Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Mountain Valley War - Louis L'Amour

The killing of a strong man only leaves a place for another strong man, so it is an exercise in futility. There is no man so great but that another waits in the wings to fill his shoes, so the attention caused by such acts is never favorable. Yet, such men as Cub Hale did not care. They wished to kill and destroy because it enhanced their own image in their own mind. Cub had grown up in his father's image, but with additional touches. He did not consider the law as applying to him, but only to those vague "others."

Bantam Books - February 1981


The Mountain Valley War by Louis L'Amour is the 2nd of 5 novels to feature Kilkenny. It was first published in 1978. I had no idea this book is part of a series and it really doesn't matter. It can be read as a standalone without having read the first Kilkenny book, The Rider of Lost Creek.

A group of settlers have laid claim to land in the Idaho hills. Unfortunately, in the nearby town of Cedar Bluff resides one King Bill Hale. Hale is one of those ruthless, greedy bastards who has gone through life having his own way. He owns the town and the law and now has his sights set on the acres staked outside Cedar Bluff. His son, Cub Hale, is a psychopath who gets his kicks killing anyone who slights him. That he's not in prison is evidence of King Bill Hale's influence. Nita Reardon runs the gambling hall and saloon. She and Kilkenny have a backstory that's not elaborated on in this novel. It's obvious that she's in love with Kilkenny and has followed him to this territory. Lance Kilkenny is the "loner" gunman, wishing only to live in solitude and peace. He has no taste for killing and has hung up his guns for the peaceful life of a rancher. These characters are all western archetypes and the basic plot of the novel has been told thousands of times. L'Amour's strength is the way he can describe action and settings, and this book has plenty of both. From a hidden valley to a fistfight. There are a number of shootouts and a brutal prize-fight at the town fair, described in great detail.

A few years ago I got a stack of Louis L'Amour westerns from a pile of books left at the office. No one else seemed interested in them, so it was up to me to take them home. I've read maybe a dozen L'Amour novels and find them all enjoyable for what they are, old-fashioned stories of good guys and bad guys in the old west. This one differs a bit from the others I've read in that this time around L'Amour has chosen to pad his story with a lot, and I do mean a lot, of exposition. We know who the bad guys are not because of the bad things they do, but because L'Amour tells us, repeatedly, they're bad guys. Same with the good guys, all described as good and honest and hard working men who built the west with their good and honest hard work. L'Amour has also salted the plot with a lot history lessons, often to the point of slowing the momentum. You just want to see the bad guys eat lead without all the by-the-way historical detail. It's strange because I don't recall any other L'Amour novels I've read with so much authorial intrusion. Usually his stories are lean, and mean, trimmed of unnecessary filler.

Still, I enjoyed the book and looked forward to the final showdown, even if I already knew how everything would turn out.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Horror Double Feature - The Sentinel and Sleep Tight

Ballantine Books, 1977


Oh boy, old fashioned horror stuff going on here! First off in this post is a “classic” I guess you could say. It’s The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz, published in 1974. I give a lot of leeway to 1970's horror novels. Generally they're not going to have the pace of modern novels. Even the saturation of 80's horror paperbacks that hit the bookstores make these older novels seem like silent movies in comparison. Still, I love the "good" old stuff. It had a style and creepy manner (when done right) and, if you give them the patience they sometimes deserve, they're a lot of fun to read. This novel has some good things going for it. It's got a nice New York setting that you'll recognize from movies filmed at the time. I never lived in New York so my impression is only what I grew up seeing of it on TV and movies. No, I'm sure it was a long way from the real thing, but that was all I had to go on. It still is. You get a taste of 1970's manners and culture of that period. It's also a well written example of commercial fiction of the day. The problem I had with it is that the main character, Allison Parker, doesn't present much for the reader to relate to. If you met her at a cocktail party you'd probably remember a pretty, but somewhat vapid, young woman and forget about her soon afterward. Allison has just moved into a brownstone flat that she seems fated to have rented. This, of course means trouble in horror novels. Her boyfriend, Michael Farmer, is a lawyer, of course, and a first class arrogant jerk. You might ask yourself, why is Allison going with such an obvious jerk, then you read on and determine that they probably deserve each other. He's always riding her about being "frigid" and insisting that she come clean about something in her past. I have to say I'm not especially clear on Michael's motives in that regard. He should be satisfied with having a hot, and not particularly bright, model to bang. Instead he's pushy and demanding while giving Allison nothing in return. About halfway into the novel there is a shift in plot that brings in a jaded and obsessive New York police detective named Gatz. Gatz has a hatred for Michael Farmer, and is convinced that Farmer is guilty of the death of Farmer's first wife. Then you learn that Allison was seeing Micheal Farmer while he was still married to his now deceased wife. What the hell? Why should I root for this person? Why should I care? And you read it for the horror stuff you've been promised on the blurb. This includes an eccentric but kindly enough neighbor of Allison's living with his black cat and birds. There is also a pair of Euro-chic lesbians living on her floor. And a pair of grotesque sisters living below her. It's all very bizarre and creepy and builds to a climax that won't surprise you today. I would recommend the book to fans of 70's horror novels. Or you could just see the movie if it ever shows up on Underground Classics on TCM.

