Monday, July 26, 2021

Review: Dirt Farm

Dirt Farm Dirt Farm by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Classic Hitt. Clean prose and plenty of tension. Similar plot to several other of his books: drifter type shows up looking for work. This time it's a farm. There's too many women around for him to keep his mind on the job. Hitt does a great job using the dialog to show character, letting several characters hang themselves with their words. Would have been better if there were more action and less talking, however, and could have used more sex and more violence. Lost steam in the second half and the ending was also disappointingly anticlimactic.

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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Review: Operation Fireball

Operation Fireball Operation Fireball by Dan J. Marlowe
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Plenty of good scenes and writing here, and Drake, in this the third book of the series is now someone we want to root for, however, just too many scenes, especially in the first half of the book, that don't advance the plot. It's as if Marlowe got stuck on the same plot point, thought it was more important than it was, and then wasted a lot of energy with half-step-forward, half-step-back scenes. He turns the characters and the action loose in the second half, but this is not as strong as the first two in the series or his other non-Drake books.

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Saturday, July 17, 2021

Review: Angel!

Angel! Angel! by Carter Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

These Carter Brown novels always annoyed me when I first read them back in junior high because they all had the sexy Robert McGinnis cover art and then, unlike the sleazers they were made to look like, they never delivered. That's what we have with Angel. Al Wheeler, the cop on the beat here, spends a lot of time describing sexy women, but never gets to partake. He does solve the crime, however, and in typical mystery novel convention, the wrap up comes, after quite a few red herrings, in the last ten pages. This is a quick and easy read with plenty of interesting characters and a decent plot. Some of the Carter Brown dialog stylistics get slightly annoying, the too clever repartee, and particularly the speech tags (he growled, he snarled, he said laughingly, etc) which is a don't do as far back as creative writing 100.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Review: The Mistress

The Mistress The Mistress by Carter Brown
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Al Wheeler novel finds the amorous police lieutenant in typical form, he’s irresistible to women, has conflicts with his superiors, and offers an endless barrage of wise cracks. Even though Wheeler is a cop, this is not a police procedural, but rather falls squarely into the “whodunit” mystery genre. Here Wheeler’s police captain finds a dead woman on his porch at home after being threatened by a Las Vegas casino owner that wants to move his operation to Pine City. Turns out that the dead woman is the captain’s niece, the irascible captain assumes a vendetta, and puts the screws on Wheeler to bring in the suspect. Under pressure, Wheeler finds an ally in a stacked stripper named Gabrielle to track down the killer as the bodies pile up. Nicely plotted, snappy dialog, and a quick and easy read like every Carter Brown book I’ve ever read. Three stars.

Now available in paperback or ebook in an Al Wheeler collection from Stark House.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Review: The Score

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

Did anybody write better heist novels than Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)? Well, maybe Dan J. Marlowe - One Endless Hour and Four for the Money are good examples. Seriously, though, it's hard to top these Parker novels for their depiction of heists. And this one is all about the extreme caper - to rob an entire town in rural North Dakota. In the previous Parker novels he'd been trying to clear himself from the Outfit or dispensing with unfinished business. In this one he is free and clear and all about the job. The first half of the book is all setup: describing the job, finding the crew, procuring the guns and the vehicles. Need a movie reference? Think Ocean's Eleven. Second half? They do the heist. Expect some monkey wrenches, but this one is all about the crew pulling off the take down of an entire town. Grofield also makes his appearance in this novel, so that is kind of cool, as he will get his own four book series later: The Damsel, The Dame, The Blackbird, and Lemons Never Lie, which was reprinted by Hard Case Crime.

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Review: The Wounded and the Slain

The Wounded and the Slain The Wounded and the Slain by David Goodis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the more remarkable first chapters in the noir genre. The first paragraph begins with the as yet unnamed focal character considering suicide. As we flip from page one to page two we have this: “At the other end of the bar they were having a good time, talking pleasantly with some energetic laughter thrown in. He tried to hate them because they were enjoying themselves. He collected some hate, aimed it, tossed it, then knew right away it was just a boomerang. There was no one to hate but himself.” He is Bevan, drowning in self-pity and alcohol, and we learn him with a narrative point-of-view that alternates between close third and second person. This narrative approach becomes quite stunning as Goodis introduces Cora, Bevan’s wife, and treats us to the same alternating close third and second person treatment of her, which is juiced up by her seeming schizophrenic second person voice. As the first chapter winds down Bevan is falling down drunk in the bar trying to pick a fight with a guy who comes to help Cora get Bevan out of the bar. The second chapter is Bevan’s back story. He marries young Cora but it turns out she is not interested in sex so Bevan takes up with a hooker, gets found out and trades the hooker in for booze, and races towards alcoholism to the point where a change of scenery is suggested to him by a neurologist. Cue chapter three, the morning after in Kingston, Jamaica and the beginning of a descent that immediately brings to mind Malcom Lowry’s Under the Volcano, published in 1947 and a work Goodis surely would have known. Goodis’ prose is a bit ragged when describing action scenes like the bar fight, but he is at his mesmerizing best when narrating from within the soul-tortured heads of Bevan and Cora.

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Saturday, July 3, 2021

Review: The Violent Vixen

The Violent Vixen The Violent Vixen by Alan Marshall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alan Marshall was one of the pseudos used by Donald Westlake, but he frequently subbed out his contracts to writer friends in need of cash, so there is some dispute among collectors about which Marshalls are Westlake's and which aren't. The character development in this one has the Westlake feel to it and the quality of the writing is a couple of notches above most pulps, so whomever wrote this one took more care than was typical of the genre, but I doubt this is a Westlake. The title makes no sense as there is no violence in this one. The lead character, Judy Stanton, is an actress making her career in beach party movies. (Character seems modeled on Annette Funicello - so think Beach Blanket Bingo.) She's in a long-term contract and wants out, wants to make other types of movies. So there are scenes with her business managers and attorneys where they plot ways out of the contract and there are the inevitable scenes where she is in conflict with the director and producer of the current movie she is making. All that takes up about 50% of the book. The other 50% is sex scenes. Ah ha, the real purpose of the book! Originally this was published under the Greenleaf imprint Sundown Reader, but there's a knock-off eBook version.

