Showing posts with label Chet Cunningham. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Chet Cunningham. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

The Penetrator #02 - Blood on the Strip

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Executioner #59 - Crude Kill

Chet Cunningham authored six Executioner novels between 1983 and 1986 beginning with the 59th installment, Crude Kill. I have always enjoyed Cunningham's blunt writing style, and I liked his violent Executioner novel, Baltimore Trackdown, the series' 88th entry. With another exceptional Gil Cohen cover, a solid author and the promise of quality consistency, there was no hesitation behind choosing Crude Kill to read and review. 

After liberating hostages from a Milan stronghold, Bolan learns that a mastermind-terrorist named Lufti has targeted an enormous oil tanker called The Contessa. His evil plan is to dump thousands of tons of oil into the Mediterranean Sea if he doesn't obtain millions in gold and the obligatory freeing of all criminal cohorts associated with his criminal empire. Of course the ransom won't be met because Bolan arrives just in time to terminate the baddies. The real enjoyment is the journey to get there.

After working closely with series mainstay pilot Jack Grimaldi, Bolan's first target is to destroy a commandeered former German U-Boat that Lufti's forces are using as protection. Cunningham soaks 40 pages with blood and guts, propelling the narrative, along with Bolan, onto the oil tankard's deck. The remaining 150-pages is saturated with bullets, bravado and bombs. Cunningham's literary style always borders on the grotesque – brains jellied, intestines splattered, flesh searing – but it’s all just an over-the-top attempt to please his dominant male audience. The intense violence factor is probably a prerequisite to write Bolan books. Trust us, none of his fans were tipping off Tipper Gore in 1983.

Crude Kill is another enjoyable Bolan saga sure to please fans of the series. The book also features an explanation from Don Pendleton regarding why he handpicked Chet Cunningham to join his revolving carousel of Bolan authors. Based on just Crude Kill, the reason is obvious.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Penetrator #24 - Cryogenic Nightmare

The Penetrator series was a Mack Bolan knock-off written by Chet Cunningham (even numbered installments) and Mark K. Roberts (the odd ones) under the house name of Lionel Derrick. The books are generally mind-numbing, escapist fun of varying quality. The cover of the 24th installment, “Cryogenic Nightmare,” promises a Florida setting, and who doesn’t like some fun in the sun to fight the winter blues?

The Penetrator is Mark Hardin, an American Vietnam vet action hero with Native American blood, a fat bankroll, a fortress of solitude and a passion for wasting bad guys. His vigilante missions have made him a fugitive, and the FBI likens him to Robin Hood in the paperback’s prologue. His target selection and assignments are managed through a college professor who also provides analytical support to Hardin on his missions.

In this installment, The Penetrator’s target is Preacher Mann, an organized crime figure with tentacles stretching into all sorts of badness, but pimping seems to be his true passion. Cunningham gets right to the point by describing Mann as a “vegetarian negroid” and shows off the pimp’s opulent lifestyle by explaining that Mann owns a Betamax hooked up to a 48-inch TV screen. Even in today’s world, one would have to control a substantial criminal empire to achieve such entertainment-system decadence.

After receiving his assignment from the professor, The Penetrator heads down to West Palm Beach, Florida and begins a lot of pretty standard gumshoe work investigating Mann’s business interests and shell companies. These scenes have some decent gunfights but go on much too long. Readers want to see the sexy, frozen babes we were promised on the cover art and synopsis.

It’s not until well into the second half of the paperback that Hardin learns of Mann’s diabolical plan to kidnap super-hot chicks and cryogenically freeze them for future consumption as high-price call girls. Hardin eventually penetrates Mann’s hidden island lair where the villain is kind enough to fully explain his creative and moronic plan in painstaking detail to our hero.

