Sunday, September 28, 2014

Assignment -- Lili Lamaris - Edward S. Aarons

She began to laugh, and then to taunt him, moving suggestively around him, then pressing close to him, entwining her long legs around him. Durell swung an arm around her satin-smooth waist and forced her back to the bunk, then stepped away. His face was dark with anger. The girl looked at him, tried to laugh derisively, and choked on the sound and began to shiver and sob. Durell stood looking down at her for a long moment. His pity was gone. He felt only a dull, pulsing anger, a moment of puzzlement, a quick shift of perspective like a change in the pattern of a child's kaleidoscope when the crystals are overturned. Durell put a blanket over her and lit another cigarette and listened quietly to the sounds of her sorrow and despair. 

Fawcett Publications
We go back to 1959 with Sam Durell on this, his 10th assignment in the series that lasted until 1976, with his 42nd case. So far I've only read a few of the older Durell novels, starting about a year or so ago with Assignment--Stella Marni and I haven't been disappointed yet.

In this caper, CIA Operative Sam Durell is called to Rome to pick up where another agent, Purdy Kent, left off after getting his throat slit in alleyway. Durell doesn't have a lot of details to go on, only that he's supposed to make contact with another agent, Harvey Shedlock for further information once he arrives in Rome. Harvey Shedlock has been in the cold way too long and has developed a bad case of nerves. Purdy Kent's murder has only increased his paranoia and fear. Kent was considered a consummate professional in the spy game, and that someone was able to sneak up on him and slit his throat in an alleyway is cause for deep alarm. Durell learns from Shedlock that the dead agent had been getting close to a certain Lili Lamaris, a world famous ballerina who has recently taken up an unlikely romance with Mitch Martin. Martin is one of those "new breed" of hoodlums with strong ties to American mobsters, drug smuggling and money laundering. Money used to fund communists in their war on America. Durell's job is to pick up where Purdy Kent left off and find Mitch Martin and put a stop to his nefarious dealings. The key to finding Martin is Lili Lamaris, a somewhat naive, and it turns out, unstable young woman with bad taste in men.

Durell has barely landed in Rome when he discovers he's being tailed by a man in a green Panizza hat. Not only that, but his cover is blown when Dante Lamaris, Lili's father, shows up in Durell's hotel room with a job offer for Durell to assassinate Mitch Martin. Dante Lamaris is a shady Greek tycoon who seems to have most of the police force in his pockets. He also knows all about Durell's assignment, thanks to a blabbermouth Colonel Powelton, the military attache to the Ambassador and liaison to the CIA's K section in Italy.

So, right of the get-go we see that Durell can basically trust no one on his assignment to nail Mitch Martin's ass. And it's not going to be easy for him. He's going to get jumped, beaten, tortured, shot at, seduced, tossed in the slammer, seduced some more, knifed, and double-crossed before getting to the bottom of things. Along the way he's got to deal with a spoiled rich girl with a monkey on her back, an agent with a bad case of nerves, a psychotic killer with a fondness for knives, an evil wheelchair bound German doctor, and a hot-blooded Roman prostitute before the last bullet plugs the last evil mastermind behind this tangled caper.

Recommended for fans of hardboiled cold war spy stuff.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Tough Guys - Mickey Spillane

"A good nympho can get a lot of guys killed."

Published in 1969 Mickey Spillane’s The Tough Guys is a collection of 3 magazine stories from the early 1960s. All of them are proof that the short novel format is where Spillane shines. I’ve read a number of his novels and have almost always finished them thinking that they could have used some tightening up. Especially the ones featuring Tiger Mann, or the awful The Delta Factor, which was just plain boring.

Signet Books
These three stories rocked. This is the Spillane that kicks the teeth in, especially in “Kick it or Kill!” and “The Seven Year Kill” with their torn and frayed heroes, psychotic goons and curvalicious babes. The third story “The Bastard Bannerman” is no slouch, but compared to the other stories here it goes maybe 10 or 20 pages too long. It’s still a good yarn, but it’s up against some stiff competition in this trio.

