Monday, August 18, 2014

Razoni & Jackson #2: Dead End Street

Razoni & Jackson #2: Dead End Street, by W.B. Murphy
May, 1973  Pinnacle Books

As if he wasn’t busy enough co-writing The Destroyer, in the early ‘70s Warren Murphy also turned out this five-volume series that is now most remembered for providing the inspiration for the Lethal Weapon movies; screenwriter Shane Black even gave Murphy official acknowledgement for this, requesting that Murphy be hired to help write the script for Lethal Weapon 2.

Given this, you’d expect Razoni & Jackson to be an action-comedy like Lethal Weapon. However, the series, if this second volume is any indication, is more of a mystery, with barely any action at all; heroes Ed Razoni and William “Tough” Jackson don’t even fire their guns once in Dead End Street, and the most we get for an action scene is a quick scuffle Razoni has with a pimp.

But from what little I’ve read of Murphy’s work, he doesn’t go much for the action stuff; his skill is more with dialog, and it’s here where you can clearly see the Lethal Weapon similarities – not to mention the fact that white Razoni is a young, loose cannon and black Jackson is an older family man. But even this isn’t exactly the same as Lethal Weapon, as Jackson is clearly stated as being bigger and tougher than Razoni, and you can’t help but picture Jim “Slaughter” Brown the way Murphy describes him.

Our heroes bicker and banter throughout Dead End Street, just like Remo and Chiun bicker and banter, and it’s all just as humorous. Another big difference from the Lethal Weapon films is that these two know no boundaries in their bantering, with race usually playing a big element. In his brief mention of the Razoni & Jackson series in his interview with Justin Marriott in The Paperback Fanatic #15, Murphy stated that if anything he was thinking of Robert Culp and Bill Cosby’s relationship in I Spy, and that’s easy to see when reading the books, though again with a bit more racial baiting (usually on Razoni’s part, making fun of Jackson’s attempts at growing an afro).

The plot of this second volume (the first is too grossly overpriced to track down) has our heroes tasked with finding out who has been murdering hookers in Times Square. The novel opens with the cops discovering the third murdered hooker in just a few months: Patsy Parris, who worked a certain area of “The Street” (as Murphy always refers to it – so I’m guessing it’s either Broadway or 42nd Street?) with all of the other hookers. Patsy’s death is not described, we just know that after working her shift until 4AM she’s offered a ride home by a friendly face, and the next chapter we’re informed the cops have found her corpse.

Razoni and Jackson, who are busy busting a corrupt cop who’s selling drugs, are called in by their gruff superior, Captain Marvin Mannion. Our heroes are the sole members of the Special Squad, meaning they get all the “special” jobs. Razoni wonders why the city cares that a bunch of hookers are getting killed, but Mannion reminds him that they’re good for the city’s economy. Not only do city officials want this killer found, they also want the hooker murders kept out of the press; they’re hoping Razoni and Jackson will be able to use all of the other hookers out there as killer bait.

The three dead hookers did not know one another, and the only thing linking them was that they were each platinum blondes from the south. Murphy keeps the mystery tightly knit, with only three characters introduced as possible suspects, all of them doing business on the Street and thus knowing most of the hookers: gruff Sgt. Rijenski, a beat cop; Tony Milller, owner and proprietor of a porn book shop; and Halligan, the sleazy night manager of a sleazy flophouse the hookers use for their appointments, usually giving Miller something free on the side for his allowing them to use the place.

Our heroes have no idea what to do, so they just sort of wander around the Street. Razoni goes undercover as a sailor, hanging out at the raucous Ship Ahoy Club; cue lots of funny banter about Razoni’s cheap sailor costume. Jackson meanwhile scopes out the place, standing around and waiting for Razoni to uncover something. Instead Razoni gets cozy with Lip Service, a hotstuff black hooker who comes on strong to Razoni, who insists that he never has to pay for it. And he doesn’t, as he’s currently got a thing going on with Pat, a gorgeous redhead who works for the paper as a researcher.

One thing that should be mentioned is that, for a novel about hookers and a serial killer, Dead End Street is not in the least bit sensationalistic, explicit, or even lurid. There isn’t a single sex scene (Razoni scores with both Pat and later on with Lip Service, and in both cases Murphy immediately fades to black), and the opening murder of Patsy Parris occurs “off camera” as well. There is no graphic content in the entire book. About the only thing outrageous about the novel is the salty dialog our heroes trade back and forth, which as mentioned can get pretty colorful at times (so to speak).

There also isn’t much sense of danger. Razoni’s only flashes of danger occur when he runs afoul of Lip Service’s suspicious-minded pimp, but even when the guy comes at him with a switchblade you aren’t concerned for Razoni, as the pimp is obviously out of his depth. Later Razoni also runs afoul of Hap Carburgh, a reporter who blew one of Razoni’s cases a few years before, outing his undercover sting in the papers. Now Hap is in New York trying to blow the lid off of the hooker-killings, which is something the New York officials don’t want to happen. Razoni ends up stealing the reporter’s car and destroying all of his film negatives.

As the novel proceeds it becomes pretty clear who the murderer is, but to Murphy’s credit he only has the heroes discover it due to police work and not flashes of inspiration or whatever. Meanwhile Pat has gotten herself in trouble, having gone undercover as a hooker as killer bait. She ends up encountering the man himself, and instantly becomes his latest source of fixation. The finale, while suspenseful, rings a bit hollow because the killer just sort of twiddles his thumbs after he’s cornered Pat, while Razoni and Jackson drive around Manhattan looking for him. But even here there’s no action, our heroes arriving just in time to slap cuffs on the guy and deliver a joke.

But here’s the thing -- Dead End Street was a lot of fun to read. Just as in the Destroyer books it’s the banter between the two lead characters that provides the most entertainment, and I’m happy I have the next three volumes to read.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Body Rub

Body Rub, by Mark Andrews
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

Offering everything I wanted from The Savage Women and more, Body Rub is yet another Leisure paperback original that trades on sin and sleaze. “Massage parlors were a front for prostitution…and worse,” goes the blurry cover blurb, and you’ll never guess what that “worse” entails – that’s right, my friends, Satanism!!

Running to 237 pages of smallish print, Body Rub is more of a breathless cliffhanger than a well-crafted tale. Our hero is Ken Hawkins, young crime reporter for the New York Sun; he also happens to be the scion of the family that started the paper, generations before, and thus is a millionaire who will one day run the place. But he enjoys being a reporter, and the novel, despite taking place in the mid-‘70s, seems to exist in this 1930s-style world in which newspaper reporters are famous. Thus Hawkins is well-known throughout New York, a veritable celebrity.

