Showing posts with label Western. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Western. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Edge #04 - Killer's Breed

The Edge series by George Gilman (Terry Harknett, 1936-2019) promises to be “The Most Violent Westerns in Print,” but the fourth installment, Killer’s Breed from 1974, is actually a flashback origin story documenting Edge’s adventures fighting in the American Civil War.

The paperback begins in the Post-Civil War era when Josiah “Edge” Hedges finds himself recuperating from a near-death experience where his life as a Union soldier is flashing before his eyes for the heart of the novel.

And with the turn of the page, the reader is back in June 1861 along the Ohio-West Virginia border with Union Cavalry Lieutenant Joe Hedges. He’s serving under Major General George McClellon and his troops are marching into the Battle of Phillipi in what is now West Virginia, the first land combat of the war. The author describes the fighting scenes with vivid portrayals of violence and gore, just like he does in the western novels of the series.

From battle to battle Edge rides with his unit, and the reader gets to watch him harden as person while making smart tactical decisions for himself and the men under his command. It’s difficult to understate the skull-crushing violence and spattered blood and brain tissue depicted in the pages of each battle. Consider yourself warned.

Overall, this was a very satisfying war novel that did a fine job depicting the chaos and brutality of battles on the ground. It wasn’t much of a western, but if a gory fictional chronicle of Civil War combat sounds appealing, you can’t do much better.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Hangman's Territory

Jack M. Bickham (1930-1997) wrote predominantly westerns during his career while also teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma. Hangman’s Territory was half of a 1961 Ace Double later reprinted as a stand-alone paperback.

Our hero is Eck Jackson and he’s on his way to Rimrock, Montana at the request of a friend. The town has been taken over by Ebeneezer Taunt, who is acting as a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner along with a phalanx of gunmen. Taunt has a hard-on for hanging and has erected a six-rope gallows in the center of town to kill a half-dozen men with one lever pull. To bolster the credibility of his fiefdom, Taunt is importing an Ohio lawyer named John Powers to be his public prosecutor.

When we meet Powers, he’s actually an honest and earnest lawyer who accepts the job remotely with a legitimate interest in bringing law and order to a western town. He packs up his wife and heads west to become a public servant to the people of Rimrock. Will he buy-into Taunt’s perverted version of justice or will he stand up for what is right?

Bubbling under the surface of the tensions is a conflict between sheep herders and cattle farmers. Both groups want to use the same public lands for grazing, but the valley upon which the town sits just isn’t big enough to accommodate both the cattle people and the sheep people. In the world of western fiction, this is what is known as a “range war” when things turn violent. For his part, Judge Taunt, his lawman, and his hangman are all siding with the cattlemen.

The comic relief of the novel lies in the character of Boom Boom O’Malley, a redheaded ruffian explosives man who dresses in crazy outfits and is always looking for a fight. The author renamed and rebranded the character later in his career for his Wildcat O’Shea successful series of westerns written under the name Jeff Clinton (Hat Tip to the Six-Gun Justice website for also noticing the same thing).

The author brings all the characters together for an actioned-packed conflict that’s both exciting and violent. Overall, this was a very satisfying, quick-read western and an easy recommendation to fans of the genre. Bickham was a pro whose books deserve to be reprinted and remembered.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Apache Wells

According to the Cutting Edge Books author page, Robert Steelman (1914-1994) worked for the Army as a civil electronics technician from 1936-1949 before publishing his first of many westerns in 1956. According to the author's papers at the University of Wyoming, one his earliest manuscripts was originally titled Road to the Wells. It was published by Ballantine in 1959 using the revised title Apache Wells. Cutting Edge Books have released a new version of the book in both ebook and paperback formats.

It's 1876 and seventeen-year old Joey is traveling with a wagon train across Arizona Territory. Along with his older brothers Saul and Dave, Joey's destination is the fabled golden land of California. While the perilous trek is long and dusty, the most dangerous aspect of the trip is found within. Both Saul and Dave become embroiled in a bitter rivalry concerning Saul's young wife Eda. Confined in a hostile territory ripe with Apache attacks and savagery, Dave and Eda depart to city life in Tucson, leaving Saul enraged. He decides to forego the trip to California and instead begins to carve out a homestead in Apache Wells.

