Monday, May 31, 2021

The Executioner #213 - Blood Harvest

California native Mel Odom (b. 1957) was a prolific contributor to the Mack Bolan universe, penning almost 30 titles collectively in the Executioner, Super Bolan and Stony Man series. In addition, Odom has also authored a number of television and film tie-in novels such as Sabrina, The Teenage Witch, Roswell and Blade. But, my experience with Odom is strictly the Mack Bolan titles, in particular the Executioner #213 Blood Harvest, published in 1996. Why? The synopsis indicates that Mack Bolan is fighting zombies in New Orleans. 

In the 1990s, one of the urban legends for young people on the bar scene was that a potential one-night stand could end up with one of you waking in a bathtub of ice and realizing that an organ had been cut from you by black marketers. This premise is used to its full potential in Blood Harvest as readers immerse themselves in this horror story in the book's prologue.

Posing as an F.B.I. agent named Fox, Bolan infiltrates a New Orleans homicide investigation to learn more about the organ harvesting ring. Most of the book's narrative features firefights every other chapter as Bolan targets key players in the organ heist. Eventually, Bolan teams up with a female investigator as the two follow the cohorts involved.

The zombie portion of the premise is somewhat accurate. The problem with the harvesting ring obtaining these organs by torturous methods is the timing. Because of the short lifetime of the organs, removing them and transporting them to the rich buyer provides a real sense of urgency. To resolve the problem, criminals use a voodoo priest named Papa Glapion to cast spells on the victims. By placing them in an "undead" hibernation - not breathing, but still technically alive - the bodies can be easily moved to different locations and then harvested to preserve the goods. 

Those of you who know Odom's writing understand that he is a gun porn enthusiast by describing each make, model and caliber of the weapons used by the fighters. I don't typically like this style and feel that it takes me out of the scene completely. I want to feel what the characters feel, not the well oiled South African automatic shotgun with dual magazines. But Odom's writing is serviceable and Blood Harvest is high on action and short on plot. One doesn't confuse these high-numbered men's action-adventure entries for literary masterpieces. If you want Bolan executing baddies (and the undead) in bars, cemeteries, bayous and oil rigs you've come to the right place.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, May 28, 2021

Tears for Jessie Hewitt

Edna Solomon Sherry (1885-1967) began writing short stories and serials for the pulp magazines in the early 1920s. She collaborated with both Charles K. Harris and Milton Gropper before authoring her debut novel, Sudden Fear, in 1948. The book was adapted into the eponymous 1952 film starring Joan Crawford and Jack Palance. My first introduction to Sherry's work is Tears for Jessie Hewitt from 1958. It was originally published by Dodd Mead under their Red Badge Detective brand and then later reprinted by Dell as She Asked for Murder (with an attractive cover by Robert McGinnis). Thankfully, Stark House Press has reprinted the novel under its original title as a Black Gat Book.  

In this crime-noir novel, Sherry plunges readers into the criminal mindset of Francis Edwards. He is a career criminal that focuses on robbing horse racing gamblers after they strike it rich on large payouts. His motif is to case the tracks locating the big winners. Once he chooses his target, he carefully follows the winner back to their home and steals thousands of dollars from them.

In the opening chapters, Edwards accidentally kills his target during an attempted theft. Fleeing California, Edwards begins to call himself Victor Clyde when he meets a distressed young woman named Jessie Hewitt in a cafe. He learns that Jessie was a budding actress who did not find employment. After working as a typist for a plumbing company, Jessie finds herself at a crossroads. She receives an invitation from her father's lawyer to return to her small New York town of Crawfey. Her father is dying and this will be the last chance to reconcile their bad relationship. After Victor learns that Crawfey is a very rural town that rejects any modern progress or intrusions, he conveniently volunteers to take Jessie there.

Like a Charles Runyon character, Victor's treatment by Sherry is an evolution from a smooth operator to a paranoid psychopath. It is this transformation that makes the story extremely entertaining. It's a perfect personality storm – the criminal influence on the young, innocent and righteous Jessie. Sherry cleverly asks the reader to judge the morality of Jessie's actions when faced with Victor's true nature. Tears for Jessie Hewitt is an outstanding character study. But, fans of mid-20th century crime-fiction should find a great deal to love. 

As criminal behavior intensifies in a frenetic chain of events, the narrative shifts perspective to a New York City police lieutenant named Lance. I really enjoyed this change of direction when Sherry switched to a police procedural that was reminiscent of an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel. The author also introduces two surprises that really solidified the story. While I felt the book's finale was underwhelming, I was still impressed by Sherry's storytelling skills. If you love suspenseful crime-noir then you'll love Tears for Jessie Hewitt. I'm already searching online retailers for more of this author's work.

Edna Sherry Bibliography:

Sudden Fear (1952)
No Questions Asked (1949)
Backfire (1956), US paperback title: Murder at Nightfall
The Defense Does Not Rest (1959)
The Survival of the Fittest (1960)
Call the Witness (1961)
Girl Missing (1962)
Strictly a Loser (1965)

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, May 27, 2021


At the beginning of his writing career, Robert Silverberg wrote several sleaze paperbacks for Midwood using the pseudonym Loren Beauchamp. Stark House Press has reprinted two of these early classics in one volume including his 1960 paperback, Meg.

As the novel opens, teenage Meg Tandler is losing her virginity in the backseat of a car with a sexually unremarkable local boy who plied her with beer before going all the way. Meg is a bombshell with full breasts and sensuous hips - a Marilyn Monroe type - and she knows she wants more from life than Idaho could ever offer. So, it’s off to New York to find her fortune in show business.

On Broadway, Meg visits a low-end theatrical agent named Max Bonaventura seeking representation. Max talks a good game and Meg signs with him in exchange for 25% of her future earnings. You see exactly where this is headed when Max has Meg get stark naked at their first meeting, so he can inspect the merchandise. After seeing what she has to offer, Max lays it out like this:

"I'll tell you what to dress and how to look. I'll teach you to sing and act and dance. I’ll tell you when to take your clothes off and when to put them on. I'll tell you when to go to bed with people. You're going to have to do some sleeping around, get me? Nobody gets to the top without paying for it. But you don't let anybody touch you who can’t do you some good."

