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Monday, March 8, 2021
Friday, March 5, 2021
As the name implies, Johnny Aloha is half-Irish, half-Hawaiian. After his stint as a U.S. Marine in the Korean War, Aloha became a successful private-eye in Los Angeles. He is summoned to San Francisco by the police to help identify the bullet-riddled corpse of a notorious pusher and pimp named Harry Lee. After the identification, Aloha spends the night planning his long-awaited vacation to Hawaii. His only obstacle is a beautiful woman named Gwen who is in desperate need of Aloha's services in locating her mother, Hope Star. Aloha declines the work but after recognizing a photo of Star, realizes that he knew her from his childhood in the islands. Canceling his vacation, Aloha accepts the $5K retainer to locate the woman.
Dead in Bed doesn't read like a traditional Keene crime fiction paperback. In many ways, it seems as if Keene made a genuine, wholehearted effort to create a stereotypical private-eye who would be fashionable and profitable. It was a red hot market with successful Pls like Mike Shayne, Mike Hammer, Shell Scott and Johnny Liddell exploding off the shelves. I think Keene purposefully writes Aloha under the same premise – a deeply masculine playboy and private-eye with a homely but flirty secretary and a police ally. The books are presented to readers in first-person narrative with the frequent injection of comedic touches. Despite all of the average genre tropes, Dead in Bed was a thrilling read that I nearly read in one sitting.
Gwen and Aloha have this thick sexual chemistry with one other that literally begs to be uncovered (pun intended). After numerous attempts at lovemaking, the two are always interrupted by an attempted murder, an unwanted guest or a snafu of the right time at the wrong place. Enveloping the sexual tension is the fact that Aloha mostly uses his wits and hands in place of pulling his revolver. There is gunfire, but most of it is aimed at Aloha. While the core mystery was delightful, the characters that Keene weaves into the story's fabric really add a much-needed backdrop for the mystery to evolve.
The Armchair Fiction reprint features both Dead in Bed as well as a novella by Bruno Fischer called Bones Will Tell. At $12.95, this is an easy pill to swallow. I can't wait to read Payola (never reprinted to my knowledge) to learn more about Aloha's next case. The sequel will hopefully determine why this private-eye never had any longevity with the author or publisher. In theory, there's nothing really separating Aloha from any of the other formulaic private-eyes of the era. Why didn't Keene make a more sizable play with what should have been a long-running series mainstay? Perhaps we'll never know.
Buy a copy of the Armchair Fiction reprint HERE
Thursday, March 4, 2021
In this origin tale, the author introduces readers to Tony Quinn, a highly successful District Attorney working in an unnamed metropolis. In the opening pages, Quinn's home is burglarized by a destitute man named Silk. Oddly, once Quinn discovers this intruder in his bedroom, Silk explains that he can hear someone else in the house. After Quinn receives Silk's apology, he places him in a closet and welcomes the next intruder, a hired killer who works for a notorious criminal named Snate. After the man attempts to kill Quinn, Silk reacts and assists Quinn in killing the assassin. Quinn then hires Silk to be his bodyguard.
Later, when Snate is on trial for murder and extortion, his goons kill a witness in the courtroom in a wild melee of violence. During the exchange, Quinn is splashed with a deadly acid leaving him blind and horribly disfigured (think of Batman's Two-Face character). Snate is found innocent, and all of the charges are dropped. This entire debacle leaves Quinn and Silk searching for justice. Thankfully, a mysterious woman arrives at Quinn's house and orders him to a small rural town for a highly secretive eye-surgery.
After completing the surgery, Quinn finds that his eyes have become nearly telescopic. He can see things in the most vivid detail including the ability to see in the dark. Using his known disability, Quinn takes on the secret disguise of a hero named Black Bat (complete with facial mask and cape) while still being the very blind public figure of Quinn. This dual identity keeps him from being identified as this heroic nighttime vigilante.
Norman Daniels has a lot of fun with this wacky pulp tale. Origin stories are always important and I think the author did a fantastic job making Quinn's journey from civilian to crime-crusader into a compelling story. The Black Bat's first case brings him full circle to Snate, an inevitable showdown between hero and villain. Unlike Doc Savage, Quinn doesn't avoid killing. His weapons are two guns that he uses with pinpoint accuracy. Shockingly, Daniels' includes a ton of violence to make The Black Bat a really gritty read. There's torture by blowtorch, stabbings, beatings and gunfire. I was surprised at the level of violence and death, but appreciated the gritty realism to combat the far-fetched fantasy. Eventually Quinn builds a team that is similar to those of The Avenger and Doc Savage. It isn't necessarily about the lone hero, but the collective teamwork used to investigate and eliminate the wrongdoers.
