Saturday, January 13, 2018

THE BLACK STILETTO - Black & White



THE BLACK STILLETO – Black & White
By Raymond Benson
Oceanview Publishing
309 pgs

In the first book of this series, a divorced unemployed accountant named Martin Talbot uncovered a startling secret upon opening the contents of his mother’s effects.  In the 1950s and 60s, his mother, then Judy Cooper, donned a masked and became a crime fighting vigilante known as the Black Stiletto. Now she suffers from Alzheimer’s and is committed to medical institution. In her diaries, part of the cache he discovers, he learns that as a teenager, Judy had run away from her abusive stepfather in Texas to begin a new life in New York City. There she came under the tutelage of an exboxer named Freddie who taught her how to fight. She later added to her martial skills by studying both judo and karate from a Japanese sensei. Eventually she had a romantic tryst with a young man who she later learned was part of the Mafia. When he was murdered, Judy decided to mete out her own justice in the guise of her secret identity. By the book’s finale, Martin is forced to accept the realities of his discoveries and keep them a secret from everyone including his own daughter, Gina, who adores her grandmother.

With “Black & White,” the saga continues and again is narrated by both Martin in the present and by sections of Judy’s detailed diaries showcasing her exploits. For Judy the year is 1959 and the country is undergoing radical changes. Many are due in part to the racial tensions boiling up in the urban centers of America’s fast growing cities. Harlem has become a blacks-only community and a gangster named Carl Purdy has risen to power. He has grandiose ambitions and challenges the Italian families for control of the growing drug trade.

As the Black Stiletto enters the fray, she finds herself hunted by a smart and handsome F.B.I. agent named John Richardson. Through a series of dangerous outings, the Stiletto manages to start a truly weird, and romantic, relationship with the dedicated agent. While their feelings for each other threaten both of them, Judy finds herself embroiled in the Harlem gang war and agreeing to a truly bizarre alliance with a Mafia Don. Meanwhile, in our time, son Martin has unearthed an actual film reel of Judy in her Black Stiletto get-up and is being blackmailed by a small time New York thug who also owns a copy of the same film.

Once again, Raymond Benson weaves twin stories, interweaving them skillfully while heightening the suspense with each new chapter so that the reader is rewarded with not one but two exciting and dramatic climaxes. What makes this book a winner, as was the first, is his knack of bringing Judy Cooper to life with all her courage, naiveté and sincere empathy for others. She is a wonderful character; one you really should get to know.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

THE OLD MAN'S REQUEST




THE OLD MAN’S REQUEST
(Book One of the Utgarda Trilogy)
By Joab Stieglitz
Available at Amazon
109 pgs

In the summer of 1929, three people are summoned to the hospital by an ailing college professor. Fearing his time is short; Prof. Jason Longborough confides a terrible secret to his prorge, Anna Rykov, a Russian anthropologist, Dr. Harold Lamb, a general practioner and Father Sean O’Malley, a Catholic priest versed in the church’s exorcism rituals. Fifty years earlier, Longbrough, then a college student, and several friends, made the foolish decision to dable in the occult; the end result being they actually summoned a horrific demon named Urgarda. Trapped in our world since that time, the shape-shifting monster has kept his existence secret by murdering those with any knowledge of presence.

The old professor realizes it is his responsibility to somehow re-summon the demon to the abandoned farmhouse where he first appeared and there destroy him. The task is too difficult for one person and thus Longborough brings his three young colleagues into his plans. But time has run out for the guilt ridden teacher and after relating his wild story to the trio, he dies. 

Initially all three question whether the old man’s tale was factual or the rantings of a failing mind. Still, to ignore it would have serious consequence; chief among these allowing the demon to continue his evil machinations in our dimension. Bit by bit, each of the three begin to accept the mission that has been foisted on them and the real horror it portents. Having no other recourse, it is up to them to carry out Longborough’s final request and confront the beast.

