Monday, November 30, 2020
Friday, November 27, 2020
Thursday, November 26, 2020
Wednesday, November 25, 2020
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
Monday, November 23, 2020
Friday, November 20, 2020
The novel begins early in the morning of July 4, 1892 in the town of Elbow, Oklahoma with excited children lighting off firecrackers in the town’s wagon yard driving the townsfolk’s dogs bananas. Marshal Ott Gilman awakens to face the long, hot day ahead. Despite the heat and drought making life difficult for ranchers in booming Oklahoma territory, everyone is excited for a day and night of patriotic rowdy merriment following the afternoon parade. The territory has been growing faster than the municipality can handle, and it’s clear that one Marshal and an aging deputy aren’t enough to police the entire town swelling with drunken cowhands and ranchers.
Early in the day, two gun-toting hardcase brothers named Pete and Willy Prince ride into town in anticipation of the celebration. After menacing the town’s barber, the outlaws learn that their family’s old nemesis, Marshal Gilman, is the law in Elbow, and the brothers have an axe to grind. The dispute goes back a few years to Texas, and it has more to do with the older Prince brother, Nick. The younger brothers send word to Nick that they’ve located Marshal Gilman, and Nick is taking a train from Oklahoma City with another family member to settle the score. For his part, the Marshal seems determined to avoid an altercation with the Prince boys - a passive stance that can only last so long in a violent western paperback.
The backstory about why the Prince brothers are hell-bent on seeing Marshal Gilman dead by nightfall is a revealed little by little throughout the short novel. As the day gets hotter and the brothers get drunker, the violence - both threatened and real - reaches a boiling point. The steps the Marshal takes to ensure he’s not the one greeting July 5 in a pine box also serve to ratchet up the paperback’s tension to a wailing siren.
The arrival of the train carrying Nick and the violent confrontation thereafter are pure gold. The cast of vivid supporting characters is also top-notch. Overall, The Hottest Fourth of July in the History of Hangtree County is a perfect winner, if you like your westerns told through the prism of a hardboiled vendetta story.
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Thursday, November 19, 2020
An Oscar-winning screenwriter named Mr. McCleary hires Easy to solve a family mystery. The client’s daughter Jackie committed suicide by jumping into the Pacific Ocean five years ago, yet Mr. McCleary just received a letter from the girl. Fortunately for the plot, Jackie’s body was never recovered. In the letter, Jackie says she’s in trouble, but she can’t come into the open just yet. Jackie drops a lot of inside info, and the handwriting looks right. Convinced that his twentysomething daughter is alive and in trouble, the old man hires Easy to find Jackie.
Easy isn’t convinced Jackie is alive, but he follows logical leads - gossipy news clippings, the post-office, her friend-group, etc. This brings him in the orbit of many quirky California types, but Easy is himself is rather generic. In fact, he makes fictional detectives like Mike Shayne and Johnny Liddell seem downright charismatic in comparison. Instead of imbuing Easy with personality, Goulart chooses to make him a competent professional among scads of California stereotypes (“The classical string quartet at the cafe is nude!”).
Man, this was a by-the-numbers tedious and boring book. It’s possible that Goulart was trying to lampoon the private eye genre, but he forgot to actually make it funny. Characters do wacky California things like grab Easy’s crotch while he’s interviewing them, but these attempts at promiscuous edginess fell flat to me. The entire novel is just a series of interviews Easy conducts with witnesses and possible suspects who may have knowledge of Jackie’s death or disappearance. By the time we arrive at a solution to the central mystery, I was way past caring.
If any of this sounds like your thing, please just read any of the Carter Brown mysteries. He did the same thing so much better. If Dying Was All isn’t even bad enough to be noteworthy. The novel is blessedly short, so you won’t need to suffer through much tedium to reach the ending. Better idea: just skip it altogether.
Buy a copy of this book (if you must) HERE
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
As a single man, Harry Collins is only allotted a one-room apartment in a smothering futuristic Chicago with a population of 38 million. Every sidewalk and elevator ride is a crushing mob of humanity. A simple commute to the office for a few miles is a two-hour ordeal. The overpopulation itself is caused by a lack of war and disease that has pushed human life expectancy well into the 90s. A public policy decision that economically rewards couples for having children as well as a lack of meaningful immigration restrictions further exacerbates the population explosion. Basically, everything sucks.
