Monday, July 31, 2023

The Bridges at Toko-Ri

James A. Michener (1907-1997) was a bestselling author who never knew the identity of his biological parents, or when and where he was born. He attended Swarthmore College and University of Northern Colorado, earning degrees in English, Education, and History. He was employed as a teacher, served in the U.S. Navy during WW2, worked as a campaign manager for U.S. Senator Joseph S. Clark, and as an editor for Macmillan Publishers.

Michener's first novel was Tales of the South Pacific (1947), a book based on the author's own experiences in the war. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948 and was adapted into the hit Broadway musical South Pacific. His writing career flourished, eventually selling around 75 million copies with popular historical sagas like Hawaii (1959), Centennial (1974), and Caravans (1963). 15 of the author's books or short stories were adapted to the screen.

My first experience with Michener is The Bridges at Toko-Ri, a 1953 novella that was adapted to film by Paramount Pictures one year later. The film was directed by Mark Robson and starred William Holden, Grace Kelly, and Mickey Rooney. My copy of the book is a 1976 Corgi paperback, a sixth printing that shows prior publications by Bantam in 1962 and Secker & Warburg in 1953.

At 106 pages, Michener's novel explodes with tension, drama, and action as American pilots aboard the USS Savo (named after the real USS Savo Island) plan and execute bombing routes during the Korean War. The book's main character is Brubaker, a frustrated Naval Reserve officer and Naval Aviator who is an attorney back home. He isn't happy about his participation in the Korean War, but understands his talents and the contributions he can make to the war effort. In the book's opening pages, Brubaker's carrier-based jet is downed into the ocean, forcing a fellow aviator named Forney to assist in a rescue.

Both Brubaker and Forney have deep conversations with Admiral Tarrant regarding their missions, brotherhood aboard the ship, and the fact that their assignment – bombing bridges in a heavily fortified position – is a delicate, highly dangerous run that may cost them their lives. Michener injects three endearing side-stories concerning Brubaker's shore leave with his wife and kids, Forney's discovery that the love of his life is marrying someone else, and Tarrant's own struggles with the loss of his son during battle in WW2. 

The book's climactic bombing run was like something out of Star Wars or Top Gun: Maverick. The pilots must fly at low altitude through a slim valley protected by cannons and guns, destroy the targets, and then escape before the Korean fighter jets can intercept them. While the mission is mostly a success, the ending was quite surprising and left me with tears in my eyes. Michener's narrative is such a moving patriotic look at the horrors of war and the unnecessary eternal struggle that humans wage against each other. 

The Bridges at Toko-Ri was simply fantastic and the pages breezed by. It's rare to find military-fiction that is set during the Korean War, so the locale and discovery of facts and data regarding the campaign was really enjoyable. Michener is an excellent writer and I'm stoked to learn more about the man and his 40-book bibliography. According to Wikipedia, State House Press published James A. Michener: A Bibliography in 1996, compiled by David A. Groseclose. I'd like to read more about him and discover some of the real highlights of his literary work. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, July 28, 2023

The Tracks

The small fictional Texas town of McGregor Falls is a railroad stop for a large company called SWR. When an SWR employee is found eviscerated in an empty boxcar, Sheriff Cotton Briggs is called out to investigate. The coroner, and eyewitnesses, present convincing arguments that the man's death may have resulted from some sort of animal attack. The most indisputable evidence is that two high school boys were on the scene during the attack. One of the kids, Travis, escaped the animal, but found himself scratched by the strange beast. 

Author Lyn Kelly swaps the narrative into different perspectives through the course of 350ish pages, ranging from the main characters like Travis and Briggs to various law-enforcement, parents, and other high school students. The plot's development, saturated with horror, violence, and mystery, incorporates the present day events with those in the past. In a gripping backstory, a group of disenchanted Vietnam War veterans form a unique train hobo club called the United Riders of America (URA). But, as details emerge, this club may have ties to the present day “animal” carnage plaguing McGregor Falls.

The Tracks is an excellent creature-feature that welds together genre tropes of crime-fiction and horror. In the forefront is the metamorphosis that Travis undergoes, from shy adolescent to Teen Wolf sports star. His relationship with two girls was a pleasant distraction, but the crime-noir aspect of the story was the most compelling. Briggs' connection to the beast was a pleasant surprise, and the details submerged in the 1970s URA group was just so rewarding as a key piece to the overall story. Aside from the book's final two pages, which wraps up decades of character history, I'm really hoping the author takes a hard look at writing a sequel. In the meantime, The Tracks is a highly recommended horror and crime-fiction thriller. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Town That Saw No Evil

Harry Kantor (1924-1991) was the managing editor of men’s action-adventure magazines including Real Men and Battle Cry, and he periodically contributed to the magazines using pseudonyms (“Frankenstein: Raging Sex Monster” by Lorna Dunne). He also wrote a paperback for Major Books called The Town That Saw No Evil in 1977.

