Sunday, December 22, 2019

Jon Messmann's "A Bullet for the Bride"

Jon Messmann was a journeyman pulp writer who could crank them out and fill the pages up. Seriously his pages are dense with words. He seemed to put effort into his work, which isn't always the case for writers that very often wrote under established house names and who's covers had numbers on them. Quite often there's a lot blank space on pages, but Messmann seemed determined to give you bang for your .95 cents. Apparently he got his star writing comics in the 40's before moving onto books. He created a couple good series in "The Revenger" and "Jefferson Boone, Handyman" and worked in the Nick Carter world and the short-live Hot-Line books. Then turned his gun-sights towards westerns and coming up with the super long running "Trailsman" series of adult westerns. That's a damned fine run of writing books.

Along the way he wrote "A Bullet for the Bride" for Pyramid books. First off it's got a terrible lack-luster cover for the kind of book it is, making the book look like a tame mystery when it's a rip-roaring sea-faring secret agent adventure. Also it's from he 70's, designed for men and has boats in it so it obviously has mention of Travis McGee on the cover which was a prerequisite it seems. It's also suffers from the 70's phenomena of explaining zero about the contents of the book on the cover instead just having a excerpt of a sex scene. I bought the book on a whim because I enjoyed Messman's other work and figured it was worth the 4 dollar eBay risk. The paperback god were smiling upon me. It's even more surprising that I read it nearly as soon as I got it. Books usually languish on my To Be Read Pile for weeks (or months or years or decades) but the stupid bride and groom on the cover called out to me, I guess. Pyramid had some great covers on Joseph (Terry Harknett) Hedges' Stark series and Michael Kurland's War Inc. books, if "A Bullet for a Bride" had some decent artwork it might have sold more. Not that I have any idea how it sold being a guy who was born well after the book was first published and having no idea if any records likes that is kept. It's just that the book is obviously Captain Ed Steele #1: A Bullet for the Bride but just without any more books to follow.

Hard-case Captain Ed Steele is a vet who skippered a boat with his CIA buddy Bryon on missions during the Korean War. After the war the CIA pays for his super cool boat The Squid; that's built like a brick shit-house but looks like an out-house on the outside and got him to pay it off by doing dirty jobs for the company. The boat is described in great detail. I know nothing about boats so I don't know if it's actually well described or just made up. I assume Messmann knew his stuff cause it all sounds like boat things. Not that I care about boats. Ed is a dick in the way that a lot of Men's Adventure fiction heroes, but not unbearable. Messmann has character habits his heroes are often a bit introspective and classically read. Jefferson Boone and Ben Martin aka The Revenger are pretty similar. Messmann knew the kind of guys he liked to write about.

Pretty rich girl, Cam hires Ed to find out if the woman her father is about to marry is really evil. Ed doesn't want the job but gets talked into by his old CIA buddy Bryon and he doesn't even buy Cam's story. BUT SURPRISE the soon-to-be-evil-step-mother is actually evil. So Ed's in hot water with killers, wins a big boat race, sleeps with Cam,gets mugged, drinks a lot of gin, rents a convertible, sails through HURRICANE and sieges a island fortress full of baddies. Along the way he picks up his buddy Domino who acts as his side-kick, shipmate and Meyers to Ed's Travis McGee.

The book is full of enough fun and color to breeze right on by. Messmann is a seasoned pro and it's obvious that he cared about this book, the boating is big part of it and while I'm not the biggest fan of nautical adventures Messmann makes these scenes thrilling, particularly the boat race at the beginning. I loved the combo of the espionage/sea adventure it was an interesting concept that could have supported a lot more salty tales. Its not without it's faults, Cam the female lead is stupid and does all the wrong things at the wrong time. The finale and the evil plan is a bit rushed bit too easily stumbled upon. But even with these few detractors it's a helluva fun book that's packed with action and some wiseacre humor. Also keep an eye out for his Handyman and Revenger series both of which are a lot of fun. He also wrote MY ALL TIME FAVORITE Nick Carter: Killmaster book: The Sea Trap.