If you love this early pulp-fiction era, The Black Bat should be mandatory. It's a fun, over-the-top hero story filled with violence and intrigue. With the affordable price on these reprints, I definitely recommend Volume 1 which chronologically collects not only this story but also "Murder Calls the Black Bat" and "The Black Bat Strikes Again." There's also an introduction by acclaimed pulp collector Tom Johnson (RIP).
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Wednesday, March 3, 2021
The book introduces housewife Julia Clarkson. She's living an unexceptional existence as a suburban wife and mother in the small town of Elm City. Julia is married to a respectable wealth manager named Roy, and the couple has two teenagers. In the opening pages, Julia barely avoids a deadly accident when her tire blows out on the highway. After consulting with her local mechanic, she discovers that someone may have slashed the tire. Fearing that her husband's career and schedule could be impacted by her distress, Julia continues her normal routines. But, after the family's stove explodes and kills their housekeeper, Julia's trepidation is validated. Someone is trying to kill her.
Considering this is 1951, the book emphasizes a heroic feminism. Whittington positions Roy to be non supportive, merely representing the family's breadwinner without possessing the genre tropes of a strong male protagonist. Julia keeps her rather turbulent past from Roy in a way that protects him and his insecurity, a stark contrast from the typical crime-noir. As the book reaches the revelation point, Whittington does pair Julia with a smart detective named Bellows. But again, he's really second string to Julia's leading role.
By 2021, we've watched or read this sort of story before. The woman on the run from some sort of abusive past. The genre's highlight may have been Nancy Price's 1987 novel Sleeping with the Enemy, later adapted into a successful film starring Julia Roberts. Oddly, I found some aspects of this story (revenge on the prosecutor) reversed for John D. MacDonald's 1957 novel The Executioners, later adapted to film twice as Cape Fear.
Regardless of subsequent literary works, Whittington does deliver a fantastic story in Murder is my Mistress. Even the title is a clever nod to a plot point. With a unique hero, a brisk pace and the core mystery, Whittington proved he was a masterful storyteller early in his writing career. There are better Whittington books, but this early novel certainly set the table for what was to come. If you can afford the high-priced used paperback, it's certainly worth your time.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Tuesday, March 2, 2021
Andy Mason is an Army veteran turned hard-nosed reporter. After numerous award-winning articles on crime, drugs and pushers, Mason gains the attention of an older former racketeer named Sam. The famed criminal invites Mason to his mansion with an unusual proposal.
The pitch, and the book's premise, is that Sam is now in his dying days, bound to his bed. He explains to Mason that his son Houleman is gay (frowned upon in 1952) and that his daughter Joyce is now a heroin addict. He's a widow and feels that his life has become a disappointment. Sam asks Mason to take Joyce to his rural Connecticut cabin to crack her habit and make her go clean. In exchange for unhooking her from the horse, Sam will provide Mason his entire diary collection. These books outline his past criminal activities and all of the associates that were involved in his enterprise. Feeling like this could be his career pinnacle, Mason accepts.
Daniels really excels by creating a sexual tension between Mason and Joyce. In addition, the author introduces Sam's daughter-in-law, a sex-starved nympho who was forced to marry the gay guy. However, Walk the Evil Street isn't a Gil Brewer styled sensuous love affair. By taking the job, Mason finds himself in a murder mystery when a body is found that connects Mason, Sam and his son. After fully contemplating the consequences, Mason begins to suspect that there's more to Sam's proposal than he originally thought. With the combination of Joyce's drugs, the nympho's appeal, Sam's dangerous past and a killer on the loose, Norman Daniels has plenty of slack to tie a great story together.
While the plot gets a bit convoluted, I found Walk the Evil Street as a solid crime-noir with a protagonist I really liked. Despite Joyce's drug addiction, I found her to be an exceptional character that the author clearly developed as the narrative tightened. With the plot's many aspects and character motivations, the narrative rarely left me bored or inattentive. I even appreciated the author's brief nods to Sam's pulpy past as a notorious 1930's gangster. It coincided well with Daniels' early pulp-fiction endeavors with the likes of The Black Bat and The Masked Detective.
Walk the Evil Street is another solid effort by Norman Daniels. He was a workhorse but rarely sacrificed quality for quantity. If you are new to the author, there's no reason not to start here. Highly recommended.
Monday, March 1, 2021
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Friday, February 26, 2021
In 1977, Ball's novel Police Chief was published. It introduced a highly-skilled police Sergeant named Jack Tallon who relocates from Pasadena, California to the small town of Whitewater, Washington. Motivating the move is that Tallon accepts a position as the town's Police Chief. The successful book prompted two sequels – 1981's Trouble for Tallon and 1984's Chief Tallon and the S.O.R. My introduction to the author is the first installment of the Jack Tallon trilogy, Police Chief.
