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


John Legg



14th Annual Peacemaker Awards Finalists

For Western Novels and Stories Published in 2023






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)




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)




“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 ( 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:

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

Monday, May 13, 2024

Lust Treasures - William Kane (Ben Haas)

Ben Haas, best known for his Westerns under the names John Benteen, Thorne Douglas, and Richard Meade, as well as thrillers and sword and sorcery novels under the Meade name, also wrote a number of soft-core sex novels in the early Sixties for William Hamling’s publishing empire, all of them under the name William Kane. I’ve read a couple of those William Kane books, and they were well-written, entertaining books. But the William Kane novel LUST TREASURES is something different, and it’s very much a precursor to the work that Haas would soon be doing.

The narrator/protagonist of this novel is Len Wolfe (any resemblance to the term “lone wolf” is probably not coincidental), a former Marine who currently works as a rather amoral soldier of fortune, taking any dangerous job that pays enough, anywhere in the world. As this novel opens, he’s recruited by a lawyer representing an American fruit company for a job in a South American country. The company, which has extensive banana plantation holdings in the country, hires Wolfe to deliver a $200,000 bribe to the leader of a rebel army. In exchange for the money, the man will call off the revolution that threatens the fruit company’s holdings. But the rebel leader insists on one condition: the money will be paid in the form of American silver dollars. So Wolfe’s job is to transport 200 grand in silver across a rugged jungle landscape teeming with bandits, while also dealing with the possibility of a double cross from the rebel leader. Not to mention the threat of the cruel dictator who runs the country and his beautiful but possibly unhinged sister, and the complication of the beautiful American girl who is the rebel leader’s mistress.

Now I ask you, move that plot back from the early Sixties to the early days of the Twentieth Century, and does that sound like one of Haas’s Fargo novels or what? That seems like exactly the sort of job Fargo would get mixed up in.

There’s enough sex in this book to justify it being published by Hamling, but LUST TREASURES is definitely more of an action/adventure novel than anything else. The setup is a little slow to develop, but once Wolfe starts through the jungle with a mule train loaded down with silver dollars, the pace ratchets up a notch and things barrel along to a final showdown in a dungeon torture room underneath the Presidential Palace. Haas was a master of colorful settings and great action scenes, and there are plenty of both of those things in this book.

I think anyone who’s a fan of Haas’s work would enjoy this novel, but unfortunately, it’s a little on the rare side and likely to be pricey if you find a copy. If you come across it, though, and it’s in your price range, don’t pass it up. This might be a good candidate for reprinting, one of these days.

Sunday, May 12, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Ten Detective Aces, May 1935

You never know what you're going to find in a sarcophagus, as Rafael DeSoto illustrates on this cover. Over the years I've read quite a few stories that first appeared in TEN DETECTIVE ACES, but I've never read or even owned an actual issue of the pulp. Plenty of fine fiction appeared there. Authors in this issue include Frederick C. Davis (with a Moon Man story), Paul Chadwick (with a Wade Hammond story), Emile C. Tepperman (with a Marty Quade story), Tepperman again as Anthony Clemens (with a Val Easton story), Joe Archibald (with a Dizzy Duo story), and non-series yarns by Harry Widmer, Margie Harris, and J. Lane Linklater. There are a bunch of issues of this pulp available on the Internet Archive. I ought to read some of them.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Giant Western, February 1951

This issue of GIANT WESTERN sports a slightly cartoonish cover by Ed DeLavy, but it's yet another example of just how dangerous it was to go to the barber shop in the Old West. I kept telling my mother I didn't want to get my hair cut when I was a kid. I guess I sensed somehow that some ranny might start burnin' powder. Anyway, this issue (which I don't own) features stories by some fine writers including William MacLeod Raine, A. Leslie Scott, Leslie Ernenwein, Louis L'Amour (as Jim Mayo), T.C. McClary, and B.M. Bower (probably a reprint since Bower died in 1940 although it's not listed as such). 

