Thursday, February 11, 2016

Balzan Of The Cat People #1: The Blood Stones

Balzan Of The Cat People #1: The Blood Stones, by Wallace Moore
May, 1975  Pyramid Books

Yet another series produced by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, Balzan Of The Cat People is along the same lines of an earlier Engel production, Richard Blade. But whereas that series took inspiration from the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, Balzan takes its inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs, particularly John Carter of Mars and Tarzan (who is even referenced on the cover). 

Another difference is that Richard Blade lasted a whole lot longer; Balzan only amounted to three volumes, and whether that was due to the series being a bomb with readers or the fact that Pyramid Books folded in 1976 is unknown. I’m betting it was a combination of the two, because The Blood Stones, the first novel in the series, really doesn’t have much to recommend it. It’s fair for what it is, just an average piece of mid-‘70s sci-fantasy, but it’s nothing remarkable.

According to the internet, “Wallace Moore” was really comics writer Gerry Conway. It was interesting knowing this, as Conway’s tale would be perfectly at home in a Marvel comic of the time. The story is heavily plotted with a lot of melodrama and action but zero sex. Conway wrote mainstream comics and he brings that same sensibility to The Blood Stones, as the novel has none of the softcore nature of the Richard Blade novels. And yet Conway’s writing, due to that too-heavy plotting, is in a way similar to that of Manning Lee Stokes.

Balzan is around 22 years old and is the lone human on an alien planet; in capably-dispensed backstory, we learn he had a Superman-esque origin story. His parents, Doctors Weldon and Katherine Rice, grew frustrated with the short attention spans of the American people of the year 2500; we’re informed this short attention problem began in the 1970s, but by the 26th Century nothing lasts, all is ephemeral, everything is just a flash in the pan. It’s interesting that Conway the optimist gave us a few centuries; rather, a mere 40 years after Balzan was published and we already live in a Twitter/Facebook world of impermanence.

But as their spacecraft neared Mars the couple ran into a black hole or something, zipping through space to a weird new galaxy. The couple died immediately, but their baby, Paul Brian Rice, was still alive in stasis. The ship crashed and the baby was discovered by biped cat people who lived on this part of the strange new world; the cat people were called Endorians, and one of them, Lomar, raised the baby as his own child, naming him Balzan. Lomar raised Balzan alongside his other child, a girl named Kitta; Lomar’s wife died while giving birth to her.

A big failing with The Blood Stones is we don’t really get to understand how Balzan works in this world, which is populated by biped cat people, biped lizard people, and another group of people who apparently are a combination of the two. There’s also mention of winged people, unseen this volume. But Balzan is the only human and his knowledge of earth comes from “The Teacher,” ie the computer in his crashed spacecraft, which has told Balzan all about history and who he is and whatnot. That Balzan, raised on an alien planet, is able to understand the computer’s English is a mystery we shouldn’t try to solve.

What is puzzling though is the question of who Balzan identifies with. He’s been raised by the Endorians but he doesn’t have their subservient nature. He thinks of Lomar as his father and Kitta as his sister, but I ask in all seriousness, has Balzan ever gotten laid? And if so, by what?? This doesn’t really matter in Conway’s PG world; Balzan for what it’s worth is, in the end, exactly like any other generic hero of a sci-fi fantasy, a studly monstrosity of manly muscle, described exactly as he is depicted on the cover painting, with the headband and everything.

At any rate, Balzan is so generic that you have a hard time identifying with him. It makes it worse then that the novel opens with the Endorian community he’s grown up in being destroyed by lizard-like bipeds called Albs; thus, there’s no part where we see how Balzan interracts with his “people.”   Anyway, Balzan’s out hunting with his therb (a whip with a poison barb that causes death in seconds) and comes back in time to find his home destroyed, Lomar dying, and Kitta and several other Endorians captured, taken away by the Albs. Lomar buys the farm and Balzan swears vengeance.

Balzan does what any other revenge-seeker would do: he tracks the captured Endorians to the sprawling city of Kharn, where he first hooks up with a group of thieves and then becomes a gladiator in the Kharnite arena! Seriously, Conway is very similar to Manning Lee Stokes in how he seems to be writing one book before veering course midway through and writing another. (He’s also like Stokes in his blocks and blocks of description; the book runs 190 pages of super-small and dense print.) But what starts out one way gradually turns into another tale entirely.

Armed with his therb and a Kharnite “neutron sword,”Balzan wastes a bunch of Albs on his way to the city of Kharn. While there’s no sex, Conway doesn’t shy from the gore, though again there’s nothing in the book that would’ve been unpublishable in the ‘30s. Balzan eviscerates and decapitates slews of the lizard men, the green gore gushing. He finds himself though overwhelmed by Kharn itself, which is a sprawling kingdom of wretched poverty living beneath untold wealth. He soon meets a young Kharnite (apparently lizard-like people, but not full on lizard men, or something) named Lio.

The middle half of the novel is where all the heavy plotting comes in. We’ve got Balzan trying to push Lio and the theives into full-blown rebellion, we’ve got the plotting and counterplotting of Kharnite notables. Among the latter is the master of the gladiator games, who lusts for wealth; then there’s Lord Sha, who has placed Kitta in his own personal harem (though he doesn’t have sex with her, nor any of the other female creatures in his harem); and finally there are King Dragus and Queen Myrane, rulers of Kharn and the reason for which Balzan’s people have been enslaved – the royal couple put on monthly arena games, and the rabble want to see fresh blood spilled.

Myrane seems to have stepped out of a Richard Blade novel; she’s a raven-haired beauty with an insatiable drive for sex and bloodshed, usually at the same time. She’s also an immortal beauty, ageless, which is another hallmark of that earlier (and superior) series. But when Balzan, captured at this point and training to become a yarrotite (ie gladiator), is taken as expected into the ravenous queen’s presence, he does something Richard Blade would never do: he spurns her advances. (Indeed the closest we get to adult stuff in the novel is a fade-to-black sex scene between Lord Sha and Myrane.)

Through the dense plotting and scene-setting Conway does deliver several fights, usually featuring Balzan taking down hordes of opponents, including one memorable scene where he fights a three-headed creature called a huulat. He’s busting his ass to save Kitta, and unfortunately, when we finally meet the girl, we wonder why the dude even bothers. Kitta as presented is such a cipher, so clueless and, well, stupid, that you have a hard time understanding why Balzan puts himself through the wringer for her. At first I wondered if Conway was developing a romance between the “brother and sister,” but nope – as mentioned, Balzan is as generic as can be. He’s saving Kitta because she must be saved, and that’s that.

Unfortunately we also get many sequences from Kitta’s point of view (Conway is damn excellent in how he never POV-hops…and when he does change perspectives, he actually gives us some white space!), and she does nothing to gain our interest or empathy. She’s eternally confused, frightened, or docile, and the only bright spot comes when she falls into the clutches of two sadistic members of Sha’s harem, each of whom bear her ill will due to jealousy. Kitta’s strapped to a table and tortured, but Conway leaves it all vague; despite which, you still could give a shit about her.

