Monday, September 21, 2020
Friday, September 18, 2020
Brooklyn native A.S. Fleischman (Avron Zalmon Fleischman, 1920-2010), authored his first book in 1939 at the age of 19. In 1941, Fleischman joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and served near the Phillippines and China during WW2. After graduating from San Diego State, the author began writing children's books as Sid Fleischman. During his literary career, Fleischman wrote over 40 children's books, a feat that earned him critical praise with industry peers. However, what brings the author to Paperback Warrior is his short career as a crime-fiction and adventure writer.
Between 1948-1963, Fleischman wrote 10 genre fiction books that saw publication with the likes of Fawcett Gold Medal, Phoenix Press and Ace. His 1955 novel Blood Alley was adapted for cinema starring John Wayne and Lauren Bacall. My first experience with Fleischman is his last full novel, The Venetian Blonde, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1963.
The book stars Skelly, a former card-sharp who made a fortune dealing loaded hands to a Boston money man named Braque. After years of swift hands, Skelly's fingers fail Braque to the tune of $125,000. Unable to repay the error, Skelly begins to dodge Braque and his hired guns, a runaway trail that leads him to Venice Beach, California in hopes of a new start. But after trying a small hand of backroom poker, Skelly realizes his hands just aren't fast enough any longer. He needs a brand new con. Enter Evangeline.
Skelly, using the name Appleby, attempts to reconnect with an old friend. His wife, Evangeline, advises that her husband is out of the country on business. After learning of Skelly's financial woes, Evangeline throws him the perfect pitch. You see, she's a fake witch. A spiritualist. A medium. She dupes people out of money by faking the old smoke and mirrors séance trick. She's a cunning, greedy woman who runs the con game at the professional sounding Institute of Spirit Research. Here's the swindle: Evangeline has located an old millionaire who recently lost her nephew in a drowning accident. Evangeline proposes to Skelly that they collaborate on an unusual scheme. They can bring the millionaire's nephew back to life for a cool million. Skelly laughs at the proposal...until Evangeline shows him a mysterious young man she has locked away upstairs. Could this really be the drowned nephew?!?
My first experience with A.S. Fleischman was an absolute blast. Think of the heist formula perfected by the likes of Dan J. Marlowe or Lionel White and saturate it in Carter Brown's comedic seasoning. It's clear that the author emulates some of the writing style he used with his children's books, but adding all of the coarse characteristics one would find in a crime-noir novel of the 1960s – sex, murder and fraud. I also really enjoyed the nod to the western's hero's flaws. Skelly is essentially the fast gun who isn't quick enough anymore to compete with the buck-wild up and comers.
Skelly and Evangeline are both looking for that one big payoff so they can escape the con game business. They both want to walk the righteous path, but to do so they must put one fraud in front of the other. It's a deceitful path allowing the characters to really shine in their element. Fleischman also includes a homely but attractive beachnik. Think of the Times Square beatniks and their soundtrack of Jack Kerouac over groovy jazz. Replace it with a beach of your choice to the tunes of Jan & Dean. That's really the setting of The Venetian Blonde, a unique location and historical time period that just adds more originality and imagination to Fleischman's impressive adult-fiction send-off. In his last noir act, Fleischman delivered a memorable and masterful performance.
In 2016, Stark House Press reprinted this novel as a double with the author's 1952 crime-noir Look Behind You, Lady. You can buy a copy of that book HERE.
Thursday, September 17, 2020
British author James Herbert (1953-2013) was the director of an advertising agency before striking it big as a horror author around the time Stephen King was doing the same thing accross the Atlantic. Herbert’s first novel, 1974's The Rats, began a successful 23-novel career with worldwide sales exceeding 50 million copies. I’ve heard great things about Herbert and decided to start with his second book, 1975’s The Fog.
The novel begins in the quiet English village of Wiltshire where nothing much ever seems to change. Our hero is John Holman, a government environmental crimes investigator. While investigating misuse of defense department land, he stumbles upon Wiltshire as an earthquake strikes. The rumbling opens a giant fissure in Main Street swallowing shops and several citizens along with it. This is followed by some exciting disaster-movie sequences where Holman rescues a child before she plunges to her death into the earthly abyss.
