Friday, August 29, 2008

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
Bantam, Copyright 1972

Before George V. Higgins' debut novel about a small-time Boston hood came out, it could be argued that fictional crime stories took place in a world that was inaccessible to the reader with characters that were distant and in most cases not thoroughly authentic. With "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," he raised the bar and set the new standard for realistic crime fiction. We get a real world of small-time criminals, what they think and how they interact with others. The dialog is strong and gritty, and through this dialog George V. Higgins paints his masterpiece.

"Look," Coyle said, "I can't give him the guys he wants in New Hampshire. You got to call him up and explain that to him. If I do that I am dead, is all there is to it. He can't ask me to go out and commit suicide for him."

The story revolves around Eddie Coyle, a low level criminal who is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He's facing a few years in prison for a bungled illegal trucking job and realizes there is no way he can do the time. The Feds are forcing him to turn over some names, but as a disgruntled informant he has to be careful to avoid suspicion from the Irish-mob and his gun-dealing acquaintances.

Coyle is the central figure, but the story is told mostly through his "friends." It's about criminals and it's written so they come across very real, which helps create a believable story. We are privileged to sneak a look into their unglamorous lives. The way they conspire and converse with one another, delineates all the characters in the novel and this actually thrusts the plot and moves the story. It's stunning and remarkably done.

We are taken into their dark, violent, secretive underworld; through the dreary streets of Boston to its leafless surrounding areas. And along the way we witness Eddie Coyle's struggle with the opposing forces that are squeezing him into making deals he can't afford to make and hoping to avoid the consequences that await him. Things start to move too fast for Coyle and in the end, we discover there is only one way out for him.

An innovative novel and one that after published, changed the way crime fiction would be written from then on.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Plunder by Benjamin Appel

Plunder by Benjamin Appel
Gold Medal 266, Copyright 1952

"Blacky, don't you see it? The black market must be blooming a mile a minute! God Almighty, this town is a paradise!"

"Plunder" is a stark novel that immerses the reader in an underworld of immoral prosperity and calculating betrayal. Potently written, it slams into the reader like a fist.

This novel about soldiers Joe Trent and Blacky MacIntyre is not your typical G.I. story. These are two tough and vile guys, who have just been released from the stockade in Manila. The city is war-torn and they see plenty of opportunity to make a fast buck, all illegal. We witness them rise in the black market trade using people and treating them as if they were scum. There are no good guys here, we despise them all the way through the book. And the more they are successful in their hustling activities, the more we want to see them pay for what they have done. Benjamin Appel tries to lure the reader into having some sympathy for Blacky, but we can't - he's just playing with us. It must end, and when it does-it ends tragically,with nothing gained by the two.

This novel is full of deceit and hatred, and I'm glad there weren't too many G.I.s in WWII like these two. The novel sure has a bite to it-just like the dark, economically torn, streets of Manila after the Japanese defeat. Finely written by a highly talented author. Benjamin Appel's novels are unconventionally exhilarating. Both of his Gold Medal novels are among the best published by the company, this one and "Sweet Money Girl." (1954) But you can't go wrong reading any of the others from the author's quality bibliography.
(One of his least known books, "Big Man, A Fast Man" (1961) is an outstanding literary work)

He kicked madly at the pale glimmering head until the body no longer twitched. Then, panting, his left arm hanging loosely as if almost severed from his left shoulder, he searched for the .45. It glinted darkly near the wall. Blacky snatched it up and holding it by the barrel, pounded at the head in a fury.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Wind Chill Factor by Thomas Gifford

The Wind Chill Factor by Thomas Gifford
Ballantine, Copyright 1975

I am not I;
he is not he;
they are not they.

In the 70s, you couldn't pass a book rack without seeing a few novels about surviving Nazis or a group trying to bring the Reich back in power. These were the days before skinheads or swastika-tattooed headbangers; when we were reading fiction of intrigue about organized evil waiting to spring up and return the "glory" of the old Fatherland. The reading audience were adults that lived through WWII and their baby-boomer children; the theme was a hit and authors provided them with suspenseful plots involving attempts to return sleeper neo-Nazi organizations into power. There were plenty of good ones, but Thomas Gifford's debut novel may have been the best of the bunch.

Half of his head was gone, one whole side: no eye, no cheek, no ear, strings of frozen matter protruding stiffly from the stump of throat and the pellet-chewed shoulder... I picked up the shotgun I'd used. We began to walk back to the house.

