Category: Book Review

Graphic Novel Review: Superman Smashes the Klan

Superman Smashes the Klan is inspired by the 1946 Superman Radio serial: The Clan of the Fiery Cross. 

Teenagers Tommy and Roberta Lee move to Metropolis with their parents after their father gets a job as Metropolis’ chief bacteriologist. Tommy is a good pitcher and gets picked for the Unity House baseball team that Jimmy Olsen is a manager of.  Tommy displaces the team’s existing pitcher, Chuck Riggs, who is kicked off the team due to his bad sportsmanship. Chuck tells his Uncle Matt, who is a leader of the Ku Klux Klan stand-in, the Clan of the Fiery Cross.  The clan burns a cross on the Lee’s front yard and it’s up to Superman to protect the Lees and Unity House and bring the clan to heel.

This is not an exact adaptation of the radio story, but it captures the spirit of it. The book manages to be mostly true to the era the story is set in but also make changes to fit a modern audience. Superman was written as much more of a boy’s adventure story, and Tommy’s sister wasn’t even named.

In the novel, she’s a central character and provides a lot of emotional insight.  She’s sweet but awkward. She reflects that she felt out of place and like she didn’t belong even in China. She’s wonderfully relatable and interesting as a character and she has a superb bond with Superman. 

This also has a good portrayal of Superman, though it took me a while to see what he was doing. For example, in the earlier pages, he had Superman still “leaping tall buildings” rather than flying, even though by 1946, Superman had been flying in both the comics and the radio show. However, as I read the book, I saw exactly what writer Gene Yang was doing.

Yang incorporates more recent ideas about what it was like for Clark Kent growing up when he started to manifest his powers, which led to people becoming afraid of him, and him becoming an outsider, and having to hide who he is and what he can do in order to fit in and have a normal life. 

It’s a different take on Superman that’s still very true to the character. Even many of the writers who write Superman don’t get him and it’s popular for many fans to cast Superman as this distant unrelatable character. However, Yang succeeds in giving Superman a solid character arc.

The basic plot does follow along the lines of the radio serial, though it does try to enhance it. Like many modern Superman stories, the writer wants to have Superman face a real threat, and the thing I least like about that is how they do that. The Atom Man (the most dangerous villain Superman ever faced over radio) is introduced and dispatched in the first section of the novel, but his technology is used as a plot device in the hands of the Klan. It’s a clunky way to raise the threat level, but I can forgive it because I’m satisfied with how the book plays out in the end.

The overall tone is preachy, but keep in mind i’ts based on a radio serial that was far preachier.  This one fleshes out the characters and helps the readers empathize with them in a way that works for modern audiences and it has  good light moments. The art is clean and kid-friendly as well.

The book is great for kids if you want to introduce them them to the story of the 1946 radio series or if you want them to understand the history of the groups like the Klan and how they operated and were ultimately defeated. It’s also a well-done adaptation of a classic Superman radio story that does the original creative team behind the radio story proud.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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Book Review: Tekwar

This 1989 novel written by William Shatner (with Ghost Writer Ron Goulart) is set in the 22nd Century. Former Cop Jake Cardigan is released early after being wrongfully convicted on corruption charges. In the future, criminals sent to prison are put into suspended animation.

In the four and a half years he’s been incarcerated, his wife has divorced him and left him an empty apartment. Cardigan finds out the reason he was released was because the private investigation firm that his old partner worked for wants to hire him to find a missing scientist and the scientist’s daughter in Mexico, where Cardigan’s ex-lover Warbride has become a powerful rebel leader.

What Tekwar does really well is worldbuilding. It spends a great deal of the book establishing a realistic and intricately designed world for Greater Los Angeles and Mexico. It manages to create a solid hybrid world of a detective story set in a world with cyborgs and androids.

One of the interesting concepts was that he meets an android duplicate of the scientist’s daughter who has all of her memories and acts like her, so he starts to fall for the daughter before he meets her. I did wonder about the rationale for the criminal justice system freezing offenders. It gives up on  rehabilitation and appears to be a cost-cutting measure that instead just prevents them from learning to be better criminals while in prison. Also, I had to chuckle that some technologies in the book harken back to that symbol of late 1980s cutting edge technology–the fax machine.

The only characters who grabbed my interest were the daughter’s android duplicate and Warbride. Beyond that, the best you could say for the rest of the characters is that they avoided being annoying (with the exception of one character whose role was relatively small.)

