Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Executioner #13: Washington I.O.U.

The Executioner #13: Washington I.O.U., by Don Pendleton
September, 1972  Pinnacle Books

I get the feeling Don Pendleton was a little worn out when he wrote this installment of The Executioner. Maybe he just invested too much of himself in the previous volume, which per his own comments was one of his favorites of the entire series. I don’t think anyone could say that about Washington I.O.U., though; this one’s a bit of a mess, with too big a story for too few pages, with a rushed narrative (the “telling instead of showing” is especially rampant this time) that ultimately dispenses with the grander storyline and climaxes with a bizarre finale that would’ve been more at home in a 1930s pulp.

I do appreciate how Pendleton picks up from the previous yarn, which ended with Bolan blowing away some random Mafia dude and taking some papers from him, papers which would tell the Executioner where to go next in his endless blitz on the mob. So it’s now about a week later and Bolan’s in DC; when we meet him, he’s trailing a beautiful gal named Claudia Vitale; in her day job she’s the secretary for an over-the-hill Congressman, but in her night job she’s a “Mafia whore.” Claudia will be the main female character in this one, but despite the sleazy setup – we’ll learn Claudia is used as a honey trap by the mob, baiting and snaring Washington VIPs, getting them in the sack so their photos can be secretly taken, and then blackmailing them – there will be no hanky-panky for Bolan himself. This of course results in several demerits from me.

The opening definitely promises a more gripping story than we’ll ultimately get; Bolan happens to witness an attempted hit on Claudia, a pair of Mafia thugs pulling her off the street and into her apartment. Bolan takes out the guy waiting in the car and the two sadists in Claudia’s apartment without even breaking a sweat; he’s totally in superhero mode at this point in the series, but Pendleton’s such a gifted author that it all still has a realistic vibe to it. And speaking of which, Bolan solely uses his sidearms this time, either the big Automag .44 or the Beretta Belle, which he picked up many volumes ago. The second one is used a little more, as Bolan goes for a lot of quiet kills with the silencer on the Beretta. Otherwise there’s none of the heavy autofire of other Executioner yarns. 

Bolan was put onto Claudia because “Vitale” was mentioned in those papers he got in Boston; Claudia is the widow of a young Mafia exec who was one of those “college types” rebuilding the organization, to the jealousy of the old “moustache Pete” types. This ultimately got him killed, and per Claudia’s sob story she was soon “forced into prostitution” (to quote Senshi in the greatest-ever kung-fu movie, Chinese Super Ninjas) for the mob, used as a honey trap for Washington notables. The plot seems ripped from the many sleazy “Washington tell-all” books of the day, so Pendleton was clearly abreast of what was going on in the paperback market. But the sleaze isn’t nearly as focused on, with Claudia calling herself a “whore” and actually thinking that it might’ve been better if those mobsters had killed her: not only does she consider her life without value, but she also recently pulled the stunt of informing one of her marks that the Mafia was setting him up.

This has put Claudia in the cross-hairs of “Lupo,” aka the Wolf, the mysterious, never-seen man behind the DC Mafia. This makes for I don’t recall how many volumes in a row in which Pendleton’s injected this theme of a mysterious, behind-the-scenes Mafia bigwig with a cutsey name, with Bolan pondering over who the guy could be…it almost gives the impression that Pendleton didn’t think a pulp-action focus was sufficient to fuel an entire narrative, and thus gussied it up with a “mystery” angle. But at this point it’s getting ridiculous, and is about on the level of the lame “surprise villain reveals” of The Spider. Also it’s been frustrating because none of these secret mob bosses with cutsey names have yet justified the expense of prose devoted to them; they’re finally trotted out onto the page in the very end and dispensed with almost perfunctorily by Bolan. The same holds true here, with Lupo revealed in the final few pages – Bolan having already figured out who he is without the reader being informed of it – and quickly blown to hell.

We’re treated to another action scene immediately after Bolan saves Claudia – a cool setup with “The Wolf Squad,” a five-man Mafia assault group composed of former GIs. This promises so much, Bolan finally going up against a group with the same military experience he has. But ultimately it turns out to just be another ball Pendleton briefly tosses in the air. The Wolf Squad, despite an inordinate amount of time given over to their internal squabbles and thoughts – Bolan’s perspective disappears from pages 36 to 113, with Pendleton dipping into the thoughts of his sundry supporting characters, making the Executioner seem like a guest star in his own book – is wiped out in this initial skirmish. That sentence was hamfistedly complex so let me write it in more simple terms: this is the only time we see the Wolf Squad in action, Pendleton blowing the potential of “Bolan vs fellow soldiers.” What’s worse, the Wolf Squad isn’t even taken out in a pitched firefight or somesuch; Bolan causes them to wreck and then shoots each individually with his Automag as they stumble out of their burning car. At least Gil Cohen does a nice job of illustrating this part.

As mentioned Bolan disappears for a long stretch of the book; when he does briefly appear, it’s filtered through the impressions of other characters. Thus we get a lot of the customary hero-worship, which comes off as incredibly egregious this time, with so many characters marvelling over Bolan’s he-man nature. There’s also a lot of skimmable stuff about various one-off Mafia characters, and even worse news dispatches, including verbatim TV reports, informing us of the action scenes we’ve already read about. Pendleton’s goal is ostensibly to show how Bolan has become a mythical figure at this point, with even regular people aware of his one-man war on the mob, thus the TV is filled with panicked reports of his “rampage” here in DC. I mean that’s the goal, but the reality is it seems more like Pendleton’s filling up the pages because he’s got another damn book to write and it seems like just yesterday that he turned in the last one.

And Bolan’s DC blitz is rendered almost entirely in these pseudo-dispatches; the book has become so cluttered at this point with arbitrary digressions on one-off mobsters and “who is Lupo?” ponderings that Pendleton actually has to summarize Bolan’s many and frequent hits on various DC-area Mafia strongholds. Along the way Bolan also picks up a few mobster allies, including Ripper Dan Aliotto, a wheelman for a DC underboss (who himself is heavily built up with chapters devoted to his impressions, before being unceremoniously dropped from the narrative) who develops a sort of friendship with “the big guy in black.” Through Ripper Dan we also get a lot more of that “what a man!” stuff, with the wheelman looking at Bolan in the rearview mirror and pondering over his larger than life qualities and whatnot. I did a Google search on “Ripper Dan Aliotto,” to see if he ever returned to the series, and it looks like he did, sort of, over ten years later, in the tenth installment of Able Team, Royal Flush – long enough to get blown away, at least. No idea if he appeared before that, though, but so far as that Able Team book goes, it seems to have been the one and only contribution of someone credited as “Flavel Ballam.” So I guess Ripper Dan must’ve made an impression on ol’ Flavel. Or at least enough of an impression that he felt the need to bring him back, twelve years later, so he could kill him off.

The pulpish mystery takes more predominance as the narrative progresses. Bolan ponders over the Boston connection with this DC power grab, ultimately coming to the goofy conclusion that Boston fits in the puzzle because it doesn’t fit…! What this means is that Bolan’s figured out Lupo is really from Boston, and at this point in the narrative the reader has more than a strong certainty who the mysterious figure actually is. I won’t spoil the reveal, but I will say it isn’t Claudia, which I think would’ve made for an even better reveal. But this is still the early ‘70s and thus really is a man’s world, so Claudia’s nothing more than the “Mafia whore” she claims to be. She is though “devastating in hot pants and a hip-length cape” in one sequence, not that Bolan’s pressured to take advantage of the situation – indeed, he merely gives her a kiss at novel’s end.

As mentioned, the finale wouldn’t seem out of place in The Shadow. Bolan determines that Lupo’s group, comprised of intelligence-world types, operates out of a headquarters hidden beneath a building, accessible via an underground tunnel. Bolan slips down there, silently kills a few guards, and then ends up saving Claudia again, as she’s once more been captured by Lupo’s men and escorted off to her own doom. Oh and I forgot to mention, right before this Pendleton’s introduced yet another ball in the air – a Mafia with thespian skills whom Lupo’s made to look like Bolan, having him run roughshod around DC and killing various people, even attempting to kill the President! This part is bonkers, particularly because it’s so incidental to anything else, and a clear sign that Pendleton was winging it as he went along.

