Friday, April 30, 2021

Sgt. Hawk #02 - The Return of Sgt. Hawk

In 1979, Belmont issued the eponymous Sgt. Hawk, the first of four published novels authored by Patrick Clay featuring a gruff, tough-as-leather Marine Sergeant named James Hawk. Like Len Levinson's Rat Bastards, the series is set in WW2 on the chain of islands making up the bloody Pacific Theater. That campaign continues in 1980's Return of Sgt. Hawk, the series' second installment.

The novel begins as American Army and Naval forces are thrashing the Japanese occupied Philippine Islands. The assault is bureaucratically led by Kravanart, a bullheaded General who despises the U.S. Marine Corps. In an effort to assault the beach, Kravanart is persuaded to allow three companies, including Hawk, to hit the beachhead and engage the enemy. This heavy lift is welcomed by Hawk. Bloody, battered and shirtless, he scorches his Thompson extinguishing the bad guys while chomping on a plug of tobacco. After the assault, Hawk and the rest of the Marines are ordered to simply camp and wait while the Army and Navy clean up the mess and take the spoils.

In a small village, Hawk befriends a young American woman named Amelia and her cowardly fiance. The trouble begins when Hawk and company are left to “camp” for weeks on end simply waiting for Kravanart to allow them to fight. Eventually, tempers flare and Hawk storms a dense jungle hill, kills everything and stacks the bodies despite the orders to stand down. While the Marines are dishing out the damage, the village is captured by the Japanese forces and Amelia is taken. To complicate matters, Kravanart becomes angered with Hawk's defiance and orders an Army strike-force to search and kill the Marines.

Unlike the series debut, which combined a murder-mystery with gun-blazing action, Clay really branches out here and diversifies the narrative with a variety of subplots across multiple locations. The most interesting of these is a unique fantasy element that presents itself in what is otherwise a war-torn plot. Hawk learns that not only was Amelia captured, but that she was sold to a race of primitive men. In true Robert Howard fashion, Hawk breaks into a castle, fights enemies in a temple and even rescues Amelia from a dungeon filled with poisonous gas. There's really something for everyone – nautical adventure, military missions, shoot 'em ups, a heist, team-based combat and romance – through 225-pages of suspense and action.

I just can't say enough good things about this Sgt. Hawk series thus far. These first two installments are well-written, clever and fairly unique with a  central character who is just a tough son-of-a-bitch. His mannerisms, dialogue, finesse and firepower should appeal to fans of rough 'n rowdy action novels no matter if it's a World War or a range war. He's a lovable, violent white-hat hero clearly created by a fan of those genres. Track this one down as it is truly something special.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Mountain Majesty #01 - Wild Country

The 1990s proved to be a fruitful era for pioneer westerns. While the mid-to-late 1800s frontier was typically the backdrop for western storytelling, these early pioneer sagas were different. Instead of gunslinger showdowns, cattle rustlers and the U.S. Calvary dominating the western fiction, authors like James Reasoner, William W. Johnstone and David Robbins often placed their westerns in earlier time periods in locations west of the Mississippi River. Six-guns and repeating rifles were sacrificed for tomahawks and flintlocks that captured the essence of the true frontiersman.

One of these series titles was Mountain Majesty. The series lasted eight total installments and was published by Bantam between 1992 and 1995 under house name John Killdeer. According to my research, the first six novels were authored by science-fiction, western and fantasy author Ardath Mayhar and the last two by David Robbins. My introduction to Mayhar and the series is the debut novel titled Wild Country (with beautiful gatefold artwork by Tom Hall).

The book centers around two protagonists who are culturally different. One is Cleve Bennett, a young man who runs away from home after being whipped mercilessly by his abusive father. When his mother attempts to intervene, Bennett's father turns his rage on her. On the defense, Bennett ends up assaulting his father and makes a wise choice to just leave his family and head into the majestic Northwest Territories to learn trapping.

The second series character is a Cheyenne woman named Second Son. After besting most of the male warriors in physical combat, Second Son achieves a level of respect that makes her a “man” within the tribe. She spends most of the narrative hunting, trapping and eventually fighting with a despicable French trapper named Henri Lavallette.

These 1990s pioneer sagas typically showcase the same genre tropes, and this one is no different. Readers are thrust into the Cheyenne customs and traditions when young Bennett is incorporated into the tribe through various physical trials. It's the proverbial “fish out of water” element that captivates the central story-line. While there isn't a lot of action, the tribe does face the villainous trapper and consistently feuds with the Blackfoot tribe.

