Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Walk With Evil

In 1957, Crest Books - a sister imprint to Fawcett Gold Medal - published a paperback called Walk With Evil by Daytona’s own Robert Wilder (1901-1974). Just when it seemed that this obscure novel would be destined for the dustbin of history, it has been reprinted by Cutting Edge Books for modern readers to enjoy. 

The story begins in Florida on isolated Redemption Cay, a small spit of land jutting into the tidal mouth of a large river shielded from the Atlantic Ocean by rolling sand dunes. Jeff Martin is a Manhattan newspaper reporter on a five-week vacation fishing in the river from a small rented boat with a temperamental outboard motor.

Not knowing much about boats, Jeff immediately finds himself in a dangerous situation floating too close to the churning waters of the ocean inlet. Fortunately, a pretty young woman in a heavy work boat comes to his aid and tows Jeff to safety. His rescuer’s name is Judy Carter, and she’s the caregiver to a much older, hardcore alcoholic everyone calls the Senator whom Jeff soon meets at the town’s only watering hole. Jeff also re-encounters young Judy later and becomes quite taken with her. They have a flirty chemistry and plan to go on a date sometime soon. 

Jeff’s vacation is interrupted by a call from his editor back home. A notorious gangster from the Al Capone era named Edward Valenti has been released from Alcatraz and flown to Florida. The boss wants Jeff to locate Valenti and figure out what the aged mob boss is doing. Could it have to do with the million bucks in heist proceeds that were never recovered before Valenti’s incarceration?

Jeff quickly unearths a historical connection between Valenti and the Senator that begs further questions. We also get to see Valenti in action aboard a chartered Palm Beach yacht with his colorful entourage. A narrative shift introduces some travelers en route to Palm Beach with their own agendas. Nearly every secondary character in the paperback is harboring a secret, and Jeff pieces the puzzle together over the course of the 180 pages. 

Walk With Evil is a decent bit of Florida noir. Fans of John D. MacDonald and Harry Whittington will feel right at home with this treasure hunt mystery filled with colorful and quirky well-developed characters. The ending solution was a bit implausible and overly tidy, but the ride to get there was mostly satisfying. 

Get the book HERE

Monday, November 29, 2021


According to his bio, Ryan Lockwood holds degrees in technical journalism, environmental science, and has been employed as a biological research assistant and professional editor. In 2013, he authored the first of two books starring a marine biologist named Valerie Martell – Below (2013 Pinnacle) and What Lurks Beneath (2015 Pinnacle). Living a mere 15-minutes from the ocean, I'm always looking to dive into a good aquatic horror novel. 

Below contains everything you want from the typical Pinnacle action novel. Roguish male hero, the seasoned good guy cop, plenty of killing and a few high-energy chase sequences. Oh, and the inevitable booming of explosions. By the book's halfway point, one would never fathom that the hero is a woman. It's Pinnacle after all...with decades of male-led heroism. 

In the book's first half, the capable hero is Will Sturman. He grew up in the rugged Rocky mountains, joined the military and now makes a meager living as a professional diving instructor on the southern California coast. In the book's opening chapters, Sturman is underwater instructing a semi-experienced group of divers when there's nearly a casualty. One of the women becomes tangled in an old boat resting on the seabed. These introductory chapters are a frantic grasp for air as Sturman rescues the woman from the clutches of death. Later, readers learn that Sturman is suffering the loss of his wife by staying drunk and shooting pool at his favorite bar. His ex-military buddy, Joe Montoya, is the town constable. 

But, this is an underwater horror novel and soon the body count starts to rise as divers and fishermen are devoured (more like sucked apart) by enormous Humboldt squid. Sturman is eventually led to an expert on these unique predators, Valerie Martell. Together, Sturman, Montoya and Martell become unlikely opponents to hundreds of people-eating-squid-monsters. Surprisingly, it's not as preposterous as it sounds. Humboldt are terrifying and have been known to attack deep sea divers outside of the pages of a fictional aquatic horror paperback. They are the real deal. 

By the book's furious finale, Martell becomes the hero. In fact, Sturman is sort of cowardly and abandons the whole mission for most of the third act (although he does save the day). I thought the transition into this new Pinnacle hero was well played with Martell becoming this fierce and determined leader facing overwhelming adversity. 

With underwater fights, creepy and ferocious “monsters”, a high body count, sea chases and heroic camaraderie, there's plenty in Below to keep you afloat. Get your copy HERE

Friday, November 26, 2021

Railroad Stories #07: The Return of Casey Jones

As early as the 1800s, stories about the railroad industry have been a popular staple in pop culture. Those in need of an escape from everyday boredom often gravitated to the rails at the turn of the 20th century. The hobo lifestyle of seeing the country by riding the boxcars was a prevalent one, eventually becoming ingrained into the mainstream through songs, films and books. The most prominent magazine of railroad fiction was Railroad Stories. It was the first specialized pulp magazine to offer these types of stories and featured a variety of authors applying their expertise. 

Under license from White River Productions, Florida's Bold Venture Press has been publishing stellar collections of these vintage railroad stories for modern readers. Beginning in 2015, they began publishing trade paperbacks collecting stories culled from Railroad Stories and other magazines. Each of these volumes, mostly feature author E.S. Dellinger, but Vol. 4 is A. Leslie Scott, Vol. 7 is John Johns, Vol. 8 is Norman Brandhorst, and Vol. 10 is Don Waters. My first ride on the rails is Vol. 7: The Return of Casey Jones. It was published in 2019 and features five stories that have never appeared in paperback until now.

The book's lead story is “The Return of Casey Jones”, authored by John Johns and originally published in the April 1933 issue of Railroad Stories. The story begins with a young schoolboy named Jim Martin learning about the tragic death of his idol, the famed engineer Casey Jones. Years later, Jim's father dies and he is left to tend to his ailing mother. Jim is an engineer for the The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad (CMStP&P). Like his idol, Jim is known as a fast runner and can make up time between meets. 

A lot of Jim's railroad buddies sign up for early action in World War 1. Jim is anxious to join the fight and use his engineering skills for his country. But, the doctors suggest that if Jim joins the military his mother may suffer another stroke. To protect her, he chooses not to enlist, which infuriates his peers. To complicate things further, Jim experiences a terrible train crash and is thrown from his cab. Suspecting that he jumped from his engine instead of holding tight, the town immediately ridiculed him for being a coward. He's disowned by his girlfriend and his railroad crew. But, after another freak accident, Jim has the ability to prove the town wrong. Thus, "The Return of Casey Jones" is a story of redemption. 

I really enjoyed this 70-page novella and found myself cheering Jim as his mountain of misfortune began a seismic shift. There were some technical aspects that I struggled with, but it didn't detract from the story. Jim's adversity and clash with the military and his town was engaging, and thankfully ended on a good note. In terms of action, the book recounts the story of Casey Jones, adding more action to Johns' narrative.

This story was also released as a film in 1935 by Monogram. This collection features a short article by Bold Venture Press co-owner/editor Rich Harvey about the film as well as information on the its star, Charles Starrett. 

