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

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Blood Red Sun

Stephen Mertz cut his teeth writing hard-nosed action-adventure fiction set in Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan literary universe. In the 1980s, while penning some of the very best Executioner novels, Mertz expanded the scope of his writing by elevating genre fiction into a much broader scale. That successful experiment was Blood Red Sun, a novel first published in 1989 by independent publisher Diamond Books, a company funded by The Destroyer author Warren Murphy. The book was later reprinted by Crossroad Press in 2012, and is now available in a sleek, revised new edition from Wolfpack Publishing.

Unlike many WWII military-fiction novels, Blood Red Sun is unique in its premise and timeline. The narrative takes place in September, 1945, after Japan's formal surrender to the Allied forces following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book's protagonist is savvy Sergeant John Ballard, a thirty-five year-old fighting man who has spent the majority of the war engaged in combat in the Pacific Theater. What's left of his unit is ultimately just two men, Tex Hanklin and Wilbur Mischkie, both of which play important roles in Ballard's next assignment – preventing the assassination of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.

In the book, Japan's surrender leads to a fragmented state of affairs for the country's military leadership. Within the ranks of the upper echelon, conspirators exist to prevent Japan's formal surrender to MacArthur. These conspirators refuse to accept defeat and feel that Japan's Emperor, Hirohito, is doing an injustice and disservice to the proud Japanese people. The schemers, all defined as opposing forces of Hirohito, are secretly building their own alliances to counter each other. It's essentially a den of snakes that also involves a proud Japanese flying Ace named Baron Tamura. The Baron's portion of the narrative involves his niece Keiko, a twenty-four year-old woman sympathetic to the Allied force initiative. Keiko also plays a prominent role as a potential love interest for Ballard. 

As a fan of Stephen Mertz's pulpy writing style, and his masterful grip on men's action-adventure writing, I was savoring the opportunity to read Blood Red Sun. Mertz draws on his prior experiences and strengths to create the story. As a fan of his M.I.A. Hunter series, I could see some similarities. 

The characters Ballard, Hanklin, and Mischkie reminded me of M.I.A. Hunter trio of Stone, Wiley, and Loughlin. Like a great M.I.A. Hunter novel, the same type of setup presents itself here when Ballard's team enters the Japanese jungle to retrieve a military leader. They rely on a small band of Filipino guerrillas to help them with the mission. This same sort of scenario was often used as Stone's team entered Asian jungles with an assist from Laos, Cambodian, or “South Vietnamese” guerrillas. Mertz even introduces ninjas into the story, an element that M.I.A. Hunter co-writer Joe Lansdale seemed to fixate on, shown in the series' fourth installment, Mountain Massacre. Additionally, the characteristics of Tex Hanklin was similar to Stone's Texan teammate Hog Wiley. 

These similarities to other Mertz creations doesn't make Blood Red Sun unoriginal or any less enjoyable. Quite the contrary. In fact, it illustrates how Mertz is cohesive and continuous, using his strengths and experiences as a genre storyteller to broaden the narrative. In fact, this is Mertz's most ambitious novel as it incorporates a lot of fine details surrounding WWII, the political landscape of Japan and the U.S. during that era, and famous, historical figures that are featured as characters in the story. Mertz takes some liberty with these characters, but left me feeling as though what he presented in terms of command, dialogue, and behavior, was probably art imitating real life.

In terms of action-adventure, Blood Red Sun has it all. The white-knuckled scenes of Ballard storming a landing strip with all guns blazin' was ripped right out of the pages of a vibrant Men's Action-Adventure Magazine. Mertz's descriptions of walls descending in bullet-hail, prison breaks, Kamikaze dives, ninja attacks and jungle warfare are balanced well with the political, backroom brawling conducted by various Japanese and American military leaders. 

Mertz's novels like Blood Red Sun are positioned on a grander international scale like The Castro Directive (Cuba) and The Korean Intercept (Asia), but still possess the men's action-adventure tropes that make the books way more enjoyable than a bestselling Tom Clancy ghostwritten tech-thriller. Mertz's literary mojo is authentic, extremely enjoyable, and saturated with human emotion that easily conveys to his readers. Blood Red Sun is a scorching red-hot read and I highly recommend it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, January 20, 2023

M.I.A. Hunter #10 - Miami Warzone

M.I.A. Hunter was a series of men's action-adventure novels published by Jove in the 1980s and early 1990s. The series was created by Stephen Mertz (Cody's War, Kilroy) and featured his outlines and editing with a revolving door of authors including Joe Lansdale, Arthur Moore, and Mike Newton. Crime-fiction author and popular blogger Bill Crider (1941-2018) contributed as well with his series debut, Miami Warzone. It is the 10th installment, originally published in 1988 and existing today in digital format through Wolfpack Publishing

Miami Warzone is the first domestic appearance of Mark Stone, Terrence Loughlin, and Hog Wiley, the three-man retrieval team effectively known as “M.I.A. Hunter”. The series began with dangerous missions into Southeast Asia to rescue American prisoners held captive from the Vietnam War. Stone's team was working without permission from the U.S. Government, therefore their activities were highly illegal and placed them on a C.I.A. hitlist. But, the American government caught on to Stone's skills in the same way that they caught on to The Executioner. If you can't beat them, join them. So, a U.S. Senator (Harler I think?) in book seven liberates the three hunters and places them on the federal payroll working out of Fort Bragg. You're all caught up now.

In this 10th installment, Crider introduces readers to Jack Wofford, a former teammate of Stone's during the Vietnam War. He even helped to save Stone's life during a nasty firefight at a seemingly abandoned village. In a terrific backstory, Crider tells of how Wofford's brother succumbed to drug addiction and eventually died. To avenge his brother's loss, Wofford went vigilante and began running his own one-man vice-squad. Eventually, he had enough intel and dirt on some of America's most powerful drug dealers. The D.E.A. were impressed with Wofford's talents and placed him on the payroll, similar to what happened with Stone and the C.I.A. But, on a recent undercover buy, Wofford is caught and becomes imprisoned as collateral during a Cuban and Columbian drug war. 

Stone receives a call from Wofford's wife stating that the D.E.A. isn't doing enough to free her husband. The trio takes the job to track down Wofford's whereabouts while also attempting to destroy the drug importing operation devouring Miami. The narrative has a tremendously high body count as the locations include park battlefields, a wild Everglades romp, the ultimate barfight, a mansion blowout, and even a shootout at an airport. 

M.I.A. Hunter isn't Hemingway and never professed to be. Instead, it's a rip-roar, ass-kicking team commando series with explosive action and a slight dose of testosterone humor (Hog is a riot!). As much as I loved the old fashioned “bring 'em back alive” Vietnam rescue missions, the idea of Stone and company working domestically is a nice change of pace. The last two novel locations, the Soviet Union and Nicaragua, were both excellent choices to move this series into another dynamic. Crider's writing style is ultra-violent, but also balances out with a quality story laced with crime-fiction elements, sex, and a buddy cop camaraderie. In other words, this one is a series standout. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Say it was Murder

Stephen Mertz (b. 1947) is a mystery, action-adventure, and short-story writer that has contributed, or created, series titles like M.I.A. Hunter, Kilroy, Cody's Army, and the wildly successful Cody's War. He cut his teeth in the literary world as a Don Pendleton protegee, penning 12 novels in the hit series titles The Executioner/Mack Bolan from 1982-1986. He's utilized pseudonyms like Cliff Banks, Jim Case, Stephen Brett, and Jack Buchanan. But, perhaps his most descriptive name is “Mojo”, a moniker that friends and family (one in the same) use to describe Mertz through the lights, heat, and haze of a blues bar on the edges of a middle-of-nowhere Arizona town. In fact, the author's newest book is a love letter of sorts, an outlet to profess his love for the magical place he resides in.

