Saturday, October 16, 2010

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block

Eight Million Ways To Die by Lawrence Block
Arbor House Publishing
Hardcover edition
, Copyright 1982

My life was a ice floe that had broken up at sea, with different chucks floating off in different directions. Nothing was ever going to come together, in this case or out of it. Everything was senseless, pointless, and hopeless.

This is the fifth novel in the Matthew Scudder series and it's been hailed as the one that propelled the character and the series into wide notability. But if you read the previous novel, A Stab in the Dark, you could see it started there. In Eight Million Ways to Die, the "unlicensed" NYC PI does really breakout and Lawrence Block gives us one of the best detective mystery novels that was published in the 1980s.

As he sits in Jimmy Armstrong's, his favorite watering hole, ex-New York cop Matthew Scudder doesn't take every case that walks through the door. He picks and chooses, and it has to "feel right." The money feels right when call-girl Kim Dakkinen hires Scudder to talk to her pimp about freeing her from his stable. After finally locating the elusive pimp that goes by the street name Chance, Scudder finds that this case is easy money because Chance has no problem letting Kim go. For him, there are girls getting off the bus every day in NYC that he can hustle. But when Kim Dakkinen is found brutally slaughtered in a hotel room the next day, all fingers point to Chance. Though still a suspect, he has an air-tight alibi and with the police lose interest in solving a prostitute's death, Chance wants Scudder to investigate into her murder.

There is really two stories (or three) going on in Eight Million Ways to Die. One of course is the mystery surrounding why Kim Dakkinen was butchered and who did it. Block actually gives us all the clues, but we miss them because we are absorbed by the second storyline in the novel, and that is Matthew Scudder's battle with alcoholism. On the wagon and falling off it, the day to day punishment to stay sober bleeds through the pages towards the reader. It's remarkably well done. Down church basements to sit in the back at AA meetings and never participating, Scudder is really alone fighting off this demon that has plagued him. It's powerfully written and I found it more interesting than the fine whodunit plot in the novel. Another thing Block excelled on was creating a NYC where the streets are gray, dismal and violent. He throws this at us by having Scudder reading from the papers or talking with a befriended cop about the amount of relentless murders that are occurring in the City. And this bleak atmosphere goes directly in parallel with the inner conflicts tormenting Matthew Scudder's life. Scudder finds himself not immune to this violence also. There is an outstanding scene where he is pushed into a dark alley, mugged, and has to battle with his attacker. After all he is one of the eight million living in New York City.

All I wanted was an excuse to walk through the door of that bucket of blood and put my foot upon the brass rail. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the place, and in an instant I was recalling everything about it, the smells of the booze and stale beer and urine, that dank tavern smell that welcomes you home.

I wasn't sure is I was rooting for Matthew Scudder in this one or feeling sorry for him. I do know that when I first read this novel it played with my emotions. I never read anything like this in a PI novel before. The novel is filled with well developed secondary characters, the best being the pimp Chance and his small harem of prostitutes. Add Matthew Scudder and great storytelling, and Eight Million Ways to Die becomes a monumental PI novel. It is that.

If you are going to read just one Matthew Scudder novel, this is the one you want to read. But beware, I guarantee after this one you will want to read more.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mackenna's Gold by Will Henry

Mackenna's Gold by Will Henry
Copyright 1963

For comforting an old Apache during his last dying hours, prospector Glen Mackenna is bestowed with the secret location of the Lost Canyon of Gold. Called Sno-ta-hay by the Apache, the canyon is a sacred place where mass amounts of gold are protected by ancient spirits. After memorizing the map even though he believes this is just a fable, Mackenna is then captured by the ugly renegade half-breed Pelon Lopez and his band of outlaw Indians. Pelon wants Mackenna to lead them to Sno-ta-hay and to persuade him to do so he holds a white girl hostage. Well, the adventure begins and along the way there are plenty of killings, a cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers hunting them down, forced alliances with nasty villains, and the truth about the legend of the Lost Adams Diggings at the Canyon of Gold.

What might lie ahead for his companions, he could not begin to imagine. What lay ahead for himself, he did not dare to think about. For the moment, only one thing was to be regarded as absolute certain: in such a company of human animals as that with whom he now loped through the desert night, death was no farther away than the nearest member of the pack.

Written by Will Henry (Henry Wilson Allen) in 1963, Mackenna’s Gold packs quite a bit of action in an evenly-paced Western novel. Though not a masterpiece, the plot that is spun around the quest for the gold is very good. In reality, there is a legend of the Lost Adams Diggings (a man named Adams boasted of finding the gold-filled canyon in 1864) and even today fanatics search for this legendary lost canyon. The Adams tale is the driving force in Mackenna’s Gold. And when you mix in the ragtag pursuit for the gold, Will Henry spins a decent Western story here. But I did have a few problems with the novel, most of them revolve around the characters. Mackenna comes off like a cream puff, he toughens up at the end but his image is cast early in the story. The hostage white girl is never really developed by Will Henry and only seems to be in the story as an excuse to force Mackenna to show the renegades the way. And Pelon is a total enigma. At times he is a vile, violent, ignorant killer and then later he acts almost Shakespearean as he rants to Mackenna about compassion and fate. It’s the pure-blood Native American characters in the story that captivate the reader. Pelon’s mother and sister, who are along on the quest, are the most intriguing of the group. Henry details their past and they play important roles in the outcome of the story. Another Indian called Hachita, who shows compassion towards Mackenna, extends to the reader a sense of the lost wonders of the American Indian way of life. Like a heart that has been touched by the sound of the water and the songbirds in the canyons, Hachita portrays a stature of honesty and morality when compared to all the other characters in the novel. I really liked the Hachita and Henry did a good job with the character.