Herbert doesn’t waste any time with drawn-out character development. Immediately following the earthquake, a thick yellow cloud of fog begins to rise from the new crack in the earth. The menacing vapor appears to be sentient with tendrils reaching toward intended victims who are driven insane as they are enveloped by the fog.
Like the Coronavirus, the fog infects different people in different ways. Some become axe murderers while others urinate all over their neighbors. There’s also a good bit of genital trauma for the reader’s enjoyment, if not always the characters. These varied effects are presented in several action-packed, violent vignettes resembling individual short stories throughout the novel. The big question: Are the effects of the gas permanent or will the afflicted return to normal? Secondary question: Is the fog somehow related to experiments taking place on the nearby military base?
For a horror novel, The Fog isn’t particularly scary, but it’s an excellent action novel with plenty of violent surprises. It reminded me of an environmental disaster story, a medical thriller, and a high-adventure rescue mission. Other sections recalled a modern zombie adventure or even my favorite Able Team installment, Army of Devils by G.H. Frost. There were also several gratuitous and graphic sex scenes, if that’s your bag.
Overall, The Fog was an outstanding page-turner. The plotting was fast-moving and never dull, and the dilemmas encountered by the heroes were approached rationally. There was plenty of violence and gore to please any action-minded reader. Highly recommended.
The 1980 John Carpenter movie, The Fog, was unrelated to the James Herbert novel. Many of Herbert’s novels were adapted into films, but The Fog exists only on the written page and your beloved Kindle device.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Wednesday, September 16, 2020
Hal D. Steward was a U.S. Army public relations superstar and later a successful newspaper reporter for for the Los Angeles Examiner and the San Diego Union who eventually became the executive editor of The Daily Chronicle in Centralia, Washington. He made some extra bucks writing graphic stories for True Detective magazine, including "Fatal Shootout for the Arizona Bank Robbers" in the July 1968 issue. His book output is all over the place with titles including Money Making Secrets of the Millionaires. With an interesting resume like that, I wanted to tackle Nails Fenian’s Case #388: Assassins’ Hide-Away from 1967 published by an obscure adult paperback imprint called Publishers Export Company.
First thing’s first: There weren’t 388 Nails Fenian books. There were only two. The other one was The Spy and the Pirate Queen also published in 1967. Our hero’s real name is Nailan Blackford Fenian, and he’s a CIA operative and part-time philosophy professor (trust me, just roll with it).
Here’s the set-up: The South American nation of Columbia has turned to the U.S. for help in thwarting Red China’s plan to spark a communist revolution with the help of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. The agency turns to Nails to smash the Reds’ operation and liquidate the bad guys off the face of the earth.
Upon arrival in Columbia, Nails promptly gets laid (this happens every 25 pages or so), and meets with his Columbian counterpart to get the lay of the land. It’s funny that the first few people he meets in Columbia insist on filling in Nails - and the reader - with fun facts regarding Columbia (elevations, average rainfall, geographical fun facts, etc.). I get the impression that the author wanted to ensure that his new set of World Book Encyclopedias would be fully tax-deductible as a business expense. The commie infiltration is in the city of Neiva (Population: 60,000, Altitude: 6,000 feet), so that’s where the bulk of the action transpires.
The enemy cell leader is Chinese Colonel Chow, and his sidekick is a German Nazi in exile famous for collecting the skulls of “Subhuman Jews.” There are also Columbian Communist Party operatives and Cubans as well. Adult spy fiction makes for strange bedfellows it seems, and this United Colors of Benetton ad is planning to amass a standing army to invade Bogota unless Nails can thwart their plans.
Upon arrival in Neiva, Nails liaisons with a female Columbian intel agent. And if by “liaisons” you think I mean “has sex with,” you’d be spot-on. Naturally, Colonel Chow learns that Nails is in Columbia to spoil the coup hootenanny, and sends a team of assassins to liquidate the CIA hero.
