Monday, 29 June 2020

A Light in the West - Wolfs Head #3

Author: Arthur Frazier (aka Laurence James)
First Published: 1973
Pages: 111pp
Publisher: New English Library
Not currently available in eBook format

Warning: As this is part three of a six-book series there are bound to be some spoilers in this review. My reviews of the opening two books are here and here.

I had been looking forward to starting the third installment of the Wolfs Head saga for a while. The previous two had been written by the prolific Kenneth Bulmer, and he had won me over with his mixture of historical attention to detail and fast-paced visceral action. However, books three and four are penned by his stable-mate at New English Library, Laurence James, for whom I have already been particularly impressed with, due to his Piccadilly western fiction series, 'Crow'. It was with some excitement that I picked up A Light in the West this weekend in order to continue the rollicking story of the Saxon, Edric Ecgbertson and Norman Lord, Simon du Lac in medieval England.

In keeping with the previous title, The King's Death; A Light in the West follows on almost immediately after the end of the preceding book. Following their overwhelming and bloody victory at the Battle of Hastings, The Normans now rule England. Their leader, William the Bastard, has risen to be crowned King of England and has left the land in the control of his warrior-bishop Brother Odo, whilst he strengthens his role back in French Normandy for a while. Simon du Lac was awarded the demesne of Furnaceden in Kent - the family home of Edric Ecgbertson  - by his new King. He has taken his forces, accompanied by his second Guy Vermeil, and taken over the Saxon hamlet as his own. At the end of The King's Death, Simon had just killed Edric's father, Ecgbert, who had attempted a doomed retaking of Furanceden - helped only by the one-handed woodsman, Alaric, and a young boy named Nebba.

As A Light in the West begins, Edric is returning from a failed rescue of his father, and Simon is settling into his new role. He takes for his bride, Elfleda, the Saxon woman once romantically linked to Edric. Fast forward a year, and they now have a child, Agnes. Edric has arranged for his wife, Ysabel and his own two children to stay with her family back in Normandy, protected by his Viking freedman friend Beorn. This allows him to organise his band of outlaws, the Wolfs Heads, on their campaign of hate against the Norman invaders, and Simon du Lac in particular. With his family in a safe haven, Edric is free to roam the Kent countryside without fearing for their safety.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Regarding Sherlock Holmes - The Adventures of Solar Pons

Author: August Derleth
First Published: 1945
File size/Pages: 1388KB / 288pp
Ebook Publisher: Belanger Books
Ebook Date: Jun 2018

I've seen a lot of articles over the years regarding the character of Solar Pons. Most recently my involvement in Kickstarting some of the MX Sherlock Holmes books by Belanger Books meant I was included in the notification that they were also looking to republish the complete Solar Pons series as originally authored by August Derleth. At the time I didn't join in on the project, I'd already committed to a number of other products, and thought that these were a little out of my interest range.

So it was nice to find, whilst browsing Amazon UK for Kindle Unlimited books, to find that the series was now being included within this subscriber service. I added them to my shopping list, thinking that I'd save them for another time. But I soon found that I was more interested in trying out one of the first ever Sherlock Holmes pastiches that I thought I was. I've decided to start, most appropriately at the beginning, with the opening collection of short stories, titled, Regarding Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Solar Pons.

August Derleth was born in 1909. growing up in Wisconsin, United States. He and began writing from an early age, eventually authoring over 100 books in his time, with his first novel being published in 1930. An early adopter the macabre, he contributed to the Weird Tales magazine during his time at the University of Wisconsin. In 1939, Derleth and longtime friend Donald Wandrei, founded the Arkham House publishing company. The aim was to publish the works of another old friend, H. P. Lovecraft. As well as Lovecraft's work, Derleth also sold and published new stories of Cthulu Mythos. Some of these new tales caused friction, as Derleth claimed he had worked with Lovecraft on them. Despite this issue, the creation of Arkham House played a significant role in raising Lovecraft from obscurity and is widely considered as a seminal moment in the horror genre.

Derleth's other great love was detective fiction and especially the works of Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes. Derleth was driven to correspond with Doyle and at one point asked if, because the creator had said there would never be another Holmes story, would he mind if the young writer wrote his own stories starring the Greatest Detective. Doyle categorically refused, saying he could not. Derleth at that time wrote in his diary "Re: Sherlock Holmes" at a date in the future. When that day eventually came, he went ahead and started writing them anyway. But in order to avoid any legal wranglings, he set his detective in London at No.3 Praed Street between 1919 and 1939, called him "Solar Pons" and had him accompanied by Dr "Lyndon Parker". Derleth's stories have been collected into eight volumes by Belanger Books, all of which are available in eBook format.

