Monday, February 28, 2022

The Big Bounce

Between 1953 and 1961, Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) authored his first five career novels and all were westerns. Leonard played his first hand of crime-fiction in 1966 with a relatively unknown novel called The Big Bounce. He shopped it to a variety of publishers and they all declined. In 1969, Fawcett Gold Medal published the book simply because it had been adapted to film the same year starring Ryan O'Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young. The movie was a flop, so Hollywood tried again in 2004 with a cast including Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, and Charlie Sheen. It was such a disaster that Leonard described it as the “second-worst movie ever made”, alluding to the fact that the first one was the worst. Despite the publication and theatrical horror associated with The Big Bounce, I decided to read it. I wish I had those hours back.

The book begins with three men watching a video tape of migrant worker Jack Ryan (no relation to Tom Clancy) executing a home-run swing with a baseball bat on his crew leader's face. Readers later learn that Ryan was a former Baseball Player and has now spiraled down the labor ladder to the position of Seasonal Picker of Cucumbers in a lakeside region of Michigan. Ryan and acquaintances (he never had friends) rob a lake-house and steal $750 from wallets and purses. Ryan fears that the other guys will get caught simply because the box they placed the wallets and purses could be found.

After being fired from his job for smashing the foreman with the bat, Ryan is hired as a Handyman by a resort owner named Mr. Majestyk (oddly, no relation to the character Leonard created five years later). Ryan spends time in his new position avoiding an average-looking female guest who desperately wants to get lai....wants to have her window fixed. Ryan hooks up with Nancy instead, a young seductress who is banging two men, one of which is the owner of the cucumber farm. Ryan and Nancy run around shooting glass objects while planning to steal the payroll money from the farm.

I have no Earthly idea why anyone in Hollywood wanted to make a film from this novel. Or, why anyone would want to attempt it again. The book is mindless with its lack of plot structure and features one of the most uninteresting protagonists I've read. I nearly gave up reading it twice, but just kept pushing onward out of respect for Elmore Leonard. There isn't anything remotely compelling about the story, the character development, pace, or dialogue. If you must read everything Leonard wrote, then I guess you owe it to yourself to experience the good and the bad. Beyond that, avoid this book!

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Friday, February 25, 2022

Innocent Wanton (aka Young Nurse Desmond/Student Nurse)

Peggy Gaddis Dern (Erolie Pearl Gaddis, 1895-1966) used pseudonyms like Georgia Craig, Joan Sherman, Perry Lindsay, and Peggy Gaddis to author romance novels and nurse fiction throughout the mid 20th century. Her first published work was erotic and racy novels printed by the lowly publisher Godwin in 1935. In the 1940s, she began to be published by Phoenix Press, Gramercy, and Arcadia. Prior to her death, Belmont and other publishers began reprinting her sexy romance novels to entice nurse-fiction fans. A great example is Young Nurse Desmond, published by Belmont in 1963. This novel was originally titled Innocent Wanton and published by Phoenix Press in 1950 under Dern's pseudonym, Gail Jordan. It was also printed under the title Student Nurse by Uni-Book as Digest Paperback #37.

Innocent Wanton is a sexy, juvenile delinquent style novel about a young girl named Martha that loses her virginity to a celebrity playwright named Jordan. Martha isn't a nurse, but works as a trainee in the Happy Valley Nursing Home. I'm not even sure the book discloses her last name as Desmond. After providing some pills to Jordan (who is there voluntarily), she learns that he is in this facility due to a drinking problem. Jordan immediately falls in love with Martha and desires to have her. After he begs Martha to have dinner with him, he is able to cajole her into the back seat where he takes her innocence on the cold vinyl seat. 

Later, Jordan proposes to Martha, she says yes, and the two move to a penthouse apartment in Manhattan. Martha quickly realizes that Jordan is a bit of a scumbag when she discovers that he has a girlfriend on the side. Risking the rewards of a robust alimony check, Martha bails on the marriage and rides a bus to the most overused locale in crime-noir history – the always reliable shore-front cottage in Small Town, Flordia. Her fierce independence doesn't last long when a man named Paul spots her bouncing out of the water. After “learning sex” from Jordan, Martha is determined to give her body to Paul in the most domineering way possible. However, Martha's problem is that Paul has a secret, a hidden connection to Jordan's past life. He is withholding information from her in hopes that she will be an easier lay. How can she escape these horny, secretive men and find true love?

The cover of Belmont's Young Nurse Desmond paperback, which again is the re-titled version of the earlier Innocent Wanton, states the book is about a young nurse's involvement with doctors, interns, and secret hospital affairs. The artwork clearly has the main character dressed as a nurse and leaving a general hospital. Does this sound like the same book? 

Unfortunately, Belmont and other publisher were notorious at cashing in on the hottest literary trends by reprinting prior novels. Dell probably made a great deal of money reprinting early mystery novels as Gothics in the 1960s and 1970s. In this case, Belmont is cashing in on nurse-fiction, a genre that Peggy Gaddis contributed to for 25+ years. By changing the author from Gail Jordan back to the marketable Peggy Gaddis name, and slapping a nurse on the cover, it probably swayed fans into believing this is a new release for the author.

This is my first experience with Peggy Dern and I mostly enjoyed the book. I have a tolerance for romance novels based on my love of Gothics and we've covered the romance-heavy slave Gothics (also known as plantation novels). The sex isn't graphic, but Martha was described in a voluptuous way that motivated me to learn more about her. Her torrid relationship with Jordan came to a satisfying conclusion and I genuinely enjoyed the rivalry between the lovers. I think if you enjoy juvenile delinquent-styled stories (Martha is 18-yrs of age) then you will probably find enough to like here. Innocent Wanton, aka Young Nurse Desmond, aka Student Nurse, is a lukewarm recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Barr Breed #02 - The Body Beautiful

While writing over 150 teleplays, Bill S. Ballinger (1912-1980) still had the opportunity to author nearly 30 novels. His crime-noir and detective fiction is still held in high regard, including two novels he wrote about a Chicago private-detective named Barr Breed. I read the first of these novels, The Body in the Bed (1948), and really enjoyed it. It was only a matter of time until I tracked down the sequel, The Body Beautiful. It was originally published by Signet in 1949 and was reprinted several times through the mid-1960s. 

As described in the first novel, Breed is a private-investigator that runs a staffing agency featuring detectives. His agency is employed by stores, banks, railroads, and any business or individual attempting to retrieve or prevent an economic loss. Often, these investigations eventually lead to murder. In The Body Beautiful, trouble lays its bothersome load right on Breed's front steps.