If you enjoy early entries in The Last Mountain Man, Sacketts (chronologically) and Wagons West then certainly you'll enjoy this as well. From a writing perspective, I think the delivery and plot could have used some spark to compete with the above mentioned titles. Otherwise, this is another solid 1990s pioneer western that's sure to please.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

S.O.B.s #01 - The Barrabus Run

Author Jack Canon spent a majority of his action-adventure storytelling career firmly planted in the Nick Carter: Killmaster series. Canon penned over 40 novels of the series in the 1980s, but he was also contributing to a team-based combat series for Gold Eagle called S.O.B.s. The series debut, The Barrabus Run, features not only Canon but also two additional authors – David Wade (Executioner, Super Bolan) and Robin Hardy – all writing as Jack Hild. This team-commando series was published from 1983 through 1989 with a total of 33 installments. The Barrabus Run is my starting point with this beloved series.

The book's opening chapters introduces two key characters, protagonist Nile Barrabas and eventual team liaison and C.I.A. operative Walker Jessup. This early narrative explains that Barrabas was in the U.S. military from 1958 through his retirement in 1975. His career included extensive training at West Point before joining Special Warfare Training in Fort Bragg and Panama. The advancement led to his placement in a Vietnam Special Forces team. During the conflict, Barrabas received Silver Stars, a Distinguished Service Cross and the eventual Medal of Honor. Then he seemingly disappeared.

Now, Walker Jessup works for a shadowy Senator running administrative duties and delegating high-powered personnel into high-intensity situations. The Senator asks Jessup to run an operation in South Africa. There, the people of Kaluba are subjected to a puppet dictator and the U.S. wants to establish a different leader in his place – Noboctu. Only he is now being held prisoner by the puppet dictator's chief rival, a notorious terrorist named Mogabe. Mogabe wants to become the new dictator and is holding Noboctu prisoner until after Kaluba's elections are over. Follow me?

The formation of S.O.B.s (Sons of Barrabas or Soldiers of Barrabas) originates when this Senator requests that Jessup create a team of specialists who can do his international bidding. The team, described as a dirty strike-force, will perform assignments and tasks that are beneficial to America's security as well as its allies. To lead the group, Jessup picks Barrabas. The problem is that Barrabas has been off the radar performing international mercenary jobs. His most recent venture led to captivity in a Latin American prison awaiting execution. Jessup finds Barrabas there and makes him a deal. He'll spring Barrabas, ultimately saving his life, if Barrabas will come work for Jessup. 

Barrabas agrees to the deal and makes arrangements to recruit ten hardened operatives who fulfill the checklist for a team-based combat series – explosives, driver, sailor, Native American, general commando, etc. The wildcard is a female specialist who also serves as a doctor. The whole team makes for a dirty dozen.

Surprisingly, I enjoyed the hell out of this series debut. I typically like my team-combat titles to feature no more than five members. It's easier to keep up with and a quick read through the recruitment stages. However, this trio of authors really made the recruitment compelling, an asset made even more valuable by making them a bit more vulnerable than the stereotypical “invincible white hats”. The obligatory training and exercise segments was paired with a narrative that featured Barrabas on solo assignments scoring guns, bombs and transportation. Otherwise, 11 people training for combat could have been uninspiring. 

When the mission begins, the authors never tap the brakes and provide for an explosive good time that served two distinct purposes – enjoyment and introducing a series villain in Karl Heiss.

If you love team-combat titles, S.O.B.s certainly seems like an easy choice. Based on this excellent debut, the series seems to possess the correct ratio of dialogue versus action. While this trio of authors will fragment, Robin Hardy takes over most of the series installments going forward. I hope to purchase and review more installments in the coming months. Stay tuned!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Benedict and Brazos #01 - Aces Wild

Originally born in New South Wales, author Paul Wheelahan (1930-2018) began his career writing and illustrating comics like Captain Power, Sheena, Davy Crockett – Frontier Scout and The Panther.  By the 1960s, Australian comic publishing declined and Wheelahan joined Cleveland Publishing to begin writing western novels. From 1963 until his death, Wheelahan authored more than 800 novels using pseudonyms including Brett McKinley, Emerson Dodge and Ryan Brodie. My first experience with Wheelahan is his western series Benedict and Brazos. It was written under the pseudonym E. Jefferson Clay and ran 27 total installments throughout the 1980s. Since then, the series has partially been reprinted as ebooks by Piccadilly and glossy trade paperbacks through Bold Venture Press. The series debut, Aces Wild, is my first experience with Paul Wheelahan's work.

