Saturday, July 26, 2014

RAGTIME COWBOYS



 RAGTIME COWBOYS
By Loren D. Estleman
A Forge Book
264 pages

I have a particular fondness for stories that pair historical figures together in fictional adventures.  These people actually lived during the same time but in reality never met, ergo the wish-fulfillment element in this kind of what-if story.  That’s what Loren D. Estleman has done with “Ragtime Cowboys” and it works to perfection.

As unlikely as it seems, both Charlie Siringo and Dashiell Hammett did have several things in common; both worked for the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency at one time and both later went on to become published writers.  Siringo was recognized more for his illustrious lawman career which had him rubbing elbows with the likes of Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett and Butch Cassidy and his whole in the wall gang.  There have been scores of books and films about his life and career securely guaranteeing his place in western cowboy history.  Hammett on the other hand would gain renown for his literary achievements giving the mystery world such classic personages such as Sam Spade and Nick and Nora Charles.  Thus they were karmic opposites, one famous for his real exploits, the other for his fictional creativity.

And so Estlemen brings them together in 1921 California.  The tale begins in Los Angeles where a senior Siringo is attempting to write another book about his colorful past. He is visited by an aged Wyatt Earp.  Earp owns a horse ranch and one of his prized racing horses has been stolen.  He hires his Siringo to find and retrieve it.  The only clue they have is the suspected thief has just been hired to work for the widow of Jack London on her spread in the hills beyond San Francisco.  Earp sends Siringo to Frisco where he is met by a young man also a former Pinkerton veteran who will act as his guide and aide; one Dashiell Hammett. 

The dialogue between Siringo and Hammett is brilliant and hilarious.  While Siringo was a staunch Republican who despised socialist of every ilk, Hammett was an avowed liberal who never missed a chance to criticize the noveau American rich gentry.  From the second they meet, the sparks fly and it is only through their trials together that they ultimately come to respect each other’s grit and strength of character. How that mutual respect evolves is the true beauty of this cowboy fable. 

Oh, there’s also an underpinning plot of political corruptions wherein our two ragtime cowboys get mixed up with the Teapot Dome Scandal.  This was a bribery incident that took place between 1920 and 1923 during the administration of President Warding Harding which ultimately led to the Secretary of the Interior, Albert Fall becoming the first Cabinet member to go prison.  The entire plot is a nothing but a flimsy gimmick with which to bring Siringo and Hammett together against an authentic historical event.  Its revelations at the book’s climax are superfluous and easily forgotten.  What is not is the shoot-out at the London ranch and both Siringo and Hammett reliving their raucous rowdy youthful escapades one last time.

“Ragtime Cowboys,” is an insightful look into America’s past through the eyes of two remarkable men, both of product of their times.  It is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve ever read.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

SNATCHED!



 SNATCHED!
By Charles Boeckman
235 pages
Prose Press

No baseball player hits a homerun every time at bat.  Nor does every writer produce a must-read thriller with each new book he or she releases.  I’ve made no secret in this column that I am huge fan of pulp writer Charles Boeckman and the fact that he is still writing in his 90s continues to both astound and inspire me.  Sadly, with his latest book he goes off into a multi-plotted ditch with no clear cut finale.

In fact, the book is divided into two very distinct parts as if it had been originally intended to be presented as two separate shorter pieces.  In the first half we meet our protagonist, private eyes Kate McHaney and her alcoholic musician ex-husband, Craig Dawson.  We’re given brief background histories of both; a reader’s digest encapsulation of their all too brief union and then the mystery begins.  The mayor’s teenage daughter has been kidnapped and it is suspected the culprit was a local mob boss with connections to the Mafia.  McHaney and Dawson are hired by the mayor and ultimately discover the real bad guys and in a climatic shootout in some arid Texas scrubland, rescue the young lady.

