Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Alistair MacLean has been a staple of my reading since middle school, and I have been a fan of his, and the adventure suspense genre he wrote, ever since.  I especially enjoy the work of the genre’s top writers: Alistair MacLean, Desmond Bagley, Gavin Lyall, and Jack Higgins.  While I think of those four writers as the genre’s first tier, there are a handful of writers who wrote a solid adventure story, but weren’t quite consistent enough to take the stage with the best.  One of those writers is Colin Forbes.

Mr Forbes, which is a pseudonym for Raymond Harold Sawkins, wrote more than 40 novels (most fit quite comfortably in the adventure suspense genre) and many, especially his earlier novels, are really very good.  I recently read the second novel Mr Sawkins published as by Colin Forbes, and really had a good time with it.  The title: The Heights of Zervos.
Macomber is a Scotsman who is working for British Intelligence in Rumania in 1941.  The novel opens in the early hours of a cold April morning.  Macomber is atop an oil tanker rail car, a German patrol is searching the rail yard, and the bomb he planted beneath the oil wagon has less than 10 minutes to detonation.  If Macomber moves he will be gun downed by the Germans and if he stays put he will be blown into pieces by his own bomb.

The Heights of Zervos opens with a bang, and while there is never much doubt of the story’s outcome, it maintains the suspense throughout, and, amazingly, the roll out of the story is surprising.  Macomber moves from the rail yard to a ferry between Turkey and Greece, and finally to Mount Zervos, and he does it all while dodging Germans and their bullets, impersonating an Abwehr officer, and racing a storm up Mount Zervos.
The power of the story is in its straight ahead mentality.  It moves forward with a strong pace, and the plot twists enough to keep it interesting.  Mr Forbes’ skill is in crafting a tale, which is expertly plotted with a setting developed enough to make the reader believe the action:

“It was the third night of April and Rumania was still gripped by winter, still showed no inkling of spring on the way, still lay numbed under the icy wind which flowed from the east, from the Russain steppes and Siberia beyond.”               
The elements are as much an antagonist as are the German soldiers—the snow and ice as Macomber approaches the summit of Mount Zervos represent more risk to him than the Germans.  There are a handful of scenes that actually caused me discomfort.  In one a British soldier is bound, feet and hands, in a dark cabin on the ferry between Turkey and Zervos, which caused an unsettling claustrophobia. 

The Heights of Zervos is something better than average in the genre.  It certainly has weaknesses—Macomber is a little too super and everything seems to work out a little too well—but the action and pace, setting and description, more than cover its flaws.  If you enjoy the genre you wont mind this one at all.   

Monday, September 23, 2013

New HBO Drama: "True Detective"

“True Detective” is a new HBO crime drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrleson.  It was created by Nic Pizzolato, and it is schedule to hit the air in January 2014.  Click Here for the Hollywood Report article.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


I discovered the work of Merle Constiner a few years ago, and while I haven’t read much outside the westerns he wrote for Ace in the 1960s and 70s, he has become one of my favorite pulp western writers.  I recently read his fine novel Death Waits at Dakins Station, and in my estimation it is the best novel he wrote for Ace.

Brady Willet is a young out of work cow puncher.  The novel opens with Willet standing in the rain outside the only saloon in a small Montana town.  He was paid off his last job in Wyoming, and he is making his way north to Canada for the winter.  He is approached by a man in a doe skin shirt who offers him $10 to take a simple message to a Mr Lustrell at Dakins Station. 
The message: “Shaw can’t make it.”    
It seems a simple enough task, and since Willet has only 35 cents to his name he readily agrees.  Unfortunately when he arrives at the long abandoned Dakins Station the task isn’t simple at all, and Brady’s involvement with Mr Lustrell causes him more than a few problems.  Lustrell has money trouble, and someone is trying to acquire his Box L ranch.  The interested party isn’t interested in “no” and Lustrell is worried for his own safety and that of his daughter.
Death Waits at Dakins Station is as much a mystery as a western.  It features a plot that keeps the reader guessing—and in my case mostly guessing wrong—and there is an unexpected, and very rewarding, climactic twist.  I was reminded of Ed Gorman’s westerns; particularly the deft weaving of a mystery plot into the trappings of a traditional western.  Not to mention the humor, which is the primary element that raises the novel above the ordinary— 

