Monday, November 30, 2020

Death Squad - Alan Hebden

Having grown up reading OUR ARMY AT WAR (with Sgt. Rock), OUR FIGHTING FORCES (with Gunner and Sarge—and Pooch!), and all the other DC war comics, plus SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS over at Marvel, plus being a huge fan of the TV series COMBAT!, I had a hard time warming up to the sub-genre of war fiction that features German protagonists. Oh, I read ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT by Erich Maria Remarque and was impressed by it, but it took the ENEMY ACE series by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert to convince me that good, compelling war stories could be told from the enemy point of view. Still, I haven’t read much in that field. I have novels by Sven Hassel, Charles Whiting (writing as Leo Kessler) and Kenneth Bulmer (writing as Bruno Krauss) that feature German protagonists, but I haven’t gotten around to them yet.

But then along comes DEATH SQUAD, a magnificent collection of a serial written by Alan Hebden, with art by Eric Bradbury, that originally appeared in the British comic book BATTLE ACTION in 1980 and ’81, and just like that, I’m a big fan. This is one of the best war comics I’ve ever read.

The Death Squad is part of a punishment battalion in the German Wehrmacht and consists of five men: Granddad, the crusty old non-com who’s also a veteran of the first World War; con man Gus; knife expert Frankie; Swede, a Scandinavian lumberjack who’s deadly with a throwing axe; and Licker, the only real Nazi in the bunch, stiff-necked and pompous, as you’d expect. They’re grunts, with the exception of Licker, and as such they’re fighting more for each other and to stay alive, rather than for the Fuhrer or the Fatherland. This seems to be a common concept in the sub-genre. The protagonists are either enlisted men or occasionally an aristocratic officer, but none of them are actually Nazis, and none of them get along with the Gestapo or the S.S. This allows the reader to sympathize with them, at least to a certain extent.

It’s impossible not to sympathize with the Death Squad, as they get thrown into mission after mission where the odds of their survival are almost nil. They’re fighting on the Eastern Front against Russia (which admittedly helps in making the reader root for them) and have to deal with the terrible extremes of a Russian winter, to boot. They infiltrate Moscow to destroy a tank factory, get stranded on a snowed-in troop train under attack by Russian partisans, are tortured by sadistic prison commandants, encounter a beautiful female Russian freedom fighter, and engage in a deadly game of masquerade and deception. Even when they’re transferred back to France, to what seems like an easy job guarding a U-Boat post, they immediately run into trouble from British commandos raiding the place.

Hebden’s script is great, especially in the extended Russian front sequence where he throws in plot twist after plot twist and makes them all work. Characterization is, of necessity, rather limited except for the Death Squad, but each of them comes alive vividly. The tough but likable old-timer Granddad is my favorite, but they’re all portrayed very well. The art by Eric Bradbury is also top-notch, filled with action and details, capturing both the carnage and the poignant moments of war. If you’re a fan of war comics, or war fiction in general, I give DEATH SQUAD a very high recommendation. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Blue Book, April 1942

By the spring of 1942, most of Herbert Morton Stoops' covers on BLUE BOOK were war-themed, not surprisingly, and so was a lot of the content. This issue has a great line-up of authors including H. Bedford-Jones, Richard Sale, Georges Surdez, Frederick Painton, Richard Howells Watkins, Jacland Marmur, a Tiny David story by Robert R. Mill, and a Free Lances of Diplomacy story by Clarence Herbert New. BLUE BOOK really packed in the great reading. 

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Real Western, December 1954

I've always sort of felt that a magazine called REAL WESTERN should have been non-fiction, like TRUE WEST or FRONTIER TIMES. But no, although it published a few articles and features like most Western pulps, REAL WESTERN was almost entirely fictional. And despite coming from bottom-rung publisher Columbia, it had some good covers, like this one, and plenty of good authors in its pages. For example, in this issue, Gordon D. Shirreffs, Lauren Paine, Lon Williams (with one of his supernatural-themed Deputy Lee Winters yarns), Zachary Strong (probably E.B. Mann), and house-name Mat Rand.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Forgotten Books: The Eagles #5: Sea of Swords - Andrew Quiller (Kenneth Bulmer)


The series that was published as THE GLADIATOR in the United States (by Pinnacle) and as THE EAGLES in the United Kingdom (by Mayflower Granada) comes to end with this fifth volume, SEA OF SWORDS, which was never reprinted in the U.S. As a result, copies can be a little scarce and pricey, but I came across an affordable copy on-line and had it on hand before I started reading the series. Three authors alternated on these historical adventure novels: Laurence James, Kenneth Bulmer, and Angus Wells. When the fifth one rolled around, it was Bulmer’s turn in the rotation, after he previously wrote #2.

The protagonist of this series is Marcus Britannicus, a half-Roman, half-British nobleman and soldier who also fights in the arena as a gladiator, and when he’s not doing that, carries out secret missions for the emperor. Each book opens with Marcus battling in the arena and then flashes back to the main story, which is some exploit he had in the past. In the case of SEA OF SWORDS, the mission on which he’s sent takes him to the Carpathian Mountains (yes, those Carpathian Mountains . . . the ones in, you know, Transylvania) to rescue a beautiful princess from a crazed warlord who likes to . . . wait for it . . . impale his enemies. I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler, but honestly, after a long set-up that has very little to do with the rest of the book, it’s blatantly obvious what Bulmer is going for here. The question is, how well does he carry it out?

