Monday, July 21, 2014

The Penetrator #21: The Supergun Mission

The Penetrator #21: The Supergun Mission, by Lionel Derrick
July, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Mark Penetrator Hardin once again heads down into Mexico, courtesy author Mark Roberts. Researching the “wetback situation” (as it’s constantly referred to throughout the book, as well as on the back cover), the Penetrator gradually becomes involved in a plot that involves an island kingdom outside of Dallas(!), a sonic raygun that melts people, and a billionaire villain.

Roberts’s previous installments were a lot of wild fun, particularly #17: Demented Empire. But with this volume the same sort of rot has set in upon his volumes as it has upon series co-writer Chet Cunningham's, whose previous few books have been snoozefests. But then, by this point both authors had each written 10 volumes of the series, so it had to be tough to maintain their interest levels. Especially given the rate of publication – I mean, it’s taken me four years just to read 21 volumes of The Penetrator.

For once we open with Hardin in his desert Stronghold, sipping pina coladas with Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle. Too little time is spent here with Hardin’s comrades; each installment usually opens with Hardin already out on a job and stays with him throughout. But with this volume Roberts actually has Hardin occasionally calling back to the Stronghold to get intel from Haskins. Anyway as per usual Hardin comes up with his own mission – he wants to look into the recent mass-murder of 25 “wetbacks” in California, the tractor-trailer they were hauled in having been burnt to a crisp while the Mexicans were riding in it.

Hardin goes down to Mexico and poses as a “coyotero,” ie a dude who smuggles Mexicans across the border. He meets a pair of Americans who really are coyoteros, flying their haul on old planes, and Hardin gets the shit knocked out of him in a surprise ambush moments after talking to the guys. For once in the series our hero is out for the count and could easily be killed, but he’s left alive, though well-stomped. Never fear, for a well-endowed young Mexican gal named Consuela happens along and takes him back to her place, tending to his wounds.

Consuela (or “Connie” as Hardin calls her) provides more info on the situation Hardin is here to research – turns out there is a particular group based outside of Dallas that is “hiring” all of the Mexicans in this area, promising them work and money in the US, but apparently just abducting them, as the men are never heard from again. Connie’s brother Raul happens to be one of the men missing. We learn via cutover that these men are taken to a muddy island called Dwyer’s that’s sprouted up in the midst of Lake Texoma, about a hundred miles from Dallas, Texas. Here evil billionaire Howard Christiansen is using the Mexicans as target practice, employing a sonic raygun on them.

For once Roberts skips the details when the expected Hardin/Connie lovin’ ensues. The Supergun Mission is pretty tame in both the sex and violence departments, with Hardin only getting in a few scuffles in the first hundred or so pages. In fact Roberts is more eager to, once again, dole out lots of inconsequential detail about how to fly small airplanes. Was the guy going for his pilot’s license or something? Because just as in previous Roberts installments we have long scenes of Hardin flying this or that private aircraft, with all manner of technical detail provided.

The first fight scene is one of the more unusual in the Penetrator annals. Hardin goes up to Dallas to try to get a job with the mysterious company that’s hiring the Mexicans, posing yet again as a pilot looking to fly cargo out of Mexico -- any cargo, as long as it isn’t drugs. Meanwhile a gang of street punks break into Hardin’s van (right across from Dealey Plaza!). Hardin, unarmed, comes upon the scene and beats the shit out of all of them. But the bizarre twist comes when the gang’s lookout shows up, jumping Hardin from behind, and Hardin slams him into a car – only seeing after the fact that the lookout’s just a ten year-old kid. Hardin takes the other prepubescent lookout over his knee and spanks him mercilessly!

Hardin gets the job as a pilot, and for a trial run hauls out a new shipment from Mexico. Here ensues a long airchase in which narcs come after Hardin when he crosses the US border, assuming he’s yet another drugrunner. We get all manner of detail on how to fly around in storms, using heavy cloud cover to hide from pursuing planes. But when Hardin finally makes it to the fortress on Dwyer’s Island, he is informed he cannot leave. Also, he discovers that Connie has snuck aboard his plane, disguising herself as a young boy, in the hopes of finding out what happened to her brother.

But it’s all just sort of plodding, with none of the bizarre or even sadistic flashes of previous books. Howard Christiansen’s storyline is also underdeveloped; we learn he’s developed the sonic gun to sell it to either the Red Chinese or the Cubans, despite not having any political ties himself, and to build the thing he’s adbucted beautiful Dr. Frances Graybar, who to her horror finds herself testing out the gun on “dead” Mexicans, the poor men reduced to puddles of goo beneath the sonic onslaught.

Things get slightly back on track in the final third, when Hardin, on another flight, pulls all sorts of aerodynamics to knock out his copilot, Sid, one of the coyoteros who beat him up back in Mexico. Hardin drugs him up with truth serum, discovers that Sid was one of the men who torched those 25 Mexicans in California, and hurls the bastard out of the plane! Now, finally, Hardin gears up for “a hard hit” on Christiansen’s island kingdom on Lake Texoma.

Only the final few pages show any life, as Hardin raids Dwyer’s Island, blowing away Christiansen’s goons with a shotgun and various sidearms. We also here have the subplot of Dr. Graybar forced against her will to test out the sonic gun on living subjects, who of course are none other than Connie and her brother Raul. It all leads up to a James Bond-type finale in which the villain is of course subjected to his own nefarious device. Roberts does leaven the sequence with gore, documenting each and every shotgun blast.

Once again we end with Hardin on a brief vacation, with the previously-bookish Dr. Graybar, who has, beer commercial style, doffed her thick glasses, let her blonde hair down, and unleashed her previously-subdued sex goddess nature. But then Professor Haskins buzzkills the fun with a call, telling Hardin that a friend of David Red Eagle’s needs help, and Hardin’s ready to leave asap.