Driven by ambition, Meg makes peace with Max’s plan to leverage her sex appeal and sleep her way into show business and up the ladder of fame. Despite his cynical amorality, Max is a delightfully colorful character and the main reason I kept turning the pages in this unlikely compelling paperback. The novel’s plot pretty much follows the ups and downs (and ins and outs) of Meg’s career as a sexpot. Because it’s a 1960 paperback, the sex scenes aren’t graphic at all, but Silverberg treats the reader to pages and pages on the allures of Meg’s impossible-to-ignore rack. The writing is predictably solid and Silverberg really knows how to make breasts come alive as central characters of a novel.

Meg rises through the ranks of show business thanks to Max’s never ending supply of publicity stunts, and this makes for a fun and quick read. It’s a predictable cautionary tale about the cost of uninhibited ambition and a pleasant way to kill a couple hours in the summer sun.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Machine (aka Do It to Me)

Fire/Machine is a new reprint from Stark House Press featuring two novels by Barry N. Malzberg. The two were first printed by Midwood under the pseudonym Mel Johnson. Along with Beacon, Midwood was one of the largest publishers of sleazy books and often featured prominent authors like Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block. Fire was originally known as Instant Sex (1968) and Machine as Do It to Me (1969). Since I love pinball machines, I decided to read Machine. Its premise of a lowly pinball arcade owner struggling with an impending crackdown spoke to me more than the invite to porn fiction.

Malzberg introduces Machine in a conversational fashion. Similar to Stephen King's Colorado Kid, the narrative is basically a guy named Mike Jennings sitting with you, the reader, over drinks. You're in the smoky bar buying drinks for Jennings as he explains his turbulent life over a three-day period in Syracuse, N.Y. While there are signs that Jennings has a criminal history, he advises that none of this is essential to his story. Just the 3 days.

Jennings borrows ten-thousand dollars and takes over the rights to a pinball arcade. Jennings rents the building and these machines, some of which are the smoothest and most difficult games east of Chicago. With a location near the University of Syracuse (Malzberg's alma-mater), the likelihood of students slipping nickels into the machines at a steady pace is fairly high. However, it is 1969 and arcade machines are still considered the work of the devil.

Prior to the mid-1970s, most cities had strict ordinances that denounced pinball machines as illegal gambling devices that corrupted the youth of America. Often illegal machines were seized by law-enforcement and destroyed. To protect himself from any grief, Jennings buys a low-level protection ring that provides some protection from the city. When two cops come in and threaten Jennings with the crackdown, he makes an appeal to his protection plan. They warn him that he is safe, but Jennings begins to suspect that his arcade empire is on the brink of collapse. 

Machine is laced with sex as Jennings is pleasured by a college co-ed named Sandra. As expected, there are graphic scenes that generally consume three to four pages. Jennings is struggling with his relationship with Sandra - she desires commitment. Hindering relations is the appearance of Jennings’ ex-wife Barbara, which obviously translates into more sex pages. Malzberg has a unique ability to compare passionate sex with pinball players fascinated by the sweet rhythm of the machine. While I skipped out on most of the sex, I enjoyed the comparison. 

By and large, Barry Malzberg's presentation is cumbersome. His signature is extremely long paragraphs with very little line breaks throughout. Stark House, and the author himself, agree that the machine is not the best portrayal of Malzberg's work. Many point to his sci-fi novels as real highlights while others suggest his action-adventure men's series Lone Wolf is the best. Machine wasn't particularly brilliant, but I enjoyed the elements of crime fiction enough for it to be worth it. You owe it to yourself to try out a novel by Malzberg. He's a truly unique voice. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Back Alley Jungle

Leo Margulies (1900-1975) is a familiar name in the world of pulps, MAMs and digests. Originally from New York, he started as a researcher for 20th Century Fox before becoming the editor of Ned Pines' Standard Magazines. Along with magazines like Mike Shayne, Popular Detective and Thrilling Detective, Margulies also compiled and edited a number of anthology collections including Back Alley Jungle. This 1960 collection of short stories was initially published by Fawcett Gold Medal under the Crest brand name. Here’s some highlights:

Ed McBain (written under the name of Richard Marsten) is the author of the 1952 story entitled “Carrera’s Woman”. In it, a man named Jeff has been working the oil fields in Mexico. After many hard years, Jeff amassed $10,000 in savings. Before returning to America to start a new life he was robbed by a co-worker named Carrera and his girlfriend Linda. When the story starts, Jeff takes Linda hostage behind big rocks. Carrera is across the dry gulch firing futilely into the rocks hoping to kill Jeff and reclaim Linda. During the night, the three parties are at each other's throats with both sides taking potshots across the gap. But the story changes fast as Linda starts to seduce Jeff. Is this an escape strategy or is she sincere in her sexual advances? This is the ultimate question McBain is asking, and it's such a tempting one. I really liked this story and it's a key part of the collection. 

In Steve Frazee's 1953 "Graveyard Shift" story, the close narration focuses on a busy police dispatcher on a late night shift. When a woman holding a gun enters the police station, this lone dispatcher is ordered to place all of the city's patrol cars in one section of the city. The woman's motive becomes clear when the dispatcher locates the pattern - she's purposefully maneuvering the police away from the local casino. Involved in this complex case, it is up to the dispatcher to use code words so that officers redirect efforts to the casino. This is a really unique story that presents a rare, but deserving hero - the police dispatcher.

The longest and most enjoyable story is Richard Deming's 1955 short "The War". This starts with a woman named Janice entering the Rotunda Club, a posh casino owned by Clancy Ross. After a talk and a call upstairs, Clancy greets Janice in his office. In short, Janice is the widow of Clancy's old Army buddy from the Korean War. She explains to Clancy that her husband witnessed a mob slaying and was later gunned down by killers working for a syndicate kingpin named Lawson. During the exchange, the Mob framed Janice so that she would appear as a frustrated wife who shot her husband during a heated argument. After the arrest, the Mob posted bail for her in an effort to then kill her in a way that would resemble suicide. With no friends or allies, Janice fled to Clancy hoping he will keep her safe. This violent and explosive story features Clancy at odds with Lawson over the woman's safety. But is there some secret about her? Deming was a great storyteller and “The War” is absolutely awesome. I can't say enough good things about it.