In Say it was Murder, published in 2022 as a revised version by Rough Edges Press, Mertz describes Cochise County as Big Sky country. This slice of Southeastern Arizona paints the U.S. and Mexico border, a beautiful 100-miles stretch of open prairie and rugged mountains not to be confused with The Grand Canyon, Phoenix, or Tucson. Mertz places his private-eye protagonist, a fellow named McShan, in Bisbee, the real-life, neo-hippie small-town that he frequents. Mertz, through his fictional hero, experiences a profound connection with the area:

The desert will either chew you up and spit you out or will touch you in ways that are as deep and mysterious as they are difficult to express.

The fondness that Mertz fosters of the land and its lush beauty is only rivaled by one thing, his sincere love for crime-noir. In Say it was Murder, the author steps into the shoes filled by his literary heroes like Mike Hammer and Ed Noon. In fact, Mertz's private-eye, McShann could be a nod to private-eye Rex McBride, authored by Cleve Adams and Mike Shayne, created by Davis Dresser using the name Brett Halliday.

Like Mertz's other private-eye, Kilroy, McShan operates out of Denver, Colorado, a city that also holds a special place for the author. McShan is employed by Honeycutt Personal Services, a large agency with offices in every state specializing in detectives, cybersecurity, bodyguards, and kidnapping protection. This enterprise of ex-military and law-enforcement is ran by Miss Honeycutt, a 63-year old heavyset woman that inherited the agency from her father.

McShan's newest assignment is aiding a client named Marna, a divorced mother that hired the Honeycutt agency to find her missing daughter. When McShan arrives in Cochise County, he learns that the woman's daughter, Janine, has joined a mysterious religious sect. As McShan digs into the case, he learns more about Janine's step-father, a wealthy entrepreneur with a very violent streak. Connecting the dots, the case leads into energy and land development, illegal human-trafficking, incest, and the weird cult-like organization that has a grasp on Marna's family. 

Comparisons are made to Ross MacDonald's fantastic Lew Archer series, and that may be valid, but I felt that Mertz's characters were wilder and more diverse. McShan contends with a deadly lesbian biker and her maniacal brother, the town's barber. I also felt McShan was more reserved in his approach, keeping the dialogue, brief and more directly linked to the case. There is a sexy smoothness to Mertz's inclusion of a blonde bombshell, a potential – seemingly obligatory – love interest for the gumshoe hero. 

With its sturdy, well crafted plot, vivid locale, surprise twist, and shocking ending, Say it was Murder is a brisk, highly-satisfying crime-thriller by one of the genre's best storytellers. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Cody's War #01 - Dragonfire!

Between 1982 and 1986, Stephen Mertz authored a number of gritty Mack Bolan installments that are considered some of the best of the series. He also created and authored installments of the M.I.A. Hunter series as well as the Kilroy mysteries and music-based novels like Hank and Muddy and Jimi After Dark. Recently, he launched a brand new action-adventure title called Cody's War. I'm always up for a rip-roaring, Mertz mule-kicker, so I chose to read the series debut, Dragonfire!. It's out now through Wolfpack Publishing.

Readers learn through backstory that CIA Agent Jack Cody experienced a personal tragedy when his family was killed by a terrorist bomb. Now, Cody seeks out the most perilous jobs in a quest to kill himself in the line of duty. Thus, his unconventional methods have earned him the nickname “Suicide Cody”.

In the book's opening chapters, Mertz introduces readers to his newest paperback warrior by placing Cody on a small, U.S. submarine en route to the Ocean Song, a recreational yacht containing a wanted Islamic terrorist named Hadi Abu. As Cody emerges from the tiny craft, there is a prophetic message in one simple line of text: “Cody lifted himself through the hatch, into the storm.” It kicks off the novel, the character's mission, this series debut, and puts readers in the harness seat as the author thrusts readers into the action.

On the Ocean Song, Cody disposes of the baddies, captures a valuable female accomplice, and faces off with one of the early Final Bosses. Abu, refusing to go quietly into submission, gets the 'ole one-two punch - a shotgun amputation and decapitation. Cody then thrusts the captive over his shoulder to ascend a swinging ladder to a helicopter spewing out M60 rounds into the Ocean Song's violent, but foolish crew. Wham! Bam! Thank you Uncle Sam.

After the fast-paced opening scene, Dragonfire! settles into a brisk pace as the next mission unfolds. A Chinese scientist is attempting to defect to America and is receiving assistance from a covert CIA agent. As one can imagine, the defection requires stealth support from resistance cells within Red China, an underground pathway that has already smuggled out the scientist's wife. This resistance cell, oddly enough, is backed by the Triad, China's version of the Mob. 

The exchange is set that will place the scientist on a road to freedom. However, when the final deal goes down, the CIA man is killed and the scientist is taken captive by a Major Zhao. It turns out, Zhao is working on a coup attempt from within the Chinese military. He will use Dragonfire, the scientist's deadly weapon, to shift the momentum and overthrow the Chinese government in a quest for world dominance. It's a pulp-fiction “take over the world with the biggest bomb” strategy that isn't far removed from an Ian Fleming (James Bond) or Michael Avallone (Nick Carter, Ed Noon) styled plot. 

U.S. President Harwood informs his close cabinet that Cody is The President's Man and has been for the three predecessors before him. Harwood elaborates, “He's as well-known in this office as he's unknown to the general public.” So, Harwood gives the orders to Cody's CIA controller and possible love interest, Sara Durell (an obvious ode to Mertz's favorite spy hero in Sam Durell). She meets with Cody, provides the rundown, and hooks him up with an embassy handler named Beth in Hong Kong. The mission is to locate the scientist while investigating the disappearances of an American fighter-jet and submarine, which readers already know were targeted, zapped, fried, and vaporized by Dragonfire. Cody's ultimate goal is to prevent Earth from falling under the bombastic spell of an even viler Chinese dictator.

Needless to say, Mertz is in full rock 'n roll mode with Cody's War. Dragonfire!, while being a modern, sophisticated shoot 'em up, is a throwback to the two-fisted, barrel-chested, bullet-belted heroes of the 1970s through the 1990s. Cody isn't completely exposed in this book, leaving a lot of his past in the dark. But, I love the madness to his motive and the idea that he is longing for his own death while fighting to save the lives of others. There's very little humor (if any) as Cody drills down to the bone marrow to find and eliminate targets. This keeps the book on the rails and moving towards a destination. Readers know the stops. I also love literary-longevity. Mertz has created a durable series hero that he can simply drop into the endless abundance of current Earthly war-zones. Plus, there's the whole “Sara 'n Cody” romance that can build up over time. 

In the introduction to Conan of the Isles, L. Sprague de Camp wrote about a lecture he attended on writers. I think this sort of sentiment describes talented authors like Stephen Mertz:

“A lecturer lately has said that, if a fiction writer wants sales, he should write exclusively either about politics or sex. A novel like The President's Boyfriend ought to be a lead-pipe cinch. There are still, however, many readers who read, not to be enlightened, improved, uplifted, reformed, baffled by the writer's obscurity, amazed by his cleverness, nauseated by his scatology, or reduced to tears by the plight of some mistreated person, class, or caste, but to be entertained.”

