Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Long Cut: Jerry (Laurence James & John Harvey) Bronson's "The Cut"

This one's a long quest through dusty bookshop shelves, the deepest depths of internet bookstores, saved searches and typing the same thing again and again, "cut jerry bronson" into various search engines and eBay. I've looked for it in about any place that sells used books for something like eight years. It's funny how things go. I found out about this book from the Glorious Trash blog review of it. It sounded right up my alley, but it was nowhere to be found. Glorious Trash is something of a trendsetter, some of the books he writes about gets scarce/expensive quick. So, this little sleazy private eye tale written by two Brits that was too hardcore to get published across the pond got published by Pinnacle in a (probably) low-run print became my white whale. I've always wanted to read it but as the years stretched on it became more about the hunt, the thrill of discovery. The patter of my heart when I got an email informing me something on a "wish list" was now available. Would it be "Cut" by Jerry Bronson? Never was.

Now, being a bookman, I got a fairly large list of "wants." And some of even the hardest to track down have shown up at least once or twice in my years of looking. Sometimes for high prices, sometimes for four bucks. I haven't always snapped them up at the high prices, I'm a cheap bastard after all but I knew I'd probably burn a hole in a credit card, if need be, to own "Cut." I assume the book didn't sell and was remaindered for a few copies that are floating around since Pinnacle was a pretty big wide-reaching publisher. Couple that with Glorious Trash's review and the authors own cache, whoever had them wasn't selling them. 

Laurence James was very prolific, writing biker books, science fiction, westerns, post-apocalyptic fiction, War stuff and even horror. He's mostly known for his work on the Deathlands series and The Apache books. I have a bunch of his work, but this is the first time I've read anything by him, at least half-by him anyway. Knowing he wrote the more extreme parts of the narrative his days writing the "Piccadilly Westerns" is apparent, as it sort of reads like a 70s update of the wild ways of the Piccadilly Westerns. John Harvey is now a respectable writer having written the popular Charlie Resnick procedural novels. But he started in the paperbacks, writing, you guessed it, westerns, war books, and crime fiction. I reviewed an entry in his Scott Mitchell books, a British private eye who's a tough cookie. Together they came together and switched alternated chapters to write this book as Jerry Bronson. And it seems like they had a good time doing it because this one funky novel. 

Finally, I got my hands on a copy (Thanks Stan!) via some good-natured trading among a fellow enthusiast. It had to travel from Canada to the U.S. and after sending some money to the wrong person for shipping I eventually found it in my mailbox on one cold and snowy night. Would it be as good as I wanted it to be after this long of a search? Seems impossible. 

The opening is one of the sleaziest things I've ever read, a wild killing on a porn set. Off to a good start. Then we meet Regan, a .44 Magnum packin' asthmatic private eye in California. I'm with it so far. And soon I forgot my expectations and rolled along with the wild, slap-dash, kooky tale of Snuff films, Boris Karloff stand-ins, hippie-communes, gory action and sexy sex. It's a novel brimming with first-draft energy and two authors trying to one-up each other every chapter. A chase and murder in Disney world? Random sex with ugly old prostitutes? Beheadings? .44 magnum blasts? Kicks in the nuts? It's a got it all and more. It does all sort of hang together enough to make sense from A to Z, it's not the most polished (or fleshed out) but James and Harvey were pros at quicky paperbacks. 

Reagan is a big 'ol nasty "Dirty Harry"-type, ex-cop turned private eye after he blows away the punk that sound the junk that made his wife O.D. he misses his wife, but mostly he just drinks, bangs ladies and shoots people. In a nice running-joke a lot of the chapters open with Reagan hungover after the previous night's escapades. He's nominally searching for a socialite's runaway sister and pretty much immediately finds her without a lot of effort other then stopping for gas and making conversation. But being a mystery that's not the whole story. It shifts from a more mystery format into a full-blown Men's Adventure thriller as it goes. Reagan's a bastard and a hardcase but that's the kind of guy you need when dealing in snuff films. 

