Friday, December 31, 2021

Rambo: First Blood Part II

In 2016, Gauntlet Press, in collaboration with Borderlands Press, re-printed David Morrell's novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II. What's interesting about the reprint is the author's lengthy, detailed explanation of how he became involved in the project. I highly recommend reading, or listening to the audio book edition, if you love books. You don't need to be a Rambo enthusiast or fan. It's a spellbinding commentary if you love the films as much as I do, but for a casual reading fan Morrell's involvement and writing experiences about creating a novelization of the script was just so captivating. 

Morrell authored First Blood in 1972, the book from which the 1982 blockbuster film was derived from. That book is much different than the film, as I explained in my review. Mostly, Rambo is a more arrogant, cocky kid in the novel and at the end of the book ***spoiler alert*** Rambo dies. In the film, he doesn't. 

In the author's introduction of Rambo: First Blood Part II, Morrell explains that he had no idea a film sequel was in development until he read it in the newspaper (authors seem to be the last to know). Shortly after, the film's development team, Tri-Star Pictures, contacted Morrell about writing the novelization of the film. Back then, films were seen at the cinema or on network television. Streaming didn't exist and VHS/laser disc wasn't mainstream (or affordable). Novelizations became important because they presented that middle ground between theatrical release and the “Sunday Movie of the Week.” The average consumer may have missed the theatrical release, so reading a novelization was an appealing alternative.

Morrell politely turned the project down because he was already writing a novel, 1984's Brotherhood of the Rose, and his version of the character ***spoiler alert *** died. But, Tri-Star kept encouraging Morrell to get out in front of the film because it was going to be BIG. Tri-Star had no other option than Morrell simply because contractually no one else at the time could write a Rambo related novel.

Needless to say, Morrell became involved (a decision that included a conversation with his friend Max Allan Collins), but was only presented a VHS tape with one scene from the film. Finding it impossible to write a novel based on a film he's never seen, Tri-Star provided Morrell a rough draft of the script written by both Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron (Terminator). That draft is what Morrell used to write the novelization. However, that draft was heavily modified by Stallone due to creative differences with Cameron. Thus, Morrell's book is an alternate version, one that I had never seen before. As a fan of the franchise, reading this book seemed mandatory.

In the novel, John Rambo is in a prison labor camp breaking rock by day and huddling in the dark shadows of his cell at night. His former Commander, Col. Sam Trautman, pays Rambo a visit to offer him a deal. The U.S. government has authorized a mission into Vietnam to take photos of a prison camp reportedly containing American P.O.W.s. With the Vietnam War over, the public had become infatuated with the idea that these P.O.W.s were still alive and being held as political collateral. The unit running this solo mission is a contracting company led by a guy named Murdock. 

Rambo later learns that this Vietnamese prison camp is the same one he was held at. This was the home of pain, a horrific place where Rambo was tortured. Because he was able to escape, the contracting company feels that Rambo is the best operative for the job. He knows the area, the camp layout, and other important details. Soon, Rambo is piloting a chopper into Thailand to meet up with Murdock and Trautman. He's provided a sophisticated portable satellite and a camera (ancient tech today), but Rambo wants weapons and the chance to break the prisoners free. This is strictly forbidden, and Murdock explains that the photos will be used to authorize a clandestine Delta Force unit to retrieve the prisoners.

Mostly all of this follows the final film version, but once Rambo enters Vietnam, it changes. After surviving a parachute fiasco, Rambo enters the thick jungle to meet up with an undercover Vietnamese ally named Co. Together, the two of them negotiate a boat ride up river to gain an access point to the camp. The romantic spark between Rambo and Co isn't the same as the film. Co does ask Rambo to take her back to the U.S., but it isn't based on a romantic interest. 

Once Rambo and Co have a vantage point to the camp, Rambo advises Co that the camera was lost and that the new deal is to rescue a prisoner found tied to a cross. It's here that Morrell absolutely shines. The author provides a brief history on archery, how the weapon has evolved over the centuries and why Rambo prefers the weapon over a more capable tool like an M-16 or AK-47. I found this so intriguing and Morrell's detailed explanation of the importance of archery, and Zen, helped define the hero even more. There's also some history on Rambo's upbringing, his abusive father, and Native American heritage. Again, these are book details that really made Rambo a more dynamic character as opposed to film.

When Rambo is captured by the Vietnamese, there's a brief backstory on a torturer named Tey, the same soldier that tormented him years ago. Obviously, the two have a heated rivalry, but the main antagonist is a Soviet interrogator named Podovsky. The torture sequences are mostly parallel to the movie - slime pit, leeches, and electric shock. The book's finale is similar to the film, but Co's importance and the dealings with a double-dealing pirate captain are modified. The film's intensity, rugged action sequences, and overall violence transcend to the printed page in the same fashion. Morrell brilliantly conveys the movie's emotion and exhilaration. 

If you love the film or if you're just a casual fan, David Morrell's novelization is a thrilling action-adventure experience. In my opinion, it really just exists on its own. Details regarding the movie or franchise aren't important in the grand scheme of things. Rambo: First Blood Part II is just an awesome story and a pleasurable reading experience. If nothing else, I highly recommend reading the author's introduction. It's an introspective revealing of what goes into creating a novelization and a must read for anyone interested in the concept.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

The Butcher #33 - Go Die in Afghanistan

Here is The Butcher score so far. On a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being “burn the book now” and 10 being “use PTO and read it in one sitting.” 

#07 Death Race is a 1. Seriously, it is that bad. 
#23 – Appointment in Iran is like...a 7. It's a lot of fun. 
#01 – Kill Quick or Die is a 3. 
#12 - Killer's Cargo shuffles in at a 6.
#35 – Gotham Gore is a 1. 

Using the skills I acquired in Mrs. Miller's 6th grade math, that's an average Butcher score of 3.6. That's filthy ugly. But, my problem is that I own the whole series. I hope you don't.

Go Die in Afghanistan is supposedly a series stand-out. It was published by Pinnacle in 1982 and authored by Michael Avallone. It also has a great painted cover by the esteemed Earl Norem. At just shy of 200-pages, the premise has Butcher, aka “Iceman”, in Afghanistan to rescue a NASA nuclear missile expert from those pesky Soviet invaders. He knows he's never accepted a more crucial challenge. I know I just want to avoid placing a metal fork between the pages and microwaving the book.

The narrative begins with Butcher planning a departure from Tel-Aviv. After receiving a call from White Hat (a U.S. spy agency), Butcher is advised that his next mission starts right now. But first, he shoots an old villain named Peanut Man Pennzler and stuffs him in a hotel closet. Then, the hero heads to Afghanistan to rendezvous with the rebel forces opposing Soviet occupancy.

The rebels are intensely infatuated with Butcher and are well educated on his prior exploits with the mob. A fierce, sexy rebel named Tzippora advises Butcher that her “juices flow for him.” In a rather gross sex scene, Tzippora advises Butcher that it's that time of the month, but can't suspend her desires. Butcher admits that this “birds and the bees” encounter with Tzippora will be unlike anything he's ever experienced before. 

