Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Butler #6: Killer Satellites

 

Butler #6: Killer Satellites, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1980  Leisure Books

This was the last volume of Butler written by series creator Len Levinson, and it’s clear that Len intended Killer Satellites to be the final volume of the series, as it wraps up the storyline of hero Butler, essentially taking him full-circle from where he started in the first volume. There is also a focus on telling us more about Butler this time – we even learn his first name! – as well as giving him a Happily Ever After. Which of course makes it all the more frustrating that Leisure Books continued the series in 1982 – without Len’s involvement or awareness – farming it out to some unknown writer(s) for an additional six volumes. 

But honestly, I have no intention of seeking out or reading those later Butler books; this was Len Levinson’s series, and his volumes are the only ones that exist in my world. So basically there’s a “Len six” and a “Ghostwriters six” for Butler, and curiously it’s the latter six volumes that are the most overpriced on the used books marketplace, indicating that they had scarce print runs. It’s funny that they even exist, as Killer Satellites is clearly a send-off for Butler, courtesy his creator. 

This one picks up a few months after the previous volume, and Butler is still with the CIA. In fact there is no mention whatsoever of the Bancroft Instititute, and as mentioned above it’s the first volume of the series that is most often referred to in the narrative – particularly, that Butler was fired from the CIA by series regular FJ Shankham in that volume, “two years ago.” (Though in the typically-poor editing of a Leisure publication, on the very next page we’re told this happened “a year ago.”) But now with this sixth volume, Butler is so ingrained in the CIA that he’s spent six months studying how to speak Russian (and curious spoiler alert, but he never even gets a chance to speak Russian in the course of the novel!). The Bancroft Institute setup is dropped, as is recurring enemy organization HYDRA. 

The back-cover copy as usual tries to heighten the “thriller” elements of the story, but more than any previous volume Killer Satellites is less concerned with action than it is with Butler’s soap-opera life. When we meet him he’s boarding a small plane for a vacation in nearby Cape Cod. As I’ve mentioned frequently in past reviews, Len Levinson’s protagonists are unique in the men’s adventure field in that they try their damnest to pick up women; an inversion of the usual pulp template of the lady throwing herself at the protagonist. Butler hits hard on an attractive young woman on the plane (she looks, we’re informed, like Faye Dunaway), as usual saying stuff that would get a guy at least slapped in the real world. For instance: “You’re rather attractive, and I’m rather horny.” 

And, as usual for Butler, he’s rebuffed; the girl, Mary Ellen, has no interest in him, and just wishes to read her novel. In a curious miss on Len’s part that drove me crazy, we never learn what novel the girl is reading, despite Butler incessantly asking her what the title is! I was hoping Len would do a little in-joke and have Mary Ellen reading one of his own books. Anyway, it’s not that they have much time to really talk, as the front of the plane explodes and it crashes into the ocean – moments after we’re informed Butler is afraid to fly. But Butler’s able to keep his wits and swims to safety, rescuing the girl as well. The plane was intentionally crashed – though how is curiously never stated – and Butler soon learns that a host of his CIA colleauges have also been killed. Oh, and Mary Ellen vows that she will be Butler’s “slave” for having saved her life. 

Soon Butler is made the director of the CIA by whiskey-sipping President Smith; there’s a super-goofy part where Smith, in the bunker beneath the White House, bluffs on the phone with Premiere Brezhnev in the USSR about a satellite being shot down. This part again confirms that Butler is essentially a comedy series,with the assembled joint chiefs of staff even taking off their hats and yelling “hooray!” when the Soviet satellite is shot down. All this, by the way, is in retaliation for a US satellite that was destroyed, and I love the way Len has these heads of state calling each other directly and bluffing one another, making idle threats, etc. There’s also a goofy recurring joke about the Albanians. 

I really get the impression Len was winging his way through this one; the plot changes willy-nilly, with Butler thrust from one crazy situation to another. So he’s made director of the CIA because everyone else was killed, and his first act in this capacity is to call back onto duty the love of his life, Wilma B. Willoughby, who quit after the caper in the previous volume and now teaches at UCLA. In the meantime we are almost casually informed that Butler’s first name is Andrew – his full name is Andrew P. Butler – by a radio announcement Butler listens to while shaving in the shower, announcing that he’s been made the new director of the CIA. Butler’s first name has always been a mystery and no mention is made here that Butler hates it, something that was often remarked upon in previous installments. But the very fact that we’re told Butler’s first name this time could be another indication that Len intended Killer Satellites to be the series finale. 

Meanwhile, Mary Ellen has come to Butler’s home in Georgetown to be his slave, leading to the typical XXX-rated sex scene of the series. I found myself laughing out loud, though, because even in the sex scenes Len goes for laughs – in particular Mary Ellen bluntly asking Butler, “Do you want me to kiss your dicky?” To which a shocked Butler responds, “I beg your pardon?” Len has a lot of fun with this sequence, as it’s a reversal of the earlier scene betwee the two, when Butler was hitting on Mary Ellen on the plane; here it’s Mary Ellen who must convince Butler to have sex with her. Finally he does, in full-bore detail – only for Wilma to come in and catch them together and throw a hissy fit, calling Butler a “pig” and leaving. 

Again we get indication that this is the final volume when Mary Ellen explains to Butler that Wilma is only upset because she clearly loves Butler. Otherwise why would Wilma be so angry to find Butler in bed with another woman? Butler realizes this must be true, but meanwhile Wilma is kidnapped on her way to her hotel. When Butler finally figures out she’s been captured the following day, he decides to make none other than FJ Shankham the deputy director of the CIA, to handle the administrative side of the job while Butler goes out in the field to find Wilma. Here’s where we have the reverse setup of Butler #1, with Butler reflecting on the irony of his being in charge of the man who fired him “two years” (or was it one year?) ago. 

But man, it seems evident that Len was winging his way through Killer Satellites. Subplots are brought up and cast aside within a few pages. Like for example Mary Ellen. Despite pledging herself as Butler’s “slave,” she’s quickly removed from the narrative, Butler insisting that she go home so he can figure out who has been killing his fellow CIA agents. Then next thing you know, Butler is in his red Corvette and driving cross-country; his goal, apparently, is to act as bait for the people who kidnapped Wilma, but still…I mean he literally just drives across the country. We even get more of Butler’s random attempted pickups when he hits on an attractive female bartender who (per the template) turns Butler down, given that she’s married. But if you haven’t noticed, this is how the plot constantly changes in Killer Satellites; just a few chapters ago he was conferring with the President on how he could stop the “killer satellite” business, and now he’s on a cross-country road trip. 

Even what appears to be the big villain reveal is brushed aside after a few pages; Butler does indeed get captured by the same people who took Wilma captive, and they turn out to be…right-wing Canadian extremists. From their hidden location deep in the wilds of Canada they have a missile silo and have been taking down US and USSR satellites in the hopes of causing a war between the two superpowers…but man, like just a few pages after all of this is revealed, US planes come out of nowhere and bomb the place to the ground and Butler and Wilma escape into the snowy forest. The entire “Canadian radicals” development only takes up a handful of pages, and again the focus is placed more on Butler’s love life. 

But still, it’s very funny. Butler and Wilma hide in a cave and Wilma makes it clear that she has no intention of sleeping with Butler, even though we know from the scenes in her perspective that Butler’s the best lay she ever had, and she still dreams of the previous times they made it, etc. But as usual Wilma plays it tough, not wanting to look a “fool” for Butler, and she makes him sleep on the other side of the cave. Butler, sure that Wilma will shoot him with her machine gun if he tries to go over to her, decides to jerk off…no mention is made, by the way, of the “vow” Butler made to himself to never masturbate, as stated back in the fourth volume. Meanwhile Wilma, who is impatiently waiting for Butler to come over to her, looks over and sees “a piston” pumping beneath Butler’s sleeping bag, and angrily realizes he’s jerking off. So she has to take matters into her own hands, so to speak, leading to a sex scene between the two that takes up several pages of text. Even here it’s a payoff on those earlier sex scenes between the two, with Wilma finally giving herself in full to Butler and not pretending like it all was a “mistake” or etc. 

