Monday, June 7, 2021

Quick Shots: "The Death Specialists" by Gary Paulsen

When I look back on my reading life there's several several authors that seemed to jump-start me onto my present reading path. In high school Joe R. Lansdale got horror-movie-obsessed me to read mysteries with Hap and Leonard which led me down many a dark and dangerous alley on the page, of course. Then Ralph Dennis got me interested in those numbered paperbacks from the 70's where guns were blazing and women were loosing their clothes on the page of course. But way before that in a reading lull in middle school I read Gary Paulsen's "The Hatchet" and books were cool to me suddenly. "The Hatchet" is a book a lot of people my age have a strong affection for, a lot of folks say that Paulsen really only connects with young dudes, but my wife read "The Hatchet" and everything else she could by Paulsen then too. I also own several actual hatchets because of the book, you know just in case. So, when I found out that earlier in his career he penned a Men's Adventure book called "The Death Specialists" I knew I had to read it being a sucker for mercenary tales and the early paperback originals of established authors. 

"The Death Specialists" is a Major book, the publisher, not a reflection of the novel itself. It's a solid, workman like novel with flashes of Paulsen's clean writing brilliance. He also had another Major book called "The Implosion Effect," it says so right on the cover, so that's on my radar now. I'd imagine Paulsen had read Frederick Forsyth's "The Dogs of War" a couple of years before; they both have a emphasis on the planning of the mission and a similar general feel, though "The Death Specialists" is definitely the B-movie version. Without Paulsen's nature talent the book would really be a third-rate version of Peter McCurtin's "Soldier of Fortune" novels but it was stronger then it should be coming out of a fairly small/bad publisher. 

I'm pretty sure the protagonist is unnamed throughout the book, I might have missed it at the beginning but it was half way though the book before I realized I didn't know his name. Glancing back through I didn't see it. So I could be wrong, but it would make sense because anonymity is a big deal to this Merc. No pictures, no witness, he'll kill to keep himself unknown. The Merc (as I'll call him) is really a hard-boiled character, quickly killing though he does worry about his conscious creeping in. He's a cipher of a lead and the rest of the characters are only roughly sketched out. One of the more intriguing characters is The Quiet Man of the group nicknamed Hatchet (shades of Paulsen's later fame) who specializes in infiltration and quiet kills. Hatchet likes to put himself in a trance and is a lousy shot, but uber-deadly with his name-suggesting hatchet. The mission is to destroy a oil refinery in Central America by the very company that owns it and that's heavily guarded. It's a general suicide mission with a ticking clock-deadline but the moneys too good to pass up. To accomplish his goal the Merc gathers a team ('natch) that's fairly colorful but standard i.e. pilot, heavy gunner, infiltration, grunts etc. etc. There's some well placed and researched (as far I know) tactics and gun talk and their plan to take out the refinery is nice a pulpy-paperback fun. Along the way they tango with the CIA, a little sex, parachuting, battle the CIA, endure some mild torture, fight it out with a nasty 'ol Nazi and his private army and kill a couple of folks in public toilets.  

"The Death Specialists" seems to have been the first in a proposed series, there's a nice tag for their next mission at the end but sadly it never came to fruition. Major Books was a fly-by-night kinda joint it seems so who knows what happened. Paulsen elevates the whole thing, but it does kind of drag in the middle with all the planning and then get wrapped up a bit too quick. Maybe he was getting close to his agreed upon word count, but it sorta feels lop-sided. All in all thought it's a solid-little piece of work, which has never been reprinted or anything to my knowledge but it deserves a look if you're into gritty 70's mercenary tales. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Operation Hang Ten #3: Too Mini Murders by Patrick (George Snyder) Morgan

The Operation Hang Ten books are one of those high-priced series that I'm sure most people have bought just for the covers or the novelty. They're nice covers and it's also got a surfing angle that appeals to the surfers out there, further adding to the scarcity. But it's a shame as they're pretty good. They were also a Lyle Kenyon Engle joint, a paperback "packager" who came up with Nick Carter's Killmaster make-over as well as Dracula Returns, The Baroness, Chopper Cop etc. etc. Engle hired writer George Snyder to flesh out what I assume was some sort of "Mod Squad" riff about a surfer/spy that was at least sort of based on Snyder's first novel "Surfside Sex" from Neva books, which is desperately want to own/read. It lasted for ten books, which is decent run. Hell Chopper Cop only got 3.

