Saturday, April 01, 2023

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Ranch Romances, 2nd August Number, 1955

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my copy in the scan, with an excellent Kirk Wilson cover. I wasn’t familiar with Wilson’s work until the past few years, but I really like his covers, especially the ones he did for RANCH ROMANCES.

Walker A. Tompkins wrote some of the Jim Hatfield novels in TEXAS RANGERS that were reprinted in paperback by Popular Library during the Sixties. At that point, I had no idea who was behind the house name Jackson Cole or even that it was a house name, but as it turns out, some of the books I liked the most back then were actually written by Tompkins. So I’ve been reading and enjoying his work for close to 60 years now. He leads off this issue of RANCH ROMANCES with the novella “Land-Grabber Law”. Val Shannon, a troubleshooter for a large land and cattle combine, is sent to Arizona to arrest a ranch foreman who’s been rustling from the spread he works for. (Like Steve Reese in RANGE RIDERS, Shannon is also a deputy U.S. marshal, so he can go where he wants to and arrest people.) When he gets there, though, he interrupts some wedding plans and discovers that the situation isn’t as straightforward as he thought. It also involves a romantic triangle and a land grab, hence the title, and Shannon winds up riding deep into Mexico on the trail of a runaway groom and his new bride. There are only a few action scenes in this one, but they’re well-done and the story has a nice, complex plot. Tompkins wrote quite a few of the Steve Reese novels, and I have to wonder if this story is based on an unused outline he wrote for that series. Impossible to know at this late date, and it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is that in “Land-Grabber Law”, Tompkins delivers another well-written, entertaining traditional Western yarn.

Kenneth L. Sinclair is a familiar name from Western pulps. I don’t recall if I’ve read any of his work before. His story “Badman From Funnybone” is lightweight, as you’d expect from the title, but it’s not really an out-and-out comedy. A practical-joking cowboy accused of a bank robbery he didn’t commit runs into a beautiful female peddler on a one-way trail and winds up getting caught by the law because of it. The woman sets out to clear his name. As you’d expect, everything works out in the end, but the story flows along at a nice pace and the romance angle is well-handled.

Theodore J. Roemer wrote a couple of hundred Western and sports stories for various pulps from the mid-Thirties through the late Fifties. Despite him being fairly prolific, I don’t think I’ve read anything by him until now. His novelette in this issue, “Three Loves to Oregon” has a sappy title but is an excellent story. It’s about a saloon singer who wants to escape her past and does so by joining a wagon train bound for Oregon. The gambler who got her into that life comes after her, but by the time he catches up, the girl is already in a low-key romantic triangle with the wagonmaster and one of the farmers bound for a new life. With all that romance going on, there’s barely time to worry about the Pawnee war party that attacks the wagon train . . . Roemer does a great job with this setup and keeps things from bogging down in angst, which they easily could have. And not everything plays out the way I expected, which is always a bonus.

It's always nice to run into a story in a pulp by an author I’ve met. Jeanne Williams was still writing highly regarded historical novels in the Eighties and Nineties and I met her at several Western Writers of America conventions. Her story in this issue, “Rails Into Santos”, is about the clash between the construction boss and a female doctor during the construction of a railroad line in South Texas. There’s no real action, but the emotional stakes are high and the story is very well-written and satisfying.

“The Lonely Dusk” is by Donald Bayne Hobart, a long-time stalwart of the Western pulps, especially those in the Thrilling Group. He’s probably best remembered for his Masked Rider novels, a number of which were reprinted in paperback during the Sixties and Seventies. This short tale about a ranch widow and a former suitor who rides back to see her is another one that doesn’t have any real action, but again it’s well-written and the emotions of the characters are handled very well. It’s a little unusual for Hobart, but he does a good job of it.

“Galahad in Levis” is by Will Cotton, who published a couple of dozen Western and detective yarns during the Fifties. That seems to be the extent of his work. This one starts out as a lightweight tale about a hapless cowboy and a mail-order bride mix-up, but then it turns a lot darker and winds up with a surprising and very effective twist.

