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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

HANGING WOMAN CREEK

‘Hanging Woman Creek’ was released in 1964 by Bantam Books. For me, it’s considered one of L’Amour’s early books due to being released about 15 years into his writing career. At 150 pages, it fits snugly into the author’s “short but exceptional” western template. Set in frosty Montana, L’Amour introduces us to the rough and tough Pronto Pike. He’s a down on his luck journeyman who drifts from job to job all over the country. Like many paperback cowboys, Pronto is decent with his fists and Hell with a rifle. He’s a great cattle guy, a hard worker…but his temper has been the bane of his existence. So, it’s fitting that the book opens with Pronto being released from an overnight stay in jail along with a couple of other drifter types – Van Bokkelen (who may be wanted for murder) and an older African American boxer named Eddie Holt. 

After separating themselves from Bokkelen, both Eddie and Pronto team up to find work before the bulk of winter hits the Montana timbers. After asking around, the duo find a great stint punching cattle for a rancher named Bill Justin. It’s a good gig – warm cabin, plenty of wood, a few books and the calm day to day activities of babysitting cattle through the winter. Eddie, while not a skilled rancher, earns his keep by preparing good meals and teaching Pronto some boxing lessons. In turn, Pronto shows Eddie how to punch cattle. However, the good vibe at Hanging Woman Creek doesn’t last long.

L’Amour slowly envelopes the story with an impending sense of gloom, enhanced by the cold, rural landscape. After learning that cattle rustlers are among them, Pronto finds a murdered man in the snow (with a bit of mysterious horseprints). With tensions high and both men feeling watched and unsettled, Pronto rides into town to present the dead man and to make a sworn statement. There, he finds an Irish beauty named Ann Farley, the sister of a nester named Philo Farley, an old friend of Pronto’s. Ann explains that her brother could be in trouble and needs a ride out to his cabin just shy of Hanging Woman Creek.   

I am recommending this one to any action and western fans, and with that being said, I don’t want to elaborate too much further for fear of spoilers. The heart of the book is ultimately a classic western…but it’s loaded with atmosphere and mystery. Where’s the rustlers, who’s leading them and what’s behind the murders? How is Philo and Ann Farley tied to it? While the first third of the book develops great characters, the middle really expands on that and introduces mystery and intrigue. The last third is Hell bent for leather, matching the book’s cover perfectly.

L’Amour is a master storyteller and this one has all of his best ingredients. Action, mystery, interesting (and lovable) characters and a frantic sense of pacing. It’s a short read packed with atmosphere and firepower. ‘Hanging Woman Creek’ is highly recommended…and won’t let you down until that noose snaps tight.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

DEATHLANDS #01 - PILGRIMAGE TO HELL

‘Deathlands’ is yet another series that has periodically slipped through my hands over the years. The covers were always inviting, promising an entertaining trip through post-nuke America. For whatever reason, I just never bothered purchasing or reading any of them. Now, as I get further and further through westerns, crime and apocalyptic styled yarns (and yawns), I’m revisiting the books that just never made the cut initially. Thus ‘Pilgrimage to Hell’, the first book of the series and my first taste of this long-running, highly recommended series. 

The series was introduced in January, 1988 by publishing giant Gold Eagle. It has run for 130 books as well as an ill-conceived SyFy film. The concept was created by U.K. author Christopher Lowder, a talent that contributed to science fiction and adventure stories for the likes of ‘The House of Hammer’, ‘2000 A.D.’ and ‘Thunder and Lion’. Lowder worked on the series’ first entry, ‘Pilgrimage to Hell’, but had to stop writing it due to an illness. This led to Lowder arguably writing the first ¾ of the novel before conceding the book, and a majority of the series, to fellow British writer Laurence James. James was a member of the “Piccadilly Cowboys” and wrote 12-14 novels a year under various pen-names. Before working on the ‘Deathlands’ series, James had contributed to motorcycle, Viking, science fiction and post-apocalyptic novels.

