Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Solomon's Vineyard

The Hype

The legend of Jonathan Latimer’s 1941 novel Solomon’s Vineyard is likely more famous than the book itself. Here are the facts:

In 1940, Chicago journalist and crime fiction author Jonathan Latimer (1906-1985) wrote a hardboiled novel called Solomon’s Vineyard with lots of sex and violence. It’s about a hard-drinking private eye seeking to rescue a woman from a bizarre religious cult. Because of the era, no one cared about the boozing or considerable violence, but the sex (tame by today’s standards) made U.S. publishers nervous. As such, they declined to make the book available to American readers.

British publishers were more forward-leaning and released the novel in 1941, and it became a minor literary hit. In 1950, a censored version retitled The Fifth Grave was released for U.S. audiences with the juicy and scandalous stuff about the narrator’s sex drive (he’s drawn to female butts) removed. When cheap paperbacks became the rage, U.K.’s Great Pan books reprinted the original version - along with other Latimer books - to the further delight of British readers. Meanwhile, the uncensored version of Solomon’s Vineyard never received a U.S. printing until 1983.

In all fairness, it’s more likely that the novel merely slipped through the cracks rather than continued censorship by shadowy puppet masters. The publishing world can, at times, have short memories and resurrecting a novel that had been a hit in England four decades earlier just wasn’t anyone’s priority. It’s fun to say that Solomon’s Vineyard was “banned in the U.S. for 42 years,” but the truth is more benign. It wasn’t until 1983 before it occurred to a wise reprint house to release the unexpurgated original manuscript.

Since then, the novel has been reprinted multiple times as a paperback, ebook, and audiobook. You should have no problem finding a reading copy.

The Review

Karl Craven is Solomon’s Vineyard’s narrator, and he’s a private detective cut from the same cloth as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or the Continental Op. Think of this generation of fictional characters as Hardboiled 1.0 before Mickey Spillane redefined the genre.

As the novel opens, Craven arrives by train into the fictional town of Paulton from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri during the sweltering summer heat. On his way to the hotel, he notices a distant set of buildings around a temple surrounded by green fields and grapevines. He’s told that the compound belongs to a religious colony known as Solomon’s Vineyard populated by a thousand crazies awaiting the resurrection of their dead founder, an alleged prophet named Solomon.

Craven was summoned to Paulton by his business partner, Oke Johnson, who was in town working a case. When Craven arrives at Oke’s rooming house, he’s greeted by the local police advising him that his partner has been murdered. Oke was trying to recover a missing girl from the nearby religious cult, and he died without leaving behind any notes or reports. As such, Craven needs to recreate the entire investigation himself, snatch the dame, and get away safely while solving Oke’s murder in the process.

What follows is quite a journey of sex, violence, and corruption. Paulton is a town under the control of a gangster named Pug with the police serving as his toadies. There’s a possible relationship between the local mob and the cult that may provide Craven the leverage he needs to rescue the girl living at the Vineyard. The adventure finds Craven descending into a series of real binds without an obvious path to success. Also, if you like a violent fight scene, the one at the end is total aces.

I have a general bias against crime fiction of the 1940s, but Solomon’s Vineyard is the exception. This book is awesome - even if it owes quite a bit to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Craven is such a badass main character (he even reads Black Mask Magazine in his hotel) that I wanted to spend more time with the guy. Unfortunately, the author never developed Craven into a series character, but Latimer wrote several unrelated novels throughout his career. I look forward to exploring Latimer’s body of work more fully. Solomon’s Vinyeyard is a close-to-perfect novel. Highest recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 19, 2020

Paperback Warrior - Episode 66

On Episode 66 of The Paperback Warrior Podcast, we return to our Men’s Adventure roots with a discussion of several rare and iconic series titles in the hard-core action genre. Tom also tells a shocking and controversial book hunting story you won’t want to miss. Listen on your favorite podcast app, PaperbackWarrior.com, or download directly HERE


Listen to "Episode 66: Men's Adventure Shootout" on Spreaker.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Swampmaster: A Paperback Warrior Primer

In the late 1990s, author Jerome Preisler became a prominent contributor to the Tom Clancy spy-world of espionage and covert thrillers. Penning eight Powerplays titles using the Clancy brand, Preisler also wrote television tie-in novels in the CSI, Homicide and NCIS series. Preisler also authored the movie adaptations for Last Man Standing and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Before adding “NY Times Bestselling Author” to his name, he authored two early 1990s horror novels for Leisure, The Awakening and The Pact. But, nothing could quite compare to the three-book post-apocalyptic series that Preisler wrote under the pseudonym Jake Spencer. 