Eventually, Butcher and Tzippora are captured by the Soviets and harshly interrogated. Butcher uses the old explosive chewing gum routine (chew it, then throw it, kaboom!) and escapes. But, before the final dash, Butcher shoots his P38 from the hip and precisely places a bullet down the barrel of a Soviet's gun. Avallone describes Butcher as the equivalent of Robin Hood, Davy Crockett and Sergeant York. Then, all of the supporting characters die, Butcher returns home. The end.

As silly as this all sounds, and believe me its totally bonkers, Go Die in Afghanistan is still fun. At this point, I have to start treating The Butcher title as a modern pulp. His silly, over-the-top, completely impossible antics are no different than say...Black Bat or Masked Detective. It's zany 1930s and 1940s pulp hero nonsense, but more dirty and violent. 

I can't think of The Butcher as a serious spy series on par with Matt Helm or Nick Carter. It's the wrong way to look at this series. Suspend disbelief, put your mind into a pulp magazine, and then read The Butcher. It  may be the only way to gain any sense of enjoyment. If not, then you'll end up with an exploding microwave. 

Go Die in Afghanistan is a 6, bringing the average score up to...4. Yikes. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Travis McGee #01 - The Deep Blue Good-by

Crime-fiction author John D. MacDonald began the Travis McGee series with three novels, including The Deep Blue Good-by, originally published in 1964 by the powerhouse publisher of the time, Fawcett Gold Medal. The novel introduces McGee as a salvage consultant that helps clients recover stolen funds. The deal is that if McGee can successfully make the recovery, he keeps a percentage plus additional funds to cover expenses accrued. MacDonald's niche is that McGee performs most of these jobs in and around the Floridian coast on his houseboat, the Busted Flush. I've enjoyed MacDonald and wanted to explore this popular character a little more. I'm starting with the “official” series debut, The Deep Blue Good-by.*

In the book's opening chapters, McGee's newest lady “friend” asks what he does for a living. McGee explains the nature of his business to her and soon gains a referral in the form of a young, voluptuous dancer named Cathy Kerr. McGee's new client is rather reserved and quiet, but explains that her father served in WW2 and had been sentenced to prison for killing another soldier. Prior to his capture, Cathy feels that her father buried something valuable in the building materials of his house in the Florida Keys, but it was stolen by a man named Junior Allen. Her father is now dead, the valuable thing is still missing and Cathy is dancing for peanuts. McGee explains the terms of the deal and becomes involved in an enthralling mystery.

The search leads McGee to Lois Atkinson, a woman who was abused and robbed by Junior Allen and left in a near-death state. McGee, with the aid of the good doctor, nurses Lois back to heath and learns even more about this dubious Mr. Allen. McGee and Lois eventually form an emotional bond that spills over into sex – Lois requiring security and McGee seemingly recovering from some ailments of the past (the series will later hint at his military career, lost loved ones, etc.). 

McGee embraces the mantle of the noble hero, bent on punishing Junior Allen for the atrocities he's committed and the young lives he's ruined. McGee's investigation is multifaceted - what is the valuable thing, how did Cathy's father obtain it, where is it now? The job combs a great swath of area from Florida to New York and points in between. The more McGee learns, the more vicious and terrifying Allen becomes. The inevitable confrontation leads to a boat chase and a spectacular fight scene on board.

Like James Bond, or any popular fictional hero, one can jump into numerous rabbit holes online to learn more about the character and the series (movies, color scheme, boat, etc.). We even covered the character on a podcast episode here, so there's a lot to explore if you are interested. I went into the novel thinking it would be a fun, sexy splash in the water with comparisons to a more violent Shell Scott. I couldn't have been further off. 

This was more like Lawrence Block's early Matthew Scudder novels, just a little more sexy. Junior Allen proved to be a calculated, sick psycho with a penchant for power grabs. McGee's clients are victims, some more scarred and disgruntled than others. I truly felt a sense of obligation to these victims, as if McGee was righting a personal wrong for me. The ending was an emotional roller coaster that left me gutted. The closing scenes with McGee and Cathy had such an impact, and set the tone for the character. He's the hard-boiled hero, but thankfully it's complex. 

Sexy, violent, captivating, and mysterious, The Deep Blue Good-by is a masterpiece that you need to read right now. Or, reread it again. There's an obvious reason for the fuss...Travis McGee is the real deal. 

* MacDonald authored the first three Travis McGee novels in quick succession and submitted all of them to the publisher at the same time. To my knowledge, no one really knows which was the very first.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Suicide Forest

Jeremy Bates is a Toronto horror-fiction author that has won both an Australian Shadows Award and a Canadian Arthur Ellis Award. He's published two very unique series titles – The World's Scariest Places and The World's Scariest Legends. With these books, Bates spins his own original stories based on popular myths and folklore. After reading his 2019 novels Mosquito Man and The Sleep Experiment, both of which are part of The World's Scariest Legends, I was anxious to try one of his World's Scariest Places entries. I borrowed a friend's copy of Suicide Forest, originally published in 2014 and now available in both audio, physical and digital versions.

Suicide Forest is based on the very real “suicide forest” in Aokigahara, Japan (also known as the Sea of Trees). Sadly, under this tranquil, dense canopy of trees, over 100 people take their own life each and every year. Bates uses this bizarre magnetism to construct this survival-horror novel. 

Ethan and his girlfriend Mel are American teachers working temporarily in Japan. After agreeing to hike Mt. Fuji, the couple is joined by Mel's high school friend John, a co-worker named Neil and Ethan's best friend Tomo. When the book begins, the group of friends is near the entrance of Aokigahara debating on a hiking /camping in the forest after heavy rains delay their climb. After meeting two Israelis, Ben and Nina, the whole group embarks on a hiking trip into the “suicide forest”. 

After a few hours, the group finds a corpse hanging from a tree, an old abandoned car, and a thick atmosphere of doom and gloom (obviously!). The group eventually camps and awakens to find Ben dead and hanging from a tree. Thinking he committed suicide, the friends attempt to hike back out of the forest to find the police. Soon they become lost and Neil develops a traumatic case of the runs. Lost, with a corpse and stacks of diarrhea, the friends begin hearing noises in the forest. After Tomo is found dead (another hanging corpse!) and John is nearly killed, Mel and Ethan discover that the “suicide forest” has quickly turned into the hills of homicide.

At 350-pages, Suicide Forest never really feels bloated or overextended. In some ways it reminded me of another tight survival thriller, The Ruins by Scott Smith. Ethan's jealousy of Mel and John's relationship, John's military experiences in Iraq, Tomo's Japanese humor and Nina's sexuality all play important roles in keeping the narrative interesting and propulsive. The forest killers (or supernatural entities) are truly scary and Bates walks the balance beam on revealing just enough to keep readers guessing on what is really happening in these dark woods. 

