Wednesday, May 18, 2022

News of the World

After graduating from University of Missouri-Kansas, author Paulette Jiles (b. 1943) was employed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Her original novels and poetry collections include Waterloo Express (1973), Blackwater (1988), and The Late Great Human Road Show (1986). After extensive travels, Jiles settled in San Antonio, TX in 1991. My first experience with the author is her western News of the World. It was published in 2016 by William Morrow and adapted to film in 2020 by Universal Pictures and Netflix International. The movie, starring Tom Hanks, won Academy Awards in 2021 for Best Cinematography, Score, Production Design and Sound. I've never seen the film, because I'm a reader not a watcher. 

The key to fully experience News of the World is understanding the time period and place in which it takes place. The book is set in 1870 and begins along the border between Texas and Indian Territory. Texas is a political hotbed after Republican Edmund Davis was elected in 1869 as the state's governor, barely defeating Democrat Andrew Hamilton. Tensions were high, the Texas State Police had privileged power, and a civil rights commitment had been made. The introduction of public printers made way for state journals and newspaper to provide official notices. It was a Reconstruction period for Texas.

The book's main character is Captain Kidd, a 71 year-old man and veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. After becoming a widow, Kidd began traveling the country reading national and international newspapers for a dime a listener. His business isn't a lucrative one, so Kidd becomes interested when he's offered money to transport a young girl named Johanna.

Johanna's parents were killed by Kiowa warriors when she was six. After four years of being a captive, she is freed from the Kiowa and placed in the hands of a man named Johnson, who then hands her off to Kidd to take the girl back to her only relatives, an aunt and uncle in Castroville, TX. Johanna's experiences with the Kiowa result in her being a wild child with very little possession of the English language or modern customs. She speaks fluid Kiowa, minimizes animals to food, eats with her hands, and wears primitive clothing. She's a fish out of water with Kidd.

Like any great mono myth, Kidd's journey through Texas brings elements of danger and adventure that transform the elderly individual into the unlikely hero. Kidd must carefully navigate the political landscape, balancing a bipartisan stance while contending with fierce supporters of both Hamilton and Davis. He's also threatened by perverse men who want Johanna for their harem or themselves. When he's not being asked to provide a fee for traveling through towns, he's dealing with Johanna's struggles with communicating with him or her complete recklessness and rebellion. Kidd has a lot to deal with throughout the book's narrative. 

News of the World isn't an action-packed western, but it does have one of the better gunfights I can recall. In fact, Jiles offers a lot of surprising insight on guns, ammunition, load sizes and feet-per-second velocity that I found especially interesting. The gunfight between Kidd and a group of criminals is innovative with the alternate strategy of using dimes in shotgun loads. Beyond this scene, the narrative is mostly verbal jousting. Jiles is much more literary than traditional western storytellers.

This novel provides an excellent history of Texas during this tumultuous time period and compares to today's political rivalries between the parties. As Americans, we continue to fight with each other over allegiances to parties and this book proves that nothing has really changed in 150 years. It probably never will. But, Jiles also provides insight on the historic alienation experienced by children captured by Native Americans and then returned years later to modern society. Jiles credits Scott Zesch's The Captured as an influence. 

Overall, I was deeply moved by News of the World and the relationship formed between Kidd and Johanna. As the centerpiece of the novel, I found it remarkable. I look forward to reading more of Paulette Jiles including her 2010 novel Color of Lightning, which also features the Kidd character. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Logan #01 - Logan

Jon Messmann created the long-running and highly successful western series The Trailsman, as well as other series titles like The Revenger and The Handyman. We have explored numerous novels by Messmann and mostly love all of them. Both Brash Books and Cutting Edge have performed a remarkable public service by reprinting most of Messmann's bibliography in brand new editions with modern artwork and short essays about his work. 

Cutting Edge's most recent release is the two-book Logan series, a character that Messmann created in the style of John D. MacDonald's popular Travis McGee series. Messmann authored both Logan and Killers at Sea under the pseudonym Alan Joseph. These books were originally published in 1970 and have remained out of print until now. I'm beginning with the series debut, Logan.

Not much is known about Logan other than he has some sort of combat history, owns a speedy boat simply called Sea Urchin, and is kind of a jerk. In the briefest of backstories, Messmann hints that Logan has experienced some sort of tragedy in his life that makes him this despondent, rather miserable person. But, he has a soft heart for charity, namely a nun named Mary Angela in Kenya. When Logan completes odd jobs, like chartering or salvaging, he sends most of his earnings to her with a letter thanking her for prior help. 

In Panama, a man asks Logan to perform a job for $10,000. Not liking the guy, or the vagueness of the task, Logan kicks him off of his boat. Later, Logan returns to his boat with a beautiful young woman only to find a corpse on the downstairs deck. The Panamanian police arrive and all fingers point at Logan as the prime suspect. He's been framed.

An emissary from the Peruvian government arrives at the jail and advises Logan they can make the charges go away if he simply agrees to the $10,000 job. He explains that their government is having a problem with a left-wing revolutionary group led by a man named Panico. Peru feels that they have finally killed Panico, but need positive ID. The body has been buried in a remote village and Peru feels as though one of their men will easily be spotted by guerrilla forces. A man like Logan can travel to the village by water under the disguise of a hunter or trapper. Once there, Logan's companion, a Peru woman who dated Panico, can make the positive ID. Mission over, collect $10K. Simple, right?

Messmann is in his wheelhouse with this high-octane, action-adventure yarn. Like his characters Jefferson Boone: Handyman and Skye Fargo, Logan is the author's formulaic, bull-headed man's man. He's handy with the ladies, gets laid a lot, and offers no lasting promises or commitments. In terms of rebellion and angst, Logan is 110% against-the-grain. He chooses painful opposition over smooth conformity despite the overwhelming odds. But, he always wins. 

Thankfully, Cutting Edge realizes Messmann's storytelling talent and have re-introduced these fun novels for a new generation of readers. As a nautical escape, Logan succeeds with it's fast-paced, calculated action. There's an ample amount of sex and violence contained in Messmann's propulsive plot to please fans of popcorn action-adventure fiction. There's nothing to dislike about Logan, and I'm looking forward to this book's sequel, Killers at Sea

Fun Fact – Papillon Books used this book's original cover art for their 1974 private-eye novel Wake Up Dead by William Wall. 

