CHARLES BOECKMAN PRESENTS JOHNNY NICKLE
Edited by David White
Pro Se Press
Last year, veteran pulp writer, Charles Boeckman self-published a collection of his many short stories entitled, “Suspense, Suspicion & Shockers.” At that time many of us involved with the New Pulp movement greeted this volume with a great deal of excitement and fanfare. Here were 24 short pulp nuggets by one of the best wordsmith ever to pound a typewriter. I recall giving the book a glowing reviewing, urging all my readers to pick up a copy. (And yes, it is still available.)
Normally that’s where this story should end, but it doesn’t Several weeks after Boeckman’s book made a splash, Pro Se Press Managing Editor Tommy Hancock, came up with the idea of producing brand new stories by other writers featuring some of Boeckman’s characters that has appeared in those shorts. He put out the word throughout the pulp community grapevine and several writers took up the challenge; signing on to write these new stories.
CHARLES BOECKMAN PRESENTS JOHNNY NICKLE is the first result of this concept and it stars itinerant trumpet player, John Nickle, a footloose and fancy free musician trying to eke out a living with his horn during the post World War II era. This slim volume features two stories.
“Notes in the Fog,” was written by Richard White and has Johnny and his new band, the Daybreakers, playing a gig in Monterey, California. Keeping with the tradition of pulp pacing, we no sooner are made of aware of Johnny’s current situation when he is approached by the beautiful wife of an old buddy. She tells the jazz man that her husband has been murdered by a known mobster but the authorities are unable to bring the gangster to justice. It seems this powerful boss has half the local police in his pocket. Of course Johnny doesn’t want any part of this, as he prefers to avoid bloodshed, particularly his own.
But within a few minutes of his encounter with the lovely widow, he’s roughed by two thugs and then witnesses the shooting death of a stranger. Now the police are breathing down his neck. “Notes in the Fog,” isn’t a bad story idea, but its execution and editing are shoddy. It seems slapped together hurriedly without a clear plot path defined. Each scene, rather than clarifying the story seems to compound the confusion.
As for editing, let me make this crystal clear, I do not have an issue with typos….ever. I found them in 100% (yes…100%) of the books I read. It’s an imperfect world, live with it. So I do know how to ignore those little beasties, but what I cannot overlook is how, in two different places in this story, told in third person, the narrative jumps to first person. Both instances stopped me cold and frustrated me greatly.
“The Devil You Know,” by Brad Mengel completes the second half of this paperback and is the it’s saving grace. Mengel’s writing is crisp, well thought out and wonderfully captures Boeckman’s characters; their personalities, nuances, etc. He does this so well, the story feels like an extension of Boeckman’s tale, “Run, Cat, Run.” Johnny and Nona Alexander, the widow of Bob Alexander from that solo story, are doing just fine with Johnny’s new band when they meet a slick agent named Captain Manning. He wants his client, a young black guitarist, Connor Johnson, to audition for the band. The talented guitar man soon demonstrates his skills much to Johnny’s delight and is soon playing and recording with the band.
But things are never quite that easy in the world of cool jazz. Connor has a way with the ladies and is soon flirting with the band’s torch singer, a sexy redhead who once dated the drummer, a tough bruiser with a mean jealous streak. Then there is the young writer researching a book detailing the connections between the music world and the supernatural. Rumors, suspiciously started by the boy’s agent, begin floating around that Connor, like the more famous Johnsons, may have sold his soul to Devil for the requisite fame and fortune. When someone drops dead on stage during a live performance, all bets are off and the cops immediately zero in on Johnny Nickle because of his own notorious past. Now it’s up to him and Nora to find the real killer and expose his, or her, twisted motivations.
Like any anthology, even one with only two entries, their level of appeal will vary. In this case, “Notes in the Fog,” just doesn’t work. Whereas “The Devil You Know,” is an excellent pulp yarn that truly pays homage to its source. Brad Mengel is a gifted writer who delivers a quality effort. Whether that is enough to warrant picking this up, I leave to you, dear readers.
One final note may possibly tip the scales. I rarely discuss a book’s cover or design, believing those are not the elements a reviewer should be focusing on. Still, in the true tradition of the original pulps, JOHNNY NICKLE provides a gorgeous cover as rendered by Adam Shaw and slick packaging by Pro Se’s own Sean E. Ali. Making this little book very, very easy on the eyes.