Monday, January 16, 2017

The Spider #18: The Flame Master

The Spider #18: The Flame Master, by Grant Stockbridge
February, 1935  Popular Publications

The Spider features its wildest villain yet: Aronk Dong, the Lion Man of Mars, who threatens the world with his man-made lightning. It’s up to Richard “The Spider” Wentworth to stop this latest threat to humanity. Dong claims to be the vanguard of a Martian invasion, but ultimately author Norvell Page ignores the sci-fi aspect and delivers what you expect from the average Spider yarn: endless sequences of Wentworth gunning down gangsters.

It’s a month after the previous volume, which I don’t have. Looks like it was a momentous volume, as we’re informed at the outset of The Flame Master that Jackson, Wentworth’s loyal ally, “laid down his life” while in the guise of the Spider. Thus the world now believes the masked crimefighter to be dead, and also Wentworth is no longer suspected of being the Spider. We meet Wentworth as he’s chasing leads in his latest caper; he wants the world to continue believing the Spider is dead, but Page will eventually drop this subplot as well.

The latest gang to plague ‘30s New York has been using artificial lightning to rob banks and kill cops; Wentworth has tracked them here to the rural home of Brandon Early, a young scientist who specializes in lightning. Instead Wentworth, in his Spider disguise, meets Aronk Dong, the Lion Man, “six feet one of whipcord manhood,” with a leonine mane and the face of a lion. (The interior illustrations make him look more like The Wizard of Oz’s Lion Man rather than the fierce creature shown on the cover.) He also has claws, which he uses to occasionally rip off heads – and also to inflict some serious damage on Wentworth, slicing his shoulder.

Aronk Dong is the most memorable Spider villain yet, I think, but unfortunately as is with the case with all other such villains, Page doesn’t spend nearly enough time with him. Following the usual template, Dong only shows up in the opening, a handful of times later, and then for the harried finale. That being said, Page does something in this book I don’t think I’ve seen him do before – he relays a few sequences from Aronk Dong’s perspective. Usually Wentworth is the sole star of the narrative show. Anyway, Dong’s servants believe his story that he’s from Mars, but Wentworth instantly disbelieves it, particularly given Dong’s claim that he perfected his artificial lightning on the red planet. As Wentworth later says, the air on Mars is “too thin for clouds of any kind, much less storms!”

The opening sequence is pretty good, with Wentworth already in desperate battle within the first few pages. Here he meets headstrong Bets Decker, fiery-tempered assistant of Brandon Early, who remains unseen – as usual, Page fills the novels with red herrings, keeping Aronk Dong’s identity a secret. Could it be Early himself, as Wentworth suspects? He guns down various thugs who work for the Lion Man, but as mentioned is clawed in the shoulder and then tied up – but manages to free himself and come in blasting again, delivering one of the greatest pulp lines ever: “I have more bullets to plough through your putrid flesh!”

Wentworth is so injured that he wakes up in the hospital, where he remains for two days, even getting four blood transfusions, one of them courtesy ever-suffering fiance Nita van Sloan. He spends a further ten days recuperating, during which the Lion Man sows more chaos – 200 dead so far around the US in “unconnected” attacks, each of which employ the artificial lightning. Gradually Wentworth will determine that Aronk Dong is hiring out his manmade lightning and attacking these places for pay. Humorously, Wentworth’s injury will be forgotten well before novel’s end; Page only mentions it a few times, making it sound like the most horrific wound our hero has ever endured, before abruptly dropping all mention of it.

Researching leads with best friend/worst enemy Kirkpatrick, police commissioner, Wentworth meets Horace Jones, a pulp writer aquantaince of Kirkpatrick’s. Unfortunately Jones is in the novel even less than Aronk Dong himself. It’s a lot of fun to read about a pulp writer in a pulp novel, particularly when he’s defending the genre – and even Wentworth offers a defense of pulp, saying “there’s a lot of truth” in many of the tales, no matter how outrageous they may seem. Nevertheless, Horace Jones is a one-off character, there long enough to talk about his own research on Mars, stating that he believes Aronk Dong’s wild story.

As usual with a Spider book, the middle changes direction. With the appearance of a French arms dealer named Toussants Louvaine, Page goes into a subplot in which the wily Frenchman seeks to use Wentworth as bait to capture Aronk Dong. Louvaine knows he’ll make a mint on that artificial lightning, and given that he like all other criminals knows that Wentworth is really the Spider, he’s gone to the trouble of abducting Nita to ensure Wentworth obeys his orders. It’s all very old-hat and a bit disappointing given the sci-fi angle we were promised in the opening chapters.

We do get some of that patented Norvell Page insanity; after a long sequence in which Wentworth fights gangsters and then tries to evade the cops, our hero takes his shot-up sedan – which Page has carefully informed us earlier looks like a hearse – and “hides” it in a funeral procession that just happens to be passing by! Otherwise I found the middle half of The Flame Master to lag, other than periodic sequences which hop over to Aronk Dong as he wages war on hapless citizens; here we learn that Bets Decker, whom Wentworth thought was such a swell gal, is actually the Lion Man’s moll.

It gets back on the crazed path with Wentworth at one point standing on the girder of a half-constructed skyscraper, far over the sidwalks below, blasting away with a machine gun at the “doom balloons” of Aronk Dong. While Wentworth staves off the villain’s schemes, the novel ends with everyone a prisoner of the Lion Man, tied to electric chairs in a penthouse apartment – this after Wentworth has even ditched a plane on the penthouse itself in a desparate attempt at gaining entry to the place. Here Page delivers another of those stellar sequences of bravery he specializes in: to free himself with the knife Aronk Dong has left behind, Wentworth will cause the death-by-electrocution of Kirkpatrick. The Commissioner accepts his fate, urging Wentworth to grab the blade – a stirring scene, one ruined by the deux ex machina (but necessary, as these characters don’t die) realization that there’s a way around the entire setup.

Once again though Page denies Wentworth the luxury of killing the villain himself; instead, Wentworth and Aronk Dong battle it out with swords as Louvaine watches – there follows the most gory scene yet in the series, as Wentworth hurls his sword through the Frenchman’s throat to prevent him from tugging a cord which will shine a light on Dong’s followers below, signalling them to begin their destruction of New York’s dam. But Aronk Dong is taken out off-page by another character – only for it all to turn into a Scooby Doo finale, as Wentworth deduces that the dead “Aronk Dong” is just an imposter…and the real one is really so and so!! Unsurprisingly, Wentworth has already figured all this out, despite being in constant action for the past few days with no sleep.

Overall The Flame Master is as enjoyable as the average Spider yarn, but the outrageous villain had me expecting something more…well, outrageous. Instead, it’s business as usual – though to be sure, there’s a lot of action and thrills. My favorite volumes are still The Corpse Cargo and The Red Death Rain, though.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The James Bond Dossier

The James Bond Dossier, by Kingsley Amis
July, 1966  Signet Books

Published in hardcover in 1965, The James Bond Dossier was one of the first studies of the James Bond novels of Ian Fleming, following O.F. Snelling’s 007 James Bond: A Report by one year. Unlike Snelling, Dossier author Kinglsey Amis was not only friends with Ian Fleming, but also benefited from having all of Fleming’s published Bond novels at his disposal; Snelling’s book went to press just as penultimate volume You Only Live Twice was being published.

This is a cogent, humorous, and engaging overview of Fleming’s Bond novels; Amis’s enthusiasm for them carries through the page. While he’s never critical of the books (he admits at the outset that he’s a huge fan), Amis does occasionally poke fun at things, but in a way that would even make the most ardent Fleming defender chuckle. In many ways, The James Bond Dossier is more entertaining than the Bond books themselves; Amis’s wit and keen eye bring out so many details that multiple readings would no doubt be rewarding.