More finalities – on the morning after their idyllic tryst in the cave, Wilma informs Butler that she is saying goodbye to him forever, because she’s too crazy about him, and knows she’ll do nothing but have sex with him all day. (This after Butler asks her to marry him!) We also get the interesting backstory that Wilma was a hippie in the late ‘60s and dropped out of school to screw her boyfriend all the time, and she’s afraid she’ll do the same with Butler, because she likes him even more. So again, despite the “killer satellite” setup and Butler being in charge of the CIA and whatnot, it’s more about Butler moping around and wondering if he’ll ever find true love – not that this stops him from scoring again. In another humorous XXX passage, Butler goes up to Canada to look into the leader of the Canadian radicals, and ends up banging the secretary at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police HQ. 

Here we have another of Butler’s don’t-try-this-at-home pickup lines: “You’re the kind of woman a man would love to go down on.” This is stated mere moments after the woman happens to sit by Butler in the park, and soon enough Butler’s gotten it out of her that no one’s ever gone down on her and etc. So they go back to his hotel where they go down on each other, then have sex, all of it in the usual explicit detail of the series, but again a lot of it’s funny because of the dialog Len gives the characters throughout. But also, none of it has any real bearing on the plot, and is another indication of the ever-changing nature of the storyline; just twenty or so pages ago Butler was the captive of some right-wing Canadians in the woods, and now here he is dining at the Y with a slim secretary who looks “like the actress Lee Remick.” 

It all moves so quickly that Len has to go for a finale that is more out of a mystery than an action thriller, with Butler exposing who secretly funds the Canadian satellite-killing radicals. SPOILER ALERT, so skip this and the next two paragraphs if you don’t want to know, but given that Killer Satellites appears to be so scarce I thought I’d be comprehensive in my review for the people who can’t find a copy. Anyway, it turns out that FJ Shankham has been behind the plot, financing the Canadian radicals – and here we have a reprisal of the first volume, with Shankham again the manipulative bastard who holds Butler’s fate in his hands. But in another strong indication that this was intended as the final volume of the series, Butler literally blows Shankham’s brains out, blasting him point-blank in the forehead with his pistol. 

Even in the final pages subplots are brought up and cast aside within the span of a few paragraphs. Butler meets with President Smith again, and none other than Brezhnev calls in and offers Butler an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow as thanks for preventing WWIII, insisting that Butler come to Russia within a few weeks, and Butler accepts. Meanwhile President Smith floats the idea of making Butler the ambassador to Russia (and curiously, at no point in this entire exchange is it mentioned that Butler now speaks fluent Russian)…but a page or two later Butler’s already decided he’ll turn down the offer. 

The biggest indication that Killer Satellites was intended to be Butler’s send-off comes next: Butler goes back to his pad in Georgetown…to find Wilma waiting there for him. Wilma tells Butler she loves him and would “rather go crazy with him than without him,” and the book – and series – ends with the two having sex. In fact the last line of the novel is Wilma’s “OOOH!” as Butler gives her the goods – and speaking of which, we’ve learned earlier in the book, courtesy a ruler Mary Ellen puts alongside Butler’s erection, that Butler measures eight-and-a-half inches; which is “only two-and-a-half inches more than the average,” Butler argues! 

This of course is a fitting finale for Butler, given the strong focus on XXX-rated sex since the beginning, not to mention that Butler’s been hooked on Wilma since the beginning. (And apparently vice-versa.) For decades Len Levinson thought this was it for Butler, until I happened to mention to him when we talked on the phone in 2012 that the series had continued on for six more volumes. I still recall how flabbergasted Len was; “That was my series!” he kept saying. A commenter named TrueAim left a note on a previous Butler review that at least some of those non-Len volumes tried to retain the feel of the original six books…so if anyone else out there has read them, please let us know. I’m curious if Wilma even factors into the books. 

But again, I’d say those latter six installments are alternate-reality Butler. The series clearly comes to a close with Killer Satellites, and I’d say overall I really enjoyed these books. Again, the cover illustrations and back-cover copy are all misleading; Butler is more of a humorous affair than an action thriller. As usual with a Len Levinson book, it is the personality of the author that most stands out, and no doubt given that Butler was his own creation, Len’s personality is very evident as the series progresses. Indeed, parts of Killer Satellite, in which Butler reflects on his life or the sad state of his romantic affairs, could almost come straight out of Len’s decades-later autobiography, In The Pulp Fiction Trenches. I also appreciated the glimpse into Butler’s personal interests; this time he has a sudden interest in jazz music, with mentions of The Jazz Crusaders and Ramsey Lewis…I got a chuckle out of this, given that Len had to patiently wait while I shopped for Jazz LPs when I met him in Chicago in 2016

If I recall, only the first few volumes of Butler were reprinted as eBooks a few years back. Hopefully the time will come when all six volumes will be available again as paperbacks. Personally I’ll miss Butler and his madcap adventures, but I’m happy that Len gave him a proper send-off.

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Chrysalis Of Death


Chrysalis Of Death, by Eleanor Robinson
May, 1976  Pocket Books

I’d never heard of this obscure paperback original until I recently came across it on the clearance rack at a local Half Price Books. One dollar, so I figured what the hell. I’ve been watching a lot of ‘70s drive-in movies lately, and the setup for this one seemed really in-line with those, to the extent that I wondered why someone like Roger Corman didn’t option the rights. In a nutshell, Chrysalis Of Death concerns a contagion in the Arizona desert that turns people into Neanderthals. 

But then, the uncredited cover art blows this surprise. Author Eleanor Robinson doesn’t outright state “Neanderthal” or “Cro-Magnon” in the brief, 175-page course of the novel; instead, she goes for a “cinematic” sort of approach, one that does imbue the story with tension and suspense, but one that also robs it of concrete details that allow the reader to understand what is happening. As it turns out, big stuff happens in the course of the novel – like main characters dying – but the reader doesn’t even realize something “big” has happened until later on, given the way Robinson has written the book. 

Also, she jams way too many characters into the novel, but then my impression was she was catering to the disaster obsession of the day. But the effect is, the reader doesn’t really get a grip on who is who, other than a few characters who sort of rise to the top in prominence. Otherwise, the characters loglined on the back cover and first-page preview aren’t given much room to breathe…like the drunkard best-selling novelist, or the Joe Namath-esque football player. Robinson tries to cater to the “large cast of characters” aesthetic of the disaster story, but the effect is limited given how short the novel is. Again, this is what gives the impression that it’s a tie-in for a drive-in movie that never was…the more lurid version of The Poseidon Adventure or something. 

The only problem is…it’s not very lurid! I’ll note the sad fact here that Chrysalis Of Death has zero in the way of sex, and the majority of the violence occurs off-page. Rather it is more of a long-simmer potboiler sort of affair, most reminscent of the contemporary Snowman (which also came off like the novelization of a drive-in movie that never was), with the caveat that Chrysalis Of Death doesn’t even feature a big action finale; the cover art not only blows the surprise of the storyline, but also misleads with the explosions and helicopters circling over the Cro-Magnons. Actually that does all sort of happen, but again it’s a little lost on the reader given the “cinematic” way Eleanor Robinson writes the book. 

By “cinematic” I mean the way Robinson will cut away from action; I did appreciate how she stayed, for the most part, locked in the perspectives of her various characters. This means that the narrative doesn’t jump willy-nilly from the perspective of one character to another, without any line breaks or chapter breaks to alert the reader that such a change is occuring. But this also means that Robinson has a tendency to have something occuring from the perspective of one character, then there will be a break to another character…and we’ll only learn in passing what happened to that previous character, due to the obsfucated way Robinson handles the action scenes. Meaning, characters will die, and we don’t even know it until it’s relayed in dialog later in the book. And these are major characters, too. 

The action begins with a young anthropologist or somesuch named Jeff blasting rocks in the Arizona desert, inadvertently releasing an ancient form of life that will soon infect the residents of nearby small town Lazy Creek  The infection is mostly relayed through the plight of several people staying at an out-of-the-way hotel in Lazy Creek, owned by a new arrival to the area named Henry. How the place stays in business, what with its being off the main road and in the middle of the desert, is something Henry is struggling with, but meanwhile he does have some people staying with him, and Robinson introduces them all without much fanfare, expecting us readers to be able to keep track of all of them. 

