Monday, September 28, 2015

Play It Hard

Play It Hard, by Gil Brewer
May, 1964  Monarch Books

Like Ennis Willie, Gil Brewer is another hardboiled pulp writer of the ‘50s and ‘60s whose name I’ve been seeing a lot during my recent kick. And also like Willie, Brewer’s a cult author whose books, despite their quality, never got the visibility they deserved when they were published and are now overpriced on the used books market. I was lucky to get this one for six bucks; many of Brewer’s novels have been reprinted in recent years, but unfortunately Play It Hard isn’t one of them.

Brewer’s publications for Fawcett Gold Medal are the most valued by his fans, but he also wrote for a few for the sleazier imprints of the day, like Monarch Books. I don’t think Monarch was a straight-up “sleaze” imprint (or at least what passed for sleaze in those days), but they were apparently a bit more risque than mainstream imprints like the Fawcett Books line. In other words, you’ll come across the word “breasts” a lot more often in a Monarch book. And Brewer, who appears to have been known for his sexy but evil female characters, is well up to the task.

Curiously though, Play It Hard has a publication date of May, 1964, and the cover proclaims it’s the “first publication anywhere,” yet the book is copyright 1960 by Brewer. So did it take four years to get published? Or did Brewer write it back in ’60, only for the manuscript to be rejected by Gold Medal or someone else? I’ve looked through Brewer’s catalog and Play It Hard doesn’t appear to be a retitled reprint of an earlier Gil Brewer novel, so I have no idea. But at any rate, all that matters is the quality of the book itself, and I have to say I enjoyed the hell out of it, despite its implausibility. 

At 142 pages of fairly small print, the novel, which is written in third-person, charges right along. Brewer has to write it this way, otherwise the reader will start asking too many questions. And as it is, it’s hard enough for the reader to not ask questions, for the central plot of Play It Hard is so bonkers you have to laugh: A guy wakes up one morning to discover that his wife of less than a week has been replaced by an auburn-haired sexpot, but no one believes him and the fake wife insists she is his wife! So this is more of a psychological noir story rather than your average hardboiled deal; either way it’s a lot of fun and Brewer’s writing is very enjoyable.

Our hero is Steve Nolan, a war vet, whether Korea or WWII is not stated, who lives in some (I think) unspecified town in Florida and makes his living as a mattress manufacturer. Apparently this is quite the way to meet the ladies, as we’re informed that Steve has gotten lucky again and again, as selling mattresses is a surefire way to get a lady in the sack. (I knew I shouldn’t have gone into Marketing!)  But Steve’s recently become a married man; meeting a hotstuff lady named Janice on the beach in nearby resort town Oceanside on a much-needed vacation, Steve fell in love with her and proposed. Janice accepted, and they’ve been married only a week. None of Steve’s friends or family have met her.

All this is relayed gradually in the text; when the novel begins, Steve is in a stupor, either from drinking too much or from being drugged. Honeymooning along the Gulf Coast, Steve and Janice hammered the drinks with a bushy-eyebrowed stranger the night before, and it all descended into a black void so far as Steve’s memory goes. He comes back to consciousness in his own home, which he shares with his aunt Eda, and discovers that the woman who claims to be his wife is not the Janice he married. But Eda doesn’t believe Steve, nor does longtime family doctor Earl Paige, who tells Steve he’s had a nervous breakdown and is just confused; of course Janice is the same woman he married a few days ago.

Here’s the big problem. Brewer does a superb job making this a psychological thing: did Steve really have a breakdown? Is it only in his mind, and is this the same Janice he married? Brewer skillfully plays out this absurd scenario so that you buy it. However, Monarch Books chose to blow the entire mystery by clearly stating on the back cover that the woman is not his real wife!! Talk about spoilers. At any rate the pseudo-Janice is a smokin’-hot babe with auburn hair and a killer bod which she enjoys showing off; she’s real game for Steve to get better so they can have some hot marital sex asap.

Another problem with Play It Hard, or at least what seemed like a problem to me, is that we never meet the real Janice. Hence we never truly empathize with Steve. As other characters tell him, “If my wife was replaced by a woman who looked like that, I wouldn’t be complaining,” and that’s how the reader soon feels, as the ample charms of pseudo-Janice are constantly played up to the point where you figure Steve should just close his eyes and think of England. I believe the reader would be more inclined to feel Steve’s pain if we’d been given a glimpse of the real Janice, rather than the story of how they met being doled out in backstory midway through the text.

This doesn’t really detract from the book, though. As I say, the entire concept is so goofy but so superbly written that you get swept up in it. Let alone that Steve never bothered to take a photo of the real Janice or to get much information about her; we’re to believe they quickly fell in love and decided to quickly marry, even foregoing the usual blood tests (something which I thought didn’t become standard until later). Now here’s Steve trying to convince everyone that this super-hot chick with the killer bod isn’t his real wife, even if she claims she is; about the only “test” he can think to put her through is to try on the real Janice’s clothes, including her lingerie. It all fits pseudo-Janice.

Steve isn’t the sharpest tool; Gil Brewer followed the preferred Gold Medal theme of making his protagonists average guys, but Steve really would only be considered “average” if your core demographic was like truckers with a kindergarten-level education. He never really comes up with much of a plan on how to “expose” the new Janice, who continues to implore him for some good lovin’. Instead Steve just runs around his little town, trying to get people to listen to him, particularly Dr. Earl, who is obstinate that this is Janice (even though Earl never met her), and that it’s all in Steve’s head.

Even more resistance comes from Steve’s “friend,” a cop named Rhodes. He at first listens to Steve’s wild story, asking common-sense questions about how Steve can be sure it isn’t the same woman (one thing noted is that the only thing similar about pseudo-Janice is that she has the same-colored hair as the original version). Yet Rhodes soon becomes an enemy, openly questioning Steve’s innocence in all this, particulary when the raped and murdered corpse of an auburn-haired young woman washes up on shore. Before this happens, though, Steve finally gives in to pseudo-Janice’s horny demands and has sex with her on the living room couch.

Brewer writes a sequence a bit more explicit than you’d read in other mainstream novels of the time, but nothing too outrageous, and still vague and metaphorical for the most part. One thing he does get across is that pseudo-Janice sure enjoys it a whole bunch. (And I guess sickly Aunt Eda, upstairs in his room, sleeps through all of the girl’s wailing.) But immediately after this Rhodes calls Steve and hauls him down to the precinct to identify that aforementioned corpse. This is a sad scene that, again, would have had even more impact if we’d met the real Janice beforehand. But as it it, the cat is now out of the bag, as Steve swears to Rhodes that this is the woman he married, not the imposter back in his home.

The novel slowly morphs from a psychological suspense tale to more of a thriller as Steve realizes something’s really going on. Now he’s certain it’s not just in his head and that isn’t the real Janice in his home, but the girl refuses to tell Steve anything, smiling tauntingly at him as he threatens her. Why Steve never goes at her with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch is a mystery to me. He does get to vent a little steam when he finds a dude lurking outside his house one night; after a quick scuffle, Steve’s knocked flat and realizes that the attacker was the dude with bushy eyebrows who bought drinks for Steve and the real Janice the night all this craziness began – the last night he saw the real Janice.

Brewer takes us into the homestretch as the narrative acquires a breathless pace. Steve shuffles back and forth from Oceanside, where he met the real Janice, to his home town, tracking down clues and questioning witnesses. Meanwhile Aunt Eda’s getting sicker and sicker, even though Dr. Earl’s constantly treating her. And meanwhile pseudo-Janice just sits up in her room and waits for him. One of the biggest failings of Play It Hard is that pseudo-Janice, who is really such a great femme fatale, is kept off-page for so long. Steve spends more time with Claire, his childhood sweetheart, a gal he’s been in love with and vice versa for years, but the relationship never worked out, or something. (Brewer throws in another somewhat-explicit sex scene via flashback.)

Claire turns out to be the only person who believes Steve, not that this is much help for him, as she too soon disappears from the narrative, abducted by whoever is behind all this. Another problem with the novel is that no matter what Brewer comes up with, it will ultimately be unsatisfying; the concept is too weird and almost sci-fi for the mystery and suspense genre. And as it goes it does turn out to be a mundane impetus behind the whole “fake Janice” ruse; turns out Steve’s home, which he’s lived in with Aunt Eda since he was a child, once belonged to an associate of Al Capone, and the thug supposedly stashed his loot somewhere in the house.

