Saturday, April 4, 2020

Caleb Thorn #01 - The First Shot

With a wide variety of pen names under his belt, Laurence James was a British author who wrote a ton of violent paperback original series titles set in the American West (Edge, Apache) as well as in a post-apocalyptic USA (Deathlands, Wasteworld). In 1978, James authored a four-book series of bloody Civil War adventures using the pen name L.J. Coburn starring Union soldier Caleb Thorn and his team of misfit irregulars kicking Confederate ass. The series is available today as super-cheap ebooks, and the first installment is titled The First Shot.

The year is 1861 and the U.S. Civil War is in its infancy. Caleb Thorn is a cocky, 21 year-old northerner from a wealthy Washington, DC family. He’s engaged to a psychotic young southerner named Rachel who gets off on whipping her slaves to death on trumped-up sexual assault charges. The fact that Caleb routinely kills his rivals in duels is a plus for his blood-thirsty fiancĂ©.

As the war between the states intensifies, Caleb is mostly a disinterested observer. He eventually kills rebels with a flourish for recreation but cares nothing of the freedom and well-being of enslaved blacks. In fact, other than bloodlust, it’s hard to put a finger on what motivates Caleb. He’s not a particularly likable protagonist, and you need to be comfortable with this fact before setting on the road with such and imperfect - and at times loathsome - character. If you can accept Caleb on his own terms, the reader gets to have a front seat as Caleb bears witness to the Battle of Bull Run and other significant moments of the war’s early days.

Eventually, Caleb suffers a personal tragedy that crystallizes his hate for Confederate soldiers. He is placed in a Union infantry unit unattached to any regiment giving him the freedom to kill rebs when he encounters them without any wartime red tape. The men of Caleb’s unit are all of poor character released from a death row stockade to ride with Caleb. It’s a less-than-magnificent group of seven killers and criminals assembled for a brief mission to end this novel and set up the action for the rest of the series.

In addition to several scenes of shocking violence, the author wove in some bizarre and head-scratching details into this debut. For example, it’s implied that Caleb has an ongoing sexual relationship with his own mother. There are other non-familial sex scenes in the novel with other partners that are every bit as graphic as an edition of the Longarm series of adult westerns.

Overall, The First Shot is a darn fine series debut, and I’m very excited to dive into subsequent installments. If you liked the Civil War flashbacks in the Edge series, you’ll feel right at home with Caleb Thorn.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

The Stench of Poppies

Roger Erskine Longrigg (1929-2000) authored novels for a number of different genres including historical, romance, mystery and espionage. Writing under the pseudonym of Rosalind Erskine, the British author found literary success with the erotic novel The Passion Flower Hotel. Under the name Frank Parrish, Longrigg wrote an eight-book series starring a poacher and thief named Dan Mallett. As Laura Black, Longrigg authored a number of Scottish historical novels. In reviewing Longrigg's robust literary catalog, the novels that interest me the most are the spy-fiction books written under the pseudonym Ivor Drummond.

Drummond's nine novels star three wealthy individuals who simply fight crime together. While the team's creation isn't fully explained, nor is an official series name given, these books are of the spy or espionage variety. The trio is led by Jenny Norrington, a beautiful British woman and wealthy heiress. Her co-members are a rich Texan named Colleride “Colly” Tucker and a brute named Count Allessandro di Ganzarello. Thankfully, this wealthy Italian answers to the name of Sandro. The series was launched in 1969 with The Man with the Tiny Head. The first five novels were published by Pyramid with the rest of the series published by Dell. My first sampling of Longrigg and this series is the eight installment, 1978's The Stench of Poppies.

The book begins within a laboratory as a Turkish scientist has mistakenly discovered a method of making a deadlier strain of heroin.  By attempting to maximize the growth of poppy seeds (the main ingredient in morphine and heroin) using less land resources, the scientist modifies the seeds. In doing so, he makes a “super” version that makes the morphine or heroin user a raving, suicidal maniac within minutes of its use. The laboratory, in conjunction with government representatives, launch a new project of growing these deadly poppy seeds and selling them to governments that want to cleanse their streets and neighborhoods of heroin junkies. By providing this deadly drug, they feel that their drug epidemic will correct itself through mass suicides among users and addicts.

