Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Nick Carter: Killmaster #104 - The Fanatics of Al Asad

During his career, Boston native Saul Wernick (1921-1982) authored a handful of pulpy horror and action paperbacks, most notably Executioner #39: The New War, a transitional novel in the Mack Bolan series. Wernick also contributed five novels to the Nick Carter: Killmaster franchise, including a 1976 title, The Fanatics of Al Asad, the 104th book in the long-running series. 

The paperback opens with an Arab terrorist strapped to a hospital bed being questioned by Nick Carter while being pumped full of truth serum. The President and Vice President have just been killed and the Speaker of the House is ascending to the presidency. This normal plan of secession is curtailed when the Speaker is kidnapped and held for ransom by a Palestinian terrorist group known as “Al Asad” (translation: “The Lion”). The terrorists want $100 million cash and arms reduction from Israel - who isn’t  excited about that idea - in exchange for his safe return.

The U.S. intelligence agencies need to neutralize Al Asad and rescue the Speaker - now technically the President - before the three-day deadline outlined in the ransom note. AXE’s best man Nick Carter receives the assignment, which is a good deal for us since he’s narrating the book. He’s assigned a partner from Israel’s intel service named Tamar, and she’s a super-hot babe (slim figure, full breasts) with an expertise in Islamist extremists. 

With Tamar in tow, Nick jets off to the University of Kansas for a quick lesson on Islam and the Koran because AXE doesn’t have a 1976 World Book Encyclopedia. An informant explains that the leader of Al Asad is a Soviet-trained terrorist named Sharif who fancies himself as the King of all Muslims with all the accompanying wickedness that idea conjures. Bottom line: he must be stopped. Secondary bottom line: He’s probably in New York City. 

The Fanatics of Al Asad reminded me of an episode of “24” complete with very specific time-stamps at the opening of each chapter. Despite the sense of urgency, there are time-outs for graphic 1970’s sex between Nick and the fair Tamar. At one point, Nick’s manhunt has him going undercover as a radical Muslim jihadi while cavalierly spouting off facts about Islam the author clearly gleaned from National Geographic. Mostly he spends the book’s first half skulking around Manhattan talking to informants without a ton of action. 

This is the easiest book in the world to pick apart. Dig this: The President and Veep are killed by terrorists and the Speaker of the House (the new, unsworn President) is being held hostage, so the U.S. intelligence community assigns just one guy to handle it? Really? Meanwhile, the rest of America seems to be going about its normal business eating dinner in restaurants, having unabandoned sex, keeping calm, and carrying on? We’ve seen that it doesn’t take much to drive our nation to paralyzed hysteria, but the country is pretty chill because Nick Carter has this handled? I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the stupidity leading to the book’s climax. 

There’s a lot of dumb stuff in this book that you’ll need to forgive, and I just couldn’t do it. I wanted to like this book, but it just kept getting dumber and dumber as the pages flipped. Toward the end, there were some decent action set-pieces, but the reader needs to suspend disbelief beyond reason to get there. The Fanatics of Al Asad squanders an outstanding premise. Don’t waste your time. You deserve better. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 12, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 86

On Episode 86 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we explore team-based action adventure series including Phoenix Force, Alpha Team, SOBs, and so many more. This is a jam-packed episode that men’s adventure paperback fans won’t want to miss. Listen on any podcast app or www.paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 86: Action-Adventure Teams" on Spreaker.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Race Williams #04 - Them That Lives by Their Guns

Race Williams was the first hardboiled detective to star in a successful series of stories in the pulp magazines. Thanks to some smart reprint houses and a popular paperback podcast, there has been a renewed interest in the work of series creator Carroll John Daly who died broke and unappreciated in 1958. Today we visit Race’s fourth adventure, Them That Lives by Their Guns, originally published in the August 1924 issue of Black Mask.

This time around, Race’s client is a wealthy man named P. Harrington Cardigan, and he’s hiring Race to find his missing daughter. The girl’s name is Gladys, and she moved away to California to find her fortune as a Hollywood starlet. When she failed to break into the business, dad sent her money for a ticket home to New York, but Gladys never showed. Instead, she called her father saying that she met a director who was taking her to Mexico for some filming projects.

It gets worse. Gladys met a man in Mexico and married him. The guy is a real louse: a gambler, an abuser, a killer, and a blackmailer. The husband - his name is Louis Rafaele- regularly sends Mr. Cardigan letters threatening to kill Gladys unless dad sends money to him in Mexico. Thus far, Cardigan has paid the brute. But that’s the thing about blackmailers - they never stop unless you hire a hero like Race Williams to make him stop and bring the girl home to daddy.

Race sets off via passenger train bound for the small Mexican town where Rafaele is known to be the town’s boss and the fastest gun. In the meantime there’s also a lot of skullduggery and tough-guy violence involving Race aboard the train chugging across America. Daly’s version of a 1924 Mexican border town is a lot like the settlements we see in western fiction - lawless, dangerous, and unpredictable. As the fastest gun in town, Race excels in this environment as he searches for the missing girl building toward a climactic bloodbath.

Once again, Race Williams is awesome. Them That Lives by Their Guns is an exciting and violent novella that stands the test of time. There were some convoluted plot aspects involving a Mexican bank that weren’t entirely clear, but the core of the story was Race rescuing the girl and vanquishing the villain. What’s not to enjoy about that?

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Straw Donkey Case

Beginning in 1948, author A.S. Fleischman developed the knack for writing. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, the author enjoyed a successful career authoring original crime-fiction paperbacks as well as children's fiction and even non-fiction books about stage magic. He graduated from San Diego State college, so it makes sense that his first published novel, The Straw Donkey Case, is set in San Diego. The book was published in 1948 by Phoenix Press as a digest-sized paperback originally sold for 25-cents.

A man named Mr. Ranson walks into Max Brindle's office looking for a good private-eye. Ranson explains that he is immensely wealthy and lives on a clifftop mansion with his niece and two nephews. Ranson “feels” that one of his family members is attempting to murder him to gain an early inheritance. After Brindle asks for evidence supporting his paranoia, Ranson produces no tangible proof and is asked to simply leave well enough alone. However, after Ranson pays Brindle a sizable sum of money to have dinner with his family, the private-eye's appetite increases.

After the uneventful dinner, Brindle proposes to Ranson to simply change the will to no financial distribution if he does dies by unnatural causes. Ranson agrees and shows up at Brindle's office the next day to declare that the will has been changed. The next day Ranson's body washes up on the beach as an apparent accidental fall from the cliffs. A few hours later, Ranson's well-endowed niece appears in Brindle's office wanting his services. She is inheriting millions but wants Brindle to prove that Ranson was murdered. If he was, she gets nothing. If it is an accident, the money is rightfully hers. Brindle tries to convince her to leave it as an accident and become a millionaire but this family proves to be a stubborn breed. Brindle takes this bizarre and abstract case.

