Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Noteworthy Reads: The KILROY, PI Series by Stephen Mertz

About a third of the way through 2018, Steve Mertz turned his considerable writing talents back to the private genre, where he first began with SOME DIE HARD circa 1979. Since then, of course, his byline has become widely recognized and acclaimed in the field of Men's Action, notably penning what many consider some of the best entries in Don Pendleton's hugely popular Mack Bolan, Executioner series. Steve also created his own successful Mark Stone, MIA series and has additionally done praiseworthy work in the categories of horror, thriller, Western, and stand-alone mysteries.
But the circle was closed in 2018 with the release of two hardboiled private eye mysteries. One was SAY IT WAS MURDER, featuring contemporary, Southwest-based McShan (more on that at another time). The other was COLD IN THE GRAVE, featuring Denver-based Kilroy and set in the 1970s (covered on this blog in May of '18). Both PIs were engaging and distinct, and both books were totally satisfying. I, for one, was anxiously hoping we would be seeing a lot more of both.
Well, earlier this year, at least part of that wish was fulfilled. In January, Wolfpack Publishing released the second and third entries in the Kilroy series – THE DEVIL'S MUSIC and SWEET BLACKMAIL. Kilroy was (is) back! And these latest titles are just as entertaining and satisfying as his initial appearance. “A tough private eye who wears his heart on his sleeve and a .44 Colt in his shoulder holster!” proclaims the cover blurbs for each. And that's a fair enough thumbnail sketch of the single-monickered Kilroy, a bearded, long-haired, quasi-laid back Vietnam vet who doesn't go looking for trouble (except other people's, the kind he can try to help them out of) yet is plenty capable of handling any that comes his way.
THE DEVIL'S MUSIC may be the best (or at least my favorite) Kilroy so far. It involves an old blues singer attempting to make a comeback after being missing (and presumed dead, by many) for several years. When it becomes evident there are forces at work who don't want this comeback to take place, even to the point of making the artist's presumed death a fact, Kiloy steps aboard both to protect him and to try and get to the bottom of who's out to get him. The mystery element is solid and the suspects and other characters are colorful and well drawn. What gives DEVIL'S MUSIC something extra, though, is the blues music background that the author is so obviously fond of and captures so accurately and lovingly. A musician himself, Steve has written other acclaimed works with a music background (HANK AND MUDDY, JIMI AFTER MIDNIGHT) and his deep appreciation for the music and those who live it also shone through – as it does here.
SWEET BLACKMAIL starts out with one of the niftiest, most reader-grabbing sequences I've come across in a long time: A mysterious woman walks into a restaurant where Kilroy is eating, throws an envelope full of money down in front of him, declaring that's all the money he's going to get and she knew how to play rough, too, if she had to. To emphasize the point, she then pulls out a .22 and fires a few shots in the air before turning and departing. When Kilroy attempts to give chase, he collides wih another customer just entering the restaurant. This slows Kilroy down enough to miss catching up with the mystery woman and when he returns to the diner, he finds the man he bumped into lying dead with a knife wound in his back ... Now, is anybody going to tell me you wouldn't keep reading after that? Naturally, you would. And what you would then enter into is a twisty tale of blackmail (obviously, as stated by the title), mistaken identity, betrayal, more killing, some sexy distraction, and various other obstacles for Kilroy to overcome, not the least of which is DA Dickensheets who longs for any chance to yank the private eye's license. In the end, of course, Kilroy figures it all out and keeps his license for the sake, hopefully, of showing up in more adventures.
The final verdict on this fine series is that it ranks right up there with some of the best in the genre. Kilroy is an engaging protagonist, Mertz's writing is straightforward and sharp – painting vivid action scenes, offering poignant insight, and capturing all the right details for Denver, circa the 1970s. If you're a fan of hardboiled PI tales with clever mystery twists told against a somewhat different setting, don't miss these. Strongly recommended.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Noteworthy Reads: Re-discovering Thomas B. Dewey's "MAC"