Friday, May 10, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: The Hangmen of Sleepy Valley - Davis Dresser

Although he was a prolific author, Davis Dresser wrote only a few books under his own name, and I believe all of them were Westerns. Best known as Brett Halliday, the creator and principal author of the Mike Shayne series, Dresser wrote quite a few Westerns as well, some under the house-name Peter Field (the Powder Valley series), some as Don Davis (the Rio Kid books, reprinted by Pocket Books in the Sixties – but these are not about the pulp character known as the Rio Kid, whose adventures were chronicled by Tom Curry, Walker Tompkins, and others), and three under his own name, two of which feature good-natured cowboy/detectives Twister Malone and Chuckaluck Thompson. [I was wrong; there are four books in the series.]

THE HANGMEN OF SLEEPY VALLEY opens with Twister and Chuckaluck on their way to Mexico, but in West Texas they run across a bizarre scene: a man being hanged by a group of four masked vigilantes . . . and the hoods worn by the vigilantes have only one eye hole each. Twister and Chuckaluck exchange shots with the hangmen and then discover that the hanged man is still alive. They cut him down, take care of him, and find out that the gang of lynchers has been terrorizing Sleepy Valley for months, singling out ranchers and then hanging them if they refuse to heed the gang’s warnings to leave the valley.

Of course, being the heroes that they are, Twister and Chuckaluck aren’t going to stand for that and decide to hide out the man they rescued so the hangmen won’t realize that he’s still alive. They take over the fellow’s ranch and proceed to go after the gang, leading to plenty of ridin’ and shootin’ before the identities of the masked hangmen are uncovered.

While that basic plot is pretty standard, Dresser throws in some nice twists along the way. Nothing on the level of complexity to be found in his Mike Shayne novels, to be sure, but still, I didn’t see all of them coming. What I really liked about the novel are the bizarre little touches like the one-eyed masks worn by the hangmen (Dresser had only one eye, by the way, and his author photos always show him wearing a black eye patch and looking rakish) and the way that he plays against reader expectations with some of the characters. There’s more to Twister and Chuckaluck than you’d think at first, and that’s true of some of the other characters, too.

One word of warning: nearly everybody in this book speaks in heavy “pulp Western” dialect, what I sometimes call “yuh mangy polecat!” dialogue. That was the fashion of the times (the book was originally published by William Morrow in 1940 and reprinted by Pocket Books in 1952 – with an introduction by Erle Stanley Gardner), although some authors were more inclined to it than others. Dresser sort of overdoes it, but I got used to it. Some readers might not.

THE HANGMEN OF SLEEPY VALLEY is a solidly entertaining Western of its era, unreprinted since 1952 and surely forgotten by most. But as a friend of mine who also read the book recently told me, “You can’t go wrong with masked hangmen.” I agree. [The friend of mine who said that to me was, as some of you may have guessed, Bill Crider. Also, all four of the Twister and Chuckaluck novels are now available as e-books, which you can find here: THE HANGMEN OF SLEEPY VALLEY, DEATH RIDES THE PECOS, LYNCH-ROPE LAW, and MURDER ON THE MESA.]

(This post appeared in a somewhat different form on July 18, 2008.)

Wednesday, May 08, 2024

The Last Line - Stephen Ronson

I’m a little bit leery of any book where the protagonist is compared to Jack Reacher. That seems to have been an overdone trend in recent years. On the other hand, how many paperbacks did I buy back in the Sixties and Seventies with “In the Tradition of CONAN!” emblazoned across the front cover? (The answer: a lot.) So I didn’t worry too much about the blurb on THE LAST LINE, the debut novel from Stephen Ronson, and just plunged into the book. I’m glad that I did, because it’s a terrific thriller.

The title is a reference to the phrase “the last line of defense”, and that’s what narrator/protagonist John Cook becomes part of during the summer of 1940 when it appears that France is about to fall to the invading German army and everyone in England expects that Hitler will soon have them in his sights. Most people expect the bombers to show up any time, and no one really holds out much hope that the country will be able to withstand the Nazi onslaught for very long. So Cook, a middle-aged farmer and former soldier during the first World War, is recruited to become part of a planned resistance movement that will try to wreak havoc on the German occupiers. Cook has more skills than most at such things, having fought for British forces in Afghanistance following the end of the World War. He’s a lot more dangerous than he might appear to be at first glance.

