Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last Mountain Man #07 - War of the Mountain Man

William W. Johnstone released his seventh ‘Last Mountain Man’ book in May of 1990 for Zebra. “War of the Mountain Man” continues the adventures of paperback warrior Smoke Jensen and his westward war with land barons, rapists, outlaws and criminal fast-draws. At this point in time, it’s all rather cookie cutter as Johnstone seemingly just calls in the action by recycling fights and enemies and placing them in subsequent books. At one point, in the middle of this entry, two characters shockingly absorb Smoke’s account of killing over 200 men in prior adventures. It’s a testament to the book’s high body count and the protagonist’s own immortality. Smoke may be grazed by bullets or fists, but his unwavering legacy just continues on – maybe at the expense of the reader.

The book’s opening chapter explains that Smoke and his wife Sallie have sent the kids abroad via a steamship. Sallie wants to spend some time alone with Smoke and wants the two of them to go visit an old school colleague, Victoria, in Montana. Victoria and her husband Robert have inherited a ranch in Hell’s Creek where a land baron named Max Hutchins resides. Smoke is weary of the visit, but is reading between the lines – Sallie needs Smoke’s skills to liberate the two ranchers. The two arrive at a small town on the Swan River where Smoke is informed that a survivor named Jake Lewis is still alive. Readers may remember that Smoke avenged the death of his first wife in a camp called Uncomphagre in the series’ first book. Jake, a survivor of Smoke’s Uncomphagre raid, is working for Hutchins which is an easy connect the dots for the author. Smoke beats up Jake and throws him in a horse trough before saddling up and heading to a town called Barlow on the outskirts of Hell’s Creek. In and around Barlow is the main location for the book’s story.

Barlow is a corrupt little place where Hutchins has killed off the editor, Marshall and tarred and feathered the minister. He’s replaced them all with his own men, something that Smoke corrects instantly upon arrival. He throws both deputies out of a second story window and slaps the fire, and corruption, out of the town’s judge. Collectively, he rallies the town’s 30 willing citizens to fight back against Hutchins and his 100 gunners. The town votes to elect Smoke as the sheriff and soon the town is rebuilt – bank, shops, school, police force, etc. Barlow is an unusual spot geographically. The north end is controlled by Hutchins and the south is ruled by an equally vile criminal in Red Malone. The two split the gambling, whoring and raping equally and Smoke soon cuts off all supply trains in and out of Hell’s Creek. There’s no railroad to this part of the country…so needless to say Smoke prompts the ultimate war with Malone and Hutchins. A bulk of the book’s story is hit and run tactics by both men, some rapes, burnings and, of course, some death. The finale is predictable as the town defends the raiders in the not so epic showdown.

Johnstone never seems to run out of books, yet he is clearly out of ideas here. Malone and Hutchins are molded from the same vile elements as the series’ prior bad guys – Potter, Stratton, Richards, Hanks and McKorkle. These books wouldn’t be nearly as lethargic if we actually saw Smoke injured or pressed face first to the boards. Instead, Smoke is arrogant to the point of annoying because he, like the reader, knows he is invincible. It’s nearly pulp fiction as Smoke runs around, often completely alone, and kills off dozens upon dozens of bad guys. It’s a catch 22 – we love the hero disposing of the bad but at the same time we want the hero to at least get wounded or make some sort of inevitable comeback against superior odds. Smoke is never vulnerable, never in danger and never…that interesting. It’s unfortunate, but this series is rather stale and lifeless with a barrel-chested hero that has immortality.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Dakota #01 - Dakota Warpath

Author Gilbert Ralston is better known for his writing credits in Hollywood. Ralston helped create the “The Wild Wild West” show and wrote for similar television pieces like “Laredo”, “The Big Valley” and “Gunsmoke” in the 1960s. Ralston, born in Newcastle, Ireland, attended college at Sierra Nevada College, worked as a journalist and was a member of the Western Writers of America. All three of these experiences, combined with his screenplay skills, contribute to the look and feel of this series, ‘Dakota’. The series debut, “Dakota Warpath”, was released by Pinnacle in 1973 under the guise of just another hard-hitting action series. It isn’t necessarily in the mold of a ‘Death Merchant’ or ‘Destroyer’. This is more of a white-knuckle detective vehicle…that still manages to delivers the same goods.

Dakota is a half Piegan, half Shoshoni detective working out of the Sierras in Nevada. He’s an ex-Marine who served in Vietnam as a talker for an advanced unit. Apparently, Dakota and his two brothers were surrounded in the bush and only Dakota survived. There is a slight discrepancy to this story later as Dakota tells a Marine pilot he was a Ranger. In my research, only Army had Rangers but this could be associated with Dakota attending Army Ranger school at one point and possibly learning demolition. Regardless, Dakota emerges from the war and becomes a police force in New York before moving back to the Sierras to work his family’s ranch while simultaneously doing investigative work (and rodeo). All of this seems like a whole lot of hyperbole on the part of the author – but I’m going to say I absolutely love this character. In a lot of ways Dakota is the perfect merger of Craig Johnson’s dedicated sheriff Longmire and his loyal friend Henry Standing Bear. Again, this book was released in 1973 but is nearly the perfect precursor to Longmire. Dakota embodies the intelligent, western working man in the able hands of a brilliant writer.

