Friday, January 31, 2020

Mrs. Homicide

Like his contemporaries in Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and Talmage Powell, Day Keene (real name Gunnard R. Hjertstedt) was a successful Florida Gulf Coast writer. With over 50 published novels and dozens of short stories, the author's legacy has endured thanks to publishers like Stark House Press. Mrs. Homicide was originally published as a 1953 Ace Double paired with William L. Stuart's Dead Ahead. Now, Mrs. Homicide exists in a three-novel omnibus by Stark House Press.

The novel's conspicuous beginning introduces Manhattan homicide detective Herman Stone. Stone is in a precinct house watching his wife Connie being questioned as a suspect in the murder of a wealthy businessman. Connie was found drunk and half-naked in the victim's apartment. She has no memory of the victim or how she arrived at his apartment. Further evidence suggests that she had sex with the victim, and there's a message on a photo frame that indicates the two were in a relationship. The cops' offer is to waive the death penalty if Connie will confess. She refuses and Stone is left in the proverbial “rock and a hard place” position.

The narrative explores Stone's investigation into the murder with hopes that he can overcome the overwhelming evidence against his wife. Once Stone hooks a racketeer kingpin named Rags Hanlon, the defense begins to take shape. Stone's probe into Hanlon's business dealings and his connections eventually leads to his suspension from the force. Alone, with no allies, Stone's efforts to free Connie becomes a fight against corruption.

Day Keene is one of the most popular authors here at Paperback Warrior for a reason. His storytelling is masterful and his characters skirt the fine line between moral and immoral. While Mrs. Homicide was an okay read, I didn't find it to be of the same caliber as his other works like Joy House, Sleep with the Devil or Death House Doll. They can't all be winners, but Mrs. Homicide fell a bit flat in developing an engaging story. Disappointingly, nothing really happens for two-thirds of the book. Stone's procedural (and non-procedural) investigation didn't have enough twists and turns to really propel the story.

Overall, maybe there's a reason that this novel hasn't been reprinted since 1966. You'll find better Keene novels in circulation today. Mrs. Homicide may only appeal to collectors or fans that just need everything.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Penetrator #24 - Cryogenic Nightmare

The Penetrator series was a Mack Bolan knock-off written by Chet Cunningham (even numbered installments) and Mark K. Roberts the odd ones) under the house name of Lionel Derrick. The books are generally mind-numbing, escapist fun of varying quality. The cover of the 24th installment, Cryogenic Nightmare, promises a Florida setting, and who doesn’t like some fun in the sun to fight the winter blues?

The Penetrator is Mark Hardin, an American Vietnam vet action hero with Native American blood, a fat bankroll, a fortress of solitude and a passion for wasting bad guys. His vigilante missions have made him a fugitive, and the FBI likens him to Robin Hood in the paperback’s prologue. His target selection and assignments are managed through a college professor who also provides analytical support to Hardin on his missions.

In this installment, The Penetrator’s target is Preacher Mann, an organized crime figure with tentacles stretching into all sorts of badness, but pimping seems to be his true passion. Cunningham gets right to the point by describing Mann as a “vegetarian negroid” and shows off the pimp’s opulent lifestyle by explaining that Mann owns a Betamax hooked up to a 48-inch TV screen. Even in today’s world, one would have to control a substantial criminal empire to achieve such entertainment-system decadence.

After receiving his assignment from the professor, The Penetrator heads down to West Palm Beach, Florida and begins a lot of pretty standard gumshoe work investigating Mann’s business interests and shell companies. These scenes have some decent gunfights but go on much too long. Readers want to see the sexy, frozen babes we were promised on the cover art and synopsis.

It’s not until well into the second half of the paperback that Hardin learns of Mann’s diabolical plan to kidnap super-hot chicks and cryogenically freeze them for future consumption as high-price call girls. Hardin eventually penetrates Mann’s hidden island lair where the villain is kind enough to fully explain his creative and moronic plan in painstaking detail to our hero.

Cryogenic Nightmare is really a prose comic book with fun action set pieces building towards a final showdown between The Penetrator and the evil Preacher Mann. The novel owes a lot to corny, 1930s-style pulp fiction where bad guys experiment on damsels in distress in underground island hideouts until the swashbuckling hero can save the day. The pacing of this installment wasn’t great, but you don’t read The Penetrator for literary greatness. Mostly, it’s a fun read as long as your expectations are under control. 

Purchase a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Soldier of Fortune #02 - The Deadliest Game

The Soldier of Fortune series was published between 1976 and 1985 with a brief hiatus in the early 80s. The series was created and edited by Peter McCurtin (1929-1997), a talented action-adventure scribe who also authored 10 of the series' 18 installments. The premise is very simple: anti-hero Jim Rainey is a professional soldier for hire whose loyalties always lie with the side who signs the checks. The Deadliest Game (1976) is the series' second novel and finds Rainey hunting terrorists in Argentina.

