Friday, July 3, 2020

Fire in the Snow (aka The Lonely Skier

Along with Alistair Maclean and Desmond Bagley, British author Hammond Innes (real name: Ralph Hammond Innis, 1913-1998) is one of the masters of high-adventure fiction. Hammond authored 34 novels from 1937 through 1996 and also penned nonfiction and children's stories as well. My first experience with the author is his 1947 novel The Lonely Skier, which was released in the U.S. as Fire in the Snow. The book was adapted for cinema in 1948 under the title Snowbound.

Set in the snowy Dolomite mountains of Northeastern Italy, the book focuses on a British man named Neil Blair. As an ex-Army officer, Blair is a family man who's unemployed in the book's opening chapter. His friend Engles, a movie producer, asks Blair to vacation at a remote ski lodge called Col Da Verda. The purpose is to write a movie script and team with a photographer named Joe Weston. Aside from the primary role of film creator, Engles asks Blair to search for a mysterious woman named Carla.

Upon Blair's arrival at Col Da Verda he is introduced to a cast of characters that become mainstays in the book's narrative. Blair eventually meets Carla and learns that she is a wealthy Countess and has a romantic past with a few of the book's characters. The most interesting revelation is that the lodge was once owned by Stefan, a former Nazi officer who was later captured and ultimately died from suicide. The resort supposedly holds an abundance of stolen Nazi gold that Stefan hid for safekeeping.

Innes' novel teases high-adventure, explosive action and perilous skiing. However, the reader is forced into the lodge as a spectator for most of the plodding narrative. In fact, the bulk of the book is Blair and the cast of characters drinking at the bar and accusing each other of withholding information on the treasure's location. There are chapters upon chapters of suspicions, finger pointing and threats of violence. Sadly, none of this comes to fruition until the book's last 20-pages. It's as if Innes just didn't have enough story to create a pleasurable experience for readers.

Innes is a fine author and I'm certainly not doubting his literary legacy. It appears I simply picked a bad book. Oddly, his 1948 novel Blue Ice seems to have the same story-line – a stashed treasure in the cold Norwegian mountains. Like his contemporaries, the idea of lost treasure (mostly Nazi) seems to be a prevalent sales pitch for avid readers. I'll certainly read more Innes, and I have a short-list of what fans consider his best work. I'm hoping I'll find a real gem there, but Fire In the Snow isn’t it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Milo March #02 - No Grave for March

Milo March was a fictional spy turned insurance investigator created by Kendell Foster Crossen using the pseudonym M.E. Chaber. The series ran for 22 novels and a handful of short stories from 1952 to 1973, and is currently being reprinted by Steeger Books with fetching cover art. Based on a tip from Crossen’s daughter, author and literary estate curator Kendra Crossen Burroughs, I decided begin my march into the series with the second installment, No Grave for March from 1953.

March is an investigator for Denver-based Intercontinental Insurance, but he used to be a OSS operative during World War 2. Some of his books are straight-up property crime investigations and in other books, the U.S. government presses March back into service for an espionage assignment. This series setup provided the author great flexibility to plug his hero into any kind of pulpy genre book he felt like writing. No Grave for March is an international spy adventure paperback.

As the novel opens, March has been away from the spy business for seven years. He is summoned to a clandestine meeting in Washington, D.C. with an old colleague from his war days. It seems a diplomat with a head full of secrets has defected to the Soviet client state of East Germany. Because March speaks German, he is the choice to slip behind the iron curtain, kidnap the diplomat, and bring him back to the West. One of the secrets at stake is a mind-control device that can reprogram the public to either love Stalin or apple pie depending on who’s pulling the trigger.

I had always written off the Milo March books as being lightweight, inconsequential paperbacks along the same lines of Richard Prather’s Shell Scott or the many heroes of Carter Brown. Instead, the author put some actual thought into his work with summaries of communist theory embedded into the plot-line and interesting historical tidbits. This isn’t a work of genius, but it’s also not completely disposable fiction.