By 1948, the crime-fiction paperback market started shifting to more mature stories for readers. The armchair sleuths and knit-quilting mysteries had slowly evolved into hard-hitting private-eye tales that displayed profanity, more sexual innuendo and an elevation in violence. The Straw Donkey Case isn't I, the Jury (Mike Hammer's debut), but it shares some of the same similarities. Brindle's secretary is in love with him and he's too busy to properly sex her up (or just doesn't want to). Like any good private-eye, Brindle is smart, but temperamental, and occasionally just walks into trouble before properly scouting the situation. He was far ahead of me on characters and motives but the narrative does move around a lot for readers. While the story isn't remarkable, it's a unique premise that expands into a compelling international thriller.

There's a reason why Fawcett Gold Medal was seducing Fleischman a few years later. Based on just this debut, it's easy to determine that the author was something special. Beginning in 1951, Fleischman would embark on a series of Fawcett paperbacks set in Asia's tropical locales. Most critics agree that these Far-East novels are the best of his career. However, The Straw Donkey Case is recommendable. To my knowledge there's no reprint of the book and that needs to change. Stark House and Cutting Edge...I'm talking to you.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Protectors #01 - The Petrova Twist

Sometimes referred to as the “Stephen King” of young adult fiction, Robert Lawrence Stine (R.L. Stine) is a true literary icon. He's written a number of young adult horror series titles like Goosebumps, Rotten School, The Nightmare Room, Fear Street, Mostly Ghostly as well as dozens of stand-alone titles. As Jovial Bob Stine, the author has released a slew of humorous joke books. In addition to his own creations, Stine has contributed series entries for G.I. Joe, Man-Thing, Masters of the Universe and the movie novelizations for Ghostbusters II, Spaceballs and Big Top Pee-Wee. How does any of this interest Men's Action-Adventure fans?

In February 1987, Scholastic published the first of a two book series called The Protectors. It was titled The Petrova Twist and was written by Stine under the pseudonym Zachary Blue. The idea was to cash in on the men's team-based commando popularity of the time period. Able Team, Phoenix Force, S.O.B. and other long-running series titles had tremendous marketing success in the 1980s. Using that idea, complete with similarly themed cover art, Stine introduced a team of high-school kids who are employed by the U.S. government to fight international crime. 

Here's the line-up:

- Matt O'Neal – He's an engineering genius. Think of Gadgets Schwarz of Able Team.

- Lu Golden – The martial arts guy from Vietnam.

- Riana Riggs – African-American girl with a photographic memory.

- Micky Malano – She's the master of disguises. A less violent Death Merchant Richard Camellion.

- John Wendell Waterford IV – The wealthy guy who can rub shoulders with high society.

In the book's opening chapters, each of these high-school students receive a special invitation from The White House to attend a special awards ceremony celebrating their tremendous academic success. Oddly, they can't bring any adults, and it's a solo trip for each of them (the 80s were so safe). 

Once they arrive in Washington D.C., the kids meet each other in a strange warehouse where they are introduced to Tiger Browne. He informs the kids that they have been carefully selected to serve in a government agency called CENTRAL. This agency will combat international crime and assist other government agencies on special assignments. Without any training, the team is assigned the task of helping a Soviet gymnast named Elena Petrova defect to the U.S. Will they succeed?

Mostly this book is fairly lousy. At almost 200-pages, the entire narrative takes place at an auditorium or the kids' hotel. This tight location setting left me feeling confined and limited in my imagination. Granted this is a young adult novel, I still found the action to be very minimal compared to other kids' fiction. Essentially, the team has no experience, receives no training or guidance and botches the whole thing up from start to finish. These types of high-octane action novels aren't meant to be plausible and The Protectors proclaims that limitation with an astounding voice. The entire plot is just senseless. There's a swerve ending that clears up most of my confusion regarding the narrative and story-line but I was still really disappointed. 

The last few pages of this book sets up the idea that CENTRAL becomes the elite PROTECTORS and must fight a terrorist group called CONQUEST in the next book, The Jet Fighter Trap. I'll probably still read it because I'm a completest, but you can do so much better with this genre.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Bodyguard

During his too-brief career as a writer, Roger Torrey (1901-1946) authored 280 short stories and novellas. Most of his output was hardboiled crime published in pulp magazines including Black Mask and Dime Detective. Black Dog Books has compiled a bunch of Torrey’s best stories in a collection anchored by “Bodyguard,” a novella originally from the December 1938 issue of Private Detective magazine.

As advertised, William Dugan is a professional bodyguard. His client is a corporate CEO named Mr. Arthur B. Miles, and someone took a shot at him yesterday prompting the call to Dugan, our narrator. Mr. Miles wants Dugan to investigate the threat while keeping the entire Miles family - a wife and two adult daughters - safe. One of the daughters is a bitch, and the other is the super-cute, friendly type named Angela. She has her eye on Dugan from the moment they meet, which leads to some fun scenes.

For a bodyguard, Dugan spends more time functioning as a private detective than he does jumping in front of bullets headed for his clients. He’s a great character - funny and plenty tough without the macho posturing of Mike Hammer or Race Williams. He conducts a logical and efficient investigation focusing on a handful of suspects who may have an axe to grind with Mr. Miles and his family.

The bodies pile up pretty quickly along the 50 pages leading to a solution. One reviewer described Torrey as “Dashiell Hammett Lite,” and I think that’s a reasonable comparison. His plotting in “Bodyguard” is solid, and Torrey’s knack for vivid supporting characters shines through among the suspects, witnesses and red herrings.

“Bodyguard” was a satisfying mystery, and I’m looking forward to reading additional entries in Torrey’s body of crime fiction work. Both Black Dog Books and Pulp Fiction Book store have been culling through his stories and creating Torrey compilations that allow modern audiences to discover his work - yet another reason why it’s a good time to be alive. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 5, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 85

On Episode 85 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we take a look at the life and work of Clifton Adams. Also discussed: Spur Award! Ninja Book Critic! Men’s Adventure vs. Crime Noir! Matt Helm! Nick Carter: Killmaster! Benedict & Brazos! Much more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE 

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 85: Clifton Adams" on Spreaker.

Friday, April 2, 2021

The Secret of Devil's Cave

Frank E. Smith (1919-1984) had a number of career paths on the road to becoming a full-time novelist. He worked as a newspaper reporter for the Kansas City Star, was employed as a research analyst for the U.S. Pentagon and served in the Navy during WW2. By 1952, Smith began writing shorts for magazines like Mammoth Western and Manhunt mostly using the name Jonathan Craig. By the mid-1950s, Smith had found success with his police procedural series The Sixth Precinct. After using names like Carl Jacobi, Grant Colby and Elston Barrett, Smith adopted the name Jennifer Hale to cash in on the hot 1970s Gothic suspense genre. As Hale, Smith wrote five novels from 1971 through 1978 including The Secret of Devil's Cave. It was published by Magnum in 1973.

The book's protagonist is 20-year old Beth Nolan, a St. Louis resident who is coping with the recent loss of her father. After meeting with her father's attorney, Beth is astounded to learn that her inheritance includes a commercial cave and inn in the Missouri Ozarks. Her father never informed her that he owned any property outside of their residential home and antique store. This inheritance baffles Beth, warranting a visit to learn more about the property.