Zebra Books, 1987


Sleep Tight by Matthew Costello is an entertaining 80's horror from Zebra books. I really did buy this just for the cover. The story inside is chock full of suburban families with their teenage kids getting mixed up in a cosmic horror gig. This book is from a time when publishers like Zebra couldn't print the stuff fast enough. Hence, there are a lot of really bad novels from this period. Still, even some of the bad ones had a completely inappropriate and gory charm to them that, I think, got lost in the 90's and 2000's. There is a Stephen King element to Sleep Tight (just an element mind you) in that white suburban domestic angst is explored along with the scary stuff. I can relate to it on that level and I don't mind its inclusion in plots, but one of my pet peeves in novels, particularly many horror novels, is when a nightmare is described in detail. Nightmares are nightmares, and everyone gets them. To me, a nightmare is page filler. Thankfully, that's not too overdone here, but still enough for me to skip some pages along the way. There are several creepy kidnapping scenes that kick off the novel, and an ex-con punker named Eddie whom you think is going to play the heavy in addition to all the boogyman stuff. But alas...Eddie doesn't last long. There is a "tall man" that haunts the town and sets off a lot of the terror in the book. There is a huge homage to Phantasm going on with this story but a lot of "the tall man" plot goes unexplained or dropped for cutaway scares. I think what I liked more than the horror shenanigans is a look at the period in the 80's in which the story takes place. Music references like "We Built This City on Rock and Roll" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Yes, "We Built This City" is the worst song ever produced by a band who completely sold out, but I did get an urge to play my Frankie Goes to Hollywood record again. Even Huey Lewis and the News got a shout out. This book is practically an 80's pop culture check list. Star Wars bedsheets, Cherry Coke and all that rot. And teenagers actually had to call each other up or hunt each other down old-school style. I don't remember any scenes of smoking in the school restrooms though, like they did when I was in high school in the late 70's. Different time. Fun novel. Like sticky candy, not exactly nutritious, but still fun to indulge in as the nights cool off. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Harlan Ellison and John D. MacDonald - Gool Old Fashioned Stories

They put the plate in the back of my head and silver pins in the right thighbone. The arms were in traction longer than the legs. The eye, of course, was something they couldn't fix. - Miranda by John D. MacDonald, October 1950, 15 Mystery Stories

Fawcett Gold Medal July 1984
 It hasn't seem like so long ago since my last post but, yeah, it's been a while. I've been out in the world doing that full time gig of copying and pasting spreadsheets that they pay me to do, neglecting the stuff I love doing, like reading these terrific old books and sharing them with you. Last month I took a trip to Wisconsin and brought along a couple of short story collections by writers I really admire: John D. MacDonald and Harlan Ellison. Sadly, we lost Ellison in June. For me, when I hear that I writer I admire has passed, it's like when others hear a favorite rock star, or movie star has died. I never had the opportunity to meet Ellison in person. I probably would have been too intimidated to approach him, if I did. He was that kind of guy. But I love his books, I love his stories, and mostly I love how he always stood up for integrity and respect for "the writer" in this ambivalent world. 

