Monday, December 6, 2021

The Weapon Of Night (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #19)

The Weapon Of Night, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

The final Nick Carter: Killmaster by Valerie Moolman, The Weapon Of Night taps into the Northeast blackout of November 1965, with UFOs and LSD also somehow figuring into the plot. Sounds like a bonkers installment, but Moolman doesn’t really exploit any of this stuff, and for the most part the novel features Nick Carter running around various nuclear plants. Even the novel’s villain, the series regular Mr. Judas, is given short-shrift, and comes off as pretty boring. This I’ve found is typical of Moolman’s work on the series in general, and given that she was the sole writer of Nick Carter: Killmaster for its first few years, I’m surprised the series lasted long enough for other ghostwriters to come aboard. Maybe readers were just desperate for any spy fiction at the time. 

I suspect Moolman knew this would be her final venture, as she brings back characters from her previous installments; we’re even informed which volumes they appeared in on the first-page preview. She also does something unique in that the novel opens with Nick finishing up an assignment in progress; chasing an old Nazi across the rooftop of a Chicago skyscraper. A blackout occurs during the melee and the Nazi plummets to his death. Nick hops aboard a plane and heads back to his New York penthouse, figuring that he’s wrapped up the case…not realizing of course that the blackout presages a case he’ll be working on posthaste. 

We have a lot of sequences with one-off characters experiencing weird stuff across the US: UFO sightings, blood-red water coming out of faucets, “grubby” atmospheres, and another blackout – this one hitting the airport as Nick’s plane comes in to land. There’s this strange, almost casual vibe to Moolman’s Killmaster books; Nick finds a letter waiting in his mailbox from Hakim Sadek, a “cross-eyed criminologist” in Cairo Nick worked with in Safari For Spies. Something about a plot Hakim has uncovered, in which people are having their faces changed and somesuch. Shortly thereafter another previous Moolman character returns: Nick’s boss Hawk tells Nick that his next assignment is to escort a Russian VIP on a tour of a US nuclear plant, and that Russian VIP is Valentina Sichikova, who appeared in The 13th Spy

“Now there is one dame I really love!” Nick says when informed that Valentina will be his guest. But as it turns out, she is “one of Russia’s biggest women,” and is morbidly obese and whatnot. Ostensibly here to tour a plant for vague reasons, Valentina’s real purpose is to discuss the blackouts that are also occuring in Russia; she tells Nick and Hawk that the USSR suspects some Chinese are behind the plot. Ultimately this will tie in with the letter Hakim sent. Valentina, Nick, and Hawk sit around in AXE HQ in DC and talk – there’s a lot of talking in the The Weapon Of Night – and it all has more the vibe of a mystery than an action novel. Once again Moolman gives the impression that AXE is a massive organization like U.N.C.L.E., with tons of employees going around, each of them with different numbers and security clearances. 

Another character returns: Julia Baron (sometimes referred to as “Julie,” though Moolman doesn’t here), hotstuff AXE agent with “slightly slanting, catlike eyes” and black hair. She appeared in the first volume (as did Mr. Judas) and then in several others, before being removed from the series in Time Clock Of Death. In each instance she was presented as the perfect match for Nick Carter, the love of his life and whatnot. But here the two have more of a contentious relationship, with Julia snipping at Nick and constantly questioning him. This was annoying and brought to mind the vibe of modern thrillers, in which the heroic male characters are constantly mocked and second-guessed by the lead female characters. Ironically this doesn’t prevent Nick and Julia from getting in bed – she’s his only conquest in the novel – for some vaguely-described shenanigans (ie “She accepted him again and he plunged into warmth and softness.”). 

But the problem is, Moolman clearly likes these characters she’s created, and spends too much time with them instead of on action or suspense. In particular she spends way too much narrative on Valentina and her earthy proclamations and sentiments, and Hakim too gets too much print. What makes this an issue is that it’s all written in this highfalutin style, ie “American officialdom gave [Hakim] a pain in the traditional place.” Lame stuff, and very similar to the lifeless style “Bill Rohde” brought to Nick Carter: Killmaster in his (their?) installments, a la The Judas Spy and Amsterdam. In fact, I wonder if the Rohde style was influenced by Moolman; in Rohde too AXE is a vast organization akin to U.N.C.L.E., with an army of technicians and planners and etc, and an overall “safe” approach to the proceedings where hardly anyone ever gets hurt, let alone killed. In this regard the volumes of Manning Lee Stokes, when he came onto the scene with The Eyes Of The Tiger, must’ve been like a bucket of cold water to those who had grown familiar with the vibe of the preceding Moolman novels. 

Even the action scenes are lifeless, not to mention bloodless. And Nick doesn’t come off nearly as badass as he would in later books, particularly the ones by Stokes. I mean Nick is knocked out three times by page 114. He also uses more gadgets than in the Stokes novels (just as he does in the Rohde books – another similarity), including a “pocket-sized laser gun” which he uses at one point to get himself and Julia out of danger. A curious thing is that there’s no tension in Moolman’s action scenes; there’s such a safe, casual air that you know even the supporting characters will be safe. There’s a part, for example, where Valentina is abducted, and never once is her fate in doubt. Instead, more entertainment comes from the strange bitterness between Julia and Nick in these action scenes; Julia second-guesses and mocks Nick at every turn, a la “Why aren’t you out there doing something?” It’s strange and makes me wonder if Moolman had built up this resentment in her earlier volumes. 

But as mentioned the bickering nature doesn’t prevent the bedroom action, and the novel’s climax features Nick and Julia…watching TV. I mean nothing says “action novel” like your hero sacked out in front of the television in the final pages. Judas you see has orchestrated various blackouts, but AXE – using various high-tech tracking methods – has been unable to locate him. The blackouts have gotten worse, to the point that the President addresses the nation on television, and Nick and Julia watch this from their hotel room. The President’s name is never given, but he’s clearly LBJ (not to be confused with FJB). A blackout occurs at that moment, knocking out the TV screen, and Nick deduces where Judas is. This leads to a climax where he faces off against Judas overtop Niagra falls, trying to cut the supervillain’s line so he will plummet to his doom – a nice callback to the plummeting Nazi of the beginning. 

