Monday, January 31, 2022

A Taste for Sin

Gil Brewer (1922-1983) was a prolific author of paperback original crime novels in the mid-20th century before his life was consumed with alcohol and personal demons. He was at the top of his game in 1961 when he wrote A Taste for Sin, a novel that’s been reprinted by Stark House Press

Our narrator is Jim Phalen, an employee at the Happytime Liquor Store.  As the novel opens, he’s been invited to the house of a horny local housewife for some afternoon delight. Her name is Felice, and her unwitting husband works at the local bank. She’s a conniving and kinky bitch — more on that later. 

Phalen is not a good and honorable person either. He rents a room in a dilapidated lodge with a toilet that barely functions, and he can barely afford those spartan accommodations on his meager salary. He recounts his brutally-violent past, and, man, it’s something else. Brace yourself for some insane violence throughout this book. Anyway, it’s clear that Phalen’s intention is to somehow leverage the rich, married lady he’s banging to change the direction of his life.

Meanwhile, Phalen is dealing with the fallout of a petty crime he committed that spun out of control. He needs to be deceptively clever to avoid getting caught. Felice learns about Phalen’s money troubles and pressures him into a scheme to rip off the bank and kill her husband. 

What we have here is a femme fatale heist novel and a rather excellent one at that. A Taste for Sin showcases some of the best actual prose writing I’ve ever read from Brewer. The sex scenes are more graphic than usual for 1961, and the action scenes are a genuine bloodbath. I’ve always cited The Vengeful Virgin and 13 French Street as Brewer’s masterworks, but A Taste For Sin is the new top-of-the-heap. Highest recommendation. 

Friday, January 28, 2022

John Blake #01 - Little Girl Lost

Charles Ardai is the founder and publisher of the Hard Case Crime paperback imprint. Using the pseudonym Richard Aleas, he wrote two original, contemporary mystery novels starring a New York private eye named John Blake for Hard Case Crime. The first Blake novel, Little Girl Lost (2004), was nominated for an Edgar Award and remains available today in all formats.

The paperback opens with Blake remembering Miranda Sugarman, the sweet neighborhood girl who took his virginity years ago. She left Blake behind after high school to attend a university with a goal to become a doctor. Blake learns of her death from an exploitive newspaper headline reading, “Stripper Murdered.” Without a client, he decided to investigate her death and gain a better understanding of his former friend’s life and death.

One of my favorite elements of the set-up is Blake’s boss in the PI firm, a much older ex-cop named Leo, who plucked Blake out of college and mentored him in the investigation racket. He’s the perfect, world-weary antithesis to Blake’s youthful idealism and quest for justice. He’s also well-connected within the NYPD and a great asset to Blake’s side.

The trail to the truth takes Blake into the behind-the-scenes world of seedy NYC strip clubs. It’s a fascinating look behind the curtain as Blake encounters a conspiracy of dope, missing college girls and much more. Blake is a fallible hero who takes more than a few beatings, but is always smart, capable and upbeat. His narration moves the plot forward at a good pace and is never boring.

Ardai is a much better writer than I was expecting, and Little Girl Lost was a solid, workmanlike private eye mystery with plenty of twists leading to the satisfying solution. It’s an easy recommendation, and I look forward to reading the sequel, Songs of Innocence, from 2011.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Steve Savage #02 - The Omega Assignment

David Lewis, real name Patton D. Lewis, authored a two book series of spy novels for Pinnacle in 1976. In my research, I couldn't locate anything about Lewis other than a lot of Google hits on the western writer Lewis B. Patten. The series stars part-time British Secret Intelligence Agent Steve Savage. The first novel is The Andromeda Assignment and the follow-up is The Omega Assignment. In working backwards, I'm reading and reviewing The Omega Assignment

Savage's origin tale, printed on the back of each novel, advises readers that he joined a freighter at the age of 14. He was later degraded by the Captain and beaten for six straight weeks. He managed to escape into Hong Kong and learned martial arts in exchange for cleaning a gym. He then returned to London and trained as a photographer. He has covered war and fighting throughout the world, including Vietnam, the Middle East and Belfast. His agent, Gregor de Freitas, operates as an SIS frontman after escaping the Soviet Union. Savage's capabilities to enter communist countries as a photographer allows him to work part-time as a secret agent under Freitas' guidance. Lewis warns readers that “This man is dangerous!”

In The Omega Assignment, a multi-millionaire German man named Braeder frequently entertains politicians and members of NATO on an ocean liner called Clytherea. On board, Braeder provides sadistic thrills that includes various types of sex, S&M, rape, and torture. Braeder “liberates” these sick leaders and allows them to engage in their wildest fantasies. But, he records all of this on video tape in an elaborate ruse. Here's how it works:

Braeder sinks Clytherea and uses the recorded tape as blackmail to obtain a small hydrogen bomb that fits into a suitcase. He then trades this bomb to Middle East fanatics for an extremely large supply of heroin. He then makes connections with the largest mafia families in America to become their chief supplier. With a surplus of heroin, he slowly begins to reduce the supply to the mob. To free up the supply chain, Braeder demands more money for the drug. Thus, Braeder begins raking in the dough and makes himself...king of the world?

While I don't know exactly what Braeder hopes to accomplish with all of his money, the narrative outlining all of this was a real pleasure to read. Savage becomes involved as an underwater photographer gaining footage exploring the sunken Clytherea. Lewis writes the underwater exploration portion so well. He thrusts the reader into these gloomy, dark hallways and rooms as Savage explores the ship. There are floating corpses and a plethora of art and jewels to photograph, but Savage is placed in peril when his diving partner is killed by a booby trap inside the ship.

Without ruining the fun, Savage teams up with an American female narcotics agent named Destiny, while assisting the CIA and British intelligence. The explosive narrative has Savage facing a variety of criminals on land, air and sea. Most of the plot develops in Cyprus and culminates in Destiny being captured and taken to Braeder's enormous beach-side fortress. Savage purposefully becomes captured in an effort to free her from the inside. He also teams up with an older Greek paramilitary unit known as EOKA for the finale. 

I felt that the first two acts of The Omega Assignment was a lot of fun and read like a B version of a Jack Higgins novel. The last act was really over the top with Savage forced to fight in the nude gladiator style against Braeder's “strong guy.” I thought that this final battle was more like a Richard Blade adventure complete with zany antics that made the conclusion a bit cartoonish. If you love action-packed adventure and espionage, then The Omega Assignment is an entertaining read. I liked it enough to search for the first book online. To my knowledge, these books have never been reprinted, but remain fairly affordable as used paperbacks.

Note: Thanks to Spy, Guys, and Gals for additional information about this series.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Vee Brown - The Complete Cases #01

Vee Brown starred in 18 violent mini-novels between 1932 and 1936 in the pages of Dime Detective Magazine. The stories were authored by Carroll John Daly, the inventor of hardboiled crime fiction and his popular Race Williams character. Steeger Books has released two volumes of Vee Brown novellas comprising the entire series run. I sampled two of the stories from the first compilation to get a taste for the character. 