Our narrator is Sam Bledsoe, and he’s a troubleshooter for a good and honorable U.S. Senator (remember those?) who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, the fellows who confirm Supreme Court nominees. Bledsoe is a tragic drunk who barely earns his keep, but the time has come to justify his paycheck.

The U.S. President has just nominated Dennis Mendoza, the Dean of Harvard Law School, to the high court. The problem? The FBI background check says that Mendoza has a rap sheet from his young adulthood in Arizona - nasty stuff like rape and attempted murder. But after age 21, Mendoza seems to have had a complete reversal of character. What’s the story?

The Senator dispatches Bledsoe to Guthrie, Arizona to get some answers. Right away, the isolated town of Guthrie is filled with delicious mysteries. Airplanes and helicopters aren’t permitted near it. Roads in and out are pretty much non-existent, so you need to drive across the Mojave Desert to get there. What could this town be hiding?

Upon arriving in Guthrie, Bledsoe’s investigation reveals a background regarding the Supreme Court nominee that doesn’t reconcile at all with his current public persona. There’s definitely a conspiracy afoot to prevent Bledsoe from even making a phone call back to Washington for guidance.

The 176 pages keep turning throughout the because the reader wants to know exactly what this town is all about. The key questions reminded me of the satisfying contemporary Wayward Pines series by Blake Crouch, but Kantor’s solution is very different but no less inventive and satisfying. Kantor definitely draws from the western fiction tradition in this “stranger rides into town” tale. Halfway through the paperback, the reader understands the town’s Big Secret, and it becomes Bledsoe’s fight for his life. I would have preferred more white-knuckle action, but the test of wills among the antagonists was plenty compelling.

Major Books was an obscure paperback publisher that consistently punched above its weight throughout its 200 releases. They took chances on unknown authors with creative ideas. And while the business flopped, the creative output was consistently solid. The Town That Saw No Evil is an interesting little novel that never received a fair shake with readers and deserved better distribution. It really is a fun-reading gem and an easy recommendation. Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 24, 2023

John Adam - Samurai

British author Christopher Wood (1935-2015) is best known for his erotic novel and film series titled Confessions. James Bond fans may recall that Wood authored two film novelizations in the series, The Spy Who Loved Me (with Richard Maibaum) and Moonraker. Wood has always had a penchant to incorporate Asian settings into his novels, like Seven Nights in Japan and Taiwan. My first experience with the author is the first of two historical men's action-adventure paperbacks starring John Adam.

John Adam – Samurai (1971) is set in the year 1600 and stars John Adam, a 20-year old guy running from the law in Plymouth, England. Like a lot of these international, historical-adventure novels, Adam ends up on a ship under the flag of the East India Company. After stops in India and Java, Adam and his shipmates are overtaken by pirates and is sunk just off the coast of Japan. Adam is the only survivor.

After a few chapters that serve as an introduction to this era of Japan, Adam befriends a Samurai warrior named Kushoni. Adam learns that his ship, which was carrying muskets, was attacked by pirates that were hired by Kushoni's master. These muskets were going to be used to defend Kushoni's people from an aggressively barbaric neighboring clan. But, the pirates double-crossed Kushoni's people and now what's left of the muskets are now in the hands of the evil neighbors. You following all of this? It's really simple – Kushoni and Adam are good guys and represent good people. Everyone else can go to Hell.

The rest of the book plays out with Kushoni showing Adam a thing or two about swords. Adam also screws a lot of Japanese bath servants in graphic sex scenes while simultaneously falling in love, sort of, with a Japanese woman named Somi. But, there's a ton of action as Kushoni beheads, pierces, spears, disembowels, and savagely guts endless hordes of bad guys. There are also some torture sequences that were a little hard 

Overall, this book was just bonkers, but not in a bad way. I would probably never read it again, but would consider reading the book's sequel, John Adam in Eden. It's just that Wood is such a quirky writer with some of the oddest descriptions considering this really should be a sweeping, historical novel with a little class. Instead, you have things like “quieter than a church fart” and endless religious orgies. It was just so bizarre, but like a good car wreck, I couldn't wrestle my eyes off the pages. Your mileage may vary, but this isn't a terrible way to waste a half-day. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Satan is a Woman/13 French Street

Stark House Press just released a reprint from Gil Brewer compiling his first two original novels — both from 1951 - Satan is a Woman and 13 French Street. The volume also features an informative introduction from David Rachels.

