Saturday, July 31, 2010

Escape from Five Shadows by Elmore Leonard

Escape from Five Shadows by Elmore Leonard
Dell #940,
Copyright 1956

Most know that Elmore Leonard cut his teeth writing Western stories. For a young man that grew up in Detroit, he sure supplied the reader with a palpable portrayal of the Arizona Territory in the 1880s. "The Law at Randado" was my first Leonard Western novel. That was many years ago and at that time I thought I stumbled upon a Western that was different from the generic ones that I had been reading. The impact that "Randado" left on me made me seek out Leonard's other early Westerns. And I have read them all. One that is near the top on the list is "Escape from Five Shadows." It's filled with a wide variety of morally different characters stuck and struggling in a harsh piece of the dusty Arizona landscape.

Salvaje looked at his men. There were ten trackers here, and now he watched them remove their army-issue shirts and pants, stripping to breechclouts, then slipping on their cartridge bandoleers again. All of them wore curl-toed Apache moccasins folded and tied just below the knee: and to a man they carried single-shot Springfield carbines.
When they were ready, Salvaje nodded, and they moved off to take the escaped man.

Cory Bowen has been wronged, sent to prison for stealing cattle which he had no involvement in. He's been farmed out of Yuma prison, along with a handful of other prisoners, to work on territory road construction, which the Government has contracted to an iron-fisted independent named Frank Renda. The prisoners are housed in a makeshift convict camp called Five Shadows and Renda holds them there with a few guards, a ruthless gunhand, and a dozen Mimbre Apache police. Posted to watch over the Government's investment is the cowardly Willis Falvey, whom Renda has wrapped around his finger. Together they have been skimming off the money that the Government has allocated for the prisoners' care and the road work. It's become a profitable business for them, at the prisoners expense. Bowen escapes early in the novel and the Mimbre Apache trackers drag him back to Five Shadows. Renda gives him a beating and month's worth of brutal punishment. This is when the novel really takes a turns and we learn that through Bowen, others seek ways to form their own means of escape. And the others are not the prisoners. There is the wife of Falvey, who wants out of this stinking dead end part of Arizona. A girl that lives with her father at the nearby stage station, who is determined to get another trial for Bowen. And my favorite, the Mimbre leader named Salvaje, who is the most righteous and pure character in the whole story.

Not to give anything away, I'll just say that there is an opportunity for Bowen to plan another dangerous escape. Of course he takes it and this intertwines all characters, for some the results offer a weighed relief and for others there is contriteness. The risk for Bowen is great because a new trial is granted for him and he doesn't know it. Getting caught this time means death. "Escape from Five Shadows" isn't Elmore Leonard's best Western novel. (It's tough to compete with his later classics -"Valdez is Coming" and "Hombre") But it is still a well above average one and there is plenty to like in it. First is the remarkable picture of the old Arizona West that Leonard paints for the reader. The smells of horse, leather and dust get in your nostrils. Frank Renda and his gunhand are diabolical, and for some reason I find these characters compelling as hell. Elmore Leonard has Bowen being tormented by these two. He takes a lot of punishment, but remains determined to get out. (I guess that is the will of an innocent man) The best scene is without a doubt when the Mimbre Apache trackers are hunting down Bowen after his first escape. It happens early in the novel and it turns into a game of respect and bravery. A wonderful action snapshot episode in the novel.

I enjoyed this Elmore Leonard novel, but that's easy for me to say because he is one of my favorite Western writers. I have always wished he had written more Westerns. I prefer them over his crime fiction. I have hope that he will write another. It's been too long of a wait.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Find Eileen Hardin - Alive! by Andrew Frazer

Find Eileen Hardin - Alive! by Andrew Frazer
Avon T343, Copyright 1959

I had taken a man's life. Not in cold blood, but I had taken it. I waited for the first pangs of remorse. They didn't come.

Some fictional private eyes are lucky enough to have long careers and go down those mean streets in many novels, other excellent ones made an appearance is just one or two paperbacks. And this is the case with P.I. Duncan Pride in Find Eileen Hardin - Alive! Of course if you are a busy and prolific author, you most likely have many projects going on at once. And I would like to believe that this is the reason why Pride only appeared in two novels. The author Andrew Frazer is really Milton Lesser, or better known as Stephen Marlowe the creator of the successful Chester Drum series. And even with the Drum novels, Stephen Marlowe seemed to be a tireless writer and for decades filled up his large bibliography with a steady stream of quality work.

The history behind P.I. Duncan Pride is a darn intriguing one. He was an All-American quarterback at Wynant College located on Long Island. Big man on campus, beautiful girls in his arms, and first round draft pick of the L.A. Rams. He held the world in the palm of his hands. Well, that was before the West coast mob confronted him on the eve of his NFL debut with an offer to shave off points in the game. He refused, the mob lost money, and Duncan Pride got this legs broken in three places which ended his football career. So what is a big, tough, college graduate gonna do to earn a living? Not an accountant, not an architect, not a shoe salesman -Duncan Pride applies for a license and picks up a gun to become a West coast private eye. And as an avid reader of crime mysteries, I'm glad he did.