And so on. Assassins’ Hide-Away is a competent but by-the-numbers espionage adventure on-par with the lesser installments of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series. The sex scenes were clearly the product of a contractual obligation, much like the Longarm adult westerns. Steward’s writing was serviceable but never flashy. I’m not sorry at all that I read and reviewed the paperback. However, I’ve already forgotten most of the novel despite finishing it ten minutes ago. It’s a book not bad enough to hate but not good enough to leave a lasting impression.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Hard Case Crime began publishing original novels and reprints in September 2004. After releasing titles by literary kings including Lawrence Block, Max Allan Collins, Day Keene, Donald Westlake and Erle Stanley Gardner, the publisher's first year was remarkable. After just one year of publishing, Hard Case Crime struck gold by landing the publication rights to an original novel by horror megaseller Stephen King. The Colorado Kid was published in October 2005.
Like most of King's novels and short-stories, The Colorado Kid is set in a coastal Maine town, this one called Moose-Look. The author's narrative is fairly simple, three characters simply sit in a diner and talk about a mystery that has haunted the idyllic community for 25-years. The “Colorado Kid” is the nickname for a dead body that was found on the coast by two teens. The mysterious circumstances around his death is that the man seemingly appeared from parts unknown. No identity, no agenda, no murder. He simply died while eating.
While the narrative is rudimentary, King's signature storytelling makes it a compelling, pleasurable reading experience. In his conversational style, King makes you love these three characters with their witty charm and small-town mannerisms. Like any good crime-noir, there has to be an average character placed in extreme or unusual circumstances. That's the path the author takes only this character is dead. Learning how he arrived in this condition is a bit like the old locked-room puzzles. In fact, Stephen King's infatuation with Hard Case Crime comes from his love of crime-fiction, old mysteries and hardboiled novels. King name drops Rex Stout, Agatha Christie and even Murder She Wrote and dedicates the book to Dan J. Marlowe, an author King claims to be the “hardest of the hardboiled”.
The Colorado Kid is a quick, easy read but doesn't offer a traditional ending. Not to ruin it for you, but nothing is solved. It's the essence of the mystery, minus the mask being pulled from the killer's face. The novel would go on to loosely inspire the SyFy channel's television show Haven. Eight years later, Stephen King and Hard Case Crime collaborated again with Joyland, a superior novel that actually has an ending (although arguably not a very good one). At the time of this review, the publisher just announced a third King publication, an original novel called Later that is scheduled for March 2021.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Monday, September 14, 2020
Friday, September 11, 2020
Independent publishing company 280 Steps opened their doors in 2014. The upstart publisher acquired the rights to many out-of-print pulp classics and crime-noir as well as original novels by newer authors. Unfortunately, like many independents, the publisher closed their doors in 2017 and their back catalogue was extinguished from the internet. The company’s short-lived existence led me to several out-of-print Harry Whittington novels including Any Woman He Wanted, You'll Die Next, A Night for Screaming and a 1959 novel titled A Ticket to Hell. It was originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal and was reprinted in 1987 by Black Lizard. With a strong recommendation from my Paperback Warrior colleague, I decided to check the book out.
The novel begins with one of the best opening scenes I've read. The main character, Ric, is speeding down a dusty, rural stretch of New Mexico highway in a Porsche. He just picked up a hitchhiker, but after the young man pulls a gun on him, Ric casually slows the car to 35-mph and boots the kid onto the burning pavement. After a full day of driving, Ric stops at a dingy roadside motel to wait for a mysterious phone call.
The reader soon learns that Ric is running from someone and has a mysterious appointment scheduled with a man he's never met. The problem is that the time and date are unknown to Ric, so he's held hostage by simply waiting for the bedside phone to ring. In doing so, he's visited by the motel owner's wife who's itching to get laid. Ric declines twice, but later becomes mesmerized by a beautiful young woman across the motel's parking lot. When the woman's male companion attempts to kill her, Ric intervenes. By doing so, he complicates his own agenda at the motel.