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Friday, July 2, 2021

Review: Sin Hellcat

Sin Hellcat Sin Hellcat by Lawrence Block
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was a collaboration between Lawrence Block and Donald Westlake and they alternated chapters and did a remarkable job matching styles so that it reads seamlessly. So it is interesting from that perspective. But not much of a novel. It is mostly a lot of tongue-in-cheek writerly pyrotechnics, a lot of spinning of wheels to fill pages in between the sex scenes, of which there are plenty, described in censorship era figures of speech.

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Thursday, July 1, 2021

Review: Longarm on the Humboldt

Longarm on the Humboldt Longarm on the Humboldt by Harry Whittington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Longarm novels, and Adult Westerns in general, don’t seem to get much respect even though they were written by talented work-for-hire authors like Lou Cameron, Frank Roderus, James Reasoner, Pete Brandvold, and of course Harry Whittington who wrote this one, the 28th book in the series. Whittington would go on to write five more Longarm novels over the next couple of years, and although I have all of them, this is the first one that I’ve read. Whittington’s take on US Marshall Custis Long clearly pegs him as a hard-boiled detective, and the familiar tropes are here, getting beat up, captured, escaping, getting laid, etc. The story consists of two investigations, an assignment from the US Government, and another at the behest of a beautiful young blind woman who is seeking revenge. Some may say that Whittingtons best days were behind him in the 1970s, but I don’t think that's true. His descriptive prose is elegant without being wordy, the dialog crackles with authenticity and humor, and the plotting is, not surprisingly, exceptional. There is a Mormon subplot, which was entertaining enough, that smelled of padding that could have easily been cut to really make this a taut 200 pager, but only a minor quibble. Four stars.

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Saturday, June 26, 2021

Review: The Lady Kills

The Lady Kills The Lady Kills by Bruno Fischer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm surprised that Bruno Fischer didn't receive any coverage in Haut's or O'Brien's books on crime noir. Even in Horsley's The Noir Thriller there is just one mention of Fischer, in the Fatal Women chapter, and it is for this book. And I have to say, Beth Antler, is a femme fatale character in all caps, pretty much a textbook example, you could teach a course on the topic using her as an archetype. The noir protagonist is Simon Field and he's an editor working for the newspaper published by Beth's father. The small town is run by gangsters who control the politicians and the newspaper's editorial page is at war with the corruption, which becomes a bigger focus in the second half of the novel. The first half is all about Simon falling under the spell of Beth, even to the point of covering up a murder for her. The plot complications expand out from there, including a nice twist up at the end. Strong characterization, good plot, and the usual noir trappings. The pace was a bit slower than a lot of the Gold Medal era books, but Fischer was a good writer so the less than break-neck paced sections are still interesting reading. Prologue has an eBook version so this is readily available.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Review: The Squeeze

The Squeeze The Squeeze by Gil Brewer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Finishes strong after a clunky setup requiring major suspension of disbelief. The squeeze of the title is that everyman accountant Joe Maule loses a bundle gambling and has to repay a mobster by tracking down 260K stolen and hidden by another guy. As I said, major suspension of disbelief required with this plot. It gets even harder to believe following a twist Brewer introduces. But once you get passed that in the first third of the book the action picks up and the story rips along to the end. The dialog seemed out of whack at times, with the mobster sounding like something from a B-movie, and our protagonist - as Brewer's protagonists often are - mostly uncommunicative. What this novel has, however, is another of those great extended series of scenes involving the disposal of a body. Ranks up there with similar scenes in Brewer's The Vengeful Virgin and Satan Is a Woman. Mid-tier Brewer, but the body disposal sections are top-notch and make this one worth tracking down.

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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Review: Affairs of a Beauty Queen

Affairs of a Beauty Queen Affairs of a Beauty Queen by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hitt's books from the late 1950s and early 1960s are interesting because, using the term somewhat loosely now, they are a kind of cultural anthropology. He frequently picked a business or some cultural practice and then showed its sleazy underbelly. Here we have beauty contests sponsored by newspapers. Not exactly a scam, but clearly a shady business practice. As Hitt describes it we have small town newspapers running beauty contests where local businesses sponsor a contestant and the newspapers feature pictures of the contestants along with ads for the businesses. The only way to vote is to go to the store in person to cast your ballot. The newspapers sell lots of ads and the stores report that business is booming. The winning contestant gets $500 and the Miss whatever city title and a chance to go on to the county contest and maybe the state and the national contest. In this book we have two city contests and two contestants and two sets of sleazy participants. The contestants are Lili and Cherry and most of the book is narrated in alternating sections from their POVs. What will they go through to win? Who will they bed? Who will take advantage of them? Will they win? Those are the plot elements. Throw in blackmail and attempted rape and there is just enough crime elements to create some edge. Decent writing, decent plot, some good cultural anthropology, but could have used more edginess.

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Sunday, June 13, 2021

Review: The Key-Lock Man

The Key-Lock Man The Key-Lock Man by Louis L'Amour
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Another of the first L'Amour books I read back in junior high (it's like a reading time capsule!). Cat and mouse plot with a lot of great descriptions of the Utah and Arizona deserts. Omniscient POV, and L'Amour makes full use of it, roving in and out of every character's head to provide a complete picture of the pursued and the pursuers. Saves the climax until the last couple of pages, so this is a page turner to the very end.

