Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Super Cop Joe Blaze #02 - The Concrete Cage

“The Concrete Cage” is the second in a three-volume series entitled 'Super Cop Joe Blaze'. Belmont Tower, motivated by the success of tough guy cop films like “Dirty Harry”, wanted a vigorous, tough as nails hero for their consumers. Nothing is really explained in the series debut, “The Big Payoff”, other than Joe Blaze is a New York City Detective Sergeant who works closely with his partner Ed Nuthall and Lieutenant Danny Coogan. It's really a neanderthal sort  of police procedural, written under house name Robert Novak, who may or may not be Nelson Demille.

In this second installment, a group of ex-convicts and low-level criminals conspire to kidnap ten women randomly. The book's opening pages has the group operating in a high traffic area of the city. Using the disguise of an ambulance, the cons usher the women into the ambulance at gunpoint. After one captive defiantly refuses, she's fatally shot in the chest. The murder of the innocent woman loops Blaze into the investigation.

In standard procedural plotting, Blaze tracks down a prostitute who may have a brother tied into the gang. Using this lead, Blaze and his two colleagues find an informant connected to the kidnapping. The group plans to use the captives as a new selection of coerced hookers - women who will be utilized to fulfill the needs of a violent, more sadistic clientele. Blaze, perplexed by the crime, arrests the informant but the news is leaked to the criminals. They want the informant released back to their fold or the women will be killed individually and left throughout the city.

This novel is certainly not for the squeamish. When Blaze's negotiation with the crooks stalls, the gang begins chopping up the victims. The narrative eventually moves into a rather grim decision for Blaze and the department – give the informant back to the crooks knowing he will be violently killed, or continue to track the crime ring in hopes of disposing of it with violent force.

While not as enjoyable as the series debut, “The Concrete Cage” was an entertaining, short read. The author uses a lot of tough cop characteristics to propel the narrative – car chases, seedy apartment gun fights and brawls. Lots of brawls. I found the book's finale a little lackluster, but I'll probably stick it out and read the last novel. It is written by the talented Len Levinson ('The Rat Bastards', 'The Sergeant').

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

A Bullet for Cinderella

“A Bullet for Cinderella” from 1955 was John D. MacDonald’s 14th novel. When he originally submitted the stand-alone crime thriller for publication, it was titled “On the Make,” and Dell Books eventually reprinted the paperback with the author’s original title for later editions starting in 1960. Since then, the paperback has been re-released several times under both names. If you’re seeking a used copy, you should have plenty of luck - just search both ways.

The story begins with our narrator, Talbert (“Tal”) Howard, arriving in a town called Hillston and checking into a motel. When he was a prisoner during the Korean War, a fellow POW named Timmy confided that he had buried a ton of stolen cash in Hillston without providing specifics about a precise location. Timmy never made it home from the war, and Tal is now in Hillston looking for the loot.

Upon arrival, Tal quickly learns that another POW from the camp named Fitz arrived in Hillston before him. While in captivity, Tal and Fitz were enemies because Fitz refused to help his fellow American G.I.s work toward their collective survival in the camp. And now Fitz is curiously in Hillston. Could he be searching for the same buried cash as Tal?

Although “A Bullet for Cinderella” is basically a treasure hunt story, it’s not an Indiana Jones type of adventure. Instead, Tal does a deep dive into Timmy’s past to unearth logical places for burying the loot. For the reader, this gets a bit melodramatic at times as historical romances and family dramas are mined for clues, and secrets of the past are revealed. I was never bored, but understand that this is a mystery, not an action novel. To be sure, there are some grisly murders and a rather terrifying, sociopathic bad guy, but we are still firmly in mystery-suspense territory here.

A paperback like “A Bullet for Cinderella” is only as good as its ending, and MacDonald delivers a violent and compelling conclusion that will stay with the reader. I don’t think this novel was necessarily peak MacDonald, but even a second-tier book by the Florida author is a damn sight better than most of the stuff I read these days. As such, it’s an easy recommendation for you.

A feature on Richard Matheson aired on the seventh episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 19, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 7

On this episode we are examining the noir work of successful author Richard Matheson, who's predominantly known for his horror and science-fiction work. We have two new reviews for you, 1955's "A Bullet for Cinderella" by John D. MacDonald and William W. Johnstone's 1984 western "The Last Mountain Man". Stream the episode below or wherever podcasts are streaming. Direct downloads are HERE.

Listen to "Episode 07: Richard Matheson" on Spreaker.

Strongarm

“Strongarm” is an early stand-alone novel from esteemed crime-noir author Dan J. Marlowe (1917-1986). From 1959 until 1961, Marlowe wrote a five-book series starring hotel detective Johnny Killain. Marlowe's first stand-alone, “Backfire”, was released by Berkley in 1961. In 1962, the author penned his magnum opus with “The Name of the Game is Death”, the first of a long-running series of action-adventure novels starring heist extraordinaire Earl Drake. 1963's “Strongarm” is the second stand-alone entry in Marlowe's impressive bibliography. Written on the heels of his masterpiece, does “Strongarm” possess the same level of quality?

In Earl Drake fashion, Marlowe presents an unnamed protagonist using the alias Pete Karma. Pete graduated from Ohio State and served his father during a successful political run that colored by some minor affiliations with the mob. After his father died, Pete served in the Korean War, fighting in the Chosin Reservoir as a U.S. Marine. After his discharge, Pete joined his father's successor, Charlie Risko, in a crime-ridden political reign. This is where things really turn sour.

As an assumed enforcer, Pete is asked to rough up a labor representative suspected of conspiring with the press exposing mob interference in local politics. After a journalist is found murdered in a hotel, Risko arranges for Pete to take the fall. Sentenced to a 15-year prison sentence for a crime he didn't commit, Pete begins making plans to escape. After two and a half years behind bars, Pete alligns with Risko's rival kingpin in Tony Falcaro. Together, Falcaro and Pete escape prison with a promise from Falcaro's gang that they will always be there for Pete if he needs any future favors. This would prove to be an important commitment.

Pete goes to work in Chicago as a bartender, carefully avoiding attention while planning his vengeance on Risko, his attorney Foley and a henchman named Joe Williams. However, Marlowe really throws a wrench in the gears and switches the narrative with a surprising plot twist. While trailing Williams, Pete witnesses a fiery car crash. Among the wreckage is an arm handcuffed to a briefcase containing foreign documents and $750,000 in cash. Is Pete now the target of a number of warring factions? 

Very few crime novels of this era can match Marlowe's influential caper novel. However, like most of the author's stand-alone works, his ability and talent certainly stands out even in a crowded room of his contemporaries. I would speculate that Marlowe recycled some of this novel's elements in future works. This novel's Gussie character resembles the 70s spunky flower child Chryssie from “Operation Flashpoint” (1970). The recruitment of various Falcaro mobsters is reminiscent of Earl Drake's alliance with anti-Castro factions in “Operation Fireball” (1969). Pete's ability to remove a lower dental plate reflects the disguise Drake would use with his hairpiece. In fact, the very idea of an unnamed protagonist serving time in a mental hospital can be found in both “In the Name of the Game is Death” (1962) and it's sequel, “One Endless Hour” (1969). It's safe to assume “Strongarm” had a lot of influence on the Earl Drake novels.

