Monday, August 15, 2022

Under a Veiled Moon (Inspector Corravan #2) by Karen Odden

1878

Inspector Michael Corravan, a senior officer at Scotland Yard now finds himself as acting superintendent at Wapping River Police for the past three months. As a man born in Ireland, orphaned at an early age and raised by the Irish Doyle family, it’s a tough time for him. He’s caught in the middle, working for the English crown while fighting down his disgust at the very active prejudice he sees against his own people across England.

But Corravan is nothing if not dogged in his police duties so when a body is discovered near the docks and found to be likely something more than an accident, he sets out to investigate. But soon his work is overwhelmed by a catastrophe upon the Thames. The pleasure steamer named the Princess Alice is struck by the massive Bywell Castle, an iron-hulled collier, resulting in the loss of most of the 600 passengers. All police are sucked into the effort to search for survivors and handle relief efforts. Local newspapers start reporting rumors and innuendos about the Irish Republican Brotherhood being responsible. A single case of possible murder appears to have turned into a complex case of mass murder for political purposes.

Karen Odden has once again written a wonderful, historically accurate novel of murder, intrigue, and deadly peril. For the first few chapters I wondered what she might have in mind for us readers as we get to peel the proverbial onion back on a society prone to prejudice and political activism. Sure, there was a what appeared to be a murder case and surely Inspector Corravan would investigate and uncover the truth of the matter. But then the whole plot took a deep turn into unexpected territory. The sinking of the Princess Alice is a historical event and many of the characters involved with her destiny and that we read about here are actual historical characters. This incident remains the greatest loss of life of any British inland waterway shipping accident in history. The author uses this tragedy and creates a masterful story of political intrigue around it, forcing Inspector Corravan to solve what amounts to one of the very first incidents of terrorism ever, even when it means working with sordid figures of the seedy London underbelly. And to think I thought this would be just a simple murder mystery.

I’ve read a couple of other novels by Karen Odden and have always come away impressed. She has a knack for creating complex plots and yet keeping them entirely readable. The settings, society, and true-to-life history reflect her in depth research. But, as in all good stories, the characters make the novel and here, Karen Odden has pulled out all the stops. Inspector Corravan is a superb character, filled with human foibles to balance out his honorable intentions. We get to see a lot of his adopted family and their destinies, heavily influenced by a decision he made long ago. Indeed, one of the central themes of the novel is how one learns to live with prior regretful choices.

This is the second of the Inspector Corravan novels and I will add that I have yet to read the first one. However, at no time did I feel like I was missing anything. The author provides any backstory needed so I was quite comfortable throughout. Of course, I do feel the need to go back now and read that first one (“Down a Dark River”), not to fill in anything about this one but simply to revel in the experience of reading a Karen Odden novel.

Saturday, August 13, 2022

The Mad Scientist Affair (The Man From U.N.C.L.E. #5) by John T. Phillifent

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are assigned to an unusual case in Ireland.  This time, instead of stopping the diabolical plot of a mad scientist, they are to see to it that he carries out his plans, whatever they are, in case it's good, and keep THRUSH from getting their hands on the experiments.  The scientist is a brewer of premium beer but, alas, he has discovered new synthetic substances based on chemical processes.  One use is to enhance indiscretion and recklessness, much like a new form of beer.  Solo himself is drugged with this and learns just how dangerous it could be if loosed upon an unsuspecting population.  But even more serious is the second form of the synthetic which can spread rapidly in water and turn into a solid jelly-like substance.  It seems the scientist and THRUSH have plans to let it loose in key salt water areas on a massive scale and thus paralyze shipping lanes, choke rivers, cut off power plants, etc.  Diabolical indeed! 

The fifth entry of this series is the first of three by English writer John T. Phillifent (also wrote #19 and 20).  This author is probably better known by his pseudonym, John Rackham, a science fiction and fantasy author of some note.  He is also an electrical engineer and scientist by training and this knowledge is put to good use here.  The science behind these fictional synthetic substances may not pass an expert evaluation but was sufficient to sound plausible to my mind.  But he doesn’t scrimp on the action or other expectations of an U.N.C.L.E. story either.  The addition of the scientist’s two beautiful daughters, one blonde and angelic, one raven-haired and devilish, was a nice touch.  Although I will say the blonde was a little inconsistent, changing from a brilliant scientist in her own right, to a helpless chatty Cathy in the middle, and finally to an action hero at the end.  

