Friday, July 30, 2021

The House of Numbers

Walter Braden, Jack Finney (born John Finney, 1911-1995) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and attended Knox College in Illinois. Aside from being an advertising writer in New York, Finney wrote a number of novels using the name Jack Finney. Many of his literary works have been adapted for film and television, including The Body Snatchers, Good Neighbor Sam, Assault on a Queen and the subject at hand, The House of Numbers. This was the author's third career novel and was initially published in 1956.

Arnie and his girlfriend Ruth become engaged and Arnie is looking for the perfect ring. Despite having very little money, Arnie buys an expensive ring with a check that won't clear the bank. After making rounds, Arnie cashes a bunch of checks at various retailers for cash and deposits the money. Needles to say, Arnie ends up in California's San Quentin prison for check fraud. According to this novel, most prisoners had sentences that were listed as the number of years to life. In Arnie's case, he's serving five years and his criminal record is five years to life. That's important to know.

In the first chapters, the prison warden summons Arnie to his office and explains that another prisoner saw him assault a guard. Arnie did it, but thought no one was around to witness the assault. The warden threatens Arnie to explain his actions, otherwise he will accept the other prisoner's testimony as fact. Arnie refuses and he's sent back to his cell to await whatever fate he's destined for. Now, referring to this Californian law, Arnie knows that anyone with a "life sentence" that attacks a prison guard is guaranteed a death by lethal injection. Either Arnie leaves the prison as a corpse or an escaped convict. That's when his brother Ben becomes involved.

Arnie reaches out to Ben and begs that he break him out of San Quentin, one of the most fortified prisons in the country. Along with Arnie's fiance Ruth, Ben begins scouting the prison and designing a plan to liberate his brother. Ben and Ruth move into a neighborhood near the prison and learn that their neighbor is actually one of the prison guards. This becomes a real problem when the guard casually mentions to Ben that he's seen him at the prison visiting an inmate. Arnie's escape would surely be linked to Ben. 

Finney's narrative unfolds as a unique first-person presentation from both Ben and Arnie. Although the author does not necessarily specify who is speaking, the reader can instantly decipher it depending on where and with whom the character speaks. Another unique aspect of this prison break story is the means by which the escape occurs. Ben formulates a plan to break into the prison and assume the role of Arnie. This frees up Arnie's time to work on the getaway through an elaborate combination of underground excavation and warehouse work. While Ben becomes the prisoner, Arnie is essentially a free man. This adds an alluring enhancement to the narrative; will one brother betrays another? The plot thickens when Ben and Ruth develop a romantic chemistry.

The House of Numbers was a good crime novel that used some new tricks to spice up the average prison break formula. I liked the concept and the various questions it presented - will the guard rat out Ben, can the warden be trusted, is Ruth serious about her passion for Ben, will Arnie become greedy? These questions are all asked and answered over the course of the book. Getting there was really fun. If you enjoy prison break novels, The House of Numbers is a dependable selection.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Secret of Haverly House

From the book notes, Carolyn Bauman was born in Oakland, California. After attending UCLA, she won many poetry awards and published short stories in a variety of magazines. Her only known novel was a gothic mystery titled The Secret of Haverly House. It was first published by Bantam in 1966 and then reprinted with different artwork by the same publisher in 1975.

Young, Heather Lane responds to a classified ad in a San Francisco newspaper. The ad asks for an assistant for a senior woman named Mulvina Haverly. After an interview with Mulvina's grandchild, Winston, Heather correctly pronounces the name of the house as Waverly House despite its printed name of Haverly House. Winston is impressed by this, along with Heather's background, credentials, and hires her. The opening pages of the book have Winston driving Heather along the winding roads to the seaside mansion known as Haverly House.

The vast mansion has 50 rooms, most of them unused. As a matter of fact, the whole left wing of the house is largely abandoned. A seemingly endless maze of corridors exists just for collecting dusty furniture. This is the wing that Winston's Aunt Julia resides in when she comes to visit her husband Calvin. Over the course of the introductory tour, Heather feels that Winston and Julia have been in a long-standing conflict and generally hate each other. Unfortunately, Winston places Heather's bedroom in this desolate left wing of the mansion.

As a 1960s gothic paperback, Haverly House has to be haunted. Heather often gets the impression that she's being watched. She feels a macabre presence in the hallways and often hears or sees signs that someone is lurking outside of her room. Of course, Winston disagrees along with a rather prudish family servant named Mrs. Anderson. This critique forces Heather in a state of doubt and uncertainty. Is she turning into a crazy psycho?

The Secret of Haverly House is another average gothic paperback surrounded by stacks and stacks of average gothic paperbacks. The market was saturated with these novels and the genre's enticing cover art never paused sales. There is nothing innovative or original about Bauman's story, but like a traditional spooky tale, it succeeds. There's a central mystery, a slight love interest and enough atmosphere draping everything in a misty haze. My only complaint is the amount of questions Heather asks herself throughout the narrative. The flood of rhetorical questions became a burden over the course of the book. Otherwise, it was enjoyable enough to stay in my collection.

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021

The Collector Comes After Payday

The August 1953 issue of Manhunt featured a novella from Kansas native and World War 2 U.S. Army veteran Fletcher Flora (1914-1968) that has been reprinted on its own and as part of The Second Fletcher Flora Mystery Megapack from Wildside Press.

Frankie is a down-and-out loser living in a crappy apartment on Skid Row. He grew up and still lives with an abusive, drunken and bullying father, and the paternal indignities have continued into Frankie’s young adulthood. One evening after the old man humiliates Frankie in a crowded bar, he makes up his mind that dad needs to die.

In the dark and twisted world of Manhunt magazine, killing is the easy part. Getting away with murder is frequently the real challenge. Frankie’s plan to dodge justice is quickly derailed by unforeseen events that he initially regards as a lucky gift from above. When you read enough crime fiction stories, you know that there’s no such thing as a free murder, and the luck of a loser never lasts. There’s always a cost.

“The Collector Comes After Payday” is a nasty cautionary tale that reminded me of the work of David Goodis. The ending wasn’t particularly twisty, but I was never bored as the pages flew by through the novella’s seven short chapters. The story only costs a buck on your Kindle device, and it’s well worth the investment. Recommended.

Buy a copy HERE

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Woman is Mine

Harry Whittington preferred to sell his novels to Fawcett Gold Medal because the paperback imprint paid more and sold more units than rival publishers. As a result, his best works were published with the telltale yellow spines, including his 1954 thriller, The Woman is Mine.

Minnesotan Jeff Patterson is on vacation alone on a Florida beach unwinding after an Army stint in Korea. The single woman in the next cabana has been catching his eye. His first attempt to chat her up lands with a thud. The woman actually seemed terrified and guarded. Later that night, she attempts suicide only to be saved by Jeff. What gives with this girl?

