Friday, June 30, 2023

The Short Night

Leonard S. Zinberg (1911-1968) was best known for his work under the pseudonym Ed Lacy, but he also employed other pen names, including Russell Turner for a 1957 noir paperback called The Short Night. The novel has been reprinted by Cutting Edge Books for modern audiences.

Our narrator is a former first-baseman and current baseball scout for the Brooklyn Dodgers based in Vero Beach, Florida named Lester “Red” Dolsan. As the novel opens, he’s just arrived in Manhattan two years after the suicide of his wife. Dolsan is good with money and has a pad in NYC that he hardly ever uses because he’s always on the road - mostly in Puerto Rico recruiting promising Latino shortstops.

Before email and voicemail, people wrote letters on paper or used phone answering services to take messages — also on paper. Going through the messages and letters awaiting him in New York, Dolsan learns that a woman he knew briefly from his past named Peggy was trying desperately to reach him. The flashback of their meet-cute is pretty great, so I won’t spoil it here.

When Dolsan tries to find Peggy, she has largely disappeared. Some amateur gumshoe work starts to fill in the blanks about why she was looking for him months ago. His need to locate Peggy is serious, and the more he searches, the deeper he finds himself enmeshed in the mystery of her disappearance.

Lacy (he’ll always be Ed Lacy to me) is an awesome writer, and his dialogue is among the best of that era. Dolsan is a tough, hardboiled knight-errant with a heart of gold. You’ll really enjoy spending time with this character. In fact, all the characters are vividly-drawn and endlessly-interesting. I’m baffled why this mini-masterpiece was published by a back-bench paperback house using one of the author’s disposable pseudonyms. This book is really something special.

The novel’s central mystery (“What happened to Peggy?”) has a delightfully-clever solution that I couldn’t see coming. Dolsan’s reaction to the dilemma once he solves the mystery also made for some fine reading. Do your best to avoid plot details, and you’ll be delighted throughout this wonderful treat of a paperback. Highest recommendation. 

Thursday, June 29, 2023

The Daring Daylight Raid on Germany's Mile-High Fortress

When I was a kid, a film my father seemed to always have on was The Devil's Brigade. It was originally released in 1968, but played consistently on cable television in the 1980s. The movie starred William Holden, Cliff Robertson, and Andrew Prine as rugged Canadian-American commandos ascending a “mile-high” fortress occupied by the Nazis during WW2

Surprisingly, I was thumbing through the December, 1960 issue of Male and stumbled on a story titled, “The Daring Daylight Raid on Germany's Mile-High Fortress”. The title connected me to the movie, and after diving into the story, I realized it was the same real-life account of “the devil's brigade”, complete with artwork by the legendary Gil Cohen (The Executioner). The author is Martin Luray, a name that I'm not familiar with.

Luray's story is more like a traditional MAM informative piece detailing the true story of Major General Robert Tryon Frederick and his leadership of the hybrid Canadian-American military force known as 1st Special Service Force. The team was comprised of 2,400 men culled from prior-military professions like loggers, forest rangers, woodsmen, game wardens, and prospectors. The recruitment for the U.S. volunteers took place in the American Southwest and on the Pacific Coast. 

At 3,000 feet high, Monte La Difensa (known as Hill 960) was a strong-point in the defensive German line strung across the high peaks of Italy. To train for the extraordinary climb and fight, the 1st Special Service Force trained in Helena, Montana, Camp Bradford, Virginia, and Forth Ethan Allen in Vermont. 

In December 1943 and January 1944, the 1st Special Service Force conducted a series of operations at Monte la Difensa, Monte la Remetanea, Monte Sammucro (Hill 720) and Monte Vischiataro. The 1st Special Service Force attacked and captured the enemy forces at the impregnable Monte la Difensa. 

This informative piece authored by Luray inserts various quotes from infantrymen and leaders, including Major General Frederick. While not a stirring, action-adventure narrative, the short story provided an education on this chapter of American-Canadian history while provoking me to read more high-adventure literature. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

A Most Contagious Game

Samuel Grafton (1907-1997) was a publishing success with his syndicated newspaper column “I'd Rather Be Right”, which ran from 1939-1948 in over 120 newspapers. The Brooklyn native grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, served as an editorial-page editor for the New York Post, and contributed to national magazines in the 1980s. The only fictional novel that Grafton wrote, based on my research, was A Most Contagious Game. It was published in hardcover by Doubleday in 1955, then in paperback format by Pocket Books a year later with cover art by Tom Dunn.

Dan is a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia when he is offered the assignment of a lifetime. His editor offers him $5,000 in cash to relocate to New York City and submerge himself into the underworld. His undercover role will produce provocative, sensational news stories that readers desire. Dan breaks up with his girlfriend and moves to the Big Apple.

