Friday, May 18, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: COLD IN THE GRAVE by Stephen Mertz

Steve Mertz has returned to the private eye genre with an engaging new protagonist, a fresh setting, and a solid murder-mystery that will grab and hold readers from first page to last. The time is the mid-1970s, the place is Denver, Colorado, and the man on the job is Kilroy, a bearded, quasi-laid back Vietnam vet who takes no guff and locks onto a case like a pit bull on a throat.

Mertz is well known for his acclaimed contributions to the Mack Bolan-Executioner series; he has also written Westerns, thrillers, horror, and created his own highly popular MIA Hunter series. But his first book was SOME DIE HARD a hard-hitting private eye tale with a surprisingly clever mystery at its core ... and now he's back and most assuredly has not lost a step. Even better, is that the news that COLD IN THE GRAVE is the first of at least three Kilroy thrillers.
This time around, Kilroy is hired to follow a young woman whom her jilted lover thinks is in trouble, possibly being blackmailed. Sounds simple enough. But matters quickly turn more complicated ... and dangerous. Few things turn out to be as they first seem. Yes, there is blackmail involved – but who's trying to extort who becomes questionable. There's little doubt, however, that something plenty serious is on the line when murder rears its ugly head, followed quickly by betrayal, political corruption, escalating threats, and flying bullets.

The writing is smooth and assured, the dialogue crackles, and there is real depth to the characters. Mertz's descriptions of Denver capture the time and place very vividly, and a winter storm at the climax becomes a threatening character in and of itself. Kilroy is tough but human, equally sharp with a wisecrack or a deduction, and definitely the kind of guy you'd want in your corner. Readers will be happy to see more of him.
Strongly recommended.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: I ONLY HAVE LIES FOR YOU (a Rat Pack mystery) by Robert J. Randisi

This eleventh entry in Bob Randisi's highly entertaining “Rat Pack” mystery series is another solid job. It will hook you right from the get-go, swirl you into the high-living, fast-paced world of mid-1960s Las Vegas (as well as, this time around, Miami Beach) and propel you along as fast as you can turn the pages or thumb the tab of your e-reader.
 
Once again you'll be making the rounds with Eddie “Eddie G” Gianelli, former pit boss but now unofficial fixer/troubleshooter for the Sands Casino. Moreover, Eddie has become pals with the Rat Pack crew—in particular, Chairman of the Board Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin—due to past problems he has helped discreetly “handle” for them and some of their showbiz friends.
Such is the case once more when Sinatra invites Eddie to join him on a trip to Miami Beach where he'll be playing a brief engagement at the Fontanebleu. Dino will be in town too, making an appearance on Jackie Gleason's TV show that does its taping in Miami Beach. Because it is Sinatra making the request, Eddie's boss at the Sands has no qualms about grating him some time off for a little “vacation” that Eddie is certainly eager for himself.
 
Once in Miami Beach, however, Frank takes Eddie to meet “the Great One” himself, Jackie Gleason. This introduction, it turns out, is really a chance for Gleason to size up Eddie and then, liking what he sees, solicit his special services—discreetly looking into a problem the Great One is having. After all, Frank and Dino have lauded Eddie as “the guy” ... the guy who can be counted on to handle such things.
So, wanting to neither disappoint or possibly anger Frank, who obviously set up the whole thing under the guise of a “vacation, Eddie agrees to see what he can do. It starts out simply enough: Some creep seems to be stalking Jackie's girlfriend, Marilyn Taylor (sister of the famous June Taylor, who choreographs the intricate dance performances on Gleason's show); Eddie is tasked with finding out who he is, what he's up to, and stopping him from continuing. From there, things quickly start to turn un-simple. The action shifts back and forth between Vegas and Miami and along the way Eddie will run up against murder, betrayal, police corruption, mysticism, and threats to his life including becoming the apparent target of a knife-wielding “ghost” hit man no one can find a trace of except for the stabbing victims he leaves behind.
All of this is told in Randisi's lean, dialogue-driven narrative style that does a fine job of capturing the era and the settings without layering on too many details just to show he's done his research. Which, make no mistake, he has done; if he says, for example, that Sinatra was playing a gig in Miami on a certain date – he was there. The nasty deeds and shady characters and plot twists woven in and around the realities, that of course is Bob's craft and imagination at work.
 
