Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Law and the Lawless: A Ralph Compton Novel by David Robbins (Western)

Cestus Calloway leads a gang of bank and stagecoach robbers. To keep in the public's good graces, he throws some of the ill-gotten gains into the crowd during the getaway, giving him the moniker "the Robin Hood of the Rockies." And his main rule is no killings: "There's nothin' that stirs folks up more than a killin'. They send out bigger posses and hardly ever give up.... We want them on our side, not scourin' the countryside to string us up."

Boyd Cooper is the town marshal of Alpine, an otherwise quiet settlement. But the law is the law, and Cooper gathers a posse including his deputy and a local scout to chase the Calloway gang. Trouble comes when one of the gang stays behind to use the posse's horses for a little target practice and hits a man instead.

Retribution is quick — gang: 1, posse: 1 — and the hunt is on. From here on, hotter heads will rule and the stakes rise until neither side is willing to put aside honor or revenge for a peaceful outcome.

Author David Robbins (riding once again for the Ralph Compton brand) combines traditional Western writing with individuated characters in The Law and the Lawless.

Robbins strikes the ideal balance between exciting action scenes and quieter character moments — including a touching middle-age romance that hits all the right spots — with enough of the former to keep the pages turning and enough of the latter to ensure we care about who lives or dies. This makes The Law and the Lawless the best Western I've read in a while and the best from the Ralph Compton camp since The Man from Nowhere.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hard Case Crime Releases All of Michael Crichton's "John Lange" Novels (Reviews of Grave Descend and Zero Cool)

In 2006 and 2008, respectively, Hard Case Crime (during its relationship with Dorchester Publications) rereleased Grave Descend and Zero Cool, two novels written by author Michael Crichton to support him during medical school. Despite their quality, being a medical student, Crichton published them under a pseudonym, "John Lange." (Another pseudonymous Crichton novel written during the same period, A Case of Need by "Jeffery Hudson," even won an Edgar Award.)

Part of the deal was that they be reprinted under the Lange pseudonym, with no Crichton-related publicity involved whatsoever. The information was hardly secret, though, the Internet being how it is. For example, there was a list of Lange novels prominently placed on Crichton's Wikipedia page. And fans of the author had known of the pseudonymous works for quite some time.

Still, the deal was struck, and the two novels saw the light of day, two years apart, for the first time in nearly forty years. Now, after Crichton's passing, and well into Hard Case Crime's new iteration with Titan Publications, all of the John Lange novels are being released with Crichton's name on the cover, and with new paintings commissioned from cover artists Glen Orbik and Gregory Manchess.

I have not read all of the books, but here, slightly edited for length, are the original reviews I wrote back then for Grave Descend and Zero Cool.

"Every story was different, and they were all, to his ears, improbable. But not like the Grave Descend. That was not merely improbable; it was weird. Even the name of the ship was weird." — from Grave Descend

Author John Lange is actually the pseudonym of a massively bestselling author whose name you would instantly recognize if I chose to reveal it. Hard Case Crime, seeing the first reprints of Lange's books since their original publications, would like us to respect his privacy, but as we all know, there are no secrets on the Internet, and his identity is only as far away as a single click.

Coincidentally, John Lange was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Grave Descend. The author actually won the Edgar for another novel he wrote around the same time under a different pseudonym. (He has also won one under his own name, but not for a novel.)

Jim McGregor, a diver by occupation, is hired to investigate the sinking of the Grave Descend, a luxury yacht with an unlikely moniker (it's actually a quote from Samuel Johnson, the source of all the epigraphs in the book), off the coast of Jamaica. The main trouble is that McGregor can't seem to get a straight series of events surrounding the sinking — everyone has a different take on what happened, even where the boat went through customs.

To make things more difficult, the sinking is being kept from the press for 24 hours due to the presence of the boat's single passenger, Monica Grant, who is not only striking beautiful (especially in a bikini) but is also the "good friend" of the boat's married owner, Robert Wayne. McGregor discovers a few other details while involved with this mysterious crew, and begins to piece together a puzzle that's got his name written all over it.

John Lange offers up a straightforward, taut thriller with no frills but more than a little John D. MacDonald in its pedigree. The use of short chapters and sharp dialogue make the relatively complicated plot flow easily and quickly toward its conclusion. A slight but entertaining piece of escapism, Grave Descend is completely engrossing during the reading but doesn't leave much behind in its wake. (See what I did there?) I finished it in just a couple of hours and I don't imagine it took Lange much longer. Fans of MacDonald and Richard Stark could do worse than to take a short cruise aboard the Grave Descend. Just watch out for those hammerheads.

If you do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

If you refuse to do the autopsy, we'll have to kill you.