But anyway, this pseudo-Bolan, who only gets like a single line of text, is also hanging out down here in Lupo’s secret headquarters, and Bolan merely sends Claudia in to confront the mysterious Lupo…who turns out to be exactly who Bolan suspected it was. After this our hero waltzes in and shoots everyone, save for the imposter Bolan, who we’re to understand we’ll be properly charged so the public at large will understand that the real Mack Bolan didn’t just kill a bunch of innocent people. Not that this matters, as the pseudo-Bolan subplot is so harried and poorly developed that you couldn’t see any repercussions from it, anyway. What’s worse is that this plot to take over the US is overseen by Lupo and like two other guys, and by blowing them away Bolan’s stopped this massive plot…a plot which in reality could’ve taken up several more volumes, instead of the single, rushed volume we got.

That said, Pendleton is certainly prescient, even if it’s unintentional. Claudia’s boss is a Congressman in his 80s who is so senile that “he doesn’t know what day it is,” and thus willingly acts as a “puppet” for his mob controllers. And if that isn’t “ripped from today’s headlines” enough for you, check this out: the bad guys (former intelligence agents, remember) operate out of a front company called IMAGE, a “civil rights outfit for ethnic minorities,” which they use to sow division in the country.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well

Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well, by Irving A. Greenfield
No month stated, 1977  Manor Books

This obscure Irving Greenfield paperback turns out to be the sequel to another obscure Irving Greenfield paperback: Making U-Hoo, which was published four years earlier by Dell. I had no idea of this when going into Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well, thus it turned out to be a pleasant surprise – as well as a relief, as “the U-Hoo Conspiracy” is constantly referenced in the narrative, with absolutely no background on it. One wonders if the few people who bought this Manor publication even realized it was the sequel to a book that had been published by another imprint a few years before.

My guess is that by the time Greenfield turned in his manuscript, Dell had moved away from the “sleaze paperbacks with photo covers” they’d been doing in the early to mid-‘70s; there were a ton of books in this unofficial line, in addition to Making U-HooSexual Strike Force, Michelle, My Belle, etc. Another possibility is that Dell just rejected Greenfield’s manuscript, which truth be told is pretty bad. I mean no joke, this is a lousy book. There are few things worse than an unfunny comedy, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well is. Whereas Making U-Hoo at least made the pretense toward being fairly “straight,” this one’s more of a madcap yarn in the vein of Ron Goulart, only spiced up with frequent hardcore sex sequences. This is another similarity to the previous book, and another indication that Greenfield likely wrote it thinking Dell would publish it.

At any rate we are introduced to returning hero Bart Sherriff (misspelled “Bat Sherriff” on the very first line of the book, reminding us from the get-go that this is Manor and not Dell) while he’s enthusiastically – and explicitly – banging his assistant, a redheaded beauty named Pam. Bart we’ll recall is a “trouble shooter for the big ad agencies on Madison Avenue” and charges thousands of dollars for his freelance advertiser services. He lives in a swank suite high atop Manhattan, often entertaining eager young women on his round bed with musical accompaniment courtesy an 8-track tape system; no mention is made, this time, of the lights that accompany the music. Last time Bart got involved with a conspiracy that had him rubbing shoulders with government agents and foreign spies, and the same holds true here, but this time Greenfield doesn’t even bother with the “freelance advertiser” setup.

Bart and Pam are interrupted mid-boink by a call on Bart’s “red line,” which is what the emergency calls from panicked clients comes in on. Pam doesn’t want him to answer, but Bart argues that his professional pride demands he do. Greenfield indulges in these sub-Len Levinson dialog exchanges throughout, with Bart engaging in pseudo-“deep” conversations with characters, but whereas such material is humorous in Len’s work, here it comes off more like teeth-pulling. Bart answers the phone to find it’s Fred Warren on the other line, president of North American Labrotories. Bart met him the other week at a party in Manhattan, where a drunk Bart was asked who was the greatest writer in history was and responded, to the amazement of all, “Julius Caesar.”

Choppering Bart out to the corp HQ, Warren explains that this is the very reason they want to hire Bart. You see, and brace yourself in for the stupidity, the lab once employed a man named Dr. Douglas who also said that Julius Caesar was the greatest writer in history! This, these “scientists” believe, is too much of a coincidence. A confused and progressively annoyed Bart claims that a “hobo” told him the Julius Caesar thing fifteen years before, and for no reason at all Bart repeated it at the party. By showing him some photos, Warren and his executive board prove that the hobo Bart met years ago might have been Dr. Douglas – Bart barely remembers what the hobo looked like, but he admits he remembers him as looking somewhat similar to the photos of Dr. Douglas.

It gets goofier: Dr. Douglas turns out to be dead, and the man who was working here at the lab was an imposter. One who stole some secret involving genetic engineering. Since Bart made this harmless statement about Julius Caesar being the greatest writer at the party, Fred Warren has decided to hire him to track down the missing man who was posing as Dr. Douglas and find out what happened to the secrets he stole. It’s all so incredibly preposterous, especially given that it has nothing to do with advertising, which is Bart’s forte. However, he’s somewhat famous now due to the “U-Hoo Conspiracy” (which is mentioned so many times I pity the poor readers who had no idea there was a previous book in this “series”), so Warren figures Bart will have no problem turning into a temporary gumshoe.

On this shaky ground the novel stands. The jumbled plot is however just an excuse to whisk Bart around the country so he can boff a series of hot, willing women. First among them is Dr. Paula Kay, who was friendly with “Dr. Douglas.” She claims there was something unusual about the man, particularly how he’d speak of historical events in almost casual terms. After this it’s down to the business of screwing, with Paula feigning drunkeness so Bart can escort her back up to her hotel room. As ever Greenfield spares no detail in his sex material, with the usual focus on oral activities, particularly Bart’s going down on the various women. This is a recurring theme in Greenfield’s work, by the way; there’s always more focus on the protagonist licking out the women, as well as “diddling her bunghole” in addition to dining at the Y.

But man, the book still sucks even if words like “bunghole” appear in it. And there’s so much padding. Like an entire chapter given over to Bart razzing his hot and built secretary, Wendy, that God just called him on the phone. This is in regards to a mysterious, deep voice on the other line that instructs Bart to “forget about Dr. Douglas.” The chapter ends with Bart making a lame joke to Wendy that he just spoke to God, and preposterously enough the entire next chapter is given over to Wendy asking if this is true – including “shocking” stuff like Wendy arguing that “when God comes” and Bart interrupting her and saying he’d never talk about God “coming,” when of course all Wendy meant was “coming” in the sense of appearing, a la like a burning bush and the like. Just low-brow bullshit like this that even a glue-sniffing punk in detention would think was immature, and it goes on for pages.

Warren sends Bart to Kentucky, where he’s to research the company the real Dr. Douglas worked in – where he was working when he was killed in a car wreck two years ago. But on the way Bart’s drugged by the hot stewardess, coming to in a hotel room and disovering the “stew” is really a Russian spy named Natasha, here with a couple male Russian spies. They’re all still simmering over the U-Hoo thing, and are also ticked off because they too were duped by a deep, mysterious voice on the phone – one that warned them that Dr. Douglas would be flying to Kentucky under the name “Bart Sherriff.” Realizing they’ve been duped and that Bart doesn’t know anything, they drug him and leave him in the hotel room, to be found by the local cops, who eventually let Bart go.

Here Bart learns that someone named Sanders stole Dr. Douglas’s identity, and after trading some dialog with a memorable cab driver – another similiarity to Len Levinson’s work – Bart catches a flight to New Orleans, where he talks some more with Jo Ann, hot-to-trot widow of Sanders. Surprisingly this does not lead to a sex scene. Instead, Greenfield’s moved more into a Keystone Cops sort of thing, with Bart constantly bumping into the Feds. Admitedly this does lead to a somewhat funny part where Bart, in a cheap wig and disguise, finds himself sitting across from the Fed he just lost, and the two men pretend to be underwear salesmen. As I recall, this “fooling around with idiotic government agents” seemed to have taken precedence in Making U-Hoo as well, which does lend the novel a ‘70s vibe.

Another thing I recall from that earlier novel is that the swinging ‘70s sex gradually faded away, in place of the “mystery” subplot. Same holds true here, with Bart’s hardcore moment with Dr. Paula halfway through the novel being the last such moment – though he also apparently has sex with stewardess Natasha on the plane, but the scene is played more for (unfunny) comedy, so it’s not explicit at all. Indeed, it’s so non-explicit that I didn’t even realize they’d had sex until the end of the novel, where the act is mentioned. But anyway Bart’s soon ducking and dodging various Feds, even using a buddy of his, a famous mystery writer, to get him out of a scrape late in the book. There’s no real action, though, and no violence at all – again, it’s all just a broad comedy centered around a lame mystery. But my friends believe it or not, the title of the friggin’ novel blows the entire mystery!