Satan is a Woman from 1951 was Brewer’s first original novel and the beginning of his publishing relationship with the Fawcett Gold Medal imprint. The narrator is Larry, the manager of a tavern on the coast in St. Petersburg, Florida. 

Larry’s a legit businessman, but his brother Tad is not. Tad recently killed two dudes in Tampa, and now the cops are looking for him. Tad is hiding out with Larry, and Larry is forced to lie to protect his brother — a problem he never invited. As Tad’s legal jeopardy worsens, it becomes clear that Larry needs to come up with money — a lot of it — for an attorney to save his big brother.

One afternoon a knockout blonde walks into Larry’s sleepy tavern. Her name is Joan Turner, and she’s a New Yorker who just rented a cabin next door to Larry’s bungalow. Everything about this initial interaction gives Larry the green light to make a move. Of course, you realize there must be a catch. After all, this is a Gil Brewer novel and you may have noticed the title…

Joan’s true colors come out gradually and watching Larry compromise his own ethics little by little was fascinating to read. There are some great plot twists that I won’t spoil for you here. Suffice it to say that this is a top-notch femme fatale noir story among the best Brewer had to offer.

Brewer’s second 1951 paperback, 13 French Street, was also his most popular book. The paperback sold over a million copies and sustained multiple printings from Fawcett Gold Medal in the U.S. and foreign publishers abroad. The short novel’s reputation as a sex-drenched story of lust and betrayal drew me in, and the pages just kept turning.

Our narrator is Alex Bland, and he’s on vacation visiting his old war-buddy, Verne. Upon arriving at Vern’s house at 13 French Street in a fictional southern town, he is greeted at the door by Verne’s impossibly sexy and flirtatious wife Petra, a dame who just oozes promiscuity. Although Alex has never met Petra before, they know each other from letters (paper emails) they’ve exchanged over the past five years. You see, Verne isn’t much of a letter writer, so he had his sexy wife write the letters to keep in touch with his best pal. (Note to dudes with sexy wives: Bad idea.)

Things are awkward for Alex from the moment he arrives. Verne has aged poorly and does a bad job feigning enthusiasm regarding Alex’s visit. Petra can’t help but make bedroom eyes at Alex every time their gazes lock. A pretty chambermaid confides in Alex that he’d be well-served to keep his bedroom door locked at night.

Things escalate exponentially when Verne leaves town on business, leaving Alex to his “vacation” at the house with Petra. Verne’s elderly witch of a mother lives in the house, and she keeps a close eye on Petra while her son is gone. However, that doesn’t stop Petra from trying to seduce Alex every time the old lady’s back is turned. If you enjoy your vintage paperbacks filled with sexual tension, this one is definitely for you.

Eventually, the old lady’s chaperoning becomes more and more troublesome, and you can imagine where that goes. It takes about halfway through the paperback before 13 French Street becomes a full-fledged crime noir novel where bad ideas beget further moral slippage. It’s also compelling as hell, and the pages keep flying by - making it abundantly clear why this book was such a sensation nearly 70 years ago.

To be sure, there is some retrograde treatment of women in this book that wouldn’t fly today, but 1951 was a very different world. While I still think that The Vengeful Virgin was Brewer’s top masterpiece, 13 French Street isn’t far behind. It remains a lusty noir classic with a femme fatale you won’t forget. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Blood Red Sun

Stephen Mertz cut his teeth writing hard-nosed action-adventure fiction set in Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan literary universe. In the 1980s, while penning some of the very best Executioner novels, Mertz expanded the scope of his writing by elevating genre fiction into a much broader scale. That successful experiment was Blood Red Sun, a novel first published in 1989 by independent publisher Diamond Books, a company funded by The Destroyer author Warren Murphy. The book was later reprinted by Crossroad Press in 2012, and is now available in a sleek, revised new edition from Wolfpack Publishing.

Unlike many WWII military-fiction novels, Blood Red Sun is unique in its premise and timeline. The narrative takes place in September, 1945, after Japan's formal surrender to the Allied forces following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book's protagonist is savvy Sergeant John Ballard, a thirty-five year-old fighting man who has spent the majority of the war engaged in combat in the Pacific Theater. What's left of his unit is ultimately just two men, Tex Hanklin and Wilbur Mischkie, both of which play important roles in Ballard's next assignment – preventing the assassination of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.

In the book, Japan's surrender leads to a fragmented state of affairs for the country's military leadership. Within the ranks of the upper echelon, conspirators exist to prevent Japan's formal surrender to MacArthur. These conspirators refuse to accept defeat and feel that Japan's Emperor, Hirohito, is doing an injustice and disservice to the proud Japanese people. The schemers, all defined as opposing forces of Hirohito, are secretly building their own alliances to counter each other. It's essentially a den of snakes that also involves a proud Japanese flying Ace named Baron Tamura. The Baron's portion of the narrative involves his niece Keiko, a twenty-four year-old woman sympathetic to the Allied force initiative. Keiko also plays a prominent role as a potential love interest for Ballard. 