Bloch does a great job of world-building in the opening chapters while giving the reader the same sense of claustrophobia experienced by every character in the novel. A nervous breakdown lands Harry in a government sanitarium with plenty of living space, tons of green land and woodsy trails to stroll. There’s also a flirtatious nurse who seems to really dig our boy. It all seems too good to be true.
Harry’s bubble is burst when he is visited on the asylum grounds by a mysterious stranger who shares the truth about his current living situation. I’m not going to give it away here, but nothing at the facility is what it seems. Suffice it to say that Harry’s mental well-being is the last thing on anybody’s mind on the campus.
There’s a fantastically paranoid early-novel twist that leads to a larger public policy prescription that is both bonkers and offensive to modern sensibilities. The politically-incorrect “solution” to the overpopulation problem is so nuts that even if I spoiled it for you, you wouldn’t believe me. I wish Bloch were still alive, so I could ask him if he meant it to be funny. It’s certainly creative and audacious.
It’s clear that Bloch was a man of ideas, and boy-o-boy does he shoehorn a lot of ideas into this short novel. Many are harebrained, but others are interesting. The plot fascinated me, but there wasn’t a ton of action. If you’re looking for a science fiction shoot-em-up, this isn’t the story for you. I have no particular expertise in speculative fiction, but I genuinely enjoyed the heck out of this one. I’m glad that it remains available from paperback reprint publisher Armchair Fiction.
It’s interesting to read a science fiction novel from 60 years ago predicting how awful the world would be 20 years ago. We have our own unique problems today, but none are as dire as the fiction of This Crowded Earth, and that’s a relief.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2020
The book begins in a Singapore airport and introduces Jock Hamilton, a once thriving rubber plantation manager who is desperately attempting to catch an outbound flight to Melbourne. In his first-person narration, Hamilton explains to readers that he's a fugitive wanted for allegedly killing his wife. Of course, he's innocent but his circle of friends and allies have shrunk since the killing. After the police begin searching the airport, Hamilton escapes onto the street and eventually sneaks onto a steamship headed to Malaysia. But Hamilton doesn't realize he's jumped from the pan into the fire.
The middle section of Fleischman's narrative is a captivating crime-noir set within the ship's sleeping quarters. After hiding in a closet to avoid detection, Hamilton overhears two hired killers planning a hit on a wealthy woman named Kay. As a fugitive from justice and an illegal passenger, Hamilton isn't clammoring to report the conversation to the authorities. Instead, he seeks out the woman named Kay to warn her of the killers. Eventually the action relocates to the hot steamy jungles of Malaysia, but I won't connect the narrative's beacon points for you.
Within the hotblooded femme fatale plot, Hamilton reunites with an old friend at a rubber plantation. The problem is that Jock Hamilton may have fallen in love with Kay but his friend's girlfriend Monique is begging for Hamilton's Jock. She blackmails him into a sexual affair by threatening to notify the authorities and Kay of his fugitive status. The entire third act could have written by Orrie Hitt or Gil Brewer.
While I didn't like Malay Woman nearly as much as The Venetian Blonde, it was still a memorable crime-noir laced with adventure and intrigue. Fleischman is such a skillful storyteller and his words just flow accross the pages so easily. I couldn't put the book down in hopes of learning Monique's motives and Hamilton's ultimate fate as the burdened hero. In three acts, Fleischman manages to weave a number of crime-fiction tropes into an enjoyable and enthralling read. Highly recommended.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Monday, November 16, 2020
Friday, November 13, 2020
Mason, David, Al and Ralph live successful, lucrative lives in the posh suburbs of Memphis. Each year the four men journey to a rural area to hunt deer, reminisce about the good ol’ days and complain about women. This year, Al informs the group that he has recently purchased a secluded, dense stretch of Arkansas timberland. The massive 400-acre spread has been closed to the public for decades.
Before arriving at the dirt paths and trails that lead into the deep forest, the group stop by a trashy roadside bar where they have a fight over ugly women and cheap beer with the local rednecks. The fight eventually spills into the parking lot as the parties hop into vehicles and attempt to outrace one another. Oddly, once the hunters descend into the forest, the beer-swilling hicks hit the brakes and do a U-turn back to town. The city boys condemn the locals as yellow-striped cowards. Little do they know that the act of cowardice was actually stark-white fear.