Swampmaster, billed as the “first in the mega-mayhem action series!”, consisted of three post-apocalyptic paperbacks written by Preisler and published by Diamond. Considering the timing of publication - all three novels released in 1992 - the post-apocalyptic pop-culture phenomenon had likely evaporated. With successful titles like Out of the Ashes, The Last Ranger and The Survivalist finding a loyal 80s fanbase, the 1990s began a decline in sales and readers. Nevertheless, the publisher and/or Jerome Preisler pursued the post-apocalyptic genre with this short-lived series. 

The series opener explains that America was nuked and what's left are marauders, mutants and a new government called The National Front. Opposing the sadists, racists and warmongers of The National Front is the Free States, territories that have succeeded from the government's tyrannical union. In one of the Free States, a swampy area in southern Florida, resides series hero John Firecloud. He's a Seminole, trained in the ways of the warrior by his father Charlie. Firecloud is proficient with archery and martial arts, two much-needed assets in this doomsday environment.

After Firecloud's village is attacked, Firecloud himself destroys an Apache helicopter with an arrow and disposes of seven heavily armed men. As his father is dying, he passes on a message of leadership to Firecloud, who will now be known as the impressive Swampmaster. Whatever that means. But instead of Swampmaster fighting hunchbacked, radiated ogres, motorcycle psychos and the number one villain of the book, The National Front, the author provides 120+ pages of a planned bombing in Atlanta. 

There are pages and pages of nonsense about a bomb in a briefcase, who's got the briefcase and a car accident victim. The novel's final chapters has Swampmaster team with two kung-fu dwarfs and a former female swat team member to fight a female mutant called Itchy Peg and her two inbred brothers. After Swampmaster is nearly boob-smothered by Itchy Peg and subsequently saved by the dwarfs, the foursome travel north to hijack a train full of carnival oddities so they can fetch a pilot that can fly an Apache helicopter. The end result has Swampmaster swimming through a bay to climb a fort in St. Augustine, Florida to liberate a scientist that potentially can aid the Free States. 232-pages of dull, unexplained trash-fiction that unfortunately leads to a sequel. 

A few months later, Hell on Earth arrives. This second installment begins with Swampmaster and his acrobatic dwarfs fighting a convoy of National Front troopers. There's a hilarious scene where the dwarfs handspring across the battlefield to draw fire away from Swampmaster. While this is happening, the author introduces a carload of mutants dressed as clowns that are slave mercenaries for the government. It is this sort of stuff that carries Swampmaster into the realms of the ridiculous. I'm not sure if it propels the action or unintentionally serves as a distraction.

The bulk of the narrative has The National Front creating a new military compound off of Long Pine Key in the Gulf Coast of Florida. It is here where they plan on utilizing remote control mutants as soldiers under the tutelage of a vile villain named Groll (who plays video games called Hitler's Legacy and Auschwitz). Of course Swampmaster wants to stop the remote control mutants and put an end to Groll's dastardly deeds. The finale has a captured Swampmaster forced into gladiator combat against a seven-foot tall mutant controlled by Groll remotely. While certainly not top-tier literary fiction, Hell on Earth was somewhat enjoyable and an increase in quality compared to the horrific series debut. 

The series third and final installment, Unholy Alliance, reverses any momentum that Preisler had with the prior novel. Instead, what serves as the series finale is arguably on par with the Roadblaster series written by Paul Hofrichter. In other words, it's a cesspool of literature that should come with a warning label akin to this: Contents inside may put you at risk of blindness, erectile dysfunction and lethargic bouts of coma-like fatigue. Contact your physician or nearest urgent care if you read past page 10. 

The set-up is that warring factions – The National Front and Free States – converge on an abandoned Disneyworld to duke it out. It's a fascinating concept, bad guys running around the most famous amusement park in the world while a war party featuring acrobatic dwarfs and a Seminole warrior are attempting to stop them. Just for giggles, the author throws in eight-pages of a savage black bear fighting a doomsday cowboy while a gladiator game ensues with motorcyclists mowing down human heads while a drooling, wheelchair-bound madman watches from Cinderella's Castle. 

How on Earth can you screw this up? It's an amazing, awe-inspiring premise that Jerome Preisler just shits away! It's like Peter North showing up on the set and having no idea where to put it. This should be an easy one, but instead the reader is subjected to pages and pages of gun porn, mindless conversations about Cuban cartels, pointless backstories on meaningless characters that become decapitated in just a few pages. 

This is absolute garbage. If garbage was alive and had a waste can that it put its own garbage in, this book would be the filth-ridden wallpaper adorning the can's inner aluminum shell. 

Thankfully, this series was trash-canned, thrown onto the back walls of garage sales worldwide, finding solace in its mere obscurity. Who is this lone hero Swampmaster? He's John Firecloud and he'll rain on your Macy's parade every single Thanksgiving. He's the guy who hid the chocolate bunny on Easter and told you asparagus tastes great. He only left you a quarter for pulling that bloody stump of a tooth out of your pink gums and John Firecloud is the guy who crapped in the work toilet and left it there to dissolve knowing you'd see it and never unsee it. 

You know what? Jerome Preisler did all of that too when he introduced the world to Swampmaster.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

We Who Survived

Modern publishers like Wildside Press, Cutting Edge and Armchair Fiction have been busy preserving the literary works of Sterling Noel (1903-1984). The author's knack for espionage and crime-fiction saturates his body of work, evident with novels like I Killed Stalin (1951), Prelude to Murder (1959), I See Red (1955) and Few Die Well (1953). It was with great interest that I acquired his post-apocalyptic, science-fiction novel We Who Survived. It was originally published by Avon in 1959 and was reprinted for modern audiences by Wildside Press in 2017.

The 160-page novel is divided into two parts, Book I: The Storm and Book 2: The Escape. The division marks a significant turning point within the book’s narrative. The first-half is essentially a massive snowstorm, which I'll explain in a bit. As expected, it begins by introducing the characters, their place in time and the extreme circumstances that place these characters in peril. The second-half delivers as advertised, the eventual escape where the action is propelled to match the “will to survive.” Both sections are good, but action-adventure fans may enjoy the closing chapters more.

Noel's protagonist, scientist and former missile commander Vic Savage, conveys to readers that the Earth was rocked by third and fourth World Wars. The conflicts utilized nuclear weapons and most of what we know now as the United States is fragmented into districts or complexes such as St. Louis Complex or Roanoke Complex that encompass a significant amount of surrounding territory. Two to three states conceivably are absorbed into new complexes or districts. Likewise, new countries are formed, including The Republic of North America where Savage lives. The book takes place in the year 2203, with the opening pages forecasting a snowstorm for Savage and the rest of Earth's inhabitants.

The Earth has entered the first stages of an unexpected cosmic dust cloud that is freezing the atmosphere. When the snow begins its slow descent, Savage, under harsh criticism, predicts that the snowfall won't stop for 72-years. The temperatures will plunge, ranging from thirty-two degrees in the early stages to a deadly eighty-degrees below zero. Due to the water vapors in the upper atmosphere decreasing, they will eventually vanish completely, removing all of Earth's heat. This deadly combination will result in massive storms that erode the east and west coasts of North America leading to flooding, gale-force winds, snow drifts over 200-feet and the inevitable death of billions of people.

The opening book, The Storm, has Savage collaborate with a number of key scientists and their families to stockpile a Missouri farm complex called Harrow. With engineers, fusion scientists, medical personnel and a support staff, the group begins fortifying Harrow for the inevitable storm. Eventually, Savage’s prediction rings true and their complex is buried in 100 feet of snow. The bulk of the first-half is spent on the characters interacting with each other, establishing rules and regulations and building tunnels with ventilation to service themselves for the remainder of their lives. Eventually, the group begins to fragment into factions, feuding with one another to disrupt the everyday boredom. Savage, and his team, decide to leave the complex after a number of long, lonesome months. The goal is to head to the equator where temperatures may be warmer.

The Escape, the book's second-half, finds Savage and the team driving a large vehicle holding 30 people. All of the vehicles of 2203 run on fusion reactors, so the author throws a bit of a curve-ball at the characters. They must create "prehistoric" rubber tires for the vehicle and build snow mobiles complete with welding-torch styled hand tools that melt the snow and ice that would otherwise block their travel. But, like most post-apocalyptic novels, it isn't the extreme conditions that kill – it's the people.

