Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Psychedelic-40 - Louis Charbonneau

There were key clubs, private dance clubs, so-called entertainment clubs catering to almost any wish, in every American city of almost any size…An erotic response to PSI-40, usually coupled with a stripping away of inhibitions and restraints, occurred in perhaps one case out of six or seven. Just as the nature clubs and religious temples sprang up for those who enjoyed a mystical experience under the chemicals influence, so the sex clubs provided places where those who shared this specialized reaction could meet.

Bantam - January 1965
And that, my friends, is about as steamy as this novel gets. Still, that is one cool cover by Paul Lehr, which is pretty much the sole reason I picked up this novel and took it home with me.

Psychedelic-40 by Louis Charbonneau pretty much falls short of all the potential the blurbs hinted at on the back of my copy. Especially missing is any thought-provoking study on what may result from a society that chooses to pacified by designer drugs, instead of reality. Instead, what we get in the pages of this 1965 science fiction novel is mostly a "secret agent" yarn with elements of 1940s crime novels thrown in. By that, I mean the sort of crime novels where the detective pursues one direction but is sidelined by another conspiracy along the way, so that ultimately both conspiracies join into a tidy ending where the villain pulling the strings is revealed to by someone the detective is supposed to have trusted.

In this case, the detective, Jon Rand is an agent for The Mental Freedom Syndicate, run by a board of "Specials" which are old men with full ESP and mind-control powers. It's 1993, and the Specials use agents known as "Sensitives" to do their dirty-work, which basically is maintaining their agenda of control by promoting the mental wonder-drug PSI-40, by any means legal and illegal. Rand’s assignment is to find the leader of Mental Freedom Syndicate’s chief opposition, a rebel group known as the Antis. Between you and me, The Antis isn't a moniker that particularly strikes awe for a rebel group. Anyway, The Antis are headed up by a shadowy figure known as Killjoy. Killjoy is assumed to be Kemp Johnson, son of PSI-40’s inventor, and a natural Special. The previous two agents assigned to find Killjoy have disappeared and are presumed dead. Rand’s assignment is a diversion of sorts from an internal power struggle within the Mental Freedom Syndicate. The Syndicate’s chairman, Garth Taylor, is old and maintaining a feeble control on the Syndicate's rule. Rand’s superior, Loren Garrett, wants to be the new chairman of the Syndicate. Too bad for him, so do the other members of the Syndicate’s board.

Halfway into the novel, Rand is captured by black market “pirates” who want to steal the next supply of PSI-40 for their own nefarious means. Other than jacking the price of PSI-40, it’s not clear how this plan will work, considering PSI-40 is government endorsed and can be manufactured at the Syndicate’s direction. But this plot twist does provide a couple chapters of action for Rand and a mysterious woman named Taina Erickson who manages to appear at opportune moments. Of course, Taina becomes a love interest for Rand, but he can’t trust her. She could be an agent for Killjoy! Their coupling has about as much chemistry as a pairing between Gwyneth Paltrow and Keanu Reeves.

There is plenty of action, but not much sociological depth here. It's more of a caper, complete with goons and a femme fatale of sorts that would have been right at home in the pages of a pulp magazine. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but the novel lacks the hellzapoppin pace and drive of those old pulp yarns. Yes, it’s better written but still, it's been done before. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Junkie - Jonathan Craig

He was brutal about it, savage with a savagery he hadn't known he possessed. He had never acted that way with a girl before. He didn't have to act that way – she would love him just for the asking, she’d been bought and paid for. But that time wasn't like any other time. That time he was trying to destroy something, trying to burn it out of his heart. 

Lancer Books - Frenzy (originally titled Junkie)
Jazzcats, junkies, whores and murder. Yup, that about sums up this tawdry little tale of love among squalor. Junkie, by Jonathan Craig, was likely written to cash in on the beat craze going on thanks to Kerouac and the gang put the kicks on paper. It's set among the jazz alleys and clubs of Washington D.C. in the 50s instead of the standard hangouts like Greenwich Village or North Beach. Steve Harper is a horn man, one of the best, who's burning a torch for a former call-girl and heroin junkie named Kathy. Kathy came out to the big city to find success but found the needle in a brothel instead. Soon as she meets Steve things start to look up. Sure, Steve has some existential angst and all, falling in love with a prostitute, but damn! Kathy lets Steve have his way with her on their first night together. Well, a bit more than that actually. Steve's big moment of passion is pretty much raping Kathy in the front seat of his car. He figures in some psychotic way that going all caveman on her is what one does to a chick that's peddling it for everyone. A good bout of self-loathing immediately follows. Kathy thinks Steve as something of a lost and tortured soul. Just the sort of cat to kick the needle for, and "toots-sweet", Cupid's flinging arrows at them. There was no mention of how much scratch changed hands, but she definitely leaves some deep scars in his heart. 