Overall, I liked “Mackenna’s Gold.” Will Henry always has something going on in the story. The book has an underlying theme about the craze for gold and the consequences of tampering with sacred legend. And the history surrounding the Lost Adams Diggings is so damn interesting, it keeps the reader glued to the pages.

Not perfect, but it still is a good Western adventure.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Body Lovers by Mickey Spillane

The Body Lovers by Mickey Spillane
Signet P3221
Copyright 1967

Spillane's The Body Lovers was written when Mike Hammer came out for round two. Round one being the six explosive Hammer novels from 1947-1952. In the 60s, the toughest fictional PI reappeared in five more novels. Some say they fall a step behind when compared to the first ones, but to me The Girl Hunters (1962) and The Twisted Thing (1966) didn't miss a beat. As for The Body Lovers, I will agree that it's not even near being one of top novels that feature Mike Hammer. But it still is a Mickey Spillane novel, and it still has the violently vindictive Mike Hammer reeling out his own ways of justice, and it still is entertaining as hell.

But it wasn't her he was seeing. It was me he was watching. I was one of his own kind. I couldn't be faked out and wasn't leashed by the proprieties of society. I could lash out and kill as fast as he could and of all the people in the room, I was the potential threat. I knew what he felt because I felt the same way myself.

Bang page one, Hammer stumbles upon a body of a beautiful girl that was whipped to death. From his cop buddy Capt. Pat Chambers, he finds out that other girls have been found tortured and killed. The only lead is that all were found wearing exotic negligee. Mike stays out of this one, even though most of the press and the public believes otherwise. But not for long, because a crook that Hammer sent to the slammer hears about the murders and hires Mike to locate his missing sister. The sister knew the dead girls and might be next. Quickly Hammer is setup for a hit, botched of course with him blasting the hood to kingdom come. The trail leads to the high fashion world and shady UN delegates. And when Velda, Hammer's full-time secretary and part-time associate, gets caught in the action and Mike discovers her missing, not only does he pulled back his snarly grin, the hammer on the .45 gets cocked and he is ready to release his rage.

A little less hard than you'll find in other Hammer novels. But when I comes, it comes. The best by far is when Hammer is looking for a pimp named Lorenzo Jones. He locates Roberta, one of Jones' whores. Roberta agrees to tell him where Jones is hiding but on one condition, Hammer must take her along to watch him kick the crap out the pimp. It's Spillane at his best. In The Body Lovers, Hammer comes off a bit older. He even realizes it. At one point he talks about dissection thinking and missed clues in this head, "Little voices, I thought. They were saying something, but were too far away to be heard. It wasn't like the old days any more. I could think faster then." But when he's ready to cut down the evil that has spread throughout the city, our revenge seeking white knight doesn't fail the reader.

This one has all that makes Mike Hammer novels a fun read. Including Hammer's (and Spillane's) views about commies, diplomatic immunity, bleeding-heart liberals creating loopholes in the justice system-they are all here. The reader is never disappointed. You can't go wrong picking up a Mickey Spillane novel. He was an American icon and created one of the most memorable private detectives in fiction.

Every now and then you have to get your Mike Hammer fix.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Deep End by Owen Dudley

The Deep End by Owen Dudley
ACE D-195
Copyright 1956

But you don't shoot cops. That's the end, if you do. The real deep end.

Pete Summer lost his memory from a plane crash over Mexican waters. As his memory returns, he decides to hide out in a quiet Mexican town for a year. And for good reason. Back home in California they believe he killed the man that he was flying to South America on a mineral deal. Everyone thinks Pete Summer is dead until a visitor arrives bringing back bad memories. He learns that his gorgeous wife is now married to an ex-gangster. Not only does Pete miss his wife, he is totally obsessed with her. So he decides to head back home to reclaim his wife. And that may not be such a great idea.

His face hardened. "Let's not kid ourself. You've got a beautiful pan hooked onto a terrific body. But there's nothing behind the face. You just do what I tell you and keep your mouth shut."

Owen Dudley is just one pseudonym that author Dudley Dean McGaughey used. He wrote plenty of novels and short stories, and Westerns fill the bulk of his work. But he did churn out crime mysteries and even some movie novelizations. (my favorite is End of the World for the 1962 Ray Milland film Panic in Year Zero!) He's a darn good storyteller and his early Gold Medal Westerns are some the best that they published. As for The Deep End, it's not the best Dudley Dean book that I've read, but it has a interesting little plot going on.

Pete Summers is a veteran of two wars,WWII and Korea, and that helped mold him into a tough hombre. But the odds are stacked against him from the start. Once word gets out that he is alive and in town, just about everyone is out to get him. Pete's brother-in-law has positioned himself to benefit having Pete presumed dead. Pete's arrival has jeopardize that. His wife's new husband has three thugs hanging around, ready to get their hands on Pete. And then he discovers that the man who bought his old ranch has been bedding his wife for years. After being left for dead in an old sewer hole, Pete really sets out to clear his name from the murder charge and even it up against those who wronged him.

It's a story that has been told before, it even includes that young girl character who had a crush on Pete growing up and is willing to help him through his quest. I liked the Mexican tie-in and having an ex-gangster as his wife's new husband. There a bit about the old guy having trouble satisfying his wife and resorting to hormone ejections. (No Viagra in the 1950s fellas!) It's a hardboiled read and it has plenty of action, but there are really no surprises in the end. But that doesn't make it one that should be written off. Even though the cops and others are gunning for Pete, it really isn't a "man on the run" novel. Pete seems free to roam about as he uncovers secrets and lies from the past, many involving his wife who was everything to him. The novel zips along at a fast clip, and it has to because these ACE paperback novels rarely get beyond 150 pages. Overall a fairly decent job.