Believe it or not, the next installment is one of the two volumes of The Penetrator that I don’t have (the other being #52), but I’m not too worried about it – the series has been faltering for the past few installments, and the plot of High Disaster doesn’t sound compelling enough to make me seek it out.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin (aka The Revenger #3)

Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin, by Joseph Hedges
February, 1975  Pyramid Books
(Original UK publication 1973)

The success of Don Pendleton's The Executioner was so widespread that Imitation Executioners began to pop up even overseas, this being one such example. Starting life in the UK as “The Revenger,” this series ran for thirteen volumes and documented British mob-buster John Stark’s war against “The Company,” ie the Syndicate-types who killed his girlfriend.

Pyramid Books brought the series over to the US (only reprinting the first six volumes), changing the title to Stark so as not to be confused with Jon Messmann’s Revenger series. Actually I think Stark is a better title, as it gives the series a Parker vibe – and perhaps author Terry Harknett (aka “Joseph Hedges”) was going for a Richard Stark feel in the first place, with an obvious reference in his protagonist’s last name but also because The Company is very much like Parker’s nemeses “The Outfit.”

Another change Pyramid made was to the covers, gracing them with pretty cool drawings of a shades-wearing Stark blasting various pistols. (The original UK editions featured disturbing photo covers of murdered topless women – and they say Americans are sick!!) Pyramid also changed the text to American-style double quotation marks for dialog (I’ve always suspected that the British single quotation mark was one of the things that lead to the Revolutionary War). Yet for some reason Pyramid failed to change the footnotes in the book. Occasionally an asterisk in the text will tell us to check out, say, “The Revenger: Funeral Rites”. In other words, in these footnotes Pyramid didn’t change “The Revenger” to “Stark,” which must’ve caused for some reader confusion.

Anyway, this third volume picks up immediately after the previous one, with Stark and a lithe redhead named Amanda escaping Company gunmen in Southern France. Apparently in that previous book Stark took out a Company bigwig here in France, and after a very bloody firefight in the opening pages of The Chinese Coffin he and Amanda capture a Cadillac and get away. Amanda must’ve only been introduced in that previous book, as we learn she just met Stark a few days ago, and was engaged to a Company man before Stark blew into town.

Harknett also wrote the Edge series (“Joseph Hedges” being that titular character’s full name, hence the in-joke of Harknett’s pseudonym for this series), which was known for its graphic violence. In this opening firefight Harknett proves that Stark will be much the same, with Stark doling out gory kills with a .357 Magnum and a .38 – like the best ‘70s crime fiction, the battles here are mostly fought with revolvers. Amanda even gets to take out one of the gunmen, shooting him in the back as she hides in a slime-filled swamp. Throughout the novel, there is lots of graphic detail about exploding heads and guts, and Harknett never shirks on the violence factor.

I’ve said before how I find most British pulp to be a little antiseptic, but Harknett doesn’t come off as prudish at all, delivering not only graphic gore but also some explicit sex scenes. In fact right after the gory firefight he proceeds directly to the sex, with Amanda showing off her oral skills for a lucky Stark. Amanda’s a pure ‘70s kind of gal, wearing a clinging tunic that even has a ring-pull zipper, and she gets off (so to speak) on Stark’s dangerous life. (Harknett also provides the incidental detail that Amanda is shall we say bare-shaven, which must’ve been really out of the norm in the early ‘70s; no wonder Harknett felt the need to mention it.)

Stark by the way is a grim kind of guy, very abrupt and always “on the job,” but occasionally he goes into “revenger mode” (just like Messmann’s protagonist, in fact!), where he’s even more deadly. My only problem with the character is that Harknett has him in his mid-twenties, which I think is much too young for a men’s adventure protagonist, especially one from the ‘70s – they should be square-jawed Marlboro Men types who are around thirty-five years old. We learn through the excessive detailing (more of which later) that Stark is also sporting a “bandito” moustache, apparently grown for the previous volume’s adventure, though he shaves it off midway through this one.

The Chinese Coffin operates more like a ‘70s crime novel than your typical men’s adventure offering, with a small cast of characters all converging in a convoluted plot. For as Stark and Amanda get a flight out of France courtesy a gay American friend of Amanda (cue lots of homophobia courtesy Stark, to the point where the reader thinks to himself “hmmm”), we are informed that a group of Chinese are also flying out of Tibet, making their slow way to Lebanon, where a company bigwig (strangely, Harknett never capitalizes “company,” so I’ll stop doing so as well) named Riachi is about to trade them a few million pounds worth of diamonds in exchange for uncut heroin.

Riachi is a pulpy villain, an obese lecher who lives in an ultramodern house in Lebanon where he caters to his every depraved whim. The head “executive” of the Middle East area of the company, Riachi apparently spends most of his time at play, in particular sampling the young virgins who are trained in company clinics to curse in multiple languages before being shipped to harems; Riachi takes them for a test run before sending them off to their various designations. At the moment he has a pair of Lebanese teens at his disposal, and Harknett serves up lots of lurid, exploitative stuff here, but still wrapped up in the overly-literary style of the series (and British pulp in general).

In addition to Riachi there’s Fairborne, an American company man who is bringing in the diamonds. For reasons unknown he stops off in Majorca on his way to Lebanon, where he bumps uglies with the wonderfully-named Kiki Anson, a lithe “Eurasian” gal who works as a high-class escort and provides the company with information as a side-venture. And guess what, Majorca is just where Stark happens to be flying! So the thrust of this particular installment is built around coincidence, but it’s no big deal. And anyway Stark only discovers the company is here by accident, after dumping the gay pilot at the airport he and Amanda head for the guy’s villa, Amanda hoping that Stark can at least apologize for how he treated the guy.

This gradually leads into a bloody confrontation in which a handful of people gorily die, including poor old Amanda, you won’t be surprised to discover. But Kiki Anson makes off with the briefcase of diamonds (including the darkly humorous detail of her running over Amanda’s corpse and beheading it), and Stark, in his grief and rage, eventually figures out that there was something special about that briefcase. Interrogating and killing several more Majorca-based company men, Stark finally puts it together that the briefcase was stuffed with diamonds. And his war chest is running thin, so this is perfect opportunity for him to get more money and also fulfill his pledge to kill company representatives.