Jump ahead a couple months and Steve is mooning over Kathy after sleeping with one of his gal-pals Lois. Lois is a trip. Lois is one of those wound up kittens who like to scratch too. Not only that, but Lois plays a hell of a boogie on the ivories, and once-upon-a-time Steve could have really gone for her. But Lois ups and marries a clown with dough instead. Lois decided that banging the ivories in reefer joints is the slow boat to Endsville, so why not take a short cut and marry some rich moke for his money. That was the plan anyway. But Lois's hubby Mel has a problem with the sauce. He drinks and likes to get rough. He's also got a jealous streak. So it's not long after the wedding bells stop ringing that Lois resumes slinking around Steve's pad, sitting around in her sexy underwear, smoking reefers and playing Steve's records and torturing him about Kathy dumping him. And that's the scene, until one night a cop friend of Steve's calls him up and drops the news that Steve's old mentor Wally Haynes was given the dirt nap. And the chief suspect is...Kathy!

What follows is pretty much Steve running around town playing gumshoe trying to find Kathy, while also trying to nail the gink who offed Wally. In the process he gets mixed up in a triangle between Lois, Kathy, and some kooky chick named Donna, who may or may not dig guys, it all depends on her mood. There's some booze, some hash, some reefer, some round-heeled dames, a couple of swishes and lesbians and a lot of jazz. If that sounds like your thing then you should have a good time with Junkie. I did, but I'm kind of a sucker for that crazy beat stuff. I might have been born too late. A wild night for me back in the day was a Cheap Trick record and a bottle of Boone's Farm Stawberry Hill. Just as well, I guess...

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Saturday Night Vinyl - Les Baxter Caribbean Moonlight

In this album arranger-conductor Les Baxter expresses the soft moods of the islands at night. The music suggests impressions rather than photographs. It evokes images of moonlit jungles and wave-washed beaches, of gardens sending the heady fragrance of orchids and bougainvillea into the night air.

Capital Records - 1956
Yeah, it is all that, what's said on the liner notes above, but I also see Robert Mitchum making out with Jane Greer on a moonlit beach in Mexico too. Okay, I'm a big fan of Out of the Past, so that's an easy one. Mostly, Les Baxter's Caribbean Moonlight is one of my top favorite records to put on during the early hours of a cocktail party or when I just feel like chilling alone. Arizona is a long way from any Caribbean moonlight but this record is a cool substitute. It's one of those records that glides through multiple listens without a hitch, that's the perfect backdrop for the tinkling of melting ice in a cold highball, or just cool listening to lush Exotica at its best.

I came by this album through a member of the family that was getting rid of their records. I really liked the cover and took it along with some other records that I don't play near as much as this one. It was also one of the first albums in the Exotica genre to join my mostly not so great 70s and 80s hard rock records - the ones I hide from public view. It was about time that something came along to class my collection up a bit! Since then I've gathered some nice additions, but Caribbean Moonlight still holds a top tier in my faves. Linked here is "Taboo" (Margarita Lecuona - Bob Russell) the first cut from the album.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Aspen - Burt Hirschfeld

Somehow she worked her way astride him and galloped feverishly on the long uphill trail to glory. Until steed and rider could take no more, ending in a rough, stunning climax. They lurched together, as if to fall was to sink into the most narrowing circles of hell. 

Bantam Books, January 1976

First off I have to put a big thanks out to Joe Kenney and his terrific blog Glorious Trash for turning me on to Burt Hirschfeld's novels. I remember hearing of Fire Island back in the day, which is probably Hirschfeld's most well-known bestseller. But I really had no idea that Hirschfeld had so many novels out there to go and enjoy, including a number of "trashy" delights written under his pseudonym Hugh Barron.

Aspen, published in 1976, follows something of a template that Hirschfeld mastered, that is picking a resort destination somewhere on the map, and throwing in a bunch of twisted, messed up characters into the scene to see what happens. In this case you have a hard-nosed middle-aged developer named Carl Osborne, a beautiful 22-year old poet named Kit Pepe, Osborne's wayward son Jon Osborne, local hero and environmentalist Tom Keating and resident kingpin bad-guy Alex Budde, in addition to an assorted cast of kooks, dope-fiends and villains all running around Aspen trying to screw each other over while stopping to get high and have sex.