It has an exploitation film vibe, probably because filmmaking is an integral part of the plot. I can easily imagine it in a grindhouse of 42nd street or in a drive-in in the south. I doubt they could have gotten Karloff for the baddie though even though that's who I pictured throughout. The whole thing has its tongue squarely in in its cheek. So, was it worth the wait and the hunt? Yeah absolutely....for me anyway, I can certainly see most folks not caring for it. It's crazy violent, sexist and certainly in need of some coherent editing. It's probably the most sordid book I've ever read from Pinnacle, who probably bought it because they were putting out work by both James and Harvey in the Apache series at the same time but it's clear they didn't devote much more time to it other than slapping the most awesome photo covers on it ever.

One chapter of my book hunting is closed now. It's nice and it's sad. Now, I'll probably fall into a copy of "Cut" in my local used bookstore tomorrow. That's the way it goes sometimes. Luckily as far as hunting goes, I still have plenty to search for. Some of which I'm not even sure if they were published. That's part of the fun of this era of paperback publishing. It's wild and unpredictable just like the novels they put out. 

Monday, February 21, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Vigilante #4: Knock, Knock You're Dead by V.J. (Robert Lory) Santiago

So, it's the 70's and someone kills your wife, whatta ya do? Go a vigilante rampage, of course. In the wake of the one-two-punch that was Don Pendleton' The Executioner and Brian Garfield's "Death Wish" the paperback racks had plenty of vigilantes to pick from. They ranged from a wilder pulpier version like The Penetrator with dart guns and trips to space or down-beat and grimy tales of The Sharpshooter or The Revenger. Every publisher was giving them a shot (pun intended) and even Pinnacle, the home of Mack Bolan at the time, threw more revenge at you with six-book series: The Vigilante by V.J. Santiago. Santiago was actually Robert Lory who's mostly known these days as the author of the groovy Dracula Returns books. He also wrote a number (of the better) tales in the John Eagle, Expeditor books as well as some Sci-Fi that looks pretty sweet. 

"Knock, Knock You're Dead" is the fourth book in the series and it stars Joe Madden who (in the timeline of the books) just THREE WEEKS ago lost his wife and began his quest for vengeance. I have read the first in the series "An Eye for an Eye" which acts has his Death-Wish-Origin-Story (and enjoyed it) where it all starts, but I guess I didn't know or remember that the series runs together that tightly, almost like Mike Barry's Lone Wolf or Gilbert Ralston's Dakoata books where they a more like one long epic novel, as opposed to serialized adventures. 

It's interesting in the differences of approach to various series. I would think that a less "serial approach" would be better. That way any of the books is a jumping off point for a reader. But the "long novel" form can make for a richer reading experience, following someone in short order as they go do Men's Adventuring. Well, either way I guess it got me to buy the rest of 'em to fill in the gaps, so its effective. 

This entry takes Madden to Chicago (each book's got a different locale) where he is using his job as an engineer to look over security in a bank (huh?) and running into some 70s-type terrorists who are bombing buildings in the city. I don't remember Madden being quite this nutzo in the first volume, so there must a sliding-scale going on here in terms of his vigilante actions. It makes sense, no sane person goes around blasting away punks. Either way Madden is all-about the murder now. He's practically chomping at the bit to take out the baddies and inflict pain on those he deems worthy of it, it's not exactly pleasant at times, venturing into the sexual arena, so fair warning. I do like how he's not a professional killer or anything. He was in Korea and is fairly smart, being an engineer, but that's it. Not a spy or a cop or even a Green Beret. He doesn't have access to an arsenal of weapons; his two guns: a snub-nose .38 Colt and a .32 Mauser HSc, come for dead enemies or purchased from low-level mob guys along with the bullets. It's a nice little touch of realism in the wild-ass antics of this book. There's plenty of shootin and bombin' though along with waitress/prostitutes, conniving businessmen, career opportunities in the mafia, and various tough-guy antics. The book is pretty sleazy but it being a Pinnacle it's not quite a sleazy as say a Manor book or a Belmont Tower. 