In a brief preface Amis states that his original intention was to write an article about Bond, but in the end decided to produce a short book on the subject. This is to every Bond fan’s benefit, but be forewarned that the Dossier has become collectible on the second-hand market (it’s long out of print, sadly). A little researching will no doubt turn up an affordable copy; I got this Signet edition, which follows the design of Signet’s Bond paperbacks of the early ‘60s, at a nice price. The book could also be read while reading the novels themselves; Amis occasionally gives away big details, but most people are familiar with everything thanks to the film versions (which are no doubt seen a lot more than the original novels are read); thus, no concerns about “spoilers.”

“The Man Who Is Only A Silhouette” is the first chapter, and gives a brief rundown on Bond and his literary ancestors. Warning for American readers: Amis refers quite often to British character Bulldog Drummond and his exploits. It’s clear that, at the time of this book, Drummond must’ve been more popular to the average reader in England than perhaps Bond himself was; throughout Amis will make references to this or that moment in Drummond’s history with little embellishment or explanation, as if assuming his readers know what the hell he’s talking about.

The first three chapters go over Bond, from personal details to his life as a secret agent, and on this latter point Amis makes the argument that Bond is not and has never been a “spy,” given that his assignments usually entail everything but spying. Amis argues that Bond would more accurately be described as a secret agent. Amis also looks into the supposed superpowers of Bond, arguing that, within the context and world of the novels themselves, his abilities are not so unbelievable – it would be common sense, for example, to accept that a top British agent would also be a top marksman. Bear in mind that throughout Amis solely refers to the literary Bond, with only a few mentions of his film counterpart; Amis was no fan of the films nor star Sean Connery, at one point even mentioning “Sean Connery’s total wrongness for the part” of Bond.

In these opening three chapters (“Sit Down, 007” and “Going Slowly To Pieces” being the titles of chapters two and three), Amis defends the “wish fulfillment” of the Bond novels, mocking critics who bemoan the pulpy nature of the series. “No adult ought to feel adult all the time,” Amis asserts, in just one of the book’s many quotable lines. Amis also makes the valid point that we readers want to be Bond, not invite him over for dinner or have drinks with him – the fact that Bond himself is almost a cipher is beside the point. He is the man all other men aspire to be. This includes Bond’s herculean smoking and drinking habits; despite being written long before the anti-smoking movement held sway, the Dossier admits that Bond’s 60-cigarettes-a-day habit might be pushing things a bit, but hell, Bond goes through a lot and deserves his indulgences.

Amis also defends Bond’s views on women in the fourth chapter, “No Woman Had Ever Held This Man” (the chapter titles cribbed from Fleming, obviously). Every Bond reader is familiar with Bond’s attitudes on women, as shown for example in Casino Royale. Amis excerpts four such examples from this novel, then defends them within the context of the book itself – Bond’s mood at the time, etc. Even Bond’s “the bitch is dead” line from the end of the book is defended as justifiable, given the revelation of Vesper’s traitorous duplicity. It goes without saying that this chapter would raise the hackles of the modern (or at least progressivised) reader. But Amis is never funnier than when he’s defending Fleming’s more “outdated” views, like Bond’s one-woman-a-novel track record:

Bond’s success with women is totally explicable within the terms of the novels. Women take to him because he likes them and knows how to be kind to them. He has, of course, further advantages. Other things being equal, women prefer handsome men to ugly and brave men to cowardly. There seems nothing to be done about that. Any number of us, however, could afford to take a couple of leaves out of Bond’s book. Unlike many heroes of more ambitious fiction, Bond is good-tempered and not moody. Women appreciate that in a man. And as Tatiana [in From Russia, With Love] notices at once, Bond looks very clean.

As can be seen, Amis here too defends the “fantasy” nature of Bond’s appeal to women; this element, apparently criticized by reviewers at the time as more of that “wish fulfillment,” is proven to be no big deal; Bond becomes intimate with one woman a novel, and given that Fleming wrote one novel a year, this is easily believable – it isn’t like we’re talking about the three or more women Bond conjugates with per movie. Amis also points out that Bond, despite his “sexist” attitude, is seldom ever mean to women (other than, he specifies, ugly villainesses Irma Bundt and Rosa Klebb; but they deserved it!). In general, Bond treats women with kindness and respect.

The wonderfully-titled fifth chapter, “Beautiful Firm Breasts,” is all about the “Bond-girl,” as Amis refers to Fleming’s central female characters. “Bond-girl shows a strong tendency to make her debut naked or half-naked,” Amis writes, and “Her most frequently mentioned feature is her fine, firm, faultless, splendid, etc, breasts.” (“I find this inoffensive, too,” he adds.) We have a rundown of the Bond-girl archetype, including Fleming’s apparent favored hair and eye colors, as well as the recurring motif that, despite her beauty and curves, Bond-girl usually has some impediment – Honeychile Rider (from Doctor No) with her broken nose, Domino Vitali (from Thunderball) with her one leg shorter than the other, etc. “Honeychile Rider is the most appealing incarnation of Bond-girl,” Amis asserts, and I agree with him. Despite talk of the magnificent curves and looks, Amis also details how Bond-girl has her own heroic makeup, and how she brings more to her respective novel than just being Bond’s latest good time. He also mentions how Kissy Suzuki in You Only Lives Twice actually saves Bond’s life.

Chapter six, “A Glint of Red,” focuses on Bond’s enemies. Amis again proves his keen eye with the observation on the “peculiar unpleasantness” of the mandatory Bond-villain confrontation in each novel, as in each case there is a father vs son dynamic at play. Amis nominates Doctor No as the “most archetypal Bond villain,” not to mention “the most fun” (and I agree on both counts). But Doctor No isn’t Amis’s favorite, as he finds him a bit too pulpy; Amis himself prefers Hugo Drax, from Moonraker. Amis likes how Drax can go from insane to casual in a heartbeat.

“Damnably Clear Gray Eyes,” chapter five, is dedicated to M, Bond’s cantankerous boss. Make no mistake, Kinglsey Amis hates M. Indeed, it would appear Amis wrote the later Bond continuation novel Colonel Sun (1968) precisely so he could abuse M in the opening chapters. We get a rundown of how poorly M treats Bond, usually sending him off into horrible situations with hardly enough information. Again and again M has Bond risk his life, usually not even giving him a “thank you” for his troubles. The observation that M’s world is like a family is compelling, particularly Amis’s notion that Miss Monneypenny and the other girls in the office are like Bond’s “sisters,” thus Bond’s relationship with them can never go beyond harmless repartee. Amis wraps up the chapter with a laugh-out-loud observation that, given the frequency of M’s ignorance, the reader must gradually come to the conclusion that “no thought is taking place behind those damnably clear eyes.”

“Warm Dry Handshakes” follows, this time looking at Bond’s allies in each novel. Amis finds Darko Kerim of From Russia, With Love the “most appealing” of them all. You Only Live Twice’s Dikko Henderson is also okay, “but goes on and on.” Better yet is the following chapter, “We May Be Slow, But…”, in which Amis defends the colonialist attitudes of Fleming, particularly his frequent use of foreigners as villains: “Some forms of prejudice may be sinister, but not these.” While “unenlightened,” it’s “perfectly harmless to lump people together by nationality.” My favorite observation is that, in Fleming’s world, Americans are only “semi-foreigners, very nearly as good as ourselves.” Otherwise this entire chapter would send today’s PC advocates into fits of rage, meaning of course it’s a blast of a read.

“Elegant Scene” details the luxury settings and opulent foods of the Bond novels, though here Amis sees no snobbery, and only occasionaly the “copywriting” vibe critics often complained about in Fleming’s work. This chapter also features one of the few mentions of the Bond movies; Amis states that, as of the time of his writing, only the first three films had been released, Goldfinger being the most recent. He calls the movies a “send-up” of Bond, which I think is a bit unfair; anyone who has seen the first two films will know they aren’t send-ups at all. They play it straight and stay true to Fleming’s novels. It’s only with Goldfinger that the movies began moving toward camp. Regardless, Amis ends the chapter with another notable observation: that, even though Ian Fleming might’ve laughed when he came up with his stories, he “didn’t laugh in his writing. I approve.”

