Tuesday, July 18, 2023


SPACE DETECTIVE: A novel excerpt

 I set up the distribution for Space Detective to avoid limiting access to just Amazon and/or Barnes & Noble, so readers could procure it from their preferred online dealer, whether for a paperback or an ebook edition. Even libraries and retail brick-and-mortar stores can order and put this book on their shelves.

However, the teaser preview that online retailers provide differs according to the site you visit. Amazon appears to offer the longest preview. Other retailers, none at all.

So I’m posting an extended excerpt so everyone can have a look, no matter where you choose to shop.

You'll find it at my writer's site by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019


“The Bishop of Somaliland” by H. Bedford-Jones

Someone named Henry James O’Brien Bedford-Jones surely has a title, but it’s not one you’ll find in Burke’s Peerage (no matter how deeply Philip Jose Farmer may scrutinize its pages). Indeed, Peter Ruber named H. Bedford-Jones the King of the Pulps. That’s a title disputed by some pulp fans, who point to the popularity of author Edgar Rice Burroughs and the prodigious output by Max Brand (and a raft of other pseudonyms for Frederick Faust). Perhaps Faust and Bedford-Jones are the two main contenders based on wordage sold.

All three writers worked in multiple genres. Based on marketing savvy, Burroughs might be the clear winner, with movies, comic books, radio shows, comic strips, television shows, and a boatload of licensing for foodstuffs and clothing and toys and you-name-it associated with his characters and settings. Perhaps just the number of knock-offs from Tarzan and the number of planetary romance characters and settings his works influenced would put the final stamp on ERB capturing the title of King.

Faust also made the jump to other media with his characters, and three movies based (loosely) on just one novel, Destry Rides Again. Dr. Kildare appeared in movies and television (and, if I’m recalling correctly, as a radio show as well) plus comic strips and comic books. I haven’t counted, but a gut feeling tells me more movies have been based on Faust’s novels and stories than on those by Zane Grey. Burroughs’ influence on writers who followed him was immense, but if we use continuing popularity or sales of written works as our measuring stick, Faust claims the kingdom: Max Brand books continue to be released in one format or another every year, many of them in large print editions intended for library collections.

Bedford-Jones, however, seems known today only by readers and collectors of pulp magazines. Altus Press/Steeger Books’ campaign to publish the bulk of his work in its H. Bedford-Jones Library may change this situation slightly, but from my perspective, it appears the publisher’s marketing efforts are focused on the population of already-knowledgeable pulp fans, not on expanding awareness of HBJ’s oeuvre to uninitiated readers outside the pulp community. Like Burroughs and Faust, HBJ toiled in a variety of genres: mystery, western, spy, contemporary thriller, historical adventure, swashbucklers, naval action . . . gosh, you name it, you can find at least one example with Bedford-Jones’ name (or pseudonym) on it. He wrote stand-alone stories as well as series characters. Surprisingly, such a prolific storyteller didn’t make the leap to movies or television. A quick check of IMDB shows only two entries for HBJ. This writer has hogsheads’ worth of tales suitable for adapting to film and TV—in a world hungry for streaming content, HBJ’s library is a treasure chest waiting to be discovered.

Today we’re taking a look at “The Bishop of Somaliland,” a stand-alone adventure tale (“A Stirring Novelette”) published in the March 1936 issue of Blue Book (vol. 62 no. 5). (HBJ has a second story in this issue, an entry in his Arms and Men series: “XIV—The Sword of Michelangelo.”)

A contemporary story rather than one of HBJ’s narratives located in the Wild West or a distant historical era, this is an entertaining tale that includes some humor and some drama against a quasi-wartime setting: remember, it’s 1936 (probably 1935 at the time it was written), and the German invasion of Poland, which triggered Britain and France’s declarations of war, didn’t occur until 1939. Here’s the state of that part of the world (in as simplistic a list as you’ll probably ever see):

The territory:


This map may help clarify some of the geography:

Aden, 1935.
That’s the background for Bedford-Jones’ story, which takes place on only a small chunk of a territorial map that had been highly volatile since the end of World War I. And maybe that’s too much historical detail to provide for a story that fills only 21 pages of a pulp magazine, but that’s the sort of information that globally savvy readers of the time would have had at least a general awareness of while reading “The Bishop of Somaliland.” And if they hadn’t been reading the papers and listening to the radio news, HBJ’s tale still would have entertained them. These political and geographic details lend verisimilitude to Bedford-Jones’ story, which is quite what any professional writer would desire.

