Sunday, August 30, 2015


By Max Allan Collins
Illustrations by Terry Beatty
Dover Mystery Classic
265 pages

Of all the ongoing series mystery writer Max Collins continues to juggle, while doing all the things we normal being do such eat, drink and sleep, my favorite is quickly becoming his Jack and Maggie Starr books.  Being a comic book fan since the age of five, it’s only natural I’d appreciate a mystery series that involves American comic books during the Golden Age of the four-color little mags.  It started with A Killing in Comics (May 2007) which I’ve not had the pleasure of reading yet and then later produced Strip for Murder (May 2008 and the subject of this review) and wrapped with Seduction of the Innocent (June 2013) which revolved around fictionalized version of Frederic Wertham’s crusade against comic books back in the 1950s.  One of my personal favorites of Collins’ books.

The set up is a fun one.  Maggie Starr was once a famous burlesque queen who married the Major, a World War One hero and widower.  He owned Starr Syndicates which managed a group of highly profitable cartoon strips.  When the Major died, Maggie inherited the business and helping her run it as a special security consultant is the Major’s son, Jack.  Immediately one is reminded me of the classic boss-employee partnership between Rex Stout’s master detective Nero Wolfe and his witty, tough-guy legman chronicler, Archie Goodwin.  Here it is Jack who tells the tales with tongue firmly in cheek.  In fact Jack’s dialogue showcases some of the best lines Collins has ever put to paper; many so exaggerated as to be as cartoonish as the properties Starr Syndicate handles. 

The banter between Jack, a healthy, handsome lad and his drop-dead gorgeous stepmother is one of the major attractions (pun intended) of these stories. Though it is made absolutely clear there is no risqué hanky-panky happening here. But don’t feel sorry for the lad, in the two books I’ve read thus far, he never lacks sexy feminine companionship.  Whereas there’s plenty of adult foibles within the stories themselves and the world of early comics is proven to be as nasty and cutthroat as any other commercial venture in American history. 

The crux of the plot deals with an on-going feud between two famous cartoonists, both with inflated egos, who despise each other for multiple past wrongs. When one of them is murdered, Starr Syndicate is in danger of losing its most profitable strip and so Maggie orders Jack to solve the mystery and help save the family business. Throughout the story, Collins offers up a parade of thinly disguised cartoonists most fans will easily recognize, in fact the feuding duo are thinly veiled versions of the men who created Lil’ Abner and Joe Palooka. 

Now as entertained as I was throughout the book, I’m going to bet half my own readers here, especially those under thirty, don’t have the foggiest notion as to the two iconic characters I just mentioned.  Thus the book, for the non-fan, is most likely going to be bothersome as most of the book’s appeal will fall flat.  How can you truly enjoy the game if you don’t know who the players are?

Don’t get me wrong.  Even with that handicap, Collins is too much a pro not to deliver a good mystery and always plays fair with the clues peppered throughout the course of the narrative.  But what I would like to see is for him to take the series away from its limited comic-world settings and explore its true potential as a straight out mystery series starring two of the most enjoyable detectives ever to grace the printed page.  In the end there’s a whole lot more to Maggie and Jack then just four flat colors.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


An Isaac Bell Adventure
By JUSTIN SCOTT & Clive Cussler
Berkley Novel
402 pages

Okay, back-story first for those of you unfamiliar with the Isaac Bell series. He was created by popular new pulp writer Clive Cussler in the first book of the series, “The Chase,” with the assistance of novelist Justin Scott. Since that time, although his name always appears on the book’s covers, it is all too clear that these marvelous tales are penned solely by Mr. Scott. And, we might add, we’ve come to enjoy them just as much as Cussler’s own original Dirk Pitt books.

Isaac Bell is the leading investigator for the New York based Van Horn Detective Agency. The son of a wealthy Boston banker, Bell found the life of a banker much too dull and boring for his taste and discovering the excitement and adventure inherent in his chosen professional, quickly became one of the finest investigators at the Agency. In the previous books, all taking place in the early 1900s, Bell’s saga is set against the amazing birth of the industrial age in America. His cases have dealt with the burgeoning empires of transcontinental railroads and the pioneers of early aviation; whereas in this volume, Scott sends us backward in time to one of Bell’s first assignments.

As the book opens, he is disguised as a coal miner in rural West Virginia attempting to learn more concerning the make up of union organizers determined to gain higher wages and safer working conditions for their members. At the same time he begins to suspect that one of the richest Wall Street tycoons is behind a series of sabotage attacks on the mines that have left dozens injured or dead. Someone has hired a cunning agitator to create turmoil between the owners and the workers but to what end he cannot fathom.

