Monday, November 6, 2017

Never Die Alone - Donald Goines

It seems as if half of Los Angeles' finest detectives raided my old apartment. Now I'm not sure it's related to the trip that Billy made. I can't think of any other motherfuckin' reason for the police to come storming into where I had lived. From the information that I have been able to gather, the boys in blue were put out because I hadn't sat still and waited for them. If it hadn't been for me using a little foresight, I think I would have been behind bars at this moment, instead of writing these notes down. 

Holloway House Publishing Company, cover photography by Jeffrey
The only thing that Donald Goines was missing was an editor. His novels were written, according to sources I've read, to support a drug habit, and were churned out in first drafts and sold at a furious pace to keep his demons at bay. I've read a handful of his novels over the years and have liked every one of them, but finish them wishing that someone had tamed the force that produced them. But perhaps they wouldn't have that voice and grit that make them urban fiction classics. That voice! In the space of 4 years, from 1971 to 1975, he published 16 crime novels. In 1974 he was gunned down in his home. The person(s) responsible have never been determined.

Goines wrote of the life he lived as an addict and people he knew. Never Die Alone is sort of all over the place, but has a way of holding up by its own narrative drive. It begins with a young writer, Paul Pawlowski, preparing to go to a job interview for a "leftwing" newspaper. We're given a lot of detail in Paul's ancestry that is never part of the plot. In the second chapter we're introduced to King David, known on the streets as King Cobra, who is returning from 5 years in California. King David left New York owing money to a lot of bad characters, including a small-time gangster named Moon. Arrangements are made for King David to pay Moon back, with the understanding that Moon will not sic his henchmen on David. Moon agrees, figuring that he'll let an up and comer in the underworld named Mike take care of King David after collecting the money owed. Mike has personal reasons for getting even with King David, because David once robbed his mother of her government check and beat her and him with a Coke bottle in the process. King David was a pusher and con artist, who has left a trail of junkies and victims in his path.

Of course, as things always do in crime novels, things get fucked up really fast. King David survives the sloppy hit job on him, barely, leaving one hoodlum half dead with a knife wound to his eye and witnesses, including Paul Pawloski and Mike's sister, Edna who was used as a kind of honey-trap on David. Paul manages to get King David to a hospital before he succumbs to his wounds. David's last request to the doctors in the hospital is that Paul inherit his Cadillac and all his possessions in it, including a journal that he kept of his time in California. Meanwhile, Moon is frantic that the botched hit on King David is going to bring the heat down on him. He sends out more henchmen to eliminate Mike and Edna. guessed it. That hit goes down bad as well. Edna is murdered, but Mike manages to kill Moon's flunkies in the process. All of Moon's henchmen are terrible shots, and that while people get killed, it's never the right people. Now Mike, bleeding from his wounds, is coming back for Moon. Meanwhile, Paul is home in his apartment reading King David's journal of his time in Los Angeles living in hotels and pushing heroin while passing it off as cocaine. David has affairs with a couple of young women who find him more customers looking for kicks. In the process, he falls in love with a girl named Juanita, who spurns his offers. She'll take his coke, but she ain't about to shack up with no two-bit jive-ass pusher and con man. Bad, bad move on her part as we'll learn.

King David's journal serves as sort of a novel within a novel, as it's presented as it was written by King David. We learn really quickly that King David was a monster, double-crossing and betraying just about anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. I wonder if Goines had intended this journal to be a novel on its own, but got hemmed in by the first person point of view, then built the characters of Paul and Moon and the New York scenes around it instead.

Of course, there is no telling. So, in the end we have a flawed, but in its own a way a brilliantly flawed, novel of pimps and pushers and...writers! Strange brew and not for the timid. This novel gets violent and nasty before things come to a resolution.

In the end, I give it a recommendation. If you find any of Goines' novels out there, check them out.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

It produced in me, this figure in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was - a few more seconds assured me - as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind.

The ghost of Peter Quint in a scene from The Innocents, based on The Turn of the Screw.

In other words, she saw a ghost!

I really don't know if anyone reads Henry James anymore. To be sure, he's an acquired taste. Even among students of English Lit in various campuses across the country, he's probably hopelessly ignored now in the 21st century. And, much as I've enjoyed his novels, his prose can be aggravating to wade through. Sentences strewn with multiple commas, and asides, for which the perceptive reader, providing an intense concentration, illuminates, as it were, the depths beyond the surface of the events related to the passage of plot, a deeper understanding of...well, you get my drift here. Henry James is tough to read!

That said, his short novel The Turn of the Screw really is one of the best ghost stories you'll have the pleasure of enjoying once you give into its style. In keeping with the season, I thought it would be fun (whaaa? reading Henry James is fun???) to revisit his most famous ghost story set in an isolated manor deep within the English countryside.

The plot is relatively a simple one. A young governess is hired by the uncle of two small children, Miles and Flora, to oversee their care and education at his isolated country estate. The conditions of the governess's employment is that she, under no circumstances, communicates with, or otherwise disturb him, regarding their care. She is to take full charge over their well-being completely, leaving him free to pursue his bachelor ways alone in London. The job seems to be a delightful one for our young governess, until the ghosts of the prior governess, Miss Jessel,  and Peter Quint, the late groundskeeper, appear. We learn that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel enjoyed a sexual relationship before their untimely deaths. A relationship contaminated with hints of cruelty and violence. Convinced that their spirits have returned to corrupt the innocent children under her care, our young governess steels herself to confront the evil spirits and save her young charges.

There is a lot of psychological meat for the reader, and scholars, to chew on here. Are the ghosts real? Are they figments of the governess's imagination? Has her infatuation with her distant employer influenced her perception of her young charges? Are the children truly innocent, or have they been corrupted already by the late Peter Quint and Miss Jessel?

