Monday, December 23, 2019

No Room at the Inn

American author Bill Pronzini has written over 40 novels for his private eye series 'Nameless Detective.’ Beginning in 1971, Pronzini focused his efforts on anthologies and short fiction, contributing hundreds of short stories to magazines like “Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine” while compiling over 100 collections. Along with his 'Nameless Detective' novels, Pronzini's body of work features over 35 stand-alone novels and a number of pseudonyms including Jack Foxx, William Hart Davis and Alex Saxon.

One of Pronzini's most interesting creations is the characters of John Frederick Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter. From my deep dive, the first 'Quincannon' appearance seems to be the 1985 “Quincannon” novel that introduces both characters. There we learn that Quincannon is a former U.S. Secret Service agent who's turned private detective after murdering a young woman and her child with a stray bullet. Teaming with love interest Carpenter, the two operate out of 1890s San Francisco and accept various jobs that conveniently propels a number of sub-genre narratives – locked room puzzles, whodunit sleuths, mystery, western and adventure. It's fertile ground to harvest a number of series installments.

There are dozens of Quincannon short stories stemming from the character's debut novel and it's follow-up “Beyond the Grave”, co-written with Pronzini's wife Marcia Muller in 1986. The marital collaboration has created eight more novels in the series and a fantasy-styled “reboot” to provide more international intrigue. My first sampling of Quincannon is the 1988 short story “No Room at the Inn,” which originally appeared in the Harper Collins mystery compilation “Crime at Christmas.”

Pronzini's rich attention to detail saturates this holiday themed short. Atmospheric, mysterious and eerie, “No Room at the Inn” places lone Quincannon high in the Sierra Nevada during a Christmas Eve blizzard. Guided by the full moon's light while riding a rented horse, Quincannon is on the trail of Slick Henry, a counterfeiter who specializes in mining stock. Henry is a confidence trickster, ascending through the ranks of the most notorious and dangerous criminal lists of 1894. Quincannon has accepted a $5,000 assignment to nab Henry for the West Coast Banking Association.

Fearing for his own safety in the storm, Quincannon begins losing hope in tracking Henry through the high foliage and decides to concentrate his efforts on survival. Miraculously, Quincannon rides into a small, seemingly abandoned community for shelter. Once there, he finds that people have gone missing in the midst of dinner. Further, there's still horses in the barn as if the township left on foot in the storm. Once the first body is discovered, the novel quickly moves from western to sleuth as our main character discovers the whereabouts of Henry...and his motives.

Pronzini proves that his storytelling talents were certainly diversified. “No Room at the Inn” is immensely enjoyable both as a western and a dark thriller. Never reading Quincannon before, this introductory, early short story certainly has my attention. I'm looking for more of this character in the future.

Note - “No Room at the Inn” can be found in Pronzini's Leisure compilation entitled “Burgade's Crossing” (2004). Despite the misleading artwork, the compilation is strictly a Quincannon theme featuring eight total shorts from sources including “Louis L'Amour Western Magazine,” “Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,” and Pronzini's own compilation “Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services.” For an easy, affordable introduction to the character, track this old paperback down. It's well worth your time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Catch the Brass Ring

Stephen Marlowe (born Milton Lesser, 1928-2008) is best known for his series of private-eye novels featuring Chester Drum. Along with notable science-fiction work, Lesser authored over 20 stand-alone novels. My introduction to the writer is his first work under the pen name Stephen Marlowe, the 1954 Ace paperback “Catch the Brass Ring”.

Gideon Frey is an Army veteran fresh off of a violent tour in the Korean War. Fighting side by side, Frey had struck up a close bond with fellow soldier Bert Arthur. Near the end of service, Bert offered Frey a job when they returned stateside. As “Catch the Brass Ring” opens, readers learn that Frey has just arrived at a Coney Island amusement park called Tolliver's. Only instead of a warm welcome from the owner Bert, he finds police cars, an ambulance...and a body bag.

Marlowe attempts to keep readers engaged by running two plots simultaneously. The first involves Frey's investigation into his friend's murder. His suspects range from two gay massage therapists (readers will need to overlook the historical stereotypes), a bizarre pizzeria owner, a hot female employee and Bert's mourning girlfriend Karen. On the suspect list himself, Frey also must contend with the local cops who are quick to point fingers at a new stranger in town.

The second story-line is a sensual love triangle as Frey falls for a beautiful heiress named Allison. She's worth a fortune thanks to her wealthy, blind husband Gregory (think of Anna Nicole Smith's old sugar daddy). But, Allison is a nympho and demands sex at the most impromptu times. In one hilarious scene, Frey and Allison make love on a small boat with the blind Gregory just a few feet away! Frey is torn between his heated desire for Allison and Bert's grieving girlfriend Karen, who turns to Frey for sexual healing.