I’d say the results are mixed. In most of his work, Bulmer does a couple of things that bother me. He overloads his plots with so many characters that it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. He also throws in so much technical jargon and minutiae about whatever he’s writing about, whether it’s the Roman military, sailing, or what have you, that the reader constantly has to stop and try to figure out things from context. I don’t like info-dumps any more than the average reader, but at times Bulmer’s prose is so obscure it’s almost like a foreign language.

However, at the same time, he’s very good at depicting his protagonists, his action scenes are great most of the time, and he comes up with some interesting plots. His books generally move along pretty well, and that’s the case with SEA OF SWORDS. Despite being a pretty brutal guy sometimes (he lives in a brutal world, after all), Marcus is a likable protagonist with his own code of honor. It’s always a pleasure watching him triumph over the bad guys.

On the other hand, the main story in this book is a little jumpy at times, skipping stuff that probably could have done to greater effect if so many pages hadn’t been spent on the framing sequence. But the biggest problem in SEA OF SWORDS is that Marcus’s vengeance quest, which formed the spine of the series in the previous four books, was wrapped up satisfactorily in #4, Laurence James’s BLOOD ON THE SAND. As a result, SEA OF SWORDS comes across as sort of an afterthought, as if somebody said, “Hey, we’ve got one more book in the contract. What do we do now?” Occasionally, it reads like Bulmer is trying to set up some other storyline that could continue, but nothing comes of it. Indeed, the whole thing comes to a rather bittersweet conclusion with this paragraph:

“Names rang in his head, names from the past, names for the future. Yes, there remained much to be done, many battles to be fought by the Fox in this grandiose world-shaking Empire of Rome.”

Nope, no more battles for Marcus Brittanicus, also known by his gladiator name Vulpus the Fox. Which is really kind of sad, because despite my reservations about this fifth book, I enjoyed the series overall and consider it well worth reading. It’s bloody and crude and lurid but also fast-paced and exciting. Completists will want to read this fifth volume, too, but just the four volumes reprinted by Pinnacle will suffice for most readers, I think. I have all the entries in another British historical adventure series called WOLFSHEAD that was also written by Laurence James and Kenneth Bulmer, and I hope to start reading those soon.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A Hack's Notebook - Ben Haas


I don’t recall the first book by Ben Haas that I read. I remember seeing Fargo and Sundance paperbacks, which he wrote under the pseudonym John Benteen, when I was in college, and I’m pretty sure I owned a copy of the movie novelization ROUGH NIGHT IN JERICHO, which he wrote under the pseudonym Richard Meade, even earlier than that, but I don’t think I ever read it. So it was probably sometime in the Eighties before I read anything by him. I know I started reading the Fargo novels then. The first one I picked up may have been VALLEY OF SKULLS, which is widely acclaimed as one of the best in the series. I know I loved it. I’ve read a bunch of novels by Ben Haas since then and enjoyed every one of them. I haven’t read them all yet, but that’s okay. That gives me something to shoot for.

Which is my long-winded way of saying that when I became aware Haas’s unfinished autobiography A HACK’S NOTEBOOK was published earlier this year, I had to grab a copy and read it right away.

I’ve been acquainted with Haas’s oldest son, the acclaimed sculptor Joel Haas, through the Internet for a number of years now. He’s provided me with some material regarding his dad’s work that I’ve published here on the blog. Joel edited A HACK’S NOTEBOOK, and the fine people at Piccadilly Publishing (who publish excellent e-book versions of many Ben Haas novels) brought it out in a very nice trade paperback edition. Ben Haas’s autobiographical manuscript comprises a little more than half the book and covers his childhood and adult life, providing a lot of details about his writing and his struggle to break in as a professional author, up to the point in the early 1960s when he’s finally starting to see some real success as a writer. It’s an intriguing, very readable mix of the personal and the professional. That’s a balance that a lot of author biographies and autobiographies fail to pull off, but not surprisingly, Haas—who could always juggle plot, character, and action beautifully in his novels—does a great job of it here, too.

Unfortunately, the manuscript ends at that point, so we don’t get to read what Haas has to say about his years of greatest success. But we do get fine reminiscinces by Joel Haas and by Ben Haas’s lifelong friend and occasional collaborator Jim Henderson, plus a selection of family photos and a complete bibliography of Ben Haas’s books. This is a really excellent volume and certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year. If you’re a fan of Ben Haas’s work or great action novels or 20th Century genre fiction, or would just like a compelling look into the mind of a top-notch professional writer, A HACK’S NOTEBOOK gets a very high recommendation from me.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Overlooked Movies: Them! (1954)


After watching BIG ASS SPIDER! a while back, I was in the mood for another giant bug movie, so when Svengoolie showed one of the granddaddies of the genre, THEM!, I recorded it and we got around to watching it this week. I’d seen this before, but the last time was more than 50 years ago, so I think it counts as overlooked.

