Sunday, December 30, 2012

TWO GRAVES



TWO GRAVES
By Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child
Grand Central Publishing
484 pages

Several years ago a very good friend gave me two paperback novels for Christmas.  They were “The Cabinet of Curiosities” and “Still Life with Crows,” both by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. They were my first introduction to Special FBI Agent Aloysius Pendergast and one I’ve been most grateful for ever since.

The Pendergast books are the epitome of modern pulp thrillers harkening back to the grand old hero magazines of the 1930s and they clearly evoke the same escapist fare prevalent in those series.  Upon becoming a fan of the tall, gaunt Southern bred Pendergast, it soon became clear to me that he was the true heir to famous pulp avenger of old.  For if Clive Cussler’s sea-going hero, Dirk Pitt, can be called the modern day Doc Savage, something many of his ardent followers still claim, then Pendergast is our new Shadow.  Like that black clad nemesis of evil who “knew what lurked in the hearts of men,” Agent Pendergast is a most unique and extraordinary character.  He is wealthy and thus his career is an avocation of personal interest.  He is learned with several degrees, skilled in both philosophical and martial arts while a crack shot with most weapons.  Add to this the fact he also has knowledge of obscure and ancient arcane practices and rituals while possessing certain uncanny abilities which border on the supernatural and you have a genuine pulp hero for our times.

Since discovering this series, I’ve relished each new entry and have never once been disappointed by authors’ efforts.  Along with such an unforgettable main character, the books feature many truly amazing supporting characters from Pendergast’s allies ala New York Lt. Detective Vincent D’Agosta to his exotic young ward, Constance Greene who, though she appears to be in her early twenties, is actually over a hundred years old because of a strange elixir that has prolonged her youth. The genius of Preston and Lincoln is how they make the fantastic elements of each book as believable as the normal ones.

Now “Two Graves” ends a trilogy story arc begun in “Fever Dream” and continued in “Cold Vengeance.”  For twelve years, Agent Pendergast believed his beloved wife, Helen, had been killed by a lion on their honeymoon safari in Africa.  When evidence surfaces that proves her death was faked and that she might still be among the living, it propels Pendergast on the most important case he has ever confronted.  To say the story has been a roller coaster of action and suspense would be a truly gross understatement and the revelations in this final chapter are mind-boggling.  From a psychotic serial killer in Manhattan to a hidden Nazis eugenics camp in the jungles of Brazil, “Two Graves” is hands down the best Agent Pendergast novel ever written and this fan would never make that claim lightly.  Were the series to end at this point, I would hazard most readers would be content with the established canon as it now stands.

Of course, being fans, we will always want more; lots more.  But being a somewhat discriminating reviewer, it is difficult for me to imagine Preston and Child topping this book.  It is clearly their Agent Pendergast masterpiece.

Monday, December 24, 2012

PROHIBITION



PROHIBITION
By Terrence McCauley
Airship 27 Productions
181 pages
Now on Kindle
Guest Reviewer – Derrick Ferguson

I’m going to get to talking about PROHIBITION in a bit, I promise. But first, I gotta relate a little story that will assist me in making my opening point. Okay? Thank you for your patience and sit back. Here it goes:

Couple of weeks ago I’m having a Skype conversation with a gentleman who is incensed that I don’t like “Hobo With A Shotgun.” It’s a perfect modern grindhouse movie he insists. No, I politely disagree. “Planet Terror” is a a perfect modern grindhouse movie. The gentleman spends the next two minutes expressing his opinion that whatever it is I allegedly use for thinking must be composed of excrement and another minute telling me that “Planet Terror” is garbage and why on Earth do I think it’s the better movie.
“Because,” says I, “Robert Rodriguez knows what grindhouse is. The guys who made ‘Hobo With A Shotgun’ just think they know what grindhouse is.”

Which finally brings me to PROHIBITION by Terrence McCauley. We’ve got a lot of New Pulp writers who think they know what a 1930’s gangster story is. But Terrence McCauley knows what a 1930’s gangster story. Man, does he ever.

We’re in New York, 1930. The town is run by Archie Doyle, the city’s most powerful gangster who is more like the monarch of an unruly kingdom. And there’s somebody out there looking to take his crown. Archie’s got an ambitious plan in mind that will give him more power than he’s ever dreamed of before. But he’s got to stay alive long enough to see that plan through. That’s where his chief enforcer Terry Quinn comes in. Terry’s an ex-boxer and the toughest mug on two legs. But finding out who’s trying to start a bloody gang war between Archie Doyle and his main rival, Howard Rothman is going to take more than just being tough. Quinn is going to have to rely on his street smarts and think his way through this. Of course, shooting and slugging his way to the guilty party helps an awful lot, too.

PROHIBITION has a lot going for it, mainly that McCauley isn’t afraid to write characters who aren’t likeable at all. But that’s okay with me. As long as I know why the characters are doing what they’re doing and understand their motivations, I’m cool. McCauley is writing about people who have chosen a dark, dangerous and violent life and he stays true to that. That’s not to say he doesn’t find the humanity in them. He does. It’s just a humanity that manifests itself within the terms and parameters of the concrete jungle his characters have chosen to inhabit for whatever reasons people have to live a life of crime. This wasn’t an easy period in American history to live in and people had to make hard choices. The characters in PROHIBITION have to make the hardest choices of all since the wrong one can get them killed.

