Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Four-Chambered Villain by Gary Madderom

The Four-Chambered Villain by Gary Madderom
Curtis Books 07310, Copyright 1971

"The Four-Chambered Villain" is a chilling novel about a cold-blooded assassin. The sophisticated killer is called David Ekberg and he hires out his special talent throughout the international stage. In New York he is contacted by a representative from the Albanian UN delegation, who wants him to brutally eliminate four UN representatives. The Albanian plan is to force the UN to relocate to an African nation. And by showing that New York can't provide a safe haven for them, the UN Secretary General will easily agree to the move.

We follow Ekberg as he plans each assassination, the next one being more horrific than the last. Package bomb explosions, mutilations with a boning knife, and face to face strangulations that include splitting a man's skull open with a hammer -when Ekberg is hired to make these murders appear sick and vicious, he delivers. With the UN and NYC in a panic, his last target is the UN Secretary General and this one takes special planning.

This thriller moves fast and you're not disappointed in any of its 158 pages. In fact, this is one novel that you'll wish was longer, I didn't want it to end. The author amazing describes what makes Ekberg tick and shows that he is more than a glorified hitman. And as a reader you are almost pulling for Eckberg to successfully complete his hits, even if he is in the trade of killing innocent people. Also the eerie, cold, city atmosphere breathes a dark edge to the story. Quite an impressive little novel, that packs a hell of a punch.

Only minor flaw I had with "The Four-Chambered Villain" was near the end and that involved an operation in the hospital. But being that the novel was written in 1971, that scene may not have been that much of a stretch as I had thought. As for the author Gary Madderom, he wrote a couple of more novels, one that I know of is "The Jewels That Got Away." If I ever come across another novel by Madderom, I'll grab it.

"Ekberg calmly continued straggling her. A terrible retching sound somehow traveled up through her stocking-compressed neck and between her lips. Her body relaxed. She rode with death. Her sphincter let go and an instant later her bladder. Eckberg began to breathe through his mouth. He held on a couple of minutes longer and then let go"

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dame in Danger by Thomas B. Dewey

Dame in Danger by Thomas B. Dewey
Signet 1538, Copyright 1947

From 1947 until 1970, Thomas Dewey wrote 16 crime novels featuring the Chicago P.I. simply called Mac. Mac honed his detective skills working for the Chicago PD, until he got fired for shooting his mouth off to the commissioner. Since being a cop was all he knew, he got his private license with help from Lt. Donovan. Donovan is a hard veteran Homicide cop and he took Mac under his wing when Mac was on the force. The two remain close friends and throughout the novels they help one another during Mac's cases. "Dame in Danger" is Signet's seconding printing of Mac's first case. The original hardcover title is "Draw the Curtain Close" and in 1949 the first paperback (Signet 736) was printed with the original title. But I've always preferred this second paperback edition because of the sultry Robert Maguire cover.

They had just leaned over to pick up the corpse of Herman Losche when Donovan and I walked in. He looked even skinner and more moth-eaten dead than he had alive. There was a funny little twist to his lips, as if he'd been trying to figure out which was the bigger sucker, he or his murderer. I guessed it would probably come out even in the end.

The novel opens with Chicago's leading racketeer hiring Mac to keep an eye on his younger wife who may be in danger. Murders start quick in this one, as the racketeers bodyguard is killed delivering a package to Mac and then the cops find the racketeer himself murdered at his estate. The schooled puritan wife, Cynthia Warfield, becomes the prime suspect. Being a compassionate man, Mac believes she had nothing to do with the murder and hides her while he looks into things. A valuable family Bible and a stolen gem are at play here, and along for the ride are some ruthless tough guys and a redheaded bitch. The story gets complex as more murders mount up and a restrained sensual relationship develops between Cynthia and our P.I. As Mac battles through this one, he gets busted up a lot. Early on the hoods smack his face but good and he takes some serious slugs on the noggin all through the story. But he protects Cynthia, and has enough brain matter left to figure out why these murders are happening. And there is a pretty neat ending that takes place on the estate grounds, that is full of action.

I haven't found a Mac novel that I didn't enjoy. You'll find the early Mac stories more hardboiled than later ones. Authors were laying it down heavy on gunplay and rough stuff, during the time "Draw the Curtain Close" was written. Not long after, Thomas Dewey toned it down a bit and developed Mac into a formidable fictional character. The Mac character grew as the novels rolled on. He showed more sympathy and felt even pity for other characters, (good and bad) and with Mac being a more profound character the stories have more depth in the later novels. One of my favorites will always be "You've Got Him Cold." (1958) In the novel, we see Mac confronting his flaws, which causes some conflicts in how he interacts with others. Along with "The Mean Streets," (1954) it may be one of Dewey's most compelling mystery dramas. But don't overlook how the Chicago P.I. got started, his debut appearance is a damn good hard-knuckle detective story.

Thomas Dewey was a talented author who wrote many quality crime novels. But I lean to the Mac P.I. series, it contains his best work.

1st paperback edition of "Draw the Curtain Close"
Signet 736 (1949)

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Goldfish by Raymond Chandler

Goldfish by Raymond Chandler
Short Story in "Trouble is My Business"

Pocket Book 2823

"Goldfish" is one of of my favorite Chandler short stories. Originally published in Black Mask in 1936, it featured a P.I. named Carmady. Almost all of Raymond Chandler's short stories were written before he created Marlowe, but these early P.I. characters are essentially the same L.A. dick -Philip Marlowe. You'll likely find Philip Marlowe as the P.I. (not Carmady) in most collections containing this story. That is the case in the four stories in this edition of "Trouble is My Business." (1957)

"I wasn't doing any work that day, just catching up on my foot-dangling." (opening line in "Goldfish")

In "Goldfish," Marlowe gets a tip on the location of the "Leander pearls." A guy by the name of Wally Sype heisted the gems 19 years earlier and he did his time without telling anyone where he stashed them. Sype was paroled and his location is unknown. The insurance company still has a $25,000 reward out on the pearls, so Marlowe looks into it. He finds Sype's old Leavenworth cellmate dead, after being tortured with a hot iron. And then Marlowe ends up meeting the two who performed the sadistic act. One is a shyster lawyer, but the one to watch out for is the cold-blood dame that goes by the name of Carol Donovan. They are also on the trail of the pearls, and after slapping their guns and giving Marlowe a "mickey," the two set out thinking they have the upper hand. But Marlowe unknowingly has the key and that is the word "goldfish."

Creative as hell, with all the wonderful Chandler descriptive elements in it. Murder, complex characters, sarcastic tough guy spilling out memorable dialogue, and a fine ending with Sype's wife trying to pull a fast one on the famous detective. A bonus is you get to meet the heartless Carol Donovan, a memorable character in the story. Hey, you can only keep reading Chandler's brilliant novels for so long. Hit the short stories once in a while, you will be rewarded.

"Red Wind" is also in this paperback. Besides having that marvelously written opening paragraph, (one of the best in any mystery short story) - the ending with Marlowe at the edge of the ocean is one of Chandler's most compassionate and sentimental. And the reference of the hot wind throughout this blackmail/murder story, has its own effect on each character and sets the mood throughout the story. The exchanges between Marlowe and the cop named Copernik are outstanding, with wiseass Marlowe playing the cop for a sucker. "Red Wind" was first published in Dime Detective Magazine in 1938, originally the P.I. was called John Dalmas. A great hardboiled read, one of Chandler's best.

