Category: Book Review

Graphic Novel Review: Mask of the Red Panda

The Mask of the Red Panda is based on the audio drama podcast written by Gregg Taylor. In this three-issue comic story, the Red Panda and Kit Baxter (aka the Flying Squirrel) investigate a series of strange murders that lead them into a battle with forces of supernatural evil and Nazis. The story’s set in the pulp fiction era, so of course Nazis.

The book captures the flow and spirit of the podcast adventures well bringing our heroes on to the comic page and into the visual media. It moves at a nice pace with plenty of action. I also like the way they deal with magic, but fight with a magic inhibitor device which stops the story from getting too spooky, weird, and out of its typical depth. It’s certainly a better take than many modern superhero stories which become some entirely different series when magical beings come a calling. The art is good and the coloring (while far from natural) isn’t unpleasant.

On the other hand, you might expect something more epic for the trade paperback from a long-running series. This is a decent three-issues story rather than something epic and grand that will make readers demand more Red Panda comics. In addition, some elements don’t quite transfer over from audio to the written page.

In the Red Panda, Kit is not only the Red Panda’s sidekick but his employee as his chauffeur, so she responds to many of his statements with, “Yes, Boss.” In the radio program, Andrea Lyons, the actress who plays her, communicates a lot of what Kit thinks through voice tone as she says it. So “Yes, Boss” can be an acknowledgment or agreement or it can be annoyance, humoring the Red Panda, or something else. You don’t get that sense of expression in the comic and so you have to guess and, without voice tone, “Yes, boss” can be a bit repetitive. In addition, while I appreciate her fighting spirit, there was one panel where I think she went a little too far.

Still, overall this is a decent and nicely written homage to the pulp era that brings a beloved audio drama character to life. If you like pulp heroes like the Shadow or Green Hornet, but would like something a tad less intense than those heroes’ current comic book offerings, this is a worthwhile read even if you haven’t listened to the podcast. If you’re a fan of the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel, this is a great opportunity to see them in a visual medium.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Audiobook Review: Black Mask 1: Doors in the Dark


Doors in the Dark gives is the first of several audiobooks that provide material that first appeared in Black Mask Magazine, perhaps the best known of the crime magazine pulps.

The collection begins with Keith Alen Deutsch’s history of Black Mask. It’s a great listen for fans of classic crime fiction, though skippable if you just want the story.

“Come and Get It,” is written by Erle Stanley Gardener, who’d become a mystery legend for writing Perry Mason. This story features Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook. This story is a self-contained short novel but in a series of novels involving the Phantom Crook’s battle with a crime syndicate who is trying to hurt a girl that Jenkins likes. Jenkins has some of the cleverness and cunning that would later be seen in characters like Leslie Charteris’ the Saint. However, he’s also a bit of a throwback to the “Crook with a Heart of Gold” character that was popular in the 1920s, and his sharp self-definition of himself as a “crook” is a dominant. Overall, this story is decent.

“Arson Plus” was originally published by Dashiell Hammett under the pseudonym of Peter Collinson. It’s the first story featuring Hammett’s Continental Op. It’s a quick moving arson case with a very clever solution.

“The Fall Guy” was written by George Harrison Coxe and features Flash Casey, the great crime photographer. Having listened to many episodes of the radio show, “Casey, Crime Photographer,” I found this to be a bit of a treat. The story itself is competent, but not “flashy” with typical noir characters.

“Doors in the Dark,” by Frederick Nebel features Captain Steve McBride investigating the apparent suicide of a friend, but he believes it’s murder. This story is from the series on which the Torchy Blane film series was based, though the series doesn’t feature Torchy with McBride being the hero. Still, there are some madcap/screwball moments in this story that set the tone for the Torchy Blane series.

“Lucky” by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent is one of the few stories featuring his crime solving Ship’s Captain/Insurance Oscar Sail. This story is fast paced and with a bit more violence than any other tale in the collection. Still, quite enjoyable with some clever twists.

Overall, I enjoyed this audiobook, but it’s one of those releases that fall under, “You will like if you like that sort of thing.” One negative review criticized the stories for having the same quality as old time radio. As someone who loves old time radio mysteries, I consider that a positive. The pulp genre is not high literature but much of it is still entertaining in its own way.

Ultimately, this audiobook offers talented narration of a good history of pulp fiction along with five classic pulp stories including a Flash Casey story and tales by the creators of Doc Savage, Perry Mason, and Sam Spade. If that sounds up your alley, then this is definitely an audiobook to pick up.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Lone Wolf

The Lone Wolf was a contemporary of Boston Blackie. Like Blackie, the Lone Wolf was a thief turned amateur detective who appeared in silent films, talkies, radio, and eventually television. Like Blackie, the Lone Wolf began in book form.

The Lone Wolf: A Melodrama” by Joseph Vance follows the career of Michael Lanyard, a boy abandoned in Paris to a life of hard labor, who became an apprentice thief and then a master thief who operated alone. He did this on the advice of his mentor who warned Lanyard of the pitfalls of letting his guard down. So Lanyard built a life of crime accompanied by a legitimate front that was a life of luxury, fine art, and expensive homes and solitude, thus why he became known as the Lone Wolf.

However, the Lone Wolf finds his secret veil pierced, and an international criminal syndicate is determined to force him to join with them…or not be able to either work or escape from Paris. On the run, from both the Paris police and this gang of criminals, Lanyard falls in love with the mysterious Lucille Bannon and vows to change his ways to make himself worthy of her. However, it becomes apparent she is not all she seems.