Eddie G makes a fine protagonist. Likable, engaging, tough when he has to be, smart enough to know his limitations. When he calls on a couple of pals to assist him—mob strongarm Jerry Epstein and Vegas PI Danny Bardini—the banter and friendship between them seems real and well balanced. This is especially true with Jerry, and some of their exchanges, in particular, made me laugh out loud.
If you want a slick, fast-moving murder mystery with colorful settings and characters, plot twists galore, all told in a lean, clear narrative, you don't need to look any further than right here.
Strongly recommended.





Monday, April 30, 2018

Impactful Reads: THE GIRL HUNTERS (1963) by Mickey Spillane

For me, this is where it all started.
This book, more than anything else, is what set me firmly on the path to not only one day becoming a writer myself but also falling in love with the hardboiled framework within which I would do my writing.
Oh, I had “tinkered” with thoughts of writing and storytelling all through grade school—initially blocking out pages of paper, comic book-style, and filling the blocks with drawings and conversation balloons to tell a story; until eventually deciding I was more interested in (and better at) the writing than the drawing. And as far back as I can remember I was an avid reader—comic books, youth adventures and mysteries, young adult, Whitman editions of classics and TV show tie-ins, etc.
 
Then along came Spillane.
I bought my copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS off the spinner rack of a drug store in Antioch, Illinois. I recognized the names of Spillane and Hammer because of the old Darren McGavin TV series. I remembered liking that show when it was on, but I was soon to find out it did little to prepare me for the real thing. “The first Mike Hammer in 10 years!” read the back cover blurb of the book; and then, “Only Mickey Spillane can write them as rough, raw, and violent!” I couldn't plunk down my 50 cents down fast enough, and it was possibly the best investment I ever made.
 
In fairness, I should mention that, in this same time period, Ace paperbacks had begun re-releasing the Tarzan novels (and other works by Edgar Rice Burroughs) with those wonderful Frank Frazetta covers. These, too, factored strongly into inspiring the writer in me. The thrill and enjoyment I got from reading these works by Spillane and Burroughs (and other writers they subsequently led me to) was something I not only wanted more of but it became a goal to one day produce work of my own that would hopefully provide that same kind of enjoyment for others. And if you're thinking what a strange combination Spillane and Burroughs make, well, I can't help it—that's the way it was.
Spillane ultimately won out as far as the direction my own writing would take (though there's still a part of me that hankers to one day do something in the fantasy/high adventure mold). I think this was largely due to my blue collar background and a peripheral family influence. My folks were pretty basic, hard working, middle class types (as I consider myself, and proudly so) who didn't exactly dis-courage my writing aspirations, but neither were they enthused about it as I grew toward manhood. Telling them I was going to be writing detective mysteries or maybe Westerns was one thing; had it been forgotten realms and tales of derring do, hard to tell what their reaction might have been.
 