In terms of early Marlowe work, “Strongarm”, along with 1966's “Four for the Money,” are mandatory reads for crime-noir fans. The more I delve, collect and read 1960s crime novels, authors like Dan J. Marlowe and John D. MacDonald certainly appear to be the cream of the crop. Do yourself a favor and buy, download or borrow this book. It's a real treasure.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, August 16, 2019

Edge of the Law

Hardboiled crime author Richard Deming was one of the stable of writers represented by literary agent Scott Meredith who regularly produced muscular and twisty short stories for Manhunt Magazine in the 1950s. Later in his career, he presumably made a good living writing TV tie-in novels for shows including “Dragnet” and “The Mod Squad.” His original, full-length novels are a bit uneven - I’ve read both brilliant ones and mediocre ones. As I wade though his body of work, my next plunge is his stand-alone novel, “Edge of Law” from 1960.

Jud Sands is a man on the run bouncing from town to town with his head on a swivel waiting to be captured or killed. His pursuer is Miami racketeer Big Mark Fallon, a man with the resources to deploy goons anywhere in America to settle the score. The riff began with a gambling dispute that escalated to a violent confrontation wherein a gunshot to the arm resulted in an amputation for Big Mark. Now, the one-armed crime boss wants a piece of Jud’s ass, and our hero isn’t interested in making good on that debt.

The road takes Jud to the fictional town of Ridgeford, a city with plenty of backroom gambling and good-looking dames for Jud to sample. It doesn’t take long until he attracts the attention of Ridgeford’s local mob boss, Rizzo Amatti, who offers Jud a job as muscle for $250 a week. Jud needs the cash and figures that his new employer may provide him some protection from his old employer, so he joins up with Rizzo’s outfit.

Jud’s first assignment is to rough up a local tavern owner who refuses to play ball with the local syndicate. While delivering a message to the non-compliant proprietor, Jud learns that his old flame from back home is now married to the bar’s owner. The warm feelings for his old sweetheart change his mind and cause him to question his loyalty to Rizzo. Suddenly, he has a decision to make: keep working for the local mobster or join up with the few small businesses seeking to resist Rizzo’s stranglehold on Ridgeford? Meanwhile, will Jud’s Miami problem catch up to him in his current powder-keg?

By this point in his writing career, Deming really was at the top of his game. His tough-guy prose is perfect and his plotting is tight as a drum. As a protagonist, Jud is a man-in-full - crooked as hell but fiercely loyal to his friends with an unbending code of ethics. The conflicts arising in “Edge of the Law” are high-stakes for the participants and genuinely suspenseful for the reader. There’s plenty of action and violence along the way to keep the tension high and the pages turning. The ending was a bit abrupt for me, but that wasn’t unusual for this era and genre.

Best of all, the vintage paperback has been resurrected as an eBook priced at about four bucks or free with Kindle Unlimited. The Kindle edition doesn’t give you the alluring paperback cover art, but the product inside is good enough that you can forego a flashy wrapper. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Azriel Uprising

Bantam Books maintained a torrid schedule of fantasy and science-fiction in the 1970s and 1980s. A lot of these literary works had more in common with the men's action and adventure line than real science-fiction. Case in point is the mislabeled 1982 post-apocalyptic novel “The Azriel Uprising”. The book is written by unknown author Allyn Thompson and features a familiar premise – American citizens attempting to survive in a nuked out United States. It has more in common with “Survival 2000”, “The Survivalist” and “Doomsday Warrior” than say...”Battlefield Earth”. Bantam Books' Science-Fiction label on the spine doesn't really do the book or it's author any justice.

“The Azriel Uprising” presents readers a 1980s America that has been nuked by the Soviet Union. The book picks up ten years after the bombing, in a United States that has now been firmly defeated by the enemy. Most of the US lies in “hot zones”, places that are no longer habitable for both survivors and the Russians. The safe-zones are parts of civilization that are now controlled and operated by the Russians in a bid to eventually control all of North America. These safe-zones feature concentration and labor camps for Americans and a skeleton of society for Soviet troops and sympathizers.

We're introduced to protagonist Donna Wallace, who uses code name Juanita, in the opening pages. She was once a prisoner in a labor camp, escaped torturous conditions and now functions as a courier relaying information to pockets of resistance up and down the East Coast. After blowing up a busload of Soviet troops in Texas, she becomes allies with a former US fighter pilot named Bo. Together, the two journey to Florida to rendezvous with a large unit of American soldiers. As a Florida resident, the recon meetings in overrun shopping malls and restaurants throughout Florida were personally enticing.

At 183-pages, the bulk of the book focuses on Donna and Bo as they travel from Florida to the Northeast gathering supplies and intel for an American resistance battle in the Gulf of Mexico. The campaign, to be launched on July 5th, will be the first to feature several organized survivor groups, including fighter jets and a Navy warship. Collectively, they hope to overrun a labor camp called Valdosta, liberate the prisoners and destroy the 1,200 man army of Soviets.

First and foremost, I've read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature. The radiation aspect, aligning survivalists and fighting the Soviets was extremely popular in 80s pop culture. “The Azriel Uprising” does nothing creative or terribly innovative for the genre or its experienced readers. The action is subdued, but still features a massive gunfight in the last 15-pages. This novel plods along like an apocalyptic road trip...yet somehow I found it surprisingly engaging.

Both Donna and Bo are likable characters and I felt I had a vested interest in all of the components. The small band of fighters reminded me of “Deathlands” to a degree, and the author's descriptive nature really painted a dismal landscape for these characters to exist (like trees and shrubs growing in an abandoned McDonalds).

With horrendous sub-genre series titles like 'Phoenix', 'Swampmaster' and 'Roadblaster', “The Azriel Uprising” is clearly a more entertaining and satisfying read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Run for the Money

Robert Colby authored about 20 novels during his career - mostly in the 1950s and 1960s - but he never achieved the fame of his paperback original colleagues of the same era. As far as I can tell, his last published paperback was a 1973 ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ installment titled “The Death’s Head Conspiracy” co-authored with Gary Brandner. Thanks to the miracle of Kindle, many of his vintage paperbacks have been preserved as affordable eBooks, including his 1960 release, “Run for the Money.”

The novel opens with the daring and violent heist of an armored car from Jacksonville, Florida (coincidentally, home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters) delivering cash from the Federal Reserve to banks along the route. The crew successfully makes off with nearly a million in cash while leaving the bodies of the armored car guards behind.

We then meet our protagonist, Barry Lunsford, a sad sack living in a Florida rooming house while working a low-paying job at a department store. One day Barry finds a satchel discarded by the side of the road. Upon opening the bag, he learns that it is filled to the brim with $320,000 in cash. The reader figures that this is the stolen loot from the Chapter One heist, but neither the reader nor Barry knows why it was lying by the side of a road along the train tracks. With no real friends or family ties to Florida, Barry buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles and brings the cash with him to start a new life.

As you suspected, it’s never that easy. The robbers catch up to Barry as he’s living large with the cash in Hollywood. By this point, he has a girl, and she can be used as leverage by the bad guys to make Barry give up the dough. There’s plenty of blood and sadism to cement the idea that the bad guys are really bad guys. Can Barry figure out a way to keep the money and save the girl?