The last quarter has Bart in London, where Sanders was recently seen – and to again prove how stupid the novel is, Bart’s author buddy, Reese, just happens to have run into some dude at the airport, a dude who was on his way to London and who said in passing that Julius Caesar was the greatest ever writer. So Bart gives chase, but instead of getting to this mysterious figure, Greenfield instead pads the pages with Bart running around London with an overly-British private investigator. And then, on the final few pages, Sanders is revealed – and folks, spoiler alert, but who the hell cares, right? Because I really don’t think any of you will ever want to read the book. But get this – Sanders, aka Dr. Douglas, is in fact…Julius Caesar himself, who is alive and well!

There’s absolutely no explanation of this, no piecing together of the lame puzzle Greenfield has developed throughout the dumb-assed narrative. I mean really, Julius Caesar appears on like the last four pages of the book, and it’s all dialog. We get some shit about him being into genetic work and cloning, and he apparently stole the material Dr. Douglas was working on to prevent mankind from attaining the secret of cloning. Oh, and Dr. Paula and Natasha and Fred Warren were all part of the plot – Bart was hired, due to his activities in the U-Hoo Conspiracy, so as to make an easy target for the various Feds and Commie agents (of whom Natasha is a “friendly member,” JC reveals, in another go-nowhere moment casually relayed in the last pages). The goal was for Bart to distract the various spies so that JC could slip out of the country undetected.

And on this lame note, the entire group drinking a toast and Bart feeling confused, the stupid novel comes to a close. Having endured the 234 pages of banality, I can only suspect that some intelligent editor at Dell Books did indeed reject Greenfield’s manuscript, and Greenfield later managed to sell it to Manor. This is one of those books were I wonder what the author’s goal was. I mean, Julius Caesar Is Alive And Well isn’t funny, so it’s a failure as a comedy. And the “mystery” is treated so ridiculously (intentionally so) that it can’t be viewed as a suspense novel. The sleaze is rampant, initially at least, but soon disappears. So what are we left with? Probing character portraits? Soul-plumbing narrative and introspection? There’s none of that, either. In fact it seems as if the entire book serves as a payoff of the title itself, but unfortunately Greenfield does little to even bring to life – let alone exploit – his vaguely sci-fi concept.

Greenfield was very prolific, so they can’t all be winners. Admittedly though, I’m still waiting to read a Greenfield winner, but I’m sure there’s one out there. Finally, a sad note on Greenfield: I just learned, here, that he passed away on April 1st of this year, at the age of 91. According to this lengthy piece, he turned to producing independent plays, including one that was based on his experiences writing Depth Force.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Revenger #6: A Promise For Death

The Revenger #6: A Promise For Death, by Jon Messmann
September, 1975  Signet Books

The Revenger series comes to a close with a sixth volume that caps off the storyline; it seems evident that Messmann knew this would be the series finale, and thus gave it an appropriate send-off. So, I can’t say I’m sorry to see The Revenger go, as Messmann delivers not only a fantastic novel but also a fitting series conclusion, paying off on elements that were introduced back in the first volume. This was by far my favorite installment of the series, with the introspection toned down and the focus more on suspense, action, and character.

It's about eight months after the previous volume, and Ben Martin (or “Ben,” as Messmann always refers to him in the narrative) has made his way back to New York, in yet another attempt to start over again. As usual he’s gotten a working-class life, driving a bakery truck for a Sicilian immigrant. But when we meet Ben he’s back to Revenger mode, Messmann again writing the sequence in present-tense. The fifteen year-old daughter of Ben’s boss was raped by a pair of young Mafia thugs, and in the following taut sequence we see Ben doling out some brutal payback with his customary .38. The action is more pronounced in A Promise For Death than it was in any of the previous volumes, most of which featured Ben sniping targets from afar. Here he’s taking down goons in pitched firefights, and this opening part packs more punch than usual because Ben’s fired up over how the Mafia has again spoiled the innocent.

Eventually Ben learns that Don Aldo Trafficante was behind the girl’s rape; Trafficante now runs the New York mob, having taken over the position vacated by Johnny Lupo in the previous book (after Ben killed Lupo, that is). Trafficante ordered the rape of a poor innocent fifteen year-old because he happens to be a distant relative of the girl – and had a hunch that the hulking new employee with the gray eyes at his cousin’s bakery might actually be Ben Martin, the Revenger. Thus the young girl’s rape was intended to draw Ben out, if indeed it was him, the rapist punks used as veritable Revenger bait. Not that Trafficante wants some revenge of his own; he’s got some problems with two rival dons, a mob war brewing with them, and he wants to retain Ben’s services as his personal executioner. In exchange Trafficante promises to give Ben insider Mafia info which could crush the entire organization.

Trafficante isn’t the only one who suspects Ben’s back in town; Captain Leo Hendricks, first introduced in the fourth volume, has also been keeping his eyes on the papers, and when he reads that some Mafia thugs have recently been gunned down he figures Ben’s back in town. Whereas Ben is against the idea of helping Trafficante, Hendricks pushes him to go for it, as the don could give Ben – and the cops – all sorts of info that would otherwise be inaccessible, and could do more damage to the mob than all of Ben’s previous kills put together. This elicits another nicely-done sequence, where Ben visits Trafficante in his townhome and Trafficante argues that Ben is always so willing to help “his people” but won’t help Trafficante himself, turning Ben’s own logic around on him. But as mentioned, Messmann doesn’t let the philosophy bog down the plot this time; during the argument, a phone call comes in that Bianca, Trafficante’s daughter, has been kidnapped by one of the rival dons. 

Ben now of course has the opportunity to do what he does best: save the innocent from the Mafia. Bianca, who you won’t be surprised to know is a smokin’-hot and stacked brunette babe, has nothing to do with her father’s life; her mother died when she was a child and Bianca was sent to Europe to attend various elite schools. Now she’s in her early 20s and back in America, living alone in her own apartment; she claims later to only have recently deduced that her father is Mafia. Ben tells Trafficante he’ll save the girl, leading to another taut and well-executed action sequence, which first has Ben posing as a firefighter to get into the building Bianca’s held in, then scaling down from the roof and breaking into the apartment with .38 blasting.

Bianca is a fully-realized character, probably the best female character in the series – which again is only fitting given that this is the series finale. And by the way, there’s no reference to the other “Bianca” Ben had a relationship with, the one who was last seen in the third volume; it’s possible Messmann himself had forgotten about her. I sure as hell had, until I recently reviewed my incredibly-overwritten reviews of the previous five volumes before writing this review. As with most any other female protagonist in a Messmann novel, Bianca is not only beautiful but capabale of deep thought and probing analyses of people she’s just met, and can also quote odd lines of poetry. Plus she’s great in the sack! Sorry, couldn’t resist. But yes, Ben and Bianca’s relationship develops in the expected direction, but it comes off as natural, not forced – Bianca feels that the two are “connected” now, given that fate has put them together – but whereas earlier volumes were fairly explicit in the sex department, Messman’s now firmly in a Burt Hirschfeld mode, where it’s all relayed via metaphor. 

Messmann doesn’t cheat us on the action, though. Ben we’ll recall was a “specialst” in ‘Nam, a “specialist in death,” per the first volume, and this installment really brings that to the fore. With Capt. Hendricks occasionally setting him up with gear, Ben pulls off a series of hits on the mob that would even impress Mack Bolan, from taking on a few cars filled with Mafia assassins in the Westchester mountains to employing one of the bakery trucks in the prevention of another potential assassination of Trafficante in Manhattan. Most of the action deals with Ben wiping out Trafficante’s opposition; per the agreement the two men have made, Trafficante vows to quit the Mafia if Ben will take out the two rival dons who are cornering his territory. Bianca herself is the one who has brokered this agreement, acting as intermediary between Ben and her father; Trafficante claims to love his daughter so much that he’s willing to quit the mob life for her. Of course, Ben doubts this, but Bianca is innocent enough to believe her father.

The action is broken up with sequences that focus on Ben and Bianca’s growing relationship. As with previous female characters in the series she sees right through Ben’s “Revenger” exterior and wants to be with him forever. But there is something about Bianca that sets her apart from previous such women. Again this is no doubt because Messmann knows he’s writing the final volume, but still, I take it we’re to understand what separates Bianca is that she’s a daughter of the very organization Ben has been warring against all this time. What I like is how Messmann doesn’t beat us over the head with the pathos; there are but a few references to Ben’s murdered son, his ex-wife not mentioned at all, but the implication is there that Ben wants to end his war and start over for real this time, making a new life with Bianca. First though he must prove to her that her father is a liar.

