Monday, June 17, 2024

Rawhide Bound - Peter Henry Morland/Max Brand (Frederick Faust)


I was a little thrown by “Rawhide Bound”, the second Jim Tyler novella which appeared originally in the April 23, 1932 issue of STREET & SMITH’S WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE under the name Peter Henry Morland and then was reprinted in the collection DON DIABLO under the Max Brand name. As you may recall from my review of “Mountain Raiders”, the first novella in the series, Jim Tyler is a drifting gunman/outlaw/adventurer sometimes known as The Wolf. When I started reading “Rawhide Bound”, I expected another epic clash between Tyler and the Mexican bandit called El Tigre.

Instead, Tyler is back north of the border, visiting an old prospector who’s a friend of his. The old-timer has discovered a fabulously valuable gold mine. Then he’s wounded and kidnapped, and Tyler sets off to find and rescue him.

The trail leads Tyler to an abandoned hacienda in a desolate mountain pass that’s been taken over by a gang of outlaws. Because of his encounter with these owlhoots, he winds up being imprisoned and tortured by yet another Mexican bandit.

At first, this doesn’t read like a sequel to “Mountain Raiders”, and Jim Tyler (who is never referred to as The Wolf in this one) could be any of Frederick Faust’s borderline superhuman protagonists. This novella also seems like it was cobbled together out of elements from several different yarns.

However, Faust’s colorful, compelling prose elevates it beyond what it might have been, and eventually, connections with the previous story are revealed. The torture scenes are harrowingly suspenseful, although I thought the ending itself wasn’t all it could have been. Overall, I liked this story, although not as much as the first one, and I’m looking forward to the third and final Jim Tyler tale, which I hope to read soon.

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Famous Fantastic Mysteries, August 1950


FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES was a reprint pulp, but it reprinted some great science fiction and fantasy, sometimes obscure, sometimes well-known classics. And it had new, often great covers by some fine artists. This issue contains only two stories, both of them in the classic category: THE TIME MACHINE by H.G. Wells and DONOVAN'S BRAIN by Curt Siodmak. I've read them both, although not in this pulp. The dramatic cover illustrating a scene from THE TIME MACHINE is by one of my favorite cover artists, Norman Saunders.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Outlaws, December 1929


Walter Baumhofer is one of my favorite pulp cover artists, and I like this whimsical depiction of a harmonica-playing cowboy fending off an empty tomato can hurled at him by some listener, but I'm not sure how appropriate the scene is for a pulp subtitled "A Magazine of Hair-Trigger Hombres". But maybe that description refers to the music critic instead of the fella with the harmonica. I'd expect something more hard-bitten from a magazine called WESTERN OUTLAWS, but hey, owlhoots can enjoy a tune now and then, too. The best-known author in this issue is William Colt MacDonald, one of the big names of the pulp era and all the way through the Sixties, really. Chart Pitt and Thomas Thursday are on hand, too. Other than that, the writers are all unknown to me: Wolf Wilson, Willard E. Hawkins, Albert Wm. Stone, J.R. Johnson, Al H. Martin, R.T. Barkley, L. Simpson Turner, Charles P. Gordon, and Ludwig Stanley Landmichl. I may have heard, vaguely, of one or two of those, but I don't know anything about them. Still, I like the cover, a little odd though it may be, and MacDonald was always worth reading.

Friday, June 14, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Travels With Charley - John Steinbeck


Before Captain America and Billy did it in the movie EASY RIDER, before Green Lantern and Green Arrow did it in the comic books, author John Steinbeck and a ten-year-old poodle named Charley set off in the fall of 1960 in search of America. Appropriately enough, that’s the subtitle of the resulting book, TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY: IN SEARCH OF AMERICA.

When I was a junior in high school, a friend and I went through a pseudo-intellectual phase, as sixteen-year-old boys will sometimes do. We read and discussed Hemingway and Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and God knows what else. If our parents would have let us get away with it, we probably would have smoked pipes and worn jackets with leather patches on the elbows. It’s a wonder we didn’t choke on our own pretentiousness. But we actually did read some good books and discover some good authors along the way, among them John Steinbeck. Two of Steinbeck’s books stand out in my memory: the novel THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT and the memoir TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY. I liked a lot of his other novels, too, most notably CUP OF GOLD, TORTILLA FLAT, and OF MICE AND MEN. I was less fond of THE GRAPES OF WRATH and EAST OF EDEN, even though those two are probably his most popular novels. It’s been more than forty years since I read TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, so I decided to see how well it holds up.

I’m happy to report that it holds up very well indeed. Steinbeck writes beautifully about nature and the places he visits and the people he meets. His social and political observations are always interesting, although this time around I did notice an occasional touch of smug superiority about his comments that I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book. It’s not enough to really cause a problem, though.

The best part of TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY is the relationship between Steinbeck and Charley, who becomes as vivid a character as any in the book. When Charley develops medical problems and you don’t know what the outcome will be, there’s genuine suspense. As some of you know, I’m a dog person, and Charley’s a great dog.

It’s nice to know that this is as fine a book as I remember it being. Now, will I go back and reread THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT or some of Steinbeck’s other novels and see if they hold up as well? It could happen.

(News flash: It didn't happen. I don't think I've read anything by Steinbeck in the fifteen years since this post first appeared in a somewhat different form on June 5, 2009. And since then, it's become pretty well accepted that TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY is highly fictionalized, almost more of a novel based on the actual trip Steinbeck and Charley took rather than pure non-fiction. I don't care. It's still a good book, and I still have good memories of those long-ago high school days when I first read it.)