Other authors appearing in this compilation are Jonathan Craig (Frank E. Smith), Dan Sontup, Mann Rubin, Charles Boeckman, Robert Turner and Don Stanford. There's an additional Ed McBain story titled "Clean Break" that's listed under the pseudonym Hunt Collins.

At 150-pages and 10 solid short-stories, Back Alley Jungle is an absolute joy to read and a fairly affordable used paperback considering the era and publisher. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, May 24, 2021

Never Be Caught

“Never Be Caught” is a 50-page noir novella by James McKimmey originally printed as a U.K. hardcover in 1966 along with two other stories. It has been reprinted by Stark House in a collection of McKimmey’s hard-to-find short works now available in trade paperback and ebook formats.

The story begins in San Lupe, California about 80 miles north of Los Angeles - where Billy Marsh (age 22) has fallen in love with Maria Nivero (age 16). When the time comes for Billy to meet Maria’s mom, Mrs. Nivero is not thrilled about the relationship. Billy is a nice young man if a bit aimless - he’s a counter man at the local trucker’s cafĂ©. Despite her reservations, Mrs. Nivero gives her reluctant blessing and sends Billy on his way.

After Billy leaves mom’s house, she calls in a favor from a cop friend: do some homework on Billy and find out what his real story is. It takes no time at all for the cop to learn that Billy is a fugitive from San Francisco wanted for an armed robbery turned murder. The cops fail to get the jump on Billy in an exciting scene, and we have a couple on the run story as the young lovers flee from the police together.

McKimmey does such a great job with economical storytelling while shifting the third-person perspective between the hunters, the hunted and the helpers. It’s an exciting cat-and-mouse game building to a climactic suspenseful ending that won’t disappoint any lover of action-packed noir fiction.

I’m so glad I took the time to read “Never Be Caught.” The novella cemented my belief that McKimmey was yet another master of the genre unfairly forgotten by the modern era. I’m extra thankful for the publisher who found this obscure story and made the effort to reprint it. Without question, it would have been lost forever if it weren’t for this Stark House revival. Highly recommended.

The new Stark House Crime Classics release compiles the following fiction from James McKimmey:

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, May 21, 2021

Dirty Harry #05 - Family Skeletons

Warner Books released the 12 episodes of the action-adventure series for men Dirty Harry between 1981 and 1983. These novels can be read in any sequence and are based on the character of the three movies Dirty Harry, Magnum Force and The Enforcer. The works are written under the house name of Dane Hartman by the authors Leslie Alan Horvitz and Ric Meyers. Mostly the series is panned by readers, but I still feel compelled to read an installment every few years. Maybe I'm attracted by the artwork. 

In Family Skeletons, the fifth novel in the Dirty Harry series, San Francisco detective Harry Callahan decides to take a holiday in Boston. While this trip allows Harry to escape the fight against the West Coast villains, it will not come without an aura of mystery. Linda, Harry's cousin, asked him to travel to Boston to investigate a religious cult called The Unitarian Church. This cult recruited Linda's daughter, Shanna.   

Through the book's violent narrative, a Boston serial killer plagues the college campus of the church, eventually killing a number of students that have ties to Shanna and other Unitarian members. Harry befriends a Boston homicide detective assigned to the case and they work together to find the killer. As Harry's suspect list narrows, he finds quarrels with the Callahan family – Linda's husband disagrees with Harry's involvement and wants him out of the city. Is he the killer or just a violent stumbling block? 

There is actually a lot to like about family skeletons in comparison to previous installments that left me feeling dissatisfied. Whether this is Horvitz or Meyers, the writing is an upgrade from the standard drivel associated with the series. There is an abundance of action and violence while Harry fights a number of villains through the most violent areas of Boston. Before the twisted ending of the book, there is a shootout and a chase that puts Harry's. 44 against a few shotguns in a grocery store. Suspending unbelief, I soaked everything up and had a great time.   

Family Skeletons isn't a literary masterpiece. It's not even as good as a low-shelf, later Mack Bolan installment. But it is entertaining and jammed with action and mystery. I was surprised by the quality and gained a new respect for this series. I'm destined to read more. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Seals #01 - Ambush!

Born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Kevin Randle earned degrees in journalism, psychology, and military studies. During the Vietnam War, Randle was an Army pilot for two Assault Helicopter Companies. Later, he served in the Air Force and the National Guard and was deployed to active duty in Iraq between 2003-2004. His military experience provides a lot of credibility and realism to his writing. Using the pen name of Eric Helm, Randle is the author of the four-book series Scorpion Squad and the longstanding series Vietnam: Ground Zero. My first experience with his military fiction is his Seals series written under the pseudonym Steve Mackenzie. These novels were published by Avon between 1987 and 1989. I decided to begin with the first, Ambush!

In this installment, the book's premise is based on actual events that took place in the Binh Duong Province northwest of Saigon. Known as Hobo Woods, this dense area of forest served as a concealed location for the Viet Cong to prepare and initiate assaults on the U.S. Army's Fire-Support Base Crockett. This massive firefight consumed most of July 1970 and was one of the last major confrontations of the Vietnam War. Randle himself had experience in this specific location and also used Hobo Woods as the setting in his seventh book in the Vietnam: Ground Zero series.

In the Seals installments, Randle uses Navy Lieutenant Mark Tynan as the consistent hero. In the opening pages of Ambush!, Tynan and his team are positioned overnight near a river. While it is mostly a training exercise prepared by Tynan, the Seals ambush and kill a small patrol of Viet Cong. On one of the enemy soldiers, Tynan finds a bundle of documents saying that the VC were planning a major assault on the Crockett fire support base.

Upon the team's return to base, Tynan gives the documents to his commander, hoping that the intelligence will help Crockett prepare for the attack. Instead, the Navy doesn't want to give the data to the Army because it doesn't want to look bad if the attack never takes place. Instead, documents are ignored and Crockett's caution is never given.

Through most of the story, Tynan's team searches the Hobo woods for more VC and ends up helping Crockett. In an action-packed crescendo, the team splinters into distinct areas of battle – one inside Crockett and the other on the outskirts in the enemy ranks. Randle's attention to detail is superb and allows readers to see these vivid battle stories that seem to emerge from the pages.  