Now had the book ended there, we’d be applauding loudly and singing its praises.  But it does not and what we are then presented with are a series of interconnected vignettes regarding the gangland boss which all manage to involve our heroes in one fashion or another.  The old mayor has retired and the mobster is campaigning to replace him. Somehow Craig is recruited to run against him.  Then the two private eyes become the guardians of a young orphan whose father, a convicted drug-dealer, was murdered.  Soon thereafter the boy comes to Kate asking her help in finding a missing Mexican girl here in the U.S. illegally.  Which then puts the lovely detective in the crosshairs of the Mafia kingpin and days prior to the big election, Dawson disappears.

If this all sounds confusing, it is and it isn’t.  It is not difficult to follow because Charles Boeckman is the consummate writing professional and his technical skills are exemplary.  The reader has no problem following along with his tale. The problem is that narrative goes nowhere and by the end of the book there are no concrete resolutions to any of these plot threads.  The book is billed as the first in a series and so it is safe to assume Boeckman will pick up on these dangling plots in his next volume.  All well and good if the reader is fortunate enough to find the next book.  But even in a series, each chapter should be somewhat self-contained and close out on a genuine climax that does not require having to wait for a sequel.

Thus, as much as I liked these characters and the author’s storytelling, I’m left unsatisfied that the book does not have a real ending.

Friday, July 18, 2014

DOCTOR OMEGA



DOCTOR OMEGA
By Arnould Galopin
Adapted by Jean-Marc & Randy Lofficier
Black Coat Press
254 pages

Was there a French fictional character “who” appeared in a 1905 book that just possibly might have been one of the inspirations for the famous British sci-fi icon, Doctor Who?
Upon reading this 2003 edition from Black Coat Press, one would be hard pressed to believe the similarities between writer Arnould Galopin’s Doctor Omega and that other fellow are purely coincidental. Then again, in the world of pulp fiction, stranger things have happened.  Still whether you choose to believe the above supposition or not, it did not hamper the enjoyment this reviewer had with this wondrous and little known sci-fi French adventure.

The story is told by one Denis Borel, a semi-retired violin teacher who settles in the peaceful Normandy countryside to get away from the hustle and bustle of Paris. But he soon discovers he has a rather eccentric neighbor in a white-haired gentlemen named Doctor Omega.  This scientist has invented an amazing ship, the Cosmos, that can travel through both time and space and he invites Borel to accompany him on his voyage to Mars a billion years in the past.  Accompanying them is Dr. Omega’s aide-camp, a burly bearded fellow named Fred.

And before you can shout Sacre Bleu!, the trio take off for the bizarre red planet as it existed in ages past.  The Cosmos is not only a spacecraft, but it can be altered to become a submersible thus allowing them to explore the depths of Mar’s seas and then it extends tractor wheels and becomes a pseudo tank carrying them across the harsh landscape of this alien world.  Eventually Dr. Omega and his companions discover all manner of animals, flora and ultimately a dwarfish race of Martians.  Considering when this book was written, we can’t help but marvel at Galopin’s boundless imagination as his tale is wonderfully interpreted and enhanced by the Lofficiers.

“Doctor Omega” is a real treasure from the annals of early science-fiction and though nowhere as successful or famous as Wells or Verne, Arnould Galopin deserves some recognition for this truly exceptional work.  As to the similarities between Dr. Omega and that other doctor, we’ll let you decide for yourselves.  This reviewer is simply happy to have had the chance to meet both of them.


Wednesday, July 02, 2014

AMERICAN GUN



AMERICAN GUN
By Chirs Kyle
(with William Doyle)
William Morrow
264 pages

The history of American as told through the invention and use of ten firearms.  Written by Seal Team 3 Chief Chris Kyle and completed a little while before his tragic death in Feb. 2013.  Each chapter, while focusing on a particular firearm, also relates stories of famous American personalities and their associations with the gun.

He begins with the American Long Rifle and its role in the American Revolution, pointing out even at the dawn of our country, our military leaders realized the potential of individual sharpshooters in any given combat encounter.  Kyle’s story of these early marksmen is fascination.  From there he jumps into the tragic Civil War and the battle between the states; this time highlighting the advent of the Spencer Repeater and how it could possibly have shortened this national holocaust had it been allowed to reach the battlefields sooner then the third year of the conflict. It is not at all surprising to see that even in the midst of this dark period when the Union was threatened that career minded soldiers played politics with the country’s future at stake.