James has a ball with this story. It's steeped in gothic trappings, and a sly reference to The Mysteries of Udolpho (a gothic classic that I'll probably get around to reading at some point) is made. It's been adapted for film several times, and even had a major influence on a Dark Shadows plot-line. I think it's worth reading for anyone who considers themselves a horror fan. A good old fashioned ghost story, no matter how literate, never goes out of style. And this one is one of the best.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

It Came from the Drive-In

Betty Jane screamed and struggled to no avail against the brutish SS guards. "You'll pay for this! I'm a cheerleader at Denton High!"  

In a moment Betty Jane was stripped down to her white cone-shaped bra and panty-girdle and beige stockings. Flicking her riding crop, Elsie walked about her, studying Betty Jane closely. She playfully tugged at Betty Jane's blond ponytail.   - "Plan 10 From Inner Space" by Karl Edward Wagner

DAW Books February 1996. Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Yikes! Poor Betty Jane! I hope her boyfriend can rescue her in time before those evil Nazi bastards have their way with her!

So being the right time of the year for completely over the top horror fun, It Came from the Drive-In, edited by Norman Partridge and Martin H. Greenberg (what anthology didn't this guy edit?) provides more than a fare share of the stuff your grandmother warned you about! This was one of those perfect anthologies that screamed at you from bookshelves of your favorite bookstore twenty-some years ago. Every story in this collection is a lurid homage to those awesome drive-in movies last seen sometime in the late seventies before video rental stores moved into the strip malls.

With titles like "Die, Baby, Die, Die, Die" and "The Blood on Satan's Harley" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Danged" you're guaranteed to find something you're not supposed to like in this collection. Partridge and Greenberg put together these all original stories in the true spirit of grindhouse glory.

Horror sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously, and my biggest gripe against it these past few years (decades!) is that it's lost its mojo. It's supposed to be like a carnival ride, like candy that rots your teeth. Horror is supposed to be that girl by the lockers who smokes Marlboros while mocking the kids on the football team. And the scruffier, naughtier and sexier, the better as far as I'm concerned. That's the stuff that pulls me in. I know a ton of people will probably disagree with me and that's cool, but I've always looked for the strings dangling that rubber vampire bat and skeleton instead of something that's just there to depress me or gross me out. These stories by Ed Gorman, Nancy A. Collins, Norman Partridge, etc. take that spirit of horror/science fiction and make it fun. It was this kind of spirit that...(shameless plug coming up!) I wrote my first published novel, SIRENS, with. Whether I succeeded or not is up to readers, what few I get, to decide.

I'm glad to see that this terrific anthology hasn't disappeared, as it looks like copies are still available out there. Short stories this fun are getting rare and it's my hope that their spirit keeps rattling those rusty chains in your attic for a long time to come.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Landlady - Constance Rauch

"Ugh. How in the world did we come by this?" Sam's revulsion was as instinctive as Jessica's. The doll was made of aging, half-sticky, half-dry and corroded latex stretched over a spongy composition frame, its "skin" luridly jaundiced. It was, admittedly, a slightly naughty toy. Perhaps a novelty item sold by mail through the pages of a bygone stag magazine some thirty or forty years earlier. Its head was disproportionately larger than its body. Though it may at one time have had some kind of "human hair" wig, all that remained on the scalp was a multitude of pinholes, thus making its encephalitic head look like the work of some mad acupuncturist. The facial features, those of a coy, Kewpie doll, wore the plucked eyebrows and ruby-red cupid's-bow lips of the late twenties and early thirties.

Popular Library, June 1976

Well, it's the right time of year to read creepy novels and there are are few things scarier to me than creepy dolls. I'm also often creeped out by mannequins and ventriloquist dummies for that matter. And clearly I'm not alone since there are plenty of spooky movies and stories that feature creepy dolls. Much scarier than bizarre clowns holding balloons if you ask me.

I consider myself a pretty good horror fan, knowledgeable in all the classics and much of the obscure horror flicks and lit that is out there. I've seen a lot of movies, read a lot of books and have come to the personal opinion that most of contemporary horror fiction and film doesn't do much for me. Somewhere after the end of the 80's, horror took a turn for the formulaic gross-out, featuring serial killers for a long time. Then came the zombie apocalypse which seems to have over-run the horror market, much like elves and dragons took over the sci-fi market back in the seventies. There isn't a lot that I, as a horror fan, can turn to now that satisfies me the same way as staying up until after midnight to watch a scary movie on my old black and white TV did when I was a kid. So, when it comes to nourishing my taste for "horror" now, I mostly end up looking backward into the dusty paperbacks and movies of the past. Admittedly, most of it isn't scary, but there was a sense of spirit and soul to the movies and novels that I find is mostly (I'm not saying all) missing today.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded approach of setting up my thoughts on The Landlady, by Constance Rauch, published way back in June of 1976. I have to thank Will Errickson and his stellar blog Too Much Horror Fiction for re-introducing me to this one. Will is a far better reviewer of vintage 70's and 80's horror fiction than I am, so I encourage everyone to check his blog out. Oh yes, and while you're at it, if you're a fan of vintage horror do not miss Paperbacks From Hell.

I totally enjoyed The Landlady and blasted through most of it in a single day. It's very much a novel of its time (mid-seventies) providing a look into the social fabric of that decade with regard to marriage, class division, and manners. Jessica and Sam Porter and their infant daughter, Patience, move into an apartment in Wimbledon, New York, renting a section of a large house from eccentric old Mrs. Falconer. The setting is an obvious nod to The Stepford Wives and Burnt Offerings. The suburbs have proved a fertile inspiration for many horrific events, and the characters in Wimbledon give sly acknowledgement to such. I was also reminded of the Oxrun Station novels by Charles Grant. Jessica and Sam are clearly in a troubled marriage right from the get-go, and the meddling Mrs. Falconer wastes no time in pouncing on their fragile bond. Their home seems an open door to creepy goings on, including the discovery of a disgusting (and you'll learn just how disgusting) doll described above. Soon enough, Jessica learns that Mrs. Falconer has a long history and reputation of being a terror on her tenants. Locals look at the Falconer residence as a place of bad juju with a sordid past. Sam disappears into the city for long absences, leaving Jessica alone to deal with the paranoia surrounding their apartment. There is also the murder of a well-liked spinster in town that features prominently in the novel. Things get weirder and scarier for Jessica and Patience as events are piled on in thicker slabs of terror.