While not a riveting, action-packed spectacle, We Who Survived is a serviceable post-apocalyptic novel that introduces some new elements to the genre. The snowfall, harrowing frost and the ice-tunnels are new to me. While The Coming Global Superstorm, authored by Whitley Strieber and Art Bell, contains many of the same scenarios, it was written and published in 1999. We Who Survived was unique at the time, and still is. 

Sterling Noel tended to write about nuclear reactors and nuclear energy in his spy novels, and he predicts the use of fusion reactors for everyday use. Furthermore, he predicts Facebook 40+ years ahead of it's conception. In an early scene, Savage and his girlfriend decide to be married. But, instead of the traditional wedding, the two appear in front of their computer’s camera and post a photo of themselves with a subtitle explaining they were getting married. They then post it to their friends and family through an app or device called DW-Three. Brilliant.

There could be some social context running through the novel. Noel's idea of characters ascending to the upper-surface could run parallel to the idea of a corporate ladder. Or, we all want to gaze down on everyone else, establish our own personal kingdom and be the envy of spectators. There are the unfortunate civilians trapped below and more fortunate, wealthy people “liberated” at the top. This idea of social class would eliminate the middle, leaving lower and upper class only. It could be a stretch, but I think Noel had more to say other than “Here is a catastrophe.” The shifting of wealth is significant. Savage and his group can ride free on the upper-surface because they have the money to plan ahead. Moreover, they have the ability to utilize expensive government equipment and the resources to own a huge farm. The lowly New York shopkeepers all freeze to death or drown in the ensuing flood.

We Who Survived isn't a gem you have to own. There are better post-apocalyptic books, but I think this paperback was really ahead of its time for 1959. It's a revealing look at our civilization and the fragile state of our planet. The social context is thick and illustrated by a characters that represent societal archetypes. The end result is an intriguing novel where the author, through his protagonist, warns us that the storm is coming.

Or, is it already here?

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Black Berets #01 - The Deadly Reunion

The Black Berets was a 13-book paperback series published by Dell between 1984-1987, a fertile time-frame for the men's action-adventure series industry. Dell was simultaneously publishing the post-apocalyptic series Traveler as well as the vigilante novels in the Hawker franchise. Therefore, it made sense for the publisher to include a team-based combat series in their catalog of offerings. The Black Berets was written by John Preston and Michael McDowell under the house name Mike McCray. Both authors were openly gay and authored a number of well-received gay-fiction novels. McDowell wrote movie and television scripts including Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Tales from the Darkside. After enjoying the aforementioned Dell publications, I decided my team-combat reading could use some fresh faces. Camouflaged of course.

Beak, Rosie, Cowboy, Harry and Runt were utilized by the CIA as a special forces squad during the Vietnam War. After the war ended, the group disbanded and began living their separate lives. Billy “Beak” Beeker is the authors' focal point, the group's leader who is introduced in the opening chapters as a Louisiana Native-American who teaches at a private school while minimally living on large acreage. In the opening installment, Deadly Reunion, Beeker receives a call from the team's old boss, Parker. After an eight year hiatus, he wants to put the band back together again.

The next chapters are dedicated to Beeker reluctantly tightening his bootstraps once again and recruiting the original team members. After partnering with cocaine-cowboy and flying ace Sherwood “Cowboy” Hatcher, the two travel across the country explaining the team's new mission, and the reader learns the backstory of each member. All parties are hesitant to join the resurrected team and are skeptical about Parker's historically-shaky allegiances. The motivation for the reunion is that Parker informs the team that a former Black Beret member has finally been found. After going missing-in-action during the war, this team member has been spotted in a Laos prison. He's not dead but barely surviving off of meek rations among years of torture and abuse. Parker wants the team to penetrate Laos and rescue the man.

Deadly Reunion is like a really good Fawcett Gold Medal novel. The team reunites for a secret mission in hostile territory to recover something with the geopolitics updated to incorporate Vietnam. There's even the old heist bit thrown into the narrative to capture that vintage feel. I had some doubts about another 1980s team-combat series but instantly fell in love with these characters and the solid writing. Unlike other high testosterone action-adventure series, the authors dedicated time and effort to tell a realistic story about Vietnam Veterans. Many of the team members find themselves lost after returning home, haunted by the combat nightmares. Lost love, poor finances, alcoholism and drug abuse are part of the Black Berets narrative, and I found that vulnerability to be a more realistic approach than the typical barrel-chested brawny heroes of the 1980s.