John Cooper gets a urgent telegram from his brother to return to their hometown of Cooper Falls in Minnesota. Upon arrival, he finds his brother dead and mysterious acquaintances of the family are there to "assist" him. Secret family documents are found and then stolen, which coincide with townspeople being murdered,
along with the destruction of public buildings. Eventually attempts are made on Cooper's life and he is determined to find out what his brother discovered and how it is related to his family's mysterious past. The family legacy takes John Cooper to Buenos Aires-Glasgow-London-Munich and back to his hometown, along the way unraveling hidden secrets that when finally exposed, brings mounting burden for him as he struggles to understand his family's cognitive integrity. This all leads to a rising Nazi terror organization called Die Spinne, and it's past involvement with Washington, London, and Cooper's family.

"Everything I believe in has been proven a lie, everything I had ever looked to as an anchor in my life. Nothing is what it seemed. There's just nothing left."

High suspense and intrigue is the game here, and wonderfully delivered by a master storyteller. The machinery is in play to bring a Fourth Reich into power, and this time they have learned from their mistakes. But there is a struggle between the old Nazi guard and the upcoming new younger order; causing people to be silenced and unexpected alliances to be made. We take a worldwide journey with John Cooper, an average American who uncovers the deeply hidden history of his family that no man would suspect-a nest full of rattling, hissing Nazis, which included his grandfather, father, and lost little sister. Cooper, even when surrounded by people, is really alone, and he's a frightened man as he discovers the truth-that no one is what they make out to be. And
as readers, all we are left with is sympathy for him- no more- because now he has nothing. He is left empty.

A tight high driving plot, along with bittersweet empathy for John Cooper-an amazing novel. Since his death in 2000, Thomas Gifford has become a forgotten author. This is a shame, he has a fine bibliography of international crime thrillers and in my opinion wrote the best neo-Nazi rebirth novel with "The Wind Chill Factor."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"Murder By The Dozen" by Hugh Wiley

"Murder By The Dozen" by Hugh Wiley
Popular Library 325, Copyright 1951

Between 1934 through 1938, Hugh Wiley penned 12 short stories for Collier's Magazine featuring the Chinese-American confidential operative James Lee Wong. In 1951, Popular Library published all 12 in a paperback and I am glad they did. They are wonderful quick pulp who-done-its, with the educated James Lee (Wong is rarely used in the stories) solving cases for the Department of Justice or as a private man for his Chinese community. If you enjoyed John Marquand's Mr. Moto novels or Earl Derr Biggers' Charlie Chan novels, you'll want to include Hugh Wiley's oriental sleuth in the grouping.

James Lee smiled. "I enjoy the game very much."

To me, the series is more seedy and violent than the Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto stories, which I find can be monotonous mostly due to their length. Wiley wrote no novels featuring Mr. Lee, these 12 action-packed stories contain brutal killings, Chinese gangs, corrupt businessmen, gangsters and the dark secret opium dens of San Francisco's Chinatown.

I find the stories very entertaining and I love the short lengths, so I can read a complete one in a few minutes. James Lee is well respected in the law enforcement community and with his people in Chinatown. He carries a black automatic and will bring it out when needed. Plus being highly intelligent and skilled in the forensic sciences of the day, he's a formidable opposition to any criminal element encountered. Surprisingly good!

"One thousand slices of his flesh-slow with a small knife so that he may suffer ten thousand years of torture," a kindly-faced ancient of Chinatown suggested.
"A quick death with the drug of sleep," James Lee countered. "I demand that you do not use ancient methods of torture."

After a moment's deliberation old Sang Kong nodded slowly.

Also, the Boris Karloff films (as Mr. Wong) weren't that bad.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy
Triangle Books, copyright 1934

Don Tracy sure titled this novel correctly. In it we have crosses, double crosses, and criss crosses of doubled crosses. All are interweaved within the relationships between the characters, which take them on a disastrous collision course.

He'd been smarter than me. All along I'd thought he was dumb and that I was giving him the big cross and now I was finding out that he knew all along and was just waiting to throw it into me. I was the dumb one. And I was paying for being dumb.

The story is about Johnny Thompson, who struggles to earn a decent buck during the 1930s depression era
. Right now he's an ex-boxer with a flat nose working as an armored car delivery guard. His biggest problem is coming up with enough cash to take out the girl he is obsessed with, Anna. Anna loves money and the cushion life it brings. Johnny can't compete with Slim, an acquaintance of his who has plenty of dough usually obtained by shady dealings. Anna ends up marrying Slim for his money, which tears the guts out of Johnny. But the trio continues a "friendly" relationship, and Slim takes a liking to Johnny. Eventually Anna and Johnny play around behind Slim's back. Johnny knows he is being used by Anna, but he doesn't care just as long he can spend time with her. Slim offers Johnny a chance to make some big money, by being the inside man in robbing a payroll carried by his delivery truck. Johnny takes the offer and it chances his life, and the lives of Anna and Slim, forever.