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Review: The Long Night

The Long Night The Long Night by Ovid Demaris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Private eye Vince Slader is a character born from Spillane’s Mike Hammer school of ultra hard-boiled detectives, hard-boiled to the point of self parody. Most of the familiar hard-boiled PI tropes are here, Slader is a former cop, gets beat up, gets laid, hands out plenty of brutal violence, barks caustic and smart ass dialog, etc. Demaris writes all of this very well and adds a couple of nice touches, a best buddy, and a love interest that humanize Slader and make him more sympathetic. The plot has something to do with killing a husband and collecting the insurance and although familiar, is executed well. The destination isn’t all that important, it's the ride, and the novel delivers a fun and wild one. Four stars.

Digital copy available from Cutting Edge books

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Review: Dawson's Run

Dawson's Run Dawson's Run by Tim McCloud
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good example of "don't judge a book by its cover" as the cover art and blurb have nothing to do with the story. This is a straight-ahead western. Ben Dawson is the marshall of Piney Flats and inserts himself in the middle of a feud between two neighboring ranches, one of which borders his own spread. When Dawson's ranch is raided - cattle stolen, buildings burned, ranch hands killed, and his daughter kidnapped - Dawson goes all out to find the killers and his daughter. Some of the transitions are abrupt and there are quite a few cliches and some hokey western dialogue, but this book is non-stop action with almost continuous shoot-outs and hardly any filler in between. A fast, fun, and frenetic read for sure. Does a have a couple of explicit sex scenes, which is rare for 1960s era westerns, and that makes it a nice vintage sleaze collectible, particularly with the cover art.

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Review: Nevada Death Trap

Nevada Death Trap Nevada Death Trap by J.R. Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Randisi, writer of all 470+ Gunsmith books, is a consistently entertaining teller of dialogue driven, easy to read stories. The Gunsmith books can be read in a sitting or two and are perfect escapist summer reading. Here Clint Adams befriends a family of Gypsies and helps them get to town to repair their wagon. A bigoted rancher, and the townsfolk in general, want the Gypsies driven out and Clint is forced to protect them. This is an Adult western so naturally there is a beautiful Gypsy woman and the rancher’s horny daughter for Clint to have explicit sex with. I have a box full of Gunsmith books and can pick any one of them out randomly and know exactly what I’m in store for - a reliably amusing story well told.

Digital ebook available from Amazon.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Review: The Moon in the Gutter

The Moon in the Gutter The Moon in the Gutter by David Goodis
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is not so much a novel as a short sequence of events that goes nowhere. It has the kind of fatalism that noir is known for: the protagonist who is doomed. In this case he is trapped by his own limited sense of identity. He apparently hasn’t heard of the “American Dream,” where hard work can take you anywhere. He grew up on the mean streets and in his mind that’s the only place he can live. So when the upper class woman shows up in her sports car and wants to take him uptown? No can do. “Don’t you see the way it is? We don’t ride the same track. I can’t live your kind of life and you can’t live mine. It ain’t anyone’s fault. It’s just the way cards are stacked.” Spoiler alert, that is on the last page. And it is actually a fitting wrap up for this annoying protagonist who spends the novel, in between fist fights and drinking binges, in situations where he needs to say something but can’t get the words out, or needs to move but can’t. He is frozen in place and unable to act. The novel begins with him staring at the blood stains where his sister was murdered. At the end of the novel he knows the answer to who her murderer is. We do too even though the murderer is never identified.

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Saturday, June 5, 2021

Review: Nurse Lily and Mister X

Nurse Lily and Mister X Nurse Lily and Mister X by Diane Frazer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author Dorothy Fletcher wrote several vintage Nurse Romance novels using the pseudonym Diane Frazer. This one from 1961 tells the story of Nurse Lily who has been entrusted to care for a VIP, a Brit named Sir Edgar, whose identity must remain a secret. The conflict that drives the story involves a dashing young newspaper reporter named Andrew who has been assigned to sniff around on a lead speculating the secret patient's identity. A romance develops, but is Andrew really falling for Lily, or is he just trying to pump her - for information that is. Sir Edgar is a fascinating character, brilliant and cantankerous, and he encourages Lily to feel out the potential threat of discovery by Andrew while providing plenty of snappy and amusing dialog. The strengths of the novel are the smart dialog and plotting, a few nice twists that I didn't see coming, and a weakness is the subplot about Lily’s friend Norman that didn’t really go anywhere (maybe word count filler). In general this is a terrific story and a top notch Vintage Nurse Romance novel if you’re interested in this genre, which was once popular and now sadly forgotten.

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Monday, May 31, 2021

Review: The Widow

The Widow The Widow by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Orrie Hitt wrote 150+ sleaze-noir novels in the 50s and 60s. I've read more than 50 of them so far and the quality of the writing is quite varied. Not sure where this one will ultimately rank after I've finished reading all of Hitt's books, but right now The Widow is very close the top of the heap. Generally, his pre-1960 books are better written, and this is mostly because in the early 1960s Hitt was cranking them out assembly-line mode every couple of weeks and the quality of those books dropped off severely as he rarely made an effort to write from within the character as he did with his early novels. The Widow is the story of Jerry Rebner's decline and fall. When the novel starts he has just been fired from his job operating a backhoe because he punched out his boss. He's ready to leave town until he gets his head turned by a skirt he wants to chase. In the classic noir pattern, we sense that his doom is sealed at that moment. But how it happens is the story and Hitt does a great job of stretching that out in beautiful tease and deny mode. What elevates this novel in my ranking of Hitt's novels? His dialog is stinging back and forth shots on goal, frequently fulfilling the dictum of "using exposition as ammunition." And Jerry Rebner is haunted by the death of his wife in a car accident and there are several scenes where his torment is shown completely from within the character. He's a heel, but these scenes of torment humanize him in a way rarely seen in Hitt's novels (at least the ones I've read so far). And thus we feel his fall even though we can despise his choices. It does get a bit repetitive at times - the repeated tease and deny - and this plot (as many of Hitt's plots do) bares some similarities to other of his novels, but this is one of his best.