Upon Beth's arrival at Devil's Inn, she is introduced to the Bratchers, an eclectic family that has resided at the inn since Beth was three-years old. They run the inn and do guided tours of the accompanying Devil's Cave. Oddly, they convinced the town that they owned the entire establishment. So when Beth shows up to claim what is rightfully hers, the Bratchers become embarrassed and are forced to comply with her wishes. With this transition, Beth must decide if the Bratchers should stay and keep the business running or simply be replaced by new management due to the poor financial state it's in.

Here's the checklist of what Smith presents to Beth and readers that makes this the traditional Gothic 1970s paperback:

- Many years ago, the prior cave/inn owner's daughter died. In a unique rite of passage, the owner had her body laid in a glass casket and placed  on display in the cave. The town was outraged and threw the owner into the cave's endless pit deemed The Devil's Cistern.

- Years ago, a young girl was murdered in the cave and the killer was never found.

- Weeks ago, an inn resident seemingly vanished during a cave tour.

- Beth is warned by the town's wacky witch that she's already died years ago.

- Beth finds a bizarre life-like painting of herself in town with a date 20+ years ago.

- Beth finds a portrait of an unnamed gravestone in her father's possession.

- The cave and inn are apparently haunted by voices that can foreshadow death or danger.

There's a few other things tossed into the narrative like hidden Civil War treasure, a raven that keeps attacking Beth and the obligatory love interest between Beth and the wealthy town attorney. The bulk of the narrative dwells on the Bratchers and their odd behavior. There's a mentally unstable Bratcher named Flossie who Beth befriends and tries to protect. Of course power struggle is a constant with Earl Bratcher's knowledge and management of the business versus Beth's young inexperience as the conflict cornerstone. Villains are aplenty with Walt and Mark Bratcher both exhibiting murderous intentions and a potential risk to Beth.

The Secret of Devil's Cave resembles the book's mandatory cover – a young vulnerable female facing the inevitable danger. Whether it's supernatural or not helps to enhance the overall narrative. It's a sales pitch that always works wonders for this saturated genre. Is it a pillowcase over deceitful humanity or a genuine dreaded monster? Beth is an admirable character and there's a strong ensemble of characters that helps shore up any rough patches. Overall, this was an enjoyable experience and makes me want to read more of Smith's “Jennifer Hale” Gothics.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Harry Horne #01 - End of a J.D.

Robert Morton Terrall (1914-2009) is mostly remembered for his Ben Gates series written under the pseudonym Robert Kyle and his late-period Mike Shayne novels as Brett Halliday. He also authored a little-known three-book series as John Gonzales starring journalist Harry Horne starting with End of a J.D. from 1960.

Our narrator is Harry Horne, investigative reporter for a New York weekly news magazine, similar to Time (where the author started his own career as a professional writer). One night Harry returns home from a nightclub to find a beautiful young woman showering in his apartment naked - because that’s how people showered in 1960. After getting out of the bathroom and getting minimally dressed, she attempts to kill Harry in his own bachelor pad before taking off into the night. Who does that?

Before the attack, Harry had been working on a big story about juvenile delinquent gangs. He embedded with a youth gang called the Sorcerers who took a liking to Harry - until they decided they didn’t like his attitude. Harry sets out to determine who wants him dead employing a gambit that is one of the most clever I can remember in a vintage crime paperback. There are a lot of instances of cleverness and wit here, and Horne is a great narrator to guide the reader on this mystery.

Mostly, Death of a J.D. is a typical Terrall novel - well-written, smart, funny with a plot too convoluted for its own good. It’s also an artifact of its time when Americans were terrified of teenage delinquents with switchblades, pomade and rock-n-roll music. Now we just call that era “the good old days.” And in the big scheme of things, I suppose this yellowing paperback was a “good old book.” Recommended.

Appendix:

The Harry Horne books are:

1. Death of a J.D. (1960) - Recently re-released as an ebook retitled as “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Funeral” (Buy a copy of that book HERE)

2. Someone’s Sleeping in My Bed (1962)

3. Follow that Hearse (1963)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Masked Detective #01 - Alias the Masked Detective

Before he ventured into three decades of paperbacks, Norman Daniels was one of pulp’s most published authors. Along with writing adventures starring The Purple Scar, The Eagle and Phantom Detective, he used the byline of C.K.M. Scanlon for a late pulp arrival The Masked Detective. The magazine's first issue, featuring “Alias the Masked Detective”, was published in 1940 and would run 12 total issues (a 13th story appeared in Thrilling Mystery). Daniels wrote the first few issues before handing the project off to Sam Merwin Jr., W.T. Ballard and other work-horse authors of that era. I purchased The Masked Detective Archives Volume 1 from Thrilling Publications, published in 2017 and featuring reprints of the first three Masked Detective stories.

Essentially, The Masked Detective is a standard vigilante named Rex Parker. Unlike other pulp heroes of the time, Parker isn't a wealthy entrepreneur or district attorney. Instead, Parker is a newspaper reporter who practices martial arts in his spare time. Using the French art of la savate, Parker routinely gives Hell to a plastic mannequin in his apartment. When his friend and newspaper colleague Winnie Bligh witnesses his fists of fury on the dummy, she suggests that he utilize his skills to fight the city's rising crime problem. Parker agrees and the two decide that an eye mask (black bandanna with eye holes) and some make-up could transform the easily identifiable Rex Parker into the unidentifiable night vigilante The Masked Detective!

Along with the origin tale, “Alias the Masked Detective” also features Parker's first crime-fighting adventure. A criminal named Carson is “accidentally” knocking off professors, art critics and antique collectors thinking that they are rival gangsters. But are these accidental murders really just cases of mistaken identity? After this sequence of murders continues, Parker, Bligh and a homicide detective named Gleason team up to root out the real motive. There's a dense backstory about an art exhibit and precious jewels, but I didn't really care. Instead, I wanted a fist and feet vigilante flurry as Parker progresses to the inevitable fight with Carson.

I found this debut issue to be a really swift read with a propulsive narrative that was quite compelling. Beyond the far-fetched hi-jinks, which one has to overlook when reading this stuff, the story was presented in a gritty, violent way. In the opening pages, a professor is shot six times in the stomach and then two more times point blank in the skull. This was 1940, nearly 27-years before Mack Bolan began violently “executing” Syndicate snakes. When guys like Doc Savage and The Avenger mostly tend to repress lethal blows, Parker proves to be the opposite. As also seen in The Black Bat, Daniels isn't afraid of a little bloodshed.

If you love this era of pulp storytelling, there's no reason why The Masked Detective isn't in your library already. This was well-executed and just a real pleasure to read. You can buy a copy of this awesome omnibus HERE.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Luther McGavock #01 - Let the Dead Alone

Merle Constiner (1901-1979) had success as an author of mysteries and westerns for both the pulps and the paperback original era. His Luther McGavock series was about a Memphis-based private eye who solved mysteries in the Deep South in several 80-page novellas originally appearing in Black Mask Magazine and existing today as reprints. His first adventure was “Let the Dead Alone” from 1942.

Luther McGavock is not a likable guy. In fact, he’s one of those guys that people instantly dislike out of pure instinct. His sucky personality and demeanor have cost him a lot of jobs, and he was employed at nearly every major private investigative firm in America before landing at his current one in Memphis. For that reason, Luther generally works alone.

