My Blog

Retirement. Publishers, thank you for the many years of reading pleasure you gave me, but all good things must come to an end. Due to failing eyesight I am forced to retire. I can no longer review your books, and any that you send will be donated to the local library, unread. Do not send any more. I can only read for a couple hours every day, and this does not allow me to finish a book in reasonable time. I will be devoting time to my own books from now on, and reading on a personal level. Books that interest me. I prefer paperbacks and hardbacks, not eBooks. My eyesight has been failing the last few years, and I cannot handle hundreds of review books any more. My books are still available for review. Anyone interested in reviewing any of them, they are found in the Link to Tom’s Books On Amazon. Contact me for pdf copies at

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vulture Au Vin

Vulture Au Vin (Murder Mystery)
By Lisa King
ISBN #978-1579623579
The Permanent Press
Price  $29.00
320 Pages
Rating 3 Stars

“Superb Writing, And A Darn Good Mystery .”

Jean Applequist is on assignment from her magazine, Wine Digest, to cover a billionaire’s wine tasting event at Phoenix Garden. Since there has already been a murder in the area, her boyfriend insists she take their gay martial arts instructor as a bodyguard. He’s sure Jean will end up involved in investigating the murder while she’s there. The advice proves prophetic, as more murders occur, and evidence points to someone at Phoenix Gardens.

The author does write for a wine magazine in real life, and can name and describe the wines in detail. Her writing is superb, and the mystery is darn good. I was disappointed that the author quoted classic mystery novels, but never turned a good phrase herself. Having no interest in thousand dollar bottles of wine, and what billionaires eat bored me to tears. The fight between the gay martial arts bodyguard and an ex Army Special Forces soldier lasted all of two blows, at the most a paragraph. Naturally, the gay martial arts instructor beat the trained killer. The characters were vulgar. Most of the story talked about wine and food, and was taken up with sex, or thinking about sex. The gutter language spoken by intelligent characters, that should have been able to speak without such words in every day conversation, was a put-off. I received the book as a review copy from the publisher, as I certainly would not have bought it. I love a good mystery, and this would have been perfect, except for all the extra negatives that ruined it for me.

Tom Johnson

Detective Mystery Stories

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Steve Payne Interview Part One

I’ve known Steve Payne for a couple decades now. Steve contacted us when we started publishing Classic Pulp Fiction Stories, and said he wanted to write pulp fiction. I don’t remember if I suggested Secret Agent X, or if Steve suggested the character, but in the May 1996 issue of CPFS we began the six-part serial of The Freezing Fiends, the first Secret Agent X novel since March 1939. Steve wasn’t finished; he had become a fan of pulp author G.T. Fleming Roberts, and made the Secret Agent X character his own. In the February 1997 issue of Double Danger Tales, Steve’s second novel, Master of Madness appeared in a three-part serial. The third novel, Halo of Horror was published as a three-part serial beginning with the October 1998 issue of DDT. With the end of the FADING SHADOWS genre magazines, Steve took a break from writing to concentrate more on his profession, but has been working on numerous plots for the character. Meanwhile, “Master of Madness” and “Halo of Horror” were both reprinted by Matt Moring of Altus Press, and 14 years after “Halo of Horror”, Altus Press is releasing Steve’s fourth Secret Agent X tale. “The Resurrection Ring” is a titanic novel of 170,000 words, the longest Secret Agent X novel ever written. I thought it was about time we introduce this amazing writer to everyone.

Tom: Steve, how about telling everyone a little about yourself; your background, history, where you’re from, that sort of thing. Although you have been in the pulp community since the mid ‘90s, there may be some out there who do not know you.

Steve:  I was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1963.  However, I grew up at opposite ends of the Pelican State, both down in Baton Rouge, and here in Ruston, in the heart of north Louisiana’s Pine Hills.  For college I earned a Bachelor of Arts in British History at Louisiana Tech.  That B.A. in hand, I attended Harvard Divinity School, where I had hoped to earn a Master of Theological Studies in Church History.  Soon after I had completed one year of the program, however, my dad suffered amputation of both legs.  So I elected to stay in Ruston, and work as a substitute teacher.  This period confirmed my love for teaching and inspired my enrollment at Tech.  In short order I had earned a Master of Arts in English, with specialties in 18th Century British Literature and 20th Century American Literature.  