Other John Johns stories in this collection are:

"Roads End" (Railroad Man's Magazine, Oct 1930)
"Smoke Gets in your Eyes" (Railroad Stories Magazine, May 1935)
"Emergency Run" (Railroad Stories Magazine, Decemer 1936)
"Running Signals" (Railroad Stories Magazine, November 1936)

Additional volumes:

Railroad Stories Vol. 01: Avalanche (E.S. Dellinger)
Railroad Stories Vol. 02: The Legend of King Lawson (E.S. Dellinger)
Railroad Stories Vol. 03: Gangsters of the Rails (E.S. Dellinger)
Railroad Stories Vol. 04: Civil War and Tales of Jagger Dunns (A. Leslie Scott)
Railroad Stories Vol. 05: Steam and Steel (E.S. Dellinger)
Railroad Stories Vol. 06: The Saga of Kiamichi Bill (E.S. Dellinger)
Railroad Stories Vol. 08: Colorado Midland (Norman Brandhorst)
Railroad Stories Vol. 09: Ballad of Redhot Frost (E.S. Dellinger)
Railroad Stories Vol. 10: Rolling Wheels and The Georgia Rambler (Don Waters)

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Secret of Canfield House

Florence Hurd (1919-2008) was born in Chicago and graduated from the University of Chicago. According to her obituary, she moved to San Diego, California and became a social worker. Later, she married, raised two children, and enjoyed a successful career as a gothic romance writer. My first experience with Hurd's writing is her beloved novel Secret of Canfield House. It was published in 1966 by Fawcett Gold Medal. 

The novel stars a young, vulnerable, and attractive woman named Emeline. After moving from Vermont to New York, Emeline discovers that she was never cut out for the big city. When her father dies, Emeline returns to Vermont to pick up the pieces while discovering new employment. She settles on interviewing for a housekeeper job with a snooty woman named Mrs. Canfield. The gig is that she will temporarily live at the vast Vermont manor aptly titled Canfield House. The pay is good but the job is a rather lonely one. Mrs. Canfield and her son Miles only use the house on occasional weekends. But, they want the silver polished and the pillows fluffed – a housekeeper ritual left to Emeline. 

Settling into her new employment and residence, Emeline attempts to befriend the house's groundskeeper. He lives in the barn, drinks a lot, and is a mute – not the best company for a lonely woman. After failing to make small talk in the quaint New England village, Emeline finally finds companionship with the family's weekend cook. Through this relationship, Emeline discovers that Miles was married once, but his bride ran away with another man. Oddly, their bedroom remains closed off from the rest of the house, a dusty tribute to lost love...or maybe death?

Emeline's new job becomes a terrifying ordeal when she's forced to contend with an arsonist, her poisoned dog and what could be an “unholy” haunted bedroom. Like something out of Amityville Horror, she hears noises in the cellar, footsteps through the empty house, slamming doors and monstrous faces in the window. Does the “secret” of Canfield House concern a demonic doorway to Hell or a home invasion nightmare? 

While Secret of Canfield House possesses all of the genre tropes of a fine New England gothic, Hurd cleverly skirts the edges of a traditional old fashioned suspense tale. The story's sweeping finale comes during an onslaught of howling winds and rain. During a power outage, Emeline explores the house by candlelight determined to solve the mystery. Skeletons in the wall, missing pearls, a hidden diamond bracelet, and a smoking gun smoothly enhances this moody 160-page thriller. I was firmly glued to every page in a white-knuckle race to find the answers. You will be too. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Toll for the Brave

Before Jack Higgins (real name: Harry Patterson, born 1929) became a massive bestselling author of thick, high-adventure novels, he wrote exciting 180-page paperbacks for guys like us. Case in point: His 29th novel, Toll for the Brave (1971), which remains in print today. 

The protagonist and narrator is Ellis Jackson, a British citizen who enlists in the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War as a paratrooper in 1966. Evidently this was a real thing - highly unusual - but it happened. Despite serving with valor, he is captured by the Viet Cong and thrown into a tortuous prisoner-of-war camp administered by the sadistic Chinese. This segment of the paperback was vivid, violent and compelling as Ellis is brought to the physical and the psychological breaking point.

Inside the camp, an African-American U.S. Army Brigadier General with a fantastic backstory named Max Sinclair is also housed as a prisoner of war. Black Max, as he was called, was a U.S. military legend who fought in World War 2, Korea, and now Vietnam where he was caught by the commies while venturing beyond the confines of his command post. Black Max teaches young Ellis how to handle the confinement and torture with a Zen equanimity that preserves Ellis’ sanity and life. Meanwhile, a sexy Chinese psychologist at the camp named Madame Ny is assigned to be Ellis’ chief interrogator while using sensuality and mental manipulation to break the young Britton down. The POW camp scenes comprising the book’s first act were among the best I’ve read this year.

Eventually, Ellis wins his freedom and begins a new life in a marshy village 50-miles outside of London called Foulness. This setting change comprises a new section of the novel, and Ellis is dealing with what appears to be severe PTSD. It’s so bad that when he goes to walk his dog, he thinks he sees Viet Cong lurking in the swamp trying to kill his pet. It’s during one of these dreamlike episodes that a suspicious murder occurs (the novel’s back-cover spoils it, but I won’t), and it’s then incumbent upon Ellis to prove his own innocence and solve the murder. The innocent man being forced to solve a murder to clear his own name has got to be the plot of darn near half the novels we review here at Paperback Warrior. To his credit, Higgins does a good job with this tired storyline, but it has nowhere near the edge-of-your-seat emotional impact of the POW camp scenes. 

There are plenty of great action sequences that will please readers - including some particularly well-crafted martial arts fights. The climactic ending has a giant twist you won’t see coming, but that comes with a cost. The “solution” to the novel’s central mystery is truly moronic and illogical. It’s safe to say that the paperback’s resolution would only please fans who have received frontal lobotomies. Can you enjoy a good book with a bad ending?  That’s the real question here. Is it the ride or the destination that matters? It’s your call. 

Buy your copy HERE

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

The Girl from Addis

Ted Allbeury (1917-2005) served as a U.K. Intel officer from 1940 to 1947. During WW2, he infiltrated Nazi Germany via parachute and later was caught - and tortured by commies - smuggling spies between East and West Germany. He began writing espionage fiction with a heavy dose of realism at age 55 and went on to publish 40 novels in the genre. My introduction to his work was his 1984 stand-alone paperback, The Girl from Addis.

The story is narrated by our hero, Johnny Grant, a British MI6 operative during WW 2. Back in 1941, Johnny was stationed in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. The country had just been liberated from Italian rule and the Ethiopians were organizing themselves as a nation under the leadership of their own emperor. The Brits were providing transitional help to the emperor, and Johnny was serving as the chief’s British Military Liaison. Of course, what he was really doing was spying. His main target was a wealthy Armenian named Jonnet who was supplying the Japanese with fuel and arms during the war. Before he could get the job done, Johnny’s cover is blown and he has 48 hours to leave Ethiopia or be killed.

Anyway, that’s the background. Johnny left MI6 in 1947 and embarked on a far more interesting career as a photographer of swimsuit models. Every now and then he uses this as cover to take freelance spy assignments from his old employer. We rejoin him decades later in the 1970s. The emperor of Ethiopia has been overthrown and imprisoned in a military coup, and the new government seems to be getting cozy with the Soviets. The U.K. fears that the Eithiopians aspire to overrun the other nations of East Africa - starting with Somalia -  to form one big Soviet client state. Even worse, Johnny’s old target Jonnet seems to be helping the Soviets achieve this goal from his trusted perch advising the new Ethiopian regime. The Brits want Johnny to return to Ethiopia to finish the job he started 25 years ago - neutralize Jonnet and the Soviet plans before someone gets hurt.

