Sunday, February 01, 2015

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Hollywood Detective, November 1943

That's kind of a goofy cover (what else would you expect from Trojan Publications?), but I like it. And I'm sure the stories inside this issue of HOLLYWOOD DETECTIVE are goofy but fun, too. Robert Leslie Bellem wrote two of them under his own name, Dan Turner yarns, of course, plus the Dan Turner comic strip, plus stories under his pseudonyms Ellery Watson Calder and Harley L. Court. Filling out the issue are stories by Laurence Donovan and Harold de Polo. I always enjoy pulps like these when I read them.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Exciting Western, July 1948

Stagecoaches show up a lot on Western pulp covers, and there's usually some sort of action going on. This one from the July 1948 issue of EXCITING WESTERN is no exception. Authors responsible for the action inside are Louis L'Amour (with two stories, one under the Jim Mayo pseudonym), my old favorite W.C. Tuttle, Robert J. Hogan of G-8 and His Battle Aces fame, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, and a couple of house names, Jackson Cole and Reeve Walker.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Forgotten Books: The Man From Scotland Yard - Maxwell Grant (Walter B. Gibson)

I hadn't read a Shadow novel in quite a while and was in the mood for one, so I picked a story that I'd heard was pretty good, THE MAN FROM SCOTLAND YARD, which appeared in the August 1, 1935 issue of THE SHADOW. It turned out to be a decent choice, but before I talk about that, I'm going to wallow a bit in nostalgia. Consider yourself warned.

I have a long history with The Shadow. I first encountered the character in syndicated reruns of the radio show back in the early 1960s. I thoroughly enjoyed them, although I had no idea at the time of the character's pulp origins. A few years later, on the paperback spinner rack in Tompkins' Drugstore, I came across the Belmont edition of THE SHADOW STRIKES, the first original Shadow novel by Dennis Lynds, writing under the house-name Maxwell Grant. Of course, I didn't know then that Lynds wrote it, and I certainly never would have guessed that years later he and I would become friends through correspondence. All I knew was that I loved the book and thought this version of the character was even better than the one in the radio show. Lynds wrote more Shadow novels for Belmont over the next few years, and I snatched them all up as I found them and read them with eagerness and great enjoyment.

(A little background: When Belmont began this new series of Shadow paperbacks, the first one, RETURN OF THE SHADOW, was written by Walter B. Gibson, who created the character and wrote the vast majority of the pulp novels. I didn't find that one and read it until several years later. When the arrangement with Gibson didn't work out, Belmont turned to Lynds to continue the series. This was a very busy time for Lynds. Not only was he writing the Shadow paperbacks, he was also writing all the Mike Shayne novelettes and novellas in MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE, many of the Man From U.N.C.L.E. novellas in the digest of the same name, and starting his long-running series of award-winning, critically acclaimed novels about one-armed private eye Dan Fortune under the name Michael Collins. He certainly didn't stint on his Shadow novels, though, at least not to my mind at the time. I've never reread any of them, but I'd like to if I could find the time.)

Moving on, a few more years went by, and I found the Bantam paperback reprint of THE LIVING SHADOW, the first novel in the pulp series from 1931. I still remember reading it while sitting on the front porch of my aunt's house in Blanket, Texas, seemingly unable to turn the pages fast enough to keep up with the excitement of the tale. This was the best Shadow so far.

By then I had encountered Doc Savage and learned some about the pulps. While The Shadow never replaced Doc as my favorite from that era, I read all the paperbacks published by Bantam and then later by Pyramid and Jove, many of the latter with great covers by the legendary Jim Steranko. By that time I was in college, attending what was then North Texas State University in Denton. One summer when I was commuting from my home in Azle, about 50 miles away, the vagaries of the schedule meant that I had one class early in the morning and another late in the afternoon, with a big block of time in the middle of the day to kill. It was too far to go home and come back. Most days I spent that time in the basement of the library, sitting in one of the study carrels 'way in the back, behind the stacks. Did I study? Heck, no. I smuggled in food and drink and sat there in near-isolation reading paperbacks, and the ones I remember most vividly are those Shadow novels with Steranko covers. (I now realize that I actually was studying for what turned out to be my career, I just didn't know it at the time. What better preparation could there be, though, for writing hundreds of over-the-top action novels than reading the novels of Walter B. Gibson and all the other pulpsters whose work I was devouring back then?)

In the 40 years since, I've read many, many Shadow novels, some in reprint and quite a few in the original pulps. I remember sitting in the hospital reading a Shadow pulp right after our first daughter was born, while Livia and Shayna were both sleeping. THE SHADOW ran from 1931 to 1949, and the quality of the series breaks pretty neatly in the middle. The stories from the 1930s are consistently good to excellent, although there are some mediocre entries in the bunch. The 1940s stories are just the opposite: some gems here and there, but mostly bland, uninspiring little mysteries. No criminal super-masterminds, no hordes of vicious gangsters being mowed down by The Shadow's .45s, no apocalyptic action scenes.

