Tuesday, September 22, 2020

In a Small Motel

Even after he became a a marquee writer of paperback original novels, John D. MacDonald continued to write and sell short stories - his chosen profession during the 1940s. The July 1955 issue of Justice magazine featured a JDM novella called “In a Small Motel” that clocks in at about 39 modern pages. The story has been compiled in various anthologies through the years and is currently available as a 99 cent ebook.

It’s a busy evening for proprietor Ginny Mallory at Southern Georgia’s Belle View Courts motel with needy customers checking in while others are demanding ice and roll-away beds. Ginny is a hard-working widow from Jacksonville, Florida whose husband bought the motel and then died in a car accident seven months ago. She’s been trying to keep the business afloat all alone ever since.

A mystery man arrives wanting a single room and insisting that he hide his car behind the building where it can’t be seen from the highway. Rather suspicious, no? A romantic suitor from Jacksonville swings by the motel to visit Ginny, and the mystery man gets the mistaken impression that the visitor is following him and then...

Stop, stop, stop!

I shouldn’t say any more or else I’m liable to ruin this excellent story for you. “In a Small Motel” is really something twisty and cool. The novella will make you want to dive deeper into MacDonald’s vast short fiction library. Read this one. It’ll be the best 99 cents you spend this year.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, September 21, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 62

On Episode 62 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Eric and Tom discuss the life and work of Charles Willeford. Also: Tom’s Dallas Book Tour, Richard Stark, Ron Goulart, Warrant for a Wanton, Nick Quarry, Hoke Moseley, William Fuller and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 62: Charles Willeford" on Spreaker.

Friday, September 18, 2020

The Venetian Blonde

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

The Fog

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.

Fun Fact:

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

Nails Fenian #02 - Assassins’ Hide-Away

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

The Colorado Kid

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

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 61

Would you believe that there are series characters from Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald and others that you know nothing about? We drop some serious knowledge bombs on Episode 61 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast with reviews of The Best of Manhunt 2 and A Great Day for Dying plus a special bonus unmasking of T.C. Lewellen. Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download HERE:

Listen to "Episode 61: Hidden Series Characters" on Spreaker.

Friday, September 11, 2020

A Ticket to Hell

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

Encounter with Evil

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

The Billikin Courier

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

Wilderness

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

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 60

On Episode 60 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we discuss the legacy of the Hard Case Crime paperback imprint with loads of reviews of the good, the bad, and the missteps from the popular publisher. Also, Tom preps for a Dallas book-hunting trip with advice from Eric, and a crazy story from 1987 you won’t believe. Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly
HERE:

Listen to "Episode 60: Hard Case Crime" on Spreaker.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Timothy Dane #8 - Hell is a City

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

Hoke Moseley #01 - Miami Blues

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.

Addenda:

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

Designing Fiction: A Richard Himmel Paperback Primer

Did one of America’s most famous interior designers have a side-hustle writing tawdry paperbacks at the advent of the new medium? Today we take a peek behind the curtain and present you with the untold story of author Richard Himmel.

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

Footnote  

Thanks to Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era by Brian Ritt for providing information used in this feature. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Night Extra

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.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 31, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 59

Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 59 features a discussion of William McGivern with a review of his classic, Night Extra. We also discuss Armchair Fiction, Sterling Noel, William O’Farrell, Milton Ozaki, Reporter sleuths, Michael Brett and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 59: William P. McGivern" on Spreaker.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Burns Bannion #01 - Kill Me in Tokyo

The Burns Bannion series about a Karate-loving American private eye in Japan lasted for eight installments between 1958 and 1967. The author was listed as Earl Norman, a pseudonym for Norman Thomson, who actually lived in Japan during the American occupation following WW2. The first installment in the Burns Bannion series, 1958’s Kill Me in Tokyo, has been reprinted as an ebook by an enterprising outfit called Fiction Hunter Press.

Bannion is an enjoyable and conversational narrator guiding the reader through this fun adventure. As the novel opens, he explains to the reader his experience as a karate student in Japan. Remember that in 1958, Karate was something new and exotic to Americans providing today’s readers an interesting perspective from the future. Bannion is fresh out of the U.S. Army and disinclined to leave Tokyo - mostly because he’s got a hankering for Asian chicks, particularly a stripper named Princess Jade.

