Sunday, February 28, 2010

Deadly Honeymoon by Lawrence Block

Deadly Honeymoon by Lawrence Block
Macmillian hardcover
Copyright 1967

It's amazing what you can find browsing through a Public Library book sale. Early novels of Lawrence Block are always on my radar and when I saw this one, I grabbed it for a buck.

On the day of their wedding, right after they arrive at their Pennsylvania honeymoon cabin, Dave and Jill Wade meet a friendly man from NYC who occupies the unit next to them. That very same night they witness the man being dragged out onto his porch and executed by two hitmen. Now the problem. The two bastards see Dave and Jill watching in the next cabin, so they hightail over there and grab them. They badly beat up Dave and do worse things to Jill. Both killers have turns with her and leave believing nothing about this night will get back to them. Dave and Jill clam up when the police arrive, telling nothing about the murder and the assault on them. Their reasoning is that since it looks like a gangland hit, why should the cops spend a lot of time on it. So now Dave and Jill have only one thing they want to do on their honeymoon vacation, and that is getting revenge.

"We'll find out who they are and then we'll find them and we'll kill them, both of them. We have three weeks. I think we can find them and kill them in three weeks."
"Three weeks is plenty of time," she said.

Their only lead is that the murdered man was from NYC, so they assume the two bastards work for someone there. Dave and Jill drive to the Big City and start their investigation. They get lucky and careless, but progress is made when Jill goes "undercover" and locates a medium-size crime boss. Dave gets brave and smacks around the guy, busting his teeth and all. Information is obtained, which includes the names of the two killers. Our two newlyweds are getting close. And now armed with a revolver, they make their final plans to settle the score -because this one is personal.

For being written in 1967, "Deadly Honeymoon" certainly has an edge to it. It's damn quick. I read it in one night, which is rare for me. Sexual tension hangs in the air throughout the novel. Lawrence Block has both Dave and Jill mentally fighting their own honeymoon night failure. (Jill was saving herself for her new husband and the rapists also took that away from them) With that, and the anxiety caused by them struggling to find the assailants, it builds even more compulsion for them to drive on. Block has Dave and Jill working separately at times, where one has no clue what the other is up to. And it's during those times that he fiddles with the reader's emotions. From the first page to the last, it's done right. Murder, hate, vengeance, and violence-"Deadly Honeymoon" is an excellent example of the author's great early work.

Monday, February 22, 2010

April in Peril by William Campbell Gault

April in Peril by William Campbell Gault
Short Story in Mean Streets, Ed. by Robert J. Randisi
Copyright 1986

I'm a huge fan of Gault's work, especially the novels that feature P.I. Brock Callahan. The ex-L.A. Ram tackle appeared in seven excellent novels between 1955-63. Reading all, I quickly discovered that this might be the finest written P.I. series during that period. Callahan had a return in the 1980s, when Gault penned seven more novels. (Gault passed away after the last novel was written) After a twenty year absence, Callahan inherited money, moved out of L.A., and finally married his longtime girlfriend Jan. He's a bit more involved in the social scene than in the earlier stories. A little less "dark alley" fare, but he is the same old compassionate Brock "The Rock" Callahan making things right in Southern California.

I believe "April in Peril" is the only short story that Gault wrote featuring Brock Callahan. It's a good one and I liked two things about it. One is that it's a flashback story about one of Callahan's first cases and the other is that it includes the presence of Gault's other P.I., Joe Puma. Puma was a big, handsome, tough, Italian-American detective out of Los Angeles. All the beautiful ladies fall for him and he has no trouble bedding a couple of them in every investigation. Joe Puma had his nose to the street in seven P.I. novels from 1953-61 and in a handful of short stories.

Taking place in 1986, "April in Peril" starts with Brock and Jan reading the morning paper over breakfast, when Jan comes upon an article about the famous actress April Fielding having her hands imprinted in cement on Hollywood Boulevard. That's when Brock tells the story of his early case, years ago, involving the voluptuous April Fielding. On that day the young rising starlet arrives at Callahan's Beverly Hills office to hire him after first offering the case to Joe Puma. Puma was picked because he carries a .38 and doesn't hesitate to use it. Though fully competent, the horny Puma seemed more interested in laying his paws on the Fielding girl. This turns her off and her next option is P.I. Brock Callahan. The story is about blackmail. Before reaching star status, April Fielding acted in a few "dirty" films to earn a living. Even after being paid off, the blackmailer continues to find copies of these films and demands more money. To avoid any harm to her career, she needs protection and someone to put an end to this. Between a couple of meetings with Joe Puma and April Fielding's agent, Callahan makes progress in the case. But he doesn't solve it. Some one else comes up with a plan to permanently end the blackmailing scheme. A double murder takes place, Callahan figures out what happened, and then lets it go for the good of everyone.

This crime yarn is quick and neatly packaged. As a fan of both private detectives, this is another William Campbell Gault story that I was hunting for. And I'm glad I did, I enjoyed it.

