Sunday, November 4, 2018

Death for Sale - Henry Kane

He took one of Carter's cigarettes, lit it, blew smoke at the match to extinguish it. "Understand this, Mr. Winston. I'm not a pug-ugly, not a hoodlum, not a gangster. I perform independently and have no interest or curiosity in the motives of those who retain me. I command high fees because I am an expert and because there is a great element of risk. I take such risk into consideration as do others in hazardous professions--the people-jack, the high voltage worker, the test pilot. And if ever I'm caught, I shall accept even that philosophically--that is my way of life, and what comes must come. And now, if you please, what do you want of me, Mr. Winston?"

Dell - July 1957

And here you meet the wordiest hitman in the game. No, he doesn't talk his victims to death, not quite, but the reader may be an innocent bystander in the exchange. Death for Sale, by Henry Kane, was published in 1957. I don't believe I've read any other Henry Kane novels before this one. He's published a lot of books with cool covers on them, but I never see them out there in the the used bookshelves. I picked this one up 20 years ago in a flea market for 50 cents (the sticker is still in the book) and hadn't got around to reading it until this week.

It's got all the trappings of a classic noir plot: a husband is saddled with a shrew for a wife who refuses to divorce him, so in a moment of drunken anger hires someone to kill her. After sleeping on it, he wakes up with second thoughts and spends the rest of the novel trying to prevent the hit from going down. In this case, our reluctant husband is Carter Winston, a successful, 52 year old owner of a talent agency. His wife, Paula Sommers Winston, is twenty years younger, beautiful and rotten, and turns the bitch meter to 11 on the 1-to-10 scale. She makes no secret that she's seeing another man (she refuses to divulge who) while refusing to divorce Carter. She likes the setup, likes living in a mansion with servants, and likes the big life insurance policy on Carter's life. Carter Winston has a 19 year old daughter, Diane, from his first marriage. Diane's mother died when she was 13 or so. Carter Winston's marriage to Paula Sommers his only two years old, and we're given a summary of their whirlwind courtship in a few paragraphs early on in the book. In a moment of drunken frustration, Carter decides he has to have her killed, and hires a shady cat named Stewart Blake to do the job.

Why would a supposedly smart business guy marry someone so much younger? Well, we have an obvious theory here. Paula Sommers is a total smoldering hot babe. And Carter Winston is a stuffed shirt jerk-off. That's the biggest problem with this novel. It's preposterous. All noir plots are preposterous but you forgive them for it if the characters are relatable to the reader. You have to have a little empathy for at least one of them, or hate someone enough to want to see them get their just desserts. But with Death for Sale, you have characters so obnoxious that you really could care less what happens to them. Thankfully, the writing is crisp and professional, and the plot doesn't slow down long enough for you to not finish it. In spite of a few nice touches here and there, some moments of tension, the plot is more "drawing room mystery" than a true noir novel. For example, about a third way into the novel we're introduced to Cynthia Sommers, Paula's sister, who looks exactly like Paula! Then there is Carter's business partner Walter Moore, who's got a torch for Cynthia. Added to the mix is a kooky wannabe actress named Lola Cavanaugh who ends up being at the wrong place at the wrong time when our hitman, Stewart Blake, comes to complete his job.

By the end of the novel we have a gunshot in a storm, a chase through the night, and an overly complex resolution that would have made Ellery Queen slap his forehead! Oh well, it wasn't the worst fifty cents I've spent, and like I said above, the writing was well done. If I run across any other Henry Kane novels out there in the wild I'll probably splurge a few clams and dive in again. Or I just might pick up a Frank Kane novel and be happy with that. Who the heck knows?

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Kidnapper - Robert Bloch

"There is no security for the average man today. It is no longer enough to be a good husband, a good father, a good craftsman. If you do not have a Cadillac in the garage, you are a failure. That is the message of modern advertising, that is the standard of the new values we accept." 

TOR Books, March 1988

For a moment there it sounded to me like the message of modern evangelicalism. But that very "standard of the new values" spoken of is the very thing that drives our narrator, Steve Collins, to embark on his scheme to kidnap his way into the good life.

Published in 1954, The Kidnapper, is a nasty little thriller that's my favorite kind of mid-century noir novel. It's not one I see out there in the wild very often. I bought my copy about 15 years ago from a long gone used bookstore in central Phoenix, and only now have gotten around to reading it. If you're going to look for anything by Robert Bloch you're going to have to do it in the horror sections of the bookstores still out there. Like Harlan Ellison getting pegged as a Science Fiction writer, Bloch is forever known as a horror writer, thanks to his 1959 novel Psycho.

Bloch dives headlong into Jim Thompsonville in The Kidnapper, as we get the story straight from our hero Steve Collins. He's been around, knows how life works, knows the angles, and isn't afraid to go after what he wants when opportunity knocks. We meet him after riding the rails into a nameless town, somewhere in Illinois, pulling down the night shift as a tool and die maker. He's not exactly on the run, but he'd prefer to live his life without any inconvenient strings attached. He gets friendly with another guy on the job, Leo Schumann, a little guy everyone just calls Specs, because of his thick glasses. Specs has no luck with the ladies, but has hopes of eventually winning over a working girl named Terry, a "blonde with dyed hair and a figure like your grandmother's broomstick." Specs would like to find a nice girl and get married, save up for a house, follow that American Dream he's been promised. But he can't seem to make it past first base with the nice girls from church. So he pines for Terry. Steve ain't interested in any of that love crap. Catch him telling a dame he loves her? Forget that! It took him long enough to shuck this last lush down in Florida. Anytime he wants a chick he can go pick one up, but saddle down with one, no way, Dad!

Then he meets Mary. Mary Adams is a strange chick. Kind of crazy-like, with her barely contained lust and her innocent way of twisting Steve all up into knots wanting her. Soon enough, she's spending her free time rocking his world each day before work. By day Mary works as a nanny to the daughter of  a well-heeled family that runs one of the banks in town. Shirley Mae Warren is the kid's name. She's 4 years old. Mary's job is to see to it she gets to and from pre-school each day. Her folks have all kinds of money, Mary tells Steve, and maybe one day they'll take Mary, with the kid, on out to California. Wouldn't that be swell?  And there you have it all laid out, sweet as a peach ripe for the picking. Snatch the kid, get a nice fat ransom for her return, and live on Easy Street afterward. Steve's just got to convince Mary that it'll work.

