Category Archives: Pulp Heroes




TIME PERIOD: Late 1970s with investigations into events from before World War One and after.

To me this lengthy, epic espionage novel from Robert Ludlum was his finest work, partly because it nicely encapsulated how – over the course of the 20th Century – the world gradually found itself at the mercy of elaborate “intelligence communities”  (LMAO) working in conjunction with international corporate fascists.  

There’s something almost poetic about the way that – with the hindsight we have here in 2017 – the bitter enmity between the novel’s central characters (one a U.S. agent and the other a Soviet agent) is washed away a mere decade before the real-world collapse of the Cold War paradigm.

And with that same hindsight it’s almost eerie how those two rivals come to realize that the real seeds of future totalitarianism lie in the New Feudalism’s ugly motto: Nations are obsolete, so wealth wedded to unchecked political power is the coming thing. Ludlum’s arch-villain Guillaume de Matarese was positively prescient.

LEAD HERO: Brandon Alan Scofield – Codename: Beowulf Agate. Forty-six year old veteran of Consular Operations, Ludlum’s fictional Intelligence Organization specializing in defections from hostile nations – mostly Communist – to the United States.

Matarese Circle 2As The Matarese Circle opens, Scofield has been with Consular Operations for 22 years, almost since its founding. A Harvard grad fluent in multiple languages, Brandon joined the U.S. State Department right out of college. After a couple years in the “real” State Department he gravitated to State’s covert section Consular Operations (or Cons Op for short). 

In those early years Cons Op’s activities were not yet totally Top Secret. They were virtually a humanitarian organization which tried to accommodate as many people fleeing the Iron Curtain nations as possible. So many Eastern Europeans began seeking asylum in the Western World that the Soviets realized they had to take steps to cut off the flow of escapees.

Similar to the way they would later construct the Berlin Wall to prevent flight from East Berlin in particular, the Soviets clamped down on potential defections throughout Europe and elsewhere. Soviet intelligence agents – among them Vasili Taleniekov – began shutting down the almost openly- operating Cons Op defection network.

Violence escalated on both sides and eventually Consular Operations was forced to act more and more covertly. The organization was no longer able to accommodate asylum requests for the scores of people who appealed to them daily, hoping to escape to the U.S.

Now Cons Op had to narrow their scope exclusively to high-level defectors who were deemed sufficiently “valuable” to U.S. Intelligence, Military and Scientific pursuits. Brandon Scofield proved proficient at the covert skills and the violence necessary to carry out Cons Op’s narrowed mission but was disillusioned by the changes.

Scofield was set to transfer to a different section of the State Department, intent on pursuing a career as a Diplomat. Unfortunately, shortly before that transfer could be finalized, KGB Agent Vasili Taleniekov (who knew nothing of the planned transfer) engineered the hit and run death of Scofield’s wife Karine, as a message to Beowulf Agate and his colleagues in Consular Operations.

Brandon Scofield’s fury over his wife’s fate steeled his resolve rather than intimidating him or making him careless. He canceled the transfer request and went on to be Cons Ops’ most effective field agent in Europe and the U.S.S.R.

Not only did Beowulf Agate thrive on stinging the Soviets by pulling off the most high-level defections he could, but he also took a more personal revenge by killing the brother of Vasili Taleniekov, the KGB man behind his wife’s murder.

From then on the professional and personal enmity between Scofield/ Beowulf Agate and Taleniekov/ The Serpent helped write the history of both their organizations. The two men clashed all over the map, with Scofield and his fellow “Cold War versions of the Scarlet Pimpernel” helping as many defectors as possible while Taleniekov and his KGB colleagues thwarted them whenever they could.

SECONDARY HERO: Vasili Vasilievich Taleniekov – Codename: The Serpent. (I’ve always felt the Viper would have made a better codename since it would reflect the “V” for Vasili just like Beowulf Agate’s codename matched the B.A. for Brandon Alan in Scofield’s name.)

As this novel opens Taleniekov has been with the KGB for 25 years. Like Scofield he was a brilliant student but the Soviet government decreed that with his aptitudes he would serve the State better as an intelligence agent rather than as an historian like he wanted. Continue reading



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Road to Gandolfo6. THE ROAD TO GANDOLFO (1975)

TIME PERIOD: 1970s, Post-Watergate

I have a feeling many Ludlum fans will be ticked off that I ranked this novel – for which Robert used the pseudonym Michael Shepherd – above the seventh novel on my countdown.  