Whether he's throwing rounds downrange with a literary creation or blowin' the blues harp in a smoky dive, Mertz is an entertainer. With his newest fictional hero, this remarkable scribe ventures down another pathway to offer up another enjoyable, rock-solid good guy during a time when humanity needs more good guys. Jack Cody is that guy.

Cody's War Checklist

1 Dragonfire!
2 Camp David Has Fallen!
3 The Fires of Allah
4 Day of Reckoning
5 The Last Refuge
6 Cody's Return
7 Lethal Assault
8 Final Strike
9 Afghanistan Payback
10 Hellfire in Syria 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, May 7, 2021

The King of Horror & Other Stories

Paperback Warrior has a thing for Stephen Mertz. That admiration comes partly from the fact that the M.I.A. Hunter novels were my first introduction to the men's action-adventure genre. Since we started this blog, we have mostly focused our reviews of Mertz's work on military and vigilante fiction like Mack Bolan, Tunnel Rats and the M.I.A. Hunter novels. Thanks to Wolfpack Publishing, a collection of Mertz's short fiction stories has been compiled under the title The King of Horror & Other Stories. This multi-faceted examination of Mertz's fast-paced style offers a blend of genre offerings that display the author's diversity.

While I enjoyed the entire collection, here are some highlights:

“Last Stand” features Blaze and Kate, a unique pair of mercenaries who are married to each other. This gritty duo travels the world, accepting contracts to guard stagecoaches, participate in various revolutions or just killing selected targets. After a long career of blood and bullets, Blaze and Kate eventually saved up enough to retire to Mexico. When the story begins, they are both attempting to cross the border, but are ambushed by Native Americans. Through 11 action-oriented pages, the two of them attempt to shoot their way out only to be plagued by wave after wave of warriors. It's really a last stand for Blaze and Kate as Mertz places these characters in an extreme position to test their love for each other. This is an effective story that shows the powerful force of love through overwhelming adversity.

Like “Last Stand”, the Vietnam War story “Fragged” again showcases Mertz's interesting outlook on marriage and the ties that bind. “Fragged” features Cord McCall, an investigator working for the U.S. Criminal Investigation Division in Saigon. McCall investigates homicide, desertion, robbery and other crimes committed within military ranks. Interestingly, McCall's wife is also in Vietnam as a war reporter. The two find themselves in Firebase Tiger, a military installation where McCall is responsible for a homicide investigation. A lieutenant-colonel in the 13th Infantry Battalion was killed by a hand grenade in his own barracks. It is up to McCall to determine if this is an enemy penetration or if someone within the battalion committed the murder. It is a great return to the golden age of the mysteries of the locked chamber – which, why, where, how. Also, there is Mertz's signature of sandbags, guts and bloody warfare. These two characters also appear in another included story called “Chez Erotique” as well as Mertz's novel Saigon Homicide.

Mertz says that “Talon's Gift” is the nastiest story he has ever written. It's not so much nasty as it is violently shocking. The narrative features a suburban couple named Talon and Evie. When Evie departs to the movie theater, Talon begins to spin the cylinder of his .38 while explaining to readers (and himself) that Evie has been unfaithful. There's some backstory on the neighborhood and the couple's neighbor Pete. The most intriguing part for me was Talon's profession. I won't spoil the fun for you. It's an enjoyable read. 

The book's centerpiece is “The King of Horror”, a short-story that Mertz penned about his friend and longtime author Michael Avallone (1924-1999). In many ways the main character, established horror author Rigley Balbo, is Avallone. Mertz's line, “A man who was cheated and pushed aside by these grubby, Johnny-come-lately punks and their million-dollar contracts and their New York Times bestsellers”, perfectly describes the peaks and valleys of Avallone's career. In first person narration, Balbo explains that he was an A-lister early in his career before the publishing market dried up. Crummy distribution, poor advances and strangled sales have plagued Balbo's career for a decade. Needless to say, Balbo's household name tarnished along with the relationship with his publishing agent. Like one of those old Alfred Hitchcock stories, Balbo has a plan to get even with his agent, a grand scheme that will vengefully heal his heart and mind. However, Mertz pitches a wicked curveball to delightfully wreck Balbo's plan. I loved this story and it's one of those rare “industry insider” stories that jerks the curtain on the hectic and turbulent publishing world.

There are so many great stories in this collection, from Mertz's tribute to the pulps with “The Lizard Men of Blood River” to the slick and violent “The Death Blues”. The compilation showcases all of Mertz's skill and passion - violent storytelling with a powerful sense of love, loss and regret. It was a real treat to find Mertz submerged in many different genres and styles. King of Horror & Other Stories is a real showpiece of skill and craftsmanship. If you've never stepped out of Mertz's Mack Bolan world, this is your certified encouragement to delve into this author's deep literary catalog. It's a dive worth taking.

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Monday, April 12, 2021

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 86

On Episode 86 of the Paperback Warrior Podcast, we explore team-based action adventure series including Phoenix Force, Alpha Team, SOBs, and so many more. This is a jam-packed episode that men’s adventure paperback fans won’t want to miss. Listen on any podcast app or or download directly HERE

Listen to "Episode 86: Action-Adventure Teams" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

M.I.A. Hunter #09 - Invasion U.S.S.R.

Stephen Mertz and Arthur Moore authored the eighth M.I.A. Hunter installment Escape from Nicaragua. The duo continue their collaboration with this ninth volume entitled Invasion U.S.S.R. It was published by Jove in 1988 and is the second series installment to feature the three “hunters” performing clandestine work for the U.S. Government.

Senator Harler, who was introduced in the seventh novel, Saigon Slaughter, now orchestrates missions for the three hunters and has a new assignment for leader Mark Stone. A journalist named Lee Daniels is being held captive in Russia. After years of receiving hot leads from his C.I.A. resource, the government asked Daniels to break into a laboratory to steal important documents. Why the C.I.A., who primarily focuses on covert operations, would ask a newspaper reporter to perform this task isn't fully explained. Regardless, it's a convenient way to insert three bad-ass characters into Russia to ride tall and shoot straight.

Unlike other series installments, Invasion U.S.S.R. is more of an investigation resembling a hardboiled private-eye case as Stone tracks the whereabouts of Daniels. It follows tried and true literary trends as the heroic trio interviews locals (hood criminals) and fraternizes in bars in a race to develop clues. These leads are conventional pathways to low-brow establishments like strip clubs, casinos and brothels. The authors utilize these false solutions to discourage the trio, often leading to a dead-end only to recycle the hunt for information again. As that portion of the narrative developed, readers check-in with Daniels periodically as he's moved from jail to jail as political bait.

What I really loved about this story was the fact that the heroes lose quite a bit. This isn't a typical “storm the jungles and find the bamboo cage”. The fact that Stone and his fighting unit can't strong-arm their way to liberation was a welcome change. In addition, the team are primarily placed in an urban setting for the first time. It was enjoyable to see the team run through apartment complexes and buildings. In a surprising moment, the trio even steals bicycles and outpedal their pursuers! It's this sort of thing that really sets the novel apart from prior installments.

Invasion U.S.S.R. is a fun men's action-adventure novel that continues the series' trend of locating and liberating prisoners. While slower than prior installments, the authors take the team out of their jungle element and mix-up the action in favor of more procedural investigation. While prior books may have been a quick cold beer, Invasion U.S.S.R. is a fine wine that needs to be digested slowly to enjoy all the flavor.

