Thursday, June 30, 2022

77 Sunset Strip (aka The Cases of Stuart Bailey)

Roy Huggins (1914-2002) wrote and produced a number of popular television shows like Maverick, The Fugitive, 77 Sunset Strip, and The Rockford Files. Beginning in the early 1960s, Huggins became the vice president in the television division at Universal where he worked for 18 years before becoming an independent producer and signing with Columbia Pictures Television. His television career was plagued with denied credit and compensation, leading to a more controlling contract that he created known as the “Huggins Contract”, a template used by other Hollywood producers later. 

Huggins dabbled in writing crime-fiction as well. He wrote three full-length novels – The Double Take (1946), Too Late for Tears (1947), Lovely Lady, Pity Me (1949). In The Double Take, Huggins introduced a Los Angeles private-eye named Stuart Bailey. Bailey is hired by a man who is being blackmailed due to his wife's past. Through the narrative, Bailey digs into the woman's past to free the man from extortion. The novel was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post and appeared in a condensed form in the March 1946 issue of Mammoth Mystery

Bailey appeared three more times in short stories featured in The Saturday Evening Post and Esquire. These three short stories were compiled into a compilation by Mystery House in 2019 called The Cases of Stuart Bailey. There was also a compilation of these stories released digitally in 2015 by Jerry ebooks under the title The Complete Cases of Stuart Bailey. However, the best version of these three stories is the compilation called 77 Sunset Strip. It was published as a paperback by Dell in 1959 and makes the three stories flow seamlessly into one novel. The stories are connected as Bailey weaves in and out of these three assignments while dating a woman named Betty Callister (who appears as a character in the first ten chapters). 

I've read the three stories and here are my thoughts on each:

“Now You See It” (The Saturday Evening Post, May 25 1946)

Bailey is invited to a Westwood mansion by a man named Mr. Trist. However, when he arrives at the man's front door, Trist advises him his services are no longer needed and gifts him $150 for his troubles. But, when the man's son appears, Bailey is quickly ushered inside and introduced to a dinner party as an old family friend named Mr. Tate. Just when Bailey finds that the scenario couldn't become any stranger, the lights go out, Trist is stabbed through the heart, and all fingers point to Bailey when the lights flick back on. According to the police, Bailey isn't a chief suspect, but they want Bailey's assistance in investigating the murder. Huggins builds the case around the innovative technique of disguising the murder weapon by morphing it into something entirely different. The story was a bit convoluted and I didn't entirely understand the plot, but Bailey was captivating enough and I enjoyed his interaction with the characters and police. 

“Appointment with Fear” (The Saturday Evening Post, September 28 1946)

Bailey receives a telegram from a woman named D.C. Halloran asking him to meet her at a bar in Tucson, AZ. When he arrives for the meeting, he finds that Halloran is a beautiful woman that is suffering from a paranoid personality with depressive tendencies. She feels that someone is looking to murder her and she wants Bailey to find the who, when, where, and how. Against his better judgment, Bailey spends the night with Halloran and awakens to discover her dead. Huggins uses the familiar premise to place Bailey as the chief suspect on the run from Tucson's finest to clear his name. I thought the story was fast-paced with a number of twists and turns. It also showcased Tuscon's night life and landscape of that era, which I found fascinating. Recommended.

“Death and the Skylark” (Esquire, December 1952)

This was my favorite of the three Bailey shorts. In this case, Bailey is hired by a boatman named Callister, who feels that his next voyage will lead to his own murder. Bailey takes the case and becomes a passenger on Callister's yacht. The crew is Callister's wife, first mate, and daughter – not exactly a prime suspect list. But, as the pleasure cruise commences, Bailey discovers that each character has a deadly agenda. Sure enough, Callister is fatally shot and it is up to Bailey to survive the cruise while determining who the killer is. I love boat stories and I really enjoyed this trio of characters. The story was tight and slightly confined, but developed into a real showpiece of Huggins' descriptive and fast-paced writing style. Highly recommended.

Huggins used The Double Take novel and these three short stories to develop the Stuart Bailey private-eye character. By slightly retooling the character, he successfully transitioned him from printed page to the small screen. Bailey became the private-eye character of 77 Sunset Strip for six seasons. The show featured Bailey working with another PI named Jeff Spencer out of an office located at 77 Sunset Strip. The show's last season featured episodes that starred only Bailey.

* Thanks to The Thrilling Detective blog for providing some of the author's backstory. You can also read all three shorts online for free HEREBuy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Untamed Lust

Orrie Hitt (1916-1975) was a family man living in upstate New York barely making a living while he cranked out 150 sleaze paperbacks between 1953 and 1970 — many of which had significant crime-fiction elements. Untamed Lust was a 1960 Beacon Books release by Hitt that remains available today from Prologue Press and as an audiobook.

Eddie Boyd is a 23 year-old down-and-out farm worker who arrives at Wildwood Acres looking for a job hunting and trapping vermin on the estate. The master of the manor is Frank Jennings, a wheelchair bound drunk with a contempt for the wildlife he’s hiring Eddie to kill. In any case, Eddie takes the job for $300 a month, plus room and board at the upstate New York plantation.

The maid at the estate is a busty babe named Joan, with whom Eddie used to consort. Now that they’re living under the same roof in the servant’s quarters, they could resume their strictly-physical relationship. Seems simple enough until we learn that sweet Joan has marriage on her mind.

Not so fast! Eddie meets the lady of the house, Mrs. Jennings (“Call me Kitty”), and she’s a sex-on-fire, hot-pants-wearing minx. Then there’s Carole, Mr. Jennings’ conniving daughter, an irresistible sexpot with impossibly big breasts and a small waist. For his part, Eddie finds himself with a set of burning attractions that could cost him his livelihood.

Eventually, Eddie finds himself in the middle of the rivalry between Carole and Kitty for eventual control of the plantation. Eddie is pressured on multiple fronts into taking action that would provide him financial independence and a substantially upgraded sex life — fueled by his ambition and untamed lust for a trio of pulp fiction femme fatales.

Hitt’s novels often contain interesting details about the protagonist’s careers, and this one is no exception. In addition to being titillated, you’ll also walk away with a master’s degree in the art of trapping wild animals. Hitt underscores the cruelty of the practice and uses this as a means to define the characters and their motivations. This is unusually smart writing for a sleaze paperback and the reason why Hitt was so much better than his contemporaries.

Despite being derivative of James M. Cain’s work, Untamed Lust remains one of Hitt’s best novels. The ending was a little tidy for me, but the ride along the way was pure melodrama for imperfect men. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE. Get the eBook version HERE.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Scratch One Mark

Crime-fiction author Dan J. Marlowe's best literary work was the period between 1959's Doorway to Death and 1969's One Endless Hour. I've read many of the 15 novels Marlowe produced during that 10 year span, but I haven't explored his numerous short stories for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. According to's excellent database, “Scratch One Mark” may have been Marlowe's first published short-story. It appeared in the July, 1959 issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. Thankfully, I had the opportunity to read it at

The 13 page “Scratch One Mark” story features Joseph Conway as the youngest police lieutenant in the state (presumably New Hampshire, Marlowe's home at the time). Conway is a no-nonsense tough guy that is dating Judge Schofield's daughter Ann. Every Wednesday morning, Conway receives a small white-envelope containing $150 of hush-up money to ignore the backroom gambling at the local hardware store. Everyone knows about the game and even Judge Schofield and Conway both play from time to time. It's innocent enough as long as the 'ole boys keep the money at a minimum. Needless to say, Conway is flabbergasted when a player named Ted drops by and explains that some of the guys are in the hole up to $17K. 