On a train, Dan meets up with a low-level theologian that offers up some valuable insight on life, plus a room at a seedy motel where Dan can gain firsthand experience with crime. Unfortunately, Dan gets robbed of his $5,000 and is left fending for survival as a homeless, inexperienced wreck on the city streets. He ends up meeting a prostitute, which leads to a promising world of sex and various small-time criminal activities. Eventually, Dan meets the pimp and gets into a bigger racket of collecting bets and the various moving and shaking of crooks circumventing backroom craps games. Dan's journey into criminality leads to a face-to-face showdown with the two guys that robbed him.

A Most Contagious Game is just an average crime-noir novel that uses the theme of rags to riches to explore the rise from upstanding citizen to notorious crime-boss. Grafton offers up some brilliant social commentary on human struggles and the idea of God and religion. I thought these were the real highlights of the book, with the crime-fiction element playing second fiddle. If you want a better, more thrilling crime-noir novel centered around craps games and illegal gambling, try Clark Howard's masterpiece The Arm. But, a lukewarm recommendation still exists for A Most Contagious Game

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Night Time Is Murder Time

The November, 1945 issue of New Detective Magazine featured short stories by David Crewe, Cyril Plunkett, Rex Whitechurch, and Ken Lewis among others. The story that I immediately flipped to was the lead novelette story, “Night Time is Murder Time”, a “man on the run” tale penned by legendary crime-fiction author Bruno Fischer.

Ray was medically discharged from the military after harrowing combat in WW2. After his recovery, he returns to his small hometown and moves in with his father. One night, Ray receives a call from a guy warning him that a female friend is in danger. Ray drives his father's car onto a rural route and gets halfway to his destination when the fuses in the car blow, pitching him and the vehicle into darkness. When he strikes a match, Ray discovers a dead body in the backseat.

Behaving in the most irrational method, Ray fails to warn the police (or his father who happens to be a judge). Like most of these mid-20th century crime-noir stories, Ray disposes of the body and car. He then makes a run for it to clear his name and find the real killer that set him up as the fall guy. The story weaves in and out of Ray's quest for justice while foiling the police. There's a few suspects thrown in to keep the reader guessing, and a nice touching side-story with Ray confiding in his father.

Bruno Fischer isn't capable of writing a bad story, and while this is certainly an overused plot-device, the author still packs a punch with a straight-laced whodunit. For a brisk 20-minute read, “Night Time is Murder Time” is recommended.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Beneath Cruel Waters

Horror and crime-fiction author Jon Bassoff continues to impress me with his literary work. As a modern writer, he is certainly in the top echelons for innovative, moving storytelling that captures the dark and dreary landscape of rural America. His books produce a poverty-ridden moodiness that reminds me of Joe R. Lansdale or Elmore Leonard, but with the hazy overtones of bleak horror. His newest novel, at the time of this writing, is Beneath Cruel Waters. It was published by Blackstone in 2022 and exists in audio, digital, and physical formats.

The book is presented in rotating timelines that incorporate present day events with those in the past. In the present, Holt Davidson has returned to his small Colorado hometown after discovering his mother took her own life. After rummaging through his mother's belongings, he finds a bizarre photo of a dead man. Why did his mother have this photo? What is the significance?

In the past, the author presents Davidson's childhood, mostly focusing on his mother's life. She is a single mom struggling to make ends meet. After meeting a former felon, she begins a dating routine that escalates into a frightful fatal-attraction scenario. Davidson's uncle arrives and begins to strike up a reunion with the family, catering to Davidson's sister. These past events, as trivial as they may seem, have a large impact on what Davidson is experiencing in present day.

As Davidson journeys into the past, attempting to make sense of his fuzzy memories, he learns a great deal about his tumultuous childhood, his mother's suicide, and horrifying events that forced his sister into a mental hospital. All of these events circumvent the dead man photo, a mysterious love letter, a gun, and an illegal abortionist. How they all tie into each other is the mystery, thrill, and entertainment of Bassoff's riveting novel.

Beneath Cruel Waters was nothing short of amazing. The characters, the plot development, the core mystery, and the presentation was masterfully woven to create the ultimate page-turner. As an intimate glimpse into the lives of small-town America, no one can do it any better than Jon Bassoff. If you love gripping novels that demand to be devoured in one sitting, look no further than Beneath Cruel Waters. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Heller #01 - The Oil Rig

Author Frank Roderus (1942-2016) was a newspaper writer and author that penned over 300 novels, most of which were westerns. He earned two prestigious Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America and also earned a Colorado Press Association award for best news story. In 1984, Roderus began writing a crime-fiction series starring Colorado rancher Carl Heller. There were seven installments in the series, all published by Bantam. In a 2013 interview with Tom Rizzo, Roderus explained that writing westerns allowed him tax advantages on his horses. By having Heller ride a motorcycle, Roderus was also able to gain a tax advantage on his own motorcycles. Brilliant idea.

