Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Crime Commandoes

British author Peter Cave (born 1940) was both a newspaper reporter and editor before transitioning into writing full-length novels. The majority of his literary work was in the 1970s and 1980s under his own name as well as the pseudonym Petra Christian. He contributed to three installments of the New Avengers television novelizations in the late 1970s. Fascinated by the Easy Rider culture, Cave wrote a hand-full of biker novels beginning with 1971's Chopper. Beginning in the mid-80s, Cave authored five books as tie-ins to one of the U.K.'s longest running television shows, Taggart. My first experience with Cave is a 1976 team-based commando novel titled The Crime Commandoes. It was printed by Everest, a British publisher run by author Ken Follett (The Pillars of the Earth).

In the book's author notes, The Crime Commandoes was actually a pilot novel for an expected series of team-based combat adventures. The paperback even has the obligatory team member names and skill-sets printed on the back cover. It had all of the ingredients for a series...except for successful sales numbers. It's my guess that the debut didn't receive enough consumer demand to warrant additional installments. Nevertheless, the book is surprisingly a lot of fun.

Paul Crane is a Detective Inspector working long nights in London. As the book opens, Crane arrives to a crime scene to find a slain young woman. Shortly afterwards, a constable arrives with the prime suspect. After Crane's questioning, the man admits to killing the woman after she asked him for money. In an explosive rage, Crane brutally beats the man. With plenty of witnesses, Crane is brought to his superiors where he's chastised for allowing his pending divorce, alcoholism and depression to bring about a downward spiral of police brutality. He's suspended from the force with orders to get his life cleaned up.

After a few days, Crane is summoned to a special council with a man named Grant. The idea is to form an “urban guerrilla” force featuring four of London's most controversial law enforcement officers. Crane's is given free reign to use whatever methods he chooses for targeting high-profile criminals and terrorist cells across England. He'll receive weapons, supplies, targets and support. 

The catch is that Crane must be publicly arrested for taking bribes and placed on trial. With some agency resources, Crane will become owner of the notorious Blackball Club, one of London's seediest criminal dives. The trial will provide a light sentence and Crane will officially be terminated from service. It's an orchestrated bit of theater that places Crane into an undercover operative role while allowing him to mingle with other criminal cohorts at the Blackball. Does Crane accept? It wouldn't be much of a story if he didn't.

Joining Crane's Crime Commandoes:

Cornish – History of insubordination in the Army, former boxer. Bomb disposal skills.

Lake – Former police sergeant, terminated for brutal tactics. Explosives and fighting prowess.

Babsley – Police officer, terminated for attacking his superintendent. Fighting specialty.

Jelly – The fifth member is a bomb-sniffing dog that's rejected his handlers. His talents...he's a dog!

The team's first and only assignment is tracking down a terrorist cell calling themselves Apocalypse. After blowing up several buildings throughout London, the team begins researching patterns and studying the cryptic messages that are phoned to the newspapers. After eventually narrowing down the target area, the terrorists are forced to change their agenda from bombing to kidnapping. After Crane's team begins negotiating with the terrorists, a link is formed to a heavyweight drug dealer named Panosa. But is he the leader of the cell or just an ally? It's this question that leads into an explosive finale as the team fights Apocalypse on land, sea and air.

I read and reviewed a 1981 team-based commando novel called Terror in Turin by Robert McGarvey earlier this year. It was the debut of a six-book series called S-Com. The story-line of that novel is very similar to what Peter Cave offers with Crime Commandoes. Peter Cave produces a winning formula whereas McGarvey failed to produce engaging characters, a propulsive narrative or a believable villain. 

The Crime Commandoes formulate sound counter-terrorism strategies to fight a formidable foe in Apocalypse. It was extremely satisfying to find that this author doesn't restrain the good guys. In fact, he elevates the violence and body count as the heroes attempt to decimate the enemy. While I would have enjoyed more emphasis on properly introducing half of the team, I did enjoy Cave's focus on Crane and Cornish. Dog lovers will be frustrated that Jelly doesn't really make an impact on the storytelling.

Overall, The Crime Commandoes was an excellent, action-packed novel that should have produced more installments.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Bomb Squad

Bomb Squad is a 1977 men's action-adventure paperback published by Leisure Books. The author is Mark Andrews, a name that I can't seem to place online. The only other literary work I can  locate matching this time frame is a 1970s paperback entitled Return of Jack the Ripper, also by Mark Andrews and also published by Leisure. One and the same? Probably, but we may never know.

The novel is broken into three sections - “Deadly Letters”, “Bomb Factory” and “The Hell Bomb”. The author's only attempt at creating a protagonist for the book is Tom Gilbert, a lowly alcoholic who works on a New York City bomb squad. He's having an affair with a woman named Mary Jo, who's in love with another man. Tom's wife is a raging alcoholic and the two have a one-month old child. In the book's opening chapters, Tom is suspended from the force due to his alcohol abuse. It's quite the conundrum considering the only main character (loosely) isn't an active member of the “bomb squad” for the duration of the paperback. 

In pulpy fashion, a network of 10,000 operatives calling themselves American People's Liberation Army have began mailing letter bombs throughout New York City. That’s a lot of stamps. The first one is delivered to Tom's lover Mary Jo who dies in a fatal explosion. Tom isn't terribly affected by it and later digs through the rubble to find a letter opener that he always wanted. Huh? While he's searching for buried treasure in the debris, his wife is at home in a drunken stupor shaking the baby and eventually dropping it. This should have been an important moment in the book's narrative, but it is quickly forgotten.

The novel then shifts gears to the newspaper business as they chase stories about the bombings. I believe the author was attempting to cash-in on the “thrilling reporter” sub-genre that saturated the market post-Watergate. While Bomb Squad doesn't present the newsroom suspense of All the President's Men, it does spend about 50 pages focusing on a reporter named Brown hunting clues about the mad bombers. Instead of spinning the narrative as a procedural investigation to discover who is behind the bombings, the author gives us whole chapters dedicated to the various terrorist members. There's no mystery or intrigue as we're introduced to leftover Vietnam War protesters that now want stock market winners to donate all of their profits to the needy. So, they make bombs to kill innocent people.

The author takes readers into an old church where an evil pastor is building bombs. He also takes us into a college auditorium as a professor explains to his class (and you...the reader) specifically how to make a basement level atomic bomb. He even provides the names of real books that show lunatics the step by step instructions. The horror! Furthermore, the author introduces a seasoned bomb squad member named Fingers McCoy to provide a complete tutelage on making pipe bombs to a new member of the force (again...that's for you, the reader). I pray that I'm holding the only remaining copy of Bomb Squad on the planet and that this crappy paperback doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. 