The news creates a violent chain of events when Conway learns that Judge Schofield's nephew is a debtor to the game. The story centers around Conway's allegiances to the town and his struggles with the new high-rollers while navigating a bumpy relationship with the Schofields, which could be his future family. These conflicts collide in a savage end, but who's the victor?

What's interesting about “Scratch One Mark” is that it is written from experience. Marlowe was a professional gambler for a number of years - arguably the only thing he really did other than watching sports and writing – so there is a realism to the storytelling, a grainy know-how that blankets these seedy characters. In a few short pages, I developed a love and hate relationship for the main character. These are all of Marlowe's strengths, assets he would later develop into his anti-hero Earl Drake in the heist novel The Name of the Game is Death

“Scratch One Mark” is a short, enjoyable read and a forecast on where Marlowe was heading so early in his writing career. You can read this story for free below or HERE.

Monday, June 27, 2022

Yet Another Voice

Reading military non-fiction is somewhat challenging for me. The fact is that these are real-life, harrowing accounts of action, adventure, and heroism, far from the fantasy escapism I like to indulge in. But, at the same time, I respect it and value its purpose in revealing freedom's cost, the sacrifices made by veterans, and the historical impact of these accounts. Sometimes they can be uplifting experiences and others a dismal journey into despair and ruin. I mostly read fiction to escape my 9-5 existence, but from time to time I delve into a non-fiction book to ground me to reality. I purchased Yet Another Voice from a friend, a 112 page Leisure paperback from 1975 that is a non-fiction account of the author's six years experience as a prison-of-war in Vietnam

Col. Norman A. McDaniel, a U.S. Air Force pilot, was shot down with his crew over North Vietnam in July, 1966. In this autobiography, McDaniel explains that he guided his parachute into enemy territory, a deadly landscape that he was completely insulated from in prior war-zone experiences. On the ground, McDaniel, armed with just a .38 revolver, attempted to radio for help before being surrounded by soldiers and villagers. Other than a neck laceration, McDaniel was mostly healthy as he was taken captive and marched miles to a makeshift prison camp. Here, he was tied, beaten, and interrogated before being shipped to one of the most notorious camps, a compound called “The Zoo”.

In a small, windowless cell, McDaniel never knew light from day, and was interrogated, physically abused, degraded, and forced to endure hours of torture at the hands of prison officials. Refusing to break, he was assimilated into prison life, which McDaniel describes as monotonous existence of staring at the wall for hours on end. Eventually, his hopes of freedom evaporate when he is re-located to the more secure and notorious "Hanoi Hilton" prison. 

McDaniel spent over six years in captivity. His experiences are well-documented in this book, but told in a casual, storytelling way. There's very little technical nuances in the book, nor is it introduced as a timeline of the author's childhood upbringing, education, and training. The first three pages jump right into McDaniel's fateful day and the years following it. The author describes encounters with other cell mates, meeting his crew in the camp, various routines, and the prison Christmas shows, which were touching moments of solidarity. The book wraps up with McDaniel's arrival back home and the struggles of acclimating back into a normal civilian life.

Beyond just being a testament of courage and overcoming adversity, Yet Another Voice is a wonderful Christian message of God's overpowering strength. McDaniel frequently discusses biblical scripture in the book and how these scriptures motivated him to not only survive the ordeal, but to establish an even closer relationship with God. As a Christian myself, I really cherished these messages to reinforce my beliefs. It was just so powerful. If you enjoy military history, or underdog stories of any kind, then Yet Another Voice is certainly worth reading. 

Note – Thanks to Bob Deis at Men's Pulp Mags for providing information on the book's cover. This painting was created by Mel Crair and was originally featured as the cover for Man's Magazine, January 1958 as a “Book Bonus” version of Bridge Over the River Kwai. It was later used as the cover for Man's Magazine, November 1961. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, June 24, 2022

Wyatt #01 - Kickback

The Wyatt series by Harry Disher was an Australian pastiche of Richard Stark’s Parker novels. The series has nine installments and began with 1991’s Kickback.

If you’re familiar with the Parker books, you know Wyatt’s background. He is a stoic, independent heist man in his 40s who prides himself on his professionalism among a community of scumbags and amateurs in his chosen profession. In Kickback, Wyatt is based in Melbourne, a city with ample opportunities for heist targets, although the underworld is largely under the control of the Syndicate in Sydney.

As the novel opens, Wyatt is pulling off what should have been an easy job. He is partnered with the 21 year-old kid brother of a business associate and the kid sees himself as a real cowboy. As a result of the kid’s malfeasance, the job goes completely sideways and an innocent woman winds up dead. Wyatt vows never to work with the young cowboy (who calls himself “Sugarfoot”) again, but the kid sees an opportunity to profit from intercepting the money on Wyatt’s next heist.

The novel is basically the story of Wyatt looking for that next score amid increasing financial pressure and sparse opportunities. He lands on a bent lawyer with a safe full of cash and a beautiful secretary willing to help from the inside. Can Wyatt pull off this heist, get the girl, and neutralize Sugarfoot before the whole thing goes sour?

I’ve heard people degrade the Wyatt series for “ripping off” the Parker series. However, I feel that there is plenty of room for these types of novels whether they are written by Richard Stark, Lionel White, Max Allan Collins, Dan Simmons or this very talented Australian author.

Inasmuch as Donald Westlake is deceased and we’re not getting any more books from his Richard Stark pseudonym, the Wyatt series seems to be a great way to fill that void in your life. For its part, Kickback is right in-line with the quality of an average Parker book, which is high praise. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Cryptozoology Anthology

In my I Watched Them Eat Me Alive review, I reminisced about being a kid and watching wacky horror movies that starred nature as the dastardly villain. On any weekend, you could find me glued to TBS or USA Network watching films like Day of the Animals (1977), Grizzly (1976), Empire of the Ants (1977), and Piranha (1978). These movies were so much fun because they put me into a realm of real-world horror. There was a slim possibility that I could meet my end facing a hockey-masked killer at a campsite. But, my own backyard had ants, bees, bear, and leaping squirrels that could easily bring my demise under extreme circumstances. 

Thanks to Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, the concept of man versus nature is explored within the confines of the literary world. Like their prior volumes, Weasels Ripped My Flesh, the aforementioned I Watched Them Eat Me Alive, and Maneaters, these two literary scholars have been scouring the pages of vintage pulps and men's adventure magazines (MAMs for short) for strange and mysterious creature stories. Combining their efforts with David Coleman (Ancient Lake, The Bigfoot Filmography), the trio edited Cryptozoology Anthology, a 2015 publication by New Texture. It contains a total of 13 stories culled from the pages of True Weird, Men, Sir!, and Man's World among others. The book also contains two informative, introductory articles about creatures in various pop-culture trends and media.