His current assignment is an emergency job for his boss. The chief’s cousin - a man named Malcom Jarrel - has gotten himself in a mess in a small hill-town called Bartonville on the Mississippi-Tennessee border. The details are sketchy, so the boss sends Luther on a bus to find out what’s happening and make things right.

Upon meeting Cousin Malcom, he explains that someone dumped the corpse of the town’s recluse on Malcolm’s lawn. For his part, Malcom covered the dead body with straw, called his cousin in Memphis, and waited for Luther to arrive. When Luther examines the body, he sees that a roofing nail has been driven through the skull penetrating the dead man’s brain. Luther encourages Malcom to loop in the police while Luther sniffs around town for leads.

Luther’s clutch investigative technique reminds me of Gregory McDonald’s Fletch. He puts on the exact fake persona he believes would have the greatest likelihood of eliciting the information he’s seeking. This makes for a fun and unpredictable read as Luther hops from one bluff to the next. Moreover, Contstiner’s atmospheric description of the life and people of the Deep South seems remarkably vivid - particularly from an author who called Ohio home for most of his life.

The problem with “Let the Dead Alone” is the same problem I find with most 1940s mysteries - it’s overly complex and littered with clues, red herrings and too many characters. The novella also climaxes with one of those scenes where all the suspects are gathered in a room together to listen to Luther’s monologue laying out the solution to the mystery as to which one is the murderer. That type of formulaic mystery may have been fresh in 1942, but I find it rather tired.

That said, if you’re looking for a solid, traditional mystery with great writing and a totally different detective leading the charge, Luther McGavock may be the PI you’ve been seeking.

Buy a copy HERE 

Monday, March 29, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 84

Welcome to Paperback Warrior Episode 84! Our feature this week is Robert Terrall, who wrote mysteries as Robert Kyle, John Gonzales, and Brett Halliday. Also discussed: Nursing Noir, Manhunt Companion, E. Howard Hunt, Robert Bloch and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app or paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 84: Robert Terrall" on Spreaker.

Friday, March 26, 2021

From Carthage Then I Came (aka Eight Against Utopia)

Douglas Rankine Mason (1918-2013) was a as British science-fiction author who was fairly prolific in the 1960s and 1970s. His first published work was a short story called “Two's Company” that was featured in 1964's New Writings in SF 1. After this publication, Mason launched a career as full-time novelist writing books under his own name as well as the pseudonym John Rankine. Along with the six-book series of Dag Fletcher space operas, Mason also authored stand-alone novels including From Carthage Then I Came. It was originally published by Doubleday as a hardcover in 1966. It was reprinted by Popular Library under the title Eight Against Utopia in 1967 and reprinted in 1970. I found the premise of the book intriguing and decided to try it out.

In the far future, the Mediterranean city of Carthage exists as a large domed city. For 7,000 years the people of Carthage have simply been living their lives inside of this dome due to the government's strict warnings that ice covers the entire planet. Inside the dome, the city's population is divided into sectors like education, administration, recreation and residential. But unlike other modern societies, Carthage's citizens don't experience any privacy. All of their thoughts and actions are monitored by a supercomputer that serves as the city's President. The very thought of leaving the city would warrant federal charges and possible execution. Government employee Gaul Kalmar discovers a secret...the  frozen planet narrative is all a lie. Earth is perfectly habitable.

Together with seven other individuals, Kalmar formulates a plan to escape Carthage. Like any good prison break story, the book begins with the obligatory discovery of a security gap. Using this as a pivot, the group must contend with the secret police, the President, the monitoring system and the fact that one of them is a traitor to the cause. This exciting premise places readers in and out of the dome in a way that keeps the novel perfectly halved; the first part in the prison and the second showcasing the inevitable escape.

As good as this premise is, Mason's writing style is strange and abstract and fails to provide great storytelling. The narrative is saturated with senseless dialogue and descriptions of advanced circuitry and technical nuances that I simply can't comprehend or relate. I imagine most of it is just simply tomfoolery on the author's part to construct this Dystopian civilization as being an advanced people. Thankfully, it is a short book and the sequences that are nearly unreadable didn't enhance or deter the narrative. The plot was contrived and concluded in a way that I felt justified the interesting premise.

In terms of Dystopian fiction, there are hundreds of novels in the genre for you to enjoy. Even in 1967, there was an abundance of books that featured people trying to escape from some sort of fortress city or a controlling, technically-advanced state. As such, Eight Against Utopia isn't a mandatory read, but if you feel inclined to spend a few hours under the dome, it is mildly entertaining. Just don't expect this to be the next 1984. It absolutely isn't.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Blood Oath

Canadian-American author David Morrell wrote First Blood in 1972 as his first published novel. The book was adapted into the blockbuster film launching the successful Rambo film franchise. With nearly 30 novels to his credit, Morrell has practiced in multiple genres including horror, action-adventure, mystery and even comics. I've always enjoyed his work and have owned his 1982 novel Blood Oath for awhile. The back cover features a Stephen King blurb that says he defies readers not to finish this novel in a single sitting. Taking the horror icon's challenge, I opened to the first page.

Peter Houston is a successful novelist and college professor. As a child, his father lost his life in a French battlefield during WW2. Pete's mother insisted that his father was a great man who gave everything for his country. After his mother passes away, Pete and his wife Jan journey to France to visit his father's battlefield grave for the first time. But, after asking the cemetery's U.S. military administration about his father's grave, they have no record of it existing.

When probing various U.S. diplomatic correspondents, Pete receives no helpful information about his father’s final resting place. As this odd mystery begins to unfold, Pete begins to imagine that maybe his father was never killed in the battle and is possibly still alive. The only clue may lie with the name Pierre de St. Laurent, a French soldier who promised Pete's mother that he would always be the caregiver for his father's grave. When speaking with the French residents in and around the battlefield site, the locals nearly run in horror at the mention of St. Laurent's name. After Pete and Jan are attacked multiple times, their luck finally runs out and Jan is murdered by an unknown assailant. Knowing her murder is linked to the mystery, Pete sets  out to find his wife's killer and to locate the real history about his father.

Blood Oath is like this fantasy marriage of Hammond Innes and Dean R. Koontz. It mixes in WW2 history, Nazi gold, high-altitude adventure and the idea of the average citizen on the run from strange and shadowy government operatives. The action moves at a breakneck speed with very little time for dialogue or discussion. The bad guys (no spoiler here) send waves of assassins after Pete and force him to utilize the training and expertise he's acquired while researching his own novels. It parallels Morrell's own expertise in firearms, evasive driving, outdoor survival, crisis negotiation - all skills acquired by the author during his research. I thought the pacing, character development and story progress were superb, but the ending was a real letdown with its indulgent castle setting and stereotypical villain.

If you are looking for a high speed, high adventure yarn, Blood Oath is certainly entertaining. Morrell has better books (Creepers for example) and whether or not this is a mandatory read is going to depend on how deep of a fanboy you are for this author. As to Stephen King's challenge, this one took me two days and wasn't the same enthralling experience he predicted.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Barr Breed #01 - The Body in the Bed

Born William Sanborn Ballinger, Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980) wrote over 150 teleplays including episodes of The Outer Limits, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Ironside. With most of his career spent in radio and television, Ballinger still found the opportunity to author nearly 30 novels. His first, The Body in the Bed, was published in 1948 and is the first of two books starring a Chicago detective named Barr Breed. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I couldn't resist the idea of a crime novel in Chi-Town.