What's a vacationing radiologist to do? Dr. Peter Ross is going to find himself very busy over the next few days, involved with so many people, he'll be lucky to make it in time for the radiologists' convention.

Zero Cool is the second John Lange novel (after Grave Descend) to be revived by Hard Case Crime, but it was published first originally. It is also, I think, the better-written and more entertaining of the two.

John Lange was the pseudonym for an author who later became a huge best-seller under his own name. I'll hint by saying he's an "admirable" sort of fellow (unless that's a reference too dated for modern readers), but a quick Google search will reveal all.

Events in Zero Cool pile on one another in an almost improvisatory fashion, as if Lange were simply taking dictation from a compulsive liar with A.D.D. The seemingly unplanned nature of it, however, meant I was unable to predict much of what happened.

Ross hops from Spain to France and back again, mostly against his will, all the while leaving behind what must be the world's most tolerant (and trusting!) girlfriend, a woman he only met days ago on the beach (portrayed in Gregory Manchess's cover painting by model Meredith Napolitano, who is cleverly shown reading a copy of Grave Descend.)

It's a lot of fun. It's not the best-written book in the world, but its classic pulp adventure–inspired origins shine through brightly, with at least three occurrences of "And then it happened." But the fact that the author added new material for this reprinting makes it just that much more special. The new pieces, a prologue and epilogue that bring the action into the current day, make Zero Cool feel like a new book, even though it's over 40 years old. If you like Grave Descend and Zero Cool, be sure to check out the rest: Odds On, Scratch One, Easy Go (AKA The Last Tomb), The Venom Business, Drug of Choice, and Binary.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Modern Halloween Classic: Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge (horror novella)

This is an expanded version of the review that was originally published in the now-sadly-defunct Down in the Cellar magazine. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

"He's the October Boy ... the reaper that grows in the field, the merciless trick with a heart made of treats, the butchering nightmare with the hacksaw face ... and he's gonna getcha! That's what they always told you ... he's gonna getcha so you know you've been got!!!!!" — from Dark Harvest

Every year around Halloween, I choose an old favorite set around the holiday to reread and get into the literary mood. Sometimes it's an entry in the Orangefield series by Al Sarrantonio, sometimes the anthology October Dreams, but this year it was Norman Partridge's high-octane horror novella Dark Harvest.

From the jack-o'-lantern on the cover, it's easy to tell that this novella is Halloween-related. But where most pumpkin-heads are fairly innocuous-looking, this one is positively threatening, which gives you some idea of the book's contents: intense effects in a short amount of time.

In fact, Dark Harvest is so much better than the early fiction that came out in the rerelease of his short-story collection Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales that it is hard to believe they were written by the same person.

You know this kind of story: it's the legend every small midwestern town has, and Partridge has managed to keep things familiar and yet fill this novella with surprises. It's got the nostalgia of Ray Bradbury's classic Something Wicked This Way Comes with a touch of The Twilight Zone and the kind of dark suspense that Partridge specializes in, but the author has also included a melancholy thread that adds depth.

It's that time again: Halloween night, the night when all teenage boys are released, after being locked in their rooms for five days, and set off to find "The October Boy," a midwestern nightmare with a jack-o'-lantern for a head and one thing on its mind: getting to the church on time (no, really). The boy who kills this awful creature (also known as "Sawtooth Jack") gets to leave town, or "jump the Line," something that has become increasingly more difficult, especially with Officer Jerry Ricks enforcing the border. But Pete McCormick thinks this is his year. He has stolen Officer Ricks's .45 and he is determined to get out of the town that has been holding him and his family, and everyone else in it, down for generations.

Dark Harvest is by turns frightening and sad, scary and tragic. It is a pure Halloween horror story, but one whose ripples extend past the time it takes to read it (only a few hours). The characters are people you know, only in a situation you couldn't have imagined that nevertheless feels entirely plausible given the right set of circumstances. I believe that Partridge has crafted a new Halloween classic, one that should find a permanent place on the shelf of every fan of the holiday who appreciates solid writing with no spare parts.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Death Troopers by Joe Schreiber (Star Wars zombie horror)

Trig Longo is a barely teenaged Cimarosan grifter imprisoned along with the rest of his family aboard the Imperial prison ship Purge, which is also home to five hundred other murderers, thieves, and rebel insurgents. En route to the detention moon, the Purge breaks down, its engines coming to a standstill.

The discovery of a seemingly abandoned Star Destroyer results in a scouting party being enlisted to search for salvageable repair parts. Only half return, and by the time they realize what they've brought back with them, it is too late: death is aboard the Purge — and it's contagious.

Before long, Dr. Zahara Cody and her 21B droid are dealing with over a dozen dead and a nearly 100 percent infection rate. Before long, only six of the living remain, surrounded by innumerable rank corpses.