Back at Jeff’s cabana, he doesn’t get much information from her other than her name is Paula and someone is out to get her. Just as she lets her guard down and decides to share her story with Jeff, men with a warrant arrive to take her away. The man at the door explains that he’s a psychiatrist, and the girl’s name is really Mrs. Joyce Glisdale. He explains that she’s a delusional paranoiac requiring sedation and a forcible return to the psychiatric facility from which she escaped. Before Jeff can discern the truth, the men are gone with Paula/Joyce in custody.

This is one of the best setups, I can recall for a 1950s suspense thriller. Someone isn’t telling the truth here. Is she really a lunatic named Joyce or a scared victim named Paula being kidnapped by weird dudes? For his part, Jeff is smitten and sets out to find out the truth about Paula/Joyce and the mysterious sanitarium where they are holding her. The more he snoops around, the fishier the shrink’s story seems.

Jeff’s amateur sleuthing is a total pleasure to follow. Every step closer to the truth opens a new door that begs several other questions. The novel recalled the popular movies by Alfred Hitchcock, and the suspicious and guarded sanitarium reminded me of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. All of this leads to a revelatory conclusion that ties up the mysteries in a creative and satisfying manner.

The Woman is Mine is one of the finest Harry Whittington novels I’ve read and I’m baffled why the literary arms race to reprint Whittington’s greatest hits has left this paperback behind. With a bit of searching and know-how, used copies from 1954 are available from online sellers of vintage paperbacks. This one is worth the effort and expense. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 26, 2021

Do Evil in Return

Margaret Ellis Millar (born Margaret Ellis Sturm, 1915-1994) was a mystery writer originally from Ontario, Canada. In 1938, Margaret married Kenneth Millar, the author who used the pseudonym Ross Macdonald to create and write the bestselling Lew Archer character. Margaret Millar authored over 25 novels, including series titles like Paul Pry, Inspector Sands and Tom Aragon. My first experience with Millar is her 1950 Dell paperback Do Evil in Return. In 2006, Stark House Press reprinted the book as a double along with the author's 1957 novel An Air That Kills.

Charlotte Keating is a private-practicing physician who lives and works in a small town in the Pacific Northwest. One evening before close she receives a young woman named Violet. Desperate for help, Violet tells Charlotte that she is a married woman from Oregon who had an affair with a married man and is now four months pregnant. The purpose of her visit is to request Charlotte to perform an abortion. Charlotte rejects and explains that the term of pregnancy is too advanced while reminding Violet that abortions are illegal. Charlotte learns that Violet rents a one-bedroom apartment in town. While offering to bring her there, Violet runs away. 

Afterwards, readers learn about Charlotte's emotional problems. She has an extended relationship with a married man named Lewis. Her mental barriers are thick with a sense of insecurity, self-doubt and vulnerability. She wants Lewis to divorce his spouse or just have the internal fortitude to end their own long affair. With all of these underlining conditions, Charlotte somehow feels as if she has failed Violet.

On the other side of the city, Charlotte speaks with one of Violet's neighbors and has the impression that they are not pleasant people. After her visit, Charlotte shockingly learns that Violet’s body has washed ashore and all signs point to a suicidal drowning as the cause of death. 

Charlotte's brief participation in the young lady's life has now become rather dangerous and complex. Violet’s violent uncle and conniving husband break into Charlotte’s house and attempt to extort her for money. She refuses and things quickly become grim when a skeptical police detective starts asking questions about Charlotte's role in Violet's suicide. When Violet's husband and uncle are discovered with bullet holes in the head, Charlotte finds herself in a whirling nightmare.

Millar's plot was structured as a suspenseful mystery with a handful of characters who might have turned out to be a killer. I liked the author's inclusion of extramarital affairs and the way these characters viewed themselves and their marriages. Except for Charlotte, nearly all the characters were married and had difficult relationships. Millar’s unmarried characters "survive" the ordeal. It seems to me that Millar's suggestion is that two people can find independent happiness. 

While Millar is considered a mystery writer, I also like to think of Do Evil in Return as a stylish crime-noir. It has some detective procedural elements, the concept of an average citizen thrust into extreme circumstances and the alarming idea that an innocent person could find themselves guilty of a crime they didn't commit. These are all genre tropes that adapt uniformly to most of these crime novels of the mid-20th century. As a short read, I found it to be an entertaining experience. 

Note: There is an informative biography HERE that discusses Millar’s fascinating life, influences and her superb writing style. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, July 23, 2021

James Rhodes #01 - Black Cop

Joseph Gober Nazel (1944-2006) was a Vietnam War veteran and a successful writer for Los Angeles African-American publications such as The Wave, The Sentinel and Players. He is also the author of over 60 literary works, including men's action-adventure paperback titles such as Iceman and My Name is Black. Using the pseudonym Dom Gober, Nazel authored four books starring an L.A. police officer named James Rhodes - Black Cop (1974), Doomsday Squad (1975), Killer Cop (1975) and Killing Ground (1976). All were published by Holloway House, an African-American publishing house. 

In Black Cop, the series debut, readers are introduced to Vietnam War vet James Rhodes as he’s working a bust for the LAPD’s narcotics division. He despises his white partner Tucker and often reminds readers that the black race has been in chains for hundreds of years. He's disgusted with crime, racism, the city and the police. This bust is another way for Rhodes to channel his aggressive energy to improve the community and its residents. But, getting drugs off the street isn’t easy. 

The plot is an easy giveaway when Tucker stops at a pay phone before the bust. He divulges information to drug smugglers in exchange for money. As Tucker and Rhodes arrive at the scene, they are caught in a violent ambush. Tucker is a spectator as Rhodes participates in the shooting.

After meeting with the chief to express his concerns about the division and its leaks, Rhodes takes on an infiltration role. In accordance with the chief's instructions, Rhodes will go on sick leave secretly assuming the identity of an average citizen. Its purpose is to investigate drug trafficking to find out who sells and purchases information. 

Nazel’s narrative has Rhodes busting heads in bars and housing communities as he seeks out a dealer named Wilson. Rhodes lines up with a gang run by a violent felon called Blackjack. He also falls in love with a woman whom Wilson coveted for years.

Black Cop isn’t great and pales in comparison to an Ed McBain police procedural or something raw like Super Cop Joe Blaze. Rhodes is a tough guy with martial arts skills and intelligence, but he isn’t that interesting. I found the bad guys more intriguing. That doesn't mean Nazel's novel is boring. It is loaded with excessive violence and mayhem mixed with pure male testosterone. At the end of the day that still doesn’t make a good story. At some point I may visit the sequels, but I’m in no hurry. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Lt. Clancy #02 - Mute Witness

Mute Witness by Robert L. Fish (writing as Robert L. Pike) was adapted into the movie Bullitt starring Steve McQueen with significant deviations from the book’s original vision. The paperback’s sequel, The Quarry, is an exciting manhunt mystery from 1964 that remains in print today from Mysterious Press.

