Friday, April 16, 2021

Let Him Go Hang

In 1963, Time magazine listed David Stacton as one of “10 most promising writers in recent years.” Stacton, who also utilized the pseudonyms Bud Clifton, Carson Boyd and David West, was born Arthur Lionel Kingsley Evans and grew up in the San Francisco area. After studying at Stanford and Berkeley, Stacton launched a 15-year writing career that included 14 diverse novels of historical fiction, crime-noir and gay literature. In 2020, Cutting Edge Books began reprinting several of Stacton's “Bud Clifton” novels including Let Him Go Hang. The book was originally published in 1961 by Ace and marks my first experience with this highly-touted author.

The book is set in a secluded Arizona mountain town called Babcock. It's here that Ben Barrett inherited a small empire encompassing hotels, stores, a ranch and the lumber company. Outside of the sprawling military hospital, Barrett owns the place. But his commercial triumphs pale in comparison to his domestic livelihood. His marriage to Martha is on the rocks and his daughter Stephanie has become a rebellious delinquent. At the end of the book's opening chapter, Barrett's chaotic storm comes to an abrupt finish – Stephanie's corpse is found in a nearby lake.

Unlike a police procedural or murder investigation tale, the novel immediately introduces a confessor. A rather strange man named Charlie pleads guilty after Stephanie's purse is found by Charlie's suspicious wife. By the book's third chapter, Let Him Go Hang has developed into a tight courtroom drama as two rival attorneys compete in a spectacle of small town justice. Is Charlie just the fall guy or did he really commit the crime? Did Barrett's impending divorce have an impact? Unfortunately, Stacton devises a rather clever narrative twist that deflates the momentum of the story: Stephanie's actual killer is on the jury.

Let Him Go Hang features a narrative that is presented to readers through various perspectives. Like Bill S. Ballinger, Stacton utilizes this storytelling approach to introduce a half-dozen characters that may have some link to the murder. It's because of this approach that the story is underwhelming. Readers already know that Charlie is innocent and that the real killer is watching the trial unfold hoping to influence a guilty conviction as a juror. This isn't some grand reveal or mystery that unfolds – readers are informed early in the novel and this declaration is boldly stated on the book's original cover.

Aside from the minor story-lines that come to fruition outside the courtroom, Let Him Go Hang is a murder trial put to paper. If you enjoy judicial procedural novels, this book may entertain you. I don't particularly enjoy courtroom dramas, so the cross-examination intensity didn't have the desired effect. Your mileage may vary. At the very least, Let Him Go Hang possesses the typical mid-20th Century crime-fiction elements – love triangles, corpses, killers on the run, money and tramps – to provide a satisfactory reading experience.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Maynard's House

In 1980, literary author, playwright and screenwriter Herman Raucher made his only foray into the world of horror fiction with a haunting novel called Maynard’s House. The novel is highly-regarded among scary book enthusiasts and remains available today as a $13 paperback or an $8 ebook.

The year is 1973, and Cincinnati native Austin Fletcher, age 23, is done fighting in Vietnam and looking to make a fresh start in rural Maine. Before dying in the war, a friend named Maynard willed his house and all its belongings to Austin. As the novel opens, Austin travels by train to Northern Maine to arrive at his new house and 11 acres of snow-covered land. It’s a long journey that takes up the book’s opening 20%, but it allows the reader to better understand Austin and the character of the land where Maynard’s house sits. Raucher is a solid and humorous writer, so the reader is never bored despite not much happening during the opening chapters.

The house itself is a 100 year-old rustic cabin - sturdy and imposing - with no electricity and an outhouse in the back. This is no spooky Victorian mansion. It’s more like the cabin from The Hateful Eight or The Evil Dead. As the story unfolds, Austin begins to learn more about the troubled history of his new home. It seems to involve a New England witch several generations ago - back when that was a pressing societal concern. There’s also a local legend of elfin woodland beings called Minnawickies that ties nicely into a subplot involving a Native American teenage girl who Austin befriends.

The problem with Maynard’s House is that it never really gets frightening. The paperback has all the right ingredients for an excellent haunted house story, but the slow-burn buildup never really amounts to anything. Instead, we get to know Austin rather well and bear witness to his acclimating to the desolate winter surrounded by nature’s brutal forces. As a man vs. nature story, it held my interest just fine, but not much really happens until the ambiguous and confusing conclusion.

Raucher was a great literary writer, and his ability to draw a vivid setting was excellent. The novel never failed to hold my interest, but I kept waiting for it to become a traditional horror novel. Instead, it’s a journey of self-discovery for a troubled young man with his own disturbed thoughts and unreliable perceptions.

Critics love this book, and the reviews are universally glowing. I get it. There’s a lot to like about Maynard’s House, and I don’t want to steer you away from reading it. As a work of literary fiction, it largely succeeds. I was just looking for a scary novel, so the lack of a traditional horror plot mostly left me cold.