Speaking for myself, I guess a more accurate title for this piece might have been: Re-appreciating Thomas B. Dewey's “Mac”—inasmuch as I discovered this fine book series many moons ago. For those unfamiliar, Mac is a Chicago-based private eye who appeared in sixteen books written by Mr. Dewey from 1947 to 1970.
Most of the titles have been re-issued in eBook format by Wildside Press, which is where I recently “re-discovered” them and immediately downloaded and re-read about a half dozen of the later titles. They held up just fine. In fact, from a more mature perspective (more mature in years, at least, if not in all ways), I may have enjoyed them even more.
I first discovered Mac and Mr. Dewey in the middle Sixties, you see, having had my appetite whetted for all things hardboiled by Spillane/ Hammer and and most everything of that sort that came both before and after. The thing that really caught my attention about Mac, though, was that he operated out of Chicago. Given my Illinois roots, I found this a refreshing change from so much of what I was reading (both tough-guy PIs and the spy thrillers that were beginning to take root) being set on either the east or west coast, maybe Miami (via the enormously popular Mike Shayne).
Yet here was Mac, doing his PI thing practically in my back yard. Not only that, but many of his cases took him out of the city and to smaller towns and more rural settings throughout the state. (All of this would would prove to be more influential than I realized at the time when, about twenty years later, I created my own PI character, Joe Hannibal, and made his base of operations Rockford, the state's second largest city up to the north. Mac, some of the works of Dan J. Marlowe that were set in the Midwest, and Max Allan Collins' Iowa-based Quarry books, all combined to convince me that it was perfectly fine to set my own series in an area that wasn't on either of the coasts but was familiar to me and one I could perhaps capture with some added accuracy.)
Getting back to Mac, while I enjoyed all of the books back when I first read them, I remember finding them a bit slow-paced at the time. I was younger then and more into the rougher style of the Mike Hammer types, with plenty of wisecracks, hot dames, fisticuffs, and gunplay. You don't get a lot of that with Dewey and Mac. Mac owns a gun and carries it when a case turns dangerous enough, and he can also duke it out pretty good when necessary. But he's not quick to resort to either if it can be avoided. He's not big on wisecracks and he works obligingly with the cops. Donovan, his main police source in the city and a former mentor from his own days on the force is more father figure than pal. In DEATH AND TAXES, when Donovan is seriously wounded and hospitalized through much of the book, Mac's concern for his old friend is very genuine and touching. And though he plods steadily on, trying to crack the case that the shooting is part of, it's not as some wild-eyed gunslinger out for vengeance. 

A term frequently applied by others who have written about the Mac series is: compassion. Mac is “the compassionate private eye”, the precursor, it is often pointed out, to Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, who would gain much wider acclaim with that sort of approach in the decades to follow. (In an interview with Macdonald, when asked to name some other authors whose work in the same genre that he liked to read, he mentioned Dewey along with William Campbell Gault.)
Mac's deepest empathy is often with his own clients, especially those who are young and/or most vulnerable. This is very much in evidence in my three favorite books from the series: The aforementioned DEATH AND TAXES, where Mac is assisting the estranged daughter of a former gangster; THE KING KILLERS, in which he works with another PI to help protect a young woman who is peripherally involved with a dangerous paramilitary group; and A SAD SONG SINGING, where he is hired by an innocent yet feisty young woman to help find her lost love, a wandering minstrel/ songwriter, while at the same time protecting a suitcase with mysterious contents that the missing lad left in her possession.
Dewey is not a word stylist in the sense of, say, Chandler or even Macdonald. His prose is simple and straightforward, yet perfectly adequate for the job to be done. And Mac, for the most part, is merely a conduit to the cases and people he gets involved with. We never really learn much about him other than that he's a man of somple tastes who doggedly pursues the jobs he takes on. In DRAW THE CURTAIN CLOSE, his debut appearance, he describes himself this way: “I'm just a guy. I go around and get in jams and then try to figure a way out of them. I work hard. I don't make very much money and most people insult me one way or another. I'm thirty-eight years old, a fairly good shot with small arms, slow-thinking but thorough, and very dirty in a clinch."
That sums it up pretty good. The mysteries are solid and well-plotted, the characters Mac encounters are interesting and well drawn, the writing is as previusly described. There's some rough stuff along the way, a smattering of gunplay and coarse language, and some attractive, well-described women but little in the way of sex. In the final two books in the series, Mac relocates to Los Angeles but not much really changes. He remains his same low-key self, establishes a solid new cop contact via his old Chicago mentor Donovan, even searches around until he finds a set-up that provides him an office with living quarters in the back, just as he had in Chi-town. The characters he encounters are af bit more colorful, the women seem notably hotter (but still no sex), and there's the hint of a romance between Mac and a fortune teller neighbor that might have blossomed into more if the series had continued.

