Saturday, August 28, 2010

Thunder Jim Wade: The Complete Series by Henery Kuttner

From May through September of 1941, Henery Kuttner published five "Thunder" Jim Wade novelettes in the Thrilling Wonder Stories. Kuttner would go on to science fiction literary success for his many short stories and novels until passing away in 1958. The Thunder Jim Wade stories were all attributed to "Charles Stoddard", a house pseudonym used by the Thrilling Wonder editors. Mostly forgotten today, the stories were considered Doc Savage imitations at the time. However, Altus Press printed the complete set two years ago, so now it's possible to read them and compare.
First of all, Thunder Jim has a unique origin: he was raised in a hidden valley by descendant of an ancient Crete civilization. His father, an famous explorer, crashed his plane in the valley while surveying the area. Thunder Jim survives with the street-wise pilot Miggs, but he's only able to leave the valley as an adult. From the Creteans he's learned he secret of making a metal alloy which makes him wealthy. From Miggs, he's learned all kinds of con artist games and slight of hand tricks. Later, he hooks up with Red Argyle and Dirk Mirat, who become his assistants in all kinds of adventures. From his base of operations in the south pacific, Thunder Jim Wade searches the globe for villains worthy of his talents.
What makes the series of interest is Thunder Jim's all-purpose vehicle: The Thunderbug. The Thunderbug can fly, travel across (and under) water, or rumble over land on it's retractable treads. Made of the special Cretean alloy, it's just about impervious to bullets or standard explosives. I can't help but wonder if Gerry Anderson read one of these stories and it all came back to him when he was planning Supercar and Thunderbirds.
There are five stories in this collection. The opening story has Thunder Jim journeying back to the lost valley where he was raised to stop a band of criminals from looting the place. "The Hills of Gold" takes place near Iraq, of all places. "The Poison People" leads him to South America where a band of cut-throats are attempting to loot Inca treasure from it's rightful owners. "The Devil's Glacier" is another lost valley novelette, this time with vikings. "Waters of Death"
concludes the series in a lost southeast Asian civilization.
It's too bad the series was canceled before it got rolling. There's plenty of local atmosphere in each tale. Some of them have the feel of sketches; perhaps Kuttner had to shorten them for space limitations. Still, it's good to have all the stories back in one volume.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

SAVAGE SEASON by Joe Lansdale, read by Phil Gigante

For a change today, I'm reviewing a spoken word book, Savage Season, availible from Brilliance Audio Books. This was a 5-CD set and unabridged. Although the novel was first published in 1990, this spoken word version was recorded in 2008. It's about five hours long.
I first read this book in paperback form around 1991. I remember handing it off to a few friends who also read it. Although I'd encountered a number of Lansdale's works before, this was the first actual novel of his I'd read. And it hit me with all the hammering of his short stories. Rough situations and even rougher people. A friend and spent days quoting the snappy dialogue back and forth to each other.
The story centers around Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Both are in their 40's and have "The Sixties" in common. Both live in a rural area of East Texas. Both work for "The Rose Fields" as laborers. And that is what they have in common. Hap is white and divorced from a woman named Trudy. He was an "activist" in the 60's. Leonard has lived alone most of his life and is Vietnam war veteran. He's also gay. But both have bonded over the years and are the best of friends.
Then one day Hap's ex-wife Trudy makes an appearance. She's done this several times before and Leonard always warns Hap to stay away from her, which he never does. But this time Trudy has a proposal to make: some of her activist friends have learned about a load of money stolen from a bank robbery. The robbery went sour and everyone of the robbers are now dead. Trudy's latest husband learned of the bank job from the last surviving member of the gang before that man died too. All Trudy needs is Hap's knowledge of the backwoods were the money was hidden. Naturally, Hap demands Leonard get cut into the deal as well.
Of course, nothing goes according to plan.
Phil Gigante does and exceptional job reading the book. His interpretative style fits the characters nicely. I'd always imagined Hap and Leonard sounding like his voices. Not so much for some of the other characters. Toward the end of the book two drug dealers make an appearance: "Soldier" and "Angel". Soldier is a psychotic killer and Angel his barbell-lifting female accomplice. One of Angel's trademarks is she seldom talks and uses one word when she does. Her character doesn't lend itself too well to interperative reading.
I recommend this audio book, but I also recommend you read the source novel first.

RETURN FROM CORMORAL (1949) by Lester Dent

This next-to-last Doc Savage novel by Lester Dent (under the house name Kenneth Robeson) has Doc and his side-kicks trying to help a scientist who's been stranded on a deserted island for the better part of six months. Macbeth Williams, the scientist, has just returned from his South Pacific sojurn with a research team. A cargo ship just happened to discover them. They'd been stranded on the Cormoral island when the foundation which bankrolled the expedition when bust.
And Williams is starting to worry about his sanity. Since returning to civilization he's developed an ability to predict the future. Since he's also the heir to a vast fortune, someone may be trying to get him committed to an insane asylum. Enter Doc and company.
The novel has a harder edge than most of the earlier Doc Savage series books. Since the pulp hero format was on the wane, Dent was was getting more hard-boiled in his approach.
For instance, this scene involving a telegraph operator :

THE telegraph office was a narrow recess in a building on Flagler Street not far from Biscayne Boulevard, and remained open all night, presided over by a round-faced man named Gridley. Gridley was a contradiction to the idea that all fat people are jolly; he had an evil temper, a sharp tongue and bad manners, qualifications which had resulted in his being shunted to this undesirable all-night job. His assets were several years seniority, a willingness to put up with low pay, although there was a qualification to this, and a brother-in-law who was district commercial agent for the company.

I'm in the process of reading the Doc Savage novels in reverse order. At some point I'll find out where they went from Super Science to Mean Streets.