Friday, November 25, 2022

The Stalkers

The Stalkers, which sounds like a Matt Helm title, is a western paperback by Philip Ketchum, originally published as a paperback by Berkley in 1961 (#6510). In 1964, Berkley reprinted the paperback with different artwork (#Y930, pictured). Thankfully, I received this vintage western as a gift from a friend, and I'm a Ketchum fan, evident on the Paperback Warrior Podcast, Episode 94

The book stars Captain Sherman Galway, an American Civil War veteran that has received a special assignment from the U.S. Government. Galway's task is to locate $50,000 in missing gold. It is explained to Galway, and readers, that 20 years prior, a stage coach containing the gold was attacked by an Apache war-party. Despite the coach's military accompaniment, the Apache killed everyone in what is referred to as The Table Mountain Massacre. The gold went missing, but officials believe they now have clues that point to Iron City, a small desert town, as a place the gold may be hidden. 

In the book's opening pages, Galway is en route to Iron City when he's ambushed and nearly killed by an old nemesis named Rostig. With the help of an elderly outlaw, who happened to be in the vicinity, Galway is able to kill two of Rostig's men. Later, Galway runs into Rostig and realizes he's created another trio in an attempt to kill him. 

The book's narrative has Galway, the old outlaw, simply known as The Loner, and a beautiful woman all on a perilous journey to find the gold. The path to riches is filled with bad guys, pursuing lawmen, some romantic chemistry, and a load of violence. The book's finale is 30 pages of double-crosses, uneven alliances, and discarded friendships as greed overtakes goodwill.  

Ketchum's westerns tend to rely on female characters, and The Stalkers is no different. Galway's on and off connection with the woman is intriguing and makes for a mostly happy conclusion (barring a few key deaths). There's some thoughtful elements to the story that allow for personal conflict, mostly centered around Galway's allegiance to his job and mission versus “take the money and run” spontaneity. The old outlaw character provides insightful questions on morality. Overall, The Stalkers is an easy recommendation. If you enjoy the not-so-traditional western, then Philip Ketchum is your guy. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Gingerbread Girl

Stephen King’s novella “The Gingerbread Girl” first appeared in the July 2007 issue of Esquire Magazine. It was later compiled into King’s 2008 short story collection, Just After Sunset. The publisher also sells the story separately as a two-hour audiobook.

Our heroine is Emily, and she’s in a pretty bad emotional state due to the recent crib death of her infant daughter. The trauma of her child’s demise triggers the end of her marriage, and the only thing keeping her sane is running.

To regroup and rebuild her life, Emily embarks on a three-week solitude retreat at her father’s “conch shack” on the beach in Florida not too far from Naples. The shack and the beach are pretty isolated, so it’s the perfect place to go for long runs while mourning her kid and contemplating her next moves. She also has time to read vintage paperbacks by Raymond Chandler, Ed McBain and John D. Macdonald.

On one of her jogging jaunts, Emily is overcome with a bout of nosiness and spots a dead girl in the open trunk of a car parked at a house down the beach. Before she can decide what to do, Emily is conked on the head and awakens tied to a chair in the maniac’s kitchen. The villain is the kind of loathsome creep you often encounter in King’s stories, and Emily’s dilemma is not unlike the “escape or die” problems tackled in Misery, Cujo and Gerald’s Game.

The plot is familiar territory for King, and that’s good news for the reader because he’s the absolute best at this kind of tense suspense. In that respect, “The Gingerbread Girl” delivers exactly the kind of scary, bloody, frightening thrills you’ve come to expect from the author. If this one slipped by you, do yourself a favor, circle back, and give it a read. You won’t be disappointed. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Conan - The Tower of the Elephant

Robert E. Howard scholars typically cite “The Tower of the Elephant” as the best representation of Conan the Cimmerian literature. The story first appeared in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales. It later appeared in the 1946 Arkham collection Skull-Face and Others, the 1953 Gnome Press hardcover The Coming of Conan, the 1968 Lancer paperback Conan, and a 1975 hardcover collection by Donald Grant simply titled The Tower of the Elephant. It was adapted into comic form three times, Conan the Barbarian #4, Savage Sword of Conan #24, and Conan #20-22

The story begins with a young Conan arriving in Arenjun, the “City of Thieves”. It’s in this city that he overhears a conversation involving some drunk men talking about theft and coveted wealth. A boisterous Kothian mentions a place called The Tower of the Elephant, and the impossibility of ever robbing it of its vast riches. Conan, who loves a sparring challenge, disputes the notion, matching wits with the Kothian over the possibility. Agitated with the conversation, a candle is extinguished and Conan quickly kills the loud-mouthed Kothian under cover of darkness. Challenge accepted - rob the Tower of the Elephant!

At night, Conan begins his attempt to climb the smooth-walled tower. He finds that the structure itself is surrounded by rings of thick shrubbery, like a grassy moat. Surprisingly, another thief, a seasoned pro named Taurus, “Prince of Thieves”, has the same plan to infiltrate the tower and runs into Conan. Taurus kills deadly, fierce lions with poison gas and Conan strangles one of the guards. Using a grappling hook, both Taurus and Conan ascend the tower and enter through a window. It’s here that Taurus is somehow poisoned in a doorway, and Conan finds an alien being named Yag-kosha. This alien explains to Conan that he became imprisoned in the tower by an evil sorcerer named Yara. For Conan to capture the riches, and a famed ruby elephant heart, he must contend with the sorcerer, a giant, hideous spider, and figure out a way to free Yag-kosha.

Howard’s endless imagination just flows onto the page with this wild, action-packed adventure. It quickly pulls you into the story with just a few opening paragraphs. The author's prose is just so smooth and stimulating, providing excellent plot development and pacing. 

