Friday, December 6, 2019

The Searching Rider

Harry Whittington's talent for storytelling was unmatched even among prolific contemporaries including Gil Brewer and Day Keene. Whether it was a fierce love triangle, bank heist or white knuckle suspense, the Floridian author engaged readers with his masterful literary prose. While his crime-noir is often discussed, Whittington's contribution to the western genre is sometimes overlooked. I thoroughly enjoyed his western titles like “A Trap for Sam Dodge”, “Drytown Gulch”, “Wild Sky” and “Desert Stake-Out”. Therefore, I was excited to acquire a 1961 Ace double featuring both “Hangman's Territory” by Jack Bickham and Whittington's “The Searching Rider”.

Like many Whittington novels, “The Searching Rider” features a scorned lover, despicable villains and murder. It's a winning trifecta that the author injects with a more psychological edge to the classic frontier revenge formula. In fact, in the opening chapters the pursuit of three villains is a precursor to the real story – main character Matt Logan's quest to find the lone farmer pursuing the three villains. It's an odd reworking of the “owlhoot trail”, but the author keeps it a mystery until Logan's horse is shot out from under him. That's the cue to roll the flashback sequence.

We learn that a farm family living on a scorched trail to Tucson experience a horrific tragedy. Grief stricken, the farmer Kaylor sets out in pursuit of three bitter killers. His wife, in a state of shock, walks to town and asks her scorned lover Logan for help. Logan initially rejects her requests for help, but once he realizes the dire circumstances, Logan races to catch up with Kaylor before it is too late.

While this simple revenge tale could have easily been a toss-off dime western, Whittington makes it a unique and enjoyable read. Never settling for the ordinary prose, the Logan character is developed as the anti-hero, trading the proverbial white hat for a greedy poker hand. Kaylor's situation is compelling, a riveting blend of hot-headed anger combined with a stubborn tenacity. By placing the pursuit and subsequent gun play in a scorching desert, the author traps these characters into the inevitable confrontation. How readers arrive at the finale is the ultimate enjoyment.

“The Searching Rider” is another top-notch western from an author that rarely misfires. In a perfect world, this novel would receive a new publishing run by Stark House Press. Thus far, its just another tattered old paperback waiting to be found at a rummage sale.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, December 5, 2019

C.A.T. #01 - Tower of Blood

The “C.A.T.: Crisis Aversion Team” series by house name Spike Andrews was supposed to have monthly installments, but the short-lived series only lasted for three books in 1982. Books one and three were authored by Canadian Duane Schermerhorn and book two was by George Ryan from North Carolina. Paperback Warrior interviewed Mr. Schermerhorn before his 2018 death, and he told us that the C.A.T. series was Warner Books’ attempt to capitalize on the success of the Dirty Harry franchise. The first novel in the series is available as a 99-cent ebook, and used copies of the original paperback are plentiful online.

“Tower of Blood” introduces us to New York City police officers Stewart Weston and Vincent Santillo. Together, they form the core of the NYPD’s Crisis Aversion Team (C.A.T.), a group assigned “the touch-and-go suicides, the murders with racial overtones, the snipers flying high and shooting wild, the desperate hostage holders, the bomb scares and bomb blasts.” As you can see, Warner Books had big plans for this versatile duo. What the novel actually delivers is a violent, but largely run-of-the-mill, police-based action novel.

After a police informant is gunned down in a Harlem tavern before he can pass on valuable information, cops Weston and Santillo set out to understand why he was killed. The opening carnage in the bar is pure 80s bloodbath filled with heads exploding and rifle slugs ripping into flesh and bones followed by a violent chase and shootout that goes on for pages and pages.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to be introduced to a local drug dealer who has it out for the C.A.T. boys basically for doing their jobs - albeit rather violently. Meanwhile, Weston and Santillo follow logical clues to get closer to the source of all this mayhem which leads them from the slums to Manhattan’s power elite. Along the way, they bust a lot of skulls and leave piles of dead bodies in their wake before the climactic kidnapper-with-hostages standoff.

Throughout the novel, Schermerhorn sets up all sorts of minor plot points with an eye toward developing them over the course of a long series. Sadly, these elements never blossomed into something fully-realized because the series was cancelled right out of the gate. Fortunately, for action-oriented readers, the author did not skimp on the long action, chase, and gunfight scenes. Trust me, they go on forever in “Tower of Blood” - like a John Woo action movie set to print.

The premature death of the C.A.T. series was a shame because it could have been something special. “Tower of Blood” was no masterpiece but following the cops from one blood-soaked action setpiece to another was a lot of fun. The bare bones plot was about average for the genre and the era, but Schermerhorn certainly knew his way around over-the-top, long-form gunplay and chase sequences. Personally, I would have liked to see where he wanted to take this series over more installments. In the meantime, I can certainly recommend this paperback for literary adrenaline junkies. 

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Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Room to Swing

Leonard Zinberg (1911-1968) was known to crime-noir readers as Ed Lacy. He authored nearly 30 paperback originals during the 1950s and 1960s. As prolific as his work was, Lacy's most successful novel was his ninth career effort, “Room to Swing” (1957). The book introduced the first African-American private-eye in Toussaint “Touie” Moore, a bold literary leap that earned Lacy an Edgar Award in 1958.

