Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Penetrator #22: High Disaster

The Penetrator #22: High Disaster, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Holy boredom, Batman! This volume of The Penetrator is a total snoozefest, and author Chet Cunningham has a lot to answer for in the men’s adventure tribunal that exists in my imagination – he’s guilty of a lack of sex, action, violence, and thrills, serving up a listless plot which sees hero Mark Hardin aimlessly driving around Oregon while listening to “soft music” on the radio.

In my review of the previous volume I mentioned that High Disaster was one of the two titles in the series I didn’t have, but due to the usual obsesiveness I had to get it…but it turns out I would’ve been better off if I hadn’t. Methinks Cunningham must’ve gotten really bored with being “Lionel Derrick” around this time, and perhaps took a trip to Oregon and decided to frame it up as a Penetrator story.

What’s most unfortunate is that it starts off so well – or, at least, so fun. Spoofing the then-popular “Washington fringe benefit” tell-all books and news reports, Cunningham introduces blonde bimbo Arlene Day, who has recently outed Senator Harland W. Harrington as her pimp in all but name. In addition to boffing the senator, Arlene was also whored out to visiting notables. Now she’s come forward with her story – that is, after she’s written her tell-all book, which is about to be published.

This is all relayed via a news conference Arlene gives, where she blithely informs the newsmen (and outraged newswomen) about sex with the senator. A scene capped off by a funny bit where Arlene sheds her top “for the boys in the editing room.” It’s all goofy and fun, and sadly it’s the only entertaining moment in the entire damn novel. And plus, you might wonder what all this stuff has to do with a Penetrator novel.

Meanwhile, Mark Hardin kicks back at the Stronghold, eating raw steaks with Indian mentor David Red Eagle and badgering him with lots of un-PC dialog. The novel keeps plodding on and you have no idea what the point of it all is. Not until a drunk Senator Harrington, his political career ruined, accidentally starts a forest fire near his mountain retreat in Oregon, does High Disaster start to come together.

Harrington, a middle-aged veteran of the war, gets off royally on the destruction. He’s still senator until January, and immediately figures that he can start a wrath of destruction on his own state of Oregon, and no one will suspect him! He hates the entire state because no one came to his defense during the Arlene Day scandal. Also, he has a particular hatred of “the Indians,” because they had reservations on a lot of areas that he wanted to renovate for various business ventures.

Aided by his bodyguard, a former boxer who is loyal to the senator for clearing him of a murder rap, Harrington becomes the “Oregon Terror,” and begins his war against the state. Arson, explosions (Harrington was a demolitions expert in the army), and poisoning of the state’s water supply are the main avenues of his attack. Hardin becomes interested in the situation due to the suffering this causes Oregon’s American Indian population, and hops in his plane to fly to Oregon and kick ass.

The “Indian” motif is really ramped up this time around, with Hardin several times referred to as “the big Indian guy” by other characters. It gets to be a bit much, though Hardin does at least poke fun at himself for his newfound interest in all things Indian. But anyway, he hooks up with some Indians on a reservation in Oregon, assessing the damage caused by one of Harrington’s fires. In the destruction Hardin discovers overlooked evidence which will eventually lead him to figuring out that Harrington is the Oregon Terror.

But what a snoozefest it is! Cunningham writes endless detail of Hardin tooling around Oregon in his rented LTD, listening to “soft music” on the radio. This phrase is repeated so many times in the text that it gets funny – I mean, seriously, vast portions of High Disaster are comprised of bloodthirsty Mark “Penetrator” Hardin just driving around and listening to, I don’t know, James Taylor or something.

And even worse, we readers already know that a middle-aged senator is the villain of the piece – a villain, that is, who only has a single henchman! To say these two guys are outmatched by Hardin would be an understatement. Where’s the crazed violence and action setpieces of previous volumes? There’s nothing of the sort in High Disaster, in which Hardin is still just tooling around in the LTD while Harrington burns down half of the state, even killing several people in the process.

As usual, a female presence serves to brighten things, if only slightly; this is Maxine O’Reilly, hot blonde Oregon office secretary of Harrington, who, despite still being loyal to the man, relents to Hardin’s questioning when he enters the office and concedes that she too suspects that Harrington is the Oregon Terror. Now Hardin has a passenger who can ride around in the LTD and listen to “soft music” with him. However, Cunningham does not deliver the sex scene you figure would be mandatory, and Hardin and Maxine only maintain a working relationship.

The novel’s first action scene doesn’t happen until well over halfway through, when Hardin spends the night at that Indian reservation. Hardin patrols the grounds – and fires at a mysterious car that drives through late that night. Two black men get out, armed with Molotov cocktails, and lay down a story that they were hired by some dude to come here and torch the place. The guys are hauled off to the police station, and Hardin is certain they were hired by Harrington. Did you notice though that Hardin didn’t even kill them in the firefight? It’s like this throughout the novel, as if the violent hero of the previous volumes has been replaced by an American Indian Mister Rogers.

Apparently the state police and FBI are clueless, and only Hardin is capable of figuring out where Harrington will likely strike next: Bonneville Dam. And in fact the senator is there, having hired a few goons to help him out for the occasion. It isn’t until almost the very last page that Hardin actually kills someone, blowing away one of Harrington’s goons. And it’s his only kill of the entire novel! Otherwise the action scene here is perfunctory and bland; again, Hardin’s up against a heavyset senator and a few stooges, so there isn’t much potential for a big firefight.

And just as in his previous volume, Cunningham delivers an anticlimatic death for his villain, having Harrington, who’s been shot by Hardin, dive to his death off the dam, after informing Hardin that the entire thing’s going to blow. Hardin has seconds to defuse the bomb, including a “tense” part where he has to let the cops allow him past the barricade so he can help them. But good gravy it’s just all so boring, bland, and tepid – though we are informed that Hardin and Maxine, now that danger’s out of the way (and the novel’s about to end) are about to heat up their previously-platonic relationship.

Previous Cunningham installments have been sort of boring – in fact, a general malaise has overtaken the entire series by this point, with even co-writer Mark Roberts’s most recent book being a dud – but High Disaster takes it to a whole new low. To repeat, I should’ve skipped tracking this one down. And so should you.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Sea Trap (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #44)

The Sea Trap, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1969  Award Books

Once again I have Zwolf to thank – his review of this volume of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series really piqued my interest. And man, what an awesome novel it is! Not only is this easily the best volume of the series I’ve yet read, it’s just a fantastic piece of pulp, like a late ‘60s take on the “shudder pulps” of the 1930s.

What’s most unexpected is the author who was behind The Sea TrapJon Messmann. This novel features none of the ponderous or pretentious writing he would later bring to the Revenger series, none of the momentum-stalling self-introspection or the “meaningful” dialog. The Sea Trap is just a straight-up blast of violent, sex-filled fun, like an R-rated Saturday morning cartoon, as Nick Carter heads to the Caribbean and takes on a group of deformed, super-evil villains and the gigantic submarine-catching clam they have created!

Predating the unfortunate series switch to first-person narration, The Sea Trap is written in third person and moves at a steady clip. We learn early on that a few atomic submarines have gone missing in the Caribbean, in particular the X-88, an experimental US Navy model. The abductor turns out to be Judas, a recurring series villain, who has issued his demads for a hundred million dollars for the captured sub as well as its crew. Judas has, we learn, teamed up with a psychotic who is even more depraved and insane than Judas himself is.

I’ve often read about Judas, who was of course the Blofeld of the early Killmaster novels, but this is the first time I’ve read a novel he appears in. He is certainly a pulpy creation: an “economy-size gnome” with a “striated face” that’s “partially immobile” thanks to bad plastic surgery. He also has a “metal and leather” left hand, which has a gun built into the middle finger! His freakish, deformed nature is constantly played up by Messmann, but then, the freakishness of the villains is focused on throughout the novel.