Considering this is a tale concerning a savage, alpha male, Howard is still able to create a colorful, cautionary tale about greed and its effect on the human condition. Metaphorically, Yag-kosha could be the billionaire trapped by his own wealth. Or the idea that the upper class is a very ugly thing. Conan’s role as the anti-hero, purely a rouge scoundrel that's self-serving, justly receives his comeuppance. Regardless of its social, not-so-preachy commentary, "The Tower of the Elephant" is an enjoyable, rousing pulp sword-and-sorcery tale that lives up to its long-lasting legacy. It doesn’t get much better than this. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 21, 2022

The Burning Hills

Louis L'Amour's fourteenth novel was The Burning Hills. It was published in 1956, sandwiched between the end of the innocence novel To Tame a Land (1955) and a range war tale in Silver Canyon (1956). The book's premise is a popular one, the traditional man-on-the-run story or, more often than not, a fugitive attempting to outrun justice. L'Amour typically does the concept well, so The Burning Hills seemed like an easy choice to read and review.

Trace Jordan and his partner began working together in the Texas plains rounding up unbranded horses. After compiling a sizable  herd, the duo branded the horses and prepared to sell. When Jordan returned from a trip to town, he discovered the campsite destroyed, his partner dead, and the horses gone. Tracking the thieves back to town, Jordan finds a man riding one of his branded horses. A scuffle ensues and Jordan shoots and kills the man. 

In an effort to prove the horses belonged to him, Jordan becomes a wanted man and is forced on the run from a mob led by a skeptical lawman. In a fight with the posse, Jordan receives two bullets, but is able to escape into the desert where he can simply lie down and die. Thankfully, a beautiful Mexican woman named Maria finds him and nurses him back to health in an outlaw hideaway in the rocks. But, the posse catches up to Maria and begins to bully both her and her brothers on their rural sheep farm. 

The narrative is a bit twisty as Jordan heals while watching the posse impose their will on Maria's family and home. He can continue to run, and hopefully escape the law, or come to Maria's aid. Considering he's the reason for her misfortune, it's pretty easy to see where the story will end. 

I thought The Burning Hills was slightly below average. I found Jordan to be a pompous jerk and a womanizer (even when considering this was a different era when the book was written). I didn't particularly care for the “hero” and I found Maria to be brave but very foolish. The other disappointment was her fast-draw brother, who seemed to have a larger role to play, but then is featured off page. While the story was constantly advancing forward, I found the plot itself just fragmented without a real groove. 

I'm glad I read it, but it isn't one of L'Amour's best. With his robust bibliography, they can't all be Hondo and Flint

Friday, November 18, 2022

Motel Trap

The book is called Motel Trap, with a blurb suggesting its contents are prostitutes, pimps, and sex elements. But, the whole “motel” thing happens on page 147 of 155 pages. You might ask what the first 147 pages of the book are about, right? Try this on for size – its about the pantyhose industry. 

Motel Trap is essentially an episode of Mad Men as protagonist Dave Shelton wheels and deals his company's silk pantyhose to retail chains hoping to reverse the company's downward spiral. The narrative focuses on marketing ideas, photo shoots, women's catalogs, etc. Not exactly provocative or riveting reading.

Western novelist Lee Floren, who authored Motel Trap under one of his many pseudonyms, Matt Harding, was well outside of his element to tackle softcore, sleazy romance titles. This novel was published by Beacon in 1962, a company that was notorious for hundreds of romance paperbacks, each with gaudy blurbs like, “Her office was a motel room!” 

Kudos to Floren for at least attempting to write a serious novel, like Beacon's own Charles Boeckman, who was writing the same type of books for the publisher as Alex Carter. But, unlike Boeckman, Floren's novel is predictable, penned in a pedestrian style that doesn't captivate the reader. 

While its not a Hall of Shame candidate, Motel Trap is certainly lodging in the vicinity. Unless you are collecting this stuff, with “artist unknown” cover art, then for God's sake just stay away. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Posse from Hell

After enjoying Clair Huffaker's (1926-1990) paperback western Seven Ways from Sundown, I was anxious to read another of his books. My biggest obstacle is quantity – I just don't own many of his novels. The other ones I own are a ratty copy of War Wagon, which was adapted into the John Wayne/Kirk Douglas film, and a 1975 Futura paperback edition of Posse from Hell, originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1958. I opted for the latter in hopes that it would be as good as Seven Ways from Sundown. News flash – it was much better! 

The book's premise, set-up, and plot development arrives at the novel's first seven pages. There are authors that spend 60 pages just explaining to readers how the plot development will begin. Sometimes that is okay, but for a thin paperback western, I want to gallop quickly. Huffaker is off to the races when four violent men descend on the small, peaceful town of Paradise and unleash a blazing Hell on the population. With shotguns and revolvers, the men kill the lone Sheriff and then take over the local saloon. Like a gritty 1970s men's action-adventure novel, they begin executing these happy townsfolk one by one. After capturing a young woman, then doing what a witness describes as “dirty things to her”, they rob the bank and leave town to take the assault to the next destination, a place called Pineville.

In Chapter Three, readers are introduced to Banner Cole. He is 21 years old, but wise beyond his years. He became a U.S. Deputy Marshall a mere eight days ago. After leaving Paradise for a few days on business, he returns to find the town on fire and bodies seemingly everywhere. The town is quick to point out that he wasn't there when they needed him. They explain what happened, the death of the Sheriff (a friend of Cole's), and that these four men have captured a girl from town. Cole learns that the men are sadistic killers that escaped prison. Surprisingly, they headed in a direction that seemed unlikely. 

