Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Review: Free Fall in Crimson

Free Fall in Crimson Free Fall in Crimson by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started off liking this 19th book in the Travis McGee series as it quickly delves into solving the mystery of why a guy dying of cancer gets beat to death at highway rest stop. McGee's investigation takes him to a biker bar run by an old war buddy in search of a lead, which he finds. And then he's off to Hollywood and Lyssa Dean, an actress he helped in The Quick Red Fox, to track down the Director and some bikers/actors from a biker-movie. She steers him to Iowa and the set of movie about hot air ballooning. After that it just felt like the energy left the book even though there is a formidable villain. The problem is we mostly hear about this bad ass second-hand, instead of seeing him live an in action. At least until the ending, where he shows up in the flesh. Doesn't have MacDonald's trademark rollercoaster sequence of climactic scenes as do so many of the McGee books. Instead we have a quick confrontation, with a partially recycled device from, I think, Bright Orange for the Shroud, and an older, wiser McGee (not a spoiler) survives again.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Review: Roanleigh

Roanleigh Roanleigh by Gretchen Mockler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Superb gothic suspense novel. Full of atmosphere, mystery, and tension. At the beginning, Roan is an amnesiac invalid being cared for by her mother, brother, and family nurse. But she knows something is off with the narrative they are spinning. So she quits taking the pills the nurse has been pushing. Soon snippets of memory return and she is certain that she is not Roan. She knows she is someone else, just not who else she might be. The writing craft is so good that I couldn't put the book down after that rolling start. It is packed with concrete details that amp up the moods. The dialog seems always strewn with subtext. And Roan's actions and interactions are fueled by her at any means approach. All of which makes this a virtual master class in how to write a gothic novel. My research has turned up no other books or any other information on the author Gretchen Mockler. The novel seems too good to have been a one off, so I suspect it might be a pseudonym of some other well-known gothic writer, but maybe not.

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Sunday, July 31, 2022

Review: Subdued

Subdued Subdued by Bud Conway
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Cover art is by Bill Alexander, who, along with Gene Bilbrew, Bill Ward, and Eric Stanton did most of the highly collectible cover art for the Satellite Publication imprints After Hours, First Niter, Unique, and Wee Hours. In case the trench coats on the cover didn’t tip you off, this 1966 Wee Hours book is an espionage thriller. Bob Baker is a pinup photographer for Girl Parade magazine and after an interlude shooting at a nude beach on the French Rivera he’s off to Paris on assignment where, surprisingly, he’s recruited into the CIA. After some period of training in German (and Judo) he’s sent behind the lines into communist East Germany and Poland. His mission to photograph plans for a nerve gas factory. The task is intricately plotted with plenty of secret meetings and double agents and all the usual spy genre shenanigans. The writing style, however, is too breezy to take this seriously as a spy novel. It’s a spy plot with opportunities, in between taking pictures with his spy camera, of course, for Bob Baker to have sex. Baker gets plenty of action, but nothing is described too explicitly. So a sleazy spy novel. The smooth prose made this a quick and easy read. Unfortunately the proofreader took the day off and the text is marred by an enormous amount of typographical mistakes.

