Showing posts with label Clark Howard. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Clark Howard. Show all posts

Monday, September 6, 2021

Challenge the Widow-Maker and Other Stories of People in Peril

Clark Howard was a crime-fiction and true crime author that grew up as an orphan in Chicago's lower West Side. After surviving the Korean War's Battle of the Punchbowl, Howard became a full-time writer and a prominent contributor to mystery magazines like Alfred Hitchcock, Ellery Queen, and Mike Shayne. Thankfully, his estate has partnered with Mysterious Press/Open Road to offer two reprinted books collecting many of Howard's most well-known and award-winning short stories. 

The first is Challenge the Widow-Maker and Other Stories of People in Peril and the second is Crowded Lives and Other Stories of Desperation and Danger. Originally these were released as rather unattractive hardcover editions in 2000 by Five Star Publishing. Mysterious Press/Open Road reprinted these books in 2020 with modern covers in ebook format. My first peek at these is Challenge the Widow-Maker...

The book contains 12 short stories, including Ellery Queen Readers Award winners like "The Dakar Run", "Scalplock", "Animals" and his 1980 Edgar Award winner, "Horn Man". Most of the other stories were all nominated for various awards, including two Spur nominees in "The Plateau" and "Custer's Ghost". After reading the collection, here are a few highlights:

"Horn Man"

This story was probably influenced by the author's fondness of jazz, a genre he discovered in southern America in the 1940s. In the story's beginning, a former jazz star named Dix departs a Greyhound bus in New Orleans. After talking with an old friend, Dix explains that he has been in prison for 16 years after taking the fall for a woman named Madge. He asks his friend where Madge is now and that he wants to see her. His friend isn't sure if Dix is wanting to rekindle a relationship with the woman or murder her. It's an entrancing story as Dix is courted by both a jazz club owner and his friend to pick up an instrument again. When a seasoned cop becomes involved, this 31-page story speeds to an interesting finale where the sins of the past come to light. 

"The Plateau"

While this was nominated for a Spur award, it's not a traditional western. The story is set in a western town in the future. The last two living North American buffalo are owned by an old widowed man nicknamed Tank. The buffalo owner scratches out a meager living in a small Montana town with his daughter Delia. The state has created a lottery system where three winners will be allowed to hunt the last remaining buffalo in North America. But, when Tank realizes that one of the buffalo has died, he begins to gain a fondness for the remaining animal. Her name is Hannah and she's an old, female buffalo (cow) that has been in Tank's life for a long time. While he desperately needs the proceeds paid to him by the state, Tank attempts to smuggle Hannah into the rugged Black Hills ahead of the three hunters. The ensuing chase is a an exhilirating, and emotional read as Tank not only faces Hannah's extinction but also his own morality. It's an exceptionally well-written story.

"The Dakar Run"

Jack Sheffield is an aging race-car driver with a gambling addiction. Due to some bad luck, he's racked up a large debt owed to a French criminal named Marcel. One evening, his estranged daughter Chelsea appears and advises Jack that she's dating a race-car driver. She is requesting that Jack visit her boyfriend to review a super-car he's created for the famous, grueling race known as the Paris-Dacar Rally (today it's the Dacar Rally). It's an off-road endurance race that welcomes any driver and any vehicle. The event transpires across multiple countries, including a long stretch of the Sahara Desert. Jack has run the race before and lost, but his experience could prove valuable to Chelsea and her boyfriend. After Jack reviews the car, known as Max-One, he realizes it has a real shot at winning. The problem is that Marcel approaches Jack later and demands that he sabotage the car so that Marcel's large gamble on a marquee driver could potentially pay off. If Max-One wins, Jack's estranged daughter will benefit and his relationship with her could improve. If Max-One loses, Marcel will erase Jack's gambling debt from his books. I would love to reveal the surprise twist, but that wouldn't be fair to potential readers. This story was simply awesome and it possessed some of the same elements of Howard's stuntman novel The Last Great Death Stunt (1977).