All the staples of Fifties sci-fi horror are there: the guy who first encounters the menace and gets drawn into the effort to defeat it (a New Mexico highway patrolman played by James Whitmore); the stalwart forces of the government (FBI agent James Arness) and military (officers Onslow Stevens and Sean McClory); a brilliant but eccentric scientist (Edmund Gwenn) and his beautiful daughter (Joan Weldon), who is also a brilliant scientist. After a truly creepy opening featuring Whitmore and his partner finding a little girl wandering through the desert in a catatonic state, more grim discoveries are made as it becomes apparent that something is killing the inhabitants of this sparsely populated area. The giant ants (mutated by nuclear tests at White Sands, natch) soon show up and go on a rampage, and our heroes gather to do battle against them, a war that ultimately winds up in the sewers underneath Los Angeles.

But all of you know that because you’ve seen this movie, too. But maybe a few of you haven’t. When we watched it, Livia commented that she didn’t remember ever seeing it before. I remembered the basics of the plot, but that’s all.

What I didn’t recall is what a really well-made movie THEM! is. Director Gordon Douglas, who made some pretty good Westerns, too, keeps things moving along very nicely, the photography is excellent, and the special effects are pretty good for the era. But the cast really carries this movie. James Whitmore isn’t who you think of when you talk about action heroes, but he does a fine job as an average joe caught up in something big and terrible. Edmund Gwenn is good in anything (although, yes, it is hard not to think about MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET when he’s talking). James Arness wasn’t a great actor at this point of his career, but he already has a really commanding screen presence. And there are a few moments, when his character loses his temper, that pure Matt Dillon comes through. Fess Parker, Davy and Dan’l his own self, is great in a short scene as a Texas rancher who encounters the giant ants and is locked away in the loony bin when he tells his story. (Yes, I know “loony bin” is politically incorrect, but it wasn’t in 1954.) Elsewhere in the cast are Leonard Nimoy (don’t blink, or you will miss him), Western stalwart Dub “Cannonball” Taylor, and former major league infielder John Beradino, a fine character actor who appeared in countless Western and detective TV series in the Fifties before settling down to a long run as Dr. Steve Hardy on the soap opera GENERAL HOSPITAL. He was actually the leading man/protagonist of GH in its early years.

We also get the usual Fifties sci-fi lectures and veiled warnings about the unknown dangers of nuclear weapons, all of them delivered by Gwenn in distinguished but ominous tones. So THEM! checks the right boxes and pushes the right buttons for its genre, but it does that so well that I found it a pure pleasure to watch. I really enjoyed it, and if you haven’t seen it lately, or at all, I think it’s well worth the time.

Besides, in what other movie will you ever see Matt Dillon shake hands with Santa Claus?

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Summer House - James Patterson and Brendan DuBois

I haven’t read a James Patterson book in a while, but I picked up THE SUMMER HOUSE because the co-author (who probably did most of the actual writing) is Brendan DuBois, who I know to be a good writer. And not surprisingly, THE SUMMER HOUSE turns out to be a pretty darned good thriller.

It opens with the brutal mass murder of seven people in an old vacation house in Georgia (the summer house of the title), and soon after, four Army Rangers from the nearby military base are arrested for the crimes. Army CID sends in a team of investigators to look into the case, even though it seems pretty open-and-shut. Guess what? It’s not. All sorts of sinister things are going on, and pretty soon our Army detectives are up to their necks in mysteries and danger.

Three of the investigators consider themselves cops more than soldiers: the leader, a former NYPD detective who was seriously wounded while serving in Afghanistan; an ambitious former detective from Los Angeles; and a female former highway patrol officer from Maryland. The other two members of the team are a lawyer and a psychologist, who aren’t really cut out for action but find themselves forced into such situations anyway. For most of the book, they all seem pretty overmatched against the vast, shadowy, sinister forces arrayed against them.

Patterson and DuBois do a couple of things I really don’t like. The book is written in present tense, and it switches back and forth between first and third person. There’s only one first person POV, though, which at least helps a little. Those things can be overcome, though, if the story and characters are good enough, and they are in THE SUMMER HOUSE. The authors keep things moving along at such a nice pace that I had no trouble sticking with the book, even though it’s a little longer than the novels I usually read. (It’s not a real behemoth. Maybe 100K words.) By the last fourth of the book, I was really flipping the digital pages to find out what was going to happen, and that’s one of the best things I can say about any novel.

Patterson and DuBois have done a couple of other books together, and I enjoyed this one enough that I think there’s a good chance I’ll go back and read them, too. I’m not a big fan of contemporary thrillers, but I liked THE SUMMER HOUSE and think it’s well worth reading.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Detective Tales, June 1944

You know me. Any cover with a sexy redhead on it is going to catch my interest. But in addition, this issue of DETECTIVE TALES features stories by Ray Bradbury, Frederick C. Davis, and Fredric Brown. That's a pretty potent trio of authors! Also on hand are Donald G. Carmack, Francis K. Allan, and a few lesser-known authors. The cover would have made me pick this one up. Bradbury, Davis, and Brown would have made me plunk down my dime.

