Monday, May 2, 2016

The Penetrator #27: The Animal Game


The Penetrator #27: The Animal Game, by Lionel Derrick
August, 1978  Pinnacle Books

About halfway through this incredibly bizarre volume of The Penetrator, it came to me that perhaps this was author Mark Roberts’s attempt at a Destroyer-esque slice of dark satire. There’s really no other way to explain The Animal Game, which features Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin going up against an animal rights group that steals pets, sells them to research labs, and then turns their carcasses into prepackaged food!

Roberts appears to have read the previous volume, which was courtesy Chet Cunningham, as the prologue makes much reference to it as Mark Hardin hops in his plane and heads to Connecticut for some rest and relaxation. (Or perhaps the prologue was written by series editor Andy Ettinger and not Roberts.) One thing Roberts overlooks though is that, at the end of the previous book, Mark Hardin was about to look into a letter he received from sometimes-girlfriend Joanna Tabler, who was complaining that many of her neighborhood pets were being stolen in New York. Here Mark basically brushes that off as nonsense and decides to focus on himself for a while; in particular he’s about to visit a childhood hero, an older man named Frank Luke who made a string of “Great White Hunter” movies decades ago.

The first indication of the comedy basis of The Animal Game is snuck into a sequence in which we see a variety of people along the East Coast going to the cops to complain about their stolen pets. In one of these quick scenes we see a wealthy man who has gone all the way to Texas to hire a famous private investigator named Leggo who has a mechanical leg. This is without question Roberts’s sly spoofing of real-life private eye J.J. Armes, who was briefly popular at the time (there was even a toy of the guy). Armes was based out of Texas and his schtick was that he had mechanical hands.

Despite the fact that thousands of pets are being stolen, Mark really couldn’t care less, figuring it’s something the local police are better suited to handle. He hobknobs with his childhood hero, Mark posing as an independent conservationalist researching Frank Luke’s massive private zoo, where Luke raises various animals before shipping them off to major zoos. It’s all egregious stuff as we are treated to lots of exposition on the harsh realities of major zoos and how animals are hunted and brutalized and whatnot. Along the way Mark, again posing as a full-fledged Indian, hits on Frank’s Katharine Hepburn-esque granddaughter, Nancy.

There’s no action for the first 40 pages or so. The dark comedy vibe continues when we are treated to more scattershot scenes of various one-off characters dealing with another mysterious menace: the random deaths of old people. In one such scene we read as the cops haul away the corpse of an old woman found slumped on her dining table. The sherrif finds a can of “Senior Singles” on the shelves, prepackaged meals to be eaten hot or cold and expressly marketed to senior citizens. We later learn there is also “Swinging Singles,” sold to the younger, non-married market.

Roberts also pays off on a subplot I was afraid he would forget: the friggin’ ninja hired by Mafia boss Frederico Calucci back in #23: Divine Death. We finally get to see him in action. He’s a young Japanese named Norinaga Tenedo from a powerful clan and he has set up temporary base in Seattle, where Calucci resides. Norinaga’s intro is unintentionally humorous, as Roberts has him attacking a variety of mechanical and cardboard enemies in his training den, and rather than being exciting it comes off like those constant fights Peter Sellers would get in with his manservant/martial arts teacher in the Pink Panther movies. But this could be intentional and just another indication of the purposely-goofy tone of The Animal Game.

Finally Roberts realizes he’s gone too long without an action scene for our hero and shoehorns one in that’s more arbitrary than in his earlier #25: Floating Death, where the Penetrator encountered would-be muggers outside of a Red Lobster restaurant. Mark, driving around Connecticut, randomly stops in a bank to cash some traveler’s checks…just as the place is being robbed! And guess who the three robbers take hostage? The trio take Mark to the countryside to kill him, but, begging for a smoke, Mark instead pulls out his Detonics .45s and blows ‘em away. The scene becomes a sermon on gun rights as Hardin figures less criminals would try such stupid shit if they figured most people were armed… 

Mark decides to get involved with the mass pet-napping after all. While still in Connecticut he visits an animal rights center called Animals First run by a heavyset activitst named Horton Ambrose, and Mark’s alarm bells ring. Sure enough we readers soon learn that Ambrose is indeed behind the pet-stealing, carcass-rendering plan, but the unexpected outcome is that many of these murdered animals have carcinogens and whatnot in them, and therefore the various “Singles” meals are contaminated. Thus, old folks are dying at their tables.

Of course none of this has much bearing on reality, but Mark, posing as a health inspector, quickly deduces what’s going on; there is a funny, much elaborated sequence where Mark himself buys a “Swinging Singles” can and Roberts keeps putting it off when Mark is just about to eat a spoonful. This particular comic scene pays off when Mark is sitting watch outside of a rendering factory and notices that it’s the same place that’s listed as the manufacturer on the can of Singles he’s holding! His ensuing strike on the place is fierce, though he mostly just knocks out a few guards.

The two plot threads come together when Calucci’s computer picks up the Penetrator’s prescence in Danbury, Connecticut – thanks to the trademark blue flint arrowheads Mark leaves on his raid on the rendering plant – and thus Norinaga is sent there. Meanwhile we’ve had an overlong sequence where we followed the young Japanese around the midwest and California, snooping out various clues to the Penetrator’s prescence. Things have the potential to get interesting when Norinaga is confronted by David Red Eagle, Mark’s Indian mentor, who has been alerted by the locals of this Japanese dude asking questions not far from the abandoned Borax mine that serves as the Stronghold. 

And yet…all Red Eagle does is talk to Norinaga, using like an Indian Mind Trick on him, so that Norinaga spills all he knows, feels dazed after the old man leaves, and then wonders what just happneed! To make it even more convoluted, when Professor Haskins calls Mark and begs him to get back to the Stronghold due to concerns over their security once again being compromised, Mark brushes it off. And when Haskins reveals that Red Eagle won’t divulge everything the ninja told him (!?), Mark still says “Forget about it,” and goes on with his strike against the pet-nappers. But it’s all moot, as Norinaga is sent to Danbury at any rate.

As with some previous installments, the “climactic” shootouts aren’t very thrilling, mostly because it’s Mark going up against a handful of thugs he easily outclasses. This time Mark mostly uses his Sidewinder subgun and a .45, but the gore is downplayed. Also more of the action is focused on Norinaga, who keeps popping up out of the woodwork to attack Mark. This soon becomes annoying because it happens again and again. Mark will be going about his business, the ninja will leap screaming from the shadows, hurling throwing stars, Mark will dodge in the nick of time, shoot at him, and Norinaga will disappear. Again, it’s all like the Pink Panther movies.

Just as the violence is subdued, so too is the sex: Mark manages to score with Nancy Luke, despite the fact that she’s barely in her twenties (Mark we’re informed prefers “older women”), but Roberts fades to black just as the bumpin’ and grindin’ is about to begin. Indeed per the series formula Mark is with Nancy in a beach cottage at novel’s end, reading dossiers on a “defecting” nuclear scientist who was part of some top secret project or somesuch; material for the next volume, of course. But Joanna Tabler, Mark’s girlfriend and who per the previous volume was the one who alerted him to this whole petnapping business in the first place, doesn’t even appear in The Animal Game.