“Cryogenic Nightmare” is really a prose comic book with fun action set pieces building towards a final showdown between The Penetrator and the evil Preacher Mann. The novel owes a lot to corny, 1930s-style pulp fiction where bad guys experiment on damsels in distress in underground island hideouts until the swashbuckling hero can save the day. The pacing of this installment wasn’t great, but you don’t read The Penetrator for literary greatness. Mostly, it’s a fun read as long as your expectations are under control. 

Purchase a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Avenger #02 - Houston Hellground

Journeyman Chet Cunningham authored a four book series from 1987-1988 titled 'The Avenger'. It's an odd title because the series was released by Warner Books, a publisher that already had another 'Avenger' title in their catalog. Warner published reprints and new titles of pulp hero 'Avenger' (released under the house name Kenneth Robeson) from 1972-1975, totaling 42 books. There's no connection otherwise between the two series, but it's nevertheless confusing.

The Avenger's second installment, “Houston Hellground”, was published in April 1988. I enjoyed the eponymous debut and this series does have a sense of continuity (unlike high-numbered titles like 'The Butcher'). The first novel introduced us to Matt Hawke, a San Diego DEA agent who finds his wife brutally murdered by drug cartels. Strained by the chains of bureaucracy, Hawke breaks free by quitting the DEA and running his own brand of unsanctioned justice. After annihilating West Coast drug distributors, he sets gun-sights on a Houston kingpin named Lopez.

Cunningham is the quintessential “meat and potatoes” author, simplifying the story and lacing it with high-caliber action. Hawke's mission is two-fold: Rescue a DEA agent from Lopez's grip and cut the distribution lines in and out of the nearby port city. Teaming with a beautiful ex-cop named Carmelita, the two become a destructive force under Cunningham's skilled hands.

“Houston Hellground” delivers a ton of gunplay, increasing the violence a notch or two to properly satisfy seasoned (read that as bloodthirsty) men's action readers. Remember, this is a late entry published in 1988. There's a brutal torture scene that involves sexual assault – not for queasy stomachs. Further, Hawke and Lopez (who's fighting a rival) collectively waste every adversary in vivid detail. Surprisingly, I was lucky enough to be one of the few survivors. “Houston Hellground” is another solid entry in an entertaining, yet neglected series.

Fun Fact – Artist Greg Olanoff did the covers for the entire series. His model was Jason Savas, the same model he used for the first five 'M.I.A. Hunter' books.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 7, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 14

Join us for a controversial discussion on authors who utilize ghostwriters to draft series novels under house names. Also, we look at the 1955 crime-noir "A Cry in the Night" by the tandem of Bob Wade and Bill Miller. We also dig into the 1988 men's action novel "Houston Hellground" (Avenger #2) by Chet Cunningham. Stream below or anywhere that streams good podcasts. Also download it directly (LINK).

Listen to "Episode 14: Ghostwriters" on Spreaker.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Executioner #88 - Baltimore Trackdown

“Baltimore Trackdown” is the 88th entry in the long-running 'The Executioner' series. Written by journeyman Chet Cunningham (1928-2017), the novel was released by Gold Eagle in 1986. Cunningham contributed to a number of Mack Bolan volumes including the 79th installment, “Council of Kings”, which includes characters that later appear in “Baltimore Trackdown”. A series education isn't a prerequisite as these books can still be enjoyed in any order.

Mob kingpin Carlo Nazarione has infiltrated the Baltimore Police Department. With a vast, cascading stream of money, Nazarione and his criminal cohorts have purchased plenty of badges in their quest to run a gambling empire on the East Coast. The mob are using a veteran named Captain Harley Davis to monitor the bribery channels and to solicit new members for the crooked cop brigade. However, one of Mack Bolan's oldest and most trusted confidants, Leo Turrin, has planted an informant within the ranks. It's this collaboration that allows Bolan easy access at his new targets.

For the most part, Cunningham utilizes Don Pendleton's early template to create this rousing Bolan adventure. The paperback deploys series the series trope of a young, innocent woman who's raped and murdered by the criminals as a motivating spark for The Executioner. Bolan, as if he needs more purpose, seeks to avenge her death. Gambling halls and bars are familiar landscapes for Bolan to fulfill his mission, but it's not until page 114 where things really become interesting.

