Friday, May 31, 2019

Forgotten Books: Run the Wild River - D.L. Champion

Sometimes you come across little gems in unexpected places. I’ve been reading D.L. Champion’s pulp work for decades, since he created one of my favorite characters, the Phantom Detective, and wrote many of the early novels in the pulp of that name. Until recently, though, I was unaware that he’d also written a hardboiled crime novel, RUN THE WILD RIVER, originally published in paperback by Lion Books in 1952, with a cover by Mort Kunstler. It’s being reprinted soon by Stark House Press as part of a triple volume of Lion Books.

The plot of a heel’s rise to power in some criminal enterprise is a common one in hardboiled and noir fiction, and that’s what you get in RUN THE WILD RIVER. The narrator, Bill Ackroyd, is a heel, no doubt about that. A young grifter, he gets kicked out of both El Paso and Juarez and finds himself stranded in a small, seedy town on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. But Bill is the kind of guy who always figures out a way to land on his feet, so before you know it he becomes a cog in a local smuggling network that takes Mexican laborers across the river and sells them into virtual slavery in Texas. Bill has his sights set on being more than a henchman, though—no matter who he has to double-cross or even kill to accomplish that goal. He even succeeds . . . but then a beautiful blonde shows up and brings with her the potential to wreck everything, as beautiful blondes usually do.

Champion’s many years of writing for the pulps taught him how to pace a story, that’s for sure. RUN THE WILD RIVER really races along, and Champion accomplishes the difficult task of making the reader care about, even root for, his protagonist, no matter how awful a person that protagonist is—and Bill Ackroyd’s pretty bad. The other characters also border on stereotypes, but Champion makes all of them interesting, too, and he does a fine job with the squalid settings.

I have to admit, I saw the big twist in the story coming as soon as Champion introduced it, and I also felt like the plot could have used yet one more twist at the end. But neither of those things detracted much from my enjoyment of this novel. I really enjoyed reading RUN THE WILD RIVER, and I sure wish Champion had continued writing books like this. However, this is the only one we’ve got, so if you’re a fan of hardboiled and noir crime fiction, I give it a high recommendation.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Overlooked Movies: The Fighting 69th (1940)

With yesterday being Memorial Day, Livia and I watched something appropriate to the occasion: THE FIGHTING 69TH, a 1940 film about the 69th Infantry Regiment during World War I. Neither of us had ever seen it before, a little surprising considering how many times it ran on TV when we were growing up. It’s a mixture of history and fiction and has a great cast of Warner Brothers stalwarts. James Cagney plays Jerry Plunkett, a wise-cracking tough guy from Brooklyn who’s befriended by the unit’s chaplain, Father Francis Duffy (Pat O’Brien), one of the actual historical figures in the story. The 69th is commanded by Major William “Wild Bill” Donovan (George Brent), who during World War II commanded the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA. Another historical figure who shows up is Sergeant Joyce Kilmer, the well-known poet. Then there are the other fictional characters such as the blustering but good-hearted sergeant (Alan Hale), the comic relief who’s always mooching cigarettes (Frank McHugh), the Jewish soldier who pretends to be Irish because he wants to be part of the 69th (Sammy Cohen), and various other dogfaces played by Dennis Morgan, Dick Foran, William Lundigan, William Hopper, George Reeves, and the great Guinn “Big Boy” Williams.

Not surprisingly, we get a fairly lengthy boot camp sequence to introduce us to the characters before they go overseas, and then it’s off to France for action in the trenches, and the movie really excels in those scenes. It’s brutal and terrifying, not at all the light-hearted, glory-seeking lark that some of the soldiers expected, and as it turns out, Cagney’s character can’t handle it and commits several acts of cowardice that result in the deaths of other soldiers. He’s courtmartialed and sentenced to death, but circumstances provide him with an opportunity to redeem himself. Which we all knew was coming, of course, but honestly, would we have it any other way?

