The pacing and action was superb, but I found myself with very little sympathy for some of the characters. They all seem to be flawed in ways that violate certain ethics and moral conduct for me personally. It is that disconnection with the character that seems to be the basis for my slight disappointment. However, Curran absolutely delivers a hair raising good time with his horrific creations.
Thursday, September 30, 2021
The pacing and action was superb, but I found myself with very little sympathy for some of the characters. They all seem to be flawed in ways that violate certain ethics and moral conduct for me personally. It is that disconnection with the character that seems to be the basis for my slight disappointment. However, Curran absolutely delivers a hair raising good time with his horrific creations.
Wednesday, September 29, 2021
Thirty Miles South of Dry County
With Thirty Miles South Of Dry County, Burke presents a vivid portrait of rural America, brush stroking with remarkable detail considering his Irish upbringing. Tanner is the embodiment of the aging small town Southern man. The town of Milestone is a macabre exhibit that's surrounded with a smooth Gothic curtain. There's mystery, suspense and menace packed into this scary short novel.
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Storm on the Island
After her father‘s retirement from the Navy, Myrna invests some of his money into buying the Hawaiian Heaven Hotel off Pearl Harbor shore. She runs the small hotel and serves beer to the sailors who need a midpoint between the water and Honolulu. It’s a quiet, peaceful life until the emergency radio begins announcing that a Navy submarine has become trapped in underwater debris. After three days of monotone and grim announcements, the men on board have begun to lose the remaining oxygen.
The sub, S14, is stuck on the ocean floor, wedged in discarded wooden wreckage with torpedo tubes that are jammed. Hoping for a rescue attempt, the Navy sends divers Harry Morris and Richard Brennan down to the vessel to attempt to clear the tubes. If they are cleared, the men can be safely ejected. But, the attempt fails and only Brennan makes it back to the surface alive.
On the last night of the rescue attempt, readers learn that a guest in the hotel has been murdered and their corpse placed in a seldom used wine closet. Who’s dead, who’s the murderer and how is it related to the submarine disaster? The bulk of this complex mystery is brought to life when Brennan checks into the hotel awaiting a Navy request and the obligatory press interviews.
Fisher’s hotel ensemble is a cast of likely suspects, each possessing a possible motive for murder. It’s a traditional mystery complete with a competent Hawaiian detective named Mulane probing for answers. Brennan and Myrna strike up a romance, but when Myrna’s father is murdered, all fingers point to Brennan as the killer.
I really enjoyed this short novel, and found that Fisher was really in his element. Fisher himself served in the Navy aboard a submarine stationed in Hawaii, so his writing has a descriptive sense of realism. The romance angle is Fisher’s signature. Combining these two ingredients into a hotel murder mystery was brilliant.
Storm on the Island is a captivating mystery with unique characters in an exotic location. Even better is that the story exists for free at archive.org HERE.
Monday, September 27, 2021
Friday, September 24, 2021
The Old Man's Place (aka The Hard Guys)
After his mother's death during childbirth, Trubee Pell was raised by his father, Walter, on a farm near Warrensburg, New York. After abandoning an unfortunate marriage, Trubee joined the army and served during World War I. It is there that he met two low-life scoundrels - James Pilgrim and Martin Flood. The audacious trio boozed it up during the war and afterwards bummed around the U.S. avoiding labor and responsibility. Out of ideas, Pell suggests that the three of them go back to New York and shack up with his father.
Walter lives a simple, farming life in solitude. At first he's happy to see his son, but soon realizes that tribe has changed significantly since the war. The three men physically and verbally abuse Walter. They force him to work, cook their meals and provide free lodging. While mostly drunk, the men spend their days shooting, illegally hunting and robbing. During a home intrusion, James steals a stack of nude magazines. In one of the books, he finds an ad for dating.
Like the dating apps of today, James sends out $1 and a brief biography explaining his physical appearance and attributes. The company then forwards this information to a woman in his area. In this instance, James' letter is sent to a young woman from New Jersey named Anna. Her parents have died and she is looking for a husband and a new life elsewhere. James, who is short and fat with rotten teeth, explains in his letter that he is tall, handsome and has a large farm. When Anna arrives at the Pell farm, she is shocked to find out that James does not fit his biography. In addition, she is surrounded by three vicious and sexually charged men in a foreign place miles away from anyone.