The novel mercifully ends here, but there was a pseudo-sequel many years later: Vatican Vendetta. The climactic events of The Weapon Of Night are referred to throughout that later installment, which also happened to be the last one “produced” by Lyle Kenyon Engel. And per my review, it’s my assumption that Vatican Vendetta was written shortly after The Weapon Of Night and just went unpublished for a few years. Overall I didn’t much enjoy The Weapon Of Night, and I haven’t really enjoyed Moolman’s work on the series. Not that she’s a bad author, I just feel that she doesn’t bring much bite to her novels, which come off more like cozy mysteries.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

I Am Legend (aka The Omega Man)

I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
August, 1971  Berkley Medallion Books
(Original publication 1954)

The cover of this paperback is confusing: “The Omega Man” gets predominance, with “I Am Legend” secondary. This would give the impression that the book is titled “The Omega Man,” tying in with the film, however “I Am Legend” is on the spine and inside the book itself. I thought this was interesting because usually it seems that the orginal title is given priority. At the very least this must confuse online booksellers when they’re listing the book.

I’d never read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, though as a horror-loving teen I often heard of it. I’ve seen The Omega Man a few times over the years; I think I somehow knew, even then, that the movie was different from the source novel. As it turns out, the movie is almost an entirely separate story, only similar in the name of the protagonist, Robert Neville. And honestly The Omega Man is one wonderfully whacked-out movie, with a typically-unflappable Charlton Heston driving around town and blasting away with a subgun, and Anthony Zerbe as the freaked-out leader of a group of albino mutants or somesuch. And let’s not forget the albino black guy in the group – an image that’s still scarier than any CGI I’ve ever seen. Or the bit where Heston watches Woodstock in an empty theater, that wonderfully smug look on his face; awesome commentary on the fall of “the new society” in the post-virus world of The Omega Man

Well, absolutely none of that is in I Am Legend (which by the way is written in third-person; given the title I was under the impression it would be narrated in first-person). And to be perfectly honest – I’m always honest with you all – I much preferred the film to the book. In fact I sort of wished someone had novelized the script and just made this tie-its own thing, sort of like with the Total Recall novelization of years later. Instead Berkley went the more traditional route and republished Matheson’s original novel, which has nothing much in common with the film. The book is more “low budget” than the film, operating with just a few characters, relatively few “action” scenes, and more focus on the mental state of the hero, with a good bit of “investigative” stuff when he tries to figure out what’s caused everyone in the world but him to turn into a vampire. 

That’s another big difference between novel and film: the freak mutants of The Omega Man are normal people who have been mutated by a runaway experimental virus, whereas in the novel they are clearly vampires. Much of I Am Legend is given over to a rumination of how the various vampire legends were born, how much truth there is to them, and why vampires have the strengths and weaknesses attributed to them by legend. For as it turns out Robert Neville doesn’t have much else to do. Whereas Heston’s version of the character lives in a fortress and drives around the empty city in various swank cars, generally just loving the hell out of life, the Neville of the novel is more introspective, content to live in his old house in the Los Angeles area and only going out on runs for supplies. As the novel opens it’s 1976 and Neville has been in his “last man” capacity for some five months, still living in the house he once shared with his wife and daughter and now going about the horrific daily chores of his new life with a matter-of-factness: clearing out the vampire corpses from his yard each morning, dumping them in the city’s fire pit, then going around town to find some sleeping vampires to stake. Then to return to his home before nightfall, when the vampires come out, and lock the doors and blast classical music on the turntable while the vampires outside scream for him to come out. 

And yes, that’s 1976, 22 years after the novel’s original publication date, but only a few years away from the release of The Omega Man. Matheson keeps the novel so barebones that this “future” angle never comes into play, and to the author’s credit it could really take place at any time in the later 20th century. The only sci-fi element is vague mentions of an atomic war, possibly with Russia, which America won – even though the “bombings” released radioactive dust storms which ultimately led to the vampiric plague that destroyed hummanity. Neville himself seems to be a vet of some action; there’s mention of “Panama,” where he incurred a wound some years before – later we’ll learn he was bitten by a bat…indeed, a bat Neville now theorizes had bitten a vampire before bitting Neville, hence Neville’s immunity to the vampire plague(!). All this is skillfully strung into the narrative at random intervals, so that Matheson doesn’t spend the majority of the tale world-building. True to the era it was published, I Am Legend barely has any fat, running to a mere 170+ pages. 

But then, it operates on a smaller scale than you might think, given that the plot concerns possibly the last human in a world filled with vampires. The best flashback material concerns how the plague affected Neville on a personal level; forcing himself to remember how it all began, Neville recalls how people just started coming down with a strange bug, one that confined them to bed and left them weak. Meanwhile the country struggled on; the flashback concerns Neville and his bedridden wife Virginia discussing what could be causing her to feel so bad, and whether they should send their little girl to school. I got a postmodern chuckle out of all this – what, no mask mandates? No executive orders? No government overreach?? They actually left such decisions to the individual?! But it’s all moot, as this apparently is toward the end – Matheson’s narrative gets a bit skewed in the ensuing apocalyptic events, but we’re to understand these bedridden people die, only to be reborn as vampires – and those who later come down with the disease, like Neville’s poor little girl, are unceremoniously tossed in the fire to prevent transmission. 

It takes us readers a while to learn all this, though. In fact the first quarter of I Am Legend is fairly monotonous, Matheson demonstrating how, per Neville later in the book, humans can become used to just about anything. Each day is the same – breakfast, then corpse cleanup, followed by stake sharpening and on into Sears or wherever in town for supplies. Then back home before nightfall to eat dinner, blast classical music on the stereo, make a list of needed supplies, and get drunk on a seemingly endless supply of whiskey. But we see how Neville is losing his grips, some nights so tormented that he almost opens the door to the bloodthirsty vampires out there. We also learn that the females like to strip down and strike provocative poses for him, something that drives Neville insane. 