The looming threat of the Germans isn’t all Cook has to contend with, however. A young woman is murdered on his property, and he’s the leading suspect in her murder. In the course of trying to clear himself of that charge, he uncovers two dangerous conspiracies that may or may not be linked. Children who have been evacuated from London to the countryside to protect them from the expected bombing have gone missing, and then there’s the matter of what’s being hidden in a locked barn on a neighboring estate. Tragedy, romance, and a lot of gritty, well-written action ensue.

You wouldn’t know this was Ronson’s first novel because he keeps the story racing along with the sure hand of a longtime professional. I’m not an expert on the location or the time period, but the setting and background certainly ring true to me. John Cook is a great narrator/protagonist, plenty tough and smart and sympathetic even though at times he’s not all that likable. The supporting cast is good and the villains suitably creepy. Not everything plays out exactly as I suspected it would, and that’s always good, too.

I stayed up later than usual to finish THE LAST LINE, and as I mentioned recently, it takes a really good book to make me do that. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and hope it’s the first of a series. It’s available in hardback and e-book editions on Amazon.

Monday, May 06, 2024

Now Available: Arizona Bounty - James Reasoner

A tough bounty hunter haunted by a tragic past … a beautiful woman with demons of her own … a brutal outlaw with a history of killing … a ruthless swindler determined to grasp a fortune no matter who gets in his way … These and more find themselves delivered by fate to the mining boomtown of Plata in the silver-rich Superstition Mountains of Arizona Territory. As their destinies play out, the settlement is rocked by death and fiery destruction, and bounty hunter Reid Dawson will need all the deadly skills his violent life has given him to survive and protect those he cares about.

Now available from Amazon, ARIZONA BOUNTY is the latest action-packed Western novel from bestselling author James Reasoner, a legendary storyteller who has been spinning exciting yarns for almost half a century. With its fast pace, compelling characters, and white-knuckle suspense, ARIZONA BOUNTY is sure-fire entertainment for Western readers!

Sunday, May 05, 2024

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Marvel Stories, November 1940

J.W. Scott didn't do a lot of covers for science fiction pulps, concentrating instead on Western, detective, and sports titles, but the SF covers he did were good ones, like this issue of MARVEL STORIES. Raymond Z. Gallun and John Russell Fearn are the best-known authors in this one. The other authors on hand are Henry Haase, A. Fedor, Richard O. Lewis, D.D. Sharp, and John L. Chapman. If you're like me, some of those names make you go, "Who?" If you'd like to check out this issue, you can find it online here.

Saturday, May 04, 2024

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Ranch Romances, May 1967

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. That’s my copy in the scan. As usual with RANCH ROMANCES during this era, calling it a pulp is a wee bit of a stretch (it has trimmed edges and slightly smaller dimensions than a traditional pulp), but it’s certainly not a digest so pulp is the term that fits it the best, I think. And it’s certainly in the pulp tradition, having been published, at that time, for 43 years as the masthead indicates. I don’t know who did the cover, but it’s a good one.

By the time RANCH ROMANCES’ run ended in 1971, it was pretty much all reprint, but four years earlier in this issue, there are only two reprints and most of the stories were new. The issue leads off with one of those new entries, a short story by William Heuman called “Lady Killer”. Heuman was one of the great hardboiled Western pulpsters and paperbackers, but this story isn’t hardboiled at all. It’s a lighthearted tale about the town handyman courting the new schoolmarm and having to fight one of the other townies in order to take her to a dance. I don’t think Heuman was capable of writing a story that wasn’t entertaining, so this one is enjoyable to read, although a very minor piece in his body of work.

Next up is “Perris” by Lee Martin, an author who contributed several dozen stories to RANCH ROMANCES and other magazines during the Sixties. It’s about a young, pregnant woman trying to escape from the father of her child, a gunslinging killer recently released from prison. The fact that she’s pregnant and unmarried is a definite nod to the loosening of moral strictures in the Sixties, I think, although a venerable pulp like RANCH ROMANCES is kind of an odd place for that to show up. This story is okay at best. There’s not much to it and it never generates much suspense or drama.