With chapter three, Kyle’s story turns westward and the expansion movement following the Civil War.  He does so by exploring the evolution of the Colt Single Action Army Revolver; AKA Colt .45.  From the early Navy Colts employed by Civil War vets, we see the Colt come into its own with the early Texas Rangers and Captain Samuel Walker’s trip to Connecticut to confer with Samuel Colt in the development of the Walker Colt; instrumental in helping the Rangers finally be able to hold their own against the fierce Comanche raiders.  As the handgun continued to make its impact on the western migration, it also lent itself to frontier legends ending with the most famous shoot-out of them all, the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

In chapter four, the Winchester 1873 Rifle takes center stage as yet another noteworthy gun that would take its place in the taming of the frontier.  The slaughter of the American Bison would ultimately end the Native American Tribes control of the prairie and open the vast grasslands to pioneers and settlers.  Ironically this same rifle was instrumental in the Indians final, major victory against the encroaching hordes as it was the primary weapon employed by the Lakota Sioux and their allies in the massacre of General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in on June 25th, 1876.

Next comes the M1903 Springfield rifle which was actually based on a German weapon, the Mauser, which was used by the Spanish with deadly efficiency against Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish American War.  At the end of that conflict, military officials had the idea of copying the German rifle, making improvements and thus the Springfield Armory was given the commission.  It delivered the M1903 that would go on to stop the Germans in Belleau Woods when used by skilled Marine marksmen.  It continued to see service through World War II and Korea and remains a favorite even today amongst outdoorsmen. 

As a pulp fan, we really appreciated chapter six’s story of the M1911 handgun, better known in pulp thrillers by its popular nickname, the Colt .45 automatic.  One can clearly imagine the Shadow or Spider blasting away with these magnificent, powerful pistols.
Kyle not only relates the gun’s history but retells the amazing story of Sgt. Alvin York who used his with unerring accuracy to capture 132 German soldiers during World War One.  Although the U.S. Army has since moved on to the lighter-weight 9mm Beretta as its official sidearm, gun experts, military officers and police personnel still prefer the M1911 for its reliability and stopping power.

With chapter seven, Kyle goes gangland as he relates the bloody background of the Thompson  Submachine Gun made notorious by mobsters and G-Men alike during the days of prohibition.  It later traveled to the front in World War Two and was put to effective use by American GIs.  Staying with this conflict, he then devotes chapter eight to the most popular rifle of the war, the M1 Garand.  This is the one gun in this book that the reviewer was personally familiar with, having learned to shoot it while in basic training in 1965.  Though no expert by any means, my own memories of the rifle included how easy it fired and stripped down to be cleaned and maintained. 

And finally AMERICAN GUN wraps up its final two chapters with one on the quintessential police handgun of the 50s through 70s, the .38 Special Police Revolver and the Vietnam warhorse, the M16 rifle.  In regards to the pistol, he relates the events of the attempted assassination of President Harry Truman on 1st Nov. 1950, by two Puerto Rican revolutionist.  Having never heard of this incident, we were both surprised and amazed at how close to succeeding these two killers came. 

Although never having personally handled the M16, we were surrounded by them during our own tour of duty in Vietnam and Kyle’s report of their initial successes and then long string of mechanical failures were also familiar to us.  In the end it was a weapon rushed into development to meet the army’s needs only to have its weaknesses discovered in the crucible of combat.  It would later be modified into the more effective model M4.

The book features a truly insightful epilogue by Kyle on the role of guns in any society and how these specific makes were a large part of American history.  He defends his own perspective of them being mere tools to be employed, for good or evil, by those men and women who wield them; nothing more and nothing less.  What is poignant is his widow’s own final Afterword and the story of Ryan Job, a Navy Seal blinded during a firefight in Ramamdi and his ultimate passing.  It left me in tears.

