Friday, April 30, 2021

Forgotten Books: John Solomon, Supercargo - H. Bedford-Jones

A while back I read THE GATE OF FAREWELL, the first novel to feature H. Bedford-Jones’ longest-running series character, the inoffensive-looking little Cockney ship’s chandler John Solomon, who is really much more than he appears to be. Now I’ve read JOHN SOLOMON, SUPERCARGO, the second novel in the series, and it’s another fine, early high adventure yarn from one of my favorite authors.

Originally published as a complete novel in the July 1914 issue of the iconic pulp ARGOSY, JOHN SOLOMON, SUPERCARGO once again features the title character in more of a supporting role. The actual protagonist is a two-fisted, down-on-his-luck American known as Cyrus Hammer. When he was still working as a stockbroker, before a personal tragedy ruined him, his name was Cyrus Murray, but during his fighting years as a hand on cattle boats coming from Africa to England, he’s acquired the name Hammer. He falls in with a down-on-his-luck English aristocrat, Frederick Harcourt, who still owns a yacht, the Daphne, but nothing else. Hammer and Harcourt team up to take a German archeologist and his entourage to a site in British East Africa where the professor intends to excavate the ruins of an old Portuguese fort. John Solomon shows up and signs on as the ship’s cargo officer.

As you’d expect, there’s a lot more going on than is apparent at first. Solomon, who is actually an adventurer/intelligence operative/shady character, has his own reasons for going along on the expedition. So does the beautiful daughter of another archeologist who was the German’s partner before his mysterious death. A murder on board the ship kicks off a series of plot twists, double-crosses, and adventures that culminates in those above-mentioned ruins with a fine, highly suspenseful scene.

At this point in his long, illustrious career, Bedford-Jones still isn’t quite the smooth stylist that he became later, so the prose in JOHN SOLOMON, SUPERCARGO is a little stodgy and old-fashioned at times, as you might expect in a novel first published 107 years ago. But for the most part, things perk along at a very nice pace indeed, with good characters and infrequent but effective bursts of action. Altus Press/Steeger Books is in the process of reprinting the entire John Solomon series, as well as many other H. Bedford-Jones novels and collections, and I give a high recommendation to all of them, including this one.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Now Available: Faraday: The Buffalo Train - Robert Vaughan and James Reasoner

It started out as a silly idea to bring buyers back to Abilene. Wrangle some buffalo, put them on a train, and ship them to Chicago so folks back east could see the massive, shaggy beasts with their own eyes. The concept seemed sound. What could go wrong?

But for John Creed, agent for the famed Faraday Security Service, it was anything but simple. First, Hank Miles was willing to do whatever was required to prevent the plan from succeeding. Hiding in the shadows was a silent partner. Creed’s biggest threat, however, came from the man in black—an assassin who took pleasure in his work and would not stop coming until the job was complete.

Before the Buffalo Train reached the end of the line, guns would roar, men would die, and Chicago would get a taste of what the “Wild West” was really like.

(This is the first new Faraday book in many years and the first official collaboration between Robert Vaughan and myself. We've known each other for more than 30 years, have worked on many of the same series, and have had some input on each other's books from time to time. I think this is an excellent Western adventure yarn and hope some of you enjoy it.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Overlooked Movies: Road to Hong Kong (1962)

I’m not certain, but I believe ROAD TO HONG KONG is the only one of the Road movies I hadn’t seen . . . until now. It’s the last of the series, and I remember when it played at the Eagle Drive-In in 1962, and of course it was on television many, many times when I was growing up, but somehow I’d never watched it. But I’m a big fan of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and finally got around to it.

In this one, they play a couple of con men in the Far East, and through a series of screwball circumstances, including mistaken identities and amnesia, Hope’s character winds up memorizing a rocket fuel formula stolen from the Russians by a sinister organization known as the Third Echelon. The rest of the movie is one misadventure after another as the bad guys try to get the formula from Hope. The fanatical leader of the group is played by Robert Morley, and one of their agents is Joan Collins. Hope and Crosby wind up getting sent into space not once but twice. They could have called this one ROAD TO THE MOON. Anyway, after a lot of fairly mild hijinks, everything works out and the world is saved from the bad guys, although the final fate of our not-so-intrepid duo is left in the air a little.