So where does THE MAN FROM SCOTLAND YARD fit in? Sort of in the middle. The main plot concerns a gang of international spies who are out to steal some weapons plans and sell them to an unnamed power in Europe. (Cough*Germany*cough.) It's somewhat interesting but not that compelling. But there's a great scene where The Shadow lands his autogyro on the deck of the bad guys' ship in the middle of the Atlantic and goes to town with those .45 automatics. A few other action scenes are pretty good, but overall there aren't as many of them as in some of the novels, and The Shadow is off-screen a lot. Quite a bit of the story consists of guys standing in hotel rooms talking.

However, through a very neat bit of trickery, Gibson sets up a situation where the reader doesn't know if one of the characters is really a hero, a villain, a hero pretending to be a villain, or vice versa. It takes almost the entire novel for that conundrum to be resolved, and I enjoyed being puzzled. THE MAN FROM SCOTLAND YARD doesn't reach the operatic heights of some of the early novels, but it's considerably better than most of the ones I've read from the Forties. It was reprinted a while back in one of those double editions with ZEMBA, a novel that's considered by many fans to be one of the best in the whole series. That edition seems to be out of print, but I imagine copies can be found at various places on-line. I enjoyed THE MAN FROM SCOTLAND YARD enough that I plan to read another Shadow novel fairly soon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Now Available for Pre-Order: Outlaw Ranger #3: Blood and Gold - James Reasoner

A savage ambush...twenty men slaughtered in a brutal massacre...a fortune in gold stolen! This was a crime big enough and bold enough to bring the Outlaw Ranger to the wide-open settlement of Cemetery Butte, where a powerful mining tycoon rode roughshod over any who dared to oppose him. But even that atrocity doesn't prepare G.W. Braddock for the evil that awaits him, stretching bloody hands out of the past. 

Gritty, compelling, and packed with action, the saga of the Outlaw Ranger continues in BLOOD AND GOLD, the third exciting installment in this series from bestselling author James Reasoner.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked TV: Tucker's Witch

This oddball private eye series ran for only 12 episodes more than 30 years ago, but I remember it. Does that say something about it, or me? Who knows? But I recall it as being pretty entertaining. While the plots were standard private eye fare about husband-and-wife PIs, the gimmick was that the wife was also a witch. Like if Darrin Stevens gave up advertising, got his PI license, and Samantha came in on the agency with him. The cast was pretty good: Tim Matheson (an actor I've always liked who's currently on HART OF DIXIE) as the husband, Catherine Hicks as the wife (best known as the mom on SEVENTH HEAVEN, I suppose, but to me she was always one of the Faith Coleridges from RYAN'S HOPE), and Barbara Barrie and Alfre Woodard in supporting roles. There are a few episodes on YouTube, but I don't think it was ever released on video or DVD.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Now Available: Souls of the Dead - Robert J. Randisi

When ex-sheriff Ken Burke is attacked and winds up in an unusual coma, the former hitman Sangster finds himself pulled into the world of Voodoo in order to save his friend. 

Sangster discovers he has stepped into a hornet’s nest as the search leads him through a myriad of French Quarter Voodoo businesses, a Catholic church, a mysterious Voodoo priest in the bayou while avoiding the next would-be hitman wanting to take Sangster out. 

“Leave it to master-storyteller Robert Randisi to come up with a soulful new spin on the hitman genre. Sangster is a unique addition to the ranks of killers for hire.” 
—Max Allan Collins, creator of QUARRY 

“As many excellent hitman novels as there have been over the years…you wouldn’t think there would be much left to do with the sub-genre. But you’d be wrong, as Robert J. Randisi…proves quite handily. 
—James Reasoner, author of Texas Wind 

“…an ambitious, fast-paced thriller that plunges readers headlong into the world of professional hitmen…author Randisi promptly throws some fresh twists into his tale that amp up the excitement and suspense all the more.” 
—Wayne D. Dundee, author of the Joe Hannibal PI series 

About SOULS OF THE DEAD author Gary Phillips had this to say: 
“Taut, clever and gritty, under the sure hand of Robert Randisi, The Souls of the Dead is an unputdownable crime story with a rough-hewn charm.  Bring me more Sangster.”
     -- Gary Phillips, author of Treacherous: Ruffians, Grifters and Killers

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1950

I always enjoy Earle Bergey's science fiction pulp covers. This one from the June 1950 issue of THRILLING WONDER STORIES is a good one. My old mentor Sam Merwin Jr. was the editor then, and he filled this issue with stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Raymond Z. Gallun, Mack Reynolds, Cleve Cartmill, Raymond F. Jones, and Margaret St. Clair. That's a fine bunch of authors and shows why TWS under Merwin's editorship has a good reputation, at least among old geezers such as myself.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: West, March 1947

"Why, shore, Ah kin roll a quirley and plug some no-good rannie at the same time. Cain't ever'body?"