Monday, May 16, 2022

Conan - The Phoenix on the Sword

In 1929, Robert E. Howard submitted a story called "By This Axe I Rule" to magazines like Argosy, Weird Tales, and Adventure. The story starred King Kull, the hero of Howard's published story, "The Shadow Kingdom", which is arguably the grandfather of the sword-and-sorcery genre. "By This Axe I Rule" received the same cold shoulder as 10 of Howard's other Kull manuscripts. Instead of giving up on the story, Howard modified the manuscript to include a different king, a dark haired barbarian called Conan. The story was re-titled as "The Phoenix on the Sword" and published by Weird Tales in December, 1932.

The story begins with an outlaw named Ascalante formulating a plot to assassinate King Conan of Aquilonia, a country that has turned against their king due to his foreign heritage. The Rebel Four (Volmana, Gromel, Dion, Rinaldo) all feel as though they are employing Ascalante's services. In reality, Ascalante plans on betraying the killers so he can seize the crown for himself. Ascalante's ace-in-the-hole is Thoth-Amon, an evil wizard he has enslaved to do his bidding.

A number of events occur that aid King Conan in escaping the assassination. A dead sage (ghost?) appears before Conan and warns him of the plot, allowing the barbarian king to prepare for their arrival. Additionally, this dead sage singes Conan's sword with the symbol of the phoenix, a tribute to a God named Mitra. At the same time, Thoth-Amon gains back a magical ring he lost years ago. To exact revenge on Ascalate for enslaving him, he conjures a large ape-like creature to venture out to hunt and kill Ascalante. All of this culminates in a bloody and vicious fight in Conan's throne room as he battles the Rebel Four, Ascalante, and sixteen of his rogue warriors. 

Obviously, there's a lot to digest over the course of this 9,000 word short story. In the manuscript's original form as "By This Axe I Rule", the magic element is absent, replaced with a simpler approach of Kull being warned of the assassination plot by a slave girl. Perhaps the story was too simple for Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright. Thus, Howard injects a magical pageantry to the tale, mystifying readers with political intrigue, monstrous mayhem, and a violent hero to cheer. The story is beautifully constructed with all of these moving, intricate parts blended together to create an artistic apex. This is Howard in brilliant form. "Phoenix on the Sword" is a mandatory read for any action-adventure fan. Perfection.

Friday, May 13, 2022

A Bullet for the Bride

We've covered a great deal of Jon Messmann's literary work, like vigilante novels in The Revenger series, The Trailsman westerns, his Claudette Nicole gothics and Jefferson Boone: Handyman international thrillers. While Messmann's series titles are the most widely recognized, he did write a small number of stand-alone novels for a variety of publishers. Brash Books (and subsidiary Cutting Edge) have performed a wonderful public service by releasing most of Messmann's out of print novels in brand new editions. So, I was excited to acquire Messmann's stand-alone novel A Bullet for the Bride. It was originally published by Pyramid  in 1972 and now remains available through Brash Books with a brand new afterword from Bloody, Spicy, Books writer Roy Nugen.

Despite the book's original cover, A Bullet for the Bride is not a moody private-eye murder mystery. Pyramid clearly wasn't aware of John D. MacDonald's sensational houseboat hero Travis McGee. Or, any houseboat heroes for that matter – William Fuller's Brad Dolan, J.L. Potter's Jeff Tyler or, Messmann's own boating hero Logan, star of Logan (1970, 2022 Cutting Edge) and Killers at Sea (1970, 2022 Cutting Edge). As Nugen suggests in his afterword, this book was clearly designed to be the debut of a series, but it never came to fruition.

The book stars Captain Ed Steele, a retired CIA operative that now lives a fairly peaceful life on The Squid, a houseboat docked in the Gulf of Mexico. Steele still performs part-time jobs for his former CIA boss Byron. These are normally surveillance jobs or tasks that require Steele's efficiency with a boat. But, Steele is surprised when a woman named Cam Parnell calls him on the phone saying that she got his name from Byron. 

Parnell, as hot as a July firecracker, wants Steele to do a private-eye job. She wants to know why her super wealthy father's new girlfriend, whom she absolutely despises, is running what appears to be a fake company. Hesitantly, Steele learns that the woman's name is Grace White, a wealthy, sexy older woman that is apparently running a successful exporting business. After Parnell seduces Steele into the job, he discovers that White's business may be a front for an arms-dealer. 

I love Messmann's quick-pace and his flawless formula of placing a lone hero against the odds. The chemistry between Parnell and Steele was like lightning in a bottle, a sexy combination of youth, experience, and wealth within the backdrop of Florida's posh beachfront mansions. I also found it interesting that Steele's backstory has him chasing a mysterious man. That story probably would have played itself out in future installments, but they never happened. Instead, Messmann used a variation of this for his successful Trailsman series, where the lone hero Skye Fargo is chasing three murderous men. 

Jon Messmann's stirring narrative - laced with boat chases, gun-play and fisticuffs - pairs perfectly with the rich, sexual ambiance of the 1970s. A Bullet for the Bride is truly a marriage made in Heaven. 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Counter-Terror #01 - Hour of the Wolf

The Counter-Terror series, authored by Robert Leader under the pseudonym Robert Charles, was published between 1974 through 1980. The eight-book series was released by Robert Hale in England  and by Pinnacle in the U.S. I enjoyed Leader's stand-alone novel Sea Vengeance, so I was anxious to try this Counter-Terror series debut, Hour of the Wolf. It's compared to the fiction of authors like Eric Ambler and Frederick Forsyth.

After the deadly terrorist attack at the Munich Olympics in 1972, lots of authors began writing “counter terrorist” series and novels. Hour of the Wolf is spawned from that horrific act as a group of Palestinian refugees are banded together in an international terrorist plot. The Wolf is Abdel Rahmin Marani, a veteran of war during Black September in 1970. His quest for bloodshed is an effort to bring attention to Palestine's refugee camps and the atrocities he feels are committed there. 

To combat worldwide terror, a Counter-Terror team is created by the British military. It is coordinated through international channels that involves French and Italian Intelligence, West German State Police, the British military and features the series star, Detective Inspector Mark Nicolson in New Scotland Yard. Collectively, this team will work within their own agencies and divisions, but will also share intelligence on terrorism. The goal is to lower the walls of their own respective authority in an advancement of security, preparation, and planning. 

