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?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Shadowers - Donald Hamilton

The little .22 settled on a point of aim and his finger put pressure on the trigger. I was aware of the strangled breathing of Harold Mooney watching fearfully and making no effort to intervene. That was all right. I didn't want any help. I just wanted to get my hands on Karl Kroch. At that moment he had no information anybody wanted. I didn't have to treat him gently. I didn't have to catch him and preserve him like a delicate scientific specimen. I could smash him like a cockroach, and I was looking forward to it; and I didn't care how big he was or how many guns he had. He was dead.



The Shadowers
, from 1964, is the 7th novel in the Matt Helm series, and picks up several months after the events which occurred in The Ambushers. Matt Helm is on vacation in Florida under the guise of Paul Corcoran, a reporter from Denver. He's supposed to be spending a month of fun and sun with his girlfriend Gail Hendricks. You may remember Gail Hendricks as the spoiled Texas socialite from the 4th novel, The Removers. I wasn't much of a fan of Gail Hendricks, and couldn't see why Matt Helm would fall for her. Well, turns out someone else wasn't much of a fan either, because as this novel starts up, Gail Hendricks has been killed in a car accident. Helm is taken to the scene of the accident by the police and looks for signs of foul play but is unable to determine any. Speed and alcohol seem to be the only cause.

Shocked and saddened by Gail's death, Helm calls up his boss Mac and asks for an assignment. Mac obliges by sending Helm to New Orleans, where he follows through on a series of elaborate maneuvers, signals and pickups, all to determine if he is being shadowed, as he makes his way back to Pensacola Florida. Helm's trip to New Orleans and back to Florida is something of an elaborate ruse in preparation for his assignment, to find and kill a man known as Emil Taussig. Taussig is responsible for multiple shadow operations throughout Europe, and has now been spotted in the United States, in Pensacola Florida. It's believed that Taussig's current target is Dr. Olivia Mariassy, an aerospace physician.  .

Mac said, "The exact nature of the Pensacola target is irrelevant. The important thing is that there is one, and that a number of valuable people, Dr. Mariassy included, are in danger, and that we must find Taussig and stop him before he gets all his agents in a position to act."

Helm's assignment is to stick by Dr. Mariassy's side and find out who is shadowing her. "You will determine if she is being shadowed. If she is, you will lead the shadower into a suitably isolated spot, safe from interference by the police or anybody else, and learn from him, or her, the whereabouts of Emil Taussig." Accomplishing that, Helm is directed to kill Taussig.

It's determined the best way for Helm to accomplish his assignment is to marry Dr. Mariassy while keeping his guise as Paul Corcoran. Dr. Mariassy agrees to the marriage charade. Mariassy is described as one of those "schoolmarm librarian types" and has a way of instantly annoying Helm, providing many opportunities for him to act like a bastard toward her. This is a recurring theme through all the books so far. Helm has to work with a woman who may or may not be on his side, and he treats her like shit in the process. It's his way of impressing upon them the ugliness of his world. And of course, it never really works because without fail, the women respond to Helm's brutal charms.

Events in The Shadowers are linked to the previous novel, The Ambushers, but you don't necessarily have to read that book first. There are also a lot of references back to the earlier novels, particularly in reference to Helm's relationship with Gail Hendricks and his wife Beth, from Death of a Citizen. The Shadowers features a great villain named Karl Kroch. Kroch is one of those sadistic Nazi bastards who takes pleasure taunting Helm throughout the novel whenever he isn't raping and killing the women who are unfortunate enough to orbit Helm's world. Kroch's vendetta against Helm relates back to Helm's previous assignment. As in all of the novels before, Helm can't really trust anyone completely. Not even his new "wife" Dr. Marassy, who seems to have too many secrets. Tagging along on the assignment is Mariassy's former lover, Dr. Harold Mooney. Mooney plays just enough of a wild card in the deck to throw the assignment off the rails more than once. Also joining into the mix is Antoinette Vail, a young woman whom Helm pulls in as a decoy early on in the case.

Continuity plays a bigger role in this novel than the ones before it. We also see Helm beginning to express misgivings in his abilities as an agent. More than usual, he makes mistakes in The Shadowers which result in deadly consequences. There is even a moment of reflection, considering the death of Gail Hendricks, and the events resulting in this current assignment, where Helm thinks of leaving the game. Such moments are brief, however.

This novel was published in February 1964, and by this time Gold Medal Books had found a niche publishing series novels featuring Travis McGee, Chester Drum, Sam Durell and Matt Helm. The popularity of series characters like Matt Helm meant something of an end to the stand-alone, noir paperpacks that Gold Medal was known for in the 50's. Writers like Dan J. Marlowe, Steven Marlowe and Edward S. Aarons, along with Donald Hamilton, began turning out espionage adventures rather than straight crime novels as they'd done in the 50's. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee was an exception, considering that McGee stuck to the basic "private eye" formula. So did Richard Prather with his detective hero, Shell Scott. Dropping off the paperback shelves were writers like Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington and Day Keene. The series character had arrived and was here to stay. 

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Ambushers - Donald Hamilton

"In case they didn't tell you in Washington or you weren't in condition to listen closely," I said, "it's a misplaced Russian toy known as the Rudovic III. It has a nuclear warhead and a twelve-hundred-mile range. That gives it a choice, from here, of any big U.S. city from Los Angeles, California,to Houston, Texas. Maybe further. My geography is a little sketchy. And controlling this pleasant gadget is our scar-faced ex-Nazi general, with his pocket-sized army and his dreams of greatness, past and future. 