THE FIGHTING 69TH is episodic but very well-made, with a great cast and some really harrowing battle scenes. Many modern viewers probably consider movies like this hokey, but I’ll watch ’em all day and enjoy them.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Mystery Book Magazine, Winter 1948

For some reason, I like this cover. The colors are eye-catching, the couple seem so suave and sophisticated, and yet there's the element of action with the bullet shattering the glass. I guess that's three reasons I like it, isn't it? Inside there's a Saint story by Leslie Charteris (one of my favorite series and authors), as well as stories by Q. Patrick (the guys who also wrote as Patrick Quentin, usually pretty good), Will Oursler (whose name is familiar to me, but I don't know why), O.B. Myers (who I think of as an aviation pulp author), and Leslie Gordon Barnard (who I never heard of). I'd read this issue just for the Saint story.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Ace-High Western Magazine, January 1937

There's the Angry, Gun-Totin' Redhead we all know and love, not surprisingly on a cover painted by Tom Lovell. ACE-HIGH WESTERN MAGAZINE typically had very good covers and fine authors, and this issue is no exception. Inside are stories by Walt Coburn, Harry F. Olmsted, Cliff Farrell, Gunnison Steele, Robert E. Mahaffey, John G. Pearsol, and house-name Bart Cassidy. Those are all top-notch Western pulpsters.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Forgotten Books: Terror Wears No Shoes -- Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent)

Getting back to reading all the Doc Savage novels I haven’t already read, I recently tackled TERROR WEARS NO SHOES, originally published in the May/June 1948 issue of the magazine DOC SAVAGE, SCIENCE DETECTIVE and reprinted in the final Doc Savage omnibus published by Bantam in 1990, as well as by Nostalgia Ventures in 2008. Like most of Lester Dent’s Doc Savage novels after World War II, this is a hardboiled espionage yarn that discards most of the familiar trappings from earlier in the series and could have worked just about as well with characters other than Doc, Monk, Ham, and Long Tom. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it.

This one could almost be called DOC SAVAGE MEETS THE DRAGON LADY, as Doc finds himself in Shanghai tangling with a mysterious but beautiful female crime lord. He’s in disguise, searching for his aide Long Tom Roberts who disappeared while investigating a deadly plot by the Soviets, who are the villains in many of these novels late in the series. Monk and Ham are on hand, too, but mainly to get captured by the bad guys and serve as hostages. The young woman who holds the key to everything may be a criminal, but she’s not all bad and winds up working with Doc to stop a terrible threat steaming toward the United States on an ocean liner.

Dent springs a late surprise that had me slapping my forehead and saying, “D’oh!” because I should have seen it coming but absolutely didn’t. By this time in the series, his terse writing style is polished diamond-hard and is a joy to read. While the early books with their sweeping plots and swashbuckling sense of adventure will always be my favorites, I’ve come to appreciate these little gems from late in the series, as well. I had a great time reading this one. (By the way, the title has absolutely nothing to do with the story, as far as I could tell.)

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1942

I've seen other science fiction pulp covers featuring some giant figure menacing fleeing crowds. Without reading the stories, I never know if they're meant to be taken literally or symbolically. And I don't suppose it makes a difference, if they're eye-catching and prompt a potential reader to fork over a dime (or a dime and a nickel, in this case) as this painting by Rudolph Belarski does. There's a good line-up of pulp SF writers inside this issue of THRILLING WONDER STORIES, too: Nelson S. Bond, Ray Cummings, Eando Binder (Earl and Otto Binder), Oscar J. Friend, and Alexander Samalman. 

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Real Western, April 1937

I feel like I ought to know who did the artwork on the cover of this issue of REAL WESTERN, but I don't. The artist's style is familiar, though. Inside are stories by well-known Western pulpsters Frank C. Robertson, Oscar Schisgall, Clem Yore, and Will F. Jenkins (a reprint of a story originally published in BLACK MASK under Jenkins' pseudonym Murray Leinster). There's also a story by Fred Fincerer, a name that's totally unknown to me, probably because this may well be the only story he ever published.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Forgotten Books: The Land of Mist (The Gladiator #2) - Andrew Quiller (Kenneth Bulmer)

The Gladiator series continues with Kenneth Bulmer penning this entry. Laurence James wrote the first one, which I read and posted about a while back. As THE LAND OF MIST opens, our protagonist, half-Roman, half-Briton Marcus Julius Britannicus, has become a charioteer as well as a gladiator, and after an opening chapter in which he participates in an action-packed chariot race at the Circus Maximus, the story flashes back to Marcus’s days as a soldier in the Roman legions.

