Friday, December 22, 2017

Brett Halliday - Marked for Murder

Shayne's wide nostrils flared and he felt a prickling in the back of his neck. He pushed the bedroom door wide open, turned on the light, and looked somberly down at the corpse of a young girl lying half off the bed. She wore a pair of black net stockings, the tops rolled above her knees. The rest of her slim young body was nude. She lay on her stomach with her right arm and leg trailing off the bed, her left leg stretched straight and taut with the toes pointing toward the footboard. Her left arm encircled a pillow, and there was dried blood on the pillow and on the sheet beside her breast.

Dell Books June 1959 - Cover by Robert McGinnis

Okay, I'm a sucker for paperback covers featuring beautiful women, especially ones painted by Robert McGinnis. There are tons of Mike Shayne novels with McGinnis covers, and I have a couple others on my bookshelf. In the 60's and 70's the Shayne covers were often photos of hot babes, in various states of undress, typically wielding a gun. These were never as cool as the McGinnis covers, for obvious reasons. As far as the Mike Shayne novels themselves go, they're perfectly serviceable reading if you're in the mood for a private eye novel. I've only read a few and the things I take away from them is that for a private eye, Mike Shayne is as famous as your average celebrity, and he drinks a shit-ton of brandy. Most P.I.'s drink bourbon, or scotch. but it's brandy for our pal Shayne. And he's hot with the ladies too. He's also smarter than the cops, particularly Peter Painter, the Miami Beach police chief. But all in all, he's a decent Joe to have in your corner.

This is an early Mike Shayne mystery, going clear back to 1945. By then he was famous enough to already star in a handful of films from 20th Century Fox. He'd also star in radio and TV, and scads of more novels. I noticed that there are a lot of them available on Kindle, but I prefer the old paperbacks, for obvious reasons. Anyway, this is, I believe, the 12th novel in the series, and written by Davis Dresser. Ghost writers under the Brett Halliday name would take over the later novels.

In this one, Mike Shayne is called back from New Orleans to go after whoever it was that shot his reporter pal, Timothy Rourke. Rourke had been hot on the story of a series of murders where the victims had all recently struck it big at various casinos in Miami Beach. All of the casinos are run by the syndicate, in particular a hood named Brenner. Each of the victims was found with a .32 slug in their heart only hours after being seen in the company of a hot blonde dish at the casino. Rourke's crusade has everyone pissed off at him, the cops, Brenner, and Rourke's boss Walter Bronson. Rourke is warned off the story and given a beating by Brenner's thugs, and is found a few hours later in his apartment, near death from, you guessed it, a bullet to the chest. And wouldn't you know it, the last person seen leaving his apartment was a hot blonde babe!

This novel was a fast read, well-paced and with enough twists and angles to never get boring. And, as Shayne himself says a more than a few times, "There are too many blondes!" Yeah...I don't know if you can ever have too many blondes around. Just as long as none of them are packing a gat, I'm okay with it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Voyage of the Space Beagle - A. E. van Vogt

The drive was on. The ship was accelerating, going ever deeper and faster through the gulf of blackness that separated the spiral galaxy, of which Earth was one tiny spinning atom, from another galaxy of almost equal size. That was the background to the decisive struggle that was now taking place. The largest, most ambitious exploratory expedition that had ever set out from the solar system was in the greatest danger of its existence. 

Continuing on with the 2nd novel in my old copy of Triad by A.E. Van Vogt, we get to what is probably regarded as his best "novel." I'm guessing that most people think of this one as his best novel simply because it's mentioned more frequently in articles and essays about him than his other novels, like The World of Null-A. I put "novel" in quotes because it's really built from four of his short stories published during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. And these were some of his best stories, as long as you're asking me. Most of A.E. van Vogts "novels" were built from previously published short stories. Building a novel this way can come with some hurdles. They're often awkward and poorly paced. I think I read somewhere that A.E. van Vogt intended a climactic bit of action approximately every 800 words in any given story. This leads to a breathless pace that is hard to maintain for an entire novel. I've also read that some of his stories were inspired by dreams, which is another hurdle to leap if you're going for continuity and logic. But that's all stuff for the critics to bicker over.

Voyage of the Space Beagle is probably the best novel to read if you're going to read anything by van Vogt. I say this with a caveat that his short stories, particularly the early ones like "Black Destroyer" are better in their original forms. Voyage of the Space Beagle begins with "Black Destroyer" which was first published in Astounding Science Fiction way back in July of 1939. I first read "Black Destroyer" in a collection called The Great SF Stories 1 1939 published by DAW books in 1979. That collection was edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, and was the first of what was planned to be a year by year gathering of the greatest Science Fiction stories, as chosen by the editors. I bought that paperback the year it was published and was absolutely enthralled by the stories in it. 1939 was deliberately chosen by the editors as being the launch of what is known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction. If you happen to see any of these DAW editions of The Great SF Stories I'd say grab them, because you're guaranteed some excellent reading. I still have the first 7 books in the series, and wish I had more. As far as I was concerned I needed no other Science Fiction anthologies with these coming down the line. Unfortunately I missed the last half of the 40s and later.

