Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Executioner #59 - Crude Kill

Chet Cunningham authored six Executioner novels between 1983 and 1986 beginning with the 59th installment, Crude Kill. I have always enjoyed Cunningham's blunt writing style, and I liked his violent Executioner novel, Baltimore Trackdown, the series' 88th entry. With another exceptional Gil Cohen cover, a solid author and the promise of quality consistency, there was no hesitation behind choosing Crude Kill to read and review. 

After liberating hostages from a Milan stronghold, Bolan learns that a mastermind-terrorist named Lufti has targeted an enormous oil tanker called The Contessa. His evil plan is to dump thousands of tons of oil into the Mediterranean Sea if he doesn't obtain millions in gold and the obligatory freeing of all criminal cohorts associated with his criminal empire. Of course the ransom won't be met because Bolan arrives just in time to terminate the baddies. The real enjoyment is the journey to get there.

After working closely with series mainstay pilot Jack Grimaldi, Bolan's first target is to destroy a commandeered former German U-Boat that Lufti's forces are using as protection. Cunningham soaks 40 pages with blood and guts, propelling the narrative, along with Bolan, onto the oil tankard's deck. The remaining 150-pages is saturated with bullets, bravado and bombs. Cunningham's literary style always borders on the grotesque – brains jellied, intestines splattered, flesh searing – but it’s all just an over-the-top attempt to please his dominant male audience. The intense violence factor is probably a prerequisite to write Bolan books. Trust us, none of his fans were tipping off Tipper Gore in 1983.

Crude Kill is another enjoyable Bolan saga sure to please fans of the series. The book also features an explanation from Don Pendleton regarding why he handpicked Chet Cunningham to join his revolving carousel of Bolan authors. Based on just Crude Kill, the reason is obvious.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Grave Digger & Coffin Ed #07 - Cotton Comes to Harlem

Between 1957 and 1969, trailblazing African-American hardboiled crime author Chester Himes (1908-1984) authored an eight-book series starring black NYPD detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. The conventional wisdom is that the high-water mark of the series was the seventh installment Cotton Comes to Harlem from 1965.

The story opens with Reverend Deke O’Malley selling Harlem residents a chance to emigrate back to Africa for $1,000 per family. The reverend is quite a salesman and the money is pouring in - $87,000 in a few hours of making his sales pitch in the vacant lot next to the housing project. The festivities are interrupted by two white men with machine guns who pull up, shoot up one of the reverend’s men, and rob the $87,000 of Back-to-Africa money before making a clean getaway.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are tough cops on the Harlem beat assigned the case of the violent heist. The two cops are riddled with scar tissue and healed bullet holes from previous adventures. They have good reason to be skeptical of the grifter reverend and his Back-to-Africa scheme, but they also have deep compassion for the poor blacks so disillusioned with American life that they’d be willing to spend their last dime to leave the nation behind and start a new life in Africa.

Himes really beats the drum on the disenchantment that Harlem’s blacks had with the American Dream. The tension between the white establishment - including white cops - and the poor blacks is also on full display in the novel and recalls many of the complaints and divisions we grapple with today. If these issues are interesting to you, Himes gives the reader a lot to chew on. If you already have way too much racial grievance talk in your life, Cotton Comes to Harlem is probably not for you.

As a straight-up violent police procedural mystery, the novel works quite well, particularly when you consider that the author honed his writing skills in prison. As the criminals who stole the money were making their getaway, they shoved a large bale of unprocessed cotton onto the roadway (thus, the book’s title). The mob of white bandits and unprocessed cotton in Harlem provide their starting point for a decent mystery for our heroes to solve.

Although I can recognize the achievement of Cotton Comes to Harlem, I didn’t love the book. It felt long and dragged a bit to me. The heroes were awesome, but I found most of Harlem supporting characters fairly cartoonish and unrelatable - particularly to a middle-aged, white, suburban guy in the 21st century. The comic relief scenes were kind of silly (although you won’t forget the paper bag scene), and the entire novel could have used a stronger editing hand. Chester Himes and the series are revered by literary scholars, but I suspect that’s more for the cultural significance than the actual greatness of the novels. But by all means, try the paperback for yourself as your mileage may vary. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Death by the Day

We read so many vintage paperbacks by authors with dozens - or even hundreds - of titles that it’s easy to forget that some guys only had one or two books in them. I’ve had a helluva time learning anything about author Lawrence Fisher. I know he wrote two crime novels: a 1961 paperback called Death by the Day (reviewed below) and a 1963 book club hardcover called Die a Little Every Day. Based on copyright data, his real name appears to be Lawrence V. Fisher. I don’t know where he was from, his birth year, his death year, his turn-ons, or any particulars. I did read his paperback, though, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

One month ago, our narrator Nick Paulson and his 15 year-old brother traveled to the mountain resort town of Park Village with 75 cents in their pockets to begin a lucrative summer as bellhops during the busy season at a Colorado resort. The monotony of elderly guests and bad tippers is broken one day with the arrival of a rich man named Mr. Rinehart, his driver and his young, sexy arm-candy, Margo. By page seven of the paperback, you know that this dame has femme fatale written all over her.

As the plot thickens, Nick becomes enmeshed in the real agenda behind Rinehart and Margo’s visit to the mountains - Rinehart and his “driver” are planning a heist. Meanwhile, it takes no time at all for the sexual tension between Nick and Margo to reach a boiling point. Can Nick get the girl and the money without being filled with bullet holes?

It’s a shame that Fisher didn’t produce more fiction because he was an excellent writer with a real knack for exciting plotting. His style reminds me of early Lawrence Block, top-shelf Harry Whittington or the best of Gil Brewer. He doesn’t reinvent the genre in Death by the Day, but he executes the crime noir formula with great skill. Some publisher should resurrect this paperback for modern audiences. It hasn’t seen the light of day in 60 years and deserves to be remembered. This one’s an easy, full-throated recommendation.


Neither the cover art nor the back cover’s plot description bear any resemblance to actual events in the novel. Both were certainly created by people who never read the book and were probably recycled from elsewhere. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Red Sonja #01 - The Ring of Ikribu

A common misconception in fantasy literature is that the Red Sonja fictional character was entirely created by Robert E. Howard. The fiery red-headed swordswoman is often affiliated with Howard's own hero, Red Sonya of Rogatino, a female swashbuckler that was featured in the 1934 short-story Shadow of the Vulture. However, the Red Sonja (note the “J”) character didn't appear until 1973 and was created by Roy Thomas Jr. (Ghost Rider, Conan the Barbarian) and Barry Windsor Smith (Wolverine).

Influenced by Howard's Red Sonya of Rogatino, the Red Sonja character made her debut in Marvel Comic's Conan the Barbarian #23. Since then, the character has become a pop-culture icon appearing in numerous comics by multiple publishers and series. Along with graphic novels, action figures, television appearances and a 1985 theatrical film, Red Sonja was also a short-lived paperback series published by Ace. The debut, The Ring of Ikribu, was published in 1981 and kick-started a six-book run of paperback novels with covers by Boris Vallejo. The books were authored by fantasy authors David C. Smith and Richard L. Tierney.