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Drink With the Dead - Jay Flynn


DRINK WITH THE DEAD opens with our protagonist, Konrad Jensen, being questioned by the cops about a murder he’s suspected of committing. He gets beaten up and thrown into the felony tank. Being a long-time reader of hardboiled crime and noir novels from the Fifties, I immediately expected Jensen to break out of jail and spend the rest of the novel trying to find the real killer and clear his name.

As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what we eventually get, but instead of occupying the rest of the book, after that brutal opening author Jay Flynn takes us on an extended flashback in which Konrad Jensen—who’s a federal agent—investigates a moonshine ring in the northern California mountains. This isn’t a spoiler, by the way; Flynn clues the reader in on Jensen’s real identity almost right away. It’s Jensen’s partner who gets killed, giving him a personal stake in the case, and then his own life is on the line as the bad guys close in around him. Oh, and there are two beautiful women mixed up in the investigation, too, of course.

DRINK WITH THE DEAD was published originally in 1959 under the name J.M. Flynn as half of an Ace Double Mystery with a cover by Paul Rader. That cover has been preserved on the recent Black Gat reprint of the novel. Jay Flynn was as much of an intriguing character as any of those in his books, a writer of considerable talent eroded by booze and hard living and a generally screwball approach to life. He’s the subject of a great essay by Bill Pronzini, originally published in MYSTERY SCENE, that can still be read on-line. I’ve read Flynn’s novels off and on for years, and while he was inconsistent to say the least, I don’t think I’ve ever read one that failed to entertain me.

DRINK WITH THE DEAD is certainly one of his better efforts. Setting a moonshining yarn in California instead of Kentucky or Tennessee is a nice offbeat touch. A lot of the book is more G-Man Procedural than hardboiled action, but it’s well-done, and when the action does kick into gear, it really yanks the reader along full-throttle. The ending of this novel is great, with an effective final twist of the tail. If you’ve never read Flynn’s work before, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start. If you’re already a fan, you’ll want to give this one a try. Recommended.



Monday, June 10, 2024

Mountain Raiders - Peter Henry Morland/Max Brand (Frederick Faust)


Max Brand, whose real name was, of course, Frederick Faust, is another author whose work I’ve been reading for 60 years. The first thing I read by him was the novel SINGLE JACK, in a Dodd, Mead hardback checked out from the Fort Worth Public Library bookmobile that came out to our little town every Saturday morning. I loved it and have gone on to read many more of his stories and novels over the decades. (Years later, the Fort Worth Public Library discarded that same exact copy of SINGLE JACK and it wound up in our local library, where I checked it out and read it again. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with the book that time around, but I remained a Max Brand fan.)

Faust wrote three novellas about a gunman/adventurer named Jim Tyler, sometimes known as The Wolf. These were published in the venerable pulp STREET & SMITH’S WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE under the pseudonym Peter Henry Morland in the spring of 1932 and many, many years later collected in a Leisure paperback volume under the Max Brand name called DON DIABLO. That collection is still available in an e-book edition on Amazon, which is where I read the first Jim Tyler novella “Mountain Raiders”, originally published in the April 9, 1932 issue of WESTERN STORY.

This one is set in the mountains of Mexico, where the manager of a group of silver mines owned by an American syndicate hires Tyler to fight off the raids of a notorious bandit known as El Tigre. Tyler rounds up a group of fellow gunfighters and adventurers to deal with El Tigre. This part of the story has a definite Magnificent Seven feeling to it. There’s a huge battle, of course, in which (SPOILER—but not much of one) Tyler and his men emerge triumphant through the use of a clever trick on Tyler’s part. Then, halfway through the story, things abruptly change and Tyler, at the behest of a beautiful señorita, gallivants off to rescue a Mexican revolutionary who’s been unjustly imprisoned.

Despite the fact that “Mountain Raiders” reads more like two short stories crammed together than an actual novella, the writing is excellent, as you’d expect from Faust, with vivid descriptions, top-notch dialogue, and some great action. El Tigre is a fine villain and I’m sure he and The Wolf will clash again. Jim Tyler is an intriguing character, and I’m eager to read more about him, although I’ll probably space out the other two novellas. If you’re a Max Brand fan, though, I think I can already recommend DON DIABLO.



Sunday, June 09, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1939


I like the cover by Howard V. Brown on this issue of THRILLING WONDER STORIES, and the lineup of writers inside is very impressive: Henry Kuttner, Alfred Bester, Clifford D. Simak, Eando Binder (probably just Otto at this point), Frank Belknap Long, Ray Cummings, Ward Hawkins, and an author I haven't heard of, Roscoe Clark. If you want to check it out, the entire issue is online here, along with numerous other issues of THRILLING WONDER STORIES. 

Saturday, June 08, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Texas Rangers, June 1945


This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my copy in the scan. I think the cover may be by George Rozen, but I’m far from sure about that. Sam Cherry was doing most of the covers for TEXAS RANGERS by this point, but that just doesn’t look like Cherry’s work to me.

I’m much more certain about who wrote the Jim Hatfield novel in this issue—but we’ll get to that. “Gun Governor” is set in the Texas Panhandle and concerns the efforts of a gang of carpetbagger politicians and owlhoots to hang on to power as Reconstruction ends and Texans control their own destinies again. Some of those Texans have banded together and planted wheat rather than trying to rebuild the cattle business. The above-mentioned gang of robed and hooded marauders terrorizes them and tries to run them out of business. Enter Texas Ranger Jim Hatfield, sent from Austin to restore law and order and bring the leaders of the gang to justice.

Hatfield starts out by working undercover, as he often does. He manages to infiltrate the gang, but he has to abandon his masquerade to save the life of the leader of the wheat farmers. This leads to an epic cattle in which Hatfield is almost trapped in a burning building, and once his true identity is exposed, it’s all-out war between the Texas Ranger and the carpetbagger gun-wolves as Hatfield battles a scheme that threatens not only the Panhandle but the entire state of Texas.