Vee is a violent gun-toting police detective who is also a mild-mannered and educated Tin-Pan Alley songwriter of sentimental tunes — a secret side-hustle that brings the supercop tremendous wealth. Think Cole Porter or George Gershwin with a taste for justice and criminal blood. The Vee Brown stories are narrated by a newspaper reporter named Dean Condon who shadows Vee on the job and writes about his adventures for the paper.  

“The Crime Machine”

I started at the beginning with the first Vee Brown adventure - a short story called “The Crime Machine” from 1932. 

As the novella opens, reporter Dean Condon is preparing to meet Vee and ride-along with him for a newspaper article. Condon is nervous because Vee has earned a reputation as the most relentless hunter and killer of criminals on the police force. When Vee and Condon meet face-to-face, they make the connection that the two knew one another back in college as passing acquaintances. 

Because “The Crime Machine” is the series intro, it exists to establish the Holmes-Watson relationship between the crime-fighter and his sidekick documentarian - a dynamic that persists throughout the entire series. As such, the plot is rather thin - like a TV series pilot episode. 

On their first outing together, they are hunting Killer Regan, who shot up a theater during a robbery murdering a female cashier. Vee’s orders from the District Attorney’s office is to produce Regan dead or alive. On the prowl, Vee is stealthy as The Shadow — seeming to disappear while infiltrating the criminal’s lair with a perpetually-amazed Condon in-tow. 

There’s plenty of tough talk and violent pulpy action to enjoy - as well as the big reveal where Condon learns that the deadly hero is also “The Master of Melody” who publishes popular sheet music under his given name of Vivian. Despite the simplicity of the plot, the short-story was a total blast and left the reader hungry for more. 

“The Price of Silence”

The ninth Vee Brown adventure is “The Price of Silence", the final story in Volume One of the Steeger Books collection. It’s a 50-page novella from 1933 published when Daly had hit his stride with the series. 

The story opens with the crime scene investigation of a wealthy woman stabbed in the chest in her own home while her husband slept upstairs. Because it’s 1933, a police inspector comments that such things are to be expected in the city’s Italian neighborhood, but not in the victim’s upscale community. 

Fortunately, the killer left behind a calling card identifying himself as “The Black Death” which seems like a decent lead for Vee to launch his investigation. He quickly deduces that the victim was likely a blackmail victim who failed to pay off her tormenter resulting in death. 

Vee quickly identifies a suspect for the murder - a society dandy behind a gang of racketeers handling the dirty work of shaking down the blackmail victims. Vee’s plan is to squeeze the henchmen with death threats until they identify their boss. 

As the narrator, Condon finds himself at the center of the action when he is held captive by the thugs awaiting Vee’s return. When they reunite, Vee and Condon follow leads through a rather convoluted mystery plot leading to the exciting confrontation you always knew was coming. 

I enjoyed these two Vee Brown stories enough to continue with the series in the future. Steeger Books have released a second volume compiling the final nine novellas. I’m looking forward to checking them out. Recommended. Get your copy HERE.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Arrow #01 - Wine, Women...and Death

According to his website, Walter Deptula Jr. graduated from Columbia University and became both a Naval Aviator and an educator at California community colleges. Along with acting, writing, and producing community theater, Deptula also authored a six book series of men's action-adventure novels in the 1970s. The Arrow series stars Franco Arronelli, known as Frank Arrow, as a professional thief living in Hawaii. The debut, Wine, Women...and Death was published by Curtis Books (a subsidiary of CBS) in 1974. 

As a young man, Arrow worked the beat in Staten Island as a patrol officer. During a bank heist, Arrow is shot in the leg while fatally shooting the thief. During the struggle, Arrow swiped $4,000 from the bank drawer. Being wet behind the ears, Arrow buys a new car and is eventually kicked from the force. Arrow then develops a long career as a self-employed thief. He is paid by clients and insurance companies to steal back stolen goods – a thief of thieves. 

In the backstory, readers learn of Arrow's most recent undertaking, but it's only later in the novel that the events are explained in detail. A criminal named Serranto, possibly working for someone, robs a prominent jewelry store. After the successful heist, Serranto hides the jewels in a tomb on a large New York estate. The insurance company hires Arrow to find the jewels and agrees to his 25% commission fee. But, Arrow learns that some of the jewels are ancient relics traced back to an early English empire. If he can retrieve the jewels, his commission will be an extremely lucrative payout. 

Deptula's middle chapters are dedicated to Arrow's preparation and planning to retrieve the stolen jewels. These chapters were written so well and reminded me of great mid-20th century heist fiction by the likes of Dan Marlowe and Lionel White. In these chapters, Deptula absolutely shines. I loved the setup, planning, disguises, team players, and ultimately the execution. It's not imitation, but clearly the author was influenced by the crime-noir masters.

Surprisingly, Wine, Women...and Death isn't just a heist novel. Instead, the events of the heist lead Arrow into an underworld of bloody violence. Someone on Arrow's team sells him out to Serranto and his fiance is murdered. In a desperate bid for revenge, Arrow must not only find and kill Serranto, but also discover who the real mastermind is. It's this part of the book that is simply a product of its time. This is straight-laced, 1970s gritty action that is probably spawned by Mack Bolan and countless other paperback vigilantes of the era. 

I loved all of the little nuances that are associated with the character. Arrow lives in a beach-side mansion and possesses all of the luxuries one would expect – private plane, helicopter, employees, a compound and a pet shark (which plays into the book's finale). While not completely over the top with gunplay, the book still packs a serious punch in terms of action-oriented fight scenes. The author's presentation of Arrow and his fiance was really important and added a personal investment for me. I wanted Arrow to kill the SOBs that tortured and killed his lover. The book made me feel something, and that's always an important factor.

While this series mostly receives lukewarm reviews online, I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed the debut. I hope to borrow or buy the final installments. In reading the author's online comments about the series, I learned that six total books were written, but CBS shut down Curtis Books after Arrow #3 was published. The remaining books are now manuscripts that I'm sure Deptula is still hoping to publish someday. Anyone interested in releasing this trio of original novels, plus three unpublished works?

Monday, January 24, 2022

Company Man

Joseph Finder is a Boston-based bestselling author of modern contemporary thrillers. His books sell like hotcakes and are readily available at your local airport newsstand near the $25 neck pillows. My first exposure to his work is his 600-page paperback behemoth from 2005 titled Company Man, also released as No Hiding Place in the U.K.

Our protagonist is Nick Conover, the CEO of a giant office furniture manufacturer whose resistance to outsourcing production to China has resulted in major layoffs at home. The Michigan-based corporation is owned by shadowy venture capitalists from Boston who are looking for a better return on their investment than current conditions will allow. Nick’s also a widower raising two kids on his own.

The novel wastes no time propelling Nick and the reader into a whirlwind of anxiety. Lately, someone has been breaking into his empty, gated community McMansion and spray-painting veiled threats on the walls. Nick assumes the stalker/vandal is yet another disgruntled former employee pissed about a prior or pending round of layoffs. The stalker’s menace escalates with the slaughter of the family dog, and the local cops are being less-than-helpful to the guy responsible for the small-town’s rising unemployment rates.

