Friday, July 20, 2018

Forgotten Books: When Dames Get Tough - Hank Janson (Stephen D. Frances)



I’ve been aware of the Hank Janson series for many years (and the gorgeous covers by Reginald Heade), but never got around to reading one until now. Although it might not have been the wisest course of action, for reasons I’ll get into below, I started with the very first Hank Janson novella, WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH, published in 1946.

Some quick background: Stephen D. Frances was a young, struggling writer/publisher in England who had been writing what were known as gangster stories, lurid, hardboiled tales set in America, mostly written by authors who had never been in America and had only a loose grasp of American slang and geography. As a publisher, Frances found himself in need of urgent need of a 15,000 word novella over a weekend, and not having anyone else to do it, he wrote it himself, dictating it to a secretary. Not only is the protagonist named Hank Janson, that was the by-line on it, as well.

This was WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH, a fast-paced, first-person yarn narrated by a traveling salesman (of ladies’ cosmetics) named Hank Janson. Hank happens upon a beautiful young blonde being interrogated and tortured by thugs, so naturally he wades in and rescues her, which lands him up to his neck in a criminal scheme involving black market goods (still a hot topic in those days just following World War II), mistaken identity, yet another beautiful blonde, and more than one attempt on his life.

This novella is certainly not without its flaws. Frances’s American tough-guy patter is less convincing at this point than that of James Hadley Chase (Rene Raymond) or Carter Brown (Alan G. Yates), the other two English authors I’ve read who produced mainly American-set mystery novels. The plot is driven by several pretty hard to swallow coincidences. And making your wise-cracking, two-fisted hero a salesman of ladies’ cosmetics is, well, an unusual choice, to say the least.

However . . . WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH is pretty darned entertaining. Frances’s style may be a little crude at times, and his Americanisms may not ring true, but dang, this yarn rockets along and is told in a distinctive voice, which I always like. There’s plenty of action, the girls are sexy, and Hank is a likable galoot. The Heade cover depicts an actual scene from the story with a fair degree of accuracy (the girls are both blondes in the story). I wound up liking this one quite a bit.

There are a couple more early novellas before Frances retooled the character as a crime-busting reporter from Chicago, and those tales are included in an ebook currently available, along with two short stories featuring the later incarnation of the Janson character. I plan to read those as well and then move on to the ebooks of the full-length novels. I’m glad these reprints are available since the original editions are sort of hard to come by, and I want to read more about Hank Janson.  

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Coming From Stark House: The Red Scarf/A Killer is Loose - Gil Brewer


THE RED SCARF
Roy Nichols needs to find some quick cash to keep from losing his motel. The new highway was supposed to go through, providing plenty of business, but now it's been delayed. The bank refuses to help, and his brother turns him down. Desperate and on the way back home, he catches a ride with a bickering couple named Vivian and Teece. They start drinking, then Teece gets spooked, and crashes the car. That's when Nichols discovers that his travelling companions have been carrying a briefcase full of cash. Teece appears to be dead, and Vivian confesses that they have robbed the mob, and begs him to help her escape. But to do that, Nichols will have to lie to his wife Bess...to the cops...and ultimately, to a very dangerous man named Radan.

A KILLER IS LOOSE
Ex-cop Steve Logan is down on his luck. With a baby on the way, Logan decides to pawn his last pistol to a bartender friend. On his way, he rescues a stranger, Ralph Angers, from being hit by an oncoming bus. Angers is an eye surgeon and a Korean War vet, and he has plans to build a hospital in town. Unfortunately, he is also prepared to kill anyone and everyone who gets in the way of his plans. So when Angers manages to get a hold of Logan's Luger, he also drags his rescuer into a nightmare of murder and insanity. Logan becomes a hostage to Angers' plans, and there will be no mercy to anyone who gets in his way.

This Gil Brewer double volume will be available from Stark House in a few months. That's a quote from one of my reviews on that gorgeous cover, and I'm very happy for my words to be sharing space with some beautiful artwork by Robert McGinnis. Man, when I was buying all those Carter Browns and Mike Shaynes with McGinnis covers off the spinner rack at Lester's Pharmacy when I was a kid, I never dreamed that I'd be part of a cover like that someday. This is very cool for me.

Not to mention, THE RED SCARF is a great noir novel. I read and reviewed it back in 2011. But I haven't read A KILLER IS LOOSE, and I remember Bill Crider telling me about it. I thought there was a review of it on Bill's blog, but I can't find it now. Maybe we just talked about the book. But I'm sure looking forward to reading it in the near future, and when I have, I'll be writing about it here. In the meantime, this Stark House edition is available for pre-order, and like everything from Stark House, if you're a fan of great hardboiled and noir fiction, it's going to be well worth your time and money.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Tragon of Ramura - John M. Whalen


John M. Whalen’s new novel TRAGON OF RAMURA is a sword-and-sorcery adventure in the classic mold, set in a world that seems an alternate history approximation of our own. The protagonist Tragon has been framed for the murder of his king and is already on the run when this yarn begins, having fallen in with the crew of the ship Orion. But he has sworn that someday he’ll return to his home of Ramura and overthrow the sorcerer Caldec, who is responsible for all the evil that plagues the country as well as for framing Tragon.