Sanford's The Old Man's Place is a carefully designed character study bursting with tension and intrigue. I found myself so emotionally invested in these characters and their raw, primal instincts. The author creates this slow spiral into some very dark places. The ethical, morally centered Walter experiences so much loss and heartache as a father. I was able to identify with this character so much and I felt so much sympathy for him. Anna, who borders upon the angelic, is pushed into this pit of vipers of violence and moral depravity. Sanford's narrative is saturated with rage and grief and has this unusual subtext on human suffering.
Like his novel Make My Bed in Hell, John Sanford is nothing short of extraordinary with The Old Man's Place. It's darkly wonderful and honest, well ahead of its time considering the 1935 publication date. Sanford is seemingly timeless, possessing a rare skillset that rivals some of the best noir authors of all-time. My hat is tipped to Brash Books for affordably inviting modern ages to experience this sensational author.
Thursday, September 23, 2021
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Tender is the Flesh
In the future, animals have been contaminated by a deadly virus. Due to the health risks, most of the world's animal populations have been destroyed. Due to lack of animals, cannibalism has become legal. Body farms have been created that raise humans in the same way that cattle are raised today. These humans (called heads) are raised to consume, so they have no intelligence beyond the walls of the cage. Their vocal cords are removed and based on ethnicity, race, age and gender, humans are packaged into categories and sold. Human meat (known as special meat) is then bought by processing plants (slaughterhouses) where the entire organism is used for food or manufacturing.
Marcos is a second generation employee of the meat processing industry. He acts as an account executive for "meat runs" where he reviews processes and procurement. After experiencing the loss of a child, Marcos goes into a deep depression and his wife moves out. This loss evokes empathy for the people who are slaughtered. Most of the author's narrative is devoted to Marcos contemplating the whole meat industry and its negative impact on mankind.
After Marcos is gifted a woman, high human grade, he begins to look after her. Naming her Jasmine, Marcos develops an illegal relationship with her that results in a pregnancy. If the law finds out he had sexual intercourse with a "head," he will be slaughtered. In order to keep the relationship and pregnancy a secret, Marcos hides Jasmine from his home and starts a process of resigning from his work. Complicating matters is the death of his elderly father and a strained relationship with his nagging sister.
Tender is the Flesh is inspired by several novels. In many ways it resembles the 1953 dystopia novel by Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451. In this book, the protagonist begins to question the government's strict rules and the importance of free will. Other influences range from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) and the 1973 film Soylent Green, which was loosely based on Harry Harrison's 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!. More recently, the Japanese anime The Promised Neverland, originally released in 2019, is close to the premise of the story.
As much as I wanted to like Tender is the Flesh, I found it too reliant on graphic torture and death. The central story of Marcos becoming an enlightened citizen was lost in the dense atmosphere of dismemberment and gore. Frequently, the author details the human slaughterhouse, the processes, and additional bi-products of this savage society. In disturbing scenes, Bazterrica describes the brutal torture of puppies and the raping of an adolescent girl. These scenes exist merely for shock value and reminded me of the insane carnage of Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door (1989).
I appreciated the social warnings and the clear criticism of animal cruelty, corporate greed and capitalism. There are positive takeaways, but it requires a strong stomach and the ability to distance yourself from the violence. I found it distasteful and over the top. Read at your own discretion.
Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Eve Ronin #01 - Lost Hills
Monday, September 20, 2021
Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 94
Friday, September 17, 2021
Maneaters: Killer Sharks in Men's Adventure Magazines
The latest entry in the Men's Adventure Library Journal series is Maneaters: Killer Sharks in Men's Adventure Magazines. The book is available in both hardcover (196 pgs) and softcover (172 pgs) editions. This collection features three decades of thrilling vintage shark stories, all complimented by vividly colorful, awe-inspiring artwork one would expect from the Men's Adventure Magazines.
Inside, Deis' preface and Doyle's "Death Has Sharp Teeth" introductions outline the book's purpose and how sharks became the most common "man versus animal" stories in MAMs. They proved to be the best adversary, an underwater villain that later soared to new heights with the theatrical phenomena known as Jaws. Doyle explains that "...even among the onslaught of tigers, alligators, and bloodthirsty rodents, sharks were something special." Steve Cheskin echoes those sentiments with his informative foreword. Cheskin, the creator of the beloved Shark Week television programming on Discovery Channel, explains how the shows began in the late 1980s. He illustrates that there is a mystery about sharks, a natural fear of them that captivates people.