The novel's opening chapter is set in South Pasadena as Tallon responds to a gun-store robbery. In just six-pages, the author introduces Tallon as a highly competent, authoritative figure who orchestrates a number of law-enforcement operatives into strategic formations and duties. When the S.W.A.T. Team arrives, Tallon accepts his role as back-up as the second chapter unfolds with a grizzly highway accident that forces Tallon to rescue students from a heavily-damaged bus. As the first on the scene, and with many of the city's police maintaining assistance with the gun-store holdup, Tallon accepts the uncomfortable position of declaring six of the students as deceased. As the night ends, Tallon's wife Jennifer sees her husband exhausted and covered in blood. This imagery leads Tallon and Jennifer to discuss a potential career change.
Over the next couple of chapters, Tallon is invited to the small Pacific-Southwest town of Whitewater, Washington. Despite being a neighbor to the much larger city of Spokane, Whitewater has very little crime. The former Police Chief has retired and Tallon is offered the role. His duties include managing four patrol cars, one detective, a Sergeant and five uniformed officers. At first, the lack of daily action and danger plagues Tallon and prompts him to rethink his one-year contract. But, in just a few weeks Whitewater is rocked by a serial rapist and a pipeline of heroin.
There's no doubt that author John Ball had a real gift of storytelling. I was really invested in the opening chapter and couldn't wait to learn how Tallon was going to assist in the store hold-up. After that entire scene is left dangling and unfinished, I was furious that Tallon had to leave the gun-action to assist with a highway collision. Most authors can't make that quick of a transition, and even fewer can maintain the reader's interest and attention after the fast scene change. But, I quickly realized that the author was plotting with a purpose. This was a calculated move that shifts all of the attention to the main character. Readers had to experience the turbulent night-life of Tallon, the daring “quick to respond” nature of the police business that puts law-enforcement in various precarious situations – sometimes within the same half-hour time-frame.
After building his character's cop credibility, Tallon trains his staff on modern tactics despite their belief that any of it is needed. When the serial rapist begins attacking the town's most beautiful women, Tallon orchestrates a sting operation that places a beautiful young nurse as bait for the rapist. Further, the staff must contend with high-speed chases and fights as a heroin operation comes to fruition on Whitewater's small-town streets and local college campus. The story is that many of the town's citizens feel that crime has increased only because the new Police Chief is involved. They suspect their new Chief is actually the rapist, placing a point of contention between Tallon and the people he has sworn to protect.
I absolutely loved this book and instantly liked the character of Jack Tallon. Once the book settles into the procedural investigation of rape and drug trafficking, I felt that Ball's storytelling was similar to that of Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series. With just a handful of officers, the entire investigation was a more intimate experience told through the activities of these men. While the book isn't terribly violent, the two furious car-chase scenes were some of the best I've read. Also, the rapes themselves aren't in the narrative (thankfully), but the grizzly details are presented through the eye-witness accounts. In that regard, Ball used the expertise of Cheney, Washington's law-enforcement agencies to better understand these investigations. I think that realism propelled the story-line in a positive way.
Police Chief is still in print today and my copy was the affordable 1985 paperback version published by Canada's Paperjacks imprint. I'm already shopping for the two sequels so I can immerse myself back into Whitewater's small-town atmosphere. If you love the police procedural sub-genre of crime-fiction, I highly recommend this author and this lesser-known short series.
Thursday, February 25, 2021
WWII veteran Nolly is living the American dream in New York City. He's been married to his beautiful wife Susan for five years. He has a great job working at Globe Finance where he manages payroll, mortgage loans and the vault. He enjoys working for his boss, Mr. Wright, and each evening he happily walks his dog around the block. It's the quintessential “white picket fence” lifestyle. But, like any great crime-noir, Nolly's life is turned upside down when he is placed in an extreme situation.
After a rare night out with his three co-workers, Nolly returns to his home in an early-morning drunken stupor. After discovering his wife isn't home, Nolly receives a phone call from a mysterious voice telling him to get over to Globe Finance. When he arrives there and unlocks the door, he's hit in the head and blacks out. He wakes up to discover his boss, Mr. Wright, has been murdered and $40,000 is missing from the bank vaults. Complicating matters is that Nolly finds a gun in his pocket that apparently was used as the murder weapon.
We’ve all read this sort of story before. It's the familiar “man wakes up beside a corpse” plot where the innocent party must scour the town for clues in search of the killer. Unlike Aarons' seaside, rural novels like Terror in the Town and The Net, it was interesting to read Nightmare's story unravel in an urban setting. In some ways, Aarons' writes this in a way that would later become the dominant approach by writers like Ed Lacy and Henry Kane. He still manages to insert his seaside, darker aura to the story near the end (the characters end up in marshy New Jersey), but this one has a unique voice that isn't the standard Edward S. Aarons crime-noir.