As the novel opens, NYPD’s 52nd Precinct Detective Lieutenant Clancy (no first name is ever provided) is informed that a recent four-man prison break from Sing-Sing includes Lenny Cervera, a hit-and-run car thief killer who vowed revenge when Lt. Clancy put him away three years ago. It’s Clancy’s job to catch Cervera before the escapee kills Clancy, the prosecutor and the sentencing judge, all things he vowed to do in court following his conviction.

Clancy commandeers a small army of police officers to help to find the fugitive and protect the presumptive vendetta targets. Coincidentally, the threatened prosecutor and the judge are both running against one another in a municipal judicial election, and neither are excited about being assigned 24/7 police protection. Clancy also dispatches surveillance teams to watch the houses of Cevera’s girlfriend and mother on the assumption that the escapee will be seeking help while out on the streets.

As the manhunt intensifies, a mystery develops: Why would a small-time punk like Cervera, serving a five-to-ten year sentence, risk a violent prison escape three years into his stretch? After all, he’d have a shot before the parole board soon enough, right? The mystery intensifies as the shots fly and the bodies pile up.

The Quarry is an excellent police procedural along the same lines as Ed McBain’s popular 87th Precinct series. Fish is a terrific writer who knows how to keep the pace moving with a sense of real urgency. He keeps the readers in the third-person head of Lt. Clancy, a fine protagonist, for the paperback’s duration. Although, the novel is a sequel to Mute Witness (or Bullitt, if you will), the two books stand alone nicely and can be read in any order with no supplemental materials needed.

Overall, it’s easy to like The Quarry, but readers should understand that this is a mystery novel (as advertised), not a violent adventure book. If you enjoy a good police procedural fugitive story with some clever twists, this one’s for you. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Circular Staircase

I recently became fascinated with the American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. She wrote several novels and short stories between 1908 and 1952. Much of it has been reprinted dozens of times over the years. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dell reprinted her novels to appeal to the flourishing Gothic market. These books traditionally featured women escaping large mansions or walking down dark corridors and stairs. Such is the case with Rinehart's very first novel, The Circular Staircase. It was originally published over the course of five issues of All-Story beginning in November 1907. It was then reprinted as a book by Bobbs-Merrill in 1908. It was reprinted and commercialized like a Gothic paperback by Dell in 1968.

Rachel Innes is a wealthy spinster who has raised her orphaned niece, 24-yr old Gertrude, and her nephew, 20-yr old Halsey. After hiring a team of contractors to renovate her home, Rachel decides to rent a big manor called Summerside for the trio to spend their summer vacation. Arriving early, Rachel and her servant Liddy decide to spend the night at home until Gertrude and Halsey arrive the following day. The duo experience what appears to be a supernatural haunting with loud foot stomps down the house's long and winding staircase. In addition, a man appeared to be outside in the shadows of the stable. The explanation for all of this comes from the butler who cautions the duo by explaining that things have happened inside that are not natural.

Later, Gertrude and Halsey arrive home with a friend and head off to the local country club. That night, the house is awoken by the noise of a gunshot. Stumbling into the card room, Rachel discovers the corpse of Paul Armstrong, the homeowner's son. By the time the detectives get here, there's every indication that Halsey is the prime suspect in Armstrong's murder.

Rinehart's story is written in what was then thought to be an innovative style. In the first pages of the book, Rachel tells readers what happened to her and her family in Sunnyside. She does this in a method that introduces the "If I had only known then." This technique becomes a staple in mystery fiction with the protagonist cautioning readers about the events that happened and the things that he or she could have done to avoid it. This is like an NFL fan commenting Monday morning on his team's defeat the day before. It is made in a way that presents itself as a regret or a misfortune, but that sets up the central mystery of the book.

The Circular Staircase features a fascinating narrative that unfolds into 10 or 12 small mysteries that are all connected. Rachel's experience at Sunnyside is a harrowing journey, ripe with two murders, a local bank robbery, a mysterious orphaned child and a number of seeming unexplained occurrences within the house. A large hole appears in an upstairs wall, an unknown person (or entity) is discovered escaping through a laundry chute and various members of the family find themselves physically and mentally assaulted. Sometimes I found the plot really complicated and dense, but it wasn't enough to make it an unpleasant reading experience. Instead, I enjoyed the overwhelming mystery and was excited to discover how the author weaved it all together. 

Rinehart's novel was successfully adapted into the 1920 stage play The Bat. It ran 878 performances in New York before launching in Europe. It was filmed on three occasions: 1926, 1930 and 1959. Against Rinehart's wishes, a film company reprinted The Circular Staircase under the title of The Bat. In 1926, Rinehart allowed a novelization of The Bat in her name but ghostwritten by Stephen Vincent Benet. 

If you like the cozy mystery thrillers of the early twentieth century, The Circular Staircase is a must-read. Rinehart was a master of her craft and used a lot of the same techniques, atmosphere and locales write a number of other novels including 1925's The Red Lamp. You owe it to yourself to read a few of her books.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Deathlands #06 - Pony Soldiers

Laurence James wrote a number of successful western titles like Crow, Apache and Gunslinger in the 1970s and 1980s. His violent narration provided a raw and gravelly texture to the monomyth threads of western vengeance. From that aspect, I was curious to read the author's combination of post-apocalyptic and western genres with Deathlands' sixth installment Pony Soldiers, originally published by Gold Eagle in May of 1988. 

In the last installment of the series, Homeward Bound, the original tale of Ryan Cawdor was revealed, including the final details of that story arc. After the action stopped in Virginia, the band returned to the northeast to enter the New York redoubt. Like prior novels, the heroes battle mutants before making a jump through the gate and return to a familiar place - the Alaskan redoubt featured in the series second entry Red Holocaust. In these opening chapters, Jak is hurt by a mutant animal.

Instead of staying in the Alaska location, the group choose to pursue another adventure and re-entered the redoubt. This time, they emerge in a hot, dusty desert somewhere in what was originally the southwest United States. After seeing corpses of 1800's U.S. Cavalry soldiers, Doc becomes concerned that the group has somehow made a leap back through time to the late nineteenth century. Thankfully, we realize that isn't the case. Instead, the heroes fall into a familiar scenario - warlike factions fighting for territory, supplies and superiority.

In a rather clever twist, the heroes, including the dying Jak, face off against "Pony Soldiers" led by a blonde haired maniac that may or may not be the historically famous General George C. Custer. During a firefight, Cawdor and the group are assisted by a tribe of Apache warriors led by Cuchillo Oro. Cawdor discovers that the Pony Soldiers could be involved with an old enemy, Cort Strasser. Together, the Apache warriors and the Cawdor group combine their forces to destroy the deranged and often sadistic Pony Soldiers.

