Monday, February 27, 2023

Ellery Queen #16 - Calamity Town

Manfred Bennington Lee and his cousin Emanuel Benjamin Lepofsky used the professional names of Frederic Dannay and Daniel Nathan to write crime-fiction. But, the two joined these professional names into the household pseudonym and character, Ellery Queen. The character is the author of the books in which he appears. It is easy to jump into an Ellery Queen story or novel simply because the history and backstory completely dissolved. You can easily enjoy this male bachelor writing fiction while solving crimes as stand-alone books. 

What's interesting about Calamity Town, roughly the 16th installment, is that it modernizes the series. You're asking, how this is possible considering the book arrived in 1942? But, think about that time period. The US had turned the corner on the Great Depression, a financially barren 10-year era that occurred during Ellery Queen's early beginnings in 1929. Additionally, the series, and this book in particular, mention the rumblings of WWII. Calamity Town also diversifies the locale, moving this sleuth from the well-trampled urban environments of New York and Hollywood to the rural American Northeast, a small fictional town of Wrightsville in an unnamed state in New England. There are also some psychological elements that come to fruition, leading to a rather chilling end. 

Calamity Town opens with Ellery Queen (using the name Ellery Smith) moving his belongings into a medium-sized Victorian house in Wrightsville. The quiet, out-of-nowhere setting will be the perfect place for Queen to accomplish his writings. Upon his first visit to the house, the real estate agent explains that the home is owned by the Haight family, with deep ties to the Wrightsville National Bank. The agent is thankful for Queen due to the house's long vacancy. It is a sort of “spook house” due to a prior resident dropping dead in the living room. Additionally, the house was built for the Haight's daughter Nora and her new husband Jim. However, a cloud of gloom enveloped the house when Jim up and left shortly after the wedding. Nora returned to her family's residence.

Unfortunately, Queen's first few weeks in the new house are interrupted when Jim Haight returns to town and wants to continue his marriage to Nora. Queen agrees to move out of the house so the newlyweds can return to the home. During a New Year's Eve party, Jim and Nora host Queen, the Haight family, and the town's prominent businessmen. But, death is in the air as someone attempts to murder Nora with arsenic poisoning.

When Queen and Nora's sister Pat team-up to investigate the attempted murder, they discover numerous indications that Jim was the planned murderer. He owned a toxicology book, and had written ominous letters dated in the future, suggesting that his wife was poisoned. Witnesses say Jim confessed that he wanted to murder his wife for money and he is a gambling alcoholic in debt. Everything points to Jim, but Queen believes the young man is innocent. Despite Jim's refusal to admit his innocence, Queen rushes to his aid as Calamity Town's second half morphs into a courtroom drama. 

This novel is the typical Golden Age of Detective offering, complete with a cast of characters at a dinner party, a poisoning, and numerous red herrings. But, the novel has plenty of open air – a chance to breathe – with Queen and Pat combing the town for clues. It isn't a locked room puzzle, but instead resembles an early work of crime-noir. The New England small town is reminiscent of Our Town, a tranquil place occupied by wholesome characters. The authors complete the novel with numerous twists that surprised me. It was a compelling read that introduced new elements to the formula, and for that reason, I highly recommend it.

Note – Calamity Town is the first of four novels that are set in Wrightsville. The others are The Murderer is a Fox (1945), Ten Days' Wonder (1948), Double Double (1950), and The Last Woman in his Life (1970).

Buy the book HERE.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Conan - Shadows in the Moonlight

Robert E. Howard's “Iron Shadows in the Moon”, starring Conan the Cimmerian, was published in Weird Tales in April, 1934. The story was renamed to “Shadows in the Moonlight, and appeared in the Gnome Press volume Conan the Barbarian in 1954. It was later edited by L. Sprague de Camp for inclusion in Swords & Sorcery, a 1963 collection published by Pyramid that featured authors like Fritz Leiber, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith. The story can be found in the Lancer 1968 paperback Conan the Freebooter and future collections by Gollancz and Del Rey. It was later adapted into comic format in Savage Sword of Conan #4 and Conan the Cimmerian #22-25

“Shadows in the Moonlight” reads as if it is a hybrid of atmospheric horror and action-adventure. With Howard's association with Lovecraft, E. Hoffman Price and Clark Ashton Smith, his darker passion was stirred to author hair-raising tales like “Pigeons from Hell” (Stephen King named it one of the finest horror stories of the 20th century). But, beyond Conan battling evil sorcerers, snake behemoths, and the undead, how does “Shadows in the Moonlight” incorporate a less “on the nose” horror element? 

By placing Conan, and a damsel in distress, Olivia, on a deserted island, Howard branches this story off into new directions. First and foremost, this deserted island that Conan and Olivia sail to is deathly quiet, an atmosphere that the always colorful Howard is able to describe in an eerie fashion. When exploration begins, out of both boredom and hunger, the two find a crumbling, ancient ruin. Inside, they discover lifelike black statues that are placed in a half-circle. Finding no other shelter, the two decide to spend the night at the ruins (terrifying!) and Olivia has a nightmare that these statues come to life. I found this entire section of Howard's story to be chilling in its total abandonment of this archaic art. 

But, the horror element is temporarily swept aside as Conan and Olivia see a pirate ship on the shore. Hoping to gain passage, Conan fights the pirate captain and wins. But, these pirates are a bad lot (even for pirates) and they soon overtake Conan while Olivia runs into hiding. With Conan beaten and unconscious, the pirates take him to the ruins. But, there's a surprise with the statues, and I'm not going to ruin it for you here. 

