Friday, December 9, 2016

Dipping a Toe in the #NewPulp Waters

You may have noticed that I talk a big game.  Well, over on twitter, Barry Reese called me out. 

When I opined in 140 characters or less that the New Pulp writers trade on the term pulp by slapping on the chrome while the Pulp Revolution focusses on the horsepower under the engine Reese wanted to know what New Pulp stories I was talking about, because he could name check two authors that he considered to be the best of the New Pulp writers working today.
Challenge accepted!
Within minutes I had bought a copy of Four Bullets for Dillon, by Derrick Ferguson.

Just to be clear, the conversation was civil, and even if Mr. Reese and I have different tastes, he’s a good guy that I’d gladly sit down  with and talk books for hours.  We’re going to bypass the subject of which modern pulp writers soured me on ‘pulp’ as a term any more indicative of quality than ‘punk’.  Instead, we're going to look at a pair of modern action stories from Derrick Ferguson.
This review was difficult to write.  Reviews in the one star and five star range are easy.  These middle-of-the-road reviews of works that show so much potential but just miss the mark mean that I can’t just rant or rave, but have to really analyze and understand where the problems lie.  And Four Bullets for Dillon has a few problems.  It’s not a bad work, but it's go issues.

The first story in the book, Dillon and the Bad-Ass Belt Buckle, features the eponymous hero and his sidekick Eli rescuing an Oscar winning actress from the jungles of Cambodia.  It starts with the duo having already rescued the actress from the clutches of the kidnappers and – wait, what?  Go back, Derrick, that sounds like a great story.  How did they get her out?  The dynamic duo mention lots of bullets and action…can I read that?  Perhaps that is another story in the Dillon-verse, but if so, the reader is given no indication – even editorially – of that. 
For my money, in cinema res serves as the gold standard for opening up action heavy stories. In any media.  This story opens at least twenty minutes after the cinema is done res-ing.  Which forces an early-story pause in the already limited action to provide the reader with an awkward information dump.  “Here’s what you missed out on,” paired with a blunt recitation of the damsel in distress’s resume, and a dry explanation that our hero is a soldier of fortune hired by outside agents to save her.  The whole opening section of this purported action story chooses exposition over action.

Compare that to my own ‘rescuing the damsel’ story.  In Bring Back Our Girls, the action starts just as the hero is on the cusp of breaking into the compound of the bad guys.  The first line of the story features the hero slitting the throat of one of the sentries.  The backstory leading up to that point is only slowly introduced over the first half of the story.  Thatset-up is wedged into the spaces between action, with only the goal, save kidnapped girls from vaguely Boko Haram-esque terrorists, mentioned in the first few parargraphs.  And that was crammed in just to ensure that the reader knew where their sympathies should lie – that the guy they just saw commit murder was the good guy killing a modern day slaver.
Speaking of opening, the introduction to Derrick features him climbing out from under the shot-up getaway Jeep and beating it with a wrench, frustrated that he cannot repair it.  He explicitly says if it was a horse, he’d shoot it.  Even granting that as the hyperbole it clearly is, following the “show, don’t tell” pattern, Ferguson shows us the hero is a petulant man-child for whom violence isn’t a last resort, but a means of expressing himself.  That doesn’t sound very heroic.  You might get away with that scene if Dillon has already been established as a hero in other ways, or if this was the last of a dozen bad breaks, but it’s a strange choice for setting up reader expectations.

Then you have the damsel in distress.  She is a fierce and independent successful modern woman who doesn’t need no man…except when it comes to being rescued.  Even that can be forgiven.  A high value hero needs a high value damsel, and although this seems to be the only kind of woman we see in media these days, they exist, they add drama, and my weariness of the trope amounts to mere personal preference.  What cannot be forgiven is that for all that we are told how great she is, we are shown a rather stupid woman.  Stupid or unbelievable.  Neither is flattering.
Let me explain.  The trio leaves their broken Jeep and sets out through the jungle on foot.  They come upon a new asphalt road and follow it to a small bandit settlement surrounded by log walls topped by sharp wire and broken glass.  With little choice, they decide to enter the settlement.  This provides an excuse for an important character moment.  The hero must explain to the damsel, Jenise, that this is serious.  There is danger here.  If she doesn’t listen to him, she could get badly hurt.  She resists at first, not understanding that she is out of her element, and that his words are not patronizing, but are driven by legitimate concern.  Did you notice what just happened there?  Having been kidnapped by a gang of violent men seeking to ransom her back to her benefactors, and rescued by a pair of violent men in a manner we are reliably informed was most violent, she doesn’t understand how high the stakes are at this moment. 