All in all, some mighty good hardboiled (but not too) stuff. Worth checking out. And anyone wanting some strong arguments for the oft-stated case of crime fiction being one of the most accurate mirrors held up to our changing culture over the decades, would be hard pressed to find any better examples than in Mac titles like THE MEAN STREETS or A SAD SONG SINGING.
No less an authority than Bill Pronzini once called Mac one of the most underappreciated of the fictional private eyes. I second that. If you want to pursue the matter and develop some overdue appreciation, I recommend you hunt down some the out-of-print paperbacks or check out the very modestly priced eBook versions avialable from Wildside. I think you'll be glad you did.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Noteworthy Reads: THE HONKY TONK BIG HOSS BOOGIE by Robert J. Randisi

This exciting PI mystery from veteran Randisi is the first to feature Auggie Velez, a Nashville sessions musician who is also a licensed private investigator. Auggie is immediately engaging as a protagonist. He is fairly well established on the Nashville music scene as a reliable sessions man, preferring that work to going on the road. But the real dream he continues to chase is one day writing and performing his own music. The PI work, which he began to augment his sometimes sporadic income, is something he has more recently ventured into and is therefore less seasoned at; but his basic street smarts, combined with past military training, a keen sense of the Music City scene, and the mentorship of the aging private eye who helped him get his ticket, are all helping to hone his skills.
And Auggie is soon needing to call on all of this and more after he accepts a job that appears to be a simple, though somewhat mysterious package delivery for a big time music producer. When the recipient of said package, a common briefcase whose contents were never revealed to Auggie, turns up murdered, Auggie becomes a very prominent “person of interest”. As the police investigation becomes stalled as far as any other leads and the music executive who originally hired Auggie remains reluctant about admitting his role, Auggie is forced to start digging deeper into the whole mess if for no other reason than to prove his innocence.
What ensues amounts to a fascinating tour of Nashville and its many colorful places and characters. As usual in a Randisi novel, snappy dialogue carries much of the load. But there also is real depth to the characterizations of many of the individuals encountered, including Auggie himself. Perhaps some of the best work Bob has done in this regard. There is a particularly poignant scene about mid way through the novel where, after some burglars have broken ito Auggie's apartment and trashed his personal, deeply treasured collection of old guitars – after the police have left and he is all alone starting to clean up the mess – Auggie breaks down and weeps over the loss that only he can understand the full impact of. Very strong and brave, I thought, for Bob to bare that much of his protagonist's soul.
When finally revealed, the secret of what was contained in the briefcase is a doozy and the overall conclusion to the case, when reached, is satisfying. The whole thing is made even more realistic by the fact that, due to the deaths of some players along the way, not every minute detail can be fully explained. Nevertheless, enough is established to clear Auggie and the key bad guys are sufficiently punished. Even more good news is that – as announced by the publisher at the close of this book – Auggie will soon be showing up again in a new case titled THE LAST SWEET SONG OF HAMMER DYLAN.
I'm definitely looking forward to that and, in the meantime, strongly recommend THE HONKY TONK BIG HOSS BOOGIE. Don't miss it!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Noteworthy Reads: THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Michael Avallone