A Ticket to Hell is a smart and multi-layered paperback that finds Harry Whittington excelling within his familiar storytelling – person on the run, rural small town, sex and murder. Whittington mostly sticks to the formula, even borrowing some elements of his western writing and injecting it into this full-throttled crime-noir. I was really invested in Ric's murky past and the mysteries that he harbored. I found myself quickly flipping the pages in a mad dash to learn Ric's full story. The end result was expected, but the pleasure lies in the journey. A Ticket to Hell was yet another top-notch thriller penned by the king of the paperbacks.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Thursday, September 10, 2020
Aside from the seven-book series of Abbie Harris mysteries, Amber Dean authored ten stand-alone crime-noir and mystery novels between 1944-1973. My first experience with the author was 1959's Bullet Proof, a novel that was well-written but poorly executed. After acquiring a copy of her Pocket Books paperback Encounter with Evil from 1961, I found the chilling synopsis just too inviting to pass up.
The book's opening pages finds David, his wife, and their 15-year old daughter Lauren traveling by car through a rural stretch of Ontario, Canada. At 2:00AM, with their daughter safely tucked away in the backseat, the couple walk into a diner for some early morning coffee. Oddly, ten men file in sporadically over the course of twenty minutes followed by the awakened teenage Lauren. After locating her parents, Lauren announces that she’s returning to the car to get some more sleep. David and his wife pay for their meal, get back in their car and drive 45-minutes down the road before glancing into the backseat to discover that Lauren is gone.
Like a Twilight Zone episode, the couple head back to the diner and find that it's mostly closed with a couple of men still sitting inside. The customers claim that they never saw the family and maintain that the diner didn't have a female waitress when they were there. After disputing their side of the story, the couple head to the local police station where they are surprised to learn that the diner would have been closed for business at 11PM and the waitress they claim served them left town with her husband the day before. The Canadian cops show some anti-American bias by accusing David of lying about the whole thing.
I'm not ruining anything for you that you won't read on the back cover. Encounter with Evil is a riveting suspense story that thrusts the parents into extraordinary circumstances. Lauren's fate is eventually revealed to the reader, but we are along for the ride as her frustrated mom and dad attempt to buck the system of small-town injustice in their attempts to find her. The narrative switches between Lauren’s experience, the parental nightmare, and a few surprising characters with unclear roles that aren’t fully explained until well into the novel.
While not perfect, Amber Dean is a terrific writer. Like Bullet Proof, I found that some elements weren't perfectly executed but generally well enough to satisfy readers. I wish her writing style had a more gritty flavor, perhaps with more violence and death. Instead, this is a pretty tame novel and not a far-stretch from modern young adult fiction. Nevertheless, I read it in nearly one sitting and thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope to find and read more of Dean's vintage paperbacks in the future.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Wednesday, September 9, 2020
Ted C. Lewellen (1940-2006) was a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Richmond and the author of several scholarly works about the effects of globalization on third-world economies. He also published two genre novels for dum-dums like me. His first book was a Fawcett Gold Medal western paperback called The Ruthless Gun from 1964 that people really seem to love. However, I’m starting with his 1968 espionage paperback, The Billikin Courier.
The novel’s first-person narration is presented by a San Francisco whiskey bum named Robert Chessick. Ex-Army, divorced, homeless, drunk. He’s always one panhandled dollar away from his next drink like a character from a David Goodis story. Chessick isn’t the kind of guy anybody really cares about. That being the case, why is someone following him?
Chessick’s shadow is a specific guy wearing a specific hat. One night, he decides to confront the follower and is knocked unconscious. Upon awakening, Chessick’s mysterious pursuer is lying dead on the ground, and Chessick is covered in his blood. Problems, problems, problems.
Meanwhile, there’s a news story humming in the background that any astute reader knows will prove to be important later. A scientist working on a top-secret laser project commits suicide and his records and formulas are missing. The FBI and police are turning San Francisco upside-down to recover the secret materials. As you can imagine, the Russians would love to get their commie hands on the technology as well.