Roberts summarily ties up his divergent plots in the final pages: Norinaga, having returned to Washington under the mistaken impression he’d killed the Penetrator (Mark we learn was merely feigning death with some ancient Indian ritual or something), returns to Connecticut when he suspects his prey might still be alive. The two engage in a furious martial arts fight, Mark using his own ancient “invisibility” tricks to fool the ninja’s eye. He breaks one of Norinaga’s arms and legs, and the beaten ninja pleads to be allowed to commit seppuku. “Sayanora, Tenedo-san,” says Mark, leaving the ninja to gut himself.

From there it’s to a harried blitz on the headquarters of Animals First, where Mark guns down one or two thugs and then gets in a protracted chase to Frank Luke’s private zoo, Horton Ambrose under the impression that Duke was the one who sicced the Penetrator on him. At least the finale is memorable, Ambrose torn to pieces by Duke’s pet lion. Here we finally have some of that old Penetrator gore, with details on his entrails being ripped out and whatnot. And that’s that!

This installment features the debut of the “Combat Catalog,” which features drawings of various weapons and gear from the Penetrator’s arsenal, with notes in triplicate detailing each item. This time we learn about the Penetrator’s airplane, his Jackass combat rig, his Detonics .45, and etc. Unfortunately, Mark’s ever-present dart gun, Ava (which by the way isn’t used this volume), is not shown. Maybe next time, I guess.

Anyway, The Animal Game is the strangest entry in the series yet. Parts of it could’ve almost come from the pen of Joseph Rosenberger, as Roberts will go into extended rants that have nothing to do with anything. Most of the book almost comes off like a diatribe against the prepackaged and fast food industries (toward the end Mark visits a fast food restaurant and Roberts makes it sound like a missing level of Dante’s Hell). But my favorite “WTF?” bit of all is when we are informed that Mark beats Norinaga because Mark Hardin eats red meat! So that’s how you beat a ninja!!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Huntress


The Huntress, by Williams Forrest
No month stated, 1964  Fawcett Gold Medal

You won’t find anything about The Huntress online, but according to the back cover copy it’s about a young Jewish girl whose family was killed in the Holocaust and who becomes a secret agent for the US, her goal the tracking down and killing of Nazis. Well, that’s sort of what the novel is about.

This sounds like a pulp masterpiece, but my friends, Williams Forrest is determined to write a “real” novel. In fact The Huntress should’ve been published in hardcover and received a glowing review in The New York Times or somesuch. It should not have been published as a pulpy-looking paperback from Gold Medal with a cover blurb calling it a “violent novel.” About the only way you’d think The Huntress was violent is if you’d spent the past decade reading Proust. This is a meaty, “literary” novel that only has a pulpish plot. It’s more Don DeLillo than Don Pendleton.

And yet, when I started to read the book I couldn’t believe how great it was. I found myself actually being moved by the opening sequence, something that rarely happens for an emotionless bastard like me. Unfortunately, The Huntress keeps going, which proves to be its undoing. But those opening pages are something special. The novel itself occurs in 1964, but the first quarter or so takes place in ’45, at the very end of the war. OSS spook Matt Winford is overseeing the freeing of a German concentration camp, and Willaims capably – and quickly – details the horrors therein.

The emotional content comes up when Winford spots a group of kids, converging around a US officer who happens to be a rabbi. Winford sees one of the kids – a little girl, maybe four, with wild black hair and “the eyes of a tigress.” Before he knows it he’s picked her up and he’s holding her. She says one word, in Yiddish: “Revenge.” And then she breaks down into tears. The little girl is named Sheila Koenig and it will be learned that her family was killed by the Nazis – her mother indeed hid tiny Sheila in a cupboard before the Nazis killed her. Yet Sheila was rounded up anyway.

From here the novel sort of hopscotches to important moments in Sheila’s life. Due to Winford’s brief presence she has, unlike most other Jewish kids freed from the camps, gone to America, where she is raised by a family she doesn’t really love. Matt Winford is for all intents and purposes her foster father, though she never calls him such; they have kept in touch over the years and he visits her in Virginia often. Winford has also stayed in the intelligence world and now works for the CIA. This is something that Sheila, now in her teens, is very interested in. She has retained her cold exterior and seems to live for nothing more than revenge.

Sheila, Winford is slowly beginning to realize, wants to become a secret agent herself. When she learns from him one day that martial arts could help a woman defend herself against a man, she throws herself into the study of karate, with the outcome that she achieves the rank of 4th Dan, higher even than Winford. At length he agrees to her demands and puts in a word for her at the Agency. Starting off on clerical duties Sheila soon realizes she could help the CIA in a greater capacity: in particular, in helping bring down the espionage ring of a Communist spymaster who was formerly a Nazi – in fact, the very same Nazi who was behind the massacre of Sheila’s family.

The Nazi, Colonel Ludwig von Bohlen, went over to East Germany after the War; we are informed that, while America took all the “good” Germans, the Commie countries eagerly took the bad ones. (However the revelation of Operation Paperclip in the ‘80s proved that America itself took its share of Nazis after the war…) Anyway, von Bohlen is you’ll be surprised to know a complete sadist, a man we eventually learn who gets off on whipping young women to death, a la any true men’s adventure magazine pulp Nazi. Yet our capable author is less concerned with showing us any of this sordid stuff and instead just shoehorns it into lots of dialog.

For that’s mostly what The Huntress is: dialog. The DeLillo reference above wasn’t made in jest. This is a novel mostly comprised of various weird characters speaking exorbitantly and at great length about various things, expounding on their arcane and bizarre knowledge. The emotional impact of those first several pages is gradually eclipsed, to the point where the reader wonders if he will risk losing the plot if he, say, skims a few pages. It’s a shame, really, as initially I thought I’d discovered a forgotten masterpiece. As it is, I found The Huntress a trying read.

Anyway, von Bohlen’s scheme, per Winford, is that he picks up talented whores from a particular cathouse in Rome, takes them over to East Germany, brainwashes them to the Red cause, and then trains them in the finer arts of sex and seduction. From there they are shipped to the free world, in particular the UN, where they are tasked with targeting particular ambassadors and VIPs and whatnot. The women then steal all kinds of info from the VIPs in bed, secretly sending it back to East Germany. But von Bohlen is a cagey ex-Nazi and travels secretly, and Winford and the CIA don’t just want to nab him but to expose his list of corrupted UN officials.

Per her request, Sheila is sent over to Italy, with an elaborate cover story of a young whore who was recently killed. (In a complete bit of coincidence, we later learn that the girl Sheila is posing as was killed by von Bohlen himself, in one of his whipping frenzies, but he never knew the name of the girl he was whipping…?!) Here the novel loses its steam and we must settle in for the long haul as Sheila meets one windbag after another. Most guilty of all is the old yet regal madam of the whorehouse, who is prone to going on and on for paragraphs of exposition over several pages as she regales Sheila with tales of her wanton youth and informs Sheila that she envies her youth. 

Meanwhile we also cut over to von Bohlen, who travels to Italy under a false name and as expected takes quickly to Sheila – part of the madam’s job was to ensure von Bohlen would note her. And as for Sheila, she herself is segregated in her own room in the cathouse and is not up for sale; this is something we learn at more page expense that pisses off the real hookers in the establishment. But von Bohlen takes to Sheila and goes about courting her. Forrest doesn’t do much to capture von Bohlen; it would be nice to see what this once-rabid Nazi thinks of the 1960s, how he feels working for the Communists and how he views Italy in comparison to the Italy of the 1940s. Instead, von Bohlen is just a sadist who enjoys the freedom the East Germans give him, and he figures Sheila will be perfect for nabbing another randy UN official.