Jenny, Colly and Sandro meet with a high-level bank administrator who wants the trio to investigate a Turkish carpet retailer, Mustafa Algan, who is making large deposits in various currencies. The author shares with readers the fact that Algan has inherited the distribution duties for these new, modified forms of heroin and morphine. It is up to the trio to learn who Algan is and how his carpets are netting extraordinary profits. At 224-pages, I was hoping this procedural investigation would lead to gunplay, high-adventure or some sexy undercover romps. Unfortunately, The Stench of Poppies never really gained much traction.

The author utilizes dozens of cities for his three protagonists to explore. As the trio tour the countryside, Longrigg uses lengthy portions of the book to explain mythology or famous medieval battles that occurred at each location (borrowing too much from his historical fiction written as Laura Black). The dialogue between the three main characters was entertaining and often humorous. There is an outrageous scene in the opening pages as the trio decide if they want to kill a man trapped in the back of their truck. Another fun scene has Jenny faking an epileptic seizure before luring a victim to his death. But aside from these scenes, the author just spins his wheels on dull, uninspiring travel sequences that find the heroes searching for red poppy fields all over the Middle East. Near the book's end, I was hoping someone was able to find a plant so the story would end...and I could stop counting pages.

A Stench of Poppies would have been better received at 150-pages, less travel and more action. I've read great reviews of this series and I'm not dismissing the entire lot based on this one novel. At some point I'd like to explore the first few installments in hopes of higher quality.

Buy your copy of A Stench of Poppies HERE.

Friday, April 3, 2020

I Watched Them Eat Me Alive

I was born in 1976 and grew up in the 80s watching horror movies from the 60s and 70s on Cable networks like TBS, WGN and USA. One of my favorite sub-genres was the killer creature features that were incredibly popular in the mid to late-1970s. Films like “Grizzly” (1976), “Empire of the Ants” (1977), “Willard” (1971) and “Day of the Animals” (1977) were popular selections for weekend television and brick and mortar video rental stores.

Perhaps the most successful of the genre was 1975's blockbuster shark flick “Jaws”, leading to three sequels and a slew of similar aquatic horror movies like “Piranha” (1978) and “Orca” (1977). There were even a number of paperback titles like “Croc” (David Hagberg; 1976) and “The Long Dark Night” (David Fisher; 1976) that ran the gamut from deadly subway crocodiles to packs of rabid dogs. When it came to deadly animal attacks, nothing was off the table.

Until most recently, I had assumed that the killer animal/creature sensation was simply a product of the 1970s. However, Men's Adventure Library's 2017 book “I Watched Them Eat Me Alive” (New Texture), edited by adventure magazine scholars Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, showcases a myriad of horrific stories and grizzly paintings that dominated “most of the 160 different pulp magazines between the 1940s-1970s”. While skirting the line between horror and adventure (and even science-fiction), there are no boundaries in terms of savage, bloody action.

In 120+ pages, Robert and Wyatt present hundreds of magazine covers and panels, complete with issue dates and artist and author credits. The two historians also present separate essays compiled as “Funny as Hell: Killer Creatures in Men's Adventure Mags”. These essays not only explain the origins of the literary phenomenon, but also who the publisher's target audiences were. In thought provoking analysis, Wyatt metaphorically links the violent animals attacks to blue collar men's struggles with “life's hassles, adjustments, responsibilities and the uncertainties of life”. By connecting the two, it's easy to envision the tired, blue-collar working man finding enjoyment and similarities with each claw mark and animal bite.

The book begins with stories by Stan Smith and Robert Silverberg and focus on the killer or monster crab sensation. I found both of these enjoyable and was fond of Silverberg's inclusion as I enjoyed his crime-noir novel “Blood On the Mink” (reviewed HERE). After the brief “Flying Rodents Ripped My Flesh” story by Lloyd Parker (the only Sugar Glider horror story I know of), the sensational deadly gorilla short “Terror Safari” by Lester Hutton was presented from the January 1961 issue of Rage. The book finished with terror in two American locales - “Strange Revenge of Wyoming's Most Hunted Giant Puma”, by Robert F. Dorr and “Trapped in the Bayou's Pit of a Million Snakes” by Walter Kaylin, the best stories in the compilation.

