Friday, August 16, 2019

Edge of the Law

Hardboiled crime author Richard Deming was one of the stable of writers represented by literary agent Scott Meredith who regularly produced muscular and twisty short stories for Manhunt Magazine in the 1950s. Later in his career, he presumably made a good living writing TV tie-in novels for shows including “Dragnet” and “The Mod Squad.” His original, full-length novels are a bit uneven - I’ve read both brilliant ones and mediocre ones. As I wade though his body of work, my next plunge is his stand-alone novel, “Edge of Law” from 1960.

Jud Sands is a man on the run bouncing from town to town with his head on a swivel waiting to be captured or killed. His pursuer is Miami racketeer Big Mark Fallon, a man with the resources to deploy goons anywhere in America to settle the score. The riff began with a gambling dispute that escalated to a violent confrontation wherein a gunshot to the arm resulted in an amputation for Big Mark. Now, the one-armed crime boss wants a piece of Jud’s ass, and our hero isn’t interested in making good on that debt.

The road takes Jud to the fictional town of Ridgeford, a city with plenty of backroom gambling and good-looking dames for Jud to sample. It doesn’t take long until he attracts the attention of Ridgeford’s local mob boss, Rizzo Amatti, who offers Jud a job as muscle for $250 a week. Jud needs the cash and figures that his new employer may provide him some protection from his old employer, so he joins up with Rizzo’s outfit.

Jud’s first assignment is to rough up a local tavern owner who refuses to play ball with the local syndicate. While delivering a message to the non-compliant proprietor, Jud learns that his old flame from back home is now married to the bar’s owner. The warm feelings for his old sweetheart change his mind and cause him to question his loyalty to Rizzo. Suddenly, he has a decision to make: keep working for the local mobster or join up with the few small businesses seeking to resist Rizzo’s stranglehold on Ridgeford? Meanwhile, will Jud’s Miami problem catch up to him in his current powder-keg?

By this point in his writing career, Deming really was at the top of his game. His tough-guy prose is perfect and his plotting is tight as a drum. As a protagonist, Jud is a man-in-full - crooked as hell but fiercely loyal to his friends with an unbending code of ethics. The conflicts arising in “Edge of the Law” are high-stakes for the participants and genuinely suspenseful for the reader. There’s plenty of action and violence along the way to keep the tension high and the pages turning. The ending was a bit abrupt for me, but that wasn’t unusual for this era and genre.

Best of all, the vintage paperback has been resurrected as an eBook priced at about four bucks or free with Kindle Unlimited. The Kindle edition doesn’t give you the alluring paperback cover art, but the product inside is good enough that you can forego a flashy wrapper. Recommended.

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Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Azriel Uprising

Bantam Books maintained a torrid schedule of fantasy and science-fiction in the 1970s and 1980s. A lot of these literary works had more in common with the men's action and adventure line than real science-fiction. Case in point is the mislabeled 1982 post-apocalyptic novel “The Azriel Uprising”. The book is written by unknown author Allyn Thompson and features a familiar premise – American citizens attempting to survive in a nuked out United States. It has more in common with “Survival 2000”, “The Survivalist” and “Doomsday Warrior” than say...”Battlefield Earth”. Bantam Books' Science-Fiction label on the spine doesn't really do the book or it's author any justice.

“The Azriel Uprising” presents readers a 1980s America that has been nuked by the Soviet Union. The book picks up ten years after the bombing, in a United States that has now been firmly defeated by the enemy. Most of the US lies in “hot zones”, places that are no longer habitable for both survivors and the Russians. The safe-zones are parts of civilization that are now controlled and operated by the Russians in a bid to eventually control all of North America. These safe-zones feature concentration and labor camps for Americans and a skeleton of society for Soviet troops and sympathizers.

We're introduced to protagonist Donna Wallace, who uses code name Juanita, in the opening pages. She was once a prisoner in a labor camp, escaped torturous conditions and now functions as a courier relaying information to pockets of resistance up and down the East Coast. After blowing up a busload of Soviet troops in Texas, she becomes allies with a former US fighter pilot named Bo. Together, the two journey to Florida to rendezvous with a large unit of American soldiers. As a Florida resident, the recon meetings in overrun shopping malls and restaurants throughout Florida were personally enticing.