The way the contagion works is there are these saclike egg things in the desert, freed from their millennia in the rocks by Jeff’s dynamite, and when torn open little fuzzy caterpillars come out, ones that stink horribly. If you touch them it hurts, and soon your hand will swell, and next thing you know you’ll be puking your guts out for an entire day, in addition to passing out a bunch. Slowly your forehead becomes larger and larger and you become more Neanderthal, with heightened senses and only a modicum of intelligence. Again, Robinson never outright states all of this, just showing the infection first through one particular character as it happens to him, with his of course not even knowing he’s become infected with some super-ancient virus. 

As mentioned Robinson really stuffs the pages with a lot of characters: Henry the owner of the place and his wife; Jeff the scientist (whose wife back home is about to give birth); a young woman who is babysitting for another couple who aren’t even there; a famous novelist gone to seed; a pair of Hispanics who pretend to be brother and sister but are really engaged to be married; an old socialite lady and her minder; a drug courier who is carrying a suitcase filled with money; a sheriff who harbors designs on said suitcase; even if he has to kill to get it; a football player and his entourage, including among them yet another wealthy socialite who has a super-annoying tendency to say “big heap” all the time; and that’s just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. I mean all these characters and more – including I just remembered the people who own and work in the local grocery store – all in the brief span of 175 pages. There are even subplots within the subplots, like the football player’s wife who is miserable (eventually we’ll learn it’s because the famous football player is in the closet, though this is “revealed” so hurriedly it barely registers), or even the friend of the football player’s wife who has secretly been stealing jewelry from her “friend” for the past several years. 

Robinson really has it on the long-simmer, with the book occuring over just a few days, so that the horror of the virus becomes slowly apparent both to the characters and to the reader. Gradually we have yet another new character added to the mix: a somewhat-arrogant young doctor who is flown in and who immediately puts Lazy River in a quarantine. Yes, the parallels to COVID are interesting here, particularly given how the Lazy River people begrudgingly give in to the whims of the government during the quarantine…until slowly coming to their senses and realizing the government people have no idea what the hell they are doing. But even when they do rebel, the impact of their action is lost in the way the narrative is handled. For example, a group of the hotel guests plot to hijack a government helicopter that is coming in with supplies. When the attempted hijacking transpires, however, Robinson doesn’t relay it from the perspective of the hijackers or even the people on the helicopter – she relays it from the perspective of someone infected by the virus, whose intelligence has been so ruined that he doesn’t even fully comprehend what he is seeing. 

It's things like this that ultimately sink Chrysalis Of Death, just one wrong narratorial decision after another. There is a lot of setup and little payoff, particularly for the many subplots. And also, some of the subplots are kind of thrust on us with no warning. Like when the sheriff starts searching for the drug courier, and thinks to himself that he’ll deputize the young anthropologist – so it won’t look as suspicious when the young anthropologist turns up dead. This is almost shocking in how casually it’s relayed to us readers, given that prior to this there was no warning our sheriff character would even be a villain. But no, we will gradually learn his own subplot concerns his determination to get the suitcase of money the drug courier might have hidden in Lazy Creek, and he’ll kill anyone who gets in his way. But this subplot too is totally lost in the narrative, with no payoff. Worse yet is the Spanish guy whose wife and child are killed by someone infected by the virus, and who swears revenge – and then disappears from the novel. 

Robinson does well capture the growing horror of the situation, and also she’s good at planting clues that indicate a person might ultimately become infected by the virus, even though they’re acting fine. But it seems that she loses control of her narrative as it nears its conclusion, with a lot of characters dying off-page, and the drama of it totally unexploited. She earns points though for delivering a ‘70s-mandatory bummer ending, which again aligns with the drive-in movie that’s playing in your mind. 

Overall, Chrysalis Of Death was interesting to find on the clearance rack, but not a book I’d recommend. It’s more sluggish than its short page length would imply, and it was a lot of work to keep track of the various characters. Also, the book really could’ve benefitted from some naughty stuff. The editors at Pocket Books really try to make it seem like the book has naughty stuff in it, though; this is one of those instances where you wish the book was more like the back-cover copy would indicate. As for Eleanor Robinson, it appears that she only published one more novel, The Silverleaf Syndrome, another “biological horror” affair that was published in 1980 by Tower Books.  It was also published that same year by Leisure Books as The Freak.

While researching Eleanor Robinson, I came across this 2009 article that tells how Robinson, who apparently passed away some time ago (in 1985, if my math is correct from the dates given in the article), inspired her granddaughter from beyond the grave.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Bloody Sunday (The Marksman #21)


Bloody Sunday, by Frank Scarpetta
No month stated, 1976  Belmont-Tower

I would say that Lynn Munroe is once again correct with the theory that this volume of The Marksman was written by George Harmon Smith.* As Lynn notes, the style is identical to the series titles that have been identified (by Lynn) as ones by George Harmon Smith, like This Animal Must Die and Savage Slaughter. For once again we have a book that is wholly at odds with the typical Marksman yarn: 192 dense pages that are heavy with introspection and detail, with a literary flourish well outside the series norm. In past I’ve noted that George Harmon Smith was basically the John Gardner of the men’s adventure genre, and that is very apparent in Bloody Sunday; like Gardner (the American author who was briefly famous in the ‘70s, not the British author of the same name), Smith overwrites with abandon, making what is supposed to be a fast-moving novel instead come off like a laborious slog. 

Also, Bloody Sunday clarifies something I have long assumed: that George Harmon Smith was the author of Bronson: Blind Rage. In past reviews of Smith’s novels I was 99% sure of this; after reading Bloody Sunday, I’m 100% sure. I’ve only read a few books by Smith, including one non-series title (Bad Guy), but his style is unmistakeable, and all of his action stories feature a cold-blooded “hero” who tortures and kills without a thought and who is coupled with a headstrong, independent young woman who comes off as more human than the hero does. All these things are present in Bloody Sunday, just as they are in Bronson: Blind Rage, with the additional confirmation this time that here in Bloody Sunday George Harmon Smith uses the word “re-focussed,” instead of the more-typical spelling “focused.” Which is exactly how the word was (miss)spelled in Bronson: Blind Rage. I noted the unusual spelling of “focussed” in my review of Blind Rage back in 2012, hoping it would be a clue to the author’s identity…and Bloody Sunday was the payoff. When I saw the word “re-focussed” in this book it was the final confirmation of what I’d long assumed. 

But then, checking my review of Bad Guy from the other year, I see that I noted that “focussed” also appeared in that book, so it looks like even a few years ago I was 100% sure that George Harmon Smith was the mystery author of Bronson: Blind Rage

Also, I have a strong suspicion that Bloody Sunday started life as an installment of Bronson. That series ran three volumes, and George Harmon Smith only wrote the first volume. But I’m betting this Marksman book was originally going to be another Bronson offering from Smith. It has more in common with the Bronson series than the Marksman series, and just like Blind Rage was a lift of Death Wish, Bloody Sunday is a sort of proto-lift of the Death Wish sequels, in which Charles Bronson’s character Paul Kersey would dispense thugs in vengeance for wrongs done to others, not for wrongs done to himself. 

In other words, Philip “The Marksman” Magellan does not waste Mafia creeps in Bloody Sunday in his never-ending vendetta against the mob for the killing of his family. Rather, he spends the novel hunting down four wealthy men who, years ago, killed a young woman and got away with it, and Magellan, having met the young woman’s grandmother, has vowed to dispense bloody justice in the murdered girl’s name – even though he never even knew her. This storyline is much more at home in the Bronson series which, especially in George Harmon Smith’s Blind Rage, was concerned with “hero” Bronson taking out some wealthy “untouchables” who committed violent crimes with no reprisals. Bloody Sunday features the same storyline, only here the protagonist has not been affected by the crimes he is avenging. 