During junior high school (maybe in 1976 or ’77) when I still lived in Baton Rouge, I stumbled upon a paperback reprint of The Creeping Death by the master, Walter Gibson.  Then we moved back to Ruston, where I acquired The Romanoff Jewels, another classic novel of The Shadow.  Not many months afterward, I encountered The Avenger (still love Justice, Inc. and The Blood Ring!), in addition to the fabled Man of Bronze, Doc Savage.  (The Magic Island/Ost was the first of Doc’s novels I read, if I recall correctly.)  Later, still, thanks to Will Murray and you, I grabbed some of the other hero magazines:  Operator #5, The Black Bat (Black Book Detective), a little of the Phantom Detective, and Secret Agent X.

Tom: I believe you teach English Literature in college. Who are your influences in writing, besides G.T. Fleming-Roberts? I think you’ve mentioned A. Conan Doyle before. Anyone else?

Steve:  When I was still teaching full-time, my students often expressed surprise at my love for popular fiction.  Sadly, we (some members of the Academy and many snobbish types) have sold them a “bill of goods” that one can’t be learned and enjoy popular literature.  That’s simply untrue!  To your question:  In class I went out of my way to express appreciation for popular writers like A. Conan Doyle, Fleming-Roberts, and Walter Gibson as inspirations for writing effective, “tricky,” mysteries.  In the same vein I would mention Lester Dent as an electrifying tale-spinner.  Or I would allude to Paul Ernst as another entertaining pulpster, one noteworthy for developing the believable pulp superhero, G.T.F.R’s take on Agent X notwithstanding, of course!

In terms of so-called “literary fiction,” I have developed many favorites:  Russian novelist Feodor Dostoevsky, the Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, satirist Jonathan Swift, and, for me, a recent discovery Caroline Dormon.  The mother of the Louisiana environmental movement, she was an excellent writer and a tireless crusader.  She was also the nation’s first woman to work in an official capacity with the US Forestry Service.  These notables don’t begin to count the thinkers from my divinity days:  Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian and anti-Nazi martyr; Will D. Campbell, a radical Baptist preacher and crusader from the Civil Rights era and beyond; Dorothy Day, a Catholic crusader for social justice; and Dr. Cornel West, one of America’s most insightful and challenging contemporary theologians, particularly on issues of racism and classism which still bedevil this country.

Tom: Secret Agent X has always been a secondary pulp hero, vastly overshadowed by Doc Savage and The Shadow. Why don’t you give the reader some information about the character?

Steve:  Published by Periodical (Ace) Publications, the Agent starred in a series of 41 recorded novels, from February 1934 to March 1939.  He himself is a mysterious, nameless crime-fighter, dubbed the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” likely in imitation of the legendary silent film actor Lon Chaney.  The original writer Paul Chadwick (and possibly an editor like Rose Wyn) had stitched the Agent together, so we’re told, from scraps of Doc Savage, The Shadow, and perhaps The Phantom Detective.  Thus in combating crime, the man of mystery displayed much of Doc’s physical prowess (mastery of jiu-jitsu and boxing, with other unarmed combat techniques also part of his amazing repertoire) and brilliant mental faculties (expertise in a wide range of codes and ciphers, languages, and modern sciences).  In addition the Agent owned The Shadow’s and The Phantom’s deductive abilities, besides those last two characters’ mastery of disguise.  On the surface he might sound highly derivative.  But as I’ve discovered over the past year or so, Agent X’s story, his literary development, is much more complicated than was formerly believed. 