After camping overnight by the fire, Mason and David wake up and begin trailing a whitetail deer through the foliage. It's here they discover a pile of animal heads and entrails scattered on the forest bed. A short while later, both men stumble into a makeshift camp where Neanderthal men and women are gutting animals and playing with bones and skulls. The shocking scene evolves into Mason fighting to survive and eventually disarming one of the men. This leads to a clash as the hunters are eventually attacked and “hunted” by these violent and strange forest-dwellers.
Cunningham's novel is clearly influenced by the 1972 blockbuster film Deliverance (there's even a comparison to it on the book's cover). I'd also speculate that the author watched Tobe Hooper's 1974 cult-classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre as well. The idea of primitive people living in the backwoods of America's most rural areas was a pop-culture trend that was highlighted by Wes Craven's 1977 film The Hills Have Eyes. Hunter's Blood isn't as extreme or horrific as either of Craven or Hooper's nightmarish imagery, but it's close.
The author's use of the dark forest as a backdrop elevates the intensity and suspense. While the Neanderthals aren't cannibals, they are terrifying as macabre, savage hunters that hack and slash through their victims. In the book's opening chapters, there's an enticing promise that somewhere in the forest lies an abandoned mining town. This addition to the narrative really hammers home the book's climactic finale.
While the book's early dialogue scenes and bar-brawl action was presented as crude and immature, the novel's second half was wildly entertaining. The chase scenes were riveting and each of them seemingly ended in some sort of brutal, bloody mayhem that was consistently rewarding and satisfying. The author never takes things too seriously and the end result is a fun, shocking and memorable reading experience. I'll probably read this crazy book again and again.
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Thursday, November 12, 2020
When the reader first meets our narrator Phil, he’s preparing for an exhibition in Prague where he hopes to sell his products - “electronic computers” (remember, it’s 1968) - to some communist bloc countries. A shadowy U.S. Government operative requests that Phil sell a very specific IBM computer to a Czech electronics broker who would then sell it to Red China. The computer is destined for a Chinese atomic research facility to facilitate the manufacture of a nuclear bomb.
What the Chinese don’t know is that the computer Phil is selling contains a hidden bomb trigger designed to level the Chinese atomic facility (recall that computers were a lot bigger back then.) However, even after the sale is consummated, the U.S. government is not done with Phil. Something is wrong with the computer’s inner workings (besides the bomb trigger), and they need Phil to travel into Red China and fix the giant IBM.
Reluctantly, Phil travels to Peking, and we get a very enjoyable “amateur thrust into the world of spies and intrigue” plot. Phil is a delightful narrator, and a sexy Chinese translator is assigned to accompany him on his mission. Can Phil fix the computer and have it installed in the Chinese atomic weapons facility? More relevantly, can he set the trigger and get out of Peking before things start exploding?
Despite some slow stretches and a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion, Secret Mission: Peking was a solid first-installment and definitely worth reading. It’s not as cartoonishly-exciting as a Nick Carter: Killmaster novel, but it’s more fun than a cerebral John LeCarre espionage potboiler. Phil Sherman is an excellent narrator to take the reader on this suspenseful ride. Recommended.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Wednesday, November 11, 2020
This first book in the series is an origin story explaining how Josiah Hedges became the violent western vigilante Edge. The opening pages features Hedge's innocent young brother Jamie anxiously awaiting his brother's return to their Iowa farm. Hedge has been away fighting in the American Civil War as a noble Captain in the Union Army. After years of sending his paychecks back home, Hedge and Jamie hope to use their savings to expand the family farm. Once Jamie spots some former Union soldiers riding towards his homestead, he begins to expect the worse. His brother isn't with them.
The first two chapters of The Loner isn't for the squeamish. Hedge's compatriots in the Union have been watching him send money back home. They realize he has a sizable officer's pay, and they realize how easily they can acquire this money for themselves. Leaving before Hedge, these six violent criminals arrive at Hedge's farm and immediately shoot Jamie's dog in cold blood. Next, they shoot Jamie in the knee before stringing him up to a tree for torture. Jamie refuses to tell the men where the money is, so they kill him (finally) and burn the Hedge farm to the ground. Hedge arrives to find his brother's broken and bloody corpse among the farm's burning inferno. Retrieving the money from it's hidden location, Hedge rides out to kill the bastards.