In a clever tie-in with Cunningham's work on “The Executioner 79: Council of Kings”, a hitman named Vince Carboni appears. What's unique is that there is no mention of this character anywhere in the first 114 pages aside from a line stating that Carboni has been hired to finish Bolan for good after a firefight in Portland failed to eliminate the hero. In research, this recollection links to the 79th entry where Carboni is enforcing for the Canzonari's West Coast mob. None of this really matters, just a simple way to inject Carboni into 44 pages of this book.

The author shines as Carboni and Bolan do battle on a farm in rural Maryland. The cat-and-mouse tactics are some of the best scenes in my experience with 'The Executioner' books. Carboni ultimately controls the high ground, manning a 30-06 rifle from a farmhouse window. Bolan, trapped in a shed, attempts to dodge in and out of farm vehicles, buildings and eventually rooms within the house. The battle spills into cornfields, the road and back to the farm again before this side-story finally reaches its conclusion. This battle echoes David Goodis' effective farmhouse gunfight in “Down There”, also known as “Shoot the Piano Player” (1952), only more modern and quite a bit longer.

Overall, this is an exceptional Executioner entry with very engaging narrative and characters. While over the top at times, the book has a surprising sense of realism due to its more personal presentation – urban America on the take. If you are looking for a fantastic post-Pendleton Bolan work, this makes the short-list.

This novel and the entire Mack Bolan universe was discussed on the fifth episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast: Link.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 5, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 05

In this episode, we discuss the massive Mack Bolan universe, including the origin, spin-offs and legacy of "The Executioner". Additionally, Eric reviews the 88th "Executioner" novel, "Baltimore Trackdown", by Chet Cunningham. Tom reviews the newest adult western novel, "Gunsmith: Deadville", by Robert Randisi. Listen below or on streaming services like Apple, Google, Spreaker, YouTube, Stitcher, etc.

Listen to "Episode 05: The Executioner Mack Bolan" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Penetrator #14 - Mankill Sport

Chet Cunningham remains one of my favorite authors of pulpy men’s adventure fiction, but I’ve had trouble connecting with his popular series ‘The Penetrator’ written under the pseudonym of Lionel Derrick. The series ran for over 50 installments and was launched to capitalize on the success of Don Pendleton’s ‘The Executioner.” Cunningham’s take on the serial vigilante genre was mostly silly and over-the-top and usually not very good. For me, it’s always been a challenge to remain focused on the written page when I’m so busy rolling my eyes.

“Mankill Sport” from 1976 is the 14th installment in the series, and I was seduced by the plot synopsis which touts the book as a 1970s take on Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” in which a hunter stalks men through the deep woods as prey. It’s a premise that has been re-worked dozens of times over the past century, and I was curious to see what Cunningham would do with the concept. The book review is below and a discussion of the novel was featured on the Paperback Warrior Podcast on July 8th, 2019 (LINK).

For the uninitiated, Mark Hardin is The Penetrator, a half-Cheyenne former U.S. Army killing machine with a brilliant mind and expert marksman skills. As “Mankill Sport” opens, Hardin is two-and-a-half years into his one-man war in crime and has achieved folk hero status among millions of groupies worldwide. Early in the paperback, he receives an assignment from his mentor to target a Detroit drug lord and big game hunter named Johnny Utah.

At his best, The Penetrator recalls Detective Comics’ Batman - no super-powers but well-resourced, violent, and quick access to cool gadgets. The first half of “Mankill Sport” has Hardin following Utah’s trail across North America to force a deadly confrontation. Because it’s disclosed on the book’s cover, I’m comfortable telling you that Utah’s hobby is kidnapping innocent people and hunting them through the thick Canadian woods like animals, and the climax of the novel finds Hardin in the role of Utah’s prey. Can The Penetrator turn the tables and transform the hunter into the hunted?