Judas’s partner is even more freakish: Harold Fratke, a marine bioligist who is into “scientific erotica,” which means torturing women in bizarre ways. Harold is impotent (and perhaps latently gay, something Messmann introduces late in the narrative) and gets off on torturing gorgeous women, then handing them over to Judas’s hulking henchman, Tartar, who rapes them nearly to death. Messmann actually opens the novel with one of these scenes, and it all could come out of a sweat mag of the time.

Nick Carter is called to AXE headquarters in New York, where his boss David Hawk presents him with this impossible mission: Carter has five days to figure out where Judas is and where the captured sub is, and there are zero leads. “No trouble at all,” Carter sarcastically responds. He’s given a few goodies by the Special Effects group, including a wetsuit with innumerable hidden pockets that brings to mind John Eagle’s plastic suit in the Expeditor series – and speaking of which, Messmann’s style here shows that he would’ve been a perfect choice to serve as “Paul Edwards” on that later series, but I guess by then Messmann had moved on to publishing under his own name.

Flying to Puerto Rico, which Judas might be operating near, Carter becomes friendly with an attractive co-passenger named Betty Lew Rawlings. Coincidence alert: Betty has been hired by a mysterious staffing company to be the secretary for an old man who lives on a remote island. The company was so determined to only staff a woman who had no family, friends, or other connections that her entire history was researched before she was hired. Carter files this as interesting – and promptly bangs Betty that night in her hotel room. There are several sex scenes in The Sea Trap, and they’re actually a lot more explicit than you’d expect.

The two part ways the next morning, and Carter heads on to Venezuela, where he hooks up with a team of marine bioligsts on their own vessel, which is plying through this portion of the Caribbean. The ship is run by Dr. Danielle Fraser, who as you’d guess turns out to be a blonde with the body of a goddess, but who disdains sexual attraction and thus quickly rebuffs the immediately-interested Killmaster. As Zwolf mentions, the way Carter treats Danielle must’ve seemed "Neanderthal" even in ’69; he basically tells her they’re going to have sex, whether she likes it or not, and thus issues a challenge, Danielle’s “scientific mind” versus Carter’s raw male mystique.

It’s all of course hilariously pre-PC, but at the same time it’s pretty hilarious in its own right, leading to several funny scenes and banter. Like for example the part Zwolf mentioned, where Carter and Danielle go beneath the waves in her Sea Spider underwater craft, and Carter has to climb beneath Danielle’s seat to fix something, looking up at her from between her legs. Messmann per the genre takes many opportunities to exploit Danielle’s awesome bod, in particular when Carter spies on her midnight skinny dip, during which Danielle gets injured and Carter sucks the poison out of her, checking out her “magnificent breasts” the entire time.

Carter however continues to just provoke Danielle, getting her to a boiling point and then backing down, all so as to prove his goofy point. He does manage to score for the second time in the novel with a girl he just happens to run across during his trawls across the Caribbean in Danielle’s airplane; this is Joyce Tanner, who is plying around in her “ketch,” looking for her sister June. Joyce reveals that June answered an ad for a mysterious staffing company, to be the secretary for a reclusive man, and hasn’t been heard from since leaving six months ago.

Carter instantly suspects something – and determines to look into it further. But first of course he has to bang Joyce. Messmann really goes full out on this one, with Joyce basically telling Carter he’s the greatest man she’s ever been with and etc. Of course, this mysterious, reclusive man is none other than Judas, who has been supplying Harold with a steady supply of women to torture and mutilate. Beyond being shoehorned into the plot for an arbitrary lay, Joyce also provides Carter with the location of Judas’s secret hideout, which she’s seen from the ketch; it’s invisible from the air, hence Carter missing it during his flybys.

The book has been enjoyable all along, but when Carter gets onto the island it goes into a higher gear. Also the sci-fi angle comes into play, and it’s sci-fi of a goofy nature: Harold has devised a massive “sea trap” patterned after a clam. It’s a massive construct of steel beneath Judas’s island, so large that the captured experimental sub is inside it. We’re later informed that the giant claim has stuff built in it which prevents the electricity and power from running on the sub, which you’d think would mean that all the men aboard would suffocate, but forget it; you’d be thinking too much.

After a fairly gory firefight, in which Carter takes out most of Judas’s goons with a submachine gun, Carter is per tradition captured, so Judas can deliver the mandatory supervillain monologue. Here also the “shudder pulp” stuff is really laid on, as we watch as Harold puts sea lampreys on one of the girls, one who is important to Carter, until her face is almost eaten away. Finally Carter is taken into a massive room in which all of the captured women are kept in cages.

This is all pretty unsettling, with the women nude and mutilated, some of them missing various parts of their bodies, and all of them driven insane. In fact their screams are so horrendous that the sole patrolling guard must wear earplugs. Carter, left here with the women before his own torture begins (Harold excited at the prospect of performing his sexual torture on a man), is himself almost driven insane. But this is the Killmaster, so I’m sure you can all see where it’s going: soon enough all of the insane, mutilated women are set free, and they run amok on the island. The horror vibe of the novel continues apace, as the women actually eat one of the villains!

There’s also an Apocalypse Now vibe, as Carter, having disabled the sea trap so the captured sub can escape, calls in an airstrike. But thanks to Judas’s fallback plan, in which a ring of sharks are called around the island in a feeding frenzy, there’s no escape. So now Carter basically waits for his own death, as there’s no way to call off the airstrike. Messmann adds more unsettling yet poignant stuff here, with the return appearance of a few characters Carter knew, now mutilated and insane.

Carter is determined to kill Judas this time – and, so far as the narrative is concerned, he succeeds in doing so. This plays out in yet another great scene (in a novel filled with them), where Judas, locked in an impenatrable vault in his house, trades threats with Carter. Physically he’s no match for Cater, but that pistol-hand comes into play. Carter smashes the man into pulp, destroying his face, and the last we see of Judas a steel girder has fallen on him, after which the island is destroyed – but then, the only way one can be certain a supervillain is dead is for him to be shot point-blank in the head. And even then you might wonder.  (As for Judas, he did return for one more volume: 1974’s Vatican Vendetta, which was also the last volume of the series produced by Engel.)

The climax is also entertaining, with Carter getting off the island thanks to, you guessed it, the surprise appearance of Danielle in her Sea Spider. And as you’d also guess, Carter ends up winning his bet, right there and then – though honestly, I wouldn’t be feeling too randy after seeing all those caged, mutilated, and insane women. But then, I’m not the Killmaster. Carter instead sexually-bullies Danielle a bit more, until the “blonde goddess” can’t take it anymore and just needs some lovin’ asap. Messmann actually writes back-to-back sex scenes here, with an insatiable Danielle rolling Carter over so she can get on top. Ride ‘em, cowgirl!

We even get a cap-off joke with Hawk, who treats Danielle and Carter to dinner in a fancy New York restaurant (where they’re served clams). I mean, it’s pretty damn impressive how much goes down in the 160 pages of The Sea Trap -- and how much fun it is throughout. It’s got very good writing, fun dialog and banter, incredibly depraved villains, pretty graphic sex, and some unsettling violence, and if the series was like this throughout it would be the greatest men’s adventure series ever.

Unfortunately, I get the feeling The Sea Trap is an anomaly in the Killmaster series – but I’ll for sure be checking out more of Jon Messmann’s contributions.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Sweeter Than Candy

Sweeter Than Candy, by Cynthia Wilkerson
No month stated, 1978  Belmont Tower Books

I wrote two books as Cynthia Wilkerson. The first one was disgusting. The second one was slightly less disgusting. -- Len Levinson, in a phone conversation with me in April, 2012

The more scarce of the two novels Len wrote as “Cynthia Wilkerson,” Sweeter Than Candy is “in the tradition of” a now-forgotten piece of bestselling 1970s sleaze titled Blue Skies, No Candy, by Gael Greene. Len told me this when I spoke to him the other year, saying that if his own novel was “disgusting,” so was Greene’s. When I asked him again recently about his novel, Len told me:

[Belmont Tower editor] Milburn Smith told me to write something like Blue Skies, No Candy, which was very popular back then; I think it was on the Times bestseller list. So I read Blue Skies, decided it was quite trashy, and decided to out-trash it. The plot, characters, etc. of Sweeter were all mine. In a sense, it was my response to Blue Skies. In order to review Sweeter, you probably should read Blue Skies which inspired it.