"A criminal? Don't be afraid to say it, Mary, it's only a word. A fancy word that guys like Warren dream up to pin on the little fellow who tries to get ahead. Anytime a little fellow takes dough from a big shot, he's a criminal. But when a big shot takes dough, he's a smart business man. He's got the law on his side because he makes the law to begin with."

Hmm...where have we heard this before? Has a ring of familiarity to it, kind of. Maybe Steve's on to something after all. Anyway, back to the kidnapping. Steve and Mary get the whole caper planned, except one thing. Steve doesn't have wheels. He's gonna need a car. If only he knew a chump he could talk into providing their wheels for a split of the ransom...A guy like Specs for instance. Just think of the dames Specs could have eating out of his hand if he had a little cash to spend on them!

And we're off and running. Of course, you know things never really go as planned in these stories. Something always slips and throws a wrench into things. In this case, the girl they kidnap has to go and die on them. 

Like I said, this novel is a lot of unwholesome fun reading, mostly because of the strong narrative voice that Bloch delivers through Steve's point of view. Steve is one of those characters who has an undeniable dark charm to them, and a way of seeing things that you can damn near relate to yourself, especially when you find yourself working a job for nuts while seeing those other big shots get all the rewards out of life. Bloch plays on our skewed sense of entitlement that has saturated our society for decades now. We're promised that hard work brings us nice stuff. You can almost empathize with the desire to take that shortcut, pull that trigger, get what's yours. And that's the stuff that the best noir novels come from. Bad people making worse decisions.

Highly recommended. 

Sunday, October 14, 2018

She'll Get Hers - John Plunket

Youthful actresses were thin-faced and gave him the impression that their underwear was dirty. Shaggy-haired actors were badly mannered and mumbled and sported shrunken Levis designed to display their limited talents. Jo said they were “method actors” but Koslo classified them as glorified delinquents and misfits. Womenish men, mannish women…he couldn’t help but marvel at the miracle that Jo could have known these people and still remain untouched by their neurotic outlooks.

Monarch Books July 1960

Published in 1960 by Monarch Books, She’ll Get Hers is a tawdry little paperback that flies under the wings of some of the better known paperback originals by Gil Brewer and Day Keene and the gang. I’ve read a few Monarch paperbacks and have enjoyed them much like you’d enjoy a burrito from a dirty restaurant. You know they’re bad for you, but you like ‘em anyway. Monarch was kind of a low-rung publisher of pulpy paperback originals, and I’m guessing they went for the sleazier side of stuff than Gold Medal. Judging from the titles in their catalog, lots of juvenile delinquent, beatnik, and sleazy kicks can be enjoyed in these old paperbacks.

She’ll Get Hers is written by John Plunkett. According to the blurbs, Plunkett was heavily involved in the entertainment scene at the time, and sold screenplays for both the television and film industry. I don’t know if She’ll Get Hers was his only novel. It’s the only one I’m finding after a cursory look online. Regardless, it’s an often-told story of a bad guy getting his come-uppance by a bad girl. In this instance, a hood named Marty Koslo, and his new flame, Jo Wilder.

Koslo is an east coast enforcer for the Syndicate and is sent to Los Angeles to get to get to the bottom of why receipts from marijuana sales have dropped in recent months. Los Angeles is familiar turf for Marty Koslo. He’s got a swanky apartment above Sunset Blvd and a hot sexy girlfriend named Lorry Logan. He sets up a meeting with the district supervisors of the organization and reads them the riot act. Their biggest market is in the high schools and colleges throughout the Hollywood area. Koslo lays the tough guy routine down on the supervisors and promises he’ll be following up with the local pushers next. This has the whole L.A. crew in an uproar.

Marty Koslo was not just a successful hood. Marty Koslo was the syndicate’s number one hatchet man. The executioner. The enforcer. Big K, they called him. Not K for Koslo, but rather for Kill.

Later that night, back in his Hollywood office at the Chilton Hotel, Marty Koslo is kicking back with a drink and thinking of his date with Lorry when he’s approached by the bellman, a former jockey named Willie, who puts him wise to a raw deal fixing to happen to one of the regular girls who do freelance “modeling” work in the hotel. Some local Hollywood type named George has paid Willie to supply him with “knockout drops” so that he can score with one of the models who is there posing for “art” pictures. Willie tells Koslo that this particular girl don’t rate such a slimy treatment, that she’s special, that she ain’t like the other girls. He asks Koslo to run George out of the joint on behalf of his unsuspecting victim. Koslo figures what the hell, Willie is a good guy and is obviously sweet on this chick, so he’ll do him this favor. He takes the vial of knockout drops from Willie and goes to George’s hotel room. In it he finds George is all hot and ready for his fun time with the model who is in the bathroom changing her wardrobe. Koslo sends “Georgie” packing. Then he decides that, as long as he’s there, he’ll check out this chick that Willie is so sweet on. And out of the bathroom walks the stunning Jo Wilder.

She stood in the doorway framed by the light of the bathroom. She was wearing a pair of tiny nylon panties, black stilted pumps, a fresh coat of red lipstick and a rather vague expression of mild surprise.

A lot of attention is focused on Jo’s magnificent breasts at this point, and Koslo is basically reduced to a stuttering schoolboy on his first major crush. He lets Jo know that he’s just saved her from a sleazebag whose promises of a career in the movies for Jo was all bullshit. Jo is appropriately grateful, and promptly lets him know that, while she may pose nude for pictures, she’s a good girl who is pure of virtue. She also gets off on Marty’s obvious admiration of her naked body. Marty Koslo asks her if she’s had dinner yet and Jo agrees to go out with him that night.

