Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wilderness #04 - Blood Fury

The first three books in the 'Wilderness' (David Robbins as David Thompson) series were consistently very good, and it became my favorite western series. I’d begun to wonder, though, if things would soon fall into a rut once our hero ran out of new Indian tribes to deal with and new species of wild animals to confront. 

Those concerns were misplaced - or maybe just premature (we’ll see) - because the fourth book in the series, “Blood Fury”, is the best one yet. Apart from a scary encounter with a wolverine, the material here isn’t necessarily brand new, but what the author does with it is extraordinary. 

As usual, there isn’t really a plot, just a situation which naturally develops into a string of crises. Each crisis will be more dangerous than the last, culminating in a very wrenching climax. 

I can’t describe much of what happens without giving too much away. All you really need to know is that if you’re a mountain man and you run afoul of Ute warriors, it’s not enough to just run from them. They will follow you and follow you on a mission of death, tracking you night and day over any sort of terrain, and there’s no escape until one party or the other has been exterminated. Given that much information, you might think you know how this novel will end. But never underestimate David Robbins’ ability to hit you with the unexpected!

You won’t find many westerns that can beat “Blood Fury” for suspense. There’s no shortage of action or violence either.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Eagle Force #05 - Ring of Fire

Bantam released the fifth 'Eagle Force' novel, “Ring of Fire”, in June, 1990. Author Dan Schmidt excavates some of the series mythology with this installment. The backstory on Eagle Force leader/founder Vic Gabriel is revealed, including that of the team's chief opponent, terrorist Michael Saunders. While these details are relevant to the overall series, I think it consumes most of the book. The subplot, terrorists occupying a French farming town, is more interesting, yet this is lost in the revelation of past events. 

Saunders and his thirty-man kill squad hit a French whorehouse to capture half of Eagle Force with their pants down – Dillinger and Simms. They rape and slaughter the whores (obviously), and in one grizzly scene, shatter both Dillinger and Simms' hands with a leaded baseball bat. Saunders records the audio screams, and then leads his squad to a French farming village. They occupy the town, attempting rape of the youngest first while the villages are imprisoned at a church.

Saunders and a small team fly to Gabriel's outpost in the French mountains and present the audio tape in person. The challenge – Vic and Boolewarke have until midnight to rescue Dillinger and Simms. Saunders' 30 hardened mercenaries against two. At midnight, execution will begin. Of course, Vic accepts the challenge and we start piecing together Schmidt's backstory on the two combatants (in annoying italics print).

In the series debut we discovered that Vic and his father served as CIA assassins in Vietnam. Along the way, Saunders, a CIA operative, killed Vic's father. This book elaborates on that scenario, explaining how Saunders switched to the darker side, the Russian meddling and Vic's first fight with Saunders in a Libyan stronghold. That sets the stage for the inevitable showdown for “Ring of Fire”.

Before author Dan Schmidt's fatal stroke, he contributed heavily to the 'Executioner' line as well as creating a similar 'Eagle Force' series called 'Killsquad'. He had a tremendous talent in shaping battle scenarios and bringing it all to fruition with close quarters combat. It's something he excelled at with this series and the “two against thirty” plight of Vic and Boolewarke is especially impressive. Unfortunately, the location changes with the last 40 pages and that left something to be desired. The end result is an average book that had the potential for greatness. Next up is “Berserker”.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Men From The Boys

Crime and intrigue in American hotels was evidently such an issue during the mid-20th century that the “hotel detective” became a mainstay of crime and noir fiction and a sub-genre unto itself. Sadly, the security guards of today’s chain hotels don’t warrant a literary movement of their own, but the 1950s hotel detectives sure did. 

Ed Lacy was the pen name of New York writer Leonard Zinberg, who authored many crime and mystery paperback originals - mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. He never reached the popularity of many of his contemporaries probably because his output was comprised mostly of modest stand-alone novels. Lacy’s contribution to the “house dick” sub-genre was his 1956 paperback, “The Men From The Boys” that has recently been reprinted by Black Gat Books, a Stark House imprint.  

The novel stars retired hard-ass New York City cop Marty Bond, now serving as the in-house detective at the Grover Hotel. His job mostly consists of cracking the heads of drunk guests who won’t keep the noise down, and regulating the hooker traffic in and out of the fleabag inn.  