I’ve read several paperbacks in ‘The Penetrator’ series, and this one is the best of the batch I’ve sampled. The premise is derivative as hell but it’s extremely well-executed and ultra-violent. Moreover, the entire series is available for purchase on your Kindle for super cheap. I can’t necessarily endorse other books in the series, but “Mankill Sport” is essential reading for men’s adventure fans.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 8, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 01

It’s the debut of the Paperback Warrior Podcast! In this episode, we’ll provide an introduction to our hosts Eric and Tom. Together, we look at the show’s primary focus on vintage fiction and our introductions to the genres. We’ll discuss the goldmine of paperback treasure, the famed Chamblin’s Book Mine in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as two novels - "Sins of the Fathers" by Lawrence Block and "Penetrator #14" by Chet Cunningham. Plus we look ahead at the upcoming episodes and highlight some content featured right here on our flagship site, Stream the episode below or on Stitcher. Android users will find us on the Radio Public app. You may also visit us on the following services:

Spreaker, Soundcloud, YouTube, Direct Download, Castbox Listen to "Episode 01: Welcome to Paperback Warrior" on Spreaker.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Spur #28 - Kansas City Chorine

'Spur' was a long-running adult western series that ran for 40+ books. The main character is Spur McCoy, a former Union Captain and now an early agent of the U.S. Secret Service. He works out of the St. Louis office and accepts assignments for any crimes west of the Mississippi River. The series can be read in any order and author Dirk Fletcher was veteran writer Chet Cunningham ('Canyon O'Grady', 'Avenger', 'Jim Steel'). Entry #28 is “Kansas City Chorine”, published December, 1993.

The book finds a wrongdoer named Jack T. Galde pulling bank jobs across the Kansas prarie. His methods are fairly elementary – establishing an identity in the small town, then robbing the bank before blowing it up. His destination is simply the next town so he can pull the heist all over again. After Galde's five robberies and a handful of murders, Spur is assigned the case.

The neanderthal porn is overwhelmingly prevalent. The development of characters is about as deep as a golfer's divot. The methodology used to find young women to seduce is simply “if there's hair I'm there”. Galde is suffering from a mother figure syndrome, provoking him to rape and pillage anything with breasts (including grinding on a horse's ass). Our hero isn't much better, fondling a young woman on the trail that...just needs fondling. These things never happen to me.

The narrative places Spur in the same town as Galde's next heist. The lady of the night is the Kansas City Chorine herself, Patrice, whom Spur beds in four explicit scenes. Besides that action, Spur just sort of meanders around town long enough to locate the hotel room Galde is residing in. Oddly, instead of just arresting him there, he sleuths around town hoping to find the man. He wastes too much time and finds that Galde, using a preacher's identity, has robbed the bank, a widow and stolen Patrice. The hunt is on as an incompetent Spur battles a tornado to find his woman.

I've read two Spur novels, this one and “#15 Hang Spur McCoy!”. I might speculate that as the series continued the quality diminished. This book was just lethargic and lousy for all of the reasons I listed above. I might try another Spur title later on but this one has put the series on the back burner of my neighbor's stove. I'm done for now.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Canyon O'Grady #05 - The Lincoln Assignment

Because the series order really doesn’t matter, my next foray into the world of adult western hero Canyon O’Grady is the fifth book in the series, “The Lincoln Assignment.” For this 1989 installment, veteran author Chet Cunningham serves as the writer behind the Jon Sharpe house name.

Someone is trying to kill U.S. Representative Abraham Lincoln before a scheduled series of debates with U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas as both men compete for the Senate seat currently held by Douglas. Meanwhile, a team of deadly assassins is also targeting Senator Douglas who has his eye on winning the White House in two years. The current U.S. President is James Buchanan, and he is concerned about this threat to the democratic process and dispatches his best man - Special Agent Canyon O’Grady - to Illinois to investigate and neutralize this threat. O’Grady’s presidential orders? “Stop the ruffians!”