Anyone familiar with MAMs, or Deis and Doyle's prior compilations, will appreciate their dedication to preserving the eye-catching artwork that mesmerized readers of these magazines. On Page 89, Mort Kunstler's artwork is presented as a terrific gallery. The gallery includes an informative write-up titled "The Godfather Meets Jaws." Beyond Kunstler, this book is loaded with artwork from the likes of Ken Barr, Bruce Minney, Walter Richards, Clarence Doore, Wil Hulsey, and Robert Stanley. I'm not an art aficionado, but these paintings are simply incredible.
With nearly 20 stories, there's plenty of meat to sink your teeth into. From Ray Nelson's cleverly funny "The Mail Carrying Shark" (Real, Sep. 1953) to Tom Darcy's gruesome adventure "The Sharks Got My Legs" (Man's Adventure, Oct. 1959), these stories are outrageously scary, but possess action and adventure narratives featuring prevalent heroes.
If you aren't a Men's Adventure Library Journal consumer, what's stopping you? Beyond just this Maneaters book, there are hundreds of awesome paintings, gripping stories and unique analysis saturating these awesome compilation and coffee-table books. This is such a neat nostalgia that celebrates a special place in American literature. There's no better place to test the waters than this shark-infested feast.
Thursday, September 16, 2021
Escape from Five Shadows
The main character of the book, Corey Bowen, explains how he ended up in the dusty and dry workcamp of Five Shadows. After his father died, Bowen worked as a miner and a cattle herder. Between jobs, Bowen meets another cattleman named Manring in a bar. After learning from Bowen's experience, he hires Bowen to ride along with him on a small cattle drive. Bowen reviews Manring's bill of sale and determines that he legitimately bought the cattle. However, after only a couple of days on the trail, the law comes. Bowen and Manring are charged with stealing cattle and sentenced to years of hard labor at Five Shadows.
This Arizona prison is run by a man named Renda. The government provides Renda .75 cents a day for each of the 30 prisoners and cash for supplies. Renda keeps a majority of the money and limits the prisoners to a small diet with very little accommodations. They sleep on blankets, eat wormy food, and suffer health conditions. Renda can't afford any of his prisoners to escape, thus his criminal empire will fold.
Throughout the book's narrative, Bowen and Manring plan a prison break. This will not be easy due to the use of Apache Scouts and trackers around the camp's outer perimeter. However, in pocket narratives, Leonard creates some inner turmoil within the camp. The superintendent's wife is planning on exposing Renda, but she's being held against her will. She proposes that Bowen kill her husband and make a run for it. At the same time, a young woman named Karla has an attraction to Bowen. She wants to expose the corruption and Bowen's innocence through the courts. What method does Bowen use - escape from violence or patiently await a new trial in a judicial system that has already betrayed him once?
Leonard's western examines political corruption - greed, deceit, and the quest for power. Bowen's decision on how to escape the prison is an interesting one. There's a lot of moving parts and the novel requires the reader's concentration. The narrative isn't laced with action, but instead relies on strong characters and an intriguing story. I found both female characters to be determined to a fault - one craving violence and the other nearly angelic. The contrast was brilliant.
If you require an action-packed prison break story, Escape from Five Shadows is unlikely to satisfy you. If you want the complexity of crime and the slow unravel of authority, this novel will deliver the goods. It's a smart, well-written novel that offers a rather unique plot for the time period. Recommended.
Wednesday, September 15, 2021
He trades the mysterious hardcover for a copy of his new novel and brings the book home. It’s published by an unknown imprint that placed Wilson's photo on the author page with a mostly-accurate bio. Why would anyone go to this much trouble to create a counterfeit book?
Things start getting truly scary once the reader begins to understand the content of the book itself. I won’t spoil it for you here, but Malfi avoids the trap of using the “book inside a book” gambit and instead allows the reader to draw their own conclusion about why the novel scares its readers so much.
Late-book revelations shed satisfying light on what exactly is happening here as Malfi explores the sources of the authors’ ideas and inspiration. I enjoyed Mr. Cables quite a bit and found sections to be genuinely unnerving. As such, I can recommend this book to contemporary horror fans without reservation. This was my first experience with Malfi’s writing, but it won’t be my last.
Tuesday, September 14, 2021
Monday, September 13, 2021
Taking cues from Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, Crime Cop is set in the fictional metropolis of Hudson. Heller does a nice job of mimicking McBain’s third-person narrative voice. Our featured cops are robbery Detectives Jeff Flavin and George Gilman (presumably before he wrote the Edge westerns), and they are busy dealing with actual crimes, chronic complainers and tips from chatty stoolies.