After a fight to the death with yarrotite trainer Kalak, hired by Sha to dispose of Balzan (due to Sha’s jealousy that Queen Myrane has the hots for Balzan), our hero is again summoned to Queen Myrane…and again turns down her sexual advances. (I honestly wanted the book to end with Balzan going back to his crashed spaceship and asking it, “Teacher, am I gay?”) Instead Balzan wants to know about “the blood stones,” which he’s heard vague mention of since this whole business started; they turn out to be ancient stones which, Myrane declares, needs the blood of the pure to keep giving out their power. Through the stones Myrane has gained control of Kharn, as well as another kingdom centuries before.

The finale is appropriately apocalyptic if overlong, with Balzan taking on a hairy demon that lives in the pool of blood in which the blood stones reside and then smashing the stones, which causes the immediate “implosion” of Kharn itself. But despite the chaos and confusion Balzan still finds the time to kill more Kharnite soldiers, another huulat, and even Lord Sha himself. By the time it’s all over you’re ready for a nap. Balzan meanwhile sees Kitta to safety, shakes Lio’s hand, and says “so long;” he’s going on a journey to find out what it means to be a “man.”

Two more volumes were to follow, both apparently also by Conway. I’ve got them both and will read the second one eventually, but long story short, The Blood Stones, while not terrible, is really just standard science-fantasy fare of the era, and the entire thing would’ve been more at home in the pages of Marvel Premiere.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Revenger #3: The Vendetta Contract

The Revenger #3: The Vendetta Contract, by Jon Messmann
August, 1974  Signet Books

The third volume of The Revenger is my favorite yet, Jon Messmann having figured out how to retain the “realistic” nature of his series while still keeping it all fast-moving and exciting. He’s also reigned in his somewhat-pretentious prose, with the soul-plumbing introspection of the previous two volumes whittled down. That’s not to say it’s gone entirely, though, and thus The Revenger still has more in common with a literary sort of novel than say The Executioner.

The events of the previous volume were a “short while ago,” and now hero Ben Martin lives in Morrisville, a small town south of Indianapolis. His business card identifies him as “Ben Bruzzi, Industrial Painting.” Ben has managed to pick up a new flame: a Morrisville native named Bianca Lanza whose lush, full-figured form is often mentioned. The way Messmann describes her, Bianca sounds like a Botticelli painting come to life, all soft, rounded curves. I assumed this was his way of telling us she was a little chunky, but later on another character checks her out while she sunbathes nude and offers the sterling endorsement, “Look at those tits!”

Anyway, Bianca is a waitress at a diner and her involvement with Ben has gotten serious; cue the first of several sex scenes in The Vendetta Contract. Messmann handles these scenes a little differently, this time, as they sort of meld outright explicitness with Burt Hirschfeld-style analogy and metaphor. Actually, Hirschfeld is a good comparison, as again Messmann’s writing here is very similar in style, with that same sort of sentence-concatenation Hirschfeld employs (though not to the sometimes-absurd extent of Hirschfeld).

Bianca knows Ben’s secret, that he is really Ben Martin and that he is the man who busted the Mafia in New York and Chicago. She figured this out due to a few newspapers she found in Ben’s apartment, newspapers detailing the events of the previous two volumes. Bianca instantly deduced that “Ben Bruzzi” was none other than Ben Martin, whose name she has recalled for personal reasons: Bianca’s brother Jimmy has gotten on the bad side of the Indianapolis mob, thus Bianca has always been interested in news items about the Mafia world.

Jimmy, who doesn’t even appear in the book, serves as the impetus to get Ben back into the life of mob-busting. When Bianca is accosted by some Mafia stooges who try to grill her for info on where her brother is, Ben steps in and takes them on. He tosses industrial paint in the eyes of one, bashes the other around, and breaks the arm of the third. Ben prepares himself for the retaliation that will follow. But something strange happens – no more goons come to bother either him or Bianca.

This is because wily old Don Gennosanti, the New York godfather who appeared in the previous two volumes, has been planning a campaign against Ben Martin. Mafia branches around the country are to report back to Gennosanti if they come across anyone who pushes back against them. Thus, when the Indianapolis boys report back that this character in Morrisville beat up a few of them, Gennosanti instantly sees the work of Ben Martin. The next stage of his plan is to hire a hit man. But despite what the cover copy states, Gennosanti is determined to hire a non-Mafia hit man.

Gennosanti offers the job to Corbett, an infamous assassin who has the arrogance of success. He lives in a posh penthouse in Washington, D.C., and accepts Gennosanti’s $350,000 contract on Ben. Corbett is snide and rude, treating Gennosanti with disrespect; he thinks all Mafia types are idiots. But he’s the best at what he does, and he figures taking out Ben Martin will be simple. First though he must handle the little setback of murdering his bimbo girlfriend, who has gotten suspicious of what Corbett really does for a living.

The Vendetta Contract alternates chapters focusing on Ben and Corbett, the former gradually realizing something is up and the latter arrogantly closing in for the kill. Ben knows something’s wrong when the Mafia stooges don’t come back, and he corners one of them, shooting down two of his men in the process. The dude confirms that there have been orders to look out for troublemakers, and Ben immediately deduces that a hit man is likely coming for him. He tells Bianca to sit tight and makes plans to leave Morrisville asap, which I thought was hilarious – wasn’t Ben supposed to protect her?

So begins an elaborate “game of winner-kill-all” as Ben races eastward across the country, Corbett always at his heels. As ever Messmann is at pains to keep it all realistic, meaning that there are no sequences where Ben becomes a one-man army. Once again his kills are carried out by revolvers and hunting rifles he purchases at gun stores; there are no fancy machine guns or “war wagons” as in The Executioner. While this is interesting, and capably handled, I have to admit I more enjoy the pulpier stuff of the other Mafia-busting books of the era.

Through Ohio and on into Pittsburgh Ben goes, always trying and failing to shake his pursuer. And while Corbett knows what Ben looks like and can guess every move he will make, Ben has no idea who is even after him. This adds a nice level of paranoia to the tale, which makes it all the more goofy that, on his first night in Pittsburgh, Ben picks up a hooker! Not that he has sex with her, and indeed Messmann writes a moving scene here, as the gal, Flo, is only a “part-time hustler” and is currently down on her luck. Ben gives her some money and offers her his room for the night, where the two engage in some of Messmann’s patented soap-operatic dialog.