Meanwhile, inside this issue of WEST are stories by Edward Churchill (I've read some of his G-Men yarns that were pretty good, but no Westerns that I recall), Gunnison Steele, and Johnston McCulley. Fine reading, I'm sure.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Forgotten Books: Rustler of the Owlhorns - Jim O'Mara (Vernon L. Fluharty)

This book begins by dropping us right in the middle of the problems faced by rancher Clay Tennant. Clay's brother Frank has inherited the family ranch following their father's death, leaving Clay with only a single section of land where he's trying to build up a herd. Naturally, this results in a lot of friction between the brothers. On the side, Clay works for Parr Battles and Ed Blount, owners of the Trans-Mountain Cattle and Land Company, which provides beef for the Indian reservations in the area. But Battles and Blount are involved in a crooked deal with the Indian agent, and Clay's brother Frank is part of it. When Clay finds out about it, the conspirators take action to see that he can't ruin their scheme. Almost before Clay knows what's going on, he finds himself framed for rustling and then murder. The rest of this book concerns his efforts to extricate himself from this deadly situation, while also being torn between his beautiful but selfish fiancee and the neighboring rancher's daughter (also beautiful, but tomboyish) who has always secretly loved him.

I really went back and forth in my reactions to this book. After getting off to a nice running start, the plot then takes forever to develop, and many of the elements, such as the romantic triangle, are stereotypical and predictable, even allowing for the time period. A couple of other minor annoyances, both relating to the women, are that except for a slight variation in hair color, they're described in almost the same words, and Fluharty has a habit of referring to their "small faces", which bothered me for some reason.

However, the action scenes are well-handled, and during the second half of the book, Fluharty succeeds in creating some genuine suspense regarding the outcome. He tightens the screws so much on his hero that I really had to wonder how Clay was going to get out of his troubles. The resolution is maybe a little far-fetched, but believable enough that I bought it. I wound up enjoying the second half of the book enough to more than balance out its predictability and lapses in style.

Here are some review quotes from the paperback edition:

"There is no relaxation of tension in the writing of this Western. The author pictures his characters strong and real, the action fast and rough. The book will please Western fans." -- Wichita Eagle

"The reader of Westerns is, or should be by now, quite well adjusted to villains of assorted degrees of perfidy, but Jim O'Mara's RUSTLER OF THE OWLHORNS introduces a skunk who takes all medals and silver casters for slick-as-grease skunkiness. A cracking good plot. Grade A from soda to hock." -- NY Times

"Two feuding brothers, a disputed will, a mercurial lass, and a murder bring plenty of excitement to the U Bar Ranch." -- Oakland Tribune

"There is action aplenty in this one, a good twisty plot, and a minimum of gunplay. One thing you can certainly say for this writer--each of his yarns shows a steady improvement." -- Hoofs and Horns

Somehow, I don't think many of the current reviewers for the New York Times use expressions like "from soda to hock".

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked TV: Merlin

I wrote about the first season of this series several years ago, but we've recently watched the fifth and final season so I thought it might be time to take a look at the whole thing. I've always enjoyed Arthurian fiction, movies, and TV shows, and this is a pretty good one.

There are so many versions of the King Arthur story that it's difficult to consider any of them "canon", but the first couple of seasons of MERLIN seem to have discarded some of the traditional elements of the legend and played it more as an updated, politically correct version. The series picks up with Uther Pendragon still the king of Camelot. His son Arthur is the handsome young prince, and Merlin (who the viewer knows from the first is really a powerful sorcerer) pretends to be Arthur's hapless servent while actually looking out for him. Morgana is Uther's ward, Guinevere a serving girl. With so many young, pretty people in the cast, MERLIN almost comes off like CAMELOT 90210. (Yes, I used that line in the earlier post, but it's still true.)

These early episodes are perfectly serviceable lightweight sword-and-sorcery adventures and I found them enjoyable enough to keep watching. But as the series goes on it begins to take on a darker tone and a more epic scale, and I realized that the writers were going for the classic version of the King Arthur legend after all, just in a roundabout way. The whole thing builds to a dramatic climax and generates a considerable amount of tension and suspense in the final season.

Colin Morgan as Merlin and Bradley James as Arthur play off each other very well, creating a real sense of camaraderie. Veteran British actor Richard Morgan does a good job as Gaius, Merlin's friend and mentor. Anthony Head (Giles from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) plays Uther in the early seasons and is by turn admirable and despicable. The most impressive performance, however, comes from Katie McGrath, who over the course of the series does a remarkable job of transforming from a cute, innocent ingénue to a totally evil sorceress.

I can't say that I was totally pleased with the ending—too many plot holes—but I really did like the very last scene. MERLIN is a good series, well worth watching, and it's whetted my appetite for more Arthurian tales. I probably won't get around to watching or reading any of them before the urge goes away, but you never know.