The whole collection is highly recommended, with these stories in particular as solid standouts:

“MacDonald's Nightmare Safari”

This was originally published in Man's Conquest, August 1959 and it's one of those stories supposedly written by the main character to convey his harrowing, real-life encounter to the reader. In this case, the protagonist and author is Jim MacDonald, a former WW2 engineer that theorizes where a motherlode of diamonds is located in the Mato Grosso jungles of Brazil. To obtain it, he'll need to travel through tribes of head-hungry Indians known as the Morcegos. With the help of an enemy (you read that right) and a sexy babe, Jim finds the diamonds and the truth behind the Morcegos' worship of a strange white beast referred to as The Guardian. The story begins and ends with a furious shootout, and is laced with the traditional escapism these stories are known for. This one will be memorable for a variety of reasons.

“The Man from Another Age”

Like the above story, Mike Flint is listed as the author and the protagonist in this story that appeared in Man's Illustrated, November 1958. The creature at hand is the Abominable Snowman, also known as the Yeti, one of the most popular creatures to appear in pop-culture. Flint and other adventurers form a hunting expedition on Mt. Everest. The story, at about 20 pages in length, documents Flint's struggle with the harsh elements. But, my favorite aspect of the story is Flint's interactions with a beloved character named Billy, a young man hoping to finally overcome his fears after years of living in cowardice. Essentially, it's Billy's story, who arguably could be “The Man from Another Age” instead of the dangerous creature. Again, escapism laced with danger, high-adventure, and terror makes this story a real standout. 

“Monster Bird That Carries Off Human Beings!”

With a title like that, how could it not be a riot? I've always liked Jack Pearl's writing, and we've covered several of his books and even devoted a podcast episode to his work. He mostly authored crime-fiction, military-fiction, and biographies. But, he dipped into the Cryptozoology stories in the MAMs, including this wild “non-fiction” article in Saga, May 1963. Pearl describes “real-life” events where humans have been snatched by giant birds, often referred to as Thunderbirds in ancient civilizations. These are crazy, sometimes terrifying stories of man versus nature gone wild. Pearl points out that early American pioneers like Jim Bridger and Daniel Boone have written accounts they've experienced with giant birds. It is far-fetched, unbelievable shock-writing, but it is just so much fun to read. It's a testament to an era of imagination and curiosity. Much like many of the stories featured in this anthology.

These stories all feature wild animals and creatures wreaking havoc on mankind. There's tales of dinosaurs in jungles, sea-monsters terrorizing ships, and more Yeti, Sasquatch, and Bigfoot stories. They are all enjoyable, fast-paced, exciting action-adventure yarns surely to please fans. The artwork on the magazine covers and inner-pages is included in glorious full-color, including artists like John Pike, Jack Dumas, Gil Cohen, Mort Kunstler, and Norm Eastman just to name a few. As a bonus, there's even a hidden story buried inside the book. When searching for it, just be careful where you place your fingers. You never know what hairy, horrific creature you're liable to touch! 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Footsteps on the Stairs

I enjoyed The Troublemaker, a 1972 mystery by author Jean Potts (1910-1999). It was packaged as a twofer in 2022 by Stark House Press with Footsteps on the Stairs, the author's 1966 crime-fiction novel. This new edition also features an introduction by author and Passing Tramp blogger Curtis Evans. Many point to Footsteps on the Stairs as the penultimate Potts experience, so I was curious to see how I would respond to it.

Vic is now married to an alcoholic lush named Thelma. But, four years ago he was involved in a relationship with New York interior designer Enid. Both have moved on, but run into each other again in Philadelphia. Pleasantries are made, awkward memories are relived, and soon Vic is cheating on his wife with Enid. The variable is Enid's good friend and neighbor Martin, a clumsy recluse that is recovering from his wife's mysterious murder. He suspects Enid and Vic are a thing, but he is suppressing desires for Enid. When Enid is found murdered, Martin is devastated and feels that Vic is the prime suspect. 

Despite being released as the culprit, Vic is still Martin's number one suspect days after the murder. Only, the murder mystery becomes convoluted when Thelma (again...Vic's wife) begins having an affair and Martin finds out. Did Thelma gain her revenge by offing Vic's mistress or simply by cheating on him? As Martin digs into the clues and becomes the amateur sleuth, he finds an unlikely ally in a young woman named Rosemary, a friend of Enid's. The two begin an investigation to learn who killed Enid, but the suspect list is lengthy. 

Footsteps on the Stairs is laced with all of the traditional genre tropes one would expect from a mid 20th century crime-fiction novel – numerous suspects, an amateur sleuth, clue-scavenging, and of course, the obligatory corpse. I found Martin to be a likable hero, perhaps enhanced with his mysterious past and his problematic self-awareness. His fondness for Enid is his curse, but it's a key to his own salvation as readers understand what Martin's challenges were in his prior marriage. There are a number of small intricacies that contribute to the much larger problem. How they work together is the marvel of Potts' literary work. 

Whether or not this is Potts' finest crime-fiction novel is in the eye of the beholder. I have nothing to compare it to other than The Troublemaker. I endorse both novels and highly recommend the twofer. It's money well spent. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

First Through Time (aka The Time Factor)

Most time travel stories concern going into the past and the ramifications of altering linear time - always a fun thought experiment. In 1962’s First Through Time, also published as The Time Factor, British novelist Stanley Bennett Hough (1917-1998), writing as Rex Gordon, tackles travel to the future.

Major Howard Judgen works for a U.S. military-funded science unit that has invented a device called a Synchotron that captures images of the future for modern study. Basically, it’s a time machine for a rudimentary motion picture camera. The camera goes through a hole in time created by science-fiction hokum and returns 30 minutes later with video footage of the future.

A recent video that returned from about 100 years into the future indicates a cataclysm has taken (or will take) place at the spot the laboratory now stands in Tennessee with global ramifications (I’m being intentionally vague here). The military wants to utilize this time portal to send a man into the future to avert this catastrophe. Our narrator, Howard, seems to be the man for the job.

The success or failure of a novel with this setup hinges on the coolness of the author’s depiction of the future and the quality of the adventure awaiting our hero. It’s all set-up quite nicely with the appropriate characters trudging up all the time travel paradoxes associated with jaunting to a determined future with hopes of changing it.

The end result was akin to a decent installment of Jeffrey Lord’s Richard Blade series - without the kinky sex. The author tried to shoehorn too many Big Ideas into what otherwise should have been a short, pulpy novel. Overall, First Through Time was a pleasant diversion, but it will be no one’s favorite science-fiction novel of the era. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Three Widows

Wisconsin native Bernice Carey (1910-1990) authored poems, short stories, and book reviews in newspapers and literary magazines before becoming the author of eight crime-fiction novels between 1949 and 1955. Stark House Press has reprinted all of these as twofers with introductions by author and blogger Curtis Evans. My first introduction to Carey is her 1952 novel The Three Widows. It has been packaged with the author's 1950 novel The Man Who Got Away With It in the 2019 Stark House Press reprint

This cozy mystery novel features three vacationing women as prime suspects for murder – Mrs. Smith, Ferguson, and Meadows. The three are introduced to the book's protagonist, Melvin, while on vacation in a California resort in Escondido. Prior to Melvin's arrival, he spent the prior days with his wife in Santa Cruz and Yosemite. Oddly, both locations featured law-enforcement recovering a corpse. With the murders following Melvin, he soon finds another dead person at the Escondido resort. Readers know Melvin isn't the killer, but after engaging in chit-chat with the “three widows” he soon discovers they were all vacationing in Santa Cruz and Yosemite. Do one of these women have a penchant for cross-country murder?