The Loner is an intense, stereotypical western that checks off nearly all the western tropes: stagecoach robbery, jailbreak, Indian shootout, horse-stealing, hanging, saloons, revenge and the mandatory madams of the wild, wild west. Hedge, or what most people across the frontier hear as "Edge", is immediately likable and ends nearly every scene with some sort of sarcastic wisecrack. When a sheriff is decapitated, Edge cracks, “Guess you just lost your head, Sheriff.” Sometimes this deterred from the concept that Edge is in mourning for his brother and is hellbent on revenge. However, his savage use of a straight-razor, repeating rifle and Remington pistol reinforces the idea that Edge is a man to take seriously.
As a series debut, The Loner delivers everything readers want. There's a clear direction for the character, a reason to exist and a defined plot that helps propel this character into endless action and stories for years to come. As a pure western, Harknett delivers the goods in grand style. Nearly every chapter is a bloody testament to violent, old-west storytelling. It's also what any men's action-adventure fan would expect from a publisher like Pinnacle. I'm excited to realize I have 60 more installments to explore. Yee-haw!
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Tuesday, November 10, 2020
Evidently in the 1960s, there was a burgeoning underground industry of plastic surgeons who would change your face if you were on the run from the mafia or the law. Earl Drake did it. Mack Bolan did it. And in the opening scene of Parker #2, our hero has the procedure to stay one step ahead of the mob bosses he upset in the previous book.
The action quickly shifts to new-face Parker being invited to execute an armored car heist with a five-man crew. The original plan was garbage, so Parker agrees to help only if he can rework the scheme and streamline it to a three-man job with bigger shares for each participant.
For the first time in the series, the reader gets to see Parker’s methodology in the planning and execution of a heist. The author walks us through the site survey, bankrolling, gun purchases, vehicle acquisitions and the post-heist location choices. We also get to meet the unreliable team members who sometimes gravitate to this line of work. In this case, the wild card is a dame named Alma who Parker suspects is planning a double-cross.
The heist story forms the core of an excellent Richard Stark heist novel, but there’s an important side plot about someone tracking Parker through his plastic surgeon to settle a score. There’s also a detailed summary of the events from the previous novel, and The Outfit isn’t done with Parker. As such, you should definitely read The Hunter first. Consider yourself warned.
The Man with the Getaway Face is another outstanding installment in this nearly-flawless series. I’m really looking forward to reading the third novel, The Outfit, which ties up loose ends from the first two books. After that, you can pretty much read the series in any order. For the uninitiated: Jump in. Trust me, you’re going to love this series.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Monday, November 9, 2020
Friday, November 6, 2020
Passage by Night began its publication history as a 1964 release by Hugh Marlowe. The real author was a Brit named Henry Patterson who eventually became famous under his more-successful pseudonym of Jack Higgins. Thereafter, Passage by Night was reprinted under the Higgins name where it remains available today.
The paperback’s hero is Harry Manning, a British charter-boat captain in the Bahamas. However, Manning is more than your typical bleach-blonde boat bum. He used to own a successful salvage business in Havana, and the business was stolen from him when Fidel Castro’s revolution brought a corrupt flavor of communism to Cuba. As a result, Manning is now relegated to taking American tourists scuba diving and spear-fishing in the Bahamas to make ends meet.
It’s somewhat important to keep in mind that when the novel takes place in 1964, the Bahamas was a British crown colony and did not gain its independence until 1973. Manning has a romantic relationship with a Cuban refugee he rescued at sea named Maria Salas, who is currently performing as a singer on the Bahamian island of Spanish Cay. One evening, Maria boards a commuter plane hopping between islands, and the tiny aircraft explodes over the water. Manning is left without a girlfriend but with a mystery to solve. Why would anyone assassinate a Cuban exile torch singer?
The journey to the truth begins as a rather standard - but very compelling - mystery with Manning visiting logical leads on Nassau to discover the identity and motive of the killer. All roads lead to the Isle of Tears, a Cuban concentration camp for political prisoners, and the paperback evolves into a balls-out action thriller right up to the twisty ending.