As a fan of Stephen Mertz's pulpy writing style, and his masterful grip on men's action-adventure writing, I was savoring the opportunity to read Blood Red Sun. Mertz draws on his prior experiences and strengths to create the story. As a fan of his M.I.A. Hunter series, I could see some similarities. 

The characters Ballard, Hanklin, and Mischkie reminded me of M.I.A. Hunter trio of Stone, Wiley, and Loughlin. Like a great M.I.A. Hunter novel, the same type of setup presents itself here when Ballard's team enters the Japanese jungle to retrieve a military leader. They rely on a small band of Filipino guerrillas to help them with the mission. This same sort of scenario was often used as Stone's team entered Asian jungles with an assist from Laos, Cambodian, or “South Vietnamese” guerrillas. Mertz even introduces ninjas into the story, an element that M.I.A. Hunter co-writer Joe Lansdale seemed to fixate on, shown in the series' fourth installment, Mountain Massacre. Additionally, the characteristics of Tex Hanklin was similar to Stone's Texan teammate Hog Wiley. 

These similarities to other Mertz creations doesn't make Blood Red Sun unoriginal or any less enjoyable. Quite the contrary. In fact, it illustrates how Mertz is cohesive and continuous, using his strengths and experiences as a genre storyteller to broaden the narrative. In fact, this is Mertz's most ambitious novel as it incorporates a lot of fine details surrounding WWII, the political landscape of Japan and the U.S. during that era, and famous, historical figures that are featured as characters in the story. Mertz takes some liberty with these characters, but left me feeling as though what he presented in terms of command, dialogue, and behavior, was probably art imitating real life.

In terms of action-adventure, Blood Red Sun has it all. The white-knuckled scenes of Ballard storming a landing strip with all guns blazin' was ripped right out of the pages of a vibrant Men's Action-Adventure Magazine. Mertz's descriptions of walls descending in bullet-hail, prison breaks, Kamikaze dives, ninja attacks and jungle warfare are balanced well with the political, backroom brawling conducted by various Japanese and American military leaders. 

Mertz's novels like Blood Red Sun are positioned on a grander international scale like The Castro Directive (Cuba) and The Korean Intercept (Asia), but still possess the men's action-adventure tropes that make the books way more enjoyable than a bestselling Tom Clancy ghostwritten tech-thriller. Mertz's literary mojo is authentic, extremely enjoyable, and saturated with human emotion that easily conveys to his readers. Blood Red Sun is a scorching red-hot read and I highly recommend it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

The Fifth Grave

The legend of Jonathan Latimer’s 1941 novel The Fifth Grave is likely more famous than the book itself. Here are the facts:

In 1940, Chicago journalist and crime fiction author Jonathan Latimer (1906-1985) wrote a hardboiled novel called The Fifth Grave with lots of sex and violence. It’s about a hard-drinking private eye seeking to rescue a woman from a bizarre religious cult. Because of the era, no one cared about the boozing or considerable violence, but the sex (tame by today’s standards) made U.S. publishers nervous. As such, they declined to make the book available to American readers.

British publishers were more forward-leaning and released the novel in 1941 under the title Solomon’s Vineyard, and it became a minor literary hit. In 1950, a censored version retitled The Fifth Grave (the author’s preferred title) was released for U.S. audiences with the juicy and scandalous stuff about the narrator’s sex drive (he’s drawn to female butts) removed. When cheap paperbacks became the rage, U.K.’s Great Pan books reprinted the original version - along with other Latimer books - to the further delight of British readers. Meanwhile, the uncensored version of Solomon’s Vineyard never received a U.S. printing until 1983.

In all fairness, it’s more likely that the novel merely slipped through the cracks rather than continued censorship by shadowy puppet masters. The publishing world can, at times, have short memories and resurrecting a novel that had been a hit in England four decades earlier just wasn’t anyone’s priority. It’s fun to say that The Fifth Grave was “banned in the U.S. for 42 years,” but the truth is more benign. It wasn’t until 1983 before it occurred to a wise reprint house to release the unexpurgated original manuscript.

Several different versions of the book have been published over the years. The new edition from Black Gat Books is the definitive, uncensored version reprinted under the author’s preferred title.

The Review:

Karl Craven is The Fifth Grave’s narrator, and he’s a private detective cut from the same cloth as Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or the Continental Op. Think of this generation of fictional characters as Hardboiled 1.0 before Mickey Spillane redefined the genre.