Joab Stieglitz offers up a really well crafted thriller filled with enough suspense and action to adroitly move his plot along.  Anna, Dr. Lamb and Father O’Malley aren’t superheroes, but rather good people caught up in an affair far beyond anything any of them had ever experienced before. It will take all their courge and mutual trust in one another to summon the demon and defeat it. If that is even possible? “The Old Man’s Request,” is a sure fire page turned.  Need I say more?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

THE BALLAD OF BLACK BART



 
THE BALLAD OF BLACK BART
By Loren D. Estleman
Forge Books
231 pgs

This being a fictionalized tale based on historical personages by one of the most enjoyable writers in the western field. But before launching into the review, let me confess that Mr. Estleman is one of those treasures we only discovered a few years ago much to our consternation as he as quickly become one of our favorite writers. With over eighty novels to his credit, ranging from mysteries, both historical and modern, to westerns, for which he has often been times recognized with numerous awards, the man just naturally knows how to spin a good yarn. And this latest is no exception.

The plot revolves around two men, one a daring and resourceful outlaw and the other the manhunter who was tasked with bringing him to justice. From 1875 to 1883, the poetry writing criminal known as Black Bart held up 28 Wells, Fargo stagecoaches. What is more remarkable is that he did these crimes on foot and armed only with an empty shotgun. All of which became a personal affront to company agent James B. Hume who became obsessed with catching the road agent no matter how long it took or how much he had to spend to do so.

It is the irony of the tale itself that Wells, Fargo, via Hume, ended up expending much more money in capturing Bart than he ever actually got away with. In the end, the book reads like a marvelous comedy as Estleman skillfully explores each man’s character and seeks to discover what motivated them in their chosen professions. That he finds similarities in their natures and world views is fascinating and by the time we’d reached the book’s middle there was no way we could possibly put it down.

Estleman richly deserves every award he has ever been given and “The Ballad of Black Bart” is a fitting example of why he is so well admired and loved. We’re still sorry we came to the party late, but we’re doing our best to make up for lost time. You might want to join the club with this truly wonderful title.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

THE ASSASSIN



THE ASSASSIN
An Issac Bell Adventure
By Justin Scott & Clive Cussler
Putnam Books
406 pages

This new Isaac Bell adventure is set in 1905 and begins when a highly skilled sniper sets about murdering high officials working for Standard Oil, the biggest energy empire in America. Bell, as a Van Dorn detective, is assigned to the case and suspects the killings are a prelude to even further crimes all meant to discredit the man referred to as the “Most Hated” in the country, none other than J.D. Rockerfeller.

Once again, writer Justin Scott’s fast moving tale is meticulously researched and his depiction of Rockerfeller an acute one. It offers us a look at a giant of industry who was neither monster or saint, but a complicated mixture of both. To complete his mission, Bell gets himself hired as Rockerfeller’s personal bodyguard and accompanies him to Russia’s Baku oil-fields caught in the middle of an armed revolution. Amidst this violent environment, Bell is sure the assassin will strike again, this time directly at the infamous tycoon.

At the same time the daughters of a company officer, Nellie and Edna Matters become involed with the affair. Nellie is a balloonist and diehart suffraget battling for women’s rights while her sister Edna is a truth-seeking journalist sensing Bell’s investigation will uncover ties to their family history. If so, what are those links and do they lead to the killer?

“The Assassin” is another page-turning thriller in a series that has yet to falter. Each new Isaac Bell book is a cheer delight to even the most jaded action reader. Kudos, Mr. Scott and please, keep’em coming.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

MYSTERY OF THE HORNED MONSTER



MYSTERY OF THE HORNED MONSTER
A Hollywood Cowboy Detectives Mystery
By Darryle Purcell
A Buckskins Edition Western

If you are a devoted movie buff who knows William Pratt was Boris Karloff’s real name and Bela Lugois was originally Bela Blasko then you most likely will know in which Republic Serial Reed Hadley starred? Now if you are nodding your head with a giant smile on your face, then dear readers, you are absolutely going to love this book by Darryle Purcell. It is the 11th in his Hollywood Cowboy Detectives series and just unabashed fun from the first page to the last. Purcell knows his Hollywood history and weaves it through out his story via his three heroes; Sean “Curly” Woods, Nick Danby and Hoot Gibson. 