Matt Winford is also here, shadowing Sheila in Rome before she’s taken to East Germany. There are also a few Israeli agents here, ones who are seeking von Bohlen. One of them, a sabra named Chaim, meets Sheila and quickly deduces she’s a spy and Winford her handler. In their quick meet Forrest lays the groundwork for a growing love between the two, but it’s hard to buy and at any rate comes to zilch; Sheila and Chaim never meet again in the novel, though it ends as she’s about to see him again. But in their one meeting together Chaim, posing as a man who has heard of this mysterious girl in the cathouse, tries to rent her for the day, and Sheila, wondering who the hell this rakish young guy really is, agrees to go along, but there will be no sex.

Instead Chaim takes her to the home in which the real girl whose name Sheila is using was captured by the Nazis, her own parents killed by them…in another bizarre and underdeveloped bit of coincidence, the girl Sheila is posing as had an almost identical past as her own. But nothing comes of this sequence…indeed nothing much comes of any sequence in The Huntress. The whole thing really comes off like the author working out his admittedly-talented writing chops. Von Bohlen as expected takes Sheila to Berlin, and here the novel still doesn’t amount to much, Forrest trying to be sordid yet still “literary” as Sheila is inducted into the Commie brainwashing/sex training gambit of the East Germans.

This sequence too just goes on and on, complete with another former Nazi at one point getting up on stage before the new class of whores and regaling them with endless speechifying. Eventually the girls are tested in various lovemaking scenarious, testing out the control of their inner muscles and whatnot. Again, you can tell it’s all quite torrid for its day but Forrest treats it all with kid gloves; that being said, this is the first pre-‘70s pulp paperback I’ve encountered to use the word “vagina.” But again it is not used in a racy sense. Instead it’s yet more locuacious minor characters going on and on. And despite the fact that all this takes place in a friggin’ sex school, it’s all very unerortic…like the long sequence where Sheila is forced to clean the bathroom.

Things don’t really pick up until the final few pages. Von Bohlen takes Sheila from the school and flies with her to Canada, from which they’ll enter the US. Winford and Chaim secretly follow. Sheila thinks she is being set up on her new UN deal, but it looks like Von Bohlen might’ve uncovered her identity. Or has he? It’s left vague; instead, a world-famous politician shows up after Von Bohlen has drugged and tied up Sheila and they get ready to whip her to death. Perhaps this is just this particular VIP’s sadistic kink. At any rate Sheila is in a bad way, hanging by her hair, only able to take the weight off it by balancing on a wooden chair beneath her.

The helluva it is, Sheila has had contless opportunities to kill von Bohlen. You keep wondering why she doesn’t, only to remind yourself, “Oh yeah, she needs to uncover his UN scheme and bring him to justice, or something.” And yet, here in the homestretch…Sheila kills von Bohlen. And rather easily at that! She gets the two men in range of her lethal legs and lets ‘em have it, choking the life out of Von Bohlen with her thighs. And that’s that! The rather amateurish cover painting illustrates this final scene, of a victorious Sheila standing over her dead prey.

But like I wrote above, The Huntress really should not have been a Gold Medal paperback with such a pulpy cover. Even the title makes no sense. Sheila is not codenamed “The Huntress” and she is never referred to as such. She is a junior agent on her first assignment and she doesn’t “hunt” a single thing; she just sits around in an Italian whorehouse and then in Berlin she just sits around in a sex school. She is not an ass-kicking spy babe, despite the fact that Forrest early in the book goes to great pains to inform us how much of a karate expert she is. It isn’t rocket science, people, just slap a skintight black jumpsuit on her, codename her “The Huntress,” and send her shapely ass over to Europe to kill ex-Nazi scum! The story practically writes itself!

Instead, Williams Forrest is determined to write a “real” novel, none of that funny pulp business. One thing to make clear though is that Forrest is a great writer. This dude can spin a sentence, that’s for sure. And yet his very writing qualities are what, for me at least, gradually led to my frustration with The Huntress. It seemed as if the majority of the tale was word painting, though word painting of a high caliber. I just wanted something finally to happen, and grew bored with the windbag characters.   

Monday, April 25, 2016

Spy In Black Lace


Spy In Black Lace, edited by Noah Sarlat
No month stated, 1964  Lancer Books

This vintage anthology of men’s adventure magazine stories is thematically similar to Women With Guns, and also shares the same editor: Noah Sarlat. However unlike that superior anthology Spy In Black Lace is comprised of the shorter stories that ran in the Sarlat-edited “Diamond Line” of men’s mags (ie Stag, Male, etc); in other words, none of the stories here are novella-length like those in Women With Guns.

And also I should quickly point out that those expecting Modesty Blaise let alone The Baroness will be greatly disappointed; with only one exception, the women in the stories collected here are not female James Bonds and certainly aren’t the aggressive ass-kicking females so common in today’s action garbage. All of them (with one exception) just use their bodies in the line of duty, relying on sex as their sole weapon. In other words the collection isn’t very spy-fy in nature and is more about gorgeous women using their ample charms to sway various men in the line of duty.

First up is “Lily Stein: Spy In Black Lace,” by George Raffey and copyright 1960 Newstand Publications. Unlike the other men’s mag anthologies I’ve read, Spy In Black Lace doesn’t tell you which particular magazines these stories came from. Anyway this tale, about fifteen pages in length, sets the precedent for the style and length of those that follow. Unfortunately it’s not the strongest opener for the book, as Raffey spins out a yarn that’s mostly told in summary or in the format of a fake article.

Lily we learn is a beautiful young Austrian who in the early 1930s decided like so many other starving young European women to become a prostitute. But Lily became a “high-class” whore and set her sights on bigwigs across Europe. Soon she was wealthy herself, entertaining men from Austria to Paris. Then one day in 1938 she was contacted by the Gestapo and drafted into service. Now Lily would be a spy for them, acting as a courier. But Lily always struggled to be the best and threw herself into spycraft, eventually becoming a capable spy herself – but again, only in the bedroom.

In 1940 she is sent to New York and there brings military officials and businessmen involved in the beginning war effort into her yoke. There’s no sexual material here, by the way, with what little there is relegated to quick mentions of Lily’s nice rack or her and her latest conquest waking up in bed together. But Lily is worried about the security of her dead-drops, where she mails intel to an “aunt” in Switzerland; she’s very happy when a Gestapo contact comes to the US and shows her a new short wave radio. But the Gestapo dude is a double agent, and the tale ends with Lily arrested just a few days before D-Day; she was about to send info about it to Berlin before she was captured. 

Next up is “Madame Li Sang: Bait for an OSS Trap,” by Hal Hennesey and copyright 1961 Newstand. This one’s in first-person and I’m certain the original story carried a fake “as told to” credit; here Hennesey himself becomes the narrator and character, which I’m sure is only via editing trickery courtesy Sarlat. Hennesey himself was a men’s mag editor and published at least two novels in the ‘60s under his own name. Anyway in this yarn “Hennesey” is an OSS agent deep in Central China, surrounded by “Japs.”

Hennesey’s storytelling is much better than Raffey’s in the earlier story; he keeps the tale moving and it’s never relayed via summary. It’s July 1945 and our narrator has just gotten word that “fifty Kamikaze Tokyo-trained Chinese” have been sent into China to kill all American OSS agents. Now Hennesey has to figure out which “Jap agent” is after him. The sole American here, Hennesey is in charge of a group of Chinese soldiers led by Colonel Chou, whom Hennesey calls “Colonel Joe.” Joe’s idea is to have nearby Madam Li Sang call in her eight hookers for a party, get the men drunk, and figure out which one’s the secret agent!