“Shadows in the Moonlight” is set during the buccaneer era of Conan's life. In the story, Conan reveals to Olivia that he was in a a brigade called Free Companions, raiding the borders of Koth, Turan, and Zamora for a prince in Eastern Koth. Apparently, all of the Free Companions were killed except for Conan. By the story's end, Conan has become a pirate captain, complete with his own crew and ship. In the grand Conan mythos, this sets up his life under the alias Amra and his pirate empire in the Vilayet Sea. Details of this period make up the narrative of Leonard Carpenter's 1994 novel Scourge of the Bloody Coast

Sitting aside all the horror and pirate talk, “Shadows in the Moonlight” is a barbaric tale with plenty of sword fights and heroic saves set in an exotic location. As a men's action-adventure novel, there's nothing to dislike here. Robert E. Howard was in top form when he wrote the story and it's entertainment value has yet to dwindle. Highly recommended!

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Continental Op (with illustrations by John K. Snyder III)

There have been countless reprints of stories starring Dashiell Hammett’s iconic and groundbreaking hardboiled private detective, The Continental Op. However, the recent collection of the first five-stories in the series from Clover Press is something special due to the addition of illustrations from John K. Snyder III that supplement Hammett’s prose.

Snyder is an accomplished comic book artist who recently resurrected and reimagined Lawrence Block’s Eight Million Ways to Die as a graphic novel to critical and fan acclaim. Snyder’s beautiful, full-page illustrations make Hammett’s prose come alive in this slim collection. To be clear, this Continental Op compilation is not a graphic novel or comic book, but rather a collection of five stories with Snyder illustrations sprinkled throughout.

The five stories were originally published in Black Mask Magazine throughout 1923, but they remain fresh and violent stories of mystery and suspense a century later. The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon are the works that come to mind when the public hears Hammett’s name. But for my money, the nameless detective from the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency was his best hero and starred in his strongest works.

“Arson Plus”

The first Continental Op story was originally written under the pseudonym of Peter Collinson, and it involves the investigation of a rural fire that flattened a house down to ash. The homeowner was consumed in the blaze while his servants evacuated safely.

It’s a pretty straightforward mystery story with the Op and his partner interviewing suspects who may or may not know anything about the blaze that killed the homeowner until a solution becomes apparent. As the first Continental Op story, it’s clear that Hammett was still trying to find the character’s voice. It’s more of an interesting historical artifact than essential hardboiled reading.

“Crooked Souls”

The adult daughter of a lumber company CEO has been kidnapped and the Continental Detective Agency is hired to find the girl and supplement the efforts of the police. A $50,000 ransom demand provides the Op a chance to lure the bad guys from the shadows, but the client is too bullheaded to pay.

Now, this is a story! We have action and violence with a twist. Don’t sleep on this one. Hammett finds his Continental Op footing here.

“Slippery Fingers”

A wealthy man is stabbed in the throat, and his son wants the Continental Detective Agency to handle the case as the police have failed thus far. The Op figures that the motive was financial and puts some forensic accounting types on the task of going through the dead man’s books.

Another straightforward mystery yarn with a clever solution involving a mysterious set of fingerprints. This one is completely worth reading, despite the lack of gunplay action.


Sometimes you’ll see this story collected under the title of “The Black Hat That Wasn’t There.” The case involves $100,000 in Liberty Bonds missing from a locked safe of the Golden Gate Trust Company. Meanwhile, there’s a partner in the trust company with access to the bonds who has disappeared. Should be easy: find the partner, find the bonds, right?

The Op follows leads that winds him up in an awesome cat and mouse game within a dark room - two men, one gun. All of this leads to a satisfying and tidy conclusion. Another winner for Hammett.

“Bodies Piled Up”

After a hotel detective is fired for drunkenness, the Continental Op is assigned to fill in for the hotel dick for three days as a temp. On the last day of the assignment, the Op responds to a room housing three murdered hotel guests. All three men had wallets full of cash, so what could the motive be?

The Op and his men run down logical leads until a solution presents itself. Another decent mystery, but not much action - I was still coming off the high from the previous story.


Overall, this is a superb collection of stories to get you started in the world of the The Continental Op. If you’re also into hardboiled art by one of America’s finest illustrators, you’ll do well to choose this volume with the Snyder paintings over all the others. Recommended.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Tarzan #02 - Return of Tarzan

I really enjoyed the Tarzan debut, Tarzan of the Apes, authored by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was first published in 1912 in The All-Story and then later published as a novel in 1914. The book ended in what I would consider a cliff-hanger with a lot of loose ends requiring a resolution. The series second installment, The Return of Tarzan, does just that. It was first published in New Story Magazine from June through December of 1913. Later, it was published as a hardcover in 1915.

In this installment, Tarzan has an impromptu meeting with a French leader named Count Raoul. This leader assigns Tarzan the role of secret agent, working in Algeria to out two Russian criminals. This portion of the novel really surprised me, as the narrative explodes into a Nick Carter-esque adventure as Tarzan tangles with the criminals. After the skirmish, and the assignment, Tarzan joins a ship headed to Cape Town and creates a friendship with Hazel Strong, a friend of Tarzan's love interest, Jane Porter. Unfortunately, the two Russians joined the ship's passage and throw Tarzan overboard. He washes up on the same coastline he called home in the series debut. Through a wild sequence of events, Tarzan becomes the new chief of the Waziri, a fictional African tribe.

Coincidentally, Jane and her fiance, William Clayton (Tarzan's cousin) are also in route to the west coast of Africa. Ironically, their ship sinks and Clayton and Jane join a lifeboat with one of the Russian criminals. It's this part of Burrough's story that is absolute agony to behold. These characters are left to die without food and water. The extreme circumstances lead to a coin toss to determine which living person will be eaten by the others to survive. This is written with an emotional touch and also places William Clayton into a respectable light as protector and caregiver for Jane (albeit short lived).

Eventually, Jane and William wash up on the coastline shared by Tarzan, and the loose ends are all neatly tied up. William and Jane's proposed marriage ends (no spoilers on how) and Tarzan and Jane are reunited. More importantly, Jane also learns that Tarzan is a Greystoke and the sacrifice he made to keep that fact a secret from her.