From vivid, horrifying paintings and illustrations to genre analysis, “I Watched Them Eat Me Alive” was an eye-opening (and sometimes eye-closing) reading experience. Like the duo's other historic chronicles of pulp adventure magazines, this is a mandatory inclusion for any vintage action-adventure or pulp collector. As I've mentioned in an earlier review of their “Barbarians on Bikes”, the idea of actually owning these antiquarian, vintage magazines is a fool's errand. It's an expensive hobby considering the secondhand market pricing combined with product shortage. Robert and Wyatt have ultimately paid the price for all of us by compiling hundreds and hundreds of high quality scans for future generations to enjoy. It's a labor of love that's appreciated by all. Godspeed ahead!

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Sacketts #02 - To the Far Blue Mountains

After 80+ western novels of range-wars and quick-draw gunslingers, iconic author Louis L'Amour decided to branch out and try a different type of frontier storytelling. Beginning in 1974, L'Amour authored “Sackett's Land”,  the first of four novels that presented the origins of his critically-acclaimed 'Sacketts' family. The entire series encompasses 17 total works with 13 set in the mid to late 1800s. Using a time period of 1599-1620, L'Amour describes pioneer life in early America. “To the Far Blue Mountains”, published in 1976, is a direct continuation of the remarkable story told in “Sackett's Land,” a novel that set the bar at a nearly insurmountable height. Could this subsequent episode deliver the same stellar result?

In the novel's opening act, we once again find main character Barnabas Sackett in England. After defeating the Earl and his men in the prior novel, Barnabas is eager to set sail for America. However, the Queen still wants Barnabas in chains hoping that he will confess to discovering the Crown Jewels (an early mix-up in the first novel). In a crescendo of galloping horses, Barnabas avoids the law and eventually makes his way to Ireland before catching a ship to America.

In a wild chain of events, Barnabas is shanghaied at sea and taken back to a cold, brutal English prison called Newgate. Facing severe punishment and torture on the rack, Barnabas eventually escapes only to struggle reaching America. As the book's first half comes to a satisfying close, I could sense that the author's swashbuckling adventure writing had reached its finale.

The novel's second half is a portrait of survival in a hostile new land. Settling somewhere in what would eventually be central Virginia, Barnabas and his friends begin farming and trading goods with neighboring Indians. But the peace and serenity doesn't last long when Barnabas, and his family, are marked for death by numerous tribes. L'Amour's storytelling is at its absolute peak as wave after wave of Indians assault Barnabas. Will he ever make it to the “Far Blue Mountains”?

In a lot of ways, this book comes full circle. Not only does it continue the early adventures of Barnabas in both England and the New World, but it extends into his old age. The author utilizes this time period to begin branching off the family through Barnabas' sons Kin-Ring, Jubal, Yance and Brian. This isn't a surprise considering the next two installments focus on the mid-1600s, with the fourth and final chapter of this early saga simply titled “Jubal Sackett”.

As an exceptional storyteller, it's hard to imagine L'Amour improving beyond “Sackett's Land”. Yet, “To the Far Blue Mountains” is the gold standard. I've read this novel multiple times and still get goosebumps during the final pages. Adventure and western authors would be hard pressed to deliver another literary work this sweeping, compelling and satisfying. This epic presentation, from shore to shore, is a grand spectacle and an absolutely riveting experience for the reader. It simply doesn't get any better than this.  

Notes:

- The first Chantry character appears briefly in this book. His story would continue in 1978's “Fair Blows the Wind”. Later 'Chantry' books state that the Chantry and Sackett family fought side by side during the Revolutionary War.

- In the Bantam paperback edition of “Jubal Sackett”, L'Amour writes that his plans at the time were to explore the Sackett family history during America's Revolutionary and Civil War. Unfortunately, those novels never came to fruition as L'Amour would die afterwards in 1988.

- L'Amour would continue more adventure stories with his novel “The Walking Drum” (1984) set in 12th century Europe.

- There's some loose supernatural elements within “To the Far Blue Mountains”. In one scene Barnabas sees what he thinks is another city (or world) in the shoreline mist. L'Amour would experiment more with these elements in his science-fiction novel “Haunted Mesa” (1987).

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Mexico Run

Lionel White was a successful crime-noir writer and journalist. From 1952 through 1978, the New York City native authored 36 novels, some of which have been adapted to international cinema. While crime-fiction was certainly his forte, White specialized in an entertaining sub-genre – the heist. The New York Times deemed White as the “king of capers” and noirish filmmaker Quentin Tarantino credited the author as an influence on his cult crime classic “Reservoir Dogs”. While the author's 1950s work is substantially the best of his career, the talented scribe proved that he still had some literary strength in the 70s. At age 69, White authored “The Mexico Run”, a clever twist on the caper novel published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1974.

