Monday, August 29, 2022

The Burglar Who Met Fredric Brown - Lawrence Block

There’s an old saying about how all good things must come to an end, but Lawrence Block seems to be doing his best to disprove that. Since announcing his “retirement” several years ago, he’s produced a number of excellent novels, novellas, and volumes of non-fiction. His most recent novel, THE BURGLAR WHO MET FREDRIC BROWN, will be out in October and just adds to that list, as it’s a top-notch job all around.

As regular readers will recognize instantly from the title, this novel is a new entry in Block’s long-running and much-loved series about bookseller/burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr. Bernie is mostly retired from his criminal profession because of the proliferation of security cameras and advances in lock technology, and his bookselling business isn’t doing much better because of Amazon and eBay. But he’s still living a fairly enjoyable life in New York City, hanging around in his free time with his best friend Carolyn, who has a dog grooming salon near Bernie’s bookstore.

Then Bernie reads Fredric Brown’s science fiction novel WHAT MAD UNIVERSE, about alternate universes, and wakes up the next morning to discover that he and Carolyn have been transported to one such alternate universe, where security technology isn’t as advanced as it is in our world, and suddenly the fabulously valuable diamond Bernie had his eye on in our world (but knew he couldn’t steal) might just be within his reach after all . . .

Assuming he can navigate all the other changes from the world he knew and solve the two murders that take place along the way.

Block tackles a pretty tricky task in THE BURGLAR WHO MET FREDRIC BROWN, combining a traditional mystery with a science fiction/fantasy novel. It’s been done before, of course. Isaac Asimov’s THE CAVES OF STEEL and THE NAKED SUN come to mind, along with a number of futuristic private eye yarns. However, most of those are science fiction novels that are also mysteries, instead of the other way around, and I think that’s a significant distinction. This novel incorporates science fictional elements into a well-established mystery series, and I’m not sure that’s been done before.

Block makes both sides of this combination work well, but ultimately, I don’t think it matters much. Like much of Block’s recent work, THE BURGLAR WHO MET FREDRIC BROWN seems to be more about the passage of time and the relationships of the characters than anything else. With its references to earlier books in the series, along with the reappearances of characters from those books, this book strikes me as a love letter to the readers and a fond farewell to Bernie and Carolyn. I’d almost say that it’s elegiac, but I don’t normally use highfalutin words like that, and besides, it implies that Block will never write another Bernie Rhodenbarr novel, and at this point, I’m not betting money on that.

If it is the final Burglar novel, though, it’s a good way to go out. I enjoyed THE BURGLAR WHO MET FREDRIC BROWN and think it’s well worth reading. If you’re a Block fan, you probably have it on pre-order already, and if you don’t, it’s available to do so in both paperback and ebook editions.

In his last newsletter, Block mentioned that he’s more than 30,000 words into a new novel. I don’t what it’ll be, but I’m sure I’ll read it. As far as I know, he’s already been writing novels longer than any other American author currently alive (he started a few years earlier than Robert Vaughan), so why stop now?

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Top-Notch, February 1934

TOP-NOTCH published some good adventure fiction, had good authors and good covers like this one by Don Hewitt. It's not as well-remembered as some of the other adventure pulps, but from what I can tell, it was a pretty solid magazine. This issue includes stories by Steve Fisher, Leslie McFarlane (the original Franklin W. Dixon of Hardy Boys fame), Hal Field Leslie, Harold F. Cruickshank, C.T. Stoneham, and assorted lesser-known authors. I'd have been tempted by that cover if I had an extra dime and nickel in my pocket back in 1934.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Wild West Weekly, July 27, 1929

