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.