Monday, February 19, 2018

Wilderness #02 - Lure of the Wild

The second installment of the 'Wilderness' series (David Robbins as David Thompson) is another road show in which our hero, former NYC accountant Nate King, continues his lessons in frontier life while traveling on a horseback journey with a different mountain man mentor. 

In this installment, Nate’s teacher is a bard-quoting experienced frontiersman nicknamed Shakespeare. They are on their way to an annual rendezvous of trappers and mountain men when they encounter several varieties of Indian - both hostile and friendly. In fact, the whole novel is a series of violent, gory battles with Indians separated by a masterclass in 1800's Native American culture and norms taught by Shakespeare. Not knowing much about American Indian ways, I can only assume that the author did his homework and got it mostly right. In any case, there were plenty of interesting Indian factoids shoehorned in between the scalpings and the gun-play. 

Along the way, Nate also meets an Indian girl named Winona who has her eyes on Nate as possible husband material despite a vast cultural chasm. The possibility of feelings and romance between the two seemed unbelievable by modern standards, but I guess that was the whole point of the story-line.

“Lure of the Wild” is a great action novel, and the battle scenes are sufficiently violent and bloody to keep the reader hooked. The interpersonal drama between Nate and the Indians he encounters is never dull and the newly-introduced characters are compelling and nuanced. The only criticism is that the author seems to be taking his time in telling the overarching story of Nate’s evolution from dandy urban bookkeeper to master of the wilderness. I was excited to see what happens at the mountain man rendezvous, but it seems I’ll have to wait until book three to enjoy that story.

Wilderness #03 - Savage Rendezvous

This third novel in the long-running 'Wilderness' series (David Robbins as David Thompson) is very good, and as always it’s especially strong in its realism and historical detail. Dramatically, it’s also pretty solid, but it’s not quite up to the standard of the first two books in the series.

The 'Wilderness' novels are about a young mountain man in the 1820s (at this point he’s more of an apprentice mountain man) and his adventures in the Rocky Mountains. In “Savage Rendezvous”, our hero is looking forward to the annual gathering of trappers in the area to make some friends and buy supplies. The event is known informally as the Rendezvous, and this will be his first visit to one.

That foundation is promising and based on historical fact, but I didn’t feel it was really explored very well. Instead, our hero and his mentor arrive and are immediately beset by bullies for no real reason, leading to a succession of confrontations, fistfights and gun-play. All that testosterone keeps things from ever getting dull, but for some reason I couldn’t really engage with this part of the story. It isn’t bad, but the bullies are more annoying than dramatically compelling, and we’re stuck with them for the rest of the novel.

Far more involving are interludes with hostile Indians (always a hallmark of this series) and these tense cat-and-mouse encounters are very suspenseful. There’s also a pretty good twist at the end. Overall, “Savage Rendezvous” isn’t the best that this series can offer, but even a second-tier 'Wilderness' book is mighty good reading.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Vigilante #02 - Los Angeles: Detour to a Funeral

Robert Lory's 'Vigilante' series continues with 1975's “Los Angeles: Detour to a Funeral”. This book is set just one week after the events that transpired in the series debut, “New York: An Eye for an Eye”. In that story, protagonist Joe Madden watches helplessly as his wife is assaulted and killed on a late night subway ride. Madden, an ordinary guy, takes to the streets with a kitchen knife to kill low-grade street thugs. That book's end had his employer, a mid-level engineering firm, sending him to the West Coast for another project. Now, Madden takes to L.A.'s night-life in this entertaining follow-up.

The beginning of the book has Madden just finishing up some odds and ends in New York's East Village. He comes to the aid of an older man, disposing of two thugs with the business end of his .38 revolver. In one of the series' many philosophical moments, the rescued man challenges Madden's technique by declaring the thugs were young men that didn't deserve killing. This mirrors some of Madden's own self-doubts in the prior book, magnifying his dismissal of morality in pursuit of instant gratification.

Madden's exploits in Los Angeles are nonsensical, but an unnecessary requirement to introduce a plot. With no logistical planning, Madden simply strolls the back streets looking for any wrongdoers. It's literally the bully-buffet, running the gambit from thieves to pimps. Soon, Madden runs across an abused prostitute and attempts to connect with her. After instigating a reunion between the girl and her parents, Madden targets the brothel and the establishment's madam – an overly obese woman with the obligatory name of Big Mama. The book is ultimately just Madden targeting Big Mama, rescuing whores and stopping an acid rock artist from spreading heroin. 