While some of Tynan's team comes back in the second instalment, Blackbird, the action for the remaining books is not always fixed in Vietnam. Tynan's orders lead him not just in Southeast Asia, but also to the Middle East and even the United States to counter international terrorism. I'm really curious to see how Randle develops Tynan over the course of the series, including any of the character's personal backstory. In the meantime, I highly encourage Ambush! if you're fond of reading military fiction.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Dark Cypress

Michael Avallone (1924-1999) was a prolific author that contributed work to many different publishers and genres. Along with authoring television and movie tie-ins for franchises like Man from U.N.C.L.E., Planet of the Apes, and Friday the 13th, Avallone penned a number of stand-alone crime-noir and mystery novels. Avallone also authored over 38 private-eye novels starring his character Ed Noon. In the late 20th Century, Avallone took to writing Gothics using pseudonyms like Jeanne-Anne De Pre, Dorothea Nile, and Priscilla Dalton. Perhaps his best Gothics were penned using the name Edwina Noone, a clever nod to his own private-eye character. My first experience with Avallone's Edwina Noone novels is Dark Cypress, originally published in 1965 by Ace.

The novel stars Stella Owens, a young woman who has arrived at the gloomy, yet magnificent, manor known as Hawk House. Stella has accepted a job as a live-in tutor for Todd Hawk, the only child of a wealthy widow named Arthur Carlton Hawk. Upon her arrival at the mansion, Stella is introduced to Gates, the family's friendly butler, and Dahlia, the family's snobbish housekeeper before being introduced to her young charge.

Stella is immediately consumed with a foreboding atmosphere that surrounds the house and its inhabitants. Dahlia's mysterious behavior serves as an odd voice of authority. Prophetically, she warns Stella that a bedroom upstairs must remain locked and off-limits from any curious exploring. Dahlia's motherly treatment of Todd is both preachy and scolding, a characteristic that lies in stark contrast to Stella's warmer approach. In repeated tutorial sessions, Todd confides in Stella that he is fearful of being taken away soon. He also provides a disturbing account of his older brother Oliver dying in the family's large pool. It's this event that lies at the heart of Avallone's mystery. How did Oliver come to drown in the pool, what's in the locked room and why does Todd suggest that there's an evil presence roaming the dark halls and corridors of Hawk House?

Like any good Gothic, location is key. Avallone's choice to place the characters and events in rural Connecticut during a late New England winter is important. As the tension mounts, the sense of isolation keeps the characters confined to this monstrous structure. Through the narrative, the family's secretive backstory slowly unfolds to explain Stella's precarious dilemma. The storyline is laced with mysterious horror that's nicely balanced with a small offering of romantic development. As a Gothic stereotype, Stella is the vulnerable beauty that becomes trapped in the bad place. Is it the structure or the people that make it a dangerous meeting?

Avallone is just a great author and his use of description makes this chilling novel such a pleasure to read. From cavernous dark forests to narrow, entrapping hallways, Avallone's prose is filled with vivid imagery that proves to be a ghostly character unto itself. If you have a supernatural addiction, Dark Cypress offers just enough sinister happenings to make it a furious page-turner. Unfortunately, the book remains out of print and used paperback copies have become pricey. However, I strongly urge you to spend your hard-earned dollars on acquiring a copy.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Drag Strip

In the 1930s, California essentially became the birthplace of the hot rod. Americans desiring the need to speed looked to the Golden State and its quality homemade cars and the crafty mechanics behind them. By the post-war 1940s, more and more hot rods were found on drag strips or illegal street races. In 1951, the National Hot Rod Association was formed (NHRA) as a brotherhood for grease-monkeys and rebels. So, it's no surprise to find mid-20th Century fiction enamored with fast cars and racing. It was a whole genre unto itself highlighted by Henry Gregor Felson's 1950 novel Hot Rod, a book that bestselling author Stephen King stated was a big influence on his writing. 

One of the authors that thrived in hot rod fiction was William Campbell Gault. Besides writing his Brock Callahan series of private-eye novels, Gault authored a number of racing novels like Speedway Challenge (1956), Dirt Track Summer (1961), and The Checkered Flag (1964). I found a used copy of his 1959 race-noir, Drag Strip, and decided to give it a try.

Drag Strip is set in a fictional California town called San Valdestro. The town functions as a hotbed for horse shows, a pedigree of showmanship for the neighboring Los Angeles County residents. It's here that Terry is raised in an upper-class household. His father is a successful attorney and real estate investor and his sister collects equestrian trophies and ribbons. Early in the novel, Terry's father presents him a Woestman-Ebbert, a $10,000 car that would cost about $90K today based on inflation. Needless to say Terry is the talk of the town. But when he ends up illegally racing two brothers, Juan and Pete, he finds himself obsessed with backyard mechanics and customizing junk cars. 

There's two main plot points absorbing most of Gault's narrative. The first is Terry, Juan, and Pete creates an automobile club and inviting various members to join based on skill and interest. In a way it is a fish out of water story as Terry finds that a heavy, greasy wrench is far more rewarding than his shiny silver spoon. Terry's descent from spoiled, suburban rich kid to garage mechanic in a rough side of town is a development that was really enjoyable to read. The second story arc features Terry's automobile club wanting to purchase an abandoned airstrip in town. The idea is to formally run a drag strip there and hopefully pick up an endorsement from the NHRA. The two obstacles are a business investor and a group of aviator hobbyists. 

If you enjoy fast cars, or this particular era of motor-sports history, Drag Strip will surely please. As a car novice, I was satisfied with the young adult approach by Gault to tell a moving story about hard work and overcoming adversity. The pairing of the wealthy and the poor was a wonderful blend that is just as effective today as it was 60-years ago. For those reasons, Drag Strip is an easy recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, May 17, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 89

On Episode 89 of the Paperback Warrior podcast, Eric takes the reigns for an action-packed 45-mins of vintage paperback discussion. The show hits the road to visit an exciting pulp convention in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Also, a feature on the life and work of author and jazz great Charles Boeckman. Plus: shopping, Bold Venture Press, Theodore Pratt and a surprise visit! Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE

Donate to the show HERE 

Listen to "Episode 89: Charles Boeckman" on Spreaker.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Make My Bed in Hell

John Sanford (1904-2003) was born Julian Shapiro in Harlem, NY. After graduating from Manhattan's Fordham Law School, Sanford joined his father as an attorney, yet his career in law was short-lived after discovering art and literature by the likes of Ernest Hemingway. In 1931, Sanford authored his first novel, The Water Wheel, the first of three stand-alone titles that are set in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. This fierce and often opposing farmland was the perfect backdrop for the author's impressive storytelling. My first introduction to the author is his 1939 novel Make My Bed in Hell (aka Seventy Times Seven). In 1954, the book was published with misleading cover art as a crime-noir by Avon. In 2021, Brash Books has reprinted the book for modern audiences with an analysis by Cal State professor Jack Mearns.