On to “The Shertel-Sachsenberg System,” which looks at Fleming’s love of shoehorning technical terms and equipment into his narrative; here too we are reminded of the occasional copywriter vibe. Amis asserts that these technical details make Bond’s fantasy world more believable; we might not know what the hell a “Shertel-Sachsenberg System” is, but if Fleming writes that it’s the best there is we’ll take him at his word. In this chapter Amis coins the phrase “the Fleming effect,” which he defines as Fleming’s “imaginative use of information.” Amis names Thunderball as being filled with the Fleming effect. For the effect to work properly, Amis stipulates that it “has to be geared into the action,” otherwise it comes off as bland info-dumping.  The chapter also discusses the increasingly fantastical nature of the villains’s plots, with another humorous observation: “Blofeld’s schemes...were never conceived in a fit of caution.”

“Y*B**NNA Mat!” (the title taken from an apparently-unprintable Russian oath in From Russia, With Love) discusses how “Putting Fleming to right has become a minor contemporary sport.” This chapter I didn’t find very compelling; it goes and on about various mistakes in Fleming’s novels, with Amis at one point detailing his own theory on how Fleming goofed up with the entire SMERSH concept, claiming that such an organization wouldn’t be doing any of the stuff Fleming has it doing. The chapter “Upas-Tree” follows suit, Amis stating that “Every writer of action stories sooner or later finds himself with an implausability on his hands.” Here Amis defends the “conventions” of the Bond novels (ie the Bond-villain confrontation, the appearance of Bond-girl, etc) as a catering to an accepted form.

The fourteenth and final chapter, “The Beautiful Red And Black Fish,” is one of the longest in the book and is comprised of a solid defense of Fleming’s style. This too was an interesting read, implying that in his day Fleming’s work was apparently considered subpar, at least when compared to other espionage fiction, in particular Deighton’s work. However today Fleming’s Bond novels come off as downright literary, to the point that you figure the haughty style might be off-putting to someone coming to the books from the movies. Here Amis reveals that the majority of his text was written just before Fleming died; Amis knew that, even though the critics of his day dismissed Ian Fleming, history would remember him and his work – not to mention his style, which Amis also knew no other author would be able to duplicate. “He leaves no heirs.”

Amis includes three brief appendices: “Science Fiction” details the use of gadgets in the novels, and only here did it occur to me that, in Fleming’s world, it was the villains who most often used them – Mr. Big’s desk-gun in Live And Let Die, Rosa Klebb’s poison-blade shoes in From Russia, With Love, etc. “Literature And Escape” doesn’t have much to do with Bond at all, and is more so about how one can seek escape in the world of fiction. The final appendix, “Sadism,” speculates on if Fleming himself got off on writing about violence (Amis having earlier made it clear that Bond himself doesn’t get off on being tortured!), and contains lenghty excerpts from the work of Mickey Spillane, an author whom Amis states really did get sadistic in his work. We also get brief rundowns on all of the Bond novels, with locales, villains, Bond-girls, and highlights listed for each.

In sum, The James Bond Dossier is required reading for the Bond fan, and I’d say it should be mandatory reading for anyone hired to write a Bond continuation novel, at least one that’s set within the timeframe of Fleming’s original novels. Amis throughout naturally captures the pre-PC mindset that has disappeared from today’s mainstream thriller writers but should be a necessity for any author trying to duplicate the vibe of Fleming’s work; most of the new Bond novelists, in particular Sebastian Faulks and Anthony Horowitz, have taken great pains to remove themselves from the politically-incorrect world of the Fleming originals. However, I’m wondering if Faulks did read this one, as Amis uses the phrase “devil may care” throughout, and that’s the title of Faulks’s Bond novel. (Amis also uses the phrase “carte blanche” at one point, a phrase which Jeffrey Deaver used for the title of his own Bond novel.)

In 1965 Kinglsey Amis published another Bond study: The Book Of Bond: or Every Man His Own Bond, released under the pseudonym William “Bill” Tanner (ie, the name of M’s chief of staff in the novels). I also have this one, but haven’t read it – it’s even more collectible than The James Bond Dossier. By all accounts it’s is more jokey than the Dossier, but no doubt still compelling and certainly worth a read.

More notably, Amis was the first author contracted to continue Fleming’s legacy: Colonel Sun as mentioned was published in 1968, when Gildrose (owners of the Bond books) briefly attempted to start a new line of novels under the house name “Robert Markham.” That’s another one I have but haven’t read, though I do recall flipping through a library copy many years ago. While well-regarded by Bond fans today, it appears that Colonel Sun didn’t do very well at the time (Fleming’s widow hated it, by the way), and was the only “Markham” book ever published. But at least Amis wrote a Bond novel of his own, and if The James Bond Dossier proves anything, it’s that Kingsley Amis was the man for the job.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Avenger #4: Manhattan Massacre

The Avenger #4: Manhattan Massacre, by Chet Cunningham
October, 1988  Warner Books

The fourth and final volume of The Avenger finds unhinged hero Matt Hawkee slightly less unhinged as he ventures to Los Angeles to wipe out “a new Oriental syndicate.” The “all druggers must die” vitriol of the previous volume is a bit whittled down this time, Chet Cunningham for the most part leaving the sadism to the villains. This is the New Connection, a conglomerated triad which takes heroin-hooked whores off the street, gussies them up, and has them play Russian roulette in front of a betting audience!

Some unspecified time after volume 3, Hawke is in Los Angeles, looking into the recent rash of hookers who have committed “suicide.” All of them were teenaged runaways, heroin addicts despite their youth, and Hawke’s drugger senses are alerted. There’s no attempt at making Hawke an empathetic character this time; he baldly exposists his sad-story background to one dude early in the book, and then on page 114 we get an arbitrary flashback. But otherwise he’s just your typical men’s adventure protagonist, out to use his endless arsenal against the drug-dealers in a variety of firefights.

As mentioned we get a good glimpse of how evil Hawke’s latest target is. In a long opening sequence, we meet a 15 year-old street hooker/heroin addict from Chinatown who is taken into an opulent “palace” in Chinatown and pampered. She is to be the latest roulette victim, offered a hundred thousand dollars for the bet – if she survives, the money is hers. Cunningham makes us feel for the poor girl as she is taken into the betting room on a grand throne, dressed up to the nines by a staff of makeup and wardrobe artists. The sequence ends as expected, with the girl blowing her brains out.

Hawke tracks down David Wong, older brother of the dead girl; a successful businessman in Chinatown, Wong tried to keep his sister from taking to the streets but failed. He becomes Hawke’s first accomplice in the novel, eager to get vengeance on whoever was behind the girl’s death; he too disbelieves the newspaper stories that these have all been unconnected suicides. However he is very fearful of the New Connection. He also has another sister, this one a hottie named Jasmine who dances for a living and who surprisingly does not become one of Hawke’s conquests.

Hawke also reconnects with an old ‘Nam pal while in LA. This is Buzz Yuan, former ‘Nam chopper pilot, current Wall Street type. An interesting note throughout Manhattan Massacre is that Vietnam is given a lot more focus. Whereas most men’s adventure heroes in the ‘70s were also ‘Nam vets, very seldom did we actually read anything about the war – the focus instead was on their current, lone wolf activities of the characters. But in the ‘80s the memories of Vietnam were brought to the fore – no doubt catering to the rash of action flicks which featured Vietnam vets – so we have many arbitrary reminsices from Hawke or Buzz about “that time in Huey” or whatnot.

Together these two get in a bunch of firefights throughout the novel, traveling around the New York area and taking out various New Connection operations. Buzz gradually drops his businessman makeover and becomes more at home in the chaotic bloodshed he once experienced daily in the bush; it’s all entertaining but increasingly unbelievable, like when Buzz even rents out a chopper so he can more completely recreate his ‘Nam days, above the streets of Manhattan.