Curly, our narrator is a PR writer for Republic Studios specializing in their B-westerns while Nick is a studio chauffeur working for his older brother Nick Danby, a studio big-wig. And lastly there is silent western star Hoot Gibson, trying to keep his career going in the age of the “talkies.”  Whenever something strange or bizarre happens in the tightly knit film community, Nick calls on Curly and his pals to investigate. In this book, someone is trying to sabotage a newly reformed Monogram Pictures by causing accidents on the set. One invariably results in the death of a stage hand.

The three compadres begin their investigations and hook up with Karloff in the middle of doing a Mr. Wong short for the small studio. The dynamic actor offers to help and soon thereafter they find themselves protecting Bela Lugosi as clues indicate both actors are primary targets of the saboteurs. 

Honestly we could go on and on but that would be spoiling the fun. That Purcell has a genuine love for old classic movies is obvious. The adventure is fast paced, filled with equal amounts action and slapstick humor. Enough so, we wish someone would option this book and film it.  And as if that wasn’t enough goodness, this volume contains a bonus short which features both Ken Maynard and Lon Chaney Jr, who is apparently being haunted by the characters his dead father played in the movies.

Purcell also did the art illustrations in the book and the cover which is masterfully rendered. How much talent can one man have?  In the end, we are just sorry we hadn’t found this series a whole lot sooner.  If you love serials, historical monster movies and the pulps, we urge you to grab this one now. Trust me, once read, you’ll say you owe us one big time.

Monday, November 27, 2017

MURDER IN THE MIRACLE ROOM



MURDER IN THE MIRACLE ROOM
By Micah S. Harris
Minor Profit Press
256 pgs

Young April Gurley was a typical Southern young lady living in Tar Forks, North Carolina when she developed the stigmata; the bleeding of her palms resembling the wounds of the crucified Jesus. The news of this made her a celebrity among the religious fringe groups. Then before she can adjust to this new life in the stoplight, April and her father are in an automobile accident and she is left in a coma. Her father, one of the town’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, hires round the clock care for his only child to include nurses and health care providers. One of the latter is Twyla Chayne, one of April’s high school friends whose job it is to bathe her daily and see to her linens etc. while the nurses handle the respirator machine that keeps April breathing and the I.V. tubes that provide her sustenance.

The entire process soon becomes routine for this little group. Twyla, the book’s protagonist is comfortable with her position; though like everyone else, she prays for a day when April will awaken. Meanwhile a bit of a eccentric, Twyla lives in fear that she’ll die of spontaneous combustion, a fate that supposedly befell her Aunt Grusilla a few years earlier and resulted in sending her Uncle Tate to prison. Tate continues to claim that Groo actually came from a long line of people who died in this fiery manner and Twyla, though a rational person can’t completely shake the idea that it might all be true.

And then one day she arrives at the Gurley mansion to discover someone had unplugged the respirator and allowed April to die. Like the other members of the small staff, Twyla becomes a suspect in the murder; a fact she is unwilling to accept passively. She begins doing her own investigation.  Thus starts one of the most off-beat, original mystery novels we’ve ever read. As the gusty Twyla goes further with her own digging into the murder, she also begins to build a list of possible culprits.  Among these is her Uncle Tate, who she learns had been paroled only weeks before April’s death. Then there is her old beauty queen pal, Lorna who has become some kind of international thief traveling around the world stealing religious artifacts under the orders of the Virgin Mary who speaks to her through various mediums.

