Showing posts with label Frank Gruber. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Frank Gruber. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Bugles West

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) authored 18 crime-fiction novels starring the clumsy and destitute New Yorker Johnny Fletcher. Along with writing 300 short-stories, Gruber also brought the world over 30 westerns written under his own name and pseudonyms like John K. Vedder and Charles K. Boston. Looking for a solid western this week, I sought out another of Gruber's frontier westerns, Bugles West. It was originally published in 1954 and has been reprinted numerous times, most notably by Bantam in 1982 with a cover painting by Lou Feck (known for his men's magazine artwork in Argosy and Adventure).

Tom Logan and Jim Dressen grew up as friends in Michigan. While serving as officers in the Union Army during the American Civil War, the two were captured by the Confederacy. They were placed in Andersonville, a notorious prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia. While there, the two collaborated with 28-other prisoners to escape. The prisoners were quickly caught and most were executed. It was Logan's belief that Dressen was a traitor and he was directly responsible for the soldiers' deaths. After the war, Dressen rose in the ranks to Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Logan became an accessory in bank robbery, and at one point rode with the famed James-Younger gang consisting of the outlaws Jesse James and Cole Younger.

The book opens with a furious gunfight in Montana as a stagecoach is assaulted by the Sioux. Logan, who's on his way to Fort Abraham Lincoln to enlist, comes to the aid of the coach and helps repel the Sioux. This opening scene is a whirlwind of action that Gruber would later re-imagine in his 1967 novel This Gun is Still. When the Army arrives, Logan learns that one of the passengers is a beautiful woman named Alice. After a few early sparks, the two strike up a bond and follow each other to the fort. But once Logan arrives, he learns that Alice's sister is married to....Jim Dressen!

Gruber injects a plethora of story ideas into this short, 120-page western novel. American history buffs can probably gather that Logan and Dressen are both serving in the area that hosted Andrew Custer's Last Stand, otherwise known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. In fact, through the book's exciting middle pages the events leading to the epic confrontation between Native Americans and the U.S. Army is brought to life through Andrew's younger brother Thomas and his efforts to arrest a tribal chief named Rain-in-the-Face.

Logan's efforts to avoid his involvement in the James-Younger gang led to his enlistment in the U.S. Army. But once there, the narrative explores his meeting with Dressen and the fallout – Dressen attempting to kill Logan to silence their history and Logan appealing to ranking officers to trial Dressen for treason. There's a number of subplots involving Logan's confrontation with another officer as well as his romantic attraction to Alice. Gruber envelopes the narrative with sympathetic nods to the Native American struggles and their resistance to the “enemy” U.S. troops while showcasing Captian Thomas Custer as an arrogant, bumbling senior officer.

Bugles West is a rip-roaring tour de force. Frank Gruber, while tragically underrated, remains as one of history's best western storytellers. I can't say enough good things about his action-oriented writing style and the literary legacy he created. Bugles West is highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Johnny Fletcher #17 - Swing Low, Swing Dead

Between 1940 and 1964, talented pulp author Frank Gruber (1904-1969) wrote 18 novels starring down-on-his luck 'Johnny Fletcher'. Debuting in 1940, “The French Key” was a success that led to an eponymous film adaptation in 1946. Both NBC and ABC ran Johnny Fletcher mystery stories for the Golden Age of Radio. Beginning in 1964, Gruber signed a paperback deal with Belmont Tower for two more Johnny Fletcher books, “Swing Low, Swing Dead” and “The Corpse Moved Upstairs”. It appears that business arrangement led to a number of reprints of the Fletcher books for a new generation of fans. The misleading cover art paints Johnny Fletcher as a gun-toting detective instead of the bumbling, comical conman that Gruber intended.

My first experience with the series is the 1964 novel “Swing Low, Swing Dead”. While researching, I discovered that there are three fixtures with nearly every Fletcher novel. First, Fletcher's muscular sidekick Sam Cragg is featured in a bulk of the narrative and is just as important to the story as Fletcher. Two, the imprudent duo are always destitute, leading to charity from series character and hotel manager Mr. Peabody. For small favors, he allows them residence in New York's 45th Street Hotel. Lastly, the two always stumble into a mystery! That's really par for the course. Gruber takes some liberties and asks his readers to suspend their beliefs for the sake of a good story.

Discovering a craps game on the hotel's upper floor, both Fletcher and Cragg join the fun. In a fortunate streak of luck, Cragg bets borrowed money against a rock singer named Willie Waller. The musician, out of funds, bets a song manuscript against Cragg, promising it's worth hundreds of thousands. Quickly after losing the game and manuscript to Cragg, he dies from cyanide poisoning.