What is real good about this ACE Double paperback is the flip novel, The Quaking Widow by Robert Colby. Colby never got the fame and recognition that he deserved. Besides his outstanding Gold Medal paperbacks and his fine short stories, he had four novels published by ACE. I've read them all and The Quaking Widow is the best of the four.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Day Never Came by Steve Fisher

Day Never Came by Steve Fisher
Copyright 1938
Short Story in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine,
Oct. 1953

He had no fear. If he died, then he died, and that would be that. But as long as he lived, he was looking out for himself. He took his living and his world without the hurrah of emotion.

Steve Fisher packs a lot in the pages of this short psychological thriller. Day Never Came is a bleak and dark story of a psychotic killer who gets a little too clever for his own good.

Set in prewar Shanghai as the Japanese are bombing the city, a isolated American Marine station waits for orders with a handful of jailed service members awaiting court-martial. Most involve petty stuff, but the Navy prisoner called Clark is in for espionage and as for moral principles, he has none. There is a witness out in the city and his only hope is to get to her before the trial. Clark plans and executes an escape which involves secretly murdering a guard. Dodging bombs he makes his way to the girl's apartment. The kicker is that the girl loves him, but that's a one way street for Clark and he ends up strangling her to keep her from testifying. Without being seen, Clark quitely sneaks back into the Marine brig and thinks he devised a solid alibi. Of course you can be a little too clever, and Clark surely is ... as we waits in his cell.

Readers of Steve Fisher's work know that he was a highly influential author in his day. Pulp, noir, and lives lost in the seedy underworld - his novels and stories are filled with a gritty, raw, (and yes, a romantic) edge on them. Day Never Came has all those. Unseen love, which Clark doesn't realize until it's too late. Madness, as he kills without remorse to save his neck. And pain, sadness, and a lost chance-as he sits in his locked cell at the end. For a short story it's very atmospheric and "the nasty's" what go around in Clark's head are oddly appealing. For me this short story came up as the best of the bunch in this fine 1953 edition of EQMM.

But that is not to say that the others weren't very good. Fredric Brown's 4 pager titled, Cry Silence is a masterfully written tale that questions, "was it murder or was it not." Which lines in parallel to the old question, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" Another enjoyable yarn is the retired cop story Before The Act. Thomas Walsh wrote solid cop mystery novels (some involve rogue cops) and after reading The Night Watch and Nightmare in Manhattan, I realized I'd stumbled on lost treasures. I enjoy his storytelling and when I come across an anthology with a short story of his in it, I'll but it. And that was the reason I bought this EQMM years ago.

Here are the stories in this October 1953 edition:

High Court by Thomas Kyd
Back In Five Years by Michael Gilbert
The Stroke Of Thirteen by Lillian de la Torre
Before The Act by Thomas Walsh
Laugh It Off by Charlotte Armstrong
Day Never Came by Steve Fisher
Cry Silence by Fredric Brown
A Wish For A Cigar by Will Scott
Ms. In The Safe by Frank Swinnerton
Night Of The Execution by Faith Baldwin
Helpless Victim by C.G. Lumbard
The World Series Murder by Rex Stout

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Kill Quick or Die by Stuart Jason

Kill Quick or Die by Stuart Jason
(The Butcher #1)
Pinnacle Books 5th ed.
Copyright 1971

"Like I said before," Bucher told him. "With Syndicate scum it's either kill quick or die."

Thirty seven year old "Butcher" Bucher has moved up quick in the Syndicate. With his sharp wits, fast reflexes, and concrete willpower-Bucher was in charge of the whole East Coast Division. But now he is out and quitting doesn't sit too well with the Big Boys. The Syndicate puts an one hundred thousand dollar "death tag" on his head, but Bucher can handle anything they throw at him. Enter the U.S. Government who sees value in a man who possesses Bucher's intimate knowledge of Organized Crime. They offer him a job working as an agent for a covert group called "White Hat." Bucher accepts, he wants to atone for some of the things he did in his grisly past. But he has one condition, he gets to play it by his own rules. And his rules are: There are no rules, just violence and extreme street vengeance for anyone who gets in his way.

Kill Quick or Die is the first paperback in the Butcher series. And for me, these male testosterone adventure series are "hit or miss." I call this one a "hit." Keep in mind you can't take them too seriously and they have as much believability as those conspiracy wackos who still claim that the Apollo moon landings were staged. The story starts in Atlanta where Bucher is hunting down a Chinese scientist who is attempting to sell his secret plans for a deadly weapon. But this is just a minor event in the plot because what it really is about is having Bucher ruthlessly (no mercy is spared) eliminate members of the Mafia that cross his path. From Atlanta to Cairo the trail always ends with Bucher killing Syndicate hoods and hitmen. None are a match for "The Butcher." He stumbles upon a lucrative business the Mafia has that involves smuggling Arabs into the USA. With the price tag on his head and him nosing around in the Mideast, the Boys go all out to savagely annihilate Bucher. Leaving more dead behind, Bucher is off to Israel and back to Cairo after witnessing the horrifying results of the torture and crucifixion of his beautiful Arab girlfriend Tzsenya. The blood is really boiling now, as he flies back to Atlanta to seek and brutally destroy the head of this Mafioso operation.

Again Bucher stepped back to view his handiwork. This time he was more satisfied. The big Arab's face was warped out of shape by the broken jaw, his left ear was missing, his nose was a pulpy mess of split cartilage and chopped bone. Shreds of mangled flesh, recently his brows, hung down over his eyes and blood streamed from his face wherever the brass knucks had connected. Bucher decided only one thing more was needed. He stepped forward, crashed the knucks of his right fist into the blinded Ahmed's mouth. Teeth and splinters of teeth erupted from the mouth when Bucher jerked free his fist.