As I read more and more of Aarons' crime literature, I move him just a few more rungs up the ladder. I don't think he's a Harry Whittington or John D. MacDonald caliber storyteller, but he does sit somewhere firmly in the middle of the pack. He's never boring, never dull, but he's never created anything particularly innovative or remarkable. Nightmare proves that Aarons was just another good, dependable mid-20th Century writer. Sometimes, that's all we are really dreaming for anyway.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Wednesday, February 24, 2021
The Dean stories are narrated by his sidekick, Ben Matthews in the same manner that Watson narrates the Sherlock Holmes stories or Archie Goodwin tells the Nero Wolfe tales. For his part, everyone’s first impression of The Dean is that he’s a screwball and a crank living with Ben in a slum while pretending to be a fortune teller who can divine your future from the bottoms of your feet. He’s also an amateur detective maintaining a good working relationship with the police chief.
As we join The Dean and Ben in “Stranger’s Kill,” an arsonist has been plaguing the city for six months targeting grocers, delis, and other retail stores. The Dean offers his services to the fire insurance company to catch the arsonist within six days for a $20,000 fee. The body of the insurance company’s CEO was found strangled in one of the fires, so this is more than a normal firebug.
The Dean’s detecting methods are mostly the same kind of deduction utilized by Sherlock Holmes, but he’s willing to run down leads in the street with Ben and get his hands dirty. He’s also a funny guy with A+ wisecracks along the way. By 1940, Constiner was a solid writer and his prose is smooth, never choppy, with logical, well-paced plotting. Unlike Carroll John Daly’s Race Williams stories of violence and vengeance, The Dean is a more gentlemanly mystery solver who puts together intricate puzzles over the course of 60 pages per story.
Like many pre-1950s mysteries, “Stranger’s Kill” has far too many characters and far too little action. It’s a well-crafted mystery, but it was a bit dull and ultimately failed to grab me. I’ll probably read another novella sometime in the future because I enjoyed both the character and Constiner’s writing style, but the story mostly left me cold.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Tuesday, February 23, 2021
In this case, Detective Wheeler is dispatched by the Sheriff to investigate a loony cult in the mountains run by a dude calling himself The Prophet. His followers allegedly engage in sun worship, group sex, drugs and fertility ceremonies. The Sheriff is concerned that this screwball religion may break bad in some unforeseen manner and orders Wheeler to investigate and provide his assessment.
Wheeler heads to the mountain to watch The Prophet in action. The cult leader is tanned and muscular wearing only a loin cloth and appears to worship the sun without metaphor or irony. The Prophet’s spiel is pretty pro-forma until he starts preaching that the Sun God demands a sacrifice.
This wouldn’t be much of a murder mystery if no one got killed. As such, after meeting a cadre of the Prophet’s devotees, we finally get a murder for Wheeler to solve. The author introduces a lot of characters (probably too many) who are all regarded as suspects. For his part, Wheeler is more full of wisecracks than I recall from other installments I’ve read. I’m betting that the upswing in Shell Scott’s popularity around 1958 influenced Yates to ratchet up an the pithy quips for Detective Wheeler to deliver.
Beyond that, this is a pretty standard whodunnit mystery with colorful characters and a logical, satisfying conclusion. Carter Brown mysteries have always served as pulp mystery comfort food - a palette cleanser between more substantial novels. You always know what you’re getting, and the thin paperbacks always deliver the goods. The Lover was no exception - you know exactly what you’re getting, and it’s always a good time. Recommended.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Monday, February 22, 2021
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Friday, February 19, 2021
The book is set in Germany during WWII. The U.S. military formulates an idea that they can create a huge, powerhouse diversion on the German border. Using a number of planes, tanks and troops, they will fake an impending invasion and engage the enemy just long enough for a team of 30 tanks to slip in over the border and become a mobile task force. This task force, led by Colonel Hagen and Sergeant Dixon, will orchestrate hit-and-run attacks on German forces, towns, bases and airstrips. By disguising the tanks as German, and using old, overgrown roads, the force plans on creating as much undetected destruction as possible. The problem with that strategy? Hagen and Dixon despise each other.
The adventures of a WWII tank battalion operating in Germany can be an entertaining read with enough attention to the action. What makes Killer Tank different is that Daniels creates this really interesting back story between Hagen and Dixon. Through the first 100-pages the readers can easily determine that the two have history with each other. But, when Hagen begins to romance a beautiful French woman, Dixon becomes Hell-bent on destroying any hopes for Hagen's happiness. What is the history between these two American commanders? How could anything warrant this much hatred and animosity? I won't ruin the story for you, but the tension and suspense eventually percolates to a hot, boiling inferno. Just when I thought I had it figured out, the last few pages came out of left field with a right hook. I was dumbfounded.