Hawkins’s current assignment has him looking into the massage parlors that currently proliferate around Manhattan, in particular the dirty, mobbed-up origins of most of them. In particular there’s The Wild West, a parlor in lower Manhattan that employed a masseuse named Marcia, whose body was recently discovered by the cops. Before her disappearance Marcia was already in the headlines, as she was supposedly informing the cops about the truth of who was behind many New York massage parlors. Now, before she could spill the beans, she’s dead.

After breaking a dinner date with his girlfriend, the busty blonde TV newsreporter Vivian Power, Hawkins goes to The Wild West parlor in lower Manhattan with Joe Rainey, a Sun photographer notorious for getting into scruffles. The place turns out to be an ultramod pleasure palace, with breathtaking young women prancing around in revealing western costumes – unlike Len Levinson's more realistic Without Mercy, the masseuses in Body Rub are all young, well-built, and very into their work. In that respect the novel is more along the lines of Massage Parlor.

Only after arriving at the parlor does Hawkins realize his self-imposed “no sex” clause isn’t going to pan out. The women are just too hot and too nude, and after a few drinks in the lounge he’s already picked out the one for him: a petite blonde with a killer bod who sits there sewing(!?), wearing “grandma glasses!” This is Kathy, who as you’d expect is a good-natured, innocent young gal who just recently came to New York – and of course is already working in a massage parlor. Before he can go off in private with her, though, Hawkins watches another of the masseuses dance, and as she strips down to the skin he sees that she wears a devil-faced medallion on her waist, hanging right above her crotch, and the sight of it puts Hawkins in a momentary hypnosis.

Unlike The Savage Women, Body Rub doesn’t shirk on the sex scenes; Andrews serves up a hot and heavy one with Hawkins and Kathy that spares no details. But to continue with the goofy tone of the novel, the two fall into instant love after their mutual climaxes! The happy sentiments don’t last, because shortly thereafter Hawkins and Rainey discover a corpse in the parlor’s hot tub; floating there, her throat slashed, is another masseuse. Andrews here works in a locked room murder mystery, but it’s eventually lost in the novel’s frantic shuffle.

Things get even stranger when Rainey immediately thereafter disappears, he too down in the hot tub room (to take photos) while Hawkins has everyone else gathered together up in the lounge. When Hawkins discovers his pal is gone, he returns to the lounge to find everyone else has fled into the night, including his “new love” Kathy. Instead of calling the cops, Hawkins just takes off, phones 911, and goes back to the Sun offices, where he eventually receives a call from Kathy, who apologizes for deserting him.

Andrews ends each chapter with a cliffhanger, and the dumbest comes here, with Kathy and Hawkins going to bed together, and being woken up a few hours later by “a strange beeping”…that turns out to be Hawkins’s damn pager! Off Hawkins goes again – the novel by the way occurs over two frantic days – to meet up with yet another massage parlor masseuse, one who wants to meet with Hawkins at this ungodly hour to tell him the truth about Marcia’s death. Hawkins arrives just in time to see the girl get gunned down by a triggerman in a speeding car; clutched in the dead girl’s hand Hawkins finds the name of another parlor, The Love Rub, as well as a ring with that devil face on it. For no reason at all, Hawkins slips the ring on his own finger.

The Love Rub turns out to be a slum more in line with what these New York massage parlors were supposedly really like – an old lady at the front desk, dispirited men in the grungy waiting room, even more dispirited women who come out to greet them. Here Hawkins learns that his devil-faced ring is a sign of “The Society,” and wearing it apparently affords him extra privileges at these places. But after he’s stripped down in a cube with a hardbitten Love Rub masseuse – one he has definitely decided he won’t be having sex with – Hawkins is confronted by a “tall man” in a black coat, hat, and a scar on his face. This is the same man previously seen at the Wild West, who went into the hot tub with the girl before she died, but never came back out.

A nude Hawkins escapes, setting off a chase scene that goes all the way back to the Sun offices, where Hawkins gets hold of his gym clothes, left behind in his locker (a humorous scene which sees a gay staffer bringing the clothes to Hawkins, out in his car, and trying to get a good look at him), and then discovers that the tall man has followed him here as well. Andrews must’ve worked in a newspaper office or at least toured one, as Hawkins’s escape through the bowels of the place seems cut from reality, as he dodges the tall man on the noisy floor of the printing room, nearly getting killed by the thrashing machinery in the process. 

Covered in newsprint ink, Hawkins hops in his “custom-built red Lotus” and takes off, eventually getting chased by the cops on the snow-filled streets of early-morning Manhattan. The cops you see are after Hawkins too, his having run from two murder scenes. After crashing into a bank, Hawkins escapes on foot to Kathy’s conveniently-nearby apartment, only to discover that she too is now missing. His priorities in order, Hawkins takes a leisurely bath, dons a new set of clothes from the large assortment of men’s clothing left behind in her apartment(!), and takes some money from Kathy’s left-behind purse(!!).

As mentioned the novel works like a cliffhanger, with our hero dashing from one bizarre event to the next, slowly putting together clues. Around the midway point it becomes clear that Andrews is not going to be able to tie all the strings together; in fact, the final twenty or so pages are composed of nothing but expository dialog, detailing everything that happened and why! But at any rate, getting there is at least fun, with our author comfortably doling out background detail on the harried life of a newspaper reporter. He also doesn’t hold back on the sex and drugs angle; the only thing really missing is the violent action.

Eventually Hawkins pieces it together that “The Society” is a Satanic cult founded by Thomas Maloney, famous “acid guru” of the ‘60s, a one-time Ivy League professor who became notorious for his “tune in, drop out” comments. Gee, I wonder who he could be based on? After spending five years in prison for hauling cocaine across the Mexican border, Maloney has refashioned himself as an Anton LaVey type, preaching Satanic sin from his mansion in the posh countryside outside of New York City.

Hawkins discovers all of this after visiting yet another massage parlor: The Experience, one that runs out of an old church. Andrews by the way is a master of dropping hints and clues early in the novel and playing up on them later; Hawkins only visits the Experience because he recalls Kathy having mentioned it as a place where a friend of murdered masseuse Marcia’s once worked. This friend turns out to be another whore, one named Sherry, who happily takes Hawkins to a separate room for a private engagement.

