Thursday 31 January 2019

The Stranger

By Bill Reno
Bantam Books, December 1988

When Denzel Murdoch was sent to the gallows for strangling a young woman, he shouted that he was innocent and vowed he would come back from the grave and take revenge on the judge, the six jurors and the marshal and deputy who had arrested him. And now it’s happening – Green River’s marshal is discovered in a freshly dug grave with the initials D.M. carved on his brow – and there are more deaths to follow. The townspeople are terrified. They can only turn to the man they call John Stranger – a mysterious drifter they found in the Green River cemetery after a shoot-out that left three bank robbers dead – a man who can’t remember his own identity after being grazed by one of the robbers’ bullets. All people know about him is that he’s faster with a gun than anyone they’ve ever seen before – and that’s enough.

This is another strong entry in what, for me, has been a superb series so far. Each book is a stand-alone title linked by the fact that one, or more, of the main characters wears a badge of some kind. 

Like the previous books this story has a fairly dark content and the author is very good at describing the grip of fear that begins to motive many of the characters as they try to convince themselves that Denzel Murdoch’s ghost has not risen from the grave to kill those he holds responsible for his death. But what other explanation is there? As terror brings forth desperate acts, can the lawman and John Stranger keep control before mob rule will see more innocents put to death?

And what of John Stranger himself? Who is he? A robber? A killer? A lawman? Where is he from and why is he in Green River? Bonnie Bodine, the murdered marshal’s sister, convinces herself that Stranger is a good man and the two begin to fall in love. But is Stranger already married? Are they setting themselves up for the agonizing pain of heartbreak if Stranger does indeed have a wife, a family?

Bill Reno packs this story with questions and mysteries that become more and more tangled as the death toll rises. Once you think you may have some idea as to what is going on the author springs more twists to the tale. One of my suspicions did turn out to be correct, kind of, as to the identity of the killer, but Reno had a major surprise in store where that person is concerned that provides another excellent twist that I doubt anyone will see coming.

Does Stranger get his memory back? Is he the kind of man who Bonnie would want to spend the rest of her life with? Is he married? Are either, or both of them alive by the end? The quest for Stranger to discover his identity keeps throwing up surprise after surprise – and that is all I can say without ruining this story.

Bill Reno is a pseudonym for Lew A. Lacy who once again presents the reader with a hard-hitting, at times brutal tale that is a gripping read. On finishing this book I find myself eager to pick up the next one in the series and to try some of the other westerns he has written, such as a number of entries in the Stagecoach Station series as Hank Mitchum. 

Sunday 27 January 2019

The Frontiersman

By William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone
Pinnacle, April 2015

In Tennessee, 17-year-old Breckinridge Wallace knew the laws of nature. When his life was in danger, he showed a fearless instinct to fight back. Killing a thug who was sent to kill him got Breckinridge exiled from his Smoky Mountain home. Brutally wounding an Indian attacker earned him an enemy for life… Now, from the bustling streets of St. Louis to the vast stillness of the Missouri headwaters, Breckinridge is discovering a new world of splendour, violence, promise and betrayal. Most off all, he is clawing his way to manhood behind the law of the gun. Because the trouble he left in Tennessee won’t let him go. A killer stalks his every move. And by the time he joins a dangerous expedition, Breckinridge has only had a small taste of the blood, horror and violence he must face next – to make his way to a new frontier…

This is the first in a series launched under the William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone brand. Currently there are four in The Frontiersman series, with a fifth announced for release in 2019.

Like in any opening book to a series we are introduced to Breckinridge and his family and the relationships between them. We also witness Breckinridge’s impressive strengths and ability to fight as the opening scenes describe a bloody battle between him and some Chickasaw braves. Breckinridge’s belief that he’ll marry Maureen Grantham is important to the plot too, and it’s the latter that leads to events that see Breckinridge go on the run.

The plot thread of Breckinridge being wanted links each new adventure he finds himself having as he teams up with various parties in his bid to reach the Rocky Mountains. It’s these encounters that will see Breckinridge’s resolve tested time and again in a series of deadly and violent situations.

The author tells this very fast-moving tale in gripping prose that kept me turning the pages. Characters are well-crafted and each has an important part to play in the storyline and the writer is not afraid to kill them off to add to the suffering Breckinridge must endure. Action scenes – and there’s plenty of them – are extremely well-written, brutally desperate struggles for life that are very visual. 