Carl Heller was fortunate enough to inherit several thousand mountain acres in the high-country from his great grandfather. Instead of running a beef operation on steroids, antibiotics, and modern efficiencies, Heller uses the old-fashioned method of allowing the herd to run free, culling them once a year. He's not wealthy, and admits to barely keeping up the tax payments on the enormous property, but he manages an average lifestyle. He's a law-school dropout that is described as a playboy that enjoys riding the mountains on his horse, Kawasaki motorcycle, or race-car styled BMW. He has a lukewarm relationship with a local gal in town, a school teacher named Donna. He's in excellent shape, works out each day, and serves as a paperback version of the modern cowboy. That's the origin tale of Carl Heller.

While riding the rapids with a group of friends, Heller learns that a small group of farmers have been hoodwinked by big city shysters. The proposal by Mineral Consortium is that gold has been discovered in ecological surveys on the farmers' land. If the farmers will agree to allow Mineral Consortium to lease property, they will provide the farmers an excellent 30% royalty for all “metals” retrieved. When Heller becomes involved, he discovers that the contracts excluded minerals. The Mineral Consortium used this loophole to establish oil rigs on these leases to pull millions of gallons of oil royalty free. Their defense to the one-sided contract is that gold does exist on the property, but it's nothing more than the small grains found in seawater. They are happy to provide 30% for this small amount of gold retrieval.

Heller explains that there is a distinct difference between law and justice. To establish the character's validity, Heller confesses to Donna that he tracked down and killed a rapist that escaped a court of law. The reader gets the idea that maybe Heller has performed this sort of vigilantism more than once. Like Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder, Heller explains that he does favors for people. So, Heller's motivation is peaked when he discusses the dilemma facing the farmers. Additionally, there is an incentive of a monetary percentage payout if the leases produce money for the farmers instead of the Mineral Consortium. 

The book's first half was a real slow burn as Heller discusses legal avenues to explore. Included is a swindle Heller concocts to lead the Mineral Consortium into believing real gold does exist. To perform the trick, Heller establishes an identity of working for a mining company to construct a large mill. The evidence is convincing enough that the company wants to renegotiate the deal with the farmers. All of this consumes the book's first half, which in itself would be an average story. However, the second half makes all of the difference.

In the second half, Roderus fuels the fire with an action-packed, suspenseful narrative with Heller facing the bad guys around an oil rig at night. This was just an incredible page-turner as Heller was forced to rely on his wits to outsmart the armed gunmen. It's a violent smash-up that includes everything I love about 1970s and 1980s men's action-adventure novels. This closing second-half was well worth the price of admission.

Frank Roderus is a unique author that uses traditional western storytelling to plot modern crime-fiction. Often, he writes like a tough guy cowboy, so much that the wording is odd. For example, something like 3AM is pronounced “three ayem”. Heller's moral compass, good-guy characteristics, and the ability to be a strong, reliable protagonist kicks off the series in a promising way. This is the meat and potatoes of Roderus storytelling and The Oil Rig is recommended if you like that sort of thing. I do, so I'll be reading more. 

You can buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Mark of Satan's Claw

Fred Ottenheimer was a writer and artist employed by various humor cartoons and strips in the mid-20th century. Along with working for Charlton Comics and Magazine Enterprises, Ottenheimer's most notable work was in the pages of Warren Publishing in the 1970s. Often listed as Fred Ott, he wrote for Vampirella, Creepy, and Eerie. My first experience with the writer is his story “The Mark of Satan's Claw”, which was the lead in Creepy's January 1972 issue. The story is beautifully illustrated by Spanish artist Jaime Brocal Remohi. 

In the story's opener, a journalist named Jonathan Howard has just arrived to the foggy village of Llangwell, Scotland. After meeting with a local innkeeper, Howard accepts a room while explaining to readers the reason for his arrival in this sleepy town. Howard is a true-crime writer and wants to delve into the recent string of child murders in Llangwell. The innkeeper warns Howard to stray from the town's business and attempts to convince him that there are no murders.

Howard meets with Llangwell's Chief Constable and learns more about the murdered children. The lawman explains that the murders have been taking place for years under the direction of a local cult of Satan worshipers. He then shows Howard the cult's symbol, which has been burned into his own chest. He explains he escaped the cult and volunteers to take Howard out to the moors to show him where the dead children turn up.

In a memorable panel, the police find a dead boy on the swampy rocks. Howard becomes shocked by the reality of dead children. But, a whisper from the darkness invites Howard back to a rural cottage where a man explains more about the history of the Satanic cult and provides instructions on a secret book that may hold more answers.

The combination of Remohi's gloomy pencils and Ott's dour narrative was enthralling. This is a rare monster story that blends a child serial-killer element with a fantasy outline. I was surprised with the story's twist and found the ending suitable, but not altogether satisfying. “The Mark of Satan's Claw” was just scary enough to be recommended, but the time-frame and artistic style – both in the writing and presentation – is truly the main star. I enjoyed it, and you can read it for free below:

Wednesday, June 21, 2023

One by One

Freida McFadden is a New York Times, USA Today, and Publisher's Weekly bestselling author of psychological suspense thrillers. With curious titles like Want to Know a Secret?, Do You Remember?, Do Not Disturb, and The Housemaid's Secret, it was just a matter of time before one of her novels showed up in my library app. My first McFadden novel is One by One, originally published in 2020. It's not to be confused with Ruth Ware's 2020 book of the same name. There's apparently more than one One by One.