Hour of the Wolf is less than 200 pages, but divided into three separate parts to fit the trilogy narrative. The first part is the Wolf's recruitment and planning, the second is set in Japan, and the final part situated in London. The operation is rather simple. 

Due to the IRA's frequency of attacks to liberate Northern Ireland, the British population has become desensitized. Shootings, bombings, and senseless murder is so common that the attacks aren't creating the desired impact or reinforcing the message. A small cell of the IRA agrees to detonate a bomb in Japan to gain notoriety in another part of the world. In return, the Japanese terrorist group The Red Army will attack a large population of Jews at an Israeli airport. To complete this nightmare trifecta, the Palestine Liberation Army will attack London. 

The first thing to know is that Hour of the Wolf is pretty darn good. It isn't your rudimentary team-commando series. There's a great deal of intelligence, inner-workings, and networking that takes place over the course of the narrative. It isn't necessarily a slow-burn, but it's not a standard Phoenix Force shoot 'em up. Like Sea Vengeance, the author provides a lot of historical data to cement each character's position. These history lessons were informative, bringing to light the refugee camps, the displacement of non-Jews in that region post-WW2, and the Middle East struggles that still affect the modern world today. 

As a compelling espionage thriller, Hour of the Wolf delivers the goods. While the team members will change, I'm interested in learning more about Mark Nicolson and his ordeals and trials as this series further explores international terrorism. It's a series I'm really excited about, so I'll be searching for the other installments.  

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Helltown

After enjoying horror novels like Suicide Forest, The Mosquito Man, and The Sleep Experiment, I was anxious to read another book by Jeremy Bates. The Canadian-Australian author has two unique series titles – World's Scariest Legends and World's Scariest Places. The idea is that Bates uses some sort of urban legend or supposedly haunted place as the main element of these stand-alone novels. His 2015 novel Helltown is set in the abandoned town of Boston Mills, OH. 

The actual urban legends concerning the small town of Boston Mills, OH are pretty darn creepy. The real town, simply called Boston, was closed by the U.S. Forestry Department in 1974. The reasoning was the need to preserve forests in Summit County. The inhabitants were paid to leave and what remains is an abandoned town, complete with old buildings, rural roads, barricaded bridges, and some really wild legends. The white church in town looks to have upside-down crosses on its exterior. There's an abandoned school bus in the forest said to be haunted. Supposedly, a clan of wild cannibals resides in the town and prey on visitors. Toxic gas, disease, and rumors of giant pythons make it sound appealing enough for the occasional tourist to quench their thirst for adventure and mystery. Over the years, Boston is now deemed Helltown.

Bates uses a lot of these myths and legends in his horror narrative. The book is set in 1987 and features Boston Mills as a small community of rednecks that are still living in the town despite the fact that most of the population left 13 years earlier. These rednecks kill rabbits with dynamite, watch a lot of television, drink cases of beer daily, hang out a local bar, and worship Satan. That's right. Satan. 

Like a classic 80s horror flick, a group of kids are heading into Boston Mills on Halloween night, hoping to discover ghosts or chainsaw-wielding maniacs. Their car is run off the road by a hearse and the survivors find themselves on the run from crazed rednecks looking for rape, violence, and satanic sacrifice. The book's main characters are two good hearted girls, an ex-Army vet struggling with PTSD, an urban explorer and the whacked-out doctor that's behind the murder and mayhem. Bates uses the church, school bus, rural location, pythons, and crazy cannibal elements of the town's dark mythology to create his nightmarish horror novel. 

I think Jeremy Bates has a great thing going. These two series titles are just so much fun and have enough sex, violence, and gore to satisfy fans of Edward Lee and Bryan Smith without going full-blown splatterpunk. Bates' writing is provocative and deeply disturbing, but it isn't unreadable. He has a real talent to skirt the boundaries of absolute madness without pushing the reader over the edge. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Kim

With 17 novels and dozens of short stories to his name, Robert Colby remains one of my favorite authors of the paperback original era. Kim was a 1962 hardboiled private-eye mystery mispackaged as a sex novel by Monarch Books. It remains available today from two separate reprint publishers - Wildside Press and Prologue Books.

The narrator is Miami private detective Rod Striker whose practice involves helping wealthy clients with personal problems. His latest client is rich Aunt Martha, who is concerned about her 22 year-old niece, Kim. She’s engaged to a nice boy, but she had a fling with a local strip club pimp named Eddie Tarino who runs a sex-for-pay boat between Miami and the Bahamas. Tarino wants Kim on board as his personal escort and is threatening her fiancĂ© and aunt with physical harm if Kim doesn’t comply. Aunt Martha wants Striker to drag Tarino into a dark alley and beat him until he begs for mercy and promises to stay away from Kim. 

Rather than beginning the assignment with violence, Striker decides to visit Tarino and talk some sense to the pimp. The meeting of these two Alpha Males is really something special, and Striker discovers that there’s way more to the story than his client initially understood. He also follows up with Kim, who —as expected — is a dish to end all dishes The author’s description of her cans will stay with me forever.

Striker has a partner at his PI agency named Myra. She’s a beautiful 29 year-old ex-cop from Los Angeles. The author does a great job describing her to make every man reading the novel fall in love with her. Striker and Myra are occasionally romantically involved, although the relationship is mostly business. Much later in the novel, the first-person narration switches from Striker to Myra. I normally hate that crap, but it worked this time because they’re both awesome characters. 

A mystery arises for Striker and Myra to solve:  Who is pulling the strings behind this manipulation of Kim? There are sex scenes along the way, and they’re white-hot in a 1962 kinda way. To be clear, this is a first-class hardboiled mystery with two great leads. The paperback had some pacing problems in the second half, but the twisty conclusion was straight aces. 

Bottom Line: Another winner from Robert Colby. Go ahead and add this one to your reading queue. 

Monday, May 9, 2022

Burnt Offerings

Horror luminaries Stephen King and Bentley Little have both acknowledged Burnt Offerings as an influence on their writing. The novel, authored by Robert Marasco, was originally published in 1973 and adapted into an MGM film in 1976. The book is available now as a reprint through Valancourt Books with an introduction by Stephen Graham Jones. 

In the book, Ben and Marian Rolfe live in the crowded city of Queens, New York and are barely surviving the day to day hustle and bustle of work, marriage, and parenthood. The city is consuming them, eating away their existence and crushing their dreams and aspirations. Ben realizes this isn't a place to raise their young son David. In hopes of a fantastic family summer, Marian begins searching the classified ads for a summer place they can rent with their meager budget. Ben works as a professor, so Memorial Day through Labor Day affords them the opportunity to get away from it all. 