The ‘70s are in full effect as Sherry reveals that Hawkins’s appropriated devil-ring has a coke spoon built within it, and thusly she breaks out a veritable cache of drugs. Hawkins insists he’s just a Jack Daniel’s man, though he does partake of a joint with her – cue another psychedelic scene of hypnosis. But Hawkins comes out of it, ready and raring to go at it with Sherry, even though the previous night he fell in love with another whore, Kathy, who as you’ll recall is missing and no doubt was violently abducted by whoever is chasing after Hawkins himself.

But before they can do the deed, Sherry collapses…mere moments after drinking the Jack Daniel’s that was brought for Hawkins! Yet another masseuse with answers to the puzzle now dead, Hawkins once again runs off. The novel barrels into the homestretch as Hawkins takes a train for upstate New York, zeroing in on the opulent domain of Thomas Maloney. Coincidence abounds throughout the novel, and bumming around at a bar Hawkins just happens to meet a cute young gal who herself is headed for the mansion – because, conveniently enough, a Mass is about to take place. And you won’t be surprised to know that the girl is super-eager to take Hawkins along with her.

The ensuing Black Mass is full-on Satanic Sleaze, though nothing as outrageous as that in The Mind Masters #2: Shamballah. But Hawkins is promptly exposed as an interloper, shambling around in a black robe with the others with no idea what he’s supposed to do. Here ensues the first of the expository info-dumps that make up the “climax,” with Maloney granting Hawkins “his final interview” – Hawkins’s, that is, as Maloney plans to kill him. Maloney unveils a long backstory about how he came to start the Society Of Life and how he’s branching out into massage parlors as a way to further insinuate himself into society. The murdered masseuses all were privy to information that could’ve undone his plans, so they had to die.

Actually the finale is just explanation after explanation – Hawkins is saved by the tall man, of all people, who identifies himself as a Fed, but Hawkins beats the shit out of him, and we don’t learn why until the endless dialog in the ensuing chapter. Hawkins, meeting the press at Kathy’s big art show (she’s quit being a masseuse, having just sold her first few paintings before meeting Hawkins), unfolds the tale that the tall man was a mobster. And Kathy and Rainey are also here at the art show, each relating their own stories of how they were abducted by mobsters and kept locked up until just a few hours before, having been saved by the cops following leads Hawkins provided!

Obviously our author is having fun with his sordid and sleazy tale – I mean, Hawkins’s girlfriend Vivian Power doesn’t even appear until the final few pages, where she announces at the art show that she’s now engaged to Hawkins’s editor! And Hawkins, flustered for a moment, starts to mentally compare Vivian to Kathy, realizing that in reality Vivian’s a “controlling bitch” and etc – just total character assassination, even though Vivian’s just shown up in the novel. But anyway all this serves to make Hawkins realize how much he loves Kathy, and how she loves him to; Andrews ends on a further goofy note, with the revelation that, every once in a while, Kathy and Hawkins will still play “masseuse and client” in the comfort of Hawkins’s swank penthouse apartment.

Writing-wise, the novel is better than it has any right to be; as mentioned Andrews has a particular gift for dropping seemingly-irrelevant details and then later picking up on them. He also captures that ‘70s vibe I so enjoy, from the massage parlor d├ęcor to the outrageous clothing his characters wear, though take note that Body Rub takes place in that era when the cool, funky-freaky early to mid 1970s was changing into the bland, disco-dancing late 1970s; in fact, Hawkins several times mentions that disco music is playing in various party scenes.

I assumed “Mark Andrews” was just a house name, given the handful of paperback originals Leisure published under this name in such a short span of time. To give further credence to this assumption, Body Rub is copyright Leisure. But I have another Mark Andrews novel, The Return Of Jack The Ripper, from 1977 (which I’ll soon read), and it’s copyright Mark Andrews, so who knows, maybe it was a real person.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Vigilante #1: New York: An Eye For An Eye

The Vigilante #1: New York: An Eye For An Eye, by V.J. Santiago
November, 1975  Pinnacle Books

How could you not want to read something that’s “More vengeful than Death Wish!?” Starting off a six-volume series copyright book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, An Eye For An Eye serves as the origin story for Joe “Vigilante” Madden, and for the most part comes off like a less sadistic take on Bronson: Blind Rage. “V.J. Santiago” is our good friend Robert Lory.

This is not an action-packed tale, and Lory goes for the same sort of introspective tone as Jon Messman in the Revenger series, documenting in detail how a 44 year-old New Yorker goes from a happily-married professional engineer to a gun-toting vigilante in just a few short days. To do so Lory first takes us through an average day for Madden, who we learn is a regular kind of guy, a veteran of the Korean War who now works for a well-respected engineering corporation based in New York.

After dealing with the Grossman brothers, a pair of clients flown in from Los Angeles who make the obnoxious and demanding clients in Bewitched seem kind, Madden goes out with his wife, Sara. Lory pulls an unusual move here, by having the couple only have been married for three months. This is Madden’s second marriage, his first ending in divorce, and Sara, a fashion designer, is still in her 20s. Anyway I say it’s unusual because you know something’s about to happen to Sara, but at the same time you wonder why Lory didn’t give them more of a history together – I mean, three months? I’ve got underwear older than that. (Wait, wrong joke.)

After visiting Sara’s sister and brother-in-law at their home well into the night, Madden and Sara hop a train back to Manhattan. But it’s nighttime, the time of “the animals,” as Madden soon thinks of them; the novel is redolent with the crime-ridden vibe of the era, with the city practically a ghost town as soon as the sun sets, with armed criminals crawling out of the sewers like veritable C.H.U.D.s. And they are all minorities, with An Eye For An Eye coming off like Army Of Devils and Hijacking Manhattan.

Four black youths accost the couple on the subway, and as Madden tries to fight one of them off, another comes in and starts knifing Sara. Lory never lets us know precisely what the poor lady endures, but when Madden comes to, having been knocked out, she’s dead and her face has been mutilated. Lory very well captures the ensuing numbed shock and disbelief that grips Madden as he tries to understand what his life will be like now that his wife is no longer there to share it with him.

No doubt it’s this part of the story that made Lory only have the two married for a few months, as it seems just enough time for it to be believable that Madden undergoes his transformation into a vigilante; had they been married longer, like a decade or so, it would be easy to imagine Madden becoming a catatonic wreck, too engulfed in grief to do much of anything – and also, importantly, there’d likely be kids by that point. Madden and Sara had no children, so again Madden has no concerns on that front when, as his grief slowly lessens, he finds himself more enraged at “the animals.”