As I mentioned earlier, James has a lot of fun with this book and turns it into a violent western novel similar to the titles he was writing in the 1970s. Macabre torture devices, dissection, crucifixions and the usual assortment of barbaric crimes used throughout this novel are all staples of his 1970s style of writing. In fact, fellow British author Terry Harknett’s hero Edge is quoted as a legend in the region. In addition, the name Cuchillo Oro may be familiar to fans of the Apache series from James. In this series, which began in 1974, Cuchillo Oro is the hero's name, an Apache warrior who carries a shiny golden dagger. The Cuchillo Oro in this episode of Deathlands is not the same hero as the Apache series, however the names suggest that the two are related.

Pony Soldiers advance the overall storyline and provides a number of action-packed sequences that capture the same essence and quality the series typically possesses. There's a new character that joins the group at the end of the novel and an establishment that Cort Strasser may appear as a main villain again. Overall, another solid entry into the series and further proof that Laurence James really turned the corner with Homeward Bound. This was an enjoyable reading experience.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 19, 2021

Sam Watchman #02 - The Threepersons Hunt

Brian Garfield (1939-2018) wrote westerns throughout the 1960's. Beginning in the early 1970s, the author began writing crime-fiction, highlighted by Death Wish in 1972, I loved his 1972 thriller Relentless, featuring Sam Watchman, an Arizona state police officer. Luckily, Garfield revisited the character with his 1974 novel The Threepersons Hunt. I purchased the Fawcett Gold Medal paperback edition hoping for the same reading pleasure as Relentless.

Watchman is a Navajo and has been working as a State Trooper for a decade. He has a strong track record but has not been promoted. His curiosity is peaked when his direct supervisor offers him a special assignment. A prisoner named Joe Threepersons escaped from prison and is suspected of returning to his Apache Reserve. The agreement is that Watchman will be assigned a temporary detective role that can potentially shift to a full-time role if he can successfully retrieve the prisoner. Simple, right? The problem is that Watchman and Threepersons come from two different Indian tribes. Historically, Navajo and Apache do not mix well. As such, the work may become very dangerous for Watchman.

Threepersons originally went to prison for a murder he happily confessed to. His wife and young son profited financially from his captivity by receiving substantial sums of money. These funds were used to invest in a business and the child's future expenditures at college. Did Threepersons take the fall so his family could become financially independent? Before Threepersons escaped from prison, he learned that his wife and son were killed in a car accident. Watchman's pursuit of Threepersons evolves into an elaborate murder investigation.

The placement of Sam Watchman in this big investigation is different from the high-action formula of Relentless. I love both books, but I think Watchman is more in his element with the procedural style story. There are many shootings and action to satisfy the readers, but I really enjoyed the complex mystery. Central to the story is a legal battle between the Indians and a large cattle ranch belonging to a businessman with close ties to Threepersons. Garfield's characters reflect greed, deadly intent, sexual desire, poverty and revenge. There are plenty of characters, but that's not enough to make the plot dense or confusing. 

In some respects, Watchman is like Craig Johnson's Longmire character. Both are astute with a penchant for solving issues with logic and proof. Still, the two are capable of holding their own when it comes to the inevitable struggle. I also compare Watchman with the Dakota character of Gilbert Ralston. It could be the rural rocky areas or the interaction among the Native American tribes. I wanted Garfield to follow up on a third novel starring Sam Watchman. I think there was so much potential with that character. Regardless, The Three Persons Hunt is a real pleasure to read. Highly recommended.

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Friday, July 16, 2021

Apalachee Gold

Frank G. Slaughter (1908-2001) is an alumnus of Duke and Johns Hopkins University. He became a successful surgeon in 1930, working first in Virginia before moving to Jacksonville, FL in 1934. In 1946, Slaughter exchanged his scalpel for a typewriter and became a full-time novelist. Throughout his career, Slaughter has written 62 books and achieved sales of over 60 million copies. Though most of Slaughter's novels are medical fiction, he has many biblical and historical novels. His 1954 Ace paperback, Apalachee Gold, is an adventure novel based on a little known historical event in Florida known as the De Vaca Expedition.

The protagonist in the book is the young Spaniard Pedro Morales. Pedro is the clerk of an arrogant Spanish conquistador called De Narvaez. Pedro's uncle, De Vaca, holds a position of treasurer. In 1527, the governor of Cuba ordered De Narvaez to employ a fleet of five vessels and 400 men to the coast of the Gulf of Florida in search of gold. Both Pedro and his uncle joined this expedition. These boats ended up being separated or damaged by severe storms. However, the heart of the story involves Pedro and an enslaved Moor named Estevanico.

After finding various Indian tribes in western Florida, Pedro and Estevanico began to learn how to hunt and fight as well as identify all edible plants. The adventure duo quarrel with a number of Indians and even some of De Narvaez's men. Slaughter's narrative, loosely based on real accounts, has both men captured by Indians and placed in extreme circumstances. 

The two explorers ended up struggling and negotiating their way to the Mississippi River. It's here they navigate into Texas and what is now Corpus Christi Bay. Pedro develops a romantic interest and Estevanico struggles for his own freedom. The finale of the book has the two men, paired with De Vaca, trying to free the Indians from Spanish soldiers.

I have a penchant for early pioneer novels and this certainly fits that sub-genre. While it's not really a western, it still possesses that pioneering lifestyle that makes this genre so interesting to me. I liked these two main characters, the history of our nation at that time and from a Christian standpoint I liked the spiritual messages throughout. It is a great testament to faith. However, as a product of its time, there is an antiquated ideology concerning the Indians. Like anything historical, just take what you can gain from it and disregard some of the older sub-texts. If you can do that, Apalachee Gold is a solid read.

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Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Hunters

Clark Howard (1932-2016) authored novels in genres like crime, military, action-adventure and spy. I really enjoyed working my way through his bibliography and have positive feedback for Siberia 10 (1973), Last Contract (1973) and The Last Great Death Stunt (1977). I've always loved thrillers in nature, so I was pleased to learn that Howard had written one. It is titled The Hunters and was published in 1978 by Jove. It is now available as an ebook via Mysterious Press. 

Situated in the San Fernando Valley, the hunters are four suburban neighbors with children, jobs and wives. However, each of them has their own peculiarities that make them unique. Here is how they shake up:

Wes is an architect who has had marital problems for several years. He knows that his wife is having an affair with a cop. Wes' wife knows that he's secretly wearing her silk panties all day. Obviously, Wes is having some sexual issues. 

Leo is an advertising executive who is battling a bleeding stomach ulcer. His marriage is average and he is stressed over a failed advertising campaign catered to police awareness.

Milt is a pharmaceutical sales rep who works with a crooked pharmacist to sell illegal drugs on the side. He remarried, but his new wife is not a good match for his daughter. 

Lamar is employed as an insurance underwriter and despises his wife. He is obsessed with television programs about law-enforcement. Lamar is also sleeping with Milt's wife. 