At 265 pages, not only is Sweeter Than Candy one of the longer books of Len’s I’ve yet read, it’s also by far the most trashy, sleazy, and explicit. Like Greene’s novel, this one is narrated by its female (anti)hero: Vivian Sinclair, the 35 year-old “sexual terror of Manhattan” who makes her living as a drama critic for a small New York newspaper.

With blonde hair, big boobs, and “the greatest ass in the world,” Vivian is a regular man-eater, “fucking and sucking” practically every guy she meets – much to the chagrin of her Columbia professor of a husband, Roger, who starts off the novel by informing Vivian one day that he’s divorcing her. After getting over her shock – Vivian thought she and Roger had an understanding, as they both have had multiple affairs – our heroine consoles herself that she no longer will have a husband.

Not that she suffers much. The novel occurs over a few weeks, and I think Vivian only spends one night alone (and even then she gives herself a “finger-job”). Moments after her husband’s left her, Vivian puts on her “warpaint” (ie makeup), some sexy clothes, and leaves her fashionable Greenwich Village apartment with its “ultra-modern furniture” and goes to a nearby bar, where she promptly picks up Steve, a good-looking young cocaine dealer.

At Steve’s place there follows a super-explicit sex sequence that goes on for fifteen pages(!). Len leaves no stone unturned here, as the two fuck like crazy. These sex scenes bring to mind Len’s earlier novel Where The Action Is, which also featured a female narrator relating every detail of her sex life, however Sweeter Than Candy is all about the sex, with no espionage or mystery subplot to get in the way.

A recurring thing in the novel is that Vivian fights with just about everyone, especially men right before she screws them, but during the act she’ll tell them she loves them. I think Vivian tells about four guys “I love you” in the course of the novel. Steve’s no different, but he disappears from the novel after their herculean sexual bout; next up is Dudley Tarbush, a Broadway director who has been sleeping with Vivian for years.

In fact, Vivian’s soon-to-be-ex Roger comes home the next day, hoping to mend things with Vivian, only to find her and Tarbush fucking on the kitchen floor! To make it even wackier and crazier, Len even brings Tarbush’s wife, Beverley, onto the scene, so that Tarbush and Vivian now find themselves openly caught in the act by their spouses. The two spouses leave, vowing costly divorces, but Tarbush gets over it soon, telling Vivian he’s always loved her and got married in the first place just to make her jealous.

I thought this would prove to be the plot of Sweeter Than Candy, Vivian and Tarbush falling in love while getting vengeance on their spouses, but it isn’t; in fact, Vivian and Roger have made up well before novel’s end. Like most other Len Levinson novels, this one isn’t straightjacketed by much of a plot, and instead comes off like our narcissistic and sex-crazed protagonist going from one adventure to the next.

Vivian soon finds herself giving a blowjob to Doug Gallagher, the Burt Reynolds-esque star who’s come to New York to promote his new theater production of Hamlet. Soon after this she’s trying to “make a man” out of a gay tenant of her apartment building, the sharply-dressed and charming Timothy Peabody. We get all sorts of stuff here that would be unprintable in today’s blandified world, as the things Vivian thinks and says about Peabody would be considered quite inappropriate in our modern age.

But Len is just setting us up. The joke turns out to be on Vivian, for after inviting “Mr. Peabody” to a theater opening with her (where she forces her hand down his pants and jerks him off, much to his horror and discomfort), she demands that he let her into his apartment that night…and soon discovers that Mr. Peabody isn’t gay at all! Instead, his name is Craig and he gets off on posing as a homosexual, so women will try a little harder for him. You see, Craig finds sex so easy these days that there’s no challenge to getting laid, so he’s come up with this little game.

Now, all this is relayed after Vivian has practically raped the guy, blowing him in super-explicit detail and then demanding that he go down on her. But Craig’s such an expert “cunt-lapper” that Vivian instantly suspects something. Not that she’s too crestfallen, as in Craig Peabody Vivian has found her ideal match: a narcissistic sex-fiend who is every bit as depraved, opinionated, and mean-hearted as she. They even call each other “Bastard” and “Bitch” while fucking, with Craig telling Vivian flat-out that he hates her – that is, before telling her he loves her while they’re going at it once again.

The (sort of) main plot comes to a head again as Vivian, post-coitus, realizes that Craig could really help her out in her upcoming divorce from Roger, who by the way is attempting to sue Vivian for alimony(!). In a protracted caper Vivan and Tarbush fool Tarbush’s wife Beverley into thinking she’s about to be interviewed for a tell-all book about Broadway, but instead she’s seduced by Craig, and their ensuing sex is captured on film. This is then used to prevent Tarbush from paying Beverley alimony, and also to destroy Beverley’s credibility as a reliable witness for Roger.

But Len’s characters are always seeking happiness, even when they’ve found it, and Craig promptly breaks it off with Vivian, telling her he doesn’t trust her, thus she can’t be his perfect match. This occurs around page 160, and Vivian pines for him throughout the 100 or so remaining pages of the novel, even when she and Roger have gotten back together in an open relationship that’s even more open than it was before.

The incident which causes their reunion is another of the novel’s many highlights. In the opening of the tale Roger informs Vivian that he’s leaving her for a young, pretty co-ed named Taffy. Much later in the novel, after being dumped by Craig, Vivian goes into a bar to get drunk. She’s soon checking out the super-hot waitress. Guess what her name turns out to be? That’s right – Taffy. It’s none other than the “tramp” Roger left her for, though a clueless Taffy tells Vivian that she herself has now left Roger, once she found out he was going to sue his ex-wife for alimony.

Not letting Taffy know who she is, Vivian sets about on yet another of her madcap plans: namely, taking this lovely young woman home and having hot lesbian sex with her! And after smoking a little pot the two do just that, with yet another protracted sex scene as they go down on each other in the bathtub. And in a funny callback to the earlier part, Roger once again walks in on the scene! (Strangely Len does not write the three-way I expected, with Taffy fleeing in shock from these two “freaks.”)

Vivian and Roger back together again, you’d think the novel would end…but there are still 40 or so pages to go. Len introduces an eleventh hour subplot about Sir Richard Tysedale, a reclusive British billionaire who is about to buy out Vivian’s paper. Tysedale owns papers all over the world, this being the first in New York he’ll appropriate, and in each previous case he’s always fired the old staff. Realizing her job’s on the line, Vivian finds out from a rich friend that Tysedale lives in a mansion on the moors of Scotland.

Purchasing a last-second ticket, Vivian takes off alone for the UK (blowing the good-looking guy in the seat next to her and screwing him upon their arrival in Scotland), where she’s determined to corner an interview wihth Tysedale, who has never before granted such a thing. When she meets the old recluse, Vivian once again finds a kindred spirit, an opinionated, high-born racist who hates the lower classes, minorities, and gays with even more vehemence than Vivian. After granting her interview, Tysedale then asks Vivian to “make pee-pee and poo-poo” on him in a bathtub!!

Thankfully Len doesn’t write this particular scene, but when we meet Vivian again she’s back in Manhattan, loving life as the managing editor of Beautiful People Magazine, another of Tysedale’s recently-purchased New York publications. In other words, Vivian is given the happy ending I figured she’d be denied, achieving her worldly dreams and, despite still being married to Roger, engaging in open affairs with a variety of men.

The one sad spot in her life is her unrequited love for Craig Peabody, as she still finds herself obsessed with him. Len ends the novel with the tantalizing chance that there could be sequel, someday, with Vivian declaring that, no matter what, she will find Craig, but if Len actually did plan to write another book about Vivian Sinclair he must’ve changed his mind. His other book as “Cynthia Wilkerson” was an unrelated novel more akin to a category Romance, and Len considers that one the superior of the two.

