Monday, November 23, 2020

Review: Out of the Sea

Out of the Sea Out of the Sea by Don Smith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A hard-boiled seafaring adventure tale telling the story of Brian Hart, a WW2 vet who finds a lucrative and exciting career as a smuggler in the Spanish Mediterranean after coming back from the war - very dangerous and highly illegal work. Hart navigates through storms, naval police raids, beatings, and double crosses while trying to keep his hot-blooded Spanish girlfriend satisfied, especially after her father is murdered and she blames him. Of course Hart has to find the murderer, an investigation requiring infiltrating some very unsavory smugglers and criminals, and then some cat-and-mouse action when he is accused of being a communist on top of a smuggler and pretty much everyone is out to get him. Adventure novels on the high seas appeal to me and this is a terrific one, with lots of fascinating details of post-war Mediterranean smuggling routes and locations, mostly Tangier to Mallorca, inspiring me to read up on these locations which I previously knew nothing about. This novel is one of the few Giant Fawcett Gold Medal books that the publisher released under the Red Seal imprint for their longer books, this one is 264 pages, and unfortunately long out of print.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Review: Hell Hath No Fury

Hell Hath No Fury Hell Hath No Fury by Charles Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’d forgotten just how subversive this 1953 Williams noir was. Unlike some of his other blackmail driven plots - The Big Bite and A Touch of Death, for example - which both feature an everyman protagonist narrator driven to crime by hard luck and the lure of a sexy woman, Harry Madox is a criminal from the get go. In this novel Charles Williams and Jim Thompson are simpatico. The other writer I kept thinking about when casting for comparisons, however, is Cornell Woolrich, because for much of the novel we have unrelenting fear, dread, paranoia, and a mind threatening to unhinge with the ticking clock. Plenty of reviews describe the plot, so I will just give you the ingredients: a smooth-talking amoral drifter; a reckless femme-fatale; a nice girl hiding nasty secrets; a scummy blackmailer; a crafty Sheriff; a sultry small town in Texas; and a bank begging to be robbed. There's a 1990 movie version titled The Hot Spot. Directed by Dennis Hopper and starring Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly. The movie is pretty darn faithful to the novel, which is not so surprising as the screenplay was originally written by Charles Williams (with Nona Tyson) in 1962. The scenes are all there. The only thing the movie really couldn’t duplicate from the novel is the narrative interiority, and not having that to amp up the in-between scene tension made the movie a bit flatter than the novel. What the faithful scene rendering of the movie does is reflect back how many great scenes the novel has. An awesome noir not to be missed.

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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Review: Lust Dupe

Lust Dupe Lust Dupe by Harry Whittington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the famed "missing 38" vintage sleaze novels by Harry Whittington. To my sensibilities this is also a lost and waiting to be re-discovered noir masterpiece. Although different in style, it is on par with the best of Whittington's Gold Medal published noirs. There's plenty of action, but what drives this story is the inner turmoil, the "inside voice" of the noir characters. Jim Harper is a bank teller in a small mid-western town who is dying on the inside because of the future he imagines. Into the bank walks Nora "you look like you were made out of hundred dollar bills" Bayer. Jim's a goner. After she spends eight days decking and wrecking him he will do anything she wants. Cue the bank robbery, where a guard is killed and Jim is taken hostage by Nora and her two accomplices. The rest of the novel is delicious disintegration. Noir never offers a way out. The only question is how will these lives shatter and what damage will the shrapnel cause. This was written early in Whittington's run of 38 novels for Greenleaf/Corinth, before he was burnt out by the one novel per month pace, and it still has all the character development, plotting, and action that he put into his "mainstream" crime/noir novels. My sense is that perhaps, at least when he wrote this one, that he also felt freed by writing for the vintage sleaze market: he could give voice to these characters in a way that wouldn't pass the editorial gatekeepers at Fawcett. That's how it reads to me, anyway. Awesome noir. Tough to find, but well worth tracking down.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Review: Fringe Benefits

Fringe Benefits Fringe Benefits by Rock Anthony
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

What we actually have here, despite the front and back cover jacket copy, is a story about the fight for control of the Polar Bear Corporation (they sell household freezers). Steve Turko, our bored and not terribly ambitious (or bright) protagonist, is actually more interested in getting laid than he is taking over the company, yet he still manages to land in the middle of all the office politics. He's a door-to-door salesman and the main pawn majority shareholder Adele Crandon is pushing around the chessboard. The problem here is that Rock Anthony (despite having a good "house name") is not in the same writing league as John D. MacDonald or Harry Whittington. The executives are dolts and the dialog is moronic. Sure, this is mindless sleaze, but it is all just too unrealistic, including the numerous sex scenes, to be worth the effort. Popular with collectors, however, because of the Paul Radar cover art.

