Showing posts with label Wolfpack Publishing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Wolfpack Publishing. Show all posts

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Blood Red Sun

Stephen Mertz cut his teeth writing hard-nosed action-adventure fiction set in Don Pendleton's Mack Bolan literary universe. In the 1980s, while penning some of the very best Executioner novels, Mertz expanded the scope of his writing by elevating genre fiction into a much broader scale. That successful experiment was Blood Red Sun, a novel first published in 1989 by independent publisher Diamond Books, a company funded by The Destroyer author Warren Murphy. The book was later reprinted by Crossroad Press in 2012, and is now available in a sleek, revised new edition from Wolfpack Publishing.

Unlike many WWII military-fiction novels, Blood Red Sun is unique in its premise and timeline. The narrative takes place in September, 1945, after Japan's formal surrender to the Allied forces following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book's protagonist is savvy Sergeant John Ballard, a thirty-five year-old fighting man who has spent the majority of the war engaged in combat in the Pacific Theater. What's left of his unit is ultimately just two men, Tex Hanklin and Wilbur Mischkie, both of which play important roles in Ballard's next assignment – preventing the assassination of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.

In the book, Japan's surrender leads to a fragmented state of affairs for the country's military leadership. Within the ranks of the upper echelon, conspirators exist to prevent Japan's formal surrender to MacArthur. These conspirators refuse to accept defeat and feel that Japan's Emperor, Hirohito, is doing an injustice and disservice to the proud Japanese people. The schemers, all defined as opposing forces of Hirohito, are secretly building their own alliances to counter each other. It's essentially a den of snakes that also involves a proud Japanese flying Ace named Baron Tamura. The Baron's portion of the narrative involves his niece Keiko, a twenty-four year-old woman sympathetic to the Allied force initiative. Keiko also plays a prominent role as a potential love interest for Ballard. 

As a fan of Stephen Mertz's pulpy writing style, and his masterful grip on men's action-adventure writing, I was savoring the opportunity to read Blood Red Sun. Mertz draws on his prior experiences and strengths to create the story. As a fan of his M.I.A. Hunter series, I could see some similarities. 

The characters Ballard, Hanklin, and Mischkie reminded me of M.I.A. Hunter trio of Stone, Wiley, and Loughlin. Like a great M.I.A. Hunter novel, the same type of setup presents itself here when Ballard's team enters the Japanese jungle to retrieve a military leader. They rely on a small band of Filipino guerrillas to help them with the mission. This same sort of scenario was often used as Stone's team entered Asian jungles with an assist from Laos, Cambodian, or “South Vietnamese” guerrillas. Mertz even introduces ninjas into the story, an element that M.I.A. Hunter co-writer Joe Lansdale seemed to fixate on, shown in the series' fourth installment, Mountain Massacre. Additionally, the characteristics of Tex Hanklin was similar to Stone's Texan teammate Hog Wiley. 

These similarities to other Mertz creations doesn't make Blood Red Sun unoriginal or any less enjoyable. Quite the contrary. In fact, it illustrates how Mertz is cohesive and continuous, using his strengths and experiences as a genre storyteller to broaden the narrative. In fact, this is Mertz's most ambitious novel as it incorporates a lot of fine details surrounding WWII, the political landscape of Japan and the U.S. during that era, and famous, historical figures that are featured as characters in the story. Mertz takes some liberty with these characters, but left me feeling as though what he presented in terms of command, dialogue, and behavior, was probably art imitating real life.

In terms of action-adventure, Blood Red Sun has it all. The white-knuckled scenes of Ballard storming a landing strip with all guns blazin' was ripped right out of the pages of a vibrant Men's Action-Adventure Magazine. Mertz's descriptions of walls descending in bullet-hail, prison breaks, Kamikaze dives, ninja attacks and jungle warfare are balanced well with the political, backroom brawling conducted by various Japanese and American military leaders. 

