Showing posts with label Bill Pronzini. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bill Pronzini. Show all posts

Monday, November 20, 2023

Little Sister

Robert Martin (1908-1976) wrote a fair amount of crime and mystery paperbacks under his own name as well as the pseudonym Lee Roberts. Little Sister was a 1952 stand-alone Fawcett Gold Medal hardboiled private-eye paperback that has been reborn as a Black Gat reprint, including an insightful introduction by Bill Pronzini.

Our narrator is Private Detective Andrew Brice, and he is summoned to a new client meeting at a large estate. His client is a wealthy, attractive woman named Miss Vivian Prosper who has just gone through a financially-advantageous divorce. Vivian shares the lakefront mansion with her little sister, Linda — and since the novel is called Little Sister, you probably saw that coming.

Little Sister Linda is a 17 year-old whiskey-swilling hellion, and she stands to inherit a pile of money from a trust fund soon when she reaches 18. Linda intends to marry a 30 year-old gas station attendant, and Big Sister Vivian wants PI Brice to break up the romance because the loser boyfriend is clearly just trying to get his claws on the trust fund cash.

All of this is conveyed in the Chapter One meeting between Brice and Vivian. The reader sees where this is going, and then Little Sister Linda arrives home in her convertible, drunk-as-a-skunk with a dead body in the trunk. And THAT’S how you start a private eye paperback.

As a licensed professional, Brice is duty bound to report the corpse in the trunk to the police, but sexy Vivian has other ideas. Could the prospect of getting laid with the seductive divorcee possibly convince our PI to dispose of the body with no police involvement? That’s the kind of thing that could turn a hardboiled private eye mystery into a femme fatale crime noir paperback.

You’ll need to read the book to find out how Brice handles this and other dilemmas he confronts throughout this lean paperback. The plot eventually settles into a pretty standard PI mystery with Brice interviewing one witness after another until the situation becomes both more clear and more messy as red herrings arise. It’s all well-written with a sexy undercurrent thanks to the seductive sisters at the eye of the storm and the fact that every female interviewee throws themselves at Brice.

The climactic conclusion is a scene where the villain, now revealed, explains the motivation and execution of the murder in painstaking detail while holding a gun on Brice. It’s an overused trope in mystery fiction, but well-executed in this case.

And that’s the thing with Little Sister. This paperback breaks zero new ground for a private eye mystery of the 1950s. However, if you’re in the mood for a completely traditional and readable genre paperback, you could do a lot worse. It’s about as good as a better-than-average Mike Shayne novel. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy

Bill Pronzini (b. 1943) saw his first novel, The Stalker, published in 1971. His writing career has flourished with over 50 stand-alone novels as well as numerous novels in his series titles like Carpenter and Quincannon and Nameless Detective. Aside from being a prolific author, Pronzini's career is often celebrated for his anthology editing. He has collaborated with the likes of Martin Greenberg, Barry Malzberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh for nearly 100 short-story collections in genres like crime-fiction, horror, and western. One of the first Pronzini anthologies I read was Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy. It was published as a hardcover by Arbor House in 1980.

This collection is presented in three parts. Part 1: Traditional Voodoo features stories by Cornell Woolrich, W.B. Seabrook, Robert Bloch, Carl Jacobi, and Henry S. Whitehead. Part II is Voodoo Elsewhere and Otherwise, consisting of stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, John Russell, Edward Hoch, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Bryce Walton, and Morris West. The final part is The “Ultimate” Voodoo, which is simply one tale by Henry Slesar. 

The stories in this volume are culled from numerous pulps like Weird Tales, Dime Mystery, Rogue, and Adventure. One original story appears here, “Exu”, by Edward D. Hoch. 