Cole knows the group's next stop is Pineville and that he will need a posse of at least 20 men. As he starts to ask the most capable men in Paradise's population, the message rings loud and clear – Paradise is filled with cowards. They point their fingers and claim an injustice, but will do nothing to help. The 20-man posse Cole hoped to form turns out to be just six men, one of which is an old retired military leader that is incompetent. Another is a representative of the bank, a man named Kern, that can't even ride a horse properly. 

From a sky-level, Posse from Hell's narrative is elementary. It's the good guys tracking the bad guys. But, Huffaker's assemblage of characters is absolutely brilliant. The inner workings of this posse create an interesting combination of very different men with clashing ideas. 

The old military man, Captain Brown, is incompetent and cowardly. He constantly scolds Cole on his decision making and at one point nearly has the posse kill an innocent man. Cole and Brown's clash is just brimming over with tension and hostility. Additionally, there's some racist animosity towards Cado, a Native American that Cole can rely on for tracking. Yet, Cado's greatest enemy may be the men he aligned with. Perhaps the best chemistry is developed between Cole and the wet-behind-the-ears corporate businessman Kern. Despite his failure to properly ride a horse, or even shoot straight, his courage is admirable. Facing the most abusive, violent, and torturous events in his life, Kern's heart and endurance is exceptional, proving he is just the man Cole needs. But, his shortcomings could lead to disaster.

As you can gather, I loved this book and found it exciting, purposeful, and just saturated in subtext on humanity and the trials and tribulations we all face. It's not the size of the gun, but the size of the heart. The novel's closing chapters read like an essay on our current times. The lawman in this case faces heavy scrutiny from the public, a condescending, arrogant view on decisions that could have been better in the midst of violent assaults, horrifying conditions, and a grueling attempt to keep justice prevalent. The public is quick to point out what they all would have done differently, yet none of them wanted to actively contribute to the defense of their neighbors, friends, and town. Huffaker's condemnation of hypocrisy and second-guessing professionals isn't lost on the reader, but it doesn't ruin the story either. This is an easy recommendation from me. Posse from Hell will be the best book you've read in ages. 

Note - While I'm not a classic movie fan, Posse from Hell was adapted into a film in 1961 starring Audie Murphy and John Saxon. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Conan - Rogues in the House

The Conan the Cimmerian short story “Rogues in the House” first appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in January, 1934. That same year, it was also featured in a short story collection, Terror by Night, published by Selwyn and Blount. Other appearances of the story can be found in Skull-Face and Others (1946), More Not at Night (1961), Conan (1967), and The Conan Chronicles (1989). Additionally, the story was adapted into comics by both Marvel and Dark Horse. 

A lot of Conan scholars and fans point to “Rogues in the House” as a prime example of Robert E. Howard's literary greatness. Visually, Frank Frazetta's  cover art for the 1967 Lancer paperback Conan depicts the famed scene from the story when Conan is fighting Thak, the hideous ape-creature. That may resonate in some way with fans gravitating to the story as well. But, there's no denying that it is a fantastic Conan offering and one that is certainly treasured for specific reasons.

The premise is that an aristocrat named Murilo has committed illegal affairs with foreign powers. A priest named Nabonidus, who is probably involved in the corruption as well, threatens Murilo by gifting him a box containing a co-worker's bloody ear. Murilo understands that he could be on a hit list and needs protection. Murilo visits Conan, who has been arrested for public intoxication, in the local jail. He bribes him that he will provide an escape as long as Conan agrees to kill Nabonidus that night. 

Things don't necessarily go as planned, and the subsequent events all culminate with Murilo, Conan, and Nabonidus all meeting at the priest's cavernous house. In a wild exchange, Conan and Murilo learn that Nabonidus has laid out a number of deadly traps throughout his house to enslave or kill rivals. One of these traps is a large enclosure where Thak, a wild ape-creature, prowls around. When Nabonidus' and Murilo's rivals arrive at the house, the trap is set for Thak to kill them. Again, things don't go as planned and the three are caught in their own trap with the savage Thak.

As I mentioned above, this is a great Conan story with a well designed plot considering the story's length. The political intrigue at the story's beginning propels the story, which leads to a familiar exchange between a government leader and Conan. In stories like “The Hall of the Dead” and “The God in the Bowl”, readers see that Conan is often sought after by government officials or becomes a partner in some sort of heist. This extends that theme with Conan and Murilo's mutual agreement that each needs something the other has – assassination skills and freedom. It's a wonderful criminal balance.

The complex housing structure that Nabonidus has created hosts the bulk of the story. With the addition of Thak, a wild creation by Howard, the story features the inevitable showdown between man and beast. The action is blood-soaked as Conan battles Thak with a razor sharp poniard, a scene that seemingly channels Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, which was published 22 years before this Conan story. The government treachery, dialogue, and awe-inspiring action is a great blend that easily catapults “Rogues in the House” into the top echelon of Howard's Conan stories. Highly recommended.

Monday, November 14, 2022

The Pitfall

Jay Dratler (1911-1968) was a graduate of University of North Carolina and an Academy Award winning screenwriter. He also wrote six novels, including The Pitfall from 1948 which was made into a movie starring Raymond Burr called Pitfall. The paperback has been reissued by Stark House as part of the publisher’s Film Noir Classic series. 

Our narrator is Jon Forbes, a screenwriter for 20th Century Fox with an attractive blonde, pregnant wife. One day Jon is asked to meet with his friend, a police detective named Mac. The cop has a weird request for Jon. He’s become fixated on a girl named Mona and wants Jon’s help to land the dame. Mac’s plan is to have Jon ask Mona out and make the introduction when they “accidentally” run into the cop on their date. 

