The Revenger #5: City For Sale, by Jon Messmann
February, 1975 Signet Books
If you want a little philosophy with your blood and guts, The Revenger is for you – Jon Messmann doesn’t let the little fact that he’s writing the fifth installment of a mob-busting series deter him from indulging in frequent and lengthy digressions on man’s inhumanity, free will versus fate, and even the occasional quote from Ecclesiastes. And yet despite all this, I do enjoy the series, with the caveat that you really have to be in the mood for it, because if you want fast-moving action you’d better look elsewhere.
There’s no pickup from the previous volume, but hero Ben Martin is still in New York, finding himself unable to leave. Now he serves as the foreman of a construction crew, and he’s gone back to using his real name – so much for the various cover identities he was using. Ben now considers killing mobsters “as natural as breathing;” it’s not something he burns to do, as in previous installments, but something fate often places in his lap. Like for example how he’s noticed a bunch of mobsters have been spying on a lovely young women who lives across the street from Ben’s construction site; Ben knows the men are hoods and has monitored them as they’ve monitored the girl over the past week.
Meanwhile, in what will prove to be a related plot, two Mafia gunners storm into a coutroom and massacre eleven people, including the judge. (Somehow they’re able to use a “silenced Magnum revolver,” which the uncredited cover artist has gamely illustrated.) The young woman being watched will turn out to be the daughter of another judge: her name is Carola Cozzi, and her dad is a judge who is known for cracking down on the mob. Ben is spurred into action when the mobsters finally make their move and abduct Carola, throwing her in their car and driving off. Here we see that the Revenger doesn’t mess around; he bumps into their car with his own, making it look like an accidental fender bender, then guns them down with his .38 revolver.
Surprisingly, Ben’s saving of Carola doesn’t lead to the hot and heavy sex scene you might inspect. Instead Messmann goes for more of a realistic depiction, with a shocked Carola asking Ben if he’ll stay the night so she can feel safe…and then Ben leaving when he sees she’s fallen asleep. This part’s kind of funny because Ben’s certain the Mafia won’t try for Carola again that night because “it’s not their way.” Yet throughout City For Sale Ben is constantly surprised by the unexpected tactics of the Mafia as represented by its latest boss, nutcase Johnny Lupo.
As Marty McKee so accurately notes, Lupo brings to mind Henry Silva to such a degree that Messmann must have been thinking of him when writing the character. Lupo’s taken over the New York action and has grand ambitions – he wants to rule the city itself, and has put together a mysterious plan to make this mad dream a reality. The courtroom massacre and the attempted abduction of Carola Cozzi are only pieces of the puzzle. Lupo dreams big, taking only the occasional break to explicitly screw his favorite girl, a redhead with “big tits” named Linda Akins who knows a good thing when she has it, and thus does her best to stay in Lupo’s graces.
Returning from the previous volume is Captain Leo Hendricks, who now acts as Ben’s unofficial supplier of info, weapons, and whatever else he might need to quash Mafia scum. Through Hendricks Ben learns that the murdered judge was actually on the Mafia payroll, which makes Lupo’s plot all the more mysterious. And Hendricks is sure Lupo is up to something, though he’s of course unable to do anything about it. Thus he uses Ben as his one-man army, getting Ben whatever he needs and helping him out. Don’t expect any major-duty firepower, though; true to the ‘70s crime genre, Ben Martin solely uses revolvers. This time it’s a .38 and a Colt Cobra.
Messmann spends more time on the mystery of Lupo’s plot and its unraveling as caused by Ben Martin’s presence. He also builds up the Ben-Carola relationship, keeping them out of bed until well past the middle of the book. However Carola doesn’t do much to make herself rise above the other female characters in the series; she comes off as a little one-note and boring, despite a fondness for scuba diving. She of course quickly gets her hooks in Ben, falling in love with him, though she knows from the start that he’ll end up hurting her. As ever Messmann writes their eventual sex scene fairly explicitly, though it’s not as hardcore as I recall the previous volume being.
One can’t accuse Messmann of not fully exploiting the angst and thoughts of his protagonist. City For Sale is literally stuffed with Ben’s musings on this or that weighty subject. And yet sometimes there is an impact to such material, like when Ben meets Captain Hendricks at a playground to exchange info, and Ben glimpses a boy on a carousel who looks almost identical to his murdered son. Messmann handles this well, not veering into the maudlin, and thus it actually makes an impression on the reader. But as mentioned Ben Martin is no longer fueled by the quest for revenge, and he just kills mobsters because it’s what he does. There is almost a Zen sort of vibe here, not that Messmann goes into that angle – one of the few angles he doesn’t go into.
But anyway, there’s a lot of musing and pondering over Ben’s growing feelings for Carola, even though he’s found himself in this exact same scenario for four volumes now – meeting and developing feelings for some new babe, all the while telling himself he can’t get involved and whatnot. And of course there’s no mention of what happened to his previous flings, other than a random moment when he thinks of something Valery Alwyn, from back in the second volume, once told him. Messmann doesn’t even bother explaining who she was, expecting his readers to remember her.
Unlike those previous gals, Carola gets slightly involved in the action; after an aborted infiltration of Lupo’s townhouse, in which Ben doesn’t find anything to figure out what the bastard is up to, he has a flash and realizes that Lupo’s hiding something in the water somewhere. And as luck would have it, Carola is a scuba diver. Ben retains her services to dive into a lake in the Catskills at night, and down there she finds all of Lupo’s hidden blackmail material. This is a nice part in which the mobsters almost get the jump on Ben, but he and Carola are able to escape, and later figure out that Lupo has stuff on all the city’s elite. He intends to take over the city in this way.
The finale is probably one of the best in the series, so it’s nice to see Messmann hasn’t gotten burned out five volumes in. Taking place at the Statue of Liberty late at night, it plays out on a nicely-done suspense angle. There have been various reversals and turnarounds at this point, and Messmann brings everything together fittingly. We also get a nice confrontation between Ben and Lupo, with the latter trying to lure Ben up the darkened stairs in the statue. I like it that Messmann gives Lupo a proper sendoff, because at this point you want to see him dead, however I did feel that Lupo was kept off-page a bit too much.
It’s funny; like the other volumes of the series City For Sale is deceptively slim. It’s only 144 pages, but man does it have some small and dense print. So what I mean is it isn’t a fast read by any means. I’ll be sorry to see the series end with the next volume, but at the same time I can see how all the heavy pathos could get tiresome if prolonged.