I don't think Hirschfeld really intended any of the characters in this somewhat cynical novel to be particularly likable. Sure, Kit Pepe and Tom Keating are the nominal heroes in the story. Unfortunately, Kit Pepe is one of those chicks who always have a trail of guys lined up to kiss her ass, because she's so beautiful and all. I pretty much find 22-year-old poets, especially flawlessly beautiful ones, intensely annoying and Kit is no exception. We've all been subjected to people just like Kit in real life, and I'm willing to bet I'm not alone in my attitude about them. The most difficult choice she's ever faced is which academic setting she should pick to be artist-in-residence at, and which asshole to bang. And you guessed it, she picks old stuffed-suit Carl Osborne to fall in the sack with. In no time flat, big-shot Carl Osborne is ready to leave his wife for the amazing Miss Kit! It's no wonder that his son, Jon Osborne, goes off the deep end about it. Jon has been harboring a crush on the lovely Kit long before his dad showed up in Aspen to cock-block him. Now Jon has to satisfy himself with assorted bimbos from the tennis club where he works as a tennis pro. His sideline, when not lobbing tennis balls at the spoiled and rotten, is running drugs for local crime kingpin Alex Budde.

Alex Budde is something of an entrepreneur in Aspen. He owns a number of legitimate bars, restaurants and businesses while keeping the wild side of the town supplied with plenty of dope and heroin. He's got a bodyguard with him at all times, in addition to a cop on his payroll. He also manages to get Carl Osborne conned into doing business through him with the local politicians and landholders. Carl Osborne has come to Aspen on behalf of The Heggland Group to buy up land for a planned development named Wolf Run Valley. Wolf Run Valley is going to be one of those sprawling nightmares that will attract an onslaught of filthy, squalling, littering, nasty tourists into the town. The kind that come in during the high season and leave the place looking and smelling like a used cat-box when they go. Naturally most of the old time residents aren't too jazzed about having outsiders like Osborne coming into their town pushing their weight around trying to get them to sell their land. They don't want to see their little slice of paradise become another Las Vegas. Osborne isn't bothered by anything so plebeian as what the townfolk want, and doesn't let an opportunity pass to lecture guys like Tom Keating on all the progress developers like him provide the local natives. Luckily, Keating isn't having any of it, which leads our neighborhood crime lord Alex Budde into putting a hit out on him.

This is a fast-moving novel with practically no page filler, except the stuff about Kit weighing all the big decisions she's facing in life. I put it down in a single weekend. Hirschfeld has a real knack for climbing into characters' heads and keeping the action moving. I understand it was a basis for a mini-series starring Sam Elliott. I've never seen it, but there is a good write-up about it on Johnny LaRue's Crane Shot if you're interested.

It's kind of too bad that Burt Hirschfeld's books aren't readily available for contemporary readers through reissues, or e-formats. Luckily, his books aren't hard to find on the used market. Find one and give it a go.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Secret Agent X - Monarch of Murder

Thanks to more pulps becoming available on eReaders, most of us not born in the early decades of the 20th century have a second chance at reading some of the old pulp heroes adventures. When I was a kid I could buy paperback reissues of Doc Savage and The Shadow and The Avenger, but that was about it. I didn't know a thing about other heroes like The Phantom Detective or Secret Agent X.

August 1935

I've now read two novels featuring The Phantom Detective and will be getting around to writing about them soon. But most recently I got to read Monarch of Murder, a Secret Agent X novel by Paul Chadwick under the name Brant House. I thought the story was a blast. It was my first introduction to Secret Agent X, thanks to Altus Press making these adventures available again.

This particular caper involves Agent X tracking down a master criminal named Dr. Marko. Dr. Marko is on is way to the United States disguised as a passenger in an ocean liner from Europe. Once Agent X manages to sneak on board the ship all the fun begins. Dr. Marko has a nasty way of murdering his victims by turning them into crumbling skeletons. He refers to this murder method as "dusty death" and enjoys zapping the dusty death on just about anyone who interferes with his dastardly plans. Agent X is no sooner on the ship when he's rescuing a raven-haired dame in an emerald gown from getting pitched overboard by a hooded scar-faced killer. Our raven-haired beauty is Carlotta Rand, who is personal assistant to Colonel Borden. Colonel Borden is returning to the states with some top secret documents that may or may not have something to do with the nefarious plans of Dr. Marko. Carlotta Rand seems to have a penchant for attracting low characters of dubious motives, much to Colonel Borden's dismay. Could one of these passengers be Dr. Marko. Well, of course, and it's up to Agent X to find out! Unfortunately, Dr. Marko is as much a genius of disguise as Agent X is, so most of the fun for "X" will be trying to capture Dr. Marko while avoiding blame for all the nasty murders going down. Once the ocean liner reaches New York, Agent X can utilize his secret hideouts, and his team of assistants, including the lovely Betty Dale, girl reporter!

My favorite style of pulp adventures are the crime stories that have heavy doses of horror and science fiction elements to them. Or, what's known as "weird menace" to aficionados. Judging by this Secret Agent X adventure, it seems I won't be disappointed.