With a wide variety of pen names under his belt, Laurence James was a British author who wrote a ton of violent paperback original series titles set in the American West (Edge, Apache) as well as in a post-apocalyptic USA (Deathlands, Wasteworld). In 1978, James authored a four-book series of bloody Civil War adventures using the pen name L.J. Coburn starring Union soldier Caleb Thorn and his team of misfit irregulars kicking Confederate ass. The series is available today as super-cheap ebooks, and the first installment is titled The First Shot.
The year is 1861 and the U.S. Civil War is in its infancy. Caleb Thorn is a cocky, 21 year-old northerner from a wealthy Washington, DC family. He’s engaged to a psychotic young southerner named Rachel who gets off on whipping her slaves to death on trumped-up sexual assault charges. The fact that Caleb routinely kills his rivals in duels is a plus for his blood-thirsty fiancé.
As the war between the states intensifies, Caleb is mostly a disinterested observer. He eventually kills rebels with a flourish for recreation but cares nothing of the freedom and well-being of enslaved blacks. In fact, other than bloodlust, it’s hard to put a finger on what motivates Caleb. He’s not a particularly likable protagonist, and you need to be comfortable with this fact before setting on the road with such and imperfect - and at times loathsome - character. If you can accept Caleb on his own terms, the reader gets to have a front seat as Caleb bears witness to the Battle of Bull Run and other significant moments of the war’s early days.
Eventually, Caleb suffers a personal tragedy that crystallizes his hate for Confederate soldiers. He is placed in a Union infantry unit unattached to any regiment giving him the freedom to kill rebs when he encounters them without any wartime red tape. The men of Caleb’s unit are all of poor character released from a death row stockade to ride with Caleb. It’s a less-than-magnificent group of seven killers and criminals assembled for a brief mission to end this novel and set up the action for the rest of the series.
In addition to several scenes of shocking violence, the author wove in some bizarre and head-scratching details into this debut. For example, it’s implied that Caleb has an ongoing sexual relationship with his own mother. There are other non-familial sex scenes in the novel with other partners that are every bit as graphic as an edition of the Longarm series of adult westerns.
Overall, The First Shot is a darn fine series debut, and I’m very excited to dive into subsequent installments. If you liked the Civil War flashbacks in the Edge series, you’ll feel right at home with Caleb Thorn.
Buy a copy of this book HERE