Thursday, December 29, 2022

Quantum Leap #01 - The Novel (aka Carny Knowledge)

It's summer 1992, I'm 16 years old, and taking summer driving school lessons in the bible belt. I can remember it like it was yesterday. I got home around 9pm to a sweltering hot house (we had no AC), turned on our brand new, state-of-the -art Zenith 25” cabinet television with full color and a remote control. I settled into a couch potato mood, pointed the clicker at the screen, and...there's nothing on television that interests me. I'm forced to watch summer syndication, the epitome of boredom. Although it began airing on NBC in 1989, I had never watched Quantum Leap up until that moment. NBC was running a special summer week of show reruns hoping to boost ratings going into a new season in the Fall. There I was with that memorable theme song, the blue lights, Sam Beckett electrifying and morphing into some static time traveling energy. My first experience with Quantum Leap. Oh boy. 

Quantum Leap was created by Donald P. Bellisario, the television mastermind of hit shows like Magnum P.I. and N.C.I.S. He pitched a science-fiction time-traveling show to NBC and it grew into a sensation, spawning comics, paperbacks, conventions, and five wildly entertaining seasons of television that remain in rotating syndication to this day. The show even gained a reboot in the Fall of 2022 with a new cast. 

The idea is rather simple. Dr. Sam Beckett created a time-traveling program, the Quantum Leap Accelerator, ran by a supercomputer deemed "Ziggy". The program is funded by the U.S. Government and housed in the New Mexico desert. The technology is supervised by a whiz named Gushie and a medical doctor named Tina. But, the most charismatic part of the show is Al, an Admiral that partners with Sam during the time travel. In the first episode, Sam steps into the accelerator and vanishes. He awakens to find himself in the past and controlling another person's body. Al can only appear to Sam as a hologram, but provides useful information from a colorful device called Handlink, which is a glorified smart phone. 

The accelerator transports Sam into the past, but some sort of supernatural intelligence is perceived to have taken over the whole program. Each episode, Sam learns that the person he is inside of will either die, cause others to die, or experience some sort of tragedy. His job is to avoid these events from happening - righting the wrongs. His insight is that Al can provide odds that whatever he is altering will correct the issue. Once he “fixes” the problem, Sam leaps through time and into another life. But, if he fails to correct the issue, there's a high probability that he will die in the event or be forced to live the remainder of his life as that person. While Sam is controlling the body of the person in the past, that same person is flung into the present day and remains in a waiting room inside of Sam's body. After all of this is fixed, things go back to normal and that person never realizes their course of life was altered. But, each leap Sam makes he is hopeful that he will return to himself, back to his real life, back home. 

There are several men's action-adventure novels that have the same vibe as Quantum Leap. Casca, Time Raider, and Richard Blade immediately come to mind. These are fun paperback series titles that create unique adventures with very little backstory required – hero simply solving the problem and moving to the next one. It only made sense for Universal to commission Berkley to create paperbacks affiliated with the show under their imprint Ace. These paperbacks feature different writers, freely able to create new adventures for Sam to leap into. Beginning in 1990, the first of 20 novels was published, although the first two were simply novelizations of television episodes and published separately through Corgi. 

The first of the Ace titles (18 total) was published in 1992 and simply called The Novel (aka Carny Knowledge in the UK). It was authored by Ashley McConnell, an American author that contributed to other television tie-in paperback novels in series titles like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Stargate SG-1, and Highlander. As a fan of the show, and avid paperback reader, I gained a good deal on a Quantum Leap lot of 17 total books, including the The Novel. I thought I would leap into the series with what I consider the first original Quantum Leap paperback story. Thus, the #1 is attributed to the title. 

McConnell begins the book like the television show, with Sam glowing blue and awakening to find himself in the body of a 20-something male named Bob Watkins. Sam learns from Al that he is in a small town in Oklahoma during the summer of 1957. Bob Watkins works at a family owned amusement park that has seen its better days. He's sort of a loner, an oddball that many find different and strange. These character attributes will later play a part in the overall plot development. But, for now all Sam learns is that the park's brand new roller coaster will soon derail and seven people die. He's there to somehow prevent this from happening. 

The author provides an adequate explanation of the Quantum Leap concept and the characters involved. Additionally, she provides some unique insight into the things happening in the present with Al, Gushie, and Tina when Ziggy begins to malfunction. I thought this additional storyline helped diversify some of the narrative into different thought processes and character perspectives. However, the most unnerving perspective is that of the unknown killer, a man that apparently has some knowledge of the roller coaster and how to modify it into a murder machine. Several separate chapters feature perspective's from the killer's point of view and his memories of prior attacks. This reminded me of Mary Higgins Clark or Charles Runyon's shifting perspective into the mind of a killer.

While the day-to-day activities are slightly tedious – Sam fixing amusement park machines and rides, the park owner's struggles financially, family history accounts – the build-up into the seemingly inevitable accident was exciting. I really enjoyed McConnell's knowledge of the show, specifically citing prior television episodes and Sam's fixation on avoiding a mental hospital (a possible repercussion if he can't avoid the accident). This was really strong storytelling with a noticeable nod to the fans.

McConnell also authored series installments 2-4, and 7 and I'm looking forward to reading those. If you are a die-hard, a casual fan, or completely new to the show, this debut novel is an entertaining crime-fiction read. I love all of the vintage crime-noir pertaining to carnivals and circus acts, and with this story set in 1957 in a sleepy amusement park town, the noir element is easily replicated. The Novel is an easy recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Drop Into Hell

Lou Cameron (1924-2010) mastered so many genres of written entertainment from comic books to westerns to mysteries and so on. Drop Into Hell was a 1976 WW2 combat adventure “in the breathtaking tradition of Allistair MacLean” released by Fawcett Gold Medal.

The year is 1944 and Paratrooper Captain David Evans has been given a secret mission. Hitler has developed a new super-tank and fighter jet that could cause some real problems for the Allied Forces. The plan? Hit Germany’s fuel refinery capabilities, leaving the Kraut’s new war machines with their gas tanks on empty.

The specific target is a refinery that shares space with a Red Cross Hospital housing injured American and British POWs. Conveniently for the novel, the hospital/refinery is right next door to a Concentration Camp filled with Jews and Gypsies working as slave labor in the refinery. Bottom line: Bombing the refinery into the stone ages isn’t an option.

Enter Paratrooper Dave and his crew of commandos, which includes the mandatory American Indian soldier. Their mission is to parachute into Nazi turf, sabotage the refinery, and get back across the lines safely into the warm embrace of the Allied forces. The problem? No one really has any idea how to get the saboteurs out of Germany once the damage is done.