But of course, these aren't your average dead bodies. These are the kind who make like Lazarus and get up and walk. And they're really, really hungry.

When I saw Death Troopers, my first thought was, "Wow, not even Star Wars can avoid jumping on the zombie bandwagon." And then I knew I had to read it. The cover image of a decapitated stormtrooper's bloody head hanging on a hook was simply too gruesome to resist.

I've always thought of Star Wars as relatively "clean" entertainment, so this addition of undead horror to the franchise was intriguing and exciting in its opening of a new world of potential storylines. Death Troopers is eerie from the beginning, and author Joe Schreiber (Chasing the Dead) uses his experience in the thriller genre to craft some genuinely scary scenes. The book doesn't really get moving for a while, but the surprise appearance of a pair of familiar faces one-third of the way in is a pleasing distraction.

Audiobook reader Sean Kenin adds to the gruesome nature of the disease by kindly providing appropriately wet coughs for the infected. Some poor choices, however, make the audiobook less than it could be. One is having Kenin describe a character's action (sighs, deep breaths, etc.) and then redundantly perform them. Another is just nit-picking, but I found it difficult to believe that a lab described in the text as "dead" and "abandoned" would require the use of mad scientist bubbling chemical sound effects.

The conceit of having the chapter titles screamed in a kind of electronic filtered echo starts out as a nicely disturbing counterpoint to the text but becomes laughable after only a few occurrences. (There are around forty chapters.) Death Troopers is in fact only the second time that I've felt an audio version detracted in some ways from the story. (See my review of Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven.) The crunching, slushy sound effects of a body being torn apart are quite nice, however, and the experience as a whole was altogether entertaining.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dawson Black: Retail Merchant by Harold Whitehead

I have to admit that when I saw the title of this book at Project Gutenberg, I thought it was going to be a parody of some sort, the title playing in my head as read by a deep-voiced radio announcer. But the introduction by author Harold Whitehead quickly put that idea to rest, as it was obvious that this assistant professor of Business Method at the College of Business Administration at Boston University had serious intentions: to illustrate to those who feel that business is not a place for creative endeavor that the opposite is in fact true.

Whitehead does his job admirably in what is, I believe, his only novel. It is hard to find much information about him online, but he seems to have been best known for his nonfiction writing on business, including a popular, long-running column called "The Business Career of Peter Flint" (a collection of which is advertised in this book's pages).

Dawson Black: Retail Merchant is the story of a young and ambitious businessman, tired of working as a clerk, who buys a local hardware store. Black is a clever fellow full of creative marketing ideas, and the story shows his varying levels of success as he learns business management, sales, and advertising the hard way: on the job. His direct competitor, Stigler, is not happy about his new competition, however, and is determined to knock the youngster down a few pegs.

Luckily, Black left his previous employer (Barlow, the market leader by a long shot) on good terms, and the kindly gent is free with guidance. Black also has his highly supportive wife, Betty, to comfort and advise him as well.

Whitehead tells an absorbing yarn of drummers, jobbers, and endless opportunities told through the first-person experience of the title character. Dawson Black: Retail Merchant is one of the best books I've read this year, both in its narrative energy and its informative power.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Black Powder Justice (Wilderness #6) by David Robbins writing as David Thompson

Since the Wilderness series was released in audio form, I've been trying to catch with entries I missed, particularly the earlier ones. Read by Rusty Nelson and published by Books in Motion, these books are truly fine Westerns well-read by a professional. The most recent one I heard is Black Powder Justice, the sixth book, originally published in the early 1990s.

Nate King is hunting buffalo for himself and his five-months-pregnant Shoshone wife, Winona, when it begins to snow. In the mountains of 1835, this is not a small matter. Getting a large chunk of meat for now, he heads home. But the blood draws a pack of wolves, who work steadily to attack Nate and wear him down in their typical style. Eventually he fall prey to the cold and loss of blood.

In the midst of his recovery, Nate and Winona venture outdoors to investigate a noise and return to a home invader -- a human one. Before long, the Kings are prisoners in their own home, and soon Nate is knocked out.  When he wakes up, he finds everyone else -- and all the food -- is gone.

Uses his copious survival skills, his respect for others, and the fame gained by killing a grizzly bear using only a knife to not only retrieve his wife, but also gain the respect of a Ute brave while forcefully borrowing his horse.

David Robbins wrote the Wilderness series under the pseudonym David Thompson until recently.  As of series entry #67 (The Gift), he has begun using his own name.  Under either name, the author is a natural storyteller with a true gift for authentic characterization -- he shows us in Black Powder Justice that even a stoic Indian woman can get insecure when her husband calls another woman's name in his sleep -- and for lengthy descriptive passage that don't feel like filler.
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