While Make My Bed in Hell has a rather simple storyline, Sanford's presentation is very dynamic. In a rather unique and innovative style, Sanford writes the whole book as fragmented parts that are placed in various time periods. To add even more complexity to his prose, the author often doesn't identify which characters are talking. The reader is challenged to determine the dialogue's source instead of following a simple “he said” or “she said” formula. While I found myself perplexed at the peculiarity, the concept was a refreshing reading experience.

When the novel begins, middle-aged Aaron Platt walks a snowy path to his barn. It is there that he finds a frigid man lying in an empty stall. In what appears to be a rather cold-blooded response, Platt allows the man to shiver through the night with very little food or water. As night turns to day, Platt's past is presented to readers in jagged sequences. These are dark, extremely depressing visions of Platt's childhood, his endearing mother, and the brutality thrust upon his family by his aggressive and unyielding father. The harsh elements of childhood bullying, family abuse, death, and poverty is presented as a parallel portrait of a rugged, impoverished farming community that faces immense financial adversity.

Sanford really shined as a complex, but readable, young author that had a unique voice. Considering the wealth of literature I have devoured over 30 years, I've never read a novel like this one. Despite its 1939 conception, the book is seemingly timeless considering America's rural towns and communities that are still struggling with financial distress, lack of government funding, and an aptitude that fighting with each other is sometimes the best solution to life's most difficult oppositions. Sanford's characters are hardened by strife and the land they plow and that gritty combination affected me long after the final pages were read. Make My Bed in Hell is the main character's outlook on his tumultuous life and a fitting title for such a poignant literary novel.

Buy a copy of this novel HERE

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Race Williams #09 - I'll Tell the World

Carroll John Daly’s Race Willams character was the prototype used by Mickey Spillane for his hardboiled detective, Mike Hammer. For that matter, there’s more than a dash of Race Williams in Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan. Race’s ninth adventure was “I’ll Tell The World,” a novella that originally appeared in the August 1925 issue of Black Mask and remains available today as a reprint.

As the story opens, Race is broke again and hoping for a new client in search of a “confidential agent” for hire. While browsing through the newspaper classified ads, Race sees a coded message that reads:

“Tom: As promised, 69th C.P.W. Two’s day. Eleven years old. Frantic. Dorothy.”

Race smells an opportunity to make some money and his decoding of the message sends him to a Manhattan street corner where someone else’s clandestine meeting is taking place Tuesday at 11pm. Hiding in the shadows, he witnesses a lone woman being abducted by two men who toss her into their car. Ever the stealthy sleuth, Race follows quietly behind.

The confrontation between the kidnappers and Race only serves to deepen the mystery and underscores the depravity uncovered by sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong. For her part, Dorothy the kidnap victim is filled with secrets and appropriately skeptical of trusting Race, the stranger who saves her.

The main mystery of “I’ll Tell The World” is: What chaos has Race stumbled upon here? Why the classified ad? Who are the powerful people behind Dorothy’s kidnapping? And what is their agenda? Without a paying client, Race pursues this because he is curious. Just like the reader. Eventually, his curiosity is rewarded with a paying client who engages him to investigate the matter.

And that’s where the story loses its way. Daly falls for the trap of many early 20th Century mystery writers and creates a confusing and labyrinthian plot that is hard to follow and a pain to read. Race’s swagger remains but the plot lost me at the novella’s halfway point. I’m not giving up on Race Williams, but this installment was a bumpy ride best forgotten. 

Buy a copy of this HERE

Wednesday, May 12, 2021


California native Bill Pronzini (b. 1943) is mostly known for his Nameless Detective, a series of private-eye novels that began in 1971 and has lasted nearly 50 installments. Pronzini has also authored over three-hundred short-stories and compiled dozens upon dozens of story compilations. The author also has a number of stand-alone crime-fiction novels on his resume including Panic!. The book was originally published in 1972 and has since been reprinted numerous times through various publishers.

In Panic!, five characters are placed in extreme situations where they are forced to behave in different ways to survive. In essence, it's a gritty, fast-moving crime-noir that checks off mostly everything one needs for the genre: beautiful woman, drifter on the run, a veteran cop and two deadly criminals. Pronzini's prose is fast-paced with most of the attention on the present, although the narrative thankfully explains a few important elements from each character's past that helps to connect the readers to these four men and one woman.

This short book is divided into four days and first introduces readers to a drifter named Lennox. Using a variety of names, Lennox is on the run from a failed marriage. During the divorce, Lennox is ordered to provide nearly his entire life's savings and assets to his ex-wife including a sizable amount of monthly alimony. Refusing to pay, Lennox leaves town and is now penniless and stranded in a dusty desert town called Cuenca Seco. Earning three hots and a cot, Lennox begins working for the town's cafe owner for a few days. While Lennox is working in the cafe's basement, two hitmen arrive to empty their guns into the cafe's owner. Lennox, being the only other party in the cafe, sees and hears the event and immediately runs into the desert to avoid the two killers.

In separate parts of the narrative, the two hitmen are introduced – one a seasoned, veteran killer and the other a wet-behind-the-ears apprentice learning his new profession. Also, there's a woman named Jana, an accomplished artist and author who, like Lennox, is also on the run. Although her situation isn't illegal, she's running from an affair in New York that has placed her career on the rails. She's arriving in Cuenca Seco to spend a quiet week writing the book that will meet deadlines and urgent requests. Unfortunately, she journeys into the desert to study rock formations on the day of the killing. After a dehydrated, panicked Lennox runs to her in the desert, she's unwillingly caught up in the deadly chase – two people with no food and water on the run through a dry wasteland as killers track them down.