Buy 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.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Some Die Hard

Stephen Mertz is a highly-respected author of men's action adventure, mystery and crime novels. As a prodigy of genre great Don Pendleton, Mertz penned a number of 'The Executioner' titles as well as creating action-oriented series' like 'M.I.A. Hunter' and 'Cody's Army'. His first novel, "Some Die Hard," was written in 1975. After an exhaustive search for a publishing deal, the book finally made print in 1979 via Manor Books, a popular producer of genre fare in the 70s. It was re-printed by Rough Edges Press in 2014 with bonus content providing an exclusive backstage peek at Mertz's negotiation with Manor and subsequent frustrations with the publishing house. That version is out of print now.

"Some Die Hard" was written under the pseudonym of Stephen Brett. Mertz later revealed the reason for this pen name comes from his love of Brett Halliday (Davis Dresser) and the 'Mike Shayne' mystery series. This speaks volumes considering "Some Die Hard" is a perfect homage to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. In essence, Mertz offers a unique presentation of a traditional locked-room mystery. This impossible crime follows the genre formula - murder, follow the clues, line up the suspects and name the killer. Mertz goes as far as name-checking some of his influences in the book - Erle Stanley Gardner, Ellery Queen and hard-boiled master Mickey Spillane.

The novel's main character is Dugan, a private investigator who is swept into a murder mystery from the vantage point of a warm bus seat. After witnessing a fellow passenger's death in the street while running from assailants, Dugan finds some intriguing photos of gambling markers stuffed inside of his old paperback. Before his death, the deceased obviously knew there was trouble and left behind a valuable clue for Dugan to discover. Mertz quickly sews the threads to connect the murdered man with the next intended victim, a wealthy architect named Carlander Court.

After taking a job from Court's daughter Susan, Dugan becomes enmeshed within the family's dynamic - attorney, attorney's fragile wife, assistant, doctor and the two heirs to the fortune - Susan and Tommy. In the "daddy's dying, who's got the will" narrative, Dugan learns that Tommy owes $15,000 in gambling debts to the dangerous Zucco. Tommy has now found himself on the outs with his terminally-ill father. His reckless lifestyle of gambling and promiscuity has led Court to re-evaluate his will. His artistic daughter, Susan, has proven to be the best benefactor, and after years of neglect, he has established a healthier relationship with her. As such, she will be the sole heir, leaving Tommy empty-handed. Dugan learns all of this from Court with an intriguing plot development - Tommy will be written out of the will the next day. Court fears that Tommy or Zucco will attempt to kill him that night to preserve the inheritance. If Tommy's omitted from the will, he receives nothing and Zucco's debts will remain unpaid. Court's death prior to the signing of the new will allows Tommy the inheritance as originally planned. 

Surely this is quite a murder mystery. Without giving too much away, Court is indeed murdered that night at a birthday party ripe with guests, family and friends. It's an impossible crime that Dugan must solve despite Zucco and Tommy's interference. Who's the culprit and how does the vast fortune connect the victim to the killer? All of this is masterfully orchestrated by Mertz, again clearly utilizing his literary influences while still maintaining his own identity.

Set in Langdon Springs, Colorado, Mertz wrote this first novel while living in Durango. The mountain town was populated by starving artists and the impact of that environment is apparent in "Some Die Hard.". I'd also speculate that the author takes some liberties by denigrating the wealthy. He's quick to criticize the wealthy lifestyle and, while not directly, uses it as a character trait to define the Court family as pompous. Mertz admits this time of his life was one of financial hardship, stating he had 54 cents to his name the day the book contract arrived. 

Overcoming adversity, Mertz was passionate about books and writing and maintained a consistent presence within the industry for decades. I'm not sure there is another Mertz book like this one. While I haven't read all of his work, I can steadfastly say that this surely has to be one of his best. It's a literary pursuit quite different from his violent novels written about vigilantes, soldiers and mercenaries. All of those are certainly entertaining and deserve praise, but "Some Die Hard" is truly exceptional. Do yourself a favor and hunt this book down.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

M.I.A. Hunter #08 - Escape from Nicaragua

After seven installments of Stephen Mertz's 'M.I.A. Hunter' series, the popular title takes a slight shift into a new direction. Beginning with this eighth entry, “Escape from Nicaragua,” we discover Mark Stone's combat hardened trio working in unison with the U.S. government, a rather unique turn of events considering Stone had been targeted by the CIA and FBI.

In the last novel, “Saigon Slaughter,” Stone has a revelation about his team's future. It's 1987 (the series was written in the 80s) and the Vietnam War has been over for 14 years. The idea of malnourished prisoners of war still alive in Vietnam's harsh climate is a stretch. Further, Stone's network of intelligence has become sporadic and inconsistent. His admirable missions of saving prisoners of war may be finished. In that book's rowdy finale Stone rescues American prisoners from Saigon and conveniently returns them during a U.S. summit with Vietnam.

“Escape from Nicaragua” has a sense of continuity by mentioning these prior events in the novel's opening pages. Now, the CIA and FBI have stricken Stone's trio from the record books in what is perceived as an exchange for their labor. U.S. government agencies, impressed with Stone's fortitude, will now contract his team for messy freeing two CIA operatives from a Nicaraguan prison.

Those of you excited about this new series direction, and the enticing idea that Stone might be assassinating drug lords, dictators and communists while utilizing upgraded intel, should really hold your applause. “Escape from Nicaragua” doesn't really present itself as anything other than a recycle of the prior seven books. Stone's team hits Honduras for intel, then penetrates the Nicaragua jungle to align with freedom fighters who assist the trio in liberating the prisoners.

Seasoned magicians say the rabbit don't come easy. I'd say the same for “Escape from Nicaragua.” The magic of transforming this series into a “Phoenix Force” styled mercenary unit apparently isn't easy. The collaboration between series creator Stephen Mertz and a relatively unknown writer named Arthur Moore lends a sense of familiarity to the novel, but the plot never really pushes the envelope. The series, while certainly delivering action-packed goods, should have turned the corner on this eighth novel. Looking ahead to the next installment, “Invasion U.S.S.R.,” appears to have a similar theme – Stone freeing a U.S. journalist from a Soviet prison. I'm hoping for the best.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, May 9, 2019

M.I.A. Hunter #07 - Saigon Slaughter

Stephen Mertz and Joe R. Lansdale collaborated once again on this seventh entry in the 'M.I.A. Hunter' series. Released by Jove in 1987, “Saigon Slaughter' is the first of the series to feature a new moniker, 'Stone: M.I.A. Hunter'. Coincidentally, this book features a prelude to what will ultimately dominate the second half of the series. 

Protagonist Mark Stone has spent his post-war life rescuing M.I.A./P.O.W.s from southeast Asia. The mission for “Saigon Slaughter” remains the same, rescuing three American soldiers from a Saigon prison. Vietnam, refusing to admit they still have prisoners, has agreed to an international summit with U.S. Senator Harler in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Stone hopes to free the three prisoners and present them to the summit. 

The series revelation is around page 43 as Mark Stone self-reflects on the missions and his foreseeable future. He realizes that the intel regarding missing prisoners of war has dwindled, and that everyone from the KGB, CIA and FBI has included him on the hot sheets of most wanted. The rescue of American prisoners in Vietnam and Laos had become a fool's errand. Knowing this, Stone, guided by creator Stephen Mertz, will eventually move his team into a mercenary role starting with the next novel, “Escape from Nicaragua”. 