In “Run for the Money,” the author has taken a basic concept - something we’ve all fantasized about - and turned it into a compelling suspense story with some tidy twists and turns. Colby’s writing is solid, and the story is without fat or filler. The short novel flies by, and while it won’t be the best crime novel you’ve ever read, I can’t imagine anyone failing to enjoy every page of this cautionary tale. Recommended.

Postscript:

Prolific multi-genre author James Reasoner shares this story: “Robert Colby and I shared an agent during the 80s, and she got us together to work on a screenplay based on ‘Run for the Money.’ Colby was a very dignified guy, kind of reserved, but I liked him and thought this was a very good book. The agent tried to sell the screenplay but nothing ever came of it. He also wrote a series of stories in ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’ that I liked very much."

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Duel in the Snow

Hans-Otto Meissner (1909-1992) enjoyed a writing career with three different specialties: political history books, travelogues and adventure fiction. After attending universities at Heidelberg and Trinity, the majority of his life was diplomatic work in London, Moscow, Milan and Tokyo. Utilizing his world travels, Meissner retired and began his career as a successful author. My first experience with Meissner is the novel “Duel in the Snow.” It was originally released in German in 1964. It was later re-printed and published at least three more times in 1970, 1972 and the pictured 1974 reprinting by Pyramid. Each iteration features different cover art.

In December 1941, the US was bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Six months later the Japanese targeted another US property, the island of Attu. Focusing all of their efforts on Europe, the US forgot to guard the back door, so the Japanese forces occupied the island and began constructing landing strips that they hoped to use for bombing runs on America's West Coast cities. The location of Attu is important because it lies just off the coast of Alaska. In fact, in 1935 General Billy Mitchell advised the US Congress that whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. He felt it was the most important strategic place on the planet.

The opening pages of Meissner's novel depict the quick occupation of Attu and introduces key characters to the narrative – Japanese Captain Hidaka and Alaskan game warden McCluire. With Attu's grueling weather patterns, complete with frigid temperatures and howling winds, the actual launching of fighter planes from the island was a harrowing endeavor. Meissner's fictional narrative has the Japanese forces conceiving a plan to parachute a dozen soldiers into the northern section of Alaska. Led by the talented Hidaka, their mission is to transmit the weather patterns back to leaders on Attu so they can plan air attacks accordingly. Knowing that the radio broadcasts will be intercepted by US intelligence, the Japanese team will need to consistently travel through the wilderness avoiding detection, never residing in one location for too long. Hidaka's team realizes they will never be retrieved and that this is essentially a do-and-die mission.

Learning of the Japanese mission, the US doesn't have enough resources to allocate to Alaska for a seek and destroy operation. They would need men who not only possess combat experience, but men who are familiar with this barren stretch of frosty wilderness. After assembling a small team of inexperienced Alaskan scouts, US military brass enlists Alaskan game warden and survivalist extraordinaire McCluire to lead the expedition. McCluire hesitantly agrees and the narrative is set into motion with the team hunting Hidaka through the snowy mountains.

How this novel has flown under the radar is beyond me. At a robust length of 256-pages, I was entranced. Meissner's keen ability to develop both parties into likable foes and the patience he uses to create white-knuckle suspense is just so rewarding for the reader. Under the guiding hand of another author, the book could have been rather one-dimensional. While offering the obligatory “seek and destroy” theme, Meissner introduces Alaskan history, regional and Japanese fighting customs and a surreal look at grim survival. Western fans will love the rugged Alaskan interior while military fiction (and even non-fiction) enthusiasts will gravitate to this rather unknown chapter of the war – The Battle of Attu.

No matter which sub-genre you enjoy, the overwhelming sensation is adventure. Hans Meissner has created a stunning action-packed novel that I nearly read in one sitting. I found myself re-arranging my day to avoid any stoppage in the story. I think this book will have that same effect on you. Go hunt down a copy of this extraordinary book.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 12, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 6

On this show we'll discuss the mysterious career of author and publisher Peter McCurtin. We examine McCurtin's "Escape from Devil's Island" as well as two new reviews - "Duel in the Snow" by German author Hans Meissner and the debut Malko novel "West of Jerusalem" by Gerard De Villiers. (Music credit to Bensound). Stream the episode below or on services like Spreaker, Apple, Google and Stitcher. Download the show HERE.

Listen to "Episode 06: Who is Peter McCurtin?" on Spreaker.

Malko #01 - West of Jerusalem

I was left scratching my head at the recent news that Michael Fassbender will produce and star in a Hollywood film adaptation of the ‘Malko’ series of paperbacks by Gerard de Villiers. Why Malko? Why not Mack Bolan? Why not Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm? The paperbacks I’ve seen on the used bookshelves sure don’t look like much.

The Malko series (called the S.A.S. series in France) began in 1964 and was written in French by Gerard de Villiers (1929-2013) with 200 installments and millions upon millions of copies sold. An English translation of the first book in the American numbering scheme, “West of Jerusalem” was released by Pinnacle Books in August 1973. The novel was installment #9 in France, but I get the impression that series order isn’t all that important in the Malkoverse, so I picked up a copy at the used bookstore to see what all the fuss was about.

The series hero is Malko Linge, an Austrian prince who graduated from Harvard in 1954 and has been working on a contract basis for the CIA for a decade when we join him in the 1960s. He inherited a castle in Austria that is in need of serious renovations, so he continues taking CIA gigs to generate sufficient cash flow to pay contractors. Malko’s foreign background provides the operative with instant cover and credibility while operating overseas. His public face is that of a dashing international jet-setting playboy - pretty much the truth for the Austrian nobleman. As is typical in these type of books, Malko is the best we have.

“West of Jerusalem” opens with the dramatic public suicide of the CIA director. His aides and colleagues are baffled by his mysterious demise and turn to Malko to investigate the reason. The trajectory of the case sends Malko to New York, Switzerland and beyond with plenty of action along the way. The novel has a block of key scenes in the 1960s psychedelic subculture - a setting I’ve always found annoying and cliched. There’s also some rather retrograde depictions of gay people in the story. Bear in mind, the paperback was originally published in 1967, so these quibbles are really just artifacts of the era.

Even though Pinnacle packaged the novel with a corny painted cover indicative of the publisher’s lowbrow early-1970s offerings, Malko has more in common with Ian Fleming’s James Bond than Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan. Malko is a professional spy conducting an investigative mission in order to solve a vexing mystery. There’s plenty of violent action, but it’s never cartoonish or over-the-top as we see in The Butcher or The Penetrator paperbacks. Moreover, the villain’s plan is reasonable - nothing silly like a Nick Carter: Killmaster story. There’s also a realism to the author’s writing unseen in other big-font, painted-cover paperbacks of the era. The English translation is solid with no indication that the original manuscript was written in French. Moreover, this is a CIA adventure (as opposed to a French intel service), so readers of American spy fiction will find themselves on familiar cultural ground.

With some minor quibbles, I enjoyed the hell out of this fast-moving, well-written paperback, and I now have a better understanding why the series was wildly-popular in Europe. I can’t wait to hunt down other early entries and review them for you here. Regarding the forthcoming Hollywood adaptation, I’m no longer asking why. A better question is: Why did they wait this long?

