Friday, January 17, 2020

Garrison's Gorillas

The success of 1967's “The Dirty Dozen” led to countless imitators in fiction and on screen. The formula of “team-based” adventure thrived throughout the men's action-adventure genres of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Specifically, the film's use of criminals as American soldiers was often utilized. That premise was the basis for the 1967 ABC television show “Garrison's Gorillas”.

The show featured Lt. Garrison reforming four hardened criminals into an elite fighting force during WW2. The incentive for the prisoners was a complete parole from their remaining sentence...if they survived. While only lasting one season, the show gained a cult following. In 1967, military fiction writer Jack Pearl authored two spin-off novels, one as a young adult title called “Garrison's Gorillas and the Fear Formula” and the other as a mass market adult paperback simply titled “Garrison's Gorillas” (Dell). My only experience with the show is the “Garrison's Gorillas” novel.

The author assumes you are already familiar with the team and premise so the action begins immediately without much back-story. Lt. Garrison's orders are to locate a secret German base that is manufacturing the Messerschmitt ME 262 fighter jets. In order to do so, Garrison and his team disguise themselves as German officers and infiltrate a hotel meeting among the top German brass. Things immediately go awry when Garrison's disguise doesn't satisfy one of the German generals. Further, after locating the airstrip, Garrison's Gorillas learn that a second airstrip contains 60 of the jets. The team, while not breaking character, must stay ahead of Germany's inquiring leaders while also relaying intelligence back to the Allies.

At 160 pages, this was a swift and easy read. Some may find it lacking in heightened action or any sense of urgency to produce gunplay. But, overall it was enough to satisfy my WW2 craving despite the slow-burn narrative style. The characters of Casino, Goniff, The Actor and Chief were enjoyable but never overindulgent or distracting from the overall team concept. After reading the book, I sampled a few YouTube episodes and quickly realized I preferred these characters on paper instead of the screen.

The bottom line, “Garrison's Gorillas” should cater to fans of military fiction or to the old-timers that remember watching the television show when it premiered. This was my first Jack Pearl novel and I have two others I hope to read this year - “Stockade” and “Ambush Bay”.

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Thursday, January 16, 2020

87th Precinct #02 - The Mugger

The 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain (a pseudonym of Evan Hunter) was a tremendous literary success with around 55 novels spanning from 1956 to the author’s death in 2005. Those in-the-know say that the shorter early installments are the best use of your time before the demands of the market made the novels more bloated and convoluted later in the series. Today, we examine the second paperback, “The Mugger,” from 1956.

In order to firmly establish that the 87th Precinct is a true ensemble group of heroes, the lead detective from the first novel, Steve Carrella, is largely absent from “The Mugger” while he is on his honeymoon. In his absence, the 87th Precinct of Isola (McBain’s fictionalized version of Manhattan) is being plagued by a mugger roughing-up innocent women and robbing their purses. The most promising clue is that the mugger always ends his strongarm robberies with a deep bow while declaring, “Clifford thanks you, madam!”

There is a secondary plot involving a 24 year-old rookie patrolman named Bert Kling who is home recovering from a gunshot wound. An acquaintance introduces Kling to a troubled 17-year-old girl who appears to be going down the wrong path. The hope is that a heart-to-heart with a policeman might help the girl. Bored with his convalescence, Kling agrees to speak to the young lady, who happens to be a slender little dish uninterested in sharing her problems with the young patrolman. After rebuffing Kling’s outreach, she finds herself violently murdered a few pages later creating another mystery to be solved.

Could the violent death of the girl somehow be related to the oddball mugger terrorizing the women of Isola? The detectives of the 87th endeavor to find out while Kling, the novel’s best character, punches above his weight conducting his own investigation - a violation of department policy for a patrolman.

We get to know a lot of other characters in the 87th, and McBain does a nice job of making the ensemble come alive. We meet the Jewish police detective - and comic relief - Meyer Meyer. We bear witness to the controversial tactics of racist psychopath cop, Roger Havilland. A sexy, voluptuous female cop named Eileen Burke is used as bait to smoke out the mugger. She’s another awesome character, and readers will want to know her better in later installments.

The answers to the paperback’s central mysteries were satisfying but not groundbreaking or terribly twisty. You’ll see one solution coming from a mile away, but that’s not the point of a police procedural. The appeal of the series is a realistic glance behind the curtain revealing how cops do what they do. In that respect, “The Mugger” is the best Ed McBain book I’ve read thus far, and you should make reading this one a priority. 

