Friday, February 23, 2018

Fargo #01 - Fargo

Author Ben Haas used over a dozen pseudonyms throughout his career, including John Benteen. It's this name behind the long-running 'Fargo' series. There were 23 books total, three of which written by the fictional name of John W. Hardin, who most likely was Haas colleague Norman Rubington. Sky-level, the series can easily identify with the western genre. However, the weeds-level view showcases non-traditional elements that skirt the rigid boundaries of western fiction. It's pulpy at times, often placing the action in South American locales with more modern components – soldier for hire, paid man-killing and machine guns. There's a devout fan following for 'Fargo', and after reading the first installment, I can certainly see why.

The debut, “Fargo”, was released in 1969 and introduces us to the character. Fargo is an ex-Cavalry fighting man that served in Roosevelt's Rough Riders regiment. The author details that he took a bullet in the shoulder on the charge up Kettle Hill, has scar tissue from both a career in boxing and a mining scuffle. We learn that by 1910, Fargo has lived a dogged existence fighting for money. He's now a “specialist in sudden death” and arrives in El Paso looking for work. 

The novel really runs the gambit of one adventure to another, setting the locale in old Mexico. I'd suspect that the pacing is one of the book's most cherished aspects, contributing to it's collector's fellowship and fandom. Here, Fargo is Hell-bent for leather, escorting a rugged, shady businessman back to a Mexican mine through bandits and Mexican guerrillas. Benteen puts us inside a fort fighting off waves of horse-soldiers before scooting us into rough riding through gangs and mountain passes (the atmosphere is dusty and sun-baked). The fighting is intense, made more identifiable with Fargo's trademark weapons – Colt Army .38, Winchester 30-30, Batangas knife and the overly utilized Fox ten-gauge shotgun.

Conclusively, this is an action-packed novel written by a genre fan for genre fans. It's simple, entertaining and introduces a lovable character. While influenced by the pulps, as Fargo is amazing at everything, it's more gritty and convincing. Benteen's smooth delivery is never bogged down with details. It's Fargo – in it for the money, adventure and tits. Who can't be a fan of that? For more background on this character and series, read author Paul Bishop's insightful write-up here.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Blackoaks #01 - Master of Blackoaks

After the commercially successful 1966 “Man From Uncle” novel generated practically no money in his pocket, Harry Whittington went to work as an editor in the US Department of Agriculture, working for the Rural Electrification Administration. "I'd reached the low place where writing lost its delight.” (quote from author Ben Bridges blog).

In 1974, at age 59, Whittington quit his government job and went back to writing full-time. From his small but elegant house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, he wrote his comeback novel, “Master of Blackoaks” (1976), a Deep-South 'slave gothic' written as Ashley Carter (Whittington's own name appears on the copyright page).

“Master of Blackoaks” was a hit. It's also an awesome book. Family drama, intrigue, violence, mucho sex and social commentary abound as the drama unfolds among members of the Baynard Family and their slaves on the struggling Alabama plantation known as Blackoaks.

The book reminded me of Ken Follett's “Pillars of the Earth” with all the characters jockeying for position to achieve divergent goals. The plantation violence is raw and in-your-face. The sex scenes are well executed. The slaves, masters and interlopers are vivid characters.

The book tackles difficult questions about race and culture without ever being racist or showing a lack of compassion for those swept up in the morally repugnant culture of slavery. The economic realities of the plantation life were explained well in the story as the masters of Blackoaks struggled to survive.

The book spawned three sequels that I can't wait to read.

Whittington learned propulsive plotting from his Gold Medal crime and western novels. Although this isn't an action novel, he brings the same discipline to this lost masterpiece. Despite the cover, it's not a romance novel. It's a literary novel with crazy family drama swirling for nearly 500 hard-to-put-down pages.

Hat tip to Ben Bridges on the background regarding the creation of this book and Pete Brandvold for alerting me to its existence.

Blackoaks #02 - Secret of Blackoaks

First off, don't even think about reading this 500+ page plantation “slavery gothic” drama unless you've read and recall the first book of the series, “Master of Blackoaks” (1976). You'll be lost.

In the second 'Blackoaks', “Secret of Blackoaks”, crime and western author Harry Whittington (writing here as Ashley Carter) tells another compelling story of love, lust and violence among slaves and masters on the Alabama plantation of Blackoaks. This book begins about a year after the previous installment's conclusion. The novel is broken off into six sections with each focusing on a handful of characters from the first book.

There's a lot of travel happening in this volume - with action occurring in Tallahassee and New Orleans. Much of the drama concerns the Fulani slave brothers Blade and Moab with the central antagonist being plantation master Styles Kendric - in full, unhinged villain mode.

The story-lines were generally strong with the exception of one character's side adventure to New Orleans that felt a bit like page filler. But even that section pays dividends with a dramatic twisty conclusion.