George Snyder wrote a lot of books, he provided seven Nick Carter Killmaster adventures, contributed for  two for the short-lived Grant Fowler spy novels for Award books, a stand-alone Manson cash-in "The Hippy Cult Murders" as Ray Stanley and a then later in life he had three series running with characters named Ray Rumble, Logan Sand and Mac Tuff. The Bay Rumble books seem like a modern riff on the Operation Hang Ten books, I have the first but haven't tackled it yet. I'm a fan, he kind of gets a bad rap on the internet which mostly stems (I think) from the price of the Hang Ten books and what a readers expectations are. Cause he's the rub: The adventures of Bill Cartwright agent of Operation Hang Ten aren't really the swinging spy novels they are packaged to be. No, they are hard-boiled detective yarns. So, if you spend a lot of money for a musty old spy paperback and get very little spying, you might be disappointed. Go into them thinking of them as Hi-Tech Detective novels and you'll have a good time. 

Bill Cartwright is a young "anti-establishment" type-via in a Frank Sinatra sorta way. He's a millionaire  because of the accidental death of his parents who spent his inheritance wisely on a Hemi-powered Woody station wagon and a swingers trailer complete with a "computer" that does everything from making ample amounts of scotch and sodas to watching TV. Also on a small custom built .22 Magnum semi-automatic pistol which he keeps nestled in the small of his back when he's (as he puts it) "manhunting." With all this cool stuff he gets set-up as a private eye by Operation Hang Ten a vague crime-fighting organization that's basically the light beer version of U.N.C.L.E. He's also kinda an arrogant jerk with a MAJOR eye for the ladies. He's a weird mix of the old-school version of tough guys and a modern (well, late 60's) "cool dude." But his young age does give the books a breath of fresh air and a different tone from the majority of the Men's Adventure of the time. He can talk hot rods, surfing, and other "youth" activities. I do think the name "Bill Cartwright" doesn't scream secret agent/spy, more like middle-aged rancher. It probably would have been cooler to switch the characters name and the pseudonym Patrick Morgan. At least you'd have a Morgan/pirate connection that would have tied into the surfing/ocean theme. Maybe its just because both my dad's and father-in-law is named Bill is why is a little hard to swallow.

In the third adventure "Too Mini Murders" Bill has to figure out why the pretty daughters of TOP GOVERNMENT MEN are dying. Psst. It's because of secrets. Bill gets tangled up with a few women, battles a Red China agent who acts more like a mob boss and his goons who act exactly like goons. There's some drag-racing, killing with a spear-gun (but not how you think) fights, shootings, grizzly murders and a lot of women getting beat-up, but not by Bill at least but it's a bit excessive. Bill goes around pissing off the cops and "the man," and bitching about the conforming culture that he's bucking against. It's a solid, tight little crime adventure novel, nothing fancy but it goes through the motions in a pleasant way, then rockets into a nice action-packed finale where grenades, hot rods, submarine sabotage and cliff-side crashes all play a part. 

I do have a question to yell out into the vastness of the internet. According the George Snyder himself he was only responsible for seven out of the ten Hang Ten novels:

1. "Hang Dead Hawaiian Style"

2. "Too Mini Murders"

3. "Deadly Group Down Under" 

4. "The Cute and Deadly Surf Twins" 

5. "Scarlet Surf at Makaha" 

7. "The Girl in the Telltale Bikini" 

8. "Beach Queen Blowout"

Which leaves these three unaccounted for:

6. "Topless Dancer Hangup"

9. "Death Car Surfside"

10. "Freaked Out Strangler"

Now, the book that got me hooked on the series was "Death Car Surfside," a non-Snyder penned on, it's been a while I don't really remember a striking difference between the ones that Snyder wrote and "Death Car Surfside," so I wonder who really wrote them. I doubt that Snyder wouldn't fess up to writing all of them if he actually did, but whoever wrote them must have read some of the Snyder's work. So, big mystery. Anyone have any leads? Drop me a line if you do. Inquiring minds (me) want to know. 

