Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Bullet for Cinderella - John D. MacDonald

I do not like to think about the next half hour. He put the gag back in my mouth. He had his strong hands, and he had the small sharp knife, and he had a sadistic knowledge of the nerve ends. From time to time he would stop and wait until I quieted down, then loosen the gag and question me. The pain and humiliation made me weep like a child. Once I fainted. Finally he was satisfied. He had learned how much I thought of Ruth. He had learned that we had to go where the money was hidden by boat. 

Fawcett Gold Medal

This is my second time reading A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald. Many years ago I came across a whole stash of his non-Travis McGee novels in a used bookstore and I bought most of them over the weeks I visited the place. I worked a night shift on the security team for a resort and had plenty of downtime to read. MacDonald's novels kept me company through the quiet hours of the night after the lobby bars had closed and the most of the staff had checked out. I remembered that this one was a particularly good one, but had forgotten pretty much all of the plot. Reading it again was a blast. I put it up there with Soft Touch as a favorite.

The setup is a classic noir opener. Tal Howard (MacDonald had a knack for coming up with unique names) comes to the town of Hillston on a mission to find a hidden stash of $60,000 in stolen loot. He learns about the hidden money from his Army pal, Timmy Warden, who admitted to embezzling the money from his brother's lumber company back before the war. Howard and Warden were fellow P.O.W's in North Korea. It's during their shared time in the POW camp that Warden confesses to Howard that he'd stolen from his own brother at the urging of his brother's wife. Warden hopes to make it back home and make amends with his brother and return the money. Unfortunately, Warden succumbs to a sickness and dies in the camp. Feverish, dying and remorseful, he tells Howard someone named Cindy knows where the money would be hidden. Only Cindy would know.

Howard returns home from the war with a bad case of PTSD and memories of Warden's confession. He loses his job, loses his girlfriend, and loses any sense of purpose in life. He figures that if he could find the money Warden stole, he can make a new start. But first, he's got to find the mysterious Cindy.

But things aren't going to be so easy for our hero, Tal Howard. He's not the only one who got word about the $60 grand hidden somewhere in Hillston. Turns out, another fellow P.O.W. survivor named Earl Fitzmartin has been a few steps ahead of him. Fitzmartin is one of those classic John D. MacDonald sociopaths that he's so good at creating. Think of Cape Fear and Max Cady (or the movie versions played by Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro) and you got a good idea of the type of bad guy Fitzmartin is. Torture, rape, theft, murder, it doesn't matter to Fitzmartin what he has to do to get what he wants. And he wants that money.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this novel. It's from 1955 and you have the typical MacDonald observations on society, now read from a historical perspective. Reading it in 2017 you realize how little things have changed in human nature and our "modern" fears of the breakdown of society. I'm pretty sure it's still in print, since every few years we see reprints of MacDonald's Travis McGee novels in bookstores.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Moment of Power - Burt Hirschfeld

An amplified rock group blared out its charged sound in the dining room. The floor had been cleared and was alive with movement as the Ambassadors and Secretaries, businessmen and ladies of no visible means, Cabinet members and their wives, jerked and twisted, hopped and swayed, eyes fixed in space, faces grim and concentrated. 

Avon, December 1971
I really had no clue regarding the plot of this potboiler by Burt Hirschfeld, published back in 1971. The blurb on the back of the  novel indicates political intrigue in Washington DC, but not much else beyond that. I assumed that it might be a literary soap opera along the likes of Aspen or Acapulco only set among the political climate of the nation's capital. Instead I got a strange novel that, given today's political turmoil and dysfunction, seems oddly topical in spite of being published 40-some years ago.