The book is presented mostly in the present tense by main character Claire, but there are intervals written in third-person from someone simply titled “Anonymous” recapping their own childhood. This was a pleasant distraction from the rather one-dimensional locale of lush forest and dense trees. These accounts from Claire and “Anonymous” were destined to collide by the book's end, but the mystery is how the two characters are related and the inevitable word journey.

Claire (teacher) and her husband Noah (physicist) are in the slumber of a failing marriage, so the two decide to embark on a short vacation to a cozy inn nestled in the northern Colorado wilderness. They are accompanied by Claire's best friend Lindsey (can't remember!) and her new boyfriend Warner (surgeon), as well as Noah's best friend Jack (handyman) and his wife Michelle (attorney). It's a diverse group made up of various professions that may or may not play a hand in the book's plot.

Like most outings in the forest, car trouble and lack of cell phone coverage invite murder and mayhem. As Jack attempts to lead the group through the forest, hoping to find the inn, they immediately become lost, cold, and hungry with water diminishing. The first member of the group dies from poisoning, then another from an apparent animal attack. One disappears completely. Three members are left when they locate a small cabin full of supplies. But, the cabin's owner is dead. What in the actual Hell is happening here?

I've watched plenty of VHS horror, and read my fair share of Paperbacks from Hell, so the premise of One by One wasn't that original. Thankfully, McFadden focuses on character development to build her plot and enhance the story. She has a unique way of telling a great story through dialogue and character interaction. It isn't what's on page, but what's hidden from the reader that is so important. McFadden doesn't provide enough clues to really hone in on the murderer, but she kept me guessing until the very end.

If you enjoy the “weeding out the weak” survival novels, or just a “who's the murderer within our ranks” story, then One by One is an easy recommendation. I devoured it in one sitting and not only discovered a great book, but a fantastic author. At the time of this writing, I'm on the waiting list for her newest novel, Ward D, which promises more mystery, murder, and...terrible cell phone service.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, June 19, 2023

Rogue Male

According to Wikipedia, Geoffrey Household (1900-1988) was born in England, earned a B.A. in English Literature, worked as an assistant confidential secretary in Bucharest, sold bananas in Spain, and wrote children's encyclopedias and children's radio pays for CBS. During WWII, Household served in British Intelligence internationally. Household began to write in the 1920s and saw his first novel published in 1936. Overall, he authored 28 total novels, and seven short story collections. But, his most admired and critically acclaimed book is 1939's Rogue Male. The novel was adapted into the film Man Hunt in 1941 and as Rogue Male in 1976. I stumbled onto the novel after reading a number of interviews conducted with David Morrell, an author that cited Rogue Male as a primary influence on his bestseller First Blood

The book's protagonist is a British citizen, unnamed, that loves firearms and hunting. In the opening pages, the character is placing his rifle optics on a dictator, presumably Hitler or Stalin, for sport. But, he is immediately caught by the dictator's military and taken inside to be tortured. At some point, the torture escalates and a military man vomits. From the description, one of the character's eyes becomes lacerated and burned. After the torture, they throw the character over a cliff, making it look like an accident. 

Fortunately (unfortunately for me), the character survives and heads back to England where he finds himself hunted by the dictator's secret police. The character manages to kill one at a train station, then journeys into seclusion in the forest. Here he burrows into a hideaway, but is soon found by his pursuer.  The character is then faced with dying from lack of water and food or somehow killing his enemy.

There's no bones about it. Rogue Male did nothing for me. The narrative is brittle, with a British dryness that seemed absolutely lifeless and one-dimensional. I enjoy British espionage and high-adventure novels, but Rogue Male isn't what I would consider spy-fiction despite the characteristics. In reality, the author spends a painful amount of time dragging his character through the forest examining hedges and trees. The payoff finale was void of any excitement (although it was shocking), leaving me numb with boredom and wishing I had the hours back.

Rogue Male sucks. Bottom line. 

Try your luck with it HERE.

Friday, June 16, 2023

Spy Hunt

Paperback Warrior features a fairly robust section for author Norman Daniels (real name Norman Danberg, 1905-1995), including a podcast feature on his life and literary work. While I enjoy a variety of his crime-noir paperbacks, I feel like he was best served as a spy-fiction writer, or at the very least, international conflicts concerning the military. His best work is probably the eight-book espionage series Man from A.P.E.starring American secret-agent John Keith. That series debut, Overkill, was published by Pyramid in 1964. But, as a template for that series, Daniels authored a stand-alone secret-agent novel called Spy Hunt. It was published in 1960 by Pyramid and now exists as an ebook by Fiction Hunter Press.