In my reading lifetime, I'm sure I have read well over a thousand books. Maybe close to two thousand. Hell, counting comic books and magazine novelizations and re-reads, maybe more than that.
Many of these I recollect vividly and completely. Many others I remember liking to various degrees but can only specifically recall certain parts, like the title and author perhaps, or maybe some key, memorable scenes.
Such was the case with THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by Mike Avallone. I remembered the title and byline and a few scenes that stuck with me—and, mostly, I remembered liking it a lot. It was published in 1963, I'm guessing I read it two or three years later. I would have been about seventeen. I was just then learning to watch for the Avallone byline (one of the first cases where the author's name started to catch my eye as quick or quicker than the title) because I knew it would likely be something I'd enjoy.
Okay, for any of you who might be smirking and chuckling at this point because you've been fed the Kool-aid all these years about what a lousy writer Avallone was, how his phrasing came to be called “Avallone-isms” because of the quirky metaphors and puns and sometimes wacky plotting he employed ... Nuts to you. All I know is that the guy could tell a damn good story and I liked the way he did it. Especially during this period—the late Fifties through the Sixties. He was at his most prolific (he didn't call himself “the fastest typewriter in the east” for nothing) and at the peak of his craft.

Somewhere around the time I read THE DOCTOR'S WIFE, I was also reading Avallone work such as STATION SIX – SAHARA (movie tie-in), MANNIX (TV tie-in) and also the TV tie-ins for MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and GIRL FROM U.N.C.L.E. It was also around this time that—to my astonishment, since I was gobbling up everything and anything private eye related—I first discovered Ed Noon in THE FEBRUARY DOLL MURDERS. The doubly surprising part about this was that, by then, Mike had penned fifteen previous Noons and I hadn't come across any, except maybe a magazine excerpt from LUST IS NO LADY. 
Since all of the above titles were published in the mid-60s, some three or four years after DOCTOR'S WIFE, I can only assume that I picked up DOCTOR'S either second hand or buried deep in the back of a spinner rack slot. At any rate, once I had it in my hot little hands I tore through it in one or two settings and came away very satisfied.
The thing was, DOCTOR'S WIFE was put out by Beacon Books, one of – if not THE – top publishers of “adult” paperbacks (the other biggie being Midwood) at the time. By today's standards, it should be noted, these were pretty tame. Yet for all his success up to that point in the mystery/crime and media tie-in fields, here was Avallone cranking out “sex books” and signing his own name to them. By my count, he did about ten of them through the early/mid Sixties.
And here's the kicker: In my humble opinion, some of these “adult” titles represent some of his best writing. It was obvious that he took them serious and treated them accordingly. Years later, I had occasion to mention this to Mike and he was pleased to hear that assessment. So much so that when Gary Lovisi at Gryphon Books re-published the adult-themed MITZI later in Mike's career, he honored me by asking me to write a Foreward for it. Which I did, and again took the opportunity to opine on the strength of his writing in the adult field.