Early in the paperback, O’Grady learns the identities of the assassins and the agenda of the puppet masters engaging their services. I won’t give it away, but the rationale was not too outlandish. The owlhoots hired to kill the politicians are a great set of villains that includes a sexy redheaded female, and this being an adult western, you can imagine where that leads. There’s also a female U.S. Government Agent thrown into the mix of this investigation which ads an interesting wrinkle to the story.

Mostly what we have here is a pretty exciting, sexy and violent action novel starring a U.S. Government Agent trying to prevent a pair of political assassinations. The fact that it takes place in August 1858 is almost inconsequential to the story. It’s a western because the hero rides a horse, but there are no Apache attacks of settlers in “The Lincoln Assignment.”

I’ve always preferred Chet Cunningham’s work in the western genre to his contemporary action paperbacks (“Spur” is better than “The Penetrator,” for example), and this Canyon O’Grady book is no exception. Cunningham was a talented literary entertainer who focused on solid plotting rather than flowery prose. He tackles his mandatory graphic sex scenes with real gusto, and they are well-woven into the plot. Moreover, the characters of Lincoln and Douglas are well-written and infused with human personalities. 

Canyon O’Grady is shaping up to be one of my favorite series characters in this genre. If you like adult westerns and historical fiction, you’ll probably enjoy this one as much as I did.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Friday, November 9, 2018

The Avenger #01 - The Avenger

Nebraska native Chet Cunningham penned over 450 books in his lifetime. The prolific author served as a mortar gunner in the Korean war before obtaining a master's in journalism at Columbia University. His first novel was published in 1968, the first of many westerns he would compile in his bibliography. My first introduction to his writing was Stephen Mertz's 'M.I.A. Hunter' books, and much later the 1980s vigilante series 'The Avenger'. 

The eponymous debut was released by Warner Books in 1987 and would continue for three sequels through December of 1988. The “Avenger” here is Matthew Hawke, who at the beginning of the series is a DEA agent in San Diego. The opening pages has Hawke masterminding a sting operation in a derelict neighborhood. Barging into a warehouse office, Hawke finds the Mob's hands bloody – with his wife's tortured corpse lying discarded on a desk. After a quick shootout, Hawke's colleagues arrive just in time to accept his badge and gun. Hawke resigns from the force. 

The same night, Hawke aligns himself with the lovable Brandy, a 17-yr old prostitute that he has kept tabs on during his career. Daylighting at her place allows him to moonlight as the vengeful avenger, wreaking havoc on drug cartel kingpin Ramon Raimundo. Hawke begins by dismantling the trafficking trails and knocking out mid-level bosses. The author typically uses a chapter to set up the hit, then moves to a quick close with Hawke dealing the deathblow. The chapters and elimination of the cartel eventually moves to the streets of Tijuana and Ramon's fortress. 

Cunningham is a good writer for “popcorn” action, adventure and westerns. He's certainly no literary mastermind, but his books serve genre readers with enough bravado and gun toting heroes to satisfy any casual fan. 'The Avenger' is recommended for fans of 'The Executioner', 'The Vigilante', 'Hawker' and 'The Hitman'.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Pony Soldiers #01 - Massacre at Buffalo Creek

Chet Cunningham was a workhorse at writing action/adventure paperbacks, knocking out dozens and dozens of them in multiple genres (not to mention idiosyncratic non-fiction books with titles like “Three Simple Steps to Flatten Your Belly” and “Stopping Restless Leg Syndrome”.

Beginning in 1987, he was able to launch an interesting western series called 'Pony Soldiers', about cavalrymen in Texas and their dealings with outlaws and Indians. At first glance it looks like an 'Easy Company' knock-off, but it isn’t. Nor is it a horn-dog adult western series like the 'Spur' novels he was writing at this time. 