Readers today will have to re-adjust their expectations in taking on The Landlady. The climax will likely come off as ludicrous and the pacing may be too slow for many. The characters have a tendency to speak in well-mannered monologues that one would likely never hear today. But putting these minor critiques aside, I thought the book was a pretty good time. It's well written and has a way of pulling you into the plot once you give it a chance.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Price of Murder - John D MacDonald

It did not take him very long. Nerve centers and pressure points are much the same for a woman as for a man. With the flood of genuine agonizing pain came a fear that oiled her face and turned it gray. He had her in a corner and he made the words tumble out of her, a gasping torrent. Then, holding her arm, he walked her gently to the big bed. She walked with the feeble fragility of a very old woman. When the pain had faded, he made her tell him again, and asked her questions until he was certain he knew all she knew. The harsh discipline had shocked her. It made her very meek and highly affectionate. It restored him to the place of dominance. 

Fawcett Gold Medal

That's an interesting passage from The Price of Murder by John D. MacDonald in that it illustrates one of several times that women in this 1957 novel expect and get off on male domination, whether emotional or physical. In fact, none of the women represent well in this novel. I think it's more due to the genre and the times than any misogynistic attitudes by MacDonald. I've read almost all of his novels and there aren't many where you'll find an independent, strong female character that isn't a femme fatale or an insane nympho. Otherwise, women are good good girls who are expected to make good wives and mothers. Perhaps it's something that male readers expected. But I get why female readers wouldn't appreciate the books now. Even the Travis McGee novels have dated badly when it comes to attitudes towards women. I'm not knocking the book for it, it's just something that is pretty jarring reading today. Not that we don't still have a long way to go in 2017, but that's another lecture for another time. Still, it's fun to climb into the heads of the girls gone wrong in these books.

The Price of Murder is an excellent example of character studies wrapped in a crime novel, something MacDonald was very good at. Most of the first half of the book is a series of backstories for our starring roles. We have Lee Bronson, a college English instructor and war veteran. His brother Danny Bronson, a three time loser and small-time hood with a history of bad luck. And making their lives hell is one of those terrific JDM villains named Johnny Keefler, a sadistic parole officer with a prosthetic hand and a maniacal hatred for anyone who has broken the law. Lucille Bronson is Lee Bronson's wife. She's described as a "silky and membranous and pneumatic little trap." In addition to Lucille, there is Drusilla Catton, a "dark, reckless, full-bodied, hot-blooded" woman who has no issue flirting with danger and trouble when it comes to men.

A couple of people get brutally murdered in this novel, and you'll have no trouble guessing who two of them are out of this small cast I've given you. The main plot concerns a recovered stash of ransom money that Danny Bronson has a chance to get his hands on. Unfortunately, the ransom money is tied to a foiled kidnapping and murder case of a pair of wealthy twin boys that happened years earlier. Danny Bronson only learns about it from his time screwing Drusilla Catton, who happens to be married to a failing (and ailing) businessman named Burt Catton. Burt Catton's pal and lawyer, Paul Verney, is offered a chance to purchase the several hundred thousand dollars of ransom money at a deep discount, with the intent to launder it and save both him and Catton from financial ruin. Danny Bronson intends to extort the whole boodle from them and head south of the border. Hot on Danny Bronson's trail is the psychotic Johnny Keefler. Making things worse is that Danny makes the fatal mistake of trusting his sister-in-law, the bored and restless Lucille Bronson, with his plans.

This novel rips along nicely and the early backstories only intensify the motives and drives of the characters involved. I read it in two days while prepping for a medical procedure and it was a nice diversion. My only complaint, and it's a common issue I have with some of MacDonald's books, is that in the final thirty pages or so you can see him trying to wrap everything up into a complete and final resolution. Some of the later McGee novels don't aim as hard for this as the early non-McGee novels do. But that's a minor quibble in what are some really terrific crime novels by one of my favorite writers. This one can be found easily used or for your Kindle.

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.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Dagger of Flesh - Richard Prather

The cloth slithered over her shoulders and down her back, baring the bold, high breasts. Ayla seemed almost unaware of her now nearly complete nudity, but her large dark eyes were fixed on me. She held the robe momentarily gathered at her waist, covering only the outer curve of her hips and the outside edge of each thigh; and standing like that with her black brows slanting upward, the full breasts thrusting forward, her legs parted slightly and her skin a startling white contrasting with the black cloth, she looked almost obscenely naked. She made me think for that moment of a hot, lusty woman who would enjoy herself in hell.  

Crest - 2nd Printing, May 1957
Back into my favorite genre of fiction with this unusual book by Richard Prather, who can always be relied on to deliver a fast enjoyable caper. Dagger of Flesh is unusual in that instead of our expected hero Shell Scott we have a private dick by the name of Mark Logan on the case. Even more interesting about the novel is that it was rejected by Gold Medal in its original version, presumably because Gold Medal preferred a Shell Scott caper to this unknown cat named Mark Logan. Then, years later Gold Medal apparently published the novel after exchanging Shell Scott's name for Logan, only forgetting to address all the pesky details like, Shell Scott and Mark Logan don't look anything alike and both have different backstories. Both, however, are full of piss and vinegar and never let their case at hand sidetrack  them from a lusty babe like the one in the above paragraph.