Mertz's novels like Blood Red Sun are positioned on a grander international scale like The Castro Directive (Cuba) and The Korean Intercept (Asia), but still possess the men's action-adventure tropes that make the books way more enjoyable than a bestselling Tom Clancy ghostwritten tech-thriller. Mertz's literary mojo is authentic, extremely enjoyable, and saturated with human emotion that easily conveys to his readers. Blood Red Sun is a scorching red-hot read and I highly recommend it. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Heller #01 - The Oil Rig

Author Frank Roderus (1942-2016) was a newspaper writer and author that penned over 300 novels, most of which were westerns. He earned two prestigious Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America and also earned a Colorado Press Association award for best news story. In 1984, Roderus began writing a crime-fiction series starring Colorado rancher Carl Heller. There were seven installments in the series, all published by Bantam. In a 2013 interview with Tom Rizzo, Roderus explained that writing westerns allowed him tax advantages on his horses. By having Heller ride a motorcycle, Roderus was also able to gain a tax advantage on his own motorcycles. Brilliant idea.

Carl Heller was fortunate enough to inherit several thousand mountain acres in the high-country from his great grandfather. Instead of running a beef operation on steroids, antibiotics, and modern efficiencies, Heller uses the old-fashioned method of allowing the herd to run free, culling them once a year. He's not wealthy, and admits to barely keeping up the tax payments on the enormous property, but he manages an average lifestyle. He's a law-school dropout that is described as a playboy that enjoys riding the mountains on his horse, Kawasaki motorcycle, or race-car styled BMW. He has a lukewarm relationship with a local gal in town, a school teacher named Donna. He's in excellent shape, works out each day, and serves as a paperback version of the modern cowboy. That's the origin tale of Carl Heller.

While riding the rapids with a group of friends, Heller learns that a small group of farmers have been hoodwinked by big city shysters. The proposal by Mineral Consortium is that gold has been discovered in ecological surveys on the farmers' land. If the farmers will agree to allow Mineral Consortium to lease property, they will provide the farmers an excellent 30% royalty for all “metals” retrieved. When Heller becomes involved, he discovers that the contracts excluded minerals. The Mineral Consortium used this loophole to establish oil rigs on these leases to pull millions of gallons of oil royalty free. Their defense to the one-sided contract is that gold does exist on the property, but it's nothing more than the small grains found in seawater. They are happy to provide 30% for this small amount of gold retrieval.

Heller explains that there is a distinct difference between law and justice. To establish the character's validity, Heller confesses to Donna that he tracked down and killed a rapist that escaped a court of law. The reader gets the idea that maybe Heller has performed this sort of vigilantism more than once. Like Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder, Heller explains that he does favors for people. So, Heller's motivation is peaked when he discusses the dilemma facing the farmers. Additionally, there is an incentive of a monetary percentage payout if the leases produce money for the farmers instead of the Mineral Consortium. 

The book's first half was a real slow burn as Heller discusses legal avenues to explore. Included is a swindle Heller concocts to lead the Mineral Consortium into believing real gold does exist. To perform the trick, Heller establishes an identity of working for a mining company to construct a large mill. The evidence is convincing enough that the company wants to renegotiate the deal with the farmers. All of this consumes the book's first half, which in itself would be an average story. However, the second half makes all of the difference.

In the second half, Roderus fuels the fire with an action-packed, suspenseful narrative with Heller facing the bad guys around an oil rig at night. This was just an incredible page-turner as Heller was forced to rely on his wits to outsmart the armed gunmen. It's a violent smash-up that includes everything I love about 1970s and 1980s men's action-adventure novels. This closing second-half was well worth the price of admission.

Frank Roderus is a unique author that uses traditional western storytelling to plot modern crime-fiction. Often, he writes like a tough guy cowboy, so much that the wording is odd. For example, something like 3AM is pronounced “three ayem”. Heller's moral compass, good-guy characteristics, and the ability to be a strong, reliable protagonist kicks off the series in a promising way. This is the meat and potatoes of Roderus storytelling and The Oil Rig is recommended if you like that sort of thing. I do, so I'll be reading more. 

