Sunday 23 June 2024

BLACK LIST, WHITE DEATH


HOLMES ON THE RANGE
BLACK LIST, WHITE DEATH
By Steve Hockensmith
Rough Edges Press, December 2023

This is the tenth Holmes on the Range book and the third to contain more than one story. The contents are as follows:

The novella “Black List” sees the Amlingmeyer brothers ride into the Arizona Territory on a quest to unearth a buried secret, coveted by a ruthless cattle baron. Can Old Red's deductive skills, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, solve the mystery and protect them from the cattleman's hired guns?

This is followed by the short story "Expense Report: El Paso," where Big Red embarks on his first solo mission to collect a bandit's head. But what if the head has other plans?

The final, and longest story of the three is "White Death," in which the Amlingmeyer’s investigate mysterious deaths at a tuberculosis sanitarium deep in the Colorado mountains. As they search for clues, a sinister figure lurks in the shadows. When a sudden blizzard traps them with the patients, staff, and the killer, the suspense reaches its peak.

As usual, the stories are told in the first person through Big Red, and his often-humorous observations had me laughing out loud. Each story is full of suspense and Old Red’s talent for noticing overlooked clues help in solving the mysteries they face. Having said that, Old Red doesn’t appear in Expense Report: El Paso and for most of the third story he is hidden away in quarantine leaving Big Red to do his best to unmask a killer. Can he do this alone? That’s not for me to reveal here, so you’ll just have to read the book and find out for yourselves. The three stories are all very different to each other and to any of the previous Holmes on the Range tales. 

Steve Hockensmith’s well thought-out plots had me guessing (wrongly) as to just what was going on. Even when I thought I was on the right track in Black List, I soon found myself proved otherwise. 

After that, I gave up trying to work out how each story would end and whodunnit, and just enjoyed the twisting storylines that I would have found impossible to unravel, especially the plot of White Death. The author though, has answers for all of the Amlingmeyer’s questions and everything makes perfect sense by the end. The short story had me wondering in disbelief, but the way Big Red signed off his report made everything clear…I think. 

Black List, White Death is another excellent addition to the Holmes on the Range series. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys western mysteries. 

American readers can get a copy here.
UK readers can ger a copy here.

Wednesday 19 June 2024

BAD TIMES COMING


BAD TIMES COMING
By Gil Martin
Cover art by W. Francis Phillips
New English Library, January 1976
Originally published by Berkley Publishing, 1973

Lonnie Brice was travelling alone . . . but not for long. Swept into a savage storm of violence brought on by the notorious Nolan gang, Lonnie is faced with a life-and-death decision. Does he become one of them, a murderer and a rapist, or does he resist?

With the help of Charity, a young girl held captive by the gang, Lonnie stages a dangerous struggle to free himself from the ruthless band of outlaws and from the punishment they have planned for him.

Arriving in a town just in time to be mistaken for a bank robber, Lonnie Brice finds himself in jail, which in turn leads to him killing a deputy to stop the lawman beating one of the outlaw gang to death. Brice escapes with the prisoner he saved and finds himself a reluctant member of the Nolan gang. Riding with them he witnesses the atrocities they commit with obvious relish. Brice is sickened by this, especially how they treat women, but is powerless to stop them. He wants to leave the gang but is told the only way this can happen is when he dies. When a young girl is taken captive, Brice does his best to defend her and this leads to a desperate attempt to get away from the outlaws. But the gang aren’t going to let Brice and the girl escape their clutches easily and set out to kill them both.

Bad Times Coming is a brutal story, told in a hard-boiled style that suits the harshness of the tale perfectly. The story is told in the first person through Lonnie Brice. He has a lot of dark thoughts and struggles to accept the outlaw life he’s fallen into by bad luck. Even though he hates the men he now rides with, he cannot see how he can leave them except in death. The author writes Brice’s feelings of despair extremely well and his descriptions of the violent scenes are hard-hitting and graphic. One of the highlights of the tale is a train robbery which doesn’t go as well as the Nolan gang hope, the aftermath of which is captured beautifully by cover artist W. Francis Phillips. The ending of the story wasn’t quite what I expected but perfectly suited the tone of the tale.

