Showing posts with label John Shirley. Show all posts
Showing posts with label John Shirley. Show all posts

Monday, July 17, 2023

The Brigade

Before the words “defund the police” became a hot media slogan, author John Shirley experimented with the idea for his hard-hitting crime-fiction novel The Brigade. Those of you unfamiliar with Shirley may remember that we have reviewed his installments of the post-apocalyptic series Traveler, written under the pseudonym D.B. Drumm, and his vigilante series The Specialist, written under the name John Cutter. The Brigade was Shirley's fifth career novel, originally published in 1981 by Avon and a year later in the UK by Sphere. It exists now in ebook format.

The sleepy fictional town of Salton, Oregon, population of 42,000, lies about 40 miles east of the scenic coast. The town's chief industry is paper milling. But, the two characteristics that make this town notable is its militant “people's police” called The Brigade and an active serial killer dubbed The Saturday Night Killer. How these two defining elements interact with each other in an ultraconservative town is the main focus of Shirley's propulsive crime novel.

The town voted to defund the police, dismantle the force, and save tax dollars by introducing a volunteer group of citizens, The Brigade. The town's former police constable and mayor lead this brigade of armed citizens, but as time goes on, the group begins a radical departure from upstanding people for the people to a militant mob that seeks a police state type of tyranny for the town. Hitchhikers are brutalized, petty thieves are executed, and citizens are required to carry “hall passes” that allow them freedom on the town's streets and sidewalks. Most of this is done discreetly, in a way that doesn't seem so oppressive on the surface. 

A young guy named Tony, a janitor, and his girlfriend Sonja, stumble upon a plot formed by The Brigade to quiet the serial murders committed by this Saturday Night Killer. The murderer, responsible for 13 savage slaughters, kills an outside reporter. To cover up the death, The Brigade throw the reporter over an embankment to disguise the fact that she was knifed by the serial killer. They don't want news agencies and outsiders to question The Brigade's efficiency to keep the town safe. But, without detectives who can stop the serial killer? Tony and Sonja realize that the killer is actually a member of The Brigade.

John Shirley's 258-page paperback is quite good, but is loose around the edges due to poor editing. Tony's side-story of finding a friend becomes too convoluted for its own good, and there are some messy plot points that are presented both in the present and the past. There is also an irrelevant side-story about a guy trapped in a well. I found myself skipping some of this, but overall the story was superb and tackled a relevantly hot topic that emerged just a few years ago. How does a small town function without police? Under Shirley's watch...not very good. 

If you love crime-fiction laced with savage deaths, graphic sex, and a unique political position, then The Brigade is a must. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

The Specialist #03 - Sullivan's Revenge

The Specialist is an 11 book series that ran from 1984 through 1985. The series was authored by John Shirley under the pseudonym John Cutter. These novels were originally published by Signet and are now available as affordable ebooks through Lume Publishing. I've read and reviewed the first two entries in the series and was happy to jump into the third installment to continue the series through-story. 

In the first two installments, Jack "The Specialist" Sullivan is featured as a vigilante that helps average citizens with various problems they experience. He never charges for these services but will gladly take any monetary handout. His experiences in Vietnam and Afghanistan enhance his resume significantly. Sullivan is an expert in weapons, hand-to-hand combat and military strategy. While he's performing these services, Sullivan also has a goal. He witnessed his wife's murder by a terrorist cell led by an individual known as The Blue Man. At the end of the second installment, Manhattan Revenge, Sullivan learns that The Blue Man may be running a terrorist training camp in the Oregon wilderness.

In Sullivan's Revenge, the third series entry, this backstory is resolved as Sullivan travels to rural Oregon to find The Blue Man. To accomplish the mission, he uses his friend Malta (his assistant in the first two books) to accompany him to the area to help plan the assault. Malta also recruits two hardened mercenaries to assist Sullivan.

Traditionally, men's action-adventure novels of this type require that the hero join the bad guys in an elaborate scheme to destroy the heinous organization from the inside out. Shirley's uses this genre trope to place Sullivan inside the terrorist camp. It's here that Sullivan passes a physical trial to join the organization. In doing so, he comes face to face with The Blue Man. A bulk of the narrative has Sullivan suppressing his rage to better coordinate an assault with his outside team. He also experiences a pleasurable relationship with The Blue Man's daughter. 