The story—which, by the way, is prefaced with an editorial blurb that reveals part of the plot, “Guns for Abyssinia”—opens with two men at the rail of a French coastal mail ship putting in at Mocha after sailing north from Aden. One is an American, Breen, who’d been first officer on a ship until he’d gotten ill and been left at Aden. The other is George Augustus Kenworthy Braggton-Hurts, a spare, rough-hewn Briton in black clerical garb who introduces himself as the Bishop of Somaliland. The latter explains to Breen he’s heading to a mission in British Somaliland near Djibouti (in French Somaliland) because the curate there had left his post and left behind “all the sacred vessels, which are of much value, and also the books and reports and records of the diocese—and he died of malaria at the Djibouti hospital last week.” The Bishop’s on his way to retrieve the diocesan property, because it’s been left near the area of the Italian-Ethiopian conflict.

The Bishop intends to board an Arab steamer, the Nurredin, to travel to French Somaliland. However, the Nurredin needs a captain; having learned that Breen is a master of steam, the Bishop beseeches the American to take the ship’s open post so he can leave straightaway to fulfill his duties at the mission.

Breen balks at the request. There are Italian destroyers patrolling the waters “with savage intent to stop all running of guns across to Ethiopia and parts adjacent.” He raises objections:
“Look here, Bishop,” he said curtly. “That Red Sea yonder is fuller of warships than of Egyptians right now. The Italians have twice tried to land troops right here in Yemen, and the British chased ‘em off. They want to stop gun-runners. So do the French and British. I’d gamble any money that these ships anchored here are loaded with munitions for Ethiopia. I bet these boys have made use of you.”

The Bishop waves aside Breen’s points, saying that any gun-running the Nurredin may be engaged in is “aside from the question of my duty.” He declares the steamer sails under the British flag, which should protect Breen, the Bishop, and the crew from assault by any foreign power.

Once ashore, the Bishop introduces Breen to the ship’s owner, Yusuf the Damascene. At the American’s questioning, Yusuf claims the steamer’s cargo is condensed milk intended for the French troops at Djibouti. Breen agrees to consider the position, but leaves to wander the town while the Bishop negotiates with Yusuf for a larger fee on behalf of Breen to finally entice him aboard.

In a typical pulp-magazine coincidence, Breen encounters the Nurredin’s first mate, Gaffney, who tells him the steamer’s British crew is hiding below decks and only its Arab stokers are moving about in sight to keep curious eyes from becoming more curious. When Gaffney lets slip that the captain the Nurredin is awaiting is a man named Stafford, Breen is shocked. The public opinion of Stafford is that the man is a murderer and a pirate. Gaffney assures Breen that the stories the American has heard are overblown and don’t include the facts; that Stafford’s crew is loyal to the man as he only deserves. For that reason, Gaffney won’t tell Breen what Nurredin’s cargo is—not unless he signs on as the steamer’s master.

On his way back to Yusuf’s, Breen encounters the Bishop belaying three attackers with knives; the Bishop uses his fists in a very unclerical manner, and quickly puts down the three men. The Bishop then spots Breen, tells him he’s convinced Yusuf to guarantee Breen a larger fee, and the two men set off for the Nurredin.

At this point, the reader is 110 percent sure that the Bishop and Captain Stafford are one and the same and the Nurredin’s hold is stacked with boxes filled with guns. While the American has no illusions about his cargo, Bedford-Jones doesn’t let on just how much Breen is sure about Stafford or whether he only still suspects. It hardly matters, because HBJ has fun showing us crewmembers trying to keep Stafford’s secret in front of Breen. It’s perfect fodder for strong character actors of the period in a Hollywood adventure tale: as humorous scenes lighten the drama, so the dramatic scenes are intensified as the likeable secondary characters we’ve warmed up to are threatened.

The Nurredin, like every other boat afloat that night, makes its way without lights. There are a few near-crashes with other craft, but all goes well as Breen relies on his charts and his memory of the local waters. All goes well, that is, until the steamer strikes something in the dark: it turns out to be an Italian submarine, and its officer and his men quickly board Breen’s ship.
One thing astonished him—the acrid hostility between his men and the Italian seamen. True, relations between the two countries were badly strained, with warlike moves in the air, with the destiny of Europe trembling in the balance against that of Ethiopia; yet the swift reflection of this racial trouble surprised Breen, who was not accustomed to the sharp emergence of nationalism. His men were quite helpless, it is true; but they could snarl, and snarl they did.