Although the sign on his door reads Breed Detective Agency, Barr Breed isn't your typical private-eye. Instead, he runs a detective staffing agency that furnishes guards for warehouses and banks, detectives for railroads, secret shoppers for stores and payroll protection for long routes. So the last thing Breed wants is a murder case. But, when a guy named Gibbs knocks on his door, Breed becomes enthralled with his story.

Gibbs explains that he's been cheating on his wife for a number of years. As a commercial account executive, Gibbs is in and out of hotels all over the country. In Chicago, Gibbs has a main squeeze named MacCormick. Unfortunately, while Gibbs was in the shower, someone walked in, strangled her to death and then tucked her into bed. Gibbs discovers the dead broad and makes a beeline for a detective agency to figure this out. Breed doesn't buy in right away, but when Gibbs produces a wad of bills, Breed makes him this deal: The money will buy Gibbs seven days. During that seven day stretch, Gibbs needs to lie low and allow Breed to find someone else to be a suspect for the cops. Gibbs accepts the deal and takes a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest later that night. Later, Gibbs' own wife is found murdered as well. Who knocked-off this love triangle and what's Breed's commitment to the case? That's the main premise behind The Body in the Bed.

Honestly, I didn't particularly like Breed during the novel's first half. But as the story-line began to tighten, I changed my tune - he's a real badass. He fights hard, escapes from killers, endures some torture, is an excellent shooter and a real cool cat with the ladies. He's not a dimwit, but he does allow the problems to solve themselves. He does some sarcastic wisecracking and always seems to describe in great detail what he's eating and drinking. As a crime-fiction mystery, the novel works really well with a payoff finally coming at the very end. I was glued to the characters just trying to figure it all out.

Ballinger writes this in the first-person as Breed relays his experiences to readers. After the book's sequel, The Body Beautiful, the author changed his writing style to incorporate shifting first-person narrators from the various characters' perspectives. This sort of bobbling could make readers seasick, but I'm willing to test the waters. I haven't seen the last of Bill S. Ballinger.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Fresh Fiancés for the Devil’s Daughter

Before there was a term for “Extreme Horror” or “Splatterpunk” with amplified gore and violence, a man writing as Russell Gray was shocking and revolting readers with his graphic horror stories and novellas in the pulps. Gray was a pseudonym of author Bruno Fischer, and his most famous horror work was “Fresh Fiancés for the Devil’s Daughter,” originally from the May 1940 issue of Marvel Tales.

The story begins at a crowded and drunken literary party in a Manhattan apartment. Our narrator is literary agent Lester Marlin, and he can’t keep his eyes off a woman who just entered the party. She introduces herself as Tala Mag, and Lester is somehow able to fend off her wanton advances by citing his wife’s presence at the party.

The next morning Lester receives a note from the party’s hostess (his best client) asking him to meet with Tala Mag as she is an aspiring author in search of representation. A second note from Tala requests Lester to come to her Park Avenue penthouse later that day for the meeting. Despite his misgivings, he agrees to meet with Tala to appease his client.

At the meeting, Tala is in full seduction mode demanding that he read a story she wrote. Lester reads her manuscript, and it’s dark, vile, evil and unprintable. However, Tala is not the kind of lady who takes no for an answer. As he tries to escape her apartment, Lester is subdued, rendered unconscious, and later awakens naked and bound by chains inside Tala’s “room of torment.”

Beyond that, I don’t want to give much away. However, if you’re seeking a violent and kinky fantasy gone awry, this is the story for you. The torture story becomes a revenge story with an expanded cast of victims, sizzling breasts and a “most dangerous game” gimmick. Bruno Fischer is clearly having some fun pitting an author against a literary agent in a battle sparked by the rejection of the exact kind of story that Fischer himself wrote as Russell Gray.

Was “Fresh Fiancés for the Devil’s Daughter” extreme? Most definitely. Was it scary? Not really. It was definitely suspenseful and never boring, but torture porn was never my idea of a scary time. I liked the novella mostly because Fischer was such a talented writer who could write propulsive and exciting action sequences. Even at this early stage of his career, he could deliver a compelling story. By now you know whether this is your thing or not. If it is, you’ll dig this selection plenty.

Buyer’s Guide:

The 38-page novella began its life in the May 1940 issue of Marvel Tales and has been reprinted in anthologies several times over the past 71 years. If you don’t have $300 to buy the original pulp magazine, you can find the story in any of the following books:

Radio Archives eBook Reprint

Hostesses in Hell

Pulp Fiction Megapack

Monday, March 22, 2021

Paperback Warrior - Episode 83

On Episode 83 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we discuss the evolution of sexual content in genre paperbacks. Also discussed: Carter Brown, Adult Westerns, Ardath Mayhar, John Kildeer, Frank Cannon, Sam Spade, Wade Miller, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, Jonathan Craig and much more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, at paperbackwarrior.com or download directly HERE 

Donate to the show HERE

 

Listen to "Episode 83: Paperback Sex" on Spreaker.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Virgil Tibbs #01 - In the Heat of the Night

New York native John Ball (real name John Dudley Ball Jr., 1911-1988) worked as a newspaper and magazine reporter, a part-time Los Angeles deputy and a book review columnist for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. In addition to his three Talon police procedural novels, Ball also authored a seven-book series of novels starring African-American homicide detective Virgil Tibbs. The author is memorialized for the series' debut title, 1965's In the Heat of the Night. The Edgar Award-winning book was adapted to cinema in 1967, capturing five Oscars including Best Picture. After enjoying Ball's first Talon novel, 1977's Police Chief, I was anxious to read what is considered his finest work.

The book begins by introducing readers to Wells, South Carolina. It's the proverbial 1960s Southern small town where they can still smell the Civil War powder burning and probably always will. It's here where young cop Sam Wood patrols the city's streets on the graveyard shift. After a midnight lunch break, Wood discovers a dead body lying in the highway. After notifying police chief Bill Gillespie, Wood is instructed to immediately prowl the area for strangers. In a dark and cavernous train station, Wood finds a black man casually reading a paperback book. After discovering the black man has a wallet of cash, Wood hauls him in as the prime murder suspect.

Perhaps one of Hollywood's most treasured movie quotes is found in the book's fourth chapter - “They call me Mister Tibbs.” After the police question the black man, they learn that he is Virgil Tibbs, a veteran homicide detective from Pasadena, CA. As the narrative tightens, readers learn that Tibbs was trained in martial arts with a specialty in karate, judo and aikido. In addition, he's a veteran of the Pasadena police force, becoming a homicide detective after five years of patrol. It's also hinted that he may have attended an FBI school. Tibbs is a polymath, like Ball's favorite literature hero Sherlock Holmes. He is astute at problem solving with an almost supernatural attention to detail. But in the deep South of the 1960s, Tibbs finds he's in a different world.