"All woman are bitches," I said. She smiled at me. Her eyes were deep and black. "All woman are cheats and liars and bitches," I told her.
"I'm not," she said. "I'm a whore."

"You're different," I said. "I mean real women."

An excellent gritty, noir novel. The author gives us a inside look into the garbled mind of Johnny Thompson. He's a complex character, where at times you feel sorry for him and then you'll want to see him suffer for what he does. But I felt he suffered enough holding onto Anna. Anna is a gold-digger tramp and we have no sympathy for her. Slim is an interesting crook, who we can also feel sorry for and even like him at times-but he is basically a rat. After the payroll hold up attempt, Johnny's fate improves, but deep down he realizes it really doesn't.

Well written and sharp. I really enjoyed the novel and it's atmosphere of the struggling times of 1930s Baltimore. If you read it, you'll enjoy the numerous boxing references in the story-the author uses them to help define the character of Johnny Thompson. And the novel contains one of the great lines that I read recently:

A big girl in a white evening dress came out and sang "For All We Know" in a voice like a dentist's drill.

In 1951, Lion published the novel in paperback, titled "The Cheat."

And the novel was the basis for the excellent 1949 Burt Lancaster noir film "Criss Cross."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Kiss Off The Dead by Garrity

Kiss Off The Dead by Garrity
Gold Medal 948, copyright 1960

Max Carey is a big lug who has to do it his way. He talks tough and preaches to the reader on how you got to handle things. His mind is set to make people pay and to kill, kill, Kill... Throughout the novel we anticipate the "big payback" and then when the time comes -nothing... Instead of the "big payback" we get the "big letdown."

"I was in a fix. A lousy rotten burn-in-the-chair kind a fix, and it looked like I was going to walk the last mile all the way."

Max Carey was an honest tough NYC cop, until the day he decides to take payoff money to keep his "loving" wife accustomed to her high living standards. Disgraced and kicked off the force, she leaves him and for three years he hunts her down. He locates her in the coastal city of Seaside, and they both realize the love they share is still strong and undying. That night she is found dead and Carey is framed as the murderer. He vows revenge on the persons responsible for killing his "loving" wife and setting him up. The city rackets are involved and a couple of hired guns are always around the corner. With the help of a hatcheck girl, Carey eludes the cops and the guns. This girl falls deeply for him, after only seeing him for about five seconds. Carey is so torn up over his wife's murder, that he's in bed and in love with the hatcheck girl soon after. Eventually he turns the tables from being hunted, to being the hunter. He pounds shoe leather and his noggin to settle the score. Garrity has the plot building and we are waiting for the final big action that really doesn't materialize.

There is nothing like a slap in the face to convince a dame you're not playing games. She got one, a hard open-handed one that smacked like a pistol shot and left an imprint of my fingers that she'd be wearing for a few days to come.

To Dave Garrity's credit the dialog is hardboiled and Max Carey is a big, hard customer. Mickey Spillane was supposedly an acquaintance of the author, and there is definitely an influence here. The ending does have a bit of a surprise waiting for the reader, but I expected a bigger showdown when Max Carey confronts the reason for his pain. Carey has trouble thinking this one out and fails to see clues in front of him. He acts foolish at times; like walking into obvious avoidable situations and being sapped three times, twice by the same dame. Also Carey drags on, explaining the why and how, for what he's "gonna do." He carries this too far, causing the story to be jagged and the reader being confused about the character's true cognizance. (Garrity should of looked over Spillane's shoulder more closely. After all, the Mick was a master of getting through to the reader.)

This is a novel about a man wronged and him setting out to right it. And in these novels we want the one's responsible to pay and pay through vengeance. In the end, we are left disappointed, waiting for blood to spill and butts to be kicked - that never occur.
Maybe I was expecting more out of this then I should of.

Known novels by Dave J. Garrity:

Kiss Off The Dead (1960), Gold Medal 948
Cry Me A Killer (1961), Gold Medal 1170
Dragon Hunt (1967), Signet 3203
Hot Mods (1969), Signet 3899
Rim of Thunder (1973), Signet

Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Stone Around Her Neck by Bob McKnight

A Stone Around Her Neck by Bob McKnight
ACE F-143, Copyright 1962

I have always admired the work of Bob McKnight. He put together a string of excellent crime stories that gave the reader a suspenseful tour of Florida in the late 50s/early 60s. McKnight was one of many authors, who moved to Florida with ambitions of writing mystery novels. Though not as well known as Day Keene, John D. MacDonald, William Fuller, or others that located to the "Sunshine State" after the war, his novels are worthy to be included in any discussion on the topic of post-war Florida authors.