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Sunday, November 15, 2020

Review: Down and Out

Down and Out Down and Out by Les Masters
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although the POV jumps around a several times into other character's perspectives, which does help to round out the story, the primary focal character that I guess we are supposed to identify with is Joe Ryan, the sleaze-bag manager of a finance company that specializes in making loans to people who have no other options. His go-to move is to take young women seeking loans to a motel where sex is their collateral for loan approval. But Ryan is under investigation for his shady loans and a couple of the women are also bent on revenge. He has a private detective helping him gather intel on his enemies and the main drama (aside from Ryan getting laid a lot) is whether he will avoid getting arrested for his sleazy lending practices. Plenty of interesting angles and setups but just not written well enough to make this vintage sleazer the cracker of a noir that it could have been.

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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Review: Escape to Sindom

Escape to Sindom Escape to Sindom by Don Elliott
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Big disappointment after a promising jailbreak start. Only enough plot in these 160 pages for a short story. If you must know, Sparkman breaks out of a small town Iowa jail, steals a car and heads for Mexico. Along the way, in a small town in Missouri, he hooks up with Janey, a waitress looking to make her own break. Sparkman is not the sharpest tool, even though he thinks he is, and he travels too slow and makes too many mistakes for this escape to be believable. But this thin plot is just an excuse for a lot of sex scenes that are really not worth the bother.

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Review: Kept Man

Kept Man Kept Man by Don Elliott (pseudo.)
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In addition to being one of the most prolific of the vintage sleaze authors with more than 150 written under various pseudonyms, Robert Silverberg was also one of the best stylists. You can usually count on at least decent characterization of the protagonist and that is what we have here. David Starnes, the kept man of the title, is a playwright battling writer's block. His first play was a Broadway success and he lived high on the spoils for several years, but hasn't written anything since. He's scraping the barrel when Alicia Markell picks him up and offers to underwrite his next play. It's a business relationship, he thinks, even as she puts him up in a swank apartment overlooking Central Park. She covers all his expenses and encourages him to write the play. Silverberg does a great job digging into Starnes' writing block as he spends three months rewriting the 3-page outline over and over. Meanwhile, Alicia begins spending the night, and it is not too long before Starnes realizes that he is her paid lover: a gigolo. Doesn't bother him too much at first, but he does progressively lose more of his self-respect and his writer's block deepens as the relationship continues. Eventually he meets a young woman in a bookstore and pursues her. Alicia finds out and demands he end it or she will cut off the gravy train. Starnes resists and Silverberg completely delivers on his descent into a wholly insufferable and unlikeable character, to the point that Starnes' failure is actually welcomed. What will save him? Writing. He needs to free himself from being a kept man and then he will be able to write again. Just a minor detail, of course, that he'd already been blocked for years before becoming a gigolo. As far as sleazers go, this is a well constructed and written story, although a bit light on the sex scenes.

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Thursday, November 12, 2020

Review: A Ticket to Hell

A Ticket to Hell A Ticket to Hell by Harry Whittington
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Couldn't quite bring myself to give this only one-star because there are some great scenes and the early chapters are full of promise and tension, but the rest of it annoyed me to no end, so, yes, this is a ticket to hell. Driving a low-slung Porsche off-road through the pines and boulders of a desert canyon? Makes you wonder if Whittington had ever seen a Porsche or a desert canyon, right? I love most everything I've read of Whittington's but this one's a clunker. After the great start, Whittington went into sit and spin mode, with repetitive teasing exposition suggesting just wait, wait, wait, there will eventually be something worth waiting for. Couldn't have been all of the empty dialog between Ric and Eve, could it? No, not that. Ends with some action scenes but I really didn't care any more at that point. The plot would make a good movie, but the screenwriter would need to ditch just about everything else. Both the Gold Medal originals and the Black Lizard reprints are easy to find in paperback, and there's an eBook version from 28o Steps, so give it a go if you must.