In sampling the collection, I began with Robert Bloch's story “Mother of Serpents”. Pronzini's introduction states that the story was first appeared in Weird Tales in 1936. Bloch was only nineteen years of age when the story was published, two years after the author's first professional sale to Weird Tales in 1934. “Mother of Serpents” is a fictional tale based on factual events (presumably the leadership of Fabre Geffrard). It tells the story of a new, unnamed president arriving to power in Haiti. This new leader wants to remove the “old world” from the country. The narrative takes readers through the president's life as a boy, his mother's mastery of the dark arts, and the horrific event that mires his presidency in the very thing he wants to eliminate – voodoo. It's a great story that accomplishes a great deal despite the short length. Of note is the strained, bizarre relationship between the president and his mother, an element that Bloch will successfully use later in his smash hit Psycho

Bryce Walton was a staff correspondent for Leatherneck Magazine, and after WWII transitioned into writing for the mystery, detective, western, and sci-fi pulps. Walton's contribution to Voodoo! is his short “The Devi Doll”, which originally appeared in Dime Mystery in 1947. In the story, New York artist Earl breaks up with his girlfriend Crita, a French woman who has a hobby of voodoo. But, Crita knows that Earl really broke up with her because the new girl, Jean, is extremely wealthy. When Earl makes his case that he no longer loves Crita, she curses him. Later, Earl finds that a small, miniature version of Crita is “growing” out of his shoulder. Crita whispers terrifying things to Earl, which eventually leads to terrible things happening to Jean. Walton's writing is terrific with a smooth prose that serves as a sort of countdown to Earl's demise.   

Used copies of Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy are out there. You can also get a real bargain by searching for the giant Arbor House Necropolis hardcover. It was published in 1981 and not only features the entirety of Voodoo!, but also collects two other Pronzini-edited anthologies about mummies and ghouls. Spooky, and darn-near mandatory for vintage-fiction readers. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

The Stalker

In 1971, author Bill Pronzini's first two novels were published, The Snatch and The Stalker. The former was the first of Pronzini's successful and respected Nameless Detective series. The Stalker was the first of over 30 original, stand-alone novels. After positive Paperback Warrior reviews for Panic (1972) and Snowbound (1974), I was excited to re-enter Pronzini's early 1970s era of crime-fiction. I decided to retrace his steps and begin with The Stalker

The book begins in Granite City, Illinois in March of 1959. Six men successfully rob a Smithfield armored car transporting $750K in money from Mannerling Chemical. Aside from punching a guard, the heist is executed flawlessly and these six men become financially stable in less than 10-minutes. Readers are advised that the investigation into the robbery was unsuccessful in locating the men or the stolen money.

The next chapters feature newspaper articles from 1970 detailing the grisly deaths of three, seemingly unrelated men. These deaths appear to be random accidents, but in the book's compelling middle chapters, readers discover that these men were half of the 1959 heist crew. It's explained that three Army buddies – Conradin, Drexel, and the book's protagonist, Kilduf – planned the heist and are now the remaining members of a mysterious kill-list. 

Pronzini's plot development is exceptional as he leads readers into a dramatic mystery as these three men attempt to identify their stalker. Considering the heist was perfect with no fatalities, and that law-enforcement never located a single clue, the idea that someone has found them seems impossible. But, three of their crew is dead and the list has shortened. There is a tremendous amount of urgency, which Pronzini successfully balances with the slower pace of suspense and mystery. I won't ruin the surprise, but there is another character in the novel that adds some insight to the puzzle.

The Stalker is a short novel, but Pronzini is able to develop the characters at a quick pace that doesn't detract from the story's impact. I loved the relationships between Kilduf and his frustrated spouse, as well as the summarized backstory of these three characters and the wealth they spent or invested. Pronzini is able to create this mental anguish as the characters learn of their potential fates and how their criminal pasts may now extinguish their future. Was the money worth the guilt? Was the fortune worth the mental sacrifice? I love these questions as Pronzini violently shortens the kill-list one by one.

As either a murder mystery, a psychological suspense novel, or as crime-fiction, The Stalker is absolutely fantastic. Pronzini crafts a believable heist tale, but manages to reshape it into a thrill-ride. The end result makes it a mandatory read. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Panic!

California native Bill Pronzini (b. 1943) is mostly known for his Nameless Detective, a series of private-eye novels that began in 1971 and has lasted nearly 50 installments. Pronzini has also authored over three-hundred short-stories and compiled dozens upon dozens of story compilations. The author also has a number of stand-alone crime-fiction novels on his resume including Panic!. The book was originally published in 1972 and has since been reprinted numerous times through various publishers.