It’s all in good fun though and as long as you’re not expecting the heights of literary accomplishment, it’s a fun time.

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Jewel of the Java Sea by Dan Cushman

Frisco Dougherty has been hanging around the islands of the South China Sea, from Singapore to Manilla and to the coast of India ever since the war ended. He’s been hunting for over fifteen years, hunting diamonds, hoping to gain his fortune and enough dough to get him back home to San Francisco. And now he’s found one. A diamond that’s been oddly cut, not so large as he’d hoped but certainly of superior quality. And even better, it appears to be just the start of a group of diamonds, all available for a man filled with enough cunning and bravado to acquire them one way or another.

This is a classic 1950’s-era South Pacific adventure novel. The plot is filled with rogues and villains out to steal that which Frisco has legitimately stolen first. Frisco has allies but he’s never certain he can entirely trust them. Among them is a beautiful native girl named Anna as well as a Cockney named Jaske, a Chinese merchant, and an American going by the name Deering. From some he can gain clues to how to acquire the rest of the diamonds and from others he can make deals to his own advantage. But just who will help and who will hinder remains an open-ended question.

Author Dan Cushman has written a number of novels that take place in the South Pacific as well as the Congo and the Yukon, all based on his own adventurous life and experiences. Later he turned his hand to writing western/historical novels featuring Native Americans and Montana history. He is probably best known for his novel, “Stay Away, Joe” which was turned into a film starring Elvis Presley.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. I was in the mood for a good rollicking adventure yarn and this one fit the bill nicely. I managed to learn a little more about the regions where the story takes place as well as some nice details about the provenance of some famous diamonds that found their way through this area. But at its heart, this is a solid novel of back-stabbing, conniving adventurers intent on gaining riches the old-fashioned way. Trading, dealing, stealing, and murdering, all on the way to a satisfying ending.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

The Crime Master (Gordon Manning & The Griffin, Vol. 1) by J. Allan Dunn

Continuing my tour of story collections from the pulp era, I turned this time to The “Crime Master” otherwise known as the continuing battles of Gordon Manning & The Griffin.  The stories in this collection were originally published from 1929 through 1931 in “Detective Fiction Weekly” magazine and are presented in chronological order.

There were a total of 31 installments in this series and 11 are presented here in this first volume. Each tale builds on previous stories but, in essence, consists of The Griffin (The Crime Master himself) contacting Gordon Manning (formerly Secret Service and currently a consulting attorney) about which famous person he will soon assassinate.  The Griffin takes great pleasure in baiting Gordon, even including which 24 hour time frame his crime will be committed.  Despite Gordon’s best efforts at providing security for the target, the dastardly Griffin always manages to be one step ahead and gets away.  Often one of his henchmen is sacrificed and over these 11 stories, Gordon does make some progress in “getting close” but remains frustrated at the end of each story.

Each of the stories follows the same basic structure but there is enough variation to make each one interesting.  I chose to read one story between each novel I've been reading in order to keep them somewhat fresh. I am very interested to eventually read that last (number 31) story to see if Gordon finally nabs his man but for now, I will just have to hold my breath.

As I’ve expanded my intake of pulp stories from the 1920s-1950s I find myself appreciating them more and more.  The author of these stories, J. Allan Dunn seems to have led an extremely adventurous life himself and his biography would make an almost unbelievable story in its own right.  I rank his Crime Master stories among my favorite pulp reading experiences so far and I will be looking for Volume 2 in short order.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Jackdaws by Ken Follett

Whenever I read a Ken Follett novel, I expect a lot.  Not every book I’ve read by him has been outstanding but most have and so I always hope for one of those.  This one certainly qualifies.

It’s a story that takes place during the ten days just prior to the D-Day landings in 1944 during WWII.  The French resistance is in full gear, expecting the imminent invasion, even if they don’t know the exact date.  The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in London has determined to support the French resistance in its efforts to sabotage a key target which, in turn, will greatly aid the success of the invasion.  The Gestapo HQ in Paris in the square at Sainte-C├ęcile, also houses the critical telephonic communications hub.  If that were to be taken out of commission, then critical communications to those defending against the invasion forces would be severely impacted.