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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Review: The Long Lavender Look

The Long Lavender Look The Long Lavender Look by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 12th novel in the Travis McGee series starts not with the beginning of a salvage job, as so many in the series do, but with McGee and Meyer in a car crash, getting shot at, and arrested for murder. So initially the story is about piling it higher and deeper on top of McGee to learn if he can dig fast enough to keep from getting buried in shit. Yes, he can dig fast enough to get out from under one pile and into another where the manure isn't accumulating quite as fast as in the one he'd escaped from. That's our McGee out of jail, but he can't leave the county, so he starts snooping around. The cast of off-the-rails characters grows, as do the complications, as McGee stirs up his own brand of shit while unraveling an almost too complicated whodunit about a years-ago armored car heist. It's a Travis McGee story, so you just knew that there would be a pot of gold out there somewhere for him to chase down. Plenty of action down the home stretch and MacDonald delivers not one but two of his trademark climactic action sequences. Here it's like a rollercoaster with two big humps before the hard brake at the finish. Actually, a great standalone crime/noir. Because it doesn't follow the series M.O., if you'd never read any of the others it doesn't matter. For McGee fans it's another episode. For noobs, it works on its own and maybe draws them into the series. MacDonald firing on all cylinders in this one. My one ding is that at times the narration slips into McGee lecturing himself in third-person, and although I'd agree that narrative move has a certain utility when it comes to characterization, for the most part, McGee talking to himself like that in a first-person POV was annoying. MacDonald also delivers a great metaphor for the mystery McGee is trying to solve: Before Pluto was discovered, the planet was inferred from other observed phenomena - it had to be there - just as the hidden antagonist of this story is waiting to be found and confronted by McGee.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Review: Unfaithful

Unfaithful Unfaithful by Peggy Gaddis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Peggy Gaddis without a pseudonym in this Venus paperback original from 1952. That's Rudi Nappi with the cover art, which makes this a nice collectible. Once you accept the basic premise - a young woman trapped into prostitution - the follow-on plotting is really superb, as Gaddis just keeps piling it higher and deeper for her protagonist Karen. Definitely kept me reading to see how she would get out of the jam. This is both a crime/noir and a romance. You've got a neat prostitution scheme run by the sleaze-ball manager of a motel and you've got Karen's unrequited love for Shaw, whom she has to chase away because she knows he would reject her if he knew about her "side-job" at the motel. That's the basic set-up and from there Gaddis just keeps raising the stakes. The double-cliff ending was maybe a bit weak on the wrap-up, but overall this was a tight bit of plotting and an enjoyable read.

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Monday, May 24, 2021

Review: Madball

Madball Madball by Fredric Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A “madball” is carney lingo for a crystal ball, the kind that Dr. Magus the alcoholic fortune teller, uses to manipulate people. Equally adept at manipulation is Burt Evans, a greedy carny sociopath who has found $42,000 in stolen cash. This drives the two main narratives with Magus brilliantly deducing the location of the stolen fortune, and Evans killing without remorse to protect it. The book provides an insider look at carnival life of the era with several fascinating characters and a relentlessly paced plot - since all the machinations need to be completed by the end of the carnival season. At its heart it’s a story about greed and what people are willing to do to get what they want, which covers a lot of bases - stealing, prostitution, murder, etc. since the carneys are not a very lawful bunch. A slice of carnival life, compelling and repellant at the same time, combined with cracking good plotting and dialog place this book near the top of the carnival noir heap. An easy five stars.

Available from Stark House Press Black Gat Books.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Review: From Door to Door

From Door to Door From Door to Door by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the things I like best about Orrie Hitt's books is that his characters have jobs and he usually digs in and shows you what those jobs are like from the inside. The books were written in the late 1950s and early 1960s so his books are fascinating cultural anthropology. The job explored in this book is selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door. Yes, it was as scammy an operation as you'd imagine. The first-person narration is by Les Drake, who manages one of the selling crews working small cities (less than 100,000 population) in New York state. He aspires to be state manager. One of his salesmen wants his job. And as the book begins Les is sleeping with Ellen, one of his salesgirls. Before too much longer she will be telling him that she's pregnant and has been lying about her age. So that's one set of plot drivers. The main storyline of the book, however, is that the owner of the company sends his daughter June to work with Les to get some field experience prior to taking over running the company. Les is not above telling lies to make sales, but otherwise he runs a clean operation compared to some of the competitors. June has other ideas. Sex sells. She recruits some girls willing to put out to get the magazine subscription. Complications evolve from there. Enjoyed this one a lot. Cool look inside the magazine subscription racket. Strong storyline with engaging first person narrator who has an edge to him. Plenty of biting back and forth dialog when the characters are in conflict. Loses a bit because of what is left out because of censorship-era editing. There's crime because of the prostitution angle and the scam selling techniques, but definitely not noir because of the ending.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Review: The Sin Fishers

The Sin Fishers The Sin Fishers by Harry Whittington
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Another of the "missing 38" vintage sleaze novels that Harry Whittington wrote in the mid-60s under a pseudonym for the Greenleaf/Corinth publishing house, this time as John Dexter. Quite an interesting novel because although it has a crime element - a gambler/gangster and his muscle are tracking and intending to kill his ex-mistress who ratted him out to the IRS - this is much more of a psychological noir. Rafe Fuller seems our focal character at the start as we begin with him following his wife's funeral and he makes all the classic mistakes noir characters fated to doom make, except for a spoiler I won't give away. Whittington, however, jumps the narration around between several characters so that we are continuously enmeshed in different psycho dramas. Characters reacting to their obsessions is what drives the plot and the focus is on the interpersonal drama rather than the action sequences more typical of this era's crime/noir genre. Although published by a sleaze house, the sex scenes are minimal and tame even by 1965 standards, so would imagine that some readers back then were disappointed. All in all, not bad, but there was a lot of repetition, as Whittington was obviously trying to stretch out the word count to fit the 190-page Greenleaf format. If you are a Whittington completist, like me, you'll want to read this, but otherwise you can probably stick to his readily available Gold Medal paperbacks that are much better.

