It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’m a fan of classic pulp novels, to the point where I even spent a summer when I was twelve writing an adventure novel of my own starring a character called–wait for it–Christopher Sims, a stage magician and escape artist who hired himself and a merry gang of sidekicks out as ill-defined “adventurers,” which mostly involved plots cribbed from Gen 13, of all places.
Embarrassing as it was, it was an attempt to capture the thrills and pacing that I recognized back then as being from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that I’d eventually come to understand had its roots a little further back.
So when Dr. K told me that Charles Ardai, founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint, was starting up a series of pulp-style adventure novels, I was pretty excited. And then I found out that they starred a character named Gabriel Hunt and were therefore called Hunt For Adventure.
And that is rad.
Thus, Dr. K and I both picked up the first installment, Hunt at the Well of Eternity for the first installment of our cross-blog book club, and the totally awesome Glen Orbik cover gave us some pretty high hopes.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out as well in practice.
There are at least six Hunt adventures planned with a rotating roster of writers, and the first one comes from the pen of James Reasoner, and while he turns in an effort that captures the zippy nature of the adventure serial–full of cliffhangers and set pieces that move the story from New York to the Everglades to Mexico City to the Guatemalan Rain Forest–it’s not great. To be fair, though, it’s often flawed in the same way that the original pulps are flawed.
The biggest problem is Gabriel Hunt himself, who is barely characterized beyond the standard Champ Goodguy action hero, complete with chiseled jaw and kung fu grip. He’s smart but not too smart, strong but not too strong, and good-hearted enough that he can bag the love interest with no trouble but not so altruistic that he feels bad about killing the one-dimensional bad guys he runs across. In fact, his most distinguishing quality is his affection for his pistol, a revolver dating back to the Old West that seems impractical enough that its use counts as characterization. Played right, it could show an attachment to the past or a romantic ideal of adventure on the frontier, but there’s none of that to be had here. Instead, Reasoner–who, to be fair, was probably trying to turn in a lean, stripped down adventure in tune with the pulps that inspired the series–goes to the generic:
The heaviest thing he put in the bag was his old Colt .45 double-action Peacemaker with wel-worn walnut grips. Legend had it that the gun had once belonged to a notorious Western shootist, although the owner changed from Billy the Kid to Bat Masterson to Wyatt Earp depending on which Old West expert you talked to.
Gabriel didn’t know if any of the stories were true. All he cared about was that the revolver was a fine old weapon in top-notch shape, and that it packed plenty of stopping power.
Or, to put it another way, “Here’s something kind of interesting that might have a cool story behind it, but we’re going to be pretty vague and we don’t really care about it anyway. Deal with it.”
Which brings us to something else that stuck out: Despite the fact that he’s listed as the author–presumably to make sure that the installments of the series are racked together at the bookstore–the books are done in third person. And it’s even stranger when you considering that when you sign up for the Hunt For Adventure mailing list–which you can do pretty painlessly at their website–you get a letter that is written in first person, with a bit of highly endearing tongue-in-cheek humor that’s missing from the book itself.
Considering that the books are already written to follow Hunt and his thoughts, one would think it would be a (relatively) simple matter to cast the hero as the narrator, but instead there’s just another layer that separates the reader from what’s already a pretty bland character.
Also, I was a little surprised to find that the books are set in the present day, rather than that nebulous era from ’33 to ’49 when Doc Savage ruled the shelves. It wasn’t really a disappointment, and if there was a slight letdown, it probably came more from my expectations going in than there being anything wrong with it. Still, I think there’s something to be said for the fact that globe-trotting adventure and exploration doesn’t quite have the same zing when you throw in GPS satellites and cell phones, but it’s something Reasoner sidesteps by setting most of the book in the jungle, where dude has like zero bars.
Which isn’t to say that the books are completely without merit; they’re perfectly fine for light reading and there’s a lot of potential, partly because Hunt is such a blank shorthand for hero that you could throw him into basically any situation at this point. Reasoner even makes a rare stab at self-awareness in what is unquestionably the best line of the book:
“I learned to use a bullwhip when I was a boy. A friend of my father’s taught me.”
“A friend of…? Wasn’t your father some sort of classics professor?”
“Trust me,” Gabriel said.
The idea of Gabriel Hunt getting bullwhip lessons from an aged Professor Henry Jones, Jr. not only casts him as the spiritual successor to the pulp hero, it also does more to make me like the guy than just about anything in the book other than the covers. It’s a fun nod, and that kind of humor is something the book could really use.
I’m not saying that I necessarily want Hunt to be constantly talking about smoking Goloka root with the Strongs or visiting his Uncle Clark’s house in the Arctic, because really, Jess Nevins has enough to do without me getting him to explain that stuff, too. But at the same time, casting him as the ultimate descendant of the pulp heroes–or the latest member of the Wold Newton family–would be more fun than the blank slate we’ve got now.
That said, this is just the first installment, and while I’m no fan of waiting for things to get good, the sample chapter for the second novel–Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear, by Ardai himself–is a damn hoot:
“Go,” he said again, shooting a glance over his shoulder toward the stone wall where Sheba crouched, clutching the shreds of her dress to her chest. “Now!”
First of all, Sheba. Awesome. And second…
Gabriel leveled the Colt at DeGroet as the man limped forward. “You might as well put that away, Hunt, unless you plan to throw it at me. I know it’s empty.”
“How do you know that?” Gabriel said.
“Because you haven’t shot me with it yet.”
Gabriel considered that for a moment, then returned the gun to his holster, snapped it shut. He kept the scimitar raised and ready to strike—but he didn’t swing it. He had some skill with a blade, could even wield an unfamiliar one like this one with some hope of success, but only a fool would try to attack Lajos DeGroet with a sword. A suicidal fool.
Now see? That’s what I’m talking about. He might have the most improbable name I’ve ever heard, but Lajos DeGroet is at least as exciting as the time Christopher Sims was imprisoned in the Amazon sex dungeon.
What? I was twelve!