A lot of New Pulp writers figure that to write a 1930’s gangster story you just have to have pseudo-tough talking wanna-be’s sounding more like Slip Mahoney than real gangsters run around shooting Tommy guns. McCauley understands that the most successful gangsters of that era ran their organizations like businesses. The business just happens to be crime is all. Violence wasn’t their first resort to solve every problem. It was just as useful and as profitable to know when not to use violence as it was to know when to use it.

I appreciated the smartness of these characters. The way they talk to each other, maneuvering to gain an edge through words makes for some really solid dialog. The relationship between Archie Doyle and Terry Quinn reminds me a lot of the relationship between the Albert Finney/Gabriel Byrne characters from “Miller’s Crossing.” Imagine if Gabriel Byrne’s character was an authentic badass who knew how to fight instead of getting his ass kicked all the time and you’ll get what I mean. Terry Quinn is a guy who knows how to work the angles and his navigation through this gleefully violent story is an enjoyable one to read.

And like any good gangster story, McCauley doesn’t skimp on the sex and violence. If you want cute gangsters who pal around and crack jokes then go watch “Johnny Dangerously” because you’re not going to find that in PROHIBITION. I appreciated the tough, hard story McCauley is telling and the even tougher, harder characters who speak and talk pretty much the way I expect gangsters of that era to behave.

I’m sure that there are some who are going to be uncomfortable or even turned off by the language and that there isn’t really an ‘heroic’ character to root for. Terry Quinn is a killer and extraordinarily violent man who doesn’t make apologies for how he lives his life. Most readers like to have a lead character to root for and while Terry’s misplaced sense of honor and loyalty lifts him a notch above most of the other characters in the book that doesn’t mean he’s anywhere near being on the side of the angels. But it’s precisely because of that misplaced honor and loyalty that makes him such an enjoyable protagonist to read about.

And I can’t wrap up this review without mentioning the wonderful illustrations by Rob Moran which do an excellent job of capturing the mood and feel of the story. I’m willing to bet next month’s rent that Rob Moran has seen a lot of those great classic Warner Brothers black-and-white gangster epics of the 30’s and 40’s as that’s the feeling I got from his illustrations.

So should you read PROHIBITION? Absolutely. It’s not only a terrific way to spend a couple of quality reading hours, it’s also an important book in the evolution of New Pulp. It’s exciting to see books like this that adds another genre to expand what New Pulp is and can be. The bread-and-butter of New Pulp are the masked avengers, the jungle lords and the scientific adventurers, sure. But there’s plenty of room for sports stories, romance, westerns and private eyes. And in the last couple of years we’ve seen those. Hard-boiled crime stories are just as much a Classic Pulp tradition and I’m delighted to see it being continued and represented in New Pulp. Most definitely put PROHIBITION on your Must Read List. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

ARCHIE MEETS NERO WOLFE




ARCHIE MEETS NERO WOLFE
By Robert Goldsborough
A Mysteriouspress.com Book
221 pages

If you are a lover of books, then the passing of a favorite writer brings on a great deal of sadness; especially if that writer had been the author of a well loved series.  Such was the case for thousands of mystery lovers when Rex Stout passed away in 1975.  For all intents and purposes this also brought about the demise of his beloved characters, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

The following eleven years saw most of Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries reprinted countless times in various editions; all of them treasured by his fans.  Still the thrill of joining these familiar figures on new cases seemed to be a lost cause.  Then, in 1994, journalist Robert Goldsborough wrote “Murder in E Minor,” a brand new Nero Wolfe mystery much to the delight of the majority of Stout fans.  Note, I say majority.  In matters such as these, there will always be the vocal purists who see new stories as sacrilegious and prefer such fictional heroes end their careers with the death of their creators.  We are clearly not of that attitude.  We thoroughly enjoyed Goldsborough’s efforts and felt he had captured Archie’s voice perfectly.  He would go on to write six additional titles in the series ending them in 1994 with “The Missing Chapter.” 

At which point, annoyed by the criticism of that minority we mentioned, Goldsborough went on to create his own original mystery series featuring a Chicago reporter of the past named Snap Malek.  Several of these have won prestigious genre literary awards.  Still, when looking at our Nero Wolfe titles on our bookshelf, we regularly hoped that some day he would return to that familiar brownstone on West Thirty-Fifth Street in which dwells the rotund detective and his handsome legman, Archie Goodwin.  That he has done so in such a spectacular fashion is a cause for unabashed celebration.

Not only has Goldsborough answered our pleas, but he has gone beyond our wildest dreams in offering up the story Rex Stout never did; the tale of Archie’s first meeting with Nero Wolfe.  Painstakingly culling through Stout’s canon, Goldsborough took the slim nuggets seeded throughout the dozens of books and short stories and meticulously put them together in a working timeline.  From these morsels he then went on to craft a truly complete and traditional Nero Wolfe mystery only with a major difference; we finally are allowed to witness the first ever meeting between these two remarkable characters. Let us assure you, it was worth the wait.  Reading “Archie Meets Nero Wolfe,” had us remembering our teenage high school days when we first picked up our first Wolfe paperback.  This book is in essence a joyous family reunion.

It should be noted that the very first Nero Wolfe mystery, “Fer-De-Lance,” appeared in 1934 during the days of the Great Depression.  Goldsborough deftly sets his story in the same era wonderfully researching his background for authentic slang, clothing, automobiles and the city itself so the reader is transported back into that time. 

