Barry Reese is a great writer, and I’ve had the privilege of being well-versed in a lot of his work before he became one of the leaders of the new pulp revolution. And it’s interesting to see how he’s grown as a writer since then.
The Rook features five stories, each of them starring the eponymous vigilante who operates out of Atlanta. Max Davies is a rich man haunted by visions of his deceased father. Possessed of some psychic abilities and armed with a mystic dagger and guns that rarely run out of bullets, Max spends his nights donning a bird-like mask and calling himself the Rook.
This first volume opens with “Lucifer’s Cage,” a great story that sets up the Rook in his new location. We find out that the Rook once operated in the north but fled when people began to suspect he and Max Davies were one and the same. This of course poses a problem in which why wouldn’t that same suspicion arise once the Rook curiously shows up in the exact same city Max has moved to? You may think this is a critique and it partly is and isn’t—Barry addresses this in “The Gasping Death,” at least in a fashion. But that one mention doesn’t satisfy my curiosity and I hope this is dealt with in future Rook tales.
As far as heroes go, the Rook is an interesting blend of both the pulp characters like the Shadow and modern-day comic book heroes like Batman. Although the Rook does adopt a more merciful stance on criminals, he has a history of killing them and his “mercy” isn’t as merciful as you may think. Setting the tales in the 30s also allows Barry a chance to explore history in hindsight, which he does very well. It’s interesting when there are references to historical events, such as mentions of the Nazis and the conflict in Europe or a statement that down in the south, the Civil War was still very much alive in the hearts of the people. And it also gives Barry a chance to utilize some other creations of that era, particularly public domain ones. This leads to one of the best stories in the collection, the previously mentioned “The Gasping Death,” in which the Rook teams up with another pulp hero, the Moon Man. There are also references to numerous other pulp characters, but I’ll allow you the pleasure of discovering those little Easter eggs on your own.
Barry also does something interesting in these stories. In “Lucifer’s Cage,” Max meets Evelyn Gould, a beautiful actress and the two are immediately taken with each other. In the book’s second tale, “Kingdom of Blood,” they’re married and Evelyn is even working as Max’s partner. There are both positive and negative aspects to this and it really depends on your mood. On the one hand, it’s nice to be spared the cliché of the damsel in distress pining for the hero and never noticing the man behind the mask, and I’m glad we don’t have to be subjected to forced gags of Max trying to make up pathetic excuses for why he and the Rook are never in the same place at the same time. And seeing a love interest who not only challenges the hero emotionally but also proves to be if not his equal than at least very capable on her own physically is a nice treat. Evelyn isn’t the type to be tied down to any railroad tracks or thrown off any bridges—she’ll use her own fighting skills before Max even has a chance to save her. And that’s a very good change, especially for the period these stories are set in.
Now for the flipside to that argument. While it is refreshing to see a hero in a married relationship handled in a realistic way, we do skip over a LOT to get them from the point they meet to the point they’re married and working together. These are story collections, however, and it’s just as likely that Barry will write tales set in those eras as well. Same goes for the Rook’s pre-Atlanta adventures, which I find myself really intrigued by. And this is only the first book—Barry recently released volume five of The Rook series at the time I’m writing this review, so maybe he’s already addressed these things.
There is one thing that did bother me, though, although it is minor in the larger scheme. “Abominations” is a tale which features a villain named Warlike Manchu (another cool reference to a famous pulp villain). My issue here is that Warlike Manchu is described as being from a family on the losing side of the Boxer Rebellion, which would make him Chinese. But then later, Warlike Manchu is seen employing ninjas (Japanese warriors) and refers to himself as a “sensei” (an honorific word in Japanese for teacher or doctor). As someone who knows about Asian cultures, particularly Japanese culture, this is something that took me right out of an otherwise very enjoyable story and it’s a mistake that could have been avoided with just a tiny bit of research.
My other complaint has nothing to do with the stories, but has more to do with the format. I understand this is something Barry probably had no control over, but the large size (9.8×7 inches according to Amazon) and the double-column printing is not something I’m a fan of. I felt like the text was a bit tight in those columns and there were some spacing issues with it. I understand Wild Cat Books is trying to emulate the pulp style of old with this printing method, but for someone more accustomed to reading novels, it’s something that annoyed my eye.
Overall, The Rook is a great introduction to this new pulp hero in a classic setting. Barry has created a character who can stand shoulder to shoulder with not only new creations from the modern-day pulp renaissance, but also with the old favorites he’s clearly inspired by.