John Stark is different from Mack Bolan and most other Mafia busters in that he could care less about helping society as a whole. Stark is very much only concerned with himself and his own vengeance. If his attacks happen to staunch some nefarious company scheme, so much the better, but that’s never his overriding goal. He just wants to kill company scum, but knows there are ultimately too many of them; he also knows he’s on a death quest, and could care less about this as well. While this is a “believable” mindset for such a character, it does make Stark seem to be a pretty self-centered prick. Hell, he even brushes off Amanda’s death, never once reprimanding himself for having inadvertently caused it. “She knew the risks,” he tells himself, and that’s that.

Like Mack Bolan, though, wherever Stark goes he finds trouble, and after blasting away company men in Majorca he gets word that Kiki Anson has just booked passage on a flight to Cyprus. Off Stark goes in pursuit, getting in an instanst skirkmish with company goons in Cyprus. In an entertaining sequence Stark blows up a few company cars and escapes without a scratch, even stopping for the hell of it to pick up a pair of American tourists who are checking out Cyprus. What with the rampant country-hopping, the Stark series almost comes off like a Eurotrash equivalent of The Executioner.

Stark tracks Kiki Anson to Cyprus, where she’s hooked up with her apparent lover, Thalia. Kiki is in no way a femme fatale-type, and indeed is on the verge of a nervous breakdown; turns out she took the diamonds in a dazed state, and thus is happy to give Stark whatever he wants. But the company is already in pursuit, and the climax features an overly-long sequence of a pair of Greek brothers who come after all of them. One thing that must be said about Harknett is that he is a positively unsentimental author, and will kill off characters without compunction. Seriously, if you are a character in this novel and your name isn’t “Stark,” odds are you’re going to die.

Oh, and meanwhile we learn that the old plane carrying the Chinese group and their heroin has crashed, outside of Lebanon. After a gory battle there in Cyprus, Stark bluffs his way onto a Riachi-owned helicopter and goes to the site of the crash, where Riachi is about to make a deal with the Palestinian soldiers who have discovered and thus confiscated the crashed plane. Riachi will give them the diamonds in exchange for the heroin. Instead it leads to a sort of anticlimactic finale in which Stark sets off a skirmish between Riachi’s enforcers and the Palestinians, while Stark himself hides in the crashed plane until it’s safe.

Harknett is a fine writer, and some of the deadpan dialog he gives Stark is hilarious (not to mention the puns he devises to close several chapters). But man does he overwrite. There is just endless description and detail in this novel, with huge, thick chunks of paragraphs on each and every page describing in copious detail each and every little thing. After a while it gets to be a drag, and this is something a reviewer should never admit, but I found that skimming portions of The Chinese Coffin resulted in a much more fluid – and enjoyable – read. Seriously, once you’ve read one several-line paragraph about what a cloud looks like, you’ve read them all.

So while The Chinese Coffin was enjoyable for the most part, and certainly violent and gory, it came off as more of a trying and tiring read than it should have. Also, Stark himself is a bit of a cipher, and you don’t root for him as you would other men’s adventure protagonists, at least not in this volume. That being said, I do have a few more of these Stark novels, as well as the final volume of the series (only published in the UK), so I’ll be checking them out.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Big Brain #1: The Aardvark Affair

The Big Brain #1: The Aardvark Affair, by Gary Brandner
February, 1975  Zebra Books

A few years before he hit it big with The Howling, Gary Brandner turned out this three-volume series for Zebra Books. As Marty McKee notes, this first volume is basically a mystery, and a sort of watered-down one at that. There is nothing particularly exciting or memorable about The Aardvark Affair -- certainly nothing to live up to the crazy cover.

Our titular protagonist is Colin Garrett, a 30 year-old supergenius whose skull is, unfortunately, not transparent. However the cover painting is correct in that Colin’s eyes glow, but only when he’s concentrating on some problem. Brandner devotes a lot of the narrative to Colin’s backstory. We learn that he was raised by academic professionals who decided before he was even born that their child was going to be a genius. So instead of a regular childhood Colin Garrett was focused on academia and learning, to the point where he was well advanced beyond the norm in many fields before he was even five years old.

However this intense study had side-effects, such as the glowing eyes deal. His concerned parents learned that Colin was applying himself too much, but before they could do much to righten this they were killed in a car wreck. Colin was then raised by his less-intelligent uncle, who at least got Colin into sports, so the boy could learn to use his body as well as his mind. Colin, picked on by the other kids and taunted as “Big Brain,” learned how to shut off “circuits” in his mind until he could operate on a normal level. Now, as an adult, he only turns on these circuits, sort of ratcheting himself up to supergenius status, when necessary. 

Colin served briefly in the Army and is contacted now by his former Colonel, Jefferson “JJ” Judd. Judd is no longer in the military and says he works for an ultra-secret intelligence outfit called Agency Zero, which doesn’t officially resist. Colin, despite having issues with Judd’s story, still decides to take off to Seattle with him, Colin leaving his poor girlfriend Fran in the lurch. In Seattle Colin learns about the Aardvark Project, which takes place about fifty miles from the city and apparently involves using lasers and ultrasonics to make infertile soil fertile.

The problem is, three of the people working on this project have all lost their senses. The government wants to keep all this hush-hush, and so has hired Agency Zero to figure out what happened. Colin looks over the brain-addled victims, quickly deducing that one of them is faking it. But the faker, a dude named Dempster, takes off. Judd calls in someone to help Colin; this turns out to be Beverley “Beano” Rocker, a muscle-bound agency vet who quickly teaches Colin how to shoot firearms, our protagonist never having handled a gun before, and for that matter nervous about this whole affair.

After a quick trip to Hawaii, in which they discover Dempster’s corpse, the duo flies back to Washington, where Colin learns that the Aardvark Project was really a top-secret weapons initiative. Brandner doles out heaps of characters, among them Russians who, due to d├ętente, are now trying to tour Aardvark for the UN, and Judd is certain of course they’re spies. Meanwhile Colin manages to hook up with hotbod Valerie Lewis, an employee of CLEEN, a Seattle-based eco group. Brandner however fades immediately to black in the ensuing scene, and the novel is not explicit in the least; this includes the handful of action scenes.