The entire paperback is a very smooth and easy read as the cast of characters tackle problems and obstacles along the way. However, the novel‘s action lagged a bit in the middle. For my money, I think Len Levinson’s The Sergeant series is a stronger choice, but if you’re looking for Allistair MacLean Lite, this paperback will more than suffice. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 26, 2022

Conan - Black Colossus

“Black Colossus” is a Robert E. Howard story starring Conan the Cimmerian. It originally appeared for the first time in Weird Tales, June 1933. It was reprinted in the 1954 Gnome Press collection Conan the Barbarian with edits made by author L. Sprague de Camp. The website spraguedecampfan points out that de Camp's edits were very minor. Additionally, the de Camp's edited version appeared in the Lancer collection Conan the Freebooter (1968) and subsequent printings by Sphere, Prestige, and Ace. Howard's original version, without de Camp's edits, appeared in Black Colossus (1979), The Conan Chronicles Vol. 1 (2000), Conan of Cimmeria Vol. 1 (2003), and The Weird Writings of Robert E. Howard Vol. 1 among others. The comic adaptation appears in Savage Sword of Conan #2

Shevatas is a legendary thief that readers are introduced to in the early pages. He possesses a special combination that will open a long sought after room in an ancient, abandoned Stygian temple. Once inside, Shevatas is nearly blinded by the glare of gold, silver, and heaps of diamonds. But, a recurring theme in Howard's books, is that the thief never gets the precious goods. In this case, a primeval Stygian sorcerer named Thugra Khotan awakens from a 3,000 year slumber and readers are left to their own conclusions that Khotan kills the thief.

By saying his last name backwards, Khotan takes on the name Natohk (clever, right?) and begins building an evil empire. He crushes and conquers Hyborian nations one by one, amassing their armies into his. The next destination is Khoraja, a country that is led by a brother-sister combination. The king becomes a prisoner in nearby Ophir and the queen, a beauty named Yasmela, hits the streets and pubs seeking a new military leader based on the wisdom she receives from her god Mitra. 

Yasmela, spiritually guided, locates a very drunk Conan at a local bar and convinces him to follow her back to her family's castle. There, she offers Conan the job of leading her royal armament, military, and commanders into a fierce battle with Natohk's controlled forces. A Lord Thespides (a general), is shocked by Yasmela's choice in Conan. Thespides defiantly contends Conan's leadership, but the entire military might of Khoraja soon arrives at the Well of Altaku to battle Natohk's forces. In grand fashion, the field of battle spills onto the page as Howard describes the chaos of the fight and the technical aspects of this confrontation. 

“Black Colossus” is a near-masterpiece of extraordinary battle scenes, large-scale invasion, and a classic showdown between Conan and the evil Natohk. Howard's imagination runs wild with vivid imagery, exceptional descriptions of these barbaric, iron-clad warriors, and a sense of quick plot development considering the short length. I can imagine “Black Colossus” as a full-fledged 500+ pager. 

There are a couple of interesting aspects to the story. The first is Howard's use of Biblical history, particularly Moses. In this story, Natohk throws a spear or staff on the ground and it transforms into a serpent. This mirrors the account in Exodus when the Lord asks Moses to throw his staff to the ground. When Moses obliges God, the staff turns into a serpent. On a much higher level, I believe Howard used Exodus as a blueprint for this story. When Yasmela asks Conan to lead Khoraja's military, the muscular hero questions her choice. He's a lone-wolf, inexperienced leader and the most unlikely military commander. The same could be said for Moses. God asks Moses, an unlikely leader lacking experience, to lead the nation of Israel. The similarities are striking. 

As an enjoyable reading experience, “Black Colossus” provides plenty of action-adventure, sorcery, chase sequences, and steel-meets-steel rallies. It's nearly perfect, flawed only by complicated character names and unnecessary backstory. Further, it is Conan's early development as an emphasis of the story. This work is forming the origins of Conan's eventual rise to King of Aquilonia, so it's important to the overall Conan mythos. Just as a stand-alone story, with no inkling of past or future events, it's still a rip-roaring good time. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 23, 2022

The Yuletide Butcher

According to his Amazon bio, author Mike Duke was a police officer for 12 years and now instructs military, law enforcement, and bodyguards blade and hand-to-hand combat techniques. He's a fan of horror and science-fiction, which I assume led to his love for writing it. In 2021, he launched a three-book series of science-fiction novels called Amalgam. His horror books include Crawl, Ashley's Tale, and Low. My first experience with the author is his Christmas-themed horror novella The Yuletide Butcher, released in 2021. 

For 20 years a killer nicknamed “Yuletide Butcher” murders a random person in Detective Rick Allen's city (Allen with two arms, not one). The killings are innovative and feature a calling card. The killer places holly leaves in one of the body's natural, or newly created, orifices. This year, the city has called in an FBI agent to review Allen's most recent profiling in hopes of avoiding another senseless murder.

While all of that is sorting itself out in the narrative, the author also has another storyline fashioned about a jaded suburbanite family man that becomes mentally unhinged. Jack Randal engages in a heated argument with his wife at a nearby shopping mall. He leaves the wife and kids and checks in at a hotel with his favorite hooker. After numerous sex romps, mostly off the page, Randal comes up with an idea. 

The day before Christmas Eve, he breaks out his fake ID (that he just happened to reserve for this very occasion) and meets with his accountant to transfer all of his money to an offshore account so it can't be traced. Together with his tramp, the two can go to Cambodia and live it up exploring exotic temples. But, he has some baggage to sort through that may involve killing a family, staking their corpses on the lawn, and then burning down their house. Could this Jack Randal crazy family man be the Yuletide Butcher? Can Detective Allen and a stereotypical idiot FBI agent trace the clues?

This 55-pager isn't fantastic by any means. In fact, it is just downright stupid at times. Like the police officer asking Randal's wife if they can check her spouse's credit report and credit card transactions. How, or why, would she have anything to do with providing permission? Or, the FBI agent shocked to discover that the detective actually used profiling techniques to narrow down the suspect list. Or, the entire investigation halting because Randal's “basement door” is locked and there's no key. Or that the guy is paying for dirty movies on PPV at the hotel. Who does that in the 21st century?

However, as a kooky horror tale loaded with violence and horrific outcomes, The Yuletide Butcher is still a wildly good time. Think of it as watching a late Friday the 13th installment – you suspend disbelief to have a good time watching people maimed and knocked off in savage style. If you can do that, and not be offended by grotesque brutality, then these 55 pages will just fly by and you'll ask for a sequel. So, Mr. Mike Duke, is there a sequel? Please take my money, or at the very least show me where that life-size Alien Xenomorph statue is from the book's biography page. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

The Shark-Infested Custard

A few years after crime fiction author Charles Willeford’s 1988 death, his estate released The Shark-Infested Custard, an unsold trunk novel written in the 1970s. It’s a polarizing novel of Florida male hedonism that remains available today.

The book is set in a Miami singles-only apartment complex with a pool where four dudes — each around age 30 — hang and drink vodka martinis from Dixie cups. In short, it’s a great town to pick up chicks in a target-rich environment. Each of the four main characters gets a featured section of the book, which consists of four largely stand-alone noir novellas about these swinging guys.