Now the book’s actual mystery plot resolves around a rich hotelier’s eight year old son being kidnapped.  The man hires the famous Nero Wolfe to save the boy.  Wolfe, as is his habit, then recruits his regular group of private investigators; all of whom are quite familiar to any fan of the series.  Only this time there’s a new face in the crowd, an eager beaver fresh of the bus from Ohio who has connected himself with operative Del Bascomb.  His name is Archie Goodwin and he is very, very eager to show Wolfe how capable he is.  As ever Goldsborough delivers a true by-the-rules puzzle astute readers will relish in trying to solve before Wolfe’s traditional in-house gathering at the finale.  But the true heart of this book is the fun in watching a young, brash, would be private-eye encounter the man who is going to be his mentor and closest friend.  Goldsborough again captures Archie’s voice brilliantly and in doing so takes us on the ride we’ve all been waiting for a long, long time.

Mystery fans, if you or a loved one is a Nero Wolfe fan, you could not give them a better Christmas gift this year than, “Archie Meets Nero Wolfe.”  Then watch the smiles on their faces when they unwrap this truly great book.  Tell them Santa sent you.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

THE EXECUTIONER - Border Offensive



THE EXECUTIONER
Border Offensive
By Joshua Reynolds (really)
Gold Eagle
187 pages

We were discharged from the U.S. Army and returned civilian life upon our return home from Vietnam in the summer of 1968.  Sometime shortly after that major life change, we picked up a paperback book from a new publisher called Gold Eagle; the book was “Mack Bolan – The Excutioner” and the author was Don Pendleton.  It told the story of a Vietnam veteran who comes home to Massachusetts to bury his family, all dead because of the local Mafia which the police cannot bring to justice because of lack of evidence.

Incensed that while he was fighting for his country in a foreign land, his own loved ones were being victimized back home, Bolan realizes he’s been fighting the wrong war.  He goes AWOL, arms himself and retaliates against the local mobsters responsible for killing his family. By the book’s end he is a fugitive on the run but oddly content with his new role; that of an avenging angel who will take on the mob with no regards to his own safety.  He will become their Executioner and do what the law cannot; mete out justice.

It was heady stuff but even to a twenty-one year old reader, it was also very familiar.  Having learned about pulp fiction and their history over the years, it was all too easy to recognize this new paperback series was in fact a brand new attempt at mass market pulp fiction and in his own way, Mack Bolan, had become the Shadow of our times.  Confirmation of that theory quickly followed when Gold Eagle not only began issuing new Bolan adventures monthly but also debut another series about a secret agent trained in martial arts called The Destroyer by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir.  Just like that these two on-going action packed series launched an entire two version of American paperback pulps that would flourish throughout the 1970s.  Within months other paperback companies were putting forth their own wild and wooly series from the Black Samurai, to the Lone Wolf, the Chameleon and the Baroness to name on a very few.  By the end of that decade there were dozens of these on the bookstore racks.

Off course Pendleton, being only human after all, couldn’t possibly keep churning out book after book after book. Thus the editors of Gold Eagle adopted another practice of the old pulps; they hired ghost writers to produce books all under Pendleton’s name. As this became the norm, even after his death, the true author was given their due credit on the indicia page with the phrase, “Special thanks and acknowledgement to John Smith for his contributions to this work.”  Over the past forty years dozens of authors have found their name in this sentence.  Which brings us to this latest Executioner adventure and its author, new pulp writer Joshua Reynolds.

Being familiar with Reynolds work on reviving classic pulp characters ala Jim Anthony Super Detective and Dan Fowler G-Man, we decided it was time to revisit Mack Bolan after almost twenty years and see if anything had changed in the set formula of the books. Happily the tried and true elements were still there; tons of violent action with a stalwart hero who preserves despite all manner of physical duress.  Reynolds easily slips on the Executioner styling opening the book with Bolan in Mexico having just destroyed a drug cartel’s money making poppy fields.  On his way back to the states, he runs afoul of a group of Texas coyotes; men who smuggle illegal Mexican immigrants across the border for cash.  Knowing these characters to be merciless thugs, Bolan opts to investigate the situation and inadvertently interferes with an undercover border agent’s plan to bring down the two sadistic brothers running the operation.

Then Bolan and his new ally discover the coyotes are working for an al Qaeda agent named Turiq Ibn Tumart who plans on infiltrating the ranks of the poor Mexican workers with one hundred al Qaeda terrorists and in this manner smuggle them into the U.S. to wreak whatever murder and destruction they can perpetrate on unsuspecting American cities.  Now it’s up to Bolan and the young agent to find a way to stop this deadly convoy and destroy both the coyotes and their fanatical Jadhists allies.

“The Executioner – Border Offensive,” is an excellent addition to this long running series and kudos to Reynolds for this gritty, fast paced new chapter in the on-going war against evil by the one and only Mack Bolan.  Pick it up, pulp fans, you won’t be disappointed.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

HELMET HEAD



HELMET HEAD
By Mike Baron
Published by Create Space
268 pages
Guest Reviewer – Nick Ahlhelm

