Monday, August 29, 2016

They Do It With Mirrors (Jana Blake #2)


They Do It With Mirrors, by Jim Conaway
No month stated, 1977  Belmont Tower Books

The second and final volume of the Jana Blake series is once again courtesy J.C. Conaway, who again brings sleazy ‘70s New York City to life; the guy was so familiar with the seedier areas of the city – and so gifted with presenting a gutter-level view of them – that I’m starting to think that Conaway might’ve been the mysterious author of The Savage Women.

Our heroine doesn’t even appear for the first 46 pages; we open with Stash, a black pimp with movie-star looks who is given to outrageous fashions. These opening pages of They Do It With Mirrors are almost a guide to grungy ‘70s Manhattan, with Stash doing the rounds of the sleazy parts of the city, including a jaunt along 42nd Street which sees him checking out a live sex show where Conaway leaves no gross stone unturned. Stash lives in utter poverty (cockroaches litter his cupboards in another memorable bit of detailing) and runs his stable of whores with an iron fist – actually, make that a sharpened knife. When he catches three of his working girls cheating him on pay, he takes his knife to the scalp of one of them to leave her a permanent reminder not to screw him over again.

The reason Stash takes center stage is because he’s gradually shaping up to be this volume’s villain; Conaway inserts a lot of faux-“API” stuff and fake news columns (most of them an obvious page-filling gambit) about the recent migration of famed blonde goddess film star Chiara Locatelli, who is moving with her movie producer husband and toddler daughter Risa from their native Rome to Manhattan. Stash you see has recently hooked up with a blonde transvestite named Honey (Stash we’re informed has “unusual sexual leanings” so it’s cool with him that Honey’s a dude), who has real boobs but hasn’t yet gotten “the operation” to go full-on woman. But Honey looks identical to Chiara, and Stash slowly (very slowly) is beginning to form an idea to make some big bucks capitlizing on her resemblance to the famous woman.

Meanwhile Jana, when we finally get to her on page 47, is still hanging out with her gay pal Charlie, who has since opened his own boutique and is trying to lose weight. Conaway shows a passing familiarity with the then-underground world of the gays and the transsexuals, so much so that you go “hmmm.” As with all of Conaway’s other novels I’ve yet read, They Do It With Mirrors even takes the time to briefly feature a gay or at least underground musical; this time we’re treated to an all-tranny revue of Grand Hotel, in which Honey plays the Jean Harlow part. But otherwise we get lots of stuff from Charlie’s boutique, how he cuts patterns and gives fashion advice, and it all shows a bit more “research” than you’d expect from the average men’s adventure author – not to make any assumptions, of course.

It’s some unstated time after the previous volume, and Jana hasn’t had a big case since. She’s still trying to hide the fact from her landlord that she secretly lives in her office, which as we’ll recalll is on the same floor as a gay-dominated gym (“hmmm” again) and one floor down from a porn film production company. Jana when we meet her is swimming laps with Charlie, and Conaway shows a complete disintrest in conveying tension; it’s all very much in a long-simmer trash fiction mode as Jana and her GBF shoot the shit and go eat at a health food restaurant. Here again Conaway brings seedy New York to life; indeed he’s almost a regular Len Levinson throughout, sometimes even giving exact locations of his fictitious locales, complete with walking directions.

Jana’s still in a relationship with hunky Gianni, the Italian dude who works in a fruit stand across from her building (and whom she has off-page sex with here – Jana’s sole such scene in the novel), however the hunky cop she was also involved with last time out isn’t mentioned this time. But friends, Jana is a supporting character at best in They Do It With Mirrors. I kid you not. She’s absent from the book more than she’s in it. Jana disappears for long stretches…for example, other than a page-and-a-half cameo, she’s completely absent from pages 78 to 158. That’s eighty pages where our heroine isn’t even seen or mentioned! So it seems clear to me that Conaway wasn’t much invested in this series or his protagonist, and basically went about filling the novel with incidental characters.

So in that regard the true protagonist is Stash, who saunters around various Times Square establisments and has frequent sex with his transvestite “girlfriend,” Honey. There’s also lots of stuff about Honey’s dreams of stardom and her appearances in various off-Broadway plays, as mentioned a recurring staple in Conaway’s work. It’s via Honey that Jana makes that brief cameo between pages 78 and 158, as Honey hires Charlie to design a new gown for “her,” and Jana happens to be in the boutique when Honey stops by to check the designs. But Stash and Honey aren’t the only characters who steal the show from the series protagonist. Conaway also spends a lot of time with Chiara and young Risa; most of the novel is told through their perspectives.

The incident promised on the back cover – the kidnapping of Risa – doesn’t occur until well over a hundred pages in. Stash, at great page length, earlier watched a lame magic show performed by a drunk, older married couple – and Conaway, not getting enough mileage out of this, actually writes the sequence twice, as Stash later takes Honey to see the show, too – and thus Stash hatches a scheme to steal away Risa via magic. Coincidence be damned, the drunk couple has been hired to do magic at Risa’s birthday party, and here the abduction is carried off. One can’t help but feel bad for poor little Risa, who is locked up in Stash’s grungy apartment with only her stuffed monkey to keep her company. Stash, wearing a ski mask, periodically brings her food, but otherwise he just forgets about her for long periods of time.

Chiara and husband receive the ransom note and the cops tell them not to play along, but the Italian couple is frantic. Also, Chiara is frustrated by the slowness of the cops in handling the case, and conveniently remembers an ad she just happened to have seen in the paper recently – an ad for Jana Blake, private eye who only handles cases for women. Thus in the last 30-some pages Jana’s finally on the job.

And here’s the unique skill she brings: when Chiara shows Jana around her apartment, Jana notices the dumbwaiter and figures that’s how the kidnappers abducted Risa. Jana’s theory is confirmed when she finds a scuff mark inside the dumbwaiter, no doubt left by a shoe – Risa’s shoe. She shrugs off Chiara’s comment that the cops already searched the place, scoffing that the cops wouldn’t know a scuff mark when they saw one, as none of them have likely ever scrubbed a floor! And that’s it, friends, Jana’s sole lead here is provided via her sexism.

Even here there’s no action or suspense. Jana just goes around the grungier areas of Manhattan asking one-off characters about a truck, Jana haviing learned from a neigbor of the Locatellis that a mysterious truck was seen outside the building before the little girl disappeared. This goes on and on, Jana calling people, visiting them, finding out they’ve sold the truck, and then moving on to the new owner.

Like the previous volume, you can forget all about that cover image of an ass-kicking Jana toting a pistol. The only “weapon” she uses here is a telephone, and she doesn’t get in a single fight. In fact Stash and Honey are chased by the cops while Jana instead saves poor Risa, who is in danger of being burned alive in a fire accidentally started in Stash’s apartment, Honey having dropped a smoking cigarette when she left with Stash to collect the ransom.

As for Stash and Honey, neither are killed – the cops chase them through the city and shoot Stash in the arm, while Honey meanwhile freaks out in a heroin trip. We’re informed via another of those faux-API news bulletins that the two have been arrested, along with the other accomplices. And this is how They Do It With Mirrors ends, with Conaway, out of space due to padding, not even bringing us back into Jana’s world long enough to say goodbye. It’s debatable if he intended another volume, but I’m betting not – it’s clear from this volume that he had lost all interest in the character, and his disinterest is contagious.

While this was it for Jana Blake, I have more Conaway books on tap…including most promisingly another two-volume series he wrote in the ‘70s about a female private eye: Meet Nookie and Get Nookie, which were published by Manor Books under the pseudonym “Ross Webb.” Oh, and I’ve since found out here that Conaway was a WVU graduate (class of ’57), meaning like myself he might’ve grown up in West “the middle of nowhere” Virginia. I’d suspected this for a while, mostly due to the WV setting of The Deadly Spring.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Richard Blade #5: Liberator Of Jedd


Richard Blade #5: Liberator Of Jedd, by Jeffrey Lord
October, 1973  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication 1971)

The fifth installment of Richard Blade is once again courtesy Manning Lee Stokes, who appears with this series to be writing his own Voyage to Arcturus. Liberator Of Jedd takes all the macho themes and subtext of previous books and brings it all so to the fore that even Richard Blade himself notes it – indeed, Blade notices here how each “Dimension X” he visits is basically the same as the last, and that his exploits in each dimension all follow the same pattern.