Identifying the stalker is easy business, but things are more complicated than they seem. A bad decision in dealing with the stalker situation puts Nick in serious peril and legal jeopardy. This escalates into some high-stakes corporate skullduggery with so many plot twists that neither Nick nor the reader knows who to trust. A dogged and likable female police detective is thrown into the mix as a co-protagonist.

The author delivers the narrative in a smooth and readable style similar to John Grisham or Harlan Coben. The chapters are short and punchy with a big typeface and ample space between lines, making 600 pages feel like 400 — less than a modern doorstop paperback but still way too long for the novel’s relevant content. I recognize that big books allow a publisher to overcharge for a paperback, but the novel made me repeatedly mutter, “Get on with it, already.”

Pro-Tip: If you skip or skim all of the sections regarding Nick’s kids and dead wife and eliminate the sections about the female police officer’s family, you’ll cut out a lot of completely extraneous filler and be left with a decent thriller.

There is some good white-collar crime, corporate stuff in this paperback along with a credible police procedural crime story. The ending of the novel has a plot twist that I didn’t find completely believable, and I didn’t fall in love with any of the characters. Overall, I enjoyed Company Man enough to give the book a tepid recommendation. Get the book HERE

Friday, January 21, 2022

Dark Planet

John Thomas Phillifent (1916-1976) used the pseudonym John Rackham to author a number of science-fiction and fantasy novels. Under his real name he also wrote three novels related to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Along with 20 stand-alone novels, he also wrote two series titles, Space Puppet (1954-1955) and Chappie Jones (1960-1963). I recently acquired a crate of Ace Doubles that included a few novels under the Rackham name. Looking for adventure in a galaxy far, far away, I chose to read his 1971 novel Dark Planet.

In the future, war has enveloped the entire galaxy. Earth discovered an inhospitable planet deemed Step Two as a stopping point for vessels to re-supply and re-energize. The planet's atmosphere will eat materials like plastic and metal. Due to the acidic air, a specially designed dome was placed over a portion of the planet that functions as a military installation.

The book's protagonist, Query, has upended his military career and now finds himself doing labor as punishment on the planet of Step Two. Being a rebel at heart, Query continues to wander outside of the dome using a special space suit. In the opening pages, Query sees a figure in the distance and realizes the planet is inhabited by some sort of people.

Captain Evans and his daughter Christine arrive in Step Two and find Query. The war has escalated and their team needs an experienced ship mechanic, one of Query's many skills. The three of them fly out of the dome on an adventure to save the galaxy. But, the ship malfunctions and they free fall from 15-miles up, crash landing in Step Two's far-flung, unexplored reaches. Together, they must learn how to survive in an atmosphere that literally eats everything.

Unfortunately, there's not a lot that really happens in Dark Planet. Inevitably, the three find the bizarre people that live on the planet and they must learn from them how to survive and communicate. It's a fish out of water adventure, complete with giant worms and tree people. The hope that Rackham would write a stirring action novel was quickly dissolved by Query's romantic chemistry with one of the inhabiting females. If long conversations about the purpose of our existence is your thing, then this novel may entertain you. If not, turn the light off on Dark Planet.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

The Haunting of Ashburn House

In 2012, author Darcy Coates self-published an e-book horror novella titled Once Returned. This kick-started a self-publishing career that lasted 22 novels. She eventually signed with mystery imprint Poisoned Pen Press, which bought up the rights to all of her self-published work and made her bank account swell. Her novels mostly consist of young characters in their 20s dealing with the supernatural, often in a haunted place. From a sky level view, she is capitalizing on the 1960s and 1970s gothic suspense novels for atmosphere and imagery. But unlike those vintage “women running from houses” books, Coates switches out the romantic angle for a scarier approach. I was curious about her brand of horror after seeing stacks of her novels at my local Barnes & Noble. But, instead of laying down a hard-earned $15, I borrowed a friend's copy of The Haunting of Ashburn House. It was originally self-published in 2016 and now exists in multiple formats through Poisoned Pen Press.

Like a William Ross novel, the book begins with a familiar genre trope. Financially strapped, young Adrienne learns that her mother's grandmother's sister's daughter Edith Ashburn (that's a great aunt for those constructing an org chart) has bequeathed a large Victorian house to her. Adrienne, nicknamed Addy, arrives in a very small town with her cat Wolfgang and $50. Upon entering the little province, she finds a lot of staring eyes. Later, she learns that the house she has inherited is believed to be haunted and many of the town's citizens believed the prior owner was wacko. 

Addy's new home is 10-miles outside of town and nestled in a deep blend of forest and fields. Only the first floor has power and there is no cell coverage (and 20-yr old Addy doesn't own a phone). The upstairs is rather spooky with a lot of rooms and darkened halls due to the lack of electricity. Perhaps the strangest thing is that Edith has carved bizarre messages into the walls like, “Is it Friday, Light the Candle” or “No Mirrors”. Needless to say, strange things begin happening immediately. The power downstairs is shut off numerous times in the night, portraits seemingly come alive, and a new acquaintance is nearly killed. Oh, and zombies. 

If you've watched the cult horror flick Evil Dead 2, then you'll love your 350-page stay in Ashburn House. The wacky scenes of a corpse doing bizarre things reminded me of the unusual movements performed by Sam Raimi's characters. But, it's not designed to be funny. At least I don't think it is. The mystery is compelling with a backstory that kept me motivated to flip the pages. I didn't particularly like Abby and chastised myself for hoping she would be injured or hurt more. Coates makes her too vulnerable and weak when faced with stiff opposition. Sure, she's the hero, and by the book's end, she's a real sweetheart, but her judgment and behavior left me a bit deflated. 

I'll probably try another of Darcy Coates' books in the near future. I'm hoping there is a better result than this one. Haunting of Ashburn House is just below average when it comes to a spooky haunted house novel. But, I would imagine it is appealing to the young adult crowd. As an introduction, this is a training bra in preparation for more visceral horror ahead. It's a catchy cover and title, and God knows there are stacks of her books in the retail shops to pave the way to King, Keene, Malfi, Bates, etc. Cheers to that. 

Get the book HERE

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Dark Legend

With nearly 300 novels, Canadian native William Edward Daniel Ross is probably the most prolific gothic writer of all-time. He wrote multiple series titles under a variety of pseudonyms as well as contributing to the paperback canon of Dark Shadows television tie-ins. I've read a few of his Marilyn Ross penned gothics and find them average at best. With a lot of driving time, I decided to listen to Ross's 1966 gothic title Dark Legend. It was originally published by Paperback Library and exists as an audio download from Paperback Classics.

The story takes place in the late 1800s in a large lakeside mansion in Maine.  Protagonist Jan wakes up in a bedroom with one of the most common soap opera tropes – amnesia. She doesn't know who she is or any prior events that have placed her in this enormous mansion. Thankfully, a man she doesn't recall comforts her and explains he is her fiance and that they had a train wreck on the way from Virginia to Maine. Further, she is introduced to her cousin, aunt, former childhood nanny, and the town doctor. 