Steelman's plotting is superb when Joey is forced to choose sides between his warring brothers. After an argument with Saul, Joey heads to Tucson where he is robbed by a prostitute and her pimp. Left penniless, he heads back to Saul to help him defend his newly built homestead against the raids of Apache attacks. This propulsive plot device delivers a frantic pace as readers are thrust into these violent encounters. Saul is forced to protect his young brother while also attempting to build a fortified defense against the raiders. There is an exceptional amount of detail spent on planning and defending the attacks, which I found added a tremendous sense of realism. 

However, the other plot point that Steelman cleverly balances is a familiar one – the inevitable traditional western story of land grabbing. In this case, it's a land baron that is controlling the town's businesses and assets. He needs Saul's newly acquired land to host his new shipment of cattle. When Dave agrees to side with the land baron, Joey finds himself in a fight to either protect Saul from Dave and other hired guns or from negotiating with Saul to leave the land and homestead he's fairly earned.

Apache Wells is a terrific tale that highlights the importance of family, responsibility, and commitment. Steelman's prose is written in cowboy dialect that is similar to Zane Grey or Walt Coburn. While that rich cowboy-speak may be off-putting to some, I thoroughly enjoyed the authenticity. Additionally, I liked the minor hints of Biblical components and theology as well as the various humorous bits sprinkled in courtesy of a cagey old mountain man. Thanks to Cutting Edge Books for re-introducing this great western to newer generations.

Collector's Note – Ballantine published a second printing in 1965. My version is the 1972 paperback by Ballantine with a cover by Frank McCarthy. The most admired version of the book is probably the 1975 Ballantine paperback with a painted cover by Boris Vallejo (Conan, Red Sonja).

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Magpie Coffin

The genre “splatter western” came to fruition when Patrick C. Harrison III of Death's Head Press made it a company goal to release a series of western trade paperbacks featuring explicit violence and gore. There have been at least 13 paperbacks published by Death's Head Press as their “splatter western” offerings, but countless others have appeared from various self-published authors and small publishers. I've always enjoyed the western genre, so I borrowed a friend's copy of The Magpie Coffin (2020). It was written by Wile E. Young and represents the very first Death's Head Press splatter western title published. 

The Black Magpie is the book's anti-hero protagonist, a moniker heaped upon a notorious outlaw named Salem Covington. He's an American Civil-War Veteran that prowls the wild frontier (for reasons never really disclosed) killing and torturing bad people (?). He collects pieces of his victims – pieces of flesh, scraps of clothing – and uses them in black magic rituals to gain power. He possesses a gun that apparently (and magically) doesn't miss and it is revealed that Covington can't be killed by bullets. So, who the Hell is he then?

That's the part that Young never really dishes out to his reader, and that's the most frustrating part of the book's narrative. For reasons unclear to me, the author only provides hints of Covington's backstory and life purpose. For example, there is a brand of some sort below Covington's eye that provokes stark fear for anyone that sees it. But, what is it? Young really doesn't elaborate. There's an entire scene in the book where readers finally have the opportunity to learn more about Covington's mission when he meets “the coffin maker”. This man has some sort of history with Covington, but nothing specific is ever mentioned. It's all incredibly frustrating and senseless.

The Magpie Coffin's narrative features Covington on the revenge trail for the group of killers that murdered his mentor, a Comanche shaman named Dead Bear. Covington locates Dead Bear's corpse (far too easily) and puts him in a coffin wrapped in chains. But, Dead Bear is still somehow alive spiritually, which begs the question on why Dead Bear doesn't just perform his own revenge. Nevertheless, Covington rescues a young Union soldier and a prostitute and takes the two with him on a quest to hunt down the killers.

If you enjoy graphic violence often found in the horror and splatterpunk genre, then the sheer levels of brutality should be a pleasure for you. Like I wrote in my review for Suburban Gothic (co-wrote by a splatter western author Bryan Smith), the details of raping a corpse, scissoring off testicles, or sewing lips shut does nothing for me. It's all shock and awe, which isn't a satisfying substitute for a riveting story. There's not enough left in The Magpie Coffin contents to warrant a compelling read. This is standard volume feedback with gore. Nothing more, nothing less. Skip it.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, November 6, 2023

The Trailsman #87 - Brothel Bullets

Jon Messmann (1920-2004) created the popular Trailsman adult western series and the superior, but less successful, Canyon O’Grady series. In Trailsman #87 from 1989, Messmann brings these two heroes together for the first time in a battle against the white-slavery skin trade.