For argument's sake, this is really just a romance novel with a crime thrown in. I think the cover speaks volumes and conveys the above sentiment. I'd speculate that most buyers weren't reading only crime-fiction, especially considering the “Stephen Marlowe” name would have been unfamiliar at this point in time. There's a second-rate murder mystery, but it's just not very interesting. Those plot points are few and far between and are just fodder to keep Frey jumping from Karen to Allison and back again.

Overall, crime-fiction fans can stay clear of this one. I caught the “brass ring” and wasn't terribly impressed.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Dust in the Heart

New York Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman (founders of Brash Books) have remained steadfast in their preservation of the Ralph Dennis body of work. Dennis, a South Carolina native, was born in 1931, received a masters at the University of North Carolina and produced a steady stream of fine fiction that mostly went unnoticed by mainstream readers. Passing away in 1988, Brash Books has rekindled the fire for many of Dennis' published work, including the 12 installments of the 1970s hardboiled series 'Hardman'. Along with re-editing and reprinting published novels like “Atlanta” (newly released as “The Broken Fixer”) and “MacTaggart's War (reprinted as “The War Heist”), Goldberg has discovered numerous unpublished manuscripts from the Dennis archives.

The most recent Brash Books project is a Ralph Dennis manuscript penned in the 1987-1988 time-frame. This is reflected in discouraging letters Dennis wrote to colleagues about the unsold work. “Dust in the Heart” is a different novel and avoids the pitfalls of the men's action-adventure paperbacks of the 70s. Like his other works, it is set in the southeastern U.S., but in a fictional North Carolina town rather than his go-to of Atlanta. That's not to say it doesn't possess the author's consistent ferocity. Indeed, “Dust in the Heart” is perhaps Dennis' most profoundly disturbing book due to the subject matter – a serial sex-killer preying on six year-old children. Dennis' use of sodden, rural fields, counterbalanced by a dark seedy strip club, envelops the flawed hero and the reader. It's upon this black canvas that Ralph Dennis outshines his prior efforts.

The novel's protagonist is Sheriff Wilton Drake, a former Navy sailor who found his life upended by a sniper bullet in Lebanon. The bullet not only shattered his hip but his marriage, too. After fifteen years and a lot of empty bottles, we now find Drake as the proverbial small-town badge in Edgefield, North Carolina. Drake's alcoholic desires are partnered with his obsession for Diane, a stripper working at The Blue Lagoon. The author sometimes uses these as handrails as Drake climbs through procedures, small-town politics and bureaucracy to solve a young girl's brutal rape and murder. It's here, in the rain where readers first discover Drake hunched over the girl's body. As the procedural narrative tightens, another child goes missing, pushing Drake and his department to find the killer before the next victim.

There's a number of elements that Ralph Dennis uses that may parallel his own career. As essentially his last literary work, “Dust in the Heart” has a number of references to things that are just outside the grasp. Drake's romantic feelings are within reach, but his relationship with Diane is challenging and cold. The investigation may reveal the killer, but it's too far of a reach for a conviction. Cleverly, Dennis even uses the weather, explaining that snowfall barely touches “Edgefield”, instead pocketing just west of Greensboro every winter. The author's idea of elements within sight but out of touch could be self-reflective of the author's commercial failures as a producer of popular fiction. There's even a side-story where Drake spars with an F.B.I. Agent for credit in the newspaper. These are all indicative of the author's career missteps and failings.

“Dust in the Heart” is an effective, smart police procedural starring a purposefully flawed hero. While certain genre tropes are familiar, the author's ominous prose is masterful. “Dust in the Heart” proves that even small-town America can be the most threatening. It's this cold, sinister approach that makes Ralph Dennis' final pen-stroke his most enduring legacy.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Girl Out Back

After his successful 1951 debut, “Hill Girl,” Charles Williams (1909-1975) went on to become one of the most respected crime-noir novelists in history. His penchant for rural small-town crime is enjoyable, especially with the sexy female accomplices his novels typically feature. Nothing exemplifies that more than his 1958 paperback original “Girl Out Back,” expanded from his 1957 novella, “Operator.”

30 year-old Barney Godwin is a complacent businessman in the small lake town of Wardlow. While he isn't fighting with his nagging wife Jessica, Barney runs a profitable bait and tackle shop. It's here where he first meets the luscious vixen Jewel, a woman equally complacent with her abusive husband. While paying for her husband's boat motors, Jessica pays Barney in new, crisp $20 bills which feature a red stain. Thinking nothing of it at the time, Barney is surprised when an FBI agent visits his store inquiring about unusual money in the area. It's here where Barney's life takes a tumble...he tells the agent he hasn't seen any uncommon currency.