Political extremists calling themselves the Cordoba Committe are terrorizing the Argentinean city of La Boca. While visiting a friend named Quinlan, Rainey finds himself in the terrorists' crossfire at the War Ministry Annex. After teaming with Quinlan to kill the baddies, the country's president offers Rainey $5,000 if he can dispose of the terrorist cell. Rainey accepts under the condition that he has complete autonomy in his methods. However, the president still wants Rainey to adhere to some military rules of engagement and assigns him an ex-Nazi leader named Richter to assist.

The book's early chapters features Rainey recruiting the vilest of mercenaries for the job. Playing off of 1967's The Dirty Dozen (and Garrison's Gorillas television show), Rainey eventually incorporates military criminals into his small Army. But aside from the Cordoba Committe, Rainey's stiffest opposition is Richter, an old war horse who favors uniformed parades over modern day guerrilla tactics.

I've always loved McCurtin's writing style, and this novel nicely showcases the author's talent. His first-person narrative adds a unique perspective to what is quintessentially a team-based combat book. In the hands of another author, Rainey's character could have been one-dimensional with the familiar formula of 1-2-3-Kill. Thankfully under McCurtin's prose, both Rainey and the supporting characters are far more dynamic. McCurtin's colleague, author Ralph Hayes, wrote seven of the series' installments under McCurtin's name, and I think they are equals in terms of storytelling.

Despite the average finale, I found The Deadliest Game to be a riveting, high-caliber read. The novel was released by both Tower and Belmont in the U.S. and features two different covers. For a complete bibliography and some additional series background, check out the Paperback Warrior review for the 17th entry Bloodbath HEREBuy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Sin Hellcat

Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake are two of the most beloved writers in crime fiction. However, most fans are unaware that they co-authored three books together when they were young men starting their writing careers in New York City. The trio of paperbacks fell broadly into the category of “sleaze fiction,” and the best of these collaborations is said to be Sin Hellcat, a 1961 Nightstand paperback written under the name Andrew Shaw that’s currently available as a paperback reprint and cheap eBook.

Harvey is living a mundane, split-level suburban existence with his frigid wife and a job as a mid-level Manhattan advertising executive. He likes to remember his college years when he was a sexual, albeit inexperienced, young lover with his girlfriend, Jodi. The novel’s opening act treats the reader to generous flashbacks from Harvey’s college years when he and Jodi were first exploring one another sexually and later when he was trying to get laid at the ad agency as a mailroom clerk. These are the sexy - but never overly graphic - scenes that comprise the first half of the book in a rare example of actual genre fiction character development.

In present day, Harvey reconnects with Jodi who is now a high-end prostitute - a plot twist disclosed in the novel’s opening paragraph (which, honestly, sorta took the oomph out of what would have been an interesting twist). After spending the night at Jodi’s place, Harvey is awakened by a goon with a camera and a blackmail proposition. I won’t give it away, but I was happy to read that Block and Westlake chose to add some intrigue and muscle to the sexy mix with a plot involving international smuggling of sorts.

As a huge fan of both Block and Westlake, I had fun reading this early collaboration by them before they made it big. There were sections of the novel where I recognized each of their narrative voices in their tadpole states. Most of the paperback toggles between flashbacks from Harvey’s checkered past to the current, genuinely intriguing situation with Jodi on an international mission.

Is Sin Hellcat a lost masterpiece? No. But it’s way better than a 1961 sleaze paperback deserves to be. There’s enough titillation to keep the dudes flipping the pages, and enough edgy, adventurous content to add some substance to the work. Meanwhile, the writing style(s) is pretty excellent and genuinely funny and insightful at times. It’s not top-tier Block or Westlake, but it was a nice way to kill a few hours. Recommended. 

Purchase a copy of the book HERE

Monday, January 27, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 28

In the newest Paperback Warrior Podcast episode, we discuss John D. MacDonald's iconic Travis McGee character, including a review of the series' ninth installment, "Pale Shade for Guilt". We also evaluate the debut novel in Jon Messman's Handyman series, "The Moneta Papers", and have an impromptu look at Lawrence Block's Chip Harrison novels. Stream wherever fine podcasts are presented or stream below. Direct downloads are HERE. Listen to "Episode 28: Travis McGee" on Spreaker.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Hell Ship to Kuma

Calvin Clements (1915-1997) utilized his experiences in the US Navy to author a number of adventure novels and short stories. After serving in Southeast Asia, Clements would become a fireboat pilot with the New York City Fire Department. Beginning in 1959, Clements would begin writing for television shows like “Gunsmoke”, “Have Gun, Will Travel”, “How the West Was Won” and “Dr. Kildare”. His original paperback novels were nautical-themed and often set in remote locations of Asia. Fawcett Gold Medal published three of his literary works: Satan Takes the Helm (1952), Barge Girl (1953) and the subject at hand, Hell Ship to Kuma (1954).