Once again there’s precious little sex, though Hennesey does report to us that Li Sang spends the night with him. This one plays out more like a mystery, with Hennesey suspecting everyone, even Joe, who summarily kills off one man wrongly accused of being the spy. It climaxes with an assault by the Japanese, ending with Joe saving Hennesey’s life from the agent, who has gotten into the camp disguised as a coolie. Oh and we learn one of Li Sang’s hookers killed herself due to a broken heart – she was in love with the guy Colonel Joe executed.

“Suissa Overmaat: Target for Seduction” by Leon Lazarus follows, and it’s copyright 1961 Newstand. Suissa is a busty blonde Belgian who is the “avowed mistress” of a Nazi officer in 1942 Brussels. As in the previous story, though, Suissa isn’t the main character; it’s a Belgian underground fighter named Paul Waldeck who has been tasked by his superiors to “know Suissa well.” Suissa’s open fling with the Nazi has gotten the interest of the underground rebels, and they figure if Paul can get close to her, he can pick up all sorts of intel.

Suissa’s Nazi boyfriend has a map of anti-aircraft weaponry around Belgium; the underground desperately needs this map. Paul plots with a group and ambushes the officer one day as he’s walking out of Suissa’s apartment – the girl is not a spy by any means and indeed has no idea who Paul really is. The officer is killed and Paul escapes, to hand over the map to a young boy before being shot down himself. Suissa we learn is taken in by the Gestapo, interrogated, and then executed off-page. Bummer! But at least the kid turns over the map to the Belgian underground and the Nazis are again thwarted.

“Kim Suim: Prostitute for the Cause” by Alex Austin takes place apparently in the year it was published, 1958 (copyright Atlas Magazines). Kim Suim is “Korea’s Mata Hari” and we learn she eventually opened a whorehouse in Seoul which was populated with girls trained in the Commie arts of seduction. Unfortunately Austin does little to exploit this and instead the majority of the short tale is given over to recounting Kim’s hardscrabble youth in post-World War II Korea. She goes from man from man in a sort of repeat of the storyline in “Lily Stein.”

But one of Kim’s boyfriends is a North Korean spy and tells Kim she’d be a great addition to the Commie effort. Kim becomes a great spy herself, again relegated to screwing UN officials visiting Seoul and sneaking through their briefcases and whatnot to snap photos, which she sends to North Korea. But she has grand intentions and as mentioned opens her very own cathouse, one filled with similar spy-whores. But just as the story’s getting good it perfunctorily ends: Kim comes home one day to find a few plainclothes police waiting for her, and they take her off for a summary trial and execution. The end!

“Violette Szabo: Wild War Widow” by Morgan Bennett follows; it’s copyright 1961 Newstand and is the best story in the anthology by far. It also would’ve been more at home in Women With Guns than any story actually collected in that book, save for the fact that it’s shorter than any of them, again only coming in at 15 or so pages. But this story is the one exception I mentioned above: Violette is really more so a female commando rather than a spy. It’s World War II and the raven-haired beauty, born in France to a British dad and French mom but raised in London, is a commando for the British Secret Service and has just parachuted into the French countryside to kick a bunch of Nazi ass.

The story is mostly comprised of a long-running action sequence with brief flashbacks to Violette’s past. Unlike most men’s mags stories, this one does not start off in the “present” before getting lost in a long flashback; Bennett keeps the tale moving as Violette, along with a male Maquis comrade, blows away hordes of Nazi soldiers with her Sten submachine gun. It’s apparently D-Day and Violette has brought papers that will help the Maquis in their effort to take on the rear guard of the German defenses. Violette is basically a female Terminator, mowing down legions of Nazis.

We learn in the brief flashbacks that her husband was a French Foreign Legionaire killed in combat; after giving birth to a daughter, Violette wanted to go fight herself – “the child brought her little joy.” She’s apparently seen action before but this is her biggest fight, however she injures her ankle and demands that her Maquis comrade rush to safety with the papers. Violette is caught and taken to a prison; there’s a big buildup with the Maquis attempting to bust her out, but they learn Violette has been put through “unspeakable tortures” and moved to another camp. The finale is a depressing series of “Violette was sent to this camp, and then that camp,” vaguely tortured all the while, until she is summarily executed by a Gestapo officer. We learn she was posthumously awarded a medal for bravery.

“Celia: Camp Follower in the Command Tent” is by Harry Harrison Kroll and copyright 1961 Atlas Magazines. This one takes place in 1864, during the Civil War, and given my lifelong disinterest in this area of history I skipped the story.

“Eva Baronet-Petrovka: Afrika Korps Fraulein” is by Arthur Orrmont and copyright 1961 Newstand. It’s similar to the opening story, “Lily Stein,” in that it’s about a sexy German babe who spies for her country, even though she isn’t a full-on Nazi. She does it more so out of patriotic duty or somesuch. At any rate it’s June 1942 and Lilly has been sent to Cairo, where she is to scope out the city in preparation for Rommel’s eventual conquest. She hooks up with a pair of wealthy Egyptian twin brothers, Abdul and Ahmed, steeling herself to the fact that she’ll have to have sex with both of them in order to maintain her playgirl cover – and to use their fancy bathroom to hide her transmitter-receiver.

From there it follows the usual men’s mag template, flashing back to how Eva’s career began. A virgin teen in pigtails, she was chosen due to her beauty to be sent into spy school, where she was taught the arts of seduction, intel transmission, and sex…again, this particular spy’s “gadgets” are relegated to her own ample bodyparts. She hops from bed to bed in her intel-gathering, almost undone at one point by a New Zealand spy posing as a reporter. Eva manages to destroy all of her spy equipment before the cops come, however she’s sent to a prison camp just as a safeguard, where she sits out the rest of the war in relative comfort. Here we’re informed she also learns the truth of the Nazis, turns against them, and “today” is married to a British official involved in the Intelligence trade, acting as a sort of consultant for him.

“Magda De Fontagnes: Everybody’s Spy – Everybody’s Mistress” is by Ted Stoil and copyright 1960 Atlas. It’s slightly longer than the other stories, which is a shame, as this is another that’s mostly told in summary format, or at least in the style of a pseudo article. The tale opens in June 1937 as a lovely young redhead shoots down a French ambassador in a Paris train station. The man lives and the girl is arrested; she claims the man got in the way of her love life. Newspapers will uncover that the woman is Magda De Fontagnes and the person she was having the affair with – the affair ruined by the meddling of the ambassador – was none other than Il Duce himself, Mussolini.

From here the overlong tale is basically just a fake article like you’d read in a regular magazine, as Stoil recounts Magda’s past. She is a triple spy, working for the French, the Germans, and the Italians, but not through any cunning or wickedness – no, just because Magda “loved too much.” Basically in her sexpionage assignments Magda would fall in love with whatever guy she was boffing, to the point where she’d decide to start spying for him.

This leads to the occasional arrest or dramatic situation, like the incident with the ambassador (Magda freed from prison in exchange for spying for France as well). It’s all very dry and not nearly as torrid as it should be, which sums up practically every story collected here. However Magda is the second protagonist in a row to actually survive her tale; the story ends with her final arrest, caught spying for Germany, and she’s sent to prison for 15 years of hard labor.