In fact, The Aardvark Affair just kind of plods on and on. Colin Garrett is definitely more of a “realistic” sort of men’s adventure protagonist – but then, a protagonist with incredible intelligence whose eyes glow when he focuses on something. Brandner does do a good job of delivering a believable genius protagonist, with Colin busting out information and quickly figuring things out. He does fall to the usual men’s adventure protagonist mistake, though, leaving his girlfriend unprotected; there follows a part where Fran is abducted, and after receiving a ransom call, Colin, scanning his memory of the brief phone conversation, deduces that the abductors are in Mexico!

This is one of the novel’s few action scenes, though “The Big Brain” gets caught, and is subjected to watching as the Mexican abductors are about to rape Fran. Beano arrives to save the day, though, which leads us into the homestretch, as Colin figures out a Russian plot behind everything. Here a lot of briefly-introduced characters are revealed to be spies and, in the novel’s one memorable touch, one of them turns out to be a very-unexpected traitor. But again, all of it is relayed without the blood, guts, and sex I demand in my ‘70s men’s adventure novels. Brandner’s writing is fine, particularly with the dialog, but the book comes off as very padded and tepid.

The Aaardvark Affair ends with Colin turning down Judd’s offer to fully join Agency Zero, preferring to return to his “normal” life in Los Angeles. But given that there are two more volumes to go, I’m guessing he eventually changed his mind.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Executioner #7: Nightmare In New York

The Executioner #7: Nightmare In New York, by Don Pendleton
July, 1971  Pinnacle Books

After a few volumes that were entertaining but seemed to be missing something, the Executioner series returns with a bang with this seventh volume, easily my favorite yet of Don Pendleton's original run. Here Pendleton is settling into the forumla that will take him through the next 30-odd books, and what an enjoyable ride it is, as Mack Bolan blitzes the Manhattan mob and leaves gory ruin in his wake.

Events pick up very soon after the previous volume, with Bolan flying into JFK airport from London. Pendleton excels at opening action scenes, and delivers another fine one here, with a group of Mafia enforcers waiting to ambush Bolan at the airport. Since he doesn’t have a gun (having checked it to avoid “the hijack-conscious air marshalls”), Bolan has to use his wits to lift one from one of the goons, and then leads them on a chase through JFK. Apparently at this time helicopters took passengers from JFK into Manhattan (?!), and there follows another memorable scene where Bolan storms out of the copter and blows away some thugs who are waiting for him at the helipad.

Bolan though gets injured, and half-dead collapses in a Manhattan office building. He wakes up in a penthouse suite, where he is being tended to by three beautiful young women: Paula, the oldest of the three, and a former nurse; Evie, the youngest and the one who seems most interested in Bolan; and Rachel, a hotbod brunette model who likes to prance around the suite naked – that is, when she isn’t meditating in the lotus position. Bolan is instantly taken with Rachel, and here again Pendleton serves up the now-familiar story of Bolan chastizing himself that it’s impossible for him to fall in love, but what could have been, and etc, etc. 

The stuff with the girls goes on for a while, with them tending Bolan back to health. Apparently it was all Evie’s idea, as she instantly figured out who Bolan was, having been a fan of his from the news. However nothing ultimately comes of any of this, with Bolan keeping his hands off the girls, though there is a long-simmer deal with Rachel, who despite her beauty apparently has some significant pubic hair (but then, it was the ‘70s), with Evie twice referring to it condescendingly, first calling it a “hairy monkey” and later a “monkey’s mouth!” Now there’s an image that sticks with you.

Also worth mentioning is that Rachel is a straight-up New Ager, and she enjoys engaging Bolan in weighty conversations. However, the majority of her dialog seems to come right out of Pendleton’s earlier The Godmakers, which I found interesting; especially given Bolan’s curt and humorous responses to her mystic prattle. But Bolan can’t sit around forever, and once he’s healed enough he heads out to even up the score on the mobsters who jumped him. These turn out to be minions of Sam the Bomber Chianti, a “contractor’s contractor” who does all of the hiring for Manhattan capo Freddie Gambella.

There’s a bit of a Richard Stark feel to the opening half of this volume, as Bolan is as merciless as Parker. First he does away with some thugs who come to the girls’s apartment, making the lone survivor load up his dead pals into the trunk of his car, and then Bolan blows away the poor guy, too, tossing him in the trunk with his buddies! There’s also a Parker-style heist, actually more in line with something Westlake would’ve published under his own name, when Bolan discovers a Mafia bank hidden behind a barbershop in Harlem.

Had Nightmare In New York been a movie, this bit would’ve been accompanied by “comedy music,” as in an unbelievable but humorous sequence Bolan bluffs his way into the “secure” bank, acts like he’s a rep for Freddie Gambella, and starts yelling at everyone that the cops are about to raid the place. He makes off with twenty-five thousand dollars, not having fired a single shot. And while Bolan’s smart about stuff like this, he makes some serious mistakes in not realizing he should be protecting the three girls who tended to him. 

Sure enough Gambella gets one of them, and here we have one of the series’s first “turkey doctor” scenes; in fact I think it might be the very first one. Pendleton doles out the sadism like a regular Russell Smith, detailing the poor girl’s terror-filled night in a meat-packing plan Gambella owns. When Bolan later finds the mauled, raped, and mutilated corpse, Pendleton serves up enough detail to make your flesh squirm, including the unforgettable tidbit that the girl’s eyelids have been sliced off. Bolan’s “rescue” of her corpse is yet another highlight in a book filled with them, as he blows away the goons just as they’re clearing up the mess they created.

