Thursday, July 23, 2009


By Lester Dent
Hard Case Crime
250 pages
Available in Oct.09

For most of his writing career, Lester Dent chronicled the adventures of heroes like Doc Savage, Richard Benson; the Avenger and the Skipper. He was considered by many to be one of the greatest pulp writers of them all. What most people don’t know is that Dent was never satisfied with his pulp efforts and aspired to work for the higher class publications known as the slicks. To achieve this goal, he wrote crime fiction like HONEY IN HIS MOUTH, which was completed a few years before his death in 1959 but never published. Kudos to Hard Case Crime for releasing what is a delicious black comedy.

Walter Harsh is a two-bit con artist barely making a living with his portrait scams. An automobile accident lands him in a hospital with a broken arm. Here he is approached by a group of South American agents who worked for a ruthless dictator known as El Presidente. Their leader’s position is precarious at best and it appears a military coup is in the offing. The clique, consisting of three men and El Presidente’s former mistress, have hit upon a scheme to do away with the soon-to-be disposed tyrant and abscond with his hidden funds deposited in various American accounts. To do so they need to find someone who can pass as an exact double for El Presidente and that person is none other than Walter Harsh.

Of course Dent is taking the basic plot line of Anthony Hope’s classic adventure romance, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA and turning in on its head. Instead of a noble British adventurer coming to the aid of a small foreign republic, as happens in Hope’s 1894 novel, we are given a low-life hustler about to become the lynch pin to a million dollar scheme far beyond his meager imagination to grasp. The book works because Dent’s ability to capture the essence of his characters is simply brilliant. Harsh from page one is a sneaky little creep the likes of which you never meet. Throughout his adventure, he never once shows an ounce of decency or goodness. His selfish perspective on life is simple, all the world’s riches were meant for him and him alone.

Which is why the ending is truly inspired justice that will have you chuckling. Lester Dent was a rare talent who carved out a niche forever in the annals of hero pulps, but books like HONEY IN HIS MOUTH lay claim to the true depths of his writing genius. This book comes out in early, Oct. Don’t miss it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


By Danny Hogan
Pulp Press
100 pages

It happens regularly that I’ll get an e-mail from a new publisher asking me to review one of their titles in the hopes of increasing their visibility in the marketplace. Such was the case when a received such a letter from the good folks at UK’s Pulp Press. I decided to take a few seconds to check out their website ( I came away with a feeling that here were a bunch of talented young creators eager to set the publishing world on fire by bringing back the fast-paced, punch-in-the-groin pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. Sort of their version of our own Hard Case Crime. I let them know I’d be only to happy to read anything they sent along. A week later this slim little book arrived in the mail.

Eloise Murphy is an aging dancer who believes she’s experienced all the ups and downs life has to offer. Having been inspired by the classic “tease” dancers like Belle Starr and Gypsy Rose Lee, Eloise is disgusted with the new anything-goes mentality of the current lap-dancers taking over all the gentlemen’s clubs. When she gets fired for being too old fashion, it leaves her in a depressed state and ripe for targeting by a very secretive outfit in town.

A wealthy businessman owns a unique, private club and wants Eloise to come and work for him. When, during her interview, she is given a set of photographs depicting dark events of her past, the truth about the set-up is revealed. She is being blackmailed into performing for a group of cruel, sadistic men who relish inflicting pain on women. The violence is quick and vicious and by the end of her first encounter, Eloise is left bruised and battered, what whatever little decency she had left completely obliterated.

She then becomes deadly and sets out to claim bloody vengeance against those who have used her. As the violence escalates from page to page, I found myself recalling all those exploitation B-movies of the late 60s and early 70s. Writer Danny Hogan is a capable craftsman whose prose is extremely lean and he doesn’t waste a line or paragraph about anything other than Eloise’s fury and the hell she brings down on her enemies. This is a short book which can easily be finished in an hour or two. But don’t let that fool you. It may just be the most enjoyable reading hour you’ve spent all year. Finally a word of caution, this isn’t for the squeamish. You’ve been warned.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


By Lev Grossman
Viking Press
402 pages

Long ago, while in high school, I read two coming-of-age novels that stayed with me for the rest of my life. Both were as different as books could possibly be. One was an assignment, the other of my own choosing. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger brilliant captured the obscene vulnerability of youth and the horrors of adulthood as played out against two different settings; on an urban maze of loneliness, the other a southern community filled with backwoods racism. Since reading those two books, I’d not found another voice so rich in describing the adventure and confusion that is growing up in America until now. THE MAGICIAN, like those earlier books, tells that same journey; only its route is one of magic and fantasy.