This opening section comes to a head in a suspenseful bit where Neville spends more time out than he reckoned, only to discover too late that his watch has stopped. It’s dark by the time he gets home, and the vampires are out there waiting for him. This is a crazed sequence, but not as believable because Neville manages to get inside despite the masses of vampires chasing him. Also it’s never explained why Neville can’t just hole up someplace else. As I say, I Am Legend operates on a very low-budget level;Neville just sticks to his own house and a few regular stops, with little of the city-roving of The Omega Man

From here the narrative begins skipping forward at irregular intervals; next it’s later in 1976, then later in the book we’ll move to 1978, before coming to a close in 1979. Just in time for disco! Throughout Neville stays in his house, which is fortified with locks and garlic and run by a generator he has in the garage. He spends this time trying to research vampirism, driving to the science floor of the nearest college and getting the gear he needs. He researches in books and goes around town collecting test experiments; the vampires go into a coma during the day, and Neville uses some of them as guinea pigs. Ultimately he determines that the vampire plague was caused by a germ, and that there are various versions of vampires, like ones who seem to have been dead for a long time and instantly turn into ash when staked. 

Neville carries the entire novel, and we stay in his perspective throughout. The book is made up of dense blocks of narrative description, with hardly any dialog; Neville can only talk to himself. His first glimpse of non-vampire life occurs midway through when he encounters a wild dog, and he desperately goes about trying to gain its trust. This bit goes on quite some time, and will likely be more entertaining for dog-lovers than it was for me. Neville setting out meat for the dog each morning, watching from the windows as it sneaks by to eat it, then trying to call for it, only for the terrified dog to run away. This goes on seemingly for a few months. However this is a pretty bleak book so the outcome is somewhat expected, though I felt anticlimactically delivered. But then I do appreciate how Matheson doesn’t sap anything up; while Neville goes through harrowing experiences he never descends to maudlin theatrics. But then he also doesn’t dress up a bust of Caesar and play chess with it, a la Heston in The Omega Man

Things really pick up in 1978 when Neville, now bigger and sporting a beard in true hermit fashion, comes across a woman one day, walking along the field outside his house in broad daylight. She’s a slim redhead, and Neville chases her down and caveman style forces her back to his house. Again, Matheson doesn’t sap things up: Neville has become so paranoid from his years of being alone that he distrusts the girl, who says her name is Ruth. Neville doesn’t believe her story of hiding from the vampires and losing her kids and husband, and further he even realizes to his surprise that he feels no passion for her. We’re told she’s thin, with the waifish build of a girl, and Nevile, celibate for years now, forces himself to even appreciate her. The bigger story though is that Neville suspects that Ruth really does have the vampire plague, and trying to catch her out on what he believes are her lies, before talking her into letting him take a slide of her blood to inspect for the vampire germ. 

I’ll go into spoilers over the next three paragraphs, but given the fame of this novel I’m going to assume many of you have already read it. Well, it turns out Neville’s suspicions were correct; he checks Ruth’s blood and finds the germ in it, and moments later Ruth knocks him out and takes off. She leaves a note which explains that she is a vampire, but a sort of new bread – living vampires, as it were, and not the same as the truly dead ones (ie the ones who turn immediately to dust when staked). Over the years, while Neville’s been living like a hermit and staking every vampire he could find during the day, the “new breed” of vampires have started up their own society, and what’s more have developed a pill which allows them to become more normal, like going out in the day and whatnot. Ruth ends the note imploring Neville to leave, to go hide in the mountains, as he will soon be a target of Ruth’s people. 

We flash forward again, this time to 1979, and Neville’s still home, having decided not to leave. One of the biggest problems I had with I Am Legend is the harried conclusion that follows. Neville literally stands in his living room and watches through a peephole as Ruth’s new breed of vampires show up one night and kill all the “dead” vampires, even the one Neville’s spent the entire novel hoping to kill himself. Then they come in after Neville, who refuses to fight back(!), and he gets shot and next thing you know we have a proto-Braveheart finale where Ruth visits a dying Neville, who is about to be publicly executed by her new breed of vampires. She tells Neville that her people are terrified of him and hate him, but she cares for him, and gives him a suicide pill or somesuch that will prevent him from experiencing the execution. The novel ends with Neville coming to the titular conclusion – that he, the odd man out in this new world, is now legend. 

It’s easy of course to see I Am Legend from a COVID perspective, with all the talk of viruses, transmission, and vaccines. But I’d take it a step further; it occurred to me after I read the book that Ruth and her “new breed” of vampires, who need to regularly take a pill to prevent the virus, are the vaccinated, creating a new society in which frequent boosters are required for inclusion. And Neville, with his natural immunity, is the unvaccinated (or “pureblood,” per the recent term), eking out a hermit-like existence apart from them. The cleaving of society at the end of the novel could also be viewed as a wild prefigure of where we are headed; pureblood Neville cannot exist in this world of the new breed. I mean, imagine if an endless cycle of booster shots were to ultimately lead to crippling side effects, mass deaths, and weakened immune systems that needed the boosters to even function (a la the “pills” Ruth’s people need): a society of people more dead than alive, which is exactly how Ruth’s fellow post-vampires are depicted. Just imagine the hatred and jealousy such sufferers would feel for the few purebloods who remained unscathed. Like Ruth’s post-vampire society, they’d no doubt eagerly gather to watch the few purebloods be exterminated. 

In closing, I’m glad I finally read I Am Legend, but I still confess without any shame that I much prefer The Omega Man. It just felt like there was more of a story here than we actually got, but to Matheson’s credit he takes a huge story and relates it on a personal level. Also I appreciated how fast-moving it was. Another thing I got a kick out of was how people in Matheson’s era were just so much more cultured and learned than today; Neville not only listens to classical throughout, but constantly refers to poems or myths. For example, when trying to catch that dog he thinks to himself, “Shades of Androcles,” which honestly is on the level of Jefferson Boone.