As one can imagine, Ball explores the line between racial hostility and small-town justice. After learning that Tibbs is a highly regarded detective, Gillespie asks for his assistance with the corpse. Through character interviews, Tibbs learns more about the case despite the town's opposition that a colored man is leading the investigation. Tibbs, knowing that Gillespie and Wood are both inexperienced, is extremely humble and complacently accepts his role as a victim of racism. This is where Ball absolutely shines as a storyteller. Tibbs doesn't particularly care about the injustice, the racial hostility or Gillespie's browbeating. He's far above all of that, never in the ditch but up on the road. Tibbs is consumed by the murder mystery. Through the book's 150-pages, I don't recall Tibbs stopping for rest. Instead, he ascends to a plane of existence that only contains him, the murdered and the murderer. Thankfully, Ball doesn't make readers rest in this headspace. Instead, he presents the story by centralizing Wood and Gillespie. Readers rarely ride with Tibbs but instead are presented his findings just like Wood and Gillespie.

I'm probably off base here, but for some reason I couldn't help but think of Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer character. Tibbs isn't Archer, but the narrative's twists and turns reminds me of MacDonald's writing style. Or, it could just be that I'm aligning two West-Coast detectives. Nevertheless, In the Heat of the Night is a masterpiece of police procedural fiction. If you are a fan of the film, there are key differences in the novel. The film has Tibbs from Philadelphia, the murdered man as someone quite different and the suspects having different professions and roles. Most notably is that the film version presents Tibbs as an angered individual when faced with racism. As I alluded to earlier, the novel is the opposite. Thankfully, the old adage applies here: The book is better than the movie (or television show).

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Forever After

In May 1960, Winston Publications launched a short-lived horror literary digest called Shock: The Magazine of Terrifying Tales with a cover illustration by Jack Davis from EC Comics. The magazine mostly reprinted classic horror and suspense stories from Weird Tales and Argosy, but the debut issue also contained an original short story by Jim Thompson titled “Forever After.” The story has been reprinted on Kindle for a buck from Noir Masters.

Mrs. Ardis Clinton is having a sexual affair with Tony, the dimwit dishwasher from the diner across the alley from her apartment. As the story opens, Mrs. Clinton has it all figured out: Tony is going to murder her husband with a meat cleaver allowing her to enjoy the widow’s life complete with $20,000 in life insurance dough. They just need to stage the apartment to look like a struggle took place during a robbery to give the murder an air of authenticity.

In order to give the ruse a sense of authenticity, Dumb Tony needs to rough up Mrs. Clinton to make it appear she was injured in the home invasion robbery that killed her husband. Meanwhile, it’s important to Mrs. Clinton that she’s wearing a skimpy negligee when her husband gets home, so Mr. Clinton can see what he’ll be missing before Tony cleavers the old man into the hereafter. The story’s tension mounts until the doorknob turns welcoming Mr. Clinton home for the last time...

“Forever After” is a nasty little story lasting only about ten pages, so I’m not going to spoil the plot any further for you. There’s an unexpected twist at the end that explains why Thompson sold the story to a fledgling horror digest rather than, say, Manhunt. It was also compiled in the 1988 collection Fireworks: The Lost Writings of Jim Thompson. In any case, “Forever After” is definitely worth reading. The easiest way to get a copy is to plunk down a buck and buy the digital copy for your Kindle. You won’t regret it for a moment.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

The Hoodlums

John Eagle was a pseudonym utilized by George Benet who was born in Chicago in 1918. In 1952 when paperbacks were exploding as a medium, Benet moved to New York City and wrote this crime novel called The Hoodlums. The Avon book sold a half-a-million copies and was reprinted in 1956. The paperback has found new life in 2021 as a reprint from Black Gat Books retaining the original cover art.

Despite being lucky, smart and aggressive, ex-con Kirk Wagner is broke at age 26. His three-year stint in prison arose from an armed robbery followed by a double-cross that landed Kirk in the slammer while his partner Martin got away with the dough. To his credit, Kirk never squealed. Now that he’s been out for two weeks, Kirk is trying to make ends meet with a legit job in Chicago. But it’s hard, man, hard.

Three years without a woman is a long time, so Kirk tries to catch up with Jeannie, a hot little dish he dated for a spell before he got pinched. The time has been good to Jeannie - she’s stacked and seems to be a sex-positive kinda chick. Meanwhile, Kirk gets word that his old pal Martin has returned to Chicago. He allegedly wants to make things right for the double-cross that landed Kirk in prison. But how do you repay someone for three years in the slammer?

Benet/Eagle was a much better writer than most of his 1953 paperback contemporaries. His vocabulary and descriptors belie literary aspirations that surpass the hoodlum genre. The plotting, however, was a bit slow, meandering, and largely non-existent. The first quarter of the book has Kirk and his vagrant friends bumming around Chicago trying to stay warm and behaving like drunken characters from a David Goodis book. When Martin returns to Chicago something resembling a normal scam plot begins to take shape. It’s all well-written and compelling, but you would never describe The Hoodlums as being a propulsive thriller or having a normal story arc. Things happen, but it’s more like a reality show following a small-time hoodlum around Chicago’s underworld as he barely makes ends meet. Some of the vignettes are better than others, but the novel was never boring.

Despite having no real plot, I found myself enjoying The Hoodlums. It was like a blues song set to melodic prose, and I appreciated how different it was. Most of the crime novels from the early 1950s made their magic from tightly-wound stories with twists and turns along the way. The Hoodlums took a different route, and it largely worked for me. Your mileage may vary.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Yellowleg (aka The Deadly Companions)

Mostly known for his children's novels, A.S. Fleischman also authored a number of genre paperbacks between 1948 and 1963. The plots typically possess the crime-noir tropes of the era – beautiful women, innocent men on the run, gun play and money. Like Day Keene, Fleischman only authored one western in his career, Yellowleg. The book was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1960 and later re-titled to The Deadly Companions to match the 1961 film adaptation. The novel was later reprinted by Stark House Press in 2012.

Yellowleg is simply the name given to the book's protagonist, a man introduced as wearing a McClellan hat and yellow-legged pants, both leftovers from the American Civil War. As a former Union serviceman, Yellowleg has spent the last eight years of his life trying to find the Confederate soldier that scalped most of his head off. When the book begins, Yellowleg is paired with a young cocky gunfighter named Billy and a veteran survivalist named Turk.

Once the trio arrive in Gila City, New Mexico, Billy and Turk begin discussing a bank heist. Yellowleg wants no part of it, instead he's in town to see an ex-battlefield surgeon. Due to a rifle ball buried in his scarred shoulder, Yellowleg's gun hand isn't as slick and accurate as it once was. It's right after this medical consultation that Yellowleg attempts to shoot a fleeing bank robber. His shoulder gives out and the shot drifts off target killing a young boy. Later, the boy's grieving mother Kit sets off by wagon to the town of Siringo to bury her son beside his dead father. Yellowleg, accepting responsibility for the death, sets off with Turk and Billy to follow the woman and keep her safe. Across this hostile, barren wasteland, the trio not only must contend with a grief-stricken maniacal woman but also warring Apache warriors...and each other.