“Dakota Warpath” performs its obligations as a series debut – introducing the character while also building validity. In the early pages we gain most of the above through a conversation between Dakota and a longtime friend named Sam Lew. Dakota is introduced to a potential new client, unknown at the time as Amy Rainey. She explains her husband was murdered in a Nevada town called Poison Springs and those same killers are targeting her. Before Dakota can take the case, Sam’s car explodes killing both Sam and Rainey. It’s Dakota’s crime to solve – did the killers target Sam or Amy and why? The town’s sheriff deputizes Dakota and soon the location is moved to Poison Springs. It’s your typical one-horse town controlled by a millionaire named Burton Ashley. He runs the place including its casino and ranch brothel. Dakota plays nice with Ashley for a little while, and later teams with the town’s deputy, Phillips, a journalist named Spring and a brief love interest in Janet. Dakota also teams up with a Navajo kid named Louis as he investigates the Rainey murders and Ashley’s complex criminal empire.

Ralston writes this book as a testimony to his screenplay experience. It reads like a movie or television episode where a lot of “on page” action isn’t necessarily described in exhaustive detail. For example, Dakota can walk into a familiar place and just know some of his hometown’s residents and friends. The burden isn’t on Ralston to explain how Dakota knows them or what they are wearing or where they are standing during dialogue. I actually prefer this style of writing and it certainly trims the fat off to leave room for the “meat and potatoes”. It keeps the book moving at a fairly high pace even if you were to cite the slow burn build up of the first half. The books finale is a firestorm for the last 40-50 pages, placing Dakota in the desert hills with a .38 against a half-dozen armed bad guys. That portion of the writing is very western oriented and captures intense cat and mouse tactics as Dakota defends his position. Nestled in between detective work, fist fights and gun battles s are some really touching moments where Dakota consoles a senile, elderly man, calls his mother nightly and returns a 15-year old girl to her father. It isn’t bravado, bullet belts and bare chests – Dakota is a human that makes mistakes throughout the book and isn’t afraid to admit it. There were four more books in this series and I wish there were more. Sadly, Ralston passed away in 1999 at the age of 87. He leaves behind a legacy of quality media including this career highlight - in my opinion. ‘Dakota’ comes highly recommended and should please fans of the ‘Longmire’ series.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Doc Savage #02 - The Land of Terror

I’m notating this review as “Doc Savage 02” due to reading and listing these in true chronological order. “The Land of Terror” was originally released as the second ‘Doc Savage Magazine’ issue in April, 1933. The confusion may lie in the fact that Bantam released this in novel format as volume eight in 1965 (under house name Kenneth Robinson). I’m still a new reader of this character and many sources advise me to follow Lester Dent’s original chronological order. So, with that explanation clearing the air…

“The Land of Terror” picks up after the events of the series debut, “Man of Bronze”. Savage is now receiving his pipeline of funds and can afford to travel the world righting wrongs. In one early effective scene Savage hands a fistful of cash to a woman experiencing blindness. He encourages her to use the money and a personalized handwritten note to seek out a surgeon friend of Doc’s. He does this while chasing a bad guy, which is ultimately the book’s setup and early premise. It turns out Doc’s friend and chemist Jerome Coffern is melted by a mysterious substance released by the villain Kar. In furious opening chapters, the reader is tagging along as Savage is on a highspeed foot chase to capture Coffern’s murderer. The killer is attempting to dodge Savage’s advance by running through New York streets, downtown apartment buildings and onto a tourist ship in the Hudson River. It’s a long but entertaining sequence of events that culminates in the killer escaping.

Later, Savage does a little detective work and learns that the melting substance being used is called the Smoke of Eternity and Kar’s gang plans to use it for robbing banks and other dastardly deeds. As a gumshoe, Savage learns that Coffern, a taxidermist named Bittman and a guy named Yuder traveled to a remote New Zealand location known as Thunder Island. After asking Bittman, an old friend of Doc’s father, about the trip, Bittman suspects that Yuder could really be the mysterious Kar and that the Smoke of Eternity could have originated from Thunder Island. After another furious chase scene that involves Monk being captured, the team pursue the bad guys from New York to Thunder Island. From here it falls into what I perceive as the typical Doc Savage adventure tale - exotic location, strange creatures, gunfire and a quest or chase to thwart some evil mastermind.

It’s only Dent’s second issue of writing this character but it’s clearly evident he has a firm grasp on what he wants to express to the reader. The first half of the book works really well as a simultaneous chase scene while still asking probing questions as an investigative pursuit of plot. The second half is by far the best as Doc’s team faces dinosaurs and Kar’s henchmen inside of a volcano. Fans of the series often point out the fact that this entry includes five killings, something Doc’s team doesn’t do much (if any) of in future volumes. High body count on a pursuit of vengeance. I’m okay with it.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Outrider #05 - Built to Kill

Robert Tine’s ‘Outrider’ series comes to a premature ending with book five, “Built to Kill”. Genre fans hold the series in high regard – keeping in mind that it’s a fun, senseless ride that doesn’t convey any realism or seriousness. It’s 80s post-nuke fiction with all of the characteristics or stereotypes that go with it. The publisher, Pinnacle, was sold shortly after this book’s release in 1985, bringing to a halt the series with a promised book six (pictured below) never reaching fruition. Regardless, this closing chapter has a great makeshift ending that wraps up storylines and characters from the past four novels. I’m extremely satisfied with calling this book the ultimate finale.