The first reprint in this issue is the novelette “Where the Hangman Waits” by Eric Allen. It appeared originally in the First July Number, 1954 of RANCH ROMANCES. I recognize Allen’s name as the author of several Western novels set in Arkansas that I haven’t read. This story takes place next door in Indian Territory, where a town-taming lawman returns to his old stomping grounds to find out the truth when his brother is accused of murder and save him from Judge Parker’s gallows. This is the first thing I’ve read by Allen, and I found it to be okay without being overly impressed by it. He does a good job with the setting, but he has a habit of having his characters constantly call each other by name when they’re talking, a stylistic touch that always annoys me. I enjoyed this story enough that I would read more by Allen, but I’m not going to seek out his work, either.

The short story “Golden Girl” is the only credit in the Fictionmags Index for author Ken Clayton. The prose is fairly polished, though, leading me to suspect that name may be a pseudonym. This is a good contemporary Western about a former G.I. who’s prospecting for gold in Arizona. He comes across a beautiful young female rancher and her foreman, and eventually the two men clash over the girl, as you’d expect. The contemporary setting and the good writing make this one worth reading.

Gordon Redmond published four stories in RANCH ROMANCES in the mid-Sixties. That’s all I know about him. His story in this issue, “Kirby’s Woman”, is the last of those four. It’s a tale about a drifting cowboy who encounters a notorious outlaw’s woman and falls for her even though he’ll be risking his neck to do so. I thought this was going to be one of those stories with a really obvious twist ending—and it is, but it wasn’t the ending I was expecting. That elevates it a little from the average to the slightly above average.

This issue wraps up with the cover-featured novel “Fury at Painted Rock” by Will Cook. This is also a reprint, appearing originally in the Third September Number, 1954. For much of its run, RANCH ROMANCES had an odd dating system, usually two issues a month called the First and Second Numbers for that month. It’s rare for the dates to work out so that there was a Third Number some months. But to get to the story itself, which is actually a novella, I think this is the first thing I’ve read by Will Cook, although I’ve seen his name on paperbacks and in pulp TOCs for many years. He also used the pseudonyms James Keene, Frank Peace, and Dan Riordan. Like Eric Allen’s story, this one is also about a lawman returning to his hometown. In this case, the protagonist is a U.S. Marshal sent in to try to keep the peace between an old cattle baron and a bunch of homesteaders who are moving in. I wanted to like this one since it would have been good to find another new-to-me author whose work I like, but I’m afraid I found it pretty disappointing. The plot just kind of trudged along, and the writing never seemed to generate much excitement. I think I must have missed something because Cook was a popular author for a long time, and I might try something else by him, but I won’t be in any hurry to do so.

Considering that the best story in the issue is a short, very lightweight entry by William Heuman, I’d say this is a below-average issue of RANCH ROMANCES. However, I’m glad I read it because I came across something very unexpected in it. For most of its run, RANCH ROMANCES had a feature entitled “Our Air Mail” in which readers wrote in seeking pen pals. They would describe themselves and their interests and say whether they were seeking male or female pen pals, or both. The second letter in this issue’s column is from a young lady named Charlene, who was 20 years old, 5’5”, and 125 pounds, and interested in all sports including boxing and car racing. Since it really was a different world back then, people didn’t think twice about having their home addresses published in a national magazine. Our young friend Charlene was, in fact, from the same little town where I grew up and still live. Her street is about three miles from where I’m sitting at this moment. And since she was 20 years old in 1967, it’s entirely possible she’s still alive. Charlene, if you’re out there, I hope you found some good pen pals.

Friday, May 03, 2024

A Rough Edges Rerun: Green Ice - Raoul Whitfield

A number of Raoul Whitfield’s stories from BLACK MASK have been reprinted and anthologized over the years. I’ve read quite a few of them and enjoyed them all, going back to one of his Jo Gar stories that was reprinted in the anthology THE HARD-BOILED DICKS, which I bought at The Book Oasis in Seminary South Shopping Center in Fort Worth on a December evening in 1967. (Yes, I remember that. Just don’t ask me what I had for lunch yesterday.)

