Monday, October 20, 2014

Noteworthy Reads: The CUTLER Series created by John Benteen

The John Benteen byline has long been one of my favorites, specifically relating to the Fargo series of paperback originals from back in the 60s and 70s. Benteen's other popular series from that period was Sundance and, while I read a number of those, too, and enjoyed them well enough, for some reason I never warmed to them nearly as much as the Fargo books. While I have no conclusive evidence of this, the fact that Benteen eventually allowed other writers to take over the Sundance series while he kept doing the Fargos almost exclusively (with the exception of three out of twenty-odd titles) suggests that he had a stronger affinity for Fargo as well. Maybe this is merely what I want to believe due to my own tendency to favor Fargo over Sundance --- comes right down to it, I have no way of knowing how much say Benteen actually had in the matter with Belmont Tower, his publisher. 
I guess most people know that John Benteen was one of the pseudonyms of prolific writer Ben Haas, who also did books under his own name. On their own fine blogs and elsewhere, both James Reasoner and Randy Johnson have done some pretty extensive coverage of Haas/Benteen so maybe they will weigh in and tell me where/if I am going wrong in the foregoing … and perhaps also in what follows.

The main gist of this post is to touch on another action/adventure series Haas wrote under the Benteen byline --- one I had not read or heard about before, until Piccadilly recently re-issued them as eBooks. As indicated above, the series was titled Cutler and was centered on one John Cutler, a typically tough, rugged individual very much in the mold of various other action/adventure protagonists as written by Benteen and others.
The set-up for Cutler is that he is a former lawman turned hunter/trapper who is on the vengeance trail for his wife's killer. This is a basic framework that has been used, with a few refinements here and there, over and over and over again in the Western genre. But here's the interesting twist that Haas/Benteen uses for this series --- the killer Cutler is obsessed with running down is not a human but rather a rogue silverback grizzly.
The bear has a stump for one of its hind legs thanks to a trap that Cutler set but did not check on as promptly as he should have, that's what turned the beast into a rogue who's first victim was Cutler's unsuspecting wife. This adds a haunting layer of guilt to the revenge Cutler is after.
Being a rogue, the grizzly roams wide and wild over vast mountainous stretches of Colorado and Wyoming, sticking to no particular territory. Cutler responds to reports from wherever the bear has been sighted, never quite succeeding in catching up with him but also never giving up. He finances his way by hiring out to track and kill other rogue predators who are causing trouble in areas he is near or passing through.
I found the whole concept quite intriguing and well done.

Unfortunately, Haas wrote only two books in this series, THE WOLF-PACK and THE GUN-HAWKS, both in 1972. He then switched to create and write four books in the Rancho Bravo series, as by Thorne Douglas. Whether he would have gone back to do any more Cutlers we'll never know, because Ben Haas died unexpectedly in 1977.
Starting in 1978, Belmont Tower hired another writer, H.V. Elkin, to pick up the Cutler series. He wrote four titles. I haven't read any of those yet, though I plan to check out at least one or two at some point. With no disrespect to Mr. Elkin, I simply don't feel the urgency for that as I did to dive into the Benteen titles when I found out about them. 

Haas/Benteen have brought me many hours of enjoyment over the years. It was great to discover these added titles.
If you haven't discovered Cutler yet --- not to mention (which almost seems unthinkable) Fargo or Sundance --- I heartily recommend you check this out. 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Aailable Now: THE GUNS OF NOVEMBER (Fight Card Books) by Joseph Grant writing as Jack Tunney

Fight Card Books continues slugging out a new title every month and each one is as exciting and entertaining as those that have come before. And while tough, gritty boxing conflicts are always at the core of the tales, the surrounding storylines and subplots are increasingly imaginative and well crafted.
In this latest entry --- THE GUNS OF NOVEMBER, with author Joseph Grant (who previously did THE LAST ROUND OF ARCHIE MANNIS for FC) at work behind the Jack Tunney byline --- we are given a whole new slant on the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy.