With the focus on character development and a thick tension between Dixon and Hagen, Killer Tank serves as a hybrid of WWII and crime-noir storytelling. While I wasn't necessarily bored with the plotting and pace, I will say that Daniels never fully commits to either genre. When I wanted a more serious action novel the story slowed to a conversational tone. When I needed the characters to come to blows, the military action consumed the story. I couldn't quite walk the high beam that Norman Daniels built for me. The balancing act didn't work as well as I had hoped for. But, nevertheless Killer Tank is an entertaining read that probably could have been improved with a few precise touch-ups to the storytelling. You won't hate it, but I'm not sure how necessary this paperback really is. There are far better crime-noir and WW2 books out there.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Thursday, February 18, 2021
Our narrator is a 22 year-old young man named Jamie Conklin telling the reader the story of things that happened when he was a kid. Jamie is the only son of a single, literary agent mother in Manhattan. Jamie also sees dead people - pretty much just like the kid in The Sixth Sense. He warns the reader in his intro, “I think this is a horror story.” It’s the truth, but the story takes awhile to heat up before things get truly scary.
Jamie explains that dead people always tell the truth when they talk to him. Sometimes they say something funny and blunt like telling the boy that his school art project sucks. Other times it’s a useful tip like where the old lady hid her jewels before she passed away. His access to the dead is limited to the few days after passing before the deceased fade away into the great beyond. Jamie is candid with his mom about his ability, and she warns him to never tell anybody that he sees dead people.
Later jumps around quite a bit while focusing on Jamie’s upbringing and a variety of incidences where his ability to see and illicit information from dead people proves useful. Mom’s best friend is an NYPD detective named Liz. She’s the stacked brunette on the book’s cover. Over time, Liz comes to believe and accept Jamie’s sixth-sense and figures out some uses for it in the realm of her police work. As such, Jamie gets pressed into service by Liz using his unusual ability.
King writes Later in a breezy first-person style with super-short chapters that are easy to follow despite the often non-linear timeline. It takes forever for an actual plot to develop, but you don’t really mind because Jamie is a likable kid who makes the reader invested in his well-being. As advertised, the paperback eventually becomes a horror story with some honest-to-goodness creepy and unsettling set-pieces reminding the reader that Stephen King still has chops.
Beyond that, there’s not much to tell that won’t spoil the fun for you. Later is a quick and fulfilling read - arguably the strongest and most on-brand of his Hard Case Crime offerings. King excels at this kind of of coming-of-age horror story with vivid characters and chilling situations with a good hero confronting supernatural evil. King has a large back catalogue of epic works, so Later is unlikely to be your favorite among them. However, I can’t imagine any of his fans walking away dissatisfied from this superb little novel.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Wednesday, February 17, 2021
Our narrator Dan Marriott awakens in an Santa Barbara hospital room with his head wrapped in gauze and all memories completely erased. Months of hospitalization and plastic surgeries restore his face to something resembling his original self before the car accident decimated his body and sense of personal history. None of what people tell him about himself sounds the least bit familiar. His name, his wife Judith, and even his own reflection all seem foreign to him.
With no remembered experiences to give him insight into his own character, Dan is a blank slate free to follow his instincts, and his gut is telling him that something is seriously wrong here. With the bandages off, Dan and Judith leave the clinic and go to a beachfront cottage together to transition amnesiac Dan back into society before returning home to San Francisco. Meanwhile, Dan is having visions - words and images flashing through his consciousness - tied to who he used to be.
As Dan’s face and body heal at home with Judith, it becomes clear that she is hiding something about him and the accident that took his memory. He begins to piece together that before his accident, his marriage wasn’t all that hot. As the evidence mounts, Dan begins to suspect that his car crash may not have been an accident at all. But why would Judith attempt to murder Dan, when a simple divorce would have sufficed?
As an avid reader of vintage paperbacks, I saw where this one was headed from a mile away, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book. A mystery concerning a narrator’s past makes for fascinating reading. At times, the plot reminded me of the brilliant Christopher Nolan movie Memento. Neely sprinkles in some rich and colorful characters, including a private detective hired to get to the bottom of things.
I loved this book. It was so clever and well thought-out that it makes me want to explore more of Neely’s fiction. Fans of awesome suspense novels owe a debt of gratitude to Stark House for resurrecting The Plastic Nightmare. This is don’t-miss, essential reading. Highest recommendation.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Tuesday, February 16, 2021
The first volume is titled Hostesses in Hell and the second is My Touch Brings Death. The stories in both collections were chosen by genre expert John Pelan who also provides introductions to both volumes bringing valuable context to the stories and the author.
First thing’s first: Who was Russell Gray?
Russell Gray and Harrison Storm were pseudonyms utilized by Bruno Fischer for his specific brand of graphic horror stories. Fischer went on to become a successful author of paperback original crime and suspense novels in the 1950s, but those skills were honed as a pulp magazine author who cranked out a million words per year at his peak production.