After forging a sort of bond with Sergeant Joe Delancy of the NYPD, a cop whose own fiance was murdered years before, Madden also deals with Sara’s sister, who rightly questions where Madden gets off on making important decisions about Sara’s funeral and etc, given how short of a time Madden even knew her. Meanwhile Madden gets drunker and drunker, culminating in a night, just two days after Sara’s murder, where he stumbles out into the city again. This time he’s mugged and slashed by a knife, which leaves a jagged scar running across his face. And they steal his wedding ring! Clearly the guy’s not having a good week.

Madden lays off the drinks and prepares himself for a night of payback. He looks for weapons in his apartment, deciding at great length on a butcher knife. He even devises a Travis Bickle-style holster for it, which he hides in his jacket arm. Lory again keeps it all realistic, with Madden playing it up as a simpering drunk to attract his prey. And he finds them; first he knifes one would-be mugger to death, then the next night, while hunting in the subways, he kills a black mugger who pulls a .38 revolver on him. Only after killing the guy does Madden realize he’s just been handed a gift, and rushes back to retrieve the gun, which he almost threw away.

Now armed with a .38, which he supplies with ammo through various underworld contacts (finding out how to do such things via sly questions to Sgt. Delancy), Madden is truly prepared to dish out some payback. Only here in the homestretch does the action really ramp up, with a trenchcoated Joe Madden lurking about the most dangerous areas of nighttime New York, blowing away would-be rapists and muggers. He lives up to the cover slogans, too, just outright killing anyone he comes up against, no mercy given.

As mentioned above the novel really plays on the class and race divide; when Madden refers to “the animals,” nine times out of ten he’s referring to blacks. He also relishes the fact that the New Yorkers of the daylight are “smarter than the animals,” and it seems pretty clear that here too he has race in mind. His hate becomes all-encompassing; when Sara’s sister implores Madden to consider giving Sara’s clothes to goodwill instead of incinerating them, Madden refuses, adamant that “they” will never get anything of Sara’s. In his hate he now lumps all underprivileged into the same category, “the animals,” and it’s a very unsettling moment.

The highlight of the novel comes at the very end, with Madden stalking Central Park. Lory opens the section from the perspective of a young black girl who rushes, despite the danger, through the Park to get to a college lecture. She is attacked by four black youths who openly discuss raping and killing her; the fourth youth, a girl, announces that she too will take part in the rape! Madden arrives on the scene just in time, .38 blasting, and again shows no mercy. In fact, Lory makes it clear that he starts to enjoy his work, and one could easily read the novel and come away with the impression that Madden himself is one of “the animals.”

The key to enjoying An Eye For An Eye is not to approach it as a pulp crime novel like The Sharpshooter or The Marksman, but moreso as a “regular” sort of novel, one that was just packaged as a Pinnacle paperback with a photo cover of some dude with a gun. Lory never once descends into pulp and treats everything seriously, and my guess is the novel must be close to Brian Garfield’s original Death Wish in this regard – I’m not sure, because I’ve never read the novel, and the first Death Wish film is the only one of the series I’ve never seen, though it’s probably the best.

The novel, despite the introspective tone, moves at a fast pace, at least so far as events in Madden’s world go. An Eye For An Eye occurs over a single week, with Madden prepared to fly to Los Angeles (to handle the Grossman brothers account) in the end – the owner of his company insists that Madden will “feel better” if he gets back to work, and Madden agrees. Personally I think that’s one callous company, but at any rate it serves to move us on to the next installment, where Madden continues his vigilante war in LA.

In his 2007 interview with Justin Marriott in The Paperback Fanatic #4, Lory related the very funny story of how he became “V.J. Santiago:”

About the pen name: Pinnacle wanted one because the Robert Lory name was associated with vampires and such. I was still thinking about one after I’d sent the manuscript to Lyle. One afternoon my office telephone rings and it’s someone asking for V.J. Santiago. Wrong number, I say. “No, right number, Bob,” Lyle says, taking his handkerchief from his phone. Why V.J. Santiago, I ask. Answer: “The publisher figured that because you’re knocking off so many ethnics, you’d better be one.”

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Deadly Spring

The Deadly Spring, by J.C. Conaway
No month stated, 1976  Leisure Books

J.C. Conaway, the man who as “Jake Quinn” gave the world the Shannon series, returns to Leisure Books under his own name and delivers a trashy horror-mystery hybrid that comes off like a proto-version of William W. Johnstone’s The Nursery. Unlike the Shannon books, stuff actually happens here, and it’s all pretty wild and sleazy.

Taking place right after the Bicentennial weekend of July 4th, 1976, The Deadly Spring is set in Cheat Holler, West Virginia, not far from Morgantown. I found this pretty interesting, given that I grew up maybe an hour or so from this area, and one of my earliest memories is of the Bicentennial; I guess I was about a year and a half old at the time. The West Virginia town I grew up in sure as hell was smaller than Cheat Holler, which despite being described as nowhereseville has a lot of people living in it, doing a lot of interesting things. The place I grew up in was lucky to have an ice cream stand.

Conaway fills the 219 pages of the book with big print, and the story moves quickly. He juggles a large amount of characters with ease. Again, it’s all a definite step above the Shannon novels, which for the most part were lethargic. Missing though from those novels is the ultra-sleaze factor, with as we’ll recall Shannon getting it on in explicit detail in his mirror-lined bedroom. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of ultra-sleaze in The Deadly Spring, but for the most part Conaway goes for more of a kinky, macabre sort of approach. The novel is also filled with capably-handled dark humor.

There are a lot of characters on display, but the the main protagonists would be Ben Tyler, a hunky surveyor who contracts for the military base in town, and Amy Forrester, his hotbod girlfriend, who supports herself and her toddler son Buddy by writing trashy novels (her latest being a “sexy historical” in the vein of The Savage Sands). They’re shacking up in Amy’s house, which is right across from the Starlight Motel (owned by white trash Fred and Leona Pilzer) and the town gas station (owned by Ketchy Davis and his man-hungry wife, JoAnne).

The day after the July 4th celeberation, Cheat Holler is hit by a series of increasingly-destructive earthquakes. The first 100+ pages of the novel are moreso about the quakes and the chaos they create, rather than what the back cover claims the novel is about: namely, a psychoactive drug getting into the town water supply and making everyone go nuts. This element doesn’t appear until the final quarter, and it arises from the military base in town, which is overseen by Colonel Alexander Templeton, a stickler for duty who happens to be in lust with half of the men under his command.

The base is more of a research center, most of it housed underground, where army chemists are concocting various nerve agents. One of them is HT-105, which acts like LSD but unleashes a person’s id. Due to the damage of the earthquakes (and Templeton’s mismanagement of affairs) the vault that holds HT-105 suffers a large crack, with the liquid agent slowly filtering down into the soil and into the river channel that runs beneath the base, eventually ending up in the town’s water supply.