While new to the world of prose fiction, Mike Baron is a name well known to comic fans. Since the early 1980s, Baron has created unique and out-of-the-norm characters like Nexus, an intergalactic assassin dressed like a superhero, or The Badger, an adventurer with multiple personality disorder surrounded by a strange cast of characters .
As he enters the world of prose fiction, he brings that same mix of genres with oddball characters in to his debut novel, Helmet Head. The novel proves to be a crazy mix of pulp and thriller fiction with the genre surroundings of 70s exploitation cinema.
Our nominal lead is Pete Fagan, a motorcycle riding deputy in rural southern Illinois. His first days at the new job quickly turn bad as he not only ends up a witness to a murder, but also as a potential victim to the killer, an urban legend come to life.
Helmet Head is a massive beast of a biker, towering over all around him. Dressed in black, he carries a massive katana and uses it to murder his victims with one clean swipe through the neck.
Fagan quickly stumbles in to a biker bar called the Kongo Klub, home of the Road Dogs, Helmet Head’s chosen targets over the course of the book. Already injured, Fagan stays behind as the Road Dogs go after the killer. He quickly forms a bond with Macy, old lady of the club’s president, even as the Dogs start to die in grisly manner.
Baron keeps the action going at a breakneck pace throughout the novel, never slowing down to let a reader even catch a breath. He expertly gets us in the head of each of his characters, even if it is only seconds before they meet a horrible fate.
The end barrels forward as Fagan searches out the secrets of Helmet Head, and uncovers even stranger tales in the process. Ultimately, Fagan ends up in a fight for his life with the man behind the helmet in a stunning climax.
Helmet Head is a quick, action packed read for a fan of action, tale-spinning and iron horses. Baron seems to know what he’s talking about when it comes to motorcycles and fans of Sons of Anarchy will find something to love even in the more reprehensible members of the Road Dogs.
Helmet Head is available from Amazon in both hard-copy and in ebook format.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT



SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT
By Max Allan Collins
Illustrations by Terry Beatty
Available 19 Feb. 2013
Hard Case Crime
260 pages

What better book to review following our look at a Modesty Blaise strip collection then one that uses the 1950s anti-comic book witch hunt as its thinly disguised narrative skeleton.  “Seduction of the Innocent,” is the third in a series starring former stripper and newspaper syndicate owner, Maggie Starr and her World War II veteran stepson, Jack Starr.  Both appeared in two earlier comics themed mysteries, “A Killing in Comics,” 2007 and “Strip for Murder,” 2008.  Now Collins wraps up the trilogy with a look at the events that nearly destroyed the American comics industry via the publication of the original, “Seduction of the Innocent,” by Dr. Fredric Wertham.

For the uninitiated, Wertham (March 20,1895 – November 18, 1981) was a German born American psychiatrist who made a name for himself by denouncing comics books as a corrupting influence on the children of that era.  Targeting such publishers as E.C. Comics, he posited the theory that the crime, sex and violence depicted in those comics were the principle cause of delinquency among juvenile boys.  Of course he failed to point out that the titles he singled out were clearly intended for an adult audience though no such labeling existed at the time.  His best known book was “Seduction of the Innocent,” and his criticisms of comic books launched a U.S. Congressional inquiry into the industry and the creation of the Comics Code.

Of course the book is a sham using only the most gruesome examples of graphic art to prove a theory that was never corroborated with traditional scientific sampling.  But the public, already molded by McCarthyism was only too eager to start comic book burning events in their noble defense of America’s naive youth. 

Author Collins has no difficult task in imagining a scenario in which the hated fictional doctor is murdered and then he lines up a half dozen very plausible suspects, each based loosely on past comic industry personalities from publishers to writers and artists.  And therein lies the fun of this tale for any diehard comic book fan; guessing who it is Collins is rifting off of as Jack Starr investigates.  As ever, Collins plays fair and the clues are laid out within the context of the story for all to see and interpret, mystery fans; the challenge being can we solve it before Jack and Maggie do?

This new “Seduction of the Innocent,” is by far a whole lot more entertaining than its predecessors and has the distinction of being Hard Case Crime’s first ever illustrated novel.  Through out the book there are wonderful spot illustrations provided by the super talented Terry Beatty; all done in the marvelous retro golden age style of art.  They add a really nice visual element to what is already a fun read.  It is hoped that Collins’ legion of fans will demand yet more of these delicious murder mysteries starring Maggie & Jack Starr.  In a literary environment overly saturated with dark, somber and depressing cautionary tales these are truly a breath of fresh air.

Monday, December 03, 2012

MODESTY BLAISE : Lady in the Dark



MODESTY BLAISE
(Lady in the Dark)
By Peter O’Donnell
& Enric Badia Romero
Titan Books

One of the great pulp heroes of all time was the comic strip character Modesty Blaise created by writer Peter O’Donnell with artist Jim Holdaway for the British newspapers back in 1963.  It was remarkable when one considers she arrived on the scene when most newspaper action strips were dying out.  After Holdaway left the strip, several new artists took over to include Enric Badia Romero featured in this volume.  Over the years Modesty & Willie appeared in several movies and series of 13 novels and short story collections. 

Now Titan Books is collecting these daily strips in large, handsome packages each containing three complete storylines; all of which are filled with humor, suspense, mystery and tons of explosive action; all traits that have become synonymous with the deadly brunette lovely.

This volume starts with “The Girl from the Future,” wherein Modesty and her loyal sidekick Willie Garvin come to the aid of their American friend, Paul Gant.  Gant, a rich tycoon, has been asked to construct two massive spheres of gold valued at millions of dollars.  His customer is an eccentric sci-fi publisher who believes he has been visited by a beautiful young woman from the future.  Of course both Modesty and Willie know the so-called time traveler is working some kind of scam.  Their challenge is to unravel the con and expose the conspirators before innocent people get hurt.

