Friday, October 11, 2019

Brand of the Bullet

Orlando Rigoni (1897-1987), born in Utah, was a prolific author who contributed over 1,000 short stories to magazines and newspapers. Working in railroading, construction, mining and the Forest Service within California's Central Coast, Rigoni used his life experiences to fuel his writing. Under his own name, as well as pseudonyms including Leslie Ames, Carolyn Bell and James Wesley, the author penned several hundred novels in the war, detective, western and romance genres. My first sample of Rigoni's work is a 1970 paperback from Magnum Books entitled “Brand of the Bullet.”

The novel features interim US Marshall Mike Foster as the chief protagonist. Foster is a third generation lawman who hesitantly dons the badge in pursuit of a wanted criminal named Brag Cody. The outlaw escaped from the Rimrock jail, crippling Foster's father and killing the jailer. Trailing Cody to the town of Picaro, Foster and his longtime friend Buck find the town's saloon burning and a number of people dead. Discovering a scorched belt buckle with the initials B.C., Foster assumes Cody died in the fire.

Within a half-day's ride is Foster's extended family, including his cousin Carla. Making a quick stop, Foster learns that his family is mired in a bloody range war with the notorious Devlin clan. Like traditional western fare, the conflict stems from water and who owns the flow. Foster's family wants to dam the river, drying out the Devlins and forcing them to flee. However, it isn't that easy and soon Foster finds himself in the fight while learning more about Brag Cody's accomplice, Billy Childers.

Rigoni's action sequences are enjoyable, but nothing remarkable. “Brand of the Bullet” suffers from too many cooks in the kitchen, an overabundance of characters that don't play huge roles within the story. Due to that major flaw, the plot simply sinks into a convoluted mess that detracts from the action. My other complaint is that the author struggles writing engaging dialogue. However, he proves that there is plenty of reserved talent. For example, I love this portion of text in the opening pages:

“Mike was a lawman's son, raised in the shadow of the jail, haunted by the gaunt outline of the gallows, and burdened with a fear only the men who stand in the no-man's land between crime and the law can know.”

It's an impressive hint that Rigoni surely has better books. However...“Brand of the Bullet” sets a low bar.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Spiral Web

Jeffrey M. Wallman wrote two installments of the ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ series and a bunch of novels in the popular ‘Lone Star’ adult westerns series starring a horny female gunslinger and her kung-fu sidekick. He even produced some short Mike Shayne mysteries using the Brett Halliday pseudonym. Under his own name, he authored paperbacks in the historical romance, sword & sorcery, and western genres. This, however, is a review of his 1969 mystery-espionage stand-alone paperback, “The Spiral Web.”

Our narrator is Mike Faron, who is rudely awakened in his apartment by two gunmen in Silk City, New Jersey whom he escapes by running stark naked into a police patrol car parked outside. Silk City is presented as a festering and corrupt slum borne of apathy and neglect. Faron also has a chip on his shoulder against the police relating to some mistreatment he suffered years ago. Today, Faron is a management consultant who has returned to his hometown to help his war buddy’s new business get off the ground. The company is an international courier business that services defense contractors in the greater New York City area needing to securely move documents from one place to another (This was evidently a thing before PDFs.)

One thing leads to another, and Faron finds himself falsely accused of the double murder of two women - one is a courier in his pal’s business and the other is her neighbor. His alibi is weak, and the police feel strongly they’ve got the right guy. As you’d expect, Faron gives the cops the slip and escapes with the pressing need to solve the murder himself to clear his name. If you guessed that he falls in with a capable and buxom beauty who’s willing to help him investigate the matter, you’d be right. And if you think you’ve read this storyline many times before, you’re pretty much right again.

Okay, so the basic plot is cribbed from dozens of other tales of the wrongfully-accused men on the lam. Does the author at least do some interesting things with this tired template? Not really. The “courier of top-secret documents” thing was too obviously a planted plot point early in the novel for it not to be the crux of the mystery’s ultimate solution.

Wallman’s prose is dialogue-heavy and the action moves along at a fast clip. Although the paperback is a hefty 205 pages, the font is top-of-an-eye-chart huge, so it never feels like too much of a slog. It’s not a particularly bad novel, but it’s also nothing special or particularly worth your time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Watchmaker of Everton (aka The Clockmaker)

George Simenon (1903-1989) authored nearly 500 novels during his literary career. Simeon's most successful work was that of French police detective Jules Maigret. He authored 78 books starring the character, all in French with English translations by publisher Penguin Books. Unfamiliar with his writing, I decided on a popular stand-alone novel entitled “The Watchmaker of Everton.” The book was originally published in 1954 (in France as “L'horloger d'Everton”), but later was re-titled “The Clockmaker.” A 1974 French film adaptation was directed by Bertrand Tavernier.