Some of his inspirations are the original tricksters of Western narrative, Odysseus (of Odyssey fame) and Jacob (from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), not to mention Joshua and Caleb, the legendary Israelite spies from the Hebrew Bible.  If readers flash forward to the dawn of the 19th century, they will see an even more profound influence on the Secret Agent, the real-life François Vidocq, a French citizen and sometime criminal.  Later Vidocq would metamorphose into a secret agent and the world’s first modern detective. Mentioned by name in X’s own stories, Vidocq was also a master of disguise and deception who established the first modern police force and the science of criminology.

But one American literary character indirectly shaped the Agent’s development, and that of all American espionage creations to come.  This antecedent to X is James Fenimore Cooper’s creation Harvey Birch, from the novel The Spy (1821).  A tale of the Revolution, Birch, one of Washington’s spies, uses disguise, maintains a “secret sanctum” of sorts, and performs various kinds of derring-do.  And he performs his deeds while considered a traitor to the Continental cause.  The parallels to Agent X are quite striking when we consider the way that both the law and the criminals regarded X as their mortal enemy.  And the likenesses do not end there, when we take account of the sacrificial natures of both men, in the midst of great loneliness and overwhelming odds.

In his own career X combined the traits of a Federal operative and a lone wolf vigilante, just as you and Will Murray have shown.  That is, the Secret Agent carried an extraordinary commission from Washington, answering to a superior, or “control,” named K9.  That man in turn might have gotten authority from the President himself.  In contrast to the usual G-men, the Secret Agent could behave more or less as he saw fit in battling the criminal element.   Someone had to pay for all of his crime-fighting, of course.  So “ten wealthy, public-spirited men,” the legend relates, had subscribed to a fund in the name of Elisha Pond.  With that money X equipped a sanctum, the Montgomery Mansion; and he built an arsenal of armored cars and other gadgets.  He developed explosive and flash grenades, flares, and a series of bulletproof vests.  Then he fashioned that legendary anesthetizing gas gun, his chief weapon to overcome his opponents.

X faced some nasty criminal types, most of them seeming escapees from the “weird menace” pulps.  They included Doctor Marko, the Skull, Thoth, the Fury, the Brain, Shaitan, and Madam Death.  I might count the “Leopard Lady,” Felice Vincart, among this number.  But she wasn’t the main villain in either of her appearances.  Since the original novels, some other writers have added to the Agent’s Rogues’ Gallery, as I myself have done with Proteus, the Fool, the Ghost, and now, the Resurrectionist.

Tom: With The Resurrection Ring now in print, why don’t you tell readers a little about the plot, how it came about, and why, without revealing any crucial secrets to the story. But, of course, with enough tease to the plot to make them want to read it.

Steve:  Here’s the blurb Matt Moring requested for Pulpfest: 

Arsonists in silver-white garments, animate snowmen, reduce innocent victims and private property alike to blackened husks. Then armed with strange pistols, the killers murder a number of crooked industrialists and dope lords. Only then can the arsonists' chief, the fiendish Resurrectionist, raise the gunshot victims from the grave! But new life isn't so great, since all of the formerly deceased are now wild-eyed, twitching addicts, slaves to a mysterious “sugar”!

Can the Resurrectionist really build his criminal cult by raising the dead and summoning the Wrath of God on his enemies? Or is his actual goal something more personal: the real identity of the Man of a Thousand Faces?

To answer these questions, the brilliant detective and his courageous assistants, a known criminal among them, must confront an old enemy. He will force the Secret Agent to face his own shadowy past and to admit that even he might finally have run out of disguises–and surprises….

So in a nutshell, that’s the plot of TRR.  For years I had toyed with an origin for the Man of a Thousand Faces.  That is, under what circumstances, exactly, had the Department of Justice declared him dead?  Who had helped him execute his daring plan?  And what was its outcome, both for the detective and for those whom he loved?  My novel aimed to answer those very questions.  How simple this sounds!

But telling this narrative challenged me profoundly, as I reveal in the Afterword.  The tale required a compelling villain, for instance. Surprisingly enough this problem finally solved itself.  In addition, TRR must show the passage of time, or a date sometime after the final story Yoke of the Crimson Coterie.  Only a timeframe from mid-1939 or thereabouts would enable me to reveal certain new facts about the Agent.  After all, such information had heretofore been secret—and understandably so.  Ring would show how his long-ago decisions, however well-meaning, had created unintended consequences for the master detective.  And my tale needed to do one thing more.  It must preserve the aura of mystery surrounding the master man-hunter.