July 1939

"Black Destroyer" just might have influenced the creators of the movie Alien, directed by Ridley Scott. Same can be said for another story "Discord in Scarlet" that makes up part of the latter half of Space Beagle. If you have a chance to read "Black Destroyer" do it. It's an excellent example of A.E. van Vogt at his best. It's that whiz-bang action science fiction pulp adventure that nerds like me love. Basically, an expedition from Earth lands on what they believe is an extinct planet and finds a lone cat-like creature outside the ruins of an ancient city. They let the creature board their ship only to learn in horror that it intends to feed off them as it takes control of their ship.

December 1939

As for the Space Beagle itself, we're told that it's manned by approximately 1000 men, made up of both scientists and military personnel. Yup, I said men, because the Space Beagle is a sausage factory. There isn't a single female on board. Maybe a poster or two of Jean Harlow over a bunk, but definitely no women. In order to manage an expedition so long without women, the men have taken some kind of drug that inhibits their libidos. Apparently women would be just too much of a distraction and there'd probably all kinds of fights over them going on and stuff like that. Or, in the future, according to A.E. van Vogt, women just ain't cut out for interstellar explorations. I suppose I should mention that one might think Voyage of the Space Beagle influenced Star Trek. Perhaps, but who can say. Certainly their exploratory missions sound similar even if the Enterprise had women on board.

After the events of "Black Destroyer" are settled we get into some of the politics of the Space Beagle. Our hero of the novel is a Nexialist scientist named Grosvenor. He's the only Nexialist on board, so he's got to deal with a bunch of professional rivalries and power plays. But through each of the adventures, it's always Grosvenor who comes up with the best solution. Grosvenor and Nexialism is the glue that holds the episodic structure of the novel together. Nexialism is described as "joining in orderly fashion the knowledge of one field of learning with that of other fields." It works better here than other cobbled together novels by the author. The individual pulp stories fit together with more elegance with Grosvenor as a lead protagonist.

The two other stories making up Space Beagle's adventures are "War of Nerves" from 1950 and "M33 in Andromeda" from 1943.

MacFaddon Books March 1968

I had a good time reading the book. I'm not totally jazzed on the title. I remember a friend of mine years ago seeing my paperback copy of Space Beagle (seen here) and cracking up at the cheesiness of it. I can't really blame her. It's kind of a clunker of a title and the dude on the cover always reminds me of Major Matt Mason. You've got to be of a certain age to know who Major Matt Mason is.

That's about it for A.E. van Vogt for now. I still have Slan to read in my collection, but I'm about pulped out with his novels, so I'll spare you a triple play. I will get to it eventually though.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The World of Null-A - A.E. van Vogt

He waited till the blazing beacon of the Games Machine was like a raging fire below him, then slightly behind. He saw the vaguely shaped buildings of the presidential residence just ahead. When the plane was almost over the palace, he pulled the trigger of the exit door.

Instantly he was falling though the foggy darkness.

So, let me see if I can get this straight. I’m warning you now that you need to buckle in and hold on tight because this dang novel careens all over the place! And spoiliers ahead, so you may want to skip some of the stuff below.

Our hero, Gilbert Gosseyn, arrives at the city of The Machine, in the World of Null-A (the planet Earth), to participate in The Games. During the month-long duration of The Games, there is no police protection for citizens. All citizens can join in the Games, wherein their future roles in society are determined through an analysis of their performance level in The Games. Within his first day Gosseyn is accused of being an imposter by another contestant. Gosseyn’s memories of his dead wife, Patricia Hardie, are denied. It’s revealed that the real Patricia Hardie is alive and living in the presidential palace of The Machine with her father Micheal Hardie, the President of Earth. Gosseyn allows himself to be subjected to a Lie Detector (you’ll learn that there are no shortages of Lie Detectors in this novel) which reveals that his identity as Gosseyn is phony, but that his real identity is too embedded to reveal itself. Gosseyn is then evicted from the hotel where he’s staying. Wandering through the city he meets a young woman calling herself Teresa Clark, who tells him she’s unprotected and fleeing from her boss after refusing his advances. Gosseyn and Teresa spend the night in a park. The following day, they go together to The Machine to participate in The Games where it’s Gosseyn’s hope that his performance will earn him a position on the planet Venus. He sees Teresa sneaking away from the Games to enter the Palace. That night, they meet again in the park where he decides not to let on that he’s suspicious of her. It doesn’t matter because he’s suddenly arrested and taken by flying car to the Machine where he learns that Teresa is really Patricia Hardie, the President’s daughter! He’s taken into an interrogation room where he meets Jim Thorson and another strange, half-cyborg dude referred to only as X. An attempt is made by Thorson and X to penetrate Gosseyn’s memory blocks to discover his real identity. It fails and Gosseyn is confined to a cell, where he’s quickly sprung out of by a sneaky Patricia Hardie who hides him in her private chambers. There, she’s visited by someone named Eldred Crang. Teresa…er, I mean Patricia Harding, and Crang discuss some political intrigue while Gosseyn remains hidden, listening to them. A conspirator named Prescott is mentioned by Crang. Gosseyn’s eavesdropping is interrupted by guards barging into the chambers looking for him. He leaps over the balcony onto the palace grounds and attempts to flee but is blasted by flaming ray-guns and is killed. Next thing Gosseyn knows is he wakes up in a forest on the planet Venus!

Are you still with me here?