Our first narrator is Larry Dolman, an ex-cop working in the business office for a big PI firm. He and his horny rat pack spend a lot of time strategizing about how to get laid most efficiently. One of these excursions opens the door to a real dilemma when one of the fellows picks up an underage girl and she dies of an overdose in his car. The guys then bumble into a murder they are generally unequipped to handle. All of this is played for laughs in a dark, comedic tone - think Donald Westlake meets Weekend at Bernie’s meets Quentin Tarantino.

The second narrator is a pharmaceutical salesman named Hank, who has been seeing a married woman. When someone takes a shot at Hank, he can only assume it’s her husband. As the attempts on Hank’s life escalate, we get an interesting look at the job of a legal drug dealer and the nuances of the career. It’s another great story with a tidy ending that brings all the plot threads nicely together.

The third novella follows mostly Don, the Florida sales rep of a British silverware manufacturer, in his attempt to heist his employer’s inventory and get away scot-free. It’s a story that could have been slightly edited to fit in quite nicely with Manhunt or any other purveyor of edgy crime fiction.

Lastly, the boys are back together again reflecting on the drama of the other stories and the fallout of their decisions when a sexual encounter takes a very dark turn.

I was completely delighted by these four stories, yet the consensus among reviewers is that is a below-average effort for Willeford. Let’s be clear: I’m right and they’re wrong. These are four dark, humor-filled crime stories about guys whose inability to control their libidos get them into hot water. Willeford’s writing is predictably awesome, and he’s funny as hell. Okay, the book’s title is staggeringly stupid, but the contents inside are four aces. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Conan - The City of Skulls

In the very first edition of the Lancer Conan (1967) paperback, the table of contents lists a Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp story “Chains of Shamballah”. But, on page 189 the story title appears as “The City of Skulls”, and in future editions of the book, both the TOC and page 189 both lists “The City of Skulls”. It's one of those oddities in Conan literature. But, drilling down to the review of the story, this is only one of two stories in Conan that is authored by both Carter and de Camp. The other story is “The Thing in the Crypt”. All of the remaining stories in the collection are combinations of Robert E. Howard/Carter or de Camp. The story is also included in Sphere's 1989 omnibus The Conan Chronicles (pictured).

Like “The Hand of Nergal”, Conan is serving as a mercenary soldier for Turan's military. His detachment has been assigned the duty of escorting Princess Zosara to her wedding date with a powerful nomad. As the entourage crosses the plains at the base of a large, and snowy, mountain range, they are overrun by a tribe of savage warriors. Conan's entire squad is massacred, leaving him with two survivors, his friend Juma and the Princess Zosara. 

In an epic, short-lived 20ish pages, the three are forced through bitter cold winds, across the mountains, and into a warm jungle environment called Shamballah, the City of Skulls. It's here that Zosara is promised to a Toad-God-Thing named Jalung Thongpa and Juma and Conan are sold into slave labor aboard a ship. In a violent, brutal struggle, Conan is forced to row for days as he's whipped by a slave master and nearly starved. In an upheaval, Conan and Juma escape the ship and head back to save Zosara. 

In a book that contains Howard classics like “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House”, I'm surprised at how much enjoyment the two Carter/de Camp stories brought me. “The City of Skulls” feels epic, which is really impossible considering it's 33 pages. The story locations are described so well and thrust these characters – unwillingly – into the heart of madness with high altitudes and low temperatures. Mix in the ruthless rowing expedition as testaments to Conan's internal fortitude to soldier on. That's why we read these harrowing adventure tales. Carter and de Camp can tell a great story and I feel like “The City of Skulls” is a worthy addition to this stellar Conan collection. Recommended. 

* An interesting addition to the story is the introduction of a regular character in Juma. His backstory is explained in detail, placing him on the same path as Conan in terms of tragic childhood and harsh lessons in the terrifying wastelands of the Hyborian Age. Juma is featured in both Conan the Buccaneer and Conan the Hero novels. I believe he is also featured in many issues of Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan

** “The City of Skulls” was adapted into comic form in the Savage Sword of Conan #59 and very loosely in Conan the Barbarian #37.

*** The Conan: The Adventurer animated television show used a portion of this story, specifically the "Ship of Blood" chapter for Season 1/Episode 2/"Blood Brother". The episode was written by Christy Marx, who had previously provided comic writing for Red Sonja, Conan the Barbarian, and Savage Sword of Conan. The show swaps out the story's character of Juma with an ongoing character named Zula. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Bloodroots Manor

Author Jon Messmann cut his teeth writing for the Golden Age of Comics before moving into full-length novels. At the height of men's action-adventure fiction, Messmann created and authored the vigilante series The Revenger, the Travis McGee-styled Logan books, and the enormously popular adult western series The Trailsman. But, Messmann also capitalized on the gothic paperback craze of the 1960s and 1970s. As Claudette Nicole and Pamela Windsor, Messmann authored a number of gothic mystery and romance novels for Fawcett Gold Medal and Pyramid. Cutting Edge Books has published a number of Messmann titles in new editions, including his gothic paperbacks like Bloodroots Manor. It was originally published by Fawcett in 1970 and has been out of print for more than 50 years.

Nancy Hazleton married a man named Dirk and the two set off for a “happily ever after” life in New York. But, Dirk refused to become intimate with Hazleton and often placed her in audacious stunts to impress his friends. In a wild chain of events, Nancy realizes that Dirk has been attempting to murder her throughout their short marriage. During a life or death struggle, Nancy escapes Dirk's wrath and he plunges to his death. Nancy is placed into a mental hospital to rehabilitate.

After regaining her mental stability, and working through her horrendous past, Nancy becomes enrolled in an interior design school. Upon graduation, Nancy is hired by a man named Samuel Howell to redesign his spacious country house. As the book begins, Nancy is riding a train to Deepwell Junction in the rural mountains of Kentucky. When she arrives late at night, she is shocked to discover that Deepwell Junction's train station is an abandoned husk. Further, the directions leading to Howell's estate lead Nancy to a large abandoned house that's severely damaged. To escape a thunderstorm, Nancy takes shelter inside of the old dwelling. In a terrifying sequence, a horribly disfigured man emerges from the shadows and attacks Nancy in the house. She attempts to escape through the forest and collapses. Is this a nightmare or reality?

At 150 pages, I read Bloodroots Manor in one sitting. Messmann was such a craftsman and he builds this narrative into a crescendo of mystery and white-knuckle suspense. Nancy's exploration of the mysterious town, the Howell family legacy, and her relationship with a local historian all add small ingredients to the much larger mystery. Messmann conveys a real sense of isolation and panic as Nancy contends with the idea that she may have been lured into a deadly trap. Each chapter felt like one more step to some grisly discovery. 

If you love the traditional, atmospheric haunted house tale and the “evil thing down the hall” type of storytelling, then Bloodroots Manor is an easy recommendation. With its cursed heirs, family secrets, phantoms on the hillside, and cavernous mansion, this one has everything we all love about the old fashioned gothic novel. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 19, 2022

The Heisters

Robert Page Jones (1931-2012) authored nine stories for Manhunt Magazine during the 1960s, including one in 1961 titled “The Big Haul.” The story was expanded into Jones’ first full-length novel, a 1963 Monarch Books paperback called The Heisters. The novel was adapted into a 1967 French film called That Man George (aka L’homme de Marrakech).