In Moment of Power, we have a nation that's capable of sending a manned mission to Mars while it has yet to legalize abortion. References to Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs are made, as well as the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. I don't think Nixon is mentioned at all. So the reader is placed in a time that seems contemporary as to the year the book was published, yet there is a sabotaged manned mission to Mars that kicks off the plot. Mini-skirts and thin ties are the fashion, Madison Avenue mores dictate the trends and martinis are consumed with the same frequency as double scotches. An illegal abortion figures heavily as a side plot to the the turmoil of the main story. Affairs are pursued, women are not equal to men in terms of careers and power, a Press Secretary dates a woman of 23, an aging intellectual pursues young girls with abandon, and a President of the United States just might be an impostor placed by a foreign power.

And that is the real plot of this novel. It could have been marketed as a novel of espionage, but instead of going full-board espionage, Hirschfeld chooses to fill the pages with hook-ups and sex and flashbacks interspersed with the growing suspicion, and ultimately paranoid fear, that President of the United States, Gunther Harrison, is indeed a foreign agent impostor who has somehow taken the place of the real Gunther Harrison. This suspicion eventually consumes our main characters; Press Secretary Guy Pompey and Secretary of Defense Ralph Jacobs. Their problem is how should they deal with a man whom everyone believes is the real POTUS while they're convinced otherwise.

I'd hate to ruin any of the plot by revealing what happens in its 450 pages. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Burt Hirschfeld is a master at hooking the reader into following a variety of characters as they maneuver their way through intrigue, honor and deceit. I kept wondering how Hirschfeld would pull off the big reveal of the novel and ultimately I was not disappointed.

This one is a whole heaping dose of good old fashioned fun. With all the crap that's being dumped upon us in today's toxic (insane!) political world, this novel proved to be a somewhat pleasant diversion. If you come across a used copy of it somewhere go ahead and grab it. Maybe you can get lucky and read it on the beaches of Acapulco while the shit hits the fan here in the states.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Case of the Glamorous Ghost - Erle Stanley Gardner

"What actually did happen," Drake said, "Is that your client killed Hepner. She got jealous because he started two-timing her and she shot him. Why the hell can't she be normal? Why can't she get on the witness stand, cross her legs, show the jury a lot of cheesecake and tell about that night when Douglass taunted her with the fact that he had betrayed her virtue and wasn't going to do anything about it, how she thought she could scare him into marrying her if she took the gun from her purse, intending just to frighten him, and then he taunted her some more and all of a sudden everything went black. And then the next thing she remembers is his body inert and silent in death. And so she lost her mind and went tearing around in the moonlight, putting on the dance of the seven veils." 

TV Episode, Feb 3, 1962
I'm friends with a married couple who claim to have seen every Perry Mason episode there is. They don't have cable TV or satellite, nor do they stream their TV from any of the various streaming services. They don't even have cell phones that text, which gives you an idea how old-school they are. Over the years they've taped Perry Mason episodes from MeTV and have stack episodes up so they can watch them at their leisure. The one thing they've noticed, so they tell me, is that no matter where Perry Mason might be, he can somehow always be reached by telephone. One time he was driving past a gate guard who stopped to tell him he was wanted on the phone. Other times it's in restaurants, cafes, or gas stations. If someone needs to reach Mason, they seem to have a sixth sense on exactly where he'll be and what phone number is nearest to him.

It's probably just a goofy inside joke the script writers had to keep themselves amused. I haven't seen that many episodes, so I can't vouch for the observation. The only odd thing I've ever noticed on a TV show was that on The People's Court, court reporter Doug LLewelyn always had the same tie. Or it seemed that way to me at the time. But I only had one tie then myself, so there you go.

The Case of the Glamorous Ghost is one of the more entertaining novels I've read in the Mason series. They're all entertaining, but I enjoyed this one a lot because it moved at a good clip without ever going off the rails into confusion like some of the other Mason plots can do. I've been in a summer reading slump, or funk, and have had a hard time getting into many of the books I've started. I'm halfway through a biography of John Adams that I started back in June. Maybe I'll finish it this year. The Glamorous Ghost and a PD James novel is pretty much all I've managed to complete in the past month. Maybe it's the heat. Who knows?