The book’s opening pages presents a detailed history of how Earth was ravaged by a nuclear exchange in 2001. It’s lengthy (on paper almost 20 pages), and documents a ton of information that I thought I might need to remember…but it turns out none of it even matters other than Earth has changed significantly due to bombs and radiation (yes, it’s the inevitable Soviet-US fiery transaction). Geography consists of various hot and cold spots with dark clouds that seemingly burn the sky. Mutants, sickness and plagues take over and cull the weak, resulting in decades of famine and death. The opening chapter puts us in 2101, 100 years removed from the big bang and roughly two to three generations after the civilization that we know. The end result is a barren wasteland that resembles some sort of alien landscape than the Earth that we all know and love. Mutants, telepaths, warriors and Barons (leaders) populate what was once the US, ruling small villages and towns and recreating the shambles of what life once was despite the “nuclear winter” effects. It’s medieval, putting this book and series more in line with the fantasy genre than the typical post-nuke adventure. 

No disrespect to Lowder, but his writing style for the first half of the book is very restless. About 100 pages in I was seriously questioning my decision to read this and if I had enough focus to retain much of the information presented. There is a lot to unpack after several chapters, including multiple characters that could be major or minor characters early on. At one point I couldn’t keep track of which character was saying the dialogue and how they were related to the group. The book’s opening half centers around a telepathic mutant named Kurt who is assisting a group of bandits. They are attempting a journey north into a frosty wasteland known as The Darks. It’s here that a fabled treasure of supplies and wealth exists…yet no one has ever returned from the area safely. As soon as the group enter the area…tentacles and claws emerge from the fog and they are seemingly killed off.

From that point we are then introduced to a mysterious guy named Trader and his motorized convoy as they travel to the ville of Mocsin. Trader runs three large trucks (what I would think of as armored tractor trailers) and about 40 men and women - including his comrade, and series main star, Ryan Cawdor. This group are legendary traders and travelers and do business with the Baron Jordan Teauge, a notoriously bad man that has quite the reputation for raping, killing and stealing. The group is attacked by mutants led by a character named Scale before eventually rescuing another series mainstay, the beautiful Krysty Wroth (I told you there were a ton of characters). The convoy engages in road combat and run ‘n gun with a host of baddies including mutants named Stickies (they literally pull flesh from bones on contact) and Teauge’s rogue baddie Cort Strasser. Eventually, the convoy arrives near Mocsin where the book settles into a groove at the halfway point.

Lowder finishes off his portion of the book with a bit of western styled storytelling. Ryan, Krysty and company are captured by the now crooked Strasser and Teauge. During their capture, they meet an interesting character named Doc Tanner who may, or may not be, from another time period all together. He speaks in Victoria era broken sentences, but seems to know more about The Darks than anyone else. The gang breaks free of Strasser and eventually reunites with Trader and the convoy. More skirmishes and gunfights occur as the group attempts to escape Strasser and an army of mutants. Along the way we learn Trader is dying, Ryan is in love with Krysty and the whole group is embarking on a trip to The Darks to learn the secrets or seal their fate.

In what is essentially the whole premise of the book, the gang fractures off into a main cast of just eight characters as they learn that “redoubts” exist all over the country. Think of these as teleportation stations that allow them to jump all over the country in seconds. We assume that they somehow lead to time travel based on Doc’s misplacement in 2101…but future volumes will address that (I hope). The book finishes on a cliffhanger that promises a second book will continue the current storyline. 

The book’s much more focused and arranged with James writing the last fourth and I’m glad that we slimmed down on the number of characters. While the first half was a bit messy, I’m a bit sympathetic with Lowder’s monumental undertaking. He had a lot of ground to cover, a huge storyline to introduce and just under a few hundred pages to accomplish the feat. While I’m sorry he couldn’t finish his effort, James really comes in and makes it his own. I’m looking forward to more of this series. Science fiction, fantasy, action adventure? Really it is all three with a slight nod to Lovecraft horror. This was a surprising concept that definitely puts ‘Deathlands’ outside of the typical post-nuke novels of the 80s and early 90s.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

DOC SAVAGE #01 - THE MAN OF BRONZE

Predominantly, my Paperback Warrior musings are catered to 70s and 80s fiction, but I’m leaping through time to cover this iconic pulp warrior. Shamefully it has taken me 41 years on Earth to read my very first Doc Savage title. Over the years I’ve discovered the character while browsing a multitude of media including novels, comics, magazines and audio. For some reason, I just never had any interest in delving beneath the surface until now.