Malko #2: Operation New York by Gerard de Villiers

In 1962 the tidal wave that was James Bond washed up a million spies ashore in film and books. The shaken not stirred cocktail that is Ian Fleming's secret agent code-name OO7 was irresistible and the public quickly wanted more and more to satisfy the spy-fi habits. Every pulp-writer worth his salt took up pen to write about some sort of agent, British, American, French,official or unofficial, private eyes became spies, cops became spies, everyone got in on the phone, it didn't matter they just hoped that they struck gold and got some of the Fleming-level recognition (and money) for the work.

Pretty much no one did.  Bummer. But a few captured energy and excitement of Fleming's early Bond novels.

MINI-RANT: With "Casino Royle" Fleming was simply trying to bring the Sapper "Bulldog Drummond" school of English thriller in to the modern post-W.W.II world of blood, guts and sex. He was writing pulp of the English variety. As he wrote he wrote with more authority and literary intentions. By the time you get to the "Blofeld Trilogy," comprising of "Thunderball," "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" and "You Only Live Twice" he's shattered Bond to his core and is working to rebuild him before Fleming's death. Without a doubt Fleming's greatest achievement is "On Her Majesty's Secret Service," Bond has grown up with his readers and dealt his baggage enough to fully fall in love again, after the events of "Casino Royale." Bond at this point isn't the Bond of pre-Thunderball, he's more reserved, thinks more, acts less and generally more morose. Fleming may have grown old and tired of writing tales of derring-do and beautiful women. The later books are extremely well-written and fascinating looks into the end of one of the most recognizable characters ever created. BUT to me they are simply lacking in what I want to read in escapist fiction. So, yeah if you have never read a Bond book, first off shame on you, second off don't expect the movies and thirdly start with the early books and work up through the series. I'd suggest "Moonraker," and "Diamonds are Forever." "Moonraker" has the best example of the full blown "Fleming-Sweep," of escalating action which really didn't start until the second book "Live and Let Die." "Diamonds are Forever" is the dark-horse I'll recommend cause it's kinda just Fleming going through the motions, but it's motions by this books that he's perfecte.

Okay, now that that is all out. I found myself in a quandary. I wanted more 60's spy thrills in the vein of the early Fleming's. Some series quenched the thirst quite well James Mayo's Charles Hood books were close, ditto with James Dark's Mark Hood books, the two of which I always confuse myself with. Nick Carter Killmaster by Nick Cater would certainly do but with an army of ghostwriters you never knew what you were going to get. Mark Denning's John Marshall books are shamefully unknown. In the Gold Medal World Edward Aaron's Sam Durrell, Richard Telefair's Monty Wash or Earl Drake by Dan J. Marlowe could pass the time. Recently Michael Kurland's War Inc. books proved to be excellent examples of the genre. Only Donald Hamilton's Matt Helm and Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise ever came close to the pure excitement of a Bond book.

Then I met Malko or his His Serene Highness, an Austrian Prince with a crumbling castle and bills to pay. So what does he do? A former arms dealer, he works for the CIA to pass the time and soak up some cash. Each of the Pinnacle books start off with a "dossier" on Malko, his habits, accomplishments, weapons and beverage choices etc. etc. to get you to know the man, the myth, the legend that his Malko. Over TWO HUNDRED BOOKS he, together with Turkish former-killer butler Elko and later his girlfriend/fiancee Alexandra, Malko fights killers, Nazi's, enemy agents of all nationalities, and has TONS of sex that's always told in a blatant kinky detail. Malko is the epitome of the "sex and snobbery" school that Fleming created told in a undeniably French manner.

Gerard de Villiers created Malko in 1965 at the height of Bond-mania and wrote with the gritty authority of the journalist that he was but with enough the fantasy (and sex) that readers craved. They craved it so much that he wrote and wrote and wrote right up until he died, Malko tackling each modern problem that came up in every corner of the world.  See Malko lives in a world of grimy spies and killers that de Villier's rips from real-life. de Villier's had a network of friends and sources on all sides of the espionage world, he uses real-life figures to blend realism into his escapism true to life spycraft that was read by real-life counter-espionage agents, diplomats, kings and presidents. It's a surprising mixed drink of a book. I really don't think the series should work. It's all too gimmicky, a prince spying for the CIA with fictitious versions of real people running around and car chases, and gun fights and brutal torture? It should be too much to take in.