Find Eileen Hardin - Alive! starts with Duncan Pride returning East to his Alma mater, called in by his ex-college sweetheart Marjorie to locate her missing stepdaughter. Marjorie married Pride's college coach Ward Hardin (the father of Eileen) and her disappearance is tearing him up. Of course this is not a simple missing persons case. Pride's investigation runs into switchblade pimps, whorehouses, mobsters, addicts, and crushing intimate family secrets. The novel has an excellent mystery plot that has numerous twists that have you guessing what is the real reason behind having Pride hunt down Eileen Hardin. Questions I kept asking myself-Why are so many people interested in located her? And what in the past has caused this girl to flee? There is plenty of sexual tension throughout the novel, mostly between Pride and Marjorie. Pride has a sense of loyalty and respect for his college coach and Marjorie is making it tough for him. This strain bogs him down a little, but once he is in the dark alleys or sneaking through the back doors of NYC tenements, we realize Pride is in his element. Stephen Marlowe didn't make this into a basic P.I. novel, it has a quality complexity to it that has Pride wondering where this investigation is going. And even with being paid to lay off the case, getting knocked out a couple of times, shot at, and having to kill a man himself-he is determined to find Eileen Hardin.

To be honest when I starting into the first few pages, I almost quit on this one. I wasn't in the mood for this "P.I. returns his old college" storyline. I'm sure glad I continued. It quickly turned into a fine noir tale with many suspenseful hardboiled episodes. Four are standouts that have Pride lurking and hunting in a violent pimp's pad, an abandoned oyster cannery, a curious Men's health club, and a wonderful airport scene near the end that reminded me a bit of the ending in the Steve McQueen movie "Bullitt." A well-written and adventurous P.I. novel, that takes off and slams down to an exceptional conclusion.

Just one thing that lightly dated this paperback, and that is Pride's interaction with the college kids. You have your 1950s stereotypical crewcut boys here. In one scene you have Pride handing one of them a gun to watch over a suspect he has locked down in a motel room for a night. I kept thinking of Archie of Riverdale with a gat in his hand. But the college boys have no importance in the plot and their role is very minimal.

The other novel that Duncan Pride appeared in is called The Fall of Marty Moon, written in 1960. Marty Moon was the muscle who put out the order to have Pride's legs broken when he was a rookie with the L.A. Rams.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Murder on the Wild Side by Jeff Jacks

Murder on the Wild Side by Jeff Jacks
Fawcett T2515
Copyright 1971

"They told me you were just a crooked cop who drinks too much."
"I'm an ex-cop who drinks."

This one is aptly titled because in it we meet the oddest and strangest assortment of characters that I have ever came across in a private detective novel. There is a Bible preaching street ragamuffin, punchy ex-boxer, astrological charlatans, illegal abortionists, junkies and pushers, number runners, beautiful lesbos and sick S&M fags, filth-clad hippies, pimped out streetwalkers, a motorcycle gang, Black radicals, and a few more derelicts and chiselers that I haven't listed. All cross paths in a murder investigation conducted by a down-and-out NYC ex-cop playing P.I., called Shep Stone.

She took my raincoat. As she turned to hang it in the closet, I resisted the impulse to reach out and pat her on the ass. Like I used to.

Shep Stone was kicked out of the Police Department for taking drug bust money. Everyone was doing it, unfortunately he got caught and took the fall. He's trying to get his P.I. license by pulling in a few favors with his old cop buddies, but they mostly shun him. Stone is one step from skid row, a middle aged lush, and just keeps his head above water by hiring himself out to get the goods on cheating husbands or looking for missing persons. In the crap-hole boarding house where he has a room, he stumbles upon the murdered body of an old lady called "The Handkerchief Woman." Well, the cops get involved and they tell Stone if he helps them out (because he knows the pulse of the area) they will expedite getting the P.I. license approved. At the same time a Wisconsin man hires him to look for his runaway teenage daughter in NYC. And it's during these two investigations that we bump into all those quirky and unusual characters.

"Murder on the Wild Side" is the the best P.I. novel that I've read this year. The well-written (and unpredictable) plot takes the reader through the grimy and profligate streets of 1969 New York City. Everyone is out for themselves and willing to use anyone for their advantage. Shep Stone included. Stone comes off as an unemotional man who is trapped in this filthy concrete environment with no future hope of escape. The blend of the murder and the missing persons investigation is exceptional and as I flipped through the pages I eagerly waited to see who Stone was going to run into next. The novel is broken into compelling short chapters that have distinctive titles. And they really snap together to lock down this extraordinary detective novel. A wild ride on the wild side, and I loved every minute of it. I've had this paperback collecting dust for a quite a while, I waited way too long to read it. It is outstanding!

A young Chinese hooker gave me a smile. I decided she was what I needed. I paid for two hours of her time in a nearby hotel. Her cooper body was a lovely, professional instrument.

Besides the mystery surrounding the old woman's murder and location of the teenage runaway, there is one more mystery concerning this paperback. And that is - who the hell is Jeff Jacks? It's no doubt a pseudonym and I've had no luck researching the name. It would be interesting to find out!