There has been a lot of speculation as to the identity of Gil Martin, and I think it’s safe to say it’s a pseudonym as copyright is assigned to Martin Overy. As far as I know only seven westerns came out under the name Gil Martin, and at least one of them was also published as by Martin Overy. I’ve also seen comments stating that Gil was the name of Overy’s wife but whether this is true I have no idea, nor whether the rumour is right that she wrote the books but they were submitted by her husband to publishers as it was easier for male authors to get westerns accepted for publication than women. Whoever Gil Marin really is matters not to me. All I know is that the two books I’ve read so far by this author are great reads if you like your books to have a dark tone to them, and I’m looking forward to reading another very soon.

Friday 14 June 2024

FARRELL'S WAR

THE BADGE
Book 15 of 24
FARRELL’S WAR
By Bill Reno
Cover art by Shannon Stirnweis
Bantam Books, February 1990

Sheriff Tug Farrell’s put twenty-nine men in their graves, and he’s about to push the count even higher. A vicious bank robber named Devlin has invaded his territory, taking down two banks in Denver County – and killing Farrell’s father. As rage and revenge war with his lawman’s honor, Farrell hits the trail. But Devlin’s not the only killer up ahead. Raven Morrow, a deadly vixen from Farrell’s past, is waiting with gun cocked. But it’s Morrow and her blood-hungry bunch who’d better be prepared to die. For Tug Farrell has just declared war…and he hates to lose.

The Badge series is mainly a collection of stories that are only connected by the fact that one of the main characters in each book wears a badge of some kind. Occasionally the author would bring back one of those lawmen for another tale, and Farrell’s War is one of those cases. I’d suggest you read the earlier book which introduced readers to Tug Farrell before this one, as book 11: Dark Canyon tells of Farrell’s battle to bring down Raven Morrow. Farrell’s War does explain what happened before, in some detail, and certainly contains spoilers that will take away any of the surprises that Dark Canyon contains and it will definitely ruin the ending of that book.

In Farrell’s War, Tug is offered the chance to become an U.S. Marshal, but he turns that position down as his father has come to live with him. Whilst out investigating whether Raven is dead or not, the Devlin gang hit town and kill Farrell’s father. Now Farrell can accept the U.S. Marshal badge but he has to ask himself if he wants it as something to hide behind whilst he carries out his own kind of justice, revenge, or that of the law. As expected, trailing Devlin see’s the outlaw meeting Raven and her gang, but not as I expected. The kidnapping of a young boy brings Farrell into contact with the youngster’s mother and she triggers a very human emotion within Farrell. Could he be falling in love?

Bill Reno is a pseudonym for author Lew A. Lacy, and he once again has written a fast-moving tale packed with action and tense situations. Devlin and Raven, especially the latter, are excellent adversaries for Farrell and at no time could I be sure Farrell would catch up with them, never mind bring them to justice.  Farrell’s War is definitely a worthy follow-up to Dark Canyon and left me eager to read the next book in the series.

Mention must also be made of Shannon Stirnweis’ excellent cover art which illustrates a scene from the story perfectly.

Friday 31 May 2024

THE TOUGHEST TOWN IN THE TERRITORY

 

THE TOUGHEST TOWN IN THE TERRITORY
By Tom West

Ace Books, 1965

“This town can always use deputies. It’s the toughest! They planted the marshal last week, lead poisoning. Third this season. Come sundown, the town’s a madhouse, south of the tracks. Abilene ain’t a patch on Prairie City. You might say it’s pure hell with the lid off.”
   “Wal,” the newcomer drawled, “I’m down to my last ten-spot. Just who hires deputies in this hell-raising town?”
   “Drop into the Bull Pen up the street,” rasped the clerk, grinning. “Better leave five bucks with me.”
   “For what?”
   “You’ll need a marker – in boot hill.”

The above conversation sets up the basic plot of this tale and the hard-boiled writing style gives the book a dark tone. The newcomer, a man just known as Tex, immediately questions his appointment, not as a deputy, but as Prairie City’s new marshal. Gamblers are betting on how long he’ll last and his deputies don’t seem to like him. Tex wonders why he should put his life on the line for a town in which he isn’t welcome. As the attempts on his life come, Tex gets close to quitting. Of course, he doesn’t and tension mounts. As the deadline for the bets to be paid on his death the gamblers set Tex up to be killed. Tex survives this but trouble still comes his way, especially when he decides it’s time to enforce the no guns in town law.