One night at the nudie bar, an American drunk mistakes Bannion for a private eye and hires him to find his lost love, a girl named Mitsuko. The money is good and Bannion is pretty well-connected in Tokyo, so he rolls with it. His transformation into becoming a private eye is guided by stereotypes of fictional gumshoes. He knows he needs to get a trench coat and a weapon, for example. Guns being illegal in 1958 Japan, Bannion opts for his karate hands. The author was clearly having some fun within the tropes of the hardboiled PI genre. There’s even a reference to a private eye in Los Angeles with short white hair and a broken nose that’s clearly a shout-out to Richard Prather’s Shell Scott.

Norman also avoids the temptation to make his novel a Fodor’s Guide to 1958 Tokyo despite clearly having a keen insider’s view of the city. There’s just enough local flavor to keep the setting interesting without boring you with National Geographic details as Bannion searches for the missing Japanese girl dodging karate kicking killers along the way.

I loved this book. The plot wasn’t amazing or innovative, but it was well-written and a helluva lot of fun. Bannion is a great companion, and nearly every chapter has him either kicking ass or getting his ass kicked in martial arts fights while bedding down Asian women along the path to a solution. Copies of the Bannion books are pretty scarce in the wild, so I’m really hoping that Fiction Hunter Press makes some dough on this first installment, so they can digitize the other books in the series.

Addendum:

The Burns Bannion series:

Kill Me In Tokyo (1958)

Kill Me In Yokohama (1960)

Kill Me In Shinjuku (1961)

Kill Me In Atami (1962)

Kill Me In Shimbashi (1959)

Kill Me On The Ginza (1962)

Kill Me In Yokosuka (1966)

Kill Me In Roppongi (1967)

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Monster From Out of Time

Bram Stoker Award winner Frank Belknap Long (1901-1994) was part of the “Lovecraft Circle” of fantasy writers that included contemporaries like Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. While primarily focusing on horror and science-fiction, Long also authored a number of fantasy and adventure novels. My first experience with the author is his fantasy novel Monster From Out of Time, published by Popular Library in 1970 with cover art by the famed Frank Frazetta.

In the book's prologue, an engineer named Ames is working a construction zone on a shoreline in Mexico. A young woman named Tlacha is watching the man's labor when a ravine opens in the ground and seemingly swallows Ames in a blinding light. Hoping to retrieve Ames, the young woman is enveloped by the light and disappears.

In Chapter One, this same catastrophic event happens again, only to a scientist named Dorman and his girlfriend Joan. The two are sunbathing on the coast when they witness a large underwater behemoth rise from the depths. Hoping to identity the creature, Dorman and Joan are swallowed by the light and find themselves deposited in a strange place surrounded by ice and snow. After nearly freezing to death, the two eventually find Ames and Tlacha and the couples share their stories and improvise a plan to survive.

Monster From Out of Time is clearly influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series. It follows the proverbial “fish out of water” concept of the average person thrust through time into another world. The concept typically features a central survival element that ascends into an exploratory adventure for the traveler. Long utilizes that same idea for the four main characters. Instead of another world or planet, the location is the Ice Age.

From my research, the general consensus is that Monster From Out of Time isn't a fair representation of Long's literary skills. In fact, many people disliked the novel and found it saturated with dialogue. At 127-pages, I would nearly agree. There is some action, loosely depicted on the cover, but it comes near the very end of the lean paperback. The characters are just average, and the narrative is a slow-burn.

If you collect these types of stories, or just want this for the artwork, I totally get it. For me, I'm more focused on the book's content, and this book just wasn't very good. If someone has a better suggestion for Long's fantasy novels, I'm all ears.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Ride the Gold Mare

While spending a majority of his career penning non-fiction, Ovid Demaris authored a number of crime-fiction novels. While I've had mixed reactions to Demaris' literary work, I enjoyed his 1959 novel The Long Night. Hoping for another positive reading experience, I read the author's first novel, Ride the Gold Mare, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1957 and reprinted by Cutting Edge Books in 2020.

The book stars Phil Lambert, a tenacious Hollywood reporter whose focus is the city's deadly heroin distribution network. In the novel's opening pages, a crooked cop named Fusco violently kills a drug pusher. The murder is witnessed by two druggies who flee the scene of the crime. Lambert learns of the murder and suspects that Fusco may be tied to the Syndicate. In an effort to break the story, Lambert tries to stay ahead of Fusco in learning the whereabouts of the two witnesses.

At this early career stage, Demaris was clearly influenced by Jim Thompson's writing style. Ride the Gold Mare is saturated with characters who remain rough around the edges and undesirable. Weepy and Doris, for example, are both losers who never stray far from the gutter begging for drug money. There's a stripper longing for love, a wife begging for faithfulness, a dealer skimming off the top and an average man positioned on the brink of the vast criminal underworld.