The paperback hits the ground running with Skye Fargo (The Trailsman) rescuing a teenage girl from a thug who snatched her off the trails to make her work as whore in Cactus Corners, Arizona. Fargo is a sex-positive kinda guy, but this forcible arrangement offends his sensibilities. The girl’s sister is being held at the brothel, and there’s a rich father who will pay to have his daughters returned. It’s hero time.

Recovering the girls is simple enough, but Fargo is re-hired to capture the human traffickers behind this kidnapping operation and deliver them to the father’s ranch for some frontier justice. Along the way, he teams up with a plucky woman whose best friend was kidnapped by the same crew.

Brothel Bullets was released in March 1989, three months before the first Canyon O’Grady novel. It’s clear that Messmann was hoping to hype the character in The Trailsman before rolling out the full O’Grady experience. O’Grady doesn’t make his appearance until page 122 of this 166 page paperback. It’s a brief team-up, and O’Grady doesn’t even get laid or discuss his day job as the President’s own secret agent. In fairness, O’Grady’s appearance isn’t mentioned on the book’s cover, description or inside blurb, so the publisher wasn’t overtly hyping this prequel. I suspect I’m probably the only reader mildly excited about this glimpse into the Jon Sharpe Extended Universe.

In any case, Brothel Bullets is a damn fine installment in The Trailsman series. There’s a solid mystery regarding exactly who is behind the sex trafficking operation and plenty of action sequences along the way. Because this is an adult western, there’s many hot sex scenes, if that’s your jam. The adult westerns tend to be fungible with little to distinguish one title from another, but this one is a standout among them. Read and enjoy.

Fun Fact: Canyon O’Grady and Skye Fargo team up again in Trailsman #100: Riverboat Gold from April 1990.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Coffin #01 - Death Wish

Budd Lewis (1948-2014) began his entertainment career by directing television commercials between 1970 to 1974. Beginning in 1974, Lewis wrote for Warren Publishing, contributing his dark imagination to stories in Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. Lewis also co-created The Rook. Later, he would write for Hollywood, including Terminator and Dark Angel, as well as animated shows like The Smurfs and The Real Ghostbusters. The focus here at Paperback Warrior is on his western hero Coffin, which first appeared in Eerie in 1974. The popularity of the hero resulted in multiple appearances in the comic magazine. The vivid, violent artwork of these stories was created by Spanish artist Jose Ortiz (1932-2013; Rogue Trooper, Judge Dredd).

If you enjoy the vicious nature of the Piccadilly Cowboys of the 1970s, including their savage titles like Edge, Adam Steele, and Apache, then Coffin is a darn-near must-read title from that same era. The character's first appearance proves to be a true origin tale called “Death Wish”, which features 12 gruesome pages of western storytelling with an obvious horror overtone (obligatory for Eerie). 

In this story, readers are introduced to Coffin, an unnamed protagonist traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona desert in 1889. In flashbacks, Coffin is a smiling polished sales representative for Sharps Rifles, with his contract being the U.S. Army. Abruptly, the stagecoach is attacked by what appears to be Native American warriors on horseback. The drivers are both killed and the coach tips over, spilling Coffin onto the hot sand. Grabbing his belongings, including a rifle, Coffin scurries to safety. From the nearby rocks and foliage, Coffin sees the other travelers, all women, savagely murdered by the warriors.

Coffin, an average guy thrust into a nightmarish scenario, mistakenly takes the path of vengeance. He tracks through the desert and finds a tribe of Native Americans. From several yards away, Coffin shoots the men with his rifle. Before disposing of the whole tribe, Coffin is ambushed by a trio of braves and is brutally beaten. But, beyond the physical abuse, Coffin is cursed by the tribe. His curse is that he can never die. He can experience horrific pain – being shot, burned, skinned, and tortured beyond recognition - but he can never die. The tribe placed this curse on him because...get this...Coffin killed the wrong tribe to avenge the death of the stagecoach travelers! Further, on the last pages of the story, readers learn the real identify of the men who attacked the coach. This surprise ending was brilliant. Coffin totally screwed up, but that's what makes the story so entertaining. He wasn't born a hero, he isn't a hero. Instead, he's an average guy who just made a mistake and it cost him dearly.