The Ring of Ikribu is a powerful gem that can crush or create kingdoms. A powerful sorcer named Astoth is pursuing the ring in hopes of ruling a portion of the Hyborian kingdoms. His search for divine power brings him to the city of Suthad. Off page, Astoth and his army decimate Suthad leaving their King Olin and a thousand soldiers fleeing from the city. It's in this part of the book that Olin meets Red Sonja.

Through alternating chapters, the authors retell Sonja's origin story originally presented in Kull and the Barbarians #3 (1975). Before being raped repeatedly, Sonja watched invading marauders murder her family. After wandering into the forest, Sonja is empowered by a spirit/deity that provides her an uncanny, supernatural swordsmanship. The curse is that she can never love anyone unless they can best her in swordplay. Swearing vengeance, she is now a drifting adventurer that conveniently serves as a blank page for creators to craft countless stories and adventures around. Just like Conan. After hearing of King Olin's losses at Suthad, Sonja teams with the brutish warrior to retake Suthad.

The Ring of Ikribu is similar to a traditional western tale - an action-packed road trip that features a lone hero assisting the downtrodden to overthrow the town bully. In this case, the bully is a sorcerer that conjures plagues of undead combatants, ghoulish worm creatures and phantom ghosts. Sonja rides tall, speaks the truth and shoots straight. Only with a lightning quick sword instead of the six-gun. The authors weave a romantic notion that Sonja and Olin can truly fall in love, but the concept drowns in a murky black swamp (you'll never guess who dies!).

Paperback Warrior covers very little Fantasy, but we seem to be drawn to the pulpy, men's adventure styling of heroic icons such as Conan and Red Sonja. While serving as pillars for the Fantasy genre, the characters themselves could seemingly be interchanged with Ben Haas's Fargo, Jon Messman's Trailsman or Barry Sadler's Casca. The Ring of Ikribu displays the same literary style. If you have avoided the series due to the sword and sorcery wrapping paper, I urge you to rethink your position and try again. Red Sonja can be as badass as Mack Bolan.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

In a Vanishing Room

I took inventory, and 15 of the 17 novels written by Robert Colby between the years 1956 and 1972 are now available as ebooks for your Kindle. Based on the three Colby novels I’ve read thus far, I’m convinced that the author is an unsung hero of American crime fiction. As such, I was excited to read his lean 1961 novel, In a Vanishing Room, a book originally released as half of an Ace Double paperback.

The novel opens with an odd scene. While waiting to board a flight from Miami to New York, Paul Norris sees a fellow passenger in line abruptly run out of the airport and two other men in the airport pursue the runner on foot. Upon arriving in New York, a woman waiting at the gate (ah, remember when that was a thing?) is clearly waiting for the man who ran away before boarding. She says the man is her lawyer and appears perplexed that he didn’t make the flight.

Norris accepts a ride into Manhattan from the woman - her name is Eileen - and tells her about the odd circumstances surrounding her lawyer’s escape from the airport. Upon arrival into the city, she invited him up to her apartment for a drink, and it becomes a near-certainty that Norris is about to get laid - 1961 style.

Not so fast, Mr. Norris! It seems that Eileen has something else up her sleeve. The seduction routine is just a ploy to get her hands on a shipping receipt for a large crate slipped into Norris pocket before the lawyer took off running at the Miami airport. In any case, Eileen splits fast leaving Norris with the receipt and a case of epididymal hypertension (Google it). This set-up is all rather contrived and tortured but will be worth it if the mysterious crate propel Norris into an exciting and mysterious adventure, right?

Lots of people want the receipt, so they can get the contents of the crate. Some are willing to befriend Norris to get the crate. Some are willing to pay dearly for it. Some are willing to kill for it. Understandably, Norris (and the reader) is uncertain who to trust. As the story winds through additional twists and turns, he pairs up with an attractive female corporate secretary on his mission to recover the crate for a wealthy benefactor.

The second half of the book introduces a fascinating hired killer and a vexing architectural mystery - the titular Vanishing Room - making for the kind of floor-plan mystery often devised by author John Dickson Carr. Unfortunately, the solutions to the Vanishing Room Mystery and the What’s Inside the Crate Affair were both rather ho-hum.

In a Vanishing Room is a difficult book to recommend. There were definitely some cool parts, but none of them fit together nicely into a coherent or particularly enjoyable crime novel. I’m not giving up on Robert Colby because I’ve seen what he can do when he’s firing on all cylinders - check out The Captain Must Die. Unfortunately, this one just isn’t much good. Take a pass. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Dragon's Eye

Scott C.S. Stone was a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars before settling into life in Hawaii as a journalist working for Reuters and The New York Times. He wrote a lot of non-fiction books about Hawaii and Asian culture as well as a handful of novels leveraging his knowledge of the Far East. His most enduring book is The Dragon’s Eye from 1969, an espionage adventure that won the 1969 Edgar Award buoyed by some great Robert McGinnis cover art in the original paperback printing.

Michael Hawkins, our narrator, is a war correspondent in Vietnam who quits the life after a colleague is killed in action. He retreats to Honolulu to work on a book, get laid and learn to surf. Hawkins’ easy life is interrupted by a visit from an old friend - a former journalist who now appears to be working for the CIA. He recruits Hawkins to help a British-born journalist defect to the United States from China. The would-be defector is currently working for Communist China’s state-run news agency.

Hawkins’ bounces from Taiwan to Hong Kong to Thailand to Laos and much of the novel feels like a bit of a Fodor’s Guide to 1969 Asia. I found it interesting because the narrator is an excellent tour guide, but those seeking wall-to-wall espionage action may get bored. Hawkins (and the reader, by proxy) learns about the labyrinthine structure of Red China’s intelligence apparatus, and it’s a pretty fascinating academic lesson. The upshot for the plot is that the New China News Agency is not like the AP or Reuters but functions as an intel agency with every reporter functioning as a spy. As such, the defecting journalist is a big deal - the highest ranking non-Chinese in Red China’s government who wants to come over to America and spill his guts.

Along the way to facilitate the defection, there is torture and sex and murder and lies and romance and double-crosses and everything else you might expect from a competently-written international espionage paperback. Stone’s writing is pretty excellent, and the story moves at a nice clip. It’s denser than most disposable fiction from the 1960s, but the extra attention that the paperback demands is rewarded by a compelling story with interesting characters and exotic locales.