The last quarter is more of a suspense thriller, as Ben of course quickly deduces that Trafficante does indeed plan to kill him; we readers already know this, as Messmann this time writes several sequences focusing on other characters instead of just on Ben all the time. Thus we see Trafficante plot Ben’s death with his lieutenant, Joe Morelli. Messmann implies that the chief skill of a “specialist in death” is to always be prepared, thus Ben has staked out Trafficante’s downtown office and knows which buildings the don will put snipers on to take Ben out when he comes to meet Trafficante. This sets off a suspenseful finale in which Ben must chose whether killing Trafficante is worth losing Bianca over. However, fate intervenes in the form of a once-innocent fifteen year-old girl who was raped, at the start of the novel, and has been slowly going insane with a desire for revenge – a masterful play by Messmann, who shows that Ben Martin is not the only person who has ever owed the Mafia some payback.

Ben’s choice is taken from him, but revenge is served regardless. The novel ends with Bianca once again coming to Ben’s apartment and telling him she wants to be with him, for them to start a new life together. The last lines of the novel seem to make it clear that Messmann knew this would be it for The Revenger:

It might just work this time. Those who shared pain were so much more a part of each other than those who shared only joy. And, maybe, happiness was a revenge of its own.

It is a very affecting ending, particularly given that Messmann’s managed to give his hero a Happily Ever After without being too obvious about it. The question is whether Messmann himself chose to end the series at this point, or whether low sales were the culprit. I can’t help but notice that the second through fifth volumes were all published rather quickly, coming out between June of ’74 and February of ’75. But this sixth volume came out seven months after the fifth one, indicating that Messmann might’ve needed more time to write it…or that Signet put it on the backburner. But then, nowhere is it stated on or in the book that this is the final volume, so maybe Messmann just turned this one in and told Signet he was done.

In any event, A Promise For Death is an incredibly entertaining and well-written thriller, notable for being one of the few men’s adventure finales that acts as a legitimate conclusion to the series. I really enjoyed it, and highly recommend it – as well as the series itself.

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Spy In The Java Sea (Joaquin Hawks #5)

The Spy In The Java Sea, by Bill S. Ballinger
November, 1966  Signet Books

The Joaquin Hawks series comes to a close with this fifth installment, which is a shame as Bill Ballinger turns in an entertaining, fast-moving yarn that’s a big improvement over the somewhat-ponderous earlier volumes. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed every volume of this series, but truth be told the “exotic travelogue” of some of them got to be a drag. With The Spy In The Java Sea, Ballinger dispenses with that and instead goes for more of a pulpy flair; in other words, exactly what you want from ‘60s spy-pulp. 

Interestingly, another ‘60s spy series experienced this sort of “fifth volume renovation:” Mark Hood, the first four installments of which suffered from a sluggish pace before going for more of a fast-moving vibe in the fifth volume. But whereas Mark Hood lasted for several more installments, Joaquin Hawks ended here. It seems clear though that Ballinger envisioned more adventures, or at least left the book open-ended enough for one, so I’d imagine low sales killed the series. In fact Hawks has the chance to settle down with an exotic native woman at novel’s end, but regretfully tells her so long; but then, I seem to recall similar finales in the previous books. Hawks certainly isn’t a “love ‘em and leave ‘em” type, and Ballinger makes it clear that it’s hard for him to leave these exotic women when the assignment’s complete.

Well anyway as mentioned this one moves at a much snappier pace than previous. Hawks is in Djakarta when we meet him, already on his mission; there’s a reference later that he was just returning home from Singapore when he was contacted for this job, which implies that the novel might take place directly after the previous volume. Hawks is here to find the Manta Ray, a nuclear sub that’s hiding somewhere in the Java Sea; as we’ll eventually learn, something when wrong with the radar and the crew needs a new “SMS card” for the computer – or “CPU,” as Ballinger refers to is, making for one of the earliest usages of this term I’ve seen in a pulp novel. Ballinger here develops a subplot, one that’s never actually resolved, that Hawks’s cover is already blown, and he’s just started the job. 

The novel features a memorable opening; Hawks is in his hotel room when a German guy comes in and pulls a gun on him. The German is himself a spy and claims to know who Hawks really is, despite his current disguise and cover name; he also mentions Hawks is notorious on the other side for ruining a bunch of Commie plots in the past. The German and the local Indonesian Communist chapter are trying to find the nuclear sub, and the German wants all of the info Hawks has about it. Our hero pretends to be innocent, then finally drops the pretense when he sees the German isn’t buying it. But somehow between volumes Hawks has become a little more gadget-savy, so he manages to get himself out of this situation with a handy explosive lighter. This is a very well-done sequence and nicely sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

Ballinger really brings the pulp spy nature more to the fore this time; Hawks meets with Navy Intelligence who themselves are posing as the crew of a small vessel, where he’s informed that a computer specialist named Housmann has been sent over from England to deliver the SMS card to the missing sub. The belabored setup has it that one crew member left the sub to radio in for help, but the crew member is hiding – and the crew member is the only person who knows where the Manta Ray is berthed. Ballinger brings even more of a spy-pulp vibe to the tale when Hawks goes to collect Housmann – and discovers that it’s a beautiful and well-built blonde. But our author has more up his sleeve, as cagey Hawks figures that there’s something up with “Mrs. Housmann,” and proves her true identity in a memorable sequence which finds the two in a rapidly-sinking boat.

The next action scene has Hawks pretending to be the German spy he killed in the opening of the book, bluffing his way into the lair of some Chinese spies. Here we see more gadgets in play: a suspender and a mechanical pencil which combine into a timed explosive device. Hawks is here to free the real Housmann, who turns out to be a stodgy British man who was quickly captured upon entering Djakarta. But again Ballinger leaves it a little vague how the US intelligence ring has been so quickly outed. Hawks and Housmann even have to go to elaborate lengths to avoid the enemy ship following them when they hitch a ride to Bali; the two get on a small lifeboat and rough it on the open sea for a day or two, eventually landing on a remote isle.

Here, about halfway through, The Spy In The Java Sea begins to more resemble the previous four books. Now it’s totally adventure fiction in an exotic locale, as Hawks must use his strength and cunning to convince the ruling natives that he’s not been sent here as a spy from the Indonesian government, and that he and Housmann need passage to Bali. Of course this entails lots of one-on-one fights between Hawks and the rulers’s various warriors, with Hawks again using his Indian skills to come out the victor. He does take some damage though, thanks to a brutal whipping he endures during one of the combats.

The final third of the novel combines the adventure fiction vibe with the spy-pulp of the opening quarter. The Manta Ray crew member is on an island outside Bali, one ruled by a kindly Raja. Hawks and Housmann have to prove they’re really here to help, and not just some spies sent to uncover the missing sub. Meanwhile Hawks gets friendly with the Raja’s hot daughter, Leyak, who seems to be the perfect woman for him: she’s a mixture of Western culture and old-world attitudes, and she and Hawks have some nicely-handled dialog throughout. But then some “officials” from Indonesia show up, claiming they’re just now here to take the island into official Indonesian protection; Hawks is certain they’re really PKI spooks (aka Indonesia Communist Party) merely posing as government reps.

The climax is tautly-handled suspense, with Hawks soon proven correct: the supposed government reps are really PKI sadists here to torture Hawks and the other two westerners into discovering where the sub is. At least this time we’re given an explanation for how Hawks’s carefully-laid plans have again been spoiled: Kent, the Manta Ray crewman, foolishly used the Raja’s radio to check on Hawks and Housmann and confirm their story. The PKI, monitoring for any radio messages, clearly just put two and two together and realized the nuke sub crewman everyone is searching for is hiding in the Raja’s island.

Actually this one has the best finale in the series. Hawks, his thumbs dislocated from torture, gets hold of an antique bow from the Raja’s museum (the firearms having been confiscated by the PKI), and, armed with arrows made of chicken bone, slips across the darkened palatial grounds and silently takes out PKI guards. It’s pretty brutal, too, as the chicken bone splinters upon impact, causing pretty messy kills. This leads to a tense climax in which Hawks and his comrades, armed only with a few appropriated carbines and pistols, defend themselves in a gazebo from the encroaching PKI troops. But again Ballinger goes for more of a realistic tone, with the heroes prevailing more through Hawks’s painstaking planning and cool-headed reserve.

As mentioned Hawks has a chance for a happily ever after by novel’s end; after some off-page shenanigans with Leyak – who actually drugs Hawks so she can get him in bed! – the beautiful princess has fallen in love with our studly hero, and basically begs him to stay with her on the little island. But Hawks claims his presence will only bring trouble, that it is only a matter of time until the island is ingested into Indonesia, and that he doesn’t want to ruin such a paradise. So off he goes, and we’re told he’s not happy about it, but it’s duty and all; little did he know he’d not be returning! Well anyway maybe we can just pretend that he decided to go back after all, and he and Leyak went on to rule the island together.

