Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Rex Brandon #02 - Jungle Allies

The second installment of the jungle adventurer Rex Brandon series by Denis Hughes (1917-2008) has been reprinted by Bold Venture Press. It’s called Jungle Allies and it was originally published in 1951 under the pseudonym Marco Garon.

Rex Brandon is a world-famous geologist and big-game hunter who runs expeditions into the deepest part of Africa’s great Congo basin. In this adventure, the Belgians have engaged him to survey the jungle for mineral resources. He began his journey with 19 African “bearers” carrying Rex’s shit through the jungle, but he’s now down to a mere 15 due to accidents and whatnot with more carnage to follow.

One night while setting up camp along the fetid banks of a muddy river, Brandon happens upon a stumbling and exhausted white man along the river’s crocodile-infested shore. Brandon assists him back to camp and learns that he is an American named Jeff Lambert who was part of an archaeological expedition.

Lambert explains that his entire crew of academic archeologists was killed, and a female journalist named Naomi was captured by a fierce lost race of deep-jungle Africans. Fun Fact: The ferocious tribe holding the white chick is guarded by trained killer gorillas. With a challenge like that and a caucasian chick in-peril, it doesn’t take much convincing to send Rex on a rescue mission.

Along the way, they encounter a rogue elephant, a Pygmy tribe, hungry crocodiles, an attack-hippo, spear-chucking hostiles and a gang of pissed-off gorillas. There’s a lot of fun action spread throughout this economical 115-page novel. The series order is also irrelevant. You can safely start with this installment, if so inclined.

Jungle Allies is an exciting and fun African adventure book. However, you’ll need to set aside all of your modern sensibilities and remind yourself that this novel was written in 1951 when the idea of a “white savior” among savage Africans didn’t raise eyebrows. But if you enjoy an inventive and fun Indiana Jones-ish pulpy adventure, you’re sure to have a good time here. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Paul Chavasse #02 - The Year of the Tiger

Using the name Martin Fallon, Jack Higgins (real name Henry Patterson), authored a six-book series of espionage novels starring British spy Paul Chavasse. I've read and enjoyed the first, third, and fourth installments of the series – The Testament of Caspar Schultz (1962), The Keys of Hell (1965), and Midnight Never Comes (1966). The backstory on the second series novel is interesting.

Year of the Tiger was originally published in 1963 by Abeland Shulman as a hardcover in the U.K using the Martin Fallon pseudonym. Soon after publication, the book simply left the market and was never reprinted as a paperback like the other series installments (which all capitalized on Higgins' enormous household popularity). Like his other novels, Higgins and his agent decided these early books needed a freshening up. Higgins added additional details to Year of the Tiger (see below) and the book was published in paperback by Berkley in 1996 using the same title and the Higgins name. Simultaneously, it was also published in hardcover by Michael Joseph in the U.K.

What's really cool about Year of the Tiger's re-imagining is that Paul Chavasse is presented in the modern day. The book opens in London in 1995 and has Chavasse experiencing a nightmare from a previous adventure. When he awakens, readers are brought up to speed on Chavasse's life and career since 1969's A Fine Night for Dying, the series last installment. Readers learn that Chavasse has spent forty years in the British Secret Intelligence, twenty as a field operative, another twenty as Bureau Chief. Now, Chavasse is on the cusp of becoming the Prime Minister.

In a surprise meeting, Chavasse is approached by a Tibetan man who is inquiring about one of Chavasse's prior assignments – assistance to the CIA of getting the Dali Lama into India in 1959. This mini-adventure is presented as a flashback section condensed to about 17 pages. My assumption is that Higgins' original novel began here, void of the entire 1995 events. There's a brief present day London thing, and then the book takes readers to the bulk of the narrative, featuring Chavasse on a 1962 mission into Chinese-controlled Tibet to free a scientist. These Cold War thrillers from the likes of Higgins and his contemporaries seemed to consistently feature missions to free or kill scientists. As I alluded to earlier, the whole 1962 adventure, prefaced by the short 1959 stint, was probably the bulk of the 1963 hardcover. 

While Chavasse doesn't have the passion or flair of James Bond, or the clever satire of Matt Helm, I still really enjoy the character's down-to-business approach. Some readers of the series complain that Chavasse never completes the assignment efficiently. I'd like to think we are just reading about the assignments that didn't work out so well. The other 200+ adventures were probably tedious and dull. 

In this novel, Chavasse is captured, brutally tortured, and placed before a firing squad. In the middle, he makes a romantic connection, weeds out the traitor, contends with a brilliant villain, and befriends the scientist he's sworn to retrieve. The book's closing section wraps up the story quite nicely with a far-reaching present-day side-story that blends all of the narrative's pieces together. The end result makes this my favorite Chavasse novel to date and an easy re-read. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Coffin #01 - Death Wish

Budd Lewis (1948-2014) began his entertainment career by directing television commercials between 1970 to 1974. Beginning in 1974, Lewis wrote for Warren Publishing, contributing his dark imagination to stories in Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. Lewis also co-created The Rook. Later, he would write for Hollywood, including Terminator and Dark Angel, as well as animated shows like The Smurfs and The Real Ghostbusters. The focus here at Paperback Warrior is on his western hero Coffin, which first appeared in Eerie in 1974. The popularity of the hero resulted in multiple appearances in the comic magazine. The vivid, violent artwork of these stories was created by Spanish artist Jose Ortiz (1932-2013; Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd).

If you enjoy the vicious nature of the Piccadilly Cowboys of the 1970s, including their savage titles like Edge, Adam Steele, and Apache, then Coffin is a darn-near must-read title from that same era. The character's first appearance proves to be a true origin tale called “Death Wish”, which features 12 gruesome pages of western storytelling with an obvious horror overtone (obligatory for Eerie). 