“Saigon Slaughter” features all of the action-oriented intensity of the prior novels. While never really understanding the ratio of Mertz and the rotating co-authors, this book seems to focus a lot of attention on Hog Wiley. It features the typical humorous banter between Wiley and Loughlin while they support Stone's penetration into Saigon. The three align with a network of resistance fighters including Asian beauty Mai. 

The book's entrance and eventual escape from the prison features all of the firefights we've come to expect. Enhancing the action is some fierce underground tunnel action as well as a clever ruse to lure an evil general into purchasing Mai as a prostitute. With backing support of Stone, Mai is able to gain key intel on where the prisoners are being held. Experienced readers know the liberation will occur, but how Stone's trio breaks in is always the greatest pleasure. 

This was the third and final contribution from Lansdale. Overall, another exciting Stone adventure that will please genre fans.

Note - There is another "Saigon Slaughter" featured in the 'Black Eagles' series. It was released in November, 1984 by Zebra. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, March 15, 2019

Super Bolan #04 - Dirty War

In Don Pendleton's “Death Squad” (1969), the second of the long running vigilante series 'The Executioner', we are introduced to Mack Bolan's Vietnam colleagues - Bill Hoffower, Tom Loudelk, Angelo Fontenelli, Juan Andromede, Gadgets Schwartz, Pol Blancanales, Jim Harrington and George Zitka. While it's a short-lived cameo, this death squad assists Bolan with a Mafia hit that goes south. While the entire team is nearly wiped out, it was an interesting concept that would eventually lead to more team-based action in its affiliates like Able Team, Stony Man and Phoenix Force.

Pendleton would pen 37 of the first 38 Executioner novels before handing Gold Eagle the rights to produce the books using a myriad of authors. The stipulation that the author's name be printed on the copyright page is important, allowing fans like myself an easy peek at the book's creator without having to roll the sleeves up for a paper trail (I'm talking to you Killmaster). After 60 volumes of 'The Executioner' (titled 'Mack Bolan' at this point), Gold Eagle decided that they could increase the profits from $2.25 per book to $3.95 by increasing the size to 350+ pages under the 'Super Bolan' series. These were simultaneously released at the same time Executioners were flooding the market, providing plenty of paperback Bolans to meet reader demands.

Writer Stephen Mertz was a Pendleton prodigy and by the early 1980s was knee-deep in the Bolan universe. His resume and experience with Bolan provoked a “retcon” idea of re-imagining earlier events in Bolan's life. Thus, “Super Bolan #4 – Dirty War” is written as a time capsule piece depicting events that would happen to the character during his second tour in Vietnam. The idea of a sprite young Bolan in the hands of a veteran author like Mertz is altogether intriguing. The stars aligned to even have veteran artist Gil Cohen design the cover, the ultimate Bolan fan's dream.

The book begins in the present day as Bolan is thinking back to his Death Squad's unfortunate deaths. He's on a Mafia hit of his own and thinking back to his time in Vietnam as sergeant and the various missions that his men performed. In a unique chapter one, 30-yr old Bolan is at Pittsfield Municipal Airport in Massachusetts with his family. We know this would be the last time he would see his parents/sister and Mertz writes this into the narrative. Bolan has premonitions that he won't see his family again. Kudos to the author for also allowing some backstory on Mack's father Sam and his early fights with the mob enforcers. At one point, before Mack's departure, Sam is attacked and Mack comes to his aid. It's this aspect that I don't think was conveyed by Pendleton – that Mack knew what was happening back home prior to the first few letters arriving on his second tour. In this re-imagining, he knew all along. 

The action heats up in Vietnam as we see Bolan and his death squad liberating a young woman and child from a NVA stronghold near the Cambodian border. It's intense cat-and-mouse tactics that mirror Bolan's solo fights much later in life. But here we have Bolan as squad leader, effectively orchestrating the Hell that is unleashed on the NVA base. In a neat fan experience, Mertz provides a cameo of pilot Jack Grimaldi. Familiar readers will know that Grimaldi and Mack originally meet in Executioner #10, later to become longtime allies within the Stony Man group. Retconning that exchange, Mertz has Grimaldi rescue the Death Squad from the NVA fight and pilot the group to safety. While Grimaldi and Bolan never officially meet here, both are respectful to each other leading Grimaldi to think to himself, “I wonder if our paths will ever meet again”. This is fun stuff. 

“Dirty War” eventually tangles with plenty of firefights and escapes, building in a hot lead assault on Bolan's camp, a hunt and destroy mission and the eventual escape from enemy patrols in Cambodia. At 376-pages, it never gets too exhausting with dialogue or slow motion. This is 80s Bolan – 1,2,3,Kill at its finest. Mertz is clearly having a lot of fun with the concept and adds tremendous depth to the characters that made up that original Death Squad. Without giving away the spoilers, we know that Gadgets and Pol would survive that Mafia battle and go on to form Able Team (launched in 1982 by Gold Eagle).

Fans of the Bolan universe, this is simply mandatory reading. It's fun, indulgent and clever. It's clearly designed for the series' fans but should be considered an important part of the Bolan origin story. If you are new to the series, I would start here and then work into Executioners 1 and 2. But regardless of order, just read it.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Tunnel Rats #02 - Mud and Blood

There were only two books in the short-lived Tunnel Rats series by Stephen Mertz (writing as Cliff Banks), and that was a real shame because they are both exciting Vietnam War combat adventure paperbacks. In the second installment, Mertz does a great job of getting the reader up to speed about the team combatting the Vietcong’s unusual guerrilla war tactic of employing underground tunnels, so a new reader is never lost by jumping into the action without having read the preceding paperback.

“Mud and Blood” was released by Popular Library in 1990 and features the same four-man team combatting the Vietcong in the boobytrapped jungle. The foursome consists of Gaines, DeLuca, Hildago, and their Vietcong defector scout, Bok Van Tu. Together they form a highly-classified special forces team with the Intelligence and Reconnaissance Section of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division - a team known as the Tunnel Rats.

The lean paperback wastes no time throwing the reader squarely into the action with Gaines garroting an enemy sentry before snapping his neck with bare hands. Mertz writes vivid combat violence about as well as I’ve ever read. The threat to the team’s success are the trained battalions of Vietcong soldiers who hide underground in the labyrinth of man-made tunnels - over 200 miles worth - beneath the view of the U.S. soldiers around Saigon.

Despite his relative youth as a 25 year-old, Gaines is a formidable leader naturally-suited to the close-quarters combat in the claustrophobic tunnels because of his unique upbringing exploring the mineshafts in his Montana hometown. DeLuca is a somewhat stereotypical New York Italian, and Hidalgo is a SoCal Chicano also straight out of central casting. Meanwhile Tu brings to the table language abilities and a working knowledge of the tunnel system coupled with his sincere desire for a democratic Vietnam. They all have lean bodies suitable for combat operations inside the narrow, claustrophobic tunnels.

The mission at the heart of “Mud and Blood” involves a Vietcong Captain named Quang who is hiding in the underground tunnel system with a group of his own soldiers waiting to kill American troops. The Army needs the Tunnel Rats to drive Quang and his troops out of the tunnels where they can be captured by U.S. forces.

The action occasionally shifts to Quang who has made a home and base of operations in an underground lair. The Americans have no idea that Quang’s troops are expanding the tunnel system with the intention of stretching the beneath a U.S. base - giving the enemy easy access to the heart of local U.S. Army operations. Can the Tunnel Rats stop Quang’s underground activities before it’s too late?