What follows is a quick courtship of sorts, as Marty Koslo convinces Jo Wilder to come back to has pad above Sunset Blvd that night. A lot of kissing and mushy stuff follows, leaving Koslo’s head spinning under Jo’s alluring spell. She lets him know several times that she’s a virgin, but would like to be his girlfriend. She promises him that she’ll make him happy. Koslo figures it won’t be long before Jo gives herself up fully to his charms. In the meantime he dumps his girlfriend Lorry so he can devote all his energy toward Jo. In a matter of a single weekend he convinces Jo to move out of her dumpy apartment and stay with him. The next afternoon, while helping her pack up her stuff, he meets Jo Wilder’s neighbor, an artist named Mona. Mona seems unusually distressed to learn that Jo is moving out. She’s been painting a portrait of Jo and tells her she’ll have to finish the portrait from memory. Jo Wilder seems oblivious to Mona’s obvious crush on her, and promises to keep in touch with Mona. Koslo doesn’t give a rip about any of that artsy-fartsy stuff, and tells Jo Wilder to never see Mona again.

On the business end of things, Koslo learns that some of the distribution managers have been cutting the marijuana supply with tobacco. The high school kids are complaining that the stuff they’re buying isn’t any good. And the sales are dropping as a result. Koslo is ordered by the bosses back east to terminate the contracts of these managers, and do it with “a lot of noise.” Koslo brings in a 2nd hitman named Tito to help with the job. Meanwhile, Jo discovers the vial of knockout drops that Koslo got from Willie. She accuses Koslo of keeping them to use on her, to take her virginity. She has a complete hissy fit and runs away. Koslo spends the night trying to find her, only to discover that she’s run back to Mona’s arms. He shows up just in time to find Mona diving between Jo’s luscious thighs as Jo is writhing in unbridled passion. No wonder Jo doesn’t give it up for him, he figures. She’s a perverted dyke! In a rage, he beats up Mona and leaves Jo cowering on the floor. Then he and Tito head out into the night to gun down some cheating dealers.

Well, you know how these things go. Koslo’s preoccupation with Jo ends up messing everything up between him and his employers. A hit goes sloppy, a teenage girl is kidnapped, Tito ends up being a perverted psycho, a dealer flips and the police get tipped off to the entire drug operation. In the end, there is nothing left for Marty Koslo to do but go into hiding. But first, he’s gotta win Jo Wilder back!


It’s all a hot mess for Marty Koslo. Jo Wilder is one of those chicks who only live in novels like this. There are a lot of eye-rolling moments for the reader as Marty trips over his dick again and again. Lessons for the rest of us tough guys to be learned for sure; the first one being don’t get involved with bad girls who tell you how good they are. Actually that’s a terrible lesson. Where’s the fun in that?

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Dreadful Lemon Sky - John D. MacDonald

“McGee, we’re talking about image here. We’re building an image people are going to trust. You ought to hear that boy give a speech. Make you tingle all over. What I wouldn’t want to happen, I wouldn’t want anybody to come here, some stranger, and try to make a big fuss based entirely on the word of some dead thieving slut.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Especially when it would be bad timing for Frederick in his career. A man shouldn’t lose his whole future on account of one foolish act. It wouldn’t be fair, would it?”

Fawcett Gold Medal Books 1974

From a novel published in 1974 the above exchange sounds very modern, particularly in a country of wealth and political expedience. I thought The Dreadful Lemon Sky by John D. MacDonald was the last novel in the Travis McGee series that I had not read, but I was mistaken. I probably read it more than 30 years ago, because some of the scenes came back to me again. As for the plot itself, I had mostly forgotten it. So coming back to this novel was almost like reading it for the first time, with just snatches of déjà vu along the way.

It begins like many Travis McGee novels do; a woman, in this case Carrie Milligan, comes back into McGee’s life after several years bringing trouble with her. Carrie is carrying a bag full of money, over $90,000, and she wants McGee to keep it safe for her, no questions. If she doesn’t come back for it in a month’s time, he’s to make sure her sister Suzie Dobrovsky gets it, minus $10k for his fee. McGee agrees to the deal, somewhat reluctantly. Carrie was a friend of his, and his natural instinct is to “rescue” her from whatever it is she’s running from. But Carrie keeps her silence and leaves in the night, leaving the money with McGee.

Well you don’t have to read many books like this to know that Carrie is not going to be coming back for the money. Instead she’s going to wind up dead in a suspicious accident, leaving McGee 90 thousand reasons to find just who was behind Carrie’s fatal “accident” and just where the money came from.

So McGee and his pal Meyer (that’s the entire name you get for his pal in these novels) take the houseboat to Bayside Florida, where Carrie had resided before being killed. They’re not docked at the marina half an hour when they get pulled into the family drama between Cal and Cindy Birdsong, the owners of the marina. Cal is a raging drunk who accuses Cindy of “peddling her ass” to McGee as he checks in to the marina. A fight ensues and Cal is taken away by the police while Cindy recovers from more bruises. A worker, Jason Breen, tells McGee that Cal Birdsong wasn’t always a drunken bully, but that something in recent months changed him. McGee and Meyer go to Carrie’s last employer and meet Joanne, a friend of Carrie’s. They learn that Consolidated Construction Company, where  she did the bookkeeping, is going belly-up.  Owners Harry Hascomb and Jack Omaha had a falling out and Jack Omaha has disappeared. Further backtracking into Jack Omaha’s background leads McGee to local attorney Fred Van Harn. Fred Van Harn is one of those sleazy types who affects long sideburns and fancy watches and a sleazy talent for banging young girls and wives of prominent businessmen. McGee also learns from Joanna that he’s got a kinky twist and likes to hurt women. As McGee pulls the varied characters together he discovers they’re all linked to an amateur get-rich-quick scheme dealing smuggled marijuana to a local singles apartment complex where Carrie lived. A place McGee and Meyer refer to as “Swinglesville.” Unfortunately, as with most schemes, this one runs off the rails, and someone is eliminating the party-goers.

I mentioned that this novel was published in 1974 and it shows its decade in all its sleazy glory. Jesus beards, sideburns, grass, swingers, rock music, it’s all here. You can almost smell incense and pot when you open its pages. In fact, a couple of mood rings fell out of my book. It reeks of 70s fashion, manners and lingo. The McGee books are snapshots of the times they were written. Unfortunately, that eye for detail and ear for dialogue can seem hopelessly dated for a lot of modern readers. But, this book is a terrific look at what MacDonald saw taking place around him in Florida in 1974. He uses McGee and Meyer to dissect the scene for the rest of us squares. McGee is an anachronism, a guy out of place in these modern times. I understand the gripes against these novels, but I forgive them of all that. McGee sometimes comes across more than a bit judgmental and square.  And I don’t care, because the stories, man…the stories!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Time of the Great Freeze - Robert Silverberg

Jim hoisted himself over the rim of the tunnel mouth, stepped into the new world, and fought back a surge of panic as he saw the magnitude of it all. Even at night, even by moonlight, it was possible to see how the flat ice-sheet spread out to the horizon. It was a numbing, breathtaking sight for anyone who had spent his whole life in tunnels hardly higher than his head. 