"A Stone Around Her Neck" is one of McKnight's last novels and features his P.I. Nathan Hawk. Hawk is not a native of Florida, he located a few years back to reap in the climate. He has a keen sense of humor especially around his cop pal, Lt. Tobey Duane -who the P.I. calls "Florida cracker" or "damn rebel" and Hawk will throw in the hardboiled slang. (woman are 'babes" or "stacked skirts", cars are "heaps") He's not a sympathetic guy, he'll go right in and rough up his knuckles if needed. Anyway, the P.I. looks into a murder of a "babe" pulled out of the Gulf after being weighed down for a few days. The investigation leads Hawk into the world of bookie joints and horse-betting gambling schemes. Along the way, someone is framed for the murder and Hawk, knowing the ways of the track circuit, makes progress quickly. The P.I. moves swiftly, takes his lumps, raps it up, and leaves a couple of bodies along the way for the police to clean up.

"Anyhow, I didn't care if I killed him. I wasn't wasting any sympathy on a guy, who, in a few more minutes would have fastened weights to me and dropped me over the side. He could drown in his own vomit for all of me."

If you're looking for a quality Florida P.I., Nathan Hawk is your man. There is nothing special here, just a good quick (100 pgs) nicely packed mystery detective story. If you happen to give this one a try, you won't be disappointed with chapters 6 & 7; where a couple of "mugs" take Hawk on a one-way boat ride and a little gale comes in, effecting their plans. Those chapters are full of action and are queasingly written.

Bob McKnight was a track and horse racing fan, so it is understandable that he incorporates that setting in many of his novels. He even wrote a popular "how to" book called "Eliminate the Loser$, Pick the Winner$." Ironically, two of his novels that I like best, don't involve the horse track or feature P.I. Nathan Hawk; they are "Swamp Sanctuary" and "Kiss the Babe Goodbye," both published by ACE. They spin fast, with plenty of action-just the way I like them.

The "flip" novel of this ACE Double is "End of a Big Wheel" by Clayton Fox. It's a story of a city cop investigating the murder of an union leader. (I didn't read this one yet. )

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Long Riders by Dan Cushman

The Long Riders by Dan Cushman
Gold Medal d1733, Copyright 1967

I’ve been reading a lot of westerns this summer. I don't know why, but sitting out on the patio and sweating with a western paperback stuck to my fingers seems to appeal to me lately. Dan Cushman was a versatile writer, who started in the pulp short story days and later turned over many quality adventure, mystery, and western novels. In "The Long Riders", we have a cattle drive story- where a few powerful men suppress an inferior group, until someone helps them take a stand.

He dived for the gun and got hold of it, and Broadbaker, waiting half a second, jumped and
came down on his forearm with both feet. He had his arm under the high insteps of his boots, pinning it to the ground. And he turned grinding, bearing down with all his weight. He felt the bones crack. It was a good feeling.

Leo Glass and partner Old Dad receive a proposition from Kid Maybee. The Kid has a checkered past and is laid up after taking a vicious beating, that included a bullet in his chest. The Kid has 400 head of cattle that need to be moved and he offers Glass and Old Dad a cut if they take them to Montana. The cattle are part of a larger drive that is run by Andy “man-eater Broadbaker. Broadbaker is moving his stock further west to claim grazing land that the government has secured for the Indians. By taking a group of poor homesteaders with him, along with some political pull, Broadbaker has plans to be the big land baron in the new territory. Along with Broadbaker, are a bunch of experienced cowboys and gunhand Billy Grand. (whose “pistols were swifter than weasels in a henhouse) Also included in Broadbaker's group is Polly, part of the influential Arbogast family, who Broadbaker expects to marry. Knowing that Leo Glass and the homesteaders plan to cut north halfway through the drive, Broadbaker schemes ways to force them westward with him. He needs the whole group to insure he has the numbers to take over the grazing land promised to the Indians. The homesteaders, treated no better than the cattle, turn to Leo Glass for leadership. After learning that Billy Grand shot a boy in the back, Glass confronts the gunslinger, outdrawing and killing him. Broadbaker suspects that Polly has taken a liking to Leo, and roughs her up for disrespecting him. Realizing that Glass has become the major obstacle for Broadbaker and his plans, he sets out to eliminate him. The time comes for Leo Glass to move his group north and Broadbaker makes his final violent attempt to stop them. The two men, without weapons, meet to settle all scores.