But Flo actually provides Ben with some inspiration, courtesy an off-hand comment she makes; Ben realizes he needs to stop running and to start kicking ass. If the Mafia is chasing him, then he will make the Mafia itself run. Armed with a hunting rifle, he starts in Pittsburgh and continues on through Pennsylvannia, blowing away Mafia stooges from afar. Again, the “action scenes” in this series are mostly relegated to Ben sniping someone from a rooftop or whatnot, and it must be admitted that Messmann generally hurries through these scenes so he can get back to the introspection and brooding.

Corbett though is almost a Terminator, following after Ben and assessing his next moves like some programmed computer. He bides his time in Pittsburgh, picking up a boozing floozy for some easy sex, and takes increasingly-irate calls from Gennosanti, who demands results. But Corbett has figured Ben’s gameplan, knows he’s making his hits based off of research he’s done on the Pennsylvannia-area Mafia, and can even guess where and when he’ll strike next. In fact he’s figured Ben out so much that Corbett even sets up a trap for him that almost gets Ben caught, causing a roadblock outside of Harrisburg.

The final quarter takes place in Philadelphia, which Ben hitches a ride to after losing his car in a late-night chase with Corbett. Meanwhile the assassin is waiting for him, having canvassed all the hotels he figures Ben will consider renting a room in. His paid contacts alert him when Ben checks into one of these hotels, and Corbett sits on a nearby rooftop with his fancy rifle, ready to kill the Revenger. It’s only through luck that our hero learns his life is over if he steps out of the hotel, overhearing a conversation between two hotel employees, one of whom was Corbett’s tip-off.

The only thing Ben knows about Corbett is that he has a weakness for the ladies. During that late-night chase outside of Harrisburg, Ben briefly had access to Corbett’s car while the assassin was out roaming the woods for Ben, and there in the backseat Ben found a few girlie mags. Ben now enacts his desperate plan; he calls Bianca and asks her to fly over to Philadelphia on the earliest available flight. After another somewhat-lyrical/somewhat-explicit sex scene, Ben goes over his plan, which surprisingly enough is the event depicted on the cover.

Bianca goes up on the hotel roof in a skimpy bikini, right in the view of where Ben knows Corbett is lurking on his own rooftop. She begins a slow strip-tease, as if she’s unaware she’s in plain sight of a professional hit man, and lays nude on a beach towel. All of which proves successful in distracting Corbett long enough for Ben to run out of the hotel and not get shot. But Ben, despite having killed several Mafia soldiers by now, finds himself unable to shoot Corbett in the back when he sneaks up on him.

Despite some last-second tension – Ben, the fool, doesn’t even consider the fact that Corbett has his friggin’ gun trained on Bianca, who obliviously lies nude on the rooftop below – the outcome here is expected. And here in the final pages The Vendetta Contract gets better and better. Given the surgical scapel Ben finds in Corbett’s pocket, he realizes that Gennosanti – for Ben has long deduced that the New York don was behind this contract – demanded evidence that Ben Martin was really dead. In other words, he wanted a piece of him.

Disguising his voice, Ben calls Gennosanti, knowing the don’s personal number from the previous volume. The don sets up a meeting with “Corbett” in New York, in the business offices of one of the Mafia’s legal ventures. Messmann delivers an effective and memorable finale which has Gennosanti and two other Mafia dons first realizing the severed hand they’ve been delivered isn’t Martin’s (thanks to Martin’s fingerprint file from when he was in the army), then rushing out of the room when they hear a ticking from the package.

But there Ben stands, like a regular Mack Bolan at last, wielding an M-1 carbine. In the span of a paragraph he wipes out several high-level Mafia targets, Gennosanti among them, thus ending a sublot that’s been building since the first volume. But Ben has decided he will not return to Bianca, who meanwhile has returned to Morrisville on her own, mislead into thinking Ben will follow her. Ben first wants to ensure the Mafia has forgotten about him before he’ll allow himself to become fully involved with her.

Given the cover copy of the next volume, it looks like a new boss soon takes over Gennosanti’s role, and no doubt will in fact continue the war against Ben Martin. I have to say, this volume was so entertaining (and concisely written at a mere 158 pages) that I look forward to reading the next one. But then, Messmann is a very gifted writer, even if I much prefer the style he used in his earlier days on the Killmaster series, in particular the awesomely whacked-out The Sea Trap. Messmann’s writing in The Vendetta Contract is good, too, but less pulpy than those earlier Killmaster novels and too clearly striving to come off like a “real” novel.

And speaking of which, Messmann retains the literary trick of the previous two volumes by slipping in and out of present-tense, but it’s done very arbitarily, and at times unsuccessfully, with the tense sometimes changing in the same sentence. But he achieves perhaps one of the most important tasks of any series writer, one that is unfortunately seldom achieved by many other series writers: he makes you care about his characters.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Roy TV

And now for something completely different…

Back in December of 1996 I was visiting West Virginia, one of the last times I was there, and I had on a local TV station, broadcasting out of Cumberland, Maryland. There was this crazy old guy on there talking about random nonsense and I couldn’t get a tape in the VCR fast enough. Unfortunately I missed the first few minutes, but those eight minutes I did capture for posterity were priceless.

The other month I got a gizmo which magically transforms VHS into MP4. One of the first things I transferred was the tape with that crazy old guy. His name was Roy White and he was apparently a little infamous in the Cumberland area. He put his photo in the paper every day, along with some random nugget of “wisdom.” I used to have an envelope stuffed with these clippings but lost it years and years ago, sadly.

Anyway, please enjoy Roy TV, which according to the label on my tape was broadcast on December 29th, 1996. All these years later these eight minutes still make me laugh…so many things to notice, like how his name is written on the door of his car, or how he constantly derails his own story, or how the camera eventually pans out and you see he’s holding a plastic shopping bag, like the cameraman caught him on the go. And, of course, “holdin’ hands.”

Seriously, it’s like this guy just walked out of a Stephen King novel. Unfortunately his fate was pretty grim: Roy died sometime in 1999, run over by a train. Word had it that it was suicide.

But forget about that and enjoy the homespun insanity!

“Folks, I just went blank.”

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Assignment Tokyo (Mark Hood #4)

Assignment Tokyo, by James Dark
September, 1966  Signet Books

The fourth volume of Mark Hood is, unfortunately, a bit tepid, J.E. “James Dark” McDowell page-filling with abandon in order to meet his word count (and this one appears to be a little longer than previous volumes, which makes the padding all the more obvious). I’d planned to read through the series quickly, but this one, sad to say, was so disappointing that I’ve decided to take a break from it for a while.

It’s six weeks after the previous volume and Mark Hood is back in his home base of Geneva, where he’s itching for some action. Here he trains with his karate sensei, Murimoto, who we learn is not aware that his pupil is a spy; Murimoto in fact wonders why Hood trains so vigorously in the martial arts. He also wishes Hood would compete in the upcoming Meijin Exhibition in Tokyo, as Murimoto feels that Hood is one of the better practioners of karate. 