Each of the past four novels had our hero Bonner battling marauders, gangs and tyrants in each of North American’s new territories – Slavestates, Hotstates and Snowstates. Chicago, where Bonner and other loners live, has always been a neutral city surrounded by dried up lake Michigan. It’s a hard area to attack, made even more difficult with the amount of firepower possessed by these loners and renegades. However, arch enemy Leatherman poses a scheme to align the territorial leaders into a collective combat force to take Chicago. It sounds awesome on paper…but realistically we just know Leatherman plans to eliminate everyone but his own forces. He wants to rule the whole continent and thinks the downfall of Chicago will be the best opportunity.


The author brings in all of the familiar characters of the series – Beck, Bonner, The Means, Clara, Lucky and even a surprise visit from a guy named Starling. At times it’s intentionally humorous and I found myself laughing out loud at the antics of Starling and Beck. Lucky actually plays a big part in the book, moving him from under the hood to a spot in the front seat. I always liked the character and it was really entertaining to see more of him. From an action stance, the novel does spend a lot of time setting up what is essentially a 10-page fight. I thought the inevitable confrontation between Leatherman and Bonner was more fizzle than spark. The book could have been fleshed out with a little more action but publishing and time restraints probably limited the author’s creative force. Overall, this series was highly entertaining and closed out perfectly in my opinion. Grab copies of these books and keep them safe and dry. Pass them on down the line and let the next generation explore this wacky and wild genre we know and love.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

M.I.A. Hunter #05: Exodus from Hell

Stephen Mertz is widely considered the main creator of the ‘M.I.A. Hunter’ series. He, along with Bill Crider and Joe Lansdale, wrote a majority of the series’ 17 books. For book five, “Exodus from Hell”, popular action and western author Chet Cunningham apparently came on board. I’ve spent a great deal of time digging under stones and bridges to provide the definitive verification of this – but just can’t seem to gain anything other than Joe at the Glorious Trash blog sourcing the book’s author in his review. It would certainly make sense as Cunningham also wrote the non-numbered book “Stone: M.I.A. Hunter” between books five and six. However, jury still out at the time of this review.

“Exodus from Hell” is another Jove paperback, released in 1986 under house name Jack Buchanan. Fans of the series know exactly what to expect when they flip open the novel – Mark Stone, Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin kicking serious jungle ass. This fifth entry in the series does plenty of that, but is unique to this line because it reverses the order of events from the series’ predecessors. While prior books followed the same formula, this book surprisingly does things just a little differently.

As the book begins we have a familiar scene unfolding with Stone and his mercenaries deep into Cambodia. The trio, along with hired assistance, quickly dispose of a small unit of Vietnamese soldiers before approaching a prison camp that’s housing three American prisoners of war. We are introduced to two of these characters as the author describes in graphic detail their daily rituals, struggles and punishment. In a furious opening scene, the camp is liberated and the trio are able to rescue two of the three soldiers. The third had perished under the harsh conditions before the rescue. Here’s where things get a little bit divergent. Instead of the book focusing on the heroes receiving the assignment, scouting the location and then making the finale rescue, this book reverses the order of events. “Exodus from Hell” is true to its name. This book captures the escape and trek out of hostile land.

If we assume the book is written by Cunningham, then his descriptive combat throughout the book would be at least partially written from experience. Cunning served in the Korean War, fought in two battles and, according to his website, participated in numerous line-crossing and prisoner patrols. All of that is presented with detail and authority here. He’s an engaging storyteller and really brings focus and clarity to the dangers awaiting Stone and company – the jungle environment, fatigue, opposition. As Stone attempts to get his company out of harm’s way, they can only watch in horror as the rescue chopper explodes. Thus, the premise of the book, hiking on foot through 200 miles of jungle to cross over into safehouse Thailand. Along the trek the group has one P.O.W. completely delusional, strong guy Wiley being injured and carted and a missionary that is attempting to transport six children out of harm’s way. All of these elements collectively create a perfect storm.

I hold this series in fairly high regard overall. It’s connected to my childhood and with that comes a certain kinship. But these books are just really well written, whether it’s Lansdale, Mertz, Cunningham or whoever. “Exodus to Hell” is a series highlight for me and one that definitely stands the test of time. It’s saturated with combat violence, presenting a gritty story of survival, but occasionally muffles the bang with heartfelt strives for peace. It’s a great story and I highly recommended it even if you aren’t a fan of the series. If you love this genre…you simply can’t go wrong here.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

U.S.S.A. #01 - Book One

“It’s 1996. The Fight to Save America Has Just Begun”. This slogan adorns the top of Tom De Haven’s ‘U.S.S.A.’ debut, “Book One” (also seen online as “Top Secret”). With its Avon release in 1987, this young adult novel paints a disturbing portrait of a future Dystopian America. De Haven borrows a bit from Ray Bradbury’s iconic ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to fuel this nightmarish vision of the United States of Secure America, a military controlled, ultra-right-wing state that has aligned closely with the Soviet Union. While “freedom” is still a viable option, its sacrifices are free speech, independent media and privacy. While the book was written and released in the 80s, a lot of the author’s themes and ideas predict what is happening in our own present day. It’s unsettling, yet a vivid reminder of how liberty is a hard fought and precious commodity.

In the book’s premise, a coup occurs in Washington on January 19th, 1995 that eliminates the government’s infrastructure. Congress is ultimately fired, along with the president. The military, led by a de-facto leader named General Sawchuk, takes control of the US proclaiming it the U.S.S.A. They align with the ultra-right-wing policies of the Soviet Union and, together, begin a worldwide campaign to tackle the Middle East and Mexico. All of this is recounted in the early chapters by the main character, Eddie Ludlow, in first person narrative.