Cunningham gets a little pulpy with New Connection’s leader, the mysterious Mr. Chu of Hong Kong who uses three gorgeous, miniskirted Chinese ladies as his personal bodyguard. However Cunningham doesn’t exploit this; the bodyguard gals are hardly featured, and arbitrarily sent to take out Hawke at one point, who almost perfunctorily wastes them without the proper exploitation factor the scene requires. But Hawke does score with another gorgeous Chinese lady: Lin Liu, herself a former heroin addict who was roped into the Russian roulette scheme and actually survived. Now she’s a high-ranking New Connection member, but, as Hawke discovers, she’s eager to leave.

Posing as a heroin dealer himself, Hawke does business with Lin Liu, who for no reason at all abruptly tells Hawke she can tell there’s something different about him; she blabs her entire lifestory to this veritable stranger, desperate that he might help her escape Mr. Chu and his people. Cunningham leaves the sex scene off-page, but afterwards Hawke has feelings for the girl – and posthaste she’s abruptly removed from the narrative, captured by a suspicious Mr. Chu. She’s basically in the book long enough to exposit to Hawke about the syndicate, have sex with him, and then get caught!

Most of Manhattan Massacre is comrpised of Hawke and Buzz raiding various places and killing all the druggers within. Cunnigham doesn’t get too crazy with the violence. He also adds arbitrary stuff like the sudden presence of a DEA agent whose partner – a Chinese guy – turns out to be a traitor. Meanwhile Buzz is the one who falls in love with Broadway dancer Jasmine Wong, thus it’s Buzz we’re to empathize with when Jasmine is also caught by Mr. Chu in the climax – Lin Liu has been gone so long we’ve already forgotten about her. However Cunningham brings her back just long enough to gut us with her sad fate.

The finale sees Hawke and Buzz raiding the opulent palace in which the Russian roulette takes place – humorously, Hawke arrives just seconds after the latest victim inadvertently blows her own brains out – and while by this point the constant action scenes have lost a bit of their novelty value, or at least their excitement, Mr. Chu is delivered a very Hollywood-esque sendoff: Hawke jams a primed grenade in his mouth.

Speaking of Hollywood, Hawke announces his intention to head there and root out the rampant drug-dealing at the end of the book, thus the unpublished fifth volume likely occurred there. I think I read somewhere – was it Brad Mengel who wrote about it? – that this fifth volume was eventually epublished, but I’ve never bothered looking it up. At any rate, here ended the Avenger series, at least so far as the paperback run went.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Live And Let Die (James Bond #2)

Live And Let Die, by Ian Fleming
April, 1964  Signet Books
(Original UK edition 1954)

The second volume of Ian Fleming’s James Bond is worlds better than the first one, in my opinion. While I found Casino Royale a tepid bore, Live And Let Die offers everything one thinks of when one thinks “James Bond.” Everything is here, from the pulpish main villain with his assorted henchmen and deadly gadgets to the exotic babe Bond tangles with. And Bond himself comes off as the Bond we all know and love, less the dandified wuss of the previous book.

This is another Bond I’d never read, as I was never able to find a copy of it when I was a kid. I’d seen the movie many times, though, as it was one of the few I owned on VHS. Even then I somehow was aware that Live And Let Die the book was much different than the movie, in particular some nasty things that happen to Bond’s CIA pal Felix Leiter (things which didn’t occur until the ’89 Bond film License To Kill). Reading the novel for the first time, what most surprised me was how similar it was to what eventually became “the” Bond template, of our hero starting out in the “real world” of espionage before venturing further into adventure pulp. In many ways this novel is similar to the later Doctor No.

It’s early January, not too long after Casino Royale (the events of which are barely and only vaguely mentioned, as if Fleming too wanted to forget about them), and Bond has fully recovered from the injuries he endured, even getting skin grafted on the back of his scarred hand. He has a burning yearning to harm SMERSH; the stated reason is revenge for the operative who cut up the back of Bond’s hand, but one could figure it’s more so because Bond is still grieving over Vesper Lynn’s betrayal and wants to lash out at her employer. So M figures Bond will be thrilled at this latest case. 

The Bond-M meeting, which is given a little more spotlight this time, sets the pace for future volumes, and these have always been some of my favorite moments of the series. I think O.F. Snelling in his 1964 book 007 James Bond: A Report was spot on when he said that M is “something like that hoary old martinet of an English gentleman created and played by C. Aubrey Smith in so many Hollywood films before and during the War.” I can easily picture M as looking like C. Aubrey Smith in my mind’s eye (and certainly I’ve never pictured him as a woman!), and I’ve always enjoyed the occasional father-son dynamic between him and Bond.

Anyway, this brings us to the villian of the piece, Mr. Big, who in the novel is more like Doctor No than the almost caricature of a villain we got in the Live And Let Die film. This Mr. Big is a giant with “gray-black” skin like “the face of a week-old corpse in the river.” M’s briefing has it that Big, who is “half Negro and half French,” got his start in the crime world in Harlem before working for the OSS in WWII. During these years he became friendly with a Russian operative, after which Big apparently spent five years in Moscow. Now – and this is the carrot M dangles in front of Bond – Big is apparently an operative of SMERSH. He’s also a self-styled voodoo leader of his superstitious followers, proclaiming himself as the zombie of voodoo god Baron Samedi.

The book is a bit longer than Casino Royale but moves a lot faster, save for the odd moments where Fleming lets his newspaperman past get the better of him, like when he shoehorns in a long excerpt from some travel book on voodoo. Thus M’s briefing is pretty concise, and goes that Big is financing Communist activities via ancient coins he’s pillaged from a pirate treasure possibly somewhere in Jamaica. Off Bond goes to New York, tracing the coin pipeline from where it first appeared in Harlem. He’s reunited with affable Texan CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Fleming again does a nice job of making the Americans seem like good guys; Bond clearly likes Leiter, and there’s none of the now-mandatory “America is the source of all evil” bullshit you’ll see in modern thrillers.

Black characters play a big role in Live And Let Die, from Mr. Big, who proclaims himself as “the first of the great Negro villains,” to a host of underlings and one-off service industry personnel. While modern reviewers might bitch that Fleming makes some of them come off as dumb with overdone “black dialect” dialog, it also must be said that Fleming doesn’t go out of his way to discriminate against them. Indeed, Felix Leiter proclaims to Bond that he’s “always liked” black people, and there are long bits of exposition from him about ‘40s and ‘50s jazz, including the intersting tidbit that Leiter wrote a series of articles about jazz music.

Fleming brings to life early ‘50s New York, also providing the info that it was only around this time that Harlem was becoming the crime-ridden district of later years; I found particularly interesting Leiter’s off-hand mention that in the pre-War years Harlem was a safe place to go hang out at night. Fleming also does a good job of catching American vernacular, but there are a few parts where he has Leiter say “shall” or other such Britishisms which don’t come off right. Leiter and Bond have a veritable Harlem nocturne on Bond’s first night in the city, checking out the sights and trying to root out Mr. Big from the superstitious and paranoid locals. It’s an extended setpiece that is the essence of the “reporter’s eye for detail” you’re always reading about Fleming.

In one of the few moments that made it into the film version, Bond and Leiter are caught via trap chairs in a Big-owned club; after watching a striptease act (where Fleming gets a bit more risque than anywhere in Casino Royale), the two find their chairs suddenly descending to a hidden bottom level. They’re accosted by Big’s henchmen and separated, and here Bond has the mandatory face-to-face with the villain. Big is a very cool villain at that, proclaiming that he’s bored with life and that he approaches his villainy with the air of an artiste. Here we also meet this volume’s Bond Girl: Solitaire, “one of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen,” a raven-haired French girl of stupendous curves who is supposedly telepathic.

The goofy tarot cards of the movie are nowhere to be found as Solitaire monitors Bond for Big, using her gift to tell if he’s lying. However Solitaire, unseen by Big, keeps her eyes off Bond’s; later she will tell Bond that, as soon as she saw him, she knew he would be the man for her. While this sort of thing is snidely dismissed in today’s progressivised world – modern Bond continuation author Anthony Horowitz in fact claimed in interviews that he specifically set Trigger Mortis after Goldfinger so he could set to right Fleming’s “offensive” idea that Pussy Galore the lesbian was only waiting for a real man all along – I for one thought it was just another enjoyable indication of how Fleming’s Bond books are nothing more than “fairy tales for adults,” as Fleming himself once defended them.