Overall, I just can't say enough good things about this opening installment. Compared to Able Team, Dennison's War and Eagle Force, The Black Berets seems to be solidly higher quality. I've already purchased the second installment in hopes the momentum continues. Stay tuned! 

Note: Author, editor and podcast host Paul Bishop has an excellent write-up on this series including each book's synopsis and vivid cover art. Check it out HERE.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The Big Caper

Lionel White was a master storyteller who specialized in heist crime-noir. Several of his novels have been made into movies starring the likes of Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford. Director Quentin Tarantino credited White’s work as inspiration for his critically-acclaimed 1992 film Reservoir Dogs. I've been thrilled with every novel I've read by this author and I was excited to read what many consider one of his finest works, The Big Caper. It was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1955 and adapted for film in 1957.

The book stars a WW2 veteran named Frank who finds himself befriended by a crafty bank robber named Flood. One thing leads to another and Flood eventually proposes his boldest scheme to Frank. The idea is that a professional heist crew, featuring an arsonist, a safe-breaker, two drivers and two gunmen, will rob a large bank in the small Florida town of Indio Beach. The millions will be split up and this triumphant caper will be Frank's first (and hopefully only) criminal foray and Flood's last. But, like any good ol’ fashioned bank blow-out, there's a wrench in the gears that proves to be a fatal flaw: Flood's girlfriend Kay.

Flood's proposal is that Frank and Kay become merry citizens of Indio Beach months before the heist. The two are to fake it as a married couple and submerge themselves into American Suburbia. Frank opens a thriving gas station where he smiles and pumps gas and fixes the town's auto problems. Kay is the proverbial happy housewife and makes plenty of canasta and bridge club dates with the couple's friends. After a few months of successful socializing and law-abiding living, Frank and Kay learn to fake it so well that the whole farce becomes reality. The two fall in love with each other and begin questioning their motives to gain happiness through a criminal enterprise. In a clever twist, White asks readers to ponder the real definition of happiness. Kay grows to fear and despise the controlling Flood, and Frank becomes wary of the plan and its proper execution. The Big Caper spirals into a character study of everyday people placed into a viper's den of greed and criminal exploits - the very essence of crime-noir.

White's narrative settles into a routine, customary tour of small town life in the book's opening half. The storytelling is key with the author providing many vivid images of this tiny Florida community. There's an ensemble cast of characters that are supportive of Frank and Kay's role as happily married do-gooders. But, once the professional criminals hit town, the novel's second half becomes a ticking time-bomb as Frank and Kay countdown to their date with destiny. White is willing and patient to deliver the goods, but he primes readers with a plethora of possibilities on which directions Frank and Kay turn. It is this nervous anticipation that makes The Big Caper such an entertaining and pleasurable reading experience.

I just can't say enough good things about this author and his stellar body of work. What a remarkable legacy to leave behind for generations of readers to enjoy and celebrate. When compared to Lionel White's contemporaries, this author remains in the very top echelon of mid-20th Century crime-noir creators.

Note – Dan J. Marlowe borrowed this novel's plot for his equally entertaining 1966 novel Four for the Money. In it, a former card-sharp and ex-convict migrates to a small Nevada town and integrates himself into the community. He awaits the professional heist crew who he plans to assist in knocking over the town's casino for millions. But, he finds that his pleasurable small town life, and lover, might override his need for crime.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 12, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 65

With Halloween quickly approaching, Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 65 takes a deep-dive into the world of 1970s and 1980s horror paperbacks. We discuss the best and worst in vintage scary fiction with tons of recommendations and reviews. Listen on your favorite podcast app, at PaperbackWarrior.com, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 65: Paperbacks from Hell" on Spreaker.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Parker #01 - The Hunter

Donald Westlake had been writing professionally for several years when his first book as Richard Stark debuted in 1962. The Hunter (later reprinted as Point Blank) was a monster success and launched a 24-book series over the next 46 years with several movie adaptations along the way.

As the novel opens, Parker is pissed. He was left for dead in a post-heist double-cross orchestrated by his own wife and the novel’s primary adversary, a loathsome weasel named Mal Resnick. Adding insult to injury, the backstabbing lead to Parker serving a stretch in jail. The heist itself is a mere footnote to the plot as The Hunter is really a story of betrayal, vengeance, and settling accounts.