Like my prior experiences with Bates, his stories continue to have a unique flavor. With over 20 published horror novels, this author still maintains quality over quantity. He's really something special and I can't wait to read more of his work (translation: I'm going to raid more of my friend's Jeremy Bates collection).

Monday, December 27, 2021

Doctor Death #01 - Doctor Death

Author Herb Fisher (1932-2001), a North Philadelphia native, began writing as a sports editor for his high school. On a football scholarship, Fisher attended Temple University and majored in journalism. Nicknamed Herbie or Fish, the author gained employment at Cherry Hill's East and West high schools as an English and Drama teacher while also coaching football. 

Beginning at age 55, Fisher had enjoyed writing so much that he wrote five screenplays, a novel and two television scripts. His agent suggested that one of the screenplays would be better suited as a book. The screenplay, Doctor Death, was whittled down to an epic novel. Eventually, that was trimmed and edited into a four book series of men's action-adventure paperbacks published by Berkley. The first novel, simply titled Doctor Death, was published in 1988 with misleading cover art and blurb. After reading it, I feel strongly that Herb Fisher deserved better treatment from his publisher.

Upon first glance, Doctor Death appears to be a late 80s cash grab targeting Mack Bolan fans. The concept of a Vietnam vet returning home to become a vigilante had become stale by the late 1970s. Dozens of movies and hundreds of books utilized the formula and most of them are all entertaining to a degree. But, after reading the first 100-pages of Herb Fisher's book, I began to understand that this isn't a cookie-cutter, “law in your own hands” styled action-adventure. It's much better than that.

The book's 18-page prologue takes place in the green jungles of the Mekong Delta in 1969. Army Special Forces (Green Beret) Sergeant Kyle Youngblood is fiercely defending an American camp as a large Vietcong battalion attack. As his fellow soldiers die, Kyle experiences a range of emotions from shock to raw, animalistic anger. Using grenades, mortars, wire, and guns, Kyle is able to hold the line while bleeding from a leg wound. When a backup platoon arrives, they find Kyle unconscious and nickname him “Doctor Death.”

The first chapter places the narrative in the present day where Kyle is now a farmer in Silver Lake, Nevada. He's living a happy, quiet small town existence with his wife and two young children. Everyone in town is fond of Kyle and considers him a hometown hero. In the opening chapters, readers are introduced to the Fallon family. They reside 25-miles west of Kyle and control a large portion of the Las Vegas underworld. In a backstory, it's explained that Marty Fallon was shot by rival mobsters and paralyzed from the waist down. He controls the action from a wheelchair in his posh, enormous mansion. His sons are screw ups, but they maintain a portion of the mob action. The youngest, Buddy, is Marty's pride and joy. But, Buddy is a wild man, sort of a juvenile delinquent right out of a 1950s crime-noir. He's a buck-wild drinker, gambler, and womanizer partying through life with his father's endless supply of money.

On Kyle's trip into town to purchase supplies, he makes a poor decision to stop in Andy's Place for a quick drink. Buddy is inside, backed by two enforcers, drinking and talking smack to anyone who will listen. Surprisingly, Kyle ignores all of it as a promise to his wife that he won't fight again. But, when Buddy's Lincoln and Kyle's beat-up pickup truck collide in the parking lot, all Hell breaks loose. Kyle is happy to swap insurance cards, but Buddy wants to swap fists. Provoked into the fight, Kyle ends up injuring the two enforcers and killing Buddy. The town sheriff is owned by the mob, so Kyle is jailed even though the fight was self-defense.

The court releases Kyle on bond, but he can't escape the trouble. When Marty learns that Buddy is dead, he places a hit on Kyle and his family. Several enforcers attempt to kill his family, but Kyle survives. In the book's third act, Kyle and his family are thrown to the wolves by the local law enforcement. They allow a mob army to descend on Kyle's farm to obliterate everything standing. The book's finale has Kyle defending the farm in the same manner as he did in Vietnam. But, instead of Army supplies, Kyle is left to make an unusual defense using farming tools and household items. The final battle is nothing short of spectacular. 

Herb Fisher gets everything right with Doctor Death. Kyle is an admirable protagonist and his willingness to sacrifice himself for his family transcends from the printed page to the beating heart. I cared about these characters and raced to the end just to learn of their fates. But, it's the little details that Fisher includes that make all of the difference.

So many books and films miss key moments to build small side-stories that will later become important events later. Fisher gets it. In the beginning, Kyle learns that the store owner doesn't have the ammo he needs. Instead, he has to settle on an undesirable caliber. This will play a large role in the book's finale. Or, something as simple as Kyle aiming a rifle, but placing extra shells between each of the fingers on his left hand for easy reloading. This reinforces battlefield experience. It's a statement that Kyle is a believable hero. Fisher even adds in the fact that the sheriff doesn't remove his hat when talking with Kyle, but the deputy does. It solidifies a good relationship, an alliance, between the deputy and Kyle. These little things are important. 

While I'm sure Fisher was delighted that his books were published by Berkley, the publisher misled the consumer. Kyle isn't the “M-16 vigilante of Vegas” like the cover suggests. I recently acquired the second and third books of the series and they have equally frustrating covers. While I enjoy The Vigilante, Sharpshooter, The Executioner, and so forth, Doctor Death isn't that type of debut. It's a different presentation and style, a screenplay to the extent that it fits into a novel. In other words, make an appointment with Doctor Death and take your damn medicine. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Secret Santa

Andrew Shaffer studied writing at Chicago's The Second City and is now a columnist for Huffington Post and RT Book Reviews. He created an atheist seasonal card company that was featured on The Colbert Report and co-owns the independent publisher 8th Circle Press. Shaffer became a NY Times bestselling author with humorous works like Fifty Shames of Earl Grey and How to Survive a Sharknado and Other Unnatural Disasters. I was searching for a holiday read and stumbled on his 2020 horror comedy Secret Santa. It was published by Quirk Books and is available in physical, digital, audio formats.

The novel takes place in 1980s New York and stars a spunky publishing editor named Lussi Meyer (and a hideous Nazi Devil Doll). Lussi's career has mostly consisted of publishing horror, but most recently she lost her editing job and has joined the ranks of the woefully unemployed. Desperate to pay the rent, Lussi's final attempt as an editor leads her to a prestigious publisher called Blackwood-Patterson. The building is old, the publisher has lost its way, and Lussi dreads working for this snooty “hardback” company. 

During the job interview, Lussi reminds the owner that Blackwood-Patterson hasn't produced a bestselling novel in over a decade. There's some banter back and forth on horror novels and the owner's idea that it's a distasteful genre. Rudely, she's asked to leave. But, before her departure, Lussi spots an old German doll (the hideous Nazi Devil Doll) in the owner's office. While handling the creepy toy, the owner has a heart attack and dies.