Gosseyn follows a light to a house which is conveniently occupied by Prescott and his wife. Yup, this is the Prescott who is in cahoots with Crang, back on Earth, or Null-A, or just…whatever. Gosseyn jumps Prescott and his wife, and tries to get the scoop from them on what the hell is going on. Prescott says that he needs to see a guy named Eldred Crang, who lives on the other side of the forest. Gosseyn leaves Prescott tide up and takes his wife with him as hostage, then lets her go, and finds Crang’s residence on his own. Crang is gone, so Gosseyn hangs around his place reading books and sleeping and eating. After a couple days Crang shows up with detectives and arrests Gosseyn. Crang wants to know how Gosseyn is alive on Venus after being killed on Earth. They all climb into a ship and travel back to Earth, to the Machine. At the Machine Gosseyn is returned to Thorson and X and is taken to a room where he’s allowed to see his own dead body. Also in the room is Prescott’s wife for some reason. Patricia Hardie and her father show up and everyone is agitated about a conspiracy and how Gosseyn plays into it, but things go no further than that because everyone collapses by an invisible gas emitted through the air conditioner by Prescott. But Gosseyn doesn’t succumb to the gas because he was given an antidote ahead of time by Prescott. Unfortunately, Prescott’s wife dies, so Prescott goes sort of berserk and blasts X, President Hardie and some guards, with his ray gun and is just about to kill Thorson when Gosseyn disarms him. They escape and leave the palace together in a getaway car. It’s determined that Gosseyn should see the brilliant psychiatrist Dr. Kair who may be able to get past all the blocked memories to discover who Gosseyn really is and how he fits into this whole plot. At Dr. Kair’s office, Gosseyn undergoes a battery of Lie Detectors (remember those?) that indicate he has a second brain that has untapped potential to alter the course of events. Gosseyn uses his Null-A training to figure out that Prescott never intended to kill Thorson, and just wanted to frame Gosseyn for the assassination of President Hardie. Knowing he can’t trust Prescott, Gosseyn and Dr. Kair tie him up and take off for Dr. Kair’s island retreat where Gosseyn can further train his 2nd brain. Halfway there Gosseyn decides he needs to return to The Machine instead, so he rigs Dr. Kair’s plane to reverse course while Kair is asleep and he steals a parachute and bails out midair. Before doing so, he leaves the sleeping Dr. Kair a note telling him to place an ad in the personals column should he need to contact him for any reason. Back at the Machine, Gosseyn hooks up with Patricia Hardie again and she informs him that Venus and Earth are under invasion by men from another star system and that he needs to work with Crang to somehow halt the invasion. It turns out that her father was a tool for X and Thorson, and that Thorson is leading the invasion. But in order to help Crang, Gosseyn has to commit suicide so that his third hidden body, Gosseyn III, can come to life and utilize the full potential of his 2nd brain. Gosseyn checks into a hotel and hypnotizes himself to commit suicide, but instead he receives telepathic messages from the Machine informing him that he must not kill himself because the Machine is under attack and Gosseyn’s hidden 3rd body has been destroyed.

Gosseyn and Crang return to Venus where Crang explains the whole invasion plan to Gosseyn and that Thorson is leading the charge to wipe out Venus and Earth. While on Venus they see the Venusians, who are really Null-A Earthlings, halt the invading forces using guerrilla warfare tactics. They return to Earth to discover the Machine and the Palace are in ruins, on the edge of total annihilation. Crang takes Gosseyn to see Patricia Hardie again where Gosseyn ties her up to find some kind of machine named The Distorter that blocks transmissions or something like that. Patricia Hardie tells Gosseyn that to halt the invasion once and for all he needs to go to a hidden chamber of the Machine and see a man with a beard. She doesn’t know the guy’s name; just that he’s old and has a beard. Gosseyn is captured by Prescott before he can get there and is used by Prescott to infiltrate the remaining strongholds of The Machine. Gosseyn pulls a trick play on Prescott, thanks to some handy telepathic communication from within The Machine. Gosseyn kills Prescott, gets inside The Machine and finds the man with the beard who turns out to be X whose real name is Lavoisseur. Lavoisseur founded the philosophy of Null-A back 500 years ago and has remained alive by living through several bodies after each body dies. Together, Gosseyn and Laviosseur beat the invasion by means of The Distorter, but Lavoisseur succumbs to injuries and dies before he’s able to tell Gosseyn who Gosseyn really is. Gosseyn mourns the death of Lavoisseur for a few minutes before thinking he recognizes Lavoisseur from somewhere. He gets a razor and shaves off Lavoisseur’s beard and recognizes his own face!

Gosh, the only thing this whole plot was missing was a dwarf in a top hat running around randomly kicking people in the ass! I guarantee you that I didn’t get some of that plot correct, and I just finished the book a day ago. It goes without saying that this book has a lot going on in it. Too much going on, actually. There is so much going on that you’re never really grounded in understanding anything. At least I wasn't. Maybe I'm getting old. I have no idea what Null-A means other than it’s Non-Aristotelian logic, I think.

But so what? That doesn’t mean anything to me. And I gave up keeping track of the double crosses and switcheroos performed by Prescott and Patricia Hardie and the rest of the gang. But whatever! The World of Null-A is considered something of a Golden-Age Classic and I’m not gonna be a jerk and shoot it down. Because, in the end, it was kind of fun reading the damn thing.  