Here, around 50 pages in (and this Signet edition by the way is deceptively slim, with the ultra-small print of these early ‘60s paperbacks), James Bond makes his first kills of the series. After getting his left pinky finger broken in a grueling sequence, Bond frees himself while he’s being dragged off – using his favored method, as displayed in Casino Royale; kicking at his opponent’s shins. But this time Bond’s wearing steel-toed shoes, and ends up bashing the hell out of Tee-Hee, the Big henchman who broke Bond’s finger. After Tee-Hee falls to his death, Bond appropriates his .38 and blows away two more goons (“Bond shot straight into the screaming mouth”) before escaping. Now this is more like it!

Whereas the Bond franchise is known for exotic locations, Live And Let Die plants Bond in the American southwest, as he travels by train with Solitaire, who has fled from Big. I found it humorous reading about James Bond eating in diners and truckstops. Solitaire proves to be a great Bond Girl, much more interesting than the film version; the expected chemistry between the two is slowly built, but when it leads to the expected shenanigans Fleming surprises us by having Bond incapable of doing the deed, due to his broken pinky finger. Despite the lack of sex Fleming still gets more risque than previously, with juicy detail on Solitaire’s “hard breasts” as Bond cops a feel while making out with her – and Bond even informs her, “You kiss better than any other girl I’ve known,” which is something I bet every woman would just love to hear.

When the action moves down to the Everglades of Florida, Live And Let Die loses its way for a bit. Suddenly the novel is comprised of extended rants about this or that: the bad food of American diners and how horrible American boiled eggs are (Bond), the gross “oldsters” of Florida and the young wolves who fleece them for their cash (Solitaire); how boring and impersonal American cars are (Bond again). In particular this ranting sounds strange coming from Solitiare, who previously was an enigmatic figure; when she’s suddenly going on and on about the “rackets” in Florida and how they take advantage of the seniors down there, it’s like a totally different character. 

Things pick up when Solitaire is abducted right on cue by Big’s omnipresent henchmen. But here we get a reminder of the dandified wuss of Casino Royale. When Bond discovers Solitaire has been taken…he goes out for dinner and gets drunk. Whereas your average spy yarn hero would immediately go off in hot pursuit, chasing leads even if there were none, Bond does nothing – and in fact, it’s Felix Leiter who goes off looking for her. (That’s why America saved England’s ass in the war, I guess – we get things done!) This leads to one of the more memorable moments in the Bond novels – Leiter is caught and turned into shark bait.

“He disagreed with something that ate him,” goes the letter that accompanies Leiter’s bandage-covered body, which is deposited in Bond’s room the next day (a line that would also feature in License To Kill). Eventually we’ll learn that Leiter has lost “one of his arms” and the lower half of his left leg. This actually compels Bond to do something; off he goes to the headquarters of Big’s local rep, the shotgun-wielding Robber. A scene that brings to mind moments from the film franchise ensues as Bond engages the Robber in a shootout in a large aquarium stocked with exotic fish; Bond employs the .25 Beretta which in Doctor No would be branded “a woman’s gun.” This proves to be Bond’s third kill in the book (and series), as he makes the Robber fall prey to his own trap, tumbling into the same shark tank he earlier placed Leiter.

The final quarter continues in the more pulpy direction. Now in Jamaica, Bond meets up with local MI6 rep Strangways and native swimmer/fisherman Quarrel (both of whom would return in Doctor No). Mr. Big is on an island off Jamaica surrounded by the long stretch of Shark Bay; Bond has decided he will, alone, swim over there, take out Big, and save Solitaire. To do this he spends a week training with Quarrel, cutting his three-pack-a-day habit down to a few cigarettes a day and swimming a few miles each morning. By the end of the week his pinky finger is healed and he’s lean and mean, more like the Bond of the movies.

Future Bond continuation author Raymond Benson in his The James Bond Bedside Companion (revised edition, 1988) calls out Bond’s nighttime journey through Shark Bay as one of the highlights of Live And Let Die, and it certainly is, though as typical with Fleming it’s a bit digressive and overly poetic for a thriller. Bond, suited up in black frogman gear courtesy Q Branch and armed with a Champion harpoon gun, navigates the bizarre underworld of the sea as he makes his own commando raid on Big’s headquarters. There’s lots of wonderful aquatic description, but at the same time it sort of gets in the way of the suspense. However this is part of what makes Fleming appealing to so many readers.

Hopes for an underwater action scene are dashed; after planting a limpet mine beneath Big’s ship, Bond is attacked by a barracuda and then quickly abducted by two of Big’s frogmen, who spotted Bond’s scuba bubbles during a brief fight with an octopus. In a scene that reminded me of something Manning Lee Stokes would’ve delivered, a half-nude Bond finds himself in an cave, surrounded by Big and his army of “Negroes” while voodoo drums blare from a turntable. In a gripping finale that didn’t reach the film franchise until For Your Eyes Only, Bond and Solitaire are stripped, tied together, and pulled behind Big’s ship over the jagged corral reefs – but Bond’s mentally counting the seconds until that limpet mine explodes.

While Fleming provides a great sendoff for Big (Bond watches from the safety of a reef as “the Big Man” is torn apart by sharks), Solitaire sort of fades away; she’s developed as a great character and then removed from the narrative, only appearing again in the final few pages. M has granted Bond two weeks “passionate leave,” and Bond plans to spend it here in Jamaica with Solitaire – though curiously, he also declares that Quarrel will be staying with them, apparently as a cook.

Despite the periodic digressions and sometimes-overwhelming scenery decription, Fleming keeps Live And Let Die moving, and provides periodic bursts of action. Even when things don’t pan out the way the action enthusiast wants – ie Bond’s scuba raid on Big’s lair – Fleming still has a knack for expertly setting everything up and making the reader eager to see what happens. His novels are really odd when compared to the average thriller (they’re almost like Mike Hammer as written by Proust or something), yet at the same time they’re very engaging. It’s a strange magic, and no doubt the reason why none of the Bond continuation novels have ever been held in the same regard as Fleming’s originals.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 4


Agent 505 Death Trap Beirut (1966): I really enjoyed this one, a bright and colorful German-Italian production shot entirely in sixties Beirut, a much different place than today. The movie has a great opening as a few lovely young women are shot by the poolside, their killer using a C02 gun that fires frozen air bullets! The killer himself is soon done away with, his dying words that the girls “knew too much” and that by tomorrow everyone in Beirut will be dead. Enter Agent 505 of Interpol, a suave spy-type who looks similar to Roger Moore. This dude quickly informs us he operates by his own rules: he knows killers will be looking for him, so sets up a gullible traveling salesman as bait! At least he ensures the guy isn’t killed. As with most West German productions there’s a focus on comedy here, mostly through ironic one-liners, which gives the film more of a Bond feel than most Italian Eurospy efforts, which usually fail at the ironic comedy. That being said, the middle half derails a bit with the bungling efforts of a group of criminals 505’s Interpol colleague gets involved with.

This does pay off, though, as the criminals work for the mysterious Sheik, ie the villain of the piece, a master criminal with only four fingers but who is never seen. The reveal of who the Sheik turns out to be is actually well done, if implausible. There could be more gals on display, though: the only two main ones are a blonde trickshot artist with bouffant hair who is the ex-wife of the Sheik, and another blonde, this one a reporter who falls for 505. The story takes place over two days and the action keeps moving, with more C02 guns, a telephone-gun, and other gadgets, plus a lot of stunts, including 505 hanging off a helicopter. The finale is the highlight, as 505 and pals infiltrate the villains’s lair, and like “Coplan FX 18 casse tout” we have a miniature “Dr. No” riff, with the heroes and villains all wearing shiny silver radiation suits and blowing each other away with submachine guns. This flick features the most brutal killing of a main villain yet in Eurospy, with the hearltess bastard’s face wrapped up in barbed wire before he gets blown up!