You can buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, January 20, 2023

M.I.A. Hunter #10 - Miami Warzone

M.I.A. Hunter was a series of men's action-adventure novels published by Jove in the 1980s and early 1990s. The series was created by Stephen Mertz (Cody's War, Kilroy) and featured his outlines and editing with a revolving door of authors including Joe Lansdale, Arthur Moore, and Mike Newton. Crime-fiction author and popular blogger Bill Crider (1941-2018) contributed as well with his series debut, Miami Warzone. It is the 10th installment, originally published in 1988 and existing today in digital format through Wolfpack Publishing

Miami Warzone is the first domestic appearance of Mark Stone, Terrence Loughlin, and Hog Wiley, the three-man retrieval team effectively known as “M.I.A. Hunter”. The series began with dangerous missions into Southeast Asia to rescue American prisoners held captive from the Vietnam War. Stone's team was working without permission from the U.S. Government, therefore their activities were highly illegal and placed them on a C.I.A. hitlist. But, the American government caught on to Stone's skills in the same way that they caught on to The Executioner. If you can't beat them, join them. So, a U.S. Senator (Harler I think?) in book seven liberates the three hunters and places them on the federal payroll working out of Fort Bragg. You're all caught up now.

In this 10th installment, Crider introduces readers to Jack Wofford, a former teammate of Stone's during the Vietnam War. He even helped to save Stone's life during a nasty firefight at a seemingly abandoned village. In a terrific backstory, Crider tells of how Wofford's brother succumbed to drug addiction and eventually died. To avenge his brother's loss, Wofford went vigilante and began running his own one-man vice-squad. Eventually, he had enough intel and dirt on some of America's most powerful drug dealers. The D.E.A. were impressed with Wofford's talents and placed him on the payroll, similar to what happened with Stone and the C.I.A. But, on a recent undercover buy, Wofford is caught and becomes imprisoned as collateral during a Cuban and Columbian drug war. 

Stone receives a call from Wofford's wife stating that the D.E.A. isn't doing enough to free her husband. The trio takes the job to track down Wofford's whereabouts while also attempting to destroy the drug importing operation devouring Miami. The narrative has a tremendously high body count as the locations include park battlefields, a wild Everglades romp, the ultimate barfight, a mansion blowout, and even a shootout at an airport. 

M.I.A. Hunter isn't Hemingway and never professed to be. Instead, it's a rip-roar, ass-kicking team commando series with explosive action and a slight dose of testosterone humor (Hog is a riot!). As much as I loved the old fashioned “bring 'em back alive” Vietnam rescue missions, the idea of Stone and company working domestically is a nice change of pace. The last two novel locations, the Soviet Union and Nicaragua, were both excellent choices to move this series into another dynamic. Crider's writing style is ultra-violent, but also balances out with a quality story laced with crime-fiction elements, sex, and a buddy cop camaraderie. In other words, this one is a series standout. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Tuesday, January 3, 2023

Say it was Murder

Stephen Mertz (b. 1947) is a mystery, action-adventure, and short-story writer that has contributed, or created, series titles like M.I.A. Hunter, Kilroy, Cody's Army, and the wildly successful Cody's War. He cut his teeth in the literary world as a Don Pendleton protegee, penning 12 novels in the hit series titles The Executioner/Mack Bolan from 1982-1986. He's utilized pseudonyms like Cliff Banks, Jim Case, Stephen Brett, and Jack Buchanan. But, perhaps his most descriptive name is “Mojo”, a moniker that friends and family (one in the same) use to describe Mertz through the lights, heat, and haze of a blues bar on the edges of a middle-of-nowhere Arizona town. In fact, the author's newest book is a love letter of sorts, an outlet to profess his love for the magical place he resides in.

In Say it was Murder, published in 2022 as a revised version by Rough Edges Press, Mertz describes Cochise County as Big Sky country. This slice of Southeastern Arizona paints the U.S. and Mexico border, a beautiful 100-miles stretch of open prairie and rugged mountains not to be confused with The Grand Canyon, Phoenix, or Tucson. Mertz places his private-eye protagonist, a fellow named McShan, in Bisbee, the real-life, neo-hippie small-town that he frequents. Mertz, through his fictional hero, experiences a profound connection with the area:

The desert will either chew you up and spit you out or will touch you in ways that are as deep and mysterious as they are difficult to express.