Breed and his friend Benny stop by the Marlowe Theater to view a traveling performance called The Golden Girls. Mostly, it's scantily clad beauties dancing while suspended in bird cages. After the titillating performance, Benny introduces Breed to one of the show's star performers, a knock-out named Coffee Stearns. During the awkward date, and subsequent awkward dates, Breed can't penetrate Coffee's social walls. But, once she realizes he's a detective, she lowers her guard and bra straps. The two kindle a relationship, but it's short-lived. During a performance, Coffee falls from one of the cages and plunges into the crowd. The cause of death? A knife in the back. 

Breed is torn up over the murder and wants to investigate free of charge. Like most of these crime-noir detective novels, Breed's police ally is Sergeant Cheenan with the Homicide Division. The two have a bitter relationship due to Breed's reckless abandonment outside of the law. But, Cheenan knows Breed is a relentless gumshoe, so he allows him a long leash. Before Breed starts the investigation, he receives a phone call from a man wanting to hire Breed. The job is worth $1,000 if Breed can confirm that Coffee Stearns was really a woman named Betty Anne Beals. Intrigued by the offer, Breed takes the case.

Ballinger was a tremendous talent and The Body Beautiful is another fine testament to his storytelling skills. I love this Breed character and the two-sided personality he possesses. Sometimes he's Mike Hammer screaming at everyone in the room and at other times he's just a wisecracking predecessor to 1950's Shell Scott. Like the first novel, Breed displays a ferocious fighting spirit, but prefers to rely on others to make mistakes or provide tiny clues that eventually lead to the mystery's resolution. 

While mostly saddled in Chicago, the book takes a jaunt to New York briefly. Through a cross-section of suspicious performers, Breed must interview everyone involved in the production and its past performances. I found the characters intriguing and the plot's twist and turns fascinating. The book's grand finale is a suspenseful chase scene through the empty theater as Breed is forced to match wits with the mysterious killer. 

If you enjoy these mid 20th century detective novels, then you will love The Body Beautiful. It's clever, suspenseful, funny, and hard-hitting. Unfortunately, this was the second and last appearance of this dynamic detective and that's a real shame. I wish Ballinger could have found a steady and consistent paycheck writing a series of Barr Breed novels. But, we only have these two works as a small glimpse of what might have been. 

Get the book HERE

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Barge Girl

Stark House Press continues to reprint the original novels of New Jersey native Calvin Clements. During his life, Clements was in the Navy, served as a firefighter in New York City, and later perfected writing by contributing numerous scripts for television shows like Gunsmoke, How the West Was Won, and Dr. Kildare. Along with authoring short stories, he wrote four stand-alone paperbacks, two of which are paired together in a new Stark House two-in-one, Hell Ship to Kuma (1954) and Barge Girl (1953). I read and enjoyed Hell Ship to Kuma, as well as another of Clements' novels, Satan Takes the Helm (1952). Barge Girl was on my radar and thankfully has arrived in a gorgeous edition with an introduction by Timothy J. Lockhart (Smith, Pirates).

As a tugboat captain, Joe Baski tows barges around New York City. He's been on boats his whole life, including a sting as a quartermaster during WWII. But, his dream is to own a boat of his very own. Over the years, Baski has invested a few dollars every week to build what is ultimately a $50,000 boat. His next move is to quietly finish out his employment and then start his own charter business in the Florida Keys. Then came the “barge girl”, a married knockout named Stella.

When Joe first lays his eyes on Stella, he knows he must possess her. Stella's husband is much older, a weathered barge watchman that has become complacent with his boring existence. Stella wants more out of life, but feels an obligation to her husband. When she meets Joe, there is an instant attraction, a hot chemistry that refuses to burn out. Joe needs Stella for the next phase of his life and Stella wants to go, but is fighting an inner urge to be a devoted wife. 

Without spoiling your enjoyment, Clements successfully combines a love story with a suspenseful death, set against the backdrop of the 1950s shipping business. Like his prior novels, Clements still offers readers technical lessons on freighters and barges, but it doesn't distract from what amounts to be a thrilling narrative as Joe and Stella wade the waters of seduction and deceit. Fans of police procedural novels may enjoy the book's finale, complete with a pesky and thorough insurance investigator. 

Overall, Clements is simply masterful and remains one of the most frustrating authors of the mid 20th century. With only four novels to his name, readers deserved so much more than what he produced. Thankfully, I still have one more Clements novel to read, Dark Night of Love (1956) and at least 14 short-stories, all of which have been listed in the Clements bibliography at the back of Stark House's reprint. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Woman Hunter

Lorenz Heller (1910-1965) wrote three books for a digest-size paperback house called Falcon Books using the pseudonym Laura Hale. Stark House Press has reprinted two of them, so I started with the 1952 dramatic heist novel, Woman Hunter.

Marty Doyle is a boxer who is hiding out in a fleabag apartment in Newark, New Jersey. A couple days earlier, he was supposed to take a dive in the ring but failed to do so. Now he has a pissed off mobster looking for his head, and the only thing that can make it square is to reimburse the mobster the $15,000 he lost betting on the fight.

Marty’s manager is an old-timer named Chuffy who knows a thing or two about both sides of the law. Chuffy wants to pay the mobster the fifteen grand to get Marty back in the ring and working toward a lucrative title shot. Chuffy doesn’t have many marketable skills, but he’s really, really good with guns.

Through his own underworld connections, Chuffy falls in with a heist crew looking to pull a big-money armored car job and lands Marty a gig as the getaway driver. The catch is that Chuffy and Marty need to hide out with the other crew members in a remote cabin before the job, so nothing goes sideways with any of the human resources.

As an author, Heller always puts a lot of energy into fully developing his characters. It was important to him that the reader understands everyone’s motivations. In a 180-page paperback, that can come at the expense of plot and action. That’s the problem with Woman Hunter. The set-up is super-interesting, but it quickly devolves into too much soapy romantic drama. A violent gun-filled conclusion was unable to save this snooze of a novel.

I stand by my assertion that Lorenz Heller is an unsung hero of crime fiction from the paperback-original era, but Woman Hunter isn’t the top-of-the-heap. Stark House is to be commended by bringing Heller’s work back to life, but this one can be safely skipped. 

Get the book HERE

Monday, February 21, 2022

Macabre Manor

Based on a small sample size, the Gothics that I've read from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s have teased a supernatural element. The covers and taglines always suggest that the big mansion or castle contains a ghost or spirit haunting a beautiful woman. The finale fizzles out to be a scorned lover or disenchanted relative that suddenly becomes greedy and secretive. It was conventional style that is reminiscent of the shudder pulps of the early 20th century. At the beginning of the 1974 Manor book Macabre Manor, authored by Elizabeth Grayson, the protagonist appears to be tormented by a demon. Is the terrifying demon real or just a figment of her twisted imagination? Needing to resolve this important question, I jumped into this 190 page vintage paperback. 

