Monday, April 19, 2021

Classic Pulp Thrillers: The Complete Cases of Val Easton - T.T. Flynn

T.T. Flynn is one of my favorite Western authors. I’ve read most of his novels and many of his Western pulp stories. But he also wrote quite a bit for the detective pulps, and I’ve never read any of those yarns until now. THE COMPLETE CASES OF VAL EASTON is a new collection from Steeger Books of five novellas originally published in DIME DETECTIVE, featuring American intelligence operative Valentine Easton. I figured this would be a good way for me to sample some of Flynn’s non-Western work.

Art by William Reusswig

The first story in the series, “The Black Doctor”, was published in the December 1932 issue of DIME DETECTIVE. As it opens, we find Val Easton on an ocean liner bound from England to America. A coded message puts him in contact with a couple of female secret agents on board the same ship, and when a couple of murders take place, he finds himself helping with their investigation. By the time the ship reaches New York, they haven’t solved the case, but there are more murders, our heroes get captured by the bad guys, and eventually they discover that their adversary is none other than the notorious Black Doctor, a freelance spy who’s vaguely eastern European, not the sinister Oriental who’s on the cover of this book. (I suspect he’ll be along later, though.) Flynn writes really well and keeps the action moving along nicely in this story, but it’s hurt by the fact that Val Easton himself is a really flat, bland character, almost a cipher. I almost found myself wishing he’d stop during the action to perform a magic trick and then explain how it’s done. (Bonus points to those of you who get that reference, which I suspect will be many of you.)

Art by William Reusswig

I have a hunch that when Flynn wrote “The Black Doctor”, he didn’t intend for it to be the first story in a series. The second story, “Torture Tavern”, doesn’t show up until nearly a year later, in the September 15, 1933 issue of DIME DETECTIVE. It’s a direct sequel, too, starting only a few days after the previous story ended. At the conclusion of that one, Carl Zaken, the Black Doctor, appears to be dead and everything wrapped up, but when “Torture Tavern” begins, Zaken is recuperating in a Washington D.C. hospital and Val Easton is drawn into a nefarious plot hatched by Zaken’s partner, Chang Ch’ien. (Ah, there’s the sinister Oriental!) Clich├ęs aside, though, Chang Ch’ien is a great character, more like a Chinese Doc Savage, albeit an evil one, rather than a Fu Manchu clone. His beautiful sister, Tai Shan, is a Dragon Lady sort who may be trustworthy but probably isn’t. Val himself is a little more likable and fleshed-out in this one, and the struggle over a deadly chemical formula is full of action that seldom lets up. This story is a nice step up from the first one.

Art by William Reusswig

“The Jade Joss”, from the November 15, 1933 issue of DIME DETECTIVE, finds Val, along with his beautiful blond fellow agent Nancy Fraser, once again battling Carl Zaken and Chang Ch’ien, this time over possession of the jade death mask of an ancient Chinese emperor, because as legend has it, whoever wears the mask is destined to take over China and lead it to world domination. Chang Ch’ien figures he’s just the guy to do that, of course. His beautiful sister Tai Shan is mixed up in the dangerous affair, too, of course. This is a really fast-paced tale, with most of the action taking place in a short period of time during one evening, and I enjoyed it. There’s a Chinese American intelligence agent introduced who’s an excellent supporting character.

Art by John Howitt

Exactly a year passes (in our world, anyway) before Val Easton reappears in the November 15, 1934 issue of DIME DETECTIVE to once again battle the same diabolical duo in “The Evil Brand”. This time Val discovers that Carl Zaken and Chang Ch’ien have some sinister interest in a Chinese emissary on his way to the U.S. to visit the State Department, and that leads to a fast-moving fracas in San Francisco, including a brush with death when Val and a fellow agent are captured and taken for a boat ride by killers who intend to dump them in the bay. This one’s pretty melodramatic (you can tell that by looking at the cover), but it works well and is a lot of fun.

