Sunday, August 30, 2015

STRIP FOR MURDER



STRIP FOR MURDER
By Max Allan Collins
Illustrations by Terry Beatty
Dover Mystery Classic
265 pages

Of all the ongoing series mystery writer Max Collins continues to juggle, while doing all the things we normal being do such eat, drink and sleep, my favorite is quickly becoming his Jack and Maggie Starr books.  Being a comic book fan since the age of five, it’s only natural I’d appreciate a mystery series that involves American comic books during the Golden Age of the four-color little mags.  It started with A Killing in Comics (May 2007) which I’ve not had the pleasure of reading yet and then later produced Strip for Murder (May 2008 and the subject of this review) and wrapped with Seduction of the Innocent (June 2013) which revolved around fictionalized version of Frederic Wertham’s crusade against comic books back in the 1950s.  One of my personal favorites of Collins’ books.

The set up is a fun one.  Maggie Starr was once a famous burlesque queen who married the Major, a World War One hero and widower.  He owned Starr Syndicates which managed a group of highly profitable cartoon strips.  When the Major died, Maggie inherited the business and helping her run it as a special security consultant is the Major’s son, Jack.  Immediately one is reminded me of the classic boss-employee partnership between Rex Stout’s master detective Nero Wolfe and his witty, tough-guy legman chronicler, Archie Goodwin.  Here it is Jack who tells the tales with tongue firmly in cheek.  In fact Jack’s dialogue showcases some of the best lines Collins has ever put to paper; many so exaggerated as to be as cartoonish as the properties Starr Syndicate handles. 

The banter between Jack, a healthy, handsome lad and his drop-dead gorgeous stepmother is one of the major attractions (pun intended) of these stories. Though it is made absolutely clear there is no risqué hanky-panky happening here. But don’t feel sorry for the lad, in the two books I’ve read thus far, he never lacks sexy feminine companionship.  Whereas there’s plenty of adult foibles within the stories themselves and the world of early comics is proven to be as nasty and cutthroat as any other commercial venture in American history. 

The crux of the plot deals with an on-going feud between two famous cartoonists, both with inflated egos, who despise each other for multiple past wrongs. When one of them is murdered, Starr Syndicate is in danger of losing its most profitable strip and so Maggie orders Jack to solve the mystery and help save the family business. Throughout the story, Collins offers up a parade of thinly disguised cartoonists most fans will easily recognize, in fact the feuding duo are thinly veiled versions of the men who created Lil’ Abner and Joe Palooka. 

Now as entertained as I was throughout the book, I’m going to bet half my own readers here, especially those under thirty, don’t have the foggiest notion as to the two iconic characters I just mentioned.  Thus the book, for the non-fan, is most likely going to be bothersome as most of the book’s appeal will fall flat.  How can you truly enjoy the game if you don’t know who the players are?

Don’t get me wrong.  Even with that handicap, Collins is too much a pro not to deliver a good mystery and always plays fair with the clues peppered throughout the course of the narrative.  But what I would like to see is for him to take the series away from its limited comic-world settings and explore its true potential as a straight out mystery series starring two of the most enjoyable detectives ever to grace the printed page.  In the end there’s a whole lot more to Maggie and Jack then just four flat colors.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

THE STRIKER



THE STRIKER
An Isaac Bell Adventure
By JUSTIN SCOTT & Clive Cussler
Berkley Novel
402 pages

Okay, back-story first for those of you unfamiliar with the Isaac Bell series. He was created by popular new pulp writer Clive Cussler in the first book of the series, “The Chase,” with the assistance of novelist Justin Scott. Since that time, although his name always appears on the book’s covers, it is all too clear that these marvelous tales are penned solely by Mr. Scott. And, we might add, we’ve come to enjoy them just as much as Cussler’s own original Dirk Pitt books.

Isaac Bell is the leading investigator for the New York based Van Horn Detective Agency. The son of a wealthy Boston banker, Bell found the life of a banker much too dull and boring for his taste and discovering the excitement and adventure inherent in his chosen professional, quickly became one of the finest investigators at the Agency. In the previous books, all taking place in the early 1900s, Bell’s saga is set against the amazing birth of the industrial age in America. His cases have dealt with the burgeoning empires of transcontinental railroads and the pioneers of early aviation; whereas in this volume, Scott sends us backward in time to one of Bell’s first assignments.

As the book opens, he is disguised as a coal miner in rural West Virginia attempting to learn more concerning the make up of union organizers determined to gain higher wages and safer working conditions for their members. At the same time he begins to suspect that one of the richest Wall Street tycoons is behind a series of sabotage attacks on the mines that have left dozens injured or dead. Someone has hired a cunning agitator to create turmoil between the owners and the workers but to what end he cannot fathom.