Amid the day-to-day chaos, Flavin is summoned to a boss’ office to be briefed on a big case. A series of residential home invasion robberies resulted in the death of a female homeowner. Homicide is working the killing, and they need Flavin and his partner to tackle the robberies providing the department with two avenues to solve the crime.
Beyond the normal procedural steps of interviewing potential witnesses, there is some interesting pre-computer police science elements to the plot that were completely fascinating. The compiling of clues and inferences gained from those clues is an exercise in pure Sherlockian deduction. As cops, Flavin and Gilman are logic machines and a pleasure to read.
Smart legwork by the crime cops - punctuated by vivid hardboiled dialogue - develops a viable suspect for the robberies and the killing. There are twists and turns along the way. We also get several vividly-drawn characters filling out the cast, culminating in a satisfying ending.
Crime Cop reminded me of an exceptional Ed McBain 87th Precinct cover band. In many ways, I preferred Heller’s writing and plotting to McBain’s work. The good news is that - thanks to Stark House - readers don’t need to choose. Read them both.
There’s a homicide detective in Crime Cop named Ben Tutchek who is the main character in the author’s Body of the Crime. Interestingly, the 1962 paperback was published under the quasi-pseudonym of Larry Heller. The author was setting himself up for a Marvel Universe (or 87th Precinct) of inter-connected cop stories from Pyramid Books, but tepid sales couldn’t justify a third novel. Thanks to Stark House for reuniting this two-book “series” into a single volume.
Friday, September 10, 2021
One of Us
Michael is slipping out of his daily office job. After taking some needed PTO, Michael heads out into the open air to soak up the sun, fish, drink beer and kill. That's right, kill. You see, Michael is a serial killer. He tortures and kills one person annually. After meeting Fred, both men formed a special bond that allowed them to enjoy this annual killing ritual. This year is pretty special. Michael is bringing his younger brother Jason to show him the ropes. Think of it as a gruesome internship. As a trio, they hope to earn a trophy in the wild.
While Michael, Jason and Fred are loading up for a vacation gorefest, Sarah is also looking forward to a vacation. She hopes the great outdoors is the remedy to heal her estranged relationship with her brother Kevin. They've recently lost their mother and are grieving. With two of Sarah's friends, the foursome arrive at the family cabin. With no electricity or cell phone service, these four may be the perfect prize for the killers.
It is clear that Simpson is a fan of horror, but above all a fan of the slasher subgenre. These three murderers (named after horror icons) attack a young woman before finding Sarah's friends. In addition, in the flashbacks, readers relive sessions of torture and murder of previous outings. These scenes are not for the squeamish. There are the mandatory chase scenes, the stigma of the final girl and the atmosphere and location of the classic outdoor slasher film.
With One of Us, Simpson creates the perfect horror novella, complete with compelling characters, a fast pace and plenty of grisly horror to please the diehards.
Thursday, September 9, 2021
Nick Corey is Sheriff of Potts County, a rural riverside town with a population of 1,280. Corey sleeps late, drinks at work, accepts bribes from the local whorehouse and rarely carries out police work. He's the ultimate scoundrel. After years of being verbally and physically abused by two town pimps, Corey requests the aid of a nearby county sheriff named Ken Lacey. Corey sits down with Lacey to explain his dilemma. After ridiculing Corey, and providing a lot of racist comments, Lacey instructs Corey to become deadly aggressive.
When Corey comes back to town, he takes Lacey's ill-informed advice to heart. He shoots and kills both pimps and tosses their bodies into the river. These murders push Corey to continue this vicious aggression and put caution to the wind. Corey also begins having an affair with his wife's friend Rose while simultaneously engaging in a sexual relationship with a town woman named Amy. Throughout Thompson's speech, Corey plans and kills people while ensuring his re-election in the upcoming vote.
If Pop. 1280 is Thompson's masterpiece, then I have little hope that I will ever like the author. I hate novels where I must reside in the mind of a psychopath. The novel is presented in the first person of Corey's perspective and I just wanted to escape his model of thinking. While these types of "ride with the killer" novels are popular, I just can't seem to enjoy them. With the killer, and the killer's intentions, in full display, there is no real mystery or suspense. It's like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube. Once it is out, it's out.
Like most of Thompson's novels, every character is a worthless human being devoid of any common decency. I didn't have any reason to love anyone, and I didn't care what happened to them. I need a well-written narrative with characters that I can identify with and sense a kind of connection with. I need to care about the characters. Thompson provides none of that. Instead, his objective is just to create excessive characters that are profane, too sexual and have very little common sense. In poor taste, he passes these characters off as an inbred race of rednecks.