Clements introduces readers to the fearless, but financially strapped, Captain John Roper. After a disaster at sea, Roper's former employer has relieved him of his duty. Now, Roper is a lowly ship mate looking for work in an Asian port. It's here where our protagonist meets up with Captain Murdoch and his salvage boat, The Wanderer. After a brief job interview, Roper finds his new employer to be arrogant and belligerent. But despite Murdoch's shortcomings, money talks and Roper is broke.

Life on The Wanderer proves to be a hard and cruel existence. Murdoch is a madman, often scolding the crew with Old Testament scripture while simultaneously belittling their roles on his ship. Thankfully, Roper befriends a passenger named Karen and the two have an instant attraction. Karen is journeying to the island of Kuma to become a dancer, but Roper has suspicions that she's being too naive to believe her performances will be limited to just dancing.

While all of this is somewhat interesting, the narrative itself is built around a heist. The idea is that Murdoch and the crew will cooperate with the tiny island of Kuma to steal a freighter of metal. Once they replace the freighter's labor with their own crew, they will offload the metal onto the island and then radio that the ship and it's freight has sunk. Over a two year span, they will slowly sell off the metal and split the profits among the crew. But like any good heist novel...mixing money, greed and criminals is a dangerous combination.

Hell Ship to Kuma was entertaining enough but never rises above average. For a 1954 adventure novel, I think the author prides himself too much on describing Southeast Asian ports and islands to readers who will likely never see these exotic locations. John Roper is an admirable hero and his plotting with Murdoch was an engaging read. However, the entire heist aspect doesn't come to fruition until page 100, leaving only 60 pages remaining to tell the tale that matters. Overall, Hell Ship to Kuma is worth reading if you control your expectations and don't spend a fortune on it. 

Thankfully, the good folks at Stark House Press have reprinted this novel as a twofer along with the author's Barge GirlBuy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Quarry #15 - Killing Quarry

Killing Quarry is the 15th published novel in Max Allan Collins’ terrific hitman series. The chronological order of the books is quite a mishmash, but the author has done a great job of making every book stand alone quite nicely. Although this one is a 2019 release, it takes place in 1986, fairly late in the chronology.

Earlier in the series, the Vietnam vet turned paid-assassin came into possession of a list of other hitmen on-contract with his former boss, The Broker. Quarry switched his business model to stalking hitmen and hiring himself out to their intended targets to stop the assassins before the kill is completed. That’s the setup in this one, but some unusual developments send this novel in an unusual direction.

Killing Quarry begins with our anti-hero driving from his home near Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to Naperville, Illinois. He’s chosen the name of a hitman named Bruce Simmons from The Broker’s list. The idea is to surveil Simmons until he goes to his next murder gig and spoil the fun before Simmons can do his job. Things take a shocking turn when Simmons drives up to Lake Geneva and begins watching Quarry’s home. Yes, Quarry is his intended target. We are treated to two people in the murder business basically stalking each other for the kill.

Who is paying Simmons to kill Quarry? Has Quarry’s killing hitmen gambit finally caught up with him? Or is the agenda something completely different? The answers are revealed gradually on a roller coaster of twists and turns that also provides fans of the series an interesting look under the hood of Quarry’s world of hitters, brokers, envoys, and mobster clients.

As the alluring cover art indicates, a sexy hitgirl works her way into the plot. It’s interesting to note that Killing Quarry is a sequel of sorts to the 1976 entry in the series, The Dealer, re-released by Hard Case Crime in 2015 as Quarry’s Deal. Collins does a nice job of summarizing the events of the prequel, so new and forgetful readers are never lost. That said, if you’re working your way through the entire series, you might as well read Quarry’s Deal before Killing Quarry.

However you choose to tackle the series, be sure to make time for Killing Quarry as the paperback is a total winner. There’s excellent action, great humor, hot sex, and a compelling mystery at the core. Picking the best Quarry novel is a heavy lift, but Killing Quarry is among my favorite in the series. Highly recommended.

Purchase a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Broken Gun

Louis L'Amour's name is synonymous with the glory days of the American West. Authoring over 100 novels and countless short stories, L'Amour's work is just as popular now as it was five decades ago. While the author's body of work is dedicated to frontier life of the 1800s, occasionally L'Amour crossed genres to write pulpy detective stories. With that in mind, I was pleasantly surprised to find a modern western in his catalog, The Broken Gun, published by Bantam in 1966.