At 183-pages, the bulk of the book focuses on Donna and Bo as they travel from Florida to the Northeast gathering supplies and intel for an American resistance battle in the Gulf of Mexico. The campaign, to be launched on July 5th, will be the first to feature several organized survivor groups, including fighter jets and a Navy warship. Collectively, they hope to overrun a labor camp called Valdosta, liberate the prisoners and destroy the 1,200 man army of Soviets.

First and foremost, I've read a lot of post-apocalyptic literature. The radiation aspect, aligning survivalists and fighting the Soviets was extremely popular in 80s pop culture. “The Azriel Uprising” does nothing creative or terribly innovative for the genre or its experienced readers. The action is subdued, but still features a massive gunfight in the last 15-pages. This novel plods along like an apocalyptic road trip...yet somehow I found it surprisingly engaging.

Both Donna and Bo are likable characters and I felt I had a vested interest in all of the components. The small band of fighters reminded me of “Deathlands” to a degree, and the author's descriptive nature really painted a dismal landscape for these characters to exist (like trees and shrubs growing in an abandoned McDonalds).

With horrendous sub-genre series titles like 'Phoenix', 'Swampmaster' and 'Roadblaster', “The Azriel Uprising” is clearly a more entertaining and satisfying read.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Run for the Money

Robert Colby authored about 20 novels during his career - mostly in the 1950s and 1960s - but he never achieved the fame of his paperback original colleagues of the same era. As far as I can tell, his last published paperback was a 1973 ‘Nick Carter: Killmaster’ installment titled “The Death’s Head Conspiracy” co-authored with Gary Brandner. Thanks to the miracle of Kindle, many of his vintage paperbacks have been preserved as affordable eBooks, including his 1960 release, “Run for the Money.”

The novel opens with the daring and violent heist of an armored car from Jacksonville, Florida (coincidentally, home of Paperback Warrior Headquarters) delivering cash from the Federal Reserve to banks along the route. The crew successfully makes off with nearly a million in cash while leaving the bodies of the armored car guards behind.

We then meet our protagonist, Barry Lunsford, a sad sack living in a Florida rooming house while working a low-paying job at a department store. One day Barry finds a satchel discarded by the side of the road. Upon opening the bag, he learns that it is filled to the brim with $320,000 in cash. The reader figures that this is the stolen loot from the Chapter One heist, but neither the reader nor Barry knows why it was lying by the side of a road along the train tracks. With no real friends or family ties to Florida, Barry buys a plane ticket to Los Angeles and brings the cash with him to start a new life.

As you suspected, it’s never that easy. The robbers catch up to Barry as he’s living large with the cash in Hollywood. By this point, he has a girl, and she can be used as leverage by the bad guys to make Barry give up the dough. There’s plenty of blood and sadism to cement the idea that the bad guys are really bad guys. Can Barry figure out a way to keep the money and save the girl?

In “Run for the Money,” the author has taken a basic concept - something we’ve all fantasized about - and turned it into a compelling suspense story with some tidy twists and turns. Colby’s writing is solid, and the story is without fat or filler. The short novel flies by, and while it won’t be the best crime novel you’ve ever read, I can’t imagine anyone failing to enjoy every page of this cautionary tale. Recommended.

Postscript:

Prolific multi-genre author James Reasoner shares this story: “Robert Colby and I shared an agent during the 80s, and she got us together to work on a screenplay based on ‘Run for the Money.’ Colby was a very dignified guy, kind of reserved, but I liked him and thought this was a very good book. The agent tried to sell the screenplay but nothing ever came of it. He also wrote a series of stories in ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’ that I liked very much."

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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Duel in the Snow

Hans-Otto Meissner (1909-1992) enjoyed a writing career with three different specialties: political history books, travelogues and adventure fiction. After attending universities at Heidelberg and Trinity, the majority of his life was diplomatic work in London, Moscow, Milan and Tokyo. Utilizing his world travels, Meissner retired and began his career as a successful author. My first experience with Meissner is the novel “Duel in the Snow.” It was originally released in German in 1964. It was later re-printed and published at least three more times in 1970, 1972 and the pictured 1974 reprinting by Pyramid. Each iteration features different cover art.