I know I don't understand the full significance of Thompson's writing and what makes it truly unique. That's okay, I don't have to understand it or like him. His dialogue, murderous viewpoint and morally flawed characters attract generations of worshiping fans. I'm glad he has a fan base. After trying to enjoy a handful of his novels, I probably will never open another one. This kind of literature seems beneath me. There are remarkable books from remarkable authors. From my perspective, Jim Thompson is not one of those.
Wednesday, September 8, 2021
Don't Speak to Strange Girls
Clay Stuart is a 45 year old movie star living in Hollywood, California. Clay is from a poverty-stricken family in Nebraska and now lives a life of luxury. He's experienced decades of marquee film success as a leading man in war and westerns. In the first few pages, Clay attends the funeral of his longtime wife, Ruth. Back in his spacious mansion, Clay begins to receive the encouragement and greetings of his dedicated staff. His business manager is Marty, his agent is Marc and his assistant Kay deals with the rest. The trio urge Clay to mourn, but to get back to work as soon as possible. It will do him some good.
Clay doesn't go back to work. Instead, he grieves with bottles of alcohol and a sense of displacement. His wife is dead. What happens now? Marty and Marc both attempt to cheer Clay up with hunting trips, prostitutes and a script for a new western called Man of the Desert. Even Clay's studio execs want him back. But Clay is despondent and can't find a reason to rise and exist each day. That's when Joanne Stark arrives.
The initial introduction is made over the telephone. One day, Clay responds to the phone and a young woman mysteriously charms him. Her questions are rather innocent, but she has a self-confidence that most women do not possess when chatting with celebrities. Clay wants to know how she obtained his unlisted number and she flirts around the answer. Eventually, he bids her farewell and dismisses the call as a starstruck fan who got lucky with a Hollywood insider. She'll never call again. But she does. And, for the first time in a long while, Clay feels excitement again. He gains a thrill that he hasn't experienced in decades. Joanne Stark is an amazing individual... by phone. Should they meet?
Against the advice of almost everybody, including his wise old butler, Clay invites this young woman into his home. When Joanne shows up, Clay is astounded by her beauty. She's like a living, breathing doll. Her behavior is both seductive and innocent, a rare combination which causes a reversal of roles. Clay is infatuated with Joanne. She explains that she has a love for Clay since she was little and that she wants what he has. She wants to become an actress, she wants to be famous, she wants to be rich.
Despite Kay's judgment, Clay and Joanne start a fire that burns for weeks. Both are madly in love and Clay, who could be Joanne's father, feels young again. As Whittington's narrative expands, Clay begins to suspect that Joanne may be using him to gain a shortcut into Hollywood. But he's so in love, he doesn't care about it. Is he able to maintain a one-way relationship with this young, beautiful woman? Once she gains her own fame and fortune, why will she still need Clay? After Clay's agent looks into Joanne's small town history, things begin to look rather bleak for Clay's future. This woman is a wildcat.
Whittington can write his ass off and Don't Speak to Strange Girls is exceptional. There's so many introspective aspects to the story that make it so compelling. Whittington wants to know what we could do for fame and fortune? He examines the Hollywood elite and how it compares to the daily lives of average Americans. It's a fish out of water story, but it goes both ways - Joanne caught up in the filthy rich and Clay adjusting to a younger generation. When each is exposed to the other's social world, it triggers a chain reaction that affects their emotions in several unusual ways.
Like the films A Star is Born and (ahem) Pretty Woman, Don't Speak to Strange Girls brilliantly exposes the consequences and fallout when the average human consumes too much too quickly. It's elementary, but not in the hands of Harry Whittington. Instead, it's one of his greatest novels and it doesn't contain a single murder. Well, maybe just that one near the end. But you should find out on your own. That's a pretty big invitation.
Tuesday, September 7, 2021
The book is set somewhere on the New England coast and stars an elderly man named Joe. Joe charters fishing trips for tourists on his sizable yacht and mostly lives a quiet happy life with his wife. A professor and members of a nearby college faculty hire Joe to pilot them to a beachside town called Golden Cove. It's here the group can dive and explore a chain of underground caves rumored to exist.