The four "Marlowe" stories in this paperback:
"Trouble is My Business"
"Finger Man"
"Red Wind"

These four stories were published by Houghton Mifflin earlier in "The Simple Art of Murder,"(1950) which contained a total of 12 short works. A few years later, Pocket Books put together three paperbacks containing four short stories each from "The Simple Art of Murder." All are Marlowe stories and copies can still be found easily. I enjoy them all, how can you not.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Havana Hit by Mike Barry

Havana Hit by Mike Barry
#5 The Lone Wolf
Berkley Medallion, Copyright 1974

Barry N. Malzberg used the pseudo Mike Barry, for the fourteen Lone Wolf paperback novels he authored. Malzberg always seemed to find work. He wrote volumes of SF short stories that were published in magazines and anthologies. In fact, some are in book collections containing only Melzberg stories and these are very good. I recall three, “The Many Worlds of Barry Melzberg,” “The Best of Barry Metzberg,” and “Malzberg at Large,” as having some amazing SF stories. He also has a good number of novels in his bibliography. Besides SF, Malzberg dabbled in mysteries, adult sleaze paperbacks, and novelizations. In 1973, he started writing the Lone Wolf adventure series, introducing ex-NYPD cop Martin Wulff. From the four page introduction in “Havana Hit,” Wulff quits the force after his girl was killed by a deliberate overdose, and he becomes a one man wrecking crew that uses unrestrained violence to destroy drug kingpins and anyone that gets in his way. Alone, he built up quite a reputation, and now has the drug dealing organizations and the cops after him. Mean and obsessed, each adventure takes him to a new location where he leaves a large body count and extreme mayhem.

"Have you ever seen a seven-year old junkie? Have you ever seen a little girl holding a doll and so strung out on junk that she didn't know her name? Have you ever seen the soft men who peddle the stuff, the soft men in their houses on the bay, far away from all this, laughing at it, shielding themselves from what they've done, taking the money, filling the vein..."

It seems this story continues from where the previous one (#4) ended. Martin Wulff is flying out of Las Vegas on route to NYC with a valise full of heroin worth over a million dollars. Somehow this heroin was removed from the NYPD evidence room and got into the hands of organized drug traffickers. And during his last escapade in Vegas, Wulff went on a killing spree and blew up a hotel casino to get it back. The plane is hijacked and forced to land in Cuba. Taken into custody by a Cuba official named Delgado, Wulff’s valise is seized and he is sent to be executed. Delgado plans to keep the uncut heroin, sell it, and leave Cuba to live it up. But Wulff escapes and sets out to get the valise back. With a little help from a wimpy American helicopter pilot, he kills Delgado along with scores of other people and destroys the headquarters building. But the valise of heroin isn’t there. Delgado turned it over to DiStasio, who is the head of Cuban Intelligence. DiStasio has the same plan as Delgado had, take the heroin and get out of Cuba. Wulff hightails it to DiStasio’s estate and eliminates him to get the valise back. Then the wimpy American helicopter pilot gets enough courage to hold a gun on Wulff and attempt to steal the heroin himself. Of course Wulff outsmarts him and the American pilot ends up with a bullet in the spine and then one in the head. Martin Wulff races to the airport, hijacks a helicopter and off he goes, 90 miles
north to the USA.

This one was painful. About a third of the way through, I said “it has to get better.” Halfway through, I realized it wasn’t going to get better. And once I finished it, I said “Thank God its over.” As an action novel, this one is lacking. The few scenes that have the explosions and gunplay are weakly described and there is no thrilling effect. The dialogue between characters tries to be hard, but comes off as tinny. And there are these constant-preaching rants by the character, mostly around how illegal drugs are destroying civilization. The only reason these rants seem to be in the novel is to fill it up to reach 192 pages. You get the impression that the whole idea around the Lone Wolf series was to quickly spit these novels out, and cash in on the popular 70’s genre of these numbered paperbacks featuring a violent crime crusader.

I got as much enjoyment reading this, as I would have listening to a Yoko Ono record album. This is the only Lone Wolf paperback I own, and I’ll probably not seek another. But I will not give up on Barry Malzberg’s SF stories. There are some good ones out there.

As for the scantily-clad maiden on the cover, no such female character is in the story. I hate when they do that.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The New Hand by Richard Deming

The New Hand By Richard Deming
Short Story in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, Nov. 1968

I've always admired the work of Richard Deming. You'll get a solid crime mystery by picking up any of his novels, a couple like "Hit and Run" and "Vice Cop" are outstanding. In the 60s he was a ghostwriter for some Ellery Queen novels. (the ones that didn't feature the Ellery Queen character) Numerous authors were ghostwriting these, and I found Deming's were some of the most suspenseful. But its in Deming's short stories, where you will find some of his best work. Compact plots, usually with non-hero characters that are believably human, but must take that fatal step to reach an easier lifestyle. He wrote many and he didn't cheat any publisher or reader. One of these is "The New Hand."

Gladys had a neat little scheme planned. Marry 70 year old ailing farmer Amos Bull and when he kicks off, inherit all his land, clean out his bank account, and collect on the tidy life-insurance policy. One problem, a new doctor hits town and finds out old Amos was misdiagnosed and is expected to be around for quite awhile. A new plan needs to be cooked up and Gladys gets her opportunity when Amos' farm hand quits and he is looking for a replacement. Over the radio she hears that a mad killer has escaped from the nearby asylum and when a man fitting the description comes knocking on the door, she ensures Amos doesn't get hold of the news alerts. Amos unknowingly hires the man and Gladys sets the trap. Using an axe that has the fingerprints of the new farm hand on it, she slaughters Amos in the barn. She lures in the new man and shoots him dead. A perfect crime, call the police and say the new hand killed Amos and was ready the kill her before she shot the crazed man in self-defense. And just as she is ready to make the phone call, the screen door is opened and Gladys faces her fate.
This reads like an episode from one of those Alfred Hitchcock Hour TV shows. It moves fast, is highly suspenseful with a touch of horror, and contains an unexpected ending. I hunt down Richard Deming short stories, he sure knew how to deliver them.

A wonderful shorter work in this issue, is Ed Lacy's "Night Games." Two adventurous Americans travel to a remote sleepy island in the Caribbean to execute a heist. Unknown to them is the island's shrewd police chief, who has the learned instincts of an old city cop. John Lutz provides a violent ending to the haunting murderous story called "King of the Kennel." And thrown in, is a damn good Mike Shayne story, about a vengeance-filled fugitive ready to settle some scores.

The high-caliber mystery stories in this issue:

"Deadly Conscience" by Brett Halliday (Mike Shayne story)
"The New Hand" by Richard Deming
"Wearing the Green" by Jack Ritchie
"The Dismal Flats Murder" by Joseph Payne Brennan
"King of the Kennel" by John Lutz
"Night Games" by Ed Lacy
"The Richest Girl in Town" by Deane and David Heller
"Rent Money" by Hal Ellson
"An Affair of the Heart" by Henry Slesar

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine ended its run in 1985, and I miss it. For publications we are left with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. But I've always preferred MSMM over these two, it was more hardboiled, no light crime yarns with humor, and each issue contain many quality stories. (not only just one or two) I always felt it was left to carry the torch after Manhunt stopped in the 60s. Plus you can't beat getting that Mike Shayne novelette every month.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sharky's Machine by William Diehl

Sharky's Machine By William Diehl
Dell 18292, Copyright 1978

William Diehl waited until the resilient age of 50 to start his first novel. The story behind that, is he was a
seated juror on a trial and was so bored with it, he grabbed a notepad and starting writing. Well if true, we have to thank his local jury commissioners office, because what came out was “Sharky’s Machine,” a novel that holds nothing back and throws just about everything at the reader.

She lay beside the table. Her face was gone. Part of her shoulder was blown away. The right side of her head had been destroyed. She was a soggy, limp bundle laying partly against the wall in front of the door, blood pumping from her head, her neck, her shoulder. A splash of blood on the wall dripped down to the body.
Sharky clenched his teeth, felt bile sour in his throat, cried out, "No. Goddamnmit, no!"

Kicked out of the narcotics department after a bloody shootout in the streets of Atlanta, Sharky gets thrown down into the lowly Vice Squad. But he’s a good hard street cop and along with fellow beaten down Vice misfits, (the “Machine”) they quickly stumble upon a high-class prostitution ring. The operation seems to be shaking down wealthy “johns,” so they set up surveillance involving everything from shadowing people to wire-taps. A hooker named Domino becomes the "person of interest" in the corrupt scheme and Sharky obsessively
makes her the focus of the investigation. Just when we get comfortable with the violence, sex, and pace in the story, Diehl takes it to another level. You have an U.S. Senator making plans for a Presidential run linked to the call-girl, a shady millionaire called DeLaroza who is connected to the Senator and Domino, and one of the most ruthless paid killers I have come across in any novel. Murders start occurring and once Sharky learns that Domino’s life is in danger, the "Machine" decides to hush up the investigation from their superiors and go it alone.

This turns out bigger than a standard street cop novel. Millions of dollars of stolen gold from WWII is tied to DeLaroza, and he needs people silenced. The U.S. Senators’ bid for the White House is in jeopardy and he needs Delaroza’s help. And our crazed hitman just keeps on coming. Of course Sharky falls for Domino, and the sex scenes of her with customers and Sharky listening in on the wire, are vicariously erotic. (Definitely “adults only” stuff) The novel succeeds in capturing the acrid street pulse of the late 1970s, using violence on high-volume, plenty of foul mouth language, and mysterious characters thriving on sleaze and power. Diehl creates a dirty, rash, and cold atmosphere, which makes the private scenes between Sharky and Domino, that much more endearing. And it is these brief pockets of tenderness that balances out the extreme raw edge that dominates the novel. But don’t get me wrong, this novel was written to get your attention.

For starting late, William Diehl authored a handful of excellent novels and fans of his work will differ on which is their favorite. But for me, “Sharky’s Machine” will always be on top.

This novel is an erupting force that spits at you.....

Monday, December 8, 2008

Bring Him Back Dead by Day Keene

Bring Him Back Dead By Day Keene
Gold Medal 603, Copyright 1956

Day Keene stayed a busy writer. He started in the early 40s writing pulp stories for the mystery magazines, (and he wrote many) then later in that decade his first novel was published. He wrote over 50 novels, many taking place in South Florida or swamp towns in Louisiana. Keene uses a common theme in many of his stories, a man who is wrongly accused and while on the run he must clear his name. “Bring Him Back Dead” is one of those and being only 127 pages, the pace is fast and there’s no room for a breather.

The girl continued to study him. "I make you now," she said finally. "You're the deputy who killed that old carnival man an' raped his wife on the floor of their trailer."

"I didn't touch her," Latour said. "I wasn't even inside the trailer."
"What's the matter with you? You one of them guys who has t' hurt a girl? You know, whip her or somethin', or her whip you?"
Latour didn't bother to answer her.

The town of French Bayou in Louisiana is going through an oil boom, and if you’re smart enough or crooked enough, lots of money can be made. But Deputy Sheriff Andy Latour seems to be content with what he has. Unfortunately, his marriage to his foreign wife Olga isn't going so well. He suspects his wife is disappointed with him being hick deputy and not willing to get out there grabbing some of that oil money. Mounting frustration leads Latour into a situation where he becomes a suspect in a murder and rape crime. Fingered by the rape victim, he realizes he is being set up. But the big question is why? Arrested and waiting for trial, he manages to escape to try to find the answer to this question.

For a short one, there are many layers in this story. Nothing goes right for Latour. Whether it being problems with his wife, the righteous law, or hunted by a mob of vigilantes-he keeps whirling downward. Abandoned, he must battle through the confusion surrounding his predicament and come up with a plan for his survival. And just when he is about beat, the answer comes. But it really is two answers. One for the reason of being set up for the crimes and the other is love. Love he was unable to see because of a wall he built around himself. A very emotional ending for a complex character, and that’s something that you don’t normally see in Day Keene stories.

I’ve read many Day Keene novels and I never found one that I didn’t enjoy. They always contain a good mystery and an atmosphere of crime noir, especially the novels written in the 50s. And with over 50 titles to choose from, I’m sure any reader of this genre will find a few they like.
(And don’t pass over any Day Keene short story you come upon)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

67 Years Ago

Dec. 7, 1941

As the years go by, even the historical events of this day seems to be getting less and less coverage. My hope is that future generations will be taught and understand the significance this day had on all Americans and the impact it had shaping the future of this great nation. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, we understood and honored this day. Today, I wonder. I have looked through some textbooks that are given to Elem. and High School students and there appears to be a growing downplay on the role America played in defeating Nazi tyranny and Japanese aggression in WWII. It's a shame. I hope the events that occurred on this day will not be forgotten and that all of those who serviced in WWII will forever be honored.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

Purple Aces by Robert J. Hogan

Purple Aces by Robert J. Hogan
Copyright 1933
Berkley X1746, May 1970

“G-8 and His Battle Aces” was an aviation pulp hero and from 1933 to 1944, he was featured in his own magazine. There were over 100 adventures that the WWI ace carried out, and his German enemies threw everything at him, in the air and on land. To keep his identity a secret, America’s flying spy was given the code name G-8. Along with his two wingmen, Nippy Weston and Bull Martin, many of the stories dove into the realm of science fiction, with evil German scientists working on the Kaiser’s orders to develop wicked ways to gain an edge during the Great War. In 1970, Berkley started reprinting these pulp adventures in paperback and I remember grabbing them off the drugstore rack.

In “Purple Aces,” captured American pilots are being converted into zombie-like flying warriors for the enemy. Induced by a chemical, it starts with them receiving a purple “ace of spades” birthmark on their forehead and quickly spreads the hideous color over the entire face. In turn, a demonic force controls the minds of the “reborn” pilots and they are programmed to execute suicide missions against American fliers. G-8 and his men are sent to uncover the source of this menace. Being an all-American hero, G-8 wastes no time engaging in dogfights and slipping behind enemy lines to get answers. Solving the mystery, which takes him through the halls of an ancient castle, G-8 meets again the mad Herr Doktor Krueger (a frequent enemy in many G-8 adventures) and a
mind controlling genius scientist called Zwantag. Their final diabolical plan is in motion, time is running out, and both evil men must be stopped.

This is pulp at its best. It’s a highly adventurous tale, but what makes it stand out is that it is also a complete horror story. Hogan was a master of creating a mysterious lurking atmosphere, that takes the reader into lead-filled skies, dark dungeon enemy hideouts, and rat infested swamps. In fact the scenes in the swamp are some of the best I’ve read in any pulp story.
Enhanced by mesmerizing dialogue and amazing air battles, “Purple Aces” is an adventure novel that can appeal to all ages. (Though like most of these stories, geared to the male reader) Whenever I read these pulp stories of yesteryear, I envision the early readers in the 30s and how in awe they must have been to be the first to escape in the adventure and the terror each story took them on.

Robert J. Hogan was an exceptional pulp writer and I forgot how much I enjoyed his tales until I recently revisited them. His pulp stories are full of mystery, adventure and horror; and if Berkley didn’t reissue them, I
would probably never had discovered Hogan’s work. I believe eight “G-8 and His Battle Aces” novels were published in 1970/71, and the first three have covers by Jim Steranko.