I really dug the lean writing style Lory puts to use here. Some of his other work, I'm looking at you Dracula is a bit more "stuffed" being like 20-30 pages too full for an adventure paperback of the time. The Vigilante books stand up and run to the finish. This one is a little needlessly complicated, but nothing too bad. I look forward to taking on the rest of the novels in the series, I'll probably start from #2 and go on in order from now on, though. It's not 100% necessary to read it #1 through #6, it's pretty easy to pick up what happened in the other books (it's a Men's Adventure novel, so you know, mayhem), you won't be too lost if you pick up a middle entry. Like all the Men's Adventure paperbacks, these are slowly rising in prices. I picked up the few I already had for next to nothing, a buck or two max. Now they are running closer to 10 to 15 a piece and these ones have never been reprinted (yet) so you'll have to track the paper copies down if you want to give them a try. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: Fargo #7: Valley of the Skulls by John (Ben Haas) Benteen

It's really damned surprising that it's taken me this long to talk about a Fargo novel on the blog. I've really had a blind spot in my reading history with westerns, it's something I plan on working on this year (because of a project I'm working on) and I'm sure you (the reader) will see more and more westerns being reviewed, especially because I've been buying 'em the bucketful. John Benteen was the guy that started turning me around on westerns. Not that I ever disliked them, I just usually got my western fix from the movies. But it's nearly impossible not to like Fargo if you are into action/adventure fiction. The series is damned near perfection after all. 

Ben Haas was a writer who could do about anything, westerns, Doctor romances, espionage tales, sports, fantast, humor, a pro's pro. He could do them all well too. I don't think it was possible for him to not string the right lines together. And after a try-out writing Lassiter #5 "A Hell of a Way to Die," Haas turned his gunsights toward creating his own hero, I use the term loosely, in Fargo for Belmont-Tower. Now, I'm sure most of you know that Fargo owes a lot to Fardan as played by Lee Marvin in 1966's "The Professionals." Right down to the campaign hat. Plus Frank O'Rourke's novel its based on. But there's more Fargo's, so who's winning?

"The Valley of the Skulls" is in the wild and wooly Fargo mold. It sends the soldier of fortune down to Mexico at the behest of an asshole millionaire in order drag the millionaire's son-and-a solid gold cannon out the jungle from a temple of skulls build by the ancient Mayans. To do it he joins up with a dangerous English gunman and his private army, tangles with the decedents of the Mayan's, the nature of the jungle, asshole sons of asshole millionaires, scientist just trying to do stuff for science, pretty scientist daughters and falls in love with a cannon. Along the way he gets plenty of opportunity to use the cut-down Fox shotgun that Teddy Roosevelt gave him and his Colt .38 Army, not to mention the solid gold cannon. Fargo is a real hardcase, but he's nearly superhuman in his capabilities in every situation, but never much worried about 'ol Fargo, it's his enemies you got to worry for. 

The only problem with this book is that it ended. Well, it did seem a little rushed towards then end (it's a pretty thin spined entry in the series) but Haas still managed to wrap everything up nicely. If you are kind of put off by westerns, I'd still recommend Fargo to you. Sometimes the books are more traditional westerns and sometimes they are pure adventure stories. They feel to me like a spiritual cousin to Peter McCurtin's Jim Rainey-Mercenary books. An ultra-tough man goes around the globe with guns and problems to solve for hard cash. Haas is one of the best paperback writers. The original editions are sometimes hard to track down (there's a few individual titles that seem to be more common) but luckily Piccadilly Publishing has republished the Haas books in the series (there's a few outliers) as eBooks. The also published "A Hack's Notebook" Haas's unfinished autobiography that is a fun, interesting read that should be on your bookshelf. Oh, the all the Fargo's should be too.