Joe wants to accept the job but is very hesitant about the route's ultimate destination. Over the years he has heard the sailor stories about the small coastal town. Supposedly, there are monstrous creatures that terrorize boats and crews off the reef. Additionally, rumors abound that the town's population behave aggressively to tourists. This isn't a cozy place where they leave the light on for you. When Joe ends up accepting the job, he discovers that the rumors are indeed true. There is a whole lot of terror waiting in Golden Cove.
Deeper starts with a bang and ends with a really strong finish. However, I though the middle portions were a little slow. The narrative features action, a central mystery and an eerie ambiance with Moore detailing the fog enshrouded village of Golden Cove. I imagined those opening scenes from the Dark Shadows TV show depicting a high tide enshrouding the misty beach. Moore connects to H.P. Lovecraft fans as this book mentions Innsmouth and the Miskatonic University (both locations used in Lovecraft's literature).
Overall, James A. Moore is a tremendous talent and Deeper is an entertaining read. If you love traditional horror or underwater terror, think of Deeper as a horrifying combination of Jaws and Cthulu.
Monday, September 6, 2021
Challenge the Widow-Maker and Other Stories of People in Peril
The first is Challenge the Widow-Maker and Other Stories of People in Peril and the second is Crowded Lives and Other Stories of Desperation and Danger. Originally these were released as rather unattractive hardcover editions in 2000 by Five Star Publishing. Mysterious Press/Open Road reprinted these books in 2020 with modern covers in ebook format. My first peek at these is Challenge the Widow-Maker...
The book contains 12 short stories, including Ellery Queen Readers Award winners like "The Dakar Run", "Scalplock", "Animals" and his 1980 Edgar Award winner, "Horn Man". Most of the other stories were all nominated for various awards, including two Spur nominees in "The Plateau" and "Custer's Ghost". After reading the collection, here are a few highlights:
This story was probably influenced by the author's fondness of jazz, a genre he discovered in southern America in the 1940s. In the story's beginning, a former jazz star named Dix departs a Greyhound bus in New Orleans. After talking with an old friend, Dix explains that he has been in prison for 16 years after taking the fall for a woman named Madge. He asks his friend where Madge is now and that he wants to see her. His friend isn't sure if Dix is wanting to rekindle a relationship with the woman or murder her. It's an entrancing story as Dix is courted by both a jazz club owner and his friend to pick up an instrument again. When a seasoned cop becomes involved, this 31-page story speeds to an interesting finale where the sins of the past come to light.
While this was nominated for a Spur award, it's not a traditional western. The story is set in a western town in the future. The last two living North American buffalo are owned by an old widowed man nicknamed Tank. The buffalo owner scratches out a meager living in a small Montana town with his daughter Delia. The state has created a lottery system where three winners will be allowed to hunt the last remaining buffalo in North America. But, when Tank realizes that one of the buffalo has died, he begins to gain a fondness for the remaining animal. Her name is Hannah and she's an old, female buffalo (cow) that has been in Tank's life for a long time. While he desperately needs the proceeds paid to him by the state, Tank attempts to smuggle Hannah into the rugged Black Hills ahead of the three hunters. The ensuing chase is a an exhilirating, and emotional read as Tank not only faces Hannah's extinction but also his own morality. It's an exceptionally well-written story.
"The Dakar Run"
Jack Sheffield is an aging race-car driver with a gambling addiction. Due to some bad luck, he's racked up a large debt owed to a French criminal named Marcel. One evening, his estranged daughter Chelsea appears and advises Jack that she's dating a race-car driver. She is requesting that Jack visit her boyfriend to review a super-car he's created for the famous, grueling race known as the Paris-Dacar Rally (today it's the Dacar Rally). It's an off-road endurance race that welcomes any driver and any vehicle. The event transpires across multiple countries, including a long stretch of the Sahara Desert. Jack has run the race before and lost, but his experience could prove valuable to Chelsea and her boyfriend. After Jack reviews the car, known as Max-One, he realizes it has a real shot at winning. The problem is that Marcel approaches Jack later and demands that he sabotage the car so that Marcel's large gamble on a marquee driver could potentially pay off. If Max-One wins, Jack's estranged daughter will benefit and his relationship with her could improve. If Max-One loses, Marcel will erase Jack's gambling debt from his books. I would love to reveal the surprise twist, but that wouldn't be fair to potential readers. This story was simply awesome and it possessed some of the same elements of Howard's stuntman novel The Last Great Death Stunt (1977).