The main character is a popular western writer named Dan Sheridan who has researched and examined dozens of manuscripts about frontier life in the 1800s. Throughout his writing career, Sheridan has been obsessed with a missing persons case from 1864. Two Alvarez brothers led a drive from Texas into a rural Arizona valley only to vanish with their 4,000 head of cattle. Over the decades the mystery has become folklore, but Sheridan hopes to author a non-fiction book about the case. On a research trip to the area, his arrival at a small Arizona town is met with murder.

An Arizona sheriff leads Sheridan to a murder victim with the last name Alvarez. After further research, Sheridan learns that the man's brother was also found murdered. Could they be linked to the 1864 disappearance? Why would someone keep these men from talking to Sheridan? Soon, a cattle baron named Colin Wells invites Sheridan to his ranch hoping to educate him on the modern cattle business. But once there, Sheridan realizes that Wells and his family may have a link to the murders and the 1864 missing persons case.

I was really excited to learn that L'Amour had written a crime-fiction novel. My expectations were rather high simply because the author has a new canvas for his art. Unfortunately, The Broken Gun is just another western. The 1966 setting is nearly interchangeable with 1866 with all the characters on horseback wearing six-guns. There's plenty of action and enough story to make it all plausible, but it never really feels like a modern endeavor. I did enjoy some of the backstory on Sheridan, particularly his military experiences in Korea and Vietnam. I just couldn't shake the feeling that L'Amour probably wrote this as a traditional western and simply changed a few key elements to modernize it (maybe a publisher request?).

Overall, The Broken Gun is a quality read from a master of the genre. If you manage your expectations of what L'Amour's modern novels resemble, you might find more joy than I did.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Blood Money

Dashiell Hammett's Nameless Detective - an operative for San Francisco’s Continental Detective Agency - starred in 36 short works and two novels beginning in 1923. One of his most iconic stories was "The Big Knockover", a novella which originally appeared in the February 1927 issue of Black Mask. The tale continues in a second novella called “$106,000 Blood Money” from May 1927’s Black Mask. Over the years, publishers have packaged the two novellas together as one short novel titled Blood Money.

As the paperback opens, the Continental Op finds himself in a bar filled with con-artists and stick-up men blowing off steam with booze and live music. Leaving the tavern, the Op gets a tip from a newsie snitch that there are plans afoot to rob Seaman’s National Bank, a standing client of the Continental Detective Agency. Could the tip have anything to do with the giant crook convention at the bar?

You know it does and I know it does. What the informant fails to tell the Op was that the plan entails robbing not one, but two, large San Francisco banks at the same time with a standing army of crooks working together to make the jobs a bonanza of theft with millions in bank losses. During the robbery itself, the police were taken off guard, and the job went off without a hitch leaving behind a bloodbath or carnage and bank shareholders demanding private justice from the Continental investigators.

The Continental Op dives headfirst into the underworld to find out who the top man was planning this audacious crime. It’s a violent and exciting ride in a high body-count story that has aged extremely well over the past 93 years. It’s edgy, violent and gritty stuff but never cartoonish like much of the era’s pulp hero fiction. Hammett was clearly writing works that set the stage for Mickey Spillane in the 1950s and many other purveyors of violent action fiction beyond that.

Many compilations have reprinted “The Big Knockover” and “$106,000 Blood Money” back-to-back, but collectors may want to seek out a vintage paperback of Blood Money. Either way, you’re in for a real treat as this is top-notch hardboiled violence underscoring why Hammett was the grandfather of the genre. 

Buy a copy HERE

Monday, January 20, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 27

Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 27 showcases a feature on the work of Jerry Ahern, including a review of “Survivalist #1: Total War.” We also evaluate the latest installment in Max Allan Collins’ Quarry series entitled “Killing Quarry.” Check out the episode wherever fine podcasts or stream below. Directly download the episode HERE. Listen to "Episode 27: Jerry Ahern" on Spreaker.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Garrison's Gorillas

The success of 1967's The Dirty Dozen led to countless imitators in fiction and on screen. The formula of team-based adventure thrived throughout the men's action-adventure genres of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Specifically, the film's use of criminals as American soldiers was often utilized. That premise was the basis for the 1967 ABC television show Garrison's Gorillas.

The show featured Lt. Garrison reforming four hardened criminals into an elite fighting force during WW2. The incentive for the prisoners was a complete parole from their remaining sentence...if they survived. While only lasting one season, the show gained a cult following. 

In 1967, military fiction writer Jack Pearl authored two spin-off novels, one as a young adult title called Garrison's Gorillas and the Fear Formula and the other as a mass market adult paperback simply titled Garrison's Gorillas (Dell). My only experience with the show is the Garrison's Gorillas novel.