Len’s writing is as ever strong and enjoyable; there are tons of lines and pieces of dialog that are rife for quoting, but I’m a lazy man. He covers all the bases from the sleazy to the profound. He does though slip in and out of present tense at times, which makes for an awkward read given that the novel is in past tense. Also, the book is littered with typos and misprintings, though this isn’t Len’s doing; it’s the usual subpar Belmont Tower “editing” at work.

One of the more interesting things about Sweeter Than Candy is that Vivian Sinclair is like the antagonists of trashy bestsellers of the day, like the sort of stuff that made Jacqueline Susann rich and famous. She’s vituperative, shrill, self-centered beyond the point of narcissism, opionated, arrogant, highfalutin, racist, manipulative, untrustworthy, and basically just a general bitch.

Yet as the narrator, Vivian presents herself to us as the hero of the tale, which makes for an interesting reading experience – and a fun reading experience, for sure. But I can’t say Vivian is a character I much liked. After reading her self-obsessed thoughts for almost 300 pages, I kind of hoped she’d get some sort of comeuppance, but it never happens – she ends the tale just as blissfully vain as she was in the beginning.

This is not to take away from the novel itself, which is a fun and sleazy romp through late 1970s New York City.  As I read it, it occurred to me that Sweeter Than Candy was yet another of Len’s novels that would’ve gotten a lot more attention if it had been published by an outfit with better distribution -- the very scarcity of Sweeter Than Candy suggests that it likely had a small print run.  It’s a shame, really, as the novel deserved a better fate.

Len offered to write up his thoughts on Sweeter Than Candy, and as usual his “addendum” is just as entertaining as the novel itself:

I volunteered to write an addendum to Joe’s review of Sweeter Than Candy by Cynthia Wilkerson, who in real life was none other than me. I wonder what Cynthia’s fans would think if they discovered she’d grown a beard. 

To the best of my recollection, it all began in 1977 on an afternoon when I was sitting in the editorial office of Belmont-Tower in New York City, beside the desk of one of my editors, Milburn Smith. I don’t remember where my usual editor, Peter McCurtin, was that day. 

After initial pleasantries, Milburn asked me to write something similar to a novel that was on the best-seller lists then: Blue Skies, No Candy by Gael Greene, which was much discussed in the media as a sensationally erotic breakthrough in feminist literature. A friend referred to it as "Blue Skies, No Panties."  Ms. Greene also was a well-known restaurant critic for New York magazine. 

After leaving BT’s offices, I bought a copy of Blue Skies, took it home, read it front to back, and evaluated it as pedestrian middlebrow smut. My only reasonable response was to out-smut it, a challenge for which I felt fully qualified, given my smutty brain during my younger years. 

I’ve just now finished reading Sweeter Than Candy for the first time since I delivered the manuscript in 1977. Approximately 60% percent of the novel is hard core erotica spiced with zany comedic overtones. The rest is a satire on NYC snobbery and pretentiousness, also spiced with zany comedic overtones. 

A few times I laughed out loud at my own words written around 37 years ago. The sexually overactive lead character Vivian Sinclair, drama critic for a daily newspaper, is hilarious in her hypocrisy, silliness, self-deceptions and ruthless ambition. The plot firmly held my attention with its unexpected twists and turns drizzled with sparkling dialogue. 

It was fun to write a novel under a woman’s name, from a woman’s point of view. The National Organization of Women probably will put me before a firing squad if they ever read this novel, but I only was trying to lampoon certain NYC women who considered themselves completely progressive, far above traditional morality, going from love affair to love affair, perhaps getting married a few times along the way, always on the lookout for hedonistic pleasures, gold diggers par excellence, not above one-night-stands, and naturally seeing psychiatrists regularly. 

Unfortunately, there are many typos in Sweeter Than Candy, but BT was not known for its copy editing skills. For example, on page 196, a Greenwich Village bar was referred to as the Nebraska Midnight. On page 198 it had become Dakota Midnight. Such errors must have been very disconcerting for readers. The bar was based on the Montana Eve on the west side of 7th Avenue north of Sheridan Square, where my brother worked as bartender and then manager for awhile, and where I hung out occasionally. 

I’m proud to say that Sweeter Than Candy truly was more smutty than Blue Skies, No Candy, in my admittedly biased opinion, and a better read as well. Unfortunately, Sweeter Than Candy never was embraced by the New York literati, went out of print long ago, and is not available now as an ebook. But it was very enjoyable to write, and I guess that’s what mattered most to me.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Death Merchant #40: Blueprint Invisibility

Death Merchant #40: Blueprint Invisibility, by Joseph Rosenberger
August, 1980  Pinnacle Books

Sporting an awesome cover (I think the Death Merchant covers, courtesy Dean Cate, were the best in the entire Pinnacle line), Blueprint Invisibility features psychotic protagonist Richard Camellion taking on a mission that involves the Philadelphia Experiment hoax, MKUltra-style mind control, the Red Chinese, and, uh, New York City escort services.

But man, how about that cover? You’ve got bizarre, Ken Strickfaden-style gizmos, what appears to be a pair of teleporting people, and a nattily-attired Richard Camellion pulling himself out of a gurney or something while almost casually firing his submachine gun. Best of all, the top of the cover features a muscular dwarf with an eyepatch and robotic arms! I’ve been hopping around this series with no concern about reading it in order, so I decided to check out this volume, just given the cover alone.

And while most of this stuff’s in the actual novel, it isn’t featured as much as you wish it would be. Instead, Joseph Rosenberger is more concerned with pointlessly-detailed gun battles and lots of material which was obviously lifted from various encyclopedias or copies of National Geographic, as well as the odd issue of Fate. The Philadelphia Experiment stuff is basically just the framework Rosenberger uses to get Camellion in a host of fights with the Red Chinese, and ultimately it’s a complete McGuffin.

Anyway, Rosenberger opens the novel as if we’ve missed something; at first I thought it was a direct lead-in from the previous installment, which I don’t have, but it isn’t. Camellion’s in DC, leading a group of Navy Intelligence operatives as they tail Mason Shiptonn, a Navy Intelligence staffer who, Camellion is certain, has been turned into a mind-controlled sleeper agent by the Red Chinese. Shiptonn was one of the few people with access to the ultra-classified Philadelphia Experiment papers, and apparently three months ago he took photos of them and gave them to the Chinese – all without his conscious knowledge.

Rather than the Philadelphia Experiment’s “hyperspace quality and/or factor” stuff, Camellion is more concerned over how the Chinese comrpomised Shiptonn…and how they did it so quickly, like in just a few hours. Because, as we are reminded at length, there’s no surefire way to completely control a person’s mind in such a short time. I should mention here that more, much more, attention is placed on mind control/MKUltra stuff rather than the more-interesting Philadelphia Experiment stuff, which Rosenberger almost blithely documents and then moves on to other things.

When they lock down Shiptonn after a firefight with some Chinese agents, Camellion is briefed by his CIA handler Grojean, and decides to move on to New York City to figure out how exactly Shiptonn was brainwashed. No one’s much concerned about the leaked Philadelphia Experiment stuff; they’re more worried over other sleeper agents. Anyway, Shiptonn spent one night with a high-class hooker from the Olympia Escort Service in Manhattan, and at great length Camellion learns that it’s run by a gorgeous former escort named Soraya Duncan, who is involved with a Mafia boss named Charley Franzese.

Rosenberger fills the middle quarter of the novel with material almost lifted verbatim from various guides to New York. Reading Blueprint Invisibility, I had to laugh, recalling what Donald “Dr. Rock” Schnell mentioned in his memories of Rosenberger – namely, how Rosenberger’s study was lined with National Geographic magazines and maps of US cities. One can easily tell, reading this novel, that Rosenberger had each of these things by his side as he pecked away at his typewriter.

The escort service material actually gets more print than both the Philadelphia Experiment and the brainwashing stuff combined. My guess is Rosenberger also must’ve been leaning on the various “sex expose” paperbacks that had been printed at the time – but then, the dude himself penned some, back in the ‘60s, a few of which I’ll get around to reviewing someday. Anyway the Olympia service has never been busted, due to the curious fact that no client has ever managed to score with one of the escorts!