Art by Walter Baumhofer

The series comes to an end with “The Dragons of Chang Ch’ien”, from the April 15, 1935 issue of DIME DETECTIVE. It’s a direct sequel to the previous yarn, as Easton and Nancy Fraser uncover a connection between that mysterious Chinese diplomat and a wealthy American munitions manufacturer who’s engaged to marry an equally mysterious European countess. Most of the action takes place at the magnate’s palatial New Jersey estate before shifting to a dingy factory with a dangerous secret. This is a very fast-moving story with plenty of action. It doesn’t read as if it’s designed to be the series’ concluding installment, but that’s the way it worked out. I suppose Flynn was just too busy writing Westerns to continue with it. Every story was featured on the cover of the issue in which it appeared, though, so Val Easton must have been popular with DIME DETECTIVE’s readers.

I certainly enjoyed this collection. I think Flynn probably was better at Westerns than at mysteries and thrillers, but he was a fine writer no matter what the genre, and I look forward to reading much more by him. In the meantime, I give THE COMPLETE CASES OF VAL EASTON a high recommendation.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Short Stories, March 10, 1940

Nice, colorful cover by William F. Soare on this issue of SHORT STORIES, and a really fine group of writers inside: H. Bedford-Jones, William MacLeod Raine, Frederick C. Painton, Robert H. Leitfred, R.V. Gery, Captain Dingle, H.S.M. Kemp, and a couple I've not heard of, Patrick O'Keeffe and O.A. Robertson. That Bedford-Jones story is part one of a serial, and I like the title: "The Hour of the Eclipse". I don't recall that one being reprinted, at least not under that title. I'm intrigued.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story Roundup, October 1955

In 1955, the long-running pulp RANGELAND ROMANCES changed its name to WESTERN STORY ROUNDUP and eked out three more issues, of which this is the second. It has a nice cover by Ernest Chiriacka, a couple of top-notch Western authors in Gordon D. Shirreffs and Steve Frazee, the dependable Thomas Calvert McClary (writing as T. Calvert), and stories by Rod Lengel and Frazier Hunt (no, I've never heard of them, either). The story titles don't sound like Western romances, so I suspect they were just stories in inventory in Popular Publications' files, and those three issues of WESTERN STORY ROUNDUP were just a way of burning them off. 

Friday, April 16, 2021

Forgotten Books: Seeds of Murder - Van Wyck Mason

As I've mentioned in numerous posts, I was a huge fan of the secret agent boom in the Sixties, so I read and watched anything that had anything to do with espionage and adventure. Being on the lookout for such books was how I came across various paperbacks published by Pocket and Popular Library with titles like SECRET MISSION TO BANGKOK, HIMALAYAN ASSIGNMENT, and THE DEADLY ORBIT MISSION. The author was Van Wyck Mason and the books featured Colonel Hugh North, a globe-trotting agent of Army Intelligence who had battled despicable villains in colorful, exotic locations around the world and also got involved with beautiful women. In other words, I was very much the target audience for these books, and I picked up every one I came across. They were never on the same level as James Bond or The Man From U.N.C.L.E., of course, but I found them consistently entertaining.

I wasn't really familiar with Van Wyck Mason, but I worked in the local library at the time and had seen a lot of big historical novels by F. Van Wyck Mason, so I figured they were probably the same guy, or maybe father and son. I didn't really know then that not only were they the same guy, but Mason also had a long and prolific career as a pulpster, writing all sorts of adventure fiction for the leading pulp magazines.

Nor did I know how far back the Hugh North series went, until I came across a copy of the Triangle edition of a book called THE WASHINGTON LEGATION MURDERS. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Triangle imprint, they were published by a company called Blakiston and were really, really cheaply made hardback reprints of popular novels. They were published in the Forties, and twenty years later, when I started coming across them in the Sixties, the pages were already brown and brittle and the flimsy cardboard covers were starting to come apart. But I loved them anyway, because they published so many books that I wanted to read.

But to get back to what I was talking about, THE WASHINGTON LEGATION MURDERS, published originally in 1935, was also by Van Wyck Mason and featured Hugh North, but he was younger and just a captain. I remember liking the book a lot, but even though over time I discovered that there were a bunch of earlier books in the series where North functions primarily as a detective, not a spy, I never really sought them out, although I read all the later ones where he was a secret agent.

Recently, however, I decided to backtrack all the way to the first book in the series, SEEDS OF MURDER, published by Doubleday in 1930. (Ah, we're finally getting to the real subject of this post!) It's very much a fair-play detective novel in the classic style, not an espionage adventure at all. But I enjoyed it a great deal anyway.

