The Clockmaker.” A 1974 French film adaptation was directed by Bertrand Tavernier.

Simenon introduces us to the fragile character of Dave Galloway, a watch repairman in upper New York. His life is quiet and uncomplicated – working in his small shop downstairs and residing in a small apartment above it. Dave spends most of his time as a single father caring for his 16-yr old son Ben. On Friday nights, he plays backgammon with his elderly friend Musak.

One Friday evening, Dave returns from Musak's house to find that Ben has left. After examining the apartment, Dave learns that Ben took his personal belongings, a suitcase, and Dave's car. Fearing that Ben is headed for trouble, Dave's passive behavior is to simply wait for news of Ben's whereabouts. When Dave talks with a nearby neighbor, he learns that a teen love interest also ran away with Ben.

The middle of the narrative focuses on recollections about Dave and Ben's childhood and the abandonment by Dave's wife when Ben was just six-months old. After these recollections, Dave is notified by police that Ben is a prime suspect in a murder and carjacking. Is Ben innocent? Why did he leave his father? These are some of the plot points addressed and resolved in the novel's last 40-pages.

While Simenon is a good enough writer, “The Clockmaker” has no plot development. There's nothing here resembling a well planned story. It's just simply a character study without a coherent storyline. A father waiting on his delinquent son to be located, arrested and placed on trial is the shallow depth Simenon was willing to wade? There's one addition here regarding Simenon's father and grandfather, but it isn't as engaging as the author predicted.

Perhaps Simenon's other work is something riveting and definitive. However, “The Clockmaker” is not. Buyer beware. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Fannin #1: Epitaph for a Tramp

Before experimental, avant-garde novelist David Markson (1927-2010) became a highly-regarded Greenwich Village literary figure, he wrote two hardboiled noir paperbacks for Dell starring private investigator Harry Fannin. The novels were “Epitaph for a Tramp” (1959) and “Epitaph for a Dead Beat” (1961). The books have been reprinted several times and even compiled together, but neither have been legally digitized for Kindle as of this writing.

“Epitaph for a Tramp” (also released as “Fannin” for a 1974 Unibook reprint) is narrated by Fannin, a former University of Michigan halfback, former newspaperman, former U.S. Army soldier and current private detective living a sweaty and lonely existence in a Manhattan fleabag apartment with his books. One sleepless night at 3:30 a.m., Fannin is greeted to his door buzzer ringing. The uninvited guest is his estranged ex-wife Cathy, whom he hasn’t seen in a year. Upon arrival, she collapses into his arms and dies moments later from a stab wound in her chest. Client or no client, Fannin now has a murder to solve.

We quickly learn that Cathy was no angel during their marriage. She was, in fact, the kind of tramp you’d mention in a paperback book title. I won’t spoil the details but the flashback chapter detailing the trajectory of the marriage between Fannin and Cathy was a helluva ride unto itself and makes the reader want to know more about this girl. The good news is that Fannin also wants the facts, and the reader is along for the ride.

Fannin is a thinking-man’s hardboiled private eye. He makes with the funny wisecracks (like Shell Scott) and genre tough guy talk (like Mike Hammer), but he’s also smart as hell and drops a lot of literary references along the way - T.S. Elliot and Dashiell Hammett among them. The good news is that none of this gets overly pedantic, nor does it get in the way of a great story.

Some of the characters Fannin encounters are drawn with some rough stereotypes that likely wouldn’t fly today. I always enjoy those moments in classic fiction because they help measure the passage of time and the changes in attitude over the past 60 years. If consumed correctly, books like this can be a valuable time capsule of social norms. However, if you require contemporary politeness to fictional characters in vintage paperbacks, “Epitaph for a Tramp” probably isn’t for you.