At the beginning of the novel we learn that one year has passed since the coup, and patriotic “renewal” is enforced by aggressive New Cops and the military. Eddie is a high school student living in a small, midwestern town. The novel’s opening pages has Eddie and some friends sneaking off to a secret bazaar that allows students to sell and swap banned music. In a horrifying scene that echoes Bradbury, we see the New Cops arrive, dousing all of the outlawed media with flamethrowers. While that sort of imagery doesn’t envelope the entire novel, it definitely sets the tone that this is a foreign US.

A majority of this series opener is spent on just the day to day activities in and out of high school. It’s catered to the young adult crowd (arguably 12-17) so you won’t find heavy gunfire. There’s some, not a lot. Instead this one really soaks up the atmosphere of a very different “land of the free”. There’s one news channel and it is state controlled. Robotic birds serve as roving “big brother” cameras. The school only uses state propaganda and regularly replaces teachers with new government heads. One of Eddie’s teachers, Mr. Graham, asks, “Is patriotism – the love of one’s country – always the same thing as the love of one’s government?” This is during a discussion of ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. Later, Eddie learns that Mr. Graham has been fired and seemingly homeless after challenging his students to think outside of the box.

While Eddie’s day to day is outlined, De Haven introduces some lovable characters in Mike, Roger and Eddie’s love interest, B.J. As the kids start to question their existence in the new regime, they team with an underground resistance group headed by “Denim Guy”. He challenges the group to think about the USA and how important it was and still is. They all strive to fight back, but understand “freedom isn’t won in an hour”. There’s a number of smaller plot lines – Eddie’s father is a reporter and is filming various protests across the country. B.J.’s father is employed as a scientist by the military and questions his country’s morals and ethics. The book’s finale is a bullet ridden chase scene that propels the story into later books.

De Haven was born in 1949 and I can see where his life experiences factored into the story. 50s and early 60s rock and roll could have been a bit taboo for him as a young man, perhaps an inspiration for some of the anti-media tactics of the New Cops. The author has written several fantasy novels, a Superman book and comes back to this series for it’s last entry, book four. I think he did a fantastic job placing himself into Eddie’s “young” thought process. The pacing is about right for this introductory tale, but will need to pick up as the series progresses forward. I own book two also but will need to locate and purchase the others. Based on this volume, it should be money well spent.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Outrider #04 - Bay City Burnout

Richard Harding’s ‘Outrider’ series rolls along with entry five, “Bay City Burnout”. It was released in 1985 under Pinnacle’s “Crossfire” line of action and adventure. The odd numbered books in the series are clear standouts with book two being the series’ low point. The author remains on task of documenting the iron-fisted adventures of the protagonist, Bonner, through nightmarish post-nuclear North America. However, the series can get subjugated by a more comical conquest, thus the failures of “Bay City Burnout”.

The book starts off in a familiar location, Dorka’s bar in neutral Chicago (the rest of America is controlled by feudal tyrants). Bonner and the series’ regulars like the Mean Brothers typically hang out here prior to the book’s plot unveiling. After a really funny opener with the Mean Brothers carrying in a piano to introduce music to the gang, the book’s premise is revealed. The western portion of the former US is now controlled by a land baron aptly titled The Rich Man. He has a wealth of supplies and treasure but locked into defensive combat with feudal gangs. He’s sent an expedition into Chicago to rally troops to his cause with the promise of wealth for their services. The convoy is led by a one-dimensional idiot named Roy. Bonner notices that Roy is holding a lighter that belongs to his friend Seth (a character from prior books) and the two butt heads. Bonner declines the offer and heads to Lucky’s garage to fuel up his armored car.

I’m not sure if the author had enough of a plot created to have Bonner just chase Roy to the west coast looking for Seth. That’s a bit thin and had already existed as a theme in the last book. To counter that, Roy’s gang brutally rapes Bonner’s girlfriend while he is gone. The next morning the convoy heads west with about sixty Chicago recruits. Bonner, furious about the attack, heads out with The Mean Brothers to follow Roy back to The Rich Man’s compound. He can kill two birds with one stone; revenge the rape and rescue Seth. Along the way he teams up with his old colleagues from the first book, Clara and her motorcycle sisters.

I think generally speaking this should have been a fairly good entry. The idea of Bonner and the gang crossing the Rockies, braving the elements and running a few guerilla tactics to take out pieces of Roy’s small army sounds great on paper. But, Harding never expands on any of these ideas, instead dwelling on senseless, comical dialogue between Roy and his misfit crew. Often the book reminded me of that 1979 film ‘The Villain’ with its slapstick chase scenes. There’s a few hit-and-run tactics thrown in but Harding portrays Bonner in God-like status as he single-handedly kills nearly 50 members of the gang (with assistance) before they arrive in California. The last 15 pages rewards the reader with another Leatherman and Bonner confrontation…but it’s short lived with very little payoff. Overall, it’s not as bad as the second book but definitely fails to rekindle the fire and intensity of the series debut. Let’s hope the series finale ends with a bang instead of a comical whimper.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Outrider #03 - Blood Highway

Richard Harding’s third ‘Outrider’ entry is “Blood Highway”. It was released in 1984 through Pinnacle. Unlike it’s predecessor, “Fire and Ice”, and contrary to the book’s title, Harding actually slows the highway action down for this stock-still adventure starring our hero Bonner and his “strong man” friends The Mean Brothers. While the series first novel, “The Outrider”, worked extremely well with the “road warrior” styled mentality, “Fire and Ice” was a little too sporadic and uneven to fully expand the book’s elementary plot – finding gasoline. After the second entry, I had really decided not to pursue the series any further. Thankfully, I had a change of heart.