This is writing with a sure hand based on good knowledge of the military and political maneuvering in the region. Maybe that’s just the perception from eighty years away, but Bedford-Jones handles the contemporary tensions from a far corner of the world in a solid manner for the readers of a popular mass market periodical.

Breen is further confused and infuriated when the Italian lieutenant says, “I don’t mind telling you that we had advance information that this ship was loaded with contraband.” Breen recalls a “scrap of talk from Gaffney. The men had their orders; it didn’t matter if an Italian ship overhauled them. Why?” In this way, Bedford-Jones lays aside the faux puzzle of Stafford’s disguise as the Bishop and gets to the crux of his plot: what’s really going on here?

The lieutenant locks Breen in his cabin. The cook brings him food and tries to pass a message to Breen—something’s up, but he can’t fathom just what it may be. The American is further confused by the sounds he hears and the Nurredin’s sudden movement in the water.
A wild tumult of voices—and then a sudden lifting shock that stopped Breen’s heart for an instant. He had felt that lift before now, when keel surged on coral; but it was no coral. He was flung off his feet, hurled headlong into a corner of the cabin. The bows of the ship lifted and settled again, with a frightful crunching crash.

Then shots burst forth from the bridgedeck.

The Bishop and one of his men had broken loose and rammed the submarine. I won’t spoil all the details, but Breen learns the truth behind the stories about murderous Stafford, and that’s just what we expected, right? The entire plot set up not just to run guns to Ethiopia for money, but also to sink an Italian submarine. Stafford’s story is a tale of revenge, and turns to a darker note than its opening and middle scenes suggested may be coming.

Still, Bedford-Jones handles the adventure, the humor, and the pathos in a fine manner. A career writer didn’t sell so much as he did if he didn’t have a storyteller’s true hand as a narrator. Not all his work is consistent—writing so much so quickly for so many markets will make any writer falter from time to time. But this tale, “The Bishop of Somaliland,” is a fine piece that, while perhaps not in the highest echelon of Blue Book’s fiction, is certainly entertaining, diverting, and engaging. That’s just what a reader expects for 15 cents in 1936. It's what Alistair MacLean and Jack Higgins would be doing in print many years later with great success. Again, I can see in my mind’s eye a black-and-white motion picture with a dramatic score and a dandy script based on this story. It would have been just the thing Hollywood would have produced to wind up the American viewers in the years leading to the war.
My brief research doesn't show that Steeger Books has reprinted this particular story. But this publisher has released a number of books containing much of the best of HBJ's Blue Book work. Check the links below to view some of the volumes in the H. Bedford-Jones Library. I've also included a link to a contemporary adventure tale, if something like "The Bishop of Somaliland" whets your appetite: check out Black Dog Books' The Master of the Dragons. There's a lot of good reading to be found within those covers.

The Gate of Farwell: The John Solomon Stories Volume 1

Warriors in Exile

The World Was Their Stage

The Master of Dragons

Ships and Men

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Thursday, May 14, 2015


Now available: FIGHTING ALASKA, the ebook version

Pulp fans may be interested in my new tale, Fighting Alaska, an entry in the Fight Card series. Although it focuses on a NorthWestern setting, its action begins in the Texas Panhandle.

Set in 1900, Fighting Alaska tells the tale of a reluctant fighter's trip to the Alaskan gold rush. On the way, he encounters a fictional hero who may be recognized by fans of TV westerns from the late 1950s and early 1960s, as well as historical folks like Wyatt Earp, Rex Beach, and Tex Rickard.

You can find the ebook version now at Amazon. You can reach it by clicking here.  (For those who prefer paper and ink over Kindle pages, the print version should be available soon.)

You can also find my article on writing Fighting Alaska, "A Fighter's Trail to the Alaskan Gold Rush," at the Fight Card site. Read the article to find out why Charles Bronson's photo is included with this post. Click here to visit the site and see the article.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015


The vigor of pulp prose: Alistair MacLean's WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL

I remember the first novel by Alistair MacLean I read: Puppet on a Chain. I'd seen the TV commercials for the film version and was intrigued. However, I knew I'd likely not get to see it--I lived in a small town with one walk-in theatre and a drive-in, and in 1971 I could count on one hand the number of movies I'd been to see over the past ten years. If I saw a movie, I watched it on television. Those were the days before cable, and Hollywood films eventually were broadcast on prime-time networks, so I wasn't totally deprived of cinematic spectacle.