1. The Bat Staffel
2. Purple Aces
3. Ace of the White Death
4. Bombs from the Murder Wolves
5. Vultures of the White Death
6. Flight from the Grave
7. Fangs of the Sky Leopard
8. The Mark of the Vultures

They are like a time capsule, from an era that seems to be fading away...

The exploits of
“G-8 and His Battle Aces” are still being reissued. You can find them at Adventure House, along with Robert J. Hogan's other pulps, "Mysterious Wu Fang" and "The Secret 6."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Drink With The Dead by J. M. Flynn

Drink With The Dead by J. M. Flynn
Ace D-379, Copyright 1959

Though I'm not a huge fan of Flynn's work, I seemed to have acquired many of his paperbacks throughout the years. Writing under the name J.M. Flynn and Jay Flynn, his novels are usually quick and short, with lead characters sometimes anti-hero and others law-enforcement types. My introduction to the author was by first reading his four "McHugh" novels. McHugh is a tough adventurous American spy, and to be honest I labored finishing the series and found it a notch below mediocre. But a few Flynn novels are good and showed that he had the talent for writing crime fiction. "Drink With The Dead" is one of them.

"Better have your lawyer get in touch with me," Jensen said curtly. "Fight it and we take your ranch and whatever else we can find!"
"So that's it. Shakedown," Wright lit a cigar. "Shamus, I don't shake. Go chase an ambulance before you need a ride in one."

The novel starts with Konard Jensen stuck in a small town jail after being interrogated for hours and threatened with the rubber-hose treatment. He is left alone in his cell and facing a murder rap, then Flynn sends the story into a wonderful flashback. We find out Jensen is a federal agent stationed in San Francisco, and the office is investigating the sudden appearance of high quality, illegal booze that's flooding the area. After his undercover partner is shot in a rural town looking into the matter, Jensen is sent to find who killed him and shutdown the illegal operation. Surprisingly, his cover is being a private detective, looking into the death for the family. The cover works well, as Jensen starts rattling cages to bring the crooks out and make them go after him. Willing to have his head busted up, he starts making trouble for the bootlegging operation and it's political influences. But it comes at a cost, and he is taking in for a "road rage" type killing. Out of the flashback, he breaks out of the jail and sets up some alliances. Locating the hidden operation and armed, he violently heads in to settle up with the killer and bootleggers.

Jensen is a tough cookie, willing to take his punishment to serve justice. He has an unpredictable mind which allows him to leap into an action situation. It's nice to see the bootlegging angle, it's rarely used outside prohibition era stories and Flynn makes it convincing for the reader. Not overdone with excessive violence, the story contains well developed characters which strengthens this compelling mystery adventure. Plus, a surprise whodunit ending that I didn't see coming.

Many of Flynn's paperbacks aren't above average, but a couple hit the mark at delivering a suspenseful, complex, dark crime action drama. The word is that Flynn had a problem with the bottle and it affected his writing in many later novels. That may be so, but I read enough of his work to see sparks of unique creativity and an ability to captivate the reader, with hardboiled action and a double-time marching pace. For me, "Drink With The Dead" was an enjoyable yarn.

An example of Flynn off his game, is his 1976 "Blood on Frisco Bay" which was published by Leisure Books. SFPD Sgt. Joe Riggs is free to do what he wants in the name of justice. He drives around in a station wagon with a Walther, foot-long knife and his partner is a Irish wolfhound named Croc. (and I'm not kidding, that is his partner) Plenty of foul mouth dialog, bullets tearing heads off, and a weak plot. Flynn throws about every situation a dude can come across in this one. It's in the category of being so awful, that with a laugh -you may enjoy it.

By the way, the flip novel in the 1959 Ace Double is "Mistress of Horror House" by author William Woody. (pseud?) It features a P.I. called Houston McIver, who operates out of El Paso. It starts off with the traditional, "dame with a nasty problem entering the detective's office." With the little research I did, P.I. Houston McIver appeared in only this novel and I found no reference of William Woody writing anything else.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hangtree Range by William Hopson

Hangtree Range by William Hopson
Lion Books LB156, Copyright 1952

During the 40s/50s, William Hopson wrote short stories for all the leading Western pulps. Many were dark with an edge to them, which made them stand out from the other "average" fare Western short stories. "Hangtree Range" is the first novel of his that I've read, It's about the struggles of iron-hard men caught in the human soul destruction of a feuding range war.

He had been a hard, callous, brutal man, spawned in the backwash of a generation that killed for four years and then come home to kill again. He had picked up where they had let off, hiring his guns for a price in a ruthless war where many men would be doomed to die.

With the Civil War long over and the Apaches defeated, life in the Arizona Territory was expected to be safe and prosperous. But powerful organized sheep herders have moved in, threatening the free gazing land that the cattle barons have thought of as their own. The blood feud has spread throughout the territory and it becomes difficult to define where on the fence some individuals sit. The western code is "an eye for an eye" vengeance, and each side settles the score by hanging the opposition. When Ed Allen's younger brother is mistaken as a killer for the sheep barons and strung up, Ed reins his mount loaded with his Winchester and .44 Smith & Wesson. You see, Ed Allen is one of those western men with a past. He was an ex-cavalry scout during the Apache wars and going after men like those who killed his brother, is bored in his marrow.

But this turns a bit different, when the reader expects Allen to settle up with bloody revenge, he uses his learned talent to bring law abiding justice to the men responsible . He plans to corner them and bring the cattle gunmen to the town of Wilcox for trial. On his way a posse of sheep baron gunmen force a change in his plans, which results in one of the most efficacious endings I've read in a western story in a while.

I was so impressed with this William Hopson novel, that I will definitely read another. No fooling the reader here, an atmosphere rich in abode cantinas, haunting cottonwood trees, desert arroyos, and a taste of "Ox-Bow" in your throat. This is no "good guy vs. bad guy, good guy gets girl" western. Hopson carefully plots out the chain of events, including the backgrounds of the characters (which is important to the story) to create a dark western noir novel. You're left thinking there are no good guys in the story, just a few with a small puddle of humanity left in their gut. Even that seems not to be enough.

"Hangtree Range" is a Western winner....

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stakeout by Robert Patrick Wilmot

Stakeout by Robert Patrick Wilmot
Short Story in Manhunt, May 1953

This 1953 issue of Manhunt Detective Story is packed with hardboiled stories from some of the best fictional crime authors from the era. Snuck in there is an action-packed little number by Robert Patrick Wilmot. In the early 50s, Wilmot created New York P.I. Steve Considine. The detective's first appearance was in the novel, Blood in Your Eye. The story was so hard and good, that two more quickly followed, Murder on Monday, and Death Rides a Painted Horse. In between Wilmot wrote a few short stories. "Stakeout" is not a Steve Caradine story, but it contains its fair share of twists and surprises that Wilmot's novels were known for.

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself, hitting poor Marvin so hard. He's a mess of muscles, but he can't take it in the belly. No man can take it in the belly when he lives mostly on pastrami and beer and broads."

Denham is an ex-con who can use his fists. In a bar, he takes it out on a big Irish lug named Marvin Burke. A couple of observers witness his abilities and hire him as a bodyguard. But it's all for show and there turns out to be a crooked scheme brewing. We find the good guys are not so good, and we start wondering about the bad guys. (Denham included) The target is a blind ex-gangster with stolen gems and a sneaky wife making plans for herself. All tightly packaged up in a handful of pages, that spins and catches the reader off guard. Exceptionally good, with characters that interlocked together dangerously. Robert Patrick Wilmot sure was an author who had talent!