John D. MacDonald is another writer whose passing I remember back in 1986. I grew up in the gulf coast of Florida and had read many of MacDonald's stories set in my home state. I'd read all of the McGee novels up to the point I finished high school, and was discovering his terrific standalone novels along the way. Dead Low Tide was the first of his non-McGee novels I'd read and remains a treasured favorite of mine. Again, another writer I never got to meet in person.

Now, I try to make it a point to go see writers whose work I enjoy when they come to town to promote their books. I let them know that their books are important to me. Too many leave us and I'll say to someone I know, "Did you hear [insert name] died today?" and am often met with a blank look in response and a "Who was that?" It's a drag.

Anyway, back to the books. The Good Old Stuff, published way back in 1982 is a collection of John D. MacDonald's "lost" pulp stories, compiled by Martin H. Greenberg and Francis M. Nevins, Jr. They presented MacDonald with several dozens of stories they felt deserving of finding a new audience. MacDonald then whittled the selection down to about 30 stories he deemed worthy of reprinting and gave his blessing to go forth. In the process, he did something that he admits, in his introduction, many fans might not appreciate. He "updated" several of the stories to make their settings as contemporary as possible. As for me, I would have preferred they remained as originally published in those crumbling pulps. Regardless, they're still crackling good yarns. Good and bad are fully delineated in these stories, and yes, the hero, always wins. But we get some awesome bad guys in the process. And as always, MacDonald's seemingly effortless prose sweeping you along for the action.  "She was a plump blond and she lay dead in the trail on her back. There were streaks of drying mud on the right sleeve of her yellow sweater. There was more mud on her freckled right arm. Death had flattened her body to the ground. Her tweed skirt was pushed halfway up between knee and hip. Her heels rested in the mud and her brown sandals toed in." - Murder in Mind, Mystery Book Magazine, 1949. A year later MacDonald published the remaining collected pulp stories in a second volume named More Good Old Stuff. And yes, it is just as great as the first collection.

They were worshipers at a black mass the city had demanded be staged; not once, but a thousand times a day in this insane asylum of steel and stone. - The Whimper of Whipped Dogs, by Harlan Ellison.

Pyramid Books, 1975, Cover by Leo and Diane Dillon
 Ellison's collection No Doors, No Windows, from 1975 is a real treat for me. Instead of a collection of "Science Fiction" (a term Ellison didn't appreciate in the least, as he makes clear in his introduction to this book) we have a collection of Ellison crime stories from pulps like Manhunt and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, and "men's magazines" like Adam Bedside Reader and Mantrap. These stories are a blast. If you're a fan of shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", you'll totally dig the stories presented here. Like MacDonald, Ellison also did some "editorial cleanup" on some of the stories within the collection. As an added bonus, you get Ellison's wonderful introduction, clocking in longer than any of the stories that follow it. You'll get his aversion to labeling writers the way publishers and booksellers must do, among other things. Always entertaining and enlightening. The collection kicks off with my favorite one in the book, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs", which also appeared in his collection Deathbird Stories. I have that one, and another collection of Ellison's early crime stories called The Deadly Streets.

Griff could hear Ivy's husband moving toward him in the darkness. Only the faintest sound of gravel betrayed his movements. Down here, deep in the gut of the Earth, it was another world. A world in which Kenneth Cory knew well as a geologist. A world in which Kenneth Cory was at a disadvantage. That was why Ivy and Griff had lured him down here. To kill him. - Down in the Dark, by Harlan Ellison as Ellis Hart.

What can I say. These guys were pros. They didn't bullshit around when it came to producing terrific stories. They put their asses to their seats and pounded them out. You should find their books and dig them for yourself.


Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Bloodsmoor Romance - Joyce Carol Oates

Amidst the guests, however, no one was more pleasing to the eye, or excited more comment, than the five Zinn daughters of local fame. As we advance more intimately upon the sisters, we will not shrink from taking note of countless small imperfections, and some major faults, so it is well to remember that, observed and judged from a distance, as doubtless guests to the Kiddemaster Hall were wont to do, Constance Philippa, and Octavia, and Malvinia, and Samantha, and even Deirdre, did strike the eye as uncommonly attractive young ladies, though they lived in a society in which Beauty - whether of face, or form, or manner, or attire - was very much a requisite, for the female sex. 


Cover art for A Bloodsmoor Romance by Max Ginsburg

I'm straying far and wide from the world of assassins, spies and hardboiled detectives, in putting the light on this 1982 novel from Joyce Carol Oates. What a strange and weird book this is! Reading this novel I wondered who the intended audience for this "old-fashioned" novel would have been back then. It's written in a deliberate homage to Victorian-era novels, or Romances (think Little Women) as they were called. It forces the reader to slow down and accept the story on the narrator's terms. That narrator being an unnamed, elderly maiden, relating the intimate details, events and fates befalling the five Zinn sisters mentioned above. The setting is Bloodsmoor, PA, in the last 20 years of the 19th Century. It wouldn't have been the typical reading fare for the early 1980's by any stretch. This novel is almost a dare to any publisher accepting it for marketing to supermarkets, airports and and malls back then.

I've read a few of Oates's novels before, including Bellefleur, which this novel is a cousin to, as part of her Gothic period of novels. Bellefleur is another long, and more difficult, novel than A Bloodsmoor Romance, and just as weird. This novel is far more accessible for a patient reader than Bellefleur is, and I would recommend to anyone possibly interested in reading Bellefleur that they should probably read A Bloodsmoor Romance first. Both novels are historical family sagas loaded with bizarre and often supernatural events and turns of plot.

And as plots go, this novel follows the fates of the five Zinn sisters named above. It kicks off with a dramatic abduction of Deirdre by a sinister black hot-air balloon after an afternoon party to celebrate the engagement of the eldest Zinn daughter, Constance Philippe. Deirdre's shocking abduction remains unsolved. It also serves as a stain of sorts on the Zinn family itself. It's almost assumed to be her own fault that she's taken away in such a daring fashion. Deirdre is the youngest of the Zinn sisters, and the oddest. She's often beset by nightmares and visions and haunted by invisible voices. It seems to make sense that she be snatched away into mystery. Her kidnapping has an inevitability about it, and it launches the narrative detailing the diverse directions the other sisters take in their lives.

So what happens? Well, Constance Philippe disappears on her wedding night, Malvinia elopes with a European blackguard and becomes a scandalous actress of the stage, Octavia (the good sister) marries an older man to tragic consequences, Samantha follows her father's vocation into a life of science and curiosity wholly unbecoming of a young woman of her time. And Deirdre returns as Deirdre of the Shadows, a notorious medium.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg for our sisters! The turn of events include kidnappings, seances, ghosts, murder, a time machine, kinky sex, strange deaths, a sex change, erotic asphyxiation, secret marriages, disguises and more than a few family secrets revealed along the way. Just your average Victorian melodrama!

I think, given the popularity of shows like Penny Dreadful and The Alienist, this novel was about 35 years ahead of its time. I can completely see a Netflix miniseries based on this book. But until that happens, I'll just tell you to read the book first. You'll probably like it as much as I did.




Friday, April 27, 2018

The Devastators - Donald Hamilton

There was a little pause. I was tempted to add something mushy to the effect that she was a pretty nice kid, after all, and working with her wasn't going to be quite the ordeal I'd expected. While I struggled with the impulse, the telephone rang, which was just as well. I mean this buddy-buddy stuff may be all right in the armed forces, but in our line of work you're much better off hating your partner's guts. Then you won't feel so bad if he breaks a leg and you have to shoot him--and if you think that's just a figure of speech, Buster, I envy you the happy TV world you live in.