Much of the narrative focuses on the aforementioned Sergeant Vince Fusco of the Los Angeles Narcotics Squad. In essence, he is the consummate villain, a narcissistic dirty cop who clashes with the public he’s sworn to serve. In many ways, he's the prototype for the sadistic mob killer that Demaris would later create and utilize for his 1960 novel The Enforcer.

Among the miscreants, delinquents, hookers and dealers, the cast of characters is bleak, created with a sense of depravity by the author. The narrative is littered with profanity, drug use and sexual aggression that is somewhat uncommon for a 1957 Gold Medal paperback. Like John D. MacDonald's 1960 novel The End of the Night, Ovid Demaris' Ride the Gold Mare is a brutal look at youth gone wild with no safety barriers or censorship. It's an epic, violent clash between lawbreakers that swirls into a compelling, fast-moving crime-noir read from beginning to end. The book is a fantastic first-effort from an author who simply excelled in this genre. 

Note - Ride the Gold Mare is also part of a four-book compilation entitled California Crime. The omnibus is available from Cutting Edge and features three other crime-noir novels authored by Demaris - The Enforcer, The Long Night and The Hoods Take Over.  

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Best of Manhunt: Volume 2

In 2019, Stark House Press generated a commercial and critical hit with the release of The Best of Manhunt, an anthology of stories from the legendary 1950s crime fiction digest. Knowing a good thing when they see it, the reprint publisher has compiled a second volume of blood-on-the-knuckles tales from the popular magazine’s heyday for an August 2020 release.

By way of background, Manhunt began publishing in January 1953 capitalizing on the success of a new breed of hardboiled authors with Mickey Spillane leading the pack supported by muscular authors including Evan Hunter and David Goodis willing to make five cents per word for their stories. While the magazine’s run stretched into 1967, everyone knows that the publication largely lost its way by the mid-1960s. As such, the new anthology front-loads the content with stories primarily form the 1950s.

Before the stories, the reader is treated to a series of essays about Manhunt Magazine by scholars Peter Enfantino, Jon L. Breen, and Robert Turner followed by over 400 pages of twisted, violent short fiction. Anthology editor Jeff Vorzimmer intentionally sought out many “deep tracks” from the magazine’s history choosing many authors who never achieved paperback stardom. There’s a lot to enjoy in stories by John M. Sitan, Roy Carroll, and Glenn Canary who share the pages with heavy hitters including Bruno Fischer, Donald E. Westlake, and Erle Stanley Gardner.

Reviewing an anthology is always a challenging task - particularly in a literary buffet filled to the brim with this much quality. Here are some thoughts regarding a handful of noteworthy stories in the collection:

As I Lay Dead by Fletcher Flora (February 1953)

Fletcher Flora brings the reader a perverse and twisted little tale. Cousins Tony and Cindy work each other into a sexual lather while oiling each other’s skin on the man-made beach. Meanwhile, their wealthy, fat grandpa floats in the lake nearby. It occurs to the lusty twins that if something happened to grandpa, they’d be free - and financially-set - to run away to Acapulco together where the booze, sun and screwing never stops.

Flora’s novels are often tinged with a heavy dose of non-graphic sexuality, and “As I Lay Dead” amplifies that aspect of this writing. Murder, blackmail, and double-crosses are also on the menu making for a perfect story. Whatever you do, don’t skip this one. It’s everything that dark crime fiction should be. With over 160 published short stories to his name, I can’t help but think this might be his best magazine work.

Shakedown by Roy Carroll (April 1953)

Roy Carroll was a pseudonym for Robert Turner, a short story guy who started in the pulp magazines. His literary agent was Scott Merideth, who curated a lot of the talent that appeared in Manhunt. It was at Merideth’s urging that Turner shifted his style from over-the-top pulp writing to the gritty and realistic crime digest format.

“Shakedown” is narrated by Van who has just knocked up a chick at work and has no intention of doing the right thing by the poor girl. He comes up with the idea that she should bang their boss, pin the pregnancy on him, and be set for life as the old man’s wife.

As you can imagine, the plan goes very wrong when the boss doesn’t take kindly to being shaken down by a knocked-up employee in his typing pool. If you can handle some 1950s misogyny with your crime fiction, you’re going to enjoy this one just fine.

One More Mile to Go by F.J. Smith (June 1956)

I could find next to nothing about author F.J. Smith other than the fact that several of his stories appeared in various Alfred Hitchcock anthologies. “One More Mile to Go” is a rare third-person narration from the pages of Manhunt. A small-town Louisiana shopkeeper strangles his nagging wife in her sleep and needs to hide the body somewhere (a recurring theme in Manhunt).