He’s sent to Britain, his mother’s homeland, to help subdue a rebellion there, and at the same time, he’s on a quest of his own to locate and kill several Roman officers responsible for an atrocity that touched Marcus personally. This storyline plays out on a rather episodic basis, although not as much as the first book did. There are bloody battles galore, a little romance, and a touch of angst here and there, as Bulmer spins his usual fast-paced yarn packed with historical detail.

In fact, I’ve read enough of Bulmer’s novels by now to realize that can be a bit of a shortcoming in his work. He uses a lot of jargon and obscure details without ever explaining them, so that the reader runs the risk of becoming mired down in all that. Also, there are a ton of characters in a Bulmer novel, and they tend to run together, especially when they have long Roman names such as in this book.

Despite all that, however, the pace and action and well-done protagonists always make me get caught up in a Bulmer novel, and THE LAND OF MIST is no exception. The second half is especially good and really had me turning the pages toward the end to find out what was going to happen. I don’t think this one is quite as good as Laurence James’s opening volume in the series, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. Some things in the on-going plotline are left unresolved, and I wonder if they’ll be picked up in the next book, which was written by Angus Wells under the Andrew Quiller house-name. I suspect I’ll find out soon.

One side note: This series was published originally in England under the overall title The Eagles, which is really much more fitting than The Gladiator, since (so far, at least) the stories have been much more concerned with Marcus’s experiences as a soldier, rather than a gladiator. But I guess when the books were reprinted in the U.S. by Pinnacle, someone there decided that American readers wouldn’t know what The Eagles referred to and changed the title to something more recognizable. Under either title, so far it’s a pretty entertaining series.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Overlooked Movies: Small Town Crime (2017)

I remember some of my friends liking this movie when it came out a couple of years ago, but I never heard much else about it and didn’t get around to watching it until now. I’m glad I didn’t let it slip past me completely, because it’s a pretty good little film.

Set in some unnamed small city in the Southwest, SMALL TOWN CRIME opens with sad-sack former cop Mike Kendall (John Hawkes) trying to find a job. We quickly find out that Kendall is an alcoholic and was kicked off the force because of a tragic shooting with which he was involved. (I immediately thought of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder and Donald Westlake’s Mitch Tobin . . . which are not bad influences at all, mind you.) Kendall finds the body of a badly injured young woman who’s suffered a beating or been hit by a car or something similar, and when she dies in the hospital after he rushes her there, he decides he’s going to find out what happened to her. Having seen countless private eye movies and read countless private eye novels, we know what’s going to happen, of course. The more digging Kendall does, the more complicated the case becomes, and the more dangerous his efforts become for him. He even gets hit over the head and knocked out at one point, admittedly a PI cliché but one that I love and am always happy to see. The twists and turns eventually lead to a very satisfying ending.

The cast is excellent in this movie, with Hawkes, usually a supporting actor, doing a great job in the lead for a change. The always dependable Robert Forster shows up, Anthony Anderson and Clifton Collins Jr. are on hand, and the beautiful Caity Lotz is always worth watching. The photography captures the southwestern setting very well, and the script and direction by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms blend together almost perfectly. There are a couple of lapses in logic, but nothing to quibble about too much. I never heard of the Nelms Brothers before, but based on this movie, I might have to seek out more of their work.