There’s also an installment of “Longhorn Stampede” by Philip Ketchum, which I didn’t read. This was published as a novel under the same title by Popular Library in 1956 with a cover by A. Leslie Ross. I don’t know if I have this one on my shelves or not, but Ketchum is always worth reading.

Then there are the usual features on pen pals, astrology, and movies, plus a poem and cartoon or two. Also as usual, I just glanced at those.

This issue is heavier on the romance than is common during this era of the magazine's run. Despite the title, many of the stories in RANCH ROMANCES during the Fifties were just traditional Western yarns with little or no romantic element. But romance plays a major part in every story in this issue. It’s also a really top-notch issue with the stories ranging from very good to excellent. This is one of the best pulps I’ve read in a while, and if you happen to own a copy, it’s well worth reading.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Caribbean Crisis - Desmond Reid (Michael Moorcock)

In 1962, Michael Moorcock was an assistant editor on the Sexton Blake series, then published in digest-sized paperbacks. He also wrote one of the novels, CARIBBEAN CRISIS, which was revised somewhat by editor W. Howard Baker and published under the house name Desmond Reid. Moorcock was somewhat less than pleased by Baker’s revisions and departed his editorial position soon after. Now, more than 60 years later, he and Blake expert Mark Hodder have reconstructed and expanded the original version by approximately 10,000 words. The new version will be published next fall, in a double volume along with a completely new Sexton Blake novel by Moorcock and Hodder. I definitely plan to read both novels.

But in the meantime, what about the version of CARIBBEAN CRISIS published in 1962 as by Desmond Reid? Well, for a long time, it’s been one of the most sought-after Blake novels because of Moorcock’s involvement. Through the help of a friend, I was able to read the novel, which I did now so there’ll be a long enough gap before I read the revised version later this year. I’m happy to report that it’s a pretty entertaining yarn.

It has a great opening in which two men venture into a deep trench in the Caribbean in an experimental bathysphere that’s lowered from a research ship. They run into trouble that causes one of the men to scream in terror and plead for them to be brought back up. But the cable attached to the bathysphere breaks and the thing sinks in water too deep for it to ever be recovered.

Only it doesn’t. It happens to land on a ledge that’s still close enough to the surface that a man in a diving suit can get down to it. When he does, he looks through the bathysphere’s window and makes a startling discovery: One of the men inside has been murdered, stabbed in the back. The other is missing. That’s right, it’s a locked bathysphere mystery . . . and who better to solve it than Sexton Blake?

Luckily, Blake is headed for the nearby island nation of Maliba (a fictional but real-sounding country, to quote WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY) where a revolution is brewing as rebel reformers try to overthrow the oppressive government. However, British Intelligence believes that the reform movement has been infiltrated by Communist agents, and since Blake has done some favors for the British spymasters in the past, he’s tasked with locating a list of Communist infiltrators, as well as finding the missing son of a wealthy British sugar cane plantation owner. Hmm, could all three of these cases somehow be connected?

CARIBBEAN CRISIS is a lot of fun. The setting is vividly rendered, and the action races by. Blake does a good job of untangling everything, acting on his own this time. Paula Dane and Marion Lang appear briefly, Tinker is mentioned, and there’s no sign at all of good old Pedro. The impossible crime aspect of the plot gets set aside for much of the book in favor of political maneuvering and various double-crosses, but when Blake does get around to solving it, the solution is both believable and satisfying, if not as extraordinarily complex as what you get in the typical John Dickson Carr novel.

I’m looking forward to reading the restored and expanded version by Moorcock and Hodder, which should be a lot closer to Moorcock’s original intentions. However, I enjoyed this original published version, too, and am glad I got a chance to read it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Siege of the Black Citadel - Chuck Dixon

I remember reading and enjoying Chuck Dixon’s Conan stories in the black-and-white comic magazine THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN more than 30 years ago. At the time it never occurred to me that one day Dixon and I would be friends and that I’d even have the privilege of editing a few of his books. He remains one of my favorite writers.

THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL is the first of what I hope will be numerous Conan novels by Dixon. As the story opens, Conan is part of a mercenary company fighting on the side of the rebels in a civil war in the country of Koth. The rebel forces have laid siege to the fortress known as the Black Citadel, which controls a river that’s vital to both sides in the war. Charged with finding a way to infiltrate the fortress, Conan accidentally discovers the secret of a great fortune hidden inside the citadel. At that point, THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL becomes something of a sword-and-sorcery heist novel, as Conan and several of his comrades scheme to use the upcoming battle to cover their theft of the hidden fortune. Unfortunately for them and a number of other people, there’s a sorcerer inside the fortress who is able to breach the wall between worlds and bring over a bloodthirsty beast that may tip the odds in the defenders’ favor.

While I consider myself a Robert E. Howard purist for the most part, I’m not opposed to the idea of pastiches, especially in a work such as this which is based only on the Conan stories that appeared in WEIRD TALES, as is made clear in a note inside the book. Because of that, Dixon gives us a Conan who is true to Howard’s original creation and acts, talks, and thinks in authentic ways for Conan. The writing style also does a good job of approximating Howard’s prose. I’m not sure any writer can sound exactly like another writer, but a talented pro can come close and Dixon does so in this book.

It also helps that THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL is a short novel, the kind that could have been serialized in WEIRD TALES in three parts. I think this is the best length for sword-and-sorcery yarns, in general, although I’ve certainly read some longer ones that are quite good. But the shorter length means that the tale has to move and not get bogged down, and I’m happy to report that THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL races right along in fine fashion.

I had a great time reading this novel. If you’re a Robert E. Howard fan, maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, depending on how you feel about pastiches. If you’re a fan of Conan in all the various forms, I can’t help but think you’ll enjoy the book a lot. It’s available as a trade paperback on Amazon or from the publisher. As for myself, I’m looking forward to Chuck Dixon’s next novel about the Cimmerian.

Monday, March 27, 2023

The Seine Vendetta - Ann Sterzinger

THE SEINE VENDETTA is a fine action/suspense novella by Ann Sterzinger set in Paris, as you’d expect from the title. The protagonist is Lisa LaRoche, an American woman who was deployed to Iraq as a Marine reservist and combat nurse. After a violent incident that left her with an unfair dishonorable discharge, she wound up in Paris where she married a Frenchman and they lived an idyllic life for a short time, before he was senselessly beaten to death by a gang of Muslim refugees, who are caught but given only two years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter. (All this is back-story and is revealed very early on, so I don’t consider it a spoiler.) Lisa descends into the bottle, tracks down a couple of the men responsible for her husband’s death after they get out of prison, and kills them. Even as a drunk, her skills at violence are still pretty good.

Then a British intelligence operative known as The Warlock shows up and offers her a job that will not only prevent a terrorist attack on Paris but also give her the chance to kill the other three men who beat her husband to death. All she has to do is stay sober . . .

The presence of The Warlock is a tip-off that this novella is connected to Jamie Mason’s novella THE NORTH ATLANTIC PROTOCOL and to CERTAIN FURY, a political thriller by Mason and Sean T. Smith that I plan to read soon. I read THE NORTH ATLANTIC PROTOCOL a couple of years ago and really liked it. THE SEINE VENDETTA is a bit of a slow burn at first as the characters and the setting are introduced, but Sterzinger’s writing is excellent and draws the reader on with no problem. Then when the action kicks in and the stakes of this supposedly simple mission get higher and higher, it moves at an absolutely breathless pace that I loved. I couldn’t read fast enough, I was so eager to find out what was going to happen.

In a world of too-fat thrillers, THE SEINE VENDETTA is the proverbial breath of fresh air. I had a great time reading it. It’s set up for a sequel, which I don’t think is written yet, but I hope it’ll be coming along soon. In the meantime, if you’re an action/adventure fan, I give THE SEINE VENDETTA a very high recommendation. It’s available as an e-book from Amazon and also on Kindle Unlimited.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Adventure, January 1952

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my somewhat tattered copy in the scan. You don’t hear much about ADVENTURE from this era. The magazine was far past its glory days of the Teens, Twenties, and Thirties, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still entertaining. We'll find out. The cover on this issue is by Murray Hirsch, an artist I’m not familiar with. The editor at this point is veteran pulpster Ejler Jakobsson.