The owner's son has distanced himself from the publisher and isn't enthralled with the idea of running the company. After talking with Lussi, he requests that she work for him to reverse the publisher's declining sales performance. In doing so, Lussi introduces the concept of genre publishing and focuses on horror manuscripts that have been rejected. But, they haven't just been rejected. They have been placed in the building's dark and dusty basement to rot with rat feces and mildew. Needless to say, the publisher really hates genres (and would despise Paperback Warrior).

Lussi spends her time reading some good horror manuscripts and pissing off the charismatic chief editor nicknamed The Raven. But, at the annual office Christmas party, Lussi involuntarily takes part in a Secret Santa game where inebriated employees receive gifts from anonymous co-workers. Lussi's gift ends up being the creepy, disturbing Nazi Devil Doll from the former owner's office. Soon, Lussi realizes that her co-workers are being injured or killed based on the murderous magic of this ancient relic.

Secret Santa works as an average horror comedy. It's gross in all the right places and contains the obligatory funny dialogue to glue it together. I enjoyed the 1980s publishing lingo and Lussi's quest to find the next Stephen King, Dean Koontz or Peter Straub (the trinity of modern horror). Lussi is a lovable protagonist and the assembly of characters made it enjoyable. In terms of horror, I liken it to Grady Hendrix's Horrorstor - a new employee takes on a difficult assignment while battling workplace horror. If that's your thing, then Secret Santa is a wonderful gift. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Eve Ronin #02 - Bone Canyon

Script writer and novelist Lee Goldberg rocketed into the New York Times Bestseller list with the successful series Fox & O'Hare, co-authored by Janet Evanovich (Stephanie Plum, Knight and Moon). Along with successful titles like Monk, Charlie Willis, and Ian Ludlow, Goldberg has recently concentrated his efforts on Eve Ronin, a crime-fiction title that began in 2019 with Lost Hills. I read and reviewed the novel and found it to be an exciting, high-quality start to the series. In 2021, the second Eve Ronin novel, Bone Canyon, was published. It's available in physical, digital, and audio editions.

In Lost Hills, Goldberg introduced Eve, a rookie homicide detective working for the Robbery-Homicide division of the Lost Hills Sheriff's station, a mid-sized city in South-Central California. Eve is despised by most of her fellow officers for short cutting the seniority climb. After an off-duty arrest of an intoxicated, disorderly celebrity, Eve discovered that the incident was captured on video and released to social media. The incident and footage made her the local hero and a political pawn utilized by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office. Needing the positive image, they promoted Eve, a prior patrol cop, to homicide detective. In the debut novel, Eve solidifies her local hero status by valiantly solving a triple murder. 

What makes Eve a different type of hero is how much she avoids fame and fortune. After a second video becomes viral, her media status escalates. A Hollywood agent wants to sign her for a television deal, endless reporters want an exclusive, and her mother and sister both want her to look glamorous for her newfound spotlight. But Eve doesn't care about anything other than her job. She's resilient and steadfast in her mission to serve the people. She repeatedly declines TV deals and interviews and continues working cases with her soon-to-be retired partner Duncan “Doughnuts” Pavone. Eve is Duncan's mentor, a relationship that transcends from student and master to something more akin to a niece and uncle. 

In Bone Canyon, Eve and Duncan are called to investigate the remains of a human skull found in the Santa Monica Mountains. During the search for more bone fragments, Eve is introduced to a bookish, yet charismatic anthropologist named Daniel. The two immediately have a chemistry and Eve relies on Daniel's experience to piece together a fragmented skeleton. In doing so, Daniel locates more skeletal remains of another individual. This discovery expands the examination into two cases that are possibly unrelated. 

Through trials and tribulation, Eve and Duncan face physical and emotional adversity. There's political upheaval when the two detectives trace the clues back to a fraternity of officers within the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. Eve's mental fortitude is put to the test when she carefully walks a balance beam of time-management, health, and her eroding camaraderie with her co-workers. In addition to the work stress, her family life continues to be a burden. Her mother, a comical whirlwind, remains persistent in belittling Eve's career choices. In an important side-story, Eve's sister introduces her to a physical therapist in hopes that it paves the way to romance. 

Bone Canyon is superb procedural fiction, complete with action, suspense, and an exhilarating pace. Every page means something. Aside from the twists and turns of the case, readers are thrust further into Eve's personal life, with a more dynamic awareness of her love life, personal attrition, media stardom, and her inevitable future without the veteran experience of Duncan. 

This novel is a real cornerstone of the series, one that places Eve at the proverbial crossroads – fight for the truth despite the deadly risk or find solace by gratifying the corruption. Her against-the-grain attitude and determination makes her one of the most independent characters in ages. Her decisions are hers alone to make, and even Lee Goldberg has no say in the matter. She's doing it her way, and her way is what readers will love. I can't wait for the next one.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Penetrator #02 - Blood on the Strip

With the success of The Executioner, Pinnacle began creating titles that captured the action-oriented, vigilante feel. In 1973, the publisher released The Target is H, the first novel of The Penetrator series. It ran a total of 53 installments under the house name of Lionel Derrick. The odd numbers were written by Mark K. Roberts and the even installments by Chet Cunningham. I enjoyed the series debut and wanted to revisit the character. The second entry, Blood on the Strip, was published in October, 1973.

Cunningham begins the novel with an eight-page prologue recapping the character's origin story and events from the first book. The series can be read in any order and features hero Mark Hardin as a Vietnam veteran fighting crime vigilante style. He's aided by two behind-the-scenes allies in Professor Hawkins and a Native American named Red Eagle. This opener explains that Hardin destroyed a California mob family and he's now prowling Las Vegas searching for his next mission.

The book's opening chapters has Hardin detonating charges at a talent agency called Starmaker. After, he heads to Professor Hawkins and Red Eagle to summarize events in Vegas. Thus, his recount to them makes up this entire novel and explains the sequence of events that led to Starmaker's fiery destruction. I like when books start with the conclusion and then map out how these events developed. It's like starting with the Oreo stuffing.

Hardin meets a young woman named Sally Johnson, an aspiring model and actress trying to earn a living in Vegas. At a restaurant bar, she advises Hardin that the talent agency she is using wants her to begin stripping and prostituting. When she refuses, they issue violent threats. When Hardin attempts to escort Johnson to her car, he's jumped by enforcers of the agency. Sally is cut to shreds and left to bleed out in the parking lot. Thankfully, she's rushed to the hospital and Hardin begins assembling a plan of attack. 

Cunningham's narrative keeps a steady pace as Hardin investigates the agency and its owner. In what will become a familiar formula, the investigation leads to some hit and run tactics destroying parts of this immense criminal empire. The villain behind the agency is like a knockoff female nemesis of James Bond. She keeps sex slaves locked in cages and eventually captures Sally to lead Hardin to her enforcers. Readers know how the story ends, but the ride is a lot of fun.