The Three Widows is a short, pleasant mystery with one of crime-fiction's most enjoyable tropes – the amateur sleuth. In a hilarious scene, Melvin begins piecing together his gumshoe manual by reading a mystery novel. Soon, he is on the trail breaking into the women's rooms, examining their belongings, and piecing together motives and peculiar pasts. Some of the mystery is removed when readers are placed into the minds of each of the three widows, creating intimate moments when readers learn more about the characters than the investigating bungler. 

Overall, The Three Widows was an excellent introduction to Bernice Carey's writing style, that of the prim and proper mystery novel complete with a dialogue heavy tenderness. Comparisons could be made with another mystery author of the era in Jean Potts, although she is a tad more abrasive. With tragedy afoot, a moderate mystery, and corpses 'aplenty, Carey delivers a solid crime-fiction novel with The Three Widows. Cheers to Stark House Press for keeping the torch lit on these early 20th century classics. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Zanthodon #01 Journey to the Underground World

As a longtime fan of science-fiction, fantasy, and the works of Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lin Carter (1930-1988) authored a number of novels and series titles using unfinished manuscripts from his literary idols or by utilizing a pastiche to contribute future installments of established, classic titles. Using the Pellucidar series, written by Burroughs between 1914-1963, Carter created his own “hollow Earth” concept with the Zanthodon series. The five-book run, also inspired by Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, was published by DAW Books between 1979 and 1982. It has been reprinted by Wildside Press as one of their digital Megapacks featuring all five books for an affordable price. I'm starting with the series debut, Journey to the Underground World

The book's star is Eric Carstairs, the stereotypical 1970s action-hero that can pilot, captain, shoot, salvage, and deal with the best of them. He's in North Africa looking for work when he saves a professor named Potter from muggers. At the bar, where Carstairs stores his steep tab, he discusses Professor Potter's interesting proposition. Potter explains that he needs Carstairs to pilot a helicopter into an inactive volcano in an effort to locate the middle of the Earth, a place called Zanthodon. He provides evidence that many ancient cultures knew about Zanthodon and wrote about its whereabouts. The origin stems from a giant meteor that crashed to Earth, plunging through the volcano and making an impact on our planet's central core. The “Big Bang Theory” would have created a miniature Earth inside Earth. Make sense? Potter wants to locate it.

Carter doesn't waste the reader's time, and by page 40 both Carstairs and Potter have crashed the helicopter miles below the volcano. They crawl out of the aircraft and discover that Zanthodon is an evolutionary paradox. Dinosaurs roam free, along with two different types of humans – Neanderthal, which are the most basic of prehistoric humans and the slightly more advanced, evolved humans known as Cro-Magnon. As we know it, roughly a 350,000 year difference between the two on the evolutionary scale. But, in Zanthodon they are both alive and active, although warring with each other.

Aside from being a fighting man, Carstairs has a key advantage by carrying a .45 handgun to shoo away the pests. But, the duo is soon captured by the Neanderthals and taken on a long trek through the wilderness. It's here that Carstairs meets Darya, the captive daughter of the Cro-Magnon's tribal king, as well as Jorn, a fierce warrior-hunter. The narrative builds around Carstairs' attempts to become free while working together with an unlikely ally in Hurok. The book introduces future plots while familiarizing readers with the series vibrant and dangerous landscape.

As pure popcorn fiction, there's nothing to dislike about Journey to the Underground World. It obviously pays homage, and takes some liberties, from prior works like The Lost World and Journey to the Center of the Earth. Carter spends ample time with each character detailing the separate perils they are facing. The plot is spacious, allowing multiple events to occur in different areas – different enemies and challenges that rotate for the characters. I really liked that aspect of the storytelling. 

As a fast-paced, descriptive adventure novel, Carter delivers the goods. Journey to the Underground World is a journey worth taking. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE. Get the eBook omnibus HERE

Thursday, June 16, 2022

To Venus! To Venus!

Robert Silverberg said that Donald A. Wollheim (1914-1990) was one of the most significant figures in 20th century American science-fiction publishing. He was the editor for Avon Books between 1947 through 1951, then left to spearhead the new publisher Ace Books. He invented the adored “Ace Double” and spent 20 years as the publisher's editor-in-chief. He later left Ace to form one of the most instantly recognizable publishers in science-fiction literature, DAW Books (Wollheim's initials). But, Wollheim also wrote a lot of science-fiction stories and books, including To Venus! To Venus!. It was published under his popular pseudonym David Grinnell by Ace in 1970. The flip story of this double is The Jester at Scar by Edwin Charles Tubb. Cover art by John Schoenherr.

The book begins with a U.S. Space Agency's crew, led by protagonist Chet Duncan, navigating a difficult task on the Moon's surface. It is presented as a bit of foreshadowing, eventually culminating later in the narrative as Duncan is forced to navigate more challenging tasks on the surface of Venus. Once the crew is back home in CA, Duncan's senior management discusses the next mission.

Russia (then the Soviet Union) made a transmission from what appears to be a communication station on Venus. This would be unlikely considering that the U.S. and world leaders have established that Venus contains an atmosphere that is over 500 degrees. However, the Reds state that the information is inaccurate and that the atmosphere is similar to Earth's. In an effort to gain credibility, and in the fairness of competition, the Americans want their own people on Venus. A three-man crew led by Duncan will train extensively for the flight to Venus and make the voyage. Thus, a narrative is born.

The flight to Venus is somewhat boring as readers endure daily activities, training exercises, and some flat banter between the characters. The only entertaining aspect is that another group of Russians are en route to Venus as well, so the rivalry between the two space capsules is interesting. The Russians are heavily stereotyped, which made the dialogue unintentionally humorous. But, eventually the Americans land on Venus only to discover that the Russians are in need of medicine and assistance. The mystery on whether Venus is sporting the inner rings of Hell or the atmosphere of Central Park comes to fruition as the story reaches its central apex. Unfortunately, it was like a faulty firework on the 4th of July. A bummer instead of a starburst.

There's nothing about To Venus! To Venus! to recommend. The narrative just plods along with no  real enjoyment beyond simple escapism. The finale, which I thought was surely going to be an entertaining sequence of American/Russian cooperation to escape the fiery doom of Venus turned out to be about a paragraph in length. Just when I was fully invested, I turned the page and found an advertisement for more Ace books before the pages flipped upside down. Needless to say, I was underwhelmed with the ending. To Venus! To Venus! isn't Hall of Shame worthy, but it is certainly in the neighborhood. Take a hard pass. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

The Terrified Heart

According to the internet, New York native Irving Greenfield was a youthful runaway, a Korean War veteran, a merchant seaman, professor, and author. He authored the 16-book series Depth Force for Zebra as well as the Navy trilogy under the pseudonym of Roger Jewett. His most popular novel is Only the Dead Speak Russian, which spent six weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. My first introduction to him is his gothics. He authored 11 gothic novels from 1966 through 1976 under the pseudonym Alicia Grace. I'm trying out The Terrified Heart, originally published by Belmont Tower in 1973. 