In the debut's third chapter, the reader learns that Duke Benedict was a Union Captain of Vermont's 10th Militia. Across Georgia's Pea Ridge was the enemy, Confederate Sergeant Hank Brazos. The Confederate’s mission was to escort a wagon containing $200K in gold into Mexico, a valuable treasury that was to eventually start a second Confederacy. At Pea Ridge, Brazos and Benedict face off only to find that they quickly become allies in fighting a bandit named Bo Rangle, the leader of a guerilla force calling itself Rangle's Raiders. After Rangle wins the fight, and steals the gold, Brazos and Benedict shake hands and go their separate ways.

After the war, Benedict becomes a sharp-dressed card sharp and womanizer. Brazos remains a burly brawler who saddle tramps from town to town. As destiny sees fit, the two run into each other in a hot-handed gambling town called Daybreak.

Wheelahan provides a number of narratives that entwine and capture the reader's attention. The first is that Bo Rangle has used some of the stolen gold to set-up a whorehouse governed by Rangle's lady-of-the-night Bellie. The second has a Christian woman's auxiliary hoping to eliminate Rangle's brothel through peaceful and political protesting. Third, a bounty hunter named Surprising Smith is leading a town posse after a trio of outlaws led by a vile villain named Sprod. With this crowded narrative, where do Benedict and Brazos fit?

Benedict is secretly searching for Rangle's gold while laying down some heavy swagger and charm with Rangle's flirtatious Bellie and Smith's luscious girlfriend. Brazos brawls his way through a few bar-room escapades and eventually meets up with Benedict and learns about his plan to find and recover the gold. Striking up a deal – sort of – the two work together to fight the outlaws and recover the gold.

The series' two main characters aren't necessarily the stars of the show. Often I found myself wondering just when the deadly duo were going to slap leather and gun down the baddies. In a rather abstract approach, Wheelahan prolongs the dialogue and set-up and allows some of the other action to play out in separate narratives. Eventually the duo gain some footing that culminates into the proverbial showdown, but it takes a little while to get there. It's clear that the author had plenty of irons in the fire with a busy narrative that has a little something for everyone. The through story originates with the missing gold and Benedict and Brazos deciding to ride off into the next books searching for Rangle and the treasure. That's the series premise and it's probably enough for readers to stick around to learn more.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 26, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 88

On Episode 88 of the Paperback Warrior podcast, Tom and Eric have a heart to heart conversation about the future of the podcast. We also re-visit the life and literary work of Frank E. Smith, the Gothic paperback craze of the 1960s & 1970s, new Stark House Press releases, and Tom's secret work life is finally revealed! Listen on any podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 88: The Secret Life of Frank E. Smith" on Spreaker.

Friday, April 23, 2021

The Hard Corps #01 - The Hard Corps

After their re-branding from Pyramid, the Jove publishing house experienced a retail bonanza in the mid-1980s. At the height of post-Vietnam War action films like Missing in Action and Platoon, Jove launched a plethora of hard-hitting, hi-octane team-commando series titles like M.I.A. Hunter and The Guardians as well as the novelizations for Rambo II and III. Another series title that Jove introduced to the market was The Hard Corps. It ran eight total installments from 1986 through 1989 and was written under the house name of Chuck Bainbridge. In reality, the series was mostly written by William Fieldhouse (M.I.A. Hunter) and Chris Lowder (Deathlands #01). Fieldhouse's efforts are mostly the early volumes with Lowder writing the series' later installments. The eponymous debut, The Hard Corps, is my first experience with the series.

At 320-pages, this paperback is loaded from cover to cover with action. The book begins with The Hard Corps team liberating a Mexican couple from a terrorist group for a million bucks. This early onslaught showcases the five-man team in their element – violently blowing away the bad guys. After the mission, readers are introduced to the team and the series premise.

The Hard Corps is led by William O' Neal, a former Green Beret captain who excels in all combat situations. John McShayne is the team's primary caregiver, a Korean War vet that handles inventory, cooking and some accounting. Joe Fanelli is the obligatory explosives guy. James Wentworth is O'Neal's second in command and a samurai sword expert. Rounding out the bunch is Steve Caine, my personal favorite. Caine is sort of a loner, a survivalist who is comfortable in the wilderness, an expert in blades and designs various traps to ensnare and kill enemies.

