Friday, January 15, 2021

Quick Shots: Big Brain #1: The Advark Affair by Gary Brandner

The Big Brain books are mostly known for their eye-popping (or brain-popping) covers than anything. Here's the deal, it's a bit of false advertising, "Big Brain" or Colin Garrett doesn't have a translucent skull where you can see his big 'ol brain, no apparently he looks pretty normal. Gary Brandner is best known as the author of "The Howling," which is like the best werewolf movie ever (sorry American Werewolf) but he had a long career, post-Howling mostly writing thick horror novels. Though he also appeared pretty regularly in the mystery digests of the 70's and 80's, having a few good private eye characters like D. Stonbreaker and Dukane. He clearly had a affinity for the mystery/thriller genre.

And there's the rub, the Big Brain books are mystery/thrillers for the most part, not crazy pulp science fiction as they appear. It was probably the reason the series didn't last longer. Mystery fans might have liked it but were turned off by the sci-fi covers and vise-versa. The whole set-up seems like a bit of cash-in on "The Six Million Dollar Man" with some Doc Savage thrown in for good measure. Colin had be raised from birth to be a mental giant who gets roped into working for a secret government agency as a trouble-shooter. It had TV-Pilot-Movie potential written all over it. I can see big Kenner action figures where you could pop the top off of Colin's head to see his gooey big brain. 

The novel operates a espionage mystery, scientists on the hush-hush Advark program are suddenly reduced to drooling, babbling nincompoops. Big Brain is pulled away from his lady-friend and whisked away to solve the problem. Colin's a likeable-character who dispite his vast knowledge is still an amateur in the spy game, he can't really shoot or fight. Maybe he'll memorize a karate pamphlet in one of the next adventures, but it's a pleasant change from some Men's Adventure heroes who are pretty perfect. There's Russian spies, home-grown mad-men, double-crosses, luscious women, getting hit on the back of the head, and LAZERS. It's fun for the whole family.It worked for me, I can see how it wouldn't work for everyone, but it's a nice set-up for a series as Garret can't seem to get the taste of cloak and daggers out of hi mouth by the final chapter. I'm glad I have the rest of the series to see where it goes, word on the street (internet) is that the final book "Energy Zero" is the best, but sadly it has the worst cover. Kinda fitting.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Men's Adventure in Digestable Form

I've been a book slump; what I pick off the shelves just hasn't been hitting me right or maybe the outside world is just keeping too much of my attention. Whenever I get like this I turn to short stories and novellas, punchier works that don't take anytime to devour usually screws my head on straight. When this strikes, I turn to my digest and anthology shelf. I'm a big fan of digests, but they can be a headache to collect, their scarcity and higher prices has made my collection modest, though I buy them whenever I can. I keep dreaming of the find of a full big box of Mike Shayne's, Hitchcock's and Ellery Queen's but it hasn't happened yet, dammit.  Anyway, here's a smattering of short reviews for short works.

"Seven from INTREX" by Michael Avallone in The Saint Mystery Magazine, September 1966

Michael Avallone is one of favorite authors and it had been a while since I dipped into his work. The David Seven series (four stories) all appeared in The Saint Mystery magazine over the course of 2 years. Seven (cool name) is an agent for a independent crime-fighting agency funded by rich people (if only) to work toward Peace, man. 

David Seven himself is a fairly standard secret agent-type, not surprising that Avallone wrote the first Nick Carter, Killmaster AND the first Man from U.N.C.L.E. tie-in novel. This is very much his own version the super-agent. Knowing Avallone's love of the pulps, it wouldn't surprise me if Operator 5 or Secret Agent X helped in the process. Seven's partner Miles Running Bear Farmer, who gets himself in trouble in this story and Seven has to work to get him out. It's a whole lot of fun, short and too the point with all the nice comforting 60's spy-fi tropes that make me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside. I would have loved it if Avallone wrote expanded Seven's world to novel, but it seems like he was busy enough at the time. Though if David Avallone ever reads this, I'd be first in line with a handful of money for a collection of Michael Avallone's short works.