Overall this was a middling collection. Sarlat had a good idea for the anthology, though; too bad he was unable to find better stories for it. Someone interested in checking out these old men’s mag anthologies would be better suited looking for Women With Guns or even Our Secret War Against Red China.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

MIA Hunter #7: Saigon Slaughter


MIA Hunter #7: Saigon Slaughter, by Jack Buchanan
August, 1987  Jove Books

Stephen Mertz and Joe Lansdale team for up a third and final time on the MIA Hunter series, which now features series protagonist’s name “Stone” as part of the title. Mertz and Lansdale last collaborated on #4: Mountain Massacre, and like that one Saigon Slaughter is for the most part about 80% action with around 20% of character and plot development. It’s enjoyable but lacks the charm of their first collaboration, #3: Hanoi Deathgrip, which is still my favorite volume.

Hero Mark Stone is already in the ‘Nam when the novel opens, accompanied as ever by erstwhile companions Hog Wiley and Terrance Loughlin. A new character is introduced this volume, though it’s doubtful he’ll become a regular (MIA Hunter lacks much continuity): United States Senator Jerome Harber, who has come to Ho Chi Minh City as part of a delegation looking into the truth behind reported American POWs still in Vietnam. Harber is a believer and has made contact with Stone; as the novel opens Stone sneaks into Harber’s hotel room to tell him he’s going to prove his case that POWs exist.

Stone’s here for three American POWs in particular, though the novel features an arbitrary bit from Stone’s perspective where he reflects on the limited lifespan of his MIA-hunting duties. Once again Stone suspects that eventually he will have to pan out into other aspects of global ass-kicking, no doubt sign from editor Mertz that the series will gradually lose focus on the MIA angle and become more of a typical ‘80s action pulp. I’m looking forward to these later books as the concept behind this series is pretty limited, especially when as with the case with Saigon Slaughter the “plots” are mostly comprised of endless battle sequences.

We also get a rare moment of continuity; Stone briefly reflects on the aftermath of the previous volume, in particular the onetime-fiance he rescued in the course of that novel, and how her presence has thrown his love life into chaos. But nothing else is made of this and indeed the fiance isn’t even named. As usual though much more focus is placed on the mission at hand; when we meet Stone he’s already in ‘Nam and he stays here for the duration, dodging bullets and blowing away Vietnamese soldiers. There’s no time for romance, though Saigon Slaughter features the presence of the best female character in the series yet: Mai, “a fine specimen of Oriental womanhood” who is “small but big-breasted” and a kick-ass commando to boot.

Mai, only in her twenties but a veteran freedomfighter in her native Vietnam, serves as Stone’s main contact in the novel. She meets him in the jungle in a sequence of course reminiscent of Rambo: First Blood Part II and proves her worth on the battlefied…again and again, that is, given the crushing onlsaught of action in Saigon Slaughter. Unlike Co in Rambo, Mai actually survives the tale, and the authors capably build a growing rapport between her and Stone, to the point that by novel’s end Stone figures he and Mai will be getting busy posthaste, even though he knows he’ll never see her again. Why not? Mai is a welcome addition and should have become a series regular.

Mertz went on to pen the two-part series Tunnel Rats, which makes it interesting that Stone’s brief tunnel rat background in the war is given a lot of focus here. When Stone and comrades aren’t blitzing VC they’re burrowing beneath the ground in close-quarter tunnels, one of the few things that Hog Wiley fears. Once again the big Texan is given the spotlight, and no doubt these sequences are written by fellow Texan Lansdale, with Hog’s wild background in East Texas often commented upon. And, as in the previous volumes these two co-wrote, the bickering and banter between Hog and cipher-like Loughlin comes fast and furious. Some of it is funny, but some of it gets to be grating.

But really the endless action is the star of the show. Immediately after meeting Mai (who initially shows up in a “Ninja-type mask”) in the jungle night and hooking up with her branch of freedom fighters, Stone et al are caught up in an ambush that is just the first of many, many such action scenes to follow. The gore is also more prevalent this time out, with copious descriptions of heads juicily exploding and guts bursting out. I think Stone and team kill about a zillion Vietnamese soldiers in this one, and once again you have to wonder why they weren’t so lethal in the actual war itself! Wait, I know – it was those goddamn politicians who kept holding them back!!

Mai is the lone survivor of her team of insurgents after this opening battle (which goes on for about 40 pages), and her dead leader was the only one who knew where the camp with the American POWs is located. But there’s another option: depraved General Le, a Vietnamese official who is meeting with Senator Harber’s delegation. Le knows exactly where the camp is, and given his penchant for a new woman every night, Mai dresses herself up in Western clothing with lots of makeup, just like Le likes ‘em. With General Le the MIA Hunter gets its first taste of sleaze, even if it’s relatively brief and also nondescript – there isn’t a single sex scene in the novel. But Le likes to suffocate women while he screws them, we learn, and indeed plans to do this to sexy Mai.

Here’s where we learn about Mai’s “big breasts,” as she goes to Le’s fortress dressed like a veritable Asian Daisy Duke. Stone, using “Ninja suction cups,” scales the fortress and slips in, stopping the festivities before they can start; Le scrawls down the camp location and Stone promptly blows him away. After this we get, you’ll be surprised to know, yet another action scene. This one too keeps going like a regular Duracell Bunny. But now they know that the camp is near Saigon, aka Ho chi Minh, and the team heads deep into the jungle. We get another long and arbitary action scene as they encounter enemy forces, a scene which sees Hog hiding up in a tree at one point and gunning men down. Once again Hog is practically a force of nature, loving the blood and chaos of constant battle. 

The tunnel rat stuff continues when the anti-communist leader of the village near the POW camp reveals that old tunnels run beneath the place, but the one beneath the actual prison needs to be finished. Stone has him draft a ton of “University aged” kids to help in the all-night dig, which leads us into the homestretch battle, another one that goes on for around 30 or so pages. Stone frees the three bedraggled American POWs without much fuss, and then gets back to the task of killing hordes of Vietnamese. The authors inject a bit more variety in this one, from bulldozers used as battering rams to an escape via chopper, Loughlin piloting it and Hog blasting away with an M-60. We even get a ‘copter chase, with Loughlin successfully psyching out the pursuer so that he flies into a truck.

Saigon Slaughter culminates in a scene suspiciously similar to the finale of Missing In Action, as Stone et al fly their appropriated helicopter right to the building in Laos where Senator Harber’s delegation is meeting with the Vietnamese. Stone pulls out the three corpse-like American prisoners and hands them over to Harber in view of God and everyone so there can no longer be any question that the Vietnamese are indeed still harboring American prisoners.

And that’s that – a weary Stone hops back in the helicopter and they take off before there can be anymore fireworks. As mentioned, here Stone puts his arms around the lovely Mai and figures he and she are about to get close, but really he’s more concerned with how he’s going to sneak out of the country. Not that it much matters, as I assume by the next volume Stone will already be on his next mission when we meet him and the events of Saigon Slaughter will be completely forgotten.