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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Review: Saddle Sinners

Saddle Sinners Saddle Sinners by Harry Whittington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of Whittington's famed missing 38! Objectively, Whittington's novels published in the 1960s by mainstream publishers such as Fawcett Gold Medal, Avon, Ace, etc. are more conventionally plotted and the writing is more polished. What they lack, however, is everything that you will find in this Greenleaf/Corinth sleaze noir, which is narration that is relentlessly edgy and full of inside voice. The YA Twilight series has more sex than this one and yet these early 1960s publishers were hounded and eventually jailed for publishing novels such as this. As I've written before when reviewing other Whittington sleazers, this genre, and the anonymity of writing for Greenleaf, freed him to write brutally honest crime/noir novels that he couldn't publish with those mainstream publishers. Although tame by comparison with what is published now, this 1964 novel shows what Gold Medal novels would have been like if there had been no censorship. I'm giving it five stars because I loved it, but also because Whittington broke the molds and gave us a crime noir we wouldn't have had otherwise. He was one of the few writers who took his sleaze assignments seriously. And it shows. Block and Westlake were great writers, but read their sleazers and it is obvious that most of the time they were taking the piss. Not Whittington. Back then he did what noir writers do now, he made it dirty. So what do we have in Saddle Sinners? A gigolo drama at a dude ranch, plus a hostage scenario and a heist, and a frigid wife awakened. Plus plenty of inside voice narration to show how F'd up all the characters are. Highly collectible, so it won't be cheap, but it is well worth the price if you can find a copy.

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Friday, May 14, 2021

Review: Crack-Up

Crack-Up Crack-Up by March Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sally Singer published several well-written vintage lesbian pulp novels under the pseudonym March Hastings which seem to be gaining some well-deserved traction since being recently reprinted by Cutting Edge Books. Here a neurotic, selfish, and sexually repressed young wife named Karen goes bananas after after her cranky husband Steve, a race car driver, is rendered bed-ridden and impotent after a crash. Not surprisingly some sexual exploits and experimentation ensue. Her relationship with Jean, whose snarky banter crackles with sarcasm and droll self-mockery, is the highlight of the book and I kind of wished that the novel were about Jean instead. The ending, dictated by the sexual climate of the times, was a bit of a clunker although the writing and dialog make this well worth reading. Four stars.

Available from Cutting Edge Books. I read it in the Vintage Sleaze collection.



Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Review: Kill to Fit

Kill to Fit Kill to Fit by Bruno Fischer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A traditional mystery rather than a noir. A big group of people are out to a lakeside estate for a fourth of July weekend and one of them is murdered. Whodunnit? Rick Train, our narrator, must solve the crime. Fischer writes smoothly and with impeccable craft, but this one moves pretty slowly, it's almost halfway into the novel before the murder occurs. Plenty of plot complications and twists and investigative activities from there and that picks the pace up to the end. I'd recommend it for mystery lovers, but if your taste goes to noir thrillers you could skip this one.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Review: April North

April North April North by Sheldon Lord
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another early Lawrence Block book, writing here as Sheldon Lord. The setting is small town Ohio in 1960. Good girls don't do IT. But this is a coming-of-age morality tale so April goes all the way in the backseat of her boyfriend's car and suffers the consequences. She loves him and is already planning marriage, babies, and white picket fences. Next day he dumps her, spreads the word around school that she put out, and other boys start calling her because they want to do IT and April does IT. Her reputation ruined, April's life spirals downward . . . Ok, this is Lawrence Block ,so it is readable, but that's about the best I can say. Shallow psychology, cardboard characters, plot-driven actions. The sex scenes are a bit better than his earlier books. Not graphic, but well-described with fewer euphemisms, except for the climactic moments, which are usually described as "and then it got better and better and better." No crime in this one. Just vintage-sleaze filtered through 1950s morality. Block's description of how he came up with the character name and the title is pretty funny: A friend created a character named June East as a play on Mae West; Block liked that, hence, April North.

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Friday, May 7, 2021

Review: Shabby Street

Shabby Street Shabby Street by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was Orrie Hitt's fourth novel and it's a serrated knife. Johnny Reagan is the first-person narrator and Hitt gave him a hard-boiled style and used it to show what a right bastard Johnny is. He has zero redeeming qualities - unless you count how hard he works at being a lying, cheating, thieving SOB -and he's proud of it. So this is a great little joy-ride with Johnny at the wheel. As usual with Hitt's books we get the inside look at some scammy business. This time it's insurance agencies selling crap policies. Johnny starts up a couple of agencies, each one to bail-out what he stole from the last one, so there's the plot driver of him constantly having to raise cash to replace money he stole. Then there's Janet and Julie and Beverly and Cynthia. The first two he wants, the third he marries, and the last is sort of his partner in crime. Plot complications galore as Johnny chases and juggles his activities with these four women. Really enjoyed the edginess in this one. It's kind of what was lacking in some of the other Hitt books that I've rated lower. Has the same corny metaphors, the kind that clunk up the other books, but the difference here is that the rest of the writing is clean and tough and driven by a strong voice.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review: Tears Are For Angels