Gold Medal 

The novel begins with Logan in the sack with a hot dame he knows only as Gladys. Seems he picked up Gladys in a bar one afternoon and the two of them have been doing the dirty for the past few days. Mark feels a sense of guilt about it though, because he knows Gladys is married. She has no guilty feelings whatsoever and is more than happy to be spending her afternoons doing the horizontal bop with our hero. So, after making arrangements to hook up again the following evening, Mark Logan returns to his office where he has an appointment with an old friend named Jay Weather. Jay owns a successful men's clothing store and for the past week has been getting pressured by a couple of rough types to sell the store off at a price way beneath its value. And to make matters worse for Mr. Weather, he keeps seeing a parrot on his shoulder every day at noon, for exactly one hour. That's right, a parrot. Only no one else sees this parrot, just our distraught Mr. Weather.

Well, things get even messier from there. After asking his old friend Jay Weather how things are going at home with the family, Logan realizes that Weather's new wife is Gladys, the same chick he's been banging the past week. Oh brother, some detective this guy is!

Thanks to a police psychiatrist buddy of Logan's, we learn that Jay Weather's invisible parrot may just possibly be the result of a post hypnotic trance. You see, just a week prior, Jay Weather hosted a small party at his mansion that featured a professional hypnotist named Joseph Borden. As for the two characters pressuring Weather to sell his shop, well they're for real all right, as Mark Logan soon discovers when one of them saps him with the butt of his gun later that night at Weather's store.

The plot thickens with a whole heaping dose of hypnosis hoo-haw which Mark Logan has to wade through. Along the way he tangles with the whole kooky crowd that attended this wacky hypnotist party that Jay Weather hosted. That includes Gladys, the sex-hungry wife, their daughter Ann, another horny sex kitten that seems more than anxious to sink her claws into our hero. And a couple of bizarre artist types, including one Ayla Veichek, who can't seem to cross a room without her clothes slipping off her body.

Well, we're not 40 pages into the book before someone kills Jay Weather, using Mark Logan's gun as the murder weapon. And to make matters worse for our hero, it seems that Logan has fallen victim to a hypnotic spell of his own. Only problem is, he has no idea who is responsible.

So you can see, this is a fairly ridiculous plot for a detective novel. There are plenty of scenes that stretch credulity to say the least. And Logan is a far cry from Hercule Poirot when it comes to using his "little gray cells." But that really doesn't take the fun away from the book. Many of Prather's capers are over the top with goofiness. These books don't take themselves as seriously as some other private eye novels of that era did. So there you have it, for  what it's worth. Now if I can just figure out why whenever someone mentions Winona Ryder's name in public I run around on all fours barking like a's getting kinda embarrassing.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner

No engagement, no courtship even: he and Judith saw one another three times in two years, for a total period of seventeen days, counting the time which Ellen consumed; they parted without even saying goodbye. And yet, four years later, Henry had to kill Bon to keep them from marrying.

Vintage Books, August 1972
Oh man, I don't really mean to go so long between posts. Life has a way of interfering with the fun stuff. I've been working longer hours at my day job, you know what I mean, that crap you have to do to provide a paycheck that affords the stuff you were really born to do. And I'm halfway through what will hopefully be my 3rd novel. Here's hoping that someone out there has checked out my first two novels...but this ain't the place for plugging my stuff. This is the place to look back at that...HEY! What the hell is William Faulkner doing here in the Files? This ain't typically a scene for that hi-falutin literature stuff that comes with over-sweetened lattes.

Honestly, I'm kind of surprised myself. I didn't really intend on digging into this book again, twenty-some years after the first time reading it. But it's been sitting on my shelf with my other meager collection of Faulkner novels, and I see it and think "gawd-dang that was a good effin' book" and next thing I knew I was wading into the swamp of Sutpen's Hundred all over again. And I mean pulled in like quicksand, succumbing to the winding labyrinthian (sometimes tortuous) prose of what I think is Faulkner's very best novel. I'm not anywhere near a Faulknerian expert. I've read about 5 of his books, and two of those (including this one) twice. But, man...could that dude write!

So...yeah, everyone knows this is a difficult book to read because of the style and structure of the novel, the long passages, the stream of conscience and the confusing timelines. I heard all that stuff too before I first read it. But I was an English major at FSU...I can take it, bring it on! And yes, those first dozen or so pages alone are daunting enough, wherein Quentin Compson agrees to meet the old spinster Rosa Coldfield and first hears the story of Thomas Sutpen who came from nowhere with his two pistols, a horse and a "herd of wild negroes" to pull his 100 mile homestead up from the very earth itself, erect his mansion from the clay of the land and by the sweat of his brow and to later marry Rosa's sister Ellen who gives birth to Henry and Judith thereby keeping in form and destiny Sutpen's plan to seed the south with his offspring and carve his name into the hearth of the noble gentry of Yoknapatawpha County Mississippi. But pushing aside the difficulties of the book and forging onward through the dense prose will reward the soul with a storm of tormented passions that leaves one breathless at its conclusion. A story of past sins that haunt the present, of a family cursed, of murder and violence and war, all told and retold through the lenses of three generations and fifty years of loss and ruin.

Okay, you get the idea, the 10-cent shadow of such in what I was going for there. And...ornate prose aside, I can't recommend this book highly enough. On this second go-round I'd forgotten how heartbreaking so much of the novel is. How painful and tragic and cruel the human condition can be. This is what the best literature does for us. It hurts and disturbs and, ultimately, provides a glimmer of hope. Don't let the difficult rep stop you from reading this book. Dig into it and surrender yourself to the words and don't worry that a particular passage of the moment doesn't make sense. It's not meant to make sense on a linear destination like we're used to. Take it as it comes and stick with it. It will come together by the end you will not be sorry afterward.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Blue City - Ross MacDonald

I didn't go near him. I had the notion that his tense body would give off a sour-sweat odor of depravity. But I moved close up to the wretched smile and took the envelope from breast pocket. He winced and jerked as if I was trying to tickle him. I had an impulse to hit him then, but I held it back. Violence might destroy the remnants of human dignity that kept him erect and smiling, and turn him into something queer--so queer that I wouldn't want to look at it. Another violence might do something to me too--make me howl like a dog or cry like a baby or pleat daisies in my hair.