While certainly elementary and far removed from the more gritty, well-established titles like 'The Executioner', 'Death Merchant' and 'The Butcher', Lory's 'Vigilante' is a likable hero that connects well with the average reader. Fans of the genre can see the rough edges of genre specific boundaries, but it's narrative, as tragic and as flawed as it is, makes for a really enjoyable read. I can't say enough good things about this series thus far. 

Next stop, San Francisco.

The Hitman #01 - Chicago Deathwinds

Norman Winski's 'The Hitman' was a three book series released in 1984 through the Pinnacle publishing house. It's not to be confused with the 1970s series of the same name by Kirby Carr. The series debuted with “Chicago Deathwinds” and introduces us to Dirk Spencer, described as “a hard, mean, cool and sophisticated” vigilante that doesn't embody the traditional definition of hitman - someone paid to kill someone. In this series, Spencer isn't paid anything. He already has more money than Tony Stark and kills the bad guys as a hobby.

For validity, Winski tells us that Spencer is the son of a wealthy entrepreneur and a West Point graduate. He served in Vietnam as a fighting officer and single-handily took out an entire North Vietnamese patrol. Since service, he's personified the rich playboy – yacht, plane, helicopter, penthouse, Lamborghini and the sexual prowess of a bucking stallion. It's only when he learns that his African-American friend has been murdered that he assumes the moniker of “The Hitman”.

In an ode to pulp fiction, Spencer plays the vengeful nighttime warrior while maintaining his daytime activities as spoiled rich kid. He can't let anyone into the inner circle, including the women he loves and his own father. Winski does a great job building in that inner turmoil, brimming over in an emotional argument between Spencer and a best friend. It's this part of the story-line that's honestly the most engaging. The rest is totally bonkers.

Winski writes Spencer as a pulp hero. He's the “Doc Savage” of vigilantes with the absolute best ability to fight, fly, drive and screw. In 184 pages we learn that Spencer is at peak performance and skill-level for everything. He flies his helicopter and planes with Blue Angels talent, races like Mario Andretti and handles guns and missiles like Ironman. He's always able to overcome impossible odds while maintaining a spoiled kid's mentality. In one humorous scene he can't get the bad guy (a racist ultra right-wing nominee for President) so he takes out all of his frustration by ravaging two high-dollar hookers for three hours. So, what's the problem?

Winski could have slimmed this to 140 pages but pads the story with a dull narrative. It takes a strenuous amount of effort to fully digest 7-10 pages of gun descriptions or setting up the time, location, scenery and what Spencer is clothed in. There's a sloth-like pace in the West Virginia portion of the story and I had to take constant breaks...for days. It's permeated with bad dialogue, a cookie-cutter villain and a ridiculous hero that can't be this perfect. There's much better books out there. “The Hitman” is not the shit man.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ruff Justice #02 - Night of the Apache

One of the lesser-known 1980s western series was 'Ruff Justice,' written by Paul Lederer under the pen-name Warren T. Longtree and published by Signet. It’s centered on a former Army scout named Ruffin T. Justice who continues to do scouting on a freelance basis, which turns out to mean everything from leading Easterners through the wilderness to tracking down renegade Apaches. 

That latter specialty is what gets the wheels turning in the second book of the series, “Night of the Apache”. I had high hopes for this novel for two reasons. First, some of the best series westerns I’ve read have been about dangerous Apaches--- Edge #3 “Apache Death”, Gunn #8 “Apache Arrows” and Jim Steel #3 “Bloody Gold” among them. Secondly, I’d read the first 'Ruff Justice' book last year and found it to be an unexpected gem. “Sudden Thunder” had brisk pacing, muscular western action, effective plot twists and a very unique narrative element (the party Ruff leads through the mountains includes a covered wagon occupied by a catatonic woman in black, sitting in a rocking chair). 

Anyway, “Night of the Apache” was a disappointment. The Apache in question is hard for Ruff to apprehend, but he’s otherwise not that formidable. And he’s not even the focus of the story! The real plot is about a conspiracy to keep supplies from reaching an Indian reservation. That’s basically it. Well, that and a few sex scenes featuring Ruff and the frisky young wife of the local Army fort commander. The author tries to keep things moving, and the final thirty pages are very well done, but it’s hard to work yourself into a reading frenzy when the story has such a “who cares” plot.