You're never going to read this book, so I'm giving you spoilers (just exit if I'm somehow stealing your joy). Not only does the book fail to produce one hero, by the end of the novel there isn't anyone in the bomb squad stopping the terrorist army. By the last page – guess what!?! 600,000 people die as New York City is nuked from the Earth. I have a suspicion that Andrews wrote this in a particularly bad part of his life – like a child dying or a downward spiral into financial ruin. That is my hope. If not, then this guy has a hard-on for destroying people and property and channeled his maniacal depression through some sort of how-to guide masquerading as a men's action-adventure novel. Make no mistake, Bomb Squad is the nuttiest thing I've ever read. And extremely dangerous. Consider yourself warned. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 30, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 37

It’s time for Episode 37 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast! This week we take a look back at the best books we read and reviewed for the month of March. Tom presents an unmasking of a rockabilly musician who also wrote genre fiction. We review vintage paperbacks from Borden Deal and Ivor Drummond. Join the fun on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 37: 99 Chicks" on Spreaker.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Skip Bomber

Lloyd E. Olson worked as a technical writer for news articles and served as the editor for a university news bureau. Olson served in the U.S. Air Force during WW2 and used that experience to author his one and only novel, 1960's Skip Bomber published by Ace. In the book's opening notes, Olson reveals that he used the story's location in New Guinea due to it being the least known battle of WW2's brutal Pacific Theatre. He poignantly described it as “an area where the Stone Age and Twentieth Century met.”

Skip Bomber introduces readers to Captain McGurk and his crew of the Fertile Myrtle, an American B-17 bomber. In a lot of ways the story is about this flying fortress and it's steadfast resistance to the elements, mechanical deficiencies, a stern Captain and Japan's robust naval fleet. For perspective, this bomber's wing area was 1,420 feet and powered by four engines each pushing 1000 horse-power. It's top speed was 325 mph at 25,000 feet. It's cargo? 6,500 pounds of explosives. Needless to say, the B-17 was a fire-breathing behemoth.

McGurk's mission is to consistently defend an area known as Port Moresby in New Guinea. During the war, this was a city of about 1,300 people sitting a mere 80 miles from Australia. For the strategist, it was an important area for the Allied forces but also critical in the defense of Australia. While Olson summarizes the history and importance of the area, don't forget this is an action-adventure fiction paperback.

Aside from a few fun excursions, each chapter is dedicated to one flying mission for McGurk and his crew. The author doesn't provide much insight on the characters' personal lives, choosing instead to simply tell an exciting series of stories. Through instrument panels, tailgunner pivots, belly bombs and McGurk's perspective, readers are thrust into these exciting bombing campaigns. Missions vary from defense measures around American ships to assault runs across Japanese fleets. Interesting enough, there's even a bombing run on a volcano.

While Skip Bomber is a lot of fun, I was hoping for a central plot to develop. Additionally, having some sort of backstory on these characters may have prompted a more emotional investment. The story ends appropriately enough, but I couldn't resist contemplating a better ending or thinking of a potential sequel or follow-up tale. Regardless, at 180-pages, this 35-cent Ace paperback packs a punch. Skip Bomber is a fun, exciting look at a lesser known WW2 campaign. Bombs away!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Memory of Passion

The literary works of crime-fiction master Gil Brewer have slowly become reprints by publishers like Hard Case Crime and . In 2006, Stark House Press reprinted two of Brewer's novels as one volume - 1960's Nude on Thin Ice and 1962's Memory of Passion. I've found Brewer's work to be slightly above average aside from what could be the genre's most impressive title, 1958's The Vengeful Virgin. The Stark House reprint offers an introduction by David Rachels where he proclaims that Memory of Passion contains characters that are "Brewer's ultimate portrayal of the male condition". Considering that Brewer's underlining emphasis is sex, I was curious to read it.

The novel features 11 total sections with each section containing a line from the song "Where or When" (from the musical "Babes in Arms"). Like many crime-noirs, Brewer's protagonist is a frustrated married man sailing the rough seas of domestic life. Bill Sommers is a wealthy artist and father living in a posh neighborhood. He drives a Porsche, is generally well-liked by his community, yet his wife Louise presents a consistent daily struggle. Often she's at neighborhood parties, displaying a fleshly fondness for the couple's circle of friends. Sommers mental solitude is dwelling on his first love, a teenage fling with a lover named Karen. The two were intimately best friends and Sommers feels she may have been the love of his life. But that was 20+ years ago and he hasn't spoken to Karen since. Until the phone rings...

Oddly, Sommers begins receiving calls from a teenage girl who claims she is Karen. After agreeing to meet her, Sommers is shocked to find that somehow Karen is ageless! She's still the teenage beauty queen from his youth. After refusing her advances and questioning his sanity, Sommers can't fight that feeling anymore. The two begin a hot-blooded affair that leaves the main character a shell of a man. He's plagued by guilt, wrecked with emotion and morally torn by his animalistic lust.

While Brewer injects his novel with a carnal energy, the narrative's pace eventually leads to a crime. Karen's mysterious presence leads to a deadly altercation that propels the novel's second half. With a sex-killer prowling suburban streets, Karen becomes the next target. But with Sommers caught in a love affair, he too begins to be ensnared by the killer. The author's presentation then becomes the view point of three characters – Karen, Sommers and the killer. And that very well may have been the book's ultimate demise.

Shockingly, I found this book to be well below average for a Gil Brewer work. He's certainly had some sleepers (Flight to Darkness), but Memory of Passion rests too much on the killer's thought pattern and behavior. Often I was reminded of provocative horror authors like Edward Lee and Richard Laymon. They were probably inspired by Brewer and/or crime-noir and this novel presents the raw sexual intensity that those two authors often utilized. I found that I didn't particularly like any of the characters and was never absorbed by Sommers' moral dilemma – I found him to be a rather lifeless character without any heroic traits. While advocates aren't mandatory, they sure can elevate a narrative saturated in depravity.

Overall, this is a Gil Brewer novel that I'll quickly forget. Thankfully Stark House Press offers an affordable reading option, but I can't fathom purchasing a high-dollar original paperback. Memory of Passion just isn't any good. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Chester Drum #01 - The Second Longest Night

Milton Lesser (better known as Stephen Marlowe, 1928-2008) authored over 20 stand-alone novels including a number of respected science-fiction stories. After authoring his first full-length crime-noir novel, 1954's Catch the Brass Ring, Marlowe went on to create his most notable literary work. Beginning with 1955's Fawcett Gold Medal paperback The Second Longest Night, Marlowe launched a 20-book series of hardboiled crime novels starring Washington, DC private-eye Chester Drum. Marlowe's collaboration with Richard Prather created a paperback sensation called Double in Trouble. It was a unique pairing of two bestselling literary characters – Prather's Shell Scott and Marlowe's Drum. My only experience with the character is the series debut.