Anyway, this post really hasn't provided much detail of the book, or the TV episode pictured above. I think Paul Drake's assessment of the case covered it better than I could. I'll add that Della Street goes "undercover" as a honeytrap of sorts, and that the plot includes not just murder, but gem smuggling on the side. And Hamilton Burger is licking his chops a lot in this one too. It's a good one.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blood Moon - Frank Castle

Jake Reese had suddenly reappeared on the creek's south bank, sitting on his horse there, silhouetted, his features not quite visible. But his urgent gesture which called for attention was highly visible, with a hurried pumping of his arm which cried danger. He pointed, arm stabbing, violently, and another turn by Burnett showed what could be the beginning of the end for them all. 

Gold Medal Books - February 1960
The plot for this hard-boiled western by Frank Castle is fairly simple. Dain Burnett has tracked down one of the two people that robbed, tortured and killed his younger brother of $15,000. The pair of swindlers were a couple of con artists named Rupert Kinnick and Norma Young. In an attempt to flee to Mexico the two killers, Kinnick and Young, were hiding among a wagon party that was massacred by a band of Comanches, leaving Kinnick dead. Norma Young, however manages to escape only to be "rescued" by Dain Burnett, who has been on their trail. Burnett's mission is to take Norma Young back to the nearest jury and see to it she hangs for the murder of his brother.

Seems like an easy thing to do, right? Well...not so fast. Of course as things must go, Norma Young turns out to be stunningly gorgeous and vulnerable. And she has no idea that the man who rescued her is the brother of the man she's accused of killing. To complicate things further, the Burnett and Norma are in the middle of nowhere with a war party of Indians on their trail. Lucky for them, a certain Jake Reese shows up to aid them in their plight. Jake Reese is one of those frontier types who once lived among the Apaches and knows the ways of the Native American. He has a knack for coming and going like a shadow in the night. But because he's white, his life is in just as much danger as Burnett and Norma's lives.

To add further trouble, our three survivors meet up with a party of union soldiers accompanied by two shady characters named Phil Ainslie and Mose Jobe.

Both of them civilians; the one in the lead had a gambler's look about him, pale features and jet-black hair, a thin mustache, dandified gear which received much hard wear. The other was grossly fat, with porcine features, dressed like a ragpicker, his clothes greasy black, as though they had not been off him in a month.

Burnett is immediately wary of Ainslie and Jobe, especially after Ainslie seems to recognize Norma Young from Albuquerque. Ainslie is constantly setting himself upon Norma, conversing in hushed tones. Norma seems to want no part of Ainslie's attentions. Jobe is just an outright psychotic, and has a knack for raping and killing and collecting scalps. He'd like nothing more than to add Norma's hair to his collection. As the nights progress, the party of soldiers are picked off one by one, with blame being put on the Indians following them. Other nights are spent fending off raids from warring Comanches.

Burnett pretty much goes through a gauntlet of bullets, arrows, knives and fists in this book. There is treachery and violence in just about every chapter. I'm trying to remember if I've read any of Frank Castle's novels besides this one. I've got three of them in my collection of paperback westerns. The other two are MOVE ALONG, STRANGER and FORT DESPERATION, both them Gold Medal paperbacks as well. If they're as good as this one is, I'm looking forward to saddling up.




Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Long Wait - Mickey Spillane

Wendy was a pretty little head, all right. A little on the hard side when you looked close and the make-up didn't take away the brittle lines that were etched in the corner of her mouth and eyes. She was a million bucks in a green dress under artificial lights and two million in bed. A dime a dozen in the daytime though. 

Signet Books 
Oh snap! That's a mean thing to say about Wendy! But that's how it goes for dames in Mickey Spillane's world. I'm trying to remember now if any of the dames in this novel were called Kitten. I don't think so. That's a name Mike Hammer uses for his babes. And as most of you probably know, Mike Hammer ain't in this hardboiled soap opera from 1951.

