Tuesday, November 15, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Traveller #1: First, You Fight by D.B. (Ed Naha) Drumm

As you all know, dear reader, the 80's Men's Adventure world were all about the end of the world. Least it seems so in hindsight. Blame the cold war. Blame "Mad Max." Blame whatever. Post-Apocalypse paperbacks cluttered the spinner racks, so much so that I've avoided them for the most part because there were too many to choose from and besides there were plenty of private eye, mercenary and secret agent books to occupy my time. But eventually I got more and more curious. I dipped my toe in with the "Mutants Amok" series and liked the water just fine. 

So, a Traveler book was my next choice. The Traveler books stars, uh, The Traveler a guy in the wastelands with a booby-trapped mini-van full of weapons, a murky Special Ops past and not-so-sunny deposition. These were Dell's take on the genre, and they got Sci-Fi writer Ed Naha to pen the first volume. Horror and sci-fi writers tackling these post-apocalyptic novels just seem natural, mutants and gore abound. Naha is an interesting dude having written movies like "Troll" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," but also novelizations for "Ghostbusters II" and the first couple "Robocops." As far as The Traveler books go, he traded off with John Shirley to pen the series. 

"First, You Fight" is a solid set-up to the series. You get enough backstory and set-up to carry Traveler through his adventures. I'm sometimes worried with #1's in series like this that have to establish a lot of "world building," but Naha breezes through it. Naha also has an easy-to-read style and keeps the actions popping up throughout the narrative. The story is basically "Yojimbo" or if you will, "Fistful of Dollars, or as I say, "Red Harvest." 

Traveler ramps (literally) is his action-van into a small town that is doing pretty well considering the rest of the U.S.A. is a real nightmare zone of road-mutants. There's two Big Bosses and Traveler doesn't like either of them, so he plays them against each other for his own benefit and along the way grows a little as a person. He re-finds his purpose in life and might even like playing the hero. There's gory kills and heaps of crossbow and knifing action, plus gunfire and explosions. Noice.

I'm going to read more of them, that's for sure. I'm looking forward to the Shirley penned episodes, since his stuff is usually pretty good, "The Specialist" is a nicely underrated "Executioner"-clone, but I did really enjoy Naha's clean writing style. The books themselves are also nicely slim, without the bloat of some of the 80's Men's Adventure paperbacks that became the norm.

Coulda used more mutants, though...

Tuesday, November 1, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Dark Chant in a Crimson Key: A Mongo Mystery by George C. Chesbro

 When I was a younger man, we'd go to Oklahoma City to visit my grandma which was always nice but like a lot of family visit-trips, it was also very nice to get away from your family for a while. When I was getting to be book crazy, I looked up all the used bookstores in the phone book (aging myself) and my mother and me would take a circuit. On one of these such trips I found myself with a copy of "Shadow of a Broken Man" by George C. Chesbro starring the world-renowned criminologist, former circus performer/martial artist turned private eye Dr. Robert "Mongo the Magnificent" Frederickson, who also happened to be a dwarf. I cracked that book open and it in turned cracked my mind open. 

It was dizzying display of spies, assassins, horror, detecting, action and suspense as Mongo, in true private eye fashion, doggedly unravels a mystery. I read it in one sitting at my grandma's house and was immediately hooked and it was one of those first tastes of genre-bending fiction that showed me that not all detective stories had to be like all the others. And Mongo is such a wonderful character, stubborn, loving, loyal, smart as hell and a tough cookie to boot. His supporting cast grew over time, and they are all as colorful and interesting as him. Eventually I read the books to hang out with friends. The Mongo books slip in and out of genres, sometimes straighter mysteries, sometime fantasy, sometimes horror, or sometimes they're international espionage tales. There's a Mongo for every mood. 

But they were hard to come by, Chesbro was never a best seller and though the series lasted a long time there never was a lot of copies floating around, I guess. Or people just kept 'em. But I slowly got quite a few of them, but eventually I got distracted by other books and then suddenly it dawned on me one day that I had all these Mongo's to read.