Fawcett Gold Medal Books

With this, Matt Helm essentially sums up the plot-line in The Ambushers. Doesn't the Cold War sound like a lot of kicks? I mean we thought we had enough on our plate dealing with the commies, we had to deal with lunatic ex-Nazi generals to boot!

This is a 2nd time reading The Ambushers for me. First published in 1963, and the sixth novel in the series, The Ambushers shows a Matt Helm at his most ruthless yet. I think he kills at least a dozen guys in this novel. He also gets to play nursemaid to another operative, a female, if it matters, and face down a nuclear warhead in the process. So yes, it's full of action and has all the classic Matt Helm ingredients one could want.

The novel starts off in South America in a place called Costa Verde with Helm on assignment to assassinate a rebel leader known as El Fuerte. One agent has already attempted to kill El Fuerte and failed. Helm is aided by a Colonel Jiminez who, along with a rag-tag band of guerrilla soldiers, leads Helm deep into the jungle, to El Fuerte's lair. We get a detailed look at how a sniper operates in these early chapters, as Helm explains rifles, telescopes and distance to the doubtful Colonel Jiminez. The killshot is about 550 yards, and Helm doesn't have any opportunity to miss. The previous agent, known as Sheila, had tried and failed. It's Helm's hope that Sheila is still alive, and that he can extract her from El Fuerte's jungle if possible.

In the process of killing El Fuerte, Helm notices another white foreigner. Something about this one is familiar. He's a face from the files back in Washington. Just who he might be, Helm doesn't remember, but he throws a few bullets at this white stranger anyway, figuring if he's in cahoots with El Fuerte, then he's worth killing as well. Unfortunately he misses the stranger. With the assassination of El Fuerte successful, Helm and Jiminez's soldiers beat a retreat. Helm soon learns that the woman, Sheila, is rescued during the attack on El Fuerte's camp. Sheila is barely alive though, having suffered repeated rape and torture at the hands of El Fuerte and his men. She's able to inform Helm about a missile hidden in the jungle. Helm gets an opportunity to see the missile, but is unable to identify it or disarm it. He assumes it's of Russian origin, and may have been stolen somehow.

Back in Washington, various agencies are all bent out of shape to learn that a missile is down in South America. Matt Helm learns that the mysterious stranger he saw with El Fuerte is an ex-Nazi general named Heinrich von Sachs. Matt Helm's boss, Mac, suggests that it's too bad Helm wasn't able to kill von Sachs when he had the opportunity. Now he's going to have to go back and finish the job. Oh, and while he's at it, find out just what Heinrich von Sachs has to do with the missing missile, a Rudovic III, as it turns out. Oh yes, and find the missile and disarm it, if possible.

And with that, we're off on another deadly and treacherous adventure. Helm takes the traumatized Sheila down to a secret convalescence ranch in Arizona. From there he'll follow another agency's tip to a place outside of Tucson where a foreign agent was captured and killed before they could glean anything from him. It's believed that Heinrich von Sachs is also a mystery person known only as Kurt Quintana, who is gathering soldiers somewhere in Nacimiento Mountains. At the ranch, Sheila pleads with Helm to not abandon her there, to give her another opportunity to prove her worth to the agency and the country. Against advice from Mac, Helm agrees to let Sheila assist him in following the leads to Heinrich von Sachs. Along the way, Helm is kidnapped and tortured by apposing agents who are also after von Sachs. One of those agents is mystery woman known only as Catherine Smith, who lays a honey trap for Helm that he deliberately falls for. Sheila proves her worth by rescuing Helm from Catherine Smith and her partner. An uneasy alliance is formed with Helm and Catherine Smith both going after Heinrich von Sachs.

Like I said at the top, Helm doesn't mess around (too much) in this novel. He kills with deliberate necessity, using rifles, handguns, and even a machete to eliminate his enemies. And he also gets to sleep with a couple deadly babes along the way. All in the line of duty, you know. This is also the first novel in the series we're introduced to Vadya, a beautiful and deadly enemy agent.

The Ambushers is the third movie in the Dean Martin series. That movie involved a flying saucer somehow, and nothing from the novel. The movie was released in 1967 and is pretty terrible, as far as movies go. Unless you like over-the-top spyjinks. Me, I'll stick with the books, thank you!






Saturday, February 24, 2018

Murderers' Row - Donald Hamilton

It wasn't the worst moment in my life. After all, I've been responsible for the deaths of people I knew and liked: it happens in the business. Although we'd worked for the same outfit, this woman had been a stranger to me. Still, she trusted me to know what I was doing, and it's no fun to find yourself holding a corpse and wondering what the hell went wrong.

Gold Medal Books, October 1962


The 5th novel in the Matt Helm series picks up not long after the previous novel left off. Matt Helm is in the Chesapeake Bay area after returning from an unrecorded assignment in Cuba. He's looking forward to a month's vacation where he can visit his new girlfriend, Gail Hendricks. You may, or may not remember, that Gail Hendricks featured in the previous novel, The Silencers. It seems that Matt Helm has inexplicably fallen in love with Gail and is looking forward to a month of relaxation somewhere on a beach with her. Mac, his boss in Washington, makes no secret of his disapproval of their relationship. I don't approve either, if it matters, since I found Gail to be super-annoying.