Overall, SMALL TOWN CRIME is one of the best films I’ve seen recently. If you like hardboiled private eye movies (and who doesn’t?) and haven’t seen it yet, it’s very much worth watching.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Short Stories, October 25, 1932

I always wanted a pith helmet when I was a kid, probably because of all the jungle adventure movies I'd watched on TV. I never got one, which was almost certainly a good thing, as I'm not sure how well it would have gone over in the small Texas town where I was already something of a weirdo. And there's no way I would have looked as tough and dashing as the guy on the cover of this issue of SHORT STORIES. The art is by William Reusswig. The lead novel by Eustace L. Adams sounds like a good one, and Adams was a reliably entertaining author of adventure fiction. Also on hand were Karl Detzer, Conrad Richter, Bill Adams, Jacland Marmur, Charles Green, Cliff Farrell, and Garnett Radcliffe. Those names don't mean much now, with the possible exception of Conrad Richter, but they were top-notch pulp authors. (You know, you can buy pith helmets on Amazon . . . I'm just sayin' . . . Nah, I probably shouldn't.)

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, August 16, 1941

I don't think I've ever run across a Western pulp cover depicting a gunfight in the middle of a stampede . . . until now. Because that's what you've got on this issue of WESTERN STORY, in a cover by the prolific H.W. Scott. Inside are stories by some of the best Western writers from that era: Walt Coburn, Harry Sinclair Drago, Philip Ketchum, Frank Richardson Pierce, Bennett Foster, and Lee Floren. There are plenty of good reasons why WESTERN STORY was one of the best Western pulps, and there's a handful of 'em right there.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Forgotten Books: Ki-Gor: The Cannibal Horde - John Peter Drummond

It had been a while since I read a Ki-Gor novel, so I figured it was time I got back to the series. “The Cannibal Horde”, originally published in the Fall 1942 issue of JUNGLE STORIES, is a bit of a letdown from the excellent yarn in the previous issue, “Blood Priestess of Vig N’Ga”. In this one, Ki-Gor and Helene are traveling with their friend Hurree Das, the Hindu doctor who appears occasionally as reluctant villain/comedy relief, when they find themselves in the middle of a war instigated by an old enemy of Ki-Gor’s from an earlier adventure. This would-be potentate has assembled an army of cannibals, aided by warriors from some other tribes, and is out to conquer a neighboring kingdom. Ki-Gor, of course, sets out to stop this.

That’s all there is to it, which results in kind of a thinly plotted tale. There are a few battles, a lot of running around, and a nicely suspenseful sequence toward the end when Helene is captured and seems destined to wind up in the cannibals’ stew pot. Ki-Gor is off-screen quite a bit. All in all, “The Cannibal Horde” is a little bit lackluster, but still a readable yarn.

As usual, we don’t know who was behind the John Peter Drummond house-name, but I got the feeling this story was by either an author who was new to the series or at least one who hadn’t contributed much to it. Hurree Das is the only member of the regular supporting cast to appear, and his characterization seems a little off to me. There’s no mention of Tembu George, N’Geeso, or Marmo the elephant.

This is the last story in the third and at least for the moment final collection of Ki-Gor stories from Altus Press. I don’t know if more collections are in the works, but I hope so. In the meantime, I have quite a few other novels from the series in various reprint editions, so I’ll be moving on with them and probably skipping around some instead of reading them in order. But I’ve really enjoyed reading the first fifteen stories like this and look forward to the rest of the series.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Space Crusaders #1 - Christopher Mills, Peter Grau, and Nik Poliwko

Several years ago, I read the graphic novel GRAVEDIGGER: HOT WOMEN, COLD CASH, written by Christopher Mills, and enjoyed it a lot. These days, Mills is putting together an entire line of comics called Atomic Action, which takes public domain superheroes and puts them in new stories written and drawn in the classic style of the Sixties and Seventies (which means they’re right in my wheelhouse). The first issue of these new comics, SPACE CRUSADERS #1, came out recently, and it’s great fun.

The lead feature is REX DEXTER OF MARS. Created by Dick Briefer, Rex appeared in a couple of dozen stories in 1939 and 1940. He’s the son of an Earth scientist and his wife whose spaceship crashlanded on Mars, so they were stuck there, where Rex was born. His parents never made it back to Earth, but eventually he did and became a swashbuckling hero battling assorted menaces from space and getting romantically involved with a beautiful girl he rescues from some space pirates. Then, in a tragic turn of circumstances, he’s blamed for the destruction carried out by a monster he’d captured and is exiled from Earth. Cynde, his beautiful girlfriend, takes to the spacelanes with him, of course, and Rex winds up as sort of a cross between Flash Gordon and Adam Strange. And that’s where Mills picks up his story in “Menace of the Saurian Sphere”.