Eventually, Chessick is visited by an FBI man who explains how he fits into all this. Unfortunately, the cover blurbs on both the hardcover and paperback give away the game. The big plot reveal owes more than a little to 1959’s The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon, a similarity that probably helped The Billikin Courier get published in the first place. In any case, having one’s brain be used as an external hard drive for state secrets presents some danger for our hero.
Despite some derivative plot points, corny scenes and slow sections, The Billikin Courier is a well-written and mostly interesting espionage novel about a less-than-remarkable everyman thrust into extraordinary espionage intrigue. In that regard, William Goldman’s Marathon Man from 1974 is an apt comparison - although Marathon Man is a far superior novel. Overall, the book was a fine way to pass a few hours, but in the vast world of spy fiction, it really only merits a footnote.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Tuesday, September 8, 2020
Sparked by the violent 1972 film Deliverance (based on the 1970 novel by James Dickey), the 1970s were filled with literary and film thrillers involving hunters or hikers encountering criminal activity in the remote wilderness. Author Robert B. Parker established his cash-cow character of Spenser in 1973 and decided to venture out with his first stand-alone novel in 1979, a Dell paperback aptly titled Wilderness that remains in-print today. The book is a deep-forest survival tale that pits the average citizen against hardened criminals in desolate Maine.
While jogging home from the gym, successful author Aaron Newman witnesses a woman being shot in the head. After talking with the police, he identifies the shooter as a notorious bad guy named Karl Randolph. Aaron agrees to testify against Karl in court with the police’s assurances that Aaron’s identity won't be revealed until the testimony begins. However, after returning home from the police station, Aaron finds his wife Janet nude and hogtied with the initials K.R. carved into her abdomen. Freeing her, Aaron receives a call saying that his family won't be murdered if he tells the cops that he fingered the wrong guy as the shooter.
Placed in a conundrum, Aaron takes the safe road and tells the police it was all a mistake. The cops, knowing that Aaron has been threatened, urge him to testify. Their warnings that Randolph never lets any witness live haunts Aaron and Janet. The two seek out their good friend Hood, a badass Korean War vet, to hunt down Randolph and kill him instead of prolonging the ongoing fear. After flunking a few attempts, the three decide the hit is best executed at Randolph's secluded mountain cabin in the Maine forest. But it's here where things get complicated and the three find themselves facing a group of armed men in the rugged wilderness.
Even though the “wilderness” aspect doesn't really come to fruition until halfway through the novel, the suspense leading up to the outdoor thrills is riveting. Oddly comical, the scenes where three civilians attempt to organize the murder of a vicious mobster over beer and steak were just so much fun to read. There's some action early on, the proverbial cat-and-mouse tactics and some interesting revelations about Aaron and his wife that add more depth to this action-thriller.
While the title Wilderness bluntly describes the book's eventual setting, I can't help but think that Parker was speaking of the savage human condition in all of us. When faced with the threat of death or family harm, Aaron and Janet delve into a dark, almost neanderthal state where survival of the fittest is the only thought. Whether it's an underlying subtext on humanity or just simply a twist on the western frontier tale, Wilderness excels as a pleasurable reading experience. I continue to find great things about Robert B. Parker's writing style, and Wilderness is just another fine example of his remarkable storytelling ability.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Monday, September 7, 2020
Friday, September 4, 2020
In his introduction to the Ramble House reprint of William Ard’s 1955 novel Hell Is a City, Francis M. Nevins makes a compelling case that the paperback is the finest installment in the popular ten-book series starring Manhattan Private Eye Timothy Dane. I’m also told that the series can be read in any order, so why not start with the best?
It’s ten days before the mayoral election in New York City. The polls indicate that corrupt mayor, Big George Kramer, is looking at a tough race against his challenger, the honest Manhattan District Attorney. The idea of losing the race is galling enough to the mayor, but the prospect of facing a subsequent investigation into his graft and embezzlement fills Big George with a special kind of terror.
