Women With Guns, by Noah Sarlat

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“Doesn’t live up to the blurb on the back. Then again, how could it?”

The tender sex – and the terrible things they can do. Violence, savagery, sudden death on the battle field, torture and butchery behind enemy lines – these are the facts of war. It is a man’s world… but what of the women trapped in it? What of women such as:

  • Minerva, the sexton’s sexy daughter, who loaned her secret weapon to the Danish underground…
  • Repon Sirik, young leader of Indochina’s feared Hoa Hoa, women warriors who’ve made life a living hell for their enemies…
  • Tuli, the Laotian lady with a yen for vengeance and a wild way with jungle warfare…
  • Frau Kastanie, the not-so-merry widow and her party-girl panzers of Bremen…
  • Katina, her four Greek girl friends, and their crazy, blood-spattered flight to Istanbul…

These are the women with guns, stripped of morals, fighting and loving in the savagery of war. You’ll meet them (and others) in these strange but true accounts.

That’s the lurid copy on the back of this fifty-cent 1962 pulp collection of stories, originally published in magazines with names like For Men Only or Male. The reality is rather different: without exception, the characters mentioned are supporting at best, and nearer cameos in a couple of cases. The stories are very much male-oriented: for example, the head of the Danish underground, and the man who leads Katina et al out of Nazi territory. It’s through their eyes that events unfold, and they’re responsible for most of the action. There are occasional moments otherwise – but in that area, I note it’s the “foreign” i.e. non-white women, who are easily the most pro-active. Civilized girls just don’t do that sort of thing.

This doesn’t mean that the stories are bad: the majority are solid, two-fisted pieces of entertainment, obviously products of their era (sex is fairly frequent, yet largely happens off-page, after a knowing ellipsis), yet rarely dull. The sole exception is Hitler’s Hustlers of Bremen, a muddled, confusing and, frankly, dull piece about black-market shenanigans in Germany just after the war. My favorite, on the other hand, was Five Greek Girls to Istanbul – basically, the title is close to the plot there, with the hero leading his mini-harem through occupied territory, with a sojourn as members of the resistance on the way. Still, I can’t hide a sense of disappointment, even if such mis-direction is a concept with which I’m certainly familiar: many are the 21st century DVDs with equally lurid cover and blurb, that similarly fail to deliver.

Editor: Noah Sarlat
Written by: Richard Gallagher, Emile C. Schurmache, George Mandel, James Collier, Burton Shean

The Blackburn & Scarletti Mysteries, Volume II, by Karen Koehler

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“Truly a book of two halves, Brian.”

Coincidentally, a year after the first collection, I find the time to read volume two; this contains two stories rather than two-and-a-fragment, but weighs in at about forty pages or so longer. Same price though, I am pleased to note… The first, Legion, takes our FBI agent and her semi-vampiric colleagues off to the post-flood city of New Orleans where a demonic force has been unleashed, which is capable of transferring its presence from one body to another. Hmmm…sounds not unlike Fallen, perhaps? That aside, I did enjoy this one thoroughly: the pace is good and, if the eventual destination of the entity is not perhaps a surprise (it’s quite close to the pair, shall we say), it makes for some great set-pieces. The best of these involves a church where the possessed victim is resting up, which results in a hellacious battle that’s genuinely exciting. The story elements are tidied up nicely too, leaving this a self-contained and effective tale.

However, despite the second story possessing a great title – The Phantom of the Soap Opera – I was much less engaged by it. The set of a daytime TV drama is plagued by mysterious ‘accidents’ of an occult nature, which leads to the pair re-uniting in order to investigate, triggered by a call from an old friend of Scarletti’s. There is just not enough meat on the bones of this one, though perhaps Koehler wasn’t happy with it either, since there is a lot of back-story added here. Indeed, to such a degree that it burdens the main characters, and its relevance to the main plot is doubtful. I’m also growing rather disillusioned by Blackburn’s relationship to the Jackal, the full vampire who saved her life in volume one; Koehler is treading dangerously close here, to the cliches which eventually sank the Anita Blake series.

Another small peeve was a surprising number of typos in the volume, such as “a traveling bad slung over one shoulder.” Though I’m far from immune to these myself [even if you can only have the ‘u’ in ‘colour’ when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, dammit], and I did smile at one, when Blackburn was served by a “gun-chewing waitress.” I’d be sure to leave her a good tip. Overall, not quite as good as the first compilation, though that’s largely down to the second story – individually, Legion rates a ****, but Phantom only **, getting stuck in a morass of its own making. While that leaves the review ending on a disappointing note, Blackburn remains an engaging heroine, and if Koehler can get back to more action-oriented writing in the next volume (as she showed herself eminently capable of in Legion), I’ll be waiting eagerly.