Here is a complete listing of the book's stories and the original publication they were culled from:

"Horn Man" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine June 1980
"All the Heroes Are Dead" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine December 1982
"Puerto Rican Blues" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine April 1983
"Challenge the Widow-Maker" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine August 1990
"Animals" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine June 1985
"Scalplock" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 1986
"The Dakar Run" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine August 1988
"Custer's Ghost" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine May 1983
"The Plateau" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine July 1984
"Split Decisions" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine December 1994
"Mexican Triangle" - Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine October 1981
"The Dublin Eye"- Ellery Queen Prime Crimes February 1984

Overall, Challege the Widow-Maker...should be in your Kindle library right now. If it isn't, please use the below link and remedy that problem HERE

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

The Arm

Clark Howard authored short-stories for digest magazines like Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock. Beginning in 1967, Howard began writing full-length novels of crime-fiction and action-adventure. As a big fan of Howard's writing, I was anxious to learn that his literature has been reprinted in digital format by Mysterious Press. After reading several of his mid-career novels, I wanted to check out his first book to see how they compare. I purchased The Arm, a crime-noir novel originally published in hardcover in 1967 and then later reprinted as a Fawcett Gold Medal paperback in 1970. In 1987, the novel was adapted into a film called The Big Town starring Matt Dillon, Tommy Lee Jones and Diane Lane.

J.C. Cullen, nicknamed "Cully", is a hayseed plow boy from Evansville, Indiana. In the book's opening pages, Cully arrives at a Chicago bus terminal with a battered briefcase and a curiosity for the big city lights. You see, Cully has what the gambling industry likes to refer to as "the arm". He's a craps thrower that can seemingly control the dice and make them dance. After racking up small town money, a retired gambler named Hooker refers Cully to a gambling racket in Chi-Town. Upon arrival, Cully follows his directions to a man named Ferguson.

In a room in the back of a bar, Cully learns that Mrs. Ferguson runs a craps gambling racket. The way it works is that Cully is provided a few hundred dollars each afternoon and it is his responsibility to play that money in illegal craps games all over the city. Why does Cully need Ferguson or a racket? Because Ferguson, and her blind husband (more on him in a moment), know where all the craps games are played and they have protection from the police to look the other way. In return, Cully has free money to bet, but his take of all winnings is 20%. The Fergusons keep 70% and 10% goes to Hooker, the referral source.

After just a few nights, Cully begins winning nearly every game and soon earns thousands of dollars. While Cully is working for the Fergusons, he's free to play games on his days off. Cully begins ascending through various levels of entry and intermediate level play. Eventually, Cully begins playing at a professional level, again illegally, where his peers are just as talented as he is. With a unique method of quick mathematical deduction, Cully starts winning tens of thousands of dollars in his free time. And seriously pissing off Chicago's finest craps shooters.

Remember Mr. Ferguson? His story is that he was once as good as Cully. But, a poor sport threw a pan of acid at him after a sizable loss. The incident burned Mr. Ferguson's eyes and permanently blinded him. The attacking player ran off and since then Mr. Ferguson has paid $100,000 to detectives and players hoping to locate him for some much needed payback. The only clue was that this man possessed a heart tattoo on his inner wrist. This ties into Cully because he meets a player that matches Mr. Ferguson's attacker. This revelation brings Cully to a crossroads - does he need favors and credit with Mr. Ferguson enough to sentence this seemingly nice player to death?

Beyond the narrative's grimy expose on backroom gambling and Cully's important decision making Cully's fiercest rival is a man named Cole. His main squeeze is a knockout stripper named Lorry. Cully becomes infatuated with the woman and soon finds himself in a dangerous, heated affair that elevates his competition with Cole. But when she pitches a murder scheme on him, Cully must decide if Lorry's love is worth the price of murder.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I loved this book. The Arm has so many crime-fiction elements, but also ties in a familiar genre trope with illegal gambling. Clark Howard's biography stated that he loved watching the craps shooters in and around Memphis and other parts of the deep south. His affection for the game bleeds onto the pages, from the pool halls and bars to the mental dynamics of dice rolling. I found myself down the YouTube rabbit hole learning more about craps shooting and its history.