The Return of Tarzan also introduces a mainstay of the series, the Lost City of Opar. Tarzan is taken prisoner there and first meets the villain La. It is here that Tarzan discovers a wealth of gold, fortunes that he will eventually return to again and again. There is a brief backstory on Opar's history, but Philip Jose Farmer fleshes this out in his own Tarzan stories and two non-Tarzan novels, Hadon of Ancient Opar (1974) and Flight to Opar (1976).

As an adventure novel, ERB offers so much for the reader in this one book. Shipwrecks, castaways, espionage, desert chases, seemingly endless fights, treasure hunts, survival horror, jungle adventure, and heaps of action. This is really a perfect novel by a fantastic author. As good as Tarzan of the Apes was, this sequel might be just as good. A must-read vintage novel! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Matthew Scudder #05 - Eight Million Ways to Die

Lawrence Block's fifth Matthew Scudder novel, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982), features the alcoholic detective contending with a compelling murder mystery. A young prostitute named Kim Danniken hires Scudder to convince her pimp, an African-American named Chance, to allow her to leave the fold. Kim is tired of hooking, and despite Chance's historically friendly actions and demeanor, she is hesitant about revealing her plans to switch professions. Once Scudder meets Chance, he realizes that her fears weren't valid. Chance is happy to allow her to leave. However, shortly after Scudder explains to Kim that she is free to resign, the young woman is found butchered in a hotel room. 

The plot development builds to Scudder truly caring for Kim and feeling remorse for being involved in Chance and Kim's severance. While not responsible, Scudder still feels as though he owes the dead client a hard day's work to determine who killed her. He works with the police, who are hesitant to receive his tips, and he interviews other prostitutes that Chance had employed. While Chance seems to be the most likely suspect, his alibi is rock solid. Who killed Kim?

What makes Eight Million Ways to Die resonate is that deep down in the city's grime, crime and decay, this novel centralizes Scudder's alcohol dependence. Frequently Scudder attends AA meetings, and challenges himself repeatedly to extend his sobriety into consecutive days. At one point, Scudder hits an eight-day streak. But, his dependence is just too strong. Included in Scudder's struggles is the series stomping grounds like churches, bars, coffee shops, and diners to keep the mood. There are also the obligatory conversations and thoughts about his ex-wife and kids. Some prior characters also re-appear in the novel, furthering some longevity between Scudder and his love interest. 

The book's title contains some weight, mostly emerging from consistent news reports and newspaper articles about various killings throughout New York City involving different methods of death. Scudder reflects that every minute of every day all of us are able to be killed eight million ways. We are all skirting the thin edge between existence and nonexistence each second, which is a true dark sentiment. 

If you ever had the misfortune of seeing the 1986 film 8 Million Ways to Die, starring Jeff Bridges, Andy Garcia, and Rosanna Arquette, I have to sternly remind you that this is not how Lawrence Block's novel should be represented. The film's creators lacked any real interest in what makes this series the very pinnacle of crime-fiction. Arguably, they had no idea what they were doing when it comes to film making, much less how to properly portray Matthew Scudder. Despite the talented cast, the film is just abysmal. 

Eight Million Ways to Die continued Lawrence Block's hot streak and makes for the very best of the series thus far. In fact, this might be one of the best novels I've ever read. Additionally, hearing the audio version of the book with the author's narration was a real pleasure. Highest of recommendations, Eight Million Ways to Die is an absolute mandatory read. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Conan - Red Nails

Robert E. Howard's last sole contribution to his Conan the Cimmerian character was the novella “Red Nails”. It was published posthumously in Weird Tales over the course of July, August/September, and October 1936, mere weeks from Howard's suicide in June. The story was reprinted in The Sword of Conan (Gnome Press, 1952), Conan the Warrior (Lancer, 1967), and numerous times through Del Rey. “Red Nails” was adapted to comics in Savage Tales issues #2-3, which was reprinted in Conan Saga #9

Conan, in his late 30s, finds female pirate Valeria of the Red Brotherhood in a rural stretch of forest. She had killed a Stygian officer and then fled the city. Conan attempts to join her, urging that they should head to the coast. During the verbal debate on which direction to explore, the duo fight a large reptile monster that resembles a dragon. In the distance, they see a large walled city and head there.

Reaching the city, called Xuchotl, the two agree that this walled place seems desolate, a cavernous void of abandonment and neglect. Inside, the enormous building resembles a large apartment building with hallways and corridors leading in different directions. The entire city exists as a combination of shopping mall and housing, completely enclosed in this gloomy remote structure. 

Eventually, the duo discover a tribe living in the complex called the Tecuhltli, complete with a king and queen that explains the city's unique history. Xuchotl was ruled by two brothers, but one stole the other's wife and then the population split based on loyalties to each brother. The Tecuhltli tribe live in one part of the building, the army and people of Xotalanc exist in another part. Needless to say, the two have been feuding for ages and nails are driven into a pillar to represent the number of slain Xotalanc people, thus the story's title “Red Nails”. 

At novella length, Howard leaves himself plenty of wiggle room to incorporate numerous fights, betrayals, deaths, and action. As Conan and Valeria quickly learn, no one in this mysterious city is particularly noble. I think the narrative's switch from Conan and Olmec's alliance to inevitable confrontation (he wants Valeria) was a smooth transition that allowed some character development, albeit brief. The plot is a little crowded considering nearly the entire story takes place in one structure between warring factions, but the atmosphere and descriptive attention to surroundings enhances the story's depth. Overall, this is an entertaining blood-soaked adventure tale that sits in the higher echelon of Howard's Conan stories. 