Marty isn’t an immediately likable hero. He’s cynical about the law. He’s racist and misogynist (even by 1956 standards). He’s lazy and gruff. At 54, his health is declining prematurely. The novel’s central mystery begins when a rookie auxiliary police officer from his past visits Marty asking for help regarding a suspicious robbery. Could it have anything to do with the mafia unrest in the news? Marty’s reluctant assistance in the case competes for his attention with his own anxiety and depression over his deteriorating personal life. 

This is one of those novels where the reader slowly sees the true humanity of a heel with a heart of gold buried under a gruff exterior. Lacy pulls it off quite well mostly because he was a damn good writer. Marty’s narration gives the reader glimpses into his worldview, and his cynical wise cracks are often laugh-out-loud funny. 

The cast of characters in Marty’s life - pimps, whores, cops, and strippers - are all colorful and interesting, and the novel’s snappy dialogue keeps the pages flying by. The big problem with this short novel is that the central mystery is a bit of a muddled snooze and way less interesting than the sub-plots concerning Marty’s personal life and relations. You want to spend more time in Marty’s world, but the ex-cop and the reader just deserve a better crime to solve. Nevertheless, there’s plenty to enjoy in this one. It’s not a masterpiece of the genre, but we should all be happy to see Ed Lacy’s work being preserved for modern audiences.

You can obtain a copy of the book through Stark House or directly at Amazon.

The Sergeant #02 - Hell Harbor: The Battle for Cherbourg

It’s a little odd that there were so few series dealing with World War II. What could be a more natural setting for stories with action, heroism, bloodshed and explosions? And WWII-themed stories had been in seemingly every issue of the men’s adventure magazines, the predecessors of the paperbacks. Even in comic books, there were more than a dozen long-running series set during the war.

I can only think of two standout paperback series centered on WWII, and both of them were written in their entirety by Len Levinson: 'The Sergeant' (under the name Gordon Davis) and 'The Rat Bastards' (as John Mackie). Just two! But you know, maybe it’s really not so surprising that these series had so little competition. Levinson set the bar so high that few writers could hope to match them. 

The Sergeant’s debut novel, “Death Train”, recounts a couple of episodes in the combat career of Sgt. C.J. Mahoney. Gruff, pugnacious and snarky, he’s not your traditional lantern-jawed hero, but he sure gets the job done. The title refers to the first of these episodes, in which Mahoney is tasked with disrupting German supply lines by sabotaging the rail network of occupied France. The second episode finds him with some resistance fighters, holed up in a French village suddenly overrun by German tanks. I thought the first story was a little more effective than the second, but they were both superb.

The next novel is even better, presenting a handful of wartime episodes of varying lengths. In “Hell Harbor: The Battle for Cherbourg”, Mahoney is a much more fully-developed character. He’s still a grizzled war dog, chomping his cigar and addressing friend and foe alike as “Asshole,” but in one remarkable extended episode, we discover there’s far more to him than that. The context of how that happens is the last thing you’d expect. Mahoney’s recovering in a London hospital but manages to steal an officer’s uniform one night, and sneak out of the building in hopes of visiting a popular brothel. I can’t say anything more without giving away too much, but trust me--- this is the episode that will linger with you the longest. And there’s not a shot fired in it!

There’s certainly plenty of combat action in the other episodes, and the book’s title refers to the last of them. Based in an impregnable fortress, the Germans are going to blow up the harbor at Cherbourg by remote control, just to keep it out of the hands of the Americans, who need it to land critical supplies and reinforcements. Mahoney and a squad are assigned the seemingly impossible task of preventing the harbor’s destruction. A lesser author would turn Mahoney into a combat Superman, storming the fortress and drilling every German in sight, emerging triumphant. What happens instead is unexpected, harrowing and even a little disgusting, but it’s also pulp action at its best. 

It’s also believable, and that’s important. Of course it’s fiction, but everything in the novel happens in the real world, not in the Mack Bolan fantasyland of invulnerable action heroes with unlimited heavy ammunition. Sometimes I’m in the mood for that stuff, and it’s fine as far as it goes. But what’s more compelling, more memorable and more rewarding is what Len Levinson serves up in “Hell Harbor”. Put this one on your shopping list.      