For a book coveted by paperback collectors for its iconic cover art, The Dragon’s Eye was a total pleasure to read. If you are thoroughly disinterested in the spread of communism in Southeast Asia during the late 1960s, you’ll probably be bored silly with much of the book, but I found the whole thing pretty riveting and learned a lot within the body of this exciting adventure story. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 27, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 41

Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 41 features an in-depth discussion of Ross Macdonald, including a review of the first Lew Archer novel.  We also talk about Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, Lawrence Block, Frederick Lorenz, Harry Whittington, and much, much more! Stream the show on any podcast app,, or download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 41: Ross Macdonald" on Spreaker.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Tough Cop

John Roeburt (1909-1972) graduated with a law degree from New York University and worked as a crime reporter for The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper before becoming a successful novelist in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1949, he published the first of two crime novels starring retiring NYPD detective Johnny Devereaux - the first of which was titled Tough Cop and remains in-print today thanks to Wildside Press.

Johnny Devereaux is a top-flight detective with the NYPD who, as the novel opens, is preparing to retire at the ripe old age of 41. He explains to his barber that he’s “tired of being a tough cop in a world of shills, con men, killers, and plain crooks.” Devereaux wants to spend his twilight years reading good books and seeing the world on permanent vacation. Devereaux is no dummy. Before retiring, he wrote a book called “Twenty Years a Cop” that he signs for his admirers when asked. The department even bought him a brand-new Buick convertible to thank Devereaux for his two decades of service to the city. I wasn’t aware that municipalities did that type of thing for civil servants, but that’s why this is a fiction book.

On his way home from his retirement party, a beautiful young woman unexpectedly jumps into his car and asks Devereaux to drive away fast. She claims she’s being pursued by someone and recounts the story of her vaguely-recalled upbringing in which daddy lavished her with unwanted - and inappropriate attention. Because of this and other factors, the girl - her name is Jennifer - doesn’t believe that her father is actually her father. Against his better judgement, Devereaux agrees to help her get to the truth of her own paternity.

Jennifer’s alleged father is a member of New York’s high society and rumored to be a homosexual. Remember this was 1949 before gay people had sitcoms and reality shows depicting their fabulous lives. While running down an initial lead, Devereaux stumbles upon a dead body catapulting this family tree inquiry into a murder investigation.

Devereaux’s authority in Tough Cop exists in a grey area. He’s no longer working as a police officer, but his separation paperwork from the department hasn’t been processed. Basically, he’s serving as an unpaid private eye for Jennifer with the authority - but minimal support - of the NYPD. He enlists the help of an actual private eye, and that character has all the book’s best lines. It’s never entirely clear why Devereaux is going to all this trouble for a girl he hardly knows. Once it became a murder mystery of sorts, wouldn’t it make sense to turn it over to a cop whose not in the process of transitioning off the job?

Overall, Tough Cop is a mostly competent, but very linear, 1940s-style mystery novel. As far as the title goes, Devereaux is not particularly tough compared to his crime fiction cohorts. It’s a pretty forgettable book, and I can think of no reason to seek out the 1955 sequel, The Hollow Man

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

The Camp

The Camp is a 1977 men's action-adventure paperback that was published by Belmont Tower under the name of Jonathan Trask. It came to fruition as a story idea from author and Belmont Tower editor Peter McCurtin. According to a Glorious Trash article, McCurtin wrote the first 30ish pages and handed the project to author Len Levinson to finish. In that same article, Levinson stated he couldn't remember why the transition happened and that he recalled that McCurtin left the publisher around that time. Sadly, the book has never been reprinted and remains as an expensive used paperback on internet bookshelves.

The novel begins with muckraking reporter Phil Gordon arriving at a small cabin in a rural stretch of northwestern Maine. On a much needed vacation from ousting politicians, Gordon re-connects with an old Native American friend named Jimmy Jacks. Jacks explains to Gordon that his three adult sons have gone missing around a strange military installation known as Camp Butler. Jacks elaborates that piercing screams resonate from the facility, and the whole area is saturated in barbed wire, killer dogs and pain. Intense pain.

Gordon, always chasing a good story, partners with Jacks to break into the secluded installation. Once inside, they find that imprisoned hippies (you read it correctly) are being victimized by torturers. This point is explicitly rammed home when readers and Gordon discover hippies tied to stakes and used as bayonet practice. Far out. Eventually, Gordon and Jacks tangle with some troops and a pack of killer canines before escaping into a cave. After a few days, Jacks goes home, and Gordon returns to Washington.

Levinson's narrative propels readers into Washington D.C.'s political circus as Gordon discreetly blows the whistle on the U.S. Army’s hippie torture camp to Congress. After receiving the backing of a U.S. Senator, a unique proposition is arranged that allows Gordon, a former Green Beret Captain, to re-enlist in the Army with a colorful fruit salad and specific orders to report to Camp Butler. Once inside the camp, Gordon gains a first-hand, personal account of the military's strong-arm tactics, bizarre regiments and murderous atrocities. He also discovers that much of the U.S. Government is under the control by a secret cabal of ultra right-wingers.

It's clear that Levinson really enjoyed writing The Camp. It's wild, wacky and bizarre...but for all of the right reasons. It's an enjoyable book that incorporates the era's pop-culture movement of investigative reporters as the proverbial hero. Possibly Levinson - or McCurtin - were inspired by the 1976 film All the Presidents Men and the idea that a determined journalist can expose governmental corruption. Regardless, I perceive The Camp as being a pulpy nod to the men's adventure magazines (MAMs) that recreated vile, sadistic military bases for the heroes to liberate. It's that over-the-top thrill-ride that makes The Camp so much campy fun.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Steve Bentley #01 - Murder on the Rocks

Everette Howard Hunt (1918-2007, better known as E. Howard Hunt) worked for the CIA as a covert officer specializing in political influence and action. Before devising his best-known plot, the infamous Watergate burglary that saw President Nixon impeached and himself imprisoned, Hunt authored nearly 40 crime-fiction and espionage novels using pseudonyms including David St. John, P.S. Donoghue, Gordon Davis, John Baxter and variations of his own name. As Robert Dietrich, Hunt wrote ten novels starring Steve Bentley, a Washington D.C. accountant who solves murders in private-eye style. The series debut, Murder on the Rocks, was originally published in 1957 and has now been reprinted as an affordable ebook by Cutting Edge.

The first thing to know about Bentley is that he isn't just a paper-pushing CPA. He's a Korean War veteran who was employed at one time by the U.S. Treasury Department. His expertise led to breaking up a number of black market rings globally. It's this reason that a client named Iris Seawall approaches Bentley in a bar. She wants Bentley to assist in locating a valuable emerald that was entrusted to her father.

Bentley's skepticism is fueled by a number of factors. For starters, Iris is married to a rough character linked to a gambling kingpin, and her father is an Ambassador in South Africa. Our hero's questions are valid – why not just use a private-eye? Iris responds that her father doesn't want anyone to know the failure he's brought to his position and feels that a private-eye may attract unwanted attention. Whether that's true or not isn't important, but it's a great way to propel an accountant into a lost treasure adventure.

Hunt uses Iris and her sister Sara as sexy bait for Bentley. Both are soon-to-be divorcees with bodies that were made for sin. However, Bentley mostly passes up the flesh buffet to seek out the treasure. When Iris's neighbor and her father's courier are both found murdered, Bentley's case becomes more complex.

Murder on the Rocks actually begins twice. First, Bentley declines Iris's proposal and the $500 that comes with finding the emerald. Second, Bentley also declines a $10,000 offer from Iris's sister Sara to find who murdered the courier. Third, Bentley declines an offer from a gambling kingpin named Vance Bodine. At one point, I was questioning whether Hunt was declining his own publisher's offer to craft a story. Eventually, the narrative is kick-started with a murder and the investigation is instigated. Murder on the Rocks features two sexy, desperate women, a stolen emerald and a determined hero. If you love vintage crime-fiction you should enjoy this tale.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Swamp Sister

Robert Edmond Alter (1925-1966) sold dozens of short stories to crime-fiction digests including Manhunt and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine in addition to authoring several children’s books. However, his long-form fiction for Fawcett Gold Medal consisted of only two novels, Swamp Sister and Carny Kill, both of which were published in the year of his death, 1966. America’s fascination with noir fiction involving sexy and unsophisticated women from the backwoods continues to fascinate me, so I decided to try my luck with Swamp Sister.

The paperback opens with a two-person plane - a Piper Cub - destined for Jacksonville, Florida crashing in the remote swampland due to an engine failure. The crash kills two men including a passenger carrying a briefcase filled with a $80,000 in cash.

Four-years later, “The Money Plane, ” as the locals call it, is a thing of legends among swamp people. 20 year-old Shad Hark has been searching the swamp for years looking for any sign of the downed aircraft with no luck. A New York insurance investigator tickled the town’s imagination after the crash with the news that there is wreckage somewhere out there containing $80,000 among the alligators and Spanish moss. Most locals have long since given up the hunt and some have died trying to find it on their own.

Persistence pays off for Shad one day when he finds the Money Plane deep in the watery woods protected by aggressive gators and cottonmouth snakes. He crawls into the tiny cabin, and recovers the briefcase. Because he’s a moron, he uses his Bowie knife to slice the briefcase to ribbons to get at the money. Because of this bad idea, Shad has $80,000 but no way to carry the cash back home. He decides to stash the majority of the cash in the jungle with the plane and fills his pockets with what he could carry.

The author makes the unfortunate literary choice to write the dialogue in the patois of dipshits from swamp county. This makes for a condescending and cumbersome read filled with sentences like, “Shaddy, you ain’t forgit you’n me is going gator-grabbing?” This crappy writing bogs down the plot considerably. To be honest, it’s a fairly lousy plot to begin with, but Alter’s tin ear for dialogue certainly doesn’t help.

Shad’s in love with a swamp girl named Margy with a heart of gold, and he takes her into his confidence about his plan to recover the stashed funds. Meanwhile, Shad’s spending of $10 bills recovered from the wreckage attracts the attention of a different group of shotgun-toting dipshits from town - as well as a trap set by the man from the insurance company who alerted the locals to the existence of the money plane four years earlier.

This book mostly sucks. Some of the jungle scenes with the characters dodging gators and cottonmouth snakes were somewhat exciting, but overall Swamp Sister should have been left to rot among the fetid, torpid waters of history. It’s been reprinted a couple times over the years, but new cover art failed to put a glossy sheen on this turd of a book. It’s still early, but this is the worst book I’ve read in 2020 thus far. To the Hall of Shame with thee!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, April 24, 2020

Super Secret Agent Philis #01 - The Fall Guy

Between 1972 and 1985, Ritchie Perry (born 1942) wrote a 13-book series starring a British Intelligence agent named Philis (a dude) battling international criminals who pose a national security threat to Great Britain. In the U.S., the paperbacks were published by Ballantine, but many of them have been released as ebooks which should save you some time hunting them down. Start with the 1972 opening installment, The Fall Guy.

The British Intelligence arm in the series is SR(2) with the initials standing for “Special Responsibilities.” The group is designed to do things the police are not able to - namely assassinate threats without the blessing of a judge or jury. In this series debut, Scotland Yard wants SR(2)’s help in neutralizing the South American end of a cocaine trafficking operation, while the cops handle the domestic arm in the U.K. After an SR(2) sleeper agent in Brazil goes missing during the investigation of a drug exporter, a new operative is needed in the region. Enter Philis.

The Fall Guy serves as an origin story for Agent Philis - the hero of the 13 book series. When we meet him, he is a small-time British smuggler of booze and cigarettes working a beach town in Brazil. After a lengthy prologue giving the readers a third-person view of the intel agency’s mission and its challenges, the narrative abruptly switches to first person with charming and humorous Philis telling the story.

Philis is a wisecracking playboy who is kidnapped by SR(2) operatives who convince him to search for the missing SR(2) agent in a Brazilian beach town. Nearly the entire paperback takes place on the Brazilian coastline, and the author, who has also written a non-fiction book about Brazil, makes the culture and topography come alive. It’s a great setting for a thrilling adventure. As Philis gets closer to the truth about the missing spy, the author ratchets up the intensity and extreme violence. Consider yourself warned.

Where does the Super Secret Agent Philis series fall among its spy-fiction cohorts? It’s not as dense as a Robert Ludlum novel, but it’s way smarter and better-written than a Nick Carter: Killmaster volume. The cheeky first-person narration reminds me of Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series, and the well-written Britishness of the whole affair recalls Adam Hall’s Quiller books. In any case, it’s a way smarter book than the illustration on the paperback cover would have you believe.

In short, I haven’t been this excited to start a new espionage series in a long time. Hopefully, the later installments keep up the same level of high quality on display in The Fall Guy.

Series Order:

As is often the case, the American publisher renumbered the series differently for the domestic reprints. However, with the exception of the first installment, I’m told that adhering to strict series order is not required. The series order below is the best that the Spy Guys and Gals website could discern given the available data:

1. The Fall Guy (1972)
2. A Hard Man to Kill / Nowhere Man (1973)
3. Ticket to Ride (1973)
4. Holiday with a Vengeance (1974)
5. Your Money and Your Wife (1975)
6. One Good Death Deserves Another (1976)
7. Dead End (1977)
8. Dutch Courage (1978)
9. Bishop’s Pawn (1979)
10. Grand Slam (1980)
11. Fool’s Mate (1981)
12. Foul Up (1982)
13. Kolwezi (1985)

The author also published a 1991 novel called Comeback that many sources list as the 14th book in the Super Secret Agent Philis series. My research shows that the book stars an entirely different lead character who may or may not exist in the same universe. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Ex-Con (aka Free are the Dead)

Stuart Friedman (1913-1993) was a multi-genre author of the mid-20th century whose books often promised wild and abandoned sexuality but were, in reality, rather tame affairs. Many of his titles have found new life as modern reprints including his 1954 crime fiction novel, Ex-Con (original title: Free are the Dead), now available as a $3 ebook or $10 paperback from Wildside Press.