The author assumes you are already familiar with the team and premise so the action begins immediately without much back-story. Lt. Garrison's orders are to locate a secret German base that is manufacturing the Messerschmitt ME 262 fighter jets. In order to do so, Garrison and his team disguise themselves as German officers and infiltrate a hotel meeting among the top German brass. Things immediately go awry when Garrison's disguise doesn't satisfy one of the German generals. Further, after locating the airstrip, Garrison's Gorillas learn that a second airstrip contains 60 of the jets. The team, while not breaking character, must stay ahead of Germany's inquiring leaders while also relaying intelligence back to the Allies.

At 160 pages, this was a swift and easy read. Some may find it lacking in heightened action or any sense of urgency to produce gunplay. But, overall it was enough to satisfy my WW2 craving despite the slow-burn narrative style. The characters of Casino, Goniff, The Actor and Chief were enjoyable but never overindulgent or distracting from the overall team concept. After reading the book, I sampled a few YouTube episodes and quickly realized I preferred these characters on paper instead of the screen.

The bottom line, Garrison's Gorillas should cater to fans of military fiction or to the old-timers that remember watching the television show when it premiered. This was my first Jack Pearl novel and I have two others I hope to read this year - Stockade and Ambush Bay.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, January 16, 2020

87th Precinct #02 - The Mugger

The 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain (a pseudonym of Evan Hunter) was a tremendous literary success with around 55 novels spanning from 1956 to the author’s death in 2005. Those in-the-know say that the shorter early installments are the best use of your time before the demands of the market made the novels more bloated and convoluted later in the series. Today, we examine the second paperback, The Mugger, from 1956.

In order to firmly establish that the 87th Precinct is a true ensemble group of heroes, the lead detective from the first novel, Steve Carrella, is largely absent from The Mugger while he is on his honeymoon. In his absence, the 87th Precinct of Isola (McBain’s fictionalized version of Manhattan) is being plagued by a mugger roughing-up innocent women and robbing their purses. The most promising clue is that the mugger always ends his strongarm robberies with a deep bow while declaring, “Clifford thanks you, madam!”

There is a secondary plot involving a 24 year-old rookie patrolman named Bert Kling who is home recovering from a gunshot wound. An acquaintance introduces Kling to a troubled 17-year-old girl who appears to be going down the wrong path. The hope is that a heart-to-heart with a policeman might help the girl. Bored with his convalescence, Kling agrees to speak to the young lady, who happens to be a slender little dish uninterested in sharing her problems with the young patrolman. After rebuffing Kling’s outreach, she finds herself violently murdered a few pages later creating another mystery to be solved.

Could the violent death of the girl somehow be related to the oddball mugger terrorizing the women of Isola? The detectives of the 87th endeavor to find out while Kling, the novel’s best character, punches above his weight conducting his own investigation - a violation of department policy for a patrolman.

We get to know a lot of other characters in the 87th, and McBain does a nice job of making the ensemble come alive. We meet the Jewish police detective - and comic relief - Meyer Meyer. We bear witness to the controversial tactics of racist psychopath cop, Roger Havilland. A sexy, voluptuous female cop named Eileen Burke is used as bait to smoke out the mugger. She’s another awesome character, and readers will want to know her better in later installments.

The answers to the paperback’s central mysteries were satisfying but not groundbreaking or terribly twisty. You’ll see one solution coming from a mile away, but that’s not the point of a police procedural. The appeal of the series is a realistic glance behind the curtain revealing how cops do what they do. In that respect, The Mugger is the best Ed McBain book I’ve read thus far, and you should make reading this one a priority. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Trailsman #303 - Terror Trackdown

Journeyman David Robbins has authored over 200 novels under seven different pseudonyms. Along with horror and science-fiction works, Robbins created and wrote over 40 books in the Endworld and Blade post-apocalyptic series. As David Thompson, Robbins authored over 70 installments of the western series Wilderness and eight frontier books under popular western writer Ralph Compton's name. My first experience with Robbins' work is his contribution to the massively successful The Trailsman series under house name Jon Sharpe, specifically Terror Trackdown, released in 2007 as the 303rd novel of the series.

The book features “The Trailsman” Skye Fargo leading a small column of Army recruits through the northern Rockies in 1861. While the patrol features two experienced officers, the rest are all young baby-faced raw recruits with no formal training. Fargo has been hired as an Army scout to explore this portion of Montana in hopes of finding a suitable location to establish an Army outpost or fort. The opposition will be numerous Native American tribes that continue to resist the white man's invasion of the great Northwest.

Over the course of the westward trek, the crew begins experiencing mysterious events – bucking horses, missing gear and...murder. Once Fargo and the men meet Mountain Joe and his sexy daughter Prissy, the soldiers begin dying one by one. In the dense wilderness, Fargo must determine if the men are being killed by Native Americans or if there is a murderous traitor within the ranks. The investigation is saturated in blood and leads to an elevated level of violence for Fargo and the reader.