Here is a complete listing of the book's stories and the original publication they were culled from:
"All the Heroes Are Dead" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine December 1982
"Puerto Rican Blues" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine April 1983
"Challenge the Widow-Maker" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine August 1990
"Animals" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine June 1985
"Scalplock" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 1986
"The Dakar Run" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine August 1988
"Custer's Ghost" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine May 1983
"The Plateau" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 1984
"Split Decisions" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine December 1994
"Mexican Triangle" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine October 1981
"The Dublin Eye"- Ellery Queen Prime Crimes February 1984
Overall, Challege the Widow-Maker...should be in your Kindle library right now. If it isn't, please use the below link and remedy that problem.
Friday, September 3, 2021
Scott Sigler is a successful contemporary novelist specializing in violent and futuristic, original novels, so it’s natural that he was green-lit for an Aliens tie-in story of his own. His 2020 entry in the universe is a stand-alone action paperback called Aliens: Phalanx that has been getting high acclaim from horror fiction aficionados.
Like the film Aliens, the novel showcases a tough female protagonist driving the action. Her name is Ahiliyah Cooper and she’s the 19 year-old crew leader of a group of “runners” delivering supplies and messages among the humans on a mountainous jungle island called Ataegina. The island is home to multiple tribes of humans living in underground medieval fortresses distant from one another. There was a time in the past when there was order in this kingdom, but things have pretty much gone to seed.
Many of the novel’s opening chapters are dedicated to world-building, and the author does a great job with the all expositional stuff. The island of Ataegina reminded me of Westeros from Game of Thrones if every faction lived in hidden shelters and travel among the tribes for trade was perilous. The paperback is intentionally vague about the island’s location in the universe. Is this an Earth of the future? A colonized other planet? An alternate historical reality? Answers regarding the novel’s setting are revealed slowly, and you won’t get any spoilers here today.
Unfortunately, the island is infested with Xenomorph Aliens that the humans call demons. As we join the action, Ahiliyah’s tribe lives and survives in the safety of their fortress shelter. They are cautious about going out at night when the demons do most of their hunting. Ahiliyah’s dream is to learn enough about the demons that one day the humans can hunt the monsters instead of the other way around. The only upside is that man doesn’t fight man anymore. The fiefdoms generally get along and engage in free trade. The common enemy of the demons did the trick of ending human war.
After returning from a trading run, Ahiliyah is informed by her leaders that she’ll need to immediately depart on another run with her crew. A sickness has befallen her people and the necessary medication is only available for trade across the island with another tribe. Of course, that means covering many miles on foot without being killed - or worse - by the demons who roam and hunt the island.
From there, adventure awaits. The author was clearly influenced by otherworldly fantasy novels as well as popular young-adult fiction, including The Hunger Games. There’s plenty of gore and adult content to keep the splatter fans happy as well. Some of the dialogue was a bit wooden and juvenile, but the action-suspense scenes were top-notch. The most interesting thing is how little the novel had anything to do with the Alien universe beyond the description of the demons plaguing the island. The upside is that if you know nothing about the Alien films or their extended properties, you can still have a fun time reading Aliens: Phalanx.
Like all contemporary novels, the book is too damn long at 500+ pages, and would have been more effective at half that length. This isn’t anyone’s fault because it’s a 2020 novel, and that’s just how long books are these days. To the paperback’s credit, it was never boring. Fans of action-adventure fiction will find a lot to enjoy in Aliens: Phalanx making it an easy recommendation for Paperback Warrior readers.
Thursday, September 2, 2021
The Specialist #03 - Sullivan's Revenge
The Specialist is an 11 book series that ran from 1984 through 1985. The series was authored by John Shirley under the pseudonym John Cutter. These novels were originally published by Signet and are now available as affordable ebooks through Lume Publishing. I've read and reviewed the first two entries in the series and was happy to jump into the third installment to continue the series through-story.
In the first two installments, Jack "The Specialist" Sullivan is featured as a vigilante that helps average citizens with various problems they experience. He never charges for these services but will gladly take any monetary handout. His experiences in Vietnam and Afghanistan enhance his resume significantly. Sullivan is an expert in weapons, hand-to-hand combat and military strategy. While he's performing these services, Sullivan also has a goal. He witnessed his wife's murder by a terrorist cell led by an individual known as The Blue Man. At the end of the second installment, Manhattan Revenge, Sullivan learns that The Blue Man may be running a terrorist training camp in the Oregon wilderness.