HERO: Sam Devereaux, a handsome and brilliant lawyer who works for the United States Army and has risen to the rank of Major. Sam hates Army life and can’t wait to get out.

In his final days before leaving the service he becomes drawn into the schemes of General “Mac” Hawkins, who establishes grounds for continuing to extort cooperation from Sam even after his return to civilian life.  

Road to Gandolfo 2VILLAIN: General MacKenzie Hawkins, living legend and a cross between George Patton and Peter Falk’s manipulative CIA agent in the original version of The In-Laws.

During World War Two, the 19 year old Hawkins was a decorated hero of the Battle of the Bulge and an instant folk hero. After the war Mac went to West Point, where he became an all-star Running Back for the football team.

During the Korean War, Hawkins moved up in the ranks and – shrewdly reading the emerging geo-political landscape – pursued his further career in the Far East. A General by the height of American involvement in the Vietnam War, MacKenzie eventually gravitated to covert operations, specifically Black Ops.

Road to Gandolfo 3Exiled to a diplomatic post over his tendency to make waves the General’s hard-drinking Bad Boy behavior caused an international incident between the U.S. and China.

When Major Sam Devereaux’s combination of legal brilliance and street-savvy saves Hawkins from hard time at Leavenworth or in China the General coldly and calculatingly makes the clearly talented Sam an unwilling accomplice in his plot TO KIDNAP THE POPE FOR FOUR HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS IN RANSOM. Continue reading


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Robert LudlumBalladeer’s Blog takes a look at the espionage novels of the late Robert Ludlum. I know it’s odd for me to write about a figure as popular as Ludlum but I’m addressing ONLY his novels in terms of my rankings. Even the novels he wrote under other names.

People who know this fun author strictly from the Jason Bourne movies may not be familiar with these works because they are very different in tone and approach from the Matt Damon flicks.

Gemini Contenders7. THE GEMINI CONTENDERS (1976) 

TIME PERIOD: World War Two era through the early 1970s.

I’m sure many Ludlumites will be furious that I have this novel in last place. They’ll likely be even angrier when they see which novel I ranked above it in 6th place.   

HERO: WORLD WAR TWO PORTION – Vittorio Fontini-Cristi, the good-timing playboy scion of the moneyed and blue blooded Fontini-Cristi family in Italy. Vittorio’s father opposed Benito Mussolini so the dictator liquidated the family and confiscated their estate.

Gemini Contenders 2Vittorio was the sole survivor of the family. Sobered up into a more serious worldview over the massacre of his loved ones, Vittorio became a deep cover intelligence agent sabotaging Mussolini’s war effort. His twin sons are the major characters of the 1970s portion.   

VILLAIN: WORLD WAR TWO PORTION – Cardinal Donatti, a religious zealot determined to find and destroy certain ancient documents that were entrusted to the Fontini-Cristi Dynasty.

Those documents, if made public, would supposedly shock the Christian, Jewish and Muslim worlds into potential chaos. If they fall into the wrong hands they could supposedly be used to blackmail the Vatican and other Christian power centers. Continue reading


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Silver John: Can These Bones Live?

Silver John: Can These Bones Live?

I’m still a fan of Manly Wade Wellman’s pulp hero Silver John, the roaming singer and guitarist who fights supernatural forces in the Appalachian Mountains of long ago, sort of like a countrified  Orpheus  meets Kolchak. He’s called Silver John because of the silver strings on his guitar and the silver coins he carries in his pockets.

For more details click here:

NOBODY EVER GOES THERE – Just a reminder that all the Silver John stories published after his marriage to his beloved Evadare (click here if you missed the tales chronicling that landmark event –  ) jump around in time.

This short story is set when John is much older. Plus the tale breaks from the tradition of having the stories narrated by Silver John in the first person. We get a third person narrative in which the older (probably 40s) balladeer comes to the aid of two young lovers in the town of Trimble.