Note – S.M. Stirling's Blood of the Serpent (Titan, 2022) full-length novel is a prequel to “Red Nails” and features an original story that details Conan and Valeria's first meeting and the events that Howard described in the opening paragraphs of this story (the death of the Stygian officer). “Red Nails” is also included in that book's ending to preserve a sense of continuity. 

Friday, February 17, 2023

Nobody Would Listen - The Collected Mystery Stories of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1889-1955) authored 25 novels between 1920 and 1953. In addition, she wrote over 200 short stories for magazines and digests like Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, The Saint Detective, and Nero Wolfe. Mostly, she concentrated her efforts on mystery and crime-fiction, however, she also contributed to the science-fiction genre as well. Stark House Press has been releasing many of Holding's novels, novellas, and short stories. The publisher's newest Holding release, Nobody Would Listen: The Collected Mystery Stories of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, is a mammoth volume collecting 19 stories and novellas as well as an introductory article by Curtis Evans. At over 400 pages in length, there is a little something for everyone. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Strange Children

The Magazine of Mystery and Science-Fiction included this Holding story in its August, 1955 issue. As a fan of “evil kids” fiction and films, I honed in on the ominous story title. This 11 page story features a young woman named Marjorie receiving a call from a distressed mother. The woman explains to Marjorie that she was referred to her by a mutual acquaintance and that she desperately needs a babysitter for her two sleeping children within hours. The woman and her husband have a prior engagement and their sitter and housekeeper are both unavailable. Being late in the evening, Marjorie explains that she shouldn't babysit children that don't know her. What if they wake up and find their parents gone and a stranger in the house? The woman assures Marjorie that the children sleep through the night and won't wake up. Marjorie takes the deal and the family's chauffeur picks her up and drives her to a secluded house in the forest. 

The mother shows Marjorie the house layout and advises her that the children sleep in the bedroom down the hall. There are no other people in the house (this is important). The parents leave and so Marjorie sits in this strange house that is as silent as a tomb. Until she hears a child's laughter down the dark hallway. Looking through the door's keyhole, she finds the children awake in their beds playing with a man in a gray suit. Who is this creepy guy and how did he get in the house? This story is told in a suspenseful way and is just eerily delightful. It's a mix of paranormal, suspense, and mystery and Holding utilizes just enough restraint to keep the reader glued to the pages. Excellent. 

Nobody Would Listen

This is a 20 page story that was first published in Mystery Magazine in August, 1935. Like the above story, this one features an isolated house in the forest, a rainy atmosphere, and a new visitor. 50-year old Mrs. Morrissey has just accepted a new job as a live-in cook and housekeeper for two older women, Mrs. Raleigh and Mrs. Torrance. However, once Mrs. Morrissey settles in, she discovers that the two women have an immense hatred for one another. A nearby neighbor scoffs at Mrs. Morrissey's warning that she fears the two will murder one another. The story is aptly titled with Mrs. Morrissey's repeated warnings fall on deaf ears. Will Mrs. Raleigh and Mrs. Torrance eventually hurt or kill one another, or is this a familiar, old-time rivalry that is nothing more than harmless bickering between two lifelong companions? Holding builds so much suspense and impending doom that it seemingly explodes in the unforgettable finale. Think of “Nobody Would Listen” as a dark character study with a unique atmosphere. Recommended.

Friday the Nineteenth

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction included this story in its Summer, 1950 issue. To properly review the story in 2023, I'm citing a popular 1993 film called Groundhog Day. It starred Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell and was written by Danny Rubin, who claimed the concept came to him when he read Anne Rice's 1985 romantic horror novel, The Vampire Lestat, and began thinking about eternal life. In the film, weatherman Phil Connors finds himself reliving February 2nd repeatedly, in a time-loop, in a small tiny Western Pennsylvania town. Oddly, Holding had a similar concept as her plot for "Friday the Nineteenth" – 40 years before Rubin's screenplay. 

Boyce is an average white-collar suburbanite living a mundane life with his boring wife and kids. He begins to fascinate about a relationship with his friend's wife, a plain-Jane looking woman named Molly. On Friday the 19th, Boyce arranges for a meeting with Molly in a downtown bar. There, the two discuss their attraction to each other and the restraints both of them practice when the couples meet at social gatherings. Boyce and Molly make a plan to meet in a more intimate setting the next day, on Saturday the 20th. However, Boyce awakens on Saturday to learn it is Friday all over again. When he meets Molly at the bar, he discovers that both of them realize they are living in a time-loop, constantly reliving Friday the 19th. How do they escape?

Groundhog Day, and other time-loop films like Palm Springs and Edge of Tomorrow, have always fascinated me. I was shocked to find a time-loop story that seemingly matched Groundhog Day, but I would imagine there were even more of these stories prior to Holding's. Regardless, her story injects a Gil Brewer/Orrie Hitt flavor as Boyce becomes the unsatisfied husband and father. I really enjoyed the chemistry between Boyce and his wife and how it changes over time. It was rewarding and entertaining simply examining Boyce's complaints at the start of the story. Everyday events like mowing the grass and taking out the trash become valuable experiences that Boyce wishes to have back when he realizes seeing Molly each day isn't exactly a thrilling experience. 

Other highlights include the private-eye story “Farewell, Big Sister” and three stories starring Captain Martin Consadine, Commissioner of Police on the Caribbean island of Puerto Azul, “People Do Fall Downstairs”, “The Most Audacious Crime”, and “The Daring Doctor”. 

