Monday, January 25, 2010

The Last Score by Charles Runyon

The Last Score by Ellery Queen (penned by Charles Runyon)
Pocket Book 50486, Copyright 1964

In the early 60s, the Ellery Queen machine was spitting out quality mystery yarns that were authored by a hungry group of fine suspense writers. Charles W. Runyon wrote three of them for the establishment. All are excellent, which include "The Killer Touch" (1965) and "Kiss and Kill." (1969) But my favorite is this first one of his three, which takes the reader on a wild ride through the remote areas of 1960s Mexico.

" His attacker was all speed and power. A steel forearm had Reid's nose crushed against his face and his breath cut off; a knife caressed his throat. This is it, this is curtains, Reid thought - no preparation, no warning, the stupid end of a stupid enterprise."

Reid Rance is an adventurer/travel agent who specializes in taking his clients to locations that are far off the beaten paths. One day he gets a visit from May Gibson, the town matriarch of Greengrove, Texas. Mrs. Gibson has an unruly, bratty, and determined high school daughter, who has her mind set on a three-week trip to Mexico. She needs someone who will not only show the beautiful young Leslie the sights, but also one that will play bodyguard. At first Reid wants nothing to do with a "spoiled teen-aged nymphomaniac," but he needs the cash and reluctantly accepts.

Even though both seem to hit it off at the start, Leslie turns out to be a bit wiser than your normal teenager. Bored with seeing the sights, she lays it on Reid what she really wants out of this trip to Mexico, and that is to score some marijuana. After a "dangers of drugs" spiel by Reid, he agrees to help her out and that is when things go bad. Leslie gets kidnapped and Reid must get her back before Mrs. Gibson and the rest of Greengrove, Texas gets wind of it.

I loved the pace of this novel and Runyon keeps the reader glued to the story. He takes us south of the border, through the areas of Mexico's more unglamorous side. Dusty poor villages, shady seaport towns, and a violent ending in the jungle - and mixed in a group of devious drug users that grab at the opportunity to kidnap for ransom... all of this is compelling stuff for a 1964 novel.

Some might find it a bit dated for today and the illegal drug situation is not as violent as what is going on in Mexico now, but it is flawlessly written and it is suspenseful as hell. Reid Rance is a intriguing main character and you can't help but be on his underdog side. Throw in an adrenalin-filled ending, and all I can say is - I really, really enjoyed "The Last Score." (One of the best that came out of this Ellery Queen ghostwritten period.)

Note: If you ever do read "The Last Score," watch out for the outre chapter where Reid Rance is forced to smoke some of that wacky weed. (wow)

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Butterfly by James M. Cain

The Butterfly by James M. Cain
Signet 720, Copyright 1946

When I pick up one of Cain's novels, I expect a devious pull into a deceitful murder plot set in Southern California. But in this one we are taken to a coal mining region of West Virginia for a seductive backwoods noir tale that has plenty of family scheming, temptation, and hatred.

"He was eating beans out of a can with his knife, and I let him finish them up before I raised my gun. I drew my bead right on the butterfly. He doubled up when I pulled the trigger, and held on to his stomach, and kicked like a cat trying to shake papers off it's feet, and drew his breath in and out fast like a dog in the summer time, except instead of heat that made him do that, it was pain. That suit me fine. I stepped out, picked up his rifle from where he had set it down to eat, and sat down to watch him twitch."

After Jess Tyler's two-timing wife split on him 18 years ago, he seemed content just farming his land near the abandoned coal mines. That all changes when his 19 year old daughter Kady shows up one day and decides to stay for a spell. Well before you know it, both feel a little more passion between them than is usual between a father and daughter. But Jess is a Church-going-man and fights the temptation, even as Kady spews seduction over him. Things happen fast in this novel, Jess finds out that Kady has a illegitimate baby boy and it has been kidnapped by her stepfather. The boy gets returned as more members of Jess Tyler's family get involved. Kady plans to marry the baby boy's real father, but that goes sour. Then there is suspicion that the stepfather is the real father of Kady's boy. With incestuous lust still tempting Jess, he heads out to settle the score between him and the man who took away his wife years ago. But just about then, Jess learns something and that brings his relationship with Kady down a road towards sin and shame.

A swift story that is packaged with suspense, morality, and the forbidden topic of incest. Oh, and a murder along the way. Cain's writing (as always) is terrific in this novel. The characters burst from the pages, the plot has plenty of twists and offers a stark portrayal of hatred, lust, and even the passion of love. There is an intensity in this story and it builds and builds, then ends masterfully as Jess is writing down the tale of what happens.

It's safe to say, I never read anything that I didn't fully enjoy by James M. Cain. It's been a while since I read a backwoods noir novel and adding Cain as the author... this one is a "can't miss!"

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Liquidator by R.L. Brent

The Liquidator by R.L. Brent
Award Books AQ 1507
Copyright 1974

I've read a lot of decent 70s "Vengeance against the Mafia" series novels and I've read a lot of crappy ones. Having just finished the first in The Liquidator series, I have to say this was one of the better ones.

"I wanted to see the cop who was dumb enough to bust Monk Simon," she said in a low voice. "Don't you know he's more important than Kissinger?"
"That's the reason I busted him," Jake said.

Jake Brand is a rock hard Miami cop. Having seen his patrolman father killed by a crazed drug addict and his older brother blasted by a Mob hit, Jake bends the rules to take down the Organization. He makes plenty of enemies, which forces the Mob to put an end to Jake their top priority. They set him up to take the fall for a murder rap and Jake is sent to prison for five long years. When our boy gets out he's got one thing to live for... and he sets out to even the score.

Yes this story has been told before, but not written as well as this one. R. L. Brent (pseudo. for Larry Powell) shows his talent. The characters have solid personalities, the plot holds the reader and has none of the "goofiness" that I witnessed in other similar testosterone adventure novels, and I thoroughly enjoyed the action-packed plot. And best of all, Jake even comes off as a realistic character (well, sort of) and you can't help but like the rough guy.

I was pleasantly surprised by this one and I don't know if the others in this series are as good. But I will be reading another to find out. (Jake left a few strings hanging to prepare us for the second novel)

The Liquidator (1974)
Contract For a Killing (1974)
The Cocaine Connection (1974)
Invitation To a Strangling (1975)