Saturday, November 27, 2021

Easy Company and the Suicide Boys by John Wesley Howard

On the high plains of Wyoming Territory in the 1870’s sits Outpost Number Nine. It’s home to the fictional “Easy Company”, a unit of mounted infantry (don’t call them cavalry) in the days after Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer lost at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Easy Company is charged with maintaining the fragile peace with the Indian tribes in the area but also stand ready to fight, should that action be called for.

This is the first novel in the Easy Company series of 31 westerns written by a number of authors using the John Wesley Howard pseudonym. This time (and apparently the only time), the author is Lou Cameron, the author who brought us 'Longarm' as well as the 'Renegade' series and the 'Stringer' series among many others. The “suicide boys” of the book’s title refer to a group of young, untested, would-be Indian warriors out to prove their bravery, and their actions in the novel lead to conflicts with the outpost.

I thoroughly enjoyed this first book in the series.  The main characters of Easy Company, including the commander, his officers, 1st Sergeant, and a handful of enlisted men are all introduced as the story unfolds, as are the various leaders of the Indian tribes. An additional source of conflict arrives in the form of an IG inspector, a by-the-book man who struggles to understand why Easy Company finds it necessary to interpret the regulations creatively from time to time in order to preserve the peace.

If this first book is an indication of the quality of the entire series…well, I only have 30 more to read and I’ll enjoy each one of them.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Fancy Anders Goes to War by Max Allan Collins

In 1942 Los Angeles, a young socialite named Fancy Anders finds herself in charge of her father’s famous detective agency when he is called back to active duty. She is only supposed to be a caretaker of the agency, routing incoming cases to other agencies. But when a young female worker named Rose at Amalgamated Aircraft, who had been chosen to pose as a model for a new line of patriotic posters is found dead, Fancy’s suspicions are aroused. Was it an accidental death or was she murdered? Fancy goes undercover at the factory, working as a riveter alongside a diverse group of other women, to get to the bottom of it. But as the story moves along, Fancy (and we readers) soon come to realize there is far more going on here than a simple murder mystery, likely with massive consequences.

Fancy Anders is a great new character and building her into this novella form is a real treat. It’s a tight, lean story and serves well to not only set up Fancy as a well-rounded character but also provides an interesting detective yarn in a cool historical setting. As always, Collins’ proves adept at interweaving a good plot with historical figures including, in this case, no less than FDR. 

This is the first novella of three (so far) to feature the adventurous tomboy. She has classical Hollywood beauty mixed with a keen intelligence and over-the-top confidence. Sort of a combination of Phryne Fisher and Nancy Drew. Comparisons to Brenda Starr and Max Allan Collins’ own Ms. Tree would not be out of line. But she is also smart enough to know she doesn’t have the street savvy to go it alone so makes good use of friends and confidants, including LA homicide cop, Rick Hinder. She’s no wallflower to be sure, having lived an adventurous life already. 

The novella reads like a prose version of a graphic novel and indeed, there is a wonderful illustration at the beginning of each chapter by artist/illustrator Fay Dalton, known for her James Bond folio work and Titan’s Hard Case Crime graphic novels. The entire package is a wonderful combination of retro noir art in all its forms.

Can’t wait to read more of Fancy Anders!

Saturday, November 13, 2021

70,000 to 1 by Quentin Reynolds

On May 21, 1943, Gordon Manuel was serving  as bombardier aboard a B-17E and was shot down by a Japanese night fighter. He bailed out over the island of New Briton, the only survivor. His leg was broken, and he had few supplies. He did have a .45 but only five bullets. He would be stranded there for almost nine months, evading the hordes of Japanese forces on the island. This book is a fictionalized account of his true story, told from his first-person perspective.

The author, Quentin Reynolds, was an American journalist and World War II war correspondent. The book was first published in 1946, using the same sort of language the GI’s used, meaning a bit coarse for that era but pretty mild by today's standards. The first few chapters read much like a Robinson Crusoe story, with Manuel figuring out how to find food, water, and shelter and to care for his broken leg. Eventually he befriends an island native who speaks a sort of pidgin English and ultimately takes him back to his home village where he is well cared for. The natives dislike the Japanese presence on their island so are happy to protect Manuel and even scout out Japanese locations. By the end they are even finding other downed airmen and bringing them back to Manuel so they can organize a rescue.

If you’re going into this one expecting a Rambo-style plot with one man fighting his way through groups of Japanese soldiers with cool tactics and edge-of-your-seat suspense, then you will need to look elsewhere. I remember just two times when Manuel was even close to the enemy and both turned out to be anti-climactic. This despite several mentions that he has been living just 100 yards from an enemy encampment for much of the time. It is, however, an interesting read, partly because it is based on an actual event. Anytime a man can get shot down and survive for nine months on an enemy-controlled island is bound to be of interest. Additionally, Manuel’s first-person perspective of his adventures is told in a plain-language style that endears him to the reader and you can’t help but want him to succeed.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Men's Adventure Quarterly, Vol 1 by Bob Deis & Bill Cunningham

Color me impressed!