UPDATE: The cover art is by Gloria Stoll.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story Magazine, May 6, 1933

A nice cover by H.L. Parkhurst on this issue of the venerable WESTERN STORY. Inside are stories by Robert J. Horton (Walt Coburn's mentor and an author I have to get around to reading one of these days), Austin Hall, and Hugh Grinstead, plus a serial installment by Frederick Faust writing as John Frederick. Looks to be a pretty typical issue of WESTERN STORY from this era, which means it's probably pretty good.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Forgotten Books: The Two-Gun Man - Charles Alden Seltzer

Charles Alden Seltzer was in the top rank of the first wave of popular Western novelists in the early Twentieth Century. He wasn’t as influential as Owen Wister or as popular as Zane Grey, but he held his own against such authors as Clarence E. Mulford and William MacLeod Raine, although those two are probably better known today. A few years ago, I read one of Seltzer’s Northerns and liked it fairly well, but he was much more renowned for his Westerns and I figured it was time I gave one of them a try.

THE TWO-GUN MAN was published in hardcover by A.L. Burt in 1911 and reprinted in paperback by Belmont under the title FERGUSON'S TRAIL, as well as (probably) abridged versions appearing in the March 1936 issue of WESTERN ACTION NOVELS and the November 1950 issue of THRILLING WESTERN. It’s the story of a range detective named Ferguson (I don’t think we’re ever told his first name) who is hired to find the rustlers who have been plaguing the Two Diamond Ranch. It’s implied that the boss of the Two Diamond expects Ferguson to kill said rustlers, but he’d rather bring them to justice and won’t kill them unless he’s forced to. That determination is reinforced when he discovers that the small rancher suspected of being responsible for the rustling has a beautiful sister staying with him while she tries to write a novel about the West.

As you’d expect, Ferguson falls for the sister, and THE TWO-GUN MAN, like a lot of other early Westerns, turns out to be more of a romance novel than a shoot-em-up. The plot is very simple, the real bad guy might as well be wearing a big sign on his back, and there’s only one gunfight, which comes at the end of the book, and one ambush earlier on. Only one punch thrown, that I recall.

However, don’t think that means THE TWO-GUN MAN is without any appeal. It’s well-written overall, and Seltzer does a good job of capturing the setting vividly without resorting to the sometimes over-flowery prose of Zane Grey. The characters are interesting, and the fact that the heroine is writing a novel based on the events in the book gives it a sort of meta-fiction feeling, although it was written long, long before anybody came up with the concept of meta-fiction. Yes, it’s pretty mild, but most of the Westerns from that era were, with the notable exception of Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy books. I really need to reread some of those and see how they hold up. But to get back to Seltzer, I enjoyed this book enough that I plan to read more by him, although I probably won’t get in a hurry to do so. He’s one of the founding fathers of the Western as we know it, and THE TWO-GUN MAN is available in various public domain e-book editions, as are many of his other books.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Classic Adventure/Horror Pulp Stories: Spotted Satan - Otis Adelbert Kline and E. Hoffmann Price


I’ve read and enjoyed plenty of stories by E. Hoffmann Price, but I’ve never read that much by Otis Adelbert Kline. I know I read one sword-and-planet novel by him many, many years ago and recall liking it. However, that’s all I remember about it. I don’t know who wrote what in this collaboration between the two of them, which originally appeared in the January 1940 issue of WEIRD TALES with a fine Virgil Finlay cover. I can tell you, however, that “Spotted Satan” is a highly entertaining novella.

The protagonist is a rugged American hunter named Harrison Steele (a stalwart pulp hero name if there ever was one!), who is hired to kill a leopard that’s terrorizing a teak camp in Burma. When Steele travels there with his trusty Afghan sidekick, he discovers that all the natives believe the leopard is really a supernatural creature that has been sent to punish them for cutting a road through sacred territory. The American manager of the camp isn’t much help and is prone to mysterious disappearances.

Well, you can probably see where this plot is going just as well as I can, but Kline and Price manage to pull off a fairly nice twist at the end. They also provide a suitable amount of action and plenty of local color, along with some good characters and a touch of humor now and then. Achmet, Steele’s Afghan friend, is both comedy relief and plenty tough and competent when circumstances warrant, as the best sidekicks are.

Despite the weird elements, “Spotted Satan” is really more of a good, solid pulp adventure yarn. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I read it in the original pulp, but it’s also available in THE E. HOFFMANN PRICE FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION MEGAPACK published by Wildside Press.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Movies I've Missed (Until Now): The Ghost Breakers (1940)

Somehow I never saw this movie on TV when I was growing up, and neither did Livia. So THE GHOST BREAKERS, the second pairing of Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard after THE CAT AND THE CANARY (which I also liked) was new to us and thoroughly enjoyable.

This movie packs a lot of plot into 82 minutes. Goddard inherits an island off the coast of Cuba, complete with an old castle haunted by ghosts and zombies. Hope is a radio gossip columnist who runs afoul of some gangsters over a story he broadcasts. Circumstances bring them together, Hope thinks he accidentally shot and killed a guy, and so to escape from the law and the mob, he hides in Goddard’s steamer trunk and winds up sailing to Cuba with her, where together they solve the mystery of what’s really going on in the spooky old castle.