In “Kick it or Kill!” Kelly Smith takes a trip to the country for some much needed R&R and time to heal from a leaking gunshot wound earned in the line of duty as a cop. The first day in he’s pegged for trouble by the local fuzz who try sticking their noses into his business. Then later that evening he watches two punks pushing their weight around a small diner. Kelly Smith waits maybe two minutes while they smack a local kid around before stomping their guts out in front of the other diners. He soon discovers that the pair of goons report to the local wealthy recluse, known as Mr. Simpson, who lives above town in the mansion on the hill. Not much is known about Simpson, other than he nets talent from the local girls to hire out as entertainment for his “out of town” bigshot friends. A few of these girls return from their gigs fucked up and damaged. A couple of them hooked on the funny powder. Some just go missing permanently. Kelly gets wind of some heavy syndicate guys showing up in town and floating around Simpson’s estate. Then he has some more run-ins with the goons, and saves a broken and damaged chick before making it his business to bust Simpson’s little orgies for good. Helping Kelly out is Dari Dahl the sexy owner of the motel where Kelly is staying. Dari’s kid sister, Flori Dahl, was one of Simpson’s former hired girls, cast aside only to take a swan dive off a tenement in New York. Dari’s brilliant plan involves hiring herself out as entertainment for one of Simpson’s sick ‘n twisted soirees. What follows involves kinky hi-jinks, flying teeth, broken bones and spattered brains. 

I stepped between the window and the draperies, entirely concealed, then held the folds of the heavy velvet back. It was a small theater in the round. There was a person shrouded in black tapping drums and that was all the music they had. Two more in black tights with masked faces were circling about a table. They each had long thin whips, and whenever the drummer raised the tempo they snapped them, and sometimes they simply brought them against the floor so that the metal tips made a sharp popping sound.

She was there in the middle, tied to the table. She was robed in a great swath of silk.

In “The Seven Year Kill”, Mike Hammer…I mean Phil Rocca, is recovering from a nasty hangover in a flophouse when a desperate little twist pursued by a pair of goons chooses his pad to hide out in. The goons bust in on Phil Rocca as he’s waking from a long drunk and slap him around for a couple minutes before buying his story that he has no idea about any screwy dame hiding out in his pad. The goons believe him and split. A few minutes later our lamb on the run reveals herself to Rocca with a story of returning to New York to find her father, who has contacted her by letter to come to the city and reunite. The trouble for Rocca is that the dame’s pop, Rhino Massley, is the same mobster that put the fix in on Rocca sending him into a couple year stretch in the slammer on false charges. Rocca was once a redhot journalist chasing down a story on Massley, before he got framed on a bum rap and left to swing by his editors. Will Rocca agree to help our girl find dear old dad? You bet your ass he will, just for the pleasure giving Rhino Massley a terminal case of lead poisoning. The only problem is that Rhino Massley is supposedly dead, having succumbed to TB out in Arizona while Rocca was in the pen. Not only is Rocca interested in finding Massley, but so are the syndicate boys, since Massley has hidden away all kinds of damaging records on their business. Word that he’s still alive has the rats on the loose. Lots of blood, fury and broken teeth in this one too.

The final story in the trio is “The Bastard Bannerman”. In this one Mike Hammer…there I go again…is Cat Bannerman, the bastard child of wealthy, and long deceased, Max Bannerman. Max Bannerman died when Cat was in his early teens, leaving Cat to the mercy of his uncle, Miles Bannerman and his two asshole sons, Rudy and Ted Bannerman. Cat returns to the old estate after splitting the place when he was all of 14 years old. In the meantime, Miles Bannerman and his two sons have pretty much done nothing with their wealth except use it to abuse everyone else in the town around them. Rudy in particular has built up a solid rep as a jerkoff wannabe playboy and punk. Cat returns to the manor just in time to see his favorite cousin Anita Bannerman engaged to a sketchy fop named Vance Colby. Vance Colby has ingratiated himself into the Bannerman tribe under the pretext of helping them clear up a looming scandal. He acts as mouthpiece and advocate for the family after Rudy has gotten himself tangled up in a murder of a local nightclub promoter over the promoter’s round-heeled wife. Also in the scene are a couple of syndicate muscles pushing their weight around the Bannerman estate with Vance’s blessing. It all reeks of a squeeze play in the works, with Vance standing to gain from the misery while winning the girl’s hand. Cat could care less what happens to Rudy, Ted and Uncle Miles, but decides that he owes it to Anita to help extricate her from the Bannerman web of misery. Lots of ass-kicking, slapping, slugging, and gunplay also keep this yarn popping.