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Saturday, July 30, 2022

Review: Ex-Virgin

Ex-Virgin Ex-Virgin by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the fifteen novels Orrie Hitt had published in 1959. (From the grave he says I see your nanowrimo and, I raise, all in!) This first edition is Beacon 267 with the painted cover art. The second and third Beacon/Softcover Library editions have lame photo-covers. I'm rating this a bit higher than it probably deserves because on a close reading I found enough "writing surprises" relative to some of Hitt's other books that made me think he wasn't just going through the motions. Sticks to his formula, for sure, and after 50 some books to his credit by this time he had the formula smooth as creamy peanut butter. The title suggests this is a good girl gone bad story. Kinda, sorta. Mary is the virgin who becomes the ex-virgin of the title. But not willingly and Hitt's rape scenes are some of his most explicit pre-1960 descriptions. Many ways to go with this review as Hitt recycles several plots and themes and character types from his earlier books and will do so even more in the 100 books that will follow this one. What struck me, though, was his character assassination of Ferry Street in this unnamed town which surely is a stand-in for Port Jervis, New York where Hitt lived for many years. "Ferry" is a stand-in street name. When I was growing up in Seattle we had "First Avenue" and "Pike Street." Dive bars, flop houses, hookers, pimps, and drug dealers. Hitt's world has Mary, Joe, Janice, Anne, and Sam. Five dollars gets a guy laid in this riverside slum. The sad tale here, however —and it's a noir tale—is that Sam has the world at his feet. He has Mary, the 41-26-36 figure girl that every other guy in town wants. The owner of the gas station where he works is ready to retire and willing to practically give the place to Sam. Yet . . . Head shake. Sam, Sam! Stay away from the bosses wife! You know he won't. And Hitt's morality play—teen sex, pregnancy, abortions—becomes noir as Sam slides down the slippery slope to oblivion. That's all top-notch, but unlike Whittington, Brewer, MacDonald, Hitt sticks to his grade school prose style, at which he was something of a genius, which is easy to miss until you've read enough of Hitt and a lot of the others. Not his best. Not is his worst. But I can steer you towards many better reads than this.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Review: Man-Crazy Nurse

Man-Crazy Nurse Man-Crazy Nurse by Peggy Dern
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ok, I'm pushing this one again. It's Peggy Gaddis at her sublimely darkest. I still have about 150 of her 250 books left to read but it is hard to imagine one of those topping Man-Crazy Nurse. It's going to be in my top-ten noir novels, for sure. Awesome nurse noir! (Peggy was having a dark time —thankfully for us!) Originally published in 1954 by Croydon in digest form and marketed as a romance. But there's no happy ending romance in this one, it's seriously dark all the way to the nihilistic ending. The cover art and jacket copy of this Pyramid edition was clearly aimed at sleaze readers, and there are a few sex scenes, but this is noir all the way. Arline Grayson is a highly respected nurse at a hospital until she is unable to resist the charms of Dr. Blaine Christopher, a known skirt-chaser. She quits the hospital to become a private duty nurse so that she won't have to work with and be tempted by Dr. Christopher any more. She is shocked to discover, however, that he's the doctor of the patient on her first private assignment. He's a sleaze-ball and specifically requested her. The slippery slope begins when he takes her to a seedy hotel. Her desire is greater than her disgust and she loses a bit of herself in the process. She disintegrates progressively in classic noir fashion as she makes one mistake after the other and utterly destroys her life via mostly self-inflicted wounds. Although Dr. Christopher is a stunningly good homme-fatale and helps things along by getting her black-balled from private nursing. No more spoilers from me. Great book!

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Monday, July 25, 2022

Review: The Deadly Climate

The Deadly Climate The Deadly Climate by Ursula Curtiss
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This Ursula Curtiss suspense novel with gothic overtones was originally published in hardcover in 1954 followed by a Pocket Books paperback edition, same year. Ace released this edition in 1965 with the classic woman running cover art and a back cover blurb by none other than Anthony Boucher, the New York Times mystery/crime book reviewer, who called it ". . . one of the season's best pure thrillers." Not going to argue. The pace was relentless. Atmosphere deliciously detailed. Action and anticipation. Caroline witnessing a murder and running for her life. Carmichael, the journalist, chasing ghosts, believes her when no one else does. Except the killer. Loved this and read at a blistering pace. Eager to read more of Curtiss's earlier novels.