Anyway, Matt Helm is called to Washington to take over an assignment that has already been refused by one agent. His job is to meet another agent named Jean at a nearby motel for a "come to Jesus" confrontation. Jean is an agent who is coming apart. She drinks too much, and is having doubts about the country she serves. She's even gone as far as hinting that the other side may not be wrong in its philosophy. Matt's job is to confront her and push her over the edge by roughing her up. It has to be believable enough to make the other side take notice.

"Jean has been one of our best female operatives," he'd said, pushing the key across the desk to me. "Very good appearance, attractive without being conspicuous, the pleasant young suburban-matron type. It's most unfortunate. We do encounter such breakdowns now and then, you know, and alcoholism is almost always one of the symptoms. Have you noticed how these slightly plump, pretty, smooth-faced women seem to crack up more readily than any other kind?"

That's right, spying in Helm's world is still a man's game, even though females (reluctantly, it seems) populate it. But you've been with me 5 Matt Helm novels in now, and I'm not popping any surprises here. Anyway, Matt reluctantly accepts the distasteful job. He must confront Jean in her motel room that is undoubtedly bugged, beat her, and leave her alive just enough for the other side to come and collect the pieces. Jean's job is to allow herself to be taken and, in the process discover the channel of human smuggling the other side is using. In addition, a genius scientist named Michaelis, who has recently designed a top secret submarine detection apparatus known as AUDAP, has recently disappeared in the area. It's Mac's hope that Jean will be on the same human transport as Dr. Michaelis. It's of vital importance that the information in Michaelis's brain does not fall into enemy hands. Jean's job is to either rescue Michaelis and blow the human smuggling chain, or kill him and extricate herself. Matt Helm's cover for the job is the identity of a low-level Chicago mobster named Jimmy (the Lash) Petroni.

Unfortunately, things do not go as planned. Helm is barely into roughing Jean up when she dies on him. What happened? Did he go overboard on the rough stuff? Did his "hand slip" during the beating? He quickly erases his presence in the motel room and attempts to leave when he's spotted by a party of four at the motel pool. A young woman in a bikini asks him to light her cigarette, which he does, before he hauls ass out of there. Unfortunately he doesn't get far before the police pull him over. After a night in jail, where he sticks to his cover as Lash Petroni, he's released when the pool side witnesses claim they can't be sure he was the one seen leaving the room of the murdered woman. The same poolside witnesses who just happen to be related in a myriad of ways to the missing Dr. Michaelis, including his daughter Teddy Michaelis, and mistress Robin Rosten.

Soon after being released from jail, Matt is pulled into their circle where each, in turn attempts to hire him, as Lash Petroni, to kill icy Mrs. Rosten. In the process, Helm nearly kills another fellow agent with a knife after he catches that agent tailing him. His assignment has gone to shit. His boss, Mac, tells him to come in from the field, that perhaps his psyche is no longer up to performance levels, that just maybe he's gone "blood simple" to steal a term from a well known movie. Perhaps he's cracking up under the strain of assassinating others in his line of work. Of course, Helm refuses, and insists that he'll see Jean's assignment through, and that if he finds any of Mac's other agents interfering, he'll kill them. It's all very nasty and treacherous, as Helm can trust no one, not even his own team, on this assignment.

As the novel progresses Helm is pulled deeper into the Rosten family intrigue. He keeps his mobster cover going, knowing full well that the enemy knows he's an agent. The problem is that he has no idea which among the party of bizarre characters he's tangled up with is the enemy. And time is running out, if he's to find the missing Dr. Michaelis and save AUDAP from falling into the other side's hands.

Murderers' Row is a return to the claustrophobic world of spies and treachery that made the first novel, Death of a Citizen, so compelling. Helm beats a woman to death, or so he believes, knifes a fellow agent in the gut, accepts money for hit jobs, kills an agent with a lead bar, gets slipped a mickey, gets captured and held on a sailing yacht, debates what to do with a suicide pill, and kills another guy in a typhoon. The book is loaded with action and, in a sign of what's to come in future novels, a lot of nautical jargon. I grew up in Florida but I'm very much a lubber, so much of the nautical stuff was a bit confusing to me. Donald Hamilton has Matt Helm learn the lingo as well, so much of it gets explained for the reader's benefit. Also, we're introduced to a villain that will very likely reappear in future novels, but telling you who would spoil the fun.

Murderers' Row was the 2nd movie in the Dean Martin series, released in 1966. The movie is completely different than the book, except there is an assassination on a lonely beach in both. I have clear memories of seeing Murderers' Row on TV, which means it's probably a decent one. There was a guy with a metal skullcap in it, that I do remember. No such skullcapped villains in the book however, just shadowy figures willing to kill each other barehanded after drinking martinis.


Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Silencers - Donald Hamilton

I raised both arms and swung the heavy buckle at the end of the strap. It sang through the air like one of the Japanese noisemakers you whirl on a string. It caught him just right, squarely across the face, and with that much power behind it, the foil made no difference at all. I couldn't have done better, or worse, with a machete.



Just like the cover depicts, some bad guy gets a Texas-sized belt buckle right in the chops. In this case the bad guy really, really had it coming to him.