Johnny Womack is a truck driver headed from a long-haul home from El Centro, California with an empty load. This is problematic because he could really use some dough. His hot, faithless wife is home with god-knows-whom and the rent is overdue.

Mechanical troubles sideline Johnny in a small California desert town where a three-man heist crew are scheming and planning an armored car knock over. The armored vehicle delivers $750,000 cash to an Army base every two weeks, and it’s just begging to be taken by the right crew. If only the crew had a reliable truck driver to join the plunder squad…

To his credit, the author does an admirable job with character development. The reader gets to spend time with Johnny and the heisters to gauge everyone’s motivations. The heist itself is exciting and well-written, and the aftermath is worthy of Lionel White or Richard Stark. He throws in a great sequence involving an armored car security guard that will knock your socks off.

The aftermath of the heist and getaway has some fantastic unexpected twists that I didn’t see coming and kept me up late turning the pages. The ending violence of this short paperback is worthy of a Quentin Tarantino movie. I can honestly say that The Heisters is one of the finest hardboiled crime caper novels I’ve ever read. It’s never been reprinted, but you should definitely seek out a copy ASAP. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 16, 2022

The Best of Manhunt #04 - The Jack Ritchie Stories

In this fourth volume of stories from Manhunt, the good folks at Stark House Press took a different approach by focusing on a single author, Jack Ritchie. If you’ve never heard of Jack Ritchie, consider it further evidence that short-story writers don’t get the respect and adoration lavished upon novelists.

Jack Ritchie was the prolific pseudonym of Wisconsin native John G. Reitci (1922-1983). During his career as an author, he sold countless stories to publications including Manhunt, Murder!, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, The Saint Mystery Magazine and on and on. To my knowledge, he never wrote a novel - short works were his specialty.

As Paperback Warrior fans are well aware, Manhunt was the premier fiction digest for hardboiled, noir crime stories in the 1950s and 1960s, and Ritchie began selling his grittiest work to Manhunt in 1954. In total, Manhunt published 23 of Ritchie’s stories through the year 1965.

Mystery fiction scholar Jeff Vorzimmer lovingly compiled this chronological collection of Ritchie’s Manhunt work — as well as five extra stores from similar publications of the era. Vorzimmer’s introduction is also an insightful look into this largely-forgotten, but insanely productive, crime fiction master.

Let’s sample some stories and see if this guy is the real deal.

“My Game, My Rules” (July 1954)

A slumlord is forced to pay protection money to a local mobster. When he refuses, his buildings start mysteriously catching fire. The crime boss has also taken over the local gambling racket as well as the politicians and police force. A coalition of displaced leaders wants the thug gone, and approach our narrator Johnny to make it happen. Johnny has his own reasons for wanting the crime boss eradicated. This was Ritchie’s first sale to Manhunt, and it’s outstanding.

“Hold Out” (May 1955)

As with most of Ritchie’s stories, this one opens in the middle of the action. Ed and his partner have kidnapped a guy named Pete with the intention of holding him for ransom. Pete’s boss is a nightclub owner and may be willing to pay fifty grand to get his right hand man back in one piece. This story has a nasty twist you won’t see coming until it hits you like a gut punch. Top-shelf stuff.

“Shatter Proof” (October 1960)

An assassin arrives at the narrator’s house. It’s abundantly clear that his much younger wife commissioned the hit. Despite the unusual circumstances, the interaction between the victim and his soon-to-be-murderer is surprisingly cordial and businesslike. The patter is so alluring that you may not even see the double-cross coming. Another solid entry.

“Going Down?” (July 1965)

Ritchie’s final appearance in Manhunt finds the narrator on a urban building ledge prepared to jump while a police sergeant tries to keep him talking. The poor copper didn’t ask for this assignment. He was just walking by the building at the wrong time. The comedic back and forth between would-be-suicider and would-be rescuer is a stitch as the men compare their problems and failures. Another winner with a fun ending.

The Paperback Warrior Verdict?

This superb collection is proof positive that Jack Ritchie was a master of the hardboiled short story game. His work exemplifies everything that made Manhunt great, and this compilation should go along way toward cementing his legacy as one of the greats. Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, December 15, 2022

The Big Grab

Marvin Leroy Schmoker (1933-2008) changed his name to Zekial Marko in his adult years. It is under this name that he wrote scripts for shows like The Rockford Files, Kokchak the Night Stalker, and Toma. But, as an author of fiction, Schmoker/Marko authored seven novels under the pseudonym John Trinian. Most of these novels have been reprinted by Stark House Press as twofers, including The Big Grab. This heist novel was originally published in 1960 by Pyramid, and then later was adapted into the French film Any Number Can Win. The book was re-titled to match the film name and published again in 1963. Stark House Press has a new edition of the novel out now with another Trinian title, The Savage Breast (1961).

When the novel begins, protagonist Karl Heisler has just been released from a five-year prison stint, his third imprisonment to date. With 14 years behind bars, Heisler reflects on his life as a criminal and family man. Walking through San Francisco, Heisler thinks to himself that he has to find his old cellmate Frank Toschi. The two have a heist to plan.

In the clinger, Heisler met a wiseguy mobster who once worked at a posh Syndicate casino. On his deathbed, the mobster provides Heisler intricate details on how to rob the place. Who would even dream of stealing from the mob? Heisler dwells on the proposed heist during his last few months in the pen. With the help of his former cellmate Toschi, the two hope to knock over the casino and then split for parts unknown. 

The Big Grab reads like a typical heist novel penned by the likes of Richard Stark, Lionel White, or Dan Marlowe. Trinian's novel is compelling and driven by the details and planning of the heist. An interesting addition is Heisler wife and child – the former ready to divorce him and the latter believing that Heisler is a sales guy. Like most of these crime-fiction novels, the heist never goes according to plan. The Big Grab adds some twists and turns in the finale that added an additional spark to the predictability. 

Heisler is a dynamic main character with an abundance of emotional and family baggage. I enjoyed Trinian's rich subtext of the lifetime criminal finding himself imprisoned with civilian life and the overbearing strains of normalcy. Trinian cleverly reveals the addiction of criminality through an enjoyable, exciting prose. If you enjoy the caper or heist novel, then The Big Grab is sure to please. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Men of five, still alive, through the raging glow” were song lyrics that I've sung for 30+ years. It's a line in a classic Metallica song, “For Whom the Bell Tolls”. In fact, I never understood any of the lyrics to the song, but knew that it referenced a war novel or film. After recently reading Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, I've been wanting to revisit the beloved author. With one foot in front of the other, I marched over to his 1940 novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was Hemingway's seventh total work, including both fiction and non-fiction. The novel resolved my yearning for more Hemingway, but also connected me to the old Metallica track of my youth.