This is the first volume of what I sure hope is a continuing quarterly publication of stories and essays from the golden age of what are known as “MAMs” or Men’s Adventure Magazines. These were magazines mostly from the 1950s-60s that were geared toward men, often violent and with pulpy adventure style yarns. More often than not, the stories were accompanied by colorful art that featured scantily clad women. The publishers, after all, knew their target audience.

Now, Robert Deis and Bill Cunningham have put their considerable knowledge of the MAMs to work for our enjoyment. Each volume will focus on a single theme. This first one focuses on westerns and the second revolves around the world of espionage while the third devotes itself to the world of vigilantes. I own them all will be posting reviews of them as well, shortly.

This is a large, slick, high-quality product.  The cover alone makes my mouth water. But it is the contents that really blow me away. It’s chock full of reprinted stories and articles from the original MAMs as well as wonderful introductions by Bob Deis, Bill Cunningham, and guest editor, Paul Bishop. There are nine stories presented from the likes of “MALE”, “Man’s Life”, and “All Man” magazines complimented by impressive original full color and B&W artwork. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Additionally, there are a couple of in-depth articles as well as a full color art gallery of classic covers.

All of that would have added up to a sure-fire winner. But, for me, what really drives it over the top are the introductions to each story and article. Often when I read anthologies, I feel lucky when a story is introduced with a paragraph or two providing some background. But here, we get two and three pages of intro, describing each story’s origins, the author’s life, the artists involved and even the publishing background. The folks behind this publication really know their subject and their passion for all of it shines through in spades.

This will have a permanent place on my shelves, right alongside every issue that is published in the future. Highest recommendation!

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Doc Savage: Spook Hole by Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent)

Originally published in August 1935, this was the 30th Doc Savage story to be let loose upon the world. (Bantam has it as number 70 while the Sanctum reprints list it as number 43). Relatively speaking this falls much nearer the beginning of the series than the end and was written by the series’ creator, Lester Dent. 

Overall, this is more of a straight mystery adventure without as many potentially supernatural occurrences (or even the perception of such), as most Doc novels. The real mystery throughout most of the book is, “What exactly is Spook Hole?” What is it? Where is it? Why are so many people interested enough to kill for it? 

All but one of Doc’s crew makes an appearance in this one (another indicator of it falling in the first half of the series).  Even Doc’s cousin Pat Savage gets in on the action, as if you could keep her out of the fray once she’s gotten a whiff of an adventure to be had. One of Doc’s aides spends most of the novel undercover, but I won’t spoil that by naming names. 

The novel spends a bit too much time spinning its wheels in the first half, with various individuals or groups chasing after one another and trying to avoid Doc and friends. This is still fun reading because a lot of “Docisms” are on display such as various disguises, infiltrations, 86th floor lab break-ins, Monk/Ham insults, the upstate criminal college, and gadgets galore. However, it fails to advance the plot much. When we finally get around to Spook Hole, the plot develops nicely, and the guest character build-ups pay off. The final McGuffin reveal was a little under par but that’s OK. These books aren’t really about that anyway. The story does feature one of my favorite character names in the entire Doc Savage series: Hezemiah Law. Whether or not he is a good guy or a bad guy…well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Sepulchre by James Herbert

Originally published in 1987, this novel was written in the middle of James Herbert’s career, an author who has been referred to as the British Stephen King. It features a professional bodyguard and hostage negotiator named Liam Halloran who works for a company named ‘Achilles Shield’. He is assigned to protect the most valuable asset of the Magma Corporation who turns out to be a man named Felix Kline. Why is Kline so valuable? Halloran is told the man is a psychic researcher whose paranormal abilities allow him to locate undiscovered mineral mines. Halloran is skeptical to say the least but as events unfold, he is soon convinced. There have already been several failed attempts on Kline’s life by rival companies but now, the psychic has had a premonition that he will soon be in even greater danger.

The novel is basically a thriller novel for the first three-fourths of the book as Halloran works to increase security around Kline. He is introduced to the man’s personal bodyguard, a woman named Cora Redmile but soon realizes she is not trained well enough and security measures for Kline are inadequate. He does have four hired thugs but they are brutes of the worst sort. When Kline decides to be moved to his luxurious personal estate named ‘Neath’, hidden away in a small valley near London, Halloran’s tasks magnify. We see a few glimpses of something supernatural going on, although neither Halloran nor the reader is quite sure what it is. These glimpses certainly attracted me further and kept me turning the pages. The characters’ backstories are developed thoroughly as the buildup continues and eventually leads into the final quarter of the book where the horror aspects are fully unleashed. 