Before all this happens, though, Conaway spends more time setting up his various characters, showing how each and every one of them is a ticking time bomb. There’s a sergeant who has night guard duty at the base (posted there because Templeton resents that the good-looking guy is married), who is certain his wife is having an affair; a young woman named Willadene who suppresses her lustful thoughts due to her overbearing, abusively Christian mother; a funeral home director who is currently tasked with perparing the body of a once-notorious prostitute, whose high-falutin daughter has married into wealth and standing; a theater producer who suffers with a headstrong actress from out of town; a spinster who runs the town’s summer school program; and a pair of old high school friends who run The Joint, a bar out on Cheat Lake. 

There’s also Martin Forrester, Amy’s obsessed ex-husband, who manages the local Mountain Creek beer factory and can’t let his ex-wife go. This leads to a few confrontations between Ben and Martin, before the HT-105 even gets out, in particular their first meeting, which sees the two men getting into a protracted brawl outside of Amy’s house. Conaway really lights the fuse on this situation, with the reader anticipating a huge blowup once the drug gets out. Luckily, this is one of the few subplots Conaway bothers to wrap up at the very end of the novel.

Instead, once the drug gets out Conaway goes into an obvious riffing mode, just whittling down his large cast of characters in one crazy situation after another. Here the novel comes off a lot like Johnstone’s The Nursery, though only slightly less perverted. Like Johnstone, the suppressions unleashed among the populace via the drug are mostly sexual in nature, though not all of them. He even goes one better than Johnstone with the spinster’s class of kids going nuts during a tea party, a darkly comedic sequence which first has them tearing up the teacher’s valued first edition of Alice in Wonderland and then turning the spinster into a human pinata.

The drug’s first victim is the cuckolded guard; another darkly humorous scene that has him going home on a whim to find his wife in bed with a fellow guard from the base. The subplot with the funeral home is also grotesquely humorous, with the funeral director making up the old lady’s corpse to look like the hooker she once was. Willadene also gets her share of the lurid fun, first taking bloody vengeance on her domineering mother and then satiating her decades-suppressed lust with various men. Meanwhile, Col. Templeton goes nuts and sodomizes one of his men at gunpoint, blowing the guy’s head off at the, uh, climactic moment.

But here’s the thing: as the novel seems to be moving toward an insane finale, with practically every character converging on The Joint, to skinny dip in the drug-laced Cheat Lake…the novel just ends!! We have no idea what the outcome is of the HT-105 contamination, or indeed what becomes of the many surviving characters. Instead, Conaway focuses more on Ben coming upon the ruins of the base and helping the soldiers free the lead chemist, who was locked in the vault by Col. Templeton.

After this, Ben goes home to find a drug-crazed Martin Forrester again trying to attack his wife. Ben subdues him and ties him up, then calls the sheriff to come get him. This taken care of, Ben proposes to Amy, cracks open a beer, and chuckles that the Mountain Creek beer factory will probably have to shut down for a while, given that its water comes from drug-laced Cheat Lake! The End!! Obviously Conaway, in true pulp hack fashion, hit his word count and said “fuck it.” I checked to see if maybe pages were stuck together or missing, but no – the novel just ends at this arbitrary point, with even a few pages afterwards of advertisements for other Leisure books.

Despite the awkward and abrupt end, The Deadly Spring is still an enjoyable read, with a large cast of messed-up characters, and Conaway proves himself a master at setting up and paying off darkly humorous incidents. There are a lot of twisted happenings afoot, particularly of a perverse nature, but Conaway doesn’t really play up on the graphic details, as Johnstone did in his similar (but superior) novel. Also, the novel is riddled with typos, as is customary for a Leisure publication, the funniest being when, instead of “Amy gathered the child into her arms,” it says “Amy fathered the child into her arms.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary

The Hook #1: The Gilded Canary, by Brad Latham
September, 1981  Warner Books

Part of Warner’s short-lived Men Of Action line, The Hook ran for five volumes, and was unlike the other series in the line (ie Ninja Master) in that it was a period piece about an insurance investigator. If this first volume is any indication, The Hook has more in common with the hardboiled pulp of the 1930s, only with much more explicit sex. Seriously, this novel is so sex-focused that the first-page blurb is a sex scene.

The series is set in 1938, and Brad Latham (apparently in reality David Schow) really captures the period detail. Not only does he grace his colorful set of characters with dialog that appears to come right of a Bogart movie, but he also gives them equally-colorful names: Muffy Dearborn, Two-Scar Toomey, Jock Bunche, Jabber-Jabber Jacoby, Stymie the Fence, Jimbo Brannigan, etc. But while the dialog, names, and period details are colorful, plotwise the novel isn’t all that much.

Our hero, William “The Hook” Lockwood, works as an insurance investigator for Transatlantic Underwriters, and is currently tasked with locating torch singer Muffy Dearborn’s reportedly-stolen diamonds, which are worth fifty thousand dollars. Lockwood (we’ll just go ahead and assume he’s the uncle of Hugh Lockwood, one of the protagonists of Search) got his nickname from his boxing career; he’s 38, and fought in WWI. Now he solves the big cases for Transatlantic, rolling around New York City in a supercharged Cord.

Lockwood’s already on the case as the novel opens, heading into a Manhattan nightclub to catch Muffy Dearborn’s debut performance. The story of her jewels being stolen was leaked into the papers via Walter Winchell’s gossip column, and Lockwood has a hunch the story was leaked on purpose. He’s sure there’s more to the case than a simple theft. A plethora of lowlifes have assembled for the performance, and Schow introduces us to our entire cast, all of whom are conveniently gathered here in the opening pages.

Jock Bunche, Muffy’s awesomely-named former paramour, starts catcalling her during her opening number, and a huge fight breaks out. Here Lockwood unleashes some of his boxing skills, though he’s no superhuman. He gets some help from Raff Spencer, a hulking dandy who speaks with an affected British accent despite being American, and a WWI vet himself; he’s Muffy’s current paramour. Lockwood also runs afoul of Two-Scar Toomey, so named due to the scar running across his face, and the gangster boss goes to the top of his suspects list.

Lockwood’s detecting skills are pretty lame; he spends the entire novel just sort of wandering around New York, chasing one wild goose after another. Schow peppers the novel with several action scenes, many of them much overdone, in particular an endless, endless sequence midway through in which Lockwood is hauled off by a group of Toomey’s men and is able to talk them into a boxing match. A desperate Lockwood, unarmed and riding with the men who plan to kill him, suspects this is his only chance to live, but what could be a taut scene goes on way too long, with Lockwood getting beaten nearly as much as he gives the beatings. To make it all worse, the entire scene is rendered moot when Raff conveniently shows up to save him.

Otherwise we have car chases, like one Lockwood gets in early in the book, as well as a handful of gun fights. Lockwood also has no compunction about blowing people away, and Schow goes for the right approach with not having Lockwood bound by any laws. He has a friendly rapport with titan-sized Jimbo Brannigan, tough beat cop who runs this part of the city, and Brannigan usually just shows up in the aftermath of Lockwood’s latest fight and makes a joke. Brannigan also shows up to save Lockwood several times; our hero is actually saved from certain death several times in the novel.

While it’s all pretty mundane, despite the colorful setting and character names, one thing that separates The Gilded Canary from its peers is the ramped-up sex scenes. If this first volume is any indication, The Hook is one of the most sexually-explicit men’s adventure series ever, with Lockwood getting it on in super-graphic detail with Stephanie, Muffy Dearborn’s hotstuff French maid, as well as, expectedly, Muffy herself, who you won’t be surprised to know is a blonde goddess among women. The first-page blurb is just a hint of what’s in store for the reader:

Stephanie comes into it in what amounts to a shoehorning into the narrative, just showing up at Lockwood’s doorstep and telling her she’s moving in with him to “protect” him. Her hazy story has it that she once knew a man similar to Lockwood, back in France, and he ended up dead, and Stephanie now feels something certain is about to happen to Lockwood unless she’s there to watch him. It’s all obviously bullshit, but Lockwood lets her move in and decides to keep an eye on her, even though he knows she’s no doubt up to something.

The plot, concerning Muffy’s missing jewels, is itself kind of bland, and you wish there had been a more fantastic or at least memorable storyline for this first volume. But somehow Lockwood runs into an assortment of mobsters in his investigation, most notably Widwer “One-Eye” Levinsky, who wears a glass eye and puts Lockwood temporarily in the hospital early in the book, ambushing him and beating him unmerciful, as the Jerky Boys would say.

Muffy herself is a talentless shrew who worries more over her public image and who treats everyone with disdain, particularly Lockwood; that is, until she decides to become interested in him. Schow does a pretty good job of presenting Muffy as a calculating harpy with no redeeming features, and when Lockwood has the expected sex scene with her he at least has the dignity to be ashamed with himself. Mostly because he’s certain she had something to do with the theft.

In a scheme that turns out to be as overly-complicated as the one in Trouble Is My Business, Lockwood finally deduces who was behind the theft. It’s so complicated that, like a regular Banacek, Lockwood has to deliver expository dialog explaining it all for around twenty pages or so while everyone sits around and gapes at his intelligence. Schow does end it all with a bang, though, with the outed villains getting the jump on Lockwood, leading into a final-pages gunfight.

But still, the novel is just sluggish, and took longer to read than it should’ve. The mystery is too mundane to justify the book’s length, and there are too many instances in which Lockwood just stands around and wonders what lead to follow next. But then, this is just the first volume, so it could just be a temporary misfire before Schow finds his footing with the next four volumes.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


Cabby, by Leonard Jordan
No month stated, 1980  Belmont-Tower Books

Predating his work on The Sharpshooter (and even the porn novel he wrote as “March Hastings”), Cabby was one of the first novels Len Levinson ever wrote. However despite being written in 1972, the novel went unpublished until 1980. Len has often mentioned this book to me, saying that it was his stab at literary greatness; he also told me he really was working as a cabbie at the time, driving at night and writing during the day.

Cabby is narrated by our protagonist, Arnold Shumsky, who like Alexander Frapkin leaves no detail spared as he tells us about his sleazy life. Shumsky though is a lot more withdrawn than fun-loving Frapkin, to the point where he’s very distant from the reader. In fact, Shumsky is almost a ghost in his own novel, very rarely interracting with those around him or telling us anything about himself or his past. This obviously is part of Len’s theme with the novel, but ultimately it makes for a sometimes-frustrating read, as you’d like to get to know more about the guy.

But from what can be gleaned between the lines, Shumsky was, like Len himself, once a public relations man who worked in Manhattan but whose life took a sudden tumble, ending up with Shumsky divorced, estranged from his young daughter, and living as a shell of his former self, driving a cab through the slums of ‘70s NYC. This is of course all mirrored in Len’s own life, though it’s safe to say without the bitterness or setbacks of Shumsky’s story; when I spoke to him the other year, Len repeated several times that he had “no regrets” that he’d quit his corporate life to become a fulltime writer.

If the novel lacks much of a plot or characterization, it more than makes up for it with Len’s usual knack for capturing ‘70s New York. Cabby almost acts like a guidebook, with Shumsky detailing which streets he uses to get around Manhattan and environs, telling us of the people and places there. We also get a good cross-section of the type of people who lived in NYC at the time, though again our narrator rarely interracts with them.

The closest things to a recurring plot in Cabby would be the on-again, off-again strike his local cabbie union throws, usually incited by a politcally-active driver named Rubino who is called “the Communist.” We get to meet a few of the other cabbies who work with Shumsky, from Gasoline Louie, a legendary cabbie who lives in his car, to The Eel, to Fishface, the dispatcher. Gasoline Louie is the only one who could be considered friends with Shumsky, coming over to use our protagonist’s bath every once in a while.

Shumsky drives his passengers around, seldom engaging them in conversation. When he does interract with them it usually leads to trouble. In one early incident he’s in a wreck with an aggressive driver; this leads to an entertaining sequence in which Shumsky is hassled by a shady lawyer named Herman Schmeck into suing the other driver, complete with trips to a quack chiropractor named Dr. Irving Ginsberg, who puts Shumsky in more pain than the wreck itself.

Another incident later in the novel has Shumsky held at gunpoint by a black passenger, who tells Shumsky he’s going to kill him. Instead he pistol whips him and takes his wallet. Later on Shumsky is reticent to drive another passenger into Harlem – we learn most cabbies are – and there’s a well-written part where the passenger, a soul singer, tells him she forgot her purse and asks Shumsky to come up to her apartment with her; Shumsky’s afraid he’s about to be killed, but the lady turns out to be on the level.

Speaking of ladies, Shumsky is also like Alexander Frapkin in that he takes part in the novel’s sex scenes all by himself. Shumsky is even sleazier than Frapkin, as we learn that he sometimes masturbates, while driving, when he gets a pretty passenger. Len writes a few fantasy sequences in which we get a peak into Shumsky’s imagination, as in one part he fantasizes himself as a knight about to ravish his gorgeous passenger, who appears in his fantasy as a damsel in distress. It all gets pretty XXX-rated, ending by veering back into reality, where we find Shumsky having finished playing with himself and dropping off the passenger without ever even speaking to her.

The biggest difference between Cabby and Len’s later novels is that here he really brings on the “literary” stuff, with themes and allusions and metaphors weaved into the novel, sometimes overbearingly so, particularly Shumsky’s penchant for thinking of himself as a Catholic saint, struggling and toiling for salvation. There are many sequences which almost go into stream-of-consciousness, as Len brings these blood-soaked fantasies to life, with Shumsky seeing Jesus bleeding on the cross in Times Square and etc. It gets to be a bit much at times, however the writing itself is good, and it's interesting to see a different side of Len's style.

Ultimately the main problem with Cabby is that there isn’t enough there to make it emotionally resonate with the reader. Sure, we realize Shumsky is going through a rough patch, hence how he has so completely shut himself off, but still – if we’re to empathize with the guy, we should get more of a peek into his soul. I hate the term “emotional connection,” which is bandied about in the world of marketing and is pretty much all modern advertisers strive for in their maudlin and sappy commercials, but still – there’s no emotional connection with Shumsky, hence his self-pity comes off as annoying.

Not that there are no flashes of enjoyment in the novel. For one I was happy to see that, even in his first novel, Len was serving up unusual and memorable supporting characters, not to mention his knack for featuring the same characters in different novels; Shumsky at one point is shocked when his old boss from the PR firm gets in his cab, and it’s none other than Larry Walters from Hype!. (And Shumsky himself made a cameo in The Bar Studs – yet he was more memorable in those few pages than he is in the entirety of Cabby.)

After reading Cabby, I asked Len what his thoughts were on the novel. I was surprised to see that he felt much the same about it as I had:

Cabby was supposed to be my breakthrough novel. I actually thought it would propel me to widespread critical acclaim and lots of money, possibly even a movie deal.

First I should provide context. I quit my PR job in 1971 to become a writer. I then wrote a novel which took about a year, and got rejected everywhere. I was running out of money and needed a part-time job that would permit me to continue writing.

So I became a cabdriver on the cruel streets of New York City back when cabdrivers were murdered fairly regularly. Some drove during the day because they couldn’t handle the dangers of the night. Others drove during the night because they couldn’t handle daytime traffic. I drove on the night shift for the Metropolitan Garage located in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, a ten minute walk from my apartment.

All sorts of people sat in the back seat of my taxicabs, from Wall Street brokers to prostitutes, movie stars, working people, cops, criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, even my former PR boss Lee Solters got into my cab one night, astonished to see me behind the wheel. While driving them around, I felt inspired to write a novel about a cabdriver who didn’t have all his marbles, and who in many (but not all) ways was me.

I drove on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays nights. My shifts began at 4pm and ended at 4am. When I wasn’t driving, I was home writing the novel that became Cabby. I had virtually no social life during this period and sank into a very strange, isolated frame of mind which became reflected in the novel.

When Joe Kenney asked me to write something about Cabby, I thought I should reread it, because I hadn’t read it for around 42 years, and still remembered it as The Great American Taxicab Novel.

I read it yesterday morning (6/24/2014)and soon came to the demoralizing realization that it wasn’t The Great American Taxicab Novel, and in fact is a very flawed novel written before I started writing action/adventure books for Belmont-Tower, before I came under the tutelage of the great Peter McCurtin, and before I understood the art of storytelling.

Cabby really isn’t a story. It’s mostly a series of cab rides interspersed with episodes in the life of a semi-psychotic cabdriver who’d been traumatized by the break-up of his marriage, as I was still traumatized by the break-up of mine. It has lots of authentic early 1970s color and some interesting scenes but overall doesn’t have narrative tension, which detracts from readability. Cabby was written before Taxi Driver starring Robert De Niro was released in 1976, yet certain curious similarities can be found between the movie and my novel.

Cabby was published in 1980, so the screenwriter Paul Schrader couldn’t have read it. And I hadn’t seen Taxi Driver before I wrote Cabby. But Schrader and I approached cab driving somewhat similarly. It’s almost enough to make one believe in Jung’s theory of the Collective Unconscious.

There are two hard-core pornographic sequences in Cabby, which I found embarrassing to read yesterday, although I suppose there’s truth in them somewhere. Men really do go crazy over women and have grotesque sexual fantasies. Those two sequences were kind of disgusting, from my viewpoint at age 79. Human sexuality is very different at age 37 compared with age 79. I must’ve been a very strange person back in 1972.

Finally I finished Cabby and delivered it to my then literary agent, Elaine Markson. I was very proud of it, and considered myself the next Henry Miller or a variation on Charles Bukowski. Elaine actually liked it and submitted it to major publishers. An editor at Little, Brown wanted to publish it as a hardcover. I don’t remember this editor’s name; she was Chinese or Japanese, and took me to lunch at a fancy mid-Manhattan restaurant where she said Cabby was an outstanding, original novel. Unfortunately, her supervisors at Little, Brown didn’t agree, and rejected the novel. Subsequently it was rejected by numerous other publishers.

After writing Cabby, I desperately wanted to escape cabdriving. Finally I hit on the plan of writing a hardcore pornographic novel, which became Private Sessions by March Hastings, published by Midwood, a subsidiary of Belmont Tower. That led to writing action-adventure novels for BT, where my first editor was Peter McCurtin, who taught me many lessons about storytelling. Finally my so-called literary career took off and I didn’t need to drive a cab anymore. BT even published Cabby which I dedicated it to Milburn Smith, who succeeded Peter as my editor.

Cabby was an attempt by a neophyte to write a complex literary novel, but didn’t quite succeed, I don’t think. I can’t recommend this novel, but writers aren’t always the best judges of their work. We can be too critical or not critical enough. I haven’t read Joe’s review yet, and am very curious about his opinion.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Revenger #2: Fire In The Streets

The Revenger #2: Fire In The Streets, by Jon Messmann
June, 1974  Signet Books

A year after the events of The Revenger, mule-headed hero Ben Martin now lives as “Ben Markham” in Chicago, denying himself memories of his former life and just trying to earn a living as a manager at a meat-processing factory. Soon enough though he’s once again going up against the Mafia, in a novel that almost comes off like a Xerox copy of its predecessor.