The Lone Wolf has a lot going for it. There’s plenty of plot-related mysteries and character questions to keep readers guessing and engaged. Lanyard is an interesting and sympathetic protagonist. He reminds me of Leslie Charteris’s early portrayal of the Saint, except the Lone Wolf is “tempted” to reform far earlier in his career than Simon Templar.

As the book’s subtitle promises, it has melodramatic moments and speeches which had me rolling my eyes, but Vance did warn readers upfront. The character of Lucille Bannon lacks definition, but that’s part of her being a woman of mystery, I guess. And the villains were more obstacles than real characters.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Lone Wolf. The book has an amazing amount of action: fights, foot chases, car chases, attempted burglaries, and even an airplane chase make this truly action packed, add to that a lot of mystery, romance, and a fair splattering of comedy, and overall The Lone Wolf is an entertaining book that holds far better than you would expect an obscure book from more than a century ago to do.

Rating 3.75 out of 5.0

This book is available for free download through Project Gutenberg.

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Book Review: 400 Things Cops Know


In 400 Things Cops Know, veteran Milwaukee and San Francisco Police patrolmen Adam Plantinga shares his experiences as a 21st Century big city police officer.

The book is divided into nineteen chapters, the first eighteen are centered on subjects ranging from what you would think would be the mundane issues in seasonal policing to the straight dope about shootings and car chases. The final chapter is fifty-four miscellaneous “things” that didn’t fit easily into the proceeding chapters. The “400 things” are a mix of short vignettes, quick tidbits of cop information, and longer reflections on the life and methods of police officers.

Plantinga makes each of these tips engaging. Some are humorous, some are poignant, and others are just plain interesting. Some of these include sharing the advice that when a police officer stops a car full of shady characters to do a search, that the passengers should be seated in a specific manner to avoid a sudden escape or interference with the search.

Or the fact that it’s possible for pedestrians to be hit so hard by a car, they fly out of their shoes.

If you ever wondered about criminals in TV shows and movies who were horrible shots and fire repeatedly at a target without hitting it, that isn’t necessarily unrealistic. “Most bad guys can’t shoot for spit,” writes Plantinga. The book also tells how police officers can recognize a shoplifter.

The book offers several rules of the road for patrolmen that you won’t find in a manual. For example, Plantinga says, if an officer comes across children selling lemonade or raffle tickets for their school or sports team, “you shall buy some, and if you have no cash on you, you shall go to an ATM and procure some.” He further states police officers should give an offending motorist either a ticket or a lecture but that’s “it’s not fair” to give both.

The book goes into deeper and sadder sides of police work in chapters about “being among the Dead,” “Domestic Violence,” and “Hookers and Johns.”  Plantinga’s insights are often poignant and always honest. Often the book’s language reflects the ugly and coarse world many metropolitan policemen operate in.

This insightful book is a must-read for anyone who writes modern day crime fiction. It’s further recommended for anyone who wants to know what real life on the street is like for a modern urban patrolmen.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Sinister Shadow


Doc Savage and the Shadow are two of the greatest pulp heroes of all time. Yet, they’ve never met in their original book medium. There have been attempts to do this in comic book form, but the ones I’ve read have been somewhat underwhelming.

The Sinister Shadow by Will Murray takes an original idea by Lester Dent in order to bring these two legends of the 1930s together in one book.

In the books, “Lamont Cranston” was not the true identity of the Shadow. Rather, the Shadow forced Cranston to let him impersonate him when Cranston was away from the city (which was most of the time) on the threat that, if he didn’t, the Shadow would completely steal Cranston’s identity, leaving Cranston without a place in the world because somebody’s got to fight evil, right? In the pulps, Cranston’s amused by this and agrees. In this book, Cranston isn’t as much amused as resigned.

However, Cranston receives a blackmail notice from a villain identifying himself as the Funeral Director who threatens to kill Cranston unless he gives him $50,000. Cranston thinks the villain is the Shadow and turns to Doc Savage’s aide Ham Brooks for help. Before they can get to Doc, both are kidnapped. This leads to both the Shadow and Doc Savage being on the trail of the Funeral Director.

The book has a lot to offer. Much of it is spent with Doc and friends suspecting the Shadow as the creepy methods of the Funeral Director seem his style and the Shadow works outside the law while Doc is an honorary Inspector for the NYPD. In addition, Doc and his men have a no killing rule, while the Shadow has no qualms about dealing out rough justice to the criminal world. Thus our two protagonists spend time hunting and battling each other before turning to the real bad guy. These parts of the book are fun and Murray does a good job writing both characters. Doc’s men are their usual selves while Doc remains ever the unflappable and brilliant man of bronze. The Shadow is mysterious and baffles the great Doc Savage with his strange methods. Doc’s assistants also are great though they’re pushed more to the background than usual. The Shadow’s henchmen are generic and lack a lot of personality.

As for the villain, the Funeral Director is a perfect foil for our protagonists. He’s a creepy, evil villain whose theme is centered around death and dying complete with coffins. It seems like an obvious idea for a supervillain but I’ve never read it done before. Why the Funeral Director came after Cranston is never satisfactorily explained and it comes off as a plot convenience.

This book is enjoyable, though it’s not Shakespeare or even Raymond Chandler. It’s a new pulp adventure team up from the man who is better at recapturing the spirit of the original pulps than any other writer today. While I won’t say it exceeded my expectations, it certainly met them. After nearly eighty years, Will Murray finally created a story worthy of these two great characters and if you’re a fan of either one, it’s a worthwhile read.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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