Like I said, you don't read these for a credible portrayal of an undercover agent or a man wanting to free himself of his past involvement with organized crime. This is about entertainment and fun. And Kill Quick or Die does deliver on those. The writing style is elementary and it's basically a step-by-step plot here. But the author made Bucher an irrefutable character and I was eagerly looking forward to what happens next in the story. Overall not bad for a paperback found in this for-men-only vengeance genre. As for the series, this is the only one that I've read and I have no idea what Butcher paperbacks are the best. But I might read another.

Oh, two things. Bucher has this silly inner "spider sense" that warns him when trouble is afoot. (Something that I wouldn't mind having) He also doesn't seem to have a first name. "The Butcher" is his Mafia handle, but his surname is used most throughout the novel-Bucher. (Like Cher, ahh but not really like her...)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Too Many Girls by Don Tracy

Too Many Girls by Don Tracy
Berkley G-182
Copyright 1934

I had a hell of a headache when I woke up.

So starts this brilliant piece of noir fiction about the exploits of an unprincipled Baltimore newspaper photographer. The actual title (hardcover) is Round Trip, which really sums up the road Eddie Magruder goes down. And maybe the point of the first sentence is to inform the reader that the journey of Eddie was one hell of a headache for him but it's a pleasure for us because this one is special.

I forgot all about everything. For a couple of minutes I was back before I'd met Edith and this girl was a good looking pushover and my hands were inside the neck of her dress and giving her the works.

The novel starts with Eddie being sent out on an assignment to snap some photos from the aftermath of a lynching done by Eastern Longshoremen. Here is where we get our introduction of Eddie -tough youth, on is own as a teen, learning the ways of women from the streets, and consuming plenty of booze. The novel then turns into a flashback as Eddie tells us about the events in his life during the last few years. There is the suicide of a female newspaper reporter that he had final contact with and he seems indifferent about. Eddie has the moral nature of a heel with just a snip of compassion. He is willing to earn a few extra bucks taking "dirty"photos for distributors or receiving special favors from women for taking high quality shots so they can get public notice. But that changes when he meets and marries Edith. Eddie finally finds felicity and worth in his life. But the road he is given to go down, isn't level. In a fistfight, Eddie kills Edith's abusive ex-husband and he has to stand trial for manslaughter. It becomes an emotional ordeal for both Edith and Eddie. But after the acquittal, all the despair ends and there is a return to a life of contentment. Of course, Fate stacks the cards against a guy like Eddie and in the end it really crashes down on him.

I thought to myself that if they sent me up, I still had a hell of a lot to be glad about. I was a bum when I met Edith and now I wasn't a bum. I was up for killing a guy but I'd done it the right way.

Block out the meaningless title the paperback publishers gave this one, Round Trip is a monolithic hardboiled novel. In Eddie Magruder's world, happiness only gets touched, never embraced. He doesn't self-destruct or have ambitions that lead him down a wanton alley, Eddie is stuck and will forever be because guys like him are always destined to be lured up and knocked down. It's just the way life is....

James M. Cain wasn't the only one reshaping raw and gritty noir tales in the 30s. Don Tracy was also right there, he just never got the notoriety that Cain did. A fine example is Round Trip, this tragic novel stands pretty tall with what others were bring to the table at that time. With the exception of Edith's Ex-husband, there are really no evil people in the novel. Most are disillusioned souls lumbering in depression-era Americana and working for a niche in life. With Eddie being swallowed up in all of it. This novel predates Horace McCoy's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and Gresham's Nightmare Alley and Richard Hallas' You Play the Black and the Red Comes Up, and I'd put Round Trip right up there with them.

A memorable novel. I won't forget this one.
It's one of the best that I've read.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Long Night by Ovid Demaris

The Long Night by Ovid Demaris
Avon T-372

Copyright 1959

Their Buick was at least five years old. These boys weren't doing so well. That's the first place the hood spends his loot. A big flashy car. Next on the list is the big sparkler on the little pinkie. These characters had neither.

He's an ex-Marine who went through hell on Tawara. Then for 9 years he was a LAPD Vice cop until he got kicked out after beating up a hood who he caught in his ex-wife's bed. The last 4 years he's been a P.I., who specializes in locating delinquent debtors and squeezing them to pay up. When it comes to women, he's a "legs and buttocks" man and he doesn't mind getting his "biological needs" from a $5 whore or a classy pickup in a bar. His name is Vince Slader and he's on a hard case, getting little sleep, that involves clearing himself from a murder rap.

The Long Night has a unique start. Slader is in front of a Senate Crime Committee hearing, sassing it up against two powerful senators. It seems that the private eyes in LA have been getting a bit out of control and Slader is the committee's poster boy. He leaves the hearings with warnings that they will be watching him and he better keep his nose clean. Like that's going to happen. Slader is hired by a scumbag casino owner to find a guy called Ben Russell. Russell has a $28,000 gambling debt and Slader gets a percentage if Russell pays up. Russell also has a young wife who has plans of her own, and those include a life insurance scam. Of course P.I. Vince Slader gets caught in it. He first gets setup to be murdered and burned to a crisp in Russell's car, the idea is that the authorities will believe he was Russell. Slader gets banged up pretty bad, but survives. Next he walks in on Ben Russell's actual murder and here is where he gets pegged as the murderer. Along with Mrs. Russell's motives to get her husband's life insurance money, elements of the local crime organization have an interest in this case. So besides the Senate Committee, Slader has thugs and cops after him now.

As for a plot, there is really no new ground breaking in this one. It's your typical P.I. being played for a patsy story. But that's OK, it still was an enjoyable read. The Senate Committee angle in the story was different and refreshing. Slader has an ex-con as an assistant called Emilio Caruso, who he kiddingly refers to as his "little wop." I liked the guy, unfortunately he doesn't make it through to the end of the novel. There is a good dose of explosive (and descriptive) gunplay in The Long Night. One of the best takes place in the desert outside of Las Vegas, with Slader having some fun with two hired killers. Slader plays the ladies throughout the story and even with his rough mug, they are attracted to him. He even gets serious with a redhead who helps him survive in the end.