Marian locates an advertisement for a summer house in upstate New York. It's an appealing invitation of private beach, pool, dock, magnificent views, and the price, while not disclosed, suggests it might be affordable. The three drive up for the weekend to visit the place and negotiate with the owners. Their arrival proves to be disappointing. 

The house, which is a 30-room mansion, is in disarray. The once lush landscape is now dead, the exterior is crumbling, and the inside is dusty, ancient, and clearly neglected. But, it has potential and could be a great way to spend a summer vacation. The house is owned by Mrs. Allardyce and her elderly son and daughter. The deal works out to just $900 for the whole summer - a bargain if there ever was one. The only catch is that the Rolfes will be sharing the house with Mrs. Allardyce, a frail, sickly woman that lives in the west wing of the house. Her children explain that she doesn't leave her room and rarely makes an appearance. The Rolfes just need to leave a tray of food for her three times per day. This burden isn't that heavy.

Once the Rolfes settle into the house for the summer, their family ties begin to deteriorate. Marian begins to spend more and more time on the west wing cleaning. Ben begins a descent into madness, peaking as he attempts to drown David in the pool. Marian and Ben's relationship unravels, but oddly, the house begins to come alive with new paint and landscaping. The house is growing as the Rolfes sacrifice their happiness and love. Who's the master and servant? Is the house haunted? Is Mrs. Allardyce even real? These are the questions that arise throughout the book's haunting narrative.

American Nightmares: The Haunted House Formula in American Popular Fiction, by Dale Bailey, compares Burnt Offerings with a later novel, Anne River's Siddon's The House Next Door and of course, the staple of 1970s haunted house fiction, Jay Anson's The Amityville Horror. I've now read all three, and while I still prefer Anson's dark and twisted narrative, Marasco's work is much grimmer and intelligent, dwelling on a biblical emphasis of sacrifice and loyalty. There's a deep social subtext to Marasco's storytelling – the price of happiness, humanity's lust for material things, the financial burdens of average Americans, the limits of sacrifice, and the strains of the family dynamic in modern culture. 

The family's descent into despair is a heart-wrenching spectacle for readers, especially considering these characters are so easily likable in the book's opening chapters. The mystery involving the west wing was captivating, leading me to question whether some of the events happening were real or just a malevolent facade. Mrs. Allardyce's identity was like a dangling carrot, suspended for readers to finally uncover in the book's closing pages. The house, a character unto itself, was remarkably detailed to enhance the transformation from ruin to prosperity. 

Stephen King, as he acknowledged, probably owes a great deal to Marasco for the success of his 1977 novel The Shining, published just four years after Burnt Offerings. Like Marasco's plot, King replaces the Rolfes with the Torrance family, equally introduced as a strained married couple raising their young son. King transfers the location of a 30-room mansion in upstate New York to the empty Overlook Hotel in Colorado. Ben Rolfe is struggling with a text, like Jack Torrance's frustrated efforts to finish writing a manuscript. Marasco utilizes a deep swimming pool as an eventful place where young David faces death. King uses the mysterious hotel room 217 to captivate Danny Torrance (and a bathtub to be technical). Alternatively, Marian's fascination with the door to Mrs. Allardyce's room is similar to Danny often approaching 217's door. In other words, I hope King cut Marasco a check. 

Burnt Offerings is an abstract horror novel, working on a psychological level that is crafted with expertise. As an entry in the overpopulated “haunted dwelling” sub-genre, it is easily in the upper echelon of mandatory reads along with the aforementioned The Amityville Horror, The House Next Door and pioneering efforts like Richard Matheson's Hell House, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, and Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Unfortunately, Marasco didn't pursue another horror novel that I'm aware of. To quote John Carpenter, “I guess everyone's entitled to one good scare.”

Friday, May 6, 2022

Sea Vengeance

British author Robert Leader (b. 1938) had worked as a Merchant Marine, bartender, and a factory worker before becoming a full-time novelist. He wrote over 200 short stories and sold them to magazines like Reveille, Titbits, London Evening News and London Mystery. He found success authoring a series of 10 espionage thrillers starring British agent Simon Larren. Collectively, British publisher Robert Hale published over 40 of his novels, most authored under his real name or pseudonyms like Robert Charles or Robert Brandon. Some were exported to the U.S. by Pinnacle. My first experience with the author is his 1974 novel Sea Vengeance. It was published in the U.S. by Pinnacle with a cover by Phil Marini.

The first few chapters of Sea Vengeance plays out like the exciting 1992 Steven Seagal action film Under Siege.  Chief Officer John Steele, a Korean War veteran, is working on board the Shantung as it departs embattled Saigon en route to peaceful Singapore. The large ship features eight cabins, each containing a diverse variety of passengers. Within a few hours, Steele and the crew discover that the group of Buddhist monks on board are actually Viet Cong hijackers. They kill a few of the Shantung crew and severely injure its Captain.  

With the ship under command of a Viet Cong leader named Thang, Steele works in stealth to capture weapons and free passengers. His betrayal comes from an unlikely suspect, a lover he has met on board named Lin Chi. Together, Chi, Thang, and the Viet Cong have plans to use the ship to rescue a number of their allies from a small prison camp off the coast of  battle-torn Vietnam.

At 182 pages, Sea Vengeance is brimming over with exciting danger and intrigue. Steele proves to be the capable hero – admirable, courageous, and willing to sacrifice his life for others. As a propulsive action yarn, the scenes with Steele secretly working “behind the enemy” to secure the ship was really engaging. With the author's vast experience on merchant ships, I found some of these scenes had a sense of realism. While Steele's struggles with the Viet Cong on the ship were effective, page turning events, I applaud the author's introspective commentary. 

The combatants in the Vietnam War are presented positively by the author, both condemnation and worthy appraisal provided through a philosophical look at war and its aftermath. This isn't a stretch from Leader's wheelhouse considering he has written a number of non-fiction books on religion, philosophy, and his travel experiences. He certainly has the credentials and education to provide thought-provoking dialogue between these volatile characters. I found that to be one of the biggest highlights. 

