Showing posts with label Stephen Frances. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stephen Frances. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

John Gail #04 - Hate is for the Hunted

Stephen Frances apparently sold over 10 million copies of his popular “Hank Janson” series, but his “John Gail” spy novels never gained much sales traction during their seven-book run. This is a particular shame as the novels were a gritty and human take on the James Bond spy craze that dominated men’s adventure fiction in the 1960s.

John Gail is an operative for PLEADON, a shadowy, private spy organization financed by a group of benevolent millionaires seeking greater justice and security around the world. As “Hate is for the Hunted” opens, Gail is growing bored and restless in London living the life of a millionaire on his benefactor’s dime. He is itching for more assassin work and wants his next clandestine assignment. This is particularly fascinating since he started the series as a broke, pacifist, Philosophy major selling encyclopedias door-to-door in London.

The new assignment involves locating and rescuing a sexy female PLEADON operative who has fallen off the grid during an undercover assignment as a prostitute in a high-end brothel. Could the female agent’s disappearance somehow tie into the recent death of another operative who was involved with exclusive and secretive hedonist society?

While the first three John Gail books were espionage and political adventures, this one is more of a straightforward undercover investigation novel. The secret society penetrated by Gail is pretty interesting - think “Eyes Wide Shut” meets “Django Unchained” - until the story evolves into “The Most Dangerous Game” territory. Frances’ plotting and pacing are superb. My only quibble with his writing style is his instinctive pulp author habit of using exclamation points to build excitement in the narrative! This was a practice that action writers should have outgrown by 1968! Although it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story, it was definitely hard to ignore!

Overall, this was a decent paperback for the genre and era, but it wasn’t anywhere near as good as books 1-3 of the series. This one stands alone as its own story more so than the first three novels, but the overall quality is diminished a tad. It’s still a good, action-filled story with plenty of kinky sexual situations and shocking violence - as well as an excellent final 50 pages. Recommended.

Postscript - Series Order Controversy:

There is some confusion regarding the proper numbering of the John Gail books. According to Stephen Frances’ biographer, Steve Holland (author of “The Trials of Hank Janson”), the John Gail series was originally released by U.K.’s Mayflower Books in the following order:

    This Woman Is Death
    To Love and Yet to Die
    The Sad and Tender Flesh (The Ambassador’s Plot)
    Hate is for The Hunted
    The Sweet Shame of Fury
    The Caress of Conquest
    Cry for my Lovely

However, Award Books only released volumes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 in the United States. You’ll need to find British editions of books 5 and 7 to be a completist. Moreover, none of the paperbacks have been digitized into eBooks, and my sources in contact with the author’s estate tell me there are no plans to give the John Gail books a new life in the 21st Century. And that’s a shame.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

John Gail #03 - The Ambassador's Plot

It would be difficult to overstate how much I enjoyed the first two books in the 'John Gail' series of British espionage paperbacks by Stephen Frances, so I was beside myself with excitement to begin book three. The paperback was originally released in the U.K. as “The Sad and Tender Flesh” and then in America by Award Books (home of Nick Carter: Killmaster) as “The Ambassador’s Plot.”

The setup for the series is pretty simple: John Gail was an unremarkable everyman who answered a mysterious job posting and found himself working as an operative for a non-governmental spy agency funded by a cabal of benevolent millionaires. Gail is an imperfect and amateur spy who makes a lot of mistakes. The first two books were sexy thrillers peppered with scenes of shocking torture and violence bringing about awful outcomes for the women with whom Gail developed romantic relationships. The dreadful things that happen to women in these books cannot be understated, and they significantly raise the stakes for our hero in these international adventures.

“The Ambassador’s Plot” was released in 1970 - five years after the first installment in the series - and we find Gail in Paris recovering from the events of Book 2 (This is a series best read in order). His controller comes to visit with an unusual assignment: embarrass and discredit a British ambassador to France who has gone rogue and is taking independent actions that could spark a bloody Arab war. The plan is for Gail to photograph the ambassador having sex with a teenage girl in hopes of blackmailing him into resigning his governmental position before the ambitious ambassador can mount a political rise that might produce the next Hitler.

The catch is that Gail is responsible for the care and feeding of plucky 15 year-old Lilly, the teenage temptress recruited for the seduction job. The interaction between Gail and Lilly combined with the horror John feels for orchestrating a sex sting involving a teen is pure gold. Their partnership on this assignment eventually catapults them into a “couple on the run” plot peppered with extreme violence throughout the 160 page paperback.