It was first published in serial format in Astounding Science Fiction in 1945. At the time Astounding was edited by John W. Campbell who is credited by many as the main guy who oversaw what’s been called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Campbell took science fiction away from pulpy, melodramatic space-opera type stories into more serious, science-based stories in Astounding. If you couldn’t meet his high standards, you didn’t get published by him. Certainly, there was plenty of space-opera still around. I have a few issues of Astounding from the 1930’s and completely dig them, but they were before Campbell’s time, mostly. Campbell brought writers like A.E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon into the field. He was a huge influence on Isaac Asimov’s early writing. He also got into Dianetics and published L. Ron Hubbard’s early articles on the subject. A.E. van Vogt also jumped onto the Dianetics field. Maybe someone with more expertise than me can say if Null-A is a response to Dianetics, since the novel was dedicated to Campbell.

My version of this novel was published in a hardback collection of 3 novels by A.E. van Vogt. The original owner of my book was kind enough to leave a note inside the cover informing me that he finished reading it on September 9th, 1963. My intent is to follow this post up with the remaining novels in the collection, Voyage of the Space Beagle and Slan. But who knows…I ain’t the most reliable kid on the block.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Holiday Stuffing

With the Thanksgiving holidays on us, and a few long weekends between my last post, I had a chance to get some reading done, in addition to the full-time day job I’m chained to.

For non-fiction, I finished The Long Gray Line by Rick Atkinson. This book details the lives of various graduates of the West Point class of 1966, from their first year at West Point, through their experiences in Vietnam and after. It’s a long book and painful in many parts. America was an ugly place then. Still is in many ways. I’m not sure we’ve learned any lessons from the past and often wonder if we’re cursed to run in place on a hamster-wheel of folly. 

So, on to the more fun stuff. In addition to the West Point book, I read a cool little sleaze paperback from Monarch Books, Tropic of Cleo by Rick Holmes. I spent a Saturday afternoon manning a market stall reading an old Avenger paperback, River of Ice by Paul Ernst, under the house name of Kenneth Robeson. And lastly, a pretty cool crime novel from the early fifties by Wade Miller called The Big Guy.

The Big Guy is a morality tale of sorts about the rise and fall of a small time hood, Joe Drum, into the top ranks of the Los Angeles underworld. If you’ve seen the movie Scarface (either version) you have a pretty good idea what’s in store for our anti-hero Drum. He’s a single minded beast, (even his name is symbolic for the loud storm from a hollow instrument) whose drive takes him to the top of the game. Unfortunately, when you’re at the top there is only one direction you can go. And man, does he go, thanks to the help of a woman named Patience. There are a lot of nightclub scenes, party scenes, gun-play and betrayal going on throughout, and you read along waiting for the fall of Joe Drum. There is a neat psycho-sexual warfare going on that plays a huge part of Joe’s demise. This is the 2nd novel by Wade Miller (in reality, two pals named Robert Wade and Bill Miller) that I've read after Kitten with a Whip. The style is on this side of over-written, at least in this novel, but once the story hits its stride it moved at a good clip. If you're interested in trying any Wade Miller novels, Stark House Press has reprinted a few of their novels, and used copies of their paperbacks are fairly easy to find. 

Tropic of Cleo is one of those “treasure hunt” capers that could have been written by Gil Brewer. Harry Gregory and his wife Cleo arrive in the Bahamas to meet “an old college friend” of Harry’s. Right off the bat we learn that Cleo has a raging case of the hot pants and you know that wherever she goes trouble will follow. Cleo comes across as bitchy, bored and alcoholic, and enjoys needling Harry at every opportunity. Harry’s pal, Gene Freeman, arrives, along with Max Heinrich and the three of them begin making their plans. Heinrich is a former WWII P.O.W. who holds the secret location to a treasure trove of stolen loot worth about 2 million dollars in his brandy-addled head. The problem is that he doesn’t know exactly which island the loot is buried on. Cleo thinks the whole thing is hooey and isn’t shy about letting the guys know her opinion. She’s also got Gene Freeman all in a lather for her. Freeman makes no bones about putting the moves on Cleo every chance he gets. Enter the picture a seaman for hire named Casey Stribling and Marla Keever. Casey and Marla had a thing going, until Casey got tired of Marla. Casey is one of those golden sun-god types that gets Cleo’s temperature up, and next thing you know, you have a boatload of bottled-up passions and lusts ready to explode. This is the kind of plot where the idea of stocking up supplies means having plenty of hooch on hand to guzzle. There are a couple hot-sex scenes going on and one wild catfight. This is not the kind of stuff that would not find a reputable publisher today. I enjoyed Tropic of Cleo for what it was, a politically incorrect, sexy (for its time) caper with plenty of booze and duplicity and assorted shenanigans going on. I’ve never read a thing by Rick Holmes before, but it was right there in the Gil Brewer style of writing to keep things from ever slowing down, forcing you to think too much about the preposterous situation the gang’s all in. 

