For the past couple of weeks I've been reading some trashy action novels. They're good for ya. Reading great literature is also a good thing, but every once in a while you need to read something fast, pulpy, and possibly even stupid. I love literature, but I’ll admit that much of my deepest affection is for the trash, probably because it’s disrespected and unsung. Anyone can tell you that Huckleberry Finn is a great book, and you know what it’s about even if you never read it, but you’ll have to do some digging on your own to even discover the existence of a book like The Hippy Cult Murders, or Street Of Ho’s. It’s not that they’re necessarily worth the rediscovery, mind ya, but it’s kind of fun to know about stuff that 98% of the population has no knowledge of. I've written about these books and their charms before, and I found a blog that writes about 'em better than I do (Bullets, Broads, Blackmail, and Bombs - Bookmark it! Patronize it! Anyone who summarizes a Blade book as "the sides of vans have better storylines" is a genius. Plus, anyone who regularly reviews Nick Carter and Edge books is filling a niche that I'd wanna be filling if I weren't so goshdarn lazy), but I need to do some more work on this topic, I think. Too many of these books are quietly being lost because nobody sees the cultural worth of trash.
I'd considered doing a blog post where I dug out some of the weird paperbacks I've salvaged from used bookstores and library sales over the years, and scanned in their often-bizarre covers, but my house is way too big a mess to get to most of 'em right now, so I figured I'd just post a few that I actually read and wrote reviews for, instead. Here goes:
Mack Bolan: The New War - Don Pendleton, Gold Eagle, 1981.
First of the post-war-against-the-Mafia Executioner novels, in which Mack Bolan turned his killing talents against international terrorism. It's still the usual formula of sneaking around, getting in occasional firefights, with at least one chapter devoted to an outburst of rather naive but certainly heartfelt paeans to the forces of freedom. In this one, Mack has to rescue (or terminate) an American agent who as fallen into the hands of Arab terrorists who want to hijack satellites to interfere with the world’s oil supply. It’s decent and has good action, but suffers from a few distracting obsessions, such as a weird overuse of the word “hard” -- hardsite, hardmen, etc. You almost figure the last chapter will end up just reading “Hard! Hard hard hard! Hard!” Get past that, though, and it’s not bad pulp action, and definitely not a hard read, even though "hardread" is a blurb I suspect they'd like to have on the cover. And it’s successful as hell, too... the Bolan books are one of the last surviving action series, and are still being turned out under a couple of different headers of over 400 titles.
Soldato! - Al Conroy, Magnum, 1972.
A former Mafia torpedo named Johnny Morini finks on the mob and enters the witness protection program, running a store with his new wife, who’s pregnant. An ex-cop working for the Mafia manages to track him down and hit-men are sent, but Johnny gets them first and goes into hiding with his wife. Realizing that the only way they’ll ever get any peace is to get rid of the Don who’s got the contract on him, he uses his underworld skills to attempt this nearly-impossible task. First book in what became a short series (five, I think), it’s more intelligent and realistic than the usual book of this type.
Runaway Black - Ed McBain., Fawcett-Gold Medal, 1954.
The great Ed McBain was always socially-conscious (his early book under his real name of Evan Hunter, The Blackboard Jungle, was one of the first to tackle juvenile delinquency), but it’s still odd that he’d presume to take on the black experience. But, even if it’s a bit suspicious since it’s written by a white man, it’s still a powerful, desperate downer, told with McBain’s consistent skill. A young black man named Johnny Lane runs when he hears a gunshot in Harlem, just because running is what you do when you hear a gunshot. Because the man who got killed had been an enemy of Johnny’s, the police assume he’s guilty and hunt for him. Johnny tries to hide but can’t find much help, and when a junkie rips Johnny’s arm open with a broken syringe, the situation gets even worse. The cops eventually find the real killer, but nobody tells Johnny and he keeps running and hiding in an increasingly-hellish city. Ultra-gritty and grimy, but still just a wee bit pretentious, too. Early McBain and not his best, but still worth your time.