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Executioner #88 - Baltimore Trackdown

“Baltimore Trackdown” is the 88th entry in the long-running 'The Executioner' series. Written by journeyman Chet Cunningham (1928-2017), the novel was released by Gold Eagle in 1986. Cunningham contributed to a number of Mack Bolan volumes including the 79th installment, “Council of Kings”, which includes characters that later appear in “Baltimore Trackdown”. A series education isn't a prerequisite as these books can still be enjoyed in any order.

Mob kingpin Carlo Nazarione has infiltrated the Baltimore Police Department. With a vast, cascading stream of money, Nazarione and his criminal cohorts have purchased plenty of badges in their quest to run a gambling empire on the East Coast. The mob are using a veteran named Captain Harley Davis to monitor the bribery channels and to solicit new members for the crooked cop brigade. However, one of Mack Bolan's oldest and most trusted confidants, Leo Turrin, has planted an informant within the ranks. It's this collaboration that allows Bolan easy access at his new targets.

For the most part, Cunningham utilizes Don Pendleton's early template to create this rousing Bolan adventure. The paperback deploys series the series trope of a young, innocent woman who's raped and murdered by the criminals as a motivating spark for The Executioner. Bolan, as if he needs more purpose, seeks to avenge her death. Gambling halls and bars are familiar landscapes for Bolan to fulfill his mission, but it's not until page 114 where things really become interesting.

In a clever tie-in with Cunningham's work on “The Executioner 79: Council of Kings”, a hitman named Vince Carboni appears. What's unique is that there is no mention of this character anywhere in the first 114 pages aside from a line stating that Carboni has been hired to finish Bolan for good after a firefight in Portland failed to eliminate the hero. In research, this recollection links to the 79th entry where Carboni is enforcing for the Canzonari's West Coast mob. None of this really matters, just a simple way to inject Carboni into 44 pages of this book.

The author shines as Carboni and Bolan do battle on a farm in rural Maryland. The cat-and-mouse tactics are some of the best scenes in my experience with 'The Executioner' books. Carboni ultimately controls the high ground, manning a 30-06 rifle from a farmhouse window. Bolan, trapped in a shed, attempts to dodge in and out of farm vehicles, buildings and eventually rooms within the house. The battle spills into cornfields, the road and back to the farm again before this side-story finally reaches its conclusion. This battle echoes David Goodis' effective farmhouse gunfight in “Down There”, also known as “Shoot the Piano Player” (1952), only more modern and quite a bit longer.

Overall, this is an exceptional Executioner entry with very engaging narrative and characters. While over the top at times, the book has a surprising sense of realism due to its more personal presentation – urban America on the take. If you are looking for a fantastic post-Pendleton Bolan work, this makes the short-list.

This novel and the entire Mack Bolan universe was discussed on the fifth episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Red Radford #01 - Black Legion

John Robb (1917-1993) was a British journalist and author of science fiction, westerns, gangster thrillers, and war stories who was born with the name Norman Robson but legally changed his name to his popular pseudonym. In 1960 and 1961, Robb authored three short adventure novels starring Interpol agent Red Radford that were originally published as small hardcovers (Hardy Boys style) in England, but these definitely aren’t children’s books.

“Black Legion” is the first Red Radford novel from 1960. The novel opens at a French Foreign Legion outpost in the Sahara desert. A half-dead Arab stumbles into the Legionaries with a story too outrageous to be true. He claims that a cadre of French soldiers came to his village, gunned down two men, and forced the rest into slavery. Later, the French began hearing more rumors of fighter jets overhead and heavy artillery weapons hidden among the rocks and chasms of the desert. Who are these rogue soldiers and what are their ties to the French Foreign Legion, if any?

British Special Agent Hugh “Red” Radford, assigned to Interpol in Paris, is given the assignment to travel to Africa, embed with the Foreign Legion, and investigate these reports of a rogue detachment of Legionnaires menacing villagers in the desert. Out of an abundance of caution, Radford adopts a cover as a British-born officer of the Legion on a map-making survey. The character of Radford reminded me of a combination of Edward Aaron’s Sam Durrell and Hollywood’s Indiana Jones with a pulp hero’s earnestness.

Once in the field, it becomes abundantly clear that the mysterious fighters holed up in the massive Sahara ravine plateau have advanced war-making firepower and murderous intent. Radford and a couple sidekicks - an American and a Frenchman - set out in a helicopter to find the truth. The adversaries he encounters are diabolical and compelling as all hell with a plot that can only be stopped by the bravery and ingenuity of a spy like Radford.

“Black Legion” is a fantastic combo of a spy adventure with a compelling mystery. The international fighting force of the French Foreign Legion provides an interesting culture within which our hero operates. The novel wastes no time before plunging Radford and the reader into the bloody action and intelligent intrigue. There are suicide missions, bloodthirsty, locust-eating Arabs, and graphic knife fights. Radford is a a great hero, and the author knows his way around exciting action sequences, literary combat and vivid chase scenes filled with daring adventure for pages upon pages. There are several scenes in the novel that beg to be filmed in a big screen adaptation, and I’m surprised no one has made that happen.

Ignore the vintage packaging that recalls children’s books of the same era. There’s no way this novel was written for kids - unless your teen has a particular interest in the bad-blood arising from the French occupation of Algeria. That said, you don’t really need to know anything about the region, the history, or the politics to enjoy the hell out of “Black Legion.” Western spies battling desert lunatics is a timeless storyline that transcends any particular conflict or era. I was overjoyed to read this pulp thrill-ride and can’t wait to read the other two books in the series.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

You'll Get Yours

Although dying at the early age of 37, William Ard (1922-1960) penned over 30 novels under his own name as well as pseudonyms like Mike Moran, Jonas Ward, Ken Hamlin and Ben Kerr. As Thomas Wills, Ard wrote two novels starring private investigator Barney Glines, “You'll Get Yours” (1952) and “Mine to Avenge” (1955). Stark House Press imprint Black Gat has re-printed “You'll Get Yours” at an affordable price to attract new generations to this talented writer.

Press agent Archie St. George has summoned Glines to his office to meet aspiring actress Kyle Shannon. St. George has encouraged Shannon to explain her dire situation to Glines in hopes she will hire him to investigate. Shannon has her debut film on the cusp of theatrical release after years of modeling leggings. Shannon doesn't want the public to realize she has inherited a fortune from her dead father. Apparently women in the 1950s can't become legitimate film stars if they come from wealthy stock. So, the secret of her fortune, as well as the $100,000 in diamonds she carries in a suitcase, is being suppressed from the public until she reaches widespread appeal. Then her personal fortune will simply blend into her robust box-office earnings with none the wiser.

Glines becomes involved because someone has stolen her diamonds. Shannon, hoping the thief won't reveal the diamond's owner to the public, wants Glines to recover the jewelry. This is an elementary plot and Wiliam Ard thankfully knows it. That's why he throws a box of wrenches in the gears to surprise the characters and reader. This isn't just an average jewel heist.