Bantam Books
For his third novel, Blue City, Ross MacDonald was still finding his hardboiled style while giving the reader a straight up dose of sex and violence, It mostly works, barring MacDonald's ever-present penchant for the awkward English Major touches. It's a simple revenge tail of a prodigal son returning to his hometown to avenge the murder of his father. Only in in this instance, John Weathers doesn't know that his father J.D. Weathers has been murdered upon his ignominious return home. Unshaven, road weary, penniless, and homeless, he only learns of his father's murder, two years before, from a rummy in a cheap bar. A few hours later he learns that his father was something of a crook, albeit a gentleman crook, with an array of enemies from both sides of the law. The town itself, unnamed but located a few hours from Chicago, is a snake-pit of corruption and vice, thanks to the legacy of J.D. Weathers and his associates.

If' you've only read MacDonald's Lew Archer novels, Blue City is going to be a jarring experience for you. People are shot, stabbed, sliced, kicked in the head, hit with shovels, beaten, slapped, raped, slashed in the face, punched...well it ain't pretty friends. And John Weathers is no Lew Archer by any stretch. In fact it's difficult to have any empathy for John Weathers at all, as he spends the first third of the novel barging into living rooms and night clubs pushing people around and accusing them of being complicit in his father's murder.

For a lead protagonist, John Weathers is a little hard to swallow. We learn that he's been on the road for a number of years and is home from the war, and that he's only 21 years old. At no time in the book does he seem like a man that young. Granted, war experience will age a person, but John Weathers must have had some college time in the army because there are a few instances where he lapses into professor-speak, For instance, after beating the crap out of a couple hoods in a restroom he informs the bartender, "If the comic in the lavatory doesn't come to in another five minutes, you better send for a police ambulance."

He is also better read than your average 21 year old combat veteran. "Some of the titles I noted were Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Sentimental Education, To Have and Have Not, The Wild Palms. It was somehow comforting to know that the good people of the town that supported Kerch were protected against the lubricity of Rabelais, the immorality of Flaubert, the viciousness of Hemingway, and the degradation of Faulkner."

Plot-wise, Blue City doesn't come close to the labyrinthine plots of the Archer novels. There are past sins to answer for, some skeletons in closets, but the main plot is a relatively straightforward pursuit of justice. Everyone in the novel carries a collective guilt for the corruption within our unnamed Blue City. Complacency, greed and vice by its citizens produce the cesspool in which they must live. Even the mayor, Freeman Allister (note the subtle symbolism in the name!) is not immune to the lure of complacency in which he attempts to get along with the entrenched political forces.

Women don't fare any better then the nefarious men of Blue City. They're all either prostitutes, drug addicts, alcoholics and schemers. Abortion seems to be a thriving business. They're routinely beaten and raped in the course of their lives. It's literally South of Hell the way it's depicted. It's an angry novel, one that in some ways reminds me of Sanctuary by William Faulkner in its exuberant embrace of depravity.

First published in 1947, Blue City is still in print. I would recommend it to fans of hardboiled literature as well as fans of Ross MacDonald who may have missed this novel among the better known Archer series.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Nullifier (Joe Gall) - Philip Atlee

The next number was a blue tango. This tango does not depend on gyrations, clutchings, or simulated copulation, and yet there is more sexuality in it than any other dance. The movements are all grace and pointed pause, in slow time, and in them the man defers to the object of his chase. So I held her lightly, fingertips and hip, and we moved to the controlled tempo. 

And when that dance had ended, I did not step away. Instead, I thrust my hands under the rajah coat and cradled her firm breasts.  (-- The Silken Baroness Contract)

I thought it would be fun to look back at the couple of  Philip Atlee's Joe Gall novels that I've read. Joe Gall was an American response to James Bond much like another hardboiled spy of the time, Matt Helm, His first adventure occurred in the novel Pagoda by Philip Atlee, however the proper series of Joe Gall adventure starts with The Green Wound Contract, originally published under the title The Green Wound, way back in 1963.

You certainly do not have to read these in order, because continuity between contracts really goes out the window as Joe Gall's adventures progress. Looking back at his first "contract" known as The Green Wound Contract (which was the 4th one that I read) we have a plot that careens from one set piece to the next with all the logic of a dream in which there is a race riot, a blackjack wielding nun, a blues guitarist who kills for kicks, a bunch of "Arab-gowned goons" and a couple of screwy women to spice things up. The whole thing is delivered in a cynical hardboiled tone that I find kind of enjoyable. You learn fast that Joe Gall can be a real dick, and he's no fan of politically correct observations.

My first exposure to Joe Gall's world, (and reading these adventures you have to accept that it's Joe Gall's world and no one else's!) was in the novel The Ruby Star Contract. In this one, Joe Gall gets sent to Burma where he hires an escort, has lots of sex and curry, blows shit up, plays poker for his life against a drunken monk, is captured by a tribe of headhunters, somehow manages to play one dictator off against another, and (mostly!) comes out in one piece by the end. And I'm not sure what the damn thing was about.

Then there was The Rockabye Contract in which Joe Gall was assigned to act as bodyguard, under the guise as manager, for a 6'2" folkie singer named Hester Prim. This one had a loopy chase through Europe that included a factory of walking teddy-bears wired to explode. Then somehow it ended up on a Caribbean island run by a dictator who wanted to kill our hot singer Hester Prim. And yes,this is all during a rebellion.