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Trailsman #303 - Terror Trackdown

Journeyman David Robbins has authored over 200 novels under seven different pseudonyms. Along with horror and science-fiction works, Robbins created and wrote over 40 books in the 'Endworld' and 'Blade' post-apocalyptic series. As David Thompson, Robbins authored over 70 installments of the western series 'Wilderness' and eight frontier books under popular western writer Ralph Compton's name. My first experience with Robbins' work is his contribution to the massively successful 'The Trailsman' series under house name Jon Sharpe, specifically “Terror Trackdown”, released in 2007 as the 303rd novel of the series.

The book features “The Trailsman” Skye Fargo leading a small column of Army recruits through the northern Rockies in 1861. While the patrol features two experienced officers, the rest are all young baby-faced raw recruits with no formal training. Fargo has been hired as an Army scout to explore this portion of Montana in hopes of finding a suitable location to establish an Army outpost or fort. The opposition will be numerous Native American tribes that continue to resist the white man's invasion of the great Northwest.

Over the course of the westward trek, the crew begins experiencing mysterious events – bucking horses, missing gear and...murder. Once Fargo and the men meet Mountain Joe and his sexy daughter Prissy, the soldiers begin dying one by one. In the dense wilderness, Fargo must determine if the men are being killed by Native Americans or if there is a murderous traitor within the ranks. The investigation is saturated in blood and leads to an elevated level of violence for Fargo and the reader.

Aside from a short paragraph, I was surprised to find “Terror Trackdown” is devoid of any graphic sex. Fargo and Prissy do the obligatory nasty, but Robbins doesn't spend much time describing it. I'm sure dedicated series fans find this alarming, but I've never had a penchant for reading erotica. The substance is the story and Robbins delivers a superb narrative. The action extends from Montana into Minnesota and incorporates both the wilderness and a small farming community as locations.

While not quite a traditional western, Robbins' writing proves to be rather diverse. Without spoiling it for you, there's an early look at criminal profiling and serial killers, both a pleasant and welcomed surprise for a western yarn. Overall, this is another stirring installment for this wildly popular series. “Terror Trackdown” is worth tracking down.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Pick-Up

In 1955, Charles Willeford (1919-1988) was in the U.S. Air Force stationed in California and later Newfoundland. That was the year that his second published novel, “Pick-Up,” was published as a paperback original from Beacon Books. Since then, the novel has been reprinted several times, so finding an affordable used copy should be a cinch. Moreover, it’s also currently available as a $6 eBook.

Narrator Harry Jordan is a short order cook in a San Francisco diner working a quiet night shift when Helen Meredith arrives to have a cup of coffee at the counter. She’s very pretty and very drunk. Harry’s also a prolific boozer, so they hit a bar together after work. Helen has just arrived in town, and it’s clear that being shitfaced isn’t a rare thing for the girl.

Harry and Helen fall madly in love, and the reader is treated to a dysfunctional romance between two hard-core alcoholics with room-temperature IQs. It’s a lot like a David Goodis novel, but Goodis always thrusts his hard-luck losers into crime-fiction dilemmas fairly early in the novel. Willeford appears to be taking his time getting to the point until it finally occurs to the reader that there is no goal here other than bearing witness to the protagonists’ descent.

“Pick-Up” isn’t a much crime novel, and other than a couple bar fights, there’s not much action. Technically, there’s a killing but not the kind we normally see in paperbacks from this era. As expected, it’s rather well-told, but the book is basically just a prose blues song about two suicidal drunks in a doomed romance.

The final line of the book has a plot twist of sorts that probably knocked readers on their asses in 1955, but isn’t nearly as shocking 65 years later. In any case, I found “Pick-Up” to be a well-written slog that doesn’t hold up to brilliant Willeford works such as “The Woman Chaser” or “Wild Wives.” Your time is better spent elsewhere.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, January 13, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 26

On episode 26 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Tom explains the allure of The Saint series by Leslie Charteris, including a review of “Alias The Saint.” Eric covers Soldier of Fortune #2 by Peter McCurtin , and the guys have impromptu discussion about the work of Shepard Rifkin and Louis L’Amour. Listen on any podcast app or stream below. You can also download the episode directly HERE. Listen to "Episode 26: The Saint" on Spreaker.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Iceman #01 - Billion Dollar Death

The black exploitation phenomena of the 1970s captivated theater audiences nationwide, so I t's only natural that iconic characters like Shaft, Willie Dynamite and The Mack would influence men's action-adventure fiction. Los Angeles publisher Holloway House had a successful marketing run by introducing African-American characters and culture within the backdrop of the urban 1970s. Along with Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, Joseph Nazel was among the publisher's most prolific authors.