The issue leads off with “Son of the Sword”, a historical adventure novelette by Poul Anderson. This may well be the first thing I’ve read by Anderson that wasn’t science fiction or fantasy, but I know he did a number of historical adventure novels and stories. In this one, set in ancient Egypt, a pirate from Crete is hired to get King Tut’s beautiful young widow out of Thebes before political enemies of hers who have seized power have her killed. The opening of this story reminded me a little of Robert E. Howard’s “The People of the Black Circle”. Thoas the pirate has some definite similarities to Conan, as well. However, the story’s plot is very much a straight line, without any of the twists and double-crosses that Howard would have included, and the action scenes, while good, don’t rise to REH levels. That said, I don’t want to criticize this story for what it isn’t, since it’s well-written, does a great job with the setting, and races right along at a nice pace. It’s a very good story that I enjoyed quite a bit. It certainly made me want to read more of Anderson’s historical fiction.

Charles J. Boyle was a baseball journalist who wrote seven stories for ADVENTURE, ARGOSY, and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST in the late Forties and early Fifties. I don’t think I’d ever encountered his work until I read his story in this issue, “Blood Sky”. It’s about McGafferty, a troubleshooter who specializes in disasters such as avalanches, mine cave-ins, floods, and forest fires. In this one, it’s a forest fire that’s threatening a small town. Boyle uses a couple of flashbacks to give this story a bit of an epic feel and to flesh out the romance between McGafferty and a beautiful female reporter who’s written some unsympathetic stories about him. This is a great yarn. There’s enough material here for a full-length novel, and it would have made a wonderful movie directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Barbara Stanwyck, with a screenplay by Jules Furthman. I need to see if I can find some more stories by Charles J. Boyle.

“Hark, Africa!”, a reprint from the September 1937 issue of ADVENTURE, is a novelette by veteran adventure, mystery, and aviation pulpster Joel Townsley Rogers. I think it’s about the clash between a French colonial official and the German who ran the colony before World War I over a native dancer. I say I think because I read five or six pages of this one and gave up on it. Long-winded, very repetitive, and just not to my taste at all. I’ve read other stories by Rogers that I enjoyed, but this isn’t one of them.

“No Man’s Passage” is a short story by an author I’m not familiar with, Steve Hail. That’s a good name for a pulp writer, and evidently his own. He wrote more than sixty adventure, Western, and sports stories for a variety of pulps and slicks between the mid-Forties and the late Fifties. I learned something from this story, which seems to be set in the Pacific Northwest. There were lightships, like floating lighthouses, that protected shipping from rough coastlines. This story is set on one and uses the old plot about the clash between a crusty old captain and a by-the-book young officer. Naturally, there’s a bad storm and a looming disaster as well. It’s an okay yarn, the kind of thing I like, but the writing never really grabbed me. I finished it with no problem, though, unlike the Rogers story.

I’ve seen Verne Athanas’s name on plenty of pulp TOCs. He wrote dozens of stories for various markets between the late Forties and the early Sixties, as well as a handful of Western novels. There’s even a collection of his pulp Western yarns, PURSUIT, still available on Amazon. I don’t recall ever reading anything by him before, though. His story “Killer’s Dark” rounds out this issue. It’s a Western about a bank-robbing outlaw on the run from a lawman with a personal score to settle with him. It’s well-written and moved along nicely, but then the ending made me say, “That’s it?” Not a bad story, but it definitely left me feeling it was a little lacking.

There are also poems by C. Wiles Hallock and John Bunker. I’m not a poetry guy, but I read them and they’re okay.