Buy a copy HERE

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Last Great Death Stunt

Author Clark Howard was a frequent contributor to the mystery magazine digests including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock. As a writer, war historian and boxer, Howard's shift into full-length novels often propelled his diverse characters into violent and extreme situations. I've had wonderful experiences with Howard's 1970s novels like The Last Contract and Siberia 10 and find him to be a true unsung hero in the world of men's action-adventure novels. One of Howard's most unusual books is the novel The Last Great Death Stunt. It was originally published by Berkley Medallion in 1977 with a story-line set in the not-too-distant future.

In Howard's premise, the world has evolved into two different political cultures – socialist and communist. Because of this tranquil world peace, people no longer care about winners and losers. Boxing, football, baseball and other popular sports have completely faded away. In this future the world has become obsessed with Death Stunts that feature “athletes” pushing their endurance to the very edge of existence. These fearless few propel themselves as close to death as humanly possible in daring stunts in front of colossal audiences for endorsement money and television payouts. The greatest Death Stunt performer them all? Jerry Fallon.

Almost supernaturally talented, Fallon had the heart, mind and body to perform the most awe-inspiring Death Stunts of all-time. From insane motorcycle jumps and thrilling auto races to the highest of high-wire acts, Fallon left behind a legacy proving he was the greatest of all-time. However, over the last few years, a new competitor has risen to the ranks as a true contender to Fallon's legacy – Nick Bell.

Bell has performed many of the same stunts as Fallon, only more dangerous and extreme to shatter the world's remembrance of Fallon's feats. In spectacular fashion, Fallon is now being called the best ever by the media but he has one more stunt to perform. On New Year's Eve, Fallon has promised the world he'll deliver the last great death stunt. He's taking a 220-foot plunge into the Pacific Ocean...off the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the book's opening chapter, a special report from the U.S. President is broadcast nationwide. On New Year's Day, Death Stunts will be banned across the country. Anyone performing a stunt will risk criminal charges and possible imprisonment. Because of this new law, Bell's promise to perform one more stunt is thrust into the national spotlight. California's law enforcement will barricade the bridge and a special wire mesh is designed to keep anyone from jumping. Fallon's chances of solidifying his daredevil legacy are slim. Can he overcome the authorities and make one last splash at fame and fortune?

At just over 200-pages, Clark Howard has so much to say in The Last Great Death Stunt. To fully appreciate his alternate or future United States one must understand 1970s pop-culture. Flamboyant daredevil Evel Knievel was flirting with disaster while entrancing and captivating Americans with his wild motorcycle stunts. His death defying feats included jumping canyons, rivers and obstacles and even jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper in New York. Knievel was often paid $25,000 per stunt and is recognized alongside Harry Houdini as a truly special performer who risked life and limb for his audience. Howard's idea of the government banning Death Stunts probably arose from an incident wherein state and federal authorities refused Knievel's request to jump the Grand Canyon in 1971.

Howard's novel also possesses a strikingly prophetic tone. In this alternate and not-too-distant future, movie theaters have closed due to theatrical releases now airing on television for nominal fees (pay-per-view didn't even exist at the time of Howard's writing) mirroring the 2021 film industry. Additionally, music concerts don't exist any longer and it's hinted that these performances are similar to the film industry – direct to television for a fee. There are other nuances like automobiles that run on alternative energy, the decline of sports audiences (look at today's NASCAR) and the overall idea of individuals performing solely for endorsement money (like our YouTube stars). While this future is mostly a positive one, there is also a strict rule on childbirth. Parents can only birth one child, a federal regulation that keeps the population manageable.

Beyond the current and future cultural implications, Howard's book makes for compelling fiction. The narrative centralizes around Bell's quest to leap off the Golden Gate Bridge and the political opposition he must face. There's a side story on the U.S. President placing the burden on California's Governor, who then promises San Francisco's Mayor political favor if he can prevent Bell's jump. It's a small portion of the narrative that's filled with some graphic sex and the more seedy side of American politics.

The highlight of The Last Great Death Stunt is Jerry Fallon. Large portions of the story center around Fallon and his family. The narrative showcases Fallon's career highlights and his uneventful retirement into the life of a suburban husband and father. As the press increases coverage of Bell's jump (including a mock of ABC's Live World of Sports), Fallon begins to mentally fragment. The idea of his legacy being erased or tarnished pushes Fallon into intense deliberation – should he try and beat Bell by doing the same stunt? Considering his plush retirement, the narrative tightens to marital disputes between Fallon and his wife April. She's thankful that Fallon survived his dangerous obsession. She doesn't want to relive the fear again. It's Howard's intimate writing that really helps clarify the allure of death and the addiction these performers face. The eternal conflict of cheating death by the thinnest of margins is constant throughout the narrative. It's also the age-old contest of old gunslinger versus the young fast hand. Simply who's better - Jordan or Lebron? Tyson or Jones? Norris or Lee? It's a fascinating comparison that exists every generation.

The Last Great Death Stunt is absolutely superb and once again proves that Clark Howard was an amazing writer. His premise is such an exciting and clever take on what was a pop-culture phenom at the time. Surely Evel Knievel was an inspiration, but Howard's not too distant future is the perfect backdrop for such an unusual tale. There's just so much to like about this novel and it's one that I think I'll probably re-read at some point in the future. Consider this the highest possible recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

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)