Like Arnold Hano's 1958 classic western The Last Notch, much of Fleischman's narrative is psychological. There's action and violence mixed into the customary revenge formula, but it's few and far between. In some novels that can be a very bad thing. Not with Fleischman. Instead, he uses this thick, wrenching atmosphere to drain the humanity from the thick-headed, bullish character of Turk. The character of Billy is written in a way that's symbolic with the gunslingers of the west – arrogant, proud, tense and sexually charged. When he isn't groping, he's practicing killing. The mourning mother Kit is a modern woman escaping the downtrodden life of showgirl, bar-room maiden and servant. Her defiance to all that have beaten, betrayed and wronged her is a resounding, triumphant portion of the narrative – intended or not.

Yellowleg, rightfully so, has his own tale to tell. The curse for revenge, his wasted years, his complacency to just accept that his life is only worth living if he can avenge his loss. The fact that he remains under the hat, in the same war-torn clothes of his past, is truly a symbol for Yellowleg's own life. The cloak of revenge that he tightly wears chokes out any happiness or meager satisfaction. His past is the only living he does.

Fleischman carefully constructs the narrative to highlight each character and their ultimate weakness. As a western, it's layered with adventure and sprinkled with enough firefights and gunplay to appease the casual genre fan. Beyond being a great western, it's just a great novel about humanity and the endless struggle with ourselves. If you love Arnold Hano and Clifton Adams, then you'll love this. It's by far one of the better westerns I've read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 15, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 82

On Episode 82 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, the guys discuss the repulsive horror fiction of Russell Gray. Also discussed : John Eagle, David Morrell, Garrity, Alan Nixon, Horror Book Recommendations and more! Listen on your favorite podcast app, stream it below or download directly HERE 

Donate to the show HERE

Listen to "Episode 82: The Repulsive Horror of Russell Gray" on Spreaker.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Tiger By the Tail

Tiger by the Tail was a 1954 paperback by James Hadley Chase, the popular pseudonym of Rene Raymond (1906-1885). The book was originally published by Harlequin before the imprint was exclusively romance novels and is often cited as being his finest novel.

Bank teller Ken Holland’s wife Ann has been visiting her sick mother for the past five weeks, and Ken is getting restlessly horny. His wandering eye is becoming more and more burdensome, and all he needs is a willing wonton for a few hours to blow off some steam. He gets the name and number of an escort (a “hostess”) named Fay who will let you take her out in the town for a couple bucks with an opportunity for more action if the spirit moves you.

After much hand-wringing, Ken calls Fay and sets up a date. Arriving at her apartment, Ken is pleased to find that Fay is gorgeous and charming with a killer body. They hit a nightclub and have a lovely time together. As they’re heading back to her place together, an astute reader of classic paperback thrillers just knows that something is about to go horribly awry. Sure enough, someone lurking in her apartment stabs Fay to death in her apartment with an icepick and leaves Ken with her dead body and the murder weapon.

The bad thing about being at the wrong place at the wrong time in a vintage crime fiction novel is that you’re almost certainly going to wind up the prime suspect. This forces Ken into a position where he needs to either lay low or solve the killing himself to save his own bacon and ensure that his wife never finds out he was catting around.

Meanwhile, the cops are also working to solve the murder, and this becomes a major focal point of the paperback’s second half. The police procedural sections dive headfirst into changing perspectives of the dysfunctional local department under the control of a sociopathic political boss. The rivalry among the local political factions becomes a bit convoluted as the novel progresses, but the author regularly brings things back on track by returning to Ken’s adultery-murder dilemma.

Tiger By the Tail is an extremely well-crafted crime novel by an author with real chops. It’s currently out of print, but the paperback has been through countless re-releases since 1954. You shouldn’t have trouble finding a copy. It’s certainly worth your time. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Brion Brandd #01 - Planet of the Damned

Harry Harrison (1925-2012) was a critically-acclaimed science-fiction author who is best known for his 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!, the basis for the 1973 film Soylent Green. In addition, he also gained fans and admirers when he debuted his Stainless Steel Rat character in a 1957 issue of Astounding. The character would appear in 12 total books through 2010. My first experience with Harrison is his 1962 novel Planet of the Damned. I discovered it when I located a 1975 Tor paperback reprint of the book complete with artwork that suggested this might be Nick Carter: Killmaster in Space. Is it?

Brion Brandd is the champion of his home planet Anvhar. To be considered his planet's champion, Brandd had to compete in a global competition called The Twenties. It's here that men compete in grueling matches of chess, poetry recitals, fencing, skiing, fighting, shooting and a whole lot of other exercises that test the mind and body. This is where readers first meet Brandd, locked into a final struggle with the last competitor. After winning, Brandd is taken to the local hospital to rest and rehabilitate. It's there that he meets an off-world stranger named Ihjel.

Ihjel explains to Brandd that the two of them share a unique psychic gift. Ihjel has developed this unique mental prowess as a way to gain the feelings or desires of anyone he meets. Brandd can utilize this to an extent, but will need to “Jedi up” to really learn how to harness its true power. This gift that Brandd has is exceptional when combined with his overall athleticism and intelligence. Who better to stop a nuclear holocaust other than a planetary gold medalist that can read minds?

In a one-sided conversation, Ihjel illustrates that the planet of Dis is populated by a race of very primitive people that behave in neanderthal ways. Their planet is a scorching firebed of hot sands with temperatures rarely below 100. It's an undesirable planet that is barely inhabitable beyond the race of people that have adapted to its harsh conditions.

Dis's neighbor is the civilized planet of Nyjord, a typically nice place filled with people who behave properly and know exactly which fork to use at formal dinners. Unfortunately, Dis hates Nyjord. In an early war, a small assortment of deadly weapons were left on Dis and now, after all of these years, the neanderthals have found them. Demanding Nyjord's unconditional surrender, the Dis people are set to annihilate their neighbors. What they don't know is that Nyjord has provided a 3-day deadline for peacekeepers, like Ihjel, to visit the Dis people and convince them that the idea of attacking their neighbor is a poor one. If they refuse to peacefully disarm, Nyjord will unleash a wrath of nuclear devastation and Death Star their whole planet.

Harrison's short narrative features Ihjel and Brandd teaming with a female scientist from Earth as they visit Dis in hopes of a peaceful resolution. But, as you can imagine, things don't go as planned. The Dis people immediately send assassins after the trio, forcing them on the run in search for allies and answers. While Nyjord presses a sense of urgency, Brandd begins to suspect that the Dis people want to live in peace and that their leaders may actually be hostile alien forces in disguise. Through investigations, Brandd searches for the weapons, gets laid and joins a team of Nyjord commandos as they battle enemy forces.

There's no doubt that Harrison is placing this interstellar war between neighboring planets as a representation of Earth's own Middle-East power struggle. In addition, the author utilizes the same formula as James Bond, a series of novels and movies that were already blockbuster hits at the time of the book's publication. The early 1960s hosted a spy-fiction sensation, and I can't help but think this is the science-fiction version of that. It possesses all of the same familiar tropes – international romance, a cache of nuclear weapons, trained killers and guns galore.