“Blood Highway” centers the action in the southwestern US, an area now known as the Hotstates. Here, the Mississippi River dried up and what’s left is a barren wasteland. Like the Slavestates ran by the tyrant Leatherman, the Hotstates are ruled with an iron fist by a guy named Berger. He runs his own gang of enforcement known as the Devils. As the book begins, Bonner and The Mean Brothers are in the Hotstates (Texas I believe) grabbing a supply of meat to return for supplies in Chicago. They clash with a group of Devils where Bonner sees a peculiar little .22 rifle bearing a familiar slogan – “Bobby. His Gun”. This inscription apparently means a lot to Bonner and Harding soon explains why.

In prior years, Bonner had met a warm, wholesome family in a community aptly title Almost Normal. Here, things are the closest to what we know as everyday suburbia – houses, lawns, fences and barbecues. At one point, Bonner was even asked to stay, but he declined knowing his rebel spirit would never let him settle down. Bonner had befriended a boy in the community named Bobby and taught him to shoot using that same rifle. Fearing that the community had been attacked, Bonner and The Mean Brothers head north to check on the town. To their horror, they find the whole community wiped out and its residents hanging on poles. Bonner knows the survivors have been taken as slaves by the Devils and a slave farmer named Farkas.

Harding really carves out a simple plot – rescue the good guys from the bad. It’s elementary, redundant…but so much fun here. Bonner teams up with a motorcycle gang of midgets called The Lashmen to attack Farkas’ compound and free all the slaves. The author moves the pace along without dwelling too much on Bonner’s strategic plans. Its simple efficiency is ultimately its best asset. While it reads comparably to an ‘M.I.A. Hunter’ book (scout the camp, attack the camp, freedom!), it works extremely well here. Farkas is the despicable character we love to hate while a little focus on The Mean Brothers is exactly what ‘Outrider’ fans wanted.

“Blood Highway” certainly doesn’t pave over any unfamiliar territory. We’ve read this story numerous times. Yet Harding is a crafty storyteller and the heart of the book is it’s good versus evil clash with a clear winner. Gunfights, fistfights, car chases and a great sense of humor are winning ingredients for this entry. “Blood Highway” picks up the same sense of enjoyment as its debut and hopefully will propel that vibe into the fourth volume. I’m riding shotgun for this.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Hanging Woman Creek

‘Hanging Woman Creek’ was released in 1964 by Bantam Books. For me, it’s considered one of L’Amour’s early books due to being released about 15 years into his writing career. At 150 pages, it fits snugly into the author’s “short but exceptional” western template. Set in frosty Montana, L’Amour introduces us to the rough and tough Pronto Pike. He’s a down on his luck journeyman who drifts from job to job all over the country. Like many paperback cowboys, Pronto is decent with his fists and Hell with a rifle. He’s a great cattle guy, a hard worker…but his temper has been the bane of his existence. So, it’s fitting that the book opens with Pronto being released from an overnight stay in jail along with a couple of other drifter types – Van Bokkelen (who may be wanted for murder) and an older African American boxer named Eddie Holt. 

After separating themselves from Bokkelen, both Eddie and Pronto team up to find work before the bulk of winter hits the Montana timbers. After asking around, the duo find a great stint punching cattle for a rancher named Bill Justin. It’s a good gig – warm cabin, plenty of wood, a few books and the calm day to day activities of babysitting cattle through the winter. Eddie, while not a skilled rancher, earns his keep by preparing good meals and teaching Pronto some boxing lessons. In turn, Pronto shows Eddie how to punch cattle. However, the good vibe at Hanging Woman Creek doesn’t last long.

L’Amour slowly envelopes the story with an impending sense of gloom, enhanced by the cold, rural landscape. After learning that cattle rustlers are among them, Pronto finds a murdered man in the snow (with a bit of mysterious horseprints). With tensions high and both men feeling watched and unsettled, Pronto rides into town to present the dead man and to make a sworn statement. There, he finds an Irish beauty named Ann Farley, the sister of a nester named Philo Farley, an old friend of Pronto’s. Ann explains that her brother could be in trouble and needs a ride out to his cabin just shy of Hanging Woman Creek.   

I am recommending this one to any action and western fans, and with that being said, I don’t want to elaborate too much further for fear of spoilers. The heart of the book is ultimately a classic western…but it’s loaded with atmosphere and mystery. Where’s the rustlers, who’s leading them and what’s behind the murders? How is Philo and Ann Farley tied to it? While the first third of the book develops great characters, the middle really expands on that and introduces mystery and intrigue. The last third is Hell bent for leather, matching the book’s cover perfectly.

L’Amour is a master storyteller and this one has all of his best ingredients. Action, mystery, interesting (and lovable) characters and a frantic sense of pacing. It’s a short read packed with atmosphere and firepower. ‘Hanging Woman Creek’ is highly recommended…and won’t let you down until that noose snaps tight.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Deathlands #01 - Pilgrimage to Hell

‘Deathlands’ is yet another series that has periodically slipped through my hands over the years. The covers were always inviting, promising an entertaining trip through post-nuke America. For whatever reason, I just never bothered purchasing or reading any of them. Now, as I get further and further through westerns, crime and apocalyptic styled yarns (and yawns), I’m revisiting the books that just never made the cut initially. Thus ‘Pilgrimage to Hell’, the first book of the series and my first taste of this long-running, highly recommended series. 