Along the way to the body stash site, he’s pulled over by a state trooper, and the interaction feeds the tension of the situation. It’s a good, simple story. Nothing revelatory, but certainly not a waste of your time.

The Geniuses by Max Franklin (June 1957)

Richard Deming is the only author to appear twice in the anthology with one story under his own name and this one under his Max Franklin pseudonym. “The Geniuses” is about two teenage thrill-killers long before murderous youth was a regular occurrence in American life.

Bart and Edward are high-IQ college kids who find themselves to be social pariahs among their campus peers. A conversation about how one might craft the perfect murder takes a nefarious turn when they begin experimenting with these ideas on a classmate. It begins as an intellectual exercise and then becomes deadly real high-wire act. Under any name, Deming is a solid talent and was rightfully among the bedrock of the Manhunt talent pool.

Girl Friend by Mark Mallory (September 1957)

Mark Mallory was a pseudonym for Morris Hershman who did a lot of writing in the mid-20th Century in the science fiction, war and crime genres. He was also a regular contributor to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

“Girl Friend” is a diabolical little story told as an interrogation transcript of a 14 year-old girl accused of murder. As the story unfolds, the kid appears to be the daughter of a prostitute pressed into service herself. Her mom would command top dollar for the girl by telling the clients she was a twelve year-old virgin. As the nightmare narrative shifts into a murder confession, the brilliance of this nasty little story really takes shape. Despite the disturbing set-up, don’t skip this gem.

Midnight Caller by Wade Miller (January 1958)

Wade Miller was the popular collaboration of Robert Wade and Bill Miller that produced so many outstanding crime and adventure novels in the paperback original era. “Midnight Caller” is a short-short story - only two pages long - about a woman being menaced by a sexually-aggressive intruder in her bedroom. It’s a tense little story with a fun punch line at the end.

Paperback Warrior Verdict:

The Best of Manhunt 2 is another masterpiece of short fiction that will be an essential part of any hardboiled library. I’m hoping that it’s another monster success for Stark House to justify more volumes in the future. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 24, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 58

On jam-packed Episode 58 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we discuss author Jack Pearl as well as many other topics including: Cancer perks! Ed McBain! Maltese Falcon! Len Deighton! Ace Doubles! Christmas in August! And much, much more. Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 58: Jack Pearl" on Spreaker.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Crooked Circle (Too Many Murderers)

Before writing house-name adventure paperbacks in popular series titles including The Aquanauts, Nick Carter: Killmaster, John Eagle: Expeditor and Richard Blade, author Manning Lee Stokes (1911-1976) was already successful in a variety of genres. In 1951, Graphic Books published his paperback original crime novel titled The Crooked Circle, and the book was re-released by the same publisher as Too Many Murderers in 1955. The novel has found new life as a modern trade paperback from Oregon publisher Armchair Fiction.

Our narrator is a 40 year-old, rather unsuccessful ex-cop turned private eye named Steve Paget in fictional Steel City, USA (think Cleveland or Pittsburgh). Against all odds, Steve lands a new client, an eccentric rich guy named Jeff Torrance, who wants to pay Steve good money to have sex with Torrance’s pretty and long-legged wife. I won’t spoil the reason behind this indecent proposal, but after some in initial resistance, Steve agrees to the undercover seduction for a $100,000 fee. Business is business after all, and Mrs. Torrance is a tasty little dish.

Along the way, Steve gets beaten with a wrench and must contend with a dead body that could derail his future plans. Most of the action in the novel’s second half takes place on a remote estate where Steve is pretending to be a guest of the Torrance family looking for an opportunity to seduce the lady of the house and complete his mission. There are long stretches in the paperback where not much happens, and Steve fails to have enough charisma to fully carry the story devoid of any action.

Things pick up quite a bit as we near the climax and the double-crossing gamesmanship among the cast escalates. A murder plot is hatched that becomes a somewhat brilliant and cinematic set piece worth the wait. The Crooked Circle was a decent novel but nothing special until the satisfying ending. It’s interesting to read Stokes’ work before he became a go-to series-novel hired hand. If you can stand some uneven pacing at the paperback’s midsection, the reward at the end is pretty great.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Devil May Care

Childhood friends Robert Wade and H. Bill Miller were responsible for the most successful collaboration in vintage genre fiction. Together they wrote around 33 novels under the Wade Miller and Whit Masterson pseudonyms selling around 15 million copies of their mystery and adventure paperbacks. Many have said that their finest work is their eighth book, Devil May Care from 1950, recently reprinted by Stark House as a double paired with Sinner Take All from 1960.