Gold Medal Books

Ah yes, that's our hero Matt Helm being as endearing and sympathetic as ever. In this case, the partner he's referring to is another agent in his organization named Claire, or that's all the name you need to know, since Claire's assignment is to accompany Helm to Scotland, posing as Helm's new wife. Helm's job is to follow up on the trail of a missing disgruntled American scientist named Archibald McRow. The previous agents put on McRow's tail have either ended up missing-in-action or have been found dead by means of various illnesses. In one case, the measles, another of chicken pox, and the most recent agent, dying of the Bubonic Plague on a lonely coast of Scotland. Small wonder about the means of death, given that our Dr. McRow has been working on top-secret biological viruses and their antidotes. Helm's job is to draw out the opposing team and eliminate them. Claire's job, or Winifred Helm as she'll be referred to, is to put the touch on Dr. Archibald McRow. Kill him, that is.

My friends, this novel from 1965 is a corker! Helm is barely in London a few hours when an attempt is made on his life by a former soviet agent believed to have been executed. Then his partner, excuse me, his wife I mean, is kidnapped from their hotel. She was last seen by the hotel staff leaving in the company of a lady and another gentleman, both Oriental in appearance. And if that's not enough, an old face from a previous novel, The Ambushers, shows up. It's Vadya, the beautiful and extremely deadly soviet agent, and as it just so happens, Helm's former lover.

If Helm has an equal in the spy game it's Vadya. In The Ambushers, Vadya had a good time torturing Helm with a soldering iron, trying to get the dirt on a mutual target in Mexico. This time she's on the trail of Dr. McRow as well. At least, that's what she tells Helm. He has to torture her with a trick belt first to get anything out of her. In many ways, this novel is a cousin of sorts to The Ambushers, as the events in that novel, two years earlier, are referred to several times. I would recommend you read The Ambushers before reading The Devastators to get the most out of this one.

Anyway, after the torture and sex session between Helm and Vadya is dispensed with, the two of them agree to "team up" to find Dr. McRow. Vadya informs Helm that a certain Madame Ling has kidnapped Claire, remember Claire? and is luring Dr. McRow on the promise of a vast fortune, to lend his brilliant mind to the Chinese Communists. All he has to do is provide the means to kill off most of the planet's population. But like I said, he was disgruntled. And you know you're neck-deep in a spy novel when you have character named Madame Ling!

What follows are chases, shoot-outs, beatings, killings, more torture, more babes, hypodermic needles and rats infected with The Black Death! I'm telling you this novel has the works! I was amused by more of the self-deprecating asides that Helm provides us as he takes us through the plot. I was a bit worried that, after nine novels into the series, I would have gotten my fill (as perhaps some readers of this blog might) of Helm's brutal and hardboiled world. But this book kicked the action up a notch. Here's looking forward to the next novel in the series, The Betrayers.




Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Ravagers - Donald Hamilton

So two men were dead instead of one, and the job was shot to hell, and sooner or later I'd be back in Washington facing a couple of departmental psychiatrists who'd try to determine the full extent of the softening of the brain and whether or not the disease was curable--but that was kind of beside the point, at the moment. I squatted to examine the thing that looked like a cigarette package--a British brand called Players, if it matters, and saw the little hole out of which something lethal was supposed to come if you squeezed it in the right place the right way. 


Gold Medal Books

So, we're back in the treacherous, shadowy world of Matt Helm for his 8th novel, The Ravagers. Helm is at his most cold-blooded, hard-boiled yet in this caper. He's practically devoid of any humanity, except for occasional wry attempts at sarcasm and self-deprecation dropped here and there for humor. His assignment is inherited from another agent who is permanently sidelined after getting a face full of acid in close proximity, in a motel room in Canada.

"It was an acid job," Helm informs us in the very first line of the novel. An acid job followed up by a dose of cyanide. There are enough clues at the scene for Helm to determine that the killer was likely a woman, especially considering the dead agent was one of those All-American types who had a weakness for women. The agent's name was Gregory, and he'd been assigned to make contact and follow a certain Mrs. Genevieve Drilling and her teenage daughter Penelope. It seems that Mrs. Drilling has decided she's tired of being the wife of a scientist, Dr. Herbert Drilling, and has up and left Dr. Drilling along with a briefcase full of top secret information on a laser project that Drilling had been working on. Word has it that Mrs. Drilling has been romanced by a suitor from the other side named Hans Ruyter. The dead agent Gregory had been working on the case until someone put the touch on him. Now it's Helm's turn to pick up where Gregory left off.