Much can be said about For Whom the Bell Tolls. There are endless reviews, essay papers, and podcast episodes dedicated to the novel and its characters. Heminway wrote it in different locations, Cuba, Florida, and Idaho, and based it on his experiences covering the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance. At this point in the author's career, Hemingway had already witnessed firsthand the atrocities of World War I as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross. I believe both experiences contributed to his writing style and subject matter in For Whom the Bell Tolls

From a sky-level perspective, the novel is very simplistic in nature. But, deep in the scorched Earth, with the bullets, dirt, and rubble, it is a more complex tale of war and the insurmountable circumstances that force humans to kill humans in an endless cycle of violence and bloodshed. It is just as relevant today as it was in 1940, as America was on the cusp of entering World War II. In that sense, it is a timeless novel that will unfortunately still be relevant 50 years from now. War is war, no winners, just combatants. 

Robert Jordan, an American professor of Spanish, left the University of Montana to teach in Spain. As the country turned into a melting pot of civil unrest and saber-rattling, Jordan finds himself as a fighter for the republicans, a doomed opposition to the fascist forces that would eventually envelope Spain under Francisco Franco's dictatorship. Through perseverance, and luck, Jordan becomes an experienced dynamiter. Off-page, he is asked by a Russian general to aid a band of local guerrillas in destroying a bridge. With the bridge's destruction, it will prevent fascist forces from advancing their troops. 

The local guerrilla force is made up of an old gypsy, an alcoholic leader, a lazy fighter, a strong female fighter, and an assortment of experienced, middle-aged fighters. None of these people want to join the republican military, but instead independently conduct military exercises. Unfortunately, their only major accomplishment in the war is the destruction of a train. Beyond that, it is mostly just all talk. But, it is Jordan's role as the experienced dynamiter, to somehow work with these men and women to complete the mission.

At roughly 500 pages, Hemingway spends most of the narrative conducting deep discussions between his assortment of diverse characters. Perhaps the best of these is presented in Chapter 10. As an avid reader of ultra-violent men's action-adventure novels, gritty vigilante sagas, and rip-roaring westerns, I've never encountered more powerful, unrestrained passages as what Hemingway puts to paper as Pilar and Pablo describe the liberation of the small town of Avila. The homicidal, savage killing of the town's fascist leaders and businessmen is one of the most brutal and disturbing things I've ever read. My assumption is that this chapter alone probably excluded the novel from being recognized for a Pulitzer Prize. It is such a moving piece in its surreal, heart-wrenching detail of men dying for their beliefs. 

Equally as disturbing is Chapter 31, an account made by Jordan's love interest, his “little rabbit” Maria.  I was teary-eyed as I read the terrifying ordeal she faced as the fascists destroyed her town, killed her parents, and then took turns brutally raping her. She confesses to Jordan that she has been physically injured by the ordeal, a wound that becomes very painful when the two make love. This passage, appearing later in the novel, balances the war-torn strife – republicans kill fascists, fascists kill republicans. Hemingway's presentation is terrifyingly brilliant, showing that both sides are equally evil and corruptible.  

As a literary powerhouse, For Whom the Bell Tolls is a masterpiece. But, specifically for Paperback Warrior fans of high adventure, military-fiction, and men's action, there is plenty to love about this mainstream classic. Hemingway places the action in Spain's high passes and snowy mountains. This is a narrative that possesses intense action sequences as the guerrillas attempt to defend a mountain from an onslaught of fascist forces and planes. It's this scene in particular that is a consuming, bullet-ridden piece of the narrative that is excellently described by Hemingway. The reader gains a unique sense of destruction, despair, and impending doom. The same can be said for the book's flourishing finale, an epic, high-octane sequence of events that places Jordan in a final conflict against waves of enemy troops. These scenes are staggering and left me feeling gutted.

Nothing else can really be said here to express the magnitude of For Whom the Bell Tolls. You owe it to yourself to read the novel, to feel and hear the novel in your own way. It is just a powerful piece of literature that could never be fully served by a theatrical approach. Despite nine Oscar nominations for the 1943 film, the old adage “the book is better than the movie” has never rang more true. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

The Executioner #104 - Devil's Horn

Remember the one where Mack Bolan becomes the star of the Chuck Norris “bring'em back” alive flick Missing in Action? Well, it never happened, but it should have based on Dan Schmidt's The Executioner installment Devil's Horn (1987), the 104th book in the series. Like a combination of Missing in Action, Rambo 2, and an installment of MIA Hunter, Devil's Horn deposits Bolan and Jack Grimaldi in a Southeast Asia Hellhole as prisoners in a drug cartel's brutal labor camp. Interested? Read on.

When Devil's Horn begins, Bolan is in The Bowery, the Lower East Side of Manhattan Island, trailing the origins of a massive amount of domestic drug imports. His trail leads to Ronny Brennan, a top-tier drug dealer with arms in various criminal factions as a Mob businessman. After Bolan destroys a drug warehouse, he pressures Brennan to reveal the source of a huge opium farm in Thailand. After a furious firefight, Bolan forces Brennan to ride shotgun as drug enforcers and low-level dealers tail the two to a local airstrip where Grimaldi is waiting. Quickly, Bolan and Brennan climb aboard as Grimaldi rockets the trio to Southeast Asia. 

With a large load of armament and equipment, Grimaldi's plane flies over the whereabouts of the drug farm. But, he gets a little too low and the plane is shot down on the outskirts of the farm. While pushing Brennan into the bush, both Grimaldi and Bolan attempt to escape the onslaught of waves of Vietnamese soldiers, hired mercenaries, prison sentries, and drug enforcers. In a scene right out of Rambo 2, Bolan and Grimaldi climb a hill to make a final stand against the invading forces. Eventually, the two are forced to surrender and are ushered into the living Hell of prison life in the jungle. 

A sadistic warlord named Torquemandan controls the Thai drug farm and has two top henchman inflicting years of punishment on the farm's prisoners. Bolan and Grimaldi discover that a large majority of the prisoners are American military prisoners-of-war that have been transported into Thailand by the Vietnamese government. Bolan also learns that there's a CIA spook imprisoned as well as many South Vietnamese prisoners that were allies to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. 

The orientation outlines what Bolan and Grimaldi will expect in their new lives. The duo will join the other prisoners as slave labor. They work from dawn until dusk scraping the sap off of poppy seeds (opium) and placing it in buckets. Their only nourishment is a handful of rice and a cup of water at dinner. Most of the prisoners are on the verge of death and are routinely beaten, whipped, tortured, and killed. Bolan is warned by the prisoners to never eat the meat that is served with the rice - it's the cooked flesh of the prisoners that are executed! After the harvest season, the prisoners will carry 100-pounds of opium on their backs and forced to march 200 miles to deliver it. Most will then be executed or die of exhaustion. 

I read Dan Schmidt's Eagle Force installment Death Camp Columbia years ago and loved it for all of the same reasons I loved Devil's Horn. I enjoy Schmidt's workmanlike writing style and his use of ultra-violent prison settings for both of these novels. Death Camp Columbia was authored just two years after Devil's Horn, and features a similar premise when the four-man mercenary team Eagle Force becomes imprisoned in a Columbian jungle Hell. It was obvious that Devil's Horn served as a template for that particular novel. 