"A Fox on Broadway" by Gary Phillips in "Crime Square" edited by Robert Randisi

I've long been a fan of Gary Phillips, his Ivan Monk mysteries are some of the most unsung private eye novels of the 90's. Plus his stand-alone novel "The Perpetrators" is a stone-cold action novel classic, one of the most high-octane books I've ever read and one of the few I've read more then once. This story is set in the early 80's and stars Pete Atlas, a Men's Adventure private eye who's just plain cool. Not to mention that it name-drops Angela Harpe, star of the "Dark Angel" series by James Lawrence! (Which got me to spend WAY too much to pick up a entry in the series, god, I'm a sucker)

"A Fox on Broadway" is a hoot! Man, it doesn't seem like Phillips ever revisited the Atlas character and that's a bummer. It reads like a super-condensed paperback novel in one of the "Sweats." The opening grabs you (there's a hat-wearing man in a gorilla suit chasing a naked woman down the street) and then throws you on a wild, tight little escaped involving brain-washing and damned 'ol Nazis. The only problem is that its short, I could have read a lot more about Atlas and his adventures. 


"The Majorcan Assignment" by Bill Pronzini and "The Cinder Man" by Jeffery Wallermann in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, October, 1972

It took me a while to realize that I was reading a "Nameless" detective story from Bill Pronzini, it dawned on me about the time I thought, "gee, did I miss this guys name?" then I felt dumb. I've read a big chunk of the Nameless series in my teens (I was that cool) and always enjoyed them, especially the early ones and the ones centered around pulp magazines. He's a little more hard-boiled in this early story then I remembered him, but it's been a while since I read one of the novels.

"The Majorcan Assignment," finds Nameless in Majorca to deliver some hurried cash to a rich man's son, he's looking at it like a nice vacation, but once there and after a smack in the face he knows trouble is brewing. This is a nice, clean and to-the-point private eye tale with a little more heart then you average tough-guy tale. I'm going to have to dig out one of the novels to read, as it's been too long since me and Nameless hung out.

Jeffrey M. Wallamann wrote with Bill Pronzini some so it was only fitting that I check out his tale, "The Cinder Man," starring insurance investigator Sam Culp. I had read another Culp story in the "Pure Pulp" anthology and enjoyed it. It's a bit by-the-numbers but Culp's a likeable character and it built to some nice tension. I must have liked it well enough because it got me to order Wallermann's novel "The Spiral Web." 

"The Busy Corpse" by Stephen Mertz in The Executioner Mystery Magazine August 1976

The Executioner Mystery Magazine was a short-venture, it probably didn't get a lot of traction because unlike other "stars" of mystery magazines, like Shell Scott, Mike Shayne or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. there is no novella staring Mack Bolan in the magazine, he just lent his nickname to the title. But there's good stuff in them, old stalwarts like Talmage Powell , Gil Brewer, and Richard Demming had stories in them, so you know it's got class.

Stephen Mertz has written a lot of books, including "Some Die Hard," which I reviewed a while ago. He's a fantastic old-school writer of tough-guy fiction who's work is clean, professional and most importantly very entertaining. "The Busy Corpse" is his first published work and it already showed that he was guy who had the goods. It's a clever and fun private eye story and maybe the secret inspiration for "Weekend and Bernie's." I need to pull his newer series about Kilroy, the 70's set Denver P.I. who's already had a few adventures, off the shelf and give the rest of them a spin and review them. "The Busy Corpse" is also easily available in "The King of Horror and Other Stories," a collection of Mertz's short work.

"A Trip to the Islands" by Edward Y. Breese in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine February 1971

This issue of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine not only has one of favorite characters from MSMM Johnny Hawk, but it also as a Jules de Grandin reprint and the Mike Shayne story was a ghost-work by noted sci-fi and Lovecraftian author Frank Belknap Long, so it's got a lot going for it. But I'm in for the Johnny Hawk tale, so:

Johnny Hawk is a super-hard boiled trouble-shooter with a cut-down .45 Colt New Service and a penchant for getting into and out of jams. Hawk got a lot going for him, he's suitably tough and without a strict background his stories can be mysteries in the private eye mold or more of the secret agent type tale. He would have made a great paperback hero, but Breese kept busy ghost-writing Mike Shayne tales for MSMM and selling stories to other digest. "A Trip to the Islands," is a nice south of the border type adventure with dangerous dames and bad-baddies. I'm on a mission to collect all the Johnny Hawk tales.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Private I by Jimmy Sangster