Helm's cover name for the assignment is Dave Clevinger, a private eye from Denver Colorado. Helm is informed by Mac, his boss in Washington, that he's to make sure that Mrs. Drilling and Hans Ruyter complete their escape with the stolen documents. The documents, Helm is informed, are a plant. Unfortunately, there are other agencies on the case. Helm's job is to ensure that Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter make their escape unharmed. Sounds like a walk in the park for our hero.

Helm is barely on the case for a few hours when he's confronted by a mysterious woman named Elaine Harms. At least, that's the name she's using for now, she tells him. She wants to know what Helm was doing in the motel room of a dead man who was last seen in the company of Genevieve Drilling. Elaine Harms is one of those tough girl, take-no-shit kind of dames we love. She's not buying Helm's private detective story. She tells him that she'll be following up on his background, but in the meantime, she wouldn't mind a little company in the bed if he's game. Helm decides that duty calls and obliges her, knowing she could very likely be the acid-wielding killer.

Also on the trail of Mrs. Drilling are a pair of (it's assumed) FBI agents named Fenton and Johnston. Fenton is one of those inexperienced hot-headed types, while his partner Johnston is more methodical, and dangerous. Helm's orders from Washington maintain that he's not to give away his cover under any circumstances. It's imperative that his own agency's involvement remain secret. No one is to stop Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter from making their way out of Canada with the forged documents.

Helm agrees to meet Elaine Harms the next evening at another motor lodge to "compare" notes on each other. Helm actually admires Ms. Harms, and see's in her a kindred soul in the dark world of espionage. Of course, he can't reveal this to her, nor can he be sure she isn't the woman who dosed his former colleague with acid. Ultimately, his concerns regarding Ms. Harms don't matter, because someone puts a bullet into her head after framing her for the murder of agent Gregory. It's Helm who finds her body. It's the only moment in the novel where Helm feels remorse, even regret. "I went back to the bed. The shock was wearing off. I suppose I should have been feeling grief in its place. I could get drunk and cry in my beer, or whiskey, or gin. Right now I had other things to do..."

One of the things I've always considered about the Helm novels is their similarity to mid-century hard-boiled detective novels. It's clear that Helm is an assassin agent for a secret organization, sometimes referred to as The Wrecking Crew among its members, but the attitude is very much more Lew Archer than James Bond, in my opinion. I don't mean that Helm is anything like Lew Archer, because is not. Certainly, Helm has no problem killing people when he has to. Archer would avoid killing unless absolutely forced to in self-defense. What is similar are how the assignments in Matt Helm novels unfold through the disintegration of dysfunctional families rather than evil geniuses. There are none of the glamorous travelogues of the James Bond novels. No first-class jet-setting to Monte Carlo and Rome. No games of Baccarat in posh casinos. Instead, Helm's world is populated with motels, diners, and lonely highways traveled by trucks and Volkswagens instead of Bentleys. An Aston Martin would be sneered at in a Matt Helm assignment. In 8 novels, Helm has yet to wear a tuxedo. Instead he becomes involved in frayed family ties manipulated by foreign agents. The dire world implications are kept offstage while our hero maneuvers through failed marriages, duplicitous affairs and wayward offspring. The cold war stuff, like microfilms and lasers and atomic bombs, are really condiments to the main focus of the novels, that is Helm's relationships with the immediate victims: fathers, wives, daughters.

But I digress. I should just tell you that The Ravagers is both Donald Hamilton and Matt Helm at the top of their game. Looking forward to The Devastators next.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Mountain Girls and Swamp Rats


I had to pause in my reviews of the Matt Helm series when I discovered I didn’t have the next book in line. Luckily, finding the books out there isn’t as hard as it used to be. Not sure if anyone cares or not, but I’m having fun going through them from the beginning. Anyway, it’s not like I haven’t been keeping up with other things in the meanwhile.

