Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The Gang

The Gang, by Herbert Kastle
December, 1976  Dell Books

This was the first of two paperback originals Herbert Kastle published through Dell; most of his previous novels had been hardcovers. Given the late ’76 date I’m going to assume it was the oil crisis that resulted in this book being paperback only; it’s my understanding that the crisis caused publishers to revisit their entire lines, in some cases outright canceling them – the fate that befell most men’s adventure novels at the time. I guess it was only a temporary setback for Kastle, as by 1979’s awesome Ladies Of The Valley he was back in hardcover (though the paperback was also published by Dell). 

Back in 2013 I reviewed Cross-Country, the novel which preceded The Gang. As I mentioned in my review, Cross-Country started off a sort-of trilogy, with The Gang being second and Death Squad, Kastle’s other Dell PBO, being the third. However the only thing linking the novels is Detective Sergeant Eddy Roersch of Manhattan West Homicide; the events of Cross-Country aren’t even mentioned in The Gang, so reading that book first certainly isn’t necessary. In fact someone just picking up The Gang would have no idea it even is a sort of follow-up to a previous book. However there is a bit of a benefit in reading the books in order; for example, we learn here that Roersch, a 58 year-old widow, has married the former hooker who lived down the hall from him, and is about to have a baby boy with her. In Cross-Country it was established that Roersch was starting to feel more for the former pro, Ruthie, than just the occasional freebie. 

I knew something was up when Roersch was happy in his intro; no one’s happy in a Herbert Kastle novel. I’ve read a few of the guy’s books and I love his writing, but I can’t help but feel that Herbert Kastle himself was one unhappy guy. The theme is constant in his books of rage boiling just below the surface, of people ready to lash out. His protagonists are most always unlikeable pricks…like the rapist stalker protagonist in Hot Prowl. Not to read too much into the book, but one of the protagonists of The Gang is a novelist who decides to live out his crime novels by going on a kill-spree rampage. In fact I think there was a similar subplot in Ladies Of The Valley, with a screenwriter who was a serial killer or somesuch. 

Well anyway, in my earlier reviews of Herbert Kastle I wasn’t yet aware of the work of Lawrence Sanders. Now that I have read a few of Sanders’s novels and researched some others of his I plan to read, I can’t help but suspect that Kastle, like many other crime writers of the day, was influenced by Sanders…particularly The First Deadly Sin. Kastle’s style even seems similar to Sanders’s in The Gang, mixing a methodical police procedural with lurid elements. This of course is a good thing; I’m just noting, not criticizing. But then again it could just be a coincidence. It’s just that the milieu, the focus on actual detecting instead of “cop movie” style escapades, and the periodic detours into graphic sex seem to be what put Lawrence Sanders on the map. But I guess Sanders just had a better agent, as his novels were all bestsellers and Herbert Kastle’s came out as a paperback original. 

But as I’ve said before, I prefer paperback originals, if for no other reason than the cover art, which is always better than hardcover cover art. The cover for The Gang is especially cool, but uncredited. Also a bit misleading, as the lead female character, Cynthia Derringer, has dark hair. And, unfortunately, she does not wield an Uzi at any point in the story. But otherwise one of the best covers ever, and surely had to move at least a few units in December of 1976. Or maybe not, as The Gang only received this paperback printing in the US (I think it came out in hardcover in the UK, where Kastle had more fame, it seems – in fact his last novel was only published there), and now appears to be entirely forgotten. 

So back to the unlikeable protagonists. Roersch is not the main character in The Gang, which again brings to mind the work of Lawrence Sanders, in how his cop character Edward X. Delaney would be the protagonist in some novels, like The First Deadly Sin, but a minor character in others, like The Anderson Tapes. Note even the same first names for these characters: Eddy Roersch and Edward Delaney. Well anyway, Roersch does feature in much of The Gang, and is the only thing akin to a hero we get in the novel…however he has no real interraction with the main plot, despite Kastle’s valiant struggles to make it seem as if he does. Indeed, Roersch could be entirely removed from the novel and the plot would not be impacted…Kastle ensures we understand this, for some curious reason, often reinforcing how Roersch is “too late” to change the tide in several situations. 

The actual “heroes” of the book are the fucked-up losers who make up the titular Gang. A big problem with the novel is how implausible all this is, though. In fact there were times I was wondering if Kastle was spoofing Sanders, even down to the bloated page length…I mean The Gang is “only” 316 pages, but good gravy does it have some small and dense print. It sometimes seemed that no matter how dogged an effort I was putting into the reading, the book still wouldn’t get any closer to the end. And that’s the other thing…The Gang isn’t very enjoyable or entertaining. It’s kind of ridiculous and hard to buy, and not helped by its rushed conclusion. One almost gets the impression that Kastle himself didn’t believe in the book and was just bulling his way through it. 

So here is the plot: A quartet of people who have been screwed over by life in various ways decide to become “The Gang” and pull a series of violent robberies across the country, with the intent of heisting enough money to go off to South America and live like kings for the rest of their lives. But they aren’t professional thieves or even criminals…save for one of them, 17 year-old Mark Corman, who is a criminal only in that he has a juvenile record for breaking and entering and other stuff that he now regrets. His backstory is what brings Roersch into the tale, though it’s a bit hard to buy. The belabored setup has it that Mark got pulled into the robbery of a jewelry store in Manhattan in which the owner was killed, not by Mark, and Mark freaked out and took off, leaving his two comrades behind. Roersch gets the case, and given his Columbo-esque detecting abilities soon figures there’s more to it than a simple robbery gone wrong, and indeed there is. Though it has no bearing on the major plot per se. 

Meanwhile Mark’s dad, Manny Corman, a promoter gone to seed who lives in Los Angeles and hasn’t seen his son in six years, has fallen in with Bert Brown, a successful novelist in his 40s. The two men each have a casual sex thing going with hotstuff brunette Celia Derringer, a beauty with “balloonlike tits” and a “big” rear who is the kept mistress of a famous bandleader in LA. Yes, it’s all very convoluted. But long story short, Celia’s also got a thing going on the side with Bert and the bandleader suspects her – rightly, it turns out – of whoring, and has been keeping tabs on her, and shows up while she and Bert are mid-coitus. This leads to a violent confrontation in which, typical for a Kastle character, Celia’s latent rage is unleashed in full force. 

These four characters (Manny, Mark, Celia, and Bert), now on the run from the law – Manny because he’s gone on the lamb to help his son – decide to become “The Gang,” all an idea of Bert’s. The brains behind the group, Bert convinces them to form a “family,” which appears to have spawned the cover blurb comparison to Helter-Skelter. Celia herself even thinks of the Manson Family, though notes that they’re too grungy and unkempt for The Gang. But it’s all so very implausible, how these four people just suddenly decide to band together as criminals, as they have “nothing to lose,” even down to Celia becoming the “Earth Mother” for them…having sex with all of “her men!” Weird stuff for sure, and while Kastle does his best to make it all seem plausible, it just rings hollow from beginning to end. 

As I read the book I concluded that the reason it all seemed implausible was because Kastle hadn’t sufficiently set it up. Bert Brown is the originator of the idea, and we’re told it’s because he’s done some crime novels and now wants to live them out. But we’re not told anything about his books, and really the character is introduced to us shortly before he begins his criminal career, so it’s not like there’s much establishing material. Bert’s real driving force is that, a la Alex Jason in The Enforcer, he has terminal stomach cancer. The fact that he’s soon to die is what unshackles him from society’s norms and causes him to push The Gang further and further into crime. But his ensuing viciousness – gunning down a hapless waiter in an early heist – is just hard to accept. Again though Kastle tries to cover his bases; previous to this Bert was secretly a coward, and after being called out on this in the confrontation with Celia’s cuckolded bandleader it’s clear he’s driven to prove how much of a man he is. 

And yes, a theme of masculinity also runs through the novel, and while Kastle often compares and contrasts “the old days” with the novel’s present of 1976, surely he didn’t realize that masculinity itself would one day be questioned. I mean Supreme Court justices don’t even know what women are these days! I guess things were just more clear-cut in the ‘70s. One of the many subplots concerns how men can survive in this increasingly stultifying world, and also there’s a running subtext about fathers and sons. Even here though Kastle stumbles in the actual plotting, because while Manny Corman is introduced as being desperate to help his son Mark, soon enough Manny’s convinced the whole Gang idea is the only option they have…and the fact that he’s putting his son in even greater danger is just sort of brushed under the narrative carpet. As I say, the entire novel is just so implausible in so many ways. 

Meanwhile Eddy Roersch has his own shit to deal with. As mentioned he’s 58, with 30-some years on the job, and a great record with cracking cases. Even though Columbo is dissed in passing, that’s the cop Roersch most resembles, a sort of mule-headed investigator who refuses to see the “easy” case his fellow cops see and will keep sifting through details until he finds something deeper. However Roersch always “freezes” on tests, thus he’s never advanced beyond Sergeant, even though people without nearly his track record have. Such would be the case of Roersch’s new boss, Lt. Krinke, who immediately takes a dislike to Roersch; Krinke is a stickler for detail, more concerned with rules and regulations, and bridles at Roerschs’s intuition-based approach. This rivalry takes up most of Roersch’s plot, with Krinke seeming to have it in for Roersch. Oh and speaking of changing times…later in the novel a colleague informs Roersche that rumor has it Lt. Krinke might be a closeted gay, hence his animosity, and Roersch can’t believe it: “Gays in the police department?” 