Danielle has experienced a tumbled love affair in New York. Breaking away from the past, she moves to cozy Vermont to work as a college professor teaching Greek History. It's here that she begins struggling with an awkward friend relationship with a man that just can't accept no as an answer. Needing a break from her new job and residence, Danielle spots a dreamy part-time job as a research assistant working on a Greek project. She's all in.

When Danielle meets Keith Wyler, he explains his entire convoluted past and job to her. Keith grew up on Long Island on a sprawling estate called Eleusis. He became married to a woman named Nina, who was then murdered and dumped on the shoreline. Keith was the main suspect in her murder, but the jury acquitted him and he left the family home for many years. Keith studied abroad, became enthralled with Greek culture, and now has returned to the U.S. hoping to write a book about an ancient Greek text. But, he wants to return to Eleusis to write the book while also reclaiming his birthright to inherit the estate. To accept the job as an assistant on the book, Danielle must agree to pose as Keith's wife upon his return to Eleusis. 

Greenfield's prose is elementary with a particular dryness to the characters. There's nothing to really like or dislike about any characters – even the murderer. Instead, Greenfield spends most of the 192 pages as banter between Danielle and Keith about his upbringing and the rivalry between himself and his crippled brother James. Readers can figure out who killed Nina instantly, which doesn't prove much credibility to the local law-enforcement. 

The unbelievable portion of the plot is that Nina and Danielle are nearly identical. What are the chances that Keith can find a woman who has a Greek History degree, looks identical to his previous wife, and is willing to pretend to be his current wife on a trip to the 'ole homeplace? That alone should be enough evidence that this is a complete mess. With a paper-thin plot, and disposable characters, The Terrified Heart is a literary deadbeat. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Logan #02 - Killers at Sea

Jon Messmann authored comic books before moving into men's action-adventure paperbacks in the late 1960s. He contributed installments to the spy-fiction series Nick Carter: Killmaster as well as creating and writing his own titles like The Revenger, The Trailsman, and The Handyman. In 1970, Messmann wrote two novels starring a begrudged boatman named Logan. Thanks to Brash Books and Cutting Edge, two publishers that have concentrated on releasing brand new additions of Messmann's literary work, I had the opportunity to read the first book, the eponymous Logan. Enjoying the novel, I'm back to the well again with the book's sequel, Killers at Sea

Messmann moves the action from Panama to the quiet South Carolina coast for this second Logan adventure. The battle-scarred protagonist receives a letter from an old friend in the fictional one-horse town of Kingdom Point. Upon his return, Logan discovers an elderly man's body lying on a secluded beach. Before he can notify the authorities, the bullets start to fly. The dead man's young friend, a gorgeous woman named Julie, begins taking potshots at Logan believing he is the murderer. Wrestling the gun away from Julie, Logan is then forced to kill one of three savage tough-guys that arrive at Julie's house. 

Like a mid 20th century crime-noir novel, Logan unexpectedly finds himself a murder suspect and must prove his innocence. In doing so, Logan is forced to contend with the group of criminals that killed the old man searching for something valuable he possessed. Now, the criminals believe that Logan somehow knew the old man and has the goods. But, how does Julie fit into this robbery and murder? 

Killers at Sea isn't quite as effective as its predecessor, but still retains the same ingredients. Lots of sex, gunplay, and violence that reminded me of the Netflix original show Ozark. While Logan's signature is his fast boat, The Sea Urchin, most of the book's violence surprisingly occurs on dry land. Messmann's plot development moves at light speed, never pausing for lengthy dialogue. It's a sacrifice of character building in exchange for the pure adrenaline rush brought on by the hero's struggle.

With Logan's sexual prowess, “big” Colt Python, sleek speedboat, and savage instincts, Killers at Sea is a fun romp through the wild formula of men's action-adventure. Recommended.

Notes – Despite the book titles, I honestly feel as though Messmann wrote Killers at Sea first, then followed it up with Logan. In reading both books, Killers at Sea is a looser outline of the character. First, a little more backstory is revealed with Logan's charity in Sister Mary Angela. This has the genre tropes of an origin tale. The Logan installment briefly mentions Sister Mary Angela as if readers are already familiar with that character. Second, I'd venture to say that Messmann's writing isn't as good in Killers at Sea as it is in Logan, as if he was still working out the hero's characterization.

There is also the character of Julie, which I find interesting. In this book, Julie is Logan's lover and she experiences violence and criminality before Logan ditches her on an island on the last page. In the opening pages of Logan, he is arriving back at his boat with a girl named Julie. If this isn't the same person, why name two female characters the same? The Julie in the Logan novel doesn't really say much to reveal her past, and she quickly leaves Logan when bullets start flying. It was as if the Julie chapter of Logan's life had reached its conclusion. 

The end result is that Killers at Sea was first, Logan second. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, June 13, 2022

King Kull

Texas author Robert E. Howard (1906-1936) is considered the grandfather of the sword-and-sorcery genre. His most popular and influential character was Conan, an iconic fixture of film, comics, graphic novels, vintage paperbacks, and the pulps. But, Howard's precursor to the famed barbarian was another sword-wielding hero named Kull (or King Kull). In fact, Howard's very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword”, was a reworking of a Kull story called “By This Axe I Rule!”. Howard authored 12 total manuscripts and a short poem that starred Kull, but only two were published during his lifetime - “The Silent Kingdom” (Weird Tales Aug 1929) and “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” (Weird Tales Sep 1929). What happened to the Kull stories after 1929?

Let's leap to 1946 and an Arkham House volume called Skullface and Others that featured “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune”, “The Silent Kingdom”, and the poem “The King and the Oak” (originally published in Weird Tales Feb 1939). Other than this rather limited publication, the Kull stories simply disappeared. In 1966, Glenn Lord, literary agent for the Robert E. Howard estate, located six cartons of the author's papers, including unpublished manuscripts, carbons, and early drafts.* Among these cartons were seven complete, previously unpublished Kull stories, plus three unfinished stories. 

Lord then went to work compiling these stories into an omnibus for Lancer, a publisher that was already reprinting Conan stories as paperbacks, including unfinished drafts and stories that were completed by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter. It only made sense for Lancer to do the same thing for Kull that they were doing for Conan. So, the first printing occurred in 1967 as King Kull with gorgeous cover art by Roy Krenkel. The paperback included the 12 Kull stories and the poem, three of which were completed by Lin Carter based on Howard's unfinished manuscripts - “Wizard and Warrior”, “Riders Beyond the Sunrise”, and “Black Abyss”. Minor edits were also made to other stories by both Carter and Lord.** Carter also drew out a handy map of King Kull's World for inclusion. 