A certain character in the novel has lusted after this money for years and years, and now thanks to a stroke of luck has discovered that it might be in Steve’s home. The villain then pushed Steve to take a much-needed vacation and meet a girl; the girl, Janice, was in reality a hooker who was paid to marry Steve. The villain’s desired goal was that, being married, Steve would decide to move out of the house with Aunt Eda and thus the villain would be free to go in and out to search for the loot – especially if Aunt Eda was bedridden. But when Janice decided to push for more money, the villain had her killed off and then came up with the bizarro idea to replace her with a fake and make Steve think it was all in his head. Obviously such a plan was guaranteed to fail.

The novel culminates in a bit of an action scene, but Steve never does become an ass-kicker of a protagonist. Instead he just sort of stands by, waiting for his moment to strike, while the villain exposits on his scheme. Sick of the pseudo-Janice’s complaints and criticisms, the villain blows her face off, with Brewer describing her corpse with the memorable phrase “lying in a leggy huddle.” Humorously, pseudo-Janice’s body is talked up at all times, like in an earlier moment, perhaps intentionally funny, where Brewer describes her breasts for a sentence or two, and then writes something to the effect of, “though Steve was no longer interested in them.”

As for the stashed loot, it’s long gone, something Eda reveals in the final paragraphs. So in other words it was all for naught. However Steve has realized at long last that Claire is his true one-and-only, and that he was a fool to ever think otherwise. Thus Brewer delivers a veritable happy ever after, even if we’ve learned that the woman he’s been hunting for throughout the novel was tortured and repeatedly raped before being killed. But since she was just a whore, one who was hired to get Steve to fall in love with her and marry her, it doesn’t matter. She deserved her horrible fate! 

Brewer’s writing is great, with that noir style down pat. Short, punchy sentences, memorable dialog. Steve meets an assortment of fringe characters during his travels and they all have their unique charms. Also Brewer doesn’t shy from the spicy stuff, with pseudo-Janice’s breasts and body described frequently and at length. And as I say, you get the idea that Brewer knew his concept was goofy and just charged right on through it, which only adds to the enjoyability factor. Anyway, I was so entertained by Play It Hard that I’ll definitely be reading more of Brewer’s work.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Code Of Vengeance (Sand #8)

Code Of Vengeance, by Ennis Willie
No month stated, 1965  Merit Books

During my recent hardboiled pulp kick I’ve been seeing mention of Ennis Willie, an obscure author of the time who is finally getting some attention fifty years after his last book was published. Willie wrote many novels, most of them published by low-circulation sleaze imprint Merit Books, but he’s most known for his series of eight books featuring the character Sand.

Like Morocco Jones, Sand is a men’s adventure series several years early; in fact, it’s basically The Butcher in all but name. Sand too is a former Syndicate bigwig who quit the crime life and is now hunted by his former comrades. Also like the Butcher, Sand works for the good guys these days. This isn’t coincidence; apparently Willie was contacted in the early ‘70s to either write The Butcher or to continue writing Sand novels. But he declined the offer, having retired from the writing life in ’65, and instead recommended a friend named James Dockery for the gig. (All as revealed in 2007 on James Reasoner’s blog and in a comment James left on Marty McKee’s blog.*)

I’m pretty sure that Code Of Vengeance was not only the last Sand novel but also the last novel Willie ever published. Either way it’s the first Willie/Sand novel I’ve read, and I didn’t miss out on any continuity; there’s nothing in this novel that hinges on anything that occurred in a previous Sand installment. Practically everything you need to know is on the front and back covers: Evan Sand is “the only man to leave the Syndicate and live” and now he kicks ass wherever he thinks it needs kicking.

At 127 pages, Code Of Vengeance moves at a rapid clip. This is mostly due to Willie’s writing, which could aptly be described as “terse.” In fact it’s almost a little too terse. Hardly anything is described, from characters to settings, and after a bit you start to wish there was just a little fat. In a way the novel comes off like a staccato outline. This does create a sort of adrenal rush, but at the same time the writing is so good that you want more. Character descriptions are minimal; even the female characters aren’t much exploited, let alone the infrequent sex scenes. As others have noted, even though the Sand novels were packaged as sleaze, they are very, very tame in the adult shenanigans department, and not just by today’s standards.

Willie gets right to the action; just like in the later Butcher novels, Sand is attacked within the first few pages by some old Syndicate pals. Instead of the Butcher’s silenced P-38, Sand’s weapon of choice appears to be a .45 automatic. The thugs jump him on a dark street and Sand takes out one of them, with the memorable detail of the thug’s neck getting blown off by Sand’s dum-dum bullets. The two thugs were in the process of hauling along a young girl in a trenchoat; one of them shoots her before fleeing.

The girl dies in Sand’s arms, and here’s another Butcher prefigure because it’s a girl Sand once knew. Her name is Audrey Rittenhouse and just a few years ago, when Sand was still in the Syndicate, she was a teenager with the desire to become a gun moll and she threw herself unsuccessfully at Sand. Now she’s dead, and also nude beneath the trenchcoat, like in Kiss Me Deadly. Sand’s determined to track down Grapes Werder, the thug who shot her before fleeing, but he’s stonewalled by Captain Max Mohannah, basically the Pat Chambers to Sand’s Mike Hammer. 

Mohannah appears to be a recurring character; he’s aware of course of Sand’s background (apparently Sand is quite famous, even to the common man) and I guess lets Sand run amok, just so long as Sand is going after the bad guys. Another recurring character appears to be a reporter named Phil Harris who pops up occasionally and vaguely mentions a past adventure. Apparently all this takes place in Chicago, by the way; I don’t believe Willie states in Code Of Vengeance that this is all in the Windy City, but I’m pretty sure I read that the other Sand novels are set there, just like the Morocco Jones series.

Sand goes around the city, chasing leads and getting in the occasional fight with various thugs. Audrey Rittenhouse was from money, and her older sister, a cold fish of a knockout named Samantha, is clearly trying to brush the story under the carpet. Sand has a few run-ins with her and her boyfriend, smarmy Orville Howlin, and Willie plays up the chemistry, which plays out via barbs and banter. Sand is just as terse as Willie’s narrative and doles out several one-liners and put-downs, many of which leave Samantha gaping in outrage. Meanwhile more corpses begin showing up, like Grapes Werder, the man who killed Audrey. Now Sand is certain there’s more to the story, but meanwhile he’s getting laid, courtesy a redheaded stripper named Dixie.

Speaking of the sex scenes, this is what they’re like, from a later sequence where Sand and Samantha have their expected encounter:

She screamed in his ear and bit at his neck. She was a naked, passion-filled wanton under him, wriggling with a crazy sensuality that caught his nerves and tickled them like piano strings. 

The ripping sound in his ears was his shirt finally shredding under the wild digging of this she-animal’s sharp nails. They had clawed through the flesh and there should have been pain, he knew, but there was no time for pain. 

“Make me a woman!” she said in a half-scream that somehow didn’t get lost like most of the others. “Make me a woman!”

Then it started all over again, the rushing, the climbing, the reaching. A new mountain. The same mountain. A madly whirling pool of sensations that made no sense. Bulding, building and…

So as you can see, there is nothing very explicit here. It’s a wonder really why Willie published through such a smalltime imprint with such limited distribution; racier stuff was published by Gold Medal. But that’s how it was, and now the Sand novels are exceedingly scarce and overpriced, though Ramble House has reprinted a few of them in two recent anthologies, Sand’s War and Sand’s Game (neither of which include Code Of Vengeance, though). But you certainly get the feeling that these novels could’ve gotten more readers if they’d only been a little longer and had a better publisher.

Anyway the central plot, which turns out to be about a “baby racket,” is appropriately convoluted, with Sand always two steps behind as he comes upon corpse after corpse. Two of the more notable people he hunts are Tuck, the “homosexual” mentioned on the cover, a drag queen who appears to know what was really going on with Audrey Rittenhouse and the Chicago Syndicate, and Chenny Teenatta, kingpin of the Chicago mob and one of Sand’s old enemies. All these thugs are like those seen in The Butcher; maybe not as grotesque, but definitely oddball, with strange characteristics and idiosyncrasies. Chenny for example is known for his pristine white teeth.