Monday, November 29, 2021

The Lone Wolf #2: Bay Prowler

The Lone Wolf #2: Bay Prowler, by Mike Barry
October, 1973  Berkley Medallion Books

Burt Wulff returns in the second installment of The Lone Wolf, and this one’s just as surreal and wild as the first volume. I’m only two volumes in, but I’m ready to put Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg’s series up on the same twisted pedestal as Hal Bennett’s Justin Perry: The Assassin. Now, The Lone Wolf isn’t that weird, at least not yet, but it’s similar in that it comes from the mind of a gifted writer who has an unusual perspective. The entirety of Bay Prowler almost seems to be a fever dream. Speaking of which, the title alone is a clue that this series is a bit wacky; I mean “Bay Prowler” sounds like a serial killer, but it actually refers to our hero

And since I’m in a “speaking of which” kind of mood – speaking of which, Marty McKee notes that Wulff’s first name changes in later volumes. Well, that “name uncertainty” is already here in the second volume. Twice in Bay Prowler, on pages 97 and 170, Wulff is mistakenly referred to as “Conlan.” This is in the narrative, not in dialog or anything – it’s Malzberg clearly forgetting the name of his hero. I’m not very familiar with Malzberg’s work, so maybe there was a “Conlan” in something else he wrote, or maybe it was his original name for Wulff. Who knows. This would seem to confirm the comment Stephen Mertz left for my review of the first volume; per Stephen, Malzberg wrote about the Lone Wolf series in one of his nonfiction books, saying that he’d written the fourteen volumes in a hurry, thus the sloppiness. This essay appears in Malzberg’s collection Breakfast In The Ruins, which I currently have on the way to me thanks to my good friends in Interlibrary Loan. 

I still see a lot of parallels between The Lone Wolf and The Vigilante. And, just like that later Robert Lory series, this one seems to occur over a short span of time; we learn that it’s just a few days after the first volume – long enough for Wulff to drive from New York to San Francisco – and Malzberg hits the ground running with our hero blowing away a heroin dealer in the first few pages. This opening sequence gives us a taste of what’s to come; the writing is just “different” than the genre norm…literary, but not in the somewhat-stuffy Manning Lee Stokes sense, but definitely above what you’d usually encounter. But there’s just a strange vibe to it, and it’s not just because of Wulff’s fatalism. We know from the first volume that he considers himself a dead man, and that’s focused on here as well, and this adds an entertaining vibe to the series in which Wulff just bluffs himself into impossible situations but somehow manages to survive. 

As I say, there is a dreamlike quality to the books. And indeed, this opening sequence has Wulff meeting a “regular” person, a pretty young girl hooked on speed named Tamara, and she seems to speak for reality in the book, constantly commenting on how crazy everything has become now that Wulff’s arrived on the scene. You know as I typed this I think I realized what exactly makes this series feel different – Wulff as we know is determined to kill the heroin trade, and he’s against all drugs. Yet Malzberg, whether from personal experience or interest I can’t say, taps into the mindset of the drug addicts Wulff encounters; here in the opening, when Wulff comes upon a near-OD’d Tamara in a flophouse and Tamara’s dealer comes in and Wulff shoots him, the majority of the scene is written from Tamara’s skewed perspective, of her being “trapped in the nightmare.” 

This vibe permeates the book…that, and a cynicism that makes the hero of Operation Hang Ten come off like Stuart Smalley in comparison. But whereas the griping in the Operation Hang Ten books is more from a jaded hipster perspective, the poisonous ruminations throughout The Lone Wolf come from a deeper and darker place. I mean Wulff is burned out, and he doesn’t lie when he says he’s already dead. Crazily enough, we learn here that he’s only 32. I say “only” because I’m like 15 years older than him, but still…there’s a hardbitten callousness to Wulff that is beyond his years. And again, it stems from the murder of his fiance, which occurred before the events of the first book even started…and which aren’t covered at all, this time. I was hoping there’d be some “big reveal” about his fiance’s death, which the first book seemed to hint at, but so far as this volume goes it’s all over and done with. 

Instead, the theme of Bay Prowler is how Tamara ultimately makes Wulff “feel again.” Yet another of those female characters who only exist in crime fiction (which The Lone Wolf certainly is – it’s definitely more Parker than The Executioner), Tamara is a hotstuff blonde who instantly takes to Wulff, and is there to offer him all the solace and healing he could need…even if he doesn’t want it. I got some humor out of how Tamara kept calling Wulff “Avenger,” her name for a mythical figure she’s fantasized about since she was a kid. Actually it’s not really “humorous,” not sure why I said that…just interesting, I guess, given that there was a later men’s adventure hero, also obsessed with stopping drug-dealers, called The Avenger

Wulff, against his better instincts, finds himself trying to help Tamara recover from her near-OD. He drops her off in an apartment and, uncertain why, even checks on her later. She is presumably the inspiration for the “red-haired companion with deep cleavage” (per Marty McKee) on Mel Crair’s typically-awesome cover, however Tamara is a blonde and we’re specifically informed she has small breasts. We get detailed info on them later in the book, when the expected sex scene occurs; Malzberg, bless him, doesn’t shy from any sleazy details, giving us pervy readers all we could want. But this sequence too seems to be filtered through that same skewed style…and besides, Malzberg’s tongue seems to be in his cheek, as the dialog here, which is separated by a lot of explicit detail, amounts to a lot of “It’s all right/It isn’t all right” bantering. Speaking of which (there I go again), Tamara’s dialog at the end is especially humorous, “That was the first time I’ve come in months, do you know that?” 

This scene leads to an even more surreal bit where a few guys storm in on the post-coital bliss (Wulff is forever being snuck-attack…and, compounding the surreality, it’s never explained how anyone ever finds him) and Wulff, of course, manages to get the upper hand despite the odds. But one guy manages to put a gun on Tamara’s head, meanwhile screaming “You son of a bitch!” at Wulff because he’s been shot in the leg. This is another example of how these characters, like Tamara, seem completely out of sorts, as if Wulff’s mere presence has thrown a monkeywrench in their entire worldview. It goes without saying that Wulff manages to get the upper hand here, too. Not to beat this dead horse, but again it’s like a dream, like it’s all Wulff’s dream, and he always manages to come out unscathed no matter what happens. Really though it’s the increasing madness of this injured, would-be assassin that adds an extra weird layer to the scene. 

