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The Adventures of Fortune McCall Paperback – December 12, 2011
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I mean, a shared New Pulp universe populated by characters created by the best writers in the genre? Count me in! It is kind of like literary version of Marvel Cinematic Universe, only without added baggage of 50+ years of continuity and lore, but with new, original heroes, and creative freedom letting the authors to really let their imaginations run wild.
What’s not to like?
I started with Sovereign City books by Barry Reese and got acquainted with enigmatic Lazarus Gray and his companions from Assistance Unlimited, got hooked into action-packed adventures of gun-toting vigilante; Max Davies/The Peregrine, and had fallen in love with mystically-powered scourge of underworld, Charity Grace/The Gravedigger.
Unfortunately soon enough I run out of books by Mr. Reese, so I decided to give a chance to other creators behind the Sovereign City universe, and decided to try getting to know Fortune McCall by Derrick Ferguson.
It was a rather obvious choice, because despite never appearing in person, McCall was constantly mentioned in Barry Reese’s books as one of most prominent heroes of the city, on par with Lazarus Gray or Doc Daye. Not to mention the fact, that his famous ship turned casino/hotel is frequented by the members of Assistance Unlimited, and other defenders of Sovereign City, making it one of the its most famous landmarks.
Derrick Ferguson is also a favorite of all New Pulp enthusiasts for creating one of the most popular heroes of the genre, a daring adventurer Dillon, so I knew that buying that book I would get something good.
And I was right.
I devoured “The Adventures of Fortune McCall” in less than two hours, which left me both satisfied and wanting for more… All necessary ingredients of a good Pulp are here, blended together into a tasty treat for every fan of the genre.
Firstly, we get a really interesting and rather mysterious hero, and a great group of supporting characters.
Fortune McCall himself is a walking enigma, virtually nothing is known about his motivations or past, which led to creation of many outrageous and conflicting rumors about his true identity.
Some he was a New Orleans gambler who won an emerald mine in a poker game, while others maintain McCall is actually an African warlord, who escaped to America with his fortune after changing his face with surgery.
Only two things are certain about him:
Firstly, he is fabulously rich, which gives him power and influence normally impossible for a black man in the 30’s America, forcing even the most racist members of community to somehow acknowledge him, and treat him with a certain dose of respect despite their feelings.
Secondly, he is not a man that anyone sane would want to cross, as Fortune is gifted not only with a keen mind and broad education mixed with experience, but also near-superhuman physical attributes, making him a supremely deadly opponent.
Not to mention the fact, that regardless of situation mysterious Mr. McCall is always well –armed, not limiting himself only to firearms, hiding a real arsenal in inside secret pockets and compartments of his trademark coat.
Aside from his favorite Browning A-5 pump shotgun, we also have katara/katar - deadly push dagger used by the famous Rajput warriors of India, weighted chain used for self-defense similar to Japanese Kusari-fundo or Chinese Meteor Hammer, Metsubushi or Black Eggs used by ninja to blind their enemies, Mere – a Māori war club made of jade, and who knows what else…
I don’t know if Mr. Ferguson is a fan of exotic weapons, or like me watched too many episodes of “Deadliest Warrior”, but it sure is fun to read about his hero using all that lethal equipment on evildoers.
Fortune McCall is also a man of class, impeccably dressed at all times, and very proficient in social maneuvering of high society, even though some treat him as pariah due to his ancestry, and capable of diplomacy when situation calls for it.
For example, why threaten your potential informer, when You can simply bribe him or her? Certainly it is cleaner, more elegant, not to mention more efficient method, than beating the answers out of person…
Aside from that, Fortune hates racists and ignorant, but being a man he is, even while making fools of them he remains full of class and elegance. Though that does not mean, that he does not enjoy drawing their ire, or flaunting his privileged status…
He also has quite a reckless streak, further enhanced by a bit of pride, and a weakness towards attractive women, there are even mentions of his past romances with various famous beauties from around the world, some of whom were married, but he vehemently denies being a womanizer.