Barney's infatuation with the memorable money is rivaled by his heated desire for Jewel. After learning some details about a recent bank heist, Barney begins to unravel the money mystery. He believes he knows the location of the stolen money, but his obstacles are Jewel's gruff husband and an old, backwoods recluse that's obsessed with pulp detective magazines. How they mix into the stolen loot is the bulk of this clever and engrossing narrative.

Without ruining this superb novel for you, “Girl Out Back” can be described as a tongue-in-cheek look at the pulp crime genre, including a few hilarious jabs at southern romance and plantation novels. Williams is a master of his domain, and it was interesting for me to read the author's commentary, through story, on the crowded 1950s crime-fiction genre. “Girl Out Back” delivers an intriguing mystery, a sensual beauty, and a tantalizing scheme for the average man to rise above suburban normalcy. It's a captivating triangle that could only be told by the high caliber talent of Charles Williams.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, December 16, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 24

It’s the end of the year and the last episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast for 2019. In celebration of our inaugural year, we are revisiting the greatest books we read this year along with lots of edgy vintage paperback talk. Stream below or at your favorite podcast provider for our “Best of 2019” extravaganza. Download directly HERE Listen to "Episode 24: Best of 2019" on Spreaker.


Murder in Room 13

Albert Conroy was a pseudonym used by Marvin Albert for much of his crime fiction and western paperback output during the 1950s through the 1970s. Sadly, most of his work hasn’t been reprinted and isn’t available digitally, so modern readers are left to pay collector prices for the old paperbacks with lurid covers. “Murder in Room 13” was a stand-alone mystery published as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original in September 1958.

Our narrator, Steve, is an ex-boxer and current trucker who meets Maude while passing through the seedy town of Riverton. Dinner with the beautiful stranger evolves into a one-night stand in Maude’s motel room - Room 13 from the title. After giving Maude the good pickle-tickle she desires, Steve leaves the sleeping nude behind in the motel and is arrested the next morning for her murder. And if you didn’t see that coming, you didn’t read the title.

Steve is whisked into a police interrogation room where he’s grilled by cops about what he supposedly did to Maude. Sometime after Steve left Room 13, Maude was beaten and strangled to death. Steve admits to having consensual sex with her that evening - she was alive at the time - but he maintains he didn’t kill the girl. Because of the overwhelming physical evidence against Steve, the cops aren’t buying his claims of innocence, and he is placed under even more intense pressure to confess. Of course, the opportunity arises for Steve to solve the crime himself to clear his good name, and Steve the boxer/trucker becomes a man-on-the-run investigating a serious homicide.

The basic plot of the innocent man accused of a murder he didn’t commit has been done a million times, but the author brings some new twists to the story throughout the lean 159 pages. There’s also a good bit of intense violence along the way and well-written, propulsive action. Overall, the paperback was a decent one written in a straightforward and compelling voice, and although Marvin Albert has done better, there’s plenty to enjoy in this fairly formulaic vintage paperback.

Fun Fact:

“Murder in Room 13” was adapted into a French TV movie called “Adieu is Marin!”

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, December 13, 2019

Strangers on Friday

Paperback Warrior is fertile ground for plenty of insight into Harry Whittington's literary work. A portion of his body of work has been released as digital reprints over the last two decades. Yet, there are so many paperback originals written by Whittington, or one of his many pseudonyms, that a sizable portion of his writing remains out of print to this day. My case in point is the crime-noir “Strangers on Friday”, which was published by Zenith in 1959. It's a rare paperback that demands top dollar among collectors.

“Strangers on Friday” embodies many of the elements that made the author so spectacular and popular. Whittington's novel features small-town corruption, beautiful (but distressed) women, an embedded mystery and a lone hero. Of course, all of it is constructed perfectly while showcasing the psychological impact on the characters.

In other words, “Strangers on Friday” kicks total ass.

Mac Rivers is a WW2 veteran, a widow and a man without a purpose. Searching for something to live for, Mac hops the first available bus and strikes up a long conversation with a beautiful young woman. Without a destination, Mac steps off of the bus with the woman in the tiny mountain hamlet of Roxmount. Mac is surprised (experienced readers aren't) when the unnamed woman invites Mac for drinks and then a late night sleepover at the local motel. After a night of lovemaking, Mac journeys out for breakfast only to find himself arrested for killing a police officer the night before.