I haven’t read much by this author but based on this one, I am intrigued and will surely sample more of his work. I enjoyed the bodyguard/physical security aspects of the novel, especially Halloran’s workman like approach to his job in spite of a less than appreciative client. And when the horror comes out it really comes out. I felt the barrage of revelation after revelation as Herbert ties in earlier clues, including ancient Sumerian mythology and biblical themes. The plots and subplots are layered one upon the other and not fully appreciated until the dramatic and fitting conclusion.

Herbert’s incorporation of a thriller/horror crossover, I understand, is not unique to this novel. I thought it worked very well, with the corporate aspects providing a way to become truly invested in the characters before the major horror elements were let loose. I’m looking forward to my next Herbert novel.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Rattler's Law, Volume One by James Reasoner

Lucas Flint is the new marshal of Abilene, Kansas, an experienced lawman but a man that had no plans to resume his career, much less in the notoriously wild town of Abilene. After all, to fill the shoes of the last marshal, Wild Bill Hickock would be no easy task. But his moniker of “Rattler” describes his lightning-fast draw, as fast as a rattlesnake and that reputation serves him well when facing down the bad guys.

This volume compiles the first eight novels in the series and each one of them is a joy to read. These are traditional westerns. If they were movies, they would be rated PG. Flint makes for a fine protagonist as the first novel sees him tame the town and subsequent tales depict situations where he must maintain the peace. Whether it's a circus that's come to town or a fiery visitor from the Women's Temperance Society looking to banish all whiskey, you can be sure Flint will find himself in the middle of it and having to use his fast draw to solve the problem. But he’s far from alone in his efforts, supported by major characters such as his loyal but rough-around-the-edges deputy Cully Markham, and a Scottish saloon proprietor named Angus MacQuarrie who can wield a mean shotgun. Other characters include the female town doctor, the school master, and Cully’s brother Joshua who also happens to be the town pastor. 

Each story stands on its own but it’s a joy to return to the setting each time and revisit these characters. In some ways it reminds me of a television show like Gunsmoke, albeit with longer movie-length episodes. Prolific author James Reasoner has described these novels as rewritten and expanded versions of some of his early Western novels.

Wonderful stuff all the way through. Happily, I already own Volume 2, consisting of eight more novels. Can’t wait to get back to them.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Tick Tock by Dean Koontz

Tommy Phan has carved out a nice career as a detective novelist, so much so that he has just quit his reporter day job. His family immigrated to the US from Vietnam when Tommy was a young child, and he is all about pursuing the American Dream. But when a mysterious package arrives on his doorstop containing a strange little cloth doll, he wonders who sent it. Wonder turns to fear and terror when the doll comes to life, attacks him, and continually morphs into a larger and more gruesome demon. Worse, all Tommy’s attacks and attempts to stop it, kill it or even just harm it, fail. His only clue in all this is a phrase that has mysteriously appeared on his computer: “Deadline is dawn”. 

Tick Tock.

Every time I start to read a Dean Koontz book, I hesitate, knowing I am taking a risk. While some of my best reading experiences in the horror genre are due to his work, I’ve also suffered a great deal of wasted opportunities. Over the first 100 pages of this novel, I was preparing, unfortunately, to log this one in the later category. It’s a simple set-up for a horror tale but Koontz can drag out a scene with the best of them and this was getting old real fast.

But then, the whole thing gets turned on its head. It turns into a screw-ball comedy. You heard that right. Perhaps the setup I’ve described lends one to conclude that’s what has been planned all along. Regardless, the character of Del (short for Deliverance Payne) enters the plot and all is cool thereafter. She provides the zaniness, the pizazz, the aggravating nonchalance that is required for a screwball horror comedy to work. She’s a waitress who is also an heiress to a fortune. Tommy is the bumbling, unbeliever who must tolerate Del’s wild philosophies and uncanny abilities to do everything from hotwire a car to pilot a helicopter. This isn’t a laugh-out-loud funny book but her antics (and her mother’s) certainly brought a smile to my face, and eventually to Tommy’s as well.

In the end, I’m glad I stuck with this one. It’s not Koontz’ masterpiece but it turned out to be a pretty nice fun read.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Reincarnal & Other Dark Tales by Max Allen Collins

I’ve read a fair number of Max Allan Collin’s crime and/or mystery novels and always enjoyed them but this is the first time I realized he wrote some horror as well, so naturally, I had to jump on this collection. Included here are 8 stories plus two radio play scripts. I enjoyed every one of them, an unusual thing for an anthology of any stripe. 