If you need your dose of tough guys doing some bad shit, then look no further than this tight collection. Easy to find. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Running Girls - Cheap and sleazy...sort of.

Rex nodded, understanding, and for the first time since he had entered the room he took a good look at her. The short, lace nightgown did much for her figure, stopping just below the well rounded thighs, accentuating the length of her slender legs. The firm breasts behind the thin material were exposed almost to the pointed tips, their final wantonness barely hidden by the thin lace. 

Beacon Books, 1961
That's about as hot as this book gets, which is a bit disappointing considering it was marketed as "stimulating, pulse-quickening, and invigorating" along with other titles in their lineup. In fact, right on the spine of this paperback it reads "Women ready to give a man anything!" Dang! how many times have you seen a teaser on the spine of a novel? It's just begging you to pull it from the shelf and dive in. The cover also promises "A daring story of those wild Cuban woman fleeing to our shores - desperately seductive, and ready to give a man anything!"

But really, The Running Girls by Al James is more adventure novel than sexy novel, with its plot of Cuban counter-revolutionaries and smuggling and what-not. Actually, it's not really an adventure novel either. It's really just a novel about a hapless dupe who allows a hotblooded babe rope him into a wacky plot involving embezzled money and corrupt Cuban officials. Yeah, there is sex going on, and a lot of perky breasts, heavy breathing and hot kisses, but it all happens off the page instead of giving up the lurid details.

Rex, the novel's hero, is a mercenary pilot who, along with his Cuban partner Ferdy (short for Ferdinand) unknowingly give a ride to a teenage stowaway in their crippled DC-3 on a trip back from Haiti. Their plane is conking out over Tampa Bay, barely missing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as they coast in to a rough landing on Davis Island. I grew up in Tampa and could totally see the bridge beneath their wings as they fly over the bay. It's one of those bridges that should be avoided if you're afraid of heights. Davis Island is one of those locales where old moneyed rich bastards in Tampa live. But I digress. Rex and Ferdy manage to land their heap to discover a beautiful stowaway hiding on board. Since she's Cuban, Rex decides he's going to turn her over to immigration authorities to have her sent back to Cuba. Ferdy argues passionately on her behalf, suggesting that they should let her disappear into Ybor City instead. This was back in 1960, way before Ybor City became the obnoxious douchebag selfie-central it's become since. At the time it was a hot spot for cigar factories, bakeries, restaurants, clubs and anti-Castro sentiment among its mostly Cuban exiles. I know this because in grade school we'd go there on field trips. Not for the counter-revolutionary stuff, but to see how cigars got made and to eat fresh onion rolls. Anyway...Rex isn't persuaded by Ferdy and Luisa's pleadings. Not even Julie, Rex's girlfriend, can sway him. But it doesn't matter because within minutes a couple of scar-faced goons show up and wave their guns at Rex, Ferdy and Julie, demanding they turn over Louisa for immediate arrest and transfer back to Cuba where she'll be executed. But before they can make off with Louisa, whose clothes are now strategically torn to reveal her hot body, they're chased away by a couple of Coast Guard officials who show up to chew Rex and Ferdy out for flying over MacDill Air Force Base without permission.

So, Rex turns Louisa over to the Immigration and goes home to have sex with Julie. Julie tells Rex that she wants marriage, but for the time being will act like a wife, or something like that. In other words, they the page though. Later, at a restaurant in Ybor City, Rex is handed a message to meet someone named Maria about a flying job. Maria, it turns out, is Louisa's older sister, and wants to thank Rex for all personal like for rescuing her from the two scar-faced thugs that afternoon. She rubs her body against Rex's in a vain attempt to get a rise out of him but...okay, she gets the rise out of him, but he remains faithful to Julie. Louisa is also there with Maria, and she would like to thank Rex as well, but just then, the two goons from earlier show up and spoil the party. They bop Rex into submission and take him, along with Maria and Louisa, out to a phosphate plant on the coast where they proceed to rape Louisa while Rex and Maria watch, tied up and helpless. Louisa then tries to fight back and gets stabbed to death in the ensuing struggle. The two thugs then run away, leaving Rex and Maria behind.