Then there's Brackeen. He's the real star, although his role is a bit underplayed due to the nature of the character. In a rather mesmerizing backstory, the author shows Brackeen as a veteran police officer in San Francisco. On a really horrific day on patrol, Brackeen's career as a police officer comes to a screeching hiatus. After years of alcohol and depression, Brackeen attempts multiple careers in multiple places before finally putting down stakes in Cuenca Seco. Due to the lack of crime (and people for that matter), the town makes Brackeen a deputy. The former big city cop spends most of his day patrolling the desert and getting slouched. However, once the cafe owner's body is found, Brackeen is propelled into the story as a lovable loser. The state authorities refuse to accept his plausible – and very accurate – proposal of why and how the cafe owner was murdered. His validity as a creditable asset to the community is questioned due to his alcohol abuse and downtrodden lifestyle. 

There's so many things to love and enjoy about Pronzini's simplistic storytelling. The quest for freedom, overcoming adversity, retribution, the replacement of heroes and the mere idea that the average citizen's best approach to fixing a problem is self-realization. Pronzini's desert locale is symbolic – it's two characters running through life without the emotional resources to contend with complexity.

Pronzini is always solid and Panic! is just another testament to his strengths as an author. Despite one scene presented as outrageously preposterous in 2021 (blatantly obvious to today's reader), the novel has aged well. Whether you love hard-charging crime-fiction or gritty character studies, this brisk novel is just fantastic.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, May 11, 2021


Author Helen Abbott Meinzer (1918-1963) wrote a number of short-stories in the 1940s and 1950s in western pulps like Western Action, Rangeland Romances, 44 Western and Thrilling Western. She wrote these stories using the pseudonym of A.C. Abbott. Along with the short-stories, Meinzer also utilized the name to author two stand-alone novels – Wild Blood (1951) and Branded (1954). Both of these western paperbacks have been reprinted by Cutting Edge Books. Unfamiliar with the author, I chose to read Branded first.

Three years ago, protagonist Rock Kendall owned a large spread of acreage and cattle in Texas with a business partner named Ash Carlton. Unfortunately, greedy Carlton killed a young woman and framed Rock for the murder. Eliminating Rock from the business, Carlton had complete power and control of the ranch. Now, Carlton has expanded his empire into New Mexico using lies upon lies to prepare for a possible state political seat. Rock, a fugitive from justice, rides into New Mexico looking to clear his name and bring Carlton's criminal enterprise down.

Meinzer's writing is just superb as she uses the proverbial “cattle rustling” sub-genre of western storytelling to create an effective and exciting plot. Rock's quest for justice is riddled with obstacles, painful and deadly reminders that guilty until proven innocent was often the frontier's unfair justice system. Through a series of gunfights, fisticuffs and horse-chases, Rock carefully balances two possible love interests – one an untamed wildcat and the other a soft-spoken lady. The hero's twisting turmoil is center stage while Meinzer distributes possible allies and friends as support through the narrative.

Branded is delivered with solid storytelling that stays true to the roots of the genre. The lone hero's battle against the vile villain is a traditional concept - good versus evil in the mountains and plains of an unjust frontier. With its balance of romance and violence, Branded is sure to please western readers.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Outcasts

Author Sally Singer (b. 1930) utilized a number of pseudonyms to author lesbian pulp fiction in the mid-20th Century. The most popular of these pseudonyms was March Hastings, a name she used to author 11 novels from 1958 through 1969. My first experience with the author is her 1961 novel The Outcasts, written as March Hasting and originally published by Midwood. The novel has now been reprinted for modern audiences by Cutting Edge Books.

Jennie is a twenty-something New York woman married to an aspiring artist named Brian. They have had a rocky marriage stemming from a failed pregnancy but remain together to avoid an embarrassing divorce. Brian's sexual urges have led him to months of infidelity while Jennie struggles to control her personal desires and sexual frustrations with Brian. As the novel begins, Brian rapes Jennie before instructing her to accompany him to an art show where his work is being shown.

It's at the art show where Jennie is introduced to Brian's business advocate, a luscious, sexually-charged woman named Leigh. In forced conversation, Jennie learns from Leigh that she has had sex with Brian, thus the personal interest in his below-average painting talents. Leigh and her husband are extremely wealthy and they invite both Brian and Jennie to the couple's swanky seaside mansion for the weekend. Jennie, caving to her desire to learn more about Leigh, accepts the proposal despite her white-hot anger with Brian.

As the wet and wild weekend getaway unfolds, Jennie spirals further into her sexually repressed feelings. The first night at the mansion, Jennie witnesses Leigh and Brian engaged in sexual foreplay, a not-so-shocking discovery that leads Jennie to pleasure herself while watching Brian from a window. Jennie's instinct is that Leigh is toying with Brian, perhaps using him as some sort of bizarre and ritualistic way to attract Jennie. Needless to say, The Outcasts takes a turn into full-on lesbian affairs as Leigh and Jennie realize they are both sexually starving from frustrated heterosexual relationships.

The Outcasts, as a 1961 seedy paperback, isn't remotely graphic by today's standards, but Singer writes in a provocative way that is visually stimulating and somehow still timeless. Regardless of whether you like lesbian pulp-fiction (newsflash: this is my first foray into it), The Outcasts has this riveting subplot that involves Leigh's freakish husband. As the novel ascended from kinky foreplay into heightened arousal, Singer successfully incorporates an element that is mostly found in Gothic Romance – the beautiful young woman trapped in the mansion of doom. Leigh's odd basement combined with her equally odd husband added a sense of panic and fear to what would otherwise be a tame lesbian romance. I believe this additional element upsold me from liking to loving this book. Based on sheer reading pleasure, I'll be reading more of Sally Singer's literary work.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, May 7, 2021

The King of Horror & Other Stories

Paperback Warrior has a thing for Stephen Mertz. That admiration comes partly from the fact that the M.I.A. Hunter novels were my first introduction to the men's action-adventure genre. Since we started this blog, we have mostly focused our reviews of Mertz's work on military and vigilante fiction like Mack Bolan, Tunnel Rats and the M.I.A. Hunter novels. Thanks to Wolfpack Publishing, a collection of Mertz's short fiction stories has been compiled under the title The King of Horror & Other Stories. This multi-faceted examination of Mertz's fast-paced style offers a blend of genre offerings that display the author's diversity.