After the splendid bedside manner, Jan learns a lot about herself. She's filthy rich after inheriting her grandfather's fortune. She also learns that the neighbor is a crazy psycho that keeps vicious howling hounds patrolling his manor. Further, it's revealed that her mother was murdered by a man wearing black gloves and her father committed suicide. Because of all of this, there's supposedly a masked man wearing black gloves that haunts the mansion. Oh, and there's a summer cottage nearby that Jan is warned of. Apparently, it hosted some sort of heinous act that the family is now distancing itself from.

Dark Legend is better suited as a romance novel with a sprinkling of gothic suspense. The narrative mostly consists of Jan deciding if she wants to remain engaged despite the fact she knows nothing about her fiance. She's also attracted to the dashing town doctor and jealous of her cousin's relationship with both men. Ross spends a great deal of time on building these romance angles or having the characters organize a massive ballroom dance. There's wardrobes, guest lists and food to prepare and it stomps the brakes on any propulsive plot developments. 

There is a hint of suspense when Jan is attacked by the hooded killer repeatedly. There's some mystery surrounding the death of her mother and the weird neighbor next door to flesh out the story. None of it can really save the tired storyline though. Ross is literally just cutting and pasting these plots – estranged granddaughter with dead parents, that inherits a haunted mansion, but must contend with a bitter family member while sparking a relationship with a handsome male. Ross' inability to create unique stories makes me appreciate authors like Jon Messman (writing as Claudette Nicole) and Michael Avallone (writing as Edwina Noone). Your mileage may vary.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Matt Helm #04 - The Silencers

Matt Helm is starting to stir the place up. After dismissing the first two installments of this Donald Hamilton spy series, I knew I owed it to myself to just keep reading these titles. Thankfully, the author's western traditionalism elevated the third book, The Removers, and I found myself liking it. While I've always been critical of Helm's actual heroism, I still love Hamilton's hard-boiled storytelling. The dialogue is snappy, the complex wrinkles of international espionage are smoothed over, and these stories seem to improve more and more. Needless to say I was happy to pursue the series fourth installment, The Silencers. It was published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1962 and now exists as a reprint in physical, digital and audio.

On the last page of The Removers, Mac instructed Helm that his next assignment would involve a rural mountainside retreat. In the opening pages of The Silencers, Helm has completed this mission (details were never revealed) and is now on his newest job in New Mexico. Mac instructs Helm to cross the border into Mexico to extract a female agent code-named Sarah (she was a minor character in the series debut, Death of a Citizen). There, he teams up with another agent named Pat LeBaron to find Sarah working as a stripper in a rowdy bar in Juarez. After making eye contact with Sarah, the room explodes in violence as she is fatally stabbed (mission failure) and LeBaron is shot to death (secondary mission failure). But, Helm manages to get Sarah's sister Gail to safety. 

In talking with Mac, Helm learns that Sarah had sold-out the U.S. to become an asset for a foreign enemy. Upon her death, she had a microfilm of stolen secrets ready to provide to the enemy. Luckily, Gail has the microfilm and Helm seduces her out of her clothes to find it. In a motel room, Helm is attacked by two bad guys, but learns they are working for another U.S. agency that doesn't necessarily want to coordinate their efforts with Mac's department (CIA vs FBI feud). 

Mac advises Helm that the main bad guy is a spy named Sam Gunther, a man Gail describes as a smooth talking cowboy. The two pursue Gunther into Carlsbad, California and learn that he has aligned with top scientists to launch a missile into a group of politicians and scientists running highly-publicized seismic tests in the area. Got it? It took me a while. But, all of this is told in a rapid-fire pace that places Helm in fights with various foreign agents and an awesome finale in an old ghost town church.

There's nothing to dislike about The Silencers and, once again, the series shows improvement. In a minor way, this Helm assignment was like a Nick Carter: Killmaster installment with the layers of over-the-top action and stereotypical criminals. There's a little more comedy inserted in between fights, leading some fans to believe Hamilton was displaying a fondness for Richard Prather. I could sense some similarities, but Helm is a far cooler character than silly 'ole Shell Scott

The Silencers is another great installment to this highly respected series. Helm and I started off on the wrong foot, but after that mess with his wife (The Revengers), I'm starting to like this guy. Hamilton writes with conviction and energy, and doesn't necessarily drown the reader in details. He does just enough to make Helm a hero, but doesn't overdo it. The end result makes it a fantastic reading experience and a worthy Bond opponent (if the literary world needed one). Get a copy HERE

Monday, January 17, 2022

The University #01 - Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil is the first in the series of espionage novels by contemporary New York author Terrence McCauley. The novel was originally released in 2015 but has found new life as the inaugural release by Wolfpack Publishing’s newly-acquired imprint Rough Edges Press.

The novel stars spy James Hicks (not his real name). He’s employed by an odd organization informally known as The University. It was created by an executive order during the Eisenhower Administration to operate outside the official intelligence community to protect the USA without federal (or ethical) oversight or funding.

The University gains its power through the recruitment of high-value “Assets” — people with secrets to hide that the agency blackmails into providing expertise, information and resources. Hicks recruits these reluctant assets with information gleaned from The University’s futuristic data analytics computer called OMNI. More on that later.

The day-to-day work of The University is to embed its agents inside suspected terrorist groups with the hopes of preventing acts of terror before they happen. Hicks runs The University’s New York office and oversees these operations. For this series debut, Hicks is dealing with a group of radical Islamic Somalis operating out of a Long Island taxi stand. Somehow the Somalis figured out that they were under investigation, and they stage an ambush targeting Hicks and killing a well-placed undercover operative.

There’s a lot of world-building to give the reader a feel for the intel environment in which The University operates. Nearly the entire first half of the novel is Hicks setting the stage, recruiting help and gathering resources for the mission at-hand. In the novel’s second half, Hicks employs technology, informants, enhanced interrogation and gunplay to investigate the bad actors behind the Somali cell.

My biggest criticism is the author's over-reliance on the agency’s OMNI computer system. The system is all-knowing, all-seeing and completely unrealistic — much like the one in the 1998 Tony Scott film Enemy of the State. The problem is that this trope robs the main characters of problem-solving within the plot. A digital, crystal ball like OMNI takes the story out of the world of hardboiled gritty realism and into the realm of paranoid sci-fi. The computer system also relegates Hicks to the sidelines and in front of a computer screen for much of the novel.

Despite these structural flaws, I mostly enjoyed riding along with Hicks on this adventure. The author is at his best when writing scenes filled with violent action, and there are several of these peppered throughout the paperback - mostly toward the end. When he leaves his laptop behind, Hicks is a great hero and the author is a fine writer.

While I didn’t love Sympathy for the Devil, I’m intrigued enough by the character and the agency to continue with the series. McCauley can write his ass off when he allows his action characters to do action stuff. Mostly, I trust the editorial hand of Wolfpack Press to shepherd this series in the right direction. For that reason, I’ll probably be back for more. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Friday, January 14, 2022

Dragon's Fists

There's an interesting backstory behind the vintage paperback Dragon's Fists. It was published in 1974 by Award Books, a subsidiary of Universal Publishing under the pseudonym Jim Dennis. The novel was actually written by Dennis O'Neil and James Berry. O'Neil was a prolific comic book writer with works including Green Lantern, Amazing Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men. Berry was a comic strip artist associated with the long-running Berry's World

The 1970s provided a fertile landscape for men's action-adventure paperbacks, so the proposal was for Dragon's Fists to become a series. The title page inside states #1 and the book is a clear origin story. It was designed to propel Kung-Fu master Richard Dragon, the book's main character, into a long-running publication. Unfortunately, the book wasn't a success and Award Books canceled the series. Was the novel that bad?