And who will be surprised when the call finally comes in and Hood’s next mission sends him to...Tokyo? Dark inserts a bit more comedy in the series with this volume, mostly via Hood’s inane banter, particularly when it comes to his partner Tremayne (returning from the previous volume) and Michelle, pretty French secretary of Hood’s Intertrust boss, Fortescue. In Michelle’s first appearance in the series we see that she has long been a recipient of Hood’s shameless advances, though she capably puts him down again and again.

Also as mentioned, Hood and Tremayne here have been refashioned into a buddy-cop duo along the lines of Razoni & Jackson, bickering and bantering from first page to last. This is quite different from their relationship as depicted in the previous book, where they were all business. But here Tremayne makes most of the wise-cracks and Hood acts as the straight man; many of Tremayne’s jokes are at the expense of Hood’s would-be womanizing and whatnot. It’s all entertaining but unfortunately not too funny, at least when compared to the stuff in the Razoni & Jackson books.

Fortescue’s briefing has it that someone has apparently tried to infiltrate the remote Japanese island Oba, which houses the control unit for a US missile satellite weapon called the “MissSat.” Sounding like the ‘80s star wars concept a few decades early, the weapon holds a salvo of atomic warheads which can be fired down at the earth by the press of a button. Oba island is well-defended, including concentric rings of electrofied wiring or something in the ocean around it; locals are clearly warned to stay away. Yet three men in scuba gear just tried to penetrate the defenses, dying in the attempt. Hood and Tremayne are to go to Tokyo to find out why.

Hood attemps more failed womanizing when he promptly begins hitting on pretty Gwen Tremayne, secretary for US ambassador Tomlinson in Tokyo. Hood intends to hold up his cover as a wealthy jetsetter known for hitting and quitting women around the world; here in Tokyo he’s posing as, you guessed it, a last-second contender in the Meijin Exhibition. Be prepared for a ton of expository karate material in Assignment Tokyo, much of it clearly shoehorned in to meet the word count. Parts of the book are almost like a dry treatise on the martial arts.

Much of it comes from Hiroshi Sato, a Japanese man Hood just happens to meet at dinner his first night in Tokyo – coincidental as hell when we learn that Sato will be Hood’s first opponent in the exhibition. Sato is a wise type, very formal and friendly, with good English and a love for the martial history of Japan. Hood likes and trusts him instantly, feeling he’s found a kindred soul; pity then that the back cover copy completely ruins the surprise reveal that Sato is indeed the villain of the piece! 

Also here at dinner Hood meets the busty and beautiful Toi Smith, a half-Japanese, half-American beauty who shows off her incredible bod via revealing clothing. She’s a reporter for Modern Living and hopes to interview Hood; he meanwhile can’t stop staring at her breastesses, much to Gwen Tremayne’s dismay. But Hood has to hurry home and sleep so he can get up super-early and train for his bout with Sato, which is to be held that very afternoon. Tremayne, posing as Hood’s trainer, contributes nothing but more banter given his dearth of karate knowledge.

The Hood-Sato bout is good but again kind of boring as I’ve never felt martial arts fights translate well into print. At any rate Hood gives Sato a great run for his money but ends up being defeated by the Japanese master. Sato, as gracious as ever, offers to send “the top masseuse in Japan” over to Hood’s apartment to repair Hood’s battered body – and surprisingly enough, it turns out to be Toi Smith, again dressed provocatively despite the frosty, disinterested treatment she gives Hood.

And also despite this frosty treatment, Toi herself gets excited at Hood’s own excitement – naked and being massaged, he can’t help but gawk at those awesome boobs of hers and the natural reaction ensues. They end up having sex on the table, the first Hood’s scored since the first volume, but again James Dark provides zilch in the way of details. About the most we get is a little lyrical stuff, but it’s all pretty vague. From here it’s on to a snoozer of a sequence where Hood goes to Sato’s for dinner and we must endure more martial arts talk and also demonstrations from Sato’s “cult” of modern samurai.

Toi is also here, and Hood suspects that she’s secretly Sato’s kept woman; she maintains the frosty nature of before, despite their afternoon banging. Around page 70 Hood finally begins to suspect Sato might be evil. Also at this dinner Toi mentions she’s secretly been lobster diving around Oba; when Hood gets interested, masking his professional interest as concern for her safety, she brushes it all off as a joke. Meanwhile the next morning another dude attempts to infiltrate the island, this time getting all the way onto shore before being gunned down.

Eventually we will learn that Toi really did find a way to get near Oba – plastic cylinders and valves on her scuba gear, which aren’t affected by the underwater elecricity barriers. Also Toi has apparently been taken captive by Sato, who is now fully outed as the villain. His goal is similar to that in the Killmaster novel The Samurai Kill: he seeks to remilitarize Japan and bring back the old samurai spirit. Hood and Tremayne stage a rescue of Toi, but they’re quickly caught by Kosima, the fastest-moving of Sato’s men; all of Sato’s warriors are almost supernaturally skilled in the martial arts. 

After freeing themselves and taking out Kosima, our heroes go after Sato, who has donned plastic fittings on his scuba gear and successfully taken over Oba, even killing off all of the soldiers there with poison gas. Dark finally delivers a bit of action as Hood and Tremayne get on the island, using Toi’s plastic scuba gear, and appropriate a few submachine guns. He isn’t very colorful with the gore, though, but there is a nice part where Hood flat-out murders Sato’s men as they sit enjoying a victorious meal of sashimi. Hood guns them down with a subgun and then later even brings out Sato to happily show him their corpses!

As expected, Assignment Tokyo culminates with a fight to the death between Hood and Sato, the latter defending himself with the stock of an empty carbine while the latter comes at him with a samurai sword. Sato, too superhuman to be defeated, takes off after realizing his cause has been lost – Hood deactivates the MissSat control at the last moment – and commits seppuku by swimming into the underwater defenses beneath Oba island without his plastic scuba gear!

But as mentioned, Assignment Tokyo is just too damn slow-moving to be much fun. Too much of it is mired in inconsequential karate info, and the narrative just plods along. It doesn’t even really pick up until page 110 or so, and as usual we’re talking very small print here. So, long story short, I think I’ll give the Mark Hood series a break for a while; this one kind of wore me out.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Roadblaster #1: Hell Ride

Roadblaster #1: Hell Ride, by Paul Hofrichter
No month stated, 1987  Leisure Books

Graced with a misleading cover that makes it look like some sort of futuristic cowboy-biker sort of deal, Hell Ride, the first volume of the Roadblaster series, is in fact a post-nuke pulp. The series ran for three volumes and had absolutely no relation to the cover painting – the “hero” of the tale, Nick Stack, could more accurately be depicted as a potbellied simp in a wifebeater shirt.