Continuing the Matt Helm series, from 1962 is The Silencers. This is the 4th novel in the series and Helm has fully assumed his role as a government agent assassin. All vestiges of his civilian life are gone. Even the bad guys now know his reputation. This novel looks back at the first novel, Death of a Citizen, for inspiration by bringing back one of the agents from that novel who played a role in tailing Helm as he was pulled back into the spy business. That agent is named Sarah. Sarah was a rookie at the time of Death of a Citizen. Now Sarah has a couple years of experience behind her and is on assignment in Juarez, Mexico. Unfortunately, she's in over her head on something down in Juarez, and it's Matt Helm's assignment to extricate her from Mexico, by any means necessary. Helm has some uneasiness about this assignment. He remembers Sarah as a somewhat amateur agent, prone to emotions and reactions that could easily get her, and others with her, killed. He hopes that he doesn't have to resort to extreme measures in "rescuing" her from whatever hot water she's gotten herself into. Just exactly what that might be, he isn't told. His boss Mac informs him that he doesn't need to know the particulars of Sarah's assignment, just that he has to bring her back to the U.S.

In Juarez, Helm finds Sarah working "undercover" as a stripper in a seedy nightclub. He and a partner for the assignment watch as Sarah performs her dance of the seven veils for an odd assortment of patrons, including a well-dressed American socialite and her Texas cowboy boyfriend. Sarah barely gets into her routine when someone in the audience throws a knife, burying it "hilt-deep" into Sarah's back. All hell pops and Helm rushes to the stage to discover that the well-dressed socialite has gotten to Sarah ahead of him. Sarah whispers something to the woman and then dies. By then, bullets fly and the crowd disperses, leaving Helm with the socialite, who claims that Sarah was her sister. Helm pulls her out of the nightclub and takes her back with him to El Paso. On the way he learns that her name is Gail Hendricks and that Sarah was her somewhat wayward sister whom needed rescuing from a squalid life south of the border. Of course, Matt Helm smells a rat. Back at their hotel in El Paso, he's convinced that Gail is hiding more from him than whatever it was Sarah whispered as she was dying. Forcing her to strip, he finds a container of microfilm in Gail's bra. This leads to a whole scene of dominance and humiliation and dialog that becomes a standard theme in the Helm novels.

By this time, Mac shows up in person from Washington D.C. and the two men play a sort of "good-cop, bad-cop" routine on the terrified Gail Hendricks. Matt Helm learns from Mac that Sarah had "gone over" to the other side and that the microfilm involves government plans having something to do with military tests conducted in New Mexico. Also figuring into the whole sordid affair is a shadowy figure known only as "The Cowboy" who has been wreaking havoc on the espionage games. Matt's new assignment is to find "The Cowboy" and kill him. It's now believed that The Cowboy just so happens to be Sam Gunther, the gentleman last seen with Gail in the nightclub where Sarah was killed. Mac's theory is that Gail Hendricks will bring The Cowboy to Helm. In addition, Helm and Gail will follow Sarah's dying clue into New Mexico to some place called The Wigwam somewhere in Carrizozo.

What follows is a road trip through New Mexico and pages of head games between Matt Helm and Gail Hendricks. Helm turns the male chauvinism meter to 11 in this book, figuring the more he can make Gail hate him, the more willingly she'll betray him to The Cowboy. This means we get to hear more opinions about women in pants, how silly they behave in the spy business, how ridiculous they dress in the winter, you name it. If you've read any Helm novels, you know that Helm makes no bones about his chauvinistic attitudes. Unfortunately, the role of Gail does nothing to help her cause here. Her dialog is full of  silly phrases like "I declare" and "you brute" and "you beast" to the point that even Scarlett O'Hara would have pitched her off a cliff. Even poor, dead Sarah gets little respect, as we're to believe that she turned sides merely because of a stud in a cowboy getup.

If you can get past the dated attitudes though, you'll get another decent cold war caper from the sixties. I don't think The Silencers was as good as The Removers, but it's still a fun read if you like this type of novel.

The Silencers was the inspiration for the first Matt Helm movie starring Dean Martin, released in 1966. Everyone knows that those movies were silly spoofs of the Jame Bond films. They're tough to watch now, but I liked them when I saw them on TV as a kid.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Day of the Guns - Mickey Spillane

I dropped him off at his office an hour later and went back out to The Street. The Great White Way...brother, how it had changed. Where there used to be men and broads, now queers and jerks; the Black Muslims giving out papers...the guys who wanted to be kings. Okay, so be kings, only first take the crown away. Small bands like with Young Assassin on the back of their jackets trying to buck men who had guns in their hands and took the beaches, pimps peddling sixteen-year-old whores and finding the clientele that wanted them, cops who had to dress like babes in order to suppress the traffic, idiots who let the knotheads make passes at their wives because they were afraid to buck the trend. Now the slobs were on the loose and not too many wanted to do anything about it. Ha.

Signet Books, May 1965

I took a break from the Matt Helm series to (re)read the first Tiger Mann novel, from 1964, by Mickey Spillane. Tiger Mann was a response to the popularity of the James Bond, spy-craze that hit theaters and paperback racks back in the day. I was never really intrigued by the Tiger Mann novels when I started reading Spillane in my teens. I liked the Mike Hammer novels. But I thought Tiger Mann was a ridiculous name for a spy, and wasn't having any of it. By the sixties though, Mike Hammer was practically a spy himself anyway, as his cases started taking on an international villains instead of just homegrown gangsters. Ultimately, anyone who has read the Tiger Mann novels will tell you that Mann is basically Mike Hammer anyway, so entering the spy scene wasn't exactly a big jump for Spillane.

