Author B. Chris Bell is one of the bright lights of the New Pulp world. For Airship 27 Productions he’s written stories appearing in Secret Agent X, The Green Ghost, Jim Anthony Super-Detective, Gene Fowler: G-Man and many others. His wonderful story, “How Pappy Got Five Acres Back and Calvin Stayed on the Farm” was a winner in SFReader.com’s 2007 Annual Short Story Contest. He made the Horror Writer’s Association Reading List for 2012. His Kindle novel, Bi-Polar Express, is a wild ride of genres, almost impossible to label with its mix of the true-to-life horrors of addiction, rehab wards, hospitals, and post-apocalyptic science fiction.
Chris Bell was born and raised in Texas, and now lives in Chicago. I was born and raised in Chicago, and still live here. But Bell writes about Chicago as if he were born and bred to the mean streets of the Windy City. Heck, he knows so much about 1930s Chicago that you swear he’d grown up during the Depression. And that’s the period in which he’s set his wonderful Tales of the Bagman (Vol. 1): 1933 Chicago, during the last days of Prohibition.
The Bagman is one Frank “Mac” McCullough, a one-time courier and thug for a crime family during the Great Depression. At an early age Mac’s life took a major turn when he became an orphan, spent time in a reformatory, and then later got involved in the rackets. But he’s always had a core of decency and honesty buried in his heart. So when he chooses to help and old family friend who got in hock to the Mob, Mac turns his back on crime and his Boss, Slots Lurie, and suddenly finds himself taking another turn on the road of life. In a last-minute decision to conceal his identity from the wise guys he’s hunting, Mac dons a paper bag over his head, and soon he’s known as the mysterious Bagman. (Later he acquires a mask more appropriate to being a man of mystery and a crime-fighting avenger.) And then, in the first part of this origin story, he becomes a fugitive wanted by both the Mob and the police.
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At the center of this nicely-plotted, well-written and exciting novel is Mac’s wonderful, endearing personality. He’s a good guy to have at your back, a good friend. He’s cocky to the core and, unlike most characters of this sort, he doesn’t always use his brains — which makes him all the more human and believable. What sets this novel apart, besides Bell’s ability to tell a good story and develop solid characters, is Mac’s friendship with a black mechanic and garage owner named Antoine “Crankshaft” Jones, a WWI hero and winner of the French Medal of Honor. Crankshaft has known Mac since Mac was a kid, and while he may play the part of reluctant sidekick, his relationship with Mac is one of equals, and more than that, the WWI vet is Mac’s father-figure. Crankshaft is also often the brains, the logic and the reason that keeps Mac from going off the deep end, literally… into the Chicago River, if ya get my drift. Their relationship is tight: they’re friends who go wining and dining and hanging out in public, a rarity in stories set in this period, and a rarity in real-life 1930s. Their affection and loyalty to each other is shown through the many battles against the Mob that Mac gets them into. Their repartee is rapid-fire, and the humor explodes off the pages along with the action, danger and gun shots. There’s even time for a little romance for Crankshaft, in the form of one lovely lady named Coco, a singer and entertainer.
This is hard-boiled crime fiction, pulp fiction at its best, with a flavor of old Chicago that recalled to my mind all the stories my Mom and Dad used to tell me. It rings so vivid and true you can smell the bootlegged booze, the old Chicago stockyards, and feel the breeze of the Windy City coming in off of Lake Michigan. I know and hung out on many of the streets and locations where this novel takes place, and that added an extra dimension to my enjoyment. Mac the Bagman and Crankshaft Jones are a 2-man team of Untouchables, fighting crime in a souped-up, 1933 Graham “Blue Streak” Eight that Mac stole from gangster Slots Lurie. But his “monthly payments” are quite heavy, for poor Mac takes a lot of beatings and comes thisclose to death during many a tussle with the Mob. But somehow he always manages to bounce back in time to bounce the heads of the bad guys off the sidewalk or a few innocent walls.
Now, in volume two, The Bagman vs The World’s Fair, Mac and Crankshaft are on the trail of a villain known as the Resonator. He’s developed a sonic weapon, the Resonance Gun, and is committing horrendous acts of terrorism at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago: the year of the original King Kong. My Mom worked at the World’s Fair when she was 18 years old, and she told me many stories of con artists, thieves, hookers, marathon dancers, low-level hoods and top Mob guys. But she never told about anything like this! The action is fast, furious and wild, and Bagman and Crankshaft are in top form in this adventure, which features a nice cameo by writer Calvin Daniel’s new pulp hero, the Black Wolf.
Tales of the Bagman, Volume 3 contain three brand-new adventures. First, in “The Butcher o’ the Back Yards,” Mac and Crankshaft contend with a new gang-boss taking over the meat-packing district of Chicago: his tools are murder and intimidation, and he leaves behind him a wake of death and destruction. His moniker is the Butcher. Bagman and Crank have to nail this guy before the streets of the city of Big Shoulders erupts in a new and bloody gang war. Next up is “The Captives of Ravenswood,” wherein Mac the Bagman’s newsboy buddies, known as the Little Wiseguys, are being kidnapped right off the streets of Mac’s own neighborhood, where no one gives or damn — and no one is even demanding a ransom. Finally, in “The Devil’s Shingle,” Crankshaft is on his own in this, his first solo adventure. When a promising young blues musician is murdered right in the middle of playing a gig, Crankshaft isn’t sure if it’s just a simple old murder or a curse that felled the musician. So now he’s out to find out what really happened, and he may have to shoot craps or shoot it out with the Devil.
So take a gander at these fun and excellent adventures of sarcastic Mac, alia the Bagman, and his left-hand man, Crankshaft, an expert mechanic as they take on the gangsters, the punks, the serial killers, a mad scientist, and a host of nasty characters that haunt the streets of Chicago, “the city where the weak are killed and eaten.”
Tales of the Bagman was published by Airship 27 Productions. Editor: Ron Fortier; Associate Editor: Ilena George. Cover © 2010 Laura Givens. Interior illustrations © 2010 Kelly Everaert. Production and Design by Rob Davis. 160 pages. Available in paperback and Kindle editions.
All titles in the series are published by Airship 27 Productions.