Thursday, January 21, 2021

Valley Of The Assassins

Valley Of The Assassins, by Ian MacAlister
January, 1976  Fawcett Gold Medal

Prolific author Marvin Albert published a few adventure novels as “Ian MacAlister” in the ‘70s, Fawcett clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Alistair MacLean’s books. Some of the “MacAlister” books were WWII thrillers, and others, like this one, had contemporary ‘70s settings. But if the others are as good as Valley Of The Assassins is, they’re all worth seeking out. 

The only material I’ve read from Albert is his work on Soldato, so what I know about him is his recurring theme of a protagonist being hunted by killers in a desolate terrain. That occurs here as well; Albert is a gifted adventure writer, capably bringing to life desolate, far-flung corners of the world and having his characters endure Hemingway-esque struggles while also fending off human enemies. With this novel Albert adds other elements to the mix: a sort of proto-Indiana Jones vibe with ancient maps written in secret code, an almost supernatural menace, and even a heist vibe to boot, with the main protagonist carefully putting together a team to carry out what is essentially an elaborate tomb raid. It’s an entertaining novel for sure, but be aware this is another of those deceptively-slim ‘70s paperbacks; it only runs to 190 pages, but it has some very small, dense print. 

It’s not a slow-moving novel, though; while we don’t get to the expected “hunted in a desolate setting” motif until late in the novel, Albert keeps the narrative moving with occasional action setpieces, lots of mystery and suspense, and very strong characterization. Not to mention a very strong grasp of setting: Valley Of The Assassins takes place in Iraq, Iran, Oman, and the desert, and in each locale there is the feeling that Albert has been there, even if he hadn’t really been; what I mean to say is that he confidently and succinctly captures the vibe of these areas with the air of an expert. He also capably brings to life his protagonist, Eric Larson, an American “adventurer” (per the back cover) who has lived in the Middle East for the past several years; Larson came here as an oil driller, “fell in love” with a cabin boat, decided to buy it at great expense, and now lives here still, doing odd jobs for foreign businessmen visiting the area. 

We meet Larson while he’s en route to one such job, venturing along the Persian Gulf for Iraq. He comes across three “corpses” along a reef; one of them, a frail little hunchbacked man, turns out to still be alive. Larson brings him aboard and, per the weak man’s whispered request, takes him to Iran. The novel takes place in pre-revolution Iran, of course, and indeed Larson never once is concerned about terrorism or the expected modern troubles during his voyages around Arabia. His main troubles are how the Iraqi authorities suspect him of occasionally providing assistance to Kurdish rebels, something we gradually learn Larson has indeed done in the past. 

Two weeks later he’s bumming around in Basra, Iraq, trying to avoid the suspicision of his “friend,” a power-hungry Iraqi cop named Hammad who likes to have the occasional secret drink with Larson – but who wouldn’t be bothered at all if he were to have to torture, beat, or arrest his friend if it turned out Larson was involved in anything illegal. Larson has bigger concerns, though; he returns to his cabin boat one night to find a strange young Arabic man waiting in the boat for him. The man draws a strange symbol on the deck and tries to kill Larson with a poisoned dagger. Larson blows the guy’s head off; Hammad comes in to collect the corpse, and everyone is baffled by the strange symbol tattooed on the would-be assassin’s chest. There are a lot of ideograms throughout the book, by the way, including even hieroglyphics. The assassin appears to have come for a piece of paper (with more ideographs) that the old hunchback secretly stashed on the boat without Larson’s awareness. Larson takes the map to a scholar acquaintance, one who has spent decades studying Arabic history. 

Albert skillfully weaves a mystery element into the narrative as it becomes clear the paper is a map. But everything about it is a puzzle, with the deciphered symbols coming out as odd lines of poetry which seem to be vague directions. Eventually Larson will learn this all has to do with the infamous Hassan I Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, a despotic ruler from centuries ago who retained a legion of fiercely loyal Assassins. The Old Man also factored into Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus!, which too was published around this time, so there must’ve been some book or documentary or something that was getting writers interested in him in the mid-‘70s. Larson suspects the Assassins still exist, even though official records state they were disbanded back in the medieval era – he gets confirmation of this when he draws the symbol that was tattooed on the would-be assassin, and his friend tells him it is the mark of the Assassin order. 

Larson gets further confirmation when another old acquaintance suddenly shows up – Darra, a “dark, hard-eyed young woman” that Larson had a fling with a few years before. She’s a Kurdish rebel, and while helping them against their Iraqi oppressors Larson and Darra fell in love…which didn’t go over well with her husband, thus Larson left. But she reveals that her husband’s since been killed in a Soviet airstrike. Now Darra is here with another young Kurd, Jamil, and they’ve also come for the map. Turns out they are aligned with the old man Larson saved at the beginning of the book: his name is Kasra Tofiq, and he’s an Iran-based scholar of Kurdish extraction who is the world’s leading expert on Hassan I Sabbah. After meeting the man again, Larson gets the full details: Tofiq had read that the Assassins had a great treasure which was hidden in Sabbah’s coffin after their fortress fell. They carried it around Arabia to stash it somewhere, but the location was lost. Tofiq thinks he’s found the location, but in pure Indiana Jones style it’s not so simple: the seeker must decipher several clues and jump through innumerable hoops to find the treasure’s location. Worse yet, Tofiq is certain the treasure is somewhere in the Rub-al-Khali, a massive desert so infamous that even veteran sand-dwellers go out of their way to avoid it. 

This takes us into the heist angle of the novel, as Larson begins putting together his team of specialists. However unlike a proper heist, these specialities aren’t fully exploited in the narrative. Like one guy, another acquaintance of Larson’s, named Church, who lives in Oman as a geologist and thus has free reign from the authoritative government to travel around. Larson hires him on with a promise of a nice cut in return for using Church’s free pass – Larson and the others will need to go through Oman for the desert – but after this is accomplished Church becomes inconsequential to the plot. More important are the other characters who come along: Darra, Jamil, and finally Hammad, who forces himself into the venture after having spied on Larson. Finally there’s Ivo Slasko, a Czech gunrunner who too has nothing of consequence to add to the plot and might as well be wearing a red shirt. 

Albert delivers yet another taut sequence where Larson ventures alone to desolate Alamut, impregnable desert fortress of Hassan I Sabbah. This is very much in the Indiana Jones mode as Larson must find the ancient garden and sit in the darkened, empty fortress throughout the night, waiting to see how the moon illuminates the map – only then will the first steps in the journey to the treasure be revealed. This sort of thing repeats throughout the novel, with the journeyer coming to the next stop only to have to wait for the next “signal” on how to proceed. Larson by the way has gotten so involved because, if the treasure is as great as expected, he wants fifty percent of it – and knows no one can prevent him, as he keeps Tofiq’s map and further burns it after getting the next signals here at Alamut. Thus Larson is the only person in the entire world who knows how to find the ancient Assassin treasure. 

Now there’s mystery, and tension, and mounting thrills with strong characterization, but I can hear you asking – where’s the sleaze? Sadly my friends there’s none. We know for sure that Larson and Darra are soon back together, but the most we get is a “morning after” moment in Darra’s small apartment in Iran, with Larson musing that she is “the epitome of a soft and supple harem delight.” Even the violence isn’t much dwelt upon; later in the book there are a few pitched firefights, but as with the Soldato books it’s more in the PG realm of “get shot and fall down”-type violence, with none of the exploding heads or fountaining cererbrospinal gore that bloodthirsty action readers typically demand. But friends it’s my pleasure to inform you that the lack of this exploitative stuff doesn’t matter! Valley Of The Assassins is a damn great novel even without it. 

We know action is forthcoming, as Larson is sure to get arms for the trip into the hellscape desert. Everyone carries an M16 and Browning high-power automatic, and they also bring along two Enfield rifles for long-range sniping. As they enter the desert in a truck and a Land Rover, Church learns via his friends in the Oman army that the Berber “desert raiders” have been especially violent lately. They almost come off like proto-Sand People in the novel, with the constant threat that they might latch onto Larson’s party in the desolate desert and set in upon them. But while cool, I felt the Berbers sort of distracted from the more narratively-important threat: the Assassins. And indeed the two menaces are easily confused, both being comprised of robe-wearing desert dwellers with little in the way of human compassion. 

Albert really brings the desert to life, and this material is straight-up adventure fiction, with lots of flora and fauna detail. But as mentioned the book is longer than you expect, and a lot of this serves to make it read a little slowly at times. Then again, Albert’s prose is so sinewy and accomplished that you don’t mind the slackened pace. There is as mentioned the growing threat of the Berbers, and this really comes to a boil in a gripping sequence that has several of them tailing Larson’s group. The Berbers are on camels, but when Larson’s Land Rover keeps breaking down on mountain-sized dunes the tables are turned. This leads to a gripping sequence where Larson and comrades mount an ambush on the Berbers, cutting them down on full auto. This leads to more of Albert’s patented “man being stalked” material, with Larson desperate to find the last four Berbers, but while super cool it turns out to be a precursor of the novel’s climax, which features the same situation of Larson being stalked. 