We follow along with Felicity “Flick” Clairet as she builds a team to infiltrate and destroy the communications hub.  She chooses all women (Code name: "Jackdaws") so that they can pose as a cleaning crew and make it easier to withstand close scrutiny.  Recruitment proves difficult and she must settle for inexperienced women with very little time to train.  Most of them are misfits in one fashion or another – comparisons to the Dirty Dozen are not inaccurate.

One mark of an excellent thriller story is the quality of the primary antagonist and here, the character of Major Dieter Franck, working on Field Marshal Rommel’s staff, is a wonderfully drawn bad guy.  He is extremely dedicated to his task of finding Flick and stopping her mission, and while he can be deliciously evil in his effective torture techniques, he also demonstrates admirable traits of intelligence and dogged determination.  

The pacing here is perfect.  A nice buildup of intrigue and emotion and stressful intensity interspersed with danger as well as softly romantic moments.  The pages keep turning despite whatever else might be going on in your life that would drag you away from reading further.  The danger is real, and not all characters survive but the ending is deeply satisfying.

Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Fighting Crime One Dime at a Time by Ed Hulse (editor)

For several years I’ve been on a quest to learn more about the old pulp stories and heroes. I’ve read quite a few of them now, in several different series and plan to sample a lot more in the future. But I know I’ll never be able to read them all. And that’s where books like this come in.

Per the Murania Press Website, “In the summer of 2002, long-time friends Ed Hulse, Mark Trost and Rick Scheckman launched Blood ‘n’ Thunder, an amateur journal for aficionados of adventure, mystery, and melodrama in American popular culture of the early 20th century.” As a quarterly publication (with a few gaps), a treasure trove of material has been accumulated over the years. Occasionally, a “Blood ‘N’ Thunder Presents" collection comes along, of which this volume is the third.

As the title implies, this volume is devoted to the crime fighting heroes of the pulps, particularly the “single character” type of heroes such as The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Lone Ranger, Black Bat, The Phantom, etc. Ed Hulse provides a marvelous introduction and summarizes the history of these pulp crime fighters. Fourteen articles follow as well as an appendix which provides two early comics that heavily borrowed from pulp characters.

Knowledgeable authors contributed these articles, including Will Murray, Mark Trost, John Coryell, Joe Rainone, Larry Latham, and of course Ed Hulse. The only article I didn’t really care for was also among the longest, “Masked Rider of the (Pulp) Plains – A History of The Lone Ranger Magazine”. The first part was great, describing, in detail, the history of the magazine and its impact. But then we are presented with a whole host of individual plot summaries of the stories, including the endings for all of them. Spoilers abound!

I would be hard pressed to name my favorite article but certainly near the top would be “The 20 Most Underrated Shadow Novels” wherein various contributors state their case for favorite entries that are often overlooked.

The book itself is well-designed, and of very high quality. One might wish for full color pictures instead of the black and white ones here, but I imagine the resulting retail price would keep it out of the hands of most. As for me, I can honestly say I learned a great deal about these pulp characters as well as the history of their publication and their ultimate demise as comics, paperbacks and TV usurped their role.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Assignment Silver Scorpion (Sam Durell #35) by Edward S. Aarons

Sam Durell, agent of K-Section of the CIA is used to working alone. He’s a mission-oriented, no-nonsense, experienced top-notch agent. So when he finds himself on a case with a young, inexperienced female agent, he’s not exactly thrilled. They have been sent to the newly unified African country of Boganda where it appears over $300,000 of American and International aid has been diverted into the pockets of…somebody. Perhaps it’s Mokutu, the new country’s president, or perhaps it’s their military leader. Or perhaps it’s one or both of their wives who happen to be sisters and have every appearance of being professional pirates. The money, in the form of international credits, was intended for economic, social, and educational needs. But over the past six months, the credits have been converted, little by little, into hard cash for projects that were never completed, or never even begun. It was an international swindle of the first magnitude. Durell and his rookie partner must find out where the money’s gone.

Once again Edward S. Aarons (also known by the pseudonyms Paul Ayres and Edward Ronns) has provided an exciting adventure thriller in the lengthy “Assignment” series featuring agent Sam Durell. I think these later books in the series have a bit more TV-style adventure than the early ones, more action, more double-crosses, more peril in general. Durell ends up in a jail cell at least three times (maybe four) in this single novel. But it’s a fun ride all the way through. The author, as he has many times before, provides a realistic exotic setting for his characters to romp around in. While the country of Boganda is fictional, it seems much like many an African nation in the early 1970s when this was published. 