Being a movie-guy I've long been a fan of the screenwriter Jimmy Sangster who not only wrote a lot of the best Hammer Horror films, he wrote one of my absolute favorite 60's Bond cash-in movies "Deadlier Than the Male." The classic British clubland adventurer Bulldog Drummond was dusted off for the 60's in that film and Sangster's supremely clever and cool script combined with slick production and Richard Johnson's 2nd-only-to-Connery-cool-guy makes the film a treasure.  Between film scripts Sangster found time to produce some novels, some of them are adaptations of his screenplays, others are wholly his invention. He did a swinging spy-caper type in the two novels that comprise the "Touchfeather" series, starring a stewardess turned secret agent. 

And then he did the John Smith double-series, starting with "Private I," which is a more downbeat espionage tale in the Len Deighton mold. Deighton is often overlooked for John le Carre when it comes their influence over the genre. The "Harry Palmer" novels had big influence on a lot of writers who wanted some of the Bond money, but just couldn't do the "spy-fi" thing and wanted to do something grounded. After Len a lot of books about broke, grubby, disobedient secret agents popped up. John Smith is in this mold, but Sangster puts a little American private eye into the soup and lets it boil. It seems like a personal book, whether its just me projecting or not, I think a lot of Sangster is John Smith, the little habits and personal observations.  It's a confident voice that compels you to turn pages. 

So, "Private I" has a cracking good narrative voice, does it have a clever plot to match up with? Yes, yes it does. John Smith is a former spy for the British government now working in the broke-private eye business. He's a unkempt, pudgy kind of man who's not above a dirty dollar who barely has his head above water at the start of the story and quickly sinks. His ex-wife wants pictures of her new government official husband in a compromising position with another man. This is the tip of the iceberg that involves the Chinese spying on the Americans, coded notebooks, the British wanting in on it, murder, blackmail, economy travel, Smith getting a nice new top coat, women, threats and gun fights. Smith is a guy who makes a lot of mistakes, but its stupid or weak; he simply has taken a knife to a gun fight and has to out-smart his opponents.  He'd be a lively guy to have a pint with, so reading about him was a pleasure.

It's a sublime story of a dirty cat-and-mouse game. It's currently very easily picked up in both print, ebook and audio from the stellar publisher Brash Books. Do yourself a favor and give it a try.  Also Sangster's later series about ex-Scotland Yard copper James Reed are novels worth reading, basically I'm saying is it says Jimmy Sangster on the cover you're in for a good time. 

SIDE-NOTE: My copy of "Private I" is a former library book, I usually shy away from ex-library book because of usually being hardbacks and in poor-shape. BUT before I went full-book-crazy I got most of my reading from the library. I got waves of nostalgia holding this re-bond old book. I went through most of my readings Donald Westlake (and Richard Stark) Mickey Spillane, and countless others with these plain covered books that were coffee stained (and god knows what else) and shabby, but shaped my reading love. I guess you can come home again.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Quick Shots: Blaster #1: "The Girl with the Dynamite Bangs" by Lou Cameron

It says number 1 on the cover, but there was never a number too. This Lou Cameron novel taunted me for a year before I found a copy that was cheap-enough to justify a "one and done" series. I like Cameron's stuff, in fact one of the first things that ever saw print with my name on it was a review of a "Renegade" adult western in Justin Marriott's fantastic fan-zine "Hot Lead." Lou Cameron was a prolific writer with a lot of books under his belt, westerns, crime, ti-ins, even comics. For books like this he's got a nice professional blue-collar--room style that's pretty fun-loving at times. It's very much a modern (at the time) take on Dick Walker aka Captain Gringo in the Renegade series, it gives you the same thrills, sex and the tongue-in-the-cheek appeal.