Reading Puppet on a Chain--the local library had a copy, and its shelves were well-stocked with the works of many crime and thriller writers--led me to other MacLean novels. (My interest was encouraged by the very dramatic cover paintings and consistent typographic treatments on the Fawcett paperback editions being published at the time. That red bulls-eye dot over the I in Alistair was just the perfect touch.) But most of my interest in MacLean ended by the time I left junior high school.

Seeing some new editions of MacLean on the bookstore shelves in recent years, I picked up When Eight Bells Toll. (It's nice to see some appropriately dramatic cover treatments on these new editions published by Sterling. They don't recall the style used by publishers in the 1960s and '70s for MacLean's books, but they appropriately communicate the dramatic vigor of his storytelling.) I'd not read this one before, and I wondered whether if my memories of MacLean would hold up after all these years. I remembered reading about five years ago an Agatha Christie novel--again, I went through a Christie phase of reading during junior high. I was remarkably bored. It's easy to see why her books receive so many film and TV treatments--activity, dialog, activity. Little to make the characters really interesting other than their tics and mannerisms and the murders happening around them.

Fortunately for me, this particular MacLean novel appeared (1966) during his glory days as a thriller writer. Some of his later works just didn't carry my interest, even when I was reading them as they were published. The first-person narrator is a man of action, and his cynical outlook combines with his sense of duty and his remarkable facility to survive to fashion an interesting character. He's a creature of his times--the 1966s were the days of James Bond's rising popularity, the aging of Cold War/Fear of the Bomb angst, and the growth of cultural unrest.

The following passage from late in the book--pages 186 and 187 in the 1966 Doubleday hardcover--give a sense of the vigor and action in MacLean's prose as his protagonist, Philip Calvert, describes an ally (Hutchinson) he's just recruited. It's the sort of writing one might have seen in the best Adventure or Blue Book writers (although one might argue they would have communicated the same in a shorter passage):

Those huge hands on the throttle and wheel had the delicacy of a moth. He had the night-sight of a barn owl and an ear which could infallibly distinguish between waves breaking in the open sea, on reefs or on shores: he could invariably tell the size and direction of seas coming at him out of the darkness and mist and touch wheel to throttle as need be: he had an inbuilt computer which provided instant correlation of wind, tide, current and our own speed and always let him know exactly where he was. And I'll swear he could smell land, even on a lee shore and with the rest of us suffering olfactory paralysis from the fumes of the big black cigars which seemed to be an inseparable part of the man. It required only ten minutes beside him to realize that one's ignorance of the sea and ships was almost total. A chastening discovery.

He took the Charmaine out through the Scylla and Charybdis of that evil alleged harbor entrance under full throttle. Foaming white-fanged reefs reached out at us, bare feet away, on either side. He didn't seem to notice them. He certainly didn't look at them. The two "boys" he'd brought with him, a couple of stunted lads of about six foot two or thereabouts, yawned prodigiously. Hutchinson located the Firecrest a hundred yards before I could even begin to imagine I could see any shape at all and brought the Charmaine alongside as neatly as I could park my car by the kerb in broad daylight--on one of my better days, that was.

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Thursday, April 16, 2015


The vigor of pulp prose

While rereading Nick Tosches' remarkable biography The Devil and Sonny Liston, I stop and marvel at some of his passages. This isn't pulp writing in its purple form we readers of outlandish fringe fiction are accustomed to. This is the fierce poteen of nonfiction prose distilled from documented facts, historical hindsight and interviews that percolates in the boiling stewpot of writer Tosches' skull. This is the kind of writing that brings a smile to an appreciative reader's face. (Or at least to his mental mouth--if you can have a mind's eye, can't you have a mind's lips?)

Liston's rise through the amateur ranks had been so fast and so fulminous--such a sudden, attention-commanding burst of neon lightning and Shango thunder--that the price negotiated for his professional debut was two hundred dollars, about four times the going rate for a preliminary novice.