There's no better example of this than THE DOCTOR'S WIFE. The prose is lean and straightforward (not much of the quirky touches that would gain traction in Mike's later work), the dialogue snaps, and the sense of time and place (New York City in the late 50s/early 60s) is spot on. Written in first person, it revolves around one Vince Allen, a struggling actor who works as the overnight manager of a greasy spoon to make ends meet, and chases acting try-outs during the day. Each morning after finishing his greasy spoon gig, Vince walks through Central Park to clear his head and put the smells of the steamy diner behind him. On one of these mornings, in a rather dramatic fashion, he encounters the stunningly beautiful and mysterious Erika Paul—who turns out to be the doctor's wife of the title—as she is out walking her Irish setter, Apollo. From there Vince's life will never be the same. Naturally, he and Erika have further meetings in the park and quickly become passionate, star-crossed lovers.
As this involvement becomes more heated and more complex—they can never be completely together, Erika tells him, for reasons she won't explain in detail other than to say that her husband is a powerful, dangerous, insanely jealous man—Vince is also torn by other aspects of his life. He's gotten tangled up with Emily, who ditches her current boyfriend—an innocent “kid”, another wanna-be actor whom Vince has been mentoring—because she claims to have fallen hopelessly for Vince. Before long, they're ensuing trysts (Emily can't seem to get enough sex) causes her to be “late” and that adds even more stress to Vince's life. He begins shopping around for someone willing to perform a back alley-type abortion. In the course of all this—while his obsession for Erika grows and Vince longs for every possible moment they can sneak to be together—there are some very nice “filler” scenes involving co-workers and clientele at the greasy spoon and the world of acting try-outs. Avallone's writing really shines here. He seems to have a deep affinity for the whole actor/acting thing and—although I never thought to ask him about it in any of our exchanges—it seems like he might have lived that life for a time, or was very close to someone who did.
The book ends in tragedy. I can't say too much more without spoiling key story elements and ruining some some very suspenseful, exciting twists at the climax.
The closing passages wrap it up this way:
In my mind I still walk back through Central Park on my way home from work ... my Erika waits for me there. I see her coming down the paved walk with her long, flowing black hair.
Erika—with Apollo loping easily before her.
Erika Paul. The dame with the dog.”
I mention this because it also conveys what Mike told me he wanted the book to be titled ... The Dame And The Dog. He fought hard for that but, in the end, couldn't persuade the Beacon powers to go with it.
At this point, I guess it doesn't really matter. Whatever it's called, it's a damned enjoyable read. It's hard to come by these days (after all these years I had to special order a copy, just to re-visit it and see if it held up; which it does, as I guess this post demonstrates)—but if you can get your hands on a copy, I urge you to give it a try.
Above all, never be discouraged to give Avallone a try based on the snarky comments and ridicule you may have heard about his writing—often from those unworthy to carry his typewriter ribbon. Yes, some cringe-worthy “Avallone-isms” certainly exist. But far outweighing those are the many tales he spun that were/are immensely readable and entertaining.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Noteworthy Reads: STAGE FRIGHT by Richard Prosch

This latest in the Dan Spalding mystery series (number four if you're counting – and you owe it to yourself to be keeping track because you don't want to miss any of these) really cranks up the action and sends Dan and his buddy Howard Thyme on a collision course against not only the local mob but also some out-of-town baddies (West Coast) who are looking to make some Ozark City inroads.

As the owner/proprietor of Spalding's Groove, a vintage record store, Dan doesn't go looking for trouble or brushes with members of the criminal element. But neither is he one to look away from wrongdoing, especially when it involves abuse/mistreatment of the vulnerable—and his background as a former investigator for the Missouri State Police gives him the training and lingering contacts to take meaningful action if required.

This time around, a reason to get involved and take action is pretty straightforward … The young niece of his pal Howard is in trouble. She, under the name of Apple May, is currently stripping at a new, uber-glitzy gentlemen's club that has just opened up on the edge of town and has gotten word to Uncle Howard that she's caught up in the flesh circuit and is being kept against her will from getting out.
Figuring it will be “easy-peazy”—just a matter of grabbing Apple away from a couple club bouncers—Dan and Howard take a ride out to the joint to get the job done. The grab is accomplished, although not without some pretty rough resistance from the bouncers who don't exactly make it easy-peazy, and Apple is taken home to her uncle's place, awaiting arrangements to be reunited with her mother, Howard's sister.
But, as you might expect, that's not the end of it …

Within twenty-four hours, Apple is missing. Howard doesn't know where she is, neither do the flesh peddlers who badly want her back. Threats, more rough stuff, double-dealing, ulterior motives (some on the part of none other than Apple herself, who may not be quite so innocent as first thought), and escalating tensions ensue. Another stripper from the club seemingly comes to Dan's aid but, despite the pleasure of her company, he can't help but suspect her end game may be a little murky. When local mob boss Adrian Mitchell—who has rather tenuous ties with Dan dating back to Mitchell's past dealings with Dan's late brother—also becomes involved, the tension and danger ratchets up even more.
Before it's all over, some lives will be lost, some will be ruined, and one or two – maybe – will be salvaged.