The Coffin character would re-appear in Eerie issues #67 (Aug 1975), #68 (Sep 1975), #70 (Nov 1975), #130 (Mar 1982), and #137 (Dec 1982). The concept is that Coffin will rally behind the Native American cause at a point in history when the various tribes are warring with the military and also being brutalized into accepting shitty government deals. He also becomes a lone-avenger fighting insane religious cults and other nefarious predators. The Eerie reprints are available by Dark Horse and feature the Coffin stories.

Friday, August 4, 2023

Crossfire Trail

When I browse “best of” lists associated with the literary work of Louis L'Amour, a few books seem to always make the list – Hondo, Flint, The Sacket Brand, The Haunted Mesa, and Last of the Breed. Aside from those, every third or fourth list seems to incorporate his 1954 western novel Crossfire Trail (Ace). This could be due to the 12.5 million viewers that tuned into the 2001 made-for-cable television movie of the same name that featured Tom Selleck. I've always heard good things about the book, so I decided to finally give it a read.

The book begins with protagonist Rafe Caradec (last name Covington in the film), a soldier-of-fortune,gambler, journeyman, aboard a ship bound for San Francisco. His friend Charles Rodney has just been beaten nearly to death by the notorious ship captain. In his dying breath, Rodney reminds readers, and Caradec, that he paid a businessman named Barkow the money owed for his Wyoming ranch. Rodney has paperwork that he has left for Caradec to deliver to his widow, Ann. Then, Rodney dies, and Caradec and some fellow shipmates escape the vessel and head to Wyoming to deliver the news.

When Caradec arrives in the small Wyoming town of Painted Rock, he discovers that Ann has been fed a lie by a group of businessmen who all have a reason to own Rodney's ranch. First, they advise her that the ranch wasn't paid for. Second, they have explained to her that her husband was killed by a Sioux war party a year earlier. When Caradec attempts to explain the truth to Ann, she refuses to listen to his “lies”. 

The plot propels as Caradec, in a quest to uphold his promise to Rodney, must fight the businessmen responsible for the corruption and lies. There's Barkow, now Ann's fiance, along with another vile villain named Dan Shute and the obligatory hired gunmen that murder anyone disputing Painted Rock's form of justice. 

Crossfire Trail is an expanded version of a short-story called "The Trail to Crazy Man", originally published in the July, 1948 issue of West (under a pseudonym of Jim Mayo). There's plenty of action, fisticuffs, fast-draws, and a love interest that anchors the narrative firmly in the “traditional old-west formula”. While it was predictable with the familiar L'Amour trope of “gunman protects widow and ranch”, the writing was superb as always. There's nothing to dislike about Crossfire Trail and I thoroughly enjoyed the banter between Caradec and his friends. As an added bonus, there is a side-story of Caradec rescuing a young Sioux woman, a plot point that serves dividends later. 

If you love traditional western storytelling, chances are you've probably already read Crossfire Trail. If not, I recommend it as your next cowboy yarn. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, June 14, 2023

North and South

In 1982, paperback author John Jakes (1932-2023) struck literary gold with his 800+ page Pre-Civil War epic, North and South. The bestseller furthered the author’s career as one of the most popular American authors of historical fiction while spawning two sequels and a hit 1985 miniseries adaptation.

The novel opens in 1686 with the story of how a young ironworker named Joseph Moffat finds himself fleeing Scotland for what is now Pennsylvania under the name Joseph Hazard to avoid a murder charge. Jakes’ storytelling sucks you right in with violence and adventure. We also meet a young aristocrat from France named Charles Main (formerly Charles de Main) who is an early settler in the American colony of Carolina making his money in the pelt and slave trade.

These dual prologues provide the reader with a brief explanation of how the Hazard family and Main family find themselves in the North and South respectively. The novel’s linear action really begins in 1842 when George Hazard on Pennsylvania and Orry Main of South Carolina find themselves in the same cadet class at West Point Academy. This is 19 years before the U.S. Civil War kicked off.

By this point, the Hazard family has a successful iron company, and the Main family own a rice plantation with over 150 slaves. Despite the cultural divide, the two lads become fast friends. George is full of humor and knows how to charm the ladies. Orry is more serious and reserved with his only focus being a success as a soldier. Upon graduation, they are deployed to the same infantry unit just as the Mexican-American war is heating up over the annexation of Texas.

Throughout the novel, the moral quandary of slavery is always humming in the background. The Northern characters find the practice repellant, and the Southern characters find a myriad of ways to rationalize enslaving blacks. This percolates up in heated debates throughout the novel that eventually divide the young nation and spark a civil war.