It’s also not a fast-moving shoot-em-up paperback. March spends a good bit of the novel just trying to convince the commies that he’s one of them and not an American spy. I found this fascinating, but it’s certainly not a breakneck Killmaster thrill ride. Crossen also has an annoying habit of writing lots of dialogue in German and Russian with no translation. You get the gist, but why bother showing off like that? There’s also a lot of specifics about East German tactics, ambitions, and party machinations that you will find either interesting or not.

Things become very exciting in the novel’s final act with a pulpy action sequence among the best I’ve read. I wish the rest of the paperback had set pieces as thrilling as the conclusion. Despite some missteps along the way, I genuinely enjoyed No Grave for March, and I look forward to exploring more of the series in the future.

Addendum:

No Grave for March has been reprinted several times. In the Paperback Library 1970 edition pictured above, the publisher numbered the installment #13. Don’t be fooled: it was truly book #2 in the series. An earlier printing of the novel was titled All the Way Down. Unless you’re a hardcore collector, don’t buy the same book trice.

Also, the Steeger House reprint contains an interview with Kendell Foster Crossen from 1975 that was informative for both his fans and pulp fiction historians. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Mike Shayne #01 - Dividend on Death

It's no secret that Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer series was an empire. It's like the KISS of crime-fiction and by the late 1940s Spillane and Hammer boosted the genre to lofty commercial heights. Detective fiction was real cool...again. But, a decade before, a guy named Davis Dresser had done the same.

Dresser's Mike Shayne character was a media phenomenon. Beginning with the character's debut in 1939's Dividend on Death, Dresser, using the pseudonym Brett Halliday, penned fifty novels through 1958. The series forged 12 films, three decades of magazines, over 300 short-stories, comics, nine years of radio and 32-episodes of NBC television. Not that anyone is counting...but after Dresser's departure the book series continued for another 27 installments. That's remarkable considering Dividend on Death was reportedly refused by 21 publishers before finally being finding a home. Unfamiliar with the character, I chanced on a copy of Dividend on Death and spent the night with it.

While the series debut doesn't reveal much backstory, Shayne is a red-headed, Miami private-eye. Like most of his literary peers, Shayne is a heavy drinker and smoker who enjoys mingling with the ladies. Mixing business with pleasure is his M.O., and occasionally he can rely on his friendship with Miami Police Chief Will Gentry to ease him out of the most complex jams. In this first case presented to readers, Dresser creates a conundrum for Shayne and Gentry to navigate together. 

A young woman named Phyllis drops in on Shayne and asks him for a rather odd job. Phyllis' mother is arriving at the family's Miami mansion and Phyllis wants Shayne to keep her from killing her own mother. The client suffers from a fixation that makes her want to kill her own mother to keep from sharing her with her new stepfather. Shayne takes the case but later finds Phyllis wandering around in the dark mansion with blood on her nightgown. A further probe shows that Phyllis' mother has indeed been murdered and Phyllis is the likely suspect. But here's the curveball: Shayne quickly scoops up Phyllis and drops her at his own apartment - including the bloody knife! Any reader would feel Phyllis is guilty as sin, but Shayne draws a different conclusion.

Dividend on Death was excellently written for 1939. For 2020 readers, I feel that Dresser's voice hasn’t aged as well as Mickey Spillane, Frank Kane, Ross MacDonald or even Richard Prather for that matter. This early novel comes across in a pulpy style that reminded me of the Golden Age detectives. I enjoy stuff like The Avenger, Green Lama and Doc Savage because I know what I'm getting. Dividend on Death took me by surprise in its rudimentary story-telling. Shayne is beaten senseless, shot four times, hides Phyllis from the very people that want to help him and her, including the city's police chief. Shayne seemingly steers completely off-road when he doesn't have to. These things don't necessarily ruin the story, but they certainly don't elevate the hero to a heightened sense of alertness and heroic turpitude. Maybe that's the whole point – screwball clumsiness meets investigative hunches. Like Shell Scott.