Through numerous flashbacks, readers learn that Richard Dragon's parents were very wealthy. Dragon, in defiance, wasted his childhood by creating a lot of chaos for himself and the family. He was kicked out of numerous schools and universities and refused to conform to his father's rules. As a young adult, Dragon became a thief in Japan and attempted to rob an older gentleman. The man ridicules Dragon, but finds that he has the ability to do good things if he can change his attitude. This man, referred to as O-Sensei, is a Kung-Fu master. He teaches Dragon martial arts and how to live life in a positive way. 

With his new skills, Dragon joins an espionage agency called G.O.O.D. (Global Organization of Organized Defense) and serves as an agent for a number of years. After he leaves the agency, Dragon becomes a martial arts teacher. In the opening pages, Dragon's friend Carolyn comes to him to ask for help. In a quick fight scene, Carolyn is kidnapped by a male villain named The Swiss. He also murders Carolyn's uncle in a quest to locate a series of numbers.

The bulk of the narrative is spent with Dragon trying to locate The Swiss in Paris. There's a number of violent fight scenes to keep readers engaged, but the story is fragmented due to the flashback sequences. It reminded me of the old Kung-Fu television show where the main character finds conflict and is reminded of some important lesson he learned from his master. The action is great, the story is convoluted, and the pace is jarring. Beyond collectible nostalgia, there probably isn't a reason to hunt this book down.

Fortunately, Richard Dragon continued in comic book format and has become a stable, popular character within the D.C. Comics universe. The character first appeared in comic book format in 1975 under the title Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter. That series lasted 18 issues. The Richard Dragon series launched again in 2004 and ran 12 issues. Since the 1970s, the character has appeared repeatedly as both a hero and villain. Most recently, Richard Dragon appeared on the television show Arrow and the animated Batman film Soul of the Dragon

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Wild Oats

Florida’s King-of-Paperbacks Harry Whittington (1915-1989) had four paperback original novels published in 1954. One of those included a juvenile delinquent book called Wild Oats that promised “The story of a young girl’s moral degradation.”  The novel was originally published by Uni Books and is now available as a reprint from Armchair Fiction. 

Amy has a troubled background. Her father left her mother for another woman and moved to Tampa, leaving his wife and Amy behind. As the novel opens, 15 year-old Amy is hitchhiking to Tampa to be with her estranged dad. She lands a ride with a creepy trucker who tries to rape her until a trooper intervenes and sends her back home to mom. 

Both Amy and her mom are relatively new residents in the small Florida town of Duval, a sleepy hamlet divided into a caste system with a distinct class-based pecking order. Amy and her divorced mother are toward the bottom, but Mama is hell-bent on some social climbing. Her bright idea is for Amy to befriend the high school’s Alpha-girl, a bitchy teen named Clarice.

Amy quickly befriends the wealthy Clarice and begins to slide into delinquency - booze, cutting school, and pressure to engage in sexual activity as an initiation into Clarice’s No Virgins girl gang. The sex stuff is all off-page and more repugnant than titillating. On the other side of this teen malfeasance is a nice high school boy who thinks Amy is just swell. 

I kept waiting for something interesting or edgy to happen, but the whole thing felt like an After School Special about the dangers of peer pressure. At best, Wild Oats is an interesting artifact from the juvenile delinquent paperback fad. However, the novel is beneath both Harry Whittington and you. Don’t bother. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Red Menace #01 - Red and Buried

Author James Mullaney was born in Massachusetts and has an M&M addiction. To help feed his appetite, he's sold over a million books. Mullaney contributed to 26 installments of The Destroyer and wrote a six-issue arc for Marvel Comics' Iron Fist. In addition, he authors an ongoing series about a private investigator named Crag Baynon. My first experience with Mullaney is his espionage title The Red Menace. At the time of this review, there are a total of five installments. The debut, Red and Buried, was originally published by Moonstone Books in 2013. Bold Venture Press bought the rights to the first two novels and have released them as gorgeous trade paperbacks with Mark Maddox artwork. I've always enjoyed 1970s action-adventure, so I jumped right in.

In the 1950s, Patrick “Podge” Beckett donned a mask and cloak and became a U.S. secret agent named The Red Menace.  Beckett worked for the M.I.C. (Manpower and Intelligence Coordination), a short-lived bureau that was a melting pot of information gained from the C.I.A., F.B.I., Army Intelligence, and other domestic and international espionage and police agencies. By the late 1960s, invisible walls had been structured and these bureaus no longer actively (or voluntarily) coordinated with each other, instead hoarding the intelligence within their own departments. Thus, the M.I.C. slowly became obsolete. 

Red and Buried begins with a prologue set in October, 1958. The Red Menace is in the Soviet Union stopping the plans of Motherland (Russian agency similar to the KGB) to create a biological weapon. Red Menace's chief rival is the Soviet's Colonel Ivan Strankov, the director of Motherland. By the end of the exciting prologue, Red Menace has won the battle and issued a threat to Strankov – don't ever come close to America again...or you'll be dead. 

The first chapter brings the narrative into the present day of July, 1972. Readers learn that after his departure from M.I.C., Patrick Beckett started a lucrative and successful security consulting firm. His days as Red Menace are a distant memory. Beckett now lives a comfortable, luxurious life at the beach. A young man arrives and introduces himself as Simon Kirk, the son of Beckett's old boss at M.I.C. Kirk is now running the department and explains that Beckett's old ally and friend has been killed by the Soviets in Cuba. He was on an assignment there working under the disguise of a fisherman when he located a hidden missile range. Kirk knows he can't get into Cuba, but he can possibly pitch a deal to Beckett. Here's the setup:

Beckett will take on an assignment for the M.I.C. and figure out what's going on in Cuba. But, he needs to be invited there personally. Kirk knows Beckett declines business opportunities from any Communist country. But, he suggests that Beckett propose a security consultation with a dictator in Uganda. After setting up security forces for Uganda, that nation will spread the word that Beckett has finally placed money before his personal ethics. Then, Fidel Castro's people will invite Beckett into Cuba to analyze their security measures. Once he is there, Beckett will have free reign to snoop around and find the missiles. Or, Castro will personally invite him to the launch pad to consult with the Soviets. 

All of this may seem convoluted, but it is rather simple. Mullaney places pure enjoyment and humor over technical nuances about 1970s weaponry. In doing so, he makes Red and Buried such a pleasure to read. Beckett's partner is Dr. Thaddeus Wainwright, a hilarious character that is sarcastic and intelligent. The pairing is similar to The Destroyer's Remo Williams and Chiun, an obvious influence on Mullaney's writing style and concept. The narrative is propelled by laugh-out-loud moments with Wainwright frequently ridiculing Fidel Castro's dictatorship. In terms of action, it's almost nonstop once the story gets rolling. Even in the slower parts, there are flashback sequences pertaining to Strankov's rise in the Soviet Union as well as prior Red Menace adventures. 