What sets Bolan apart from the Imitation Executioners that followed in his wake is his human nature, as evidenced by his occasional tendency to let various mobsters survive his blitzes. Sometimes this is a bit too much, and Pendleton walks the line with such a moment here, as before the “turkey doctor” sequence Bolan visits Sam the Bomber at his home, ready to axe him…only to be talked out of it by the guy’s wife! What at first appears to be a maudlin bit is later played out more fully, when Bolan again visits Sam, who is heeding Bolan’s advice and packing to split town; Sam here delivers a long monologue on how his wife made him the man he is. But anyway, Sam is the one who, as “thanks” for letting him live, informs Bolan that Gambella has gotten one of the girls.

After this turning point Bolan’s pretty much in blitz mode throughout, running roughshod over the five families of New York, Gambella’s goons in particular. There’s another memorable part where he takes the mutilated corpse of the girl to Gambella’s palatial home, blows away all of the mobsters there, and then makes Gambella’s wife confront the reality of what her husband truly is by showing her the desecrated body. This is a weird scene for sure, with the woman refusing to give in to Bolan, even stating proudly that her husband has gone off with “some girls” because “He’s a real man!”

As if the whole revenge angle wasn’t enough, Pendleton works in a subplot that Gambella and the other four capos are working up some huge conspiracy, something involving the government. Bolan gets the intel from Leo Turrin, who is becoming more focal in the series; Bolan even checks in on his kid brother Johnny, the first time I think he’s even been mentioned since the first volume. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Bolan, who is on the lookout for both the cops and the Mafia, goes around in a hippie disguise, complete with a leather vest, big granny sunglasses, and even a VW Minivan.

The action becomes more fierce as the novel rolls along, with Bolan desperate to find the now-missing two girls, and of course discovering at length that Gambella has them. But this all ties in with the conspiracy angle, as Bolan has already pulled a soft probe on “Stoney Lodge,” an opulent Long Island complex the Mafia uses for executive-level discussions; Bolan quickly deduces that Gambella has taken the girls there, given that he’s scheduled to be meeting with the other four New York capos. This all leads into a taut and exciting climax in which Bolan, geared up with machine guns and a bazooka, pulls a devestating raid on Stoney Lodge. However Pendleton dangles a carrot with the unexpected survival of Freddie Gambella, who nonetheless loses an arm in the raid; certainly he’ll be back in a future installment.

In addition to the sadism level of the turkey doctor sequence, Pendleton also increases the gore factor, with Nightmare In New York the most violent entry yet. We get thorough, bloody detail as Bolan kills hordes of Mafia enforcers, including one memorable bit where he blows away a fat one with his “chattergun” and Pendleton describes how the dude’s stomach explodes. In fact the only thing missing from the novel, from a pulp perspective, is sex; we get lots of detail of how nubile and busty the three gals who rescue Bolan are, but for once the Executioner himself doesn’t get lucky.

Also I have to again say how great Pendleton’s writing is. He has an excellent grasp on pulp writing, doling out just the right balance of description, dialog, and action; in other words, one never outweighs the other. For comparison, right now I’m reading Stark #3: The Chinese Coffin, which is by Joseph Hedges (aka Terry Harknett) and was originally published in the UK in 1973 under the series title The Revenger. It’s good and all, but Harknett’s prose weighs the book down, with endless detail and description, to the point where the novel gets to be a drag.

Don Pendleton however clearly understood how to write pulp, and I mean that as a compliment – I mean the guy could’ve just as easily written a “real” novel. But I think it’s just as hard to write a pulp novel, at least if you’re going to try to do it right, and Pendleton certainly knows how. It’s like Zwolf said – Pendleton is “a Cadillac in the parking lot of action-series writers,” and Nightmare In New York is just another example of his mastery of the craft.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Rapist

The Rapist, by Don Logan
October, 1975  Pocket Books

Jeez, here’s Don Logan with the feel-good book of the summer!! Seriously though, The Rapist is another of those lurid crime paperbacks copyright Lyle Kenyon Engel, just like Manning Lee Stokes's Corporate Hooker, Inc. And, according to Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms III, “Don Logan” was none other than William Crawford.

Last year I read the first volume of Crawford’s Stryker series, which I found a little frustrating due to Crawford’s tendency to constantly stall forward momentum by doling out inconsequential backstories about every single character introduced or mentioned. He does the same thing throughout The Rapist, though not quite to the extent of Stryker #1. I wonder if Crawford was a cop, or a former cop, or maybe just a cop junkie or something, because once again he has turned out a cop novel that seems very much grounded in reality and research.

Also, like Stokes’s novel, The Rapist reads a lot like the ‘70s work of Herbert Kastle, in particular Cross-Country. It’s a dark, dark tale, about the titular character’s horrific and gruesome assaults upon strong-willed women in mid-‘70s New York City, and it pulls no punches. Suprisingly though, the novel never once trades in outright sleaze, and despite the lurid happenings it doesn’t comes across like a cheap work of exploitation. In fact there isn’t even a single sex scene, though Crawford does provide a few violent shooutouts.

The rapist of the title is a young, good-looking guy named Timothy Johnson (though Crawford at first only refers to him as “the Rapist” in the sections from his perspective). He’s tall, muscular, and very attractive to women. He’s also got tattoos all over his arms, and we eventually learn in a “boy how the times have changed” moment that tattoos are generally the sign of a criminal, though “there is no direct correllation between the two.” The Rapist opens the novel with one of his “hits,” stealing an attractive young woman off the streets, killing her instantly, and raping and mutilating her corpse in his windowless delivery van. 

Crawford never actually describes one of the Rapists’s attacks, but he does serve up the lurid details when the cops inspect the corpse he leaves behind. It’s so desecrated and defiled that even hardbitten vets run to the john to puke. However our two heroes manage to keep their gorge down, despite how revolted they are: Burrell Mackey, at 48 one of the older men on the force, but a mountain of muscle nonetheless, and Lee Cotton, a younger but still experienced cop who was a Green Beret in ‘Nam. Both men are detectives, with Mackey the lead, and Crawford serves up details about how crime fighting has much changed from when Mackey joined the force back in ’46, right after fighting in the war.