All in all, Fortune McCall is a very charismatic character, and quite easy to like even with his flaws, even if we really do not know that much about him.
Derrick Ferguson gives the reader bits and pieces of information, that allow to pierce the veil of mystery shrouding McCall, but there are enough white spots for our hero to remain a bit enigmatic, and intriguing.
For example, we know that he has, or had several brothers, and that his parents command quite a lot of influence and respect, that extends well beyond Africa, but very little aside from that is known about his family.
McCall also has his own private army consisting of elite warriors known as Otwani, who hail from the harsh and mysterious desert known as Devil’s Anvil, somewhere in Africa. They are not only extremely well trained and deadly, but also fanatically devoted to our hero, for some unexplained reason.
Fortune also routinely mentions exotic and mysterious places and things, like “Irulani Temple”, or a fearsome martial art known as Llap-Goch, but without context we can only guess what they are, and what significance they have.
Well, in our world Llap-Goch is a deadly Welsh martial art created by Grandmasters of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but I doubt it’s the same… Or maybe it is?
Getting back on the topic, gathering clues and constructing our own theories concerning McCall is really fun, further enhancing overall enjoyment of the reader.
But every good Pulp hero should have someone to help him, per genre’s tradition.
Doc Savage had his Fabulous Five, The Shadow had a whole net of agents, The Avenger had his Justice Inc. etc., so McCall is also aided by a group of colorful supporting characters.
Our hero’s cousin, Tracy Scott is an attractive, petite woman, at one point even called “elfish”, but those who would consider her weak end helpless because of her looks would make a costly mistake. Ms. Scott is among other things a crack shot, accomplished martial arts and weapons expert, also known for her great skill as a driver. She is also rather ruthless, grabbing her trusty guns or knives on the slightest provocation, and rather protective of her cousin… when she is not bickering with him.
Then, we have Edward Blake, McCall’s lawyer, aide and friend, also acting as team’s voice of reason, and planner, as well as a superb pilot. However, the fact that he prefers working with his head instead of his fists doesn’t mean that he is weak, quite the contrary, as our lawyer has nerves of steel, and rare ability to keep his calm even during the most dangerous situations.
Next is Ronald Scocco, the youngest member of McCall’s crew. Teenager from Chicago, who lived on the streets after his parents abandoned him, until being found by Fortune, who became his mentor and an unofficial adopted father. Despite his age, and rather unimpressive build Ronald is very proficient hand-to-hand fighter, which along with his intelligence and phenomenal memory makes him rather useful to his “Boss”.
Another member of McCall’s circle of friends is Pasqualle Zollo, at first glance a middle aged cook, though incredibly skilled at his job. But as with most of our heroes this impression is very wrong, because he is not only an accomplished ex-soldier with a lot of combat experience, but also fearsome hand-to-hand fighter, due to his youth spent brawling in bars of Italy and America.
Then we get Stephen Lapinsky, team’s doctor of Polish origin also possessing a degree in Psychology, and is a well-known author of acclaimed medical books. As with Blake, he is calmer and more rational then some of the more hot-headed members of McCall’s crew, but is just as competent as them in the face of danger.
Last but not least, we have Dr. Regina Mallory a redheaded scientist hailing from Ireland specializing in physics and engineering. There are also rumors of her ties to the intelligence community, or even of her working for the government, but nothing solid was ever proven. Needless to say, she readily applies her inventive genius both when creating equipment for her friends, and decimating their enemies.
There is a sense of camaraderie between those characters, which coupled with their often clashing personalities and viewpoints on various issues makes them more lively, and therefore really enjoyable to read about.
Derrick Ferguson also managed to dodge one of the classic traps prevalent in original Pulps, that is, the hero overshadowing supporting characters so much, that they feel completely useless. I mean, Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five was made of recognizable, distinct characters but in my opinion they more often than worked as “those guys who are experts in their fields of work, but are still worse than Doc”.