As the novel opens, Craven arrives by train into the fictional town of Paulton from his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri during the sweltering summer heat. On his way to the hotel, he notices a distant set of buildings around a temple surrounded by green fields and grapevines. He’s told that the compound belongs to a religious colony known as Solomon’s Vineyard populated by a thousand crazies awaiting the resurrection of their dead founder, an alleged prophet named Solomon.

Craven was summoned to Paulton by his business partner, Oke Johnson, who was in town working a case. When Craven arrives at Oke’s rooming house, he’s greeted by the local police advising him that his partner has been murdered. Oke was trying to recover a missing girl from the nearby religious cult, and he died without leaving behind any notes or reports. As such, Craven needs to recreate the entire investigation himself, snatch the dame, and get away safely while solving Oke’s murder in the process.

What follows is quite a journey of sex, violence, and corruption. Paulton is a town under the control of a gangster named Pug with the police serving as his toadies. There’s a possible relationship between the local mob and the cult that may provide Craven the leverage he needs to rescue the girl living at the Vineyard. The adventure finds Craven descending into a series of real binds without an obvious path to success. Also, if you like a violent fight scene, the one at the end is total aces.

I have a general bias against crime fiction of the 1940s, but The Fifth Grave is the exception. This book is awesome - even if it owes quite a bit to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Craven is such a badass main character (he even reads Black Mask Magazine in his hotel) that I wanted to spend more time with the guy. Unfortunately, the author never developed Craven into a series character, but Latimer wrote several unrelated novels throughout his career. I look forward to exploring Latimer’s body of work more fully. The Fifth Grave is a close-to-perfect novel. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Brigade

Before the words “defund the police” became a hot media slogan, author John Shirley experimented with the idea for his hard-hitting crime-fiction novel The Brigade. Those of you unfamiliar with Shirley may remember that we have reviewed his installments of the post-apocalyptic series Traveler, written under the pseudonym D.B. Drumm, and his vigilante series The Specialist, written under the name John Cutter. The Brigade was Shirley's fifth career novel, originally published in 1981 by Avon and a year later in the UK by Sphere. It exists now in ebook format.

The sleepy fictional town of Salton, Oregon, population of 42,000, lies about 40 miles east of the scenic coast. The town's chief industry is paper milling. But, the two characteristics that make this town notable is its militant “people's police” called The Brigade and an active serial killer dubbed The Saturday Night Killer. How these two defining elements interact with each other in an ultraconservative town is the main focus of Shirley's propulsive crime novel.

The town voted to defund the police, dismantle the force, and save tax dollars by introducing a volunteer group of citizens, The Brigade. The town's former police constable and mayor lead this brigade of armed citizens, but as time goes on, the group begins a radical departure from upstanding people for the people to a militant mob that seeks a police state type of tyranny for the town. Hitchhikers are brutalized, petty thieves are executed, and citizens are required to carry “hall passes” that allow them freedom on the town's streets and sidewalks. Most of this is done discreetly, in a way that doesn't seem so oppressive on the surface. 

A young guy named Tony, a janitor, and his girlfriend Sonja, stumble upon a plot formed by The Brigade to quiet the serial murders committed by this Saturday Night Killer. The murderer, responsible for 13 savage slaughters, kills an outside reporter. To cover up the death, The Brigade throw the reporter over an embankment to disguise the fact that she was knifed by the serial killer. They don't want news agencies and outsiders to question The Brigade's efficiency to keep the town safe. But, without detectives who can stop the serial killer? Tony and Sonja realize that the killer is actually a member of The Brigade.

John Shirley's 258-page paperback is quite good, but is loose around the edges due to poor editing. Tony's side-story of finding a friend becomes too convoluted for its own good, and there are some messy plot points that are presented both in the present and the past. There is also an irrelevant side-story about a guy trapped in a well. I found myself skipping some of this, but overall the story was superb and tackled a relevantly hot topic that emerged just a few years ago. How does a small town function without police? Under Shirley's watch...not very good. 

If you love crime-fiction laced with savage deaths, graphic sex, and a unique political position, then The Brigade is a must. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Out of the Night

Author Patrick Whalen is a former Army paratrooper and social worker. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Whalen authored four classic horror paperbacks for Pocket Books - Monastery (1988), Out of the Night (1990), Night Thirst (1991), and Death Walker (1992). Thankfully, these out-of-print books were resurrected by Cemetery Dance and now exist as affordable ebooks. My first experience with the books is Out of the Night.