Meanwhile, a disturbed young man kills a vice cop trying to engage in coercive sex with his virginal sister in a fleabag hotel. The scared siblings - Rita and Jamie - got away from the scene of the crime, but they know darn well that it’s only a matter of time before the cops catch up with them.
These two plot lines collide when the mayor decides to leverage sympathy for the dead cop to smear his anti-corruption opponent. Private eye Timothy Dane enters the scene after being engaged by a local muckraking newspaper to investigate the cop killing and poke holes in the mayor’s martyr narrative. Meanwhile, Rita and Jamie are on the run without knowing who they can trust.
Overall, Hell Is a City is pretty good, but I question those who say it’s Ard’s masterpiece. I enjoyed Wanted: Danny Fontaine and All I Can Get way more. The heroes of those novels are way more interesting and charismatic than Timothy Dane. Hell Is a City is a well-crafted bit of crime fiction, and you’ll probably enjoy it just fine. I just question how high it should be on your priority list. I think I probably got sucked in by the hype, and by that measure, the paperback under performed.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Thursday, September 3, 2020
Beginning in 1953, the novels of Charles Willeford pushed crime fiction boundaries with his distinctive plots and genre-bending conventions. Thirty years later, Willeford concluded his career with his Hoke Moseley series of hardboiled noir thrillers, novels that would prove to be the author’s best-selling works. The series ended after four installments coinciding with his 1988 death. Willeford originally titled the first book Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, but the publisher insisted on the more benign title of Miami Blues for the 1984 release.
Miami Police Homicide Detective Hoke Moseley responds to an airport crime scene involving a dead Hare Krishna who bothered the wrong traveler and paid the price. We also meet Freddy Fenger Jr., a freshly-released ex-con ripped with muscle and responsible for killing the Hare Krishna. The story basically toggles between Hoke’s investigation and Freddy becoming an established resident of Miami with an expertise in strong-arm robberies.
The characters in Miami Blues are colorful and vivid. In Florida, Freddy quickly finds himself a girlfriend - a dimwit prostitute named Susan (professional name: “Pepper”), and watching their relationship quickly slide into dysfunction made for fascinating reading. As the orbits of Hoke and Freddy began occupying the same airspace, things become both violent and, at times, hilarious. Miami Blues isn’t a mystery at all but rather a propulsive thriller that sets up a violent confrontation at the novel’s climax and delivers the goods when the time is right.
There is a gritty and raw feel to Willeford’s early work that is replaced with a smooth readability of Miami Blues. It’s clear that the veteran author sought to emulate a quirky Elmore Leonard vibe, and Willeford achieves that goal with additional edginess, political incorrectness and hardboiled violence. Miami Blues far outshines Elmore Leonard’s Florida crime novels in quality despite the fact that Leonard made more money with his inferior products. Make no mistake, Willeford is the real deal.
In short, Miami Blues is one of the best books I’ve devoured this year. It’s a quick and breezy read, and I can’t wait to enjoy the rest of the series. Don’t sleep on this one. Highest recommendation.
The Hoke Moseley Series:
1. Miami Blues (1984)
2. New Hope for the Dead (1985)
3. Sideswipe (1987)
4. The Way We Die Now (1988)
In 1990, I saw the film adaptation of Miami Blues starring a young Alec Baldwin. I recall enjoying the movie although I remember nothing about it 30 years later. Despite this utter gap in my memory, I’m comfortable saying that the book is way better than the movie. It always is.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Wednesday, September 2, 2020
Richard was born in Chicago in 1920 and called the city home for nearly all his life. The young man loved the written word and attended University of Chicago to study writing under the tutelage of his mentor Thorton Wilder, the writer of Our Town.
“He always intended to become an English teacher. He was a voracious reader,” Richard’s son John Himmel told Paperback Warrior. “In his library, he had first editions, including a D.H. Lawrence collection. He was always drawn toward the literary arts.”