Overall I enjoyed the Joaquin Hawks series, with each volume offering a lot of entertainment, but I definitely enjoyed this installment the most. It would’ve been cool to see if Ballinger would’ve retained the more pulpy tone for future volumes, but I guess at this point the spy-pulp market was no longer lucrative and he moved on.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Hot Bullets

Hot Bullets, by Brick Killerman
No month stated, 1981  Tower Books

Years ago Justin Marriott told me about this obscure “Adult Western” from Tower Books; at the time he wondered if Jay Flynn was the awesomely-named “Brick Killerman,” due to some sleazy similarities to Flynn’s Joe Rigg books. When Justin told me the book featured a “whip-wielding Mexican villainess,” I knew the day would come when I’d just have to read it. Of course it only took me like 8 years, but anyway…plus I’m not really into Westerns, and in fact this will be the first review tagged thusly on the blog.

It looks like Tower was trying to cash in on the then-recent Adult Western trend, which as everyone knows is basic paperback Westerns with an overlay of hardcore filth. Of course, these were the only kinds of Westerns I read as a kid – I vividly remembering reading one in the ‘80s about Bigfoot. It was like hardcore sex every couple chapters and then I think Bigfoot showed up at the end. In fact I think the author even worked in a female bigfoot. I can’t recall the title of the book, but I know it was an installment of a long-running series. Maybe someone out there will know the one I’m referring to, and who wrote it. But anyway, Hot Bullets was intended as the start of Tower’s own Adult Western series, but it appears that only one other volume was published: Hell’s Half Acre, which came out the same year and is even more scarce and pricey than Hot Bullets. I’d advise saving your money, though, as despite occasional flashes of ghoulish charm, Hot Bullets is for the most part a bit of an overwritten slog, saddled with some of the most unlikable protagonists ever. Even the hardcore Western screwing can’t save it.

The narrative style is certainly strange, at times coming off like a pulpy equivalent of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which hadn’t even been published yet, but still). Sure, it’s got hardcore sex, gory violence, and outrageous situations, but there’s a ghoulish pall which hangs over the book, a focus on morbidity and desolation. And there are these strange flashes of sub-“literature” throughout, with the unfortunate caveat that “Brick Killerman” is often guilty of telling more than he shows. This is particularly true for his characters; he introduces them, then proceeds to info-dump details about their attitudes and beliefs, and their firefighting skills and such, and pretty much all of it would be better-served if we actually saw it instead of were told about it. But regardless, there’s a level of insight at times that’s well beyond what you would expect from a novel titled “Hot Bullets” by a guy named “Brick Killerman:”

This sort of stuff had me wondering initially if the book was another from George Harmon Smith, who would go to similar literary – but flabby – lengths in his work for Belmont Tower. But Smith, at least in what I’ve read of him, wasn’t nearly as bad with the narratorial exposition. And also, his stylistic quirks aren’t really in evidence here. In fact the writing style seems different from any other I’ve encountered on the blog…but damned if the tone isn’t identical to Jan Stacy, particularly to what he wrote in The Last Ranger. Hot Bullets features the same sort of ghoulish morbidity as Stacy’s work, even down to minor details – for example, there’s a fascination with corpses being piled up or otherwise put on display, and “Killerman” describes the 1800s southwest like it’s a radiated hellzone straight out of a post-nuke pulp. Hell, there’s even a sort of mutant afoot: late in the novel our “heroes” encounter a monstrous opponent who is eating a literal horse leg when they encounter him…plus he’s surrounded by piled corpses.

There are several other similarities, which I’m sure I’ll document in my usual nauseatingly-pedantic manner in the review, but long story short, I wondered toward the end of Hot Bullets whether the novel was actually written by Stacy, maybe even with Ryder Syvertsen. The novel was published just a few years before the two began publishing as “Ryder Stacy.” The only problem is the narrative style, which is very different. Then I remembered that George Harmon Smith was an editor at Belmont Tower; indeed, according to Lynn Munroe Smith was often used as a fix-it author on manuscripts. So heck, this book could’ve been the product of Stacy (with or without Syvertsen), with some post editing tinkery by Smith (or some other editor), lending the novel it’s unusual narrative style. Failing that, my backup theory is that J.D. Salinger wrote it. Perhaps with an assit by Thomas Pynchon.

Anyway, Hot Bullets takes place entirely in the American Southwest, eventually veering into Mexico. The date appears to be sometime in the 1870s or later. The author is vague on the date, but we are sort of told that the Civil War was eight years ago. Maybe. Honestly I’m not sure, but we can be sure at least that it’s post-Civil War, for our hero, a one-eyed outlaw in black named Chance, fought in the war and then went on to a successful career of banditry. The novel is almost tiring in how the reader must spend so long figuring out what’s going on, so I’ll make it easy and tell you the setup from the get-go: Chance led a gang of bank-robbers and ultimately came away with three hundred thousand bucks. But his sultry Mexican girlfriend Maria sold him out and absconded with the money. Chance was taken into federal custody for some years and now has broken out and is looking for revenge.

This is where the narrative picks up, but again, the above is material that takes the reader a good damn long time to learn. In fact Maria is the first “main” character we’re introduced to, and she’s initally presented as a damsel in distress, which flies in the face of her true character. A couple mean outlaws ride into a Mexican town on the border, so mean that one of them, for no reason at all, shoots some poor kid’s dog (which leads to the passage excerped above). These guys are here for Maria, who turns out to be a hotstuff Mexican babe who only leaves with them because they threaten to kill her brother. In between taunting her with promises of rape, the three reveal that they’re old prison-mates of Maria’s ex, Chance, and they’re here to find the three hundred thousand bucks she supposedly stole from him.

Then of course Chance himself arrives on the scene, making short work of the three outlaws – and then throwing Maria on her ass. This sets off the bizarre relationship between the pair. For the two go back to the town…where Maria engages Chance in a pages-consuming, explicity-detailed sex scene, one in which the author curiously seems more focused on describing Chance’s oral treatment of Maria and her “jungle of wiry hair.” (And nope, he isn’t referring to the hair on her head.) This sequence also contains the phenomenal line, from Maria: “I need you, my lover! I need your cock! Your balls!” As if all this wasn’t enough, a post-orgasm Maria brings herself to the brink again as she imagines castrating Chance, an explicity graphic sequence that’ll make any male reader sweat in anguish. But unfortunately after this Maria splits – you see, despite her “damsel in distress” intro, she’s actually the villain of the piece, sort of, and Chance will spend the rest of the novel trailing her across the blitzed, pseudo post-apocalyptic Southwestern desert.

We know Maria’s the villain because she tries to kill Chance, brazenly enough, right after their all-night boinkery…it seems she’s like hooked on his stuff, or something, though humorously later in the book we’re informed that Chance isn’t the most “well-endowed” of dudes…honestly the only time I think I’ve ever been informed that the studly hero of a novel has a small dick. Well as everyone knows, it’s how you use it that counts, and Chance must do alright by Maria…not that this keeps her from taking off and heading for Mexico to reconnect with her latest boyfriend, a notorious bandit leader named Nuego whom she claims now has Chance’s money. The entire setup is really dumb – I mean why would Maria just give three hundred thousand bucks to this guy, and why, after all this time, would Chance even think any of it would still be left?

Killerman keeps us from pondering such imponderables by throwing bizarre material at us – like when Chance, soon after setting out on the trail, runs into a gang of six outlaw women who are in the process of whipping two bound men. The women – only two of whom are even attractive, we’re informed, Killerman buzzkilling his own pulpy concept – close in on Chance, who proves posthaste that he has no problem with beating the shit out of female opponents. This fight scene goes on quite a long time, Chance not killing any of the women but pounding them all into the ground with some savage kicks and punches. He also proves he’s no ordinary hero when he refuses to free the two poor dudes, knowing full well that they’ll suffer the brunt of the women’s wrath.

Meanwhile Chance himself is being chased, by a blond haired bounty hunter named Neems – who gets the jump on Chance while he’s enjoying a bath. This occurs in another of Chance’s strange meetings with Maria; he catches up with her in an abandoned hotel, easily dispatches the men Maria has stationed there to kill him, then forces her to draw him a bath. After another attempt on his life, Maria gets away again, and after this Chance and Neems serve as the main protagonists of the book, with Maria not appearing again until near the end. Oh but before I forget, here the author for no apparent reason tries to tie in with the modern day, ie the nuclear war fears of the 1980s, when Chance tells Maria of an Indian shaman he once met who had a vision of the future, of “the eagle versus the bear” in a great global confrontation, after which the entire world would burn. The book is filled with random, pages-filling stuff like this.

