The thriller is widely accepted to be the modern mainstream descendant of the adventure pulps. More often than not though, it is a fat bloated cousin. While I am intrigued by the plots and characters, often I get bogged down and give up after one too many info dumps, whether it be arcane history, pseudoscience, high tech weaponry, or a geography lesson. Even more disheartening is when what should be a tense six paragraph action scene is dragged out over six pages. Thankfully, David Wood avoids those pitfalls and has a written a fast-paced action adventure thriller that doesn’t waste words nor skimp on action.
Quest is the third Dane Maddock novel. While some might say that this book and its predecessors are somewhat formulaic, I would say that they actually follow a tried & true recipe with Wood adding spices and tweaking the recipe with each subsequent volume.
Dane Maddock is an ex-Navy Seal who, along with his pals, including best bud, “Bones” Bonebrake, a six-and-a-half foot tall Cherokee, is a treasure hunter who has knack for finding trouble and adventure where ever he goes. Trading wisecracks, Dane, Bones, and the gang are always eager to jump into the fray, fists a-flyin’ and guns a-blazin’. But don’t let the action fool you, the guys can use their brains when they need to as well. Dane leans towards ancient history and problem solving, while Bones prefers conspiracy theories and cryptids. Both men’s expertise will come in handy in Quest.
The story opens with a double-barred prologue that teases the mystery and hints at the adventure ahead. As Carthage is about to fall, a descendant of Hannibal is sent on a voyage to save something that is sacred and powerful from falling into enemy hands. Flash forward nearly two millennia and we are privy to Percy Fawcett encountering a South American “native” who neither looks nor sounds like others in the area.
The present day aspect of the story starts off with a couple of big bangs too. A professor on an academic expedition in South America disappears after encountering a ferocious, aggressive tribe that is impervious to pain. Maddock’s ex-girlfriend is being chased by an unknown enemy believing that she has knowledge of this lost expedition. She enlists Maddock’s help and the globe-trotting adventure is off and running.
The beginning of the book focuses on interpreting the one clue they have and following it to other pieces of the puzzle, while avoiding, pursuing, and being pursued by the agents of a massive corporation intent on finding the missing professor first. This takes them to multiple locations in London and to a couple of South Atlantic islands before they head off to the Amazon. David Wood plays fast and loose with some bits of history, but it works in the story and he owns up to it in his afterword. The action moves even faster once they reach the Amazon and start their actual search for the missing professor and whatever brought him and Percy Fawcett to the area. Jungles, traps, temples, tunnels, firefights, Bones’ unique personality, and much more lay ahead.
David Wood does a good job of not revealing too much too soon and simply turning the book into a big chase. Readers may be able to figure the mystery out ahead of time, but Wood still has a couple of twists at the end that ratchets up the excitement and keeps the pages turning.
I think that any fan of pulp adventure will enjoy David Wood’s writing and Dane Maddock’s adventures. You can start with Quest, which I think is the book where Wood really started to develop his craft and voice, and then go back and read the earlier ones. Or you can start with the first, Dourado, and know for a fact that things are going to get even better. And, if you are fortunate enough to have already read them all, you can get excited by the fact that the 5th Dane Maddock adventure (the 4th was a novella, Icefall), Buccaneer, will be released soon.
If Peculiar Oddfellow wasn’t already the name of an interesting New Pulp character in his own right, it would be an apt descriptor and tagline for the Black Centipede. For the uninitiated, it is hard to describe the Black Centipede as a character without leaving the reader with slack jaw and raised eyebrow. Chuck Miller has really created a one of a kind hero … or maybe anti-hero … heck, by the time Miller is done with the Centipede Saga, he may play two supporting roles and be the villain as well.
For starters, the Black Centipede’s adventures are presented in the first person “as told to” Chuck Miller. The Centipede’s adventures were also chronicled back in the 1930s in his own pulp magazine by a writer who the Centipede views as an untalented hack. In Blood of the Centipede, said hack is now serving as screenwriter for a “B” movie featuring the Centipede, directed by Fatty Arbuckle and produced by William Randolph Hearst. This combination of multiple chroniclers, fiction within fiction, and a potentially unreliable narrator all lend a meta quality that one does not normally encounter in New Pulp, old Pulp, or any Pulp (except maybe that Tarantino movie).
The other thing that jumps out immediately and grabs the reader by the throat or eyeballs or other vital part is the voice. As I mentioned, it is in first person, which, while not unheard of, is relatively rare in masked vigilante stories. But it is the actual voice that makes it truly unique. It is sardonic, sarcastic, and downright snarky. It is not like any voice in the genre and it delivers a wild, twisting ride that touches on the action, adventure, mystery, and mysticism one comes to New Pulp to experience and delivers it in a manner that is both comforting and disorienting, like a funhouse at an amusement park. That is if that funhouse was designed by Salvador Dali
Miller walks an amazing tightrope in this book and it is testament to his skill and the character of the Black Centipede that I enjoyed it as much as I did, For you see, this story had several elements that, in general I don’t like and yet I must admit that not only they worked, but they were necessary to the book. I hate it when a book (or movie or television show) starts in some predicament near the climax and then tells the bulk of the story in flashback. I hate dreams as a plot device. I am tired of Jack the Ripper stories. But here, these things worked.
It is hard to discuss much of the plot for fear of giving too much away. The Black Centipede heads to Hollywood with new partner-in-action, Amelia Earhart, to investigate a mysterious threat while also serving as a consultant to the aforementioned movie. There he discovers a familiar foe (or two) and a new nemesis, the White Centipede. He is helped and hindered by a new costumed vigilante, the Blue Candiru. He discovers a mystical tome of great power, has a run-in with Aleister Crowley, and is introduced to the Order of the Centipede, all while investigating a string of Jack-the-Ripper copycat killings.
But, trust me it isn’t as simple as all that.
Blood of the Centipede is a whirling dervish, spinning wildly from childish fun to mystic ecstasy. It is The Shadow by Hunter S. Thompson. It is gonzo pulp. Give it a spin.
Lest I forget, I loved the back cover by Sean Ali. I don’t know if it is the Spy vs. Spy vibe or what, but that is one cool piece and should be a poster or t-shirt or both.