Joyce has recently married Philip Hammond and moved into his family's mansion on the Caribbean island of  St Michael. After a walk on the beach, Joyce is visited by a demon calling himself a French man named Jean Pierre. He appears to Joyce as a “zombie” and slowly begins to demand things from her. After Joyce suffers a nervous breakdown, she is hospitalized and treated for anxiety. The Hammond family feels that Joyce isn't really interacting with a demon, instead she's suffering from fatigue and her new surroundings. When the demon asks Joyce to poison her father-in-law, the book begins to delve into a criminal conspiracy involving a bank and illegal gambling. 

Macabre Manor is merely an average Gothic novel with the traditional genre tropes – inheritance, wealthy family, supernatural sprinkles, and a vulnerable female embarking on a dark mental journey. According to Goodreads, Elizabeth Kary used the pseudonym Elizabeth Grayson to author a number of historical romance novels. However, based on my research, I can't verify if this author is the same one that wrote two other Gothic novels in the 1970s for Manor Books – By Demon's Possessed (1973) and Token of Evil (1974). Based on the quality of Macabre Manor, I'm in no hurry to find out. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, February 18, 2022

Frisco Flat

According to Cutting Edge, author Stuart James grew up in rural Pennsylvania and at 15 went to work as a sports reporter for the Delaware Valley Advance. He sold his first story in 1951 to a pulp magazine and later became a staff writer for True and Popular Mechanics. While writing original paperbacks, James became an editor for Midwood Books, a subsidiary of Tower Publications that focused on adult romance novels with lurid covers. It was here that two of James' novels were published, The Devil's Workshop (org. title Bucks County Report (1961) and Judge Not My Sins (1961). Lee Goldberg's Cutting Edge has reprinted four Stuart James' novels including Frisco Flat, originally published in 1960 by Monarch. 

After a short career in boxing, Frankie Cargo receives a letter from a friend suggesting that he comes back home. Home is Frisco Flat, a fishing community off the California coast where Frankie grew up. Frankie learns that his father has died and a man named Sam Barlow now controls a majority of the town's industry. Frankie then discovers that his childhood home is now being occupied by a gorgeous squatter named Tosca, the girlfriend of the town's law-enforcement officer. Frankie gets in a fight with the officer and realizes coming home to Frisco Flat was a very poor decision.

Frankie's father left him a great fishing boat, but Barlow wants to buy it. By owning the boat, he will have a complete monopoly on the fishing industry. Frankie has other plans and borrows money to repair the boat and get it to sea. After days of hot, stinky fishing, Frankie's ton of fish should net him a solid profit to build the business back. But, someone working for Barlow shoots up Frankie's boat, thus sinking the vessel and Frankie's livelihood into the ocean depths. However, Barlow's men don't realize that Frankie grabbed something extremely valuable to them, a package worth a million dollars to the highest bidder.

Based on the book's original cover art, I was expecting it to be a romance novel. Instead, it is a gritty, fast-paced crime-noir with lots of traditional genre tropes – criminal empire, the unlikely hero, beautiful women, a heist, and violence. Lots of violence. Frankie's transformation from the town pushover to the defiant hero was such a pleasure to read. I found that James storytelling presented itself like a good screenplay, which makes sense considering he spent a majority of his career in Hollywood on scripts and treatments. There are two hot romances for Frankie, but James doesn't dwell on it. Instead, he pushes the narrative into a crescendo of vengeance that was reminiscent of a western yarn.

However, Frisco Flat isn't terribly original. In fact, it bears a lot of similarity to Edward S. Aarons' 1953 novel The Net. In that story, Barney is a prizefighter that receives a letter from his brother asking him to return to his hometown. The town is a small coastal village where Barney's brother and father own a fishing business. Barney's father has been killed and a town bully named Hurd wants to buy out the family business. When Barney refuses, violence rises to the occasion. Sound familiar?

Obviously, James probably read Aarons' book that was published seven years earlier. But, despite the similarities and borrowed storyline, Frisco Flat was terrific. The romantic angle, character arc, and the surprises were worth the price of admission. If you enjoy great crime-noir literature of the mid 20th century, then you'll absolutely enjoy this book. Cutting Edge made a fine choice by adding Stuart James to their already impressive catalog of classic authors. Frisco Flat proves it in spades. 

Buy the book HERE

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Valdez is Coming

Thus far, I've enjoyed everything Elmore Leonard (1925-2013) has written. From westerns like Escape from Five Shadows (1956) and Last Stand at Saber River (1959) to crime-fiction like Mr. Majestyk (1974). Arguably, one of his best western novels is Valdez is Coming. It was originally published in 1971 and was adapted into a 1974 movie starring Burt Lancaster. 

The novel features Bob Valdez as a constable working in Arizona in the late 1800s. After riding shotgun for a stagecoach, Valdez returns to town to discover several armed cattlemen surrounding a small farm. The group is led by a hardheaded, wealthy rancher named Tanner and a gunman named Davis. Tanner claims that he recognized the farmer, an African-American, as a man who murdered a friend of his years ago. Valdez questions the validity of Tanner's accusation and is dismayed by the vigilante justice that was set to occur. 

After Valdez questions Tanner, he walks through the circling guns to visit the farmer directly, eye to eye, and learns that the man may be completely innocent of the crime and has paperwork that proves a solid alibi. But, Davis refuses to idly stand by and impatiently fires at the farmer. In the exchange, Valdez fatally shoots the farmer. Once the gun smoke clears, Tanner examines the corpse and admits that he made a mistake and this wasn't the same man.

Mournfully, Valdez wants Tanner to pay the farmer's pregnant widow $500 as compensation for wrongfully killing her husband. He mentions it to the men and they ride away. When Valdez rides into Tanner's camp to ask for the money, he is ridiculed, shot at and ordered to stay away. Refusing to accept no for an answer, Valdez attempts asking again, this time riding to Tanner's ranch to make the request. It’s here that Valdez is violently tied to a wooden cross and cruelly forced to walk miles through the desert. After being rescued, Valdez contemplates his next move; accept defeat and carry on or continue the pursuit despite the odds. 

Leonard's novel centers around a character arc as Valdez slowly changes into the buckskin version of his younger self. Throughout the book, Valdez thinks about his prior life - a history of violence – and ponders his complacency in the present as a constable. Tanner's action is like a toggle switch for Valdez's transformation. The violence, emotional turbulence, and romantic angle – surprisingly, it has one – balances the hero's cool demeanor. While never a coward, Valdez still possesses reserved tendencies that ultimately make him weaker in the book's first and second acts. 

Leonard's storytelling prowess is awe-inspiring as he makes this rather simple story explode into an emotional and violent battlefield. There is clearly a reader investment – no matter if you are a western fan or not – that leads to a satisfying conclusion despite some negativity that is associated with the book's finale. I like the way Leonard finished the novel and found that the story didn't require a traditional ending. The “cowboy riding off into the sunset” conclusion may have tarnished Leonard's narrative.  Instead, it's simply a conventional western until it isn't. And that is what makes Valdez is Coming a masterpiece of the genre. 