The Second Longest Night introduces Drum as a 30-year old divorcee working in Washington, D.C. as a private-eye. In the opening pages, readers learn that Drum was married to Deidre Hartswell, the daughter of a U.S. Senator. The two became disenchanted with each other and became divorced shortly after their wedding. Six-months after the divorce, Deidre was found dead in a bathtub. Her death was ruled as a suicide but her father has doubts. He hires Drum to investigate her death and if there was any foul play.

In the book's first-half narrative, Drum connects Deidre to the Communist Party and a lover named Francisco del Rey. After one of Drum's informants is murdered by del Rey, the book's locale changes from snowy Washington DC to the hot, humid jungles of Venezuela. The author takes an odd storytelling angle by pairing Drum with Deidre's twin-sister Lydia and her husband Ralph. Together, the three visit del Rey where Drum begins to connect a lucrative oil contract with the Hartswell family. But just as things seem to wrap up, the action globetrots to a mountain range in Northern California as Drum, Lydia and Ralph ascend the slopes to determine Deidre's mysterious death.

Stepping into the novel, I had just assumed it would be a localized story with Drum's procedural investigation conducted in the urban areas of Washington DC. After researching the series for this review, I discovered that most of the Drum novels are international mysteries featuring espionage and intrigue. In fact, the series' last five installments apparently read more like James Bond than the stereotypical private-eye whodunit. This Drum debut was surprisingly more adventurous that I had anticipated, evidenced by the character's battles in and around a remote river basin. While not physically domineering, Drum's quick responses are some of his best weapons. Drum isn't intentionally written as humorous character, but the character's lashing, verbal responses are sarcastic and border on being patronizing. As a fan of Robert Parker's Spencer, I found this character trait appealing.

The Second Longest Night isn't the perfect hardboiled crime novel, but it definitely showcased Marlowe's skill-set as a successful storyteller. I imagine like many authors, the quantity eventually led to quality. I'd be mildly curious to read mid-series entries like Violence is my Business (1958) or Peril is my Pay (1960) to judge how well the series developed. With international espionage, communist plots and crooked politicians, I'm not in a huge rush to read more of Chester Drum's exploits. I much prefer small-town crime-noir, domestic disputes or more urban, localized private-eye novels. I'll continue pursuing Frank Kane's Johnny Liddell, Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer and Dan Marlowe's Johnny Killain novels before devoting more time to Stephen Marlowe.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Hunt the Killer

Along with Harry WhittingtonGil Brewer and John D. MacDonaldDay Keene (real name Gunnard R. Hjerstedt) presented many of his crime-noir novels in Florida locations. These prolific authors were Florida natives or had simply adopted the state as their home. Often, these crime-fiction talents would even spend weekends together swapping ideas and fishing along Florida's Gulf Coast. So, it's only natural that their literary works were spotlighted by the Sunshine State. Day Keene's Hunt the Killer (1952) exemplifies that trait.

When readers first meet Charlie White, it's on the last day of his prison sentence. As he is stepping out of a Florida prison, there's a backstory explaining why White wore stripes for four-years. White, a WW2 veteran, owned a fishing boat and was making a meager living hauling in fish from warm Gulf Coast waters. Married to Beth, the two lived in an older Victorian styled house on a small island near Tampa. With dreams of escaping normality's prison, White was delighted to receive an anonymous call from a man simply calling himself Senor Peso. This unusual caller asked White if he would like to make $2,000. The $2,000 quickly snowballed as White found himself illegally importing goods, duty free, into Tampa.  After a few successful imports, White was caught by the Coast Guard and sentenced to prison.

Upon his release, White is picked up by the beautiful Zo, a Cuban woman that White was having an affair with before his capture. The two head to a coastline cabin to celebrate White's release. However, White discovers a letter that his wife wrote him advising that she has forgiven him for his past discretion and would like to reconcile their marriage. Truly loving Beth, White breaks off the fling with Zo. Shortly thereafter, White finds himself unconscious in the cabin with a gun he doesn't own. Readers aren't as surprised as White when he finds Zo's corpse riddled with bullets near by. Who shot Zo?

It's the age-old genre trope – the innocent man wakes up with a corpse. In the skillful hands of Day Keene, it's still an entertaining retelling. The novel's first half focuses on White's flee from the police across Florida, transporting readers into rural and tropical locations like Ocala, Ybor City, Fort Myers and Palmetto City. There's a satisfying relationship that White strikes up with an old trucker named Kelly. But, it's White's visit with his wife Beth that ratchets up the suspense. Keene's atmosphere –  an old, desolate mansion shrouded in Spanish moss – is nearly a main character as the “hunt for the killer” propels the narrative. The eventual reveal of Senor Peso was well worth the price of admission.

Thankfully, this novel has been reprinted by Stark House Press as a three-in-one volume that also contains two of his 1959 novels, Dead Dolls Don't Talk and Too Hot to Hold. There's no reason why you shouldn't own this in your collection. Purchase a copy HERE

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Mercenaries #01 - Black Blood

British author John Harvey's most notable literary work is a series of police procedural novels starring Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick. The series began in 1989 with Lonely Hearts and ran an impressive 13 installments through 2014. In the early 1970s, Harvey wrote two biker novels under the name Thom Ryder and also authored a three-book WW2 series called Death Shop. My first experience with the author is his The Mercenaries series of team-based combat novels written under the pseudonym Jon Hart. The series ran five total installments with the debut paperback, Black Blood, published in 1977 by Mayflower.

Black Blood has an auspicious beginning as the author introduces a character named Dick Thompson, a young boy who's being brutalized by his peers. After the beating, Thompson returns home where he discovers his mother is having adult-relations with a man. As Thompson runs out of the house, he collides with his father. Fast-forward to present day and we find Thompson working in Africa as a mercenary. Through thick foliage, Thompson spies a black woman breastfeeding her baby. Cautiously, Thompson enters the hut, rapes the woman, threatens her baby at knife-point and then leaves. The odd thing is that Thompson is a Lieutenant in the author's band of mercenaries called Five Commando.

I was hoping for something remarkable considering Harvey's respectability as a talented author. However, once another character was introduced as antisemitic and the son of a Nazi soldier who assisted in the mass extermination of Jews, I was immediately turned off. With Black Blood, the author's idea was to establish an action-adventure series starring criminals. Five Commando is made up of despicable characters that are led by a cunning negotiator named Major Kane. The debut mission is Kane's contract with an African leader who is attempting to resist a strong rebellion. After hiring Kane's mercenaries for 70 pages, Five Commando kills all of the rebels and take on a second mission of protecting a monastery of nuns. By the 100th page, I had completely lost interest.

At 125-pages, this book was the pits. The writing was disjointed and unnecessarily gory. Often I had trouble placing where the team members were in battle and in some cases I couldn't ascertain whether Kane had just five Mercenaries or five-hundred. There were brief portions of the narrative where team members are interacting with other allies. This was extremely confusing from a reader's perspective and left me disenchanted with the storytelling. The end result is a low-brow fictional effort that shouldn't be in your hands on or on your bookshelf. We have a special place for these abysmal literary efforts – the Paperback Warrior Hall of Shame. Black Blood, welcome to your permanent home.