It wouldn’t be a “John Gail Spy Chiller” if it didn’t have at least one brutal, stomach-churning torture scene, and this novel has a handful. While these scenes are all in service of the plot, you’ll still need a strong constitution to get through the most gory of them. Consider yourself warned.

When he was writing bawdy hard-boiled crime novels as Hank Janson, Stephen Frances sold upwards of 10 million copies. The John Gail books were substantially less commercially successful, but it really is a stellar series that holds up nearly 50 years later with no diminishing returns in this third installment. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Gail #02 - To Love and Yet to Die

When book one of the 'John Gail' spy series opened, Gail was a financially-ruined encyclopedia salesman who answered an ad and became a spy for a private consortium of benevolent millionaires operating a clandestine espionage agency. The opening of the second installment of the series from 1966 finds Gail in an entirely different position. He is now a wealthy man living on a secluded beach villa in Spain with two lusty girlfriends at his disposal. It’s a good life, and Gail has no desire to re-enter the world of espionage. He finds the whole enterprise unseemly - even if it did bring him wealth.

Unlike a lot of spy books of this era, it’s really helpful to read the first 'John Gail' paperback before diving into the second. There are some plot developments and characters with powerful scenes in book two that won’t make much sense unless you know Gail’s recent history. You won’t be completely lost, but it’s just a more fulfilling read with a little context.

Gail’s aspirations to live a life of sexy threesomes in the salty Spanish air are interrupted by a visitor from his clandestine agency in London. They need him for an assignment, and he must leave at once. When asking politely fails, the agency resorts to threats and blackmail to cajole Gail back to work. In London, Gail learns that the assignment involves a paper marriage to a woman he’s never met before followed by a period of keeping her safe from a malevolent group trying to harm her. Think of it as a witness protection program where the protector gets laid. There’s a rather sappy romance that develops between Gail and Diana, his new bride/protectee, and the whole time the reader is waiting for the other shoe to drop and the violent bloodbath to begin as it did in Gail’s first adventure.

Once again, the author does not disappoint. Diana knows a secret that makes her a target of the enemy’s intel service that she won’t even tell Gail (or the reader) until well into the novel. His efforts to keep her safe make for genuinely exciting reading and the violence escalates to some intense scenes of torture and brutality as the story progresses. Gail is an everyman reluctant hero who is put through a good bit of Hell leading up to the paperback’s climactic and satisfying ending.

Stephen Frances honed his chops in the 1940s and 1950s writing the 'Hank Jansen' thrillers, and the 'John Gail' books show a real knack for pacing and placing the hero in exciting situations. It’s crazy that the inferior 'Nick Carter' series was such a phenomenon while the nearly-perfect 'John Gail' books only lasted seven installments. As it was never reprinted, this Gail adventure installment may be a bit hard to find, but you won’t be disappointed with the story. Highly recommended.


Although this was a fantastic novel, the cover art is problematic. It seems to depict John Gail wearing white boxer shorts - probably with an erection - while ninja klansmen clad in white robes shoot him with arrows. I’m happy to report that this scene never happens in the book. All that said, I’d like to thank Award Books for ensuring my embarrassment every time someone glanced at what I was reading for the few days I was carrying around this abominably-packaged paperback.

Friday, July 13, 2018

John Gail #01 - This Woman is Death

“Excellent financial rewards await young man, physically fit, reasonably intelligent, naturally non-conformist and totally devoid of any undue respect for the law. Write to box 503.” The ad appealed to London door-to-door encyclopedia salesman John Gail, and it became his door into the world of international espionage. That’s the premise of the 'John Gail' series by Stephen Frances. A consortium of millionaires has a well-funded secret spy agency working outside the boundaries of bureaucrats to save the world, and John finds himself suddenly on their payroll.

The first book in the series, “This Woman is Death” (1965) introduces us to John, an every-man guided by his unused education in philosophy who solves problems through logic and reason. Unlike most spies, he has deep moral problems with killing, which is the central driving conflict of this novel. John is paired with an impossibly sexy assassin named Vanda (the book’s best character) and given an assignment to kill - putting his pacifism to the test. The secret agency employing John is also fascinating and leaves the reader wanting to know more. John’s agency controller, George, is wise and shrewd. He is the adult in the room nudging John in the right direction.

This wasn’t a perfect novel - it was chatty and a bit slow - until the blood-soaked final set-piece where the author paints a mural of extreme violence with some excellent writing. John’s confrontation with the enemy - and his own ethics - was worth the wait.

There were seven books in this series. I’m dying to find out what happens next. Highly recommended.