Another of Crawford’s annoying tendencies is referring to his characters by multiple names in the narrative. He does this in The Rapist, and it gets to be confusing at first, like for example how he refers to Mackey as “Mackey,” “Burrell,” and most confusingly (at first) “Burr.” It might sound like a minor thing, but it does cause for some disconnect when the reader’s trying to figure out who the author is referring to. Even more disconnect is caused by the arbitrary backstories that spring up in the text, usually so unnecessary as to be hilarious, like when Crawford mentions that a doctor helps out the precinct anonymously and then explains that he does so because he wouldn’t want his regular patients to know he is helping the cops. Just little things like this, like the Stryker installment I read, really halt the forward momentum for no good reason.

The cops are in an increasing panic as Johnson murders and ravages several more women, leaving mauled corpses in his wake. Instead of following on this story, Crawford instead gets in this long subplot where Mackey and Cotton begin hassling the well-known Johnson brothers, local criminals who have often had run-ins with the law. They check with them merely to see if they can get more info about this rapist – at this point, the fact that his last name is also “Johnson” is not known by the police; it’s all just lazy, coincidental plotting. But at any rate it leads to this very long gunfight in which a few of the brothers end up dead. 

Meanwhile the rapist gets clawed up by one of his victims, and later during his getaway he runs into cops, attacking them. When Mackey and Cotton see the guy at the next morning’s lineup of all people arrested the previous day, they instantly suspect him, due to his tattoos. At this point he’s given his name as “Johnsen,” but our protagonists can’t get over how his facial features are so like those other Johnson brothers. At great length it develops that “Timmy Johnson” killed his dad when he was a kid and almost killed his stepdad, and thus was placed in a mental ward, the majority of his brothers disowning him and insisting he change his last name. So in other words, he really is another of those criminal Johnson brothers the author so lazily introduced.

The rapist goes free after the lineup – only later do the cops learn who he is – and continues about his campaign. But The Rapist is also like Corporate Hooker, Inc. in that it starts off being one thing but ends up being another. When an A.P.B. is put out on the rapist, he spots a motorcycle cop following him, and runs him over. But with his dying breath the cop gets off a few shots, each of them hitting the rapist. Half-dead, he holes up in a building, eventually resorting to one of his brothers for help.

Now the novel becomes just another “fugitive on the run” tale, and this goes on for well over a hundred pages, with Crawford adding to the page count with anecdotes about what it’s like to be a cop. There’s also lots of time-filler stuff with Richard Rivers, yet another of those Geraldo Rivera-type journalists who always pop up in these pulp crime novels, as an eternal thorn in authority’s side; he starts up CAPJAL, or “Capture Johnson Alive,” an uber-liberal initiative to ensure Timothy Johnson is not killed via the usual “police brutality.” All of this ultimately leads nowhere, though we do get the memorable image of Rivers shitting himself when he finally gets a chance to meet Johnson – Crawford, as shown in Stryker #1, has a special fondness for having his characters shit themselves.

It all builds up to a gradual climax in which Johnson holes up in the apartment of his first victim in the novel, taking captive the girl’s roommate, Tawny. After lots of (undescribed) degradation of the poor girl, as well as traded rants with the cops, it culminates with Mackey and Cotton attacking the apartment, with Cotton in these final pages going into “Vietnam mode” and wanting to kick some shit. It all leads to a downbeat finale, with one of the two cops dead, but it sort of lacks punch because, despite the amount of time spent with these guys, it’s not like we got to know either of them.

I think Crawford is a good writer, with dialog and incidental details that seem cut from real-life, but I just don’t think he’s a very good novelist. Which is to say, he has the details and the dialog, but when it comes to putting it all together into a cogent whole, he sort of fails. The novel comes off more like lots of arbitrary cop stories interspersed with periodic flashes of sadism, before building up to a hasty and anticlimactic finale. In other words The Rapist is a lot like the later lurid crime novel Hellfire.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Jason Striker #6: Curse Of The Ninja

Jason Striker #6: Curse Of The Ninja, by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes
December, 2001  Xlibris Books

The Jason Striker series came to an ignoble end in April, 1976, and for the next few decades our judo-loving, book-narrating hero was cast into limbo. Then in 2001 Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes self-published the series as three trade paperbacks; in the third volume they included the material they’d written back in late 1975 for the never-completed sixth (and final?) installment of the series. What’s interesting is that, other than being incomplete, Curse Of The Ninja is of a piece with those earlier volumes – just as clunky, arbitrary, and time-wasting. 

As we’ll recall, the previous volume ended with Jason Striker half-dead from a gallstone, abandoned on a wooden craft as it sailed down a river in the Amazon jungle. So then it only makes sense that this volume opens with a hale and hearty Striker competing in a judo tournament for the rokudan level of black belt! And familiar faces watch from the crowd, among them Thera Drummond (last seen in #3: The Bamboo Bloodbath) and Ilunga (last seen in #4: Ninja's Revenge). At first I hoped the previous two volumes had just been a dream, and that the series could continue on the enjoyable course of the first three volumes, but no; it turns out the judo tournament itself is the dream.

Striker wakes up in Miami, where he’s been living the past few months as “Caesar Kane,” a name he’s chosen for himself because – you guessed it – he has amnesia! Like the other novels, Curse Of The Ninja is written in first-person past tense, which makes for some pretty clunky narrative, ie “At that time however I did not remember who I was,” and the like. Anyway, Striker has somehow gotten to Florida, where he was found along the road (or something) by some dude who just offered Striker to sleep at his place until he got an apartment of his own. (And as for that gallstone, Striker discovers surgery scars on his abdomen, as if he’s recently undergone hasty, emergency surgery…)

But Striker knows where his priorities lay, and soon enough visits a judo dojo, compelled there by his dream; the people watching him in the crowd in that dream, of course, are now mysteries to his conscious mind, and he has no knowledge that he’s actually a judo master. But in the class he gets tossed around, still finding that he’s capable of doing things which seem fantastic. Of course, who gives a damn about all of this stuff anyway; it’s pointless, and we want to continue with the storyline that’s been developing since the fourth volume, if for no other reason than to see the damn thing through.