While in a dangerous port city, Tragon encounters an old soldier/mentor of his named Darius who has fallen on drunken hard times. When Tragon and his companions on the Orion are hired to travel to a lost city and rescue the daughter of their client, Tragon decides to sober up Darius and take him along.

The man who hires them has been to the lost city of Caiphar before, in search of a mystical gem called the Crimson Eye. His daughter was captured during this trip, and he barely got away. Now he has to return and rescue her before the time rolls around for a ritual in which the city’s evil king will take her as his wife. And of course, stealing the Crimson Eye is still on the table as well, so in addition to hiring Tragon and his crew, the man also brings along a group of hardened mercenaries.

Of course, the whole thing winds up being complicated by double crosses, traps, monsters, immortal evil, a tower full of dead souls, and a beautiful high priestess who may or may not be trustworthy. There are a lot of influences in this book: Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE DIRTY DOZEN . . . and plenty of Whalen’s own talent, as he spins a fast-moving yarn with interesting characters, a lot of well-written action, and some surprisingly poignant moments. There’s enough back-story left unresolved for a number of sequels, too, although this novel is quite satisfying on its own.

I’ve written many times before about what I call front porch books, the sort of thing I read sitting on the front porch of my parents’ house on long summer days when I was a kid. TRAGON OF RAMURA, although it’s brand new, is that same sort of pure pleasure, so I’m naming it an honorary Front Porch Book and recommending it if you’re a fan of sword and sorcery action.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Mystery Ranch (1934)


This movie has maybe the weirdest opening of any B-Western I've ever seen. It starts with a shot showing part of a Western pulp cover (more about this later), then a close-up of a page from a Western manuscript, then a voice-over as an actor reads from this story while the action takes place on screen. The bad guys have captured the beautiful girl and have her tied up, and then the stalwart hero shows up to rescue her. It's all silly and deliberately terrible, as we find out when we see that the old-timer reading the story is the protagonist's father, said protagonist being Western novelist Robert Morris (played by Tom Tyler). Never mind that what the guy is reading is clearly a pulp, not a book.

Anyway, the old-timer makes fun of his son's writing and says that it's not realistic. The son explains that he's been invited to visit a real Western ranch and so he'll find out first hand whether or not his stories are authentic. However, the ranch in question--the Mystery Ranch of the title--is actually a dude ranch and the people running it intend to stage a lot of phony Western action to impress the visiting author. Of course, none of this works out as planned, and then a real bank robbery happens, and naturally enough, the author has to turn hero . . . and you can write the plot from that point on just as well as the actual scriptwriters did. Possibly better.

Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, although the bizarre opening sequence is the real highlight. Nobody would mistake Tom Tyler for a great actor, but he's okay and has enough screen presence to make up for a lot. Veteran heavies Charles King and George Chesebro are on hand to liven things up, and blond Roberta Gale, an actress I'm not familiar with, is really good-looking. There's some decent stunt work by Tyler and others. As usual with Hollywood, the screenwriters have no real idea how publishing works, but I'm used to that. The whole thing is a little off-kilter, but in this case, that's good.

Note that there's a better known B Western from a couple of years earlier called MYSTERY RANCH. That one stars George O'Brien. There's also a Max Brand novel with the same title. This movie doesn't have anything to do with either of those.

Now, about that pulp . . . As soon as I saw the opening shot, I thought it was a real pulp featured in it. You can't see anything except the middle part of the front cover, with some of the art and the word "Magazine" visible, along with the bottom of the word "Western". But something about it seemed familiar to me, and I realized it looked like it might be a cover from an issue of ALL WESTERN, published by Dell. So it was off to the Fictionmags Index, and sure enough, it's the cover from the June 1934 issue, which was probably on the stands when the movie was filmed. So somebody went down to the newsstand, bought a copy, brought it back to the studio, and ALL WESTERN made what may well be its only movie appearance. You can see the cover, which is a pretty good one and was painted by R. Farrington Elwell, below. And if you want to watch MYSTERY RANCH, the whole thing is available on YouTube, although I watched it as part of a DVD set of public domain Westerns.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Detective Novel Magazine, Spring 1949


This issue of DETECTIVE NOVEL MAGAZINE features an eye-catching cover by Rudolph Belarski. And that's the purpose of a pulp cover, isn't it? The featured story in this issue is a reprint (possibly abridged) of a 1939 novel by Q. Patrick, actually Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote as Jonathan Stagge and their best-known pseudonym, Patrick Quentin. There are also stories by William Campbell Gault and Arthur Leo Zagat, both top-notch pulpsters, and John L. Benton, a Thrilling Group house-name, so the author of that one was probably pretty good, too.