In this story, readers are introduced to Coffin, an unnamed protagonist traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona desert in 1889. In flashbacks, Coffin is a smiling polished sales representative for Sharps Rifles, with his contract being the U.S. Army. Abruptly, the stagecoach is attacked by what appears to be Native American warriors on horseback. The drivers are both killed and the coach tips over, spilling Coffin onto the hot sand. Grabbing his belongings, including a rifle, Coffin scurries to safety. From the nearby rocks and foliage, Coffin sees the other travelers, all women, savagely murdered by the warriors.

Coffin, an average guy thrust into a nightmarish scenario, mistakenly takes the path of vengeance. He tracks through the desert and finds a tribe of Native Americans. From several yards away, Coffin shoots the men with his rifle. Before disposing of the whole tribe, Coffin is ambushed by a trio of braves and is brutally beaten. But, beyond the physical abuse, Coffin is cursed by the tribe. His curse is that he can never die. He can experience horrific pain – being shot, burned, skinned, and tortured beyond recognition - but he can never die. The tribe placed this curse on him because...get this...Coffin killed the wrong tribe to avenge the death of the stagecoach travelers! Further, on the last pages of the story, readers learn the real identify of the men who attacked the coach. This surprise ending was brilliant. Coffin totally screwed up, but that's what makes the story so entertaining. He wasn't born a hero, he isn't a hero. Instead, he's an average guy who just made a mistake and it cost him dearly.

The Coffin character would re-appear in Eerie issues #67 (Aug 1975), #68 (Sep 1975), #70 (Nov 1975), #130 (Mar 1982), and #137 (Dec 1982). The concept is that Coffin will rally behind the Native American cause at a point in history when the various tribes are warring with the military and also being brutalized into accepting shitty government deals. He also becomes a lone-avenger fighting insane religious cults and other nefarious predators. The Eerie reprints are available by Dark Horse and feature the Coffin stories.

Friday, August 25, 2023

House of Storm

Mignon G. Eberhart (1899-1996) authored mystery novels from the 1920s to the 1980s, earning her the praise as America's version of Agatha Christie. In fact, she was one of the leading female crime-fiction authors of her time (and one of the highest-paid) with a total of 59 novels, eight of which were adapted to film. She was awarded the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award and also earned the Agatha Award. Eberhart also served as president of the Mystery Writers of America. 

My first experience with her is the 1949 novel House of Storm, which was originally published by Curtis. My version is the 1964 Popular Library paperback. The book exists in various formats and remains in print today.

The novel takes place over a 24-hour period of time on the fictional Beadon Island in the Caribbean. Like something out of a mid-20th century gothic-romance novel, the beautiful and vulnerable protagonist, Nonie, has recently experienced the loss of her father. With no other recourse, she moves to Beadon Island for a vacation. Eberhart sets the table by providing sheets of rain and prevailing wind as a hurricane descends on the island. This sort of chaos symbolically parallels Nonie's upcoming marriage to an older gentleman named Roy. This culmination of storm and mismatched marriage is the complimentary greeting for a murderer.

With a full house of various characters, a murder takes place when a wealthy woman is found dead. There's red herrings galore, ranging from Nonie's fiance Roy to her one true love of the story, an ambitious man named Jim. Each suspect is interviewed by both the island coroner and police, so the narrative unfolds in a typical armchair detective format – a house full of people with varying degrees of motive. The secluded house hosting a murderer makes for a great atmosphere that Eberhart feeds on. With thick tension, the clues are slowly unveiled to readers. Guessing the killer's identity before the police is ultimately the real thrill, as always. 

If you are a fan of the Agatha Christie novels like And Then There Were None, then this is certainly your cup of tea. For me, I found the narrative required a great deal of attention and patience and the prose was a little uneven. But, there's no denying Eberhart's storytelling strengths of character development and atmosphere. I'll be reading more of the author's work. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Do You Know Me?

In the Stark House Press reprint of One is a Lonely Number, my review stated, “This is a book that could never have been published in today’s climate as the societal norms have shifted too greatly.” That novel was exceptional, perfected by author Bruce Elliott's abstract writing style. Pulp fans may recall Elliott contributing to The Shadow paperbacks when the two-per-month schedule began to bog down author Walter Gibson. Elliott was an unusual writer that displayed his deep character studies by concentrating on Lamont Cranston more than the pulp hero identity that Cranston portrayed. 

I decided to try another literary work from Bruce Elliott, so I thumbed through some online pulp magazines and found a novella titled “Do You Know Me?”. It was published in the rather tame Thrilling Detective publication, specifically the February 1953 issue. This story follows an entertaining but average Shell Scott story (“Murder's Strip Tease”) by Richard S. Prather. That's not criticizing Prather's work, but I say that just as a stark comparison to what Elliott contributes to this issue. In Prather's contribution, a client wants to pay Scott to get a blackmailer off of his back. In Elliott's story, a deranged psychopath is preying on New York City by slicing off faces to destroy “masks”. Needless to say, Elliott was pushing the envelope, especially when you examine the full scope of what he's offering to his readers in this 24-page story.

The story is set in New York City over the course of a crisp autumn day. The author introduces “the man nobody knew” as a resident of a West Forty-Seventh Street apartment just east of Broadway. The room in which the man awakens has door frames and windows stuffed with newspapers. The radiator weazes its first harsh clanking of the season and the stove's greasy burners permeates the air with a rank smell. Beside the bed, written in lipstick, an ominous message is scrawled: Since you can't catch me, and since I don't want to kill again, I'm going to kill myself. 

The unknown man, who I'll simply refer to as “the killer”, is described as experiencing torturous thoughts as his days and nights are filled with agony. Elliott states “the plastic shell that surrounded him was slowly dissolving." This isn't the only time that the author describes this killer as if he is a mannequin, some sort of killer that awakens from a stiff catatonia once the plastic dissolves. He even goes as far as saying the killer's movement was like “a deep sea diver inside his suit”. This covering – metaphorically – is detailed as a gelatinous mass that surrounds bone and tissue. Like some macabre Hemingway fault, this character is stricken with some sort of physical ailment that contributes to his psychological trauma. The killer is terrifying, made more so by the six-inch razor-sharp blade he keeps in his jacket pocket. 