“Mud and Blood” is a terrific, high-stakes action novel with real heroes and a diabolical - but nuanced - villain. The combat set-pieces were written with a cinematic flair for choreographing literary excitement without being overly wordy. This is a fast-moving popcorn novel for fans of pulpy adventure fiction. 

Still an active author, Mertz has been very forward-leaning when it comes to making his historical body of work available as reprints and eBooks for modern audiences. I tracked the author down to ask him if there were any plans to reprint and digitize the two Tunnel Rats novels, and he responded that he’d need to look into who owns the intellectual property rights pursuant to the contract he signed with Popular Library nearly 30 years ago. I, for one, am hoping that these books see the light of day again solely because it would be a shame for combat adventure yarns this good to be lost to the ages. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

M.I.A. Hunter #06 - Blood Storm

Author William Fieldhouse utilized pseudonyms like Chuck Bainbridge and John Lansing for the action series' 'Hard Corps' and 'Black Eagles'. As Gar Wilson, he penned over 30 'Phoenix Force' novels. Fieldhouse contributed to the Mack universe with six 'The Executioner' titles and a handful of 'Stony Man' entries. In 1986, Fieldhouse stepped in as house name Jack Buchanan to draft “Blood Storm”, the sixth volume of Stephen Mertz's 'M.I.A. Hunter' series.

While many of these books focus on Mark Stone's trek into Laos, Columbia or Vietnam to rescue P.O.W.s, “Blood Storm” really expands on that idea with a more dynamic presentation. Under Fieldhouse's vision, the narrative branches out to incorporate drug smugglers, a C.I.A. kill team, a team traitor and the obligatory prisoner rescue. Mertz's editing keeps the book cemented in series mythology, but the story is a different one this time.

Due to Hog Wiley's injury in “Exodus from Hell”, Stone and Loughlin are forced to recruit a new third member for their rescue mission into Laos. A mercenary by the name of Gorman requests a meeting at a dive bar called Golden Butterfly in Thailand. Loughlin hates Gorman right off the bat, but the three come to a monetary arrangement and the mission is set. Before they can exit the bar, hardmen burst in and a raging gun fight fills up Chapter Three. Loughlin suspects Gorman is behind it, allowing the author to utilize the mystery to propel the storyline. 

After the typical weapon purchases at An Khom's house (where Stone often retrieves his intel and firepower), Stone heads off to sever a C.I.A. operation that he thinks was behind the Golden Butterfly assault. After a heated exchange with old nemesis  Coleman, Stone heads to the rescue party with Loughlin and Gorman. There's a bit of a plot spoiler here with Gorman's background, but I'm going to save it for you to discover on your own.

Soon, the rescue attempt is in full-swing in Laos. There's exciting gunplay with Laotian leader Captain Luang, including some brutal scenes of torture involving simple thorns and branches (those Inquisition guys had it all wrong). Up until this book we've seen Stone in some precarious situations but those pale in comparison to the happenings here. Mixed into the break-out are opium dealers who want to capture Stone alive to sell to the highest bidder – the C.I.A., K.G.B. or Vietnam. This all culminates into a pretty hefty storm as the book finalizes with a surprise visit from series mainstay Hog. 

The bottom line, “Blood Storm” is yet another entertaining installment of this beloved series. Mertz's series continues to gain new readers and the books have been reprinted for mass consumption in our digital age. Grab it for a buck. 

Buy a copy HERE

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Tunnel Rates #01 - Tunnel Rats

One of the most harrowing aspects of the Vietnam War became the basis for an obscure paperback series. The Vietcong dug some incredibly extensive tunnel systems beneath the jungle, in which soldiers and war supplies could be hidden for surprise attacks on American troops. Tunnel openings were cleverly concealed, and the tunnels themselves were riddled with booby traps (not to mention armed sentries lurking in the darkness), making these underground systems hard to find and harder still to penetrate.

There’s a lot of potential there for some good action/adventure fiction. Can author Cliff Banks deliver?

Well, Banks is actually Stephen Mertz (creator of the excellent M.I.A. Hunter series), so we’re in good hands, and the debut novel 'TUNNEL RATS' is outstanding. The only disappointing thing is that this would prove to be a very short-lived series, with just one more novel to come before an impatient Popular Library killed the franchise. If sales were soft, I blame the cover designs, not the writing.

Our heroes are a three-man squad who are selected for their general fighting ability, along with a Vietcong defector who trains them and accompanies them on their first assignment. One of the men is too proud to admit that he suffers from claustrophobia, and that’s going to be problematic later on, once they’re snaking their way through a tight VC tunnel system on their bellies in total darkness. Another guy in the squad has a bad feeling about the defector, who may or may not betray them. 

There’s a lot more to the novel than just crawling around in tunnels. We get a jungle firefight, go-go dancers, a Saigon bar brawl and an incredible interrogation scene up in a helicopter, all before any of the tunnel stuff even begins. But everything that really matters is underground, and Mertz knows how to keep the reader wide-eyed and turning those pages. He maintains the perfect balance between action (to propel the narrative) and detail to help us feel like we’re down in those hot, stifling, terrifying tunnels ourselves, dealing with the snakes, the rats, the punji sticks and the rest of it. 

I found myself holding my breath during a few of the most powerful passages. That’s the mark of truly great pulp fiction, and I doubt there are many action/adventure books that can top 'TUNNEL RATS' for tension.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

M.I.A. Hunter #05: Exodus from Hell

Stephen Mertz is widely considered the main creator of the ‘M.I.A. Hunter’ series. He, along with Bill Crider and Joe Lansdale, wrote a majority of the series’ 17 books. For book five, “Exodus from Hell”, popular action and western author Chet Cunningham apparently came on board. I’ve spent a great deal of time digging under stones and bridges to provide the definitive verification of this – but just can’t seem to gain anything other than Joe at the Glorious Trash blog sourcing the book’s author in his review. It would certainly make sense as Cunningham also wrote the non-numbered book “Stone: M.I.A. Hunter” between books five and six. However, jury still out at the time of this review.

“Exodus from Hell” is another Jove paperback, released in 1986 under house name Jack Buchanan. Fans of the series know exactly what to expect when they flip open the novel – Mark Stone, Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin kicking serious jungle ass. This fifth entry in the series does plenty of that, but is unique to this line because it reverses the order of events from the series’ predecessors. While prior books followed the same formula, this book surprisingly does things just a little differently.

As the book begins we have a familiar scene unfolding with Stone and his mercenaries deep into Cambodia. The trio, along with hired assistance, quickly dispose of a small unit of Vietnamese soldiers before approaching a prison camp that’s housing three American prisoners of war. We are introduced to two of these characters as the author describes in graphic detail their daily rituals, struggles and punishment. In a furious opening scene, the camp is liberated and the trio are able to rescue two of the three soldiers. The third had perished under the harsh conditions before the rescue. Here’s where things get a little bit divergent. Instead of the book focusing on the heroes receiving the assignment, scouting the location and then making the finale rescue, this book reverses the order of events. “Exodus from Hell” is true to its name. This book captures the escape and trek out of hostile land.

If we assume the book is written by Cunningham, then his descriptive combat throughout the book would be at least partially written from experience. Cunning served in the Korean War, fought in two battles and, according to his website, participated in numerous line-crossing and prisoner patrols. All of that is presented with detail and authority here. He’s an engaging storyteller and really brings focus and clarity to the dangers awaiting Stone and company – the jungle environment, fatigue, opposition. As Stone attempts to get his company out of harm’s way, they can only watch in horror as the rescue chopper explodes. Thus, the premise of the book, hiking on foot through 200 miles of jungle to cross over into safehouse Thailand. Along the trek the group has one P.O.W. completely delusional, strong guy Wiley being injured and carted and a missionary that is attempting to transport six children out of harm’s way. All of these elements collectively create a perfect storm.