As for Day of the Guns, well you can tell from the paragraph above that Tiger Mann isn't going to play nice and abide by any gentlemanly rules when it comes to taking on the commie bastards who would come and take over America with their insidious ways. Throughout the novel Tiger Mann tells anyone who listens that he's not interested in the rules while the other side gets to come over and laugh in our faces as they have their way with us. Diplomatic Immunity is a joke. No sir! He's going to feed them a belly full of lead first and worry about the consequences later!

So what happens in  this novel is one day Tiger Mann is having lunch with a reporter pal, Wally Gibbons, when a gorgeous babe named Edith Caine walks into the restaurant causing every head to turn her way. Gibbons says she's a translator with the U.N. and dares Tiger to make a play for her. But Tiger already knows Edith from the past.

"Her name isn't Edith Caine...it's Rondine Lund. She isn't English, she's Austrian and during the war she was a goddamn Nazi spy. She shot me twice in '45 and left me for dead, and if there is anybody in this world I'd like to kill, it's her. No, buddy, we don't need no introduction."

And there you go. Tiger Mann wastes no time approaching Edith (Rondine Lund) Caine to let her know that he's blown her cover and that he's gonna kill her. But first he's going to find out what her game is and blow it all sky high. He leaves Rondine, pale and quaking with fear, and goes home to his apartment where he waits for a couple of hit men to show up, certain that Rondine will have put the X out on his ticket. And of course they do. But he's tricked them by stuffing his bed with pillows to make it look as though he's sleeping while the hit men blast holes into his sheets and leave. That's kind of how things happen with the gunsels in this caper. These are the worst assassins in the game who are sent to rub out Tiger Mann. This same kind of thing happens through the whole book. Tiger confronts Rondine, tells her he's going to kill her, goes out into the city and dodges flying bullets by inept assassins.

As far as agents go, Tiger Mann isn't exactly subtle. This is no George Smiley. There is no cerebral gamesmanship going on here. This is Bull-in-a-China-shop spying. But neither was James Bond exactly subtle. Tiger Mann works for an unnamed agency on the fringe, run by a guy name Martin Grady. Grady hands out the assignments and his agents do the necessary wet-work. Occasionally Mann will make a cutting remark about his competition, the "striped-pants" boys, who are either liberals or CIA agents. He's also got a boodle of connections and informers who pull strings for him, dropping information on what's happening around the U.N., putting eyes out on the street for him. All of whom tell him that he should "lay off" before things get too heavy. It's a standard theme that runs through Mickey Spillane's novels, whether it's Tiger Mann or Mike Hammer, where everyone around the hero is busy warning him off before things go all to hell. And like Hammer, Tiger Mann is a stud with the broads. He takes them to the Blue Ribbon where he feeds them steak and Pabst and beds them in their apartments later. And you only have to read a few of Spillane's novels to know who the real evil villain is well before Tiger Mann figures it out.

But as silly as it all is, Spillane's books are really fun to read (with the exception of The Delta Factor, which was a real stinker!) and go down like a cold brew on a hot day. There is a reason they were bestsellers. They're a good time. You know the moves, you know the speeches, and you take the ride to see the bad guys get what's coming to them.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Removers - Donald Hamilton

I took my hand out of my pocket and gave the little snap of the wrist that flicks that kind of a knife open if you keep it properly cleaned and oiled and know the technique. Opening it two-handed is safer and more reliable, but it doesn't impress people nearly so much. Tony's eyes widened slightly, and he stopped coming. This wasn't supposed to happen. When you pulled knives on suckers and squares, they turned pale and backed off fearfully; they didn't come up with blades of their own.

Fawcett Gold Medal books. 
Yup, it looks like Tony has really stepped in it this time. Matt Helm returns in 1961's The Removers, the third novel of the series by Donald Hamilton. This novel is best enjoyed if you've read Death of a Citizen first. Without having read that novel, the reader will miss out on much of the tension in the relationship between Helm and his ex-wife, Beth, who plays a major role in the plot.

It's been about a year since the events of that 1st novel, and Helm is summoned to Reno Nevada via a tersely worded note from Beth asking for help. She's now remarried to a man named Lawrence Logan. Helm isn't particularly eager to revisit old wounds with Beth, especially under the roof of a new husband. But he owes it to his children and clears it with Mac, his boss in Washington. Mac gives permission and tells Helm to check in with another agent named Paul upon his arrival in Reno. Clearly, there is something afoot in Nevada, but just what that may be is based on a need-to-know basis, and for the moment, Matt Helm doesn't need to know. Mac does go on to inform Helm that he has misgivings about Agent Paul's ability to carry out his assignment, and that perhaps Helm can be of assistance should Paul need any.