Here, every of McCall’s companions gets their moment to shine, for example Blake using his knowledge of law to deal with obstructive bureaucrats, young Mr. Scocco saving McCall with his quick thinking and impressive eye-hand coordination, doctor Lapinsky working on the cure for the deadly virus used by the story’s villain etc.
Aside from the main heroes we also get a rather good group of secondary characters.
For example, we have Tais Pennington-Smythe a daughter of an English lord and an Egyptian adventuress, who after discovering her own thirst for adventure become an agent of British Government. She is a very resourceful woman with some history with McCall, and their interaction leads our hero’s friends to wonder what kind of history it might have been…
Mayor of Sovereign City, Rainsford Byles appears rather infrequently, and is a background character, yet, due to semi-officially legitimizing McCall’s actions as a vigilante, as well as similar deals he struck with other of city’s defenders like Lazarus Gray, Doc Daye, Machine McQueen and the others, he becomes a rather important to the whole Sovereign City universe as a whole.
We also get acquainted with the Chief of Police, Lawrence Tate who works with the Fortune’s Heart crew on a regular basis. He is a sharp-witted, no-nonsense man, who raised through the rank of city’s corrupt police force from a mere beat cop, to its leader through hard work and sheer determination.
Due to the fact that he started as a patrolman in the infamous Mahoney’s End slum not only made him tougher than any other cop, but also more open-minded, as he is one of the few city officials who respects McCall for his skills instead of being insulted by the fact, that he is black.
But even best written characters would be nothing without the opportunities to shine. Fortunately Mr. Ferguson had given McCall and his crew with plenty of them, during the events described in four stories making up the first volume of McCall’s adventures.
First we have “The Scarlet Courtesan of Sovereign City” showing us first “official” adventure of Fortune McCall and his team.
It starts in 1935, shortly after our hero’s ship-turned-casino “Heart of Fortune” arrived to Sovereign City, quickly becoming one of the most popular locations among local elite. But it soon becomes apparent, that it’s mysterious owner had not come to the city in hopes of enlarging his already substantial fortune.
Oh, no McCall is apparently searching for someone close to him, and would stop at nothing to reach this goal. Said missing person is lady Tais Pennington-Smythe, Fortune’s old friend/rival, as well as a member of top-secret British intelligence agency called Box 850.
She apparently arrived to Sovereign City to investigate Sundown and Orchid Mayhew; rich and influential siblings, that are supposedly somehow connected with the highly placed people in Germany’s government and vanished shortly afterwards without any trace.Ordinarily pair of rich socialites supporting the foreign power would not be the cause for such alarm, much less sending a highly trained covert operative against them, but Mayhew siblings are anything but ordinary.
Aside from being a heir to substantial fortune Sundown Mayhew is also a very talented biologist, considered by some to be a true genius in his field. Which of course makes rumors about working on a top-secret project known as “Long Noodle”, suspected by the intelligence community to be a new kind of a deadly virus rather unsettling.
As for his sister, Orchid has earned nickname of “The Scarlet Courtesan of Sovereign City” by using her incredible beauty to charm and sleep with most of the city’s powerful and influential men, thus gaining quite a lot of power and influence herself, despite officially not having any important position.
The fact that he takes pride in her stunning looks and scandalous reputation doesn’t mean that she is stupid either, on the contrary, she is no less intelligent than her brother, but also more ruthless and cold-blooded, despite her usual demeanor.
Not to mention the fact, that Tais is an experienced covert operative blessed with exceptional skills and experience, and certainly wouldn’t be caught/defeated by a pair of bored rich snobs, which means that Mayhews are even more dangerous, than she, and her handlers expected…
McCall and his friends try to inquire about them, but as it appears someone doesn’t like people snooping around their business, as Heart of Fortune gets attacked by a group of tattooed assassins, intending to silence our heroes.