In Panic!, five characters are placed in extreme situations where they are forced to behave in different ways to survive. In essence, it's a gritty, fast-moving crime-noir that checks off mostly everything one needs for the genre: beautiful woman, drifter on the run, a veteran cop and two deadly criminals. Pronzini's prose is fast-paced with most of the attention on the present, although the narrative thankfully explains a few important elements from each character's past that helps to connect the readers to these four men and one woman.

This short book is divided into four days and first introduces readers to a drifter named Lennox. Using a variety of names, Lennox is on the run from a failed marriage. During the divorce, Lennox is ordered to provide nearly his entire life's savings and assets to his ex-wife including a sizable amount of monthly alimony. Refusing to pay, Lennox leaves town and is now penniless and stranded in a dusty desert town called Cuenca Seco. Earning three hots and a cot, Lennox begins working for the town's cafe owner for a few days. While Lennox is working in the cafe's basement, two hitmen arrive to empty their guns into the cafe's owner. Lennox, being the only other party in the cafe, sees and hears the event and immediately runs into the desert to avoid the two killers.

In separate parts of the narrative, the two hitmen are introduced – one a seasoned, veteran killer and the other a wet-behind-the-ears apprentice learning his new profession. Also, there's a woman named Jana, an accomplished artist and author who, like Lennox, is also on the run. Although her situation isn't illegal, she's running from an affair in New York that has placed her career on the rails. She's arriving in Cuenca Seco to spend a quiet week writing the book that will meet deadlines and urgent requests. Unfortunately, she journeys into the desert to study rock formations on the day of the killing. After a dehydrated, panicked Lennox runs to her in the desert, she's unwillingly caught up in the deadly chase – two people with no food and water on the run through a dry wasteland as killers track them down.

Then there's Brackeen. He's the real star, although his role is a bit underplayed due to the nature of the character. In a rather mesmerizing backstory, the author shows Brackeen as a veteran police officer in San Francisco. On a really horrific day on patrol, Brackeen's career as a police officer comes to a screeching hiatus. After years of alcohol and depression, Brackeen attempts multiple careers in multiple places before finally putting down stakes in Cuenca Seco. Due to the lack of crime (and people for that matter), the town makes Brackeen a deputy. The former big city cop spends most of his day patrolling the desert and getting slouched. However, once the cafe owner's body is found, Brackeen is propelled into the story as a lovable loser. The state authorities refuse to accept his plausible – and very accurate – proposal of why and how the cafe owner was murdered. His validity as a creditable asset to the community is questioned due to his alcohol abuse and downtrodden lifestyle. 

There's so many things to love and enjoy about Pronzini's simplistic storytelling. The quest for freedom, overcoming adversity, retribution, the replacement of heroes and the mere idea that the average citizen's best approach to fixing a problem is self-realization. Pronzini's desert locale is symbolic – it's two characters running through life without the emotional resources to contend with complexity.

Pronzini is always solid and Panic! is just another testament to his strengths as an author. Despite one scene presented as outrageously preposterous in 2021 (blatantly obvious to today's reader), the novel has aged well. Whether you love hard-charging crime-fiction or gritty character studies, this brisk novel is just fantastic.

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 88

On Episode 88 of the Paperback Warrior podcast, Tom and Eric have a heart to heart conversation about the future of the podcast. We also re-visit the life and literary work of Frank E. Smith, the Gothic paperback craze of the 1960s & 1970s, new Stark House Press releases, and Tom's secret work life is finally revealed! Listen on any podcast app, stream below or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 88: The Secret Life of Frank E. Smith" on Spreaker.

Monday, December 23, 2019

No Room at the Inn

American author Bill Pronzini has written over 40 novels for his private eye series 'Nameless Detective.’ Beginning in 1971, Pronzini focused his efforts on anthologies and short fiction, contributing hundreds of short stories to magazines like “Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine” while compiling over 100 collections. Along with his 'Nameless Detective' novels, Pronzini's body of work features over 35 stand-alone novels and a number of pseudonyms including Jack Foxx, William Hart Davis and Alex Saxon.