But, as readers discover in these novels, Mac is always a few steps ahead of Helm in sending him on seemingly routine assignments. Helm meets Logan, the new husband, and is politely but firmly warned off the premises. It's clear that Logan has a dark past of his own. But to hell with it, Helm figures, if Beth has decided to trade in Helm for another man of mystery, that's her problem. Adding to the reunion is a young woman named Moira Fredericks, who just happens to be the daughter of a powerful racketeer. So what's the connection between Logan and Fredericks? Well, that's something Helm is going to find out. Helm returns to his motel where he finds Paul, his fellow agent, dead from having been recently tortured. He learns from Mac that Paul's assignment was to learn what a mysterious enemy agent known as Martell is doing in Nevada working for...you guessed it, Fredericks.

So now you've got the recipe: mobsters, assassins, an ex-wife and a horny young woman who just happens to be the daughter of a gangster. It's all very nasty, and full of the brutality that saturates Helm's world. In no time flat he beds Moira, knowing that will bring down Frederick's henchmen upon him, and eventually get him closer to the mysterious Martell. Helm is a particularly cold-blooded and ruthless bastard in this caper. He lets an agent die to avoid blowing his cover, allows himself to be tortured, and offers up others around him get tortured and mistreated and in one instance even raped in the process. 

Beth was sobbing helplessly, less with pain than with sheer terror. The sound annoyed me. I don't want to sound hard-boiled or anything, but I'd been taking a beating for several hours. Logan was on the cot with a badly injured leg. We all stood a good chance of dying if we didn't work together properly, and here she was making a big fuss about something of relatively little importance. 

The Removers is an excellent example of a tightly wound, suspenseful plot. It moves faster than the second novel, The Wrecking Crew. Helm is now fully realized as a cold-blooded assassin here, having permanently shed his past as a civilian. From here on out, it's all business in the spying game.


Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Wrecking Crew - Donald Hamilton

There comes a time in every operation when the wheels are turning, the die is cast, the cards are dealt, if you please, and you've got to carry on as planned and hope for the best. I can name you names, too many of them, of men I've known -- and women too -- who died because some last minute piece of information made them try to pull a switcheroo after the ball had been snapped and the backfield was in motion. When that point comes, to scramble the similes even further, you take the phone off the hook and walk away from it. You don't want to hear what the guy on the other end of the line has to say. You've done your best, you've learned everything possible in the time at your disposal, and you don't want any more dope on any part of the situation, because it's too late, and you can't do anything about it anyway. 


Fawcett Gold Medal

This is the kind of thing our hero Matt Helm ruminates about just before someone gets killed. It's the kind of hardboiled attitude toward the spy game that keep these novels so consistently readable and entertaining. That and all the chauvinistic opinions about women in pants (he doesn't approve!) and getting them out of their girdles. Yes, in 1960, there were a lot of girdles that had to be maneuvered past in the treacherous life of a spy.

I re-read Death of a Citizen right before reading this 2nd adventure in the Matt Helm series, which was published the same year as that first novel. It's been five years since I've read that first novel, and re-reading again last week was a lot of fun. Basically, Matt Helm had been living the life of a family man residing in Santa Fe who writes westerns for a living. One night at a cocktail party he sees a woman named Tina, whom he once worked with in the war. Later that night, another young woman, who turns out to be an agent also, is found murdered in his writing studio, and Tina pulls him back into the world of assassins and death. The Wrecking Crew picks up about a year after the events in Death of a Citizen, and Matt Helm has returned full-time to the outfit he once worked for in the war.

His first assignment, after a refresher course in the art of espionage, courtesy of Uncle Sam, is to go to Sweden and find an assassin known only as Caselius, and put the touch on him. In Helm's organization, "touch" is another term for liquidating. Helm is older now, not in the same shape he once was, slower perhaps, but his instincts remain intact. Notably his ruthless determination in getting unpleasant jobs done. But times have changed since the war. His boss, Mac, laments the current state of espionage and its squeamish attitude toward killing. "Remember, this is peace, God bless it. Be polite, be humble. That's an order. Don't get our dear dedicated intelligence people all upset or they might wet their cute little lace panties." And with that last bit of advice Matt Helm is off and gone to Sweden to find the mysterious and deadly Caselius.

Helm's assignment has him connecting with the widow of a free-lance reporter who had been killed after turning in an article about the mysterious Caselius. There is some suspicion that the widow, Louise Taylor, may be involved with the other side, and that her husband's death may in fact be a ruse of some kind to muddy the search for Caselius. Louise has continued in her husband's career as a free-lance investigative reporter, and arrangements are made for Helm to go on assignment with her to photograph a mining operation in the northern regions of Sweden. The hope is that Louise will lead Helm, somehow, on to Caselius's trail. While on assignment, Helm is told to play his part as a naive citizen to the hilt, and not employ his skills as an agent for the government under any circumstance, even if he's "tested" by the opposition. And he will be tested, on that you can count on, my friends. First by a beautiful "blue-haired" operative named Sara Lundgren, who may or may not be working for the good guys. She blows Helm's cover within hours of his arrival by tailing him from the train station to the hotel he and Louis are staying in. She prissily lectures him on following orders and makes an all-round nuisance of herself until she's ruthlessly gunned down in a park right in front of our hero. Back at the hotel, Louise Taylor dresses like a beatnik (to Helm's disapproval, we're told often) and seems to have an agenda that involves more than taking pretty pictures of mining towns. One of Louise's associates is a chap named Wellington, whom Helm just happens to recognize as an OSS operative back during the war. It's made clear later, through Helm's derogatory references to "Ivy League" agents, that Wellington is with the CIA. There is also the young and achingly beautiful Elin von Hoffman, who tells Helm that she and him are distant cousins. Elin pops up throughout the novel, usually right before a contact is murdered or gunned down. And anyone of them may or may not be the almost mythical Caselius. It's up to Helm to find out just who is, and complete his assignment.