“Gun Governor” is a well-written, very entertaining yarn with plenty of fast-paced action. The Reconstruction references place it in 1870, which is just one of the reasons I believe it was written by Tom Curry under the Jackson Cole house-name, rather than A. Leslie Scott, to whom it’s attributed in the Fictionmags Index. Curry wrote at least one other Hatfield novel with a Reconstruction background, “The Black Hat Riders” (TEXAS RANGERS, December 1942). Most of Curry’s Hatfield novels seem to take place in the 1870. They don’t all have such specific references as this one, but when they do, that’s the era in which they take place.

Leslie Scott’s Hatfield novels, on the other hand, take place in the 1890s, based on their frequent mentions of the oil business and the spread of railroads across the state. This creates a bit of a time paradox since Hatfield is approximately the same age no matter who the writer is, but evidently the pulp readers didn’t worry about such things and neither do I.

“Gun Governor” bears several other hallmarks of Curry’s work. It has a couple of introductory chapters in which the situation is developed, the villains and their victims are introduced, and so is a proxy hero, in this case wheat farmer Ken Toll, who is a Yankee but befriends the Texans anyway. Hatfield doesn’t show up until the third chapter. The descriptive passages are much shorter and lack Scott’s highly detailed and dramatic (some might say melodramatic) prose. None of Scott’s usual catch-phrases appear. Nobody gets “a surroundin’ of chuck”. While pursuing bad guys, Hatfield never shouts to his horse, “Trail, Goldy, trail!” In the final showdown with the outlaw mastermind (whose identity is never in doubt, by the way), Hatfield’s powerful voice doesn’t ring out “Elevate! In the name of the State of Texas!” Curry’s Hatfield gets down to business in a much more prosaic fashion. Nobody even raises hell and shoves a chunk under the corner!

One final bit of evidence: this novel was reprinted in the Sixties by Popular Library under the title SHOOTOUT TRAIL. Most of the Hatfield novels Popular Library picked to reprint were by Tom Curry. Of course, there were books by other authors in the Popular Library series, including a few by Scott, so that’s not definitive proof, just a little more weight on the side of the conclusions I’ve drawn from the story itself.

All this speculation aside, is “Gun Governor” worth reading? I’d say so without hesitation. The wheat farming angle is a little offbeat, the villains are properly despicable, and Hatfield is his usual stalwart self. I had a very good time reading this yarn.

There are three back-up stories in this issue, which is fairly thin due to wartime paper restrictions. I’m sure it’s a matter of coincidence, but all three have young protagonists.

“Voice From Boothill” by Gunnison Steele is about a young man trying to avenge his brother’s killing. Bennie Gardner, who is best remembered under the Gunnison Steele pseudonym, was a fine Western pulp novelist. His three Jim Hatfield novels under the Jackson Cole name are excellent, some of the best entries in the whole series. But he also wrote a lot of short-short stories like this one, which pack action and interesting plots, usually with some twist, into 1500-2000 words. I picked up on the twist in “Voice From Boothill” before it arrived, but it’s still very effective and I enjoyed the story.

“Salvage of the Box M” is by J.R. Jackson, an author about whom I know nothing except that he published a dozen or so stories in various Western pulps in the Forties. In this story, in order to save his ranch, a young man tries to get a job as a deputy and goes after an outlaw to prove he’s worthy of a badge. This is another well-written, entertaining tale.

“A Pard for Pedro” is by Cliff Walters, a prolific but almost completely forgotten contributor to the Western pulps. It mixes Mexican sheepherders, fly fishing, and murder in an unlikely combination, but it’s well-done and I thorougly enjoyed it.

Overall, this is a really solid issue of TEXAS RANGERS with a top-notch Hatfield novel and good back-up stories. If you have a copy on your shelves and are in the mood for a few hours of good reading, I recommend it. Likewise if you have a copy of the paperback reprint, SHOOTOUT TRAIL, although you won’t get the other stories with it.

Friday, June 07, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Taboo Thrills - Orrie Hitt


“A Novel Book is a Man’s Book!” It says so right on the spine of Orrie Hitt’s TABOO THRILLS. That’s right, we return to the work of Orrie Hitt and it’s a good one.

First, some history. This book was originally published by Novel Books in 1962 under the title WARPED WOMAN. It was reprinted in 1963 as TABOO THRILLS, the edition I read. Then it was also reprinted in 1964 as WILMA’S WANTS. The folks at Novel Books, a Chicago publisher of soft-core porn and crime novels, must have really liked it.

Although the cover and the various titles make it sound like one of Hitt’s lesbian novels, it’s really not. It’s actually a semi-autobiographical yarn narrated by one Chet Long, a prolific author of what he refers to as “realistic” novels, by which, of course, he means the sort of Adults Only, early Sixties soft-core novels that this is. Chet lives in upstate New York (like Orrie Hitt), broke in by writing articles for hunting and outdoors magazines (like Orrie Hitt), and bangs out his books on a manual typewriter sitting at the kitchen table (like Orrie Hitt). The main difference is that while Hitt was a happily married man with a family, Chet Long is single and has a rich girlfriend, along with a number of other women on the side.

There’s not much plot here. Most of the book is concerned with a soap-opera-like romantic triangle involving Chet, Wilma (the rich, repressed girlfriend who hates the books he writes), and Sandy, a beautiful young free-spirited waitress who is much more suited to him. There’s also a peeping tom prowling the small city where they all live. (The peeping tom novel was another of Hitt’s specialties.) The plot just serves as an excuse for a number of lengthy rants against censorship and big government, both of which Hitt seems to have disliked equally.

But in the midst of all that are some wonderful bits about the life of a freelance writer, such as this comment from Sandy:

“I don’t get it,” she said. “I’ve read about writers and it seems crazy to me. You just write this junk and somebody prints it?”

I don’t know, of course, but I suspect that Hitt had a smile on his face when he wrote that paragraph.

Here’s a more serious passage I liked:

They say there’s tension in the advertising business but filling a blank sheet of paper is just as much tension. Your belly crawls when you can’t seem to do what you want to do. You struggle, you sweat – that’s nerves – you do the best you can, which is seldom good enough, and then you go to a bar where nobody gives a damn about what you do. You talk to men on the railroad, a retired lush who’s trying to stretch his Social Security check to the end of the month, some dame who’s got more kids than she needs and is knocked up again. You listen, buy a drink for somebody who can’t afford it – and maybe you take something about one, add it to the tragedy of another, and put it on paper. Or maybe the next day you’ve forgotten, lost in your own world because it is a world that is yours alone, since, as with all men, you are finally alone. Every man is an island, John Donne to the contrary. In the morning you make your coffee, read an out of town paper if it arrives on time, place your cup and saucer into the sink with assorted dirty dishes, and become a machine that spews words for readers you will never meet. You hope it’s a creative machine.

That’s not the most smoothly written passage in the world, but it’s got a passion and intensity to it that lifts this book to something more than sleaze, at least as far as I’m concerned. In another place, in talking about his writing career, Chet says something that reminds me of Robert E. Howard:

. . . people will suffer to accomplish what they want. Or perhaps it isn’t suffering so much as it is to have the guts to aim at a target and not be satisfied until they hit it. To many, mine wasn’t a very large target but it was one that many missed.

Finally, there’s another funny bit where Chet grabs a book off the newsstand at the train station so he’ll have something to read on a trip to New York City. He picks the book because the title intrigues him and doesn’t notice the name of the author, never realizing until he starts to read it that it’s one of his own novels, with his original title changed by the publisher. Given the history of this particular book – three editions in three years with three different titles – that’s a bit of inadvertent humor.

Unlike some of the other Hitt novels I’ve read, the ending of TABOO THRILLS is pretty believable and satisfying. Hitt evidently did some of his best or at least some of his most personal work for Novel Books, and I’m going to be on the lookout for more of those books. If you run across a copy of TABOO THRILLS (or WARPED WOMAN or WILMA’S WANTS), I think it’s well worth picking up and reading.

(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on May 22, 2009. I found an image of the cover of WARPED WOMAN, which you can see below, but WILMA'S WANTS seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth. Irwin Shaw's story "Main Currents of American Thought" captures being a freelance writer better than any other piece of fiction I've ever read, but this Orrie Hitt novel comes close to the same level.)



Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Casinos, Motels, Gators: Stories - Ben Boulden


I really like Ben Boulden’s writing. His prose is as terse and tough and hardboiled as any you’ll find these days. He’s just released CASINOS, MOTELS, GATORS, a collection of four stories that originally appeared in various anthologies and an on-line magazine, and I enjoyed it a great deal.

The first three stories feature narrator/protagonist Jimmy Ford, a former FBI agent who messed up his life somehow. The details remain mostly a mystery to the reader, although Boulden alludes to a few things in one of the stories, but it was bad enough that Ford winds up working as a security consultant/troubleshooter/fixer for a shady character who owns a casino in a town on the border between Utah and Nevada. Boulden does a fine job depicting this stark, hardscrabble location, by the way.

In “121”, a casino employee is murdered, and Ford’s investigation leads to a surprising twist. “No Chips, No Bonus” is about a casino robbery that also leads to murder. In “Junkyard”, a casino employee’s granddaughter is kidnapped, and Ford sets out to rescue her. All these stories are well-plotted, fast-paced, and have plenty of gritty action and surprises. Ford is a sympathetic but not really all that likable protagonist. I really hope we haven’t seen the last of him.

I’d previously referred to “121” as a MANHUNT story for the 21st Century. Having reread it and read the other two Jimmy Ford stories, I’d say that not only would the series have worked in MANHUNT, it would have been right at home in the late Seventies/early Eighties issues of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE. With some adjustment to the trappings, they could have even been BLACK MASK stories in the early Thirties. Boulden’s writing has definite echoes of Paul Cain, Raoul Whitfield, and Frederick Nebel.

The fourth and final story, “Asia Divine”, is a non-series yarn about a prostitute’s murder and the police detective investigating it. This one also has a twist ending and is the most noirish of the four stories in the book. It’s also superbly written, although really bleak, too. Of course, there’s a pretty thick thread of bleakness that runs through all these stories, although Boulden leavens it with a few little rays of hope here and there.

CASINOS, MOTELS, GATORS is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It's available in print and e-book editions from Amazon. If you’re a fan of hardboiled fiction, I give it a very high recommendation. I don’t throw those Cain, Whitfield, and Nebel comparisons around lightly, you know.

Monday, June 03, 2024

Now Available: Doom of the Dark Delta - James Reasoner


Washed ashore on a jungle-choked island in the delta at the mouth of the great Jehannamun River, Jorras Trevayle has survived an attack by pirates only to find himself in a desperate race to rescue a beautiful young woman from the sinister plans of an evil sorcerer and save himself from becoming the prey of a Nloka Maccumba—one of the giant serpents raised by the inhabitants of this bizarre, perilous land.

DOOM OF THE DARK DELTA is the first novella in the Snakehaven series from bestselling author James Reasoner. Part sword and sorcery, part alternate history, and all action and adventure, it’s a thrilling tale that begins a saga of epic scope. And it all begins here in DOOM OF THE DARK DELTA!

(As I've mentioned before, I'm excited about this one. It was great fun to write, and I'll be starting the second novella in the Snakehaven series, THE FEVER COAST, any day now. You can get the e-book edition of this one on Amazon for less than a buck, and if you have Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free.)