There’s another layer to the story in that Larson is certain there’s a “leak” in Tofiq’s organization; this became evident when the Assassin showed up on Larson’s boat in Iraq to kill him. The “mystery” of the leak is pretty easily solved, but regardless Larson doesn’t get certainty of it till near the novel’s end, when a trio of Assassins show up and start stalking his party through the desert. There’s no titular “valley” of Assassins here; rather, the treasure turns out to be in a twisted cavern system that sprouts over a volcanic crater. Albert again skillfully delivers the desperate situation as Larson and the few remaining members of his party navigate the rocky, dangerous terrain, all while the Assassins stalk them. The biggest reveal is when the treasure is discovered, lying for centuries on a pile of volcanic ash by the crater – the excellent cover illustration turns out to be a spoiler of what Larson actually finds in Hassan I Sabbah’s coffin. 

The finale is what Albert does best: two men tracking our hero through rough desert terrain in a taut sequence that will leave even the most veteran action reader exhausted. It’s the exact opposite of the typical gun-blazing action finale, with Larson desperately maintaining silence as he crawls in and out of canyons, moving inch by inch as he scans the horizon for a betraying cloud of dust – which would give away the location of his enemies. Oh and meanwhile he’s been shot in the leg so has to pull himself around, and Darra has a severe concussion. This part was especially synchronistic as I happened to accidentally bang my own head on the wall that very day (I forgot to duck when going into the downstairs closet, like a pure fool). Darra’s out of it for the finale, save for one very memorable appearance; I forgot to mention, but she too is a wonderfully-realized character, a kickass desert warrior babe who fights harder than most men Larson knows. 

At 190 dense pages, Valley Of The Assassins actually has a pretty curt ending; Larson manages to get out of the desert with the “treasure,” but what happens after this is unstated. Does he go back to Kofiq? Do he and Darra use the treasure money to start a new life in America, with Darra becoming a media presence to talk about the Iraqi subjugation of the Kurdish people? This is something Larson suggests they do, but whether they actually do or not is up to the reader to determine. Regardless, Valley Of The Assassins is as mentioned a great novel, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I’ll be looking for more of the “Ian MacAlister” books in the future.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Dagger #1: The Centaur Conspiracy

Dagger #1: The Centaur Conspiracy, by Carl Stevens
September, 1983  Gold Eagle

This was the start of the short-lived Dagger series. How short-lived? There was only one more volume. This isn’t an indication that the series is bad; I think it’s just more of an indication that it was courtesy the wrong imprint. For “Carl Stevens” is none other than Raymond Obstfeld, and his series has more in common with John D. MacDonald than Don Pendleton; judging from this first volume, Dagger would’ve been more at home with Dell or Pocket instead of from the publishers of Phoenix Force, as it has little in common with the action-focused titles Gold Eagle was known for. 

At 221 pages, The Centaur Conspiracy is already a little different from the rest of the Gold Eagle line; there’s a lot more backstory than the typical series book, with Obstfeld carefully world-building. There’s also more of a focus on characterization, and there’s much more focus on snappy dialog. But one thing missing is the gun-detail typical of the standard Gold Eagle fare. Hero Christian “Dagger” Daguerre doesn’t even carry his own gun, and his kill count is a fraction of other series protagonists in this imprint. For that matter, many of the action scenes in The Centaur Conspiracy seem forced, as if grafted on to appease the publisher’s demands. This is not to say they aren’t thrilling or well-written, though, it’s just that they could easily be cut and the story wouldn’t suffer from the loss. 

Daguerre then is different than the genre norm; he’s not a vet or a former cop or anything. He’s a journalist, one who has an extensive background in combat reporting. Daguerre’s father was a hardcore military type and raised his son to be the next in line, only to be stunned when young Daguerre announced he wanted to be a reporter. But as mentioned Daguerre’s specialty is combat reporting, to the extent that he’s had extensive Special Forces training, firearms and hand-to-hand training, and has even seen a lot of action in the line of journalism. There’s a lot of backstory peppered into the narrative, one of the stories being how Daguerre saved a bunch of soldiers all by himself during some heavy fighting in ‘Nam. One mystery I had is that the back cover specifies Daguerre’s “youth,” but we’re informed he was reporting in ‘Nam over a decade ago. I assume we’re to understand he’s in his early 30s or somesuch, but Gold Eagle calling out Daguerre’s “youth” on the back cover copy seems an indication they were trying to separate him from the standard “older Vietnam vet” of the genre. 

Daguerre’s backstory isn’t just limited to war reportage, though; there’s also his time with Hearst-esque “Captain” Hannibal Kyd, a newspaper baron who gave Daguerre his first big job many years ago and became like a father figure to him. Kyd eventually factors into this first installment, entailing long backflash sequences in which we learn that his duplicitous nature caused a rift between the two men: Kyd sent a pair of reporters on an investigation case back in the late ‘70s, not telling them the mob was involved, and they ended up being executed. While all this stuff is well written, it doesn’t have much to do with the story at hand, and again is another indication that Dagger isn’t at the right publishing house. An even bigger backstory has it that Daguerre was engaged to a young woman named Cara, but over a year ago she was gunned down on the streets of Rome when a pair of terrorists were trying to kidnap someone. This too elicits a long flashback sequence. But it now occurs to me that this is a common element in Obstfeld’s series novels; even his post-holocaust The Warlord often suffers from too much backstory digression.  

But Cara’s death was a year ago, and we learn of the events in gradual backstory. When we meet Daguerre he’s parasailing in Mazatlan, on assignment in this tourist spot in Mexico to do an easy job on the vacation industry. Only he sees one of the guys on the boat below whip out a knife and start sawing at the rope he’s connected to. This is our immediate indication that Obstfeld will, as ever, be delivering a fast-paced thriller with the vibe of an action movie; Daguerre’s even spouting quips in the face of danger like your average Hollywood hero of the day. Daguerre manages to manuever himself so that he plunges harmlessly into the ocean, but later he’s attacked by the same guy in his hotel room. We get another indication here that this isn’t going to be your average Gold Eagle novel: Daguerre doesn’t have a weapon, and must use his wits and his skills to kill his opponent in vicious hand-to-hand combat, strangling him with a tie. In fact there’s a proto-MacGyver vibe to the novel, with Daguerre often creating makeshift weapons. This too harkens to The Warlord, particularly given the focus on bladed weaponry; Obstfeld is certainly not one for the gun-detailing you get in the average Gold Eagle publication. 

Another Obstfeld mainstay is a vivacious female character – as with the other main female characters in the Obstfeld novels I’ve read, Alexandra Kidd (daughter of Hannibal) is a spunky heroine who has sparkling dialog and a gift for acidic rejoinders…and of course the genre-mandatory hot bod. Her intro is memorable, coming on to Daguerre in the hotel lobby and talking about a cigarette burn on her foot. But Daguerre quickly learns that she’s the daughter of his former mentor; last time he saw her she was a teenager, and now she’s a hotstuff babe in her mid 20s and looking to break into the news game on her own. A running gag has it that she secretly stays appraised of her father’s activities thanks to a well-placed “contact” (aka her mother), thus she found out that Hannibal Kyd was coming down to Mazatlan to look for Daguerre. Alexandra, sensing a big story, came down here on her own to find out what the scoop is and to exploit it; she doesn’t believe Daguerre’s insistence that he’s merely here to cover a simple vacation story. 

Hannibal Kyd turns out to be the reason that guy tried to kill Daguerre; Kyd wants to investigate a mysterious travel agency that operates out of Mazatlan, one Kyd believes is involved in something nefarious, and he started spreading the word around town that famous investigative journalist Christian Daguerre was down here to research the place! Thus the frequent attempts on Daguerre’s life. Kyd is not aware that his daughter is down here, though, and things take a turn for the personal when the bad guys manage to abduct her. This leads to one of those MacGyver moments when Daguerre, who still doesn’t even have a friggin’ gun, goes into a toy store and buys some supplies, along with a chemistry set, and makes himself a pitcher of homemade tear gas. This is used to save Alexandra in a thrilling sequence which once again sees Daguerre using bladed weapons to kill his enemies, as well as delivering more action movie-esque quips. 

Eventually Daguerre learns the “travel agency” is up to something real nefarious; long story short, it’s a front for a PLO terrorist organization run by a sadistic dude nicknamed Centaur (due to a scar on his forehead), and the “conspiracy” of the title has to do with Centaur’s plan to smuggle terrorists across the border via the travel agency so as to carry out a major terrorist strike on the US. The terrorists, male and female, pose as simple “Mexican” laborers, hired by wealthy Americans who use the travel agency via word of mouth. In an entertaining sequence Daguerre and Alexandra (who of course have done the deed by this point, though the sex scene is pretty PG – but the fact there’s even one in a Gold Eagle novel is surprising enough) pose as a married couple and visit the agency, looking for a new maid. 