Mark Johns is a Vietnam vet who's fresh out of the service. Saving $18,000, Johns was encouraged by a fellow soldier to start running marijuana from Mexico into southern California. As the book begins, Johns is making the arrangements to meet a distributor of Acapulco Gold (a popular 1960s high class grass). His plan is to buy several kilos from a Mexican wholesaler and transport it using his friend Angel's fishing boat. After all of the planning and prepping, Johns is ready for the real thing. However, once he meets 17-year old Sharon, the whole thing begins to crumble.

After saving her from a savage boyfriend, Johns is forced to drag Sharon into his Mexican drug run. Using his Army buddy's contacts, Johns meets up with a crooked police officer named Captain Morales. The plan comes together that Morales gets 25% of the profit and will help smooth things over – as a respected officer of the law – so Johns can make the run. But, it's only after Johns successfully transports the dope that he finally realizes he's caught in a wicked trap – Morales wants Sharon badly and promises to keep her safe as long as Johns will start running narcotics. When Angel is imprisoned on a fake murder charge, Johns must either accept his fate as a drug-running mule for Morales or somehow escape from the game and still save Sharon and Angel.

Instead of dwelling on one bank heist, White expands the narrative with a complex game of drug running missions through customs. It's a fresh and enjoyable prose that left me breathless with possible outcomes. There's a remarkable twist at the end that hit me like a lead pipe, a feat that is next to impossible considering the volume of fiction I'm digesting weekly. From seedy motels to abandoned coastal villas, White takes advantage of atmosphere and environment to create his riveting portrait of betrayal and intrigue.

As of this writing, “The Mexico Run” isn't available as an e-book. That could be the biggest crime of all. Buy a used copy and breathe new life into a long lost classic.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Paul Chavasse #03 - The Keys of Hell

Before Jack Higgins (real name Henry Patterson) became a household name with 1975's runaway bestseller The Eagle Has Landed, the British author authored a number of action-adventure novels under pseudonyms including James Graham and Hugh Marlow. Utilizing the name Martin Fallon, Higgins wrote a five-book series of novels starring British spy Paul Chavasse. After enjoying the debut, The Testament of Caspar Schultz (1962), and the series' fourth title, Midnight Never Comes (1966), I was able to acquire the series' third book, The Keys of Hell, originally published in hardcover in 1965.

The book begins with Chavasse entering the British Embassy to request some time off. While there, he meets an attractive woman named Francesca Minetti who confesses to him that she was his radio operative on his last mission. Surprised, the two strike up a friendship and Chavasse is granted his two-week holiday...after he completes the assassination of a double-agent working in Albania.

During the opening chapters, Chavasse quickly completes his assignment but runs into Francesca in Albania. In sobbing fashion she advises Chavasse that her family has been persecuted by Albania's brutal communist regime. After the government began forcibly removing the public churches, her brother attempted to preserve a religious statue called The Black Madonna in the city of Scutari. Before communist forces could seize and destroy it, Francesca and her brother attempted to move the statue to a rural, coastal location ten miles away. During the transport, her brother was fatally shot and Francesca escaped. The beloved statue, which brought hope to thousands of persecuted villagers, sank into the deep marshes.

Like an espionage treasure hunt, Higgins' narrative is brimming with nautical chases, gunboat fights and the obligatory prison break. Chavasse and Francesca have a romantic connection, but the author ignites the spark when the heroic spy comes to the aid of a 20-year old female farmer. Once the statue was located, the narrative propelled into brisk action with a few twists and turns in Chavasse's circle of friends. Regretfully I had a sense that by skipping the series' second installment, The Year of the Tiger, I missed a key plot development in this novel. It didn't hamper my enjoyment, but perhaps the ending would have had a bigger impact.

I've never read a bad Jack Higgins novel and The Keys of Hell is no different. While the Paul Chavasse series is tragically underrated, spy and espionage readers should find plenty to like about it. Buy your copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Doc Savage #183 - Escape from Loki

The idea of retroactive continuity, commonly referred to as retcon or retconning, is a popular method for new writers to add additional elements or facts to a previously published work. It's been utilized by comic writers for decades and can often be found in early pulp magazines as a way to modernize the heroes for a new generation. The most recent retcon novel I've read and reviewed was Stephen Mertz's fantastic take on Mack Bolan's pre-Executioner life in Super Bolan #04: “Dirty War”. On Paperback Warrior Podcast Episode 25, I talked about Nick Carter's retroactive continuity (erasing, ignoring or contradicting prior events) from early pulp detective to international paperback spy. So it's no surprise to find that author Philip Jose Farmer utilized this same technique for his 1991 retcon 'Doc Savage' novel “Escape from Loki” (Bantam).