In 1973, Shep Stone made a return appearance in "Find the Don's Daughter." (also authored by Jeff Jacks) I don't have that paperback, but I'll be on the hunt.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Golden Frame by Joseph Chadwick

The Golden Frame by Joseph Chadwick
Gold Medal #493, Copyright 1955

I didn't want to lose her; in fact, I was beginning to want her again right now. But I was suspicious of even her tears.

Known more for his fine Westerns,
Joseph Chadwick also authored a few crime mystery novels in his day. And he didn't miss a beat with them. When I first looked at the cover of this one, I thought I had a romance story in my hands. Well, this is no romance novel. "The Golden Frame" is a novel filled with suspicion, doubtful trust, a violent ride into the West, and of course... murder.

Dave Burke arrives fresh off a freighter in Baltimore after spending two years working the oil fields in Saudi Arabia. The problem is he arrives broke, he blew his wad on dames and booze during a stopover in Paris. He contacts his stepbrother for a loan, who then tells Dave that he inherited a drilling rig and land in Wyoming from an old oil man that he worked for in the past. That same day he meets a vacationing schoolteacher named Anne Somers and he falls for her. Also that day he finds a dead P.I.
in his hotel room and Dave's gun put the bullet in the guy's head. Knowing this will be tough to explain to the cops, Dave hightails it out of Baltimore and Miss Somers is all to willing to assist. Believing someone is framing him to get hold of his newly inherited land, they head out to Wyoming to by time and think things out. Besides the cops, Dave and Anne have two killers on their tail and these two thugs seem to be always popping up wherever Dave and Anne stop. Dave gets roughed up and shot at throughout the trek Westward, and he starts getting suspicious of Anne's motives. Be he hangs with her and this may turn out to be a bad decision on his part. (or not)

He swung the gun up and clubbed down with it before I could throw the punch I had cocked. His blow caught me on the left temple. There was a burst of pain, then I was going down. The pain was so intense that I didn't feel myself hit the concrete.

Three things I really enjoyed in this paperback. First, I loved the action. It's fast paced and it's spread out evenly throughout the novel. There is really no lulls in the story. Second, it has a wonderful collection of supporting characters. The Baltimore cop called Hallaron, who is sent to investigate Dave Burke, is a likable wise droll. The two bastardly killers are also quite intriguing. And the third is the seesawing relationship between Dave Burke and Anne Somers. Just when Dave (and us as readers) is convinced that Anne is legit, something occurs that sways Dave into believing she is in on the frame up and out to get him. And this goes back and forth until the end of the novel. At times I just wanted to shout out, "Drop the bitch!" Joseph Chadwick delivers this very well and it is this ping-ponging drama that makes this noir novel rise above the average ones. Throw in an exciting ending, a bit of education around the oil business, and a taste of the West in the 1950s -and you have a well-written and darn good crime adventure in your hands.

Joseph Chadwick also wrote crime novels under the pseudo John Creighton and all of those were published by ACE in the Double Flip paperback format. I read a couple of them years ago before I knew Chadwick and Creighton were one and the same. I remember liking them, but
"The Golden Frame" definitely tops them.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Gargoyle Conspiracy by Marvin H. Albert

The Gargoyle Conspiracy by Marvin H. Albert
Doubleday Hardcover,
Copyright 1975

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of the novels written by Marvin H. Albert. His early Gold Medal publications covered Westerns, crime noir, and an excellent mystery series featuring the P.I. Jake Barrow. In the early 70's, he wrote four of my favorite adventure thrillers penned under the name of Ian MacAlister. Just after those came the "The Gargoyle Conspiracy," written right after Albert's move to France. It's an international thriller about a hunt for a dangerous Arab terrorist. Simon Hunter is an American cop that works for the State Department combating terrorism. This is 1975 and terrorists attacks in Europe are causing severe political tensions. Some want to appease the terrorists and others want to hit them hard. The ruthless Ahmed Bel Jahra is out to make a statement and his target is the Secretary of State of America.

The problem for Simon Hunter is he has nothing to go on. He doesn't know about Bel Jahra, ( the man is just a faceless shadow) he doesn't know who the target is, or where, when, and if the event will take place. Hell, he doesn't even know if any of this is actually real. But he shrewdly moves on it and slowly fragments come to light. The story goes from France to Morocco, Italy to the Arab world-told through the accounts of both men. We learn of the planning and recruiting of accomplices, when the story shifts to the charismatic Ahmed Bel Jahra. Then we are with Simon Hunter, tirelessly following any lead, to find what is going on and who is involved. This is superbly done.

"The Gargoyle Conspiracy" is longer (278 pages) than the usual Albert novels. There is a lot going on and many characters are involved. And because of the volume of characters, I really had to pay attention to what was happening in the story. But it was worth it. I've heard this novel being compared to Fredrick Forsyth's "The Day of the Jackal," and there are similarities. "The Gargoyle Conspiracy" is a little more violent and I found the major characters more intriguing. This received a well deserved Edgar nomination for Best Novel in 1976, and shouldn't be overlooked by readers of espionage thrillers.