A Middle of the Night Music Post: We Gotta Get You a Woman - Todd Rundgren

Always liked this song. Brings back a lot of good memories. Of course, I could say that about all the songs I post in the middle of the night, otherwise I wouldn't care enough about them to do it.


Saturday, July 14, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Fighting Western, June 1946


The cover on this issue of FIGHTING WESTERN is just oddball enough that I really like it. Inside are stories by E. Hoffmann Price (one of his Simon Boliver Grimes series), Chuck Martin, Branch Carter, and two by Victor Rousseau, one under his own name and one as by Lew Merrill. This looks like a good issue of a generally underrated Western pulp.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Forgotten Books: The Bronze Axe (Richard Blade #1) - Jeffrey Lord (Manning Lee Stokes)



I’ve written before about what I call front porch books—the sort of book I read when I was a teenager, sitting in a lawn chair in the shade of my parents’ front porch on summer days when it was too hot to play baseball. THE BRONZE AXE, the first book in the long-running Richard Blade fantasy adventure series, is definitely a front porch book. Which is not always a good thing and is, in fact, sometimes a mixed blessing.

First some background on the series, which was packaged by Lyle Kenyon Engel before he formed Book Creations Inc, the company I worked for many years later. I’m going by memory here, but I seem to recall reading in an interview with Engel that it was George Glay, the editorial director at Macfadden-Bartell Books, who actually came up with the concept of this series. Knowing how Engel worked, I imagine Glay said something like “How about a series mixing James Bond with Conan?”, since those were two very popular literary figures at the time. So Engel called up Manning Lee Stokes, one of the authors who regularly wrote books for him, and said, “I need a series mixing James Bond with Conan”, and then Stokes came up with everything else. I suspect that’s how it went, anyway.

But no matter what the details of its creation, the Richard Blade series really is James Bond meets Conan. Blade is a top agent in British Intelligence, working for a secret division of MI6 called MI6A, which is headed up by a spymaster known only as J. Blade is recruited as a test subject in an experiment being conducted by gnomish scientest Lord Leighton, who hooks him up to a supercomputer. The object of the experiment is to download all the information in the computer directly in Blade’s brain, but there’s a glitch and instead it hurls him into a parallel dimension that comes to be known as Dimension X, which has all sorts of different alternate Earths in it. (I gather that some of this is established in later books.)

In this book, THE BRONZE AXE, Blade winds up in an alternate history version of Bronze Age England, where he rescues a beautiful princess and runs afoul of a beautiful queen, a beautiful witch (the witches are known as Drus, obviously inspired by Druids), and another queen who’s not really beautiful, but Blade fools around with her anyway, as he does most of the women he encounters. When he’s not getting laid, he fights the Dimension X equivalents of Vikings and not surprisingly kills their leader so he can take over the dreaded sea raiders. Then Lord Leighton fixes the problem with the computer and manages to bring him back to good old England in the Swinging Sixties.

Stokes was one of the regular authors on the Nick Carter, Killmaster secret agent series also packaged by Engel, and I gobbled those novels down with great enjoyment in those days (definite front porch books). I didn’t know at the time who was writing them, but I didn’t care, either. Now, all these decades later, I find that Stokes’ prose hasn’t aged all that well, at least in this book. He can get awfully long-winded and pretentious at times.

However, there are also some really good action scenes in THE BRONZE AXE, some likable and interesting characters, and a surprising amount of humor, most of which actually works. If I had read this when it was first published in 1969, I suspect I would have loved it. Somehow I never saw it back then, though. Reading it now, I still got a considerable amount of enjoyment from it, despite being able to see its flaws.


A little more history on the series: Macfadden-Bartell published six Richard Blade books in 1969-72, all with pretty good covers by Jack Faragasso, but that seemed to be the end of the series. Then in 1973, Engel struck a deal with Pinnacle Books, which had grown enormously in the past few years due to the success of the Executioner, the Destroyer, and other men’s adventure series. Pinnacle reprinted the six books originally published by Macfadden-Bartell, this time with covers by Tony Destefano that I don’t like nearly as well, and then continued on with original novels until the series totaled 37 books. Manning Lee Stokes wrote the first eight, and Roland J. Green wrote all the books after that except for #30, which was written by Ray Faraday Nelson. Engel, or an editor who worked for him, talked to author Geo. W. Proctor about continuing the series, but that never came about. After Russian reprints of the early books were successful, a couple of Russian authors began writing their own sequels, so there are a number of unauthorized Richard Blade novels that have only been published in Russia and have never appeared in English.