Jon reluctantly agrees, asks Mona on a date and immediately falls in love with her. This is problematic because Jon is happily married, his cop friend wants Mona, and Mona’s husband is in prison for purse snatching. Jon and Mona must deal with the guilt of their forbidden love, and Jon’s life is complicated by his cop friend who also wants a piece of Mona. Then there’s Mona’s husband, who won’t be in jail forever. 

Dratler is an excellent writer who conveys romantic longing as well as anyone I’ve ever read. I’m sure the impact of a love story complicated by infidelity was more impactful in 1948, but the moral dilemma remains great today. 

Jon is trapped in his own head playing chicken with the rules of marital fidelity. Once that line is crossed, the impossibility of the situation slaps him in the face with reality check after reality check until it culminates in violence. The paperback isn’t a crime novel or an action story, but can be seen as a cautionary tale about the real-world consequences of infidelity. 

The Pitfall reminded me of a more-literary version of an Orrie Hitt book where extramarital lust opens the door to criminal violence. You’ll see the twist ending coming from a mile away, but it was still a very compelling read if you’re looking for a morality melodrama for men. Recommended. 

Friday, November 11, 2022

The Assassin #01 - Manhattan Massacre

Peter McMurtin authored the three-book series The Assassin for Dell in 1973. Double-dipping into the cookie jar, the author was also employed to write and edit for rival publisher Belmont. McMurtin cleverly used the character he created in this The Assassin trilogy for his long-running The Marksmen series for Belmont. In The Assassin, the character is Robert Briganti while in The Marksmen the name is simply changed to Philip Magellan. Same guy, same origin. Not to totally sweep-kick readers, but some of McMurtin's Sharpshooter series would feature the same character sprinkled in occasionally as Johnny Rock. 

This first installment of The Assaassin, titled Manhattan Massacre, plays out like your standard 1970s revenge yarn. There's nothing separating it from an early Bolan, or something akin to Death Wish, The Revenger, The Vigilante, etc. In this origin tale, Robert Briganti is introduced as a former trick shooter that worked the carnival circuit. Later, he began selling arms internationally for a firearms company while having some sort of connection to the CIA. Becoming a family man, Briganti settled down in Connecticut to run a sporting goods store.

A mobster named Joe Coraldi stops into Briganti's store and asks for a favor. He advises Briganti that his particular portion of the empire needs weapons. The deal is Briganti will be paid well, Coraldi gets the boom-boom and all is fair in war. But, Briganti declines the generous offer. Coraldi leaves, then later has his goons shoot up Briganti's car on the highway, shredding wife and kid and somehow sparing Briganti. 

Then, two-thirds of the narrative has Briganti arming himself and going after each of the men who murdered his family. The deaths are bloody carpet-soakers with the obligatory leaky heads and destroyed diaphragms. The funny stuff is that Briganti is running around with a monster boner and nearly explodes with one touch from a New York hooker. McMurtin also introduces a wild character named Mwalimu that provides a 14-page lecture to students about alternative history. His take is that Christopher Columbus was black and the reason the slaves willingly came to the U.S. was to get laid by white women. It's nuts, but ties into Briganti's final ploy to kill Coraldi. 

If Manhattan Massacre is a sign of things to come, then I'm in for an obnoxious, over-the-top kill-thrill as I waddle my way through two more Assassin entries before stepping over to The Marksmen. If the target is to be entertained with disposable fiction, then McMurtin scored a bullseye.

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

The Executioner #12 - Boston Blitz

Don Pendleton's The Executioner storms into the American Northeast with its 12th installment, Boston Blitz. After Bolan's flourish of successful run 'n gun tactics on the West Coast, he learns of some troubling news from his old ally and undercover mobster Leo Turrin. Remember Bolan's little brother? That 14 year-old kid named Johnny from the series debut War Against the Mafia? He's been kidnapped from his secretive witness protection blanket at a prep school. Worse, Bolan's “love of his life”, Val, has been captured as well. Remember Val? I don't. But, in looking at the series order, apparently Val was one of three hotties Bolan was banging way back in the debut. I don't remember her since then, but Bolan sure does. 

In one of the strangest novels of Pendleton's early contributions, Bolan invades Boston and kills over 60 thugs over the course of 30ish hours. He guns through the strip joints, gambling dives, whore houses, bars, mobster pads, country clubs, and so forth. None of it is really told in a compelling narrative, only mentioned to the reader as past events. The reader is disconnected from the action. It's an odd book, and a bizarre way of presenting the story. My biggest problem with it is that I still don't know what the book was about as I read the last few lines. 

From what I can gather, there's a criminal named Al 88 that has risen through the underworld ranks to capture some coveted Boston territory. Harry “The Skipper” Sicilia doesn't want this Al dude to start grabbing huge swaths of prime real-estate, so he kidnaps Johnny and Val to lead Bolan to Boston to start mowing down baddies. Or, did Al 88 kidnap Johnny? None of these people are featured as actual characters in the book (that I can remember), only names dropped in fragmented dialogue. There's Al's wife thrown in the mix that loves her husband, but then helps Bolan's execution. Also added for laughs (?) is this Books Figarone, “Attorney-to-the-Mob”, fellow that Bolan saves and uses as a ploy to lead more mobsters to the chatter gun. 

Boston Blitz isn't particularly memorable, but features some old names that we haven't seen in Bolan books for a long time. There's also a mention of Hal Brognola to part the seas and guide Mack Daddy to his next destination, Washington D.C.'s Capitol Hell. Wait, that was a Penetrator novel. But, yeah, D.C. is next for Bolan.