I think I can spot the line of demarcation between the two authors: Lansdale perhaps is responsible for the sardonic vibe and the venmous Hog-Loughlin banter, with Mertz mostly responsible for the action and definitely responsible for the Don Pendleton-esque narratorial asides about Stone’s bad-assery. One can clearly see Mertz’s background with Pendleton thanks to lines like “Yeah, Stone was something.” Much of it is so similar to material in Pendleton’s Executioner novels that it could be an excerpt. But the Pendleton vibe is strong, especially in random moments where Mertz will describe the green hell of the jungle, or when he will focus on Stone’s deadfast resolve to see his mission through, even if he dies in the attempt.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Spy In The Jungle (Joaquin Hawks #1)


The Spy In The Jungle, by Bill S. Ballinger
May, 1965  Signet Books

A hardboiled author in the ‘50s, Bill S. Ballinger turned his hand like so many other pulp writers to spy fiction in the ‘60s, no doubt due to the overwhelming popularity of James Bond. However Ballinger’s series protagonist, Joaquin Hawks, is nothing like Bond, and at least judging from this first volume the series is more atmosphere-heavy suspense than pulp action. The back cover even refers to it as “an adroit novel of espionage.”

The series ran for five volumes, from 1965 to 1966. This first volume hits the ground running with precious little background detail on our hero Joaquin Hawks, an American agent briefly described as being 32 years old, six feet tall, with “ebony hair” and “obsidian eyes.” He has a “sinewy” build and “a bronze lean face;” his mother was Spanish and his father was a Nez Perce Indian. He has previous Intelligence experience and now reports to Horace Burke, CIA Director of Operations in Los Angeles. With Hawks’s Indian heritage and the adventure fiction vibe, the series is almost a precursor to John Eagle Expeditor.

The back cover describes Hawks as “the world’s most subtle and lethal agent,” and while the second element isn’t much explored in this first volume, we do see how “subtle” Hawks can be on his assignments. Basically he goes about in a variety of disguises and assumed identities, painstakingly building cover stories and covering up his trail. Every volume of the series takes place in Asia, which makes it interesting that, juding from vague dialog early in The Spy In The Jungle, Asia isn’t one of Hawks’s normal stomping grounds.

Like Bond though Hawks is successful with the ladies, and is called away from vacation with his latest conquest to hear all about Project Prometheus. This top-secret US affair concerns nuclear warheads that can be called back after launch; the idea is for “fifty megatons” to hover over an enemy city to make it see the error of its ways. However while the experiment worked fine when tested in Florida, now that it’s moved to Vandenberg Air Force base in California the test missiles are disappearing. The trajectory goes from California into the China Sea or somesuch, but the missiles are vanishing in the vicinity of Vietnam and Laos. We learn all about it in a too-long sequence where Hawks monitors a test firing.

With absolutely nothing to go on, Hawks is sent in – Burke doesn’t want one of his field operatives in Asia to handle it, as he wants to keep the entire afair hush-hush or something. So Hawks grows a pencil-thin moustache, speaks in French (he’s the Jimi Hendrix of foreign languages), and travels to Saigon as a dinnerware salesman from Paris. No doubt written in 1964 before US intervention, The Spy In The Jungle is filled with topical details about pre-war Vietnam that were likely outdated even by the time of publication. But there are no US soldiers here, this early in the ‘60s, and Saigon still hangs on to its French history.

Even in disguise Hawks manages to score, thanks to a busty blonde from Sweden named Anna, who happens to be a reporter. Ballinger by the way is very much in the “fade to black” aspect of the sex scenes, and indeed doesn’t even much exploit the ample charms of the two female characters in the book. But Anna is burnin’ for some good stuff and Hawks complies. She’s here, she tells him, on nothing more than a hunch – in Stockholm she was contacted by a Soviet scientist who was travelling through Sweden into the free world. The man called her newspaper’s office looking to sell his story for some much-needed cash. It was a mysterious tale of an ancient temple deep in the jungle heavily guarded by Chinese forces.

Thanks to this complete deus ex machina of a lead, Hawks figures the mysterious temple might be behind the vanishing US missiles! He checks out of his hotel, doffs the Frenchman getup, disguises himself as “Ali,” a Moslem from the Philipines, and checks into a squalid hovel. More elaborate scene-setting ensues as Hawks goes to great lenghts to set up a past for “Ali,” with the story that he’s a merchant seaman wanted for murder. Hawks wants the Viet Cong to contact him, though we are left in the dark why. To build up “Ali’s” legend Hawks even engages in a kung-fu fight, easily besting the native champion.

Ballinger by the way is also quick and dirty with the action scenes. We’ll get a couple sentences of fast action and it’s back to the atmospheric stuff; the book is very descriptive of flora and fauna and Ballinger has that old pulp writer knack for quickly bringing exotic lands to life. Did I mention that Hawks carries a throwing knife and has a belt that fires two .22-caliber bullets? Otherwise he tries not to kill and indeed is more so concerned with melting into the shadows. But when it gets down to it karate is his main weapon, and in that regard Hawks is similar to another ‘60s spy: Mark Hood

Eventually Hawks goes deep into the jungle, heading on motorcycle and foot for Hanoi. We get some mystical stuff as he hangs out in a Buddhist temple and, still as “Ali,” hobknobs with a monk who may know of the mysterious ancient temple in Laos. We will learn that this is a pre-Buddhist temple devoted to “The Tree of Life.” There’s another long sequence where Hawks comes to a Montagnard village in the jungle mountains and lives with its people for a few weeks. In many ways The Spy In The Jungle is like an anthropology textbook with a minor spy-pulp overlay.

The highlight is Hawks’s scouting of the ancient temple, a ruins deep in Laos that has a destroyed exterior but a high-tech interior. Snooping around, evading the many guards in the place, Hawks discovers that the ancient temple has all sorts of gizmos in it; we’ll learn in the end that it is basically a maser station, and it is indeed here that the Chinese are diverting the US missiles. But Hawks is caught and, breaking a guard’s neck (his first kill in the book, over a hundred pages in), he escapes into the jungle.

Those hoping for a rousing climax will be disappointed. Instead Hawks is caught while attempting to cross through Hanoi and spends weeks in prison. Here we finally learn why he went to such trouble establishing a story for “Ali” in Saigon – through the VC who approached him, his story bears out, thus the sadist in charge of the prison doesn’t have an excuse to kill him. In other words they never put it together that he’s also the man who just broke into the high-security temple in Laos. But, several weeks after he’s been in capitivity, Hawks is presented with a surprise – the Vietnamese have also captured the lovely Swede Anna.

Hawks makes his second and final kill, blasting a dude with the belt buckle gun and making off with Anna. More adventure-fiction stuff ensues as they race along the jungle in an appropriated jeep. But that’s that; we’re given a long bit of exposition for the finale, in which Hawks, two weeks later and back in Los Angeles, is briefed by Burke on what the temple was and how it was working. Including even parts where he reads verbatim from various reports. It’s a bit underwhelming to say the least. But we do at least learn that the busty blonde he was vacationing with at the beginning of the novel has come here to LA looking for more of that good stuff.

I wasn’t blown away by The Spy In The Jungle but I enjoyed it enough that I hunted down the only volume of the series I was missing (the second one, The Chinese Mask). I really enjoy these ‘60s spy series and Ballinger’s writing is capable and assured to the point that the 125 pages elapse before you even realize it.

And is it just me or does anyone else think that’s Ian Fleming’s eye on the cover? Signet retained the rights to Fleming’s paperback reprints at the time and I’m betting they just lifted a photograph of him in a sort of subliminal gambit for the cover.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Death Merchant #17: The Zemlya Expedition


Death Merchant #17: The Zemlya Expedition
July, 1976  Pinnacle Books

The Death Merchant veers again into sci-fi with a plot that could come out of John Eagle Expeditor (or one of Roger Moore’s Bond movies), as “pig farmer”-hating hero Richard Camellion heads to a massive high-tech city beneath the sea. However any hopes that this will be an interesting installment are quickly dashed, as for the most part The Zemlya Expedition is about 130 endless pages of densely-detailed gun battles, and, like most other books in the series, quickly becomes a chore to read.