As ever Scott’s historical setting is phenomenal and half the fun of reading these exploits. But with “The Striker” there comes a fresh twist in that this mysterious provocateur Bell is chasing is in many ways as skilled and trained as he is. Could it be possible that the man Bell is hunting is another detective? One trained by his own mentor?  And what is the role of the lovely Mary Higgins, the sister of one of the union organizers?  Combining both emotional investments with a mile-a-minute pacing, Scott once again delivers a breath-taking race through history at the same time making it come alive for today’s readers. It isn’t often that a thriller provides us with a genuine glimpse into tragedies and glories that made this country great.

“The Striker” is another great addition to the Isaac Bell series and we’re already anxious for the next one.  Major thumbs up here, loyal readers.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

HE-MEN, BAG MEN & NYMPHOS




HE-MEN, BAG MEN & NYMPHOS
Stories by Walter Kaylin
Edited by Robert Deis & Wyatt Doyle
New Texture
283 pages

A little while ago this reviewer had the joy of discovering the fiction world of Men’s Adventure Magazines that proliferated the newsstands of the 50s, 60s and 70s via a wonderful anthology titled, “Weasels Ripped My Flesh.” Amongst the great and wacky stories in that were a few by a writer named Walter Kaylin who the editors claimed was one of the most prolific writers for those magazines.

“He-Men, Bag Men & Nymphos,” is an entire collection of Kaylin’s amazing work with fifteen stories featured within its pages. They represent the entire spectrum of this he-man brand of pulp fiction; from modern day gangsters, to south sea island sirens to western outlaws and surfing assassins. This book has it all making us marvel at the boundless imagination that produced these outlandish tales. There are even a few factual articles mixed amongst them. Of these, the most gripping is Kaylin’s account of the U.S.S Indianapolis and its fate when sunk in the last days of World War II. It is a harrowing tale comprised from documented naval records and survivors’ testimonies.

Going from fact to fiction has no diminishing effects on any of Kaylin’s work, all of it is brilliant and written with a flare, no matter how boring the subject material. Which brings us to the one piece we feel should have been omitted; “The Army’s Terrifying Death Bugs and Loony Gas.” It is dated 1960 and is report on the state of the military’s research into chemical warfare. It is the only piece that doesn’t belong here. But hey, fourteen bulleyes out of fifteen shots is a damn impressive score.

Which is as good a way as any to describe Walter Kaylin’s wrtings. He was a master at his craft of spinning pulp tall tales and the fun he had writing them infects his readers as well. Bravo, Bob Deis and Wyatt Doyle; that’s two homeruns in a row.  Please, keep swinging for the fences. We love this stuff.  

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

TRIPL3 CROSS



TRIPL3 CROSS
An Eliot Cross Adventure
By John Hegenberger
Rough Edge Press
144 pages

We so love discovering talented writers like John Hegenberger. Although still relatively new to pulp fiction, he has a wonderful, clean, no-nonsense style of writing that is always a pleasure to read. His new spy thriller, set in 1988, captures the feel and essences of the era and the Cold War tensions that pervaded world politics at that time.

His protagonist is Eliot Cross, a small time private-eye operating out of Ohio whose father disappeared two decades earlier. An only child, Cross grew up with the constant question of why had his father had abandoned him and his mother. Her dying wish is for him to find his father who she believes to be in danger. After her passing, Cross files away her request as a hopeless dream. He has absolutely no clues as to where his father might have fled.

When a shady former C.I.A. contact approaches him with the news that his father is actually in Cuba working as a deep-cover agent for the Agency, Cross doesn’t know whether to believe him or throw him out of his office. In the end he travels to C.I.A. headquarters in Washington, where he meets a beautiful operative who unwillingly confirms what ex-spy had alluded to. But when this fellow is gunned down in his hotel room, Cross begins to suspect he’s inadvertently kicked over a hornet’s nest and could be the next the unknown killer’s next target.

Obsessed with learning the truth, Cross manages to make his way to Cuba where he is promptly captured and thrown into jail. Still he manages to extricate himself from one dire situation after another. As he tries to piece together the complex puzzle that is his father’s ultimate fate, he becomes embroiled in a new conspiracy wherein he may be the sacrificial pawn. Death could be his final reward unless he can discover the truth behind a twenty year old secret.

“Tripl3 Cross,” is a small book that packs an awfully big punch. Hegenberger brilliantly captures Cross’ voice and pulls us intimately into his adventure until the very end where he pulls off a dandy O’Henry style twist that had this reviewer crying, “Bravo!” This is a damn good read by a pro.  Spy buffs will not be disappointed.


Friday, July 31, 2015

SEVEN FOR A SECRET




SEVEN FOR A SECRET
A Timothy Wilde Novel
By Linsay Faye
The Penguin Group
451 pages

In 2012 writer Lyndsay Faye set mystery fiction world on its collective rear with the release of her historical mystery, “The Gods of Gotham.” That it went on to receive a Best Novel nominations from the Mystery Writers of America was no surprise to any of the millions of fans who had to read it. In that book we were introduced to two orphaned brothers of Irish immigrant parents, Valentine and Timothy Wilde, both living in New York City in 1845.