There's no real surprises here as Sullivan mows down the terrorists like a high-numbered Mack Bolan installment. Shirley is a great writer and I enjoyed the side story of Malta facing a group of racist local bullies. I don't own the fourth installment of this book, but the events in this novel's finale certainly seems to resolve this opening trilogy of stories. I found all three books to be enjoyable and a great way to propel this series into the upper echelons of men's action-adventure fiction. 

Monday, May 3, 2021

The Specialist #02 - Manhattan Revenge

Horror, action-adventure, and science-fiction author John Shirley used the pseudonym John Cutter for an 11-book vigilante series in the 1980s called The Specialist. I read and enjoyed the series debut, A Talent for Revenge, and have waited long enough to revisit this series. I'm picking up chronologically with the second installment, Manhattan Revenge, originally published in 1984 by Signet.

The early installments have a through-story that neatly allows hero Jack Sullivan to fight the villain of the week while still staying on task with his life’s greater purpose. Sullivan's reason to rise and exist each day is the hope that he will eventually locate his lover's murderer, a mysterious villain named The Blue Man. Because of this continuing storyline, readers should be reading the series in order.

In Manhattan Revenge, Sullivan is renting an apartment in a slummy area of New York City when he's approached by a knock-out named Tessa. She runs to his apartment after two men have broken into her place. After asking and receiving his violent assistance, Tessa rewards Sullivan with a sexy romp on the floor (a non-graphic presentation by the author). Afterwards, she introduces Sullivan to a guy in the building who has been asking about him. It turns out the guy is named Malta, and he’s an old ally of Sullivan's when he was working CIA jobs internationally. Now, Malta mostly just sells guns and information and offers both to Sullivan. The job this time recalled some terrifying scene out of Lee Goldberg's second installment of .357 Vigilante (aka The Jury series).

On the Lower East Side, a gang calling themselves Meat Hooks is assisting a sadistic married couple with child sex trafficking in a base of operations informally called The Meat Locker. Malta has learned about the operation due to a child who escaped the facility. The issue with the police learning about the place is that one of the detectives is in on it. If Malta goes to the cops, the bad cop then goes to the traffickers and the kids are possibly all killed in a scramble. Suspending my disbelief at such a preposterous plot, I went all in. And, I glad I did.

Manhattan Revenge is simply awesome. There's a lot happening at one time but the plot is never too dense to be overly-contrived. After taking the job, Sullivan begins killing Meat Hook members one-by-one with a variety of machine guns, sniper rifles, knives and revolvers (his boom-maker is a .357). While conducting hit-and-run tactics, Sullivan also pairs up with a female cop named Bonnie who has an extraordinary ability to shoot and fu...fight. She does the nasty with Sullivan repeatedly. Also in the mix is a tactic often used by Mack Bolan – turning the enemy against each other. By attacking the drug gang calling themselves Bowlers, it interferes with the sex trafficking ring and pits two criminal enterprises against each other.

John Shirley is such a talented storyteller and he clearly received some influences from the crime-noir genre. At one point, Sullivan uses the alias “Richard Stark”, a tribute to Donald Westlake's pseudonym for the Parker series of heist novels. Also, he has Judas Priest playing in a nearby car when Sullivan is searching for gang members. I couldn't help but think Shirley was thinking of the Priest classic hit “Grinder” with the lyrics fitting the story – “Grinder! Looking for meat!” Get it? Sullivan looking for Meat Hooks. Shirley was winking and typing.

The through-story continues with Sullivan learning from Bonnie that a criminal enterprise led by a nickname Blue Man was being run in the Pacific Northwest. During the battle, Sullivan often tells the consumer that he's headed to Oregon in the next installment. That was an invitation that I gladly accepted with my $1.50 token of appreciation at the used book store. Look for my review of Sullivan's Revenge soon.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, October 21, 2019

Paperback Warrior Podcast - Episode 16

This episode delivers an informative feature on Richard Stark's iconic anti-hero "Parker". Tom also reviews the fifth entry in the Parker series titled "The Score". Eric takes his first look at the 1980s action series "The Specialist" by John Shirley. Additionally, Tom tells viewers about his acquisition of exciting vintage crime-noir. Stream below or download directly (LINK).  Listen to "Episode 16: Parker" on Spreaker.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Traveler #05 - Road War

John Shirley is a dynamic author who is mostly known for his science-fiction, fantasy and media tie-in novels. His 1999 horror collection, “Black Butterflies”, won coveted Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards. As John Cutter, Shirley wrote the 11-volume vigilante series 'The Specialist' and eight volumes of the post-apocalyptic series 'Traveler'. Book five, “Road War”, was released in 1985 by Dell and could be the best that the 'Traveler' series' has to offer.