Quentin Coldwater is a young New Yorker about to enter college. An only child of disinterested middle class parents, the one joy in his life to this point has been a series of fantasy novels set in a magical land called Fillory. Think Narnia and you’ll be quickly brought up to speed. On the eve of his entrance interview for Harvard, Quentin enters a cold winter alley in Brooklyn and emerges in the woods of upper New York State on a warm summer day. He has traveled to a school of magic known as Brakebills, where he is informed that he posses such arcane skills and if he can past the curriculum, he will be trained to become a real magician. Here the reader will most likely envision Harry Potter’s Hogsworth. But the similarities are few, as Grossman paints Brakebills as an imperfect setting for lost children frantic to find their place in a world they feel constantly alienated from. They are a jaded group of loners and even a wondrous school of magic cannot completely eradicate their self-imposed ennui.

At Brakebills, Quentin finds love and friendship and eventually the grandest surprise of all, Fillory actually exist and he and his chums discover the magical means to travel there. But alas, every Eden has its serpents and the fantasy world that so comforted him as child soon becomes a hellish nightmare with a monster like none other he had ever imagined. Through his trials, Quentin sacrifices much and endures great pain before coming to grip with life’s most difficult challenge, making sense of it all.

Grossman’s tale is part coming-of-age fable and part philosophical dissertation on what the nature of life might be. If there is a God, he posits, then perhaps he, or she, is the Great Writer of All, and Quentin, like the rest of us, must eventually come to the realization that we are all characters in some cosmic book. It is up to each of us to decide whether we are the heroes, villains or merely supporting players. Quentin has to stop giving the past unwarranted importance and stop believing the future holds some pot of gold happiness, if only he can reach it. In the end he learns to accept that immortal Now, which as Thorton Wilder once wrote, is only captured briefly by poets and saints. Grossman may not be a saint, but with THE MAGICIANS, he clearly establishes his poetic sensibilities. This is a book I will not soon forget.

Friday, July 03, 2009


By Barry Reese
Wild Cat Books
147 pages

After enjoying Reese’s first collection of stories starring his original pulp character, the Rook, I was anxious to get into this new volume which sports a terrific Frank Brunner cover. The book contains six fast paced, action heavy stories of Max Davies, a man psychology scarred as a boy when he saw his father gunned down by hoodlums. Davies, in the vein of the classic Bruce Wayne/Batman mold, travels across the globe as he matures and learns all the sciences and fighting skills he will require in his campaign to combat evil and injustice.

These are classic hero pulp yarns set in the 30s and 40s and told in the manner of those great digest mags. One of Reese’s strengths as a writer is his ability to reinvent iconic pulp figures in a whole new light. An example of that in this collection is his debut of the Russian hero, Leonid Ksalov, clearing meant to be a new version of Doc Savage. He’s a great character and another helpful ally to the Rook in his war against the agents of darkness.

Which brings us to this series’ overriding theme, occult and supernatural threats. Unlike other classic pulp vigilantes who battled mobsters and would-be world rulers, the Rook takes on the bizarre, other-worldly foes like vampires, immortal Chinese madmen, zombies and even a baby blood-sucker at one point. Ghosts abound in every adventure and one quickly learns that the Rook’s world is a very scary and menacing one. Yet with the help of his lovely wife Evelyn, a one-time movie B-queen, McKenzie the local sheriff and now Leonid Kaslov, the Rook still manages to overcome the forces of evil and win the day.

So in the end, this volume is even better than the first. Although you don’t need to read the first to enjoy it, I’m betting once you delve into the Rook’s adventures, you’ll most likely want to collect all of them. I sure do.