Monday, November 7, 2022

The Smuggled Atom Bomb

Philip Wylie (1902-1971) was a prolific author of the pulp era whose fiction inspired the creation of the characters Superman and Doc Savage. His 1948 thriller, The Smuggled Atom Bomb, has been reprinted many times over the past 70 years and remains available today.

Duff Bogan is a boarder in the home of the wheelchair-bound widow named Mrs. Yates. Duff is a Physics grad student at the University of Miami, and he loves doing housework and landscaping for Mrs. Yates for reduced rent. The household also features a beauty queen daughter named Eleanor (you see where this is going immediately) and a mysterious tenant named Harry who works for a trucking company.

One day while cleaning the house, Duff notices a new lock on the closet door in Harry’s room. Conveniently for the novel’s plot, Duff is also an amateur locksmith hobbyist. As such, he easily breaks into Harry’s closet where he finds, hidden inside a hatbox, what appears to be a metallic container filled with uranium and what appears to be the core of a small atomic bomb. Could the quiet tenant be a spy or a terrorist?

Duff shares his suspicions with the lovely Eleanor and makes an appointment with the local FBI field office. The special agent conducts a preliminary inquiry and comes to the conclusion that Duff was likely mistaken in his assessment. This basically leaves Duff and Eleanor to solve the mystery themselves - just like an Encyclopedia Brown/Nancy Drew crossover.

Despite the sweet innocence of the amateur sleuthing, Young Duff does a nice job following logical leads in a high-stakes situation. Thankfully, things become a bit more edgy as the story unfolds. The dirty bomb conspiracy was solid, but the interpersonal drama between Duff, Eleanor, and her myriad of suitors was a teen-drama snooze.

The Smuggled Atom Bomb is a basic and straightforward thriller for the easy-reading crowd. The story held my interest, but no one will mistake this for a genre classic. It’s interesting how enduring the paperback has been with multiple reprints over the decades when so many superior works have fallen out of print. At best, this Wylie paperback can be seen as an enjoyable, wispy diversion to be read between more substantial works. 

Friday, November 4, 2022

The Searcher

I've been buying a lot of F.M. Parker westerns lately He's an author that seems to have a fairly strong following and consecutively receives good reviews. While I have just read his Coldiron series, I wanted to branch out and try a stand-alone novel. I chose The Searchers, originally published as a hardcover by Doubleday in 1985 and published as a paperback by Signet in 1986 (with awesome artwork by the talented Ken Laager). 

It is 1871 and 16 year-old Sam Tollin is helping his father cut trees in the Pecos River Valley. His 13 year-old sister Sarah is helping her mother inside the family's cabin. Out of nowhere, a band of Native Americans, and white men, ride onto the property and guns start blazing. In a heroic display of parenthood, Sam's mother and father agree to stay behind and sacrifice themselves to buy time for Sam and his sister to ride off. Thankfully, they get away, but the duo is quickly separated and Sarah is taken by Mexican bandits. 

Sam's journey, and the bulk of the book's narrative, transforms into a long rescue mission. However, to get Sarah back, Sam agrees to join a heist crew that is headed to California to steal horses and/or mules. Why is he headed to California instead of Mexico? The heist crew originally plans to kill Sam, but he agrees to join their crew to stay alive. In doing so, Parker strengthens the book's story with an additional element of boy-becomes-man, or the end of innocence. Sam learns the way of the gun and the differences between right and wrong while committing crime. 

The Searcher is similar to a Louis L'Amour traditional western tale with its premise of youngster growing into manhood after a violent encounter and then skirting the edges of criminality in an effort to regain what is lost. It is mostly enjoyable, but at 220-pages I found it to be longer than it needed to be. I'm not a fan of cattle-drive westerns and the travels between point A and B seemed extremely long and mostly dull. The action scenes at the beginning and end were great, but getting there was a bit cumbersome. Parker's injections of little tidbits of frontier knowledge were real highlights to me. 

Overall, The Searcher is a good western story, albeit with less action than I typically desire. Parker continues to be enjoyable and I'm happy that I have at least 18 more of his novels to enjoy.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

George Smiley #01 - Call for the Dead

John Le Carre’s real name was David John Moore Cornwell (1931-2020), and he is regarded as one of the fathers of British espionage fiction. His first novel, Call for the Dead (1961), was also the debut of his iconic series character, George Smiley. 

The opening chapter is “A Brief History of George Smiley” in which the novel’s hero is said to resemble a poorly-dressed bullfrog. He’s a British Intelligence Officer with the Secret Service and a keen interest in academic incursions into the mysteries of human behavior. He served admirably in Germany during the run up to WW2, recruiting human assets, and now he’s back at the Home Office in London handling administrative tasks including conducting security interviews of employees. In fact, it’s one of those security interviews that kicks off the paperback’s action. 

The Service receives an anonymous letter accusing an operative named Samuel Fenman of being part of a Marxist student organization decades ago at Oxford during the 1930s. Smiley handles the security interview and finds no reason to be concerned with Fenman’s adulthood loyalty to the British Crown. The entire conversation is cordial, and Smiley is satisfied that his Foreign Office colleague isn’t a security threat. 

For this reason, Smiley is shocked a few days later when Fenman is found dead by suicide. The note he left behind cites Smiley’s benign security interview as the spark that triggered him to blow his brains out. None of this makes much sense to Smiley, who is called into the office by his concerned and confused supervisors. They send Smiley to Fenman’s hometown to visit the widow and determine exactly what occurred. 

Smiley quickly comes to the conclusion that Fenman’s death was no suicide, and we have a real mystery on our hands with unknown parties working in the shadows to ensure Smiley fails in his quest to learn the truth. There’s some violence, deceit, and spy tradecraft along the way. 