Thursday, 11 June 2020

A Touch of Death

Author: Charles Williams
First Published: 1954
Ebook Publisher: mysteriouspress.com
Ebook Date: Jun 2014

It can be gratifying to read a really good book. It can be thrilling to read a really great book. But it is totally captivating to read a book that has been written by a suspense novelist at the top of his game.

I have just had the pleasure of reading A Touch of Death by Charles Williams. It was an experience I will never forget. There are sequences that occur in this book that will stay with me for a long time. I suspect I will be recalling scenes from this book when I read other stories - because I'm sure there will be imitators. I am absolutely certain I will be comparing other writers to Williams, and holding him up as an exemplar to their detriment.

Charles K. Williams was a Texan, born in 1909. After leaving education he enlisted in the US Merchant Marines, where he enjoyed a ten year stint before leaving to get married in 1939. Having become an expert in electronics, he worked for RCA and at Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington State. After the end of the Second World War he moved his family to San Francisco, where he was employed by the Mackay Radio Company. He contiued to work there until the publication of Hill Girl, his first novel, in 1951.

Williams went on to write a number of seminal books in the noir and suspense genres. Quite a few of his books have been turned into movies over the years with a fair few being foreign language films, perhaps a reflection of the superb plotting his stories contain. One of the most famous productions was for Dead Calm. It was the subject of an ultimately doomed adaptation by Orson Welles, who was the director, producer, writer and star of the abandoned 1970 project - eventually the book was made into a vehicle for Nicole Kidman in 1989.

Another title, which I remember as an extended TV-movie in 1990, was Hell Hath No Fury. Renamed, The Hot Spot, it was directed by Dennis Hopper and starred Don Johnson, Virginia Madsen and Jennifer Connelly. Apparently, Hopper decided only a matter of days before filming started, to use a 1962 screenplay that Williams had worked on with Nona Tyson rather than the originally planned script. This resulted in a much more dense noir tale that had been written for actor, Robert Mitchum in the 1960's.

Thursday, 4 June 2020

Killer Take All

1961 Gold Medal edition
Author: Philip Race (aka E. M. Parsons)
First Published: 1961
Ebook Publisher: Cutting Edge Books
Ebook Date: May 2020

This review is about Killer Take All by Philip Race, not to be confused with the James O. Causey book, released a few years earlier in 1957, titled Killer Take All! Note the exclamation mark, it makes all the difference. Race's book has just been released by Cutting Edge Books in eBook format. Funnily enough I had only very recently purchased the Gold Medal original via eBay UK. for this review though, I read the eBook which comes as a double header collecting Race's two novels starring Johnny Berlin (the other being Johnny Come Deadly). The copyright is dated 1959, but my UK Gold Medal was printed 1961.

Philip Race has a fantastic story. Race is the pen name used by Elmer Merle Parsons who was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1926. By the time he was 23 he had taken to crime and was committed to jail for burglary and grand theft in Phoenix. After serving three years in a state prison he continued to operate on the wrong side of the law and was also found guilty of fraud resulting in a further sentence of five years which he had to serve in San Quentin. Whilst there he ended up being the editor of the prison newspaper, and turned his hand to writing fiction. He actually sold his first novel to Fawcett while serving out his sentence, along with the two Johnny Berlin novels before being released in 1960.

After a few more books, Parsons went on to write for television, contributing to such shows as The Virginian, Bonanza, Ripcord, Sea Hunt, The Dakotas, Everglades, The Aquanauts and and even an episode of Flipper.

Killer Take All follows the plight of Vegas casino dealer Johnny Berlin, as he makes a stop in a small town called Edson, in northern California. He is on his way to Portland and has lost his way down a back road when he pulls over to ask directions from two cars parked up next to each other. One of the cars swiftly pulls away and as Berlin approaches the driver of the remaining car, he is confronted by the wrong end of a gun.

