Saturday, May 31, 2014

TERROR'S CRADLE by Duncan Kyle

The 1970s was a great decade for adventure novels. There was a wave of writers, mostly British, who were writing suspense adventure—generally featuring a common man in very uncommon trouble—as well as the genre as ever been written. The most popular, and the most remembered, is Alistair MacLean, but there were others. Men named Desmond Bagley, Gavin Lyall and Jack Higgins. These writers were very nearly MacLean’s equal; if Mr MacLean’s early work is the measuring stick.

The genre also cultivated other writers who, while not quite consistent enough to break into the top level, wrote some pretty damn good novels. One such writer is Duncan Kyle. Mr Kyle, which is a pseudonym for one John Franklin Broxholme, published 15 novels between 1970 and 1993. He was a bestseller in the United Kingdom, but his work never quite paid out in the United States. I recently read Mr Broxholme’s fifth Kyle novel, Terror’s Cradle, published by William Collins in 1975.

John Sellers is a British newspaperman in Washington D. C. covering a Senate corruption case that may implicate an English politician. It is a bust, but before Sellers can fly home to London he is sent on a junket to Las Vegas where a starlet, who is a magnet for trouble, is in more when a man is found dead in her hotel bathroom. His Las Vegas trip is cut short when he is first threatened, and then actually chased by armed gunmen. When Sellers returns to England he learns his coworker and friend, Alison Hay, has disappeared after a seemingly successful assignment in the Soviet Union.

Terror’s Cradle is a slick adventure novel. The protagonist is both strong and vulnerable, and even better, stubborn. He quits his job and plays a harrowing game with both the KGB and CIA. His mission is to find Alison Hay, and he will do anything to do it. The locales are exotic from the desert landscape of Lake Meade in Las Vegas to Gothenburg, Sweden to the Shetland Islands in the North Atlantic. The pace is smooth and quick; it charges out of the gate and never slows. The action scenes are believable, and even better, exciting. There is a chase scene in the opening pages that transitions from Lake Meade to the barren desert landscape of its shores, and it is really one of the better I have read.

“As I stumbled quickly between the sheltering rocks, I heard the car stop and doors open and close. Then there was silence. I kept going, frantic to get space and distance between myself and the road.”

Terror’s Cradle is on par with the best of the genre. It is literate, intelligent, and exciting. The prose is sharp, the plot is straight-forward and smoothly perfect. There isn’t much mystery about where the story is going, but it is so concise and exciting it doesn’t matter. If this is an example of the quality of Mr Broxholme’s Duncan Kyle novels, there very well may be an addition to the top tier of suspense adventure writers.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"The Real Bad Friend" and "Lucy Comes to Town" by Robert Bloch

This 1978 collection included "The Real Bad Friend"
When I think of Robert Bloch, I think of his novel Psycho, which isn’t completely fair because Mr Bloch wrote a number of excellent stories—both novels and shorts. But Psycho is special in his cannon simply because it, due to Alfred Hitchcock’s film, has become a cultural icon. It is something of an originator of the modern serial killer novel (but so much better than most of the modern fare), and it really is a classic of both suspense and horror.

Something I didn’t know, until very recently, is the novel is preceded by two short stories that share a theme—psychotic multi-personality antagonists—which act as something close to building blocks for the novel. The stories are, “The Real Bad Friend” and “Lucy Comes to Town,” published in 1957 and 1952 respectively.  

“The Real Bad Friend” is, of the two stories, the easiest to trace directly back from Psycho. The protagonist is one George Foster Pendleton. George is a dull, unimaginative vacuum salesman with a mother fetish—he married his wife Ella because she reminded him of his mother and he wanted a woman to care for him—and a solitary friend named Roderick. Roderick is something of a mystery. He comes and goes at odd times, and while he and George often travel together Roderick has never met Ella. In fact, Ella knows nothing about George’s friend Roderick.

The catalyst of the story is Ella’s inheritance of $85,000, which gives Roderick an idea, which germinates into a plan. A plan George is something of a passive, almost unwitting, accomplice.

“George Foster Pendleton would never have thought of it. He couldn’t have; he was much to dull and respectable. George Foster Pendleton, vacuum salesman, aged forty-three, just wasn’t the type. He had been married to the same wife for fourteen years, lived in the same white house for an equal length of time, wore glasses when he wrote up orders, and was completely complacent about his receding hairline and advancing waistline.”

“The Real Bad Friend” is a full-bodied psychological dark suspense story. It is written in third person in a pedestrian and unadorned style. The prose is the physical embodiment of George’s personality (and lifestyle); dull, dry, reliable. But the prose is key to the success of the story. It is hiding a psychotic rottenness with an ordinary complacency. It shares a commonality with both “Lucy Comes to Town” and Psycho; a primary character who is much more than he (or she) appears.

“Lucy Comes to Town” is a simpler story than “Friend,” but it is no less interesting. It is written in first person by an alcoholic woman named Vi. Vi is both confused and scared, and her friend Lucy makes matters worse. Lucy convinces Vi that her husband is holding her hostage in their home. He is intentionally keeping Vi’s friends away, and the nurse he hired to help Vi rehab is actually nothing more than a guard.