Here, I'll let the cover blurb set it up the rest of the way:

November, 1963...Sent to Dallas by Attorney General Robert Kennedy to investigate the disappearance of a boxer connected to a major Civil Rights violation, FBI Special Agent Jim Gregory finds himself desperately trading punches with those plotting to change the course of history. Kidnapped, beaten, tied up, and blindfolded, young boxer Jimmy Lee Williams knows his situation is dire. Nicknamed Guns for the relentless firing power of his fists, Williams isn’t going to go down without a fight. However, this is no typical 15-rounder...and the clock is ticking toward disaster. Mixing with a disparate group of Cuban exiles, the Mafia, the FBI, the CIA, and corrupt Dallas Police, Gregory’s search for Williams takes him into the heart of the JFK conspiracy. In the Carousel Club, owner Jack Ruby – Gregory's old Chicago boxing opponent – introduces the undercover FBI agent to his many shady contacts, including a young, ex-Marine and Communist defector named Oswald…a man with unusual intelligence and connections to both the FBI and the CIA. With disaster looming, the latest Fight Card novel, Guns of November, is a two-fisted take on the tragic events you thought you knew, but never imagined...

This is one you're not going to want to miss!
I recommend you check it out.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Available Now: DEVIL'S LEDGER by Richard Prosch

Well, I got good news and more good news.
DEVIL'S LEDGER marks not only the return of author Prosch's popular John Coburn (aka The Peregrine) character, but it is his first appearance in a novella-length work. Previously, The Peregrine has made acclaimed short story appearances in DEVIL'S NEST (2011) and more recently in ONE AGAINST THE GUN HORDE (April, 2014).
What's more, since the cover of LEDGER announces it as "Book 1" of an ongoing series, we have some assurance there are more to come. In fact, I happen to have it straight from the horse's mouth (and I don't mean the one Coburn rides) that the next adventure is already being written.

The events of DEVIL'S LEDGER all stem from a legendary volume called The Judas Book, a volume, accumulated over a span of time, detailing all the corrupt dealings and dirty secrets of the territory. The kind of information that men would kill for --- either to keep quiet, or to use as leverage. When Bandy Murphy, Coburn's old pal and former cell mate, shows up claiming to be in possession of the book, such men are hard on his heels and Coburn can't help but be drawn into trying to save both Bandy's hide and the Judas Book.
As usual, one of the big positives here is Prosch's distinct writing style and his use of common, everyday, "real"-seeming folks pulled into extraordinary events. In this tale, I particularly liked the early banter that takes place between Coburn, Bandy, and an old codger named Hutch Gunnar. It is funny, entertaining, and subtly character-establishing for purposes that become important later on. This is certainly not the end of colorful, interesting characters (some who turn out not to be what they first may seem) that the reader will meet, however; nor of the plot twists and turns that will ensue.
Coburn comes across as a little more mature this time around, somewhat comfortably settled into the lore that has built up around his Peregrine persona. Yet he remains ever-cautious and prepared, his anger maybe a bit slower to burn --- but, once the fuse has been ignited, as explosive and dangerous as ever.
This represents some of the best work being done in Western fiction today, and I predict readers will be looking forward to more of Prosch and the Peregrine!
Strongly recommended.

Also of note:
SHOOTING THE MOON, Richard's fourth book in his YA series featuring feisty young Jo Harper and her turn-of-the-century adventures in and around Willowby, Wyoming, has also just been released and it's another corker. Like me, I expect most readers of this blog probably do not read a lot of YA fiction. I've blogged about the highly entertaining books in this series before, and once again recommend them as an exception you really ought to consider making.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Another Look: ORCA (1977 film, starring Richard Harris)

Released two years following the phenomenal box office hit JAWS, this film was undeniably inspired by that success. In fact, according to movie lore, it was set into motion almost immediately after JAWS hit the theaters when executive producer Dino de Laurentiis called his co-producer Luciano Vincenzoni and ordered him to "find a fish that is tougher and more terrible than the great white!"
From that, the film that was to become ORCA was born. It probably shouldn't have come as any surprise, then, that when the movie got released, it was immediately panned by both critics and audiences alike as a JAWS rip-off. Subsequently, it did lousy at the box office.
Only part of that was deserved. Strictly from the standpoint of let's-jump-aboard-a-popular-concept-and-make-some-money-with-our-own-killer-fish- movie, it surely was, as already acknowledged, inspired by JAWS. Beyond that, however, ORCA has its own story to tell and in many ways stands as its own movie. Heck, you could even make the case that it owes as much to MOBY DICK as to JAWS. In a role-reversal sort of way, instead of the human Ahab obsessed with hunting down and dispatching Moby Dick, here you have a vengeful killer whale obsessed with singling out and dispatching the fishing captain who killed the whale's mate.
That's the central theme of ORCA: A shark-hunting sea captain (played by Richard Harris) decides to switch tactics and try instead for a killer whale. In the attempt, his harpoon misses the bull whale (except for slicing a tell-tale notch in its dorsal fin, the sight of which will become a forboding occurrence throughout the rest of the film) and instead hits the bull's mate. As the wounded cow is being winched aboard Harris's ship, she gives premature birth to a calf. Both mother and infant die. Watching from nearby waters—and focused primarily on Harris, who fired the deadly harpoon—is the bull. We have been told earlier, in a presentation by Charlotte Rampling, playing a scientist specializing in killer whales, that the creatures are highly intelligent, they mate for life, and are known to possess a human-like capacity for seeking revenge against anyone or anything who have done them harm.