Camellion suspects Soraya Duncan and mobster Farenzese are involved with the Red Chinese somehow, and that the escort programmed Shiptonn that night. Camellion canvases Manhattan, doing his research, working with his CIA contact – a man named William Fieldhouse!  Stephen Mertz has told me that Fieldhouse was friends with Rosenberger, and indeed was part of what Mertz calls “the Rosenberger Circle.” So this character, a tough ‘Nam vet who is described as “well-muscled and nice-looking,” is clearly a reference to the actual William Fieldhouse, whom Camellion starts to like so much that he soon just calls him “Bill!”

Soraya Duncan is a mega-babe redhead who despite being involved with Farenzese will still go out with the occasional client. Camellion uses a dandy named Ewart Gremmill, a CIA contractor marked for death by the Agency, to set him up with her. We get lots of background detail on Soraya, none of which matters much in the grand scheme of things. So shoehorned is all of this that the dwarf on the cover, who turns out to be a former wrestler named Gregory Gof (and who has steel fingers, instead of the friggin’ cooler robotic arms of the cover painting), is not only Soraya’s assistant but also her brother – and this tidbit is not fleshed out in the least. In fact, Gof amounts to zilch in the novel, appearing for maybe three pages.

The Camellion-Soraya date is the most interesting moment in the novel, as Camellion finds himself taken by the gorgeous beauty, despite his concern that she might be a traitor. And she’s my dream girl, too, casually discussing P. D. Ouspensky on a first date!! But still, Camellion senses “a strong negative thought-field around her.” They go back to her posh apartment, where the lady makes clear her intention to screw Camellion senseless. I figured she’d instead lead him into a trap, or some out-of-nowhere and pointlessly-detailed fight scene would ensue, but nope – Rosenberger writes an actual sex scene, my friends.

Spanning four pages, the Camellion-Soraya encounter is a lot more explicit than I expected it to be, given the author. But just after their mutual whopping orgasms the two are surprised by the sudden entrance of Soraya’s mobster partner, Charley Franzese, with a few of his goons. Camellion, who is playing a Texan enterpreneur named “Jefferson Davis Hafferton,” busts out his kung-fu skills and beats them all senseless. He then leaves Soraya there with them, having come to the decision that she isn’t the best woman he’s had sex with, even though he lies to her that she is(?).

So far there hasn’t been much of the tedious action Rosenberger is known for, but he makes up for it posthaste. Launching a soft probe in the middle of the night on the building which houses the Olympia Escort Service, Camellion and Fieldhouse (the former who wears a Frankenstein mask, the latter a Wolfman mask) get in a huge battle with Franzense’s stooges. It goes on and on, and culminates with the two making an aiborne escape on a helicopter, with the NYPD helicopter patrol in pursuit.

It should be mentioned that Camellion goes out of his way to kill cops this time around – in fact, several times he tells his associates that they too had better be ready to kill any police officers that get in the way! So here he casually oversees the destruction of a few NYPD helicopters, marking up the policeman’s deaths as just par for the course. But then, Camellion is more psychotic than usual this time out; even Rosenberger seems to understand this, as toward the end he informs us that “in eleven years [Camellion] had killed literally thousands of people.”

Another mostly-tedious action scene follows, as Camellion, Fieldhouse, and more CIA agents attack a “Red Chinese fortress” in the affluential 160s section of Manhattan. In this sequence Camellion et al are themselves disguised as Chinese, thanks to Camellion’s usual wizardry with makeup; also notable is this tongue-twister of a line, which is delivered just before Camellion’s new buddy guns down a few Red Chinese: “Go screw a sapsucker, you slant-eyed slobs,” snarled Fieldhouse.

In the homestretch it’s learned that the Red Chinese who stole the Philadelphia Experiment stuff are on Chelsworth Island, off of Maine’s coast. Also the Chinese agents who have perfected the mind-control are there, not to mention Soraya Duncan, the three of her escorts who were in on it with her, and Farenzese. I mean, they’re all just conveniently gathered together. Camellion, his stalwart Agency pals, and a handful of SEALs stage an ambush, Camellion informing them that everyone on the island is to be killed – and indeed, if any of the men have problems with shooting women, they’d better leave now!

As if to prove how heartless and sick he is, Camellion soon after blows away a Chinese whore in cold blood, just some innocent hooker brought in to entertain the Chinese officers. Then, dressed in a “sky blue jumpsuit,” Camellion proceeds to lead his team on a gore-soaked assault on the island, in the third and final of the novel’s incredibly-boring action scenes. It’s all just like Rosenberger’s earlier Mace junk, with a barrage of Chinese names and obscure martial arts terms thrown at us.

Rosenberger himself relishes in describing the gruesome deaths of Soraya Duncan and her three girls, documenting thoroughly the path of each bullet through Soraya’s “once-beautiful body.” It’s dark, disquieting stuff, and off-putting as well – Rosenberger writes that one of the poor girls is even given “a free hysterectomy” thanks to a SEAL-fired bullet, and it’s all just depressing because it’s our supposed heroes who are shooting these unarmed girls, and it’s all presented to us as a sterling victory against the dark forces of Communism.

All of the Philadelphia Experiment stuff is rendered moot in the melee; we learn that the Chinese have built a “space bending machine,” but Camellion has no interest whatsoever in learning what it does. And Rosenberger has no interest in telling us. Instead, Camellion oversees the death of everyone, save for a few captured Chinese scientists, and then wires the entire compound to blow, including the space-bender. And now he’s all excited because Grojean just told him that his next mission will be in…North Ireland! The End!!

So yeah, none of the cool shit depicted on the cover actually happens in the novel. But in exchange you at least get to witness the Death Merchant scoring with a woman. Plus, we learn the usual random and bizarre tidbits about Camellion, like that “one of his favorite drinks” is two parts Scotch and one part Perrier over two ice cubes. Also that he enjoys eating kumquats while drinking cocoa. Oh, and that not only does he need just four hours of sleep a night, but that his typical breakfast is “black coffee, a small cup of honey, and two vitamin pills.”

Finally, the super-bizarre shit is in full effect, so far as the “Cosmic Lord of Death” goes, with Camellion apparently knowing when he’s going to die (“but not today!”), the aforementioned sensing of “negative thought-fields,” and occasional lines like, “The Cosmic Lord of Death was always on [Camellion’s] side, but Time hated his guts and was forever his main enemy.” Best of all is Camellion’s apparent unwillingness to curse, the harshest line he delivers being, “Ostritch crap!”

Which, sadly, pretty much sums up Blueprint Invisibility.

Finally, be sure to check out the Sharp Pencil blog, where Alan has been reviewing every single volume of the Death Merchant series!  Now that is commitment!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

C.A.D.S. #2: Tech Battleground

C.A.D.S. #2: Tech Battleground, by John Sievert
April, 1986  Zebra Books

If you’ve read Doomsday Warrior and wish there was more of it, you owe it to yourself to seek out the lesser-known C.A.D.S. series, which was by the same authors. And like Doomsday Warrior, I suspect that C.A.D.S. was more so the work of Ryder Syvertsen writing alone, as Tech Battleground is identical in style to that more famous series, which Syvertsen apparently wrote solo after the first four installments.

In fact, C.A.D.S. is so similar that you could hunt throughout the text and replace the names of various characters with the names of characters from Doomsday Warrior. Colonel Dean Sturgis becomes Ted Rockson, Tranh is Chen, Fenton is McLaughlin, and Marshal Veloshnikov is Colonel Killov. Everything, from the breathless storytelling style to the OTT violence and sex, is here; the only thing missing is the mutant monsters of the other series, though in exchange you get robotic armored suits.

Another series C.A.D.S. is very similar to is Victor Milan’s The Guardians – make that very similar to, with the same storyline in the first volume of the C.A.D.S. team rushing to save the Vice President, now the President, after the previous chief of state died in the nuclear war. And just as in The Guardians, this new president, Williamson, now lives on a military base with our heroes.