The titular Gang starts small, hitting a restaurant they happen to be eating at. This is another implausible bit, as Bert realizes he needs to sort of shock the system to make the others realize that the Gang is all they have. In other words Kastle is at pains to create a twisted family dynamic, and it occurred to me that this was the same thing he did in Cross-Country (which also had characters increasingly “act crazy” at the whims of the plot). But I had a very hard time believing that Manny, whose entire presence here to begin with is to to keep his son out of danger, goes along with it, holding a gun per Bert’s order and chortling over the unexpectedly-large haul they get. From there it’s to a furtner cementing of the familial bond; Bert has it that Celia will sleep with all three men – and Celia is all game for it. In fact the novel’s most explicit sequence concerns her initial boink with teenaged Mark. 

This particular sex scene goes on for a few pages, whereas the (relatively few) others go for just a few not-very-graphic paragraphs. There’s also a weird bit where a highway patrolman inadvertently pulls over the Gang, not realizing who they are…and they get the drop on him…and Bert urges Celia to screw the bound officer. It just all seems so dispirited, and I got the impression Kastle was just going through the motions, so to speak, maybe trying to provide the lurid stuff ‘70s crime readers demanded, but his heart wasn’t in it. But Kastle certainly delivers on the lurid vibe with a random focus on sleaze – both Manny and Mark, we learn, are well-hung…something Manny is happy to learn about his boy, peeping at him over the wall of a urinal! And then wondering if it’s acceptable for a dad to talk to his son about such things! 

Regardless, the stuff with Roersch is more entertaining than the entirety of the Gang plot, even though the Roersch material lacks much action and has zero sex. It’s really just a methodical procedural, with Roersch stubbornly tracking leads in what every other cop – especially his despotic boss – thinks is an open and shut case. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a plot if there wasn’t more to the case, and Roersch’s unraveling of the web is more entertaining than the various heists the Gang perpetrates. In fact I found much of their material tedious and unwelcome. They’re just too savage to be believable; I mean on the very first job Bert is gunning down some hapless waiter. They also take up this cutesy schtick of leaving coy messages in blood or lipstick at their crime scenes; another Manson inspiration, I guess. Their hits become increasingly reckless and violent, with each member, save for Mark, becoming increasingly crazy. 

This was another thing I remembered about Cross-Country; a female character in it started acting nuts toward the end, even though she’d been relatively normal beforehand. The same thing happens here, with Celia just getting more and more aggressively schizoid, at one point almost getting “her men” killed when she starts up some shit with a waiter. (Waiters particularly seem to suffer at the hands of The Gang.) Little does Celia realize that a few armed cops happen to be dining in the restaurant, something Mark desperately tries to warn her of. Throughout all these escapades Mark is the sole voice of reason, never taking part in the actual violence; this is the thing Roersch clings to, back in New York, as he’s determined to save Mark Corman somehow. 

But the two plots never gel, despite how much Kastle attempts to make it seem like they do. Roersch, a 30-some year veteran, suddenly gets touchy-feely about 17 year-old petty criminal Mark Corman, initially just one of the subjects in Roersch’s latest case…but as things progress Roersch starts thinking of him like a father. This is another thing that upsets Lt. Krinke, leading to another face-off between the two. The cop-world detailing here is very realistic and Kastle excels at bringing to life the monotonous routine of police work. He’s clearly done his work on how the NYPD operates; perhaps his advisor was former police captain Tom Walker, author of Fort Apache: The Bronx, who provided blurbs for both The Gang and Death Squad

It's implausible how the confrontation with Krinke ultimately comes to a boil, though. However Kastle delivers a nice wrapup to this that’s touching without being maudlin (referring here to the name Roersch decides to give his son, who is born at the end of the book). The wrapup with The Gang isn’t nearly as well constructed. After various heists, The Gang is riding high – and then we suddenly learn via dialog that they’ve been spotted along a road near Peekskill, New York, shot it out with a patrolman, and are now holed up in a particular house, which is under siege by an armada of cops. This climax is basically thrust upon us with no real setup, and it’s almost as if Kastle felt the book was getting too long and decided to cut to the chase. Or it’s more indication that he himself didn’t believe in the entire premise of the book and wanted to get it over with. 

To make things worse, Roersch still has no interraction with the main plot; throughout the book he is always “too late” to do anything about the situation with Mark Corman. Again, it makes Roersch seem completely unnecessary to the novel. Hopefully he will be more integrated into the next one, Death Squad, which apparently concerns a rogue force of cops. Roersch’s storyline was I felt the best part of The Gang, which otherwise was a curiously deflated novel from Herbert Kastle. 

Great cover art, though! And also I’ll always remember The Gang as the book I read when I got Covid. Speaking of which, I apologize if any of the preceding review was hard to understand – I wrote it while I was getting over Covid, which essentially was like a bad cold for two days. But at least now I can mark “Get Covid” off of my bucket list.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Deadly Massage (Kill Squad #5)

The Deadly Massage, by Mark Cruz
No month stated, 1976  Manor Books

The Kill Squad series comes to a close with an installment that promises a lot more sleaze than it ultimately delivers; save for the narrative tone Dan Streib (aka “Mark Cruz”) writes the book in. While Streib is fond of very crude analogies and metaphors in the narrative, the book per se is pretty anemic in the sleaze department, even if it concerns the titular Kill Squad investigating the linkup between a Chinese massage parlor and the slave trade. 

First of all, this is another book I got from Marty McKee some years ago; in fact I’m reading the same copy he reviewed on his blog in 2013. It’s interesting to see a Manor men’s adventure novel from 1976, given that the majority of publishers were whittling way back on their men’s adventure series at the time. I agree with Marty that Streib goofs by once again taking the Kill Squad out of its California stomping grounds and putting it in a foreign country, which is what he’s done for the past few volumes. The entire premise is ludicrous and gives the impression that Streib didn’t know how to properly handle the series. I mean “trio of tough cops killing crooks” seems like a series that could write itself, but instead Streib’s been running on empty ever since the entertaining first volume

But then, book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel himself referred to Dan Streib as “not very good,” no doubt a veiled reference to Streib’s work on the first two volumes of Chopper Cop. As I mentioned in my reviews of those books, Streib delivered an “action hero” who was more of a wuss. And as I’ve mentioned in my Kill Squad reviews, it’s as if Streib had a delayed realization of this and doubled down on making the hero of this series an uber-macho badass…to the extent that main series protagonist Chet Tabor comes off like a hateful prick. Definitely one of the more unlikable heroes in men’s adventure…with the added kick in the crotch that Tabor’s also a screw-up, even though he himself of course doesn’t realize it. 

But the macho drive extends to the narrative tone. In fact one could almost argue that Streib is spoofing the entire vibe of the genre. This is evident in the crudity of the narrative, particularly in such weird word-painting as, “…the [Hong Kong airport] runway extend[ed] like a stiff penis,” or “Malaysia…hung like a penis from the underbelly of Asia.” We learn that Tabor’s old Mercedes has now grown “cranky…like a woman in menopause,” and also that he sometimes takes superior-officer/fellow Kill Squader Maria Alvarez to bed because “she needed that occasionally, so she didn’t forget that she was a woman.” Oh and for the first time, I believe, Streib mentions Maria’s grim ordeal in the first volume: “…a gang rape that had left her nauseated for months when she even thought about sex.” Even the first page is indicative of this uber-macho, almost-parodic tone: 

When we meet them Tabor and Grant Lincoln, the other member of the Kill Squad (aka “the black one”), are moonlighting on the “keyhole-peeking Vice squad,” pretending to be businessmen at the China Doll massage parlor in San Diego, Kill Squad home base. Here’s where Tabor’s dumb-assness comes in; so his and Grant’s task is to get these hookers to proposition them, but Tabor soon discovers his girl doesn’t speak English. So Tabor decides to take his girl – and the two Grant has grabbed for himself (just like Jim Kelly!) – and take them out to dinner!? Right then and there! So he pulls them out of the parlor and some toughs give chase, and in the ensuing shootout one of the girls is killed and the China Doll burns down. 

So clearly this entire plot would be unbelievable even in an ‘80s buddy cop film. Speaking of which, the plot of Deadly Massage is sort of reminiscent of an actual ‘80s action movie: The Protector. But the setup is even more implausible here. Essentlially Tabor, Grant, and Maria bully their “stupid chief” into letting them go to Hong Kong(!) to track down the two massage parlor girls, both of whom were abducted during the shootout and likely have been smuggled back to “the Orient.” The idea is that these two girls could blow the lid off an entire slave-trade operation running out of Red China. Streib even unwittingly brings in some identity politics presience; when the stupid chief denies the entire idea, a fellow cop – who happens to be Asian – shames the chief that he doesn’t care about the girls: “Is it because they’re Chinese?” 