So there's the rest of the set-up. When Harris docks his ship for repairs in the harbor of a small fishing village, the vengeful bull killer whale follows. First, to the great concern of the local fishermen, all the fish in surrounding waters flee. Then boats—all but Harris's—start being damaged. Then various buildings and businesses on piling all along the harbor are wrecked and damaged, including a huge fire that breaks out when a gas line breaks and is ignited by a fallen lantern. The house Harris is renting is knocked off its pilings and his sister, sliding partially into the water during the chaos, has her leg chomped off by the attacking whale … Yet Harris's boat remains untouched. The message is clear: The whale wants Harris to face him out on the open sea. The fishermen of the village want the same thing—or, at least, they want Harris gone from their village and want him to take his vengeful stalker with him.
Aided by the only remaining member of his original crew, the scientist (Rampling, who is inexplicably drawn romantically to him), and a somewhat mystical Indian (Will Sampson) who knows whale lore and volunteers for this epic battle, the captain sets out to sea to meet the challenge put before him. The whale leads, Harris and crew follows … all the way up to the ice packs of the northern seas where the climax and ultimate final confrontation takes place.
There are many moments in the first two thirds of the film that strain credibility. But they are done with enough energy and excitement to carry them off pretty well. The final third bogs down and plays out so slowly that illogical factors pile up and almost sink the whole show (no pun intended). Whatever the film suffered in the way of negative reviews, etc., is, in my opinion, earned here more so than from any of the rip-off accusations. Nevertheless, according to Wikipedia, in recent years ORCA has earned a cult following of sorts in the natural horror subgenre (whatever the hell that is).

On the plus side, by anybody's standards, the film has top notch production values throughout. The score, the cinematography, the direction (by old pro Michael Anderson) are solid. Same for the acting, for which not a great deal of range is required. Richard Harris's tough, knocked-around Irish mug is perfect for the captain who is pushed to the point of declaring: "I'm coming for you, you vengeful sonofabitch!" And Charlotte Rampling's ever-sultry presence manages to steam up the screen even though she is not called upon to do much more than spout scientific facts and alternately discourage and then encourage Harris as far as what he has to do.
I wish they'd taken time to strengthen the ending. Still, I came away with the feeling that the makers of ORCA (despite the harried middle-of-the-night phone call that launched it) tried hard to do something bigger and better than just copycatting a previous mega-hit. And they scored in a number of areas.
Worth your time if you can catch it on cable or purchase it out of a DVD bargain bin.
Recommended, with reservations.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Noteworthy Reads: OUTLAW RANGER by James Reasoner

James Reasoner writes clean, buttery smooth prose that goes down as easy home cookin'. He seasons it a bit to whatever genre he is writing in, but the basic fare remains Reasoner and that means the reader is sure to come away well satisfied.
James is especially adept at writing Westerns and one need look no further than his latest, OUTLAW RANGER, for an example of his polished skill and for some of the finest Western fiction being done today. Although some of the circumstances in OUTLAW RANGER are based on historical fact, the imaginative storyline and creative twists contained therein are strictly Reasoner.
The protagonist here --- G.W. Braddock --- was born to be a Texas Ranger, and nothing else. He was set on this path by his overbearing father, who was himself a Ranger, and locked into the role by his own determination, stubbornness, and love of the job. When a quirk in the law deprives G.W. from continuing as a Ranger, it is a devastating blow. Complicating matters even more, two of G.W.'s most recent arrests --- a pair of murderous and wholly despicable lowlifes --- are set free under the guise of not having been apprehended "legally". 
(The parallel to some of today's legal shenanigans that too frequently allow obvious scumbags to walk free via even more ridiculous decisions, is painfully familiar.)
G.W. knows that the men who got set free are not done with their ruthless ways … just as he knows damn well that he is not ready to quit being a Ranger, whether some cockeyed court ruling says so or not. The violent, action-packed series of events that eventually cause their trails to converge once again makes for a rousing Western adventure and a page-turning experience for the reader.
Strongly recommended.