THE GHOST BREAKERS is a really entertaining movie. It’s not fall-on-the-floor hilarious, but it’s consistently funny, the creepy stuff is effectively creepy, and it has a great cast, including Paul Lukas, Anthony Quinn, Paul Fix, Noble Johnson as a truly scary zombie, and in very small roles, Robert Ryan and Douglas Kennedy (literally, those last two, blink and you’ll miss ‘em). Hope is great as always, cowardly most of the time but hardboiled when he needs to be. Goddard is cute and sexy and smart and spends a surprising amount of screen time in her underwear.

But as I said to Livia while we were watching it, “I didn’t think it was possible to steal a movie from Bob Hope, but Willie Best is certainly trying.” Best plays Alex, Hope’s servant/sidekick/best friend, and is a magnificent character. A lot of the reviews on IMDB complain about “offensive racial stereotyping”, but as far as I’m concerned, they watched a different movie than I did. Despite his frequent complaints about being scared, Best’s Alex is just about the smartest, bravest character in the movie and saves the day time and again. Admittedly, some of those instances are accidents, but not all of them. And it’s clear that his character and Hope’s truly care about each other. I thought the two of them worked together beautifully, like Cosby and Culp on I SPY, and wish they had made more movies about these characters. As it is, I’m very glad I finally watched THE GHOST BREAKERS. I had a great time and highly recommend it if you’ve missed it somehow, too.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Commando: The Flying Emu - Brent Towns

Estranged twins Teddy and Ernie Sharp followed their own paths in the Great War. Teddy took to the skies while Ernie trained hard with the Australian Imperial Force, determined to make his mark. Then, a chance meeting on the Western Front and Teddy's untimely death changed Ernie's life forever, as he abandoned the AIF and took on his brother's wings in the Australian Flying Corps. But his natural talent in the air would only take him so far under the sinister gaze of the German Imperial Black Hawks!

It's always a good day when there's a new COMMANDO yarn by Brent Towns to read. This is a World War I aviation story, for the most part, and that's one of my favorite subgenres of war fiction. As always, Towns spins his tale with plenty of heart and action, and I had a fine time reading it.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Mystery Tales, June 1938

MYSTERY TALES is one of the lesser-known Weird Menace pulps, although you certainly couldn't tell that by the talent associated with this issue. The lurid cover is by the great Norman Saunders, and inside are stories by some top pulpsters, including Henry Kuttner, Wyatt Blassingame, John H. Knox, Walter Ripperger, Cyril Plunkett, and Hal K. Wells.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Lariat Story Magazine, January 1946

This issue of LARIAT STORY MAGAZINE came up in the comments on last Sunday's pulp post, as did the one I'll be posting tomorrow. This cover is by Fiction House stalwart Allen Anderson, although I don't think it's a typical Anderson cover. Still a pretty good one, though. Inside are stories by William Hopson, Giles A. Lutz, Lee E. Wells, Curtis Bishop, R.S. Lerch, and lesser-known authors John C. Ropke, Harold R. Stoakes, and Walter Galli.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Forgotten Books: Hit the Dirt: Six of the Best Comic Book Adventures from Battle Picture Library - Steve Holland, ed.

BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY was a British comic book series featuring World War II stories of approximately 60 pages in each issue, much like COMMANDO, which is still being published today. BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY debuted in 1961 and ran until 1985, but it was most popular in the Sixties and Seventies. There are a number of anthologies of stories collected from its pages, and I’ve rounded up several of them. These volumes were edited by my friend Steve Holland, and he’s done a fine job of putting them together. The first one I’ve read is HIT THE DIRT, which concentrates on the war on the ground. These reprints don’t include writer and artist information, so I can’t tell you who wrote and drew these stories, but I can tell that they’re good.

The first one, “Top Secret”, is from BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY #160. It’s about a team of British and Canadian commandos infiltrating a castle in Germany where some sinister scientific research is going on that could change the course of the war. The team has the usual sorts of conflicts and back-stories among its members, but that traditional plot is executed very well and the script holds a surprise or two along the way. This is an excellent tale to begin the book.

“Diggers Defiant”, from BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY #128, starts out as a P.O.W. story as a group of Australians escapes from a Japanese prison camp where they’re being used as slave labor to build an airstrip. That seems like enough for a complete story right there, but this yarn follows several of the men as they return to the war. It’s an interesting tale as it considers the effects that their brutal experience has had on them and how it influences them as they continue to battle the Japanese.

Originally published in BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY #119, “Fire—and Destroy!” intertwines the stories of a soldier disgraced in battle because of a mistake that resulted in the deaths of sixty British soldiers, and the war correspondent who’s trying to get to the truth of the matter. This is an excellent story with lots of emotional depth to go with the plentiful action and some top-notch art, to boot.

“Honours Even”, from BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY #133, follows a British soldier from Dunkirk to the fighting in the aftermath of D-Day and the odd circumstances that keep allowing him to win medals and honors that maybe he doesn’t deserve. The unknown author of this one does an excellent job of characterization, ultimately leaving it up to the reader to decide what their opinion is of the protagonist.

“The Scorpion’s Sting”, from BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY #129, is about a tough British sergeant who run any risk to protect his men, even when that courage borders on recklessness with his own life. The reason for that is a secret the sergeant carries, and it’s a very nice twist, followed by another twist very late in the story. I saw that one coming, but it’s still effective, making this an unusual but very good yarn.