Reading the The Long Night, I was wondering if Ovid Demaris was trying to make a Mickey Spillane type of novel here. It's close, but the narrative is less hardboiled and the ending fell a little flat. As for P.I. Vince Slader, I liked him. And with more appearances in novels and a little more development, he could of had a future. The Long Night is a good P.I. crime mystery, and it came darn close to being a very good one. As Maxwell Smart said, "Missed it by that much."

Here is a taste of some lines that Slader spouts about the fairer sex:

I turned and looked her over closely. Her looks were better than average for a barfly, but nothing to get worked up over. She was stacked, and dressed to prove it. I ignored the cleavage. There was nothing there I hadn't seen before.

She led me into the room, and the calves pumped and the buttocks shook. I didn't know where to look.

There are only two approaches to women - sweet and tough. And ninety percent of the time the tough will get you farther, quicker than sweet.

I have never felt much compunction about sex anyway. Women have been conveniently relegated to the role of machines for fornication. This is a hard-boiled attitude, and, like all such attitudes, it's microscopic and bigoted.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gator Kill by Bill Crider

Gator Kill by Bill Crider
Walker Publishing
Copyright 1992

“You don’t look like much of anything,” he said, “except maybe an out-of-work housepainter.”

Well, that may not be true. Truman Smith does paint houses to earn a few extra bucks, but he will put to use his past experiences as a detective to perform investigations for a friend in need. In the 90s, Bill Crider wrote five novels featuring the Galveston-based PI Truman Smith. And I found him as one of the most realistic private eyes that came through the pages of mystery crime fiction in the decade of the 90s. Bill Crider portrays Truman Smith as a loner and a bit of an introvert, add this to the depth-lined cases he gets himself involved in, and the results are an outstanding PI series that snares the reader into some capricious surroundings throughout Southeast Texas. My favorite is the second "Tru" novel, Gator Kill. (though I recommend starting with the first, Dead on the Island) I read Gator Kill for the third time this week and I'm glad I did, because reading a Truman Smith mystery is like visiting an old friend.

There were actually two doorways, one leading to a kitchen and one into a bedroom. The bedroom was where I looked.
That's where the dead woman was. She was wearing a dress that seemed obviously homemade and about two sizes too big. It was some kind of blue material, but
it was stained red in the front by blood. There was a small pool of blood beneath her. Most of it had soaked into the floor, staining it black. She looked fail and helpless in death.

Fred Benton is a tough old cuss and when someone kills and skins an alligator on his land, he’s going to do something about it. Coming off a missing person case that got his name in the news, part-time private investigator Truman Smith leaves Galveston Island to head over to Fred’s marsh property and have a look-see. Though not a glamorous case, to Fred killing the gator is murder and Tru agrees to investigate into who killed it. Of course there is more at work here than a rotting alligator. It first looks like Fred is being harassed and there are rumors that the State will be gobbling up surrounding lands. Then Tru steps into a double homicide and before you know it he becomes the target. Not only is he being shot at, but a tinted-windowed monster 4X4 is out hunting him down at night. But he understands this is the consequences of sticking your nose where people don’t want it. And it all comes to a head one night in a creepy, mosquito-infested swamp, when Fred and Tru drive out to investigate suspicious activities. An unexpected fatal meeting takes place and it's here where Tru puts the pieces of all the mysteries together. But it may be too late for him and Fred, as the eyes of the gators gaze upon them.

There’s enough plot twists in this one to keep the reader tightly gripping onto the book. Bill Crider has us going down one road and then he throws the curve. And later he does it again! The novel is filled with an assortment of colorful characters. My favorite is Fred Benton, who is sort of a sidekick in Gator Kill. A man in his 70s who is not afraid to provoke a fight, smokes unfiltered Camels, and has the stamina of a 40 year old. Heck, growing up I remember a guy just like that. There are characters throughout Gator Kill that we can relate to because we have run across types like them in our lifetime. The history behind Truman Smith is so damn intriguing, that we crave for more on him. A man that shuns people, he continues to be haunted by his inability to locate his missing sister. (there's more detail on this in Dead on the Island) When her murdered remains are found, he shoulders the blame and this adds to his unsocial-like state. All of this enhances the likable P.I.

This is the way I like my private detective novels. A whodunit that is packed with action, an ending that is just as much horror as it is mystery suspense, and an eerie atmosphere where the muggy nights are filled with rifle shots, mosquitoes, and mean gators lurking in the swamps.
Your shirt will be sticking to you when you read this one.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Murder Doll by Milton K. Ozaki

Murder Doll by Milton K. Ozaki
Berkley Diamond D2016
Copyright 1952

She fluttered mascaraed eyelashes and laid a hand on my arm. "Has anyone ever told you you're handsome?"
"Sure," I said, "my mother. What's your name, baby?"

Novels containing characters that deliver a hardboiled narrative have always been a favorite of mine. And Milton Ozaki's Chicago P.I. Carl Good definitely fits that bill. Good describes himself as having "features like a fistful of dough and carrying the beginning of a paunch." He then adds in his favor are height and broad shoulders. In WWII, Carl Good was a paratrooper who saw plenty of action and did his share of killing. He's an impetuous guy who likes Scotch and girls, and fancies himself as a rough, tough guy in a fight. He knows the town and has plenty of connections, which is a big benefit for a man in his line of work.