At the end of the fourth book, “To Kill a Shadow”, the series mythos of Traveler fighting Vallone/Black Rider reached its conclusion (for now). The novel's climax had Traveler meet another road warrior named Link and the two formed an uneasy alliance. The opening pages of “Road War” features the two survivors racing across the Nevada desert in the Meat Wagon (a fortified van). When they hit the dusty town of Dirt, the premise of this installment is unveiled.

In a wild and wooly bar aptly called The Fallout Shelter, an old deranged miner hops up on the bar and starts throwing out maps. The reason? He's growing senile, hates all of the bikers and gangs and wants to see all of them kill each other. The maps spark a treasure hunt for the old man's loot. With that much gold, Traveler and Link know they can buy a lot of supplies for their roaming. 

In what would be a visual feast on the big screen, Traveler and Link race across the desert fighting warring factions of Road Wasps (female biker psychos), Road Rats (male biker psychos), Glory Boys (fake military) and mutant cannibals. Our Travelers use the Meat Wagon (with The Stooges on full blast) as a battering ram, consistently running and gunning through waves of hostile forces on a quest to arrive at “X Marks the Spot”. From fighting off man eating villagers to a showdown in an old mining town, the book's locations are just as big as the characters. 

While a thrill-ride, easily pleasing fans of post-apocalyptic novels, “Road War” is reminiscent of the similar series 'The Last Ranger'. The first four Traveler novels lacked the characters, action and romance of 'The Last Ranger', but by book five it seems like Shirley has righted the ship. Gone is the metaphysical aspects that drowned the last book, replaced by high-powered barbarian road carnage that one would expect from the book's title. This is one of the better books of the post-apocalyptic genre. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Specialist #01 - A Talent for Revenge

Along with writing for rock act Blue Oyster Cult and sci-fi/horror genres, John Shirley kept fairly busy in the 80s authoring a number of men's action adventure works. As D.B. Drumm, Shirley wrote a majority of post-apocalyptic books in the 'Traveler' series. As John Cutter, Shirley wrote an 11-volume series entitled 'The Specialist' for Signet. The series debut, “A Talent for Revenge”, was released in 1984.

The central theme of the series is “toughest action hero of them all” Jack Sullivan's quest to find his wife's murderer(s). Along the way there's plenty of high-stakes adventure and assignments to pad the series. While there isn't a lot of detail in the debut, we do learn that Sullivan is a Vietnam veteran. We also come to the realization that he was involved in the C.I.A. and fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Born in Missouri, Sullivan was raised to do the right thing and help others. His father routinely advised him that “the world is kept from falling apart only by people who help other people without being told to”. Now, in the present day, Sullivan is a mercenary fulfilling the needs of those seeking revenge. The adage of pretending to do it for the money helps rebuke those looking to take advantage. His assistant is a former C.I.A. operative named Malta, who's more of a supplier than a fighter. 

“A Talent for Revenge” has Sullivan accepting a job from Julia Penn. Her sister was killed by a terrorist named Ottoowa, a former African madman who now resides off the coast of France. Penn wants Sullivan to break into Ottoowa's sea-side fortress, decapitate him and bring the head to her on a platter. Seriously. John Shirley seemingly always looks to jump the shark. Built into the narrative is a diverse cast of characters ranging from former allies turned criminal, aspiring madmen, a young beauty/love interest fodder and the cops – the cops who really just stand in the way of justice when it comes to this specific genre.

At 186-pages, and smaller fonts, Shirley pads the novel to a rather unnecessary length. Considering the font size, this should have briskly passed the time at 160ish pages. Often, I felt the climax was above the glass ceiling. I knew the fortress invasion was inevitable, but counted pages until the boots hit the sand. Shirley kept things interesting with plenty of firefights and a tongue in cheek presentation that lightens the mood. Sullivan toys with the bad guys, ridiculing them into killing each other or accepting his challenge despite inexperience. It's these elements that kept me in the fight to the finish.

“A Talent for Revenge” is entertaining and adds a little bit of humor to what is ordinarily just another good guy with a gun prose. There's a contribution to the bigger mystery here, a compelling puzzle piece that may lead Sullivan to his wife's killer. The second book was already written upon this book's release. That allows the reader a sneak peek of “Manhattan Revenge” in the closing pages. Overall, a solid story that left me wanting a sequel. 

Note - A 1994 film entitled "The Specialist" is based on this series. The movie starred Sylvester Stallone as "specialist" Ray Quick. I can't find anything from that film's plot that mirrors events from this book.