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.

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.”

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The D.C. Man #01 - Top Secret Kill

The four books of 'The D.C. Man' series were released in 1974 and 1975, a few years after the author Peter Rohrbach (writing as James Cody) departed his previous life as a Roman Catholic priest and pursued writing as a career. The series wasn’t a great commercial success, and he never returned to the Men’s Adventure genre - a particular shame because the series introduction, “Top Secret Kill”, was a real gem of a debut.

Narrator Brian Peterson is a D.C. lobbyist recovering from the emotional toll of his family’s death in a car accident. As a result of his personal tragedy, his lobbying business went into the toilet, and he now earns money as a fix-it man for Congressmen to bury or repair their personal calamities. The premise is very similar to the modern hit ABC TV show, “Scandal”.

In this novel, Peterson is engaged by a congressional subcommittee to quietly determine who might be leaking documents to hostile European interests. It’s an important gig for Peterson because it will render his business solvent again following the long-term lack of revenue during his mourning period. To solve the mystery, Peterson employs a vast network of contacts, journalists, and informants to help him uncover the leaker. 

The action is generally localized to the Washington, D.C. area with an investigative jaunt to Delaware to run down a promising lead. For most of the book, it reads like a well-written private-eye novel as Peterson conducts a logical investigation. Along the way, he meets a sexy German babe, and nature follows its course - but is there more to her than meets the eye?

The handful of action sequences are violent and well-written. The author isn’t afraid to let the lead fly and spill a lot of blood when appropriate. But it’s the brutal, climactic action sequence at the end that will stay with the reader long after this 190 page novel is completed. It’s almost as if Rohrbach/Cody wanted to prove to himself that he could write action sequences of extreme violence despite his recent day job as a man of peace.

Top Secret Kill was an excellent story of political intrigue with crisp writing and a fat-free plot. It serves as a great introduction to a complex and nuanced action hero who deserved a lot more adventures than the four that were published. A strong recommendation for this debut novel is a no-brainer.

Casca #04 - Panzer Soldier

Scripture tells us that while Jesus hung on the cross, slowly dying, one of the Roman soldiers pierced his side with a lance. That soldier is the subject of Barry Sadler’s remarkable action/adventure series. The gospel, according to Sadler, relates that the soldier was surly and indifferent, unmoved by the suffering of Jesus (or anyone else for that matter), whereupon Jesus looked into his eyes and said, “As you are, so shall you remain, until I come again.”

And since that moment, Casca Rufio Longinus has remained just as he was, never aging, never dying. He wanders restlessly from place to place, even spanning the world. While from time to time he finds himself enslaved, imprisoned or otherwise distracted from his calling, he’s a born soldier and his destiny is to fight in one war after another, endlessly, until the Second Coming. Along the way, his various injuries heal themselves miraculously but he’s susceptible to a great deal of physical and emotional suffering.

For the most part he keeps his condition a secret. But in the debut novel, “The Eternal Warrior”, an American army doctor in Vietnam discovers an ancient bronze arrowhead embedded in the body of an unconscious soldier (guess who!), and soon we learn of Casca’s early life and adventures. It’s a phenomenal book.

The second novel, “God of Death”, takes him from the Barbarian lands beyond the Empire to the realm of the Vikings, then across the sea to the Americas. Most of the book deals with the land of the Olmecs, where human sacrifice is practiced and an epic clash of civilizations is underway. Maybe I’m just Euro-centric, but for me ancient Mexico was one of the less-compelling settings in the Casca saga.

The third book, “The War Lord”, is somewhat better. Casca manages to sail back to European waters, where he becomes something of a pirate for a time before wandering east--- as in Far East, all the way to China. On the long journey, he first encounters a mysterious Brotherhood which knows all about him, despises him, and tries to hold him captive. Arriving in China, he becomes a prized warrior in the service of the Emperor.

In the fourth book, “Panzer Soldier”, the saga leaps forward about 1500 years, where we find Casca going by the name Carl Langer, leading a four-man German tank crew on the Russian front in WWII. For the first time in the series, a novel confines itself to one conflict, and Casca only goes where the war takes him. 

