Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Empty Coffins by Scott Dennis Parker

Before I shine a light on EMPTY COFFINS, let me ask you a question: what’s your favorite book or movie that takes place on a train? Films at the top of my list include The Train (1965), The First Great Train Robbery (1979), and Runaway Train (1985). Yes, I’m a huge nerd for these types of plots ever since seeing mister 'Death Wish' himself, Charles Bronson, in Alistair Maclean’s Breakheart Pass (1976). Some of my favorite episodes of TV shows like Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, or The Wild Wild West (most especially) take place on an express with murder, shootouts, or various other combinations on the loose. Please feel free to name your picks in the comments—you may have one that I would enjoy being reminded about. And now, on to Scott Dennis Parker with EMPTY COFFINS featuring Calvin Carter: Railroad Detective. 

Carter is a thespian at heart—he loves the stage but has found a secondary calling as a railroad detective. That’s good news for western readers because he’s one entertaining son-of-a-gun. In the opening chapter, he’s disguised as a con man, managing to get close to the fugitive he’s trailing by offering to play a version of ‘spot the ace.’ The criminal is so captivated by Carter’s card hustle persona that he fails to note he has been collared. Carter has a partner, the more straightlaced Thomas Jackson, and both operate under the tutelage of Colonel Jameson Moore. It’s a wonderful set-up for nonstop action.

Indeed, a big factor in the EMPTY COFFINS enjoyment is the pacing that Parker has plotted like an old fashion pulp serial. Each chapter is brisk, snapping right along. Though, unlike many of those classics, which were often pithy on backstory, I appreciate the time Parker has put into developing the lead character. Carter isn’t a cardboard cutout going through the motions. We learn for example that his father, Elliot, had been a trainman his whole life, and when he was murdered, Calvin tracked down his father’s killer, discovering he had a knack for detective work. In this outing, Carter witnesses a good friend of his dad’s, lead engineer, Elmer Osgood, shot down before his eyes. The loss propels his emotions forward, as well as our investment as readers.

Still, Calvin Carter has a similar air of fun that Artemis Gordon sported in The Wild Wild West and that Hannibal Smith had by the bucket loads in the A-Team—why do something ordinary when you can bring a sense of theatrics to the occasion. He doesn’t waste a moment when donning a disguise and always finds time to flirt with the ladies. Great fun. I highly recommend Empty Coffins.

Note: In full disclosure, Scott is a good friend of mine and we are finishing a book, Cash Laramie and the Sundown Express, that we hope to see released next year.

David Cranmer is the editor of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and whose own body of work has appeared in such diverse publications as The Five-Two: Crime Poetry Weekly, Needle: A Magazine of Noir, LitReactor, Macmillan’s Criminal Element, and Chicken Soup for the Soul. Under the pen name Edward A. Grainger he created the Cash Laramie western series. He's a dedicated Whovian who enjoys jazz and backgammon. He can be found in scenic upstate New York where he lives with his wife and daughter.


  1. This sounds like so much fun. Also, who can argue with a Whovian? Doris

  2. Thanks for reading, Doris. And you gave me a chuckle with the Whovian line.

  3. David, I love train-anything. When I was growing up, both sets of my grandparents and many of my aunts, uncles and cousins from both sides of the family lived in a small SE Oklahoma town called Calera--but it had been known before as Cale Switch and was a place where trains took on water back in the old days. My dad's parents' house was just across the highway from the tracks and I loved being able to hear the whistles and rumble of the trains. After spending a night or two there, I would wake up when the train DIDN'T come through right on time, knowing it should have already come, drifting back to sleep when the whistle sounded. That was so comforting. Later, my cousins and I would sneak off over to the tracks and walk up and down, put pennies on the tracks to be smashed flat, and just spend some time yakking as we did something completely forbidden by all our parents--and lived to tell about it! LOL I am going to have to get Empty Coffins. Sounds like a winner if it happens on a train!

  4. You have such great memories, Cheryl. I always wondered how one could get use to a daily passing locomotive but like anything else you just do, right? And I remember, as well, placing pennies and quarters on the rails waiting for a train to pass by. My biggest adventure was when I took a train ride with my wife and daughter that trekked from Syracuse New York to Chicago and then to Texas. So much fun!