There are plenty of excellent stories in this second collection edited by Robert Randisi. Though good, the Gault story is not the best of the bunch. Max Collins has an exceptional one, I really liked Kaminsky's Tobey Peters story, and Loren Estleman's Amos Walker tale is terrific. (I also loved the title of that one) Here is the complete list:

House Call (Nate Heller) by Max Allan Collins
Body Count (Joe Hannibal) by Wayne D. Dundee
I'm in the Book (Amos Walker) by Loren Estleman
April in Peril (Brock Callahan) by William Campbell Gault
The Parker Shotgun (Kinsey Millhone) by Sue Grafton
Busted Blossoms (Toby Peters) By Stuart Kaminsky
Fly Away Home (Ben Perkins) by Rob Kantner
The Thunder of Guilt (Alo Nudger) by John Lutz
Missing in Miami (Jacob Asch) by Arthur Lyons
At the Old Swimming Hole (Warshawski) by Sara Paretsky
Ace in the Hole ("Nameless") by Bill Pronzini
Wrongful Death (Henry Paige) by Dick Stodghill

A quick note: Joe Puma's name comes up a few times in the Brock Callahan novels. He even met his demise in one. Early in "The Cana Diversion" (1984) the two detectives meet and exchange pleasantries at a police station. The next day Puma is murdered and Callahan is determined to find who killed him. (Sort of a professional ethics thing- he can't standby and let a fellow sleuth's murder go without a private investigation into it) What's interesting is that Gault paints Joe Puma as a struggling P.I. who is married and has a son. Having trouble making ends meet, he even resorts to taking slimy divorce cases. There is no mention of his good looks, his brazenness, or his virility. A moderately different character than seen in the Puma novels of the late 50s.
It's an excellent novel and worth a read.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout

The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout
Doubleday hardcover
Copyright 1975

It's 1901 and an end of an era. With the dawn of the new century, we meet a lone man who has outlived his time. And as his days grow shorter, we witness that they run in parallel with the dying of the Old West. Receiving only resentment and greed from others, he bravely decides his own fate and punches a statement onto his own legacy and for the West of the past. Reading "The Shootist" you quickly realize you have a great book in your hands.

Famed and labeled as a "gun man," a"man-killer," an "assassin," or a"shootist," 51 year-old John Bernard Books rides into El Paso to get a second option from the town doctor. Unfortunately the news is the same, he has an advanced case of prostate cancer and can expect an excruciating death in a few weeks. With just his guns, a newspaper and memories, Books takes a room in Mrs. Bond Rogers' boarding house and plans to end his days there. From her son Gillom, the widow is told of the type of man that is living in her back room and she openly conveys bitterness towards him. News leaks out about the dying J. B. Books and between visits from a journalist, undertaker, photographer, ex-sweetheart, and others, (all of whom want to cash in on the reputation of the gun man) two killers attempt to gun down Books in his room. Even ill, Books violently kills both involved in the sneaky assault. Afterwards he realizes that he can not honorably go down in a death bed. J. B. Books plans to add a final chapter to his legend, one that will pit him against three of the fastest and cruelest men throughout the territory.

There is a lot to like in this Swarthout novel. It contains some of the finest writing that I've ever came across in a Western. The author marvelously turns the reader from a newly constructed West of complacency and then swings us into the violent and graphic world of the Old West. And that is explicitly described in the graphic shootouts. It's also filled with intriguing characters that are intertwined in well crafted relationships. Books' interaction with Mrs. Rogers starts spiteful, but ends into one of compassion and sympathy as she realizes that Books is more than just a gunfighter. Books attempts to reach the mean and out of control Gillom. But as his physical strength quickly leaves him, he fails at preventing Mrs. Rogers from losing her son. It is one battle he can not win. As his final day approaches, Books wonders why he deserves this pain and this loneliness that has undone him. Could he have done things different?

"I wish I had listened to birds more often. I wish I had more schooling. I wish I had paid more attention to the most beautiful country God ever made. I wish I had married and settled down, and had a son to leave my guns to. I wish I had not left home so young. I would like to know what became of my people. I wish I had not been such a loner all my life. I wish I had been more worthy of love, and given a damn sight more. God I wish I had it to do over again. I would do it better."

This is J.B. Books' story and it is a lonely and sad one. He is the last of his breed. And as he waits for the end, preparing to meet his God, Books will not let them (the townspeople and the new West) reduce him into a remnant or relic. J.B. Brooks will give them something to talk about. When he is gone, the vultures might take his horse and saddle, his watch and guns, his photograph and corpse- But they will not get his reputation, or be able to sell his name, or go away with his soul. Those three he will keep. They are his most important valuables. Like he tells the reader, "There is still a lot of me to kill."

On the back flap of this hardcover edition, the publisher states that "The Shootist" will rank with such Westerns as "Shane" and "The Ox-Bow Incident." I'm not going to disagree. Because just like those two, this Glendon Swarthout novel is more than a Western, it is classic American literature.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Fear's Justice by Marc Olden

Fear's Justice by Marc Olden
Villard Books, Copyright 1996

Back in the 70s I was hooked reading those numbered men's adventure/vigilante novels. One of the best (if not THE best) was a series titled "Narc" written by a guy named Robert Hawkes. It featured an America drug agent called John Bolt and I found the writing in these books heads above the others that were being pumped out at that time. I later discovered that Robert Hawkes was a pseudo for Marc Olden, who also was penning the excellent "Black Samurai" and "The Harker File" novels. In the 80s and 90s, Olden wrote high charged thrillers, some influenced by his interest in the Asian culture and martial arts. And in 1996 he delivered a knockout with "Fear's Justice," where a chastised NYC detective goes it alone against crooked cops and dirty city politics.