Chance is able to talk Neems into not taking him in for the bounty but instead forming an “unholy alliance” with him, and seeking out the $300,000, which they’ll split. This clunky plot contrivance is explained in that Neems knows this territory better than Chance. And also, Neems can pretend that Chance is his prisoner, so the two will be able to travel easier. Or something. But really, when these two set out on the trail the novel really appropriates the vibe of The Last Ranger or even Doomsday Warrior, in that they just encounter one ridiculous (but menacing) character after another. First they encounter a trio of renegade US soldiers, who are escorting one of Chance’s old gang members; our heroes butcher the lot in a nicely-done firefight (Chance by the way carries a Navy Colt .44 and Neems a Colt Dragoon), after which they find themselves in possession of a Gatling gun.

The Gatling is soon put to use when the pair wipe out a legion of goons Nuego has implanted in a small town, after which Chance and Neems are rewarded with a pair of hookers. Chance, apropos of nothing, decides to go the “backdoor” route with his whore, who tells him, right in front of Neems and his hooker: “That always hurts so. Even though you’re not as big as others.” Neems gets a chuckle out of this – he himself is quite “well-endowed,” we’re informed, but Chance is undeterred, and thus we are treated to a few pages of buggery. The part after this is where my “Jan Stacy senses” started to tingle; Chance and Neems come out next day to find that the townsfolk have arranged the corpses of the slaughtered goons in coffins, lined up on the city street, and have turned the whole thing into a sort of thank-you ceremony…complete with a cake a local baker presents the pair! All of this is uncannily like something you’d encounter in The Last Ranger.

Strangely though, for an “Adult Western” the sex isn’t as frequent as you’d expect in Hot Bullets. It’s like our mysterious author realized this, for immediately after the all-night festivities with the two hookers, Chance and Neems run into those six outlaw women Chance tussled with earlier in the book…and the women propose an orgy to make up and let bygones be bygones. We’ll forget that some of them are supposed to be fugly; Neems takes on three while Chance gets three, and since he’s the hero he gets the two who are apparently pretty. This part also goes on and on, but like the other sex scenes in the book it fails to generate any heat, despite being explicit. In fact there is an unpleasant tone to the screwing throughout.

Another “I just walked out of a Ryder Stacy novel”-type character appears soon after: Piedmont, a moronic scalp hunter. This character really sent my Jan Stacy Senses to tingling, but again, I could be entirely wrong. And yet, shortly after this we get to the most Last Ranger-esque sequence in the book: the climax plays out in the City of Blood, nightmarish domain run by one of Nuego’s comrades, a place where corpses are piled high and death reigns supreme. The city is guarded by a 9-foot tall, hulking-muscled pseudo-mutant, exactly the sort of thing you’d encounter in Doomsday Warrior. When Chance and Neems – now with a captive Maria and Nuego with them – confront the massive guard, they learn that they must defeat him to gain entry into the city. This Chance does, somewhat unbelievably, in a rather quick fight.

The climax at least is suitably apocalyptic. Chance learns that most of his money has been used to fund the building of the City of Blood, but he’s able to get back the remainder. At this point all hell breaks loose, and the Gatling gun is once again used to memorable and gory effect. Chance shows his complete ruthlessness, though – and spoiler alert, but honestly the book’s so scarce and overpriced I figured I might as well spoil away and save you the time and money. Well anyway, Maria’s tied to a stake during all this…and Chance lights up some dynamite and tosses it beside her, doing away with her for good! After which he gets in a duel with Neems – and that’s not a spoiler, because the back cover already tells us this is going to happen. By novel’s end a lone Chance rides out of the burning City with half his loot, to return in Hell’s Half Acre – not that the book tells us this, or indeed even lets us know that this is intended as the start of a series.

The problem with Hot Bullets is that it just isn’t fun, which is odd given the pulpy setup. There’s just a dispirited air that hangs over everything, as if the life’s been sucked out of it. I mean when I read these books, I want the impression that the author is cackling with insane glee as he writes, but I don’t get that from Mr. Brock Killerman. Rather, I get the impression that he’s just going through the motions, and the spark of creativity is hard to detect. Save, that is, for the sub-literary flourishes…which don’t even really belong in a novel titled Hot Bullets, I’d argue. Anyway, I can’t say I hated the book, but I can’t say I really enjoyed it, either. I definitely remember liking that Bigfoot Adult Western a lot more, so maybe someday I’ll look for it again.

Monday, August 31, 2020

MIA Hunter #10: Miami War Zone

MIA Hunter #10: Miami War Zone, by Jack Buchanan
July, 1988  Jove Books

Bill Crider turns in his first installment of MIA Hunter which sees the series reboot in full effect; at this point there isn’t much difference between MIA Hunter and pretty much any other ‘80s men’s adventure series, like The Hard Corps or whatnot. I’m really on the fence so far as this reboot goes, because even though the early “save POWs in ‘Nam” plotlines got to be a little repetitive, the angle did give the series its own unique vibe, one that’s lost in these later volumes.

Whereas the early vibe might be lost, one thing that’s remained consistent about MIA Hunter is the narrative style. As I’ve said before, series creator and editor Stephen Mertz did a great job of assembling a group of ghostwriters who all wrote in a similar style – or Stephen just did some great editing to make all the styles seem consistent. What I’m trying to say is, one could easily be fooled into believing “Jack Buchanan” is a real author. Given this, I can’t notice anything “new” Crider has brought to the table; Miami War Zone has the same tone and style as previous books, with goodly portions of firearms detail, impromptu karate battles, “back in East Texas” tall tales from Hog Wiley, and action movie-esque friendly banter between Hog and British ciper Terrance Loughlin. Well, one new thing is that Carol Jenner, main protagonist Mark Stone’s girlfriend since the earliest volumes, has now become the computer specialist of the team, and we’re also informed she’s “a fighter to equal nearly anyone.” I don’t believe this has been stated before. 

While the Southeast Asian locales might have changed, the series is also consistent in that Stone, Hog, and Loughlin still operate as rescuers of captured personnel. This time though, as the cliché goes, “it’s personal;” Stone’s old ‘Nam buddy Jack Wofford, now an undercover DEA agent in Miami, has been taken captive. In a humorous disregard of reality, Stone – who is called by Jack’s worried wife – decides to head on down and save him, even though he and his team operate out of Fort Bragg and are supposedly there at the behest of the US Government. In other words, Stone just decides to take the law into his own hands, using the full resources of Fort Bragg to operate on US soil, going against not only the FBI but the local police. But I just point this out due to the ridiculousness of the situation, and I applaud Crider for saying to hell with realism, because it’s not what most readers want from the genre.

From the get-go Stone and team get in bad with the FBI agents in Miami, in particular Washington tool Williams. Crider displays his Gold Eagle background with a lot of running subplots involving all these one-off secondary characters: many pages devoted to the FBI guys, to a pair of Homicide cops, to Mafia chieftan Crazy Tony, and to drug baron Enrique Feliz. And there’s a lot of narrative devoted to Jack Wufford, who is shuttled around from one captor to another, constantly being drugged into oblivion; Crider nicely works this somewhat egregious stuff into the series’ past concept, with Wofford so drug-deluded that he thinks he’s back in ‘Nam, once again a POW. He saved Stone back in the war, as we learn in another flashback, so our hero is damn determined to find his old buddy and get him to safety.

Carol learns via the computer that the Feds are down here because there’s a drug war brewing between Feliz and Crazy Charlie, a nutcase who is infamous for feeding people to his pet alligators. Unfortunately this angle doesn’t pan out the way I expected to; Charlie is developed as such a psychotic you can’t wait to see Stone and team go up against him. But instead Charlie will be dealt with by Feliz, and Stone et al will concern themselves more with Crazy Charlie’s old father, Don Vito. This entails a nicely-done sequence where they perform a soft probe of the don’s villa, sneaking into the old man’s room while he’s being orally pleasured by a hooker. This is the closest we get to anything lurid in Miami War Zone -- Stone and Carol’s relationship basically seems to just involve discussing the mission – and Crider further adds a humorous element in that Hog recognizes the poor hooker; it’s a dancer he lusted after in a local strip joint.