But really the series is basically Doomsday Warrior with robotic suits. There’s even an analogue of Century City’s chief scientist, in the form of Van Patten, who has created a Light Wave Amplifier, aka the LWA, a “laser subgun” which will explode if it’s fired too much and goes into the red. But Sturgis, ready to go back out in the field and fight the Russianss five weeks after the war began, thinks it might just be the edge they need to take on the better-equipped invading army. Also, the LWA as described sounds suspiciously like the pistol shown on the lame covers this series was graced with.

Sturgis is also fired up to reconnect with Robin, the ex-wife he still loves. Robin is in fact still alive, and the last we see her she’s made her way into Virginia, trying to reach the rendevous point she and Sturgis decided on in the first volume. But, just like the Rock-Rona-Kim triangle in Doomsday Warrior, Stacy brings up potential fireworks here with the introduction of hotstuff Dr. Sheila de Camp, chief psychologist of the C.A.D.S. base in White Sands, New Mexico, who in a handful of pages goes from hating Sturgis’s guts to planning to get in bed with him someday!

Meanwhile, the Russians are continuing their takeover of the US, and there appear to be three central Russian characters who will be important in the series: General Bukarov, who is situated in the White House; General Petrin, commander of the C.A.D.S.-style Gray Suits and military man who does not hate the Americans and in fact respects their soldiers; and finally Supreme Marshal Veloshnikov, who operates from the nuclear submarine Lenin and hates America with a passion, due to the death of his wife and child in Saigon in 1972, thanks to a bombing raid by the US military.

Intel at White Sands has learned that the Russians are planning a mass attack on Charleston, South Carolina, with the possible intent of leveling the entire city. Sturgis proposes “Operation Tech Battleground,” which is just a goofy name for “Let my C.A.D.S. soldiers go out and fight them!” After pointless internal squabble and discussion, Sturgis’s plan is approved and he choses his soldiers from the hundred or so who make up the C.A.D.S. force, also known as Delta Commando. Just like in Doomsday Warrior, the team is made up of Sturgis’s never-harmed “inner circle” and a whole bunch of redshirts who will die.

Completely following the template of that other series, the plot goes on to having Sturgis et al roar across the nuke-blasted countryside and taking on all kinds of freaks before they get to their destination. Most interesting is an obese millionaire who travels around in an armored limo, escorted by a tank and trucks, who is named Pinky Ellis. The CEO of Exrell Corporation, Ellis apparently will factor into later volumes; he willingly sold arms to the Russians, making their takeover of the US a reality.

Ellis also has taken captive Morgana Pinter, a hot-trot blonde who is now his complete slave. When Sturgis and team run into Ellis on the road, the man berates Sturgis for still giving a shit about America and asks him to team up with Ellis’s own crew. It develops into a battle in which, of course, Sturgis’s team makes short work of the opponent, however Ellis escapes in his limo, Morgana still a prisoner, and given how he’s mentioned later I suspect he will return again someday.

In Tennessee the team meets up with the descendants of the Hatfields, who are still at war with the McCoys. Otherwise they are friendly country folk, and invite the squad to their well-fortified hideout in the mountains. After a big feast, that other patented Ryder Stacy element presents itself – the OTT sex scene. This arises in the form of Anne, aka “Cat,” a busty and attractive local girl who leads Sturgis away for some explicit shenanigans – a scene that features the unforgettable line, “She sat up upon him and took in his hot manhood into her love-opening.”

Sturgis succeeds in uniting the Hatfields and McCoys for an attack on the invading Russians in Charleston. This sequence, despite being the main plot of the novel, occurs around midway through and doesn’t last very long. Here Sturgis and team destroy Russian ships in a massive fight, with an appareance of the Gray Suits onto the scene. Petrin has been ordered to capture one of the C.A.D.S. suits, and after the battle Sturgis isn’t sure if his missing men are KIA or are MIA – their suits taken away to be studied by the Russians.

I should mention that, when the action goes down, the author(s) as expected really let the guts fly. Heads explode, organs are blasted out, and in several memorable instances the C.A.D.S. soldiers literally rip Russian soldiers to shreds, or smash them into pulp with their metal hands. All of which is to say, Rydery Stacy (or Syvertsen alone) is one of those men’s adventure authors who clearly understood that total and utter exploitation is mandatory for this genre, whether it be sex or violence. There is no pretense at making it all seem like a straight sort of “regular” novel.

More focus is given to the slow escape of the C.A.D.S. men, fleeing from the pursuing Russians after having destroyed their plans to level Charleston. We get another of those bizarro scenes where, hiding in the Okefenoke swamp in Georgia, they are waylaid by “swamp Indians,” cannibalistic and tattooed freaks who zap around the swamp in weaponized swamp boats and really give the C.A.D.S. team – the armored suits almost inoperative due to drained power – a run for its money. The authors deliver their usual memorable sadism with the revelation that the Indians abduct women and keep them in iron cages, expressly for eating purposes!

The Okefenoke stuff also has repercussions for future novels, as further in the swamp the team discovers an old mansion on an island that was apparently built by runaway slaves, over a century before. Sturgis decides to make the mansion a forward base for any future operations on the east coast. In a “why not?” bit in the very last pages, Stacy also introduces a reincarnation motif, with Tranh looking at the grave of a slave named Cyrus and announcing that he was Cyrus in his previous life.

Sturgis basically takes this in stride, but he has other things on his mind – after a quick boosting of his armor’s power, he takes off to reconnect with Robin, who should be within a few hundred miles. And there the authors leave us, until next time.

Overall Tech Battleground was fun, if too long – like most other Zebra publications – but didn’t really provide the same sort of entertainment you get from the superior Doomsday Warrior books.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Golden Serpent (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #20)

The Golden Serpent, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes wrote several volumes of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, and supposedly is the series author who came up with the idea to have the novels be narrated by Carter himself. The Golden Serpent (which is stated as taking place in 1966) predates this first-person switchover and thus is told in third person, which as I’ve mentioned too many times is the style I prefer for the men’s adventure genre.

I was eager to read this volume, given the great writeup Andreas Decker gave it in The Paperback Fanatic #17. Not only that, my friends, but in this volume Stokes serves up my favorite type of pulp villain: an actual Nazi She-Devil. He doesn’t exploit the character as much as he could, but she is a whip-wielding hussy who, in the final pages at least, dons her jackboots and swastika armband…that is, right before she engages in mortal sexual combat with the Killmaster.

But as usual Stokes puts too many plots into one book, and doesn’t focus on the Nazi She-Devil alone. In fact, the inciting incident of The Golden Serpent is soon lost; counterfeit bills are threatening to destroy the US economy. When a greedy Mexican pilot crashes his plane over the US border, inside it is found a huge stash of the false money. At length we learn this dude was employed in an actual castle deep in Mexico, a castle owned by Gerda von Rothe, famous owner of a cosmetics emporium, and despite her platinum blonde hair and staggering body, reportedly 70 years old. Also, she runs roughshod over the locals, who refer to her as “The Bitch” – which, by the way, is how Stokes usually refers to her in the narrative.

This plotline is also murked up with vague mentions of “The Serpent Party,” a sort of Mexican radical movement looking to get California and a few other states back into Mexico’s control, as well as the possibility that a few Red China nuclear subs might be patrolling the Mexican and American coastlines. But despite the too-busy plotting, all is gradually eclipsed by Gerda von Rothe, who is of course the Nazi She-Devil. It’s just unfortunate that Stokes doesn’t focus on her from the beginning and instead serves up all these counterfeit currency/Serpent Party/nuclear subs red herrings which make for the big threat that gets everything going.

Meanwhile, Nick Carter’s on vacation, getting laid. Down in Mexico himself, he’s gotten cozy with a local gal who is the daughter of some influential businessman or something. But the girl’s a virgin, and demands that Carter take her virginity; after some internal debate, Carter does. However, no doubt due to the era it was published, the sex scenes in The Golden Serpent are quite vague, leaving everything to the reader’s imagination. While I prefer the pulpier plots of the ‘60s and ‘70s installments of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series, it seems pretty clear that it was more sexually explicit in its otherwise un-pulpy ‘80s installments.