The Mark of Cosa Nostra - “Nick Carter”, Award Books, 1971
Superspy Nick Carter poses as a Mafioso to infiltrate the mob in Palermo. At first he (and a female agent named Tanya) are just out to cut off a heroin pipeline controlled by the mob, and perhaps stop and up-and-coming Mafioso from seizing power, but he soon learns it’s all a front for a Chinese Communist plot to eventually take over America using the mob to gain stateside footholds. Can Nick put a stop to their evil plan? What do you think? Pretty typical book in the series, decently written by some nameless author, but heavier on the espionage than the action.
.357 Vigilante: Make Them Pay - Ian Ludlow, Pinnacle, 1985.
Lee Goldberg, who went on to write more respectable novels (and the TV shows “Monk,” “Sea Quest,” and “Diagnosis Murder”), wrote these when he was a UCLA student just to make some extra money. This is the second in what turned out to be a trilogy (although I think there’s a fourth available only as an e-book). Vengeance-driven citizen Brett Macklin, a.k.a. Mr. Jury, goes after a pack of child pornographers and the mobsters who blew up his girlfriend. It’s well-written and there’s a decent amount of action, even though it’s not breakneck-paced; I don’t mind that, since he’s actually putting a story in there. Pretty much an average action-series novel, the 80’s equivalent of a pulp magazine.
Street of Ho’s - Leo Guild, Holloway House, 1986
I’ve alluded to this one before, just because how can ya not be fascinated with that title? It’s like Death Bed: The Bed That Eats - writing a novel takes a lot of work, even for a hack, and you can’t believe someone decided, “Yeah, this is a good title, I’m gonna write a novel.” If he wrote it, damnit, someone should read it, and I volunteer! That’s also why I’ve bought a copy of Rampaging Fuckers of Everything On The Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere, and yes, that's a real book. You go that far with a bad concept, and damn ya, ya son of a bitch, you’ll get my ten bucks. Anyway, back around 1990 or so I had a weird fascination with Holloway House, a black-oriented publishing house that published this thing. Their books were cheap and - other than their Donald Goines and Iceberg Slim titles - nobody’d ever heard of anything else they put out. So, I used to order a lot of ‘em. And I got ripped off a lot, too -- if they didn’t have something in stock, they wouldn’t send it... or refund your money. But, I also scored some weird freakin’ books. This is a trashy, simplistic Black pulp novel about a group of young prostitutes who enjoy what they’re doing. The book starts out having a sort of plot, but that gets settled midway through and the book keeps going, just following the hookers through their day to day lives. The sex, though frequent, isn’t very graphic and is mostly just mentioned in passing; I’ve heard dirty jokes that made more pretense at being erotica. So, I’m not completely sure what the purpose of the book is, and there are some odd choices made. For instance, the girl who seems to be our main character gets murdered halfway through without much fanfare, and another major protagonist is jailed a few pages after that. The last main character rather ridiculously gets a top-ten record when she figures out she can sing, and ends up with televised concerts from Madison Square Garden... which she walks out on because she likes being a hooker better. Kinda silly and rather simplemindedly written childish fantasy stuff, but it wasn’t boring, either.
Bronson: Street Vigilante: Switchblade - Philip Rawls, Manor, 1975
Third in the really ugly Death Wish ripoff series (and, I think, the final) has criminal-scumbag-killing vigilante Richard Bronson killing three young rapists with a switchblade and inspiring the wrath of one of them’s father, a wealthy industry magnate. The rich guy sics the C.I.A. on him and he has to figure out how to keep getting away with what he does... which honestly isn’t a lot in this one, as the action scenes are sparse and quickly dispensed with so the author can fit in more sex scenes, most of which are more nasty than erotic. The whole book’s pretty depraved, with Rawls throwing in a lot of racism and sleaze. Even his good-guy characters are scummy and unlikable, so there’s a misanthropic feel to the whole thing. It’s as if Rawls had contempt for anyone who’d read this kind of book and couldn’t grit his teeth hard enough to keep the I-hate-you from coming through. Even the hero’s picture on the front cover is remarkably ugly. It’s also pretty implausible, since everyone - even the cops - figure out Bronson is the vigilante running loose in the city and nobody does anything to stop him. Grade B 70’s action pulp sleaze.