ACE Books, August 1980

I read this book while the temperatures outside were pushing the 110 degree mark. The acceptance of global warming, or at least, climate change has most of us wondering what happens to a planet that heats up. This book, written in 1963, takes a look at the flip-side of that theory and sees the world under another ice-age.

I picked this up a couple years ago along with several other science fiction novels by Silverberg. I've come late to the game in appreciating Robert Silverberg's science fiction novels. I don't know how I didn't read his books when I was in my teens and enjoying Asimov and Clarke and others. This book would have been a favorite had I read it as a kid. It was written for the "juvenile" market at the time of its publication, in the days before "young adult" shelves filled bookstores, but I think it's enjoyable at any age. It's a pure adventure story and with nice dollops of science and sociology along the way.

It's a simple plot, the best kind it seems, about a young man named Jim Barnes who, along with a team of explorers lead by his father Dr. Raymond Barnes leave New York to reach London during what they believe is the beginning of a long thaw after a several hundred-years-long ice age. The year is 2650 and New York is now completely underground, beneath miles of ice. After a few hundred years it has become completely isolated, existing on an inertia that its leaders have no desire to see interrupted. After making radio contact with London, Dr. Barnes and his associates believe that the time has come for the nations to communicate with each other once again. Unfortunately, he and his team are arrested and tried for conspiracy for their troubles. The City Council, a group of old men holding on to their power (sound familiar?) decide that, instead of giving Barnes and his team any publicity for their theories, they be sentenced to exile. This leaves our friends no choice but to try and make it across the ice to London, alone.

It's an arduous trek, to say the least, and not everyone will make it through alive. For a "young adult" novel of the time, it's surprisingly brutal and violent in places. I don't think I ever remember anyone dying in a Tom Swift or Hardy Boys book. That's not the case here. Death can strike at any moment as our friends travel in the harsh elements, encountering nomadic tribes and deadly beasts along the way. And to make their plight even more grim, their point of contact in London seems less than enthusiastic that our team of Americans complete their journey.

I thought this was a terrific book for what it is, a pure adventure/science fiction story. It's probably a touch old fashioned however, in that this is definitely a "no chicks allowed" kind of party. But for a couple of hours reading in the dog days of summer, it did nicely.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Mountain Valley War - Louis L'Amour

The killing of a strong man only leaves a place for another strong man, so it is an exercise in futility. There is no man so great but that another waits in the wings to fill his shoes, so the attention caused by such acts is never favorable. Yet, such men as Cub Hale did not care. They wished to kill and destroy because it enhanced their own image in their own mind. Cub had grown up in his father's image, but with additional touches. He did not consider the law as applying to him, but only to those vague "others."

Bantam Books - February 1981

The Mountain Valley War by Louis L'Amour is the 2nd of 5 novels to feature Kilkenny. It was first published in 1978. I had no idea this book is part of a series and it really doesn't matter. It can be read as a standalone without having read the first Kilkenny book, The Rider of Lost Creek.

A group of settlers have laid claim to land in the Idaho hills. Unfortunately, in the nearby town of Cedar Bluff resides one King Bill Hale. Hale is one of those ruthless, greedy bastards who has gone through life having his own way. He owns the town and the law and now has his sights set on the acres staked outside Cedar Bluff. His son, Cub Hale, is a psychopath who gets his kicks killing anyone who slights him. That he's not in prison is evidence of King Bill Hale's influence. Nita Reardon runs the gambling hall and saloon. She and Kilkenny have a backstory that's not elaborated on in this novel. It's obvious that she's in love with Kilkenny and has followed him to this territory. Lance Kilkenny is the "loner" gunman, wishing only to live in solitude and peace. He has no taste for killing and has hung up his guns for the peaceful life of a rancher. These characters are all western archetypes and the basic plot of the novel has been told thousands of times. L'Amour's strength is the way he can describe action and settings, and this book has plenty of both. From a hidden valley to a fistfight. There are a number of shootouts and a brutal prize-fight at the town fair, described in great detail.

A few years ago I got a stack of Louis L'Amour westerns from a pile of books left at the office. No one else seemed interested in them, so it was up to me to take them home. I've read maybe a dozen L'Amour novels and find them all enjoyable for what they are, old-fashioned stories of good guys and bad guys in the old west. This one differs a bit from the others I've read in that this time around L'Amour has chosen to pad his story with a lot, and I do mean a lot, of exposition. We know who the bad guys are not because of the bad things they do, but because L'Amour tells us, repeatedly, they're bad guys. Same with the good guys, all described as good and honest and hard working men who built the west with their good and honest hard work. L'Amour has also salted the plot with a lot history lessons, often to the point of slowing the momentum. You just want to see the bad guys eat lead without all the by-the-way historical detail. It's strange because I don't recall any other L'Amour novels I've read with so much authorial intrusion. Usually his stories are lean, and mean, trimmed of unnecessary filler.