Today, more than ever, Americans are divided about the role of guns in our society and we realize many will ignore this book as another gun-lover’s fanatical world view. That is their right.  But if you are a true, unbiased student of history, with at least an ounce of the respect for all the men and women who have served, and continue to serve, in both our military and law enforcement, then AMERICAN GUN will have something to say to you as it did so to this reviewer….in a most profound way.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

THE VRIL AGENDA



THE VRIL AGENDA
By Derrick Ferguson & Joshua Reynolds
An Airship 27 – Pulp Work Press Production
238 pages
Guest Reviewer Shawn M. Vogt 

Derrick Ferguson's character Dillon is an absolute favorite of mine. Taking inspiration from both old pulp characters, and from more modern action heroes that at one time ruled the cinema, Derrick has come up with a highly unique hero. It also helps that the man can write his butt off. He knows when to fill in the blanks, when to tease you with a cool concept, and when to remain silent on a particular subject. In essence, he knows how to build a detailed world for his characters to exist in... and his highly enjoyable and visual writing style always brings you back for more. Dillon is a character who always has the knowledge and skills to carry him through, no matter what mission he happens to be on. But where did he gain this type of training? There has been a number of mysteries surrounding Dillon, especially regarding his younger years, which I've been hoping Derrick would eventually get around to filling in... and then one day I happened to check Amazon, and found out that The Vril Agenda had been released! Co-authored with Joshua Reynolds, this release tells a tale of Dillon's early days, and of one of his mentors. It's my first experience with the character of Jim Anthony: Super Detective, and I have to say that Joshua writes the character in an extremely effective and entertaining manner. An older pulp character that shares some similarities with Doc Savage, Jim Anthony is revamped in fine form by Joshua. A master of all things martial, an inventor, and a renowned murderist, Jim is living in semi-retirement now, despite keeping his hand in the game. Just the type of man a younger Dillon would want to be trained by... and that's exactly what takes place in this 238 page adventure, published by Airship 27 Productions/Pulp Work Press.

It's been two years since Dillon left the fabled land of Shamballah, and returned to our reality. He has traveled across the world, and finally arrived at his destination. Which is the New York chapter of the Baltimore Gun Club, where he hopes to encounter Jim Anthony, and convince the Super Detective to train him. Dillon's family has enemies, enemies that slaughtered his mother and father... and Dillon wants to pay them back in kind. His seven years of training under The Warmasters of Liguria has partially prepared him, but he knows that he needs to learn much more, in order to survive his quest. Dillon lays out his story to Jim Anthony, who (much to Dillon's disappointment) does not immediately agree to train him, but does agree to think on the matter, as he gets to know the young man better. Unfortunately Jim also has a number of enemies that are still active, and after a number of violent assaults on the two men, they are left wondering who exactly is trying to kill them. The adventure that follows will be an examination of both men's past, will drive them apart and pull them back together, and in the end they will stand united, facing an evil that plans to reshape the very fabric of reality...

In my opinion, The Vril Agenda is a perfect example of New Pulp done right. In fact, it's just a really great story, regardless of genre. An excellent team up between a modern hero, and a hero from the past, that takes place across the years. The writing from both authors is absolutely top-notch, the characters compelling, the story action-packed. The story flows along seamlessly, and once I started reading, I didn't want to put it down. The time and thought that go into fleshing out both men's history is greatly appreciated. Derrick and Joshua give you enough to satisfy, but hold back enough to preserve the aura of mystery surrounding the two characters. Dillon and Jim Anthony are consummate heroes; willing to sacrifice everything for the greater good, even themselves. The villains aren't one dimensional in any way, they are given their own motivations, which (in their own mind) justifies their actions. They think of themselves as heroes, who are working towards a better reality that will benefit humanity. This makes the villains themselves much more interesting. The settings are imaginative, and well rendered. Basically, this is an outstanding release. I'm not sure what more I can say, other than go out and grab a copy, and get reading! You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

SKULL CRUSHER



SKULL CRUSHER
By Joel Jenkins
Pulp Work Press
224 pgs.