I have the first three books and then maybe a dozen more scattered through the rest of the series. I enjoyed THE BRONZE AXE enough that I’ll probably try to round up the rest of the Manning Lee Stokes entries, but whether I continue beyond that is sort of doubtful since I’m not a fan of Roland Green’s work. I’m glad I read this one, though. It brought back enough of those old feelings to create quite a bit of nostalgia for those days. I wouldn’t go back there permanently, but I sure like to visit.


Thursday, July 12, 2018

Now Available: Tragon of Ramura - John M. Whalen

A dream starts Tragon of Ramura and his friend/bodyguard Yusef Ahmed on a search for an amulet said to be the source of the most powerful magic in the universe, Their search leads them to the lost city of Caiphar and the beautiful and mysterious Sai-Ul-San, high priestess of the cult of Zoth-Amin. Tragon finds the Crimson Eye of Caiphar, but the city holds dark secrets of an evil a thousand years old that threaten to unleash a demon intent on destroying the world. Can Tragon defeat the ancient forces that rule Caiphar, or will he remain trapped forever in the Tower of Lost Souls?

Flying W Press announces the release of John M. Whalen’s new sword and sorcery novel, TRAGON OF RAMURA. It’s a novel deeply rooted in the traditions of the sword and sorcery genre, but which attempts to take that kind of story into a new realm.

Tragon of Ramura is a character that has been around a while. He first appeared in 2006 in a short story, “Island of Fear,” published in Howard Andrew Jones’ Flashing Swords e-zine. “That was the first cash money I ever got for a short story,” author John Whalen said. “Howard said he thought I had something with the characters of Tragon and his sidekick, Yusef Ahmed. I think he was right. So I finally gave them their own novel.”
 
Tragon and Yusef also were also featured in Christopher Heath’s Artifacts and Relics anthology, and another antho, “Shadows and Light,” published by the now defunct Pill Hill Press. They have also been published in Greece and translated into Greek.

In TRAGON OF RAMURA, our two adventurers are in search of the Crimson Eye of Caiphar, said to be the source of the most powerful magic in the universe. Tragon believes he must obtain it in order to return home from exile and combat the evil wizard who assassinated his king and framed him for the killing. In the Lost City of Caiphar Tragon encounters the beautiful and mysterious Sai-Ul-San, high priestess of the cult of Zoth-Amin. The priestess agrees to help Tragon in his quest, but can they overcome the dark forces that rule the city and defeat an ancient god who threatens to destroy the world? And what terrible secret is the priestess hiding?

“I didn’t want to write the same old Robert E. Howard Conan pastiche,” Whalen said. “It’s been done to death. The book has some of the usual tropes, but they’re handled in a different way, and mixed with some mind-bending ideas that S&S fans probably haven’t seen in this context before. It’s a combination of horror and adventure, and some far out things. It’s different.”

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Private Detective Stories, February 1946




This is a pulp I own and read recently. The upper image is a scan of my copy, front cover damage and all, the lower a better image from the Fictionmags Index. PRIVATE DETECTIVE STORIES was published by Trojan Publishing Corporation, the publishers of the notorious Spicy line of pulps that eventually became the slightly toned-down Speed line. PRIVATE DETECTIVE STORIES ran from June 1937 to December 1950. Most issues featured at least one story by Robert Leslie Bellem and often more than one under his various pseudonyms. Other regulars from the Spicy/Speed stable showed up frequently, too, such as E. Hoffmann Price, Victor Rousseau (as Lew Merrill), Hugh B. Cave (as Justin Case), and Edwin Truett Long (as Cary Moran).

The author of the lead story in this issue, the novelette “Killer Wanted—First Class”, sold several stories to various Trojan pulps but wasn’t exactly a regular. Geoffrey North wrote many stories for the gang pulps, starting in the early Thirties, and also appeared in a number of other detective pulps from various publishers before his career petered out in the mid-Fifties. That’s all I know about him. His story is a mostly good yarn about a Louisville, Kentucky private detective named Lackland who travels to a small town in Ohio to take on a case involving the murder of the local sheriff. There’s a bizarre will and a big inheritance involved, along with a live dog, a rumored ghost dog, and several instances where Lackland gets hit on the head and knocked out. The terse third-person prose is very good, but the plot winds up being kind of a mess, with things being explained pretty poorly or not at all and an ending that’s not very satisfying. If North had been able to follow through from the good beginning, this would have been a fine story. As is, it reads like he kind of confused himself in the telling of it, along with the reader. Still, there’s enough good stuff in it that I’d be interested to read more by him.