Sleeping with women before knowing their name is a “cart before the horse” endeavor that typically doesn't lead to an arrest. Mac didn't kill anyone, but in this case his alibi is condom thin. Mac, searching for this unnamed woman, eventually leads the sheriff to the local bar where he had drinks with the woman. She isn't there, but in sheer desperation he randomly points out another beautiful woman and claims she's the one. When the sheriff asks her to confirm Mac's story...she does! What kind of town is this?

Whittington cleverly weaves political corruption, robbery and a whodunit into this fast-paced, riveting narrative. Nothing is as it seems, the characters behave in a puzzling manner. Mac is thrust into the challenging role of “drifting trouble-maker” to make sense of it all. It's a tired cliché but it works wonders under Whittington's unique design. With this much mystery and intrigue, thankfully there's still an expansive plot to fit in the obligatory fisticuffs, car chases and gunfire. Despite the misleading cover, this is a crime-fiction novel and a damn fine one. Whether it is worth the collector’s high price tag is a painful dilemma. If you love his work, I'd say it is mandatory. If not, just give it a few decades for the affordable ebook.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shell Scott #02 - Bodies in Bedlam

With four decades of overwhelming commercial success, Richard Prather's 'Shell Scott' series is unquestionably one of the best private-eye series brands ever. While wacky and outlandish, the screwball style of the Shell Scott character was adored by crime-fiction and mystery readers. “Bodies in Bedlam” (1951) is an early Fawcett Gold Medal installment in what is arguably the most creative era of the series. It was the first of three Shell Scott novels written in 1951 – the others being “Everybody Had a Gun” and “Find This Woman.”

Shell Scott is basically the West Coast version of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, albeit not as serious. Operating out of Hollywood, many of Scott's cases revolve around the film industry. “Bodies in Bedlam” follows that familiar setting by placing Scott at a posh industry party in the Hollywood Hills where the paperback detective winds up in a scuffle with an aspiring actor...who is later found murdered. All fingers point to Scott as the killer, thus the narrative develops with Scott as his own client endeavoring to learn the identity of the real killer.

Like most of these titles, Scott's tongue in cheek approach to investigation is paired with his substantial sex appeal. Women dig the white hair. Four beautiful actresses throw themselves at Scott, begging to be fulfilled while being absolved of any wrongdoing. Scott begins to connect the dots that suggests the aspiring actor may have been selling nude photos of Hollywood's most-endowed performers. Is there a connection? Could one of these “bodies in bed...lam” really be capable of a heinous act?

This was my first experience with both Richard Prather and the Shell Scott character. I wasn't holding out for a huge payoff or an overly satisfying read. Shell Scott is a funny guy, shoots straight and has a flair for action. But, if I'm reading a cock-eyed detective story...I'd prefer Carter Brown. I own about fifteen Shell Scott novels, and I'm going to read more...but I'm in no hurry. “Bodies in Bedlam” was an elementary, sexy whodunit. Nothing more, nothing less.

Fun Fact: Soliciting nude photos of actresses in the crime-noir genre seems to be a recurring theme. William Ard's “You'll Get Yours” was published a year after “Bodies in Bedlam” and focuses on an aspiring actress and leaked nudie pics. The same for Louis Malley's “Stool Pigeon” from 1953. This was evidently before leaked photos and promiscuous videos were a catapult to stardom.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Avenger #02 - Houston Hellground

Journeyman Chet Cunningham authored a four book series from 1987-1988 titled 'The Avenger'. It's an odd title because the series was released by Warner Books, a publisher that already had another 'Avenger' title in their catalog. Warner published reprints and new titles of pulp hero 'Avenger' (released under the house name Kenneth Robeson) from 1972-1975, totaling 42 books. There's no connection otherwise between the two series, but it's nevertheless confusing.

The Avenger's second installment, “Houston Hellground”, was published in April 1988. I enjoyed the eponymous debut and this series does have a sense of continuity (unlike high-numbered titles like 'The Butcher'). The first novel introduced us to Matt Hawke, a San Diego DEA agent who finds his wife brutally murdered by drug cartels. Strained by the chains of bureaucracy, Hawke breaks free by quitting the DEA and running his own brand of unsanctioned justice. After annihilating West Coast drug distributors, he sets gun-sights on a Houston kingpin named Lopez.

Cunningham is the quintessential “meat and potatoes” author, simplifying the story and lacing it with high-caliber action. Hawke's mission is two-fold: Rescue a DEA agent from Lopez's grip and cut the distribution lines in and out of the nearby port city. Teaming with a beautiful ex-cop named Carmelita, the two become a destructive force under Cunningham's skilled hands.