Roadblaster was packaged almost identically to another Leisure Books post-nuke series, the longer-running and infinitely superior Phoenix. Almost the same color scheme/hyperbolic cover copy was used for both, but whereas Phoenix fired on all cylinders, Roadblaster is more of a middling affair, boring and padded, and indeed calls to mind the sort of books Leisure/Belmont Tower was publishing back in the 1970s, with the same sort of endearingly amateurish prose you’d find in say The Marksman or The Sharpshooter

No surprise then that author Paul Hofrichter got his start writing for those very books. I must offer Lynn Munroe a huge debt of gratitude for his recent Peter McCurtin Checklist, where in the Assassin/Marksman/Sharpshooter section he detailed who exactly wrote each volume of those series. Lynn has revealed that it was Paul Hofrichter who wrote the atrocious Sharpshooter #9: Stiletto, one of the worst novels I’ve had the displeasure of reading since I started this blog…a novel in which characters aimlessly drove around and engaged in mundane conversations before hastily-sketched firefights would break out. 

Sadly, over ten years after writing Stiletto Hofrichter still hadn’t much improved. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those internet reviewers who constantly bitches about these genre books being “bad.” In fact the goofier they are the more I love them. But friends, Hell Ride should come with a pack of no-doze. It’s a soul-crusher of a read at times…I mean, nuclear war breaks out but characters just aimlessly drift around the mountains of central California and engange in mundane conversations. And in another callback to Stiletto, one of the main topics of conversation is the inflated price of gasoline.  Perhaps this is something Hofrichter himself obsessed over in the real world.

Anyway, another interesting similarity to Phoenix is how the opening of Hell Ride so closely mirrors Dark Messiah. Just like Magnus Trench, series protagonist Nick Stack is enjoying some hunting in the mountains of California when nuclear war breaks out. And just like Trench, Stack has a wife and kids back home in New York City; Stack’s 36 and owns a “radio dispatch private cab service.” Unlike Magnus Trench, though, Stack doesn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to get back to New York and save his family. Rather, the nukes hit and Stack just sort of takes his good ol’ time getting to his van and leisurely heads on back to civilization.

Driving to the small town of Montieth Stack promptly comes across a teenaged runaway named Rayisa Gilchrist. Apparently recalling to mind his daughter, Stack offers the naïve young girl a lift into town. The two engage in some of the most humdrum, mundane, expository dialog this side of William W. Johnstone. Remember, nuclear war just occurred. More banality ensues as Stack gets in an argument with an old coot who runs a gas station and demands inflated prices. “Not all mountain people are bad,” Rayisa reminds Stack, who agrees. Remember, nuclear war just occurred.

In Montieth Stack and Rayisa hobknob with the locals, and Stack has a few beers…! His family apparently forgotten, he decides to head to the biggest nearby city, Fresno, to assess the damage. Rayisa happens to be from there and tags along to see if her family is dead. They pick up more people – a family who has somehow escaped the mass nuclear destruction – but they find Fresno bombed to rubble. Stack hooks up with an army lieutenant in charge of rescue operations and offers some half-assed help, but mostly just ends up puking his guts out after eating radiation-poisoned seagulls he shoots down with his Savage 99F hunting rifle.

Stack busy puking, the narrative cuts over to a seemingly-arbitrary setpiece which concerns a B-52 bomber making an aborted run on China in retaliation for the nuke strike on America. But engine problems force them to turn back around to their air base, which has been destroyed in the interim. They end up landing in the middle of nowhere…not far from Montieth. In another extended setpiece, we cut over to another new group of characters: the Santa Monica Bloodsuckers, a 50-member biker gang led by Lyle Rokmer, aka San Quentin Sal.

The bikers decide that chaos now reigns and decide to rip some shit up. Here, after so much deadening banality, Hofrichter displays his true gifts: sleazy sadism. Apparently the number one thing to do if you’re a bad guy in the post-nuke world is to force preteen girls to give you blowjobs. This Rokmer and gang proceed to do posthaste – that is, after they’ve stolen gas from the mean old coot Stack ran into. The bikers strap the old man up to his gas tanks and set him on fire; Hofrichter spends four pages on the sequence, dwelling on the terror and mutilation and destruction of the old coot.

This is just the first of Hofrichter’s descents into sadism; the Bloodsuckers (who apparently drive Kawasaki motorcycles, rather than the more-expected Harley choppers) head into the small mountain town of Vista Royale and promptly murder the owner of a grocery store. They then force the teenaged girl who works there to give them each blowjobs, and Hofrichter writes a seven-page sequence for this, providing uber graphic detail. Total XXX porn stuff, folks…and while I enjoy the lurid, OTT aspects of men’s adventure fiction, I do have to say my brain hasn’t been rotted enough yet that I get off on reading about a preteen girl being forced to suck off several guys.

It gets crazier and crazier, too, with the bikers getting pissed with the girl, and when she can’t take anymore and pukes(!) they slap her around and drag her off for more fun later. Meanwhile a few one-off characters, Vista Royale residents, band together to fight off the bikers. It goes on and on, not thrilling in the least, and ends with the expected outcome of the bikers victorious. But what of Stack? Once he’s done puking seagull meat he takes his leave of Fresno, and I kid you not his parting words to his new lieutenant buddy are, “This has been a unique and interesting experience.” That’s how I’d sum up my time in a nuke-ravaged city. 

Stack further displays his half-assery when he gets back to Montieth and the sheriff, who is putting together a group of men to go save nearby Vista Royale, asks Stack if he’d like to join. Stack’s response, my friends, is “No thanks.” This is the only instance I can think of in the entire universe of men’s adventure fiction where the “hero” says “no thanks” to saving a bunch of people. The sheriff’s force is decimated in another overlong/underthrilling sequence, but when a biker scouting party arbitrarily snatches young Rayisa, Stack finally decides to get involved.

The ensuing sequence isn’t too bad, as Stack sneaks silently into darkened Vista Royale, armed with a knife and his hunting rifle, and kills a few bikers. These are Stack’s first kills, and he actually ruminates on them – unexpected soul-plumbing from Hofrichter – because unlike most heroes of this genre Stack isn’t a war vet. He did serve in the National Guard, though, where he took “commando courses.” More inappropriate porn ensues as Stack quickly and easily locates the home in which Rayisa is being held captive; he spies through a window as the nude 14-year-old is first whipped by a leather belt and then forced to give the biker a blowjob. (By the way, forced oral sex is the only sex in the novel.)

Now, does Stack sneak up on the otherwise-distracted biker and slit his throat? No sir. He takes him out in what must be admitted is a “unique and interesting” method of dispatching someone:

Stack watched [Rayisa’s] mouth glide along the swollen shaft of the biker whose pants were now down around his knees. The biker’s head was back and his eyes were shut tight. The goon was in heaven. His hisses filled the air.