It’s been so long since I’ve seen the rest of the Road movies that I can’t say for sure, but I have a hunch that this is the weakest of them. The script by director Norman Panama and producer Melvin Frank produces some smiles but not many actual laughs. Still, I’ll watch and enjoy Hope and Crosby in just about anything, and it’s fun watching them work to make something out of not much. As usual, the best moments are probably when they break the fourth wall and talk to the audience. There are some amusing cameos by Peter Sellers, David Niven, Pat O’Brien, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. Dorothy L’Amour shows up for one fairly long scene and demonstrates how much the rest of the movie misses her.

Probably the most interesting angle about the whole film is how much it plays like a James Bond movie at times . . . and when it came out, there had been only one James Bond movie released, DR. NO. So oddly enough, ROAD TO HONG KONG may be the first movie to try to cash in on what became the secret agent boom of the Sixties.

If I had seen this movie at the Eagle when I was nine years old, I would have loved it. Some of the more risque dialogue would have gone over my head, but it has enough physical comedy and classic bits that I would have thought it was hilarious. I don’t want to criticize it too much now, because I actually did enjoy it quite a bit, but I think some of that was because of its nostalgia value. Still, that’s a perfectly good reason for watching a movie. I’m glad I finally got around to ROAD TO HONG KONG. I liked it enough I might even watch some of the earlier ones.

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Complete Torpedo, Volume One - Enrique Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet

I remember reading a few issues of an independent comic book called TORPEDO 1936 back in the Eighties, but I hadn’t thought about it for years until one of this blog’s readers mentioned it in a comment on a recent post. After doing some checking, I was a little surprised to see that the book’s entire run has been reprinted and is available in digital form, so I picked up the first volume to revisit it.

The protagonist (you can’t call him the hero) of TORPEDO 1936 is Luca Torelli, a killer for hire who plies his deadly trade in New York during the Depression. He works for the mob but also takes on private commissions, and he’ll kill just about anybody as long as the price is right. Unlike other hitman characters such as Lawrence Block’s Keller and Max Allan Collins’ Quarry, Torelli has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. He’s every bit the despicable character you’d expect a professional killer to be. The only other continuing character is his sidekick/assistant/comedy relief, an oafish gangster known as Rascal.

Originally this series was supposed to be written by Will Eisner, creator of The Spirit and other acclaimed comics. How much input he might have had, I don’t know, but he never wrote any of the stories. The scripts are all by a Spanish comic book writer, Enrique Sanchez Abuli. Legendary comics artist Alex Toth drew the first two stories, then left the series, supposedly because he didn’t like the violent, nihilistic bent of Abuli’s scripts. Jordi Bernet took over the art, and his work on this series is fantastic. His style reminds me very much of Joe Kubert’s artwork.

THE COMPLETE TORPEDO, VOLUME ONE is very episodic, with each tale serving as a separate short story, another killing that Torelli sets out to accomplish. Some have clever plot twists. Torelli isn’t infallible, and sometimes he gets outwitted. Some are darkly humorous, but most are just bleak. A couple are flashbacks to Torelli’s life as a young Italian immigrant, maybe designed to give him at least a semblance of humanity, but if that was the goal, I’m not sure they succeed. He still comes across as extremely unlikable.

Which is not to say the stories are bad. The plots are repetitive enough that it’s best to read them spaced out, but they’re pretty effective when you tackle them that way. The ones where Torelli is up against low-lifes who are equally bad or even worse than he is are the ones that work the best. Overall, I enjoyed the book. Whether or not I’ll continue reading the collections, I just don’t know yet. Bernet’s art is gorgeous, and I’m curious to see if Abuli ever gives Torelli any real character development. So I’ll probably revisit TORPEDO 1936 again in the future. We’ll see.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Unknown, March 1939

A great H.W. Scott cover on the first issue of a great pulp. UNKNOWN didn't last all that long, but while it was around it published a lot of stories that have become classics. This issue leads off with one of them, "Sinister Barrier" by Eric Frank Russell, and also includes stories by Manly Wade Wellman, Frank Belknap Long, H.L. Gold, Robert Moore Williams, and a couple of lesser-known authors, Mona Farnsworth (real name Muriel Newhall, who wrote a lot under several different pseudonyms for the romance and Western romance pulps) and A.B.L. Macfayden Jr., who wrote a handful of stories for ASTOUNDING and one for UNKNOWN (both magazines being edited by John W. Campbell, of course).

Saturday, April 24, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: The Rio Kid Western, Winter 1944/45

I wrote about the paperback reprint of the lead novel in this pulp for my Forgotten Books post yesterday, so here's the cover of the original pulp itself. I don't know who did the cover. In addition to the Rio Kid novel, this issue contains stories by prolific pulpster (and later editor of Monarch Books) Charles N. Heckelmann, Wayne Purcell, who wrote a few stories for the Western pulps in the mid-Forties, and a couple of house-names, Jackson Cole and Reeve Walker.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Forgotten Books: Wagons to California - Tom Curry

Today is the 22nd anniversary of the founding of the WesternPulps email group (more about that later), so I wanted to feature a novel published originally in a Western pulp. I turned to one of my favorite series, the Rio Kid. WAGONS TO CALIFORNIA was published in the Winter 1944/45 issue of THE RIO KID WESTERN, which ran from December 1939 to May 1953. I’ve read probably three-fourths of all the Rio Kid novels, but WAGONS TO CALIFORNIA is one I hadn’t gotten around to yet. It was reprinted in paperback by Curtis Books in 1972, an edition that seems to be pretty rare these days. That’s my copy in the scan, complete with cheap price sticker. (I didn’t pay 25 cents for it, but it was only two bucks in Half Price Books’ nostalgia section when I bought it several years ago, which, it turns out, is not a bad deal.)

At any rate, for those of you unfamiliar with the Rio Kid series, it had a gimmick: its protagonists, former army scout and cavalry officer Captain Bob Pryor and his sidekick Celestino Mireles, always interact with historical characters and sometimes take part in actual historical incidents. In this novel, Pryor and Celestino, along with legendary frontiersman Jim Bridger, are working for General Grenville Dodge and scouting possible routes for the transcontinental railroad along the Humboldt River in Nevada. That’s pretty much it for the historical connections in this one. Our intrepid trio encounter a wagon train that’s in trouble, having been attacked by Indians and now the immigrants are in danger of dying from thirst and starvation. The Rio Kid and his companions help them out, and the pilgrims wind up having to winter in an isolated valley where, wouldn’t you know it, they find gold. There’s also a group of Mormon Avenging Angels on the hunt for the murderer of an LDS bishop, and a Mormon rancher and his sons who may or may not be trustworthy.

Tom Curry, who created the Rio Kid series and wrote more of the novels than anyone else, started his career writing hardboiled yarns for BLACK MASK and other detective pulps, but he became one of the leading Western pulpsters, turning out not only Rio Kid novels like this one under his own name but also dozens of the Jim Hatfield novels in TEXAS RANGERS under the Jackson Cole house-name. His stories are solidly constructed, fast-moving, and always have plenty of action. WAGONS TO CALIFORNIA is no exception. Curry also does a great job with the wasteland setting in this one. I wouldn’t put it in the very top rank of Rio Kid novels, but I enjoyed it a great deal and am glad I got around to reading it. I need to read more of the Rio Kids.

Now, as for the WesternPulps group, when I founded it in 1999, I had no idea it would still be around 22 years later. It began on a platform called OneList, which became E-groups (or was it the other way around, I never can remember), which was swallowed up by Yahoo Groups, and is now on, where I moved it a few years ago when I saw the writing on the wall and realized Yahoo Groups would be going away. It was either my first or second foray into social media. I may have subscribed to the original Rara-Avis list before that, or I may not have. (Rara-Avis, which Bill Crider told me about, lo, those many years ago, is still around and still active, as well.) Email groups have gone the way of the dinosaurs, for the most part, but as I’ve said before, WesternPulps will be around as long as there’s a platform to host it and I have the mental ability to keep up with it. (No wagering on which of those will go away first!) It’s a low-traffic list, although spirited discussions break out from time to time and it’s the best place to ask any questions someone might have about the Western pulps. There’s also a wealth of bibliographic information and cover scans in the files section, much of it added in the early days when the list was more active and salvaged when I moved things over to If any of you would care to join, if only to rummage through the archives, you’re more than welcome and can do so here

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Overlooked Movies: St. Vincent (2014)

This comedy/drama from 2014 lands solidly in the "grumpy old man and kid are thrown together and learn life lessons from each other" school of filmmaking. While the plot is pretty predictable, Bill Murray is very good as the title character and the rest of the cast is solid, including Naomi Watts as a Russian hooker with a heart of gold and Melissa McCarthy as the kid's mom. The script has some funny lines and is heart-warming without being mawkish. And the soundtrack is excellent, including a great closing credits sequence featuring my favorite Bob Dylan song, "Shelter From the Storm". This movie won't change your life, but it's a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Monday, April 19, 2021

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

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

Art by William Reusswig

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

Art by William Reusswig

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

Art by William Reusswig

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

Art by John Howitt

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

Art by Walter Baumhofer

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

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

Sunday, April 18, 2021

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

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

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story Roundup, October 1955

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

Friday, April 16, 2021

Forgotten Books: Seeds of Murder - Van Wyck Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Sheriff - Robert Dwyer and Austin Wright

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

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

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Overlooked Movies: My Man Godfrey (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Coldest Trail - Wayne D. Dundee

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

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

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

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Super Science Stories, November 1941

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

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Saturday Morning Bonus Pulp: Double Action Western, November 1944

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

Friday, April 09, 2021

Forgotten Books: Meg - Loren Beauchamp (Robert Silverberg)

Sexy, redheaded, 19-year-old bombshell Meg Tandler loses her virginity to her farmboy beau, and that causes her to realize that if she doesn’t make a break, she’ll be doomed to marry such a dullard and live a bleak existence as a farm wife for the rest of her life. So she leaves the small town in Idaho where she grew up and heads for New York, determined to break into show business and make herself rich and famous.

That’s how MEG, written by Robert Silverberg and published by Midwood in 1960 under the pseudonym Loren Beauchamp, begins. And it’s a whirlwind that never really slows down after that. Almost before you know it, Meg is in New York and has a manager/agent who gives her a new name—Meg Loring. She wins a couple of beauty pageants, does some sexy but tasteful magazine covers and photo shoots, gets a screen test in Hollywood, signs a movie contract, and becomes a star. Oh, and along the way she sleeps with every powerful man who can help further her career. She’s made the proverbial journey from rags to riches, but of course, there are still a lot of pitfalls waiting for her in Hollywood . . .

The pace is so fast in this book, the plot developments so over the top, the characters so colorful, that MEG has something you don’t often find in Robert Silverberg’s soft-core novels: a really tongue-in-cheek tone and some genuinely amusing lines of dialogue, especially from Meg’s eccentric agent Max Bonaventura. Some of the Hollywood stuff is pretty funny, too, as many of the characters seem based on real-life figures in the movie business. It also provides a vivid, accurate portrait of the time period, the same way most of the novels in this genre do, at least the ones by the better writers.

MEG is certainly the most lightweight soft-core novel by Silverberg that I’ve encountered yet, and as such, it’s a nice change of pace and a very enjoyable novel. I thought the ending was a little lacking, but it’s still very much worth reading. It’s the second half of a double novel reprint volume coming soon from Stark House.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Now Available: Battling Britons - Justin Marriott, ed.

Brits at War! War at sea, in the air and on land, as seen through the pages of classic British comics. The war comic has been an enduring part of British pop culture, from the invasion of the pocket books in the 1960s, through to the explosion of weekly strips in the 1970s. Often dismissed and derided, the time has come to reassess their importance as entertainment and education. In these pages are 215 capsule reviews of war comics from the 1960s through to the 2000s, with insights to the creators, themes and sheer readability. Strips from well-loved comics such as Action, Air Ace Picture Library, Battle Picture Library, Battle Picture Weekly, Commando, Valiant, Victor, War Picture Library and Warlord. Fully illustrated with covers and panels from the stories reviewed, many of them by top European creators. Edited and co-written by Justin Marriott, with contributions from Jim O’Brien, Steve Myall and James Reasoner. Foreword from award-winning journalist and war comics expert Paul Trimble. Afterword from Commando scripter Gary Martin Dobbs.

(I wrote some of the reviews in this excellent volume, and in reading through it, I've found a number of other stories I want to look for. If you're a fan of war comics, war fiction, or comics in general, I think you're going to want BATTLING BRITONS. Highly recommended.)