Another bizarre scene that indicates The Lone Wolf couldn’t be confused with Ed McBain is when Wulff, again, gets the upper hand on another pair of would-be assassins. This bit, which occurs earlier in the book, is another instance where these guys find Wulff, with absolutely no explanation of how they’ve done so. Humorously, one of them’s built up early in the book as a super tough guy who carries a “luger” and drives a car that’s like an armored tank. But none of that’s actually demonstrated in the novel itself. Instead Wulff gets this guy, who instantly turns into a sniveling coward, and makes him drive a car over the Golden Gate Bridge and on into Sausalito. This scene just keeps going and going, and there’s just a weird vibe to it, especially given that you start feeling bad for the would-be assassin, who soon pleads for his life to no avail. But it’s another demonstration of how Wulff isn’t your typical men’s adventure hero…he is in many ways worse than the villains he’s sworn to destroy. 

As with the previous book, the novel occurs in a world in which reality hangs in the balance, with society in an almost pre-apocalyptic state. This bit here, where Wulff extermintes his would-be killer, is a case in point: Wulff has the man pull off into a residential area, then has the man get out of the car and stand there, so Wulff can blow him away – heedless of any passing cars. For, as Wulff demonstrates, no one gives a damn. This theme, of society falling apart, is carried through Bay Prowler, not only in Wulff’s bitter ruminations on the shitty state of the world but also in how the plot unfolds. Like for example when Wulff gears up for the big hit at novel’s end. He calls up his only friend, his rookie cop partner from the first volume, and gets info on where he can buy illegal arms here in San Francisco. This takes him to a shop where the proprietor sells his illegal stock practically in the open, with no fear of reprisal; it’s Wulff’s certainty that the cops themselves are his customers. 

But as Zwolf stated, “Malzberg apparently has no knowledge of weapons at all, referring to guns as ‘point thirty-eights’ and ‘point forty-fives’ and thinking grenades are a whole lot more powerful than they are.” For that matter, Wulff gets a “machine gun” from the underground weapons store, and this is all Malzberg ever refers to it as. Zwolf was definitely correct on the grenades, too; the finale sees Wulff using a seemingly endless supply of them to blow up a ship that’s bringing in heroin. These grenades are almost like miniature atom bombs, blasting the ship apart. And Wulff mows down a hundred men in this finale without breaking a sweat; he figures more stooges will make things easier than fewer stooges, and proves his point posthaste, lobbing some of his superpowered grenades and blasting away with his machine gun. And as Zwolf again so aptly put it, “When [Wulff] has to go through their 100-man army it’s so easy for him that he literally worries more about catching bronchitis from the cold air than getting shot.” 

I’m sure you’ve already beaten me to it, but all of this – wait for it – only adds to the dreamlike quality of the book. And I have to say, I really enjoyed this bizarre, somewhat surreal spin on the crime genre. The only thing that undermines Bay Prowler is that it’s a bit too long for its own good, coming in at 192 pages. And Malzberg has trouble filling the pages, even serving up egregious chapters from the points of view of various one-off Mafia characters. He does excel at unexpected characterization, though; the storyline with Tamara is one of the highlights of the novel, delivering a nicely sentimental touch; the only light in the overly dark world of The Lone Wolf. I was especially surprised at the finale, which sees Wulff staying true to his promise and calling Tamara, who has returned to her previous life, to tell her goodbye. She asks him multiple times if she’ll see him again, to which Wulff responds “I don’t know.” I doubt though that we’ll ever see Tamara (whose real name, she reveals, is Betty) again. 

Malzberg has a neat gimmick of tying the installments together; the first book ended with Wulff killing a Mafia stooge who had an attache case filled with insider info. Wulff used this info to go to San Francisco, where he learned a big heroin shipment was coming in. And, upon stealing said heroin shipment, Wulff’s now learned that it was bound for Boston. So Bay Prowler ends with our demented hero on the way to Boston to stir up more trouble for the drug-pushers of the Mafia. I look forward to it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Moonfire (aka Of A Fire On The Moon)

Moonfire, by Norman Mailer
No month stated, 2019  Taschen

First published over three issues of Life Magazine in the summer of 1969 and then released in hardcover soon thereafter, Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon seems to be overlooked today, and might even have been overlooked at the time, given the rapid expiration date of interest in the Space Race. In fact I read somewhere that the publisher was surprised at how little interest there was in the hardcover edition, which came out just a few months after the Apollo 11 moon landing of July 1969; already by then the public had virtually no interest in the subject. 

The title of Mailer’s unexpurgated work is Of A Fire On The Moon, but under discussion here is Moonfire, Taschen’s abridgement of Mailer’s book that is chock full of some of the greatest space race photos I’ve ever seen, most of them from contemporary issues of Life. Simply put, this little hardcover (larger than a mass market paperback but smaller than a trade paperback) is one of the most visually stunning books I’ve ever had the pleasure to own. Usually I steer clear of abdriged books – I prefer to read the full monty, as it were – but in this case Taschen’s editors have done a fine job whittling down Mailer’s incessant navel-gazing and just sticking to what most readers are here for: a bird’s eye peek at NASA at its height, and a great picture of the era in which the first moon landing occurred. 

Actually, Of A Fire On The Moon, particularly in this illustrated “Moonfire” edition, is just as much a picture of its era as the similar-in-spirit contemporary documentary Moonwalk One. The touch of Stanley Kubrick is very evident, from Mailer’s own obsessive musings on the nature of the moon voyage to the incredible photographs that grace the book, in particular the ones by Life photographer Ralph Morse. Humorously, the Signet paperback of Of A Fire On The Moon features a blurb on the opening page which states that Mailer’s book is “The closest thing to 2001 yet produced by an important writer.” I’m sure Arthur C. Clarke really appreciated that! While Mailer doesn’t go as far as Moonwalk One on the “future shock” angle, he definitely captures the vibe in the early sequences in which he visits the NASA centers in Florida and Texas. 