The author was also influenced by plantation novels like Mandingo/Falconhurst series in depicting the savagery of slavery and the stigma of mixed-race romances. In these scenes, there are some shocking images of torturous violence and others of forbidden love. The sex in North and South is all off-page.

The Civil War is not the centerpiece of this epic novel. The War Between the States is the focus of the 1984 sequel, Love and War. Instead, this first book in the trilogy focuses on the North vs. South Cold War — the culture war, if you will, — driven by disagreements regarding slavery. The two families and their respective journeys taking them up to this great divide during a fascinating time in America’s evolution as a nation are the vehicles for Jakes to examine this time in history.

I enjoyed North and South quite a bit, but the book is long. And it felt long. Unlike big books like Lonesome Dove and Pillars of the Earth where the pages fly by and you don’t want it to end, North and South felt like trying to devour a ten-season Netflix series. It’s a lot to carry but never hard to follow. Nevertheless, there are way too many storylines and characters. The fact that there are two more 800-page behemoths in the trilogy makes my head ache.

If you can gather up the energy for a historical epic novel, North and South is a fine choice. It’s a giant meal, but fully-digestible if you’re in the right headspace. I want to know what happens to these characters in the war and thereafter, so I’ll definitely read the sequels. But I need some 180-page pulpy paperbacks to cleanse my palette first. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 9, 2022

High Lonesome

High Lonesome, a 1962 stand-alone novel by Louis L'Amour is a “chase the chasers” western. It's a rarely used formula where a rider, or group of riders, is chasing after a group that is chasing after someone else. In this novel, L'Amour turns the concept on its head by including one more group of chasers. In essence, it's the posse chasing the chasers who are running down the chasers. I'll sort this out for you, and by the end you'll be wanting to read it. Trust me.

The novel, set in the American Southwest in 1881, begins with one of my favorite aspects of western storytelling, the old bank-robbing bit. Considine is the main character, a fast-draw specialist that's an outlaw. He has a four-man heist crew knocking over banks and cracking safes. The first few pages feature a robbery in progress that leads to just a few bucks. So, the foursome form a plan to head to Considine's former hometown to knock over the bank there and to even the score with an old friend that's become the sheriff. 

To balance out the criminal protagonist, L'Amour introduces an older outlaw named Dave Spanyer and his adult daughter Lennie. Spanyer has decided to become an honest man, and with his daughter the two plan to cross the barren desert wastelands to California to begin a new life. However, they run into the bank-robber group and Lennie immediately falls for Considine despite her father's disapproval. It's in this town that Considine's men rob the bank and head out of town with a ton of cash. A posse immediately gives chase, pushing Considine into an unusual mindset. 

Considine realizes that Spanyer and Lennie are surely going to be tracked and killed by an Apache war-party. So, he heads the group in that direction to contend with the Apache nation rather than fleeing over the border into Mexico. So, we circle back to the formula presented in my opener – the posse chasing Considine's crew while they pursue the Apache warriors who are chasing after Spanyer and Lennie. Got it?

Sometimes L'Amour's stories can be so basic that they border on complacency. But, High Lonesome is damn near perfect. There are so many stories weaved into this tale – the old outlaw (Spanyer) witnessing the next generation of outlaws (Considine's crew) commit to a life of crime, a life he wants to escape and forget. Lennie's attraction to Considine could be a realization of her love for her father, a need to be protected by a man with no laws. Considine's feud with his old friend is a story unto itself, which plays out nicely in the finale. Additionally, there's the question of Considine himself going honest after facing so many struggles as a criminal. 

In terms of action, it doesn't get much better than this. The last 40 pages are an absolute barnburner as Spanyer, Lennie, and Considine's gang make a final stand on top of High Lonesome, an old outlaw hideaway nestled in the steep rocky cliffs. Kudos to L'Amour for bringing in the rifles and allowing them to outweigh six-guns in the novel's final fight. I love a great six-gun showdown, but something about the long rifle always appeals to me in westerns. 

High Lonesome is one of the best vintage books I've read this year (2022) and an absolute must-read for any western fan. With its interesting blend of personal redemption, captivating life choices, gunfights, and assortment of heroes and anti-heroes, the narrative never becomes uninspiring or dull. It's a real treat when L'Amour is “on” and he was on fire for this one. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Silver Canyon

"Riders of the Dawn" originally appeared as a short story in Giant Western's June, 1951 issue. L'Amour expanded the story into a full-length novel, Silver Canyon, in 1956. I typically struggle with the old-fashioned range-war westerns, and this novel, like many of L'Amour's works, uses that same, well-worn plot device. I've always found the concept uninspiring and dull, but I was hopeful this one would surprise me. 