This collection wraps up with “Blood Feud”, from BATTLE PICTURE LIBRARY #123. This story is set in Burma and centers around the clash between two officers, one of whom believes the other is to blame for a Japanese trap that cost the lives of almost an entire company. When they have to work together on a mission to protect a vital bridge deep in the jungle, fireworks are inevitable, and not just between British paratroopers and Japanese soldiers. This yarn has the same sort of moral grayness that runs through many of these stories, but it also has the best art I’ve seen so far in any of these British war comics. I have no idea who the artist is, but he did an excellent job.

Overall, HIT THE DIRT is a really good collection. All the stories are good, and there’s a nice variety in settings and plots. I don’t know how many such volumes there are, but I’m going to be looking for more of them.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Classic Private Eye Novels: This Girl For Hire - G.G. Fickling (Gloria and Forrest E. "Skip" Fickling)

Many, many years ago, when it was new, I watched and enjoyed some of the episodes of the TV series HONEY WEST. Even as a young lad, I appreciated how beautiful Anne Francis was. It wasn't regular viewing for us, however, because it was on opposite GOMER PYLE, U.S.M.C., and my mother really enjoyed ol' Gomer's antics. (To be completely honest, I like Gomer, too.) These days, I own the entire HONEY WEST series on DVD but have never gotten around to watching it. Soon, maybe.

Also over the years I've owned copies of some of the novels in the series that was the source material for the TV show. I may have read one back in the Seventies. I don't recall for sure about that. But recently, I read the very first one, THIS GIRL FOR HIRE, published by Pyramid Books in 1957.

Honey West is the daughter of Los Angeles private eye Hank West. She took over his agency when he was murdered, a crime that remains unsolved as this book opens. However, THIS GIRL FOR HIRE isn't the story of Honey tracking down her dad's killer, as you might expect. Instead, in a very Spillane-like opening, Honey and her cop friend, Lt. Mark Storm, are looking at the body of a murdered actor Honey was fond of. A short time later, Honey is hired by a TV executive who believes the star of the show he produces is trying to kill him. As Honey investigates, she discovers that almost everybody connected with the show has a motive to murder one or more of the other people involved. And that's what happens when they all go on location to shoot some scenes on the island of Catalina. Bodies start dropping all over the place. And wouldn't you know it, there may even be a connection to that murdered actor from the first scene of the book.

Okay, calling this a classic private eye novel may be stretching it a mite. The plot is so overly complicated that it's just too busy and frantic, rather than complex. The big twist ending is entirely predictable. The characterization is really shallow. And despite the claim on the cover, there's very little sex and it's extremely tame. Honey loses some clothes a couple of times. That's about it.

And yet, despite all that, I enjoyed THIS GIRL FOR HIRE. Most of that appeal is probably nostalgic. This is the kind of stuff I would have eaten up back in the Sixties, when I was tearing through any book I could find with a private eye in it. The pace is fast, there are some funny lines here and there, and it's just sexy enough that teenage me would have found it intriguing. It's a Front Porch Book, for sure. I don't know if that's enough to prompt me to read more of the series, but I sure might. This one is available in an e-book edition, as are most of the other Honey West novels. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Overlooked Movies: Bottom of the 9th (2019)

I don’t think BOTTOM OF THE 9th is based on a true story, but other than that, it fits neatly into the inspirational sports movie category. Twenty years ago, hotshot baseball phenom Sonny Stano makes a tragic mistake, gets sent to Sing Sing Prison, and has to forget his dream of becoming a New York Yankee. When he finally gets out, he returns to his old neighborhood, struggles to get a job and fit in, deals with old enemies, tries to rekindle a relationship with his former girlfriend, and then gets what seems like a lucky break when he runs into his old minor league coach and winds up with an assistant coaching job on the local farm team. But Sonny can still hit, and the dream of making it to the bigs isn’t completely dead . . .

Most of these movies are pretty predictable, and BOTTOM OF THE 9th is no exception. I knew pretty much everything that was going to happen in it, and chances are, you will, too, if you watch it. The appeal is in the cast, the writing, and how well the whole thing is executed. In those respects, I thought this was an entertaining movie. Joe Manganiello, who I’ve always found to be a likable actor, turns in a good, believable performance as Sonny. Sofia Vergara, who’s married to him in real life, is okay as the former girlfriend, but the script really doesn’t give her a lot to do. The supporting cast is solid, there are a few funny lines here and there to break up the slow-burn drama, and basically, I’m a sucker for baseball movies and have been ever since I saw THE BABE RUTH STORY when I was a kid. This doesn’t go in the top rank of baseball movies, but I liked it and thought it was a decent way to spend a couple of hours.

Monday, November 09, 2020

The Annotated Guide to Robert E. Howard's Weird Fantasy - Fred Blosser

I'll read anything Fred Blosser wants to write about Robert E. Howard and his work. Since I started reading Blosser's articles and essays in THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN more than forty years ago, I think it's safe to say I've been reading him longer than any of the other REH scholars, and I always enjoy what he has to say.