I lay listening, staring at the sky. The airport was only a few miles from town. The ring of tanks around the Palace was still blowing up foolhardy rebels who tried to rush the gates and the lighter fire from the roof and the gatehouses continued. (-- The Rockabye Contract)

Joe Gall will go to any lengths in his adventures as long is it involves bedding plenty of babes. For example, in The Death Bird Contract from 1968, Gall takes an assignment to investigate the background of a potential diplomat (and millionaire) named Lewis Wardlaw in Mexico. We know it's not going to be easy when we learn that two previous agents assigned to monitor Wardlaw had come to bad ends. The crazy thing about this "Contract" is that in order to go undercover and appropriately blend into the scene in Mexico Joe Gall must first become a heroin addict. With that setup, we're off and cooking in a plot wherein Gall hooks up with a beautiful dancer, goes to jail, lives in a party-house, attends an opium-fueled orgy, takes a dip in a pool filled with piranhas, escapes from a clinic specializing in black-market organ stealing, gets chased by federales and all while suffering withdrawals from the needle. Proving once and for all that spying ain't a game for sissies!

It all sounds crazy, but I must say that in all seriousness, these novels are really well written. Philip Atlee has a compelling eye for detail, especially in all the exotic places he sends our hero. There is also an appealing charm to Joe Gall's attitude that grows on you, in spite of his being a bit of a jerk. I'm not going to say they're any better or worse than some of the better known spy series novels out there. They're full of confusing plots and odd diversions that make you wonder if the whole thing was done in a make-it-up-as-you-go-along manner. Women are props and not much else. Gall is a chauvinist just like any proper secret agent from the 1960's should be. So with that in mind I am going to say that they're a lot of fun to read.

I think it would be just fine if these were made available again for e-readers, noting that I prefer the smelly old paperbacks first and foremost. And wouldn't it have been something if we had a team-up of Joe Gall and Matt Helm out there on a caper? I can only imagine! There wouldn't be a safe broad in sight, unless they did something unforgivable like wearing slacks!

Happy hunting.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Infinity Science Fiction - November 1957

After a year of being stationed on the Lunatron, Jim Britten had the feeling of being fed up. Lunatics they call us, he thought. Real crazy.  - From "Formula for Murder" by Lee Gregor

November 1957 - Cover by Ed Emsh
Digging back into the stack of 1950's Science Fiction mags I picked up last year for this one. The line-up of writers in this issue includes: Gordon R. Dickson, Robert Silverberg, Lee Gregor, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Allen K. Long and David Mason. Clearly you have a selection of Science Fiction heavyweights represented here. Also, not a single woman writer in the bunch. Something I just now noticed. Which may explain somewhat the reason this issue came off as just a tad dry for me.

I've read Silverberg, Blish and Budrys before tapping into this digest. All of the others, including Dickson, were new to me. Yes, I've seen Dickson's name on tons of science fiction racks in used bookstores, but I've never been tempted to read anything by him. His story here, "The General and the Axe" didn't do anything to change that. The plot concerns a settlement of pioneers on an Earth-like planet after the destruction of our own Earth. It seems that, although all of their needs and comforts are provided for, they have no desire to populate their new home with a new race of Earthlings. General Tully, an Earthling himself, is assigned to motivate the pioneers into action. It's understood that our home planet has been decimated in what is assumed to be a nuclear holocaust of some type. The other planets in the solar system are populated, and interstellar travel has been conquered. Given all that, the concern of these pioneers makes no sense. So Earthlings take to their new planet with a malaise, and don't seem to care about their pending extinction. I just wasn't hooked on the premise with this one.

"One Way Journey" by Robert Silverberg was a lot more interesting. In this story, we have a planet, Kollidor, which is essentially a military outpost wherein one of Earth's soldiers falls in love with a native and desires to remain after his tour of duty is up. The "problem" is that the natives are considered so unattractive and appealing that there is no clear reason why an Earthling could ever fall in love with one and want to remain. In fact he's so adamant on remaining on Kollidor that he's willing to become a deserter. The story is a study in psychology and motherhood as his reasons are discovered. It was decent, but one expects that in a Robert Silverberg story.

"The Skirmisher" by Algis Budrys is the best in the magazine in my opinion. It's also the shortest. This story could have been at home in a crime digest of the time. That's probably why it appealed to me so much. In it, a cop named Hoyt investigates the seeming random deaths of a number of people across the U.S., all of which are connected to one single man named Albert Madigan. Hoyt attempts to interrogate Madigan as he is performing target practice with a rifle. Through a tense exchange between the two we learn that there is nothing random to a man who controls time.

"The Long Question" by David Mason is about a strange, really strange, televised game show where the lone contestant, in this case an accountant named Don Gerson, is sent to an isolated island for 2 months. The island has all the creature comforts Gerson could want; food, shelter, books, music, everything except companionship. At the end of two months Gerson will be retrieved from the island and have to answer a quiz in the hopes of winning $100,000. If he loses...well, we don't know what happens. Because two months go by and no one returns for Gerson. It's a weird story, hinting at an end-of-the-world scenario and what the last man left can create for future history. I liked this one a lot also.

"Nor Iron Bars" by James Blish involves interstellar travel on a microcosmic level. It didn't engage me at all. I was never once pulled into the story in spite of some sort of cool settings. This is where I might as well admit that my taste in Science Fiction is probably not very mature by some people's standards. I look for escapist entertainment in my Science Fiction, or at the least characters I can relate to. A lot of Science Fiction I've encountered seems to present what could be intriguing ideas played out by bland characters who use bad dialog (calling out Poul Anderson and Robert Heinlein here!). That's what happens in this story. Same thing with "The Railhead at Krystl Khoto" by Allen K. Long. It's just people talking about stuff, in this case, building a rocket to the moon before the Soviets do until "the end" is typed.

"Formula For Murder" by Lee Gregor is more like it when it comes to escapist Sci-Fi. It involves espionage, brainwashing and murder on a satellite orbiting the Earth. It's a lot of fun and the only fault I had with it is an ending that is rushed.

