Wednesday, February 12, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Fargo #3 - Alaska Steel by John Benteen

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John Benteen (aka, Ben Haas) knocked another one out of the park with this, the third installment of his long-running FARGO series. This time around, we find Neal Fargo - ex-soldier and Rough Rider, now mercenary adventurer and gun-for-hire - standing in as a Hollywood extra on the set of a Western film (a nice bit of self-referentialism here, I must say). Another old comrade of his got Fargo a bit part as a gunslinging heavy in a cowboy picture, but Fargo being Fargo, he turns down an offer by the filmmaker to get into the movie-making business full-time.  Of course, he's also a little annoyed that he has to slow down his quick-draw so he doesn't pull faster than the hero of the picture, although the movie star who "kills" Fargo on-camera later asks him to demonstrate how to perform some fancy pistol tricks, rolling and spinning a Peacemaker in a way that'll please the crowds.

However, the pistol-spinning comes to an abrupt halt when Jane Deering, a young and sexy Hollywood starlet, drops by looking to invite Fargo to her home later that night to discuss business (and have sex). Fargo of course accepts, since the only thing he enjoys more than making money and shooting guys in the face is having sex with gorgeous women. Deering has a simple business proposition for Fargo - travel to Alaska and acquire confirmation that her estranged husband is dead. Deering is savvy enough to understand that Hollywood (even circa 1914) is just a meat grinder for talent: young, beautiful, naive people go in, and come out prematurely aged, washed-up and kicked out to pasture as the studios move on to the next big name. But Deering's husband was wealthy, and if she can find proof of his death somewhere in the wilds of the great white north, she will inherit his fortune. Fargo agrees to take on this assignment, although he is reluctant to bring Deering along with him, since she insists she's as tough and capable as any man.

What follows is a great action-adventure story set in the wild and unruly world of early 20th century Alaska. I was especially eager to read this particular novel because, as a native-born Alaskan myself, I was curious to see how Benteen (Haas) portrayed the territory and its people in these largely lawless, pre-statehood days. Overall, I wasn't disappointed. Even today, Alaska is a place for the independent of mind and spirit, for people who are self-reliant and take satisfaction from being in control of as much of their lives as one can be in the 21st century. But a hundred years ago, it really was one of the last North American frontiers, a place where the unwary could be killed by the savage winter cold or the teeth and claws of even more savage predators, by knife or gun or whiskey bottle or icy stream.

The extraordinarily dangerous environment is well-envisioned in this novel, but equally impressive is the amount of action and intrigue that takes place in the story. I won't give away any spoilers, except to say that Fargo and Deering stumble into a situation much more deadly than they'd ever imagined. There are a number of good fights in this book, from fists to knives to pistols and rifles, and of course Fargo's infamous double-barreled shotgun gets a good workout. There is a large battle at the end of the book that feels like something out of the battle for Berlin, 1945. In fact, the only criticism of the book I might have is that the final battle is a little TOO huge and bloody - but of course, that's just crazy talk.

If you've made it to Alaska Steel, you're no doubt a Fargo fan like myself, so I know I don't have to sell you on it, but rest assured, this is another excellent volume in what has quickly become one of my favorite action-adventure series. Pick it up, because you won't be disappointed.


Anonymous said...

This is a fine Fargo novel, but you didn't mention my favorite scene.
When Fargo is asked to stay on in Hollywood and refuses, the movie star hero he's working with understands that Fargo is drawn by the lure of real adventure and real danger, so the illusion of making movies can never satisfy him. He expresses envy of Fargo about this.
In a memorable and surprising exchange Fargo tells the actor that his craving for danger makes him little better than a drunkard, and that all Fargo will ultimately get out of his soldier of fortune lifestyle is to be forgotten in an unmarked grave.

This is pretty dark and self aware stuff for a "men's action-adventure hero" of the 1970's.
It's easy to take Haas/Benteen's work for granted once you've read a bit, but if there was an author out there writing this kind of story at the same level of skill I've yet to discover him.

John Hocking

Jack Badelaire said...

John, good comment - Fargo is truly without illusion as to his ultimate fate. He is, what we'd perhaps call nowadays a "war junkie", hooked on conflict and the thrill of combat.

Thanks for dropping by!

Charles Gramlich said...

Sounds very good. I still have to get these. A couple of times when I've looked I've found them pretty expensive.

Jack Badelaire said...

Charles, if you have a Kindle, at $1.99 apiece you can't beat the price.

Anonymous said...

Right on!

Thanks for the heads up. NOOK also has them on the cheap.

Jim Cornelius

Anonymous said...

And BTW, is that John Hocking, author of Conan and the Emerald Lotus? That's the most highly regarded of the TOR pastiches.

Jim Cornelius

Howard Andrew Jones said...

That was, indeed, the mighty Hocking, who's the one who got me hooked on the work of the brilliant Ben Haas.

It's wonderful to see these books available again. Once I got hooked on Fargo and Sundance it was hard work finding some of those beat-up paperbacks.

Did you see the master list of Fargo and Sundance titles (well, ALL Haas books) put together by Lynn Munroe? It is the best source for figuring out which "Benteen" titles were really those by Haas and which ones were by other house names. (

Of course, now that Haas' work is coming out in e-books, perhaps newcomers to his writing won't have the same challenges the rest of us have had, or need the lists, because all these texts will be by Haas himself.

Howard Andrew Jones