"Dark Chant in a Crimson Key" really starts in 1986 with a book by Chesbro called "Veil" which was supposed to kick off a Men's Adventure series about a badass ninja-ish 'nam vet named Veil Kendry. Well, his published basically thought the book was too "high-brow" for the M.A. market and asked him for a rewrite. He liked "Veil" so instead he just wrote a different book. Enter John "Chant" Sinclair. A badass ninja 'nam vet out to be badass. As David Cross, he got three books out of the series and published "Veil" too boot. Sweet deal. The Chant books are top shelf, nearly ignored Men's Adventure books.

Veil showed up in the Mongo books eventually (which is where I know him from) and with "Dark Chant in a Crimson Key" so does Chant. I plucked this one off the shelf simply because it was a mash-up of all his series characters and I thought it'd be a fun ride. 

And, hey, I was right.

Mongo is hired by a rich guy who controls a charitable organization who just got ripped off by the Master Criminal John Chant who used his cunning and master of disguise skills to funnel money and then brutally murder some people. Mongo is simply hired to go see how Interpol is doing on the investigation and takes the job mostly to have a nice Swiss vacation. But since this is a mystery/action novel he's soon in the middle of the trouble between an ancient Japanese cult of killers and the mysterious Chant. 

Before too long his brother Garth, Veil and his lady friend/snake-expert are all there and backing Mongo up as he hunts Chant and slowly peels the onion of the supposedly ruthless killer. It's a short book that is always interesting, even if the middle is bogged down in a little too much talking. But when Chant shows up the pages light on fire. There's constant danger, ninja mysticism, CIA skullduggery and easy banter. Chesbro seemed like he had a lot of fun with this one.

I've been meaning to read "Veil" for years and now that I've reacquainted myself with Chesbro's world I'd imagine I'll get to it quickly. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: TNT by Doug (Loup Durand & Pierre Rey) Masters

Oh, boy. Yeah, I got there. The TNT books are kinda mythic in the Men's Adventure circle. They are wild, dangerous, almost irresponsible adventure fiction with grotesqueness of Bosch painting, the antics of James Bond on acid wrapped up in a flat clinical style of writing. If you didn't know, the books originally were published in France in the 70s and written as Michael Borgia by the dynamic duo of Loup Durant and Pierre Rey. Both were authors before and after the TNT books and I think both of them had their tongues in their cheeks.

Somehow in the 80s Charter books decided to translate them an publish them for the over-stuffed Men's Adventure spinner racks. Bless 'em. I would have loved being a fly on the wall for that meeting, because the stuff in #1 alone is so wild that it's hard to believe that they considered it a smart move. But they did and again, bless 'em. There are 9 books in French and Charter got 7 of them out in English before cancelling the series. Now they are the book equivalent to a "cult movie" or maybe the "midnight movie" of Men's Adventure Paperbacks. They are for those with slightly (or more) perspectives on what they will accept from stories like this. TNT is all at once extremely adult, violent and downright disturbing in parts but at the same times it's goofily an over-the-top superhero-type story. Strange bedfellows. 

We start with an oft mentioned POV scene from a crab as it watches Anthony Nicolas Twin about to be caught in a nuclear explosion. TNT (Tony Nick Twin, get it?) is a super-reporter or something who after the explosion can see in the dark and bone chicks, like, really well. Then the evil CIA comes and blackmails him with TNT's mentally handicapped daughter to go kill a nut-job scientist at the end of a near-impenetrable death maze. Dante and the seven rings of hell, folks. There's some truly nasty shit in this part of the book, almost too much for me to keep reading but luckily the worst isn't really described and the flat tone of the writing sorta deludes the impact.

TNT is a non-character. The cover art aping "The Terminator" is kind of accurate as he's a stone-wall of a dude who says little and just sort of is let loose. He doesn't deliver one-liners or even seem to smile much, granted he's in a dire situation the entire time but don't expect a lively character. Yet I was interested in what was HAPPENING to him and his nonplused way of dealing with it. The narrative rockets forward and really keeps you guessing.