Philip Jose Farmer (1918-2009) was a highly respected science-fiction and fantasy author noted for his series 'Riverworld' and 'World of Tiers'. Farmer had a fondness for reworking existing fictional heroes into new novels and stories. From “Moby-Dick” and “Wizard of Oz” to “Around the World in Eighty Days”, Farmer would often fill in missing time periods or create sequels to literary works that were created by other authors. Farmer created two mock biographies of famed literary characters, “Tarzan Alive” and “Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life”. As a fan of the Doc Savage novels since 1933, Farmer chose to author one original series novel, “Escape from Loki”, which showcases the character at the age of 16 during WW1. By retconning what original author Lester Dent presented in “The Man of Bronze” (1933), Farmer is able to present an origin story explaining how Doc Savage originally met his beloved team members.

“Escape from Loki” races out of the gate as the young Doc Savage pilots one of his first aviation missions. It's explained to readers that Savage was hoping to pilot for the U.S. Air Service, but due to their planes needing machine gun installations, Savage's Colonel assigned him to a French aerial combat unit. Farmer uses this as an exciting sequence of events where Savage is shot down during dogfights over Germany. Making his way through the forest, Savage finds shelter in an abandoned farmhouse with two American soldiers. When the two immediately begin squabbling with one other, it's apparent that these men are Ham and Monk. While Savage's introduction to both of them is brief, it's a rewarding experience for Doc Savage fans to pinpoint where he met two of his most trusted allies.

After he's captured by German soldiers, Savage is subjected to a strange dinner party hosted by Von Hessel and Countess Idivzhopu. After escaping Hessel's fortified home, Savage manages to steal a German aircraft but once again finds himself captured by Germans and placed on a train of POWs. After escaping a third time, Farmer's novel reaches a heightened frenzy as Savage is forced to fight a pack of wild dogs inside a bombed out farmhouse. In what could be considered a series abomination to some fans, this 10-12 page portion of the book was an absolute highlight for me personally. Savage's violent battle with the dogs is a bloody carnage of broken legs, sliced throats and stabbings. Then, the starved, crimson-smeared Savage sits on a rooftop prepared to eat the raw carcass of a dead dog. Thankfully, there's another dog battle that leads him into a secret room where he finds that the prior owners were sacrificing infants on a Satanic altar! 

I can't help but think that Farmer was venturing off into a different style of storytelling, one that was wildly obscene yet mesmerizing. I was as equally entertained as horrified by the author's stark contrast to Dent's original work. Savage is caught for the final time and shipped to the notorious and supposedly impenetrable Loki prison camp, thus curbing Farmer's penchant for the peculiar.

The book's second-half explores Savage's life at the prison camp and his strategizing an escape from the facility. It's here that he is reunited with both Ham and Monk and the two continue there hilarious insults and banter. It's only a matter of time before Renny, Johnny and Long Tom make their introductions. Together, Savage and the five men form an escape plan while learning that Von Hessel may be performing terrifying experiments on the prisoners. In the book's finale, readers experience a small amount of pulp-fantasy that is reminiscent of Doc Savage's typical “super-powered” villains.

“Escape from Loki” receives an equal amount of love and disdain from Doc Savage fans. Some are alienated by Farmer's writing style and his attempts to capture the original style of Doc Savage storytelling. At the same time, fans appreciate this origin story and find that Farmer's characterization is spot-on (although universally everyone seems to agree that Farmer's treatment of both Monk and Ham was exceptional). For me personally, I've always had an average experience with Dent's original Doc Savage stories. The first half of “Escape from Loki” was remarkable and surpasses the better Savage narratives I've read. The second half wasn't quite as impressive with some sluggish scenes, a rushed (or even botched) ending and a halfhearted attempt at introducing Savage to his future colleagues.

Overall, “Escape from Loki” should be a mandatory read for Savage fans. It is clear that Farmer adored the series and attempted to treat the characters and fans with care and respect. While not perfect, the book was exhilarating at its best and easily acceptable at its worst. You deserve the opportunity to be your own judge.

Buy a copy of this book HERE