Silver Canyon lies near a fertile, plentiful range that is perfect for growing burgers and steaks. The issue is that it's divided three ways. The Two-Bar is a ranch on the eastern side. The Boxed M, and the CP brand make up two separate ranches on the west. In the middle is water, a place named Cottonwood Wash, which is almost completely controlled by the Two-Bar “good guy”. He wants peace and prosperity, but the other two need him out, thus they can continue their fight over what's left. The deciding factor could be a lanky, gun-fighting drifter named Matt Brennan.

L'Amour makes it clear that Brennan is a seasoned pro, a man's man that has worn many different hats over the years. He's been a gambler, lawman, gun-fighter, cowpoke, and a plain 'ole fighter for many years. So, another range-war isn't anything new. Brennan's name proceeds him, so when he arrives in town the ranges immediately want to hire his gun. Quickly, Brennan finds that the old man solely running the Two-Bar is an honest, hardworking rancher that just wants lines clearly defined between right and wrong. If there is any allegiance to be had, Brennan wants to back the Two-Bar. 

Brennan makes a deal with the old man. He can own a small piece of the Two-Bar, settle down, and raise some beef if he can assist in the ranch's defense. It all goes as planned until Brennan finds the old man a bloody heap full of holes. Surprisingly, the old-timer leaves Brennan the whole ranch as his dying wish. But, nothing has really changed other than Brennan is the new target for the rival ranches. Can he survive the onslaught? Further, can he successfully sway one of the rival rancher's daughters into marriage?

While not being innovative, or particularly fresh, Silver Canyon was still a lot of fun to read. The range-war stuff, while not my favorite dish, was still easily digestible. The reason is that L'Amour adds a murder mystery into the narrative, one that involves a murdered man prior to Brennan's arrival in town. This man apparently possessed clues that something beyond river water is what the ranches all want. It's no secret based on the book's title what the main objective is. It doesn't spoil any reading pleasure. Silver Canyon is recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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

Buy a copy of this book 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. Get a copy of the book HERE.

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 3, 2022

Paperback Warrior Episode 101 - Steve Frazee

It's a new era as Paperback Warrior storms into the next 100 episodes. #101 features a look at western and action-adventure author Steve Frazee's life and career in the pulps and paperbacks. Tom explains to listeners his cash-grab scheme using his local library and Eric discusses his recent western paperback acquisitions. Additionally, horror author Ronald Malfi, crime-fiction author Lionel White, and sci-fi writer Robert Silverberg. Watch the show's video HERE, stream audio and video below, or download the audio directly HERE.

Listen to "Episode 101 - Steve Frazee" on Spreaker.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The Comanche Kid

James Robert Daniels is a professional actor and director that performed and wrote for theaters like Shakespeare and Company, Cleveland Play House, Kansas City Repertory, and Asolo. He performed at the Kennedy Center, and contributed to Shakespeare festivals in Illinois, Texas, and Oregon. Daniels served in the infantry in the Vietnam War, and used some of his military experience in his first novel, The Comanche Kid. The western was published in 2021 by Cutting Edge Books

The book begins with one of the more powerful opening paragraphs I've read:

It was early spring when the ocotillo was in bloom that the raiders come down on us and killed everyone but me and Sally. I remember the ocotillo because the tiny red blossoms looked like splattered blood, even though the rains had washed most of the real blood into the earth by then. 

The narrator is Jane Fury, a 16 year-old girl who survives a Comanche attack that savagely kills her parents and brother. In the melee, her sister Sally is taken captive. After burying her family, Jane tracks down some of the murderers, killing four of the raiding party with her father's rifles. Her primary goal is to find and kill her mother's rapist and murderer, a Comanche warrior deemed One-Eye.

After five action-packed chapters, the novel settles into a literary, coming-of-age tale when Jane, disguising herself as a 14 year-old boy (nicknamed The Comanche Kid), herds her family's remaining cattle into a larger and longer cattle drive. The comparisons to Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove are probably found here, the inevitable long and winding trail drive that forces the cowboys, and Jane, into battles against nature, each other, and the Comanche tribe. In this regard, I would also compare it to Ralph Compton's successful Trail Drive series.