The killer emerges into the night and approaches a prostitute. He asks her repeatedly, “do you know me, do you recognize me, and where do you know me from?” The prostitute doesn't know him, and fakes interest to lure the killer upstairs. In hopes of turning a trick for money, she quickly realizes that the killer was very serious with his questioning. When he discovers she doesn't know him, he kills her. In his mind, he asks himself why he can't cut and rip off the “mask” while the victims are still breathing. This is really savage stuff for Thrilling Detective, but Elliott ups the ante. 

A wealthy advertising agent named Thomas is introduced. Thomas lives in the suburbs of Mount Vernon and travels to the city each day for work. Three days a week he attends therapy sessions because Thomas doesn't want to be a man. He despises his wife and is ashamed of his young son because the child's existence proves that Thomas is in fact a biological man. After leaving his therapy session on Park Avenue, Thomas decides that this night he is going to forget women and throw away his whole miserable life. Elliott describes Thomas' agenda: “Tonight he wanted a man and he didn't care if it was dangerous, and he didn't care if rough trade sometimes turned on you and beat you up, and sometimes even killed you. He wanted a real man.” Needless to say, this is provocative stuff for a mainstream pulp in 1953.

Through the course of Elliott's compelling, awe-inspiring story, more characters are introduced, each with their own backstory. What the author is presenting is a cross-examination of the diversity of New York City. A young waitress is introduced, along with her boyfriend, a city police officer, a doctor, and two Russian-born immigrants. All of these characters entwine in a disturbing series of events that mirrors an active-shooter situation today. In this story, the killer begins randomly murdering people in nightmarish fashion in the middle of Times Square. 

Elliott's provides some riveting stuff involving sexuality, social unrest, and mental illness. Circling back to the opening statements of this review, Elliott's One is a Lonely Number could have never been published in today's market. However, this author's short-story certainly could have been published today, but seems unfitting and way ahead of its time for 1953. It’s a reversal. I question how “Do You Know Me?” could have possibly been published in that conservative era. It is art imitating life, as if Elliott himself is asking the question of his readers and publisher. Even when you look at the more violent publishing turn with 1947's mature I, the Jury, written by Mickey Spillane, the mainstream literary world wasn't exploring sexuality and mental trauma in such an obvious way. Elliott's writing is just so abstract and impressive here. The message is subjective and in the eye of the beholder. I strongly encourage you to read the story for free online (linked below), or track down the expensive back-issue. 

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Gang Rumble

By 1955, author Edward S. Aarons had mostly switched his writing expertise to espionage thrillers starring his secret-agent star Sam Durell. Before that, the author had crafted really good crime-fiction that often had the pseudonym Edward Ronns attached to it. In 1958, three years after finding literary success with his Assignment series, Aarons returned to the world of crime-fiction to author a potboiler called Gang Rumble. It was published by Avon and now exists as a Black Gat reprint by Stark House Press.

The narrative takes place over the course of one hot summer night in Philadelphia. Young Johnny Broom is a reckless, defiant hood that leads a small-time lot of losers called the Lancers. Broom's gang is set to rumble with a rival faction called the Violets in a section of abandoned row-houses deemed The Jungle. But, Broom's scheduled rumble is just a distraction for the cops. This hoodlum has a much larger agenda taking place.

With the cops dedicating their labor to the widely circulated rumble, Broom and two other guys are going to rob a local warehouse for a mid-level crime-boss. It's an audition for Broom to move up a few rungs on the criminal ladder. But, the book's most enduring element is that Broom's older brother Pete – a real nice good guy – works in the warehouse and has been coaching Broom to turn a corner and right his life on the straight and narrow. Will Broom kill Pete in the holdup?

This is a really unusual novel for Aarons and I've read enough of his crime-fiction to recognize some striking patterns here. Typically, Aarons doesn't write many crime-noir novels set in urban locations. His usual locale is the New England shoreline towns or the occasional lakeside cottages that permeate crime-noir paperbacks. Further, his crime novels are mostly void of any sexual depravity or heinous violence. 

In Gang Rumble, a male character is mentioned as pleasing himself, which leads to an affair with a housemaid. There is also an attempted rape scene, which is a little more detailed than what Aarons normally presents to readers. One of the characters recalls killing fish by emptying the tank and watching them slowly perish. These are all very unusual aspects to Aarons writing. It reads more like something Ovid Demaris would write – perverted criminals engaging in ultra-violent ways. Or, at the very least a Jim Thompson-styled romp. 

Whether Aarons was influenced by other writers (or assisted?), Gang Rumble is an enjoyable action-packed novel with plenty of intensity, riveting suspense, and an unpredictable formula. It has all of the popular crime-fiction tropes – kidnap, hostage, heist, police procedural – including unruly youngsters doing dastardly things. There's some social preaching here and there, mostly a repetitive pulpit soapbox on mankind's spiral into lawless savagery, which is eerily prophetic as the years roll on. While the author's literary estate is mostly locked tight, I'm glad this one slipped through and was able to be reprinted by Black Gat/Stark House Press. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, August 21, 2023


Stark House Press, and their imprint Black Gat Books, have done a fantastic job preserving Lorenz F. Heller's bibliography for modern audiences. Heller, a New Jersey native, authored a number of stellar crime-fiction and sleaze novels in the mid-20th century using names like Larry Heller, Larry Holden, Lorenz Heller, and Laura Hale. He also penned television scripts using the name George Sims. 

We continue our examination of Heller's reprints with Ruby, a crime-noir novel originally published by Lion in 1956. Stark House Press has published the novel as a twofer with another of the author's 1956 Lion publications, Hot. Both of these novels were originally published under the Frederick Lorenz pseudonym.