They cross the border and then pull off in the desert to inspect their “new maid,” who has been hidden by the travel agency in a secret compartment behind the trunk. It’s a young woman who claims to be from a desolate region of Mexico, hence her bad Mexican accent (Daguerre being fluent in many languages). Of course it’s all a ruse and she’s really a Palestenian terrorist. Daguerre ties her to the ground and interrogates her with a tarantula, but it’s up to Alexandra to save the day when the terrorist chick gets free, as expected. Centaur meanwhile appears sporadically in the novel, usually domineering over his cowed underlings; Centaur, whose name is really Nasil, is infamous for biting the tongues out of his victims…and feeding them to the “elite” members of his commando squad. Unfortunately his towering nature is a bit subdued in a climax that would be more at home in a Travis McGee novel. 

With much setup Daguerre ventures to Los Angeles, where Centaur now is situated, and goes about posing as a windsurfer. At length he gets on a boat inside which Centaur has stashed several wealthy American victims; Centaur’s somewhat anticlimactic plot centers around kidnapping wealthy Americans and blowing them all up. So Daguerre gets on the boat, starts to free some of the people, and is surprised by Centaur, who shows up, knocks Daguerre out…and leaves! It’s all very ridiculous as Daguerre stumbles back to consciousness and gives chase, eventually ending up on Centaur’s own boat and getting in a prolonged fight with him. Even the villain’s comeuppance seems more out of a summer blockbuster film than the typical Gold Eagle staple; it’s courtesy some spinning boat propellers. 

The Centaur Conspiracy ends with Daguerre and Alexandra forming a “team.” No idea if she appears in the second (and final!) volume, which judging from the cover takes place in Japan. Overall this one was pretty entertaining, if a bit overlong – a lot of the backstory was somewhat excessive and could’ve been shortened. But Obstfeld’s attempt at melding standard Gold Eagle men’s adventure with something along the lines of John D. MacDonald is to be commended; it’s easy to see, though, why the series didn’t last. 

Finally, I love how the back cover of The Centaur Conspiracy features a blurb from none other than “Dick Stivers” – yep, a nonexistent author. This almost leads to one of those philosophical ponderings: if a nonexistent author blurbs a book, does that mean the book itself doesn’t exist? Better yet is the page of reader comments at the very end of the book, with quotes from readers across the country on how great Gold Eagle is; all their names are given as initials, but an asterisk informs us that “full names are available upon request.” Like in case the FBI wants to investigate the legitimacy of these claims or something.

Thursday, January 14, 2021


Trips, by Ellen Sander
No month stated, 1973  Scribner

This used to be a hard book to find, but it was recently reissued in an “augmented” edition.  As usual though I wanted to read the original product, so I had to get a copy of the first edition via InterLibrary Loan. Trips is almost like the Forest Gump of the rock era; Ellen Sander, a journalist, happened to be at all the big events of the day, from Monterey to Woodstock to Altamont, hanging out with a revolving cast of rock stars. 

Sander, who has a definite gift for writing, has here turned out an account of this time – it is very much in the New Journalism mode of the era, the narrative hopscotching wily-nily and Sander sometimes appearing as the protagonist, other times just documenting events. It appears that some of this material was originally published in the magazines Sander contracted for; most infamous of these would be her profile on Led Zeppelin, which Life magazine hired her to write but which Sander never completed, due to the fact that John Bonham and “a member of the entourage” assaulted her at the end of the tour Sander was covering. This material appears in Trips, and apparently it took Sander a few years to recover from the incident – which occurred in 1969 – to write about it. What’s fascinating is that it is not played up anywhere near how it would be today, Sander merely recounting the attack in almost clinical prose in the span of a sentence. 

Otherwise this is a very New Journalism-esque recount of the beginnings of the Rock Era. Sander happens to be at all the major events of the day, meeting all the famous personalities, so provides some first-hand perspectives you won’t find anywhere else. Surprisingly none of it was excerpted in Rolling Stone; I checked my Cover To Cover CD-ROM and Trips isn’t even reviewed. Maybe this is because a lot of its material was formerly published in other magazines, and in its early days Rolling Stone seemed to be a little vindictive in that regard; Jonathan Eisen’s three music-review anthologies, for example (The Age of Rock, The Age of Rock II, and Twenty-Minute Fandangos & Forever Changes), were each savaged in Rolling Stone reviews…and all three of them featured material that had been published in other music magazines. 

Sander starts off the book with a brief recap of “Teenism,” her term for the dawning realization in the 1950s that teenagers had their own beliefs and culture. (“Coming of age in the Fifties was pure pain.”) Sander relates how she and other teens gained their own identity and also how early rock ‘n’ roll made such an impact on them. From there it’s to the early ‘60s, with the discovery of protest folk music and marijuana. There’s a lot of random asides on the culture of the day, in particular drugs and how they too developed their own identities – marijuana was cool, hash was rare, and you avoided people on speed. Acid hadn’t arrived on the scene yet, but of course is dealt with later in the book as we get deeper into the ‘60s. There’s also as expected a lot of material here on Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and such, but their music has never been my thing, so I skimmed this material. 

Fans of the Byrds will be especially interested in Trips, as Sanders was familiar with the members before they even started the group and were singing separately in New York. In fact, Sander relates in the beginning that Trips started life as a biography of David Crosby, before mutating into more of a overview of the era (and also she states it took her two years to write the book). Soon everyone moves to Los Angeles, Sander relating that as the ‘60s progressed California took over from New York as ground zero of the movement. The Byrds come and go throughout the book, and Sander was also an audience to the formation of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Later in the book we learn that Crosby and Stills are just separately sitting around, bored, then one day begin singing together at Stills’s place, and Nash wanders in and begins singing with them, and a supergroup is born. There’s also an interesting part where Crosby plays Nash some of the early Byrds material, demos which would be released as Preflyte (which I picked up back in the ‘90s, mainly due to the awesome Neal Adams superhero cover, but still haven’t played). 

Things get even more interesting when we get to Sander’s first-hand experiences of major rock events. The first example of this is her coverage of the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. In addition to ruminations on the various groups, we get cool behind the scenes looks at other rock artists watching the show, like Grace Slick. Sander also well captures the impact Jimi Hendrix made in his American debut – though Sander herself was more personally “moved” by the Who, whose apocalyptic set conclusion so shook her that she rushed for cover, under the mistaken belief that they were destroying the stage. Later of course she learned it was part of their act. Sander wrote the book after Hendrix’s death, so there is an air of loss in any mentions of him…and also I wonder if an early mention of a musician Sander saw fried out of his mind on heroin is a veiled reference to Hendrix. I’m not saying Hendrix was into heroin (and the coroner’s report indicated there were no needle marks on him anywhere), but Frank Zappa claimed he’d once seen Hendrix shooting up in the stall of a public restroom. (Or so a friend tells me; I don’t know much about Zappa at all.)  This is exactly where Sander sees a never-named “famous” rock musician shooting up – and implies that he was bound for an early death. 

The free-ranging narrative also touches on the start of the San Francisco scene, covering some of the same material as in Ralph Gleason’s The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound, with the formation of the Family Dog and whatnot. The Beatles aren’t featured as much, always on the periphery though due to their massive impact on the scene and fellow musicians. We do get a cool story about them hanging out with the Byrds when the Beatles came to Los Angeles; once again John Lennon comes off as rather temperamental, given that he compliments Roger McGuinn of the Byrds on a great show, and McGuinn responds, “Nah, we were terrible,” after which Lennon remains “aloof” for the rest of the night. Speaking of the Byrds, Sander has it that Crosby quits the group, whereas the story I’ve always read is that he was kicked out, especially given the JFK conspiracy theories he spouted at Monterey (an incident Sander also records in the book). 

Sander also documents how youth in the ’60s began to travel, more so than earlier generations had; a mere $75 dollars for a flight from New York to Los Angeles, and the hippie kids took advantage of the cheap fare to follow their favorite groups around the country. “Ravers” is the term Sanders employs for touring rockers, road veterans who by the end of the tour are so far gone they have no idea where they are anymore. Again the Who factors in, particular Keith Moon’s hotel-room ransackings, crazed attempts at letting off steam from a hectic, endless touring schedule. This is where, with little fanfare, the Led Zeppelin material comes up, as Sander went on tour with them during their second US tour; this was after I had been released, and while II was still being recorded. 