Simenon introduces us to the fragile character of Dave Galloway, a watch repairman in upper New York. His life is quiet and uncomplicated – working in his small shop downstairs and residing in a small apartment above it. Dave spends most of his time as a single father caring for his 16-yr old son Ben. On Friday nights, he plays backgammon with his elderly friend Musak.

One Friday evening, Dave returns from Musak's house to find that Ben has left. After examining the apartment, Dave learns that Ben took his personal belongings, a suitcase, and Dave's car. Fearing that Ben is headed for trouble, Dave's passive behavior is to simply wait for news of Ben's whereabouts. When Dave talks with a nearby neighbor, he learns that a teen love interest also ran away with Ben.

The middle of the narrative focuses on recollections about Dave and Ben's childhood and the abandonment by Dave's wife when Ben was just six-months old. After these recollections, Dave is notified by police that Ben is a prime suspect in a murder and carjacking. Is Ben innocent? Why did he leave his father? These are some of the plot points addressed and resolved in the novel's last 40-pages.

While Simenon is a good enough writer, “The Clockmaker” has no plot development. There's nothing here resembling a well planned story. It's just simply a character study without a coherent storyline. A father waiting on his delinquent son to be located, arrested and placed on trial is the shallow depth Simenon was willing to wade? There's one addition here regarding Simenon's father and grandfather, but it isn't as engaging as the author predicted.

Perhaps Simenon's other work is something riveting and definitive. However, “The Clockmaker” is not. Buyer beware. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Fannin #1: Epitaph for a Tramp

Before experimental, avant-garde novelist David Markson (1927-2010) became a highly-regarded Greenwich Village literary figure, he wrote two hardboiled noir paperbacks for Dell starring private investigator Harry Fannin. The novels were “Epitaph for a Tramp” (1959) and “Epitaph for a Dead Beat” (1961). The books have been reprinted several times and even compiled together, but neither have been legally digitized for Kindle as of this writing.

“Epitaph for a Tramp” (also released as “Fannin” for a 1974 Unibook reprint) is narrated by Fannin, a former University of Michigan halfback, former newspaperman, former U.S. Army soldier and current private detective living a sweaty and lonely existence in a Manhattan fleabag apartment with his books. One sleepless night at 3:30 a.m., Fannin is greeted to his door buzzer ringing. The uninvited guest is his estranged ex-wife Cathy, whom he hasn’t seen in a year. Upon arrival, she collapses into his arms and dies moments later from a stab wound in her chest. Client or no client, Fannin now has a murder to solve.

We quickly learn that Cathy was no angel during their marriage. She was, in fact, the kind of tramp you’d mention in a paperback book title. I won’t spoil the details but the flashback chapter detailing the trajectory of the marriage between Fannin and Cathy was a helluva ride unto itself and makes the reader want to know more about this girl. The good news is that Fannin also wants the facts, and the reader is along for the ride.

Fannin is a thinking-man’s hardboiled private eye. He makes with the funny wisecracks (like Shell Scott) and genre tough guy talk (like Mike Hammer), but he’s also smart as hell and drops a lot of literary references along the way - T.S. Elliot and Dashiell Hammett among them. The good news is that none of this gets overly pedantic, nor does it get in the way of a great story.

Some of the characters Fannin encounters are drawn with some rough stereotypes that likely wouldn’t fly today. I always enjoy those moments in classic fiction because they help measure the passage of time and the changes in attitude over the past 60 years. If consumed correctly, books like this can be a valuable time capsule of social norms. However, if you require contemporary politeness to fictional characters in vintage paperbacks, “Epitaph for a Tramp” probably isn’t for you.

It’s also a violent read. A character gets tied to a chair in and burned with a lit cigarette. There are quite a few graphic beatings as Fannin stalks the New York streets in search of the bad decisions that led to Cathy’s fatal stabbing. The author clearly took the template of Mickey Spillane’s successful Mike Hammer series and turned the volume up to 11 with an extra twist at the end. It’s both a mystery and a vendetta story, and it’s one of the finest novels I’ve read this year - a highly recommended, absolute must-read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 7, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 14

Join us for a controversial discussion on authors who utilize ghostwriters to draft series novels under house names. Also, we look at the 1955 crime-noir "A Cry in the Night" by the tandem of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. We also dig into the 1988 men's action novel "Houston Hellground" (Avenger #2) by Chet Cunningham. Stream below or anywhere that streams good podcasts. Also download it directly (LINK).

Listen to "Episode 14: Ghostwriters" on Spreaker.