Get the book HERE

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

The Short Stories of John M. Sitan

 A recent Facebook posting in one of my book groups wondered if John M. Sitan was an alias of another writer, such as Jonathan Craig or Gil Brewer, also writing stories for Manhunt at the same time. I had no idea myself, so I did some homework to find out more about this shadowy author.

By way of background, Sitan authored only three short stories in Manhunt and then disappeared as a writer. According to The Manhunt Companion by Peter Enfantino and Jeff Vorzimmer, Sitan wrote the following stories for Manhunt in three consecutive months during 1954:

“My Enemy, My Father” – June 1954
“Confession” – July 1954
“Accident” – August 1954

Enfantino and Vorzimmer review all three stories favorably in the guide, but they single out “Confession” as something special. The story of a serial sniper (reviewed below) was selected by editor David C. Cooke for inclusion in his 1955 Best Detective Stories of the Year anthology. Vorzimmer later featured the story in his curated The Best of Manhunt 2 compilation from Stark House Press released in 2020.

I searched far and wide for any indication that Sitan’s work was ever published elsewhere and found nothing. The guy apparently sold three stories to Manhunt and then nothing else, so it’s not crazy to wonder if he was a pseudonym or a house name.

As fun as it would have been to unmask the pen-name of John M. Sitan, a few minutes of internet sleuthing revealed that he was, in fact, a real guy.

John McElroy Sitan was born on May 1, 1925 in Longview, Washington. He served in the U.S. Army during World War 2 from 1943 to 1946. Upon his return to Washington State, he began a 30-year career as a technical writer for Boeing. It was while he was gainfully-employed by Boeing that he decided to do some non-technical writing for the top hardboiled crime digest at the time, Manhunt.

For reasons unclear to me, he never caught the bug to continue his side-hustle as a fiction writer. Instead, he and his wife Hazel focused on getaways to a cabin John built himself on Mount Index and traveling the world on vacations following his retirement. The couple never had children, and John died on November 9, 2012. His limited contributions to the world of hardboiled crime fiction would have been lost to the ages but for a renewed interest in Manhunt spurred on by Stark House Books, Enfantino, Vorzimmer, and Paperback Warrior.

Copies of Manhunt are rare and prohibitively expensive, so mere mortals are forced to leverage modern short story anthologies that reprint the greatest hits from the legendary digest. As such, I’m left with only one resource to read Sitan’s work - the second volume of The Best of Manhunt from Stark House Books, where I found Sitan’s only enduring story, “Confession” from July 1954.

“Confession” is the story of a sniper named John Egan. As the story opens, Egan is pulling the trigger on his scoped and silenced rifle that results in a nurse’s head exploding as the round penetrates her skull on the street below. Egan is not a paid assassin. He’s a factory worker who happens to be a crackerjack shot with a long gun. He’s basically a serial killer before there was a term for such things.

When he takes to the road, the reader gains insight into Egan’s real motivations. Sadly, our modern society has become accustomed to mass killers without conscience. However, when Manhunt published Sitan’s story, it must have been a chilling peek behind the curtain of a remorseless psychopath. The ending was a bit abrupt to me, but it was a satisfying story in line with the dark fiction that made Manhunt great.

Despite his minimal contribution to the catalog of American crime fiction, John M. Sitan was a unique voice who deserves to be remembered. It would be nice to see his other two stories find a modern audience in a future anthology.

Buy The Manhunt Companion HERE:
Buy The Best of Manhunt 2 HERE:

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Sin in Their Blood

Sin in Their Blood is a 1952 hardboiled crime paperback by under-appreciated author Ed Lacy (real name: Leonard Zinberg, 1911-1968) that remains available today as a reprint. 

Our narrator is Matt Ranzino. He’s a musclebound former boxer, cop and tough-guy private detective who set his practice aside to fight in the Korean War. While serving overseas, he suffered a head wound that almost killed him and contracted a case of tuberculosis that landed him in a hospital bed for 11 months. He’s now back in his unnamed hometown looking to rebuild his life with no money or job. 

His first stop is to visit his old PI partner, Harry. While Matt was overseas, Harry’s business really took off when Harry discovered the lucrative business of blackmailing businesses into allowing Harry to screen their employees for Commies. Harry offers Matt a job with his new Red-Scare firm, but Matt declines. 

Matt’s time in the hospital left him with a scarred lung that could burst open and kill him if he gets involved with any rough stuff, so he really wants to take it easy and live off his military pension. Because that wouldn’t make for much of a mystery novel, Matt finds himself at a crime scene where he is cajoled into investigating the murder of a dead socialite for a lofty fee of $50 per day. 

Once Matt has the gig, we have a rather typical private eye mystery - albeit with a rather exhausted and fragile hero at the helm. Ed Lacy was at the top of his writing game in 1952 when he authored Sin in Their Blood. The story moves along at a great clip, and the characters are all vividly drawn and interesting. It’s a conventional mystery tale, but it’s also the story of a shattered war hero regaining his confidence after the trauma of combat. 

There’s also a damn fine love story featuring a unique female character among the tough-guy patter and fisticuffs. I’ve enjoyed the romantic elements in other Lacy books, but this one is the tops

Overall, we have a fairly perfect private-eye yarn that deserves to be remembered. I’m happy to do my part by reviewing it. Now go do yours by reading it. 

Buy a copy HERE

Monday, February 14, 2022

Phantom Manor

Author William Edward Daniel Ross (1912-1995) specialized in gothic paperbacks of the 60s and 70s. Using a variety of pseudonyms, the Canadian writer authored over 50 stand-alone gothics as well as an abundance of novels related to the television show Dark Shadows. My experience with the author is the gothic titles written under the pseudonym Marilyn Ross. After enjoying his 1965 novel Fog Island, I decided to read Phantom Manor. It was published just a year later by Paperback Library with the allure of another vulnerable beauty trapped in a mansion shrouded in evil. 

Phantom Manor is set in the late 1800s and stars a Philadelphia woman named Jan. She finds herself financially strapped when her sick father passes away. Her immediate relative is a grandfather living in England, an aggressive man that had an estranged relationship with Jan's mother. Before Jan's mother died, she swore that she would never return to her family's fog-shrouded Phantom Manor. But, Jan wants to know more about her family and sends a letter to her grandfather explaining her father’s recent passing. Her grandfather responds with an urgent invitation for Jan to finally visit her family home.