The series was introduced in January, 1986 by publishing giant Gold Eagle. It has run for 130 books as well as an ill-conceived SyFy film. The concept was created by U.K. author Christopher Lowder, a talent that contributed to science fiction and adventure stories for the likes of ‘The House of Hammer’, ‘2000 A.D.’ and ‘Thunder and Lion’. Lowder worked on the series’ first entry, ‘Pilgrimage to Hell’, but had to stop writing it due to an illness. This led to Lowder arguably writing the first ¾ of the novel before conceding the book, and a majority of the series, to fellow British writer Laurence James. James was a member of the “Piccadilly Cowboys” and wrote 12-14 novels a year under various pen-names. Before working on the ‘Deathlands’ series, James had contributed to motorcycle, Viking, science fiction and post-apocalyptic novels.

The book’s opening pages presents a detailed history of how Earth was ravaged by a nuclear exchange in 2001. It’s lengthy (on paper almost 20 pages), and documents a ton of information that I thought I might need to remember…but it turns out none of it even matters other than Earth has changed significantly due to bombs and radiation (yes, it’s the inevitable Soviet-US fiery transaction). Geography consists of various hot and cold spots with dark clouds that seemingly burn the sky. Mutants, sickness and plagues take over and cull the weak, resulting in decades of famine and death. The opening chapter puts us in 2101, 100 years removed from the big bang and roughly two to three generations after the civilization that we know. The end result is a barren wasteland that resembles some sort of alien landscape than the Earth that we all know and love. Mutants, telepaths, warriors and Barons (leaders) populate what was once the US, ruling small villages and towns and recreating the shambles of what life once was despite the “nuclear winter” effects. It’s medieval, putting this book and series more in line with the fantasy genre than the typical post-nuke adventure. 

No disrespect to Lowder, but his writing style for the first half of the book is very restless. About 100 pages in I was seriously questioning my decision to read this and if I had enough focus to retain much of the information presented. There is a lot to unpack after several chapters, including multiple characters that could be major or minor characters early on. At one point I couldn’t keep track of which character was saying the dialogue and how they were related to the group. The book’s opening half centers around a telepathic mutant named Kurt who is assisting a group of bandits. They are attempting a journey north into a frosty wasteland known as The Darks. It’s here that a fabled treasure of supplies and wealth exists…yet no one has ever returned from the area safely. As soon as the group enter the area…tentacles and claws emerge from the fog and they are seemingly killed off.

From that point we are then introduced to a mysterious guy named Trader and his motorized convoy as they travel to the ville of Mocsin. Trader runs three large trucks (what I would think of as armored tractor trailers) and about 40 men and women - including his comrade, and series main star, Ryan Cawdor. This group are legendary traders and travelers and do business with the Baron Jordan Teauge, a notoriously bad man that has quite the reputation for raping, killing and stealing. The group is attacked by mutants led by a character named Scale before eventually rescuing another series mainstay, the beautiful Krysty Wroth (I told you there were a ton of characters). The convoy engages in road combat and run ‘n gun with a host of baddies including mutants named Stickies (they literally pull flesh from bones on contact) and Teauge’s rogue baddie Cort Strasser. Eventually, the convoy arrives near Mocsin where the book settles into a groove at the halfway point.

Lowder finishes off his portion of the book with a bit of western styled storytelling. Ryan, Krysty and company are captured by the now crooked Strasser and Teauge. During their capture, they meet an interesting character named Doc Tanner who may, or may not be, from another time period all together. He speaks in Victoria era broken sentences, but seems to know more about The Darks than anyone else. The gang breaks free of Strasser and eventually reunites with Trader and the convoy. More skirmishes and gunfights occur as the group attempts to escape Strasser and an army of mutants. Along the way we learn Trader is dying, Ryan is in love with Krysty and the whole group is embarking on a trip to The Darks to learn the secrets or seal their fate.

In what is essentially the whole premise of the book, the gang fractures off into a main cast of just eight characters as they learn that “redoubts” exist all over the country. Think of these as teleportation stations that allow them to jump all over the country in seconds. We assume that they somehow lead to time travel based on Doc’s misplacement in 2101…but future volumes will address that (I hope). The book finishes on a cliffhanger that promises a second book will continue the current storyline. 

The book’s much more focused and arranged with James writing the last fourth and I’m glad that we slimmed down on the number of characters. While the first half was a bit messy, I’m a bit sympathetic with Lowder’s monumental undertaking. He had a lot of ground to cover, a huge storyline to introduce and just under a few hundred pages to accomplish the feat. While I’m sorry he couldn’t finish his effort, James really comes in and makes it his own. I’m looking forward to more of this series. Science fiction, fantasy, action adventure? Really it is all three with a slight nod to Lovecraft horror. This was a surprising concept that definitely puts ‘Deathlands’ outside of the typical post-nuke novels of the 80s and early 90s.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Doc Savage #01 - The Man of Bronze

Predominantly, my Paperback Warrior musings are catered to 70s and 80s fiction, but I’m leaping through time to cover this iconic pulp warrior. Shamefully it has taken me 41 years on Earth to read my very first Doc Savage title. Over the years I’ve discovered the character while browsing a multitude of media including novels, comics, magazines and audio. For some reason, I just never had any interest in delving beneath the surface until now.