Tex also has women problems. He’s attracted to two and he soon has to deal with female jealousy. This could be the distraction that means he drops his guard for it to be the death of him.

The story is well written and the plot moves forwards quickly. It’s packed with tough talk and lively gunplay. The author uses some terms and words that I hardly ever see in westerns, such as having characters refer to each other as hairpins. I was also surprised to see a building called a bungalow. Many of the characters enjoy a smoke and often light up a cigaret, which later on is called a cigarette, then switches back to being a cigaret. Was this an author or publisher mistake? 

Tom West is a pseudonym used by Fred East, and this is only the second book I can remember reading by him. I really enjoyed the first one, Bitter Brand, and The Toughest Town in the Territory started so well, was full of potential, and Tex is an interesting hero. Once Tex has settled into his new job the story is held together by trying to bring law to Prairie City and becomes a series of unrelated incidents that Tex has to tackle. The promise of a showdown between Tex and forty ranch hands had me looking forward to an exciting action-packed finale but I was to be severely let down as the book took a ridiculous turn, making for the worst ending I’ve ever read. In fact, I had to re-read a few paragraphs to make sure I hadn’t imagined what I’d read, but no, this unbelievably stupid ending was real. What on earth was the author thinking?

Bitter Brand left me wanting to read more of Tom West’s work. If I’d read The Toughest Town in the Territory first, I very much doubt I’d have picked up another book by this author. I have three more West books in my collection, so the question now is will I ever read them? Maybe I’ll try one more but it won’t be anytime soon.

My copy of The Toughest Town in the Territory is part an Ace Double, the other story being Guns at Q Cross by Merle Constiner. 

Tuesday 21 May 2024

THE OUTLAW HERD

 

THE OUTLAW HERD
By Peter Field
Cover art by John Duillo
Pocket Books, February 1976
Originally published by Jefferson House, 1962 

Crusty, outspoken Ma Russell was in deep trouble. Killer Cagle had shot down her foreman in a saloon brawl. Her husband was up north with a busted leg, and Ma wanted to drive a herd of cattle across a thousand miles of wild, strange mountains. Without proper help she’d never make it, so Pat Stevens and his sidekicks Sam and Ezra decided to ride along. But Cagle and his desperadoes had other ideas. They menaced the cattle drive all the rugged way until – in a final action-packed showdown – one of Peter Field’s best Westerns comes to a roaring climax.

This book is part of the long running Powder Valley western series that began in 1934 and finished in 1967 and saw 80+ books published. Originally put out by Morrow before Jefferson House took over, all the books were published as hardbacks. They were later republished as paperbacks.

Peter Field is a pseudonym shared by a number of authors, the first of which was Francis Thayer Hobson. Other authors include Harry S. Drago, Davis Dresser, Fred East, and Robert J. Hogan. From the 35th book all the titles were written by Lucien W. Emerson. Emerson wrote The Outlaw Herd and it was the 76th entry into the series. It is the first Powder Valley western I’ve read.

I’ve never been a massive fan of cattle drive stories, but it had been a while since I’d read one so I decided to give The Outlaw Herd a chance. I needn’t have worried, as the cattle drive takes place over just a few pages with most of the book covering why the cattle drive was needed and where the cattle would come from. Also, there was the added complication of Cagle and his gang. These owlhoots also provided a mystery element to the tale as to the reason they were so interested in the Russell’s Spider ranch.

I got the impression that Stevens, Sam and Ezra are the main characters of the series, although there was little backstory revealed about them, or Powder Valley for that matter. I also noticed that Emerson rarely shares his characters thoughts – I only learned what they were thinking when they decided to explain something to other characters. This allowed the author to spring a couple of surprises without me having any idea they were coming. 

None of the characters really stood out to me. I’m still not sure what to make of Stevens as he seems too good to be true. He certainly never seems to doubt himself. Some of the plot stretched my belief somewhat, such as the acquisition of the outlaw herd. I’m not sure a rustler would hand over a herd on a promise of payment once the cattle had been sold to someone he didn’t know. This did add an extra element to the end of the story where Stevens came over as wearing a whiter than white hat. The story did move forward at a fair clip. It contains lots of dialogue, mainly threats and bluster. There’s not a lot of gunplay or other action. The blurb promised ‘a final action-packed showdown’ but that didn’t seem to happen. Yes, there was a shootout involving rustlers and a posse, but it was over fairly quickly and didn’t bring the story to an end as there were more plot threads to tie up before the close of the tale.