Check the heavy-hitters in this Manhunt issue:

"The Guilty Ones" (A Lew Archer story) by John Ross Macdonald
"Don't Go Near" (A John J. Malone story) by Craig Rice
"Now Die In It" (A Matt Cordell story) by Evan Hunter
"Cigarette Girl" by James M. Cain
"Old Willie" by William P. McGivern
"Graveyard Shift" by Steve Frazee
"Build Another Coffin" (A Scott Jordan story) by Harold Q. Masur
"Stakeout" by Robert Patrick Wilmot
"Nice Bunch of Guys" by Michael Fessier
"Services Rendered" by Jonathan Craig
"Assault" by Grant Colby

One of my favorite characters is in this issue, (besides Lew Archer) and that is Ed McBain's Matt Cordell. The ex-P.I. from the gutter, appeared in six Manhunt issues in the 1950s. They are all the way I like them, mean and hardboiled. In 1958, Gold Medal published all six in one paperback, "I Like 'Em Tough."(GM743 and again in GM 1120) For the GM paperback the character's name is changed to Curt Cannon, same as the pseud. , but the stories are the same. There was also a full length novel called "I'm Cannon for Hire." (GM 814 & GM 1325) In 2005, Hard Case Crime published it under the title "The Gutter and the Grave."

The novel was very good, but I've always enjoyed the Matt Cordell short stories more.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tom Selleck - Jesse Stone

Tom Selleck - Jesse Stone

I never got to see Robert B. Parker's, Chief Jesse Stone made-for -TV movies when they first were aired by CBS. Luckily, my local Public Library has recently obtained the first three in DVD and I've been treating myself using my library card. It's been a while since I've seen Selleck better in a role, especially at this stage in his career. His portrayal of the flawed, chief of police in Paradise, Mass. is exceptional. Written in his face in these films, is the dark soul and dry wit that are bottled up inside the character. There is a lot going on in the guts of this man and in the 90 minutes, Selleck sells it to the viewer. ( Also a pretty damn good crime drama too.)

I believe all four are out in DVD; Stone Cold, Night Passage, Death in Paradise, and Sea Change. I hear that CBS will be airing the fifth "Thin Ice" in 2009 and a sixth "No Remorse" is in the works. I've learned my lesson, I will not miss those two when they first come out.

"Jesse sat for a long time in the darkness looking at the ocean and rain. In clear weather the eastern sky would be pale by now and in another half hour or so, this time of year, it would be light. Jesse turned on the headlights and backed the car up and headed back down the hill to shower and change and put on his badge." -from "Trouble in Paradise"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman

The Big Kiss-Off of 1944 by Andrew Bergman
Perennial Paperback P673, Copyright 1974

Having a tendency towards nostalgic things from the past, I’ve always enjoyed seeing detective stories where the author sends the reader back to a bygone era. In 1974, Andrew Bergman created P.I. Jack LeVine, and with him came a wonderful “time period” detective crime novel that took the reader back to the homefront days, when we were fighting two wars and the big-time politics were controlled by powerful conniving men using small-time hoods to do their dirty work for them.

"Every minute that I spent on this case I get sicker to my stomach. You walk in here, dump a pile of bills on my desk, and expect me to roll over and start wagging my tail. This isn't Washington, sweetheart. This is the big city."

New York gumshoe Jack LeVine (real name Jacob Levine) is described as a "38 year old, stocky, bald, Jewish bullfrog.” Not wanting to follow his father’s footsteps in the garment business, he opened a private eye office on Broadway and 51st street. Honest and respected, his business has been successful enough to pay the bills and keep his blue collar lifestyle going.

It starts off as a simple blackmail case. Chorus girl Kerry Lane hires LeVine to retrieve some stag films she starred in when she was struggling. Now being in a big Broadway show, the blackmailers are willing to exchange the films for cash to keep her name clean. The story accelerates quickly as LeVine finds one blackmailer murdered and starts getting pressure from influential people to drop the case. Kerry Lane’s father turns out to be an important banker in Philly, with political ties to the 1944 Republican Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. Seeing a way to weaken Dewey in the polls, high level Democrats loyal to Roosevelt have the films and plan to use them to their advantage. Jack LeVine is loyal to neither party, only to himself, so he isn’t bought off easily. He has a code of ethics, and even with his life threatened many times, he remains on the case to get the negatives and prints for Kerry Lane.

You will get the feel of June 1944 America in this one. The story is rich in the atmosphere of the day; D-Day, diners,
everyone smoking, radio shows, and snotty elevator operators-you’re definitely walking the streets of New York in the 40s. Andrew Bergman does a fine job mixing real life characters and events, into Jack LeVine’s world. I was surprised with the scheme of throwing a grunt private eye into Washington’s political shenanigans. In fact, as I was reading I was skeptical if Bergman could pull it off, but he did. The novel starts hardboiled and that fooled me a bit. I was expecting a knockoff Marlowe or Spade type of character. Not so, everyone who meets Levine likes him and he presents himself as an “average joe” just doing his job. Suspenseful ending, but I had the feeling that Bergman might have been pulling the reader’s leg a bit here. It all ends at Radio City with every “thug, mug, and free-lance muscle” in town preventing LeVine and Kerry Lane’s father from entering the building. They don costumes to get to the studio, which came off a little too silly for me. But a chase takes place and LeVine gets to pop off a few rounds from his revolver, all to make sure that his client gets what she originally hired him to do.

Andrew Bergman is a very successful screenwriter, film director, and novelist. “The Big Kiss-Off of 1944” was private detective Jack LeVine’s debut, but you can find him in two other novels. He appeared the next year (1975) in “Hollywood and LeVine” and
in 2001 made a revival in “Tender is LeVine.” All three are quality yesteryear crime fiction novels.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Red Tide: A Chandler Novel by Jim Steranko

Chandler by Jim Steranko
Red Tide: A Visual Novel
Fiction Illustrated, Vol. 3
Copyright 1976

Before they were called graphic novels, Jim Steranko created hardboiled P.I. Chandler in what was called a visual novel. Thinking it was a Philip Marlowe story, I purchase one in 1976, (the cover price was a buck, which was a lot to me at that time) What Steranko did was pay homage to Raymond Chandler and all the other classic private eye authors from that golden era. Being a nut for this stuff, I was blown away when this came out and remember reading the issue many times over.

"Something exploded at the back of my skull. Then the whirlpool opened at my feet. I dropped in.
I tried to stop the avalanche that roared toward me, then realized it was all in my head.

My head felt like I 'd stuck it in the barrel of a cannon during an artillery barrage..."

The title of the novel is "Red Tide" and the story contains the great images and text that are found in all classic P.I. yarns. A client walks in Chandler's office with a murder case. Chandler's jobs are mostly insurance frauds or cheating husbands, and he hesitates to take the case. But the money is green and off he goes. Chandler tackles broads, guns, and gangsters, taking a good amount of graphic punishment along the way. Full of shadows and suspense, it's over 30 years old and still provides pure hardboiled enjoyment.

The title rings a little like Raymond Chandler's short short "Red Wind," but don't be fooled -this is Steranko's creation. If I have to compare it to anything, I would say it has the resplendent noir atmoshere of Dick Powell's 1944 Marlowe film "Murder, My Sweet."

Formatted in a 5x7 digest, this might be the first graphic novel ever published and may have started the genre in America. Billed in in the back as Steranko's "first movie-length visual novel, created in the tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, a bare-knuckled mystery that will keep you guessing right up to the last page."
And I won't argue with that statement....