The family's robust estate is a coastline manor situated on a small peninsula. When the tide rises, the only road leading from the estate to the village is enveloped in seawater. This is an important part of the book's finale and also lends some isolation to the book's narrative. Upon Jan's arrival at the manor, she discovers that her grandfather had died from health complications prior to her visit. She also learns that one of her uncles is now deceased and another has ran off to Australia chasing women and good fortune. He hasn't been heard from in decades and most fear he is now dead. Remaining is the estate's staff, the dead uncle's widow, her disabled son, and a distant cousin that serves as the manager of the manor. With no immediate relatives available, the grandfather named Jan as the sole heiress of Phantom Manor. 

Jan learned that years ago (and recapped in the book's prologue) that her grandfather and a nearby monk order had feuded over land rights. It was rumored that the feud led to the death of a monk named Francis. Supposedly, Phantom Manor's third floor is haunted by the monk's vengeful ghost. Oddly, the estate staff has Jan's lodgings on the third floor. Needless to say, she's immediately attacked by this skeleton specter. Later, she falls to an unseen attacker in the house's wine cellar and is also nearly crushed by a large falling stone outside. After multiple attempts on her life, she begins to align herself with the family attorney. Together, the two suspects that the dashing and handsome distant cousin (the only family member remaining alive) could be the mysterious attacker (you think!?!).

Phantom Manor is rather dull with a bulk of the narrative spent on Jan's relationship with the distant cousin and her new role as the manor's sole heir – learning the staff, new instructions for the staff, fighting with the staff, firing the staff, etc. It's like reading a human resources guide on running a mansion. I didn't find any of it particularly spooky and mostly it was missing the atmospheric touches that made Ross's Fog Island work so well. I did enjoy the crime-mystery aspect of the book's closing finale, but I had already figured it out in the book's opening chapters.  

Overall, there are hundreds and hundreds of these gothic paperbacks. There's no reason to spend any of your precious time reading this. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, February 11, 2022

The Cooler

George Markstein (1926-1987) was a Canadian-born British journalist and television writer best known for his work scripting the TV show The Prisoner. He was also an author of espionage thrillers, including his first novel, The Cooler, from 1974.

The Cooler takes place during World War 2 in 1944 England. The British employ an obscure spy agency known as the Inter Services Research Bureau for incursions into Nazi territory - mostly France - for assassinations and sabotage. The novel follows three spies - two Brits and one German. Here are the players:

James Loach is a seasoned spy in London. The day before he is to embark on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France, he learns that his team, already there, has largely disappeared. The last message that London receives from the team’s radio operator instructs Loach not to join them because of the imminent danger. As such, Loach is sidelined in London awaiting word on the fate of his team, and he gets into some trouble at home. Weird trouble. Kinky trouble. Sending a violent sex maniac like Loach on another mission in France just isn’t an option.

We also meet Claire. She’s a sexy trainee in the secret agent saboteur program learning how to infiltrate, fight and kill Germans with Ninja-like skills. Her training sequences were among the best I’ve read in adventure fiction. The problem is that maybe Claire is just a little too violent and unsuitable for the subtle work of spy tradecraft. Until the agency figures out how to use her, she is also benched. That’s where she meets Loach - in a remote holding facility for wayward spies called The Cooler.

Finally, we meet a German spy named Grau operating in London with false identity papers. His mission in London — I won’t spoil it here — is really, really clever. Any reader of spy fiction will be able to appreciate the ingenuity of the author’s inclusion of this storyline.

Markstein takes his sweet time introducing the principals and putting them in their places before the plot takes shape. That’s the problem. It takes forever for a storyline to develop. For what it’s worth, I was never bored because the characters were all vividly-drawn, seriously-flawed intel officers. But at some point, all these great characters need to actually do something, and that doesn’t happen until the very end.

It turns out there is someone spying for Germany from inside The Cooler, and the book quickly becomes a whodunnit. None of this really worked very well despite some fine writing. The ending felt rushed, and the solution was anticlimactic. I’m not giving up on Markstein as an author, but this debut needed some serious reworking before it was released for public consumption.

Bottom Line: Time is a precious commodity. Don’t bother with this one. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, February 10, 2022

By Her Own Hand

Los Angeles native Frank Bonham (1914-1988) specialized in westerns, young adult fiction, and television scripts. Between 1941 and 1952, Bonham honed his skills by writing for the pulps. He authored only three crime-noir novels, including By Her Own Hand. It was originally released in 1963 by Monarch Books. 

In an undisclosed California city, Captain Chilton is taking over the Plaza Division police station. Before Chilton, the department had spiraled into a rather chaotic, under utilized precinct. This portion of the city reflects the old guard and braces for the new. Caught in the transition are two Vice Squad Sergeants Skip Kawano and Lou Michikowski. Both are feeling the heat as Chilton increases the pressure to clean up the streets.

Like most traditional police precincts, the way to topple the top echelon of crime is through prostitutes. They are the perfect informants and mostly the police lay off their profession in exchange for valuable bits of information on criminal rings. The same thing occurs here as both Kawano and Michikowski utilize prostitutes to gain valuable intel. In turn, other precincts rely on these same prostitute informants to minimize crime waves. But, Chilton doesn't see it that way. 

At 126 pages, Bonham's novel is more like a quick novella. Mostly, the action is around an investigation into a murdered prostitute to determine what information she was withholding. Chilton's department faces intense opposition for arresting the prostitutes and removing them from the streets. Included in the investigation is a side-story that leads into the porno movie business. For a 1963 novel, Bonham doesn't pull any punches in terms of explicit imagery. This side-story involves a gangbang that's recorded in an after hours park. The scenery, time of day, and skill of the photographer allows the investigation to branch off into some unusual places. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this quick read and found it to be slightly ahead of its time. Also, the characters and plot are soaked in realism due to Bonham's involvement in youth gangs and urban violence. He advocated for peace and was often riding along in police cars to learn firsthand the negative influences affecting California's youth. To my knowledge, By Her Own Hand has never been reprinted, but affordable used copies are still available. It's worth your time. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Steve Holland: The World's Greatest Illustration Art Model

On the Paperback Warrior Podcast, and on this very blog, I've often reminisced about my early childhood and my father's love of 20th century paperbacks. I can still remember summer days walking up our creaky staircase, hoping to discover something new or exciting about my humble, and often very quiet, father. In an unfinished guest bedroom, there were leaning stacks of welding manuals and plastic bins of old bolts. There were also stacks of boxes spilling over with western paperbacks. Occasionally, I would read one just to break up the monotony of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, but sifting through the books was the real pleasure for me at that age. Thumbing through the stacks, I began to think the vivid gun-slinging character depicted on the covers was actually the same hero, but was just calling himself Buchanan, Nevada Jim or some other tough-as-nails sounding name to fit the book. It wasn't until many years later that I discovered it was the same hero, only his real name was Steve Holland.