I must say that the character of Sam Durell doesn’t come off well over the first half of the novel. The way he treats his female co-agent is abominable. I get that he is used to working alone, but the author seems to press this point too far in my opinion. Yes, I’m aware that this was written in the early 1970s, but he is arrogant, condescending, patronizing, and flat out rude to her in every interaction they have. He demands information from her but never stoops to answering her questions. He even physically slaps her twice (and another character once). I worry that if this book were a reader’s first introduction to the series, they would be so turned off as to quit half-way through and never want to read another one. Happily, I can report that this relationship changes significantly as the pages fly by. When two people face the kind of dangerous situations that these two face, they tend to gravitate towards each other. In fact, this becomes one of the major rewards of persevering through the book.

Looking forward to my next "Assignment" read.

Saturday, July 16, 2022

The Fort at River's Bend (Camulod Chronicles #5) by Jack Whyte

The fifth novel in The Camulod Chronicles finally gets to the education of Arthur by his mentor and surrogate father, Merlyn.  It covers the period of time where young Arthur is aged 8 through 15, very formative years indeed.  It’s also, perhaps, the most idyllic novel in the entire series.  The end of the last book, "The Saxon Shore", saw an assassination attempt on young Arthur’s life so Merlyn and a small group of trusted friends and protectors make their way secretly to an old abandoned fort not far from Hadrian’s Wall.  There, Merlyn and company undertake the duties of educating Arthur and forming the man who will become the great king of all Britain.  It’s almost a utopian novel in fact as there is only enough danger to the group to keep their skills up and provide key lessons for Arthur and his young companions and virtually no threats from outside political forces. This peaceful time also allows Merlyn to make some welcome changes in his own outlook on life and to recover from the loss of his wife. The end of the novel makes it clear that those circumstances will soon be changing as the group must return to Camulod (Camelot) to face new threats from old enemies.

This novel, as with all the others so far in the series, is a non-magical version of the Arthurian tale. It’s basically pure historical fiction with all of the tropes of magical Merlin, Excalibur, the Lady of the Lake, etc. all told via realistic explanations. The only caveat to this are some dreams that Merlyn has occasionally that seem to foretell what will come.  

The book is told from Merlyn’s first person point of view, from a time long after the events depicted.  This allows him to provide foreshadowing here and there but nothing that would surprise anybody who knows the basics of Arthurian lore. It’s also great fun to read how Merlyn excuses his own behavior when he has been foolish or stubborn.  

These novels are awesome and I really am savoring each and every one.  I seem to go through actual withdrawal when I complete one so I’m glad there are still several more to go.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Wyoming Wanton (Gunn #16) by Jory Sherman

William “Gunn” Gunnison Is resting up in Denver after a particularly intense experience (see the previous book in the series, “Drygultched”). He’s asked to meet somebody, a stranger, after dark in an alley. Turns out to be a message from an old friend up in Cheyenne who has been accused of murder, and needs Gunn to come and testify at his trial. But opposing forces are determined to keep that from happening and set about trying to kill Gunn before he can arrive in Wyoming. Worse, they are killing other men and using Gunn’s special mark on them as a way to set him up for the murders.

This is the 16th book in the “Gunn” series, but the first one I’ve ever tried. Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much from it based on the cover, suspecting it to be just another 2-bit Slocum-style knock-off. I had picked it up in one of those Friends of the Library sales where you get a full grocery bag of books for $5. 

But…I was pleasantly surprised. No, this type of novel will never win a Spur award from the Western Writers of America, but it was a pretty good, entertaining read. It is of the "adult western" variety with the obligatory 3 sex scenes per book but those can be easily skipped over if the reader isn't interested. Plenty of action occurs, but there is some pretty nice character development as well, and a healthy dose of mystery and intrigue. The end includes a fun courtroom scene which rings true for a circuit-riding judge who is more interested in swift justice than accurate justice.

While I had never heard of author Jory Sherman before, this book intrigued me enough to look him up, only to discover he is, in fact, the author of over 400 books, many of them set in the American West, as well as poetry, articles, and essays. His best-known works may be the Spur Award-winning The Medicine Horn, first in the “Buckskinner” series, and Grass Kingdom, part of the “Barons of Texas” series. He also contributed four books to the Ralph Compton "Trail Drive" series. Sherman won the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Contributions to Western Literature from the Western Writers of America. Pretty impressive.