In a modern world filled with graphic “extreme” horror, I was interested in putting the Russell Gray stories to the test. Do they hold up after 80 years? Can they be shocking to a jaded modern reviewer who has seen it all? I sampled a set of stories from the Hostesses in Hell volume to see what all the fuss is about.
“Hostesses in Hell”
The opening story originally appeared in Terror Tales March-April 1939 issue. The narrator is an inexperienced recreational sailor named Jay who takes seven women on his boat for a ride up and down the ocean shoreline. A spontaneous storm disorients Captain Jay and by the time visibility is restored, the small boat and its passengers are far from the mainland with the only safety being a nearby island. Jay’s boat is paralyzed, so they head for the island in search of help and shelter.
On the island, the group is greeted by a man claiming to be a medical doctor who looks more like a wild-eyed muscleman. He claims to run a hotel of sorts on the island where Jay and the ladies can stay until they can arrange for transport back to the mainland. Upon arrival at the large colonial house, the doctor confesses that the building is actually a sanitarium for the incurably insane.
This being a short-story, things go from creepy to violent and scary rather quickly. The women are naked, lunatics have escaped, and freakishly-deformed creatures begin menacing the island’s guests. It’s legitimately scary stuff and, as promised, extremely violent and disturbing. Overall, an outstanding pulp horror story.
“The Gargoyles of Madness”
This story originally ran in the August 1939 issue of Uncanny Tales. It opens with a police patrolman shooting a purse snatcher dead in the street. Newspaper reporter Glen Kane is covering the shooting when things get weird. The mugger was a prominent local banker who apparently lost his mind and attempted to rob the lady on the street while his face was contorted like a gargoyle. Even weirder: The intended victim had a gargoyle figurine in her purse. Readers of horror fiction can connect the dots faster than the cops or Newsman Gil.
Violent crimes by upscale citizens spread through the city. All the crimes involve tiny gargoyle statues and perps driven to madness. It’s almost as if getting your hands on a gargoyle figure makes you take on the features of the creature and go nuts in the process. When Gil tries to report on this odd phenomena, his editor spikes the story.
Things escalate as Gil investigates. The story’s climax is an orgy of naked breasts, whips. saliva and blood. The punchline recalls stories from The Spider or The Shadow in which an evil villain devises a scheme to inflict madness upon a populace unless he can be stopped by the pulp hero. Bottom line: an unnerving pulp story with some good gore, but not particularly terrifying.
“School Mistress of the Mad”
This one first saw print in the January-February 1939 issue of Terror Tales. “Doom” is the name of a town nestled in the mountains populated by an inferior race of idiots looked down upon by the good people of nearby Amton. Chet is on sabbatical from his city job chilling out in sleepy Amton when he meets a beautiful woman named Linda driving through town headed into Doom. Stopping to ask directions, she discloses that she’s been hired as the new schoolteacher for the Town of Doom. As she drives deeper into the mountains, Chet can’t get her off his mind.
Chet learns that Doom was settled during the American Revolutionary War by a family named Gring who have reproduced and lived there ever since with no contact from the outside world. Generations of inbreeding have made the Gring clan into beast-like idiots.
The idea of the Grings hiring a beautiful schoolteacher in an illiterate town without a school defies logic. Meanwhile, several young women from the town of Amton have become missing lately. Could the Grings be taking some illegal measures to increase Doom’s genetic diversity? Chet sets off to Doom to investigate and maybe save Linda from the hillbillies fifteen miles away.
The author does a great job of building the dread and suspense for the reader who’s left wondering how bad it could be in Doom. I’m happy to report that the Grings clan is worse than you could imagine. This story is chilling and frightening if you enjoy satanic hillbilly stories in the vein of Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes. It’s hard to believe that the story 82 years-old and still packs such a visceral punch.
For fans of suspenseful horror not afraid of some bloody exploitive violence, Russell Gray is the real deal. Hostesses in Hell may be the most consistently solid single-author horror anthologies I’ve read since Stephen King’s Night Shift. It’s so good that I’ve ordered Volume 2 (My Touch Brings Death) and can’t wait for the paperback to arrive. I’m a huge fan of Bruno Fischer’s crime-fiction novels, but his extreme pulp horror may be the best stuff he ever wrote. Highest recommendation.
Buy a copy of this book HERE
Monday, February 15, 2021
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Friday, February 12, 2021
Leith Hadley has just been sentenced to death in the electric chair for the murder of his business partner at the travel agency they jointly owned. Immediately following the imposition of his sentence, Leith bum-rushes the courtroom guards and flees the municipal building onto the Chicago city streets - handcuffed but free for now.