"You bitch!" he said through his teeth. "You little ungrateful bitch. You'd choose him, the long rider." He back-handed her across the face.

"The Long Riders" is written in a pulp style, and has everything that made those westerns admirable; a good-ole cowboy, the opposing powerful one, a rotten gunslinger, a girl who both men want, and the young kid who looks up to Leo Glass and is taken under his wing. Even the titles of each short chapter have a pulp ring to them, “The Girl with the Whip,” “Plan for a Showdown,” “Kid Maybee’s Story” are examples. I really enjoyed the Kid Maybee character, too bad he was only in the story briefly; but gunhand Billy Grand and Leo Glass made up for that. You sense the confrontation building within them as you are flipping pages. And the reader is not disappointed when they meet in a gunslappin' showdown.

The echoes of the gunshot were gone, and the trail of smoke from Glass’ pistol. Nobody moved as the cattle came on. A horsefly lit on the back of Grand’s neck and crawled leisurely, drinking his sweat.

Dan Cushman tries to spice up the girl interest (Polly) in the story, but I found it average. That said, everything else makes this a worthy story. The relationship between Glass and the boy Will Pattison is quite touching, and should be appealing for younger readers. The final battle between Broadbaker and Glass is exceptional. They meet hand-to-hand using their gun belts, lashing each other raw “Spanish–quirt style” with the buckles. If you like western stories written in the pulp style of the 30s/40s, this one is good. I can take them as long as I don’t knock off too many in a row.

In the late 40s, Dan Cushman wrote short stories featuring the western pulp hero -The Pecos Kid. These were quite popular and the stories were headlined in the
magazine called “The Pecos
Kid Western,” which was p
ublished in 1950/51.

Reprints of these stories are easily available. I have seen them in local dollar stores. (Leisure Books published them)

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Quiet Woman by Bruno Fischer

The Quiet Woman by Bruno Fischer
Short story in Dell Mystery Novels No.1 Jan.-Mar 1955

Bruno Fischer wrote five novels featuring P.I. Ben Helm. All are very good and written on the "gentle" hardboiled side. In this one shot digest, that precedes the Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine run, contains the only short story the amiable detective appeared in.

Though he was flat on his back, not much of his once handsome face was visible. Blood covered it, and blood had dyed most of his blond hair. All around him the pale-green linoleum looked as if somebody had swung an open can of red paint...It always surprised me how much blood a human being had in him.

Ben Helm returning from a blackmail case in Buffalo, arrives in the city of West Amber where his wife is an actress in a summer theater group. That night, the leading man of the performing group is murdered by having his skull smashed by a milk bottle. The actor's wife is taken in as the suspect, and Helm believing the woman is innocent looks into the case. Things darken for the jailed suspect, after it is discovered that four years ago in Chicago she killed her previous husband in self-defense using a milk bottle. The D. A. believes this locks up the case, while Ben Helm suspects she was set up. Later, the neighbor of the murdered actor is killed with her skull cracked open by a rock, and the coincidence is too much for Helm. He spends the night figuring it out and in the morning, with his .32 (that is stored under his spare tire in the truck of his car) he confronts the killer.

As always with Bruno Fischer, this is well written and a worthy read. It's quick and tight; and even with figuring out who the real murder is halfway through, I enjoyed it because of Ben Helm. This P.I. is likable, content and doesn't let the dregs of society get to him. He'll lay back, observe and think it through. The local police even study his published articles and books on criminology, and eagerly accept his help. Helm has an updated American Sherlock Holmes air to him, especially when he is stoking his pipe and spending a night putting the pieces together. Plus, with having the loving, striking actress Greta Murdock as a wife (who men swoon over) -why not be content and likable.

This issue contains three "novels": (all by fine authors)
A Bundle for the Coroner by Brett Halliday
But the Prophet Died by William Campbell Gault
The Quiet Woman by Bruno Fischer

The Evil Days by Bruno Fischer
Ballantine, Copyright 1973

Now, if you want something completely different by Bruno Fischer, you will want to sink your teeth into his last novel, "The Evil Days." A thriller mystery that contains violent murder, robbery, drugs, adultery, kidnapping, deceit and at the end- forgiveness....
All masterfully embedded in this tense narrative.
Where we expect suburban life to be protective and salutary, Bruno Fischer give us one that changes a man's home life into a grim, voluted nightmare.

Hang on for Cabeb Dawson's ride.