So my guess is, George Harmon Smtih wrote Blind Rage, then Len Levinson wrote the second volume and Joseph Chadwick wrote the third volume, but Bronson was cancelled while Smith was working on what would have been the fourth volume…and so he just turned it into a Marksman novel. It’s not even that preposterous of a theory; it’s not like this series is grounded in continuity or a theme that links all the titles. Just take a look at The Torture Contract, for example, which also comes off like an installment of an entirely different series, with Magellan reduced to secondary status, going about on the whims of a sadistic genius. The timing also works, with Bronson ending in 1975 and Bloody Sunday coming out in 1976, so George Harmon Smith clearly wrote Bloody Sunday shortly after he wrote Bronson: Blind Rage

Anyway, I rest my case. 

Only the opening of Bloody Sunday seems to come from your typical Marksman novel…sort of. Actually, it also serves as an indication of how George Harmon Smith just wasn’t suited to this genre…it’s an overwritten slog that, again, has more in common with something like John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogs than it does with an action series. We meet Magellan – only referred to as “he” for the first chapter – after he’s hit some Mafia creeps, but he’s been shot in the shoulder in the shootout, and he’s bleeding to death as he sits on a bus when the novel opens. Smith well captures Magellan’s plight here, but it’s way overwritten; even more overwritten than one of my reviews!! 

Here we’re informed of Magellan’s endless war on the Mafia, and how he just killed some of them in payback, though we didn’t get to see any of it…again, it’s like stuff grafted on to what was originally a Bronson plot. Magellan passes out in a dark alley (eventually we learn the city is Cleveland), and he’s found by an old woman named Zennie, a country-type who has a lot of Smith’s patented “headstrong woman” dialog. She nurses Magellan back to health if for no other reason than her country-born politeness, but more importantly there’s Zennie’s hotstuff young granddaughter, Janie (barely out of her teens, Magellan suspects), with her “small, jutting breasts.” 

Janie is from the same template as George Harmon Smith’s other female characters: very young, very independent, very outspoken. She goes on and on with a lot of dialog, but she’s got a lot of spunk because she’s just gotten out of juvie. She takes an instant “ownership” of the convalescing Magellan, and in fact soon learns who he is (“the badass of the badasses”). They start having sex, but as usual Smith keeps it off-page. Meanwhile Magellan has already decided to help out old Zennie, who has related in seemingly-endless exposition that almost all of her 11 sons (!) have died (and we get background detail on almost all of them!), but most importantly another granddaughter of hers, Wendy, died two years ago – and Zennie believes the girl was murdered by a quartet of wealthy businessmen who came into town and hired Wendy for her typing skills. 

On such shaky ground does Bloody Sunday stand: Magellan swears to avenge Wendy, if only because Zennie took care of Magellan and nursed him to health. Meanwhile he displays his bad-assery by taking out a black pimp-type who keeps scoping out Janie, pulling his silencered gun on him and later firebombing the pimp’s place with homemade napalm. It’s all crazy but this stuff too is written in Harmon Smith’s overwritten style, with the action less hard-hitting than it is overbearing. I mean it’s great writing, yes, but it’s not great for the genre. It’s inflated and ornate when it should be terse and fast. 

On page 64 the plot changes and here’s where I argue it is essentially the Bronson novel George Harmon Smith originally wrote. Magellan takes off in pursuit of these four men he’s never met, who never wronged him personally, to kill them one by one for Zennie. The first guy’s in New Mexico and Magellan scopes him out – he’s a laywer in a fancy building – and then goes in there on the pretext of a meeting and beats the guy around, causing him to have a fatal heart attack. But in the interrogation Magellan learns that Wendy was indeed killed by the four men, and from this lawyer Magellan gets the addresses of the other three he must kill. 

The next target takes up the majority of the narrative, if for no other reason than the motor-mouthed “chick” Magellan picks up: Cindy, a spaced-out Californian surfer girl who is turning tricks here in Topeka to get enough money to go back to California. She sashays up to Magellan while he’s scoping out target #2 and starts talking…and nearly a hundred pages later she’s still talking. George Harmon Smith does the same thing here that he did in Icepick In The Spine: namely, he replaces one “strong young woman” (Janie) with another “strong young woman,” and the issue is they both sort of run together for the reader. About the only difference I could tell was that Cindy was a little older, had bigger boobs, and talked a whole bunch more. 

In previous books I’ve really admired Smith’s penchant for bringing to life independent, fully-realized female characters in his men’s adventure novels, but I felt he really stumbled with Cindy here in Bloody Sunday, as she was more annoying than anything. And she has a lot of dialog and scenes here; there are endless scenes of her bumming a cigarette from Magellan or drinking beer – she informs Magellan she’d “only weigh seventy-five pounds” if she didn’t drink beer, and there are copious scenes of her buying a six-pack and downing it and “burping” afterward. Meanwhile the action stops dead as Magellan, a guy who in previous volumes could wipe out an entire Mafia squad in a handful of paragraphs, spends several densely-written chapters trying to figure out how to safely kill some rich businessman in Topeka!! 

Have I mentioned yet that I suspect Bloody Sunday started life as a Bronson novel? 

Because really, it’s fairly believable that a fromer architect, or whatever the hell Bronson was before he became a vigilante, might need endless chapters to figure out how to kill some random rich guy. But Magellan? Even in the previous volumes by Smith, the guy was essentially unstoppable. But man it’s kind of repetitive here in Bloody Sunday, with Magellan even getting Cindy in on the act, using her as bait for his target’s lesbian daughter(!?). Oh and meanwhile, the veteran men’s adventure reader will know where all this is going when Magellan goes from calling Cindy “chick” (among other names when she gets on his nerves)…to “darling.” Yes, Magellan and Cindy as expected become an item, with Smith as is his wont keeping all the dirty stuff completely off-page…usually just relayed, again as is his wont, via the female character’s never-ending exposition. 

Violence is also minimal for the most part. Magellan only makes a few kills in the book, usually dispensing someone with his pistol in bloodless fashion. And also when he takes out his targets it’s anticlimactic, especially given the inordinate narrative time given over to the setup for each execution. Indeed, Smith overwrites to such an extent that Magellan’s third and fourth targets are essentially rushed through, with the third target having the greatest ramifications for Magellan – what happens to Cindy is what happens to every other “strong, independent woman” in a George Harmon Smith novel, and won’t be surprising to any reader. Especially after Magellan starts calling her “honey” and whatnot. 

But this does bring Magellan personally into the vendetta at least – and here we get a very extended sequence of George Harmon Smith’s other hallmark: the “hero” torturing someone. This one really goes to town and might be the most over-the-top instance yet, as if Smith were intentionally trying to outdo his previous torture scenes. Magellan gets target number three and first puts a hook in his back, then drags him along behind his car in a field. Then he ties him up and whips him with a barbed wire whip. Then he throws “brine” on the guy’s bloody, lashed body. Then he burns the guy’s testicles off. Then he whips him again! By the end, we’re informed that the guy’s intestines are hanging out and etc. 

As Magellan warned Cindy earlier in the novel, “It’s going to get gross.” This I believe is the first knowing instance I’ve encountered in one of George Harmon Smith’s installments; Cindy nearly pukes when she sees Magellan stomp on some guy’s skull, and Magellan tells her things will only get more “gross” as he goes along. But man, after this extended torture scene, victim number four is hastily dispatched, as Smith has nearly reached his word count. Actually, I’d say he’s well exceeded his word count, as Bloody Sunday is a lot longer (and more laborious) than the typical Marksman installment. 

The book is curiously constructed, again harkening back to Icepick In The Spine, in that Janie is introduced as the first girl, then disappears from the text for like a hundred pages, replaced by Cindy…and then Janie returns at the end, when Magellan goes back to Cleveland. What’s interesting is that Smith does not mention that Magellan will soon leave her, or whatever…in fact, earlier in the book, before leaving on his vendetta, Magellan promises Janie that he will come back to her. And he keeps his promise at book’s end, George Harmon Smith ending the novel with the two walking off together. It almost comes off like the end of Magellan’s saga, which is curious. 