“Houston Hellground” delivers a ton of gunplay, increasing the violence a notch or two to properly satisfy seasoned (read that as bloodthirsty) men's action readers. Remember, this is a late entry published in 1988. There's a brutal torture scene that involves sexual assault – not for queasy stomachs. Further, Hawke and Lopez (who's fighting a rival) collectively waste every adversary in vivid detail. Surprisingly, I was lucky enough to be one of the few survivors. “Houston Hellground” is another solid entry in an entertaining, yet neglected series.

Fun Fact – Artist Greg Olanoff did the covers for the entire series. His model was Jason Savas, the same model he used for the first five 'M.I.A. Hunter' books.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Dark Side of the Island

“The Dark Side of the Island” was Jack Higgins' (real name: Henry Patterson) eighth novel, originally published in hardcover by John Long in 1964. After the author's success with “The Eagle Has Landed” (1975), many of Patterson's earlier works were reprinted under the household name of Jack Higgins. “The Dark Side of the Island” was reprinted countless times and remains in print today. My copy is the 1977 Fawcett Gold Medal pictured.

The novel is divided into three separate sections, each showcasing a pivotal point in time for protagonist Hugh Lomax. The first section, “The Long Return”, introduces Englishman Lomax to readers as he docks on the tiny Greek island of Kyros. Lomax's history with Kyros is connected to a perilous mission he undertook as a Special Forces officer in World War 2. After Lomax's recent family tragedy, he wants to find himself again and believes that reconnecting with the islanders will help with the healing.

The first person Lomax finds is his ex-Special Forces partner Alexias Pavlo, a Kyros native who runs a bar called The Little Ship. It is there that Lomax sees a lot of familiar faces that aren't welcoming his arrival. When Alexias sees Lomax, all hell breaks loose and the crowd attempts to gut Lomax like a fish. At knife-point, Alexias explains that Lomax's war mission cost the island years of suffering in concentration camps and killed many of their friends and family. The shocked Lomax is rescued by the sheriff and begins to piece together the events of his past.

This riveting opener is just the tip of the iceberg. Segment two is called “The Nightcomer”, and, as you'd suspect, it showcases the harrowing 48-hour mission in Kyros during the war. It picks up as Lomax and Alexias, aided by Sergeant Boyd, undertake a secret mission in Kyros to destroy a radar station hidden in an old monastery. This is 50-pages of the best men's adventure fiction you'll ever read. Of course the mission is compromised, so the three men are assisted by Alexias' beautiful niece Katina and a famed author named Oliver Van Horn. Without ruining the story for you, let's just say Lomax gains an assist from many of the people that occupied The Little Ship in the opening segment. After all of these years, why would those people now hate Lomax?

“A Sound of Hunting”, the book's closing segment, explains what happened on Kyros after Lomax's covert mission – executions, concentration camps and separation. When the pieces begin to fit, Lomax finds himself a fugitive with his only aid being Katina and a young boy. As the hounds of justice howl, the town's torch lights come closer and closer as Higgins squeezes the narrative into one epic showdown...and absolutely nails it.


There's a handful of men's action-adventure novels that I would consider mandatory for the “deserted on an island” sort of crisis (or fantasy). Ralph Hayes' “The Satan Stone” (1975), Dan Marlowe's “The Name of the Game is Death” (1962) and Donald Hamilton's “Line of Fire” (1955) immediately come to mind, but I'd have to include this novel in the mix. It is a phenomenal piece of literature with one distinct purpose – to entertain the reader. Sometimes we just get caught up in searching for divine meaning or a subversive message to symbolize some sort of real world affair. What I love about this novel, and Higgins in particular, is that it's just action and adventure without an agenda. Nothing more, nothing less. It's an admirable purpose...to entertain the paying consumers. For that, I applaud Higgins' efforts with “The Dark Side of the Island”. This is a mandatory read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, December 9, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 23

This episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast celebrates the worst 20th Century novels the publishing industry had to offer. From TNT to Phoenix, we explore how bad things need to get before a reader will throw a paperback into the ocean. Don’t miss the fun as we discuss the absolute pits in vintage genre fiction. Stream below or on any podcast platform. Download directly HERE.


Listen to "Episode 23: Hall of Shame" on Spreaker.

Dirge for a Nude

Jonathan Craig was a pseudonym for Frank E. Smith, who wrote a ton of crime novels and short stories during the 1950s and 1960s. Much of his short fiction work was published in “Manhunt Magazine,” the finest outlet for that type of thing. “Dirge for a Nude” began its life as a story from the February 1953 issue of “Manhunt” and has been reprinted as a stand-alone eBook as part of the “Noir Masters” line. I’ve always enjoyed the author’s work, and I had an extra 99 cents burning a hole in my pocket, so I decided to splurge.