Lucy helps Vi escape from the house, and the bulk of the story takes place in a dingy motel room as conversation between the two women. Lucy leading Vi back to the bottle and in the process into a dark ranting paranoia.

“I lay down on the bed and then I was sleeping, really sleeping for the first time in weeks, sleeping so the scissors wouldn’t hurt my eyes, the way George hurt me inside when he wanted to shut me up in the asylum so he and Miss Higgins could make love on my bed and laugh at me the way they all laughed at me except Lucy and she would take care of me she knew what to do now I could trust her when George came and I must sleep and sleep and nobody can blame you for what you think in your sleep or do in your sleep…”

The relationship between “Lucy,” “Friend,” and Psycho is obvious as one reads the stories. All three feature a primary character with multiple personalities, but more importantly are the stylistic and thematic relationships. Each has the feel of a generic crime story that Mr Bloch handily transforms into something darker, developing a psychological element and a disturbing realism. A dark realism that not only envelopes the characters, but also is relevant (the realism part) to the reader who, very likely, fears the possibility of insanity.         

I read both “The Real Bad Friend,” and “Lucy Comes to Town” in the anthology Murder in the First Reel, edited by Bill Pronzini, Charles G. Waugh, and Martin H. Greenberg and published by Avon Books in 1985.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Evolving Cover Art of Mack Bolan

I started reading Don Pendleton’s adventure series The Executioner in middle school and it was (somewhat embarrassingly) the staple of my reading for two or three years.  I even belonged to the “book club” and received the newest edition of The Executioner, and its two offshoots Able Team, and Phoenix Force every month.  A new one every month!  Those were good days.  Go to school for six hours, come home and read a little Mack Bolan.

I read online somewhere the cover art for the series, which is somewhere around 425 titles as I type this, is being updated.  The most recent cover style has featured an embarrassing—embarrassing because I would be shamed if I took it to the counter for purchase—“live action” artwork featuring a model posing with guns, grenades, knives, bazookas, and god knows what else.

The change made me reminisce about the cover styles I read as a teenager, and as I looked back at some of the older covers many gave me something like the thrill I used to feel when that book club package arrived each month.  So much action.  So little responsibility.  I made a brief survey of the Internet and identified 12 variations of style, and each of them, particularly those published pre-1990 really spoke to me. 

Variation 1.  This is a little disingenuous because the first two novels—War Against the Mafia and Death Squad—were published with their own unique covers, but I’m going to ignore them and focus on the first “standard” cover style.  The first 38 novels were published by Pinnacle Books, and, mostly, actually written by Don Pendleton.  The cover art is terrifically lurid with weaponry and violence. These titles were published between 1969 and March 1980.






















Variation 2.  Mack Bolan’s publisher changed—from the old Pinnacle to Gold Eagle—his war changed, and so did the design of his books.  These titles were published between April 1981 and May 1983—entry numbers 39 – 53.






















Variation 3.  A small change to the original Gold Eagle covers.  The overall design did not change, but “Don Pendleton’s” was added above the large block letter “Mack Bolan”.  These titles were published between June and December 1983—entry numbers 54 – 60.






















Variation 4.  Not a big change, but a change nonetheless.  “Mack Bolan” was moved to one line, and “Don Pendleton’s Executioner” was added.  The artwork remained consistent; however the quality of the cover art improved over the run.  These titles were published between January 1984 and July 1984—entry numbers 61 – 67.























Variation 5.  Another minor change here.  The “Executioner” tag was removed from above “Mack Bolan” and it was replaced with “The Executioner” and the book number in a circle in the top right corner.  This is the first style I remember reading as a kid, and I still get a little excited when I run across one.  These titles were published between August 1984 and June 1986—entry numbers 68 – 90.























Variation 6.  The same format as all of the Gold Eagle titles to date; however the yellow line at the top is gone.  These titles were published between July 1986 and January 1988—entry numbers 91 – 109.























Variation 7.  This represents the biggest change since the Pinnacle novels.  The “Mack Bolan” shrinks (and is consistently yellow or white), the title font changes significantly, and the cover art becomes less of a cohesive scene and more of a montage with something approaching a posing Mack Bolan.  A blurb from the San Francisco Examiner is also added—“The biggest of all adventure series.”  These titles were published between February 1988 and August 1989—entry numbers 110 – 128.























Variation 8.  This is the big change.  It is one I think of as the all-American Bolan.  The background is consistently white.  “The Executioner” is in red white and blue; including three stars in the “E”, and “Featuring Mack Bolan” is added just below.  The blurb also changed to a rolling format between three of four different.  This is the cover style I received once a month with my book club subscription.  These titles were published between September 1989 and December 1994—entry numbers 129 – 192.





















Variation 9Another big change.  This one happened well after I stopped reading the series, but I remember seeing these in the bookstore and thinking, “They don’t even look like Bolan books.”  “The Executioner” is flipped vertical on the left side.  These titles were published between January 1995 and January 1999—entry numbers 193 – 241.