Schmidt is an on-the-nose writer that uses a low dose of gun-porn to describe and detail the harrowing action sequences in his men's action-adventure novels. His style incorporates a violent, gory combination laced with plenty of brutal scenes of torture and dismemberment. If you need “brains bashed into pulpy matter” then Schmidt is your guy. He was an active Bolan scribe and had a great handle on the high-numbered version of the character. In Devil's Horn, Schmidt also incorporates a human element to Bolan's suffering, but also a sympathetic, endearing quality to Bolan's love of American soldiers and the overpowering need to free the prisoners-of-war. I also enjoyed both Grimaldi and Bolan's chemistry while enduring the harsh elements and horrendous torture dished out by Torquemandan's henchmen. Needless to say, good things come to those who wait. The inevitable confrontation was worth the price of admission and felt like a satisfying conclusion to one of the most violent Executioner novels I've read. Devil's Horn is an absolute must-read if you love Mack Bolan

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 12, 2022

The Pursuit of Agent M

DeWitt Samuel Copp (1919-1999) authored fiction and nonfiction books with themes relating to military history, aviation, the Cold War, and espionage. His experience in the Army Air Corps during WWII, and role as a flight instructor pilot provides a unique realism to his writing. Copp also served in the Central Intelligence Agency and taught history and civics at St. Luke's School in Connecticut. 

Copp's literary work includes Notebooks, a three-book series of action-adventure novels written under a pseudonym of Sam Picard. As Nick Carter, Copp authored two novels in the Nick Carter: Killmaster series. The talented writer penned a screenplay for an episode of One Step Beyond, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology show on ABC and scripted episodes for other television programs like Three Musketeers, Kraft Theatre, and Lux Video Theatre

His spy-thriller The Pursuit of Agent M has been recently released in a new edition by Cutting Edge in digital and physical formats. The book was originally published as a hardcover in 1961 by Hammond and in paperback by Popular Library a year later. It has remained out of print until now. 

Agent M is Mark Costain, an American spy working for the CIA under the name Mark Vorak. His cover is that he is an engineering director at a Czechoslovakian company that manufactures rockets and missiles. In the time-period of the book's release, Czechoslovakia was a communist country controlled entirely by the very red Soviet Union. 

When readers first meet Costain, he is desperately struggling through the cold, harsh landscape of Czechoslovakia attempting to reach the freedom of the Austrian border. In close pursuit is the Czech military, who have positioned Costain as Public Enemy #1. Considering the novel is a man-on-the-run suspense-thriller, the book's simplistic title is perfectly fitting. 

The Pursuit of Agent M is presented in four acts that feature Czech characters aiding Costain's escape. In the first act, Costain meets an old man tending to his sheep. The brief relationship examines Costain's confession that he was stealing government secrets. The wise old man, who hides Costain from the military, doesn't chastise Costain over killing a police officer. Instead, the old man is infuriated over Costain's “theft” of government intelligence. This surprising response to theft versus murder is an intriguing debate. 

Costain's second meeting is with a poet-philosopher that lives in a one room apartment. The poet insists that he isn't Costain's enemy and allows him safe harbor with food and rest. The only repayment requirement is for Costain to hesitantly listen to the poet's readings asking for praise. When the poet risks death for Costain's getaway, Copp's narrative is morally uplifting, showing readers a most basic human principal. 

The third act, and arguably the most exciting, features Costain's hostage, a woman that is revealed to be the mistress to Krupina, a Czech official coincidentally leading the manhunt to find Costain. This sequence is a fevered, tight-laced portion of Copp's narrative that focuses on the woman's relationship with Krupina, and her efforts to assist Costain as a way to extract revenge on her lover. These events are central to a rural farmhouse with plenty of cat-and-mouse tactics between Costain, Krupina, and the mistress that they both are relying on. It's a brilliant premise that leads to Costain's retrieval of an aircraft, that eventually leads to disaster. 

The book's final act is a resounding resolution that introduces key characters that are paramount to Costain's original mission in Czechoslovakia. The characters include a young woman, Lisa, that shares a romantic chemistry with Costain. It's this satisfying conclusion that breathes a new life into the story, revealing Costain's experiences during WWII, both as a pilot and a prisoner-of-war. The circle becomes complete as Copp presents a roaring sequence of events that spring from a treacherous doctor and his association with the communist government. It's a unique twist on the story relevant to Costain's employer and the horrifying atrocities committed while serving as an undercover agent in the German Gestapo. 

The Los Angels Times said, “The writing and style of the book are superior”, when reviewing The Pursuit of Agent M. I would wholeheartedly agree with their praise as Copp's writing was certainly unique, charismatic, and often endearing. The book, rightfully categorized as a spy-thriller, contains a remarkable amount of emotion - human endurance, philosophy, the consequences of war, moralistic thinking, and personal indebtedness. It's a mature approach to the old-fashioned Cold War, espionage thriller that leaves a strong, noticeable effect on readers. 

As a casual, man-on-the-run story, the novel can be enjoyed as pure escapism, but it would be a travesty to ignore Copp's fundamental, underlining messages sprinkled throughout his work. It really sets him apart from his other military-fiction and espionage contemporaries of that era in a Hemingway style – invigorating circumstances propelling human need and suffering. Whether there is a happy ending is in the eye of the beholder. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 9, 2022

High Lonesome

High Lonesome, a 1962 stand-alone novel by Louis L'Amour is a “chase the chasers” western. It's a rarely used formula where a rider, or group of riders, is chasing after a group that is chasing after someone else. In this novel, L'Amour turns the concept on its head by including one more group of chasers. In essence, it's the posse chasing the chasers who are running down the chasers. I'll sort this out for you, and by the end you'll be wanting to read it. Trust me.

The novel, set in the American Southwest in 1881, begins with one of my favorite aspects of western storytelling, the old bank-robbing bit. Considine is the main character, a fast-draw specialist that's an outlaw. He has a four-man heist crew knocking over banks and cracking safes. The first few pages feature a robbery in progress that leads to just a few bucks. So, the foursome form a plan to head to Considine's former hometown to knock over the bank there and to even the score with an old friend that's become the sheriff. 

To balance out the criminal protagonist, L'Amour introduces an older outlaw named Dave Spanyer and his adult daughter Lennie. Spanyer has decided to become an honest man, and with his daughter the two plan to cross the barren desert wastelands to California to begin a new life. However, they run into the bank-robber group and Lennie immediately falls for Considine despite her father's disapproval. It's in this town that Considine's men rob the bank and head out of town with a ton of cash. A posse immediately gives chase, pushing Considine into an unusual mindset. 

Considine realizes that Spanyer and Lennie are surely going to be tracked and killed by an Apache war-party. So, he heads the group in that direction to contend with the Apache nation rather than fleeing over the border into Mexico. So, we circle back to the formula presented in my opener – the posse chasing Considine's crew while they pursue the Apache warriors who are chasing after Spanyer and Lennie. Got it?