Sunday, June 02, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: The Lone Eagle, April 1934


Years ago I read quite a few of the lead novels from this World War I air war pulp published by the Thrilling Group when a friend of mine reprinted them in chapbooks. I always enjoyed them quite a bit. It's a good series authored by various writers under the house-name Lieutenant Scott Morgan. The protagonist is pilot/spy John Masters who battles the Germans both in the air and behind the lines. The cover on this issue is by Eugene M. Frandzen, and it's a good one. In addition to the Lone Eagle story, there are back-up yarns by the ubiquitous Arthur J. Burks and an author I'm not familiar with, Seymour G. Pond. A few of the novels are still available in reprint editions, and they're worth seeking out if you're a fan of air war fiction.

Saturday, June 01, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Rodeo Romances, April 1947


RODEO ROMANCES seems to have been more oriented toward actual romance stories than the other two Western romance pulps published by the Thrilling Group, RANCH ROMANCES and THRILLING RANCH STORIES. Most of the covers are very placid depictions of happy couples. This one, however, features some good ol' bulldoggin' in a painting by Sam Cherry. I've been to quite a few rodeos, and the bulldogging is always exciting, not to mention dangerous for the cowboys competing. The authors in this issue are mostly familiar names: Johnston McCulley, Joe Archibald, Harold F. Cruickshank, Stephen Payne, and Cliff Walters.

Friday, May 31, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Secret Agent X: The Sinister Scourge - Brant House (Paul Chadwick)


Like a lot of other stories from the hero pulps, the Secret Agent X novels often feature some mysterious criminal mastermind who wears a mask or a hood or some such. There’s usually some bizarre murder method as well. Those elements appear in this novel, but for once, they’re actually minor. For the pulps, THE SINISTER SCOURGE, from the January 1935 issue of SECRET AGENT X, is pretty realistic. This time around, the Agent is engaged in a grim, gritty battle against a drug smuggling ring that’s flooding the country with a new super-drug. The main touch of typically over-the-top pulp business is the Agent’s uncanny ability to craft perfect disguises as a moment’s notice. Mostly it’s gun battles and fistfights as the Agent works his way higher and higher up the chain of command in the drug ring. At times this yarn reminded me a little of a Mack Bolan novel as Secret Agent X takes on organized crime.

The author behind the Brant House pseudonym this time around is Paul Chadwick, the creator of the Secret Agent X character. Chadwick is best known for his novels in this series, as well as a series of novelettes about investigator Wade Hammond that ran in the pulp TEN DETECTIVE ACES. His prose has a sweaty, breathless, almost overwrought quality to it that makes it easy to distinguish, and it works better than usual in THE SINISTER SCOURGE. There are also some welcome touches of wry humor amidst all the blood and thunder. While this novel isn’t really all that typical of the Secret Agent X series, it’s also one of the best I’ve read featuring the character.

A number of Secret Agent X novels were reprinted in the Sixties by Corinth/Regency, an offshoot of the publishing empire founded by William Hamling that also put out Nightstand Books, Midnight Readers, etc., the line of sort-core novels written pseudonymously by Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Robert Silverberg, Evan Hunter, Harry Whittington, and many other authors. Below is the cover from that Corinth paperback reprint. The art is by Robert Bonfils, who provided many of the covers for books published by Hamling.

(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on May 8, 2009. It's been a good while since I read a Secret Agent X novel. There are only 42 novels in the series and I've probably read more than half of them, but there are still some I need to check out. I really ought to do that.)



Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Case of the Caretaker's Cat - Erle Stanley Gardner


I don’t recall which Perry Mason novel was the first in the series I read, but there’s a good chance it was in one of the short Pocket Books editions with Robert McGinnis covers, since they were all over during the early Sixties when I discovered Erle Stanley Gardner’s work. (The first thing I read by him was one of the Donald Lam/Bertha Cool books, but that’s neither here nor there—although I love that series, too.)

Anyway, I’ve been reading Perry Mason novels off and on for nearly 60 years now, and I always enjoy them. I don’t always remember whether I’ve read one or not since the plots tend not to stick with me, but I’m reasonably sure I hadn’t read THE CASE OF THE CARETAKER’S CAT until now, in the 27th printing from November 1962. That’s my copy in the scan.

Originally published by William Morrow in 1935, this is the seventh novel in the series. It opens with Perry Mason deciding to take on a case where he’ll be representing a cat. You see, a wealthy man has died and left a will insuring that the caretaker of his estate will always have a job, but the caretaker has a cat and the heirs are demanding that he get rid of it. The caretaker hires Mason to prevent that from happening.

But of course, as it turns out there’s a lot more to it than that. There are multiple murders, a hurry-up marriage, a phony honeymoon, a fortune in missing diamonds, a lengthy courtroom scene in which Mason sorts everything out and exposes the real killer in highly entertaining fashion, and a final twist which (he said modestly) I figured out as soon as Gardner laid the groundwork for it. Trust me, figuring out anything ahead of time in an Erle Stanley Gardner novel is a rarity for me. But just as with the Mike Shayne novels, I enjoy knowing that Mason is three steps ahead of everybody else in the book and that far out in front of me, too.

I’m sure some people read the Perry Mason books for the plots. I read them to watch Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake interact with each other. By now they’re like very old friends to me and I thoroughly enjoy watching them at work. One thing I didn’t realize when reading Mason novels as a kid was how funny many of them are. They’re full of colorful, eccentric characters and great banter and some very dry humor here and there.

Mason also says something in this one that strikes me as important: He declares that he only practices law as a sideline. His real profession is that of adventurer. I think that really sums up the appeal of this series, especially the books from the Thirties and Forties where Mason has a slightly rougher edge. He’s always pushing the boundaries to protect his clients, but also—and equally important to him—to have fun.