Monday, February 14, 2022

The Vampire Chase by Stephen (Stephen Mertz) Brett

One of the first books I reviewed on the blog was Stephen Mertz's "Some Die Hard" along with James Reasoner's "Texas Wind," as they both private eye yarns (the finest form of literature in my mind) and came out from Manor books. Manor is a publisher that I've grown to really enjoy for the years. Like a lot of smaller publishers back then it's really a crapshoot about what you get when you open a Manor book. Either you get something great like "Texas Wind" and "Some Die Hard" or get a particularly bad stinker. When I wrote about Mertz first book, I didn't realize that he wrote another one for Manor. Then I found myself in this truck stop on the highway that has a back room full of used books for truckers. It's not the first time I've found book-gold amongst motor oil, beef jerky and packs of No-Doz. Running my eyes along the spins, I spot the familiar Manor logo on the top of the spine and then see the "Stephen Brett" handle. Then it all clicks. I shuffle it in with my sparkling water and Doritos and get out of there with my treasure. Sometimes Christmas comes early.

Mertz's is a pro; I've enjoyed his writing longer than I knew who he was when he was working on the Mack Bolan's. His Bolan #43: "Return to Vietnam" is one of my favorite Bolan books (including Pendleton's) that I read after a vague reference to it online back when I was consuming a lot of 80's action movies, like "Missing in Action" and "Let's Get Harry." Mertz pretty much kick started the whole "got back to 'Nam and get the P.O.W.s thing," that was mainstay in action cinema. Then he went on to create "The M.I.A. Hunter" books with a similar set-up. He's a trendsetter. 

His second novel "The Vampire Chase" is a horror-tinged 70s set rock 'n' roll roller-coaster mystery. Steve Madison is an ass-kicking troubleshooter of a record label who pulls musicians out of jams and keeps things quiet. It's a refreshing hook/set-up for a detective book. This book is pure 70s rock 'n' roll radio. The Animals, The Who, Jimmi and Janis get name-checked, it's warm and welcoming for a guy like me who grew up with 70s hippie-musician parents. Madison and his .44 Magnum are turned loose to stop a series of brutal "vampire" murders. Now despite the groovy mustachioed vampire on the cover, there's no supernatural element the book. Occult, ritual Vampire slayings and Satan-worship? Sure. It's a really just a crackling (and well done) mystery about who in a set of characters on a rock tour is killing and drinking the blood of groupies along the way. I'm not ruining anything, no one suspects that the killings are actually a real vampire. And despite the Dracula cover it's clearly marked "mystery" on the spine. I think it's a little stronger of a book that Mertz's first Manor "Some Die Hard," (still love it) at least in pace. "The Vampire Chase" puts the pedal down on the first page and keeps it there until the final one.

In classic P.I. fashion Madison gets conked on the head a lot, folks try and set up for murders, run him over with trucks and slash him up as he plays head games with his group of suspects to rip the mystery apart. Not to mention tangling with crazy rock stars, ex-girlfriends, and new pistol-packing lady-friends. Madison is ex-musician himself and a through and through tough guy, but he isn't above getting emotionally involved. Speaking of Don Pendleton and Mack Bolan. I think there's a bit of Bolan in Madison. The rage he feels about the slayings of women, his own firmly set morals about the nature of "justice" and though it starts as a paying gig it soon becomes a quest of vengeance. It makes sense as Pendleton had a big impact of Mertz's writing career. Also, Pendleton was so good you probably ought to pay attention to what he was laying down. Not to mention there's a little bit of Mike Hammer in the mix too. There's even a little tip of the fedora to "One Lonely Night" in there near the finale. 