You know how sometimes you read a book and you find yourself constantly checking which page you’re on, and calculating how many pages are left before the end? When you’ll be free of it and you can move on to something more interesting? This is that kind of book.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Josh Ford #03 - The Man Who Burned Hell!

Brent Towns' talents as a western aficionado are showcased with his newest novel, a rowdy, rough-and-tumble adventure entitled "The Man Who Burned Hell!". Towns has used a variety of pseudonyms throughout his career, including B.S. Dunn, Jake Henry and Sam Clancy. The Australian author has penned 17 westerns, including a continuation of Ben Bridges' 'Company C' series. “The Man Who Burned Hell!” (using Clancy), is the third installment of the 'Josh Ford' series. Prior books in the series are “Valley of Thunder” and “Even Marshals Hang!”. In talking with the author, Towns advised me that these books were written as stand-alone novels but feature the same protagonist, U.S. Marshal Josh Ford. Fans of the genre know how we systematically sequence, number and label everything, so it only seems fitting that I deem this "Josh Ford #3".

The prologue provides a gritty and violent premonition of the book's fiery ending. In it, the town of Serenity has destructively transformed into a burning ruin. There's very little dialogue in this opening sequence except one remarkable question from U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves to his son Josh Ford - “What the Hell have you done?” Obviously, “The Man Who Burned Hell!” did exactly that, but how did Serenity become Hell?

Reeves receives word that Serenity has been taken over by a cartel of cutthroats. The alliance is led by saloons owner Ike Cordis and includes local mine boss Justus Harper and whorehouse operator Camilla. Reeves, busy with his own town's escalating violence, sends his son Ford to Serenity to investigate. Solo, Ford plans to end the cartel and liberate the town from it's oppressors. 

As Ford starts to acquaint himself with Serenity, a loose synopsis of his background is formed. Reeves left both Ford and his mother to join the war. After Reeves fails to return in a timely fashion, Ford rides out to kill his father for abandoning them. In an untold sequence of events, Ford somehow joined Reeves as a U.S. Marshal. I don't sense any hostility between the two, so perhaps it just wasn't a developed story that needed telling. That same approach is taken with Ford and Camilla. They were former lovers, and at some point in their heated relationship Ford was forced to kill Camilla's brother. 

In talking with Towns, he advised me these events aren't included or explained in further detail in the two prior books. So, it stands to reason that his “stand-alone” approach is truly that. Nothing more, nothing less. While these books are connected with the same central character, they don't follow any sort of strict continuance. 

Towns' writing is reminiscent of William W. Johnstone's early 'Smoke Jensen' tales. It's blunt, well-told and should please fans of the 50s and 60s television western formula. The author's love of that time period is conveyed perfectly – well defined heroes and villains with clear and concise problems. Ford's fight is our fight, the proverbial good versus evil struggle that all of us can relate too. The action comes in waves, sequencing a chain of events that ultimately comes full circle to the book's descriptive post-destruction prologue. It's a fitting conclusion to the “downfall of the bully” narrative.

You can get a copy through the publisher, Black Horse, or Amazon.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Searching For The D.C. Man: A Paperback Warrior Investigation

Was it possible that a Roman Catholic priest was secretly writing sexy spy novels on the side under a fake name during the 1970s? The search for answers brought me down a wormhole to one of the strangest – and most satisfying – searches for authorship that I’ve ever encountered.

In 1974 and 1975, Berkley Medallion released four books in a Men’s Adventure series called 'The D.C. Man' by James P. Cody. The series hero is Brian Peterson, a former military intelligence operative who becomes a D.C. lobbyist. After a personal tragedy, his lobbying business floundered, and he reinvented himself as a gun-toting troubleshooter for elected officials with sensitive problems. If you need someone to stick a gun in the mouth of a blackmailer targeting a Senator, Brian’s your man. If a subcommittee discreetly needs to know who is leaking secrets to foreign powers, give Brian a call. The books have a nice balance of political intrigue, hard-boiled detective work, and sexy espionage action. Read the review for series debut "Top Secret Kill" here.

When reading 'The D.C. Man' paperbacks, the reader’s first impression is that the books are extremely well written. The first-person narration flows smoothly and conversationally, and Brian’s observations about life inside the beltway are astute and mature. They read more like Donald Hamilton’s early 'Matt Helm' novels than, say, a disposable 'Nick Carter: Killmaster' book. Although Berkley packaged and sold these short novels as cheap James Bond knock-offs, it’s clear that the author took real care in crafting these stories. They weren’t rush jobs written for a quick paycheck.