Cully's evolution from poor country boy to rich city slicker was just a real pleasure to read. Like any fish out of water story, there's the inevitable downfall. When Howard reverses Cully's fortunes, it's done in a way that is similar to the author's future literary works - violent and unrestrained. In many ways, this could be Howard's best novel. That's surprising considering it was his full-length debut. 

If you love crime-fiction or just an abstract rags to riches story, The Arm delivers in spades. It's probably one of the better books I've read this year. I urge you to track down a used paperback or just snag the affordable digital version. You won't regret it.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 30, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 93

On Episode 93, Eric presents the life and literary work of Edgar Award-Winning author Clark Howard. Eric reviews many of Howard's novels, including his 1970 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback The Arm. Tom reviews the 1959 paperback debut of the Psi-Power series and Eric reveals an embarrassing debt. Listen on any podcast app, or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 93: Clark Howard" on Spreaker.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

The Hunters

Clark Howard (1932-2016) authored novels in genres like crime, military, action-adventure and spy. I really enjoyed working my way through his bibliography and have positive feedback for Siberia 10 (1973), Last Contract (1973) and The Last Great Death Stunt (1977). I've always loved thrillers in nature, so I was pleased to learn that Howard had written one. It is titled The Hunters and was published in 1978 by Jove. It is now available as an ebook via Mysterious Press. 

Situated in the San Fernando Valley, the hunters are four suburban neighbors with children, jobs and wives. However, each of them has their own peculiarities that make them unique. Here is how they shake up:

Wes is an architect who has had marital problems for several years. He knows that his wife is having an affair with a cop. Wes' wife knows that he's secretly wearing her silk panties all day. Obviously, Wes is having some sexual issues. 

Leo is an advertising executive who is battling a bleeding stomach ulcer. His marriage is average and he is stressed over a failed advertising campaign catered to police awareness.

Milt is a pharmaceutical sales rep who works with a crooked pharmacist to sell illegal drugs on the side. He remarried, but his new wife is not a good match for his daughter. 

Lamar is employed as an insurance underwriter and despises his wife. He is obsessed with television programs about law-enforcement. Lamar is also sleeping with Milt's wife. 

These four individuals participate in two hunting journeys to Nevada each year. Milt has obsessive-compulsive disorder, which means he orchestrates these journeys down to the last detail. The group normally uses .30 caliber guns and makes a stop at a whorehouse before hitting the forest for three days of booze and good times. However, these four men have truly begun to hate one another over the years. Each one has some motivation for murder. 

Just prior to the departure of these four men in Nevada, Clark Howard introduced two key characters - LAPD detectives Joe Clifford and his partner Harry Bowman. Clifford is a veteran of the force with an outstanding service record. Bowman is a new detective with a violent trend and a crack-addicted girlfriend. Together, they put many drug traffickers behind bars. In a shocking chapter, Clifford returns home from a lengthy shift. He hears someone say his name from the shadows before he is beheaded by a 30-calibre rifle. He's violently blown through his front door and lands in front of his wife and kids. Who murdered Clifford?

At nearly 300 pages, Howard's narrative explores the chemistry between these four hunters and their possible motivations for murdering Clifford or each other. As tension rises, suspicions and motives become shifting targets. There's a whole bunch of reasons for each of these people to kill a cop, but what's the connection? Like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels, The Hunters is a detailed police procedural handled by an LAPD captain and three of his officers. Believe me, there are a lot of character names, but this is not a struggle to follow. Howard's description and character development are strong and warrant an emotional investment. 

In terms of action, there's a few fisticuffs and a firefight near the end. This probably isn't enough to satisfy a reader that relies on a Mack Bolan body count. As a fascinating crime novel, the mystery is resolved through investigations of marriages, employers, neighbors, associates and even past convictions with drug dealers. I became deeply involved in this police procedure and the ride was a great experience.