It’s also a violent read. A character gets tied to a chair in and burned with a lit cigarette. There are quite a few graphic beatings as Fannin stalks the New York streets in search of the bad decisions that led to Cathy’s fatal stabbing. The author clearly took the template of Mickey Spillane’s successful Mike Hammer series and turned the volume up to 11 with an extra twist at the end. It’s both a mystery and a vendetta story, and it’s one of the finest novels I’ve read this year - a highly recommended, absolute must-read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 7, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 14

Join us for a controversial discussion on authors who utilize ghostwriters to draft series novels under house names. Also, we look at the 1955 crime-noir "A Cry in the Night" by the tandem of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. We also dig into the 1988 men's action novel "Houston Hellground" (Avenger #2) by Chet Cunningham. Stream below or anywhere that streams good podcasts. Also download it directly (LINK).

Listen to "Episode 14: Ghostwriters" on Spreaker.

Wolf Moon

From pseudonyms like E.J. Gorman, Daniel Ransom and Robert David Chase, Edward Gorman's body of literary work is rather diverse. From horror to crime, action to western, Gorman's career was prolific and varied, producing over 60 novels. Along with the four-book frontier series 'Guild', many fans also choose the stand-alone western “Wolf Moon” as one of his finest.

Gorman's passion for crime-noir is clearly evident in this violent western tale. Despite it's turn-of-the-century setting, the author utilizes many genre tropes to propel this gritty narrative forward. While readers enjoy the paperback’s melancholic prose - draped over characters like a bed sheet - I'm entranced by Gorman's talents to weave a simple plot into such a grandiose spectacle. By the book's fiery finale – the gnashing of teeth in a fog of gunsmoke – the story feels much bigger than it really is.

Young Chase is first introduced to readers as a southeastern hayseed plow-boy. His brothers Don and Glen conspire with a bank manager named Schroeder to rob his bank and split the money. Chase tags along to help his brothers, only to watch Schroeder double-cross the gang and fatally shoot Chase’s brothers. Making off with the cash, Schroeder leaves Chase to become ensnared by the authorities.

The novel's early portion focuses on Chase's 12-years in prison, a grueling, graphic account of utter brutality. During that time, Chase keeps a tender correspondence with his childhood sweetheart, Gillian. Shortly after learning that the unmarried Gillian moved to a western town named Rock Ridge, Chase is officially freed. After a rewarding reunion with Gillian, Chase settles into civilian life and begins building for the future.

After taking a deputy job working for notorious Sheriff Hollister (no background checks then), Chase discovers that Schroeder, using the guise of a wealthy businessman named Reeves, is now managing a bank in Rock Ridge. Wanting revenge for the loss of his freedom and brothers, Chase must balance life on a triple beam. Will he settle into his new life or possibly jeopardize his new family's safety by seeking retribution?

Gorman poignantly presents the classic western tale – traditionally simple and effective. Yet, portions of the narrative expand into the story of an aging wolf, a character that retains a larger role in Chase's life. Like good crime-noir, elements such as the bank heist, double-cross, love interest and gunplay are consuming and important. Additionally, by setting the paperback at the turn of the 20th century, the author incorporates the smells of burning oil and telephone wires to add a more modern touch.

While certainly not flawless, Gorman crafts his westerns in a way that no one else can. “Wolf's Moon” maintains stark traditionalism, and for that reason the average western fans will embrace it. But seasoned, well experienced genre readers will appreciate the fact that Gorman provides some fresh footprints while treading familiar ground.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Pigskin Bag

Bruno Fischer (1908-1992) was a crime fiction author who, in a more just world, would be better known today because his books were consistently great. Case in point: “The Pigskin Bag.” The short novel began its life in 1946 when it was published in “Mercury Mystery” for 25 cents. It later achieved life as a hardcover and several iterations of paperbacks, including the 1955 Dell edition pictured here. Sadly, it has not been released legally as an eBook, so you’re stuck with paper if you want to read it.