I’d always steered away from LeCarre’s works under the assumption that his writing was dense, slow and hard to follow. It’s certainly British and written with a level of sophistication beyond a Killmaster paperback, but there was nothing impenetrable about this debut novel. It was a perfectly straightforward murder mystery told with the backdrop of Britain’s premier spy agency. While the motivations of many characters involve espionage, the paperback doesn’t particularly read as a spy novel. 

Worth reading? I suppose so. Le Carre was a good writer, but there was nothing really special about this debut. It was good enough to make me want to read a pure Smiley espionage classic such as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Others have recommended reading Call for the Dead as a prequel after enjoying the author’s superior spy novels. That strikes me as a good idea. 

Monday, October 31, 2022

Left to You

Independent American horror author Daniel Volpe created a critical hit in 2021 with his self-published novel, Left to You. The paperback combines a modern-day occult story with extended flashbacks to the horrors of a WW2 concentration camp.

The main protagonist is Robert Sinclair, a twentysomething stock clerk at a big box store who attends community college while caring for his cancer-ridden mother at home. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with an elderly Polish customer named Josef Lazerowitz who, we quickly learn, is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp during WW2.

The reader is treated (?) to an extended flashback to Josef’s time at Auschwitz as a young man. There’s plenty of ripped-from-the-history books horror as the Jews are subjected to murder, torture and indignities at the hands of their Nazi captors. We also learn how Josef survived when so many of his cohorts did not. The dynamic between Josef and the camp leadership was one of the novel’s strongest attributes largely due to the questionable ethics baked into the situation.

There is very little supernatural horror here in the paperback’s first half. If you are good enough at math, you’ll begin to understand that there’s something weird happening with old Josef who does not appear to be aging normally. Leave it at that.

Once we learn how the death camp story ties into Robert’s contemporary story, we are fully in the muck of a gross-out, bonkers, demonic horror novel. The author does a nice job of creating a parallel between the monstrous choices made by men during the war and the real-life monsters of contemporary horror fiction.

This is a very compelling - but very grim - novel that is definitely not for everyone. It reminded me a bit of Stephen King’s Apt Pupil. You need to make peace with moral ambiguity and the idea that stories don’t always need to have a happy ending for everyone. The writing is crisp and you’ll never be bored. But, man, this isn’t for the squeamish. Consider yourself warned. 

Friday, October 28, 2022

Zorro: Zorro's Pacific Odyssey #01

Johnston McCulley's Zorro character first appeared in “The Curse of Capistrano” (aka “The Mark of Zorro”), a five-part serial that debuted in All-Story Weekly on August 9th, 1919. For decades McCulley authored stories starring the caped crusader. Spinning off the pulps, Zorro became a pop-culture phenomenon in international television shows and films. Additionally, many authors have taken turns writing Zorro stories and novels, including Susan Kite. The Indiana native authored a trilogy of Zorro novels called Zorro's Pacific Odyssey. The trilogy's first book, Zorro and the Outward Journey, was published by Bold Venture Press in 2022 as both a paperback and ebook. 

Don Diego de la Vega, son of the wealthy caballero Don Alejandro, lives in Mexican governed California in the early 1800s. By day, Diego displays a bit of cowardice to disguise the fact that he is the famed vigilante Zorro. After a series of attacks on prominent citizens perpetrated by terrorists, Zorro rescues a kidnapped child in the mountains. However, days later Diego is captured by the terrorist group, drugged, and then sold into slavery to a British ship headed to Singapore.

When Diego realizes what has happened, he is faced with his fate. The ship's Captain, a horrible individual named Beatty, explains that Diego is an indentured servant that has been purchased for two years of hard labor aboard the ship. When Diego explains the unfortunate incident of the terrorists, his background as an aristocrat, and the kidnapping, Beatty dismisses it as a fabrication. He soon realizes that Diego is quite different and places him as a trustee of the Spanish workers. Additionally, Diego is placed in care of the ship's Supercargo, a man named Bowman. Diego is fond of Bowman and the two quickly establish a father-son type of relationship.  

As the first of a three book series, it is clear that this book is simply the journey. Zorro is being transported from A to B and must contend with the nefarious elements of the ship's crew and his limitations as a slave. I love prison-styled stories and this one certainly fit that sub-genre of men's action-adventure. What makes this such a compelling narrative is the fact that Diego can't transform into Zorro to fight his way out of the situation. He's trapped in a small space without the ability to don a disguise or do battle with a sword (he does later, but I'm not spoiling your enjoyment here). The fact that Diego is ultimately the hero makes this a unique Zorro story. 

While Zorro on the high seas has been done before, Kite's version of this “fish out of water” adventure is very entertaining. It was also an emotional charge reading about the human condition - a panicked, desperate father hunting for his missing son. It was a really effective part of the whole story. There's also an expected cliffhanger that demands the reader to quickly buy the next book. Needless to say, my account has been debited and Bold Venture Press is shipping it out to me as I write this. Money well spent.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Coldiron #02 - Shadow of the Wolf

Shadow of the Wolf is the second installment in the Coldiron western series authored by F.M. Parker. It was originally published in 1985, one year after the series eponymous debut Coldiron. The series stars Luke Coldiron, a former trapper turned horse rancher in mid-1800s Colorado. There isn't much backstory required to enjoy the series, other than Coldiron has a friend named Cliff and that this book is set in 1864, one year after the series debut. 

At the book's beginning, Coldiron and Cliff are attacked by horse rustlers during a bitter, icy period of winter. Cliff is unfortunately killed, but Coldiron kills the rustlers and promises to bury Cliff. Later, Coldiron is in Denver gambling and wins a long poker game with a rival. On his way back home to the Steel Trap ranch, he's overtaken by robbers and left for dead in a ravine. However, the robbers are quickly killed by two other robbers. It sounds confusing, but these robbers are explained in separate side-stories.