But that “two steps behind” deal is what ultimately undermines Code Of Vengeance. Sand, despite being a badass of the first order, spends too much of the novel trying to figure out what’s going on and showing up after the fireworks are over. He spends more time fending off the advances of another teenaged wanton, this being Colleen Rittenhouse, Samantha’s sixteen-year-old sister whose incredible body is amply described whenever she appears, despite Sand’s stern refusal to touch her. 

Even worse, Sand would be up shit creek in the climax if it wasn’t for someone else – namely, the offhand comment Colleen makes late in the book that she plugged a certain character’s gun. But as it stands, Sand figures out who is behind the plot in a last-second reveal and, not having a gun, must try to evade him and make him waste his bullets. But the killer has a backup piece, the one Sand knows has been plugged, and it’s his goal to get the killer to shoot it. This is what happens, and thus Sand himself doesn’t even kill off the main villain – in fact, Sand doesn’t kill off any of the main characters or villains, as they’re each bumped off by the killer himself.

I wasn’t blown away by Code Of Vengeance but I did enjoy it, and I definitely intend to read more of Willie’s work. I don’t yet have those Ramble House anthologies (the original books are just too damn overpriced; I was lucky to find this one for under ten bucks), but I do have the non-Sand novel Vice Town, which I’ll read next.

*Stephen Mertz has also informed me that he covers the Sand/Butcher origins in his interview with Ennis Willie, which is featured in the anthology Sands Game.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Black Moth

The Black Moth, by Charles Runyon
No month stated, 1967  Fawcett Gold Medal

Sporting one of the greatest covers in the history of paperbacks, The Black Moth is yet another mostly-enjoyable Fawcett Gold Medal publication; Charles Runyon was an old hardboiled hand but this is the first of his novels I’ve read. While entertaining the book is a bit too long for its own good (192 pages of small print) and meanders at times, plus the climax isn’t satisfactory; but then again there’s that cover…

It’s May 1967 and in Prathersville, Missouri there’s a sort of reformatory school for young women called Wakefield College. But these aren’t your average juvenile delinquents; they’re all members of wealthy families and have been placed here for going astray in some fashion. Wakefield, run by the elderly LaVera Belle, the headmistress of the school, prides itself on orderliness and obedience. But there’s a dark secret lurking in Wakefield, and as the novel opens two of its students pay for it: one is drowned, and the other is stabbed to death while having sex in a car with her boyfriend.

Enter the hero of the story, Marcus Greene, a private investigator hired by the father of the boyfriend, who has been wrongly accused of the second murder. Greene we’ll learn is a former CIA agent and is a regular master of disguise. He also lugs around a metal “equipment locker” which holds a vast array of electronic spying equipment; ten thousand dollars worth of it, we’re informed. The novel is not written in the expected first-person narration, which you’d figure a given due to the PI protagonist, and Runyon keeps the POV-hopping to a minimum. For the most part we stay locked in Greene’s perspective, and he’s a fairly interesting hero, though it must be admitted he doesn’t do very much. 

Greene is in disguise throughout the novel, posing as new Wakefield professor Herman Melville Bligh, who was hired to fill the vacany created by the previous professor, Petrie, who is currently in an insane asylum. The real Bligh is back at Greene’s office in Chicago, kept in a perpetual dope fog by Greene’s (apparently sexy) secretary Rose Marie – and when the drugs lose their efficacy she resorts to old-fashioned screwing. Speaking of which there’s a fair amount of sex in The Black Moth, more than you’d encounter in an earlier Gold Medal publication, but it’s not very explicit. Greene does pretty well for himself, getting lucky with three women over the course of the weekend in which the novel occurs.

Wakefield harbors all kinds of secrets, as Greene discovers promptly upon arrival. There’s the sleazy Public Relations guy, Creighton Bauer, the only other male on the faculty, who treats Greene with immediate suspicion. Then there’s Victoria Galen, the beautiful blonde gym coach with her “small, pointy breasts,” who flip-flops between treating Greene frostily or coming on strong to him. She doesn’t come on nearly as strong as plump but pleasing Virginia Black, school nurse, who promptly upon meeting Greene asks him if he wants some quaaludes and then stretches out on her table, offering herself to him. (Greene obliges her.)

Then there’s beautiful and busty Nadine DeVore, a Wakefield student. A school trusty with various privileges, Nadine serves as the headmistress’s secretary and seems to test Greene when they meet. And it turns he’s failed her test – that night Greene is caught unawares as he scopes out the campus, Nadine holding a .38 on him. She reveals that she met the real Professor Bligh years before and thus knows Greene is an imposter. But the two are on the same side; Nadine was friends with one of the murdered girls and wants to help Greene find the real killer, as she too doesn’t think the boyfriend is guilty. But first she wants to have some sex with Greene, and once again he obliges. Nadine proves to be a plucky heroine, providing Greene with ideas that ultimately help him solve the case – that is, in between all the times she’s offering herself to him.

In addition to the slightly more graphic sex, another indication of the changing times is the psychedelia which creeps into the book. The groovy title font on the cover is just the first clue. Midway through the book Greene is spiked with LSD (whether it was in the coffee Victoria served him that morning or the breakfast he was served in the school cafeteria he’s unsure), and Runyon wites a too-long section of fractured text to display Greene’s disjointed thoughts. It’s all like Brian Aldiss’s Barefoot In The Head, as the narrative becomes gibberish and Greene wanders around in beffudlement. He does gradually realize that this is what drove Petrie “insane,” though, and it’s yet more indication that Wakefield hides some mysterious operators.

Through Nadine, Greene learns of a secret group of Wakefield girls called “the Artemis Club” who sport a black moth tattoo on their abdomen; Nadine isn’t a member, but she knows that these girls serve as hookers in a nearby club. It turns out that this is the big secret at the heart of the murders: someone at Wakefield runs a white slavery sort of racket, with the “black moth” gals whored out to various bigwigs, the girls forced into servitude by photos of their illicit adventures. But ultimately this makes little sense as these young women are already supposed to be hellions, anyway, and were sent here to this school for the very fact of their authority-bucking. Not that this really serves to take the reader out of the book, though.

Any fool would suspect Victoria, who’s always in just the right place at the right time, and also appears to be in cahoots with Verdelet, the sadistic Wakefield guard who seems to really have it in for Greene. But our hero is a bit out of sorts due to all the willing women on campus, and Victoria’s just another of them. When they have the expected sex scene it’s actually unexpected, and the only time I can think of where a protagonist has sex with a woman while they’re being shot at. This happens in Victoria’s living room as some unknown assailant fires through the picture window at them. She’s already quite randy and Greene is pulled along with her; afterwards he gives their attacker chase, Victoria driving her car while still fully nude.

Greene, despite how bad ass Runyon wants us to understand he is, doesn’t really do anything bad ass. He mostly relies on his “equipment locker” to bug various rooms and break into various places. He doesn’t even carry a gun, though he does chop off a guy’s hand at one point. The women are more dangerous, and Greene is constantly being uncovered (in more ways than one). Even when he discovers the whole white slavery angle he still can’t figure out that Victoria’s the main villain, even though any fool would see it. But really it’s apparent from her first appearance in the narrative. 

Greene’s confusion stems from the fact that Victoria’s there with him during many of his closer scrapes. She’s also there when it all builds to a climax, Greene having uncovered the conspirators and their stash of blackmail photos. However she also “accidentally” kills off every single one of them, and only at the last does dumb-ass Greene realize she’s doing it on purpose, to silence them. The finale is at least memorable, with Victoria, suddenly crazy now that she’s been outed, blithely revealing how sick she is of life and only finds enjoyment in being evil. She begs Greene to strangle her to death, and Runyon makes us think he actually does – only for us to be informed later that a bitter and defeated Victoria is being hauled off by the police, screaming at Greene that he’s a no-good cheat.

Runyon is a good writer, but the book does become a bit padded. I don’t know much about the guy but he uses words that I found odd, like “stool” instead of “toilet.” This became particularly unsettling at times, like the sentence “she flushed the stool” after a sex scene. The faux-psychedelic stuff is also unfortunate, but Runyon does come up with the occasional memorable hardboiled line for Greene, like: “I’ve got a theory about girls who play with guns. They’d rather play with something else.”