Since this was Cunningham's first Penetrator novel, I think this installment is a feeling out process. Hardin doesn't necessarily behave in the same manner in future novels and it becomes less elementary and neanderthal. Roberts had a better version of the hero in the debut, but Cunningham eventually finds a connection to the character and delivers equally enjoyable installments (so I've been told). If you love  the 1970s men's action-adventure genre, The Penetrator is in the upper echelon.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Levon Cade #01 - Levon's Trade

Chuck Dixon is a famous comic book writer whose work on Marvel’s Punisher series is regarded as a masterwork of the medium. Since then, he has been writing novels, including a popular vigilante series starring Levon Cade. The series debut from 2014, Levon’s Trade, has recently been reprinted by Wolfpack Publishing. 

The novel opens in a depressed Huntsville, Alabama. Levon Cade is lucky to have a gig as a graveyard shift security guard on a construction site. The novel wastes no time establishing that Levon is a no-joke badass as he disarms and dispatches two thugs shaking down a Guatemalan laborer at the site. 

We learn that Levon is a man with a particular set of skills learned during his shadowy time in the military. Joe Bob is Levon’s boss who does some homework and figures out that there’s more to his security guard than meets the eye. Joe Bob’s daughter is a college student in Tampa who has gone missing, and he hires Levon to find her. Levon’s got his own troubles involving an expensive custody battle over his daughter. Bottom line: he needs the money, and accepts the gig. 

Levon travels to Florida to investigate, and the reader is given further glimpses into our hero’s character and capabilities. He’s a quiet and stoic badass with an almost supernatural ability to appear, disappear, and fight - like a ninja in blue jeans. As he gets closer to the truth and his Russian prison gang adversaries come into greater focus, the author avoids the temptation of delivering a cartoonish or over-the-top action story, instead opting for gritty realism. 

Anyone who has ever read a Jack Reacher novel by Lee Child and wished it was written with the lean economy of a 200-page paperback from the 1970s will be very pleased with Levon’s Trade. Dixon writes in extremely short, punchy chapters with no irrelevant diversions. The characters are developed through their actions, not through the pages of introspective thought and inner monologues. Levon Cade is a Pinnacle Books action hero for the 21st Century. 

There appears to be nine books thus far in the Levon Cade series - all offered at affordable prices with attractive covers. If the other books maintain the same level of pace and quality as this debut, it may be the best contemporary men’s adventure series on the market. As large publishing houses demand bloated 400-page novels to sell at Walmart and airport magazine shops, it’s a breath of fresh air to read a series that remembers what made the genre great. Chuck Dixon is the real deal, and Levon Cade is the modern hero we deserve.  

Monday, December 20, 2021

Death Merchant #25 - The Enigma Project

In November, 1977, Pinnacle published the 25th installment of Joseph Rosenberger's Death Merchant series. My reasonably intact paperback shows it is the second printing, a clue that this series was a big moneymaker for the publisher. Mostly, you can read the series in any order and the concept is really simple. Richard Camellion is a CIA agent, dubbed Death Merchant, that patrols the globe quelling international threats. Rosenberger thumbed through magazines like National Geographic to place his hero in exotic and dangerous locales to heighten the sense of adventure. In this case, it is the mountains of Ararat.

The Enigma Project begins with Camellion as an undercover mountain climber who has joined the Jasper Grundy Bible Institute. In the opening chapters, it's explained that this faux religious group was created by the CIA to use on a rainy day. The mission is for Camellion to climb to the heights of the Ararat mountains to place a specially designed, high resolution camera. This camera will quickly capture hundreds of photos that the CIA can analyze. The goal is to locate strategically placed satellite installations being utilized by the Soviet Union in Armenia. Or, something like that.

Camellion and two supporting agents join the study group under the intention of guiding them to a fabled position where Noah's Ark may rest. The group travel to Turkey on a helicopter, but unbeknownst to the passengers, the CIA has created a unique panel system that houses a small armory inside. This is unveiled to the passengers when they discover Camellion and others are packing heat for the climb. Camellion explains that mountain bandits and Armenians don't typically settle by just throwing rocks at unwanted guests. What he doesn't explain is that the group is expendable and their unfortunate deaths will be a sacrifice for the greater good.

Halfway up the snowy passage, the group encounter Soviet Armenians. In a series of exchanges, Camellion and his supporting agents fight the bad guys en route to the top. Problems include avalanches, harsh weather, Soviets, and a nagging religious scholar. Rosenberger writes the action sequences smoothly and places readers in the battle by describing who's on the flank, the perimeter defenses, and the combatants next moves. It's completely vivid and provides enough escapism for the average cubicle worker.

This series is fun in limited interactions. I prefer gritty team-combat novels, but in a pinch Death Merchant can provide some enjoyment. This installment is par for the course. Mileage may vary. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

The Institute

Master storyteller Stephen King has honed in on a horror sub-genre – kids with psychic abilities on the run from a shadowy organization. He first utilized the concept with 1981's Firestarter, featuring telepath Charlene McGee on the run from a government agency called The Shop. His novel Doctor Sleep features an organization called True Knot hunting down kids and adults with “the shining.” King serves this platter with his 2019 novel The Institute. It was published by Scribner and exists in multiple formats. Based on King's prior works, I would imagine a streaming show, graphic novel series, or the movie is already in the works.

My paperback version weighs in at 650 pages, so there's a lot to unpack. The novel's first 50 pages is like the first act of a 1950s crime-noir (or John Ball's Tallon series) as readers are introduced to the former Florida police officer Tim Jamieson. Tim is paid to relinquish his seat on a commercial airliner to make room for a government employee. After deciding to pocket the refund and extra money, Tim hitchhikes up I-95 from Florida to New York. But, he ends up in the cozy town of Du Pray, South Carolina and immediately falls in love with its Mayberry-like charm. He takes a night security post with the small, local police department and slowly becomes ingrained into Du Pray's lovable population. He then disappears from the narrative for the next 400 pages.

Protagonist Luke Ellis is introduced as a likable 12-year old genius that possesses telekinetic abilities. In the middle of the night, masked individuals break into Luke's Minneapolis home and kill his parents. The intruders drug Luke and he awakens in The Institute, a secret facility in a rural stretch of Maine forest. He quickly meets other kidnapped children, who form a sort of “loser's club” to overcome their scary predicament. The children earn tokens for being good, which they can use to purchase extra goodies like alcohol, marijuana, and cigarettes. The staff is led by Mrs. Sigsby, who oversees experiments on the children to heighten their telekinetic powers.

The book's first half focuses on Luke and his friends stay in a section called the “Front Half”, a safer portion of the facility where the staff is mostly nice and the experiments aren't excessively painful. Luke is asked to stare at lights and dots while subjected to daily doses of injections. The torment of Front Half is that these kids don't know what became of their prior lives. Luke wonders what happened to his parents and what his role is with the institute. Sigsby motivates the kids by advising them they will wake up in their own homes with their memories erased of everything that transpired there. As time goes on, Luke's friends are individually chosen, against their will, to relocate to Back Half. It's here that he learns that the kids are subjected to horrific torture and most don't survive the ordeal. To avoid being taken to Back Half, Luke must escape the institute.