The fondness that Mertz fosters of the land and its lush beauty is only rivaled by one thing, his sincere love for crime-noir. In Say it was Murder, the author steps into the shoes filled by his literary heroes like Mike Hammer and Ed Noon. In fact, Mertz's private-eye, McShann could be a nod to private-eye Rex McBride, authored by Cleve Adams and Mike Shayne, created by Davis Dresser using the name Brett Halliday.

Like Mertz's other private-eye, Kilroy, McShan operates out of Denver, Colorado, a city that also holds a special place for the author. McShan is employed by Honeycutt Personal Services, a large agency with offices in every state specializing in detectives, cybersecurity, bodyguards, and kidnapping protection. This enterprise of ex-military and law-enforcement is ran by Miss Honeycutt, a 63-year old heavyset woman that inherited the agency from her father.

McShan's newest assignment is aiding a client named Marna, a divorced mother that hired the Honeycutt agency to find her missing daughter. When McShan arrives in Cochise County, he learns that the woman's daughter, Janine, has joined a mysterious religious sect. As McShan digs into the case, he learns more about Janine's step-father, a wealthy entrepreneur with a very violent streak. Connecting the dots, the case leads into energy and land development, illegal human-trafficking, incest, and the weird cult-like organization that has a grasp on Marna's family. 

Comparisons are made to Ross MacDonald's fantastic Lew Archer series, and that may be valid, but I felt that Mertz's characters were wilder and more diverse. McShan contends with a deadly lesbian biker and her maniacal brother, the town's barber. I also felt McShan was more reserved in his approach, keeping the dialogue, brief and more directly linked to the case. There is a sexy smoothness to Mertz's inclusion of a blonde bombshell, a potential – seemingly obligatory – love interest for the gumshoe hero. 

With its sturdy, well crafted plot, vivid locale, surprise twist, and shocking ending, Say it was Murder is a brisk, highly-satisfying crime-thriller by one of the genre's best storytellers. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, June 3, 2022

Cody's War #01 - Dragonfire!

Between 1982 and 1986, Stephen Mertz authored a number of gritty Mack Bolan installments that are considered some of the best of the series. He also created and authored installments of the M.I.A. Hunter series as well as the Kilroy mysteries and music-based novels like Hank and Muddy and Jimi After Dark. Recently, he launched a brand new action-adventure title called Cody's War. I'm always up for a rip-roaring, Mertz mule-kicker, so I chose to read the series debut, Dragonfire!. It's out now through Wolfpack Publishing.

Readers learn through backstory that CIA Agent Jack Cody experienced a personal tragedy when his family was killed by a terrorist bomb. Now, Cody seeks out the most perilous jobs in a quest to kill himself in the line of duty. Thus, his unconventional methods have earned him the nickname “Suicide Cody”.

In the book's opening chapters, Mertz introduces readers to his newest paperback warrior by placing Cody on a small, U.S. submarine en route to the Ocean Song, a recreational yacht containing a wanted Islamic terrorist named Hadi Abu. As Cody emerges from the tiny craft, there is a prophetic message in one simple line of text: “Cody lifted himself through the hatch, into the storm.” It kicks off the novel, the character's mission, this series debut, and puts readers in the harness seat as the author thrusts readers into the action.

On the Ocean Song, Cody disposes of the baddies, captures a valuable female accomplice, and faces off with one of the early Final Bosses. Abu, refusing to go quietly into submission, gets the 'ole one-two punch - a shotgun amputation and decapitation. Cody then thrusts the captive over his shoulder to ascend a swinging ladder to a helicopter spewing out M60 rounds into the Ocean Song's violent, but foolish crew. Wham! Bam! Thank you Uncle Sam.

After the fast-paced opening scene, Dragonfire! settles into a brisk pace as the next mission unfolds. A Chinese scientist is attempting to defect to America and is receiving assistance from a covert CIA agent. As one can imagine, the defection requires stealth support from resistance cells within Red China, an underground pathway that has already smuggled out the scientist's wife. This resistance cell, oddly enough, is backed by the Triad, China's version of the Mob. 

The exchange is set that will place the scientist on a road to freedom. However, when the final deal goes down, the CIA man is killed and the scientist is taken captive by a Major Zhao. It turns out, Zhao is working on a coup attempt from within the Chinese military. He will use Dragonfire, the scientist's deadly weapon, to shift the momentum and overthrow the Chinese government in a quest for world dominance. It's a pulp-fiction “take over the world with the biggest bomb” strategy that isn't far removed from an Ian Fleming (James Bond) or Michael Avallone (Nick Carter, Ed Noon) styled plot. 