So reality be damned the Kill Squad heads over to Hong Kong. It even gets more ludicrous because the local cops allow them to keep their guns. Some detail is given Tabor’s two new guns: a Webley revolver and a Beretta .380. He might’ve used these in the previous books, I can’t remember, but Streib introduces them like they’re new to Tabor’s arsenal. Not that he will use them much; there are only a few shootouts in The Deadly Massage, and nothing too violent…except when it comes to Streib’s trademark description of a woman being shot in the face. This is a recurring theme in Streib’s novels, complete with the weird constant detail of the cheekbones also exploding: 

But here’s the crazy thing about a novel involving massage parlors and sex-slavery: there isn’t a sex scene in The Deadly Massage! Tabor often thinks about banging Maria – and later in the book we learn Maria gets all hot and bothered by Tabor, too, even though she hates his male chauvinist pig guts. Nothing ever happens, though, however we do learn that Tabor briefly considers becoming a Muslim because he learns that Muslims can have several wives! This is courtesy a local named Low who happens to be “Muslin” [sp] who has four wives, and Tabor can’t get over how hot each of them are. Tabor briefly considers becoming a Muslim to take advantage of this, “before they change the rules.” Indeed Tabor’s male-gazery is so over the top throughout the book that it’s a refreshing balm to the emasculating bullshit of today’s action entertainment. 

Oh, but there’s a dark side, though: Tabor again indulges in his penchant for random racism. This, as ever, is directed toward Grant Lincoln, who curiously receives hardly any narrative space in The Deadly Massage. Tabor is as ever the star of the show, with occasional cutovers to Maria’s perspective. But Grant Lincoln doesn’t get to do much…other, that is, receive some nonsensical baiting from Tabor: “You black bastard! What’s wrong with you, boy?” Oh and we also have the “Jap killer” the Kill Squad chases to Hong Kong – meaning he’s a killer who happens to be Japanese, not a killer of Japanese. 

Streib also works in a half-assed mystery subplot on who exactly is behind the slavery ring, even though it will soon be clear to even the most unengaged reader…though of course the members of the Kill Squad take forever to figure this out. They do a fair bit of traveling around “the Orient” as well, from Hong Kong to Malaysia to Bangkok. The action climaxes in a snake temple, but as Marty notes in his review Streib does precious little to bring the scene to life. Marty’s also on-point with how a major villain is killed off-page, which also sucks. But by novel’s end the Kill Squad has cracked the case and is happily heading back to San Diego – where presumably the three of them will continue acting as a team. 

So in other words, there’s no real finale to the series here, no indication that this was the final volume. One can’t be too upset that there were no more volumes of Kill Squad, though, as Dan Streib never really figured out how to handle the concept. Which is curious, because he did a better job on the similar Death Squad series. But on a random note I found it interesting that Streib used the term “sci-fi” in The Deadly Massage, in reference to “the sci-fi sound of Hong Kong police sirens.” This might be one of the earliest appearances of this term I’ve seen in a mainstream novel…well, not that Kill Squad was mainstream. But you know what I mean. 

Finally, I’m calling bullshit on the cover blurb by “Bestsellers.” There hasn’t been a single damn volume of Kill Squad that’s been “painstakingly well-plotted,” so either the entire review is fake (the most likely scenario) or it’s been lifted from the review of an entirely different book.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Sharky’s Machine

Sharkys Machine, by William Diehl
August, 1979  Dell Books

I’d only ever heard of Sharky’s Machine, and that was in relation to the 1981 Burt Reynolds movie, which I’ve still never seen. My mom was a big Burt Reynolds fan, like I expect most women were at the time, so I assume that’s how I first heard of the movie. I was only six or seven years old at the time. I’m not sure if I ever knew that the movie was based on a novel; even over the years when I’ve gone on periodic ‘70s crime novel kicks, I haven’t come across William Diehl’s original Sharky’s Machine, first published in hardcover in 1978. But the other month – on Father’s Day of this year, in fact – I spotted this Dell paperback edition at the Plano Half Price Bookstore, for a whopping $1.75. Yes, it irks me that the bookstore chain no longer lives up to its name – I mean the original cover price itself was under a dollar – but that seemed cheap enough. 

First of all a note on the awesome cover art. I can’t make out the signature, and online searching has not revealed who did the artwork for this Dell paperback. I see what appears to be an “S” and a “V” in the artwork signature, so I’m wondering if this is the work of Charles Sovek, who did the also-awesome cover art for Dakota #3 (per Bob Deis, who identified the artwork for me). The art style appears to be similar, so it’s possible. Also of note is that this is one of those double-bang-for-your-buck covers (actually, double-bang-for-your-buck-seventy-five, in my case), as it opens into a two-page spread, featuring characters and incidents from the novel. Another interesting note is that the Sharky depicted on the cover looks more like Nick Nolte than Burt Reynolds, but of course this paperback was published two years before the film was released. Here is the interior art:

But as mentioned I never saw the film, and now that I’ve read the novel I’m not sure if I’m in a hurry to. This is mainly because, judging from the trailer, the film version of Sharky’s Machine appears to be a completely different story from Diehl’s original novel. The dialog and situations in that trailer have no relation to anything in this novel. Reading Marty McKee’s review at the Craneshot blog leads me to conclude that director-star Reynolds and his screenwriters completely reshaped the original narrative; I mean the stuff Marty mentions, with one of the villains being an Italian mobster with a psycho brother (played by Henry Silva no less!) is unlike anything in the novel. Indeed, the villain of the novel appears to have walked out of a James Bond film: he’s a corpulent sadist with a legion of Chinese assassins at his disposal, and has an inventor who makes giant robots for him. 

This Dell paperback is stuffed to the gills with rave reviews from industry publications. A funny thing is that a glance at the Kirkus reviews of ensuing Diehl novels sees the word “derivative” most often used. I say this is funny because I found Sharky’s Machine itself derivative. As mentioned the villain and his henchmen come out of Bond, the humorous “cop banter” and the cast of quirky cops are out of Joseph Wambaugh and/or Ed McBain, and there’s even a part where an audio tape is transcribed for us that could be straight out of The Anderson Tapes by Lawrence Sanders. There’s also an “Oriental menace” motif here courtesy the villain that brings to mind Eric Lustabader’s The Ninja, but that novel came later. Sharky’s Machine even concludes more like a James Bond movie than it does a cop thriller, with Sharky and his “Machine” trying to track down an assassin in an amusement park filled with giant robots. And I haven’t even mentioned the pseudo-ninjas who attack Sharky earlier in the book. 

The novel, if you haven’t guessed, is pretty pulpy (I mean that as a compliment), but it’s presented on the level, and I’d wager those industry reviewers were so kind to it because they themselves had no experience in pulp. So while I found Sharky’s Machine derivative and sloppily written, those contemporary reviewers probably couldn’t believe how exciting it was…at least when compared to the usual highbrow shit they had to review. But Sharky’s Machine received a hardcover printing, meaning those professional reviewers covered it for their various highbrow publications – unlike something vastly superior, like, say Bronson: Blind Rage – and thus their rave reviews take up the first few pages of this paperback edition. Another thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that Sharky’s Machine is also packaged here like your typical ‘70s potboiler (also a compliment), the copy and blurbs hyping the action and sex…both of which turn out to be relatively mild. 

At 479 small-print pages, Sharky’s Machine is also of a piece with the typical 1970s crime thriller. But first-time writer Diehl spins his wheels too much to make those pages count. The bloated page length could be another inspiration from Lawrence Sanders, in fact; it seems clear to me that Diehl was inspired by Sanders and looking to mimic his template. What little research I’ve done on William Diehl informs me that he was fifty years old when he started writing this, his first novel. That Sharky’s Machine is a first novel is very evident. The plot jumps around too much, too many characters are shuffled into the narrative with too little impact, and not enough is done to exploit the various situations. Also, most unforgivably, Diehl is a rampant POV-hopper, to the extent that the reader is often confused. By POV-hopping I mean when the narrative switches perspectives without warning the reader via a space break or a new chapter. 

This comes and goes, though; sometimes Diehl cuts chapters when he cuts perspectives, but in the sections with Sharky and the other cops he really POV-hops. And also the novel is several stories tied together: in addition to the tough cop Sharky narrative, we also have material on the 1975 Democrat convention, a Senator who intends to be the next President (Jimmy Carter be damned!), and the Bond-esque villain planning to unveil his massive robot amusement park. But we have to wait a while to even get to all that: the novel starts with two sort of false openings. The first, shorter one, takes place in 1944 Italy, with a GI dropped behind enemy lines to oversee a cargo drop or somesuch; it’s all maddeningly vague for reasons of suspense. Then we jump ahead to 1959 Hong Kong, for a too-long sequence in which an assassin kills a guy while he’s being entertained by a blind prostitute in an opulent cathouse. 

After all this we finally get to grizzled Atlanta cop Sharky, and from here on out the novel is set in 1975. But despite the recent date Diehl still delivers an anachronism; we’re told a character sports a Wings Across America t-shirt, but that album wasn’t released until late 1976. Otherwise the ’75 setting is mostly because one of the subplots ties in to the race to see who will get the nod for to be the Presidential nominee on the Democrat ticket. Unfortunately this stuff, and the pseudo-Bond stuff with the supervillain (whose name is DeLaroza) takes over from the cop thriller I wanted. And sure enough the cop material we do get in Sharky’s Machine is by far the best material in the book. This depsite Sharky himself, who comes off as a bit of a cipher. 

For one, I had a helluva time seeing Burt Reynolds in the role; indeed, the unknown cover artist had the right idea with Nick Nolte, who certainly would’ve been a better choice for the grim and mostly somnambulant protagonist Diehl has given us. But then, Sharky is essentially a supporting character in the novel. As it turns out, the “Machine” of the title is the Vice squad Sharky soon takes control of…or, he sort of takes control of. He still reports to a boss, Lt. Friscoe (the aforementioned guy in the anachronistic Wings shirt), who makes all the decisions. And in fact, the novel is more of an ensemble piece than I expected. Here is where the McBain stuff comes in, as Diehl spends a lot of time with the guys on Sharky’s Machine, with the typical cop banter and jaded outlooks on life and all the expected tropes. What I mean to say is, the book is not a single-protagonist thriller; there are huge portions of the narrative where Sharky disappears. And the other helluva thing is, he isn’t the most effectual of tough cop protagonists. 