Still, I enjoyed the book and looked forward to the final showdown, even if I already knew how everything would turn out.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Horror Double Feature - The Sentinel and Sleep Tight

Ballantine Books, 1977

Oh boy, old fashioned horror stuff going on here! First off in this post is a “classic” I guess you could say. It’s The Sentinel by Jeffrey Konvitz, published in 1974. I give a lot of leeway to 1970's horror novels. Generally they're not going to have the pace of modern novels. Even the saturation of 80's horror paperbacks that hit the bookstores make these older novels seem like silent movies in comparison. Still, I love the "good" old stuff. It had a style and creepy manner (when done right) and, if you give them the patience they sometimes deserve, they're a lot of fun to read. This novel has some good things going for it. It's got a nice New York setting that you'll recognize from movies filmed at the time. I never lived in New York so my impression is only what I grew up seeing of it on TV and movies. No, I'm sure it was a long way from the real thing, but that was all I had to go on. It still is. You get a taste of 1970's manners and culture of that period. It's also a well written example of commercial fiction of the day. The problem I had with it is that the main character, Allison Parker, doesn't present much for the reader to relate to. If you met her at a cocktail party you'd probably remember a pretty, but somewhat vapid, young woman and forget about her soon afterward. Allison has just moved into a brownstone flat that she seems fated to have rented. This, of course means trouble in horror novels. Her boyfriend, Michael Farmer, is a lawyer, of course, and a first class arrogant jerk. You might ask yourself, why is Allison going with such an obvious jerk, then you read on and determine that they probably deserve each other. He's always riding her about being "frigid" and insisting that she come clean about something in her past. I have to say I'm not especially clear on Michael's motives in that regard. He should be satisfied with having a hot, and not particularly bright, model to bang. Instead he's pushy and demanding while giving Allison nothing in return. About halfway into the novel there is a shift in plot that brings in a jaded and obsessive New York police detective named Gatz. Gatz has a hatred for Michael Farmer, and is convinced that Farmer is guilty of the death of Farmer's first wife. Then you learn that Allison was seeing Micheal Farmer while he was still married to his now deceased wife. What the hell? Why should I root for this person? Why should I care? And you read it for the horror stuff you've been promised on the blurb. This includes an eccentric but kindly enough neighbor of Allison's living with his black cat and birds. There is also a pair of Euro-chic lesbians living on her floor. And a pair of grotesque sisters living below her. It's all very bizarre and creepy and builds to a climax that won't surprise you today. I would recommend the book to fans of 70's horror novels. Or you could just see the movie if it ever shows up on Underground Classics on TCM.

Zebra Books, 1987

Sleep Tight by Matthew Costello is an entertaining 80's horror from Zebra books. I really did buy this just for the cover. The story inside is chock full of suburban families with their teenage kids getting mixed up in a cosmic horror gig. This book is from a time when publishers like Zebra couldn't print the stuff fast enough. Hence, there are a lot of really bad novels from this period. Still, even some of the bad ones had a completely inappropriate and gory charm to them that, I think, got lost in the 90's and 2000's. There is a Stephen King element to Sleep Tight (just an element mind you) in that white suburban domestic angst is explored along with the scary stuff. I can relate to it on that level and I don't mind its inclusion in plots, but one of my pet peeves in novels, particularly many horror novels, is when a nightmare is described in detail. Nightmares are nightmares, and everyone gets them. To me, a nightmare is page filler. Thankfully, that's not too overdone here, but still enough for me to skip some pages along the way. There are several creepy kidnapping scenes that kick off the novel, and an ex-con punker named Eddie whom you think is going to play the heavy in addition to all the boogyman stuff. But alas...Eddie doesn't last long. There is a "tall man" that haunts the town and sets off a lot of the terror in the book. There is a huge homage to Phantasm going on with this story but a lot of "the tall man" plot goes unexplained or dropped for cutaway scares. I think what I liked more than the horror shenanigans is a look at the period in the 80's in which the story takes place. Music references like "We Built This City on Rock and Roll" and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Yes, "We Built This City" is the worst song ever produced by a band who completely sold out, but I did get an urge to play my Frankie Goes to Hollywood record again. Even Huey Lewis and the News got a shout out. This book is practically an 80's pop culture check list. Star Wars bedsheets, Cherry Coke and all that rot. And teenagers actually had to call each other up or hunt each other down old-school style. I don't remember any scenes of smoking in the school restrooms though, like they did when I was in high school in the late 70's. Different time. Fun novel. Like sticky candy, not exactly nutritious, but still fun to indulge in as the nights cool off. 

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Harlan Ellison and John D. MacDonald - Gool Old Fashioned Stories

They put the plate in the back of my head and silver pins in the right thighbone. The arms were in traction longer than the legs. The eye, of course, was something they couldn't fix. - Miranda by John D. MacDonald, October 1950, 15 Mystery Stories

Fawcett Gold Medal July 1984
 It hasn't seem like so long ago since my last post but, yeah, it's been a while. I've been out in the world doing that full time gig of copying and pasting spreadsheets that they pay me to do, neglecting the stuff I love doing, like reading these terrific old books and sharing them with you. Last month I took a trip to Wisconsin and brought along a couple of short story collections by writers I really admire: John D. MacDonald and Harlan Ellison. Sadly, we lost Ellison in June. For me, when I hear that I writer I admire has passed, it's like when others hear a favorite rock star, or movie star has died. I never had the opportunity to meet Ellison in person. I probably would have been too intimidated to approach him, if I did. He was that kind of guy. But I love his books, I love his stories, and mostly I love how he always stood up for integrity and respect for "the writer" in this ambivalent world. 

John D. MacDonald is another writer whose passing I remember back in 1986. I grew up in the gulf coast of Florida and had read many of MacDonald's stories set in my home state. I'd read all of the McGee novels up to the point I finished high school, and was discovering his terrific standalone novels along the way. Dead Low Tide was the first of his non-McGee novels I'd read and remains a treasured favorite of mine. Again, another writer I never got to meet in person.

Now, I try to make it a point to go see writers whose work I enjoy when they come to town to promote their books. I let them know that their books are important to me. Too many leave us and I'll say to someone I know, "Did you hear [insert name] died today?" and am often met with a blank look in response and a "Who was that?" It's a drag.

Anyway, back to the books. The Good Old Stuff, published way back in 1982 is a collection of John D. MacDonald's "lost" pulp stories, compiled by Martin H. Greenberg and Francis M. Nevins, Jr. They presented MacDonald with several dozens of stories they felt deserving of finding a new audience. MacDonald then whittled the selection down to about 30 stories he deemed worthy of reprinting and gave his blessing to go forth. In the process, he did something that he admits, in his introduction, many fans might not appreciate. He "updated" several of the stories to make their settings as contemporary as possible. As for me, I would have preferred they remained as originally published in those crumbling pulps. Regardless, they're still crackling good yarns. Good and bad are fully delineated in these stories, and yes, the hero, always wins. But we get some awesome bad guys in the process. And as always, MacDonald's seemingly effortless prose sweeping you along for the action.  "She was a plump blond and she lay dead in the trail on her back. There were streaks of drying mud on the right sleeve of her yellow sweater. There was more mud on her freckled right arm. Death had flattened her body to the ground. Her tweed skirt was pushed halfway up between knee and hip. Her heels rested in the mud and her brown sandals toed in." - Murder in Mind, Mystery Book Magazine, 1949. A year later MacDonald published the remaining collected pulp stories in a second volume named More Good Old Stuff. And yes, it is just as great as the first collection.