Needless to say, there's a lot more to the novel than simply imprisonment and escape. Luke befriends a staff member and she has her own backstory. The novel tiptoes to the grand reveal, which is the purpose and use of the institute. There's the inevitable meeting between Tim and Luke, and at that point King transforms the novel from horror to action-thriller. All of these elements build to a giant crescendo, but like King's historic flaw, the ending leaves a lot to be desired.

My biggest issue with King's modern work is that he injects plenty of commentary on the political landscape (of course he jabs Donald Trump) and has a lot to say about debt. There's a centerpiece about credit cards and revolving bills that plague our society. Why King feels as if he knows anything about the average American is beyond me. He is worth a half-billion, earns $20-million per year and has had the right to call himself a millionaire for 40+ years. It's this sort of thing that dampens The Institute.

For example, King says that Tim is paid just $100 per week to work for the police force. He also has Tim pay an Uber driver with physical cash that the airline provided to him as a refund. The real world doesn't work this way. It's as if King is so far removed from everyday life that his stories lose some plausibility. The Institute really didn't need the uneducated social commentary and the obvious disconnect removed me from some aspects of the story.

Nevertheless, I mostly liked The Institute and found Tim and Luke's story enthralling. King hasn't lost any of his storytelling abilities, but he has started to blur the lines between his abstract horror creations and all-out action-thrillers. If you can appreciate the modern day version of Stephen King, you'll love The Institute.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Narc #02 - Death of a Courier

Marc Olden (1933-2003) is a familiar name for crime-fiction fans. He authored series titles like Black Samurai, Narc (as Robert Hawkes), and The Harker File. In addition to series titles, Olden penned 17 stand-alone novels and two works of non-fiction. We've covered both Black Samurai and Narc and I was anxious to read more of his work. After enjoying his Narc debut, I wanted to revisit the character with the second installment, Death of a Courier. It was published by Signet in 1974.

You can read the series in any order. The gist is that John Bolt is a seasoned narcotics agent working for a government agency called D-3. The agency has ten regional setups covering all 50 states. Nine of these operations cover 49 states, the tenth covers New York City, where Bolt has worked for over a decade. He reports to Sam Rand, who then reports to a guy named Craven, D-3's head honcho. 

Death of a Courier lives up to its name. The novel's premise is that drug couriers for Vincent DeTorres, a Cuban mob, are being murdered by enforcers working for a New York mobster named Don Rummo. Bolt's entrance into this drug war begins in Central Park when a courier he is tailing is shot and killed by hired guns. Reporting the incident, Bolt then learns that couriers in big cities are being killed. He then gains the assignment of digging into the details, and this is where Olden shines.

Undercover, Bolt infiltrates DeTorres' mob by partnering with an enforcer named Ortega. There are numerous firefights, but the most memorable one entails 20-pages. In it, Bolt and Ortega find themselves in a Detroit airport to receive a large shipment of heroin. Thankfully, the deal falls apart and the scene explodes as these warring factions shoot it out in close quarters. Bolt's use of a .45 Colt and shotgun reminded me of the intensity of the opening scene in the series debut. Olden describes these action scenes with so much detail that readers can almost smell the cordite. 

While the war between rival mobs is really interesting, Olden introduces another exciting addition to the plot. There is an included backstory of Bolt's former partner, Paris, being brutally beaten by racists. In rehabilitation, Paris feels that the agency failed him. Months later, Paris kills the racists and enters a life of criminality. Bolt learns that Paris has re-emerged as an enforcer for Don Rummo and that he has vowed to kill seven Narc agents, one for each year that he served the agency.

Needless to say, Death of a Courier was simply awesome. Olden is a great storyteller and I felt that the narrative was soaked with realism. A year before this novel, the author wrote a non-fiction book titled Cocaine, a deep dive into New York's drug trade. Partially due to this, the Narc series doesn't seem terribly far-fetched like a Butcher or Death Merchant entry. Further, Olden's martial-arts studies lends credit to some of the fight scenes. 

If you are bored with the superhuman vigilante stuff, Narc is a must read title. These books are becoming more and more pricey, so I encourage you to get them now. Remember to search under Olden's pseudonym of Robert Hawkes. You'll thank me later.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Walking Wounded

According to his Amazon author page, Robert S. Stokes majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina. In the early 1960s, Stokes served in the U.S. Army in Europe before becoming a full-time freelance writer for various magazines including Newsweek and Life. His career led him to Saigon to cover the Vietnam War, an experience that aided him in writing his first novel, Walking Wounded. It was originally published by Dell in 1980, and I can't locate any information to suggest it was ever reprinted.

The novel begins by introducing readers to Jim Bonner, a former Vietnam veteran that now works as a hitman for the C.I.A. After numerous years of death and violence, Bonner is beginning to crack up. During an assignment to physically assault a target in Manhattan, Bonner snaps and fatally shoots the man. Fearing that he's now on a C.I.A. hit list, Bonner flees to Las Vegas to consult with a former military buddy named Cobb.

In the deserts of Nevada, Bonner hightails it in a van loaded with weapons. He knows the agency has targeted him, but he plans to stay alive as long as possible. On a rural stretch of blacktop, Bonner finds a woman named Karen stranded with her young son. Granting them a lift, Bonner discovers that Karen is a druggie that's been booted from her apartment. She has nowhere to go, so she's in for the Hellish ride with Bonner.

The narrative settles in as Bonner, Karen and her son make the long road trip to destinations unknown. Along the way, Bonner stops in to see old war buddies and friends he's made throughout his career with the agency. On cue, Bonner's boss sends a veteran named Gereke to locate, and eliminate, Bonner. Thus, the narrative builds to the inevitable confrontation between the experienced government assassins. 

Walking Wounded is the perfect title for the novel because it describes Bonner's inability to cope with his responsibilities. He's in continuous pain from horrific burns he experienced during a napalm drop (which makes me wonder how he even gained the agency gig). He's on a steady stream of heavy narcotics that have really spaced him out. He's also suffering from severe PTSD and finds it hard to decipher reality from war-torn Southeast Asia. 

Stokes' validates Bonner's condition with numerous flashbacks to Bonner's war experience. These scenes range from drug use in the jungles and barracks to firefights with Vietcong. In a unique parallel, Bonner recounts memories of his father and the mental anguish he endured from World War 2. The author has a lot to say about the poor state of Veteran Affairs in the 1980s, the cyclical nature of violence, and America's dependence on narcotics (a timeless statement). It's clever that Bonner replaces his father in war, and Gereke replaces Bonner in post-war operations. It all ties in as a Yin-Yang concept.