The titular "Blaster" is Boomer Green. You can tell he's a demolition expert since both of his nicknames describe explosions. Actually he's never called Blaster, I wonder if Cameron wanted the series to be called "Boomer." They did this multiple nickname bit a lot in 70's Men's adventure books. Boomer is a colorful lead character, sarcastic, eager to bed the ladies, packs a .25 caliber Baby Browning in his shirt pocket, and blow shit up. He's down in Brazil to break up a massive log-jam for a drug-addicted Ex-Nazi, his maybe-Nazi daughter and his drunk son. Boomer finds himself at the estate of the said Nazi's when it becomes clear that all is not right. Forces conspire against him, questions are raised about motives, people try and kill him. But that's all in a days work for Boomer so he takes it in stride. Cameron builds the tension well, Boomer literally planting the bombs as the book builds to explosive climax.

Cameron's an old pro and this is a "good-time" book. It's got a pleasant south-of-the-border adventure vibe with great jungle scenes, a bit of a "plantation novel" vibe with the household and the servants, and the action is handled expertly. The mystery of the forces against Boomer are built up nicely and dispatched nicely. Sorry for the spoiler, but like is the main character going to die in a book with a #1 behind the title? Cameron was a step above a lot paperback writers of the era and it's a shame there wasn't anymore Blasters, I'd read 'em.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

"Inside Out" 1975 Movie Reivew

I haven't done a movie review in quite a while, though I've watched a ton of them; don't you worry. My triumphant return to movie criticism is about a little seen 1975 caper picture called "Inside Out" starring Telly Savalas, Robert Culp and James Mason. I've been going a little crazy on the manufactured on demand DVD's, which is a godsend for odd little pictures to see the light of day on DVD. I've ordered "The Scorpio Letters" starring Alex Cord based on the Victor Canning novel, "The Double Man" starring Yul Brenner, Rod Taylor in John Gardner's "The Liquidator," "Assignment to Kill,"  "Avalanche Express" with Lee Marvin and Robert Shaw, and "Inside Out." I've been picking up various MOD titles since Warner's and MGM started putting them out. It's nice to cross off films that have been nagging at me to buy/watch for years. 

First off my main interest in this movie is the stars. I'm a big fan of Telly Savalas and Robert Culp. James Mason too, I mean you can't dislike James Mason. I'm such a big Telly fan that I have a vintage Kojak action figure. I was first stuck by him with "On Her Majesty Secret Service," he's truly the only Blofield that counts. Certainly the only one that is Bond's true equal; Donald Pleasence may have crafted the image of the character but he's quiet and demure and Charles Grey, whew boy...nah. Telly's nature swagger, toughness and intelligence came through in his Blofield. He's a presence on screen. He obviously is most famous for "Kojak," but he's works better on the big screen, he's bigger then life. He's a lot of fun in "Inside Out," playing a WWII-vet turned con-man/thief, a true hustler who doesn't worry about little things like money when there's five-star hotel rooms to stay at and manicures to get.  He's playing Telly but that's what I want to see. 

Now Robert Culp was a lot more then just an actor. As a director and (co)writer he made on of my favorite private-eye movies "Hickey and Boggs." It's a real shame he didn't get to direct again because he knew story telling. Obviously I enjoy him as Kelly in "I Spy," it's easily one of the best spy shows of the 60's, being low-key and less flashy then some of it's competitors it counts on good story and interaction and fine adventure to hook it's audience. It's a real-shame that Bill Cosby turned out to be such a slimy-bastard because it sure puts a smudge on Culp's career. The Culp written episodes of "I Spy" are some of the best. In "Inside Out," he plays a career criminal talked into returning to the life for the big score. He plays it a lot like Kelly facing the danger of it with a twinkle in his eye.

The movie? Eh, it's okay. The plot is a lot of paperback-fiction fun, basically there's lost Nazi gold (I seriously never get tired of Nazi gold stories) and in order to get to the gold they have to break the only old Nazi-man who knows its whereabouts out of a military prison. Jason Mason plays James Mason with a slight German accent since he's the ex-commandant of a German military prison where Telly once was imprisoned. Mason comes to Telly with the scheme remembering him as a crafty fellow. Telly ropes in Culp and the as with most heist pictures rounds up a couple more for their team. One is G√ľnter Meisner who was in Willy Wonka and played a Nazi's a lot in the 70's although he was actually in a death camp during the war, he's a welcome face; an actor you've seen a lot but wouldn't know his name (I do cause I'm a weirdo) and Doris Kunstmann as a nurse who Culp falls in love with after one boinking session, a morning-after game of chess and a silent montage lover's stroll. Plus Aldo Ray as a convenient buddy of Telly who is running the American's shift at the prison. The plan involves having Meisner, who's character is an actor, play Adolf Hitler and trick the old Nazi-man into giving the location of the gold. It's a fun scene and makes little sense when you think about it. The gold is unfortunately hidden in East Germany, though further complicating matters.