‘Doc Savage Magazine’ was first published in March, 1933 via Street & Smith publishers. Street & Smith was a New York company formed in 1855. It released its first pulp, ‘The Popular Magazine’, in 1903. By the mid-20s the pulp market had exploded, led by what many claims as the “Big Four” – ‘Argosy’, ‘Adventure’, ‘Blue Book’ and ‘Short Stories’. Street & Smith publishing agent Henry Ralston and editior John Nanovic had a hit on their hands with ‘The Shadow’ and were pursuing a second title. They pitched their Doc Savage hero concept to author Lester Dent with a dangling carrot of $500-$750 paychecks per book. It was a triumphant transaction that led to Doc Savage appearing a whopping 181 times for the magazine and related media. In 1964, the title regained popularity with Bantam reprinted each magazine as an individual novel. The books were handsomely presented with new artwork by James Bama and listed under house name Kenneth Robeson. These books are mostly out of chronological publishing order except the first – ‘The Man of Bronze’.

As the forerunner to the modern superhero, ‘The Man of Bronze’ starts the series as the obligatory origin story. It begins by introducing us to Doc Savage and his “Fabulous Five” team members. Each are introduced by name and what their overall skill is. Monk is a strong type that doubles as an industrial chemist. Ham is an accomplished attorney with a sword cane. Renny is the team’s brawn and construction engineer. Long Tom is an electrical wizard and Johnny rounds it off as the team’s archaeologist, complete with magnifying lens over his damaged left eye. Savage himself is sort of the conglomerate of all his team’s skills, only he has perfected each due to a strenuous two hours daily spent exercising his body and mind. Author Lester Dent describes Savage as a physical specimen with a chiseled “bronze” body.

Savage and his teammates served together in WWI, yet it wouldn’t be until Philip Farmer’s 1991 novel, ‘Escape from Loki’, that the full details are explained. The group is assembled on the 86th Floor of what is presumably New York’s Empire State Building after learning of the murder of Savage’s father. Doc, in distress, learns that his father was poisoned while exploring a remote location called Hidalgo in Central America. During the assembly, a red-handed assassin attempts to assassinate Doc. Through the book’s opening chapters, the group run from building to building chasing the assassin before learning that Savage’s father left a hidden message behind. This message pushes the book’s focus to the team traveling to Hidalgo to investigate not only the murder, but the land that has been willed to Doc.

From one fast-paced frenzy to another, Dent presents a riveting adventure for the team. From deep underground caves and primitive villages to sea and air battles, ‘The Man of Bronze’ covers a lot of ground and, for the 1930s, took the imagination into foreign and exotic lands. Collectively, the team uses all of their resources to foil the enemy and solve the inevitable mystery. Who’s the assassin? Why did he murder Doc’s father? All of this comes to fruition in a climatic, mountainside finale that finishes one chapter while introducing elements that will be key in future editions. The author’s clear boundaries of good and evil are questionable in 2017, but one has to remember this was written in a much simpler time with black and white social and cultural outlines. It’s easy to dismiss the fantasy and incredible writing style, often putting Doc Savage at Godlike strength and mind, but that’s the whole idea, right? It isn’t really supposed to make sense.

It’s written as an escape from the factory work and mundane daily rituals. For my own interpretation, Savage is one-part Indiana Jones, one-part Bruce Wayne and one-part Captain America. His skillset or power? I think it could easily just be perfection. He’s seemingly human perfection. Who wouldn’t want to be this bronze, intelligent hero? I say bring on book two – ‘The Land of Terror’. I can’t get enough of this stuff.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

APACHE #01 - THE FIRST DEATH

I had been reading up on the U.K. westerns of the 70s and stumbled on a series entitled ‘Apache’. Further reading brought me up to speed on a familiar name in western fiction – Piccadilly Cowboys. This group consisted of writers Terry Harknett, Kenneth Bulmer, Mike Linaker, Angus Wells, Laurence James, Fred Nolan and John Harvey (if not more). Collectively, they wrote a ton of westerns and individually contributed to science fiction and men’s action adventure genres. ‘Apache’ was a bit of a snowball effect resulting from the tremendous success of the violent western series ‘Edge’. According to the excellent blog "Western Fiction Review", ‘Edge’ was published by George Gilman, a pseudonym for authors Terry Harknett and Laurence James. Harknett (under the name William M. James) wrote the debut ‘Apache’ novel “The First Death”, released in February, 1974 through Pinnacle. The series would run from 1974 through 1984 – 27 books written by Harknett and John Harvey (later). Thankfully, I was able to track down an Ebook copy of “The First Death” using a nifty online library – openlibrary.org.