The thief contacts Glines and advises he will ransom back the jewels for a meager $20K. Suspicious of the offer, Glines accepts the deal and offers Shannon's money for the box of diamonds. After looking through the box, Shannon wants to know where the real fortune is. Puzzled, Glines points out that the diamonds are indeed there. However, Shannon's real treasure were a series of nude photos that she kept secure with the diamonds...in her missing suitcase. Suspending belief, I'm buying it I suppose. Now, Glines next job is to locate the stolen pictures before the thief can ransom them to the press.

Glines’ role as investigator inevitably leads to him falling in love with Shannon. But she's in love with St. George, who alone seems to have more interest in Shannon's wealth and potential than her sultry red hair. As Glines digs deeper into the heist, he finds himself tangled in a heroin ring that leads to his own false arrest. Attempting to prove his innocence, he teams with a homicide detective to track Shannon's extortionist through New York.

For a 1952 paperback, Ard pulls no punches. There's a number of deaths, detailed drug abuse and a somewhat critical inspection of police procedure. In terms of violence...let's say 1970s and 80s men's action-adventure might be a close comparison. In one shocking scene, thugs hold Glines down while absolutely obliterating a drugged out hooker in a hail of bullets. That's bold. But what's really interesting about Ard's position is his candid look at the price of popularity. Even in today's modern times, we still see this same situation: celebrities' privacy auctioned off to the highest bidder. Then it was calendars and magazines, today it's social networks, leaked sex tapes and TMZ.

With “You'll Get Yours,” Ard proves to be a cunning architect of plotting as he scripts the perfect storm of bribery, jealousy, extortion and intrigue. The book's fiery finale asks if there is more for Barney Glines. Let's hope Stark House has the affordable answer. This novel's sequel, “Mine to Avenge,” demands a hefty price tag as an out of print used paperback online.

This book was discussed on the fourth episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Gunsmith #446 - Deadville

‘The Gunsmith’ series of adult Westerns by Robert Randisi (writing as J.R. Roberts) is the most enduring - and the last man standing - of the mega-successful adult western titles. It’s also the most consistently good, thanks to having one author and visionary at the helm rather than a rotating cast of hired guns writing under a house name. The series started in 1982 and new installments are still released on a regular schedule, so I decided to check in with a 2019 episode, “Gunsmith #446: Deadville.”

Clint Adams is The Gunsmith, a drifter hero and gunfighter who rides from town to town finding adventures and getting laid in the Old West. Over the years, Randisi has played with the idea that Adams has achieved a kind of folk hero celebrity status in the untamed American West. This has made for a fun premise in several different novels, and provides the motivation for the villains of “Deadville.”

Mayor Tom Simon of Wentworth, Nebraska has cooked up a scheme to make his crappy, dying village into an 1800s boomtown. He’s studied the success of towns like Deadwood and Tombstone and believes he’s cracked the code of their success. These towns have benefited from the violent deaths of famous gunfighters - such as Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood. His plan is to entice the famous Clint Adams into town, have The Gunsmith killed in a dramatic fashion, change Wentworth’s name to Deadville, and a tourist Mecca is born!

A few months later, The Gunsmith is lured to Wentworth under false pretenses - stopping to get laid along the way. Now, Mayor Simon’s toadies can’t just shoot Adams in the back and expect Deadville to be the next OK Corral. The killing of Clint Adams requires some drama and theatricality to make the story go viral, so he enlists the help of a gunfighting local outlaw named Bad Tony Bacon to lay the groundwork for a staged killing within city limits.

There’s a cool vibe in “Deadville” that reminds me a bit of the movie “The Truman Show.” Many of the citizens and leaders of Wentworth understand that they are creating theater to set up the sequence of events leading to The Gunsmith’s murder. The only one without any knowledge of the gag seems to be Clint Adams himself. Randisi’s writing is forward-moving and breezy with lots of dialogue and short chapters making the pages fly by. The sex scenes are graphic and very explicit, but they can be skipped or skimmed if you’re the type to blush easily.

What we really have here is a mystery where The Gunsmith attempts to understand what Mayor Simon is planning before Adams starts catching bullets with his body. Randisi is a seasoned writer of both mysteries and Westerns, so he’s on familiar ground here - particularly after authoring over 500 adult western novels. The story was very compelling but there wasn’t a lot of action outside of the bedroom until deep into the paperback. Overall, “Deadville” is formulaic as hell and probably not a great selection for your wife’s book club, but the story is a lot of fun with tons of sex and a likable stalwart hero. What’s not to like?

This book was discussed on the fifth episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 5, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 5

In this episode, we discuss the massive Mack Bolan universe, including the origin, spin-offs and legacy of "The Executioner". Additionally, Eric reviews the 88th "Executioner" novel, "Baltimore Trackdown", by Chet Cunningham. Tom reviews the newest adult western novel, "Gunsmith: Deadville", by Robert Randisi. Listen below or on streaming services like Apple, Google, Spreaker, YouTube, Stitcher, etc.

Listen to "Episode 05: The Executioner Mack Bolan" on Spreaker.

The Last Notch

Arnold Hano is an esteemed sportswriter, winning numerous accolades including 1963's Sportswriter of the Year. His 1955 non-fiction account of the 1954 World Series, “A Day in the Bleachers”, placed him in the annals of baseball history. Along with freelance work, including The Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times, Hano wrote many paperback originals under the pseudonyms of Gil Dodge, Matthew Gant, Ad Gordon and Mike Heller. Using his managing editor experience with Bantam, Hano became editor-in-chief of Lion Books from 1949-1954, developing crime-noir legends like Jim Thompson and David Goodis.

While working at Lion Books, Hano wrote a classic western tale entitled “The Last Notch”. This 1958 novel was released under the name Matthew Gant to avoid the optics of publishing himself in his authoritative role as editor-in-chief. The book was reprinted in 2017 by Stark House Press under imprint Black Gat Books. It features an introduction by David Laurence Wilson, including insights from Hano on his career and literary body of work. As of the time of this review, Hano is still writing at the age of 97.

“The Last Notch” is a western. The genre tropes are clearly evident – cattle rustlers, six-guns and fast-draws...of both iron and whiskey. However, it is written to exclude one of the centerpieces of the frontier story. There's no clear hero. No white hats to be seen. It is devoid of any strict boundaries between right and wrong, and lacks any social conventions for the characters. It's as if Hano's goal was the non-traditional definition of a hero. It's not until the book's closing pages that the moral courage is unveiled, finally allowing readers the satisfaction of some semblance of a heroic figure...as little as that may be. But I think that is where “The Last Notch” excels as an abstract western tale that defies the mandatory genre attributes.

The book's central character is an old gun-slinger named Slattery, an bi-racial killer-for-hire who has accepted his final contract - $5,000 to kill a “target to be named later”. Faces and names mean very little to men like Slattery, so he accepts the job and does what killers do - hangs out at the bar with similar men. One of them is a cold-blooded youth named The Kid, essentially Slattery's heir apparent. The arrogant young man wants to knock off Slattery and assume his position as the King of the Killers. Slattery isn't buying it and refuses to face The Kid in a gun-duel.


The territory has a newly-elected governor who is issuing amnesty to men like Slattery. In retribution for his sins, the tired gun-hand wants to kill one more time, accept “forgiveness” from the elected official and turn in his guns for a pardon. In a way, Slattery feels this act is a cleansing of the sins, a way to simply ride off into the sunset and die. The book's exciting dilemma is revealed when Slattery learns his $5,000 target is the governor himself.