It was entertaining and all, but part of me suspects that the biggest appeal of The Black Moth is the cover. Otherwise it’s not very memorable, and maybe with some of the fat trimmed it would’ve been more of a fast-moving and entertaining piece of pulp.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Dakota #1: Warpath

Dakota #1: Warpath, by Gilbert A Ralston
November, 1973  Pinnacle Books

As Marty McKee notes, Gilbert Ralston was a TV writer, most known for the creation of The Wild Wild West, and his five-volume Dakota series bears all the hallmarks of a made-for-TV mindset. Indeed, it’s interesting that Pinnacle even published this, let alone labeled it as “adventure” on the spine; it has more in common with the low-rent private eye thrills of Hardy.

You know you’re in trouble when the back cover and first-page preview both spotlight the same action scene – and that’s because it’s the only action scene, really. Also curious that Pinnacle doesn’t inform us who Ralston is anywhere on the book; you’d think they would play up the fact that the dude was a successful TV writer. But anyway I have to agree with Marty, who waded through three of the Dakota novels, that the series was likely envisioned as a potential TV series. But if it had ever come to be it doubtless would’ve been one of the more boring shows in the annals of TV detectives.

Our series protagonist is Clay Dakota, an American Indian somewhere in his 30s who was a Force Recon Marine in ‘Nam, where he sustained a leg injury that sometimes still gives him trouble. After that he served as a “one-man police force” in some town in upstate New York, and then he opened his own “Pinkerton’s agency” in Carson Valley, Nevada. Dakota lives on a ranch in Genoa and does various private eye jobs; he’s been deputized by his buddy, Sheriff Al Bennedetti, and works closely with him. Dakota drives an old Chevy that has an auxilary fuel tank in the trunk and a .38 revolver hidden beneath the dash.

Dakota is perhaps the only men’s adventure protagonist to regularly call home to his mother. This should tell you all you need to know about the guy’s qualities as a kick-ass action hero.

Ralston goes for a slooow-burn approach; the cover art and slugline actually makes the book sound like a Western, and maybe that’s the vibe Ralston was attempting. This is not a frantically-paced tale by any means, and the central plot, of Dakota visiting an old mining town ruled by a millionaire despot, is also straight out of a Western. Dakota as an Indian hero is in for the same amount of racism, harrassment, and bullying as in a Western; there are too many parts where slackjawed yokels will amble over to his table and try to stir up shit over his heritage.

I’m too lazy to look up how old Ralston was when he wrote this, but I’m betting he was on in years, as he imbues Dakota with the wisdom of an old man. Maybe this is a play on the old “wise Indian” cliché, but Dakota is so patient and pragmatic as to be inhuman, like a Vulcan men’s adventure hero. Much of the narrative is given over to his ruminations on this or that, particularly on the foibles of people. It has the cumulative effect that you start to picture the guy as a geriatric rather than a tough-as-nails ‘Nam vet with an occasionally game leg.

Well anyway, Warpath gets the ball rolling for the series. Dakota’s called into the store owned by his old Chinese pal Sam Lew; Sam thinks he has a case for Dakota. It’s a young woman who won’t give her name or where she’s from, but she says her husband was killed and she wants Dakota to find out who did it: “Find the men who killed my husband. Barbecue them.” Dakota requests time to mull over if he wants to take the case, but then Sam and the young woman are killed by a car bomb. Dakota is now determined to see justice is served.

With Bennedetti’s help he discovers that the murdered woman was named Amy Rainey, and her husband was named Jack. They owned a bar in Poison Springs, Nevada, an old mining town owned by Burton Ashley. Dakota goes undercover as a cattle purchaser. The majority of the novel is focused on Dakota’s run-ins with the locals and the local law enforcement. He makes enemies with a trio of toughs (whom he beats up in a bar fight – this scene being the source of those front and back cover excerpts) and makes friends with a deputy named Phillips. He gets in the hair of Sheriff Hanna, and also becomes cozy with an attractive bank teller named Janet Hartley.

Suprisingly, Ralston actually writes a sex scene between the two. Here it is in its entirety: “He plunged into her.” That’s it! But Janet might as well be dating Charles Death Wish Bronson, as it becomes clearly obvious what fate is in store for her, given that she’s dating the only stranger in town, a stranger who is hiding ulterior motives and who has already run afoul of various people. There are a few muddled attempts on Dakota’s life, but he brushes it all off, gathering intel from drunken reporter Clifford Spring, a man who has long suspected Burton Ashley of being an evil bastard.

When Janet meets her expected fate Dakota takes the expected route – a peyote trip with a local tribe. Meanwhile he gets shot in the arm but he’s feeling practically brand new when Bennedetti shows up, helping Dakota work the case here in Poison Spring. But to tell the truth it’s all pretty bland, only salvaged by a very late moment where Dakota is stranded in the desert and five men come after him. This sequence plays off more on his “Indian skills” of sneaking up on people and also on his survivalist instincts, like how he knows that high ridge desert sand is very combustible.

The climax itself is more along the lines of a mystery thriller; after a nice sequence where Dakota and Bennedetti scale the electric fence surrounding Burton Ashley’s mansion and tranquilize his guard dogs, it instead devolves into lots of dialog as Ashley tries to barter for his freedom with Dakota. We also get an 11th hour reveal where one of Dakota’s pals turns out to be a sadistic killer, but it’s pretty hard to buy. But don’t worry, Dakota solves the case and arrests Ashley just in time to get home for dinner with mom and dad!!

Four more volumes were to follow, and if Marty’s comments are any indication, they become progressively more bland, so I’m in no hurry to get to them.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Devil's Lash

The Devil's Lash, by Louis Karney
No month stated, 1959  Newsstand Library

I’ve been reading how a lot of so-called “sleaze” novels of the ‘50s and ‘60s were really just pulp crime novels with slightly risque softcore content, and if The Devil’s Lash is any indication, that’s right on the money – this book is almost identical to something Gold Medal might’ve published, only gussied up with a few sex scenes that are more so lyrical/metaphorical than explicit. 

I tracked down this obscure curiosity due to the cover, of course. The scene depicted does occur in the novel itself, and is likely the reason readers back then plunked down their thirty-five cents for a copy. Newsstand Library was a smut peddler, and doubtless The Devil’s Lash was hard to find in its day; it’s even harder now, with prices placed accordingly high. No idea who “Louis Kasner” was but I’m assuming it was a pseudonym. The book is copyright Newsstand but there is a definite quality to the writing, as of an old pulp hand at work, skillfully doling out his tale in a short 128 pages.

The novel is written in third-person. Our hero is Paul Mantell, a salesman in his 30s with a wife and kid back in Los Angeles. He’s currently in Portland on business. A woman he doesn’t know comes into Paul’s hotel room late one night and sets off a bizarre sequence of events that will take Paul’s life into unexpected directions over the next few days. In this earlier era of house detectives and whatnot, Paul is aghast that someone will find the woman in his room and he’ll be arrested. But the woman, who says her name is Gale Jensen, comes on strong, saying he paid for her and etc; she think he’s someone named Donald Coombs.

Then some big stooge lumbers in, slaps Gale around, claiming she tried to rip him off, and slams Paul down for good measure. The two leave and Paul brushes it off, going to bed…only to wake up a few hours later with Gale Jensen in bed with him. Only now she’s a corpse. Realizing he’s been set up, he finds that Donald Coombs was a guy who was supposed to be in this room but changed rooms at the last moment. When Paul confronts the guy, Coombs claims not to know anything, but Paul pressures him and he finally gives out vague details about the Kensing Club, for which the now-dead Gale Jensen and a brunette “with large breasts” named Karen works.

Paul, evading the cops, heads for the Kensing Club, discovering the big stooge’s corpse along the way. As soon as he arrives he’s accused of murdering Gale by the rotund and sleazy owner of the place, Solas. Paul’s knocked out and wakes up cuffed and confronted by the titular lash: a leather whip wielding by a smokin’-hot brunette with big ol’ boobs. This is the lady Coombs told him of, Karen, a dominatrix who makes big bucks from bondage and torture freaks. And the lady enjoys her work. After trying in vain to get Paul to sign a confession of Gale Jensen’s murder, Karen calmly takes off her clothes, displaying her magnificent “sculptured marble” body, and proceeds to whip the holy hell out of him.