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Saturday, July 23, 2022

Review: Tawny

Tawny Tawny by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tawny, (Beacon B261, 1959), is a reprint of Cabin Fever (Uni-book 73, 1954) with a new title and new cover art. Cabin Fever was Hitt's third published book and it shows, with some sloppy writing in places. That said, we have here a cool dust-up at a summer resort in rural New York. Danny, our focal character and first-rate heel, manages to get drunk and rolled while on vacation. But he takes a job at the resort as a means to get back on the cash. He's quickly chasing after the owner's wife - the femme fatale character - in between chasing after the hostess and his late arriving former girlfriend. There are several other shady characters and everybody seems to have an angle to rip somebody else off. Danny is slow on the uptake, thinks he's in the driver seat, planning his own scam, but as they say about poker games, if you don't know who the mark is . . . All good fun if you put on the editorial blinders. Hitt's book Summer Hotel (Beacon B168, 1958) picks up many of these same themes a few years later and is more smoothly written. Tawny is the femme fatale character but the novel is not focalized through her, so it's one of those marketing bait and switches where the cover art and blurbs suggest one story but what you get is something else entirely.

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Review: Nita's Place

Nita's Place Nita's Place by Harry Whittington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the judge a book by its cover category, this 1960 first edition cover art is in the same vein as a lot of the Orrie Hitt sleaze books published around that time. Whereas the 1964 second edition has cover art similar to the Gold Medal crime/noir books. So this tough to categorize novel was marketed at different times to different audiences. Interestingly, although this Whittington doesn't quite succeed as either sleaze or noir, if it were sexed up a bit it would track well with the books he wrote for Greenleaf/Corinth in the mid-1960s. The storyline has 44-year-old Jay Wagner, fresh off a couple of heart attacks and a you-could-drop-dead-at-any-time prognosis, taking up residence at a Florida motel to enjoy the sun and bikini-views until he drops dead as the doctors say he will. The motel is run by Nita (good girl) and her sister Callie (slut) and after a period of bikini gazing Jay pleases them both. And then there's Rita, Elsie, and Betty. Jay is your typical sleaze novel protagonist getting plenty of action. The novel, however, is full of espionage overtones with a nearby missile base, airmen and scientists around the pool, and rumors that the motel is under government surveillance. Also plenty of noir subplots via Jay's nefarious history, Nita's and Callie's mob connections, and all three of them are fleeing past lives they can't escape. The problem is that Whittington never quite decided on which kind of novel—sleaze, spy, noir—this would be, and the result is that it succeeds at none of them. Toss in a lot of clunky head-hopping from the point of view, and dialogue that is frequently too on the nose, and this is not one of Whittington's best. That said, I still mostly enjoyed this one because it always seemed to be about to explode. Whittington had plenty to work with here but never quite pulled it off.

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Sunday, July 17, 2022

Review: Sheba

Sheba Sheba by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This one was awful. I've been willing to cut Hitt some slack in my other reviews of Hitt's novels because he did have a kind of genius for writing reasonably complex plotted novels using third-grade reading comprehension prose. But his "see Dick run" prose is incredibly lame in this one. Usually Hitt tunneled into some profession - radio advertising, insurance sales, etc. - and provided an interesting window into 1950s work/business. So reading Hitt usually provides a cultural anthropology window into that era. Not here. The setting is a car dealership and unscrupulous loans, but Hitt was completely going through the motions and didn't provide any deep glimpse into the business. Which was a big disappointment. And the rest is just embarrassing.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Review: The Green Eagle Score

The Green Eagle Score The Green Eagle Score by Richard Stark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Along with The Score, when Parker robs an entire town, this 10th in the series is one of my favorites. Parker plans out the seemingly ridiculous heist of the payroll at an Air Force base. (This is 1967 and the bi-weekly payroll was paid in cash.) Early focus is the casing of the base with the help of the inside guy who works in the finance office. The major complication is that the girlfriend of the finance guy is also the ex-wife of another member of the crew. So early on we know this heist is going to go wrong. A further complication is that the girlfriend is describing the heist planning to her psychologist in thrice weekly sessions, and we know this will muck things up but not how. Saying much more will spoil the read, but suffice to say that the last third of the book is non-stop action with an exciting heist and its surprising and wild aftermath. Stark/Westlake nails the ending in this one.

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