Tears Are For Angels Tears Are For Angels by Paul Connolly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! Noir masterpiece for sure. How did did this not get mentioned in the books on crime and pulp fiction by Horsley, Haut, O'Brien, and Ritt? How did this not get made into a movie in the 1950s?! Soon as I finished this I went back and read it again, hardly believing that it could be as good as it seemed the first time and found myself riveted once again. The beginning is a stone cold killer. Harry London, down as far as a man can go, out in his hermit cabin bingeing on white lightning and shooting at cans while trying to visualize the face of the man he wants to kill. And up drives Jean Cummings to throw down the challenge. After a sharp opening battle between them, the rest of the story comes churning out. How Harry got down so low, his wife's murder, the vengeance he seeks, and the devil's bargain he and Jean strike-up to bring about that vengeance, which she also seeks, to fruition. The build-up is twisty and tense and the unraveling ending sequence does not disappoint. This is a great one that needs to be rediscovered and appreciated by fans of crime/noir fiction.

Finally back in print from Stark House Black Gat Books.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Review: Intimate Nurse

Intimate Nurse Intimate Nurse by Kimberly Kemp
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The uneven quality of the writing - prose that lapses at times into cliches and extended expository telling - had me speed reading a fair amount of the time, but otherwise this is an interesting noir about a private nurse who moves in with a family and takes over. The writing is at its best while our nurse is plotting how to take over the household and when she is manipulating and controlling the family. Yes, she has sex with them all, but it is described in that censorship era way that has a new chapter starting just when things get steamy, meaning, you turn the page and that sex scene you were reading is ancient history.

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Saturday, May 1, 2021

Review: The Hunter

The Hunter The Hunter by Richard Stark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow, Parker is such an amoral bad ass! His entrance into the city, walking across the George Washington bridge, and then his little crime spree to raise cash, is one of the best character introductions, in any genre, that I can remember reading. As anti-heroes go, you have to love the way Parker just gives The Outfit the middle finger "you're going to pay me whether you like it or not." I'd say he takes them out a bit too easy in the last third of the book, but this is entertainment reading, so, just like when watching an action movie, willing suspension of disbelief is what you have to do. The ending was a nice surprise, and I'm guessing not there to begin with, but changed when the publisher wanted more Parker books. Great start to the series. In case you didn't know, this is Donald Westlake writing as Richard Stark. Also made into a brilliant and brutal movie - Point Blank - which was one of the first neo-noir films. Lee Marvin played Parker to the hilt.

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Friday, April 30, 2021

Review: Carnival Girl

Carnival Girl Carnival Girl by Max Gareth
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Solid writing propels this sleazer a notch above most of the vintage erotica of the era. It tells the sordid tale of Norma, an eighteen year old runway, who dreams of California but ends up getting work as a stripper in a traveling carnival. Norma is not only beautiful, she has an eye-popping physique that no man can ignore, or even resist. Norma is forced to fend off advances by slathering, slobbering horndogs who just can’t control their primitive instincts. Sort of a mildly amusing female sexual awakening/coming-of-age story (but written by a man) for most of the book then an interesting plot twist catches fire leading to an unexpected climax. I really liked the carney atmosphere and the writing in general. I give it an extra star just because I have an inexplicable fondness for carnival books (swamp books too). It’s an okay book if you like carnival stories. I can’t recommend it otherwise.

Available from Cutting Edge Books. I read it in the Vintage Sleaze collection.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Review: No Nice Girl

No Nice Girl No Nice Girl by Perry Lindsay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Perry Lindsay was a pseudo of Peggy Gaddis. When this novel was reprinted in paperback in 1946, it was one of the first of a bewildering array of Gaddis paperback reprints that began appearing along with her paperback originals in the late 1940s and 1950s. By that time Peggy Gaddis had already published more than 100 novels in hardcover. All told, she wrote nearly 300 novels under a variety of pseudonyms. No Nice Girl starts right off with Anice spying through the drapes and catching a businessman having an affair with a neighbor and then blackmailing him into buying her house for $5,000, which in 1946 would have been a considerable amount for an 18-year old to play around with. Where things go next is a bit surprising and never completely given motivation: Anice goes to New York City and moves in with her cousin Phyllis. (What does she do with the $5,000? Spends it mostly on clothes.) Over the course of the novel Anice worms her way into Phyllis's life, angling for her boyfriends and her job. With a little more edge and darkness this could have been really creepy. It's like one of those horror movies (Rock the Cradle?) where the seemingly nice girl invades the family and yet we know she has evil intent. Here, though, the others see what she is up to right away but inexplicably let it happen. Before the happy ending - this is ultimately a romance novel, after all - Phyllis nearly losses everything to her not so nice cousin.

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Review: Shoot-Out at Sugar Creek

Shoot-Out at Sugar Creek Shoot-Out at Sugar Creek by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The popular Spillane/Collins team-ups have proven to be terrific books and the Caleb York novels that take place in the Old West are no exception. Every entry in the six book series has been special. Although you may expect York to be Mike Hammer in the Wild West, the lawful Caleb York is actually a much more multidimensional and sympathetic character. Here York's lover Willa Cather gets involved in a range war with a newcomer, the devious female Victoria Drummond. To greatly complicate matters, Willa finds herself on the wrong side of the law which York, now a Marshall, has vowed to protect. As the range war escalates York, finding himself in an extremely thorny situation, goes full-on Hammer with some drunkenness and brutality showing a side of York that we haven’t seen before. The last third of the book is nearly impossible to put down as the tension and violence ramps up, steering the narrative to a highly satisfying conclusion. It’s been a real pleasure visiting with York and the denizens of Trinity once again and I’m hoping for more Caleb York stories from Spillane/Collins.