Remington Schuyler was the regular cover artist for WILD WEST WEEKLY during the late Twenties. I can't say that I'm a huge fan of his work, but I like this one pretty well. WILD WEST WEEKLY always published a lot of series and house-name stories, of course, and this issue is no exception. The lead feature for a number of years was the Billy West/Circle J series, published under the house-name Cleve Endicott. The one in this issue is actually by Phil Richards, who wrote the Kid Calvert series in WESTERN ACES that I liked a lot. Also on hand are J. Allan Dunn with a Whistlin' Kid story as by Emery Jackson; Galen C. Colin with a Lum Yates story as by Collins Hafford; a Looshus Carey story by Houston Irvine (don't know either of those names); a Ranny Kid story by Clee Woods (I've at least heard of Clee Woods and seen his name on many Western pulp TOCs), and non-series stories by Stephen Payne, Archie Joscelyn, Paul S. Powers (twice, as by Philip F. Deere and Kent Bennett), and Gip Akin, whoever he was.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Sin Pit - Paul S. Meskil

Over the years, I’ve read quite a bit about Paul S. Meskil’s only novel, SIN PIT, all of it favorable, so now that it’s being reprinted by Stark House in another triple volume of novels originally published by the legendary Lion Books, it seemed like a good time for me to finally get around to reading it. And I’m glad I did, because it really is a mostly lost gem.

The narrator is Barney Black, a detective sergeant on the East St. Louis, Illinois police force. Barney is a distinctive character, to say the least. He’s a little corrupt. He’s coarse and brutal and doesn’t mind in the least beating up a suspect while questioning him. He slaps around dames when they give him trouble. He doesn’t believe in love, and lust is just a basic animal need to be satisfied when necessary.

But for all his unlikable qualities, dump a murder in his lap and Barney Black will do anything, go to any lengths, to solve it and bring the killer to justice. In SIN PIT, he’s driven to uncover the truth about the killing of a beautiful young blonde who’s dumped in a junkyard after being whipped cruelly and shot in the head. This sets him on a quest through a series of squalid gambling dens, taverns, and whorehouses, all of them depicted with garish vividness by Meskil, whose main career was that of a journalist specializing in crime reporting.

Along the way, Barney meets a beautiful brunette (the way Meskil describes her kept making me think of Bettie Page) who makes him reconsider his belief that love isn’t real. But is she trustworthy? As always in this kind of book, you have to ask yourself that question if you’re the narrator, especially after a couple more murders take place. Will Barney sort everything out in time to deliver justice to a killer?

Meskil’s writing is top-notch in this novel, delivering the sleaziness of his characters and settings in fine fashion. SIN PIT’s strongest quality for me is its pace. The tension just never lets up. Barney has to sleep sometime, but even when he does, his slumber is haunted by violent dreams and as soon as he’s awake he plunges right back into the investigation at breakneck speed. I read this novel in one sitting, which is unheard of for me these days. Granted, it’s fairly short, but if it was much longer, the reader would be exhausted from trying to keep up with Barney. I had a great time reading it and give SIN PIT a high recommendation. It’s available in LION TRIO 3: FEMMES FATALE from Stark House, which you can pre-order now.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Popular Western, January 1945

That's some mighty nifty gun-handlin' on this issue of POPULAR WESTERN, courtesy of artist Sam Cherry. I don't recall running across another behind-the-back shot on a Western pulp. POPULAR WESTERN ran quite a few series stories, and that's true in this issue. There's a Sheriff Blue Steele story by Syl McDowell writing as Tom Gunn, a Buffalo Billy Bates yarn by house-name Scott Carleton (possibly Chuck Martin, who has a story in this issue under his own name), and a Fiddlin' Danny tale by Ben Frank. I'll confess, I've never heard of Fiddlin' Danny and don't know a thing about him. One of my favorite authors, W.C. Tuttle, contributes a stand-alone story, as do Chuck Martin and house-names Jackson Cole and Tex Holt. There's plenty here to provide some good reading.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Startling Stories, November 1952

I think of Walter Popp as more of a paperback cover artist, but here's a pulp cover by him that I like. STARTLING STORIES was a pretty solid science fiction pulp. The best known authors in this issue are L. Sprague de Camp, Joel Townsley Rogers (who had a long, prolific career in the adventure pulps as well as SF), and Roger Dee. Also on hand are R.J. McGregor and Dave Dryfoos, names I don't recognize at all.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Leading Western, January 1949

This issue of LEADING WESTERN sports a cover that looks more like it came off an issue of SPICY WESTERN STORIES. And since they were from the same publisher, maybe it did. I don't know the artist. Bryce Walton, Frank Carl Young, and D.D. Sharp are the authors using their real names in this one. The rest are the usual combination of house-names and probable pseudonyms. For example, Hal Burke, author of the cover-featured story "Dames + Guns = Trouble", is credited with only that one story in the Fictionmags Index. Was that simply his only sale? Certainly possible. But I think it's equally likely he was really Walton, Young, or Sharp. Doubtful that we'll ever know.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Astounding Stories of Super-Science, December 1930

While browsing the Fictionmags Index, I came across this great, slightly goofy cover by H.W. Wessolowski (also known simply as Wesso) on an early issue of ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE, while it was still being edited by Harry Bates. I was so taken by the cover that I immediately wanted to use it for a Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp post, but I also found myself wanting to read the featured story, “The Ape-Men of Xlotli”, by an author I’d never heard of, David R. Sparks. So I checked and, what do you know, the entire issue is available on the Internet Archive. I decided to hold off on posting about it until I had a chance to read the stories, so now that I have, here are my comments on them.

Sophie Wenzel Ellis is a name that’s only vaguely familiar to me. I looked her up and found that she published only 20 stories in a career that lasted from 1919 until the late Forties, in pulps as wide-ranging as WEIRD TALES and RANGELAND ROMANCES. “Slaves of the Dust” in this issue appears to have been one of only three science fiction stories by her. In this one, young scientist Hale Oakham penetrates deep into the jungles of Brazil to find the hidden laboratory of an eccentric genius who is believed to have made some groundbreaking discoveries. And indeed he has. In fact, he’s discovered the secret of creating life out of inert matter, reducing various species to their component elements and then combining them in bizarre ways and bringing them back to life. What could possibly go wrong? I’d guess that this story was pretty heavily influenced by THE ISLAND OF DOCTOR MOREAU and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ THE MONSTER MEN. It’s pretty entertaining and moves right along.

Next up is an installment of a serial, “The Pirate Planet”, by Charles W. Diffin. I didn’t read this one now, but there’s a cheap e-book edition of the whole serial on Amazon, so I’ll probably read it that way. Diffin was a popular SF author at the time and quite a bit of his work is available again in e-book editions. If I like this one, I’ll probably read more by him.

Captain S.P. Meek I’ve not only heard of, I think I’ve read stories by him before. “The Sea Terror”, in this issue, is part of his series featuring two-fisted scientist Dr. Bird and Secret Service Operative Carnes. It finds them investigating the mysterious sinking of a ship carrying four million dollars in gold bars by a gigantic sea creature. Pretty predictable in most ways, but well-written and moves along with plenty of action. Even though the two protagonists are never developed much, I still found them likable and wouldn’t mind reading more of the series.

Harl Vincent is another familiar name from the early days of science fiction. “Gray Denim” starts out as a fairly standard dystopian yarn, the old plot about how the cities have turned into towering monstrosities where the elite live in the clouds with their robot servants, while the poor toil far below, keeping everything running without ever seeing the sun. But then suddenly Vincent switches gears and hands us a wild Graustarkian yarn about how an evil scientist conquers half of Earth with the help of aliens from the other side of the Moon, and then his son disappears, and then one of the drudges from the lower levels of New York turns out to be lost royalty, and then everybody is zipping around in flying machines and firing heat rays and disintegration beams at each other, and then . . . You get the idea. Vincent packs a lot into this story, and not all of it has aged very well. This is the weakest story in the issue, and while it's not going to make me run out and look for more stuff by Harl Vincent, it wasn’t terrible, just too busy and not particularly well written.

Finally we come to the story that brought us here in the first place, “The Ape-Men of Xlotli” by David R. Sparks. It starts out great:

Kirby did not know what mountains they were. He did know that the Mannlicher bullets of eleven bad Mexicans were whining over his head and whizzing past the hoofs of his galloping, stolen horse. The shots were mingled with yelps which pretty well curdled his spine. In the circumstances, the unknown range of snowy mountains towering blue and white above the arid, windy plateau, offering he could not tell what dangers, seemed a paradise. Looking at them, Kirby laughed harshly to himself.

Well, that certainly got me hooked, anyway. Kirby turns out to be Freddie Kirby, a two-fisted American aviator/adventurer who is in Mexico training pilots for the Mexican army. When a broken fuel line forces him to crash-land his plane in the wild northern reaches of the country, he’s jumped by bandits, escapes, and flees into those snow-capped mountains, where he discovers the entrance to a lost underground world populated not only by a race of humans but also by a group of savage ape-men. Naturally, there’s a beautiful girl Kirby falls for, and vice versa, an evil high priest, some plotting and double-crossing, a little pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, dead but perfectly preserved Conquistadores, and several brutal, well-written battles against the ape-men, who are really only supporting characters in this tale, despite its title. In other words, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before in dozens, if not scores, of lost world/lost race yarns.

But boy, did I have a good time reading it. I couldn’t turn the digital pages fast enough to find out what was going to happen. This story slows down now and then, but mostly it races along at breakneck speed. The cover refers to it as a novelette, but I think it’s at least 30,000 words long. It’s certainly long enough to have been reprinted as half of an Ace Double in the Fifties or Sixties, and I’m a little surprised that it wasn’t. Maybe Donald A. Wollheim just never came across it.

As far as I can tell, this was the first story by David R. Sparks, and he published only one other, a space opera called “The Winged Men of Orcon” in the January 1932 issue of ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE. You can actually buy that one as an e-book on Amazon, which I did as soon as I finished reading “The Ape-Men of Zlotli”. Sparks himself is a mystery. I couldn’t find anything on-line about him. But based on this story, he was a fairly talented writer and I’m sorry there’s not more by him available.

This issue wraps up with a number of letters from readers, including one from Forrest J Ackerman, mostly praising the stories from previous issues but complaining about a few things, too. Letters columns in SF magazines don’t seem to have changed much in the intervening 90+ years.

ASTOUNDING STORIES OF SUPER-SCIENCE eventually became ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION when it was sold to Street & Smith and later on evolved into the digest magazine ANALOG, which is still around today, of course . . . although it certainly doesn’t publish stories like “The Ape-Men of Zlotli” anymore. Whether or not that’s a good thing is up to the individual reader. As for me, I’ll take the old stuff that transports me back to those days of reading voraciously on my parents’ front porch. I may have downloaded this one from the Internet, but I could almost smell the yellowing pages of an old paperback while I was reading it. I enjoyed it, and I was content.

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Star Western, February 1942

What a great cover on this issue of STAR WESTERN! I don't know the artist, but he did a fine job. Not only do I want to read a story with that scene in it, I want to write one. Maybe I will. Meanwhile, the lineup of authors in this issue is very good, too: Harry F. Olmsted, Tom Roan, Stone Cody (Thomas Mount), W. Ryerson Johnson (with a Len Siringo story), William R. Cox, and John G. Pearsol. That's a really solid bunch of Western pulpsters.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Wolf Brand - L.P. Holmes

WOLF BRAND is a short novel by L.P. Holmes that first appeared in the August 1942 issue of ACTION STORIES (with a cover by Norman Saunders) and was reprinted in the hardback duo DOOM PATROL, which is where I read it. I’ve mentioned numerous times that Holmes is one of my favorite Western authors, and as expected, he didn’t let me down with this one.

As usual with one of his stories, the plot is traditional: The railroad has come to a valley that’s shared uneasily by cattlemen and homesteaders, and when the evil railroad manager tries to swindle the settlers out of their land, it sets up a clash between different factions of cattlemen, one led by Henry Marsten, who hates the homesteaders and wants them out of the valley, even if means siding with the shady railroad deal, and our Stalwart Hero Vike Gunnison, to whom fair play is more important than whether you raise cows or crops. So we have cattlemen vs. homesteaders, cattlemen vs. cattlemen, and an evil railroad boss trying to take advantage of the situation who brings in a hired gunman and his gang of killers. Shootouts, raids, and the sort of brutal fistfight that turns up in a lot of Holmes’ yarns ensue. Oh, and two beautiful young women for Gunnison to choose between. There’s a late twist that’s not really unexpected, but it works very well.

I had a wonderful time reading this one. Holmes may not have pushed the boundaries of the genre, but he did a great job of working within them. WOLF BRAND is packed with incident and well-developed characters. Vike Gunnison is a likable but pretty standard hero, but the women in his life are complex enough that the romantic triangle aspect of this book is particularly effective. Not all the characters turn out to be as good or bad as you might expect, either. And the action scenes are great, including that fistfight and some epic gun battles.

If you’re a fan of traditional Westerns, I can’t recommend the work of L.P. Holmes highly enough. WOLF BRAND is a top-notch yarn, one of the best I’ve read by him so far.

Monday, August 01, 2022

Tragon and the Scorpion Woman . . . and Other Tales - John M Whalen

Several years ago, I read and greatly enjoyed John M. Whalen’s sword-and-sorcery novel TRAGON OF RAMURA. Tragon is the captain of the trading ship Orion, and while sailing the seas of his world along with his first mate and best friend, the desert warrior Yusef Ali Ahmed Nazir, they encounter all sorts of danger and adventure. His latest book, TRAGON AND THE SCORPION WOMAN . . . AND OTHER TALES, is a collection of eight stories originally published in various small press magazines and anthologies, five of which feature Tragon and Yusef.

The Tragon stories are straight-up sword-and-sorcery, the classic stuff that I’ve loved for more than fifty years now. Tragon has a mortal enemy, the evil wizard Caldec, who has taken over his homeland of Ramura. Tragon would like to overthrow him, which in the title novella leads him to explore the far northern reaches of his world in search of the legendary Scorpion Woman, a Medusa-like being with scorpions for hair instead of snakes whose gaze can turn a man into salt. Whalen throws an unexpected twist in the plot, as he does in nearly all of these stories. Just because they’re in the classic sword-and-sorcery style doesn’t mean they’re predictable. Whalen is a skilled author with plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

In the other stories, Tragon and Yusef encounter political intrigue, giant flying monsters, undead warriors, a beautiful but evil sorceress, and lots and lots of action. It’s highly entertaining, with echoes of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, John Jakes, and Lin Carter (especially his Thongor series). But Whalen has his own voice and his own spin on things, and I can definitely see myself reading these stories while sitting on my parents’ front porch on a summer morning with Top 40 rock playing on the transistor radio I set on the porch beside me. That’s right, TRAGON AND THE SCORPION WOMAN is a Front Porch Book, without a doubt.

But in addition to classic sword-and-sorcery, you also get a tale of ancient Atlantis with some excellent worldbuilding. I’d love to see more in this setting, but the ending of “Bride of the Sea” kind of precludes that, as you might guess. Of course, Whalen could always write some stories set before this one . . .

“Where There Be No Dragons”, a story about a hunter’s quest to kill the dragon that destroyed his village, is another tale in which you think you know where the story is going, but there’s a surprise waiting. The collection wraps up with “The Hostage of Maldon”, a straight historical adventure yarn about one of the many Viking invasions of England. There are no supernatural elements in this one, but it’s packed with almost non-stop action, and the battle scenes are magnificent. I was reminded of REH’s historical adventure stories while reading this one.

Overall, TRAGON AND THE SCORPION WOMAN . . . AND OTHER TALES is a top-notch collection, and I had a great time reading it. It’s available in both paperback and e-book editions, and I give it a high recommendation, especially if you’re a sword-and-sorcery fan.