“Room to Swing” gains its fictional footing in a familiar way – a financially stressed New York gumshoe trailing a killer. Touie Moore is black, nearly destitute and has a lofty goal of running a successful detective business despite the numerous barriers. His girlfriend Sybil is begging Touie to work in the mailroom, and plenty of white police officers want him out of the private-eye business. Needless to say, Touie needs a big break.

A television producer named Kay approaches Touie about a new show called “You-Detective!” The pitch is that a fugitive will be profiled on television, complete with a sizzling backstory, with the promise of a cash payout for any lucky citizen that chances upon the dangerous criminal. The show's third episode will feature an alleged rapist from Ohio named Robert Thomas. Kay advises that Thomas works at a factory in New York City and that the network has a stooge that will phone him into the police claiming it was a result of watching the show. Touie is offered $1,500 to keep tabs on Thomas to be sure he doesn't quit his job or leave the show before the episode airs.

Without giving away anything more than what's promised on the back cover, Thomas ends up murdered and police believe that Touie is responsible. Lacy's presentation is segmented into days before Thomas' murder, prefaced by current events to tease the story to readers. I didn't particularly care for this style of storytelling as it made the book seem disjointed. This could have improved as a seamless story with a traditional start to finish pace. The bi-product of segmented storytelling is the loss of surprise. 3-2-1 leads to something, right? That left me bored with the first few segments dedicated to Touie's day to day operation. Granted, Lacy is presenting Touie's tenacity in adverse conditions, but it's recycled throughout. There's a lot of racists opposing Touie...living. But otherwise, the heart of the story doesn't reach fruition until  page 85.

“Room to Swing” is a good, but not great, crime-noir. My speculation is that the novel's “against the grain” approach made it a hot commodity at the time of publication. Breaking social conformity was a sizable risk for Lacy, and it paid off in a big way. Arguably, this book placed Lacy on the literary map. He authored a sequel to entitled “Moment of Untruth” in 1964, changing the location from New York to Mexico. I enjoyed Touie enough to pursue the second novel.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The Spy in a Box

Author Ralph Dennis, who passed away in 1988, is mostly remembered for his 12-book series of hardboiled 'Hardman' novels. Brash Books, owned by New York Times bestselling authors Lee Goldberg and Joel Goldman, have meticulously culled the author's published and unpublished catalog to re-introduce many of these novels to a new generation of crime-fiction fans. Along with “Dust in the Heart” (2020), “Spy in the Box” is another unpublished manuscript that Lee Goldberg unearthed from the author's archives. After extensive editing, the book now remains as another published testament of Ralph Dennis' talents as a storyteller.

The book places readers in the political upheaval of 1980s Costa Verde. Protagonist Will Hall works for the CIA as an experienced diplomatic operative. His assignment is uncovering the layers of bureaucracy tearing the small Latin American country apart. Hall's view is that the U.S. should support the moderates, led by presidential candidate Paul Marcos. His opposition is the rebels, backed by both Cuba and the Soviet Union.  After securing a firm relationship with Marcos, Hall is ordered to meet with the right wing party of landowners and mining interests. As a courtesy to Marcos, Hall arrives for an impromptu meeting to advise him that meetings will commence with the right wing. However, Hall arrives just in time to see Marcos assassinated by what he believes is the CIA. Discouraged and jaded, Hall returns to Washington and promptly retires.

Hall settles into a life of normalcy in his North Carolina mountain home. His serenity becomes short-lived when he reads that a bogus expose has been submitted to the newspaper. Falsely published under Hall’s by-line, the article exposes the assassination of Marcos including personal details that only Hall possesses. When Hall reports that the article was not authored by him, his entire life turns upside down. The CIA, press, and former colleagues have seemingly framed Hall, tossing the former operative into an intriguing cat-and-mouse game that he's forced to play to clear his name...and stay alive.

Like “The War Heist” (originally “MacTaggart's War”), Ralph Dennis manipulates a lot of characters and settings to present his unique story. What begins as the proverbial “frame job” story, where many spy and espionage thrillers thrive, eventually evolves into an elaborate power play between industry giants. Instead of suits and ties, it's Uzis and Ingrams. The author's character development of Hall is his strong suit, an attribute that is important given the amount of characters that bob and weave in and out of the narrative. There's a brief love interest, an international mystery and a tailspin on the moral compass – bad, badder, baddest. Thankfully, these characters sometimes blur the boundaries of what is perceived as traditional heroes.

With “Spy in the Box”, Ralph Dennis crafts an unconventional spy thriller with compelling characters that springboard into action. As more and more of the author's work is unearthed, Dennis is finally receiving the literary accolades he deserves.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, December 2, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 22

This episode: What's all the fuss over James D. Lawrence's 1975 series "Dark Angel" and why are collectors spending top-dollar to grab copies? Also, Tom reviews "Savage Love", a Harry Whittington paperback from 1952, and Eric covers 'Traveler: Road War' by John Shirley. Finally, we discuss some contemporary projects produced by friend-of-the-show Paul Bishop. Stream below, anywhere that is streaming great podcasts or download directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 22 - Dark Angel" on Spreaker.