Cool Cat, by Dan Leissner

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“Sex, drugs and funk ‘n’ soul, in a throwback to the future of action heroines.”

My review of this is somewhat delayed, because the book spent two months inside what remained of our car, after a nasty accident on the freeway. It was finally rescued, and the next chance I got was actually on a plane going to Las Vegas – fortunately, it appears as though the book was not cursed, and I survived that trip intact. Chris actually got to read this one first: she made note of Leissner’s frequent usage of the word “Undulating”, to describe everything from the landscape to the heroine’s figure. Me? It’s a good word, one you don’t get to use too often, so more power to him there. The heroine in question is Cat Warburton, the semi-estranged daughter of an industrial tycoon, who works as a secret agent for an agency of uncertain origins. Her intended vacation goes awry, and she finds herself knee deep in a plot involving black militants, white supremacists and – this’d be a spoiler if it weren’t mentioned on the back cover – aliens from outer-space. She’ll need all her talents, if you know what I mean, and I think you do, to survive.

It’s clear the style is intended to reproduce pulp potboilers of an earlier year: it’s never made clear what era it’s set, but I’d say mid- to late-70’s, if pushed. It’s equally cinematic though, set to a Motown-esque soundtrack, and half the fun is working out who’d play the various roles: Charlize Theron for Cat? Or Uma Thurman? Sybil Danning, twenty years ago, would have been perfect. Though whoever it’d be, would have to be entirely comfortable with their body, since there’s hardly a scene where Cat is not showing more or less flesh. That brings me to one of the odd points: there’s an awful lot of sadistic torture scenes, almost all the victims being female characters – this sits uneasily with the generally liberal viewpoints on sexual liberation, drugs and race.

However, qualms about such sequences aside (and the elderly matron beside me on the plane seemed quite intrigued by them), the plot does also career a little too far out of control towards the end. The whole “alien” angle seems superfluous at best, and I’d probably have preferred it not be invoked at all, since the rest of the plot stands on its own quite nicely – it feels as if Leissner doesn’t have enough faith in his own script. Still, as soon as I picked it up, I was hooked, and even once I got off the plane, was reading it every chance I could get. It’s enormous fun, and Cat is a great heroine, whose skills are beyond compare: she’s smart, strong, independent, and capable of kicking your ass, with or without weapons. Exactly the kind of heroine, Hollywood would never be able to cope with, in fact.

By Dan Leissner
Publisher: Midnight Marquee, $20.00
The book is available on Amazon.com

A Gun for Honey, by G.G.Fickling

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“Lies, thighs and private-eyes.”

Honey West is best known as the heroine of a mid-60’s TV show created by Aaron Spelling, starring Anne Francis. But her origins actually date back almost a decade further, to a series of pulp detective novels written by Forest Fickling, under the vaguely-pseudonymic name of G.G.Fickling – his wife was Gloria, which may explain the choice. The heroine is a private eye, who follows her father into the profession, after he was killed on the job. These adventures, judging by A Gun for Honey, are rather more hard-boiled, and occasionally risque, than the TV show, though even in the book, the characters never actually seem to do “it”.

This entry starts at a New Year’s Eve party given by rich, somewhat decadent film-maker, Rote Collier, in a coastal village where a number of women have already turned up, smothered to death. Honey is present to keep an eye on Collier’s family, but it isn’t long before his wife ends up a corpse. Honey has to fend her way through a maze of deceit, blackmail, smut-peddling and even more dead bodies, to find out who’s behind it all. There’s a standard pattern to the chapters: she suspects someone, sexual chemistry sizzles, never quite gets consumated, and she finds evidence implicating somebody else. Rinse. Repeat. It’s all done in a fairly boilerplate manner, and you never feel the characters, outside of Honey, are more than animated Clue cards.