As a new Mike Shayne reader, I have an entire universe to explore. I'm not going to saddle my criticism, disappointment and lack of enjoyment on the fact that Dividend on Death wasn't a fabulous book. It probably isn't a fabulous representation of Dresser's voice and the style that he attained after numerous novels. If there is a short-list of Shayne’s greatest paperback hits, I'd entertain a deeper dive. For now, I respect the character, enjoyed witnessing Dresser's developing talents and appreciate what the Shayne character has contributed to the success of the crime-fiction genre.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Ape Swain #03 - The Captive City

Ohio-born Daniel Da Cruz (1921-1991) served as a U.S. Marine rifleman from 1938 to 1942 before pursuing a career in journalism with an expertise in Middle-Eastern affairs. His body of work as an author includes a three-book Men’s Adventure series starring an international gunslinger-for-hire named Ape Swain. The series conclusion from 1976, The Captive City, won the Edgar Award for Best Paperback Original Novel. Life is short, so that’s where I’m starting the series.

First, let’s address the protagonist’s name. It’s A.P. Swain, but you can call him Ape. Everyone does. In all fairness, Ape is big, strong, and hairy - so it works on multiple levels. As the novel opens in mid-action, Ape is wearing a business suit and parachute when he bails out of a Cessna into the night sky over the Arabian desert. According to plan, Ape lands in the fictitious, reclusive and oil-rich Kingdom of Al-Akhiri. Before his death by dehydration, rescuers find our hero and deliver him directly to a fetid jail cell to await his execution by firing squad the next morning.

A flashback informs the reader that Ape has been pressed into service by a U.S. oil worker’s union to rescue over 3,700 Americans who have been held in the Kingdom for 17 years inside a city enclosed by an electric fence. The U.S. government has given up on the idea of mounting a rescue mission and seems to be actively covering-up news of this alleged concentration camp. Are the Americans inside the camp happy employees of the Arab nation’s oil operation or hostages being kept from their relatives and countrymen? This premise is beautifully-executed by the author who sets up a vexing conundrum for our hero to solve in this fast-moving adventure.

As it becomes clear what’s happening inside The Captive City, the reader must suspend his disbelief that thousands of Americans would simply be forsaken by the U.S. government. Of course, this opens the door for a hero like Ape Swain to enact a dangerous and audacious plan to discover the truth. By the time Ape makes it inside The Captive City, the suspense level is high. It reminded me of “The Others” village on the ABC TV show Lost. I won’t spoil it, but nothing is as it seems inside the fenced city. Meanwhile, the author doles out the answers judiciously with several red herrings and a fantastic payoff.

The novel’s terrific ending sets up a great new turn for the series, but it never happened. For reasons lost to history (but it’s always money), there was no Book 4 in the Ape Swain series. As such, The Captive City will go down in history largely unremembered. But those who find and read a yellowing paperback copy will recognize it as a work of genre fiction that outperformed both its predecessors and the reader’s expectations. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, June 29, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 50

On Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 50, we explore the life and books of Thomas B. Dewey, the Casca Controversy fallout, and a review of Hillary Waugh's Roadblock.  Listen on any podcast app, paperbackwarrior.com, or download directly HERE Listen to "Episode 50: Thomas B. Dewey" on Spreaker.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Steve Bentley #02 - End of a Stripper

E. Howard Hunt authored over 70 novels utilizing pseudonyms including David St. John, Gordon Davis, John Baxter and variations of his own name. He also used the name Robert Dietrich to write 12 novels, 10 of them featuring a fictional Washington D.C. tax accountant named Steve Bentley. The character debuted in 1957's Murder on the Rocks and continued with two to three books per year through 1962. In 1999, Hunt revisited the character with one final chapter, Guilty Knowledge. Cutting Edge Publishing has released several of them as affordable ebooks. I really enjoyed my experience with the series debut and was happy to obtain a digital copy of the second installment, 1959's End of a Stripper.