His latest book is THE ANNOTATED GUIDE TO ROBERT E. HOWARD'S WEIRD FANTASY. Blosser breaks down Howard's fantasy stories into several different categories, including Cthulhu Mythos, The Little People, Gaelic Fear, Ghosts, Science Fiction, Texas Terrors, Swampland Shadows, Skull-Face, De Montour, Jungle Horrors, Faring Town, Psychic Investigators, and Shudder Stories. For each story, he discusses the plot, fills in the background of how Howard came to write it, and places it in the context of Howard's other work. As Blosser mentions in his introduction, this volume is aimed more at newer Howard readers, but even though I've been reading Howard for more than fifty years and have read some of these stories multiple times, I still always get something from Blosser's insights into them.

I'll admit, my favorite sections are the ones on Texas Terrors, since I've always loved Howard's Weird Westerns, and his Weird Menace yarns, since that's one of my favorite genres in recent years. But all the areas of discussion are interesting, informative, and entertaining. Blosser does include the endings of the stories in his plot summaries, so those who haven't yet read the stories themselves might be wise to steer clear of those. But for those who have, THE ANNOTATED GUIDE TO ROBERT E. HOWARD'S WEIRD FANTASY gets my highest recommendation. You'll probably learn a few things, and I guarantee you'll have a good time.

Sunday, November 08, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Spicy Mystery Stories, April 1942

The usual good cover by H.J. Ward on this issue of SPICY MYSTERY STORIES, the Spicy line's sort-of-Weird-Menace pulp. Inside are stories by the usual group of authors under the usual mix of pseudonyms and house-names: Robert Leslie Bellem (at least twice), Hugh B. Cave (as Justin Case), Laurence Donovan, Edwin Truett Long, Colby Quinn, and more. I really like the Spicy pulps, as most of you know. I find them consistently entertaining, although formulaic enough that I have to space them out some.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: .44 Western Magazine, October 1946

Something of a rarity on this issue of .44 WESTERN, a cover by Sam Cherry on a pulp not published by the Thrilling Group. But as usual with a Western pulp published by Popular Publications, there are some great authors and titles. For example, "A Hundred Wagons, Rolling to Hell!" by Tom Roan and "Gun-Brothers of the Brimstone Border" by Ed Earl Repp. You don't get more Popular Publications Western pulp than that. Other authors on hand are Joseph Chadwick, Lee E. Wells, M. Howard Lane, and Harry Van Demark, as himself and as Jared Kingsley.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Forgotten Books: Branded - A.C. Abbott (Helen Meinzer)

Rock Kendall rides into Arizona with a murder charge from Texas hanging over his head. Even worse, he’s accused of killing a woman, just about the most heinous crime anybody can commit on the frontier. Rock was framed, though, and he’s on the trail of the actual murderer, his former partner in a ranch that the varmint wound up stealing from him, as well as making him a fugitive from the law. That former partner has changed his name, started another ranch in Arizona, and is a rich, powerful cattleman well on his way to being governor someday. But Rock is determined to destroy those plans and clear his own name in the process.

Unfortunately, Rock runs into another rancher, this one a beautiful young woman with a rustler problem, and he gets caught up in an effort to help her, which may put his own vengeance plans in jeopardy. Another beautiful young woman, this one from a clan of outlaws, complicates things for Rock even more. And when his true identity is revealed, he has the law and every honest man in the territory after him, bound on either jailing or lynching him. In other words, every hand is against him, and the odds of him coming out of this alive, let alone accomplishing the goals that brought him to Arizona, are very slim indeed.

BRANDED, published in hardback by the World Publishing Company in 1953 and reprinted in paperback by Signet in 1954 (the edition I read; my copy in the scan) is the second and final novel by A.C. Abbott, an author who contributed about 70 stories to various Western pulps in the late Forties and Fifties. Earlier this year, I read and really enjoyed the first A.C. Abbott novel, WILD BLOOD, and curiosity about the author led me to discover she was really Helen Abbott Meinzer, one of the few women to write hardboiled Westerns during that era.

And BRANDED, like WILD BLOOD, is really hardboiled. Rock Kendall gets shot, stabbed, punched, kicked, and knocked out more than once in the course of this book, but he absorbs all that punishment and keeps coming back stubbornly for more as he tries to clear his name and avenge himself on the man who betrayed him. Meinzer has a fine touch with her characters, too, and the romantic relationships, even though they don’t take up a lot of space in the book, ring true, which is no surprise since she wrote a lot for the Western romance pulps with her steadiest market being RANCH ROMANCES. In the two novels I’ve read, the plots are pretty traditional, but there are a few nice twists along the way.

Meinzer died in 1963, at a fairly young age, her mid-forties. I don’t know anything about her personal life, but I do wish we had gotten more novels from her. She was an excellent writer, and WILD BLOOD and BRANDED are a limited but fine legacy. If you’re a Western fan and ever run across either of these novels, I give them a high recommendation.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Classic Westerns: Tracker #1 The Winning Hand - Robert J. Randisi

I've read at least some entries in just about every Western series Bob Randisi has written over the past forty years--and there have been a lot of them. But I realized I never read any of his Tracker novels, a seven-book series that he wrote for Avon in the Eighties under the pseudonym Tom Cutter. Since these are available now in e-book editions under Randisi's name, I picked up the first one, THE WINNING HAND, read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tracker (we never find out any other name for him) is a man with several other mysteries about him, such as his background and profession. As this book, and the series, opens, he wins a San Francisco hotel in a poker game and sets out with his con-man friend Duke to find out what he's won. Tracker himself lies low and lets Duke pretend to be the hotel's new owner, since Tracker hasn't decided whether or not he wants to be in the hotel business.