Zep doesn’t come off very great here, as human beings at least – Sander is clear throughout how she admires their music. On the road they were animals; “no matter how miserably the group failed to keep their behavior to a human level,” as Sander puts it, documenting their many and frequent encounters with groupies, some of whom are incredibly young. Page is presented as distant and reserved, with Plant given to loud public outbursts; there’s a funny part where he shocks his fellow first-class passengers upon boarding a plane, screaming that he needs “the toilets” as he rushes for the restroom. But that’s how early Sander was with them; Led Zeppelin didn’t even have their own transportation yet. It’s clear though they’re on their way to the top, though; granted, the book was published after they’d reached the top, but the majority of the material in this section is apparently from the Life article Sander never completed. 

The reason she never completed it is an event which, as mentioned, only occurs over a few sentences and isn’t dwelt on much at all. After Zep’s final show of the tour, in Madison Square Garden, Sander goes backstage to tell them goodbye, given that she’d spent so much time with them on the tour. Instead she gets attacked, “two members” of the group screaming as they assault her like madmen, ripping her dress down her back. Then burly Zep manager Peter Grant shows up and basically hoists each of them by their shirts and pulls them away; he even offers a shocked Sander his own limo so she can escape. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Sander states that the two members who attacked her were Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and “a member of his entourage.” 

But this is it for the Led Zeppelin debacle; in today’s era this part would be milked for all it’s #metoo worth. But Sander makes it clear that she respects Led Zeppelin as musicians. She’s jolted by the ordeal, and as stated doesn’t even finish the Life story due to it, but she doesn’t make herself out to be a huge victim over it. This won’t be Sander’s only brush with the bad side of rock; in pure proto-Forest Gump stye she’s also at the infamous Altamont concert, and was so freaked by the bad vibes that she actually left early. She was at Woodstock, too, and we get more cool behind the scenes material, like many of the rock acts hanging out at the open bar at the nearby hotel and waiting for the ‘copter ride to take them in before their shows. 

The Who factors into another story, but only barely; we learn they’re pissed off they have to open for the Doors. Apparently Sander had wanted to cover the Who’s tour, but they rejected the idea, which is why she covered Led Zeppelin; perhaps this is why Townshend and company only appear sporadically in Trips. As for the Doors, interestingly Sander covers material which was captured in a cinema verite documentary they were recording at the time; a young girl in the audience is injured after the show and Jim Morrison goes out to talk to her. I saw this material in the recent Doors documentary When You’re Strange (narrated by Johnny Depp!). But once again Sander has the behind-the-scenes info; we learn that after the girl leaves, Jimbo wonders if he even should’ve talked to her, as he’s afraid it might’ve come off as forced for the cameras. We can glean from this section that Trips was submitted for publication before Morrison’s death in ’71, as there’s no indication he’s bound for a short life. No mention of Janis Joplin’s death, either.  Or maybe there was and I just missed it. 

One chapter features Sander’s brief detour into politics; she answers a strange ad in the underground papers placed by Paul Kassner and Abbie Hoffman, apparently looking for a girl to go on vacation with them! So we have her brief adventures in trying to spread the word of the revolution and whatnot; this chapter doesn’t have as much to do with the rock theme of the rest of the book, but still captures the vibe of the era. One thing that’s become evident to me, given the “resist!” movement of recent years, is how patriotic the earlier movement was, comparatively speaking. Those hippies loved their flag. You’ll see it hoisted at concerts, you’ll see it draped over them. They might’ve wanted to change certain aspects of America, but they still loved America. You don’t really see that with the modern protesters – it’s more of an anti-America thing, more driven by anger than the ‘60s movement was. There seemed to be more of a positive vibe to the ‘60s movement, which is interesting given that protesters then had more hanging over their heads; the protesters of today might be rioting against racism and etc, but not a single one of them is in danger of being drafted and sent off to die in some pointless war in Southeast Asia. (At least they aren’t yet…I’m sure the war-mongers will soon be returning to the positions they were removed from over the past four years.) 

Of course, different drugs fueled that earlier movement; LSD, marijuana, and hash aren’t generally known for instilling hostility. But there was also rock as a unifier of the movement; God knows what the protesters of today listen to. Rap or “trap” or whatever the hell it is. Rock, even the heavier stuff, is just more of a positive force; “Rock ‘n’ roll is life affirming,” as Julian Cope succinctly put it. And rock in the era of Trips was akin to the social media of today, a webwork that unified the youth movement, with the important difference being that it afforded a greater freedom of expression. Rock is not the unifier today, and I doubt it could be, as it’s lost it’s heart. There are modern “rock” groups that can ape the sounds of yesteryear (though why every single one of them have nasallaly, high-pitched singers I’ve yet to figure out), but they don’t have the soul. And as I’ve argued before, none of them today could even think of a song like “Under My Thumb,” let alone release it. 

Interestingly though, the modern establishment, which is clearly more leftist than the establishment those left-wing rockers were rebelling against in the ‘60s, is arguably more restrictive. Limitations on free speech and expression are much more severe, and authoritarian measures have gone through the roof, especially in this past year. (They even went one better than the Sherrif of Nottingham and actually cancelled Christmas!) You’d think this would be a prime petri dish for anti-establishment rock along the lines of the ‘60s, but the “sea change” is so deep that the rock groups of today couldn’t even conceive of such “dangerous” songs. They don’t even know how to question the status quo, let alone challenge it.  So we must leave it to the old rockers to prove that rock can still be dangerous: did you all know that Van Morrison and Eric Clapton recently released a single that was banned? It’s an anti-lockdown protest number called “Stand And Deliver,” and (for now at least) you can hear it here. As stated in the video, this is the original version that was banned. This is exactly what I mean about the limitations on today’s freedom of expression versus the ‘60s. What kind of album do you think the Jefferson Airplane would’ve released if there had been a government-mandated lockdown in 1969?

Actually the quarantine seems to have invigorated much of the old guard; the Rolling Stones have a new one called “Living In A Ghost Town” that’s better than anything they’ve done in years, and certainly better than anything by rockers half their age. Actually it would probably be more than “half” at this point, but I digress…

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Adjusters #4: The Glass Cipher

The Adjusters #4: The Glass Cipher, by Peter Winston
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

The penultimate The Adjusters seems to again be courtesy the same author who wrote volume 2 and volume 3 – aparently Jim Bowser. The Glass Cipher is certainly not the work of Paul Eiden, who wrote the first volume…and I guess that’s the only volume of the series he wrote, given that the next volume was credited to Jack Laflin. The vibe in this one is the same as the previous two, even often referring back to their events; tellingly, the events of the first volume only get a passing mention. 

One change is that hero Peter Winston is less of a prick this time. It’s still the same character, but the assholic attitude is almost entirely wiped away. Perhaps there’s a lesson here, as he gets laid a whole bunch in The Glass Cipher. I mean a whole bunch. The dude will just be lying in his hotel room, feigning sleep, and some hot babe in a miniskirt will barge in, pretend she’s in the wrong room, and then just snuggle up in bed with him! But as with those previous book, the sexual material is for the most part kept off page, and the ample charms of the female characters are only slightly exploited. Violence is pretty much nil; as with the previous two books, this one is almost like a mystery with occasional fistfights, and although Peter carries around his .357 with its “hair trigger,” he seldom uses it. 

Bowser again brings gadgets to the fore; this time around Peter uses a typewriter with “vauum seal” locks that locks steadfastly to furniture, and Peter can rappel down buildings from it. He’s also got cufflinks that work as mirrors, and a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see what’s going on behind him. All of it courtesy Joe Sergeant, the Q-ripoff gadgets guy who appeared in the previous two Bowser books. And again here there’s no mystery, as in Eiden’s volume, that Edgar Whittle, billionaire owner of EWW Enterprises, is A-1 (to Peter’s A-2), leader of a secret espionage force that uses the company’s global pursuits as cover. All of which is to say that this one is of a piece with the previous two, making Eiden’s initial book seem to be from another series entirely. 

This volume is also along the lines of the previous two in that it’s overly dense for such an otherwise short book, coming in at just over 160 pages but seeming much longer. This is mostly because Peter (as Bowser refers to him) doesn’t do much but ponder his latest assignment, snoop around, and get laid by sundry women who appear out of nowhere and then vanish again. I mean, this sounds like my own average day at work, and I demand escapism in my swinging ‘60s spy-fy. In that regard this series is way down the rung from similar series of the day like Mark Hood. While I enjoyed Eiden’s first volume, despite the similar slow-boil plot, Bowser’s haven’t really enthralled me very much. But I’d have to say that The Glass Cipher was a little more entertaining than the previous two he wrote, if only because Peter Winston himself is a little less annoying. 