As the paperback opens, Charles Garrell is bummed that his devoted wife isn’t there to meet his train upon his arrival home. Charles has spent over three years in prison for a liquor store robbery motivated by extreme poverty, and Nora promised that she’d be there for him upon his release. He walks to their low-rent apartment to find Nora missing, but the table set for a welcome home meal. A thorough search of the place reveals no sign or Nora, but an inconveniently-placed corpse of a man in the bedroom closet. So much for a romantic homecoming.

The cops who locked up Charles for the robbery are hyper-aggressive and don’t take kindly to parolees in their town. As such, turning to the police for help on the missing wife problem or the dead guy in the closet problem is out of the question. Instead, he turns to underworld contacts he met during his stay in prison.

At a crooked casino run by a con-man, Charles runs into his wife’s Neitzsche-loving cousin-in-law, Sylvia. Because this is a Stuart Friedman novel, she’s also an S&M nymphomaniac with an eye on Charles, but he feels nothing but revulsion for her. She claims to know something about Nora’s disappearance, and the price for her help is sex. Meanwhile, Charles feels the need to pursue logical leads to find his missing bride and resolve the small issue of the dead corpse decomposing in his closet at home. The trajectory of the relationship between Charles and Sylvia was bizarre and not completely credible.

Charles also meets a hot little cocktail waitress named Cleo with an eye on Charles. Having been locked up for three years, Charles is understandably starved for a woman, and sweet Cleo is hot to trot. She’s presented as a kindhearted seductress without an agenda - completely the opposite of Sylvia. The quandary of Sexy Cleo vs. Missing Wife was set-up to be the central moral dilemma Charles must navigate while also solving the novel’s vexing mysteries. However, not much came of it. 

The search for Nora and the truth about the murdered man in the closet was pretty satisfying, but the ultimate solution left me cold. Can you enjoy a sexy mystery and dislike the punch line? If so, then you might enjoy Con-Man. It was a nice ride, but the destination just wasn’t to my taste.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Vince Slader #01 - The Long Night

Ovid Demaris (1919-1998) authored a number of crime-fiction novels that were based on his research into real-life organized crime. The author’s most successful books were his non-fiction accounts of actual Mafia operations. As such, it's no surprise that his novels including Hoods Take Over, Candyleg and The Organization revolve around the Syndicate's drug, gambling and prostitution rackets on the American West Coast. While I wasn't fond of Demaris' The Enforcer, I wanted to sample another of his mob novels. I chose The Long Night, originally published in 1959 and recently reprinted as an affordable ebook by NY Times bestselling author Lee Goldberg's Cutting Edge imprint. It's the first of two books starring quasi-private investigator Vince Slader, the other being 1960's The Gold Plated Sewer.

The Long Night features protagonist Vince Slader, a hard-nosed guy who works as a debt collector. Now, Slader isn't a debt collector that sits behind the phones and dials for dollars. Instead, really bad guys call on the really tough Slader to retrieve gambling debts and derogatory installment payments. In Beverly Hills, it's a business that is booming. Armed with an address and a .45, Slader's track record in the debt collection business is very good. He runs the operation under his license of private-investigator, and that business has now become scrutinized by two California Senators who are wise to Slader's violent business practices.

Despite being the target of a committee investigation, Slader takes on a new assignment of tracking down a gambling debtor named Russell. To retrieve him, he starts with questioning Russell's voluptuous wife Cindy. The intense question and answer session eventually leads to Slader getting laid, but it doesn't get him any closer to Russell or his dough. After digging in a little further, Russell is traced to a couple of beefy hit-men who want to protect the man for their own purposes.

The narrative takes an unexpected twist when Cindy dumps Slader on a rural stretch of California highway. It is there that Slader apparently is run over by a car belonging to Russell. But here's the mystery: Slader awakens at the bottom of a ravine behind the wheel of Russell's car. He is in possession of Russell's wallet and driver's license with no idea how he got there. After hearing a radio bulletin about Russell being carjacked, Slader realizes he's been set-up for armed robbery. The book's climactic second-half is a riveting narrative that follows Slader's investigation to clear his own name and find this mysterious Russell character.

My previous experience with Demaris was the soapy, teenage delinquent novel The Enforcer (1960). It was disguised as a gritty crime-fiction novel about a Mafia stranglehold but was really a uninspired episode of Melrose Place. The Long Night is a far more compelling story, one that is legitimately a gritty crime-fiction novel. Demaris inserts loud-mouthed, gambling kingpins into the narrative and saturates the prose with gunplay, fast cars and sexy women. The criminals are edgy, but the hero is a valid, uncompromising tough guy who serves as the perfect crime combatant. While Slader's goal is to recoup the money, the author weaves in a romantic side story as well as an interesting revelation of Slader's ex-wife who became a prostitute.

The Long Night is an enjoyable 1950s crime-fiction novel that retains most of the flavor of the genre's mid-century pioneers. If you are a fan of authors like Frank Kane and Mickey Spillane, The Long Night is sure to please.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Perfect Pigeon

Richard Wormser (1908-1977) is another one of those authors who transitioned seamlessly from writing fiction for the pulp magazines to authoring page-turning novels at the advent of the paperback originals in the 1950s. Under his own name, crime and mystery was his primary bread-and-butter, but he also wrote Westerns under the pen name Ed Friend. Today, the focus is on his 1963 Fawcett Gold Medal crime novel Perfect Pigeon, which remains available as a $4 ebook - free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

As the novel opens, our narrator Mark Daniels has just completed a six-year stretch in the penitentiary for bank embezzlement. Daniels is a smart guy and the law never recovered the $250,000 he stole from the bank. His nonsense story was that the money was stolen from Mark after he fell asleep on a bus and no one could prove otherwise. Now a free man, Mark could sure use to get his hands on the stash of stolen dough. After all, he served six years for the right to enjoy that money, right? The problem is that Mark promised himself he’d wait three years before tapping into his cache of cash. Let the heat die down. Let the world forget.

Mark meets a hot chick named Columba (it’s Latin for pigeon) and beds her down to get back in the swing of things. He falls hard for her, but she’s gone like Cinderella after their motel date is over. Mark makes plans to find her again once he has some working capital. When she reappears later in the novel, it’s pure gold.

The job prospects for an ex-con are limited, and it’s not like Mark can go back to work as a bank teller. As such, he needs to support himself as a con-artist wracking up enough scores to keep food on the table and a roof over his head until he can access his hidden embezzlement proceeds. If you enjoy con-game stories, you’ll find the grifts in Perfect Pigeon to be quite satisfying.

Mark also falls in with a crew of ex-cons looking to score some cash by orchestrating some low-level scams. The problem is that these guys are hard-cases, and Mark is a white-collar kind of thief. The bigger problem is that the crew - and everyone else - believes that Mark has a quarter-million bucks squirreled away somewhere, and this molds the decisions that people make throughout the novel when interacting with Mark.

I wasn’t expecting Perfect Pigeon to be funny, but Mark - and, I can only assume, the author - are often hilarious. Moreover, Wormser is an all-around excellent writer who plotted this story like a roller coaster ride. The ending was a great twist that I should have seen coming but failed to recognize the clues.