Tom: Secret Agent X had numerous helpers that appeared throughout the series, and you bring most them into this latest adventure. Do you have a favorite among his aides, or police officials?

Steve:  Betty Dale is my favorite because of her intelligence and her utter devotion to him and his cause.  I will confess, however, that I would have much preferred a more “Pat Savagesque” portrayal of Betty.  In my view the editors should have made her a more modern woman and a bit less the “weak” or helpless female (although I concede that her portrayal reflected some of the dated social norms of the day).  So I’ve tried to render her in a slightly less sexist light, while keeping her true to the spirit of the character, if not the literal vision of Chadwick and the others.

I have soft spots for some of his other aides, brave Jim Hobart and loyal and intelligent Harvey Bates being two.  It’s a shame that G.T.F.R. removed Jim from the series after 1937 and Bates after The Corpse That Murdered, most likely by editorial fiat.  So I’ve tried to rectify that situation in my own contributions.  By the way, readers can look for some serious danger to befall Bates, Hobart, Betty Dale or all of them in the future.  Inspector Burks interests me, too, though not strictly for comic relief purposes.  I will admit that I enjoyed giving him his “comeuppance” at the Agent’s hand!  In a future story I would like to use Burks in a much more serious role, so that we see why the NYPD so deeply respects him—and why the Agent himself admires this dogged lawman.

Steve Payne Interview Part Two

Tom: With the release of The Resurrection Ring, can your fans expect another novel down the road? Any hints that you wish to pass on about what story is coming up next? And what about The Freezing Fiends? Any chance Altus Press will reprint that one in the near future?

Steve:  I’ll address the question about TFF first.  Though I’m not certain when I’ll do this, I will revise Fiends, my very first piece of fiction.  It will need a more action-packed ending, which is mostly exposition right now.  It will also require some rewrite at other places.  My patient readers will finally see what happened when the Agent faced Proteus, the Shape Shifter, a Soviet master of disguise, all the way back in 1937.  Its conclusion will not consist of the neat, tidy endings that often dominated the pulps.  Still it does reflect the precarious political climate of the late-Thirties international world….

Down the pike X will encounter other interesting and perilous puzzles.  Right now I’m writing the outline of Murderer’s Moon, with ten chapters of the outline already completed.  This story, set in 1932, is a prequel of sorts to the very first novel The Torture Trust, with an additional connection to TRR.  Here is something most unique in X’s annals:  All of the proceedings in MM unfold before he took up the mantle of Secret Agent X!  I’ve figured out a nifty way to do this, yet keep him recognizable as our hero.  As for MM itself, we’ll see the Man of a Thousand Faces battling the Mafia and some sinister revolutionaries in New Orleans.  In addition he will battle something which might be supernatural—and is assuredly deadly.  It’s a creature with ties to south Louisiana, but with much older links to Continental Europe and especially to classical Greece.

In TRR I had mentioned Hell’s Haven, the promised adventure which co-stars the legendary Captain Hazzard.  HH will be a globe-trotting entry from 1939, and it will be a sequel of sorts to Yoke.  Bates will suffer badly in this one, I might further relate, as will one or more of Hazzard’s men.  And for interested readers, Hell’s Haven will explain why the Secret Agent is so unsettled at the start of TRR.  The answer is both hideous—and historical (as far as pulp can be, of course!).

The Blitz from Beyond the Earth will involve a villain who should have appeared in TRR, but didn’t, because the existing story was far too involved.  An old-time villain from the original series (despite never appearing onstage), he will face the Man of a Thousand Faces again.  This time, by 1940, he will be itching for trouble.  To this end he will hire the services of a super-powered henchperson to achieve his ends.  That superhuman fellow (or woman) will seem to do some pretty amazing things, like fly or hurl heavy objects.  No, he’s not that guy or that gal you might think.  Nor is this outing going to be any kind of crossover.  I want to let my hero X do the fighting, not fight lawsuits with unnamed comic book companies.  I desire to demonstrate, too, who the master crimefighters of the 1930s and early ’40s really were….