Sometimes L'Amour's stories can be so basic that they border on complacency. But, High Lonesome is damn near perfect. There are so many stories weaved into this tale – the old outlaw (Spanyer) witnessing the next generation of outlaws (Considine's crew) commit to a life of crime, a life he wants to escape and forget. Lennie's attraction to Considine could be a realization of her love for her father, a need to be protected by a man with no laws. Considine's feud with his old friend is a story unto itself, which plays out nicely in the finale. Additionally, there's the question of Considine himself going honest after facing so many struggles as a criminal. 

In terms of action, it doesn't get much better than this. The last 40 pages are an absolute barnburner as Spanyer, Lennie, and Considine's gang make a final stand on top of High Lonesome, an old outlaw hideaway nestled in the steep rocky cliffs. Kudos to L'Amour for bringing in the rifles and allowing them to outweigh six-guns in the novel's final fight. I love a great six-gun showdown, but something about the long rifle always appeals to me in westerns. 

High Lonesome is one of the best vintage books I've read this year (2022) and an absolute must-read for any western fan. With its interesting blend of personal redemption, captivating life choices, gunfights, and assortment of heroes and anti-heroes, the narrative never becomes uninspiring or dull. It's a real treat when L'Amour is “on” and he was on fire for this one. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Strike Terror

Hy Steirman (1921-2009) was born in Canada and settled in New York City, where he became an editor for the publisher Street and Smith during the twilight of the pulp era and later served as chairman of publishing at Warner Books. He wrote a few himself, including a spy series starring an ex-FBI man named Zachary Jones that only lasted two installments, the first being Strike Terror from 1968.

Zach Jones is a former FBI agent and widower doing his best to be a single father to a young son. He is pressed back into service by his former boss when a woman he used to know is injured in an accident while possessing deadly weapons and bombs. The KGB has dispatched five trained assassins to blend in with American culture to assassinate a U.S. Counterintelligence chief. Could this woman from Zach’s past be part of this deadly conspiracy?

Zach is a very interesting three-dimensional character that isn't often seen in men’s adventure paperbacks, and the novel’s villains are completely awesome in their originality. The Soviet assassins are sleeper agents born and raised in the U.S. with skills cultivated literally from the womb awaiting activation from Mother Russia.

The author toggles between Zach’s third-person perspective and the perspective of his Soviet-controlled adversaries. While this takes a bit of the mystery away from the plot, it certainly enhances the cat-and-mouse game at play throughout the fast-moving paperback. The plotting is more pulpy than a John LeCarre espionage thriller, but it’s way smarter than a Nick Carter: Killmaster disposable paperback.

The novel plays with many of the tropes one often sees in the genre, including a female partner who is not entirely trustworthy but oozes sex appeal. Watching Zach and his FBI friends thwart one assassination attempt after another made for some fun reading - even when the traps set for them veer into the kind of silliness often seen in The Destroyer series. To be sure, you’ll need to repeatedly suspend your disbelief as the novel progresses, but that’s part of the enjoyment of a men’s adventure series paperback.

Overall, Strike Terror is a winner with some outstanding action scenes, and I look forward to diving into the sequel, Cry of the Hawk, from 1970. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Conan - The Hall of the Dead

As most Robert E. Howard fans know, literary agent Glenn Lord located several boxes of the author's unfinished manuscripts in 1966. In an effort to collect the manuscripts into printable short stories, Lord acquired the talents of Howard scholars Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp to assist in editing and re-writing these stories. 

One of these stories, “The Hall of the Dead”, was a fragmented Conan the Cimmerian document created by Howard and then re-worked by L. Sprague de Camp. This version was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction's February 1967 issue. It was also placed in the popular Conan paperback published by Lancer in 1967 and later reprinted by Ace. It also appears in 1989's Sphere publication The Conan Chronicles. Howard's original version, unedited by de Camp, was later published in the 2000s in two separate omnibus editions, The Conan Chronicles Vol. 1 and Conan of Cimmeria Vol 1.

Like many other stories, the era of “The Hall of the Dead” is set during Conan's thieving years, around 18-20ish. It picks up when Conan enters an abandoned, ancient city called Larsha. In a hot-pursuit is a group of Zamorian soldiers who have been assigned to arrest Conan for theft. These soldiers are led by Captain Nestor, who somehow escapes a trip-wire that befalls the entire group of men with an avalanche of rocks. With Conan in the abandoned city, Nestor enters hoping to solely capture him. 

de Camp is often criticized for not “getting” Conan, and there may be sufficient evidence for that argument, but in stories like “Hall of the Dead”, it is all about telling an exciting story. Whether it was Howard or de Camp describing the empty streets, desolate houses, crumbled buildings, etc., the visual imagery is very evocative. It sets up the story and the atmosphere quite well. 

As Conan engages in urban exploration, a giant slug squirms into the narrative to wreak havoc on the trespasser. This is typical “boss level” writing for sword-and-sandal or fantasy, when the hero matches power and strength with a big baddie. But, alas, this isn't the final boss. When the two characters decide to team-up and steal precious, forgotten treasures in Larsha's Royal Palace, a host of scary monsters appear to harass the thieves. This sets up the final boss battle.

There's nothing to really dislike about “The Hall of the Dead”, but loyalist complaints favor Howard's original version, which is shorter and features some differences in Nestor's actions in the story and the disappearance of the giant slug. In essence, I felt the story as a whole, regardless of writer, effectively placed Conan in a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting of an abandoned city, albeit a very short visit. Fans of Conan literature will easily recognize the moral preaching – bad things come to thieves. It's a recurring theme for these stories that feature a criminal-minded Conan on a self-serving mission to steal treasure. But, the fun is watching the struggle and inevitable loss. For that reason alone, “The Hall of the Dead” is worth the price of admission. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Caretaker of Lorne Field

Dave Zeltserman, (born: 1959) is a highly-regarded contemporary noir author from Boston who’s won a Shamus award and critical acclaim for books written under his own name and his Jacob Stone pseudonym. His 2010 novel, The Caretaker of Lorne Field, is a departure into the world of horror and dark fiction.

Jack Durkin receives $8,000 per year and a free shack to pull the weeds at Lorne Field. It’s a seemingly simple job for a simple man, but Jack is convinced his job is saving the world. For over 300 years, the men of the Durkin family have held the same job, and it used to be a highly-respected position revered in the town for the heroism and sacrifice the task entailed. Nowadays, Jack is treated as an oddity or a joke.

Jack and his ancestors are convinced that these aren’t any ordinary weeds. He believes that they are monsters known as Aukowies. If permitted to grow to size, they will uproot and take over the world. Back in the 1700s, the town entered a contract with the Durkin family to have the oldest son weed the field daily killing all the baby Aukowies that pop up through the earth - seemingly as weeds. Jack is still a believer in the importance of his job, but no one else seems to believe anymore, including his wife and eldest son.