As Ruby kicks off, readers are introduced to Joe Latham, a former Army veteran that is now a successful Florida charter captain working the beach tourists in the Gulf of Mexico. Unbeknownst to Latham, his former girlfriend, Ruby, has been murdered. He finds this out from the local small-town deputy, a pudgy vile lawman named Floyd. Like a variant of the fugitive-on-the-run story, all fingers point to Latham as Ruby's killer. Fortunately, Latham was still in love with Ruby, so he has doubled reasons for finding her killer and clearing his own name.

Latham's amateur detective role is vividly brought to life as each page effortlessly slides by. Heller's prose is just so smooth as the protagonist digs through Ruby's most recent relationships to find suspects. His contention with the local police is a real highlight, and becomes the star attraction as the narrative flows into the book's calculated and rewarding finale. An enjoyable element to the story is a young kid that Latham is voluntarily mentoring, so his safekeeping is paramount as Latham seeks the murderer. Additionally, Heller blends a unique embezzlement side-story into Ruby's murder, making the crime a bit more dynamic.

Like usual, Lorenz Heller delivers a twisty and riveting crime-noir tale saturated with defining characters and a memorable storyline. Why Heller wasn't ranked higher in the crime-fiction literary echelon is a real mystery. Ultimately, Stark House Press is doing God's work by keeping his memory and work alive. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Please...Save the Children

William Dubay (1948-2010) was an editor, writer, and artist for Warren Publishing, excelling on books like Creepy, Vampirella, 1984, and Eerie. Later in his career, he wrote a story for Heavy Metal, became an editor of Archie Comics and edited titles for Western Publishing. Fitting for Warren Publishing, Dubay's writing had some seriously dark overtones, evident in the memorable, disturbing story “Please...Save the Children”, which was drawn by Martin Salvador and featured in the July 1977 issue of Creepy.

At the beginning of the story, readers see a condemned child-killer named Beau sitting in a prison cell awaiting execution on death row. A priest enters the cell to discuss the man's forgiveness, but instead he is treated to a bizarre conversation from this seemingly insane person. Beau explains that if the priest only knew what he knew, then the priest would become a baby killer too. Then, Beau begins to relay his personal history to the priest.

Beau explains that he was once a loving husband and father, but after spanking his three-year old daughter Cryssie, she wanders away from home and dies in a blizzard. At the funeral, Beau regrets his decision to punish his little girl and experiences traumatizing anguish knowing she died alone after thinking he didn't love her. This experience transforms Beau into a violent vigilante

Beau begins to watch parents in public dismissing their children, or simply neglecting or punishing them in cruel ways. In an effort to save the children from abuse, he goes completely Mack Bolan and murders these children with a gun. His reasoning for targeting the children he wants to protect? By killing the children, he ends their suffering. If he murdered the parents, which are his real victims, then the children would would continue to suffer due to the loss of their parents. It's a sick catch-22 where Beau deems himself a twisted psychotic savior. Ultimately, it is like an animal that eats its young to protect them from predators. 

These Creepy stories tend to have unique twists in the narrative and this story is no different. When Beau confesses to his brother that he has become this avenging angel, he finds himself captured by law-enforcement. But, the twist is learning who his brother really is. Salvador's accompanying artwork is simply outstanding, with the facial expressions of the characters resonating the tension, horror, and tragedy of the story. If you are looking for an intense narrative, look no further than this vintage short. You can obtain an old copy of Creepy for a few bucks on Ebay or comic shops, or read the story for free below:

Friday, August 18, 2023

Someone's Watching

Andrew Neiderman is a Paperbacks from Hell kinda guy. He was born in 1940 and became a best-selling novelist with his 19th career novel, The Devil's Advocate, which was later adapted into the 1997 film starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. Before that, he was writing horror paperbacks with covers featuring dolls, skeletons, haunted houses, and killer dogs. In total, he has authored nearly 50 novels, all of which are either horror or suspense. He was even able to temporarily ghostwrite under the name V.C. Andrews, which is like a legal ticket to print money. Needless to say, the guy is doing okay with the bank tellers. My only experience reading his stuff is a creepy looking 1983 horror paperback from Pocket Books called Someone's Watching

The book is set in a rural small town in northern New York and features two protagonists, 18-year old mechanic Marty and his step-sister, fifteen year-old high-schooler Judy. Immediately, your mind is going back to the mid-20th century sleaze paperbacks from Midwood that fixated on the 'ole brother-sister-swingding. Your mind isn't playing tricks on you, because sure enough Marty and Judy get to swingin' when Marty's alcoholic deadbeat father Frank marries Judy's gullible imbecile mother Elaine. One happy family.

So Frank is a drunk pervert 99% of the day, which makes it really uncomfortable for innocent Judy. After moving into Frank's house, Judy confides in nice guy Marty that she feels as if Frank is wanting to rape her. Marty, who knows his Dad is a total douche, sympathizes with Judy and promises to protect her in case Frank gets out of hand. With Elaine and Marty out of the house, it's just a matter of time before Frank gets randy. When Marty returns home, he catches Frank in the midst of raping Judy. Grabbing the closest blunt object to repel a rapist, Marty clunks Frank over the head. Hard. Frank hits the ground and Marty totally panics.

Like a good 1950s crime-noir tale, Marty refuses to see the logic of summoning the police to explain Judy's rape and ensuing scuffle. Instead, they do what any step-siblings in love do – they pack their bags and hit the fugitive highway to live and love. Here's where things get pretty darn creepy and horrifying in this vintage horror paperback. 

The duo decides the best place to hide is an old abandoned resort area in the Catskill Mountains. It's here that a sprawling hotel once thrived with a casino, baseball field, and deluxe swimming pool. But, decades ago the place went under financially and the bank repossessed it. Oddly, aside from dust, broken light fixtures, and black mold, most of the complex is still fully furnished and usable. Oh, and there's a homicidal mentally-disturbed person living in the attic. That's sort of the problem right there. The murderer.