This is not evident in Sharky’s intro, though. We meet him while he is in Narcotics, having lived on the streets for several months and growing a shaggy beard in the process to fit in with the underworld scum he’s trying to take down. The opening is super ‘70s with Sharky getting in a shootout with a pimp-attired drug dealer. But the shootout takes place on a commuter bus the dealer has fled onto, and even though Sharky takes him down he’s in trouble with the higher-ups for the incident. I should mention here that the novel is not overly violent, and only features a few action scenes. Also of note is that Sharky’s gun is a 9mm automatic, the make and model never noted, which seems like an unusual gun for a 1975 cop to have. Not that I minded; as I’ve said before, I don’t exactly look for realism in a cop thriller. I mean my favorite tough cop yarn is Stallone’s Cobra, and that movie’s as grounded in reality as the current administration

Sharky is reprimanded by top cop The Bat, a petty official who puts public relations ahead of all else. This is a funny scene with the bizarre bit of Sharky taking off his shoe to stratch his foot. Sharky is then moved to the purgatory of Vice, the place no cop wants to be – clearly the days before Crockett and Tubbs made Vice the coolest department of all. But here’s the funny thing, and yet more evidence that Diehl was a first-time writer; he does absolutely nothing to exploit the entire “Vice” setup, and indeed the plot sees Sharky’s Machine tackling not only a homicide investigation but even a political conspiracy. Sharky being sent to the Vice Squad is essentially window dressing, as it has no bearing on anything that happens, and even though earlier I said I don’t really demand “realism” in cop thrillers, it’s still super hard to buy how these Vice guys are able to skirt regulations and handle a homicide investigation and not let the actual Homicide Department know about it. This is where the movie appears to diverge; the trailer has scenes of Sharky being informed about hookers by the guys in his Machine, ie actual “Vice” stuff, but there’s nothing like that in the novel. 

Another indication of Diehl’s first-time writing is that he tells a lot more than he shows. This occurs throughout the novel, but particularly with the cops who make up the Machine. He clearly wants to have a McBain-esque group of memorable characters, but the problem is he tells us about them instead of displaying their quirks in action. For example, in the previously-mentioned bit where the Machine decides to buck authority and investigate a homicide without letting any other department know. Lt. Friscoe tells the guys they’re crazy if they think they can buck regulations, and then there’s a bit where Machine member Papa starts ranting and raving, and then storms out of the room. Diehl then proceeds to tell us that Papa rarely ever speaks, thus this explosion of his is shocking to the other guys. The thing is, though, we readers have barely seen anything about Papa, so it’s not like we know he rarely speaks. In other words Diehl clearly intends all this to be humorous, like we’re going to chuckle that the guy who never talks just spouted off a few paragraphs of run-on sentences…but in essence Diehl has given us the punchline first and the setup second, so it falls flat. In other words, he has failed to earn that chuckle. 

The Vice stuff that is here is actually interesting, and is as mentioned clearly inspired by The Anderson Tapes. Friscoe informs Sharky that the Machine has been tracking a hooker who has a phone sex operation going, and after tapping her line they’ve come across what they think is a blackmail scheme. Friscoe plays the pertinent recording for Sharky and the ensuing transcript goes on for some pages, very much akin to the text of The Anderson Tapes, and just as explicit as Lawrence Sanders could be. Perhaps even more so, with the hooker engaging in phone sex with some caller and all the ensuing sleazy detail…but again, not an actual sex scene. Just a lot of transcribed dialog, a la The Anderson Tapes

And that, folks, is pretty much it for the entire Vice setup. The Machine learns that another hooker might be part of this scheme, a mysterious figure called “Domino,” and Sharky comes up with the idea of having his cop pal The Nosh bug Domino’s posh penthouse suite. So yes, The Nosh, Papa, The Bat, Sharky – a bunch of quirky and colorful names for what Diehl intends to be a quirky and colorful group, to the extent that you wonder why he never wrote a followup. Oh and I forgot to mention, but Sharky’s first name is never given. Hell, “Sharky” could even be his first name, a la Shark Trager. He’s barely even described, though we learn he has a broken nose. We also learn he was in military intelligence for a bit, as in one sequence they visit an army base to ask questions about a top secret WWII missions, questioning a kooky old vet. Diehl excels in these scenes, writing a goofy spin on the average cop thriller, but there’s just too much flab with all the DeLaroza material, not to mention the material with Hotchins, the would-be Democrat nominee who is in deep with villainous DeLaroza. 

This brings us to another implausibe scenario: mega-babe Domino, a sort of modern-day Phryne of Athens, runs into Sharky, who is disguised as an elevator repairman, and falls for him. I mean this hotstuff brunette who makes her living as a super high-class hooker and is engaged to would-be President Hotchins and is the casual bedmate of supervillain DeLaroza just bumps into a guy who appears to be fixing the elevator in her apartment building and she thinks how good-looking he is. Sharky is in the disguise because he and the Machine are bugging the place, and later he shadows Domino at an upscale grocery store…where she bumps into him again. And invites him to her place for shark fin soup!! It’s one of the more implausible lust-at-first-sight scenarios ever. 

What’s even crazier is…Sharky and Domino never even have sex! Not here, not later in the book, not ever in the book! Domino bats her eyes at Sharky and the dueling perspectives let us know how attracted they are to each other, but Sharky says he’s gotta go and runs back up to the roof of the building, where he lays on a cot and monitors those bugs in Domino’s apartment via a pair of headphones. It turns out that Domino does have sex…with DeLaroza. This is the only other sex scene in Sharky’s Machine, and it’s more of an oral/handjob sort of thing which again goes for the “Oriental mystique,” Domino dressed up in robes and all that nonsense. And Sharky jerks off as he listens! Or at least he orgasms unintentionally while lying on that cot. “Soon to be a major motion picture!” 

The homicide stuff comes up when Diehl takes some unexpected directions with the Sharky-Domino scenario. This whole bit was hard to buy, but hell, they investigated homicides on Miami Vice, too. (If you can’t tell, I’ve been watching Miami Vice again.) Here we really do get a sort of cop novel, with Sharky and his Machine researching a murder, and hurrying up about it because they only have a few days until the department heads come in and the homicide has to be reported through the proper channels. Diehl again delivers an ensemble pice, with a quirky coroner also becoming a part of the team – again, Sharky himself is just one of the characters here, and the novel just as easily could’ve been titled “Papa’s Machine.” But then that sounds kind of dirty. 

But the DeLaroza-Hotchins stuff just takes up too much space. There’s also a lot of stuff about a professional assassin with fraying nerves who ultimately turns out to be tied into the opening stuff in WWII. Again though so much of it is told rather than shown. Gradually we head into the big finale, which again comes more from Bond than McBain: DeLaroza has spent oodles of money on “Pachinko!,” a high-rise amusement park with giant robots and whatnot. The name of the place, “Pachinko,” of course comes from that pinball-esque game that’s so popular in Japan. Along with Cheap Trick, of course. 

I’m fine with the sub-Bond finale, but in a real James Bond movie Bond himself will actually take place in the events. In Sharky’s Machine, our supposed hero Sharky is off-page for the majority of the climax, which instead concerns that pill-popping assassin out for revenge on Hotchins and DeLaroza. I mean really, Sharky and his Machine spend the time running around Pachinko! and trying to find the various people they’re after. But then by this point Sharky has been through a bit of a wringer; captured briefly by DeLaroza, he’s been beaten by those pseudo-ninjas, had some of his pinky finger chopped off, and managed to escape in one of the novel’s few real action scenes. So one could understand if Sharky’s a little tuckered out here in the finale. 

As mentioned, the biggest surprise is that Diehl didn’t farm these characters out into a series. Also as mentioned, I can see where Burt Reynolds and crew likely rewrote a large portion of this narrative to make it more fitting for the bigscreen. Surely Sharky was more engaged in the finale than he is here – I mean Sharky in the novel doesn’t even take out any of the major villains. But then Diehl makes curious writing decisions like this throughout the novel; I refer you again to the inexplicable non-boinking of Sharky and Domino. That one’s an almost unfathomable miss on Diehl’s part. 

You’d never guess, but overall I did enjoy Sharky’s Machine, at least when it was sticking to the “tough cop” material I wanted. I could’ve done without a lot of the political subplot and the Oriental mystique with DeLaroza. I also found myself getting bored toward the end, which you wouldn’t expect given that the finale featured literal giant robots. Then again, I might’ve been more into the crazy finale if Sharky himself had been more involved in it. But overall, I guess I have to say I was mostly entertained for my buck seventy-five.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Murder Machine (The Marksman #20)

Murder Machine, by Frank Scarpetta
No month stated, 1975  Belmont Tower 

Russell Smith turns in another volume of The Marksman that’s just as crazed as his others, with the added bonus that Murder Machine features what I’m sure is some intentional in-jokery, as well as a self-awareness that’s very unique for the series. My assumption is by this point the manuscripts Smith had written the year before were coming out in paperback, and he saw how editor Peter McCurtin was butchering them, changing them wily-nily into Sharpshooter novels, and for this book Smith decided to hell with it – he was just going to have some fun. 