Despite the book's cover, Walking Wounded isn't really what I would consider a strong candidate for a 1980s men's action-adventure novel. This is more of a thriller with action sequences mostly replaced with social commentary and drug use. In that regard, Dell performed a disservice to Stokes. It's never a boring novel, but the cover suggests a Rolling Thunder sort of premise with a more traditional hero fighting some sort of stereotypical bad guy. Stokes' is delivering much more, with heroes and villains that aren't as easily defined. If you want something remarkably different, Walking Wounded may be worth the investment. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Revenger #02: Fire in the Streets

Paperback Warrior continues to devour the literature of Jon Messman. We've covered his series titles like The Trailsman, Handyman, Canyon 'O Grady, The Revenger, and even his gothic stand-alone novels under various pseudonyms like Claudette Nicole. My first experience with the author was the debut novel in The Revenger series. Inspired by Don Pendleton's The Executioner, the Signet series began in 1973 and ran six total volumes. After enjoying the debut, I was anxious to return to the character with the second installment, Fire in the Streets (1974). 

The book begins with some flashbacks to the events that occurred in the series debut. The quick story is that New Yorker Ben Martin is a Vietnam veteran who experienced the death of his son by mobsters. Avenging his son's murder, Martin became a one-man army and destroyed the local mob. At the end of that novel, he left his wife to pursue an indiscreet lifestyle using the new name of Ben Markham (Messman had never intended the series to continue). 

Now, it's explained to readers that Ben has lived in the Chicago suburbs for a year. He began working for Alwyn Beef Products and worked his way up to a senior manager due to his experiences as a grocery shop owner. But, Ben is attacked one evening at work by enforcers working for mobster Nick Carboni. After killing the attackers, Ben returns home and starts to question his life. In his own headspace, Ben realizes that he has always wanted to kill again, to right the wrongs, and fight evil. But, in a reversal, he also wants to live a normal existence that isn't smeared in blood. 

What makes The Revenger so great is that Messman doesn't deliberately set out to create a hero for readers. It's never just a good guy with a gun. Like the debut, he slowly has unfortunate events consume Ben's life. It is like an erosion of sanity that reveals Ben's hard-hitting talents. He's meant to kill the bad guys, and he has the skills and talents based on his experiences in Vietnam, but he is hesitant. Slowly, Ben is pulled into this mystery and must fight again.

Ben's employer is a friend, but he's also a terrible gambler. After losing a great deal of money in the gambling rackets, Carboni has struck a deal with him. The mob will infiltrate his business and in return, Carboni wipes the IOUs off the table. Once Ben learns the reasons for the attack, he puts together an elaborate plan to wipe out the mob at strategic locations. From rooftops, he begins assassinating key personnel with different European rifles, weapons he leaves at the scene to confuse Carboni. But Messman also has Ben fistfighting with mobsters as well as a fiery car chase on the highway. 

What makes this story unique is that it involves three separate women that are experiencing individual struggles directly related to Ben's mission. Carboni's wife is resistant to her husband's criminal behavior and wants out. When Ben's friend and co-worker is killed, he falls into a friendly relationship with the man's widow. But, Ben's love interest in the story is his employer's wife, a defiant woman that knows her husband is a gambling junkie. These three women are liberally featured throughout the 135-page narrative. 

Fire in the Streets is just as good, or better, than its predecessor and rivals some of Pendleton's best single-digit efforts on The Executioner. Imitation is the best form of flattery and Messman clones a Mack Bolan styled story while also injecting a great deal of emotional drama. It's violent when it needs to be, and Ben proves to be a capable hero when the gunfire begins. The end result makes The Revenger simply fantastic.

Monday, December 13, 2021

To the River's End

Rant - Kensington continues to swindle their fan base by suggesting that William W. Johnstone, who died in 2004, is still alive. On the back inside cover of the publisher's recent release, To the River's End, it states, “William W. Johnstone IS the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 300 books...” Further, it states that he authored titles like Flintlock and Will Tanner: Deputy U.S. Marshal. The fact of the matter is that Mr. Johnstone had been dead over 10-years by the time those books were actually authored by ghost writers. Additionally, it states J.A. Johnstone is the co-writer of this book and that she had a hand in writing a number of prior titles. The reality is that she is Johnstone's niece, heir to the empire, and she hasn't written a published word. The back cover proclaims to readers that William and J.A. “...are the greatest western writers of the 21st century.” Hell, it even states you can email Mr. Johnstone at dogcia.two@gmail.com. If he responds, then I'll tap-dance on water and turn your milk into moonshine. 

ReviewTo the River's End hit store shelves in October, 2021 and is only the second trade paperback to emerge from the William W. Johnstone camp. Unlike prior Mass Market Paperbacks, this one has a different color scheme, texture, art design and feel. The only other trade paperback that I'm aware of being the Target exclusive, Go West Young Man, from May, 2021. As I stated above, the cover states this is authored by William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone but in reality it is written by one of a handful of revolving ghost writers – some great, some mediocre and some just plain 'ole bad. 

The book is about two trappers, Luke Ransom and Jug Sartain, that partner up to independently capture beaver pelts in the fertile Rocky Mountains. Luke is the weapons expert and fighting man while Jug provides the comedy and tasty biscuits. While the two are skilled trappers, their fierce independence makes them a vulnerable target for the Blackfoot tribe. Without the support of the American Fur company or Hudson Valley, their presence alone infuriates the Blackfoot tribe. This rivalry is the premise of the book.

Like an assembly line, Luke kills the approaching Blackfoot throughout the long winter. But, not just fighting and killing them. It's a slaughterhouse so thick that the main problem isn’t the amount of Blackfoot warriors. Instead, Luke's biggest issues are A) Where to dump all of these bodies and B) What to do with all of the horses he acquires after mowing down these presumably inexperienced, incompetent Native Americans. Jug plays second fiddle and exists just to be shot twice and then nursed back to health. 

To the River's End would be a gripping cold-weather survival tale ripe with action if the protagonists actually faced stiff opposition. Instead, it's like a Friday the 13th film where the immortal Luke elevates the body count using knives, arrows and lead. Readers, you deserve better than this. Author, whoever you are, I'm glad you are working and being paid to write. Everyone deserves the right to make a living with the talents they possess. However, I wish you had more time to write quality books instead of meeting deadlines for this sketchy western brand. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Steve Midnight #01 - The Dead Ride Free

Before breaking into movies and television, pulp author John K. Butler (1908-1964) wrote nine novellas in Dime Detective Magazine starring a mystery-solving cab driver named Steven Middleton Knight, AKA: Steve Midnight. The stories have been collected into two attractive volumes by Altus Press, and I read the series debut, “The Dead Ride Free,” from May 1940.

Our narrator Steve Midnight was a wealthy playboy who lost it all during the Great Depression. He’s working as a cabbie for the Red Owl Cab Company in Los Angeles one cold night when a tall guy wearing a turban wants to be taken to Topanga Canyon. Steve immediately recognizes the fare as an old vaudeville magician named Zohar the Great. It’s been 20 years since Steve saw Zohar sawing a woman in half, and now he’s in the back of Steve’s taxi.