Surely this is yet more commentary from Stokes on his own work, but as ever the man has invested so much of himself in his writing that you enjoy it all despite the repetitive nature. And Stokes, normally known for his high-brow style, appears to have challenged himself to use even more obscure words this time around; the novel is peppered with highfalutin words and prhases that you won’t encounter in too many other Conan ripoffs, that’s for sure.

More importantly, where other writers might be content to churn out a piece of hack-and-slash fantasy, Stokes goes to great lengths to make Liberator Of Jedd something more, with Blade this time ascending from the stone age to a bizarre future, all in the same world. It comes off like an allegory or even a myth – again, very much like Voyage To Arcturus. (Which also was a big inspiration to literary heavyweight Harold Bloom, whose Flight To Lucifer was inspired by it; several years ago I exchanged a few emails with Mr. Bloom, who was kind enough to provide more details about his obscure, overlooked novel.)

Liberator Of Jedd opens six months after the previous volume, the events of which aren’t even mentioned here. These opening quarters of the Richard Blade books are the only parts to feature any continuity; here we learn that Blade ventures to Dimension X once every six months, this rule enforced by MI6A boss J, much to the chagrin of the project’s chief scientist, Lord Leighton. But Blade has had a rough go with these sixth months of rest, and is now basically a drunk, given to “satyriasis,” which we’re informed is an all-consuming drive for sex.

In fact Blade when we meet him is shacked up in a cottage in the country, eagerly boffing latest bedmate Viki (who has “spectacular breasts”), to the point that the poor girl can’t take anymore of his good lovin’ (“You have made me so sore now I can hardly walk,” she complains). But no fear, as Viki is an “accomplished fellatrice,” and thus can take care of Blade in other ways – as ever, Stokes throughout treads the line between sleaze and literature in the infrequent sex scenes.

The opening half of Liberator Of Jedd is a bit different from what’s come before; Blade is strapped into his chair and about to be sent again into Dimension X – Lord L hopes for a return to Alba – but something goes screwy and instead something from Dimension X is brought over here. It’s a “hairy demon” that almost tears the control room apart before Blade smashes it down. Gradually – Stokes as ever takes his sweet time, so that the book really does appropriate the feel of an epic – we will learn that this creature is akin to very early proto-humans, sort of like the monkey-men in the “dawn of man” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lord L will name the creature “Ogar,” after the sound it makes when hungry. Incapable of speech, Ogar has the rudiments of intelligence. Lord L insists upon studying him, leading to the strange outcome of Blade, clad only in a loincloth, living with the thing for a full month in a faux cave built beneath the Tower of London(!). Like a very bizarre sitcom or something.

After this month of bonding Ogar sufficienty sees Blade as his master, so it’s high time for the two of them to head back to Dimension X and exploit the hoped-for “mineral wealth” of Ogar’s home, wherever/whenever that might be, to of course be exploited for “H Dimension,” ie “Home Dimension,” use. But true to Stokes’s usual template, Ogar, despite such heavy buildup, is casually dispensed of, eaten by a strange beast mere moments after returning to his home dimension. Liberator Of Jedd also eschews the template of previous novels, with Blade this time venturing into more of a Stone Age than the faux-Hyperboria of earlier books. It’s a wild planet, populated by slavering, blood-hungry beasts, and the only humans Blade can find appear to be subservient to more apes, these ones more along the lines of the ones in Planet of the Apes.

Stokes indeed appears to be writing his own variation of that Pierre Boulle classic, only to change his mind midway through; indeed, these apes, which live along the coast and use humans as their slaves, are quickly cast from the book. (And they’re a sadistic bunch, too, even beating a female slave to death while Blade secretly watches and then gang-raping her corpse!) Instead Stokes focuses on a busty, nubile slave-babe who escapes the apemen, running of course right into Blade, who has sequestered himself in a hollowed-out colossal statue shaped like a man which lurks over the coast. The hot runaway is named Ooma, and when Blade catches her in one of his snares Stokes delivers one of his patented WTF? bits that are so strangely endearing – not to mention a reminder of the strange vibe of the series:

At that moment the breeze backed around a point or so. Blade stepped back a pace and sniffed at it – her odor was that of musky female secretions, natural, and not subject to the lavage of H-Dimension antiseptics. He sniffed again and felt desire rise in him. And knew that he was, at last, fully adapted to this particular X-Dimension.  

As we’ll recall, Richard Blade’s brain is uniquely suited to adapting to any dimension, thus he can communicate with the natives in their own language. He learns the girl’s name is Ooma and successfully cows her with his manliness, she being unable to defend herself in the savage wilderness. Indeed she will learn to call him “Blade master,” particularly after she tries to run away from him…and then has to come crawling back to him, more terrified of the forest monsters than Blade himself. The subjugation of the female is the central edict of the Richard Blade series, but this time out I also noticed another bit of subtext Stokes has so cleverly worked in – namely, that Blade can only fall in love with Dimension X women. This of course leads to a patented Stokes sex scene, which per his usual style goes from sleaze to profundity:

Ooma had none of Blade’s reservations. The more she caressed him the more her ardor grew. Her voice went high-pitched and her breath sobbed and whistled in her throat. She licked his body with her moist tongue and murmured words he did not understand. She stroked his swollen testicles with her fingers, performed a brief, but avid, fellatio, and then dug her hands into his hair and pulled him down atop her. She guided him into the sleek, wet, tight and rough-walled grotto. Blade was huge and Ooma small and the fricative sum was an unbearable agony of pleasure. It seemed to Blade, trying to prolong the blissful pain, that Ooma spent incessantly without ever losing her grip on him. Her muscular control was beyond anything he had ever experienced; she squeezed him and milked him and, when he could struggle no longer, she took the final gush of his sperm with a high-ringing cry of pleasure that skewered the forest night.

Blade lay on top of her, sweating and panting, still twitching and mindless, fighting his way back from the little death. It had been sex such as few men were privileged to know – barbaric and primitive sex with a unity, a wholeness, a lack of inhibition that even Richard Blade did not often come by. He was grateful. He was also wrung out, depleted, wasted and weary. His massive body was a cocoon nurturing an ennui and death-longing beyond all measure or telling. The past was blotted out, the present did not exist, the future would never be. The great lie of living was over. He could rest now. Sleep now – rest now – die now – 

Boy, no wonder Blade only falls in love with Dimension X gals! Ooma sticks with Blade for the majority of the middle half, which for the most part is a very long sequence of survivalist fiction; Blade and Ooma make their way through the dangerous forest, ascending to higher and higher terrain. The allegorical nature of the novel is brought to the fore, here, with Blade himself reflecting on the fact that, the higher he climbs on this strange world, the more advanced its people become. So that by the next time they meet foes, this time they’re of a higher evolutionary level than the apemen of the coast: these are the Api, 8-foot tall creatures that are a “cross between a gorilla and a baboon,” who go about wearing horned helmets and carrying swords (ie the cover image, perhaps once again drawn by Tony Destefano).

Here Blade has his first major action sequence in the novel; the Api are hired mercs who protect the land outside Jeddia, ie the capitol of Jedd, Ooma’s home. But the Api are notoriously bloodthirsty. Ooma is certain that they will kill Blade and rape her to death – the Api, monstrously endowed, are known to rip their female captives right in half. Thus begins the other main motif of the Richard Blade series, again aptly summed up by Blade himself: “Dominate or die.” As I wrote before, this series could almost be a balm for the rampant male emasculation of the modern day; Richard Blade, with his casual misogyny, his constant resort to “bluff or brawn,” has nothing in common with the domesticated heroes of today’s liberalized and feminized popular entertainment.