‘Doc Savage Magazine’ was first published in March, 1933 via Street & Smith publishers. Street & Smith was a New York company formed in 1855. It released its first pulp, ‘The Popular Magazine’, in 1903. By the mid-20s the pulp market had exploded, led by what many claims as the “Big Four” – ‘Argosy’, ‘Adventure’, ‘Blue Book’ and ‘Short Stories’. Street & Smith publishing agent Henry Ralston and editior John Nanovic had a hit on their hands with ‘The Shadow’ and were pursuing a second title. They pitched their Doc Savage hero concept to author Lester Dent with a dangling carrot of $500-$750 paychecks per book. It was a triumphant transaction that led to Doc Savage appearing a whopping 181 times for the magazine and related media. In 1964, the title regained popularity with Bantam reprinted each magazine as an individual novel. The books were handsomely presented with new artwork by James Bama and listed under house name Kenneth Robeson. These books are mostly out of chronological publishing order except the first – ‘The Man of Bronze’.

As the forerunner to the modern superhero, ‘The Man of Bronze’ starts the series as the obligatory origin story. It begins by introducing us to Doc Savage and his “Fabulous Five” team members. Each are introduced by name and what their overall skill is. Monk is a strong type that doubles as an industrial chemist. Ham is an accomplished attorney with a sword cane. Renny is the team’s brawn and construction engineer. Long Tom is an electrical wizard and Johnny rounds it off as the team’s archaeologist, complete with magnifying lens over his damaged left eye. Savage himself is sort of the conglomerate of all his team’s skills, only he has perfected each due to a strenuous two hours daily spent exercising his body and mind. Author Lester Dent describes Savage as a physical specimen with a chiseled “bronze” body.

Savage and his teammates served together in WWI, yet it wouldn’t be until Philip Farmer’s 1991 novel, ‘Escape from Loki’, that the full details are explained. The group is assembled on the 86th Floor of what is presumably New York’s Empire State Building after learning of the murder of Savage’s father. Doc, in distress, learns that his father was poisoned while exploring a remote location called Hidalgo in Central America. During the assembly, a red-handed assassin attempts to assassinate Doc. Through the book’s opening chapters, the group run from building to building chasing the assassin before learning that Savage’s father left a hidden message behind. This message pushes the book’s focus to the team traveling to Hidalgo to investigate not only the murder, but the land that has been willed to Doc.

From one fast-paced frenzy to another, Dent presents a riveting adventure for the team. From deep underground caves and primitive villages to sea and air battles, ‘The Man of Bronze’ covers a lot of ground and, for the 1930s, took the imagination into foreign and exotic lands. Collectively, the team uses all of their resources to foil the enemy and solve the inevitable mystery. Who’s the assassin? Why did he murder Doc’s father? All of this comes to fruition in a climatic, mountainside finale that finishes one chapter while introducing elements that will be key in future editions. The author’s clear boundaries of good and evil are questionable in 2017, but one has to remember this was written in a much simpler time with black and white social and cultural outlines. It’s easy to dismiss the fantasy and incredible writing style, often putting Doc Savage at Godlike strength and mind, but that’s the whole idea, right? It isn’t really supposed to make sense.

It’s written as an escape from the factory work and mundane daily rituals. For my own interpretation, Savage is one-part Indiana Jones, one-part Bruce Wayne and one-part Captain America. His skillset or power? I think it could easily just be perfection. He’s seemingly human perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be this bronze, intelligent hero? I say bring on book two – ‘The Land of Terror’. I can’t get enough of this stuff.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Apache #01 - The First Death

I had been reading up on the U.K. westerns of the 70s and stumbled on a series entitled ‘Apache’. Further reading brought me up to speed on a familiar name in western fiction – Piccadilly Cowboys. This group consisted of writers Terry Harknett, Kenneth Bulmer, Mike Linaker, Angus Wells, Laurence James, Fred Nolan and John Harvey (if not more). Collectively, they wrote a ton of westerns and individually contributed to science fiction and men’s action adventure genres. ‘Apache’ was a bit of a snowball effect resulting from the tremendous success of the violent western series ‘Edge’. According to the excellent blog "Western Fiction Review", ‘Edge’ was published by George Gilman, a pseudonym for authors Terry Harknett and Laurence James. Harknett (under the name William M. James) wrote the debut ‘Apache’ novel “The First Death”, released in February, 1974 through Pinnacle. The series would run from 1974 through 1984 – 27 books written by Harknett and John Harvey (later). Thankfully, I was able to track down an Ebook copy of “The First Death” using a nifty online library – openlibrary.org.

Although the year is never mentioned, the book is set somewhere around 1861. There is a mentioning of a possible rebellion against the Union in the East, thus the beginnings of the U.S. Civil War. The book begins with Lieutenant Pinner riding troops into an Apache rancheria in the Arizona Territory of the Department of New Mexico. He’s looking for a Native American that he suspects stole his prized golden dagger, a cherished gift from his father. Pinner is a royal dick and routinely takes his aggression out on what is now a peaceful tribe of Apache. Their chief, Black Horse, allows Pinner’s troops to run through the tepees searching for the dagger, putting aside frustration and pride for the greater good. 18-year old brave Cuchillo sees the invasion from a rock outcropping and races in to protect his wife Chipeta and his newborn son. In a shocking early revelation, Cuchillo produces the dagger from inside of his shirt. Pinner and the troops take Cuchillo back to nearby Fort Davidson for trial. Pinner asks his superior, Major Anson, to execute Cuchillo, but the leader suggests removing Cuchillo’s index finger as a suitable punishment. Pinner, in a prime asshat move, actually removes two fingers in a disturbing and graphic scene.