Lynn Munroe apty summarizes Murder Machine as a “a schizoid read,” but he also detects the hand of fellow series ghostwriter George Harmon Smith in the work. I personally didn’t detect Harmon Smith’s style at all – to me his style is very noticeable, a sort of sub-John Gardner, with very literate prose but a tendency to overdescribe the most mundane of actions. See for example #18: Icepick In The Spine, which was certainly the work of George Harmon Smith. Murder Machine on the other hand has the stamp of the other Smith on the series: Russell, with the same loosey-goosey approach to plot, a bunch of lowlife loudmouth Mafioso who talk like rejected Jerky Boys characters, and a “hero” who comes off like a monster. I mean Russell Smith’s unique style is evident throughout the book, like for example: 

This excerpt, while displaying Russell Smith’s distinctive style, also demonstrates another new element with this volume: a constant reminder that Philip “The Marksman” Magellan will keep killing Mafia until he himself is dead. Again, I get the impression that, given that we’re already on the twentieth volume of the series, someone at Belmont Tower must’ve felt a reinforcement of Magellan’s motive was in order. There are frequent parts in Murder Machine where Magellan will resolve himself to the destruction of the Mafia, given their murder of his wife and son – an event which happened, of course, in the first volume of a different series: The Assassin

But speaking of how Philip Magellan started life as Robert Briganti in another series, and then turned into “Johnny Rock” for the Marksman manuscripts McCurtin arbitrarily turned into Sharpshooter installments, this brings us to the intentional in-jokery I mentioned above. I strongly suspect that, by the time he was writing Murder Machine, Russell Smith saw that McCurtin was publishing his Marksman manuscripts as a completely different series – see for example The Sharpshooter #2 and The Sharpshooter #3. I say this due to nothing more than an otherwise random comment early in the book. When the mobsters in New York start freaking out that Magellan’s in town, one of them says, “You remember that Sharpshooter guy from last year? Magellan’s his name?” 

Now, never in a Marksman novel has Philip Magellan ever been incorrectly identified as “Johnny Rock.” It’s only in The Sharpshooter where the “Magellan” goofs appear, or where Rock, the Sharpshooter, is incorrectly referred to as “The Marksman.” Because, of course, those novels started life as Marksman manuscripts, and poor copyediting resulted in a mish-mash of protagonist names. But after this early “Sharpshooter” mention, Magellan is consistently referred to as “The Marksman,” even in the narrative. Magellan also frequently thinks of himself as “The Marksman,” ie “the luck of The Marksman was with him” and etc, as if Smith were doubling down on the fact that he was writing a Marksman novel, but with that sole “Sharpshooter guy” bit he was acknowledging his awareness of the situation. 

There’s even more subtle in-jokery in Murder Machine: there are characters named Frank and Peter, ie “Frank Scarpetta” and “Peter McCurtin.” But I think the biggest indication here that Russell Smith was in on the whole twisted joke is that Murder Machine shows the first signs of self-awareness in the series. Another minor Mafia stooge later in the book goes over Magellan’s modus operandi, noting how the Marksman generally just shows up in a city, with no particular purpose, but somehow gets involved with the Mafia – usually due to their own stupidity – and then Magellan doesn’t leave town until he’s killed everyone. In other words, the “plot” of every single Russell Smith installment. The stooge basically implies that Magellan is a supernatural force who gets by on luck, something Magellan himself realizes. Bonus note – the stooge apparently tangled with Magellan “a year ago” (and lost an eye in the fight), in “New Brunswick,” a reference to the earlier Russell Smith entry #14: Kill!

Another new element in Murder Machine is the sudden focus on sleazy sex. Russell Smith has turned in some sleaze in prior installments, but this time it’s really over the top. Lynn Munroe speculates that this material is “grafted in from some porn novel,” but again it is similar to the sleaze material in previous Smith installments. Personally I just thought it was a quick (and dirty) way Smith figured he could meet his word count. Because of all the Smith books I’ve read, Murder Machine most comes off like a first draft that was cranked out over a single weekend, the author fueled by a steady stream of booze and amphetimines. Again this could be more indication of a “who gives a shit?” sentiment, given Smith’s recent awareness that his manuscripts were being butchered during publication. 

And just to clarify, this is all my impression – Lynn Munroe could be entirely correct that Murder Machine is a collaboration between the two Smiths, and the sleaze stuff is indeed grafted in from a different novel. Lynn performed a herculean task of figuring out the development of this series, and who wrote what volumes. To me though it just seemed like every other volume of Russell Smith’s I’ve read, with none of the literary flourishes of GH Smith. 

Well anyway, there’s of course no pickup from the previous volume, which was written by a different author. Curiously there seems to be a pickup from an earlier Smith installment, possibly #15: Die Killer Die!, as when we meet Magellan he’s flying back to the US, returning from a trip to France. That was the most recent volume of the series Russell Smith wrote, so it seems likely that Murder Machine picks up after it. As I’ve written before, Russell Smith’s books – from both series – could be excised into their own separate series, with even a bit of continuity linking them. Otherwise though there’s no plot per se, and Murder Machine is a lift of every other Russell Smith installment, following that same setup mentioned above: Magellan goes to New York, literally bumps into a Mafia thug on the street, and then starts killing them all off, ultimately wiping out a heroin pipeline. 

But Magellan’s practically a supporting character. As with most Russell Smith installments, there’s a big focus on one-off characters, all of them mobsters. There’s also a convoluted subplot about a triple-cross involving a bank robbery, heroin, and bombs. It’s hard to keep up with all this because these characters all talk the same and there’s a lot of flashbacks that jumble up the forward momentum. Also it soon becomes clear that the author himself is not paying attention to his own plot. As usual though Magellan has nothing to do with any of this, but he acts almost like a divine force in how he just screws up all the carefully-laid plans…without even expressly planning to. 

The central characters here would be Frank Savago, Manny Weintraub, and Leah Castellano – who per Lynn’s note is abruptly referred to as "Lily” for several pages later in the book, demonstrating how sloppily it was written and edited. There are a ton of run-on sentences and typos throughout, but there’s also an undeniable energy; I mean just look at the excerpt above. Oh and we learn this time that Magellan has spent “years” searching for a mysterious figure in the Mafia – indeed, a figure whose legend almost matches that of the Marskman’s: a shadowy figure called “Mister Lee.” But Smith doesn’t even bother to play out the mystery because it’s quickly clear who “Mister” Lee really is. 

Now let’s take a look at the sleaze. It runs rampant in the novel, and again could be evidence of some in-jokery. For one, there’s Manny Weintraub, aka “Manny Wein,” an apparently older and heavyset Jewish mobster who has a young hotstuff wife…who, in every scene, is giving Manny a blowjob. Even in the parts where Manny is with other characters, he’ll be thinking about his wife’s blowjobs. Oh and meanwhile we’re informed that while she is performing her oral duties, the wife herself is being orally pleased by some naked woman. All of them sitting on a big round motorized leather couch Manny has specifically purchased for sex. Actually oral sex is the most frequently mentioned topic here, particularly on the female end of the spectrum; there’s a several-page sequence where Leah has hot lesbian sex with her live-in “winsome Negress” maid (who in true ‘70s fashion smokes a joint before the festivities). 

Russell Smith takes us into a whole different world of sleaze when Leah indulges in a bit of necrophilia. Per that triple-cross mentioned above, Leah finds herself in possession of a ton of money and heroin, and she buries it all in the cellar of a desolate mansion upstate. Then she murders the brawny stooge she’s used to do all the labor…ahd has sex with his corpse: 

Magellan himself even gets laid this time, a rare event to be sure, but it happens off-page. It’s courtesy an Asian hooker Magellan gets in his hotel (as with every other Russell Smith installment, the majority of the tale features Magellan checking into and out of various hotels)…who, apropos of nothing, tries to lift Magellan’s wallet the next morning. But Magellan is only pretending to sleep, and catches her in the act. He drugs her with his usual assortment of syringes, shaves her head and “pubic mound,” and then even more randomly tapes her “from ankles to thighs” with adhesive tape, “like a mummy,” and tosses her uncoscious form in the elevator and sends it to the lobby! Just another ultra-bizarre scene of random sadism, but that’s what we expect from Russell Smith. Oh and Magellan secretly watches the lez action with Leah later in the book, getting super turned on: “It was an incredible orgy scene Magellan would not soon forget. He’d not seen anything like it in his life!” 

As ever Magellan totes around his “artilery case.” For the first time ever (I believe), we’re given a list of its contents: 

In addition to this we’re informed that a photo of Magellan’s wife and son are on the inside lid of the case, as if “guarding” his weapons. As stated there is a big focus in Murder Machine on the loss that made Philip Magellan become The Marksman in the first place. This I assume is there to explain away his sadism, but as the drugging and shaving of the hooker would indicate, the guy’s just nuts – I mean the hooker has absolutely nothing to do with the Mafia. 

As expected, everything “climaxes” exactly how every previous Russell Smith installment has: all the villains do Magellan the courtesy of conveniently gathering in one location so he can blitz them from afar. Smith shows no mercy in his rushed finale – no mercy for the reader, either, telling us almost in passing of the bloody deaths of his various one-off characters. The most notable bit here is the “eerie calm” Magellan always feels after one of his massacres, which fills him with a sort of profundity. 