They were worshipers at a black mass the city had demanded be staged; not once, but a thousand times a day in this insane asylum of steel and stone. - The Whimper of Whipped Dogs, by Harlan Ellison.

Pyramid Books, 1975, Cover by Leo and Diane Dillon
 Ellison's collection No Doors, No Windows, from 1975 is a real treat for me. Instead of a collection of "Science Fiction" (a term Ellison didn't appreciate in the least, as he makes clear in his introduction to this book) we have a collection of Ellison crime stories from pulps like Manhunt and Mike Shayne's Mystery Magazine, and "men's magazines" like Adam Bedside Reader and Mantrap. These stories are a blast. If you're a fan of shows like "Alfred Hitchcock Presents", you'll totally dig the stories presented here. Like MacDonald, Ellison also did some "editorial cleanup" on some of the stories within the collection. As an added bonus, you get Ellison's wonderful introduction, clocking in longer than any of the stories that follow it. You'll get his aversion to labeling writers the way publishers and booksellers must do, among other things. Always entertaining and enlightening. The collection kicks off with my favorite one in the book, "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs", which also appeared in his collection Deathbird Stories. I have that one, and another collection of Ellison's early crime stories called The Deadly Streets.

Griff could hear Ivy's husband moving toward him in the darkness. Only the faintest sound of gravel betrayed his movements. Down here, deep in the gut of the Earth, it was another world. A world in which Kenneth Cory knew well as a geologist. A world in which Kenneth Cory was at a disadvantage. That was why Ivy and Griff had lured him down here. To kill him. - Down in the Dark, by Harlan Ellison as Ellis Hart.

What can I say. These guys were pros. They didn't bullshit around when it came to producing terrific stories. They put their asses to their seats and pounded them out. You should find their books and dig them for yourself.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Bloodsmoor Romance - Joyce Carol Oates

Amidst the guests, however, no one was more pleasing to the eye, or excited more comment, than the five Zinn daughters of local fame. As we advance more intimately upon the sisters, we will not shrink from taking note of countless small imperfections, and some major faults, so it is well to remember that, observed and judged from a distance, as doubtless guests to the Kiddemaster Hall were wont to do, Constance Philippa, and Octavia, and Malvinia, and Samantha, and even Deirdre, did strike the eye as uncommonly attractive young ladies, though they lived in a society in which Beauty - whether of face, or form, or manner, or attire - was very much a requisite, for the female sex. 

Cover art for A Bloodsmoor Romance by Max Ginsburg

I'm straying far and wide from the world of assassins, spies and hardboiled detectives, in putting the light on this 1982 novel from Joyce Carol Oates. What a strange and weird book this is! Reading this novel I wondered who the intended audience for this "old-fashioned" novel would have been back then. It's written in a deliberate homage to Victorian-era novels, or Romances (think Little Women) as they were called. It forces the reader to slow down and accept the story on the narrator's terms. That narrator being an unnamed, elderly maiden, relating the intimate details, events and fates befalling the five Zinn sisters mentioned above. The setting is Bloodsmoor, PA, in the last 20 years of the 19th Century. It wouldn't have been the typical reading fare for the early 1980's by any stretch. This novel is almost a dare to any publisher accepting it for marketing to supermarkets, airports and and malls back then.

I've read a few of Oates's novels before, including Bellefleur, which this novel is a cousin to, as part of her Gothic period of novels. Bellefleur is another long, and more difficult, novel than A Bloodsmoor Romance, and just as weird. This novel is far more accessible for a patient reader than Bellefleur is, and I would recommend to anyone possibly interested in reading Bellefleur that they should probably read A Bloodsmoor Romance first. Both novels are historical family sagas loaded with bizarre and often supernatural events and turns of plot.

And as plots go, this novel follows the fates of the five Zinn sisters named above. It kicks off with a dramatic abduction of Deirdre by a sinister black hot-air balloon after an afternoon party to celebrate the engagement of the eldest Zinn daughter, Constance Philippe. Deirdre's shocking abduction remains unsolved. It also serves as a stain of sorts on the Zinn family itself. It's almost assumed to be her own fault that she's taken away in such a daring fashion. Deirdre is the youngest of the Zinn sisters, and the oddest. She's often beset by nightmares and visions and haunted by invisible voices. It seems to make sense that she be snatched away into mystery. Her kidnapping has an inevitability about it, and it launches the narrative detailing the diverse directions the other sisters take in their lives.

So what happens? Well, Constance Philippe disappears on her wedding night, Malvinia elopes with a European blackguard and becomes a scandalous actress of the stage, Octavia (the good sister) marries an older man to tragic consequences, Samantha follows her father's vocation into a life of science and curiosity wholly unbecoming of a young woman of her time. And Deirdre returns as Deirdre of the Shadows, a notorious medium.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg for our sisters! The turn of events include kidnappings, seances, ghosts, murder, a time machine, kinky sex, strange deaths, a sex change, erotic asphyxiation, secret marriages, disguises and more than a few family secrets revealed along the way. Just your average Victorian melodrama!

I think, given the popularity of shows like Penny Dreadful and The Alienist, this novel was about 35 years ahead of its time. I can completely see a Netflix miniseries based on this book. But until that happens, I'll just tell you to read the book first. You'll probably like it as much as I did.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Devastators - Donald Hamilton

There was a little pause. I was tempted to add something mushy to the effect that she was a pretty nice kid, after all, and working with her wasn't going to be quite the ordeal I'd expected. While I struggled with the impulse, the telephone rang, which was just as well. I mean this buddy-buddy stuff may be all right in the armed forces, but in our line of work you're much better off hating your partner's guts. Then you won't feel so bad if he breaks a leg and you have to shoot him--and if you think that's just a figure of speech, Buster, I envy you the happy TV world you live in.