Anywho, the Operation Hang Ten books rank highly in my favorite Men's Adventure series list. Their a lot of fun non-sense in the best sense. They feel like novelizations for a favorite old TV show...wait....hold on....go to Google and search "Christopher Stone Operation Hang Ten" and marvel at some pictures. ABC commissioned a 30-minute pilot in 1973 (the same year the book series ended) and it looks pretty good. "Star Trek" vets Gene Coon and Herb Solow were behind the scenes and Stone looks like the guy on the paperback covers. From the pictures it looks like they swapped the Woody and camper for a groovy RV and the vague hints of plot gleaned from here and there makes it seem like Bill would have been more in the "undercover cop" variety. Still I'd love to see it, so few movies or TV were pulled from the paperback-racks of the era, it'd be interesting to see how it fared. Back to the books, if you find one snap it up but maybe don't pay a premium price cause if you're patient you can find them at a decent price, a handful of mine came from different eBay lots and don't be surprised to find water damage. Damn surfers. 

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Quick Shots: The White Cad Cross-Up by William F. Nolan

William F. Nolan is mostly known as the guy who wrote "Logan's Run," the book not the movie. He wrote a lot books. Including books where the real life "Black Mask Boys" i.e. Hammett, Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner solve their own (fictional) mysteries. Then more "Logan's Run" books, a series of Sci-fi/P.I. books about a detective names Sam Space, lots of biographies, a good deal of work for film and TV (including a TV movie called "Sky Heist" that I now have to watch because Stephanie Powers is married to Frank Gorshin (!) and the they rob 10 million in gold with a helicopter) and the Challis series. The Challis series mostly involves a California private eye named Bart Challis, but there's some stories about his brother Nick too. In what is a cosmic blunder these pitch perfect paperback private eye novels only ever appeared in hardback and the odd chapbook. 

The plot is convoluted as all get out. It's a tale of double-cross, murder set-ups, astray Cadillacs, old gangsters complete with Molls, groovy 60's California sub-cultures, gun-fights and fisticuffs, no cliché is left unturned and it boils down to a HOOT! Hanging out with Challis is fun. He a wise-ass who gets more broken bits and head trauma that any man can take. He shoots his .38 straight and drives his Covair Sprint around with abandon, questioning, roughing up and bugging people until the plot is clear enough to see for miles ahead. The action comes at you fast and its well-told, the dialog bouncing pleasantly back and forth from wit to old welcome tough guy banter. Nolan's tongue has to be in his cheek with these yarns, he knew the format and style of the hardboiled school well and it's fairly obvious that Challis and all of his concussions aren't meant to be a gentle poke on the conventions. It's not an all-out parody or even a really comic novel, like say a Shell Scott, it just has a knowing "aren't we having fun" tone.

A nice surprise.
William Nolan is a pretty solid writer, I remember enjoying "Logan's Run" when I read it years ago, but I never sampled much more of his work, save his teleplay for "The Norliss Tapes"  the best "reporter hunting vampire" TV movie this side of "The Night Stalker." It's a shame that's there's only really two novels, this one and "Death is for Losers" the rest being novellas and short stories. Maybe if Challis made the leap to softcover because that's really where all this fun hokum is meant to be. Hardback mystery fans might not have taken too well to some light camp mixed with their tough-guy antics or be completely appalled at the sex and violence, instead going back to their softer Lew Archer novel. Paperback readers would have lapped it up, it would have set nicely on a shelf next to a Ron Goulart John Easy book, Mike Shayne or a Pete Chambers. To steal a line for Joe R. Lansdale, it's private eye action, as you like it. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

QUICK SHOTS: "Griffu" By Jean-Patrick Manchette and Tardi

I wish comics like this were stuff that cinematic universes were built on because this is solid adult fare. There's cartoon boobs and everything. The Europeans take comics a bit more seriously then we do over here. I've been reading Euro comics since before I knew there was a difference thanks to a healthy selection of Tintin books contained in my local library. I loved Tintin, he was bit like Indiana Jones and a bit like both Hardy Boys rolled into one. They had gunfights and car chases and all the junk that a 10-year-old me loved (a 35-year-old me too) and when in my later years I figured out that there were whole worlds of comics I hadn't experienced it was a bit like Christmas morning. I found out about Corto Maltese, Gil Jordan and Clifton and had a ball. Also along my way to the forum I had discovered Leo Malet's Nestor Burma novels and became a instant fan. Seriously hunt them down. Via Nester Burma I found out about Tardi, the French artist who was adapting the novels to comics. When I found out about Tardi/Burma none had been translated (now rectified, I own but still need to read it) I found the local (different) library had some Tardi comics, adaptations of different novels by a different guy named Jean-Patrick Manchette. My socks were knocked off. 