As you may have gathered, this isn’t the “death-ray from the sky” espionage fiction of Nick Carter: Killmaster or a gadget-heavy spy story like a James Bond movie. Instead, Allbeury crafted a more cerebral - and presumably realistic - paperback where old adversaries and allies meet at diplomatic cocktail parties and plot against one another with a greater subtlety than we normally see in pulp fiction. Despite being rather smart, it’s never boring. The brinkmanship was fascinating, thanks to the fact that Allbeury’s writing is staggeringly good. He explains the geopolitics of Ethiopia with a clarity that makes even the dumbest reader (i.e. me) feel like an expert. And, yes, you’ll get your spy action set-pieces at the paperback’s climax.

While back in Ethiopia, Johnny quickly becomes beguiled and infatuated with a mixed-race woman sharing Greek and Somali backgrounds. The problem is that she’s the kept woman of the local KGB colonel, a truly loathsome villain.. The introduction of the titular girl also introduces sex and violence into the thoughtful plotting as well as a pretty sweet love story and insightful observations about western culture.

This was a fantastic novel - weighty and thought-provoking with a lot of substance squeezed into 191 paperback pages. Ted Allbeury was a genius writer who deserves to be rediscovered. Five of his novels have been reprinted by an outfit called Dover Publications but not The Girl From Addis. You’ll need to seek out an old paperback to enjoy it. If you like smart and realistic spy stories, you won’t regret it.

Monday, November 22, 2021

The Mob Says Murder

Albert Conroy was one of the cadre of pseudonyms employed by Philadelphia native Marvin H. Albert (1924-1996) to flood the market with his innovative crime and western novels of the mid-20th century. As far as I can tell, he wrote 14 paperbacks as Albert Conroy/Al Conroy between the years 1952 and 1972, including a stand-alone crime-noir paperback from 1958 titled The Mob Says Murder.

Eddie Driscoll is six years into his state prison life sentence for a fatal bank robbery he didn’t commit. In his day, he did plenty of bank holdup jobs, just not the one that landed him in the pen. Driscoll spends his days pining away for his wife who left him and remarried a year into his sentence. Nevertheless, he remains infatuated and in love with the memory of her soft flesh against him.

One day, Driscoll gets an unexpected visitor in prison. It’s a spicy Mexican dame is pretending to be his cousin delivering a cryptic message that Driscoll interprets as an invitation to bust out of the prison with the help of unknown friends on the outside. This evolves into an early-novel breakout that's about as good as any pulp fiction jailbreak I’ve ever read. Before you know it, Driscoll goes from lonely and horny inmate to a most-wanted fugitive.

The person pulling the strings to orchestrate Driscoll’s shaky freedom is a mobster named Bruno Hauser who runs a nightclub and illegal gambling joint called The Ocean Club. Hauser has a problem - the anti-crime governor has been sending state law enforcement goons to Hauser’s joint to bust up the place and interrupt business. Hauser’s solution? The governor must go. Interestingly, the same governor was once the prosecutor who wrongfully put Driscoll away for life. After his guilty verdict six years ago, Driscoll swore revenge on the prosecutor, and Hauser is hoping to utilize Driscoll as an assassin to remove their shared enemy from office permanently. After all, busting a guy out of prison means he owes you a big favor, right?

Albert has crafted another crime-noir masterpiece here. I thought I knew where the plot was headed based on the cover art spoiler, but it quickly became clear that the artist and copywriter had never read the book themselves. The novel’s characters are vivid and the dilemmas - both practical and moral - are taken seriously by the author. The relationships between the characters are especially well-drawn and add a dose of humanity to this ultra-violent and sexy 141-page lost classic. The plot is perfectly constructed and the dialogue is crisp. There’s really nothing to dislike about this novel.

The Mob Says Murder is another work of pulp literary greatness by Albert. The more I read from him, the more I’ve come to believe that he was a uniquely excellent writer of his era and a step above his peers. For reasons unclear to me, I don't believe this one has ever been reprinted since it hit the spinner racks in 1958. Maybe someone will read this review and do something about that. It’s really something special. Get a copy HERE

Friday, November 19, 2021

Paperback Warrior Primer - Clifton Adams

Clifton Adams was a wine connoisseur that loved jazz music and Oklahoma history. He also wrote a bunch of violent, gritty novels about heroes and outlaws. He won two coveted Spur Awards and was admired by many of his contemporaries. Popular crime-noir author Donald Westlake cited Adams as an influence on his beloved Parker series of heist novels. We've reviewed many of Clifton Adams' novels and we hope today's Paperback Warrior Primer will prompt you to explore his robust bibliography. 

Clifton Adams was born in Comanche, Oklahoma in 1919. He began writing at an early age. However, his writing development paused when he joined Hell on Wheels, officially known as the U.S. Army's Second Armored Division. During WW2 he served as a tank commander in both Africa and Europe. 

After WW2, he utilized the G.I. Bill to attend University of Oklahoma to study professional writing - a degree that focused on making a living as a writer. It was there that he won the “Oklahoma Writer of the Year” award. In his acceptance speech he said, “There’s only one way to approach the kind of writing I do - and that’s as a business. I’m not selling art. I’m selling entertainment.”

And with that idea as his North Star, he succeeded. In his career, he wrote 50 full-length novels and 125 short stories the magazines and digests. His first professional sale was the short story "Champions Wear Purple", published in Adventure in January 1947. His first novel, Desperado, is often cited as his finest work. It was originally released as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback in 1950. It was a monster hit and spawned a sequel in 1953 called A Noose for the Desperado. Both books remain available as reprints from Stark House Press

Besides the two Desperado books, his only other recurring character was Amos Flagg, a western series written under the pseudonym of Clay Randal. The series ran from 1964 to 1969 for seven installments. He also wrote five stand-alone novels under the Clay Randal name between 1953 and 1963. He also wrote six westerns between 1958 and 1963 under the name of Matt Kinkaid. Celebrating his western writing, he won two Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America - 1969 for Tragg’s Choice and 1970 for The Last Days of Wolf Garnett.  

While most of his literary work falls into the western genre, he also wrote crime-fiction. Whom Gods Destroy and Death's Sweet Song were both published in 1953 by Fawcett Gold Medal. His 1956 crime-noir, Never Say No to a Killer, was published by Ace under the pseudonym Jonathan Gant. All three of these books have been reprinted by Stark House Press. He also used the Gant name to author The Long Vendetta, published in 1963 by Avalon. Under the name Nick Hudson he authored The Very Wicked, published in 1960 by Berkley. 

Clifton Adams died from a heart attack in 1971 in Comanche, Oklahoma. According to our research, the author's papers are kept at the American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming. For more information, listen to the Paperback Warrior Podcast episode about Clifton Adams HERE.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Come Closer

Sara Gran is a contemporary crime fiction author and creator of the acclaimed Claire DeWitt private eye series. However, at the beginning of her writing career, she wrote a terrifying little horror novel called Come Closer that genre fans haven’t stopped talking about since its 2003 release.

Our narrator is a yuppie architect named Amanda, and weird things are starting to happen. A written proposal she hands to her boss has a cruel, vulgar, and insulting sentence at the top that Amanda didn’t write or doesn’t recall writing. She’s also hearing scratching noises throughout the urban residential loft she shares with her doting husband.

Of course, things escalate. Plates start flying from the cabinets and car keys begin to disappear from their home. All of this is definitely slow-burn creepy, but the true first nail in Amanda’s mental coffin is when her imaginary childhood friend Pansy begins visiting again in her sleep. Anyone who reads horror fiction or watches scary movies knows that imaginary friends are Never A Good Thing.