One of Pronzini's most interesting creations is the characters of John Frederick Quincannon and Sabina Carpenter. From my deep dive, the first 'Quincannon' appearance seems to be the 1985 “Quincannon” novel that introduces both characters. There we learn that Quincannon is a former U.S. Secret Service agent who's turned private detective after murdering a young woman and her child with a stray bullet. Teaming with love interest Carpenter, the two operate out of 1890s San Francisco and accept various jobs that conveniently propels a number of sub-genre narratives – locked room puzzles, whodunit sleuths, mystery, western and adventure. It's fertile ground to harvest a number of series installments.

There are dozens of Quincannon short stories stemming from the character's debut novel and it's follow-up “Beyond the Grave”, co-written with Pronzini's wife Marcia Muller in 1986. The marital collaboration has created eight more novels in the series and a fantasy-styled “reboot” to provide more international intrigue. My first sampling of Quincannon is the 1988 short story “No Room at the Inn,” which originally appeared in the Harper Collins mystery compilation “Crime at Christmas.”

Pronzini's rich attention to detail saturates this holiday themed short. Atmospheric, mysterious and eerie, “No Room at the Inn” places lone Quincannon high in the Sierra Nevada during a Christmas Eve blizzard. Guided by the full moon's light while riding a rented horse, Quincannon is on the trail of Slick Henry, a counterfeiter who specializes in mining stock. Henry is a confidence trickster, ascending through the ranks of the most notorious and dangerous criminal lists of 1894. Quincannon has accepted a $5,000 assignment to nab Henry for the West Coast Banking Association.

Fearing for his own safety in the storm, Quincannon begins losing hope in tracking Henry through the high foliage and decides to concentrate his efforts on survival. Miraculously, Quincannon rides into a small, seemingly abandoned community for shelter. Once there, he finds that people have gone missing in the midst of dinner. Further, there's still horses in the barn as if the township left on foot in the storm. Once the first body is discovered, the novel quickly moves from western to sleuth as our main character discovers the whereabouts of Henry...and his motives.

Pronzini proves that his storytelling talents were certainly diversified. “No Room at the Inn” is immensely enjoyable both as a western and a dark thriller. Never reading Quincannon before, this introductory, early short story certainly has my attention. I'm looking for more of this character in the future.

Note - “No Room at the Inn” can be found in Pronzini's Leisure compilation entitled “Burgade's Crossing” (2004). Despite the misleading artwork, the compilation is strictly a Quincannon theme featuring eight total shorts from sources including “Louis L'Amour Western Magazine,” “Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,” and Pronzini's own compilation “Carpenter and Quincannon: Professional Detective Services.” For an easy, affordable introduction to the character, track this old paperback down. It's well worth your time.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Broken Angel

Floyd Mahannah (1911-1976) never had a successful literary career, but his small body of work is still highly respected by crime-noir fans and enthusiasts. With just six full-length paperback novels to his credit (one of which was just a condensed version of another), Mahannah also contributed to a number of magazines like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Manhunt, Adventure and Argosy. His 1957 novel, “The Broken Angel”, has been reprinted by Stark House Press with an introduction by author Bill Pronzini ('Quincannon', 'Nameless Detective'). The reprint also includes six of the author's short stories.

The book stars newspaper editor Roy Holgren as a hapless fool who's fallen in love with his secretary, the sultry and suspicious Sara. The two have been fooling around for a few months, with just enough intimacy to propel Roy's infatuation with the young woman. But, this is a crime novel and soon enough Roy finds that Sara has skipped town, ditching him and his marital aspirations. Leaving behind a letter, Sara states that she is on the lam from police pursuit and that she'll miss Roy.

The narrative expands as Roy receives a second letter from Sara just four days later. She has the audacity to ask him for $200 and leaves an address for her location. Roy, still chasing love, arrives at the address to find Sara is now residing in a hospital after a vicious assault by a man named Wes Wesnick. Sara, fearing Roy may be her only help, unveils her compromising position in a murder heist.

Sara was once a nurse named Sharon Albany. After falling in love (read that as lust) with her married employer, plastic surgeon Bantley Quillard, there was a mysterious murder of his wife, Iris. The question of whether Sara killed the woman in a jealous fit of rage is a dominant plot point. Roy doesn't know, Sara refuses to elaborate and the devil's in the details. But, aside from one messy murder that Sara is avoiding, the real quandary lies in an opportunity for Roy. Sara knows where Mace Romualdo is living. Mace is a wanted suspect in a major jewelry heist in San Francisco. It's up the ante for Roy when he learns that the jeweler's insurance company will pay ten-percent of the insured value for any jewelry that is returned or found, plus a $25,000 bonus. If Roy can bring Mace to the police, he could solidify a life with Sara, who may or may not be a seductive killer.