On the Six-Gun Justice Podcast, Daniels explained to host and author Paul Bishop that he was influenced by Clair Huffaker's The Cowboy and the Cossack. The concept of a long cattle drive developing characters, personalities, and story helped define the style and framework of The Comanche Kid. Additionally, the author explained that the copious amounts of profanity in his book was something he personally experienced during his military career. Cowboys used coarse language, and the book is more realistic because of it. Daniels' love of Shakespeare is a large portion of the book's dialogue, central to a character nicknamed Shakespeare and his romantic chemistry with Jane.

My personal takeaway from The Comanche Kid is twofold. One, the book is certainly a traditional western tale, falling into one of only a handful of possible genre plot devices - the cattle drive. I enjoyed the thirst for revenge and the extraordinary action sequences that brought the revenge to fruition. But, it's a long journey between points A and B, and by page 300 I was simply worn out. I think I needed something a little more to keep me turning the pages. 

Thankfully, the second, and most prevalent aspect, is that The Comanche Kid is a conversation between Jane and God. This was the unique, most compelling portion of the book. Jane was raised as a God-fearing Christian, but struggles with her beliefs and faith after her family's murder. Throughout the book, she questions God, demands that her questions be answered, and walks a balance beam of faith and non-belief. I thought this challenge for forgiveness, retribution, and the struggles of devotion carried the narrative into a thought-provoking realm of enjoyment.  

If you enjoy sweeping, more epic western novels, then The Comanche Kid is your ticket to escapism. Daniels provides a sense of stirring adventure while successfully capturing an authentic, violent portrait of life on the frontier. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Gun Hell

Riley Ryan only wrote one novel in his life, but he gained some mileage. His sole novel was a western that began its shelf-life as The Dakota Deal, originally published by Lion Books in 1954. It was later reprinted by Lion Books again as Gun Hell. In 1966, it was published by Tower as The Oath. It was translated into Swedish and released as Blod for Blod. Most recently, it has been published by Cutting Edge Books as Gun Hell and also included in the publisher's compilation Big Bold West 12. Why so many printings? It's an unusual western. 

Johnny Burr makes a habit of burying his guns. In fact, he buries them and then shortly has a revelation and digs them back up. Readers learn he does this a lot. But, Burr is conflicted on what he wants in life. Should he attempt to live a happy existence free from his past or ride the trail for vengeance? That's the conflict that saturates Ryan's narrative.

In flashback sequences, Burr recounts the night that his farm was burned by bandits and his wife was raped and killed. During the attack, Burr sliced the bandit leader on the chest, leaving several deep gashes. These cuts were a mark, and now Burr is hunting for the scarred man. But, he isn't a violent guy, and generally isn't cut from the same cloth as your typical paperback hero. So, it's unique in the way that the hero is weak and discouraged. 

Like most westerns, Ryan uses the old western trope of a range war as the battleground for Burr and the bandits to settle the score. There's the Big Horn and Little Horn ranges, one filled with livestock, but very little water, the other the exact opposite. The range war erupts near Fargo, North Dakota and Burr finds himself employed by both ranches as he hones in on his wife's killer. There's a load of violence at the end, and occasional skirmishes leading to the finish. There's also a romantic relationship introduced that brings Burr full circle – bury the guns or fire them.

If you enjoy range war westerns and unlikely heroes, then Gun Hell should be a rewarding reading experience. It's certainly different, but carries the same traditional staples as the typical mid-20th century western. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Masked Rider Western #07 - Iron Horse Gunsmoke

Donald Bayne Hobart (1898-1970) began his career writing song lyrics and poems for romance magazines. His most popular literary work was the 19-year run of Whistling Waddy stories in Argosy. But, Hobart also wrote many novellas for the western pulp Masked Rider Western. My first experience with Hobart is his novella “Iron Horse Gunsmoke”, which appeared in Masked Rider Western, July 1938. The novella was also released as a paperback by Curtis Books in 1965 with a Steve Holland cover. Thankfully, Bold Venture Press has made many of the Masked Rider Western issues available today as affordable reprints. In their series order, this novella is in Masked Rider Western #07 (2022).

Wayne Morgan is the former cowpoke turned masked vigilante that fights the typical western criminals like outlaws, cattle thieves, and land barons. He rides a horse named Midnight and partners with a Native American named Blue Hawk.