In a new coffee-table book called Steve Holland: The World's Greatest Illustration Art Model, author Michael Stradford reveals that he had a similar experience in the 1960s when he discovered Doc Savage in a Cleveland book store. In this visual and informative book, Stradford delves into the life and career of Holland, the most iconic male model of 20th century literature. My softcover version weighs in at over 200 pages and features hundreds of paperback covers, exclusive photos, and larger than life paintings that honor the man that launched a thousand paperbacks. 

The book's introduction is written by Jason Savas, a friend of mine that inherited Holland's crown in the 1980s. Savas, a former model employed by the esteemed Wilhelmina Model Agency, has been featured on a 1,000 book covers himself. Savas details his experiences in the industry working with Holland, a man he deemed “the consummate pro.” Stradford includes a biography of Savas, featuring a handful of stirring, action-adventure book cover scans as well as the beautiful Steve Assel painting The Iron Marshall (Louis L'Amour) that Savas posed for. 

Stradford's layout is divided into sections dedicated to various eras of Holland's career. For example, numerous pages detailing his paperback career are divided into genres like action, adventure, romance, western, sci-fi, etc. There is a complete section focusing on just the men's adventure magazine paintings, the Doc Savage era, and various advertisements featuring Holland's face or likeness. There is a biography on Holland, and a detailed interview with Holland's daughter Nicole and third wife Jean. Also, author Will Murray's expanded interview with Holland from Starlog is expanded and exclusively included. Murray has been the primary contributor to the Doc Savage series for decades. 

I really enjoyed artists Bob Larkin (Conan, Iron Fist, Hulk) and Bob Caras (The Avenger) discussing their experiences painting Holland. There are so many amazing artists and photographers interviewed for the book, including Alex Ross, Frank Reilly, Joe DeVito, Robert Osonitsch, and Jack Faragasso. It was personally rewarding to learn how humble and kind Holland was as described by his peers, friends and family. I never needed validity, but the real life Holland seemed to parallel the admirable, heroic characters he became on canvas.

Steve Hollad: The World's Greatest Illustration Art Model is absolutely a mandatory reference for anyone fascinated by 20th century paperbacks, magazines and male-oriented advertisements. I was enthralled for days just researching the paperbacks and building my shopping list based on these incredibly vivid covers. More than 20 years after his death, Holland's face is still selling publications. That is a testament to his phenomenal physique, likable face and ability to provide the perfect likeness for all of these amazing visuals. Stradford has honored Holland in such a beautiful way and I can't thank him enough for his labors in creating it. 

Get the book HERE

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Danger in Paradise

Stark House Press continues to reprint the literary work of A.S. Fleischman. The talented Navy veteran, magician, and author began writing genre paperbacks in 1948, a career that led into his more prominent role as a children's storyteller. Among his westerns, movie novelizations, and crime-fiction, the genre that most feel was Fleischman's strong suit was exotic adventure. Novels like Shanghai Flame, Counterspy Express, Malay Woman, and Blood Alley are set in and around Asian locations. In 2018, Stark House reprinted Fleischman's Malay Woman and Danger in Paradise as a two-in-one with an introduction by David Laurence Wilson. Having read, reviewed, and enjoyed Malay Woman, I was excited to read 1953's Danger in Paradise to experience more of the author's thrilling exotic adventures.

Jefferson Cape is a Montana native that works as an international geologist in the Far East. After a long voyage across the Java Sea with a crazy Australian captain, Cape is happy for a day stop in Buleleng, Indonesia. The temperature is red hot, the beer is hotter, and the mosquitoes are like a thick drapery of disease and despair. But, Cape is on dry land, at a bar, enjoying these tiny moments when a beautiful woman approaches him for an unusual request.

The woman explains that she has a very tiny package that she needs to export out of Buleleng. It's a business card with Russian wording on the back. She explains that this has to do with terrorists in the country and arms trading. She wants him to carry it back to the states and deliver it to the CIA. Unfortunately Cape agrees and his entire world comes crashing down. The woman seemingly disappears and Cape finds himself stranded and on the run from a Chinese gunman, a powerful businessman, and terrorists as his ship sails away. His only ally is a sexy, mysterious woman, but she somehow knows the lady from the bar and is connected to this whole deadly fiasco. 

Danger in Paradise wasn't as entertaining as I had hoped. I felt that Fleischman had too many ideas and couldn't really flesh them out in a uniform way. In fact, in the first couple of pages, Cape looks at the woman in the bar and says, “Okay, I'll bite.” I felt like this was Fleischman after writing a couple of the early pages for a plot he hadn't quite constructed yet. He's reminding himself that he has this American man in a bar meeting a mysterious woman. Where can he take this rudimentary idea? Unfortunately, he takes it too far.

At 160 pages, the narrative is saturated in chase sequences that left me bewildered about which characters were after each other. I wanted the story to be explained quickly so I could enjoy the twists and turns, but once it was unveiled, I needed some story elements concealed to keep it interesting. Gunrunning, terrorists, exotic locales and shady ladies should be an easy story to tell. But, Danger in Paradise drowns in the details and becomes a convoluted chore. Of course, Fleischman can write his tail off, but the end result left me exhausted. Get the book HERE.

Monday, February 7, 2022

House of Dark Illusions

There are over 30 gothic novels authored by Caroline Farr between the mid-1960s and 1970s. Most of these books were originally published in Australia by Horwitz Publications and then reprinted in the US by Signet with vivid, traditional painted covers of beautiful women fleeing from gloomy mansions and castles. Depending on who you ask, the Caroline Farr name is a pseudonym for a revolving door of authors. The most consistent author associated with the Farr name is Richard Wilkes-Hunter, a New South Wales native that also authored books under pseudonyms like Alex Crane and Tod Conrad. 

Another name associated with the Caroline Farr novels is that of Allan Geoffrey Yates, the popular author that became a household name by writing crime-fiction as Carter Brown. My sources close to the Yates estate confirm that he did author some Farr novels, but the titles are unknown. There is also another Australian author closely associated with the Farr name, Lee Pattinson. According to papers held by the National Library of Australia, Pattinson was employed as a writer with Horwitz and authored romance novels under names like Teri Lester, Noni Arden, Kerry Mitchell, and Caroline Farr. 

The conclusion is that Caroline Farr was a house name used by at least three different authors that were published by Horwitz. Most recently, I gained a couple of these Signet reprints of Farr novels and I decided to try one out – House of Dark Illusions. It was originally published in 1973 and begins with a familiar gothic genre trope, a young woman learning of her inheritance. 

In the opening pages of House of Dark Illusions, young Megan has just experienced the loss of her father. She's a student at Boston College and lives in an apartment on Boston's North Shore. With her father's death, Megan fears she won't have enough financial support to remain in college. Thankfully, Megan receives a letter from her Aunt Lissi with a tantalizing offer. Lissi invites Megan to the family's coastal mansion in Nova Scotia, Canada. 