Perfect Pigeon is one of the finest con-man novels I’ve read in ages. There are some slow parts, but it was an overall satisfying read at a nice price. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Matt Helm #01 - Death of a Citizen

We don’t do by-lines here at Paperback Warrior. Your writers, Eric and Tom, generally speak with one voice in our articles and reviews. We edit each other’s work and rarely read the same books, so there’s little opportunity to disagree on a particular review. 

Until now.

Eric read Death of a Citizen, the first book in the popular Matt Helm series by Donald Hamilton and had an opinion that shocked and appalled Tom. Rather than disbanding the Paperback Warrior Empire or fist -fighting after school near the bike rack, we decided to emerge behind our curtain of anonymity and air our grievances publicly. 

May the best man win.

Non-Spoiler Plot Synopsis:

Donald Hamilton (1916-2006) was a popular mid-20th Century author whose greatest success was in the genre of spy fiction. In the 1940s and 1950s, the author wrote a number of stand-alone crime-fiction novels and westerns. His most prolific work is the successful Matt Helm series of spy-fiction novels that ran 27 published novels from 1960-1993. The series was loosely adapted into four comical films starring Dean Martin in the title role that no one should ever watch because they are awful and bear no resemblance to the book series.  Having enjoyed Hamilton's stand-alone novels, it was time to finally check out Matt Helm's first adventure in Death of a Citizen, the series debut. 

The novel introduces Matt Helm as a suburban husband and father living a quiet life in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1958. Helm has gained a bit of notoriety as a popular author of western novels (paralleling Hamilton's own career). It's at a neighborhood dinner party when Helm sees a fellow guest named Tina, creating the perfect moment for the author to add some backstory into this rather complex character.

Readers learn that Helm was in the U.S. Army during WW2 and was recruited into the government's counter-agent program. Think of an assassin killing enemy assassins, spies killing spies. Helm and Tina were both knee deep in dead enemies for a five-year period in war-torn Europe. As co-workers and lovers, the two went their separate ways after the war - Helm disappeared into everyday citizenship and Tina just disappeared. Until now. 

After a brief exchange with a young, aspiring novelist named Barbara, Helm departs the party only to find Barbara dead in his writing studio the next morning. Seemingly set up as the murderer, Helm is re-introduced to Tina who explains that Helm's atomic-scientist neighbor is the target of some sort of criminal conspiracy or communist nation. Tina and her new partner are in town to stop the would-be assassin – Barbara, the dead girl. Caught up in the crime and the old trade of killing, Helm is thrust back into his former life as ally and partner to Tina.

Eric’s Take:

Despite the novel's immense success and critical acclaim, I found Death of a Citizen to be an average spy-thriller. At 140-pages, nothing substantial happens during the novel's first-half. The narrative is presented as more of a road trip as Helm and Tina drive to Texas and rekindle that loving feeling (note - Helm is happily married to Beth and the father of three small children). With all the mileage, the story never really gains momentum once readers and the hero arrive at their destination. Aside from a few deaths, Helm isn't involved in much gunplay. I was a bit befuddled by the big reveal – the enemy is within – and Helm's dismissal of the most relevant portion of his life in the book's closing pages. 

I would assume the series gains quality with quantity and maybe the Helm character becomes a little more menacing in an international setting. The end result is an average beginning to what is widely considered an enjoyable series of spy-adventures. I'm anxious to read the series' next installment, The Wrecking Crew, to analyze series' improvements. 

Tom’s Take:

I think Eric misses the point in his review of Death of a Citizen, one of my favorite all-time novels that debuts my favorite series ever. 

I will grant that it’s not a balls-out action spectacular like Don Pendleton’s War Against the Mafia. There’s plenty of that to enjoy later in the series. Instead, Hamilton is giving us the story of a man who is an amoral killer by his very nature who can no longer wear the costume of a suburban family man. The circumstances of the novel force Helm’s hand into deciding who he wants to be – a meek husband and father or a trained killer. You can guess which way he swings. Matt Helm is the citizen in Death of a Citizen.

Death of Citizen is a brilliant novel because it explores the nature of a violent man who is done conforming with polite society’s expectations. Helm is a great narrator who presents his acts of violence and his slide back into his old life in an offhand and cavalier fashion. For instance, the most shocking scene in the book happens off-page and is revealed to the reader as an offhand remark in a single sentence. Donald Hamilton was a genius who knew when to throw his punches but also knew when the reader’s imagination could do the job better than his tightly-wound prose.

I hope Eric continues with the series – at least the first dozen books or so. The other paperbacks are more traditional spy-assassin books with more traditional plotting. Book two is called The Wrecking Crew, and I thought it was a masterpiece. The third book in the Matt Helm series, The Removers, ties up the loose ends from Death of a Citizen regarding Matt’s family. The Removers was not amazing, but I suspect that Hamilton needed to resolve the unresolved family issues from the debut.

Bottom line for Eric: Don’t give up on Matt Helm.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Matthew Scudder #02 - Time to Murder and Create

Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series of crime-fiction novels began in 1976 with the successful The Sins of the Fathers. Over a 44-year span, the author has written 17 novels, a short-story collection and a novella starring the ex-New York City detective. Scudder is a tragically flawed staple of New York's Hell's Kitchen, an alcoholic nice guy performing good deeds for average citizens. Despite being released after 1976's In the Midst of Death, Block considers the 1977 novel Time to Murder and Create as the second installment in the Matthew Scudder series.

The book begins by introducing readers to a charismatic informant named Spinner. During Scudder's career in law-enforcement, Spinner often supplied details closely related to a crime or criminal suspect. Through that relationship, Spinner formed a trust for Scudder that is evident through Block's opening pages. In it, Spinner presents Scudder an envelope with an ominous set of directions to only open the package if Spinner ends up dead. Shortly thereafter, Spinner's corpse is fished out of the river and Scudder opens the envelope.

Skirting around any potential spoilers, Scudder learns that Spinner was collecting monthly installment payments from three individuals. The first is a wealthy, productive architect, the second is the seductive wife of a rich New York elitist and the third is a wealthy entrepreneur developing a political candidacy. What do the three have in common with Spinner and why are they each paying him money? Scudder's role is to determine which of the three debtors murdered Spinner.