Approximately 100 pages are spent on Judy and Marty exploring the old hotel and learning more about its history. The only other person besides the three of them (Judy, Marty, Killer) is an old man that owns the hotel. You see he is also mentally ill and living in the hotel thinking it is still thriving and filled with happy tourists. In his dementia, he doesn't know any other way besides continuing to work at the hotel and providing support for his imaginary workers and guests. This old man has a son-in-law (real guy) that randomly delivers food via the back door. 

While Neiderman spends a great deal of time on Marty and Judy, including some tepid sex scenes, most of the book is divided into perspectives of different characters. The first is obviously Marty and Judy, but the second, and most interesting, is the perspective of the deranged lunatic living in the building's attic space. This guy's identity is relatively unknown for most of the book, and his mental headspace is a perverted creepy wonderland. Think of being trapped in the mind of say...Norman Bates (Psycho). The narrative slowly builds to the inevitable confrontation, when all three parties eventually run into each other in the massive hotel. There's also another character that eventually ends up there too, but I won't spoil it for you here. 

Listen, this isn't the best horror or suspense novel you'll read. But, the idea of having an abandoned resort hotel as a sprawling “do what you want” wonderland is pretty darn amazing. The aspect of hotel exploration was really intriguing, and it compares to the more superior novel Creepers by David Morrell. When it wants to be creepy and psychologically enthralling, it is. Unfortunately, the old man's participation in the narrative was a real downer. The novel would have worked better with just the three characters. But, overall, this one is worth reading. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

87th Precinct #07 - Killer's Wedge

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels are the perfect remedy for a summer reading slump. The earlier installments of the series stand alone quite nicely, and these urban police procedurals are always short and exciting. I randomly chose 1959’s Killer’s Wedge, the seventh installment, for this excursion.

A crazy bitch walks into the 87th Precinct looking for Detective Steve Carrella. The fellows tell her that Carrella is away, but she can wait on the bench in the hall for him. The lady wants to wait in the detective bullpen, which is a no-go for the guys. When they ask her to leave, she pulls a gun on them, and we have a hostage situation. Man, this is an awesome opening scene.

We quickly learn that the lady wants to kill Carrella. She can explain her reasons when you read the book. She has a container of liquid that may or may not be nitroglycerin, so disarming her is not as easy as it seems. McBain’s takes a different tactic with this aspect of his story, which otherwise would have been filled with nervous tension. Instead, the detectives are mostly annoyed and worried that this nutty chick is going to accidentally kill them all.

There is also a decent B-Story involving a locked room mystery that may or may not have been a suicide. Carrella is investigating this on the streets while his squad mates are being held hostage by the murderous lady awaiting Carrella‘s return to the 87th. This is another plot made entirely possible by the lack of cell phones.

The events culminate in a fantastic action sequence to end the thin paperback. This may have been the shortest of the 87th Precinct novels. A version of it appeared in February 1959’s Manhunt Magazine, and the book lives on to this day as a reprint, e-book, and audiobook. It’s probably not the best 87th Precinct series selection, but it’s not a bad place to enter if you are looking for a short taste of this wonderful McBain universe. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Death Tour

In Stephen King's Danse Macabre, the 1978 horror novel Death Tour is described as “funny/horrible”. The book, authored by a rather obscure guy named David J. Michael, made an appearance in Grady Hendrix's Paperbacks from Hell, and is often a novel lumped in erroneously with the “fall, mauled, and clawed” animal-attack genre that permeated the 1970s and 1980s. No matter which cover used, the hardback version published by Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1978 or the NEL 1980 paperback (painting by Bob Martin), both versions suggests the book feeds the urban myth of raging, ravenous alligators attacking unsuspecting maintenance workers and sewage tourists (they exist!). 

Unlike David Hagberg's 1976 genuine sewer-dwelling creature-feature Croc, reviewed right HERE, Death Tour isn't really a gator-munchin' tale at all. It just seems that way.

Tom Marsh is a journalism student that leads a five-member band of spunky production workers contributing to the University, a college news-rag. It's a hip group of kids, cleverly calling themselves Five-Star, that drive around in a hearse to investigate sensational newsworthy incidents. Tom's girlfriend Mary is in the group, and their relationship is central to the narrative. Mary's father, a disgruntled sanitation manager that oversees shit (literally), is overprotective and absolutely despises Tom, aka Academic Scholar. 

Through Mary, Tom learns that there is a real possibility that alligators are ravaging the city's sewer pipes. You see, this was a thing that started in New York City in the 1970s, when people would purchase baby alligators from pet stores. When responsibility and space became too cumbersome, owners flushed their beloved reptiles down the toilet where they grew into monstrous creatures devouring underpaid union workers. The flushing of the reptiles probably happened, but nothing resembling the mass hysteria created by the film Alligator (1980). 

Soon, the Five-Star gang are driving their hearse to a nearby manhole cover where they descend into the madness with a dead duck and lots of camping gear. While the hunt for a gator was fun, the narrative was really bogged down with a lot of filler and sludge. I almost threw in the towel...or toilet paper...but by 100 of 193 pages, this novel rose through the mediocre crap to be totally badass. 

It turns out that alligators may or may not be in the sewer, but the real menace is human. When one of the group is impaled with a metal spear, the Five-Star gang discover a grizzled, cloaked human living in this nasty underwater dwelling. Does Death Tour become Hunter's Blood in the sewers? It's not quite the “cannibals hunting humans” gimmick you're thinking of. But, there is definitely a similar cool vibe throughout the book's third act. I was pleasantly surprised to learn what the real menace was and it neatly tied up an earlier plot development.