If you love modern pulp, then The Red Menace is a mandatory series for you to read. It's fresh, remarkably well-written, and incredibly entertaining. I can't wait to see where the series goes next. Highly recommended! Get the book HERE

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Concho #01 - The Ranger

According to Wikipedia, Charles Gramlich teaches psychology at Xavier University. Born in 1958, Gramlich grew up in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. His first published novels were in the late 1990s, with his influences ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Louis L'Amour. Gramlich has authored fantasy titles like Swords of Talera and Wings Over Telera. In addition to writing in genres like sci-fi, mystery, and romance, Gramlich used Wolfpack Publishing's house name A.W. Hart to author an ongoing modern western series called Concho. My first experience with the author and the series is the debut, The Ranger.

The series stars Concho Ten-Wolves, a 6'-4” former Army Ranger that now works the Rio Grande border as a Texas Ranger. His heritage is African-American and Kickapoo Native-American. He lives on the Kickapoo reservation and has an on again, off again relationship with a woman named Maria. His uncle Meskwaa is the stereotypical funny guy and there's also a rat snake named Maggie.

As the novel begins, Concho receives a call for law-enforcement assistance at the local shopping mall. Inside, members of a terrorist group called The Aryan Brotherhood have executed five people and taken numerous hostages. With no back-up force, Concho takes his two handguns, a 30-06 rifle and a bow and arrow into the mall to make the save. In an exciting battle, Concho kills a number of terrorists with random weapons and ultimately becomes the hero.

After a verbal beat-down, Concho is relieved of his duty for a week, but not suspended. But, he is retained by the local sheriff's office when two bodies are discovered. One of the men is the Chief of the Tribal Police and the other has a distant relationship with Concho. Through flashbacks, readers gain an introspective understanding of Concho's upbringing, his military service, and glimpses of a failed relationship with his biological father. These elements help define the character and make for an interesting “open-book” concept that should propel the series. 

Concho's investigation into the two deaths leads him into conflict with the reservation, the casino's criminal network, and ties to a Native-American gang called The Bloods. The murder mystery leads into some deadly territory where Concho finds himself a target. After surviving house fires, car accidents, and flying bullets, the Texas Ranger finds himself forced to solve the crime or literally die trying. 

The Ranger is laced with over-the-top, unbelievable action sequences that should cater to fans of 80s action films. You have to suspend your disbelief and just accept that this fictional hero can accomplish anything. His NFL linebacker frame adds credence to the fact that he can receive, and dish out, physical punishment. In some ways, the book reads like a Dirty Harry paperback by Leslie Alan Horvitz and Ric Meyers (house name Dane Hartman). The hero rides tall, shoots straight, and speaks the truth – a modern day cowboy trapped in the present. 

As a series opener, there's plenty of potential to make this character a little more dynamic or, even fragile. If you like contemporary westerns, then Concho may be your next read. 


1. The Ranger
2. Hot, Blue, and Righteous
3. Path of Evil
4. Crescent City Blues

Monday, January 10, 2022

Heritage of Fear

NYU graduate Morris Hershman (b. 1926) authors gothic, romance and western titles under the pseudonyms Evelyn Bond, Arnold English, Sara Roffman, Janet Templeton, Sam Victor, Lionel Webb, and Jess Wilcox. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and his papers are stored at Bowling Green State University. My experience with the author is his 1960s and 1970s gothic paperbacks published by the likes of Belmont, Lancer, and Avon under the Evelyn Bond name. In the mood for a cozy mansion thriller, I tried Hershman's 1966 Belmont novel Heritage of Fear

Set in 1874, the book stars a young American woman named Karen who has recently married the wealthy British businessman Hugh Locke. On a train ride to Hugh's enormous Locke Hall home, Karen bumps into a man who has some knowledge about her new family. Hugh's father had been married twice before and experienced the death of his first wife when she was just a bride. The second wife nearly died in a horse riding accident before finally perishing giving birth to Hugh. This stranger provides an ominous warning. Demanding an explanation, Karen prods Hugh into revealing the origin of the warning. Hugh explains that Locke Hall is connected to ridiculous folklore that any bride brought to the home will die. 

Needless to say, Karen experiences some frightening things inside her new mansion. First, she is nearly killed when a large painting falls on her. Second, she is spooked by the “ghost” of a woman dressed in a wedding gown with her throat savagely sliced. After the wedded couple host both the family attorney and Karen's father, a murder occurs pitting everyone against each other. Is their a murderous ghost on a homicidal rampage or did one of these four people commit murder?

Hershman's narrative plays out like a suspenseful whodunit with an abstract locked room mystery. The idea of the gruesome ghost was scary at times, but at this point I'm a seasoned gothic pro and I know how these supernatural entities eventually morph into vengeful ex-lovers, greedy family members or jaded employees. I won't ruin the surprise because there is a small chance that this could be your first gothic read (out of the 2,500 unique titles that were probably published). Hershman is a capable writer that I enjoyed and I felt he made the most out of this tired storyline.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Monster Man

In 2011, authors Paul Bishop (Lie Catchers, Penalty Shot) and Mel Odom (The Executioner, Hellgate) each wrote and self-published a pulp-styled boxing novella. The books were so well received, a brand was created called Fight Card. Various authors would try their hand at crafting a 25,000-30,000 word novella centralized around boxing in the 1940s and 1950s. The ebooks were published under a house name of Jack Tunny with physical editions printed with the author's real name. The brand created spin-offs like Fight Card MMA, Fight Card Now, Fight Card Luchadors, and even Fight Card: Sherlock Holmes

My introduction to the Fight Card series is an installment called Monster Man. It was authored by Jason Chirevas and published in 2014. It has also been included in a three-book omnibus titled Under the Lights and Heat, a collection of three connected Fight Card novellas written by Chirevas. In 2019, Chirevas contributed a short story to Paul Bishop's collection Bandit Territory: Ten New Tales of Murder & Mayhem and he created and authored the western series Ames & Fyre

Monster Man, set in 1953, stars a talented young boxer named Ben Harman. He grew up an orphan in St. Vincent's home for boys in Chicago. After the Army, Ben found that he was a gifted and natural boxer. Rising in the ranks of the fight game, Ben meets an unlikely fate one night in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His powerful right hand fatally injures his opponent in the ring. The death leads to Ben's removal from the big-time fight game. 

The narrative then moves to Toronto and readers learn that Ben is now paired with his old friend Pete. Together, the two are running a fight scam from city to city. The gimmick is that Ben fights in amateur bouts and he either takes a dive (pretending to be knocked out so he loses) or he runs a hustle and fakes that he is brand new in the fight business, then proceeds to knock out the city's local champ. Either way, Pete makes the bets depending on the scam, and the two pocket the money evenly. The catch is that they can't be seen together and they have to conduct business east of New Mexico so no one will recognize Ben as a former pro. But, where does “Monster Man” fit in?