But nope, it's perfect. The books read like hard R-rated espionage fairy tales for adults.

"Operation New York" was originally printed in French in 1968 as the 11th in the series, it was also published in English in England (makes sense) as "Black Magic in New York," which is a spiffy title. This edition was the second book that Pinnacle put out to bring Malko to the Americans. The risk with translated fiction is having a translated that can speak the language but who also can write, because when you translate you are essentially rewriting a novel. I don't speak French so I'll never know what spark I may be missing from de Villier's writing but luckily the translators working on the Malko books did a fine job in making highly readable books. No. 2 finds Malko set-up in the most spectacular way. After being drugged and tattooed the word is out that he is actually Rudi Guern an asshole Nazi who's been in hiding since after the war. Malko now has to find Guern to prove his innocence. To do this he will wade through Nazi's, nazi-hunters, women, witness horrifyingly brutal torture and perform some masochistic sex, you know for the greater good. Malko isn't the most active hero in this book, I think he was still forming as a character for de Viller's at this point or things were lost in the translation (literally) but he's durable enough and produces enough charm to keep the book moving along at a Grand-Prix level pace. According to the OUTSTANDING Spy Guys and Gals website the translator for this books was Nicholas Leonard and it may or may not be the only one he did so he might not have proven to be a good fit for the series. This book is probably not be the best place to start with the books which can be read in any order. I started with #7 "The Countess and the Spy" which was translated by Lowell Blair who did a good chunk of the series and I read it in nearly a sitting. Blair also translated a couple books in Jean Bruce's longer running OSS-117 French spy books that pre-dated Bond and Malko, but that's a tale for another time.

Pinnacle bottomed out at producing 15 translations which just really blows. One more came from Medallion Books and recently five modern books from fancy pants-publisher Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, which is far too few books for me. Unfortunately people have caught on to how good Malko is and the books (save the Black Lizard ones) are hard-to-find and pricey but they are worth it.  Maybe I just need to learn to read some French, there's a whole world of pulp existing just beyond my reach which is a shame. But I mean I have thousands of books unread in a language I can read so maybe it's for the best not to add. My shelves might not be able to take it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Serial Reflections: Ed Noon by Michael Avallone, the Private Eye to End All Private Eyes

In the year of 1953 a little book was published by Permabooks by a fellow by the name of Michael Avallone. It probably looked like a standard tough-guy private eye to the unsuspecting reading public. But it's like the Wardrobe in that book with the lion and the witch. It's a portal to a different universe: The Nooniverse. It's a wild, wacky, dangerous world in the Nooniverse. Once you enter the Nooniverse you better let the safety bar securely latch down otherwise you'll be thrown from the roller coaster. Things are hazy and dangerous and full of life and death.

Michael Avallone wrote like no person before or since. It's a hodge-podge of jokes, rants, thrills, spills, baseball, movies, pork-pie hats and blazing .45's. The plots make sense if you squint and tilt your head. The voice of Ed Noon is what you read the books for. The doged W.W.II vet who hangs in there even when shit gets weird. AND SHIT GETS WEIRD. For being in a living, breathing pulp word, Ed's a down-to-earth kind of guy. He's no Superman, but it doesn't mean he can't pull off amazing thrills, he might just stumble along the way and he'd probably rather be listening to a ball game on the radio. The reigns are on for the first few books, they just read like slightly cockeyed 50's hard-boiled detective yarns. But Avallone soon shakes the reigns loose and things get odder in the Nooniverse as it expands into the big bang.