Even in this earliest iteration, Parker is a fully-formed, stoic violence machine. He’s like a Terminator in the famous sci-fi series - always moving forward towards the target. The physical descriptions of Parker as a big man with giant hands who doesn’t need a gun to kill are vivid and paint an intimidating picture of the legendary anti-hero.

By the same token, Resnick is a fantastic villain who inspires revulsion in the reader as Westlake fills us in on his own back story. The short version is that he betrayed Parker to steal Parker’s wife and $80,000 in heist proceeds to repay a debt to the mafia, famously known as “The Outfit” in the Richard Stark Universe.

As an organization, The Outfit is the third leg of the stool making The Hunter stand tall as one of the best crime fiction novels ever. Syndicate bosses set up shop in a hotel serving as a high-rise safe house for the mobsters to plan and scheme without fear of violence or the law. It’s an innovative idea borrowed decades later in the John Wick franchise of action films.

The Hunter is also the first in a trilogy of interconnected novels followed by The Man with the Getaway Face and The Outfit. After the first three paperbacks, the series generally showcases stand-alone Parker adventures with a few exceptions toward the end. As such, the first three books in the series should definitely be read in order. This shouldn’t be a hardship as they are all masterpieces.

But start with The Hunter. Don’t sleep on this book. If you read the book decades ago, do yourself a favor and pick it up again. It’s a reminder of how good crime-fiction can be. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Violent Saturday

Arkansas-born William L. Heath (1924-2007) served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a radio operator during World War 2 before earning a degree in English Literature from University of Virginia. After selling several short stories, his first novel, Violent Saturday, was published in 1955 and later adapted into a movie. The paperback has been reprinted several times and remains available as a $5 ebook or free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

The novel opens with three mysterious men arriving in Morgan, Alabama (Population: 4700) on a train from Memphis. They tell their taxi driver that they’re from the electric utility company, but that’s clearly nonsense. They register at the town hotel as Mr. Thomas, Mr. Blake and Mr. Brown, but I wasn’t buying that for a moment. What brings these three serious men to Morgan?

I suppose it’s not giving away too much to say that the three strangers are planning to rob the town’s bank. As heist plans go, this one of well thought out and logical. There are some uncharitable descriptions of black people that wouldn’t fly in today’s world, but I’m incapable of feeling outrage over words used by fictional characters 65 years ago.

The core plot veers off course fairly early as the author introduces the reader to a wide cast of townies - way too many for my tastes - but I was determined to stick it out to get to the actual Violent Saturday part. The myriad of subplots involving the lives and loves of the locals were a real snooze and definitely distracted from the paperback’s enjoyment, and they unfortunately make up the bulk of the novel. The heist and its aftermath are both plenty exciting, but you need to navigate through a lot of nonsense to get there.

If this was the only vintage heist book available, it would be an adequate genre paperback. However, we live in a world where the novels of Richard Stark and Lionel White are plentiful and cheap. Given the vast and superior options at your fingertips, don’t waste your time with Violent Saturday.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Benedict #02 - Gift of Death

Edward S. Aarons' most recognized literary work is the 42-book Assignment series starring the globetrotting CIA agent Sam Durell. However, before that series began in 1955, Aarons authored a two-book series of crime-noir novels starring amateur private-eye Jerry Benedict. The first of the two books, No Place to Live (aka Lady, the Guy is Dead), was published in 1947 and introduced Benedict as a New York political cartoonist who is drawn into a murder investigation when he finds a corpse. The second novel, Gift of Death, followed a year later and moves the action south to a rural Connecticut farm. My first and only experience with the Benedict character is Gift of Death.

In the early chapters, Benedict is summoned to the office of Lucius McConaughy, the editor of The Globe newspaper where the two men work. McConaughy praises Benedict's sleuthing skills for solving the murder mystery found in No Place to Live. He explains to Benedict that his Uncle has recently passed away and a $600,000 inheritance is to be divvied up between himself and five cousins. Benedict's role is to determine who is potentially killing off the cousins to grab a bigger slice of the pie. After cousin Amanda's secretary was decapitated at the family's sprawling farm, McConaughy feels that the murderer was targeting Amanda and mistakenly killed her secretary instead. Benedict agrees to assist and the two travel to Connecticut to submerge themselves in a nest of cousinly vipers.