If you enjoy Vietnam military history, or love a great nautical or war story, then Sea Vengeance is highly recommended. I found it to be similar to Australian author James Edmond Macdonnell's series of World War 2 novels starring Captain Walt Kenyon. Just don't be surprised with some of the heavy dialogue sequences. While it doesn't bog the narrative down, it may slow the excitement for those of you looking for just head-on carnage. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

James Bond #04 - Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds Are Forever is the fourth installment of Ian Fleming's wildly successful James Bond series of spy-thrillers. It was originally published by Jonathan Cape in the U.K. in 1956. The novel's central theme is diamond smuggling, a criminal operation that intrigued Fleming enough to not only use it as a plot, but also a non-fiction book he wrote in 1957, The Dimaond Smugglers. In 1971, the novel was adapted into the seventh James Bond film. 

In the book's opening chapters, Bond and his superior M engage in a deep discussion about the diamond industry. At the time, England was importing diamonds from Africa and then selling large amounts to various international companies and countries. It made up a large percentage of the country's income and represented what would ultimately be one of the largest diamond exporting operations. One of the largest buyers, House of Diamonds, has reduced their purchases of English diamonds, creating a financial gap in the Brits lucrative business. 

It's explained that House of Diamonds is a legitimate business owned and controlled by an American mob family named The Spangs. M, and the Special Branch, suspect that a criminal element has been introduced which is creating the rift. House of Diamonds surely must be obtaining their diamonds by smuggling them in at a cheaper price. M wants Bond to investigate the operation by infiltrating the smuggling ring into New York and Las Vegas under the disguise of a common burglar named Peter Franks. He wants Bond to engage in the job and then converse with a woman named Tiffany Case, one of the gang members involved in the smuggling.  

Bond's journey is quite epic, first beginning in New York to retrieve the smuggling money owed on the latest smuggle. His payer is a gang leader named Shady Tree. He explains that their operation doesn't just pay out the full payment for security reasons. To fulfill his payout to Bond, aka Peter Franks, he orchestrates a number of rigged gambling ventures that will produce fragmented payments. The first payout is an exciting stretch at a rigged horse race in Saratoga. Then, a rigged blackjack game in Las Vegas dealt by Tiffany. But, Bond flips the score and pays off the jockey to disrupt the payoff and then wins too much money at blackjack.

If I provide anything else pertaining to the story, it's going to provoke you to skip Ian Fleming and just read me. I'd never forgive myself. Here's the thing, read Diamonds Are Forever if you want to see Bond deeply entrenched in hardboiled danger. Fleming throws everything but the kitchen sink at readers: intrigue on a ship, danger in the desert, a train-car chase, torture, romance, and gunplay. The chemistry between Tiffany and Bond was perfect with both needing something from each other. Former American CIA agent Felix Leiter returns to this book and I found his addition to the story effective. My only real complaint is the “cowboy” appearance of one of the Spangs and the longer than necessary ending. Otherwise, Bond absolutely wins again. Recommended. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Freakshow

According to his Goodreads profile, Bryan Smith has authored more than thirty horror and crime novels and novellas. His crime-fiction book 68 Kill was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film in 2017. Smith also co-scripted an original Harley Quinn (Batman) story for DC Comics' House of Horrors anthology. I first discovered the author in the mid-2000s by reading his mass-market horror paperbacks like House of Blood and Deathbringer. His 2007 horror novel The Freakshow was originally published by Leisure and has now been reprinted by Grindhouse Press in multiple formats. 

The Freakshow is splatterpunk with the obligatory copious amounts of sex (mostly rape), gore, and violence prevalent over the science-fiction and dark fantasy elements. The novel's concept is that supernatural beings from a netherworld are playing a game where they control humans to do just about anything imaginable. These “things” are losing their home world, so they want ours. By conquering humans through assimilation, they can move from the netherworld into ours. 

These beings are sort of like Clive Barker's Cenobites from his novella The Hellbound Heart and the franchise of films. They have a variety of appearances and abilities and aren't necessarily good or evil, thus the “angels to some, demons to others” sentiment of Barker's stories is the theme of The Freakshow. Because of the variation, Smith's imagination runs wild. There's a two-headed succubus leader, a robotic clown, sexually depraved humans (if you can call them that), rolling heads that chomp flesh, you get the general consensus.

It's hard to find any characters to really cheer other than Heather, a young woman in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend and dealing with an ailing mother. She is the main character, but that's a loose term considering the book has a dozen or more characters. Mostly these characters are disposable and make for rape and torture targets. The story presents characters that are fighting the freakshow invaders or working for these supernatural beings. Mostly, the characters just dwell on perverse sex and creative ways to kill or maim each other. There's no respect for any higher authority beyond their own self-interest 

Overall, I found the book to be slightly better than average. With Smith's literary work, I manage my expectations, knowing that his narratives are saturated in over-the-top violence and gore. There's nothing wrong with that, but I normally like my horror to be more psychological than physical. If a unique, violent bloodbath is your thing, then The Freakshow will surely please you.

Note – Brian Keene's Urban Gothic and this book tie-in to a novel called Suburban Gothic, authored by both Keene and Smith.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The Brat

The Brat, published in 1957 by Fawcett Gold Medal, was Gil Brewer's 12th career effort, a mid-era crime-noir that is misrepresented by the book's sultry cover. Fans of Brewer's sexier femme fatale novels, like The Vengeful Virgin (1958) or The Tease (1967) may be led to believe that The Brat possesses that same energy level. It includes all of the potent ingredients to make the narrative seemingly explode – wild women, lust, greed, criminality, and average men pushed from their suburban threshold into a world of madness. Like Orrie Hitt, Brewer loved this type of storytelling experience - the sexy seductress weaving a master-plan. But, The Brat doesn't utilize these ingredients to create anything magical. 

In this novel, Brewer mimics Day Keene's more simplistic approach. It makes sense considering the two were friends and even collaborated together. If I didn't know better, I would have pegged The Brat as a Keene novel. The narrative is saturated in genre tropes that are familiar to any seasoned crime-noir fan. The narrative's central element is identical to the “man awakens to find a corpse and flees from the law to prove his own innocence” concept. Only, Brewer exchanges the swanky apartment, soft bed, or suburban house with a bank.

Lee is a fairly wealthy guy before his trip into Florida swampland. It's in the sweltering jungle that he finds the sexy Evis, a backwoods tramp that he can't resist. Her family is redneck loonies, so Evis is rescued by Lee and soon the two ring the wedding bells. But, Evis’ domestication is ripe with greed and self-interest. She carves through Lee's savings, leaving the two almost destitute just a short time later. Evis, who conveniently works at the local bank, pitches Lee a heist plan. She can easily steal money from the bank's vault during her closing shift. Lee slightly agrees, but doesn't want to commit to steering into that lane yet.