By no means is Death Tour riveting, well-written action-adventure. Nor is it a shocking, white-knuckle terror-ride. It doesn't have to be. Instead, this obscure novel demanded my attention and I was well-rewarded with a fun reading experience. This was really enjoyable and I highly recommend hunting down a copy. Don't listen to Stephen King. It isn't funny or horrible, it's just a damn good time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, August 12, 2023

Conan - Shadows in Zamboula

The November, 1935 issue of Weird Tales featured “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”, a Conan the Cimmerian story authored by Robert E. Howard. The story was later republished in the 1954 Gnome Press collection Conan the Barbarian and the 1968 Lancer paperback Conan the Wanderer as “Shadows in Zamboula”. The story was adapted to comic format in Savage Sword of Conan #14 (1976), and reprinted in Conan Saga #17 (1988) and The Savage Sword of Conan #2 (2008).

Conan finds himself horseless in the westernmost outpost of the Turanian Empire, Zamboula. This city, ruled by Jungir Khan and his mistress Nafertari (revealed in this story) serves as a diverse meeting place for traders and drifters. But, Conan hears a tale about a mysterious inn owned by a man named Aram Baksh. Rumor has it that newcomers to the city fall prey to the innkeeper, disappearing to parts unknown while their belongings are later sold in the marketplace. Conan, never backing down from a challenge (see "Tower of the Elephant"), wants to learn the secret of this dreadful place.

The Cimmerian hero soon approaches Baksh about spending the night at his inn. One of the odd things that Conan learns is that at sundown, no one ventures into Zamboula's streets, not even the beggars. Shown to his room, Conan pulls the curtain on the quieting town, locks his door, and falls asleep with his sword in hand. He awakens in darkness and discovers an intruder has unlocked the door and forced himself into the room. Conan quickly kills the intruder and discovers he is a black Darfari slave with teeth filed down to fangs. This man is a flesh-eating cannibal! 

Conan learns that Baksh has been selling his guests to the cannibals, then selling their belongings at the marketplace. This is why at dark, Zamboula lies in a quiet stupor as Baksh's disturbing transactions take place. With sword in hand, Conan journeys onto the dark streets and finds three cannibals carrying a woman towards a torturous bone pit. Slaying the psychos, Conan teams up with the girl to find her kidnapped lover (another victim for the flesh-eaters!) and they do battle with an evil priest named Totrasmek.

Robert E. Howard was really on top of his game with this eerie, violent tale. There's so much atmosphere in the early going with Conan discovering the intruder and venturing into the quiet streets. The author's vivid descriptions of cannibals, and the evil magic of Totrasmek, possessed enough imagery to rival the best of H.P. Lovecraft and other pulpy horror of the era (or even today for that matter). The overall theme – Conan accepting a challenge for money – always has a twist with these stories and this one was no different. The thrill-ride to arrive at the surprise twist was pure pleasure. This is my kind of Conan story, highly recommended.

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Friday, August 11, 2023

5 Against the House

Jack Finney's (1911-1995) best known novels are The Body Snatchers (1955), which was adapted into the 1956 popular science-fiction film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Time and Again (1970), and Assault on a Queen (1959), which was adapted into a film of the same name in 1966. My only experience with the author was his prison-break novel House of Numbers, which I really enjoyed. In the mood for heist-fiction, I chose to read his first published novel, 5 Against the House. It was published in 1954 as a hardcover by Doubleday & Company and made into a 1955 film of the same name by Columbia Pictures. It was also a serialized story featured in Good Housekeeping.

Al is a bright young kid attending college and planning for his future. His pack of friends includes fellow students Guy, Jerry, Brick, and Tina. After seeing a Brink's Security truck roll by, the guys fantasize about robbing the truck and making off with a fortune in stolen money. Unfortunately, they put the plan into a loose sketch and decide to follow the truck as it makes various stops. Needless to say, the police watch for that sort of thing and immediately pull the kids over with a warning to stop the nonsense. Which was really all it was.

But, the kids aren't smart enough to leave well enough alone. Instead, they piece together a plan to rob a Reno casino called Harold's Club. The kids have worked in and around the place holding summer jobs serving the tourists. The first half of the book's narrative consists of the plan, holdup, escape route, and so forth. The second half is the heist itself and the aftermath.

Heist-fiction is a lot of fun and Jack Finney certainly understood the ins and outs of working within this sub-genre of crime-fiction. While not as violent as a Parker or Earl Drake novel, Finney makes up for it with an intense human study of emotion – guilt, integrity, responsibility, loyalty – while defining the characters of Al, Tina, and Brick. There is a deep ravine carved in the friendship between Al and Brick, and Finney does an excellent job excavating that for the reader. Additionally, Tina's fascination with money and swanky lifestyle propels Al's participation in the narrative. It's the decisions and the aftermath that made House of Numbers so good, and I was happy to learn Finney used (learned?) those elements here.  

5 Against the House is just a great heist novel featuring likable characters and a fresh take on “take the money and run”. If you haven't tried Jack Finney yet, either this novel or House of Numbers is a great place to start.

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Thursday, August 10, 2023

Eve Ronin #03 - Gated Prey

In my review of Lee Goldberg's Bone Canyon (Jan, 2021 Thomas & Mercer), the second installment in the Eve Ronin police-procedural series, I stated that every page in the book meant something. Eve's steadfast, relentless investigations into city corruption, murder, and victim injustice consumed each and every page, leaving no clue neglected for readers and fans to decipher and discover. That sentiment holds true for the series' third entry, Gated Prey (Oct, 2021 Thomas & Mercer), as Los Angeles County Sheriff's detective Eve Ronin, and her partner Duncan “Doughnuts” Pavone journey into some fairly unusual areas to solve a violent home-invasion case.

As the book begins, Eve and Duncan are conducting a sting operation in a 4,500 square-foot mini-mansion in the fictional Calabasas gated community of Vista Grande. The assignment is to bait and catch a group of armed robbers plaguing the community. Eve and Duncan must understand the method of how the robbers are passing the guards undetected if they have any hope of catching the culprits. Thankfully, the sting operation brings the criminal network to fruition, but two of the criminals are killed in the conflict and another escapes to a crowded store. This exciting opening scene sets the stage for Goldberg's twisty narrative to come alive with colorful characters and the obligatory investigation and turbulent aftermath.