However, “plot development” is relegated to Striker’s dreams, in which we get flashbacks to stuff that happened toward the end of Amazon Slaughter but wasn’t actually detailed in that book. For example, we’ll recall how in the end of that fifth volume Striker and Dulce came upon a tribe of headhunters in the Amazon, and how these people were greatly impressed by Striker’s judo skills. In one of these dream sequences, we see that the tribe chief insisted that Striker sleep with his private harem of five women. A very explicit sex scene ensues, Striker finding out at the last moment that he’s expected to have sex with all five, one after another, or he might be killed.

And just when Striker’s spirits are flagging, so to speak, that mystical ki power hits him and he’s ready for action again! This sequence is very lurid and exploitative, with the last girl in the harem a prepubscent virgin! It’s just kind of, oh…off-putting. Oh, and afterwards, snapped out of his ki-madness thanks to the arrival of Dulce (who takes Striker’s mass-screwing in stride, even though at the beginning of the scene Striker was afraid to sleep with the harem, for fear of invoking a jealous Dulce’s wrath), Striker looks upon the harem and sees that the first four women are in reality all fat, old, and ugly…and he has to inform us how the child member has been harmed by his member (which we’re further informed is “in proportion” to Striker’s body, but still damn huge when compared to these jungle Indians).

I’ve really disliked this “Black Castle/jungle Indians” storyline which began in the fourth volume, mostly due to the way it’s been told, but anyway I hoped to get some resolution out of it, or at least the satisfaction that it had been building up toward something. But my friends, the authors instead fill endless pages with am amnesiac Jason Striker learning judo…a-and having super-explicit sex with a woman named Susan who might know who he really is…a-and roofing a house!! All that shit that occurred in the previous two books – Fu Antos and his Black Castle, Mirabal and his plotting, Dulce and her sacrifice to stay with Fu Antos, etc, etc – all of it is just brushed to the side, as if it never happened, so we can instead read all about “Caesar Kane’s” endless struggles in learning judo. And roofing houses.

Finally Striker takes a fall and hits his head and guess what, remembers who he is. This is unfortunately after too, too many pages have elapsed. Now he realizes that Susan was once a student of his, and apparently she’s been with him these weeks because she had a secret crush on him and so took advantage of his amnesiatic status. Or something. Anyway, Striker makes a brief phone call back home, talking to Ilunga – her short and unfortunately final appearance in the series – and decides to once again head down into the damn Amazon to wrap up this whole business with Fu Antos. And Susan, of course, offers to go along, even offering the services of her motor home.

And yet, even here the authors dawdle. Even as Striker heads for a final confrontation with his enemy, we get inconsequential stuff like Striker meeting up with on old judo pal, whose dojo they happen to pass by on the road. The closer we get to the finale, the less material there is, with the authors informing us in brackets of sections that were never written. But here’s the thing – the unwritten stuff sounds miles better than the shit they actually did write! This is especially true of the unwritten conclusion, which is presented in a synopsis, in which we learn that: “The Black Castle has been built on the site of ancient ruins; there is evidence of alien visitation from space, millennia ago. There are strange things here, and Fu Antos is reconstructing the secret science of these aliens, augmenting his own weird physical and mental powers fantastically.” These two sentences are more interesting than the entirety of Curse Of The Ninja.

The authors state that they stopped writing in December 1975, when word came from Berkley that the series was finished. They don’t make it clear if Curse Of The Ninja was originally envisioned as the series finale, but it works that way, for at least so far as the summary goes, Striker is nearly killed by Fu Antos, who magically strips Striker of his judo knowledge. However that overlong opening sequence comes into play here, because Striker – when he was “Caesar Kane” – became a judo white belt, and thus is able to remember enough of the martial arts to best Fu Antos in combat. Then the Indians rise up and destroy the Black Casle. As for what happened to Mirabal, Dulce, Susan, Striker’s people back home, and etc, none of it is answered – though we do get the inane information that Susan is in fact married and has been using Striker for “illicit adventure.”

But anyway the series concludes with a victorious Striker realizing that not only has he finally overcome the voodoo curse he gained in the previous volume, but also that the “scars” of his encounters with it and Fu Antos “will remain as long as Jason Striker lives.” To fill out the rest of the book, the authors include various articles they wrote for Marvel’s Deadly Hands Of Kung Fu magazine, as well as a few short stories featuring Hiroshi, the akido master who appeared throughout the series. There’s also other material, like stuff about Roberto Fuentes’s time as a Cuban revolutionary, as well as various proposals and etc, none of which I read.

But that’s that for the Jason Striker series. And what a strange trip it was. The first three novels, while at times goofy and clunky, were a lot of fun, like vintage ‘70s kung fu movies on paper. But then the next three volumes took a sudden and ultimately irreparable dive. Plotting, characterization, resolution, all of it was jettisoned, and really I can’t think of anything positive to say about these final three volumes. So then, I’d recommend if you do decide to someday check out this series, just stick with the first three volumes. You’ll thank me!

Monday, June 30, 2014

Stone: MIA Hunter

Stone: MIA Hunter, by Jack Buchanan
February, 1987  Jove Books

Some online booksellers mistakenly list this installment of the MIA Hunter series as the first volume, but in fact it falls between the sixth and seventh volumes. Also, this is a double-length tale, coming in at 261 pages, all courtesy our old friend Chet Cunningham, who here turns in his second and final contribution to the series. Rather than filling all those pages with one epic plot, Cunningham instead tells four separate storylines, but even so Stone: MIA Hunter happens to be one of my favorite volumes yet.

The first storyline opens with Mark Stone and his companions Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin busting a few POWs out of a camp in ‘Nam; this is a taut, action-packed sequence. Cunningham (who names one of the POWs after himself) gives most narrative time to Commander Farley Anderson, who can’t believe he’s finally free, let alone that it’s 1987. As the group struggles across jungle terrain, desperate to get over the border, they are attacked by unseen gunmen, who mercilessly take out Stone’s Laotian guides. This turns out to be minions of CIA goon Alan Coleman, the series’ recurring villain; he arrives via helicopter and demands Stone and the POWs get onboard.