Right out of the gates, Carl Good is trying to locate the missing Orville Pederson. Hired by his wife, Pederson has been gone for a few weeks and left her without any spending cash. Good finds Pederson's plaything in a Chicago B-girl joint, but in a few minutes she is dead after taking a poisoned drink intended for Good. He learns that Pederson is connected to the Chicago mob and performs real estate deals for them. And through his many street contacts, Good finds out the the heat has been turn up and this is making things difficult for mob operations. It's causing friction in the ranks that is leaving an opportunity for a Philadelphia kingpin to elbow in. Pisano, the standing boss, offers Good $25,000 to find the identity of the person the Philadelphia boys have sent to orchestrate the takeover. All they know is that it is a woman and she's a looker. Carl Good isn't one to let a financial opportunity go to waste, he adds that job to his plate because this is "real money." Later he realizes that both cases are interconnected and as usual in these PI plots, Good is smack dab in the middle of both of them.

As I said, I'm a sucker for hardboiled narrative and Murder Doll has some of the best I've read in a while. Here are a few that I liked:

"She's just a hooker," I insisted flatly. "She hasn't got enough brains to file her toenails."

I went up the side of a pile of two-by-fours like a scared cat and flattened myself on the rough timber like juice on a platter.

She came to me and lifted herself onto my lap. One arm went around my neck and her mouth searched for mine. I felt like spitting after the kiss, but I didn't.

As for the storyline, the majority of the time you can tell what is going to happen. But there are a few surprises. One is when an enraged Good chokes a thug to death after failing to make the guy talk. Later Good finds out that the thug had his tongue cut out. This didn't seemed to bother the PI at all. There's also a remarkable scene when Good is being hunted down in a lumber yard. In his pocket he happens to have a grenade that he took off a bobby-trap that was setup for him. Removing the firing pin with his teeth and lobbing it at his pursuers makes a satisfying payback. A couple of things come off silly in the plot. One is having a woman organizing the takeover of the deep-rooted Chicago vice organization. The other is a wild scene at a Nudist park where Carl Good is strutting his stuff trying to get the lowdown on how the woman is luring men away from Pisano's organization. And if you can swallow these, you'll find a good crime mystery in your hands. Milton Ozaki has Carl Good operating in the streets of Chicago where the surroundings are dark and grimy. Good isn't your compassionate P.I. and he definitely isn't in the game to be morally upright. He does it for the money and it also is a good occupation for him to release an inborn fury onto the bad guys. I liked the guy and will dig out a few more of his paperbacks. Chicago's Carl Good is a hard-headed and conniving private detective, who should have gotten more literary recognition.

This Berkley paperback edition was actually published in 1959. Murder Doll first appeared in the 1952 Phantom Books paperback authored under the name Robert O. Saber, a pseudonym used by Milton Ozaki.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Harry O by Lee Hays

Harry O by Lee Hays
Popular Library 445-00269-125
Copyright 1975

She smelled musty. Just as her clothes were different, so was her scent. Before she had been scrubbed, a little girl; now she was a woman of the world.

This paperback is the first of two tie-in novels that Lee Hays wrote for the popular 70s Private Detective TV show. For two seasons from 1974-1976, David Janssen portrayed the pensioned ex-cop living on the beaches of the West Coast. The series has been hailed as one of the best P.I. shows ever on television. No argument here, it's always been my favorite (especially the second season episodes) and when I had a chance to pickup these tie-ins, I had to have them.

The novel starts similar to the TV episodes, with Harry's telephone ring and him mulling over if it is worth picking up. We get a brief bio of Harry Orwell in the beginning; the painful bullet in the back which resulted in his early retirement from San Diego PD, why he became a P.I., working on The Answer -his boat that will never taste water, taking the bus because his heap is in the shop, and of course his views around the existence of telephones. A woman named Mary Alice Kimberly believes her husband is out to kill her because she won't give him a divorce. The way she tells it there is a rich land deal going down in Mexico and if she is divorced the husband gets all the profits. For Harry she becomes difficult to keep tabs on and comes off as an enigma. Harry discovers that besides her husband, there are others out there looking for Mrs. Kimberly. And they may not be honest citizen types. The following day he finds Mary Alice in her husband's office with a dead P.I. on the floor. Even though Harry lightly has fallen for her, he quickly realizes she's a bit eccentric. When the dead P.I.'s stripper wife is found shot in the head inside Harry's beach home, the police bring Orwell in for questioning. They can't get nothing to stick, but warn Orwell to stay clear of the investigation. But he can't, even being odd the girl concerns Harry and now that she can't be located, he sets out to find out what this is all about.

It's about the smuggling of heroin across the Mexican border. Everyone involved is dirty. Included in the cast is a Sydney Greenstreet type befittingly named Sydney Jerome, who has mannerisms right out of The Maltese Falcon. There is a pint-sized gunsel called Wylie who drops Harry a couple of times. And a Mexican connection named Ramirez who seems to be playing both sides of the street. (or is being used by both sides) Orwell is on the hook for all of the murders, there are three total. Mary Alice finally calls him and together they head back to Tijuana to meet Sydney Jerome for a "business" transaction. It's on the return trip that Harry figures the deal out and then knows who is the cold-blooded killer.

Thinking of Ramirez reminded me that he warned me to take a gun. I didn't tell him that I never carry one. I almost went to the closet and got the one I had when I was on the force, the one wrapped in a towel way in back on the shelf behind an old suitcase. But I didn't, I should have but I didn't.

This "Harry O" paperback is far from being a great crime novel, but as a huge fan of the series I did enjoy it. I would say that the characterization of Harry Orwell in the story is fairly close to the TV one. The spoken narrative on the show is definitely much better. And the book didn't capture that lonely, somber persona that David Janssen was able to deliver. I'll chalk that up as something that is difficult for a tie-in author to do. The writing is straightforward and the plot though interesting, wasn't too difficult to figure out. Even with the similarities of Hammett's Casper Gutman, I would of liked to have seen more of the Sydney Jerome character. He came off as the most colorful of all in the story. All-in-all, it still was a fun quick read for me. If you were a fan of the TV series, I'm sure you would get a kick out of this novel also.