Which is a good overall rating for this issue, I think: just okay. A very good story by Poul Anderson, a great one by Charles J. Boyle, and then the rest of the contents pretty forgettable. I worry sometimes that I’m too inclined to like pulp stories just because they’re, well, pulp, and that I’m too inclined to dislike current fiction because it doesn’t match up to the old days. But then a pulp issue like this makes me think that might not be the case. Either way, all I can do is try to be objective and move on.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Star Western, October 1943

I feel like I should know who painted this cover, but I don't. Maybe one of you can help me out. STAR WESTERN was always one of the top pulps in the genre. This issue features six novelettes by Walt Coburn, Harry F. Olmsted, Les Savage Jr., Tom Roan, William R. Cox, and Fred Gipson. That's right, Mr. Old Yeller his own self, who wrote a bunch of stories for the Western pulps. At one point, I was talking to an academic press about editing a collection of them, but nothing ever came of it. That's a great bunch of writers in this issue of STAR WESTERN, which was nothing unusual back in those days.

Friday, March 24, 2023

The MI6 Files, Book One: Burning Lance - Brent Towns

I bought this series when I was still at Rough Edges Press, but other than that I had nothing to do with it. So now I get to read it as a fan, rather than an editor. Which is good, because I really enjoyed it. THE MI6 FILES is a spin-off from Brent Towns’ extremely popular Team Reaper series. The protagonist, former Royal Marine Commando Richard Todd, previously appeared as a supporting character in some of those books. Todd, now working for MI6, England’s foreign intelligence service, takes center stage in BURNING LANCE.

The title refers to a Russian-designed and built laser weapon meant to be launched into space and capable of destroying entire cities from there with one pulse. However, it’s stolen from the Russians before it can be launched. The identity of the thieves is a mystery. The leaders of MI6 know that such a weapon can’t be trusted in anybody’s hands, so they assign Todd the job of finding the Burning Lance, recovering it, or destroying it if he can’t get it back.

He won’t be working alone, though. The Russians have decided that the weapon is too powerful and should be destroyed, too, so Todd is teamed up with a beautiful female Russian agent in his search. Before you think that you know where that’s going, as it turns out the Russian agent is a lesbian and not interested in Todd romantically. But they do become friends and comrades-in-arms as their mission turns into a globe-trotting adventure with a somewhat surprising conclusion as it’s revealed who has the Burning Lance and what they intend to do with it. This is a high-stakes game, with the fate of millions resting on Todd and his Russian partner.

To put it simply, this is a wonderful book, part James Bond and part Man From U.N.C.L.E. It also reminded me very much of one of the early Nick Carter, Killmaster books in which Nick was teamed with a Russian agent. The writing is smooth and terse and a very welcome contrast to so many current thrillers that are bloated beyond belief and often pull their punches when it comes to the climaxes. The big finish to BURNING LANCE is very satisfying, as is the brief wrap-up that follows.

I always felt a little funny about praising books that I edited, but as I said, that doesn’t apply here. BURNING LANCE is one of the best books I’ve read this year, another winner from Brent Towns, and if you’re an action/adventure fan I give it a very high recommendation. As usual, it's available in e-book and trade paperback editions. The next book in the series is coming soon, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Commando #4433: Boss of the Barbary Apes - Eric Hebden

Since 1713 the mighty Rock of Gibraltar has been British, a massive stone fortress guarding the Mediterranean. But in World War Two, the Nazis had plans for capturing the Rock and knocking out the garrison by using deadly nerve gas. And all that stood in the way of the Germans was one lance-corporal and one small Barbary ape.