Aarons' narrative includes a Weird Menace sub-plot at the family farm. The old house is rumored to be haunted, a double-suicide occurred in one bedroom and there's a massive tree that was used for hanging in the early 1800s. Moreover, the unknown killer is attacking at night using a razor-sharp scythe as the killing tool. The author's macabre depictions of grizzly decapitation is combined with his trademark signature of sweeping Gothic imagery. Like Terror in the Town (1947) and The Net (1953), Gift of Death features a thick, foreboding sense of dread and doom. Aarons' drapes the story in old swaying oak trees, dark cornfields, moaning winds and positions the characters in eerie, ghost-like places such as hill-top cemeteries and abandoned summer cottages. Needless to say, Aarons' sense of d├ęcor and atmosphere is both stylish and effective.

If you like an old-fashioned, dense murder mystery, Gift of Death will surely be a pleasurable reading experience. Despite the spooky ambiance, I found the characters to be a little shallow and stereotypical undermining the core mystery. Benedict plays the proverbial 1940s detective well, interviewing all the parties while gaining liquid courage from mid-shelf bottles. It's a familiar, well-worn formula that doesn't hamper the narrative's momentum. Overall, I was glued to the story and didn't rush the reading just to pull the mask off.

Aarons' is such a masterful storyteller and Gift of Death proves that in spades. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Spawn

British horror author Shaun Hutson’s writing career took off in 1982 with the publication of his iconic paperback Slugs (yes, it’s about shell-free killer gastropod mollusks). He found his niche as a great storyteller who can weave a compelling suspense story out of a crazy, gross-out premise. Case in point: his 1983 novel Spawn. Granted, it’s about murderous aborted fetuses, but the novel is also so much more. Read on...

It’s 1946 in Great Britain and Harold - the son of a prostitute - is a seriously messed-up kid. At age 14, he occupies his time giggling as he tortures insects with fire. This harmful diversion leads to the fiery death of Harold’s family leaving the boy grotesquely deformed without a person in the world who cares about him.

We rejoin Harold in 1982 where he has been a resident of a mental institution undergoing intense psychological and physical therapy for over 35 years. He’s sweet, shy, polite and severely scarred. His dilapidated asylum is closing, and it’s time for Harold to rejoin society. He’s hired as a janitor at a local hospital. The facility has basement pathology lab where the giant furnace incinerates the body parts, organic materials, and aborted fetuses from various medical procedures.

The sight of a fetus in the incinerator brings back some awful memories for Harold as he recalls his baby brother’s death by fire. Harold begins swiping the pre-babies and burying them near the hospital, so they don’t suffer the indignity of the consuming fires. The means by which Harold’s fetus friends are eventually reanimated wasn’t particularly realistic, but I can’t imagine a situation where that result would seem reasonable.

Meanwhile, a violent murderer named Harvey has escaped from a rural prison where he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. Two smart police inspectors are heading up the manhunt in hopes of catching the maniac before the body count mounts. This subplot was interesting enough, but the eventual link to Harold and his fetus gang was fairly inconsequential.

Spawn is a fun and bloody bit of escapism, but there’s also some interesting themes running through the narrative. The first is that the human monsters who walk among us are made through childhood abuse and neglect.

The author also seems to be saying something about the personhood of the unborn, but Spawn never feels like a political or religious pro-life parable. Upon reflection, I’m not sure that either side of the debate wants to claim Harold’s zombie abortions as their own. Still, it’s hard not to notice.

As a novel, Spawn is an entertaining gross-out paperback. You’ll cringe and squirm, but it’s unlikely you’ll actually be frightened. However, you’re also unlikely to put the paperback down because it’s well-written and compelling as Hell. You’ll want to see what Huston is going to do next. By now, you probably know if you like this type of thing. If so, you’re certain to enjoy this bloody ride. 

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Monday, October 5, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 64

Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 64 explores the legacy of author David Goodis. Also discussed: Black Berets! Eric leaves his house! Used Bookstore haul! Funeral home field trip! Antique store tirade! Wade Miller's Devil May Care! And more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 64: David Goodis" on Spreaker.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Pace That Kills

William Fuller was a merchant seaman, an infantryman and a drifter before becoming a full-time novelist in the 1950s. His claim to fame is the six-book series of crime-noir novels starring a Miami playboy named Brad Dolan who drifts along the Florida coast in a houseboat. Shell Scott author Richard Prather describes Fuller as “literate, hard-paced violence, remindful of James. M. Cain.” Aside from the Dolan series, Fuller wrote at least two stand-alone novels, Back Country (1954) and The Pace That Kills (1956). Supposedly the two books comprise one long story, but I’m beginning with The Pace That Kills.