In “The Big Mole,” Modesty and Blaise are on holiday when they learn a group of terrorists known as the Paladins are holding a dozen nurses hostages in a nearby country retreat where they have fled with their prize, a wounded espionage agent working for a foreign government.  Hiding out in the retreat, the Paladins have orders to kill the spy rather than let him be recaptured by the British S.A.S.  Thus a double dilemma is posed; how to attack the facility, rescue the nurses while somehow preventing the spy from being assassinated at the same time.  It seems an impossible task until Modesty learns that an historical military reenactment between the Cavaliers and Roundheads is scheduled for that same area.  Can she and Willie adapt the old Trojan Horse gambit in a new, modern twist and save the day?

It all wraps with “Lady in the Dark.”  Dinah, a blind woman and close friend of Modesty and Willie, possesses a remarkable dowsing gift which allows her to find underground water sources and mineral deposits.  No one is surprised when she is hired by the widow of European count to help find a century’s old Roman treasure worth millions said to be hidden in an underground cave on her estate.  When Dinah’s husband, Steve, injures his back, Willie offers to accompany her on the assignment leaving Modesty to nursemaid Steve back to health in England.  But no sooner are Dinah and Willie settled into the old castle then the ever suspicious Garvin discovers they have been duped by Salamander Four, a secret criminal organization.  They are holding the true countess prisoner, having replaced her with one of their own agents, and want the Roman treasure for themselves.  Can Willie foil their plot while at the same time protect a blind girl and innocent countess?  Or can he somehow get word back to Modesty in time for her to fly to the rescue?  “Lady in the Dark” is a typical Modesty Blaise adventure that zips like hot lead and never misses its target.

We applaud Titan Books for this beautiful designed and packaged collection in their efforts to preserve one of the greatest newspaper action strips of all time.  Modesty fans should be thrilled at the opportunity to collect the entire run at such an affordable price in such gorgeous, easy to read books.  As for those of you who have never met the lovely and dangerous Ms. Blaise, we can’t think of a better way for you to do so.

Friday, November 23, 2012

THE BLACK BADGE



THE BLACK BADGE
Deputy Unites States Marshall Bass Reeves
From Slave to Heroic Lawman
By Paul Brady
Milligan Books, Inc.
202 pages

At the age of sixteen years old, runaway slave Bass Reeves left the Texas plantation where he had been raised and fled into the Indian Territories.  There he lived with the Five Civilized Tribes and fought with the Creek and Seminole on the side of the Union in the Civil War.  After that conflict, Reeves married and started a horse ranch.  Shortly thereafter he was recruited by Circuit Court Judge Isaac Parker to become one of the first ever African American Deputy U.S. Marshalls.  In his thirty-two years as a lawman, he achieved one of the most impressive records ever recorded in the annals of west.  He captured well over three thousand felons, was involved with fourteen major gun-battles and was only  wounded once.  An expert marksman with both carbine and pistols, Reeves was also a formidable tracker who knew the frontier lands like the proverbial back of his hands.  

The tragic irony of his life is that as an adult, he served the law believing it would forever change the plight of minority groups for the better.  And it did just that in the Indian Territories where Judge Parker treated all felons to the same justice with no regard to their sex or race.  But when the Federal Government moved in by the late 1890s to accept Oklahoma as a state, it opened the floodgates to allow white settlers to swarm the land like human locust.  Most of them were racist; having no desire to share the bounty of the frontier with either the red or black man.  Caught in the middle, lawman Reeves watched the newly formed state enact equal-but-separate laws that were the legal antithesis of the Emancipation Proclamation and by the time of his passing in 1910 at the age of 72, racism was fully entrenched in Oklahoma.  And with that white supremacist mentality in place, is it any wonder that the remarkable life and career of this man were purposely expunged by white historians chronicling the history of the west?

Thankfully the indomitable spirit of freedom and justice prevailed and by the sixties the Equal Rights Movement swept across the land correcting those injustices once and for all.  With that came two authentic histories of Bass Reeeves.  “The Black Badge,” written by Paul Brady, a respected Federal Administrative Law Judge serving 25 years on the bench and the grand-nephew of Bass Reeves was released in 2005.  It preceded “Black Gun, Silver Star” authored by Prof. Art T. Burton published in 2008.  Both books are excellent and worthy of your attention.  Whereas Burton’s is definitively more complete and scholarly account, Brady’s is wonderfully full of personal anecdotes handed down to him by his elder relatives, many of whom actually knew Bass Reeves personally.  It is interesting to note there are several major discrepancies concerning Reeves younger days in regards to his parentage and name.  None of which is surprising considering the lack of personal records afforded slaves save for very few property accounts found on plantations after the Civil War.

Basss Reeves was the greatest lawman who ever rode the Wild West.  His adventures are legendary and all the more fantastic because they were all true.  If, like this reviewer, you grew up fascinated by the stories of Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickock , Bat Materson and all those others made famous in books and movies, you owe it yourself to pick up this “The Black Badge” and meet the Bass Reeves.  It is an experience that will open your eyes and maybe even your heart.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

THE BAT STAFFEL : G-8 And His BATTLE ACES.



G-8 And His BATTLE ACES
THE BAT STAFFEL
By Robert J. Hogan
A Berkley Medallion Book
Cover by Jim Steranko
Dated 1969
142 pages

As most pulp fans know, back in the late 1960s and early 70s, many paperback publishers began reprinting the old classic pulp magazines.  The most popular of these reprint series were the Doc Savage books with the stylized James Bama covers and the Conan adventures as defined by master artist, Frank Frazetta.  Of course many other pulp heroes also received the paperback treatment as the fad caught on for several years introducing a whole new generation of readers to these classic figures.  Among some of the other heroes to find new life in the small softcover market were the Avenger, the Shadow, Operator 5 and the man known as the Flying Master Spy, G-8 And His Battle Aces.