Adam Breen, our sarcastic narrator, is a car salesman and U.S. Army vet living and working in Brooklyn. One evening, he notices a small pigskin suitcase on the backseat floor of the vehicle his wife has been driving. The bag is locked, and it’s heavy as hell as Adam lugs it inside his modest townhome. Upon arrival, his wife is acting suspicious as all hell. What the heck is going on here?

That’s the central question of the paperback. I won’t spoil the wife’s incredible story about how the pigskin bag wound up in the car, but it begs a lot more questions. Fortunately, we are in good hands with Bruno Fischer guiding us though the quickly-unfolding mysteries of the bag and it’s mysterious contents. Everyone wants the damn thing, and some are willing to kill for it.

Of course, the cops don’t buy Adam’s innocent bystander routine. They think he knows what’s inside the bag and where it’s stashed. As often happens in noir novels of this nature, it’s incumbent on Adam to solve the mystery of the pigskin bag and the murders occurring in its wake to clear his own good name and resume his life.

There’s some great violence in this book - bone crunching, close-quarters, face smashing stuff. However, there is no vintage paperback sex because it was written in 1946 before sex was invented. “The Pigskin Bag” (the novel, not the satchel) does contain way too many characters, and I needed a cheat sheet to keep all the cops, crooks, and red herrings straight.

At the novel’s conclusion, we get to learn what’s inside the McGuffin - I mean pigskin bag, - as well as who committed the murders, and what all the fuss was about. It was a satisfying ending to a satisfying mystery paperback. Perhaps it wasn’t a masterpiece of the genre - or even among Fischer’s greatest hits - but if you can find a copy cheap and want to kill a couple hours, you’ll certainly enjoy “The Pigskin Bag.”

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Joy House

Gunnard R. Hjertstedt is better known as the prolific crime-noir author Day Keene. As one of Florida’s Gulf Coast writers, Keene enjoyed the company of neighbors and friends like Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer and Talmage Powell. Keene also enjoyed a successful literary career that featured over 50 novels and a seemingly endless supply of short stories. Stark House Press has preserved the author's legacy by releasing a number of his novels to modern audiences. In 2017, the publisher released an important trade paperback featuring three of his beloved works - “Sleep with the Devil”, “Wake Up to Murder” and “Joy House”. The subject of this review is the last title, “Joy House”. The other two titles have previously been reviewed right here on Paperback Warrior.

There's a great backstory on “Joy House” in the Stark House reprint by crime fiction academic David Laurence Wilson. In his introduction, Wilson provides an interesting timeline for the novel. It seems to have been written in 1952, originally titled “House of Evil”, then heavily edited and re-titled as “Joy House” before being published by Lion Books in 1954. However, the novel's premise was outlined in a short story, “She Shall Make Murder”, for pulp magazine called Detective Tales in 1949. Since then, it's been re-printed by the likes of Lancer and Gallimard as well as being adapted for film in 1964 starring a young Jane Fonda.

Written in the familiar first-person presentation, the novel introduces us to a complex character named Mark Harris. At one time, Harris was a prominent attorney to the stars in Los Angeles. After marrying Marie, and acquiring a criminal brother-in-law, Harris' posh lifestyle comes to a crumbling halt. After an unspeakable act of violence, Harris flees Los Angeles as a wanted man. Cold and penniless, the downtrodden Harris finds a rest stop at a mission in Chicago. There, a beautiful, wealthy woman named May Hill is drawn to him. After learning about her own mysterious behavior, Harris learns that he may be offered a male prostitute role in May's life. Feeling as though he would need to crawl up to just hit rock bottom, Harris accepts a paying job as May's “chauffeur”.

Once May, and her maid retrieve Harris from the mission, they instruct him to drive back to May's residence in a seedy part of Chicago. Shockingly, May is worth millions yet lives in a boarded up house in the ghetto. Harris, knowing he's selling his manhood, accepts his fate in this strange sexual alliance. However, once inside, the house is lavish and features all of modern society's most luxurious accessories. Why is she living like a poor recluse? What are the strange noises upstairs? Who's laughing in the hallways at night? This macabre tale spirals into madness in typical Day Keene fashion.