And by doing that, Gardner makes sure that the reader has fun, too. I certainly do. THE CASE OF THE CARETAKER’S CAT is one of the best Perry Mason novels I’ve read. Highly recommended.






Monday, May 27, 2024

California Ranger - Tex Holt (Leslie Scott)


Tex Holt was a house-name used on Western novels primarily by Archie Joscelyn and Claude Rister. But several other authors used it now and then, including at least once by Leslie Scott on a novel called CALIFORNIA RANGER, published by Arcadia House in 1948.

How do I know Leslie Scott wrote this one, you ask? Well, the copy I own is signed by him, as you can see below. And even if it wasn’t, I would have known within a few pages that CALIFORNIA RANGER is Scott’s work. It opens with a vivid description of the Mojave Desert setting, and then Grant Marshal, our protagonist, happens on a trio of bad guys forcing two elderly prospectors to work an arristra, a primitive mining set-up that crushes ore so the gold in it can be retrieved. A shootout ensues, of course, with Marshal gunning down the villains.

This scene plays out exactly like it would in one of Scott’s Walt Slade, Texas Ranger novellas published in the pulp THRILLING WESTERN under the pseudonym Bradford Scott. And it just so happens Grant Marshal is described exactly the same way as Walt Slade. He even has a big horse named Smoke, and when he chases the bad guys, he shouts, “Trail, Smoke, trail!” For those of you who don’t know, Walt Slade’s horse is named Shadow, and several times in each story, he shouts, “Trail, Shadow, trail!”

All of which is to say that I strongly suspect Scott took one of his Slade yarns and rewrote it into the opening of this novel, something he frequently did in his career. I’ll give him credit, though: he doesn’t just change Walt Slade’s name to Grant Marshal and move the setting from Texas to California. The way the book plays out, I think the rest of it was probably newly written. And it’s a good one, too, as Marshal, who is on the trail of the owlhoots who murdered some of his friends, winds up in early day Los Angeles and becomes a California Ranger. There are shootouts galore, several villainous schemes foiled, and a beautiful, mysterious young woman who is tried up with the case somehow. Marshal uncovers the identity of the mastermind behind the gang that’s been wreaking havoc (said mastermind’s identity will be pretty obvious to anybody who’s read more than one or two of Scott’s novels), and everything wraps up in a very satisfactory fashion.

Some modern readers probably find Scott’s prose, especially his descriptions, florid and overwritten. Not me. I enjoy his detailed, immersive descriptions. A lot of times when I run into things like that in other authors’ books, I skim through those passages. I don’t know what it is about Scott’s work, but he holds my attention effortlessly. And his action scenes, oh, my, I can see the muzzle flashes and smell the powdersmoke. Admittedly, his plots are often repetitive, which is why I space out reading his books, but I’ve never read one of his books from before 1965 that I didn’t enjoy. The ones after that are inconsistent and usually weaker but still readable.

There was a British paperback edition of this novel, a Canadian hardback, and a Spanish translation but I don’t know in which form. Those are the only reprints of CALIFORNIA RANGER as far as I know. Many of the copies of the Arcadia House hardback for sale on-line attribute it to Archie Joscelyn, but you can take my word for it, this is definitely a Leslie Scott novel and I had a great time reading it. If you’re a fan of his work, I’d say it’s worth tracking down and reading. If you haven’t sampled his work, a lot of them are available as inexpensive e-books on Amazon under his own name and as Bradford Scott. If you’re a fan of action-packed traditional Westerns, you should give them a try.



Sunday, May 26, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Fight Stories, Spring 1952


I didn't realize FIGHT STORIES was still being published as late as 1952. This was, in fact, the final issue in a run that began all the way back in June 1928. The cover of this last issue is by George Gross, who did a lot of great covers for Fiction House pulps. Jack Kofoed, one of the long-time stalwarts of FIGHT STORIES has a feature inside, and there are some interesting writers on hand, including Larry Holden (who was really mystery writer Lorenz Heller, much reprinted in recent years by Stark House) and Western pulpsters Clifton Adams and Phil Richards, along with names new to me such as Barney Barnett, Burgess Leonard, and Francis Paul Pyne. I think of Robert E. Howard when I think of FIGHT STORIES, of course, but it was a decent market for other pulp writers for a long time.

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Street & Smith's Western Story Magazine, August 22, 1936


I love the cover by W.H. Hinton on this issue of STREET & SMITH'S WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE. It's very dramatic and the action seems to leap out at the reader. Walter Haskell Hinton did quite a few covers for WILD WEST WEEKLY and WESTERN STORY in the Thirties, then did covers and interior illustrations for MAMMOTH WESTERN and some of Ziff-Davis's science fiction pulps during the Forties. I wasn't really aware of his work until I came across this one on the Fictionmags Index, but I'm going to be keeping an eye out for it in the future. There are some well-known authors in this issue: Bennett Foster, Frank Richardson Pierce, Ray Humphreys, and James W. Routh. Also some lesser-known ones: M. McCluer Brown, Joseph F. Hook, and Clyde E. Vincent. I would have picked up this issue just for the cover, though, if I'd had an extra dime and nickel in my pocket back in August of '36.

Friday, May 24, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Dead Game - Michael Avallone


In the spirit of full disclosure, Mike Avallone was my friend. When I was a kid, he was one of my favorite writers as soon as I read my first novel by him, which was also the first novel in Ace's MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. series. As I may have mentioned before, that was the book that made me realize a writer could have a distinctive voice, that the work he produced could sound so unique that it couldn't possibly have been written by anybody else. And to this day, I love a book like that, like the ones Avallone so often produced such as his MANNIX tie-in novel and his entries in the Nick Carter series.