The hero of Devil May Care is Biggo Venn, a fortysomething soldier of fortune working the speaking circuit for $50 per gig telling globetrotting adventure stories to meeting hall audiences. After a speech in Cleveland, Biggo reconnects with his old friend with a business proposition for the aging mercenary.

The feds deported a Sicilian mobster named Tom Jaccalone who is now living comfortably in Mexico. Biggo is hired to deliver a letter to the mobster that will exonerate him and allow Jaccalone to return to the U.S. legally and resume his racketeering. The letter is a signed confession from someone else admitting to the crime that caused Jaccalone to be deported from the U.S. The gangster is willing to pay $20,000 to get his hands on the letter, and Biggo just needs to deliver the confession to Mexico and earn some easy cash. Of course, Biggo accepts the gig.

The action shifts to Mexico, and the mission turns out to be more complicated than originally represented. Biggo’s point-of-contact for the exchange is murdered. It seems the mobster who took over Jaccalone’s U.S. rackets following his deportation isn’t excited about the prospect of a possible exoneration and repatriation resulting from Biggo’s delivery. This leaves Biggo in Mexico caught in the crossfire between two rival gangsters - both of whom want the letter Biggo is carrying. One has $20,000 for Biggo, and the other has a bullet with his name on it.

In Mexico, Biggo falls in with an impossibly sexy bar hostess named Jinny. There’s also a local Mexican torch-singer that Biggo wants who seems to run the town. Whether these women are friends or foes is a twisty question as the plot develops. Meanwhile, a rival mercenary from Biggo’s past also surfaces in the same Mexican town on the Baja Peninsula to repeatedly throw a monkey wrench in Biggo’s plans.

Overall, Devil May Care is a fine novel. Some of the treatment of the fictional women in the paperback would never fly today, so consider yourself warned if that type of thing bothers you. It’s also a bit padded and slow in the middle section as Biggo hangs around Mexico becoming involved in relationships while waiting to make contact with his buyer.

But once the climactic ending begins, things get great very quickly with lots of cool plot twists and turns. Overall, I’m sure you’re going to like Devil May Care quite a bit, and I completely understand why many say it’s the strongest Wade Miller release. Recommended.

Fun Fact:

Devil May Care was the 9th novel published by the legendary Fawcett Gold Medal paperback imprint. The book never had a second life after multiple Gold Medal printings throughout the 1950s, so the Stark House reprint is a big deal. Buy a copy HERE

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Valley of the Assassins

Using a combination of the names Ian Fleming (James Bond) and Alistair MacLean (Where Eagles Dare), author Marvin Albert (1924-1996) conceived the pseudonym of Ian MacAlister in the early 1970s. The prolific author of crime-fiction, tie-in novels, and westerns authored many books under his own name as well as the names of Al Conroy and Nick Quarry. Conveniently, at the height of the 1970s high-adventure market, Albert used the MacAlister pseudonym to write four genre novels. I enjoyed his 1973 WW2 adventure Skylark Mission, so I was anxious to read Valley of the Assassins, another of Albert's stand-alone paperbacks published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1975 under the MacAlister name.

The novel introduces a boater named Eric Larson. While being a part-time adventurer, Larson spends most of his life around the Persian Gulf escorting tourists, gun-runners and exiles into and out of Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the opening pages, Larson discovers three bodies lying on a series of rocks in the islands known as the Arabian Nights. After learning that two of the men are dead, Larson nurses the remaining man back to health and delivers him to authorities in Iraq. Unbeknownst to Larson, the man hides a treasure map on Larson's boat.

Later, Larson is attacked on board his boat by two dagger-wielding assassins. After disposing of the killers, Larson discovers the map and goes down a rabbit hole following the treasure and a secret cult of assassins that can be traced back to 1072 AD. Larson teams with a Kurdish woman named Darra, the daughter of a famous freedom fighter. He also reluctantly agrees to an alliance with an Iranian cop and together the group embarks on a mission to locate the treasure.

Albert's intentions with this book are solid. The makings of any good desert adventure story would surely include a Middle Eastern treasure hunt involving Kurdish rebels and a secret order of assassins. However, the narrative crawls slowly and incorporates way too-many history lessons of the region. Of the novel's 190-pages, only 30-pages really have any action or movement. The author simply regurgitates what he likely learned from National Geographic for much of the book.

I never felt invested in the main character’s success or well-being and found the academic nature of the prose boring. This is a very different book from the high-adventure, high-octane action of Skylark Mission. I still have two more of these Marvin Albert/Ian MacAlister novels to read, but now I'm in no hurry.

Buy a copy of this book HERE