Seeking refuge, Leith breaks into an apartment and stumbles upon an unconscious woman overdosing from barbiturates - a likely suicide attempt - whose life he quickly saves. Her name is Christine, and she will be joining Leith on his “man on the run establishing his own innocence” adventure. The catch is that Leith isn’t even 100% certain that he’s not guilty. After discovering an embezzlement by his partner, Leith got blackout drunk and was seen boarding his partner’s yacht where his brutalized body was later found. Leith awoke the next morning in a cabin with no memory of what he did or didn’t do the night before.
Circumstantially, this all looks rather bad for Leith. That’s why the State’s Attorney had no problem securing his murder conviction in front of a jury. The quest to establish his innocence takes Leith all over Chicago revisiting witnesses who may have perjured themselves as the trial. This initially bears no fruit and makes Leith look like an escaped maniac.
The first half of the book was pretty dull. The plot was going nowhere, and Leith was getting no closer to the truth. Then something happens at the halfway point that changed the pace of the paperback. I generally hate to spoil that plot point, but suffice it to say that the author devises a unique literary scheme for Leith to establish his own innocence while packing on some action scenes as the hero gets closer to the truth.
The clandestine re-investigation brings them into the criminal underworld where Leith’s murdered business partner had been losing a small fortune gambling in back-room mob casinos. The conclusion to the whodunnit mystery was a bit convoluted and contrived for me. Overall, I didn’t hate Warrant for a Wanton, but I’m unlikely to strongly recommend it to anyone either. It’s not an awful book but really nothing special. Just file this paperback in the “why bother?” stack and move on with your life and better books.
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Thursday, February 11, 2021
Cade Cain grew up barefoot and free in the swamps and canals of Bay Parish, a small town nestled just south of hot-footed New Orleans. After joining the Air Force and becoming a Captain in the Korean War, Cain was shot down by the enemy and remained a prisoner-of-war. After a long military career and two harsh years of eating fish heads and rice, Cain has finally returned to his childhood home after a 12-year absence. But not everyone is happy to see him.
In the book's first part, Cain finds himself ordered out of Bay Parish by the local sheriff. Not understanding this threatening situation, Cain later finds a beautiful Spanish woman named Mimi stealing food from his boat. After scolding her, he learns that Mimi is an illegal alien in the U.S. searching for her husband, an American soldier named Moran. After attempting to find Moran in Bay Parish, Mimi and Cain return to the boat and find that someone has shot the sheriff. In an effort to frame Cain, the bloody corpse has been placed on his bunk with the murder weapon. High-tailing it out of town, Cain and Mimi now must dispose of the body and find the answer to this wild and riveting murder mystery.
There's so much to like about Day Keene's swampy crime-noir. While it still fits the author's over-utilized formula of “wanted man on the run to prove his innocence”, there's more emphasis on a backstory between Cain and his ex-wife Janice as well as Mimi's immigration troubles and her speculative marriage. The author combines this deep-seated mystery with a nautical nuance and places it on a fast-paced narrative just brimming over with interesting characters. The sexual tension between Cain and Mimi is intense and hot. I couldn't help but imagine Mimi as a young Eva Longoria flaunting her wares on the sun-drenched deck. Keene's use of her innocence and inability to adapt to America to add even more vivid flirtation to the narrative.
I think Ed Lacy may have borrowed Keene's premise for his 1959 novel Blonde Bait. The idea of a fugitive on the run in his boat with a busty babe was probably a popular literary trend of the 1940s and 1950s, but nevertheless Day Keene executes it flawlessly inspiring further imitation. Aside from Joyhouse, The Big-Kiss Off might be my favorite novel of Keene's exceptional career. Highly recommended.
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Wednesday, February 10, 2021
Using the private-eye formula, Aarons introduces readers to Barney Forbes, the book's hard-charging protagonist. Forbes was an MP in the Army before becoming a New York detective. After his wife's tragic and sudden death, Forbes left law-enforcement to pursue a career as an attorney. With his new profession, Forbes is struggling to pay the bills and second-guessing his career change. Thankfully, a successful law firm that specializes in estates hires Forbes to utilize his detective skills to service one of their own clients.
A wealthy man named Malcolm Hunter has come up missing in the small, mountain lake community of Omega. The firm's client is Malcolm Hunter's brother Jan, a rather abstract young man who is fed money by the Hunter trust. This missing person case brings Forbes to upstate New York to find where Malcolm is.
With the book weighing in at just under 150-pages, Aarons surprisingly packs the narrative with a rich blend of mystery and full-barreled action. Like Gift of Death and Terror in the Town, this author excels when setting the story within a small waterside community. Instead of the northeastern Atlantic, the author utilizes rural lake houses to create a thick atmosphere that works as the perfect backdrop for the mystery to unwind. I think Aarons was one of the best authors in the business in describing the locales and making them seemingly come alive as just another character.