The book begins by introducing all of the key players that will play a prominent role in this supernatural narrative. First is Sheriff Henry Sutton, a capable hero that is a former Chicago police officer. The small town of Ravina, California placed their trust in Sutton to keep their streets safe and it is a vow that Sutton doesn't take lightly. Second is a man named Cable, who just happened to stop off in Ravina during the city's worst week ever. He's a newly divorced archaeologist on his way to meet a longtime friend and industry associate named Larchmont. Rounding out the cast of characters is the town doctor, an Air Force coroner, and several of Sutton's deputies.

So, what does Ravina have to offer this diverse group of people? Zombies. Demons. Unholy minions from Hell. Oh, and twin little people that run the town's graveyard and are responsible for bringing an ancient order of Old Gods into our universe for death and total destruction, likeStranger Things

Out of the Night was a mesmerizing, barbaric reading experience that left me cringing after every blood-soaked page. Whalen's writing smoothly enveloped the chapters with an addictive, plot-propulsive story that incorporated Middle Eastern mythology, small-town Americanism, the heavy burden of responsibility, and the more intimate details of love and love lost. It was a wonderful blend of various storylines, mixed with a fantastic selection of characters, that made this such a treat to read. But, it isn't for the weak. The graphic violence, gore, and stark supernatural terror required a somewhat strong stomach. But, if you enjoy other authors of Whalen's era, like Dean R. Koontz, Dan Simmons, John Saul (he’s way more tame), and Rick Hautala, then Out of the Night has to be your next read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Killer Blizzard

Before pursuing a career in journalism and public relations, Dan Jorgensen studied creative writing at Colorado State University, where he wrote his first book, Killer Blizzard. The novel was published by Major Books in 1976 and lives today as a Kindle Unlimited selection.

The paperback opens with a violent prison break with a pair of inmates escaping into the wintery night. It’s a good evening for an escape because police and emergency services are otherwise occupied while buckling down for the arrival of a blizzard — a Killer Blizzard, in fact!

We also meet a lovely young couple named Rollie and Jean, who live in a farmhouse. Rollie is a highway patrolman, and Jean’s job is being pregnant. As luck would have it, shortly after Rollie leaves for his Killer Blizzard patrol, the half-frozen, escaped inmates stumble into the farmhouse demanding refuge from pregnant Jean.

Meanwhile, Patrolman Rollie is dealing with a series of blizzard-related emergencies on the roads while his wife is forcibly hosting the two hoods. The paperback nicely balances the weather-disaster genre with a criminals-on-the-run noir as the chapters toggle back and forth quite well.

The author was clearly influenced by Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original novels of the 1950s and 1960s. His writing is straightforward and uncomplicated with no-frills linear plotting. There’s just enough character development to understand everyone’s motivations, but it never slows down the action.

The novel builds to an exciting climax that is quite satisfying to read, and it went in directions I wasn’t necessarily expecting. All-in-all, this was a pretty good read. Don’t spend a fortune acquiring it, but if you are seeking a vintage paperback to enjoy with your Kindle Unlimited subscription, you’re sure to enjoy Killer Blizzard

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, July 10, 2023

The Dark Hour

In the beginning of K.J. Young's The Dark Hour, set in the 1970s, a young guy named Mark is attempting to secure a brand new job. He finds himself interviewing for a home health aide position at a deteriorating mansion in the bad section of town. The job seems simple enough, pays well, and mostly consists of assisting the primary caregiver, a young woman named Lisa, take are of two elderly siblings named Roy and Alma. She'll clip the toenails and trim the ear hair, he can just do the easy stuff.

Like a terrifying prophetic warning, Lisa advises Mark that she feels that something isn't quite right about Roy and Alma. She claims there are weird photographs on the mansion's unused upper floors. Seconding the sentiment is a hippy sketchy neighbor that warns Mark to stay away. But, Mark slowly becomes entranced by Roy and Alma's past lives as magicians, and quickly becomes infatuated with the idea of wealth. Roy and Alma have a tremendous amount of money, own a pricey sports car, and seem to take a liking to Mark as if he is a family member.

Mark notices that Roy and Alma belong to a weird society that seems incapable of aging. When Lisa flings herself off the top of the mansion, the narrative escalates to introduce Mark's girlfriend Michelle, and her new role as Roy and Alma's friend and health aide. Is she leapfrogging Mark to capture a possible inheritance?

The Dark Hour is an average thriller that uses old-school gothic horror tropes to propel the narrative. The central mystery is easy to figure out, and Mark and Michelle's involuntary participation in their “eternal youth” is an overused literary plot that dates back centuries. But, Young's writing is enthralling enough and has a unique twist that makes the chief protagonist unlikable until the end. This concept challenges the reader's allegiance to the character and makes for an interesting presentation. Overall, if you like this sort of modern goth (like Darcy Coates), then The Dark Hour should be a pleasant experience. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Black Eye

According to publisher Bold Venture Press, Tony Masero was born in London, attended art school, and trained as a graphic designer. He eventually began illustrating book covers for the major publishing houses and agencies. Masero has created artwork for Dr. Who, Edge the Loner, Indiana Jones, and countless fanzines and paperbacks. Along with illustrating, Masero also writes men's action-adventure, crime-fiction, and western novels. My first experience with his literary work is Black Eye, published by Bold Venture Press in 2020.