These five guys are all Vietnam vets who served together as a fighting force in Southeast Asia. Now they are mercenaries with a unique relationship with the U.S. government. The C.I.A. and F.B.I. promise to leave The Hard Corps alone as long as they share their valuable intel and also agree to do a few odd jobs for the U.S. brass every so often. The team's C.I.A. liaison is a guy nicknamed Saintly.

The Hard Corps are probably the most organized and efficient team in action-adventure literature. Their compound is located in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest. It's here that they live, train, park their choppers and do all of the mission planning. As such, it's unusual when a small team of Vietnamese rebels land a chopper at the team's headquarters.

Unbeknownst to O'Neal and company, Saintly has instructed these rebels to find safety with the Hard Corps. The reasoning behind the safekeeping is that these rebels are being hunted by almost 100 Vietnamese government operatives. Before you groan and ask how this many communist soldiers are in the U.S. undetected, let me stop you. You see the Soviet Union's K.G.B. operatives have secret locations along the Pacific coast. It's easy for the K.G.B. to assist in getting these Vietnamese operatives through the U.S.'s southern border undetected. With this many assassins hunting the freedom fighters, the Hard Corps quickly realize that their unwanted guests have brought plenty of baggage. Their entire compound is surrounded and the rebels are their target.

Fieldhouse uses this double-sized debut to not only tell a story but to also dedicate whole chapters to each team member. In long backstories, Fieldhouse showcases each member's childhood and their natural evolution from the streets to the jungle. Some stories were captivating while others were a bit of a snooze. The book's central focus is simply The Hard Corps holding off waves of enemy forces with high-capacity guns and Earth-quaking explosives. The author's descriptions of guns and other weaponry was thankfully held to a minimum but the violence factor was amped pretty high. This series isn't for the squeamish.

At 320-pages, I mostly enjoyed the book but honestly skipped through some of the biographical sections. With so many of these titles, and so little time, I wanted the meat and potatoes action more than an emotional war story about brothers in arms. Regardless, The Hard Corps is one of the better 80s team-commando series titles and remains fairly respected decades later. If you like Phoenix Force, Eagle Force and S.O.B.s, you'll be at home with The Hard Corps.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Long Tattoo

During the 1960s, Jerrold Mundis used the pseudonym of Eric Corder to write five historical fiction novels about the American slave trade and its aftermath. While the books have chronological continuity with a few recurring characters, the author told me they can be read in any order as stand-alone novels. The Long Tattoo is his 1968 paperback about a black regiment fighting in the American Civil War. It’s available today under the Mundis name. 

Labe is a simple and good-hearted slave working as a blacksmith on the Crawford Plantation. One day, three men from the pro-slavery Confederate States of America visit the plantation asking Mr. Crawford to donate some blacks to help support the fight against the anti-slavery Yankees. Labe is volunteered for the job and the next daybreak, he’s off with the rebels. 

The conscripted men meet up with others of their ilk and are marched up to South Carolina under the crack of whips to construct a Confederate fort. Rumors start spreading among the men that if they defect to the Yankee’s side, they’ll be set free from the bonds of slavery. It’s also in South Carolina that Rafe first encounters Bryerson’s Butchers, an Alabama unit of straight-up killers and psychopaths with no patience for Yankees or blacks. 

Acts of cruelty and humiliation targeting slaves abound at the South Carolina fort. Meanwhile, word comes back from soldiers on the front line that the Union was not just freeing blacks but arming them and encouraging them to join the fight against the Confederates. As such, it’s no surprise when Labe slips away from his new masters and defects to the Federal side of the war. 

Labe falls into a Company comprised of escaped slaves under the command of a light-skinned educated black from Massachusetts. The training sequences that transform Labe from an undisciplined slave into a soldier and marksman were fantastic. The narrative lens widens to give the reader a look at the tactical decisions being made as Union troops roll through the South. 

It takes awhile to get there, but the combat scenes starring Labe’s unit are vivid and exciting. I would have liked more of them to emulate the brutality of an Edge western, but they were mostly satisfying - particularly as they lead to the reckoning between Labe’s guys and the terrifying Bryerson’s Butchers from earlier in the novel. 