By this third novel, readers are aligned with Eve's strong resistance to police corruption and the political upheaval that most of her cases create. One of the most endearing and entertaining aspects to this series is simply watching the young, talented homicide detective ebb and flow through the bureaucracy, endless red tape, and deep criminal channels that seem to envelope society.

Like a riveting multifaceted procedural mystery (John Creasey's excellent Gideon comes to mind), Goldberg's narrative doesn't just present one case for readers and heroes to solve. Instead, Gated Prey presents a number of different story-lines involving not only the home-invasion robbery angle, but also the death of a newborn baby, the aftermath of a deputy's suicide, and Eve's adjustment to a new Captain. All of these elements create a wonderful smorgasbord of crime-fiction that continues the same level of excellence we've come to expect from this new series.

Gated Prey is another stellar installment in the wildly entertaining Eve Ronin series and a further testament to Lee Goldberg's strength as a creative, innovative storyteller. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Commander Shaw #08 - Skyprobe

United Kingdom author Philip Donald McCutchan (1920-1996) was the creator of the 22-book spy series starring British Naval Intelligence Commander Edmonde Shaw - a literary rival to Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. My first exposure to the series was the eighth installment, Skyprobe, from 1966.

I approached this series with some trepidation because of the whole “Commander” routine and my lack of interest in British Naval fiction or maritime adventures. I’m happy to report that there was no Navy stuff at all in the paperback, and Shaw may as well have been an operative for MI5, U.N.C.L.E., or The Salvation Army. He’s just a fairly generic British Spy working for The Crown.

While enjoying a beer at a pub, Shaw is approached by a man whom he immediately makes as a Polish Intel Officer. The Pole tells Shaw that there is a threat against the American spacecraft, Skyprobe IV, now in orbit. Soon thereafter, the informant is found dead in a park.

The man on the other side appears to be a Swiss mercenary who is clearly working for the dirty commies. But what harm could he cause an orbiting space mission that’s been in the sky for 13 days? The Brits care deeply about this mission because one of the astronauts on-board is a renowned British scientist, and the ship is using an experimental new fuel that will be a game-changer in the space race.

Shaw basically serves as a detective running down logical leads to learn who wishes to menace the orbiting spacecraft and why. The action cuts between Shaw on the ground and the astronauts inside Skyprobe IV blindly going about their mission while unknown forces are trying to undermine it.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be a good place to enter the series. Shaw is smart and tough, but not brimming with personality like, say, Matt Helm. You still like the guy because he’s competent and properly inquisitive. It was clearly written to be a James Bond clone, and I enjoyed the novel about as much as the Ian Fleming books I’ve read. I’d put Commander Shaw at the same quality level as Adam Hall’s Quiller series. It’s way better than Nick Carter: Killmaster, yet still inferior to Matt Helm.

Skyprobe is an easy recommendation for anyone enjoying a good spy yarn without the cartoonish conventions the genre often employs. In short, the novel made me want to explore the series further.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 7, 2023

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Frank Lambirth (1928-2007) earned his M.A. at the University of Kentucky, then began a career as a high school teacher while also lecturing at UC Davis. Lambirth directed numerous melodramas performed by students and faculty, and in the mid-1980s, he formed the successful Puget Sound Writers Guild, a nonprofit that offered guidance, teaching and feedback for creative writers. While publishing at least two novels under his own name, Lambirth created various pseudonyms, developed drafts and novels using those names, and then would sell the pseudonym. He considered it saleable property. 

While teaching, he once taught a course in the supernatural. He would spend hours with his students sitting in supposedly haunted places conducting field studies. Perhaps his keen interest in the supernatural propelled his writing career. The only two novels I've located with Lambirth's name is Behind the Door (1988) and Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (1989), both of which are horror. Owning both books, I decided to try Lambirth's writing with the latter novel, originally published as a paperback by Popular Library with cover-art by Mark and Stephanie Gerber.

In the book's opening pages, readers are introduced to protagonist Linc Wilhite. Through a hazy presentation, Wilhite's backstory is saturated with various memories of a love lost, a regretful childhood, an estrangement from his father, and a murky hospital stay. The author only fills in these blank spaces in the narrative's second-half, with one major detail coming near the book's finale. At 231 pages, it's a long road to get there. But, the narrative's central story is Wilhite's experiences in a new job serving as a caretaker in a rural area known as Stone Warrior Island.

Wilhite accepts a job as a lone caretaker for two vacation houses off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. The island is submerged in creepy folklore about Satanism, murder, and a spectral bird, all of which are insanely broadcast by the island's former caretaker, a deranged man who warns Wilhite that Satan lives on the island. Brushing off these ramblings, Wilhite takes the job and is flown to the destination to prepare the houses for the owners' upcoming vacations and a family of renters from New York.

During a few days of isolation, Wilhite – and the reader – explores the houses, the surrounding forest, and the various locks and keys required to enter certain areas. The conclusion is that this place is truly in the middle of nowhere. But, Wilhite receives the New York family of visitors soon and the customary meet and greet ensues. The father is a stressed businessman hounded by his wife, two daughters, and a son. After a warm welcome, things turn sour when Wilhite is invited to join the family for dinner. This altercation, which I won't spoil here, leads Wilhite to question the family's intentions. 

Lambirth's ultra-creepy factor settles in at the halfway point. Through the windows, Wilhite notices that the family is camped in the den, completely stationary, watching hours upon hours of television - on their vacation to the great outdoors. After two solid days of television, Wilhite sneaks a closer look and is horrified at his discovery. Something murderous is stalking Stone Warrior Island.