So Blade fights the Api leader, despite that the creature is much bigger and stronger than him, first bluffing that he, Blade, is an important notable on his way to Jeddia – and you damned apes will kindly keep your dirty paws off the girl. This goes on for quite a while, the Api not sure if they should believe Blade’s story or not, but it culminates just like you expected it would: Blade and the Api captain engage in mortal combat. This fght’s cool, with Blade even knocking the poor bastard’s eyeballs out before finishing him off. Afterwards it’s back to the “bluff,” with Blade, gifted with a silver tongue (among other things), succeeding in making the other Api fall for his story.

The land of Jedd continues with the evolutionary concept, as it’s somewhere in the Iron Age, per Blade’s reckoning. It’s also a dying city, the Yellow Plague having hit it recently. People turn yellow and then die cackling insanely. Blade stays with Ooma’s uncle and aunt for a while, and then ditches the girl, deciding to head on to the capital city of Jeddia – and hope you enjoyed Ooma while she was around, because she’s jettisoned from the narrative posthaste, never seen again (sort of). Instead Blade heads into Jeddia and checks out the scene: the ancient Empress is dying, and a grand vizzier sort named Nizra appears to be scheming for her power. There’s also “Child Princess Mitgu,” sequestered in her palace, who will supposedly assume control of Jedd.

Even here Blade muses how similar this is to all the other Dimension X worlds he has visited. In fact the guy is such an old hand at dealing with these situations that he immediately succeeds in his plan: gutting a few innocent guards and coating himself in their blood, he wakes up Nizra in his private chambers, presenting himself as the blood-spattered “avatar” of myth who was long ago prophecized to come save Jedd. This itself is yet another recurring theme – it’s amusing to think that all these dimensions have similar setups because all the worlds are the products of Richard Blade’s limited imagination, but the presence of Ogar earlier in the book negates that (not to mention the Russian agent who went to Dimension X, last time).

As in previous installments, Liberator Of Jedd becomes real heavy in the court politics in its final quarter, with Blade working a deal with Nizra. If the vizzier presents Blade as the promised avatar, then Blade will confer power to Nizra upon when the old crone dies. Of course, the two men will harbor great distrust for one another. When the Empress meets Blade, she tells him that, upon her death, he must marry the Child Princess and then take the Jeddians north, to the Shining Gate. Blade promises to do so; then he gets a gander at Mitgu, who you won’t be surprised is a little sexpot who likes to flounce around nude and promptly offers herself to Blade. He turns her down – due to the little fact that Mitgu’s like ten years old! But, as Blade’s Jeddian friends keep telling him, young Jeddian girls are much more mature than their years…indeed, only now does Blade realize that Ooma herself was barely in her teens, if that.

The biggest action scene is also the last one. Blade is lured into a trap, told that Ooma needs him – Blade has told no one of the girl and thus should have suspected something. But Blade, despite all that “bluff and brawn” and macho mystique, isn’t too sharp at times; more than likely this is more sly subtext from Stokes, the subtle chink in his hero’s armor. It’s a setup, courtesy Nizra; Ooma’s family is dead of the plague, forcibly given them by the Nizra-loyal Api, and plus poor Ooma herself has been gang-raped by the Api and tossed in the charnel pits! Good grief! It’s a hellish, desperate battle, as Blade and just a few loyal men are holed up in the cottage of Ooma’s family, heavily outmanned by the attacking Api. It’s a brutal fight, too, with Blade coaching his men on defensive strategy and whatnot.

As for Ooma, the poor girl’s dead when Blade finds her, but enough about her – he’s got to get to marrying Mitgu and all. Stokes at least wisely skips over describing the sexual shenanigans of the wedding night, what with his just having killed off Ooma so horribly. (Have no fear, he gets to it eventually, once he’s given his readers a moment to regather themselves – and the sex scene isn’t as long as the one with Ooma, and besides which it’s unsettling because Stokes has constantly reminded us that Mitgu’s a prepubescent…though with a “woman’s body,” of course….) Anyway it’s two weeks later and Blade has led the Jeddians to the Shining Gate, the captured Nizra and Api in tow. The Gate turns out to be a stainless steel wall – protected by a disintigrator ray!!

As mentioned, Liberator Of Jedd is very allegorical; now Blade has ascended into a future, sci-fi realm. Having made Nizra and the Api the unwitting guinea pigs for that disintigrator ray, Blade determines he and he alone is the only man who can safely enter the Shining Gate, ie the land of the Kropes – who turn out to be robots! But Blade, entering the silent, still city, is suddenly sick – he has the Yellow Plague(?!). He stumbles along, coming to a moving sidewalk, and approaches a mile-high tower fortress in the distance. A voice speaks in his mind, guiding him – a voice that claims to know who Blade is and where he has come from.

The voice belongs to a massive brain that rests alone inside a 40-foot tall metal tank on the top floor of the fortress. The brain relays it’s long story to Blade – the Jeddians of old were much more advanced, and built robots to do their work. The Jeddians would dispose of old parts, and thus tossed an old robot brain into a pond(!?)…the brain, you see, somehow kept its sentience, and slowly grew more powerful. Somehow it was able to gather the other robots together in revolt, to the point that the Jeddians were kicked out of their own advanced city and regressed over the centuries into this Iron Age.

But the brain, which grew bigger and more powerful, now has a problem – a tumor has been growing within it. The brain wants Blade to hop in the tank and cut out the tumor. In exchange the brain will turn off the disintigrator ray, open the Shining Gate, and welcome the modern Jeddians back into their ancestral home. Blade, half-dead from the fast-acting plague, hops in the tank with sword ready – and decides to hell with it. If he’s learned one thing, it’s that you can’t trust a giant robot brain that started life lying discarded in a pond. So he starts slicing and dicing, brain matter splattering everywhere – and at that moment he’s zapped back home by Lord L, who has been trying unsuccessfully to summon Blade home for weeks.

The finale of Liberator Of Jedd is given to J, who when we last see him is drunk as a lord and being shown home by a kindly police officer. It’s a week or two later, we learn, and Blade when he materialized back in the control room beneath the Tower of London was almost dead of a plague so unknown that specialists from America had to be flown in to combat it. But the old boy’s okay and expected to pull through – J you see thinks of Blade as a son, we learn this time, and has grown very protective of the guy.

And that’s that. No doubt written to a tight schedule like all the other installments in the series, Liberator Of Jedd nonetheless burns with a weird fire unexpected from the average Conan ripoff. Hell, if a known or even “literary” author had written this novel, academic eggheads would be debating the “hidden meanings” to this very day. But instead Liberator Of Jedd has been consigned to the dustbins of fiction like the rest of Stokes’s work, and more’s the pity – the guy, despite the inordinate padding of his books, the casual disregard for plot and payoff, was a damn talented writer, and I always look forward to reading his work.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Marksman #13: Kiss Of Death


The Marksman #13: Kiss of Death, by Frank Scarpetta
September, 1974  Belmont Tower

Philip “The Marksman” Magellan returns in another wild and wacky installment courtesy Russell Smith – and one that actually appears to pick up from a previous Smith entry, indeed the volume published directly before this one, #12: Mafia Massacre. This is a rare occurrence indeed, and the first time in a long while that a Smith manuscript has been published in order.

As we’ll recall, Mafia Massacre featured Magellan in Miami, where he was taking out some local Mafia scum. Kiss Of Death doesn’t pick up on any of the dangling cliffhangers from that book, but it does open with Magellan on an airplane – flying out of Miami. It’s a meager thread for sure, but we’ll take what we can get…I’ve said it before, but piecing together Russell Smith’s ongoing Marksman narrative from the jumble McCurtin made of it is almost like seeking out the Q Document in the Synoptic Gospels. Only with more sex and sadism!!