And a bit of added good news is that this is the first in an exciting new series planned by James.
He has already announced that the next, HANGMAN'S KNOT, will be available before the end of the year.
I, for one, can hardly wait!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Available Now: TRAIL REVENGE (Book #2 - The Westward Tide series)

Live on Amazon Kindle today is TRAIL REVENGE, the second book in the Westward Tide series being written by Mel Odom and yours truly, as "Jack Tyree".
As with TRAIL JUSTICE, the first title in the series, this one is from me. Mel will be weighing in with a couple of titles soon
Though it can be read as a stand-alone, TRAIL REVENGE picks up right after events detailed in the first book. The following cover blurb sums it up pretty well:

Embarked on the Oregon Trail, the Culbertson-Barkley wagon train has already endured danger, hardship, and betrayal from within their own ranks. But driven by dreams of the promising new lives that await them in Oregon, they press on—even knowing that the distance still to be covered will only get harder as their route transitions from the high plains into the mountainous regions.
Braced for what lies ahead, what the emigrants are unaware of and unprepared for is the menace that is closing on them from behind. Dangerous, determined vengeance-seekers have their sights set on certain members of the Culbertson-Barkley party. But what the vengeance seekers, in turn, are unprepared for is the extent to which other members of the company will go to protect their own.
When the forces clash, the result is bitter and bloody. The journey toward Oregon will continue, but those who forge on will be forever marked by the violence and startling revelations they have experienced.

Having said that REVENGE can be enjoyed as a stand-alone, I nevertheless feel it would be enhanced by having read JUSTICE first. For that reason, for a limited time only (today through Sunday 9/28), I am offering TRAIL JUSTICE for the bargain price of only $0.99. That's two exciting Western adventures for under four bucks.
I think that's quite a deal and I further believe anyone taking advantage of it won't be disappointed.
The wheels of the Westward Tide are rolling—Come on along for the ride!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Available Now: THE BAREKNUCKLE BARBARIAN - Fight Card Books

The Fight Card series continues sending exciting contenders into the squared circle of pulp fiction with a new book every month and the punches landed are always solidly entertaining.
BAREKNUCKLE BARBARIAN is no exception, and even has a little extra going for it by blending in some alternative history and a dose of heroic fantasy. Author Teel James Glenn uses a fictionalized Robert E. "Bob" Howard as his protagonist. He time-shifts him past the point where (in real life, sadly) Howard committed suicide. "Bob" endures the pain of his mother's death (the real-lie event that caused Howard to take his life) and then embarks on a journey beyond his hometown of Cross Plains, Texas where he hopes to benefit from meeting "real" writers and also to test his physical stamina and inner barbarian against a wider slice of the world.
With this imaginative set-up, author Glenn --- in the Part One "Barknuckle Barbarian" title piece of this two part adventure --- first pits Bob Howard against a gang of New York City hoods staging and controlling the bareknuckle fight game in and around Madison Square Garden. Colorful characters from a visiting circus setting up for a run at the Garden is also worked in. In the rousing climax, Bob himself --- a trained pugalist who has battled in bareknuckle "icehous fights" back in Cross Plains --- steps up as a last-minute replacement in the main event to foil the grip of the crime bosses.
In Part Two – "The Fists of Fae" – a mythical/heroic fantasy element that the real Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerean and King Kull) would have appreciated is introduced. When Bob visits the Old Sod of Ireland to connect with his Gaelic roots, he soon finds himself invited to attend the Fae Fair that takes place every five years wherein the veil between worlds is weakened sufficiently to allow mortal Bob to also attend the festivities leprechauns, elves, centaurs, etc., are present. Here, once again, he is drawn into becoming a participant in the climactic fight.
Author Glenn does a nice job of capturing the "feel", racial attitudes, and language of NYC in the late 30s and his fight scenes are vivid. He imbues "Texas" Bob with just the right mixture of awe and "aw shucks-iness" yet also strong in his sense of right and wrong and self-confidence when it comes to handling himself. And in Part Two he clearly knows  his stuff when it comes to mythology and the intermingling of Worlds.
Imaginative and well done, a pleasant change of pace. Recommended.