Jean-Patrick Manchette is a respected French author and translator who pretty much started the "modern" version of the French-crime novel with a series of slim well-received politically charged pot-boilers. He had a major love for all things crime fiction, novels, movies and must have like comics too because him and Tardi hooked up along the trail and produced in collaboration "Griffu." In the preface it quotes Manchette saying it he wanted to make a slam-bang noir like 1955's "Kiss Me Deadly" which just instantly endeared me to the comic. It's a comfortable story. A twisty, cliched love letter to all fiction private eyes as Griffu untangles a web of deceit on the trail of a women who duped him into stealing some files that everyone seems to want. There's femme fatales, gunsels, fisticuffs, real-estate fraud, shootings and simmering lust. Manchette lays it nice and thick with the hardboiled antics which meld nicely with Tardi slightly cartoon yet detailed style. It's a feast for the eyes six-ways from Sunday. 

Griffu was recently translated for the first time and put into a collection with an adaption of Manchette's novel "3 Days to Kill" as "West Coast Blues" which is a dynamite tale of a man on the run from killers that twists into weird and brilliant ways. I can't recommend this nice package enough. The comics got me to buy a handful of Manchette's books, but I haven't read one yet, which goes to show you how dim-witted I can be. I'll be fixing that shortly with a reading of "No Room at the Morgue" the first in his two book series about P.I. Eugene Tarpon so stay tuned for that. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Violent World of Parker and Me; Plus "Slayground" by Richard (Donald E. Westlake) Stark

Confession time. 

I've been an accomplice of Parker's for a long time. No not as close as Handy McKay or Alan Grofield but I've been around the proverbial block with him. I came to Parker via the 1998 movie "Payback" which I liked a lot more before I found out who Parker really was. I learned that through the library and battered and tattered hardcovers for the later books and much worse paperback copies from the Avon run. I got a few copies for myself back then too, but Parkers have always been hard to get second hand. Parker's a keeper. The tale of Parker, his inception, his trials, troubles, near death and resurrection have been well documented by better literary historians than I, so I won't write anything to pale in comparison. Go to Violent World of Parker and loose yourself if you're not in the know

Donald Westlake taught me a lot as himself and as Richard Stark. Some good shit as Tucker Coe too. He's a writer who seemingly could do it all. Light and fun. Hard and dark. Sad and mysterious. Whatever you need. A true professional.  He's probably best known for being the fictitious Richard Stark, but hell I'm sure Stark would have thought Westlake was the phoney. Westlake taught me a lot about writing. Try to be like Westlake, try to be clean, try to be clever, get out of the way and follow your characters around and most importantly there's no limits. If you want to be funny in one thing; be funny. If you want to be the hardest-boiled ever; do that. He was amazing talent. I read Dortmunder books in a sitting, devoured his stand-alone's and then of course the Parkers. I even like the Grofield's a lot more than most people. I remember reading "Bank Shot" and "Jimmy the Kid" back-to-back over a long Sunday, in re-bound library hardcovers in a chair while visiting my grandmother and trying to block out Lawrence Welk reruns on the TV. Westlake might have made a good crook. If you think up a good way to steal a whole bank, like in "Bank Shot," then you might have had the right stuff. And hey, he already had the alias thing down. 

Recommendations as Westlake: "Bank Shot," "Jimmy the Kid," "Dancing Aztecs," "Why Me?" and "Castle in the Air." 