Speaking of pulp, Stokes as expected really pulps it up, to the point where it sort of gets goofy; for example, Carter is here often referred to as “Killmaster,” ie no “the.” This is just what Stokes did in the later Aquanauts series, where he referred to the main character as “Tiger Shark,” even though the guy’s name was William Martin. Also goofy is Stokes’s occasional reference to Carter as “the AXEman,” ie Carter’s employer AXE (which has since going on to making men’s hair gels and body sprays). However for the most part Stokes just refers to him as “Nick.” (And Stokes also has a knack for in-jokery, with Carter’s undercover name at one point being “Carter Manning,” and a mention of a “Miss Stokes” being the secretary of Nick’s boss, Hawk.)

But this time Carter doesn’t work for AXE; after too much setup, he’s on loan to the CIA, who friggin’ demands that Carter take a cyanide pill in one of his teeth. Also, since he’s smuggled into Mexico as a penniless gold pospector, Carter is denied his usual weapons, so there’s no Luger, stiletto, or weirdo “gas bomb” that he tapes to his balls. The CIA doesn’t think Gerda von Rothe’s castle has anything to do with the counterfeit curency, they just think the crashed pilot merely happened to be employed there, as the castle features the only airstrip in the area, and they want Carter to sort of bumble around and see what’s up.

Once Carter’s in position and playing out his drifter role, he soon begins to suspect that Gerda is in fact in on something, especially when he finds the murdered corpse of an old SS Nazi buried in the lake beside his shack. When Gerda herself shows up, the book picks up gear. She is of course stunningly gorgeous, with a body to match: a “tall woman with enormous firm breasts and an incredibly small waist.” Catching Carter in the act of bathing in the lake, the lady duly checks out his body and then tells him she wants to hire him for a special job.

Before Carter can meet her in her castle, he’s waylaid by agents of El Tigre, a Mexican bandit who works with the CIA and is pissed at them for not holding up to their various promises. This is more page-filling stuff, and not very interesting, other than El Tigre’s fondness for drinking mescal, which he also forces Carter to quaff. Even worse, when Carter finally gets to the Castle, Stokes completely skips over Gerda’s all-night employment of Carter’s sexual services, though we’re informed she’s insatiable and, of course, perverted.

In many ways The Golden Serpent is almost identical to the books Stokes would later write for the Richard Blade series. Carter, just like Blade, comes nude and confused into a twisted world of in-fighting, perversion, and murder. Gerda is just like the various hot-bodied and barely-clothed chicks Blade meets on his random hoppings around Dimension X, a coldly calculating man-eater who could very likely plunge a dagger in Carter’s back while he’s on top of her. And just like in those Richard Blade novels Carter here finds himself in the midst of genuine castle intrigue, with Gerda plotting against two men who have taken over the place and hiring Carter to kill them.

These two are Harper and Hurtada, the former an American who does the public relations for Gerda’s cosmetics empire, the latter a “Red Chinese” who has disguised himself as a Mexican. Stokes doesn’t really do too much to bring these guys to life, but apparently Harper is a KGB informant and Hurtada, obviously, is with the submarines that are patrolling the coastlines. And also apparently the Serpent Party is all a cover for the Red Chinese, and the counterfeit currency was one of their plots – it’s eventually revealed that Gerda’s mother smuggled the printing plates over to Mexico, after WWII, but they were useless until the Chinese provided the paper.

But really, all of this stuff is brushed aside and more focus is placed on Carter’s escape from Gerda. Stokes piles on the gothic stuff with Carter discovering the rat-eaten remains of the previous men who “serviced” Gerda, hidden deep in the bowels of the castle. There’s a climactic firefight that you don’t even realize is a climactic firefight, as Gerda’s uniformed castle guards take on the Red Chinese soldiers who have taken over the place, and Carter is caught in the middle. It’s nonetheless a good action scene that, while never too gory, at least adds more pulpy charm with Carter like some sort of superhero or something, who can “become Killmaster” when necessary.

The best is saved for last. Carter gets captured and is stripped naked and tied to a bed, where he’s whipped by Erma, Gerda’s female bodyguard who is apparently built like “a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers.” In this climactic section Gerda has, per Carter, shown her “true colors,” wearing her jackboots, black shirt (unbuttoned to the navel, so as to show off her breasts, naturally), and swastika armband. She even throws in a “Heil Hitler.” Given the old saw familiar from so many James Bond movies, Gerda blithely tells Carter anything he wants to know, given that, of course, he’ll be dead soon.

And of course the supernatural element is lost, as Gerda turns out to merely be 36, the whole “70-year-old” thing something dreamt up by PR man Harper. She is though rather randy, and Carter himself, despite the savage whipping, finds himself reacting to her beauty. Here Stokes delivers a finale that, as Andy Decker referred to it, is in “the top ten of pulp.” Stripping off her own clothes, Gerda cuts Carter loose and informs him he will have sex with her one more time – all while Erma sits watching, holding a submachine gun!

While it never gets very explicit, it’s still all very well-done, and as entertaining as anything I’ve ever read by Stokes, as Carter, “always at least two steps ahead,” satiates Gerda’s sexual needs while tonguing open the cap of his false toose and prying free that cyanide pill the CIA insisted he carry on the mission. Certainly one of the very few scenes you’ll ever read that features the hero fucking the villainess while trying to french kiss her with a deadly cyanide pill!

Stokes only proceeds to ramp it up, with Carter next in a knockdown, dragout fight with Erma, who nearly beats the shit out of him, including a memorable bit where she attempts to strangle him with one of her pig-tails. And as if all that wasn’t enough, Stokes even tosses in a bit of necrophilia, when El Tigre arrives in the aftermath of the battle, helps an injured Carter escape, and then carries out his oft-stated desire to rape “The Bitch” – even if she’s dead!

It took too long to get going – way too much time was spent on developing Carter’s cover story as a gold prospector – and had too many divergent, unsatisfactorily-resolved subplots, but The Golden Serpent was still a fun read, and definitely got better and better as it went along, culminating in one of the best climaxes I’ve ever read. I look forward to reading more of Stokes’s contributions to the series.

And special mention must be made of the UK Mayflower Books edition, the cover for which can be summed up in two words: Hot damn!!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hawker #1: Florida Firefight

Hawker #1: Florida Firefight, by Carl Ramm
May, 1985  Dell Books

One of those men’s adventure series that goes for high dollars now, thanks to the current fame of the author, Hawker ran for 11 volumes and, if this first volume is any indication, was pretty good. Unfortunately, given those inflated prices, I’ll only be reading the handful of copies I came upon last year at a Half Price Bookstore.

Randy Wayne White wrote the series as “Carl Ramm,” and I have to admit that before discovering this series I was unfamiliar with the guy’s work. But he’s actually a successful novelist these days, apparently really getting into the spotlight in 1990, when he began his Doc Ford “eco-mystery” series of books, which themselves might be worth checking out sometime (and are certainly easier to come by than the Hawker books!).

Like most other ‘80s series, Florida Firefight starts off with the hero’s origin story (it seems to me that most men’s adventure series in the ‘70s dispensed with origin stories). We meet tough Chicago cop James Hawker, a 34-year-old SWAT captain, as he’s got a Guatemalan terrorist in his crosshairs. The terrorist has abducted several rich teenagers from a local private school. But instead of blowing away the terrorist, Hawker must wait for confirmation to shoot – political red tape and all the usual stuff.

But when the terrorist starts blowing kids away, including one athletic-looking young man, Hawker cancels his ticket with a headshot. Hawker is later called out for ignoring rules, and he quits the force in disgust. This is hard for Hawker, who almost became a professional baseball player, as he was raised by a cop, his father having come to the US from Ireland (where Hawker was born) and starting up various neighborhood crime watches. (Hawker’s dad, by the way, was eventually himself killed by the criminals he was patrolling against.)