I was a little surprised to discover that the novel has a Watson who narrates it and takes part in the action, Dr. Walter Allen, who served with North in the Great War. Both men are guests at the ritzy New York estate of wealthy stockbroker Royal Delancey. Dr. Allen, in fact, is a former beau of Delancey's beautiful wife Phyllis. Also on hand are Delancey's business partner, a former business associate from the Philippines, Phyllis Delancey's ne'er-do-well brother, and a couple of beautiful young women, one of whom may or may not have a secret reason for being there. Also, assorted servants who hail from the Philippines. Oh, and there's a caravan of gypsies in the vicinity of the estate, as well.

We've all read this sort of book before, so it's no surprise that somebody winds up hanged, an apparent suicide, but was it really murder? Then another body turns up with a Chinese dagger buried in its back. Both bodies are found with an odd arrangement of mysterious seeds nearby. What could that possibly mean?

It seems to me that the appeal of books like this rests on two things: the skill with which the author constructs, and then deconstructs, the puzzle of the murder(s), and the interactions among the characters. If you're going to write a book in which there's little or no action and the whole, or almost the whole, thing consists of people sitting or standing in rooms and talking, then those conversations had better be pretty damned witty and/or interesting. I'm happy to report that Mason does a fine job of this. North is a likable detective, and Allen makes a very good narrator. The other characters, stereotypes though they may be, come to life pretty well, too.

The plotting isn't quite that strong. Mason conceals just a little too much from the reader for it to be entirely fair-play. I had the killer picked out well before the final revelations, but it was just as much a guess as it was a well-reasoned deduction. But then, I never claimed to be a detective. The whole thing fits together well enough to be satisfying, although it falls short of making me slap my forehead and exclaim, "D'oh! I should've seen it!"

All in all, I found SEEDS OF MURDER to be a lot of fun to read. Some of that may lie in nostalgia, because I read this sort of mystery novel very often when I was young. But Mason was a good writer with a very smooth, entertaining style and had me turning the pages at a good clip. The entire Hugh North series is available in e-book editions, and while I probably won't reread any of those later ones I read fifty years ago, I may tackle more of the early ones. I'd like to see if they get more action-packed.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Sheriff - Robert Dwyer and Austin Wright

An aging Sheriff Donovan is coming to terms with his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer and desperate to maintain his tenuous grasp on Three Chop—the town he willed into existence. When Donovan enters into a bargain with a faction of rural Christian Prohibitionists, agreeing to shutter the local saloon and brothel, his plan to cement his legacy in the eyes of God meets resistance from the town’s business elite, whose livelihoods depend on liquor sales. With a band of notorious outlaws descending on Three Chop, the dispute ignites into a furious battle that forces residents to take sides, to choose between the town’s past and future.

THE SHERIFF is the debut novel from authors Robert Dwyer and Austin Wright, and a strong debut it is. Set in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, in and around the Texas Panhandle town of Three Chop, it brings together a variety of characters—assorted dangerous outlaws, a fanatical evangelist, a dying sheriff determined to maintain law and order no matter what the cost—and orchestrates some epic showdowns between the various factions. There are definite echoes of the traditional Western here but a more literary sensibility to the writing and plotting. It’s a bleak but impressive yarn and well worth reading if you’re looking for a Western that’s a bit offbeat while retaining a fondness for what’s gone before.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Now Available in Large Print: West of the Big River: The Lawman - James Reasoner

William M. "Bill" Tilghman had one of the most illustrious careers of any Old West lawman, serving as sheriff, town marshal, and deputy United States marshal in some of the toughest places west of the Mississippi. But he faced perhaps his greatest and most dangerous challenge when he rode alone into the wild Oklahoma Territory settlement of Burnt Creek on the trail of a gang of rustlers and outlaws with some unexpected allies . .

Center Point recently acquired the large print rights and the first hardback of Western Fictioneers' West of the Big River: The Lawman is now available. The Avenging Angel by Michael Newton, The Artist by Jackson Lowry, and The Ranger by James J. Griffin are already up for pre-order and more will follow. This would be a great series for your local library to pick up.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Overlooked Movies: My Man Godfrey (1936)

MY MAN GODFREY is one of those movies that played on TV all the time when I was a kid, but I never watched it until now. When it started, Livia and I both commented on what an inventive main title sequence it has, especially for the time period, as the names of the actors and filmmakers appear on the sides of buildings as the scene pans across a city skyline. It works really well.