U.S. President Harwood informs his close cabinet that Cody is The President's Man and has been for the three predecessors before him. Harwood elaborates, “He's as well-known in this office as he's unknown to the general public.” So, Harwood gives the orders to Cody's CIA controller and possible love interest, Sara Durell (an obvious ode to Mertz's favorite spy hero in Sam Durell). She meets with Cody, provides the rundown, and hooks him up with an embassy handler named Beth in Hong Kong. The mission is to locate the scientist while investigating the disappearances of an American fighter-jet and submarine, which readers already know were targeted, zapped, fried, and vaporized by Dragonfire. Cody's ultimate goal is to prevent Earth from falling under the bombastic spell of an even viler Chinese dictator.

Needless to say, Mertz is in full rock 'n roll mode with Cody's War. Dragonfire!, while being a modern, sophisticated shoot 'em up, is a throwback to the two-fisted, barrel-chested, bullet-belted heroes of the 1970s through the 1990s. Cody isn't completely exposed in this book, leaving a lot of his past in the dark. But, I love the madness to his motive and the idea that he is longing for his own death while fighting to save the lives of others. There's very little humor (if any) as Cody drills down to the bone marrow to find and eliminate targets. This keeps the book on the rails and moving towards a destination. Readers know the stops. I also love literary-longevity. Mertz has created a durable series hero that he can simply drop into the endless abundance of current Earthly war-zones. Plus, there's the whole “Sara 'n Cody” romance that can build up over time. 

In the introduction to Conan of the Isles, L. Sprague de Camp wrote about a lecture he attended on writers. I think this sort of sentiment describes talented authors like Stephen Mertz:

“A lecturer lately has said that, if a fiction writer wants sales, he should write exclusively either about politics or sex. A novel like The President's Boyfriend ought to be a lead-pipe cinch. There are still, however, many readers who read, not to be enlightened, improved, uplifted, reformed, baffled by the writer's obscurity, amazed by his cleverness, nauseated by his scatology, or reduced to tears by the plight of some mistreated person, class, or caste, but to be entertained.”

Whether he's throwing rounds downrange with a literary creation or blowin' the blues harp in a smoky dive, Mertz is an entertainer. With his newest fictional hero, this remarkable scribe ventures down another pathway to offer up another enjoyable, rock-solid good guy during a time when humanity needs more good guys. Jack Cody is that guy.

Cody's War Checklist

1 Dragonfire!
2 Camp David Has Fallen!
3 The Fires of Allah
4 Day of Reckoning
5 The Last Refuge
6 Cody's Return
7 Lethal Assault
8 Final Strike
9 Afghanistan Payback
10 Hellfire in Syria 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, January 17, 2022

The University #01 - Sympathy for the Devil

Sympathy for the Devil is the first in the series of espionage novels by contemporary New York author Terrence McCauley. The novel was originally released in 2015 but has found new life as the inaugural release by Wolfpack Publishing’s newly-acquired imprint Rough Edges Press.

The novel stars spy James Hicks (not his real name). He’s employed by an odd organization informally known as The University. It was created by an executive order during the Eisenhower Administration to operate outside the official intelligence community to protect the USA without federal (or ethical) oversight or funding.

The University gains its power through the recruitment of high-value “Assets” — people with secrets to hide that the agency blackmails into providing expertise, information and resources. Hicks recruits these reluctant assets with information gleaned from The University’s futuristic data analytics computer called OMNI. More on that later.

The day-to-day work of The University is to embed its agents inside suspected terrorist groups with the hopes of preventing acts of terror before they happen. Hicks runs The University’s New York office and oversees these operations. For this series debut, Hicks is dealing with a group of radical Islamic Somalis operating out of a Long Island taxi stand. Somehow the Somalis figured out that they were under investigation, and they stage an ambush targeting Hicks and killing a well-placed undercover operative.

