With the Thanksgiving holidays on us, and a few long weekends between my last post, I had a chance to get some reading done, in addition to the full-time day job I’m chained to.
For non-fiction, I finished The Long Gray Line by Rick Atkinson. This book details the lives of various graduates of the West Point class of 1966, from their first year at West Point, through their experiences in Vietnam and after. It’s a long book and painful in many parts. America was an ugly place then. Still is in many ways. I’m not sure we’ve learned any lessons from the past and often wonder if we’re cursed to run in place on a hamster-wheel of folly.
So, on to the more fun stuff. In addition to the West Point book, I read a cool little sleaze paperback from Monarch Books, Tropic of Cleo by Rick Holmes. I spent a Saturday afternoon manning a market stall reading an old Avenger paperback, River of Ice by Paul Ernst, under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. And lastly, a pretty cool crime novel from the early fifties by Wade Miller called The Big Guy.
The Big Guy is a morality tale of sorts about the rise and fall of a small time hood, Joe Drum, into the top ranks of the Los Angeles underworld. If you’ve seen the movie Scarface (either version) you have a pretty good idea what’s in store for our anti-hero Drum. He’s a single minded beast, (even his name is symbolic for the loud storm from a hollow instrument) whose drive takes him to the top of the game. Unfortunately, when you’re at the top there is only one direction you can go. And man, does he go, thanks to the help of a woman named Patience. There are a lot of nightclub scenes, party scenes, gun-play and betrayal going on throughout, and you read along waiting for the fall of Joe Drum. There is a neat psycho-sexual warfare going on that plays a huge part of Joe’s demise. This is the 2nd novel by Wade Miller (in reality, two pals named Robert Wade and Bill Miller) that I've read after Kitten with a Whip. The style is on this side of over-written, at least in this novel, but once the story hits its stride it moved at a good clip. If you're interested in trying any Wade Miller novels, Stark House Press has reprinted a few of their novels, and used copies of their paperbacks are fairly easy to find.
Tropic of Cleo is one of those “treasure hunt” capers that could have been written by Gil Brewer. Harry Gregory and his wife Cleo arrive in the Bahamas to meet “an old college friend” of Harry’s. Right off the bat we learn that Cleo has a raging case of the hot pants and you know that wherever she goes trouble will follow. Cleo comes across as bitchy, bored and alcoholic, and enjoys needling Harry at every opportunity. Harry’s pal, Gene Freeman, arrives, along with Max Heinrich and the three of them begin making their plans. Heinrich is a former WWII P.O.W. who holds the secret location to a treasure trove of stolen loot worth about 2 million dollars in his brandy-addled head. The problem is that he doesn’t know exactly which island the loot is buried on. Cleo thinks the whole thing is hooey and isn’t shy about letting the guys know her opinion. She’s also got Gene Freeman all in a lather for her. Freeman makes no bones about putting the moves on Cleo every chance he gets. Enter the picture a seaman for hire named Casey Stribling and Marla Keever. Casey and Marla had a thing going, until Casey got tired of Marla. Casey is one of those golden sun-god types that gets Cleo’s temperature up, and next thing you know, you have a boatload of bottled-up passions and lusts ready to explode. This is the kind of plot where the idea of stocking up supplies means having plenty of hooch on hand to guzzle. There are a couple hot-sex scenes going on and one wild catfight. This is not the kind of stuff that would not find a reputable publisher today. I enjoyed Tropic of Cleo for what it was, a politically incorrect, sexy (for its time) caper with plenty of booze and duplicity and assorted shenanigans going on. I’ve never read a thing by Rick Holmes before, but it was right there in the Gil Brewer style of writing to keep things from ever slowing down, forcing you to think too much about the preposterous situation the gang’s all in.
Finally, a quick look at The Avenger: River of Ice. This was the 11th Avenger adventure, first appearing in July 1940. These pulp novels were reprinted in the 1970’s by Warner Paperbacks. I remember seeing them all the time in the Waldenbooks at the mall when I was a kid. They were right there alongside the Doc Savage novels that usually got my 75 cents at the time. I’ve read a lot of Doc Savage novels over the years, and only a few Avenger novels. I’m going to have to say it. The couple of Avenger novels I’ve read were better than many of the Doc Savage novels I can think of off the top of my head. That's probably fightin' words among pulp nerds! I understand that The Avenger was a response to the success of both Doc Savage and The Shadow. Paul Ernst was hired to write the early Avenger adventures after consulting with Walter Gibson and Lester Dent, authors of most of The Shadow and Doc Savage novels, respectively. The Avenger is an adventurer named Richard Benson who turns to fighting crime after his wife and daughter are murdered. The shock of their deaths turns Benson’s face and hair a ghostly white. His features are also paralyzed. This allows his face to become malleable, thereby providing ample opportunity for disguise. He’s kind of like Doc Savage, The Shadow and Batman, in that he has an arsenal of gadgets and chemicals at his disposal. He also, like Doc Savage, does not kill criminals; instead he allows them to kill themselves by their own actions. This adventure has a lost civilization theme to it, wherein a gruesome surgical method for creating obedient slaves by sticking a steel needle into the brains of people is used as a plot device. There are chases, fights and perils aplenty in this romp, including a not particularly difficult mystery about who the evil genius is causing all the turmoil. It’s nicely paced, keeping up a lot of suspense right up to the ending. I would imagine that Avenger paperbacks are relatively easy to find out there in the wild. I mostly see Doc Savage paperbacks but every so often an Avenger book shows up.
So that’s about all for now. Happy hunting.