In addition, the series character Lt. Manny Quinlan appears in the novel. He doesn't head up the murder investigations for the SDPD, but he does have a role in the story.

In 1976, Lee Hays wrote the second "Harry O" novel titled: The High Cost of Living. He wrote tie-ins for the TV shows Colombo and the Partridge Family. Lee Hays also authored the novelizations for the 1984 Sergio Leone film, Once Upon a Time in America and the 1974 horror movie, Black Christmas.

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.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Never Come Back by Robert Colby

Never Come Back by Robert Colby
Short Story originally published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, June 1967

With the exception of the ones published by Monarch, I believe I've read all of the novels written by Robert Colby. (including the excellent co-authored Killmaster adventure titled, The Death's Head Conspiracy) I'm always on the lookout for Colby's short stories and when I get my hands on one, I eagerly dig into it.

"Never Come Back" first appeared in the June 1967 AHMM issue and was later added to one of Hitchcock's anthology collections. It's a story about an out of luck loser who has to drive a cab to make a living. Opportunity knocks one day when a fare leaves an attache case in his back seat. Upon returning the case for an assumed reward, he stumbles upon a murder and an alluring dame. The theme in this story is really about obsessive attraction. Jerry Hoagland (the cabbie) continues to seek out the girl and it becomes almost addictive pursuing her. Not for money, but just to see her. But in the end this spirals out of control for Hoagland. Staying away is not an option for him and his obsession has dangerous results.

A powerful short story written by an author that should have received more notoriety. Robert Colby was one of those special authors that besides writing excellent crime/mystery novels, he added an impressive collection of top-notch short stories throughout this career. "Never Come Back" happens to be just one of many that I have stumbled upon. And I'm glad I did.

This "Happiness is a Warm Corpse" Hitchcock collection contains many fine stories. Others that I've enjoyed, "This Day's Evil" by Jonathan Craig - burglary, murder and a hick Sheriff might just allow crime to pay. The author Fletcher Flora has always been an enigma to me because there is so little information about him. But he wrote great short stories and "IQ 184" is one of them. Also included in this issue is Richard Deming's ""Kill, If You Want Me!" This may be Deming's best short work. And an unexpected surprise awaits the reader at the end of by "Once Upon a Bank Floor" by James Holding Jr.

Many good ones by some excellent mystery writers.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Game for Heroes by James Graham (Jack Higgins)

A Game for Heroes by James Graham
Doubleday HB ed., Copyright 1970

Nowadays, when I pick up a Harry Patterson novel, I feel like I'm going home again. Be it under the name of Patterson, Jack Higgins, Hugh Marlowe, or James Graham, the author continually delivers exciting plots with risk venturing characters. In my youth I've read so many of his early thrillers that reading one now I get a bittersweet longing for those days. The excellent "A Game for Heroes" is one of those and it's aptly titled because heroes and heroics fill the novel. But the tale really revolves around one and his name is Owen Morgan. And how can you not love this British Ops Specialist, with his scarred face, wearing a patch to cover his lost eye, the deadly tricks he does with his spring-loaded knife, and the numerous dangerous missions found in his dossier.

"So, now I was ready, the same man who had landed by night, had crouched here on this ledge a century ago. The same and yet not the same. I sniffed the cold air with a conscious pleasure and the same thought went through my mind as it had done before. A good morning-a fine morning to die in. If that was to be the end, then let it be so."

The story takes place during the last days of WWII. After recuperating from his last crippling mission, Colonel Morgan's next assignment is on his home island of St. Pierre in the English Channel. The Germans have occupied the island for five years and are determined to fight until the end regardless of the outcome of the war. Morgan's mission is check out the rumor of a secret sub base on the island that has been causing havoc to the Allies' shipping lanes. Also added to the mission is a commando raiding party lead by an upper-class American Major. This elite group will be planting bombs under ships in the harbor. Things go wrong and capture follows. And then the story turns into a chess play between just about everyone on the isle of St. Pierre, and with Owen Morgan smack in the middle of it all.

After five long years, the locals have a fairly casual relationship with the occupiers. In fact, Morgan old girl has fallen hard for a charismatic German officer who wears the Knight's Cross around his neck. Townsfolk are treated well (almost friendly) by the Germans, but the S.S. has a tight grip on the island. After the failure of Morgan's secret mission, there is the threat of death for all in the commando party. But like the title states, this is a hero story and there are plenty opportunities for Morgan and others. We find heroics during a monstrous sea storm, Locals and German soldiers taking sides against the S.S., pain and understanding within a love triangle, and in the end Morgan bravely facing off against the ruthless S.S. Kommandant.

I ate this one all up, but I do that with most of Higgins' early novels. I'm not a great fan of his recent Sean Dillon bestsellers. Don't get me wrong they are good, but for me nothing beats the early stuff. "A Game for Heroes" has a likable and self operating protagonist in Owen Morgan. A loner, a writer, a passionate man, who can switch into a hired bravo and cut-throat when the situation warrants. The novel is loaded with mesmerizing action sequences. The attempted sea rescue chapters may contain some of Higgins' best work and the novel is worth reading just for those pages. It's all tied into a crafty WWII plot that makes the reader feel like he is with Owen Morgan during his dangerous undertaking. I guess everyone who continues to read the works of Jack Higgins has their favorites, "A Game for Heroes" is definitely near the top of my list. I was thoroughly entertained.

Long live Harry Patterson. The man is a master of high adventure storytelling.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Homicidal Lady by Day Keene

Homicidal Lady by Day Keene
Graphic 87, Copyright 1954

I own and have read quite a few Day Keene novels. I've always loved his work and even now seek out magazines that published one of his short stories. He is one of those authors that will not disappoint the reader and if you're looking of a quick well-written crime/mystery -Keene surely satisfies. Though not one of his best, "Homicidal Lady" still packs quite a punch and contains all that makes Keene's writing so integrating to the reader-A wronged protagonist, conflicting dames, a steamy post-war Florida atmosphere, and a curve or two to keep you flipping the pages.