In first-person perspective, Phil Black explains to the reader that he does favors for people. He served in WW2's Pacific Theater, and now hangs around San Francisco reading the paper, smoking, and gazing out the window. He has an old Marine buddy that camps out at the local bar, a guy nicknamed Gunny, that can quickly get the word from the street, the city's gossip, and the ins and outs of localized crime. So, it's no surprise when a beautiful woman named Linda crosses Black's path. 

Linda's husband served with Black in the war. Now, he's gone missing, she's filed a missing persons report with the police, and she wants Black to look into it. Semper-Fi and all of that. Black agrees to the opportunity and begins his search by scouring the man's boxing history, specifically finding his corner-man. With Gunny's help, Black weaves in and out of clues and amateur gumshoe tropes to learn that the man's disappearance connects to a heist made during the war.

On Iwo Jima, some of Black's unit were involved in heisting some treasures through an undercover operation. Later, the Chinese became involved, mostly with a Syndicate attempting to recover a sacred tablet. The book's first half is a violent, pulpy romp as Black attempts to locate the tablet and its owner while combating the nefarious individuals out to stop him. Surprisingly, the book's second half is sort of a different story that places the hero and Gunny in Argentina working with the FBI. This second half is more of a prison breakout as an espionage-styled adventure. 

Masero pays homage to plenty of mid-20th century crime-noir and men's action-adventure, but mostly his entertaining story is like something exploding right out of the pages of Black Mask. By placing the story in the late 1940s/early 1950s, his emphasis on style and pulpy characteristics really stands out. The violence wasn't over-the-top, but still offered enough brutality to keep the pages flying by. 

In some ways Masero's writing style, complete with the genre tropes we all love, reminds me of author Will Murray (Doc Savage). While not necessarily original, it still compliments the genre and offers fans exactly what they want – story and style. Black Eye has it all in spades and I highly recommend it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, July 6, 2023

Pulp Champagne - The Short Fiction of Lorenz Heller

Lorenz Heller (1910-1965) was an awesome crime-fiction author under a variety of different pseudonyms who was largely forgotten until Stark House Press began reprinting his novels under his actual name. The publisher has released a 13-story compilation of Heller’s short stories spanning from 1947 to 1955 from the pulps and digests.

The compilation has a smart introduction by pulp scholar Bill Kelly, who explains that Heller’s gimmick, if it can be called that, is deep and thorough characterizations nestled into the salacious, pulpy plots. His characters are well-drawn and three-dimensional rather than archetypes or stereotypes that exist solely to push a plot forward. I’ve made this point in my previous reviews of Heller’s novels, and I wanted to see if this literary trick could be sustained in the four stories I sampled from the collection.

“I’ll See You Dead”

This story originally appeared in Detective Tales from May 1947. The narrator is Al Crane, a newly-promoted police detective who is also a family man with a reputation for honesty. One night at a bar, Crane receives a tip that a local torch singer had recently been tossed in the river to die by goons working for a local mobster. As a cop with a sense of duty, Crane is compelled to act.

It’s a pretty good short story with a specific “solution” typical of a lot of pre-Manhunt 1940s crime stories still bound to the conventions of mystery fiction. Heller’s writing is solid as his narrator adopts the hardboiled voice we’ve seen elsewhere from Robert Leslie Bellem and Carroll John Daly.

This was a good story, but I want to see what Heller could do after 1950 when hardboiled crime-fiction got great.

“Forger’s Fate”

This one was from Dime Detective’s April 1951 issue, and it’s organized as a verbatim transcript of a statement provided to the District Attorney’s Office by a Florida man named Wesley Smith. He’s a salesman peddling a check-writing machine designed to thwart forgers. As part of his sales pitch, Smith practices a trick called “muscle forgery” to show how easy it is to copy another’s handwriting perfectly.

After showing off his talent in a bar, Smith is strong-armed into a situation where he is pressured to use his forgery skills to cover up a murder. This is a great story largely because Smith is such a foppish blowhard of a character. Don’t skip this one. It’s a really fun read and a surprisingly violent action story.

“Don’t Ever Forget!”

March 1953’s Detective Story Magazine brings us this gem. Our narrator is recently-retired Police Chief McMahon, who is grabbing a meal and some coffee with his replacement in their dumpy Florida backwater town. A reporter approaches McMahon wanting to do a story on the former chief, who declines the offer.