As plots go, this one features the old reliable amnesia gimmick for its fuel. Our hero, Johnny McBride returns to Lyncastle, a burg a couple connections from Chicago, to right some wrongs and clear his name. In order to accomplish this, he promises the reader that he's kill someone, break someone else's arms, and a third person will "get a beating that would leave the marks of the lash striped across the skin for all the years left to live." Oh and that last one is a woman. So yeah, Johnny McBride ain't fooling around!

So Johnny pulls into town by bus on the first page. Next thing he knows he's getting the bum's rush by a copper. But Johnny's planned ahead. His plans and a nice fat roll of dough get him into a swanky hotel. But it's not a day he's in town before he's hauled in by the cops for murder. This is after a couple of punches get thrown and someone gets kicked in the stomach and pukes and another gets a belt in the teeth and...well, after things settle down, the cops are dismayed to learn they can't hold Johnny for squat because he's got no fingerprints. That's right, he's got no fingerprints!

Did I mention this novel is one loopy ride? Didn't the amnesia hint give that away? Well trust me, it's a doozy, because Johnny McBride really isn't really Johnny McBride. He's really a guy named George Wilson, who was a pal of the real Johnny McBride after Johnny went on the lam for being accused of stealing $200 grand from the bank he worked at in Lyncastle. In addition to robbing the bank, he was also accused of gunning down District Attorney Bob Minnow. It seems McBride was believed to have killed Minnow because Minnow was going to arrest him for the bank theft. So after shooting DA Minnow, McBride hauls ass out of Lyncastle for parts unknown. But first he leaves the gun with his prints all over it at the murder scene. So, you'd think that is it for Johnny, only now, the cops can't hold him for murder because he doesn't have fingerprints anymore. So they have to settle for tailing him around Lyncastle as he tries to clear his own name.

Yeah, you kind of have to forgive a lot of stuff that makes no sense to enjoy this novel. Anyway, George Wilson, now assuming McBride's identity (because he's McBride's exact double and all) gets dope on a cat named Lenny Servo, who seems to deal all the cards from the stacked deck in Lyncastle. There's also a missing chick named Vera West, who was Johnny's girlfriend and coworker at the bank Johnny supposedly robbed. Johnny's after Vera because he's convinced that Vera had him set up for the bank job because afterward Vera hooked up with Lenny Servo. All this background stuff is revealed through a bunch of punching and teeth-kicking. And with people taking potshots at Johnny whenever suitable.

The novel is violent as hell and moves at a crazy pace. Johnny gets beaten up a lot and has a lot dames throwing themselves at him all the while. It's exactly what I would expect when I open a Mickey Spillane novel. You're going to be entertained and given your $1.95's worth. And you know you like this stuff anyway. Who wouldn't?





Saturday, July 8, 2017

Fadeout - Joseph Hansen

The wire mesh fence slumped as if the signs were too heavy for it. At one point it lay like a rusty circus net. It sprang like a circus net when he stepped across it. In the shadow of the Chute he found the place where Fox Olsen had died. Crude chalk outline on the planks....In the stinking dark forest of splintery posts under the pier lay pizza tins, beer cans, cigarette wrappers, condoms--the joyless detritus of American joy. 

Owl Book Edition 1980
I've heard good things about the Dave Brandstetter series for years and I own a couple of the early ones thanks to used book sales around the town. Some years ago I lent the whole set I had to a friend who was moving to Mexico. Since then I've got them all back and none the worse for wear. It's good to have friends who take care of books. Anyway, I finally read the first novel in the series by Joseph Hansen and am happy to tell you the good things I've heard were justified.

This isn't your standard California detective mystery, as the blurbs on my edition would have you believe. One even refers to Hansen as "a worthy successor" to Hammett. Well, Hansen and Hammett have names that begin with H, but that's about it for comparing the two as far as I'm concerned. This is a moodier, measured novel than Hammett's novels are. Dave Brandstetter is an insurance investigator, not a private eye, and is mourning the loss of a loved one as the novel begins. You don't get the feeling that Brandstetter is a "shoot first and ask questions later" type of guy.

