I mostly get the question at parties. The answer is something of an icebreaker. Someone will ask me about the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read — “the books that made you want to pull your eyes out” — and I relate the following:
I have a thing for bad books. Not just books that are poorly written, incompetently edited, and morally irredeemable, but books that make you question man’s place above the animals. Books that, under most circumstances, would not be missed if they were burned.
Yeah, those books.
My slide into this literary gutter didn’t happen overnight. I didn’t go from reading Wallace Fowlie’s translations of Rimbaud straight to Paul Ross’s Chopper Cop No. 3: Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert.* I was a good kid, a good student. I studied Thomas Pynchon and Donald Barthelme, wrote dense essays on Derrida and deconstructionism. But like the anonymous teen protag of any confessional young-adult memoir, I met a few shadowy people who took advantage of my weakness for pulpy science fiction and European trash cinema. One vice led to another, and before I knew it my bookshelves were filled with titles like Frank Colter’s Death Squad and Phillip Atlee’s Joe Gall, The Nullifier.
I first stumbled across the dreaded “men’s adventure” pulp through a review of the Mack Bolan novels in the back pages of a now forgotten zine. This was the late nineties, and I was looking for anything shocking. Anything outrageous. The Sharpshooter series by Bruno Rossi fit the bill perfectly. Marketed in the mid- to late seventies as men’s crime novels, they were cheap, and most used-book stores had entire shelves bowing under the weight of their gaudy, bloody covers.
Rossi’s Sharpshooter series (after his adoring family is gunned down by mafia goons, Johnny Rock becomes a mobster-eating machine fueled by bullets, pasta, and cheap gasoline)** and its identical twin The Marksman series*** were the gateway drugs. And these Don Pendleton rip-offs soon led to better, more-deranged fare like Marc Olden’s Black Samurai (“The Black Samurai tangles with a human Satan in a hellish den of torrid sex and deadly violence!”),**** Wade Barker’s Ninja Master (“Japan taught him the world’s deadliest art — now . . . vengeance is his!”), William Crawford’s Stryker (“She was a beautiful coed model . . . until she was forced into heroin addiction, pornographic exhibitionism and a gruesome death!”), and Nelson DeMille’s early, outrageous Ryker/Keller series (“The terrorists splashed the streets with innocent blood. It was Sgt. Ryker’s job to seek and destroy them — one by one!”).*****
Two years into my craze, red-eyed and twitching, I found the non plus ultra of trashy crime novels, the craziest, trashiest books I’ve ever read: Dean Ballenger’s Gannon series.******
But when it’s you that’s on the hurting end of the establishment’s shaft, then you know what money and power can do to a guy with neither.
—Dean Ballenger, Blood Fix
When I talk about the Gannon series, I do it with a sort of reverence akin to talking about the miracle of birth. The little epiphanies I had while watching European trash movies pale in comparison to the mental supernovas that occur when Ballenger hits his stride. The books are simple. In the first one, Mike Gannon, a security expert, avenges the murder of his sister by a pack of wilding college brats. The brats, they’ve got wealthy fathers who’ll do anything to stop Gannon. And Gannon, well, he’s got his fists and more rage than a wounded grizzly.
So far, so good, right? It gets better. Not only does Ballenger let Gannon go nuts in incredibly cathartic and mind-numbing ways, but he also has the audacity to write the novels in the most ferocious manner possible. Presumably written in a liquor- and Benzedrine-fueled frenzy, Ballenger’s perps (hell, even his hero) spit language that would have Eddie Coyle’s friends blanching. And just to take it to that next level (oh yes, he does), Ballenger infuses the text with fifties-era underworld slang. “Shit-shooters” get “scragged,” “buttons” get “grisly,” and ”foxes” “fritz around” and “hang slams” on their “tigers.” Holy shit.
The sudden look of wretchedness in the gunman’s eyes as the bullet roared through his forehead was convincing.
—Bruno Rossi, A Dirty Way to Die
Now the why. Why the hell do I read these books? If you’re a cozy mystery lover, it won’t be obvious. These books are glaringly racist, brutally misogynistic, wildly inappropriate, and soul-achingly stupid. But if you’ve got an iron stomach and an insatiable curiosity, you’ll find yourself hypnotized. Freed from the constraints of writing something that would be considered lasting in value, the pseudonymous authors of these crime novels, under draconian deadlines, have produced paperbacks with more blood, sweat, and tears poured into their cheap pages than a hundred literary novels. This is salt- of-the-earth stuff, gloriously simple and authentically ugly. Forceful stories packed by calloused hands into novel shapes.
Surrealist film critic and filmmaker Adonis Kyrou once urged his readers to seek out and view “bad films” because “they are sometimes sublime.” Dear Reader, I urge you to seek out Bruno Rossi’s Sharpshooter series, Nelson DeMille’s Ryker books, and Dean Ballenger’s brilliant Gannon trilogy. They are indeed sublime.
Now go forth and get your hands dirty.
* I didn’t make that title up either. The Chopper Cop series is a sterling example of Popular Library’s mid-seventies adventure/crime output.
** A house name, Rossi is several authors, most notably Leisure Books regulars Russell Smith, Peter McCurtin, Leonard Levinson, and Paul Hofrichter.
*** Written simultaneously, it is not uncommon to find the Marksman series protagonist Phillip Magellan suddenly become Johnny Rock (from the Sharpshooter series).
**** Black Samurai, the film starring Jim Kelly, was based on the books. It does feature deadly midgets and leopard men.
***** DeMille only wrote the first six books in the series (The Sniper, The Hammer of God, The Smack Man, the Cannibal, Night of the Phoneix, and The Death Squad.) All of them are graphic beyond belief. The first two books, published by Norton, have Ryker as the protag. The remaining four were published by Manor Books, and Ryker becomes Joe Keller. Edson T. Hammill wrote a few of the later books in the series.
****** Bellenger is something of an unknown. He wrote the three Gannon books, a few Westerns, articles for men’s magazines, and some “true tale” naval war stories.
Keith Ryer Breese is the author of the forthcoming novel Future Imperfect (St. Martin’s) and its sequel, Past Continuous (St. Martin’s). As Rayo Casablanca, he wrote two thrillers, 6 Sick Hipsters and Very Mercenary (both Kensington Books). Jason Starr said his writing is “wild, poignant, twisted, [and] bitterly funny.”