Note: Author Joe Gores provides a damn good, one page introduction to the story.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Case of the Village Tramp by Jonathan Craig

Case of the Village Tramp by Jonathan Craig
Gold Medal 930, Copyright 1959

Jonathan Craig was a damn good mystery writer. Unfortunately, he became lost in the shadows of the more popular Gold Medal authors from the 1950s. Most of his paperbacks were published by Gold Medal, with the bulk involving murder investigations by NYPD Detective Pete Selby. Selby and his partner Stan Rayder work out of the Sixth Precinct, and mix it up with the oddball inhabitants of Greenwich Village. During that time, Craig wasn’t afraid to push the envelope a bit. You’ll find characters in the stories on the kinky side, with a few perverts (1950s style) popping up in the plots. But hold on, these are exciting detective dramas. Packing .38s and kicking down doors, Selby and Rayder perform old fashion police legwork to solve each whodunit case.

I holstered my gun and walked to the window. Blondie Miller's body was impaled on the swordlike points of an ornamental iron fence that ran across the brick courtyard five floors below. It was hard to be sure from that angle and at that distance, but he seemed to have been disemboweled.

Beautiful seventeen year old Sharon Ramey is found murdered in her apartment, wearing nothing but a medieval chastity belt. Selby discovers that Sharon was famous as a child classical concert pianist, but also learns that sweet little old Sharon wasn’t so sweet after all. For the past year, a trail of men have been lead into her bedroom and the detectives suspect one is the murderer. Lurking in the story is a syndicate rat who is being hunted by a psycho hitman who performs his work using an ice pick. As leads come in, Selby struggles to find a link between these two men and the murder. There is a wonderful scene where a lesbian enters the precinct to offer up a possible suspect for the detectives. The exchange is so unorthodox, that you wonder who is running the investigation, the detectives or her. As we near the end of the story, we seem no closer than in the beginning on finding the identity of the murderer. But after a brutal torture scene and some gunplay, things start falling in place for Selby. And as the detectives head out to nab the murderer, we are treated to an excellent ending by Jonathan Craig.

You'll find no complains by me on this novel, this is solid hardnosed crime fiction. 1950s police detectives doing their jobs, tackling the challenges thrown at them. From the offbeat characters they meet during the investigation, to the perverted police captain who gets his kicks hearing Selby reporting on the naked victim and her unusual lifestyle -all make this novel (and the whole Pete Selby series) a wonderment in this definitive genre from a bygone crime writing era.

As I said, It's ashame that Jonathan Craig has faded in popularity. The man could write a mystery story, and you won't find a bad novel in his bibliography. Also, he wrote a slew of excellent short stories that appeared in all the major mystery periodicals, including Manhunt, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine. But don't overlook his non-Pete Selby novels, to me they contain his best work. And if you ever come across his paperback "Renegade Cop" (also published as "Alley Girl") you'll be introduced to the nastiest S.O.B. rogue cop ever found in any novel.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Kremlin Plot by Don Smith

The Kremlin Plot by Don Smith
Award AQ1402, Copyright 1971

He pressed the sharpened end of the wood under the fingernail and the excruciating pain made me jerk and the rope cut into my throat. He sat back and watched the drop of blood ooze out and run down the strip of wood and fall to the stone floor.
"The offer is still open," he said calmly.

One of the better written adventure series that came out in the 60s/70s heyday era were the "Secret Mission" espionage novels by Don Smith. The stories are actually mysteries and American Phil Sherman is our agent in the field. Sherman's cover is selling business equipment and this allows him to enter any country where the Agency feels the need to deploy his "special" talent. Don't be fooled into thinking he's one of those super vigilante CIA operatives, Sherman is a shrewd detective and the world stage is his turf.

In "The Kremlin Plot," the mission literally falls in Sherman's lap. On a business trip to Moscow, an attempted hijacking occurs on his plane. The hijacker is shot by the co-pilot, but before he dies he drops design plans for a new Russian missile defense system on Sherman. He enters Moscow knowing this is too hot to have on him and quickly heads over to the American Embassy to pass them off. A snag prevents an easy hand off, and before you know it people are coming out of the woodwork to find out what Sherman knows and what he has. Beautiful young female engineers, the KGB, British Intelligence, and nasty Chinese agents that are lurking in the shadows,-all play a deadly game to get the plans from Sherman.

Photographs of the plans are stolen from his hotel and Sherman sets out find who took them and get them back. Sherman has a backbone, but he has his limits. Through torture, bedroom bribes, and KGB interrogation, -he almost breaks, but stays on the trail and carries this mission to the end.

Lately, I've found myself reading more and more of these fine Don Smith novels. I missed them when they first came out, and I'm sort of glad because they are not dated at all. They are written so well that they come off fresh and new. I actually find the stories more believable than the bulk of the stuff that was coming off the printing machines during this era. The plots are well developed, with devious international characters as adversaries. (watch out for a duo of Slavic black marketeers) Phil Sherman comes off as the real deal. He doesn't carry a weapon or have any high tech gadgets. He's just a "dick" on a cloak and dagger case, that plays like a well crafted mystery crime novel. There are around twenty paperbacks in the series and I've enjoyed every one so far.

As for Don Smith, he is becoming one of my favorite authors.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Fat City by Leonard Gardner
HB ed., Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright 1969

Fat City is a California noir story about the torpid lives of two despairing boxers, one old and one young. One day their bleak paths cross in a gym and from then on we are taken into a world of destitute souls, broken romance, and faded dreams. Set in the seedy part of 1950s Stockton, Gardner uses the backdrop of small-time local boxing to intensify the stark mood of this distressing tale.

"His life, he felt, had turned against him. He was convinced every day of it had been mislived. His attention dulled, his ears humming, a sense of emptiness and panic hovering about him, he feared he was losing his mind. Catastrophes seemed to whisper just beyond hearing."

Billy Tully is the older washed up boxer, who has been lagging out a living as a field picker or a short order cook; anything to get a couple of bucks to pay for his flophouse and a bottle. His best days have past, and he faces a long future of grim disconsolation. Thinking he still has some gas in the tank, he attempts a return to the ring and chase an unreachable illusion. He meets 18 year old Ernie Munger and encourages the boy towards local boxing. Ernie has some talent, but not enough to get him out of the entrapped life he will forever live in Stockton.

This novel is much more than a palooka boxing story. It's a haunting portrayal of people who seem content embracing an existence of little hope, and find comfort living in despair and lack of personal drive. Leonard Gardner delivers it through the depressed atmosphere of the harsh streets of Stockton, with all of its cast of characters eroding in a world they composed of their own failures. Fleabag hotels, crooked managers, stale smelling taverns, drunken lush women that live in turnstile bedrooms, and yet Gardner teases us into thinking that a glimmer of hope can spark, especially for young Ernie. But escape is too difficult and failure continues to be the word in everyone's destiny.

Leonard Gardner wrote numerous short shorts and screenplays, but "Fat City" is his only novel. When first published, it received wide acclaim and caught the interest of director John Huston. (who directed the 1972 film) But now this novel seems forgotten, and that is a shame. Few better than this capture the honest depiction of cheap uncaring lives -with its pains of past glory, hopelessness, and utter loneliness.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Virgin Cay by Basil Heatter

Virgin Cay by Basil Heatter
Gold Medal k1310, Copyright 1963

I read a few Basil Heatter novels before this one, some I enjoyed and others seemed bland to me. One which was a historical novel, I gave up on. (but to be fair I am no big fan of historical novels) He did author quite a few books, though I never could find a complete listing of his work. I gave "Virgin Cay" a shot not expecting much, and was I wrong. The novel convinced me not to quit on this author. It contains an exciting little scorcher of an adventure story, where the seed is planted for a crime that can not be allowed to occur.