Finally, a quick look at The Avenger: River of Ice. This was the 11th Avenger adventure, first appearing in July 1940. These pulp novels were reprinted in the 1970’s by Warner Paperbacks. I remember seeing them all the time in the Waldenbooks at the mall when I was a kid. They were right there alongside the Doc Savage novels that usually got my 75 cents at the time. I’ve read a lot of Doc Savage novels over the years, and only a few Avenger novels. I’m going to have to say it. The couple of Avenger novels I’ve read were better than many of the Doc Savage novels I can think of off the top of my head. That's probably fightin' words among pulp nerds! I understand that The Avenger was a response to the success of both Doc Savage and The Shadow. Paul Ernst was hired to write the early Avenger adventures after consulting with Walter Gibson and Lester Dent, authors of most of The Shadow and Doc Savage novels, respectively. The Avenger is an adventurer named Richard Benson who turns to fighting crime after his wife and daughter are murdered. The shock of their deaths turns Benson’s face and hair a ghostly white. His features are also paralyzed. This allows his face to become malleable, thereby providing ample opportunity for disguise. He’s kind of like Doc Savage, The Shadow and Batman, in that he has an arsenal of gadgets and chemicals at his disposal. He also, like Doc Savage, does not kill criminals; instead he allows them to kill themselves by their own actions. This adventure has a lost civilization theme to it, wherein a gruesome surgical method for creating obedient slaves by sticking a steel needle into the brains of people is used as a plot device. There are chases, fights and perils aplenty in this romp, including a not particularly difficult mystery about who the evil genius is causing all the turmoil. It’s nicely paced, keeping up a lot of suspense right up to the ending. I would imagine that Avenger paperbacks are relatively easy to find out there in the wild. I mostly see Doc Savage paperbacks but every so often an Avenger book shows up.

So that’s about all for now. Happy hunting. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Never Die Alone - Donald Goines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

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

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

In other words, she saw a ghost!

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

It Came from the Drive-In

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

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

DAW Books February 1996. Cover by Vincent Di Fate

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Landlady - Constance Rauch

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

Popular Library, June 1976

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Price of Murder - John D MacDonald

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

Fawcett Gold Medal

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Bullet for Cinderella - John D. MacDonald

I do not like to think about the next half hour. He put the gag back in my mouth. He had his strong hands, and he had the small sharp knife, and he had a sadistic knowledge of the nerve ends. From time to time he would stop and wait until I quieted down, then loosen the gag and question me. The pain and humiliation made me weep like a child. Once I fainted. Finally he was satisfied. He had learned how much I thought of Ruth. He had learned that we had to go where the money was hidden by boat. 

Fawcett Gold Medal

This is my second time reading A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald. Many years ago I came across a whole stash of his non-Travis McGee novels in a used bookstore and I bought most of them over the weeks I visited the place. I worked a night shift on the security team for a resort and had plenty of downtime to read. MacDonald's novels kept me company through the quiet hours of the night after the lobby bars had closed and the most of the staff had checked out. I remembered that this one was a particularly good one, but had forgotten pretty much all of the plot. Reading it again was a blast. I put it up there with Soft Touch as a favorite.

The setup is a classic noir opener. Tal Howard (MacDonald had a knack for coming up with unique names) comes to the town of Hillston on a mission to find a hidden stash of $60,000 in stolen loot. He learns about the hidden money from his Army pal, Timmy Warden, who admitted to embezzling the money from his brother's lumber company back before the war. Howard and Warden were fellow P.O.W's in North Korea. It's during their shared time in the POW camp that Warden confesses to Howard that he'd stolen from his own brother at the urging of his brother's wife. Warden hopes to make it back home and make amends with his brother and return the money. Unfortunately, Warden succumbs to a sickness and dies in the camp. Feverish, dying and remorseful, he tells Howard someone named Cindy knows where the money would be hidden. Only Cindy would know.

Howard returns home from the war with a bad case of PTSD and memories of Warden's confession. He loses his job, loses his girlfriend, and loses any sense of purpose in life. He figures that if he could find the money Warden stole, he can make a new start. But first, he's got to find the mysterious Cindy.

But things aren't going to be so easy for our hero, Tal Howard. He's not the only one who got word about the $60 grand hidden somewhere in Hillston. Turns out, another fellow P.O.W. survivor named Earl Fitzmartin has been a few steps ahead of him. Fitzmartin is one of those classic John D. MacDonald sociopaths that he's so good at creating. Think of Cape Fear and Max Cady (or the movie versions played by Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro) and you got a good idea of the type of bad guy Fitzmartin is. Torture, rape, theft, murder, it doesn't matter to Fitzmartin what he has to do to get what he wants. And he wants that money.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this novel. It's from 1955 and you have the typical MacDonald observations on society, now read from a historical perspective. Reading it in 2017 you realize how little things have changed in human nature and our "modern" fears of the breakdown of society. I'm pretty sure it's still in print, since every few years we see reprints of MacDonald's Travis McGee novels in bookstores.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Moment of Power - Burt Hirschfeld

An amplified rock group blared out its charged sound in the dining room. The floor had been cleared and was alive with movement as the Ambassadors and Secretaries, businessmen and ladies of no visible means, Cabinet members and their wives, jerked and twisted, hopped and swayed, eyes fixed in space, faces grim and concentrated. 

Avon, December 1971
I really had no clue regarding the plot of this potboiler by Burt Hirschfeld, published back in 1971. The blurb on the back of the  novel indicates political intrigue in Washington DC, but not much else beyond that. I assumed that it might be a literary soap opera along the likes of Aspen or Acapulco only set among the political climate of the nation's capital. Instead I got a strange novel that, given today's political turmoil and dysfunction, seems oddly topical in spite of being published 40-some years ago.

In Moment of Power, we have a nation that's capable of sending a manned mission to Mars while it has yet to legalize abortion. References to Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs are made, as well as the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. I don't think Nixon is mentioned at all. So the reader is placed in a time that seems contemporary as to the year the book was published, yet there is a sabotaged manned mission to Mars that kicks off the plot. Mini-skirts and thin ties are the fashion, Madison Avenue mores dictate the trends and martinis are consumed with the same frequency as double scotches. An illegal abortion figures heavily as a side plot to the the turmoil of the main story. Affairs are pursued, women are not equal to men in terms of careers and power, a Press Secretary dates a woman of 23, an aging intellectual pursues young girls with abandon, and a President of the United States just might be an impostor placed by a foreign power.

And that is the real plot of this novel. It could have been marketed as a novel of espionage, but instead of going full-board espionage, Hirschfeld chooses to fill the pages with hook-ups and sex and flashbacks interspersed with the growing suspicion, and ultimately paranoid fear, that President of the United States, Gunther Harrison, is indeed a foreign agent impostor who has somehow taken the place of the real Gunther Harrison. This suspicion eventually consumes our main characters; Press Secretary Guy Pompey and Secretary of Defense Ralph Jacobs. Their problem is how should they deal with a man whom everyone believes is the real POTUS while they're convinced otherwise.

I'd hate to ruin any of the plot by revealing what happens in its 450 pages. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Burt Hirschfeld is a master at hooking the reader into following a variety of characters as they maneuver their way through intrigue, honor and deceit. I kept wondering how Hirschfeld would pull off the big reveal of the novel and ultimately I was not disappointed.

This one is a whole heaping dose of good old fashioned fun. With all the crap that's being dumped upon us in today's toxic (insane!) political world, this novel proved to be a somewhat pleasant diversion. If you come across a used copy of it somewhere go ahead and grab it. Maybe you can get lucky and read it on the beaches of Acapulco while the shit hits the fan here in the states.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Case of the Glamorous Ghost - Erle Stanley Gardner

"What actually did happen," Drake said, "Is that your client killed Hepner. She got jealous because he started two-timing her and she shot him. Why the hell can't she be normal? Why can't she get on the witness stand, cross her legs, show the jury a lot of cheesecake and tell about that night when Douglass taunted her with the fact that he had betrayed her virtue and wasn't going to do anything about it, how she thought she could scare him into marrying her if she took the gun from her purse, intending just to frighten him, and then he taunted her some more and all of a sudden everything went black. And then the next thing she remembers is his body inert and silent in death. And so she lost her mind and went tearing around in the moonlight, putting on the dance of the seven veils." 

TV Episode, Feb 3, 1962
I'm friends with a married couple who claim to have seen every Perry Mason episode there is. They don't have cable TV or satellite, nor do they stream their TV from any of the various streaming services. They don't even have cell phones that text, which gives you an idea how old-school they are. Over the years they've taped Perry Mason episodes from MeTV and have stack episodes up so they can watch them at their leisure. The one thing they've noticed, so they tell me, is that no matter where Perry Mason might be, he can somehow always be reached by telephone. One time he was driving past a gate guard who stopped to tell him he was wanted on the phone. Other times it's in restaurants, cafes, or gas stations. If someone needs to reach Mason, they seem to have a sixth sense on exactly where he'll be and what phone number is nearest to him.

It's probably just a goofy inside joke the script writers had to keep themselves amused. I haven't seen that many episodes, so I can't vouch for the observation. The only odd thing I've ever noticed on a TV show was that on The People's Court, court reporter Doug LLewelyn always had the same tie. Or it seemed that way to me at the time. But I only had one tie then myself, so there you go.

The Case of the Glamorous Ghost is one of the more entertaining novels I've read in the Mason series. They're all entertaining, but I enjoyed this one a lot because it moved at a good clip without ever going off the rails into confusion like some of the other Mason plots can do. I've been in a summer reading slump, or funk, and have had a hard time getting into many of the books I've started. I'm halfway through a biography of John Adams that I started back in June. Maybe I'll finish it this year. The Glamorous Ghost and a PD James novel is pretty much all I've managed to complete in the past month. Maybe it's the heat. Who knows?

Anyway, this post really hasn't provided much detail of the book, or the TV episode pictured above. I think Paul Drake's assessment of the case covered it better than I could. I'll add that Della Street goes "undercover" as a honeytrap of sorts, and that the plot includes not just murder, but gem smuggling on the side. And Hamilton Burger is licking his chops a lot in this one too. It's a good one.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Blood Moon - Frank Castle

Jake Reese had suddenly reappeared on the creek's south bank, sitting on his horse there, silhouetted, his features not quite visible. But his urgent gesture which called for attention was highly visible, with a hurried pumping of his arm which cried danger. He pointed, arm stabbing, violently, and another turn by Burnett showed what could be the beginning of the end for them all. 

Gold Medal Books - February 1960
The plot for this hard-boiled western by Frank Castle is fairly simple. Dain Burnett has tracked down one of the two people that robbed, tortured and killed his younger brother of $15,000. The pair of swindlers were a couple of con artists named Rupert Kinnick and Norma Young. In an attempt to flee to Mexico the two killers, Kinnick and Young, were hiding among a wagon party that was massacred by a band of Comanches, leaving Kinnick dead. Norma Young, however manages to escape only to be "rescued" by Dain Burnett, who has been on their trail. Burnett's mission is to take Norma Young back to the nearest jury and see to it she hangs for the murder of his brother.

Seems like an easy thing to do, right? Well...not so fast. Of course as things must go, Norma Young turns out to be stunningly gorgeous and vulnerable. And she has no idea that the man who rescued her is the brother of the man she's accused of killing. To complicate things further, the Burnett and Norma are in the middle of nowhere with a war party of Indians on their trail. Lucky for them, a certain Jake Reese shows up to aid them in their plight. Jake Reese is one of those frontier types who once lived among the Apaches and knows the ways of the Native American. He has a knack for coming and going like a shadow in the night. But because he's white, his life is in just as much danger as Burnett and Norma's lives.

To add further trouble, our three survivors meet up with a party of union soldiers accompanied by two shady characters named Phil Ainslie and Mose Jobe.

Both of them civilians; the one in the lead had a gambler's look about him, pale features and jet-black hair, a thin mustache, dandified gear which received much hard wear. The other was grossly fat, with porcine features, dressed like a ragpicker, his clothes greasy black, as though they had not been off him in a month.

Burnett is immediately wary of Ainslie and Jobe, especially after Ainslie seems to recognize Norma Young from Albuquerque. Ainslie is constantly setting himself upon Norma, conversing in hushed tones. Norma seems to want no part of Ainslie's attentions. Jobe is just an outright psychotic, and has a knack for raping and killing and collecting scalps. He'd like nothing more than to add Norma's hair to his collection. As the nights progress, the party of soldiers are picked off one by one, with blame being put on the Indians following them. Other nights are spent fending off raids from warring Comanches.

Burnett pretty much goes through a gauntlet of bullets, arrows, knives and fists in this book. There is treachery and violence in just about every chapter. I'm trying to remember if I've read any of Frank Castle's novels besides this one. I've got three of them in my collection of paperback westerns. The other two are MOVE ALONG, STRANGER and FORT DESPERATION, both them Gold Medal paperbacks as well. If they're as good as this one is, I'm looking forward to saddling up.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Long Wait - Mickey Spillane

Wendy was a pretty little head, all right. A little on the hard side when you looked close and the make-up didn't take away the brittle lines that were etched in the corner of her mouth and eyes. She was a million bucks in a green dress under artificial lights and two million in bed. A dime a dozen in the daytime though. 

Signet Books 
Oh snap! That's a mean thing to say about Wendy! But that's how it goes for dames in Mickey Spillane's world. I'm trying to remember now if any of the dames in this novel were called Kitten. I don't think so. That's a name Mike Hammer uses for his babes. And as most of you probably know, Mike Hammer ain't in this hardboiled soap opera from 1951.

As plots go, this one features the old reliable amnesia gimmick for its fuel. Our hero, Johnny McBride returns to Lyncastle, a burg a couple connections from Chicago, to right some wrongs and clear his name. In order to accomplish this, he promises the reader that he's kill someone, break someone else's arms, and a third person will "get a beating that would leave the marks of the lash striped across the skin for all the years left to live." Oh and that last one is a woman. So yeah, Johnny McBride ain't fooling around!

So Johnny pulls into town by bus on the first page. Next thing he knows he's getting the bum's rush by a copper. But Johnny's planned ahead. His plans and a nice fat roll of dough get him into a swanky hotel. But it's not a day he's in town before he's hauled in by the cops for murder. This is after a couple of punches get thrown and someone gets kicked in the stomach and pukes and another gets a belt in the teeth and...well, after things settle down, the cops are dismayed to learn they can't hold Johnny for squat because he's got no fingerprints. That's right, he's got no fingerprints!

Did I mention this novel is one loopy ride? Didn't the amnesia hint give that away? Well trust me, it's a doozy, because Johnny McBride really isn't really Johnny McBride. He's really a guy named George Wilson, who was a pal of the real Johnny McBride after Johnny went on the lam for being accused of stealing $200 grand from the bank he worked at in Lyncastle. In addition to robbing the bank, he was also accused of gunning down District Attorney Bob Minnow. It seems McBride was believed to have killed Minnow because Minnow was going to arrest him for the bank theft. So after shooting DA Minnow, McBride hauls ass out of Lyncastle for parts unknown. But first he leaves the gun with his prints all over it at the murder scene. So, you'd think that is it for Johnny, only now, the cops can't hold him for murder because he doesn't have fingerprints anymore. So they have to settle for tailing him around Lyncastle as he tries to clear his own name.

Yeah, you kind of have to forgive a lot of stuff that makes no sense to enjoy this novel. Anyway, George Wilson, now assuming McBride's identity (because he's McBride's exact double and all) gets dope on a cat named Lenny Servo, who seems to deal all the cards from the stacked deck in Lyncastle. There's also a missing chick named Vera West, who was Johnny's girlfriend and coworker at the bank Johnny supposedly robbed. Johnny's after Vera because he's convinced that Vera had him set up for the bank job because afterward Vera hooked up with Lenny Servo. All this background stuff is revealed through a bunch of punching and teeth-kicking. And with people taking potshots at Johnny whenever suitable.

The novel is violent as hell and moves at a crazy pace. Johnny gets beaten up a lot and has a lot dames throwing themselves at him all the while. It's exactly what I would expect when I open a Mickey Spillane novel. You're going to be entertained and given your $1.95's worth. And you know you like this stuff anyway. Who wouldn't?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Fadeout - Joseph Hansen

The wire mesh fence slumped as if the signs were too heavy for it. At one point it lay like a rusty circus net. It sprang like a circus net when he stepped across it. In the shadow of the Chute he found the place where Fox Olsen had died. Crude chalk outline on the planks....In the stinking dark forest of splintery posts under the pier lay pizza tins, beer cans, cigarette wrappers, condoms--the joyless detritus of American joy. 