At the end of the post I’ll feature a few random pages from Moonfire, but be aware this is just a scratching of the surface. I don’t exaggerate when I say that the book is stuffed with incredible photographic work, the vast majority of it in those wonderful eye-popping colors of the era. Again it’s the photography of Ralph Morse that really stands out, and I was surprised to find that there hasn’t been a book devoted solely to his NASA photography. He gets some photos that are downright Kubrickrian, in particular a shot of Apollo 11 command module pilot Mike Collins eating breakfast with his wife that looks like it could’ve come right out of 2001 (included below). In my opinion, the first half of Moonfire has the best photos, as they’re all in this spirit, staged shots of the astronauts in training or going about their daily lives. But once the narrative moves to the moon voyage the photos follow suit, the majority of them being ones the astronauts themselves took on the voyage and on the moon. So, certainly important from a historical perspective, but lacking the stylistic finesse of the earlier photos. 

Mailer writes in the New Journalism style that was becoming popular at the time, but Moonfire can in no way be confused with another New Journalism look at the space race: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Whereas Wolfe still employs New Journalism techniques, he for the most part tells history, whereas Moonfire is mostly concerned with Mailer himself, and his impressions of things. It takes an ego of staggering proportions to write about the moon landing and make it about yourself, especially if you had absolutely nothing to do with the moon landing. And Mailer’s ego is in full effect throughout, to the point that I actually started to admire the arrogant self-strokery. In this regard Moonfire/Of A Fire On The Moon is almost like the “nonfiction” works of the Classical Age, ie Pausanias’s Description Of Greece, in which everything is filtered through the writer’s own thoughts and feelings. 

The writing is, however, very rich, and practically every page offers a line crying out to be included in a book of quotations. Mailer is also very insightful with what he divines about the cast of characters at NASA; his breakdown of the Apollo 11 crew, at a press conference a few days before launch, is one of the highlights of the book. Here he gives his opinion on each member: overly reserved Neil Armstrong could either be “the best boy in town” or the creep mothers warn their infant daughters to shut the door on, Buzz Aldrin is a man of grit and gristle who measures everything in physical terms, and Mike Collins is “the man everyone is happy to see at the party.” The stuff on Collins I found especially insightful as it’s the same thing I’ve noticed about the guy, just judging from his documentary appearances, most notably In The Shadow Of The Moon. Curiously though Mailer never meets any of the crew, even though he apparently has the chance to; in this regard he’s again similar to Theo Kamecke, director of Moonwalk One, who per his comments in the special features of the DVD states that he was given the option of interviewing the crew for his documentary, but chose to keep them afar. 

Interestingly, throughout Mailer notes on the lack of “heroism” apparent in the Apollo 11 crew, and NASA in general. None of these space figures seem willing to square their shoulders and look back into the adoring gazes of the public and bask in their accomplishments. Armstrong in particular is so reserved that Mailer spends pages and pages bitching about it – that, and the lack of emotions displayed by Armstrong and Aldrin. Collins again comes to the rescue; his pithy asides at press conferences, Mailer assures us, made him a sudden favorite of the “newsmen” covering the scene. Mailer also captures the oldschool journalism vibe; throughout he refers to fellow newsmen, all of them hardbitten veterans who are prone to making sarcastic asides on their way to the free booze stand. I’d subscribe to the friggin’ New York Times if such newsmen could come back today. But anyway, Mailer unwittingly was in the presence of the Apollo era’s most notorious jokester; early in the book Mailer relates that he’s at a barbecue with Pete Conrad, commander of Apollo 12 (and thus forgotten by history). If only Mailer had spent more time talking to Conrad, he might’ve found all the humor and jokery in the otherwise sterile world of NASA he could want; indeed, Conrad’s insights would end up fueling much of The Right Stuff

But for the most part, Mailer is too wrapped up in himself to notice much else. In some ways Moonfire comes off like a bloated prefigure of the Twitter feed of some self-obsessed modern neurotic. Mailer even gives himself a Twitter-esque handle: throughout he pretentiously refers to himself as “Aquarius.” This is in relation to his Zodiac sign, but I found it interesting because Aquarius is the very astrological age we are now moving into. The last time a procession of the equinoxes occurred, when Taurus became Pisces two thousand years ago, western culture was torn apart by a rabid ideology that was primed to destroy everything that didn’t fit in its worldview. Sound familiar? There are in fact a lot of parallels between Mailer’s era and our own; a later part has him visiting some friends who have the anti-Nixon paraphanalia that was ubuiquitous among the left at that time, and Mailer chaffes at this, that a political movement could only define itself by being against a particular person. Sound familiar? 

Well anyway, Mailer admits throughout his ignorance of the space race business, but in the second half of the book he puts his engineering background to use when speaking of the mechanics of the landing. It’s the first half that I most appreciated, with Mailer trying to get a grip on the NASA personnel but finding everything so antiseptic and sterile. There are a lot of asides on the lack of smell and whatnot; in fact the entire book is mostly made up of asides, sort of like one of my reviews. But when he sets his sights on a particular personality the book really takes off, and for a behind-the-scenes peek at NASA the book is very valuable. However Mailer skips any attempt at history, or background; Mercury and Gemini missions are dispensed with as afterthoughts, and the focus is on the “meaning” of voyaging to the moon. Not even what this might portend for the future, but what it might mean to the unconscious mind of man, or somesuch. 

As mentioned, Taschen did a very good job of cutting the fat. As I read Moonwalk I’d refer to the Signet edition of Of A Fire On The Moon to read the parts that were cut, and gradually I stopped referring to the Signet altogether. This is a book that truly benefitted from some editorial pruning. Taschen also rejiggered Mailer’s structure; there are some parts of Moonwalk that are moved forward in the text, which don’t appear until later in the original version. Sometimes the editing is a bit abrupt, with ellipses breaking off otherwise important scenes, but checking Of A Fire In The Moon in these cases I discovered that even here the editing was wise. 

So Mailer, or “Aquarius” I guess I should say, ventures to Cape Kennedy a few days before the launch of Apollo 11 and checks out the sights and attends a few press conferences. Here we get more valuable behind-the-scenes material. He witnesses the launch, noting how bored everyone seems in the stifling Florida heat until the rocket actually goes up – and here Mailer himself is moved by the spectacle. But yes, boredom is rife in Moonfire; Mailer makes it clear that many of the newsmen were just burned out with the waiting. In his view, not much was going on between Saturn V launches. This is especially clear after the launch, when Mailer heads to Mission Control in Houston and basically sits around with nothing to do but ponder more of his thoughts. 