The titular glass cipher is a small cylinder of glass Peter gets hold of in the opening pages; it’s been smuggled out of China by a scientist who fears for his life. Designed by this guy’s boss, the glass is composed of tiny fibers which distort anything you place the glass over. So basically you can write a secret message, put the glass cipher over it, take a photo through the glass…and then you’d need the glass to decode the message. Or something like that. Eventually this isn’t enough of a Maguffin for Bowser, who also introduces something about a “missile coating” this same Chinese scientist is developing, which would render a missile impervious to any anti-missile initiatives, or somesuch – as always in any Cold War thriller, the goal is to have the most bestest missile technology for when WWIII occurs. What I find interesting is that in these ‘60s yarns the fear of nuclear war is seldom mentioned, as it would be in such a yarn from the ‘70s or ’80s. The goal is more so having the best weapon of mass destruction, not necessarily from preventing such a weapon from being created. 

Peter gets the glass, and is told that another courier will be contacting him with a photo which will contain this missile coating formula – once the glass is placed over the photo, that is. Peter’s been contacted because the scientist is friends with Edgar Whittle. But after Peter gets the glass he basically just goofs off for a while – checks out Joe Sergeant’s latest gadgets (which he’ll of course eventually use on the case), goes to the gun range, and of course gets lucky a whole bunch up in his penthouse pad. We get our first indication how egregious this sort of thing will be when, after visiting the gun range, Peter just happens to save some poor young girl in a miniskirt from a would-be “molester;” Peter takes her back up to his place for some off-page shenanigans, already suspecting she’s a “shill.” I forgot to mention – she’s a “cage girl” at the “Go-Go-Gone Discotheque.” Peter’s right, and she’s been paid off to lure him out, and she won’t be the first female character who tries to detain our studly hero. 

However the main female character is really Lady Joanna Halliday, a jet-setting man-eater Peter meets soon thereafter. He’s sent to London, given that a mysterious female voice has called the EWW office, saying that “the message” will be arriving there. Peter’s sent to a gala affair at Lord and Lady Halliday’s…and is immediately ambushed by hotstuff Joanna, who pushes him to the side and begins humping and grinding him. Literally seconds after they’ve met! While they’re getting hot and heavy a silent shot is taken at them – a bizarre bit Bowser doesn’t really even get back to for quite a while. Again the adult stuff is firmly off-page, but Peter and Joanna become quite an item, with her serving in the capacity of “main girl” for the majority of the narrative, even though it eventually develops that she might be involved with the Chinese. 

But so much of the novel is comprised of Peter sitting around in his hotel room and pondering the case. As mentioned he gets randomly lucky here, too, with one ridiculous part seeing a stray woman come in, claim she’s lost, and immediately climb in bed with him! Of course she’s another “shill,” but of course Peter gets lucky again. Eventually the action moves to the countryside, the last quarter all playing out in Joanna’s castle, where Peter tries to figure out what’s going on – whenever he can get out of Joanna’s grasp. There’s a delegation of Chinese here (or “Red Chinese” as they’re mostly referred to…when I was very young that phrase was still in use, and I thought Chinese people were literally red, true story). Among them is Chew, who appears to be the expected “Evil Oriental” type, before Bowser pulls an unexpected reversal in the last pages. There’s also Shan Lee, hotstuff young babe who happens to be the niece of the scientist who created the missile coating formula, and who of course immediately starts throwing looks Peter’s way. I kept misreading her name as “Stan Lee,” which gave an entirely different mental image to the sex scenes between her and Peter. 

Actually Shan Lee is probably the recipient of the most explicit material in the book, in particular stuff about her “little girl breasts.” Meanwhile Joanna’s out of the picture, moved on to another male conquest, but that’s okay because Peter’s learned she’s a heroin addict. In the last quarter there’s a lame mystery presented that Joanna might be behind the plot, and Peter spends a lot of time snooping around or pretending to go to bed so he can find out what’s going on. The last few pages feature the only real action in the book – and it’s spectacularly tame. I mean it’s not until like the last 4 pages that Peter even kills anyone, and it’s bloodless stuff like, “one shoot put the guard out of commission.” I mean I demand blood and guts with my escapist spy fiction! 

The ending is also sort of interesting; on the plane ride home, Peter’s informed that the Dispatcher has an “urgent” assignment for him, and the novel ends with Peter wondering when he’ll ever get to rest. As it turned out he’d get about two years, as the fifth and final volume didn’t appear until 1969. So clearly the Dispatcher’s assignment wasn’t all that urgent. So this was it for Bowser’s tenure on the series…here’s hoping Jack Laflin brings a bit more spice into the series for the final volume.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Dynamite Freaks

The Dynamite Freaks, by Donald Ryan
No month stated, 1972

This is another of the short-lived “Now Books For Today’s Readers” series, book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel’s vain attempt at catering to the counterculture market of the day. Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms credits William Crawford for this book, but I’m thinking Pat Hawk got bad info (maybe it was a sting operation!). While another of the Now BooksThe Cop-Killers, was clearly written by Crawford, this one doesn’t bear his trace at all. If I had to guess from Engel’s “stable” at the time, I’d suspect George Snyder or Jon Messmann, but even then I’m not sure. Perhaps Hawks was just under the assumption Crawford wrote all four of the Now Books

But all those Crawford staples we know and love – grizzled cop protagonist, arbitrary backstories, characters shitting themselves – are missing in The Dynamite Freaks. Crawford as we know was a cop himself, and also of a different generation than the protagonists of this book; whoever wrote it was clearly a little more familiar with the “Youth Movement” of the day, which is why I lean toward Snyder – he was, after all, the guy Engel was paying at the time to write another counterculture cash-in, Operation Hang Ten. But again Snyder’s typically surly narrative tone isn’t glaringly evident here. What is evident is an almost pseudo-Burt Hirschfeld narrative style, a la Jon Messmann. All of which is to say I don’t really know, other than that William Crawford didn’t write it. 

Well anyway, just a few short years ago a book like The Dynamite Freaks, with its plot about left-wing hippie terrorists and their riots and bombings, would’ve seemed dated. But given how our recent “summer of love” inexplicably turned violent, the book now seems quite timely. It’s also another sad reminder of the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as most of Antifa (and even a lot of BLM) seems to be composed of suburban white kids from wealthy families, kids who have no personal stake in the plight of the downtrodden people they claim to be “protesting” for, so too are the hippie terrorists of The Dynamite Freaks. I saw at least three videos on social media this past summer of black people yelling at all the white Antifa and “BLM” protesters who claimed to be there to “represent them,” telling them they weren’t even from the area and didn’t know shit. This sort of thing is prefigured in the novel as well – there’s a part where a Martin Luther King-type civil rights leader basically tells the white hippie terrorists to get the hell out. 

I’m very interested in this project of Engel’s; it seems he was trying to tap in on topical youth issues of the day, yet the books aren’t packaged that way…it seems more like The Now Books For Today’s Readers were intended for older readers who wondered what the hell was going on with those crazy kids. Both this and The Cop-Killers have a very conservative tone; even though The Dynamite Freaks focuses on younger characters more than Crawford’s book did, the youth still come off like violence-prone savages who lash out against an establishment they don’t understand, let alone appreciate. What I mean to say is, judging from the two novels in this “series” I’ve read, these books are nowhere in the league of true “movement” books like Trashing; they’ve clearly been written with an older or at least more conservative audience in mind – any hippie head who picked up The Dynamite Freaks would no doubt consider the whole thing reactionary. 

Our main protagonist is a case in point: young Carol Warring, 19 and beautiful, about to graduate as the valedictorian of her college. She’s innocent, naïve, and a virgin to boot – clearly not the type of protagonist you’d expect in a novel titled The Dynamite Freaks. But we know the direction she’s headed, as the novel opens with a creepy chapter in which a girl runs screaming from a downtown tenement building that’s just exploded; the firemen arrive on the scene and exclaim stuff like “Look at them boobs!” as they gawk at the “full young breasts” of the naked female corpses strewn about. (The clothing, incidentally, was apparently blown off by the dynamite which destroyed the building.) Curiously Ryan will not return to this opening chapter, so that we readers must infer who is who among the victims – and the mystery of who the girl was who ran away isn’t played out at all like I suspected it might be. 

From there we jump back just a few weeks and meet Carol as she’s about to drop a big surprise on the audience at the graduation ceremony: not only is Carol wearing a bikini beneath her gown, but she’s also planted an explosive on a famous statue on campus grounds. All this occurs in Minnesota, in a subburb of Minneapolis, a “straight” town that Carol now rails against. Predictably she comes from wealth; her dad is a successful businessman, one who is just as successful with the ladies…and Carol herself has a thing for him (a twisted subtext that Ryan admirably doesn’t dwell on too much). But this past summer, we learn, Carol spent some time in Europe, where she met expat American Kurt Hoeffer, a long-haired hippie her age who radicalized Carol into the various socialist movements of the day. Carol is now prepared to use the knowledge she’s gained as part of her degree in Chemistry to strike various blows for democracy and the downtrodden peoples and etc. 