There's also more action (think “Django Unchained”), graphic sex and violence than we saw in the first novel and the introduction of some fantastic new characters - including an abolitionist veteran in a decaying nearby plantation who may or may not be helping slaves find escape and freedom. A feisty new slave also enters the mix providing a reality check on the horrors of the institution to complacent counterparts.

Overall, this was another great outing from the King of the Paperbacks. If you read and enjoyed Blackoaks #1, you're sure to enjoy this installment. And with the strong and violent ending of this second book, you'll be dying to tackle the follow-up novel.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Fox #02 - Prize Money

The 'Fox' books are an anomaly in the world of classic action/adventure series. While some of our favorite series have their roots in the tawdry paperbacks of the 1950s, and others reach back to the blood-and-thunder pulps of the 1930s - all very American - this series is completely different. It’s a British series by a British author about British history, written in the dry, formal style of British literature.

Specifically, it’s an Age of Sail series very much like the venerable works of C. S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. The author is Kenneth Bulmer, using the pen-name Adam Hardy. Our protagonist, George Abercrombie Fox, joins the Royal Navy as an impoverished boy, and has various adventures (mainly at sea) in the very early years of the 19th Century. 

The debut paperback, “The Press Gang”, has some interesting things in it. There are memorable battle scenes between Fox’s ship and French adversaries, but the best stuff takes place on land as Fox is assigned to head up a press gang. Essentially, the press gang sneaks around the waterfront, “impressing” unwary men into the Navy by spiking their drinks or clubbing them over the head and hustling them aboard ship. This practice was unpopular but legal at the time. Anyway, after a job well done, Fox enjoys some shore leave which ends when he falls victim to another ship’s press gang! Brutality and bad luck are recurring themes of this series.

The second book, “Prize Money”, is less interesting. There are a few highlights, including a battle sequence at sea in which a very heavy cannon is torn loose from its foundation and Fox narrowly prevents it from plunging through the lower decks and the hull of the ship. There’s also a demented ship’s captain with an imaginary flock of pet pigeons. Otherwise, most of the action consists of the British Navy wandering across the Mediterranean in search of Napoleon’s navy.

Well, it’s not much of a page-turner, but I do want to give the author some credit. His prose is very elegantly written and he can describe scenes aboard ship so expressively and vividly that you can see, hear and smell every last detail. Best of all, Fox himself is a fascinating character. He’s gruff, mean and selfish, but he’s also very compelling, and sometimes you have to remind yourself that you’re reading fiction rather than history.

The series does have one formidable drawback, at least for most of us: you’re at a real disadvantage if you aren’t already pretty familiar with the architecture of these old sailing ships. The author uses a great deal of technical jargon without ever explaining any of it. Here’s an example: “He called for Mr. Lassiter and supervised the setting up of a pair of sheerlegs. As they did not have a launch they could not use her masts; but Fox decided to use the spare topmasts housed amidships.” If you’ve read a lot of Horatio Hornblower, you probably know exactly what’s happening in that passage. But personally, I never quite got my sea legs while reading “Prize Money”.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Callaghen

Louis L'Amour took a break from range wars and rustlers in 1972. “Callaghen” is a departure from his patented shtick, setting the action within the ranks of the Army. It features 34-year old Callaghen, an Irish soldier who has fought internationally, and at one point served as a Sergeant. His abrasive views of command have tarnished his career, demoting him repeatedly to lowly private and an assignment to a remote fort in the Mojave desert – in the heart of Indian country. This fort is essentially a security detail protecting the road to Las Vegas and Vegas Springs. Callaghen is 20-years in and discharge papers are arriving late, so this security detail and the inability to retire leaves the character disgruntled. While Callaghen isn't exactly the most interesting guy, the action intensifies just enough to keep me flipping the page...while checking the number at the bottom.

The plot is silky thin when our protagonist discovers a treasure map on a dead lieutenant. Apparently this leads to a river of gold and astonishingly a slew of outlaws convinced that Callaghen knows where this treasure is. Whether the map actually leads to anything remains to be seen, but L'Amour works with what he has – Indians, outlaws, speculative treasure, desert and the mandatory female characters that Callaghen is protecting. There's also some back story between the female lead, a despicable commander and the main character...but really no one cares. The most interesting aspect to the story is the lack of water in the desert. I found this struggle the most fascinating. Eventually, guns do catch fire and there's some action in the desert and cliffs. 

I can't say anything overly negative or positive about this one. It was a western, it kept me company and L'Amour is a skilled writer (albeit one that elongates senseless scenes). Often I wonder if I really like L'Amour's writing or if all those years watching my father read him has planted some sort of nostalgic childhood reasoning that if Dad liked it...I do too. Maybe that's enough for anyone to like anything.

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.