Parker is about the blankest slate you can make a book series out of. You never know much about him, he doesn't talk much, he just moves like a shark through the narrative to accomplish his goals. The goals are usually robbing, killing or surviving. Or all three, at least they all pretty much always happen. He operates in a quasi-age-less world of professional and unprofessional crooks and big time syndicates or Outfits, if you will of the mob. He's qualified, tough and you certainly don't want to be on his bad side. He's got no friends, associates; yes and a few ladies. Most notably Claire who sticks it out with Parker over a bunch of books. She's mostly a non-character though, often more in the background. It's all you need, the Parker books are about quick moving narratives full of death, deceit and pitch perfect storytelling. Overall some the novels are a bit of a formula pieces while other may stray too far off the formula (I'm looking at you "The Jugger") but Stark/Westlake on a bad day is still better than most.

I eventually read all the original 16 novels before Stark reemerged in 1997 with "Comeback," another confession I'm not really into the 8 novels from '97 to 2008. I've tried, but they failed to connect with me. It may be the time-frame, it may be the slightly longer page count or something stupid like the lack of a mass market paperback. I dislike holding trade paperbacks. I don't know, they just sort of fell flat to me. Someday I'm sure my head will screw on straight and I'll realize that I've been an idiot all these years. At least then I'll have 8 new Parkers to enjoy.

Recommendations as Stark: "The Score," "The Sour Lemon Score," "The Outfit," "Lemons Never Lie" (Grofield) "Deadly Edge" and "Slayground" 

The movies are a mixed bag. Ranging from stone cold classics to complete messes (I'm looking at you "Parker") with a wide range of actors playing Parker (or the equivalent character) such as Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Jim Brown, Mel Gibson, Peter Coyote, Anna Karina and Jason Statham. "Point Blank" is the best movie of the bunch, but "The Outfit" is probably the best depiction of Parker as a character. Both versions "Payback" the theatrical and the director's cut have their pluses and minuses. "The Split" has one of the coolest cast ever assembled, but meanders too much. "Slayground" is an interesting hodge-podge of a movie, but Peter Coyote is miscast. I enjoy "Made in the USA," but it's not Parker at all and never tires to be. The Jason Statham led "Parker" is simply by-the-numbers affair that is quickly forgotten. The only one I haven't seen is the French "Mise a Sac" or "Pillaged" from 1967, which I desperately want too cause I love 60's French crime movies and it's based on "The Score" which is a dynamite novel. For a character that is relatively unknown to the public at large, the Parkers really inspire those who make movies. He's got a lot of adaptions (and ripoffs) for a series character in a non-series way. It's interesting to me that the blank nature of the character has an effect on filmmakers, its a good framework to build a picture on. It's a shame that there aren't more good Parker films. He's a wholly unique character, say if a film was announced tomorrow I wouldn't be surprised if Parker was played by Idis Elba or Mads Mikkelsen or Tom Hardy or Charlize Theron. They could all work. 

So, I felt the itch for a Parker. I don't generally like to re-read, there too many books in the world (and my library) for that. But I wanted a Parker. So, "Slayground" found it's way into my hands and I was off to the races. In my first reading of the series "Slayground" was a standout. It strayed from the standard Parker formula of planning and heisting, instead doing a "Die Hard" in a closed for the winter amusement park against a crew of mobsters and dirty cops. It's a crackerjack tale that builds and builds and leaves you wanting more. If you're new to Parker in might not be the best to start with since it's so far off of formula but there's a clear reason why its a fan-favorite: It kicks all kinds of ass. It's been a while since I've gone through the books and now that I've started I don't think I can stop. Which is fine, they will be almost new books to me, enough time has past that I only remember chunks and parts but not whole novels. 

I imagine I'll always be an accomplice of the professional thief Parker. His dark world somehow feels like home to me, I'll have to watch my back from the couch to the bathroom but home all the same never know who is closing in.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Quick Shots: The Coffin Things by Michael Avallone

The cover of "The Coffin Things" by my man Michael Avallone promises that it'll soon to be a movie by François Truffaut. Damn. That's a shame that never happened. I'd give up a finger or two to see that movie. There's a lot of paperbacks claim "Soon to be a Motion Picture" on the cover, but this might be the first one I've come across that exclaims who the director was going to be. Hmmm. There's a story there that's probably lost to the sands of time. Anyway, last year I bought a box of Avallone books off eBay. I mostly was looking for the Ed Noon's that were in there, but "The Coffin Things" caught my eye. This edition has a great cover that it shares with a Len Deighton book. There's a lot going on with this novel and I haven't eve talked about what it's about.  