The second story, “No Blood is Bad Blood” by Henry Norton, isn’t a private detective story at all, despite the magazine’s name. The protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl whose father comes home from the war and is immediately arrested for murder. The girl is convinced he couldn’t possibly be guilty and has to find a way to expose the real killer and clear his name. It’s a little on the mild side but well-written and entertaining. Henry Norton wrote a lot for the detective pulps starting in the early Forties, with occasional ventures into science fiction, before selling a few stories to the slicks late in his career.

Talmage Powell’s name is misspelled as Talmadge Powell on both the table of contents and the first page of his story “Tab Me for the Kill”. It’s set in the Ybor City area of Tampa, as much of Powell’s later work would be, and a returning war vet plays a major part in this one, too. In fact, Les Brennan is the narrator. He was a cop in Tampa before the war and often clashed with nightclub owner and crooked gambler Dolph Amick. Now, Amick has married the girl Brennan intended to marry, and Brennan has come back to square accounts. Instead he finds himself framed for murder and has to scramble to uncover the truth. It’s a good yarn, well-written with quite a bit of plot packed into it. I nearly always enjoy Powell’s work.

There’s no private detective in Lew Merrill’s “Nailed”, either. It’s a small town domestic drama set in Vermont with a murder thrown in, and it’s up to the local sheriff to solve it. Merrill was really long-time pulpster Victor Rousseau, and I usually enjoy his stories. This one’s pretty bland, though.

“Lethal Lady” by Walton Grey continues the no private eye streak. Instead, the protagonists in this one are lawyer Timothy Keene and his beautiful blond wife Violet. This reads very much like a series entry, with numerous references to other cases solved by the Keenes, but I don’t know if it is. Nor do I know who wrote it, since Walton Grey is a house-name. Keene’s current case involves a bizarre will (much like the first story in this issue, “Killer Wanted—First Class”) and of course there’s a murder, but Keene and Vi don’t do much actual detective work. However, they’re pretty good characters, with a bit of a Mr. and Mrs. North feel to them, and I enjoyed the story even though there’s not much to it.

David Carver was a pseudonym for an author named David Redstone, who wrote for the pulps under both those names as well as the pseudonym Paul Sherwood from the Twenties through the Forties. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered his work before. His story in this issue, “The Man in the Crowd”, features insurance investigator Tom Cooper, and insurance investigators are close enough to private detectives that we can consider Cooper one. He’s also a returning vet, which seems to be something of a theme in detective pulps from this era. In this yarn, Cooper is on the trail of an arsonist, and while the plot is really predictable, the story has a nice rhythm and flow to it, and I wound up liking it anyway.

The issue wraps up with “The Hot Rock” by Robert Leslie Bellem. This isn’t a Dan Turner story; in fact, it’s Bellem in a whole different mode. The protagonist is a private eye named Ben Medwick who answers a call for help from his ne’er-do-well brother and winds up on a bloody quest for vengeance almost worthy of Mike Hammer. There’s a death by gruesome torture, a beautiful blonde babe, a blind man, a fortune in missing diamonds, and some really tough action that reminded me of Mickey Spillane. Bellem really packs a lot into this one despite its relatively short length. Easily the best story in this issue.

So only three stories out of the seven actually feature private detectives, but one of them is a novelette and the other two are fairly long, so I guess the wordage is about equal between PI and non-PI stories. None of the stories are particularly outstanding except the one by Bellem, but I didn’t skip any of them and found them reasonably entertaining. That makes this issue of PRIVATE DETECTIVE STORIES about average, I suppose.

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Thrilling Western, September 1950



This is a pulp I own and read recently. The scan is from my copy. I don’t know who the artist is, but if you check the lower right corner, you’ll see that this is an Injury to a Hat cover. I’ve been reading issues of THRILLING WESTERN for years now and always enjoy them, although there are usually one or two stories in each issue I don’t care for.

This issue leads off (as most issues from 1940 to 1950 did) with a Walt Slade, Texas Ranger story by Bradford Scott, who was really the highly prolific and distinctive A. Leslie Scott. “The Sky Riders” is one of the last stories in the pulp series. There would be only two more after it. But a few years later Scott began writing paperback novels for Pyramid Books featuring the Walt Slade character, mostly originals but some expansions from pulp yarns. That paperback series ran even longer, all the way into the early Seventies. There’s a Walt Slade novel from 1968 called THE SKY RIDERS, and while I haven’t read it, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it’s an expansion of this pulp novella.

This one opens with a very evocation scene involving a killing on a high natural bridge running between two sides of a canyon. Scott always wrote good action scenes and good descriptions of the settings, and both of those elements are on display here. Walt Slade, an undercover Texas Ranger who most folks believe to be the notorious outlaw El Halcon (The Hawk), witnesses that shooting, and his investigation plunges him into the hunt for a gang of owlhoots known as the Sky Riders because they’re usually spotted riding along some rimrock, silhouetted against the sky.