Book translations are a tricky thing. I wonder what was left on the "cutting room floor" or what was lost in the general French-zeitgeist when it was put into English. Was it funnier? Was it more extreme? Did TNT have a personality? I'll never know, unless I start my night-time subliminal lessons in French. I quite like the also French series about the police/spy guy San-Antonio (by San-Antonio) which was very popular and trashy with its own created language of "street slang." Now those are some books that you have dynamite your way into. Did TNT have some sort of lost hook? 

Loup Durand and Pierre Rey got together to do this series but also separately published other "straighter" tales of adventures, crimes and trashy airport novels. Quite a few of these were put out in English as well. The TNT books seemed to be the work of two guys trying the hardest to top each other in extremes. The TNT books must have been fairly popular since it even spawned a comic books version in France. The Doug Masters pseudonym is just hilarious to me. Some dude named Doug writing the wildest Men's Adventure books ever? Hard to buy.

So, I had already read this book. This go-around was the re-read to tackle the whole series since I just finally finished collecting all of them which is no easy feat for your wallet. I don't know if these could be republished today, there's certainly things in this book what would simply never fly today, so your only hope is finding the 80's editions. They are out there with regularity, just expensive price tags. I got lucky on quite a few of the individual titles but had to fork over some cash to complete it. 

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

A Tale of Two "Challengers of the Unknown" by Ron Goulart

After the passing of Ron Goulart a while back, I knew it wouldn't be too long before I pulled one of his books off the shelf and gave it a whirl. He's one of my go-to-guys for light, fun adventuring and mystery. Besides being a helluva readable wordsmith he was a great historian and his books on the pulps and collections are top-notch. "The Hardboiled Dicks" sparked my love of Black Mask and Dime Detective. Then you got his John Easy books, his entries in The Avenger books, mysteries starring Groucho Marx, the Vampirella's...I could go on and probably will.

Goulart was a long-time comics fan and historian. It just makes sense that he adapted comics into novels, The Phantom, Flash Gordon, Captain America, the Hulk...and The Challengers of the Unknown. I stumbled upon the Challengers via Joseph Loeb and Tim Sales's "The Challengers of the Unknown Must Die" which is a FANTASTIC run on these pretty much forgotten characters. So, The Challengers are basically big monster/bad guy fighters who go out and be adventurers to help people after almost dying and living on "borrowed time." There's Prof, Rocky, Ace, Red and June. It's a clean set up for comic booky-adventures. The early comics were drawn by Jack Kirby and a little later the set-up might have helped the Fantastic Four along, too. The Challengers don't really have a big footstep in the DC universe anymore (or ever really) so it's kinda surprising that this got a paperback. I mean, where's Cave Carson's book?

Goulart was an old hat at this kind of derring-do when he tackled this book, and it shows. It's a well-oiled machine of a pulp novel. Little bit of mystery, little bit of globe-trotting, little love-stuff, action and banter. There's enough of a hook for each character for them to bicker at each other and enough bad guys for them to fight. Basically, they go down to down to South America to get tangled up with a swamp monster and a political hot-bed of armies, spies and presidents and it just zooms right along to a fairly wide conclusion. 

Look, none of this was taxing. It's a simple, clear-cut pulp novel. Doc Savage could have had this adventure, the weird late-60's Shadow could have had this adventure. Or Goulart's own take on The Avenger team. It's not going to change your life, but you'll have a brisk little thrill-ride for an hour or so and that's what you need sometime. Goulart was an unpretentious writer, just out to entertain you. It's probably not his best book (those John Easy books are hard to beat) but if you were wondering what a 70s TV movie of the Challengers of the Unknown might have been like, here ya go. And that hits a lot of the right buttons for me.

Funny thing happened to me on the way to writing this review: I needed TWO COPIES of this slim Dell paperback to get it done. Why, you ask? Well, my first copy stopped with thirty pages to go and filled the page count with the previous thirty pages like it was VCR stuck on rewind. So, I had to wait for the mail to send me another copy for my resolution. It was like a proper Cliffhanger Serial. That's the first time I have ever had anything like that happen with a paperback and I was especially surprised that it was a Dell and not a Leisure or Manor book that did it. 