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Traveler #04 - To Kill a Shadow

D.B. Drumm (author John Shirley) continues his trek with 'Traveler' entry “To Kill a Shadow” (1984 Dell), the fourth volume of the 80s post-apocalyptic series. The book picks up in the early part of 2005 and finds our hero in California hunting his arch enemies The Black Rider and Major Vallone. Other genre series' will stick to more realistic plot schemes like forging for food and supplies, exploring the barren landscape or just fighting warring bandits. Shirley certainly injects those elements into this series, but has a lot of fun creating horrific mutants and monsters and placing them into the battle sequences to propel the action. “To Kill a Shadow” prominently displays all of the genetic freakshows and monstrosities we've come to love about Shirley's vivid “splatterpunk” style.  

Just nine pages into our narrative Traveler and his “meat wagon” (fortified van) go into battle against giant Cen-Cars. What is that? Well, think of the Greek mythos of Centaurs, those men with human torsos atop a horse body. Now, do the same thing but substitute a car in place of the horse. These Cen-Cars are running rampant all over California devouring humans and animals and utilizing them as fuel sources to propel their car bodies. Wow! In an exhilarating car chase Traveler battles the Cen-Cars and frees human capital from an abandoned diner. The freed prisoners accompany Traveler back to a religious compound ran by a faux Messiah named Brother John.

The middle of the story is typically a slow-burn with building characters and relationships, but Shirley keeps the pedal down and rolls right into more action. The fire fights increase between Brother John's followers/Traveler and the dastardly Glory Boys/The Black Rider (Major Vallone's soldiers). It's Shirley's show, which means that giant snakes with human heads are incorporated into the battle along with more Cen-Cars and an elephant-sized kitty cat. There's plenty of mind control, ESP, telekinesis and spiritual jargon mixed into the story...but again there's giant snakes, human cars and enormous cats to devour all of that nonsense. The author even attempts to humanize the typically immortal Traveler hero, this time keeping him blind for a large portion of the book. Additionally, Traveler takes on a needy child protegee and shows off some emotional depth.

The Vallone/Black Rider mythos may have ended with this installment. It's absorbed most of the first four books and I'm anxious to see if the series will focus on a new direction starting with book five. There's mention of Traveler heading back to Arizona to bed down with his Native American beauty Jan. Wherever Traveler and Shirley go...I'm sure there is some nightmarish ordeal for the reader to enjoy. Fun stories, enjoyable series, talented author – this is why we love the genre.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Traveler #03 - The Stalkers

“On the wasted highways of post-holocaust America, he ran a savage gauntlet for survival…and revenge”

Who can resist that sort of front cover invitation? Unfortunately, “The Stalkers” has horrendous artwork to accompany it. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of Traveler fighting X-Men’s Beast…but we simply can’t unsee it. Nowhere in the book does this scene actually take place. It’s goofy, awful and looks like a piss poor Conan cover.

“The Stalkers” is book number three of the “Traveler” series. It was released in 1984 courtesy of Dell and is written by John Shirley (under house name D.B. Drumm). This one picks right up at the conclusion of “Kingdom Come” with Traveler motoring across Nevada in an effort to locate Major Vallone and the notorious hitman Black Rider. Within the book’s opening chapters, Traveler battles roving mutants called Bloats in some heated action sequences. He loses, and finds himself draped over a tree waiting for the mutants to carve him up for human casserole (“Last Ranger: Cutthroat Cannibals” seemingly ripped this scene in 1988). Teaming with a survivalist group, he manages to escape the mutie clan only to see his precious Meat Wagon stolen. The race is on.

Traveler eventually finds his van and its thief – a Cheyenne beauty named Jan. Eventually the book’s main premise comes to fruition. Jan needs to rescue her brother from a prison compound where, coincidentally, Major Vallone is at. Collectively, with Jan’s people and a former commando teammate, the group infiltrates and liberates the prison.

“The Stalkers” shines with a break-neck pace, plenty of gunfire and a little romantic chemistry. The author utilizes the whole neurotoxin backstory but sets up a neat and tidy remedy to write this out of the rest of the series. Arch enemies Black Rider and Major Vallone live on to fight another day. And sell another book. Kudos for another fine slab of paperback warrior fiction. Books 4 and 5 are on the way courtesy of Abe Books. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, November 20, 2017

Traveler #02 - Kingdom Come

Following on the dirt tracks of “Traveler” debut “First, You Fight” comes the inevitable sequel, “Kingdom Come”. We get Michael Dudikoff this time in place of Christopher Walken as the visual interpretation of our paperback hero. I’m probably reaching, but it’s my show, right? It was released in 1984 via Dell for a cool $2.25. I’m paying $8 for these and they look like used toilet paper. What the Hell?