Not to come off too negatively; as ever, Joseph Rosenberger injects enough of his patented bizarro diatribes to brighten the occasional spot. We’ll get random arguments about religion, mind control, and even doomsday prophecizing straight out of one of those faux-“documentary” type end of the world movies that were so big in the late ‘70s. But to get there you have to read like twenty pages describing in minute detail a gunfight between Camellion and legions of “Stalin saps” and whatnot.

The Zemlya Expedition starts off strongly enough. When we meet him Richard Camellion has snuck onto a Soviet research ship in the freezing desolation of the Arctic Ocean. He’s the only American in a few hundred miles and he’s surrounded by KGB and Russian soldiers. We learn that, for the past eleven weeks, Camellion has been working on project “Saddlesoap – Two Bars” for the NSA. Apparently there is a Russian doctor who is a contact for the US government and who has gotten in touch with her handlers about something major going on, for which she needs to be exfiltrated immediately.

The only problem is, this doctor, a climatologist named Raya Dubanova, is deep down in Zemyla II, a high-tech underwater complex built by the Russians in the Barents Sea of the Arctic circle. In the first few chapters Rosenberger occasionally hops back to Camellion’s briefing with the NSA and CIA several weeks before, shoehorning as customary tons of exposition about the Zemyla experiment as well as other odds and ends that don’t have much to do with anything. But we have to read tons and tons of stuff about ocean research, deep currents, and the dangers of weather being used as a weapon. Indeed the novel ends with a warning of the earth’s upcoming destruction.

The first of many, many fights ensues as Camellion is promptly discovered on the ship. He beats three men to death and assumes the identity of one of them – as we’ll recall, Camellion lives up to his surname by being able to disguise himself. Indeed he considers himself “the Rembrandt of plastic putty.” He now goes about the ship as “Valentin Prisk,” arrogantly confident that “even Prisk’s mother” wouldn’t realize that he is an imposter. And yet Camellion’s discovered in just a few pages, as he’s overlooked the fact that the real Prisk was missing a finger. Confronted by the KGB man in charge of the ship’s security, Camellion gets in the first of endless gunbattles that take up the brunt of the novel. It goes on and on and on, but Camellion is uninjured thanks to his “Kevlar-Thermacoacytl longjohns” which are bulletproof and even absorb impact.

However Camellion is caught, and here we have a bit of human depth from him, as he’s photographed and fingerprinted by the Reds, and this burns him to the core, as this has never been done to him before. Now Moscow will know what the legendary “Death Merchant” really looks like. For reasons of plot contrivance the KGB leader decides to take Camellion down to Zemyla instead of sending his ass posthaste to Moscow; he wants to show off how far advanced the USSR is in underwater technology. Thus Camellion is escorted to the “underground pig pen” on Weise Island in the Arctic, where the Russians have hidden their SPECTRE-style massive underwater fortress. 

Zemyla II is straight out of science fiction. It’s composed of five transparent domes deep in the ocean, each about 75 feet high, with sodium lights illuminating the crushing depths above them. Even Camellion has to admit the Russians are far advanced in this regard, and KGB leader General Vershensky gloats over it. “Too bad Jesus Christ and all the wild-eyed prophets didn’t have to deal with these Russian pig farmers,” Camellion thinks to himself. While this sci-fi underwater vibe sounds like a fascinating premise for an entertaining novel, Rosenberger basically just uses it as the framework for 130 or so pages of Camellion shooting at people.

First though we have more bald exposition, as Camellion, Vershensky, and a host of other Soviet bigwigs argue about brainwashing, with Vershensky even reading verbatim from a handy copy of Argosy magazine! Just like the blatant exposition in The Mind Masters, Camellion even argues back, citing sources with apparent photographic memory. It’s interesting but stupid, if you know what I mean – they’re on the bottom of the ocean in a high-tech fortress and they’re arguing over whether America uses Russian brainwashing techniques!

But we haven’t even gotten to the religion-bashing yet. Camellion, imprisoned, meets Dr. Raya Dubanova, a two-hundred pound lady in her mid-40s (forget about the blonde on the cover; she doesn’t exist in the novel). When Raya makes the mistake of mentioning God to Camellion, he goes off on a ranting diatribe that would even befuddle Archie Bunker. He does get in a good line, though: “One man’s religion can be another man’s hell.” But anyway, given her off-hand mention of God, Camellion promptly regards Raya as “a Commie Christian crackpot” and rants against her beliefs – mind you, while they’re in the middle of an escape!

Raya you see totally saves Camellion’s bacon, coming into his cell and killing the two guards. After arguing about Christianity for several pages (another rant of Camellion’s: “Christianity denies man his right to reason, makes him a moral slave”), the two finally escape the cell. Here we are given lots of technical detail about Zemyla. It’s made up of five domes but only a few of them have anyone in them. Rather than bring the place to life Camellion just fills up several pages with bald technical detail. Camellion and Raya two split up – Raya confident that her cover will protect her from suspicion in Camellion’s escape – and Camellion gets in yet another protracted battle.

Here Rosenberger as ever lightens up the overbearing grimness with bizarro phrases like “he took a one-way trip to stiff-city.” Coming across a cache of “nitrostarch” explosive, Camellion is able to blow up the dome he’s currently in – that is, after another endless gun battle. Seriously, this novel is like Die Hard for 150 pages, but without any of the fun or charm. It’s really just dire and endlessly detailed, and again the helluva it is the book is so densely written with small print and hardly any white space. If Rosenberger had just loosened up and had fun with it, he might’ve had something more along the lines of The Cosmic Reality Kill and less along the lines of Hell In Hindu Land. Why not skip the gunfights and have Camellion shown around Zemyla II, perhaps even meeting a sexy but duplicitous female KGB agent who tries to sway him? But fun pulp like this does not exist in the world of the Death Merchant.

As is customary for the series we get a lot of cutovers to arbitrary Russian characters who worry over Camellion’s swathe of destruction and wonder how they can stop him. But they are uniformly stupid, like a group of KGB soldiers who buy Camellion’s story for mercy and get in a diving bell and are then all blown up by a few RPG blasts. (Camellion even briefly feels sorry for them, a rare moment of sympathy from Camellion for the “pig farmers”). Oh and meanwhile Raya is in the process of being beaten and tortured; turns out the Russians aren’t total morons and quickly learned she was the one who freed Camellion, mostly because she didn’t ensure her kills when she shot the two guards. 

But Raya’s able to free herself (she’s no damsel in distress, which is admirable on Rosenberger’s part) and reconnects with Camellion, who all by his lonesome, surrounded by about a thousand Red soldiers, has managed to blow up most of Zemyla II. They escape on a “little boat” (the apostrophes constantly and annoyingly used to describe them), aka a small submarine, and escape into the freezing ocean. Camellion suits up in a high-tech deep diving suit and takes on some Russian frogmen just for the hell of it, but this too just comes off as more endlessly-detailed action. He plants some more nitrostarch on the last few domes and that’s all she wrote for Zemyla II, though we learn General Vershensky has escaped.