Like prior novels, Howard injects plenty of graphic sex into the story. The four men visiting the whorehouse is vividly detailed. In addition, Lamar's affair with Milt's wife, Clifford's sex life with his wife and Bowman's relationship with the druggie are all explicit portions of the narrative. When sex isn't happening, the men and women are fantasizing about it. 

If you love a slowly developing plot and a dense mystery, The Hunters will certainly please you. I love the writing of Clark Howard and his representation of average suburbanites involved in secret affairs and scandalous activities is intriguing. While the suspenseful wilderness thriller never really came to fruition, I still really enjoyed the author's storyline and how the cohesiveness of the final act was. I recommend reading this or any of Howard's novels. He is grossly undervalued. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The Last Great Death Stunt

Author Clark Howard was a frequent contributor to the mystery magazine digests including Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock. As a writer, war historian and boxer, Howard's shift into full-length novels often propelled his diverse characters into violent and extreme situations. I've had wonderful experiences with Howard's 1970s novels like The Last Contract and Siberia 10 and find him to be a true unsung hero in the world of men's action-adventure novels. One of Howard's most unusual books is the novel The Last Great Death Stunt. It was originally published by Berkley Medallion in 1977 with a story-line set in the not-too-distant future.

In Howard's premise, the world has evolved into two different political cultures – socialist and communist. Because of this tranquil world peace, people no longer care about winners and losers. Boxing, football, baseball and other popular sports have completely faded away. In this future the world has become obsessed with Death Stunts that feature “athletes” pushing their endurance to the very edge of existence. These fearless few propel themselves as close to death as humanly possible in daring stunts in front of colossal audiences for endorsement money and television payouts. The greatest Death Stunt performer them all? Jerry Fallon.

Almost supernaturally talented, Fallon had the heart, mind and body to perform the most awe-inspiring Death Stunts of all-time. From insane motorcycle jumps and thrilling auto races to the highest of high-wire acts, Fallon left behind a legacy proving he was the greatest of all-time. However, over the last few years, a new competitor has risen to the ranks as a true contender to Fallon's legacy – Nick Bell.

Bell has performed many of the same stunts as Fallon, only more dangerous and extreme to shatter the world's remembrance of Fallon's feats. In spectacular fashion, Fallon is now being called the best ever by the media but he has one more stunt to perform. On New Year's Eve, Fallon has promised the world he'll deliver the last great death stunt. He's taking a 220-foot plunge into the Pacific the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the book's opening chapter, a special report from the U.S. President is broadcast nationwide. On New Year's Day, Death Stunts will be banned across the country. Anyone performing a stunt will risk criminal charges and possible imprisonment. Because of this new law, Bell's promise to perform one more stunt is thrust into the national spotlight. California's law enforcement will barricade the bridge and a special wire mesh is designed to keep anyone from jumping. Fallon's chances of solidifying his daredevil legacy are slim. Can he overcome the authorities and make one last splash at fame and fortune?

At just over 200-pages, Clark Howard has so much to say in The Last Great Death Stunt. To fully appreciate his alternate or future United States one must understand 1970s pop-culture. Flamboyant daredevil Evel Knievel was flirting with disaster while entrancing and captivating Americans with his wild motorcycle stunts. His death defying feats included jumping canyons, rivers and obstacles and even jumping from skyscraper to skyscraper in New York. Knievel was often paid $25,000 per stunt and is recognized alongside Harry Houdini as a truly special performer who risked life and limb for his audience. Howard's idea of the government banning Death Stunts probably arose from an incident wherein state and federal authorities refused Knievel's request to jump the Grand Canyon in 1971.

Howard's novel also possesses a strikingly prophetic tone. In this alternate and not-too-distant future, movie theaters have closed due to theatrical releases now airing on television for nominal fees (pay-per-view didn't even exist at the time of Howard's writing) mirroring the 2021 film industry. Additionally, music concerts don't exist any longer and it's hinted that these performances are similar to the film industry – direct to television for a fee. There are other nuances like automobiles that run on alternative energy, the decline of sports audiences (look at today's NASCAR) and the overall idea of individuals performing solely for endorsement money (like our YouTube stars). While this future is mostly a positive one, there is also a strict rule on childbirth. Parents can only birth one child, a federal regulation that keeps the population manageable.