In Spy Hunt, readers are introduced to Jeff Stuart, a CIA operative working directly for Colonel Piper. In the book's riveting opener, Stuart walks into his office and discovers a man pointing a gun at him. The next chapter explains how Stuart ended up in this situation. With very little rest, Stuart was ordered to fly round-trip from Washington D.C. to Hong Kong to retrieve a document from an unnamed man. Tired from jet lag and little sleep, Stuart walks into his office, sees the man with the gun, and is ordered to give the document up. 

Stuart complies with the man's orders, surrenders the document, and then on the brink of exhaustion, hunts his enemy down to retrieve the document. He then takes his enemy back to his office to torture him for information. At the point of pulling the trigger to execute the man, Colonel Piper's people arrive and inform Stuart that this was just a training exercise. Piper wanted to be sure that Stuart could operate in a stressful/no sleep situation. Also, if he could pull the trigger. Stuart proved capable. 

Stuart's next assignment is legit. An American scientist has been captured by the Russians and the American government wants to shut him up. To avoid the scientist singing American secrets, the CIA wants Stuart to pose as a Cuban in Moscow undercover as a weapons buyer for Castro. He is to kill the scientist at the first opportunity, then escape the country with no American assistance or aid. Stuart understands that the mission will probably be suicide (complete with those deadly poison capsules on his body), but he's sworn to the agency.

The author's variables in the story make the narrative come alive with mystery, excitement, and a sense of urgency. Stuart's nemesis is a female Russian agent hoping to seduce and kill him. On the flip side, the Russians invite the scientist's wife to Moscow for a cordial face to face visit. Stuart uses her as an inside track to the prison where the scientist is being held. These two women, both on opposite ends of the spectrum, create sexual tension and deadly encounters as Stuart treads water to kill his target and escape Russia alive. 

Spy Hunt was absolutely terrific, but I do feel that Daniels' second-half narrative was way too long. Despite the book's length of a mere 150 pages, the second-half is a road trip survival adventure as Stuart drives through the countryside receiving aid from begrudged laborers. The finale was fantastic, but it was cumbersome for 35-40 pages. Regardless, Daniels voices Stuart's third-person narrative, and the story for that matter, like a solid Matt Helm installment by Donald Hamilton. Or, as I alluded to earlier, a building block for his Man of A.P.E. series. If you love a good globe-trotting Cold War affair, then Spy Hunt is highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

North and South

In 1982, paperback author John Jakes (1932-2023) struck literary gold with his 800+ page Pre-Civil War epic, North and South. The bestseller furthered the author’s career as one of the most popular American authors of historical fiction while spawning two sequels and a hit 1985 miniseries adaptation.

The novel opens in 1686 with the story of how a young ironworker named Joseph Moffat finds himself fleeing Scotland for what is now Pennsylvania under the name Joseph Hazard to avoid a murder charge. Jakes’ storytelling sucks you right in with violence and adventure. We also meet a young aristocrat from France named Charles Main (formerly Charles de Main) who is an early settler in the American colony of Carolina making his money in the pelt and slave trade.

These dual prologues provide the reader with a brief explanation of how the Hazard family and Main family find themselves in the North and South respectively. The novel’s linear action really begins in 1842 when George Hazard on Pennsylvania and Orry Main of South Carolina find themselves in the same cadet class at West Point Academy. This is 19 years before the U.S. Civil War kicked off.

By this point, the Hazard family has a successful iron company, and the Main family own a rice plantation with over 150 slaves. Despite the cultural divide, the two lads become fast friends. George is full of humor and knows how to charm the ladies. Orry is more serious and reserved with his only focus being a success as a soldier. Upon graduation, they are deployed to the same infantry unit just as the Mexican-American war is heating up over the annexation of Texas.

Throughout the novel, the moral quandary of slavery is always humming in the background. The Northern characters find the practice repellant, and the Southern characters find a myriad of ways to rationalize enslaving blacks. This percolates up in heated debates throughout the novel that eventually divide the young nation and spark a civil war.

The author was also influenced by plantation novels like Mandingo/Falconhurst series in depicting the savagery of slavery and the stigma of mixed-race romances. In these scenes, there are some shocking images of torturous violence and others of forbidden love. The sex in North and South is all off-page.

The Civil War is not the centerpiece of this epic novel. The War Between the States is the focus of the 1984 sequel, Love and War. Instead, this first book in the trilogy focuses on the North vs. South Cold War — the culture war, if you will, — driven by disagreements regarding slavery. The two families and their respective journeys taking them up to this great divide during a fascinating time in America’s evolution as a nation are the vehicles for Jakes to examine this time in history.

I enjoyed North and South quite a bit, but the book is long. And it felt long. Unlike big books like Lonesome Dove and Pillars of the Earth where the pages fly by and you don’t want it to end, North and South felt like trying to devour a ten-season Netflix series. It’s a lot to carry but never hard to follow. Nevertheless, there are way too many storylines and characters. The fact that there are two more 800-page behemoths in the trilogy makes my head ache.