Anywho, Goulart is just one of those divisive writers. I love his work, or mileage may vary. But isn't that just the way it goes?

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

A Trip to King Country and The Colorado Kid by Stephen King

I think most readers at least sample Stephen King. From the ones that are supposed to be "high-brow" with their "literature" to the "casual reader," who just want a nice story. And the thing is that he works for pretty much everyone. I know that there's people out there that don't like his work. I just haven't met many and I'm sure they would all be those kinds of folks who "don't like horror." Well, here's one for them. A simple tale of a mysterious death. I was all aboard the Hard Case Crime train when "The Colorado Kid" came out, pretty much buying all of them as they came out and reading most of them as I got ahold of them. 

But I didn't read King's. I don't know why. I was fan, I mean I was fan from my teenage years when I spent a few months pouring through his early back catalog. He's nostalgia for me and a lot of people, capturing a bit of time in our life when horror movies and books were everything. Simple times of blood, gore, thrills, chills and shattering suspense. Salad days. The King books were in my house for as long as I can remember. My mother was a fan, so there they sat, fat little paperbacks with bold colors and dark black covers. Striking images that are lodged in my mind from way back as a child. Back when you wanted a little spookiness in your life, but the actual stuff was far TOO SCARY. 

Man, that monkey on the "Skeleton Crew" cover. Boy howdy, what a creepy little fucker.

It sort of boggles my mind I didn't read this sooner. Maybe it was that his newer stuff post-90's didn't really connect with me, maybe I didn't like that it was a mystery novel by the master of horror. Maybe I'm just an idiot. 

I am.

"The Colorado Kid" is a mystery novel. Well, it's a novel about the nature of mystery. About why people seek the mysterious in their life. The book takes place in Maine ('natch) and is about three reporters, two old men and one young woman and a mystery ('natch) within the framework of the novel. The titular "Colorado Kid" shows up under odd circumstances on a beach, a near impossible occurrence since we find out his only have hours to travel from Colorado to Maine. King throws curveball after curveball at you, solutions that mess up your reader's sleuthing and he probably likes the idea of you (the reader) scratching your head at the tale. 

As I said this is about WHY people try to figure things out. It's about the characters, like all of King's books, the characters are the draw, and the rest is just fine fun. Dave, Vince and Stephanie sit around and talk the whole book and that's why it's engaging. They are people you'd like to get some lobster rolls or a coffee with and bullshit. There's no action, there's not really much suspense and the murder happens "off screen" but it's a thrill-ride, nonetheless. 

In his afterward King says that this would be a divisive novel. I can see that, the "solution" which I won't spoil is either going to work for you or it's just not. But that's the nature of mystery. King's an institution. I imagine it's weird to be a man and an institution, but he does it with humor and grace. I enjoy hearing him speak as much as I do hearing his characters talk. If you take the novel as a long afternoon coffee with Mr. King, I think you'll enjoy it more.

I haven't read the other two Hard Case Crime King books; they seem to lean into his more usual territory i.e., spooky shit. But that won't stop me from trying them out. This one was pleasant little trip into King Country, man, it's nice to be able to read a Stephen King in a couple of hours. That doesn't come around much. 

Friday, September 16, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: To Kill a Dead Man by Charles Runyon

Charles Runyon is one of those authors I had been meaning to read for, I don't know, ten plus years. I never seemed to luck into any of his books but in the sphere of Gold Medal Paperbacks a lot of people praised his work, so I was always on the lookout. Luck struck at the local libraries book sale where I scooped up a lot of his Gold Medals and this Major release. Runyon seems to be more remembered for his work in science fiction and that seemed to be what he preferred. Knocking off the crime stuff for the cash. Sounds criminal.

I got a soft spot for Major books. They aren't usually for everyone. There's a lot of weird and funky sometimes not-quite good books honestly. This isn't one of them. This is a rock-solid crime novel. Boy howdy, I know it was for the cash, but Runyon did lay down the good. Makes me wonder how it landed at such a low-tier publisher. It's easily better than a lot of what Fawcett put out in the 70's or Dell or Pyramid or Popular Library. Maybe it was just too hard-boiled, because this is rough and tumble book. At first glance it seemed like it could have easily been in the 50s-60s run of Gold Medals. But then it hits some lurid twists that are right out the 70s-era paperback. 