Beyond the current and future cultural implications, Howard's book makes for compelling fiction. The narrative centralizes around Bell's quest to leap off the Golden Gate Bridge and the political opposition he must face. There's a side story on the U.S. President placing the burden on California's Governor, who then promises San Francisco's Mayor political favor if he can prevent Bell's jump. It's a small portion of the narrative that's filled with some graphic sex and the more seedy side of American politics.

The highlight of The Last Great Death Stunt is Jerry Fallon. Large portions of the story center around Fallon and his family. The narrative showcases Fallon's career highlights and his uneventful retirement into the life of a suburban husband and father. As the press increases coverage of Bell's jump (including a mock of ABC's Live World of Sports), Fallon begins to mentally fragment. The idea of his legacy being erased or tarnished pushes Fallon into intense deliberation – should he try and beat Bell by doing the same stunt? Considering his plush retirement, the narrative tightens to marital disputes between Fallon and his wife April. She's thankful that Fallon survived his dangerous obsession. She doesn't want to relive the fear again. It's Howard's intimate writing that really helps clarify the allure of death and the addiction these performers face. The eternal conflict of cheating death by the thinnest of margins is constant throughout the narrative. It's also the age-old contest of old gunslinger versus the young fast hand. Simply who's better - Jordan or Lebron? Tyson or Jones? Norris or Lee? It's a fascinating comparison that exists every generation.

The Last Great Death Stunt is absolutely superb and once again proves that Clark Howard was an amazing writer. His premise is such an exciting and clever take on what was a pop-culture phenom at the time. Surely Evel Knievel was an inspiration, but Howard's not too distant future is the perfect backdrop for such an unusual tale. There's just so much to like about this novel and it's one that I think I'll probably re-read at some point in the future. Consider this the highest possible recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, December 16, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 24

It’s the end of the year and the last episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast for 2019. In celebration of our inaugural year, we are revisiting the greatest books we read this year along with lots of edgy vintage paperback talk. Stream below or at your favorite podcast provider for our “Best of 2019” extravaganza. Download directly HERE Listen to "Episode 24: Best of 2019" on Spreaker.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Siberia 10

Clark Howard (1932-2016) wrote 16 novels, six books of non-fiction and two collections of short stories during his 40-year career. As an amateur boxer and juvenile delinquent, Howard bounced around in his mid-teens before eventually joining the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17. During his three year tour in Korea, Howard was one of only eight survivors in his platoon during the Battle of the Punchbowl. His experience in the USMC led to a number of Howard's war stories including “Siberia 10,” published by Pinnacle in 1973.

Siberia 10 is a fictional USMC stockade in San Diego, California. In the novel's opening pages, Private Zangari escapes from the prison in a rather clever ruse that leads to his eventual capture on the steps of a local newspaper. This opening chapter explains to readers that Siberia 10 is run by brutal leadership, recounting violent everyday experiences for American soldiers.

The political climate inside is a tumultuous storm where black prisoners have formed a faction of Black Panthers. These soldiers have filed a formal complaint with the NAACP charging that they are recipients of racially charged abuse from the white guards. Simultaneously, the white prisoners have formed a petition stating they are being brutalized by the black prisoners. All of this comes under the watch of officers that spend their days drunk, womanizing, gambling and abusing the camp’s prisoners.

Chapter two introduces the book's protagonist, Marine Lieutenant Colonel Hannon. His first appearance is in the Dai Tet countryside of Vietnam running a strategic seek and destroy operation on the Vietcong. After being dismissed from his platoon, Hannon is summoned to Washington D.C. and introduced to an unnamed Commandant. For validity, the Commandant reads Hannon's own resume to Hannon, highlighting his superior fighting strength and leadership in Korea, Manilla, Cuba and Vietnam. The Commandant promotes Hannon to the temporary rank of Brigadier General and asks him to assume the new leadership at Siberia 10. While deeply troubled by the stockade's black eye in the media, the Commandant wants the USMC to fix their own mistakes before the panic escalates. Hesitantly, Hannon accepts the job.