Cifrato Speciale (1966): Apparently the English title for this German-Italian production would be “Special Cypher,” but it was never brought over to the US, and thus the only print we have of it is from a widescreen German VHS which some helpful fan has subtitled in English. Like most West German co-productions this one seems to have had a nice budget, but it’s undone by constant action scenes, with more fistfights randomly and arbitrarily breaking out than in one of the Bruceploitation flicks of Bruce Le. Seriously, hero Lang Jeffries (as a US agent posing as a formerly-insane pilot…!) can’t go five minutes without someone jumping out of the shadows and taking a swing at him. The flick opens in 1945 as two Nazi pilots drop special crates into the ocean. Twenty years later various factions are looking for these crates, which apparently hold the plans for anti-gravity tech. Jeffries poses as the lone survivor of the flight, who has spent the past two decades in an insane asylum, escaping as the movie opens. Everyone thus believes that Jeffries knows where the crates are, so everyone looks for him.

There are a few Eurobabes in attendance, one of whom is a treacherous spy for the main villain faction, a SPECTRE-type cabal that apparently resides in an underwater city (we only see the inside of it). Here various henchman stalk around in shiny black jumpsuits, toting submachine guns. There’s a fair bit of “Thunderball”-inspired underwater photography, with Jeffries in scuba gear getting in a few scrapes beneath the waves (even here there is constant fighting) while riding around on an underwater sled. It climaxes in the villain’s lair, but hopes for a big battle are dashed as a deus ex machina poison gas does the hero’s job for him. But the sets look cool and the movie certainly keeps moving, even though it’s all so convoluted. Like many German productions this one also mocks itself throughout, with “witty” asides making fun of the events. Also a great bit where the treacherous spy babe strips down to bra and panties to prove she isn’t wearing a wire, but the bastards cut away when she doffs her bra. I wept bitterly.

Coplan FX 18 casse tout (1965): This one’s supposedly a French-Italian joint, but it seems a bit too French to me. Sluggish pace, self-conscious camera angles, lack of a good Eurobabe. As usual the Italians just did it better. Also, it’s very humorless. This is surprising given the star, the Roger Moore-looking dude who showed up two years later in the slapstick-esque “Dick Smart 2.007.” Here he’s dour and merciless Coplan, top French agent. The convoluted plot has him going to the Middle East for something about a missing scientist or whatever; stuff just happens in the movie and characters react like it’s a big deal, whereas the viewer has no idea what’s going on. There’s a lack of gadgets and as mentioned a lack of Eurobabes, with only two or three of them showing up in minor roles. Action is occasional, like a long motorbike-car chase. The final thirty minutes improves with an underground complex where a nuclear missile is being built. It’s all very Bond-esque, complete with goons in sci-fi radiation suits a la “Dr. No.” But even this can’t save the film, which just lacks the spark and fun of an Italian spy-fy flick.

Danger!! Death Ray (1967): You’d think watching the uncut version of this flick in widescreen would result in a movie better than the one so capably mocked on MST3K, but nope! It really sucks. “Special effects by Timmy” does sum up the film, but you have to respect how the filmmakers just said the hell with it and clearly used toys in various shots. Superbuff Gordon Scott as “Bart Fargo” can’t really carry the film, and the plot lacks much logic, even considering the standards of the Eurospy genre. Highlight is the finale, which almost prefigures Arnold’s “Commando,” with buff Bart blowing away scads of henchmen at the villain’s villa. The annyoing, repetitive “Watermelon Man” theme song drives me crazy, and I say this as a guy who actually collects Italian soundtracks from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Otherwise this one didn’t thrill me, but the widecreen/English-dubbed print I saw looked great.

Dick Smart 2.007 (1967): A strange hybrid of a comedy film and a gadget & action-heavy Eurospy movie, “Dick Smart 2.007” is a spoof of Bond that sometimes takes itself seriously. Dick Smart is a suave, very Roger Moore-esque superagent, one more interested in picking up chicks than solving cases. Like Moore he’s also very fond of gadgets and has a motorcycle/helicopter deal. Whereas most of these Eurospy movies are all about the European babes, the hotstuff female lead in this one is blonde British babe Margaret Lee, who is extremely pretty. She plays the villainous Lady Lister, who is trying to steal jewels or some such, but one of her own employees turns out to be the main villain. Dick Smart of course hooks up with her, as well as other babes throughout, but the “comedy” angle is grating and too low-brow, like cranked-up film speed in the fight scenes. But there is a lot of action, and the finale is especially nice, with Dick Smart and Lady Lister united in a raid on the villain’s compound, complete with Lady Lister blowing away a bunch of villains. Usually the women are just eye candy in these movies, but she holds her own, and not in the generic “touch chick” cliché of modern action movies. She also looks damn great in a bikini-type scuba suit.

From The Orient With Fury (1965): The second film in the “Dick Malloy” trilogy features studly, hirsute Ken Clark returning as Agent 077. This one unfortunately is about as drab as the first film, “Mission Bloody Mary,” and nowhere as great as the last one, “Special Mission Lady Chaplin.” This despite a premise concerning a death ray. At any rate Malloy is called on to look into a missing, perhaps dead scientist who was working on a laser-based ray. Off Malloy goes to Madrid, where he gets in one brawl after another. Seriously, this film wins the contest for most barroom brawls in a Eurospy flick, with two of them breaking out just minutes apart, in two separate bars. One of them goes on forever, complete with a tourist Spaniard or something who eagerly joins in the festivities, adding a bit of unfunny “comedy.”

As far as the Eurospy-mandatory Eurobabes go, we have a return of the treacherous brunette who also played a bad girl in the much superior Superseven Calling Cairo that same year. There’s also megababe Margaret Lee, who shows up in the last half hour as a fellow secret agent; her voice is dubbed this time and she’s got beach-bottle blonde hair to her chin. The film doesn’t do much to exploit its actresses, though, save for a busty Spanish beauty Malloy scores with midway through the film. Otherwise this is a tedious, generic film, clearly shot on a budget. Only the finale shows any spark, so to speak, with the main villain busting out that raygun, which is also low budget but still fun. When a person or thing is hit by the ray they glow blue and then disappear. Also this flick features one of the more annoying soundtracks, from a recurring theme song which quickly grates on the nerves to a recurring big band cue that does the same.

Fury In Marrakesh (1966): Bob Dixon, Agent 077 (an annoying ass who bears a disconcerting resemblance to infamous Saturday Night Live loser Charles Rocket), heads to Marrakesh on his first assignment. At times this movie encapsulates the “Budget Bond” aesthetic of Italian Eurospy; there’s even a Q who has a roomful of dangerous gadgets which he shows off for 077. But this is a more randy pseudo-Q; he produces a pair of X-ray glasses and calls in his sexy secretary to try them out on! Agent 077’s mission is to find a sexy gal who lifted a bunch of counterfeit cash that itself was looted from Hitler’s war stash. A SPECTRE-type cabal is also after her.

Bob Dixon 077 is not only annoying but also arrogant, which is pretty funny when you consider he’s as green as you can get. He gets knocked out and captured more times than any other Eurospy hero I can think of. Also his life is sometimes saved via sheer deus ex machina, something you’d never see in a genuine Bond film. There are a ton of gadgets in this one, though, which adds to the fun. But 077 himself ruins it, and the finale seems rushed. Also the dubbing in this one is notable, particularly 077’s; I wonder if the actor himself dubbed it. At any rate it’s all dubbed very amateurishly. Another demerit for this one is the lack of Eurobabes; what few women are here are relegated to the background. The only notable one is the blonde who played the stewardess/evil spy in Operation Atlantis, who here plays the evil spy babe Heidi.

Mission Bloody Mary (1965): The first of three films brawny American actor Ken Clark did as “Dick Malloy, Agent 077,” the other two being “From The Orient With Fury” and “Special Mission Lady Chaplin.” This first one is okay but is more of a “realistic” espionage picture. Malloy heads across Europe and to Greece to track down the titular Bloody Mary, an experimental and highly-dangerous atomic device that’s been stolen. Clark got his start in Italian flicks in the sword and sandal movies due to his bodybuilder physique, thusly the fistfights are given more focus in this one. Clark is one of the Eurospy actors who could hold his own against Sean Connery, at least in the athletic category, but again he sorta looks like Roger Moore, like so many other Eurospy actors.