And as hard as it is to believe, we are coming near the end of The Marksman. There are only three more volumes in the series, and Lynn Munroe seems to indicate that George Harmon Smith wrote at least one more of them. So I’ll be curious to see if that one too comes off like a lost installment of Bronson

*As Lynn further notes, Bloody Sunday was reprinted a few years later, this time by sister imprint Leisure Books and credited to Aaron Fletcher. I agree with Lynn that this does not mean that Aaron Fletcher actually wrote the book. For one, the style here in Bloody Sunday is identical to the style in the Marksman novels we know for certain were written by George Harmon Smith…because Lynn Munroe was actually in contact with Smith’s relatives. I too was in touch with them for a while, and in fact received several nice emails from Smith’s granddaughter (which is interesting in hindsight, given this novel’s focus on two granddaughters, Wendy and Janie). So we know that George Harmon Smith indeed wrote many of these novels, especially Icepick In The Spine, as it’s one he would apparently mention facetiously to friends and family. And also, Icepick In The Spine was later reprinted by Leisure (as Icepick), where it too was credited to Aaron Fletcher. 

Aaron Fletcher was a real person, apparently, and thus one might guess that he really was the author of Bloody Sunday and Icepick In the Spine, and Belmont-Tower/Leisure merely reprinted those books under his real name once Fletcher gained success with his novel Outback

But remember…Belmont-Tower/Leisure was the same publisher that also published The Terrorists as by “Nelson DeMille,” even though it was really written by Len Levinson! So then, this grungy little publishing house had absolutely no problem with mis-crediting a novel to a more-famous name, even if the more-famous name didn’t actually write the novel! So the fact that “Aaron Fletcher” was credited as the author of these Marksman novels in the Leisure Books reprints probably doesn’t mean a damn thing, other than Leisure/Belmont-Tower’s typical lack of giving a shit. 

So finally, at long last, I rest my case again.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Cuba: Sugar, Sex, And Slaughter


Cuba: Sugar, Sex, And Slaughter, edited by Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle
No month stated, 2018  New Texture

I’ve been meaning to read this installment of the Men’s Adventure Library Journal for a few years now. Bob Deis and his co-editor Wyatt Doyle consistently turn out high-quality hardcover volumes with excellent production standards, and Cuba: Sugar, Sex, And Slaughter is no exception. And as usual with these two, the theme of the book is very original: men’s mag stories dealing with Cuba, from the days of the Batista dictaroship to the days of the Castro dictatorship. 

In some ways the book is similar to a vintage men’s adventure anthology: Our Secret War Against Red China, but as ever Deis and Doyle are not limited to one “line” of men’s adventure magazines. The stories collected here run the gamut from “straight reporting” to the “sweats.” One thing I was surprised that was not featured was the story featured on the cover of the book, or at least a story with a similar setup: namely, a sadistic Cuban torture-babe, ie the jackbooted Cuban equivalent of a Nazi She-Devil. Rather, the female characters who appear in Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter are either hapless hotstuffs who have somehow gotten caught up in the various revolutions of Cuba, or are hotstuff revolutioniaries who fight against Castro. So, there is no story here with a, uh, Commie She-Devil. But then maybe Deis and Doyle will do a Volume 2 someday. 

As I was reading the book I chuckled at the lofty treatment these stories and art were given by Bob and Wyatt. Not that I’m complaining, or “taking the piss” as the British would say (or once said). It’s just that…these old men’s adventure magazines were the epitome of disposable entertainment. They were read and thrown away, which no doubt is one of the reasons copies are so pricey today; more were destroyed than stored. Ruggedly virile vets of the mid 20th century weren’t concerned with plastic archival bags to store pristine-quality copies of their magazines in; they read the mags while enjoying a few drinks and smokes and then threw them in the garbage like real men. But here those once-disposable stories are, printed on high-quality paper and bound in hardcover and given a deluxe presentation that is well beyond their grubby roots. 

In the Men’s Adventure Library Journal books, Bob Deis gives a sole intro at the start of the book, rather than an intro before each story. Once again his intro is informative and gives succinct detail on the origins of the men’s mags and how these particular yarns were concerned with, first, the Batista regime and its sadism, and then later the Castro regime and its sadism. Bob astutely notes how Castro and his men were the “good guys” in some of the earliest stories, until he began his own progroms upon attaining power, after which he and his jackbooted minions were essentially the Nazis of the ‘60s in the men’s mags. 

First up we have “Havana’s Amazing Flesh Market,” by JL Pimsleur and from the June 1958 Sir. This one is an informative, “straight” reporting piece on…the various hookers of Batista-era Cuba! We get a thorough rundown, complete with costs and where to find them, of the lowly street whores on up to the deluxe “hotel” girls who cost a bunch. The author names names and places and one wonders if they are fictional or real; regardless, this one is written like a standard report with none of the pulp conceits more typical of men’s adventure mag stories. 

The story that gave this collection its title is next: “Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter,” by Joseph Hazlett and from the September 1959 Male. Despite being from one of the Diamond line men’s magazines, this one too is a mostly-factual piece done in a straight reporting style, and details the five centuries of revolution and dictatorship that has plagued Cuba since it was “discovered” by Spaniards. 

We get a bit of factual reporting mixed with the lurid escapism the men’s mags were known for next, with, “Bayamo’s Night Of Terror,” by Don Hogan and from the May 1958 Man’s Magazine. This is one of those stories where Castro is the good guy. We’re told he’s in the Sierra Maestra Mountains with his army, two thousand strong, and the story concerns the titular town of Bayamo which is wholly aligned with Castro. A sadistic Batista officer named Lt. Cowley wages a war on the town after he loses a few soldiers to the rabble – soldiers who were killed for murdering one of the townspeople. This one is also mostly factual-style reporting, but brings the plight of the characters to life by putting the reader there in the action. 

The next story in particular is very good, if overly grim. “Brotherhood of the Scar,” by Jim Greaves as told to Jack Barrows, is from the July 1959 Adventures For Men and is a long tale that is more brutal survival epic than escapist pulp fun. “Greaves” takes us through his harrowing tale of torture and eventual freedom; he’s an expat carpenter, a WWII vet per men’s mag tradition, and he falls in with a local gal who agrees to go in-country with him, despite the government’s stipulation that foreigners are not allowed to venture outside of Havana. For reasons not properly explored, Greaves goes anyway, and of course is captured and thrown in a prison by the sadistic Batista enforcers. But man this one is indeed grueling and just keeps going and going. It takes up pages 64-96 in Cuba: Sugar, Sex, and Slaughter, and the majority of those pages are dedicated to the various depredations Greaves endures in his imprisonment, up to and including losing some fingers and even getting the US flag branded on his back. But it’s no Russian epic or anything; it’s still the expected macho stylings of the men’s mag genre, to the extent that Greaves endures his torture with a grim fatality. That said, author Jack Barrows seems to know a bit too much about what it’s like to be tortured in captivity, to the extent that you hope the guy isn’t talking from direct experience. 

We’re back to the more factual vibe with “Castro’s Commie Blueprint To Take Over Latin America,” from the October 1961 Cavalcade and by George Vedder Jones. This one’s an interesting “What if?” sort of scenario about Castro taking over the Dominican Republic – and then the rest of South America, uniting the various countries into a Latin America USSR. 

My favorite yarn is next: “Terror! Cuban Hell-Cats Scare Castro’s Cutthroats,” by Miguel Gonzales and from the September 1964 Man’s Peril. This was one of the “sweats,” so the concern here isn’t so much relaying “fact” as it is delivering a fast-moving tale filled with t&a and sadism. Told in third person, this one’s unique though in that the titular hell-cats are the heroines of the piece; the short, fast-moving story is essentially devoted to the rebel women hitting a ship filled with Castro men and blasting the shit out of them. There’s no sex, but we are informed that the gals are “magnificently proportioned” and that they are led by a former high-class hooker who calls herself The Avenger. Also I got a kick out of the term “glamazon” being used to describe these gun-toting beauties. Gonzales also delivers some nice gore: “[The Castro soldier’s] brains spilled out in a jelly-like glob on the sand.” 