Still, have to say, I didn’t spot the final twist, which probably counted as quite outrageous, fifty years ago. Though, if I’m grumbling, the gun mentioned in the title only ever comes into play during the final denouement. There, everything is unveiled at a ferocious gallop, and Honey rides off into the sunset. I imagine such a strong, independent heroine (even one who acts like a cat in heat most of this book) was extremely novel for the time; as such, I guess it deserves respect for that. As a work of literature, however, it’s pretty much forgettably competent. The first book was republished by Overlook Press in 2005 – otherwise, Ebay and used-book stores are your friends…

By: G.G.Fickling
Publisher: Pyramid Books, 1958

One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich

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“And it was all going so well, too…”

Former romance writer Evanovich switched genres and hit paydirt immediately with the first in the series, describing the adventures of former Newark lingerie buyer Stephanie Plum. She’s forced, through financial misadventure, to find a new job, and goes for a job filing paperwork for her bail bondsman cousin, but ends up hunting FTA’s (those who Failed To Appear for their court date) instead. She starts at the top, with suspended cop Joe Morelli, who has vanished after being accused of shooting an unarmed man. But as the witnesses to the incident start to die, Plum realises things may not be what they seem. The novice bounty huntress is well out of her depth, not least when she crosses psycho boxer Ramirez – until help comes from an unexpected source…

It’s an immensely readable book, with Plum an engagingly inept heroine. Initially, she truly is a bit crap at bringing in bail-jumpers, and it’s all a lot more plausible than, say, Domino. The subsidiary characters are nicely drawn, and though there is the inevitable unresolved sexual tension, it doesn’t get in the way of the thoroughly entertaining story. Unfortunately, just when it was cruising towards a seal of approval, we get the most embarrassing case of Bond villain-itis I’ve ever read. By that, I mean “Now I have you in my absolute power, 007, let me describe to you every detail of my plan for world domination.” That’s exactly what happens to Plum: the bad guy is pointing a gun at her, and suddenly feels the need to explain the entire plot. It’s eighth-grade writing, and is in staggering contrast to the assured prose which came before.

The series is, at time of writing, up to twelve novels, with a thirteenth due in June. I’ve read reports that later entries lose the plot badly, with silly characters and a slide back towards the pulp romance from which the author original came. I can’t say I’m surprised, having seem a similar decline in the Anita Blake series after the first few volumes. But, on its own, this is a fine piece of entertainment, that really had me turning the pages enthusiastically, and despite the mis-step at the end, I’ll certainly be looking out for the next in the series, Two for the Dough.

By: Janet Evanovich
Publisher: Harper Torch, 1994

The Great Adventures of Dirty Pair, by Haruka Takachiho

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While in English, this came out in Japan, since it was part of a series of translations of popular works, intended as an aid for people learning the language. As a result, the book comes with translation notes at the back explaining, for example, what the phrase “We’re encased in a transparent sheathing of ultrathin reinforced polymer” means. Though I note the word “lesbian” is, apparently, deemed unworthy of further translation. It’s a swift read; discounting the notes, barely 125 pages long, and they’re not large pages either – a lunch-hour might suffice, if your boss gave you a few minutes grace.

The plot is somewhat Project Eden-like; they head to a planet to investigate what initially seems to be an act of industrial espionage, only to uncover a far more lethal threat. It’s a thin work, yet still manages to divert too much from the plot: I mean, do we really need to know their vital statistics? The result is eminently forgettable, despite a couple of cool moments, such as when the pair’s clairvoyant activities, the main reason for their 3WA recruitment, are demonstrated. “Something blazed in the back of my eye. It was a flash of pure white light. Then a dizzying feeling of walking on air, followed by a tingling ecstacy. Everything went white. An image appeared. It appeared like a picture painted on a immaculate canvas. It went out. In a twinkling, color returned to my consciousness.

The ‘Bloody Card’ – perhaps more famous in the US comics than the anime – also makes an appearance, and it’s also interesting to note that the name of the villainous group behind operations is Lucifer, the same as was used in Dirty Pair Flash: Mission 1. But it’s just too disposable and light to be worthy of significant note. Though the civilian death toll as a result of their actions in this novel – as noted previously, largely due to some terribly bad luck; here, involving a crashing space-ship and a major city – comes in at a brisk 1,264,393. Well done!

Author: Haruka Takachiho, translated by David Lewis
Publisher: Kodansha English Library

The Blackburn & Scarletti Mysteries Volume I, by Karen Koehler

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“The X-Files meets Hellsing. In a very dark alley.”

Take an FBI agent with some psychic ability, January Blackburn, and partner her with part-vampire Catholic priest, Dorian Scarletti. Intrigued? Me too. That’s the premise of the three stories in this book, where our odd couple investigate paranormal crimes around the US. The results are somewhat uneven, yet with much promise: Blackburn is probably a more interesting character, possessing both great inner strength, and quirks that make her vulnerable and more human. In contrast, Scarletti, thus far, seems a bit like a “vampire by numbers”, with all the standard moping around, relationship angst and so on, too familiar to be of more than passing interest. Though, must say, his weapon of choice – hundreds of cross-shaped throwing knives inside his coat – is worth cool points in my book (even if I presume he doesn’t go through airports).