Gold Medal Books

Ah yes, that's our hero Matt Helm being as endearing and sympathetic as ever. In this case, the partner he's referring to is another agent in his organization named Claire, or that's all the name you need to know, since Claire's assignment is to accompany Helm to Scotland, posing as Helm's new wife. Helm's job is to follow up on the trail of a missing disgruntled American scientist named Archibald McRow. The previous agents put on McRow's tail have either ended up missing-in-action or have been found dead by means of various illnesses. In one case, the measles, another of chicken pox, and the most recent agent, dying of the Bubonic Plague on a lonely coast of Scotland. Small wonder about the means of death, given that our Dr. McRow has been working on top-secret biological viruses and their antidotes. Helm's job is to draw out the opposing team and eliminate them. Claire's job, or Winifred Helm as she'll be referred to, is to put the touch on Dr. Archibald McRow. Kill him, that is.

My friends, this novel from 1965 is a corker! Helm is barely in London a few hours when an attempt is made on his life by a former soviet agent believed to have been executed. Then his partner, excuse me, his wife I mean, is kidnapped from their hotel. She was last seen by the hotel staff leaving in the company of a lady and another gentleman, both Oriental in appearance. And if that's not enough, an old face from a previous novel, The Ambushers, shows up. It's Vadya, the beautiful and extremely deadly soviet agent, and as it just so happens, Helm's former lover.

If Helm has an equal in the spy game it's Vadya. In The Ambushers, Vadya had a good time torturing Helm with a soldering iron, trying to get the dirt on a mutual target in Mexico. This time she's on the trail of Dr. McRow as well. At least, that's what she tells Helm. He has to torture her with a trick belt first to get anything out of her. In many ways, this novel is a cousin of sorts to The Ambushers, as the events in that novel, two years earlier, are referred to several times. I would recommend you read The Ambushers before reading The Devastators to get the most out of this one.

Anyway, after the torture and sex session between Helm and Vadya is dispensed with, the two of them agree to "team up" to find Dr. McRow. Vadya informs Helm that a certain Madame Ling has kidnapped Claire, remember Claire? and is luring Dr. McRow on the promise of a vast fortune, to lend his brilliant mind to the Chinese Communists. All he has to do is provide the means to kill off most of the planet's population. But like I said, he was disgruntled. And you know you're neck-deep in a spy novel when you have character named Madame Ling!

What follows are chases, shoot-outs, beatings, killings, more torture, more babes, hypodermic needles and rats infected with The Black Death! I'm telling you this novel has the works! I was amused by more of the self-deprecating asides that Helm provides us as he takes us through the plot. I was a bit worried that, after nine novels into the series, I would have gotten my fill (as perhaps some readers of this blog might) of Helm's brutal and hardboiled world. But this book kicked the action up a notch. Here's looking forward to the next novel in the series, The Betrayers.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Ravagers - Donald Hamilton

So two men were dead instead of one, and the job was shot to hell, and sooner or later I'd be back in Washington facing a couple of departmental psychiatrists who'd try to determine the full extent of the softening of the brain and whether or not the disease was curable--but that was kind of beside the point, at the moment. I squatted to examine the thing that looked like a cigarette package--a British brand called Players, if it matters, and saw the little hole out of which something lethal was supposed to come if you squeezed it in the right place the right way. 

Gold Medal Books

So, we're back in the treacherous, shadowy world of Matt Helm for his 8th novel, The Ravagers. Helm is at his most cold-blooded, hard-boiled yet in this caper. He's practically devoid of any humanity, except for occasional wry attempts at sarcasm and self-deprecation dropped here and there for humor. His assignment is inherited from another agent who is permanently sidelined after getting a face full of acid in close proximity, in a motel room in Canada.

"It was an acid job," Helm informs us in the very first line of the novel. An acid job followed up by a dose of cyanide. There are enough clues at the scene for Helm to determine that the killer was likely a woman, especially considering the dead agent was one of those All-American types who had a weakness for women. The agent's name was Gregory, and he'd been assigned to make contact and follow a certain Mrs. Genevieve Drilling and her teenage daughter Penelope. It seems that Mrs. Drilling has decided she's tired of being the wife of a scientist, Dr. Herbert Drilling, and has up and left Dr. Drilling along with a briefcase full of top secret information on a laser project that Drilling had been working on. Word has it that Mrs. Drilling has been romanced by a suitor from the other side named Hans Ruyter. The dead agent Gregory had been working on the case until someone put the touch on him. Now it's Helm's turn to pick up where Gregory left off.

Helm's cover name for the assignment is Dave Clevinger, a private eye from Denver Colorado. Helm is informed by Mac, his boss in Washington, that he's to make sure that Mrs. Drilling and Hans Ruyter complete their escape with the stolen documents. The documents, Helm is informed, are a plant. Unfortunately, there are other agencies on the case. Helm's job is to ensure that Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter make their escape unharmed. Sounds like a walk in the park for our hero.

Helm is barely on the case for a few hours when he's confronted by a mysterious woman named Elaine Harms. At least, that's the name she's using for now, she tells him. She wants to know what Helm was doing in the motel room of a dead man who was last seen in the company of Genevieve Drilling. Elaine Harms is one of those tough girl, take-no-shit kind of dames we love. She's not buying Helm's private detective story. She tells him that she'll be following up on his background, but in the meantime, she wouldn't mind a little company in the bed if he's game. Helm decides that duty calls and obliges her, knowing she could very likely be the acid-wielding killer.

Also on the trail of Mrs. Drilling are a pair of (it's assumed) FBI agents named Fenton and Johnston. Fenton is one of those inexperienced hot-headed types, while his partner Johnston is more methodical, and dangerous. Helm's orders from Washington maintain that he's not to give away his cover under any circumstances. It's imperative that his own agency's involvement remain secret. No one is to stop Mrs. Drilling and Ruyter from making their way out of Canada with the forged documents.

Helm agrees to meet Elaine Harms the next evening at another motor lodge to "compare" notes on each other. Helm actually admires Ms. Harms, and see's in her a kindred soul in the dark world of espionage. Of course, he can't reveal this to her, nor can he be sure she isn't the woman who dosed his former colleague with acid. Ultimately, his concerns regarding Ms. Harms don't matter, because someone puts a bullet into her head after framing her for the murder of agent Gregory. It's Helm who finds her body. It's the only moment in the novel where Helm feels remorse, even regret. "I went back to the bed. The shock was wearing off. I suppose I should have been feeling grief in its place. I could get drunk and cry in my beer, or whiskey, or gin. Right now I had other things to do..."

