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)