Aside from a short paragraph, I was surprised to find Terror Trackdown is devoid of any graphic sex. Fargo and Prissy do the obligatory nasty, but Robbins doesn't spend much time describing it. I'm sure dedicated series fans find this alarming, but I've never had a penchant for reading erotica. The substance is the story and Robbins delivers a superb narrative. The action extends from Montana into Minnesota and incorporates both the wilderness and a small farming community as locations.

While not quite a traditional western, Robbins' writing proves to be rather diverse. Without spoiling it for you, there's an early look at criminal profiling and serial killers, both a pleasant and welcomed surprise for a western yarn. Overall, this is another stirring installment for this wildly popular series. Terror Trackdown is worth tracking down.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, January 14, 2020


In 1955, Charles Willeford (1919-1988) was in the U.S. Air Force stationed in California and later Newfoundland. That was the year that his second published novel, Pick-Up, was published as a paperback original from Beacon Books. Since then, the novel has been reprinted several times, so finding an affordable used copy should be a cinch. Moreover, it’s also currently available as a eBook.

Narrator Harry Jordan is a short order cook in a San Francisco diner working a quiet night shift when Helen Meredith arrives to have a cup of coffee at the counter. She’s very pretty and very drunk. Harry’s also a prolific boozer, so they hit a bar together after work. Helen has just arrived in town, and it’s clear that being shitfaced isn’t a rare thing for the girl.

Harry and Helen fall madly in love, and the reader is treated to a dysfunctional romance between two hard-core alcoholics with room-temperature IQs. It’s a lot like a David Goodis novel, but Goodis always thrusts his hard-luck losers into crime-fiction dilemmas fairly early in the novel. Willeford appears to be taking his time getting to the point until it finally occurs to the reader that there is no goal here other than bearing witness to the protagonists’ descent.

Pick-Up isn’t a much crime novel, and other than a couple bar fights, there’s not much action. Technically, there’s a killing but not the kind we normally see in paperbacks from this era. As expected, it’s rather well-told, but the book is basically just a prose blues song about two suicidal drunks in a doomed romance.

The final line of the book has a plot twist of sorts that probably knocked readers on their asses in 1955, but isn’t nearly as shocking 65 years later. In any case, I found Pick-Up to be a well-written slog that doesn’t hold up to brilliant Willeford works such as The Woman Chaser or Wild Wives. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, January 13, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 26

On episode 26 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Tom explains the allure of The Saint series by Leslie Charteris, including a review of “Alias The Saint.” Eric covers Soldier of Fortune #2 by Peter McCurtin , and the guys have impromptu discussion about the work of Shepard Rifkin and Louis L’Amour. Listen on any podcast app or stream below. You can also download the episode directly HERE. Listen to "Episode 26: The Saint" on Spreaker.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Iceman #01 - Billion Dollar Death

The black exploitation phenomena of the 1970s captivated theater audiences nationwide, so it's only natural that iconic characters like Shaft, Willie Dynamite and The Mack would influence men's action-adventure fiction. Los Angeles publisher Holloway House had a successful marketing run by introducing African-American characters and culture within the backdrop of the urban 1970s. Along with Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, Joseph Nazel was among the publisher's most prolific authors.

Nazel authored over 60 literary works ranging from biographies, romance and action-adventure. While serving as an editor for Holloway House, Nazel also edited African-American magazines like The Wave, Players, The Sentinel and Watts Times. But, his work with hard-hitting, violent series' like Black Cop (written under pseudonym Dom Gober), My Name is Black, and Iceman catered to men of any color. These were grimy, intense street thrillers that readers historically loved or hated. My first experience with Nazel is the debut installment of Iceman entitled Billion Dollar Death. It was released by Holloway in 1974 and features artwork and fonts that are clearly marketed to The Executioner and The Penetrator consumers.

First and foremost, kudos to both Holloway and Nazel for including the book's cover scene in the actual narrative. There really is a dueling helicopter fight in the skies over Las Vegas featuring two bikini-clad martial artists and the turtlenecked Iceman himself, Henry Highland West. In reality, this whole book carries that same sort of zany, over the top feel shown on the book's cover. It's often ridiculous, unintentionally funny and left me debating why my David Goodis collection remains unread while I spend hours flipping through books like this. But, Paperback Warrior covers a lot of ground no matter how slippery the slope is.

Essentially, West is a rags to riches drug dealing pimp who's graduated from a petty, street level gig in Harlem to a West Coast crime king. His empire is built on drug money, prostitution and corruption, all of which are the pillars of his Las Vegas fortress city aptly titled The Oasis. Think of Nevada's Bunny Ranch as a frolicking pay to play haven spaced out over 10-square miles. The Oasis is a self-contained city run by West.