Astute readers will also recognize at this point that this is not a haunted urban condo story. It’s a haunted (or worse - possessed) Amanda story. And, man-oh-man, does it get scary. With each unnumbered mini-chapter vignette, the tension escalates. This is underscored by the fact that Amanda is telling us the story of her own possession. Like a heroin user sliding into addiction, all she feels at first are the addictive good vibes while the people around her are forced to bear witness to a woman becoming irrevocably unhinged.

It’s been a long time since a work of fiction rattled me as much as Come Closer did. The way the insanity/possession gently escalates over the course of the novel’s 176 pages was masterful and the pages fly by as the author ratchets up the intensity. Some segments were tough to read, but I defy you to look away. I haven’t read Gran’s mystery fiction, but if it’s half as good as her horror, she’s a unique talent to watch. Highest horror recommendation. 

Get a copy HERE

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

87th Precinct #11 - Give the Boys a Great Big Hand

The 87th Precinct series of police procedural mysteries were the crowning achievement of author Ed McBain (1926-2005, birth name: Salvatore Lombino, adopted name: Evan Hunter). The books star a rotating cast of cop characters dealing with the ins-and-outs of big-city policing and the crimes that keep them busy at the intersection of Dragnet and Hill Street Blues. The 11th paperback in the series is Give the Boys a Great Big Hand from 1960.

It’s a rainy day in the urban environs of Isola, McBain’s thinly-veiled fictional analog to Manhattan. A foot patrol officer spots a distant figure with an overcoat, hat and umbrella boarding a city bus while leaving an airline overnight bag behind at the bus stop. The vigilant beat cop makes his way to the bus stop, opens the bag, and finds a severed human hand inside. This is the Chapter One spark that ignites the action in this lean, 200-page mystery.

The patrolman brings the bag and the detached hand to the detective bureau at the 87th Precinct for further investigation, and we get reacquainted with all our chatty old friends chewing the fat in the squad area. The dialogue among the unflappable cops is often some of the best - and most authentic-sounding - parts of any McBain novel. For the reader, the funny conversations are really an opportunity to witness a master writer at work.

Each of the 87th Precinct series installments stand well on their own and feature different combinations of the detectives who solve the cases. The case of the severed hand is assigned to two of the strongest characters in the series: Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes. Carella is a smart, tough and hard-working steel-jawed hero, and Hawes is a redhead ladies' man. We also get a liberal dose of Meyer Meyer, a cop with the mannerisms of a Jewish borscht-belt comedian. It’s like a perfectly-cast buddy cop movie.

Most murder mysteries find the investigators searching for the identity of the killer, but Give the Boys a Great Big Hand turns the formula on its head because the detectives need to find the identity of the victim first. They begin with reports of missing persons and find themselves in a web of strippers, prostitutes, drummers, cheating husbands, and other colorful citizens. All of this leads to a rather gruesome ending that will test your gag reflex and satisfy your search for a logical solution.

Where does Give the Boys a Great Big Hand fall on the McBain-o-Meter? It’s definitely top-tier, but maybe not the absolute tops. It’s certainly worth reading and remains in print today. You shouldn’t have a problem finding a copy. You can get it HERE.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021


Using the pseudonym K.R. Dwyer, future horror-fiction superstar Dean Koontz wrote his first suspense novel, Chase (1971), when he was 25 years old. It’s a stalker-serial killer, cat-and-mouse book with no supernatural elements. In 1995, Koontz overhauled and re-released the book for modern audiences to enjoy under his own name.

Our hero is 25 year-old Ben Chase, a legitimate hero freshly returned from Vietnam where an act of bravery won him the Congressional Medal of Honor and made him a local celebrity in his suburban hometown. However, Ben wants nothing to do with fame or awards. He is suffering from severe PTSD and prefers to spend his time in isolation, locked in his rented room drinking whiskey and watching old movies.

One evening, Ben drives his Mustang alone to ruminate at the local lovers lane where teens are copulating in their cars. Ben spots a creepy stalker lurking in the woods watching the teens get busy. Eventually the stalker rips open the door to a vehicle and attacks a teen couple inside with a knife. Ben snaps into action and grabs the stalker in a choke hold. Unfortunately, the stalker killed one of the teens and traumatized the other, and Ben sustains a knife wound that allows the maniac to escape the scene. No one, including Ben, was able to get a good look at the stalker.

Ben’s most recent act of heroism catapults him to the front pages of the local newspaper again as a local hero when all the young vet wants is to be left alone. This leads to Ben receiving phone calls at home from the stalker who explains his motives and tells Ben he’s a marked man. The authorities are no help, so Ben must decide if he wants to wait for the stalker to attack or go on the offensive to eliminate this shadowy enemy.

Having read many of Koontz’s horror novels when he was at the top of his game in the 1980s, it’s cool to read one of his early works. Chase is a pretty basic suspense novel, but it’s also an important rumination on the psychological costs of war and the way we treated our vets returning from Vietnam. The reader cares about Ben’s physical and mental well-being and quickly becomes invested in his success as he matches wits and might against the stalker through the novel’s nightmarish, violent and climactic conclusion.

Chase is a quick read - practically a novella. Koontz eliminated about 25% of the fat from the original K.R. Dwyer manuscript and overhauled the dialog for the 1995 re-release available today. As such, it’s a completely fat-free reading experience, and a pretty great page-turner. It’s admittedly a pretty formulaic suspense story, but it’s a formula that has always worked for me and an easy recommendation for you. Check it out HERE

Monday, November 15, 2021

You Find Him - I'll Fix Him

James Hadley Chase was a popular pseudonym of U.K. Author Rene Raymond (1906-1985) for over 90 thrillers. You Find Him - I’ll Fix Him was a 1956 novel originally released under his Raymond Marshall pen name and later re-released as a Chase title. The lean noir paperback was also adapted into the French film Les Canailles in 1960.

Our narrator is Ed Dawson, an American newspaper bureau chief working in Rome. He’s appropriately terrified of his boss, Mr. Chalmers, who is back at the home office in New York. One day Mr. Chalmers calls the trembling Dawson to ask a favor. The boss’ college-age daughter Helen will be arriving in Rome tomorrow and needs a ride from the airport to her hotel. At this point I thought, “I bet the daughter is a real dish, and this airport pickup is about to get way more complicated.”

Not so fast! Helen is a bookish, Plain Jane, and the hotel drop off was uneventful. However, weeks later when Ed runs into her at a party, the ugly duckling has become a swan. She’s wearing a slinky backless cocktail dress with hair and makeup eliciting a 1956 va-va-va-voom from our horny hero. They begin dating and planning a one-month secret getaway to a remote Italian villa in Sorrento. As long as the boss back home in New York doesn’t find out that Ed is banging his barely-legal daughter, everything is cool, right?

Upon arriving at the villa, Ed finds Helen floating face-first in the water at the bottom of a cliff and very, very dead. The whole thing looks like foul play causing Ed to face an early-novel predicament: Call the cops or not? A police report might make him a suspect, ruin his reputation and cost him his job. As they say in Italy, “Non buono.” The other option is to hightail it back to Rome and hope that no one ever finds out he was there in the first place. Ed chooses the coward’s route and skedaddles back to his urban bachelor pad.