Richard’s plans to teach writing were sidelined by World War 2. When the time came to serve, he enlisted in the U.S. Army. However, an illness prevented him from being shipped overseas into the fields of battle. “The Army realized early on that he was a pretty smart boy, and he was assigned to General Patton’s staff,” John explained. “He wrote pamphlets and brochures for all sorts of things such as identifying Japanese aircraft as well as a primer on the Japanese language.”
After the war, he returned to Chicago with the intention of becoming an English teacher. While waiting for this to occur, he took a job at his sister’s housewares store in the northern suburb of Winnetka. “He began taking on decorating jobs and his career was made,” John said.
Richard’s knack for colors and spacing eventually made him one of the most sought-after interior designers in the United States with high-profile clients including boxer Mohammed Ali and Hugh Heffner’s Playboy Club. However, as his business was growing and becoming established, he never lost his love of the written word.
Around 1950, a new outfit called Fawcett Gold Medal had plans to revolutionize the publishing industry by releasing all-new novels directly to the paperback format with salacious painted covers. For the past decade, paperbacks had just been reprints of successful hardcover literary works. The idea of releasing original material in a 25 cent paperback filled an important hole in the book market for readers after the pulp magazines had disappeared. Paperback originals were poised to be the next big thing, and publishing houses like Fawcett Gold Medal needed talented authors who could write compelling prose quickly.
At the time, Richard – and all of America – had become infatuated with the prose of Mickey Spillane and wrote a book called I’ll Find You about a hardboiled Chicago lawyer named Johnny Maguire who functions as a private eye for his clients. Richard submitted the manuscript to Fawcett Gold Medal, who released the book in 1950 as the imprint’s fifth paperback original. The book was an instant success and saw five printings through 1955 and a second life in 1962 when it was re-released as It’s Murder, Maguire.
“He got a literary agent in New York named Sterling Lord, and they worked together to get his books published,” John said. This put Richard in good company as Lord represented some of the biggest names in 20th Century literature including Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, and Howard Fast.
The second installment of the Johnny Maguire series was The Chinese Keyhole from 1951. It’s an odd sequel because there is no mention of Chicago whatsoever whereas the first novel was steeped in local Windy City sites and flavors. Another major change is that The Chinese Keyhole is a spy novel, not a hardboiled crime story. There’s a hasty explanation at the beginning of the book that Attorney Johnny Maguire was also an occasional spy for a shadowy U.S. intelligence agency. The paperback is great, but it was a weird and abrupt genre shift. My theory is that Richard wrote the book as a stand-alone spy thriller and his literary agent or publisher told him to edit the book to make it Johnny Maguire #2. Mickey Spillane taught the publishing world that there’s money to be made in series characters, and Himmel was apparently happy to oblige.
Later in 1951, Fawcett Gold Medal released the third Johnny Maguire novel, I Have Gloria Kirby and things went gangbusters. Over one million copies were sold firmly establishing Richard as one of the bestselling authors in the Fawcett Gold Medal stable. It was also a big year for Richard and his wife for another reason - the arrival of their son. They chose a familiar name for the boy: John Maguire Himmel.
Throughout the 1950s, Richard was working during the day as an interior designer and at night as a successful writer pecking away at his typewriter with two fingers and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “Growing up, I still remember that sound, and I still have his typewriter” John said.
The success of the Johnny Maguire series opened the door for Richard to get his romantic and sexy mainstream novels published as well. The best of these books (The Sharp Edge, Beyond Desire) were also published by Fawcett Gold Medal while others found homes and multiple printings elsewhere. The Johnny Maguire series continued for five total installments through 1958’s The Rich and the Damned.
This was followed by a 19-year hiatus from writing and publishing. “There was a period in his life when he wasn’t really writing because his career as a designer took off,” John said. “He really didn’t have much time to write, but it was always in his mind. Eventually, he went back at it.”