Ultimately, this King Kull paperback is essential for any sword-and-sorcery, Conan, or Robert E. Howard fan. I really enjoyed the entire collection, but here are three of my favorites:

“The Shadow Kingdom” - Ka-nu is a Pictish ambassador, peaceful to Kull's kingdom of Valusia but sworn enemies to Atlantis. Kull is invited to have a feast with Ka-nu, where he is warned that a Pictish warrior named Brule the Spear-Slayer will appear before Kull at sunset. Kull then travels back to his throne and Brule the Spear-Slayer appears. Brule reveals to Kull that there are secret passageways in Kull's palace that he isn't aware of. Futher, Brule shows Kull that Serpent Men are secretely disguising themselves as palace guards and that the real palace guards are all knocked unconscious and their bodies hidden. The story features furious fighting in the palace and a dose of magic as an imposter Kull is revealed. These Serpent Men become Kull's enemy, although they never appear again in any future stories. But, this is a great reading experience, filled with stirring action sequences. It moves along quickly with an uncanny amount of vivid descriptions of grim settings. This story sweeps away the prior romanticism of fantasy stories and poems and replaces it with a more serious tone. 

“Black Abyss” - This story concerns one of Brule's fellow warriors, a guy named Grogar, seemingly disappearing into a black crevice in the wall. Brule quickly notifies Kull and the two enter this secret doorway into the dark. Inside, they find dark wizardry as Grogar has been tortured and strapped on an altar. When Kull attempts to free him, a giant slithering devil worm enters and the story turns into an action-packed horror story. It was so descriptive and dark, and I really loved the ending, which I assume is credited to Carter's storytelling. This story was also adapted into comic form as The Beast from the Abyss (The Savage Sword of Conan, No. 2 Oct 1974), written by Steve Englehart with art by Howard Chaykin. 

“By This Axe I Rule” - In this story, an outlaw named Ardyon has been employed by four killers. Together, the group proposes a plot to assassinate Kull. The group, assisted by 16 rogue swordsmen, will strike while most of Kull's army has been lured away from the palace. However, Kull learns of the murder attempt from a slave girl, providing him just enough time to prepare for the onslaught of death and violence. In the throne-room, Kull fights 21 men with a sword and battleaxe. Needless to say, this story was brutal, violent, and exhilarating in its good-versus-evil clash. The bloody finale finds Kull destroying the city's old laws and proclaiming, “I am the law.” Powerful stuff. 

Honorable mention goes to Kull's origin story, “Exile of Atlantis” and the “The Skull of Silence” with its dark and brooding Lovecraft elements. 

Sphere Books reprinted the paperback in 1976, then Bantam reprinted it again in 1978 as Kull minus Lin Carter's edits. Donald M. Grant reprinted the novel in 1985, once again titled Kull without Carter's edits. In 1995, Baen Books released the paperback as Kull with Carter's edits removed and a story added, “The Curse of Golden Skull”. Finally, in 2006 a trade paperback was published by Del Rey called Kull: Exile of Atlantis

* Information found in Glenn Lord's article “An Atlantean in Aquilonia” (The Savage Sword of Conan, No. 1 August 1974).

** Information found in Lin Carter's article “Chronicles of the Sword” (The Savage Sword of Conan, No. 2 October 1974). 

Get the Kull: Exile of Atlantis book HERE.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Murders Macabre

Norman Firth (1920-1949), known as the “Prince of Pulp Pedlars”, was a British author that contributed to small publishers like Bear Hudson, Utopian Publications, and Mitre Press. The diversified writer delved into multiple genres including crime, western, science-fiction, and horror. At one point, Firth accepted a commission to author 30,000 words a month of spicy stories for various magazines. Bold Venture Press has been working with Firth's estate to reprint some Firth's short stories that were originally published under pseudonyms. The first collection is called Murders Macabre, a 200 page volume that contains three short stories with an introduction by Firth's estate manager Philip Harbottle. 

"Terror Stalks by Night"

This story was originally published in 1945 by Bear Hudson under the pseudonym N. Wesley Firth. Bob Carter arrived in the tiny village of Riverton three days ago and has found himself incredibly bored. During a heavy thunderstorm, Bob pulls his car into a bus station to smoke a cigarette and reflect on his poor decision to visit such a dull place. A beautiful woman named Lucille quickly approaches Bob's car thinking he is a taxi. With a beautiful woman in his car, and nothing planned for the day, Bob casually asks “Where'd you want to go?”. Lucille explains that she is headed to a decrepit mansion called Rivers End to meet her remaining family members. It is here that her late aunt's will is to be read and the inheritance to be divvied out. Her aunt's stipulation was that all remaining family members had to be in the house at the same time for the reading of the will. When Bob arrives at the spooky mansion, Lucille goads him into going into the house with her. Inside, Bob and Lucille experience a long night of bloody, homicidal terror. A phantom with knives for fingers is stalking the halls and killing each family member one by one. With a corpse in the front doorway and the telephones down, the two are trapped with the killer. "Terror Stalks the Night" was absolutely amazing with its blend of violent savagery, eerie ambiance, and slight sense of dark humor from Bob, the stories central character. This was just a superb introduction to the author.

"Phantom of Charnel House"

This story was originally published as “Death Haunts the Charnel House” in 1946 under Firth's pseudonym of Jackson Evans. Six years ago, Wenton inherited a ton of money from his uncle's estate. With nothing to do but loaf around all day, Wenton thought it would be fun to become a ghost hunter. He placed an ad in the local paper and soon found himself extremely busy traveling the English countryside proving that most of the haunting and ghost appearances could easily be explained. Only a few cases seemed genuine, although Wenton still retained some doubt. His newest endeavor is Charnel Estate, a haunted habitat that features over 100 workers residing in the Charnel Estate village and working at the nearby factory. Only, rumor has it that the original Charnel Estate housed a murderer, a fiend that used harpoons to impale victims. Now that there's a new owner of Charnel Estate, the old murders have returned again. It is up to Wenton to find the murderer and determine if there's a supernatural aspect to the killings. Again, Firth does an amazing job with atmosphere and location, placing Wenton's investigation in the middle of a rural, foggy English village ripe with suspects and motives. The appearance of this “phantom” was terrifying, despite the very real possibility of the Scooby-Doo styled ending. Regardless, the suffocating tension, horror tones, and grisly murders were worth the price of admission. This was a fantastic story.

"The Devil in Her"

This story was originally published in 1945 under the pseudonym of Henri Duval. Dr. Alan Carter arrives at an English lodge to recuperate from the horrors he witnessed treating ill patients in third-world countries. The lodge is a family friend's place, a household that Carter frequented in the past. Once there, he begins to hear rumors of a witch prowling the moors killing livestock. Once Carter reunites with a former lover named June, he begins to think she herself may be the witch. Once the victims shift from animals to humans, Carter is thrust into the investigation to determine who the killer is and the motivation. The suspect list grows to include a therapist named Calatini, a rival that impedes upon Carter for the affection and love of June. There are plenty of slayings before the story's stirring finale. This was a solid story filled with suspicions, murder, re-kindled passion, and the tropes of an old-fashioned detective tale. 

I hope Bold Venture Press will continue compiling Norman Firth's short stories for future collections. I thoroughly enjoyed Murders Macabre as an introduction to this talented, seemingly forgotten author. If you love traditional horror and the weird menace type stories of Bruno Fischer, this is a mandatory addition to your reading collection. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

The Eternal Champion #01 - The Eternal Champion

Michael Moorcock is a British science-fiction and fantasy author that began writing novels and stories in the late 1950s. His literary work is mostly composed of series titles that all links to an epic multiverse of various worlds and time periods. I'm familiar with Moorcock through his musical contributions to Blue Oyster Cult and Hawkwind, but haven't seriously dissected his bibliography. To sample his work, I decided to try The Eternal Champion, often referred to as the Erekose series. The trilogy's eponymous debut, originally appeared as a novella in Science Fantasy #53 in 1962. After Moorcock modified and expanded the story, it was published by Dell in 1970 with a Frank Frazetta cover.