One factor that may influence his decision is that if he stays, he'll have a partner: the beautiful blond daughter of one of the former owners. As if that's not enough of a complication, Tracker also runs afoul of one of the local big shots and gets involved in a boxing match where one of the combatants is the big shot's son--and he'll stop at nothing to win, including murder.

Randisi spins this yarn in his usual fast-paced, dialogue-heavy style, and it's a whole lot of fun. There's plenty of action, Tracker is a likable protagonist, and by the time the book is over, things have been set up for an excellent series. It's hard for me to believe that this book came out 37 years ago. That really makes me feel old. But at the same time, it's an early gem in Randisi's legendary career, and I'm glad I finally got around to this series. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Overlooked Movies: Beyond the Mask (2015)

I’d never heard of this movie until someone mentioned it in an email group I belong to that’s devoted to Zorro and the work of pulpster Johnston McCulley, but it sounded promising so I decided to check it out. BEYOND THE MASK is set in England and America in 1775-76. The protagonist is a former mercenary/assassin for the East India Company who wants to leave the violence and darkness of his life behind and start over as a peaceful man. His former bosses don’t want that, however—he knows too much, and he’ll make a good fall guy for them—so they try to have him killed. Some twists of fate wind up with him taking on the identity of a vicar and falling in love with a beautiful young woman. But more plot twists ruin what might have been an idyllic existence for him, and before you know it, he’s off to the rebellious colonies in America, where he becomes a masked vigilante known as the Highwayman, battling plots by his old enemies who are trying to put a stop to the American Revolution before it barely gets underway. From that point, things get pretty wild and over-the-top.

BEYOND THE MASK is part Dr. Syn, part Zorro, and a lot The Wild, Wild West, a steampunkish version of the early days of the Revolutionary War. You won’t have heard of any of the actors in it except John Rhys-Davies, who has a good time chewing the scenery as the head bad guy. But the cast does pretty good for the most part, there’s a lot of well-staged swashbuckling action, and the production values are top-notch most of the time. The movie looks good. Despite some notes at the end trying to justify the goofy plot, there’s not much semblance of historical accuracy, but if you go into it knowing that and take the movie for what it is, I think it’s entertaining.

This was produced for the inspirational market, but the religious elements are pretty rare and not heavy-handed. There’s no sex or cussing or excessive gore, but you don’t find those things in movies from the Thirties and Forties or TV from the Sixties, and that’s what BEYOND THE MASK reminds me of. Judging by the reviews on IMDB, this is a love it or hate it movie, but I didn’t react either of those ways. It’s not a great film, but I had a good time watching it.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Classic Crime Novels: Cut Me In - Jack Karney

Black Gat Books has reprinted several excellent novels involving cops and organized crime, such as Louis Malley’s STOOL PIGEON and Ferguson Findley’s MY OLD MAN’S BADGE. Originally published as a paperback original by Pyramid Books in 1959, CUT ME IN by Jack Karney is a worthy addition to that group. The protagonist is Coley Walsh, a rookie policeman in New York City who has a couple of tragedies in his past haunting him. Coley also has ambition, and he quickly rises in the ranks to become a plainclothes detective working directly for the captain of his precinct. The thing is, Coley’s job is to collect all the graft that the corrupt captain is raking in, and he takes to this assignment right away. His ambition and ruthlessness help him seize other opportunities, and soon he’s taking on the Syndicate, not out of any altruistic motives but because he wants to start a criminal organization of his own.

Ah, but you know as well as I do that such plans never quite work out in noir novels. When Coley falls for a beautiful model who works for a company the Syndicate wants to take over, it complicates things for him. He gives up his battle against the Syndicate and joins them instead, not only to try to protect the girl but to further his own crooked goals as well. It’s only a matter of time, though, before everything goes to hell for Coley Walsh.

Jack Karney, who lived his entire life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, worked for the District Attorney’s office in New York City, so he brings an undeniable authenticity to this sordid tale. CUT ME IN is a little slow to develop its plot in the first half of the book, but once things start rolling, Karney proves to be a fine storyteller and the final scenes generate a lot of genuine, page-turning suspense. For most of the novel, Coley Walsh isn’t a very likable protagonist, but the reader winds up rooting for him anyway. I enjoyed CUT ME IN quite a bit. It’s another entry from Black Gat Books that’s well worth reading.

Sunday, November 01, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Detective, January 1934

There are skeletons on this THRILLING DETECTIVE cover by Rafael DeSoto. That's appropriate enough for the day after Halloween, right? Inside are some top-notch authors, including Norman A. Daniels, Johnston McCulley, Arthur J. Burks, Lawrence A. Keating, Thrilling Group house-name C.K.M. Scanlon (if I had to guess, really Keating or Daniels), and little-known authors Barry Brandon and Walter A. Sinclair.