Talbot looked from the girl on the bed to the pistol in his hand. The lump in his stomach continued to balloon. The stillness in the room bothered him. It was an eerie sensation, this waiting in a dimly lighted room to shoot a man who had been his friend for twenty years.
She wet her lips with her tongue, "Are you frightened, Tod?"

"Not Particularly, " Talbot said. "What's there to killing a man? All you have to do is pull the trigger."

Tod Talbot is the D.A for Sun City and he just sent an innocent man to his death. Shamed and ridiculed, he does the honorable thing and resigns. But of course more problems are in store for Mr. Talbot. And when he is caught with his pants down next to the murdered wife of the man who he prosecuted into the electric chair, this quickly turns into a "man on the run" novel. As always, a girl happens on the scene to help our man in times of trouble and this time it is a local "cracker" girl who has had a crush on Talbot for years. Talbot seems to have some inner conflict with being a "cracker" boy himself, who married above his class. You see, his wife happens to be the town's well-bred rich girl and was the defense attorney for the man that was executed. They are about to be divorced because of the recent trial and this doesn't help Talbot's cause as he is running from the cops. Thanks to the quick thinking by the "cracker" girl, Talbot escapes numerous roadblocks and this helps him buy time to find out what this is all about. He's no dummy, he figures he was setup and now to save his skin he needs the why and by whom.

I'll admit to you that I had this one figured out early. Having read many of Day Keene's novels, you sort of get the flow of his storyline and you can see the pieces falling in line as you read on. But that never mattered to me. The plot holds your interest and it is different enough from the author's other "man on the run" stories, making "Homicidal Lady" an enjoyable ride. I loved this "cracker" demon that Talbot battles within himself and how this plays between him and his divorcing wife. Fairly exciting pace around the hunt for Talbot by the local authorities. Its these fast action pounding chases that attract me to these early novels and Keene was damn good at writing them. (he wrote many) The local girl that helps Talbot grows on the reader and you really get to like her at the end. (in the beginning you have mix feelings about her) I've always liked these Florida small city settings and I'm thankful that so many of these post-war authors settled down there in the 50s to put them on paper for us.

Like I said, "Homicidal Lady" may not be Day Keene's best novel, but that doesn't mean it is not a good one. I liked it and have yet to find anything he has written what was not worth picking up.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley

The Freedom Trap by Desmond Bagley
Fawcett M1789,
Copyright 1971

I have a handful of novels written by Desmond Bagley. Had them for years and never read one. Sometimes I see a captivating cover on a paperback and I end up laying my money on the counter when I'm checking out. And to be honest that's how I assembled a small collection of books from this British author of dangerous thrillers. I was digging through one of my boxes of paperbacks and "The Freedom Trap" caught my eye. (a no miss -with a frogman, exploding boat, and a red bikini) This convinced me to give Mr. Bagley a go and I'm glad I did. It was an unexpected high adventure ride that immediately turned me into a Desmond Bagley fan.

A small army of men rushed us and we were both grabbed and held. There wasn't a damn thing I could do- two of the three men who tackled me were trying to tear my arms off so they could use them as clubs to beat me over the head, and the other was using my stomach as a bass drum and his fists weren't padded as drumsticks are. I sagged and gasped for breath.

Joseph Aloysius Rearden (he rather would forget the Aloysius dub) is summoned from South Africa to perform a job. He's a better-than-average crook that has been in the "nick" before. In London he meets an esoteric man called Mackintosh and his efficient secretary Mrs. Smith. Together they lay out the plan to Rearden. They want him to knock over a postman who is delivering a package of uncut diamonds and immediately pass them over to Mackintosh before the crime becomes known. Rearden will be paid a tidy sum for what he believes will be a quick score. He accepts and it goes off smoothly. The postman takes a sap to the skull, Rearden snatches the package, and then he transfers it to Mackintosh. Well, in a matter of hours the local cops are at Rearden's hotel room and have enough evidence to drag him in. Sticking to his story that he is innocent, Rearden quickly realizes that its a lost cause. He's been setup and all fingers point to one person-Mackintosh. Rearden gets 20 years and becomes a "special" inmate because of the notoriety of the crime. And it is in the "gaol"while serving his time, that this novel takes a major 180 degree turn.

I don't want to reveal to much about this one. I will tell you that it contains a damn clever plot. The twist takes place at almost the half way point in the novel. To be honest, I was expecting something. I knew a little about Desmond Bagley and the type of novels that he wrote. But I expected it earlier in the story and he had me so absorbed in the crime aspect of the plot that he caught me off guard. I really liked that. Wonderful dialogue throughout the novel and I even got to pickup a few British slang terms that I never heard before. Rearden turns out to be an integrity character, as does Mackintosh and Mrs. Smith. Many people turn out to be more than what we are let on to believe, and that includes the minor characters in the story. Bagley seems to have a nack for this and he does it extremely well. A decent amount of action, especially near the end. But it's not overly done. Bagley places it where it is most effective. The strength of "The Freedom Trap" is in its excellent plot and its well-developed characters. If you enjoy the novels of Alistair MacLean and the early works of Jack Higgins, "The Freedom Trap" may be worth getting a hold of.

I discovered that John Huston's 1973 film "The Mackintoch Man" was based on this novel. It stars Paul Newman as Rearden and one of my favorite British actors, Harry Andrews as Mackintosh. It's one of the few Newman films that I have never seen. I'll have to get a hold of the DVD. From the characterization in the novel, I don't see Newman as Rearden. I'll have to see how that works out.