Fulminous: a word you don't see very often unless you're a chemical engineer in a niche career or a backyard pyrotechnist, ala George Plimpton. Or, perhaps, a meteorologist. But it's a word I like, perhaps all the more so because of its rarity.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013


If the Pulps StiII Thrived: Charles McCarry as a contemporary Blue Book writer

Imagine, if you will, that two venerable pulp magazines focusing on adventure fiction -- one aptly named Adventure, the other Blue Book -- still can be found on magazine racks in convenience stores and chain bookshops. That Adventure did not reach the end of its day as a men's sweat mag in 1971, as depicted in It'sA Man's World: Men's Adventure Magazines, The Postwar Pulps, but recreated itself in its own earlier image as a fiction magazine filled with adventure stories written by the finest members of Fawcett/Gold Medal's stable of PBO authors of crime fiction and westerns. That Blue Book did not die in 1956, to be resurrected also as a men's sweat mag titled Bluebook for Men, but continued to provide an outlet for stirring stories by John D. MacDonald, Frank Robinson, Richard Wormser, and Frank O'Rourke, plus writers new to its pages, such as Ed McBain (whose stories did appear in Argosy in the 1960s), Harry Whittington, Richard Wheeler, Mario Puzo, and others.

So, happily in our fantasy, you are able to go to a store and purchase the latest issue of Blue Book, which includes stories of adventure by folks writing in the tradition of the Blue Book of yore -- literate tales of adventure, of striving, of fighting and violence, of treasure and romance -- written in a readable, not-too-purple prose whose style emphasizes storytelling and entertainment, not shock and sensation.

One of those writers might be Charles McCarry.

I've been aware of McCarry only a short while, but each reference to him I've seen describes him as a "great but unknown" writer or, as in a Metroactive.com article by Morton Marcus, "the undiscovered master of the spy novel."

I first heard of McCarry through separate mentions on two email discussion lists. First on Rara-Avis, a group dedicated to discussion of hard-boiled fiction (and named in honor of Caspar Gutman's nickname, rare bird, for the Maltese Falcon), when someone pointed to McCarry in a cyber- conversation about writers who were former CIA agents. The poster included this URL for an article by P.J. O'Rourke from the September 13, 2004 issue of The Weekly Standard, "No Country for Old Men: Charles McCarry's Gray-haired Spies Take a Curtain Call."

Ostensibly a review of McCarry's latest novel, OldBoys, the essay provides an overview of McCarry's literary career, and is a good introduction to his work.

The next mention of McCarry on an email list provided another URL, this one to an interview with the author at an online magazine, The Morning News.

In this, McCarry provides an interesting inside look at the CIA during his days as a Cold Warrior and at his cover as a writer while he was a spy.

Intrigued by these bits of info, I found a copy of Old Boys. I recommend it whole-heartedly to those readers looking for new writers who carry that torch of entertainment that lit the delights we find in old pulp magazines.

While reading this story, I could imagine it serialized in a contemporary version of Adventure or Blue Book -- covert meetings, encounters with mysterious and dangerous people in exotic locales (Paris, Moscow, Xinjiang, Brazil, Rome, Tel Aviv, Budapest, Kyrgyz, and more) international threats, personal danger, old Nazis, treasures to locate (a 2000-year-old Roman scroll originally unearthed by the Nazis, 12 nuclear bombs smuggled from a Soviet arsenal), betrayals, gunfights, hand-to-hand battles, spies and counterspies. In short, more than enough ingredients for a great adventure novel.

McCarry's writing style follows the pulp-style tradition, the non-florid (but not so spare as to be gaunt) but clean and smooth style of writers like Dashiell Hammett, George F. Worts (I'm thinking of the Peter the Brazen stories in Argosy), Theodore Roscoe, Talbot Mundy, Georges Surdez, and innumerable PBO (paperback original) authors for Gold Medal and other publishers (such as John D. MacDonald, Charles Williams, Dan Marlowe, Edward S. Aarons, Donald Hamilton and others). If you like the cool but elegant prose of spy story writer Alan Furst, you'll have an idea about the prose McCarry creates.

And McCarry gets kudos even from someone like Eric Ambler, no slouch in the thriller department.

Old Boys is not the latest book from McCarry, but it seems to wrap up a loose series of books about spy Paul Christopher and his nephew, spy Horace Hubbard. (The first of these books, The MiernikDossier, was also McCarry's first novel.) However, one doesn't have to read the entire series and know all the backstory to read and enjoy Old Boys. As noted, it was the first McCarry book I read, and I picked up all the character history I needed during the course of the narrative to rave about it here. I'll be going on the hunt for McCarry's other novels now.

We live in a fortunate time, now that all McCarry's books are back in print, primarily thanks to Overlook Press. You'll find Amazon's Charles McCarry page here.

As a former spook, it's appropriate for McCarry to have written a novel about the JFK assassination (a timely reference, since this month marks the 50th year from that murder): The Tears of Autumn. An article by Mark Judge about the novel and its implications, "Charles McCarry’s unbearable masterpiece," can be found here.

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