Showing posts with label Johnny Liddell. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Johnny Liddell. Show all posts

Friday, July 8, 2022

Johnny Liddell #06 - Bare Trap

Inspired by the countless private-eye novels and shorts, original paperbacks (and some hardcovers) began appearing featuring heroic detectives solving the outrageous cases. There was Mike Shayne, Mike Hammer, and Lew Archer leading the way. Frank Kane's New York private-eye Johnny Liddell was among the publisher's top echelon, The series ran a total of 29 novels and a multitude of short stories, beginning with 1947's About Face (aka Fatal Foursome). I've read a handful of the novels and mostly enjoy them. I have a slew of the series paperbacks, so I picked Bare Trap to read next. It is the series sixth installment and was originally published in 1952. It was later reprinted in 1965 by Dell with different cover art. 

Liddell is finishing up a case in San Francisco when he receives a phone call from series staple and love interest Mugsy. She asks if Liddell can take on a new case in Los Angeles before he flies back home to New York. A young actor named Shad has gone missing and his agent wants the investigation to be hush-hush. If they hire a local PI, the missing kid could make the papers and create a career misstep. With a chance to visit Mugsy in LA, Liddell takes the case.

Shad's agent is a guy named Richards, a fat loudmouth that explains that Shad is set to inherit a ton of money when he reaches the age of 21. There's hints that the kid is in some trouble, but Liddell thinks the disappearing act will solve itself. A few hours later, Liddell finds the kid riddled with bullet holes in the back. 

Liddell's case transforms from a missing person's gig to a murder investigation. With the assistance of Mugsy, a local inspector, and a prolific columnist, Kane's hero runs a convoluted gauntlet of blackmail and deception. The road leads to Richards running a badger scheme where he uses a local honey to photograph high-profile Hollywood celebs. He then uses extortion tactics to push the celebs into writing IOUs, which Richards then turns into gambling debts to repay back the mob to settle his own sheets. Got it? 

Frank Kane was notorious for recycling plots and Bare Trap is no different. In the series debut, About Face (Fatal Foursome), Liddell is hired to find a missing actor in Hollywood and receives help from a journalist and a coroner. The 'ole extortion bit using photographs or videos is an overly used genre trope, most notably Mickey Spillane's third Mike Hammer novel, Vengeance is Mine. Yet, there's a really abrasive tone to the novel – actresses with cut throats, multiple beatings, numerous fist and gun fights, a knife attack, and tons of shady characters - to keep the reader fully invested. While never particularly dense, I still had to consult a short list of characters to remember who everyone was. 

Detective stories can be run of the mill, familiar, and stereotypical, but they still provide a lot of enjoyment for crime-fiction fans. Bare Trap is no exception. 

Buy the eBook HERE.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Johnny Liddell #04 - Bullet Proof

Parallel to crime-fiction staples like Mike Shayne and Shell Scott, Johnny Liddell was a no-nonsense private-eye operating under the bright lights of The Big Apple. The series was authored by Frank Kane and consisted of 29 novels over a 20-year period between 1947 and 1967. Arguably, the series most defining moments are in the early 1950s era, so I decided to explore fan recommendations and try "Bullet Proof", originally published in 1951 by Dell.

The novel begins with Liddell receiving a phone call from a woman named Jean Merritt. She wants a second opinion on her father's death by suicide. Fearing that he was murdered, Merritt requests to meet Liddell on a lone cross-street at 10:30 PM to discuss pertinent facts about the case. Only Merritt doesn't show, instead she is replaced by a black Cadillac filled with hardmen. In an explosive opening chapter, Liddell dives for cover as Tommy guns eradicate a phone booth and nearby store. During the firefight, Liddell is able to kill one shooter but the man's identity leads to a number of questions and an intense interrogation inside the police precinct.

Learning that Merritt wired a $500 retainer for his services, Liddell is determined to learn what happened to the woman and her father. With the help of a wise medical examiner and a tenacious reporter named Muggsy (a series mainstay similar to Mike Shayne's Lucy Hammilton), Liddell delves into the Merritt family's history and their early ties to organized crime. When Liddell gets too close to the truth, he becomes a running target for a number of assassins. With riveting gunfights in the streets and hotel corridors, the aptly titled “Bullet Proof” delivers the goods in grand fashion.

While I enjoyed the 1947 Liddell debut, “About Face” (aka “Fatal Foursome”), I found it to be mired in mystery mud with very little action. Kane takes a cue from Mickey Spillane's red-hot character of that era, Mike Hammer, and adds a prevalent edginess to this book. There's even a scene with Liddell punching a beautiful prostitute in a hotel suite. The author uses the familiar genre tropes – hazy cigarette smoke, copious amounts of alcohol – to provide a seedy, darkly lit nightlife for the hero to operate. The atmosphere, engaging investigation and intense action sequences contribute to what is essentially the best Liddell novel I've read. “Bullet Proof” excels on all levels.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Johnny Liddell #01 - Fatal Foursome (aka About Face)

After Dashiell Hammet's successful 'Continental Op' series of 1920s detective stories, the publishing world was ablaze with private-eye novels and short-stories. Adding fuel to the fire, Brett Halliday (real author: Davis Dresser) launched an empire of novels and magazines starring detective 'Mike Shayne'. Mickey Spillane's 'Mike Hammer' rose to the occasion and sold millions of paperbacks. It's no surprise that by the late 1940s, prolific crime novelist Frank Kane would enter the fray with his private-eye, “Johnny Liddell”. The series included 29 novels and numerous short-stories. The debut full-length, “About Face”, was published in 1947 but later was re-named “Death About Face”. In 1958, Dell reprinted a majority of these novels with new cover designs, including “About Face”, which was renamed “The Fatal Foursome”.

In the series' first three installments, Liddell is a New York City sleuth working for a detective agency called Acme. Later, the character would be an independent private-eye free from any pesky agency’s rules and regulations. In this series opener, Liddell has been summoned to Hollywood to investigate the disappearance of a pretty-boy movie star named Harvey Randolph. The client is a rotund, loud-mouthed producer who may have more than just a professional interest in the actor's exodus.

Liddell's procedural routine involves a lot of people, a lot of questions and a lot of alcohol. Once the protagonist finds Randolph, things escalate rather quickly. Everyone involved in Randolph's disappearance is suddenly wearing bullet-holes and Liddell fears he might be next. While teaming with a sultry reporter named Toni Belden and coroner Doc Morrisey, Liddell navigates a complex world of insurance fraud and body doubles. But is any of it really entertaining?

If you love detective fiction, then Frank Kane's literary creation is just right for the genre's era. There isn't anything overly complicated about the character – he's got the rod and know-how to discover who's taking the next powder. It's slightly humorous, overly fantastic (using the ol’ make-a-new-face-for-the-criminal-routine) and soaked with masculinity. While Liddell is one-dimensional, the pairing of Toni and Doc expanded the narrative to allow different viewpoints and theories on motive and murderer. I preferred their commentary more than the hero’s insights.

While certainly a mainstay in crime-fiction, Frank Kane's debut Liddell story is average at best. Maybe social media groups or a deep dive online could produce a “best of” list of preferred series reading. For me, the debut doesn't catapult Frank Kane into my next batch of books to read. There's so much better stuff out there.

Purchase a copy of this book HERE

Monday, March 2, 2020

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 33

On our newest podcast episode, Paperback Warrior presents a feature on prolific crime-fiction author Frank Kane's popular series of Johnny Liddell private-eye books and stories. Tom reviews the 1961 crime-noir novel "Killing Cousins" by Fletcher Flora and Eric discusses "Saigon Slaughter", the seventh installment in the M.I.A. Hunter series. Stream the episode below or on any popular streaming platform. Download the episode directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 33: Johnny Liddell" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Johnny Liddell #05 - Dead Weight

Frank Kane (1912-1968) was mystery author best known for his popular Johnny Liddell series of private detective tales. The character began his fictional career in 1944 with short stories in “Crack Detective Magazine” which evolved into 30 novel-length mysteries spanning through 1967 while the short story output never stopped. I decided to dive into the Liddell series with his fifth novel, “Dead Weight” from 1951 - largely because the alluring cover art.

Liddell is a stereotypical New York private eye with a smoked-glass office door and a sassy redheaded secretary. One day an elderly Oriental (remember: 1951) man visits Liddell with an interesting proposition. In exchange for $100, Liddell will safely store a package for the client, and return it when asked - no matter when the request is made. Neither Liddell nor the reader get to know the contents of the package when he agrees to this engagement.

Within a few hours of Liddell taking possession of the package, federal agents show up as his office with a warrant and seize it. Liddell sets off to identify and locate and notify his client (“the chink” - again: 1951) in Chinatown. Upon finding the client’s flophouse, Liddell enters the room and finds that the old man has been tortured and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion.

Things get even more interesting when it turns out that the men who confiscated the package weren’t actually feds, and the warrant they produced was a phony. Someone is trying to use Liddell as a patsy, and he’s not letting go of the case until he gets to the bottom of it. This is a great setup for a P.I. mystery. Can the author deliver a worthwhile, action-packed investigation and satisfying solution for the reader?

Not really. It was a decent private eye novel, but no one will ever confuse “Dead Weight” as being a classic of the genre. Liddell and his sidekick, a foxy newspaperwoman named Muggsy, follow a winding and convoluted route through the ins-and-outs of Chinese organized crime. The mystery’s final solution contains a national security curveball that I never saw coming, but that doesn’t make it particularly satisfying. Overall, I’d say that the novel failed to live up to the promise of the excellent opening chapters. As a reader, you deserve more. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE