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.