These four individuals participate in two hunting journeys to Nevada each year. Milt has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which means he orchestrates these journeys down to the last detail. The group normally uses .30 caliber guns and makes a stop at a whorehouse before hitting the forest for three days of booze and good times. However, these four men have truly begun to hate one another over the years. Each one has some motivation for murder. 

Just prior to the departure of these four men in Nevada, Clark Howard introduced two key characters - LAPD detectives Joe Clifford and his partner Harry Bowman. Clifford is a veteran of the force with an outstanding service record. Bowman is a new detective with a violent trend and a crack-addicted girlfriend. Together, they put many drug traffickers behind bars. In a shocking chapter, Clifford returns home from a lengthy shift. He hears someone say his name from the shadows before he is beheaded by a 30-calibre rifle. He's violently blown through his front door and lands in front of his wife and kids. Who murdered Clifford?

At nearly 300 pages, Howard's narrative explores the chemistry between these four hunters and their possible motivations for murdering Clifford or each other. As tension rises, suspicions and motives become shifting targets. There's a whole bunch of reasons for each of these people to kill a cop, but what's the connection? Like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, The Hunters is a detailed police procedural handled by an LAPD captain and three of his officers. Believe me, there are a lot of character names, but this is not a struggle to follow. Howard's description and character development are strong and warrant an emotional investment. 

In terms of action, there's a few fisticuffs and a firefight near the end. This probably isn't enough to satisfy a reader that relies on a Mack Bolan body count. As a fascinating crime novel, the mystery is resolved through investigations of marriages, employers, neighbors, associates and even past convictions with drug dealers. I became deeply involved in this police procedure and the ride was a great experience.

Like prior novels, Howard injects plenty of graphic sex into the story. The four men visiting the whorehouse is vividly detailed. In addition, Lamar's affair with Milt's wife, Clifford's sex life with his wife and Bowman's relationship with the druggie are all explicit portions of the narrative. When sex isn't happening, the men and women are fantasizing about it. 

If you love a slowly developing plot and a dense mystery, The Hunters will certainly please you. I love the writing of Clark Howard and his representation of average suburbanites involved in secret affairs and scandalous activities is intriguing. While the suspenseful wilderness thriller never really came to fruition, I still really enjoyed the author's storyline and how the cohesiveness of the final act was. I recommend reading this or any of Howard's novels. He is grossly undervalued. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Fog Island #02 - Fog Island

Canadian William Edward Daniel Ross (1912-1995) was a prolific author who wrote nearly 300 novels in his career. Specializing in multiple genres, Ross employed more than 20 aliases, including Tex Steele, Clarissa Ross, Dan Roberts and Ellen Randolph. His most popular alias was Marilyn Ross, a name he used to write over 30 novels related to the Dark Shadows television show. In addition, he used the name to author 54 stand-alone Gothic paperbacks as well as series titles like Birthstone Gothic and The Stewarts of Stormhaven. My first experience with Ross is his Gothic paperback book entitled Fog Island. It was published by the Paperback Library in 1965 and is the second episode in a series of seven stand-alones books simply called Fog Island. From what I can gather, none of these books are directly related to each other. 

In the first chapters of the book, readers learn that the Trent family lives on the rural Fog Island, just off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Young Stella Trent has been invited by her distant grandmother Winifred to visit the island and possibly reside in the family's large Victorian-style mansion called Trent Towers. Stella's mother had a bad relationship with Winifred and was recently deceased. Her mother's estate is now transferred to Stella and Winifred hopes to reconnect with Stella. 

Once Stella arrives and settles in the mansion, she is repeatedly attacked by what appears to be a ghostly apparition. To increase the tension, everyone she speaks with on the island warns her that the whole house is haunted and it stems from Trent Towers. While Stella is investigating, she finds out that her aunt and another man died together in a mysterious drowning incident. Everybody agrees that Stella bears a striking resemblance to the drowned woman. Will Stella experience the same fate?

Ross's story is a traditional Gothic tale that puts a woman at risk in what appears to be a supernatural event. The obligatory mansion is fun for the reader, and Stella, to explore. The novel wouldn't be complete without two dashing love interests, one of which may be a psychopath. Perhaps the most compelling part of the story is the guest house. An old family friend is doing medical experimentation there. Often Stella can see these experiments from her large window or in the illumination of the island's lighthouse. The mystery is whether or not her aunt actually drowned or is secretly held in this monstrous neighboring laboratory.

Some complain that Ross' writing seems interchangeable in all his books. I even read that some suggest that he copies full paragraphs of his Dark Shadows books and places them in his other Gothic novels. The question of whether all this is true is before the audience. I just have this book to judge and for a short, easy-to-follow Gothic novel, I really liked it. I'm looking for the rest of the books in this series, but they're all quite expensive. Based on the quality of Fog Island, it may be worth it. 

Fog Island Books:

1. Haunting of Fog Island (1965)
2. Fog Island (1965)
3. Phantom of Fog Island (1969)
4. Dark Towers of Fog Island (1975)
5. Ghost Ship of Fog Island (1975)
6. Fog Island Horror (1977)

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Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Men's Adventure Quarterly #02

Earlier in the year, Men's Adventure Quarterly made its debut. The concept is to bring back the style and substance of action-adventure magazines for men (MAMs), those tough-guy magazines that prospered after the pulp magazines lost their appeal. The first issue of Men's Adventure Quarterly, edited by Robert Deis and Bill Cunningham (also graphic design), focused on western literature and artwork and included a number of reprinted stories from vintage MAMs. It was with great joy to receive this brand new issue, which has an espionage theme similar to Ian Fleming's James Bond. In addition, it features a guest introduction by Paperback Warrior's very own scholar, Tom Simon. So that alone is worth the price of admission.

Men's Adventure Quarterly features artwork by the legendary Mort Kunstler as well as well-known peers like Walter Popp, Basil Gogos and Gil Cohen. This issue includes seven spy stories, a special showcase of artwork from classic MAMs, introductions by Deis and Cunningham, and a photographic look at the popular female spy craze. 

We like colorful illustrations, but our meat and potatoes here at Paperback Warrior are fiction reviews. I had the opportunity to read the issue cover to cover and here are capsule reviews of a couple of included stories:

The Deadly Spy Mystery Of The Formosa Joy Girls

This story first appeared in the March 1963 issue of Man's Action and features interior art by artist Basil Gogos. The author is an unknown name in Brand Hollister. The reason is because of the often used MAM marketing gimmick of these authors pretending to be retired spies who are forced to use pen names to preserve their own safety. In this story, Hollister and his partner Mastin are employed as US counter-intelligence agents. They both work to determine who is divulging information from Formosa (a former island of Taiwan) into Red China. As Hollister's story unfolds, the leak in U.S. intelligence is stemming from Madam Fu-Ming's strip club. There are a few shootings and a mystery to make the story stand out. Overall, I really enjoyed this short story of espionage.