The first robber is a Native-American named Ghost Walker, a renegade who was ousted from his tribe due to killing a fellow warrior over a woman. With no land to call home, and a tribe that has erased him from existence, Ghost Walker settles down to live a solitary, yet corrupt life. The second robber is Jubal Clason, a Union soldier that kills his commanding officer in war-torn Virginia and goes AWOL to Colorado. It is here that he meets up with Ghost Walker and the two scheme to rob Coldiron's robbers. Later, the duo rob yet another group by killing a man and his brother, then take the man's widow captive. There is no shortage of murders and robbery in this book. 

Shadow of the Wolf's second half is simply Coldiron trying to kill the men who robbed him. Along the way, he ends up freeing the woman and finds he has romantic chemistry with her (before her late husband's grave has even settled). While this sequel isn't as good as Coldiron, it still maintains a furious pace filled with a large body count and nearly endless action scenes (too many?). But, it is just enjoyable as Hell and makes for another fine western tale told by the talented F.M. Parker. I have no complaints and have high hopes to read the series third installment, Distant Thunder

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Book of the Phantom Bullet

Dan Turner: Hollywood Detective was the popular creation of Robert Leslie Bellem (1902-1968) for many of the 3000+ (not a typo) stories and novellas Bellem authored for the pulps before he wrote for TV shows including The Lone Ranger, Adventures of Superman, 77 Sunset Strip and Perry Mason. Many of the Dan Turner stories have been reprinted as affordable ebooks, including 17-page “The Book of the Phantom Bullet,” originally from the December 1945 issue of Hollywood Detective Magazine.

As the story opens, Turner is on the set of a Los Angeles soundstage during a big-budget movie production. The star is a hammy actor named Ben McBride, who is repeatedly filming a scene where two co-stars shoot him at the same time, followed by a dramatic fall down the stairs. The director is dissatisfied with each take, and McBride is growing impatient. In the actor’s final attempt, he mimics getting murdered - quite realistically - because someone actually shoots McBride dead.

This is a great story, but the mystery of who shot McBride – or rather who loaded a real bullet into one of the prop guns – is secondary to the reader’s enjoyment. The real star of the show is Turner’s first-person narrative vernacular and the joy you’ll experience from swimming in his hardboiled slang. Eyes are peepers. A gun is a roscoe. Fists are maulers. A mouth is a kisser. Women are frails. And so on and so forth. Turner’s jazzy bebop is so fun to read. Check this out: “A slug tunneled all the way through his think tank and he’s deader than minced clams.” Pure poetry.

Because this is a pulp mystery story, we know that the killing of McBride is not some unfortunate accident. Turner begins looking closely at the prop man and both of the actors who simultaneously fired their guns on camera for the scene. Turner works closely with the police to get to the bottom of the matter, despite a vexing sub-mystery involving a missing bullet. The final solution was logical and satisfying with bonus points for a bloody and violent climax. What more can you ask for?

It’s been a long time since I had this much fun reading a short story from the pulp era. “The Book of the Phantom Bullet” was my first Dan Turner: Hollywood Detective mystery but it won’t be my last. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Letter Death Wrote and Other Stories

Bruno Fischer (1908-1992) was another popular author of the paperback original era who honed his craft with short fiction in the pulp magazines. Our friends at the Pulp Fiction Bookstore have released a compilation of Fischer’s pulp stories from that era titled, The Letter Death Wrote and Other Stories. Here’s a review of two selections reprinted in the new eBook release.

“Murder Turns the Curve”

“Murder Turns the Curve” is an 11-page short story that originally appeared in the September 1948 issue of Popular Detective. The story opens in the aftermath of a two-vehicle car wreck with smoldering, twisted metal strewn across the road. Harry Shay is the young, rookie sheriff’s deputy dealing with the aftermath of the crash and the body of the unidentified woman killed in the accident. 

Why would anyone take that blind curve so fast? Harry wonders. It’s almost like the driver was courting death. The unfortunate accident is one of several lately with fatalities caused by an epidemic of bad decision-making by drivers. Harry becomes convinced that there is more happening here than mere chance. Is it possible that there is a serial killer of sorts who is somehow orchestrating these accidents for some sick reason?  

This is a very inventive police procedural murder mystery with a likable main character in Harry, who is fighting against the police establishment to test his unlikely theory. In short, a very satisfying quick read with a satisfying solution.

“A Grave is Waiting”

“A Grave is Waiting” is a 12-page story with origins in the September 1952 issue of Popular Detective – noteworthy because Fischer was already making a good living with paperback original novels at the time. The story begins with thoughtful private detective Ben Starke being forced into a car at gunpoint by two thugs insisting to know the location of a missing boy named George. Ben knows nothing about the kid and successfully escapes from his captors.

On the next day, Ben is hired by a woman to investigate a gang seeking to kidnap a 12 year-old boy named George. What are the odds? Ben seems to inadvertently have a jump on the case and the would-be kidnappers from his encounter the night before. The client is George’s legal guardian, and she has hidden the boy away until the kidnap gang can be neutralized. The boy’s parents are dead, and there’s a modest inheritance that the crooks want for themselves.

Ben suspects there is more to the story, but he takes the engagement since he already has some skin in the game. This leads to a violent and deadly confrontation with the adversaries where the truth of this plot is revealed. The solution is a dark and macabre treat that readers of sick crime plots will relish. Chalk this one up as another winner from this great vintage author. 