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

The Miracle Squad - John Wooley and Terry Tidwell

Back in the Eighties, I read a lot of independent comics (along with plenty of Marvel and DC titles), and one that I remember very fondly is THE MIRACLE SQUAD, written by John Wooley and drawn by Terry Tidwell. Recently I discovered that the first four issues have been reprinted in a very handsome trade paperback, so I was eager to revisit them. I’m glad I did, because THE MIRACLE SQUAD is still a lot of fun.

Not surprisingly, since Wooley is an expert on pulps, old comics, and old movies, I am definitely the target audience for a yarn like this. In 1937, beautiful Sandra Castle arrives in Hollywood to search for her twin sister. A year earlier, they both won a talent contest that got them screen tests, but only Sandra’s sister Eileen headed west to Hollywood—where she promptly disappeared. Now Sandra’s searching for her, but before you know it, she’s mixed up with a low-budget movie production company, Miracle Studios, which is targeted for a takeover by gangster Sweets O’Hanlon. Handsome young producer Mark Barron takes over the studio after his father is murdered by O’Hanlon’s gunmen. Also working for the studio are magician and daredevil Johnny Rice, character actor Hamilton Wynde, towering prop man Billy Caserta, driver and valet Tito Guzman, and studio detective Robert B. Leslie (any resemblance to pulpster Robert Leslie Bellem, creator of Dan Turner, is strictly not coincidental, since Wooley’s connections to Bellem go ’way back). Together, this group calls themselves the Miracle Squad as they battle O’Hanlon and his goons and search for Sandra’s missing sister at the same time.

I had a great time reading this collection. I mean . . . B-movies, gangsters, cowboys, night clubs, blimps, gambling ships, beautiful dames, two-fisted heroes . . . what more could a fan of that era want? Wooley’s scripts and plot twists are excellent, and Tidwell’s art does a great job of capturing the era.

Rounding out this volume from Bill Cunningham’s Pulp 2.0 Press are reminiscences by the creators, articles on B-movies that originally ran in the comic book, artwork and sketches, and the short story in which Wooley first wrote about several of these characters. It all makes a wonderful package, and I’m glad I discovered it. Wooley and Tidwell produced another series about a masked crimefighter called THE TWILIGHT AVENGER, and Pulp 2.0 has reprinted two volumes of those stories, as well. I have them and look forward to reading them. In the meantime, if you’re a fan of independent comics and/or old movies or just very good adventure fiction, THE MIRACLE SQUAD gets a high recommendation from me.

Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Overlooked Movies: Air Strike (2018)

AIR STRIKE, a 2018 Chinese/American production starring Bruce Willis as an American pilot training and commanding the Chinese air force in the early days of World War II, has some of the worst reviews I’ve ever seen on IMDB. It’s propaganda, they say, showing how brave and noble the Chinese were in their battles against the Japanese. Yeah, maybe so . . . but the Chinese guys who wrote it must have watched every American war movie made during the Forties, because that’s exactly how it plays, complete with soap opera, comedy relief, and a lot of stirring action as the Chinese pilots fight to protect their homeland from Japanese bombers. There’s also a plotline about how one of the pilots, grounded because of injuries, becomes an intelligence agent and is tasked with delivering a vital code-breaking machine to its destination.

As with a lot of Bruce Willis movies these days, he gets top billing but is actually playing a supporting role. He’s on-screen for fifteen or twenty minutes, total. But that’s more than his daughter Rumer, who’s third-billed but has only one scene that lasts maybe thirty seconds. Adrian Brody, the only other actor in the cast you’ll recognize, plays a doctor and fares a little better, but he’s not around much, either.

AIR STRIKE suffers from some muddled storytelling, but the action scenes, although pretty heavy with CGI, are effective. I found myself interested in the characters and their storylines. It’s certainly not a great film, but I don’t think it’s as bad as the reviewers make it out to be. An enjoyable time-waster, let’s call it, and I don’t mean that to be damning with faint praise. Sometimes that’s plenty for me.

Monday, April 05, 2021

Bear River - Ryan Fowler

I’ve always liked small town mysteries: Ellery Queen’s Wrightsville novels, Bill Crider’s Dan Rhodes books, and Ed Gorman’s Sam McCain series are good examples, among many others I’ve read over the years. Ryan Fowler’s debut novel, BEAR RIVER, is a fine addition to the sub-genre.