I hold this series in fairly high regard overall. It’s connected to my childhood and with that comes a certain kinship. But these books are just really well written, whether it’s Lansdale, Mertz, Cunningham or whoever. “Exodus to Hell” is a series highlight for me and one that definitely stands the test of time. It’s saturated with combat violence, presenting a gritty story of survival, but occasionally muffles the bang with heartfelt strives for peace. It’s a great story and I highly recommended it even if you aren’t a fan of the series. If you love this genre…you simply can’t go wrong here.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

M.I.A. Hunter #04 - Mountain Massacre

Just like the last entry, "Hanoi Deathgrip", this fourth book in the "M.I.A. Hunter" series is once again written by the talented Joe R. Lansdale (as author Jack Buchanan working off of Stephen Mertz's outline). The Texas writer has a tremendous skill-set that allows our heroic trio, Mark Stone, Terrance Loughlin and Hog Wiley, to cross over predetermined boundaries. While I love the series as a whole and plan to read and review more (watch out!), no one does it as well as Lansdale thus far. "Mountain Massacre" injects a comical touch thanks to the author's infatuation with the big lovable Hog. The character is a perfect target, he's the strong man that typically makes up every fictional team. If it were the Avengers Hog would be Hulk. The Fantastic Four? Hog is The Thing. It's just formula driven and Lansdale totally got that. Beyond just the humorous bits the book adds some fantasy and darker elements. The mysterious mountain bandits are ninjas, complete with the attached folklore that they can disappear, climb walls and practice dark magic. While our trio of paperback warriors don't buy into the bandit folklore, Lansdale still throws it out there to make this fantastical in a sense. 

The book begins with the P.O.W. hunters on the verge of springing a group of American soldiers from a prison camp in Vietnam. Lansdale gets to work early and gives us a firefight as the group emerge from the camp. Immediately the author pinpoints Hog as a go-to character and makes him larger than life. In one early scene Hog rips the testicles off of the enemy before discarding him like so much rotten meat. Hog and company escape into the mountains and meet up with what is ultimately the book's villain - bandits. The gang disrupts the maiming and raping with a quick disposal of the bandits but Stone is left unsettled by what appears to be former American soldiers in bandit garb. What!?! 

Back in Thailand Stone meets up with his old mentor An Khom and discusses the bandits. Carruthers, a series villain and Stone's CIA nemesis, shows up to remind Stone that some of the bandits he killed were American soldiers. Later, Stone meets with an older wealthy man who wants to contract Stone to locate his M.I.A. the tune of a cool million. Stone profoundly agrees to take on the mission. Remember, Stone and the gang are non-profit. However his front detective business is shut-down and things are way more difficult with the CIA bringing the heat. A million bucks can fund a lot of operations into Southeast Asia. 

Like the prior novels this one gives us a thrilling search and destroy through various skirmishes and gunfights. Lansdale throws a thrilling boat ride into the foray along with a village liberation attempt and the climatic showdown with the mountain bandits in a temple fortress. Unlike others in the series this book has a ton of sword-play due to a rivalry between Stone ally Kong Le and his estranged son Chen. Due to the martial arts background of the bandits a lot of the battles are hand-to-hand and showcase a little bit more of Stone and his team in terms of physical strength and conditioning. I like that aspect and hope we see more of that in future installments. 

"Mountain Massacre" lives up to the name with a traditional Mark Stone contribution that is worthy in the "top tier" of "M.I.A. Hunter" books. The addition of fantasy elements, a bit of mystery and the Ninjutsu mythology enhances what is a standard search and destroy formula. Kudos to the author for providing more closure to this story than the typical Stone book.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

M.I.A. Hunter #03 - Hanoi Deathgrip

The previous "M.I.A. Hunter" titles by house name Jack Buchanan were written by Stephen Mertz and Mike Newton. The share ration between the two is anyone's guess. However, with book three, "Hanoi Deathgrip", the talented journeyman Joe Lansdale ("Batman", "Jonah Hex") steps up. Newton/Mertz were great. Lansdale is awesome. 

We start where any action tale worth it's salt begins - a brothel. Texan Hog Wiley is throwing bodies out of windows and tearing up the cathouse like a rat on a cheeto. Luckily, Terrance Louglin and Mark Stone arrive to grag Hog and head out for another jungle excursion. But first, we get an obligatory flashback from the author. Combat reporter Jackie Winslow shows up looking like an 80's Kathleen Turner. She's at Mark Stone's private eye firm to beg for his assistance in rescuing her father from Vietnam. Major/Dr. Winslow was captured doing some volunteer medical work in Laos. Stone and Winslow have a little attraction that Stone dismisses later. Anyhoo, Stone finds that the ISA has targeted his home and attempted to steal a bunch of his files. He turns over a van and gets them all back in an early scene.

The three main characters do the normal song and dance of the series. They meet with some freedom fighters to thicken up the gun-soup and head into the jungle for the rescue. In the meantime,  Lansdale introduces us to the captive Winslow and some other Americans that are being held at the prison camp. Winslow is getting brutalized by the cruel camp commander Po. This guy is pretty much the cookie-cutter of the prior series' commander villains. Lansdale does descriptive work with more gritty, albeit grizzly, details than his predecessors. The harsh treatment is depicted with no holds barred. The snake scene left me disgusted to say the least. 

Our non-profit heroes are meeting by the river to scrape on some black goo and waterpoof the goods. There they find that Jackie has joined them in full fatigues and combat get-up. She's ready for a fight. Hog loses his temper and refuses to fight side by side with a woman. But once Jackie proves she can shoot straight and ride a horse Hog is fine with it. Fast forward past the near drowning, the snake viper fight (second book in a row that has Stone vs Snake by the way) and we are in the middle of a Jean Claude Van-Damne tournament fighter movie. 

Po's brother is a fat brute named Tho. Turns out Tho likes to duke it out and squash people half his size. Po has a giant battleground pit inside the camp and throws prisoners in for Tho to digest. Tho kills off three guys at once, which proves that a Hog vs Tho contest is surely coming. But before that, Winslow knows that he is the next food for Tho's ghastly combat diet. He wants to break out on the same night Stone wants to break in. 

Winslow's break-out attempt is quickly squashed by Po and the two square off in a deadly torture session. Before Winslow expires Stone blows the gate off and our boys and girl are ready to gun it up. The group lights up the M-60 guard towers and soon this book comes down to the meat and potatoes. Hog vs Tho, strong man vs strong man. As the whole camp comes under fire, the two have a epic battle. How do they get back to the US? Where does Winslow go? Can he get back into the country? These are all excellent questions that the 'M.I.A. Hunter' series never has really time to answer.

End result? Lansdale creates a gritty and uber-violent tale that shows Stone doing what he does best. Shooting snakes and Cong with CAR-15s. That's what we came for, right? 'M.I.A. Hunter' is built on these types of stories and "Hanoi Deathgrip" fits right in. It has a little bit of everything albeit a bit predictable and dated looking back. Lansdale returns again to the series in future books.