The story is narrated by a jazz piano player named Marty Bishop who entertains fellow hep cats in an after-hours Greenwich Village dive. During a break between sets, Marty’s ex-girlfriend Gloria appears and tells him that she’s got twelve-grand in her bra, and she wants Marty to run away to Mexico with her. She’s a torch singer with questionable ethics who also gets around, and Marty is done with her. Gloria gets super-pissed when Marty turns her down, and they decide to talk it out in Marty’s car after he finished his gig.

When Marty finally gets to his Caddy, Gloria is waiting for him inside the vehicle - naked and dead. Learning who stripped and killed the girl (and why) is the heart of the story, and it takes Marty on a torturous ride. Could it be the psychotic prizefighter Gloria has been banging recently? Maybe a skid row jazzbo she helped cheat out of his songwriting royalties?

“Dirge For a Nude” is 26-pages of unrepentant Manhunt-style hardboiled violent action. Marty spends the bulk of the story driving around with a naked, dead girl in his caddy trying to solve her murder - rough, unpleasant stuff, but also visceral and effective. It’s surprising that the author never chose to inflate the story into a full novel - a common practice at the time - because this one is just fantastic. It’s definitely the best short story I’ve read in quite some time.

Don’t be a cheapskate. Shell out the 99 cents for this damn story on your Kindle. You won’t regret it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, December 6, 2019

The Searching Rider

Harry Whittington's talent for storytelling was unmatched even among prolific contemporaries including Gil Brewer and Day Keene. Whether it was a fierce love triangle, bank heist or white knuckle suspense, the Floridian author engaged readers with his masterful literary prose. While his crime-noir is often discussed, Whittington's contribution to the western genre is sometimes overlooked. I thoroughly enjoyed his western titles like “A Trap for Sam Dodge”, “Drytown Gulch”, “Wild Sky” and “Desert Stake-Out”. Therefore, I was excited to acquire a 1961 Ace double featuring both “Hangman's Territory” by Jack Bickham and Whittington's “The Searching Rider”.

Like many Whittington novels, “The Searching Rider” features a scorned lover, despicable villains and murder. It's a winning trifecta that the author injects with a more psychological edge to the classic frontier revenge formula. In fact, in the opening chapters the pursuit of three villains is a precursor to the real story – main character Matt Logan's quest to find the lone farmer pursuing the three villains. It's an odd reworking of the “owlhoot trail”, but the author keeps it a mystery until Logan's horse is shot out from under him. That's the cue to roll the flashback sequence.

We learn that a farm family living on a scorched trail to Tucson experience a horrific tragedy. Grief stricken, the farmer Kaylor sets out in pursuit of three bitter killers. His wife, in a state of shock, walks to town and asks her scorned lover Logan for help. Logan initially rejects her requests for help, but once he realizes the dire circumstances, Logan races to catch up with Kaylor before it is too late.

While this simple revenge tale could have easily been a toss-off dime western, Whittington makes it a unique and enjoyable read. Never settling for the ordinary prose, the Logan character is developed as the anti-hero, trading the proverbial white hat for a greedy poker hand. Kaylor's situation is compelling, a riveting blend of hot-headed anger combined with a stubborn tenacity. By placing the pursuit and subsequent gun play in a scorching desert, the author traps these characters into the inevitable confrontation. How readers arrive at the finale is the ultimate enjoyment.

“The Searching Rider” is another top-notch western from an author that rarely misfires. In a perfect world, this novel would receive a new publishing run by Stark House Press. Thus far, its just another tattered old paperback waiting to be found at a rummage sale.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, December 5, 2019

C.A.T. #01 - Tower of Blood

The “C.A.T.: Crisis Aversion Team” series by house name Spike Andrews was supposed to have monthly installments, but the short-lived series only lasted for three books in 1982. Books one and three were authored by Canadian Duane Schermerhorn and book two was by George Ryan from North Carolina. Paperback Warrior interviewed Mr. Schermerhorn before his 2018 death, and he told us that the C.A.T. series was Warner Books’ attempt to capitalize on the success of the Dirty Harry franchise. The first novel in the series is available as a 99-cent ebook, and used copies of the original paperback are plentiful online.

“Tower of Blood” introduces us to New York City police officers Stewart Weston and Vincent Santillo. Together, they form the core of the NYPD’s Crisis Aversion Team (C.A.T.), a group assigned “the touch-and-go suicides, the murders with racial overtones, the snipers flying high and shooting wild, the desperate hostage holders, the bomb scares and bomb blasts.” As you can see, Warner Books had big plans for this versatile duo. What the novel actually delivers is a violent, but largely run-of-the-mill, police-based action novel.

