Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction by Bradley Mengel (McFarland, 2009)

Ever since reading the cover blurb of The Destroyer #23: Child's Play ("Who would think of booby-trapping a frisbee?"), I've been fascinated by what I call Men's Action/Adventure paperback series of the '70s (MAA70 for short): The Executioner, The Destroyer, The Death Merchant, The Butcher, and their many violent imitators. Not that I actually read the damn things; most are dull, if not downright unreadable. It's the peculiar package: the neatly number titles, the bizarrely-named protagonists, the blazing violent covers, and the mind boggling body counts. I just love having them lined up neatly on my shelves.

I have been waiting for a book like Serial Vigilantes for 30 years. MAA70 are the male analog of romance novels. Critics ignore them. Respectable bookstores don't carry them. Information of any sort about them is almost impossible to come by.

As a bibliography alone, Serial Vigilantes fills a gaping void. It has the scoop on more than 130 series from Able Team to Z-Comm. Each entry describes the series hero and premise, gives a complete list of titles through 2008, and unmasks many of the writers lurking behind pen names like "Stuart Jason" and "Nick Carter." It's decently written, nicely organized, neatly presented, and seems pretty comprehensive. It's earned a spot on my reference book shelf. To think, all those years I thought Michael Avallone wrote the early Butchers...I'm sorry, Mike

But I can and must kvetch about details. First, the term "serial vigilantes." I hate it. Although it accurately describes guys like the early Executioner, the Lone Wolf, and a whole passel of Death Wish-like gun-toting goofballs, just as many of the subgenre's so-called "vigilantes," including mainstays like Nick Carter and my beloved Destroyer are agents clandestinely working for the government. What self-respecting vigilante takes orders, much less pulls down a civil service paycheck? Me, I'm sticking with MAA70, with "action" being a code word for one of the sub-genre's most prominent features: excessive gratuitous violence.

Mengel's history of the sub-genre is also pretty sketchy. I will spare you my lengthy rant about the pre-history of the sub-genre. Just let me say that I see a lot more Tarzan, James Bond, and Mickey Spillane and a lot less Doc Savage than Mengel does. He also makes no comment about how or why the sub-genre seemed to take a strong martial turn around 1980, with mercenary vs. terrorist supplanting man vs. Mafia as the conflict of choice. Since I frankly don't care about these later series, it's no big deal. But I do wonder.

My biggest gripe, however, is personal. For many years I have been on a quest for the worst MAA70 series. Is it The Hitman? Gannon? The Lone Wolf? Alas, Serial Vigilantes is utterly uncritical. It treats these abuses of the reader's endurance with every bit as much respect as the excellent Destroyer, the Ur-Executioner, and the always-good Revenger. I suppose neutrality is good in a reference book. But I did have my hopes.

At least I know I only have 100 more series to check out!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl Court by Patrick Hamilton (1941)

Until recently, Patrick Hamilton was a mainstay of "forgotten novelists" lists, touted by a distinguished group including J.B. Priestly, Doris Lessing, and Nick Hornby. Many of his best books have finally slipped back in print over the last few years, only to be marketed to the minor British novelist crowd. In noir circles, he's best known for the plays that were the basis for the films Rope and Gaslight.

Which is too bad, because Hangover Square is truly one of the great noir novels. The grim setting--a London neighborhood of dank rooming houses, cheap hotels, greasy coffee shops and, above all, seedy pubs on the very eve of World War Two--oozes with dark atmosphere. It was a world Hamilton knew intimately. A life long hard drinker (one of his bios was entitled Through a Glass Darkly), he was a Boswell of the barroom, unsurpassed at capturing the boredom, loneliness and above all, the hopelessness of the habitual public drinker.

At the center of Hangover Square is George Harvey Bone, a large, weak, and amiable man in his mid-30s. He is desperately in love with Netta Longdon. Alas, not only is his love unrequited, Netta is a femme fatale of a sort that gives the rest of the subspecies a bad name. Vicious, cruel, and utterly self-absorbed, she is described as looking " a Byron beauty, but inside, she was a fish." She is at a center of a crowd that even George recognizes to be a "Drunken, lazy, impecunious, neurotic, arrogant pub crawling cheap lot of swine." Yet George can't bear to tear himself away, putting up with an endless stream of humiliations in the forlorn hope that maybe somehow, someday, Netta would care. Not that she ever will. She only tosses George an occasional bone of civil treatment because he does have his uses: an ever-handy stooge, a reliable source of small loans, the possessor of tenuous connections that may further her "acting" career.

There is no shortage of darkness and desperation in George's plight, and doom is just around the corner. But Hangover Square is more than a beer-sodden take on Of Human Bondage. Periodically and without warning, a loud "Crack!" sounds in George's head. He snaps into a "dead mood," a fugue-like state (that is completely unrelated to schizophrenia) where he continues to act more or less normally. But when he snaps out of it, he has no idea what he's been up to. It just happens that during these "dead moods," he's planning to kill Netta Longdon. In the true noir tradition, every time things are looking up for George--he's cutting down on the drink, he's not hanging around with Netta, he's breaking free of his dead-end life--Crack!

Any list of best noir novels that doesn't include Hangover Square is merely joking.

Monday, September 7, 2009


True Crime Detective Magazines 1924-1969 by Eric Godtland, edited by Dian Hansen (Taschen, 2008)

A a long time lover of True Detective magazine and its many imitators (and one of the few to notice its passing), I've been waiting for years for an even half-assed history of the genre. And, with the publication of True Crime Detective Magazines, I'm still waiting.

Not that there isn't a whole lot to love about this lavish volume. For Taschen books, pictures are the thing. And there is no shortage of eye candy here. The book is loaded with some 400+ drool worthy reproductions of detective magazine covers. It begs for coffee table display.

The text, however, is another matter. Granted, the image-heavy format and Taschen's policy of printing the text in English, French, and German doesn't give the writers much to work with. But even allowing for these tight constraints, the "history" presented herein is sketchy, scatter shot, and from what I can tell, frequently inaccurate. The authors seem to have been so distracted by the chapters on bondage covers and "girls smoking" covers (??) they appear to have spent little time actually reading the damn things. As painful an experience as this may be, sometimes a writer's gotta take one for his audience.

An even bigger gripe is 1969 cut-off. Why, my god, why? This is when things were getting really interesting ironically. The wave of sleaze they describe as engulfing the magazines in the 1960s didn't really hit until the 1970s. During the disco decade, every cover was a tasteless tableau of a woman about to come to a painful, violent, and frequently sexually sadistic end. Blurbs promised to reveal the truth about the "Mutilation Murder of Palm Beach's Millionaire Homo" of "When You're Done, Stack Her With the Others." They were truly documents of a nation seemingly going insane.

Luckily, there is something more than pretty pictures. Almost as an afterthought, they include "I Was a True Detective Editor" by Marc Gerald, wherein Mr. Gerald describes his memorable first job out of college in 1989. This article about the almost-final days of the crime magazines is worth the price of admission alone.

It's sad that even Canada's really crappy crime magazines have gotten a real book (True Crime, True North) while the land that invented the damn things (all praise St. Bernarr MacFadden!) has to make do with this. But it does look so nice on my coffee table....