The Kremlin Agent Will Be Wearing A Pink Nightgown

Martin Fass wrote short stories for MAMs while also contributing to the daily Nero Wolfe newspaper comic strip. This Fass story was first featured in the October 1961 issue of Male. A two-page illustration by Walter Popp follows the narrative. The story uses another popular marketing trick from the period when the writer receives first-hand information from a spy or law enforcement member. Typically blue-collar males swallowed it hook, line and sinker due to the bogus photos showing the "real" person passing the story to the author. The story unfolds in Germany and features a beautiful woman named Magda Karoli working for Major Mancuso in a US. counter-intelligence agency. While Mancuso is away at meetings, Magda bugs his office in hopes of obtaining valuable intelligence reports that she can provide a Hungarian spy ring that serves the Soviet Union. As leaks occur frequently, Fass's story concentrates on Mancuso's robust investigation. I thought this was the best story that Deiss and Cunningham chose for this issue. I liked the interaction between Magda and Mancuso and the tension that moves slowly as the noose tightens on this network of spies. Kudos for the superb ending with Magda seducing her way through another bureaucracy.

With 157 full-color pages, Men's Adventure Quarterly Issue 2 is another big success. Like Deis's other contributions (Barbarians on Bikes, Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter, Cryptozoologoy Anthology), the book is stacked with vintage stories, stunning artwork and a real sense of purpose. The magazine honors the men and women that contributed consistently to the Men's Action-Adventure Magazines that populated store shelves in the mid-20th century. Deis and Cunningham's hot-blooded passion for this style of storytelling is exhibited through their hard work and steadfast dedication to the art form. Raise your glasses high in appreciation. Or, better yet, go purchase a copy and support their latest effort.

Buy a copy of this magazine HERE

Monday, July 12, 2021

Mr. Majestyk

Born in New Orleans, Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) began writing successful western fiction in the 1950s. In 1969, Leonard started writing hard-hitting crime novels such as The Big Bounce, The Moonshine War and Fifty-Two Pickup. This is also when Leonard started writing screenplays. After working with Clint Eastwood on Joe Kidd (1972), Leonard started writing the screenplay for Mr. Majestyk. Leonard's original idea was to have Eastwood play the lead. Due to earlier commitments, Eastwood was replaced by Charles Bronson (Steve McQueen was considered) and the film was published by United Artists in July 1974. Leonard penned the film's novelization and it was published in paperback format by Dell.

The book presents Colorado melon producer Vince Majestyk to readers. He won a Silver Star for his heroic service in Vietnam as a U.S. Army Ranger and is now in his second year of farming. After losing money in his first farming year, Majestyk is now in a high pressure situation to successfully harvest his crops to keep the farm afloat. To ensure his success, Majestyk employs experienced Mexican migrants to work on the farm. His work force admires and abides by his commitment.

After a short trip to town, Majestyk returns to the farm to find a low-level hood named Kopas instructing his work force. Kopas says he has hired cheaper work that will save Majestyk money and boost his profits. Majestyk, never accepting anything of this, is shocked by the audacity of the criminal. Eventually, both come to blows and Majestyk takes Kopas's shotgun and drives him away. Later, the police arrive and arrest Majestyk for assault.

Majestyk finds his greatest trouble behind bars. A mafia assassin named Renda is housed with Majestyk and both are transferred to another jail. During the bus journey, Renda's mob operatives try to free him from custody. Instead, Majestyk hijacks the bus and takes Renda to the mountains. It's here that he cuts a deal with the police: his freedom for Renda. In a surprise twist, Majestyk and Renda are both freed. Renda promises Majestyk to kill him for selling him off to the cops.

There's a lot of noble aspects of the Majestyk character. His commitment to Mexican migrants, including fair wages and a secure workplace, his military service and his general good nature regarding the treatment of others is admirable. All of thee characteristics are what attracts a Mexican union representative named Nancy. She falls in love with Majestyk and becomes a major character in the last chapters. I also really liked his relationship with foreman and friend Larry and the respect he slowly receives from law enforcement as the narration expands. Majestyk is an average Joe that readers can easily cheer on.

In terms of violence, both Renda and the mob proves to be worthy adversaries. Majestyk's financial hardships, the stress of farming, and the threats to his livelihood and life are ongoing problems in Leonard's story. The intimidation and interaction between Renda and the low-end thugs is intense and adds another layer to what is already an engaging story. 

My only complaint against Leonard's work is the extent to which the police are responding to the escalation of tension and violence. They are simply targets when the mafia easily disrupts the bus journey and they appear incompetent in the arrest of this high-profile mafia assassin in Renda. The roadblocks they structure, the tracking techniques and the weak protection they provide Majestyk are just not plausible.

Overall, Mr. Majestyk is a fine crime-fiction novel (and film) with an engrossing narrative ripe with interesting characters. Leonard's story is convincing and sometimes even draws on the heartstrings. Majestyk's heartbreaking ordeal is essentially the Everyman facing overwhelming adversity. It's this simple and compelling plot that makes Mr. Majestyk so enjoyable. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Friday, July 9, 2021

I'll Call Every Monday

Orrie Hitt (1916-1975) was a suburban family man in Upstate New York who was quietly one of the most successful creators of sleaze paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s. His plots were largely noir fiction with a heavy dash of non-graphic sexuality and bad decisions driven by greed and lust. During his life, he authored upwards of 150 novels before dying penniless. His second published book, 1953’s I’ll Call Every Monday, remains in-print today.

In the 1950s, the life insurance and annuity business was a different animal. Policies were sold by door-to-door salesmen who were also responsible for collecting the regular - often weekly - premiums from the customer. That’s the setup in I’ll Call Every Monday, and our narrator, Nicky Weaver, is a door-to-door cold canvasser and a premium collector in a town called Devans with a population of 15,000. 

Early in the novel, Nicky meets two very different dames. The first is Sally. She’s a maid at the hotel Nicky occupies, but she wants to be a torch singer and nightclub hoochie-coochie girl. Anyway, Nicky is interested in her for all the normal reasons that guys get interested in cute babes. He eventually sets her up with a job at a cabin resort and a place to stay. It’s the beginning of a convenient sexual relationship, and Nicky really seems to like the arrangement. 

The second woman is Mrs. Irene Schofield, a busty sexpot from the nice side of town who Nicky meets when canvassing a neighborhood to sell some policies. She has a forty-inch bust, and you just know she’s gonna be trouble from the first time she appears on the page. Nicky tries to resist her charms the best he can. After all, he’s got Sally holed up in a cabin not far away, and Irene is a married woman. 

After relenting to his base instincts, Nicky quickly becomes a busy guy like any fella would juggling two dames. Mr. Schofield travels to New York every Monday, giving Nicky and Irene some alone time at her place. Meanwhile, he’s got pretty Sally waiting for him at the resort cabins. It’s a nice schedule until the idea of insuring and murdering Irene’s husband is raised. The plot then takes on similarities to James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, but it’s still a lot of fun to read with a unique twist ending. 