Lynn Munroe has this one as by McCurtin’s fix-it editor George Harmon Smith, mostly because Smith’s family recalled seeing this title in his collection, but I think if anything Harmon Smith only performed a few embellishments here and there – if that. For this is pure, unadulterated Russell Smith, written in the crazed style so familiar from Blood Bath and Vendetta, with short sentences of mundane description followed by wild violence and tons of exclamation points. There’s a single part midway through where Magellan briefly ponders his existence, and this brief part may have been the work of Harmon Smith. But even this could’ve been written by Russell Smith. At any rate Kiss Of Death features the Russell Smith version of Magellan we all know and love, taking people captive for no reason, murdering mobsters in cold blood, and arranging their corpses in garish displays.

It also features Smith’s casual flair for coincidental plotting, as the novel opens with Magellan just happening to be on the same flight as Joseph Fatima, Salvatore Curci, and Benito Fiori; “Joe Fat” has just gotten the other two men released from a notoriously-harsh prison in Rome, and they all are now on their way to Alberquerque via Miami (?!). Their weird intercontinental route took them through Miami, you see, which is where Magellan boarded the plane…and coincidence be damned again, he just happens to get a seat behind them. Thus he overhears their conversation and realizes these three are no doubt Mafia. Even readers willing to completely suspend disbelief will be muttering “yeah, right” at this.

But Smith only gets more brazen. Magellan’s going to Alberquerque to hang out with an old ‘Nam pal, A.P. “Apple” Locker, apparently a commanding officer of Magellan’s and a fellow Green Beret (even though Smith states that both of them were in the Marines…). And guess why Joe Fat got Curci and Fiori out of that notorious Rome prison? That’s right – to help him take over A.P. Locker’s ranch and various business interests!! Well anyway, this is a Marksman novel, after all, so it isn’t like we should expect careful plotting. Smith doubtless banged this one out in record time, following the same template as all the other volumes he’s written.

For, right on cue, Magellan hooks up with a pretty waitress, same as he’s casually and easily picked up other waitresses who became unwitting or witting accomplices of his in earlier Smith books. This one’s named Peggy “Tootsweet,” and she’s a hotstuff Eurasian babe (Canadian French and Chinese) who seems to like Magellan just fine – while meanwhile Magellan is busy checking out Joe Fat and his two Italian pals, who are dining at a nearby table. Tootsweet being Eurasian is another recurring bit of Smith’s; he must’ve been obsessed with them, as Montego, no doubt written around this time, even featured two of them. But Tootsweet, whether she likes it or not, becomes Magellan’s latest comrade, bringing Magellan info on what the three men are doing and telling him all she knows about Joe Fat, who lives nearby and is a known businessman in the area.

Apple Locker is a big dude who lives on a rolling ranch with his teenaged wife, an American Indian beauty named Snowbird who likes to walk around half nude – another motif from Montego. What all A.P.’s business ventures exactly are Smith doesn’t really specify, but at any rate Joe Fat does want this ranch. In addition the mob boss does heroin business with another mobster who lives by, this one accompanied by a lovely Mexican gal who packs a pistol. All this is just page-filling, though. As usual Smith just likes to pile on a bunch of characters with various plots and counterplots and then ignores it all by having Magellan blithely go around killing everyone.

In another bit of brazen self-thievery, Smith rewrites the scene from #5: Headhunter, with Magellan again hiding in a hotel bathroom and killing the occupying mobsters one by one as they come in to use the john. Hell, Magellan even muses to himself that he’s done this before. And the mobsters are just as dumb as ever, cluelessly sending one guy after another to see what the hell’s taking whatsis name so long to piss, and then Magellan just casually blowing their heads off as they walk into the bathroom. Goofy stuff for sure. But again this sort of thing is what passes for action, for the most part; Magellan will gun down mobsters in cold blood and then move their bodies around for no reason other than his own insanity.

And there’s no sex this time around, Smith once again leading up to it but then changing his mind when it comes to the actual sleaze. Tootsweet is super-horny for Magellan, even going out with him to his car (which we’re constantly informed is a six-cylinder Volvo) to mess around, but Magellan as usual is all business, putting the shenanigans to a stop so he can send the girl off on some mission or other. But when Magellan later goes up to Tootsweet’s hotel room to cash in on that long-simmer offer for sex, he’s for once surprised – Tootsweet calls “Joe?” to Magellan’s knock on her door. Thus Magellan discovers that Tootsweet is in fact another employee of Joe Fat, and has been monitoring Magellan expressly at her boss’s wishes.

Smith actually fills the novel with attractive, eager women; in addition to Snowbird, Tootsweet, and the Mexican heroin-dealing babe, there’s also Dusty Cummings, a sixteen year-old hooker Joe Fat hires to seduce A.P. Locker in a subplot that goes absolutely nowhere. Smith introduces the young whore at great word expense and then just happens to have Magellan run into her…then ends the chapter there and only bothers to inform us later that Magellan talked to the young beauty, figured there was something odd about her, and then just basically left! And meanwhile Locker has bigger problems on his hands than jailbait (apparently he only prefers very young girls, or something…), as Joe Fat’s men have kidnapped Snowbird and also murdered the poor woman’s dad and brother, all of it occurring off page.

But you don’t read Russell Smith for tight plotting and character depth. It’s more for the bizarre sadism, as Magellan initiates one of his typically-brutal wars of aggression against Joe Fat’s men. Probably the highlight of his sadism this time around is when he shoots one guy in the groin and then pistol-whips him, and then later ties his corpse to the back of his Volvo and hauls it to Joe Fat’s place, where he leaves it at the door. But sadism as ever isn’t relegated just to the mobsters. Poor Snowbird suffers a horrific fate of her own, as off-page she’s raped by six men who take turns with her in the back of a freight truck or something…and yet when Magellan sees her later, Snowbird’s just hanging out with Joe Fat and crew and indeed even seems to be getting horny for Tootsweet! Again nothing much ever makes sense in the world of Russell Smith.

Smith even follows his normal template for the “climax,” conveniently holing up all the central characters in one location so Magellan can slaughter them. This takes place in a bar, in which Joe Fat has a secret room on the top floor. Here he, Tootsweet, Dusty Cummings, Snowbird, the sexy Mexican gal, and other assorted enforcers all hide away, while Magellan tries to figure out how to get to them. Smith develops an eleventh-hour subplot that Snowbird, who remember has been raped all night, is getting all horny for Tootsweet – and indeed we’re informed that the two actually had some hot lesbian sex (between chapters!), with Joe Fat even joining them for a three-way! But again, all this occurs off-page. In fact the last we see of Joe Fat, he’s all relaxed and happy because he’s had sex with all the gals, up here in his little hideaway above the bar.

Meanwhile Magellan just sneaks around, once again in his “hippie disguise” (another Smith staple). He guns down various cronies who are dumb enough to leave the hideaway, and finally Magellan is able to get up there – the final image of Kiss Of Death is Magellan standing over a sleeping Joe Fat, about to blow his head off. And once again Smith ends the novel right there, no resolution on the subplot about Tootsweet’s treachery, or the whole deal with Dusty Cummings, or even any kind of reunion for Snowbird and Apple Locker.

It’s all just lifeless and perfunctory, poorly plotted and conceived, yet with that lovably bizarre quality so inherent in Smith’s work…reading his books is like staring at a car wreck. You know you shouldn’t look but you can’t help yourself.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Bronson: Switchblade (aka Bronson #3)


Bronson: Switchblade, by Philip Rawls
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

Believe it or not, the Bronson “series” wraps up with a volume that actually continues from the one before it! There goes my theory that the three books in this series were each standalones; I’d known from Len Levinson, author of the second volume, that he’d never read the first volume, the phenomenal Blind Rage (and I’m still wondering who wrote that sick masterpiece), so I just assumed that the author of this third volume, Joseph Chadwick, had never read Len’s.