Although the year is never mentioned, the book is set somewhere around 1861. There is a mentioning of a possible rebellion against the Union in the East, thus the beginnings of the U.S. Civil War. The book begins with Lieutenant Pinner riding troops into an Apache rancheria in the Arizona Territory of the Department of New Mexico. He’s looking for a Native American that he suspects stole his prized golden dagger, a cherished gift from his father. Pinner is a royal dick and routinely takes his aggression out on what is now a peaceful tribe of Apache. Their chief, Black Horse, allows Pinner’s troops to run through the tepees searching for the dagger, putting aside frustration and pride for the greater good. 18-year old brave Cuchillo sees the invasion from a rock outcropping and races in to protect his wife Chipeta and his newborn son. In a shocking early revelation, Cuchillo produces the dagger from inside of his shirt. Pinner and the troops take Cuchillo back to nearby Fort Davidson for trial. Pinner asks his superior, Major Anson, to execute Cuchillo, but the leader suggests removing Cuchillo’s index finger as a suitable punishment. Pinner, in a prime asshat move, actually removes two fingers in a disturbing and graphic scene.

Harknett introduces a solid backstory outlining Cuchillo’s place in the tribe, a feud with fellow brave White Dog and his friendship with the white John Hedges, whom has educated Cuchillo with English culture. Cuchillo provides a valid explanation as to why he had Pinner’s dagger, and later, tangles with the violent father-son due of Nathan and Armstrong Ford – two pivotal characters in the book’s ultimate plotline. Cuchillo attempts to settle the dagger transaction, only to run afoul of the Fords, killing one of them. Before he can return back to the rancheria, the cavalry arrests Cuchillo’s wife and retains his son until the brave returns to Fort Davidson to confess and ultimately hang. This puts Cuchillo in the worst situation – trading his own life for his wife and son’s.

The book’s violent finale has Fort Davidson’s scum run the rape train on Cuchillo’s wife. It’s a brutal scene, but done with just enough detail to paint the revenge scenario facing Cuchillo and the reader. It’s tough to read, but isn’t a grizzly, squeamish scene. I’m glad the author held back a bit…enough is enough with the cruelty. The climatic ending is a shocker, but a mandatory finale to set up the long running series. I’ve got to have book two…right now.

I’ve read a ton of western fiction but I’m going to put ‘Apache’ in the upper echelon. It’s a quick read at under 200 pages, with just enough violence and a good mystery to saturate the book’s contents. I’m hoping this series will expand on the Cuchillo and Pinner conflict while also furthering the development of White Dog’s feud. I can’t say enough good things about this book. Based on this debut, ‘Apache’ looks like a winning formula. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

THE EXECUTIONER #06 - ASSAULT ON SOHO

At the end of 'Continental Contract', Bolan was in a furious nighttime run 'n gun with the mob in France. He's attempting to escape Europe with a still-beating heart. The beauty queen knockout from the last book (does her name even matter) helps Bolan into the English Channel. Now, 'Assault on Soho' begins with Bolan in London, trying to punch a ticket to fly back to America. His interference is another short-skirted bombshell, Ann Franklin, who warns Bolan of goon danger and escorts him to a sex palace called The Club De Sade. Really. Why? I have no Earthly idea...and I'm not sure author Don Pendleton knows either. This is unfortunate series filler while thinking of the next good adventure for Bolan. 

After the stellar 'Continental Contract', Pendleton messy-shits the whole bed with 'Assault on Soho'. I'm not sure if his prior erotic writing was creeping in or if he was asked to insert a bunch of kinky stuff. The end result is a big poo-poo in the series and one that should probably have been better off with some sort of 70s spy jazz that was booming at the time. I'm not sure what the story was really about...other than Bolan escaping the mob by going back and forth from London's streets to the sex palace...over and over. 