Block's narrative is grossly compelling as Scudder learns the identities of each suspect and assumes Spinner's role as payee. By doing so, he purposefully makes himself a target for the killer. With tight-knuckled suspense, the investigation digs into the mortal turpitude of each debtor. As Scudder begins to understand the payments, he questions his own vulnerability. Again, without spoiling it, there's a brilliant complexity to Scudder's relationship with the architect. Scudder's own personal tragedy closely aligns with that portion of the narrative. The end result is another feather in the hat. Lawrence Block's Time to Murder and Create is a riveting, emotional reading experience with no clear-cut heroes or villains. It's an unbiased look at human behavior and the ultimate costs of our failure. Masterful.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Mike Hammer #02 - My Gun is Quick

Hardboiled crime novels reached a new height of popularity in the late 1940s. Many scholars and fans point to Mickey Spillane as a catalyst for this pop-culture phenomenon. His debut novel, I, the Jury, was published in 1947 and became an instant runaway bestseller. The book introduced the world to the iconic Mike Hammer, a fictional private-investigator who pursues bad guys mostly in New York City. Hammer is known for his physical rough 'n tumble, unorthodox style gained from his U.S. Army experience in WWII. Hammer's closest friend is Pat Chambers, the Captain of Homicide in the NYPD. Hammer also has a continuous, flirtatious affair with his secretary Velda throughout the series. While I struggled to fully enjoy I, the Jury and found it rather flat, I wanted to attempt another Mike Hammer novel to see if it produced a different reading experience. My selection is the second installment, My Gun is Quick.

The novel begins with Mike Hammer having coffee at a neighborhood diner. An attractive, yet homely, woman takes a seat beside Hammer and asks if he’d buy her a coffee. Hammer, never turning away female companionship, obliges despite warnings from the diner's owner. After a brief conversation Hammer learns that the unnamed woman, who Hammer later refers to as Red, was probably in the prostitution game and is in a really bad place. Hammer feels a great deal of compassion for the nice woman and offers her some money to set her life on track. Happily, she thanks Hammer and the two go their separate ways. The next morning, Hammer learns that the woman was struck and killed by a drunk driver.

Hoping to help identify the woman, Hammer meets with Pat to examine the body. After finding some bruises and markings on the woman, Hammer suspects that she was actually murdered. Despite Pat's skepticism, Hammer starts investigating the woman's history and the events leading to her death after their chance meeting. The investigation takes Hammer into New York's call girl racket and a millionaire named Berin-Grotin. After Hammer learns about the girl's connection to one of Berin-Grotin's staff members, the wealthy businessman actually hires Hammer to investigate the murder further. Along the way, Hammer falls in love with a reformed call girl named Lola in some of the narrative's most effective scenes.

The first thing to know is that My Gun is Quick is a far superior novel to I, the Jury. While I'm sure Spillane and Hammer fans will disagree, Hammer is just way more dynamic in this novel. With I, the Jury, Mike Hammer is so deadpan. He's a gruff, loudmouthed detective that just came across as abrasive and crude. Further, in the series debut, Hammer really doesn't solve anything. Instead, the clues are nearly served to him on typewritten notes. Spillane's writing in My Gun is Quick provides so much texture to this character. Hammer is drawn to this unnamed woman with his client's voice is speaking to him from the grave. She's pleading for him to learn her identity and provide retribution for her death. The idea that Hammer may have caused her death by putting her back on the streets is just really clever writing. It's a brilliant, multifaceted narrative that has Hammer's pursuit of the killer as his own, personal attempt at forgiving himself.

My Gun is Quick is one of the best novels I've read of any genre. Mickey Spillane's masterful prose is saturated in gritty realism, emotional stress and a thick-laced, impending sense of doom throughout. If you read nothing else, please read this novel. My Gun is Quick is the quintessential masterpiece of hardboiled crime.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

On the Run

After 13-years of writing stand-alone hardboiled and crime noir novels, MacDonald's love for nautical adventure and the Florida Gulf Coast would logically evolve into a series character. Beginning in 1964, the author would embark on a 21-book series of nautical-crime books starring salvage-consultant Travis McGee. MacDonald's transition into the series mostly halted his stand-alone hardboiled-crime writing. In fact, 1963 proved to be one of the last few years that MacDonald would write multiple stand-alone novels. That year, he wrote a screenplay novelization called I'll Go on Singing and only two crime novels – The Drowner and On the Run. I decided to try out the latter title to determine if the author's crime-noir writing had declined by that point in his career.

On the Run introduces readers to a multimillionaire named Tom. At 90-years old, the feeble man has hired a private-investigator to track down his two estranged grandchildren – George and Sid. In backstory, the author reveals that both were taken from Tom in their early childhood. After their mother died, the two were placed into foster care and ultimately grew up apart from each other and their grandfather. With over $8-million to divvy up, Tom hopes to locate the two of them.

The first few chapters are dedicated to Sid's life as a soldier, used car salesman and husband. After learning that his wife had an affair with a high-level crime-kingpin, Sid assaults the man and leaves him facially scarred. Since the beating, Sid stays one step ahead of the mob and flees from town to town. It's a roadside life filled with deceit, booze and women. After learning Sid's whereabouts, Tom sends his nurse to Texas to summon Sid back home. In doing so, Tom opens the door for a mob assassin to track down Sid's location.

In alternating chapters, there's a backstory on George, a fairly one-dimensional character that's greedy and deceptive. Knowing about Sid's price tag to the mob, George is enthusiastic to meet Sid at their grandfather's house. Hoping to not only cash-in with the mob, George wants to get his hands on Sid's portion of their grandfather's inheritance.

In a rare misstep, John D. MacDonald creates a convoluted mess for the reader to follow. With having to explore both George and Sid's past, the interweaving characters didn't quite meld together as well as the author likely intended. At 140-pages, I could sense that MacDonald had some unused story ideas and just threw them together in an attempt at fluid storytelling. The pacing is off, there's minimum character development and the romantic narrative planned between Tom's nurse Paula and Sid was rushed and didn't feel organic.

On the Run suffers from misdirection, shallow characters and an uneven plot. With so many great MacDonald novels to choose from, your reading efforts would be better spent somewhere else. On the Run is disposable fiction.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 20, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 40

Episode 40 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast is our contentious “Women and Minorities” episode. If you can handle the heat, listen to the guys candidly discuss the work of Helen Nielsen, Amber Dean, Joseph Nazel, and Marc Olden. Be warned: This episode is sure to be highly controversial and may spark a worldwide boycott. If you dare, check it out on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE:

Listen to "Episode 40: Women and Minorities" on Spreaker.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Carnival of Death

Beginning in 1949, Day Keene (real name Gunard Hjertstedt) wrote over 50 novels. Just four years before his 1969 death, his heist novel Carnival of Death was published by Macfadden-Bartell. It was reprinted in 2012 by Simon and Schuster imprint Prologue Crime as an affordable ebook. Despite my preference for his 1950s work, I found I owned a copy of this book and decided to sample Keene's late career output. Was it a good decision?

A Los Angeles man named Laredo once fought side by side with Cuban rebels in the Bay of Pigs. Losing a leg in the fight, now Laredo dresses like a clown and runs a trio of children's rides in a shopping plaza's parking lot. After appearing on a radio show hosted by Tom Daly, Laredo's tiny carnival finds itself besieged by bank robbing clowns. Let me explain...