There’s a lot of world-building to give the reader a feel for the intel environment in which The University operates. Nearly the entire first half of the novel is Hicks setting the stage, recruiting help and gathering resources for the mission at-hand. In the novel’s second half, Hicks employs technology, informants, enhanced interrogation and gunplay to investigate the bad actors behind the Somali cell.

My biggest criticism is the author's over-reliance on the agency’s OMNI computer system. The system is all-knowing, all-seeing and completely unrealistic — much like the one in the 1998 Tony Scott film Enemy of the State. The problem is that this trope robs the main characters of problem-solving within the plot. A digital, crystal ball like OMNI takes the story out of the world of hardboiled gritty realism and into the realm of paranoid sci-fi. The computer system also relegates Hicks to the sidelines and in front of a computer screen for much of the novel.

Despite these structural flaws, I mostly enjoyed riding along with Hicks on this adventure. The author is at his best when writing scenes filled with violent action, and there are several of these peppered throughout the paperback - mostly toward the end. When he leaves his laptop behind, Hicks is a great hero and the author is a fine writer.

While I didn’t love Sympathy for the Devil, I’m intrigued enough by the character and the agency to continue with the series. McCauley can write his ass off when he allows his action characters to do action stuff. Mostly, I trust the editorial hand of Wolfpack Press to shepherd this series in the right direction. For that reason, I’ll probably be back for more.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Concho #01 - The Ranger

According to Wikipedia, Charles Gramlich teaches psychology at Xavier University. Born in 1958, Gramlich grew up in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. His first published novels were in the late 1990s, with his influences ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Louis L'Amour. Gramlich has authored fantasy titles like Swords of Talera and Wings Over Telera. In addition to writing in genres like sci-fi, mystery, and romance, Gramlich used Wolfpack Publishing's house name A.W. Hart to author an ongoing modern western series called Concho. My first experience with the author and the series is the debut, The Ranger.

The series stars Concho Ten-Wolves, a 6'-4” former Army Ranger that now works the Rio Grande border as a Texas Ranger. His heritage is African-American and Kickapoo Native-American. He lives on the Kickapoo reservation and has an on again, off again relationship with a woman named Maria. His uncle Meskwaa is the stereotypical funny guy and there's also a rat snake named Maggie.

As the novel begins, Concho receives a call for law-enforcement assistance at the local shopping mall. Inside, members of a terrorist group called The Aryan Brotherhood have executed five people and taken numerous hostages. With no back-up force, Concho takes his two handguns, a 30-06 rifle and a bow and arrow into the mall to make the save. In an exciting battle, Concho kills a number of terrorists with random weapons and ultimately becomes the hero.

After a verbal beat-down, Concho is relieved of his duty for a week, but not suspended. But, he is retained by the local sheriff's office when two bodies are discovered. One of the men is the Chief of the Tribal Police and the other has a distant relationship with Concho. Through flashbacks, readers gain an introspective understanding of Concho's upbringing, his military service, and glimpses of a failed relationship with his biological father. These elements help define the character and make for an interesting “open-book” concept that should propel the series. 

Concho's investigation into the two deaths leads him into conflict with the reservation, the casino's criminal network, and ties to a Native-American gang called The Bloods. The murder mystery leads into some deadly territory where Concho finds himself a target. After surviving house fires, car accidents, and flying bullets, the Texas Ranger finds himself forced to solve the crime or literally die trying. 

The Ranger is laced with over-the-top, unbelievable action sequences that should cater to fans of 80s action films. You have to suspend your disbelief and just accept that this fictional hero can accomplish anything. His NFL linebacker frame adds credence to the fact that he can receive, and dish out, physical punishment. In some ways, the book reads like a Dirty Harry paperback by Leslie Alan Horvitz and Ric Meyers (house name Dane Hartman). The hero rides tall, shoots straight, and speaks the truth – a modern day cowboy trapped in the present. 

As a series opener, there's plenty of potential to make this character a little more dynamic or, even fragile. If you like contemporary westerns, then Concho may be your next read. 