The idea of killer plants has been explored before in fiction — Day of the Triffids, The Ruins, Little Shop of Horrors — but the author sprinkles ambiguity throughout the book, so the reader is never quite sure (until the end) if the weeds are aliens or if Jack is suffering from a generational delusion. Contemporary horror author Paul Tremblay also plays with that same ambiguity in his fiction to similar effects. Is this supernatural horror or a novel about collective mental illness?

This is an easy-to-read and fascinating book about man vs. monsters, but also about the power of faith and traditions. What happens when society stops believing in the stories we’ve told ourselves for generations to explain our illogical behaviors? The paperback may have worked better as a tight novella, but I was generally pleased throughout the novel’s entirety. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 2, 2022

Conan - The Treasure of Tranicos

The first issue of the short-lived Fantasy Magazine was published in February, 1953. It's a notable issue  due to the inclusion of a previously unpublished Robert E. Howard story, “The Black Stranger”. The backstory on how this story appeared in the magazine, and its evolution into the later, novella-length version, The Treasure of the Tranicos, is interesting. 

“The Black Stranger” in the 1930s:

Like many of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, “The Black Stranger” was submitted to various publishers in the 1930s, but wasn't purchased for print. Re-working the story without Conan, Howard morphed “The Black Stranger” into “Swords of the Red Brotherhood”, a pirate story featuring one of his lesser known heroes, a 17th century Irish peasant named Terence Vulmea, or simply Black Vulmea. This story wasn't published in Howard's lifetime, instead first appearing in the 1976 hardcover Black Vulmea's Vengeance in 1976 by Donald M. Grant.

“The Black Stranger” and “The Treasure of Tranicos”:

According to L. Sprague de Camp's introduction in Conan the Usurper, a 1967 Ace paperback collection first featuring “The Treasure of Tranicos”, de Camp discovered unpublished manuscripts written by Howard in 1951. With one of the manuscripts, “The Black Stranger”, de Camp took the liberty of editing and re-writing the story as an adaptation into the Conan saga, specifically Aquilonian revolution. Lester del Rey, editor of Fantasy Magazine, made further additions and deletions and published the manuscript as “The Black Stranger”. The story was re-titled to The Treasure of Tranicos and included the same year in a Gnome Press hardcover omnibus called King Conan. de Camp explained that the title change was a result of too many of Howard's Conan stories containing the word “black” in their titles.

The Treasure of Tranicos after 1953:

In Conan the Usurper's introduction, de Camp further explains he edited and revised the original “The Black Stranger” manuscript again for its inclusion into Ace's collection. He elaborates that he omitted del Ray's edits and additions to align the story even more with the Conan mythology. It was this version that was released as an Ace paperback in 1980. Howard's original manuscript, before any of de Camp's edits, was included in the Tor novella collection Echoes of Valor in 1987. It has since appeared in numerous collections and omnibus editions.


My review of The Treasure of Tranicos is based on the story's appearance in Conan the Usurper. It is essentially the “truest” version that relates to Conan. In the story's beginning, the titular hero is running through the Pictish Wilderness, crossing Thunder River and brushing up against the Western Sea. Chased by Picts, Conan is shocked when the painted, savage warriors refuse to venture forward. Instead, as if scared of this part of the mountainous shoreline, they retreat. Conan, puzzled by the experience, finds a wooden door recessed into the mountain. Forcing it open, he discovers a dark cavern filled with preserved bodies and shiny piles of hidden treasure. But, he's quickly choked by hands that appear out of a dark mist. Then, Conan disappears for the bulk of the narrative's first half. 

In the next chapters, readers learn that this shoreline is a residence inhabited by Count Valenso. The Count, and his people, became shipwrecked and trapped on the shore months ago. Caught between the ocean and the savage Picts, the Count built a fort and has defended it since. Two rivals appear before the Count's fort, both greedy, savage pirates with a multitude of nefarious crewmen. It turns out that they have read pieces of a treasure map that points to the shoreline's location as home to hordes of precious loot. But, as Conan learned, it might come with a deadly price.

I can see that Howard's original manuscript was borderline Conan material. The Cimmerian isn't necessarily integral to the story, but by adding in a few descriptive details, and a brief mention of Aquilonian history, it works as another installment of the Conan mythos. As an aside, Howard scholars have previously noted that Howard's story has a western-frontier feel to it. Conan is mentioned as a “white man” and it isn't lost on readers that the Picts could be Native Americans. The shoreline fort is similar to the American southeast, notably the Carolinas and Floridian forts braced for French, Spanish, and English invasions. 

If you enjoy a rousing, men's action-adventure story or novella, then The Treasure of Tranicos is sure to please. Conan fans, like myself, will obviously flock to anything written, or partially created, by Robert Howard. As a Conan tale, it's a little off-center, but possesses enough villains, sorcery, and barbaric action to keep it within the realm. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Silver Canyon

"Riders of the Dawn" originally appeared as a short story in Giant Western's June, 1951 issue. L'Amour expanded the story into a full-length novel, Silver Canyon, in 1956. I typically struggle with the old-fashioned range-war westerns, and this novel, like many of L'Amour's works, uses that same, well-worn plot device. I've always found the concept uninspiring and dull, but I was hopeful this one would surprise me. 

Silver Canyon lies near a fertile, plentiful range that is perfect for growing burgers and steaks. The issue is that it's divided three ways. The Two-Bar is a ranch on the eastern side. The Boxed M, and the CP brand make up two separate ranches on the west. In the middle is water, a place named Cottonwood Wash, which is almost completely controlled by the Two-Bar “good guy”. He wants peace and prosperity, but the other two need him out, thus they can continue their fight over what's left. The deciding factor could be a lanky, gun-fighting drifter named Matt Brennan.

L'Amour makes it clear that Brennan is a seasoned pro, a man's man that has worn many different hats over the years. He's been a gambler, lawman, gun-fighter, cowpoke, and a plain 'ole fighter for many years. So, another range-war isn't anything new. Brennan's name proceeds him, so when he arrives in town the ranges immediately want to hire his gun. Quickly, Brennan finds that the old man solely running the Two-Bar is an honest, hardworking rancher that just wants lines clearly defined between right and wrong. If there is any allegiance to be had, Brennan wants to back the Two-Bar. 

Brennan makes a deal with the old man. He can own a small piece of the Two-Bar, settle down, and raise some beef if he can assist in the ranch's defense. It all goes as planned until Brennan finds the old man a bloody heap full of holes. Surprisingly, the old-timer leaves Brennan the whole ranch as his dying wish. But, nothing has really changed other than Brennan is the new target for the rival ranches. Can he survive the onslaught? Further, can he successfully sway one of the rival rancher's daughters into marriage?

While not being innovative, or particularly fresh, Silver Canyon was still a lot of fun to read. The range-war stuff, while not my favorite dish, was still easily digestible. The reason is that L'Amour adds a murder mystery into the narrative, one that involves a murdered man prior to Brennan's arrival in town. This man apparently possessed clues that something beyond river water is what the ranches all want. It's no secret based on the book's title what the main objective is. It doesn't spoil any reading pleasure. Silver Canyon is recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.