Man, what a crazy one this was – almost like a “greatest hits” of Russell Smith’s work on the series. It went through absolutely zero editing and you get the sense that they just printed everything straight off of his typewritten manuscript. But for that reason alone it was pretty entertaining. Oh and finally, Ken Barr’s cover illustration actually (sort of) illustrates a moment in the book; during an action bit where Magellan finds out that a private eye force is closing in on him, he goes up on a rooftop and knocks out a would-be sniper. Russell Smith pointedly mentions the “door” on the roof, which makes me figure we have here another instance of editor Peter McCurtin directing his author to include a specific scene, so there would be a part in the book to match the already-commissioned cover art – a la McCurtin giving Len Levinson a similar direction for Night Of The Assassins, in a bit Len later spoofed in The Last Buffoon.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Dakota #4: Murder’s Money

Dakota #4: Murders Money, by Gilbert Ralston
March, 1975  Pinnacle Books

Wake up, everyone, it’s time for another volume of Dakota! Yet another blood-soaked tale of fast-moving action and mayhem with tons of explicit sleaze to spare! Actually all of that’s a total lie; I was just trying to be as misleading as the art and back cover copy. For in reality Murder’s Money is even more slow-moving than the previous three installments, as hard as that is to believe. But at the very least Gilert Ralston himself is honest this time; he has removed all pretensions toward writing “men’s adventure,” and this one’s really just a mystery novel. 

At this point I’m more interested in what was going on behind the scenes at Pinnacle. I think it’s very impressive that they tried to package Dakota as an action series. This took some very creative thought from the marketing department, or whoever wrote the back cover copy. The plot promised on the back cover squashes all hopes of an action extravaganza, though; we’re told Dakota is hired to figure out who murdered someone. I mean we aren’t exactly talking The Executioner. But then this is what paperback publishers were doing in the ‘70s; take a look at the similarly-boring Hardy series, which was also misleadingly packaged as a sex and violence thriller, where in reality it was more focused on what Hardy ate or watched on TV. Same goes for Renegade Roe, another “action” series low on thrills that featured an American Indian P.I., much like Dakota

One interesting thing is that Murder’s Money picks up immediately after the previous volume; as we’ll recall, Cat Trap ended with an assault on Dakota’s Nevada ranch, led by a professional assassin who worshpped an ancient Egyptian god. This one opens the morning after that assault, with Dakota and his many friends cleaning up the frozen corpses. One frozen corpse not here is that of the professional assassin, Guy Marten, who as we’ll also recall was lamely allowed to get away in the climax of the previous book. Dakota will often ponder this throughout Murder’s Money, “knowing” that he will once again encounter Marten. We readers know this is true, given occasional cutovers to Guy Marten and his plan to get revenge on Dakota. Given that there was only one more volume to follow, I wonder if we will see this plan come to fruition. 

The periodic ruminations on Marten and his possible return seem to be Ralston’s attempt to cater to Pinnacle’s “action” mandate, because otherwise Murder’s Money is deadly dull, and has more in common with Agathie Christie than Don Pendleton. Let me give you an example of this. After handling corpse patrol, ie removing the frozen bodies from around his ranch, Dakota is informed by one of his friends: “Your mother says come to breakfast.” Folks this line basically encapsulates Dakota. It’s a wonder Ralston didn’t go all the way with it and saddle Dakota with a nagging wife: “You better forget about working on another case, Mister – we’re going to The Home Depot!”

Even though it’s just a few hours after he fended off a commando attack in the middle of a snowswept night, Dakota heads on into town to look into his latest case: basically, he’s been hired to find out who killed a local named Jack Bray. The accused is Henry Bray, wheelchair-bound brother of Jack, an eccentric millionaire who pays people in gold coins. We learn later in the book (though the back cover copy gives it away) that Henry Bray is wheelchair-bound because his brother Jack ran over him years before, which of course gives him motive. Henry Bray has hired Dakota to clear his name, insisting he is innocent, and paying Dakota in those gold coins: “The wallpaper we call money is a mortuary bill for a dying economy.” How prescient

So Dakota drives around Nevada and on into California as he tracks various clues. There is a lot of driving and clue-tracking in Murder’s Money. One can’t help but feel that Ralston has run out of steam…and he didn’t have much to begin with. A few more off-page murders occur, like that of an ex-Marine who works at the curio shop where Bray would get his gold coins. Ralston also works in an allusion to the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping with a subplot about “the Gerber kidnapping,” an equally notorious event in the world of Dakota. Long story short, the coins Henry Bray have been using were involved in the payoff for the long-ago Gerber kidnapping scheme, leading to a complex conspiracy Dakota tries to work his way through. 

And also Dakota’s still planning to marry Alicia, the woman he met in the first volume. She again appears in this book, not adding much except to tell Dakota to be careful and to hurry back to her. See, the nagging is already starting! But the main female character in Murder’s Money is Melissa Bray, stepdaughter of Jack Bray; she too hires Dakota’s services. She also features with him in an extended sequence that does nothing more than pad out the pages; Melissa, a pilot, flies Dakota in her private plane, but sabotage causes them to crash, stranding them in the desolate expanse of a forest. It goes on forever as Dakota tries to take care of an injured Melissa, while a group of “mountaineers” navigate through the thick snow to find the two of them. If I wanted something like this I’d just read Jack London’s “To Build A Fire.” 

Once all that is out of the way, Ralston decides around page 135 to make Dakota a badass. When a friend of his is shotgunned in California, Dakota starts busting heads when he tries to get some answers. He punches and kicks a couple people, causing another friend to tell him, “You’re two people. This one scares hell out of me.” Well, too bad we readers didn’t see more of “this one.” Soon enough Dakota’s going around with a group of criminals, among them a Japanese guy who is impressed with Dakota’s martial skills, and there’s a bit more bad-assery when they get info from a stooge by threatening to blow him away. But Dakota himself shoots no one, despite the misleading cover, and the novel’s biggest action scene occurs at the very end, where four motorcyclists give chase to Dakota’s car as he drives to Nevada. Unbelievably, Ralston charges through this entire action scene in a single paragraph that goes on for a page and a half…and that’s it. One can only imagine how a more confident action writer would’ve played out this sequence. 

Staying true to its mystery credentials, Murder’s Money instead “climaxes” with a long dialog exchange in which Dakota and his too-many friends baldly exposit on who might have killed Jack Bray. I mean up to and including listing the same characters over and over in different capacities so far as their awareness and involvement in the scheme would go. It’s very clear that Ralston at this point is on an empty tank and is praying to hit his word count asap. Not helping matters is that he (or perhaps a Pinnacle copyeditor) has neglected to put any white spaces in the book for scene transitions, meaning that we jump all over the place in the narrative with no warning. 

By novel’s end the promise is there that Guy Marten will be coming after Dakota for his revenge, but as mentioned there was only one more volume so we’ll see if it happens. There’s also I would say no mystery whatsoever why there was only one more volume in this series.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

In The Pulp Fiction Trenches

In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, by Len Levinson
June, 2022  Rough Edges Press

I’m sure I’m going to get even more long-winded than normal in this review, so I’ll start off with the big finale: In The Pulp Fiction Trenches is one of the best novels I have ever read. This memoir, detailing “The Tumultuous Literary Career” of Len Levinson, is a heatbreaking work of staggering genius. You can forget about Dave Eggers; this is the real deal. It is the book Len Levinson has been working toward since he ventured into his writing career in the early 1970s. It is at turns hilarious, poignant, insightful, and at times even touching, without ever once getting maudlin. If you have even a passing interest in men’s adventure novels, or war novels, or pulp fiction in general – or even life in general – then you owe it to yourself to head over to Amazon and get yourself a copy. 

But In the Pulp Fiction Trenches isn’t just a memoir about Len’s writing career, though it does spend much of its time on that. It’s also about the sometimes-insurmountable troubles Len has encountered over the years…troubles he managed to surmount regardless. And even though the overwhelming theme of the book is the series of crushing “low sales” and cancellations of his vaious writing ventures, there is still a note of dogged optimism throughout the narrative. This I think is one of the main things that appeals to me about Len’s writing; he is clearly an optimist, and despite being “crazy” by his own admission, he is clearly a nice guy. This is also evident in how, despite writing action novels for much of his career, he’s never delivered a purely loathsome villain; even his bad guys have their reasons, and never come off like cliches or stereotypes. 

Len and I have been planning to do an audio interview where we talk about his books, and I’d put it up here as the first (and perhaps only!) Glorious Trash Podcast, but I’ve yet to figure out how the hell to record a phone call. If anyone out there knows a good (and free!) app for doing that, or for doing a podcast, please let me know. But in the meantime I’m just going to list here what I was going to open that podcast with. I’ve read many of Len’s novels over the years and I think I’ve narrowed down what exactly it is that appeals to me about his work. First and foremost, it’s his unique style. No one can write a Len Levinson novel like Len Levinson. This unique style permeates the narrative; even for stuff like his Sharpshooter novels, it’s clear that we don’t have an anonymous author just turning in a mob-busting action novel. There’s always more going on, with a focus on characterization, witty dialog, and occasional dollops of philosophy. Whereas a lot of those series writers of the ‘70s turned in dry, professional books without a wit of personality, Len’s books are all about the personality. 