All of which begs the question: Who the heck was James P. Cody?

Google and Amazon searches weren’t much help initially. There was no indication that Cody wrote anything else. 'The D.C. Man' series also never received much coverage from the various go-to blogs or Facebook groups that obsess over vintage Men’s Adventure fiction. The series just wasn’t commercially successful enough to garner much love or nostalgia 40+ years later. 

As with many mysteries, the answer of authorship was right under my nose: the copyright page of 'The D.C. Man' paperbacks credits Peter T. Rohrbach as the writer. This was also confirmed by an entry in the 1974 Catalog of Copyright Entries: Cody was a pseudonym, and Rohrbach was the author.

In that case, who the heck was Peter T. Rohrbach?

The confusion intensified with a simple search for the name “Peter T. Rohrbach” on Amazon. That search revealed a handful of academic books about historical Roman Catholic figures and religious orders written by someone named “Peter Thomas Rohrbach.” Books such as “Conversations With Christ” and “Journey to Carith” stood in sharp contrast to the breezy covers on 'The D.C. Man' books by James P. Cody. However, it wasn’t impossible to imagine a non-fiction writer trying to make a few extra bucks by tossing off some cheapo spy novels during the heyday of the espionage paperback original.

However, the “About the Author” in “Conversations with Christ” lead me to conclude that the two Rohrbachs were most likely different people:

The Rev. Father Peter Thomas Rohrbach, O.C.D., is a Carmelite priest and author. Born in 1926 and based in Washington, D.C., he has also served as an editor for the Catholic quarterly “Spiritual Life”. His “Conversation with Christ”, dedicated to our Lady of Mount Carmel, was first published in 1956 by Fides Publisher, Illinois, with the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. Father Rohrbach's work was also printed by TAN in 2010.

There’s a lot to unpack in this short bio. The first thing was that the Rohrbach who wrote the religious books was, in fact, a Catholic priest of the Carmelite Order whose specialty is cloistered and contemplative prayer. Apparently, Father Rohrbach was a big deal in the world of Catholic academic scholarship as receiving a Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur for a book is tantamount to the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval from the Vatican. It’s like a Super Bowl ring for a Catholic author.

I telephoned the Carmelite rectory in Washington, D.C. on the off chance that Father Rohrbach may still be alive at age 91. The priest who answered the phone remembered Father Rohrbach and informed me that he had died several years ago. The priest was kind but informed me that no one remained whose memories of Father Rohrbach would be vivid enough to answer my questions. I dashed off an email to the Carmelites’ publishing arm on the off chance that someone there might have a lead for me.

I also spoke to author and publisher Lee Goldberg, who is no stranger to pseudonyms in adventure fiction. Goldberg began his career in the 1980s writing the '.357 Vigilante' series under the name Ian Ludlow and currently reprints vintage paperbacks under his Brash Books publishing arm. Goldberg was also a fan of 'The D.C. Man' series. “I looked at these three years ago as possible Brash reprints and put our P.I. on it to find out who now had the rights. I don’t think she got any farther than you did before I had her stop and look into a different author, and we never circled back.”

A search of the 1980 edition of “Writers Directory” and the 2004 edition of “International Who’s Who of Author’s and Writers” provided both clarity and confusion. The brief biographies confirmed that Peter Thomas Rohrbach also wrote as James P. Cody and was born in 1926. Both the religious books and 'The D.C. Man' books are credited to Rohrbach in the bibliographies. The Who’s Who listing indicates that Rohrbach married a woman named Sheila Sheehan in September 1970, and neither directory mentioned Rohrbach being a Catholic priest. While it’s not completely impossible for a Catholic priest to have a wife and kids at some point, it is exceedingly rare. 

The 1980 “Writers Directory” listed a street address for Rohrbach in suburban Washington, D.C., and some online reverse directory searches located his wife and a daughter named Sarah, who was born in 1974 – the year of 'The D.C. Man’s' debut. Some further searches led me to Sarah’s cell phone number, and I promptly left her a rambling voicemail asking her to call me back.

Two lucky breaks happened almost simultaneously: Sarah called me back, and a monk named Brother Bryan from the Carmelite publishing arm responded to my email. Together, they provided a portrait of the two lives of Father Peter T. Rohrbach, also known as espionage author, James P. Cody. 