The way these things go, Karen as expected gets all hot and bothered – but so does Paul, despite the pain of the lashing. “I love you, I love you,” moans Karen, bathed in sweat from her exertions, as she falls on Paul’s battered and bloody form and begins kissing the wounds on his back. Apparently this is Karen’s schtick, we’ll learn: falling in love with the men who endure her most savage whippings. She rolls Paul over and here we have the first of the novel’s sex scenes. Despite being in the same metaphorical style as the others, it’s also the most explicit:

And then man and woman were joined… They were rocking on the floor, her body driving against his like pistons. He cried out as the manacled hands behind his back were driven against the floor by the fury of her movements, and he begged her to stop because of the tearing pain; but in the next breath he pleaded for her not to stop because the fingers of passion were clawing at him, opening new vistas of pleasure he had never before experienced.

So as you can see, we’re not talking about Harold Robbins here. Paul passes out after his orgasm (I assume mostly from the whipping, though), and when he comes to he finds himself in the cozy home of hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Ellen. Another employee of the Kensing Club, Ellen is a cute blonde who takes to Paul like a mother hen, dressing his wounds and making him meals. She claims that Paul was brought to her by a Mexican whore who also works at the club, one whom Paul was briefly nice to on his way in earlier that night.

Paul learns that news of Gale Jensen’s murder has made the papers and Paul himself is proclaimed as the murder suspect. He tries to call his wife, only for her to scream at him that he’s a no-good cheater and a murderer. He’s determined to clear his name, and Ellen offers up more clues. Gold Medal usually featured regular-guy protagonists, and Paul Mantell is no different. He barrels along without much planning, chasing one clue after another. He doesn’t even consider until too late, for example, that Ellen’s helping him might put her in jeopardy with Solas, whom we’re told is a top Syndicate guy.

There is only sporadic action; Paul gets in a quick scuffle with a would-be assassin when he sneaks into the palatial home of James B. Smith, Jr, who turns out to be Donald Coombs himself, Coombs being the name Smith uses for his sleazy escapades. But Paul’s such a non-action guy that he doesn’t even pick up the assassin’s discarded gun after knocking him out. Rather than action the focus is more on suspense and atmosphere, not to mention the occasional sex scene, like when Paul and Ellen get it on. But this is different than with Karen, as Paul feels himself growing feelings for the gal, and vice versa.

Karen unfortunately disappears for the rest of the novel, only showing up toward the very end to capture Ellen, tying her up and threatening to kill her. By now Paul has figured out the hazy scheme behind it all: Solas was trying to blackmail James Smith Jr, as Smith’s father is a bigshot newspaper magnate who has been trying to shut down corruption in Portland. Meanwhile Gale Jensen was trying to get more money from Smith, so she had to go as well. Or something like that. Ultimately what matters is that Karen turns out to be the one who was supposed to kill Gale, but the big stooge ended up killing her, and then Karen killed the stooge. Paul deduces all of this due to the lipstick marks he saw on the back of Coombs that night – Karen’s “cute trick of kissing men’s backs” having outed her as the murderer.

The finale is goofy – Karen, recall, is in love with Paul, so he’s able to talk her into handing over the .38 she’s holding on him! Then Paul, brandishing two of her whips, dual-lashes Karen until she’s hamburger. But then the cops show…turns out they’ve been using Paul as bait all along…tailing him…and oh yeah there’s a bug in the room so they got it all on record where Karen admitted to killing everyone. And since she’s just barely still living there’s no worry that Paul will have to suffer any legal consequences for her death! In fact, he’s scott free!

Karen’s hauled off to prison and Paul escorts Ellen to the hospital, the lady only having suffered minor injuries from her brief adbuction, and here Karney ends the tale…with way too many questions unanswered. Right before this Paul was dumbstruck by a newspaper article in which his wife – who previously had called him a cheat and hung up on him – said he was a loving father and husband and she doubted he was a killer. So this has confused him, and meanwhile he’s fallen in love with Ellen. So what’s Paul going to do? Stay with Ellen or go back to his wife? Karney leaves it up to us to decide. I mean it’s one hell of an abrupt ending.

As mentioned Karney’s writing isn’t bad; he just methodically tells the tale without any fancy stuff. I did note a strange tendency to hyphenate verbs, ie “Paul quick-looked around.” This is done so often in the narrative that it might provide a clue of who really wrote it. Also the author appears to realize he’s writing a goofy crime novel for a smut outfit, and clearly has fun with it, subtly mocking his own tale. For example there’s a part where Paul tries to call Ellen and she doesn’t answer and a litany of worries crosses Paul’s mind – she might be dead, she might kidnapped, etc…or he might have just dialed the wrong number! Luckily this isn’t played too over the top, so the novel never decends into parody or satire.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Meet Morocco Jones (Morocco Jones #1)

Meet Morocco Jones, by Jack Baynes
No month stated, 1957  Fawcett Crest Books

Starting off a four-volume series, Meet Morocco Jones is like a men’s adventure series ten years early. My guess is Fawcett wanted to tap in on the success of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer books, but instead series protagonist Morocco Jones, while nominally a private investigator, comes off more like the sort of hero you’d encounter in the men’s adventure paperbacks of the ‘70s and ‘80s.  The book (and series) is even written in third-person, unlike the first-person of the Hammer novels.

Apparently “Jack Baynes” was a pseudonym used by someone named Bertram B. Fowler, but it doesn’t look like he ever published anything under his own name. And since “Jack Baynes” is such a damn cool name that’s how I’ll refer to him. His writing is good, not as hardboiled as you’d expect, more along the lines of something Lyle Kenyon Engel would’ve produced, with that firm command of craft, character, and plot. To be sure, the plot does get out of Baynes’s hands a bit (just like in many of those Engel productions, in fact), but the novel is a lot better than you’d expect, even with a bit of an unexpected social conscience when it comes to inner-city blacks.

Now, as for our hero, it’s hard not to picture ubuiquitous paperback cover model Steve Holland in the role. Described as a lanky but muscle-bound, craggy-faced stalwart of manhood, Morocco Jones is such a badass that the mere mention of his name is enough to make men piss themselves in terror. For the past five years Morocco was with “the top counterespionage unit in Europe,” where he took on “the Commies,” and he hates them almost as much as Richard Camellion hates them. Morocco served under General Weyland, a moustached bastard described as looking like he walked off the cover of a men’s magazine; their chief adversary was the mysterious Bardo, “the top Commie spy,” whose face has only been seen by one person.

In exposition-laden backstory, we learn that, on the unit’s last job, Bardo kidnapped a young woman and unit member Chris Shane went after her. After being tortured horribly Shane had his face changed and disappeared. Morocco saved the girl, and spirited her away with no one else on the unit learning who she was. After which Morocco, the General, and other unit member Brett Culver quit the spy game, moved to Chicago, and put their Cold War skills to work in a private eye venture. All this Morocco relays over breakfast to the lovely Llora Madigan, his sometimes-girlfriend who herself is a fellow spy, codenamed “The Countess.” I mean, this series prefigures so many ‘70s action series it isn’t even funny; Llora is basically The Baroness about two decades early.

She too is out of the spy game but Llora intimates that she came to Morroco’s penthouse apartment last night to see if he was aware of anything about to happen. Instead the two went straight to bed (true to the era the author is firmly in the fade-to-black mold when it comes to sex), and now as Llora’s about to reveal the purpose of her visit the two are interrupted by the entrance of Syndicate goons. Here we get our first taste of Morocco’s bad-assery as he dispenses of these guys with his bare hands. He has nothing but contempt for the Syndicate and figures he won’t even need to use his .45 on this latest caper.

Bardo is supposedly in town, trying to track down that woman who saw his face back in Europe. The General, who has a sort of antagonistic relationship with Morocco, informs him that Bardo has apparently made a deal with the Syndicate and something big is going down. Gradually we’ll learn that the Commies have been supplying the Syndicate with tons of heroin, the idea being to weaken the US with it. In exchange the Syndicate will provide Bardo with enforcers to help him take on the General’s agents while he tracks down the girl who saw his face.