This traitorous attack is of course repelled, but at the same time, it doesn’t bring McCall any closer to finding what had really happened to Tais. However, soon after the assassination attempt an opportunity to meet our mysterious pair appears, as Mayhews invite Fortune to the party in their home.
Our hero is aware that it’s most likely a trap, but can’t waste a chance like that, by being too cautious. Not to mention, that deathly danger had never stopped him before…
The opening story does a good job of establishing main characters, their relationships between each other, as well as throwing some hints about Fortune’s identity. As a bonus we get few really good, well-written action scenes showcasing our heroes badass credentials, and quite a bit of shout-outs to the wider Sovereign City Universe, for example mentions of Lazarus Gray, and Machine McQueen.
If I had to point out flaws, I would mention the fact, that “The Scarlet Courtesan of Sovereign City” ends rather abruptly, without completely satisfying ending. Oh, we see the resolution of the main plot line, but there are also others, that kind of leaves the reader hanging.
I am sure, that this plot line would get resolved in the future stories, but for now it feels as if something bigger was cut in half, which lessens the impact of this otherwise great story.
Next, we get “The Day of the Silent Death”, establishing McCall and his team’s position among Sovereign’s many heroes.
The First Amalgamated Savings and Trust Bank becomes a scene of a rather unsettling crime, as somehow all of its patrons and workers, aside from a single guard had died without any visible signs of violence, or use of known poisons and other lethal chemicals.
What is curious, nothing was stolen, as if the culprit was not interested in money, only death and fear created by his or her actions, which is rather worrying considering that said person was bold (Or insane) enough to do something like that in broad daylight.
Both the police and McCall, who was asked to consult the case by mayor Byles are baffled by the event, but the only survivor in in a state of severe shock, thus making him useless as a witness, and leaving our investigators without any leads.
That soon changes, but at the same time it becomes apparent, that the situation is even more dire than any of them could’ve expected…
Woman named Doctor Christina Carver appears at the crime scene, finally providing some explanation. She is an accomplished biologist working in Meeker Laboratories, Washington on creating a weaponized viral agents to be used by US government in an event of war.
The substance used in the bank was one of her creations, a deadly airborne virus called AF29 that was stolen from the lab mere day before the grisly mass-murder. As it turns out, doctor Carver’s husband is a gambler, owning a substantial sum of money to the mob, who in desperation tried to sell one of his wife’s inventions in hopes of paying his debt.
So, it is possible that the lethal virus is now in possession of ruthless criminals, who would not hesitate before using it again… What is worse, even AF29’s creator herself has no idea how to counter its effects, leaving Sovereign City completely defenseless against whims of its new owners.
Yet, our unfortunate guard had survived against all odds, which means that for some unexplained reason he is immune to the deadly bioweapon, thus making him a key to saving the city. Now doctor Carver, and Heart of Fortune’s medic, doctor Stephen Lapinsky would have to find out a cure for AF29 before it’s too late.
At the same time, Fortune and other members of the team race the clock to find doctor Carver’s husband before he is able to sell his lethal merchandise to wrong people… Would they succeed?
“The Day of the Silent Death” has a faster pace than the previous story, mainly due to danger hanging above the heads of our heroes, and their city, but Derrick Ferguson also took time to expand his characters and their backstories during slower moments, as well as establishing new denizens of Sovereign City.
Aside from the Chief of Police, Lawrence Tate I had already mentioned before, we also get to meet Mozelle Miezekowski, an undisputed queen of Sovereign City’s east side criminal underworld, who has a short, but memorable meeting with Fortune and Tracy, and a cameo from someone from our enigmatic hero’s past, who would shed some light on his true identity.
As for the story’s villain, without giving out too much, in contrast to Mayhew siblings who preferred to hide behind their bodyguards he prefers “hands-on” approach, and proves to be a worthy opponent for Fortune, not only in a clash of intellects, but also in a purely physical combat.
Aside from that, his motivation for committing such a terrible crime also shows us one of many facets of Sovereign City, that we haven’t seen before, expanding the world our heroes live in even more.