The other thing, which I’ve noted before, is that Len is literally the only action-adventure writer I know of who has his male protagonists hit on women. This is one that took a few years for me to realize. Whereas the genre staple is for some hotstuff babe to throw herself into the arms of the studly hero, Len Levinson’s protagonists have to work for it. Take for example his Butler series, which is the Len Levinson take on James Bond; Butler spends the majority of his novels trying to put the moves on various women. And often failing. It’s such an inversion of the genre that, like I said, it took a while for me to even realize how different it was…not to mention how much more realistic it is. Not that Len’s action books were bogged down by realism! 

Another thing I love about Len’s work is tied into the optimism I mentioned above; he’s a true believer in various things, like the ideal of love, or that a macrobiotic diet might lead to a breakthrough of zen understanding, but he always undercuts the sap with a joke or a dose of gutbucket reality. The best way to describe this would be a direct quote from Trenches. Early in the book Len describes the few years he spent in the wilds of Canada, in the mid-1970s, living off the land in a hardscrabble but rewarding existence, and he ends the chapter with his comments on how he’d “love to live that way again:” We cannot recapture the past except in our minds, although I’d certainly try if I had the bucks to bring it off. I laughed out loud when I read that. That’s Len’s style in a nutshell: he sets you up with a profundity and ends it with a punchline. And there are gems like that throughout In The Pulp Fiction Trenches

The book is mostly told sequentially, with Len starting off with how he decided to quit his job as a PR agent and become a writer. One thing he doesn’t note in the book is that the 1970s would have been the perfect time to attempt this; there were a glut of paperback houses and publishing outfits at the time, so quitting your job to become a writer wouldn’t have been as risky a proposition then as it would be now. This is not to minimize Len’s gamble, of course. I’m just noting this because the 1970s was a much different era so far as the publishing world went. From there Len details his earliest novels, from a porn paperback to those three Sharpshooter novels, and his standalone books like the incredible Shark Fighter. These chapters started life as the essays Len wrote for my blog years ago, though he has revised and expanded some of them. In some cases he has also included excerpts from my reviews, which flattered me. Except in the case of my comments on Cabby; I was embarrased to see how critical I was of that book. I’m sure if I were to read it again I’d be more positive about it. 

On a pedantic note, one book Len does not cover in Trenches is Streets Of Blood, his installment of the short-lived Bronson series. However, Len wrote his thoughts on that book for Jack Badelaire’s Post Modern Pulps blog back in 2012, so you can read them there. Len covers each book with a chapter, some just a few pages long. These are great windows into a forgotten era, where Len would sit beside the desk of his editor Peter McCurtin and get his latest writing assignment, as if Len were the Bond to McCurtin’s M. Occasionally Len sprinkles in some details of his own life, but really In The Pulp Fiction Trenches isn’t a straight-up autobiography. Indeed, important events in Len’s life are only mentioned in passing, like his two (relatively short) marriages, and the fact that he has a daughter. He focuses more on the writing of the books themselves, and what thought processes formed their narratives. These are great bird’s-eye views into a creative mind at work. 

Other memorable chapters include Len’s tenure as a cab driver, very early in his writing career, and also his thoughts on his first-published book, a hardcore sleaze novel which I’ve been meaning to read and review on here. There’s also great material on Lin Carter, with whom Len worked in the early 1960s at Prentice Hall. There are also chapters here in the early part which do get outside of the writing process, and they’re just as fun, if not more so. One of the highlights of the book is the chapter on Len meeting none other than John Lennon. In his capacity as a PR man, before he quit the game to write, Len was called at a moment’s notice to do the publicity for one of John and Yoko’s bed-ins, and Len well captures the heady air of the times. In just a few sentences Len brings John Lennon to life, and the chapter is interesting because it shows a direction Len’s life could have gone in. Len relates how John took to him, based off Len’s familiarity with a macrobiotic restaurant in New York. Later on, Len is calling radio stations for publicity when John strolls in and starts strumming his guitar, a sort of solo performance for Len. But John somehow detects he’s making Len feel nervous, so he leaves. Len then tells us that, months later – after he’d quit the firm – his old boss told him that John was actually asking about Len. I’ve read a few books about John Lennon, and it seems to me that this is not standard behavior for him; I think it’s clear that he liked Len, and the two of them could have become friends. Who knows, maybe Len could have become Lennon’s assistant/best friend, instead of Frederic Seaman. As if Fate were really trying to get Len’s attention on this, he tells us that years later he passed by a store in the Village in which John and Yoko were shopping, but Len kept on walking despite his momentary consideration to step in and tell them hello. 

But then, Len had his own life to live, and Trenches proves how colorful his life has been. Despite the disappointment that ultimately settles into the narrative, the subtext is quite clear that Len has lived this colorful life precisely because he turned his back on the standard setup of job and family. After all, who will remember you for being a PR agent, or spending your entire life working for a company? Another great chapter is the one mentioned above, where Len lives in a remote cabin in the Canadian woods; I had forgotten that this was where he wrote The Bar Studs and Hype!. Here Len talks about his lifelong friend William Kotzwinkle, who himself provides a chapter for In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, sharing his thoughts on Len. When I first talked to Len, back in 2012, I mentioned to him that The Last Buffoon reminded me of Kotzwinkle’s The Fan Man. This really blew Len’s mind, as of course he was friends with Kotzwinkle, something I was not aware of at the time. 

As the narrative moves into the ‘80s, Len talks about his various WWII works, like The Sergeant and The Rat Bastards. It’s the former through which I first discovered Len, when I was a kid; the little library in th town where I grew up had a spinner rack of action paperbacks, and as a kid in the ‘80s I vividly recall bringing home a few volumes of The Sergeant to read. Len spent the majority of that decade writing WWII yarns, before moving into Westerns. Even though I have never been much interested in Westerns I’m sure I will read Len’s novels in this genre, and also his pieces on them here in Trenches are some of the best parts in the book. In particular his chapter on the origins of his Pecos Kid series is one of the book’s highlights. Here, late in the book, Len talks about his childhood, how his mother passed away when he was only four years old and how Len was unceremoniously dropped into foster care by his dad. It’s hard not to read this section and feel bad for little Lenny Levinson, but Len is not one to wallow in self-pity. Indeed, he sees his dad’s later abusive behaviour as a way to teach Len “coping skills.” 

Another thing I’ve noticed about Len’s overall work is that his protagonsts are generally strong-willed men who are determined to make a name for themselves. As if they were trying to prove themselves. It’s such a consistent theme that I’m certain it’s some sort of subconscious thing on Len’s part. I’d known about his childhood, of his mother dying when he was very yong and his father not being around, and over the years I’ve figured that is the core of the theme: perhaps those protagonists are driven to prove they are worth it, that they matter. In this regard the chapter on The Pecos Kid is almost a skeleton key to Len’s work in general, and it’s also a wonderful indication of how he uses his own experiences to fuel his fiction…I loved the part of how the young Pecos Kid’s plans for his future were inspired by the young Len Levinson’s plans in Miami. Again, this chapter is one of the highlights of In The Pulp Fiction Trenches; Len clearly cared about his Western books (in fact it’s clear he cared about all his books – he never just turned in a lazy first draft), to the extent that his enthusiasm for them is enough to make one want to read them. 

Despite his unflagging devotion to his Westerns, Len was still dumped and canceled, thus had to go back to driving taxis and working various odd jobs. I mean a guy who had spent two decades at this point as a published author, and he had to go back to driving cabs. As if that weren’t depressing enough, Len also details a chapter in which a good friend commited suicide, ultimately leading Len to have a crisis which had him contemplating suicide – and willingly checking himself into an insane asylum. What I found interesting is that this chapter comes right after a chapter in which Len relates how, after the cancellation of his latest Western series, he was desperate to come up with a new novel idea, something that would finally put him in the big leagues. He ended up writing a story about an intelligent parrot, one that was owned by a go-go dancer, but Len was unable to sell the manuscript. What I found interesting is that Len’s bout in the insane asylum was the “bestseller story idea” he was looking for. Wasn’t there like a big-selling “novel” a couple years ago where some guy wrote about his time in drug rehab, and it all turned out to be fiction? Len could’ve been the person to write that story, with the caveat that his story actually happened. 

But as In The Pulp Fiction Trenches draws to a close, Len’s focus turns away from writing, due to his lack of success. He works for a few years in a child-care facility in New York, and Len is so overwhelmed by how poorly-run the place is that he writes an expose which is published in The Village Voice. Len includes this piece in the book, also noting that he wrote an unpublished book about the experience. The most grueling chapter in the book soon follows, in which Len relates his bout with prostate cancer. Len is incredibly candid in this chapter, and manages to take what could be a sad story and makes it poignant, touching, and even funny. There is also a fascinating bit of life imitating art. I won’t get into all the details, but post-surgery Len finds himself unable to perform in certain capacities…and he relates all of this with that same bittersweet humor. But he is told by his doctors that there are various gizmos he could use to provide assistance in these capacities, and not only does Len find them “grotesque” but he also laughs at the idea of hauling these gizmos out from under the bed, to the puzzlement of the woman he happens to be in bed with. Well, I’d recently read Len’s Love Me To Death, which featured the recurring gag of Butler hiding his gun in his pants…and carrying the bundled-up pants into bed with him, to the puzzlement of the women he happened to be in bed with. 