The bulk of the novel's 154-pages is Fletcher and Cragg determining the validity of the song and it's value. After cleared by the police of any suspicion, it's the duo's job to sell the song for the promised value. Once they stumble on a music producer and his client, a chart-topping musician named Al Donnely, they realize that either Willie's song was plagiarized or Willie ripped off the melody from Donnely. The answer Fletcher and Cragg are both seeking could be worth a small treasure due to the tune's rise to the top of the charts.

While all of this is fairly interesting from a music fan's standpoint, the idea of who killed Willie is the emphasis of this Fletcher mystery. With both Cragg and Fletcher seeking the true songwriter, they must contend with a shady record business and a scar-faced goon who might have his own motives for wanting the songwriter's identity. Again, despite Belmont's action-packed artwork...this is a lighthearted yarn - not the violent espionage or violent crime-noir story depicted on the cover.

Gruber's comedic approach connects Fletcher and Cragg to an Abbott and Costello sort of gag. The two are always counting pennies, shortchanging bartenders and begging Mr. Peabody for just one more buck. Their sole moneymaking endeavor is a snake-medicine bit with Cragg breaking chains and Fletcher selling a bogus book on how to gain super-strength in a few short weeks. “You can break chains too for a measly $ change back”. It's an entertaining short read that showcases Gruber's storytelling strength in the pulp fiction formula.

Through his characters, Gruber criticizes rock music as something that's immature and dumbed down for a new audience while praising the jazz era when music I think Gruber was probably comparing the mid-60s literary work of his new peers to the pulp fiction that paid the bills in his recent past. Regardless, Johnny Fletcher is elementary and a fun read if you keep your expectations minimal.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, August 26, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 08

In this episode, we discuss Frank Gruber's 1964 crime-mystery "Swing Low, Swing Dead" and Lou Cameron's police fiction novel "Code Seven" from 1977. Tom talks about his book shopping in San Antonio, Texas and offers listeners a tutorial on how to affordably acquire paperbacks. Stream it below or through any popular streaming service. Direct downloads: Link 

Listen to "Episode 08: Buying Affordable Paperbacks" on Spreaker.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

This Gun is Still

Frank Gruber (1904-1969) was a popular and highly respectable author of over 300 stories for more than 40 pulp magazines. Sometimes writing as Stephen Acre, John K. Vedder or Charles K. Boston, Gruber completed a massive outpouring of paperback titles. While known for his detective and crime stories, the author's most popular genre was the western, a genre he was claimed to have described as only able to deliver seven distinct story types. Despite what he felt were its shortcomings, Gruber wrote over 30 western novels including “This Gun is Still”, published by powerhouse Bantam Books in 1967.

The book begins with what could be the best opening pages of any western I've personally read. It's a bold statement – but absolutely true. A Wells Fargo stagecoach is racing across the hot White Sands as Apache warriors descend from the hills. In a rapid-fire delivery, we read that the stagecoach driver is killed and the carriage is tipped onto its side. With at least a dozen warriors outside, the two passengers, Jim Forester and Lily Bender, prepare for death. Forester, with only six bullets and a Navy Colt, begins firing from the window, hitting warriors within 10 feet of the coach. He makes five shots deadly, but debates the final shot – kill the girl so he alone can be tortured and ravaged by the Apaches or fire one more deadly shot at the braves and await the grizzly inevitable. Thankfully, a lone cowboy rides in with a Winchester rifle and kills enough warriors to make the war party scatter. Jim Forester meets Wes Morgan. 

We learn that Forester works for a bank in Chicago called Davenport. He's come to the town of Stanton to collect on a default loan from one of two store owners. After the owner dismisses the delinquent $8K, Forester obtains a warrant to shut the store and owner down. The Justice of the Peace provides an interesting backstory on Stanton's rather odd situation. The town's wealth lies in two factions, Bender and Deever. Bender has a large and very profitable cattle ranch and is a passive man. Deever is a former Major who makes his living stealing from Bender and running his own cattle ranch off the theft. Bender has enough wealth and cattle and simply doesn't care. However, Deever, in a rather bold authority, hates Bender and only wants the town to support him. Deever asks that Forester and his company only conduct county business with him, starving and depleting the other businesses and ultimately “gifting” the town to Deever. Forester refuses and that's where the story thickens. 

In a wild chain of events, Forester quits his job and takes over the store as its new owner – partly for a change of scenery but also because he refuses to see Deever win. Complicating things is Wes Morgan, a wanted outlaw who saved Forester but who may be working with Deever. Discombobulating it further is the lovely Lily, Bender's daughter and former Morgan lover. She may or may not be falling for Forester, who has a number of decisions to make once Deever and his hired guns start threatening violence. Tuck tail and run, align with the law or fight Morgan and Deever. It's a western, so you know which way it will eventually go...but it is a thrilling journey to get there. 

Overall, Frank Gruber is fantastic here and expels just enough drama, romance and courtroom intrigue (yes, I said courtroom) to make this a really well-told western. If you are looking for something that isn't the traditional western fare, this one is a must-read. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE