Monday, June 18, 2018

The Co-Ordinator (Jonas Wilde #2)

The Co-Ordinator, by Andrew York
No month stated, 1968  Lancer Books
(Original UK edition 1967)

The second installment of Jonas Wilde is one of the best Bond cash-ins I’ve yet had the pleasure to read. While I enjoyed the first volume, this one had me entertained from first page to last. If anything it frustrates you that Christopher “Adrian York” Nichole didn’t go on to fame and fortune as the author of this series. And it’s also too bad there was never a film version, though judging from Danger Route the producers likely would’ve failed to reap the potential of this installment, too.

It’s four months after The Eliminator, the events of which are referred to throughout this one, so I’d advise reading it first. However Wilde is the only major returning character; he’s now in the Isle of Wight, still living on a boat, and still part of the “Disposal Unit” of British intelligence. I don’t think we were given the name of his outfit last time, nor were we informed, as we are here, that Wilde’s codename is “The Eliminator.” Anyway he’s still the official assassin for Her Majesty’s government, but hasn’t gotten any assignments since the previous book.

Nichole elaborates on other elements that went undisclosed last time. For one, that the Russian agent who was behind the destruction of the Disposal Unit is named Laurent Kieserit; he’s a KGB director, and he also happens to have been the father of Jocelyn, ie the woman Wilde wanted to marry, but who turned out in the finale to be a deep-cover operative sent to kill him. Now Kieserit himself is in England, having finally tracked down Wilde in the hopes of killing him, and not just for having killed his daughter. To this end he’s retained the services of Russia’s version of Wilde, a guy who looks like a banker and turns out to be hilariously ineffectual.

Wilde takes care of the would-be killer and breaks with protocol, contacting HQ in London. Here we meet Mocka, who I assume will be a recurring character in future volumes; several years younger than Wilde but his new boss nonetheless, Mocka is a shady spook who operates out of a portrait studio. He doesn’t like Wilde and considers him a harbinger of earlier, more savage times. Regardless, he has a new mission for Wilde: he’s to go to Copenhagen and kill Gunnar Moel, a WWII pilot turned “co-ordinator” of a spy ring turned famous fashion designer(!). Wilde mulls for just a bit over how coincidental it is that Mocka happens to have an assignment for him at this moment, given that Mocka has ignored him for the past four months.

This then is similar to the previous book: Wilde goes off on the job, uncertain if he’s being used for more nefarious goals. After hitting on Mocka’s hot secretary Julie, complete with a trip to Carnaby Street to pick up some mod clothes for his cover as a trendy apparel buyer, Wilde is on his way. He’s to be escorted into and out of Copenhagen by Inger Morgan-Browne and her husband; Wilde meets her on the train ride, and of course she’s a gorgeous blonde with a phenomenal body. But there’s much more to Inger than that, and indeed she basically steals the novel. She’s German, but speaks several languages – “I am what is termed a genius,” she informs Wilde, and indeed she is, with arrogance to spare. In fact she sort of reminded me of the female Terminator in Terminator 3 of all things, even down to checking herself out in any mirror she passes.

One of the many enjoyable elements of The Co-Ordinator is the dialog between Wilde and Inger. Wilde as ever delivers several humorous quips, very much in the vein of Connery’s take on Bond, mixed a bit with Moore’s later take on the character – at least in how Wilde has suddenly taken to referring to all women as “darling.” Expectations that the two will go at it, per genre demands, are soon dashed: “You are confident that you can induce me to enjoy an orgasm and that afterwards I will be your slave,” Inger tells Wilde, denying him the pleasure. She’s all business, and claims to be happily married to her arthritis-ridden, wheelchair-bound husband, Christopher.

Whereas the previous installment lacked a memorable villain, this one delivers in a big way: Gunnar Moel lives in an ultramod house of purple carpets and white walls; he’s a big guy with gray hair and dark glasses. The glasses have a wire that goes into a front pocket; Gunnar (as York keeps referring to him; odd to refer to your villain by his first name) is blind, having lost his sight in a plane crash, and now sees via a “sonic torch” method. I took it to basically mean he sees by a sort of radar, his glasses picking out colors, which he interprets accordingly – ie the white floors, etc. In pure Fleming mold he’s given to grandiose speechifying, in particular a padded bit where he traces a bikini design on the catsuit of his top model/assistant, Hulda, a smokin’-hot busty babe with short black hair.

The reader expects for the long haul to get even longer as Gunnar, still going on and on, insists Wilde join him in a game of bridge. Then Nichole throws such expectations out of whack with the arrival of Gunnar’s unexpected guest – Laurent Keiserit. Wilde springs into action, taking out Gunnar with his preferred execution method – shuto chop to the base of the skull – and tries to take out Keiserit as well. The taut scene features Wilde hiding in Gunnar’s spacious home while henchmen shoot at him, eventually making his escape in the freezing cold. Meanwhile Keiserit escapes, and Gunnar has been taken out, though a few days earlier than the strict timetable he was to follow. 

Nichole continues to twist expectations; Wilde makes it back to his hotel to find Christopher Morgan-Browne shot through the head. Wilde captures his killer, one of Gunnar’s henchmen, and when Inger shows up, having returned from “a Beatles film” (my assumption is it must’ve been a second run of Help! given that it’s 1967 and all), she cooly takes charge of the situation. Plus she isn’t too upset by her “husband’s” death – he was just a fellow agent, plus a pretend cripple to boot. Just to repeat, Nichole does excellent things with the character of Inger; despite her arrogance and duplicity, she comes across as one of the more likable, three-dimensional characters I’ve yet encountered in a novel.

Speaking of duplicity, Inger tells Wilde she’ll go along with him…then doses him with a drug when he falls asleep. Perhaps my only problem with The Co-Ordinator is that hero Jonas Wilde is in a drugged stupor for nearly a quarter of the narrative, led around by Inger like some automaton. Her goal is to take him to Kieserit, still back at Gunnar’s place, and use him as leverage for her own hiring into the KGB. Inger is unaware though that she’s captured Jonas Wilde, who we learn this time is legendary in the world of espionage. Wilde does use his superhuman powers of self-control to attempt a few failed escapes, but still this sequence is kind of a bummer because our hero is rendered so incapable for such a long stretch of time.

But things pick up in a major way in the final half. While Kieserit and Hulda disbelieve Inger’s story that she’s captured this British agent and brought him back as a sign of good faith for hopeful KGB employment, one person does believe her – Gunnar himself, who turns out to still be alive. Given that his neck was previously broken in that plane crash, something Wilde was unaware of, he was able to survive that shuto chop to the skull. Or something. There’s all kinds of crazy stuff here where Gunnar relays Inger’s horrific past, how she was raped endlessly as a 14 year-old by Russians in the immediate weeks after World War II, how Gunnar saved her, rats running over them all night as they hid from the Russians, how he had plastic surgery performed on her face so that it would match the beauty of her body.

Things get even more, uh, “wild” when Gunnar reveals that he’s into cryogenetic research and has a freezing facility beneath his place – built by the very same doctor who not only repaired Gunnar’s neck but also gave Inger a new face. After making Wilde and Inger strip down, Gunnar first toys with Inger a bit more, threatening her with some starving, freezing rats, and then he insists that the two go into the freezing chamber, where they will be cryogenically frozen. Gunnar intends to join them, planning to sleep for about thirty years, figuring that the world will be an “easier place to live in” by then. So that means they’d be waking up in 1997 – just in time for gangsta rap!

Gunnar’s plan is for the three of them to take advantage of this new world as a team – he likes Wilde, despite the latter, uh, trying to kill him, and he considers Inger his soul mate or somesuch – he has only been threatening her due to her quick betrayal upon thinking Gunnar was dead, blabbing about how much she disliked him. This leads into another very tense scene, where a naked Wilde must use his hand-chopping skills to get them out of the cryo chamber – not to mention a rather unusual method for warming up their bodies! Yet again though I have to mention that Christopher Nicole has this incredibly strange method of having his characters have sex but not outright stating that they are – the sleazy stuff always happens between sentences, to the point that if you don’t read carefully you’ll miss it. Bummer!

While there’s no sleaze, there’s some awesome pre-PC stuff which would enrage the feminists of today: Inger later declares that, for the first time in her life, she “felt like a woman” after Wilde made love to her – not that this stops her from again trying to kill him in another tense scene, one that features everyone shooting at Wilde in a darkened room. But after all the cryo chamber insanity, the climax is a bit underwhelming, almost comically so – it features Wilde slowly walking after Gunnar and Inger along the streets of Copenhagen.

This time Wilde truly carries out his assignment, leaving a frozen river to do his dirty work. Upon his return to London he discovers that Mocka was in fact using him – at the behest of Lucinda, the CIA agent who briefly appeared in The Eliminator. And meanwhile Kieserit is still out there; it appears that he will be something of a recurring villain in the series. Inger returns in the fifth volume, The Dominator, and I look forward to meeting her again; for some unfathomable reason, that fifth volume is pathetically scarce. It was never printed in the US and the UK copies are all priced in the stratosphere on the used books market. But the trash gods smiled on me and I got a copy for a pittance.

Anyway I really enjoyed The Co-Ordinator; it’s a shame this Lancer paperback itself has become so scarce, as more people should be aware of the adventures of Jonas Wilde. (Of course you could always just order the US hardcover via Interlibrary Loan – as I’ve mentioned before, if it came out in hardcover, you more often than not can get it via ILL.) This one’s entertaining throughout, with some wonderfully-realized characters, a memorable villain, and a sort of sci-fi flair. I have a suspicion though that, like The Sea Trap, this one will be an anomaly in the series, and posthaste we’ll return to the “realism” of the first volume.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Cybernarc #4: Capo’s Revenge

Cybernarc #4: Capos Revenge, by Robert Cain
October, 1992  Harper Books

By this fourth volume Cybernarc has moved away from the action movie-esue vibe of the first volume, with its bantering lead protagonists and large-scale action scenes, and become more of a sort of military fiction deal. Gone for the most part is the bantering, and William “Robert Cain” Keith replaces it with a lot of weapons acronyms and shoehorned data about drug smuggling, the Mafia, and Columbian gangs.

It’s the early ‘90s so we’re hot on that “super predators” tip, as Hillary C. infamously referred to the black drug gangs at the time. (At the very least, it gave us a cool Massive Attack song.)  But the novel is filled with the paranoia that unchecked drug running and crime and the like would descend the US into urban warfare within a few years, a la Predator 2 and etc. Throughout Capo’s Revenge we’ll get panicked reports of what unchecked drug-running may eventually lead to, particularly given that the notoriously savage Colombians are about to engage in war with the Mafia.

It’s five weeks after the previous volume and Chris Drake and his android pal Rod have moved into their new digs at Pirate’s Cay, the Bahamas. Keith injects a bit of a body horror vibe with a few scenes of Rod being dissasmbled and put back together, usually with his head gorily removed from his “Civilian Mod” body and put in his “Combat Mod” body, or vice versa. The novel in fact opens with a scene featuring Rod in the former body, crashing a party in Florida and trying to make off with a Comlumbian bigwig in the melee, but failing to catch him. This scene inspired the atrocious computer-created cover art, featuring a machine gun-wielding Rod versus a helicopter.

We’re often reminded that the events of the first volume were a year ago, and Drake still simmers with sorrow and rage over the murder of his wife and daughter therein. Translation: as usual, there will be no hanky-panky in this particular series. At least until the very end, when Drake finally decides to move on – and, uh, promptly bangs Dr. Heather McDaniels, hostuff blonde babe scientist on the RAMROD initiative. However we’re given no sleazy details, this being an early ‘90s men’s adventure/military fiction hybrid sort of thing. That being said, Rod does watch stalker-like from afar as the two have sex.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. James Weston, CIA spook who runs the show, flies in and tasks our duo with their new objective: stop the Mafia and Columbians from warring. Off they head for Manhattan, where they find the local consiglierie murdered in his own home, his family massacred. Keith excels in showing how Rod detects things humans cannot; with his far sight he spots a Latino dude watching the house from a parked car, and further detects traces of blood and other fluids on his clothing, all of it invisible to the human eye. Rod breaks the dude’s arm and interrogates him at Drake’s instruction – Drake being particularly driven this time around to kill all the druggers – and soon the two are in a huge gunfight on the streets of New York, complete with even a trip to the sewer system and a mention of the long-running “alligators in the sewer” urban legend.

Another element familiar from early ‘90s action: the stupid chief. This would be Weston, who chews Drake and Rod out good and proper, screaming about how they went above and beyond their objective, pissed on civil liberties, and basically broke every law in the book. To go all the way with the cliché, he even calls them a pair of “loose cannons.” Weston threatens to shut down the program and send Rod back to the lab, but it all comes off like page-filling. Which, sadly, Capo’s Revenge is filled with. In most cases the padding is courtesy expository dialog about the Mafia, as follows here, Weston going on and on about a particular family’s history and its dealings on the drug front. Much of this stuff is skimmable.

After their ass-chewing Rod and Drake (I always want to type “Rod and Todd”) are sent to Sicily, as it’s been determined the mobsters, under the visonary guidance of a capo named Grecco, are meeting to determine how best to handle the Colombian threat. Rod, being a robot, merely downloads a language program and thus can speak in fluent, accentless Italian, but also, being that he’s a robot, he asks the suspicious natives all sorts of blunt questions. This leads to the expected action scene, a bit sooner than expected, as Rod and Drake, armed with only pistols, defend themselves from an ambush by lupara-wielding local Mafioso.

Keith fills pages with lots of cutovers to the Mafia characters, discussing and arguing about what to do; Grecco has them in an ancient clifftop castle, guarded by an army of heavily-armed goons. Practically 75% of Capo’s Revenge is dedicated to Drake and Rod infiltrating the place and then battling the occupants – a running action sequence that goes on for a staggering 100 pages. So far only The Hitman #3 has come as close to padding out the pages with such an extensive, exhausting action scene, but like Norman Winski, Keith excels at such stuff, and gives good gore. That being said, Capo’s Revenge isn’t as gory as the previous installments.

It starts off with Rod again trying out his Sea Mod setting, which entails Rod in his Combat Mod body being put inside like an armored boat. From there he and Drake perform a soft probe of Grecco’s Mafia summit, to discover that the capo plans a total war of atrocity against the Colombians, killing them all – men, women, children. After a quick radio call to get approval from Weston, our heroes determine there’s only one option: for them to kill all the Mafia bastards, right here and now.

So begins the extended action scene, and it’s a testament to Keith’s skill that it never seems to drag or bog the reader down with deadening banality. I mean just imagine a 100-page action scene by Joseph Rosenberger. You’d be looking for your cyanide pills by the fifth page. “Anything – just make it end!” Ever the researchers, Rod and Drake use the opportunity to try out their new Heckler and Koch CAWS auto shotgun things, ie “Close Assault Weapons Systems,” which of course bring to mind the weapons used in the almighty Able Team #8. It appears these guns never got out of the experiment stage, but boy the way Keith has his heroes employing them you wonder why the US military never moved forward with the things – they kill people real good.

Keith delivers memorable moments throughout. Rod now has this new roving camera robot device called a “spider” which he can shoot via grenade launcher into some remote area; the spider activates and crawls around, recoding both video and audio, and Rod can transplant his entire consciousness into the thing, controlling it from afar. This is interesting enough but Keith adds a novel scene where Rod, his mind in the spider, acts as a forward observer, on the ground with the mobsters, directing Drake’s fire as the ex-Navy SEAL charges in with CAWS blasting. And there’s plentiful gore throughout; one of the charges for the CAWS fires flechettes, and sundry Mafioso are ripped to bloody shreds. Another memorable sendoff has the titular capo harpooned.

In the bloody melee Chris Drake experiences a sort of catharsis, or something; there’s a part toward the end where he opens up on full flechette fire on a group of escaping old mobsters and whatnot, chopping them up, then hears a woman screaming that there are kids nearby. And Drake pulls his finger off the trigger…and feels real great about himself. Because he didn’t kill the woman and the kids(!). But otherwise he shoots to pieces every mobster he encounters, then he and Rod make their escape. After which we flash forward a few weeks, where Drake, sort of reborn now, admits to Heather McDaniels that he’ll “never forget” his dead wife and daughter, but hey, all that is like so last year, so let’s screw in the sand. Oh and Rod watches from afar, grappling with his own jumbled robot emotions, ultimately concluding that he’s not human and will do just what he was built to do – kill drugger scum!

There were only two more volumes to go, so here’s hoping the next ones get back to the action movie vibe of the first one.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Hammerhead (Charles Hood #1)

Hammerhead, by James Mayo
January, 1965  Dell Books
(original UK edition 1964)

A big thanks to Drew Salzen (aka Andy Boot) for his comment on my review of The Great Spy Race, which inspired me to finally check out the Charles Hood series. Like Jonas Wilde, this was another espionage series that followed in the wake of James Bond, also originally being published in hardcover. The Charles Hood books have an extra pedigree in that James Mayo (aka, supposedly, a guy named Stephen Coulter) provided Ian Fleming with casino-world details for Casino Royale.

And judging from this first novel, I’d say that, of all the Bond cash-ins of the day, the Charles Hood series would have to come closest to inheriting Fleming’s mantle. It has the exact same “snobbery and sadism” vibe of Fleming’s work – you can clearly tell that, like Fleming, this particular author was comfortable in the world of the rich – and it also has the exact same sloppy plotting and casual pace as Fleming’s work. That being said, the violence, when it gets around to happening, is more brutal here than in Fleming; Hood, unlike the literary Bond, doesn’t just kick someone in the shins and run away. He gets down and dirty in some bloody brawls. However I’m not saying that the series is better than the other cash-ins, especially when considering this first volume.

Hood is a bit over six feet tall, brown hair that tends to curl, made of “hard muscle,” and boxed at one time. He’s a WWII vet turned secret agent, answering to a “consortium of some of England’s dominant financial powers.” His intro in fact is a quick example of the somewhat-amateurish writing Mayo delivers throughout: “[Hood] looked a clean-cut Englishman, experienced in the ways of the world, which was what he was.” The consortium is referred to as “the Circle,” and truth be told I wish a bit more time had been spent on describing what it is. But we’re informed that the Circle most times works with the Foreign Office, ie anything that threatens the safety of England, so that usually Hood is just as much working for the Foreign Office as the Circle.

Like most swinging ‘60s spies, Hood is skilled with his hands, but unlike Jonas Wilde he mainly relies on a gun. Unfortunately Hood’s preferred pistol appears to be fictional: it’s described as a “Yassida,” an “Israeli pistol,” and I can’t find any info online about it. It fires .38 special and appears to be a revolver. Not that it matters much, as it’s taken from Hood early on and broken; he doesn’t even fire it this volume. Indeed, Hood does not come off very well in his introductory adventure, perhaps setting a precedent for the amount of times an action hero is captured by his enemies.

Where Mayo most nails the Fleming feel is in the one area most of the Bond followers always neglected: the outrageous villain. And also per Fleming, the villain has given us the title of the novel: Espiritu Lobar, known as “Hammerhead,” is a modern-day pirate who might also be a Commie spy. His particular ghoulish feature, again a la Fleming, is that he has one lidless eye, meaning it’s always glaring like a shark’s. He also has a “red weal” running around his neck, courtesy a failed hanging years before. Otherwise he is more like the average henchman: a bulky mountain of muscle with a bald head and three gold teeth. But Lobar has a henchman of his own: Golos, a mute sadist with hands that have been superhumanly enlarged by a now-illegal native tradition.

Hood isn’t introduced to us in any spectacular means; he’s on the streets of Paris, having just come out of Lobar’s place, and he encounters a terrified guy who thinks Hood is “one of them.” Hood takes the guy to a bar to find out his story, only to return to his seat and find the dude gone. This mystery will dangle for well into the novel. Hood is a collector and seller of art, this being the cover he uses for the Circle, and Lobar per tradition is a connoseuir of such things, hence Hood’s visit to the man’s Paris home to set up contact. The vague objective Hood has been given is that Lobar might be up to something in the area, particulary in the arena of “miniaturization experiments with missiles” or something. Honestly, Hammerhead suffers from seriously messy plotting.

Our hero eventually ends up aboard The Triton, Lobar’s massive swank yacht. A goodly portion of the narrative plays out here, but the titular villain himself still does not show up. Instead it’s Hood snooping around rather ineffectually and hooking up with the lovely Ivory, a biracial beauty who lives on the ship; Lobar is known for “collecting” women and then doing awful things to them, though Hood’s given no details. Ivory is much built up as a major player in the novel, only to abruptly disappear. But here she toys with Hood, drinking heavily, going into random rages at the serving crew, and performing an erotic “slave dance” for Hood’s viewing pleasure. But our man Hood is one of the few swinging ‘60s secret agents who doesn’t get laid, at least in this book – Ivory slips Hood an aphrodisiacal drug, and he rushes to his room to sleep off the effects!

When Lobar does make his appearance, it is in suitably Fleming manner; at a grand feast, with Hood of course the prime guest. Here’s what actually turns out to be the novel’s heroine makes her appearance: a young British bimbo named Sue Trenton who seems to be an “innocent kid” and might be in over her head with the sadistic Lobar. The villain makes all the expected conversation, glibly showing off his grotesque henchman Golos, and here too there might be another Fleming reference: Hood eats an avocado, same as Bond did in Casino Royale. Might sound like a minor thing, but it’s my understanding that avocados were not available in England, due to the war, until well into the ‘50s; not until after that first Bond novel at any rate. Thus Bond eating one must’ve seemed rather decadent to British readers of the day. Here Hood eats one as well, putting “vinnegar” on it (I do so hope Mayo means balsamic vinnegar) and pepper. I tried this myself and it was pretty good.

Things come to a head when Hood abruptly decides he needs to get off the ship, killing one of Lobar’s crew in the process – and by the way there’s a hilariously “this wouldn’t be acceptable today” part where Hood, who is given free drugs in his suite, uses a joint to lure away a black crew member. Just totally overdone, with the black guy practically slobbering as Hood nonchalantly takes out the joint and starts puffing on it. But anyway Hood kills another guy and makes his escape to Nice. The novel takes on more sadistic tones than Fleming here, with Hood discovering in Lobar’s empty summer home the dude he briefly befriended in the opening pages: the guy’s tied up, and his lips have been stapled together.

It makes for some unsettling reading as Hood operates on the poor guy, unsewing the lips and carefully wrenching free each staple. After this the ghoulish vibe continues apace as Hood gets in a downright gory fight with Lobar’s chaffeur, who happens to come into the empty house just as Hood’s gotten the last staple out. This fight just goes on and on, bloody all the way, complete with Hood pouring acid in the guy’s face and eventually impaling him on a spike. In a later bloody brawl Hood will use a grease gun (a real one, not a machine gun) on another Lobar hood, jamming the nozzle in the guy’s mouth and pulling the trigger, drowning him.

Around here Hood sort of discovers what Lobar’s plot is – the guy with the stapled lips is a house burglar, and managed to steal a bunch of stuff from Lobar’s house that turned out to be spy gear. Gradually Hood will put the pieces together: Lobar employs a strangely-useless crew member named Andreas who is an incredibly gifted mimic. It will develop that the crew member job is just a cover and Andreas is really going to pose as a NATO official in an important meeting here in Nice, having to do with those missiles or whatever. It’s pretty complex and convoluted but is at least original in that it’s not your average “rule the world” villainous scheme.

The convoluted plotting extends to the female characters as well. Ivory starts off strong, only to disappear and then magically reappear to save Hood’s hide in the final pages. Then there’s Sue Trenton, who does little to capture the reader’s interest yet somehow manages to capture Hood’s; he ruminates over her periodically through the book, and finally manages to convince her Lobar is evil. But where Mayo should focus more on Sue, given that he’s chosen her as the main female character, he instead seems to set his sights on Kit, a blonde waitress Hood meets in a Nice bar when he’s hiding from Lobar’s thugs. This entire subplot is unbelievably arbitrary; Hood, again on the run, even manages to later call Kit up to enjoy a lobster dinner with him! But then most of Hammerhead is comprised of Hood slipping into some bar or restaurant, mulling over the case with a cigarette and drink, and enjoying a sumptuous meal.

And as mentioned up above Hood might be tough, but he sure is dumb, or at least unlucky. Dude is constantly getting captured by Lobar’s men and only freeing himself by the grace of God (aka sloppily-plotted coincidence). Some of it descends into unintentional comedy. Chief example would be an overlong bit where Hood is chased by Lobar’s men in a casino, one of whom intends to inject Hood with something in a syringe; it leads to a long chase and fight – and Hood makes off in a taxi that turns out to be driven by a guy who works for Lobar! And mind you stuff like this happens again and again. At one point Hood even finds himself stuffed in a coffin and driven off for his latest attempted murder.

Perhaps the biggest failing of Hammerhead, character-wise, is the titular villain himself. Lobar is not in the novel nearly enough, and when he is, he comes off more like a random thug. I mean there’s even a part that should be tense – Hood has just killed Lobar’s chaffeur and broken into the villain’s house – but it instead plays out on a clumsy note as Lobar acts the perfect host, given that he’s brought Sue Trenton along and clearly was intending to sleep with her! But then it gradually dawns on the reader that Lobar isn’t even acting; he really doesn’t realize Hood has killed his mysteriously-missing chaffeur. Indeed Lobar comes off as dumb as Hood himself, only smartening up in the final pages, in which he has both Hood and Sue dead to rights; they’re saved by the miraculous appearance of another character.

The finale is also clumsy; despite having henchmen, Lobar does his own fighting, getting into a belabored fistfight with our hero. Then we have an overlong bit where Hood chases after Andreas, disguised as the NATO rep, and it just goes on and on – the reader is more so just wishing for it all to end rather than being caught up in the tension. And I haven’t even mentioned the elaborate subplot we’ve endured of Andreas’s fetish for corsets. This stuff does though lend Hammerhead a sleazy feel, like when Hood eats a sandwich Kit’s made for him and watches a sort of stripper casting call. But as mentioned there’s no sex in the novel, just a lot of leering.

While Hammerhead started off strong, or at least promising, it soon became too belabored and sloppy, and Mayo’s incessant use of the British “round” got on my American nerves. (Ie “Hood looked round the room” and etc, etc, etc.) My assumption is that, like Fleming in Casino Royale, Mayo was learning as he went, and will improve with successive volumes. However this one did well enough to warrant a film version, in 1968; Hood was played by an American actor and many of the roles were changed around. The serious plot was given a psychedelic comedy makeover and, try as I might, I found myself unable to keep watching it, so am unable to give a full review.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Executioner #10: Caribbean Kill

The Executioner #10: Caribbean Kill, by Don Pendleton
February, 1972  Pinnacle Books

Perhaps best read immediately after the previous volume, Caribbean Kill finds Mack “The Executioner” Bolan landing in Puerto Rico just a few hours after escaping from the mob in Las Vegas. And the events in this book play out over two or three days, meaning that the two volumes comprise less than a week of Bolan’s hectic mob-busting life.

His plane ride is courtesy Jack Grimaldi, ‘Nam pilot turned Mafia courier; when I first read this series in the ‘80s, when Gold Eagle was publishing it, I never got a good grasp on who Grimaldi was – he just seemed to be some dude who sporadically appeared and flew Bolan around. But here he gets a bit of the narrative; he’s not a true Mafioso, just a guy back from ‘Nam who couldn’t land a job and ended up flying mobsters around to pay the bills. But he doesn’t carry a gun and doesn’t engage in mob antics, and Pendleton skillfully builds up and plays out the growing rapport between Bolan and him.

In fact, it’s the Bolan-Grimaldi relationship that forms the emotional core of Caribbean Kill, even though this is one of the rare installments in which Bolan gets laid. This comes courtesy a hotbod Latina cop who not only reminds the reader of the Latina babe in #4: Miami Massacre but reminds Bolan of her, too. He meets her in one of those men’s adventure moments that are only possible in this genre, and one of the reasons I love it – during an assault of the local mafia hardsite which Bolan launches immediately upon his arrival in Puerto Rico. Bear in mind, the dude’s fresh from an attack just a few hours before on the Vegas mob, and he hasn’t slept in “weeks.”

Bolan makes Grimaldi jump out over the water and ditches the plane, trying to fool the mobsters here at the Glass Bay hardsite that he’s killed in the crash. Then he takes to the jungle and engages them in a running battle. Bolan is again solely armed with the Beretta pistol he’s carried since #5: Continental Contract. Speaking of that earlier volume, we have here the return of a minor character: Tony Lavagni, a soldier in the mob army Bolan hit there in France, who has since been promoted to lieutenant and now runs this site in Puerto Rico. True to series template, we get a lot of scenes from Tony’s perspective as he and his men try to hunt and finally kill “that Bolan bastard.”

As for Bolan himself, he’s full-on Superman now, despite Pendleton’s many claims that Bolan is just a regular guy. Particularly when it comes to the scenes from Grimaldi’s perspective; the pilot lives in terror of the “big guy in black” (Bolan as ever in his commando “blacksuit”), and there are many humorous moments where Bolan will seemingly materialize out of the shadows, usually when Grimaldi happens to be thinking about him. Otherwise Bolan, despite only having a Beretta with a few clips, successfully manages to elude and turn the tables on the superior Mafia forces which hunt him through the jungle. This sequence is the highlight of Caribbean Kill, but only comprises the first quarter or so.

It's here that Bolan “meets cute” the lady mentioned above; having appropriated a jeep, Bolan’s making a successful escape when he catches sight of a hotstuff brunette babe being hauled into a building on the hardsite. He goes with his gut and postpones his escape long enough to blow away the goons who were in the process of beating her up inside. She turns out to be an undercover cop named Evita Aguilar who has been in Glass Bay for a few months, sleeping with the boss as part of the job – and Bolan doesn’t mind this, we’re informed, as he’s aware that in this dirty war the usual codes of morality no longer apply.

Pendleton is very good at making Bolan’s life seem all exciting and appealing to the (largely) male readership, then he has to go and gut the fantasy with various scenes of Bolan belying his bloody fate and envying people with normal lives. Such is the brief case of the young couple Evita has them hide out with; a young Puerto Rican and his pregnant wife. These parts are meant to humanize Bolan, yet at the same time they detract from the escapism of the series and genre, which I guess is the point. Anyway he quickly brushes off any such notions of quitting, as does Evita; Pendleton establishes that the two are of a same mind, natural born warriors who not only couldn’t stop fighting but ultimately have no desire to.

This leads to the genre-mandatory boffing which Pendleton usually denies us; while there are zero sleazy details, the soap operatic dialog Bolan and Evita trade pre-shag is jaw-droppingly goofy (“Find me, Mack! Find me!”) and would probably even be rejected by Harlequin Books (later owners of the series, incidentally). Simply put, no human beings on earth speak like this, at least (or perhaps especially) before having sex with one another. But it occurs to me that goofy pre-sex dialog is sort of a Pendleton staple; The Godmakers, as I recall, is filled with it.

All this led me to the realization that, in the men’s adventure field, it’s generally the woman who initiates sex, as is the case here. If you think about it, rarely if ever do we see the hero put the moves on some babe; it’s usually the hotstuff woman he’s saved or otherwise encountered in his action-heroing who eventually comes to him and offers up the goods. Now that I think of it, Len Levinson stands mostly alone in that he does feature men’s adventure protagonists who try to put the moves on women – and sometimes fail spectacularly, as is the case with Butler. But I guess this “woman making the first move” motif is part and parcel of the escapist nature of the genre; I mean, I personally can only think of a couple dozen women who have offered themselves to me in the past few weeks.

Anyway I digress. The two go at it, off-page as usual, and post-shag Bolan discovers a group of thugs infiltrating the area. This features a memorable bit where Bolan deduces, solely on a hunch, that these guys are not in fact cops; it’s all due to how one of them reacts when Bolan slips out of the shadows and puts a gun on his back. Bolan figures the guy couldn’t be a police officer, given his jumpy reaction, and commences massacring, but in truth the dude could just be jumpy. But again I digress. And this is pretty much it for Evita and Bolan, by the way; Bolan retains the services of Grimaldi and gets a flight to Haiti.

In one of the more arbitrary late-hour subplots I’ve yet encountered in the series, Evita abruptly tells Bolan about a local Mafia bigwig: “Sir Edward,” one of those new school executive types in the mob who operates out of nearby Haiti. Bolan, figuring providence has placed him here for some reason, decides he’ll fly on over and kill the bastard. Why not? This does bring Grimaldi back into the fold, though, and features one of those humorous encounters between the two. Also here Pendleton brings Grimaldi to life, and you learn he isn’t just a dumb Mafia pilot, and one gets the impression Pendleton’s planned this reveal all along, that he now understands this series might be running for a long time and he’s busy setting up recurring characters.

Given that we’re already in the final pages when all this goes down, the hit on Sir Edward is over and done with rather quickly. Bolan, again in blacksuit, sneaks in and takes out a few guards and then goes about that “role camoflauge” stuff he carries out practically every volume; he causes a blackout in the villa and bullies his way through the mob enforcers, pretending to be a bigshot trying to retain order in the sudden chaos. It’s not a grand finale, but a memorable one, as Bolan lives up to his “executioner” title, this time bluntly telling his prey that he is here to execute him. A nice, chilling reminder of how coldblooded our hero can be in his quest to destroy the Mafia.

We get a brief goodbye for Evita, who waves to Bolan from a boat as he flies over her, Grimaldi once again escorting him, but who knows if we’ll ever see her again. As for Bolan, he ends Caribbean Kill determined to at least take a day or two off before continuing with his war. Overall I enjoyed this one, maybe a bit more than its predecessor, but the series has definitely taken on a template at this point, and I’m missing the slam-bang violence and action of such masterful volumes as #7: Nightmare In New York.

I did some research and it appears that many years later, after the series went over to Gold Eagle and was handled by various ghostwriters, Stephen Mertz brought Evita back, in #48: The Libya Connection – just long enough to torture and kill her. Jeez, Stephen, thanks a lot!!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Hood Of Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #34)

Hood Of Death, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1968  Award Books

This was the second Nick Carter: Killmaster novel courtesy the series ghostwriter officially designated “William Rohde,” who per my long-winded notes in The Judas Spy might have really been a writer named Al Hine, or maybe even a collaboration of Al Hine and the real Rohde. I guess we’ll never know, but really it’s nothing to get upset about – as ever this author(s) churns out an incredibly slow-moving tale, though at least it’s more exciting at times than The Judas Spy was.

There isn’t much reference to that previous installment, and indeed Hood Of Death features a memorable, somewhat thrilling opening that, while it doesn’t really pan out to much, is still more gripping than anything in The Judas Spy. We meet Nick Carter as he’s deep undercover, posing as young executive swinger Jerry Deming; he’s been in DC for the past six weeks, trying to uncover who is behind some mysterious VIP deaths. By his side in his fancy sportscar is the ultra-hot Ruth Moto, a busty Eurasian babe stated as being one of the most attractive women Nick’s ever met. But he sees a car following him.

The scene has tension and a hardboiled vibe, and given that William Rohde wrote hardboiled books in the ‘50s, it makes me wonder if these novels truly were collaborations, Rohde handling this sort of stuff and Hine delivering the more laid back, padded stuff – which unfortunately makes up most of Hood Of Death. At any rate Nick gets Ruth back to his country home outside DC, has her nude and in bed, and then is “surprised” by the goons who followed them. All along there is extra suspense in that Nick is uncertain how involved Ruth is in all this; did she know they were being followed, or is she just as surprised as “Jerry” is?

But there’s no killing for the Killmaster; he gets loose and scopes out the goons, trying to come off as a tough customer in a strange subplot that’s never explained. The idea is he’s trying to get a job with these guys, or find out who their boss is, or something, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Neither does his time with Ruth; the thugs, who take off after robbing the place, have killed the mood. But we do get a bit of genre-mandatory exploitation, in particular when it comes to Ruth’s breastesses, in a manner similar to the ultra-goofy stuff in The Judas Spy:

Her body was firm and flawless, her breasts high-riding twins with the nipples high-centered like redball signals – beware explosives. Her skin was flawless from brow to pink enameled toes, her pubic hair was an exciting bib of soft blackness.

Humorously enough, Ruth basically disappears after this, abruptly replaced by another busty Chinese babe, Jeanyee, who is even hotter than Ruth. Ruth isn’t alone in being unduly set up before her abrupt removal from the text; “Rohde” also has a knack for informing us about all these new gadgets Nick has…and then never having him use them! It’s almost hilarious, in a way – for example we learn Nick has liquor bottles in the wet bar that are really explosives, or how with a tug on a chandelier cord a tommy gun will fall from its hidden crevice into his hands, or how there’s even hidden weapons compartments in his car. None of this stuff is used. But perhaps the coolest bit is the revelation that Nick’s customary Luger has a three-inch barrel and a transparent “butt plate,” so Nick can see exactly how many bullets are in the clip.

A recurring bit from the previous book is that Nick’s boss Hawk is a lot more active in Rohde’s Killmaster; whereas most of the other ghostwriters have Hawk behind his desk at AXE HQ, never leaving it, Rohde has the dude choppering around on an AXE helicopter like Nick’s errand boy. There’s also a different vibe between the two; here Hawk and Nick joke and banter back and forth and come off more like the hero and his elderly sidekick. But Hawk is adamant that something nefarious is going on; each of the dead VIPs was seen with a Asian babe, and we readers do soon learn that Ruth and Jeanyee are indeed part of the plot, yet another of the many insidious plans of Mr. Judas, Nick’s archenemy in these early volumes.

Though frustratingly, we’re never given definite word on this – Nick and Hawk suspect that “Bormann” is behind the plot, and as veteran Killmaster readers know, Martin Bormann and Mr. Judas are one and the same. Except in the installments where they aren’t. It depends on the ghostwriter, really, and is probably best not to be thought about. But we never see the man himself, and instead Nick spends the majority of the narrative pretending to be Jerry Deming as part of his belabored ruse to uncover and stop the plot. It’s just kind of boring, and the inordinate padding makes it especially hard to get through.

Jeanyee becomes Nick’s bedmate early on; Ruth disappears for unstated reasons and basically insists “Jerry” go out with Jeanyee. Rohde doesn’t spare much detail but we do get the memorable note that Jeanyee is a contortionist, bending herself in such means that Killmaster finds himself greatly “inspired” mere moments after the previous climactic event. As mentioned Jeanyee is part of the plot, but what exactly her controllers expect to get out of “Jerry” is never spelled out…it’s implied late in the game that they see in him an avenue to oil exploitation, given the fact Jerry Deming is presented to them as an oil executive. Hell, we barely learn anything about the guy running the operation, an Asian dude who poses as Ruth Moto’s father.

Action is sporadic and almost outline-esque. There’s a part midway through where Ruth and Jeanyee and the other sluts are sent to Pennsylvania to rope in more executives via this convoluted sex-scheme, and Nick poses as an elderly, heavyset guy, his paunch really hiding a bunch of gadgets and weapons. It escalates into a running action scene in which Nick guns down tons of thugs, but it’s all along the lines of Nick running the dark and shooting and hoping he’s hit someone. Again it has more of a hardboiled vibe, which makes me suspect “Rohde” might’ve been a collaboration of two writers. (Also, like last time, we get references to an off-page AXE agent named “Bill Rohde.”) Here Nick does use some of his fancy gadgets, including some grenade-type explosives.

The titular device is a strangulation hood or somesuch with posion vapor or gas in it that Jeanyee slips on Nick’s head as he’s flying a plane upon their escape – Nick has forced Jeanyee to escape with him, showing her way too much compassion for a kickass agent dubbed “Killmaster.” Apparently the “hood of death” is concealed on the persons of these Asian whores, the size of a pill, but inflates to hood size for easy slipping on the victim’s head. Nick as we know can hold his breath for several minutes, then when Jeanyee slips off the hood he casually talks to her about this mess she’s gotten herself in, blowing her mind that he’s still alive. Nick kind of comes off as dumb, persisting in his mistaken belief that Jeanyee can be redeemed, or will change sides; instead, she opens the window of the plane and jumps out!

But otherwise it’s really slow going. Another action scene later on has Nick gunning down more thugs on a boat; this part has a memorable bit where he watches the Asian babes “practicing” on some lucky thug. Here Judas might appear – Nick sees a guy with bandages covering his face, and the implication is that this might be Bormann, who as we know is always having some plastic surgery done on his face. But he’s never seen again and the quick wrapup has Nick posing again as Jerry Deming and meeting Ruth Moto’s “dad” to go over some oil dealings – and by the way Nick and Ruth finally do the deed, but we’re informed of this almost in passing, which is pretty humorous given how much buildup the event was given at the beginning of the book.

Nick of course smashes the ring, the climax playing out in another quick and bloodless action scene. Just as with Jeanyee he tries to bring Ruth over from the dark side, but fails spectacularly – though again it’s the gal taking matters into her own hands. And that’s that – the “Baumann Ring” is crushed, the perpetrators all dead, but “Baumann,” aka “Bormann” perhaps, is still out there. Anyway I found this one really boring, livened up only by the bizarro bits of Nick Carter backstory the author(s) sprinkled throughout, like for example that Nick’s dad was a famous character actor.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Nemesis From Terra (aka Shadow Over Mars)

The Nemesis From Terra, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1961  Ace Books

The copyright page of this Ace Double doesn’t mention it, but The Nemesis From Terra is actually a reprint of a novel by Leigh Brackett originally titled Shadow Over Mars, which first appeared in the Fall, 1944 issue of Startling Stories and was later reprinted in the March, 1953 issue of Fantastic Story.  This was Leigh Brackett’s first novel, and any worries that it might not be up to par with her later work are quickly dashed. Also, unlike
The Secret Of Sinharat or People Of The Talisman, this one has not been expanded or otherwise changed in this Ace reprint, other that is than a few editorial snafus.

Brackett, despite her recent intro to the world of fiction, is as evocative as ever, her fast-moving pulp tale both masculine and poetic. I mean this one covers everything from dewey-eyed love at first sight to a fistfight in which a dude’s thumb is ripped off…and then later he’s bashed in the face by the severed “trunk” of a corpse! It’s also interesting that Shadow Over Mars (as I prefer to call it – doubtless Ace changed the title because they didn’t want to scare away dweebs who’d get upset over the fact that there’s no life on Mars) has elements which would be expanded upon in later Brackett work.

I get the impression that this one is set later in Brackett’s future chronology than the other tales I’ve read; perhaps around the era of the latter stories in the anthology The Coming Of The Terrans. Terran “exploitation” of Mars is more rampant than in the other Brackett stories I’ve read – and just so you know there’s no fooling, the organization actually calls itself the Terran Exploitation Company. There’s also use of the Banning shocker weapon, which featured in the late-chronology (but also early-written) Brackett yarn “Child Of The Sun.” It appears that Brackett’s early stories, coincidentally or not given that WWII was raging when she wrote them, were more concerned with a despotic galactic government than her later material.

Anyway I’m guessing that Shadow Over Mars takes place at least a few decades after, say, “Enchantress Of Venus,” and perhaps around the same time as the beginning and ending sections of The Sword Of Rhiannon. And speaking of which, there are similarities between that tale (aka Sea-Kings Of Mars) and this one; both feature ruggedly virile but hardbitten bastards of protagonists who are, despite their nefarious nature and crime-laden backgrounds, thrust into prophetic positions as saviors of Mars. 

Such is the case with this novel’s hero, Rick Gunn Urquhart, and I have to say, I do love it that the savior of Mars is named “Rick.” He’s a cynical, tough-talking, Bogart-esque brawler who, we learn, was born in space; the first planet he ever set foot on was Mars. When we meet him, like Matt Carse in The Sword Of Rhiannon, Rick is on the run, but in his case it’s from the “black boys” (aka “black apes”!) of “the Company,” aka the Terran Exploitation Company. Another resemblance to Rhiannon is that this future Mars is filled with splinter strains of native life, such as the winged humans who appear in both novels and the Dhuvian snake-men of Rhiannon. But this I think is the only mention I’ve so far encountered of the “black apes,” aka “anthropoids,” which are used as brainless muscle by the Company.

The title of the novel, at least the original title, comes from an ancient Martian “seeress” whose hovel Rick sneaks into while hiding from the apes. She goes into a trance and declares that Rick’s “shadow” will fall over Mars – uniting its people as one and ruling them. Then, as if in denial of her own prophecy, she comes at Rick with a knife and he takes her out with his “blaster.” Speaking of which there’s more blaster-fighting here than in the other Brackett yarns I’ve read, most of which go for more of a Conan vibe with swords and axes and whatnot.

The action opens in Ruh, an ancient Martian city I don’t believe I’ve encountered before; like all the others in Brackett it’s a decayed fossil of its former self, with an Old Town that’s nearly haunted and a New Town filled with strip clubs and bars and the like. In fact, Shadow Over Mars has the first – if brief – sleazy elements I’ve yet encountered in Brackett, as later in the novel Rick walks through the grungy New Town section with its stripper Venusian girls, 3-D cinemas, and various drug parlors. The Venusians don’t come off very well here, mostly used as muscle or as sex objects by the Martians; we also get the mention that they have greenish skin and blue hair.

The novel features a small core of characters, as ever graced with those Brackett-esque names which would be sort of pillaged by George Lucas: a chief example would be Jaffa Storm, a Star Wars name if ever there was one; he’s a “Terro-Mercurian” with skin burned black by the sun, same as  Eric John Stark. But unlike Stark, Jaffa Storm is a villain through and through, a 7-foot sadist with a limp who is telepathic to boot. He’s the main villain of the novel, though we start off thinking it will be Ed Fallon, heartless owner of the Company. However Fallon’s sort of anticlimactically removed from the narrative. On the female front, there’s Mayo McCall, hotstuff brunette babe who is a spy for a Martian rights movement led by Earthman Hugh St. John and his Martian pal Eran Mak. (Yes, the name had me thinking of former actresses turned sex-slaving cultists, too!)

In true pulp style, Shadow Over Mars veers all over the Martian map; I’ll forego my usual belabored rundown of the plot. Rick is basically traded around for much of the narrative, variably captured by the inhabitants of Ruh – who want him for murdering the seeress – to being captured by the Company. In this latter sequence he meets Mayo, and it’s a love at first sight thing, but bear in mind Rick is very much in the vein of the later Gully Foyle, of The Stars My Destination (another pulp sci-fi novel with some narrative resemblances to this one), so there’s a lot of hostility and distrust in this particular love. That being said, Rick and Mayo are barely in the novel together. Also, Mayo isn’t one of Brackett’s more interesting female characters, most likely because she spends the majority of the novel off-page.

Actually two women love Rick – there’s also Kyra, diminutive winged gal who latches onto him in a more poignant subplot than the entirety of the Mayo storyline. For Kyra loves Rick even though she knows he doesn’t love her back – indeed he refers to her condescendingly as “kid.” Further, she knows he’s in love with Mayo. But Kyra is young and resents that Mars thinks itself “old” and dying; there’s a part late in the tale where she says goodbye to Rick, brining up reincarnation and the planet’s future, and it’s one of those heartbreaking moments Leigh Brackett does so damn well.

She also does action and violence well, and there are several such scenes throughout the novel. Rick (rather quickly) lives up to his prophecy and unites the Martians against the Company – that is, after he’s been captured and escaped a few times – and leads them in a grand battle against Jaffa Storm’s forces, Storm having assumed control of the Company. However Brackett doesn’t give this sequence as much focus as one would assume. The smaller, more private battles are the ones that make the most of an impression, like the aforementioned climactic brawl, or a cool part midway through where Rick escapes via “flyer” to the other side of Mars, lands in Valkis (familiar from other Mars tales), and is captured by olive-skinned desert barbarians.

This part comes off like a prefigure of the later masterful novella “Beast-Jewel Of Mars,” with a drugged Rick put on display in a pit for a group of bloodthirsty Martians (Rick having been set up as a traitor by Hugh St. John and Eran Mak). They watch eagerly as the Earthman trips out in various hallucinations, mostly involving Kyra and Mayo. There follows perhaps one of the few instances in fiction in which cigarettes actually save life; Rick regains his thoughts due to the cigarette burning into his hands, and sees that he’s about to become part of the soil that feeds these hallucination-causing plants. Further, the smoke wards off the effects of the plants and allows Rick to think clearly. So he fires up a fresh cigarette and starts inhaling away, crawling off to safety!

Overall though Shadow Over Mars gives a great view of Brackett’s Mars; you’ll find here everything from the desolate, haunted ruins of its beyond-ancient past, familiar from the Stark tales, to the decadent sprawls of its Earthling-populated areas. There’s even a somewhat arbitrary trip to the polar cap, an area drenched in mystery, where the legendary “Thinkers” lay in suspended animation, their minds moved on to a realm of pure thought. This part has the haunted vibe of the later Brackett story “The Last Days Of Shandakor,” but gradually builds up to the brutal fistfight mentioned above, complete with thumb-ripping and severed bodyparts used as impromptu clubs. This part also reminds the Brackett fan of The Sword Of Rihannon, as here too our Earthling hero comes upon ancient weapons of mass destruction.

All told, a lot goes down in these 120 pages of small, dense print, and Brackett never lets up – something’s always happening, and it’s always entertaining. In a mid-‘70s audio interview I recently discovered, Brackett makes a few disparaging comments about her early work. Hopefully she wasn’t thinking of Shadow Over Mars, because I really enjoyed it, and would rank it as one of my favorites yet. And that audio interview is highly recommended, if only to hear her voice, but unfortunately the majority of it concerns her screenwriting work, with her sci-fi writing only briefly discussed. (Note how she perks up at the sudden mention of Eric John Stark 54 minutes in! But sadly the interviewer asks no further questions about the character or his stories.) And I have to give the lady props for not only claiming she “walked out” on Kubrick’s 2001, but for saying that she thought the movie was “foolish!” Perhaps the only time I have ever seen that particular word used to describe the film!

Monday, May 28, 2018

MIA Hunter #8: Escape From Nicaragua

MIA Hunter #8: Escape From Nicaragua, by Jack Buchanan
November, 1987  Jove Books

The MIA Hunter series undergoes a bit of a change with this eigth volume (actually ninth when you count the unnumbered installment Stone: MIA Hunter); now MIA Hunter Mark Stone will venture around the globe at the behest of the US government to free prisoners of the Cold War, not just into Southeast Asia to free ‘Nam-era POWs. But while the setup might be slightly changed, the series template is firmly intact. 

A couple years ago Stephen Mertz sent me a list of the writers who worked on MIA Hunter. Basically, Mertz edited the series and wrote each volume, with a lineup of co-writers occasionally helping out. For this volume his co-writer was Arthur Moore. I’m not familiar with Moore, but per Mertz he also co-wrote MIA Hunter volumes 9 and 11. As ever though this series really does seem to be the work of the same writer, ie “Jack Buchanan,” so doubtless this is Mertz’s behind-the-scenes hand. But I’m pretty sure I can detect what Arthur Moore has written.

For the first time in the series, I think, Stone is usually referred to as “Mark” in the narrative, save for occasional scenes where he abruptly is referred to as “Stone.” Given that these latter parts are often arbitrary action scenes, my assumption is that this is Mertz filling in Moore’s manuscript. (Escape From Nicaragua comes in at an unwieldy 198 pages of small print.) Not that there’s anything wrong with action scenes, but in many instances they clearly seem to be filling up a void – like, “Mark” will scope out a truck he needs to acquire to get to his destination, and then a page or two later “Stone” will be blowing away scads of Sandanistan soldiers before proceeding on his way. In other words, the “Stone” stuff could be cut out of the narrative and one would never know the difference.

Anyway, the changed setup. For once, unbelievably, we get a bit of continuity – events clearly refer to Stone: MIA Hunter and the fiance Stone was reunited with therein; we’re informed that Stone is giving Rosalyn “time” to get over her decades-long captivity in ‘Nam. Translation: We’ll never see nor hear from the broad again. Otherwise, Stone and his colleagues Hog Wiley and Terrence Loughlin have now been hired by the government, working out of Fort Bragg, their objective to find and retrieve various prisoners. Stone’s girlfriend April is also on the scene, but will stay in Fort Bragg and handle all the paperwork, what with her being a girl and all. Oh, and given that it’s related up front that Stone has a girlfriend, this means that, as usual, there won’t be any funny business on the mission. This, the team’s first mission, has them going to Nicaragua to rescue a pair of CIA agents who have been captured by the Sandanistas.

It's humorous because for the most part Escape From Nicaragua plays out identically to the preceding volumes; only the locale has been changed. Stone and team venture into South America, meet a few native freefighters, get in countless skirmishes, finally find the prisoners (on the very last pages), free them, and escape. It’s practically the eighth variation of the story that was first told in MIA Hunter #1. This time the difference is that the natives speak Spanish, and the villains are Russian-backed Sandanistas instead of Russian-backed NVA.

Other than Stone becoming “Mark,” subtle changes include Hog Wiley speaking more like an “East Texan” than previously, and also there’s a bit more of an attempt to give cipher Terrence Loughlin some personality, mostly through his endless bantering with Hog. Some of this dialog is funny, and there are recurring jokes throughout, like Hog designating helpful natives as “Honorary Texans.” Stone is presented more as the straight man, always caught in the middle of the bickering and bringing the two back to the matter at hand. But other than the bit early on about Rosalyn, his old fiance, there really isn’t much personality for Stone this time; “Mark” just goes about his job to rescue the CIA agents, and it’s not like this time he’s even driven by the same personal demons that had him rescuing MIA soldiers in ‘Nam.

From Honduras the trio slip into Nicaragua, and the festivities begin posthaste. No joke, it seems llike every other page these guys are getting chased and shot at. If they aren’t getting chased by guys in trucks, they’re hiding from ‘copters that patrol from the skies. If anything I began to respect the apparently-vast army resources of the Sandanistas. I mean they have their country guarded down to the last blade of grass. But the action is constant and at the usual level of the series, which is to say lacking the brain-spurting, gut-busting gore I prefer in this genre; people just get shot and fall down. But make no mistake, a lot of people get shot, and sometimes knived…there’s a grim scene showing the coldblooded nature of our heroes as Stone slits the throats of a few dozing guards at a Sandanistan air base.

The team goes through a sequence of local guides, which also robs the narrative of what little emotional impact there could’ve been; some new guy is introduced, makes an impression, then takes the team to some backwoods Nicaraguan village, introduces the next guide, and says so long. One of them turns out to be a turncoat, setting our heroes up in yet another action scene, and one of them’s a hotstuff Latina babe who isn’t exploited at all, in complete disregard of what I feel should be written-in-stone rules of the men’s adventure genre. I mean her breasts aren’t even mentioned! But our heroes do trade lines about how pretty she is, at least – and she’s even more cold-blooded than they, at one point casually blowing away a pair of cops.

Action is as mentioned frequent and at times exhausting – and also as mentioned sometimes arbitrary. There’s a bit midway through where “Mark” decides the team needs an armored truck, then “Stone” and comrades get in a positvely endless firefight to attain it. Then just a scant few pages later they deem the truck is more trouble than it’s worth and burn it!! So much time is consumed with this sort of thing – not to mention a lot of sequences from the point of view of the various Sandanista soldiers – that the actual rescue of the CIA agents comes off as anticlimactic and rushed, occurring over just a few pages at the very end.

All told I have to rate Escape From Nicaragua as my least favorite MIA Hunter. Hopefully Moore’s next contributions will be better, and I’m really looking forward to the ones by Bill Crider.

Oh and Stone’s gotten a makeover on the cover…dude doesn’t look like a psycho at all.