Whether you like science-fiction or not, Planet of the Damned moves at a brisk pace with an engaging story and capable hero. While it isn't mandatory reading, it's a solid, fun read that never left me bored. The character of Brion Brandd appears again in one additional novel, 1982's Planet of No Return.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

So Fair, So Evil

Thomas Grey Wicker (1926-2011) graduated from the University of North Carolina and began a career in journalism in 1949. His New York Times column “The Nation” ran from 1966 through 1992. In addition to his newspaper reporting, Wicker authored three stand-alone crime-noir novels – Get Out of Town (1951), Tears Are for Angels (1952) and So Fair, So Evil (1955). All three were originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal under the pseudonym Paul Connolly. In March 2021, Cutting Edge has released a reprint of So Fair, So Evil. I've owned the paperback for years and decided now would be a great time to read it.

From a first-person perspective, a guy named Frank explains that his wife Dolly died in a tragic automobile accident on a lonely stretch of Alabama highway. A year later, Frank has returned to the city of Huntsville with a lot of emotional baggage. He's been in a mental institution since Dolly's accident and still hasn't come to grips with the events that led to her death. It's during a cab ride that Frank requests to stop at the dismal crash site, essentially a pile of gravel marked by a large boulder with the word “Repent” painted in red letters. It's here that readers learn of Dolly's death and that Frank is a loose cannon.

In Huntsville, Frank returns to Dolly's childhood home, a sprawling Southern plantation called Old Hundred. It's here that Dolly was raised with her half-brother Harry. The family is filthy rich and in wisely-spaced backstory flashbacks, readers learn of how Dolly met Frank, the proverbial poor guy from across the tracks. Frank never fit in with Dolly's wealthy pedigree and in “grin and bear” fashion received a chastising of his vocation as a soldier in the Korean War. Dolly and Harry were inseparable as siblings and that affectionate relationship played havoc on Frank's insecurities.

Wicker's novel is a showcase of emotions as Frank spends a Fourth of July weekend with Harry and all of the family's friends and colleagues. There's a number of characters (a pen and an index card is helpful) at the house including Harry's wife Ellen, an equal to Frank in terms of being an outcast. Their emotional chemistry explodes into a sexually riveting scene. Also, a loner named Ann helps to enhance the plot when she befriends Frank and begins to sympathize with his feelings of wretched despair and loneliness. Frank's demeanor is foreboding with increasing feelings of paranoia and suspicion as the pages turn. Ultimately, Frank believes Dolly's auto accident was a set-up by one of Old Hundred's guests. It's on this premise that Wicker builds a tight character study that consumes most of the book's narrative.

As a crime-noir, So Fair, So Evil is a compelling, slowly-evolving story that combines adultery, lust and greed with a deep-seated insecurity. This combination is enthralling with the author's presentation of man's psyche central to the story. How can the average man cope in a marriage saturated with jealousy and suspicion? The book is similar to Gil Brewer's 1952 novel Flight to Darkness. In that story, which is also set in Alabama, a Korean War vet is a recently released mental patient with regrets about a fellow soldier being killed. Unlike Gil Brewer's sexy murder-frenzy, Wicker plays it mostly straight with traditional fornication draped in mystery. For the most part, he succeeds and delivers an interesting story that surprisingly rivals Brewer's work.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Exiled!

John Lutz (1939-2021) was a critically-acclaimed crime-fiction author who wrote a number of private-eye series titles as well as a dozen stand-alone novels. He served as president of The Mystery Writers of America as well as Private Eye Writers of America. My first experience with Lutz is a 1982 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback titled Exiled!.

The author name on the paperback’s cover is Steven Greene. Research suggests that Lutz either wrote the whole novel himself or collaborated with another author named Steven Greene. Evidence suggests that Greene was a real author who co-wrote the 1982 Signet novel Sleeping Beauties, a Robin Cook-styled medical thriller written as L.L. Greene that seems to be a collaboration between Steven Greene and Larry Levine. Lutz's official website lists the novel as “with and as by Steven Greene.” We may never know the full truth.

The novel's prologue sets the scene: a heightened level of violence in America has plagued the nation. Due to this overwhelming murder statistic, the U.S. government has created a penal colony called Pen Island. If a brochure existed illustrating it's uniqueness, it might read something like this:

Pen Island lies 100-miles off of the beautiful Pacific-Northwest Coast. At three-square miles, this lush island is populated by wildlife, plants and edible crops. The entire retreat is surrounded by shore towers that closely monitor all incoming and outgoing traffic from the island. A highly efficient security system automatically terminates any unauthorized personnel within the island's surrounding waters or in the air. Nestled within Pen Island's beautiful landscape are it's diverse residents – a unique population made up of over 1,000 convicted murderers. If your destination is Pen Island, you'll enjoy complete freedom from any law-enforcement, social barriers or pesky government employees. Pen Island is the ultimate getaway. Relax, work, make love or...murder!

In the book's opening pages, Dan Hopper is working in a small coastal town in Maine. It's here that his days are spent managing his small cabin retreat while fishing for lobster. When Dan rescues an abused stripper named Annie and her son Billie, his freewheeling existence evolves into a tight-knit family dynamic. However, the happiness is short-lived when the Hopper family is attacked by mobsters. In a grizzly chapter, Dan is forced to watch Billie brutally beaten to death. After a horrendous assault on Annie, Dan is injected with a syringe and falls asleep as the cabin is set on fire.

Dan awakens to find himself transported from Maine to the shores of Pen Island. Upon arrival, Dan is welcomed by the islanders and explained the rules. A) There's no discussion of escape at any time. Escape attempts lead to death and the idea of freedom just deflates the island's morale. B) Dan has his own hut but must collectively work with the group to grow crops, distribute water and generally become a “team player'. C) There's 900 men and only 72 women on the island. The women are required to take turns spending a week at the compound where men (and the women) can sexually release their tensions. This deters traditional rape.

After settling in, adapting to the change and overcoming the shock of witnessing his family's assassination, Dan begins formulating a plan to escape the island. His need to break away is driven by his quest for vengeance. Who set him up to be a prisoner? In order to adapt to the island, Dan has to circumvent being killed by one of the homicidal maniacs as well as learning who is really in charge. Like any prison, there's an inmate leader. In this case, it's a high-level mobster named Martindale and his enforcer, a brutal maniac named Chinko. Dan's inevitable showdown with them directly relates to his escape attempts. To reach freedom, he'll not only need to escape the island but also Martindale's clutches.

Exiled! is one of the better books I've read in a long time. This novel is just outstanding in its primitive, neanderthal display of human violence and man's complacency with it. In some ways the book formulates a Christian Christ-like pattern. A “perfect man” (Dan) is sent to a hostile world to save it. The book's overall premise is riveting and unique. Mixed into the narrative is also a brutal sporting event called The Games, a mix of rugby, football and fighting. These games help push the narrative along while still constructing alliances and escape plans. It's an exhilarating plot point that adds combative aspects to the book's presentation. There's also a fleeting romantic feel as Dan comes to the aid of not only Annie, but also a woman named Mirriam on the island. The book's closing chapters were fulfilling, but not terribly surprising. There's another aspect to the narrative that I won't reveal here, but it definitely adds a dynamic feel to the island story. It's these portions of the book that allow readers to leave the island periodically.

Whether Lutz or Greene or both authored Exile!, the end result is just a fantastic action-adventure novel with crime-noir tendencies. Used copies seem abundantly available and I encourage you to track this book down. It's well worth your investment and time. Highest possible recommendation!

Buy a copy of this book HERE