Hano employs a back-story inspired by the mega-success of 1957's “Mandingo” by Kyle Onstott to paint Slattery's past as a plantation slave and his subsequent birth out of wedlock following the coupling of a white master and a black slave. The author uses the opportunity to provide adversity for Slattery, essentially shaping him into a grim-faced killer, a sweeping hand of death that just does the job and coldly forgets about the last one. Mixed into the narrative is a riveting side-story of amnesty for cattle rustlers, which cleverly crosses into Slattery's goals of killing the governor.

There are basic westerns, and then there are special westerns like “The Last Notch”. Genre authors and hopefuls would do very well to improve their plotting by simply reading the book's 14th chapter, if nothing else. While the action heats up in the finale, it's a slower, more methodical approach bordering on psychological suspense that sets this apart from rudimentary western storytelling. Kudos to Stark House Press and Black Gat for bringing this fantastic novel back into circulation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, August 2, 2019

The Woman Aroused

Leonard Zinberg (1911-1968) was an accomplished author of crime and noir fiction during the dawn of paperback original novels as a popular form of entertainment. His first published book was “The Woman Aroused” originally released in 1951 by Avon under the pen name “Ed Lacey,” a pseudonym later streamlined into “Ed Lacy” for the majority of his published works. His debut has been reprinted several times and remains available as a 99 cent Kindle eBook.

When we meet our narrator, George Jackson, he is separated from his fashionista wife. They still get together once a month to watch a movie, screw, and fight, but the functional marriage is basically over. George works as a writer for an oil company’s internal newsletter and shares his backstory with the reader about growing up as a child in Manhattan with a successful plumber as a father. His personal history is fascinating and broadcasts to the reader that this won’t be your typical helping of noir fiction.

One morning George is surprised by a visit from an old friend named Hank Conley who has just returned to New York after nearly a decade in the Army - a period that encompassed World War 2 and its aftermath. Hank gives George an envelope containing $7,000 in cash and asks George to stash the loot until Hank’s divorce is final, so he can begin enjoying his savings. It helps to bear in mind that in 1951, $7,000 was enough money to base an entire novel around.

Of course, Hank dies under suspicious circumstances while George remains in possession of the $7,000 - creating a moral dilemma for our hero. While still deciding that to do, George travels across Manhattan to meet Hank’s widow, and you can see exactly where this is going. Then things turn in a very different - and much, much darker - direction than I was anticipating. I don’t want to give it away, but this was way more twisted and perverse than the femme fatale story I was expecting. Instead, the author wrote a novel about survivors coping with the traumas of war that echo long after the final shots are fired. “The Woman Aroused” is not really a crime novel, an action story, a mystery, or a noir drama. The book isn’t easy to classify, but it’s unquestionably the kind of fiction that will stay with you long after it’s over.

This being the first novel for Zinberg/Lacey/Lacy, it’s clear that the author had a lifetime of thoughts and ideas in his mind to play with in his narrative. As such, this short work is peppered with Big Ideas about war, peace, love, marriage, economics, atrocities, and more. Just because a paperback is essentially pulp fiction doesn’t mean it can’t be thoughtful - and deeply unsettling - in the process. If you’re looking for something completely different, “The Woman Aroused” is a well-executed literary oddity. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Tropic Fury

Looking at the 1960s hierarchy of successful paperback publishers, Connecticut's Monarch Books is in the lower echelon. Despite my best shopping practices, I've yet to acquire a really good Monarch published novel. With a fantastic cover painting by American prolific artist Harry Schaare, the 1961 paperback “Tropic Fury” looks to change that. It was written by Jeff Sutton (1913-1979) under the pseudonym Christopher Gale. Wildside Press has reprinted the novel in e-book format for $2.51. 

Set in 1941, the paperback introduces us to Commander Joe Stark, an operative for the Office of U.S. Naval Intelligence. His superiors have asked that he depart to the Pacific peninsula of Malaya. Fearing that the Japanese will invade and capture the region, Stark's mission is to oversee the destruction of the Malay's oil fields, an asset that the Allies can't gift to the enemy. Once Stark arrives at the mission's destination, the potential of this WW2 high-beam act quickly dissolves.

Stark's arrival on Mala partners him with a trio of potential bedmates:

- Selinda – the bold, sexually aggressive wife of oil superintendent Mike Hawker

- Yoshi – a beautiful, doll-like nurse who plays hard to get

- Suzanne – sultry daughter of the local doctor that may be a celestial nymph

Obviously, the title “Tropic Fury” quickly changes it's meaning from what would be perceived as a rousing war novel. Stark asks some questions, interviews the oil field laborers and learns that he has a fifty-million dollar decision on his hands – when to actually press the detonator. With the Japanese on the outskirts, the bulk of the book is just Stark's decision making, which also includes which babe to bed down before destruction ensues. Yawn.

“Tropic Fury” is simply terrible. Make the right decision now and refuse to be mesmerized by the book's flashy cover. You deserve better than this.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Cash Madigan #01 - The Buried Motive

Bruce Cassiday was one of those authors who transitioned nicely from the pulp magazines to paperback original novels in the 1950s. He wrote a few Flash Gordon books in the 1970s and a host of other genre novels under an army of pseudonyms. He also wrote a biographies of Dinah Shore and Betty Ford, if that’s your bag. For awhile, he served as the fiction editor for Argosy Magazine and the brains behind many of their “book bonus” features.

Cassiday also authored two crime novels in the “Cash Madigan” series (if two books can even be called a series) - both released in 1957. One was half of an Ace Double titled “The Buried Motive” and the other was “While Murder Waits,” published by Graphic Books. The intended series order probably doesn’t matter, so I am hereby declaring “The Buried Motive” as Cash Madigan #1.

Cash is a Manhattan “bonding investigator,” a career that surprisingly doesn’t require a leather vest or a ball gag. Instead, he investigates employee embezzlements for a big company that insures employers against such losses. Cash’s job is to chase down the embezzler and recover enough stolen money to make his employer whole after the claim is paid. He’s basically a collection agent for an insurance company.

“The Buried Motive” assignment brings him to the small farming town of Gotham, Missouri to meet with an informant. The stool pigeon has info to provide Cash regarding the whereabouts of an embezzler who disappeared with $200,000 in payroll funds from a New York manufacturing company insured by Cash’s employer.

Upon Cash’s arrival in town, he reports to the trailer of his informant only to find that someone has butchered him with a carving knife. Although the logical suspect is the missing embezzler, Cash is quickly arrested for the stoolie’s murder. A baloney alibi from the town cutie springs him from police custody, but Cash remains in town to solve the murder, find the embezzler, and recover the missing dough.

Cash is a stereotypical wisecracking, tough-guy private eye in the mold of Shell Scott or Mike Hammer. The first-person narration is easy to read and follow, and Cassiday’s plotting is solid, if unremarkable. The mystery was pretty basic and nothing you haven’t read before. There’s murder and blackmail and deceit and missing money and if you haven’t read a warehouse of private eye paperbacks already, “The Buried Motive” will seem fresh and interesting. However, if you read a lot of these types of books, you’ll probably find this one to be just an average outing.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Man From W.A.R. Inc. #01 - Mission: Third Force

California author Michael Kurland is one of those guys who has published novels in several different genres. He wrote a successful series of mystery novels in the Sherlock Holmes universe starring Professor Moriarty. He also has a sizable back catalog of science fiction and alternative history titles spanning 1964 to 1990. Of greater interest to Paperback Warrior is his “The Man from W.A.R. Inc.” action series that lasted three installments from 1967 to 1969.