Ben is suffering from the early onslaught of acromegaly, a disease in which an individual's hands, feet, forehead, nose, and jaw grow disproportionately due to an increased hormone growth. You may remember WWE Hall of Fame legend Andre the Giant as the most famous human to have acromegaly. But, there was also 1933 world heavyweight boxing champion Primo Carnera, which influenced the author's decision to write the main character in this way. Throughout the story, Ben researches the disease in all of the town libraries he visits. He also reads up on Carnera's condition. Ultimately, Ben begins to suffer severe pain in his wrists and hands and he fully understands what his future entails.

Monster Man absolutely shines like a classic mid-century crime-noir, fitting in the most rudimentary staples that the genre possesses – gambling, criminals, romance, money and an examination of the average human condition. Like Clark Howard's masterful 1967 crime-fiction novel The Arm, Monster Man emphasizes the gambling addiction – bad, worse, and worst – but introduces a love interest that steadily begins to chip away at the criminality factor. The “monster” isn't Ben, it's the game. In a clever twist, Ben falls for a prostitute named Vicky, a once beautiful, aspiring actress that now has a physical flaw. Ben and Vicky share the same imperfections, and they are both caught up in a life of crime. 

I read a lot of fiction, from the greats to the aspiring authors that still have some rows to ho. In my experience as a reader, Jason Chirevas proves that he is truly something special. He has a unique talent to convey so much emotion and drama in his wording. I felt invested in the characters and sympathized with their predicament. There's no easy way out, and Chirevas' doesn't short-change anything. 

Monster Man is gritty, entertaining, and wildly unpredictable. It caters to boxing fans, crime-fiction readers, and anyone that just loves an engrossing story. While I hung on to the ending for dear life, I'm relieved to know that Ben and Vicky's story continues in the 2015 follow-up Job Girl. Look for my review of that in the coming days. 

You can buy Monster Man as a Kindle stand-alone ebook HERE or the omnibus Under the Lights and Heat as digital or physical HERE.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Troublemaker

Author Jean Potts (1910-1999) graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1936. By 1940, Jean had moved to New York City, where she resided the rest of her life. With her newspaper experience in writing and editing, Potts eventually began contributing short stories to mainstream magazines like Woman's Day and Collier's. Her first book, Someone to Remember, was published in 1943, the first of 15 original mystery and crime-fiction novels. Along with winning a prestigious Edgar Award in 1954, Potts contributed to high-profile mystery magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock. Beginning in 2019, Stark House Press began reprinting many of Potts novels in two-in-one volumes under their Stark House Mystery Classics imprint. My first experience with the author is her 1972 mystery novel The Troublemaker. It has been collected along with her 1966 novel Footsteps on the Stairs as the newest reprint by Stark House.  

Quentin Leonard, finding himself unemployed, explains to his wife Grace that he needs to get away for a little while and spend some time finding himself in the northeast. After deceptively packing for a mini-vacation to New Hampshire, Quentin picks up his lover Lisa and the two of them head to the coastline of Maine. After their car breaks down, they agree to work for the Seaview Inn, a cozy little retreat for tourists wanting to explore the rocky shoreline. 

The two lovers quickly realize there is no real plan other than working the summer away in this picturesque little town. Complicating matters is that Quentin finds a handwritten letter addressed to Lisa from her former lover, a mentally unhinged man named Carlos. Quentin knows Carlos has found them, but he isn't sure if Lisa is more willing to love an older, married man like himself or a former suicide patient in Carlos. It seems that both paths will eventually lead Lisa to future heartache and ruin. But, she never makes it that far. Her dead body is found the next morning on the rocks. 

Potts places numerous characters at the proverbial crossroads. Who has tipped the scale to plunge into this jealous, homicidal rage? The obligatory suspects are Quentin, Carlos, and Grace, a trio of scorned lovers that all have motives for killing off sexy Lisa. What's really odd is that Potts injects some additional characters to create a denser narrative. Carlos' mother arrives in town prior to the murder and there is a guest named Margaret that just happens to have a broken car around the same time period as the murder. There's also the innkeepers themselves. But, the most surprising protagonist is a bird watching boy sleuth named Emerson. Aligning with Quentin, this young amateur detective is determined to find the killer.

The writing in The Troublemaker is propulsive enough to keep the pages flipping fairly quickly. It's a short read and contains enough mounting evidence to keep readers interested. I'm just not sure if this 1972 mystery novel is totally that original. If you are familiar enough with suspense thrillers, or Lifetime movies, the narrative is simply connecting the dots. The grand reveal comes within the last few paragraphs, but it's a sudden conclusion. I wanted a little backstory on the murder and what prompted such erratic behavior. But, overall, I'm not disappointed. It was an entertaining read.

If you enjoy the classic, traditional murder mystery, then surely you will be pleased with Jean Pott's The Troublemaker. Get the book HERE

Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Skin Game

Frank Bonham (1914-1988) is best remembered as an author of young adult fiction and westerns from the pulp era into the advent of paperback originals. However, he also authored three crime novels, including The Skin Game, originally released by the prestigious Fawcett Gold Medal imprint in 1962.

Our main character is a former cop turned Parole Officer named Sam Garrett. He’s provided the task of supervising a parolee named Gene Foreman, a man Sam knew years ago when they were both police officers. Gene is technically a sex offender who was recently released on parole from prison after serving 26 months. It’s not as bad as it sounds. He was consorting with a girl who said she was 19 but was actually 17 and - boom - he’s automatically a statutory rapist.

A cop named Donovan has a real hard-on for Gene and wants to bring him in as a suspect for a recent sex crime. Sam doesn’t think Gene did it, but is duty bound to bring his old friend in for police questioning. The problem? Gene abandoned his apartment and is nowhere to be found. Parole Officer Sam needs to locate his old friend before he violates the terms of his parole and further cements his status as a suspect in Donovan’s investigation.

The stakes escalate exponentially when the police learn of a sexual thrill-killer who gets women to pose for naked photographs before brutally murdering them. With Gene completely off the grid, the police naturally gravitates to him as a suspect. Is it possible that this ex-cop has a screw loose and is indiscriminately killing sexy babes while on parole? That’s one of the mysteries encapsulated in this 160-page paperback. There are some unexpected twists along the way, and the novel isn’t always about what it seems.

For a guy who only dabbled in the Fawcett Gold Medal style of crime noir fiction, Bonham nailed the style and plot structure very well. There was plenty of sexual titillation, and characters who aren’t what you think they are. The Skin Game has been reprinted by Cutting Edge, which is a good thing considering it’s a solid example of what made mid-20th century paperbacks something really special. Get the book HERE

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Whisper Man

Steve Mosby is a British author that specializes in crime-fiction and psychological suspense. He's often compared to Scandinavian writer Jo Nesbo with his emphasis on grisly serial killers and rapists. Since 2003, Mosby has authored 11 stand-alone novels, but in 2019 he also began using the pseudonym Alex North. After seeing the North name in retail stores like Target, I finally decided to read The Whisper Man. It was published in 2019 by Penguin and exists in physical, digital, and audio formats. 