The plot of that first story was centered about the creation of New York’s first ever Police Department and related how the brothers, for their own personal reasons, chose to put on the copper star and join this new law keeping body. Shortly thereafter Timothy uncovered the works of a child serial killer and was successful at tracking him down and ending his reign of terror. But his triumph was not without personal sacrifices from the abandonment of the woman he loved and the vicious animus of another who vowed to cause him unending suffering.

“Seven For a Secret,” picks up with Wilde brothers almost a year later. Though missing Ms. Mercy Underwood badly, Timothy has been able to focus his energies on his new career as a detective.  According to Commissioner Matsell, Timothy has a “gift” for solving puzzles which makes him ideal for police work. Soon enough, our hero finds himself caught up in another tragic murder; one that revolves around the heinous practice of slave catching that occurred all too often during this time period. With the advent of the Underground Railroad, more and more slaves fled to northern cities in hopes of making their way to Canada and freedom. Sadly the laws regarding such abductions were vague at best and legal magistrates found themselves unable to determine whether the captured black men and women were actually runaway slaves or northern born free men and women.

When Timothy learns that two black women and a child have been abducted from their home by southern bounty-hunters, he enlists Valentine’s aid in rescuing them. Two days later one of the women is found strangled in Valentine’s apartment and her sister and son once again missing. Ms. Faye weaves a powerful story set against one of history’s ugliest eras, embroiling her characters in the hellish boiling pot of mixed cultures that was New York. As in her previous novel, the city is always a major element in the tale and her ability to capture its people, their language, hopes, dreams and agonizing despair is as skillful as any sculptor shaping a stone figure.

Her command of words is the essence of poetry and we found ourselves relishing each new metaphor that would fly from her imagination. She is a gifted writer with an uncanny sense of time and place…and above all the human condition. If you enjoy solid history mixed with heartfelt drame, you won’t do any better than “Seven For a Secret.” It is a great book!

Saturday, July 18, 2015



LADY ACTION – The Sands of Forever
By Ron Fortier
Airship 27 Productions
91 pages
Guest Reviewer – Bob Deis

Ron Fortier has a long and distinguished career as a writer for comics. I’ve been a fan of his work in that realm for years, especially his contributions to the Green Hornet and Terminator series published by NOW Comics. In 2006, Fortier created his own publishing company called Airship 27. At that point, he became a pioneer in publishing “new pulp” novels and story anthologies that are inspired by both classic comics and old pulp magazines.

THE SANDS OF FOREVER is a short novel that has genes from both realms. It features the character Nicola Sinclair, a beautiful, butt-kicking international spy code-named “Lady Action.” Although she comes from the popular Captain Action comics series, you don’t really need to know anything about that series to understand and enjoy THE SANDS OF FOREVER. It’s a self-contained action/adventure romp that takes Nicola to Libya to find another agent who has gone missing. He was searching for the mysterious “Tree of Life” mentioned in the Bible, which was said to have tremendous powers and be hidden somewhere in the Libyan Desert.

The search-and-rescue mission soon turns into a fight for survival. A local, colorfully-evil Arab sheik has also heard of the magical tree and wants it for himself. This leads to a series of bloody fights between Nicola and the sheik’s henchman, a wild car chase through the streets of Tripoli, a race across the desert and a final confrontation in an ancient underground maze of tunnels full of deadly giant scorpions. It’s a fun read with a quick-paced, cinematic style: kind of a novelistic mashup of Lara Croft, Indiana Jones and James Bond with its own unique characters and flavor. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading future Lady Action novels by Fortier.


Friday, July 17, 2015

THE DIGEST ENTHUSIAST - Book Two




THE DIGEST ENTHUSIAST  Book Two
Editor Arkay Olgar
Contributing Editor D. Blake Werts
Larque Press LLC
151 pg

Having really enjoyed issue #1 of this terrific new digest, I was delighted to find # 2 in my mailbox a few weeks ago.  Much like the first volume, this second issue features a wonderful balance of articles, interviews and short fiction.  Being a writer/editor, the latter has particular appeal to me and writers Rudolf Schmitdt, D.D. Ploog, Richard Krauss and John Kuharik all deliver quality tales filled with adventure, horror and fantasy.

After the fiction, the two lengthy interviews with writers Gary Lovisi and Robert Lopresti were excellent; each giving the reader personal insights to the careers of these two talented penmen.  Add articles on Australian crime pulps, an Italian comic named Mister No and various other fascinating pieces and biblio entries and you have a solid package worthy of the best digests of the past.

A hardy applause to the entire editorial crew, writers, artists and designers.  If you aren’t following “The Digest Enthusiast,” you are missing out on a very entertaining title.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.