Saturday, 30 May 2020

The Action Man

1961, Avon edition
Author: Jay Flynn
First Published: 1961
Ebook Publisher: Stark House Press
Ebook Date: February 2019

A second Stark House Press eBook in a row for me. This one is the double-header of heist thriller books by Jay Flynn, who also wrote as J. M. Flynn. It contains 1961's The Action Man and 1959's Terror Tournament. This review will cover the first, which concerns the meticulous planning and execution of a $2M bank robbery in Peninsula City (there are references to Fishermans Wharf and San Francisco, so I suspect its supposed to be a fictitional place around the Bay Area?).

John M. Flynn was born in 1928, in Massachusetts. He worked many jobs, such as a newspaperman, bartender, editor, security guard and bootlegger. His first novel, The Deadly Boodle was published by Ace in 1958. His most popular books were those starring McHugh, all five released between 1959 and 1962. He passed away in 1986 of cancer at the age of 57.

In the very interesting introduction to the Stark House edition, Bill Pronzini opines that Flynn was a man made up of "all the schizophrenic contradictions that make up most of us". I found this book mirrored that distracted nature as well. Part bank-robbery caper story, part noir drama, it flits crazily between the two with the archetypal anti hero of Denton Farr trying to hold everything together. Flynn sounds like a character out of a mad-cap novel himself, the introduction is peppered with fantastic insights; I love this one:
One night during a heavy rainstorm, drunk on white-lightning or the like, he noticed that the ceiling of his furnished room was bulging strangely. Maybe he thought he had the DTs and demons were coming after him; maybe he was just too drunk to know what he was doing.  In any event he grabbed up his revolver and pumped five shots into the ominous bulge. Whereupon the entire ceiling collapsed and the ensuing deluge of trapped rainwater knocked him flat, broke his leg, and almost drowned him.

Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The Best of Manhunt

Edited by: Jeff Vorzimmer
First Published: 2019
File size/Pages: 1441KB / 384pp
Ebook Publisher: Stark House Press
Ebook Date: August 2019

In August 2019, Stark House Press released The Best of  Manhunt, and ever since I've been wondering when I'd get a chance to delve into it and sample some of the stories on offer. The opportunity has arisen, and I'm pleased to report I wasn't dissapointed.

Thirteen of the tales contained in this compilation were originally published in 1958 in a volume entitled The Best from Manhunt. These are included in this updated version still in their original listed order. In addition, a number of short stories from 1959's The Bloodhound Anthology (the British version of Manhunt, titled Bloodhound Detective Story Magazine) have been included, making this a truly combined version of previous releases. Finally, the team headed by editor Jeff Vorzimmer, have expanded the line-up by almost three times the orignal with this edition totallying out at a massive 39 stories. you can't ask from more really (well, you could ask for further volumes I suspect).

I won't go into the history of Manhunt as there is a surfeit of introductions and histories included in the book itself. Suffice to say that Manhunt is considered the successor to pulp crime magazine Blackmask, appearing very soon after the demise of that periodical in 1951. It was very quickly attracting the best output from the best writers of the genre at the time and remains a true source of incredible quality crime fiction during its fifteen year run.

This edition is peppered with great yarns. The list of authors is like a who's who of hardboiled crime fiction literati, Brewer, Kane, McDonald, Hunter, Prather, Spillane, Deming and Westlake to name a few. I'm sure there will be something in here that pleases every reader. Below is a short list highlighting the five I enjoyed the most;

Monday, 18 May 2020

Death out of Focus

Author: William Campbell Gault
First Published: 1959
File size/Pages: 778/KB / 182pp
Ebook Publisher: Prologue Books
Ebook Date: December 2011

William Campbell Gault, sometimes known as Bill Gault, is probably best known for his two crime fiction series; one starring retired NFL footballer, Brock Callahan and the other P.I. Joe Puma. He is also strongly associated with a number of juvenile books he authored that have popular sports, such as American football, basketball and motor sports, as their background theme.

As well as these, Gault wrote a number of straight up standalone crime titles during the late fifties. Death out of Focus was published in 1959, and uses the Hollywood movie business as its central device. Prologue Books reprinted it in both paperback and eBook format in 2011.

Gault was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1910. As a writer he contributed to a large number of magazines, particularly covering sports, and was regularly published in seminal crime pulp, Black Mask. He won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1953 with the novel, Don't Cry for Me, and was still being recognised thirty years later when he won the 1983 Shamus Award for Best P.I. Paperback Original with The Cana Diversion.