Believe us, writer Micah Harris has a knack for throwing in unexpected curves while at the same time bringing forth some of the most colorful characters ever to populate a mystery novel.  “Murder in the Miracle Room” is truly unlike any other story we’ve ever come across and we enjoyed it immensely. Oh, that other writers were this fresh and inventive.  The plot is a pretzel knot that when it begins to unravel will have you both scratching your head in wonder and smiling from ear to ear. If you love mysteries, then it’s time you met Twyla Chayne.  Once you done so, we swear you’ll never forget her.

Monday, October 09, 2017

ARCHIE IN THE CROSSHAIRS



ARCHIE IN THE CROSSHAIRS
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
By Robert Goldsborough
A Mysterious Press Original
215 pgs

Back in 1986 writer Robert Goldsborough took on the task of writing new Nero Wolfe mysteries based on the characters created by the late Rex Stout. Obviously these new pastiches were met with both joy and derision from devoted Stout readers. After reading the first of these seven, “Murder in E Minor,” we were clearly among the crowd happily applauding the return of the overweight, beer guzzling armchair sleuth.  After Bantam Books released the “The Missing Chapter” in 1994, Goldsborough took a hiatus to concentrate his efforst on his own series of mysteries starring a newspaper reporter named Steve Malek.

All well and good, but honestly, we still missed Wolfe. At one point we actually wrote Mr. Goldsborough urging him to return to that familiar brownstone on West 34th Street and he was most cordial in his reply that maybe one day he would so. In 2012 Otto Penzler of Mysterious Press added his voice to those many fans and Goldsborough relented and did so with a bang. His first new offering was the untold story fans had long clamored for, “Archie Meets Nero Wolfe.” If you haven’t read it yet, we urge to you do so immediately.

It was followed by four others including “Archie in the Crosshairs” which we recently enjoyed.  This one opens with a bang both figuratively and literally as Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe’s operative and confident, is shot at one night as he is returning home. Considering how bad the shooter’s aim was, the bullets missing him by a wide margin, Archie suspects they were actually intended to warn him rather than hit him. The following day, in Wolfe’s presence, he receives a threatening call from the supposed assassin claiming he is going to murder Archie in retribution for a harm done to him by Wolfe in the past.

Having accumulated a large number of antagonists during their years as successful private investigators, Wolfe and Archie begin a systematic search of their recent cases to pinpoint who among these villains would be most likely in a position to strike back at them. As if that puzzle wasn’t time consuming enough, the pair is approached by a perspective new client. A wealthy young socialite, Cordelia Hutuchinson, is being blackmailed for her romantic indiscretions while on a recent trip to Italy. Engaged to be married soon, the blackmailer threatens to expose her dalliances to her fiancĂ©e, her family and the public by releasing incriminating photos.

At Archie’s insistence, Wolfe takes the case and directs the young lady to comply with the extortionist’s demands with the stipulation that Archie be her agent in delivering the cash payout. Several nights later, while complying with the blackmailer’s specific directives to bring the money to an isolated spot in Central Park, Archie is shot. Luckily he’s accompanied by two of Wolfe’s other agents, Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin, who waste no time in getting him home and immediate medical attention. Still, the attack by their unknown nemesis occurring in the midst of the blackmail affair raises Wolfe’s suspicions that both matters may be connected. If such is the case, then it makes their efforts twice as complicated and deadly.

“Archie in the Crosshairs,” is a deliciously fun mystery that moves at a good but relaxed pace. In the footsteps of Rex Stout, Goldsborough plays fairs and peppers clues throughout the tale all culminating in a grand meeting of the suspects in Wolfe’s office. As ever, in any Nero Wolfe outing, the careful reader must examine the facts carefully and in the end see if they can beat the Master to the mystery’s solution. Of course, we’ve always maintained, much like the Sherlock Holmes tales of Arthur Conan Doyle, most fans read Nero Wolfe because he and Archie Goodwin are such colorful, amiable fictional characters, it is always a delight to be in their company; the actual mysteries secondary.  Here’s hoping Mr. Goldsborough has at least another dozen stories yet to tell.  Trust me, when they are this good, we never tire of them and neither will you.