Carol with her innocence is our guide into the violent world of the hairy freaks; the novel in this regard is a Morality Tale in that Carol will gradually change from a peace-loving virgin to a bomb-planting radical given to gang-bangery, not to mention the occasional injection of heroin. But it should be mentioned that all this is done to her against her will! No, Carol doesn’t want “anyone to get hurt” by her bombs, and also she’s peer-pressured into the gang-bang scene, veritably forced by Kurt to lie there while a whole bunch of hairy freak hippie guys form a line to have their way with her, one at a time. As for the heroin, that’s just introduced to let Carol “calm down” after it turns out one of her bombs actually, you know, kill someone. So as you can see, Carol isn’t only incredibly naïve, she’s also incredibly dumb at times, and there were many parts in the book where I was laughing when I shouldn’t have been. 

Kurt Hoeffer is the character who makes me wonder if George Snyder wrote this; he’s an arrogant, loud-mouthed jerk, and seems to have walked out of one of the Operation Hang Ten books. After Carol blows up the statue she rushes from the graduation ceremony and into Kurt’s waiting VW bus, which we’re informed is brightly colored and decorated with the expected leftist signs – “Legalize abortion now,” and etc. Later Kurt will hand Carol a joint and then force his hairy body onto hers, ultimately taking her virginity; a masterfully-relayed scene in which Carol can’t get over how Kurt is nothing like the men she’s often fantasized about, clean-cut men who smell of cologne and aftershave…men like her father. Ryan leaves this sex scene (and all others) off-page; there’s even a conservative tone to the narrative, with “breasts” only occasionally mentioned (a male readership was clearly in mind) and curse words only infrequently appearing. Again, it’s nothing like Trashing, a book that was written by someone involved with the whole “resist!” movement. 

Carol really is dumb, and it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her. We’re often reminded that she got into this whole thing due to her desire to help the “poor black kids” of the cities, the “subjugated American Indians,” and also of course “the Mexicans.” (?!) Yet at the same time we’re to believe she morphs into the figurehead of the “Bombers of America” movement, the new SDS-type hippie terrorist faction she starts with Kurt. Carol is desperate to belong, you see, to have a family – and she believes she’s found one with Kurt’s inner circle. This itself is comical, as one of these people is a “big-breasted” girl named Vicki, who constantly mocks Carol and calls her “Rich Bitch,” taunting her that she doesn’t belong, that she isn’t a true revolutionary, etc. Carol also soon gets a glimpse of how little these people care about each other, stupidly wondering if she herself would so easily be forgotten were she to get arrested or die for the cause. 

We get more of an understanding of who the novel is intended for via the introduction of Bob Arnett (we’ll just assume he’s Will’s father), a ‘Nam vet in his early 20s who attended college with Carol and likes her, but wanted to wait until he’d graduated and gotten a job and such before he asked her out(!?). He approaches Carol’s distraught parents and offers to find Carol for them, given that she’s run away with a bunch of hippie creeps and all – a plot that mirrors an actual Burt Hirschfeld novel, Father Pig. Arnett then is the true hero of the tale, a short-haired conservative type who is there to serve as the intermediary for the (presumably) older readership; he may be of the hippie generation, but he’s not part of it. Actually there’s a minor part with Arnett that makes me think “Donald Ryan” might’ve been an older writer, after all; Carol later accuses Arnett that he “never made love” to her, and this same phrase is used by Arnett himself earlier in the book when he wonders why he didn’t immediately “make love to Carol” when he first met her. While this phrase initially seemed jolting, I recalled that in earlier years “make love” had the same connotation as “romance.” I’ve heard this phrase in movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s and you can sure bet they didn’t mean “have sex” in them! Joseph Breen and his censors would’ve cut that out in a hot second. So in other words, earlier in the 20th Century Carol’s “you never made love to me, not even once” line to Arnett would’ve meant that Arnett never asked her out or otherwise tried to romance her or whatnot. But I think for a young person writing in 1972, “make love” would have the same meaning as it would today – hardcore shenanigans of the adult variety. So, to end an overlong paragraph, this could be more indication that Ryan was indeed of an earlier generation. 

Anyway, Arnett proves to be incompetent. We learn late in the novel that not only is he a ‘Nam vet, he was also a Green Beret. This sets the expectation for some Rambo-esque violence, Arnett wading into hippie territory and bashing hairy heads, but all the dude does is ignorantly walk around and get himself knocked out. In fact there’s no real action in the book, other than the bombs Carol plants, and as mentioned she always ensures no one gets hurt by phoning in bomb threats to the target locations. This doesn’t work out very well in a gripping sequence in which Carol plants a bomb at an Army recruiting office in Chicago but is unable to get anyone on the line until seconds before the blast. A young officer is caught in the explosion; Carol sees his body flying like a ragdoll and is haunted by the image. Later she’ll be informed the kid’s dead, and this will as mentioned lead her into the beginnings of heroin addiction. 

But Carol’s route to bomb-planter is a gradual one; her first big moment is at a march in Minneapolis, Kurt and comrades protesting an urban development that threatens the tenement buildings occupied by lower-income blacks. Reverend Mills, the MLK-type mentioned above, resents the presence of Kurt and all the other hippies, given the bad press they bring – remember, this is back in the days when actual “peaceful protests” were attacked by the media…those sadly-gone days in which you would never see a so-called reporter standing in front of a burning building and claiming he was in the middle of a “fiery but mostly peaceful protest.” Back then the media was the Establishment…actually today the media is still the Establishment, it’s just of a different political orientation. Reverend Mills also resents that Kurt and his fellow hippies don’t really give a damn about the blacks in those buildings, and are just using the protests as an excuse to wreak havoc and cause trouble. No doubt more indication of the reactionary tone of the novel, but no doubt pretty much true as well. 

At this Minneapolis march Carol realizes that protests don’t cause anything to happen, so she takes matters into her hands and blows up one of the buildings that have been put up in the cleared area. This makes her a hero of the movement, not that Vicki still doesn’t taunt her as “Rich Bitch.” From there things progress to the Bombers of America initiative, with Carol designing bombs and Kurt’s people planting them in various locations. Locations which, Carol eventually learns, are being supplied by an infamous conservative politician who is running on a Law and Order campaign. He not only gives Kurt the locations, but money as well, and Carol can’t understand why they’re taking money from the enemy. Kurt, who becomes increasingly deranged and “evil” as the short novel races for its conclusion, claims that “cash has no politics” and that he’s taken money from conservatives to liberals, all of it used to blow up stuff – and also, he happily reveals, he doesn’t even give a shit about the various causes he’s rioting for, it just makes for good publicity. Especially if a child’s killed in one of the blasts, as one is in a nail bomb Kurt places in a bank lobby. 

This is the final straw for Carol…I mean the forced gang-bang and heroin addiction were one thing, but this is another! She once again decides to take matters into her own hands, which leads us to the events that started the book. Meanwhile Carol’s 15 year-old sister, Anne, has also caught the revolutionary bug, planting a bomb at her high school. (Mr. Warring puts his head in his hands and wonders where he went wrong with his two daughters…!) She then runs away from home, finds Bob Arnett in Greenwich Village, and after coming on to him (he turns her down) demands that he take her to Carol, whom Arnett has finally found. The book ends with Anne announcing she’ll continue Carol’s bomb-making work, asking Arnett to join her…a ridiculous finale that has no setup, as it makes no sense. Arnett of course turns her down and walks off into the sunset, making for an anticlimactic ending to what is, at only 160 pages, a very rushed book. 

Overall The Dynamite Freaks is marginally entertaining, particularly in how it predicts the situation of today; it was very strange reading this book, given current events. Actually it was kind of depressing, because all this shit is coming back up again. I read the book last week and wrote the majority of the review then, but today as I am finishing it up and setting it to post on the blog, protesters from the right are storming the Capitol Building.  I have to say, I find it incredibly ironic that they’re being denounced as domestic terrorists by the very same pundits who defended the Antifa and BLM riots this past summer. (Of course these are the same pundits who spent the past four years telling us Russia interfered with the 2016 election, but now say there’s absolutely zero evidence of any fraud in the 2020 election...but such hypocrisy is expected in what currently passes for the United States.)  So I guess the main difference is that Donald Ryan was writing in a more rational, more sane world – the country wasn’t on the brink of another civil war due to irreconcilable ideological differences.

Monday, January 4, 2021

The Aquanauts #8: Operation Steelfish

The Aquanauts #8: Operation Steelfish, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1972  Manor Books

Tiger Shark was bored and restless.” 

This line, which appears on page 73 of Operation Steelfish, aptly sums up the sentiments of the reader; this installment is a dense trawl of nearly unfathomable boredom, Manning Lee Stokes clearly phoning it in. Given that he invested so much wackiness into the previous volume (man what a great one that was!), it’s no wonder we would have to suffer this time, but boy – this one really sucks. I mean there are some cool parts here and there, and Stokes as ever injects some of his patented weirdness into the narrative, but for the most part Operation Steelfish could be used as a cure for insomnia. 