Just as The Revenger opened with Ben discovering mobsters lurking around his shop, so too does Fire In The Streets, with the exception that this time Ben Martin himself has nothing to lose in the bargain. It’s not his store and it’s not his family that’s put in harm’s way due to his rash actions, all of which serves to make the reader eventually harbor ill-will against this “hero.” But anyway, just as in that previous installment, Ben mauls the intruders, hanging each of them on meathooks.

The stooges work for Nick Carboni, a Chicago capo who is in the middle of a “business arrangment” with Ben’s boss, Jordon Alwyn, owner of Alwyn’s Beef Products. But Ben Martin knows how the mob operates, and knows that even though they appear to be working on the level, eventually they will make life hell for the Alywyns. I forgot to mention, Ben also has the hots for Jordon’s sexy wife Valery (yes, the couple’s really named “Jordon” and “Valery”). Whereas the previous novel traded on marriage, this one’s theme is all about infidelity, with Carboni constantly fighting with his wife and running off to his blonde mistress, Julie Egan, and Jordon and Valery fighting endlessly.

Also, Messmann takes a page from Tony DeStefano, who wrote himself out of a similar corner in Mondo #2; just like the protagonist of that series, Ben Martin clearly seemed to die in the final page of The Revenger. So for this sequel, just as DeStefano did in his own sequel, Messmann tones down the seriousness of Ben’s wounds in the previous book, having it that he was “only” shot three times in the abdomen. In a brief flashback we learn that he was fished out of the Hudson by a slightly-chubby nurse who secretly took Ben back to her apartment and tended him back to life.

Despite the expected romance (and again Messmann delivers several explicit sex scenes throughout the novel), Ben insisted he had to leave New York, and eventually came to Chicago, where he now works as a manager in an establishment similar to the one he once ran in New York. But the Mafia is here as well, and as in the previous novel Ben continues to indulge in his “obsession” with fighting them, no matter how much trouble or misery he causes for those close to him.

To wit, he refuses to back down when Jordon Alwyn confronts him about that fight in the opening pages, as a result driving a further wedge between Jordon and Valery, as Mrs. Alwyn appears to harbor certain feelings for Ben as well. She also owns sixty percent of the company, which serves for further strain for the couple. Anyway, returning home one night Ben’s ambushed by three mobsters, and ends up killing all of them, which really sets off Carboni, who demands that Alwyn fire him immediately.

Instead of packing his bags and leaving, Ben instead takes over for a close friend who also works at the company and was scheduled to drive a rig across state; Ben is certain the mobsters will try to hijack or at least wreck the rig, as a sign of its displeasure with Alwyn (again, displeasure over events Ben himself has caused). And he’s right; a car comes after him, guns blazing, and Ben ends up crashing the truck right overtop it, easly jumping out of his crashing rig without a scratch.

Now it’s war, and Ben realizes he must once again become the Revenger (not that he ever calls himself this). Meantime he has sex with Valery, who comes over to throw herself on him. Given that Ben was just fired, this makes for some pretty fitting payback, screwing the boss’s hot wife. At any rate he again does exactly as in the previous book, renting out some anonymous slums downtown and buying a few handguns and rifles from stores. Once again our protagonist doesn’t resort to fancy weaponry, expressly avoiding automatics so as not to “harm the innocent” – as if he doesn’t harm them enough on his own! I mean, would you be surprised to learn that his good friend, the one who was supposed to drive that rig, is eventually murdered by Carboni’s thugs??

One thing that elevates Fire In The Streets above The Revenger is that here there is much less pathos; whereas in the previous book Ben Martin took quite a while to become once again the killing machine he was in ‘Nam, here he’s ready posthaste to kick some shit. This adds a fun layer to the novel, with Ben marveling over how “easy” it is to kill Carboni’s stupid goons, and Martin later calling the man himself to promise him he’ll die soon, too. But again, Ben comes off as the sick one, as this is not his fight, and indeed Jordon Alwyn is presented as such a spineless sap that you feel little sympathy for him anyway. Clearly, Ben’s unwillingness to back down causes more misery for Alwyn’s employees and family than anything Carboni might have planned.

As in the previous book Ben pulls off a series of daring public hits, first blowing away some Carboni thugs as they come out of an Italian restaurant. Then he gets more when some of them come to round up blonde bimbo Julie Egan, a scene which has Ben gunning each of them down as they stand beside the screaming girl, whom he lets live. Meantime Ben keeps on banging Mrs. Alwyn, who is already planning a future with Ben Martin – plus she’s figured out who he really is, having followed the newspaper stories a year before and easily piecing it together that “Ben Markham” and Ben Martin are one and the same.

Another figure from Ben’s past returns: Don Gennosanti, the elderly New York capo who tried to make peace with Ben in the first book. Gennosanti calls Carboni, insisting that he is playing this all wrong, and also the Don is certain this is once again Ben Martin at work. Also by novel’s end we see that the Don has actually started to like Ben Martin (he even drinks a toast to him on the final page), so this will hopefully serve up for a subplot that continues in the next volumes.

There are actually fewer “action scenes” in Fire In The Streets than in the first book, with the highlight being a bit where Ben is actually caught in a lame Carboni trap. But Ben is prepared, with a pair of derringers strapped beneath his belt with rubber bands; the sequence is entertaining, especially because it’s the first time yet in the series that Ben himself is in danger, but it all comes off too easy for him because the mobsters once again make every mistake he expected they would.

Even the finale is short on thrills, with Ben stealing yet another rig and strapping a bunch of dynamite to it, then steering the thing for a head-on collision with Carboni’s fortified house. But Messmann relays the sequence from the perspective of Carboni and his wife; the woman, beaten by Carboni throughout the novel, has herself turned to Ben Martin’s side, and per the Revenger’s request she keeps Carboni “occupied” so he’ll be in the house at this particular time.

Given the lack of action and the preponderance of literary stuff, with lots and lots of soul-plumbing and introspection, it occurs to me that Jon Messmann was trying to write a “real” novel here, just as he did in the previous book. I just don’t think this style gibes well with the men’s adventure genre. In fact Messmann’s writing throughout is very reminiscent of Burt Hirschfeld, with the same sort of “serious” turns of phrase that veer right over the line into pretension.

Fire In The Streets comes in at a mere 135 pages, but it has some of the smallest print I’ve ever read in a novel. But even so, even despite the lack of action and the focus on introspection and word-painting, I still enjoyed the novel, and look forward to the next book, with “hero” Ben Martin already disappearing into the shadows on the final pages, ready to go someplace else and take on a new identity.