Now available in print and ebook.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: I'll Call Every Monday

I'll Call Every Monday I'll Call Every Monday by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“She had the insurance policy in one hand, her bra and panties in the other.” Ah yes, game on! This is another of Hitt’s noir classics that deserves to be rescued from dusty garage sale boxes, and thanks to inexpensive ebooks, it just might survive. The engaging voice of the first-person narrator keeps this one entertaining even as you hear echoes of James M. Cain's Double Indemnity with the plot of an insurance guy and a femme fatale out to collect on a fraudulent insurance policy. That’s really the only similarity, however, with Cain’s book as Hitt layers in a completely different plot embellished with parallel tracking sub-plots. Enjoyed this one a lot. As is often the case with Hitt's books, reading them now is like entering a time capsule. Here we have the circa 1960 insurance milieu: Insurance agents going door-to-door to collect weekly premium payments. Wow, what a different world we live in now!

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Saturday, April 24, 2021

Review: Northwest Nurse

Northwest Nurse Northwest Nurse by Arlene J. Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Excellent writing and characterization. Medical parts done well, particularly the emergency room surgery scene. Evocative descriptions. Good use of body language to suggest emotional/psychological states. Strong plot with enough conflicts to keep things interesting. Pitch perfect happy ending that this genre usually requires including the bad actors getting what they deserved as well. Plenty of foreshadowing of the big event (a tsunami), my only complaint being that we didn't really get to experience the tidal waves because the protagonists were already on high-ground, where they were well-positioned to treat the injured in the aftermath. There were a couple of noir-ish side plots that I would have liked to have seen teased out more, which would have put our nurse protagonist in more danger, that's really all that was lacking.

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Friday, April 23, 2021

Review: Shadowland

Shadowland Shadowland by Elaine Evans
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Gil Brewer is one of my favorite crime/noir writers and late in his career, writing as Elaine Evans, he wrote four gothic novels, of which Shadowland, published in 1970, is the only one I've been able to find and read. Brewer fully delivers on the gothic atmosphere and paranoia and that is the best part of this novel. Fast-paced action scenes were always a strength of Brewer's and there are plenty of them here, too, usually with the protagonist running, which is another gothic trope Brewer nails. And he also showcases his scenic abilities with a lot of set-piece verbal confrontations between characters. The challenge is that Brewer makes a less than minimal attempt to guide the reader through a plot that doesn't make any sense. Lacking even a skeleton of a story as support, atmosphere and action alone fail to hold this novel together. It's an interesting read for Brewer collectors and completists, but my recommendation doesn't go beyond that.

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Review: By Flesh Alone

By Flesh Alone By Flesh Alone by March Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Early lesbian pulp novels were often written by men, not the case here since this one was written in 1962 by Sally Singer using the pseudonym March Hastings. Singer wrote over 120 novels, plenty of them lesbian themed. Openly gay (bold for the times) she gives her novels some serious authenticity. Here she tells the story of Lila, a young woman bored with a dull marriage, who ditches her husband for a life as a Bohemian in early 1960s Greenwich Village. The Village was an epicenter for the Beat Generation at that time populated by artists and musicians, most of them flat broke and living in splendid squallor. The book is very well written, I don’t know how I’ve never heard of Singer before - she can really write, and serves as an interesting snapshot of life in the Village with adventure, romance, jealousy, and some fairly torrid (for the 1960s) lesbian sex.

Available from Cutting Edge Books. I read it in the Vintage Sleaze collection.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: It's a Sin to Kill

It's a Sin to Kill It's a Sin to Kill by Day Keene
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Strong beginning with a fishing charter captain waking up on the wrong boat and slowly remembering the incidents of the night before that do not add up. He's quickly a murder suspect and the book moves into the investigative phase. As with a couple of the other early Day Keene books I've read this investigative phase gets a bit redundant with the same facts being repeated numerous times. Some good twists, including a nice surprise at the end, but not enough action to make this one really sing.

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Monday, April 19, 2021

Review: The Bitch

The Bitch The Bitch by Gil Brewer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once this one gets into gear it is a typical Brewer nitro propelled plot of robbery, murder, chase and evasion. Starts a bit slow compared to most of Brewer’s other novels, but the slow setup actually pays huge dividends. Tate and Sam Morgan are brothers and partners in a private detective agency and as the novel starts we glean that it is not all brotherly love between them. The plot picks up quickly when we learn that Tate is planning a robbery with Thelma, “the bitch” of the title. There is the usual late 1950s misogyny at work here, but the book could just as easily have been titled “The Bastard” as our narrator Tate has no illusions about what he is. I thought the effort put into character development, although it slowed the pace at times, made this a much stronger and deeply felt book than some of Brewer's more breakneck noirs.

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Review: Lust Is No Lady

Lust Is No Lady Lust Is No Lady by Michael Avallone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prolific author Michael Avallone is probably best known for his 30+ “Ed Noon” private detective novels.This, the fourteenth entry in the series, tells the story of Noon finding himself dangerously out of his element and stranded when a low flying plane drops a load of bricks on his car while driving through Wyoming on his way to a vacation in California. Things only get more complicated when he rescues a naked woman who has been tied to the ground, gets dumped from a motorcycle, then gets involved with a man with smoking hot wife and daughter,and a psychotic son, who have partnered with some baddies to find a long lost cache of gold dust. The Noon books never take themselves too seriously with lots of sly humor and some wacky plotting which help to make the series, and this book, such delightful entertainment. The book is a total blast, funny and fast moving. I liked it a lot.