In “Iron Horse Gunsmoke”, the bad guys are buried in a feud between the railroad and the ranchers. The C.W. Railroad is clanging steel across the dusty mesa as modern ingenuity tames the wild, wild west. Like all of the traditional beef ranchers, they are opposed to bringing in the trains. However, the two factions benefit from each other. Trains make the beef sell faster and can deliver supplies quickly. The railroad needs cargo to haul, thus the ranchers are valuable. Each gain something from the other. 

In an effort to create abrasion, elevate hostilities, and stall work, someone leading a team of masked raiders is inflicting casualties and damage to the railroad and the Bar O. Each party feels that the other is responsible, thus a war brews between these two industries. Hoping to settle the feud and find the culprit, Morgan goes undercover as a cowpoke for the Bar O. As a covert operative, the fast-draw, eagle-eyed gunslinger can hopefully save the day.

Like Norman Daniels, Johnston McCulley, Gunnison Steele, and Walter Tompkins, Hobart proves he can write a Masked Rider Western tale with the best of the pulpsters. There's a lot of over-the-top action, brawls, and tough-guy talk to sop up the story, which in itself is just a traditional pulp told numerous times with different characters. 

“Iron Horse Gunsmoke” never slows down, racing through the narrative from the opening run 'n gun scene through the book's finale. If you like western pulps, then you'll love what Bold Venture Press is doing with these classic Masked Western Rider novellas. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Pay the Devil

There's no doubt that Jack Higgins, real name Henry Patterson, is a household name and one of the cornerstones of the second generation of action-adventure novelists. By the mid-1970s, most of the author's literary work from the late 1950s through the 1970s was re-published as paperbacks under the name familiar name of Higgins. Patterson's 1963 hardback novel, Pay the Devil, was one of the few novels absent from the 1970s reprints. Oddly, the book wasn't released until 2000. It was revised and published as a paperback by Berkley. 

While most of the author's novels are written as modern, high-adventure novels typically placed in the same time period as their publishing date. Pay the Devil is mainly set in 1865, just one year after the American Civil-War. The hero, Irish-American Clay Fitzgerald, is introduced in the book's prologue (which I believe was written decades later as an addition to the book's reprint) as a Confederate Brigadier General. This exciting prologue has Fitzgerald and his tattered band of rebels receiving orders that General Lee is surrendering the Confederacy at Appomattox, Virginia. Knowing the war is now over, Fitzgerald and his men come to the aid of a young man who is being lynched. These early pages show readers that Fitzgerald is not only a respectable man of action, but also a trained battlefield surgeon. These elements are both important to the narrative. 

After the surrender, Fitzgerald learns that his Uncle has died in Ireland and that his inheritance is waiting. The book then resumes the action one-year later as Fitzgerald and his friend Josh arrive in the Irish town of Drumore. There they learn that Fitzgerald's inheritance is a moderate amount of money and a burned estate. After an exchange with some of the residents, Fitzgerald learns that the town is essentially being bullied by Sir George Hamilton. As a servant to the British, it's Hamilton's job to keep the Irish poor and famished. Fitzgerald, fearing the Irish will never gain independence, assumes a neutral role. But after seeing the town's exhaustive efforts to fight back, Fitzgerald dons a costume and assumes the identity of a folk hero vigilante named Captain Swing. As this masked rider, Fitzgerald fights for the people. 

This was a really different Jack Higgins novel. While not a traditional western, it's more like Higgins' version of Batman. While there's plenty of action, Fitzgerald's role as caregiver to the poor really defines the character. By day, Fitzgerald can rub shoulders with Irish and British aristocracy, but at night his surgical skills and fighting demeanor resembles a pulpy sort of hero. With a saber and Dragoon, this character represents nobility and pride, a continuation of his background in the American Civil-War – one war just exchanged for another.

As a fan of Higgins, I can't find anything not to like about Pay the Devil. I am a little puzzled on why this novel wasn't reprinted decades earlier. Perhaps the author's iconic World War II and nautical themes were so overpowering that publishers didn't wish to risk his literary dominance at that point. While it's a different time period, the author's heroes are nearly interchangeable. This book should please the author's immense fanbase, but also could serve as a pulpy alternative western for lovers of Lone Ranger, Masked Rider, and other old west adventures. 

Buy the eBook HERE.