The mystery concerns a missing person named Fox Olsen. It appears, to Brandstetter anyway, to be a staged car accident off a bridge in the rain instead of accidental death. Something just like the cover shows above. No body is found and before any life insurance is going to be doled out to the beneficiaries, Brandstetter has to verify that our missing and supposedly dead Fox Olsen isn't trying to pull a scam for the insurance money. Still, Olsen seemed happy enough, and successful enough in town with his popular radio show. So why take the fade-out?

The more Brandstetter probes the life of Fox Olsen the deeper things get. For one thing, Fox Olsen was a frustrated artist and writer. Add to that a marriage that harbored infidelity. To further complicate matters, an old friend of Olsen's returns after 20 years to rekindle a relationship the two had before Olsen joined the Air Force.

The novel was published in 1969, and I would imagine the gay themes, in addition to a gay detective protagonist were pretty controversial at the time. The mystery of the relationship doesn't take long for Brandstetter or the reader to figure out, especially to a modern reader.

I liked the novel and would recommend it to readers who enjoy the Lew Archer mysteries. Also for readers who don't mind a more poetic depiction of a time in California that you don't see in 60's news-reels. I have the next four novels in the series and am looking forward to reading them. I understand that the as the series progresses so does Brandstetter in age and maturity. I believe they're still in print and available in e-format. I also see that there is a single edition of all twelve Brandstetter novels available through third-party sellers, but the price is a bit steep for that one.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Seven Slayers - Paul Cain

There was a sudden roar from a black, curtained roadster on the other side of the street; the sudden ragged roar of four or five shots close together, a white pulsing finger of flame in the dusk, and Coleman sank to his knees. He swayed backwards once, fell forward onto his face hard; his gray hat rolled slowly across the sidewalk. The roadster was moving, had disappeared before Coleman was entirely still. It became very quiet in the street.

Black Lizard Books - 1987
This collection has been sitting on my shelf for many years. I picked up this Black Lizard edition of Paul Cain's Seven Slayers many years ago from a used bookstore in Tempe Arizona that is now closed. A newer, updated version of that bookstore opened in Phoenix a few years ago but, man it's just not the same. I could go on about my favorite old bookstores closing down in the past couple decades (which seems only like a few years to me) but why bother.

So...what can I say about this book that hasn't been said better by other aficionados of the hard-boiled school? I don't know why it took me so long to listen to them and read this book. In a word, these stories rocked! They are chock full o bad guys who are really, really bad, bad-ass dames who can't be trusted and heroes that aren't wholly good. One of the coolest things I noticed in reading the stories is how Cain likes to keep the reader off balance. He does this in subtle ways, as seen in the above paragraph from the story "Murder in Blue" in how many shots were fired. Was it four or five? The omniscient narrator (the author) should know. Or this simple line from the same story; "She was ageless; perhaps twenty-six, perhaps thirty-six."

Or take the high-rise apartment setting from the story "Pigeon Blood" where the hero lives in a flat that has no wall, "At the far side, where the light from the living room faded into darkness, the floor came to an abrupt end - there was no railing or parapet - the nearest building of the same height was several blocks away."

All of the stories wind through the tropes of hard-boiled environments: gambling dens, dingy bars, nightclubs, apartments, rain-swept streets, and sketchy hotels. Fans of this genre will feel completely at home in these stories. Violence is sudden, bodies unexpectedly (for the characters, anyway) turn up in the shadows, bullets fly from across the block, gats are pulled from bathrobes...well you get the idea. No one can be trusted and greed is the common denominator. You'll have a blast reading them.

These stories were originally published in Black Mask way back in the 30's, back when Hammett and Chandler were producing the same kind of hard-boiled tales for the same publications. If you like those guys, you'll like Paul Cain's stories also. Cain's fictional output was limited to only one novel, Fast One, and 17 short stories. I have a copy of Fast One and am looking forward to reading it soon. He was a screenwriter under the name George Sims. His fictional output has been collected under the title The Complete Slayers for anyone interesting in shelling out a whopping chunk of change.