Morocco really isn’t too sharp, but this is more so due to the demands of Baynes’s plotting. The lady who saw his face is Leni Grayson, married to a former reporter named Phil. Morocco heads on over to their place here in Chicago only to find that Leni is gone; he figures due to clues that none other than Llora Madigan has spirited her away for reasons of her own, and thus she’s safe. Instead of placing a distraught Phil under guard, Morocco instead orders the guy to eat a steak and have a few beers and then sends him home! How very surprising it is when later Phil finds some Syndicate thugs waiting for him at his place.

Our hero roams all over Chicago on this caper and the author seems to know the city well. In particular he writes about the dissolution the South Side was falling into at that time, and how the area had been abandoned by whites and taken over by blacks. What’s surprising is the sympathy the author shows for the blacks, how they are forced to share apartments at three times the rent the former white tenants paid, and the fact that they’re only here because the South Side offers the only jobs available to them. In fact this novel features an author who seems very sympathetic toward blacks, even if he does refer to them as “Negroes” and “the coloreds.”

In particular there’s Thurm, a tough enforcer for Elijah “Lije” Woodruff, the sort of black godfather of the South Side. Lije with his web of informants is privy to practically everything that goes on in the city and gives Morocco plenty of details on where Bardo and the Syndicate might be. Thurm, after getting his ass kicked by Morocco, becomes his BFF and throughout the novel will appear out of the woodowrk to give Morocco news or to offer his services. But really there’s not much help to give, as Morocco takes care of everyone with ease, usually with his fists. Not that the novel is filled with action, but there are plentiful fistfights and shootouts; however the violence is nil, with the author never dwelling on the gore.

Morocco operates on his own for the most part, occasionally meeting up with the General to trade info. Llora the Countess also pops up here and there, mostly to fret over Morocco and to spend the night with him. She’s apparently a kick-ass spy in her own right but she spends most of the novel off-page. A part Baynes doesn’t really explain is that Llora was hired by previously-MIA Chris Shane to get Leni Greyson, so he could use her to go around Chicago and find Bardo. Really the entire novel is comprised of Morocco looking for one person or another while taking on various Syndicate thugs. 

The plot gets muddier and muddier with dashed-off subplots that quickly fizzle, like when a pair of Mafia hitmen are heavily built up in the narrative, hired by the Syndicate to take out Morocco and the General, and are dispensed with just a few pages after being first mentioned. Baynes does at least keep the bullets and fists flying; Morocco at one point kills a dude by slamming his head through the railing of an iron fence. His killcount gives cause for a lot of deadpan dark humor; the Syndicate thugs are referred to so derogatorily throughout that some of the lines are a bit funny. Morocco and the General also exchange a lot of humorous banter.

But as mentioned the plot gets more and more bloated with a barrage of new characters introduced. While we start off expecting Bardo will be the villain of the piece, he doesn’t even appear until his outing in the final pages, and Morocco goes after one newly-introduced villain after another. First it’s Ardello, the top Syndicate man in Chicago, then it’s Ardello’s second in command. Then it’s the Mafia. Then it’s Bardo’s second in command. It’s almost like a video game as Morocco and crew advance from one level to the next, but the problem is the central plot just sort of evaporates. Even the whole heroin thing is muddied up as we learn that Bardo’s men have gotten greedy for it and want to steal it from the “top Commie” and sell it for themselves.

The surprise reveal of who Bardo really is won’t come as much of a surprise, but at least it doesn’t turn out to be Morocco’s old teammate Chris Shane, which I figured would be a given as soon as it was revealed the dude was missing and had gotten a new face. The novel ends with Morocco feeling crestfallen over the fact that his life will always be filled with blood, even if he is “retired.” It’s also implied that he’s about to become serious with Llora Madigan, the Countess, who by the way officially retires from the spy game at novel’s end.

Three more adventures followed, and while Meet Morocco Jones lost its way after a bit, it was still sufficiently entertaining – and such a precursor of the men’s adventure novels that were to follow – that I look forward to eventually reading them.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Web Detective Stories, October 1960 (Volume 3, Number 3)

Very similar to (but not as enjoyable as) the issue of Two-Fisted Detective Stories I recently reviewed, this October 1960 issue of Web Detective Stories features a handful of lurid crime stories with EC Comics levels of dark humor and “twist” endings you can see coming a mile away. No surprises there, as despite not carrying the Reese Publications imprint logo, this mag was also edited by publisher Bud Ampolsk, who turns in my favorite tale in the magazine.

“The Triple Cross” by Richard Deming starts things off; this one’s narrated by Deming’s recurring character Manville Moon, a private eye who has an artificial lower right leg, something only given cursory mention in this story. Since getting on my recent hardboiled kick I’ve seen Deming’s name quite often, but I don’t as yet have any of his novels and this is the first of his work I’ve read. The story isn’t bad but seems pretty quick and underdeveloped, which is true about most every story here – this certainly isn’t Manhunt magazine.

Moon’s hired by Henry Sheffield, a mega-rich guy whose young wife Sylvia was murdered a few months ago. Local hoodlum Eddie Dallas is the prime suspect but the cops can’t pin it on him. Sheffield thinks he’s next on Dallas’s list and hires Moon to protect him. Eventually they visit Dallas in his penthouse apartment, and as they check out the mobster’s collection of vintage weapons Dallas professes his innocence. Then the hoodlum later calls Moon, blaming him for stealing his WWII trench knife. Moon didn’t do it, which leaves only one other candidate. That night Dallas turns up dead in Sheffield’s home; the story Sheffield gives is that Dallas tried to break in and kill him with the knife, but Moon knows that Sheffield had the knife and Dallas was merely coming to get it from him – in other words, Sheffield just murdered the guy.

“Model Of Murder” by Christopher Mace is more along the goofy, EC Comics-esue vibe these Ampolsk-edited digests were known for. It’s about a sculptor named George Carlton who lives off of a heavyset wealthy lady named Bernice. Meanwhile George has a nice thing going with blonde hotstuff Yvonne, secretly shacking up with her in his artist’s loft just off from the main house. Yvonne pushes him to divorce Bernice, but George can’t do it, he needs the money. So he decides to kill Bernice, coming up with the most bizarre method you’ll ever read.

Sculpting a realisitc hand, he stores it in the fridge for a while and then dips the cold marble in chocolate and ties it to the pull-chain for the light in the bedroom closet. That night when Bernice comes home George makes up a story he claims to have read in the paper, about a maniac loose on the streets who chopped up someone and made off with the bodyparts. Bernice, aghast at the tale, goes into the closet, grabbing for the light-pull – and grabs hold of that “severed hand.” She has a heart attack and dies, and George figures her two million is now his. Only he forgot to factor in Goldie, Bernice’s equally-obese maid; she says she knows what George did, and unless he marries her she’ll turn him in to the cops.

“Daughter of Darkness” by O.W. Reynolds is a short nasty about Margaret, a pretty 17-year-old who works as a waitress in a dive somewhere. With a mother who whores herself and a long-gone father, Margaret yearns to get the hell out of town. She puts down the constant proposals of various men, until one night she decides to get in the car of some random guy who pulls up alongside her as she walks home. He tells her she can be his partner on a cross-country con game. Margaret, who hates men, gets in. Their first job will be to rob a diner; the guy will go in, rob the joint, and then run back to the car, Margaret driving them off. Instead Margaret runs him over and drives off to a new life in a new town. The end!

“Dumb Bull” by Flip Lyons concerns Rosie Haver, high-class hooker for bigwig crook Tony Marchione. Teddy Landon, a junior cop, arrests Tony while he’s in the middle of doing the deed with Rosie, something his superior bashes him for – he should’ve nabbed Rosie instead and tapped into her knowledge about the Marchione crime family. Back Landon goes to Rosie’s place, figuring someone’s likely about to kill her – and of course, a few Marchione thugs are on the way to her place. Features a lackluster finale with Rosie running for safety across the rooftop of her apartment building and Landon, whom she’s called “a dumb bull,” showing up to blast the thugs and save the day.

“You Can’t Cheat Death” by Earle Smyth is like I Know What You Did Last Summer a few decades early; a guy named Smathers has just run over someone, out driving around late at night with his busty mistress Caroline. Now Smathers, who runs a fashion company in New York, is desperate to keep it all out of the papers, lest he be ruined. This long tale then goes into a flashback on how Smathers hired Caroline, who showed up one day willing to both model his lingerie and work around the office. Lots of “spicy” stuff here with details on how Caroline would waltz around in “wisps” of lingerie for department store buyers, the men oggling her curvaceous bod and buying Smather’s lingerie in bulk.