Forbes is an easily likable character, and I loved his alliances with the troubled town sheriff and an eccentric Native American. Like any good crime-noir, Forbes also has his share of beauty queens to contend with. The backstory of Forbes losing his wife plays a key element in his fixation on Malcolm Hunter's abused wife. With just a dose of romance and tension, They All Ran Away fires on all cylinders and proves once again that Edward S. Aarons was a great storyteller. Highly recommended.
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Tuesday, February 9, 2021
In Damnation Alley, the Earth as we know it no longer exists. Decades before, a nuclear war decimated the planet and what's remains is a mere shell of what life originally resembled. In the skies, hurricane-strength winds prevent any form of air travel. The atmosphere is a swirling belt of dust and garbage set into eternal propulsion by the howling winds. The radiation has mutated animals and insects and what remains of America is a fractured ruling class divided into regions.
The book stars a former Hell's Angel biker named Hell Tanner. He's a ruthless anti-hero who was abandoned by his father as an infant. His mother died in his early childhood and Tanner was passed around from home to home until he found a permanent residence within the ranks of the Hell's Angels. When readers first meet Tanner, he's racing his Harley Davidson through the twisting roads of San Diego. His pursuers, the Nation of California's law enforcement, have warrants for his arrest. After successfully outrunning the cops, his day ends with a roadblock and a busted bike.
While in police custody, Tanner is offered a unique proposition. His criminal record of killing three people and resisting arrest, will be wiped clean if he can successfully deliver an antivirus to the city of Boston. The trip across the country has rarely been completed due to the nearly insurmountable odds. With the journey consisting of raging storms, mutants, biker gangs, road bandits and plague, the pathway is referred to as Damnation Alley. Between prison or the road, Tanner chooses to suit up and drive a sophisticated vehicle across the country in hopes of delivering the much-needed medicine and winning his own freedom.
This book would have made more of a personal impact if I read it at the time of its original publication. While its unfair to Zelazny, his post-apocalyptic action tale was used as a blueprint by numerous authors to write better versions of this book. Damnation Alley isn't terrible, but it's a slow burn that never reaches the roaring blaze I had hoped for. Much of the book is simply Tanner driving, eating and sleeping. Every few pages he shoots a giant bat or kills some bikers, but these are just bumps along the road to what is otherwise an unexciting plot. Tanner isn't a likable character by any means, and often I asked myself if I really cared about his success. Other than a partner named Greg, who is quickly written out of the narrative, there aren't many admirable characters. The lack of action, character development or dynamic story were detrimental to the reading experience. However, high praise is still warranted due to what Zelazny created.
Damnation Alley, in both book and film form, are very influential to the post-apocalyptic genre of men's action-adventure novels. There's no question that it inspired a number of commercially successful titles.
- The vehicle that Tanner is driving is similar to what authors Ed Naha and John Shirley conceived with their 1984 series Traveler. Through Traveler's 13-book series, the protagonist drives a fortified van deemed “The Meat Wagon.” While it lacked the sophisticated wizardry showcased in Damnation Alley, the use of van portholes and machine guns to anonymously eliminate potential threats mirrors Zelazny's approach.
- Again, the idea of the “all-terrain fortified vehicle” can be found in the debut of Deathlands, a 138-book series of post-apocalyptic adventures. Series hero Ryan Cawdor is on board a trio of armored tractor-trailer trucks that are equipped with cameras, mounted cannons, numerous guns. Like Tanner, Cawdor and company use the safety of the vehicle as a sort of road residence.
- There is no doubt that Zelazny's conception of a fragmented America can be found within a number of series titles like The Last Ranger, Doomsday Warrior, Out of the Ashes and Endworld. But, perhaps the most similar is Robert Tine's 1984 five-book series Outrider. In it, the former United States is now divided into ruling class sections that surround a metropolis. Like Tanner, the series stars a lone-wolf named Bonner as he navigates the post-apocalypse in a jacked-up dune-buggy equipped with weapons.
- In 1977's post-apocalyptic novel The Lost Traveler, authored by Steve Wilson, a biker hero named Long Range roams a nuked-out wasteland. Like the aforementioned titles, this one also includes a fragmented America and disputes between warring clans. Where Damnation Alley sort of condemns the Hell's Angels, Wilson pulls no punches as he makes the famed biker gang a ruthless and criminal government body.
- In 1984's Angels, the third installment of the four-book series Wasteworld, hero Matthew Chance is pitted against a gang of post-apocalyptic Hell's Angels.
While Zelazny's concept of Damnation Alley is mostly an original, innovative take on doomsday, it does come with a borrowed idea. In 1959's We Who Survived, author Sterling Noel places his heroes in a fortified, all-terrain vehicle that is used for defense, housing and drilling through a post-apocalyptic America ravaged by an eternal ice-storm. Perhaps Zelazny was influenced by Noel's conception of “road warriors” surviving doomsday by using an advanced, nearly indestructible vehicle? I'd suspect so.
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