There's a Major Stone involved, a leftover mobster named Danno Giliamo from 'Miami Massacre' and this Ann Franklin bimbo that has somehow fallen in love with the five minutes she's spent with Mack Daddy. There's a really good action sequence early on...and the rest of the time Bolan takes a backseat to a wacky sex mystery. Our hero is sitting front row while people mysteriously die...and none of it makes any sense. The only interesting bit is that the mob has now formed an alliance to kill Bolan...and I'm sure this will come up in future volumes. Otherwise, stay clear of this one.

THE EXECUTIONER #05 - CONTINENTAL CONTRACT

Don Pendleton's fourth book in his "Executioner" saga continues with "Continental Contract". This book will be the first of the series to export the action to Europe. It only makes sense to travel abroad after the highly intense mafia conflict fought domestically over the last three volumes. With that being said, the book's opening pages has Bolan arrive at Dulles International Airport in DC. Quickly, he realizes he's walked into mob gunners and has a furious action sequence before donning a disguise and jumping on a flight to Europe. Oddly, Bolan finds out that a celebrity passenger on the plane, Gil Martin, looks exactly like him. 

Now, the cat and mouse tactics move to Paris where Bolan assumes the identity of Martin in a clever switch-a-roo. In one of the book's key action sequences, Bolan annihilates a house ripe with whores, moving the beauty goods downstairs while he topples the upper levels with his "machine pistol". This ultimately proves to be a notoriously bad deal for the whores. But, more on that later. In vintage "Executioner" style, Bolan gets escorted to a hotel by some British writer/tramp and the two try to get undressed as quickly as possible. Later, Bolan meets a British celebrity in her own right named Cici. Early, she thinks Bolan is the Gil Martin guy but later figures out he isn't. None of this makes much sense and it's all swept under the rug.

The whole premise of the book arises when Bolan learns that the mob goons are taking their revenge by transporting all of the well-fed, pampered whores to Africa where they can be starving, throw-rug whores. Bolan doesn't like it, communicates with a news anchor and reports that he will execute a mobster every hour until the whores are placed back where they belong - on their backs in the Paris hotels making bank. In some of the best "Executioner" scenes thus far in the series, Bolan "hits" a mobster an hour before tangling with the thickest of the crew in Monaco.

Pendleton writes a ton of different angles into 'Continental Contract' - some backstory on the mobsters, the celebrity stuff, Bolan questioning his longevity - but the most under-developed is the one that peaked my curiosity the most. Early in the book the mob contracts one of Bolan's ex-Nam teammates to meet up with Bolan and betray him. There's a passionate moment when the two eventually meet at the end...but I wish more focus had been provided on this whole angle. Nevertheless, 'Continental Contract' is an early highlight of the series. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. How does Bolan get stateside again? It's coming up in 'Assault on Soho'. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

HAWKER #03 - CHICAGO ASSAULT

The third book in the vigilante "Executioner" knock off returns our violent hero Hawker back to his home turf in Chicago. He's been summoned by an old friend named Saul Beckerman to an exclusive group sex party in a swanky penthouse suite. Who isn't turning that down? In reality, Beckerman asks Hawker for some assistance, but before he can make his request he is killed by gun toting goons that may have ties to Hawker's best friend, James O'Neil. Hawker kills two of the bad guys with a Colt Commander .45, only to have his weapon taken from him by Boone Chezick, an old colleague that is conducting an investigation of the shooting. Chezick warns Hawker that the commissioner is out to get Hawker and will use the shooting as leverage. Blah blah blah. 

Hawker and O'Neil have a brief team up and gun down some baddies before meeting a lovely beauty named Megan. Together, Megan and Hawker share a similar past of growing up in Ireland and losing loved ones in the IRA-Orangemen conflict. O'Neil dies in a bar explosion later that night...but surprises are indeed in store. 

Fawning over Megan and practically demanding sex, Hawker gets the coldest shoulder ever. But, the two of them make some sweet violence together as they dig deeper into O'Neil's tangled web of terrorism. While the IRA stuff seems to be present early on...the book takes a different path. Hawker's sugar daddy, Jacob Hayes (along with his mysterious butler) appears near the end. Wham-bam...the surprise ending hits and it's a shocker. 

I read this one in a few hours and didn't feel like I wasted anytime. This one breezes by and is action packed from start to finish. Hawker books are typically action thrillers for dummies...and I am one so we are the perfect marriage. Thoroughly enjoyed this one and jumping on "Deadly in New York" soon.