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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

For McBleak, Noc Brenner and Luke Warfield, It's Their Way or the Hard Way!

By Gary Phillips

312 pages

 (Down & Out Books, Feb. 8, 2016)

Ebook: Amazon Digital Services LLC

ISBN: 1943402132



True pulp aficionados have probably read their share of books in which the hero has a team of sidekicks who help him fight off evil-doers and save the world as we know it from falling under their control.

If you enjoy these heroic “teams” and their exploits, you should check out Gary Phillips’ collection of novellas, 3 the Hard Way.

Phillips is a modern master of the pulp milieu, an unreconstructed master of the genre pioneered in pulp rags like Weird Tales and Argosy and brought to its highest state in the dead-eye paperback novels of the 1960s and 1970s. Think Remo Williams, or Matt Helms.

Pulpmeister Gary Phillips
In these three he harks back to the teams organized by the superheros of the 1930s and 1940s – Doc Savage, the Shadow and The Spider.

Each features a slick and shrewd lead character who is an expert marksman with great martial arts skills backed by a group of specialists that come up with ingenious inventions, crack just about any internet connection and get through any security equipment with ease.

Sound familiar? We are talking about a long-standing subgenre of superhero fiction such as Clark “Doc” Savage, the character created by Henry W. Ralston and John L. Nanovic for now-defunct pulpsters Street and Smith.

Doc Savage and the Fabulous Five
Savage worked with a group of technical experts, “The Fabulous Five:” Chemist “Monk” Mayfair, legal eagle “Ham” Brooks, construction engineer “Renny” Renwick, electrical expert “Long Tom” Roberts and geologist “Johnny” Littlejohn.

The Shadow, who was featured in radio dramas, magazine fiction, books, films and comic strips, had a similar team of “agents” and “operatives” that performed much the same function. The Shadow’s sidekicks included his girlfriend, Margo Lane, his cab driver and chauffer Moe Schrevnitz,  newspaper reporter Clyde Burke, auto gyro pilot Miles Crofton and physician Rupert Sayre.

More recently, the writers of the parody pulp adventure story “Buckaroo Banzai,” a 1984 film, created the Hong Kong Cavaliers, a team of super scientists to support the title character (played by Peter Weller) who is a particle physics expert and neurosurgeon.

One-upping the old pulps, Buckaroo Banzai even threw in secondary assistants such as The Blue Blazer Irregulars, the Rug Suckers and the Radar Rangers.

Buckaroo Banzai and the Hong Kong Cavaliers
Look for the same pattern in these three Gary Phillips nail biters.

In “The Extractors,”  Malcolm Cavanaugh Bleekston -- alias McBleak – an expert safe cracker and thief – works with a team that includes Bunny Sawyer (a metal fabricator who specializes in covert surveillance gear), Crosscut (guided muscle) and Elza Raffendon and her art forger partner, Rebecca Woodbridge. Together they engineer a scam that wipes out an evil businessman while opening up a path to a secret trove of stolen art works.

In  “The Anti-Gravity Steal,” Ned “Noc” Brenner, an extreme sports athlete with a photographic memory and physical skills good enough to make him a top professional in everything from mixed martial arts to motorcycle racing, must use all his abilities to prevent a criminal cartel from obtaining the SK-19, an assault tank developed for the Pentagon that is propelled by an anti-gravity device still under development.

Brenner is a genius himself, but in this novella he works with an organization called the Vigilance Initiative, which provides a ready source of technical and financial assistance. Among its members are Ella Navarro, a martial arts expert, and a man named Koburn who can change his face and voice at will.

In “Ten Seconds to Death,” Luke Warfield – aka The Essex Man – must save Los Angeles from a dirty nuclear explosive that an enemy intends to use as part of a criminal scheme.

Like Brenner and McBleak, Warfield is assisted by a team of multidisciplinary specialists that includes Maurice “Smokestack” Desmond (a criminal with extensive underworld contacts),  Critch Duling (a martial arts expert) and Topaz (an attractive woman who is a getaway driver for Desmond).