The author does a fabulous job dissecting the ways we rationalize our bad behavior. The character of Ed is a rationalization gold medalist riding the Bad-Choice Express all the way to Noirville. Of course, Helen’s body is found. Of course, it turns out she was murdered. And of course, Ed’s lies land him deeper and deeper in hot water until he has no choice but to solve the murder himself to save his own hide. As a mystery, the novel works marvelously as clues pile up to a logical conclusion and climactic finish.

As usual, Chase is a good writer who knows how to move a story forward with his economical, no-frills prose. It’s always interesting to read a Brit author writing American dialogue because he can’t help but slip U.K. idioms into the prose that Americans would never use. Some readers find these “mistakes” annoying, but I’m always charmed by them. I’ve read several of his novels, and You Find Him - I’ll Fix Him is by far my favorite of his work. It’s a paperback that would have fit in nicely with Fawcett Gold Medal 1950s releases like Gil Brewer’s The Vengeful Virgin and other works in the femme fatale hit parade.

Bottom line: We have a winner. If you can scare up a copy of this one, buy it and read it.

Friday, November 12, 2021


Before he became one of the bestselling authors on Earth, Michael Crichton (1942-2008) was a medical student writing short paperback thrillers under the name John Lange. The good people at Hard Case Crime landed the reprint rights to his early works and repackaged them with their trademark alluring covers. Binary was a 1972 beat-the-clock domestic terrorism thriller and Crichton’s final novel using the Lange name.

The book begins with a daring heist of two canisters of deadly nerve gas ingredients being transported on a U.S. Government train through Utah. The heist crew is mafia guns-for-hire who are unsure exactly what they are stealing or for whom. The theft happens directly before the kick-off of the Republican National Convention in San Diego, and astute paperback original readers will quickly come to the conclusion that the timing of this heist was probably no coincidence.

We then meet U.S. State Department Intelligence Bureau Special Agent John Graves, who will be playing the role of Jack Bauer on this Very Special Episode of 24. He’s a polymath genius who is conveniently good at everything. Graves is the case agent in the investigation of a politically-radical billionaire named John Wright, who is clearly up to no good. Graves tails Wright as he purchases empty scuba tanks and other stuff that might help in weaponizing stolen nerve gas components. Before the heist, the routing and the contents of the train were obtained by a computer-hacker-for-hire who admits under questioning that Wright paid him for the information. Even more nerve-wracking, Wright also paid for the hacker to obtain Graves’ government personnel file. Has the hunter become the hunted?

The idea of "Binary” things carries a lot of weight as a metaphor in the paperback. The gas, posing the central threat of the book is inert unless mixed with a complementary gas to form the nightmarish chemical weapon. Meanwhile, the two Johns - Graves the hero and Wright the villain - are also two sides of the same coin. Both are highly-intelligent chess and poker enthusiasts squaring off in a battle of wits with millions of lives in the balance.

Binary is an exciting and simple paperback that ticks down the minutes over a rather short period of time with little opportunity to ever get boring. Is it a masterpiece of the genre? Hell, no. It’s about as good as the post-Pendleton Executioner books of the 1970s. Moreover, the novel has plot holes you could drive a freight train through, but why quibble? It’s a blast to read if you’re looking to kill a couple hours. If this is your kind of thing, you’ll like this one just fine. Buy a copy HERE

Thursday, November 11, 2021


Walter Wager (1924-2004) was an American author of espionage, crime, and adventure fiction. He penned the books inspiring the movies Telefon and Die Hard 2. Under the name John Tiger, he also wrote several media tie-in novels for Mission Impossible and I Spy. His stand-alone 1972 novel Swap was a Cold War espionage heist adventure of the Vietnam war era.

The action opens in combat where American super-soldier David Garrison is 28 days away from the end of his tour in Vietnam. Garrison is a jungle fighter, parachutist, sabotage expert, and ambush maven. He’s like Rambo on steroids (make that additional steroids). Unfortunately, Garrison’s luck runs out when an enemy grenade detonates near him in the ‘Nam forest making his whole world go black.

Fortunately - for the sake of the novel - killing Garrison isn’t that easy. He is airlifted to safety - blind, mute, disfigured and paralyzed - where a U.S. Army brain surgeon named Dr. Bruce Brodsky saves Garrison’s life and mind. Garrison learns that Dr. Brodsky is “at war with war...he wants to kill death with a scalpel...it’s a personal feud.” In any case, Garrison’s war in Vietnam is over. He’s flown to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC, where a plastic surgeon gives him a new face - just like Parker, Drake, Bolan and dozens of other men’s adventure paperback heroes.  

Garrison owes his life to Dr. Brosky and seeks out the miracle medic to thank him. After tracking him down, Garrison offers him a favor - anything the surgeon wants. After some cajoling, it turns out that Dr. Brodsky actually does need help. The doctor’s grandfather is a department store tycoon in his 80s who is dying of cancer. Before the old man dies, he wants his 14 year-old great-grand-niece rescued from a Russian orphanage and brought to America to live in freedom. The problem is that back in 1972, the Soviets weren’t enthusiastic about shipping teenage orphans to capitalist America. The old man is willing to pay Garrison $250,000 to snatch the girl from her orphanage and transport her to the USA. Out of loyalty to Dr. Brodsky, Garrison accepts this impossible mission.

En route to the Soviet Union, Garrison stops in Athens and Israel and is able to dispatch terrorist plots in both countries. Once in Moscow, the difficulty of the mission becomes centralized. Grabbing a kid from a Soviet orphanage is harder than you might think. As Garrison’s plan evolves, Swap becomes a team-based heist novel featuring the obligatory Apache soldier, Georgia hillbilly, Israeli killing machine, and sexy babe. Think of them like a smarter, better-written Phoenix Force.

Beyond that, I don't want to give much else away other than to say that this book is so, so good. Wager’s writing is never flashy, and the action moves forward in a compelling, linear fashion. There are great twists and turns along the way and vivid characters who make you want to cheer and jeer. Wager successfully merges the combat, heist, and espionage genres into one, nearly-perfect paperback.  

Many of Wager’s novels have been digitized and reprinted over the past few years, but Swap has yet to be rediscovered by any of the reprint houses. This is a glaring oversight because the novel is simply awesome and will appeal to fans of early Nelson DeMille or classic Alistair MacLean high adventure. Whatever it takes, your mission is to drop everything and get yourself a copy of Swap. Highest recommendation. Get a copy HERE

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

First Blood

David Morrell's First Blood (1972) is probably one of the biggest influences on men's action-adventure literature behind Don Pendleton's War Against the Mafia (1969). The novel eventually launched a blockbuster film franchise starring Morrell's main character. I've seen the Rambo films and I'm quite fond of the film version of First Blood. I was curious to read the differences between the film and book. With a few extra dollars, I bought a used Fawcett Gold Medal printing of this classic action novel.

First Blood begins with Rambo (no first name) walking into the rural small town of Madison, Kentucky. With his thick beard and long hair, Rambo stands out in this quiet God-fearing community. Wilfred Teasle, the town's sheriff, is a decorated Korean War hero that is highly respected by Madison's residents. Wanting to shield his little town from danger, Teasle forces Rambo out of Madison. Rambo defies Teasle by walking back into town to dine on burgers and a coke. Once again, Teasle escorts rebellious Rambo out of town only to find him returning again. Three strikes and you are out.

Teasle arrests Rambo and the judge books him for a 35 day stay in jail. When the deputies attempt to shave him, Rambo has a flashback to his military service in Vietman. Rambo grabs the straight razor and disembowels one cop before blinding another. He then steals a motorcycle and flees into the mountains. Teasle, wanting control, doesn't want the state police involved in the manhunt. Instead, he leads his own task force to hunt Rambo through the Kentucky wilderness.