The Executioner: Boston Blitz - Don Pendleton, Pinnacle, 1972.
The mob kidnap Mack Bolan’s brother and girlfriend, which drives Bolan (never a guy who needs much provoking to start with) into a kill-frenzy that he unleashes on beantown. Lots of action and even more purple prose about how tough and noble our hero is: Pendleton never lets the fact that he’s showing us stop him from telling us, too, but in this case it’s part of the writer’s unique style and charm. Good entry (#12) in the original series.
The Fanatics of Al Asad - “Nick Carter”, Award Books, 1972
This is pretty extreme even for a Nick Carter plot: the President and Vice President are killed in a mortar attack by Arab terrorists, and the Speaker of the House (next in line and therefore the new president) has been kidnapped by the same terrorist cell, and he will be executed in 48 hours if Israel isn’t disarmed. Of course Israel won’t go along with that and threatens nuclear war, so Nick Carter, Secret Agent, has to recover the new president and nullify the terror cell, singlehandedly. The book stays pretty realistic and believable, even with a plot like that, and the writing is high quality even from a faceless corporate scribe. Delivers!
Edge #17: Vengeance Valley - George G. Gilman, Pinnacle, 1975
I was an Edge fanatic in high school. I got my first two when the preacher across the street had a garage sale (what copies of “The Most Violent Westerns In Print” were doing in a preacher’s library is only for a forgiving and blood-obsessed god to know), hunted down the rest (most of which I got for X-mas in a big bulk) and read almost every one of them at least twice in study halls. I even did a book report on one of them, and that’s probably still a disturbing note in my permanent file somewhere. Edge books were written by a British author who watched Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns and decided Western paperbacks needed an anti-hero, too... and that’s exactly what Edge is. If he’s the good guy, it’s only because everyone around him is worse. He’s a half-breed Mexican/Scandinavian loner, totally motivated by self-interest, and prone to really depraved acts of violence, usually performed with a razor he keeps hidden at the back of his neck under his hair. Anyway, this is an average entry in the series and has Edge getting beaten almost to death and robbed by a gang of men, who -- even in his beaten-to-a-pulp condition -- he manages to square things with before the book is over. He also kills some men who rape a farmer’s wife who helped him. It’s good, but I’d forgotten how witty Edge thinks he is; everything out of his mouth is some bad pun or awful joke that’s so strained that other characters have to translate for him a lot. In any case, faux-clever or not, he’s not a guy you’d want to be on the bad side of, and as misanthropic as he is, pretty much everyone’s on his bad side.
Vigilante: Los Angeles: Detour To A Funeral - V. J. Santiago, Pinnacle, 1975
Second in the Death Wish-inspired series has bereaved Joe Madden going to Los Angeles to carry on his war against criminals. He rescues a hooker or two from violent pimps (who are also famous pop stars or overweight lesbians -- this ain’t a politically-correct book) and stops the local drug trade, raising a lot of hell and racking up a fair body count for a guy armed with only a .38. Simple and straightforward pulp action, no flash but no bullshit, either. One of the few series that used actual photos of a guy on the cover, although they later went to paintings. The Butcher series also flirted with using photos for a while, but were at their best when they used stark pencil sketches.
And now another blog to plug - Patton Oswalt’s Spew. One of my favorite comedians also sounds like my separated-at-birth brother, because some of his reading tastes meld with mine perfectly. If you backtrack that blog with the drop-down menu at the top, back in October he showcased a different horror short story every day, and it sent me into my library to read and re-read some of his recommendations. I really liked that and may have to come up with a short-story reading list of my own, maybe to mail to him and return the favor. I’ve always wanted to edit an anthology, but never got it together. Anyway, Patton did great on that. There’s also a “GHOULS OF PROVIDENCE” post where he wandered around H.P. Lovecraft’s hometown while he had a fever, and that made for brilliant, creepy reading. Check it out.