Holding's writing is top-notch and gradually leans from mystery, suspense, thriller, and shades of atmospheric terror. She has a unique writing style where her protagonists think to themselves, but Holding places these thoughts into the form of dialogue with quotation marks. I've seen this method a few times in other early 20th century writers, but it's uncommon to me. If you can accept that, then there is nothing to dislike about any of these stories. The Stark House Press staff has performed a marvelous job of singling out some of her best stories. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

The Maltese Falcon

Samuel Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was a military veteran, detective, screenwriter, author, and president of the Civil Rights Congress. He began writing short stories for the pulps in the early 1920s, contributing to publications like 10 Story Book, Black Mask, Saucy Stories, and True Detective Mysteries. Perhaps one of his most popular creations is the Continental Op, a hardboiled detective that appeared in over 35 stories. However, the hero pales in comparison to the massive appeal of Sam Spade. The San Francisco detective first appeared in The Maltese Falcon, a five-part serial that ran from September, 1929 through January, 1930 in Black Mask. The character would later appear in four more short stories and became a Hollywood icon when Humphrey Bogart portrayed Spade in The Maltese Falcon, a 1941 film adaptation. 

Sam Spade shares an office with his partner Miles Archer. The two receive a visitor calling herself Miss Wonderley. This potential new client wants the duo to follow a man named Floyd, who she speculates has convinced her sister to run off with him. When she produces cash, the two agree to the case and Archer is the first to do the checking up. Unfortunately, Spade is notified that same night that Archer has been shot to death. Spade later learns that this Floyd fellow has been killed as well. 

Anyone that reads my reviews knows that one of my biggest pet peeves in literature is starting a novel with a lot of “what the Hell is going on” type of stuff. The Maltese Falcon is one of those books. The first chapters, or arguably the entire first half, purposefully makes very little sense. Wonderley is really a woman named Brigid O' Shaughnessy, who was hired by a man named Gutman in Constantinople to locate a precious statue of a falcon said to have been passed down through the years from the 16th century. This Brigid woman hired another guy named Cairo to help her get the falcon, but then fled to San Francisco with Floyd hoping to make an even more lucrative sell to a higher bidder than Gutman. Forget all of the sister stuff. 

Cairo is now chasing Brigid, while she's being chased by Gutman and the police think Spade is in on the kill of Archer and maybe Floyd because he was sleeping with Archer's wife Iva. It's a tangled plot with a lot of characters and moving parts. Sadly, nothing really ever happens beyond an excessive amount of dialogue, speculation, and finger wagging. At one point, every major character enters the room and they get down to the discussion of who killed who and motives and all of the typical stuff you find in the armchair sleuth business. 

Sure, Spade is a cool character, doesn't say much, and breaks the mold of the Sherlock Golden Age Detective by unconventional means. He doesn't work well with the law, obviously has some anti-hero characteristics (he's sleeping with his partner's wife for God's sake), and becomes an evasive fall guy chasing red herrings galore. He should be easy to cheer, considering he's the least baddest of the bad guys. But, all of these characteristics still left a dull edge. Spade isn't supposed to be a likable guy, but he should damn well be an entertaining one. 

Hammett's storytelling style didn't resonate with me. There isn’t much insight into what any of these characters are thinking. Instead, it reads like a play with the entire novel presented through the dialogue. It is void of any emotional depth.

The idea that this book is cherished by the mystery community seems odd to me. Is it really a mystery novel that needs an adventure, or an adventure novel trapped in the confines of a whodunit? I wanted Sam Spade to grab a suitcase and head to Europe or Asia chasing this Holy Grail-like relic of Spanish lore. The whole idea of chasing the treasure is just begging for a wild globe-trot. But, these things never happen and the mystery doesn't escape a handful of rooms.

Granted, I'm probably saturated in modern detectives or more hard-hitting tough guys from the mid to late 20th century, so finding Sam Spade late in the game didn't do me (or him) any favors. It's like watching Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and then attempting to appreciate The Dawn Patrol (1938). It is probably more my fault than Hammett's, but I still can't justify the hype of Sam Spade or The Maltese Falcon. Overall, this was a snooze fest for me. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Come Night, Come Evil

Jonathan Craig (Real Name: Frank E. Smith, 1919-1984) was a Florida resident who socialized with Harry Whittington and Gil Brewer as he was writing over 100 novels and 300 short stories during the paperback era. Come Night, Come Evil was a stand-alone crime noir novel from 1957 published by Fawcett Gold Medal.

The novel opens with Jeff Colby being released from prison into the hands of his loyal wife, Laurie. They have every intention of building a life together and putting Jeff’s legal problems behind them. Unfortunately, Jeff has been assigned a fat, slimy parole officer named Carl Munger, who corners the couple in the prison parking lot during the discharge and immediately begins making Jeff’s life miserable.

Munger is a loathsome bully who extorts a kickback from Jeff’s parolee job wages. Jeff is forced to comply with no backtalk because of Munger’s unilateral authority to revoke Jeff’s parole and send him back to prison to finish his sentence.

Why was Jeff in prison at all? Best to let the novel tell that story as it’s a pretty compelling flashback. Suffice to say, it was a bum rap, and Jeff would like to exonerate himself now that he’s out on the streets. And the only way he can stay out is to appease Munger and his inappropriate demands. Finding the people who set Jeff up and understanding their motivation is the central mystery of the paperback.

The problem is that there are a few other mysteries muddying up the plot in this 128-page paperback. The writing is solid, and some of the characters are written extremely well. Despite that, Come Night, Come Evil is a pretty mediocre affair. If you’re looking for top-shelf Jonathan Craig, proceed directly to So Young, So Wicked. Unless you’re trying to read them all, this one can be easily bypassed. 

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Conan - Hawks over Shem

If you look online for the definition for “convoluted”, it should just provide a link to Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague de Camp's “Hawks over Shem” short story. In my quest to absorb as much Conan literature as humanly possible, I read half of this particular short story and found myself so confused that I re-read the first half again, which led to even more confusion. What in the Hell is going on here?

Perhaps the problem with this jumbled, fragmented, mess of a story is that it was originally a manuscript that Howard wrote about ancient Egypt called “Hawks over Egypt”. This version of the story was written by Howard in the 1930s and was first published in The Road of Azrael, a 1979 collection by Grant and later Bantam. It later appeared in Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures in 2011 by Del Rey. 