A couple of years ago I read a bunch of issues of COMMANDO, the long-running British war comic, especially while I was writing a column about them for BATTLING BRITONS, the excellent fanzine published by Justin Marriott. I guess I burned myself out on them, because I hadn't read one for a while. But I was in the mood for one this morning, and man, "Boss of the Barbary Apes" really hit the spot. A great script by the always dependable Eric Hebden, a fine cover by Ian Kennedy, and superb interior art by Cam Kennedy. The 64 pages flew by. This story was published originally in COMMANDO #568 back in July 1971 and then reprinted in COMMANDO #4433 in September 2019. The e-book edition (which is what I read) is still available on Amazon. If you want a tense, well-written World War II adventure yarn that can be read quickly, I give this one a high recommendation. I still have a ton of unread issues of COMMANDO on my Kindle. Might be time to get back to them and maybe pick up some new ones.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Bullet Train (2022)

I don't post much anymore about current or near-current movies. I don't know why. I used to all the time. But this movie is so downright goofy that I had to say something about it. Half a dozen assassins/professional criminals find themselves traveling on a bullet train in Japan. They're there on different missions and aren't aware of the others, but as the movie goes on, it's gradually revealed that everything is tied together and some of the characters aren't who they appear to be. This is definitely a movie not to watch with one eye. You've got to pay attention to have any idea what's going on.

And even then, I'm not sure if everything makes complete sense, but I'm not sure I care, either. The movie is full of fast-paced, over-the-top action and snappy dialogue, and I like complicated plots like that. The cast, led by Brad Pitt and the great character actors Michael Shannon and Hiroyuki Sanada, is good all around. There are several celebrity cameos to watch for. It's a little bloodier than I like, but in a movie about professional assassins, you've got expect some of that. Toward the end, the action is so over-the-top that it gets fairly ludicrous, but no more so than the Fast and Furious movies, and hey, I love those.

I had a really good time watching BULLET TRAIN. I don't think it's a great movie, but it sure is entertaining.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Wanted for Questioning - Wilfred McNeilly

This is another Sexton Blake paperback from 1965. That’s my cover-creased copy in the scan. It answers a question I had, but I’ll get to that later. In a clever opening that shows Blake isn’t infallible, he’s tricked into shooting a potential client. There’s no question that Blake pulled the trigger and killed the man. But who’s the real murderer, Blake or the villain who set up the situation? Despite being Blake’s friend, Detective Superintendent Grimwald feels compelled to arrest him. However, Blake talks Grimwald into giving him 24 hours to carry out his own investigation. 24 hours to save himself from a murder charge, in other words.

This novel is from the era when Blake is running a good-sized private detective agency in London, so that means the usual group of supporting characters is on hand: assistant Edward Carter, also known as Tinker; beautiful secretary and part-time detective Paula Dane; receptionist Marion Lang, also beautiful and a part-time detective; reporter Arthur “Splash” Kirby; and Blake’s faithful bloodhound Pedro.

Their only possible approach is to investigate the victim and hope that will lead to the killer. The victim is a former music hall comedian, part of a duo that’s roughly the British equivalent of Laurel and Hardy. He’s risen above those humble beginnings and become a wealthy showbiz entrepreneur. He became connected with Blake in the first place because he suspected that someone was embezzling money from his various enterprises. Blake and his helpers turn up several suspects. Somebody tries killing Blake, indicating they’re on the right trail. Paula and Marion also wind up in danger. Eventually everything gets sorted out, of course, but not before Blake gets arrested.

The plot maybe relies a little too much on coincidence, but the solution is a clever one. I figured it out, but not until pretty late in the game. The pacing is very good. I flew through the book quickly and enjoyed every minute of it.

A few weeks ago when I read and reviewed another Blake novel from this era, MURDERER AT LARGE, I speculated about who might have been behind the W.A. Ballinger house-name on that one. My friend Keith Chapman suggested, based on what I wrote about the book, that it might have been Wilfred McNeilly, so I deliberately picked a McNeilly novel for my next Sexton Blake. WANTED FOR QUESTIONING has some definite similarities to MURDERER AT LARGE: a show business setting, a considerable amount of humor, and an occasional philosophical digression. The style is so much the same that I’m confident McNeilly also wrote at least the first draft of MURDERER AT LARGE. I plan to read more of McNeilly’s work for further evidence, though. I have two or three more of them around here.

In the meantime, I’m really enjoying the stories from this era of Blake’s career. WANTED FOR QUESTIONING is a good one, and if you’re a Sexton Blake fan, too, I give it a solid recommendation.