Overall, a very good story, that fulfills reader’s expectations, while also giving enough extra information to keep his or hers curiosity peaked.
Third story in the book is “The Magic of Madness”.
World-famous stage magician couple, Benjamin and Penelope Lash arrive to Sovereign City as a part of their tour, and charm their public with breathtaking, death-defying stunts and illusions, impressing even Fortune McCall, who briefly studied the art of illusion in the past, under the legendary Fettes the Fantastic.
As it turns out, Benjamin Lash heard about our hero’s episode with magic, and actually wanted to meet him, which pleasantly surprises Fortune, especially since he quickly becomes fascinated by gorgeous Penelope. McCall then invites the couple to visit his ship the next day, hoping to continue their acquaintance.
Of course flirting with married women caused him quite a bit of trouble in the past, something that his friends frequently remind him off, but Fortune strongly denies any romantic interest in Ms. Lash, despite all the evidence on the contrary.
But the planned meeting never takes place, because the same night group of mysterious men of obvious Asian descent kidnap Benjamin Lash from his hotel room, while his wife only manages to escape their aggression through the use of her illusionist skills.
Panicked and worried about her husband she begs Fortune for help, hoping that he would be able to find Benjamin, and save him. Problem is, that it is soon revealed, that Mr. Lash might not have been an innocent victim of unfounded aggression.
As his wife grudgingly admits, lately he had been behaving oddly, for example talking about retiring, despite the smashing success of their world-tour, and changing locations and terms of their shows without consulting either his wife, or his manager.
It could indicate, that he was involved in some kind of shady business, or had earned the ire of someone powerful, which would make finding him even harder. Not to mention Fortune’s not-so –innocent interest with the missing man’s wife, that would probably have some impact on the investigation…
This particular story aside from mystery and action (Especially good at the end), gives us a closer look on Sovereign City’s Chinatown, something that was barely mentioned before (In Barry Reese’s works it was mainly used as a place for The Peregrine’s arch-enemy Warlike Manchu and his minions, The Ten Fingers, to operate in), but now expanded quite a bit, giving us some interesting information about local politics, both official and secret.
“The Magic of Madness” also introduces us to one of Sovereign City’s many heroes, Captain John Lawman.
He is a former Texas Ranger, who tracked the murderer of his brother to Sovereign City, and captured him with such ruthless efficiency, that impressed mayor Byles had offered him his own precinct in the city, and freedom from usual police’s chain of command, essentially making him a gun-toting vigilante with a badge.
Despite the fact (Or maybe because of it…), that both him and Fortune have similar views on justice, and methods of fighting evil they constantly butt heads, through McCall takes former Ranger’s hostility with good humor and quite a bit of amusement.
We also see what Fortune’s private army, fearsome warriors known as Otwani can really do, and the extent of their loyalty to McCall, which also gives us another piece of puzzle that is our protagonist’s identity.
So, in a nutshell, another great story, that I suspect would have some impact on Fortune McCall’s future, once again giving enough to satisfy the reader, but at the same time leave them wanting for more.
Fourth and final story in this volume of Fortune McCall’s adventures is “The Gold of Box 850”.
It sees the return of Tais Pennington-Smythe, who has a rather interesting proposition for Mr. McCall. Apparently after the case of Mayhew siblings her bosses from Box 850 had decided to expand their spy network in United States, especially Sovereign City.
To do that, the agency had secured funds necessary for conducting future operations that were deposited in hands of Herbert Hornsby, president and heir of Hornsby Loan and Trust. Due to his reputation he was deemed trustworthy to oversee the restructuring of Box 850 finances, but it soon proves to be a mistake.
Hornsby stole about five millions of dollars in gold, and had fled to Sovereign City for some unspecified reason. That would be enough of a problem in itself, but it is even worse, as soon afterwards he is found brutally murdered in his office, with no clues to where he had hidden Box 850’s gold.