Passage by Night is an enjoyable, if inconsequential, Caribbean maritime adventure with lots of scuba diving scenes sprinkled through the plot. The paperback benefits from being extremely short, so there was never time for the book to become slow, muddled or confusing. I don’t expect to recall much about it in a year other than it being a perfectly fun diversion for a few hours - or in other words: an easy recommendation.
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Thursday, November 5, 2020
Weird Tales was a popular pulp fiction magazine specializing in horror and dark fantasy stories from 1923 to 1954. Between the years 1943 and 1951, the magazine published 33 tales of terror by an unknown author named Allison V. Harding. Mysteriously, Ms. Harding disappeared from writing altogether after her last submission to the pulp. No more stories. No paperback original novels. It’s like she never existed.
Wednesday, November 4, 2020
Our narrator is Alex Bland, and he’s on vacation visiting his old war-buddy Verne. Upon arriving at Vern’s house at 13 French Street in a fictional southern town, he is greeted at the door by Verne’s impossibly sexy and flirtatious wife Petra, a dame who just oozes promiscuity. Although Alex has never met Petra before, they know each other from letters (aka: paper emails) they’ve exchanged over the past five years. You see, Verne isn’t much of a letter writer, so he had his sexy wife write the letters to keep in touch with his best pal. (Note to dudes with sexy wives: Bad idea.)
Things are awkward for Alex from the moment he arrives. Verne has aged poorly and does a bad job feigning enthusiasm regarding Alex’s visit. Petra can’t help but make bedroom eyes at Alex every time their gazes lock. Finally, a pretty chamber maid confides in Alex that he’d be well-served to keep his bedroom door locked at night.
Thing escalate exponentially when Verne needs to go out of town on business leaving Alex to his “vacation” at the house with Petra. Verne’s elderly witch of a mother lives in the house, and she keeps a close eye on Petra while her son is gone. However, that doesn’t stop Petra from trying to seduce Alex every time the old lady’s back is turned. If you enjoy your vintage paperbacks filled with sexual tension, this one is definitely for you.
Eventually, the old lady’s chaperoning becomes more and more troublesome, and you can imagine where that goes. It takes about halfway through the paperback before 13 French Street becomes a full-fledged crime noir novel in which bad ideas beget further moral slippage. It’s also compelling as hell, and the pages keep flying by - making it abundantly clear why this book was such a sensation nearly 70 years ago.
To be sure, there is some retrograde treatment of women in this book that wouldn’t fly today, but 1951 was a very different world. While I still think that The Vengeful Virgin was Brewer’s masterpiece, 13 French Street isn’t far behind. It remains a lusty noir classic with a femme fatale you won’t forget. Recommended.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2020
Our narrator is Digger, a down-and-out bookmaker in New Orleans’ French Quarter occupying “an airless room in a crummy hotel.” However, the way Digger sees it, things are looking up. He’s devised a brilliant idea to make some money, and all he needs is an audience with the local mob boss to pitch his foolproof plan. The Big Man is a careful sort who has a lot of gatekeepers, including a particularly rough hood named Twigg. Navigating these obstacles comprises much of the paperback’s first quarter.
Otis draws a vivid picture of French Quarter life with snippets of real history and landmarks, and the humid atmosphere runs thick throughout the novel. Eventually, Digger is given an audience with The Big Man, and he’s able to pitch his scheme. The plan is basically a simpler means to smuggle opium and other contraband into Louisiana using a boat moored in the Gulf of Mexico. Digger has devised a ruse that will keep law enforcement blind to the shipments, and he wants to bring the local mob boss in on the deal to ensure he doesn’t wind up sleeping with the crawdads.
The problem is that Digger refuses to give up his many small-time side hustles - bookmaking, craps games, etc. His moonlighting causes problems with his mafia silent partner causing tensions and violence to reach a roiling boil. Will Digger need to betray his friends to climb up the New Orleans crime ladder?
I wanted to like Bourbon Street - I promise I did. Unfortunately, it was pretty sub-standard, and the plotting was off-track. Otis was a good writer, but it took way too long for Digger to implement his plan, and then the story fell into a maritime rut. The novel’s femme fatale arrives really late in the story, and she’s more trouble than she’s worth from the very beginning. Bourbon Street is a good first draft in need of an editor to guide the author through some structural plotting alterations. It wasn’t an awful read, but you deserve better.
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