This issue of Infinity also contains a column by Damon Knight reviewing Big Planet by Jack Vance, The Green Odyssey by Philip Jose Farmer, and Eye in the Sky by Philip K. Dick. He liked Big Planet and Eye in the Sky. As for The Green Odyssey, not so much.

And that's that for Infinity Science Fiction in November of 1957. Old fashioned, square-jawed entertainment for less than a dollar! Some good stuff, some not so good stuff.

Monday, February 6, 2017

A Glass of Darkness - Philip K. Dick

Motionless--but alive. This was no stone image, no frozen statue. This was life, but life outside of time. There was no change, no motion for him, as men comprehended change and motion. He was eternal. The averted head was his most striking feature. It seemed to glow. It was clearly a radiant orb, apulse with life and brilliance. 

His head was the sun.

Satellite Science Fiction, 1956 - Cover by Kelly Freas
Whoa, man...that's cosmic! Well, yeah, it is kinda cosmic just like the really cool cover by Kelly Freas indicates. Some Philip K. Dick fans will know that A Glass of Darkness was later reprinted as The Cosmic Puppets in 1957 by ACE Books. I have the Vintage Books edition that was published much later. I don't have to read it, since I've now read the original Satellite Science Fiction version, thanks to picking up a bunch of old Sci-Fi digests not long ago.

Back in the early 80's, after seeing Blade Runner in the theater, I went out and picked up a bunch of PKD's novels in paperback and went on a binge. I still wish I had them. I had no idea that good clean used copies of his books would be so hard to come by in later years.

As you can see by the date, this is early Dick, when he was still working out the themes that would come to dominate his later novels and stories. Here you have something closer to The Outer Limits, or the Twilight Zone, wherein our hero Ted Barton takes his wife Peg on a detour into the hills of Virginia to see his old hometown Millgate. Peg couldn't give a rip, and is more interested in knocking back cocktails in the city than having to endure a tour of Millgate. Peg is kind of a shrew, but an interesting character in that she seems so unlike the type of woman that would marry Ted Barton. I was curious who she was in Philip K. Dick's imagination, and why she was introduced beyond getting descriptions of her legs and breasts whenever she's on the page. But sadly, she's dispatched off to some hotel in Martinsville to cool her jets for the rest of the story. Clearly Dick want her around bitching about how boring Millgate is and how crazy Ted has become.

You see, Millgate is definitely not the Millgate that Ted remembers from his childhood. Gone is the park, the school, the stores, the streets, even his own house. Instead they've been replaced by different streets, buildings and businesses. No one Ted talks to admits to ever knowing anything about the places he remembers. A research in the local paper reveals something even more disquieting for Ted. That instead of moving away at the age of 9, he's reported to have died of Scarlet Fever as a child! Is Ted Barton someone else? a man with false memories? Or is the town locked in some kind of mad hypnosis? To make matters even worse, Ted discovers that he can no longer leave Millgate, as all roads out of town are now blocked.

So you have a good setup here, but then things get really weird. In Millgate, you have this odd kid named Peter Trilling who is able to make clay figures come to life. You also have another kid name Mary Meade who can verbally communicate with bees and cats and moths. You also have these strange figures referred to by the locals as "The Wanderers." The Wanderers are ghostlike apparitions, beings, that can walk through walls. It's all very upsetting for Ted Barton, who probably should have taken Peg's advice and ditched Millgate for a bar in D.C.

Ted takes up room and board in Mabel Trilling's home, where he meets the strange kid Peter. Peter right away senses that Ted is an outsider, that somehow he's managed to cross into the town when others could not. Ted also meets Dr. Meade who runs a private hospital named Shady House. As things progress in the novel, Ted encounters the town drunk, William Christopher, who seems to be the only person in Millgate that remembers "the change" that occurred 18 years in the past. It's now Christopher's mission to return the town back to its real version, something he can only manage in small doses,

So what's the deal with Millgate and all weirdness? Well, it turns out that there is a cosmic battle of sorts between to godlike entities Ahriman and Ormazd and Millgate is the terrestrial arena. Yup!

Yeah, it all kind of goes a bit bonkers and sort of lost me at that point. I found myself thinking more about Peg and her heaving breasts back in a dingy hotel bar in Martinsville while the cosmic battle is playing out in Millgate. But, as far as pulp novels go, it was cool. You can see the early makings of Philip K. Dick's talent for unsettling paranoia and what is the nature of reality going on. I think most fans of mid-century science fiction would dig it.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Dancing Bear - James Crumley

I caught her day-drinking at the Doghouse, and when she came to the phone, she was mumbling drunk. "Winter, winter," she kept blubbering. "I can't stand another goddamned winter alone, Ralph." Ralph was an ex-husband twice removed. When she finally understood who I was and what I wanted, she lurched out of tears and into cursing. "Why don't you want to know where I live, bastard, why?" Then she hung up. By the time I drove out to the Doghouse, she had left. I called some more bars without luck. Lady bartenders live a tougher life than anybody knows.

Vintage Books, September 1984
Once again we're in the confused, rambling, wired-out-the-ass world of James Crumley as his weary hero Milo Milodragovitch meanders through a complicated maze of missing persons, surveillance, drug smuggling, guns, hand grenades, and environmental sabotage. And lots of schnapps and cocaine.