I realize I’ve said quite a few negative things about this book, but none of them put me off reading it. The main plotline was interesting enough to keep me turning the pages, as were a couple of subplots, such as how the relationship between the constantly bickering young cowboy and the Russell’s daughter would turn out, even though it was easy enough to work out. Steven’s plan to sneak off under the noses of Cagle and his gang was well done too.

Would I read another Powder Valley western on the strength of this one? Yes, probably, but maybe not for a while. I do think it would be interesting to read how some of the other authors behind the pseudonym tell their stories about Stevens, Sam and Ezra, especially those written by Robert J. Hogan and Fred East as I’ve always enjoyed their work.

Sunday 12 May 2024

WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE - December 1961


WESTERN STORY MAGAZINE
British Edition, Vol. XV, No. 8.
Atlas Publishing, December 1961

This collection of nine tales contains work by eight authors I’d never read before, the exception being Barry Cord, so I was looking forward to trying some new writers to me. Yes, I recognized the names of a few of them but had no idea of what to expect from them when I picked up this issue of Western Story Magazine.

The contents page says none of the stories had been published in Great Britain before, but like all British Editions of western pulps the tales were all previously published in American Pulps. Seven of the stories originally appeared in the December 1940 issue of New Western Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 3. No Law for Die-Hard Cowmen! was taken from Vol. 1, No. 1 of New Western Magazine, March 1940, and Samaritan of Hell’s Half-Acre came from the October 1940 issue of .44 Western Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 4. You can see the covers of these magazines throughout the review.

No Law for Die-Hard Cowmen! by Ed. Earl Repp is the lead story. From what I can gather Repp got other authors to ghost a lot of the work that was published under his own name, and not having read anything by him before means I can’t pick up on any writing styles to help me identify whether it was him or not that wrote this tale. The story follows Clay Anson, who’d turned in his Texas Ranger badge for the chance to deal justice beyond the law and claim his bloody heritage. It was never explained how Anson knew so much about the wrongs he came to set right, and who was behind them. This gave me a few ‘huh?’ moments as I wondered how he knew about certain revelations and made the story somewhat unbelievable. Anson is also a super confident man who never doubts his abilities to take down the badmen. This was probably my least liked story in this magazine.

The second yarn, Barnyard Billy’s Conscript Army by Jim Kjelgaard, was not what I was expecting. This is a tale told from a goat’s point of view and doesn’t contain any humans. Slow starvation awaited the billy goat as he was trapped on top of a barren rock. Below was certain bloody death at the fangs of a huge, snarling dog. Could a second goat help save the day? I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this tale, even though I find it hard to accept that animals think like humans. It was well written and the author soon had me wondering if the goat could escape the dog. I’m now curious to find out if Kjelgaard wrote other stories that featured only animals. 



The Broken-M Adopts Trouble by Cliff M. Bisbee uses the age-old plot of the failing ranch that the bank is about to claim if the owners don’t pay off their debt. The Mexican partner decides to steal what they need but he doesn’t pick his victim well, and robs the sheriff. There’s a neat side plot of a missing baby that turns up at the ranch making the owners wonder how it got there. It couldn’t have crawled twenty miles, could it? On the strength of this short story, I’d certainly read more by Bisbee.

Hector Gavin Grey’s There’s Gold in Boothill is next. With a title like that it’ll come as no surprise to discover this is a gold mine tale. An old-timer partners up with a young fast gun who may or may not be who he says he is. They take on a job to get back a mine for a man who has a bad reputation. There’s a couple of plot twists as the characters set to double-cross each other and everything pretty much plays out as expected. Entertaining enough to ensure I’d read another story by this author if I find one, although I wouldn’t go looking specifically.

An Outlaw Town Hires a Badge Toter by H. Charles McDermott. Frontier marshal Bob Fury arrives in town to solves a mysterious series of murders and pilfered caches on the request of Laughing Jake Tilby. This is an action-packed tale involving a gold mine that sees Fury taking on the man who hired him. It has a neat ending which involves an unloaded gun. One of my favourite tales in the magazine making McDermott an author I’ll definitely be keeping an eye-out for more of his stories.