Years later, a mutual friend put me in touch with Mike, and we corresponded for years after that, off and on all the way up to his death. He was a guy who loved pulps and movies and baseball, and a lot of his books, especially the early novels about his most famous character, private eye Ed Noon, are pretty darned good.

Which brings us to DEAD GAME.

I thought I had read all of the Ed Noon novels except for a few late ones that were published only in England, but when a friend of mine sent me a copy of this one, the third in the series, I realized I hadn't read it. Sitting down to read an Ed Noon novel that was new to me is a treat I figured I'd never have again. DEAD GAME didn't disappoint me, either.

It starts simply enough, with Ed being hired to tail a cheating husband. That's what the guy's wife tells Ed, anyway. But instead of visiting a girlfriend, the man heads for the Polo Grounds instead, to take in an exhibition baseball game between the New York Giants and a visiting minor-league team. Then in the ninth inning, in the middle of the action, the minor-league team's third baseman is somehow stabbed to death, and the guy Ed's been following rushes onto the field to search the dead man's uniform before getting away. Ed is left with the questions of who murdered the third baseman, and what was the man he was tailing was looking for.

Well, things get even more complicated than that, of course. A cop gets killed along the way, putting Ed on the bad side of his old friend, Captain Michael Monks. Ed runs into a beautiful redhead and an equally beautiful brunette, the latter named Mimi Tango, one of the great, oddball character names Avallone could come up with. There's a lot of banter, a few fistfights, and Ed gets hit on the head and knocked out a couple of times, a private eye cliché but one that I happen to enjoy. Finally, there's even a gathering of all the suspects where Ed explains what happened and why, leading up to one last burst of action. The "impossible crime" nature of the murder in the middle of the baseball game sort of gets lost in the shuffle along the way, and when the explanation does come, it's hardly what you'd consider a "fair play" solution. But I don't think that's what Avallone was going for. A book like DEAD GAME is supposed to be fast, flippant, and fun . . . and it is.

(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on April 24, 2009. There's now an e-book edition of DEAD GAME available on Amazon, a prospect that never entered my head back in 2009.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Moment of Violence - George Harmon Coxe


As I’ve mentioned before, George Harmon Coxe was a very popular mystery author when I was young. Every library had a full shelf of his novels, all of them published by Knopf. I read one now and then and enjoyed them, but I never gobbled them up like I did the books by Rex Stout, Brett Halliday, Richard S. Prather, Leslie Charteris, and the like. Turns out that’s okay, because now there are still a lot of George Harmon Coxe novels I haven’t read and I can enjoy them now.

For example, I just read MOMENT OF VIOLENCE, one of Coxe’s stand-alone novels. This one was published in hardback in 1961 and doesn’t appear to have ever had a paperback reprint. But it’s currently available in an e-book edition, and that’s the one I read. The protagonist is David Payne, a lawyer from Boston who travels down to Barbados at the request of his old mentor, who’s about to be the victim in a real estate swindle that will cost him a fortune.


Payne’s job is complicated by the fact that the perpetrator of said swindle is an old college classmate of his who ran off with and married the girl Payne was engaged to. And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as Payne gets to Barbados and goes to see the guy, he almost trips over a dead body. That’s right, the shady character who stole his girl is dead and Payne is the one who discovers the body.

He's hardly the only suspect, though, because this is one of those mysteries where all sorts of characters were wandering in and out of the murder scene just about the time the killing took place. There are two (count ’em, two) other lawyers, both possibly crooked, involved in the case, not to mention a stuffy British expatriate and his hot-to-trot former showgirl wife, the beautiful niece of the would-be victim in the land swindle, another American who seems to have a secret to hide, some Venezuelans with revenge on their minds, and the murdered man’s wife, who, you may recall from the previous paragraph of this review, was once engaged to our boy Dave. You got your smuggling, you got your blackmail, you got your lust and greed in the tropics. Great stuff, in other words.

Dave Payne is a very likable protagonist. He’s more of an Everyman, not a hardboiled sleuth like Coxe’s series characters Kent Murdock and Flashgun Casey, but he can be tough when he needs to be and he’s smart enough to figure everything out, leading to a violent and satisfactory climax that actually does play out almost like something from Coxe’s days as a pulpster in BLACK MASK. I really enjoyed MOMENT OF VIOLENCE. It’s not a lost classic, but it’s a really solid traditional mystery with a slightly gritty edge.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Coming Soon: Doom of the Dark Delta - James Reasoner


Washed ashore on a jungle-choked island in the delta at the mouth of the great Jehannamun River, Jorras Trevayle has survived an attack by pirates only to find himself in a desperate race to rescue a beautiful young woman from the sinister plans of an evil sorcerer and save himself from becoming the prey of a Nloka Maccumba—one of the giant serpents raised by the inhabitants of this bizarre, perilous land.

DOOM OF THE DARK DELTA is the first novella in the Snakehaven series from bestselling author James Reasoner. Part sword and sorcery, part alternate history, and all action and adventure, it’s a thrilling tale that begins a saga of epic scope. And it all begins here in DOOM OF THE DARK DELTA!

(I'm excited about this one because it's my first sword and sorcery yarn in many years, and it's part of a bigger story that I plan to explore in a series of novellas. The e-book edition is available for pre-order on Amazon. No print edition for now, but when I have enough of them done, I'll gather them together and publish a trade paperback collection.)

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Adventures, August 1938


Covers like this always remind me of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, although this issue of THRILLING ADVENTURES came out long before that movie, of course. I don't know the artist. The painting might have been inspired by the story "The Desert Legion", by the only house-name in the issue, Jackson Cole, or maybe it was one that Standard Magazines had in inventory. Doesn't matter, since it does its job either way and makes me want to read this issue. I just might, if I actually owned a copy, which I don't. There's a strong line-up of authors in its pages, too: Johnston McCulley, Arthur J. Burks, Ward Hawkins, Lt. John Hopper, Charles S. Strong (who was also an editor of Thrilling Group pulps), and Kenneth Sinclair. 