W.A.R. Inc. is Weapons, Analysis, and Research Incorporated, a for-profit American company that provides training and logistical support around the world to clients (mostly small nations) desiring greater stability. The hero of the series is W.A.R. Inc. employee Peter Carthage, who uses the skills he honed in U.S. Army Intelligence to fight evil for profit. “Mission: Third Force” from 1967 is the first Carthage novel in the trilogy.

The campus of W.A.R. Inc. contains a giant underground fortress beneath New Jersey farmland for drills and experimentation. The corporate lair is unimaginably high-tech...for 1967. The unintentionally hilarious descriptions of the equipment includes space age technology including “digital tape recorders” storing mountains of data. The “modem mercenaries” of W.A.R. Inc. are primarily research and development types as
well as consultants - not unlike the cadre of “Beltway Bandit” defense contractors we have today. The weapons developed in the company’s “dirty tricks” department are cool as hell and seem to be borrowing a page from the James Bond films.

Peter Carthage is one of three people in the firm with the title of “Expediter.” In this first adventure, he is sent to the fictional Southeast Asian kingdom of “Bonterre,” formerly a French colony in Indochina. The author basically took the colonial history of Vietnam and superimposed it over a Thai-style constitutional monarchy to conjure up Bonterre. Anyway, the country is experiencing instability caused by guerrilla insurgents from the kingdom’s northern province as well as the shadowy influence of a right-wing “Third Force” also seeking to topple the current government from within.

The Bonterre ambassador wants Carthage to train his armed forces in combat and intelligence to be used against the guerrillas while establishing a link between the insurgents and the traitorous Third Force. Carthage puts together a multi-disciplinary team of colorful fellow employees for the training engagement and spearheads the investigation into the Third Force himself.

The result is a ton of fun to read. Carthage is basically Sherlock Holmes in a third-world guerrilla warfare environment. He uses clues and deduction to unearth Third Force operatives among Bonterre’s military and government class. And when the time comes to kick-ass, he and his crew justify their hourly billing rate. It’s also a hilarious book, but not in the cartoonish way of the fake spy novels of the late 1960s. Instead, the author peppers the dialogue with clever wisecracks and sarcastic remarks from Carthage and his crew causing me to laugh out loud more than once. The novel also has a good sex scene but nothing particularly graphic.

Kurland’s writing and plotting is exceptionally well-done - although the climactic ending felt a little rushed. The story moves forward with vivid characters and no dull moments. I’m frankly surprised this series wasn’t a greater commercial success justifying more than three installments. In any case, I’m overjoyed to have acquired all three books in the series. Snapping up these paperbacks should be a no-brainer for any vintage adventure fiction fan. Highly recommended.

This book was discussed on the fourth episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

Monday, July 29, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 4

The newest episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast is out now! In Episode 4, we discuss the brand new Stark House “Manhunt” magazine compilation. Also, we check out the “Man from U.N.C.L.E” influence on spy fiction and offer two new reviews. We close out the month of July with our top three book picks of the month. Don't miss it! Follow the show on any streaming service as well as below:

Listen to "Episode 04: It’s a Manhunt!" on Spreaker.

The Best of Manhunt

Running from 1952 to 1967, “Manhunt Magazine” was the premier American journal for hardboiled crime short fiction. The publication was originally conceived as a showcase for the literary aesthetic popularized by the work of Mickey Spillane and succeeded in finding a market for the finest crime fiction authors of the 20th century.

The Best of Manhunt” is a 2019 anthology from Stark House Press containing 384 pages of stories from - and essays about - the legendary “Manhunt Magazine.” The non-fiction pieces were written by Lawrence Block, Jeff Vorzimmer, Scott & Sidney Meredith, and Barry Malzberg. More importantly, the anthology reprints 39 short stories from a who’s-who of mid-20th century crime fiction.

Reviewing 39 short-stories in one article wouldn’t be satisfying for the reader or reviewer, so allow me to provide some perspective on a sampling of the short works by authors we regularly cover here at Paperback Warrior.

“Mugger Murder” by Richard Deming

“Mugger Murder” is the first of two Richard Deming short stories included in “The Best of Manhunt” (the other is the fantastic “Hit and Run”). It originally appeared in the magazine’s April 1953 issue, and is narrated by police reporter named Sam. It’s a tidy little story about a coroner’s inquest surrounding a murder in an alley that may or may not have been committed in self-defense during a mugging. I think the story would’ve made a great first chapter to a novel, but it stands well enough on its own. Fans of Mack Bolan and vigilante fiction will really appreciate this one. Deming is an unsung master of crime fiction, and this story is a bite-size taste of his talent.

The Scrapbook by Jonathan Craig (Frank E. Smith

Jonathan Craig was a pseudonym used by Florida author Frank E. Smith. He wrote both noir and police procedural crime fiction with a sizable catalog of both short stories and full novels. “The Scrapbook” is from Manhunt’s September 1953 issue, and it’s the most dark and sinister story I’ve read by the author. Old Charlie has been working in a warehouse for years hauling boxes. He’s got his eye on Lois, a sweet young tease working at the same business. He thinks she’d be a nice addition to the scrapbook of women hidden in his home - all of whom are victims of sex killings coinciding with Charlie’s annual vacations. That’s all I’ll tell you here, but this is one of those stories that puts you smack dab into the mind of a real psycho, and it’s not a tale you won’t forget anytime soon.


Night of Crisis by Harry Whittington

While many of Harry Whittington’s novels remain in print, his short story output is awfully hard to find these days. For this reason, it’s a real treat to see this short story from October 1956 made the cut. “Night of Crisis” is about a guy named Jim who witnessed a tavern robbery that evolved into a homicide. The cops are grilling Jim rather hard for a guy who claims to be an innocent bystander to the crime. Upon arriving home, Jim’s wife and baby are missing. Could these things be related? This is one of the longer stories in the paperback, and it’s pretty suspenseful, not bad. However, it’s not one of the stronger stories in the anthology nor is it up to Whittington’s high standards.

Frozen Stiff by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block wrote the Forward to the Stark House anthology reminiscing about his experiences with Manhunt when he was a young and struggling writer. The editors also included a clever short story from the future mystery Grandmaster called “Frozen Stiff” from June 1962. It’s a diabolical little story about a butcher who wishes to attempt suicide by locking himself in the walk-in freezer following his terminal cancer diagnosis. He wants his devoted wife to enjoy the life insurance proceeds without being crippled by medical bills. Of course, ending one’s life in that manner is easier said than done. As expected, this is a great little story and a perfect way to kill 15 minutes.

Conclusion

I’ve only dipped my toe into the water of this anthology, but I can already assess that this may be the greatest short story compilation I’ve ever owned. It’s certainly the one most in keeping with Paperback Warrior’s fiction obsession. The stories are brutal and filled with final-page twists - or in other words: essential reading. Highest recommendation.