The novel wraps up in a several-page “Addendum” in which we learn why Raya so desperately wanted to be pulled out of Zemyla. She has learned that earth has entered a “magnetic null zone” and that, due to the earth’s core about to be ripped apart or somesuch, the world will end “within twenty years.” More doomsaying straight out of a late ‘70s faux-documentary ensues, with rampant description of how the earth will be destroyed by chaotic weather and earthquakes and this and that. 

But does Camellion give a damn? Of course not…he’s more concerned that his next mission will be taking him to…Algeria! And that’s that, and we readers need a breather even if Camellion himself doesn’t appear to. Or Rosenberger, for that matter. While his writing doesn’t do much for me I still have to respect this guy; I mean he never took a shortcut with his writing. The books just go on and on and you just want to go back in time and tell him to cut some stuff out and worry less about the endless gun detail and, you know, have a little more fun with it.

Finally, here are reviews by Marty McKee and Allan Wood.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Operation Scuba (Mark Hood #5)


Operation Scuba, by James Dark
March, 1967  Signet Books

The Mark Hood series improves in a major way after the padded bore that was the previous volume, with a fast-moving installment that never lets up. Don’t get me wrong, we aren’t talking about a ‘60s spy-fy masterpiece like The Psychedelic Spy or anything, but at least J.E. “James Dark” MacDonnell doesn’t waste our time with this one. Operation Scuba retains the vibe of the first few volumes and is the same short length as them. But it’s easily the best volume yet.

This volume also finally gets hero Mark Hood out of Asia; he’s been there the past three installments. Some indeterminate time after Assignment Tokyo, Hood is called into the Geneva offices of Intertrust and given his latest mission, along with recurring character and fellow agent Tommy Tremayne. Intertrust boss Fortescue wants them to head to Kingston, Jamaica and for Tommy to pose as a British nuclear scientist named Charles Battersby with Hood posing as his bodyguard.

The concern is a recent string of ship crashes in the Caribbean; we know from the first page that a Spanish mastervillain named Pedro Borja is behind this. Borja lives in a villa in Kingston with an army of henchmen at his disposal; he is a medical doctor and scientist and has created an underwater mechanism that disrupts the gyrocompasses on ships. One of Borja’s loyal scuba divers swims near a ship, hits it with the beam, the compass goes crazy, and the ship crashes. But Borja has grander intentions. He wants to control the nuclear arsenals of the various navies, and now is an opportune time given the naval maneuvers about to occur in the Caribbean.

Intertrust doesn’t know about Borja, but the concern is something is going on that might affect those naval maneuvers, where a bunch of nuclear and atomic stuff will be present. As we remember, Intertrust is solely concerned with maintaining the stability of nuclear power, limited to the US, USSR, England, and France. Battersby will be going to Kingston early for these maneuvers, and Fortescue is afraid someone will try to nab him. Hence, Battersby himself will be sequestered in a hotel under a fake name and Tremayne and Hood will act as bait. 

“Dark” doesn’t waste our time. Hood and Tremayne promptly confront a pair of would-be kidnappers upon arrival in Kingston, with Hood having to ensure they’re dead after a lengthy chase. No one must know that the real Battersby, who turns out to be a belligerent ass, isn’t staying at the opulent villa reserved for him. Instead Hood and Tremayne go there. Hood, again posing under his real name and background, puts on a wetsuit and heads into the ocean for some fish. He’s immediately attacked by a scuba diver! An exciting underwater fight ensues, climaxing with the enemy scuba diver becoming shark food.

Action and intrigue out of the way, Dark gets to the next item on his ‘60s spy mandatories list: the exotic babe. This is a hotstuff young Spanish lady who happens to be standing along the road when Hood comes out of the water after fending off the attack; she’s sexy as can be and comlains that her Alfa-Romeo has mysteriously stopped running. Hood, a car expert, fixes it for her and accepts her offer to go back to her dad’s place to get his leg stitched. Mind you, Hood should be very suspicious of this gal, who says her name is Marcia, given that he’s already been attacked twice. But Mark Hood comes off like an idiot this volume. Oh, and the girl’s last name is Borja. Yep, she’s none other than the niece of Pedro Borja, a man who basically raised her from childhood. 

Borja is very much a Bond-esque villain. He’s ruthless, amoral, and given to grandiose speeches. He even has a henchman, a slim-hipped Spaniard with “womanly lips” named Manrique. Borja is of course behind the plot, as we learn from the first page, but Hood and Tremayne don’t know it. But Borja patches Hood up, all the while planning his death. Plus Marcia has the hots for Hood, but zilch is made of this – the novel is too fast-moving for any funny business, I’m sorry to report.

More importantly, with this volume the series approaches the sci-fi nature of later installments. Borja has created a plasma beam, one which he will use to control the missile-launching mechanisms of navy destroyers. He explains this to Tremayne later in the novel, Borja having successfully captured him – for once again Mark Hood has acted the fool. Despite yet another attempted abduction of “Battersby,” in which sharpshooter Tremayne crippled his would-be kidnappers, Hood decides the next day to go swimming with Marcia, thus again leaving Tommy unguarded! No wonder our “hero” berates himself for failing yet again.

In truth, Tremayne is more so the star of the show; he seems to be in the book a lot more than Hood is, and his dry wit is refreshing when compared to Hood’s utter seriousness (not to mention Hood’s buffoonery). But Tremayne’s in a bad way in this one; caught and taken out in Borja’s fancy yacht in the middle of the Caribbean, where he’s tortured and beaten. Borja thinks Tremayne is Battersby, and Tremayne doesn’t know how long he can keep up the charade. He’s taken through the ringer, pummelled by Manrique, his left hand mangled. Along the way Borja proudly exposits about his plasma beam like a good pseudo-Bond villain. He wants “Battersby” to help him make it more powerful.

Meanwhile Hood trounces futiley around Kingston, pissing off the local cops. He runs into an old navy pal who captains an experimental “flying saucer,” a prototype hydrofoil-battleship thing that moves like greased lightning. This blatant deus ex machina comes in handy when Hood later learns that Tremayne indeed has been abducted by Borja – only too late has Hood begun to suspect the man – and he begs his old buddy to loan him the ship. This leads into yet another maritime adventure-type climax, which appears to be a staple so far as J.E. MacDonnell’s writing goes.

Hood gets to bust out those karate skills in the climax, with a brutal fight aboard Borja’s yacht. But Hood’s still dumb. For no reason at all he assumes Borja’s either dead or indisposed, only for the guy to show up for a final faceoff – after which Hood still drops the ball, getting hit by a curare-dipped blade and slowly losing his senses to the point where he escapes, thinking he’s saved Tremayne from Borja’s sinking boat, only to discover at novel’s end that poor ol’ Tommy was left aboard and presumably drowned with everyone else.

And so ends Operation Scuba, on a big cliffhanger. Dark insinuates that Tremayne, Borja, and perhaps Manrique all escaped with the quick mention of a helicopter escaping the scene, but we’ll have to wait for the next installment to see what happens. Overall though this was a good one, as mentioned fast-moving and gripping at times, but as usual Dark handles the proceedings with a low budget sort of aesthetic. I mean the book is titled Operation Scuba and Borja has an army of frogmen at his disposal, so are we wrong to presume we’d get a Thunderball-esque finale of mass underwater combat? Instead we get a ship run to ground and a quick and dirty karate fight.

But at least stuff happens this volume, so I can’t really complain – and I’m still looking forward to the later installments.