Overall, The Long Tattoo was a good - but not amazing - combat paperback. The evolution of Labe from slave to soldier was well-told and the fictionalization of Civil War battles seemed realistic enough. The paperback was more historical fiction than pulp fiction, but worth reading if the plot concept appeals to you.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Violent Ones

Howard Hunt was a CIA operative, political burglar and author. Using his own name or pseudonyms including Robert Dietrich, David St. John, Gordon Davis and P.S. Donoghue, Hunt wrote over 50 crime-noir and spy novels in the mid-20th Century. Several of these were on Fawcett Gold Medal including the author's seventh novel, The Violent Ones. It was originally published in 1950 and most recently reprinted by Cutting Edge and Armchair Fiction. 

The novel stars Cameron, a rugged WW2 veteran who has recently been released from prison after paralyzing a man who was sleeping with Cameron's mendacious wife. The prison stint left Cameron with very little purpose and even less money. To solve both issues, Cameron travels to France to reunite with his old war buddy Thorne for a potential heist.

It's explained that during the war the allies dropped arms and gold to the Maquisards, a fierce underground band of French Resistance fighters. After the war was over and the Germans were gone, no one bothered to locate the whereabouts of these guns and riches. In 1945, the gold was cached by certain parties and left undetected. Now, five years later, Thorne finds himself in debt to a local gambling house and forced to make a daring venture to clear his account. Teaming with Cameron, the duo aim to move the gold to Switzerland undetected by authorities. After one night in the city, Cameron finds Thorne murdered. Who killed him? Who else is after the gold?

The upside is that Cameron is a great character, and I loved his backstory with the cheating wife and his two love interests in the novel. Both were just so sexy and Hunt expertly describes these encounters. The main problem, and there are many, is that Cameron isn't a formidable hero. He is routinely assaulted by the enemy and left to mend his wounds for another chance. He's just so average in terms of respectability but has the makings of a tough guy – war veteran, paralyzing his wife's lover, chick magnet. Further, I couldn't grasp the dense, overly contrived plot. Even Cameron seems confused with what's happening with the gold and just summarizes the confusion with a lackadaisical “I guess that makes sense?” statement.

My largest complaint is that Hunt uses this book as a way to boast of his knowledge of French locales and cuisine. Large parts of the book are in French – names, dialogue, food, wine, hotels, bars – and I found myself missing key moments of the story due to the language barrier. Hunt was a legit spy and his expertise in European affairs with the likes of Russian commisars, the Tireurs-et-Partisans, the FTP (?) and the Maquisards is impressive. I wanted a slick action-adventure novel with treasure seekers, paid assassins and beautiful women but Hunt failed to produce a compelling story among these unnecessary details. 

Nevertheless, I'm happy I read the book, and I still have a lot of respect for Hunt's writing and the numerous novels he produced. However, they aren't all gems and The Violent Ones proves that.

Buy a copy of the paperback reprint HERE

Buy a copy of the ebook reprint HERE

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Hot Summer Night and the Unmasking of Elston Barrett

There’s nothing about this 1980 paperback that’s appealing at first glance. The cover photo is embarrassingly bad. A mystifying font choice makes the title, Hot Summer Night, almost unreadable. And the author, Elston Barrett, isn’t a name anyone knows. Is this a horror novel? A carnival thriller? Why would anyone buy this low-budget book and read it?

Actually, I searched rather hard to find a copy of this paperback. I did this because I have a theory about the identity of the author that I wanted to put to the test. I review the book below but first I want to attempt to answer the question:

Who the Hell was Elston Barrett?

I believe that Elston Barrett was most likely a pseudonym. I could find no record of any other novels published under that name. Unfortunately, Leisure Books never bothered to register the book with the U.S. Copyright Office, so that’s no help.

My theory - and I could be wrong - is that Hot Summer Night was actually written by Frank E. Smith (1919-1984), better known to Paperback Warrior readers as Fawcett Gold Medal and Manhunt crime fiction author Jonathan Craig. Here’s my circumstantial case:

In the 1950s, Smith’s literary agent was a guy named Scott Meredith whose clients were the top crime fiction guys at the time (Lawrence Block, Richard Deming, Donald Westlake, etc.). Meredith’s stable of authors also served as the farm team who wrote hardboiled stories for Manhunt where Smith - as Jonathan Craig - contributed a ton of stories.

The success of Manhunt spawned a bunch of other hardboiled crime digest imitators, including Hunted and Pursuit. During the years 1954 through 1956, Smith sold six stories to Hunted and Pursuit that were published under the name Elston Barrett. These would have been logical stories for the Jonathan Craig pen-name, but Smith probably didn’t want to piss off Manhunt who was providing him with a nice living at the time.

During the 1970s, Smith was living in Florida and authoring Gothic novels under the name Jennifer Hale until his death in 1984. If I’m right and Smith was the real author of 1980’s Hot Summer Night, it would have been his last published novel.