Turns out I was wrong, as Chadwick demonstrates throughout Switchblade that he’s read Len’s Streets Of Blood…while at the same time he proves that he also has not read Blind Rage. Series protagonist Richard Bronson here is the same character as Len’s version, with the same background and same history – Chadwick even reminds us that Bronson’s wife and kid were murdered in October 1972, the same date Len presented. The events of Blind Rage are now relegated to what is for the most part a standalone novel, unrelated to the two books that followed it. But Chadwick appears to have studied Len’s novel, bringing back the same characters Len introduced in his; all save for Bronson’s model girlfriend, Natalie, whom we’re informed this time is on an extended vacation in Europe.

Chadwick also appears to try to write the book in Len’s style, or perhaps the authors just have similar styles. It’s just a hunch, but given the way Switchblade is written, I’m willing to bet that Joseph Chadwick was the mystery author who turned out the odd volumes of Ninja Master, starting with the third volume. Switchblade is written in almost the exact same style, with a sort of casual flair to the narrative, more focus on dialog and daily incidentals, and less focus on action, suspense, or violence – indeed, when the action does happen in Switchblade (and in those Ninja Master books), it’s quickly over. (“Bronson got him in the gut with the switchblade,” is a perfect example of the extent of violent carnage you’ll encounter throughout.) Chadwick was a very prolific author, mostly given to writing Westerns, but he also did a lot of ghostwriting on various non-Westerns, and I’m betting he was the guy who traded writing duties on Ninja Master with Ric Meyers.

At least Switchblade opens with some bloody violence, as Bronson takes out a trio of young rapists-robbers-murderers who have been hitting stores in Times Square. Chadwick quickly brings us back into the scene developed in Streets Of Blood, with Bronson’s cop pal Detective Jenkins basically giving Bronson carte blanche and leaving the job to him. Bronson is all excited to try out his new vigilante toy: a custom-made switchblade, which he promptly uses to kill the trio of criminals. He catches them while in the process of raping a woman who owns a shoe store, her wheelchair-bound husband meanwhile having been beaten by the sadists. Bronson guts one, slices the other’s throat, and kills the final one with his bare hands.

Unfortunately the leader of the goons was a white punk named “Herbie the Brain,” who we learn was the son of mega-wealthy international banker Herbert Vincet Mardin. Chadwick will spend time – too damn much time – with Mardin senior and Mardin’s hotstuff young wife Carole. The novel runs to well over 200 pages of small print, too long for a piece of men’s adventure fiction, and Chadwick proves his uncertainty with the genre by spending most of that time dwelling on the thoughts and worries of minor characters. Bronson himself disappears for long stretches of time, and his actual vigilante affairs are relegated to a handful of situations, most of them quickly dealt with so Chadwick can return to the soap opera stuff with minor charactres like Carole Mardin or Detective Harper, an uptight square of a cop determined to bring Bronson down. This sort of genre-uncertainty was also prevalent in those odd volumes of Ninja Master, by the way, but at least those books were a lot shorter.

Switchblade instead just sort of plods along. The stuff with Bronson is good, though, with Chadwick bringing back a sort of grimness to the character that was lacking at times in Len’s version – though, to be sure, this Bronson is still nowhere in the psychotic realm of the character in the first book. He gets jumpy when he doesn’t hit the street, and this time he likes to get a little more close and personal on his kills, that switchblade in particular mostly being his chosen tool of the trade. Chadwick opens up the character a bit with the introduction of Nora Foster, gorgeous younger sister of Miriam Foster, ie Bronson’s murdered wife; Nora shows up at Bronson’s plush penthouse suite shortly after his first kill in the book, basically announcing her plans to screw him.

Nora, who it should go without saying has never been mentioned before, is a dead ringer for her departed sis, but she lacks that one’s charm or maturity (at least, so Bronson muses – we readers have never gotten to meet Miriam, not even in the first book, where she was already dead when the novel began). This doesn’t stop Bronson from banging her, though. Indeed the two have sex posthaste, though Chadwick doesn’t provide details. That being said, there are occasional sex scenes throughout Switchblade; the first one he actually writes featuring Bronson and Nora is pretty explicit. But after this Chadwick instead provides the sleaze mostly through dialog or introspection, usually from Carole Mardin’s perspective, given her nymphomania. She also gets the best line in the book, trying to sway her notoriously-unhorny husband with the unforgettable line, “I’ll let you screw my backside.”

But whereas the first two volumes were sleazy, violent thrillers about an unhinged protagonist taking out street scum with impugnity, this one just gets bogged down with too much melodrama. Pretty much all of the material with Carole Mardin and her growing horniness for Bronson could’ve been cut from the novel. Indeed Chadwick shows himself to be so disinterested with the title character that he spends more time with deadbeat detective Harper, not to mention arbitrary, time-wasting details like Harper’s weird sex life (a veritable shut-in, he has sex with a lady now in her fifties who took his cherry when he was a teenager). Midway through Herbert Mardin, looking for vengeance for the murder of his “misguided” son, makes use of his impressive contacts and calls in a CIA team, led by an ex-spook named Matthews. These characters too take the spotlight from Bronson.

To tell the truth, those who enjoyed Blind Rage and Streets Of Blood would be well advised to check out the Vigilante series by Robert Lory, which picked up the “street vigilante” thread much better than Chadwick does here. Because Switchblade limps whereas the first two Bronson books hurtled; Chadwick is also guilty of telling us the same stuff over and over, like for example where Bronson confronts Herbert Mardin, putting the fear of god in him…and then we read a long scene as Mardin runs home to Carole and tells her everything that just happened – everything we just read. It’s this sort of thing that ultimately makes Switchblade a chore to read at times.

Also, whereas those first two books were all about Bronson’s street vigilante activities, this one gets more into the CIA stuff…Matthews, working with Harper, quickly figures out who the myterious vigilante is, but they have no evidence. They try to set Bronson up but end up planting a piece of “evidence” that doesn’t even belong to Bronson, let alone have his fingerprints. While it’s all cleverly plotted it’s ultimately underwhelming because, for one, it takes up a lot of pages, and more importantly two, Bronson gets off scot free just through sheer dumb luck. A hero should always have to struggle to escape danger. Chadwick does pull some unexpected bits here, like the person Matthews choses to kill in his frame-up for Bronson. We also get a payoff on Nora’s growing horniness, with her offering Bronson sex in exchange for insider info on what Herbert Mardin is planning – and assisting Bronson when he goes to Mardin’s place to finally settle matters.

Chadwick also develops an interesting relationship between Bronson and Nora, but unlike in the previous two books our hero doesn’t tell his lady what he does at nights. Instead Nora constantly asks Bronson what he’s hiding from her and then tells him the cute recurring line “I love you – sort of.” This being said, Chadwick plain just drops Nora from the book in the end, first having her take a sudden trip to Hawaii near the finale, and then coming back to New York long enough to say “so long.” Seems clear Chadwick might’ve figured he would have to write another installment and thus didn’t want to saddle his protagonist with a steady girlfriend. At any rate Nora at least points Bronson in the direction of his last kill in the book, constantly complaining about the random criminal acts perpetrated by sleazy ambassador Rodridgues of San Cristobal.

Taking advantage of his “diplomatic immunity,” Rodrigues is known for raping girls and leaving them half dead, even running over people in the street. Early in the book Bronson runs afoul of the man, roughing up one of his security men, but by novel’s end Bronson has decided the bastard needs to pay; he’s no different than the street scum Bronson normally disposes of. Thus Switchblade – and the series itself – caps off with Bronson carjacking Rodrigues, tying him up, and blowing up his car.

And that was it for Bronson, a wildly uneven series for sure, and one of these days I’m going to find out who wrote Blind Rage!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Penetrator #28: The Skyhigh Betrayers


The Penetrator #28: The Skyhigh Betrayers, by Lionel Derrick
November, 1978  Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham brings the sleaze factor back to The Penetrator; in his latest mission, which sees him venturing around San Francisco, Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin finds the time to visit a few strip clubs and cathouses – all in the line of duty, of course. And while our hero himself doesn’t get lucky (the sex scenes were whittled out of this series long ago), he does become friendly with a platinum blonde who strangely enough is almost identical to another Cunnigham creation, Joanne Tabler, the federal agent who has sporadically appeared since the earliest volumes.