My deep admiration for Fleming-Roberts’ work has inspired me to do some research for another Louisiana-based adventure, Come, Taste the Terror.  Falling around 1940-’41, this one will occur sixty-five or seventy miles west of Ruston, in Bossier City.  This town is the headquarters to Barksdale Air Force Base, and the lineal heir to the long-ago Barksdale Field, the country’s oldest bomber base.  There, a shadowy crime czar is ostensibly causing a string of mysterious, terrible murders, to take revenge on someone and perhaps to fatten his own coffers.  That is, local authorities, the military police, and F.B.I. agents think this to be his motive.  But the Man of a Thousand Faces isn’t so sure.

Have you ever wanted a sample of the Secret Agent’s post-WWII career?  Then you might want to pick up Camp for Corpses, which unfolds here in my hometown of Ruston.  From June 1943 to June 1946 the US Army facility Camp Ruston in west Lincoln Parish quartered over 4000 German and Italian POWs.  Later in the war the camp secretly housed the crew of U-505, which transported one of the Nazis’ most powerful and infamous encryption devices, an Enigma machine.  In my story, an entry from 1945, one of the camp’s prisoners is a scientist, rather than a military man.  Yet before we meet him, he has stolen the papers of a lowly Wehrmacht soldier.  He has executed this theft because he has committed terrible war crimes.  In back of his offenses, he harbors a terrible secret—and part of the mystery to the stolen art treasures of Europe.

Here’s another early Cold War piece with a title evocative of G.T.’s Ghost mysteries:  The Case of the Red Report.  I leave it to you, the readers, to wring the truth from this heading.  On my end, I can say only that someone, for reasons unknown, thinks it’s better to be Red—than dead….

Then there’s Time of the Terrible People, a strange entry from the same tense era.  Dated 1949, this chronicle will be my take on the Reds’ race for the Bomb.  But unlike Dent’s The Red Spider, TTP will involve a journey to a frightening world where resurgent Nazis have deployed the device against the US.  Worse yet, our only hope for victory will lie with the scientists of that other Man of Steel—Josef Stalin!

The other day I came up with Shrouds for the City, one final Cold War tale, tentatively occurring in 1949 or ’50.  Though just a story germ right now, this case involves a maritime hunt whose outcome literally will mean the difference between life and death for the Big Apple, the Agent’s old stomping grounds.

Tom: For the new writers just getting started, maybe you can help with this question. What do you find most difficult about your work-in-progress? Plot? Characters? Beginning? Ending? Editing?

Steve:  First, I like crafting characters, nearly all of them based on real people.  This portion of the game tests my powers of observation and analysis.  Such is part of the “prewriting” process, as we call it in rhetoric.  The actual writing (drafting), the next step of the process, I enjoy least.  I think I have this reaction because this second phase compels me to record the ideas on paper (or on my computer) in some unified, coherent, and organized fashion.  And knowing myself, I can often fail on all three counts.  Rewriting or revising I actually do enjoy because it challenges me to relate the ideas in a more sophisticated way.  That is, the rewriting demands I “re-envision,” or see once more, what I’ve already written.  It requires me to narrate some parts of the story with more poetry/lyricism, some with less, and then harmonize the two.  It also entails rethinking some of my understanding of the characters themselves:  their motivations (as happened in TRR), the interconnectedness of their relationships, the consequences of their actions, etc.

Tom: What do you enjoy most about the creative process?

Steve:  Definitely I love the opportunity to share my own imagination with those of readers, such that I and they create the meaning of the text.  I subscribe to certain aspects of one critical theory, reader response, which holds in part that writers and readers determine what a literary or other artistic work signifies.  Thus all writing and reading are about shared meaning, that all of the fictive process is “about” that conversation between the writer and the audience.  It might sound pompous to some folks, but it makes very good sense to me.