Put out by Popular Publications, G-8 was one of many aviation heroes of the time to include Bill Barnes and Dusty Ayres amongst others.  Yet his magazine was the one with the longest run.  Debuting in October of 1933 it went to produce a whopping 110 issues; all of them written by Robert J. Hogan.  Another uniqueness with this title was the fact that Popular allowed Hogan’s name to be used. The habit of the pulps was to create a bogus house-name for a monthly series so that they could employ multiple writers, as most of them did, without the fans being any the wiser.  Not so with Hogan, who at the height of his career was writing three monthly books and numerous short stories to compile a staggering average of 200,000 words a month; a feat no other American writer has ever equaled. 

Robert Jasper Hogan was the son of a Dutch Reformer minister born in 1897 and raised in Buskirk, NY.  A graduate of St. Lawrence University, before turning to writing full time, he was a cowboy, a boxer, piano player, pilot and airplane salesman.  Thus his realistic descriptions of G-8’s aerial combats have a ring of authenticity to them.  Hogan became friends with many veteran airmen who had fought in World War One and he based a great deal of his adventures on them and their exploits while at the same adding a heavy dose of the macabre.  Each of his G-8 adventures were an efficient blend of spy thriller, aviation adventure and horror fantasy.

Although aware of the character, I’d never read a G-8 story before and decided to correct that while attending this year’s Pulp Fest in Columbus, Ohio.  Luckily, with the help of pulp fan David Walker, I managed to find three of those Berkley paperback reprints including the very first G-8 novel, THE BAT STAFFEL.  It is a solid, rousing debut of the series introducing us not only to the mysterious G-8, whose true identity we are never to learn, but his colorful supporting cast to include his British valet, Battle and his soon to be arch nemesis, Herr Doktor Krueger, the Kairser’s number one mad scientist.  Krueger has developed a deadly poison gas that, when inhaled, turns its victims into piles of ashes.  The German air corps has built half a dozen flying machines resembling giant bats and fitted them with tanks to carry the deadly fumes.

No sooner does G-8 discover this plot then the Bat Staffel attacks a small French town and completely decimates it.  Infuriated by this merciless savagery, G-8 flies off to combat these bat-planes single handedly and is almost done in.  Fortunately he is saved by two American pilots who come to his aid.  The first is the small, happy-go-lucky Nippy Weston who has a penchant for magic tricks and practical jokes and then there is the former college All American Half Back, Bull Martin is a giant of fellow with a granite-like jaw and the heart of a kitten.

Loyal to a fault, Nippy and Weston, upon discovering they have just saved the famous spy, G-8, enthusiastically sign on to be his wingmen in his campaign to foil the Bat Staffel.  From that point on the three of them escape one dangerous death-trap after another, each using his flying skills and other abilities to stay alive and defeat their enemies.  THE BAT STAFFEL is a fast paced, truly imaginative glimpse back into the heyday of the pulps and a fantastic introduction to one of pulpdom’s all time greatest heroes.  Next time you’re at a pulp convention, follow my lead and hunt up copies of G-8  And His Battle Aces.  You won’t be disappointed.

Friday, November 02, 2012

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRIKA



ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRIKA
By Balogun Ojetade
Meji Books
MV Media LLC
145 pages

Since the advent of Sword & Soul, a subgenre focusing primarily on African mythology, we’ve seen many wonderful anthologies and novels come along that are breathing new life and welcomed vigor into fantasy literature.  The two biggest proponents, creators if you will, of this new classification are authors Charles Saunders and Milton Davis.  Saunders is known for his lifelong achievements in authoring some of the finest black fantasy fiction ever put to paper to include his marvelous heroes, Imaro and Dossouye.  Whereas Davis, beside his own amazing fiction, has been the driving force behind MV media, LLC, a publishing brand devoted to Sword & Soul.

Now, from that house, we have ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRICA by Balgum Ojetade; a sprawling, colorful and fast moving adventure that defines the best of Sword & Soul.  It is a tale of whimsy, love, magic and war told with such comfortable ease as to pull the reader along effortlessly.  Now in all fairness, this reviewer was challenged to keep the many characters separate due to their exotic foreign names that twists one’s mental tongue in a variety of unique vowels and consonants.  Thankfully Ojetade does provide a glossary of names at the book’s conclusion which was most helpful.  Despite this minor annoyance, he does distinguish each figure in unique ways that did allow us to enjoy the action without getting overly concerned about proper pronunciations along the way.

Alaafin, the Emperor of the Empire of Oyo wishes to marry off his beautiful but mischievous daughter, Princess Esuseeke.  Seeke, as she is referred to, is very much a “tomboy” who prefers studying martial arts rather than learning sewing or poetry in the royal palace.  It is Alaafin’s prime minister, Temileke who suggest Alaafin sponsor a Grand Tournament to feature the best fighters in all the land brought together to battle for the hand of the princess.  The emperor approves of the idea and dispatches Temileke to the furthest corners of Oyo to recruit only the greatest warriors in the kingdom to participate.

Meanwhile, Seeke, frustrated by her role as the prize in such a contest, accidently encounters her father’s chief general, Aare Ona Kakanfo.  Or so she believes. In reality the person she meets wearing the general’s combat mask is actually Akinkugbe; a young warrior wishing to enter the contest disguised as the general.  When Akin manages to win Seeke’s heart, things start to get complicated.  All the while the real Kakanfo is commanding the forces of Oyo in the south against their enemies the Urabi, desert people whose singular goal is to conquer Oyo.