Later, McMahon learns that the reporter asking around about him isn’t a reporter at all. What’s his agenda? McMahon’s badge-less investigation is solid and the ending is satisfying in this neatly-packaged short story.

“Living Bait”

This one originally appeared in the May 1955 issue of Justice! (a decent Manhunt knockoff). It takes place on a Florida chartered fishing boat with a couple catching tarpons, a local fish. The guy is a wealthy blowhard and his girl is a real dish. The boat captain is telling the story, and his first mate is a colorful, lively character.

A fight erupts and one of the characters falls overboard - presumably dead in the choppy sea. Was it murder or is something else going on? This story was a complete delight and showcased Heller’s superior characterizations.

Paperback Warrior Assessment:

As expected, Pulp Champagne is a terrific collection by an author worth remembering. I will say that if you are looking for very hardboiled crime short stories, any of the Manhunt anthologies from Stark House are superior volumes. Fortunately, we live in a world where you can own them all, so you probably should. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Duke Rhoades #01 - Finding Anne Farley (aka Ring My Love With Diamonds)

I was thumbing through some old hardcovers and stumbled on Best Detective Stories of the Year – 1978. It was edited by Edward D. Hoch and published by E.P. Dutton. The first author I flipped to was John D. MacDonald. The entry is called “Finding Anne Farley”, a novelette that first appeared in 1977 as a serial in the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers via the publication's Field Newspaper Syndicate. 

There are a number of interesting aspects to “Finding Anne Farley”. First, and foremost, is that this was the debut of MacDonald's short-lived insurance-investigator Duke Rhoades. The character's first name is derived from his described physical appearance as being similar to actor John Wayne. The character appeared in two additional stories, “Friend of the Family” (1978) and “Eyewitness” (1979). Second, “Finding Anne Farley” was a unique five-week concept that allowed readers to mail responses on how the story will end. The lucky winners received a monetary prize payout. Lastly, the syndicated run of the story allowed newspapers to run the story under an alternate title of “Ring My Love With Diamonds”. 

As readers are introduced to Rhoades, he has just accepted his most recent job of retrieving stolen diamonds. The owner of an Atlanta jewelry store filed an insurance claim that 32 pieces of jewelry were stolen from his store. The thief, and possible accomplices, reproduced and systematically replaced these stolen diamonds with fakes. After a lengthy criminal investigation, and repeated calls and letters, the store was paid out for the missing diamonds. The conclusion is that an employee named Anne Farley was behind the theft. She took the money and ran, seemingly disappearing into parts unknown. If Rhoades can get a lead on her whereabouts, he may be able to locate the diamonds and put the insurance company back to even.

This five-week serial amounts to about 30 hardcover pages, a suitable length for MacDonald's “search and rescue” narrative to propel through the peaks and valleys of the investigation. Rhoades is a likable hero, complete with the gumshoe characteristics and tender-heart that makes for an honest and capable protagonist. The ending was a little stereotypical of a cozy whodunit, but getting there was fun. You can read this story for free HERE.

My source for this review was Steve Scott's excellent blog The Trap of Solid Gold. He has a detailed, and more analytical look at this story and character HERE. I also snagged the accompanying artwork there as well. 

Monday, July 3, 2023

Death Ends the Scene

“Death Ends the Scene” is a 1948 Dan Turner Hollywood Detective mystery novella originally from Hollywood Detective Magazine that is available today as part of the compilation, Homicide Hunch from The Pulp Fiction Book Store.

The setup for this one is really cool. A letter is delivered to Private Eye Dan Turner containing $500 cash and some very specific instructions. The client is about to kill himself, and he wants Turner to come to the suicide scene, take the gun and stash it - creating the misimpression that the death was a murder. This will allow the client’s widow to enjoy a double-indemnity clause in the insurance policy, whereas a suicide would pay out nothing.

The scheming suicider is a famous director who had fallen out of favor with the industry and hit the skids. On his way to the bottom, the director married a gold-digging bitch who stands to benefit from his double-indemnity scam. Can Turner get to him before he offs himself? Is there money to be made here without getting sideways with an insurance company?

Turner immediately learns that this unusual client is in serious debt to a gambling racketeer named Benny the Greaseball (subtle touch, Mr. Bellem). The mystery unfolds delightfully from there with plenty of hardboiled patter and outstanding fight scenes.

These Dan Turner stories are cheap and plentiful — they are also a ton of fun to read. “Death Ends the Scene” is no exception. This novella is such a compelling joy. It’s literary candy, but you won’t regret the couple hours you spend devouring this story. 

Buy your illustrated copy of the book, which includes this story, HERE.