If you can gather up the energy for a historical epic novel, North and South is a fine choice. It’s a giant meal, but fully-digestible if you’re in the right headspace. I want to know what happens to these characters in the war and thereafter, so I’ll definitely read the sequels. But I need some 180-page pulpy paperbacks to cleanse my palette first. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Rex Brandon #01 - Death Warriors

In 1951 and 1952, British author Denis Hughes (1917-2008) wrote 12 novels under the pseudonym of Marco Garon starring international adventurer Rex Brandon. These were among the 50 titles Hughes wrote using a variety of pen names over the five year period between 1949 and 1954. Bold Venture Press is reprinting the series, starting with the first installment, Death Warriors, from 1951.

Rex Brandon is a geologist and big game hunter by trade, but a swashbuckling adventurer at heart. Death Warriors finds Rex summoned to the heart of savage Africa by a French colonialist in the fictional African nation of Mandibarza. Brandon’s mission is to locate an explorer who went missing in the jungle while he was searching for irikum, a rare mineral valued for its potential to produce atomic energy.

Using the guise of a big game hunt with a goal of shooting gorillas (which, I guess, was a thing in 1951?), Rex and his small expeditionary team set off into the jungle to locate the missing explorer and the irikum. The reader also learns that another search party with the identical mission previously became lost and never returned from the wilds. The previous mission included a beautiful woman named Coralie, and you’d correctly surmise that she will be the damsel in distress requiring saving at some point.

In the jungle, it quickly becomes clear that there are others in the woods - beyond the man-eating lions - who wish to thwart the expedition. Members of the party start disappearing, and supplies are scarce. There’s not a ton of action in the novel’s first half, but the Blair Witch Project vibe of the thick and menacing woods is certainly unsettling. Things go from bad to worse for Rex and his companions when the war-painted, jungle savages (of the “ooga-booga” variety) make their inevitable appearance halfway through the adventure.

If the novel’s first half is mostly setup (although not uninteresting), the second half moves quickly from one pulpy action set-piece to another. Rex and his sidekicks are forced to tangle with every flavor of African jungle menace you can imagine, and it’s a cartoonish blast building up to a conclusion that leaves Rex alive to experience the next 11 adventures in the series. 

Fans of Tarzan and Doc Savage will feel right at home with Rex Brandon. Based on this short novel, it seems that pulp-fiction from Great Britain in 1951 has a lot in common with American pulp-fiction from the 1930s. While Americans were turning a page to the gritty realism of 1950s noir, British readers were still enjoying square-jawed heroes rescuing women from the jaws of killer crocodiles in the darkest realms of Africa. Whichever your preference, we should all be grateful that there are outfits like Bold Venture Press keeping these works of pulp literature alive in the 21st Century. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Monday, June 12, 2023

Winter Marines, The (aka Winter's Coming, Winter's Gone)

Allen Glick served two tours of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps during America's involvement in the Vietnam War. He survived the 1968 TET Offensive and the siege of Khe Sahn. After the war, he became a master carpenter, and a high school English teacher. During this time, Glick was also a writer, penning four original novels. Based on his Vietnam War experience, he authored the fictional novel Winter's Coming, Winter's Gone. The book was originally published in 1984 as a hardcover by Eakin Press, but thankfully was reprinted as The Winter Marines, a mass market paperback by Bantam in 1987. It is now available in ebook format. 

At nearly 350-pages, The Winter Marines, is divided into two time periods featuring protagonist David Schrader. The first-half thrusts the nineteen-year old Schrader into the steamy, war-torn jungles of Vietnam in 1966. The book's second-half focuses on Schrader's post-war civilian life in Austin, Texas in 1979. Separating the two halves is a 20-page layover with Schrader in Florida in 1972. 

In Vietnam, Glick's experiences are conveyed to the reader through the fictional, battle-weary eyes of young David Schrader. Through the grueling patrols, intense firefights, bombings, and death, the narrative explores Schrader's resolve in battle and his camaraderie with his fellow soldiers. The author focuses on Vietnam's history, with a South Vietnamese family man named Li relaying his family's role in Vietnam's military campaigns, including the violent French involvement, to Schrader and his brothers-in-arms. There is some racial tension in the book's opening half which explores the Latino, African-American, and Caucasian bitterness, both a disturbing plot point and a reminder of just how far from home and far apart the Americans were despite the togetherness during the battle.

Post-war, Schrader's job as a bartender in Texas is a stark contrast to commanding soldiers and coordinating airstrikes using multi-million dollar equipment. Like a lot of Vietnam veterans, Schrader is suffering with PTSD. Exhausted from nightmares and a lack of sleep, Schrader's life is a cycle of lethargic, pointless activities that challenge his ability to simply rise and exist each day. Thankfully, he has a love interest and a close friendship with one of his war buddies. This second-half of Glick's narrative explores the fringes of drug abuse, alcoholism, and criminality, but shines a spotlight on the unfair condemnation heaped on Schrader and his fellow soldiers back home. Sadly, it's an accurate, historic look at a dark place in American history. 