I can’t stress how damaging this is to the narrative of the story.  We’ve been told how smart and fierce she is.  Now we’re being told that getting kidnapped, shot at, and stranded in a jungle miles from civilization wasn’t enough evidence for her to understand.  We are expected to believe in a contradiction.  That sucks all the wind out of the sails.

Finally, about a third of the way into the story we have some real tension as Jenise is essentially kidnapped by the leader of the bandit camp.  We have a threat and some tension and we're starting to get invested turns out Jenise has seduced the bandit leader and is going to be fine without the hero after all.  So the ensuing action is driven entirely by Dillon's ego with a touch of greed and envy on his part for a minor MacGuffin.  That's it.  There are no outside stakes involved at all.  It's just action for the sake of pew-pew-pew. 
I’m going to stop here.  These are all problems, and they get repeated throughout the book.  Rather than list them off in great detail, let’s look at the positives for a bit.

But before we do, I’m going to throw in one last complaint.  The book has for stories… and no Table of Contents.  That’s an editorial comment, but a valid complaint.  Self-publishers, you’ve got to do the little things to make your reader’s lives easier.  If you don’t take care of the little things, readers have no reason to think you’ll take care of the big ones.
I'm done, seriously this time.  Back to the positives.

Ferguson's descriptions are great, and his writing just plain works.  His prose is solid without un-necessary touches or flash.  Some of his descriptions are tight from a word count, but really fire the imagination in ways that I found impressive.

Ferguson's action is ferocious.  The man knows how to write fast and fun action scenes.  He knows how to ratchet up the physical tension.  He knows how to pace the action with those all-important breaks to catch your breath, and he throws in enough twists and turns to keep the reader just off-kilter enough that they can't possibly guess what's around the next bend.  Dillon's skills at swinging away from bad guys Tarzan-style was a nice nod to the old pulps and much appreciated by this reader.

The twists in the plot are well executed.  The good guy and bad guy are forced to work together, and the way that happens is...if not believable, at least understandable.  This is a pulp story we're talking about here.

Ferguson himself is fearless in the settings of his stories.  He pays just enough attention to the real world to keep them grounded, but doesn't let overly complex rationales interfere with a good story.  The lost bandit camp city in the heart of Cambodia was a brilliant setting.  It's preposterous and over the top from a real world standpoint, but that shouldn't stop an action writer from using it anyway. It's just the sort of setting that you should expect - nay, demand! - in a pulp story.  That goes double for the characters who are without exception distinct and personable.  Even the bit players are provided with enough character to draw the reader in.

In the final analysis, I can't recommend this book.  Ferguson's writing is solid, his descriptions great, but it's all surface detail.  There's no depth to this work.  There's nothing to hook the reader into the protagonist except for the protagonist himself.  Everything he does is for him, and we don't have any real reason to care what happens to him outside of the fact that he is the central character in the story.  Dillon could have walked away from any of these stories at multiple moments with no affect on anyone in the world but himself.  An arrogant narcissist can make for a fine protagonist, but the pulps that excite me don't just have protagonists - they have heroes.

You might like this book.  You might like empty action, and you don't need actual heroics done by a hero.  In which case, go crazy.  Enjoy.  Who am I to judge your tastes.  I just need more that that.  I need a reason to root for the good guy other than that he is really handsome and cool.  I need him to struggle and take risks and sacrifice himself for others.  I need him to fight for something bigger than himself, and Four Bullets for Dillon just doesn't meet that need.

Reading these stories just confirmed my complaint about so much of the new pulp fiction on the market today.  There's a lot of flash and chrome, but there's no heart and soul to it.


  1. I regret that FOUR BULLETS FOR DILLON didn't turn your crank but I do appreciate that you took the time to read and review. Thank you and I sincerely hope that you'll try one of my other books that you might enjoy more than this one.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Derrick! I hope you thought review tough, but fair.

    1. Hey, it was your honest opinion and I can't ask for fairer than that. You paid for the book with not only your hard-earned money but in coin more precious than that: Your Time. I don't take that investment lightly. Once again, thank you.

  3. You might be interested in this, Jon:

  4. Hey, that's fantastic, Derrick! I added a link to my sidebar. When I've got an open slot in the queue, I'll rifle through them.

    We really do live in a new golden age of writing.