Detective Feargal "Fear" Meagher is a tough fat-assed mick, who doesn't care much for most minorities on the force or anywhere else in NYC. When his girl is slaughtered and the murder is pin on a Black vagrant, he smells a cover up. Meagher starts digging into it and because it's been known that he pocketed $25,000 from a drug pusher, the higher ups try to get him to lay off. Too late though, Meagher uncovers a group of SOB rogue cops that are moonlighting as contract killers. They call themselves the "Exchange Students" and their leader is Detective Schiafino, the husband of Meagher's girlfriend. Schiafino is one bad dude and wants to see Meagher suffer, violently and slowly. Schiafino is connected and has influence with the highest city officials, which puts a mighty squeeze on Meagher's investigations.

"In the outhouse of life," he said, "Schiafino's a splinter in your ass. The man didn't tell you anything you didn't already know. And forget this crap about sending you to prison. He wants to do you himself, and we both know why."

Even pinned down, Meagher is able to get through the cracks and finds an accomplice in his world of corruption. And then later we are left wondering if that was an accomplice after all. As in most Marc Olden novels there is a showdown and what I like about this one is that it is straightforward. Meagher settles it and walks away, as a reader I savored it and left well satisfied.

This one is what I call a novel that slams into you. Fast and raw, (in language and violence) it paints a bleak picture of NYC. We go down some of the filthiest streets and meet some of the most vile people that I have come across in a crime story. The dialogue is fresh noir, superior than any that I have seen in a post-pulp era novel. This is the best book that I have read in months. I'm thrilled that I picked it up.

I have to return to more of Marc Olden's novels.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Muleskinner by Robert MacLeod

The Muleskinner by Robert MacLeod
Fawcett R2253,
Copyright 1967

Way, way back when I was in Junior High, I remember seeing this novel in the school library on one of those rotating paperback racks. Alongside it was Pierre Boulle's "The Bridge over the River Kwai," Jack London's "Smoke Bellew," Audie Murphy's "To Hell and Back," and I recall Eric Williams' "The Wooden Horse"- all were in the form of hard cover paperbacks that school libraries stocked in those days. I read those four, but I never did get around to Robert MacLeod's "The Muleskinner." I've always enjoyed his Westerns and recently obtaining a copy of this one, I opened it up for two days and read it.

"They began to get the stench, sickly, almost tangible on the hot, still air. Up ahead, a dozen buzzards floundered into the air. A million flies were buzzing. Under the trees was a clumsy big carreta, four dead oxen and six dead Mexicans-two men, a women, a young boy, an older girl, and a naked girl child, all torn by the beaks, hideous and bloated. They had all been scalped."

Ben "Ox" Davis runs freight, and can handle mules better than any man in the Arizona territory. He's tough and gets downright brutal when he has to use his fists, but believes in living a honest life having
regards for the needs and feelings of others. On one of his hauls he comes upon the aftermath of a stagecoach robbery where it seems all occupants have been shot down. But later he finds two who have survived, one being Gwen Goodfield who Ox falls hard for. At first it looks like renegade Apaches are on a murder spree, but we find out that this is the work of a gang of vicious robbers. Gwen takes up with Ox's rival, Lew Barnes. And now Lew is flashing new money around Tuscon, making town folk suspicious of Lew's nice guy nature. Things really heat up when Ox saves a Mexican kid who was raised by Apaches. The vindictive saloon crowds aren't convinced that the kid is not Apache and want his scalp. Ox has his hands full protecting the kid and making runs with his mule team, not to mention trying to convince Gwen that Lew Barnes is a bum. After Ox's swamper is killed, along with more murderous holdups, and then the kid goes missing - the root cause of all the trouble is discovered and Ox is determined to settle the score.

As always, you get a bit of western education when you read a Robert MacLeod novel. MacLeod captures the hard life of a muleskinner. The toil these men take driving mules to get their heavy loads from one location to another, the history of legally selling Apache scalps, the boom of prosperous growth in the West - it's all in this novel. I liked all that. As for the storyline, I'll call it an average Western. Ox may be vivid and broad, but he is too gaga around Gwen for my type of Western hero. Gwen is so naive that I wanted Ox to give her a good kick in the butt. But if you can overlook that, there is plenty of murder and fisticuffs to make it enjoyable. And the struggle of survival, the excellent descriptions of the dusty drives on the mule wagons, and the subplot revolving around the misidentified Apache kid, are expertly told.

Robert MacLeod is one of my favorite Western authors. Reading his novels you can sense his natural attraction to the West and it's clear that
he has done a lot of research. "The Muleskinner" may not be his best work, but it is good and for me worth the read. (After all, I waited over 40 years to get to it)

This is the cover of an earlier paperback edition.
Fawcett Gold Medal D1786