What I still find most curious about The Aquanauts is that Stokes took what was ostenisbly an “underwater commando” setup and instead turned in a lurid crime series with Cold War overtones. Stokes started his career writing crime and mystery so I almost get the impression he just used this series as a vehicle to write about the sort of stuff he himself was more interested in. Apparently series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel accepted this, so far as The Aquanauts went, though he clearly reined in Stokes a bit more with Richard Blade and John Eagle Expeditor. Whereas Stokes hewed a little more faithfully to the setups for those series, in The Aquanauts books there are many, many instances where you get the impression the dude had no idea he was writing an “underwater commando” series. 

Operation Steelfish is a glaring case in point. It opens like one of those crime novels Engel “produced” in the ‘70s, with one of Manning Lee Stokes’s favorite motifs: a strangled young woman. I’m so familiar with this guy’s work now that I was surprised the girl wasn’t raped, as well; the whole “strangle-rape” thing is a recurring schtick in Stokes’s work (another being the “incredibly old woman who looks young” schtick, which doesn’t appear in this particular book). This happens near DC and the victim happens to be the secretary on a top secret Navy program; her killer is a hopped-up addict, and Stokes delivers another of his recurring schticks here, by subtly referring to himself: the murderer’s last name is “Manning.” 

Actually, this isn’t how the book opens. I forgot. The book actually opens on a brief chapter in which we learn that a young black man named Lyman has just had a sex-change operation, and now has become “Lilli.” And also “he-she” happens to be a sleeper agent for the Commies, in particular reporting to Yuri Sobnnikov, that “Russian James Bond” who injects himself with testosterone and who was last seen in #5: Stalkers Of The Sea. Actually, sex-change is yet another of Stokes’s recurring schticks; as we’ll recall, a minor character was going through “the change” back in #6: Whirlwind Beneath The Sea. But we get a lot more detail about it here, with Lilli taking up large portions of the narrative, with a lot of background on the procedure and how she’s coping with it, and also the fact that she’s nervous because she didn’t tell Sobnnikov she was about to have it done. The Russian spymaster takes it in stride, though, figuring that “Lilli” will be more beneficial to his latest caper than Lyman would’ve been – though first he has one of his people “try out” Lilli (off-page) to ensure she properly handles in bed! 

And I mean you look at the cover and you see shirtless Tiger Shark about to knife some scuba guy who has Ringo Starr’s hair, and then you get back to the book – which goes on about sex-change operations and strangled young women – and you wonder what the hell is going on. I should mention here that the cover does illustrate a scene in the book, definitely one of the most taut and entertaining scenes in the entire narrative, but it takes a helluva long time to get there; as ever Stokes fills the pages with tiny, dense print. Eight volumes in a row now and these books only really pick up when “main protagonist” Tiger Shark appears…yet again and again Stokes keeps him off-page for so long that he almost comes off like a supporting character in his own series. This is really taken to absurd levels in Operation Steelfish, which now that I think of it follows the template of the previous Sobhennikov yarn, Stalkers Of The Sea; in that one too Tiger Shark barely appeared, Stokes more content to dwell on a long-simmer Cold War vibe featuring Tom Greene, Tiger’s deskbound commanding officer. 

The first quarter of Operation Steelfish deals with the murder of the young Navy secretary, Stokes clearly filling pages – we even get a redundant transcript of the police interrogation of her confessed killer. What brings the Secret Underwater Service into it (eventually) is that the girl was working on the secret “Steelfish” program, which has to do with a “super-missile” the Navy is developing and is about to try out near Portofima, an island “south of Haiti and Cuba.” The murdered secretary it turns out had a small Russian spy camera on her, which has set the events in motion (no specification of the month or year, this time); after much, much narrative padding we learn that crusty old Admiral Hank Coffin, boss of the SUS, wants to keep the testing of Steelfish in play so as to trap the Russians – he is certain they got hold of the missile’s plans, thanks to the girl’s spy camera. Part of the frustration of Operation Steelfish is that Stokes keeps so much of this from us; Coffin’s plans are a mystery even to Greene, and are only revealed in the very final pages. 

And the bitch of it is, it’s a real boring ride to get to those very final pages; I mentioned above that these books only pick up when Tiger Shark appears, but Stokes was either unaware of that fact or in denial of it. For he keeps Tiger off-page whenever possible, focuing on sundry one-off characters. In addition to that “lovely slim Negro girl” Lilli, there’s also Sobnnikov himself, and we learn he’s burning for personal revenge on Greene and Tiger from the events in the fifth volume. Not that anything comes of this; there’s no personal confrontation among these characters. Greene spends the majority of the narrative on the deck of a ship, and Tiger spends it in KRAB or posing as a “beach bum” on a small boat outside Portofima – a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere and comes off like Stokes just trying, again, to keep Tiger off-page as long as possible. There’s also a 97 year-old American named Hunter who runs a private eye firm, is fabulously wealthy, and takes the job from Sobnnikov to help get the Steelfish missiles because he hates America, given that it’s now run by minorities and such. 

Really, these characters take up more narrative space than the recurring characters; even Admiral Coffin has more narrative focus. Tiger doesn’t even score, which is surprising enough – I honestly wondered if Stokes was about to “go there,” with Tiger having sex with Lilli, unaware that it’s a “he-she.” And indeed, Stokes seems to toy with this, having Lilli meet Greene on Portofima, but he’s such an honest married guy that she just thinks of him as a kind person, and instead sets her sights on some other guy Sobnnikov has told her to entertain. Lilli features in the only sexual material in the novel, the sequence relayed from this guy’s perspective, him unaware that Lilli was previously a man – something he will be informed of, with diastrous consequences, in the final pages. But it’s the usual Stokes weird version of sleaze: “He spurted into her voracious mouth,” and the like. 

At great length Tiger is sent to Portofima, stuck in KRAB for a week or so, then ordered to leave it and board the abandoned boat which is to serve as part of his beach bum cover. Again, we readers are not given any reason for any of this stuff, Stokes keeping us in the dark throughout, so that it not only is boring but frustrating as well. At least here we get some entertaining stuff, like when Tiger finds a couple drunks on the boat, guys who happened to pass by and discover it, and he boards the ship in full “Aquanaut” gear, with the metal helmet and all, making unearthly noise through the speaker grills to scare the guys off. This does have repercussions; Tiger doesn’t kill the guys, despite his hunch that he should, and later Sobnnikov will learn of the incident, thanks to a native guide he hires in Portofima. (A guide named “Sharkie,” Stokes apparently oblivious that his main character is codemaned “Tiger Shark” and that these similar names might cause confusion in his already-confused and bored readers.) 

Again, this sets the stages for some action; Sobnnikov is certain the figure from the deep who scared these two drunks is none other than Tiger Shark, and also that he’s losing his edge given that he didn’t kill them. But there’s no part where Tiger and Sobnnikov ever meet. The Russian spymaster stays on the sidelines throughout, ordering around his various underlings like chess pieces. The highlight of the novel is the event depicted on the great cover; Tiger, upon boarding the boat, tosses his Aquanaut gear into the sea so as to maintain his cover. So wearing only a snorkel and a jockstrap(!), he ventures out into the sea one night to monitor a suspicious boat – one Admiral Coffin suspects might be working for the Reds. This leads to a bizarre bit where Tiger gets his ass kicked by the ship’s captain: a super-fat woman who sneaks up on Tiger from behind and gets him into a bear hug that he barely breaks out of. 

After this Tiger discovers a couple guys in scuba gear on his boat, planting explosives. He trails one of them and, when his boat explodes in the distance, he uses the distraction to yank one of them below the water and knife him to death. A pretty brutal action scene…and the only one we get in the novel. Even here Tiger is stuck on the sidelines by Stokes; he has to swim many miles to get back to KRAB, but has to wait until night, so spends an entire day hiding near an islet. Stokes does like putting his hero through the grinder; there’s a gripping scene where Tiger, uncertain how much air is left in his appropriated scuba tank, must swim one hundred feet below the surface, in pitch black, to locate KRAB. However Stokes sort of blows it by ending the sequence with Tiger about to commit to the final plunge, after which there’ll be no way out – he’s so far below the surface he couldn’t make it back up if his scuba tank were to run out – but next time we see him, he’s safely in KRAB. The final mad dash to KRAB is rendered in quick backstory, ruining the suspense Stokes so carefully constructed. 