I can't tell you enough how much I enjoyed this book, I read in a couple of sittings. "The Vampire Chase" is a lot of fun for fans of private eye mysteries as well as Men's Adventure. The mystery is very solid, keeping you on your toes right till the end and the action comes frequent. The original Manor paperback (like a lot of Manors) is scarce, unless maybe if you hang out at truck stops. Luckily not only is "The Vampire Chase" is available as an eBook from Wolfpack Publishing, but there's also a paperback available as well. So, you have no excuse for not rushing out and buying it. And not only that 25 years later Mertz wrote the follow up "Fade to Tomorrow!" I'll be buying that here real quick.

Here's a bonus, I obviously love book as in the back of the novels, this one has an ad for "Dachau Treasure" by Anthony DeStefano another Manor I enjoyed as well as other quality Manor books.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: "The Jade Figurine" by Bill Pronzini

Bill Pronzini has been a part of my reading life for a lot of years way in my teens devouring mystery fiction. I got started with his Nameless Detective books which were so good I rarely complained that they weren't action packed and I think a lot of my love and interest of pulp magazines come from Nameless's love and interest in pulp magazines. Pronzini has written a lot of mysteries, suspense work, and even westerns. He obviously has a has an affinity for hard-boiled tales, but rarely seems to get the opportunity to write them. His "A Run in Diamonds" (originally published as by Alex Saxon) is one of the great "lost Men's Adventure" series only getting one book and some short stories dedicated to Carmody, a tough jack-of-all-trades in a tough world. With Jeffery Wallmann he wrote "Day of the Moon," a wonderful hybrid of a detective novel with the flavor of Richard Stark's Parker books. And as Jack Foxx, Pronzini wrote two books about Dan Connell, a former pilot and smuggler trying to stay out of trouble (and failing) in Singapore.

"The Jade Figurine" owes some groundwork to "The Maltese Falcon." A tough guy lead stuck in the middle of a several double-crosses over a valuable statuette. Plus, one of the bad guys is real fat. Other than that, it's a comfortable tale of murder and smuggling in an old B-Movie sort of way. Dan Connell is on the outs, working day labor and drinking beer in Singapore when an old buddy comes to Dan and wants him to smuggle him out of the country. Dan doesn't do that anymore and there's the start of a well-crafted crime tale with a dash of exotic-locale adventure story mixed in. Dan is beaten, shot, double crossed, accused of murder and runs afoul of the police all in under 200 pages. Books used to know how to do it. What's wonderful about "The Jade Figurine" is that Pronzini knows all the cliches and trappings involved in these kinds of stories, he manipulates them and twists them around to create a fresh take but doesn't break the mold. There's plenty of local color, slippery characters and a strong twisting story that could have run as a serial in the pages of "Black Mask." It actually reminded me a bit of Raoul Whitfield's Jo Gar stories which I hadn't read when I first read the book back in my teens with its mixture of hardboiled first-person narration and foreign land intrigue. 

Wonder how much I paid?
There's really nothing wrong with this book. I don't think Pronzini is capable of writing a book novel. Every single one I've ever read had a flow clean flow, made perfect sense and moved along quickly. I'm going to have to take a long at the second Connell book "Dead Run" before too long and maybe an early Nameless or two. I recall really enjoying "Undercurrent," the third in the series and I just happened to come across a nice old paperback in the wild. Hmm. Decisions. Decisions. Seriously go read "The Jade Figurine" now. It's easily available as an eBook or reprint under Pronzini's real name. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: "Dead Man's Tale" by Ellery (Stephen Marlowe) Queen

Ellery Queen is a big-time mystery name that I don't have much experience with. I'm not much on fair-play golden-age mysteries outside of B-movies of the era. Because of that I've pretty much ignored the Queen books in the used books stores of past and present. Well, the further you walk down that dark alley the weirder you get. I'm still not interested is golden-age mystery but when I started to figure out that sometimes Queen wasn't really Queen. I guess he was never Queen at all just usually two guys named Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Anyway, sometimes he wasn't those two guys he was a who's-who of 50's crime/mystery writers. Names like Talmage Powell, Richard Deming, Gil Brewer, Charles W. Runyon, Henry Kane, Fletcher Flora and Stephen Marlowe, among others. After I figured this out, I started to get interested quick.