The structure of the book is also somewhat irritating, bipping back and forth between present and past. For example, one scene has our pair undercover at a strip-club run by werewolves(!), where the residents have discovered Blackburn’s true nature and rush towards her to… End of chapter: cut to Scarletti in Victorian London, befriending the Elephant Man during the Ripper murders, for the next ten pages. “Aaargh!”, went this reader, skimming furiously. That’s a shame, because when Koehler sticks to the modern era, the stories are real page-turners, which on at least one occasion, made me late to work after lunch. The world it depicts has a huge amount of potential, and has clearly been well-thought out. In particular, the second story, The Hyde Effect, is a fabulous piece about killings in Boston that might – or might not – be werewolf-related. And that’s another good thing about these stories; the author is not afraid to mix occult and prosaic explanations.

As yet, Koehler is best known for her Slayer series, a lynchpin of the “industrial gothic” movement. [The protagonist there, Alek Knight, turns up in the third story, a smart bit of marketing!] But I see no reason why this shouldn’t become even more popular, if she concentrates on what makes her stand out from the field. Blackburn certainly has the potential to surpass Anita Blake as a horror-action heroine of literature. Let’s just hope Koehler, unlike Laurell K. Hamilton, can keep the soft-porn out.

By: Karen Koehler
Publisher: Black Death Books, $14.95

Alias:Recruited and A Secret Life, by Lynn Mason

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“Before she was CIA, before she was SD-6…and largely, before she was interesting.”

To tide you over the summer until the new series starts, as well as an ‘official companion’, Random House has published two novels, which fill in the back story before the show. Recruited tells of how Sydney Bristow was brought into SD-6, while A Secret Life details her first overseas mission, infiltrating a Paris fashion house being used as a cover for gun-running.

Neither are exactly great literature; they seem to be aimed at early teen readers (not that you’d know from the covers), and of necessity, the plot-lines are linear and straightforward, this being before Sydney realised SD-6 were evil, her father’s involvement, etc. There’s disturbingly little action, and a significant quantity of Mills & Boon-esque romantic prose. Bizarrely, it’s mainly over Noah Hicks: viewers of the show know how well that turned out. Save Francie, few other regulars make appearances – Sloane and someone who might be Dixon get cameos, and that’s it.

Recruited is the stronger, rating half a grade higher; the mechanism of the recruitment is well-handled, and we initially see a very different Syd from the uber-confident one of the TV series. A Secret Life hardly contains enough meat for one episode, the prose frequently toppling into drool, especially when it talks about Hicks. However, as light summer reading, these are harmless stuff, and as an afternoon would likely suffice, they won’t waste too much of your time.

By: Lynn Mason
Publisher: Random House

Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, by Laurell K. Hamilton

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“Buffy’s all grown-up and raising the dead…and having an ever-increasing amount of sex.”

This long-running series, with the 11th entry due in 2003, takes place in an alternative reality where vampires have equal rights as citizens. Heroine Anita Blake is a state-appointed executioner (“when good bloodsuckers…go bad…“) in St. Louis, who takes out the undead trash and also has a day job – actually, more of a night job – raising zombies. Oh, did I forget to mention them? There’s also were-creatures, ghouls, and pretty much the whole range of supernatural monsters.

It’s a grand, richly-detailed universe in which to play, and the first few novels are highly recommended, fast-paced action romps. Blake is a great character, who takes no bull from anyone, yet has vulnerabilities which are endearing (such as her stuffed penguin collection) and add depth. The first one alone will probably leave you wondering why in the hell any studio ever bothered with Anne Rice.

Unfortunately, beyond about the fourth or fifth, Hamilton loses the plot – literally. A truly bizarre love-triangle is set up between Anita, Richard the werewolf, and Jean-Claude, the walking cliche (all French accent and sensuous gaze) who is the local master vampire. By about the third volume of this, I was rolling my eyes and urging her to fuck one and kill the other, just to get it over with. If I wanted supernatural porn, I’d read it – instead, I’ll just quietly pine for the action-centred heroine of the earlier entries, and wait for Hollywood to catch up. Salma Hayek for Anita Blake?

By: Laurell K. Hamilton
Publisher: Penguin-Puttnam (US), Orbit (UK)