Variation 10.  Not much of a change, but a change nonetheless.  “The Executioner” in the title is emptied and the artwork behind can be seen.  Starting with No. 258 “Featuring Mack Bolan” is removed from the cover.  These titles were published between February 1999 and April 2000—entry numbers 242 – 299.





















Variation 11.  The live action—think posing model(s)—era starts with No. 300, and it runs an impressive 128 books.  This is my least favorite incarnation of Mack Bolan.  It keeps with the montage effect, but rather than artwork it is photography.  These titles were published between May 2000 and July 2014—entry numbers 300 – 428.





















Variation 12.  The newest variation is something of a mixture of the most recent and the older titles.  It appears to be art rather than photography.  The montage effect is gone, and the title is nice and clean.  Conspicuously missing is the Series Book No. on the cover.  These titles will begin arriving in August 2014.


   

Saturday, May 10, 2014

A PHOENIX IN THE BLOOD by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

A Phoenix in the Blood is the tenth novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by Barrie Rockcliff in 1964, and it is something very different from Mr Patterson’s usual.  It is an off kilter romance with racial tension thrown in for fun.  It is not often you read something like this in a Harry Patterson novel—

“Through the trees he could see the tower of an old church that seemed half-formed, unreal in the mist.  Everything had an air of nostalgic beauty and he was filled with a pleasant sadness.”

Jay Williams is a young, intelligent man of Jamaican descent who, after receiving his PhD in history, is doing his National Service in the Intelligence Corps.  He is learning Russian in a small language school in the textile town of Rainford, England when he meets Caroline Grey.  Caroline is a young girl—only 15 years old—who is more lonely and broken than anyone should ever be.  The two start a strange (and plutonic) relationship that causes something of a stir.  The townspeople understandably whisper about the relationship, and when Caroline’s mother finds out she forces its end.

A Phoenix in the Blood is an uncomfortable novel.  Jay is 23, and Caroline is 15.  The relationship is plutonic—they are basically two lonely outcasts who enjoy each other, but there is something of a romance between them.  The townspeople’s reaction to the relationship is portrayed to be as much about Jay’s race as his age, which, at least in today’s moral mindset is bewildering.  I think, or at least hope, the reaction of a romantic relationship between an adult and a child would be equally concerning whether it is of mixed race or not.

With that said, A Phoenix in the Blood is an enjoyable and smoothly written novel.  Caroline is a sweet girl living with her grandfather, and she is seemingly much older than her years.  Her father died at the Yalu River in Korea, and her mother is a career-minded woman living in London.  Caroline is the most interesting and likable character in the novel.  She is strong, sensible, and just a bit of a romantic.

A Phoenix in the Blood is one of Mr Patterson’s attempts at a literary novel; the other is his fine novel Memoirs of a Dance-Hall Romeo.  It is flawed, but entertaining and, in places, even thought-provoking.  There is an interesting scene late in the novel where Jay is watching Caroline walk toward him across a field.  A passing cloud’s shadow sweeping toward Caroline.  Jay, in an attempt to beat the cloud’s shadow to Caroline, begins to run.

“When he was still thirty or forty yards away, it enveloped her and he stopped running.  And then the shadow passed over him in turn and he felt suddenly chilled.”


This line essentially captures the theme of the novel.  There is a darkness, which Caroline and Jay are unable to escape.  There is a fatal romanticism, which is a tell of time and place.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

HUNT AT THE WELL OF ETERNITY by James Reasoner

In 2009 Hard Case Crime introduced an adventure series featuring explorer, millionaire, and all around good guy Gabriel Hunt. There were six novels published before HCC’s partner, Dorchester Publishing, made its slow and painful fall into oblivion in 2011. The novels were published as by Gabriel Hunt, and the actual author was identified on the title page; each novel was written by a different writer.

HCC’s new publishing partner, Titan Books, is reissuing all of the Gabriel Hunt novels starting with the first title, Hunt at the Well of Eternity. This time around the writer’s name is on the front cover (James Reasoner, in this case), but the story is all Gabriel Hunt. Hunt is something of a playboy adventurer. He is sponsored by The Hunt Foundation—a family thing—to travel around the world in search of really cool stuff (think Indiana Jones with more punch).

Hunt at the Well of Eternity opens in New York City at a gala event in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gabriel and his brother Michael—the more scholarly and less adventurous of the two—are approached by a beautiful woman delivering a package to Michael. Before she can make the drop, she is interrupted by a group of armed men disguised as waiters. Gabriel fights off the men, but not before the package is broken and the woman is kidnapped. This is the opening salvo, which sets Hunt on a mission to find out who the woman is, and why she was kidnapped.

Hunt at the Well of Eternity is pure pulp adventure. The story is fast and exciting. The prose is simple (delightfully so) and straight forward. Hunt is a larger than life character who carries an old Colt .45 Peacemaker with walnut grips, and two fists made for thumping. The plot is linear and supercharged. There aren’t many surprises, but the action is brisk, and the story is a riot. It is pure adventure, and overwhelming fun.