First Blood in novel format is much different than the film. Examples: Rambo isn't in town to visit a friend. Rambo doesn't have a close relationship with Colonel Trautman. Sheriff Teasle isn't a scummy villain. But beyond all of that, the film version depicts Rambo as a humble, quiet, reserved man that has a lot to say about Vietnam veterans and the poor homecoming they received. The novel showcases a loud-mouthed, sarcastic, and defiant Rambo as a psychotic veteran battling voices in his head. Perhaps the most striking difference is that Morrell's story reveals that Rambo has killed at least one homeless person in a park prior to arriving in Madison. It's also hinted that he previously killed another man as he attempted to escape by car. 

I would be remiss if I didn't state that this original version of Rambo weirded me out. There are some similarities (Rambo is a proficient warrior) and then odd moments (Rambo drinking moonshine with hillbillies) that made me question which version I liked. The book's end result effectively squashed any opportunity for book sequels. However, after the film's popularity, Morrell performed a quasi-retcon to write the novelization of Rambo II and III. I'm okay with that. At the end of the day, I can comfortably say I really enjoyed the book and Morrell's writing is top-notch. Plus, one can never truly have enough Rambo, right? Get a copy HERE

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

McAllister #06 - Kiowa

The Piccadilly Cowboys were a loose community of British authors during the 1960s and 1970s writing short and violent novels of the old American West. Using the pen name Matt Chisolm, Peter Watts penned a series of paperback originals starring Remington “Rem” McAllister during the heyday of American western fiction written by Brits. I was fortunate to find a used copy of the sixth installment, Kiowa (1967), during a book-hunting expedition in Abu Dhabi. Starved for reading material in the desert, I decided to give the character a try.

As we join McAllister, he’s in real hot water. He and two sidekicks are travelling across the plains of Texas with horses intending to establish a ranch and a new life. They are awakened by a savage band of Kiowa Indians who kill one of the sidekicks and steal a bunch of McAllister’s horses. With only one horse remaining, our hero takes mount and sets off alone in pursuit of the Indians and some frontier justice.

While on the hunt, McAllister meets a young and cocksure hothead named Arthur McShannon (the author’s choice to give the two main characters similar names gave me a migraine) also stalking the same Kiowa tribe. McShannon is an immature bounty hunter pursuing a fugitive who may or may not be hiding out with the Kiowa at their encampment. They tentatively join forces based on their shared desire to infiltrate the Kiowa and take what they need.

It takes no time at all before the pair is captured by the Indians and subjected to cringe-inducing violence and torture - a signature dish among the Piccadilly Cowboys. Thereafter, the reader is treated to a series of escapes, captures, chases, rescues and ambushes. There’s a damsel in distress to be rescued, and an outlaw to be transported to the law. The writing is solid, the action is non-stop, and the plot is a bit thin.

Worth reading? Sure. It was a fun adventure, but nothing groundbreaking. If a copy is aging on your shelf, give it a grab. However, I can’t recommend spending more than a couple bucks to acquire a copy. A better idea might be to read any of the eight McAllister titles reprinted by Piccadilly Press (no Kiowa, though) for $1.99 per ebook. Odds are that the respected reprint house chose the best of the series for their branded product line.


I emailed western fiction scholar Steve Myall of Western Fiction Reviews to ask him about the McAllister series. Here’s what he shared with me:

Hi Tom,

As far as I know, there were 31 in the original run. The first McAllister appeared in 1963 and the last, The McAllister Legend came out in 1974. Having said that, two of the McAllister books came out in 1961 under different titles and were republished into the main series later. In fact, there are four McAllister books that were published with different titles - two of which were put out under one of his other pseudonyms, Cy James.

In 1981, the first of eight more McAllister books was published. So that makes 39 McAllister books in total.

There was also a short story, "The Return of McAllister", that appeared in the British publication, Western Magazine.

More stories were published in Norway, but they've never appeared in English. Not just McAllister either - this is also true for the Blade series.

Watts also wrote other series as I'm sure you know, Blade, The Storms, Sam Spur and Hodge which came out under his Chisholm or James pen names.

McAllister also has minor roles in some of Watt's stand alone books.

Monday, November 8, 2021

Paperback Warrior Primer - Edward S. Aarons

Author Edward S. Aarons is mostly associated with his long-running and successful series Assignment, starring a CIA agent named Sam Durell. However, Aarons was extremely prolific in the decades prior to his Assignment books. In today's Paperback Warrior Primer, we reveal who Edward S. Aarons is and delve into his remarkable literary career. 

Edward Sidney Aarons was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1916. He attended Columbia University and gained degrees in both literature and history. At the young age of 17, Aarons had his hands in writing short stories while also working through college as a newspaper reporter and a fisherman. This experience probably lends itself to his crime-noir novels, which typically feature reporters and/or fishing towns in the Northeast.

By the end of the 1930s, Aarons had three full-length novels written - Death in a Lighthouse (aka Cowl of Doom), Murder Money, (aka $1 Million in Corpses), and The Corpse Hangs High. These novels were published by Phoenix Press and authored under the name Edward Ronns. 

Like most of the mid-20th Century authors, Aarons served in WW2. He was part of the U.S. Navy between 1941-1945 and reached the rank of Chief Petty officer. During his military service, Aarons sold a lot of his short stories to the pulps. He was featured in the late 1930s and 1940s pulps like Thrilling Detective, Angel Detective, Detective Story Magazine, Complete Detective, etc. According to Crime Mystery and Gangster Fiction Magazine Index, I found 92 short stories listed from the 30s through the 50s under the name Edward Ronns. Needless to say, by the time Aarons was discharged from the Coast Guard in 1945 he transitioned smoothly into full-time writing. 

In 1947, his hardcover Terror in the Town was published. It was later reprinted in 1964, complete with a suspenseful, horror-styled cover. I had the opportunity to review it for the blog HERE. In 1947 and 1948, Aarons wrote two novels starring Jerry Benedict, a newspaper cartoonist who functions as a private-eye. The first one was called Lady, the Guy is Dead, which would also be printed as No Place to Live. The second book was called Gift of Death and I had the opportunity to review it HERE. Like Terror in the Town, Aarons used a distinct atmosphere with moonlit graves, dark cornfields and a weird menace styled-subplot involving a family curse. Also in 1948 Aarons saw his novel Nightmare published internationally. I also have a review of that novel HERE.

Up until 1950, each of Aarons' published novels listed his name as Edward Ronns. But, in 1950 he used the pseudonym of Paul Ayres to contribute to the Casey, Crime Photographer series created by George Harmon Coxe. The series installment was Dead Heat. In 1951, his novel The Net was published by Graphic and reviewed HERE. Most of the author's 1950s crime-noir novels were published by the top crime-fiction company at the time - Fawcett Gold Medal. They published stuff like Escape to Love, Passage to Terror, Come Back, My Love, The Sinners, Catspaw Ordeal, The Decoy and so forth. But at the same time, Aarons was also being published by Harlequin, Graphic and Avon. In 1950, he had five novels published, two in 1951, two in 1952, two in 1953, and then one more in 1954. 

It is remarkable to think that Edward S. Aarons had 20 novels published before he really struck gold. His career trajectory is very similar to John D. MacDonald. Aarons honed his craft in the pulps and wrote stand-alone novels until he was ready to launch a series character that carried him financially for the rest of his career. For Aarons, this was his Assignment series starring CIA operative Sam Durrell and published by Fawcet Gold Medal.