Len’s medical problems aren’t over, though: soon after we have a chapter detailing his 2012 heart attack, and again the incident is treated more with humor than with self-pity. I recall when this happened, as it was shortly after I first contacted Len; at the time, he wrote an essay about the experience, which he has revised for this book. One thing he did not mention in that original 2012 essay, which he does state here, is that he happened to be high on marijuana at the time of his heart attack! Both the original essay and the chapter in this book feature Len’s doctor telling Len that, within a year of the heart attack, Len’s heart would be even stronger. I can personally attest to this. When I met with Len in 2016, we spent the majority of the day walking across Chicago. And we walked a lot. Even though I’m 40 years younger than Len, I was the one who wanted to stop to rest, whereas Len just wanted to keep walking. 

One thing that floored me about In The Pulp Fiction Trenches is how Len subtly changes his tone throughout the book. The early sections capture the wild-eyed (and possibly drug-fueled) optimism of his early writing career, and Len comes off like the real-life Alexander Frapkin, of The Last Buffoon. As an acquaintance tells Len: “You’re the craziest person I know. But you seem normal.” (Len is so flattered by this comment that he tells us about it a few times.) There are funny Frapkin-esque moments, like when Len momentarily loses the ability to speak when a publisher tells him he could become a millionaire. As the book progresses, though, the constant tide of rejections and cancelations take their toll, and a note of disillusionment permeates the chapters. Ultimately Len questions his choice to become a writer, that his “so-called literary career” was really just a joke, and that at the end of it he was just a loser. He is especially disappointed that his newly-published novels (ie Web Of DoomGrip Of Death, and Cobra Woman) and his various reprints (ie the reprints through Destroyer Books and various eBooks) have not been selling very well. 

After I read Trenches I had a revelation on why Len has yet to achieve the literary fame he deserves: it’s not because he’s a poor writer, or a deluded fool, or any of the other things he occasionally calls himself in the book. It’s because his agents and his publishers did him a disservice. The simple reason is that his books, starting at least with the Butler series, should have been published under his own name. Or even under his standalone novel pseudonym, Leonard Jordan. That way Len could have established and maintained a core following for each of his ventures. But the way things played out…say someone read and loved The Last Buffoon in 1980, and then a few years later came across an installment of The Rat Bastards at a bookstore. Unless the reader actually purchased the book and read it – and noticed the similarity of the writing style – he never would have known that “John Mackie” was also “Leonard Jordan.” But the publishers were more concerned with anonymous house names so they could continue publishing the various series with different authors; Len’s career was clearly not a concern. Again though this is short-sighted. One of the many profundities Len notes in Trenches is his response to an agent in the ‘90s, when yet another of Len’s series is about to be canceled due to “little profits,” as the publishers now demand “big profits.” To which Len responds, “But little profits add up to big profits.” It’s such common sense that it comes off as genius, but obviously didn’t change the minds of the publishers. 

As for why Len’s reprints aren’t selling well, just speaking as a collector of vintage paperbacks, I think people are more willing to pay more for the original item, even if a modern reprint would be more affordable. But there are many cases where the original paperback is either impossible to find our just priced out of reach. So then why wouldn’t the reprints of such books sell well? I think it comes down to the presentation. I don’t mean to criticize those publishers who are bringing men’s adventure novels back into print; I’m just speaking from my own opinion. But all of them reprint the books either as eBooks or as trade paperbacks with Photoshopped covers. This I feel detracts from the experience. I think those reprints should be mass market paperbacks, and to the exact physical dimensions of a 1970s paperback. This is how Tocsin Press books are printed, by the way – to the point that your copy of The Psycho Killers will fit right beside your vintage copy of The Thrill Killers on the shelf! It’s like how vinyl records sells better than compact discs today, even though the vinyl is more expensive and is itself sourced from digital, same as the compact disc. Collectors are willing to pay more for a special medium, and I honestly believe that if Len’s Butler novels were reprinted in paperback, to the same dimensions of a ‘70s paperback, they’d sell a lot better than they would as eBooks. Well anyway it’s just my opinion, but maybe one of the reprint publishers out there might come across this and give it a shot – after all, most of them use Amazon’s KDP service, and KDP can publish mass market paperbacks to those dimensions. That’s how Tocsin does it! 

I would read In The Pulp Fiction Trenches at night, and there were some nights I was so keyed up after reading that I couldn’t sleep. I had a particularly sleepness night after reading the chapters on prostate cancer, Grip Of Death, and Cobra Woman. But whereas a sort of pragmatic acceptance overtakes Len’s narrative in these latter chapters, I instead found myself getting pissed off – that Len had been so ill-served by his agents and his publishers. I mean how in the hell could an agent worth his or her salt not have sold The Last Buffoon in the ‘70s? The book could have easily become a cult classic along the lines of The Fan Man. Hell, it could’ve been a bestseller, with the right marketing. But instead it was rejected and then ultimately released years later by Belmont Tower, probably in a scarce printing and certainly without any marketing or publicity. It boggles my mind. I mean the upmarket imprints were publishing total shit in the ‘70s, like The Mafia’s Virgin Daughter. But The Last Buffoon is rejected. 

But then, as you get older, you gradually learn that people in positions of authority rarely know what the hell they are talking about. A case in point: in the chapter on Grip Of Death, Len notes with clear bitterness that the novel started life due to his agent. In the ‘90s, when Len was looking for a new project after the latest cancellation, his agent suggested, “How about a novel about the Civil War?” I almost wanted to reach into the book and knock on the agent’s forehead: “Helllooo! Who the hell is reading books about the Civil War in the 1990s?!!” But then maybe this was around the time Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published, and the agent was looking to get on a bandwagon. But even if that were so – did she expect Len Levinson to write a book like Cold Mountain? I mean I’m not saying that Len couldn’t, I’m just saying that this errant comment comes off like an agent completely unfamiliar with the work of her client. The fact that she even refused to read Len’s manuscript – which she herself suggested he friggin’ write – only made me want to reach into the book again…and do more than knock on her forehead. 

So Len, no – you aren’t a terrible writer, you were just served poorly by those who could steer your career. I mean I can understand why Len’s early books were under house names, but by the time of Butler he should have at least been credited by one name, whether his own or Leonard Jordan, and one name only. This would have established a readership that would have followed him through the various series. I mean this is how sci-fi authors survive, isn’t it? I’m not talking about the bestsellers; I’m talking about the ones who turned in a book a year and made a career off that. And speaking of sci-fi, at one point in the book Len notes that he was riding high at the time, as he was confident that he could write in any genre. Unfortunately the one genre he never wrote in was science fiction. This is why I’ve always said that Venus On The Half-Shell is the closest thing to a “Len Levinson sci-fi novel” we ever got. 

I first got in touch with Len in early 2012; I’d just read The Last Buffoon for the second time, after discovering it in 2005 in a Half Price Bookstore in Dallas. The copy was signed “Leonardo Levinson,” and after a bit of research I discovered that this was the real name of the “Leonard Jordan” credited on the cover. I read the book then and really enjoyed it, but when I read it again in 2012 I loved it, given that I was once again into the men’s adventure novels I’d read as a kid. But at the time Len did not have an online presence, at least one I was aware of. I think I even asked James Reasoner about him – and I have gone all this time without mentioning James, who should be thanked for bringing In The Pulp Fiction Trenches into print for everyone to enjoy. James, who also had read Len’s books, didn’t know what happened to him, or whether he was still alive. Then I came across a comment “Len Levinson” had left on Amazon for a review of The Last Buffoon. At that time you could comment on reviews, something I think Amazon has now disabled. And also, Len commented on this specific review because it had been posted by a woman – we discussed this years later, and he was surprised because it’s not a book you’d expect a woman would read, let alone enjoy. But anyway, in his comment Len noted his location, and I did some real-deal Big Brother searching and tracked him down via an online phone catalog for that Illinois town. There was of course only one “Len Levinson” in that phone book, so I figured it had to be the same guy – and luckily, it turned out to be him. 

I bring all this up because shortly after we got in contact, Len had his heart attack, and while he was convalescing I suggested a book I’d recently read and enjoyed: Jean Dutourd’s The Horrors Of Love. This is a super-long novel (almost as long as this review!) that was published in France in the early ‘60s, and then translated and published in the US in the late ‘60s. It was a Book Of The Month Club selection and etc, but it must’ve gone over like a lead balloon because there was only the hardcover edition, and it’s completely unknown today. I got my copy for a dollar in an antique store in 2005 and couldn’t believe how good the book was. It’s about two guys walking around Paris, discussing the murder-suicide affair of a colleague, and the entire novel is rendered in dialog. In fact, I always thought that the day Len and I walked around Chicago, talking the entire time, was like our own version of The Horrors Of Love. Well anyway, back in early 2012 I suggested Len read the novel, and in an email to me dated June 26, 2012, Len wrote: “I finally finished reading The Horrors Of Love and really enjoyed it…Dutourd’s insights were remarkable. Compared to him, I feel like a featherweight writer and thinker.” 

With In The Pulp Fiction Trenches, Len proves the fallacy of his own words. A “featherweight writer and thinker” could not have written a book with this kind of impact. And it is filled with plenty of remarkable insights. It is a book to be read and enjoyed, and then dipped into again and again. Since “finishing” Trenches I’ve picked it up at least five more times to read a section again. That’s how good it is. So long story short, I recommend In The Pulp Fiction Trenches probably more than any other book I’ve ever reviewed on here. You all should know, I’m never pushy about telling you to buy books. I mean the blog isn’t even monetized. I write these reviews for fun, because I’m reviewing books I enjoy. But I’ll be pushy about this one – please head over to Amazon and purchase a copy of In The Pulp Fiction Trenches. Len has been ignored for too long in his career. The best way we can show him he matters is to buy this wonderful book.