The narrator, Mike Burkett, is a former army investigator and policeman who has become a successful novelist and abandoned the big city to live in a small vacation community in northern Utah named Bear River. He’s friends with the local chief of police, and when a young woman who’s renting one of the local vacation homes goes missing, the chief asks Mike to help out as a volunteer part-time deputy. Mike’s not sure he still has the skills to get involved in such an investigation, but he plunges into the case anyway, and it’s not long before he’s uncovered a murder. He also runs into a couple of attempts on his life, but that just reinforces his determination to see things through and uncover the truth.

Mike’s investigation takes him from one end of Utah to the other and into Arizona and Montana, and he turns up a wide array of possible suspects ranging from meth dealers living in squalid trailer houses to wealthy business owners who have fabulous vacation homes in the area.

Fowler spins this very well-paced yarn with assurance and skill. Mike Burkett is an extremely sympathetic and likable narrator/protagonist, the supporting cast is top-notch, especially an Arizona sheriff who helps him out, and the plot is appropriately twisty. I really enjoyed BEAR RIVER and hope it’s the first of a series. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Detective, February 1951

I'm used to seeing Sam Cherry's covers on Western pulps, but he also did a lot of work in other genres, and on paperback covers, as well. Here's one on an issue of THRILLING DETECTIVE, and I like it a lot. Inside are stories by Stewart Sterling, Norman A. Daniels (writing as Wayland Rice), D.L. Champion, house-names John L. Benton and Robert Wallace (who might well be either Sterling or Daniels in this case), and little known authors B.J. Benson and Burt Sims.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Star Western, December 1940

Ah reckon thar's about tuh be trouble betwixt these two rannies. Best hunt cover, hombres! I don't know the artist on this STAR WESTERN cover, but it's a good one. The usual great collection of authors can be found inside, too, including Harry F. Olmsted, Cliff Farrell, Philip Ketchum, Stone Cody (Thomas Mount) with a Silver Trent story, Dee Linford, Norrell Gregory, and M. Howard Lane. Looks like another fine Popular Publications Western pulp.

Friday, April 02, 2021

Forgotten Books: Connie - Loren Beauchamp (Robert Silverberg)

I’ve read a number of Robert Silverberg’s soft-core novels written under the Don Elliott pseudonym, but until now I’d never read any of his Midwood books written as Loren Beauchamp. CONNIE is an early Midwood, originally published in 1959, the same year Silverberg began his long run as Don Elliott for William Hamling’s Nightstand Books (and its other assorted imprints). The cover of the original edition is by Paul Rader.

Not surprisingly, Connie is the name of the protagonist, 17-year-old Connie Barrett, a pretty girl living in Brooklyn with her parents and about to get engaged to her high school sweetheart, who is off in his freshman year at Syracuse. One night she goes out to mail a letter to him, not really worrying because the mailbox is just down the street . . .

Of course, that proves to be a mistake, as Connie is kidnapped and gang-raped by a gang of juvenile delinquents. She survives but her personality is changed forever. Her parents send her to stay with her grandparents in Phoenix, but hardened and embittered, she runs away to San Francisco and becomes a high class call girl, soon having a lot of success in that sordid but lucrative racket. Then she meets a man who offers to take her away from it . . . but will she just wind up in the middle of something even worse?

As you might expect, and as Silverberg acknowledges in his foreword to an upcoming reprint of this novel from Stark House, CONNIE is not exactly a politically correct book. But it’s so well-written that it moves like the proverbial wind. Silverberg used the rape-and-its-aftermath plot in other soft-core novels, and as usual he doesn’t pull any punches in this one. His efforts in this genre are often pretty bleak. CONNIE is no exception. By the time it’s over, are there any glimmerings of hope left for its characters?

You’ll have to read it to find out, but I guarantee a fast-paced, engrossing yarn. I read it in two sittings, almost unheard of these days for little ol’ attention-span-challenged me. As mentioned above, Stark House is reprinting it later this spring in a double volume with another of Silverberg’s early Midwood novels as by Loren Beauchamp, MEG. All the Midwoods I’ve read have been good, no matter who wrote them. I’ll definitely be reading MEG soon, too, and then looking for more.