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Quick Trigger Western Novels Magazine, March 1937


This issue of QUICK TRIGGER WESTERN NOVELS MAGAZINE sports an evocative cover by H.W. Scott and contains only two stories, a novella by Charles 
M. "Chuck" Martin that's long enough it probably ought to be considered an actual novel, as the magazine's title suggests, and a short story by James P. Olsen, as well as a poem by Raymond S. Spears. All three of those authors were top-notch pulpsters, so I'm sure this is a fine issue and I wouldn't hesitate to read it if I owned a copy. 

Friday, May 17, 2024

Cat of Many Tails - Ellery Queen (Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee)


The older I get, the more I seem to turn back to the authors and series I loved when I was a kid. I read a bunch of Ellery Queen novels in junior high and high school, and one occasionally since then, but I’ll bet it’s been thirty years or more since I last checked in with Ellery and Inspector Queen. Being in the mood to do that, I picked up one I’d never read back in the old days, 1948’s CAT OF MANY TAILS.

I’ve seen this book referred to as the first great American serial killer novel. It’s probably the earliest serial killer novel I’ve ever read, and it’s one of the rare occasions when a traditional mystery strayed into that subgenre. Set in a long, tense summer and fall in New York City, the plot revolves around a mysterious murderer dubbed The Cat by the sensationalistic press. At irregular intervals, The Cat strangles seemingly random victims who have no connection with each other, causing the police to believe he’s a psychopath. The city goes crazy with fear, leading to riots. Ellery Queen is recruited by the Mayor to take on the job of special investigator. This goes against Ellery’s better judgment, as he’s already haunted by a failure in a previous case that caused a man’s death. But he sets out to solve the case anyway and slowly begins to uncover a pattern in the killings.


The keyword in that last sentence is “slowly”, because man, this book goes on and on. The Ellery Queen novels were never what you’d consider thrill-a-minute affairs, but I don’t recall ever reading one that drags as much as this one. Yes, the basic plot is clever—I never read an Ellery Queen story where this wasn’t the case—and Dannay and Lee pull a late plot twist that’s effective, if a bit predictable. But many of the scenes along the way go on at great length and seem to serve no real purpose. The writing (most of which was done by Lee, I recall) is overly literary at times and slows things down even more.

I have to admit that once things start moving at a faster clip in the second half of the book, it does generate a certain amount of suspense, and Danny and Lee do an admirable job of delving into the psychology of a serial killer. But there’s not much deduction involved—Ellery just stumbles over the two main clues that break the case open—and nothing approaching the famous Challenges to the Reader in the early books. No reader could have solved this one because the information simply isn’t there. Then, after that final twist, the book kind of just stops, which prompted me to say “Wait, that’s it?”

Well. When I started this book, I never anticipated panning it up one way and down the other. I love the Ellery Queen series; at least, I remember loving the books when I read them many years ago. But CAT OF MANY TAILS is a clear miss for me. However, in an odd way, it makes me want to read another one I never got around to back then, to see if my reaction to this one was just a fluke. Maybe I’ll find out soon.



Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Western Fictioneers Announces the 14th Annual Peacemaker Award Finalists and Lifetime Achievement Peacemaker Award

THE LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT PEACEMAKER

John Legg

 


 

14th Annual Peacemaker Awards Finalists

For Western Novels and Stories Published in 2023

 


 

 

BEST NOVEL

 

GRAY’S LAKE, John Hansen (Summit Creek Press)

THE GOLD CHIP, Douglas Hirt (Wolfpack Publishing)

CHANGING WOMAN, Venetia Hobson Lewis (Bison Books)

RIDE A FAST HORSE, Kevin Warren (Kensington)

THE BOOT HEEL, Kevin Wolf (Thorndike)

 

BEST FIRST WESTERN NOVEL

 

THE GOOD TIME GIRLS, K.T. Blakemore (Sycamore Creek Press)

CHANGING WOMAN, Venetia Hobson Lewis (Bison Books)

. . . BY THE WAY THEY TREAT THEIR HORSES, M. Timothy Nolting (Austin Macauley Publishers)

THE PENITENT GUN, Rod Timanus (Thorndike Large Print)

RIDE A FAST HORSE, Kevin Warren (Kensington)

 

BEST WESTERN SHORT FICTION

 

“Clarence Flowers”, John Neely Davis (FORTITUDE, Five Star)

“Prairie Blossoms”, Sharon Frame Gay (FORTITUDE, Five Star)

“The Sound of Buffalo”, Lisa Majewski and Del Howison (FORTITUDE, Five Star)

“Next to the Last Chance”, John D. Nesbitt (BRIGHT SKIES AND DARK HORSES, Five Star)

“The Great Burro Revolt”, P.A. O’Neil (SADDLEBAG DISPATCHES, Summer 2023)

“The Would-Be Bounty Hunters”, Michael R. Ritt (FORTITUDE, Five Star)

 

Winners will be announced June 15, 2024 on the WF website (www.westernfictioneers.com) and on this blog.


Western Fictioneers (WF) was formed in 2010 by professional Western writers, to preserve, honor, and promote traditional Western writing in the 21st century. Entries were accepted in both print and electronic forms.


The Peacemaker Awards are given annually. Submissions for the Peacemaker Awards for books and stories published in 2024 will be open in August 2024. Submission guidelines will be posted on the WF website. For more information about Western Fictioneers (WF) please visit: http://www.westernfictioneers.com


Western Fictioneers would like to thank the judges for the excellent job they have done and James Reasoner for being Awards Chair.