Several of these are MAC’s take on traditional horror stories. There’s a couple of vampire tales, a Frankenstein’s monster type of story, a werewolf story and at least two haunted house yarns. But the author brings a unique perspective to each of the stories, dropping clues along the way as to which traditional story you’re reading. For example, the Frankenstein story isn’t a mad scientist creating a creature from dead body parts, exactly, but rather about a mob kingpin. There are other tales here as well, not tied into any previous works. Some tend towards hard core horror while others have a definite sense of humor about them. Most of them offer explicit sexual content so be aware of that before diving in.

All these stories were previously published as contributions to previous anthologies, mostly in the 1990s. All are pretty quick reads and thoroughly enjoyable.  Here are the stories included:

- “Reincarnal” - 1994
- “The Night of Their Lives” – 1995
- “A Good Head on his Shoulders” – 1993
- “Wolf” – 1999
- “Not a Creature Was Stirring” – 1990, revised in 2020
- “Open House” – 2011
- “Traces of Red” – 1995
- “Rock ‘n’ Roll Will Never Die” – 1994
- “Interstate 666” – 1997
- “House of Blood” Radio Play – 2012
- “Mercy” Radio Play - 2012

Saturday, October 9, 2021

I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane

“I want you to hear every word I say. I want you to tell it to everyone you know. And when you tell it, tell it strong, because I mean every word of it. There are ten thousand mugs that hate me and you know it. They hate me because if they mess with me I shoot their damn heads off. I’ve done it and I’ll do it again.”

Mike Hammer, hard-hitting, tough-talking private eye has been around the block a few times and has earned a certain reputation.  A reputation for taking care of business using lethal force if needed.  When his best friend is found dead, the same best friend who had literally given an arm for him during the war, Hammer is out for blood, and a promise to kill the bastard that did it.

About time I started the Mike Hammer series by Mickey Spillane.  I’ve sort of been avoiding it because I have an awful lot of series going right now and, as usual, I was worried I would start this one and get drawn into a bunch more must-reads. But I am also reading a collection of short stories right now and the next one happens to be one of the Mickey Spillane/Max Alan Collins stories that is continuing the Mike Hammer series.  And I wanted to be sure I had read the first Hammer book in case it was in any way an origin story.

It wasn’t.  Not really.  Mike Hammer is introduced in mid-career with many a case behind him already.  I understand there is a chronology to the books and short stories but I’m not sure at this point if any of them really need to be read in order. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have finally gotten to this classic of the hard-boiled genre.  Besides Hammer, himself, we also get to meet the ongoing characters of his secretary Velda and his friend Pat Chambers, Captain of Homicide NYPD.  The story itself was nicely absorbing, filled with the expected violent action and dangerous dames.  I figured out the culprit fairly early on but not necessarily the how and the why.

So, here I  am, with a newly stoked need to read another 20-plus novels.  Bummer.

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The Singing Sword by Jack Whyte

The second book in the “Camulod Chronicles” picks up shortly after the events of the first book, The Skystone.  It continues the tale of Caius Britannicus and Publius Varrus (both great grandfathers of the future King Arthur of Briton) as they continue to build the colony of Camulod during the turn of the 5th century AD, when Rome was pulling out of Briton and leaving the Brits, the Celts, and other assorted peoples to deal with various invading groups such as the Saxons and the Northmen.

I love the way this series is a truly accurate historical novel series, at this point at least, that also just happens to be related to the Arthurian legends.  As the colony of Camulod gets established, we get to see major historical events and influences unfold.  For example, due to the need for mobility in responding to threats, the art of warfare using horses is advanced.  Rome was never known for its cavalry but now there is a need for well-trained warriors on horses.  A breeding program is introduced to increase the size of the horses, the stirrup is introduced, and the swords are lengthened to allow use from horseback.  All of these developments are actual historical occurrences.  We also get to witness the first rough efforts to convert a Senate-like council meeting where elitism prevails to a newer style of local government in the form of a round circle of chairs where all have an equal voice.  I think we all know where this will lead to in an Arthurian sense.

But more importantly, this is a well-told tale.  Just as in the first novel, this is a first person account by Publius Varrus, a former legionnaire, partly crippled through a battle injury, and now a master blacksmith.  One might correctly guess from the title that he is the eventual crafter of Excalibur.  His first person point of view lends a great perspective on bringing these great events down to the individual level and allowing the everyday life of families, lovers, builders, etc. to be as personal and emotional for the reader as it is for him.  Great and satisfying personal achievements are matched by great loss and even tragedy.  It is rare when a fictional novel brings a tear to my eye but this one managed to do it.

All of these great historical shifts in thinking and technique take many years.  The first two novels cover most of Caius and Publius’s long lives but it is inevitable that we move on.  I’m excited for the third book in the series The Eagles' Brood where I understand that Publius’s grandson takes over the first person account.  His name is Caius Merlyn Britannicus, first cousin of Uther Pendragon.