This leads somehow to an affair between Smathers and the girl; I say “somehow” but any idiot can easily figure that Caroline has something up her sleeve. This goes on for a few months and then one night the two are driving back to Caroline’s place and Smathers, as usual, has had a few too many, and he runs over some guy in the gutter. Caroline checks the body, says the man is dead, and Smathers panics. They keep it quiet but the next day Smathers receives a threatening note; the sender claims to know what Smathers did and demands payment to keep quiet. A panicking Smathers has Caroline do all the dirty work for him, answering the blackmailer’s calls, taking the demanded payment to him. Who will be surprised when the blackmailer turns out to be the man who was in the gutter – ie Caroline’s partner in a long-running con game?

“Lust Isn’t Funny” by Fletcher Flora has one of the goofiest titles ever. Flora’s like Deming, a hardboiled writer who’s name I see a lot but haven’t actually read…until now! This short tale probably isn’t the best indication of his writing talents, though. Leo Baldwin, “a publicity bloated punk comic with a sponsor,” likes to frequent the club owned by Clay Cooper. Baldwin is a notorious prick who picks up women with ease, due to his fame and wealth – all while his wife sits right there. Gilbert, the club’s headwaiter, complains that Baldwin treats his wife like shit, just openly pawing women while she sits there beside him. After Baldwin’s wife tries to commit suice that night – Gilbert having saved her – the headwaiter decides to do something about it. He spikes Baldwin’s drink with his wife’s poison and then blithely informs Cooper later that the annoying comic is dead. 

“Mistress of Evil” is by Bill Ryder, aka Bud Ampolsk himself, and it’s very much along the lines of the sort of thing he’d write for the sweat mags he also edited and published. In a way this one’s almost like a “part two” to the Nazi Horror tales he edited/wrote for those sweat mags, such as the type seen in Soft Brides For The Beast Of Blood; it’s about Gustave Himmelman, a pyschiatrist in an American city who is really taken to task by his latest client, an attractive young woman named Margery Coleman. Margery’s problem is that she gets off on being hurt, especially being whipped, and it’s driving a wedge in her marriage because her husband doesn’t get it.

As Gustave sits and listens, breaking out into a sweat, Margery goes into a long backstory over the many times she’s gotten off on pain. Starting with her father, who whipped her (much to her enjoyment), to the boy who took her virginity, Margery basically demanding that he beat her up before, during, and after the act. And let’s not forget about her sorority sisters, who as part of hell week stripped her down and whipped her, something which made Margery actually pass out, due to the power of her orgasms. What she wants from Gustave is not psychoanalysis but instead for him to whip her! If not, she’ll make up a story that he raped her.

But what we learn in the last moments is that Gustave was really a medical officer at Dachau, and is a wanted Nazi, “Himmelman” just being the name he took up when he fled Germany. He also knows that this gorgeous young sadist will be “the end of him,” because, once he starts whipping her, he won’t be able to stop. Whereas the title makes you think Margery is going to be the evil one, it’s actually Himmelman, and all she has done is unleashed the evil he’s blocked in himself this past decade and a half. He begins whipping her nude body, knowing he will whip her until she is dead – just as he whipped to death so many other women at Dachau.

“As Hot As Ginger” by Art Crockett rounds out the mag. This first-person tale doesn’t feature Crockett’s recurring character Juan Kelly; it’s narrated by a 21 year-old petty thief named Petey who when we meet him is watching as his fellow burglar, 17 year-old Big Sal, is punching some woman in the gut. Crockett goes to town detailing how savagely the woman’s been uppercut, so hard that the “squishy” sound of it makes Petey figure the gal will be puking her guts out for the rest of the week. He and Sal are in the midst of robbing the woman’s apartment, only to be surprised when she shows up – and they’re even more surprised when she produces a .38 and, despite being half-dead from agony, blows a few holes into Big Sal. 

The lady passes out after that and Petey makes a run for it. The next day on the news he hears that the lady was actually a policewoman named Ginger and she’s given Petey’s full description to the force. Now all the cops in the city are out looking for him, even the ones with the day off. A frantic Petey attempts to escape, only to be caught in a traffic jam – and to find that Ginger is the policewoman directing traffic! He abandons the car and hightails it for a barbershop, where he gets a buzz cut; next he gets a pair of glasses. Getting some books so he’ll look like a student, Petey’s almost home free when some cops yell at him. He runs for it, falls, wonders how they figured he was the guy from the break-in; turns out they were just yelling at him because they assumed he was a truant, but they’re sure glad to hear they’ve just nabbed the guy who had the audacity to rob a policewoman’s apartment.

EDIT: As Walker Martin mentions below, Peter Enfantino also reviewed this issue of Web Detective (as well as all of the others) at the Barebones e-zine blog; you can read the review here.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Hot Prowl

Hot Prowl, by Herbert D. Kastle
No month stated, 1965  Fawcett Gold Medal

This was the last novel Herbert Kastle wrote for Gold Medal Books and he certainly went out with a bang. It was also the last novel he published with the “D.” in his name; after this he’d just be “Herbert Kastle” and he’d begin writing Harold Robbins-esque blockbusters, starting with the 1968 bestseller The Moviemaker. And in a way Hot Prowl, while nominally supsense fiction as expected from Gold Medal, points the way to Kastle’s later, more unhinged work.

I couldn’t find any info online regarding what this novel was about, and the back cover wasn’t much help either, just a snatch of dialog from the book itself. Same goes for the first-page preview. But Hot Prowl turns out to be Kastle’s take on Death Wish, or Bronson or The Vigilante to use more obscure comparisons; it’s about a 36 year-old New York PR guy named Ted Barth whose life was destroyed ten months ago when his wife and nine-year-old daughter were murdered by a young punk who broke into their Manhattan apartment in the middle of the night – a “hot prowl,” as such cases are known, where the perp breaks into a residence knowing there are people inside.

Now Barth roams the mean streets of New York in the middle of the night, seeking “the boy,” whom the cops have been unable to find. We’ll eventually learn that Barth was sleeping on the couch the night of the break-in, as his relationship with his wife Myrna was in no way idyllic, and he caught a fleeting glimpse of the kid as he ran from the apartment, jumping out the window and running down the fire escape. The kid’s face is burned in Barth’s brain and now he’s hungry for vengeance, the many months since the murders doing nothing to dull his anger. But unlike the men’s adventure novels that would follow within the next several years, Barth goes out without any weaponry, save for his own hands. Like a regular Jason Striker our hero is a judo expert and relishes the thought of killing the boy with his bare hands.

However, this is a Herbert Kastle novel, and Ted Barth is in no way, shape or form a white hat hero. As is typical with a Kastle protagonist, the guy is royally fucked up. And this isn’t just fallout from the loss of his family, as we learn he’s always had a few screws loose. Within the first few pages he’s already lusting for some woman, staying with his brother-in-law Wallace at a cabin retreat in upstate New York for a week’s vacation. Barth watches from the shrubs as the young girl, a worker at the retreat, spurns the advances of another young man, and then he pounces on her, hoping to talk her into going back up to his cabin. But when another coworker tries to stake his claim on the girl, Barth beats the shit out of him with his judo, enjoying it; the girl runs away from him.

One thing typical about Kastle’s “heroes” is how they fight with everyone. In every Kastle novel I’ve read the protagonist is a dude in his 30s or 40s who has been beaten down by life, realizes he’s missed out on everything, and is goddamn determined to catch up on lost time, no matter who he has to step on. This generally takes him into darker realms of the psyche, and as is common with the typical Kastle protagonist, Barth is more than willing to make the journey. In the 160 breezy pages of Hot Prowl Ted Barth beats up multiple people, runs afoul of the cops, gets kicked out of his judo class for being too savage, assaults and maims former coworkers, sleeps with multiple hookers (including one who is thirteen years old), stalks a woman, and roams the streets starting fights. And then he stars doing really bad stuff.