As a seasoned paperback enthusiast, I've consistently came across various literary works that prompted me to think of movie adaptations. That idea was etched in my mind throughout my reading experience of “Siberia 10”. This 300-page novel demands to be a successful television show. There are numerous story threads woven into the larger story arc of Hannon rehabilitating Siberia 10. These threads ultimately consume the narrative, but they are so intriguing and engaging that I was hooked like a housewife watching the soaps.

Hannon's role as the new General begins with a whirlwind of opposition, in-fighting and subordination. After making the necessary adjustments to his staff, Hannon begins life lessons for a dozen or more supporting characters. His stout stance of duty and brotherhood serves like a fiery pulpit sermon on the importance and legacy of the USMC. It's patriotic, stirring and American. Hannon's treatment of Siberia 10 is reminiscent of coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) spurring that small Indiana school into champions in the 1986 film “Hoosiers.” It's an effective feel-good story about overcoming race, cultural differences and adversity that works just as well in 2019.

As an action-adventure piece, this isn't “The Great Escape” or “Papillon” by any means. While firmly entrenched behind bars, the novel's only action sequences are some boxing matches, an occasional brawl and some described brutality. Instead, the novel works like a more aggressive take on Richard Booker's 1968 book “MASH.” There are numerous comedic moments, an abundance of sex and the typical coarse language of a war novel. Like Clark Howard's “The Last Contract”, also published in 1973, the author proves to be a masterful storyteller no matter what approach he takes. I will probably read “Siberia 10” again...and again. It's that good.

Buy a copy of this novel HERE

Friday, May 31, 2019

Last Contract

Clark Howard (1932-2016) was a longtime favorite for readers of 'Ellery Queen' and 'Alfred Hitchcock' mystery magazines. Writing for over 40 years, his literary output comprised of 16 novels and two published collections of short stories. He was no stranger to film as his work “The Arm” and “Six Against the Rock” were both adapted to film. My first undertaking of Clark Howard is his fifth published novel, “Last Contract” released in 1973 by the iconic staple for 1970s men's action adventure paperbacks, Pinnacle Books.

Howard provides a gripping, introspective look at a professional assassin named George Trevor. A former Korean War vet, Trevor has garnered a lucrative payroll by providing his services for a shadowy agency called The System. After 17-years and 27 kills, Trevor begins experiencing self-reflection on his career. The catalyst? Welcoming a starving alley cat into his home as a companion.

As though it was predestined, Trevor experiences a bursting ulcer while on an assignment to kill a Greek shipping magnate. His inability to complete the assignment, coupled with a lengthy hospital stay, adds greater perspective to his life. The pampering bedside manor of a nurse named Claire expands into a fruitful relationship that leaves Trevor in love and longing for a retirement in Florida. The only obstacle is his resignation from a killer-for-hire agency that doesn't typically accept retirement requests.

The author's own experiences shooting rocket launchers in the Korean War adds a sense of authenticity to Trevor's fictional past. In alternating chapters, the reader learns about Trevor's harrowing experiences as a soldier fighting in the infamous “Punchbowl,” one of the last major battles between American and Korean/Chinese forces. Trevor’s subsequent capture and torture in a Chinese prison camp isn't for squeamish readers. However, this gritty realism adds greater validity to Trevor's character.

“Last Contract” is a poignant look at a man who questions himself while navigating the  bumpy downward slope from a career pinnacle. Action fans may find themselves skeptical of a domesticated hero, but don't let the paperback’s first half fool you. Trevor's attempts to escape The System are riveting, action-packed and encompass a majority of the book's closing act. It's an altogether different offering from the Pinnacle brand but propels itself forward with many of the genre's more familiar tropes. I absolutely loved this book and already have a wish list of pricey Clark Howard paperbacks waiting to devour my extra funds.

Buy a copy of this book HERE