Stephen Marlowe is a well-known name in the Gold Medal circles for his Chester Drum novels of high-flying-private-eye-espionage action. He was never a "star" like a Donald Hamilton or a Richard S. Prather but the Chet Drum books lasted from 1955 to 1968 and are uniformly well-written action/thrillers that take Drum and his .357 all over the world hunting baddies not to mention the prerequisite pretty ladies that are involved. As Jason Ridgway he wrote a four-book series of wild mysteries for the "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" organization about an investigator for Ripley's hunting oddities around the world and falling into crime. He wrote a lot more stuff, some science fiction, some straight thrillers, some bids for a "big best seller" and finished his long career in the 90's writing a well-regarded trilogy about Christopher Columbus. Not bad at all.

"Dead Man's Tale" is a cold-war era mystery that bounds from the rubble of W.W.II to tell a tale of the quest two brothers take to finds a mysterious Czech named Milo Hacha. Steve Longacre is the right-hand man to a recently bumped off "political fixer" with a dark past who gets blackmailed by the fixer's wife to go make sure Milo Hacha is really dead since the fixer left him his whole estate and if Hacha is croaked it's hers. Along for the ride is Andy, Steve's fresh-faced college brother who tags along. Stylistically is very similar to Marlowe's other works. It has a travelogue feel as Steve and Andy trek across Europe and it's steeped in the Cold War-vibe of the Drums. But it has a more "literary" feel then a lot of the other novels I've read by him. It bounces from third person to first person-snippets of Andy's Diary, which is a bit jarring. But you get some dangerous border-crossings, Luger pistols, iron curtains, political assassinations, secret police, mob bosses, jilted wives, black-marketeers and blind-old killers. 

When it comes down to it, this is sort of a minor-warmed-over "Third Man" and Milo Hacha is a second-rate Harry Lime. The book is simply too stuffed with minor characters that Marlowe spends too much time with. It either needed to be a 200 page + novel or edited and focused. Add that with the shifting POV which is something that I have never really warmed up too. I wonder what ghost-writing for Ellery Queen was like this is a tamer and more serious Marlowe. Marlowe was a pro so he might have just been writing for a specific market. The only other non-Queen that I have read was "The Black Heart Murders" the 2nd book in the Troubleshooter series about Mike McCall which was written by Richard Deming. It was a straight detective novel in the medium-boiled school, which to be honest is a lot like a Richard Deming novel. So, maybe it all came down to editorial pressure or maybe it was just Marlowe doing a dry run for his later more serious-minded novels. I haven't given up on the other ghosted-Queen books, I'm especially a sucker for these doubles that got put out. Can't beat two-for-one. This is probably my least favorite book I've ever reviewed. Only Marlowe's quality writing got me to finish. The reason there's no bad reviews on my blog is simply this: if a book doesn't work for me, I set it aside. I never muscle through a bad book. Life's too short for that. This isn't a bad novel, just a mediocre one from a helluva writer.   

Friday, February 4, 2022

QUICK SHOTS: "A Ticket to Hell" by Harry Whittington

Harry Whittington is a hardboiled writer who probably needs no introduction. Anyway, here's the introduction. Harry Whittington's got a nickname, "King of the Paperbacks." It's a hard-earned name gained by writing something like 85 in the span of a twelve years across the spectrum of paperback companies from the top shelf to the bottom one. He wrote tough tales of bad guys, bad dames, crime, murder, sex, destruction that are cocked full of tough-guy patter and clean, chiseled out of stone prose. Can you imagine coming up to a spinner rack in some drug store in the 50's and finding it stuffed with desperate books by the likes of Day Keene, Bruno Fischer, Gil Brewer, Dan J. Marlowe and Harry Whittington? Maybe a Orrie Hitt and a pseudonym Whittington behind the counter in the "adult section." Salad days, my friends, salad days.  