In the opening pages, a mafia kingpin is blown to pieces by a half-ton of TNT. West's reputation of elaborate, high security host is blown and he wants answers. Billion Dollar Death then settles into West and his two kung-fu kittens cracking down on sparring Mob families, a crooked politician and a former friend of West's who may or may not be the middle man in a backdoor coupe to dethrone the Iceman.

Based on my small sample size, the Iceman series isn't very good. Nazel's writing is one-dimensional and often I found myself mired in deep discussions without any real payoff or connection to the real story. There's some gun-play, a fun fight scene in a garage and of course the aforementioned helicopter scene. But even these small slivers of joy are ruined by the overall drivel that refuses to deliver anything noteworthy. I'm putting Iceman in the deep freeze.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Gregory Hiller #03 - The Spy Who Didn't

Journeyman author Jack Laflin wrote four books in the Gregory Hiller spy series - plus a prequel explaining how a Soviet spy named Piotr Grigorivich Ilyushin eventually became the American CIA’s greatest asset. I had trouble getting into the second installment, The Spy in the White Gloves, but I didn’t want to give up on this unique character so I’m continuing into the third novel, The Spy Who Didn’t from 1966.

The opening page brings the reader up to speed on Hiller’s background as a Soviet defector who is now living as a freelance writer between CIA special assignments. However, this time the assignment stumbles into a vacationing Hiller in the form of a battered old man on a road who collapses in Hiller’s arms outside a mysterious Long Island, New York sanitarium. Before losing consciousness, the old man tells Hiller that the nation of Israel needs to be notified, and “Von Eckhardt has to be stopped!”

Hiller is quickly confronted by the escapee’s pursuers and we get to meet our pulpy cast of cartoonish villains lead by Doctor Rolf Von Eckhardt, who we immediately know is a real villain because he wears a monocle. He’s also the operator of the private sanitarium, Shady Knoll, from which the old man escaped. By page 17, Hiller is captured by the bad guys, including a human giant named Man Mountain McGill, and taken to the sanitarium. The context clues for Hiller and the reader are enough to make everyone come to the logical conclusion that Von Eckhardt is an escaped Nazi officer doing very bad things inside the sanitarium walls.

Laflin writes The Spy Who Didn’t in the over-the-top pulp fiction style of The Shadow, The Spider, or Doc Savage. It’s a lot of fun as long as you aren’t expecting a John LeCarre or Robert Ludlum spy story (in fairness, the paperback’s cover should have been a clue.) The torture scenes inside Shady Knoll were particularly brutal, and the secrets of what else is happening inside the creepy place are revealed mostly through monologues from the villain oversharing with our restrained hero.

Eventually, the action moves from beyond the sanitarium walls and into Mexico. Heller’s mission is one that’s been done in dozens of times in other, better novels, but that’s not the point. The Spy Who Didn’t is a violent and propulsive bit of pulp fiction that exists for the joy of the ride. Laflin is a good storyteller even when he is trading in genre tropes for his CIA hero. Mostly, this is a book I can recommend without reservations because it was a hell of a lot of fun. I probably won’t remember the plot details in a year, but I’ll certainly recall the good time I had in this vicarious adventure.

The Gregory Hiller Series:

0: The Spy Who Loved America (1964)
1: A Silent Kind of War (1965)
2: The Spy with the White Gloves (1965)
3: The Spy Who Didn’t (1966)
4: The Reluctant Spy (1966)

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Steve Ashe #01 - I'll Get You Yet

After serving in WW2, James Howard (1922-2000) earned a doctorate in psychology and began writing crime novels as a side hustle. He put his name on the literary map with a four-book series starring journalist Steve Ashe published between 1954 and 1957. The first book in the series was I’ll Get You Yet published by Popular Library’s Eagle Books imprint with misleading and uninspired cover art. Thankfully, Cutting Edge has new editions of this series available in physical and digital.

As the story opens, unemployed newspaperman Steve Ashe is leaving Neon City for the greener pastures of Omaha. His truck driving buddy Scotty is giving him a lift in a big rig when they narrowly evade an collision with a sedan careening out of control on the snowy highway. After both the truck and the sedan come to a stop after scraping one another, the men rush over to the car to find the female driver beaten within an inch of her life. The damage to her face far exceeds what could have been caused by the mere sideswiping of Scotty’s truck.

After the woman regains consciousness and the blood is cleaned off her face, Steve recognizes his old childhood crush, Vicki. She’s running from a Denver syndicate boss named Mario Carazzi whose goons roughed her up and forced her 17 year-old sister Gina into prostitution by getting the kid hooked on dope. Steve agrees to rescue Gina for Vicki while exacting some revenge on the mobster and his goons. With this promising set-up, we are off to a very Mack Bolan-esque start.