The story’s pacing is off. This is a full-length novel with enough story to fill a good novella or an hour-long TV episode. For the length, I expected a mystery and resolution that was a lot more satisfying than what I got. The dialogue is functional, workmanlike, and occasionally dull.

Overall, Tekwar is a bit frustrating. The world has so many good ideas, so many intriguing possibilities as to what could be done, but ultimately fails to deliver a story that falls far short of its intriguing concept. Still, Shatner’s storyworld has great potential, if he hired the right ghostwriter to revise it.

Rating: 2.75 out of 5

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Book Review: Corpses are Where You Find Them


In Corpses are Where You Find Them, Michael Shayne is preparing to go out of town with his young wife Phyllis despite pleas from the Mayoral candidate he’s supporting. However, his plans change when a beautiful young woman shows up high. He deposits her in his apartment and drives his wife to the train station, but he returns to find her dead and is then accused of kidnapping by the political opponent of the candidate he’s supporting. Shayne has to solve the murder to not only save his candidate’s campaign but also to avoid going to prison.

Corpses Are Where You Find Them is a fast-paced, fun read with the body of the murdered woman disappearing and re-appearing, political intrigue, and hidden agendas.

The writing of Brett Halliday (aka Davis Dresser) is improved from the first book, where Shayne’s antics could be insufferable. Here Shayne doesn’t do anything too off the wall until late in the book where he steals the clothes of an insane asylum patient, but that turns out to have a good reason.

Overall, this is a solid 1940s mystery with hard-boiled overtones. For lovers of these sort of books, this makes for a fun, diverting read.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Audiobook Review: Chase Darkness With Me

Billy Jensen’s book, Chase Darkness with Me is part memoir and part how-to guide for wannabe twenty-first century citizen detectives who want to join Jensen in finding missing persons and helping to solve America’s more than 200,000 unsolved homicide.

As a memoir, the book provides an origin for Jensen’s fascination with unsolved homicides, and how that led him into the world of true crime television and podcasts. He also writes of his friendship with the late Michelle Macnamara, author of I’ll be Gone in the Dark. Jensen writes how her efforts helped lead to the capture of a suspect in the crimes of the infamous Golden State killer, who committed a series of rapes and murders in the 1970s.

In the past few decades, the nationwide solve rate for murders has plummeted from above 90% to a little more than 60%. Jensen attributes the change to a couple of factors. First is a decline in trust for the police. Second is the shift in how people get news and information. In past decades, newspapers and TV newscasts would carry information about homicides, as well as pictures of unidentified suspects  the public might know. However, as people have begun to curate their own news, these sources have been viewed less and less.

Jensen began to have success in helping locate killers from cold cases by launching social media campaigns that reached people who had turned off their television. He was able to do this by leveraging skills he’d learned when newspapers began to decline at the turn of the century. In the book, he tells the stories of several murders and missing person cases where he used social media to reach people who may have the key to solving a case.

He does a good job structuring each chapter and giving appropriate time to each incident. He also does show a healthy introspection about his motives and about the way these campaigns affect the investigation and the families of the victims.

He also writes about how familial DNA databases like 23andme and ancestry.com may hold the key to solving murders, as with their popularity, it’s quite likely  many killers who have left DNA evidence could be located through family members who have signed up for these services, although he discusses many challenges on that point.

The how-to-section at the end of the book mostly serves to re-enforce lessons gleaned from the narrative portions of the book but adds a few handy tips on technical details.

In addition to the sort of social media detective work Jensen has specialized in, he mentions other tasks that can aid the capture of criminals, including volunteering to digitize old police records and helping build family trees for those who’ve used familial DNA databases to trace killers.

Jensen also does spend a good deal of time discussing  how to do citizen detective work responsibly and ethically. He sees a great opportunity for citizen detectives to bring closure to victims and justice to killers who’ve thought they got away with it. However, he knows that a few irresponsible people could ruin things for everyone.

He advises those who’d like to be Batman that they can be. They just can’t be the vigilante that plays by his own rules. They have to be the Adam West 1960s Batman and play by the rules.

Jensen is also honest that Citizen Detective work is often time-consuming and frustrating. He pegs his own success rate at cases he became involved in at under 20 percent. In addition, running social media campaigns to locate someone who saw something gets to be expensive. However, America boasts a growing affluent retiree population that’s looking for something to do with their time. Jensen thinks for many retirees this may be an answer to how to deal with all the time on their hands.