Johnny Quill is the right-hand man/paid killer for a mob guy named Fabius. It starts with that old gem: someone who needs to die has their buried treasure and the villains want it. Quill is sent to kill 'em good. But quickly transforms in an "on-the-run" book once he meets Norma the dead man's woman. Then it's a siege novel on a small tropical island. All the while Quill proves that he's a hard-man. We're talking Earl Drake or Parker hard. He doesn't hesitate to survive and doesn't much think about what he's had to do, i.e., murder of the innocent. His relationship with Norma is the center of the book and it's one not of conventional "love" but passion, boredom, necessity and eventually a recognition that she's as much of a survivor as he is. 

Oh, and there's a bunch of action. The siege is compelling and well thought out. Quill goes around killing and collecting an armory like he's in a video game as Fabius and his boatload of goons waits offshore and send waves of reinforcements. Both trying to figure out how to get to what is SO close but nearly impossible to get to kill their troubles away. Fabius is a sick and slick villain who's smart and taught Quill everything he knows; they spend much of the book at loggerheads because they are too similar in nature.

This one NEEDS to be republished. If it was published by a bigger company, I'm sure it'd have a little cult following, instead of being a footnote and outlier in Runyons bibliography. If you like Drake, Parker or Quarry, seek this one out. 

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Slimer by Harry Adam (John Brosnan and Leroy Kettle) Knight

My brain is heading into horror. Halloween is around the corner and it's the holiday for me. That means horror books and movies. So, get ready for that True Believers! Horror paperback collecting is a true minefield of high costs and hard-to-find titles. You can still squeak out a lot of deals on Men's Adventure, but book sellers all seem to think everything is a "Paperback from Hell" and price accordingly. And, hell, I end up paying them. 

"Slimer" by Harry Adam Knight or actually John Brosnan and Roy Kettle is one of those expensive ones. It also had a good reputation past having a bitchin' cover, supposedly the book actually delivered. I was intrigued. Now, "Slimer" has been republished and is quite easy to pick up in trade-paperback or as an eBook. But that just wouldn't do for a paperback weirdo for me. With a little patience I tracked down a "reasonably priced" Star books copy from England. In hindsight, I'm very glad I did. There's something intangible to reading a slightly batted mass-market sized book, especially in the sleazy action or horror variety. It's like seeing "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" at the drive-in, it's in its natural environment. 

So, "Slimer" is not about the Ghostbusters pet ghost. A triple-set of couples are stranded on a lifeboat in the ocean after a problem with attempted drug smuggling plan. They end up on a deserted oil rig...that doesn't pump oil but is actually a genetic research facility trying to come up with a cure for radiation poisoning. But since this is a horror novel, they've obviously made a MONSTER. Brosnan and Kettle DELVIERED, man. This was a rollicking horror tale that rarely gets done these days. Horror writers/filmmakers in the striving to "legitimize" the genre often forget that horror is supposed to be FUN. Screaming in terror is the flip side to uproarious laughter, after all. 

The characters are stock-jobs. There's an evil guy, a leader guy, a weak guy and then their girlfriends who are all sort of interchangeable. This being an 80s horror paperback the women have it rough. Once they all get to the oil rig, the story unravels like a lot of awesome movies mashed together and dripping with slime. There's "Alien" in there. "The Thing" is mixed in, plus some "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "The Blob" for good measure. And some Shark action. BOOM, all that means flame-thrower and M-16 action, gnarly kills, goo, shaky science, drugs and desperate plays. 

It all really shouldn't work, but the authors roll it all together and comes out like a tasty horror-burrito. It's a perfect horror B-Movie on the page and that's not an easy thing to pull off. I'm very happy that I have another "Knight" book "The Fungus" to tackle before too long. If you go in expecting "The Stand" or "It" you might be disappointed, but just roll with the punches and have a good time with brain half-way off and I imagine any horror-hound would enjoy "Slimer."