Harknett introduces a solid backstory outlining Cuchillo’s place in the tribe, a feud with fellow brave White Dog and his friendship with the white John Hedges, whom has educated Cuchillo with English culture. Cuchillo provides a valid explanation as to why he had Pinner’s dagger, and later, tangles with the violent father-son due of Nathan and Armstrong Ford – two pivotal characters in the book’s ultimate plotline. Cuchillo attempts to settle the dagger transaction, only to run afoul of the Fords, killing one of them. Before he can return back to the rancheria, the cavalry arrests Cuchillo’s wife and retains his son until the brave returns to Fort Davidson to confess and ultimately hang. This puts Cuchillo in the worst situation – trading his own life for his wife and son’s.

The book’s violent finale has Fort Davidson’s scum run the rape train on Cuchillo’s wife. It’s a brutal scene, but done with just enough detail to paint the revenge scenario facing Cuchillo and the reader. It’s tough to read, but isn’t a grizzly, squeamish scene. I’m glad the author held back a bit…enough is enough with the cruelty. The climatic ending is a shocker, but a mandatory finale to set up the long running series. I’ve got to have book two…right now.

I’ve read a ton of western fiction but I’m going to put ‘Apache’ in the upper echelon. It’s a quick read at under 200 pages, with just enough violence and a good mystery to saturate the book’s contents. I’m hoping this series will expand on the Cuchillo and Pinner conflict while also furthering the development of White Dog’s feud. I can’t say enough good things about this book. Based on this debut, ‘Apache’ looks like a winning formula. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Executioner #06 - Assault on Soho

At the end of 'Continental Contract', Bolan was in a furious nighttime run 'n gun with the mob in France. He's attempting to escape Europe with a still-beating heart. The beauty queen knockout from the last book (does her name even matter) helps Bolan into the English Channel. Now, 'Assault on Soho' begins with Bolan in London, trying to punch a ticket to fly back to America. His interference is another short-skirted bombshell, Ann Franklin, who warns Bolan of goon danger and escorts him to a sex palace called The Club De Sade. Really. Why? I have no Earthly idea...and I'm not sure author Don Pendleton knows either. This is unfortunate series filler while thinking of the next good adventure for Bolan. 

After the stellar 'Continental Contract', Pendleton messy-shits the whole bed with 'Assault on Soho'. I'm not sure if his prior erotic writing was creeping in or if he was asked to insert a bunch of kinky stuff. The end result is a big poo-poo in the series and one that should probably have been better off with some sort of 70s spy jazz that was booming at the time. I'm not sure what the story was really about...other than Bolan escaping the mob by going back and forth from London's streets to the sex palace...over and over. 

There's a Major Stone involved, a leftover mobster named Danno Giliamo from 'Miami Massacre' and this Ann Franklin bimbo that has somehow fallen in love with the five minutes she's spent with Mack Daddy. There's a really good action sequence early on...and the rest of the time Bolan takes a backseat to a wacky sex mystery. Our hero is sitting front row while people mysteriously die...and none of it makes any sense. The only interesting bit is that the mob has now formed an alliance to kill Bolan...and I'm sure this will come up in future volumes. Otherwise, stay clear of this one.

The Executioner #05 - Continental Contract

Don Pendleton's fourth book in his "Executioner" saga continues with "Continental Contract". This book will be the first of the series to export the action to Europe. It only makes sense to travel abroad after the highly intense mafia conflict fought domestically over the last three volumes. With that being said, the book's opening pages has Bolan arrive at Dulles International Airport in DC. Quickly, he realizes he's walked into mob gunners and has a furious action sequence before donning a disguise and jumping on a flight to Europe. Oddly, Bolan finds out that a celebrity passenger on the plane, Gil Martin, looks exactly like him. 

Now, the cat and mouse tactics move to Paris where Bolan assumes the identity of Martin in a clever switch-a-roo. In one of the book's key action sequences, Bolan annihilates a house ripe with whores, moving the beauty goods downstairs while he topples the upper levels with his "machine pistol". This ultimately proves to be a notoriously bad deal for the whores. But, more on that later. In vintage "Executioner" style, Bolan gets escorted to a hotel by some British writer/tramp and the two try to get undressed as quickly as possible. Later, Bolan meets a British celebrity in her own right named Cici. Early, she thinks Bolan is the Gil Martin guy but later figures out he isn't. None of this makes much sense and it's all swept under the rug.

The whole premise of the book arises when Bolan learns that the mob goons are taking their revenge by transporting all of the well-fed, pampered whores to Africa where they can be starving, throw-rug whores. Bolan doesn't like it, communicates with a news anchor and reports that he will execute a mobster every hour until the whores are placed back where they belong - on their backs in the Paris hotels making bank. In some of the best "Executioner" scenes thus far in the series, Bolan "hits" a mobster an hour before tangling with the thickest of the crew in Monaco.

Pendleton writes a ton of different angles into 'Continental Contract' - some backstory on the mobsters, the celebrity stuff, Bolan questioning his longevity - but the most under-developed is the one that peaked my curiosity the most. Early in the book the mob contracts one of Bolan's ex-Nam teammates to meet up with Bolan and betray him. There's a passionate moment when the two eventually meet at the end...but I wish more focus had been provided on this whole angle. Nevertheless, 'Continental Contract' is an early highlight of the series. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. How does Bolan get stateside again? It's coming up in 'Assault on Soho'.