Our author also understands the difference between the men’s adventure genre and your average mystery thriller; when one of the don’s hapless stooges comes upstairs to check on the boss, Loughlin grabs him by the throat from behind and strangles him. It just seemed pretty sadistic to me, as our heroes are really just here to get intel on Wofford, and Loughlin could’ve just as easily knocked the dude out, like a private eye or somesuch would. Anyway this sequence of course escalates into an action scene, with the don pulling a secret gun and Stone almost casually dispensing of him with a chop to the throat. This running action sequence builds to the memorable moment where Hog “wallows in shit” as he battles a Mafia goon nearly as big as himself in a sewer tunnel.

As ever Hog has more spark than any of the other characters; Crider gets a lot of mileage out of some dark humor concerning a new plastic knife Hog has acquired. It’s especially memorable in this part with Don Vito; first Hog threatens to castrate the old man with the knife, even Stone getting in on the act to make the old man talk, then again he uses it in the fight with the massive goon in the sewer tunnel. Loughlin as ever doesn’t resonate much with the reader; we learn – or we’re reminded, more likely – that he has red hair. Dude’s such a cipher I hadn’t known that, or had forgot. As for Stone, he too is in cipher mode this time, mostly just driven to save his old ‘Nam pal. When they aren’t out driving around Miami looking for Wofford, Stone’s pacing around their rented house, fretting over the situation.

But as mentioned our heroes are off-page for a lot of the narrative. The most egregious example of this is when Crazy Charlie is dealt with by Enrique Feliz; we readers (or at least this reader) keep waiting for Stone and team to take on the psychotic Charlie and his pet alligators. And indeed the narrative is building to this, with Stone’s team getting intel that Wofford is being held by Crazy Charlie, and getting in their car to head on over there (another recurring joke being the small white Toyota Stone has rented, which Hog hates). But while they’re driving there Feliz converges on Crazy Charlie’s place with his soldiers, and a major battle ensues, with Charlie dealt some fitting comeuppance, given his past proclivities for feeding people to gators – but unfortunately it’s Feliz who takes care of this, not our heroes. By the time Stone et al show up, the firefight’s over and they’re left wondering what happened.

Feliz thus becomes the main villain by default; Wofford is passed around like a hot potato, unconscious or drugged out most of the time, and Feliz takes him to a drug lab deep in the Everglades to use as a bargaining chip with some manufacturers for a deal or somesuch. This is where the action climax plays out; again saying to hell with reality, our heroes get hold of a helicopter and hit the place hard. Crider gives us the automatic hellfire we want from the genre, but isn’t as extreme with the gore. He works in some nigh-magic realism when Wofford, almost supernaturally empowered, gets hold of a gun and walks around the burning lab grounds, blowing away goons and somehow avoiding all the bullets that are fired at him.

Curiously though this isn’t the end of the book. Instead, Stone happens to read a newspaper in the airport and sees a story in there which clues him in that there’s a traitor in the FBI, one that’s been helping out the drug barons. It of course turns out to be one of the suits he’s been arguing with throughout the book, leading to a chase in the terminal as Stone tries to bring him to justice. It’s okay but seems to come from a different book; more fitting is the sendoff Stone delivers Enrique Feliz in the earlier action sequence, which involes the spinning blades of an air boat.

Crider definitely has the “feel” of the series down pat – as mentioned you could read this book and think it was written by the same guy who did the previous ten – but at the same time I’m still not as crazy about this new direction. Crider returned for two more volumes, one which apparently sees Stone and team heading back to ‘Nam, so that one I look forward to, just to see if it retains the vibe of the earliest books.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Gannon’s Vendetta

Gannon’s Vendetta, by John Whitlatch
October, 1969  Pocket Books

The other month I got an email from Marty McKee asking me why there were no reviews of John Whitlatch novels on the blog. This was one of those moments of total synchronicity, as I’d just recently decided to finally seek out the one Whitlatch novel I wanted to read most of all: this one, which happened to be Whitlatch’s first. Over the years I’d picked up some of his other Pocket paperbacks (each of which are numbered, curiously enough, even though the Witchlatch novels aren’t a “series,” per se), but for whatever reason Gannon’s Vendetta proved elusive, not to mention overpriced on the collectors market…which is strange, as the book went through several printings, so you would think it would be more available and affordable.

At any rate, shortly before receiving Marty’s email I had finally ordered a nice-priced copy of Gannon’s Vendetta, spurred on by that brief biker fiction kick I was on several months ago. Whitlatch’s novels have a respectable cred among paperback collectors: Paul Bishop has a great writeup on his own personal search for the mysterious Whitlatch, and years ago Justin Marriott did a nice overview of Whitlatch’s Pocket originals. One thing I recall Justin mentioning is that the books, despite having great covers by men’s adventure magazine artists, were a bit more “dry” than one might expect, and in particular that some of the books sort of dragged on. Such is the case with Gannon’s Vendetta, which despite a slam-bang opening turns out to mostly drag over its inexcusable length of 249 pages – 249 pages of incredibly small and incredibly dense print. I mean folks this book took me an entire week to read. It’s a definite time investment.

I have to say though that Whitlatch’s writing is so identical to the men’s adventure magazine market that I wonder if there was like a DeVry school for them or some correspondence course. Everything from the plot structure to the narrative style is exactly like what you’d encounter in Male Magazine or the like, only of course around four times the length. And just as the vast majority of those men’s mag yarns open with the situation depicted on the main illustration (or cover, if it was the cover story) and then proceed to flash back to the elaborate chornicling of what brought the hero to this predicament, so too does Gannon’s Vendetta: we meet our titular hero John Gannon as he’s tied to a “huge saguaro” in the middle of the Arizona desert, left there by a pack of savage bikers.

But after this opening, in which Gannon makes an impression on the reader with his sardonic humor – talking aloud to himself in two separate personalities so as to avoid going insane – we go straight to the men’s mag-mandated flashback, and it’ll be about a hundred pages of small print until we get back to this sequence. I believe Justin also mentioned the wish fulfillment of Whitlatch’s books, and that’s certainly evident here; according to this book, you could be a 44 year-old insurance agent with a wife and home and a 21 year-old daughter, but buddy you’ll still be able to take on biker scum in knife fights and hook up with lusty Mexican broads. But I’m not complaining because that’s exactly what I want from this genre; in our current post-emasculated era, such books can only be viewed with scorn and condescension, but at one time masculine fiction was readily available for the male reader. This was before the publishing industry – which curiously is run almost entirely by women – decided that “men don’t read.”

John Gannon himself is the epitome of an earlier, more masculine era: with his rugged virility and uncomprimising attitude he seems downright alien in our modern era of soy latte-sipping pseudo-males in their cropped pants and skinny jeans. Curiously though I don’t believe we’re ever given much context on how Gannon is such a badass; we can assume he might be a vet of WWII or more likely Korea, but I don’t think this is actually stated. Regardless, he is skilled with guns, hand-to-hand-combat, knife-fighting, horse riding, and even archery. This though is just another tie-in to the vibe of men’s adventure magazines, which featured similarly-skilled vets as protagonists. But still when we meet him, or at least when we flash back to the incidents that set him on the path which ultimately got him strapped to this saguaro cactus, Gannon’s just an insurance adjuster who lives outside of Los Angeles.

The incident that started it all was the day, several months before, when Gannon witnessed a biker running over a child. Gannon chased the scumbag down and beat the shit out of him, then served as witness against him in the trial. This even after Gannon was threatened, in his own home, by Buster, the hulking blonde-haired brother of the accused biker. One can tell that this novel truly is from another era, as Gannon doesn’t bother locking the doors of his house, thus Buster can just walk right on in. Gannon tells Buster to get out and testifies against his brother in court, despite the legal tactics of the biker’s lawyer, Pat Stein, conveniently enough an old enemy of Gannon’s. But after this things get nightmarish, as Buster comes back, this time with a couple more bikers, and attacks Gannon.

Our hero is knocked out and wakes up shortly thereafter to find Buster in the process of raping Gannon’s wife; barely in the narrative, the lady is 42, attractive, but going a bit to seed thanks to heavy drinking (she’s even suffered “two minor heart attacks” in the past couple years). Gannon grabs his .38 and blows away one biker, wings the other (a big Mexican brute named Crazy), but misses Buster. We’ll spend the next 200+ pages waiting for this bastard to get comeuppance. Meanwhile Gannon discovers that his wife is dead, suffering one last and fatal heart attack after her rape. Gannon does not seem much fazed by this, whereas he’s devastated to discover that the bikers killed his two dogs, crying over them and later even visiting their graves (a gut-wrenching scene that goes well beyond the typical emotional impact of such books). This is intentional on Whitlatch’s part, as much later in the narrative, when we pick back up on the opening desert sequence, Gannon will confront his lack of emotion over his wife’s death.