So, Tais turns to Fortune for help, offering him unofficial “finder’s fee” equal to 10% of the gold he would find. Sensing and adventure, as well as opportunity to easily earn a substantial sum of money for city’s charities he supports, our hero agrees to assist her.
But it soon becomes apparent, that it wouldn’t be an easy case…
In this story Derrick Ferguson had expanded the character of Fortune’s ward and youngest member of his crew, Ronald Scocco, his relationship with his boss/mentor/adopted father, and their shared past, that unbeknownst to anyone else has some darker parts.
We also observe friendly/antagonistic relationship between Fortune and Tais, who despite being quite close to each other frequently quarrel, albeit in a rather relaxed manner, that brings further questions about what exactly they are to each other.
Friends? Former lovers? Rivals?
We also get a glimpse of McCall’s private net of agents, making use of ignorance and racism of Sovereign Cities denizens, enabling him to get devoted spies from the ranks of often ignored Black and Latino communities.
I mean, every self-respecting Pulp villain had to have a black maid or butler, or at least a Latino gardener they would insult or/and ignore as being “below their notice”, which makes them perfect sources of confidential information.
McCall himself also used his enemies prejudice and ignorance to his advantage in this particular story, turning stereotypes against those who believe in them, which is both awesome and amusing.
Overall “The Adventures of Fortune McCall” is a great book for every New Pulp fan as it seamlessly blends all elements of classic books of the genre, with a fresh modern ideas, great writing, enjoyable characters, and sheer enjoyment of the lecture.
My only problem with it is that it ends too soon. I mean, those 158 pages are brimming with action, adventure etc, but it kinda leaves the reader hanging, because it is obvious that there are many stories yet to be told about those characters.
Unfortunately for Fortune fans, aside from the short story titled “For Violent Fires That Soon Burn Out” from 2015, that focused on Tracy Scott and her investigation concerning mysterious acts of arson we haven't seen anything about Heart of Fortune's crew,
It's not 100% bad, as my impatience had led me to buying “Dillon and The Voice of Odin”, which was also great, but I would like to see Fortune McCall return to defend Sovereign City somewhere in the future...
It's not a stretch by any sense of the word to envision Billy D. Williams as Fortune McCall.
The book consists of four large scale "short stories", each about 35 pages or so.
THE SCARLET COURTESAN OF SOVEREIGN CITY
THE DAY OF THE SILENT DEATH
THE MAGIC OF MADNESS
THE GOLD OF BOX 850
Fortune, along with his command crew of the HEART OF FORTUNE (his custom gambling ship), are very well developed characters with plenty of diversity to them. That diversity lends it self to a wide variety of adventures that take us through the dark shadowy underbelly of Sovereign City, to the pent house of the Palace Hotel and everywhere in between. Were introduced to new but still familiar characters, and situations that hint at future stories yet to come.
THE BAD (If you can call it that):
Each of the stories is crafted from a "physical plot". The "rescue plot", for all but one, to be more precise. Now it could easily be argued that having to rescue someone or having to be rescued your self is a long time tradition of the adventure genre. I would tend to agree and loved each of them. I think it might be nice to see Fortune tackle some of the other "physical plots" in the next book like "Pursuit", "Escape", and "Revenge" although to be fair there were small amounts of each of those three elements present in this book.
The book takes place in a major metropolitan area in or around the year 1935 and Mr. Ferguson doesn't shy away from some of the uglier elements of life back then. While they are subtle Mr. Ferguson includes elements of racism, classicism, and sexism in this book. I think this book and the stories within it would have been just as good if there was never an issue concerning race amongst the characters but the book isn't hampered by those issues either. Fortune and his crew are stronger because of facing them.
This is a great book that any lover of pulp can sink their teeth into. In addition I'd say that if you've never read any pulp before this may be a great place to start because it's delivered to you as the reader in small easy to absorb doses story by story. You'll love pulp upon turning the last page and be bugging Mr. Ferguson and Pro Se Press for more.