Collectors know that this is one of the more expensive, harder-to-find books in the series. Maybe that’s because of the subject matter, but I’d like to think it’s because the novel is so outstanding. As literature, “The Eternal Warrior” is a bit stronger overall, but “Panzer Soldier” is unmatched in its visceral power. It’s easily the grimmest, grittiest book in the series thus far. The battle action is breathtaking, but the novel’s real strength is in the context of those scenes. Every aspect of a panzer soldier’s life is examined, from the hunger, exhaustion and lice to the gnawing gradual realization that defeat is inevitable, Germany is doomed, and that one’s own death in battle is nearly as certain (certain for everyone but Casca, that is). 

There are a few lighter interludes scattered about, but for the most part the book is almost as much a grueling horror story as a war novel. Sometimes we can only wonder where the line between fiction and non-fiction really lies, as the book is full of disturbing vignettes with the ring of truth to them--- from the German civilian who is not only raped and murdered but nailed to the door of her barn, to the soldiers who survive an overwhelming enemy bombardment but are driven out of their minds by the experience, bleeding from their ears and noses. The atmosphere of hopelessness and dread only intensifies as Casca and his crew are pushed ever westward, as the Germans are forced to retreat all the way to Berlin.

And that’s when things begin to unravel a little. Sadler knows we’re hoping that Casca will meet certain notable figures from history, and that’s accomplished by bending the narrative to accommodate a metaphysical angle. The Brotherhood makes an unlikely appearance and the story wobbles for awhile until Casca resumes fighting the Russians. I can’t describe this last quarter of the book without giving away too much. It’s good, but it’s a little less successful than what came before. 

Don’t let that deter you from seeking out this book, though. Overall, “Panzer Soldier” is a riveting, powerful novel, and a key entry in an essential series.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Tractor Girl

In the 1950s and beyond, Fawcett Gold Medal produced some of the most tightly-wound 180-page crime novels by authors including Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, Dan Marlowe, and Day Keene. The books often starred ambitious criminals, sexy femme fatales, double-crosses, and twist endings.

In 2011, James Reasoner published his own homage to the Gold Medal crime novels of the 1950s, “Tractor Girl”.

A small-time hood is left for dead by the local gangsters on the side of a Texas road. He is rescued and brought home by a sexy farmer's daughter who begins nursing him back to health. As we learn more about the girl and her family's secrets, the tension mounts. Criminal opportunities arise, double-crosses happen, and 1950s-style eroticism abounds. The first-person narrative is hard-boiled. The characters are vivid, and the plot is tightly-wound.

This is a terrific short novel that would have been a natural fit in the Gold Medal collection. The upside is that we can enjoy it today for a couple bucks on Kindle or ordering a hard-copy online. Strongest recommendation, here. I can't get enough of this crime sub-genre, and I'm glad guys like Reasoner are keeping it alive. 

Marilyn K.

Stark House has reprinted two Lionel White crime novels in one volume. This is a review of “Marilyn K.”, the first novel in the collection. “Marilyn K.” is a tight little 1960 crime thriller the man who penned the novel “Clean Break”, later adapted into Stanley Kubrick's film “The Killing” (which, in turn, later inspired Quentin Tarantino's “Reservoir Dogs”). “Marilyn K.” is told in a first-person, conversational style and is an easy read. Our hero is Sam Russell, an ex-Marine who stops his car to pick up a beautiful woman on the side of the road (Marilyn K.) along with a suitcase full of cash. Because this is a Lionel White book, you can be safe to assume that complications arise inhibiting Russell's eventual possession of both the girl and the cash. Plenty of man-on-the-run action, hot sex and bloody violence unfolds. A fairly-easy-to-spot twist ending resolves the story before anything becomes tedious. In short, a great read from an unappreciated master of the genre. To purchase this novel, including White's "The House Next Door", click here.

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Rat Bastards 01 - Hit the Beach!

'The Rat Bastards' was a 16-book run of World War Two action-adventure novels. It was written by Len Levinson under house name John Mackie (one of his 22 pseudonyms) and follows his first, similar series, 'The Sergeant'. Where 'The Sergeant' was set in Europe, this series is set in the South Pacific. 