What's interesting about The Whisper Man is that it blends first and third-person perspectives into the narrative. Further, it focuses on two murders that happen 20 years apart. These elements expand the storyline and allow for some interesting ideas and plot twists. It isn't a standard crime-thriller because Mosby uses the Alex North pseudonym to purposefully add a supernatural aspect to his stories. 

20 years ago, the British village of Featherbank was terrorized by a child killer deemed “The Whisper Man.” The killer, Frank Carter, gained infamy by whispering to children at their bedroom windows. Eventually, a homicide detective named Pete cracked the case, sending Carter to prison for life and all of the bodies recovered except one. Over two decades, Pete has tried to find the body to no avail. He frequently visits Carter in prison in a cat and mouse chess match to learn where the body is. Carter's superiority as the prison's pseudo-leader gives him an arrogance that Pete can't break. Thus, two decades of mental battles have left Pete semi-retired, divorced and recovering from alcoholism. 

Now, a homicide detective named Amanda has been handed a new case that has the characteristics of the Whisper Man murders. A young boy was killed and dumped near a rock quarry in Featherbank. In questioning his parents, Amanda learns that the boy told his mother that he heard whispers outside of his window the week before. In looking into Carter's case, Amanda asks Pete to join the investigation as a consultant based on his experience with the killings. 

While this is happening, a recent widow named Tom moves to Featherbank with his young son Jake. After settling into the new house, Tom starts to notice that Jake is having conversations with an imaginary friend. From Jake's perspective, readers learn that this imaginary friend is a young girl who may have ties to the house and its original owners. Things get creepy when Jake tells Tom about “the boy in the floor.” When Tom hears strange whispers in the house, he begins to suspect that someone is after his son.

Obviously, there's a lot going on in The Whisper Man. The book's opening act explains the current mystery and the murders from 20 years ago, so I felt fully invested in how these were connected. Tom's backstory with the emotional death of his wife and his insecurity in raising Jake as a single dad was really effective. When Pete is introduced, readers gain perspective from his vantage point as well. I wanted to learn more about Amanda, but North quickly shifted her to a supporting character. 

As a horror novel, the author succeeds in creating some extremely unsettling scenes. The whispers in the house, Jake's “imaginary friend”, the boy in the floor mystery as well as the whole idea of a serial killer preying on children from their window were truly terrifying. As a crime-thriller, in the vein of James Patterson, it's mostly just a pedestrian by-the-books investigation – interview the families, look into the past homicides, interview key characters in prison, and introduce flawed characters looking to redeem themselves. It's nothing you can't find on any prime-time network television show. But, it works well when combined with the concept of something supernatural taking place.

Based on my reactions to this book, I plan on reading more of Steve Mosby's stand-alone thrillers as well as his other Alex North novel, The Shadows (2020). He's a good storyteller and at the end of the day, that's really what we are looking for. 

Buy the book HERE.

Monday, January 3, 2022

Matt Helm #03 - The Removers

Ian Fleming's mega-star James Bond influenced a number of spy fiction titles, including Assignment and Nick Carter: Killmaster. One of the most popular is the Matt Helm series authored by Donald Hamilton. It ran from 1960-1993 with 27 total books. I was lukewarm on the series first two installments, but the character still intrigued me enough to warrant further pursuit. I grabbed a copy of The Removers, the third installment of the Matt Helm series. It was originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1961 and remains readily available today in audio, digital and physical reprints.

In Death of a Citizen, the series debut, Helm is married to a woman named Beth and has three children. He's a former OSS agent (the early CIA) that established a writing career and a sense of normalcy after retirement. But, events drag him back into the spy business and he rejoins his former department. I didn't particularly like the book, despite its enormous popularity, and felt that it was incomplete. The idea that Helm simply left his wife and kids (and has an affair nonetheless) didn't sit well with me. Thankfully, The Removers circles back to his family and completes the origin tale in its entirety.

The Removers begins by explaining that Beth Helm is now remarried and lives on a cattle ranch in Reno, Nevada with her kids. She's now Mrs. Lawrence and her husband is a British chap that has a shadowy past. Helm receives a letter from Beth asking him for a favor. Thus, the opening chapter has Helm in Reno preparing for an uncomfortable meeting with his ex-wife. However, Helm also receives word from his boss Mac that a young agent is working an assignment in Reno and may need a light assist. 

Helm learns from Beth that her husband was involved in a prior business similar to Helm's. Because of some sort of past event, shady people are threatening the family. Helm takes it all with a grain of salt until he meets Beth's husband Logan. Helm's theory is that Logan isn't really British, but is legitimately some sort of skilled professional capable of defending Helm's kids and ex-wife. In fact, Logan politely, but sternly, advises Helm to leave the ranch and never look back. 

The star of the show is Moira, a young and sexy woman that physically distracts Helm. The two get it on, and in doing so Helm learns that Moira is the daughter of Big Sal Fredericks, a Reno mobster. Fredericks is employing a foreign spy/enforcer named Martell, a man that Mac warns Helm about. After learning that Logan Lawrence is a former gun for Fredericks, Helm begins to connect the dots. Logan left the business, but Fredericks needs him for one more run to Mexico to recapture stolen heroin. Logan refuses, thus the not-so-gentle rub.

All of this ties in beautifully and creates a really engaging story. Helm engages in some awesome dialogue, never comically witty, but maintaining a hard-edged coolness. The action scenes are fairly swift and keep the narrative flowing into a much longer finale that is soaked with violence. Oddly, it was told with a sense of western traditionalism. The hero rides to the rural cabin in the woods to fight the unruly bad guys that have raped and captured his woman. But, that hero isn't really Helm. 

In a clever way, Hamilton mirrors Helm's origin story by telling a similar tale with Logan Lawrence. In this case, Lawrence is the one married to Beth and is called back into action after violent events begin to intrude into his retirement. Arguably, Logan is the real hero.

My main beef with Matt Helm is that he personifies the hardened tough guy. He talks tough, his first-person perspective is menacing, and he genuinely has old war stories or missions that he shares to validate his callous command. But, he never actually does much fighting. In the first two books, Helm doesn't really get the job done and people unexpectedly die. In this book, Helm watches Moira get abused by two women until her own dog makes the save and kills the would-be-rapists. Helm is knocked in the head outside of his motel room and then captured by Martell and Fredericks. 

In the finale, Logan is shot in the leg and placed on the sofa. Helm is tied up and has to listen to his ex-wife being raped in the next room. He has the audacity to question why one-legged, bleeding Logan isn't doing anything about it. The book's rowdy conclusion has Logan saving Helm's life. But, for whatever reason it all just works and Hamilton's prose is so damn cool. I loved the timeline and pacing, the brilliant conclusion of Moira (the obligatory spoiled sex kitten), Beth's neediness, the escalated violence, and Logan's expertise in disposing of the bad guys. Helm should have been the hero (and maybe he is somehow?), but I can settle for him as a co-partner.

I've already started the fourth volume, The Silencers. In the opening chapters, Helm is sent on a mission to Mexico to save a female agent. Wouldn't you know it...she's stabbed to death in front of him. But, it's written so well that I don't even care how inept the hero is. I'm sure an alternate hero will rise to the occasion. Buy a copy of the book HERE