The main problem is that it's far too light-weight, there's never a hint of real danger, even when folks die. You never once wonder if our team will get the gold. Everyone goes along with the plan with like no hesitation, risking their lives and careers for the hint of the treasure. Every obstacle is meet with near instant solving and the few ties a "tension" falls flat. It's a shame it's a fun premise (which is totally ripped-off for "Wild Geese II") and has a good cast which looks like their were having fun making it, but the lack of real stakes makes it ultimately a little forgettable. It's a nice way to waste a couple of hours but I wouldn't seek it out unless you love Telly and Culp like I do.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

"A Slaying in September" and "A Drug Called Power" by Ian Mackintosh or a Quest Fullfilled

Ian Mackintosh created "The Sandbaggers" simply one of the finest espionage shows ever produced. It's a taut, pot-just-about-to-boil-over show about the ins-and-outs of gritty "real-life" spying. Nothing fanciful or romanticized, it paints a dreary, bleak portrait of Cold War Era bureaucracy and high cost of human life, it's on the free TV app Tubi right now. So, go watch it.

The beer might have helped.
Mackintosh was a Navy man who wrote TV and novels and then disappeared mysteriously over the Gulf of Alaska which has all the makings of a spy novel as their on conspiracy theories of defection and Mackintosh's past as a secret agent.. I had never read one of Mackintosh novels but drooled over them online for many years. His first novel "A Slaying in September" was published by Robert Hale in 1967 and was quickly followed by four more books until 1970. Three of the novels star Tim Blackgrove a English private eye/gunman/troubleshooter guy who's out for revenge against big drug pushers.Past his initial burst of novels he wrote adapations for his shows "The Sandbaggers" "Wilde Alliance" and "Warship."

Tim Blackgrove Series/Early Novels:

"A Slaying in September"  (1967)

"A Drug Called Power" (1968)

"The Brave Cannot Yield"  (1970)


"Count Not the Cost" (1968)

"The Man from Destiny" (1969)

All of these books are near impossible to find; they rarely come up online for sale and when they do you better be willing to crack open your piggy bank and then your neighbors and then maybe rob a bank or something. I don't know the that the demand for novels like this is strong enough for their price tags sometimes. I knew unless I got extraordinarily lucky I'd never own one. And I still don't.

One day the light bulb popped on  above my head to try an Inter-Library loan for the Mackintosh books. I don't know why I hadn't before, I try it every so often with the impossible to find books. My library will only let you do three-inter-library-loans at a time and I tried for the full Tim Blackgrove series and came up one short. But hey, make lemonade. Both the books required fairly heavy fees to check out due to their scarcity but I'm good a spending money on books.They came in fairly short order from the east coast to the mid-west; one from Cornell University and the other from the New Jersey School of Medicine and Dentistry! Both are in rough shape and one was nearly falling apart but by god, I'd get to read them.

 "A Slaying in September" was Mackintosh's first novel AND it shows. Basically the daughter of a buddy (who's in love with Tim) gets murdered by a drug smuggler and Blackgrove goes a murdering. The few reviews of the these books online at Existential Ennui and Mystery File are not particularly kind  to the books, marking them for reading in more of the "interesting" category then the "good" category. I've said it before but my tasters burnt out long ago for "bad" books, if I can half-way laugh at the book and have a good time with it, it was a worthy read. Where do Mackintosh's first novel land? 

It's borderline.