See, Ed Noon's a pulp character through and through. He would have fit right in on the pages of Dime Detective Magazine or in the back pages of an Operator 5 or perhaps most appropriately in Dan Turner, Hollywood Detective. Avallone loved the pulps and entertainingly wrote about them in some old issues of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. It makes sense that he wouldn't try for the grim and gritty noir world that most of his fellow paperback men tried to milk. No, he blazed his own path.  Avallone always seemed to do that. It's probably why he outlasted most of them. Ed has to live in a pulp world because by say, 1970's "Death Dives Deep" he's hip deep in the Bermuda Triangle and dancing Mermaids. By that time he's the President's Part-Time Private Spy. You don't get that in many books. In 1965's "Lust is No Lady" villains in a plane try to dump a bunch of bricks on his head. "The Voodoo Murders" from 1957 put him face-to-face with (the voodoo kind) zombies! See Avallone was having himself a blast writing these. You can tell. Fun drips from the pages. In an era of generic one-note fiction detectives Ed Noon stood out from the crowd, he had his quirks and foibles. He might think a woman is too good for him, he will fall for the wrong dame, he will make mistakes and people might die and it'll bother him. He will antagonize his buddy Monk of the N.Y.P.D. Tommy guns will crack through the air. He might be in love with his secretary Melissa Mercer who keeps his Mouse Auditorium in order, but he damned sure loves his pork-pie hat and the army .45 he keeps safely in his shoulder holster (he keeps a war-trophy Walther P-38 in his desk, just in case too) bottom line Ed Noon can deliver.

It's the flexibility of the the world and character that keeps Ed fresh through 30ish books. The exact count is confusing as the wonderful Thrilling Detective website lists books I can't seem to track down and some were only printed in England. It's fitting that the amount of Ed Noon's out there is a mystery. To be able to bounce between mystery stories and spy stories probably kept Ed new and interesting to Avallone for the decades he was writing about him. Plus you can pluck a Noon off the shelf for whatever mood that strikes you.

Michael Avallone called himself "The fastest typewriter in the East" and his writing had the sense of urgency I crave from a slim paperback. Noon's don't go in for slog, they move quick and easy, flowing from the pen of a thorough professional. Avallone wrote a helluva lot of books, tie-ins for the "Man From U.N.C.L.E.," the first Nick Carter Killmaster, works in the Gothics, horror novels, some of those spicy 60's spy Coxeman novels down the line to books based on the "Partridge Family." It takes a fine writer to be able to write books across genres and to put energy into work-for-hire jobs. Avallone would write your tie-in book for "The Cannonball Run" and you know what it'll read like he wrote it. In the 70's he wrote a series called "Satan Sleuth" and while you might be disappointed if you wanted a straighter occult detective tale, but if you wanted a high-adventure Doc Savage in bell bottoms you'd be as happy as could be. When James Dockery stopped writing the Men's Adventure series "The Butcher" Avallone stepped in and wrote some of the most entertaining blood-and-guts men's adventure books ever written, a mix between Ennis Willie's Sand and Norvell Page's The Spider. All in all Ed Noon and Micheal Avallone are my kind of guys and they should be your kind of guys too.

If you're looking for a place to start I'll give you some suggestions:

For a tough-guy private eye yarn I'd read "The Crazy Mixed-Up Corpse," "The Voodoo Murders," "Meanwhile Back at the Morgue" or the one that started it all "The Tall Delores."

For some spy-fi, I'd pick up "Death Dives Deep," "London, Bloody, London," "Assassin's Don't Die in Bed." But the top-self spy-Noon for me is "Shoot it Again, Sam." It's a wild ride of brain-washing and Bogart.

Wait, you crave some science-fiction? Then you better pick up "High Noon at Midnight" where Ed may or may not be fighting off an alien invasion of cockroach-headed-beings with ray-guns. Plus Gary Cooper.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Ennis Willie's Sand in "Passion Has No Rule Book" or "Death in a Dead Place" if You Will

If there ever was a hardass to end all hardasses it would be Sand (one name like Madonna) Ennis Willie's Mafia killer turned quasi-hero. He shrugs off bullet wounds, beds willing busty women, uses his .45 in the way that the Men's Adventure God's intended i.e. blasting punks away and to hep wrap up the story in a brisk page count.

There was a big mystery about the identity of Ennis Willie (because it's a funky name, no doubt) with fan speculating that he could be a African-American poet named Willie Ennis or Mickey Spillane writing under a false name. Folks like Bill Crider, Ed Gorman, Max Allan Collins and Stephen Mertz dug and tried to figure it out like the mystery writers they are (and were) but it turns out he was a guy named Ennis Willie. Things work out like that sometimes.