Getting back to THE GIRL HUNTERS. This remains my favorite Spillane book (though I tend often to think of it in conjunction with THE SNAKE, which makes a very powerful second act if for no other reason than the terrific ending). When it comes to a series of books or movies, it is sometimes hard, for me anyway, to make a distinction between favorite and best. No less a Spillane expert (not to mention colleague and collaborator in continuing the Hammer series) than Max Allan Collins considers the seven earlier Hammer books to be Spillane/Hammer at their best. Me, I consider three of the titles that came after Mickey's ten-year hiatus – from1952 to 1962 – to be his best. THE GIRL HUNTERS, THE SNAKE, and THE BODY LOVERS. But, like I said, that's where I came in and where I was first bowled over by the world of Hammer and his creator. My favorites? For sure. The best? Each can judge for him- or herself.
The premise for THE GIRL HUNTERS recognizes Hammer's absence from the scene. In this case, it's only for seven years. Velda, Hammer's beautiful and beloved secretary/partner has been missing for all that time. He sent her out on a case by herself, to guard some jewels being worn by a high society dame at a large function. Velda, the jewels, the high society dame and her husband, all come up missing and presumed dead. Hammer blames himself and goes on the skid, becoming a drunk and a has-been. Until the day a man named Richie Cole, wounded and dying, hanging on just long enough to beg for Hammer to be summoned to his bedside, whispers some startling news to Mike before he checks out. Velda is alive though in great danger – having urged Cole to contact Hammer because he is the only one “terrible enough” to do what is necessary to save her! This is a terrific set-up for everything that follows. Hammer must not only race against the forces looking to kill Velda (a team of high level Soviet assassins, it turns out, seeking to silence her for the secrets she learned after being shanghaied and then spending all this time on the run inside the Soviet bloc), but he must also dodge the cops and feds who want to know what Cole told him, while all the time fighting his own diminished capacities after being shocked out of a seven-year drunk. Along the way he meets a Spillane-special female who he almost falls in love with; he dodges bullets and those seeking to “test” him in order to find out if he's got the old moves; and engages in a brutal fight to the death with one half of The Dragon assassination team before he finally puts the last of the pieces together that will ultimately lead him to Velda.
Damn! Writing about it after all these years and even after re-reading it once again before sitting down to do this piece, the power of it still hits as hard as ever.
Two final notes about THE GIRL HUNTERS:
  1. A film version came out in connection with the paperback release of the book. It starred none other than Mickey himself as Mike Hammer. Inasmuch as he was also executive producer and screenwriter, it was, as you might guess, pretty faithful to the book. What's more, Spillane made a damn good Hammer and it was a solid crime mystery overall. With good direction and co-stars like the veteran Lloyd Nolan and the voluptuous Shirley Eaton, it deserved to get better distribution and reception than it did. The fact it had to be shot in black-and-white for budgetary reasons and the timing was such that it was going up against the just-building James Bond craze combined to make it a little-seen gem. But if you ever get the chance to catch it on cable or DVD, it's definitely worth checking out.
  2. The copy of THE GIRL HUNTERS that I bought way back in 1963 (same as the cover scan at the start of this piece) is still in my possession. That's 55 years, folks. Think it might be kinda important to me? That book has endured countless moves, adding up to several hundred miles. In those 55 years, I've lost loved ones and friends, lost my youth and my hair, lost my patience with the world and most of the people in it. Yes, I've been blessed by many things along the way, too – no complaints. But the point is: My copy of this book has been with me all the way. What's more, in the summer of 1996, on the set of Max Collins' movie Mommy 2: Mommy's Day, I got it signed by the very gracious Mr. Spillane.
By this point, I trust I have impressed upon you that THE GIRL HUNTERS was/is a very important book to me.
If, for some ungodly reason, you have never read Spillane or never read this particular title, I urge you to seek it out and do so. You won't be sorry.


Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: THE BARTERED BODY by J.R. Lindermuth




This latest by J.R. Lindermuth is rich in atmosphere, filled with colorful characters (some quite engaging, others on the decidedly nasty side), and presents as nifty a set of mystery elements as any I've read in a good long while.
 
It is the third entry in Lindermuth's Sylvester Tilghman series—Sylvester being the sheriff of the small town of Arahpot in Jordan County, Pennsylvania, at the the turn of the twentieth century. Lindermuth paints the era and setting effectively, without slowing the pace of the story with too many period-piece details. Sylvester himself is a likable character, dogged at his job in spite of the various obstacles and distractions placed before him. Among the distractions in this particular case is an old girl friend who shows up and seems bent on re-kindling past feelings, regardless of her being married and Sylvester being thoroughly devoted to his somewhat elusive love, Lydia.
 
At the center of everything is the body of a prominent, recently deceased townswoman, stolen from the local funeral parlor just ahead of scheduled services. Add to that a crippling blizzard, a sudden string of strongarm robberies, a murder that may or may not be connected to the escalating tension of a looming strike at the local mine, and Sylvester's patience and crime-solving skills will be sorely tested before he manages to unravel everything.
 
This is all adeptly handled by Lindermuth's clean, uncluttered writing style, a sharp eye for characterization, his smooth way with plot twists. As a result, readers will be kept entertained and guessing right up to the end.
Highly Recommended.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. SPILLANE

Yesterday marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Mickey Spillane. Spillane was one of – if not THE -- most influential mystery writers of the twentieth century, certainly the last half. And surely the top seller. At one point seven of the top ten best selling mysteries carried the Spilane byline. When one of his many critics lamented that fact, Spillane famously quipped: “They're lucky I didn't write three more.”