By 1955, L. Sprague de Camp had re-written “Hawks over Egypt” into a Conan the Cimmerian story with a new title of “Hawks over Shem”. It first appeared in Fantastic Universe's October 1955 issue. It was also included in the Gnome Press collection Tales of Conan the same year. The 1968 Lancer paperback Conan the Freebooter contains the story and its comic adaptation is featured in The Savage Sword of Conan #36

It's a fool's errand for me to try and review the story properly considering I received it in a dense fog of endless characters and alliances. Here's my best attempt: Conan and a stranger name Farouz are attacked by four Kushites. After Conan and Farouz kill the assailants, they scamper to a bar (where no alcohol is served) where a discussion happens that serves as plot development. A guy named Othbaal is contending for leadership of Asgalun. He's the cousin of King Akhirom, a lunatic. Othbaal is fighting a commander named Mazdak and a Kushite general, Imbalayo. It's a triangle of politics, backstabbing, and a lot of alliances.

This was just a nightmare to read and I couldn't gather which character was representing which country and who the enemy was. Thankfully, Conan's elementary role was to kill Othbaal and form a friendship with a mistress named Rufia. Together they attempt to leave the city among the factions of Anakim solders, Asgalun citizens, Imbalayo's power-heave, the Hyrkanians, a witch, a bonesucking creature, the crazy King Akhirom, and a Kushite captain. There's some connection to Conan's pirate days, but by the story's end, both Conan and Rufia flee north and this story thankfully ends. 

At 50ish pages, there's a backstabbing and an alliance formed over some minor backstory on nearly every page. I haven't read “Hawks over Egypt”, but I can imagine it must be better and more restrained than this over-indulgent nonsense. Out of the Conan stories I've recently read, this was the worst of the bunch. Avoid this headache.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Deathlands #07 - Dectra Chain

Let's talk about Deathlands. So far, the series has been solid except for the mediocre fourth installment, Crater Lake. I can chalk that up to, “everyone has a bad night”, even paperback warrior Laurence James. But, James rebounded in a big way with the series' turning point, Homeward Bound, and subsequent post-apocalyptic western Pony Soldiers. I was really looking forward to this seventh novel to see where we go from here in terms of location and quality. Dectra Train was published by Gold Eagle in 1988 and remains available as a Graphic Audio Book wherever quality 80s over-the-top, post-apocalyptic literature is offered. 

After the stint in the American southwest, Ryan and the gang enter the redoubt and make the leap. Their jarred landing puts them in another redoubt that appears as if it was just utilized by someone or something. I would imagine this little plot sprinkle will re-surface in a future installment. It's like a Quantum Leap episode where Sam discovers another leaper. 

Inside the redoubt, the group's newest member, the Apache shaman Man Whose Eyes Sees No More, receives his simpler name of Donfil More, inspired by his favorite rock duo, The Everly Brothers. The group emerges from the redoubt and find a barrage of water and a mutant. After contending with the obstacles, the heroes make a raft and battle a great white shark. It turns out that the group have arrived at a seaside area of what once was the state of Maine. The author perhaps adds in a bit of his literary influences by having the group discover a road sign that lists Jerusalem's Lot (the Stephen King fictional town; Salem's Lot) and Miskatonic University (H.P. Lovecraft lore). Total freakout coolness moment. 

On with the show, Ryan leads his band of travelers to a coastal village called Claggartville. The town works in the whaling industry and have a variety of ships and crews, the largest being the Salvation captained by a hideous, sadistic woman named Pyra Quadde. The narrative leads to Ryan and Donfil placed in shackles aboard the Salvation performing hard labor. It's a typical prison-break styled story as the heroic duo attempt to survive their harsh environment while planning an escape. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang are planning to set sail to find Ryan in their hijacked boat. 

Dectra Chain is a total blast. It's like a combination of Lovecraft and Moby Dick in the smooth, velvety afterglow of a destructive mushroom cloud. I like the fact that each of the heroes had a small part to play, including Doc's unwavering voice of wisdom, which isn't completely lost in the violence and gunfire. Some could argue that this is just another nautical adventure with all of the familiar tropes, and there is some truth to that, but having these memorable Deathlands characters fighting it out on the high seas was really clever. I loved the plot development, the bad guys (and girls), the locale, and the journey through Maine in autumn. Overall, another solid installment in what is slowly becoming one of my favorite series titles of all-time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

The Last Place God Made

Jack Higgins' (Harry Patterson) The Last Place God Made was originally published in 1971 as a hardcover by Collins. It was published in paperback by Fawcett Crest and remains available today in physical, digital, and audio editions. 

The opening pages introduce Neil Mallory, a young British brush pilot with exceptional skills. He's flying mail routes over and along the Negro River in Brazil. He loses power, runs low on fuel, and with the help of a veteran RAF pilot, is guided to a semi-safe landing. Mallory walks away from the wreckage and meets the guy who helped save his life, Sam Hannah. The two have some drinks together and Mallory learns that Hannah is a well-known guy in these exotic areas, a heavy boozer and women-chaser that loves a good time on someone else’s dollar.

The night before returning to the more friendly, less treacherous metropolis of London, Mallory is seduced by a woman who leads him into an alley and steals his wallet and passport. Mallory, facing unemployment and a perilous financial outlook, accepts a job with Hannah flying packages. But, is there more to this than meets the eye?

Higgins places these two characters at odds with each other while they perform a dangerous mission of assisting nuns on a missionary expedition to care for a tribe of indigenous people. A beautiful model and actress named Joanna learns that her sister, one of the nuns, has been taken captive by the Huna tribe. Joanna has a romantic involvement with both Hannah and Mallory, adding even more tension and abrasion between the pilots. They both agree to assist Joanna in locating her sister, despite the ominous threats the jungle brings. 