Anybody who’s read more than one or two Walt Slade yarns will know exactly what’s going on in this story and will pick out the hidden mastermind of the outlaws with no trouble. The geography of the region plays a big part in the plot, as it often does in Scott’s stories, and he handles it very well, resulting in some vivid scenes. Sure, the whole thing is formulaic, but I always enjoy Scott’s work anyway. It’s pure comfort reading for me.

I have the opposite reaction to the Swap and Whopper series by Syl MacDowell, which ran even longer than the Walt Slade series, starting in 1939 and continuing until 1952. Slapstick Westerns are a hard sell for me to start with. The Swap and Whopper stories feature a couple of saddle tramps, one tall and skinny, the other short and fat, who always wind up in bizarre situations. Part Mutt and Jeff, part Abbott and Costello, and well written enough by old pro Syl MacDowell, but dang, this series just doesn’t work for me. I’ve started dozens of them and finished only a few. The one in this issue, “The Talking Bear”, is not one that I finished.

Nels Leroy Jorgensen wrote scores of stories during a pulp career that lasted approximately thirty years, from the early Twenties to the early Fifties. He turned out detective, aviation, adventure, and war stories in addition to Westerns. I first became aware of him as a Western writer but later discovered that his work appeared frequently in BLACK MASK during the Twenties and Thirties, most notably with a series about a gambler named Black Burton (a series that wound up in BLACK BOOK DETECTIVE during the Forties). Jorgensen’s novelette in this issue, “Gunstorm on the Wagon Trail”, has a good title and the plot, about a couple of guys who own a freight company trying to get a wagon train full of badly needed supplies (including medicine) through a gauntlet of Mexican bandidos and Apache renegades, is interesting as well. I thought the actual writing was pretty bland, though, with lots of long paragraphs of the protagonist thinking about what’s going on. I finished the story, but it never really caught my interest much.

I’ve never read a story by Johnston McCulley that I didn’t like, and “Agency Injun” continues that streak. It’s a minor yarn about a cavalryman trying to prove that a friendly Indian didn’t commit a murder at an army post, but McCulley tells it well. This one has an illustration by the great Nick Eggenhoffer, too, which certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

I read a story by L. Kenneth Brent in an issue of THRILLING WESTERN last year and enjoyed it. His tale in this issue, “Gunsmoke Freeze-Out”, is even better. It’s a “small rancher vs. cattle baron” story, with the added complication that a rustler the small rancher testified against in court has gotten out of prison and is coming back to try to kill him. It’s a standard plot, but Brent’s writing is good and he creates some genuine suspense along the way. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of his stories.

Like Nels Leroy Jorgensen, Harold F. Cruickshank had a pulp career that lasted from the Twenties to the Fifties. During that time he wrote several hundred stories, specializing during the first part of his career in war and air war stories before branching out into Westerns and sports yarns. He was a highly regarded air war writer, but I haven’t read any of those stories. In Westerns, he had a long-running back-up series in RANGE RIDERS WESTERNS about the settlers in Sun Bear Valley. I’ve read some of these (also known as the Pioneer Folk series) but never cared much for them. His novelette in this issue, “Branch Line to Hell”, is a stand-alone about a railroad surveyor who’s trying to survey a spur line over the opposition of a ruthless local cattle baron. It’s a good title, but unfortunately that’s the best thing about this story. Cruickshank’s writing just doesn’t appeal to me, and all the technical details of surveying and railroad construction are just confusing, so I wasn’t quite sure what was going on some of the time. I think maybe I’ve read enough of Cruickshank’s work, although I am still curious about his air war stories.

So far this issue of THRILLING WESTERN is batting .500. I’ve liked three of the stories and disliked the other three. But there are four short stories left.

I don’t know anything about Dupree Poe except that I’ve seen his name in various Western pulps. He sold several dozen stories to the Thrilling Group in the late Forties and early Fifties, along with a few to MAMMOTH WESTERN and the Ace Western pulps, WESTERN ACES and WESTERN TRAILS. His story “Hangman’s Tree” in this issue is a little unusual for the era in that the plot revolves around a rancher’s suspicion that his wife is having an affair with an outlaw who’s hiding out on the ranch and pretending to be a cowhand. This sets off a string of events that include a lynching, a visit by another outlaw, and the rancher’s near death in quicksand. (Quicksand, of course, is one of the things that improve any story, and if the greatly missed Bill Crider was still with us, I have a hunch he would agree.) Anyway, there’s also a good dog in this story, and that helps, too. “Hangman’s Tree” is almost too grim, but I wound up thinking that it’s a decent story.