The novel is presented in the first-person by John Daker, a man from present day Earth who has been summoned by King Regenos to become a supernatural swordsman known as Erekose, meaning the one who is always there. Daker can remember bits and pieces of his past life, including the various incarnations of himself under names like Elric, Cornelius, Corum, Hawkmoon, and others. Regenos explains that the human race is facing genocide from a race of beings called Eldren. With Erekose's tactical strategy and battleground prowess, mankind can be saved by this messiah. 

The sword-and-sorcery adventure places Erekose on a wooden long-ship sailing to the Eldren capital city. En-route, Erekose witnesses Regenos' unethical tactics when he strikes down an Eldren leader during a truce. Later, the humans wipe out the Eldren's seaport city, slaughtering everyone other than their princess, a woman named Ermizhad. With her as a prisoner, Erekose begins to see a different perspective of the Eldren. As the action shifts to the kingdom commanded by Regeno, Erekose questions his purpose and fate.

If you are a casual sword-and-sorcery fan, or just enjoy a great adventure, then you will easily become enthralled in The Eternal Champion. It can be enjoyed as a simple, yet exciting, action yarn without any deep analysis. The formula is somewhat elementary from a sky-level interpretation – hero is born from the ashes, leads the humans to fight the invaders, questions the motives, then becomes an ally of the invaders. It is a fast-paced, swift action-adventure that is absolutely top-notch. 

However, Moorcock never goes with the grain. He is always questioning the realms of fantasy and the stereotypical flavors and trappings of the genre. As a deep dive, The Eternal Champion positions Erekose as questioning his cursed fatalism. Why is he destined to live out these tragic lifespans in a cycle of the future becoming the past? Is he mankind's savior in a physical sense? The idea that Erekos arrives in an empty tomb places him in a Christ-like position of immense power. As an authority figure, Erekos must decide who needs saving and if warfare truly has rules. Questions of nobility in war, humanity's self-destruction, and the concept of human exceptionalism arise over the course of the narrative. Moorcock's prose, both ultra-smooth and ripe with imagery, presents an appealing and durable protagonist.

The Eternal Champion proves to be timeless classic and worthy of all the critical acclaim and accolades it receives. As a newbie to Moorcock, I think this book may be the welcome drug into an unparalleled library of epic, thought-provoking literature created by a revolutionary scribe. This is sheer perfection, and I want more. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Flanagan's Run

Tom McNab was born in Glasgow in 1933 where he held the Scottish national triple jump record. He coached the British Olympic bobsled team at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics and was also a technical advisor on the film Chariots of Fire. Most importantly, he wrote a 1982 historical novel called Flanagan's Run about a 3,000-mile foot race from Los Angeles to New York with a big-money prize during the Great Depression. The premise was so cool, I was sold immediately.

The year is 1931 and C.C. Flanagan is a P.T. Barnum-styled huckster organizing “C. C. Flanagan’s Great Trans-America Race”. Distance running was a spectacle back then, and the prospect of winning a $150,000 prize brings 2,000 athletic anomalies out of the woodwork.

Runners from all over the world — including 121 ladies — travel to Los Angeles to compete in the race. The daily distance quota is about 50 miles, and it’s expected that the race will end three months thereafter. The winner is the finisher with the lowest aggregate time over the entire course. En route, the runners live in specially-constructed tents with 100 bunks each.

Some countries send teams of runners. The German racers are from a new political movement known the “Hitler Youth” or “Nazis.” Other characters in the paperback are the kind of colorful eccentrics you’d see in a Coen Brothers movie or the madcap paperbacks of Donald Westlake:

There’s a 19 year-old Mexican running to save his village from starvation.

A British Olympian places a giant wager with aristocrats at home that he’ll finish in the first six places.

You’ll get to know a Scottish runner who was an unemployed riveter in the Glasgow shipyards before the jobs disappeared.

One of the runners is a bare-knuckle boxer from Pennsylvania with an origin story that will please any fan of boxing fiction.

There’s also a medicine-show con-man everyone calls Doc who is an encyclopedia of knowledge regarding distance running.

And don’t forget Kate Sheridan, the sexy New York burlesque dancer seeking to prove that a woman can make it to the money.

Once the race starts, the fun really begins. Flanagan’s carny sensibilities drives him to bring an entire crew worth of bizarre attractions along the route, including a talking mule who doesn’t say much. There’s camaraderie, teamwork, romance and thrills in every chapter as hungry men (and the Beautiful Kate) push themselves beyond their limits in search of glory and money. Along the way, there are literal and figurative barriers to finishing the race as planned. Flanagan’s constant problem solving and the ways he outsmarts his enemies at every turn are a pleasure to read.

I loved Flanagan’s Run, and if you like the triumph of the human spirit sports stories, you’ll love it as well. The book reminded me of a less-insidious version of Stephen King’s The Long Walk. The movie rights to the novel are owned by Miramax. Part of me would love to see the paperback adapted for a film or streaming series, but a bigger part of me doesn’t want the joy of this thick novel sullied by Hollywood’s interpretation. It occurs to me, that’s the biggest endorsement for a book I can muster: Just let it be. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

A Woman on the Place

A Woman on the Place was a 1956 Ace paperback by Florida’s “King of Paperbacks” Harry Whittington (1915-1989). The book has been reprinted over the years and remains available as an affordable ebook from Prologue Press.

The Johnsons are simple, struggling orange farmers living in the scrub country of Central Florida. Will is the father fighting to survive with his handicapped wife and stepson in tow. Debts are mounting and a rare freeze may kill this season’s crop. Will’s creditors aren’t interested in excuses, they just want to be paid. There’s disagreement among family members about whether a harvest for the orange juice concentrate company is the right business move.

A pair of uninvited — and undesired — house guests suddenly arrive from Alabama. Tom is the white-trash, deadbeat cousin of Will’s wife, and he brought his abused ragamuffin bride Rosanne with him. Of course, Rosanne is a real looker, and the relationship with her domineering husband is super-dysfunctional. Naturally, Will is intrigued by the Alabama girl, especially when compared to his wheelchair-bound shrew of a wife.

A Woman on the Place is a weird novel for Harry Whittington as it doesn’t fit nicely into any of his normal genres. My theory is that in 1956, paperback editions of novels of hardscrabble life in the rural south by Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner and John Faulkner were selling quite well. This was Whittington’s attempt to take a crack at an agrarian melodrama with literary aspirations. As a result, the pacing is really, really slow with none of the noir snappiness readers of his crime-fiction have come to expect.

To be clear, there is a killing and stuff happens, but it was all too boring to generate much interest in the characters’ well-being This is what happens when a writer abandons his strengths and chases the marketplace over originality. Harry Whittington was better than this novel, and you deserve more. Don’t bother. 