“‘I can’t abide this room,’ said Lustrell.  ‘I wish I was in my bedroom.’
“‘I wish I was in the Lucky Dollar Poolroom in Yuma,’ said Willet. ‘The smell was cerveza, chili, and sweat’
“They ran out of talk.”
Death Waits at Dakins Station is a premium western.  It is short, running 110 pages in mass market, and it is one of the most skilfully executed westerns I’ve read.  The plot is perfectly designed to satisfy both a western and a mystery.  The prose is stark, dry, and instilled with humor.  There is the requisite action.  Willet is bushwacked, beaten, and even chain whipped.  And at its best, it displays nearly all of these attributes at once—

“This one, the man in the hairy chaps, had his riflebutt almost to his armpit to draw his bead when Willet blasted him.  He shot twice.  Hip-shooting riflemen didn’t worry Willet too much, bead-drawing riflemen sure as hell did.”  
The characters all perfectly match the story, but Mr Constiner adds a quirky oddness to most, including a foul smelling hide-buyer named Meacham, who, when Willet meets him, explains in humorous detail how to recognize a good hide.  This is a title you should find and read, with no worry of regret.  

Death Wait at Dakins Station was published as Ace Double No. 14195 in 1970 with Ransome’s Debt by Kyle Hollingshead.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

CRY OF THE HUNTER by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Cry of the Hunter is the second novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1960.  It is an interesting novel for a few reasons.  It is the first of Patterson’s novels to feature the Irish Republican Army, which is referred to as the Organization throughout, and the protagonist is familiar to the regular reader of Patterson’s work—Martin Fallon.  Mr Patterson used the Fallon moniker as a nom de plume for six of his early thrillers, and Martin Fallon, although a different Fallon, appeared in the 1973 novel A Prayer for the Dying.    

Martin Fallon is a legend in the Organization.  He joined the IRA at 17, and was the leader of the Ulster Organization at 22, and served nine years at the Dartmoor Prison before escaping to Ireland where he lives in the rural County Cavan.  Fallon earns a living writing nondescript thrillers, drinks too much, and is generally hiding from the world.  His comfortable, if not satisfying, life is interrupted when an old associate seeks him out with a special job. 

Patrick Rogan, leader of the Ulster Organization, has been arrested and he has sent out an ultimatum.  If he isn’t busted out before he reaches Belfast he will spill everything he knows about the Organization in exchange for a reduced sentence.  Rogan is not well liked, but he knows enough to set the IRA back years.  Fallon isn’t keen on getting back into the game, but he allows himself to be manipulated, and soon he is back in Northern Ireland on a mission to rescue Rogan.
Cry of the Hunter is the footprint for many of Mr Patterson’s later novels featuring Irish anti-heroes.  The protagonist is a man fallen far below his station; in this case Martin Fallon is a product of Queen’s University, and in the words of his favorite professor—“a fine man ruined and a good mind wasted.”  He is as much a man of ideas as he is of action.  He is an idealist who knows his actions are less than ideal, and the dialogue is that of the standard Harry Patterson Irish rogue—think Liam Devlin, and Sean Dillon.

The action doesn’t play out exactly as expected—the tension of the story is between Martin Fallon and Patrick Rogan rather than Martin Fallon and the Constabulary.  It is plotted with Mr Patterson’s deft hand, and the character of Martin Fallon is developed beyond just a simple cut out.  Fallon is a romantic who is afraid he has lost his nerve, and he also fears the Organization’s momentum.  The good men are being replaced by sociopathic hoods, which is exactly what Rogan is.
The prose is sharp, stark, seemingly simple, and at places almost lyrical—

“It was a fine morning with a clear sky and the sun was beginning to lift above the horizon.  He drove in silence for half an hour and then the girl spoke.”
Cry of the Hunter is plainly one of Harry Patterson’s first novels—it suffers from a naïve exuberance of ideas and mood—but it is a good example of a quick, exciting, and entertaining thriller.  The action scenes are well written—