The first series installment is Assignment to Disaster, published in 1955. After the debut, the series ran for 48 installments through 1983. Each book in the Assignment is mostly a stand alone title - the original printings weren’t even numbered. The series hero, Sam Durrell, is a Cajun from Louisiana who left the swamps to attend Yale. It's there that he learned several foreign languages. Later, he served in WW2 in the OSS - which was the real-life precursor to the CIA. When readers first meet Sam in 1955, he’s an operative in the CIA’s espionage division.

Each novel is a single assignment for Sam. He needs to carry out each mission for the CIA, with his adversaries generally being the Soviets, the Chinese, or one of their client states. Many of the books provide the setting in the title: Assignment Bangkok, Assignment Peking, Assignment Budapest, etc. Others are named after the sexy vixens Sam encounters on his adventure: Assignment Helene, Assignment Madeline, Assignment Zorya, etc. Sam meets a lot of different people trying to get his mission off the ground, and they all join forces to succeed. Assignment is like a combination of Nick Carter: Killmaster and Matt Helm. Better than Killmaster, not as good as Helm. 

Edward S. Aarons wrote the first 42 Assigntment installments up until his death. His last book, Assignment Afghan Dragon, was released post-humously in 1976. Then, also in 1976, the 43rd installment, Assignment Sheeba, was released under the by-line of Will B. Aarons - the brother of  Edward. There were six Assignment books under the Will Aarons name released through 1983. There are two important things to know about the Will Aarons installments.

First, series fans generally agree that these books don't possess the same quality. Second, Will Aarons didn't author these books. He hired a ghost writer named Lawrence Hall to write them. This mystery was crowdsourced and solved on the Mystery File website, and you can read the sequence of edits to their article solving this authorship HERE.

But, aside from the Assignment installments, Edward Aarons was able to sprinkle in another 10 unrelated novels through 1962. Some of these were based on screenplays like Hell to Eternity, published in 1960 and reviewed HERE.

Edward Sidney Aarons died from a heart ailment in New Milford, Connecticut in 1975 at the young age of 58. His obituary in the NY Times stated that his Assignment books sold more than 23 million copies and were reprinted in 17 languages.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Circle of Secrets

Jon Messman proved to be a prolific and diverse author throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He created the wildly successful The Trailsman series of adult westerns, contributed installments in the Nick Carter: Killmaster spy series as well as authoring his Handyman and Revenger series of men's action adventure novels. Messman also wrote horror and stand-alone thrillers, but surprisingly, he also authored gothic romance novels under the pseudonyms Claudette Nicole and Pamela Windsor. After reading a lot of Messman's work, I decided to try one of his Nicole gothics, Circle of Secrets. It was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1972.

Kim Morrison and Mary Ellen met and became friends in college. Years later, the two still remain long distance friends and communicate through letters and phone calls. Oddly, Mary Ellen only talks to Kim after midnight and maintains a bit of secrecy concerning her personal life. On their most recent phone call, Mary Ellen seemed distressed, motivating Kim to pack her bags to make a visit. The next day, Kim receives the deed to Mary Ellen's house, a beautiful old plantation home off the coast of Georgia. The property, known as Starset, has been passed down from generation to generation, and apparently Kim is the new owner. But, what's going on with Mary Ellen?

Kim's visit to Georgia is plagued with issues. She receives an ominous telephone call warning her to stay away from Starset. Within a few miles of Starset, someone shoots Kim's tire. Further, there are multiple attempts to murder her using things like rattlesnakes and faulty stairs. Kim discovers that Starset has remained empty for years and there is no sign that Mary Ellen has recently lived in this house. After further investigation, Kim discovers an old gravestone on the property...and Mary Ellen's name is on it. Mary Ellen has been dead for three years! Has Kim been communicating with a ghost this whole time!?!

Circle of Secrets is a more of a murder mystery than a gothic. Traditionally, these gothic novels describe the house in so much detail that they become a character. In those books, most of the suspense and intrigue occur inside the walls of the lavish mansion or castle. Messman still includes the mansion (and vulnerable woman), but he places most of the mystery outside of the house. Like a toned down detective novel, Kim interviews the minister, coroner and town residents about Mary Ellen's mysterious death. Slowly, the book evolves from the ghostly tease to a flat-out crime-noir mystery. However, Messman rips the rug out from under the whole thing on the very last pages. It becomes a frustrating open-ended finale where readers can draw their own conclusions on who, or what, is terrorizing Kim. 

If you can purchase a copy of Circle of Secrets on the cheap, then I recommend it. It's a murder mystery cloaked by gothic drapery with great artwork and colors. Additionally, Messman is such a great writer that even this average read is enhanced by his storytelling magic. 

Buy the brand new edition from Cutting Edge Books HERE.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Drenai Saga #01 - Legend

Former British juvenile delinquent turned bar bouncer, journalist, and author David Gemmell (1948-2006) was a writer of violent men’s adventure stories in a fantasy fiction wrapper. Conventional wisdom says that his finest work is the 1984 novel Legend. So, it seemed like a good place to start.

Like all fantasy novels, there’s a lot of world-building that needs to take place before the plot can truly unfold. Gemmell introduces the readers to the relevant tribes who live distantly with one another and periodically engage in trade and war. As the novel opens, a new war is brewing. Our home team heroes are The Drenai who popularly-elect their rulers. They are about to be invaded from the north by a barbarian tribe called The Nadir under the leadership of a superstitious warlord named Ulric. The Drenai people need to raise and train an army, and time is running out.

Our initial protagonist is Rek the Wanderer. He’s a good-natured former Drenai soldier who travels about on his own while engaging in trade and adventures on the road. He’s good with a sword and a bow, but not a huge fan of indiscriminate killing. While travelling, he meets a female swords-woman named Virae, and they become a pair.

The Drenai have a legend about a warrior named Druss who single-handedly defeated 10,000 enemy warriors in a battle years ago. Druss is long gone - maybe dead or maybe just really old and reclusive. As Ulric’s Nadir army of barbarians comes closer to the populated areas of Drenai, the only hope is finding Druss the Legend and hoping that the old warrior is alive and still has some fight left in him.

You know and I know that Druss isn’t dead. Just look at the book’s cover! Once we finally get to know Druss as a character, this good paperback gets great. I won’t spoil it here, but all the stories you’ve read about once-great heroes coming out of retirement for one last battle apply here. Druss is awesome, and the training and battle scenes are epic, bloody, glorious fun. If the novel has any failing, there just wasn’t enough Druss for me.

Legend is a fantasy novel, but there are no dragons or hobbits. There are psychic albinos who form a warrior priesthood obliged to inject themselves into this forthcoming conflict. Most of the paperback follows Druss, Rek and the Drenai preparing for a battle against Ulric’s giant Army with the book’s climax being the lopsided battle itself. It’s remarkably exciting stuff filled with tactical detail, and the pages will fly by.

Legend is a dense read. There are dozens of important named characters, so I kept my own index to keep track of everybody. The geography of the Drenai World is also relevant, and there’s a useful map available to download from the internet that I consulted frequently. To fully appreciate the greatness of this paperback, the reader has to put in some work. It’s completely worth it, but you want to reserve Legend for a week when you have some time to focus.