If you are a military-fiction or non-fiction scholar, The Winter Marines is an obligatory read. There are plenty of autobiographies and accounts of the Vietnam War from many different perspectives. But, from the little I've read, Allen Glick's is one of the most realistic and alarming. While sometimes a tough read, it can also be an encouraging one. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, June 9, 2023


Jack Higgins (real name Harry Patterson, 1929-2022) was just getting his feet wet as an author when Seven Pillars to Hell was published. It was printed in 1963 by Abelard-Schuman under Patterson's pseudonym Hugh Marlowe. Mostly, the book went unnoticed and remained out of print for decades. Long after Jack Higgins became a household name, the author made revisions to his earlier works and saw them reprinted. Such is the case with Seven Pillars to Hell, which was revised into the 1995 novel Sheba, published by Berkley. I chose to read and review this version.

The book begins in Germany in 1939 with a select group of advisers meeting with Hitler on his plans to invade Poland. To avoid British interference, the men devise a method to blow up the Suez Canal. But, the problem arises with the immense distances required to fuel and attack the strategic location. When a colleague proposes that he has discovered the location of the legendary Temple of Sheba, buried in the ruthless Empty Quarter desert, the Germans create Operation Sheba to utilize this lost ancient structure as a supply depot for aircraft. 

A few months later, Higgins introduces Sheba's star hero, Gavin Kane, an Indiana Jones type of adventurer that is an archaeologist and nautical smuggler. After one of his illegal sea-run trades, Kane meets a woman who offers to pay him to locate her husband. Coincidentally, her husband is the professor that originally discovered the Temple of Sheba. Chances are that the man was killed, but Kane is a businessman and accepts the job. 

Sheba is saturated with fast-paced action sequences, most of which culminate in the hot desert sands as Kane, his associates, and his employer are on the run from Nazis. Like King Solomon's Mines, for example, the book's second half is mostly presented as a treasure hunt in the temple's underground passageways and secret tunnels. But, a brutal survival element is introduced that places characters forging for freedom through the harsh elements. 

Higgins is one of the best adventure writers of all-time, so his imagination and storytelling is superb as the book kicks into the third and final act. In some ways, a lot of his novels have a similar theme with WW2 historical vines weaving in and out of iron-fisted, strong-armed heroic fantasy (swords traded for machine guns). Once again, Higgins knocked my socks off with one of the better books I've read by him. This one was really something special and I'm glad it now exists in multiple formats for lifetimes to come. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

How to Sell a Haunted House

In How to Sell a Haunted House, main character Louise resumes her strenuous relationship with her brother Mark after their elderly parents die in a car wreck. The reunion takes place in their parents' home in Charleston, South Carolina, where both of them spend time and energy dredging up their tumultuous childhood memories while warring and speculating over the proposed inheritance. But, the element that makes Grady Hendrix's haunted house book scary is a puppet. An evil, murderous, terrifying, and memorable little puppet.

After discovering repressed memories, Louise must come to grips with the fact that her parents were super weirdos and supernaturally gifted (cursed?). While her parents were loving and mostly appeared normal, behind closed doors there were a lot of bizarre things happening with porcelain dolls and clown puppets, the objects that 90% of children are deathly afraid of. Through a fast-paced narrative that incorporates some disturbing bloodletting and sadistic puppet mania, Hendrix hits his stride and thrills to the end.  

Hendrix isn't a stranger to hysterically funny horror. His novels like Horrorstor, My Best Friend's Exorcism, and The Final Girl Support Group are bestsellers due to the unique blend of satirical comedy and clever fanboy horror. How to Sell a Haunted House employs all of Hendrix's horror tropes, but still has a very personal, intimate story to share. 

If you want a not-so-traditional haunted dwelling tale, then this is an open house invitation you can't decline. Recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Trouble-Texas Style

In 1964, Fawcett Gold Medal published Trouble-Texas Style, a crime-noir paperback that sported a Robert McGinnis cover and an unfamiliar author name of John Bramlett. My research suggests that the author was really John Pierce. However, I can only speculate that it is the same John Pierce (1910-2002), that was a famed American engineer that invented the term “transistor”. Pierce was a pioneer in electronics, information theory, and pulse-code modulation while working at Bell Laboratories. More importantly, for Paperback Warrior fans, Pierce authored 13 books and numerous short-stories, mostly science-fiction, using the name J.J. Coupling and John R. Pierce. 

In full disclosure, I can't directly link Trouble-Texas Style to Pierce, but it would make sense that this is the same guy. He also authored one other Fawcett Gold Medal paperback under the Bramlett name, 1967's The Devil in Broad Daylight. In a Cal Tech document, it suggests that Pierce had developed second thoughts about how his name on stories and science-fiction magazines would affect his employers. So, the additional pseudonym of Bramlett may have been chosen for crime-fiction. It's a stretch, but it's all I have. Additionally, there are some technical aspects to Trouble-Texas Style on drilling and the various equipment and leases required at the time. Perhaps Pierce's engineering background played a role in the writing.