Buy a copy HERE

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Coldiron #01 - Coldiron

F.M. Parker (Fearl Parker) worked in factories as a laborer, herded sheep, served as a bellhop, served in the Navy and is a Korean War vet. After earning a degree in geology, Parker went into mining, oil drilling, and a long career within the Bureau of Land Management. He became a full-time author, penning over 20 westerns beginning with his novel Skinner in 1981. New to his writing, I wanted to experience the author with one of his bestselling novels, Coldiron. It was originally published in 1984 and led to four subsequent novels starring the Luke Coldiron character. It remains available in ebook under the title Coldiron: Judge and Executioner.

What is interesting about the Coldiron series is that the order of the books really doesn't matter after the second installment, Shadow of the Wolf (1985). The books jump around in time, for example Coldiron begins in 1843 but covers a 20 year time period until 1863. The second installment, Shadow of the Wolf, is set in 1864. Distant Thunder, aka Thunder of Cannon, the series fourth installment, is set in 1862. Spoils of War, aka The Thieves, is in 1846. Basically, one could just jump around in the series because the past doesn't matter too much. All you really need to know is that Coldiron owns a large horse ranch (The Steel Trap Brand) in what was then known as the Colorado Territory. 

At 223 pages, this Coldiron novel serves as an excellent, detailed origin story. Beginning in 1843, Parker explains that the trapping industry was nearing the end of an era. Luke Coldiron and his partner are in their fourth year of trapping in The Rocky Mountains (Sangre de Cristo). Through a wild skirmish, Coldiron's partner is killed by a gang attempting to steal furs. This ordeal forces Coldiron to help his partner's pregnant Native-American widow. This new relationship is nearing a long-term romance when she is injured by a mountain lion. She gives birth to a baby girl and then dies. Coldiron then carries the baby into the plains where he gives her to a team of settlers to raise.

Fast-forward 20 years, Coldiron has worked hard to create the best horse ranch within a 500 mile radius. He breeds horses to sell to the U.S. Army and makes great money with his Steel Trap Brand. In the novel's second act, Coldiron faces deadly horse wranglers and an odd visit from a young woman named Cris pretending to be a cowboy. It's no secret that she was the baby that Coldiron gave up. She wants to kill Coldiron for “killing” her mother. It's all a misunderstanding, but makes for an inventive narrative.

F.M. Parker's Coldiron shares similarities with the early William W. Johnstone's The Last Mountain Man, which was published the same year. Both Parker's Luke Coldiron and Johnstone's Smoke Jensen were mountain men trappers turned ranchers. Coldiron has the Steel Trap and Jensen is the Sugarloaf. Both experienced the loss of their mentors in the mountains, both face rustlers and killers, and both are tough as nails. One could say that any western hero worth his salt has all of these same characteristics and history, but the two are written in the same way. 

I enjoyed Coldiron, and loved learning about his origin and how the horse ranch began. There's a small backstory dedicated to Cliff, a former alcoholic that Coldiron saved and put to work as the ranch chef. The story on Cris, the abandoned baby, was presented well and paired nicely with Coldiron's grief over her mother and his partner's murder. The duo of Cliff, Coldiron, and Cris was a great assemblage of characters with different strengths and weaknesses. If you want military-fiction, unbridled western action, a formidable hero, and realistic descriptions of the mid-1800s frontier, then Coldiron is absolutely a must-read. Honorary mention to Parker's depth of knowledge of horses and ranching. This was educational and enjoyable. Highly recommended. 

Coldiron Series

Coldiron (aka, Judge & Executioner, 1984)
Shadow of the Wolf (1985)
The Shanghaiers (1987)
Distant Thunder (aka Thunder of Cannon, 1999)
Spoils of War (aka The Thieves, 2017)

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Creeping Siamese

Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was a pulp fiction pioneer who authored enduring titles, including The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. For my money, his best recurring character was The Continental Op, an unnamed hardboiled PI on assignment from San Francisco's Continental Detective Agency. “The Creeping Siamese” was a story that originally appeared in the March 1926 issue of Black Mask that was later reissued as the anchor of a Dell Mapback paperback story compilation.

A tall guy walks into the Continental offices and immediately collapses dead onto the floor. An examination of the stranger reveals he was killed by a stab wound to the chest with the gory wound hastily dressed by a piece of silk that appears to be a sarong. The corpse's pocket contains a hotel key, and The Op’s boss dispatches him to the hotel to gather some intel. After all, it’s bad for business for unsolved murders to be happening in the lobby of a prestigious detective agency.

At the hotel, The Op learns the dead guest’s name but has no idea who would want to stab the poor bastard. The only relevant clue is the sarong, so The Op begins to scour the area for “Hindus” and “Brown Men.” Nearly 100 years later, the vernacular comes off as more quaint than offensive, but consider yourself warned if that kind of thing ruffles your feathers. The initial search for an “Asiatic” stabber produces no solid leads, but a lucky break introduces our hero to a clue indicating that the murder was conducted by a Siamese (we now call them Thai) guy.

The ensuing puzzle surrounds a mysterious package about the size of a bread loaf containing unknown contents worthy of murder – at least to the stabby Saimese. The solution, however, comes pretty quickly to The Op and seemingly out of nowhere. The clue that leads him to the conclusion just wasn’t credible to a reader with critical thinking skills. The whole endeavor felt rushed as if Hammett hit his contractual word count and needed to rush to the gym or something.

“The Creeping Siamese” is not a waste of your time, but it's an awful introduction to this vivid and normally hardboiled character. There was nothing particularly edgy or violent about the events, and it could just have easily been an Agatha Christie Miss Marple mystery story. The Op is normally a resourceful badass, but in this one, he was more Sherlockian. If you’re already a fan, you might as well check this one out. If you’re looking to read this awesome character at his best, check out “The House in Turk Street” and be prepared to have your socks knocked off.