The author gets into quite a bit of detail surrounding the ins-and-outs of the door-to-door insurance game. You can decide if you find that stuff compelling or if you want to just breeze past that stuff. The sex scenes are genuinely erotic without being graphic, and Nicky is just the horndog protagonist that a reader of these books can appreciate. Overall, the paperback was an above-average Orrie Hitt affair and a good place to start for readers unfamiliar with his work. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Mongo's Back in Town

Emil Richard Johnson (1938-1997) authored 11 paperback original crime novels and won an Edgar Award while serving a 40-year sentence for murder and armed robbery in Stillwater State Prison in Minnesota. His 1969 novel, Mongo’s Back in Town, was the basis of a 1971 TV movie starring Joe Don Baker, Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field.

It’s Christmastime as Mongo Nash arrives home to an unnamed city on a Greyhound bus. However, this is no ordinary trip home after a six-year absence. You see, Mongo is a killer-for- hire, and he’s back to take care of a contract killing at the request of his brother, Mike. The brothers have a complicated relationship involving a bar and a girl that Mike arguably stole from Mongo. But when Mike needs someone whacked, he still calls his hitman brother to get the job done. 

Mike needs Mongo to kill a thief and recover some stolen goods before the goods are due to the local mobster. Meanwhile, we have a federal agent in town named Gordon also looking for the same stolen items. Gordon spots Mongo visiting all the wrong people and assumes he’s mixed up with the shady deal. This sets up the compelling cat-and-mouse game that provides the meat of the paperback’s second half. 

I know this sounds biased, but Johnson was an amazingly good writer for a guy in prison. His own favorite writers included Ed McBain and Mickey Spillane, but his plotting more resembles Elmore Leonard and Charles Willeford. The storytelling and pacing are flawless, and the characters are vivid and fully-realized for a 156-page paperback. 

You need to be prepared for some graphic hardboiled violence as well as some retrograde attitudes toward women and sex. Mongo is not a nice guy, but you can appreciate his professionalism under the awkward familial circumstances. Prison was a good place for the author to study the mannerisms of hard case sadistic tough guys, and Mongo is clearly an amalgamation of scary men with a short fuse that Johnson likely encountered while incarcerated. 

Mongo’s Back in Town is a great crime novel. I’m told it’s Johnson’s best work, but that’s not going to stop me from further exploring his body of work. Unfortunately, his books have been out of print for some time and can be a costly used purchase. Hopefully, some enterprising reprint house will take the initiative to revive Johnson’s books, and this lost classic would be a great place to start

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Wednesday, July 7, 2021

When Eight Bells Toll

The mid-1960s may be the best period for adventure writer Alistair MacLean. From 1963, the Scottish native released Ice Station Zebra, When Eight Bells Toll and Where Eagles Dare within three years. The three novels also became successful film adaptations featuring such leading men as Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, Clint Eastwood and Anthony Hopkins. Having read and enjoyed Where Eagles Dare, I wanted to acquire more novels by MacLean. I decided on When Eight Bells Toll. It was originally published in hardback and as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback.

When Eight Bells Toll is presented as a first-person account by a character named Phillip Calvert. He works for the British Secret Service and his direct report is Rear-Admiral Sir Arthur Arnford-Jason, which thankfully is shortened to the nickname Uncle Arthur for the bulk of the book's narrative. After several cargo ships were hijacked in the Irish Sea, Calvert is sent undercover to investigate.

As the narrative unfolds, readers realize that secret service agents were planted on these ships because of the cargo - millions of gold bullion. Calvert and his partner Hunslett explore Scotland's Torbay Island in the guise of marine biologists. There's a number of suspicious characters, including a wealthy Lord, a former actress and a shipping magnate. While Calvert is getting closer to the hijackers, he finds himself a target. 

MacLean's story is unlike high adventure novels like Where Eagles Dare and The Guns of Navarone. In fact, I'd label When Eight Bells Toll a detective novel with adventure tendencies. The story follows a private detective formula with inquiries, interviews, shady ladies and mysterious characters. There are a lot of shootouts, underwater adventures and nautical nuances to turn it into a real page turner. Calvert is a likeable hero and the support casting was diversified enough to add a lot of twists. 

Whether you like gumshoe crime novels or nautical adventure, When Eight Bells Toll will appeal to you. Alistair MacLean's career reached a production peak at this point in his career, and this is just another chapter in his remarkable talent as a storyteller. Read it now, please.

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Driscoll’s Diamonds

Crime-noir author Marvin Albert (1924-1996) began writing stylish, high-adventure novels in the 1970s under the pseudonym Ian MacAlister. It was a commercialized combination of successful writers such as Ian Fleming and Alistair MacLean. I especially liked Albert's writing style and I've been on an adventure-fiction kick of late. It was this motivation that led me to try out the 1973 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback Driscoll’s Diamonds.

In the middle chapters of the book, it is explained that the mercenary Driscoll, his partner Royan and three other hardmen ambushed diamond smugglers in Africa. Following the shooting, the diamonds were successfully stolen and the gang fled the scene. En route to the getaway plane, Royan betrayed the group and killed all but Driscoll. In the bloody exchange, Driscoll took the diamonds, left on the plane, but then crashed near a shore in the Middle East. Having survived the accident, Driscoll’s diamonds were stuck in the pilot's seat that was now underwater. 

Albert's narrative is a sprawling adventure yarn as Driscoll attempts to reclaim the diamonds from the sunken aircraft. He is in love with a woman named Shana and both have a big future planned based on recovering the diamonds. Unfortunately, Driscoll and Shana are both taken hostage by Royan and several hardened mercenaries. They have to lead Royan to the diamonds in return for their lives. Driscoll knows that he and Shana are dead anyway, so he's fighting tooth and nail along the way. There's a multitude of escape attempts, gun battles and the obligatory tough guy talk as Royan and Driscoll recount some of their old missions together. 

I loved this novel and found it better than Albert's other Middle East scavenger hunt novel, Valley of the Assassins. Driscoll and Shana are two admirable characters and I liked the heated tension between the various characters. There's a surprise when two other parties join the hunt, but I'm going to leave that unexplained in the hope that you read this book. If you love desert climates with tough men betraying other tough men looking for dirty money, then you are going to love Driscoll’ Diamonds. It's a gem.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 5, 2021

Hell Is Too Crowded

I recently read Alistair MacLean's book When Eight Bells Toll. What was interesting about that book was that MacLean structured it in a private-eye formula. It was a different but entertaining novel, although quite different from the typical high adventure tale typically associated with MacLean. This thought led me to a novel by Jack Higgins called Hell Is Too Crowded. It was written as Higgins' own name, Harry Patterson, and initially published in 1962. It was later reprinted under the Higgins pseudonym by Fawcett Gold Medal. 