The Wrecking Crew was filmed as the fourth and final Dean Martin movie version of Matt Helm in 1968. I can't remember if I've seen it or not. The Dean Martin films never really appealed to me. I suppose if it shows up on cable again I may watch it, but I'm not going to commit myself.

The Matt Helm series is probably my favorite series of spy novels. Published as paperback originals for Gold Medal they hit the drugstores and news-stands at just at the right time during the spy craze in the 60's, and continued on into the 80's. The last novel, The Damagers, was published in 1993, with a final, unpublished novel named The Dominators out there remaining. For years they were out of print and I was only able to find them in used bookstores, usually in deplorable condition. Since then, they've been reissued in paperback by Titan Books which, I think, is good news for fans of cold-blooded Cold War spy fiction. I suppose a word of warning should be dispensed with here. These are definitely books of their time. I doubt they would be accepted by a major publisher today without heavy editing due to the dated attitudes, particularly against women, that Helm shares with the reader. It's been awhile since I've read any of the later novels, I think it was The Vanishers, from 1986, being the "newest" at the time. I can't say if Matt Helm's attitude toward women progressed since the novels from the 1960's. I would guess probably not. Just further proof that spyin' aint for sissies!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Megan Abbott and Gil Brewer Double-Shot

Really, if they're going to wear those darted sweaters tucked tight in those long fitted skirts cradling heart-shaped asses, skirts so tight they swiveled when they walked in them, clack-clack-clacking away down the hall, full aware - with full intention - that he was watching, even as his face betrayed nothing, not a rough twitch or a faint hint of saliva on his decidedly not-trembling lip. It wasn't he who was unusual, so lust-filled or insatiable. It was they who packaged themselves up so pertly for utmost oomph, for him alone, really, even if they hadn't met him yet when they slid on their treacherous gossamer stockings that morning, even if they hadn't known why they straightened the seams on their blouses so they'd hang in perfectly sharp arrows down their waiting, waiting breasts. - Megan Abbott, from The Song is You

Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, cover design by Ellen R Sasahara

Man, if that doesn't pull you in, you need to check your pulse to see if you're still alive! Passages like this one from The Song is You are why Megan Abbott is one of my favorite writers. She can nail the menace and sex that noir is built on, and transcend it to another level. It's not a surprise that her popularity has increased with each new novel. For every half-baked bestseller touted by critics, there are novels by writers like Megan Abbott who've already done it and done it better.

The Song is You is her 2nd published novel, from 2007, and it uses a real-life Hollywood mystery for its inspiration. In 1949, starlet Jean Spangler left her home to do a "night shoot" for a film she was supposedly working in. She never came home, and was never seen again. A few days later her purse was found in Griffith Park, with an unfinished handwritten note inside it. The note was addressed to a Kirk and referred to a Dr Scott. That was the last clue to a mystery that has never been solved. Megan Abbott uses this setup to recreate a dark novel of secrets about what might have happened to Jean Spangler. It's similar to James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia, in that it blends real life people with fiction and recreates a time and place built on dreams and fantasy. I mean who can resist a Hollywood mystery? Abbott's attention to detail and character drives this novel. If you're a fan of noir and unsolved mysteries, this novel will be right up your dark alley. Abbott returned to another true-crime case a few years later with Bury Me Deep about the Winnie Ruth Judd murders in 1930's Phoenix. The noir genre is so heavily weighed down with scads of male writers and tropes that have become so standard as to be expected. Diving into the dark heart of noir from the woman's perspective is a blast.

Gold Medal Books, 1951

Picture in your mind all the wizened, jittery, pasty-faced, hollow-eyed dope fiends you can conjure up, and add ashes. There you have the little guy. Maybe that doesn't do him justice. He was no dope. It was something else. You might think of leprosy when you saw the way his skin glistened, but you'd know you were wrong. He was drumhead tight, in a wasp-waisted gray gabardine that was neater than any pin, with a maroon tie and a maroon handkerchief cocking a bloody eye out of his breast pocket. He wore an expensive Panama hat that must have been set on his square little head with a carpenter's level. It was the broad-brimmed kind. He gave you the impression that when his suit went to the cleaners, he stayed in it, with through the process, pressing and all, and was carefully hung in antiseptic shade. - Gil Brewer, from So Rich, So Dead

The only thing missing from that description are the pink shoelaces! Gil Brewer is one of my all-time favorite noir writers from the 50's and 60's. He's not as polished as writers like John D MacDonald, but his prose has a fever and a drive that make his books irresistible to me. Unfortunately, So Rich, So Dead, from 1951, isn't one of the better examples of why I like his work so much. This was his 2nd novel with Gold Medal, after Satan is a Woman and before his highly successful 13 French Street. All three of these novels were published in 1951, which gives you an indication of his writing method. That was, churn them out and cash the checks. So Rich, So Dead has elements of the best of his novels, found in books like The Vengeful Virgin and The Red Scarf, but falls short, with it's Chinese Buffet of a plot that's almost zany instead of suspenseful.