The first book, “Slaughter at Buffalo Creek”, immediately shoves the reader up against the wall and hits him with an exceptionally grim massacre perpetrated by Comanches. Supply wagons headed for Fort Comfort are looted after every last cavalryman escorting the train has been killed. Their bodies are stripped and mutilated, and then the warrior chief discovers something hidden under blankets in one wagon: the terrified wife and small children of the fort’s commander. He murders the little boy and the little girl is carried away, but not until after the wife has been gang-raped, slashed, killed and scalped. 

The grieving fort commander swears vengeance, and that’s what drives the series. But this particular novel goes in a different direction. There’s certainly a lot of material about searching for the Comanches, and about the contrasting ways of life at the fort and at the Indians’ camp. But now a new plot emerges, involving a bad lieutenant who’s discovered and stolen $8,000 in government gold, left behind in one of the wagons by the marauding Indians. 

This story about the lieutenant turns out to be even more interesting than the vengeance stuff, and it’s reminiscent of Cunningham’s fun 1970s series about gold-hungry schemer 'Jim Steel”. I won’t disclose whether the thief gets away with the loot or not, but once that narrative is resolved, the book is over. The vengeful commander will have to wait until the next novel (or later) to get even with the Comanches, and that’s going to irritate some readers. The rest of us can shrug it off and look for the next book, entitled “Comanche Massacre”.

“Massacre at Buffalo Creek” sags a little bit in the middle, but overall this is quite a strong novel. Unfortunately, the original paperbacks aren’t all that easy to find, but if the later installments are as good as this one, they’re well worth seeking out. The series is also available as ebooks. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Jim Steel #05 - Gold Train

In 1972, Chet Cunningham was a young, struggling novelist collecting a pile of unwanted rejection slips. Hearing that westerns paid less than other genres, he figured there would be less competition in that field, so he began writing a western. He saw there were quite a few paperback series built around a particular character, so he conceived a hero who could go from one adventure to the next.

He sent the finished novel around, and got an acceptance letter from Pinnacle: “While this is not the best western I’ve ever read, we have decided to publish it.” “Gold Wagon” did get published that year, a story about a fortune in gold which may or may not be hidden in the wreckage of an old convoy of wagons. I’d have to agree that it’s not a world-beater. But it does have some excellent sequences, and I liked it overall.

The best thing about it is its hero, Jim Steel. Originally conceived as a secret agent out west, he’s actually more of an independent operator who goes around looking for lost or hidden caches of gold. He hops from one side of the law to the other, but for the most part he’s a reasonably good guy who just really loves gold, sort of a James Garner character with a relaxed charm and a fast draw.

Oddly, the Jim Steel series only ran for six books, published irregularly over a span of nine years. Yet they were successful enough to be reprinted; I’ve had three different editions of “Gold Wagon”, each under different imprints. Originally published under Cunningham’s name, at least a couple of the novels were also re-issued under the name Jess Cody.

Luckily for me, the first 'Jim Steel' I read was the outstanding ”Bloody Gold”, third in the series and first published in 1975. A highly suspenseful search for a fabled wall of pure gold, located somewhere deep in the homeland of extremely hostile Chiricahua Apaches, it’s a rollicking adventure story worthy of 'Indiana Jones'. I loved it.

“Bloody Gold” set the bar pretty high, and unfortunately the fifth book, “Gold Train” (1981) doesn’t quite get there. A mine owner hires Jim to protect a delivery of 152 gold bars from California to the U.S. Mint in Denver. You might be wondering why he’s hiring the gold-hungry Jim Steel of all people, but this time around Jim is more reformer than rogue. Besides, the paycheck is pretty good and he’s got his eye on the mine owner’s daughter, who’s headstrong enough to accompany him on the dangerous mission whether he likes it or not. 