One of the many aspects of Joel Jenkins’ writing is how innovative it is.  It seems he is always putting a new spin on old concepts.  This was never more prevalent to us then when reading his latest book, “Skull Crusher.”  Set on the alien world of Carapath where heat-powered balloon ships sail the skies and empires are ruled by sword and magic, we were reminded of the old “Gor” paperback series made famous by the artist Boris Valejo’s barbarian and half-naked slave girl covers.  There is a great deal in “Skull Crusher” that echoes those salacious titles.

Strommand Greatrix is a warrior prince with a weakness for woman.  This is exploited in the opening chapter when a beautiful temptress seduces him with both her voluptuous body and goblets of drugged wine.  When Strommand awakens, his beloved city of Covallis has been overrun by an invading force and his entire family, father, mother, siblings….all have been slain by a sadistic general named Bastor Megalith; the merciless henchman of the Emperor Damion. 

Realizing how easily he was duped, Strommand, while managing to escape into the desert wilderness, makes a vow of celibacy.  He will not have sex or imbibe in any alcoholic drink until he has defeated the evil Damionites and put his uncle, his last living relative, on the throne of Covallis and seen it restored to its former grandeur.  Of course the second he makes this oath, he is immediately put in the proximity nubile wenches through a series of adventures.  One such is the alluring Amber, a slave girl he encounters and frees from the clutches of cruel desert bandits.

And here is where Jenkins turns his tale on upside.  Up until this point, the book is related in Strommand’s first person narration.  Now, at the half-way point, Amber takes over the story-telling and we quickly discover she is really a conniving, selfish character who will do anything to win the handsome’s Strommand’s affection and eventually become his queen when he returns to Covallis and completes his bloody mission.  Amber is a vile creature and will stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve her ends.

That Jenkins can easily switch between her and his protagonist, Strommand Greatrix, is truly marvelous and again we applaud in his ingenuity.  “Skull Crusher” is the first in the series and is jammed packed with lots of great action, both on the ground and in the air; it also leaves this reviewer impressed, delighted and most anxious to see what comes next. 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

SHADOW MAKER



SHADOW MAKER
By James R. Hannibal
The Berkley Publishing Group
371 pages

As promised, upon finishing the first Triple Seven Chase adventure, “Shadow Catcher,” we jumped right into its sequel, “Shadow Maker” and having just finished it, a little R & R was order.  Phew!  Somehow Hannibal manages to amp the action, suspense and all-out thrills in this second book featuring Major Nick Baron and his allies.  The stakes are also higher as Baron finds himself dueling electronically across the globe with an insane Chess Grandmaster seeking revenge for the death of his father at Baron’s hands years earlier.

Identifying Baron’s colleagues and family as chess pieces, the Emissary, as he calls himself, plots various terrorist acts according to classic game maneuvers.  Somehow, despite Baron and his pal, Major Drake Merigold’s best efforts, their cunning foe manages to stay one step ahead of them.  From a bombing assault on Washington D.C. to a gun battle in the catacombs of Turkey and a gas attack on London’s financial district, the Emissary and his league of fanatical Hashasins leave an escalating trail of death and destruction behind them.  One by one Baron’s associates are shot, poisoned and crippled systematically as the twisted sadistic genius plays his evil game.

In the end a biological weapon threatens the U.S. while a Nuke is primed to detonate in Jerusalem simultaneously.  Even the intuitive and gutsy Nick Baron can’t be in two places at once.  As the action races towards the final confrontations, Hannibal skillfully whips up a frantic climax that will the reader’s heart beating faster all the way to the very last page.  Sequels are always a daunting task, having to bring back characters one’s readers have come to know while at the same time creating new threats and challenges so as not to retread the same old thriller clich├ęs.  At the heart of both books, Baron’s love of family is the connecting chord that makes him a true, vulnerable hero that we can cheer for as he battles impossible odds.

With Major Nick Baron, Hannibal has given us a new pulp hero that continues to ascend in reader popularity.  Thumbs way, way, up for “Shadow Maker.”  This reviewer can’t help but wonder…what comes next?