"The Coffin Things" is a carnival fun-house of a book. Once we bought our ticket and walk into the home of Dr. Stewart Garland, the world's finest mortician, the rug is constantly pulled out from underneath us. It's a full-tilt ride full of corpses, grisly murders, private eyes, local cops, nudity, ghosts (maybe),  lesbian sex in cars, missing plus found prostitutes, and interesting ways to spend the after-life. Being a Michael Avallone book there's Gary Cooper references, musical bits, James Bond name-drops with some spy-ish gadgets and a lot of old fashioned fun. Garland is the mortician to the rich in a small town and after a series of personal rejections and loss he looses his grip and begins to take his subtle revenge. Which he does in the nude in his basement mortuary, It's easy to imagine Boris Karloff in the part. It really has a feel of a classic 40's B-Horror-Movie. A spooky house film updated for the wild late-60's. Though hopefully Karloff would have remained clothed if the film was made. To top that off there are some "weird vengeance" pulp-vibes running through it, but like all of Avallone's work it really could only have came out of his typewriter. 

Man, I loved this book. "The Coffin Things" is top-shelf Avallone, so particular, fun-loving and spooky. It might be my favorite of his novels, but it's hard to top a couple of Noon's. It's easily my favorite of his non-series work. Now I'm on a quest to track down the Gothics he did as Edwina Noone (perfect) which seem like they might be similar. It's not the easiest (or cheapest) book to track down, all old horror books seem to go for a premium, but there was at least two editions of it so that helps. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

Quick Shots: "Let's Here It for the Deaf Man" by Ed McBain

Now, I've read Ed McBain before; a few times actually sometimes as Ed McBain sometimes under other names. BUT I've never read an 87th Precinct novel and now that I have I feel like an idiot. Why, oh why was I depriving myself? Well, actually I know why: it was an intimidating 55 book series and an admitted dislike of police procedurals. The concept of simply procedurals implies there's less fireworks than I usually like in a book. 

That whole paragraph was just there for me to announce to the world that I've been a dunce.

Ed McBain was Evan Hunter, sort of anyway. Evan/Ed could write the hell out of a book. I've read some of the stand alone crime/private eye novels he wrote towards the beginning of his career and uniformly enjoyed them. "I'm Cannon - For Hire" is a lot of fun in a specific 50's pulp kind of way, as is his work as Richard Marsten. I think I have have read some of his Matthew Hope series, but that was many beers and books ago so I can't rightly remember.

That whole paragraph was just there for me to announce to the world that I damned well knew Ed McBain could write and I STILL didn't read an 87th Precinct. What a dumbass.

So, I picked "Let's Hear it for the Deaf Man," because I have seen the film adaptation of "Fuzz" cause if Burt Reynolds is in a movie I'll watch it. Plus Yul Brenner. Plus Rachel Welch. Even plus Jack Weston. The Moriarty-like character of The Deaf Man, a criminal mastermind who toys with the boys of the 87th intrigued me. Half a page in I regretted all the lost time. McBain crafts several precision stories, crimes and criminals that need to get caught/solved by our heroes. Then he jumbles and and crosses the wires a bit. We bounce back and forth while semi-lead Steve Carella tries to find out who Crucified a hippie. While Kling tries to catch a cat-burglar who leaves kittens as his calling card. While the rest of the squad pop in and out helping out and dealing with their own crimes and misdemeanors. Then topping it off with The Deaf Man who is cryptically telling the 87th when and where he's going to rob a bank. Then we spend time with The Deaf Man and his associates and then we spend time with the unnamed city where all the action takes place. The city is just as important as the rest of the cast, we get bursts of activity, like small snippets of a news story rolling at the bottom of a TV screen while the newscaster tell your a bigger tale. The characters all had unique personalities and it seems by this time in the series, McBain knew them like old friends. The dialog crackles between the cops, bickering and spit-balling and joking. The action when it does come is fast and clear. Then it all wraps up nicely with some nice twists and turns. 

Bottom line, you should probably stop reading this and go pick up a Ed McBain book.