Briefly, Bill Maddern returns from Charleston, SC to St. Petersburg, FL upon receiving a desperate telegram from his brother Danny Maddern. The brothers had set up a detective agency in St. Pete, and had seen a moderate level of success before, for reasons never really clear, Bill took off for Charleston. In his absence, Danny is hired to investigate a missing person believed to have been involved in a payroll robbery that netted the criminals $500,000. Bill returns to FL to discover his brother's murdered body, along with a note (hidden in a spittoon!) informing Bill that Danny had found the stolen loot and the body of one of the criminals involved. This kicks off a plot that is all over the map in the span of 24 hours, filled with 3 femme fatales, razor wielding goons, shotguns, car chases, angry cops, sex and a wild chase through a lady's department store sale, of all things. It's a fun novel, but not one that I would introduce to first-time readers of Gil Brewer. I'm glad to see that Brewer's novels and stories have seen a renewed interest though.






Sunday, January 14, 2018

Vintage Western Trio

So, two weeks into 2018 and it's not looking like sanity in the real world is returning anytime soon. I've made some resolutions this year, something I don't normally bother with, and one of them is to ignore the news as much as possible. Those who know me personally know my feelings about the direction we've turned in the country and this corner isn't the place to dwell on it. So I've chosen to escape the early weeks of 2018 into the canyons and valleys and deserts found in some vintage westerns I've had on my shelf.



The first one is The Lone Gun, by Howard Rigsby, from 1955. My book is a Gold Medal paperback, something that nearly always guarantees a good time. The Gold Medal westerns, in my reading experience, tend to lean hard-boiled, which I like. The Lone Gun falls right into that vibe. Brooks Cameron works for Dave Tilton, tight-fisted rancher, who runs the town which is appropriately named Tiltonville. Brooks has been with Tilton long enough to earn a good rep with most of the townsfolk. Brooks has ambitions of marrying Mary Silk, the reverend's daughter (a preacher's kid! hubba hubba!) and staking out a ranch of his own. Competing for Mary Silk's attention is the local sheriff, a bully named Adam Lufkin. Lufkin wields his authority by railroading anyone he doesn't like with whatever trumped up charges he can come up with. One day, returning from a cattle drive, Brooks Cameron has an argument with Dave Tilton on behalf of the other workers waiting to get paid. In a fit of anger, he quits on Tilton. Unfortunately, he does so in front of Tilton's brother and Sheriff Adam Lufkin. By next morning, Dave Tilton is found murdered, and the money from the cattle drive is missing. Guess who the number one suspect is. If you guessed Brooks Cameron, you've clearly been to a rodeo or two! What follows is a long...sometimes too long...ride on the lam for our hero Brooks Cameron, as he tries to find Tilton's real killer while evading the Sheriff and his henchmen. It's a pretty good novel, with my only gripe being some clear page filler with Brooks just hiding out and plotting his next move. Finding the real killer takes some time and there are a number of false trails getting there. Still, there is enough suspense to carry the plot, and you look forward to that bastard Adam Lufkin getting his comeuppance.

The next western trail I rode is Lewis B. Patten's 1957's novel Pursuit. I've read a few of Patten's other novels and some short stories and, so far, I've liked them. I understand, from others who know the genre better than I do, that his later novels from the 70's tend to be a mess. I've kept that in mind when looking for his books. Pursuit could have been a mid-century crime novel, as it begins with a robbery of a stage coach. It could have easily been updated to a payroll robbery. Four strangers ride into a town named Buffalo Wallow and proceed to hold the town hostage as the stage arrives. Casey Day is the fellow in charge of the way station, and is taken hostage as the bad guys shoot up the place and take off with the money. Turns out that Casey Day is accused of being in cahoots with the robbers, because this is the second time in his career that a stage got robbed under his watch. What follows is a...Pursuit! This pursuit goes all over hell's creation and takes nearly a year to resolve. Casey travels far and wide looking for the outlaws, taking them down one-by-one and returning the stolen money. It's an obsession that he won't let go of, even while he's got a willin' gal waiting for him back in Buffalo Wallow. I liked Pursuit a little better than The Lone Gun, while the plots were pretty similar. However, Casey Day isn't a particularly likable hero and a bit hard to relate to. But there are some really good bad guys in it, and the minute-by-minute robbery detailed in the first half of the book is nicely done.

Finally, I ended the triple-feature with The Dead-Shot Kid by Philip Ketchum, published in 1959. This is the first time I've read anything by Philip Ketchum. Same goes for Howard Rigsby, above. This one is the best of the trio, with our hero Johnny Durango (now that's a hero's name!) surviving an ambush on a cattle drive and facing a valley run by an evil bastard named Dab Bassett. Bassett has sent out his gang to steal a herd of cattle that Johnny Durango is riding with. Durango survives a shootout with a pair of Dab Bassett's henchmen and proceeds to go up against the valley alone. This one had a nice sense of pacing throughout. I will say that maybe, just maybe, not enough space was devoted to Dab Bassett himself. But that's a minor gripe, as there are plenty of fists and guns to making up for Bassett's absence. There is even a romantic angle involved as Johnny Durango gradually forms an ally with Glynn Webster, the lonely wife of one of Bassett's gang.

So there it is for now. I got my fill of westerns for the time being, and some relief from the ills of the world in the process. Here's looking at better year ahead for everyone.