“Fallon moved so quickly that Doolan didn’t stand a chance.  A fist caught him high on the right cheek and he stumbled, tripped over a loose rug and fell heavily to the floor.” 
And the mood is something shifting between brooding despondence—it rains for more than half of the novel—and naïve hope, but it does so with the slightest touch of humor—

“He started to walk faster.  It wouldn’t do to collapse in the street.  That would be stupid.”
—and a bushel of romantic ideas.  There are also a few terrific terms I wasn’t familiar with.  One example is referring to the police as “peelers,” which is a slang term derived from Sir Robert Peel’s surname; the founder of the Irish Constabulary.

Cry of the Hunter is worth reading on its own merits, but it is even more interesting (and possibly entertaining) as a study of Harry Patterson’s craft, and just how far it advanced from this novel to its younger siblings with similar plot structures (i. e. A Prayer for the Dying, and The Savage Day).

Friday, September 13, 2013

THE LAST TOMB by John Lange (Michael Crichton)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s Michael Crichton published eight thrillers under the pseudonym John Lange.  The Lange novels are something very different than the science fiction Michael Crichton became famous for writing.  They are thrillers more in the vein of Desmond Bagley, early Jack Higgins, and Gavin Lyall, and I like them much more than Crichton’s big bestsellers.

Harold Barnaby is an Egyptologist in an age when nothing new or interesting is happening in the field.  His specialty is hieroglyphics, and while translating a text he discovers a reference to the tomb of an obscure Pharaoh in the Valley of the Kings.  In earlier years Barnaby dreamed of the glory of discovering an Egyptian tomb, but now, at the age of 41, he is less interested in glory and more interested in wealth.  He approaches a freelance writer named Robert Pierce with an ambitious plan to loot the tomb, which he estimates to be worth, in 1968 dollars, $50 million.
The novel is written in third person, and is structured in three titled acts—The Plan, The Search, and The Last Tomb.  The scene titles are self-descriptive.  The Plan introduces the genesis of the idea, the plan, and the compilation of the team.  The team arrives in Egypt in the second act, and the third act is the resolution.
The Last Tomb is all story.  It opens with a flash, and it races from the first page to the last.  The setting is surprisingly rich, and provides, in stark prose, the sounds, smells, and sights of the land—
“The land was flat, desolate, windy; there was no vegetation, no sign of life.”

“The modern traveler’s first view of Egypt is appropriate: Cairo airport, set out in the flat, brown sand of the desert stretching away in silent heat for miles.  It is a landscape that communicates, quite distinctly, a sense of agelessness, unchanging, interminable.”

“The villages were all the same—mud huts, dusty streets, and date-palm trees, stately camels and barking, hungry dogs.”
The Last Tomb is a thriller as thrillers were meant to be.  It is quick, light, and entertaining as hell.  There isn’t the slightest bit of character development, but it is populated with an exotic group of characters.  There is the wealthy British nobleman financing the operation on a whim who travels with, at a minimum, two young ladies, there is the smuggler, and the thief.  It is exciting, and with just enough of a twist at the end to bring a smile.

The Last Tomb was published by Bantam in 1974.  It was originally published as Easy Go by Signet in 1968, and it is scheduled to be reissued as Easy Go by Hard Case Crime later this year.  It was Michael Crichton’s third published novel, and it is among the best, behind only Binary, of the John Lange titles.

The forthcoming Hard Case Crime edition, which will be published as Michael Crichton for the first time, has artwork strikingly similar to the old suspense novel Valley of the Assassins by Ian MacAlister.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

SAD WIND FROM THE SEA by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Sad Wind from the Sea is the first novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1959.  It was a difficult title to find in the United States until it was recently released as a print on demand trade paperback and ebook by Open Road Integrated Media.

Sad Wind is a familiar story to readers of Jack Higgins.  It has a similar plot to both the The Khufra Run, and The Keys of Hell, but while it is familiar, it is a very enjoyable read.  Mark Hagen is a fallen American naval officer who, with his boat Hurrier, makes a living smuggling, gun running, and illegally pearling.  When the novel opens Hagen is on the Portuguese Island of Macao; Hurrier was impounded by customs, and Hagen is down to his last few petakas without any way to get his boat back, or earn a living.