She was speechless with rage. At that moment she could of killed him. But she managed to bring herself under control. Without Dino she would be alone, and she could not stand to be alone. When you were alone you remembered the way Harry looked with the top of his head blown off and the spatter of brains on the English carpet.

After his boat went down in a storm, self-sufficient Gus Robinson washes ashore on the island of Spanish Cay. He receives some care and interest from Clare Loomis, a socialite who has a few secrets in her conniving closet. Clare needs a relative of hers to disappear and Robinson fits the bill to make it happen. Claire offers the "job" to him for twenty thousand dollars. With the lost of his boat and with no money, Robinson also lost his independence and accepts the offer.

Old family money is behind the reason for the crime, but sparks fly when Robinson meets the intended victim, young beautiful Gwen Leacock. Both know nothing will come of their little romance, for Gwen is committed to marry another man. But Robinson has a soul and concocts a scheme to deceive Clare and keep the cash. He comes clean with Gwen, who agrees to be a part in his risky plan. And even with impending dangers, it comes off nautically smooth.

If you ever read a Basil Heatter novel, you know he had talent. In fact it was in his genes, his father was newsman Gabriel Heatter. "Virgin Cay" is a story that contains a plot that is admirably crafted. After finishing it I quickly thought of a combination of a seafaring novel by Charles Williams and an early John D. MacDonald work, with it's shady players entangled in an island soap opera. Heatter delivers on presenting genuine, realistic characters. Gus Robinson, after some doubt, turns into a decent guy that the reader can take a liking to. Gwen struggles with conflicting emotions and takes the most risk in Robinson's scheme. Then there is Claire Loomis, who Robinson even shows some sympathy for because there is a reason for her evilness. Throw in a strong cast of supporting characters and Basil Heatter delivers on creating a neat little adventurous mystery novel. It works well and recommended for a sandy hot weather read.

If you want something different from Basil Heatter, find yourself a copy of "Harry and the Bikini Bandits." An escapade of rip-roaring fun. Whenever I see the paperback cover, I wish I was Harry sitting on that case of dynamite.

Gold Medal t2372 (1971)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Thin Air by Howard Browne

Thin Air by Howard Browne
Dell 894, Copyright 1954

"Our street was as black as an account executive's tie."

In 1954, three years before Howard Browne started his career as a television script writer, he wrote "Thin Air." It involves a theme that others have covered may times - a missing wife, with the husband being the main suspect. Of course Browne being no slouch of a writer, took it a step further and put together a sharp piece of crime literature, which starts in a sterile setting and then takes us down a bleak road of violent danger.

"It was no way to die. Her face was bloated and the wrong color, her mouth wide and strained far back, her tongue enormous. Her eyes bulged out until they were no longer eyes but something out of the psychiatric ward at Bellevue."

Coryell finally pulls into his
Westchester County driveway after thirteen straight hours on the road from a Maine vacation. Sleeping in the back seat is his exhausted wife and three year old daughter. On arrival, his wife immediately leaves the car to open the house while Coryell gets his sleeping daughter out of the back. Once inside, Coryell can’t locate his wife. She has disappeared. After a frantic search, he combs the neighborhood streets with no luck. The police are notified and later a male neighbor that his wife knew is found unconscious, near death in the bushes. Suspicion quickly turns to Ames Coryell as a suspect in the assault on the neighbor and his wife’s disappearance. Feeling that the cops are inept, Coryell decides he must take action and get personally involved to find out what happen on that night.

What makes this missing persons story different than others is Coryell’s position as vice president of a major NYC advertising agency. The next morning he heads to work assembling all his business contacts, using their skills to construct a world-class campaign to get leads on his wife. He has some of the best marketers, commercial designers, and researchers at his disposal. He puts together his little private detective agency in one day and has his wife’s photo out in the streets, on radio and television in hours. Leads quickly come in and he personally investigates them, during which a couple of murders occur. At this point in the story, Coryell plays it like a hardboiled dick, hitting the streets with gun in hand and roughing it up with a few informants. Though an amateur, he’s no dummy – he finally pieces it together.

Howard Browne doesn’t hold anything back from the reader. The clues are there throughout the story, we just have to grab the right ones and place them accordingly. He sure had the wonderful talent of taking a storyline that has been covered before and building it into a dark, noir potboiler. The twist in using the advertising agency as a means to locate Coryell’s wife was surprisingly unique, even though I thought he got into a little too much detail on it's workings for my taste. But after Browne sails through that, he takes us on a hardboiled trail through shabby apartments, small-time hoods, a dark mysterious proprietor and finally to a hell of an ending. A first-rate mystery novel.

I’ll admit “Thin Air” is a bit far fetch and not his best novel, but Howard Browne’s writing is so good that anything he authored is well worth your time. In fact later when the author was working as a writer for television, he adapted this storyline for numerous television detective scripts. There was a high demand for his TV crime dramas, but he really excelled when writing mystery novels. His best work is undoubtedly the four detective novels, featuring Chicago P.I. Paul Pine. Definitely one of the best detective series ever written, all four novels are outstanding and they are personal favorites of mine.

Halo in Blood (1946, pseud. John Evans)
Halo for Satan (1948,
pseud. John Evans)
Halo in Brass (1949,
pseud. John Evans)
The Taste of Ashes (1957, Howard Browne)

And if you can find it, don’t miss the one Paul Pine short story that appeared
(under his pseud. John Evans) in the Feb. 1953 issue of Manhunt Detective Story, “So Dark for April.” In could be the best short story the prominent mystery magazine ever published.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sands Of the Kalahari by William Mulvihill

The Sands of the Kalahari by William Mulvihill
HB ed., G.P. Putnam's Sons,
Copyright 1960

Take a plane crash in the remote reaches of the Kalahari desert and pit six people (five men and one woman) against each other, and you may have the best psychological survival novel since "Lord of the Flies."

"He found himself thinking of baboons constantly. A dead baboon was better than a live one. It was one less belly to fill. If all of them were dead there would be no competition for the meager food resources of the mountain. There was nothing he could do that was as important as killing baboons. The others could look for honey and lizards and melons. He would kill."

"The Sands of the Kalahari" throw the six strangers into an environment where for them the outside world has ceased. They are stripped bare "into the primitive," having to depend on their inner abilities and suspicious faith in their fellow man. Unable to unite to better the predicament, competition forces them to struggle for leadership, the meager food supplies, and the woman. Mulvihill provides no standout main character, instead all six play an equally important part in the story. The real protagonist is the harsh desert wasteland, an entity that we can't have sympathy for.

Survival is most important, so members cautiously align themselves. The girl, Grace Monckton, quickly attaches herself to O'Brien, the hunter of the group. Being a man of strength and instinct, O'Brien can provide and protect her from the others. Three venture (or are forced) out to trek through the desert to find salvation. Fate awaits them all. Grimmelmann, an old German war survivor, has desert living knowledge, but his turbulent conflicts with O'Brien come at a cost. Guilt and pity torment the failed pilot, Sturdevant. And possibly the most dramatic of them all is a black American scholar by the name of Jefferson Smith, who's black African history is slammed into him in this 20th century world. Last is Mike Bain, another American who is unprepared to meet the challenge and overcome his weakness in bravery.

Beside the struggles between themselves, they share the desert mountain area with a group of baboons, competing for the scarce available food. Eating baboon is a form of cannibalism to the group, so using them as a food source is out of the question. Instead O'Brien sets out to eliminate the primates. This changes the balance of things, because eons of evolution to adapt and endure make the baboons stronger than any rifle.