Ben Frank is the pseudonym of Frank Bennett, an author who wrote under his real name for both the pulps and the slicks in the Forties and Fifties. He was more prolific as Ben Frank and is best remembered for a back-up series that appeared in many issues of TEXAS RANGERS featuring a cagey old-timer known as Doc Swap. He also wrote a comical Western about a deputy named Boo-Boo Bounce. As I mentioned above, with a few exceptions (Robert E. Howard and W.C. Tuttle come to mind), I’m not much of a fan of comedy Westerns. I don’t care for the Boo-Boo Bounce stories at all. The Doc Swap yarns are at least readable because they’re usually well-plotted. Frank’s stand-alone story in this issue of THRILLING WESTERN, “One Man Justice” features another old-timer and his attempt to bring to justice the man who tried to murder his son-in-law. This isn’t a comedy; Frank plays it completely straight and gives the tale a nice hardboiled, suspenseful tone, as well as a twist or two. This one took me by surprise. I wasn’t expecting to like it, but I did, quite a bit.

Robert J. Hogan was the author of G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES, of course, along with a lot of other air war stories, but he also wrote a considerable number of Westerns. His story in this issue, “Badge for a Bandit”, uses the old plot of an outlaw trying to go straight. In this case, the young man has even become a deputy, but then his old gang shows up intending to rob the bank. I generally enjoy Hogan’s stories, but I never could work up much interest in this one.

The final story is “Heading Into Trouble”, a short, simple yarn about a bank messenger, a stagecoach driver, and a shotgun guard trying to get a stagecoach carrying a lot of money through a gauntlet of outlaws. It’s almost non-stop action, which is good, and the writing is okay. The by-line is the house-name Jackson Cole, which was often used when an author had more than one story in an issue. In this case, though, the style doesn’t strike me as being similar to any of the other authors in this issue. In fact, it reminded me of the work of Charles S. Strong, an editor at the Thrilling Group who wrote Western fiction under the name Chuck Stanley as well as detective and adventure yarns under his own name. That’s just a guess on my part, however. It could have been someone else who wrote “Heading Into Trouble”. Whoever did, I thought it was an okay story.

Overall, I’d say this is a below average issue of THRILLING WESTERN. The two best stories are the Walt Slade novella and Ben Frank’s story, and there are several I don’t think are very good at all. But considering the sheer number of Western pulps published, they can’t all be great. I’m confident that I’ll have better luck the next time I take one off the shelf.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Forgotten Books: Sidewinder (Lassiter #7) - Jack Slade (Frank Castle)



Many people consider the Slocum series, published originally by Playboy Press under the house-name Jake Logan, to be the first Adult Western series, but I believe that’s incorrect. The Lassiter series, published under various imprints by Belmont/Tower/Leisure under the house-name Jack Slade, started in 1968, eight years before Slocum and included all the elements of an Adult Western: sex, a gritty, violent tone, and a somewhat amoral protagonist. True, the sex scenes usually aren’t as graphic as the ones to be found later in Slocum and other Adult Western series, but they’re definitely there, and the violence and shades-of-gray characterizations are in full force.

A lot of this goes back to the pulp SPICY WESTERN. As far as I know, W.T. Ballard, who created the Lassiter series and wrote the first four books, didn’t write for SPICY WESTERN, but his good friend and occasional writing partner Robert Leslie Bellem did, and as a prolific professional pulpster, Ballard certainly would have been aware of the magazine even without the Bellem connection. So my contention is that the whole Adult Western paperback sub-genre can be traced back to the pulps and is largely the creation of one man, W.T. Ballard. (I expound more on this in my introduction to LUST OF THE LAWLESS, a fine collection of the stories Robert Leslie Bellem wrote for SPICY WESTERN.)

The Lassiter series ran until 1981 with several different writers authoring the novels as Jack Slade. The most idiosyncratic of them, at least as far as his writing style goes, was probably Frank Castle, who turned out the Lassiter novels SIDEWINDER and THE BADLANDERS. Castle wrote for the pulps and also wrote several Westerns and crime novels for Gold Medal during the Fifties. (I think the Gold Medal hardboiled Westerns also had an influence on the Adult Westerns.) I read THE BADLANDERS a number of years ago, and I have to confess that I misattributed it to Tom Curry, another veteran pulp Western author who wrote a couple of the Sundance novels under the Jack Slade name. It’s clearly Castle’s work, though, as proven by Lynn Munroe.

Which brings us, at last, to SIDEWINDER, which I read not long ago. Lassiter is a drifting gun-for-hire and sometimes outlaw, and as this book opens, he’s south of the border in Mexico, being forced to dig his own grave by the firing squad that’s soon going to execute him. It’s a great opening, and Castle never slows down the action and suspense as he gives us the back-story while we go along. It seems that Lassiter was hired by Homer Brill, an American mining tycoon in Arizona, to travel into Mexico and collect on an I.O.U. that’s owed to Brill by General Juan Peralta, a local strongman who also owns a gold mine. Instead of paying the debt, Peralta loses his temper and orders Lassiter shot.