Whittington was so busy that pulp-scholars are still tracking down "lost" novels that he might have written. And he's worth the hunt. A long stretch back in my day-hobby (hopefully day-job) of making and working on low-budget films someone with a passing interest in "noir" as they called it started talking to me about the genius of Jim Thompson, spurn no doubt by the films made from Thompson's books. I read all my Thompson when I was a moody teenager. Checked out from the school library no less! Now every time I try one as I've gotten older, I'll usually stall out. I've only ever made it through "The Getaway." Though I still have a stack of them and bought one just last week. Cause, maybe someday things with look bleak enough for me that I'll lift my spirits with the bleakness found inside the covers of his books. They've just stopped being my jam. Anywho, I told this filmmaker that they needed to try Harry Whittington and Day Keene and rattled off some titles for them. I wonder if they got the taste, maybe they would when someone gets smart and starts making a movie or limited series out of Keene or Whittington's stuff.

"A Ticket to Hell" stars Ric who shows us his paperback-bruteness in the first chapter by kicking a punk out of his speeding bathtub Porsche. He's a mysterious stranger who doesn't fit in with all the fancy stuff that's surrounding him, the swanky car, bag and motel that he's hiding out in, waiting for a phone call and trying to keep a low-profile. The .35 Smith and Wesson automatic (yeah, despite the funky caliber a real gun, I looked it up) that is in his shoulder holster feels natural for him though. This is the kind of book where plans go sideways. Soon enough he's wrapped up in an attempted murder, a lovely bride, a goon of a husband, a nosy and lusty hotel lady, cops, G-men, Judges and ex-wives. The plot unfolds masterfully, with Whittington giving you just enough bits and pieces of Ric's story as the action comes fast with speeding car chases, fisticuffs, mounting suspicions that burns through a "man on the run" tale and morphs into a "man on a mission" story. Ric's a fine protagonist for this kind of book. He's rough around the edges with a chip on his shoulder, but not a remorseless cold-calculating killer. Just a guy who'll do what it takes to succeed at what he started. He maybe a "bad guy" but he's easy to root for.

I've been on the lookout for Whittington's books for like, fifteen years and I basically never find any in the wild of used bookstores. In all that time I think I've stumble across "A Night for Screaming," and one or two of his westerns. Besides its original Gold Medal edition, the book was reprinted by Black Lizard books and Barry Gifford back when they were doing the pulp-gods good work. Stark House Press has reprinted a lot of his work in nice singles, doubles or triples. "A Ticket to Hell" is not the hardest book to track down, but I don't fall into many Black Lizard books anymore either. Plus, this doesn't seem to be available as an eBook, so snatch a book up and enjoy, because this really is a great book for a 50's crime fiction newbie or an old hat at it. All these old 50's crime books just keep climbing up and up in price so get them while you can or just let me buy 'em. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

The Great Fredric Brown Re-Read: "The Screaming Mimi"


A while back I stumbled upon "Death Has Many Doors," the final book I needed to finish my Ed and Am Hunter collection. I promptly devoured it and pledged to do some re-reading of Brown's work. Back in my misspent young life I figured out how good of a writer Brown was. Then I spent a fair amount of time looking around for the rest of his back catalog. Not an easy task. He's one of those guys people keep around on the shelf...for re-reading. I mostly assume I'm reading a dead-man's book when I find myself with a Fredric Brown in my hand. Who would give any up? No sane person. A little while after that I lucked into this wonderful Bantam copy and I couldn't resist it any longer. So, now I have three copies. Jeez.