Like MacLean's When Eight Bells Toll, this book is in fact a crime-noir and a different style from the typical espionage and adventure plot that Higgins normally produced. In the first chapter of the book, readers learn about the American Matthew Brady. He is a structural engineer who had worked internationally when he met a beautiful British woman. After a brief affair, Brady began sending her money in the hope that they would save for a marriage and an average suburban lifestyle. After discovering that she had left the country with the money, Brady falls into a state of intoxication and eventually collapses on a bench in London.

A pretty young woman ends up finding Brady on the bench that night and offers to take him back to her apartment. The woman is obviously a prostitute, but she appears sincere in her concerns. The two take a short stroll beside a dark cemetery and enter the second floor of a large Victorian house. As Brady enters, he notices the face of a man watching them through the bottom window. After a coffee, Brady becomes sleepy and begins to faint on the sofa. His last look before sleep is the man from downstairs looking over the woman's shoulder. 

Brady wakes up listening to the detectives talking around him. The generous woman has been horribly mutilated and Brady is the chief suspect. The police does not accept his version of the story and after several months, the narrative finds Brady in prison. Building on his experience as a structural engineer, Brady began designing an escape plan. He must find the real killer and clear his name before the hounds of justice are on his trail. 

Needless to say, the crime-noir trope of an average man waking up to a female corpse is a familiar one. The late 1940s and 1950s are ripe for stories like this. The rapid pace, mystery development and problem-solving skills of the main character reflect the likes of Day Keene. The setting, complete with graveyard and seaside house, combined with the central story also reminds me of Edward S. Aarons' early career.  

While not a Higgins adventure, Hell Is Too Crowded is still worth the effort. It was enjoyable to find the author immersed into the crime-noir genre. Further, it may have inspired Higgins to write a better, more adventuresome novel in 1971's Toll for the Brave. It has a similar storyline, but focuses more on the high adventure storytelling that he perfected. 

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Friday, July 2, 2021

The Survivalist #03 - The Quest

Jerry Ahern's The Survivalist is one of the most popular post-apocalyptic titles of the 1980s. The literary series lasted between 1981 and 1991, totaling 29 volumes. In 2013, the series began new installments authored by Bob Anderson and Sharon Ahern. After reading the first two volumes, I like the character of John Rourke a lot. I'm compelled to learn more about his journey through Soviet-occupied America. This third novel, The Quest, was published by Zebra in 1981 and features Rourke in his home state of Georgia. 

There are a number of scenarios that weave together in The Quest. After arriving in Georgia, Rourke leaves Rubinstein at his survival retreat as he explores the area in search of Sarah and the children. After a brief skirmish, Rourke receives a proposal from a former fellow soldier named Bradley. He asks Rourke if he is willing to help find a NASA scientist. In exchange, Bradley will send a correspondence through the resistance network inquiring where Sarah is.

During this time, KGB commander Vladmir Karamatsov visits his wife Natalia in Chicago. In the series second installment, a friendship was formed between Natalia and Rourke. Karamatsov knows this and starts physically and verbally abusing Natalia. In her defense, she injures Karamatsov and runs away from the house. Later, Natalia's father, General Ishmael Varakov, learns of Karamatsov's attack. Varakov wants to get in touch with Rourke, an enemy of the state, to kill Karamatsov. His reward will be complete liberty to him and his family.

By all accounts, Rourke is an extremely busy character in The Quest. By assisting Bradley, Rourke becomes involved in a local resistance operation that eventually loses. Through his exchange with Varakov, the last exciting chapters of the book relate Rourke's mission to kill Varakov.

This series installment is important because it introduces the Eden Project storyline. This will become a major consideration in the series in the future. The involvement of NASA before the nuclear attack, the ultimate goal of the project and its end result constitute a large part of the future narrative. But for now, The Survivalist is a lot of fun and this is just another great chapter in the long storyline. I would recommend you read them in numerical order.

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Deathlands #05 - Homeward Bound

In January 1988, the Deathlands series continued with the fifth instalment, Homeward Bound. It was written by Laurence James, an English author who contributed to the first 33 novels in the series. In previous instalments, this basic group of six heroes was defined, including the complex role of leader Ryan Cawdor. After Neutron Solstice, the third volume of the series, a sky-level origin is explained concerning Ryan's childhood home and the existing family. As the title suggests, Homeward Bound is a real origin story with Ryan returning to his former home town to settle some old debts.

After the events of the previous novel, Crater Lake, the heroes enter the redoubt (like a teleportation chamber) and eventually emerge in northern New York. After quickly recovering supplies and weapons, the heroes begin a long voyage along the northeast coast. To match the typical action pattern of the series, this trek involves battles with bandits and mutants on the Mohawk and Hudson River. James' spends brief moments, allowing readers to absorb the loss and devastation of historical places as the characters pass New York City's destroyed Twin Towers (eerily prophetic), the Statue of Liberty and even a brief explanation of America's Civil War battles. 

After the long coastal voyage, the heroic group arrives at Virginia's Front Royal. Ryan starts explaining some of his past to the group, including his relationship with his brother Harvey. He was the second of three sons born to Titus and Cynthia Cawdor. Ryan's mom passed away one year after he was born. When Harvey was 14, he murdered his brother Morgan and then attempted to kill Ryan. In the violent exchange, Ryan lost one eye and was given a horrible scar on his cheek. Ryan managed to escape and Harvey eventually murdered their father.

After a number of exciting chases and shootouts, the group finds a mysterious man named Nathan Freeman leading a patrol on the outskirts of a village called Sherville. This is where Ryan begins to recognize Nathan as part of the family of his past. The group discusses the Baron Harvey's brutal dictatorship over Front Royal, complete with an "orchard" of decomposing bodies that failed to comply with Harvey's strictly enforced rules. Ryan also finds out that Harvey has an evil wife and a sadistic mutated son. The plan of attack is to just waltz around Front Royal as traders hoping to infiltrate the kingdom to strategize an attack. Needless to say, things are going very badly for the group in the second half of the book as Ryan and his friends are held prisoner for a "most dangerous game" hunting exhibit.

I was only lukewarm about this series after reading the first four novels. I enjoyed the debut, Pilgrimage to Hell, but found it a little confusing and fragmented, partly due to being written by James after original author Christopher Lowder's departure. The second volume, Red Holocaust, was a more definite plot with an exciting premiss of Ryan fighting the Soviet Union in Alaska. The subsequent Neutron Solstice and Crater Lake weren't particularly memorable and became very predictable. 

Homeward Bound is by far the best entry in the series thus far. It marks a milestone in Deathlands with so many events from the past and the near future having an important impact on these characters. The action sequences, dialogue and expansive second half were gripping, violent and often humorous. The chase segments at the end were phenomenal and the threesome of villains was interesting enough to keep them from being just one-dimensional characters. All in all, it was absolutely a solid novel and that gives me great hope for the next installments. I think James really turned the corner here and I'm expecting nothing but great things moving forward.

Note - This novel was the premise for the SyFy channel's 2003 film. 

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