While I enjoyed the entire collection, here are some highlights:

“Last Stand” features Blaze and Kate, a unique pair of mercenaries who are married to each other. This gritty duo travels the world, accepting contracts to guard stagecoaches, participate in various revolutions or just killing selected targets. After a long career of blood and bullets, Blaze and Kate eventually saved up enough to retire to Mexico. When the story begins, they are both attempting to cross the border, but are ambushed by Native Americans. Through 11 action-oriented pages, the two of them attempt to shoot their way out only to be plagued by wave after wave of warriors. It's really a last stand for Blaze and Kate as Mertz places these characters in an extreme position to test their love for each other. This is an effective story that shows the powerful force of love through overwhelming adversity.

Like “Last Stand”, the Vietnam War story “Fragged” again showcases Mertz's interesting outlook on marriage and the ties that bind. “Fragged” features Cord McCall, an investigator working for the U.S. Criminal Investigation Division in Saigon. McCall investigates homicide, desertion, robbery and other crimes committed within military ranks. Interestingly, McCall's wife is also in Vietnam as a war reporter. The two find themselves in Firebase Tiger, a military installation where McCall is responsible for a homicide investigation. A lieutenant-colonel in the 13th Infantry Battalion was killed by a hand grenade in his own barracks. It is up to McCall to determine if this is an enemy penetration or if someone within the battalion committed the murder. It is a great return to the golden age of the mysteries of the locked chamber – which, why, where, how. Also, there is Mertz's signature of sandbags, guts and bloody warfare. These two characters also appear in another included story called “Chez Erotique” as well as Mertz's novel Saigon Homicide.

Mertz says that “Talon's Gift” is the nastiest story he has ever written. It's not so much nasty as it is violently shocking. The narrative features a suburban couple named Talon and Evie. When Evie departs to the movie theater, Talon begins to spin the cylinder of his .38 while explaining to readers (and himself) that Evie has been unfaithful. There's some backstory on the neighborhood and the couple's neighbor Pete. The most intriguing part for me was Talon's profession. I won't spoil the fun for you. It's an enjoyable read. 

The book's centerpiece is “The King of Horror”, a short-story that Mertz penned about his friend and longtime author Michael Avallone (1924-1999). In many ways the main character, established horror author Rigley Balbo, is Avallone. Mertz's line, “A man who was cheated and pushed aside by these grubby, Johnny-come-lately punks and their million-dollar contracts and their New York Times bestsellers”, perfectly describes the peaks and valleys of Avallone's career. In first person narration, Balbo explains that he was an A-lister early in his career before the publishing market dried up. Crummy distribution, poor advances and strangled sales have plagued Balbo's career for a decade. Needless to say, Balbo's household name tarnished along with the relationship with his publishing agent. Like one of those old Alfred Hitchcock stories, Balbo has a plan to get even with his agent, a grand scheme that will vengefully heal his heart and mind. However, Mertz pitches a wicked curveball to delightfully wreck Balbo's plan. I loved this story and it's one of those rare “industry insider” stories that jerks the curtain on the hectic and turbulent publishing world.

There are so many great stories in this collection, from Mertz's tribute to the pulps with “The Lizard Men of Blood River” to the slick and violent “The Death Blues”. The compilation showcases all of Mertz's skill and passion - violent storytelling with a powerful sense of love, loss and regret. It was a real treat to find Mertz submerged in many different genres and styles. King of Horror & Other Stories is a real showpiece of skill and craftsmanship. If you've never stepped out of Mertz's Mack Bolan world, this is your certified encouragement to delve into this author's deep literary catalog. It's a dive worth taking.

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

McHugh #02 - It's Murder, McHugh

The McHugh series of American spy novels was a five-book series originally published between 1959 and 1962. The author of the McHugh books was a colorful, hard-drinking character named Jay Flynn (1927-1985). The first four books in the series remain available as affordable ebooks, including the second installment, It’s Murder, McHugh from 1960.

McHugh is a spy for the Pentagon who spends his time working in a San Francisco bar awaiting his next assignment from D.C. This case finds McHugh dispatched to Mexico to find two missing Navy pilots from the same jet squadron and a missing supersonic fighter jet. The Department of Defense doesn’t know if the men are alive or dead, guilty or innocent, and it’s McHugh’s job to figure out the truth.

The missing pilots are Nate Bramhall and Donald Long. Before they disappeared, they were both sharing the same woman, Nate’s wife Peggy. McHugh thinks that Peggy may be the key to this mystery as she recently drove to Mexico and has a history of radical leftist politics. When McHugh tracks her down in a small Mexican village, she’s changed her hair color and is otherwise acting quite squirrelly.

While in Mexico, McHugh is joined by his seaplane-flying sidekick and a freelance soldier of fortune with questionable loyalties. The search for the missing pilots and the jet uncovers a sinister Soviet plot with high stakes for Mexico - and the U.S. - requiring some expert thwarting. The author writes good action sequences, but he relies on seaplane travel way too much to push the messy plot forward.

As long as you control your expectations, It’s Murder, McHugh (a crappy title that doesn’t fit the book) is a fun way to kill a few hours. It’s slightly better than an average Nick Carter: Killmaster novel but nowhere near as good as the espionage fiction of Ian Fleming, Donald Hamilton or Edward S. Aarons. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this paperback, but it’s also nothing you should be eager to tackle. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Nolan #01 - Bait Money

The Nolan series by Max Allan Collins lasted for nine installments stretching between 1973 and 2021 with some sizable gaps in there. The books are a pastiche of the Parker series by Donald E. Westlake/Richard Stark written with Westlake’s blessing. Hard Case Crime has reprinted the first two installments in one volume called Two for the Money, but I’m starting with the opener, Bait Money from 1973.