Hagen’s prospects change when he rescues a beautiful Indo-Chinese (think Vietnamese) girl from two attackers in a rough part of Macao.  The girl’s name is Rose Graham, and she tells Hagen she was meeting a friend about retrieving $250,000 of sunken gold when she was attacked.  Her father was smuggling the gold out of North Vietnam and his boat sank in the Kwai marshes.  Hagen quickly devises a plan to retrieve the gold, but it all hinges on getting is boat out impound, and finding a willing financier.

Sad Wind has all of the elements of a solid 1950s adventure novel.  It includes the requisite communist plot; in this case a Russian named Kossoff who wants the gold for himself, and his Chinese helpers.  There is an array of underworld characters including Charlie Beale, owner of a casino, and Clara Boydell, madam of the best “house” in Macao.  The plot is intricate, and the prose is pure Higgins—stark, tight, smooth, and surprisingly atmospheric. 
“When Hagen emerged from the gambling casino at the back of Charle Beale’s café he was drunk.  He heard the door click into place behind him and for a moment he stood swaying as the cold night air cut into his lungs.”    
There are also some really neat cultural references from the 1950s.  Hagen hands out a Benzedrine—an amphetamine better known as a bennie—to Rose and says, “[T]hey’re harmless.  When they are deciding where to run with the gold Hagen says, “Not England—killed by taxes these days,” which foreshadows Mr Patterson’s hasty move to the Isle of Jersey when The Eagle Has Landed pushed his income into the millions.  There is also what appears to be an error in the text when Mark Hagen refers to Ireland as his childhood home, which is rather odd for an American—

“For a moment he shivered as he remembered stories he had heard as a child of fairy pools back home in Ireland…”
Sad Wind from the Sea is Harry Patterson’s earliest novel, but it is really very good.  And while it is familiar, and Mr Patterson does have a tendency to repeat himself, the familiarity didn’t take anything from the novel or my enjoyment of the story.  It is similar to some of the early Gold Medal adventure titles; specifically Wade Miller’s Devil May Care.  If you enjoy the old style adventure novels, or just Jack Higgins, you will have a good time with this title.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

NEMESIS by Bill Pronzini

Nemesis is the 38th novel—say that aloud and it sounds even more impressive—featuring Bill Pronzini’s Nameless Detective.  It is also an excellent entry in the series.  Jake Runyon, a long time operative of Nameless’s detective agency, takes an extortion job.  The client is a woman named Verity Daniels; Ms Daniels received a sizable inheritance from an uncle, and a crude caller is demanding $10,000 in exchange for keeping evidence of a felony from the police. 

Ms Daniels hires Jake to find the blackmailer, and she insists there is nothing in her past that would send her to jail.  Runyon finds it odd the client doesn’t want the police involved, but goes about his business in his usual competent and professional manner.  But when Ms Daniels fails to record two telephone calls from the extortionist, and then the blackmailer doesn’t turn up at the money drop, Jake’s suspicions are piqued.
Nemesis is a beautifully written and executed novel.  It is told in three distinct sections and voices; each is narrated by a different character with Nameless appearing, and taking over the action, in the third scene.  The mystery is a slow roll, and it is cleverly plotted (and paced) to keep the reader uneasy.  The reader knows something isn’t right about the set-up from early on, but it is difficult to guess exactly what Ms Daniels’ game is, and how it is going to play out.

The prose is Mr Pronzini’s usual; simply put, flawlessly smooth, and at times, almost beautiful—

“There was no way I was going to spend another day hanging and rattling in the city, going through motions, waiting for something to happen.”

The story is unusual, shockingly simple—a simplicity only a true artist can create—and highly entertaining.  In short, Nemesis may be the 38th novel to feature Nameless, but it is anything but a tired and bland retread.  Instead it is an entry that makes the series seem new and alive, and I hope it isn’t the last.   

Purchase a copy on Amazon.