As is always the case in any work by Prosch, the lean prose and snappy dialogue (especially in this series) are as much a part of the enjoyment as the colorful characters and the twists and turns of the story itself. It all makes for a winning combination that leaves you satisfied yet immediately craving the next Spalding adventure.
Strongly recommended.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Noteworthy Reads: BLAKE'S RULE by J.R. Lindermuth

This latest work from John Lindermuth is a fine Western in the traditional mold, but with some intriguing twists and distinctions that make it a high cut above average. Sam Blake, a range detective working for the Thiel Agency out of Denver, is on the trail of a rustler. But when he arrives in the small Wyoming town of Kraft, he is soon diverted from that mission and drawn instead into another matter, namely that of aiding the local sheriff in protecting his current prisoner from a lynch mob.

The prisoner is a black woman who, prior to her arrest, was the cook at the town's only cafe. Her reason for being behind bars: She killed and castrated her former employer, the owner/proprietor of the cafe, a man named Graham. She admits to the crime, offers no defense, is prepared to accept her fate in a legal trial and asks only that her two young children, a boy and a girl, are looked after in her absence. The woman, Miriam, is a beautiful widow formerly married to a white man; following his death, she and her children were “taken in” by Graham and given keep in return for Miriam doing the cooking for the cafe. That she would repay him so viciously for this “kindness” is the impetus behind the festering mood to see her hanged post haste. Helping this along is an undercurrent of racial prejudice and also the well-known fact that Fremont, the local sheriff, has long been enamored of Miriam; there are those who believe these feelings might cause him to try and sway the outcome of a standard trial. Adding fuel to the fire is the personal animosity that the most powerful rancher in the territory – a man with a small army of gun toughs at his disposal – also feels toward Miriam.

It's hard to discuss much more about how these various interactions play out without revealing key plot elements. Suffice it to say that the bad guys are despicably bad while both Blake and Sheriff Fremont, along with Fremont's deputy Keenan, are heroic in their attempts to keep Miriam and her children safe from those who would lynch the woman – and worse. Miriam herself is a strong, memorable, wonderfully drawn character who more than holds her own. Before it's all done there is a good deal of violent action, tragedy, betrayal and retribution, more than a few surprises, and some nice touches of romance. The characters, good and bad alike, are colorfully drawn and given genuine depth. Lindermuth's effortlessly smooth prose moves along at a perfect pace, rich with historically accurate details yet never at the cost of interfering with a riveting tale.

Strongly recommended.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Noteworthy Reads: THE QUESTIONER by Andrew Vachss

THE QUESTIONER is Andrew Vachss's first work of fiction in too long.
But it turns out to be worth the wait.
A novelette written in the scalpel-sharp, no-word-wasted prose style that has become one of the author's trademarks, it introduces a nameless protagonist known only by the description of what he does. For a price, he finds out the most deeply hidden truths and secrets – and he does so not by means of torture or coercion, but rather merely by talking, asking questions, listening, and responding in ways that gradually, deftly draws out the information he is seeking. He can't be fooled or deterred. He senses the truth and, more importantly, he senses how to manipulate every precise detail of mood, environment, and his choice of words until what he is seeking is revealed ... What he then does with that information, who the Questioner passes it on to, can impact decisions and actions of global significance.
As usual in any work by Vachss, the “fiction” is only a veneer, a device to open readers' eyes about real-world abuses and injustices that may not be pleasant to face, yet NEED to be.
So read THE QUESTIONER for the prose and the power of the story. Then I'd encourage you to do a little homework about some of the things touched upon in the narrative (ethnic medical experiments, maybe a little history about the country of Estonia, as a couple of examples) as added food for thought.

As a further encouragement, I would also suggest you consider a purchase of this work via the Amazon Smile program whereby a portion of the purchase price (at no additional cost to the purchaser) goes toward a charity of the buyer's choosing. In view of Andrew's life's work in the area of child protection, a good choice for this would be an organization he co-founded and is closely associated with: The Legislative Institute for Child Protection.
You can learn more about it at this link: Legislative Institute for Child Protection
To sign up for the Amazon Smile program, use this link: https://smile.amazon.com/ch/81-1811456

I strongly recommend THE QUESTIONER and all of the foregoing.