After a police informant is gunned down in a Harlem tavern before he can pass on valuable information, cops Weston and Santillo set out to understand why he was killed. The opening carnage in the bar is pure 80s bloodbath filled with heads exploding and rifle slugs ripping into flesh and bones followed by a violent chase and shootout that goes on for pages and pages.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to be introduced to a local drug dealer who has it out for the C.A.T. boys basically for doing their jobs - albeit rather violently. Meanwhile, Weston and Santillo follow logical clues to get closer to the source of all this mayhem which leads them from the slums to Manhattan’s power elite. Along the way, they bust a lot of skulls and leave piles of dead bodies in their wake before the climactic kidnapper-with-hostages standoff.

Throughout the novel, Schermerhorn sets up all sorts of minor plot points with an eye toward developing them over the course of a long series. Sadly, these elements never blossomed into something fully-realized because the series was cancelled right out of the gate. Fortunately, for action-oriented readers, the author did not skimp on the long action, chase, and gunfight scenes. Trust me, they go on forever in “Tower of Blood” - like a John Woo action movie set to print.

The premature death of the C.A.T. series was a shame because it could have been something special. “Tower of Blood” was no masterpiece but following the cops from one blood-soaked action setpiece to another was a lot of fun. The bare bones plot was about average for the genre and the era, but Schermerhorn certainly knew his way around over-the-top, long-form gunplay and chase sequences. Personally, I would have liked to see where he wanted to take this series over more installments. In the meantime, I can certainly recommend this paperback for literary adrenaline junkies. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Room to Swing

Leonard Zinberg (1911-1968) was known to crime-noir readers as Ed Lacy. He authored nearly 30 paperback originals during the 1950s and 1960s. As prolific as his work was, Lacy's most successful novel was his ninth career effort, “Room to Swing” (1957). The book introduced the first African-American private-eye in Toussaint “Touie” Moore, a bold literary leap that earned Lacy an Edgar Award in 1958.

“Room to Swing” gains its fictional footing in a familiar way – a financially stressed New York gumshoe trailing a killer. Touie Moore is black, nearly destitute and has a lofty goal of running a successful detective business despite the numerous barriers. His girlfriend Sybil is begging Touie to work in the mailroom, and plenty of white police officers want him out of the private-eye business. Needless to say, Touie needs a big break.

A television producer named Kay approaches Touie about a new show called “You-Detective!” The pitch is that a fugitive will be profiled on television, complete with a sizzling backstory, with the promise of a cash payout for any lucky citizen that chances upon the dangerous criminal. The show's third episode will feature an alleged rapist from Ohio named Robert Thomas. Kay advises that Thomas works at a factory in New York City and that the network has a stooge that will phone him into the police claiming it was a result of watching the show. Touie is offered $1,500 to keep tabs on Thomas to be sure he doesn't quit his job or leave the show before the episode airs.

Without giving away anything more than what's promised on the back cover, Thomas ends up murdered and police believe that Touie is responsible. Lacy's presentation is segmented into days before Thomas' murder, prefaced by current events to tease the story to readers. I didn't particularly care for this style of storytelling as it made the book seem disjointed. This could have improved as a seamless story with a traditional start to finish pace. The bi-product of segmented storytelling is the loss of surprise. 3-2-1 leads to something, right? That left me bored with the first few segments dedicated to Touie's day to day operation. Granted, Lacy is presenting Touie's tenacity in adverse conditions, but it's recycled throughout. There's a lot of racists opposing Touie...living. But otherwise, the heart of the story doesn't reach fruition until  page 85.

“Room to Swing” is a good, but not great, crime-noir. My speculation is that the novel's “against the grain” approach made it a hot commodity at the time of publication. Breaking social conformity was a sizable risk for Lacy, and it paid off in a big way. Arguably, this book placed Lacy on the literary map. He authored a sequel to entitled “Moment of Untruth” in 1964, changing the location from New York to Mexico. I enjoyed Touie enough to pursue the second novel.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Spy in a Box

Author Ralph Dennis, who passed away in 1988, is mostly remembered for his 12-book series of hardboiled 'Hardman' novels. Brash Books, owned by New York Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, have meticulously culled the author's published and unpublished catalog to re-introduce many of these novels to a new generation of crime-fiction fans. Along with “Dust in the Heart” (2020), “Spy in the Box” is another unpublished manuscript that Lee Goldberg unearthed from the author's archives. After extensive editing, the book now remains as another published testament of Ralph Dennis' talents as a storyteller.