In December 1941, the US was bombed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. Six months later the Japanese targeted another US property, the island of Attu. Focusing all of their efforts on Europe, the US forgot to guard the back door, so the Japanese forces occupied the island and began constructing landing strips that they hoped to use for bombing runs on America's West Coast cities. The location of Attu is important because it lies just off the coast of Alaska. In fact, in 1935 General Billy Mitchell advised the US Congress that whoever holds Alaska will hold the world. He felt it was the most important strategic place on the planet.

The opening pages of Meissner's novel depict the quick occupation of Attu and introduces key characters to the narrative – Japanese Captain Hidaka and Alaskan game warden McCluire. With Attu's grueling weather patterns, complete with frigid temperatures and howling winds, the actual launching of fighter planes from the island was a harrowing endeavor. Meissner's fictional narrative has the Japanese forces conceiving a plan to parachute a dozen soldiers into the northern section of Alaska. Led by the talented Hidaka, their mission is to transmit the weather patterns back to leaders on Attu so they can plan air attacks accordingly. Knowing that the radio broadcasts will be intercepted by US intelligence, the Japanese team will need to consistently travel through the wilderness avoiding detection, never residing in one location for too long. Hidaka's team realizes they will never be retrieved and that this is essentially a do-and-die mission.

Learning of the Japanese mission, the US doesn't have enough resources to allocate to Alaska for a seek and destroy operation. They would need men who not only possess combat experience, but men who are familiar with this barren stretch of frosty wilderness. After assembling a small team of inexperienced Alaskan scouts, US military brass enlists Alaskan game warden and survivalist extraordinaire McCluire to lead the expedition. McCluire hesitantly agrees and the narrative is set into motion with the team hunting Hidaka through the snowy mountains.

How this novel has flown under the radar is beyond me. At a robust length of 256-pages, I was entranced. Meissner's keen ability to develop both parties into likable foes and the patience he uses to create white-knuckle suspense is just so rewarding for the reader. Under the guiding hand of another author, the book could have been rather one-dimensional. While offering the obligatory “seek and destroy” theme, Meissner introduces Alaskan history, regional and Japanese fighting customs and a surreal look at grim survival. Western fans will love the rugged Alaskan interior while military fiction (and even non-fiction) enthusiasts will gravitate to this rather unknown chapter of the war – The Battle of Attu.

No matter which sub-genre you enjoy, the overwhelming sensation is adventure. Hans Meissner has created a stunning action-packed novel that I nearly read in one sitting. I found myself re-arranging my day to avoid any stoppage in the story. I think this book will have that same effect on you. Go hunt down a copy of this extraordinary book.

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Monday, August 12, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 6

On this show we'll discuss the mysterious career of author and publisher Peter McCurtin. We examine McCurtin's "Escape from Devil's Island" as well as two new reviews - "Duel in the Snow" by German author Hans Meissner and the debut Malko novel "West of Jerusalem" by Gerard De Villiers. (Music credit to Bensound). Stream the episode below or on services like Spreaker, Apple, Google and Stitcher. Download the show HERE.

Listen to "Episode 06: Who is Peter McCurtin?" on Spreaker.

Malko #01 - West of Jerusalem

I was left scratching my head at the recent news that Michael Fassbender will produce and star in a Hollywood film adaptation of the ‘Malko’ series of paperbacks by Gerard de Villiers. Why Malko? Why not Mack Bolan? Why not Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm? The paperbacks I’ve seen on the used bookshelves sure don’t look like much.

The Malko series (called the S.A.S. series in France) began in 1964 and was written in French by Gerard de Villiers (1929-2013) with 200 installments and millions upon millions of copies sold. An English translation of the first book in the American numbering scheme, “West of Jerusalem” was released by Pinnacle Books in August 1973. The novel was installment #9 in France, but I get the impression that series order isn’t all that important in the Malkoverse, so I picked up a copy at the used bookstore to see what all the fuss was about.

The series hero is Malko Linge, an Austrian prince who graduated from Harvard in 1954 and has been working on a contract basis for the CIA for a decade when we join him in the 1960s. He inherited a castle in Austria that is in need of serious renovations, so he continues taking CIA gigs to generate sufficient cash flow to pay contractors. Malko’s foreign background provides the operative with instant cover and credibility while operating overseas. His public face is that of a dashing international jet-setting playboy - pretty much the truth for the Austrian nobleman. As is typical in these type of books, Malko is the best we have.