This leads to the second storyline, as Stone, Hog, and Loughlin are arraigned in Federal court in Los Angeles on trumped-up charges. As a result Stone’s private investigator license is stripped (bet you forgot that’s his day job, didn’t you??) and it looks like the three of them may do some serious time. Hog and Louglin heed Stone’s advice and take off. Stone meanwhile spends some quality time with his girlfriend, Carol Jenner, who we are informed now lives in DC, working for the Defense Department. Funny, because the last we saw her, back in #3: Hanoi Deathgrip, she was on the run from various government agencies!

Stone is informed that this court deal could take a few weeks. Do you think he just takes it easy for a while? Hell, no – Mark Stone is a Man Of Action. Responding to a letter he receives from the widow of an old ‘Nam buddy, Stone checks out the man’s son, Jose Ortega, Jr, and learns all about the Chicano gangs in this area and the drug-running Mexican mob that employs them. In a sequence that comes off like a flashback to Cunningham’s earlier Penetrator work, Stone suits up in black and launches a hard probe on a PCP factory in the desert outside LA.

This whole part is like nothing before in the series, and in fact seems to point in the direction the series would eventually go, with Stone even realizing that someday he might need to branch out from his MIA rescuing efforts and focus on situations closer to home. Anyway he kills a whole bunch of Mexican goons, and takes on El Lobo, the leader of the gang. Here in El Lobo’s hidden crypt Stone discovers hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money, and he gnashes his teeth over what to do with all of that cash. But before he can decide, the next storyline comes along.

Going home, Stone finds a dying man in his garage. The dude mutters something about a “Rosalyn” still being alive, and then croaks. Stone meanwhile experiences a lengthy flashback to early 1974. We learn here that Stone, in the final days of the Vietnam War, was in love with an Army nurse named Rosalyn James and that the two planned to get married. (It goes without saying of course that we’ve never heard of her before!) Strangely, Cunningham writes this whole sequence like it’s occuring in 1968 or something, with the war raging in full force, but in reality 1974 was in the waning days, as the US was slowly pulling out its forces. 

Anyway, Rosalyn was a medevac nurse, and one night while Stone was on some in-country mission, she took a last-second job for some other nurse, and her helicopter came under heavy fire. Rosalyn ended up falling out of the ‘copter, which later crashed, everyone onboard burnt to a crisp; Rosalyn was listed as KIA. However she survived her fall, and was found by a Vietnamese soldier who ended up selling her to a sadist who goes by the name “the General;” a powerful Laotian warlord who rules a clifftop fortress on the China-Laos border.

Stone only eventually pieces this together. Using his girlfriend Carol’s government resources he discovers that the dead man in his garage was a CIA agent who worked the Southeast Asia field. Also, given that Stone has only ever known one “Rosalyn,” he quickly deduces that she must be the woman the dying man said was still alive! From this leap of logic Stone, who discovers the charges against him have been thrown out of court, jumps right back into MIA Hunter mode; now he just has to track down Hog and Loughlin, who he discovers have taken a job in El Salvador.

This is the next storyline – Cunningham here delivers a sequence reminiscent of a war novel, as Stone ventures down to South America and hooks up with his two pals, who have been training government soldiers to fight against the insurrectionists. This bit is a little plodding and really has nothing to do with anything, but it does lead up to a climax in which Stone, in pure ‘80s action hero mode, hops on a dirt bike and fires LAW rockets while driving it. And judging from the series cover paintings, Stone even wears an ‘80s-mandatory headband, so the picture is complete.

Finally we get to the last storyline, which happens to be the one promised on the back cover. Stone and pals head for Thailand, where they learn more about the General’s fortress. It’s on a 500-foot cliff which can only be scaled by “bucket elevators,” and it’s guarded by a few hundred elite guards. Also, the General makes his money through the poppy fields beneath his fortress, from which he produces heroin. After a lot of worry over how few supplies they can carry, they find an American merc who flies a helicopter that can fly them and all their gear the few hundred miles to the China-Laos border.

Cunningham occasionally cuts over to Rosalyn’s viewpoint, so we can see how her life has gone over the past thirteen years. She runs a clinic in the fortress, where she lives in a “gilded cage” of three opulent rooms. The General has treated her kindly, except for the time she discovered he was a heroin manufacturer; the General escorted her down to the dungeon for a view of his torture chamber, and Rosalyn complained no more. However the General only occasionally “visits” her now, and Rosalyn has taken a lover, a young soldier named Lu Fang who is part of a group that plans to overthrow the General.

Weaving the various plots together in a taut finale, Cunningham delivers an ongoing action scene in which Stone and companions raid the fortress shortly after the doomed rebellion. He even stays true to the pulpy tone with Rosalyn hooked up to the rack in the General’s dungeon and Stone coming to her rescue in the nick of time. The fight with the General plays more on the villain’s weasely nature, so there’s none of the superhuman figtihng of say #4: Mountain Massacre, however Cunningham does drop the ball here because toward the beginning we’re informed that the General likes to dress in ancient Chinese armor and carry around ancient weapons, but our author apparently forgets all of that when the General finally appears.

The MIA Hunter series has never had much continuity, but I’m hoping this installment has repercussions on later volumes. For after a memorable final confrontation with the General in his torture chamber, Stone and Rosalyn (who survives, much to my surprise) spend some quality time together, and the next day escape the fortress. Here though they are attacked by ground forces – only to be saved by the last-second appearance of a Huey helicopter, with Carol Jenner manning a machine gun and blowing everyone away. At first I thought she was going to turn out to be some deep-cover operative, but Cunningham instead has it that Stone’s girlfriend used her smarts to figure out where Stone would be, and hired a helicopter to come rescue him and etc.

Anyway, Stone: MIA Hunter ends with Mark stone in the center of a veritable love triangle, choppering out of Laos with his one-time fiance, having been saved by his current girlfriend. Cunningham doesn’t provide a clue which way it might go, though he does seem to indicate that Stone decides Rosayln is the one for him. I’d love to say we’ll find out in the next volume, but I’m not holding my breath.