In Sullivan's Revenge, the third series entry, this backstory is resolved as Sullivan travels to rural Oregon to find The Blue Man. To accomplish the mission, he uses his friend Malta (his assistant in the first two books) to accompany him to the area to help plan the assault. Malta also recruits two hardened mercenaries to assist Sullivan.
Traditionally, men's action-adventure novels of this type require that the hero join the bad guys in an elaborate scheme to destroy the heinous organization from the inside out. Shirley's uses this genre trope to place Sullivan inside the terrorist camp. It's here that Sullivan passes a physical trial to join the organization. In doing so, he comes face to face with The Blue Man. A bulk of the narrative has Sullivan suppressing his rage to better coordinate an assault with his outside team. He also experiences a pleasurable relationship with The Blue Man's daughter.
There's no real surprises here as Sullivan mows down the terrorists like a high-numbered Mack Bolan installment. Shirley is a great writer and I enjoyed the side story of Malta facing a group of racist local bullies. I don't own the fourth installment of this book, but the events in this novel's finale certainly seems to resolve this opening trilogy of stories. I found all three books to be enjoyable and a great way to propel this series into the upper echelons of men's action-adventure fiction.
Wednesday, September 1, 2021
J.C. Cullen, nicknamed "Cully", is a hayseed plow boy from Evansville, Indiana. In the book's opening pages, Cully arrives at a Chicago bus terminal with a battered briefcase and a curiosity for the big city lights. You see, Cully has what the gambling industry likes to refer to as "the arm". He's a craps thrower that can seemingly control the dice and make them dance. After racking up small town money, a retired gambler named Hooker refers Cully to a gambling racket in Chi-Town. Upon arrival, Cully follows his directions to a man named Ferguson.
In a room in the back of a bar, Cully learns that Mrs. Ferguson runs a craps gambling racket. The way it works is that Cully is provided a few hundred dollars each afternoon and it is his responsibility to play that money in illegal craps games all over the city. Why does Cully need Ferguson or a racket? Because Ferguson, and her blind husband (more on him in a moment), know where all the craps games are played and they have protection from the police to look the other way. In return, Cully has free money to bet, but his take of all winnings is 20%. The Fergusons keep 70% and 10% goes to Hooker, the referral source.
After just a few nights, Cully begins winning nearly every game and soon earns thousands of dollars. While Cully is working for the Fergusons, he's free to play games on his days off. Cully begins ascending through various levels of entry and intermediate level play. Eventually, Cully begins playing at a professional level, again illegally, where his peers are just as talented as he is. With a unique method of quick mathematical deduction, Cully starts winning tens of thousands of dollars in his free time. And seriously pissing off Chicago's finest craps shooters.
Remember Mr. Ferguson? His story is that he was once as good as Cully. But, a poor sport threw a pan of acid at him after a sizable loss. The incident burned Mr. Ferguson's eyes and permanently blinded him. The attacking player ran off and since then Mr. Ferguson has paid $100,000 to detectives and players hoping to locate him for some much needed payback. The only clue was that this man possessed a heart tattoo on his inner wrist. This ties into Cully because he meets a player that matches Mr. Ferguson's attacker. This revelation brings Cully to a crossroads - does he need favors and credit with Mr. Ferguson enough to sentence this seemingly nice player to death?
Beyond the narrative's grimy expose on backroom gambling and Cully's important decision making is...sex. Cully's fiercest rival is a man named Cole. His main squeeze is a knockout stripper named Lorry. Cully becomes infatuated with the woman and soon finds himself in a dangerous, heated affair that elevates his competition with Cole. But when she pitches a murder scheme on him, Cully must decide if Lorry's love is worth the price of murder.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I loved this book. The Arm has so many crime-fiction elements, but also ties in a familiar genre trope with illegal gambling. Clark Howard's biography stated that he loved watching the craps shooters in and around Memphis and other parts of the deep south. His affection for the game bleeds onto the pages, from the pool halls and bars to the mental dynamics of dice rolling. I found myself down the YouTube rabbit hole learning more about craps shooting and its history.
Cully's evolution from poor country boy to rich city slicker was just a real pleasure to read. Like any fish out of water story, there's the inevitable downfall. When Howard reverses Cully's fortunes, it's done in a way that is similar to the author's future literary works - violent and unrestrained. In many ways, this could be Howard's best novel. That's surprising considering it was his full-length debut.
If you love crime-fiction or just an abstract rags to riches story, The Arm delivers in spades. It's probably one of the better books I've read this year. I urge you to track down a used paperback or just snag the affordable digital version. You won't regret it.