Zohar asks Steve to load a large parcel into the cab. After Steve agrees, he learns that the parcel is a locked coffin weighing about 150 pounds. Zohar explains that the casket houses a mummy from 1300 BC - a prop for his act. Upon arrival at Zohar’s shack, the magician offers to show Steve the mummy. However, upon opening the coffin, the men find the body of a freshly-dead woman with a dagger protruding from her chest.

For reasons best explained in the novella’s narrative, Steve is left to solve this mystery without the help of the police or the shady magician. There are some pretty cool curve balls thrown into the mystery’s plot, and Steve is a fine character to serve as our guide over the course of 50-pages.

Overall, “The Dead Ride Free” is a solid 1940s pulp mystery, but nothing earth-shattering, hardboiled or revelatory. I enjoyed the story and will revisit the collection when I’m in the mood for this particular flavor of comfort food. 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Sea-Wolf

Jack London (John Griffith Chaney, 1876-1916) is one of those authors that populates every library or indispensable high school reading lists. As a kid, I remember reading his classic White Fang (1906) and promising myself that I would read more of his work. Over 30 years later, I finally decided to read another of the author's classics, The Sea-Wolf. It has been filmed 13 times and was featured as a series for BBC Radio 4 in 1991.

Humphrey Van Weyden is a newspaper columnist living in San Francisco. One afternoon, Hump is pleasantly boating off the California coast when he's rammed by a large schooner called the Ghost. The vessel is captained by Wolf Larsen, an abrasive individual that is described as highly intellectual and materialistic. Hump has the option of sinking, swimming, or hitching a ride on the Ghost. Unfortunately, he climbs aboard and quickly realizes he's in for a Hellish ride.

Hump declares that he wants a u-turn back to the coast so he can return home. Larsen refuses and orders that the ship continue its journey to Japan. Larsen offers to pay Hump to work aboard the ship and orders him to be a cabin boy. Hump resists but eventually his will is broken and he submits to long days of cooking, cleaning, and contending with a seasoned, very violent crew.

London provides some unique perspective through Hump's eyes. The excessive hard work and perseverance strengthen Hump. He realizes that he has been sleeping through life with his cushy desk job and a complacency to perform the most mundane tasks. As the narrative continues, Hump discovers that beneath Larsen's granite veneer, he is a literary scholar and possesses an atypical knowledge for math calculations and navigation. Because of the commonality, Hump and Larsen spend hours discussing books and art.

Eventually the abused crew turns on Larsen and attempts a mutiny. Larsen's tactical experience allows him to fight back against the crew, eventually torturing specific catalysts. Due to the violence and madness, Hump swears to kill Larsen. Things grind to a screeching halt when a woman, Maud Brewster, is rescued from the seas. Her background as a writer immediately connects with Hump. Together, the duo hopes to escape Larsen and his rebellious crew.

I really enjoyed London's novel and found Larsen (whom is the premise of the book's title) a multifaceted nemesis. The story has a couple of offshoots that I felt really solidified the storytelling: Hump's rivalry with a murderous cook, Larsen's vendetta against his brother, Hump's romanticizing with Maude, the arctic survival finale, etc. London's emphasis on Larsen's approach to life, work, and resilience provides so many great passages and quotes, my favorite being:

“Surely there can be little in this world more awful than the spectacle of a strong man in the moment when he is utterly weak and broken.”

I've read that The Sea-Wolf has similarities to Rudyard Kipling's 1897 novel Captains Courageous. London, who was proven to perform plagiarism, wasn't the only writer to use this plot. I would imagine there are a number of nautical novels with heroes that are trapped at sea with a tyrannical captain. But, I would say that Max Brand's (real name Frederick Schiller Faust) 1941 novel Luck of the Spindrift is nearly a carbon copy of The Sea-Wolf in terms of storyline. In Brand's novel, a San Francisco philosopher finds himself trapped on a ship headed to the South Seas. He has an interest in the only female on board and there's a devious captain to brutalize the crew.

If you enjoy more modern nautical adventures by the likes of Clive Cussler, Hammond Innes, Kenneth Bulmer and Patrick O'Brian, I think you owe it to yourself to read early 20th century novels like this one. Without these pioneering efforts, nautical fiction wouldn't have such strong and solid sea legs.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Dirk Pitt #03 - Iceberg

Clive Cussler (1931-2020) was a massively-popular novelist who dominated the bestseller lists for the duration of his writing career. His most enduring series character was Dirk Pitt, a troubleshooter for the fictional National Underwater and Marine Agency. My first exposure to the author and the character was his third installment, 1976’s Iceberg.

The book opens with a U.S. Coast Guard mission mapping the locations of icebergs floating in the North Atlantic near Newfoundland. From the air, the Coastie crew spots one impossibly large iceberg - 200 feet high weighing upwards of one-million tons. Closer examination of the iceberg reveals the impossible - an entire ship embedded within the ice but still visible from the sky. The Coast Guard estimates that once the iceberg drifts into the gulf stream, it's sure to melt - likely submerging the ghost ship into the depths of the sea. The iceberg must have dislodged from some northern glacier, but there’s no way to know its origin.

Enter Dirk Pitt. He’s an U.S. Air Force Major on permanent loan to NUMA - the National Underwater and Marine Agency. NUMA dispatches Pitt to a Coast Guard cutter with a mission to get inside the ghost ship and better understand what’s happening. As a character, Pitt is a combination of James Bond and Doc Savage. He’s a funny and likable hero stacked with core competencies. He can fly a helicopter, dive to great depths and bag the babes as needed. His deductive capabilities rival those of the great Sherlock Holmes.

The providence of the ship-in-the-berg is a plot point that I won’t spoil for you here, but it only serves as starting point into a variety of mysteries Pitt is called upon to solve over the 400-pages. He’s a smart cookie and not afraid to kick ass when needed. His relationship with his Admiral boss and the boss’ lovesick personal secretary make for some fine human moments throughout the paperback.

I was expecting Iceberg to be filled with dense plotting and littered with incomprehensible nautical jargon that would cause my eyes to glaze over. I’m pleased to report that Cussler avoids this trap and makes the pages fly by with a basic good guys vs. bad guys plot and a propulsive story. His books are about twice as thick as other men’s adventure paperbacks from the same era, so I was expecting a complex story akin to the work of Tom Clancy. Instead, Iceberg was pulpy as all-heck. The action and villainous motivations were over-the-top like a good Destroyer novel, and the layered twist endings were pedestrian, outrageous and fun. No one should ever accuse Cussler of writing high-brow, smartypants fiction. I hereby stand corrected.

The appeal of Cussler’s novels is now clear. If Iceberg is any indication, the series is a lot more fun than you might expect. The books can apparently be read in any order, and there are plenty of lists online ranking them based on quality. I look forward to diving deeper into this author and his famous series. Recommended.