The first book in the 'Rat Bastards' series, “Hit the Beach!”, released by Jove in 1983, introduces its characters as they arrive at Guadalcanal for what will be an incredible ordeal of desperate hand-to-hand combat. The events in the book span only a couple of days, but the intensity of the fighting is conveyed extremely well by the author, who also has a gift for rendering realistic dialogue. Our Rat Bastards platoon kills a staggering number of Japanese soldiers, far more than a critical reader can really accept, but that goes with the territory.

And what bloody territory it is! 

The magnitude of gory violence here makes Edge look like Gene Autry, but it’s blended with some well-crafted suspense and atmosphere too. Len Levinson is clearly right up there with Don Pendleton for creating powerful, visceral pulp. Outstanding. 

The entire series is available as ebooks through Amazon (along with 'The Sergeant' series). The author does recommend reading them in order to preserve the story.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Where Did Charity Go?

Some thugs visit Hollywood fix-it man Rick Holman and warn him to to decline his next engagement. Of course he doesn't, and Rick finds himself in the middle of a kidnapping plot involving a famous actor's daughter with the backdrop of a backstabbing family feud. Was it a real kidnapping? A publicity stunt? It's Rick's job to figure it all out in this short, sexy 126-page novel from 1970. The writing is good, the dialogue is crisp, the women are beautiful and the sex scenes are sexy (but not graphic). But the solution to the novel's ultimate question was a bit of a convoluted mess for serious mystery purists. Then again, mystery purists don't turn to Carter Brown as a top-shelf talent. For readers seeking a fast-moving, sexy Hollywood story that you can knock out in a few hours, this was a fun read. Recommended.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Last Ranger #09 - The Damned Disciples

Jan Stacy's (house name Craig Sargent) 'The Last Ranger' series was nearly finished by September of 1988. The ten-book series reached it's conclusion with the swansong “Is This the End?” in January, 1989. Stacy would later pass away the same year from the AIDS virus, thus being able to conclude this series with definitive closure (everyone dead?) before his death. It's hard to fathom how far 'The Last Ranger' would have ran in good health considering lack of creativity and the genre's gradual demise in the 90s. We'll never know, but based on this turd-cake...the end was certainly near.

“The Damned Disciples” is a rudimentary example of how limited this “post-nuke” sub-genre can be. We can debate for days on the merits of 'Survivalist', 'Doomsday Warrior' and 'Endworld', but at some point even the most faithful would agree it was a bit of drivel in the droves. This ninth installment of 'The Last Ranger' is like an unfunny “Seinfield” episode – its literally about nothing, yet can't scrape together anything resembling entertainment. It's a slow burn with a lifeless character placed in illogical situations. Yet, I should sympathize with the series' mythology – it's the end of the world and anything goes...including a plot.

The book's opening suggests there's robed monks conducting moonlit, midnight pagan rituals in Colorado. A young woman is pushed into an occupied casket and the lid slams. Fast forward to our ranger Martin Stone tucked away in his mountain fortress performing leg surgery on himself. He receives a transmission that someone has April (someone always has April) and they are practicing devious desires. Stone, with no direction and a broken leg, drives his hog to  some vile village named La Junta. 

Stone finds that La Junta residents have been forced into something called Cult of the Perfect Aura by the great leader Guru Yasgar and the Transformer. It turns out Guru is providing all of his minions a special elixir called Golden Nectar. It's like 'Doc Savage' meets The Branch Davidians meets those Scientology quacks. There's some elephants thrown in, a labor camp and absolutely zero interest for anyone involved – it's what I refer to as the Men's Warehouse for Pathetic Plots. Somewhere, in the dull simplicity, Stone becomes drugged and forced to stir the Golden Nectar for weeks. April is here as the drugged, whipping wench/foreman, along with man's best enemy, a drugged, Stone-hating Excalibur (the series mascot and second protagonist behind Stone). There's a surprise cameo of a prior villain...but you have to torture yourself to find who. 

I'd speculate that this book is a subtext of the author's own struggles near the end. It would be fair to think of the Golden Nectar, Stone's drug dependence and constant stirring as perhaps symbolic of Stacy's prescription torment, the endless cycle of day in and day out drug dependence. Considering timing of the release, his death from AIDS and the series' last book asking “Is This the End?”, it wouldn't be a far-reaching theory. Regardless of what inspired the material, it's simply a dull read that offers very little character development (I suppose what's the point), new ideas or any momentous change in series or character. Pass...for God's sake pass.