The novel is set northwest of the Florida Everglades, just shy of a rural, dense area known as 10,000 Islands. It's this swampy area where Danny Rivers escapes two cops in route to prison. His fugitive trail leads back to his small hometown. Ducking police surveillance, hounds and road blocks, Fuller's narrative incorporates Rivers' attempts to commandeer vehicles, rob people and murder on his way back home. While this is the most exciting portion of the novel, the author spends a great deal of time creating characters and small town life for the reader.

Through various subplots, readers are introduced to a motel and restaurant owner named Harry and his alcoholic wife Marge. There's also Harry's brand new waitress, a beautiful drifter named June, who quickly becomes the talk of the town. There's also the town's most wealthy citizen, his mistresses and cheating wife. There's a host of other supporting characters that are vividly collected in current and past time lines. All of the town's citizens have a common thread – they have all been touched in one way or another by Danny Rivers. As the news broadcasts about Rivers' escape increases, the town begins to brace for Rivers' imminent return home.

William Fuller's The Pace That Kills is a southern Gothic that mixes Paul Cain and Erskine Caldwell into a warped version of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I didn't find much of it particularly interesting, but I appreciated Fuller's southern-fried style. It works as a small town scandal story or as a "heated, adulterous bedroom community with secrets" novel. If that's your sort of thing, then this is a recommended title. I was hoping Fuller would further develop Rivers' actual crime and the heist money that was tucked away in a secret place unbeknownst to the town. While that plot thread eventually comes to fruition, it's too late in the book to have a sizable impact. The end result is just another crime-noir novel that's written well but is devoid of any real substance. Readers may want to just stick with Fuller's Brad Dolan series.

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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Dial "M" for Man

Orrie Hitt is often dismissed as a sleaze fiction author, but I think that’s largely unfair. His paperbacks were certainly packaged as tawdry sex novels, but the first thing a horny reader will notice is the almost complete lack of graphic sex. You’ll also probably notice that he was often an outstanding writer whose plots veered heavily into the moral ambiguity of a femme fatale crime-noir story. Case in point: Dial “M” for Man. The 1962 release has been reprinted by Stark House as a double along with Hitt’s The Cheaters.

Hob Sampson is a TV repairman who is called out for a repair job. The lady of the house is named Doris, and she’s a real dish. Her way-older husband - Mr. Condon - is a crooked real estate developer who also serves on the board of directors at the bank that just rejected Sampson for a loan. He seems to be going out of his way to make Sampson’s life miserable. Upon arrival at the house, the seductive Doris is wearing a skimpy bathing suit, and her husband isn’t home. She’s super flirty, and Sampson is a man who knows what he likes.

You know and I know what eventually happens. Sampson isn’t immediately able to give her the tube she needs, so he agrees to come back to take care of her while Mr. Condon is out of town. There’s a lot of interpersonal stuff between Sampson and his virginal quasi-girlfriend and his deadbeat buddy that rounds the story out and gives Sampson the motivation to have Doris for himself.

If the story of a TV repairman plotting to kill a rich guy for his money and sexy wife sounds familiar, you’re not alone. It was also the plot to Gil Brewer’s paperback The Vengeful Virgin from four years earlier. In all fairness, Brewer’s novel was just a re-working of James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, and the femme fatale story structure has been copied countless times since. While Hitt makes the story his own, he still probably should have made the narrator a plumber or a carpenter to make his borrowing of the plot structure more opaque.

As is often the case in Orrie Hitt novels, the reader learns a lot about the main character’s chosen profession. I find this stuff fascinating, and I now feel like I have a Masters Degree in TV retailing, reception and repair. In 1962, Hitt notably predicted that cable TV would be the future of America. (He did not, however, foresee Netflix Streaming.)

Dial “M” for Man was a total blast to read. The first-person narration from Sampson gave the reader a palpable sense of the lust and greed that leads an otherwise honorable man to make some deadly decisions. Hitt’s ending was also pitch perfect. With 148 books in his writing career, this is an author who should be viewed as a master of his lowbrow genre, and I’m happy that there are reprint houses like Stark House keeping his name alive.

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