So in other words there isn’t much heroic about the guy, which again differentiates him from the men’s adventure protagonists who would arrive on the scene within the decade. Barth has been horribly wronged but you realize he’s more about his own satisfaction than about righting any wrong; it gradually develops that “the boy” has just become Barth’s outlet for the wrong directions he took in his life, and Barth’s thinking is that if he can find him and kill him Barth can start a new life in a new city. He’s long ago stopped relying on the cops, much to the dismay of Lt. D’Andrea, who heads up the investigation into the murder of Barth’s family. D’Andrea is getting sick of Barth, particularly how he’s been hauled in by the cops so many times for wandering around the tougher parts of the city late at night and causing trouble.

Meanwhile Barth is also fixated on Susan, a pretty young blonde who works in his PR firm (Barth is on an extended leave of absence, by the way). He goes on friendly dates with her and is determined to take it to the next level, but Susan enjoys playing the field and appears to be getting serious with a guy her age named Arthur. But Barth keeps pushing her, asking her on dates and not getting the hint when she frostily tells him she has plans with Arthur. Soon he’s stalking her, even planning to beat Arthur nearly to death so that Susan will have no choice but to fall in love with him. A madman’s plan, but Barth is a madman, the most psychotic protagonist in a Kastle novel yet.

In between the Susan-stalking and street-prowling Barth gets involved in a lot of memorable moments. He takes on various thugs with nothing more than his fists and feet, and to slake his lust at one point he hires a pair of hookers, one black and one white. Kastle doesn’t go into as much detail in the sex scenes, none of which are as explicit as the ones he’d be writing in just a few years, but they certainly aren’t vague. As usual though it’s the dark comedy that’s more potent, like how the black hooker tries to make away with Barth’s cash box without him noticing it, and he gets in a brawl with her, knocking her flat with his judo skills and apparently having sex with her afterwards – another hallmark of a Kastle protagonist is that violence turns him on.

More hooker sex follows later in the book in a more descriptive passage, all the more shocking because the whore is only thirteen. This is in a desolate patch of Manhattan mostly occupied by blacks in tenement buildings; the hooker is bait and tries to lure Barth into an abandoned building. He follows her, knowing someone will be waiting in the shadows to jump him and take his money. He happily beats the dude nearly to death with his judo and then calls the “infant” over to look. She again offers herself to him, and Barth does the prepubescent right there on the wall. Meanwhile it’s back to the search for that guy who killed his wife and daughter; Barth haunts the many pawn shops in the New York area, the clues he seeks being the tape recorder, film camera, and wedding ring the thief stole that night.

The lead which brings the hot prowler out into the open is when the cops turn up the stolen tape recorder in a Long Island pawn shop. The old man there is a fence who does business with the kid. When Barth goes down to the precinct to identify the tape, there follows a heartbreaking moment where he plays the tape that’s still in it and hears the voice of his daughter. Kastle proves again his mastery by understating this scene. Whereas today it’s all about overstatement, with a scene like this requiring a teeth-gnashing hero bawling his eyes out, Kastle understands that understatement is more powerful. Barth merely plays the tape, listens, and then shuts it off because he can’t take anymore. 

Things come to a head when the punk kid begins stalking Barth. He comes home one night to find a threatening note slid beneath his door, and soon after begins receiving calls from the kid. Barth doesn’t tell D’Andrea and begins leaving his door unlocked at night, basically inviting the kid inside. He also soon realizes the kid is following behind him on the streets, and this leads to several chases. Finally he gets the kid, who tries to jump him one night. Barth is only able to use a savage arm lock on the kid before D’Andrea and the cops show up – they’ve been shadowing Barth too, knowing he was setting himself up as bait for the kid, who turns out to be a punk named Arhtur Brest.

Here is where Kastle begins to toy with the narrative and with our thoughts of it so far. The kid is interrogated and insists that he didn’t kill the wife or the daughter, that they were both alive when he ran out of the apartment. This is why he was stalking Barth now, because he was afraid Barth was going to make him take the fall for those murders. D’Andrea tells the kid he’s nuts, that no one would suspect that Barth himself killed his family. But here’s the thing – the reader sure as hell suspects it, because we’ve seen what a nutcase Ted Barth truly is. At this point nothing’s sacred in the novel, as we begin to wonder if Barth really did kill Myra and little Debbie. But the cops aren’t privy to how crazy the dude is, and D’Andrea is certain Brest will crack soon enough and admit it all – the kid is a heroin addict and is in the early stages of withdrawal.

Things spiral from here, along with Barth’s sanity. He’s desperate to get Brest to admit to the slayings, but the kid won’t budge. Mostly Barth just wants some time alone with the kid, and convinces D’Andrea to let him near the kid in his cell. Barth of course plans to kill Brest, reaching through the bars, but D’Andrea is as always two steps ahead of him and has Barth thrown out. Now openly sick of Barth, the cop tells him it’s time to get on with his life – the perp has been caught, the murderer of Barth’s family will pay. So, given that the villain of the piece has been captured, you’d think our protagonist would be happy, but again this is a Herbert Kastle protagonist we’re talking about, so what does he do? He gets serious about beating Susan’s boyfriend to death and then fucking Susan silly.

I’d advise skipping to the last two paragraphs of this review if you’d like to avoid spoilers. Get prepared for an uncomfortable read in the final chapters; Barth talks Susan into a trip to the beach, during which he hassles her, making his interest clearly known. She turns him down again and again; she’s never felt that way about him, she declares. Barth sulks but then realizes that “the Susan of the flesh” can still be his, even if the Susan of his dreams can’t be; he’s become fixated on her as the solution to all his ills, that they could run away and live together in a new city. She invites him in to her place back in the city and Barth excuses himself, then breaks into the bathroom as she’s taking a shower and gets in it with her. He beats her around a little with his judo, tells her to yield to him, and then rapes her on the bathroom floor.

It only gets darker. Barth threatens Arthur’s life – if Susan tells the police he raped her, he will kill the young man. Susan, beaten and terrified, swears she won’t say anyting. Barth leaves, satisfied with his victory over both the woman and his feelings for her – it was only lust after all, not love – only to find D’Andrea and another cop lurking in the apartment complex foyer. Turns out D’Andrea had heard Barth was stalking someone in this area (Susan’s boyfriend Arthur, of course), and had come by to check on him, given how unhinged he’s become. This leads to a desperate fight in which Barth unleashes his full judo skills on the two cops, during which we get to see what really happened that night of the “hot prowl.”

As the reader has already begun to suspect, it was Ted Barth himself who killed his wife and daughter – his wife because he was sick of her, sick of his stultifying married life with her, and used the break-in that night as a cover to murder her. But his daughter Debbie saw him do it, and he “had no choice” but to kill her, too. Having sliced both their throats with a steak knife, Barth broke the blade in pieces and flushed it, and “that Ted Barth never left the bathroom.” He had a psychic break, and in his mind he only came to when Bresk ran from the apartment; only until this moment he had forgotten about the fact that he himself was the murderer of his family. All this is relayed as Barth lies dying from a gutshot courtesy the cop with D’Andrea; without being aware of it he tells D’Andrea what really happened that night, and then dies, “leaping” into the abyss.

In a way this really is a cheat; you’re presented with this character whose life has been destroyed and you want to take him at face value. But Kastle’s interests as ever lie elsewhere. His theme isn’t how terrible events can destory a man, but that the man was terrible in the first place and the events just made him worse – events which he caused himself. I know the Fugitive TV show pulled this same trick, with the hero turning out at long last to have really been the murderer all along, but Kastle’s novel predates that. However Kastle’s reveal likely wasn’t as suprising to readers, as nowhere in Hot Prowl is Ted Barth cast in a heroic light. He’s ready to blow from page one. And boy does he.

Now as for Kastle’s writing – as usual, it’s superb. I realized as I read Hot Prowl that Kastle is one of those rare writers who turns out great prose, with just the right dialog, phrasing, and composition, yet he also has that ability where you become immersed in the narrative to the point where you don’t even realize the quality of his writing. In other words he pulls you into the fictive dream, which is the goal of every author but is achieved only by the best. It’s just yet another reason why Kastle should be remembered today, but he’s been forgotten.

The guy is definitely one of my favorite authors and one of these days I intend to track down the short stories he wrote for various crime magazines at the time, in particular the two issues of Manhunt which feature his work.