In some ways I felt that The Last Place God Made was reminiscent of another bush pilot Higgins novel, 1968's East of Desolation. The two books share pilots as protagonists, and both are set in exotic, “high adventure” locales. East of Desolation is more of a murder mystery while The Last Place God Made is an action-adventure novel. My mild disappointment with this book is that the first 150 pages was a slow burn explaining the region, history, and characters. The build-up of Hannah and Mallory's rivalry was enjoyable, but nothing really happens until the last 60-70 pages. The book's closing chapters is some of the best Higgins action-adventure scenes I've read. The finale places both Hannah and Mallory with heavy firepower in a crumbling old church as hundreds of spear-wielding natives attack. This was well worth the wait. 

The Last Place God Made is a calculated build-up featuring historic details of Brazil, fearless characters, gunplay, treachery, jealousy, crime-fiction, and the high-adventure genre tropes one would expect from the author. It may also be the most violent Higgins novel I've experienced in terms of savage violence and torture. This is not for the squeamish. If you can handle the blood 'n guts, this is another great Higgins offering.

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Monday, February 6, 2023

Dark Shadows #01 - Dark Shadows

Paperback Library published 33 Dark Shadows novels from 1966 through 1972. These gothic paperbacks were based on the American soap opera that ran on ABC television from 1966 until 1971. The paperbacks were authored by popular gothic author William Edward Daniel Ross under his pseudonym Marilyn Ross. Thankfully, these novels make up a stand-alone series that can be read independently of the television show. They re-create the show, evident with this first paperback, the eponymous Dark Shadows, capturing most of what occurs in the Dark Shadows debut episode. But, the paperback series changes some of the characters and even adds new ones that aren't featured on the television version. Thus, it creates its own universe and continuity. If you want to avoid sappy daytime television reruns, then this paperback series is exactly what you need. Plus, it is completely affordable as audio books on CD or on your favorite streaming service like Hoopla or Audible. 

In Ross's series debut, young Victoria Winters arrives in the fictional Maine seaside village of Collinsport. Readers learn that she was orphaned as a baby and she never learned who her parents were. Money was mysteriously supplied to her throughout her upbringing in the form of a mailed check. Now, she is ready for her next job as a governess to a young boy at Collins House, an enormous mansion that houses over 40 rooms. 

Meeting the family, she discovers that Elizabeth Collins Stoddard hasn't left the house in nearly 20 years. Her brother, Roger Collins, is a single guy that possesses a rather dull outlook on life in between his routine cocktails. There's also Carolyn, a rambunctious, spunky young adult that finds relief from the boredom at a local bar. But, the most interesting character is that of Ernest Collins, a symphony violinist that experienced the death of two loves. The first was his wife Elaine, who supposedly died in a car accident. The second was a lover that threw herself from Widow's Hill, a place far above the rocky shore where women apparently jump to their deaths. 

Throughout the narrative, Victoria is tormented by an unseen stalker that plays tricks on her. At night she can hear heavy breathing and footsteps outside of her room. She finds a creepy mask hanging from her ceiling and is attacked in the dark cellar. The scariest moment for Victoria is when her car suddenly loses control and crashes. Of course, Elizabeth and others refuse to believe that anyone is stalking Victoria. But, the mystery points to Ernest as a possible suspect.

Unfortunately, this debut Dark Shadows paperback is a dull, uninspiring read. Ross utilizes long, drawn out dialogue to pad the book's length, leaving readers lulled into a bored mood with the pointless conversations. The attempts to scare or harm Victoria are few and far between, leaving very little activities to keep readers enthralled. Further, the atmosphere is described as sunny and warm, which left me disconnected from the television visuals of the old seaside mansion draped in fog. If I didn't read the title or the “Victoria Winters” name, I never could have guessed this was a Dark Shadows book. In addition, both Elizabeth, Ernest, and his lovers are not included in the television show.

Perhaps the series will improve with more of a supernatural element. Barnabas Collins, despite appearing on the cover of at least one printing of this specific paperback, doesn't appear in the series until the fifth installment. In the meantime, steer well clear of this dud.

Saturday, February 4, 2023

Conan - A Witch Shall Be Born

“A Witch Shall Be Born” was published in the December, 1934 issue of Weird Tales. This Conan story, authored by Robert E. Howard, was written on a tight, fast-paced schedule that prior summer. It was published again in Avon Fantasy Reader #10 in 1949,  and was later grammatically edited by L. Sprague de Camp for Conan the Barbarian (Gnome Press) in 1954 and Conan the Freebooter (Lancer) in 1968. While not a terrific Conan story, it does feature one of the most iconic scenes in the character's long history.

Khauran's Queen Taramis becomes awake inside her chamber and finds an image of her twin-sister Salome. This is seemingly impossible because Salome died as a baby. However, Salome advises Taramis that she is indeed alive and well because she was cursed at birth with a crescent shaped birthmark on her chest. In a brief backstory, it is explained that Taramis and Salome both come from a lineage of witches. When Salome was born, she was placed in the desert to die a cruel death by the elements. But, a magician named Khitai found the baby and nursed her back to health while teaching her the fine art of sorcery. 

As a way to destroy her rival sister, Salome teams with a mercenary named Constantius to allow his military to infiltrate Khauran. Conan, who just happens to be the Captain of Taramis' Royal Guard, catches on to the plot. He fights against the infiltration, but is overcome by too many blades. In one of the most iconic, visually descriptive scenes in the Conan mythos, the titular hero is crucified on a large wooden X. This scene was used in the Conan the Barbarian film as a remnant of Oliver Stone's original screenplay based on this story. After Conan's removal, Salome throws Taramis in the dungeon and carries on ruling Khauran for seven months as the fake Queen. 