Brown is mostly known now for his science fiction work (thank him for the best episode of "Star Trek" ever: "Arena," where Kirk fights the Gorn) which I've only sampled a small amount of but liked immensely. It's his mystery/thriller fiction that I adore. The science fiction and horror blend over into his suspense work so I get the best of both worlds anyway. The Ed and Am Hunter books explore a lot of funky subjects, werewolves, aliens, etc. etc. I really get a kick out of sci-fi writer's working in the mystery genre, they usually turn things on their head or chip at it in an interesting way. An outsiders look, I suppose or maybe just a deep thinker's look at the tropes. You can expect a fair, incredibly tightly written piece of work when you pick up a Brown novel or short story. Like a lot of the greats, he got his start in the pulps. If you like pulp mystery tales try and track down Dennis McMillan's reprint series "Fredric Brown in the Detective Pulps" and you won't be disappointed. 

But what we got here is "The Screaming Mimi," which might be Brown's most famous mystery novel. It got filmed in 1958 with Anita Ekberg, so it can't be all bad. Though it's not exactly great, it's somewhere between a steamy film-noir, an episode of Dragnet featuring this new police technique called "psychology," the later harder horror-tinged stuff. "Psycho" was a mere two years away. The book also served as inspiration for "The Bird with the Crystal Plumage" by Dario Argento, that one's a helluva lot better. The 1958 version is interesting mostly as juxtaposition between an older style of the thriller and the dawn of wilder more daring stuff that's found in Giallo and Krimi films on the other side of the pond. Not to mention homegrown film stuff. 

"The Screaming Mimi" was real hot stuff for 1949. Near revolutionary in its take on character, psychology, and pure shock. Bill Sweeney is a stock character: a pulp newshound. The detective mags were full of colorful hard-drinkin' reporters. That's what Sweeney is, a colorful hard-drinkin' reporters, only Sweeney is most assuredly an alcoholic. When we meet him, he's been a long drunk. Reduced to park benches and getting life advice from hobo's named God. Which might not actually be the worst thing for him. Sweeney's probably homeless and jobless, but thankfully his editor and landlady pity him enough to help him out. It doesn't hurt that Sweeney's on hand during the aftermath of a brutal "Ripper" attack of the beautiful (and often nude) Yolanda complete with snarling, protective dog, cops, and on lookers. Sweeney's swift writing and personal attraction start the ball rolling on his off-the-books time investigation of the Ripper, what we call now a serial killer that's been slashing up blondes. Sweeney fights through the whole book to stay sober enough to figure it all out. It's a pretty honest depiction of guy with a problem and a lot deeper than what you got in most protagonists of the time. Again, Brown is a forbearer to what comes a bit later in the 50's in the PBO's. 

Sweeney's also a bit of a mush-heart, he's okay with eccentric sad artists who poke him in the gut, gives his money to his buddies, he makes friends quickly with cops, ex-cops, crooks and about everyone. Perfect example, along the way he questions an obviously homosexual store owner. Sweeney and Brown treat the character with a lot of respect, they have a prolonged conversation and a drink together as Sweeney finds the titular "Screaming Mimi" statue. It's 1949 and Brown treats a gay character then a lot of stuff I've read well into the 90's and probably now. You understand why his boss and landlady watch out for him, the landlady even preventing a drunken Sweeney from hocking his typewriter (his lifeblood) during his bender. You root for Sweeney. On top of that it's a rollicking ticking-clock of a mystery as Sweeney runs down leads, fears for his life, and tangles with odd-ball psychologists, mugs, flatfoots, B-Girls, and the like. 

Okay, even the first time I figured out the twist ending. That has more to do with countless other novels and movies using the same gimmick. And the psychology is a bit weak, but ya know 1949. I enjoyed it more this time around. I was 18-19 when I read it the first time, sandwiched between two Ed and Am books I believe and I just took it on its face value: a helluva fun, thrilling mystery novel. It's that and a lot more. He's an impressive writer, if you even have a passing interest in mystery and thriller fiction give this one a try, it's probably his strongest stand-alone work and a great entry point that isn't involved in a series. "Night of the Jabberwock" is also a strong candidate for a recommendation, it's just funnier. They don't make 'em like this anymore and I don't think anyone other than Fredric Brown ever made 'em like this. I mean he wrote a book called "Murder Can Be Fun" and proved it over and over again.