As we meet Nolan, he’s a 48 year-old professional heist man recovering from a bullet wound with a dame while feeling sorry for himself. Sixteen years ago, Nolan made enemies with a mid-level Chicago mobster named Charlie, and he’s been dodging and catching bullets from the guy ever since. Through an intermediary, Nolan attempts to broker a truce with Charlie so he can retire from the heist business in peace and run a nightclub without looking over his shoulder.

Finding peace with Charlie comes with a price of $100,000, and the only way to get that kind of cash is to pull one more job. Nolan teams up with three amateurs (always a mistake in heist fiction) to knock over a bank in Davenport, Iowa. Collins populates the paperback with an outstanding supporting cast of underworld characters and bumbling wannabes. The heist planning section is particularly rewarding, and the robbery and aftermath both contain many Grade-A action set pieces.

Overall, Nolan is a more vulnerable character than Stark/Westlake’s stoic Parker, but the differences really worked well. The story structure was similar, and I can’t imagine anyone liking one series and not liking the other. I’m told that Bait Money flows nicely into the second book, Blood Money, so I’m excited to dive back in for more Nolan action.

Addendum: The Nolan Novels in Order

  • Bait Money (1973)    
  • Blood Money (1973)
  • Fly Paper (1981)
  • Hush Money (1981)
  • Hard Cash (1981)
  • Scratch Fever (1982)
  • Spree (1987)
  • Mourn the Living (1999)
  • Skim Deep (2021)

Buy a copy of the first two Nolan novels HERE

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Kid I Killed Last Night

Before he was a successful paperback crime novelist, Day Keene (real name: Gunnard Hjertstedt) was a successful author of short stories in the pulps. Reprint publisher Ramble House has released their seventh volume of Day Keene short stories called The Kid I Killed Last Night named after the story from the September 1949 issue of New Detective Magazine. The 20-page story, reviewed below, originally appeared under the pseudonym Donald King.

Steve Breen is a cop who awakens after narrowly escaping death the night before in a shootout with a street punk. The punk got the worst of it, and is now in the morgue thanks to Breen’s pistol proficiency and more than a little luck. The punk had been stealing a car while high on reefer (it makes people nuts, you know) and opened fire on Breen, a mistake the kid won’t make twice.

Breen is hardboiled as hell, but the killing of the punk has him thinking about everything that’s wrong and corrupt about his city. Due to staff shortages at the department, its incumbent upon Breen to investigate the background of the kid he killed the night before. His personal mission is to find the guy who supplied the kid with dope as well as the local monster who buys the hot cars from the city’s delinquents.

Breen’s investigative technique usually involves knocking the teeth out of the mouth of the wise guy he’s questioning. His brutality is reminiscent of the 1970s serial vigilante paperback heroes such as Mack Bolan. Instead of going after the juvenile delinquents in his town, Breen targets the corruption and culture that turns idle teens into violent criminals.

Overall: a compelling story that was plenty fun to read. It made me want to check out more Day Keene pulp content. Thanks to Ramble House, there’s no shortage of his stories collected for modern readers to enjoy. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Specialist #02 - Manhattan Revenge

Horror, action-adventure, and science-fiction author John Shirley used the pseudonym John Cutter for an 11-book vigilante series in the 1980s called The Specialist. I read and enjoyed the series debut, A Talent for Revenge, and have waited long enough to revisit this series. I'm picking up chronologically with the second installment, Manhattan Revenge, originally published in 1984 by Signet.

The early installments have a through-story that neatly allows hero Jack Sullivan to fight the villain of the week while still staying on task with his life’s greater purpose. Sullivan's reason to rise and exist each day is the hope that he will eventually locate his lover's murderer, a mysterious villain named The Blue Man. Because of this continuing storyline, readers should be reading the series in order.

In Manhattan Revenge, Sullivan is renting an apartment in a slummy area of New York City when he's approached by a knock-out named Tessa. She runs to his apartment after two men have broken into her place. After asking and receiving his violent assistance, Tessa rewards Sullivan with a sexy romp on the floor (a non-graphic presentation by the author). Afterwards, she introduces Sullivan to a guy in the building who has been asking about him. It turns out the guy is named Malta, and he’s an old ally of Sullivan's when he was working CIA jobs internationally. Now, Malta mostly just sells guns and information and offers both to Sullivan. The job this time recalled some terrifying scene out of Lee Goldberg's second installment of .357 Vigilante (aka The Jury series).

On the Lower East Side, a gang calling themselves Meat Hooks is assisting a sadistic married couple with child sex trafficking in a base of operations informally called The Meat Locker. Malta has learned about the operation due to a child who escaped the facility. The issue with the police learning about the place is that one of the detectives is in on it. If Malta goes to the cops, the bad cop then goes to the traffickers and the kids are possibly all killed in a scramble. Suspending my disbelief at such a preposterous plot, I went all in. And, I glad I did.

Manhattan Revenge is simply awesome. There's a lot happening at one time but the plot is never too dense to be overly-contrived. After taking the job, Sullivan begins killing Meat Hook members one-by-one with a variety of machine guns, sniper rifles, knives and revolvers (his boom-maker is a .357). While conducting hit-and-run tactics, Sullivan also pairs up with a female cop named Bonnie who has an extraordinary ability to shoot and fu...fight. She does the nasty with Sullivan repeatedly. Also in the mix is a tactic often used by Mack Bolan – turning the enemy against each other. By attacking the drug gang calling themselves Bowlers, it interferes with the sex trafficking ring and pits two criminal enterprises against each other.

John Shirley is such a talented storyteller and he clearly received some influences from the crime-noir genre. At one point, Sullivan uses the alias “Richard Stark”, a tribute to Donald Westlake's pseudonym for the Parker series of heist novels. Also, he has Judas Priest playing in a nearby car when Sullivan is searching for gang members. I couldn't help but think Shirley was thinking of the Priest classic hit “Grinder” with the lyrics fitting the story – “Grinder! Looking for meat!” Get it? Sullivan looking for Meat Hooks. Shirley was winking and typing.

The through-story continues with Sullivan learning from Bonnie that a criminal enterprise led by a nickname Blue Man was being run in the Pacific Northwest. During the battle, Sullivan often tells the consumer that he's headed to Oregon in the next installment. That was an invitation that I gladly accepted with my $1.50 token of appreciation at the used book store. Look for my review of Sullivan's Revenge soon.

Buy a copy of this book HERE