Anyway, I’d never read any of Whitfield’s novels until now. GREEN ICE was his first novel, published in 1930 and based on a series of five linked novelettes published in BLACK MASK from December 1929 through April 1930 that are put together pretty seamlessly. It’s the story of what happens when ex-con Mal Ourney gets out of Sing Sing after having served a two-year sentence for manslaughter. Mal wasn’t really guilty; he took the rap for his girlfriend at the time, who was really behind the wheel in a fatal car crash. She comes to meet Mal when he’s released, but he’s no longer interested in her and refuses to go with her. A good thing, too, because a short time later, she’s dead, the first of at least a dozen murder victims in this novel.

While in prison, Mal has made friends with several small-time crooks who were drawn into the rackets by the big bosses, the men Mal refers to as the crime breeders. He decides that when he gets out, he’ll go after these big bosses and try to bring them down. Before he can even get started on his crusade, though, he finds himself up to his neck in murder after murder, all of them tied together by some missing emeralds, the green ice of the title. This is one of those early hardboiled novels where the plot gets incredibly complicated, to the point that Whitfield has to stop the action every so often to have his characters explain to each other everything that’s happened so far. He even manages to save one last major twist for the very end.

Plots so complex that they get a little far-fetched are a hallmark of hardboiled fiction from that era, though, as is terse, staccato prose. Whitfield delivers on that score, too. There’s a little snappy patter and considerable tough guy slang, along with plenty of fistfights and tommy-gun massacres, before Mal finally untangles all the various interwoven strands of plot. As you can imagine, I thoroughly enjoyed it, too. These days, GREEN ICE would have to be considered a historical novel, but if you’re interested in the genesis of hardboiled crime novels or just looking for a good yarn, I recommend it.

(This post originally appeared in a somewhat different form on April 17, 2009.)

Wednesday, May 01, 2024

The Wild Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Volume Four - Will Murray

The fourth volume in Will Murray’s continuing series THE WILD ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES returns, for the most part, to more traditional yarns featuring the esteemed detective and his friend and colleague Dr. Watson. The previous volume presented stories with a supernatural and/or science fictional angle, but there are only two such in this collection.

Murray, of course, has nailed the style of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales, or at least it seems so to me although I’m no real expert on the subject. I really enjoyed every story in this volume, but here are a few favorites:

In “The Improbable Misadventure of the Blackish Bottle”, Holmes discovers an unexpected murder weapon hidden in his own quarters at 221B Baker Street. This ties in with Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual.”

“The Conundrum of the Absent Cranium” has Holmes seeking to solve the mystery of a murder victim found without, you guessed it, his head.

“The Second Adventure of the Five Orange Pips” is a sequel to “The Adventure of the Five Orange Pips”, of course, and is a worthy successor to that classic tale.

Also in the original Five Orange Pips story, Doyle makes mention of an unrecorded Holmes case involving something called the Paradol Chamber. In “The Difficult Ordeal of the Paradol Chamber”, Will Murray records that adventure, and a truly creepy and harrowing one it is. Holmes himself narrates most of it since the action took place without Dr. Watson’s presence. This is a great story, my favorite in this volume, and the basis for the fine cover art by Gary Carbon.

The supernatural does figure in the final two stories, “The Impossiblity of the Premature Postmortem Message” and “The Disquieting Adventure of the Murmuring Dell”. Algernon Blackwood’s occult detective character Dr. John Silence is mentioned in the first of these and appears in the second one. “The Impossibility of the Premature Postmortem Message” involves spiritualism, a subject of much interest to Doyle that formed the basis for his third Professor Challenger novel THE LAND OF MIST. I remember reading that book many years ago, and after the hard-headed scientific adventures of Challenger in the first two books, the mysticism of THE LAND OF MIST really took me by surprise. I recall enjoying it a great deal, though, as I did all of Professor Challenger’s appearances. Murray having Sherlock Holmes tackle the subject is intriguing and very effective. “The Disquieting Adventure of the Murmuring Dell” is another very creepy tale. Disquieting, indeed.

If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, this is a fine addition to a very good series. I give this fourth volume of THE WILD ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES a strong recommendation. It's available in trade paperback and e-book editions on Amazon.