This takes us into the finale, which has the Russians spring their plan. A sub comes out of the sea, takes the missile, and Coffin orders it followed by KRAB. Coffin’s plan was to set off a remote-control destruct button on the missile, but it doesn’t work, so it’s up to Tiger to finish the job. This entails him being chased by the sub and scoring a lucky shot, hitting the missile itself. The last we see of him he’s spinning through the sea in a damaged KRAB; we’re informed at the end he’ll be in the hospital a bit but he’ll be just fine and dandy afterwards. The same can’t be said for poor Lilli, though; Sobnnikov has a firm “no witnesses” clause, thus writes a letter to the guy who has been obliviously boffing Lilli these past weeks, informing him that Lilli was once a dude. This does not go well for Lilli; we’re informed she’s tied up and slapped around and then the guy breaks out his “surgical instruments;” he’s a torture artist, and Stokes delights in informing us that the guy’s very mean in the ensuing torture and Lilli takes a long time to die! 

This one was really boring, folks, and came off like a slap in the face after the supremely entertaining previous volume. There are a few more volumes left in the series, so here’s hoping none of them are bummers on the level of Operation Steelfish.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Twilight Candelabra

Twilight Candelabra, by William J. Craddock
January, 1972  Doubleday

William J. Craddock (1946 - 2004) was a gifted writer who only published two novels in his lifetime: 1970's Be Not Content and this novel, Twilight Candelabra, from 1972, only published in a trade paperback edition. He wrote several other novels, including a sequel to Be Not Content, but none of them were published. I assume this was due to publishing house politics, as Craddock's books, despite not racking up the sales, were at least well-received by critics. Be Not Content was given a favorable write-up in Rolling Stone, and it was influential to several writers, among them Rudy Rucker and William Gibson. 

Be Not Content was an autobiography posing as a novel, the ultimate sixties counterculture novel, about a former biker getting involved in the brand-new LSD scene. It was filled with memorable characters and imaginative "tripping" scenes, a sense of reality - you knew Craddock had experienced all of these things first-hand. Twilight Candelabra is a different beast. This book is darker, shorter, harder edged, and not nearly as good. It has a lot of problems, but a lot of redeeming qualities as well. In short, it shouldn't have been Craddock's last-published novel. It should've been his Crying Of Lot 49 his second-novel "misfire" (as Pynchon considers Lot 49), a stopgap between Be Not Content and its sequel Backtrack (still unpublished, but according to Craddock twice the length of Content). 

Twilight Candelabra is like a counterculture Exorcist. It rides on the occult vibe that swept over the US in the early seventies, namedropping everything from the Goetia to Crowley's rumored last words ("I am perplexed." Though, according to the Crowley bio Perdurabo," this rumor is hogwash). Spliced in with the occult "readings" and demon talk is a lot of stoner wisdom, drug usage, psychedelic trips featuring Burroughsian stream-of-conscious writing, cops getting killed, kinky sex, and a bunch of characters ending all of their sentences with "man." 

The book opens with a rambling, stream-of-conscious "Preface" in which Craddock mentions how everyone thinks he should get a "real job" and not try to write for a living. He then claims the novel is overly offensive and warns away sensitive women. As if to prove this, the novel itself begins with twenty-four year old hero Damon Dusk sodomozing a young boy, then pulling a .45 on the kid and telling him he's "morally obligated" to kill him. 

The core problem with the novel is Dusk himself. A bad-attitude guy with shoulder-length black hair and a full beard (suspiciously much like the photo of William Craddock on the back cover), Dusk has gotten over his head in some serious occult business. The novel covers only a few weeks of action; Dusk - a new name, as the character re-invents himself periodically with a new name and background - suspects two demons are on his tail, and tries all manner of actions to get rid of them. But the thing is, Dusk is too inhuman a character to like. He's like those superhuman characters Arnold Schwarzenegger would play in the eighties - always two steps ahead of everyone, perfect in all ways, unstymied by such simple human troubles as worry and fear and compassion. We watch dumbstruck as Dusk exploits any and all characters he comes across, abusing them physically and verbally, engendering the deaths of innocents, ruining the lives of many, yet never once feeling any remorse. This would work if Dusk was an anti-hero, a villain in the starring role, but he's not; Craddock presents Dusk to us as the hero of the tale. 

Instead of a cohesive plot, the book follows Dusk as he tries to figure out what's pursuing him, going from person to person. In this way the novel is much like early Don DeLillo. As stated, Dusk is always at least a step ahead, and unfortunately this includes the reader. So we have no idea why Dusk does the things he does, plans the things he plans, because Craddock won't let us in his head to find out. Instead, we are spectators, and this reduces the novel to the level of a film, where you can only watch the characters but never experience their feelings directly. 

The majority of the scenes take place in the dilapidated house of Herwoman, a 400 pound witch who gives Dusk readings, provides him with grimoires, and in turn uses his body to serve her womanly needs. It's at Herwowan's house that the novel's first extended drug trip takes place; Dusk drinks a concoction of Herwoman's which contains a cornucopia of drugs. As in Be Not Content, Craddock uses the drugs angle as an excuse to go wild with his writing, tossing in non sequitirs and turns-of-phrase that would have William Burroughs red with envy. Despite the drugged voyage into innerspace, Dusk receives no answers, so is still clueless about his shadowy pursuers. So he arranges a drug deal. Why? No idea, he just does. He takes advantage of the hero worship a young guy has for him by commandeering the guy's place, putting his life in jeopardy, and having him arrange this drug deal. Then Dusk takes advantage of the guy's fiancé...right in the guy's bed. After which he tells the girl to get herself together and keep her mouth shut. Yep, that's our hero. 

The drug deal turns out to be a scam, as Dusk sells his criminal customers battery acid rather than bona fide drugs. Again, why there's even a drug deal is a question the novel doesn't bother to answer. I can only assume it's because Emma Oyama, a disfigured Japanese businesswoman who's really a demon in disguise, is an associate of the guy Dusk wants to screw over in the deal, and Craddock wanted to introduce her in an action-packed way. Regardless, the deal only serves to set up a few action scenes, none of them resolving much of anything. 

After this Dusk suddenly decides he wants revenge upon a former acquaintance, a fellow dabbler in the black arts named Sampah. Why? You've got me. I figure it's because Dusk assumes Sampah has set those elusive demons on Dusk's back. In order to achieve this planned murder, Dusk first meets a group of revolutionaries, buying some bombs from them. Here Dusk tells the revolutionaries their future, informing them in flat tones what exactly will happen to them if they proceed with their plan to blow up a factory. He even reveals that one of their members is an undercover agent; they frisk the guy, and sure enough he's got a "signed photo of J. Edgar Hoover" in his wallet. How Dusk can predict the future and how Dusk knows all is again something Craddock doesn't explain. 

After reuniting with a former girlfriend and witnessing the suicide of another former acquaintance, Dusk heads out into the desert where he frolics with a commune of wild women and their Herculean master who torture and then murder a cop. The commune is near Sampah's guarded encampment; after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, in which Sampah escapes with his life, Dusk is a man possessed (so to speak), finally alive, finally with a goal to achieve. This serves to make the character more human, but it's too little, too late. 

As the novel races for its conclusion (the only conclusion it can have, given its hero's actions throughout), Craddock piles on the dark humor. One chapter features an extended sequence of Dusk about to face death from an armed pursuer, only for the pursuer to be killed by yet another armed pursuer, who in turn is killed by another pursuer right before the coup de grace, and on and on. It's almost Simpsonsesque, but jarring in the context of the book. The final chapter salvages things somewhat, a metaphysical look at life, death, and reincarnation, but I can only wonder how much better it would be if the novel preceding it had packed the same amount of emotion. 

Again, it's a shame this is all we ever got from Craddock. Despite my problems with Twilight Candelabra it does have some great writing. I'm convinced it influenced Pynchon; parts of the drug trips seem identical to those fractured bits at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, when Slothrop steps outside of the narrative. Craddock's writing is strong, literary yet accessible. My only complaint is his use of adverbs; the writer in me hates the sight of them. They're strung throughout the book, augmenting verbs that would do just fine on their own. He also has a tendency to break up dialog with unnecessary modifiers; lots of "Dusk said" and "she said" after every line of dialog, even when there are only two characters speaking. 

Special mention should be made of the packaging. The book sports a blacklight-poster-in-waiting cover of a Day-Glo demon ripping open its chest to reveal an angel inside (a clue to the novel's moral). Even better is the appendix. Craddock has a series of questions and revelations at the end of the book, my favorite being: 

A Suggested Question Concerning Twilight Candelabra: Why? 

There's also a list of "Sixteen Sexual Acts Performed Or Mentioned In Twilight Candelabra," as well as "Nine Causes Of Death To Be Found In Twilight Candelabra." It all reminds me of the Appendices in RAW/Shea's Iilluminatus!, only a bit more revelatory in some aspects (perhaps foreseeing that his book would be ignored, Craddock took it upon himself to give Twilight Candelabra a critical analysis, pointing out "Some Suggested Considerations"). In other words, the sort of thing which should've guaranteed the novel a cult badge of honor, but it was ignored, as was its author.