Regardless, Gannon is of course determined to make Buster pay. Whereas the reader might expect a fast-moving pulp tale, Gannon’s Vendetta is like another “biker revenge” novel, The Scarred Man, in that it doesn’t take a direct path. Instead we have a belabored court room sequence in which wily lawyer scum Pat Stein is able to get Buster exonerated of all charges; thanks to a “Socialist-leaning judge” the case against Buster is thrown out. Gannon, due to his short temper, has busted up the heads of some nosy reporters, and this coupled with the fact that he was bashed on the head that night is used to make him come off like an unreliable witness. It’s all very unbelievable – at least I’d like to hope so, but then again we live in a world were you can throw balloons filled with shit at cops and not even get arrested – but it all seems to exist because Whitlatch wants us to understand that Gannon has no choice but to take the law into his own hands. 

Despite which the book settles into a lethargic pace. Gannon heads to Arizona, spending two fruitless months trying to locate the vanished Buster. Eventually he heads for San Simon, a border town in Mexico set up by a local millionaire named Don Raul; the place prides itself on safety, yet Gannon discovers that it’s become a hangout for American biker scum. Soon he hooks up with a DEA agent named Gonzalez who wants to use Gannon as an unpaid consultant, a subplot that initially seems to promise a lot but ultimately goes nowhere. Instead more time is placed on Gannon’s budding love for Amiga, super-hot and super-busty niece of Don Raul, a Mexican babe who herself is widowed despite being in her 20s and who insists that Gannon come and stay at her uncle’s massive villa in the desert while he attends to business in San Simon.

Mysteriously enough, none other than wily scumball lawyer Pat Stein is here, and Gannon’s suspicion over the presence of Stein and the bikers he represents here in San Simon will of course be proven out, though again it takes us a helluva long time to get there. Whitlatch does pick things up a bit when Gannon blunders into a trap, storming into the biker hangout when he gets word Buster is there. This leads us to the incident depicted on the cover, but it must be stated that Norm Eastman enjoyed a little creative license in his awesome painting. For it’s made clear that the biker babe who flashes Gannon is not only ugly, but incredibly filthy and with greasy hair, and her jeans have such a “urine stench” that Gannon nearly pukes when he gets a whiff of her. So clearly not the sexy brunette babe Eastman depicted, but then ugly girls with greasy hair and piss-stained jeans really wouldn’t sell too many books. Whitlatch seems to have a fascination with telling us how all the bikers stink like piss, lending the impression that all they do is piss and shit on themselves as they drive around the desert.

Buster and his bikers abandon Gannon, strapped to the cactus, and after a day or so he’s able to free himself. His trek across the desert is grueling, vividly depicted by Whitlatch, but it does seem to go on and on. And also it too seems like a men’s mag story, in fact the entire sequence could’ve been excised to become one of those “True Book Bonuses” that would run in Men or whatnot. Here Gannon confronts the fact that he’d long ago stopped loving his wife, while engaging in “survival at any cost” actions like drinking water from cacti, eating a tortoise (another grueling scene that makes an impression, particularly when Gannon saws off the head of the tortoise), and suffering diarrhea attacks as he walks in what he hopes is the proper direction. Eventually he passes out by a highway after 11 days in the desert, and Whitlatch serves up a nice callback to Gannon’s murdered “boys” (aka his dogs) when a near-death Gannon is discovered and saved by a local man’s dog.

But again, even after all this, the novel appropriates a listless pace. Gannon gets lucky, at least; Amiga has been searching for him all these days, and once he’s healthy enough she’s all over him. Curiously their first depicted sex scene is mostly vague, with most detail placed on Gannon suckling of Amiga’s big boobs, whereas a later scene is hardcore exploitation and goes on for several pages. This first sequence though establishes Whitlach’s fixation on boob-sucking; it seems that from this point forward Amiga is constantly shoving her breasts in Gannon’s face so he can get to sucking on them. It’s downright Freudian. The second depicted boink, later in the book, goes even further into the extremes, and comes off as strange given how hardcore it is, even more explicit than what Harold Robbins was writing at the time. Given that Pocket was the publisher of Robbins’s paperbacks, I almost wonder if this second sex sequence was some sort of publisher request – keep it hardcore, it’s what our readers demand!

Actually Robbins is a good point of comparison, because a lot of Gannon’s Vendetta is trash-fictiony in that, instead of the violent revenge thriller we’re expecting, much of it comes off like a leisurely-placed summer read set in a palatial Mexican villa. Even here Gannon’s rugged charm wins the day; he’s quite fond of having Don Raul’s world-class chef whip up nothing more than a burrito, which Gannon enjoys with a beer. It’s a man’s kind of meal, baby, and Don Raul approves, even though Amiga can’t believe Gannon wants something so simple. But then, she’s just a girl. Regardless, there are so many opportunities for Whitlatch to just cut right to the action and end the book, but it’s like he has a specific word count to meet ,thus there’s an inexplicable part where Gannon, after recuperating from his desert ordeal, heads back to his house in LA and sort of bides his time for a while, getting ready for his big assault on Buster’s gang.

Here too we get another reminder of earlier sentiments; Gannon lost a ton of weight in the desert, so we read about his big meals, his constant mixed drinks, his six beers a night. All so he can gain weight – and then “turn the fat into muscle.” Clearly this was before the concept of being “jacked” hit the bodybuilding community; Gannon could’ve just hit the weights with his lean physique and saved himself the trouble. But whatever. He also buys some guns and a bow and arrow and whatnot, and talks his cop pal Dallinger into coming down to Mexico with him to bust up those biker scumbags. Ponce, Don Raul’s portly bodyguard, and old Don Raul himself, will further make up what makes for Gannon’s army in the climactic assault.

Only, it’s not really a climax, because even here Whitlatch refuses to go full-bore. It’s a gripping scene with the four converging on Buster’s biker hangout, deep in the desert, and hitting them early in the morning; Gannon again shows some sort of former commando training by silently killing a few guards with his knife or his bow and arrows. They capture all the bikers, and Gannon takes on burly Crazy in a knife fight that’s over before it even starts. But instead of wiping them out, Gannon drags the bikers back to Don Raul’s villa, where ensues an overly-complicated outing of who is really behind the heroin Buster’s biker gang has been trafficking. And then after all this, Gannon allows Buster to ecape…all so Gannon can get on a horse and go chasing after him and the others in the desert to “bring them in.” So in other words we’re right back where we were several pages ago, with Gannon hunting bikers in the desert. At least here Gannon finally dishes out the vengeance we’ve been waiting 249 pages for.

Last we see Gannon, he’s looking forward to more fun with Amiga (I’m just going to assume it has something to do with her rack) and figures he’ll stay at Don Raul’s a while. He would return years later, in Gannon’s Line (1976), which as it turned out would be Whitlatch’s last papberback. Gannon isn’t the most likable of protagonists, yet at the same time he’s a bit more three-dimensional than the genre norm…which I guess is only to be expected when a book is as long as this one is. His smart-ass retorts almost prefigure the one-liners of ‘80s action movies, yet at the same time his short fuse gets to be annoying. He definitely experiences character growth though, something else that’s unusual for the genre, in his acceptance of the fact that he’s not going after Buster because of the loss of a beloved wife, but to get payback for something that was taken from him.

On the other hand, Buster and his bikers are so one-dimensional that they come off as cartoonish. They’re just a mangy pack of sadistic freaks in grungy, piss-stinking jeans, and there’s absolutely zero of the exploitative appeal depicted in Norm Eastman’s cover. The women are even worse than the men; Buster’s girl, the scuzzy one who flashes Gannon – who we’ll recall stinks so bad that Gannon almost barfs due to the stench of her – ends up opening up a large patch of skin on Gannon’s face with a chain, giving our hero what is apparently a permanent scar. Gannon shows no qualms with hunting her down in the finale as well. The action scenes are infrequent but well done, and Whitlatch doesn’t skimp on the violence, but he doesn’t dwell on it either. In this regard as well the book is almost identical to the contents of the average men’s adventure magaznes of the day.

I did really enjoy Gannon’s Vendetta, with the caveat that it was much too long for its own good. So much of it could’ve been whittled out, giving us a more lean, mean, and focused revenge thriller. Also the biker element wasn’t nearly as pronounced as I’d hoped for. But I really did enjoy the rugged ethic of the book, the macho vibe Whitlatch almost casually captures throughout, to the extent that I’ll try to get to the other Whitlatch novels I have – and look into picking up a copy of Gannon’s Line.