The author of Powdersmoke Quarantine, C. William Harrison, wrote under a few pseudonyms too. This story is about Jim Callert who has the difficult task on making Jan Edwards believe he hadn’t killed her brother whilst upholding a quarantine law that will plunge her ranch into poverty. Callert and Jan were an item at one time, but the death of her brother had changed that. If Callert could prove he was innocent, would they become lovers once again? The was an ok read that had an easy to work out plot and of course involved a cattle stampede. This story didn’t make me want to go and search for more of the author’s work.

Barry Cord is a pseudonym used by Peter B. Germano and he has long been a favourite author of mine and his story in this magazine, The Things Men Die For, was another excellent read by him. It’s about a broken old whiskey-bum to whom a small gold medal meant only another bottle … until the sight of a youngster going out to die fanned to living flame a forgotten spark of manhood. Like in his full-length novels, Cord includes intrigue and a great twist ending to this dark toned tale. Definitely the best story in this publication.

Samaritan of Hell’s Half-Acre by Le Roy Boyd features a plot often found in westerns, that of a lawman and outlaw having to team up to fight off greater odds. Stranded by a waterhole without horses, desperado Lafferty and sheriff Parsons find themselves under attack by a gang of Mexicans. This is packed with action and has a terrific twist ending. This story is my second favourite and I’ll certainly be looking for more work by this author.

The final story is I. L. Thompson’s Doom Waits for Barbwire Rebels. Jeff Mainess, a gunless prison outcast won’t line up with either side in a range war so he becomes fair bullet-bait for both. This is your typical cattleman wants all the range and starts driving out the farmers. Soon people die, and Mainess takes on the job of lawman to try and stop the killings. There’s plenty of action, including a siege and assault on the jail. Mainess is pretty much indestructible, taking a number of bullet wounds but is able to shrug them off and carry on as if nothing has happened. There’s also a delicate girl who will show her strengths by the end of the tale and is the love interest for Mainess. This was a readable story but not very memorable.

Don’t be put off by the incredibly dull cover this magazine has as the stories it contains are all worth a read. I never considered giving up on any of them and found a couple of new authors to me that I’d like to read more of. Overall, this is a fun collection of short stories that kept me entertained for a few hours. 


Tuesday 30 April 2024

THE WICKED AND THE DEAD

THE WICKED AND THE DEAD
William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone
Pinnacle Books, April 2024

As hardworking families and ambitious dreamers set down roots across the American West, others swooped down to prey upon them. After the smoke cleared, those who lived by the gun found themselves facing justice – and vengeance . . . 

It was supposed to be a simple robbery. A fortune in gold for the taking. What Hack Long and his outlaws hadn’t figured on was the Texas Rangers pouncing on them. Desperate to escape, Long led his men south of the Rio Grande where they ran afoul of Mexican Rurales and were imprisoned.

Unwilling to die behind the bars of the hellish prison where life is worth less than a peso, Long’s band of desperadoes break out of jail and split up to escape. Now, Two-Horses, Luke Fischer, Gabriel Santana, Billy Lightning, and Long are scrabbling along a desolate landscape, heading for Texas to reclaim their ill-gotten gains, hunted by dogged lawmen, merciless Comanche, and a violent gang of bandits who also want the stolen gold.

The story of Hack Long and his outlaw gang starts with them in the Mexican prison plotting their escape. I don’t know why, but I found this part of the tale to be a bit on the slow side, but never-fear, as soon as they are free, the story really picked up and I found the book difficult to put down.

The chapters are short, some being only a couple of pages long. The author often switches between the various members of the Long gang and the different groups of people hunting them. Most of the chapters involve a killing or two as each gang members meets danger on the trail to Texas. Having sixty-four chapters the book therefore contains a high death toll.

The author also fleshes out his main characters, and Billy Lightning’s backstory as to how he got his name was both scary and amusing at the same time. All the characters held my attention and I soon wanted to know what would happen to them, be they good, bad, or somewhere in between. 

As they near the town of Barlow, where the gold was hidden, Long begins to wonder if they’ll be able to find their loot again as it becomes apparent the town has grown whilst he and his gang were locked up in Mexico. This is where the author has a neat twist waiting which will really challenge the gang.

Other than the slightly sluggish start, I found The Wicked and the Dead to be a very entertaining read that’s filled with tough violent action. It’s also great to see the Johnstone’s put out another non-series western as this book just has to be a stand-alone title, doesn’t it? 

American readers can get a copy here.
UK readers can get a copy here.