The film is very slavish to the Bond formula, complete with a theme song that’s almost lifted from John Barry. However I thought the movie was for the most part marginal; the fistfights get old after a while and the “surprise” reveal of who main villain Black Lily is can be seen coming halfway through the movie. The gadgets aren’t as prevalent this time, but 077 does have a special revolver with 9 rounds (it’s quickly lost, though), as well as an attachment for it that apparently gives it super-caliber properties (this showed up again in the much-superior “Special Mission Lady Chaplin”). He also has a kit that can recover burned messages. The movie is fast-paced and again comes very close to capturing the look and feel of a Bond movie, but it just lacks that special something more expected of spyghetti.

Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966): The third of three films with Ken Clark as “Dick Malloy, Agent 077” (not to be confused with Bob Fleming, Agent 077, of course!). This one co-stars the lovely Daniela Bianchi, the svelte blonde who had the female lead in “From Russia With Love” (and she also had the female lead in “O.K. Connery,” to be reviewed next time, as the villainous blonde who later went good). She is the titular Lady Chaplin, yet another henchwoman-type character. The film is filled with great imagery, like the opening shot of Lady Chaplin, disguised as a nun, pulling a submachine gun out of her habit and blowing away a bunch of priests. (Turns out later they were really spies.) The film is very much in the vein of the Connery Bond movies, with lots of action and gadgets and a decent budget. Ken Clark is good as the hero, and he gets to pull his own “Thunderball”-type finale, donning a scuba suit and coming to the aid of Lady Chaplin, who as you guessed goes good before film’s end and helps fight her old boss. This is considered one of the classics of the Eurospy genre, and rightly so. Plus it’s available in a fairly nice widescreen print.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Penetrator #29: Aryan Onslaught

The Penetrator #29: Aryan Onslaught, by Lionel Derrick
January, 1979  Pinnacle Books

The Penetrator gets weird in a far-out volume by Mark Roberts, which, per the back cover, even leaves Mark Hardin’s “mind blown.” While Roberts doesn’t fully exploit the bonkers plotline he’s come up with, Aryan Onslaught is at least a lot more entertaining than the past several volumes have been, proving that, even this far in, there’s still some life left in the series.

Quickly picking up immediately after the events of the previous volume, we have Mark already on the scene in Coalville, Utah, during the middle of a blizzard. Roberts delivers an effective action opening as the Penetrator takes out a three-man machine gun emplacement outside the small town, burtally torturing the survivor with ice water on his privates to get information. The Aryan Brotherhood, composed of Nazi radicalized ex-cons, has taken over Coalville, under the leadership of Big Toby, a punk rock-listening neo-Nazi who claims Coalville is just the spearhead of a larger movement.

In a plotline that prefigures that of David Alexander’s Z-Comm #1, the “ABs,” as Roberts refers to them in the narrative, have staged a successful coup in Smalltown, USA, and no one even noticed. The populace acts like zombies, the TV station broadcasts AB propaganda, and the neo-Nazi punks run roughshod over their subjects. Eventually Mark will discover that the ABs have poisoned the water with the mind-altering drug datura and they’re using subliminal tricks to brainwash TV viewers – cue lots of anti-advertising invective courtesy Roberts. (We also get the memorable tidbit that the sound of rock music “disgusts” Mark Hardin.)

An interesting change has slowly been occurring in The Penetrator; it appears that the attempt is being made to make it more like The Executioner. In addition to the newfangled “Penetrator’s Combat Catalog” which appears at the back of each book, we also have changes to the Penetrator’s arsenal. In particular there is “the Brown Beast,” a Ford pickup with camper that is very clearly modeled after the Executioner’s War Wagon. Never mentioned before, the Brown Beast is suddenly revealed as a key component of the Penetrator’s endless war on crime.

Roberts also fills up pages with another new element: rampant gun-porn. While previous volumes have certainly had weapons details, Aryan Onslaught goes overboard with lots of technical data on the various firearms and explosives Mark uses – and not-so-coincidentally, each of them show up in illustrated form in this volume’s Combat Catalog. It would appear then that Pinnacle paved the way that Gold Eagle Books eventually went; as I recall, all those ‘80s GE books had gun info in the back, but the Penetrator books go a step further with a handful of pages instead of just one.

While scouting out the town Mark runs steps into a backyard, only to be confronted by a blonde woman of “Amazon” proportions who holds a shotgun on him, ready to blow away this latest Aryan Brother. This will turn out to be Angie Dillon, widowed mother of pubescent twins. A former New Orleans cop, Angie moved to Coalville ten years ago, and her husband died in a boating accident under mysterious circumstances. She and Mark will ultimately fall in love, and Roberts introduces this ungainly romance angle where Mark, within a few chapters of meeting Angie, has of course had the between-chapter sex with her but finds himself practicing karate with her kids, making meals with her, and wondering if he should move the Stronghold nearby so he can marry her!!

In what can only be an authorial slap to the face to fellow series writer Chet Cunningham, Roberts even has Mark realize that he’s not once thought of Joanna Tabler, his hotstuff girlfriend of previous books – and, pointedly, a creation of Cunningham’s. But Mark’s head over heels for Angie, even thinking of having kids with her. Roberts sprinkles this stuff around periodic outbursts of quickly-rendered action; Big Toby sends in a stream of hitmen who prove humorously ineffective against the Penetrator, from a carload of Syndicate hitmen to a professional assassin. In each case the Penetrator kills his hunters with the weaponry illustrated and described in the Combat Catalog.

The veteran action reader will figure out quickly where this is going. Big Toby, who himself is a dullard ex-con, has Angie’s twins kidnapped – to be executed on live local television as an example of what happens to all who go against the Aryan Brotherhood! Mark, hearing about it on the radio(!), raids the TV studio in another hit. But while it’s all crazy, it’s another example of how Roberts so constantly squanders his bizarre setups throughout the novel. I mean, the zombiefied populace subplot is only barely explored – early on we get strange stuff like mind-blown townspeople trying to mow their lawns despite the feet-high snow, and other random oddness – and posthaste Mark’s blowing up the datura at the water processing plant.

Further evidence of this is that the last quarter of Aryan Onslaught goes in a completely different direction. Mark, wearing a gas mask and hitting the studio with tear and nausea gas, manages to take out Toby (via a falling TV camera!); the AB leader dies laughing that this Coalville plot was just the beginning. He mentions something about the three main AB leaders being in Soledad Prison. Mark returns to his desert Stronghold, where Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle realize the Penetrator has fallen in love. They also are nonplussed over his insistence that he needs to go to jail.

Thanks to a prison lead courtesy Mark’s cop pal Kelly Patterson, still recovering from the ninja beating he got back in #27: The Animal Game, Mark is able to pose as a Soledad laundry contractor in an overly-drawn out bit of setup. Funnily enough, all this elaborate “prison life” exposition and setup is quickly dispensed by one of the most lowbrow finales ever: Mark simply stabs the three AB leaders in Soledad in the back, one at a time, as he lures them into the laundry room! After this he leaves his usual arrowheads to show that the Penetrator will find his prey no matter where they are.

And talk about wiping away even more elaborate setup – despite planning to marry her just a few pages before, at the end of Aryan Onslaught Mark basically just tells Angie “so long – my life’s too dangerous to get involved with anyone,” and she’s all okay with it, agreeing that she too got a little carried away! Jeez…maybe it was the datura in the water? Mark also apparently skips all over the part where he decided the Stronghold should be moved, especially given its secure location has twice been compromised in recent volumes.