Friday, February 9, 2018

.357 Vigilante #01 - .357 Vigilante

There’s a lot to like in the eponymous-titled debut of the '.357 Vigilante' series (Lee Goldberg as Ian Ludlow), and the story drew me in pretty quickly. A cop in Los Angeles is cornered by a street gang which burns him to death. The guilty parties beat the rap and walk out of the courtroom smirking, and the cop’s grieving son goes into vigilante mode to bring them down, one by one.

All of this material is very good. The author moves the story along and makes it seem fresher than it really is. Published in 1985, it was written two or three years earlier, and I enjoyed the scattered pop-culture references which brought the story’s setting to life (how often do you see a novel that mentions X and Oingo Boingo?). The hero’s confrontations with the surly gang members are taut and exciting, and each take-down is bloodier and more difficult than the last. Meanwhile, the police are rapidly figuring out the mysterious vigilante’s identity and they’re closing in. To them, he’s just another murderer.

And then, in the final quarter of the novel, it all goes south. Our hero, Brett Macklin, has been presented as an ordinary guy, pushed by grief and anger into taking the law into his own hands. The story really worked for me on that level, but just as Macklin completes his task, we learn that a ridiculously unlikely conspiracy has been going on. An evil televangelist and a crooked politician have been using street gangs to kill people and Macklin has gotten too close to the truth. He needs to be eliminated, which leads to an epic showdown including explosions, torture, narrow escapes, Macklin hanging from the underside of an elevator car and a helicopter, a high-speed chase through Hollywood and a death by wood-chipper. 

In other words, suddenly we’re in a silly ‘80s Mack Bolan adventure and our Everyman hero is no longer an ordinary guy with normal limitations and vulnerabilities. That’s where the novel lost me. 

Yes, the book had some flaws even before this point. It was a little long and wordy for such a simple plot and the author (still a college student at the time) was often trying too hard to turn a colorful phrase. But until that left turn, the story was compelling and believable. 

You hate to see your team blow a lead and lose the game in the final quarter, and that’s how I felt about “.357 Vigilante”.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Angel's Flight

Before his 2010 death, Lou Cameron was the author of over 300 genre novels. He was a post-war pulpster who specialized in tawdry action stories with tightly-wound plots. Think 'Longarm'. Think 'Renegade'. Lou Cameron knew his way around a standard story arc. This fact is what makes Cameron’s 1960 debut novel, “Angel’s Flight”, such a delightful curiosity. Although it was released as a Gold Medal crime novel - and was recently re-released by Black Gat Books - the story captures the tone and scope of literary fiction. Yes, it seems Lou Cameron started out aspiring to be serious author writing a serious book. And it worked.

Although “Angel’s Flight” is a lean 233 pages, the story spans about 17 years time between 1939 and 1956 - from the jazzy Great Depression to the dawn of rock-n-roll. Our guide through this era is our narrator, an honest and earnest journeyman jazzman named Ben Parker. Ben’s narration is written in a be-bop jazz lingo that was later adopted by James Ellroy in “American Tabloid” and “The Cold Six Thousand”. The prose sings throughout the readable novel.

Parker’s foil is the vapid and conniving fellow jazzman, Johnny Angel, whose ambition for success well outpaces his musical talent. Like many of the colorful characters in Parker’s life, Angel comes and goes. He starts out as an irritant and evolves into an existential threat.

Angel’s Flight is a real masterpiece of storytelling that holds your attention even though there isn’t much of a standard story arc. It feels like the literary equivalent of a Martin Scorsese movie - like “Goodfellas” or “Wolf of Wall Street” - that tracks a single character through the ups and downs of a remarkable life. This storytelling approach is surprising coming from Lou Cameron, whose body of work relied on an economical approach to plotting. Cameron’s knack for creating colorful characters is on high-display, and readers will come to adore Ben Parker and the women and friends who float in and out of his life.

Although the novel has murders, mafia, payola and betrayals, it’s doesn’t feel like a normal Gold Medal crime novel. It feels more weighty and significant - like a story of the jazz age that needed to be preserved because it captured an important era in America’s cultural history. To that end, Black Gat Books has done America a real favor by preserving this piece of important art.

Highly recommended.