More sweat-mag sadism continues in the next story, “Squirm In Hell, My Lovely Muchacha,” by sweat vet Jim McDonald and from the June 1964 Man’s Story. Like the previous yarn, this one’s also in third-person perspective, and comes off like a hardboiled private eye story for the first half. It concerns lovely Roberta Trent, with her “high, impudent breasts,” who comes into fellow American Carmody’s place and begs him to escort her out of Cuba in his boat. McDonald really lays on the hardboiled stylistic touches, with Carmody immediately knowing the beauty is nothing but trouble, but ultimately deciding to help her – after a little off-page sex, of course. But then the story detours into sweat mag territory when Roberta is captured by a Castro sadist and is tortured with a cigar to her naked limbs, captured due to the preposterous premise that she managed to take a photo of herself and some Castro flunky with top-secret jets behind them, and she wants to get this photo to the American government. Who took this photo is curiously left unstated, unless that is Roberta was taking a selfie in 1964…which is about as believable as the premise of the story itself, what with how bulky those cameras were back then. 

Jim McDonald returns with “Kiss The Skull Of Death, My Beautiful Muchacha,” from the September 1965 New Man. Wait, technically it’s by “Linda Rogers,” this being another of those bullshit “as told to” yarns. Well, “Linda” tells us about her hot affair with some Castro supporter during the Batista years (“Our hips ground together in an expression of mutual need”), but upon Castro attaining power she finds herself on the wrong side, and is captured by a sadist called El Toro. This one has the most baffling WTF copout ending I’ve yet read in one of these stories; while torturing Linda and about to rape her, El Toro conveniently collapses from a drug overdose, dies, and Linda escapes in his car! 

“Castro’s Bacterial Warfare Chief Wants To Defect – My Job: Get Him” is by Robert F. Dorr and from the April 1971 Man’s Illustrated. It’s another “as told to” yarn, the person supposedly telling this fictional tale being a marine biologist named Hal Gorby. He’s heading to Cuba for some marine bioligy symposium, when he’s stopped by a CIA agent who tells him the top marine scientist there – who also happens to be Castro’s chief bacterial warfare expert – wants to defect, and Gorby’s to help if possible. This one’s more of a Cold War yarn and just as easily could’ve been set in East Germany. Gorby is unusual for a men’s mag protagonist in that he’s married, and indeed turns down the advances of the sexy native babe he’s set up with by the Cuban government – there to keep tabs on him, of course. The finale is also on the suspense angle, with Gorby being set up as a propaganda scapegoat by the Cubans and eventually making his escape on a hydrofoil. 

Overall I really enjoyed Cuba: Sugar, Sex, And Slaughter, and it left me wanting more; as ever Wyatt Doyle fills the pages with related men’s mag covers and interior art, and a lot of the stories sound really good – in particular, of course, the ones with the Commie She-Devils. So maybe one of these days we’ll have a volume 2. Otherwise, I’m happy with this one, and heartily recommend it, as I do everything else Bob Deis and his co-editors Wyatt Doyle and Bill Cunningham publish.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Phone Call


Phone Call, by Jon Messmann
May, 1979  Signet Books

After the men’s adventure market dried up in the mid ‘70s, Jon Messmann started turning out lurid one-shot mystery thrillers, this being one of them. Unfortunately for the most part these books are overpriced on the collector’s market, but I managed to get a copy of Phone Call for cheap. This one’s interesting because it’s actually a film tie-in, and indeed is copyright a pair of screenwriters, Michael Butler and Dennis Shyrack, though the film itself didn’t come out until 1982 and was titled Murder By Phone. But make no mistake, this novel is clearly the work of Jon Messmann, written in his unique style, even though the copyright page might fool you into thinking “Jon Messmann” was a pseudonym. 

I’ve never seen Murder By Phone and have no intention to. But it’s interesting that this novel came out three years before the film (a low-budget horror) was released, indicating that Messmann’s novel was based off the script and not the actual movie. In fact, online synopses and reviews of Murder By Phone describe an almost entirely different story, with different characters, but the same general setup. Whatever the background, the novel itself is all very much in-line with Messmann’s usual output, and one could just as easily assume it was an original story of his. It’s less horror than it is a thriller, though there are horror elements to it, particularly given the threat our hero must face: namely, that phones in New York City are randomly killing people by blasting them with a sort of white lightning. 

The novel is very much of another era, then, with the first kill happening at a phone booth, and throughout the novel there’s lots of mystery over whether the phone might ring, or who might be on the other line – things hardly anyone at all would worry about in our modern era. That said, Messmann does introduce answering machines into the narrative at one point, so at least these characters in the late ‘70s have that safeguard. But for the most part the victims in Phone Call are hapless losers who do nothing more than answer the phone and then are zapped into hell. 

At 214 pages of small, dense print Phone Call is similar to most other John Messmann novels in that it turns out to be a much longer read than the page length might indicate. This is because, as was often his wont, Messmann has turned in a sluggish tale that’s more deadening than thrilling. In fact the book was a chore to read at times, and I almost got the impression Messmann himself was struggling with what was, really, a lame setup. I mean “phones killing people” isn’t exactly Jaws, is it? 

Not helping things is the protagonist we’re saddled with, Nate Bridger. Sure, he’s the typical cantankerous Messmann “hero,” quick to anger and lashing out…but what really annoyed me was that the dude was a “crusading consumer advocate” per the back cover…whereas in reality he’s a an environmentalist. From his intro, where he’s listing off all these companies he’s pestering due to their various infringements upon poor old Mother Earth, I was ready to magically transport myself into the book to punch the guy in the face. He’s basically the ruggedly virile macho male version of that shrill modern-day teenaged Scandanavian eco-harpie who’s constantly telling us the world’s about to end. Hell, we even learn that Nate, as Messmann refers to his hero, doesn’t like air conditioners! But at least it’s because he prefers “fresh air,” so it’s not like he gives a speech in the book where he says air conditioning is more dangerous than ISIS or whatever. 

But then, the average Jon Messmann hero is supposed to be annoying, and generally argues with everyone. So then, in his very first scene, Nate is in his homestate of North Dakota and is being given a celebratory luncheon by local businessmen, who congratulate him on his tireless work for the environment…and then the absolute bastard gets up on the podium and says thanks, this is nice and all, but it would’ve been swell if you’d used all the money you paid for this shindig and instead funnelled it to environmental causes, or sent some money to my office, ‘cause we need it there. I mean point taken, but this is our hero, folks. 

And his involvement with the story, which occurs in New York City, is sketchy at best. Nate’s heading into New York for, good grief, an eco-forum or some shit, and while leaving he’s stopped by some slackjawed yokel whose young daughter recently died, under unknown circumstances, in New York. We readers know how, of course – she was the first phone victim, randomly answering a ringing payphone in the subway tunnel and getting zapped to hell for her politeness. Nate says he’ll look into it, and heads off to New York…and there really are frequent scenes where he’s at this week-long convention, getting up on the podium and making speeches about the environment, or listening to others talk about it. Not my thing, but interesting from a modern perspective in that Nate doesn’t want to hector businesses, but instead wants to teach them the benefits of “saving” the planet.  Which doesn’t seem to be the goal anymore

Meanwhile random deaths continue in the city – only we readers gradually learn they aren’t random. Messmann neatly introduces the killer by only referring to the yellow Adidas sneakers he wears as he rides his bicycle across the city. Basically if he runs afoul of someone, and the person is rude or whatever, this guy will go back home, find the person’s phone number through mysterious means, and then give him or her a phone call, zapping the victim over the phone line with his special contraption. In the course of this the phone receiver on the other end is fried, and Nate Bridger is the one who slowly discovers this – and also that the New York phone company is hiding it all, and keeping the murders under wraps. 

This elicits several scenes where Nate storms into the phone company main office and starts yelling at the prissy office manager…and, the way these things go, it’s also how Nate manages to pick up what will be the main female character in Phone Call: Beth, a pretty girl in the front office who seems to also believe her company is hiding something big. There’s also stuff with a hardheaded New York cop Nate keeps confronting, with a lot of tantruming between the two, the cop scoring most of the points with his witty put-downs of “cowboy” Nate. 

This brings me to one of Jon Messmann’s more curious authorial quirks: his strange tendency for bonkers dialog modifiers. By which I mean stuff like “he said,” or “she said,” or the like. I’m pretty sure these are referred to as “dialog modifiers,” and generally they are kept innocuous, so as not to distract the reader from the importance of the dialog itself. But Jon Messmann missed this lesson. Instead, he puts all the attention on his goofy modifiers. Rarely ever is it “Nate said,” or even “Nate yelled,” but something more showy like, “Nate threw out,” or, the greatest of all, “Nate slid out.” I mean that’s an actual tag at the end of a line of dialog in Phone Call, but otherwise the book isn’t sleazy at all. Indeed, the two sex scenes are entirely off-page, which is surprising for Messmann and indicates to me he was catering his manuscript to spec. 

The horror stuff is limited to one-off characters, each of whom are given inordinate set-up material, ultimately answering a ringing telephone and getting fried. There is though a great scene where the killer hits a live-on-the-air telethon, zapping the hapless volunteers at the phone banks, but this one’s handled with such melodrama that you can tell Messmann had his tongue in his cheek. In fact the feeling was clear to me that he thought the whole thing was dumb but gave it the old college try – but the only problem is, Messmann’s tone is as every dry and overly serious, making the story seem a lot more ponderous than it should be. The same of which could be said of his other horror paperback of the day, The Deadly Deep

Nate works with Beth and a few different cops to track down the killer before he can make another deadly phone call, but Nate Bridger is not the action hero of Messmann’s earlier series paperbacks. He doesn’t really do anything “action” at all in the novel, and doesn’t carry a gun. In fact he pulls one of the dumbest moves ever…he manages to figure out who the killer is and chases him solo, cornering the guy and actually roughing him up a little. The guy agrees to go along with Nate to the cops, but asks if he can change his friggin’ shirt before they go…and Nate lets him! Would you be surprised to learn the dude runs away? 

This at least sets up a goofy finale in which the phone company people come up with this reverse-engineered contraption that will fry the killer when he calls someone, which takes us into an overly suspenseful finale where Nate must call the killer at a certain time…and listen to his inordinate demands. Speaking of which, right before this we lucky readers have “enjoyed” Nate’s own inordinate demands, in a looong closing speech he gives to the eco-forum about man’s threat to the world and etc, etc, to the point you figure John Kerry must’ve read this book when it came out and took notes. Copious notes. 

Overall I found Phone Call middling and glacially paced, and the eco-sermonizing didn’t help matters much. But I only paid a few dollars for the book, so I can’t complain too much.

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Depth Force #9: Death Cruise


Depth Force #9: Death Cruise, by Irving A. Greenfield
September, 1988  Zebra Books

How have I gone four years without reading an installment of Depth Force? The most shocking thing is I actually remembered most of what happened in the previous volume before starting Death Cruise; as we know, Irving Greenfield starts every volume en media res, picking up immediately after the previous volume, with zero in the way of background detail to catch up readers who might’ve forgotten what happened…or who might not’ve picked up the previous volume at all. 

So I wasn’t too out of sorts with the big action-rescue operation that opens this ninth installment; bearded hero Admiral Jack Boxer is on a new experimental sub and dropping off some commandos to take out a nuclear facility that’s guarded by Arabic and Russian soldiers, but as usual Greenfield writes the action scenes in outline format, with nothing in the way of the hard-hitting action one might expect from the genre. In fact, most of it is, as usual, relayed from the perspective of Boxer as he gets updates on the commlink on the bridge. But the novel opens on the same apocalyptic image that the previous one ended on, with the mushroom cloud of the destroyed facility off in the distance. 

The “rescue” portion goes on twice as long, and takes up a lot of the novel. As ever the Russians are there, under the command of Borodine, Boxer’s Russian enemy-slash-best friend. Borodine’s ship is destroyed, so Boxer follows the maritme code and rescues the Russians. There’s a lot of stuff about these guys toasting each other and etc. And meanwhile Borodine is in trouble due to hypothermia and frostbite. Then Boxer’s ship gets messed up and they’re stranded in frozen waters, sure to die. They’re rescued by an American vessel that transports cargo and is commanded by a guy named Captain Axelord, who is a “coward” and also an old enemy of Boxer’s…a real enemy, I should say, not an “enemy” like Borodine. 

Axelrod refuses to allow the Russians on his ship given that they are enemies, not even backing down when Boxer enforces his authority as an admiral and thus the true commander of Axelrod’s ship. So Boxer has to put a gun to the guy’s head, which ultimately will take us into the soap opera stuff we expect from Depth Force. Axelrod is the son-in-law of a senator who also has it in for Boxer, leading to a court martial charge. Humorously the back cover copy is as ever incorrect – I’ve long assumed the people at Zebra didn’t even read Greenfield’s manuscripts – and implies that Boxer is sent on a mission due to being court martialed. 

Rather, the soap opera stuff is central to Killer Cruise. And that’s another thing. There’s no “killer cruise” in the book! So again I think Zebra just came up with titles and back cover copy and if Irving Greenfield’s actual manuscript matched it, so much the better, but no big deal if it didn’t. So there’s a lot of stuff about Boxer getting ready for a rigged trial in a kangaroo court, orchestrated by political enemies on made-up charges for a jury that’s predisposed to find him guilty – which was real relevant and topical to read about in 2024, let me tell you – but there’s also stuff about Boxer adopting this 17 year-old kid who, we get confirmation this time, was indeed the son of one of Boxer’s men who was killed in a previous volume, and this time the adoption is made official. This was always a mystery to me because I was missing the earlier volume in which this subplot was set up. 

Oh, and there’s a fair bit about Boxer and his latest flame, an apparently hotstuff lawyer named Francine who is representing Boxer in the adoption. Francine was in previous volume so has been around for a bit, and she lives in DC with Boxer’s former commanding officer Stark, who is recuperating from a heart attack or something. Boxer and Francine get it on a few times in the book, Greenfield as ever delivering his patented explicit sex scenes (“[Boxer’s] cum exploded out of him,” etc – and yes, Greenfield spells it that way). But the veteran men’s adventure reader – or hell even the veteran Depth Force reader – will know this is not headed for a happy ending, if you’ll excuse the lame pun. Because friends, Boxer is in love with Francine, and even asks her to marry him. Hmm…what do you think might happen? I seem to recall Boxer proposed to some other chick earlier in the series, one named Trish, and she got shot in the head and then briefly turned into a vegetable, before dying off-page, and rarely mentioned again. 

Now that I think of it, the titular “death cruise” might refer to Francine’s grim fate…or I could just be reaching. Basically, Francine is abducted by a pair of Italians and eventually smuggled onto a ship in the Mediterranean (or something, I didn’t catch the geography), where she’s kept in a room beneath the deck and gang-raped and sodomized by a pair of swarthy brutes…like for days and days. So much so that, when Boxer finally finds her, Francine too has become a vegetable, raped and defiled so much that she has lost her mind. She’s sent off to a clinic at book’s end and Boxer spends about half a second hoping she’ll be okay, but is more concerned with the novel’s “main” storyline, ie the storyline promised on the back cover…which per series tradition doesn’t even come up in the book until the final quarter. 

But before we get to that, Greenfield spends most of the narrative in a political subplot, with characters who will likely feature in future volumes. For one, there’s Lori-Ann Collins, the sexy executive assistant to the head of the CIA, but secretly a deep-cover KGB agent; Greenfield clearly lays the groundwork for Boxer and Lori-Ann to “come together” in a future volume. Her subplot here sees her ensnaring various bigwig officers in US intelligence while fending off the advances of her sadistic control agent. Lori-Ann’s material was also unexpectedly topical in that it had her outing one high-ranking intelligence guy for being gay, the knowledge of which could ruin his career…! 

There’s also stuff with some rich Texans Boxer hobknobs with as part of his planning to thwart the court marial attemps, including visits with President Spooner. All this is treated with Greenfield’s usual disdain for creating drama or suspense; the president for example just appears without any setup. Greenfield does try to cater to the genre demand for action, with Boxer getting in random fistfights, some of them comically egregious…like when he’s called a “commie” for ordering vodka in a redneck bar and beats up his accusers. Then later he gets in a scrape while defending his adopted son, Chuck, from a group of racists who attack Chuck and his black friend. 

Even the finale has the feel of a soap opera as Boxer “quits” the Navy so as to go after the abducted Francine, working with a former enemy named Bruno Morelli to track her down; another old enemy, Julio Sanchez, is behind her capture (not to mention that he’s also Francine’s former boyfriend, in a confusingly unelaborated subplot). As mentioned Francine’s rescued, but in a vegetable state, and novel’s end sees Boxer commanding another sub while racing out to find out what happened to his normal sub, which has disappeared on the assignment Boxer turned down prior to quitting the Navy. 

The climax is a retread of the previous volume, with Boxer depositing a squad of SEALs somewhere and our hero standing around while newly-introduced characters handle the action. Greenfield’s action scenes are so half-assed, there’s one part where a SEAL blows away some enemy soldiers in revenge for killing a comrade, and the guy screams “Die, motherfuckers, die.” Greenfield doesn’t even give the line of dialog an exclamation point! I mean even his cipher-like characters are bored with it all. 

As usual we end here on the final scene, with the next volume inevitably picking up from this scene and then spending the rest of the narrative following up the various subplots Greenfield has introduced in Death Cruise. I’m missing that volume, as well as the volume after it, but you know what? I really don’t care. At this point I’m still just reading Depth Force to finish off the volumes I do have.

Monday, June 3, 2024

Duffy


Duffy, by Harry Joe Brown, Jr.
October, 1968  Dell Books

One of those movies that seems to be completely forgotten, Duffy was a caper film that tried to tap into the late ‘60s zeitgeist and starred James Coburn as the titular character. The only reason I ever heard of it was many years ago when I was into the work of Donald Cammell, who later wrote and directed Performance. I’ve still never seen Duffy, but now I’ve read the novelization – which was written by Harry Joe Brown Jr., who was the other writer of the script. 

So far as I can tell, this is the only writing credit for Brown, and also Duffy appeared to be his only movie. He died in 2005, and was born into “Hollywood Royalty.”  But man, having read this book I can see why he didn’t do any other movies. Duffy is a dud, even in book form…and I have the suspicion that Brown wrote the original script before Donald Cammell was brought in to rewrite it. Further, I suspect that, like Paradise Alley, this novelization is a reflection of the author’s original screenplay…I’ve browsed online for reviews of the film, and have found mentions of scenes that aren’t even in this novel, so I’m guessing this was stuff added by Cammell that did not exist in Harry Joe Brown Jr.’s draft of the script. 

Essentially the novel is a basic heist yarn, only very drawn out, and made relevant with a “groovy” Eurotrash vibe. It’s a lot like the film version of The Adventurers by Harold Robbins, only without the saucy stuff. It’s short, too, coming in at 140 big-print pages. This is because there isn’t much story. Basically it’s about two half-brothers who decide to rip off their mega-wealthy father, and Duffy is an American expat they go to for help in the caper. There’s also a hotstuff American girl named Segolene who gets caught up in the mix. But it takes forever for anything to happen, and when it does, it’s not very memorable. 

One thing the novel seems to make clear that the movie might not is that the characters are all European, save for Duffy and Segolene…but then the latter is presented as one of those annoying American girls who goes overseas and starts acting “continental,” with a fake accent and etc. Plus her name is confusing; you’d never guess she was an American. The mega-wealthy father being heisted is named Calvet, an Onassis-type who was played by James Mason in the film (where he was renamed “Calvert”). The plotting half-brothers are Stefan, Calvet’s 20 year-old French son, and Anthony, Calvet’s half-British son of a previous marriage. The gist is that Stefan, as Calvet’s “main” son, has all the family wealth, whereas Anthony, as the “former” son, has nothing and must work. The two men hatch a scheme to heist Calvet’s ship, The Osiris, which will be hosting “currency transfers” around Tangier. Anthony needs the money because he has none, and Stefan wants to pull a heist just for the fun of it. 

It's through Stefan that we get most of those “groovy” period details. He likes to smoke joints and is prone to spouting New Age hippie philosophy, like how time is meaningless and whatnot. His girlfriend is blonde American model Segolene, but Segolene is a free spirit and not truly attached to him. This is another of those topical details, but the problem is Brown makes Segolene seem more like a narcisstic whore than a free-spirited, free-thinking woman. But then, perhaps that was precisely Brown’s intent. Susannah York played her in the movie, while future Performance co-star James Fox played “Stefane,” indicating that another name was changed from Brown’s original script. John Alderton played Anthony. 

Duffy meanwhile is described as a beach bum in his thirties, a former Navy man, who now makes his living as an artist in Tangier. Reviews of the movie have it that his pad in Tangier is decorated with tacky sculptures of the female anatomy, but none of this is present in the novelization. Rather, Duffy is a cipher with no real motivation…perhaps more commentary on the hippie mindset, for Duffy is clearly identified as a hippie. Dell Books was very intent on getting this across, with a headline announcing “Take a trip” on the first page of the book. Otherwise Duffy’s hippie-ism is mainly evident in how he has no real life intentions, other than lazing in Tangier and creating art. He doesn’t even display much of a libido. 

Brown is in no hurry to tell his tale. None whatsoever. There’s also no real drive to the heist. The two brothers want to hit their father’s ship, and go about their leisurely plotting of the job. Brown’s also in no hurry to introduce Duffy, who doesn’t even appear in the narrative until page 33. Here we are told he’s 32, with sandy brown hair and “Bogart-ish” looks. Duffy previously worked for Calvet, thus the brothers know of him, and ultimately they hit upon the idea of using him in the heist. Even the way Stefan and Anthony bring Duffy into the caper is lame; they essentially hang out with him for a bit and get into a “daydream” discussion about hitting a boat in the ocean and stealing four million bucks off it, and how such a job could be done. 

In the meantime there’s a lot of stuff with Segolene, who is more annoying than arousing, at least in the book. Stefan sort of puts her on Duffy, as a honey trap I guess, but even here it’s just more “hip” dialog, like her admission that “Stefan calls me a whore. I guess I am a whore.” How shocking! It takes a while, but Segolene does eventually give in to Duffy’s virility: “Slowly, fully, she let him enter her.” A clever thing here is how after their initial boink, there’s a part where Duffy and Segolene awake in bed and Duffy muses how, in books, sex scenes are often glossed over, with the author jumping immediately to the post-sex material…which is exactly what Brown does in Duffy. I thought this was funny, particularly given how I always note in my reviews if the sex scenes are off-page; Harry Joe Brown Jr. was noting the same thing in 1968, it appears. 

But Duffy’s still a bit of a square; when he wakes up next morning to find Stefan and Anthony standing over the bed, Duffy feels uncomfortable, given the fact that the two clearly know that Duffy’s been having sex with Segolene, ie Stefan’s “woman.” But man, it’s the late ‘60s! Get with it! And plus, as Segolene insists, she belongs to no one. In other words, she’s a “slut,” as Duffy calls her shortly before their sex scene. Now that’s how you get a woman! Anyway, at this point Duffy is as expected in on the heist, which sees him disguised as a Bedouin and the two brothers also disguised as they board their father’s ship and then rob it with “Israeli submachine guns,” clearly Uzis, though Brown never identifies them. 

The heist is bloodless and more on a suspense angle, but only takes up several pages and really isn’t much to get hung up about. Indeed, it’s the post-heist material that takes us into the climax, with a “shock twist” reveal that one of the plotters is actually working with Calvet…for reasons that aren’t even made clear. But Duffy gets the last laugh; having figured out the duplicity, he “finds” the money that’s been heisted and returns it in a public setting, ensuring plenty of media coverage and making himself look like a hero. It’s a clever ending, only undone by the fact that Duffy hasn’t done anything clever before this. 

All told, Duffy wasn’t so much a “trip” as it was a “bore.” I doubt I’ll ever see the film now, and if I want some Donald Cammell material I’ll just watch Performance again…or The Touchables, if I’m really desperate. That one’s only slightly better than Duffy, but at least has a super-mod look and features a cast of smokin’ hot swingin’ ‘60s babes.