Lee arrives from work one evening to find that Evis is working at the bank and she needs him to pick her up. When he arrives at the bank, there's a corpse, missing money, missing spouse, and enough evidence that suggests he collaborated with Evis to commit this criminal act. Terrified of being fried for murder, Lee hits the road to pursuit Evis. Along the way, he is tracked by a greedy sheriff that wants the money all to himself. There's also Lee's best friend that may have been Evis's side hustle to seduce into a joint heist. Lee must avoid the police, find Evis and the missing cash, and prove he is innocent. 

Brewer's novel  is one long road trip as Lee hops from destination to destination searching for clues. The pacing and plot structure never allows the narrative to breathe, making the characters one-dimensional and over-obsessive. This is Day Keene's wheelhouse and he excels at it far better than Brewer. The Brat is similar to Brewer's Sin for Me (1967) novel with its western feel and seemingly endless manhunt. If you must read everything Brewer has written, then you aren't skipping The Brat. Otherwise, there's no need to spend any time reading this less than satisfactory novel. 

Monday, May 2, 2022

All the Way

Charles Williams (1909-1975) was the best American author of 20th century crime-noir fiction that most Americans have never encountered. Thanks to some smart reprint publishers, his work is being introduced to a new generation of readers looking for propulsive plotting and gritty, vivid characterizations. All the Way was a 1958 paperback also released under the title The Concrete Flamingo that has been reprinted by Stark House.

The narrator is a drifter named Jerry Forbes, who’s in Key West, Florida when he spots a sexy dame on the beach giving him the eye. Her name is Marian Forsyth, and she’s a secretary in a small Louisiana town. From the moment they meet, Jerry knows that Marian has a hidden agenda. Even the sex between them feels transactional. For those who read a lot of these types of books, this dame has femme fatale written all over her. 

After getting to know one another a bit, Marian proposes an idea to Jerry. She needs Jerry to impersonate her boss to move money from a stock account into their hands as a prelude to murdering the boss. Marian used to be his mistress, and he failed to marry her. Hell hath no fury and all that. 

As usual, Williams’ writing is head-and-shoulders better than his contemporaries. The monologues he wrote for Marian explaining the humiliation she suffered at the hands of her boss are staggering. The book is a bit of a slow burn, but Williams keeps the emotions running high, so the reader understands the narrator’s anxious longing for this woman bent on destroying another man. 

All the Way is basically the story of a complex and dicey long con. It’s an inventive paperback, but you need to be patient with the novel’s sluggish pace. This elaborate identity theft scheme doesn’t unfold with breakneck action. This culminates in one of the most bleak and tragic conclusions I can remember reading in ages. 

All the Way was compelling and interesting, but I don’t think it’s top-shelf Charles Williams. It would have been more impactful as a 50-page novella in Manhunt Magazine. If you’re working your way through Williams’ entire body of work, you’ll probably enjoy the novel just fine, but don’t make this your first stop. 

Friday, April 29, 2022

Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis #01 - Murder in Mykonos

Jeffrey Siger is a Pittsburgh native who fell in love with Greece and has written 11 contemporary police procedural novels starring an Athens cop reassigned to the tourist island of Mykonos. The first installment is titled Murder In Mykonos, and it was originally published in 2011.  The Greeks have gone bonkers for this series despite being written by an American who is only a part-timer in the ancient nation, so I wanted to see what the fuss is all about. 

Mykonos is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea 90 miles from Athens. During the months of July and August, the population explodes from about 10,000 to over 50,000 as European tourists descend on the vacation island thick with 16th century windmills, dance clubs, and white-sand beaches matching the sun-baked white buildings. This is the island that our hero, Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis now calls home. He was an ass-kicking hardboiled cop in Athens who was transferred to sleepy Mykanos after the wealthy residents of the island demanded better, more aggressive policing. 

Early in his new island job as Police Chief, a murdered body of a missing tourist girl is found hidden in an abandoned church. Further investigation shows that the murder may be connected to an earlier homicide, making Andreas come to the preliminary conclusion that there is a serial killer operating on this island paradise — a fact that would be devastating to the tourist-based local economy. Even worse, the murders seemed to be ritual killings of some sort. 

Mykonos makes its money from tourism and the island’s leaders doesn’t want anything to upset the visitor trade. As such, there’s a tendency to sweep bad news under the rug. If someone reports a missing foreign woman in Mykonos, the police instinct is to assume she left willingly and no missing-person report is filed. This poses a real challenge to Andreas as he’s trying to get his hands around the number of missing girls who may have been victimized by this hypothetical serial killer. 

Anyone with an interest in serial killer police procedural mysteries or life in the Greek Islands is sure to be pleased with Murder in Mykonos. The fact that it was written by an American was helpful because he took the time to explain things to readers unfamiliar with Greek culture or the unusual setting. No punches are pulled in thoughtful critiques of the island, its residents, and the underlying political climate. 

If you like crime fiction set in exotic locales, this novel is for you. Siger knows his way around the structure of a good mystery novel, and his characters are vivid and fully-realized. I look forward to the next Andreas Kaldis novel. Recommended. 

Thursday, April 28, 2022

James Bond #03 - Moonraker

James Bond's third series installment, Moonraker, was first published in the U.K. as a hardcover by Cape on April 5, 1955. Macmillan published the U.S. edition on September 20, 1955, followed by Pan Books publishing a paperback edition in the U.K. a month later. In December of 1955, Permabooks published a paperback version in the U.S. under the title Too Hot to Handle. In 1979, the book's title was used for the eleventh James Bond film and the fourth appearance of Roger Moore as the Secret Service hero and heartthrob. The film's production company, Eon Productions, authorized Christopher Wood to write a novelization of the film, which was published under the title James Bond and Moonraker (a bestseller that I've heard is quite terrible). 

In Moonraker, Fleming begins by providing a more intimate look at Bond's day-to-day activities. Readers gain a peek into his home, his routines, and his official desk assignments when he isn't globetrotting to extinguish international fires. It's shown that Bond is having affairs with three married women, works a desk schedule of 10 to 6, and likes to play cards in the evenings with friends. 