William Mulivhill's novel contains strong characters and a powerful survival narrative. Underneath it is a psychological thriller, where we wonder if you first have to be lost to find oneself. A fantastic ending, not one that the reader would expect. A novel that I thoroughly enjoyed. "The Sands of the Kalahari" was so successful for William Mulvihill, that all of his other novels were forever overshadowed by it.

"He found a place to sleep and lay looking up at the great sky. How far was this from a city with electric lights and automobiles? How many miles, how many years, how many centuries?"

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Star Trap by Robert Colby

The Star Trap by Robert Colby
Gold Medal 1043, Copyright 1960

Robert Colby was one of those authors that never got the fame and recognition that he deserved. His 1959 novel, “The Captain Must Die” was one of the first Gold Medal books that I ever read. I picked it up because I thought it was a war story, ‘course it turned out to be one of GM’s best novels - involving three men seeking violent revenge years after the war, towards a man who they thought wronged them. Two other Gold Medal entries from 1959, “Secret of the Second Door” and “The Deadly Desire” also captured the author’s ability to build a highly suspenseful noir story in just under 130 pages. All are quick page turners that will compel the reader to continue on until the end. The same could be said of Colby’s fourth Gold Medal novel “The Star Trap,” where after aiding a voluptuous beauty, a respectable young man gets caught in a dragnet of deception and murder.

She wore the same turquoise wool-knit suit in which I seen her last. And she managed to look just as beautiful in it, though her face was staining with tension. The sight of her gave me a moment of relief, disturbing the old longings. The feeling passed in an instant and I hated the bitch.

In the middle of the night, struggling B actor Glenn Harley gets a hysterical phone call from starlet Nancy Rhymer. She needs Harley to come over to her house immediately. Harley, who always has secretly longed for Nancy Rhymer, jumps out of bed and drives quickly to her home. Once there, he discovers she has knifed a semi-famous actor to death “in self defense” and needs Harley’s help to clean things up to protect her from scandal. His affection for the actress is too strong to refuse and he ends up burying the corpse along with it's belongings. Of course as he is digging the grave, we know he is actually digging himself deeper and deeper into a world of blackmail, disloyalty, and hunted persecution.

A few days later Nancy Rhymer flees from sight and Harley learns that the dead actor had $350,000 on him. The money belongs to a crooked independent film producer, who along with a couple of dirty cops, has been blackmailing Hollywood hotshots in a sex ring setup. Harley goes back to where he buried the man and finds the corpse gone. Suspecting that the Rhymer girl took the cash and is using him, he heads back to his apartment where the two dirty cops are waiting and play rough with him. Later, the two rogue cops conveniently find the dug up body in Harley’s car trunk. Thinking that he has the loot, the dirty cops pressure Harley to turn it over and if he does they will forget about finding the corpse. But he doesn't have it and escapes. This becomes a major headline story and now he is a fugitive, on the run for murder. Harley has to go it alone to get the evidence to clear his involvement and he does it by devising a sneaky little scheme.

Colby had a masterful way to developing a suspense filled plot, and doing it he created pockets of enriching text. It could be as simple as when Glenn Harley is describing his current position as an actor in the business, “I got parts. But I always felt they were handouts.” Or deeper, like his assertion of another actress who resorted to the casting-couch route, “She was one of the lost ones on the same road to oblivion all of us are traveling. But like so many escaping in the labyrinth of sensual amorality, she had more heart than guile, more warmth than a host of virtuous pretenders I have known.” Half the enjoyment of a Robert Colby story is the descriptive discourse between the protagonist and reader. And when he throws in an atmosphere of noir and unbridled tension, you have an exciting mystery/crime novel written by an author that will have you hunting down more of his work.

If you never read a Robert Colby novel, the Gold Medal books are the place to start. But don't overlook his other novels that were printed by many of the quality paperback publishers of the day. Even in the ACE Doubles, where many of their stories are below average for this genre, the four Colby novels are some of the best that the publishing company put out. And if you’re lucking enough to stumble on one of Robert Colby’s many short stories that appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the 60s and 70s, I guarantee you will be rewarded if you check them out.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Whosis Kid by Dashiell Hammett

The Whosis Kid by Dashiell Hammett
Short Story, Copyright 1925
"The Return of the Continential OP"
Dell Mystery #154, Copyright 1945

"The idea in the detective business is to catch crooks, not to put on heroics."

This is definitely the rule that Dashiell Hammett's nameless, portly operative lives by. I honestly can say that I never read a Continental Op story that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, and I believe they contain some of Hammett’s best writings. All were originally published in Black Mask Magazine between 1923 to 1930, and for seven solid years they became the standard for P.I. pulp stories. Scott D. Parker had a interesting posting on his excellent blog featuring the 1923 story “Bodies Piled Up,” which he found in a 2008 issue of EQMM. My favorite collection of the short stories is this paperback edition that Dell published in 1945. In it contains one of the Op’s best, “The Whosis Kid.”

"For myself, I counted on coming through all in one piece. Few men get killed. Most of those who meet sudden ends get themselves killed. I’ve had twenty years of experience at dodging that."

The Op starts his own case in this one, having seen the Whosis Kid on the San Francisco streets. The Kid is a name from the past, the Op knew of him as a punk criminal out of Boston. Following the Kid, he quickly concludes he’s up to no good. Our patient detective stakes out a few places, does a wonderful tail job and eventually gets involved in a sort of “car-jacking” - where a distraught foreign woman seeking safety, takes refuge through him. The Op convinces her to take him to her apartment where he hopes to find out what connection there is between the woman, the Whosis Kid, and a mysterious French man called Maurois. The Op knows the woman isn’t leveling with him, as he describes it: She was an actress. She was appealing, and pathetic, and anything else you like-including dangerous. Later the woman's “gorilla” man friend shows up and an entertaining fight erupts between him and the Op. Before you know it the French dude arrives packing heat and our detective devises a way to get the Kid to show up. There are plenty of guns in the room and all are pointing at the foreign woman and the Op, but he has all the key players together in one spot and this is where the detective excels. It’s all about stolen jewels with the three crooks trying to cross each other. The Op calmly waits it out, looking for his opportunity to bring the axe down. And Hammett masterfully delivers as usual, with an action filled ending and the woman having a similar fate as Brigid O'Shaughnessy had in The Maltese Falcon.

This one has always been my favorite Continental Op story. We get a bit of a history lesson on the acute detective's past, working in Boston, quitting as a detective to join up for the Great War, and then returning to the agency after the war. We learn he lived in Chicago, Buffalo and then settled in San Francisco. I found this story a fairly violent one for it’s time, the well described fist fight scene between the Op and the woman’s friend is a good example of that. Also there are plenty of guns blasting and the Kid gets pretty handy with his deadly knife. But it’s the way the Op cleverly gets them together and plays for time that makes this story shine. Plus even being a short pudgy fellow, he puts on some moves in the end, jumping around and plugging away with his revolver.

All five stories in this Dell paperback have the detective operating at peak form, and it contains his last case from 1930 called “Death & Company.” It’s a short work with the Operative a lot less active as in the other stories. My guess is that Hammett was winding down on the character, but it’s an excellent who-done–it. In the story the Old Man puts the Op on a kidnapping case and mysteriously the pickup money doesn’t get claimed. Infidelity is at play here and of course a murdered battered body gets stumbled upon. All I'll say is, the final Continental Op appearance is another good one.

The five pulp stories in "The Return of the Continental Op" are:

'The Whosis Kid" (1925)
"The Gutting of Couffignal" (1925)
"Death & Company" (1930)
"One Hour" (1924)
"The Tenth Clue" (1924)