Not convinced? Here’s some more data points:

The publisher of Hot Summer Night was Leisure Books, founded in 1957 by a guy named Harry Shorten who retired in 1982. Shorten also oversaw a sleaze paperback publishing house called Midwood Books that drew upon writers represented by Scott Meredith to write erotic novels in the 1950s and 1960s. As such, it stands to reason that Smith and Shorten would have known each other for decades before Shorten bought and published Smith’s final book in 1980.

There are other things in Hot Summer Night where Smith left his fingerprints behind. First, the book takes place in 1932 in Missouri - not a typical year for a 1980 thriller to take place. It was, however, a year Smith would have remembered from his own boyhood in Missouri where his family relocated during the Great Depression. It stands to reason that Smith was drawing from his memories of struggling carnivals limping through Missouri at the time. I think the Missouri 1932 setting strongly implicates Smith as the author.

I’ll double-down and further guess that Hot Summer Night was likely a Frank E. Smith trunk novel that he probably wrote, but didn’t sell, many years before it’s 1980 publication. He probably blew the dust off the old manuscript, did some re-editing, and sold it for a couple grand to his old friend at Leisure Books while both men were at the end of their careers. The low-end paperback house slapped a crummy cover on the novel, sold a couple thousand copies, and the world forgot the paperback ever existed. The book does not appear in any bibliography of Smith’s body of work.

Anyway, that’s my theory. I could be wrong, but it makes sense to me.


The year is 1932, and the Great Stratton Shows traveling carnival has fallen on hard times. General Manager Brady Stratton is fighting to keep his family business afloat amid competitive pressures and the economic downturn sparked by the Great Depression. The only hope of solvency is winning the contract to provide the attractions for the Cullis County Fair, and Brady has only ten days to raise $10,000 for the participation fee.

There are a lot of plot threads in Hot Summer Night, all of which are quite compelling:

 - A black mechanic for the carnival is run off the road by rednecks for allowing a white female carny to ride in the front seat with him. The ensuing fistfight leaves one of the townies seriously injured and the rowdies are looking for revenge.

- Cindy Stratton, the little sister of the family, has a daredevil act where she dives sixty feet down into four feet of water. Meanwhile, she’s facing the distraction of a rich boyfriend from Kansas City. Evidently, a dive that high requires some precision and concentration. Who knew?

- Little brother Tommy Stratton rides loops on his motorcycle in the Globe of Death. He’s jeopardizing the carnival’s operations by making time with a jailbait girl.

- There’s a maniac on the loose planting incendiary devices at carnival hoochie-coochie tents. The maniac is driven by religious outrage believing that the girly shows represent a modern-day Sodom that needs to be destroyed. Can the arsonist be stopped before he turns the canvas tents into a Hell-on-Earth?

- An ex-con one step ahead of the law sees the carnival as a perfect mark for a payroll heist. All he needs is an insider to make it happen.

- A deformed teenage girl is dropped off at the carnival by her family in hopes of finding her a spot in the freak show exhibit. Could this be the girl’s only hope of finding a real family who will love her for herself?

There’s a lot happening in this 240-page big-font paperback. To the author’s credit, the many story threads are all interesting and resolved quite nicely by the end. At times, it felt like a special, two-hour episode of the Love Boat, but I was never bored. Contrary to the dreadful cover art, Hot Summer Night isn’t a horror novel at all. Some of the subplots are very suspenseful, but I found it to be a very mainstream novel with a fascinating settling.

The author clearly took the time to learn about carnival culture and slang. Early in the paperback, he introduces the character of a female newspaper reporter doing a feature on the carnival. She serves as a proxy for the reader while getting up to speed on terms like mitt camp, madball, grab stand, ten-in-one, etc. Anyone who’s into carny stuff is really going to dig this book.

Hot Summer Night wasn’t a literary masterpiece, but it was an enjoyable look at a subculture most of us don’t get to see from the inside. Whether or not it was written by Frank E. Smith or not, it’s an easy recommendation if you can find a copy on-the-cheap. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, April 19, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 87

On Episode 87 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we discuss the work of A.S. Fleischman. Also: Ronald Malfi, Barry Malzberg, Thrift Store Outing, Todhunter Ballard, Mountain Man, Eric Corder, and more! Listen on any podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE 

Listen to "Episode 87: A.S. Fleischman" on Spreaker.

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 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 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


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 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.


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)