Fleming reveals that Bond uses a stimulant known as Benzedrine to stay awake and alert, and even combines the amphetamine with champagne. It was also,interesting to watch his habit of sprinkling black pepper on the surface of vodka. 

It is all of these things that further connected me to the character. I also found it fascinating that Bond was contemplating how many more assignments he has to complete before he can retire. He even fathoms how many will introduce the real possibility of his own death. It was written in such a poignant way that made me sympathize with him. Personally, I felt that his characteristics from Casino Royale were further enhanced by this novel. The idea that he wants to move on and have a normal existence is re-visited at the beginning and ending of Moonraker, leaving an emotional impact on readers.

Down to business, M approaches Bond about a personal favor, sort of an “off the record” assignment. He wants Bond to join him at an exclusive gentleman's club called Blades to play poker with a wealthy entrepreneur named Hugo Drax. M suspects Drax is cheating, but wants Bond to discover his method. This segment of the novel includes intense rounds of bridge as Bond verifies Drax's cheating and beats him with a stacked deck of cards, winning seven times his annual salary. All of this is important because the narrative focuses on Bond and Drax's working relationship later.

Bond's official assignment comes to fruition when a Ministry of Supply security officer is fatally shot in a facility housing England's first nuclear missile. This missile has been created by Drax's company and is to take flight as a demo version for England and foreign powers. Bond is assigned as the security officer's replacement in an effort to determine what's going on. I found his investigation hard-boiled and edgy, culminating in a high-speed chase between Bond and Drax's crew from the town of Deal to London. Of course, it wouldn't be a Bond novel without the inclusion of a beautiful co-worker named Brand. 

Moonraker is rather unique due to its settings. The entire novel takes place in and around London, with a focus on atmosphere as Bond is centralized on the sprawling White Cliffs of Dover, the countryside, and the battering of the North Sea and the English Channel. There's a sense of isolation as Bond gazes at the ocean at night, listening for the ship's foghorns and spotting a beacon. I felt that this, combined with Bond's lonely position in the book's last pages, added a sense of solitude to the story. 

Drax's backstory of his rise to criminality, war atrocities, and his fevered attempts to destroy London paired nicely with Bond's “do or die” mission. There's violence, sexiness, thrills, car chases, shootouts, and the pesky Russians to keep the pages moving at a brisk pace. The storytelling improved drastically from the rather average prior installment, Live and Let Die. While that book was action-packed, it came  across a bit campy when compared to the series debut in Casino Royale. Ian Fleming is all business in Moonraker, making it a fan favorite among James Bond fans. Recommended!

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Earl Drake #06 - Operation Drumfire

After the success of The Name of the Game is Death (1962) and One Endless Hour (1969), crime-noir author Dan J. Marlowe found his heist hero in protagonist Earl Drake, the “man with nobody's face.” The Earl Drake series, for lack of a better name, includes 12 total novels, all published by Fawcett Gold Medal between 1962 and 1976. We've covered the first five novels right here at Paperback Warrior and continue our coverage with this sixth installment, Operation Drumfire, published in 1972.

In Operation Drumfire, readers become fairly familiar with Earl Drake's backstory. He was a professional bank robber who now works occasional assignments for a special agent named Erikson. It is never explained who Erikson works for beyond hinting at a sub rosa agency deep within Washington D.C. Drake's lover is a tenacious former barkeep named Hazel, who has a talent for gambling on horses and the skills to pilot the couple's airplane. She's also a sexy cowgirl that owns a sprawling ranch built from the fortunes of her former husband. Beginning in the series fifth installment, Operation Breakthrough, the duo is joined by an eccentric martial arts expert named Candy and his Chinese girlfriend Chen Yi.

In this book's opening chapters, Erikson visits Drake and Hazel to show them a video of a bank heist at a horse-racing track. Erikson's agency feels that a think-tank defense contractor called the Institute of Defense Analysis (IDA) may be behind it. The idea is that mathematicians inside the agency put together an elaborate plan to knock off the track. Now, due to Erikson's involvement in a meeting between senior leaders in Mexico and the US, he's touching shoulders with IDA. His growing suspicions of their abilities may lead to chaos with the meeting. He wants Drake and Hazel to infiltrate the agency by going undercover as mathematicians inside their headquarters. 

Honestly, I have no idea what is happening in this book. None of it makes any sense to me. Normally, I can stay fairly entrenched with whatever Marlowe is springing, but I'm not even sure he knew what was going on. It's like a chain of events including a Black Panthers type of military presence in Oakland that Candy must deal with. Then, Drake has to fake his math skills inside the agency while Hazel gains clues for something or another. There's an explosion somewhere and a firefight at the end. It was like Marlowe had individual events he wanted to schedule in the narrative, but had no logical way to connect them. 

But, it isn't all completely lost. Drake changes his old snub-nosed .38 revolver for an automatic .9mm. I felt this was a major change for the character, like a promotion into the big leagues. Also, one of the four main characters is killed off in this installment. Shamefully, I felt good about that. Other than those positives, Operation Drumfire is more like Operation Dumpsterfire.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Elin Warner #01 - The Sanatorium

According to Penguin Random House, Sarah Pearse grew up in Devon, UK and studied creative writing and English at the University of Warwick. Her debut book, The Sanatorium, was published in 2021 and became a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. Apparently, actress Reese Witherspoon knows a thing or two about books, and has a Book Club in which she selected The Sanatorium as a featured novel. Witherspoon is irrelevant to me, but I'm a sucker for locked room mysteries and this one looked appealing on Target's bookshelf. 

The Sanatorium introduces readers to British Detective Elin Warner, a character that Pearse is also featuring in the 2022 sequel The Retreat. Elin has been a successful, veteran detective for years, but after a particularly gruesome investigation, she's taking a sabbatical. What better place to rekindle energy than a formerly abandoned mental hospital in the Swiss Alps that has been lavishly restructured into a posh hotel? With a raging winter storm outside and the roads cut off, Elin and her husband discover that a killer is on the loose in the hotel, knocking off the trapped guests one by one as some sort of revenge tactic. 

There's so much to like about the story – great main character, multiple murder investigations, an intriguing backstory, excellent atmosphere and location – but it just fails to be overly stimulating. It's nearly 400 pages, which has become the mandatory publishing requirement for thrillers, and that's an eternity for readers to become trapped in this cavernous hotel with dull and uninspiring guests. By page 300, I no longer cared to learn the killer's identity or to even suspect who's next on the chopping block. I had lost interest completely.