There’s a great part early in the book that lets the reader know they’re in for a good ride: coming across a group of punks who are attacking an elderly couple in a park, Hawker beats the shit out of them…and then, seeing how the old man’s dignity has been robbed, puts his hand around the throat of one of the punks and whispers to him that he’s going to let the old man kick his ass. The punk has no choice but to comply, and there follows a humorous but satisfying bit where the old man starts kicking punk ass, literally.

The novel really gets rolling when Hawker is invited to the mansion of Jacob Montgomery Hayes, one of the richest men in the city. It turns out that Hayes was the father of the boy who was killed by the Guatemalan terrorist in the opening sequence. Hawker knows this going in, having done his homework via RUSTLED, a PC program created for him by a hacker acquaintance. Florida Firefight is interesting in how prescient it is; White clearly understood how important computers and data and hacking would all soon become.

The series appears to play things mostly straight, with the only pulpish flair being Hayes himself. The millionaire, you see, wants to stab back at crime, and he wants Hawker to work for him as like his personal mercenary. Hayes offers Hawker limitless funding if he will accept his offer to wage a one-man war on crime and terrorism and whatnot – Hayes will provide the money and the armament, and Hawker will have freedom to chose what battles he wants to fight. Hawker, excited at the prospect, quickly accepts.

Hayes already has a first mission to propse to Hawker: down in Mahogany Bay, deep in the Florida Everglades, something strange appears to be going on. Hayes used to fish down there, and his old friend, the owner of the Tarpon Inn, has intimated that things have gone to hell. Long story short, the place has been taken over by Columbians, who are using the remote fishing town as a base for their drug-smuggling ventures.

I’ve read that White’s Doc Ford books take place in a fictional analogue of Mahogany Bay, but here he has Columbians overrunning the real place. It also appears that White is from this area, and is a well-known regional writer, so I’m betting there are a lot of in-jokes peppered throughout Florida Firefight. At any rate he really brings the place to life, with the small town populace living in fear of the invading Columbians. In fact, the whole thing sort of has the feel of Death Wish III, only with Columbians instead of street gangs.

White is also one of those authors who brings more of a hardboiled feel to the novel rather than an action-packed, men’s adventure-style vibe. The guy can really write, and has a gift for dialog and humorous exchanges. What you miss though is the OTT feel of the genre, with White keeping it all realistic, to a point. There’s also no gore or much violence, even though lots of people die. But when Hawker shoots someone, it’s all very PG-13, with the dude just falling down and no exploitation whatsoever of the carnage.

But of all the ‘80s action series I’ve read, I’m most surprised that Hawker was never bought for film rights, as it really comes off like something that could’ve been released by the Cannon Group. I guess maybe I’m just again thinking of Death Wish III, especially when Hawker gets in a fight with a group of Columbians immediately upon his entrance to Mahogany Bay.

Unlike ‘80s action icons like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, though, Hawker gets beaten nearly to death, and wakes up in the home of Dr. Winnie Tiger, a gorgeous American Indian with “haunting eyes” and “full breasts.” (My friends, all of the women have full breasts in the world of men’s adventure, and god bless ‘em for it!) The funny dialog really comes out here, like when Hawker says that “Winnie seems an unlikely name for an American Indian,” and Winnie responds, “Crazy Horse and Tecumseh were already taken.”

Winnie, who has only recently come to Makura as an environmental researcher or something, nurses Hawker back to health, and rather than the dirty doings we’d expect Hawker instead leaves and hooks up with his contact, an old friend of Hayes’s and the guy who, as owner of the Tarpon Inn, is the one who alerted Hayes of the problems down here. This guy takes off and Hawker, per the plan, now poses as the new owner of the Tarpon Inn.

Again White introduces memorable characters; there’s Graeme Mellor, the New Zealander bartender at the Tarpon Inn, and Logan, the monosyllabic cook who is a Vietnam vet. White also captures “coastal cuisine” so well that you want to go to Red Lobster or something; Logan cooks up lots of tasty-sounding dishes throughout the novel. But still, while the writing is excellent and the characters interesting, those expecting the blood and guts of the genre will be disappointed, as Florida Firefight is more of a slow-burning affair.

First Hawker repairs the sense of dignity that has been robbed the townspeople by starting varoius programs to rebuild the Tarpon Inn and to bring more tourists down to the once-scenic location. Things only come to a boiling point when an Inn waitress is killed, outside of Winnie’s house – the retribution Hawker knew would be coming, giving how Winnie came to his aid Hawker’s first day here. Hawker finds Logan crying over the woman’s corpse; the two were an item.

Hawker has begun to suspect someone else is down here in Makura, scouting out the Columbians, and he thinks it’s Logan. So, here begins this joke where Hawker will keep telling Logan that Hawker “knows” Logan’s with the FBI or whatever, and Logan will constantly respond with, “I’m just a cook.” Yes, exactly the same joke and setup as Steven Seagal’s later film Under Siege. And, just like Seagal’s character, Logan turns out to be an asskicker of the first order, going with Hawker on his climactic raid on the Columbians.

While there isn’t much blood or guts, White surprisingly doesn’t shirk on the sex – Winnie Tiger doesn’t have as big a part in the narrative as the reader might first expect, but she does become the genre-mandatory easy lay for our hero. White writes an ensuing scene that’s both erotic and funny, with the banter still being exchanged while the two are going down on each other. It’s a sequence that goes far but not too far – I mean, we aren’t talking William W. Johnstone sleaze, but at least it packs more of a punch than what you’d read in say a Gold Eagle publication.

White also builds up more of a threat when Hawker finally deduces that, Invasion U.S.A. style, these Columbians are not only smuggling drugs, but also using Makura Bay as a base through which they will begin to infiltrate the United States. And, just like in that film, they’re being funded by the goddamn Soviets. Still White holds back on the carnage, with Hawker first flying to DC to meet with the Columbian diplomat who is apparently funding the terrorists. Here again White proves his mastery of bringing minor characters to life.

But when the sparks do fly, they are expertly done; as the townspeople, armed with clubs, launch an attack on the Columbian stronghold, Hawker lies in shadows with a sniper rifle. Only when the Columbians begin firing does Hawker kill anyone, and from there it’s straight into that ‘80s action vibe we all so enjoy. Hawker and Logan become a two-man destruction squad, blowing away hordes of AK47-toting Columbian terrorists – the same terrorist faction, we soon learn, that the Guatemalan terrorist back in Chicago was a part of.

There isn’t much overly-detailed gore, but lots of violence as many Columbians meet their bloody ends, including a memorable bit where Hawker, holed up on a yacht, hits them with White Phosphorous. White does cop out a bit on the finale; all along we’ve been told a guy named Medelli is behind the Makura Bay infiltration, but when Hawker storms the command post of the Columbian ship he finds Medelli already dead, that Columbian diplomat there, holding a smoking gun.

Turns out this guy is the true leader, and there follows lots of action-halting exposition where we are informed that Medelli was a traitor and etc. More reveals ensue as a friend turns out to be an enemy (spoiler alert: we learn at the end that Winnie is actually the daughter of the diplomat, though she does claim she’s in love with Hawker), and we also find out that the mystery “government man” isn’t Logan after all (spoiler alert: it’s Graeme).

Speaking of Logan, the end hints that he might stick around; he’s there in Chicago with Hawker for another meeting with Hayes, where the millionaire admits that he knew these Columbians were part of the same terrorist army that the man who killed his son was part of. In other words, it was partly a revenge job. Hayes promises there will be no more subterfuge in future, and Hawker happily agrees to continue working with him.

Anyway I’ve tried to give a too-elaborate rundown of this novel because, judging from prices on Amazon, Abebooks, and etc, this book might be priced higher than the average men’s adventure fan would want to pay. And while Florida Firefight is definitely entertaining, with some of the better prose you’ll find in the genre, as well as interesting characters and humorous dialog, I wouldn’t say it justifies those inflated prices.