Like the first book, adorning the back page comes more engaging invitations like, “His only goal: to keep moving, his only skill: staying alive” and “His only code: shoot first and ask questions. He was perfect for the job they had in mind”. What does all that mean? It’s simple – The Traveler is a badass ex-special forces guy who has a neurotoxin in his body that elevates his senses and gives him tremendous integrity. Mix that with the hot wheels violent van, The Meat Wagon, and we’ve got a bona fide post apocalypse star.

Sci-fi author John Shirley takes over this book and the next four, introducing a bit more backstory with Traveler’s pre-nuke existence. His name is actually Kiel Paxton, and his family was killed during the attack. The Traveler is now cruising the wasteland searching for the guy who set him up, Major Vallone, as well as his old commando teammates so he can cure them of their poison. For book two, he’s running rampant in Kansas circa 2004 (back when anything 2000 was surely doomsday) and once again finds himself caught up in the crazy actions of others. While I loved the first book, penned by Ed Naha, this one is a bit messy and…ridiculous. Traveler takes on a new job to escort so-called Princess Sandy of Wichita to Kansas City so she can marry Baron Moorcock’s son (Peter North has nothing on this shit).

The whole thing reminds me of the most recent Mad Max movie, “Fury Road”, as one long race. Traveler fights off some mutants and gangs and generally plays cavalier with more guns and brains. A new arch enemy is introduced named Black Rider, a biker who is on his own assignment from Major Vallone to kill Traveler. Black Rider will show up again in book three…so just wait for it.

Overall, this one disappointed me after the stellar first entry. I sort of held off on reading any more in the series but picked up the more superior third novel, “The Stalkers”. It mirrors the first book’s action and pacing, proving “The Traveler” could be a great series. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Traveler #01 - First, You Fight

The “Traveler” series was introduced in 1984 by Dell books house name D.B. Drumm, better known by his real name, Ed Naha. Naha wrote the first, seventh and 9-13 volumes. John Shirley took over the account for books 2-6 and 8 and is a household name on the science fiction front…but these sorts of 80s nuked out America stories don’t always make the sci-fi lists at your book store. The book’s cover always brings me a chuckle with it’s obvious similarity to the actor Christopher Walken. We get a ton of cool, macho nachos with descriptions like “Fifteen years after doomsday, survival is a vicious game, nobody plays it better than…THE TRAVELER”. Or how about, “He sells his services to the highest bidder. He kills as easily as he blinks an eye”? I like, “...ever since the Nukes came down, he’s the only hero we got!”. Great stuff to introduce what is actually a very good series thus far. I’m about to start book four but wanted to pause long enough to cover some ground with these first three entries.

The series starts with a little history on The Traveler. He’s a special forces guy (aren’t they all) who was admitted into a VA hospital when the bombs fell. The time period of the big one was 1989, and the book fast forwards fifteen years later as our paperback warrior is roaming the wastelands fighting gangs, mutants and what’s left of the government. It’s not a far cry from similar fare like “The Last Ranger” and “Outrider”, so much so that I could misplace The Traveler as Martin Stone. What I love about this series is Shirley’s explanation of why our hero is such a badass. As a covert operative in Latin America, he was unwilfully given an experimental neurotoxin that heightens his senses to extraordinary levels. The downside is that he has to take small supplements of the toxin every few days or he loses his sanity. Thus, the whole point of the story – he drives around (in a fortified van called The Meat Wagon) trying to find the other members of his team so he can remedy them with the toxin. Along the way, he’s searching for Major Vallone, the one responsible for poisoning him.

This first entry, “First, You Fight”, sets up all of the above and introduces us to the character. The storyline has been done to death but is brimming with two-fisted action and a fast pace. Traveler finds himself in a modestly rebuilt town that has two warring factions. Each wants to employ Traveler in an effort to secure a firearm supply being ran in by The Glory Boys, a warmonger faction that is now the US military. Along the way he picks up an extra bit of work – freeing a young girl named Allison from slavery.

This one is the perfect introduction to the series and certainly sets the stage for a host of sequels. The artwork alone is worth the price of admission (the horror!). If you are in the market for more “The Last Ranger”, “End World” and “Outrider” jazz…this one’s solid.