Friday, December 2, 2016

M.I.A. Hunter #02 - Cambodian Hellhole

It's 1971 in South Vietnam and our boy Sergeant Mark Stone is out on patrol in the green slimy filth hunting some Cong. AK fire rips up the night and shreds the silence like a steel cleaver. Stone guns them down but almost gets killed in the process. Who's there to fetch his tail from the hot winds of Hell? His drinking buddy and RTO SP4 Jess Lynch. After Lynch saves Stone's butt he tells him "You owe me one". Later, it is presumed that Lynch is killed in action and a letter is sent to his family from Uncle Sam. 

Fast forward to present day 1985 and Stone is on a mission with his guys Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin to free some prisoners. Instead, Stone royally screws up and shockingly kills every prisoner in an explosion. Stone, down and dismayed, is in Bangkok doing a little gun business. He gets a visit from a deep CIA guy named Carruthers who forces Stone to a house in the city. By force I mean, "come with me or we will shoot your face off". Stone fights back and then eventually goes with the goons. 

At the house he finds that the CIA operatives are keeping a US prisoner of war on a dirty cot, malnourished and dying. The prisoner escaped his jungle Hell after thirteen plus years and was picked up. The CIA has no intention of helping the guy and doesn't want to admit to a US public that they dropped the ball on guys left behind. The prisoner tells Stone that Jess Lynch is still alive and is being held captive in Cambodia. This makes Stone furious and he has quite the little skirmish with Carruthers and his men. Fast forward a day and Stone is picking up guns and supplies from his dealer and ready to hit the jungle for a shoot'em up. Carruthers gets in the way and Stone runs him off the road and escapes.

Stone, Hog, Lough and a handful of mercenaries for hire are in Cambodia outside the camp where Lynch is being held along with twenty or more US P.O.W.s. Instead of doing some more surveillance work and having an actual plan, Stone decides to approach the camp and - get this - crawl through a sewer pipe and enter the camp through a ton of human feces. It almost works. After slicing the head off a King Cobra with a knife he manages to walk right up to the cages and get captured by the enemy. What's with all this "Cambodian Hellhole" talk? Well Stone is about to find out.  

Our boy gets hung up like a bat and then gets the bat treatment. Stone gets nearly clubbed to death while the commander, Nguyen Ngu, goes on and on about confessing his real reasoning for entering the camp. Stone refuses to break so they light his foot on fire with a Zippo. Stone gets dropped in a cage next to his old buddy Jess Lynch, who looks and sounds like he is approaching death's door. If a good nightly beating isn't enough, Stone awakens to find that all the prisoners including himself are going into the mines to dig for gold all day. That's what I love to do on my day off. Eat soggy rice, succumb to a hefty beating and then go lug rocks out of a dark cave for twelve hours. Brutal. 

Hog and Loughlin plan the attack perfectly, blow the bridge and bring Hellish fire and thunder onto the camp. The book's finale was a graphic exercise in violent expression. Overall, it was a decent read, plenty of action at the beginning, a short nod off in the middle but finished up with a solid ten pages of kill 'em all. Throw the snake in there, that CIA bullshit and a Zippo to the foot and you've got the makings of a real slobberknocker.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

M.I.A. Hunter #01 - M.I.A. Hunter

I collected the 'M.I.A Hunter' series when I was in high school. I believe at one point I had the entire sixteen book run and had read a majority of them. The novels started in the mid 80s amongst a frenzied media and pop culture environment that was obsessed with Vietnam action. That time frame through as late as the mid 90s contributed heavily to the Vietnam war scripts and post 1973 theatrics. Films like 'First Blood', 'Rambo 2', 'Full Metal Jacket' and 'Platoon' scored well on the top tiers. The media degraded into B films like the 'Missing In Action' series before becoming completely stagnant with blowhards like 'Platoon Leader' (Michael Dudikoff!) and 'Siege At Firebase Gloria'.

The late 70s and 80s was a rather controversial period of time to discuss the Vietnam War in terms of its prisoners of war. There was a huge portion of society that firmly believed US troops were still being held in Vietnam. Contrived images of soldiers in tattered uniforms suspended in bamboo cells were firmly etched in pop culture ('Missing In Action', 'Uncommon Valor'). The other side of the fence felt all of this was simply fantasy and that the majority of these supposed P.O.W.s would have been pilots whose age and extreme living conditions in Southeast Asia would have limited their lifespans. Depending on which opinion you have the numbers are really alarming. 1,300 Americans are reported as missing in action to this day. Were they killed? Exported to the Soviet Union? Worked as slave labor? Who can really speculate at this point considering Vietnam has been open for trade and tourism for twenty years now.

The first installment of the 'M.I.A. Hunter' series is simply called "M.I.A. Hunter" and it was released by Jove in 1985. These books were created and written by Stephen Mertz, who occasionally, due to time constraints and deadlines would employ other writers to work off of his outlines or draft - Joe R. Lansdale, Michael Newton, Chet Cunningham and Bill Crider under house pseudonym Jack Buchanan. The series followed the trend of having larger than life book covers and marketing catch phrases.

The book begins in a Vietnamese military base just shy of the Laos border. Three American POWs are being held in bamboo cages under very harsh conditions. One of the prisoners, Bradford, manages to escape and is eventually seen by a Laos freedom fighter before being re-captured. The freedom fighter relays the information about the American POW to a CIA operative who eventually gets the information to Bradford's wife. This sets the stage for Bradford's wife to contact the MIA Hunter and our first mission is now set; find Bradford and bring him back alive.
Mark Stone is a former Green Beret and Vietnam Vet who spent some time as a prisoner himself. He runs a business for hire that rescues P.O.W.s all over the globe. He has a network of associates that assist with travel, firearms and overall logistics. Stone relies on two fighters with his missions, big Texan Hog Wiley, a former team mate of Stone's in 'Nam and a former British SS named Terrance Loughlin. Stone is your default main character. Wiley would be the big strong brawler. Loughlin is a more technical character with an explosives background. The book is written in a way that focuses on each character during battle and what they are contributing. Often, Wiley is shown brawling, Stone is organizing the battle and Loughlin is conveniently off planting charges.
After taking on the job of rescuing Bradford the team journey into Bangkok to acquire weapons and intel from a network associate. A battle ensues with some operatives apparently clued into Stone's global antics. This part of the story was rather frustrating because nothing comes to fruition. What government is after him and why don't they just shut him down? Maybe this is a story that runs the series. Anyhow, the team eventually meets up with a Laos freedom fighter and two other Americans who serve as transportation. After a few clicks down river the group battle a boat patrol of Vietnamese and quickly dispatch them. Stone finds the prisoners and frees them in a huge firefight with the Vietnamese camp. Retreating out of the camp consists of more gunfights and in the book's finale a "last stand" scenario that plays out in a remote Laos village (briefly reminds me of 'Seven Samurai'). 
The novel, written by Mike Newton, reads briskly and fits the mold of action adventure under 200 pages. It is fairly obvious that this book sets the tone for future installments and that the central core will always be Stone, Hog and Loughlin as the primary killing force of the series. Authors can easily deposit these three fighters in Vietnam, the Soviet Union, China and the Middle East to rescue prisoners in a cookie cutter action formula sure to please mercenary and soldier of fortune hounds. The series always had great cover art, was made at the height of 'Rambo' type films and seemed readily available at grocery stores, pharmacies and book stores back in the day. Sales had to be decent considering sixteen installments were created.
After being out of print for two decades a reissue has been authorized. These Kindle editions feature generic - read that as horrible - artwork and weigh in at $2.99 each. I prefer the $1.00 paperback versions no matter how worn out they are. Look for new books being released by Mertz as well.