One interesting side note. The author includes a character in this book, a deputy sheriff named “Bob Randisi”. Of course, Robert J Randisi, under the pseudonym “J.R. Roberts”, is the author of all 477 of “The Gunsmith” novels (and counting), along with numerous other books in the western, crime/mystery genres as well as numerous anthologies. I'm betting they knew each other, and Sherman was just having a little fun here.

Based on this book, I will be looking for more from Jory Sherman, whether in this “Gunn” series or from his other works.

Saturday, July 2, 2022

The Haunted Air (Repairman Jack #6) by F. Paul Wilson

I always know I'm in for a good read when I pick up a "Repairman Jack" novel.  "The Haunted Air" by F. Paul Wilson is the 6th in the series about a guy who lives in present day New York City and specializes in fixing things for people.  Just about any job is doable if approached the right way.  Jack lives off the grid: no Social Security Number, no bank accounts, no tax returns, numerous aliases and a great sense of handing out his own brand of justice.

One of the things I love about this series is that it combines several of my favorite genres.  These novels are sort of mystery/thriller novels with a good dose of detective sleuthing thrown in and as we go along, more and more horror as well.  Each book in the series has a stand-alone situation (or situations) for Jack to help with but there is also an overall arc that ties them all together.  The author combines these Repairman Jack novels with his other works in the "Adversary Cycle" to form an overall "hidden history of the world."  Readers certainly need not read all of his works to appreciate each individual novel and, in fact, according to the author's website, even if you read every word of his numerous works, they have just barely scratched the surface of this hidden history.

This novel continues that bigger story arc in fine style as we really start getting into the back story of "The Otherness".  This is the science-fiction/horror aspect of what is happening in the background and is just absolutely fascinating to me.  Jack has been told that nothing in his life is coincidence and we really see that played out in this novel.  Seemingly unrelated jobs of helping a couple of brothers who run a fake psychic/spiritualist operation to watching another client's brother for three evenings in a row to keep him from harm are, in fact, intimately connected. This novel has everything packed in, from fake spiritualists to real ghosts, from fisticuffs to gunplay, from ritual sacrifices to Jack's girlfriend really getting into the action.  And oh yes, she may be pregnant, which plays with Jack's conscience...will he be able to continue living off the grid if he is to become a father?

 Great characters, great plotting, great mysteries and intrigue, and a killer "universe" make Repairman Jack one of the greatest series I've ever read, especially the further along I travel on this road.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Blackmark by Gil Kane

Published in January of 1971, this paperback is considered one of the first American graphic novels, written in a combination of prose, word balloons, and artwork by the inestimable Gil Kane. Kane, an already established comics artist had helped usher in the Silver Age of comic books with his role in revamping the DC Comics characters Green Lantern and The Atom, and who drew The Amazing Spider-Man during a particularly important 1970s run. However, this isn’t his first graphic novel, having experimented with the form with his 1968 black-and-white comics magazine His Name is... Savage.

Rather than enlarging on a pre-existing idea or character for this paperback book, Kane chose to develop an original story, setting, and character. In a post-nuclear-holocaust Earth, now devastated and devoid of all technology, mankind has been fractured into tribes. Mutated beasts abound and to the north, a race of malformed men with strange mental powers plot the eventual conquest of the planet from the fortress of Psi-Keep.

Into this world, a baby is conceived between a tinker’s barren wife and a dying wizard-king named Amarix. Amarix has the knowledge of science from before the wars and is able to magically transfer this knowledge into his spawn. The child is named Blackmark and, much like Conan, eventually sees his family and village slaughtered, is captured and raised as a slave. He vows revenge and to one day become King of all Earth. But first he must compete in the gladiator arena.

I enjoyed the story, but what puts this over the top is Gil Kane’s artwork. It’s too bad initial sales of the book didn’t meet expectations (due largely to some marketing mistakes), and no further books in the series were ever published. Kane, however, had already completed a second book worth of material. This would later be published as “The Mind Flayers” in the 62-page Marvel Comics magazine Marvel Preview #17  (Winter 1979).

This one is worth tracking down, not just for its historical contribution to the graphic novel format, but for the story and artwork itself.