Owl Book Edition 1980
I've heard good things about the Dave Brandstetter series for years and I own a couple of the early ones thanks to used book sales around the town. Some years ago I lent the whole set I had to a friend who was moving to Mexico. Since then I've got them all back and none the worse for wear. It's good to have friends who take care of books. Anyway, I finally read the first novel in the series by Joseph Hansen and am happy to tell you the good things I've heard were justified.

This isn't your standard California detective mystery, as the blurbs on my edition would have you believe. One even refers to Hansen as "a worthy successor" to Hammett. Well, Hansen and Hammett have names that begin with H, but that's about it for comparing the two as far as I'm concerned. This is a moodier, measured novel than Hammett's novels are. Dave Brandstetter is an insurance investigator, not a private eye, and is mourning the loss of a loved one as the novel begins. You don't get the feeling that Brandstetter is a "shoot first and ask questions later" type of guy.

The mystery concerns a missing person named Fox Olsen. It appears, to Brandstetter anyway, to be a staged car accident off a bridge in the rain instead of accidental death. Something just like the cover shows above. No body is found and before any life insurance is going to be doled out to the beneficiaries, Brandstetter has to verify that our missing and supposedly dead Fox Olsen isn't trying to pull a scam for the insurance money. Still, Olsen seemed happy enough, and successful enough in town with his popular radio show. So why take the fade-out?

The more Brandstetter probes the life of Fox Olsen the deeper things get. For one thing, Fox Olsen was a frustrated artist and writer. Add to that a marriage that harbored infidelity. To further complicate matters, an old friend of Olsen's returns after 20 years to rekindle a relationship the two had before Olsen joined the Air Force.

The novel was published in 1969, and I would imagine the gay themes, in addition to a gay detective protagonist were pretty controversial at the time. The mystery of the relationship doesn't take long for Brandstetter or the reader to figure out, especially to a modern reader.

I liked the novel and would recommend it to readers who enjoy the Lew Archer mysteries. Also for readers who don't mind a more poetic depiction of a time in California that you don't see in 60's news-reels. I have the next four novels in the series and am looking forward to reading them. I understand that the as the series progresses so does Brandstetter in age and maturity. I believe they're still in print and available in e-format. I also see that there is a single edition of all twelve Brandstetter novels available through third-party sellers, but the price is a bit steep for that one.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Seven Slayers - Paul Cain

There was a sudden roar from a black, curtained roadster on the other side of the street; the sudden ragged roar of four or five shots close together, a white pulsing finger of flame in the dusk, and Coleman sank to his knees. He swayed backwards once, fell forward onto his face hard; his gray hat rolled slowly across the sidewalk. The roadster was moving, had disappeared before Coleman was entirely still. It became very quiet in the street.

Black Lizard Books - 1987
This collection has been sitting on my shelf for many years. I picked up this Black Lizard edition of Paul Cain's Seven Slayers many years ago from a used bookstore in Tempe Arizona that is now closed. A newer, updated version of that bookstore opened in Phoenix a few years ago but, man it's just not the same. I could go on about my favorite old bookstores closing down in the past couple decades (which seems only like a few years to me) but why bother.

So...what can I say about this book that hasn't been said better by other aficionados of the hard-boiled school? I don't know why it took me so long to listen to them and read this book. In a word, these stories rocked! They are chock full o bad guys who are really, really bad, bad-ass dames who can't be trusted and heroes that aren't wholly good. One of the coolest things I noticed in reading the stories is how Cain likes to keep the reader off balance. He does this in subtle ways, as seen in the above paragraph from the story "Murder in Blue" in how many shots were fired. Was it four or five? The omniscient narrator (the author) should know. Or this simple line from the same story; "She was ageless; perhaps twenty-six, perhaps thirty-six."

Or take the high-rise apartment setting from the story "Pigeon Blood" where the hero lives in a flat that has no wall, "At the far side, where the light from the living room faded into darkness, the floor came to an abrupt end - there was no railing or parapet - the nearest building of the same height was several blocks away."

All of the stories wind through the tropes of hard-boiled environments: gambling dens, dingy bars, nightclubs, apartments, rain-swept streets, and sketchy hotels. Fans of this genre will feel completely at home in these stories. Violence is sudden, bodies unexpectedly (for the characters, anyway) turn up in the shadows, bullets fly from across the block, gats are pulled from bathrobes...well you get the idea. No one can be trusted and greed is the common denominator. You'll have a blast reading them.

These stories were originally published in Black Mask way back in the 30's, back when Hammett and Chandler were producing the same kind of hard-boiled tales for the same publications. If you like those guys, you'll like Paul Cain's stories also. Cain's fictional output was limited to only one novel, Fast One, and 17 short stories. I have a copy of Fast One and am looking forward to reading it soon. He was a screenwriter under the name George Sims. His fictional output has been collected under the title The Complete Slayers for anyone interesting in shelling out a whopping chunk of change.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Dagger of Flesh - Richard Prather

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

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

Gold Medal 

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

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

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

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

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

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