Buy a copy of the eBook HERE.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

House of Stairs

William Sleator (1945-2011) was a Harvard graduate that authored science-fiction and young adult novels from 1970 through 2011. I wasn't aware of his literary work, but was happy to discover House of Stairs at a local used bookstore. It was originally published by Avon in 1974 and has since been reprinted numerous times in multiple formats.

The book consists of five sixteen-year old kids being taken from various orphanages and state institutions and placed in a seemingly endless world of stairs. There are no walls or rails, just platforms connected by stairs that lead in different directions to more stairs. The first to arrive is Peter, blindfolded and shoved from an elevator into this stairway nightmare. Inside the maze, he finds a girl named Lola. Together, the duo stumbles upon another stairway resident, a girl named Blossom. She has found a small, disc-shaped machine that releases a small food pellet each time she sticks out her tongue.

The three are later joined by Abigail and Oliver, and collectively the five of them share a small backstory of how they came to arrive in the maze. Like any novel that places ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, alliances are formed and enemies are made. In this case, Lola and Peter form a partnership and attempt to exist “upstairs” away from the others. The motivation for alienation is that the food machine changes its preferences on when to deliver the pellets. As the hours morph into days, the group soon becomes starved and forced to abuse each other in order for the food pellets to be delivered. You see, physical and verbal abuse awards the group with food while kindness and generosity produces starvation. The horror!

At 156 pages, House of Stairs is a brisk, macabre little novel that says so much about humanity's will to survive. It was interesting to watch the deterioration of human kindness when pushed to the breaking point physically and emotionally. With the idea that time isn't a factor, a rescue isn't feasible, and escape is impossible, these kids spiral into madness and depravity. It's a young adult novel, but there are some violent scenes and sadistic overtones.

I enjoyed this book a lot and found the central mystery as a propulsive, consistent plot development. I will say it is a bit dated with some situations and the ending left me a bit underwhelmed. If you love survival horror like The Mist or The Ruins, then House of Stairs should provide just enough literary terror to quench your thirst. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Cody's War #01 - Dragonfire!

Between 1982 and 1986, Stephen Mertz authored a number of gritty Mack Bolan installments that are considered some of the best of the series. He also created and authored installments of the M.I.A. Hunter series as well as the Kilroy mysteries and music-based novels like Hank and Muddy and Jimi After Dark. Recently, he launched a brand new action-adventure title called Cody's War. I'm always up for a rip-roaring, Mertz mule-kicker, so I chose to read the series debut, Dragonfire!. It's out now through Wolfpack Publishing.

Readers learn through backstory that CIA Agent Jack Cody experienced a personal tragedy when his family was killed by a terrorist bomb. Now, Cody seeks out the most perilous jobs in a quest to kill himself in the line of duty. Thus, his unconventional methods have earned him the nickname “Suicide Cody”.

In the book's opening chapters, Mertz introduces readers to his newest paperback warrior by placing Cody on a small, U.S. submarine en route to the Ocean Song, a recreational yacht containing a wanted Islamic terrorist named Hadi Abu. As Cody emerges from the tiny craft, there is a prophetic message in one simple line of text: “Cody lifted himself through the hatch, into the storm.” It kicks off the novel, the character's mission, this series debut, and puts readers in the harness seat as the author thrusts readers into the action.

On the Ocean Song, Cody disposes of the baddies, captures a valuable female accomplice, and faces off with one of the early Final Bosses. Abu, refusing to go quietly into submission, gets the 'ole one-two punch - a shotgun amputation and decapitation. Cody then thrusts the captive over his shoulder to ascend a swinging ladder to a helicopter spewing out M60 rounds into the Ocean Song's violent, but foolish crew. Wham! Bam! Thank you Uncle Sam.

After the fast-paced opening scene, Dragonfire! settles into a brisk pace as the next mission unfolds. A Chinese scientist is attempting to defect to America and is receiving assistance from a covert CIA agent. As one can imagine, the defection requires stealth support from resistance cells within Red China, an underground pathway that has already smuggled out the scientist's wife. This resistance cell, oddly enough, is backed by the Triad, China's version of the Mob. 

The exchange is set that will place the scientist on a road to freedom. However, when the final deal goes down, the CIA man is killed and the scientist is taken captive by a Major Zhao. It turns out, Zhao is working on a coup attempt from within the Chinese military. He will use Dragonfire, the scientist's deadly weapon, to shift the momentum and overthrow the Chinese government in a quest for world dominance. It's a pulp-fiction “take over the world with the biggest bomb” strategy that isn't far removed from an Ian Fleming (James Bond) or Michael Avallone (Nick Carter, Ed Noon) styled plot. 

U.S. President Harwood informs his close cabinet that Cody is The President's Man and has been for the three predecessors before him. Harwood elaborates, “He's as well-known in this office as he's unknown to the general public.” So, Harwood gives the orders to Cody's CIA controller and possible love interest, Sara Durell (an obvious ode to Mertz's favorite spy hero in Sam Durell). She meets with Cody, provides the rundown, and hooks him up with an embassy handler named Beth in Hong Kong. The mission is to locate the scientist while investigating the disappearances of an American fighter-jet and submarine, which readers already know were targeted, zapped, fried, and vaporized by Dragonfire. Cody's ultimate goal is to prevent Earth from falling under the bombastic spell of an even viler Chinese dictator.

Needless to say, Mertz is in full rock 'n roll mode with Cody's War. Dragonfire!, while being a modern, sophisticated shoot 'em up, is a throwback to the two-fisted, barrel-chested, bullet-belted heroes of the 1970s through the 1990s. Cody isn't completely exposed in this book, leaving a lot of his past in the dark. But, I love the madness to his motive and the idea that he is longing for his own death while fighting to save the lives of others. There's very little humor (if any) as Cody drills down to the bone marrow to find and eliminate targets. This keeps the book on the rails and moving towards a destination. Readers know the stops. I also love literary-longevity. Mertz has created a durable series hero that he can simply drop into the endless abundance of current Earthly war-zones. Plus, there's the whole “Sara 'n Cody” romance that can build up over time. 

In the introduction to Conan of the Isles, L. Sprague de Camp wrote about a lecture he attended on writers. I think this sort of sentiment describes talented authors like Stephen Mertz:

“A lecturer lately has said that, if a fiction writer wants sales, he should write exclusively either about politics or sex. A novel like The President's Boyfriend ought to be a lead-pipe cinch. There are still, however, many readers who read, not to be enlightened, improved, uplifted, reformed, baffled by the writer's obscurity, amazed by his cleverness, nauseated by his scatology, or reduced to tears by the plight of some mistreated person, class, or caste, but to be entertained.”

Whether he's throwing rounds downrange with a literary creation or blowin' the blues harp in a smoky dive, Mertz is an entertainer. With his newest fictional hero, this remarkable scribe ventures down another pathway to offer up another enjoyable, rock-solid good guy during a time when humanity needs more good guys. Jack Cody is that guy.

Cody's War Checklist

1 Dragonfire!
2 Camp David Has Fallen!
3 The Fires of Allah
4 Day of Reckoning
5 The Last Refuge
6 Cody's Return
7 Lethal Assault
8 Final Strike
9 Afghanistan Payback
10 Hellfire in Syria 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.