This review is getting longer than the book itself, so I'll just cut to the chase and let you know, if you haven't already figured it out, that Marie recruits Rex for some payback that somehow includes a crazy little sidejob that involves flying to Cuba and returning with some embezzled loot. Rex makes it to Cuba only to discover his plane has been sabotaged. He's captured by Cuban soldiers and thrown into jail where he shares a cell with a little scamp of a chick who is convinced that pleasuring the guards will insure her release. What follows is a mockery of a trial where everyone sharing Rex's cell is sentenced to the firing squad. Everyone except Rex that is. Instead, he's released and told to go back to the U.S. and let everyone there know that Castro is the big kahuna and isn't going away, or something like that. Rex then hangs out in the Hotel Internacional for a few days, getting waited on by a hot little Cuban gal named Lolita. Lolita makes it clear that she's to see to his every comfort and desire, but Rex keeps it in his pants since he's now in love with Maria...that's right, Maria. He came to that conclusion while waiting to get tossed in front of a firing squad. Never mind that it's because of Maria that he's nearly been executed. He's not quick on the uptake, which if you'd read this far into the novel would be more than obvious.

So, where were we? Oh yeah, in the Hotel Internacional with Lolita flashing her hot legs at Rex. Then who should show up but Julie, who has decided to fly into Cuba to find Rex. She comes up with some story like taking a wrong turn over Miami, or something like that, and ending up in Cuba. She convinces Rex to continue with his assignment of collecting the embezzled loot and taking it back to Florida to help fund Maria and the counter-revolutionaries. Rex doesn't need much convincing. He's blinded by Julie's wanton ways and quickly agrees to get the money and fly back to Tampa with it. Things go awry again, and this time both he and Julie are arrested by a pot-bellied colonel and a couple of sloppy soldiers. Rex manages to convince the soldiers to shoot the colonel instead of him and Julie in exchange for ten grand each. Then off they go...back to Tampa.

I thought I was cutting to the chase here. What the hell? I  doubt anyone is actually going to find this book and read it anyway, so I might as well let you know that Rex discovers Marie has been using him as a patsy all along. The million dollars he was sent to Cuba to get was really just money her wealthy Cuban banker boyfriend left there before he fled to the U.S. All it took was tricking Ferdy...remember Ferdy? secretly stow her sister Louisa on board Rex's plane back in chapter one. Ferdy did this because he was secretly married to Maria, only Maria turned traitor to the anti-Castro rebels to shack up with a millionaire asshole instead. The scar-faced goons were then hired by Maria to kill Louisa in front of Rex so that she could recruit Rex to fly to Cuba and get her boyfriend's dough, all in the name of the noble cause to free Cuba. And I think, but I can't swear to it, she actually put out for Rex somewhere in the whole mix of things. There's a fight and some wrestling around with guns, during which Maria gets shot in the middle of her lovely head. I don't know if her millionaire boyfriend gets killed, because a couple agents show up to save the day. Rex decides he really loved Julie first, and the two of them go off into the sunset of Tampa Bay. The end.

Yup, that's about it. The Running Girls wasn't terrible, it was just kind of dopey. It was short, it was tawdry, it was cheap...two bucks cheap, found on the shelf of a used bookstore with its spine promising "women ready to give a man anything!"

Hey what the hell, I never said I wasn't a sucker for that stuff anyway.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Fear is the Key - Alistair MacLean

“You make me sick,” I said dispassionately. “I wouldn't let you out if I could. And it was just in case I might be tempted that I left the control switch up in the rig. We've got fifteen, maybe twenty minutes to live, if you can call the screaming we’ll know living. Or, rather, the agony you’ll know.” I put a hand to my coat, ripped off the central button and thrust it into my mouth. “I won’t know a thing. I’ve been prepared for this for months. That’s no button, it’s a concentrated cyanide capsule. One bite on that and I’ll be dead before I know I’m dying.”