The story begins with Bentley entertaining an old war buddy at a swanky strip-club called Chanteclair. It's here where Bentley first sets eyes on a gorgeous Scandinavian stripper named Linda Lee. Enthralled with the woman, Bentley notices that a shady man is taking quick, discreet photos of Lee. After a few minutes, the man is assaulted by two bouncers and hauled outside. Right before his exit, the man furtively slides his camera into Bentley's pocket. After the show, Bentley has a private-eye friend analyze the photos only to determine they are just poorly lit, poorly planned shots of Lee. But, Bentley learns the man taking the photos was a bottom-shelf private-eye named Mousey found murdered in a nearby warehouse. After Bentley is visited with threats to return the camera, the narrative accelerates to furious pace under Hunt's talented writing skills.

With Bentley the target of the bouncers and whoever hired Mousey, the only solution is to discover the identity of the mysterious stripper. In doing so, Bentley finds himself mired in the inner workings of politics in the D.C. beltway. Using his trusted ally Lieutenant Kellaway, the duo investigate Chanteclair's ties to a wealthy criminal mastermind and his connection with a secretive U.S. Congressman.

Hunt's second Bentley thriller is an intriguing, pulse-pounding hardboiled crime-novel with all of the desirable genre tropes – sultry women, crooked men and the inevitable chase for wealth and power. End of a Stripper is a more superior offering when compared to the series debut, Murder on the Rocks. Both are excellent, but it's Hunt’s narrative that readers will find fascinating. His contemptuous views of 1959's amoral Washington D.C. serve as a prophetic message for readers in 2020. 

In an odd twist, it is Hunt himself who would later contribute to unlawfulness in our nation's capital with his involvement in the famed Watergate Scandal. Despite the author's political experiences, Hunt proves once again that he can write the proverbial hardboiled crime classic again and again. End of a Stripper may or may not be one of his best literary offerings. After all, he authored over 70 novels, so further investigation is warranted.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Killer in White

After serving as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific during World War 2 and storming Iwo Jima, Harold John “Tedd” Thomey (1920-2008) returned to the states to pursue a career as a journalist with the San Francisco Chronicle and the Long Beach Independent with a specialty in restaurant reviews. He also wrote 20 books, including a 1956 Fawcett Gold Medal original titled Killer in White.

Dr. Douglas Webb is a fraud. He pretends to be a chiropractor healing female patients with dubious therapy such as his fancy magno-therapy machine, but it’s all a scam. He doesn’t have a degree in medicine - not even one in chiropractic nonsense. He just makes it up as he goes along. Why bother? Two reasons: 1. For the money, and 2. To have unlimited sex with his unlimited cadre of adoring female patients.

So, our protagonist is a bit of a heel. His fun is interrupted by an investigator from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Federal Security Agency who figures out Dr. Webb is a non-credentialed con-man. The investigator also has reason to believe that the magno-therapy machine forming the centerpiece of Dr. Webb’s practice is also a bunch of hokum. The only way for our fake doctor to get rid of this pesky investigator is to bribe him $15,000.

The bulk of the 144-page paperback is Dr. Webb trying to raise the cash to bribe the federal agent. He does this mostly by bedding down rich ladies and then shaking them down for money while they’re still in an orgasmic haze. There are lots of subplots that the author juggles - some more interesting than others. As Dr. Webb is forced to put out fire after fire to keep his scam afloat, the novel becomes an frantic read with some great moments sprinkled throughout. The final act’s “getting away with murder” story-line was excellent and worth the wait - as was the resolution to a romance that develops throughout the novel.

Despite some minor reservations, I genuinely enjoyed Killer in White. There’s are some pretty nifty plot twists towards the end and some genuinely tense moments involving medical stuff. Thomey’s writing is serviceable and all the plot threads are neatly resolved by the end. I wouldn’t move heaven and earth to acquire a copy, but if you can snag one on the cheap, it’s definitely worth your time.