Sand was a big-shot mobster who gets fed up with the life and wants a divorce with the mafia. It's a messy break up with the mob always pestering Sand with bullets and killers of all sorts. To top it off Sand keeps himself in trouble outside of his mafioso past.  "Death in a Dead Place" is the new much better title, as the titles were made up the publisher. It was originally published as "Passion Has No Rule Book" which is a bold face lie otherwise us deviants wouldn't have "safe words." The books starts with Sand in the gutter with a bullet hole in his gut a kindly hobo/thief named Sticky helps him out. He shows Sand around the back alleys and Sand kicks some guys asses for Sticky, so they a fast friends. Then Sticky dies by swelling up to a giant tumor. Which sounds real bad and super gross. He had stolen a case which contained a shipment of a new type biological warfare with his sticky fingers, hence the name. Sand gets minor league pissed, shoots some people and pushes the cops around (cause he's that much of a badass) to figure out what and who killed Sticky. Also he figures he's saving his own skin since he was probably infected. Along the way he spreads the disease by banging a couple of chicks, I suppose. "Death in a Dead Place" is a short book, closer to to the "complete novel" of a pulp magazine then your standard paperback and it just rollicks right along to a satisfying, if somewhat obvious ending.

Merit was strictly low-rent and by low-rent I mean smutty sex books. Sleaze is the popular "hip" word to describe it. These were books sold for a little more then say a Gold Medal Paperback or a Dell to help cover legal charges for indecency charges and sold in more adult places.  Another one of these publishers was Novel Books, which is like if a Mustang was made by Cars by Automobiles and it had a star in Tokey Wedge a shorty private eye who loved boobs and mysteries, but mostly boobs. He was the star of the Novel Books line. Sand was the star of the Merit Books line, appearing in shorts in the publishers magazines like "Rascal" and  "Best for Men." Sand was all over the place dishing it out. In the sleaze world Sand was your Mike Hammer and Tokey was your Shell Scott.

See, Sand was a helluva lot better then his publisher. Sand should have been on the regular spinner racks with a name publisher behind him and a little editorial polishing and he could have been an "Executioner" before Don Pendleton or at least a cousin to Matt Helm. But it wasn't meant to be and Sand began to become a hard-boiled legend. Until recently no Sand novel was easy to get, until Ramble House put out two awesome collections "Sand's Game" and "Sand's War" both containing novels, short stories and introductions/essays and interviews. They are fabulous packages and easily picked up. It's a shame their isn't more collections as the original paperbacks are pricey as hell and hard to find to boot and there's still more to be released. You won't read a faster paced, edge of your seat book then a Sand books. There's not an once of fat on them. They may not be prime rib, more like hamburger steak but it's well cooked.

Spillane's influence on Sand that's pretty obvious. Mickey was an influence on all paperback fiction after his first book "I, the Jury." He's on the Mt. Rushmore of Paperback Authors, the biggest head smiling and holding a Miller Lite. In short, Mickey was the man. If someone asked me what deceased person I would most like to hang out with it'd be Mickey. Maybe we'd go shoot some .45's together or drink some beer. Sand and Mike Hammer would grudgingly respect each other all while keeping their hands near their shoulder holsters. Mike Hammer could be traced back to Carroll John Daly's Race Williams, the true star of "Black Mask" magazine and I would bet that Ennis Willie read some of Daly's work too. Sand, Race and Mike all live in a nightmare urban world of gunsels, dames and imminent danger. They work for themselves and say "fuck it" to the societal laws and norms. They live by their own moral code and enforce their code with deadly fury. Sand's pure pulp gussied up for the swingin' sixties with more random nude women then any pulp story would have but just as much action and thrills.

GO OUT AND BUY THE RAMBLE HOUSE BOOKS. You won't be sorry. Sand is a minor obsession of mine and its a good obsession to have. Make no mistake these are hastily written books, hammered out with NoDoz, coffee and with the rent due but that's exactly what makes them work. The speed of the writing sucks you into the speed of the world of Sand. A world where the clock is always ticking down to the next punk with a .357 who's out to kill Sand or tracking down a carny known as The Monkey Girl or the next serial killer named Sasquatch.

Yeah that's in one of the books. Sasquatch, that's great.