Of course, Lassiter escapes and quickly discovers that all is not as it appears to be at first. Conspiracies and double-crosses abound. Everybody’s after a fortune in gold and nobody can be trusted. As you’d expect from a novel set in Mexico during the late 19th Century, political intrigue and revolution play large parts in the plot as well. And of course there are a couple of beautiful women involved, and Lassiter beds both of them when he’s not busy running around shooting and getting shot—and knifed—and blowing stuff up real good. Lassiter wants to get his hands on some of that gold, but it’s even more important to him that he settle some scores with men who crossed him.

Castle has an odd, choppy, comma-heavy, and sentence-fragmented style that takes some getting used to. Once you do, however, it works pretty well and produces some vivid scenes. He also has a good grasp on Lassiter’s character. Lassiter isn’t a typical Western hero, but he has a number of opportunities to be even less sympathetic but winds up doing the right thing instead. He’s not necessarily a guy you’d want as a friend, but you certainly don’t want him as an enemy, because he finds a way to just keep fighting until he wins.

I’d say SIDEWINDER is about in the middle when it comes to the Lassiter series. I’ve read much better books in the series, but I’ve read worse, too. That may seem like I’m damning with faint praise, but that’s not my intention. I enjoyed reading SIDEWINDER, and I think most Adult Western fans would, too. Just be aware that Castle’s prose is definitely off-trail.

(The image above is my copy, the one I read. There's an earlier edition from 1969, but I don't own that one and wasn't able to find an image on-line.)

UPDATE: Here's the cover of that first edition, provided by my friend Kurt Middleman.


Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Death Rides the Range (1939)


From everything I've read about him, Ken Maynard was a pretty terrible human being, an alcoholic and abusive to people and animals alike. But that didn't stop him from being a fairly major star of B-Western movies for about a decade, from the mid-1920s when he started in silent films to the mid-Thirties, when his problematic attitude began making it impossible for him to get work except at some of the Poverty Row studios, like Colony Pictures, which produced DEATH RIDES THE RANGE in 1939.

In this one, Maynard plays drifting cowpoke Ken Baxter (his characters were nearly always named Ken), who is camping one evening with his sidekicks Panhandle and Pancho when a badly injured man stumbles into their camp. It turns out he's a scientist, a member of a group of foreign archeologists who are supposed to be studying Indian artifacts on a nearby ranch.

Well, you know there has to be more to it than that, like maybe the "archeologists" are really agents of a foreign power (since it's 1939 and one of the agents is a tall, aristocratic blond guy called Baron Starkoff, you only get one guess what that foreign power is) and they're after a deposit of helium under the ranch. There are a few other twists, but I won't go into them in case some of you actually watch this movie someday.

By this point, Maynard was fairly paunchy, but he could still handle an action scene and do some good riding on his famous horse Tarzan. Why would a cowboy name his horse Tarzan? I have no idea. Ubiquitous B-Western bad guy Charles King is also on hand, and the movie was directed by equally ubiquitous B-movie director Sam Newfield. So you should have a pretty good idea what you're getting in DEATH RIDES THE RANGE. I found it entertaining enough to spend an hour watching it. Sometimes that's all you want.

Monday, July 02, 2018

Writing Update


Late yesterday afternoon I finished my 365th novel. If somebody wanted to read one of my books every day, the project would take a year to finish. I think that's kind of cool. Also, at the time of the fire in 2008, I had written 215 novels, so this means I've turned out 150 in the ten and a half years since then, for an average of a little more than 14 books per year. Admittedly, some of those books were on the short side, but I've also done a great many that were in the 90,000 to 100,000 word range, so I think it all balances out. Mostly I don't like patting myself on the back, but every so often I stop and think, hey, that's not bad.

And now, having done that, it's back to work.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Crime Busters, July 1938


Another great cover by Norman Saunders on this issue of CRIME BUSTERS, and look at the line-up of authors: Walter B. Gibson (writing as Maxwell Grant) with a Norgil the Magician story; Lester Dent (a Click Rush, Gadget Man story); Theodore Tinsley (a Carrie Cashin story); Steve Fisher (a Big Red Brennan story); Frank Gruber (a Jim Strong story); Alan Hathway (a Colby Lyman story); and George Allan Moffatt (a Duncan Dean story). Now, I'm not familiar with all those series characters, but I know the authors and know they could be counted on to produce entertaining yarns. And any pulp with Dent, Gibson, Gruber, Tinsley, and Fisher has got to be good reading!