Fun Fact Postscript:

Stark House’s “The Best of Manhunt” (2019) isn’t the first Manhunt anthology. In 1958, Permabooks released a paperback called “The Best From Manhunt” edited by Scott and Sidney Meredith. Don’t waste your money on the vintage paperback (like I did) because all 13 stories and the introduction are included in the new Stark House compilation - along with 26 additional tales. Another reason to buy the new one: So they’ll release a Volume Two...

This book was discussed on the fourth episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Specialists

“The Specialists” was a 1969 action-suspense paperback by Lawrence Block that was originally released by the Fawcett Gold Medal imprint and has been reprinted several times over the past 50 years, available today as a $5 eBook. The novel was written by Block as the first in a series, but the author never wrote a second book with the characters leaving the novel as a stand-alone footnote to a storied career as a mystery grand-master.

Fans of team-based men’s adventure series titles (The A-Team, Able Team, Phoenix Force) will feel right at home with “The Specialists.” They are a group of Vietnam vets using their special forces and infiltration skills against organized criminals on the streets of America. They steal bad money from bad men and use the funds to finance their operations and private lives. When an opportunity arises, they receive a telegram from their leader, paraplegic Colonel Roger Cross, and the five ex-soldiers under his civilian command report for duty ready to kick some ass and make some cash.

In the book’s opening chapters, we meet the members of the team going about their separate lives as they begin receiving telegrams telling them to drop everything and report for duty (“Avengers assemble!”). To society, they are a rare stamp dealer, an encyclopedia salesman, a travel agent, a short-haul mover, and a professional gambler. This time around their target is a slimy mobster who owns banks he regularly robs to collect the insurance proceeds. The banks also serve as a money laundering vehicle for juice loans and other ill-gotten gains. He’s the kind of villain who receives oral sex from a paid hooker while keeping a pistol pressed up against her head - just for kicks.

The plan to defang the racketeer banker and take his money was audacious and complex - probably more so than was necessary but always in service of the plot and page count. Block’s writing is serviceable but not the top of his game, but the characters he created in this one are enjoyable enough to keep the pages flying by. The adventure’s conclusion was typical of the genre, and the ride along the way made for a fun trip.

Block never wrote a second book in the series, but it seems that everybody and his brother explored the same idea over the subsequent decade. If you set aside your normal high expectations for a Lawrence Block novel and walk into “The Specialists” looking for a slightly smarter version of The A-Team, you’ll probably walk away satisfied. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Decoy #01 - The Great Pretender

In 1974, Signet debuted a short-lived series entitled 'Decoy.’ The concept was in the vein of 'Death Dealer' and offered a hero who would don disguises for the government to foil criminals. The debut novel, “The Great Pretender,” was a commercial failure and Signet would cancel the series after the second entry, “Moon Over Miami.” Series author Jim Deane never made a large footprint in the men's action-adventure genre. Other than Decoy, the only other known work is the 1972 sex-book “The Mistress Book,” later re-titled as “The Fine Art of Picking Up Girls.” Classy guy.

Series protagonist Nick Merlotti is a high-profile criminal known to the public as The Great Pretender or the Clown Prince of Crime. Specializing in theft, Merlotti's most acclaimed work was stealing a priceless museum painting and inserting his own photo in its place. Eventually he was captured and prosecuted, but Merlotti's talents led to prison escapes, only to be re-captured again.

In the opening chapter of “The Great Pretender,” Merlotti is approached by the feds and asked to infiltrate mobster Gianfreddo's circle. In an effort to locate the police officers who are tipping off the mafia, Merlotti's skill-set is apparently in demand. With absolutely no backstory on Merlotti, the author lazily explains that our hero has a computer brain allowing him to quickly quell and escape conflicts, decipher the most complex problems and perform a heroic display of self-defense tactics. There's no mentioning  of Merlotti's past until page 134 of 166 – he's a former U.S. Marine. Partnering with Merlotti is a “gadget whiz” named Waves who will assist in recording and monitoring the mission.

The second chapter has Merlotti surrounded by mounds of titties on a New York beach. Picking Jane at random, the two flirtingly swim before heading to Merlotti's temporary residence to bone six times before dinner and once more afterwards. His sexual prowess is extraordinary, leading Merlotti to “ball” Jane repeatedly, as well as another babe named Faye. None of this is particularly interesting.

In a one of the most incomprehensible strategies you'll find in a men's action-adventure, Merlotti hatches a plan to intercept a yacht filled with heroin intended for Gianfreddo. By stealing the heroin, he'll then go to Gianfreddo and explain he didn't know it was intended for the mob kingpin and then give it back to him to earn respect and trust. To do this, he plans on just borrowing a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and a machine gun. There's absolutely no mention of how he manages to steal a government boat or where he obtains a machine gun (there's not even a mention of what kind of firearm it is). The next chapter just has Merlotti on the Coast Guard boat with a machine gun. The plan works out perfectly and Merlotti easily intercepts and steals the boatload of heroin, which is revealed to be a load of sugar.

Meeting with Gianfreddo, Merlotti explains that he stole the shipment of heroin for the feds in an effort to infiltrate Gianfreddo's empire. In a reversal of the mission, Merlotti explains that he now knows Gianfreddo knew about his plan all along and lured him in with the sugar (huh!?!). Now, Merlotti offers to work for Gianfreddo to reveal the informants that the feds have planted to spy on Gianfreddo's operation. This is baffling – if the feds already had informants within Gianfreddo's ranks, why did they even need Merlotti? Regardless, Gianfreddo accepts Merlotti's offer. Only Merlotti then goes back to the feds and explains that he has told Gianfreddo of the plan and that he will use this as his advantage to find the police leak. This narrative is both confusing and moronic at the same time - no small feat.

The focus of the book's last 100-pages is simply Merlotti interviewing various cops to discern who's being bribed by Gianfreddo. In a shocking sequence of events, Merlotti decides the best course of action is to dress the part of a city social worker, visit every cop's residence and perform a sex survey with their spouses. By asking detailed questions like how many times they perform oral sex, favorite positions and what bedroom fetishes they desire, Merlotti will be able to quickly inspect the homes to determine who has lavish d├ęcor, because surely if they have expensive draperies, they are on the take. Wow!

Jim Deane's short-lived literary career is completely explained by the piss-poor storytelling in “The Great Pretender.” In fact, I would speculate the book's title was a recycled adjective that the author had received by publishers when submitting drafts. This novel makes very little sense due to it's overly complicated plot-development. Further, there are entire dialogue scenes where quotes with characters are mistakenly inserted into scenes where the character isn't even in the room or a part of the scene. At one point Merlotti speaks to Faye in a restaurant but she's not even in the building! Instead, he's talking with mobsters while Faye is at her place. Did Signet edit this or just publish a shitty first draft, sight unseen?

“The Great Pretender” is hereby inducted into Paperback Warrior's Hall of Shame. The only positive aspect is the phenomenal cover art, which may have been created by Jack Faragasso, a popular paperback artist who worked for Pinnacle, Lancer, Signet and Belmont among others. Based on the overwhelming failures of this novel, there is zero chance I'll ever read the sequel. You shouldn't either.

Buy a copy of this book HERE