Parts of the book are exactly what you want in a late-60's Executioner-type pulp novel (even though it predates the first Executioner) then there's long passages of love-lorn Tim Blackgrove feeling sorry for himself or falling head-over-heels instantly for a woman, then chiding himself for doing just that. But when he's on the hunt and actually paying attention to his revenge-quest it's a crackerjack story. Blackgrove can be totally remorseless and violent dispatching baddies with his Luger and his .22 Walther. Then it slides right back into the flowery love stuff. Mackintosh must have been a romantic and then cured of it by the time he wrote "The Sandbaggers," its a stark change from his later work. And it's very paperback-convenient in terms of plot. Tim doesn't do any detecting, just beatings and shootings and casually meeting the right people. Over all, push come to shove, right down the line, with a gun to my head I would say that I liked it. I read in nearly a sitting. I'd be very glad to own a copy of it BUT I don't know if I'd ever reread it, so yeah.

So with the fist book down, I moved to the second novel "A Drug Called Power," where 'ol Tim meets the rich, bored Sue Dell and in a page-and-a-half has transformed her from a casual drug-user to a international Drug-commando. The call themselves, wait for it: T.W.I.N.S. that is Trans-World Independent Narcotics Squad. Yeah, baby! That's not quite as cool as U.N.C.L.E. but it's very much in the paperback Spy world. The books are an odd mesh of old-school hard-boiled P.I., secret agent and vigilante stuffed in a tea bag and sipped in the proper British manor. Sue does really liven the story up and gives the gloomy Tim someone to talk too. This novel in particular reminded me of a lost pilot to a good old ITV Action series, like "The Saint," "Department S" or "The Protectors" as the T.W.I.N.S. get roped into working for MI5 to stop a supervillain from blackmailing the world with poison. This one's more a crackling boy's-own-type adventure. I got flashbacks of reading Sexton Blake/Norman Conquest adventures during my time with these two books, I'd bet Mackintosh was fan.

Overall I liked the second better and I'm going to try the Inter-library loan for the remaining two stand-alone's cause I'm a gluten for punishment and I'd read the final "The Brave Cannot Yield" in a heartbeat.  I can't say they are good books, but they are both interesting in contrast from his later work and as shut-off-your-brain adventures. It's a quest that ends after years of searching the internet and it feels a little like a tiny door has been closed, its a good thing there's a mountain's worth of books I need to read, so crossing these of the list isn't the worst thing.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Quick Shots: The World of Tim Frazer by Francis Durbridge

Francis Durbridge wrote a lot of radio and TV scripts that were hugely popular in England at the time. His most known creation the sleuth Paul Temple was the star of the printed page, radio, TV, and films, so, a multi-media super-star, if you will. Back when I was driving an armored car and tangling with excessive boredom driving a four-wheeled safe I listened to a lot of audio books and eventually got into some old time radio programs. I particularly enjoyed "I Love a Mystery" by Charlton E. Morse and the British hero Dick Barton. So, somewhere along the way I read about Durbridge and Paul Temple. The radio show I listened to was fun in a old fashioned mystery/cliffhanger kind of way but I never sought anymore out. 

SO, many years later I stumbled about his Hodder printing of "The World of Tim Frazer" another popular Durbridge hero, this one a engineer on the skid who gets roped into the espionage game. I immediately snatched it up and promptly forgot about it for another year or so.  I've been on a British thriller kick and rediscovered Frazer's adventure while searching the shelves for something else. I started reading the first chapter and suddenly time sorta melted away and I was halfway through the book in one sitting. 

Tim Frazer is looking for his runaway business partner Harry Dentson who owes him money when he's approached by Ross of a super secret spy agency inside the government. Ross wants Dentson for his own reasons and deputizes (or the secret agent equivalent) Frazer to hunt him down. The book is very much of his time, "the amateur spy" sub-genre is one you won't really come across much these days. I guess people are more cynical and writer's find it hard to believe that an every-man would blindly trust a government espionage agency and go risk their lives. It's also full of twists and turns, nearly every chapter ends with a shocking revelation or cliff-hanger, just the way a radio show would entice you to listen again tomorrow or a TV show keeps you from flipping channels during commercials. 

It's a lot of good stuff. Wily garage mechanics, timid model-ship builders with nagging wives, dead Russian sailors in quaint English towns, low-slung Jaguars running around, dives, knives appearing in people's back, eccentric painters, and a stage actress all play a part in the search for Harry Dentson. It all sort of makes sense if you tilt your head the right way and Tim Frazer is a solid leading man. I'm sure I'll forget most of the plot in a week or some, but I'll remember the fun I had reading it.