First, the solution to the mystery of the seemingly married priest: Father Rohrbach left the priesthood in 1966 at the age of 40. He married Sheila in 1970, and she gave birth to Sarah a few years later. 

The pseudonym of James P. Cody has an interesting origin story. Rohrbach was actually born with the name James P. Cody, after his own father. His parents died, and young James was adopted by the Rohrbach family. “So James Cody legally changed his name to James Rohrbach,” Sarah explained. “He chose the name Peter Thomas while in the priesthood. He said it was common for priests to pick a new name.”

“He was a New York City boy to the core. He used to play stickball in the streets,” Brother Bryan recalled.  He joined the Carmelites in 1948 and was ordained as a priest in 1952. By the 1960s, Father Rohrbach found himself the “superior” of a tight group of 20 Carmelite priests and monks living, praying, and working in a Washington, D.C. rectory. 

From my dialogue with Brother Bryan, I got the feeling that Father Rohrbach was fun-loving – and maybe a tad rebellious – compared to the solemn and silent Carmelite stereotype. “One very difficult day, he knocked on my door very late at night and said ‘Let’s go to a movie.’ We did. It was “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, and the only seats at that popular show were in the first row, up front. So there we were, almost on our backs looking up at Audrey Hepburn!”

I broached the subject of Father Rohrbach’s separation from the priesthood gingerly with Brother Bryan, braced for a salacious story of a man, a woman, and forbidden love - something like The Thorn Birds. “It is not for me to conjecture,” he said. “All of us live by our decisions.” Apparently, it was a cordial separation, and Rohrbach kept in touch with his Carmelite friends long after he left the priesthood. His history of the Order, “Journey to Carith”, was released by the Carmelite’s publishing imprint in 1966, the same year he departed the rectory. “He left one caveat: do not change the text,” Brother Bryan said. “He seemed to love his writing.”

When I asked Sarah about her father leaving the priesthood behind, she simply said, “He told me he just wanted the intellectual freedom to write.” I found this answer interesting since the Carmelites clearly had no problem with Father Rohrbach cranking out intellectually-rigorous books about prayer and the lives of saints. Maybe he wanted to write about other things (i.e. sexy spy novels) but knew that this wouldn’t fly with the Carmelite Mothership.

Brother Bryan seemed to share my theory. “We all have our fatal attractions,” he said. “I think his was that he wanted to be a famous novelist.”

Whatever his reasons, Rohrbach quickly fell into a normal secular life. He married in 1970 and took a job teaching American History. He continued to edit a prestigious Catholic quarterly publication for years following his departure from the contemplative life. Sarah’s mother remembers Rohrbach writing The D.C. Man books when Sarah was a baby in 1974.

The D.C. Man books were published without much fanfare, and it doesn’t appear that he ever returned to genre fiction. I told Sarah that I was hoping to uncover a story about a Roman Catholic priest secretly writing sexy spy novels under a fake name, but the real story was far more complex. “I still think that may be the truth, though,” Sarah said. “He was likely at least working on them.”

Rohrbach rarely spoke to his family about 'The D.C. Man'. The colorful paperbacks must have stuck out like sore thumbs as they sat on his home office bookshelf among the 16 books he wrote before his 2004 death. He went on to write non-fiction books about stagecoach travel and the Wright brothers, but he never returned to Men’s Adventure fiction. 

Early in “The D.C. Man #1: Top Secret Kill”, our hero Brian Peterson recounts his own personal trauma that informed his life thereafter. His wife and young daughter were killed in an auto accident by two teenagers hot-rodding down the street. The accident broke Brian’s spirit and 'The D.C. Man' series can be seen as a larger story of Brian trying to recover from this trauma and regain his own humanity from the grip of intense grief. As an author, Rohrbach could have chosen any life-changing trauma he wanted for Brian, but instead he chose the loss of a wife and daughter. 

Bear in mind that this novel was written and released the same year as the birth of his own daughter to a wife that he was only able to marry because he was brave enough to deny one set of vows to take on another. It’s almost as if Rohrbach included this backstory as a message to a future Sheila and Sarah to tell them how much he loved them. That they were everything to him. That he would be lost without them.

Sarah told me that she’s only read one of 'The D.C. Man' books, and I encouraged her to read the other novels in the series. I told her that her father really was a fine writer.

“Yes,” she said, “He was lovely with words.”