In the backstory, readers learn that Megan's mother is a descendant from a wealthy Canadian family. Unfortunately, she died when Megan was very young. The family never liked Megan's father so he left the family behind and raised Megan as a struggling single father in Boston. Megan debates returning to her childhood home, but feels that enough time has passed and it's important that she visit the only remaining family left, Aunt Lissie.

When Megan arrives at the spacious shoreline estate, she learns that her mother possessed telekinetic powers – the ability to move inanimate objects with her mind. Lissie feels that Megan has the same talents as well, but needs help discovering them. Lissie insists on having a séance so that Megan can harness her own hidden energy and possibly connect psychically with her dead mother. Additionally, the séance will include two distant cousins, a medium, and two doctors. But, when the séance begins, Megan begins seeing visions of an Indian prince being murdered in a palace. How does any of this connect to the story? 

At 140 pages of large font, House of Dark Illusions reads more like a short story. There isn't really enough time to delve too far into these characters to properly introduce them. I felt the narrative was missing huge chunks of importance or simply shortened to meet a publishing deadline. The entire story does play out, including answers to Megan's questions about her family and inheritance, but it feels like a rushed job. The book's finale left something to be desired, but possessed a fitting conclusion to the average plot. Whoever crafted the book used foggy roads, the misty coastline, and the cavernous house as atmospheric plot enhancers, but even the spook factor wasn't enough to save the book. I'd recommend passing on this unless you really love the artwork of these old books and must possess everything. Otherwise, just move on to much better books.

Friday, February 4, 2022

Brad Dolan #01 - Back Country

William Fuller worked on freighters and farms, served as a newspaper reporter, and was an infantryman during WWII. It was during the early 1940s through the 1950s that Fuller's short stories were purchased by the likes of Sky Aces, Adventure, and Argosy. Like Steve Fisher, Fuller found success in the slick magazines like Collier's, McCall's and even Esquire. With the onset of paperback publishing, Fuller began writing full-length novels in the 1950s, beginning with 1954's Back Country. It was an enormous success for Dell and Fuller. 

The novel, the first of six to star a vagabond hero named Brad Dolan, sold a half-million copies. Long out of print, Stark House Press has resurrected Back Country as part of their Black Gat Book imprint. The reprint features a comprehensive and insightful look at the series by esteemed scholar and author Bill Pronzini. As a fan of Fuller's Brad Dolan character and his only stand-alone novel, The Pace That Kills, I was excited to learn that Back Country was being reintroduced to modern readers.

Brad Dolan served in both WW2 and Korea, an experience that led to harsh imprisonment in a German camp as a prisoner-of-war. Banged up after the wars, Dolan is driving across inland Florida en route to the southern beaches of Miami. Along the way, his car gives out and he becomes stranded in a small, fictional Florida town called Cartersville. It is one of those map dots that features a war monument, a dusty park or two, the obligatory noisy railroad, and old men playing shuffleboard until they die. Dolan reminds readers and himself, “This is the Florida the tourists never see. This is small town anywhere.

In a sweltering bar, Dolan downs a cold brew and offers to buy a woman a drink. After a minor scuffle, Dolan is hit with a sap. He then finds himself crawling through a Japanese jungle and raking fire across huts. He then wakes up and realizes he's still in the one-horse town, only he now sees it on the wrong side of iron bars. The Cartersville police then beat him up and he spends days in a daze. Eventually, the one horse that owns the town shows up – Mr. Rand Ringo. 

Ringo reviews Dolan's past and realizes his operation could benefit from his talents. He pays Dolan a wad of cash, provides lodging, and tells him to just hang around until he needs him. The hanging around part just so happens to involve Ringo's wife in Dolan's new bed. If that isn't enough grief, Dolan befriends Ringo's sexy twenty-something daughter. But, eventually the rubber hits the road and Dolan is asked to bounce on an African-American named Sam Foster. Ringo lets Foster run some illegal gambling in the black section of town, but all the games are rigged. Sam has been tinkering with the scam and trying to earn an honest living. After Dolan talks with Sam, he realizes Ringo is a toxic influence on Cartersville. It's a criminal infestation that has to stop.

Fuller's novel is a product of the times and is filled with a lot of racist comments and attitudes. But, as Pronzini points out in the introduction, Dolan and the author aren't endorsing racism or that attitude.  Dolan's nemesis...Cartersville's the racist law-enforcement controlled and created by Ringo. In the book's furious finale, Dolan and Sam are forced into the street to face a mob of angry white people Hellbent on a hanging. Dolan's wits, determination, and cool factor win the day, but it's a memorable fight. 

Back Country's first half is cloudy with a lot of dialogue about God, the purpose of life and social philosophy. These conversations place Dolan on an intellectual plane that ran counter to what my beliefs and expectations were of the book. But, the price of admission is well worth it. The novel's second half is a whirlwind of emotion and violence, saturated in Fuller's scrappy storytelling. It isn't pretty, but it doesn't have to be. Back Country isn't a main street crime-noir. It lives up to its name. Back Country is a crossroads of dastardly villains, despicable authority, and a lot of lyin' and cheatin' no good son of a guns. Thankfully, Brad Dolan is back in the house.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Steve Bentley #03 - The House on Q Street

Many fans point to the Steve Bentley series as the best representation of E. Howard Hunt's literary work. Hunt, a former CIA operative and convicted Watergate conspirator, authored over 70 novels using a variety of pseudonyms. The Steve Bentley series was written under the name Robert Dietrich between 1957 through 1962, with one additional novel penned in 1999. I've previously read the first two installments and thoroughly enjoyed them. The books were originally published by Dell and have recently been reprinted by Cutting Edge Books. Savoring the series, it's been 20 months since I've visited the character. Continuing in series order, I'm picking up with the third installment, 1959's The House on Q Street

Steve Bentley is a Korean War veteran that was once employed by the U.S. Treasury Department to break up black market rings internationally. Now, he is employed as a busy tax accountant surrounded by the I-495 beltway in Washington, D.C. In The House on Q Street, Bentley is referred by a friend to Major General Walter Ferrand Ballou, U.S.M.C. Retired. The desired meeting is for Bentley to possibly replace Ballou's recently deceased accountant. But, when the two meet face to face, it's a rather unusual discussion. 

Ballou's family is immensely wealthy based on old Washington money. Ballou is quite the war hero, fighting in WW2's Pacific Theater and earning his fruit salad the hard way. In a cavalier approach, Ballou never cashed his paychecks because he felt it was his duty to serve America. Ballou retired and then served as Chief of State Police before later declining a bid for governor. Bentley, respecting Ballou, asks how he can assist the retired general. Without stating the obvious, Ballou needs Bentley to hide a $100,000 payout to a blackmailer by creating a corporation and providing various write-offs and losses. The secrecy is to protect both his son and daughter from noticing the withdraw from their eventual lucrative trust. 