Despite the fact that he’s been kicked off Earth, that doesn’t stop Rex from agreeing to help when a giant metallic asteroid is spotted on a collision course with the planet. Rex and Cynde intercept the sphere and find an unexpected secret inside it. You can probably guess from the cover what it is. Mills’ fast-paced script is very entertaining and includes several nods to some legendary comics creators, and the art by Peter Grau is top-notch, with great storytelling ability. I really enjoyed this yarn.

The back-up story is the first installment of a continued story called “Lance Lewis, Space Detective”, a hardboiled detective tale set on a space station, with art by Nik Poliwko. I liked this one a lot, too, and look forward to reading the upcoming stories in the series.

Mills has some ambitious plans for this comics universe, and based on SPACE CRUSADERS #1, he and the artists working with him are more than capable of carrying them out. This 40-page, full color issue is available (with three variant covers) at IndyPlanet, a site that specializes in independently published comic books, and if you’re a long-time comics fan like me, I give it a high recommendation. (I bought some of Mills’ other comics, too, and will be posting about them later on.)

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: War Birds, April 1933

I was in the mood for an aviation pulp cover this morning, and I picked this one by George Rozen from WAR BIRDS because I don't recall seeing many observation balloons on pulp covers. Also there are some good writers in this issue, including William E. Barrett, Robert J. Hogan, Robert H. Leitfred, and one better remembered for his excellent Westerns, Allan R. Bosworth.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Big-Book Western Magazine, March 1949

I love the expression on this cowboy's face. Somebody's gonna pay for that spilled drink! There are also some excellent authors in this issue of BIG-BOOK WESTERN MAGAZINE, starting with a couple of my favorites, Walt Coburn and Harry F. Olmsted. Also on hand are top-notch Western writers Thomas Thompson, Tom W. Blackburn, Tom Roan, and Bryce Walton. This looks like a fine issue.

Friday, May 03, 2019

Forgotten Books: Madball - Fredric Brown

I have a fondness for novels and stories set in carnivals, circuses, and such traveling shows. Fredric Brown’s novel MADBALL, published originally in 1953 when his career was going along very well, fits quite nicely in this tradition. But as you’d expect, Brown throws a lot of curves into his tale, so you really don’t know what to expect.

Original Dell Edition
In a way, MADBALL is also a caper novel, since the plot revolves around a bank robbery, but unlike most caper novels, the job has already taken place when the book opens. In fact, it occurred weeks earlier, when two guys from a traveling carnival rob a bank in one of the towns on the show’s circuit. They hide the loot somewhere among the various attractions, then promptly get involved in a car wreck that kills one of the thieves and causes the other one to be laid up for six weeks. But as soon as the survivor gets out of the hospital, he heads for the carnival to retrieve the stolen money. Unfortunately for him, he’s murdered almost as soon as he gets there (not a spoiler, this happens very early on), and the rest of the book consists of various parties searching for the loot, as well as the murderer (who is known to the reader almost from the start) trying to cover his tracks.

Gold Medal Reprint Edition
As usual with a Fredric Brown novel, the plot is suitably twisty, but the real appeal is in the fine writing and the compelling characters he creates. Brown was a carny himself at one time, and he knew this world very well, so we get a lot of carnival lore as well a shrewd fortune teller, an insanely jealous knife-thrower and his beautiful wife, assorted women of dubious virtue, a mentally challenged young man and various people who take advantage of him and try to use him for their own benefit, and a murderer who’s maybe not as clever as he thinks he is. Brown generates plenty of suspense as we read on to find out who’s going to get away their crimes and who’s going to wind up with the loot. But of course he has a few twists he waits until the end to spring . . .

Madball is another name for the crystal ball used by the fortune teller, and maybe it actually does predict the future. I can predict that a lot of you would enjoy the novel MADBALL. It’s about to be reprinted by Stark House in its Black Gat line, and I give it a high recommendation.