One thing forgotten in today’s world, in which films from the moon landing are shown in documentaries, is that at the time viewers on TV saw nothing but a grayish-white screen as the astronauts landed on the moon. Mailer views the landing in a room with other reporters, and this is another highlight of the book, coming off like a proto Mystery Science Theater 3000. The newsmen, we learn, all make wisecracks as Armstrong and Aldrin bumble across the moon; some of the material, in their view, approaches a slapstick vibe. This part was very interesting in comparison to the tones of gravitas the moon landing is treated with in every single documentary. Mailer at one point even taps into the current obsession that it was all faked, musing to himself how easily this could be staged, with no one the wiser. He doesn’t believe it, though, and again his bigger concern is what this moon landing “means” for mankind. 

At this point things are getting interesting again, but after covering the moon landing Mailer decides to just take off. As improbable as it might sound, Mailer decides there isn’t anything much else to do here in Houston and heads home…watching the return and recovery on TV, like practically everyone else in the world. While we do get some material on the ensuing parades and hoopla, at this point Mailer detours into even more navel-gazing than before, going on about his failing marriage and whatnot. I’ll willingly admit that I skipped all this stuff. As I say, way too much of the book is about stuff unrelated to the moon landing, but when Mailer does write about it the book is rich with detail. And Mailer’s writing, as mentioned, is great throughout, doling out some unusual but memorable word-painting. He really brings to life the various NASA locales, and even his descriptions of the moon – gleaned from watching a blurry image on a small TV screen – make you feel like you’re there with Buzz and Neil. 

A lot of Moonfire is made up of bald transcripts, of the Apollo 11 crew talking to Mission Control, and here too Mailer gives a contemporary slant, forgotten today, that most people listening at the time had no idea what the hell anyone was talking about. There is a lot of unexpected humor in Moonfire, and a lot of it has to do with those newsmen trying to make heads or tails out of the cryptic techno-jargon that passes for communication in the world of NASA. Again what makes all this interesting is the historical perspective; Mailer’s book is unique in that, unlike the other quickie moon landing publications of the day, it doesn’t treat everything as a huge accomplishment, nor is it like later books that thoroughly cover the topic from a historical perspective. Unlike any of them, Moonfire gives a picture of what it was like to be in Cape Kennedy and Houston as it all was happening and trying to make sense of it all. 

After I read Moonfire I started to read Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (also in an illustrated edition), and I have to say it’s a night and day difference between these two books. Whereas Mailer spends much of his book complaining about the lack of heroism at NASA, Wolfe goes back to the start and finds that heroism; indeed, “the right stuff” itself is a reference to all the things Mailer failed to detect in Armstrong, Aldrin, Collins, and the others. Another big difference is that, while it’s of course written in his patented style, Wolfe does not insert himself into The Right Stuff, whereas Mailer’s all over his own book. In fact I have to say the dude’s pretty aware of his own feelings. So much of Moonfire is comprised of “Aquarius” noting how a sulk is coming on, or how some other incident affects him on a subconscious level or whatnot; the entire book is almost an exercise in casting everyday mundane things in a sort of profound metaphysical light. And that’s another element Moonfire has that The Right Stuff doesn’t: like the age in which it was written, it’s pretty psychedelic, and is likely the only book on the moon landing that mentions LSD and acid rock. 

So then, with Moonfire you get a lot of banal navel-gazing, a lot of complaining, and periodic bouts of valuable glimpses behind the scenes at NASA in July and August of 1969, as well as the mindset of the people who lived in Cape Kennedy and Houston. You don’t get much history, per se, but you get a glimpse of history as it’s being made. But most importantly, in this Taschen edition, which was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, you get a plethora of incredible photos. Here are just a few of them:

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Rim Of Thunder

Rim Of Thunder, by Dave J. Garrity
April, 1973  Signet Books

Dave Garrity turns in another fast-moving novel set in the world of stock car racing, following on from his earlier The Hot Mods. But whereas that story was more of a hardboiled affair, Rim Of Thunder is a drama focused on a twenty-year champ who loses it all in a spectacular crash and tries to get his courage back for one last race. The two novels are also told differently; this one trades off between first-person narrative and random third-person chapters, whereas The Hot Mods was narrated in first-person throughout. Both novels have one thing in common, though: they’re very short, coming off more like novellas, with Rim Of Thunder amounting to only 128 pages. The same length as The Hot Mods, in fact. 

Once again Garrity writes a racing story in which precious little detail is given; Roscoe Larkin, our narrator, is an 80-something racecar manager (and mechanic), and he speaks with authority on the subject – as if he’s talking to a fellow lifelong enthusiast who doesn’t need anything to be explained. Absolutely nothing is brought to life; Roscoe’s protégé, The King, drives Roscoe’s top stock car, “the 44.” There’s no description or explanation of the car other than “the 44” throughout the book. The races are told in this same “expert opinion” style, robbing them of much drama or impact – the same way such sequences were told in The Hot Mods. It’s clear that Garrity himself was a fan of racing and also that he hung out with racing crews to get all the vernacular correct, and there’s a definite vibe of legitimacy to the text, but at the same time it makes for a listless read for those of us who don’t much care about racing. 

Fortunately, the dramatic stuff is slightly better, and mostly interesting because it’s the product of an earlier, more masculine era. In today’s emasculated world, the King’s plight seems downright alien: how to “become a man” again after a crash-up that nearly ended his career. There is throughout a focus on men and masculinity, with the few women here reduced to either wives or groupies, and there are absolutely no concessions to the “inclusive” mindsets of today. The King’s wife has one or two minor sequences in the novel in which the narrative is given over to her thoughts (in third-person), but her plot is solely concerned with her separation from the King when he insists on returning to the races after recuperating for several months. There’s added drama with “the little King,” the toddler son of the King who has a heart problem and ultimately will require heart surgery before novel’s end. 