Livened up by periodic action – which unfortunately isn’t as gory as that in Cunningham’s installments – Aryan Onslaught benefits from an unusual plot and a well-described location…in fact the brutal blizzard conditions of Coalivlle bring to mind the snow-blanketed Chicago of The Executioner #8.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Eyes Of The Tiger (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #9)

The Eyes Of The Tiger, by Nick Carter
September, 1965  Award Books

For his first volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster, Manning Lee Stokes turns in a slow-moving espionage story along the muted lines of his later Mission To Venice. The Eyes Of The Tiger was also the first book Stokes wrote for series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and initiated a writing partnership that would last between the two until Stokes’s death in January 1976.

Per Will Murray in his Killmaster article in The Armchair Detective (volume 15, number 4, 1982):

After [original author] Valerie Moolman dropped the series, Engel advertised in the New York Times for adventure writers. Award had found that Killmaster sold so well that at least six novels could be published per year. The ad was answered by an industrious and hard-drinking writer named Manning Lee Stokes. Stokes, who in the past had written a little of everything from porn novels to Classics Illustrated, had been inactive for a while and anxious for work. His first Nick, The Eyes Of The Tiger, was published in 1965. It introduced a more macho – almost brutal – Killmaster than the Moolman version had been. Over the next six years, Stokes churned out a total of eighteen Nicks, sometimes carrying the series solo for extended periods. He also wrote the first novels for other Engel series, including The Aquanauts, Richard Blade, and John Eagle Expeditor.

Stokes was not only amazingly prolific but could write solid fiction against tight deadlines. Even when he did not adhere exactly to the approved outline, usually the result was just what Engel needed. His was the first Nick to be written in the first person. This was 1969’s The Red Rays. It’s not clear how the first-person device was introduced into the series. As Stokes remembered it, it was his idea. He had used it in hardboiled mystery paperbacks in the ‘fifties and thought it lent itself to Nick Carter…Nevertheless, the first-person voice became standard with The Cobra Kill [another Stokes installment] in 1969. It became a bone of contention between Engel and Award for the rest of their association.

Inevitably, Manning Lee Stokes grew weary of Nick Carter and did other Engel projects – which he wrote right up to his death in the mid-‘seventies. 

I love that description, “industrious and hard-drinking.” I included all of this because it’s practically all I’ve ever been able to find out about Manning Lee Stokes; it doesn’t appear that he ever gave any interviews, and Murray revealed in the uncut Engel interview (which appeared in Paperback Parade #2, 1986) that he himself had never met Stokes, only talked to people who knew him. In other words, Stokes is kind of a mystery, and I’d love to know more about him – he is mentioned in this very brief biography, where it’s revealed that he and his wife never had children.

But anyway, The Eyes Of The Tiger is where it all began, and the seeds for many later Stokes-Engel gems are planted here. In fact a throwaway mention of Nick’s brutal annual training at PURG, held in a “quasi-hell in the American Southwest,” is almost identical to the more fleshed-out sequence of John Eagle’s harsh training in the first Expeditor novel, Needles Of Death. But unfortunately, Stokes’s soon-to-be-customary digressive plotting is also here; it takes a damn long time for much of anything to happen. While the writing is strong, the thrills are few. However Stokes certainly has done his homework, so far as the main characters and situations go; one would have a hard time guessing this was in fact his first installment of the series.

Anyway, Nick’s in Zurich, posing alternately as a grungy sailor and a portly American businessman named Frank Manning – Stokes already employing his customary in-jokery within the first few pages of his first Killmaster novel. When we meet Nick he’s standing over the comatose form of a gorgeous, stacked blonde whom Nick has given a mickey finn; the woman made a play for him in his sailor guise, and a suspicious Nick took her back to his hovel of a hotel room…and promptly knocked her out! (Be prepared for the egregious usage of exclamation points that mars most of Stokes’s early Killmaster yarns, by the way.)

This will ultimately prove to be the Baroness Elspeth von Stadt, lovely West German secret agent who carries derringers in her garter belts and the photo of a hanged man’s face in her locket. Nick’s boss Hawk has sent the Baroness to meet up with Nick and join him on his latest assignment, which has him plotting to steal a tiger statuette with diamond eyes from a Swiss bank. Old Axis comrades Shikoku Hondo and Max Rader also plot to get the statue; Rader killed the Baroness’s father back during the war years (it’s her father’s face in that grisly locket photo), and the Baroness, who is consumed with vengeance so far as Rader goes, is the only person who knows what the old Nazi’s new face looks like.

So The Eyes Of The Tiger limps into action; it takes a good 40 or so pages of super-small and dense print to learn all this. The short bit of early action occurs when Nick finds Hondo about to rape the Baroness’s comatose form; Stokes here doles out hordes of racist stuff which is pretty unusual for him, referring to Hondo as everything from an “ape” to a “lustful little Nip” to even a “saffron-faced monkey.” Anyway Nick barges in, saves the Baroness’s honor, and then tosses Hondo out the window after savagely kicking him in the crotch. So much for Shikoku Hondo, promised on the back cover as one of the novel’s main villains.

While the book lacks much in the way of action until the final pages, The Eyes Of The Tiger is surprisingly more robust in the sexual hijnks, which is particularly interesting given the publication date. Stokes here is more explicit than he is in later volumes, with Nick and Elspeth’s initial boffing given an elaborate three-page sequence that, while never outright hardcore, leaves nothing to the imagination. More importantly, this sex scene prefigures every other sex scene Stokes wrote: it’s sexual mortal combat, man versus woman, Nick “mastering” the female, who of course has never had a real man and thus never had a proper orgasm. We also get the memorable detail of Elspeth “leeching at [Nick’s] manhood.”

All this occurs on a lakeside villa near Zurich, owned by a wealthy lesbian friend of Elspeth’s and staffed by a grossly obese butler named Osman (whom Nick thinks looks like the Michelin Man) and a “pleasantly plump” horny maid named Mignon (who insists Nick have sex with her…mere hours after his herculean bout with Elspeth, but Stokes leaves this one to our imagination). Osman turns out to be working for Rader, and we have a tense and long knife fight between him and Nick on a clifftop.

As Will Murray states above, Stokes’s version of Nick Carter is certainly brutal at times; he ends up using Elspeth as bait, same as he will use other sexy sirens as bait in later Stokes novels. When she’s taken captive, Nick is contacted by Rader’s men and informed that Elspeth is in the bowels of a medieval castle, where she will be tortured if Nick doesn’t turn over the part of the key he stole from Shikoku Hondo, which Rader needs to open the Swiss vault with the tiger statue. Stokes delivers one of his effective scene-setting moments where Nick, stripped to swimming trunks, his face and skin blackened, infiltrates the castle during a heavy storm and plants his weapons in the torture chamber. 

The finale also prefigures another mainstay of Stokes’s later fiction: the “bluff or brawn” gambit, where Nick, alone and unarmed, bluffs his way into Rader’s castle and tries to con the old Nazi sadist into giving up Elspeth and letting them both go. He fails, and Stokes delivers in the final pages the moment promised on the first-page preview: Elspeth is stripped and put on the rack, hot pokers about to be applied to her by Rader’s men. But Nick’s planted trusty Wilhelmina and Hugo beneath the rack, and Stokes doesn’t cheat us out of an action-packed finale.

In many ways, The Eyes Of The Tiger is like Stokes’s version of Casino Royale. Mostly in how Nick, like Bond in that first adventure, here begins to fall in love with a woman he’s uncertain he can trust – the Killmaster, you see, is shocked to discover he’s developed feelings for Elspeth, and wonders if he might want to quit the spy game. Admittedly this is some lame telegraphing, but Stokes handles it well, and of course it leads to the expected outcome – Elspeth is like Vesper Lynd in that she is hiding a few things from our hero. Her finale is also similar, with her proclamations of love falling on deaf ears; this leads to a nice bit, and another indication of the brutality of Stokes’s hero, where Nick leaves Elspeth “one last bullet” – for herself.

It moves a lot slower than its 159 pages would imply, but The Eyes Of The Tiger is still pretty enjoyable. One can imagine that Lyle Kenyon Engel was certainly happy that this particular writer responded to his ad. I’ve managed to pick up all of Stokes’s Killmaster installments and look forward to reading the rest of them.