This volume also sees the continued softening of Mark’s formerly-rough edges. Multiple times in The Skyhigh Betrayers he has the chance to kill someone, but goes out of his way not to – despite the fact that these people later come back to cause him more problems. This Mark Hardin sure as hell isn’t the same guy we were presented with back in #4: Hijacking Manhattan. The softening has been going on for quite a while now, and I wonder if it was because Cunningham himself had become less bloodthirsty or if Pinnacle requested that the protagonist of the series be less sadistic. While this does make Mark Hardin seem more like a normal hero, it also does make him appear rather stupid – how else to explain a part where he fights a bunch of Cuban agents out to kill him and goes out of his way to just knock each of them out?

The Skyhigh Betrayers is a bit busy in the opening with laying groundwork. Long story short, the lead scientist on some atomic energy research project has killed himself – or was he murdered? And the number one guy on the project, Dr. Brunt Maxwell, has gone missing. Apparently the project had something to do with a shielding for atomic warheads which would cut down radioactive fallout or somesuch. Anyway Mark Hardin gets wind of all this and figures something rotten is up, so he heads on over to San Francisco to find out what’s up.

As usual posing as a federal agent, Mark is able to bullshit his way into various agencies and high-security areas. When visiting the research center, he meets a gorgeous blonde-haired babe named Juliet Marshall, a woman apparently so pretty that Mark will basically pine over her throughout the novel. As mentioned there’s no sex for poor Mark this time out, but he’s really crazy about Juliet; indeed he considers her the most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen. She’s new on the project and now is mostly taking care of Mrs. Brunt Maxwell, who has no idea what happened to her husband or even whether he’s alive or not.

There’s a lot of goofy “comedy” stuff in The Skyhigh Betrayers, sort of like the hijinks you’d see in late ‘70s action movies, usually ones of a redneck bent. For example an early scene has Mark’s rental car being arbitrarily inspected by a random cop, and Cunningham ruins the tension by having Mark sneak over and disengage the parking brake on the cop’s patrol car. The cop goes running off after it and a chuckling Mark drives away. But even goofier is Mark’s sudden resolve not to hurt anyone this time around. This mostly presents itself via the appearance of Juanita, a sexy Cuban secret agent who keeps running into Mark and threatening him, with Mark laughing it off.

Juanita initially goes after Mark in a different way – when he confronts her in her hotel room, having figured out she isn’t just an innocent employee after all but really a Cuban agent – she doffs her top and offers herself to him. Instead “The Penetrator” laughs this off as well and takes his leave. Later in the book Juanita will come after him again and again, even sending some thugs after him.  The real villain of the piece is an East German agent named Thomas Ashford who is also hunting down Dr. Maxwell. Ashford is one of the most brutal villains in the series yet; his intro in the book has him torturing a Mexican dayworker in a sequence that will have the reader squirming. This opening in fact was so lurid that it had me expecting the series was about to return to its grimy roots, but it appears that Cunningham saves the sadism for the villains, these days.

The Skyhigh Betrayers is almost like a private eye yarn in that the majority of it is comprised of Mark going around the seedier areas of the city and hunting leads. Midway through he discovers that Brunt Maxwell had a penchant for nudie clubs, and Mark finds himself at a strange dive where you can buy a camera in the foyer and go in and photograph naked women. For extra cash you can feel one of them up or more in a private room. You guessed it, Mark finds Brunt’s favorite gal and gets a private room with her, and she too pretty much offers herself to Mark – not that he takes her up on it.

There’s sporadic action throughout, with Mark mostly armed with a .45 throughout, though he does finally break out Ava, his dart gun, again. By the way, starting last volume we’ve gotten “The Penetrator’s Combat Catalog” at the end of each book, with drawings and ballistics of some of Mark’s weapons, similar to the material that would appear in the final pages of early volumes of Gold Eagle’s Executioner line. This time we get to see Ava, and talk about lame – it looks exactly like a Luger! All along I’ve pictured it as some sort of sci-fi raygun-looking thing. But the bit with Ava is another indication of Mark’s softening; Cunningham introduces the dart gun again, reminding us of its lethal payload…and then Mark just carries around a .45, usually butting people in the head with it.

But Mark’s biggest and most inexplicable goof this time is his early failure in the killing of Ashford. The two first meet when Mark’s walking around a local fishing site, asking random people for Brunt, a well-known sports fisherman. This sequence, quite padded and dull, caps off with Ashford, who himself is posing as one of the fishermen, pulling his gun on Mark. Ashford gets away this time, and later – after taking out some of Ashford’s thugs – Mark heads for the dude’s house to kill him. Instead he throws a grenade at Ashford and the East German agent runs for safety; the explosion burns down the house. Mark walks off, just assuming (wrongly) that he’s killed the man! 

Cunningham was also fond of putting topical interests in his installments, as best displayed in #20: The Radiation Hit, with its trucking focus. This time it’s skydiving, which in fact leads to the (meaningless) title of the book; from the strip club babe Mark learns that Brunt Maxwell has a secret love of hang gliding, and Mark eventually goes out looking for him. This entails lots of skydiving stuff shoehorned into the book; Mark you won’t be surprised is suddenly revealed to be an expert hang glider, telling some young dude whose gear he borrows that he’s logged several hours of flight time. In reality we learn that Mark only has a passing familiarity with it, though you gotta wonder how a guy whose been on various vengeance quests for the past, what, six years would have time to do much else.

Mark finally tracks down Brunt here in the sky, and succeeds in talking him down; there follows an arbitrary bit where some random guy pulls a gun on Brunt, demanding that he race him. But the dude’s strung out on goofballs or something (don’t worry, Mark doesn’t kill this guy, either, even though the dude tries to kill Mark!!)…  Cunningham as ever has a thing for ending each chapter on a cliffhanger, no matter how lame or contrived. Pretty Juliet Marshall is also here; turns out she too is an agent hunting down Brunt, though it’s never outright stated to which agency she belongs. As for Brunt Maxwell himself, he’s super annoying; shy as a rabbit and always trying to run away.

“There’s been enough killing,” Mark consoles poor lil’ Brunt, promising that he’ll keep the scientist safe from danger. It doesn’t work out that way, though, as within minutes after Mark has located the rogue scientist, none other than Juanita shows up, toting a gun and abducting the man from right under Mark’s nose! Even here Mark refuses to kill the annoying enemy spy, instead causing her to suffer a horrendous car crash (which she apparently survives unscathed), and then planting a submachine gun in her wrecked car…for which, we later learn, she’s hauled off to jail.

Meanwhile a still-alive Ashford has done some abducting of his own – he’s kidnapped Mrs. Maxwell. Here Cunningham realizes he’s in the homestretch and starts writing Brunt as a completely different character, full of resolve and quick-thinking; Cunningham brushes off the copout by having Brunt claim that he often experiences occurences of schizophrenia or something, and when confronted by lots of stress he will temporarily take on a new personality. Whatever! At least the book caps off with a shotgun-toting Mark heading for an abandoned amusement park, where Ashford waits with a bound Mrs. Maxwell, surrounded by various traps.

Even in the finale Mark fails to kill the main villain – that honor goes to Mrs. Maxwell – but he does make off with the gal, Cunningham informing us that Mark and Juliet are headed off for vacation together. She still doesn’t know Mark is the infamous Penetrator and Mark still doesn’t know who she works for – Juliet jokes that she’s “one of the Jane Fonda Commandos” who “go where any women’s libber needs help” – but Mark figures she’s part of some NASA security force. At any rate it’s left up in the air if Juliet will return someday.

Wrapping up, The Skyhigh Betrayers was kind of middling, a bit too padded at times, with a curiously-restrained Mark Hardin acting more like the hero of a late ‘70s TV show than the bloodthirsty revenger of previous books. But it wasn’t the worst Cunningham book I’ve read by a long shot.