Harry Miller grew up in Carlyle, Texas, a small shoreline town where people spend their time drinking and fishing. In the book's opening pages, Miller is in Houston brooding over his recent divorce, unemployment, and an empty apartment. A guy named Fowler approaches Miller and attempts to convince him that Carlye still has wells that will produce oil. When he shows Miller the locations, it is evident that Miller's childhood friend Roy Boatner previously tapped the wells dry and allowed the leases to expire. But, Fowler claims otherwise and wants Miller to accompany him back to Carlyle to do a few introductions and show him the lay of the land. Miller is hesitant, but Fowler offers to pay him, so he goes along for the ride.

On the way, Miller leaves Fowler in an attempt to inform Roy of the tapped out wells and the possibility of more production. When Miller finally locates Roy in a small town, the two pick up their friendship and Roy offers Miller a job. From the dialogue, these two have been on and off friends for decades – Roy found success in oil drilling and Miller has mostly floundered. Awakening at a roadside motel, Miller discovers that Roy has walked outside to start the car. When Miller peers out, he sees Roy's car violently explode into a fireball. Someone killed Roy, but why? The mystery lies in who, and what, was behind the explosion. 

Witnesses place Miller as the prime suspect, so he journeys down the fugitive road in a familiar “man on the run” premise. But, the author is clever enough to realize this story has been told numerous times in the pulps and crime-noir novels. Instead, he builds this smooth, calculating narrative that blends events from Miller and Roy's past and their friendship with another childhood friend named Alice. Overall, there are roughly 15 characters in the book, so notes were required. But, it wasn't a heavy lift. Instead, the characters all relate to each other in a cohesive manner that drives an intriguing story. 

Trouble-Texas Style is a terrible title. But, the book is a darn masterpiece that reminded me of John Ball's writing style with a touch of John D. MacDonald. Selfishly, I would love to see this novel brought to life on the big screen, preferably with a script written and directed by Billy Bob Thornton (Slingblade). If you love moving mysteries that are saturated with magnificent characters, then track down a copy of this vintage paperback as soon as possible.

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Friday, June 2, 2023

Star Wars - Heir to the Jedi

Author Kevin Hearne is an established author that landed on the USA Today bestseller list with his debut hardcover Shattered. As an urban fantasy author, Hearne has authored nine installments of the Iron Druid Chronicles series, three novels in the Oberon's Meaty Mysteries, and countless novellas and short stories. My introduction to his work is his Star Wars novel Heir to the Jedi, published by Del Rey in 2015.

I am mostly a casual fan of the Star Wars media bonanza. I've seen the nine feature films repeatedly, and watch some of the spin-off shows. I can't quote you serial numbers on spaceships, but I know enough to just get by. I have only tackled one prior Star Wars book, and didn't care for it. But, as a Luke Skywalker fan, I was immediately drawn to the book's cover. I also liked the era in which the book is placed, snuggled between Episode IV A New Hope and Episode V The Empire Strikes Back. The book is considered canon, meaning it fits directly into the current Star Wars franchise owned and operated by Disney.

In the book's opening pages, Luke is provided a mission from Princess Leia and Admiral Ackbar. He must fly to Rodia in an effort to open a secret supply line to the Rebels. The idea is that the Chekko clan there might work with the Rebels and also manufacture weapons for them. Luke is assigned a floating yacht called the Desert Jewel for the mission, and pairs with the yacht owner's daughter, and deadly sniper, Nakari for the mission. 

The plot is a series of action-adventures ranging from Luke's monster fight on a jungle island, rescuing a cryptographer, contending with an infestation of skull-borer aliens, flying through an Imperial blockade, and of course fighting with other numerous enemies. As each side-story is resolved, it conveniently opens up another side-mission. For example, upgrading weapons by performing a task, locating a missing research crew to earn money, identifying a spy, etc. It reminded me of a modern video game where players work through checkpoints by solving problems. There is an emotional surprise near the end that I felt was a bold move on the author's part (hint - someone dies). This made the book conclude with an impact. More authors should do this. 

As a men's action-adventure reader and fan, the book is like a Nick Carter: Killmaster installment as the action jumps from mission to mission. Ultimately, Luke Skywalker could be any paperback warrior and these planets could be Russian or China when the Cold War raged. It's an espionage spy-thriller with a science-fiction twist that seemed both familiar and nostalgic. As a Star Wars novel, it offers a glimpse into Luke's examination of the Force and his early efforts to use Jedi mind tricks to move objects around. An interesting addition was Luke's disassembly of another lightsaber to see how it actually works. 

Heir to the Jedi is an action-packed novel complete with everything I love about adventure paperbacks. Whether you will love it or not shouldn't be dependent on your Star Wars knowledge or level of love. It's just an enjoyable book and I recommend it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.