Tom: As already mentioned, The Resurrection Ring is without a doubt the longest Secret Agent X novel ever written.  Do you plan to write more this length, or perhaps write shorter novels in the future? Not that anyone will complain about the length, I’m sure, but as a novelist I know how daunting it is to write something that titanic.

Steve:  I doubt that I’ll write one that long again.  Truly, this novel really taxed my patience, with a computer failure (a virus), the false starts/rewrites, and my ongoing lower back problems.  That said, I do want to compose some additional yarns in the neighborhood of 80,000-90,000 words.  This is much more reasonable.

I would also like to write some serious (so-called “literary”) fiction down the road.  From a couple of acquaintances in a neighboring community, I heard the fascinating tale of a millionaire and his African-American mistress, later his wife, who resided in north Louisiana in the early 20th century.  The account deserves a novelistic treatment, for a couple of reasons.  Not only is it so compelling, but also it serves as a commentary on the evolution of race relations and the nature of marriage here in America.

Tom: Tell the readers why they should buy The Resurrection Ring.

Steve:  To support my cat, my mother, and me!  No, seriously, I hope it will entertain them, and I hope, too, it will underscore the nature of pulp heroism:  What does it mean to sacrifice one’s life for the lives of others?  What does it mean to devote oneself, unreservedly to a particular person or a cause? What does it mean to maintain hope, when everything and everyone scream despair?  While this might all sound heavy or, God forbid, pompous, I think we all wake up, each day, with some of the same questions.  Maybe people will read TRR and then root for this group of folks who have tried, however haltingly or imperfectly, to answer the questions we all face.  And maybe they’ll come to appreciate, too, that Secret Agent X and his band are just as heroic as Doc, The Shadow, The Spider, and the rest.

Tom: Finding a market, and promotional avenue can be daunting today. What advice would you give to a person trying to get their short story / novel published in today’s market?

Steve:  Obviously they need to practice the craft of writing, each day.  Exchanging ideas with other writers is another opportunity for growth, one I’m privileged to experience, each week, through the Louisiana Anthology Podcast I co-host.  In terms of getting published, I’m a realist.  The news reports—print, TV, and online—sing a dismal song of the writers’ markets:  Most traditional publishers are struggling to turn a profit, and some have frankly gone out of business.  Quite simply, publishing costs are rising (for various reasons); and people are not buying traditional books as they have done in the past.  But folks are reading—on various kinds of electronic devices.  This state of affairs forces publishers, to rethink their models of “delivering” information, including fiction, to the readers.

At the same time a number of smaller publishers are now hanging out their shingles, offering fiction.  Altus Press is one, of course, as are ProSe, Airship 27 and, I’m sure, many others.  With this in mind I urge fictioneers to contact the smaller presses (or consult resources like Writers’ Market and Google) and to learn which publishers take what specific kinds of material.  Also the newcomers might consider self-publication, if they’re really burning to get into print.  Here’s an example.  I know a most talented writer in southeast Louisiana, an acclaimed crime novelist (not James Lee Burke), who is taking this very approach.  In fact he’s already filed the appropriate legal papers with the state.  Simultaneous with that, he’s currently revising his third or fourth novel.  When he releases the story, it will bear his own imprint.  And he’ll be doing the same for other authors who show promise.

Tom: Do you have a Blog, Facebook or Twitter where fans can follow you?
And very important, where can your book be purchased?

Steve:  I have a Facebook page, Stephen Payne.  I have also established another Facebook site, Secret Agent X:  The Man of a Thousand Faces.  Right now it contains many great cover images, and of course, the announcement for TRR.  Over the next few months I want to add some additional information on François Vidocq and some other surprises.

People can grab copies of TRR and my other novels Master of Madness and Halo of Horror through Altus Press, at; or through Amazon, at  Needless to say, Matt Moring and I both deeply appreciate the fans’ interest in the character.  And we hope that people will continue to follow the Agent’s, eh, “X”-ploits!

Tom: Thanks for stopping by Steve.