Today we call it “human trafficking,” but in 1954 it was “white slavery” and mobster Carazzi controls the action on the 1,100 mile stretch between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Helena, Montana. Steve begins his hunt in Omaha tracking the syndicate muscle who worked over Vicki. 

At times, this really felt more like a well-written 1970s Pinnacle book with one man on a revenge mission against the underworld than a 1954 crime paperback. But whatever the era, I’ll Get You Yet is some primo vendetta stuff - albeit without a pure vigilante edge - starring a stalwart hero with a self-deprecating sweetie worth avenging.

Steve’s way to ingratiate himself into Carazzi’s organization is to pose as an amateur heavyweight boxer seeking to rise through the pro ranks. It helps that Steve really knows how to use his fists in a scrape, so fans of pugilistic drama will enjoy the boxing segments of I’ll Get You Yet

When things go sideways for the hero, there are plenty of outstanding action set pieces. The fact that Ashe is a newspaper reporter is largely irrelevant to the plot until the very end and may play a bigger part later in the series. For the purposes of this debut novel, he’s just a badass. Of course, all of this leads to the climactic confrontation between Steve and Carazzi that you won’t soon forget.

I previously read and reviewed Howard’s stand-alone novel, Murder Takes a Wife. It was decent but nowhere near as awesome as this opening installment in the Steve Ashe series. Ignore the lame cover art. This one is a balls-out, hardboiled, 1950s action paperback written for guys like us. I’m confident you will love this paperback as much as I did. It’s really something special.


Steve Ashe series by James Howard:
1. I’ll Get You Yet (1954)
2. I Like It Tough (1955)
3. Blow out my Torch (1956)
4. Die on Easy Street (1957)

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Cry Blood

During the 1950s, California author Harry Vernor Dixon (1908-1984) produced nine paperback originals for Fawcett Gold Medal who sold a lot of his books to voracious crime-fiction readers. Unfortunately, Dixon remains largely forgotten today outside the world of vintage paperback collectors. In 2017, Stark House Press reprinted two of his 1956 novels, Cry Blood and Killer in Silk in a single volume with an informative introduction by Donald Napoli. Cry Blood won the coin toss for the coveted Paperback Warrior review, so here we go:

The narrative begins with a lovely 14 year-old girl named Diana B. Halloran vanishing after school one day never to be seen alive again. Her disappearance becomes national news in the manner it always does when a photogenic white girl goes missing. Months go by with no meaningful leads, and finally the police close the case unsolved. However, fears surrounding this horrible crime continue to plague the residents of Bayside, California.

Enter Gary Malone. Age 28. Married. Childless. Architect. Veteran. Country club member. Nice guy. His world is changed forever one evening when his wife finds a pair of girl’s sneakers squirreled away in their basement. The initials stenciled near the soles: DBH. Coincidence? At first, Gary is skeptical that the shoes once belonged to the missing Diana. After all, how on earth could the missing girl’s sneakers wind up in Gary’s basement? Gary’s wife insists they call the police, and Gary’s nightmare begins.

Media speculation about Gary’s culpability - largely fed by the police - fuels distrust among family and friends in a viscous feedback loop similar to the one depicted in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl decades later. The third-person narration switches perspective between the innocent Gary and the increasingly-skeptical police chief. This police procedural mystery depicts the cops using their investigative skills to develop evidence against an innocent man. Meanwhile, Gary is caught in a web of the wrongfully-accused man forced to prove his innocence and find the real killer to save his own hide from the gas chamber.

The interplay of these two competing perspectives are balanced nicely thanks to Dixon’s superior storytelling ability. However, the police procedures are a total mess. Even if you don’t demand realism from your crime novels, even layman readers will find themselves yelling at their paperbacks, “Cops would never do it that way!” The author was never a law enforcement officer, so he can be excused some of the plot-points designed to increase the drama at the expense of realism, but the reader is forced to repeatedly suspend disbelief throughout the paperback.

The mystery itself was pretty solid. Clues were presented in a coherent fashion, so an astute reader could come up with the solution a few pages before the characters do. I also enjoyed the characters quite a bit as Dixon did a nice job at making them three-dimensional people and not just cut-outs playing the roles of various archetypes. Overall, I enjoyed Cry Blood. It was a quick read and never failed to hold my attention. While it failed as a police procedural novel, it generally succeeded as escapist entertainment. Recommended with reservations. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, January 6, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 25

On Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 25, the guys take a deep dive into the world of Nick Carter: Killmaster. Tom introduces listeners to James Howard’s obscure Steve Ashe series, and Eric reviews the nautical heist classic, “Hell Ship to Kuma.” Check it out on your favorite podcast app or listen online at Stream the show below or on any podcast service. You can also download the episode directly HERE. Listen to "Episode 25: Nick Carter: Killmaster" on Spreaker.