“West of Jerusalem” opens with the dramatic public suicide of the CIA director. His aides and colleagues are baffled by his mysterious demise and turn to Malko to investigate the reason. The trajectory of the case sends Malko to New York, Switzerland and beyond with plenty of action along the way. The novel has a block of key scenes in the 1960s psychedelic subculture - a setting I’ve always found annoying and cliched. There’s also some rather retrograde depictions of gay people in the story. Bear in mind, the paperback was originally published in 1967, so these quibbles are really just artifacts of the era.

Even though Pinnacle packaged the novel with a corny painted cover indicative of the publisher’s lowbrow early-1970s offerings, Malko has more in common with Ian Fleming’s James Bond than Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan. Malko is a professional spy conducting an investigative mission in order to solve a vexing mystery. There’s plenty of violent action, but it’s never cartoonish or over-the-top as we see in The Butcher or The Penetrator paperbacks. Moreover, the villain’s plan is reasonable - nothing silly like a Nick Carter: Killmaster story. There’s also a realism to the author’s writing unseen in other big-font, painted-cover paperbacks of the era. The English translation is solid with no indication that the original manuscript was written in French. Moreover, this is a CIA adventure (as opposed to a French intel service), so readers of American spy fiction will find themselves on familiar cultural ground.

With some minor quibbles, I enjoyed the hell out of this fast-moving, well-written paperback, and I now have a better understanding why the series was wildly-popular in Europe. I can’t wait to hunt down other early entries and review them for you here. Regarding the forthcoming Hollywood adaptation, I’m no longer asking why. A better question is: Why did they wait this long?

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Friday, August 9, 2019

The Executioner #88 - Baltimore Trackdown

“Baltimore Trackdown” is the 88th entry in the long-running 'The Executioner' series. Written by journeyman Chet Cunningham (1928-2017), the novel was released by Gold Eagle in 1986. Cunningham contributed to a number of Mack Bolan volumes including the 79th installment, “Council of Kings”, which includes characters that later appear in “Baltimore Trackdown”. A series education isn't a prerequisite as these books can still be enjoyed in any order.

Mob kingpin Carlo Nazarione has infiltrated the Baltimore Police Department. With a vast, cascading stream of money, Nazarione and his criminal cohorts have purchased plenty of badges in their quest to run a gambling empire on the East Coast. The mob are using a veteran named Captain Harley Davis to monitor the bribery channels and to solicit new members for the crooked cop brigade. However, one of Mack Bolan's oldest and most trusted confidants, Leo Turrin, has planted an informant within the ranks. It's this collaboration that allows Bolan easy access at his new targets.

For the most part, Cunningham utilizes Don Pendleton's early template to create this rousing Bolan adventure. The paperback deploys series the series trope of a young, innocent woman who's raped and murdered by the criminals as a motivating spark for The Executioner. Bolan, as if he needs more purpose, seeks to avenge her death. Gambling halls and bars are familiar landscapes for Bolan to fulfill his mission, but it's not until page 114 where things really become interesting.

In a clever tie-in with Cunningham's work on “The Executioner 79: Council of Kings”, a hitman named Vince Carboni appears. What's unique is that there is no mention of this character anywhere in the first 114 pages aside from a line stating that Carboni has been hired to finish Bolan for good after a firefight in Portland failed to eliminate the hero. In research, this recollection links to the 79th entry where Carboni is enforcing for the Canzonari's West Coast mob. None of this really matters, just a simple way to inject Carboni into 44 pages of this book.

The author shines as Carboni and Bolan do battle on a farm in rural Maryland. The cat-and-mouse tactics are some of the best scenes in my experience with 'The Executioner' books. Carboni ultimately controls the high ground, manning a 30-06 rifle from a farmhouse window. Bolan, trapped in a shed, attempts to dodge in and out of farm vehicles, buildings and eventually rooms within the house. The battle spills into cornfields, the road and back to the farm again before this side-story finally reaches its conclusion. This battle echoes David Goodis' effective farmhouse gunfight in “Down There”, also known as “Shoot the Piano Player” (1952), only more modern and quite a bit longer.

Overall, this is an exceptional Executioner entry with very engaging narrative and characters. While over the top at times, the book has a surprising sense of realism due to its more personal presentation – urban America on the take. If you are looking for a fantastic post-Pendleton Bolan work, this makes the short-list.

This novel and the entire Mack Bolan universe was discussed on the fifth episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link.

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