As the story races to its end, it becomes obvious not all the plot threads are going to be tied-up thus ensuring the reader will pick up the next book in the series and that is something I will certainly be doing very soon.

A book that should appeal to all western readers, especially those who enjoy mountain men tales.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

The Double-A Western Detective Agency

Holmes on the Range #6:
by Steve Hockensmith
Independently published, Dec. 2018

Big Red and Old Red Amlingmeyer’s dream has come true: The Sherlock Holmes-worshiping cowboy brothers are finally in business as professional detectives. But their fledgling A.A. Western Detective Agency faces a few challenges. Their partner, Col. Crowe, is almost as cantankerous and secretive as Old Red himself. The colonel’s daughter, Diana, insists on tagging along for the Amlingmeyers’ first assignment. And that assignment lands them smack dab in the middle of a range war — with Big Red and Old Red expected to shoot it out with rustlers rather than rustle up clues and solve a mystery.

When the violence claims an unexpected victim, however, the Amlingmeyers are called upon to holster their guns (for a moment) and use their “Holmesifying” skills to track down the killer. But someone else is tracking them...someone who seems to set one ambush after another for the brothers. Will the Double-A Western Detective Agency’s first case also be its last?

It's been just over two years since the last Holmes on the Range book appeared which was more mystery than western, but this time Steve Hockensmith was writing it for fun rather than a mystery imprint so he decided to ‘pump up the western vibe’. Due to that decision this book certainly reads like a western that contains a couple of mysteries that need solving as only the Amlingmeyer’s can.

As usual the story is told through Big Red Amlingmeyer, his many humorous observations making me laugh out loud. The tale seems to be a typical range war type of plot but it soon becomes clear it’s much more than that and it spirals into a twisting and complex storyline that provides Old Red with plenty of opportunity to use his deducifying skills. I can’t really say anymore about that without giving to much away and thus spoiling the book for those intending to read it.

The story moves forwards at a fast pace and chapters often end on a cliff-hanger that will keep you turning the pages. There is also plenty of action – standoffs, gunplay, fistfights and other tense situations – that will be enjoyed by all western fans. Something that really caught my attention was the town a lot of the tale takes place in, it’s unusual set up being one I can’t remember reading the likes of before. 

If you’ve not yet read any of the Holmes on the Range books then this is certainly a great place to jump in as it seems to mark a new beginning for the Amlingmeyer’s due to it being their first assignment for their new Double-A Detective Agency. Let’s just hope that Mr. Hockensmith doesn’t keep us waiting too long to find out what their next job will be.

Also available as an ebook

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Love and Cold Steel

By David Robbins
Mad Hornet Publishing, December 2018

The heart wants what the heart wants.

Evelyn King yearns to get hitched. Eager for her dream to come true, she won’t let anything stand in her way.

But the frontier has many dangers. Killers and hostiles and beasts abound.

As Evelyn is reminded when she and the man she loves run into a pack of two-legged wolves…and something far worse.

At last another Wilderness book has appeared, two years after the previous title, The Avenger. Since Leisure Books closed David Robbins has been publishing new Wilderness books under his own name rather than the pseudonym of David Thompson.

How I tried to read this book slowly, to savour every word, every scene, but my ambition failed miserably as each short chapter ended with a question or cliff-hanger that made it virtually impossible to put the book down as I just had to know what happened next.

Love and Cold Steel could be described as two separate storylines running parallel to each other – Evelyn and Dega’s dangerous travail to reach Bent’s Fort and hopefully find a preacher to marry them, and the tale of a wagon train and it’s guide, Quay, to solve the mystery of his gruesome discoveries that threaten all the travellers lives – although you know at some point these gripping tales are going to converge in some way that will intensify the already deadly situations the main characters find themselves in.

Fans of the Wilderness series, and/or David Robbins writing style will know what to expect in the way the story is told; the how are they going to get out of that scene endings already mentioned, the endless struggle of man and women to understand each other which often results in laugh-out-loud moments, the witty dialogue which again left me grinning much of the time, the desperate savage fights to survive – both against man and beast – which are vividly written and plotlines that will keep you guessing to the end.

Wilderness 70 might have been a long time coming but it certainly lived up to my expectations and I believe it should be enjoyed by all western fans, especially those who like the mountain man era. All I can hope is that David Robbins doesn’t keep us waiting quite so long before he gives us another instalment in this excellent series.