“Joy House” is nearly presented as this Gothic haunted house tale. Keene kept me guessing until the very end with a unique use of atmosphere – isolation in Chicago. The house itself is like the fourth character, wholly charismatic and a pivotal piece of both the narrative and title. As Harris settles into his new role as May's lover, the book takes on a sexual tone that pushes the boundaries for a 1950s crime paperback. Like Jim Thompson, Keene offers us one, if not two, fairly despicable characters and winds the tension to see which will pop. The build-up to May's revelation is seductive, and the complexity in Harris' past life creates a whirlwind of taut suspense. Needless to say...I was hooked.

“Joy House” is a noir stand-out and the best of the three titles offered in this 2017 collection. You won't be disappointed. Purchase a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Sam Watchman #01 - Relentless

Author David Morrell's 1972 action-thriller “First Blood” was a runaway hit, eventually adapted to film in 1982 and kick-starting the 'Rambo' franchise that's still thriving today. Attempting overnight success, many authors and publishers exploited the idea and began releasing similar novels featuring wilderness pursuits, small town sheriffs and ex-military survivalists. As good as author Brian Garfield is, I've got solid evidence that his 1973 Fawcett Gold Medal novel “Relentless” may have been imitating the “First Blood” literary phenomenon.

Navajo Native American Sam Watchman patrols a 150 mile stretch of rural Arizona with his white partner Sam Stevens. The two receive a call that the nearest town, San Miguel, has experienced a bank heist and Watchman's friend has been killed. The five robbers escape town using a plane, but end up crashing in the Utah mountains during a blizzard. Watchman, Stevens and an FBI agent named Vickers journey into the rugged, frosty wilderness to capture them.

Garfield's presentation is through Watchman and the kindhearted criminal Walker via alternating chapters. The narrative explores Walker's criminal history and how he's involved with a band of ex-Green Berets and $900K in stolen cash. Less is known about Watchman, but the author takes an easy path by creating a riff between the local Watchman and the “city slicker FBI know-it-all” Vickers. Watchman is a lovable, capable and valid hero, yet a lot of emphasis is placed on his unending confrontation with Vickers.

The “First Blood” connection is fairly easy. Walker and the criminals, all ex-military, are the hunted prey instead of Rambo. The “First Blood” small town corrupt sheriff Teasle is noble Navajo State Trooper Watchman. Rambo's intelligent, cunning and somewhat sympathetic Colonel Trautman is the arrogant, foolish FBI agent Vickers. The characters and setting is emulated, just shuffled with reverse roles.

So, the question I ask myself: Is the book enjoyable knowing the author is borrowing from “First Blood”? The answer is a resounding YES!

“Relentless” is a high-speed pursuit complete with rugged adventure, violence, emotional distress and psychological suspense. The tension between Walker and the cutthroats is managed at just the right level, stretching the puppet strings between the characters and their  own moral decency. Further, Vickers and Watchman's psychological warfare is an intense chess match that helps deepen the story-line of “country bumpkin versus city slicker”. The action-adventure genre tropes are well established – blizzard, high adventure, plane crashes, car chases, bank robberies, guns and a damsel in distress. It's a playbook that Brian Garfield uses to elevate this simple heist novel into an effective action-thriller.