Fawcett Gold Medal Books
Man, our pal John Talbot is one hardcore bad ass! He’s not messing around here. He’s on a mission of vengeance and he’s not going to stop until all debts are paid, even if he’s going down too.

It’s been a long time since I've read an Alistair MacLean novel. A recent showing of Ice Station Zebra on TCM prompted me to look up one of his old novels again and give it a ride. I was not disappointed.

Fear is the Key from 1961 is from the classic earlier period of Maclean’s novels, where the plot is revealed in 1st person by the narrator through lots of dry wit and hardboiled realism. No one is to be trusted, including the narrator himself, who often withholds vital information from the reader until things come to a head in what is typically the first of several climaxes before the last page is turned.

Fear is the Key follows this classic MacLean formula brilliantly, starting off with a bang as John Talbot shoots his way out of a courthouse in Marble Springs Florida with a hostage, Mary Ruthven, in tow. John Talbot is initially presented as something of a rogue mercenary, with vague underworld connections and dealings, who is hiding out in hicksville under an assumed name until he’s busted by the local sheriff and his deputies. We quickly learn that his beautiful and stoic hostage, Mary Ruthven, is an integral figure in a plot that has been carefully planned out far in advance. A plot that includes Mary’s father, General Blair Ruthven, and his oil rig out in the Gulf of Mexico, referred to throughout as X 13. Within hours of Talbot’s escape from the courthouse, with Mary as his hostage, they run into a tough-as-nails cat named Jablonsky. Jablonsky quickly gets the drop on Talbot, only instead of returning Mary safely to her father, he decides that he can squeeze the general for some additional ransom. After some terse and wordy (one of the things you’ll discover in a MacLean novel is that characters can get talky) negotiations between Jablonsky and the General, Talbot and Mary are taken to the General Ruthven’s gated mansion on the coast. It’s there that Talbot is turned over to a couple of shady “associates” of the general, Vyland and Royale. Along with Vyland and Royale, Talbot meets a jittery “hop-head” named Larry. Larry seems way out of his league next to the cold professionalism of both Vyland and Royale, which throws Talbot off. His presence among them makes no sense, and he’s clearly a psycho on a pitstop to Kicksville USA. Larry has a habit of whickering a switchblade around Talbot, which is all a bit unsettling. Meanwhile, General Ruthven’s connection with these tough guys seems to have something to do with a salvage job off the coast of Florida. A salvage job that is right in line with Talbot’s old line of work. It takes a couple of fist fights and shoving guns in faces before Talbot is convinced that Vyland, Royale, and General Ruthven mean business in recruiting Talbot into their plans. And with that, the novel is off and running.

It’s a lot of fun discovering who the good guys are and who the bad guys are in this novel. Maclean manages to keep the suspense popping in each chapter, revealing just enough to keep Talbot and the reader off-balance throughout. In addition to the sudden, often brutal violence, Talbot manages to maintain a droll, deadpan humor while sharing the events with the reader. It all leads up to a final confrontation deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico, trapped in a cramped and suffocating bathyscaphe, where all is revealed at last.

This is old-fashioned spy stuff at its best. Modern readers might have to adjust their expectations before jumping into a MacLean novel. For example, there is no sexy stuff going on with our icy hot babe Mary Ruthven. It’s sort of teased at through the novel that Talbot would like to take a break from all the action for a slip up her skirt, but nothing doing for our hero. I think maybe there is a brief kiss, but I’m not sure. The women in MacLean’s novels, at least the ones I've read, tend to be used as pretty scenery mostly, but usually aren't part of all the man-shit that goes down. And they still faint when the plot calls for them to. Still, Mary does manage to give Talbot a hand here and there when absolutely needed. If you want that mushy stuff, you’re better off with a James Bond caper.  

Like many of MacLean’s novels, Fear is the Key was made into a movie in the early 70s. I've never seen it, and I don’t know a thing about it other than Barry Newman stars in it. I’d probably opt for seeing Vanishing Point instead. It’s never popped up on the cable channels that I’m aware of. Maybe I’ll hunt it down at some point, and see how it compares.