As the day of the tournament fast approaches, Akin is trapped having to maintain his disguise and somehow figure a way to defeat the other fighters to win the hand of the woman he loves.  While at the same time, the Urabi, unable to defeat Kakanfo’s troops, desperately recruit the services of a brutal demon and a deadly female assassin to help turn the tide of battle in their favor.

All these various plot elements converge dramatically at the book’s conclusion wherein Akin and Seeke not only must overcome overwhelming odds to be together but at the same time rally their people to withstand the calamitous assault of their fiendish enemies and save the empire.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRIKA is a rousing, old fashion adventure tale that had me wishing Hollywood would pick it up and film it; it is that captivating an epic.  Ojetade is a writer worth taking note of, he delivers on all fronts and this reviewer has become an instant fan.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

TARGET LANCER




TARGET LANCER
By Max Allan Collins
Forge Books
305 pages
Available Nov.2012

John F. Kennedy was the first American Catholic to become president back in 1960.  That was a big deal for this reviewer who was Catholic, 13 years old and entering his freshmen year at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, a parochial school in Southern New Hampshire.  Three years later, while sitting in a study hall as a junior, we were interrupted by the announcement over the public address speakers that President Kennedy had been shot while riding in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, Texas.

As much as that news was a tragedy for the entire country, those of us too young to realize the consequences of such a murder watched the transition of power take affect just as we’d been taught in our civic classes and found comfort in that process.  Five years later, while serving in army in Vietnam, the news of Bobby Kennedy’s assignation during his own campaign for the presidency had a much deeper impact. Here we were in a strange, foreign country supposedly fighting for freedom and democracy while back home the nation’s future was being decided by an insane gunman’s bullet.  The world seemed to have gone completely mad.

The Twentieth Century certainly had its defining moments, many of them acts of violence forever imprinted on our national consciousness.  Naturally the public wanted answers and within week’s of the President’s death a government investigation was launched and came to be known as the Warren Commission.  At its conclusion, it declared that Kennedy had been slain by one lone, crazed gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald.  As all of you are well aware, Oswald was gunned down in front of the Dallas jail within days of his capture and died before ever going to trial.  His killer was the owner of a local strip joint with mob connections named Jack Ruby.

Ruby swore he acted on his own until his death in prison of cancer.  Yet to many people his silencing of Oswald seemed to be a cleverly staged killing orchestrated by Machiavellian forces that wanted the truth kept hidden; the same cabal that was actually responsible for Kennedy’s death.  As years passed, many investigators, both private and public, began to uncover mountains of damning evidence that in the end turned the Warren Commission’s finding upside down and definitively proved them to be one massive cover up foisted on the American people.

When we learned that Max Allan Collins’ newest Nathan Heller historical thriller would involve the Kennedy assassination we were naturally intrigued.  What new light could the talented Collins and his phenomenal research partner, George Hagenauer, shed on one of the most overexposed criminal events in all of history?  Having just finished reading “Target Lancer,” the answer to that question provides the basis for one of the most gripping mystery plots ever put to paper.  As usual, Collins sets a historically accurate background then superimposes his own thoughts and beliefs about its scenario via his fictional hero, Nate Heller; the owner of the A-1 Detective Agency of Chicago.  At the book’s opening, Heller is recruited by the Chicago branch of the Secret Service to help with security measures for the president’s planned visit to the Windy City.  Apparently during the Fall of 1963, Kennedy’s people had begun to organize his re-election campaign via several big city visits to include Tampa, Chicago and then Dallas.  With only one year remaining in his term, it was time to start politicking once more.

Within days of agreeing to help the local authorities, Heller is sent to interview a Chicago detective who he has come in contact with an irrational ex-marine who might pose a genuine threat.  From this slim lead, Heller and his partner, a black Secret Service agent named Eben Boldt, learn of a professional hit squad made of two Americans and two Cuban refugees apparently surveying the proposed route of the president’s motorcade through the city.  As each new element is uncovered, Heller starts mentally assembling a jigsaw puzzle that perfectly defines a clandestine military operation.  By the books end, he has unraveled a murderous conspiracy made up of gangland figures and corrupted government agents to eliminate Lance; the Secret Service code name for President Kennedy.

What “Target Lancer” exposes is that the there were three identical hit squads, and their duped patsies, established in all three cities prior to that fateful November in 1963.  As with all Heller books, the historical afterward Collins provides is just as informative as his fiction is captivating.  Upon finishing the book, this reviewer couldn’t help but wonder, now that most of the real principles have all died and gone to their eternal court of judgment, what it is we, as a nation can learn from such history?  Evil men do exist and that we must be ever vigilant to assure they do not usurp the rights of the many by their insidious acts of violence. 

For both students of history and lovers of suspense mysteries, “Target Lancer” is a masterful work not to be missed. Collins just keeps getting better and better.

Friday, October 12, 2012

SUSPENSE, SUSPICION & SHOCKERS



SUSPENSE, SUSPICION & SHOCKERS
By Charles Beckman Jr.
Von Boeckman Fiction Factory Publications
ISBN # 9781479238736
265 pgs.

Several months ago I received an e-mail from a woman named Patti Boeckman. She told me her husband, Charles Boeckman, for most of his life had been a professional pulp writer working in the 40s and 50s under the name of Charles Beckmen.  Between 1945 through to 1975 his short crime stories had appeared in such pulp magazines as Dime Detective, All-Story Detective, Manhunt, Detective Tales to name just a few leading up to many sales in 60s and 70s to Alfred Hitchock’s Mystery Magazine.

