One need not list example after example of bad news dominating the headlines of late, but the desire for escapism has never seemed stronger. Economic woes and the success of genre fiction, time and time again, are directly correlated, which explains why romance novels are booming, why vampires and other supernatural beings have permeated American culture, and why big commercial fiction titles by Richard Russo, Thomas Pynchon, Pat Conroy and Stieg Larsson have ridden high on the bestseller lists in August.
But what to do when the mood strikes for a flat-out adventure story, of the type first popularized by H. Rider Haggard, captured on celluloid in Saturday afternoon serials and satirized by Michael Palin in his underrated 1970s series “Ripping Yarns”? The opening day lines around the block for "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" -- not to mention the crestfallen faces of those leaving the theater more than two hours later -- demonstrated with utter clarity how much people still yearn for reluctant heroes to save the world from epic-style danger as they move from sea to shining sea through a carnival of worldly wonders.
Hard Case Crime publisher Charles Ardai was one of those disappointed fans, the sting that much sharper because, as he told crime fiction critic and editor J. Kingston Pierce in an interview earlier this week, "Seeing 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' was a transformative experience for me, back when I was 11 years old -- I came out of the theater literally trembling, my heart racing. . . . And pretty much from that moment I was determined to someday do something that would recapture that feeling, or provide it to someone else." And if Indy's architects, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, "weren't giving the world a proper high adventure experience anymore, maybe I could."
Enter Gabriel Hunt, who took his first globe-trotting, adventure-laden bow with "Hunt at the Well of Eternity" (Leisure: 232 pp., $6.99 paper) and appears a second time in "Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear" (Leisure: 268 pp., $6.99 paper), with four more books still to come over the next 12 months. Hunt, unlike Indy, is a man of today's time, relying as much on his wits and his weapons as on GPS coordinates and rogue Wi-Fi signals. And unlike Doctor Jones, whom we know from the first as the brainchild of two super-famous media moguls, Hunt is presented to readers as both hero and author of his own adventures -- even if it's an open secret as to who authors each of the half-dozen books.
"Well of Eternity" is the handiwork of James Reasoner, whose prodigious output of a million words a year on the writing of Westerns, historical and other genre offerings is the envy of many of his peers. But Reasoner is a hack in the literal, not pejorative sense, an expert at taking Lester Dent's master plot formula and fine-tuning it to maximum entertainment perfection. As soon as the tuxedo-hating, tie-loosening Hunt glimpses "the loveliest woman in the room" across the way from him at the Met's Great Hall, the momentum never lets up, with abductions, trips to the deepest recesses of Guatemala and quests to find what Ponce de León couldn't hold onto among the many twists that carry Hunt toward the book's rollicking conclusion.
Reasoner's version of Hunt is more doer than thinker, but a small pause for backstory invites readers into Gabriel's primary motivations: "Nine years ago, Gabriel would have been less inclined to believe the impossible. But that was before the cruise ship carrying his parents on a millennial speaking tour of the Mediterranean had turned up empty, no one on board but the three hundred slaughtered members of the crew. All of the passengers, three hundred of them, vanished into thin air." And after listing other fantastical feats of his experience, "Impossible, Gabriel had repeatedly found, was often just shorthand for I don't know how. There were lots of things he didn't know. That didn't mean they were impossible."
"Cradle of Fear" continues Hunt's streak of turning the impossible into truth, dispatching himself to the Middle East and Turkey to unearth secrets buried thousands of years before, but this installment comes from series creator Ardai. And as much as the house style of nonstop action, bodacious babes and cliffhanging suspense prevails, one can detect syntactical differences. Ardai leans on the ellipse a little bit more, and his authorial voice asks the reader to slow down a little to take in Hunt's extra layer of introspection.
Then there are the occasional inside jokes, such as Hunt running into a young writer named Naomi near Istanbul's Basilica Cistern who "writes historical fantasy novels and my husband writes adventure stories" -- said husband "wore thick glasses and had his hair cut short, with a cowlick standing up in the back." There's no need to spell it out, but those familiar with the post-modern trickery of Ardai's giddy Hard Case Crime title "Fifty-to-One" will feel similar pleasure at renewed tips of the hat.
With veteran pulp purveyors Raymond Benson, Christa Faust, Nicholas Kaufmann and David Schow attached to later installments, each of them will bring their own unique ticks -- and perhaps play against them. But what already unites all volumes of Gabriel Hunt's escapades is the sense of exhilaration in the reader's mind that he or she can check problems at the door and follow this intrepid hero down paths well-worn and brand-new. When fun appears to be at a premium in day-to-day life, it's all the more important to embrace books bursting with elegant mischief.
Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction at www.sarahweinman.com. Dark Passages appears monthly at latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times