If you love modern thrillers that heavily rely on lengthy dialogue to devour a high page-count, then The Sanatorium is awaiting your stay.

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Make-Believe Man

Elizabeth Jane Phillips (1916-1996) authored nearly 20 stand-alone novels over the course of thirty years. Often, she adopted the pseudonym E.P. Fenwick or used Elizabeth Fenwick to write her crime-fiction and suspense books, Her 1963 suspense novel The Make-Believe Man was nominated for an Edgar Award by The Mystery Writers of America. It was originally published in hardcover by Harper & Row, then published again by Avon in a paperback edition. Thankfully, Stark House Press has recently reprinted some of Fenwick's novels including The Make-Believe Man. It is in a 2022 twofer with the author's A Friend of Mary Rose (1961) and a wonderful, informative introduction by Curtis Evans.

Norma is a single mother and widow living temporarily in Detroit with her mother, Ms. Moore. In the book's opening pages, Ms. Moore, is leaving town for a few days to visit Norma's brother. She provides adequate instructions on what to do in her absence and the conversation brings up a former tenant that Ms. Moore once had at the house. His name was Cliff and he was a fine renter that was asked to leave to make room for Norma and her son Jimmy months ago.

In Ms. Moore's absence, Norma is enjoying the house and her clerical job at work. Jimmy is fond of the elderly neighbors and often goes there after school. But, one night Cliff shows up at Norma's front door asking to come inside. Cliff is really peculiar, has a black eye, and explains to Norma that he just needs a few days to rest and then he'll be moving on to another town and job. Norma says no and is genuinely creeped out by Cliff's odd behavior. Cliff finally leaves, but when Norma checks the mantle, the extra key to the home's front door is now missing. 

Norma has the locks changed, but the suspense begins to build as Cliff makes a stop at Norma's work to ask about her whereabouts. Then, he calls her on the phone and suggests that Ms. Moore is really his mother too. But, she isn't, he's just psychotic. He becomes a raging lunatic when he learns his key no longer opens the front door. From there, The Make-Believe Man transcends into some really scary happenings. 

According to my research, Fenwick really loved these “domestic menace” types of stories and it is clear she perfected it based on the quality of The Make-Believe Man. Cliff is a scary individual, made downright terrifying when readers learn about his turbulent past. I enjoyed Norma's strength, not only as a mother, but as a widow and fighter. There's a sense of intrigue when a detective begins an investigation to find Cliff. Fenwick also sprinkles in an admirable character named Benning as Norma's potential love interest and co-worker. The three characters collaborate well and I enjoyed the police procedural styling of the book's second half.

Overall, there's nothing to dislike about Fenwick's writing style or this book. Stark House Press has made a wise choice in reprinting this lost classic. It's a tightrope of suspense, scares, and action that culminates in a harrowing, unforgettable ending. In other words, you should read it right now.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Killer

Before he was science-fiction royalty, Robert Silverberg was a cranking out cheap genre paperbacks to make ends meet. His output included sleaze novels like 1965’s Passion Killer — originally released under the pseudonym of Don Elliott when the author was 29. After discovering that the book is actually a tidy bit of crime noir fiction, Stark House Press imprint Black Gat books has re-released the paperback under the name Killer.

Lee Floyd has just arrived in Manhattan after being hired to kill Howard Gorman’s wife, Ethyl. You see, Howard has recently met a girl named Marie and has decided to upgrade. As such, he needs Hitman Lee’s help in disposing of this Ethyl situation.

For her part, Marie is happy to allow a wealthy sucker like Howard to cover her living expenses, but she finds her benefactor rather repugnant. Nevertheless, having one client paying her bills is easier than working full-time as a call girl. All things being equal, Marie enjoys lesbian sex and Silverberg pulls no 1965 punches in his erotic writing. This is definitely a sex book, and those graphic scenes comprise probably half the novel. You can decide if that’s good news or bad news.

There are some interesting crime noir manipulations and double-crosses among the sex scenes that made Killer a lot of fun to read. It’s not the top-tier hitman fiction we periodically receive from Max Allan Collins and Lawrence Block, but it’s light-years better than most 1960s sleaze fiction. Many authors aren’t proud of their output in this genre, but I’m glad Silverberg has made peace with his past because Killer is a winner. Not a masterpiece, but certainly worth your time. 

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Five Total Strangers

I spend a lot of time at Target. My wife loves the place and one of my daughters loves throwing away wads of cash for overpriced records of today's trendy pop stars. What's a book-loving Dad supposed to do other than abandon the dependents at the shoe aisle and then hang for a half-hour in the ragtag section of books that Target deems as literature? The end-result is that the family walks out with dog toys, socks, those little colored egg-shaped lip balms and any modern thriller that resembles a horror novel with blurbs like “addictive and unpredictable”. Thus, this is the reason I now own Five Total Strangers by Natalie D. Richards.

When readers first meet Mira, she's landed in a Philadelphia airport at the start of a blizzard outside. She's a teenager, in high school, and her decision making skills aren't fabulous. Due to the next flight being canceled, she decides to take a free ride from her seatmate, an arrogant young woman named Harper. It's like an early scene out of the old John Hughes' film Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. This awkward pairing with a complete stranger then becomes complicated. Harper claims that three of her friends will be joining them in the car because they all need a ride. Yet, once they are collectively joined in the vehicle, Mira learns that the trio of people are complete strangers to Harper. Why did she lie?

The author includes these eerie, handwritten notes every few chapters from Mira's secret admirer. As the book continues, readers will notice that the notes are written months after the events that take place on Mira's ride from Hell. The notes also suggest that whoever is writing them was a passenger in Harper's car that day, but readers won't learn their identity until the book's final chapters. 

Five Total Strangers has all of the ingredients for a successful thriller – suspicious people, a harrowing event, an inescapable situation, and a terrifying atmosphere. The author's use of ice and snow on Pennsylvania's rural back roads made the atmosphere nearly claustrophobic, heightening the intensity inside the car. 

As good as these ingredients are, the book is just too long at 300 pages. Eventually, the mystery and the shady passengers couldn't keep my attention, which ruined the ultimate reveal at the end. By that point I just wanted the ride to be over. If you love slow-burns, then this one may be for you. I will add that the book is young-adult, but nearly all of the horror and thrillers these days caters to that audience, so don't let that throw you off. If you can get it for a few bucks, it might be worth your time.