A native of Texas, raised during the Great Depression, Charles had two loves; writing and music.  He became a success in both fields.  He taught himself to play saxophone and clarinet and during his travels throughout the south from Texas to Florida he often played with many reputable jazz bands until he formed his own.  In 1990, he earned a star in the South Texas Music Walk of Fame and his band to this day still plays in October Texas Jazz Festival.

What Charles and Patti were unaware of until recently was the resurgence in pulp fiction brought about via the internet which allowed life-long fans and newcomers to come together and begin creating forums to share their love of this escapist literary genre.  Patti, a former school teacher, discovered all this accidently while surfing the web and began to dig deeper into this wonderful phenomenon which invariable led her to the New Pulp Fiction movement.  A smart lady, she jotted down names and e-mail addresses and methodically reached out to many of these “new” pulp enthusiasts and that was how her letter of introduction popped up in my e-mail box.

At that time Patti and Charles were considering collecting many of his crime stories and self-publishing a book.  Hearing this, I, and many of my colleagues, encouraged them to pursue this plan.  The idea of a new collection of authentic pulp tales produced by the actual writer was too good a dream to let slip away.  Then after a few months, Patti wrote again.  This time with the news that they had gone and achieved their objective and the result was this book, “Supsense, Suspicions & Shockers,” by Charles Beckman Jr.  She asked if I would like a copy to review.  That had to be the easiest question I’ve ever answered in my life.

This book, which sports a truly gorgeous cover by amazing Laura Givens, is crammed with twenty-four stories; every single one of them a dazzling display of originality and deft story-telling technique.  Like the finest writers of the pulp era, Beckman had a keen, unerring grasp of human psychology and he employed it like a skillful surgeon carving up plot twists that turn on a time and more often than not, leave the reader both surprised and delighted.  No easy feat.  At the same time, because the book is so packed with stories, a true sense of the times emerges from the pages enveloping the reader taking them on a nostalgic journey back to an American landscape that can only be remembered in such pieces.  And throughout, Beckman’s background in music, especially the vibrancy of New Orleans jazz, is often the spiritual background to his cautionary yarns about desperate men and women struggling to survive in a bleak and desolate world.

Here is a sniveling coward bitten by a rattlesnake facing his own demise with joy, a walking dead man with a hole in his head, a musician being hunted by death itself, a cop after the punk who killed his wife and a husband who believes his devoted wife is about to murder him for absolutely no other reason than to simply do him in.  These are a small sampling of the unique characters that populate Charles Beckman’s fiction and once you’ve met them, I doubt seriously you will ever forget them.  There is a true humanity to these tales that seeks to uncover the good in even the worst of people and thus leaves the reader with a poignant optimistic hope for the future.  

“Suspense, Suspicion & Shockers,” is a genuine treasure trove of great pulp fiction by one of the best writers to ever tap his fingers over the keys of a mechanical typewriter.  There was magic in those fingers and it awaits you in this book.

PS – My copy arrived autographed.

Monday, October 01, 2012

MYTHICAL - Heart of Stone




MYTHICAL: Heart of Stone
By C.E. Martin
ISBN # 9781479128372
239 pages

The explosion of self-publishing has flooded the reading world with thousands upon thousands of new works by unknown writers.  For the most part, logic and literary tradition dictates 95% is crap.  One percent is great and the other four percent is made up of really good stories worthy of being sought out and enjoyed.   C.E. Martin’s “MYTHICAL : Heart of Stone,” is very much part of that delightful four percent.  This is a superior action/adventure fantasy which mixes the superhero genre with lots of mythological magic.

Colonel Mark Kinsler is the leader of a squad of stone soldiers known as Detachment 1039.  When their attempt to capture and destroy a terrorist shape-shifter goes horribly awry, Kinsler is the only survivor.  His body, petrified in stone, is dumped in the Arizona desert where it is discovered by a group of five high school seniors on a final jaunt before graduation.  The only girl among the group, Josie, is somehow personally drawn to what she believes is a bizarre stone sculpture of an Adonis like figure. When she inadvertently helps Kinsler heal and regain his human form, she soon finds herself caught up in a fantastic world of spies and ancient superbeings.

Kinsler, having suffered temporary amnesia, initially relies upon Josie and her four male companions to help him sort out his current predicament.  Eventually, as his memories slowly return during their trip to Vegas, he soon realizes his target is planning on killing the visiting vice-President and assuming his place in the government.  Unsure as to whom he can trust, Kinsler has to rely on Josie and the boy named Jimmy to see him through his mission.

Martin writes amazing action sequences that race across the pages effortlessly.  They are so well delivered with sophisticated attention to the smallest details.  His skill pulls the readers into the middle of these slugfests and brilliantly allows them to experience each vicariously. Very few writers have this storytelling gift so well realized.  Oh, sure, there are some clich├ęd plot devises, but they never seemed forced and become integral parts of the narrative from beginning to end.  What the book does is open the doors to a unique world that is much like our own and yet very, very different. But Martin is wise enough not to overwhelm us with those differences too quickly and deftly reveals them gradually so that by the book’s climax, we’ve been fully introduced to this other Earth; one I very much want to revisit again real soon.

“MYTHICAL : Heart of Stone,” is something old made new and a true pleasure to discover.  And it’s only the first step in what I predict is going to be an amazing series.  Buy your ticket and get on board now!