By creating the corporation, Bentley learns that Ballou's daughter Francie is a drop-dead knockout that's divorced and flirty. Her brother Winston is a screw-up that dabbles in horse racing and slowly whittles away his trust funds. Upon a return visit to Ballou's house, Bentley tackles an intruder and then notifies the police. The next day, Bentley learns that a former state police officer that Ballou had previously fired had been shot to death. What's interesting is that the dead man's wife shows up to bail out Ballou's intruder from jail. How are these connected? When Bentley discovers that this same woman was married to a doctor eight years earlier, he finds out that the man was murdered as well. Two husbands. Two murders. The link turns out to be way more than Bentley bargained for.

There is a lot to unpack in The House on Q Street, but it's never too convoluted for its own good. I read the novel in nearly one sitting and absolutely loved the pace and the influx of clues as each chapter scurried by. Hunt sometimes floundered in the “literary hack” echelon of crime-noir and espionage writers. But, with these Steve Bentley thrillers, he absolutely nails it every time. Bentley's probing into the murders leads to a missing gun, a mysterious nurse, the General's secrets, and a high-level criminal in Baltimore. Of course, the hero still has time for the Scotch and Ballou's hot daughter.

The House on Q Street is another D.C. thriller, complete with a twisty mystery and compelling characters. Steve Bentley remains a competent paperback hero that rubs shoulders with politicians while also digging into their darkened past to expose hidden truths. The combination of romance, intrigue, violence, and scandal makes it an absolute pleasure to read. Get a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Whip of Desire

March Hastings was one of a number of pseudonyms used by author Sally Singer (b. 1930). The New York native specialized in erotic fiction and wrote over 20 novels between 1958 to 1976. These vintage paperbacks have become collector's items and often fetch prices over $100. Thankfully, Cutting Edge has been reprinting Singer's work as affordable paperbacks and ebooks. I read her 1961 lesbian novel The Outcasts and found it enjoyable enough to warrant a revisit of the author's work. I chose the Cutting Edge reprint of Whip of Desire. It was originally published by Midwood in 1962.

The book stars Fred Boyer, a 28 year old man originally from Alaska. He now lives in New York, plays the piano and has a pregnant wife named Mindy. In the opening chapter, Fred is at an employment agency hoping to find work. He's provided instructions to a theater ran by a gorgeous woman named Eve. Instantly, Fred and Eve connect and in a matter of days they establish a business that's funded by Eve's wealthy father. Fred will compose and perform music and Eve will put together a stage act. 

Later, readers learn that Eve's father crashed the family plane years ago, an accident that killed Eve's sister and injured her. Eve feels she is somehow responsible for her sister's death and harms herself frequently – pain as her penance for surviving. As Fred soon realizes, Eve craves rough sex and demands to be dominated. Eventually, Fred's heated desires for Eve erupts in a frenzy of pleasure and pain. He's liberated from the financial stress of being a husband and an expectant father by forcefully taking Eve. She pleasurably gains the abuse she feels she deserves while he is freed from life's cumbersome shackles by becoming her lover. But, Fred learns there is another man in Eve's life, a man so abusive that he leaves Eve broken, bloody, and nearly dead.

As an intriguing romance novel of the 1960s, Whip of Desire introduces some surprising elements. Both Fred and Eve were dynamic characters and the story was serviceable enough. I think Singer is a terrific writer, but she really finds her element in the sex scenes. Her descriptions are never graphic, but really convey the emotions and physical collision between these lovers. Mindy's mistrust in Fred, Eve's backstory, the business venture, and Eve's domineering “other man” made for a propulsive, fully developed story that I found entertaining. 

If you enjoy heated, erotic mid-20th century romance novels, then Whip of Desire will surely be a real pleasure to read. Recommended. Buy a copy HERE.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Target of Terror

Gerry Powell was a popular pulp and paperback artist that created covers for the likes of Signet, Fawcett Gold Medal, Dell, and Pyramid. It was striking cover art that led me to one of his paperback covers at a local used bookstore. The novel is Target for Terror, authored by S.A. Martinez and published by Major Books in 1976. I could find nothing online that identified the author, so that information remains a mystery. But, the contents of this old paperback are what truly matters. Intrigued by the book's premise, I dove in.

Mark and his wife Claire live in an older, three-level house on the shoreline cliffs of Malibu, California. Mark is a writer, Claire is an actress, and their marriage is falling apart. Through an employment agency, Claire has hired a new house cleaner named Leyla. While she's in New York, she notifies Mark that Leyla should be arriving in the coming days. Mark, despondent over his recent writing failures, droops around the house and spends time talking to his chatty, snooty friend Jamie.

In the opening chapters, young Leyla hitchhikes to Mark's house and arrives on a rainy, stormy night two days ahead of schedule. Readers will immediately realize that something is amiss with Leyla. She is paranoid someone is following her and she's carrying a small canvas bag and a tambourine. To his surprise, Mark finds Leyla on his doorstep in the middle of the night and ushers her inside. Anyone who has read a Gil Brewer novel knows where this is headed. 

Lonely and horny, Mark chases Leyla around the mansion hoping to get laid. Leyla just wants shelter from the night and the ability to hide from whatever deep and dark past is chasing her. After Mark becomes physical, Leyla runs up the stairs to escape. Backing away from her attacker, Leyla falls from the crumbling balcony and dies. 

The book's first 50 pages is Mark's hurried efforts to clean the crime scene – dispose of her clothes, conceal his scratch marks, eliminate her presence from the house. Thinking that her body would wash up on a northern shore, he is shocked to find her body below his house the next morning. The book's narrative then focuses on his efforts to relocate the corpse somewhere else. But, Target of Terror isn't just a tale of murder. Mark finds that he is now the target of whoever was hunting Leyla. They think he killed Leyla to obtain the valuable thing they want. When detectives, Claire, and Jamie become involved, the whole narrative twists and turns into a cat and mouse chase over Leyla's secret treasure.

You have to realize, this novel was published by Major Books. They were a lowly 1970s publisher with terrible editing and equally terrible books. Due to the publisher, Target for Terror reads like a play or a rough draft. The dialogue isn't natural, the pacing is a little off, and the characters are mostly one-dimensional. The main villain is stereotypical and there's very little backstory that suggests Mark is capable of rape and murder. But, despite the abysmal editing job, I can say I enjoyed the book. Martinez's writing is serviceable enough and I had the foresight to realize the finished product would be a hack job. In the hands of a capable editor, the book would have been a real treat. Unfortunately, what's left here is just another average paperback collecting dust bunnies in a basement zoo.