Wolf Moon

From pseudonyms like E.J. Gorman, Daniel Ransom and Robert David Chase, Edward Gorman's body of literary work is rather diverse. From horror to crime, action to western, Gorman's career was prolific and varied, producing over 60 novels. Along with the four-book frontier series 'Guild', many fans also choose the stand-alone western “Wolf Moon” as one of his finest.

Gorman's passion for crime-noir is clearly evident in this violent western tale. Despite it's turn-of-the-century setting, the author utilizes many genre tropes to propel this gritty narrative forward. While readers enjoy the paperback’s melancholic prose - draped over characters like a bed sheet - I'm entranced by Gorman's talents to weave a simple plot into such a grandiose spectacle. By the book's fiery finale – the gnashing of teeth in a fog of gunsmoke – the story feels much bigger than it really is.

Young Chase is first introduced to readers as a southeastern hayseed plow-boy. His brothers Don and Glen conspire with a bank manager named Schroeder to rob his bank and split the money. Chase tags along to help his brothers, only to watch Schroeder double-cross the gang and fatally shoot Chase’s brothers. Making off with the cash, Schroeder leaves Chase to become ensnared by the authorities.

The novel's early portion focuses on Chase's 12-years in prison, a grueling, graphic account of utter brutality. During that time, Chase keeps a tender correspondence with his childhood sweetheart, Gillian. Shortly after learning that the unmarried Gillian moved to a western town named Rock Ridge, Chase is officially freed. After a rewarding reunion with Gillian, Chase settles into civilian life and begins building for the future.

After taking a deputy job working for notorious Sheriff Hollister (no background checks then), Chase discovers that Schroeder, using the guise of a wealthy businessman named Reeves, is now managing a bank in Rock Ridge. Wanting revenge for the loss of his freedom and brothers, Chase must balance life on a triple beam. Will he settle into his new life or possibly jeopardize his new family's safety by seeking retribution?

Gorman poignantly presents the classic western tale – traditionally simple and effective. Yet, portions of the narrative expand into the story of an aging wolf, a character that retains a larger role in Chase's life. Like good crime-noir, elements such as the bank heist, double-cross, love interest and gunplay are consuming and important. Additionally, by setting the paperback at the turn of the 20th century, the author incorporates the smells of burning oil and telephone wires to add a more modern touch.

While certainly not flawless, Gorman crafts his westerns in a way that no one else can. “Wolf's Moon” maintains stark traditionalism, and for that reason the average western fans will embrace it. But seasoned, well experienced genre readers will appreciate the fact that Gorman provides some fresh footprints while treading familiar ground.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, October 4, 2019

The Pigskin Bag

Bruno Fischer (1908-1992) was a crime fiction author who, in a more just world, would be better known today because his books were consistently great. Case in point: “The Pigskin Bag.” The short novel began its life in 1946 when it was published in “Mercury Mystery” for 25 cents. It later achieved life as a hardcover and several iterations of paperbacks, including the 1955 Dell edition pictured here. Sadly, it has not been released legally as an eBook, so you’re stuck with paper if you want to read it.

Adam Breen, our sarcastic narrator, is a car salesman and U.S. Army vet living and working in Brooklyn. One evening, he notices a small pigskin suitcase on the backseat floor of the vehicle his wife has been driving. The bag is locked, and it’s heavy as hell as Adam lugs it inside his modest townhome. Upon arrival, his wife is acting suspicious as all hell. What the heck is going on here?

That’s the central question of the paperback. I won’t spoil the wife’s incredible story about how the pigskin bag wound up in the car, but it begs a lot more questions. Fortunately, we are in good hands with Bruno Fischer guiding us though the quickly-unfolding mysteries of the bag and it’s mysterious contents. Everyone wants the damn thing, and some are willing to kill for it.

Of course, the cops don’t buy Adam’s innocent bystander routine. They think he knows what’s inside the bag and where it’s stashed. As often happens in noir novels of this nature, it’s incumbent on Adam to solve the mystery of the pigskin bag and the murders occurring in its wake to clear his own good name and resume his life.

There’s some great violence in this book - bone crunching, close-quarters, face smashing stuff. However, there is no vintage paperback sex because it was written in 1946 before sex was invented. “The Pigskin Bag” (the novel, not the satchel) does contain way too many characters, and I needed a cheat sheet to keep all the cops, crooks, and red herrings straight.

At the novel’s conclusion, we get to learn what’s inside the McGuffin - I mean pigskin bag, - as well as who committed the murders, and what all the fuss was about. It was a satisfying ending to a satisfying mystery paperback. Perhaps it wasn’t a masterpiece of the genre - or even among Fischer’s greatest hits - but if you can find a copy cheap and want to kill a couple hours, you’ll certainly enjoy “The Pigskin Bag.”

Buy a copy of this book HERE