Conan is pulled from the clutches of a cruel death by a brutal raider named Olgerd Vladislav. Among Vladislav's vast army of raiders, Conan rises to power and eventually usurps Vladislav as the group's new leader. In a bid for revenge against his original tormentors, Conan leads his men back to Khauran to face Constantius, Salome and a dungeon monstrosity. 

Overall, the build-up and momentum to have Conan rescue Taramis and fight the monster is quickly dismissed at the story's end. Unfortunately, Conan is replaced by a different hero, lending a dose of disappointment to what is an average story at best. While this is surely a Conan story, it doesn't feature the hero in a majority of the narrative. In fact, a good portion of the story is simply a letter explaining Khauran's downfall under Salome's rule. 

If you are a Conan enthusiast, then the story is essential to a future work by de Camp. In “The Flame Knife”, Olgerd Vladislav returns for revenge against Conan as a follow-up to the events in this story. “The Flame Knife” is featured in 1968's Conan the Wanderer (Lancer) and became its own novel, Conan: The Flame Knife, in 1981.

Friday, February 3, 2023

The Far Cry

Fredric Brown (1906-1972) authored crime-fiction, fantasy, and science-fiction from 1938 through 1965. He won an Edgar award for his first novel, The Fabulous Clipjoint (1947), and his novel Screaming Mimi was adapted into a 1958 film. Anthony Boucher of The New York Times Book Review described Brown as the successor to Cornell Woolrich. Interesting enough, Brown is also credited as writing one the shortest short stories of all-time, a unique work with only two sentences: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.” We've covered his two novels Madball (1953) and The Wench is Dead (1955) and decided to try another, The Far Cry. It was originally published by E.P. Dutton in 1951 and then in paperback by Bantam (#1133) in 1952. It now exists in audio and digital by Bruin Books. 

Family man and real estate agent George Weaver went a little crazy a few months ago. Recently released from the hospital, Weaver is advised by his doctors to take it easy. He has orders to temporarily disengage from his business to allow himself time to settle back into his normal lifestyle. To do this, Weaver leaves his home in Kansas City and heads to a small New Mexico town called Taos. It's here that he finds a vacation home, a dreary, rural house where he can rest, paint a little, and drink. Weaver gets a great deal on the place because a woman was attacked in the house and stabbed several yards away. The real estate agent can't seem to find a buyer due to the home's nefarious history. So, Weaver agrees to spend the summer there for free in exchange for fixing up the place. 

Through a journalist friend, Weaver learns about the woman's murder eight years ago and is offered a little side hustle. Weaver can take photos of the area and his friend can write up a sensational article about the murder for a tabloid. However, Weaver begins to become invested in the mystery. The police could not locate anything regarding the woman's past – where did she come from? Equally puzzling was that the police weren't able to learn much about the house's owner and supposed murderer. Where did he come from? Where did he escape to? Weaver submerges himself into the case and finds himself emotionally connected to the crime in troubling ways. 

In reading The Far Cry, I notice that Stephen King possibly borrowed the idea from this novel to create his classic horror bestseller The Shining. There are a number of striking similarities between the two works, notably an alcoholic protagonist writing while taking care of a rural empty dwelling that has a murderous history. If one were to get extremely specific, both books feature a boy who sees the victim and both of these works feature a similar ending. It might be a stretch, but at the very least they are certainly similar. Additionally, King has cited Fredric Brown as an influence.

Brown uses the old crime-noir formula of introducing an amateur sleuth into the investigation. He carefully intertwines this small town murder with a unique character study of Weaver, the dejected suburbanite faced with complacency in a lousy marriage. There are a number of motivations for Weaver to find the answers to the murder, but its murkiness becomes nearly trance-like for the main character. Weaver's alcoholism, mental instability, anonymity in town, and sheer boredom of unemployment all weigh in on the narrative's strong plot building and slow unraveling of every juicy detail of the murder. The mystery is a hypnotic one for Weaver, pushing him into some dark places.

If you enjoy suspenseful, edgy murder mysteries presented in a unique and clever way, then look no farther than The Far Cry. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Object of Lust

Like a lot of working authors of the paperback original era, Charles Runyon (1928-2015) supplemented his income as a mystery and science-fiction writer by authoring titillating sleaze novels using a pseudonym. Black Gat Books, an imprint of Stark House Press, has unearthed a 1962 title Runyon wrote under the pen name Mark West for a contemporary reprint.

Marian, age 35, is a bored and lonely housewife and mom who is initially receptive to the flirtatious advances of 22 year-old Lewis Leland. Things escalate into hot-and-heavy make-out sessions for the pair in the woodsy confines of the lake resort town where Lewis works teaches high school girls how to water-ski.

After Lewis saves Marian from drowning in the lake, they get together on-the-sly for some thank-you-sex, the encounter ends abruptly when they are almost caught together in the woods by some local kids. Marian develops cold feet and loses the fire in her belly for young Lewis. The problem? Lewis doesn’t want this forbidden romance to end and goes into a full stalker mode.

Unlike most novels about creepy stalkers, this one is partially told from the creep’s perspective. This is a trick that Runyon also employed in his groundbreaking serial killer novel from 1965, The Prettiest Girl I Ever Killed. Runyon does a particularly good job of getting the reader into Lewis’ infatuated head, and the writing is particularly solid.

Unfortunately, the paperback isn’t a crime-suspense novel throughout. Instead, the plot swims in the histrionics of the daisy-chain of affairs and infidelities among the summer lovers in Marian’s orbit. It’s pretty standard fare for a 1960s sleaze paperback and nothing you haven’t read before if you’re familiar with the genre.

To be clear, the scenes with Lewis becoming increasingly unhinged were pure gold. For my money, I’d have preferred more creepy stalker stuff and way less relationship drama filler. Is this book worth your while? Runyon was definitely a unique talent, but this isn’t his best work. It’s not much better than a mediocre Orrie Hitt book covered in some light suspense shrink wrap.

Buy a copy of the book HERE.