Again, my copy of the book has blurbs comparing James Crumley to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I can only say to forget those comparisons. They're not even close. Crumley's novels are wholly original takes on the myth of a private detective slaying dragons and righting wrongs. Comparisons to Hunter S. Thompson are far more appropriate. Crumley's heroes, Milo and Sughrue, are submerged in chaos and substance abuse and plots that make no sense to them, and barely any to the reader. Someone gets drunk, shot, beat up or screwed by a tough woman on just about every page. And throughout are observations on war, love and death that propel our heroes to inevitable disappointment and grudging justice. Dancing Bear is no different then any other of the novels by James Crumley that I've read. A rehash of the plot would be meaningless in attempting to entice a reader to enter Crumley's world. There is no linear path of discovery and justice that private eyes like Lew Archer and Philip Marlowe follow. No sun-burnt streets lined with palm trees and emerald lawns to wax cynical about. No glittering mobsters and sloe-eyed vixens to exchange deceit with. Instead you have an extremely flawed and marginally honorable hero barely managing to hang on to his own sanity while consuming massive quantities of drugs and alcohol in pursuit of a case that has no real beginning or end. Side trips and diversions, often to a dive bar or motel, are the norm. Romance with myth and heartbreak with reality at at constant odds.

This is the 5th novel I've read by James Crumley, and I can only tell you that I'm sorry there aren't more. I have a couple to go yet, not counting a collection of his short stories called Whores (which I imagine will be almost impossible to find) and I'm torn between holding off reading them, or diving right in to them now.

If you've not read one of his novels yet, then perhaps you should. Take one with you when you escape to Mexico after shooting someone who burned down your house.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Weapon Makers - A.E. van Vogt

But each time she caught the desperate defeatism with a tight-lipped resistance. The House of Isher could not afford to destroy such a secret. Some day, it might play a vital part in preserving the Imperial House from resurgent enemies. She smiled at the intensity of her indecision. And there was no doubt in her mind that so long as the ship remained in existence the hours would seem long, and the Crown would be in mortal danger.

Tempo Books, cover art Paul Lehr
So yeah, I have both this book and its companion "novel" The Weapon Shops of Isher, which is supposed to come before this one but was built from stories published after the original serial publication of "The Weapon Makers" from February to April, 1943 in Astounding Science Fiction. If you think that's confusing, just wait.

I was supposed to read The Weapon Shops of Isher first, then this one. That's because it was published in novel form in 1952, a year after the other novel. It was again republished as One Against Eternity as part of an Ace Double. But really, I don't think it matters which one should be read first because, like most of the A.E. van Vogt stories and novels I've read, The Weapon Makers doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense by the time you're done.

Not to say that's a bad thing. This novel is such a Snap-Crackle-Whiz-Bang-Pulp of a Science Fiction adventure that plot and logic goes out the window in all the shit that's going on.

This one is about Captain Robert Hedrock and the struggle between the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops. The current Empress is the beautiful Innelda Isher who, at the start of the novel has just ordered the capture and death sentence of Hedrock for being a spy. Hedrock gets advance notice of this order and manages to escape Innelda Isher's soldiers from a banquet hall,  seeking sanctuary at the The Weapon Shops headquarters. Much to Hedrock's consternation, the Weapon Makers have issued their own death sentence on Hedrock, because they believe he is a spy for the House of Isher. You see, there's been a several thousand year long uneasy balance between the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops, which were designed to build and store weapons that could only be used in self defense against a tyrannical government. These Weapon Shops came about after the destruction of around a billion people in a war that just about destroyed the Earth and around the same time House of Isher rose to power from the nuclear ashes.

So anyway, Hedrock manages to flee the Weapon Makers  and escape into an underground laboratory where he's promptly attacked by a giant rat! The giant rat is the by-product of experiments that Hedrock has been conducting for the past several hundred years in an attempt to understand and harness the radioactive chain of events that made him immortal thousands of years ago. That's right, Hedrock is immortal...just go with it. Anyway, Hedrock is now on the hunt for a cat named Derd Kershaw, who has apparently come up with a design for an interstellar rocket ship that both the Weapon Shops and the House of Isher are determined to get their hands on. Apparently having this method of space travel at one's control insures superiority over one's enemies. Don't ask me why.

Hedrock's seach for Derk Kershaw leads him to twin brothers Gil and Dan Neeland. It turns out that Gil is looking for his brother Dan, who was involved in the rocket design that Derd Kershaw was overseeing. Through a confusing series of events Hedrock gets a job as a rocket designer for a suspicious dude named Greer, but when Hedrock reports to Greer he discovers that the building they're working in is really a hangar hiding the Kershaw's rocket ship! I'm throwing the exclamation point in because that's how things move in this novel.

Ed Valigursky cover art from 1970

So Hedrock dupes Greer long enough to tie him up, providing the opportunity to investigate the ability of the ship they're in. But, Greer has been in communication with security commanders from the House of Isher and they've now surrounded the hidden rocket ship with 800 cannons, or something, forcing Hedrock to assume Neeland's identity, after which he manages equip part of the ship with an interstellar drive and make his escape by blasting off into space, where he travels at many times the speed of light, ending up on a planet where he's captured by a species of giant spider-like aliens so advanced that they're capable of fusing identities through telepathy, allowing Hedrock to return to Earth under Neeland's identity!

(Whew! ...catching my breath here)

Back on Earth, Hedrock makes a giant man which then attacks the cities of the Empire, forcing the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops to form an alliance against the destruction of their cities.

At least I think that's what happens.

I'm telling you this novel shifts gears so many times that I was never really sure what was going on by halfway through it. The whole story moves like a dream, where shit just happens without any seeming design or logic. Somewhere in his career, A.E. van Vogt determined that in order to hold a reader's attention he'd have to keep the action fast and furious, and logic be damned. Much of this was a result of his novels being structured, or cobbled together, by previously published short stories from the pulps. At least this is true of his novels from the 50s. It was also during the 50s that A.E. van Vogt was involved in L.Ron Hubbard's Dianetics centers in California. So make of that what you will.

Most of A.E. van Vogt's novels are easily found in used bookstores for really cheap. It seems they were never out of print, finding new readers every generation. It's understandable because, in spite of their flaws, they're pretty fun to read. They're the stuff that inspired many more "sophisticated" novels that came after in Science Fiction. So take 'em for what they are.