Stack grew very cold now. He aimed the rifle at the base of the thick shaft. Then, as Rayisa pulled back, letting the hoodlum out of her mouth, almost to the tip of the cobra-hood head, Stack fired. The sound of the shot reverberated in the hallway as the goon’s shaft disintigrated into strips of bloodied meat and hundreds of flying droplets of blood. Rayisa screamed as she drew back, the stub of his now-destroyed manhood falling from her mouth, while blood jerked from the crotch of the screaming hoodlum, who was quickly going to his knees.

This is clearly not the best way to save a traumatized young girl, and it’s to Hofrichter’s credit that he has Rayisa appropriately dazed for the rest of the novel, even getting doctor treatment once Stack has safely gotten her back to Montieth. But remember, Rayisa, “not all mountain people are bad!” Oh and meanwhile Stack saves someone else – none other than a member of that B-52 crew, who stumbled upon the bikers while looking for help. Now there’s more than just the fate of Vista Royale at stake; if the bikers get to that B-52, which is loaded with primed nukes, there could be even more nuclear misery on the way.

With the assistance of a gang of good bikers who just happen to show up (members of the Harley Davidson Family Club or somesuch), Stack and more Montieth locals get in an extended battle for the B-52. This isn’t a bad sequence, with lots of flying blood and gore and bikers getting run over by cars. Meanwhile, biker leader Lyle Rokmer escapes. From there it’s back to Vista Royale, which Stack et al eventually liberate in another long action setpiece, one in which Stack even blows away a few female bikers (for which he feels the need to lamely explain to his comrades that they were armed).

Hofrichter ends Hell Ride on a cliffhanger: both Rokmer and his second-in-command, Lance Zoyas (aka Samurai Sal), get away, each of them vowing revenge. And meanwhile poor Rayisa lies in a friend’s bed and ruminates over how some dude’s cock was blown out of her mouth while she was blowing him…

Yes, this is a strange, sometimes-unsettling book, my friends. I suspect the title of the novel has more to do with the reading experience itself rather than the actual content. The crazy parts are crazy and the goofy writing is just the icing on the cake (John Tigges is another point of comparison), but overall the mundane parts are just too hard-going. That being said, here are two more reviews of Hell Ride I hope you will enjoy: a typically-great and concise one by Zwolf, and a hilarious one at the awesomely-named Paperback Warrior blog.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Fun City

Fun City, by Hugh Barron
August, 1968  Pyramid Books

Burt Hirschfeld poses as “Hugh Barron” in another of his paperback originals for Pyramid Books; this one, while not perfect, might be my favorite Barron yet. I was in the mood for a piece of trash fiction set in the swinging psychedelic ‘60s, and for the most part Fun City fit the bill perfectly. Unfortunately though just as much of it is inconsequential “city politics” boredom that seems lifted from the earlier Tilt!.

In fact, parts of Fun City are almost identical to Tilt!, though I enjoyed this book a lot more. While Tilt! started off promisingly in the acid rock clubs of California before becoming mired in a belabored “evils of politics” storyline, Fun City at least still remembers to give us the good stuff, with many scenes featuring the ‘60s jetset in all its vapid glory. Hirschfeld well captures the over-the-top pretensions of the era, from arrogantly serious “artists” to would-be fashion kingpins. And I love how the back cover informs us that this “caustic novel” is “as vivid as an LSD trip”!

Our hero is Eddie Watson, a very traditional Hirschfeld protagonist. He’s a bitter, 38-year-old alchoholic who was once a trailblazing journalist. But then his paper folded and Eddie spiralled into a period of drunkeness. He’s got an on-again, off-again girlfriend named Molly Purdy who is of course pretty and well-endowed (practically every single woman in Fun City is stated as having big boobs, by the way). But Molly, who works as a reporter herself, has finally gotten sick of Eddie’s uselessness. She loves him and pines for him, but he refuses to see his potential and wallows instead in self-pity. That being said, she doesn’t mind throwing him a free lay every once in a while. 

Speaking of sex, there’s a bit of it in Fun City, from orgies to romantic couplings to even gay sex, but Hirschfeld is in his lyrical mode this time. The sex scenes are written almost identically to the Hirschfeld-esque sex material Dean Koontz capably spoofed in Writing Popular Fiction. For example, here’s what passes for a sex scene later in the book, as Eddie engages with another lovely young lady who pines for him:

All the swelling desire. The pendulous need from out of some foreign and mysterious place, a call that drew them together in a tidal wave natural and harmonious, all rhythms easy, swinging. Time ceased and there was only the twilight of loving, the stroke of flesh against flesh, of membranes softer than soft, the wetness deep and sensuous, drawing endlessly on reservoirs so long untapped…

All right! I’m not sure what exactly is going on, but it sure sounds hot!!

Through Molly Eddie is brought into the world of New York politics. Eddie is fascinated by Charles Harrison, an altruistic millionaire known for his charities and acts of good will around the world. Harrison’s having a party in his deluxe Manhattan penthouse and Molly’s invited. There Eddie meets the man himself, a graying-haired paragon of manly virtue who likes Eddie’s cynicism and indeed is familiar with Eddie’s work for the paper. Harrison tells Eddie that he loves New York and plans to run for Mayor. He offers Eddie the job of becoming his campaign manager.

Meanwhile Hirschfeld takes us into the swinging jetset via Lilly Harrison, hot-to-trot young wife of Charles. She has a body to kill for and enjoys showing it off with the latest mod fashions. She’s vivacious and obsessed with being famous and comes off way too much like a vapid, modern-day Reality TV star. Eddie wonders why Charles is even with her, but gradually we’ll see there’s a strange bond which unites the couple. For Charles Harrison, you won’t be surprised at all to learn, has several skeletons in his own closet, from switch-hitting to group sex, not to mention ties to various underworld figures. This is revealed rather early on, but our hero Eddie doesn’t discover it until near novel’s end.

Lilly, apparently Hirschfeld’s attempt at writing a Jacqueline Susann-type antiheroine, is ultimately too listlessly self-involved to be very memorable; not to use the word yet again, but “vapid” is the perfect description for her. She yearns to be world-famous, but she’s such a cipher that you neither care for her nor despise her. She lacks the catty cruelty you’d expect from a character like this. Rather, the character who more closely captures this antiheroine nature would be Hester Quinn, basically the Eddie to Lilly’s Charles, a “birdlike” celebrity hanger-on who knows all the hip people in Manhattan and serves as Lilly’s adviser on how to become a mover and shaker in the jetset world. This includes wearing revealing clothes and having sex with random famous men.

Center stage in these jetset portions is Marcello, Hester’s Italian “discovery” who plans to take the fashion world by storm. Flamingly gay, Marcello storms and struts through the novel, stealing every scene despite being a walking cliché. (He’s also, we eventually learn, really just a dude named Victor Mellulo, from Wheeling, West Virginia!) Hirschfeld provides several scenes in which the jetset cavort at the latest Marcello happening, from an art exhibit to a fashion show to a Warhol-esque porn film he’s directed – one which leads to an orgy among the audience. Molly, bringing to mind the heroine of a later Hirschfeld novel, literally runs away from this orgy.

And that again is the problem with Fun City. Hirschfeld seeks to capture the “psychedelic salons and beauty-bugged bedrooms” of the “swinging, go-go world of New York City” (per the back cover copy), but he sabotages it with his cynical characters. Eddie hates this world of artifice, Molly distrusts it. And those who do live in it, like Lilly, Marcello, and Hester, are so cipher-like in their narcissim that the reader is unable to vicariously enjoy it through them. The “acid-rock” nightclubs and mod fashion happenings are capably brought to life, as are the mostly-nude, sexually-voracious gals who flock to this underworld in their “psychedelic blue” lipstick, but it’s all undermined by protagonists who yearn for the straight-laced world of yesteryear.

This was the same thing that bogged down Tilt!, by the way, as well as the “politics” material. In Fun City as well we read seemingly-endless sequences in which Charles Harrison will filibuster this or that New York bigwig. Not only is it rendered moot given that these are one-off characters he meets with, but his speechifying about how to make New York great again comes off as so much padding. Clearly this is Hirschfeld’s attempt at eventually pulling the rug out from under us, as Charles is later revealed to be just as “sick” as his wife Lilly; in the course of the novel he cruises a gay area and picks up some dude (later beating him in his shame), then later on he picks up a pair of young girls and takes them back to their place for some nondescript lovin’.

But Hirschfeld does bring to life psychedelic New York City. There’s an enjoyable part where Eddie sees Lilly go off with some new stud and rushes after her, drafting Hester to lead him to her, Marcello tagging along. They go to the Lower East Side, first stopping in the headshop of The Czar, then head on over to a hippie “crash pad” where legions of teenagers have sex on the scuzzy, garbage-strewn floors. Hirschfeld really goes for it in this scene, which culminates with Eddie finding Lilly in an LSD daze, meditating in the lotus position while her latest stud, a playboy named Tolan, whips some other girl who has displeased him.

We also get a lot of Hirschfeld’s typical soap opera-style melodrama: Molly as mentioned constantly spurns Eddie, only to later welcome him back to her apartment with open legs. And Eddie promises to quit the booze and devote himself to both her and Harrison’s campaign. Instead he blows off dates with Molly and gets drunk a bunch of times. After the latest Molly breakup Eddie happens to meet a young social worker named Sarah Jane Parker (yep, she’s busty too!). In a complete disregard for character depth, Hirschfeld has this gal openly throwing herself at Eddie soon after meeting him, offering to make him a meal in her apartment.

Eddie I forgot to mention is an annoying asshole. He eats the meal, has a drink, and tells the girl she’s practically a slut! She’s only in her twenties and he feels she should straighten up and stop bringing strange men back to her place. He leaves without even taking her up on her open offer for sex…then “coincidentally” meets her again during a too-long scene where Harrison filibusts at a school in Harlem. In the ensuing riot (started by Black Panthers), Eddie runs into Sarah again. The two eventually become an item (the “sex scene” above is between Eddie and Sarah), but Molly is still on the sidelines. She’s found out how corrupt Harrison is – he’s almost penniless and indebted to the mob, who funds his campaign – and Molly intends to tap into wealth via Eddie.

The finale of Fun City plays out on an unexpected sequence of turnarounds; Eddie, hearing the truth of Harrison’s underworld activities, hunts the man down in a gay bar. For his troubles Eddie is almost beaten to death by a gang of gay stooges at Harrison’s command(!). Eddie manages to escape them, stealing the gun of one and shooting him before escaping. But he finds no salvation in Molly; when Eddie refuses to play ball and go back to Harrison – Molly wants Eddie to keep working for the man so they can strike it rich when he wins the election – she grabs Eddie’s gun, puts it on him, and calls Harrison to come get him!

After yet another escape Eddie finds true salvation with Sarah, still treating her like shit as he eats breakfast with her, his pistol at hand. The final face-to-face with Harrison isn’t exciting at all, playing more on a suspense angle than the Sharpshooter capoff I wanted. Eddie has gotten hold of some photos of Lilly in compromising positions, and uses these as blackmail to get Harrison to call of his dogs and to drop out of the race. After which it’s back to Sarah, who tells Eddie they should leave the city together. And Eddie has finally gotten an idea for a novel; he’s going to write about these very events, which will make for a surefire bestseller(!?).

Hirschfeld’s writing has the same positives and negatives as ever. He keeps the story moving, brings us into this world, and makes us care for the characters. But at the same time the plot is a bit plodding and the politicking becomes grating. Also Hirschfeld’s affected style is firmly in place – you know, how he takes a sentence, expands upon it greatly, going on and on with it, getting to the heart of it, the core, working it up into a theme, a construction of depth and meaning. Polishing it. Elaborating it. Hammering it out, over and over again, endlessly, infinitely. Until the reader. Cannot take it. Anymore. (You get the drift….)

The core of later Hirschfeld novels can be found here; the entire “psychedelic hippie hell” section in the Lower East Side for example would return in Father Pig, where Hirschfeld made it seem even more hellish. And as mentioned there are many paralells with Cindy On Fire. One thing missing this time is the Hollywood starlet character ususally typical of the “Hugh Barron” books.

Anyway, despite the affected style and the sometimes-plodding pace, Fun City is really vintage Burt Hirschfeld, and did the job of providing the piece of go-go ‘60s pulp fiction I was hoping for.

Here’s the cover of the NEL edition:

And here’s the cover of the Dell edition from 1984, published under Hirschfeld’s name (interestingly, the back cover copy of this one spins it as a hardboiled yarn):

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Nichovev Plot (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #110)

The Nichovev Plot, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1976  Award Books

Published in the days when the Killmaster series had taken its unfortunate detour into first-person narration, The Nichovev Plot is nonetheless a very entertaining installment, with our hero going up against a cult that gets off on murder. It was purportedly written by Craig Nova, yet whether this was the Craig Nova or just another author of the same name is unknown. 

Delivering all of the lurid, satanic thrills that The Satan Trap denied us, The Nichovev Plot opens with Nick Carter called out of the bed of Chu-Chu, busty employee of a Lake Tahoe casino. Hawk, Nick’s boss at AXE, wants Nick to head to Reno and meet up with Gilly Pontchartrain, a New Orleans-based con artist/hooker who helped Nick take down a Syndicate forger named Vaccacio in an earlier, apparently undocumented adventure. Gilly has called AXE HQ claiming to have info about a plot against Boris Nichovev, the Soviet Premier. 

Nichovev is currently on his way for a visit to the US, so Hawk takes this seriously. True to the lurid vibe of this era of men’s adventure fiction, Gilly now works at the top cathouse in Reno. Here Nick, posing as a country bumpkin of a salesman, is shown around the garrish place, the busty madam introducing him to an assemblage of girls and pointing out their various specialties. But Gilly, with her “soft, enormous breasts,” is the sexiest of them all; she recognizes Nick on sight, though she doesn’t know his name.

In her room, while she and Nick pretend to have sex(!), Gilly reveals a sordid story about a group of “weird guys” who have been visiting the cathouse recently. These guys reek of hash and have a faraway look in their eyes and talk of “The Great Mother, who is Death,” and also The Old Man of the Mountain. These guys have screwed seven of the gals at the cathouse, and five of them are now dead, their heads nearly severed by a garrotte. Gilly, who says the dudes also spoke of having been behind the deaths of JFK and MLK, was one of those seven girls – and she’s afraid she’ll be next of them to die. 

But enough of that; their simulated screwing has gotten both Nick and Gilly all fired up, and Nova writes a sex scene that’s both lyrical, per the earlier standards of the genre, and graphic, per the mid-‘70s standards of the genre. But when two cops barge in after the mutual whopping orgasms, claiming they’re making a “quiet” bust of the cathouse, Nick soon supsects they are the assassins Gilly feared. The action scene which follows is the first of several in the novel, with Nick using his hidden weapons to take out several cultists, each of whom seem excited to die. Meanwhile poor Gilly is strangled to death by a garrotte, but of course she did just tell Nick all she knew and had sex with him, so what did you think would happen to her?

Things get real when Hawk, meeting with Nick, informs him that Nichovev’s plane just disappeared over the Atlantic. The ransom notice sent to both the White House and to Moscow says that Nichovev will be killed by the death-worshiping cult of assassins on the autumnal equinox (the cover blurb mistakenly has it that Nichovev steps out of his limo in front of the White House and disappears). Nick has just a few days to find out who this cult is and where they are, but there’s nothing to go on. All Hawk can offer is the name of a professor in London who specializes in cults; perhaps this guy, Huff, whose name was “spat out by the AXE computers,” could shed some light on who these people might be.

Meanwhile Moscow has sent their own agent to work with Nick: Anna (who has a much longer name, per Russian standards), a six-foot blonde beatuy with “a figure that would have put Anita Ekberg to shame.” Her big boobs are often mentioned, and she’s hot stuff indeed, but it’s to Nova’s credit that he makes Anna so much more. Speaking in a goofy, nonsensical patchwork of the “American slang” she excelled in back during KGB training, Anna’s other speciality is popping eyeballs out of skulls with her bare hands. She regrets though that she’s had less experience in the latter, as you can only pop someone’s eyeballs out once!  Nova gets a lot of dark-comedy mileage out of this.

When their flight to London is hijacked (the hijacking as arbitrary as could be, as no one of importance is on the flight, and Nick and Anna are undercover), the two work together to take down the hash-smoking hijackers. Nova has a good grasp on action, though sometimes it takes a while for anything to happen. But then, Anna, with her funny dialog, is such an enjoyable character that you don’t mind. And also she does get to pop out several eyeballs during the course of the novel. That being said, Nova at one point mistakenly refers to Nick’s stiletto as “Pierre,” which we all know is the name of the poison gas bomb he tapes beside his gonads (the stiletto is called “Hugo”).

In charge of the hijackers is a sadist named Rubinian, a dude with a horrifying face which was burned by Nick on another earlier, undocumented adventure. Rubinian bails out of the plane while Nick takes out the assassins who have commandeered the cockpit. Reading this sequence in the post-9/11 world was quite eerie. As a “present” for saving her life, Anna rewards Nick “in the Russian way” that night in their hotel room, which apparently entails some oral ministrations before screwing him good and proper in another somewhat lyrical/somewhat graphic sex scene. Here we know the ‘70s are in full force, as Anna’s pubic hair is described as a “blonde forest.”

Sadly The Nichovev Plot falls into a rut after this. Nick and Anna meet Huff, a stuffy professor-type who works in a forgotten section of the British Museum. Huff is one of those annoyingly-convenient characters who knows everything. Nick, the hero of the series, relies on him too much. (And lets not forget that Nick has only found Huff because the AXE computers brought him up as a good source of info – it’s not like Huff has any other relation to the events of the novel.) At any rate Huff says that this cult sounds like a modern take on the old Thugee cult of India, mixed with a little of the Magna Mater cult of Ancient Rome. There’s also some Satanism in there, as we are treated to two Black Masses later in the book.

But the London stuff goes on too long, despite being leavened with some action, including a puzzler of a part where Rubinian shows up…and Nick runs away from him. Why the “Killmaster” runs away from the guy is not really explained. This all eventually leads to a cult ritual Nick witnesses in an old castle in Cornwall; as Nick watches from the shadows, two cultists have ritual sex with a gal before draping her over the sacrificial altar. A priestess comes out with a knife. Before Nick can do anything to save them, he’s knocked out – and Anna rushes in to the fray to kill a “fat Syrian” who she recognizes on the stage, one who has been stealing Soviet arms shipments.

When Nick comes to Anna is gone, which cements his hunch that she’s working for a right-wing faction in the USSR that wants to oust the détente-minded Nichovev. Nick and Huff thus travel secretly to Rome, enduring a harrowing trip across the English Channel during a terrible storm. Anna’s absence from the novel harms it greatly. Luckily though, more sleazy ‘70s sex ensues when Nick and Huff bum rides from a pair of young and insatiable American girls who, convenience be damned, just happen to have a Mercedes. We’re informed they’re so concerned with banging Nick and Huff that they barely even pay attention to the road while they’re driving.

After ditching the girls, Nick and Huff proceed on to Rome, where Huff again proves himself so knowledgeable that the reader has long ago begun to suspect him as well – this time he knows how to access a hidden part of the catacombs beneath Rome, claiming to have visited the site many years before. Nova brings to life the eerie ancient underworld of collapsed temples and lost passageways. The cult meets in a statue-lined cavern where they will murder Nichovev, bound before the altar.

The finale sees a reunited Nick and Anna – who of course wasn’t a traitor after all – taking on legions of black-robed cultists. Some expected reveals occur here, though we do get the memorable image of Nick blowing away the priestess with his Luger. Unfortunately though the finale is given over to a lot of exposition courtesy Huff, as he explains how this or that happened – that is, before Nick escorts Anna to the nearby Colisseum so they can screw under the moonlight.

The Nichovev Plot is a bit frustrating because it starts off so strong – I mean, I was loving it despite my hatred of first-person narration in the men’s adventure genre – but then it just sort of tapers off for a too-long stretch. Also, removing Anna from the story was a big mistake; Nova made her too entertaining and memorable to just forget about her for fifty or so pages. But at any rate the good stuff here is really good, and I look forward to reading the other installment credited to “Craig Nova:” Dr. Death, which was published as the hundredth volume of the series.