1. The Ranger
2. Hot, Blue, and Righteous
3. Path of Evil
4. Crescent City Blues

Friday, May 7, 2021

The King of Horror & Other Stories

Paperback Warrior has a thing for Stephen Mertz. That admiration comes partly from the fact that the M.I.A. Hunter novels were my first introduction to the men's action-adventure genre. Since we started this blog, we have mostly focused our reviews of Mertz's work on military and vigilante fiction like Mack Bolan, Tunnel Rats and the M.I.A. Hunter novels. Thanks to Wolfpack Publishing, a collection of Mertz's short fiction stories has been compiled under the title The King of Horror & Other Stories. This multi-faceted examination of Mertz's fast-paced style offers a blend of genre offerings that display the author's diversity.

While I enjoyed the entire collection, here are some highlights:

“Last Stand” features Blaze and Kate, a unique pair of mercenaries who are married to each other. This gritty duo travels the world, accepting contracts to guard stagecoaches, participate in various revolutions or just killing selected targets. After a long career of blood and bullets, Blaze and Kate eventually saved up enough to retire to Mexico. When the story begins, they are both attempting to cross the border, but are ambushed by Native Americans. Through 11 action-oriented pages, the two of them attempt to shoot their way out only to be plagued by wave after wave of warriors. It's really a last stand for Blaze and Kate as Mertz places these characters in an extreme position to test their love for each other. This is an effective story that shows the powerful force of love through overwhelming adversity.

Like “Last Stand”, the Vietnam War story “Fragged” again showcases Mertz's interesting outlook on marriage and the ties that bind. “Fragged” features Cord McCall, an investigator working for the U.S. Criminal Investigation Division in Saigon. McCall investigates homicide, desertion, robbery and other crimes committed within military ranks. Interestingly, McCall's wife is also in Vietnam as a war reporter. The two find themselves in Firebase Tiger, a military installation where McCall is responsible for a homicide investigation. A lieutenant-colonel in the 13th Infantry Battalion was killed by a hand grenade in his own barracks. It is up to McCall to determine if this is an enemy penetration or if someone within the battalion committed the murder. It is a great return to the golden age of the mysteries of the locked chamber – which, why, where, how. Also, there is Mertz's signature of sandbags, guts and bloody warfare. These two characters also appear in another included story called “Chez Erotique” as well as Mertz's novel Saigon Homicide.

Mertz says that “Talon's Gift” is the nastiest story he has ever written. It's not so much nasty as it is violently shocking. The narrative features a suburban couple named Talon and Evie. When Evie departs to the movie theater, Talon begins to spin the cylinder of his .38 while explaining to readers (and himself) that Evie has been unfaithful. There's some backstory on the neighborhood and the couple's neighbor Pete. The most intriguing part for me was Talon's profession. I won't spoil the fun for you. It's an enjoyable read. 

The book's centerpiece is “The King of Horror”, a short-story that Mertz penned about his friend and longtime author Michael Avallone (1924-1999). In many ways the main character, established horror author Rigley Balbo, is Avallone. Mertz's line, “A man who was cheated and pushed aside by these grubby, Johnny-come-lately punks and their million-dollar contracts and their New York Times bestsellers”, perfectly describes the peaks and valleys of Avallone's career. In first person narration, Balbo explains that he was an A-lister early in his career before the publishing market dried up. Crummy distribution, poor advances and strangled sales have plagued Balbo's career for a decade. Needless to say, Balbo's household name tarnished along with the relationship with his publishing agent. Like one of those old Alfred Hitchcock stories, Balbo has a plan to get even with his agent, a grand scheme that will vengefully heal his heart and mind. However, Mertz pitches a wicked curveball to delightfully wreck Balbo's plan. I loved this story and it's one of those rare “industry insider” stories that jerks the curtain on the hectic and turbulent publishing world.

There are so many great stories in this collection, from Mertz's tribute to the pulps with “The Lizard Men of Blood River” to the slick and violent “The Death Blues”. The compilation showcases all of Mertz's skill and passion - violent storytelling with a powerful sense of love, loss and regret. It was a real treat to find Mertz submerged in many different genres and styles. King of Horror & Other Stories is a real showpiece of skill and craftsmanship. If you've never stepped out of Mertz's Mack Bolan world, this is your certified encouragement to delve into this author's deep literary catalog. It's a dive worth taking.

Buy a copy of this book HERE