Inevitably, ambitious crooks will try to grab all that gold, even if it means destroying the train it’s traveling on. What follows is one peril after another, each on a bigger scale than the last. This was a satisfying story, but I think it would have played even better as an action movie than as a novel. There was just something lacking. A more colorful master villain, maybe? Better dialogue? I don’t know. These factors kept this good story from being a great one. Even so, I wish there were a lot more of these 'Jim Steel' adventures left to discover.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Jim Steel #01 - Gold Wagon

Writing as Jess Cody, Chet Cunningham's series debut, "Gold Wagon" (1972) has Jim Steel searching the back trails of Arizona for a disguised Army wagon loaded with a fortune in gold. This first novel in the series isn’t a bad book at all, but it isn’t nearly as good as the third book, "Bloody Gold", so I was still a bit disappointed. The plot is a little skimpy, so Cunningham throws in a lot of red herrings and sends Steel scurrying hither and yon to pad out the length. The first and final few chapters are quite strong, though, and the book always held my interest. While it isn’t an “adult western” in the steamy tradition of 'Longarm' and friends, it’s still got a modern flavor, with a reasonably likable anti-hero who spends the entire novel doing his best to steal a lot of gold from the government. It’s worth reading again, but there are plenty of better books out there.

Jim Steel #03 - Bloody Gold

A superb Luis Dominguez wrap-around cover and the promise of an exciting gold-hunting story prompted me to start reading Chet Cunningham's third 'Jim Steel' novel “Bloody Gold” almost as soon as the mailman delivered it.

Jim Steel isn’t much different from the typical western series hero, except that he’s in the business of hunting for gold (which explains why the word “gold” is in the title of every novel in this series). This is a terrific, suspenseful tale about infiltrating Chiricahua country in search of a fabled wall of pure gold, and along the way Steel tries to find a young woman who’s been recently kidnapped by the Indians. Every time I thought I knew what was about to happen, I was completely and happily wrong.

There are a couple of standout sequences, one involving a character being tortured and killed by the Indians, and the other being the book’s climax in which Jim Steel himself faces a seemingly certain death. There’s a great deal of material about Steel’s wariness and stealth as he slowly penetrates Chiricahua territory, and that creates an atmosphere of dread, although it occasionally drags the pacing just a tad. That’s a minor quibble, though. Considering how obscure the series is, this is a surprisingly excellent western, well worth reading again.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Spur #15 - Hang Spur McCoy!

There were over 40 volumes of the western series ‘Spur’. The Leisure house name was Dirk Fletcher but these were actually written by journeyman writer Chet Cunningham (‘Jim Steel’, ‘Outlaws’, ‘Pony Soldiers’). “Hang Spur McCoy!” is book number 15 and was suggested as a good starter for new readers. There’s a brief introduction in the opening chapter, but later expanded as a sufficient backstory in Chapter 12. Spur McCoy grew up in New York as the son of a wealthy merchant and importer. After graduating from Harvard, Spur took a commission in the infantry during the Civil War. As a captain, Spur was appointed as one of the first US Secret Service Agents. For validity, the author states Spur was chosen out of ten finalists for his horse riding and service pistol marksmanship. After exceptional service in Washington, he was transferred to St. Louis to manage all of the action west of the Mississippi. Thus, a series was born with a legitimate character, purpose and the open-ended ability to place him in any sort of drama and adventure in the perilous west. 

Cunningham kickstarts “Hang Spur McCoy!” with a bang. Our government agent is firing at an outhouse with a Spencer repeater. During the exchange Spur is wounded badly with a leg shot and awakens in the midst of a noose-ready posse. The sheriff and three make-shift lawmen have sentenced Spur to a lynching after accusing him of rape and murder. Once he successfully defends his position, the sheriff comes to Spur’s aid only to be outnumbered by the hostile trio. With a bound sheriff, the three struggles tying a noose. The sheriff assists, but cleverly ties a Murphy’s Knot to allow a faux presentation of Spur hanging. The deed is done and the three ride off with the sheriff staying behind for the pulse check. Other than a horrendous rope-burn and a bum leg, Spur is ready to complete his mission.