With their assistance, Warfield, a philanthropist with a black operations background, takes on another black ops specialist he once served with overseas – a villain with ties to terrorists and Russian nuclear arms experts who killed Warfield’s father.

No need to worry about character exposition and multiple back stories slowing the pace of these short novels. In each, the action begins almost immediately and works its way through fist fights, gun battles, high-speed auto chases and explosions.

In “The Extractors,” for example, McBleak is casing a location when he is accosted by a street goon interested in his $500 loafers. McBleak dispatches the muscle head, who is accompanied by an edgy pit bull mix, with nothing but a fountain pen:

“You ain’t a cop,” he concluded. “Them shoes are too good for a po-po, even vice,” his new acquaintance observed. He squinted as if seeking to shake off the effects of the beer reeking from him. Suddenly, he blurted, “Brunoris. Them some Brunoris.”

They were.

“Look about my size too.” He grinned at McBleak then looked at the dog then back to him. “Am I right?”

“What about this?” McBleak had withdrawn a fountain pen from his jacket’s inside pocket. He held it by its tip for the other man to see. The cap and barrel were finished in silver filigree.

 “This is a Waterman, an antique in fact. I restore them. It involves close work, precision. Steady hands, clarity and focus.”

Man and dog gazed at the pen. The owner asked, “It’s worth something?”

McBleak unscrewed the cap and removed it, exposing the nib. “Probably fetch three or four thousand at auction. This one was said to belong to Dorothy Parker.” The other one sneered. “Probably go good with them shoes.” Before he could issue a command to his dog to lunge, McBleak struck.

He jabbed the tip of the pen in the tattooed man’s neck and simultaneously, got his opposite arm around his neck.

The dog was barking and snarling but was still held on the leash. McBleak had also thrown himself and his temporary prisoner backward against a chain link fence, cutting off a rear attack by the dog, he hoped.

“If you don’t want me to gash open your neck, homes, tell your dog to be cool.” Blood trickled onto McBleak’s hand and the Waterman. The nib had broken the skin, and he worked his hand back and forth, digging it into the flesh.

Threat eliminated!

In the above anecdote, neither McBleak not his would-be shoe-jacker are seriously injured, but sometimes the violence in these yarns is both gory and lethal. In the Luke Warfield novella, for example, the Essex Man, trying to get a line on who killed his father,  is just extracting a key clue from a witness when gunmen try to cut him down outside a watering hole:

Warfield also got up and they left the dingy Magambo bar, the bartender giving them the once over as they exited. “My truck is across the street,” he said, pointing at it parked at a meter.

“Okay,” she said and they stepped off the curb, about to jaywalk across the wide thoroughfare of Imperial.

Coming slow around the corner from a side street was a lowered, tricked out ’65 Impala. Its movements were too deliberate as far as Warfield was concerned and he grabbed at Tristy who was slightly ahead of him.

“Get down,” he warned, his hand on her arm, seeking to get her and himself behind an older Lincoln with suicide doors parked on their side of the street.

“Oh shit,” the woman said, her knees now wobbly with fear as automatic fire tore from the vehicle. Panicking, she didn’t go in the direction Warfield was pulling her but pulled away.

Her body jerked and got spun around just as she reached the sidewalk. The rounds ripped into her, bursting out windows of cars and storefronts as other bullets zeroed into the brick and stucco of the buildings.

Warfield had a gun on him and returned fire as the car sped off. He’d flattened out right before the shooting, diving behind the Lincoln. He got over to the wounded woman to see if there was a way to save her.

“Delxkor,” she coughed, blood gurgling in her mouth and throat from destroyed lungs. “Funny...funny how the name popped into...my head now,” she said and died.

The action is just as fast and furious in the other novella – and in “Murder by Remote Control,” a bonus short story that Phillips has included in the set. This is good stuff, folks. If you enjoy this type of story, you can’t go wrong with 3 the Hard Way.

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