As ever Scott’s historical setting is phenomenal and half the fun of reading these exploits. But with “The Striker” there comes a fresh twist in that this mysterious provocateur Bell is chasing is in many ways as skilled and trained as he is. Could it be possible that the man Bell is hunting is another detective? One trained by his own mentor?  And what is the role of the lovely Mary Higgins, the sister of one of the union organizers?  Combining both emotional investments with a mile-a-minute pacing, Scott once again delivers a breath-taking race through history at the same time making it come alive for today’s readers. It isn’t often that a thriller provides us with a genuine glimpse into tragedies and glories that made this country great.

“The Striker” is another great addition to the Isaac Bell series and we’re already anxious for the next one.  Major thumbs up here, loyal readers.

Thursday, August 06, 2015


Stories by Walter Kaylin
Edited by Robert Deis & Wyatt Doyle
New Texture
283 pages

A little while ago this reviewer had the joy of discovering the fiction world of Men’s Adventure Magazines that proliferated the newsstands of the 50s, 60s and 70s via a wonderful anthology titled, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.” Amongst the great and wacky stories in that were a few by a writer named Walter Kaylin who the editors claimed was one of the most prolific writers for those magazines.

“He-Men, Bag Men & Nymphos,” is an entire collection of Kaylin’s amazing work with fifteen stories featured within its pages. They represent the entire spectrum of this he-man brand of pulp fiction; from modern day gangsters, to south sea island sirens to western outlaws and surfing assassins. This book has it all making us marvel at the boundless imagination that produced these outlandish tales. There are even a few factual articles mixed amongst them. Of these, the most gripping is Kaylin’s account of the U.S.S Indianapolis and its fate when sunk in the last days of World War II. It is a harrowing tale comprised from documented naval records and survivors’ testimonies.

Going from fact to fiction has no diminishing effects on any of Kaylin’s work, all of it is brilliant and written with a flare, no matter how boring the subject material. Which brings us to the one piece we feel should have been omitted; “The Army’s Terrifying Death Bugs and Loony Gas.” It is dated 1960 and is report on the state of the military’s research into chemical warfare. It is the only piece that doesn’t belong here. But hey, fourteen bulleyes out of fifteen shots is a damn impressive score.

Which is as good a way as any to describe Walter Kaylin’s wrtings. He was a master at his craft of spinning pulp tall tales and the fun he had writing them infects his readers as well. Bravo, Bob Deis and Wyatt Doyle; that’s two homeruns in a row.  Please, keep swinging for the fences. We love this stuff.  

Tuesday, August 04, 2015


An Eliot Cross Adventure
By John Hegenberger
Rough Edge Press
144 pages

We so love discovering talented writers like John Hegenberger. Although still relatively new to pulp fiction, he has a wonderful, clean, no-nonsense style of writing that is always a pleasure to read. His new spy thriller, set in 1988, captures the feel and essences of the era and the Cold War tensions that pervaded world politics at that time.

His protagonist is Eliot Cross, a small time private-eye operating out of Ohio whose father disappeared two decades earlier. An only child, Cross grew up with the constant question of why had his father had abandoned him and his mother. Her dying wish is for him to find his father who she believes to be in danger. After her passing, Cross files away her request as a hopeless dream. He has absolutely no clues as to where his father might have fled.

When a shady former C.I.A. contact approaches him with the news that his father is actually in Cuba working as a deep-cover agent for the Agency, Cross doesn’t know whether to believe him or throw him out of his office. In the end he travels to C.I.A. headquarters in Washington, where he meets a beautiful operative who unwillingly confirms what ex-spy had alluded to. But when this fellow is gunned down in his hotel room, Cross begins to suspect he’s inadvertently kicked over a hornet’s nest and could be the next the unknown killer’s next target.

Obsessed with learning the truth, Cross manages to make his way to Cuba where he is promptly captured and thrown into jail. Still he manages to extricate himself from one dire situation after another. As he tries to piece together the complex puzzle that is his father’s ultimate fate, he becomes embroiled in a new conspiracy wherein he may be the sacrificial pawn. Death could be his final reward unless he can discover the truth behind a twenty year old secret.

“Tripl3 Cross,” is a small book that packs an awfully big punch. Hegenberger brilliantly captures Cross’ voice and pulls us intimately into his adventure until the very end where he pulls off a dandy O’Henry style twist that had this reviewer crying, “Bravo!” This is a damn good read by a pro.  Spy buffs will not be disappointed.