Mark Banion and Ruth Covel, two teachers at Trimble High, cross to the forbidden side of Catch River, where ancient, shadowy life forms caused the disappearance of an entire textile factory crew plus their families. All of that happened over 75 years ago, but strange sounds still emanate from the creepy-looking abandoned factory and the company houses nearby. Continue reading

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man-in-the-black-cloak-4THE MAN IN THE BLACK CLOAK (1886) by P.T. Raymond (Francis W Doughty). Before Batman there was the Shadow. Before the Shadow there was Judex. And before Judex there was the Man in the Black Cloak, or simply the Black Cloak as I’ll call him for short. And ironically, four years before The Man in the Black Cloak was published there was simply The Man in Black, a story I will examine another time.

Our present tale first appeared in serialized form in Boys of New York in July and August of 1886. The title figure is a neglected forerunner of dark-attired vigilantes like Judex and the Shadow, plus his paranormal abilities mark him as a very early proto-superhero.  

I need to start right at the top with a certain amount of spoilers to make it clear the kind of place the Black Cloak should occupy when tracing early influences on Pulps and superhero stories.  

Our title character at first appears to be a somewhat sinister figure as he effortlessly makes his furtive way around 1880s New York City, often glimpsed by young salesman Bob Leeming. Bob is increasingly disturbed, both by the way this man follows him around and by the man’s bright, burning eyes and chalky-white complexion, glimpsed just above his pulled-up coat collar and bandit kerchief.    Continue reading


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cross-of-bloodThank you to all the Balladeer’s Blog readers who let me know where to lay my hands on a French copy of The Cross of Blood (1941), one of the Nyctalope novels I had not yet been able to track down.

I have ordered it and will post a review after I get a chance to read it.

For my take on many of the other adventures of France’s cyborg Pulp Hero the Nyctalope CLICK HERE  Continue reading

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nyctalope-1Balladeer’s Blog examines another Pulp Hero who doesn’t get as much love as he deserves. Science Fiction pioneer Jean de la Hire from France created the Nyctalope (“Nightwalker”) in 1908 but since many of de la Hire’s works were not translated into English for decades this fascinating cyborg Pulp Hero and proto-superhero languished in obscurity.

nyctalope-2This French figure survived a violent incident with the help of scientists who “had the technology” to give him yellow bionic eyes which could see in the dark and for long distances. In addition his saviors replaced his damaged heart with a cybernetic one, endowing him with superhuman stamina since that artificial organ slowed the buildup of lactic acid in his system. 

The Nyctalope’s serialized adventures were collected into novel form after each story ended.

man-who-could-live-underwaterTHE MAN WHO COULD LIVE UNDERWATER (1908) In the story which introduced the Nyctalope he was a supporting character to one of Jean de la Hire’s other fictional figures, in this case Charles Severac. That man invented and captained the Torpedo, a super-scientific submarine that would make Captain Nemo AND Mighty Jack green with envy.

The Nyctalope helped Severac battle a mad scientist named Oxus and his associates Fulbert the monk and Balsan the surgeon. The villains had created a hybrid shark-man called the Ichtaner, meant to be the start of an amphibious army. Needless to say our heroes emerged triumphant and the Ichtaner was returned to normal.

In this debut appearance the Nyctalope’s secret identity was given as Jean de Sainte Clair, but de la Hire would absent-mindedly alternate between that and Leo Saint-Clair in future adventures before finally settling on the latter name.

(NOTE: Various fan-created histories of the Nyctalope resolve the difference by claiming that Jean de Sainte Clair was the father of Leo Saint-Clair. As fun as those fan works are they are not always official.)

nyctalope-on-marsTHE MYSTERY OF THE FIFTEEN (1911) aka THE NYCTALOPE ON MARS – Oxus the Mad returned as a villain in this first solo adventure of the Nyctalope. Oxus (renamed Arkhus in some later translations) was a member of a group called The Fifteen – a secret organization of megalomaniacal madmen.

The Fifteen had formed an alliance with a race on Mars, and through that alliance they had access to interplanetary spacecraft and additional advanced technology. Oxus, Koynos and their co-conspirators were spiriting women away to the Red Planet to marry some of them. They were planning to use the rest on a project cross-breeding Martians and humans to create perfect beings and an unstoppable warrior race in order to conquer both worlds. Continue reading


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