For example, a couple of old Gold Medal nuggets featuring primitive lusts, passion, greed, gators and girls you don’t take home to mother.

Gold Medal Books and Black Lizard Books


And the swamp continued to rot and to wait for the end, and everything was as it had been in the beginning. - Robert Edmond Alter - Swamp Sister

Swamp Sister, by Robert Edmond Alter, was published in 1966. It’s the kind of novel that’s like sour candy for me. Even the name is irresistible. I don’t know much about its author, but I remember reading Carny Kill some years ago. How is that for another great title? A pair of titles like Carny Kill and Swamp Sister and, brother, you’ve got yourself a fine double feature ahead of you. Both books were republished by Black Lizard Press in the 80’s and shouldn’t be too hard to find now. Swamp Sister sets up a classic plot of missing loot lost in a Florida swamp, a pair of swamp rats with larceny in their hearts, a lusty young man looking for a better life, a sexy babe in cut-offs and not much else, and a crooked insurance investigator, all mixed into a sweaty brew somewhere in the wilds of Florida. The place isn’t specifically named, but I’m calling Florida purely because gators turn up all over the plot as our hero, Shad Hark, navigates his way to the missing payroll loot through a pair of hot sisters named Margy and Dorry, and a couple of murderous swamp rats named Sam and Jort. Seems our pal Shad can’t get a break after he foolishly spends some of the missing loot in the local general store. In no time flat he’s got the whole town all up his ass trying to get their sweaty mitts on that money. It’s a pretty good yarn all in all. My only complaint is the cornpone dialog gets a little weary after a while. A little goes a long way when it comes to people speaking like cottonmouth snakes. But that aside, it is well worth checking out if you have a hankering for a sweaty chick with loose morals sitting on a pile of ill-gotten swag.

“Ben, they’ll kill you for sure. Ain’t nobody around here ever stands up to them. If a man’s too big, they come at him from two sides. They have guns—they’ll use them and they don’t care none if they kill. Please, Ben, let’s get out of here now. I know some of the way—we can guess at the rest.” - Norman Daniels - Something Burning

Promotional flyer found in my copy of Something Burning


Something Burning, by Norman Daniels from 1963, has never seen a reprint as far as I know. I found it in a used bookstore with a small promotional flyer by Barbara Hendra, publicity director with Gold Medal at the time, asking for a review. It’s a neat little artifact folded into the pages of the book. I don’t know anything about writer Norman Daniels, but see that he’d written some westerns back in the day. Something Burning could easily have been a western as well. Ben Medford, our lead protagonist, is deep in an alcoholic state of mourning for his recently deceased wife, Sandy, and winds up wrecking his car off a mountain road one night. He’s found by a mountain girl named Ora and is nursed back to health. In the process of recovering, he and Ora are confronted by a pair of mountain hillbillies named Roy and Joel Gallison. Roy and Joel are right out of a casting call for Deliverance, as they take pleasure in killing and raping whomever they please. Ben uses his anger and screw-it-all attitude to his advantage and beats the hell out of Roy and Joel. Unfortunately he lets his civilized upbringing get the better of him and doesn’t kill the brothers. Bad mistake! The brothers return and kill Ora as she and Ben attempt to leave their mountain hideaway. Now Ben is on the run, blamed for Ora’s death and for setting a string of recent forest fires as well. He’s an outsider stripped of civilized mores, dealing with psychotic hillbillies and firebugs as he attempts to make it out of the mountains alive. Halfway through the novel, it changes course and becomes a stranded survivor plot as Ben and others are held hostage by the real firebug in a lookout tower as the flames surround them. It’s not a perfect novel, nor a lost classic. There are some lapses in logic happening, and Ben’s sudden attraction for another mountain girl so soon after the death of his wife doesn’t make a lot of sense, but all in all, Something Burning was an entertaining way to pass a few hours. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily go out of your way to find this book. But if you see it out there, it’s probably worth a couple bucks of your hard-earned dough.

So that’s about it for missing a couple weeks. I’ll probably be back in Helm’s world. Who knows?