Some authors may be complacent with this being a simplistic and over utilized plot. Stretching out a revenge yarn for 200-pages is quite manageable and most authors worth their salt can milk this. While the author has Spur tracking those responsible for his hanging, the bulk of the story is the assignment – solving a counterfeiting racket in Twin Falls, Idaho. It’s slightly convenient that one of the hangmen is directly associated with the counterfeiting, but it’s forgivable. The action has Spur in detective mode sourcing the operation from start to finish. Along the way is a plethora of lovely ladies for the inevitable mattress romps. Fans of the series understand (need?) the obligatory 10% sex inclusion and it certainly spaces out the gumshoe portions in pleasant fashion. The finale has Spur unarmed in the forest facing adversity…and two armed gunmen. While Cunningham heats the barrels, “Hang Spur McCoy!” pauses for a tender moment as Spur shows compassion for one of the accused. This unique angle is one of the many little nuances that makes Cunningham’s work so enjoyable.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

M.I.A. Hunter #05: Exodus from Hell

Stephen Mertz is widely considered the main creator of the ‘M.I.A. Hunter’ series. He, along with Bill Crider and Joe Lansdale, wrote a majority of the series’ 17 books. For book five, “Exodus from Hell”, popular action and western author Chet Cunningham apparently came on board. I’ve spent a great deal of time digging under stones and bridges to provide the definitive verification of this – but just can’t seem to gain anything other than Joe at the Glorious Trash blog sourcing the book’s author in his review. It would certainly make sense as Cunningham also wrote the non-numbered book “Stone: M.I.A. Hunter” between books five and six. However, jury still out at the time of this review.

“Exodus from Hell” is another Jove paperback, released in 1986 under house name Jack Buchanan. Fans of the series know exactly what to expect when they flip open the novel – Mark Stone, Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin kicking serious jungle ass. This fifth entry in the series does plenty of that, but is unique to this line because it reverses the order of events from the series’ predecessors. While prior books followed the same formula, this book surprisingly does things just a little differently.

As the book begins we have a familiar scene unfolding with Stone and his mercenaries deep into Cambodia. The trio, along with hired assistance, quickly dispose of a small unit of Vietnamese soldiers before approaching a prison camp that’s housing three American prisoners of war. We are introduced to two of these characters as the author describes in graphic detail their daily rituals, struggles and punishment. In a furious opening scene, the camp is liberated and the trio are able to rescue two of the three soldiers. The third had perished under the harsh conditions before the rescue. Here’s where things get a little bit divergent. Instead of the book focusing on the heroes receiving the assignment, scouting the location and then making the finale rescue, this book reverses the order of events. “Exodus from Hell” is true to its name. This book captures the escape and trek out of hostile land.

If we assume the book is written by Cunningham, then his descriptive combat throughout the book would be at least partially written from experience. Cunning served in the Korean War, fought in two battles and, according to his website, participated in numerous line-crossing and prisoner patrols. All of that is presented with detail and authority here. He’s an engaging storyteller and really brings focus and clarity to the dangers awaiting Stone and company – the jungle environment, fatigue, opposition. As Stone attempts to get his company out of harm’s way, they can only watch in horror as the rescue chopper explodes. Thus, the premise of the book, hiking on foot through 200 miles of jungle to cross over into safehouse Thailand. Along the trek the group has one P.O.W. completely delusional, strong guy Wiley being injured and carted and a missionary that is attempting to transport six children out of harm’s way. All of these elements collectively create a perfect storm.

I hold this series in fairly high regard overall. It’s connected to my childhood and with that comes a certain kinship. But these books are just really well written, whether it’s Lansdale, Mertz, Cunningham or whoever. “Exodus to Hell” is a series highlight for me and one that definitely stands the test of time. It’s saturated with combat violence, presenting a gritty story of survival, but occasionally muffles the bang with heartfelt strives for peace. It’s a great story and I highly recommended it even if you aren’t a fan of the series. If you love this genre…you simply can’t go wrong here.

Buy a copy of this book HERE