The Trailsman #01 - Seven Wagons West

Author Jon Messman had a very busy schedule in the 1970s. Authoring novels in the 'Hotline', 'Revenger', 'Handyman' and 'Killmaster' series titles, Messman was a bright spot on the vigilante and espionage radar. It makes sense that by the time 1980 rolled around, the author was ready for a change of pace. Beginning with “Seven Wagons West”, Messman wrote a majority of the first 200 installments of 'The Trailsman' adult western series for Signet using house name Jon Sharpe. Astonishingly, that was only half the series. The Trailsman ran through 397 novels from 1980 through 2014, the last half written by a rotating blend of authors. These books can be read in any order, but my first experience is the debut.

“Seven Wagons West” introduces readers to Skye Fargo, a gruff frontiersman who rides an unnamed horse, fires a Remington .44 and...as the title suggests...escorts clients on the winding trails of the untamed west. The character's backstory is fairly simple. His father was a road agent for Wells Fargo. While young Skye was away on chores, his parents and kid brother were murdered by three bank robbers. Skye took “Fargo” as his last name as an ode to his father's profession. He now searches the Western Frontier for his family's killers while working his day job as a trailsman.

In this installment, Reverend Rogers and his wife Constance have learned of a silver mine in Wisconsin territory. They hire Fargo to guide the congregation on a month long journey through Sioux country. The goal is to establish a church in the wilderness and Fargo is being paid well – in women. On board the wagon train is a single babe named Julia, the reverend's sexy wife and third pickings, a weathered woman named Dulcy. It's an adult western series, so Fargo slips in a number of timely lays on the outskirts of campsites. Wagons ho!

In terms of gun action, which is primarily the second reason why anyone reads these things, Fargo tangles with a few bandits that attempt to rob the caravan. There's also a Sioux raiding party to contend with and of course, outlaws who are privy to the location of the silver mine. Fargo is established as an intelligent hero, often out-cunning enemies before firing a round. As a seasoned traveler, his skills are showcased in triumphant fashion.

Whether it's fixing busted axles, mending wounded horses or caring for neglected wives, Fargo proves to be the capable long-term paperback hero. Whether that remained fresh for nearly 400 books remains to be seen. But, based on the number of readers, books sold and the quality of writers, the story became a tremendously successful cookie cutter formula for the demanding publisher. As a series debut, "Seven Wagons West" doesn't move the needle in terms of originality or innovation, but it's thoroughly enjoyable and recommended for new fans of the series like myself.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Operation - Murder

Lionel White (1905-1985) was a crime fiction writer with a specialty in heist novels. However, his work never achieved the commercial success or historical longevity of Richard Stark’s heist fiction. My theory is that because White never gravitated towards a series character (a’la ‘Parker’), readers never developed any particular brand loyalty toward his writing despite its sustained excellence. The upside of a stand-alone paperback is that the stakes are way higher for the main character. In any novel, the hero could live or die or be imprisoned because the author has no use for him after the final page.

“Operation - Murder” is a 1956 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback original by Lionel White that has been re-released by Stark House as a double packaged with “Coffin for a Hood.” The new collection also features an introduction by talented Utah author Ben Boulden who does some remarkable detective work uncovering details of White’s shadowy life.

The novel opens with Tina Scudder riding in a bus through the Rocky Mountains to the sleepy town of Twin Valley. She’s come a long way to rendezvous with the man she married ten days earlier after meeting the enigmatic charmer on the ski slopes. Her new husband, Frank, told her to meet him in the frozen hamlet, so they can be together at last on a never-ending honeymoon.

Meanwhile, we learn that there’s been a bank robbery - with shots fired and a deputy hit - in a nearby town. If you’ve never read a vintage crime novel before, you might be surprised to learn that newlywed Frank is connected to the robbery crew - the leader, in fact.

We also learn that there is a money train coming through the mountains replenishing banks with cash along its 600-mile route. There’s a couple guards on board keeping the $6 million safe, but an approaching snowstorm runs the risk of stopping the train right around Twin Valley. Could the relatively modest bank robbery have been just a warm up for the big score of knocking over the money train? You betcha. The planning and execution of a train robbery 100 years after such crimes had gone out of fashion was a great pleasure of “Operation - Murder.”

White keeps things moving for the reader with a compelling ensemble cast and regular third-person perspective changes. The setting of a snowed-in mountain town brimming with the potential for extreme violence makes for a suitably claustrophobic backdrop for this compelling heist paperback. The inclusion of the innocent Tina into the snowy shitstorm of violence and mayhem makes for a nice twist.

Overall “Operation - Murder” is a by-the-numbers 1950s heist paperback written by an author who had the formula mastered by this point of his career. The paperback doesn’t especially break new ground in the genre, but it’s extremely well-executed and worth your time. Mostly, I’m just glad that the novels of Lionel White are being kept alive over 60 years later. He was a master of the genre and “Operation - Murder” is a fine entry into his body of work.

Buy a copy of this book HERE