There are plenty of “First Blood” impostors - some good and some bad. Hell, David Morrell borrowed the concept from Geoffrey Household's 1939 novel “Rogue Male”. Is anything truly original besides “Beowulf”? Probably not. But that shouldn't keep you from enjoying a popcorn paperback like “Relentless”. The novel was adapted as a CBS made-for-television movie in 1977 and Garfield wrote a 1974 sequel starring Sam Watchman - “The Threepersons Hunt”. Both of these novels are still in print today and also exist in ebook format.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Some Die Hard

Stephen Mertz is a highly-respected author of men's action adventure, mystery and crime novels. As a prodigy of genre great Don Pendleton, Mertz penned a number of 'The Executioner' titles as well as creating action-oriented series' like 'M.I.A. Hunter' and 'Cody's Army'. His first novel, "Some Die Hard," was written in 1975. After an exhaustive search for a publishing deal, the book finally made print in 1979 via Manor Books, a popular producer of genre fare in the 70s. It was re-printed by Rough Edges Press in 2014 with bonus content providing an exclusive backstage peek at Mertz's negotiation with Manor and subsequent frustrations with the publishing house. That version is out of print now.

"Some Die Hard" was written under the pseudonym of Stephen Brett. Mertz later revealed the reason for this pen name comes from his love of Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser) and the 'Mike Shayne' mystery series. This speaks volumes considering "Some Die Hard" is a perfect homage to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. In essence, Mertz offers a unique presentation of a traditional locked-room mystery. This impossible crime follows the genre formula - murder, follow the clues, line up the suspects and name the killer. Mertz goes as far as name-checking some of his influences in the book - Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen and hard-boiled master Mickey Spillane.

The novel's main character is Dugan, a private investigator who is swept into a murder mystery from the vantage point of a warm bus seat. After witnessing a fellow passenger's death in the street while running from assailants, Dugan finds some intriguing photos of gambling markers stuffed inside of his old paperback. Before his death, the deceased obviously knew there was trouble and left behind a valuable clue for Dugan to discover. Mertz quickly sews the threads to connect the murdered man with the next intended victim, a wealthy architect named Carlander Court.

After taking a job from Court's daughter Susan, Dugan becomes enmeshed within the family's dynamic - attorney, attorney's fragile wife, assistant, doctor and the two heirs to the fortune - Susan and Tommy. In the "daddy's dying, who's got the will" narrative, Dugan learns that Tommy owes $15,000 in gambling debts to the dangerous Zucco. Tommy has now found himself on the outs with his terminally-ill father. His reckless lifestyle of gambling and promiscuity has led Court to re-evaluate his will. His artistic daughter, Susan, has proven to be the best benefactor, and after years of neglect, he has established a healthier relationship with her. As such, she will be the sole heir, leaving Tommy empty-handed. Dugan learns all of this from Court with an intriguing plot development - Tommy will be written out of the will the next day. Court fears that Tommy or Zucco will attempt to kill him that night to preserve the inheritance. If Tommy's omitted from the will, he receives nothing and Zucco's debts will remain unpaid. Court's death prior to the signing of the new will allows Tommy the inheritance as originally planned. 

Surely this is quite a murder mystery. Without giving too much away, Court is indeed murdered that night at a birthday party ripe with guests, family and friends. It's an impossible crime that Dugan must solve despite Zucco and Tommy's interference. Who's the culprit and how does the vast fortune connect the victim to the killer? All of this is masterfully orchestrated by Mertz, again clearly utilizing his literary influences while still maintaining his own identity.

Set in Langdon Springs, Colorado, Mertz wrote this first novel while living in Durango. The mountain town was populated by starving artists and the impact of that environment is apparent in "Some Die Hard.". I'd also speculate that the author takes some liberties by denigrating the wealthy. He's quick to criticize the wealthy lifestyle and, while not directly, uses it as a character trait to define the Court family as pompous. Mertz admits this time of his life was one of financial hardship, stating he had 54 cents to his name the day the book contract arrived. 

Overcoming adversity, Mertz was passionate about books and writing and maintained a consistent presence within the industry for decades. I'm not sure there is another Mertz book like this one. While I haven't read all of his work, I can steadfastly say that this surely has to be one of his best. It's a literary pursuit quite different from his violent novels written about vigilantes, soldiers and mercenaries. All of those are certainly entertaining and deserve praise, but "Some Die Hard" is truly exceptional. Do yourself a favor and hunt this book down.