If there’s one thing I’d caution potential readers/listeners on in these highly polarized times is that Jensen goes off into dictum expressing his opinion on a variety of controversial subjects, including religion and political issues (though thankfully not opinion on politicians). Some are related to crime such as gun control and the death penalty and others are not. The good news/bad news about these portions is that he makes assertions and offers no evidence to support them. The bad part is that it seems he’s taking for granted that his view of the world is correct and that his entire audience agrees with it. The good part is that because his views aren’t key to the central premise of the book, you can move on rather than getting bogged down spending hours on irrelevant side trails.

Still, despite my disagreements with Jensen on some things, I walked away from the book admiring his desire to make the world more just and the practical steps he’s taken to do so. If you’re interested in true crime, in becoming a citizen detective, or if you’re a mystery writer looking for realistic methods that your characters could use to solve crime without a badge, this definitely is a worthwhile read.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5

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Book Review: Boston Blackie

Boston Blackie was the lead character in fourteen movies and two separate radio series’ in the 1940s and a TV series in the 1950s. Before that he was a character in a series of short stories by Jack Boyle, the first few stories were collected in the 1919 book called Boston Blackie.

In literature, Blackie was a master criminal. He was hardly alone in that as both the Lone Wolf and the Saint were reformed thieves. What made Blackie different is not only was he a thief but he was a thief written with exceedingly noble character. The book opens with an introduction where Boyle describing his first meeting with Boston Blackie in San Francisco after the San Francisco Fire where he was tenderly caring for children left homeless. Boyle highlighted his dedication to his own moral code and suggested readers were in no position to judge the man.

We learn that Blackie has a wife named Mary. This seems to be the one thing both radio and TV shows took from the book in naming Blackie’s girlfriend in both mediums. They are partners in life and in crime. Both are pillars of the criminal community.

They commit all sorts of crimes but stop short of murder. Blackie, Mary, and their friends live according to a criminal code of honor. And Blackie is the ultimate upholder of the code. In the first and best story, Blackie is robbing a safe when he meets the son of the owner, who is a poor little rich boy left all alone. Blackie manages to get the boy a better home life and bring his parents together while still getting away with a fabulous jewel.

Blackie has reasons that he thinks makes most of his crimes virtuous. He plots to steal from a ship as revenge on the ship owner for treating Mary’s father badly. Blackie gives up the fruits of one robbery to save a poor man being railroaded by the police. In keeping with the criminal codes, he goes to prison rather than turn in a criminal who killed someone.

The only tracking down of a criminal occurs when Blackie goes after a bigamist who got out of prison because of his practice of encouraging jailbreaks and snitching to the guards to get reductions in his sentence, getting several prisoners killed while escaping.

The police and prison officials are universally corrupt in the Boston Blackie stories. Framing people for crimes they didn’t commit and being willful sadists is part of the job description. In many ways, this reflects big city police corruption and plays into the distrust the public had for the police.

It may stem from writer Jack Boyle’s run ins with the law. Boyle spent 11 months in San Quentin and created Blackie while serving in Canon City near Denver.  Boyle’s stories embellished his criminal career, though. He actually was in prison for check forgery. (Source: In Search of Jack Boyle)

As a book, Boston Blackie has a twisted moral sense to it. Often times, I’ve heard old time radio police programs and various leaders from the era complaining about literature that glorifies criminals. I never understood the full thrust of what was meant by that until this book. I often imagined books that, like modern media, glorify sadistic murderers for being as bad as they wanna be. Boston Blackie instead glorifies criminals as honorable, saintly figures who live by a code of honor.

The book’s relation to the radio show and the later Chester Morris movies is a bit strained. While the Lone Wolf and the Saint shifted in literature, Blackie’s transformation from an honorable crook to straight-laced hero came exclusively on radio and film.  (Update: Curt notes in the comments that the last three Blackie stories which weren’t collected in this book saw a change in Blackie to the character he’d become in the 1940s films.) He began as a reformed thief in the Chester Morris movies. By the late 1940s, one episode of the radio series suggested Blackie had never been in trouble with the law at all.

The book comes from the same era as another book that launched a media franchise, Tracer of Lost Persons (See review here. Like Tracer of Lost Persons, this book has its share of pretty dated sappy melodrama. Unlike Tracer of Lost Persons, there’s far fewer surprises or goofiness to add to the entertainment value. The main draw of the book is if you want to see the origins of Boston Blackie as a literary character. On its own, the book doesn’t have a whole lot to commend it.

Rating 2.25 out of 5