Best fantasy-adventure novel ever? I’m no expert on this genre, but it was a damn fine read, and I will probably dip into Gemmell’s other novels detailing the battles of Druss and the people of Drenai. Get a copy HERE

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Land God Gave to Cain

British adventure author Hammond Innes had a very specific writing ritual. He spent six months researching a location and then six months writing a novel that takes place in or around that vicinity. For his mid-career effort, The Land God Gave to Cain (1958), he traveled to Labrador, a cold region in Canada's northeastern region of Newfoundland. Innes visited the area extensively in 1953, but then traveled there again for his novel. Innes stated that on his first journey to Labrador, he traveled nearly 400 miles into the rugged interior, living in primitive railroad construction camps. He used trains, track motors, trucks, float planes, and helicopters to see the full scope of this majestic area. Eventually, he even roughed the area on foot. 

The travels that Innes made into the Labrador interior parallel those that young Ian Ferguson makes in the third act of The Land God Gave to Cain. By having first hand experience in this area prior to the commencement of full rail travel, Innes paints a realistic picture for readers. Innes places Ferguson and readers into the wild, into flatlands brimming with ice and dotted by hundreds of lakes and rivers between forests of muskeg trees. But oddly, the story begins in suburban London with a simple radio broadcast.

Engineer Ian Ferguson has returned home to London after receiving word that his father, James, has died. James lost the use of his legs during WW1. Confined to a chair, James visited the outside world through Ham radio. When Ian arrives at his father's house, he finds James' bedroom filled with maps and notes about Labrador, Canada. After studying the radio log, he finds that his father died upon hearing a radio broadcast from Labrador. What was this mysterious message?

Ian discovers that his father was tracking a small group of scouts in northeastern Canada. These journeymen would relay their coordinates by radio at various outposts and camps. James simply wrote them all down. Using a map, their trek through the wilderness was something James felt a part of, even when faced with paralysis 15,000 miles away. But, the men disappeared and after days of searching, only one made it out of the wilderness, a French-Canadian man named Laroche. He reported that the rest of the party died in a plane crash or succumbed quickly to the elements. But, days after Laroche's account to authorities, James received a radio broadcast from one of the men Laroche claimed was dead. This broadcast was sent in the dead of night from an aircraft radio in the Labrador interior. Was it a distress call from a dead man?

Because of the importance these men, and mission, had with his father, Ian begins to unravel the mystery. But, the Canadian authorities are quick to resist and claim that Laroche is telling the truth and that there are no signs or indications that anyone else survived. Further, they claim it is physically impossible that Ian's father could have received this distress call from the plane's shortwave radio. First, the plane supposedly sank in an unknown lake. Second, the radio's distance would be just a few hundred miles, not thousands of miles halfway across the globe.

With raw determination and a hunch, Ian travels to Labrador to interview Laroche and learn details about the group's crash. From there, Hammond Innes injects loads of mystery, intrigue and history into the novel's second act. Ian's quest for clues leads to a lot of questions. Additionally, Ian learns that his father had a very good reason for being so interested in this area of Canadian wilderness. The novel's third act is a thrilling pursuit to solve the riddle. 

The fact that Innes keeps readers in the dark for two-thirds of the book is clever, but antagonizing at the same time. I loved the mystery and what Innes forced me to do as a reader - follow the same clues provided to Ian and form a hypothesis on what this whole thing actually means. But, on the other hand, I was often angry because the supporting characters were so vague and aloof. I wanted instant gratification. I demanded instant entertainment. But, this was 1958 and Innes forced me to be patient and work for it.

If you love high-adventure novels set in exotic locations, The Land God Gave to Cain is sure to please you. It has a core mystery, a perceptive protagonist, an obstacle to overcome and an appetite for thrilling adventure. Also, it's a frosty novel in the vein of John Broxholme, Desmond Bagley and Alistair MacLean. If that isn't an invitation, I don't know what is. Just read the book. Get it HERE

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Mack Regan #04 - Murder Makes the Corpse

The history of this paperback and publisher are nearly as interesting than the book itself. Bear with me - we’ll get to the review shortly.

The short novel was printed by a British publication called Tit-Bits (quit your snickering), a publication that ran from 1881 to 1984. The magazine’s specialty was human-interest stories, and some issues featured short stories or even short novels in their entirety. H. Rider Haggart and Isaac Asimov were both published in Tit-Bits.

Tit-Bits published five short novels by journeyman U.K. Author Harry Hossant using the pseudonym Sean Gregory. The novels were:

Murder Comes Easily (1953)
Murder Bangs a Big Drum (1954)
Murder Is Too Permanent (1954)
Murder Makes the Corpse (1954)
Murder Makes Mockery (1955)

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to definitively confirm whether Murder Comes Easily and Murder Makes Mockery were actually part of the same series starring his recurring character. But, based on the titles and the clustered publication years, it seems likely.

The known paperbacks feature a crime-solving Hollywood agent named Mack Regan, and they’re hard as hell to find today. The good news is that one of the 1954 confirmed books in the series, Murder Makes the Corpse, has been reprinted as the B-Side of a trade paperback double from Armchair Fiction along with Mike Brett’s Scream Street.

How’s the book?

Our narrator is Mack Regan, a Hollywood Press Agent (today, we’d call him a publicist) who receives a call from a TV singer named Kay Ransome seeking to engage Mack’s services. Before the new client meeting takes place, Mack learns that Kay was shot to death in her apartment - a bad deal for Mack since he never got paid by this would-be new client.

Soon thereafter, Mack is visited in his office by Kay’s kid sister Lynn, who is understandably upset about her sister’s murder. According to Lynn, Kay was  in some kind of trouble and frightened for her life. Now Lynn wants to engage Mack to investigate Kay’s murder for the lofty sum of $300. None of this makes much sense - to Mack or the reader - because Mack is a Hollywood press agent not a private detective. As such, he urges the grieving girl to save her money and let the police handle the murder investigation.

Lynn later informs Mack that her dead sister was apparently mixed up - sexually, that is - with a San Francisco racketeer under investigation for tax evasion. It appears likely that Kay has stashed away some of the mobster’s hidden money in her own safe deposit box. Against his initial judgement, Mack agrees to help Lynn solve Kay’s murder despite the high likelihood of Mack getting sideways with a well-resourced underworld figure.

Meanwhile, we also learn that the police are investigating a series of grave robberies over the past year. Dig this: Someone has been stealing entire dead bodies from caskets buried in the ground. Not cool. This all coincides with Mack taking on a funeral home and cemetery as a new client in search of publicity in exchange for a lofty retainer of $100 per week.

Eventually, the three plot threads - Kay’s murder, the cemetary publicity gig, and the grave robberies - are shuffled together to form one full deck of a plot. Mack is a great main character - funny, competent, and charismatic. He’s got a steady girlfriend, so he spends zero pages trying to get laid - unusual for a 1950s crime paperback. Also unusual: the hardest beverage Mack drinks is orange juice.

The most amazing thing about Murder Makes the Corpse is the author’s economical writing style. A lot happens over the course of the 63-page novel, and not a word is wasted along the way. It was a popular gambit in the 1950s for foreigners to write mysteries set in the glamorous USA (Carter Brown and Larry Kent among them), and this one carries it off with only a few accidental U.K. references.  

This is a charming mystery with some original elements and a main character you want to accompany on more adventures. Unfortunately, that will be an expensive project given the scarcity of surviving Tit-Bits novels. We should all be thankful that Armchair Fiction has reprinted Murder Makes the Corpse as it was a lot of fun to read. Recommended.