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Sunday, November 8, 2020

Review: Satan Is a Woman

Satan Is a Woman Satan Is a Woman by Gil Brewer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brewer's first novel starts with immediacy as Larry Cole is being questioned by two cops about his brother Tad who is wanted for murder and is hiding in Larry’s house while the police are questioning him. Enter the femme-fatale, Joan Turner, and poor Larry begins his roller coaster ride through various levels of hell. He falls for her quick: "If you’ve never felt the way I felt, O.K. It’s like standing on dynamite, with the fuse sputtering." One thing Brewer was a master of is depicting how thoroughly and obsessively these guys fall under the spell of a woman. Larry is hanging on every look, every touch, every word. He can’t keep his eyes off her and yet he knows he’s doomed, too, even as he resists her pressures to rob a nightclub. Brewer conjures one of his classic twists as Joan stabs an intruder and they have to dispose of the body. It is one of those fantastic and frenetic extended scenes (with an outboard motor tied to the body they row out into the bay in a storm), where Brewer just amps the tension and milks the suspense with great pacing, description, and psychological torment. This one has all the noir elements and the extended character development certainly makes it a more rounded read. But that well-roundedness also detracts a bit from the propulsive pacing at times and that keeps this from a five-star rating.

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Thursday, November 5, 2020

Review: All the Way

All the Way All the Way by Charles Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This one takes off with a hard-charging start as Jerry Forbes, whom we know initially as George Hamilton, is completely played by Marian Forsyth and quickly finds himself enmeshed in a robbery scheme. He's a shallow-conscience ex-adman and she's a femme-fatale: a perfect match. After telling Forbes her plan to steal $75,000 from her ex-boss's brokerage account, she ups the ante to murder. By this time, Forbes, in classic noir fashion has gone off the deep-end for her and is quickly drawn into the murder plot, which involves him impersonating the man to be murdered. What's Marian's motive, you might ask? No it is not just the money: "Money is important to me. I like success. I poured everything I had into making him one, thinking I was doing it for both of us. Do you think I'm going to move aside now and give it up? Let him hand it all to some simpering, feather-brained little bitch who can't even balance a checkbook?" So it's game on and Williams concocts an intricate and incredibly detailed plot where half the book involves Forbes covering tracks and planting false clues and all the while we just know he's going to get crossed . . . or will he? No more spoilers from me as there are plenty of neat twists to keep you guessing all the way to the end in this top-notch noir. The paperback edition is tough to find but there's an eBook version with a different title - Concrete Flamingo - so check that out.

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Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Review: Blackmailer

Blackmailer Blackmailer by George Axelrod
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Axlerod was mainly known as a screenwriter and this novel does have that “old movie” feel to it. I’m kind of surprised that it was never made into a film. It tells the story of a book publisher who gets involved way over his head with a couple of mysterious females, blackmail, mobsters, and movie stars. The main character, being a publisher rather than a private eye, didn’t really twist the perspective much since he was just as hard-boiled and determined as a typical PI of the era, although the novel doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. Reminded me a bit of the Ed Noon or Shell Scott books. Rapid fire dialog and pacing kept the book moving at a nice pace and was hard to put down. Four stars.


Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Review: The Hungry One

The Hungry One The Hungry One by Gil Brewer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love the way this one gets going. Husband and wife driving late at night looking for a motel. She wants to just continue driving, he wants to stop. They end up with the last room at a seedy motel that is hosting some wild-ass convention. She wants to leave. The room door won't lock. And now Brewer has got this whole horror-novel vibe going. They hear gun shots and the door bursts open and it's a naked girl and a man with a gun. Next they have jumped into bed with our protagonist couple while the police are searching rooms. Tough to top a beginning like that, but Brewer gave it a good go. Turns into a kidnaping plot, but first naked-girl and gun-guy rob a drug store. She's on the downers and he's on the bennies and that dynamic keeps the edgy vibe going. My only real complaint is that Brewer stretched the timeline of the kidnapping - the ransom calls, etc. - out too long and that took some of the tension out of the middle section. And I think he really missed an opportunity by not giving more of a role for the narrator's wife. It's like half the time Brewer forgot he had another character on the scene. Not his best overall, but far from his worst, and that opening sequence is right up there with his best stuff.

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