Richard returned to publishing with three longer stand-alone thrillers between 1977 and 1981, each with page counts exceeding 300 pages. The novels were successful and moved the action to international settings, including Iraq, Cuba, and China. By this time, Richard was a high-profile member of Chicago society, and each subsequent paperback was greeted with increasing fanfare. John recalls the release party for his dad’s 1979 Cuba thriller, Lions at Night. Richard used a parking lot on a busy street corner of Chicago’s famed Magnificent Mile for the extravagant outdoor gala. “He rented actual lions and guys dressed in guerilla fatigues for a big-ass party there, and he sold a lot of books,” John said. “My dad was quite a showman.”
Richard’s final manuscript, a novel with a working title of The Uncircumcised Jew, failed to find a home. The book was submitted to publishers through his agent in the 1990s and just didn’t sell. Richard’s literary winning streak had ended. “I think he got a little bit discouraged,” John said.
Aging and dealing with health issues, Richard’s career as a novelist ended, but he never fully retired from the decorating business. According to John, his father was sick for a long time at the end of his life. “He was a heavy smoker and obviously a workaholic. He also didn’t get much exercise.” Heart problems lead to his death in 2000 in Florida.
Today, Richard is mostly remembered as a visionary in the field of interior design. John took over the business and has continues in the field keeping the Himmel name alive as the go-to brand for upscale decorating clients.
The Johnny Maguire series, one of the most successful side-jobs of the paperback original era, was almost lost to the ages until Lee Goldberg’s Cutting Edge Press started reprinting the books in 2019 as trade paperbacks and affordable ebooks. John is thrilled that his father’s literary work has found a new audience in a new century. “There was very little that he put his mind to that didn’t excel. My dad was a generic genius.”
Richard Himmel Bibliography:
1950 I’ll Find You / It’s Murder, Maguire (Johnny Maguire #1)
1950 Soul of Passion / Strange Desires / The Shame
1951 The Chinese Keyhole (Johnny Maguire #2)
1951 I Have Gloria Kirby / The Name’s Maguire (Johnny Maguire #3)
1952 - The Sharp Edge
1952 - Beyond Desire
1954 Two Deaths Must Die (Johnny Maguire #4)
1955 Cry of the Flesh
1958 The Rich and the Damned (Johnny Maguire #5)
1977 The Twenty-Third Web
1979 Lions at Night
1982 Echo Chambers
Thanks to Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era by Brian Ritt for providing information used in this feature.
Tuesday, September 1, 2020
World War 2 veteran William P. McGivern worked as a a police reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and The Evening Bulletin before publishing his first novel in 1948. Specializing in crime-fiction and mysteries, McGivern's journalism experience clearly played a large influence on his narratives and plot-points. Nothing showcases that more than his novel Night Extra, published by Pocket Books in 1957.
The book's hero is newspaper reporter Sam Terrell. While working the “night extra” (a special late evening edition of the newspaper recapping important events), Terrell receives a tip that Richard Caldwell, white-hat candidate for mayor, may be having an affair with a mob kingpin's girl. After interviewing the girl, Terrell learns that she has secretly relayed some mob details to Caldwell in hopes that he can use it to win the election. However, hours later it's reported on the police scanner that the girl has been found dead in Caldwell's apartment. Terrell thinks it's a frame job and can validate it with an eyewitness that says the killer wasn't Caldwell. When his sources are questioned and his story buried, Terrell sets out to set the record straight for the public.
Like any hardboiled crime-fiction protagonist, Terrell interviews key witnesses and participants to shake down an unnamed city's corruption. McGivern's contemporary, author David Alexander, utilized the same formula for his eight-book series starring Broadway Times reporter Bart Hardin (1954-1959). Other authors like Richard Sale and Fredric Brown wrote short-stories starring newshounds that worked like private-eyes to break or solve murder cases. McGivern's positions his hero to crack the case, but he stacks the deck with crooked cops and politicians for the hero to combat. The author adds some social commentary on the media's ability to sway voters with their story, an ethical message that is still prevalent today.
Night Extra doesn’t reinvent the hardboiled formula, but the author certainly showcases his talents and strengths in perfecting it. This was a fast-paced narrative with some touching characters in which readers will invest. I'm not sure if Terrell was a recurring character in McGivern's other novels. But if he wasn't, he should have been. Highly recommended.
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