Nazel authored over 60 literary works ranging from biographies, romance and action-adventure. While serving as an editor for Holloway House, Nazel also edited African-American magazines like The Wave, Players, The Sentinel and Watts Times. But, his work with hard-hitting, violent series' like 'Black Cop' (written under pseudonym Dom Gober), 'My Name is Black' and 'Iceman' catered to men of any color. These were grimy, intense street thrillers that readers historically loved or hated. My first experience with Nazel is the debut installment of 'Iceman' entitled “Billion Dollar Death”. It was released by Holloway in 1974 and features artwork and fonts that are clearly marketed to 'The Executioner' and 'Penetrator' consumers.

First and foremost, kudos to both Holloway and Nazel for including the book's cover scene in the actual narrative. There really is a dueling helicopter fight in the skies over Las Vegas featuring two bikini-clad martial artists and the turtlenecked Iceman himself, Henry Highland West. In reality, this whole book carries that same sort of zany, over the top feel shown on the book's cover. It's often ridiculous, unintentionally funny and left me debating why my David Goodis collection remains unread while I spend hours flipping through books like this. But, Paperback Warrior covers a lot of ground no matter how slippery the slope is.

Essentially, West is a rags to riches drug dealing pimp who's graduated from a petty, street level gig in Harlem to a West Coast crime king. His empire is built on drug money, prostitution and corruption, all of which are the pillars of his Las Vegas fortress city aptly titled The Oasis. Think of Nevada's Bunny Ranch as a frolicking pay to play haven spaced out over 10-square miles. The Oasis is a self-contained city run by West.

In the opening pages, a mafia kingpin is blown to pieces by a half-ton of TNT. West's reputation of elaborate, high security host is blown and he wants answers. “Billion Dollar Death” then settles into West and his two kung-fu kittens cracking down on sparring Mob families, a crooked politician and a former friend of West's who may or may not be the middle man in a backdoor coupe to dethrone the Iceman.

Based on my small sample size, the Iceman series isn't very good. Nazel's writing is one-dimensional and often I found myself mired in deep discussions without any real payoff or connection to the real story. There's some gun-play, a fun fight scene in a garage and of course the aforementioned helicopter scene. But even these small slivers of joy are ruined by the overall drivel that refuses to deliver anything noteworthy. I'm putting Iceman in the deep freeze.

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Thursday, January 9, 2020

Gregory Hiller #03 - The Spy Who Didn't

Journeyman author Jack Laflin wrote four books in the Gregory Hiller spy series - plus a prequel explaining how a Soviet spy named Piotr Grigorivich Ilyushin eventually became the American CIA’s greatest asset. I had trouble getting into Book #2 (“The Spy in the White Gloves”), but I didn’t want to give up on this unique character so I’m continuing into Book #3: “The Spy Who Didn’t” from 1966.

The opening page brings the reader up to speed on Hiller’s background as a Soviet defector who is now living as a freelance writer between CIA special assignments. However, this time the assignment stumbles into a vacationing Hiller in the form of a battered old man on a road who collapses in Hiller’s arms outside a mysterious Long Island, New York sanitarium. Before losing consciousness, the old man tells Hiller that the nation of Israel needs to be notified, and “Von Eckhardt has to be stopped!”

Hiller is quickly confronted by the escapee’s pursuers and we get to meet our pulpy cast of cartoonish villains lead by Doctor Rolf Von Eckhardt, who we immediately know is a real villain because he wears a monocle. He’s also the operator of the private sanitarium, Shady Knoll, from which the old man escaped. By page 17, Hiller is captured by the bad guys, including a human giant named Man Mountain McGill, and taken to the sanitarium. The context clues for Hiller and the reader are enough to make everyone come to the logical conclusion that Von Eckhardt is an escaped Nazi officer doing very bad things inside the sanitarium walls.

Laflin writes “The Spy Who Didn’t” in the over-the-top pulp fiction style of The Shadow, The Spider, or Doc Savage. It’s a lot of fun as long as you aren’t expecting a John LeCarre or Robert Ludlum spy story (in fairness, the paperback’s cover should have been a clue.) The torture scenes inside Shady Knoll were particularly brutal, and the secrets of what else is happening inside the creepy place are revealed mostly through monologues from the villain oversharing with our restrained hero.

Eventually, the action moves from beyond the sanitarium walls and into Mexico. Heller’s mission is one that’s been done in dozens of times in other, better novels, but that’s not the point. “The Spy Who Didn’t” is a violent and propulsive bit of pulp fiction that exists for the joy of the ride. Laflin is a good storyteller even when he is trading in genre tropes for his CIA hero. Mostly, this is a book I can recommend without reservations because it was a hell of a lot of fun. I probably won’t remember the plot details in a year, but I’ll certainly recall the good time I had in this vicarious adventure.

The Gregory Hiller Series:

0: The Spy Who Loved America (1964)
1: A Silent Kind of War (1965)
2: The Spy with the White Gloves (1965)
3: The Spy Who Didn’t (1966)
4: The Reluctant Spy (1966)

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