Do you recall all of those great slasher films of the late 70s and early 80s? For example, when Laurie Strode ventures across the street near the end of John Carpenter's original Halloween? The house is quiet and foreboding, then she hears a creaking as if someone is moving upstairs. You and I both know that Myers is upstairs in the dark. This book works at that atmospheric level. Wilhite, who is basically the only voice the reader hears for most of the book, is left in isolation with a presence that exists off the page. The signs are all there – items shifted around, doors unlocked, footsteps in the house, mysterious fires – but it's all a mystery on who or what it is. Additionally, when a young girl appears, the book reminded me of that great 1970s horror film Let's Scare Jessica to Death. But, it isn't all great.

As good as Lambirth is with creating spooky, unnerving atmospheric horror, he isn't a fabulous storyteller. He shines with descriptive details, describing each scene with vibrant colors and calculating each footfall to the timing of the character's heartbeat. The author is mesmerizing when it comes to painting a room. Yet, dialogue and the character's recollections of the past were nothing short of awful. Thankfully, most of the book is just the reader in the headspace of Wilhite. But, when other characters interact, the writing is amateurish and wonky. It's really a mismatch of sheer greatness and pompous excess. 

The verdict? Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was a fun reading experience. It was haunting, cerebral, descriptive, atmospheric, and most importantly, it stayed with me long after the last page was read. Despite the clunky writing, the novel served its purpose quite well. It just isn't an absolute gem. I'm not dismissing Lambirth and plan on reading his other horror novel soon.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, August 4, 2023

Crossfire Trail

When I browse “best of” lists associated with the literary work of Louis L'Amour, a few books seem to always make the list – Hondo, Flint, The Sacket Brand, The Haunted Mesa, and Last of the Breed. Aside from those, every third or fourth list seems to incorporate his 1954 western novel Crossfire Trail (Ace). This could be due to the 12.5 million viewers that tuned into the 2001 made-for-cable television movie of the same name that featured Tom Selleck. I've always heard good things about the book, so I decided to finally give it a read.

The book begins with protagonist Rafe Caradec (last name Covington in the film), a soldier-of-fortune,gambler, journeyman, aboard a ship bound for San Francisco. His friend Charles Rodney has just been beaten nearly to death by the notorious ship captain. In his dying breath, Rodney reminds readers, and Caradec, that he paid a businessman named Barkow the money owed for his Wyoming ranch. Rodney has paperwork that he has left for Caradec to deliver to his widow, Ann. Then, Rodney dies, and Caradec and some fellow shipmates escape the vessel and head to Wyoming to deliver the news.

When Caradec arrives in the small Wyoming town of Painted Rock, he discovers that Ann has been fed a lie by a group of businessmen who all have a reason to own Rodney's ranch. First, they advise her that the ranch wasn't paid for. Second, they have explained to her that her husband was killed by a Sioux war party a year earlier. When Caradec attempts to explain the truth to Ann, she refuses to listen to his “lies”. 

The plot propels as Caradec, in a quest to uphold his promise to Rodney, must fight the businessmen responsible for the corruption and lies. There's Barkow, now Ann's fiance, along with another vile villain named Dan Shute and the obligatory hired gunmen that murder anyone disputing Painted Rock's form of justice. 

Crossfire Trail is an expanded version of a short-story called "The Trail to Crazy Man", originally published in the July, 1948 issue of West (under a pseudonym of Jim Mayo). There's plenty of action, fisticuffs, fast-draws, and a love interest that anchors the narrative firmly in the “traditional old-west formula”. While it was predictable with the familiar L'Amour trope of “gunman protects widow and ranch”, the writing was superb as always. There's nothing to dislike about Crossfire Trail and I thoroughly enjoyed the banter between Caradec and his friends. As an added bonus, there is a side-story of Caradec rescuing a young Sioux woman, a plot point that serves dividends later. 

If you love traditional western storytelling, chances are you've probably already read Crossfire Trail. If not, I recommend it as your next cowboy yarn. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Fog Hides the Fury

Paul Hugo Little (1915-1987) authored novels in genres like historical-fiction, romance, erotica, gothics, and crime-fiction. Supposedly, Little authored over 700 novels in his career, averaging a novel every week and a half beginning in 1963. He used numerous pseudonyms like Marie de Jourlet and Leigh Franklin James. My first experience with Little is his gothic novel Fog Hides the Fury. It was published by Magnum in 1967 under the pseudonym Paula Minton. 

Arlene Dade inherits her family fortune when her father dies in an automobile wreck. The fortune stems from a shipping business created by her great grandfather. Since she was a young girl, Arlene has been living with her Aunt Clara, a sickly woman plagued by asthma attacks. After graduating college, Arlene begins an honorary career of attending her company's legislative and leadership meetings to determine the future of the company.

After having her purse snatched at a local restaurant, a young man springs into action and runs after the thief to retrieve the purse. Arlene marries the man, and later discovers that his family had partnered with her family in the shipping business until things went sour to create an amicable split. Could this whole purse-snatching skit just be a sham so that the man can get Arelene to fall in love with him? Is he secretly hoping to marry into her fortune to gain a free ride on easy street?

Unfortunately, the plot is revealed just like it sounds. There is no shocking twist here, as Aunt Clara even predicts the book's ending. At 218 pages of large font (Easy Eye edition), Little simply goes through the motions of writing a narrative about Arlene's life. Her childhood, high school, college, marriage, and discovery of her husband's deceit is all wrung out of this boring, plodding narrative.

Magnum lists “gothic” on the book's spine, but the novel doesn't really have much in common with a gothic aside from a large house (in San Francisco for God's sake) and some thick fog. It's missing the mysterious painting, rumors of ghosts on the upper floors, the family curse, and a penchant for the dark and spooky. Granted, there's a shoreline, a family secret, some bumps in the night, and two deaths, but nothing that stands out as atmospherically “goth”. 

If you are wanting a predictable romance novel, then by all means track this one down. If you want entertainment, look elsewhere. The book is average at best.

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