One of the things I've always considered about the Helm novels is their similarity to mid-century hard-boiled detective novels. It's clear that Helm is an assassin agent for a secret organization, sometimes referred to as The Wrecking Crew among its members, but the attitude is very much more Lew Archer than James Bond, in my opinion. I don't mean that Helm is anything like Lew Archer, because is not. Certainly, Helm has no problem killing people when he has to. Archer would avoid killing unless absolutely forced to in self-defense. What is similar are how the assignments in Matt Helm novels unfold through the disintegration of dysfunctional families rather than evil geniuses. There are none of the glamorous travelogues of the James Bond novels. No first-class jet-setting to Monte Carlo and Rome. No games of Baccarat in posh casinos. Instead, Helm's world is populated with motels, diners, and lonely highways traveled by trucks and Volkswagens instead of Bentleys. An Aston Martin would be sneered at in a Matt Helm assignment. In 8 novels, Helm has yet to wear a tuxedo. Instead he becomes involved in frayed family ties manipulated by foreign agents. The dire world implications are kept offstage while our hero maneuvers through failed marriages, duplicitous affairs and wayward offspring. The cold war stuff, like microfilms and lasers and atomic bombs, are really condiments to the main focus of the novels, that is Helm's relationships with the immediate victims: fathers, wives, daughters.

But I digress. I should just tell you that The Ravagers is both Donald Hamilton and Matt Helm at the top of their game. Looking forward to The Devastators next.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Mountain Girls and Swamp Rats

I had to pause in my reviews of the Matt Helm series when I discovered I didn’t have the next book in line. Luckily, finding the books out there isn’t as hard as it used to be. Not sure if anyone cares or not, but I’m having fun going through them from the beginning. Anyway, it’s not like I haven’t been keeping up with other things in the meanwhile.

For example, a couple of old Gold Medal nuggets featuring primitive lusts, passion, greed, gators and girls you don’t take home to mother.

Gold Medal Books and Black Lizard Books

And the swamp continued to rot and to wait for the end, and everything was as it had been in the beginning. - Robert Edmond Alter - Swamp Sister

Swamp Sister, by Robert Edmond Alter, was published in 1966. It’s the kind of novel that’s like sour candy for me. Even the name is irresistible. I don’t know much about its author, but I remember reading Carny Kill some years ago. How is that for another great title? A pair of titles like Carny Kill and Swamp Sister and, brother, you’ve got yourself a fine double feature ahead of you. Both books were republished by Black Lizard Press in the 80’s and shouldn’t be too hard to find now. Swamp Sister sets up a classic plot of missing loot lost in a Florida swamp, a pair of swamp rats with larceny in their hearts, a lusty young man looking for a better life, a sexy babe in cut-offs and not much else, and a crooked insurance investigator, all mixed into a sweaty brew somewhere in the wilds of Florida. The place isn’t specifically named, but I’m calling Florida purely because gators turn up all over the plot as our hero, Shad Hark, navigates his way to the missing payroll loot through a pair of hot sisters named Margy and Dorry, and a couple of murderous swamp rats named Sam and Jort. Seems our pal Shad can’t get a break after he foolishly spends some of the missing loot in the local general store. In no time flat he’s got the whole town all up his ass trying to get their sweaty mitts on that money. It’s a pretty good yarn all in all. My only complaint is the cornpone dialog gets a little weary after a while. A little goes a long way when it comes to people speaking like cottonmouth snakes. But that aside, it is well worth checking out if you have a hankering for a sweaty chick with loose morals sitting on a pile of ill-gotten swag.

“Ben, they’ll kill you for sure. Ain’t nobody around here ever stands up to them. If a man’s too big, they come at him from two sides. They have guns—they’ll use them and they don’t care none if they kill. Please, Ben, let’s get out of here now. I know some of the way—we can guess at the rest.” - Norman Daniels - Something Burning

Promotional flyer found in my copy of Something Burning

Something Burning, by Norman Daniels from 1963, has never seen a reprint as far as I know. I found it in a used bookstore with a small promotional flyer by Barbara Hendra, publicity director with Gold Medal at the time, asking for a review. It’s a neat little artifact folded into the pages of the book. I don’t know anything about writer Norman Daniels, but see that he’d written some westerns back in the day. Something Burning could easily have been a western as well. Ben Medford, our lead protagonist, is deep in an alcoholic state of mourning for his recently deceased wife, Sandy, and winds up wrecking his car off a mountain road one night. He’s found by a mountain girl named Ora and is nursed back to health. In the process of recovering, he and Ora are confronted by a pair of mountain hillbillies named Roy and Joel Gallison. Roy and Joel are right out of a casting call for Deliverance, as they take pleasure in killing and raping whomever they please. Ben uses his anger and screw-it-all attitude to his advantage and beats the hell out of Roy and Joel. Unfortunately he lets his civilized upbringing get the better of him and doesn’t kill the brothers. Bad mistake! The brothers return and kill Ora as she and Ben attempt to leave their mountain hideaway. Now Ben is on the run, blamed for Ora’s death and for setting a string of recent forest fires as well. He’s an outsider stripped of civilized mores, dealing with psychotic hillbillies and firebugs as he attempts to make it out of the mountains alive. Halfway through the novel, it changes course and becomes a stranded survivor plot as Ben and others are held hostage by the real firebug in a lookout tower as the flames surround them. It’s not a perfect novel, nor a lost classic. There are some lapses in logic happening, and Ben’s sudden attraction for another mountain girl so soon after the death of his wife doesn’t make a lot of sense, but all in all, Something Burning was an entertaining way to pass a few hours. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily go out of your way to find this book. But if you see it out there, it’s probably worth a couple bucks of your hard-earned dough.

So that’s about it for missing a couple weeks. I’ll probably be back in Helm’s world. Who knows?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Shadowers - Donald Hamilton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Ambushers - Donald Hamilton

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

Fawcett Gold Medal Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Murderers' Row - Donald Hamilton

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

Gold Medal Books, October 1962

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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