The Life, Literature, and Death of Ron Haydock: A Paperback Warrior Unmasking

I recently bought a large lot of vintage paperbacks on eBay. The bundle of books was priced right, and my lowball offer was honored by the seller - much to my joy and amazement. Among the stacks of Fawcett Gold Medals and Ace Doubles was an oddity I’d never seen before: a pseudo-sleaze paperback with a plot synopsis hinting at it being a sexy caper novel titled Scarlet Virgin by someone named Don Sheppard. While the packaging of this tawdry-looking paperback does nothing to inspire confidence in its quality, the story behind the author is noteworthy and worth exploring.

The first thing to understand is that the paperback is an April 1962 printing by low-end publisher, Pike Books of Van Nuys, California, distributed by an outfit called Paragon News. The photo of the cover model was taken by Bob Pike, who I presume was the owner of this less-than-prestigious publishing house, and I bet that snapping pictures for sexy paperbacks was his favorite perk of the job.

However, the real interest here is the author. As you may have gathered, the writer here is not, in fact, someone named Don Sheppard. A bit of internet digging answered the first question of this sleazy authorship mystery: Who the hell was Don Sheppard?

According to U.S. Copyright records, the real author was Chicago native Ron Haydock, and if you’re not familiar with that name, please allow me to get you up to speed. First, go ahead and listen to the song “99 Chicks” by Ron Haydock and The Boppers. It’s available on Spotify.           

That’s a pretty awesome song, right? The rockabilly single was released as a 45 RPM in August 1959 by Cha-Cha Records. It wasn’t much of a hit, but the disc remains a rarity sought-after by collectors. The group performed the song on an episode of “Chicago Bandstand” before Haydock left his Windy City hometown to chase fame in Hollywood.

A lifelong fan of horror movies, Haydock began editing a column in a film-buff magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland published by Forrest J. Ackerman before launching his own knock-off publication that ran from 1961 to 1964 called Famous Monsters of the Films. He also co-hosted a weekly Los Angeles talk radio show geeking out over horror films. 

His knack for writing prose opened the door to a career as an author. He wrote two sleaze novels for Bob Pike published in March and April of 1962: The Flesh Peddlers and the aforementioned Scarlet Virgin - both released under the pen-name Don Sheppard. If he received the going rate at the time, it’s likely that Pike paid Haydock about $500 per manuscript. Maybe less. Over the subsequent six years, Haydock continued his career as a novelist by co-authoring 11 straight-up porno books under the name Vin Saxon, a pseudonym he shared with Jim Harmon. His body of work from this era includes Caged Lust, a 1967 effort in which, if the cover is any indication, a zoo gorilla has carnal relations with at least two lusty babes. The novel was also released under the name Ape Rape.

Haydock also acted in a handful of schlock cinema B-movies in the 1960s, including Rat Pfink a Boo Boo from 1966 with a soundtrack featuring several of Haydock’s songs. He co-authored the screenplay and acted in two roles in the film, including one credited to “Vin Saxon,” the pseudonym he used to publish the
gorilla porn novel.

As his dreams of Hollywood success faded, Haydock returned to Chicago in 1967 to work on his music career. He also wrote some stories for Creepy magazine and drafted the copy for the backs of a 55-unit trading card series issued by Topps in 1968 called Land of the Giants, cards that fetch a pretty penny on the collector’s market today.

Haydock briefly returned to acting in the 1971 horror film, Blood Shack directed by his long-time friend and collaborator, Ray Dennis Steckler. He continued to be part of the world of horror film fandom by serving as associate editor and writer of a short-lived publication called Monsters of the Movies that came and went in 1974.

“I'm out for kicks in life, doing whatever I want whenever I want, on the move like there's no tomorrow, I'm living like there's only today,” Haydock said. “Yeah, that was the right word for what I wanted out of life - kicks. And I never had to look very far or very hard to find them. Somehow, they always managed to find me.”

The details aren’t entirely clear, but 1977 was a bad year for the author, actor, musician, and film fan. His mental health began to slip and on August 14, 1977, he was walking down an interstate highway exit ramp in San Bernardino County, California when he was struck and killed by an 18-wheeler truck. He had been visiting his filmmaker friend Steckler in Las Vegas and was in the process of hitchhiking his way to L.A. when the accident occurred. He died two days before Elvis Presley met his own too-soon demise. Haydock was 37. Presley was 42.

Haydock is buried in Resurrection Catholic Cemetery near Midway Airport on Chicago’s south side. In 1996, Norton Records compiled 28 of Haydock’s songs and demos - previously released and unreleased - into a career retrospective CD called “99 Chicks.” The 29-track compilation remains available today on every major music streaming service.

His literature, however, remains lost to the ages. That is until a deep-discount eBay paperback lot brought Scarlet Virgin by Don Sheppard into my library and life.

The 158-page, big-font paperback is narrated by Biff Elliott, a 34 year-old “knight of the world” who was a freelance soldier in the Cuban revolution and experienced “wild times in the Orient.” As the novel opens, Biff finds himself held at gunpoint by a sexy redhead who is convinced he’s someone else. One thing leads to another, and Biff is thrust into a fantastic adventure involving a primitive society worshiping a megalomaniac white man as their god, and a missing idol that could unravel the whole enterprise. As you can imagine, the short novel is full of kinky nymphs for Biff to boff along the way.

This Paperback Warrior Unmasking would be so much better if it turned out Scarlet Virgin was a lost classic that demanded wider readership. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Haydock’s writing is fairly amateurish and in desperate need of an editor. The narration is littered with sentence fragments and exclamation points as an indicator of something exciting happening. I think he was trying to emulate a Doc Savage styled adventure, but the whole thing felt very rushed and poorly outlined.

The best thing that can be said about Scarlet Virgin is that it could have been a good first draft of a novel in the hands of the right publisher, but Pike Books clearly didn’t care enough to spruce it up. Ron Haydock deserved better.

The biggest upside of this forgotten little book is that it prompted me to learn quite a bit about this ambitious young man who wanted to make it big in the arts before his life was cut short. Haydock said that all he wanted out of life were kicks, and I hope he found some along the way. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Paperback Warrior Unmasking: Who Is Jack Baynes?

Jack Baynes was a pseudonym employed by Fawcett Crest for four paperback original crime novels starring Chicago private eye Morocco Jones published between 1957 and 1959. Recent eBook reprints of the novels brand the books as the War Against the Mafia series, a name that rings more than a few bells for us. Neither the original 1950s paperbacks or the 21st century eBook reprints answer the critical question:

Who the hell was Jack Baynes?

Bertram Baynes Fowler (1893-1981) was an editor and writer at the Christian Science Monitor with an interest in history and economics. He was also a popular public speaker on social science topics in the 1930s and 1940s. He wrote several non-fiction works advocating the formation of cooperative institutions such as credit unions and food co-ops as an alternative to the top-down approach of corporatism. Fowler viewed cooperative organizations as a way to split the difference between cutthroat capitalism and centralized government socialism at a time when America was struggling with those questions in the wake of the Great Depression and World War 2.

In the world of fiction, Fowler left only a few footprints behind. He sold two short stories to the pulps in 1936 using the pen name B.B. Fowler. In August 1936, Dime Mystery Magazine published his novelette School for Madness. He also delved into horror fiction with his story Huntress from Hell published in the October/November 1936 issue of Horror Stories magazine.

Diving into inconsequential paperback crime fiction during the late 1950s must have been a fun diversion for the writer, particularly with the commercial success Mickey Spillane was achieving at the time with his Mike Hammer stories. Recall that in the 1950s, paperback originals were lowbrow pop culture for the masses. As such, a writer and thinker whose ideas were often cited in economics journals would understandably want to publish his violent and tawdry fiction under the veil of anonymity that the Jack Baynes pseudonym provided Fowler.

The copyrights were never renewed on the Morocco Jones series which created an opportunity to bring these now public domain books back to digital life for an enterprising reprint house called Deerstalker Editions. The publisher is owned by Jean Marie Stine, a former editor at Leisure Books and assistant to Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. On her blog, she says that she changed the titles of the Morocco Jones series because the originals “seem to have been created by an inattentive editor.”

The order and title variations of the Morocco Jones series are:

1. Meet Morocco Jones (1957). Reprinted as Morocco Jones and the Syndicate Hoods
2. Hand of the Mafia (1958). Reprinted as Hand of the Syndicate
3. The Peeping Tom Murders (1958). Reprinted as The Syndicate Murder Cult
4. The Case of the Golden Angel (1959). Reprinted as The Syndicate’s Golden Angel

Buy the books HERE

Morocco Jones #01 - Meet Morocco Jones

The Morocco Jones books by pseudonym Jack Baynes are a four-installment series debuting in 1957 written by a newspaperman and non-fiction writer named Bertram B. Fowler (1893-1981). The actual title of the debut remains a source of great debate. I’m guessing the full title is Meet Morocco Jones in the Case of the Syndicate Hoods but the spine of the original paperback simply reads Meet Morocco Jones. A recent eBook reprint re-titles the novel, Morocco Jones and the Syndicate Hoods. Same difference, I suppose.

The book opens with our hero, Morocco Jones, opening a private investigative agency in Chicago along with two colleagues from their spy days together. As Morocco explains to an old flame, “We have wealthy clients who pay well for the return of missing jewels, of embezzled funds; for straightening out a crooked caper. It's duck soup after the old days, honey."

Unfortunately, it’s not going to be that easy for Morocco this time. A commie spy named Bardo has a score to settle from the group’s European Cold War days and resurfaces in Chicago with a goal of killing Morocco and his partners. Even more vexing, Bardo is coopting hoodlums from the Chicago syndicate to be his local muscle. It’s a war against both the commies and the mafia in one, easy-reading volume.

Another wrinkle is that the three ex-spy partners had a fourth member of the team back in Europe named Chris who went missing years ago. It seems that Chris went through extensive plastic surgery to change his appearance and is now also lurking in Chicago. This tired gambit has been done before in adventure fiction and feels a little lazy to me. Chris’ resurfacing as someone else is clearly somehow related to Bardo’s resurfacing, but how?

Morocco is not the boss of his own P.I. agency. He answers to the General who ran the spy agency before they all retired two years earlier. The General is a hard-nosed boss who says things like, "And, so help me, Morocco, I'll eat you for breakfast if you slip." Based on the exigency of this current mission, the three have been reinstated as U.S. government operatives until Bardo is permanently exterminated.

This first literary adventure in the series is basically a hunt-and-kill mission for Morocco, but he has to run down clues like a normal private eye to find Bardo and his syndicate protectors. He leaves a sizable body count in his wake in a bloodbath of carnage more extreme than most 1957 paperbacks. The action scenes were top-notch but there are far too many characters and untidy plot threads in this otherwise short paperback. It’s easy to get lost at times, which should never happen in a short paperback.

Fowler’s writing is serviceable without ever being flashy. He would have fit in perfectly among the Pinnacle Books serial vigilante authors of the 1970s. Overall, this opening Morocco Jones adventure is definitely worth your time, but it is unlikely to be the best book you read this year.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Run to Morning

Bestselling author Henry Patterson (known as Jack Higgins) reached superstar status with his 1975 novel The Eagle Has Landed. However, beginning as early as 1959, Patterson began authoring a number of action-adventure novels using pseudonyms like Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlowe and, of course, Jack Higgins. Patterson wrote four novels under the name James Graham, including 1974's The Run to Morning. This novel was also released that same year under the title of  Bloody Passage. As if things couldn't get any more complicated, the combination of Higgins, Graham and Fallon were all listed as author names for the many various printings of this novel under the two titles. Considering all of the publishing and marketing strategies, did the author deliver a worthwhile reading experience?

The book begins with one of the most effective opening paragraphs that I can recall:

“The first shot ripped the epaulette from the right hand shoulder of my hunting jacket, the second lifted the thermos flask six feet into the air. The third kicked dirt at my right heel, but by then I was moving fast, diving headfirst into the safety of the reeds on the far side of the dyke.”

From that opening segment, readers are introduced to Oliver Grant, a man with a unique profession. After developing a skill-set of freeing captives during the Vietnam War, Grant now runs a successful, illegal business of breaking into international prisons and liberating select prisoners. His clientele are wealthy businessmen, politicians and criminals (there's a fine line between the three) that pay top dollar to free associates, family and friends. When Grant is asked to break into a Libyan prison for a corrupt businessman named Stavrou, he politely declines fearing the regime's vicious dictatorship. But shortly after his declination, Grant's blind sister Hannah is kidnapped by Stavrou's cartel and held as a bargaining chip.

The first 100-pages of The Run to Morning features Grant's realization that Stavrou's step-son is being held in a notorious, cliff-side prison that is reputed to be impenetrable. To assist with the mission, Grant recruits a former U.S. Army Green Beret, a skilled mountain climber and a boat captain. Complicating Grant's teamwork is a vile henchman named Langley, a man that reports directly to Stavrou, and Stavrou's lover Simone. Once the escape is underway, Grant begins to believe that the whole operation is just a set-up. But why? That's the question as readers plunge into the riveting second-half narrative.

While The Run to Morning had some gaping plot holes, it's still better than 90% of the books I read and review. Higgins' storytelling style and his ability to construct these international espionage adventures make for an exhilarating reading experience. The narrative's recruitment stage was intriguing with the addition of Langley and his effect on Grant's mission. The love interest angle between Simone and Grant was an evolution, eventually revealing its true nature. The Simone character was a slow development and from a reading experience, the author's patience was a key component to her impact on the story.

From exciting nautical chases, explosive gunfire and a brilliant prison raid, The Run to Morning was another thrilling addition to Higgins' impressive catalog. Highly recommended!

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Bad Day at Black Rock

The genesis of this paperback is a bit confusing, so do your best to follow along. In 1946, The American Magazine published a short story called “Bad Time at Honda” by Howard Breslin (1912-1964). The story must have been well-received because it was adapted into a screenplay by Don McGuire and Millard Kaufman for a 1955 movie starring Spencer Tracy called Bad Day at Black Rock. Before the movie was released, the screenplay was then adapted into a Fawcett Gold Medal novelization by Michael Niall released in December 1954. Here’s the catch: Michael Niall is a pseudonym for Howard Breslin, the guy who wrote the original short story in the first place. The good news is that the novel Bad Day at Black Rock is nowhere near as confusing as the paperback’s origin story.

It’s the Summer of 1945 and a passenger train stops in the small, Western desert town of Black Rock. The only passenger to disembark is John Macreedy, and you can be forgiven if you picture him to look a lot like Spencer Tracy. The mere fact that the streamliner stopped in the dust-plagued and shabby town is a big deal because no passenger train has stopped in Black Rock for four years. Suffice to say, this isn’t a place accustomed to strangers.

Macreedy is greeted with hostility and distrust from Black Rock’s permanent residents. This is a story of dueling secrets. The people of Black Rock clearly have something to hide. Conversely, Macreedy’s real purpose in town is initially a mystery to both the guarded townies and the reader. I’m not going to spoil it here, but Macreedy has travelled to Black Rock to solve a mystery and right a wrong that never should have happened. But is he a private detective? A government agent? A lone vigilante?

The town’s boss is named Reno Smith, a vividly-drawn character filled with menace and power beneath a veneer of charm and reasonableness. Although this was basically a contemporary story of the 1940s, the paperback has the vibe and structure of a novel set in the Old West - a stranger blowing through a dusty town with a secret headed for a violent confrontation with the existing power structure among the tumbleweeds.

A book like Bad Day at Black Rock succeeds or fails based on the strength of the secrets the characters eventually reveal, and the solutions here are pretty satisfying. Although the paperback is only 143 pages, there was quite a bit of filler added to create some bulk to what was probably a perfectly lean short story. The final confrontation was solid and also recalled the explosion of violence found at the end of most western novels.

Overall, Bad Day at Black Rock was a decent, if unremarkable, diversion. I predict that it won’t be your favorite book, but you also won’t regret the couple hours it takes you to finish it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Empty Trap

The Empty Trap, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1957, is a shorter, stand-alone crime-fiction novel by John D. MacDonald. It's patterned like a traditional western yarn, albeit more savage and uncontrollable in a contemporary setting. While the story's most violent portions occur in Mexico, MacDonald leads his readers into the dry, scorching Nevada town called Oasis Springs. It is here where The Empty Trap snares Lloyd Wescott and his beautiful lover Sylvia.

In the novel's opening pages, readers are immediately introduced to Lloyd. But it's a brief introduction. You see Lloyd has skimmed nearly $100,000 from his employer, a crooked Casino calling itself The Green Oasis, and he's now a broken shell of a man about to meet death. Harry's three brutish enforcers have gang raped Sylvia to death and viciously burned and beaten Lloyd in an effort to retrieve the money. In the opening 19-pages (not for the squeamish), Lloyd is placed into a Pontiac and pushed off of a high cliff. But unbeknownst to the enforcers, Llloyd survives.

Like a rugged Spaghetti Western, Lloyd is found by an old Mexican and brought to the man's large village. The impoverished villagers slowly nurse Lloyd back to health. With his disturbing new appearance – splintered teeth, broken facial bones, spider-web of scars – Lloyd contrives a plan to avenge Sylvia's murder...and his own.

MacDonald weaves his short narrative into a series of backstories. The reader is brought full circle from Lloyd's beginnings as a hotel manager to his affair with Harry's sultry wife Sylvia. It's a timeless retelling of a man's quest to avenge the death of a loved one, but MacDonald squeezes a lot of originality out of the familiar story. Lloyd's affection for his employer's wife helps the reader identify with a flawed character (as opposed to the popular crime-fiction trend of alcohol addiction). The novel's bloody beginning sets the tone for what is ultimately a very gritty and violent tale of theft, misfortune and loss. Readers know exactly what's behind the curtain jerk, but will still be impressed by MacDonald's magic.

The Empty Trap proved to be a fulfilling reading experience. Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Penetrator #01 - The Target Is H

Powerhouse publisher Pinnacle capitalized on its own success with The Executioner with a wildly successful, over-the-top vigilante series entitled The Penetrator. Beginning in 1973, the series launched with The Target Is H, the first of 53 installments published under the house name of Lionel Derrick. However, the series was masterminded by journeyman author Chet Cunningham (Avenger, Pony Soldiers), who wrote the even numbered volumes. The odd numbers were penned by Mark K. Roberts (Soldier for Hire, Liberty Corps.). I decided to check out where it all began - Penetrator #1: The Target is H.

The novel introduces series protagonist Mark Hardin and the events that led to his war on organized crime. Hardin excelled in sports, eventually lettering in wrestling, basketball and football in high school. On the cusp of a lucrative NFL contract, Hardin refuses to cooperate with gambling junkies during his last collegiate game and experiences a horrific back injury that ends his athletic ambitions (there's more to the story but I'm no spoiler). Hardin then joins the U.S. Army and finds that he is a remarkable soldier. After numerous medals, Hardin's military career ends with an exceptional record and an honorary discharge.

While hoping to find the gambling junkies that ended his sports career, Hardin and his girlfriend Donna Morgan run into a heroin distribution ring in Los Angeles. Too close to the fire, Donna is murdered and Hardin finds himself aligned with her uncle, Professor Hawkins, and a talented Native American named Red Eagle. As a trio, they launch a crime-fighting crusade from a desert fortress called The Stronghold.

This series debut consists of a number of guerrilla firefights between Hardin and a mob family led by Don Pietro Scarelli. Mark Roberts writes like Don Pendleton's clone, firing off an admirable Mack Bolan knockoff in Mark Hardin. Despite the book's cover (and most of the series for that matter), Hardin isn't some suit-wearing spy that's chasing brutes and babes. In fact, I was surprised that Hardin is mostly concealed in black fatigues without any bodacious beauties. It's all action, from car chases on windswept, desert roads to infiltrating the mob in a slick ambush. Roberts presents three distinct firefights that were above average for a 1970s vigilante paperback...and that's saying something.

Overall, The Target Is H was a stellar first entry in what would amount to be a tremendously successful run of men's pulpy action-adventure novels. This one is a must read and thankfully Chet Cunningham's estate have made the first 26 installments available as affordable ebooks.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 23, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 36

In Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 36, our field correspondent witnesses a book purge at a legendary bookstore. Who got the axe? We discuss big news regarding Max Allan Collins’ Nolan books and a vexing problem concerning John Boland’s Gentlemen series. Eric reviews a Doc Savage book by Philip Jose Farmer, and Tom covers The Captain Must Die by Robert Colby. Stream below on your favorite podcast app. Direct downloads HERE:

Listen to "Episode 36: Max Allan Collins' Nolan" on Spreaker.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Executioner #11 - California Hit

After the deadpan narrative in Vegas Vendetta, the ninth installment of The Executioner series, I was alarmed that author Don Pendleton had reached a subdued complacency. Thankfully the subsequent entry, Caribbean Kill, delivered what most would expect from these early installments – white-knuckle action laced with gunfire. After taking a year hiatus from Pendleton's novels, I was excited to read the series' 11th volume, California Hit (1972).

Bolan arrives in San Francisco to extinguish Roman DeMarco's criminal empire. Targeting the Capo Mafioso, Bolan sets his targets on DeMarco's two most loyal generals. As the book opens, there's a sense of familiarity as Bolan stakes out a mob dwelling called The China Gardens. In a blitzkrieg of explosives, Bolan eliminates dozens of enforcers before being ushered to safety by a bodacious Asian woman named Mary Ching. While on the run from a special police task force called Brushfire, Bolan roots out a Chinese criminal cell that is aligning with the mob to force a power struggle within the Mafia ranks. That's a lot to unpack for any reader.

Pendleton's narrative has a lot of forward momentum but mostly these battles have become commonplace within the series. Surprisingly, the most gripping portions were dedicated to characters from Bolan's past. For example, the novel's 10th chapter is titled Alpha Team. This of course is a tie-in to Bolan's firefighting team in Vietnam called Team Alpha. It is also the name of a successful spin-off series that debuted in 1982.

California Hit also brings to light the fact that Bolan served in some capacity during the Korean War. I'm not mathematically gifted but I think Bolan would have been too young for that campaign. Regardless, these history lessons are connected with one of Bolan's former squad members, Bill Phillips. It's Phillips that opposes Bolan's mission by attempting to quell the flames with his Brushfire team of anti-Bolan personnel. There are a number of cameos or mentions throughout the novel – Leo Turrin, Gadgets Schwarz, Rosario Blancanales and Bolan's brother Johnny.

While California Hit won't make any Bolan “best of” lists, it is about par for the course for the series' double-digit entries. There's a number of characters, narrative threads and series' characters to keep readers briskly flipping the pages. The book's last few paragraphs introduces the next mission – protecting Johnny in Bolan's hometown of Pittsfield. I'm excited to see how it plays out in Boston Blitz.

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The Living End

Frank Kane's body of work is primarily highlighted by the Johnny Liddell series of books and short-stories. While that private-detective series was extremely successful from 1944-1965, Kane composed a number of high-quality stand-alone crime-fiction titles including Key Witness (1956) and Syndicate Girl (1958). While most of the author's work is iron-fisted, hard-boiled crime novels, there are two distinctions: Juke Box King (1959) and the subject at hand, The Living End (1957). Both of these titles are centered around the music business with an emphasis on radio and the disc-jockey profession. With Kane's crime-fiction experience, he's able to fit these stories into a gritty crime-noir experience for readers. The Living End was originally published as a paperback by Dell and has been reprinted by Stark House Press subsidiary Black Gat Books in 2019.

The book showcases the fictional rise of music industry upstart Eddie Marlon. As readers are first introduced to Eddie, he's interviewing at a music publisher called Devine Music. After playing a rather deadpan song for the publisher, Eddie is offered an internship working as an assistant to a popular radio DJ named Marty Allen. The gig has Eddie lining up the “platters” of records during early morning hours. Marty takes an immediate liking to Eddie and the two form a teacher-student relationship throughout the book's opening chapters.

Soon, Eddie learns about the era's most notorious music scandal, the art of payola. In the 1950s and 1960s, the music business was saturated in the crooked business of record labels and publishers paying disc-jockeys to play their songs and records repeatedly. Music historians described it as a way to train radio listeners to like certain songs due to repeated listens (a radio tactic still being used in some degree today). By limiting airtime for independent artists and low-budget recordings, high profile labels were able to continue their success through the disc-jockey manipulation. Marty isn't completely opposed to the racket, but he also isn't a complete-pushover. He continues to reward the independent and local artists with airplay on the station. Eddie, looking for career shortcuts, begins slipping in song rotations for more money while avoiding artists and labels that don't provide payment.

Like any great “rags to riches” story, The Living End presents Eddie's epic journey from lowly assistant to disc-jockey king. Eddie's crooked path to fame and fortune cleverly parallels crime-fiction's popular trope of a low-level criminal's ascension to kingpin or notorious mobster. In fact, Kane's narrative is steeped in crime-fiction traditions with an addition of jukebox racketeering within the Mafia. Eddie's backdoor alliance with a New Jersey Mob was a welcome addition to what was already a top-notch, straight-laced crime thriller.

Music fans will appreciate the deep-dive on payola and its origins in Mid-20th Century pop-culture. Crime-noir fans will find Eddie Marlon's criminal transformation, financial spiral and eventual descent into madness a compelling read. Frank Kane's phenomenal storytelling is seemingly timeless, with The Living End still viable and relevant in 2020. Many thanks to Black Gat Books for reprinting Kane's remarkable stand-alone novel.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, March 21, 2020

So Wicked My Love

Following a prosperous writing career in the pulp magazines, Bruno Fischer became a crime-fiction success story. His novel House of Flesh sold 1.8 million copies, leading to a successful run of 10 books authored by the German-American throughout the 1950s. His 1954 novel, So Wicked My Love, was published by Fawcett Gold Medal. It originally appeared in a condensed form in the November, 1953 issue of Manhunt magazine. Crime-fiction scholars will often point to the novel as one of Fischer's best. Opening the book, I was hoping to agree.

When readers first meet Ray, he's a dejected, emotional wreck laying on Coney Island's sandy beach. His girlfriend Florence rejected his marriage proposal and ring the night before, explaining to Ray that she may still be in love with another man. As Ray ponders his life post-Florence, he spots a woman he once knew walking along the shore. Ray re-introduces himself to a beautiful vixen named Cherry and almost immediately becomes an accomplice in armed robbery and murder. Wicked love indeed.

After reading a brief newspaper headline about an armed car robbery, a mysterious woman and a band of criminals, Ray's one night out with Cherry proves to be a cornucopia of dark discoveries. He learns that Cherry has a car trunk filled with stolen cash and three violent men on her trail. Ray gives Cherry the engagement ring he bought Florence and the two decide to flee with the money together. But after a deadly, violent encounter with two of the three men, Ray drops the money at an abandoned farm house and anonymously calls the police to pick it up. Ray then reconvenes with Florence and the two become married and live happily ever after. Considering all of these riveting events happen in the book's opening pages, readers quickly sense that Bruno Fischer has an abundance of intrigue, suspense and violence left to explore.

Ray's lusty encounters with Cherry aren't explicit, but they're an enticing invitation for readers to take the journey with these ill-fated lovers. As Ray's average life becomes more complicated, readers can foresee the impending doom in Fisher's narrative. By its very definition, the idea of this average blue-collar man being trapped in a web of murder, robbery and blinding lust is crime-noir in its most rudimentary form. It's also the same ritualistic formula utilized by a mastermind crime-fiction veteran like Fischer to mesmerize readers, fans and literature scholars. From a reader's stance, it makes for an fantastic reading experience. So Wicked My Love is so wickedly good.

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7 Deadly Sinners

Between 1959 and 1961, Charles E. Fritch (1927-2012) wrote a quasi-series of five private eye paperbacks in which the main character’s name changed regularly as well as the pseudonyms used by Fritch when publishing the novels. In various installments, the protagonist’s name was Mark Wonder, Christopher Sly, or Nicholas Gamble while the author names were Charles Fritch, Christopher Sly, Eric Thomas, and Christopher Brockden. It’s a mess to understand and unsurprising that the books never took off commercially. The series order, heroes, pseudonyms and publishers are all hashed out below in the addendum to this review.

The fourth book in the series (although they can be read in any order) is 7 Deadly Sinners by Christopher Sly, starring private detective Christopher Sly from 1961. The novel is currently available as a trade paperback reprint from Wildside Press restoring Charles Fritch’s own name as the author. Fritch went on to have a successful career as the editor of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

Christopher Sly (the character, not the pseudonym) is a wisecracking Hollywood private eye with an assignment any red-blooded man would relish: he needs to guard seven starlets for a local movie studio to ensure they stay out of trouble before a publicity tour. The catch is that one of the seven beauties was a girlfriend of a deported mafioso. The syndicate wants to find her to ensure she remains silent forever about what she knows. The problem is that nobody knows which of the seven ladies is the girlfriend.

While Sly’s overt assignment is to keep all seven women alive, his secret mission is to identify the mobster’s ex-girlfriend. His only clue to get this done is the knowledge that she has a diamond-shaped birthmark down near her lady-parts. Yes, you read that right. Sly’s needs to discreetly examine each of the seven to determine which woman is the mob’s target and take extra care to keep her alive thereafter. His preferred method is seduction, but other opportunities arise as well. Okay, I’ll grant you that this is a stupid and contrived premise, but it’s basically a lighthearted sex-romp mystery in the same manner as a thin Carter Brown or Shell Scott novel.

This is a very horny paperback with a fair amount of sexually explicit content. We get lots of moaning animal sounds, heaving breasts, and expectant thighs, but the descriptors seldom take it to the next level. The sex scenes - and there are quite a few - are more graphic than a Shell Scott book but less explicit than a Longarm western. The original publisher, Athena Publications, was a sleaze fiction paperback house that pushed the limits far more than the Ace Double housing Fritch’s 1959 private eye novel, Negative of a Nude.

The twisty solution to the paperback’s central mystery is so painfully obvious that any reader will see it coming from a mile away. The ending was also abrupt as if Fritch hit his contractual word count and just stopped writing. Despite its simplicity, 7 Deadly Sinners was a mostly fun, low-impact read. Only you can decide if the $8.49 price tag for the paperback reprint is worth the cost of this mindless diversion. Paying much more for a bawdy murder mystery really would be a crime.

Addendum: Charles Fritch’s P.I. Series Chronology

- Negative of a Nude by Charles Fritch (1959), Ace Double starring P.I. Mark Wonder
- Strip For Murder by Eric Thomas (1960), Kozy Books starring P.I. Christopher Sly
- Psycho Sinner by Eric Thomas (1961), Athena Books starring P.I. Mark Wonder
- 7 Deadly Sinners by Christopher Sly (1961), Athena Books starring P.I. Christopher Sly
- Fury in Black Lace by Charles Brockden (1962), Carousel Books starring P.I. Nicholas Gamble

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Friday, March 20, 2020

Steve Ashe #02 - I Like It Tough

I was thrilled to see that Cutting Edge Books has chosen to reprint James A. Howard’s fantastic Steve Ashe novels as ebooks and new-edition paperbacks. The four-book series from 1954-1957 stars a rough and ready pilot-boxer-reporter unafraid to fight dirty. The series served as an early prototype for the kinds of serial vigilante adventures popularized by Pinnacle Books in the 1970s. I Like It Tough from 1955 is the second Steve Ashe adventure, and it’s probably best for the series to be read in its proper order.

The story opens with Steve regaining consciousness in a Colorado hospital room a day after using his body to stop some bullets during the climactic ending of I'll Get You Yet, the series debut installment. The opening chapter does a thorough job of bringing readers up to speed on the events of the first novel. As such, if you read this second series novel first, you’ve just spoiled the prior book. The short version is that Steve successfully dismantled the upper-echelon of the Denver syndicate. Are they gone forever? Or will The Outfit regroup?

A package bomb arrives at the hospital room killing Steve’s girl, so we know that Steve’s one-man war against the mafia definitely isn’t over. Steve’s new eye-for-an-eye target is Vito Gaesinni, a mobster filling the void left by the dead wise guys from the previous novel. The path to find Vito brings Steve to Los Angeles and into the orbit of some interesting side characters who become part of Steve’s manhunt plan. As with the first novel, the fact that Steve’s career as a journalist has zero relevance to the plot. He’s just a badass adventurer cleaning up the streets of L.A.

Early in the novel, Steve befriends (and lays) a prostitute with a heart of gold named Sylvia. Vito had paid Sylvia for sex and companionship in the recent past, so the hope is that she can provide Steve some insight into his prey. In Los Angeles, he connects with a psychologist operating a sanitarium treating a narcotics-addicted magazine illustrator with a sexy personal secretary. The scourge of drugs - particularly the terrifying and insidious “marijuana” - lurks in the background of the paperback and takes a human toll on many of the characters.

There’s a legitimate mystery to solve in the heart of I Like It Tough, and it involves a shadowy corporation paying the bills for the drunken illustrator and their possible connection to the narcotics trade. Is it a publishing industry outfit licensing illustration art? Or a mob front insuring the silence of people who know too much? The vendetta story and the mystery compliment each other nicely throughout the violent, fast-moving pages leading to a climactic conclusion.

I have no idea if Don Pendleton ever read the work of James L. Howard, but they were certainly flying in the same airspace 20 years apart. I Like It Tough is another winner in the short-lived Steve Ashe series. Thank heavens these books are back in print as this series certainly deserves to be remembered. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE