Friday, March 31, 2023

Caribbean Crisis - Desmond Reid (Michael Moorcock)

In 1962, Michael Moorcock was an assistant editor on the Sexton Blake series, then published in digest-sized paperbacks. He also wrote one of the novels, CARIBBEAN CRISIS, which was revised somewhat by editor W. Howard Baker and published under the house name Desmond Reid. Moorcock was somewhat less than pleased by Baker’s revisions and departed his editorial position soon after. Now, more than 60 years later, he and Blake expert Mark Hodder have reconstructed and expanded the original version by approximately 10,000 words. The new version will be published next fall, in a double volume along with a completely new Sexton Blake novel by Moorcock and Hodder. I definitely plan to read both novels.

But in the meantime, what about the version of CARIBBEAN CRISIS published in 1962 as by Desmond Reid? Well, for a long time, it’s been one of the most sought-after Blake novels because of Moorcock’s involvement. Through the help of a friend, I was able to read the novel, which I did now so there’ll be a long enough gap before I read the revised version later this year. I’m happy to report that it’s a pretty entertaining yarn.

It has a great opening in which two men venture into a deep trench in the Caribbean in an experimental bathysphere that’s lowered from a research ship. They run into trouble that causes one of the men to scream in terror and plead for them to be brought back up. But the cable attached to the bathysphere breaks and the thing sinks in water too deep for it to ever be recovered.

Only it doesn’t. It happens to land on a ledge that’s still close enough to the surface that a man in a diving suit can get down to it. When he does, he looks through the bathysphere’s window and makes a startling discovery: One of the men inside has been murdered, stabbed in the back. The other is missing. That’s right, it’s a locked bathysphere mystery . . . and who better to solve it than Sexton Blake?

Luckily, Blake is headed for the nearby island nation of Maliba (a fictional but real-sounding country, to quote WHAT’S UP, TIGER LILY) where a revolution is brewing as rebel reformers try to overthrow the oppressive government. However, British Intelligence believes that the reform movement has been infiltrated by Communist agents, and since Blake has done some favors for the British spymasters in the past, he’s tasked with locating a list of Communist infiltrators, as well as finding the missing son of a wealthy British sugar cane plantation owner. Hmm, could all three of these cases somehow be connected?

CARIBBEAN CRISIS is a lot of fun. The setting is vividly rendered, and the action races by. Blake does a good job of untangling everything, acting on his own this time. Paula Dane and Marion Lang appear briefly, Tinker is mentioned, and there’s no sign at all of good old Pedro. The impossible crime aspect of the plot gets set aside for much of the book in favor of political maneuvering and various double-crosses, but when Blake does get around to solving it, the solution is both believable and satisfying, if not as extraordinarily complex as what you get in the typical John Dickson Carr novel.

I’m looking forward to reading the restored and expanded version by Moorcock and Hodder, which should be a lot closer to Moorcock’s original intentions. However, I enjoyed this original published version, too, and am glad I got a chance to read it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

The Siege of the Black Citadel - Chuck Dixon

I remember reading and enjoying Chuck Dixon’s Conan stories in the black-and-white comic magazine THE SAVAGE SWORD OF CONAN more than 30 years ago. At the time it never occurred to me that one day Dixon and I would be friends and that I’d even have the privilege of editing a few of his books. He remains one of my favorite writers.

THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL is the first of what I hope will be numerous Conan novels by Dixon. As the story opens, Conan is part of a mercenary company fighting on the side of the rebels in a civil war in the country of Koth. The rebel forces have laid siege to the fortress known as the Black Citadel, which controls a river that’s vital to both sides in the war. Charged with finding a way to infiltrate the fortress, Conan accidentally discovers the secret of a great fortune hidden inside the citadel. At that point, THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL becomes something of a sword-and-sorcery heist novel, as Conan and several of his comrades scheme to use the upcoming battle to cover their theft of the hidden fortune. Unfortunately for them and a number of other people, there’s a sorcerer inside the fortress who is able to breach the wall between worlds and bring over a bloodthirsty beast that may tip the odds in the defenders’ favor.

While I consider myself a Robert E. Howard purist for the most part, I’m not opposed to the idea of pastiches, especially in a work such as this which is based only on the Conan stories that appeared in WEIRD TALES, as is made clear in a note inside the book. Because of that, Dixon gives us a Conan who is true to Howard’s original creation and acts, talks, and thinks in authentic ways for Conan. The writing style also does a good job of approximating Howard’s prose. I’m not sure any writer can sound exactly like another writer, but a talented pro can come close and Dixon does so in this book.

It also helps that THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL is a short novel, the kind that could have been serialized in WEIRD TALES in three parts. I think this is the best length for sword-and-sorcery yarns, in general, although I’ve certainly read some longer ones that are quite good. But the shorter length means that the tale has to move and not get bogged down, and I’m happy to report that THE SIEGE OF THE BLACK CITADEL races right along in fine fashion.

I had a great time reading this novel. If you’re a Robert E. Howard fan, maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t, depending on how you feel about pastiches. If you’re a fan of Conan in all the various forms, I can’t help but think you’ll enjoy the book a lot. It’s available as a trade paperback on Amazon or from the publisher. As for myself, I’m looking forward to Chuck Dixon’s next novel about the Cimmerian.

Monday, March 27, 2023

The Seine Vendetta - Ann Sterzinger

THE SEINE VENDETTA is a fine action/suspense novella by Ann Sterzinger set in Paris, as you’d expect from the title. The protagonist is Lisa LaRoche, an American woman who was deployed to Iraq as a Marine reservist and combat nurse. After a violent incident that left her with an unfair dishonorable discharge, she wound up in Paris where she married a Frenchman and they lived an idyllic life for a short time, before he was senselessly beaten to death by a gang of Muslim refugees, who are caught but given only two years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter. (All this is back-story and is revealed very early on, so I don’t consider it a spoiler.) Lisa descends into the bottle, tracks down a couple of the men responsible for her husband’s death after they get out of prison, and kills them. Even as a drunk, her skills at violence are still pretty good.

Then a British intelligence operative known as The Warlock shows up and offers her a job that will not only prevent a terrorist attack on Paris but also give her the chance to kill the other three men who beat her husband to death. All she has to do is stay sober . . .

The presence of The Warlock is a tip-off that this novella is connected to Jamie Mason’s novella THE NORTH ATLANTIC PROTOCOL and to CERTAIN FURY, a political thriller by Mason and Sean T. Smith that I plan to read soon. I read THE NORTH ATLANTIC PROTOCOL a couple of years ago and really liked it. THE SEINE VENDETTA is a bit of a slow burn at first as the characters and the setting are introduced, but Sterzinger’s writing is excellent and draws the reader on with no problem. Then when the action kicks in and the stakes of this supposedly simple mission get higher and higher, it moves at an absolutely breathless pace that I loved. I couldn’t read fast enough, I was so eager to find out what was going to happen.

In a world of too-fat thrillers, THE SEINE VENDETTA is the proverbial breath of fresh air. I had a great time reading it. It’s set up for a sequel, which I don’t think is written yet, but I hope it’ll be coming along soon. In the meantime, if you’re an action/adventure fan, I give THE SEINE VENDETTA a very high recommendation. It’s available as an e-book from Amazon and also on Kindle Unlimited.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Adventure, January 1952

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my somewhat tattered copy in the scan. You don’t hear much about ADVENTURE from this era. The magazine was far past its glory days of the Teens, Twenties, and Thirties, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still entertaining. We'll find out. The cover on this issue is by Murray Hirsch, an artist I’m not familiar with. The editor at this point is veteran pulpster Ejler Jakobsson.

The issue leads off with “Son of the Sword”, a historical adventure novelette by Poul Anderson. This may well be the first thing I’ve read by Anderson that wasn’t science fiction or fantasy, but I know he did a number of historical adventure novels and stories. In this one, set in ancient Egypt, a pirate from Crete is hired to get King Tut’s beautiful young widow out of Thebes before political enemies of hers who have seized power have her killed. The opening of this story reminded me a little of Robert E. Howard’s “The People of the Black Circle”. Thoas the pirate has some definite similarities to Conan, as well. However, the story’s plot is very much a straight line, without any of the twists and double-crosses that Howard would have included, and the action scenes, while good, don’t rise to REH levels. That said, I don’t want to criticize this story for what it isn’t, since it’s well-written, does a great job with the setting, and races right along at a nice pace. It’s a very good story that I enjoyed quite a bit. It certainly made me want to read more of Anderson’s historical fiction.

Charles J. Boyle was a baseball journalist who wrote seven stories for ADVENTURE, ARGOSY, and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST in the late Forties and early Fifties. I don’t think I’d ever encountered his work until I read his story in this issue, “Blood Sky”. It’s about McGafferty, a troubleshooter who specializes in disasters such as avalanches, mine cave-ins, floods, and forest fires. In this one, it’s a forest fire that’s threatening a small town. Boyle uses a couple of flashbacks to give this story a bit of an epic feel and to flesh out the romance between McGafferty and a beautiful female reporter who’s written some unsympathetic stories about him. This is a great yarn. There’s enough material here for a full-length novel, and it would have made a wonderful movie directed by Howard Hawks, starring John Wayne and Barbara Stanwyck, with a screenplay by Jules Furthman. I need to see if I can find some more stories by Charles J. Boyle.

“Hark, Africa!”, a reprint from the September 1937 issue of ADVENTURE, is a novelette by veteran adventure, mystery, and aviation pulpster Joel Townsley Rogers. I think it’s about the clash between a French colonial official and the German who ran the colony before World War I over a native dancer. I say I think because I read five or six pages of this one and gave up on it. Long-winded, very repetitive, and just not to my taste at all. I’ve read other stories by Rogers that I enjoyed, but this isn’t one of them.

“No Man’s Passage” is a short story by an author I’m not familiar with, Steve Hail. That’s a good name for a pulp writer, and evidently his own. He wrote more than sixty adventure, Western, and sports stories for a variety of pulps and slicks between the mid-Forties and the late Fifties. I learned something from this story, which seems to be set in the Pacific Northwest. There were lightships, like floating lighthouses, that protected shipping from rough coastlines. This story is set on one and uses the old plot about the clash between a crusty old captain and a by-the-book young officer. Naturally, there’s a bad storm and a looming disaster as well. It’s an okay yarn, the kind of thing I like, but the writing never really grabbed me. I finished it with no problem, though, unlike the Rogers story.

I’ve seen Verne Athanas’s name on plenty of pulp TOCs. He wrote dozens of stories for various markets between the late Forties and the early Sixties, as well as a handful of Western novels. There’s even a collection of his pulp Western yarns, PURSUIT, still available on Amazon. I don’t recall ever reading anything by him before, though. His story “Killer’s Dark” rounds out this issue. It’s a Western about a bank-robbing outlaw on the run from a lawman with a personal score to settle with him. It’s well-written and moved along nicely, but then the ending made me say, “That’s it?” Not a bad story, but it definitely left me feeling it was a little lacking.

There are also poems by C. Wiles Hallock and John Bunker. I’m not a poetry guy, but I read them and they’re okay.

Which is a good overall rating for this issue, I think: just okay. A very good story by Poul Anderson, a great one by Charles J. Boyle, and then the rest of the contents pretty forgettable. I worry sometimes that I’m too inclined to like pulp stories just because they’re, well, pulp, and that I’m too inclined to dislike current fiction because it doesn’t match up to the old days. But then a pulp issue like this makes me think that might not be the case. Either way, all I can do is try to be objective and move on.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Star Western, October 1943

I feel like I should know who painted this cover, but I don't. Maybe one of you can help me out. STAR WESTERN was always one of the top pulps in the genre. This issue features six novelettes by Walt Coburn, Harry F. Olmsted, Les Savage Jr., Tom Roan, William R. Cox, and Fred Gipson. That's right, Mr. Old Yeller his own self, who wrote a bunch of stories for the Western pulps. At one point, I was talking to an academic press about editing a collection of them, but nothing ever came of it. That's a great bunch of writers in this issue of STAR WESTERN, which was nothing unusual back in those days.

Friday, March 24, 2023

The MI6 Files, Book One: Burning Lance - Brent Towns

I bought this series when I was still at Rough Edges Press, but other than that I had nothing to do with it. So now I get to read it as a fan, rather than an editor. Which is good, because I really enjoyed it. THE MI6 FILES is a spin-off from Brent Towns’ extremely popular Team Reaper series. The protagonist, former Royal Marine Commando Richard Todd, previously appeared as a supporting character in some of those books. Todd, now working for MI6, England’s foreign intelligence service, takes center stage in BURNING LANCE.

The title refers to a Russian-designed and built laser weapon meant to be launched into space and capable of destroying entire cities from there with one pulse. However, it’s stolen from the Russians before it can be launched. The identity of the thieves is a mystery. The leaders of MI6 know that such a weapon can’t be trusted in anybody’s hands, so they assign Todd the job of finding the Burning Lance, recovering it, or destroying it if he can’t get it back.

He won’t be working alone, though. The Russians have decided that the weapon is too powerful and should be destroyed, too, so Todd is teamed up with a beautiful female Russian agent in his search. Before you think that you know where that’s going, as it turns out the Russian agent is a lesbian and not interested in Todd romantically. But they do become friends and comrades-in-arms as their mission turns into a globe-trotting adventure with a somewhat surprising conclusion as it’s revealed who has the Burning Lance and what they intend to do with it. This is a high-stakes game, with the fate of millions resting on Todd and his Russian partner.

To put it simply, this is a wonderful book, part James Bond and part Man From U.N.C.L.E. It also reminded me very much of one of the early Nick Carter, Killmaster books in which Nick was teamed with a Russian agent. The writing is smooth and terse and a very welcome contrast to so many current thrillers that are bloated beyond belief and often pull their punches when it comes to the climaxes. The big finish to BURNING LANCE is very satisfying, as is the brief wrap-up that follows.

I always felt a little funny about praising books that I edited, but as I said, that doesn’t apply here. BURNING LANCE is one of the best books I’ve read this year, another winner from Brent Towns, and if you’re an action/adventure fan I give it a very high recommendation. As usual, it's available in e-book and trade paperback editions. The next book in the series is coming soon, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Commando #4433: Boss of the Barbary Apes - Eric Hebden

Since 1713 the mighty Rock of Gibraltar has been British, a massive stone fortress guarding the Mediterranean. But in World War Two, the Nazis had plans for capturing the Rock and knocking out the garrison by using deadly nerve gas. And all that stood in the way of the Germans was one lance-corporal and one small Barbary ape.

A couple of years ago I read a bunch of issues of COMMANDO, the long-running British war comic, especially while I was writing a column about them for BATTLING BRITONS, the excellent fanzine published by Justin Marriott. I guess I burned myself out on them, because I hadn't read one for a while. But I was in the mood for one this morning, and man, "Boss of the Barbary Apes" really hit the spot. A great script by the always dependable Eric Hebden, a fine cover by Ian Kennedy, and superb interior art by Cam Kennedy. The 64 pages flew by. This story was published originally in COMMANDO #568 back in July 1971 and then reprinted in COMMANDO #4433 in September 2019. The e-book edition (which is what I read) is still available on Amazon. If you want a tense, well-written World War II adventure yarn that can be read quickly, I give this one a high recommendation. I still have a ton of unread issues of COMMANDO on my Kindle. Might be time to get back to them and maybe pick up some new ones.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Bullet Train (2022)

I don't post much anymore about current or near-current movies. I don't know why. I used to all the time. But this movie is so downright goofy that I had to say something about it. Half a dozen assassins/professional criminals find themselves traveling on a bullet train in Japan. They're there on different missions and aren't aware of the others, but as the movie goes on, it's gradually revealed that everything is tied together and some of the characters aren't who they appear to be. This is definitely a movie not to watch with one eye. You've got to pay attention to have any idea what's going on.

And even then, I'm not sure if everything makes complete sense, but I'm not sure I care, either. The movie is full of fast-paced, over-the-top action and snappy dialogue, and I like complicated plots like that. The cast, led by Brad Pitt and the great character actors Michael Shannon and Hiroyuki Sanada, is good all around. There are several celebrity cameos to watch for. It's a little bloodier than I like, but in a movie about professional assassins, you've got expect some of that. Toward the end, the action is so over-the-top that it gets fairly ludicrous, but no more so than the Fast and Furious movies, and hey, I love those.

I had a really good time watching BULLET TRAIN. I don't think it's a great movie, but it sure is entertaining.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Wanted for Questioning - Wilfred McNeilly

This is another Sexton Blake paperback from 1965. That’s my cover-creased copy in the scan. It answers a question I had, but I’ll get to that later. In a clever opening that shows Blake isn’t infallible, he’s tricked into shooting a potential client. There’s no question that Blake pulled the trigger and killed the man. But who’s the real murderer, Blake or the villain who set up the situation? Despite being Blake’s friend, Detective Superintendent Grimwald feels compelled to arrest him. However, Blake talks Grimwald into giving him 24 hours to carry out his own investigation. 24 hours to save himself from a murder charge, in other words.

This novel is from the era when Blake is running a good-sized private detective agency in London, so that means the usual group of supporting characters is on hand: assistant Edward Carter, also known as Tinker; beautiful secretary and part-time detective Paula Dane; receptionist Marion Lang, also beautiful and a part-time detective; reporter Arthur “Splash” Kirby; and Blake’s faithful bloodhound Pedro.

Their only possible approach is to investigate the victim and hope that will lead to the killer. The victim is a former music hall comedian, part of a duo that’s roughly the British equivalent of Laurel and Hardy. He’s risen above those humble beginnings and become a wealthy showbiz entrepreneur. He became connected with Blake in the first place because he suspected that someone was embezzling money from his various enterprises. Blake and his helpers turn up several suspects. Somebody tries killing Blake, indicating they’re on the right trail. Paula and Marion also wind up in danger. Eventually everything gets sorted out, of course, but not before Blake gets arrested.

The plot maybe relies a little too much on coincidence, but the solution is a clever one. I figured it out, but not until pretty late in the game. The pacing is very good. I flew through the book quickly and enjoyed every minute of it.

A few weeks ago when I read and reviewed another Blake novel from this era, MURDERER AT LARGE, I speculated about who might have been behind the W.A. Ballinger house-name on that one. My friend Keith Chapman suggested, based on what I wrote about the book, that it might have been Wilfred McNeilly, so I deliberately picked a McNeilly novel for my next Sexton Blake. WANTED FOR QUESTIONING has some definite similarities to MURDERER AT LARGE: a show business setting, a considerable amount of humor, and an occasional philosophical digression. The style is so much the same that I’m confident McNeilly also wrote at least the first draft of MURDERER AT LARGE. I plan to read more of McNeilly’s work for further evidence, though. I have two or three more of them around here.

In the meantime, I’m really enjoying the stories from this era of Blake’s career. WANTED FOR QUESTIONING is a good one, and if you’re a Sexton Blake fan, too, I give it a solid recommendation.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Short Stories, July 1951

SHORT STORIES was still using those red sun covers even this late in its run. This one is by Everett Raymond Kinstler. By this time, the magazine was using a lot of reprints. Every story in this issue, in fact, is a reprint. But with authors such as Ernest Haycox, William Chamberlain, Cliff Farrell, Bennett Foster, Edward Parrish Ware, Jackson Gregory, and Stephen Chalmers, most readers probably still got their money's worth. By the way, I have carried a knife in my teeth before, and while climbing up a cliff, to boot. Sometimes I think it's a wonder my friends and I survived childhood.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Range Riders Western, January 1948

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. My copy has a big chunk out of the front cover, so I’ve used the image from the Fictionmags Index. I think that cover is by George Rozen, but I wouldn’t swear to that. RANGE RIDERS (title later changed to RANGE RIDERS WESTERN) was one of the Thrilling Group’s Western pulps, published officially by Better Publications. It ran for 75 issues from December 1938 through April 1953. The lead novel in each issue featured Steve Reese, Hank Ball, and Dusty Trail, a trio of range detectives who work for the Cattlemen’s Protective Association. Reese, who is actually the hero of the series with Hank and Dusty providing support and occasional comic relief, also has a commission as a U.S. Marshal, so he has jurisdiction wherever he goes.

“The Bloody Bull Trail” in the January 1948 issue is by Oscar J. Friend, probably best remembered as an editor and literary agent, but he wrote a good number of Western and science fiction novels, too. He probably created the Steve Reese series since he was the main author of those novels during the pulp’s early years, then returned late in its run to contribute two more stories, of which this is the first. As the story opens, Reese is on the trail of a missing prize bull which was stolen from an Arizona rancher. Reese is also looking for another range detective who was assigned to the case first but has disappeared. Another rancher in the area, a Mexican don whose spread is an old Spanish land grant, also wanted that bull, so he’s the prime suspect in its theft, not to mention the disappearance of the other detective.

What Reese finds is that he and Hank and Dusty (who show up not long after he does) are in the middle of a complex plot involving water rights, gun smuggling, and a Mexican bandit known as El Gato. Murder ups the stakes as our heroes do a lot of riding and fighting and shooting to untangle all those threads.

Friend was an excellent writer whose work has more humor and literary touches than that of many Western pulpsters. At the same time, he never neglects the action and keeps this story moving along at a brisk, very satisfying pace. By this time, most Western writers, Friend included, had abandoned the “yuh mangy polecat” dialogue, making “The Bloody Bull Trail” read more like a yarn that could have been written in the Fifties, Sixties, or Seventies. It’s smooth and well-done and very entertaining. I liked it a lot.

I’ve always found it a little odd that none of these novels from RANGE RIDERS were reprinted in paperback during the Sixties and Seventies, like the other characters from the Thrilling Group’s Western hero pulps, Jim Hatfield, the Rio Kid, and the Masked Rider. Seems like they would have been prime material for reprinting by Popular Library or Curtis Books. “The Long Noose”, also by Friend and from the first issue of the pulp, was reprinted in hardback by Gateway Press in 1942 and in paperback by Handi-Books in 1947. The main characters’ names were changed in these reprints. I used to have a copy of the Gateway Press edition. Steve Reese became Simon Carter. I don’t remember what Hank Ball and Dusty Trail were changed to. All of Friend’s early novels from the series were also reprinted in England but apparently THE LONG NOOSE is the only American reprint from the series.

Moving on from the lead novel, the next story is a short-short, “Walk Out and Die”, published under the house-name Sam Brant. The Brant name has been connected to Frank Gruber, Louis L’Amour, and Syl McDowell. I think I remember reading somewhere that some of the Sam Brant stories may be by L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t think any of those authors wrote “Walk Out and Die”. It’s a tense little story about a sheriff with a prisoner who’s the target of a vengeful family of owlhoots. To me, it reads like the work of Bennie Gardner, better known under his pseudonym Gunnison Steele, and since there’s a Gunnison Steele novelette next up in this very issue, I suspect that Gardner wrote “Walk Out and Die” as well. He turned out a lot of short-shorts like this. Unfortunately, although “Walk Out and Die” starts out well, the ending is pretty weak and leaves a lot unresolved.

That Gunnison Steele novelette I mentioned is “Heir to Boothill Range”. It uses the very common plot of a young man returning to his hometown to find out who framed his father for rustling and then lynched him seven years earlier. While there’s nothing new about this one, plot-wise, Gardner does a good job with it, giving us a well-paced yarn with a likable protagonist, some fine action scenes, and a nicely handled romantic element. I nearly always like Bennie Gardner’s work and this is no exception.

Since this is a January issue, that means it was on the newsstands during December, so fittingly enough there’s a Christmas story, “A Happy Christmas” by C.V. Tench. This is a Northern, a suspenseful yarn about a trapper/prospector who has a sinister visitor on Christmas Eve. I guessed the late twist in this one, but it’s still an enjoyable, effective tale.

“Killer’s Cue” by William O’Sullivan has an unusual protagonist, an elderly Chinese cook who works in a saloon and hotel in a mining camp. He turns detective in order to find out who killed his best friend, an old codger prospector. The murderer’s identity is really obvious, but that doesn’t keep this from being a good story.

Harold F. Cruickshank wrote a bunch of aviation stories for the pulps, but from the mid-Forties through the early Fifties, he wrote a Western short story series called the Pioneer Folk (sometimes listed as the Sun Bear Valley series) that ran in RANGE RIDERS WESTERN. These stories feature a young married couple, Dal and Mary Baldwin, and their friends and neighbors in Sun Bear Valley. The one in this issue is called “Good Neighbor Gunfire”. To be honest, I skipped it, because I’ve forced myself to read some of this series in the past and never liked any of them. At this point, there aren’t many things I’m going to force myself to read.

The issue wraps up with “Trail Drive” by A. Kenneth Brant, a pseudonym for Brent Ashabranner. This generically-titled yarn about a trail boss trying to get a herd across a waterless stretch is well-written. Not much to it, but I enjoyed it.

Overall, I think this is a good issue of RANGE RIDERS WESTERN. The lead novel is excellent, one of the best in the series I’ve read, the Gunnison Steele novelette is very good, and all the stories are entertaining (except for the one I skipped, which may be good, too, just not to my taste). It’s been a while since I read an issue of this pulp. I think I may need to see if I can rustle up some more of them. (No pun intended.)

Friday, March 17, 2023

Battle for the Wastelands #2: Serpent Sword - Matthew W. Quinn

Here's the blurb I gave this novel: "There's no sophomore slump in SERPENT SWORD, the second book in Matthew Quinn's Battle for the Wastelands series, which combines post-apocalyptic science fiction, family saga, and Western elements. That's an ambitious combination, but Quinn pulls it off in fine fashion. SERPENT SWORD has plenty of action, compelling characters, and an intriguing, well-developed villain/anti-hero in Grendel, the dictator of the northern realms who's trying to take over the rest of the continent. This is an excellent series."

To expand on this a little . . . Dang, this is a good yarn. One of the most interesting parts of this series is the tangled family tree of the characters. The warlord villain Grendel has a number of children, including one with the sister of his greatest enemy, and this really amps up the political intrigue as he tries not only to survive the ongoing war against his rule but also to ensure a stable future when he's gone. If that sounds like he's the protagonist of this series, well, in some ways he is, despite being the bad guy.

Quinn does a fine job with the ground-level soldiers, though, following a platoon in the forces trying to drive Grendel from power. There's plenty of action, not just scheming, including some spectacular aerial combat involving dirigibles. The world-building is top-notch, too, as Quinn peels away more layers from the complex back-story of what the world has become in the future.

I can give this series a definite recommendation. It's well-written, has complex characters, and is packed with action. The books have great covers by Matthew Cowdery, too. Available in paperback and e-book editions from Amazon.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Men's Adventure Quarterly #6: The Heist Issue - Robert Deis, Bill Cunningham, Paul Bishop, and Jules Burt, eds.

Somehow I fell behind in my reading of MEN'S ADVENTURE QUARTERLY, absolutely one of the best publications on the market today. This situation cannot be allowed to stand, of course. So I've now read the sixth volume in the series, The Heist Issue, and no surprise, it continues the high standards of the previous issues.

MEN'S ADVENTURE QUARTERLY reprints the best stories and art from the dozens of men's adventure magazines published in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. As I've mentioned before, I always wanted to buy and read these magazines when I was a kid but seldom did because of the difficulty of smuggling them into the house. (Racy covers, you know. I ran into the same problem with a lot of paperbacks.)

The Heist Issue contains stories by some top-notch writers: bestsellers Martin Cruz Smith and Thomas Chastain (under pseudonyms), veteran wordsmith Donald Honig (who's had a story in every issue of MAQ so far for a good reason: they're all excellent yarns), and paperbacker Grant Freeling, who authored several movie novelizations.

My favorite story in this issue, though, is by the obscure Eugene Joseph, quite possibly a pseudonym for a better-known writer. His story "G.I. Stickup Mob That Heisted $33 Million in Nazi Gold", from the November 1967 issue of MALE, is a well-written, fast-moving tale that includes a lengthy flashback full of top-notch World War II action. This would have made a great movie in the Sixties.

Honig's "Band of Misfits" from the January 1970 issue of ACTION FOR MEN is another stand-out. Editor Robert Deis compares this story of a casino robbery to Donald E. Westlake's Parker series, and that's a legitimate comparison. The hardboiled tone in this one is really good.

All the stories are a lot of fun, as are the introductions by Deis and his fellow editor Bill Cunningham, along with guest editors Paul Bishop and Jules Burt. Cunningham's design work, as always, is spectacular, making MAQ a great showcase for art by Mort Kunstler, Gil Cohen, Samson Pollen, Earl Norem, and others.

The photo feature this time around focuses on Angie Dickinson, who made several heist and caper movies in her career. Angie is an all-time favorite of mine, and more than a dozen pages of sultry photos of her just makes this an even better issue. I give it a very high recommendation.

You can buy MEN'S ADVENTURE QUARTERLY: THE HEIST ISSUE on Bob Deis's website or his eBay store. And I'll be back in the near future with a look at the next issue, GANG GIRLS!, which is already on hand.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Whistler - E.B. Mann

THE WHISTLER by E.B. Mann is a 1954 Pocket Books paperback with a nice cover by Lou Marchetti. It’s a reprint of a book published a year earlier by Greenberg Publishers, a company that I believe mostly targeted the lending library market. More importantly for our purposes, it reprints three novellas from the pulp DIME WESTERN starring a character known as The Whistler, who is actually James Bonnet Sinclair, Jr., the owner of a ranching empire he inherited from his father. But rather than being a rich cattleman, Sinclair leaves the running of that business to others and roams around the frontier seeking adventure as a range detective and Deputy U.S. Marshal. He carries two guns, is almost supernaturally fast and accurate with them, and whistles when he’s under stress or deep in thought, sort of like Doc Savage’s trilling. (By the way, I don’t think Doc influenced the character in any way, since the first Whistler story came out in the April 1933 issue of DIME WESTERN, a mere month after the first issue of DOC SAVAGE.)

My hunch is that THE WHISTLER reprints the first three novellas in the series, but I haven’t been able to confirm that since the book doesn’t use the original titles or provide any bibliographic information. The first story in the book, called simply “The Whistler”, reads like the debut of a series, though. Jim Sinclair shows up in the vicinity of one of the ranches he owns, although he keeps his true identity a secret. He’s there to investigate some rustling in the area, but he barely arrives before somebody tries to bushwhack him. Then he runs into a young fugitive who’s being unjustly blamed for the rustling, and of course, there’s a rancher’s beautiful daughter in the mix, too, as well as some crooked lawmen and a deadly gunfighter who may be a match for The Whistler when it comes to gunplay. Mann keeps things moving along at a breakneck pace, and the action scenes are great. I think this is probably “The Death Whistler” from the April 1933 issue of DIME WESTERN.

The second story in this collection, “Outlaws Rule”, uses a very similar plot. There’s an unjustly accused young fugitive (this one is wounded), a rancher’s beautiful daughter, some crooked lawmen, and a gang of rustlers. Everything plays out in much the same way, too, at a fast pace and with plenty of well-written gunfights. Mann throws in a hired killer pretending to be The Whistler, too, which certainly helps. I suspect but am not certain that this is “Guns for the Whistler” from the January 1934 issue of DIME WESTERN. I am certain that it was expanded into Mann’s 1935 novel RUSTLERS’ ROUNDUP, since I have a copy of that one and it’s the same story with the same characters, with some elements from the first story worked in to make it longer.

“Doctored Guns”, the third and final novella, starts out differently, with a bushwhack attempt in a mining town. Jim Sinclair has drifted into town on a case just in time to save an old codger from getting gunned down. This lands him in the middle of a scheme involving mining fraud and bank robbery, which just happens to be what brought him to the area in the first place. There’s no rustling in this yarn, and no rancher’s beautiful daughter, either. The only thing it has in common with the other two is the presence of some crooked lawmen. It’s the best of the three, as well, with a great pace and a smashing climax. This was originally (maybe) “The Whistler’s Gun-Warning”, from the May 1934 issue of DIME WESTERN.

The Whistler is an extremely likable protagonist, although he's not the strangest lawman ever to ride the Western plains as the book cover claims, and Mann writes superb action scenes. His gunfights are some of the best I’ve read in the Western pulps. The plots of these three novellas are a little weak, I thought, but I still enjoyed the stories very much and found them to be well worth reading. As far as I know, the other three Whistler novellas have never been reprinted, but I still have the novel EL SOMBRA to read.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Startling Stories, November 1947

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my copy in the scan. The cover is by Earle Bergey, a little more sedate than usual and not one of his better ones, but still not bad. Unlike the fans at the time (more about that later), I’m a big fan of Bergey’s work.

I’ve been reading stories by Murray Leinster, whose real name was Will F. Jenkins, for more than 50 years. I’m sure some of his stories were in various science fiction anthologies I read in junior high and high school. His novella “The Man in the Iron Cap” is the lead story in this issue of STARTLING STORIES. I’d barely started reading it when I came across this gut-punch of a passage:

The world, of course, was bright and new and shining on its sunlit side, and restful and peaceful and secure where night clothed it. In the countries where the sun shone men and women worked and children played and where the stars looked down they slept quietly.

But all assured themselves that they were secure. They were perfectly, perfectly safe. The world was made safe by Security, which was an organization of quite the wisest men on earth. They were at once the greatest scientists and the most able administrators. They had the welfare of everybody in mind.

They had begun, of course, by forbidding anybody to experiment with atom bombs because the human race could be wiped out by so few of them. They could make all the earth's atmosphere poisonously radioactive. Then everybody would die. But Security prevented that.

And presently it forbade the use of atomic energy as such in any form because, of course, any generator of atomic power makes radioactivity which may escape into the air. Not long after that, the wise men of Security learned that someone had been experimenting with germs and by accident had created a new and very deadly mutation.

It could have been used in biological warfare, but also it could have released a new and very deadly plague upon the world. So Security forbade experiments with germs. And still later a physicist discovered the principle of a very tiny generator which developed incredibly high voltages. Beams of deadly radiation became possible. So Security had to take steps to protect the world from that.

Security was very wise and very conscientious. It did not stop all scientific advance, of course. Its scientists experimented very carefully, in especially set-up Experimental Zones, with all due care that nothing could happen to endanger the people of Earth. Which meant, naturally, that they did not make any very dangerous experiments.

In time Security took a fatherly interest in public health because new plagues sometimes arise in nature. It issued directives governing quarantine and medicine in general and, of course, travel by individuals because individuals are sometimes disease carriers. And presently it was inevitable that Security should give advice on education, and arrange that technical knowledge should be restricted to stable personalities.

In a complex modern civilization a single paranoiac could cause vast damage if he were technically informed. So presently everybody took psychological tests, and those who received technical educations were strictly licensed by Security. Then libraries were combed and emptied of dangerous facts that lunatics could use to the detriment of mankind.

The people of Earth were very secure. They were protected against everything that Security could imagine as happening to them. But they weren’t free any longer. The tragedy was that many of the guiding minds of Security were utterly sincere, though there were self-seekers and politicians merely seeking soft jobs and importance among Security officials.

The guiding minds believed devoutly that they served humanity by using their greater knowledge and wisdom to protect human beings from themselves. But somehow, knowing their own motives, they did not see that they had created the most crushing tyranny ever known to men.

Looking around at our world, that’s chillingly prescient and would keep this story from being published in any mainstream SF market today. It’s also a little long-winded and repetitive, which is this story’s main flaw. Leinster recapitulates what’s going on a lot. Also, the plot depends on several huge coincidences.

That said, “The Man in the Iron Cap” has some real strengths, too. The protagonist is a scientist named Jim Hunt, who has been sentenced to life in prison for unauthorized experiments involving telepathy. He escapes, but then he stumbles into an alien invasion of telepathic, blood-sucking creatures from outer space that have taken over a mountainous, rural area and are gradually expanding into nearby cities. The Little Fellas, as their mind-controlled victims refer to them, are some of the creepiest villains I’ve ever encountered in science fiction. This story is really a cross between SF and horror. Leinster throws in some nice twists, as well, as Jim Hunt tries to figure out a way to defeat the aliens, and the ending is very satisfying. Leinster expanded this into a novel called THE BRAIN STEALERS, which was published as half of an Ace SF Double in 1954. I haven’t read that version and likely never will, but I really enjoyed “The Man in the Iron Cap” despite the somewhat dated writing.

I’ve been reading Jack Williamson’s work about as long as I have Murray Leinster’s. The first Williamson I remember reading is his novel GOLDEN BLOOD, which I bought in the Lancer Easy-Eye edition off the paperback spinner rack in Tompkins’ Drug Store when it was new. I really ought to reread that book one of these days. His short story “Through the Purple Cloud”, which appeared originally in the May 1931 issue of WONDER STORIES, is reprinted as a Hall of Fame Classic in this issue of STARTLING STORIES. That may be stretching it a little. The plot has an airliner flying through a purple cloud that suddenly appears in the sky in front of it and winding up crashing on a savage world in another dimension. Among the few survivors are an engineer (a lot of protagonists from this era of SF are engineers, of course), a beautiful girl, and a villainous brute. The struggle to survive and eventually get back to our own world ensues. This is mostly an action story with a little scientific speculation, but it’s well-written and moves right along at an entertaining pace. It’s actually a minor Williamson yarn, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m a big fan of his work and found it enjoyable if not quite a classic. I should note that it’s the cover story in both its pulp appearances, with the art on the WONDER STORIES cover provided by Frank Paul.

I’ve heard of British SF author John Russell Fearn for a long time, too, but unlike Leinster and Williamson, I’ve read very little by him. His story in this issue, “Chaos”, written under the pseudonym Polton Cross, is a “last days of Atlantis” yarn, in which Atlantis is a scientific paradise until something goes wrong and leads to its destruction. It’s well-written but a little dry for my taste.

The final story is “Anastomosis” by Clyde Beck, an early SF fan who published only four stories. This one is probably more fantasy than SF, a whimsical domestic comedy about a math professor, his young children, a mysterious visitor, and a gizmo. It reminded me a little of some of Robert Bloch’s humorous stories. Mildly amusing and worth a few smiles.

Wrapping things up is a lengthy editorial department/letters column called “The Ether Vibrates”. Some familiar names show up: Chad Oliver, Lloyd Arthur Eshbach, Stanley Mullen, Lin Carter, and Virgil Utter. The other correspondents are probably well-known to those more familiar with SF fandom from that era than I am. Several of them complain about Earle Bergey’s covers. One even calls them immoral. Me, I still like those Bergey space babes.

Another interesting letters section comment comes in response to a reader request for stories from some of the old-time SF authors. One of the authors he mentions is Ed Earl Repp. The editor's response says that Repp is staying busy with the "writing school" he runs (quote marks mine). We know from Frank Bonham's great essay "Tarzana Nights" that Repp wasn't running an actual school for writers. He was farming out Western pulp work to several writers, providing them with plot ideas, then selling the stories under his own name and splitting the money with the ghostwriters. Bonham seems rather bitter about this, but having been on both sides of that equation myself, I think Repp's operation was reasonably fair. He could have paid the ghosts less than half and found plenty of writers who'd be happy to get the work.

After that little digression, I should mention that the editor of STARTLING STORIES at this point in its run was none other than Sam Merwin Jr., who bought the first story under my name for MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE approximately 30 years later and had a huge impact on my career by asking me to write one of the Mike Shayne novellas under the Brett Halliday house-name. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I owe Sam a big debt, not just for the stories he bought but for the hastily scrawled but always enthusiastic and encouraging notes he sent along with dozens of story rejections in 1975 and ’76 when I was trying to break in. He put me on the path I’ve followed for almost half a century now.

Overall, I think this is a very good issue of STARTLING STORIES. If you want to check it out, the whole thing is available at the Internet Archive.


Saturday, March 11, 2023

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Wild West Weekly, November 7, 1942

I feel like I should know who painted this cover. Tom Lovell? R.G. Harris? Maybe someone who's better than me at artist IDs can give us a definitive answer. But one thing I do know is that WILD WEST WEEKLY was almost always fun to read, and this issue doesn't look like any exception. Walker A. Tompkins has two stories in this one, a Tommy Rockford yarn under his own name and a stand-alone story under the house-name Andrew A. Griffin. House-names William A. Todd and Nelse Anderson are in this issue, as well; Norman W. Hay wrote the Risky McKee story as by Todd, and Bennie Gardner wrote the stand-alone Anderson. Also on hand are C. William Harrison, S. Omar Barker, and James P. Webb. A very solid line-up and a good cover, typical of WILD WEST WEEKLY.

Update: The cover artist has been confirmed as R.G. Harris.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Murderer At Large - W.A. Ballinger

MURDERER AT LARGE is a 1965 entry in the Sexton Blake series after it moved 
from digest-sized novels to mass-market paperbacks. That title is the name of a low-budget true crime TV show in England that focuses on unsolved homicides—cold cases, although I don’t think that term was used that early—in which the killer appears to have gotten away with it.

One of the cases that the show will cover in an upcoming episode is the Primrose Ballet Murder, which occurred three years earlier when a 15-year-old dancer was strangled. The show has two researchers, one a former cop and the other a journalist, and when one of them is murdered, probably because he got too close to the identity of the Primrose Ballet Killer, private detective Sexton Blake is drawn into the case. Not surprisingly, another killing occurs, so ultimately Blake has to solve three murders and pick out the killer from a very large cast of characters that includes writers, producers, casting directors, and aristocrats from the upper levels of society and finance.

Not only are there a lot of suspects to sort through, but many of the series regulars also appear, including Blake’s assistant Edward Carter (aka Tinker), his beautiful secretary Paula Dane, his likewise beautiful receptionist Marian Lang, his journalist friend Arthur “Splash” Kirby, and even his faithful dog Pedro.

The plot of MURDERER AT LARGE is a little on the thin side, which may explain the large number of characters involved. Even with so many people running around, the author still needs to fill some pages with humorous digressions such as this one early on:

The writers’ office was small, shabby, and tucked away on the most remote corridor of the top floor of ATN House [the production company that makes the series]. This was usual for no large entertainment organisation loves writers. When they can be replaced with electronic machines they will be replaced. [Shades of ChatGPT!]

Machines suffer from none of the disabilities of writers, such as unpunctuality, debts or intoxication. Machines do not pinch the bottom of the managing director’s secretary or borrow ten shillings from the doorkeeper. Machines do not, above all, regard their employers with anarchistic contempt between spells of obsequiousness when pay-checks are due to come round.

But until machines are made the organisations have to make do with writers, faults and all.

Whoever wrote that knows writers, that’s for sure! Sure sarcastic asides run all through the book, poking a lot of fun at the TV business. When Blake finally exposes the killer and the murderer tries to flee, the action becomes pure slapstick, and it’s pretty darned funny despite a rather grim ending. This whole book is a slightly unsettling blend of bleak and hilarious, but I really enjoyed it.

Which brings us to the question of the author’s identity. The book is bylined W.A. Ballinger, a pseudonym normally used by W. Howard Baker, the author/editor/packager who was in charge of the Sexton Blake series for many years. Baker often had uncredited collaborators doing first drafts for him, so his actual contribution could range from plot/light edits to plot and heavy revisions. In addition, other editors sometimes revised manuscripts. A friend of mine who’s familiar with the series and authors suggests that Wilfred McNeilly might have had something to do with this one, but that’s far from certain. I have a couple of Blake paperbacks credited to McNeilly and intend to read them soon to see if I can pick up any similarity in styles.

None of this really matters, of course, no matter how interesting I find it. What's important is whether or not a book is entertaining, and MURDERER AT LARGE certainly is. By the way, I apologize for the quality of the cover scan. I read the novel as a PDF file, and this is the only cover image I could find on-line.

Sunday, March 05, 2023

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Argosy, May 25, 1940

Rudolph Belarski contributes a nice, action-packed cover to this issue of ARGOSY. As usual, there's an excellent line-up of authors inside, too: Walt Coburn, Carroll John Daly, Jim Kjelgaard, Budd Schulberg, William Du Bois, and Charles T. Jackson. And only two of those pesky serials in this issue (Coburn and Jackson).

Saturday, March 04, 2023

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Exciting Western, June 1945

This is a pulp I own and read recently. That’s my somewhat beat-up copy in the scan, with a rather whimsical cover by the incredibly prolific Sam Cherry.

The lead feature in EXCITING WESTERN for most of its run was the Tombstone and Speedy series by one of my favorite Western authors, W.C. Tuttle. Like Tuttle’s justly more famous Hashknife Hartley and Sleepy Stevens, Tombstone Jones and Speedy Smith are range detectives working for the Cattleman’s Association. They’re generally thought of as being pretty dumb and usually solve their cases through pure luck, with considerable snappy banter and some slapstick humor along the way. From time to time, though, Tuttle drops hints that the two of them aren’t nearly as dumb as they act. In fact, in this issue’s novelette, “Gunsmoke in Oro Rojo”, they unravel a fairly complicated mystery involving rustled beef and high-graded ore and seem to be fully aware of what they’re doing as they “bumble” their way to a solution and justice for the bad guys. This is a very good entry in a consistently entertaining series.

The Navajo Tom Raine, Arizona Ranger series ran in EXCITING WESTERN for several dozen stories, always by-lined with the house name Jackson Cole except for one story published under the name C. William Harrison, the real name of an author who may well have written some of the other stories, too. But prolific Western pulpster Lee Bond has also been linked to the series. “Indian Killer”, the Navajo Tom Raine story in this issue, reads to me like it might be Bond’s work. Raine, a white man raised by the Navajo after his lawman father was murdered, is sent to quell an uprising by the Papago tribe, which is being blamed for a series of stagecoach and freight wagon holdups. Raine quickly figures out that the Indians are being framed and uncovers the real culprit. The blurb on the first page of the story gives this away, so it’s not much of a spoiler. I think most Western pulp readers would know what was going on anyway. Despite the very predictable plot, Raine is an appealing protagonist and the writing is smooth and fast-paced, leading to a satisfactory conclusion. I’ve never read a Navajo Raine story that was great, but I’ve never read one that failed to entertain me, either.

Writer/editor T.W. Ford was another very prolific pulpster, mostly in the Western and sports pulps. I’ve found his work to be inconsistent but generally pretty good. His novelette “Lead for a Donovan” in this issue is a Romeo and Juliet yarn, with a young couple from two feuding families running off to get married and the lengths to which the patriarchs of those families will go to prevent the wedding. Everything plays out about like you’d expect, but there’s plenty of action along the way and I found this to be a very enjoyable story.

In something of a rarity for a Western pulp, the cover painting from this issue is redone as a black and white interior illustration for the short story “Lynching Lawman” by an author I’m not familiar with, Bud Wilks. He published only eight stories, five in 1945 and three in 1948, all in Thrilling Group Western pulps. I have a hunch that was the author’s real name, but who knows? Might have been a house name. “Lynching Lawman” is a short but effective tale of two lawmen who have a falling out, and then one tries to frame the other for horse stealing and murder. I thought it was pretty good. Another unusual aspect is that the cover and interior illo accurately illustrate a scene from the story, meaning that artist Sam Cherry either read it or (more likely) the editor told him what to paint.

Another long-running series in the pages of EXCITING WESTERN featured the adventures of Alamo Paige, Pony Express rider. These were published under the house name Reeve Walker. Walker A. Tompkins, Charles N. Heckelmann, and Chuck Martin have all been linked to this series, and other authors may have contributed to it as well. I don’t know who wrote “Ten Days to California”, the Alamo Paige story in this issue, but it’s a good one in which Paige pursues a wanted outlaw and killer who tries to escape justice by riding the Pony Express route and stealing fresh mounts at each way station. That’s really all there is to the plot, but the story moves right along and has some nice action scenes.

That wraps it up for the June 1945 issue of this pulp, and it’s a really solid one with the five stories ranging from good to excellent. If you have this issue of EXCITING WESTERN and haven’t read it, I think it’s well worth pulling down from the shelf.

Friday, March 03, 2023

Night Riders - Giff Cheshire

I had read and enjoyed some of Giff Cheshire’s pulp stories, but I’d never read one of his novels until NIGHT RIDERS, originally serialized in RANCH ROMANCES in June and July of 1951 and reprinted in hardback by Five Star in 2006 and in paperback by Leisure in 2007. I read the e-book of the Leisure edition, which is still available from Amazon.

Horse wrangler Tully Gale is bent on romance when he drifts into the malpais country. He met a girl on the stagecoach who is on her way home to take over the ranch she’s inherited. But almost right away, Tully runs into trouble from a shady, brutal mustang hunter and then finds himself finagled into the middle of a range war over water rights. He also finds himself in a romantic triangle with the ranch girl and the beautiful widow who owns the hotel in the nearby settlement. Things get more complicated when some of Tully’s allies seem to turn into enemies.

I really have a mixed reaction to this one. The romantic angle is handled well, with a frank attitude about sex that’s unusual to find in a Western from this era. (Cheshire also wrote a number of softcore novels for Beacon Books under the name Carlton Gibbs.) There are some good action scenes here and there, including a very well-done fistfight. The water issues, while not uncommon in Westerns, aren’t as overused as some other plot elements.

But man, for long stretches, this is one dull book. Tully rides here and thinks about this, then rides there and thinks about that. Slam-bang action scenes that seem about to erupt never materialize. Cheshire’s prose just slogs along. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hated NIGHT RIDERS, but I was considerably disappointed.

The book features a bonus story in the novelette “Blood Oath”, which was published originally under the title “Colt Fever!” in the October 1949 issue of .44 WESTERN. The protagonist, Quincey Caine, isn’t a typical Western pulp hero. He’s a lawyer who came west to practice, but as the story opens, he’s a gun-shy drifter whose nerves are wrecked because the stagecoach he and his young wife were on was attacked by Indians and she was killed. He can still use his fists, though, as he proves when he’s attacked by a bully and defends himself. This lands him in the middle of a battle over some railroad right-of-way that will be valuable when a spur line runs to the area.

There’s plenty of action in this one and some good characters, especially a 12-year-old orphan who befriends Caine and proves to be tougher and more competent than most of the adult characters. I really liked the way Cheshire kept things moving right along. As disappointed as I was in NIGHT RIDERS, I was impressed by “Blood Oath”. Maybe Cheshire was just one of those authors who was better at shorter lengths, or maybe NIGHT RIDERS isn’t one of his better novels (why reprint it if that’s the case?), or maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it.

The question is, do I read more by Giff Cheshire? I think I do. I have one of his novels written under the name Chad Merriman sitting a couple of feet away from me as I type this, in fact. I’ll definitely give it a try. But not in the near future, I expect.