Available as an affordable ebook.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Review: Hell Bait

Hell Bait Hell Bait by Harry Whittington
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of Harry Whittington's famed "missing 38" sleaze novels published by Corinth (Greenleaf) in the mid-1960s when he was on a one book per month contract. Many of those novels hid a crime/noir story in between the sex scenes, which is the case with Hell Bait. Crime/noir with sex scenes. Yes, we have plenty of that now. But one of the reasons the missing 38 are famous is that you couldn't do that back then (unless you went the sleaze route). Gold Medal paperback with explicit sex scenes? No way. Now imagine one of Whittington's Gold Medal paperbacks with those sex scenes. What would you have? Something just like Hell Bait. The crime/noir plot is that Steve Burnette is trying to find out who murdered his brother. However, he's too busy getting laid to do much detective work. I would have liked more investigating, so that's the negative. Loved all the gritty psychological trappings: the biting introspection, the psychological warfare between characters. A brutally raw and honest layer that Gold Medal wouldn't have touched. Hard to find and expensive, but worth it for collectors.

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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Review: The Brat

The Brat The Brat by Gil Brewer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Surprised this one was never made into a movie because it has everything: robbery, murder, double-crosses, car chases, boat chases, gun fights, hot babes and hunky guys. The title is one of those misleading Gold Medal marketing ploys common in the 50s: Evis is no brat, but she is all femme-fatale, going at things “like a blitzkrieg in tight nylons.” The novel starts right in the middle of the action with Lee Sullivan showing up late for the robbery planned by his wife Evis and he quickly realizes that she is framing him for both the robbery and the murder of her co-worker. After a back story chapter describing how they met and the progression towards the robbery, the chase is on as Sullivan tries to track down Evis and the $100,000 with the police in pursuit. Plenty of action in this one with a fully realized narrative arc that is propelled by Brewer's relentless pacing.

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Thursday, April 15, 2021

Review: A Key to the Suite

A Key to the Suite A Key to the Suite by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this book when I was thirteen and clueless about corporate politics and thought it pretty boring compared to the other crime-noir novels I was reading back then. Now, though, after serving time in the corporate world, including having been tasked with some of the same post-merger duties given the novel's protagonist, I found this book absolutely riveting and read it straight through from beginning to end. The plot is a riff on post-merger organizational politics. Floyd Hubbard, corporate hatchet man, is heading to a convention to give a final review of Jesse Mulaney, the soon to be axed head of sales. Mulaney, with the help of his right-hand man, Fred Frick, will not go gentle into the good night and crafts a plan to set up Hubbard and embarrass him at the convention in the hope that this will save Mulaney's job long enough so he can collect his pension. That's the battle drawn and to discover the surprising way it plays out you will just have to read the book yourself. Also on tap, though, is the maturation of Floyd Hubbard into a stone-cold executive. MacDonald also delivers that arc with a nail gun. Another thing that makes this such a great read is the way MacDonald makes full use of the third-person point of view to show this power struggle from all angles; not just from the main characters' point-of-view, but from the minor characters' viewpoints as well. That depth of characterization, combined with an intricate plot filtered through a perspectival point-of-view, should make this a compelling read even if you haven't spent time in the corporate world. MacDonald obviously knew the business world inside and out, however, so if you've been there and done that, this novel rings true.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: Go Home, Stranger

Go Home, Stranger Go Home, Stranger by Charles Williams
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a mystery-thriller rather than a noir-thriller and it loses quite a bit of the edge that Charles Williams novels usually have because it sticks to the conventions of the mystery genre. The basic plot is that the protagonist - Pete Reno - needs to solve the mystery to save his sister who's facing the electric chair. So right from the start this story is somewhat tepid because we don't have the urgency of Reno trying to save his own skin. The third-person narration also pushes us a bit farther away from Reno and is another drop in urgency. These are perhaps subtle points, but all you need to do is read Williams' A Touch of Death to feel the difference. Williams wrote such great action sequences so it is hard to dislike this novel even if it does seem one of his weaker ones. You have car chases, boat chases, gun battles, and plenty of lurking about in the bayou. So, better than OK. And it also makes one realize how great his best novels are if this is a weakling.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Review: The Promoter

The Promoter The Promoter by Orrie Hitt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Intricately plotted noir that deserves to be rescued from the pulp remainders and see a wider readership. The protagonist, a freelance car magazine writer, makes a series of choices that enmesh him deep into the underground nude modeling/porn scene circa late 1950s. Hitt uses the plot technique of keep shoveling on trouble until the protagonist is buried and gasping for air and that keeps the pages turning.

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Monday, April 12, 2021

Review: Deadly Welcome

Deadly Welcome Deadly Welcome by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Excellent double-edged plot about a disgraced hometown football hero who returns to his hometown to clandestinely investigate a murder. The beginning is kind of clumsy with page after page of information dump via totally unrealistic dialogue, but eventually Alex Doyle gets on the scene and the story gets into high gear. Plenty of action, but also plenty of exposition via disembodied dialogue. Not screenplay snappy dialogue. Long long paragraphs of summary delivered via speeches without any scene setting or facial expressions or gestures or anything. Even a scene where the characters are swimming and delivering speeches. That pet peeve aside, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The climactic sequence was done really well and with a lot of pace and that made for a satisfying ending. And despite my bemoaning the exposition via dialogue, MacDonald still delivers plenty of passages like this: "He felt the familiar tensions of the chase, a taste in the back of the throat of a breathless expectancy. It was, in a sense, a dreadful art, this manipulation of human beings. Discover the area of stress. And then nudge so gently and carefully. Back up the lions with a kitchen chair. But it had to be done delicately."

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Review: So Young, So Wicked

So Young, So Wicked So Young, So Wicked by Jonathan Craig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Screams along like a 57 Plymouth with some nice twists and interesting characters, as a piano playing assassin plots a tough hit in a small upstate New York town. Top notch 50s Pulp Crime fiction.

Highly recommended!        

Now back in print thanks to Stark House Press and Black Gat Books.