An armored car parks in the shopping plaza to run change into a store. While there, one of the guards decides to grab a quick cup of pink lemonade from Laredo's wife. Within minutes he drops dead from an apparent poisoning. While the guard's co-worker is distracted with the spontaneous death, clowns descend out of nowhere and create a confusing spectacle. One clown shoots Laredo's maintenance man, another shoots a woman while holding a baby. Another hops in the car, retrieves all of the clowns and begins throwing thousands of dollars in cash out of the back door to the money-grabbing hordes. The end result leaves two people fatally shot, one man poisoned and Laredo and his wife accused of murder. And a bunch of carnival attendees rich from surviving this macabre Shooting Gallery.

After the police name Laredo as the chief suspect in the murders and bank heist, Tom Daly emerges as the novel's main character. After Laredo's appearance on Daly's show, the radio host feels that Laredo is too genuine to pull off a caper. He truly feels the man is innocent and teams up with his editor to solve the crime. The book's narrative finds the duo in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and even Big Bear Ski Resort chasing clues and suspects.

I don't think anyone would declare Carnival of Death a good representation of Day Keene's writing. The storyline was a bit flimsy in spots and really disregards the police and their roles in the investigation. I can't imagine that a crime of this size (with press and people swarming) would rely on two radio professionals to do all of the heavy lifting. The narrative was simply unconvincing in that regard. Like his 1952 novel Wake Up to Murder, Carnival of Death still possesses two of Keene's strongest genre tropes – repressed desires and sexual frustration. Aside from those strong points, the author is fairly complacent in drawing up the standard whodunit and inserting rather anonymous protagonists as heroes. You can do so much better than this late career entry from Day Keene.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Sacketts #04 - Jubal Sackett

Deemed "America's Favorite Frontier Writer", Louis L'Amour's chronicle of the fictional Sackett family was a bestselling series. Beginning in 1960, the 17-book series is still held in high regard with fans of the western genre. While the novels focus on frontier life in the 1800s, the author began envisioning the Sackett family's early origins in England and America. Starting with 1974's "Sackett's Land", L'Amour wrote four novels that showcases the family's humble beginnings in the late 1500s through 1620. The fourth and final of these portfolio installments was "Jubal Sackett", published in 1985.

Both "Sackett's Land" and its successor, "To the Far Blue Mountains", feature Barnabas Sackett's expedition from England to eastern America. In "The Warrior's Path", Barnabas' sons Kin-Ring and Yance are the chief protagonists with much of the action taking place in America and the Caribbean Islands. While Barnabas' son Jubal is mentioned in these books, it is explained to readers that he was a loner and distanced himself from his family. Jubal was obsessed with exploring the far west and walking "where no white-man had ever wandered". It's only fitting that L'Amour dedicated a full-length novel to this fascinating character.

As the book opens, Jubal Sackett is hunting in an area that would later be called Tennessee. After a brief attack by an Indian, Jubal generously welcomes the brave to dine with him. The man introduces himself as Keokotah, a Kickapoo native. After learning Jubal's name, Keokotah informs him that his father Barnabas was killed in battle. The two become friends and decide to journey into the “Far Seeing Lands” west of the Mississippi River. On the journey, the two educate each other on hunting, rituals and their family history. L'Amour centers these exchanges as a focal point for much of the paperback’s first-half.

Later, the two journeymen meet a tribe of Natchee that ask Jubal for a favor. Their tribe's high priestess, Itchakomi, has left the fold and is desired by one of their chief warriors, an arrogant man named Kapata. The Natchee feel that if Jubal is headed further west, he will find Itchakomi and can ask her to return home to marry Kapata. Jubal eventually meets Itchakomi and the two fall in love. The author's second-half portrays Jubal's defense of Itchakomi from Kapata but also warring factions from Spain.

In a lot of ways, this novel's second-half resembles “To the Far Blue Mountains” in the way that Jubal and his allies build and defend a fort. As the waves of attacks descend on Jubal's home, it's reminiscent of the British pirates and warlike tribes that Barnabas fought that will seem a little familiar to the reader.

At 350+ pages, there's an epic feel to the novel as readers experience many seasons with Jubal, including hunting, expanding his circle of friends and allies, and contending with nature's harsh oppression in high altitudes. With exciting hand-to-hand skirmishes with Indians, blade duels with the Spanish and fierce combat with savage animals, “Jubal Sackett” is the quintessential wilderness tale. I highly recommend all four of these early Sackett adventures, but place this one just a little higher than “The Warrior's Path” in terms of epic escapism. In the book's closing notes, L'Amour explained to readers that more early Sackett adventures were to follow, including the family's participation in America's Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Sadly, L'Amour passed away in 1988 and was unable to continue his storytelling. What remains is a powerful testament to America's early exploration and strong independence.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Enter Without Desire

Enter Without Desire from 1954 was the fourth published novel from Ed Lacy whose real name was Leonard Zinberg (1911-1968). The paperback was originally released by Avon, and has been reprinted several times since then. It remains available today as an ebook for 99 cents from an outfit called Grotto Pulp Fiction. I’ve always enjoyed Lacy’s work and recently came into possession of a dollar. As such, I decided to download the novel into my Kindle and give it a shot.

As the story begins, Marshal Jameson is a failing artistic sculptor who leaves his reclusive Long Island shack and hitchhikes to New York City on New Years Eve looking for some fun and companionship. To get out of the cold drizzle, Marshal joins the studio audience of a radio game show. He’s selected to be a contestant and paired up with a beautiful audience member named Elma to answer questions on the air in exchange for a cash prize. Thankfully, the author shares with the reader that Elma has big breasts.

As paperback “meet-cute” gambits go, this one is pretty good. Together, Marshal and Elma win a pile of cash on the radio show and decide to spend New Year’s Eve together. Having not been around a woman in months, Elma really gets Marshal’s body chemistry bubbling. Flush with winnings, the couple decides to spend New Years Eve together, and Marshal (as well as the author and the reader) falls madly in love with Elma. The majority of the novel is a very mainstream and nice romance story (albeit from a completely male perspective), and only because this is an Ed Lacy book was I certain that things would eventually get seriously dark.

The plot with Elma takes a pause for sizable flashbacks giving the reader a little more history of Marshal the sculptor’s life before he discovered clay back when he was a young ad-man. Fans of the TV show “Mad Men” will enjoy this segment. His service in WW2 and the war’s aftermath is the focus of another long flashback that brings us forward in time to the fateful New Years Eve when Marshal met Elma.

Be forewarned that the paperback’s first two-thirds is almost devoid of any crime, action, or suspense. The author drops a couple hints along the way about where this is heading as Elma mentions her estranged husband. The book’s second half jumps around in time until the full picture becomes clear to the reader. The last third is a rather compelling crime story about a murder and its tricky aftermath.

To be clear, I loved, loved, loved this book. However, I recognize it’s only a crime novel in the broadest sense of the word. The first person narration was really well-done, and the story of Marshal and Elma is fantastic relationship drama. Basically, Enter Without Desire is a mainstream novel that evolves into a compelling crime-story with a twisty, violent climax. As long as you know what you are getting, you’re likely to enjoy this book as much as I did. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE