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 Steve Ashe #1: “I’ll Get You Yet.” 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 Book 2 first, you’ve just spoiled Book 1 for yourself. 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.
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