Oh, and that image on the cover of the dude in the scuba suit wrestling a dolphin? It’s not in the book. Neither are there any atomic lab-protesting hippies or any opium-smoking Chinese dudes. Bummer!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Soul Stealers (aka Space Probe 6 #1)


The Soul Stealers, by Charles Huntington
No month stated, 1972  Award Books

Friends, I’ve stumbled upon yet another forgotten book series “produced” by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel. Space Probe 6 ran for a whopping two volumes, both published at the same time, and came out through Award Books, which had enjoyed much greater success with Engel’s earlier series Nick Carter: Killmaster.

The two volumes were credited to Charles Huntington, and were copyright him as well, but if Space Probe 6 is like any other Engel production it’s likely Huntington was a pseudonym. If this is true, then it must’ve been by an Engel author I’ve not yet read; the closest author I can think of in Engel’s stable at that time would be Dan Streib. For The Soul Stealers is written in a clunky, sort of lifeless style, devoid of much description or spark, and does not have that professional polish so common in the other novels I’ve read produced by Engel.

Anyway, Space Probe 6 is basically Star Trek whittled down to just Kirk and Spock, with an Engel-mandatory sprinkling of sex and sadism added in. Instead of Captain James Kirk we here have Captain Matt Foyt, rough and tumble captain of the Scorpio, a barely-described spaceship which apparently has been sent deep into space to find a new home for humans, or something – again, the novel is so poorly set up and developed that you have no idea what’s going on. We’re told Foyt is a strong commander, chosen due to his heartiness (as displayed in the “Millennial Olympics”), but in truth the dude spends the entirety of The Soul Stealers either getting knocked out or sitting around in a “Detention Center” (where he also gets laid – a lot!).

Serving as the Spock to Matt’s Kirk is Ivan 3-69(M), an android who looks just like a man – indeed, he looks almost identical to Matt (average height, brown hair and eyes), which should give an indication of Huntington’s meager imagination and descriptive powers. “Ivan” is an anagram, for “Intra-Vehicular Android Navigator,” and he talks exactly like Spock, with a bit of the future Next Generation’s Data thrown in for good measure. But Ivan lacks the memorable charm of either, and for the most part is as bland as wallpaper, save for the fact that he’s a walking weapon of mass destruction:

Upon Matt’s command, Ivan could destroy an object with the deadly white omega ray (the same power used in Matt’s DSA and in the ship’s cannons); inject a dozen lethal or stunning poisons into an enemy with a mere touch of his hand; induce catatonic trance electronically; expel fatal nerve gas, virus, and bacteria; and last but not least, in a last-ditch emergency, dissolve himself in a thermonuclear cataclysm capable of completely disintigrating a land mass the size of Connecticut.

Matt’s “DSA” by the way is his Disintigrating Sidearm (Huntington is very fond of acronyms), not that he uses it much. The novel opens with the Scorpio running into “white-hot galactic waste” in deep space and having to make an emergency landing on the nearest planet. Luckily, the place turns out to have breathable air – not that Matt bothers to check any of this before leaving the ship. Actually Matt stumbles off the ship between chapters; having banged his head in the crash landing, he apparently lost his senses and wandered off the ship while Ivan was otherwise engaged with repairs.

But all this is just convenient setup so Huntington can get to the sadism more quickly. Matt is promptly captured by a pair of bland-looking humans in identical uniforms (again, the meager description and imagination, which is displayed throughout) who turn out to be androids themselves. These are the Zorrans, who rule this world, having conquered the Plantarns, ie humans. Matt has a convenient gizmo on his wrist which automatically translates any language spoken into English, and also translates his own words back into the alien language, but we’ll overlook the fact that this is a previously-undiscovered planet, so how could the language be in Matt’s gizmo?

It ultimately doesn’t matter. Matt is taken through a city in which humans are tortured and killed in public. Huntington writes as if this book were coming out through a grungier imprint like Belmont Tower, with lurid stuff here like a bound woman being raped to death by a gorilla. It’s not overly explicit or graphic but it’s sure as hell rougher than anything you’ll ever read in a Star Trek book, that’s for sure. Gradually Matt will learn that the Zorrans are “part human, a grotesque hybrid of electronic gadgetry and biology,” and they harvest the human Plantarns for their glands and other innards.

Accused of being a Plantarn spy despite his insistence that he’s a peaceful visitor from space, Matt is tossed in a Detention Center. He’ll spend the duration of the novel here. He’ll also get laid a lot here. After meeting some of the captured Plantarns in the place, Matt is quickly propositioned by pretty redhead Nyama, who informs Matt she is in her “heat period” and needs satisfaction. The ensuing sex scene lasts a sentence or two and is not at all descriptive, which makes Huntington’s focus on the rape and sadism elsewhere in the novel so strange. Afterwards Matt learns more about the Zorrans: originally created by the Plantarns to help with things, the androids eventually took over and began harvesting organs. Now they’re on a hunt for the human soul, which they further hope to augment themselves with.

Huntington opens up the novel with lots of back-and-forth between Matt and Konar, leader of the Zorrans – that is, the man who speaks for Zorr, “their supercomputer god and leader,” a massive computer panel with a large molded human head sitting on it; humorously enough, Zorr lurks behind a curtain, just like the Wizard of Oz. Konar is a little more believing of Matt being from another planet, and to get more out info of him he sends in his own sexpot – Lorya, “quite literally a sex machine,” an android programmed for sex. Will you be surpised that she looks basically the same as Nyama? At any rate, more naughtiness ensues:

The contact with her seemed to make an animal of him – he was driven to a frenzy, and she was perfect in every detail, as only a machine can be. Matt felt as though he would tear her to pieces before he was through, but she had been built to take punishment, and she lasted. Finally, when Matt’s explosion came, it was like a hot comet ravaging the deep tunnels of space.

Meanwhile Matt makes contact with Ivan – who himself is promptly captured. As if showing how bored he is with the entire affair, Huntington now has both captain and android in the Detention Center, but gradually Konar and the Zorrans want to get Ivan over to their side, mostly because they’d discovered he’s such a kick-ass android, what with those lasers that shoot out of his hands and stuff. So while Matt continues to sit around in the Detention Center, occasionally having more barely-detailed sex with Nyama, Konar and the Zorrans court Ivan, making him a general in their army. Huntington doles out a half-assed subplot where Ivan might be interested in joining the Zorran cause, what with him being a fellow android and all.

More sadism is displayed with periodic trips to the various experimentation rooms, where a sickened Matt sees Plantarn women put through various tortures, usually of a sexual nature. He also finds trash bins filled with Plantarn corpses, their innards harvested for Zorran use. It’s all very nightmarish, yet it’s all undone by the fact that Matt is such a cipher that you could care less about him, much less become concerned for him. There is I say a general air of “who gives a shit?” to the entire book.

But some of it’s so dumb it’s funny. Lorya is sent to Matt yet again, for another paragraph of sex, but this time the android appears to get off on it – another half-assed subplot has these Zorrans yearning to achieve real feelings, or something – and after the whopping orgasm she begs Matt to take her with him, beings that she’s in love with him. Then the Zorrans remote-control kill her and smoke comes out of her mouth! The sex scenes are themselves pretty funny, like yet another Matt-Nyama bout, while they’re still in the Detention Center:

And then Matt united with his Plantarn girl, and they both sucked in their breath at the pleasure of entry. Matt forgot the escape plan and Konar and Ivan’s separation from him, and thought only of the warm, writhing girl under him. And it was more beautiful than either of the other times, a space probe adventure of its own, finite and infinite, temporal and eternal, a thrusting, plunging, fulfillment of universal desire.

After over a hundred pages of sitting around (and getting lucky), Matt finally escapes the Detention Center, Ivan, Nyama, and other Plantarn redshirts in tow. Armed with his Disintigrator gun, Matt vaporizes several Zorrans, but there’s a lack of gore here, given that heads and whatnot just evaporate when Matt shoots them. From there the book becomes this drawn-out sequence of military fiction where Matt, in the Scorpio, leads the Plantarn forces in revolt against the Zorran overlords, crushing them. This all goes down in like six or so pages – not to mention a farewell boff from Zyama, who gamely enough accepts that Matt will leave her after all this is over.

Matt kills Konar in a belabored fight, and the Zorran cause is in ruins, and that’s that – Matt and Ivan strap themselves into Scorpio and blast off for their next (and last) adventure, in Nightmare On Vega 3. Boy, The Soul Stealers is 156 pages of tedium, a rare miss on Lyle Kenyon Engel’s part, and having read the book I can say there’s absolutely no mystery why it didn’t last beyond two installments.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Hunter #2: Night Of The Jackals


The Hunter #2: Night Of The Jackals, by Ralph Hayes
February, 1975  Leisure Books

John “The Hunter” Yard returns in another globe-trotting adventure that takes place “about a year” after the first. Author Ralph Hayes tones down the action barrage this time, instead turning out what for the most part reads more like a private eye yarn, at least so far as Yard’s incessant searching for his prey goes.

Something about this series hasn’t clicked for me yet; the writing isn’t bad, and the characterization is pretty good in comparison to the genre average, but at the same time the series just doesn’t excite me much. Maybe it’s because it’s all so standard, despite the fact that its hero is a big game hunter based out of Nairobi. Hayes, as with the first volume, doles out a very standard tale, with nothing crazy or outrageous or very memorable – the craziest this series has gotten was in the first pages of the previous book, where a woman’s newborn baby turned out to be some hirsute monster.

But I can’t really criticize a book for playing it straight or safe – Hayes basically just turns in a no-frills adventure yarn, which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for. As ever the highlight here is the camaraderie between John Yard and pal Moses Ngala, a Keyan native who spent time as a cop in London and still goes about calling people “old man.” Unlike other men’s adventure authors of the day, Hayes does not constantly mention that Moses is black, and there is none of the cloying, maudlin sap about their friendship which would be mandatory in today’s PC-ridden world. However, this volume has the pair going up against a hardcore racist – so racist in fact that he’s a former Nazi.

Ernst Rohmer is the villain of the piece, currently serving on loan to the US Army as a jungle warfare instructor at a base in Georgia. Rohmer is in his early 50s and started his military career in the SS, where he served in battle and in the death camps. Afterwards he sold his services to the highest bidder, finding his best match with the Syrian army, whose leaders were very happy with Rohmer’s mania for murdering Jews. Rohmer also fought for the ARVN in Vietnam, where he carried out mass atrocities, including the massacre of an entire village: men, women, children. He was so infamous that even Yard, who served in ‘Nam, heard of him while he was over there.

All of this is relayed via backstory; Hayes spends so much time on Rohmer and on setting up this volume’s plot that John Yard doesn’t even appear until page 46 of his own novel. What brings the Hunter into this time is that Rohmer finally goes too far. Resenting the fact that a black man is in his company, Rohmer conspires with a redneck sergeant named Pruitt and a crooked stockade warden to visit the black soldier, Wendell Harrison, in his cell one night, Harrison having been sent here on false charges (after being beaten to a pulp by Rohmer and Pruitt, that is). But Rohmer goes too far, and kills Wendell – and gets off scot free.

Meanwhile Wendell’s brother Aron tries to probe the death, and for his trouble is nearly beaten to death, too. Turns out though that Aron, years before, met Moses Ngala. He doesn’t seek out the man, though; instead, Aron makes the decision to leave “the white man’s world” and move to Lagos. There he just happens to run into Moses, visiting here from Nairobi in his hunt for a jewel thief. After busting his man, an Indian criminal, Moses takes Aron out for a beer and listens in dismay to his terrible story.

Moses returns to Nairobi and presents the tale to Yard, who meanwhile has been going about his big game hunting. The question is whether these two want to return to hunting men, something they haven’t done since the previous volume. Yard is unsure, but when a persistent jackal ends up attacking his property again, Yard realizes that something must be done about all predators, because they never just go away by themselves (Liberals, take note!!). Hayes by the way is very good at thematic work, and this is just one such example – not to mention the angle of the entire series, which has Yard “hunting” his prey across the globe.

Given the elaborate scene-setting, this means that Night Of The Jackals doesn’t devolve into one overlong action scene after another, as the previous volume did. Indeed, there are only a few action scenes this time around, and Yard doesn’t get in a brawl with every person he encounters, like last time. Sometimes this is actually a detriment, like when Yard and Moses get to Georgia and learn that not only has Rohmer left the service (headed to Syria by way of Paris), but also his flunky Pruitt has moved off to another base! This sucks because you really want to see Pruitt get his comeuppance. 

Instead Yard must satisfy himself with beating Maddox, the corrupt stockade warden, to a pulp. Meanwhile Moses scores with a pretty black nurse who works on the base, but as ever Hayes is shy with the details. The hardest material we get here is, “There was gentle moaning from her lovely throat, and the fiery touch of hot thigh, and the enveloping oven of her, and then the sweet, violent song of love between them.” Enveloping oven?? She might want to get that checked out. 

The globe-trotting of the previous book is still here, though, and soon Yard and Moses are in Paris, where they find that yet again they’re too late. Rohmer has already gone on to Syria. But they have no idea where. Moses eventually meets a money-hungry bellhop who claims to know where the sadist is in Syria; there follows a long scene where the bellhop meets Moses at a boxing match and Hayes fills pages about the boxers and their match. Also Moses ends up having to get rough with this guy, after all, and ultimately discovers where in Syria Rohmer has gone.

Rohmer is in the Golan Heights area of Syria, where he can live out of his dream of killing Jews – we learn that he has a long history of helping the Syrians fight Israel, and thus is beloved by the Syrians for his zeal. Rather than taking the bastard out, Yard and Moses pretend to be mercenaries from Canada who have come down here looking for positions in Rohmer’s unit. Rohmer accepts them grudgingly, offering Yard a high post but Moses a menial one – he tries to hide his hatred of blacks from the Syrians, who appear to be all for his anti-Semitism but don’t appreciate his hatred of black people(!?).

“This group is essentially a terrorist group,” Yard sums up Rohmer’s unit, eerily predicting the nightmarish terrorist group which runs Syria in reality in the present day. Hayes seems to have done his research on the area, or perhaps even visited it, briefly but capably bringing the desolate place to life. He also caters to the men’s adventure mandate by having Yard get lucky, hooking up with a pretty Arabic dancer who sometimes serves as Rohmer’s mistress. Once again it’s not explicit in the least, “He took her savagely” being the extent of it. (After which she demands twenty bucks!)

The final third is kind of baffling, as Yard and Moses go through the motions of serving in Rohmer’s Jew-hating military squad…apparently they haven’t yet decided he truly deserves death and are just biding their time? Once Yard gets more details on the horrible atrocities Rohmer has committed, he decides (again) that the sadist deserves to die – but first he has to secretly radio word to a nearby village in Israel that Rohmer plans an ambush on the place, a “practice run” for his troops.

During the melee, in which an Isreali military squad successfully prevents Rohmer’s “surprise” ambush, Yard and Moses try to kill Rohmer, but fail. They get back to base in Syria and the dumbasses are surprised when they’re pulled out of the lineup and thrown in prison – someone saw their treachery. Now the book becomes torture-porn as Yard is by turns beaten savagely (while nude) and interrogated by Rohmer (while still nude). It goes on for too long, but finally culminates with Yard killing a guard with his bare hands and escaping.

Rather than the big action climax of the previous book, Night Of The Jackals instead finishes with Yard and Moses chasing Rohmer across the desert, where they engage him and his two men in a firefight. Rohmer is given an anticlimactic sendoff, accidentally stepping on a land mine Yard has planted. And that’s it; our two heroes drive off to get something to eat(!) and figure out how they’re going to get over the border into Isreal while wearing stolen Syrian military uniforms.

Night Of The Jackals is passable, pretty standard action-pulp fare, but as I wrote above I’ve still failed to drum up much enthusiasm for this particular series. We’ll see if that changes with ensuing installments.