The book places readers in the political upheaval of 1980s Costa Verde. Protagonist Will Hall works for the CIA as an experienced diplomatic operative. His assignment is uncovering the layers of bureaucracy tearing the small Latin American country apart. Hall's view is that the U.S. should support the moderates, led by presidential candidate Paul Marcos. His opposition is the rebels, backed by both Cuba and the Soviet Union.  After securing a firm relationship with Marcos, Hall is ordered to meet with the right wing party of landowners and mining interests. As a courtesy to Marcos, Hall arrives for an impromptu meeting to advise him that meetings will commence with the right wing. However, Hall arrives just in time to see Marcos assassinated by what he believes is the CIA. Discouraged and jaded, Hall returns to Washington and promptly retires.

Hall settles into a life of normalcy in his North Carolina mountain home. His serenity becomes short-lived when he reads that a bogus expose has been submitted to the newspaper. Falsely published under Hall’s by-line, the article exposes the assassination of Marcos including personal details that only Hall possesses. When Hall reports that the article was not authored by him, his entire life turns upside down. The CIA, press, and former colleagues have seemingly framed Hall, tossing the former operative into an intriguing cat-and-mouse game that he's forced to play to clear his name...and stay alive.

Like “The War Heist” (originally “MacTaggart's War”), Ralph Dennis manipulates a lot of characters and settings to present his unique story. What begins as the proverbial “frame job” story, where many spy and espionage thrillers thrive, eventually evolves into an elaborate power play between industry giants. Instead of suits and ties, it's Uzis and Ingrams. The author's character development of Hall is his strong suit, an attribute that is important given the amount of characters that bob and weave in and out of the narrative. There's a brief love interest, an international mystery and a tailspin on the moral compass – bad, badder, baddest. Thankfully, these characters sometimes blur the boundaries of what is perceived as traditional heroes.

With “Spy in the Box”, Ralph Dennis crafts an unconventional spy thriller with compelling characters that springboard into action. As more and more of the author's work is unearthed, Dennis is finally receiving the literary accolades he deserves.

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Monday, December 2, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 22

This episode: What's all the fuss over James D. Lawrence's 1975 series "Dark Angel" and why are collectors spending top-dollar to grab copies? Also, Tom reviews "Savage Love", a Harry Whittington paperback from 1952, and Eric covers 'Traveler: Road War' by John Shirley. Finally, we discuss some contemporary projects produced by friend-of-the-show Paul Bishop. Stream below, anywhere that is streaming great podcasts or download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 22 - Dark Angel" on Spreaker.

The Trailsman #01 - Seven Wagons West

Author Jon Messman had a very busy schedule in the 1970s. Authoring novels in the 'Hotline', 'Revenger', 'Handyman' and 'Killmaster' series titles, Messman was a bright spot on the vigilante and espionage radar. It makes sense that by the time 1980 rolled around, the author was ready for a change of pace. Beginning with “Seven Wagons West”, Messman wrote a majority of the first 200 installments of 'The Trailsman' adult western series for Signet using house name Jon Sharpe. Astonishingly, that was only half the series. The Trailsman ran through 397 novels from 1980 through 2014, the last half written by a rotating blend of authors. These books can be read in any order, but my first experience is the debut.

“Seven Wagons West” introduces readers to Skye Fargo, a gruff frontiersman who rides an unnamed horse, fires a Remington .44 and...as the title suggests...escorts clients on the winding trails of the untamed west. The character's backstory is fairly simple. His father was a road agent for Wells Fargo. While young Skye was away on chores, his parents and kid brother were murdered by three bank robbers. Skye took “Fargo” as his last name as an ode to his father's profession. He now searches the Western Frontier for his family's killers while working his day job as a trailsman.

In this installment, Reverend Rogers and his wife Constance have learned of a silver mine in Wisconsin territory. They hire Fargo to guide the congregation on a month long journey through Sioux country. The goal is to establish a church in the wilderness and Fargo is being paid well – in women. On board the wagon train is a single babe named Julia, the reverend's sexy wife and third pickings, a weathered woman named Dulcy. It's an adult western series, so Fargo slips in a number of timely lays on the outskirts of campsites. Wagons ho!

In terms of gun action, which is primarily the second reason why anyone reads these things, Fargo tangles with a few bandits that attempt to rob the caravan. There's also a Sioux raiding party to contend with and of course, outlaws who are privy to the location of the silver mine. Fargo is established as an intelligent hero, often out-cunning enemies before firing a round. As a seasoned traveler, his skills are showcased in triumphant fashion.

Whether it's fixing busted axles, mending wounded horses or caring for neglected wives, Fargo proves to be the capable long-term paperback hero. Whether that remained fresh for nearly 400 books remains to be seen. But, based on the number of readers, books sold and the quality of writers, the story became a tremendously successful cookie cutter formula for the demanding publisher. As a series debut, "Seven Wagons West" doesn't move the needle in terms of originality or innovation, but it's thoroughly enjoyable and recommended for new fans of the series like myself.

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