“The Broken Angel” reads like a Day Keene novel but has enough foreboding doom to capture Cornell Woodrich. It's a brooding take on mistrust and ill-fated love, with a number of characters that are equally flawed and unworthy. Should anyone benefit from the reward money? I'm not terribly sure, but Mahannah certainly makes for an entertaining, albeit convoluted, crime story. I didn't have the opportunity to read or review the stories included in the Stark House reprinting, but based on just the quality of “The Broken Angel”, this one is sure to please genre fans.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Tokyo, 1941

Cornell Woolrich wrote nearly 30 novels from 1926-1960. His most notable work is the 1942 short story “It Had to be Murder”, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcok as “Rear Window” in 1954. One of his shorts, “Tokyo, 1941”, was written in 1960 and later featured in two compilation books by Bill Pronzini and Martin Greenberg - “The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels” (1986) and “13 Short Espionage Novels” (1985).

The book begins in a Hong Kong hotel room as an American secret agent/spy named Lyons transfers some vials to a Caucasian male under the guise of selling a camera. There's a Chinese woman in the room with Lyons and we quickly learn that he's married but quite the ladies man. Adding to his rather unlikable nature is that he's a liar and a cheat, which are probably great traits for a spy to possess, but ultimately makes for a lousy human. After low-balling and cheating a shop owner out of a valuable diamond, Lyons makes his way back to suburban life in Azabu-ku.  

Returning to the normal 9-5 day job at the Acme Travel Agency, Lyons argues with his wife Ruth consistently. She doesn't know about his secret agent night life and Lyons, while being a real hothead, has no need to tell her his whereabouts. She thinks he's out bedding tramps...and she's fairly accurate in her appraisal. The reader can sense that the marriage is nearing its final end.

The story then takes a right turn by introducing us to a beautiful Japanese woman named Tomiko. She arrives at the equivalent of Japan's Secret Service upon request by Colonel Setsu. He demands she sacrifice herself to the Emperor by becoming Lyons lover. She'll submit her body in an effort to grab an important radio transmitter. It's all silly espionage stuff – secret vials, radios and handshakes – but it makes for an effective story. Gaining Lyons attention is no difficult task, and soon the story reaches a climactic point in a lakeside cabin. Lyons may be working for the Russians, Ruth may be on to Lyons game and this Japanese woman...well she's really just the connecting point. 

I'm not sure really what Woolrich had in mind when writing the story. It's certainly steeped in spy mythology, but comes across as social subtext on failed marriage. The Russian/US/Japan circus is prevalent, but there's the diamond portion and a slight prison angle that makes this wishy-washy at best. It's a myriad of story arcs that really doesn't lead to anything other than just an average story. Nothing more, nothing less. Paperback Warrior will continue the search for a satisfying Woolrich read.

Buy a copy of "The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels" HERE

Friday, January 26, 2018

Snowbound

Classic crime publisher Stark House Press has reprinted Bill Pronzini's 1974 stand-alone heist novel, “Snowbound”. This edition is also packaged with another short Pronzini novel called “Games”. “Snowbound” is a well-written short novel about a heist crew (think of Richard Stark's ‘Parker’) who decides to lay low at a safehouse in a small, wintery, mountain town where everybody seems to know each other. In addition to the hold-up crew, the town is also occupied by a boozy recluse with a mysterious past, a mayor with a sexual secret life, a horny housewife seeking companionship, a couple expecting their first child and a handful of secondary side-characters. The cast is vividly-realized as Pronzini takes the time to give them each actual subplots and character development - something often lacking in classic heist novels. A snowstorm and an avalanche seclude the snowbound town and creates the novel's central tension that drives the story forward. The plotting reminded me of Stephen King in the way a cast of independent characters converge in the novel's protracted, bloody climax. The easy-read story moves at a good clip, and the ending was very satisfying. Fans of heist novels and "confined space" suspense stories will find a lot to enjoy in “Snowbound”. Highly recommended.