 
I had the distinct honor and privilege of meeting and spending a couple of days around Mr. Spillane back in the summer of 1996, on the set of Max Allan Collins' film, Mommy 2: Mommy's Day. In the accompanying picture, left to right, you see Mr. Spillane, Lynn F. Myers (a mutual friend), myself, and Max. Spillane had a starring role as Mommy's lawyer, I had a non-speaking bit part as a prison guard who wheels Mommy to the lethal injection chamber. (SPOILER ALERT: Mommy turns the tables so that doesn't quite work out.)
When Collins first invited me to come be a part of the filming, I naturally agreed. Then wisecracked: “Do I get to be a prison guard for the women's shower scene?” To which Max sternly replied there was no women's shower scene. Still trying to be a smart ass, I asked why do a women's prison movie without a shower scene? But Max remained unamused. He took his planned movie very seriously and rightfully so – it turned out to be an entertaining, much-acclaimed film. It's available on DVD, if you're interested – and I'm not encouraging that because of my meager part, but rather because it's a nifty little thriller that I think you will enjoy. In addition to Spillane, it stars Patty McCormick, Gary Sandy (from WKRP In Cincinatti), and Paul Peterson (from The Donna Reed Show).
 
But the main gist of this post is to recognize, on what would have been his 100th birthday, the power and importance of Mickey Spillane and his work.
Thanks to the strength of his writing and to the continuing efforts of Max Allan Collins (at the urging of Mickey before he died) to complete many of Spillane's partial manuscripts, his work continues to be enjoyed by millions yet today.
As for me, I'll always not only have the satisfaction of enjoying said work, I also will have the memory of meeting Mr. Spillane in person and finding him to be every bit as cordial and engaging as you would hope for one of your heroes (and influences) to be.
Happy birthday, Mickey!

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: IN SILENCE SEALED by J.R. Lindermuth


John Lindermuth's latest entry in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series is now available in both print and eBook formats, and it is a fine addition to the series.

If you're not already familiar with Sticks and the other folks from Swatara Creek -- and their encounters both in the line of duty and their personal lives -- then you need to be. Otherwise you're missing some sure-fire reading entertainment.

"Here's what I wrote in my Amazon review for this book:
IN SILENCE SEALED is a deeply satisfying murder mystery, rich with characterization and atmosphere, wonderfully complex in its plot twists. Bullet-fast scene shifts set a lively pace that utilizes a large cast of characters, anchored by the always-reliable Sticks Hetrick, and orchestrated by the sure hand of author Lindermuth. Don't miss this latest entry in the Hetrick series!"

Not a lot more I can add, other than -- what are you waiting for? Get your copy ordered and get set for a great read. You won't be sorry.

Monday, February 12, 2018

R.I.P. BILL CRIDER

I heard the sad news a little while ago about the passing of Bill Crider. We've all known it was coming, of course, but that doesn't make it much easier. It never does in such cases; and certainly not in this one. 
I didn't know Bill extremely well. We met a couple of times at Bouchercons a number of years back and corresponded on and off afterwards. He was gracious enough to supply some blurbs and reviews for a few of my books. I also reviewed some of his -- which was no stretch since he was so talented and wrote such entertaining work. 
The closest we probably got was in the months following the passing of his beloved wife Judy. As someone who had also endured that kind of loss, I offered my condolences and we traded a number of e-mails, sharing the feelings one goes through. I'd like to think I helped him at least a little bit to endure the emptiness he was left with.
Some time last year, on the occasion of Judy's birthday (I can't determine the exact date) Bill posted on his blog what I will be sharing a little bit further on. It really struck a chord in me at the time. He stated it so beautifully. It broke my heart and I knew I would always remember it. When I heard today's news, I immediately thought of it. I think it is a fitting way to remember Bill (and his love for Judy). Here is what he wrote: 

"Judy would have been 74 today. I still think about her constantly, and one of the things I remember best is our dates at the Fort Parker State Park lake. There was a clubhouse with an outside dance floor, which you can see in the picture on the right, and we spent many nights there all year 'round. I wasn't much of a dancer, but I could dance with her to the slow numbers. We both agreed that the song that reminded us the most of those days was 'Twilight Time' by the Platters. I hope that someday Judy and I will meet again on that dance floor where we do another slow dance and I'll fall in love again, as I did then, when we're together at last at twilight time." 

I hope you will share with me in finding solace in the the thought that Bill now has his wish of be with Judy again, dancing, doing whatever -- once more by each other's side for eternity.