The story itself opens with a group of homeless men, including Godfrey, played by William Powell. Let’s face it, William Powell is always going to look dapper and distinguished, even unshaven and wearing raggedy old clothes. Some rich society folks show up on a scavenger hunt, including a pair of sisters: cold, arrogant Gail Patrick and sweet but goofy Carole Lombard. Lombard winds up hiring Powell as the new butler for her eccentric family. Everybody learns lessons from each other. And then “Godfrey” turns out to be not quite what he appears to be.

This is an early screwball comedy, and as such, a not quite perfected example of the genre. A few goofy things happen, and there’s a lot of fast-paced-almost-to-the-point-of-incomprehensible dialogue, but it’s not really all that funny. The more dramatic aspects of the story actually work better, as the movie has some points to make about the Depression era in which it was made. As usual, Powell’s great. I’ve liked him in everything that I’ve seen. Eugene Pallette, who has become one of my favorite character actors, is on hand as the long-suffering patriarch of the society family. I have to admit, I’m not much of a Carole Lombard fan, and she didn’t win me over in this movie. There’s nothing wrong with her, it’s just that she’s overshadowed by icy-but-beautiful Gail Patrick as the unsympathetic sister. It may be sacrilege to say this, but I almost wished Godfrey had wound up with her instead of Lombard’s character.

And where the hell was Charles Lane? Isn’t it a rule that Charles Lane has to be in every movie like this?

Anyway, I enjoyed MY MAN GODFREY and I’m glad I finally watched it. It’s well worth the time. It has a reputation as one of the best films of all time, and for me, it doesn’t reach that level, but it’s still a really nice movie from one of the various Golden Ages of Hollywood. 

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Coldest Trail - Wayne D. Dundee

Wayne D. Dundee's latest Western novel, THE COLDEST TRAIL, is a direct sequel to his previous novel, THE FOREVER MOUNTAIN, taking up not long after that one left off. Lone McGantry has finished the dangerous task of laying the remains of his murdered partner to rest, and now he takes up the trail of the men responsible for killing the man and stealing the horse herd he and McGantry had on their ranch. Cold trail or not, McGantry is determined to track down the gang led by "the man with the burned face", as McGantry's partner told him before dying.

As always with a Dundee novel, you can count on a tough, stubborn protagonist, and Lone McGantry is one of his best. He's one of my favorite characters in the Western genre these days. You can also be sure that Dundee will pile a lot of trouble on the protagonist's head, and that's certainly true in THE COLDEST TRAIL. McGantry runs into plenty of obstacles and proddy characters during his quest, which also involves a stolen army payroll and a beautiful saloon singer known as Calamity Jane Jr.

Everything leads up to an action-packed final battle with McGantry's quarry that's one of the best I've read recently. It's great stuff, and very satisfying. Wayne Dundee is one of the best Western writers in the business, and you won't go wrong with any of his books. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Super Science Stories, November 1941

You know, sometimes it seems like the bugs around here are that big, too. This looks like a great issue of SUPER SCIENCE STORIES, with stories by Robert A. Heinlein (writing as Lyle Monroe), Alfred Bester, Henry Kuttner, a collaboration between Ray Bradbury and Henry Hasse, a yarn by pioneer pulpster Ray Cummings, and a reprint of a Tumithak of the Corridors story by Charles R. Tanner. I've been aware of those Tumithak stories for many years now, but I'm pretty sure I've never read one. Are they worth seeking out?

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Saturday Morning Bonus Pulp: Double Action Western, November 1944

What did I tell you about those Old West barber shops? It just wasn't safe going into those places, as the cover on this issue of DOUBLE ACTION WESTERN proves. This issue has only three stories in it, a novel by Galen C. Colin, an author I've never read, and short stories by Chuck Martin, whose work I've read and enjoyed in the past, and Basil Wells, an author I'd never even heard of. But a quick check of the Fictionmags Index reveals that Wells broke into the pulps in 1940 and as still writing stories for small press magazines as late as the Nineties! There weren't very many pulpsters still active at that point.