The Curse of Capistrano

Title: The Mark of Zorro
Author: Johnston McCulley
Genre: Pulp Adventure
Pages: 311
Rating: 4 of 5

Warning: this review contains the spoiler of Zorro’s secret identity. Of course, that is probably only marginally less known than the fact that Clark Kent is Superman so it’s not much of a spoiler. Still, it would be a huge spoiler for the book if you somehow didn’t know so…you have been warned.

There have been many incarnations of Zorro ranging from truly entertaining to so-bad-it’s-good (the full color 15 minute episodes that came on after MacGyver when I was a teen in Brazil were hilariously lousy). This book is the original and it was good cheesy fun as Señor Zorro (only once or twice is he just plain Zorro) fights against and punishes abuses of power.

My favorite part of this book was the hero’s behavior when he is being Don Diego. This version of Don Diego acts like a ridiculous, languid fop so that no one could possibly associate him with the dashing Señor Zorro. Don Diego’s seemingly naive questioning of those humiliated by Señor Zorro is one of the more entertaining elements of the book.

This Zorro does not wield a whip (except in one instance of avenging a wrongly-beaten friar), preferring to hold people at pistol point long enough to set up a fair one-on-one sword fight. He only carves a into something once, but the plot features the usual mustache-twirling villains, spunky damsels in distress, galloping horse chases, etc. that you expect from the adventures of The Fox. I was expecting the book to end on some kind of cliffhanger setup for Zorro’s next great adventure, but it actually rounds off with what could easily be a “happily ever after” ending…enough so that I’m curious how Zorro ever managed to have any more adventures…I guess I’ll have to track down the next book to find out.

Robot Noir

Title: Made to Kill
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 1)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Science Fiction Noir
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a huge thank you to The BiblioSanctum for hosting the book giveaway where I won this (and its sequel)!

I love both science fiction and detective/noir fiction (of the 1920’s-50’s variety – especially Raymond Chandler). This excellent book is a mashup of the two, and to make things even better it intentionally follows the style of Raymond Chandler. The author pictures it as the sci-fi novel Chandler never wrote and prefaces it with this quote from one of his letters: “Did you ever read what they call Science Fiction? It’s a scream. It is written like this…”

Our first person narrator protagonist is the last robot on earth. He used to work as a PI, but now uses that as a cover for his new profession of hit man in an alternate 1960’s Los Angeles. His rechargeable battery and 24 hour memory limit are a challenge, so the room-size computer, Ada, is his boss and the real brains of the operation. The only part of the worldbuilding that felt a little “off” was that he didn’t get more attention from average people on the street, what with being the last robot on earth. I don’t want to say much about the case due to spoilers, but you can expect a lot of the kinds of elements you’d find in the pulps (of both the Amazing Stories and Black Mask varieties).

The narration is delightfully snarky like Chandler, though not rising to the level of cleverness found in his Philip Marlowe stories. The one narration things that got on my nerves after a while was how often he commented that when he smiled, raised an eyebrow, etc. it was only on the inside because his face is immobile. It got a bit repetitive (kind of like how Harry Dresden mentions his duster every few pages in the Dresden Files series). The ending was a little abrupt and some of the characters’ actions/motivations were a bit confusing, but that’s pretty par for the course for this kind of detective story (e.g. in Chandler’s The Big Sleep we’re never told who committed one of the murders). Overall: a fun mashup, and I’m looking forward to reading the next one (though I’m putting it off until I finish a couple other books I’m in the middle of so that I can make it last).

Fun Spooky Doom!

Title: Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom:
A Novel of Retropolis
Author: Bradley W. Schenck
Genre: Retro Science Fiction
Pages: 383
Rating: 4 of 5

First, a big thank-you to BiblioSanctum for sponsoring the giveaway where I won this. It was a fun read!

This lighthearted adventure is set in Retropolis, a city of the future as imagined by pulp sci-fi authors: hoversleds, personal rockets, mad scientists, priests of the spider god (who live on the moon), robots, and don’t forget the switchboard from the title. The author works in plenty of tropes without obscure in-jokes, so anyone can enjoy it. Either that or the obscure jokes went over my head…either way, it was great! Most of the characters are delightfully quirky, if a little one-note. I don’t want to describe them here because meeting them is a big part of the enjoyment.

Rather than straight up good vs. evil, this is more of an order vs. chaos story with a nice twist (though it does bear similarities to a popular children’s movie from a few years ago).  There were parts where the action was a little slow and messy, and I was wavering toward a three-star rating, but in the end the scattery style worked. The narration had occasional silly comments or clever turns of phrase that reminded me of a slightly saner Douglas Adams. Overall: not a literary masterpiece (after all, it is based on pulp sci-fi), but charmingly enjoyable.

Image result for yay we're doomed

Meet the Continental Op

Title: Red Harvest
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Noir/Detective Fiction
Pages: 215
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I first read this book five or six years ago, and I was hooked. Since then Noir / Hardboiled Detective pulp fiction from the 20’s-50’s has been my go-to escapist genre. With the possible exception of Raymond Chandler, nobody writes this kind of story better than Dashiell Hammet.

This first novel-length adventure of the Continental Op (whose name we never discover) has everything you would expect from the genre: bootleggers, gamblers, blazing guns, widespread corruption, murder, mayhem, moral ambiguity, 1920’s gangster slang, and a femme fatale or two. The unnamed Continental Op (basically a Pinkerton detective) is tasked with cleaning up the corrupt town of Personville/Poisonville and, well, the book’s title pretty much says it all.

This book serves as a good introduction to the Continental Op, who also appears in The Dain Curse and a slew of short stories. He is short, stout, and incredibly stubborn. His modus operandi for solving cases consists mostly of verbally poking at suspects and piecing things together from their (often violent) reactions. By the end he has a working theory of how everything fits together and everyone guilty is dead, under arrest, or otherwise out of the picture. Dashiell Hammett seldom reveals whether the Op’s reconstruction of events is entirely accurate, but it’s good enough to get things done and in Hammett’s murky world that’s good enough.

Race-obsessed Horror

The Horror Stories of Robert E. HowardTitle: The Horror Stories of Robert E Howard
Author: Robert E. Howard
Genre: Pulp Horror/Weird
Pages: 560
Rating: 2.5 of 5

Robert E. Howard is best known as the creator of Conan the Barbarian and a major contributor to the development of the Swords & Sorcery sub-genre. This book collects a number of his creepier short stories, most of which were originally published in Weird Tales and show the influence of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft. Calling most of them “horror stories” may be a bit of a stretch – they’re more like action/adventure stories with a creepy, Lovecraftian element.

The usual Robert E. Howard theme of “barbarian purity vs. civilized decadence” figures heavily in many of the stories, but even more of them revolve around his racial stereotypes. Most of the stories prominently feature one or more of these characterizations: Aryans/white people who are heroic, courageous, and intelligent but out of touch with the supernatural; Semitic/Arabic people who are greedy, decadent, and cruel; “Swarthy” southern Europeans who are adept at dishonest political maneuvering; Africans/black people who are cowardly, devious, and uneducated but in touch with genuine supernatural power; and a de-evolved “mongoloid race” who serve as recurring villains.

There’s no doubt that the man could write captivating escapist fantasy, but I found the pervasive racial stereotyping (and occasional racial slurs) fairly off-putting. If you want to get a feel for Robert E. Howard, this is a good place to start since it samples a wide variety of settings and characters (but no Conan stories). Also, as with any pulp author, don’t read too many of his stories in a row or they all start sounding the same.