The novel takes place along the east coast, and opens with the King’s big crash during a dirt-track race. We’re never given his real name, but the King has been racing for Roscoe for twenty-two years, coming to him as a snot-nosed kid and gradually proving himself to be among the greatest stock car racers of all time, hence his nickname. How he fared against the protagonist of The Hot Mods, the magnificently-named Lux Vargo, we’re not told – but Vargo does exist in the world of this novel. In a nice bit of tie-in work, “Lux” is referred to twice in Rim Of Thunder: on page 78 he’s mentioned as one of “the good ones” who went on to other things after retiring, and on page 113 a character states, “Remember Jackie Evans in Lux’s 77?” 

Garrity has it that the King has been Roscoe’s champ for two decades, but in a repeat of the King’s origin story we have another wet-nosed kid who has gradually proven his worth driving lesser cars than the 44: Nino Cordone, a kid in his very early 20s with “an Andretti smile.” So while the King is recuperating (two broken legs and other assorted bashings), Nino’s been racing in his 44, picking up more wins for himself and moving into the spot vacated by the King. But when the King returns to the fold, insisting that he’s ready to race again, the 44 becomes his again and there is of course an underlying resentment from Nino, particularly given the growing implications that the King maybe should’ve just retired. 

For it soon becomes clear that the wreck broke more than just the King’s legs: for one, his family life is a mess. His wife Laura, it develops, has left him, taking “the little King” with him. She doesn’t want her man racing anymore, and can’t take the concern and worry. But the King’s chosen racing over the family and has come back to Roscoe anyway. Meanwhile he’s clearly lost his courage; he fails to make an impression in his first race, and as the novel progresses he further demonstrates his lost masculinity: when a thuggish racer with the misleading name “Shorty” Clanton challenges him to a fight, the King meekly asks “why can’t we be friends?” Soon thereafter the King’s also running around with Shorty’s sometimes-girlfriend, the notorious racing circuit tramp Gerry Cattlon. (Yes, Garrity names one character “Clanton” and the other “Cattlon,” seemingly for no other reason than to confuse the reader.) 

While it’s all capably handled, it does get a little goofy in that 80-something Roscoe thinks of the King’s family as his family. Roscoe, whose own backstory is occasionally doled out, has spent his life racing and never got married or had kids. So he started to thinking of the King’s family as the wife and kid he never had. All very strange, especially given that he’s twice the age of the King (presumably…I mean if the King started out as a kid Nino’s age and has been racing for 22 years, then that means he’d be in his early 40s, compared to Roscoe’s late 80s). This ultimately has the outcome of jacking up Roscoe’s own life; he has periodic blackouts and heart troubles in the book, but in true “tough redneck” fashion he walks off these incidents with a good shot of whiskey or two. 

The novel works its way up to a big race on the very same dirt track the King wiped out on at novel’s beginning. Garrity has various internal and external factors working together: the King’s racing ability, whether he’ll return to his family, whether “the little King” will survive his heart surgery, whether Nino will take the King’s mantle and become the new top racer. The climactic race is again described mostly via Roscoe’s authoritative narration, with occasional cutovers to random one-off spectators in the stand. Garrity does a good – if a bit too treacly – job of wrapping everything up in a positive conclusion. 

At only 128 pages, Rim Of Thunder moves too quickly to make much of an impression, but Garrity wisely keeps the focus on just a few characters. As a picture of the era it doesn’t really deliver, given the lack of much topical description, but it does serve as a nice window into a masculine mindset that probably wouldn’t exist in the fiction of today. As for myself, though, I didn’t relate as much to the King, as I sure as hell would pick my kid over the racing circuit.

Monday, November 15, 2021

Women Without Morals

Women Without Morals, by Richard F. Gallagher
No month stated, 1962  Avon Books

Check it out, an entire book devoted to my favorite kind of women! Seriously though, Women Without Morals is yet another vintage men’s adventure magazine anthology, this one featuring stories by Richard Gallagher, whose men’s mag work I’ve reviewed here over the years. Interestingly, the book is copyright Gallagher, implying that at least some of the authors who worked for the men’s magazines retained the copyrights on their work; I was under the impression that all of the stories would be copyright the various publishers (with those copyrights now having expired). 

Gallagher is a good writer, and like the better writers in the field he worked for the so-called Diamond Line of magazines, ie Male and Stag and the like, which is of course where the stories collected here are taken from. Another note: the copyright page lists which issues the stories came from, however as it turns out they are not listed in order. Thus I had to do a bit of research to determine which stories came from which magazines, and I’ve noted this below, as well as their original titles. Also worth noting is that Women Without Morals did well enough to receive a second printing, the cover of which I’ll place below; I prefer the cover of this first edition, with the Nazi She-Devil-esque topless babe wielding a whip…a scene that sort of occurs in the first story collected here. 

And in fact, this first story is the closest we get to a Nazi She-Devil tale in the entire book. This I found perplexing; the Nazi She-Devils were the epitome of “women without morals” in the world of men’s adventure magazines, yet I’m assuming Gallagher didn’t write too many stories in the subgenre. At least, so far I’ve only read one story by him that nearly fits in the category: “G.I. On The Ship Of Lost Frauleins.” The story in this book, though, “Hanne Jaegermann, The Sweatered Fraulein,” is actually more of a Nazi She-Devil yarn than that later one, even though the titular Hanne is not specifically stated as being a Nazi. But really it’s just splitting hairs, as gradually we learn that Hanne has attained her position of power thanks to her casual affair with none other than Goebbels. So I’d say she’s a Nazi She-Devil by default. 

The story first appeared in the February 1959 Stag, where it was titled “Fraulein Barracks.” As with the other stories collected here, it’s fairly long, running to around 40 pages of small, dense print, and it was labelled a “True Book Bonus” in the original magazine edition. Those Diamond Line mags didn’t short-change their readers, that’s for sure. Also, this story, like the others collected in Women Without Morals, is written in third-person. (As usual though the illustrations that graced the original magazine editions are not featured here.) Taking place in the last months of the European theater of WWII, “The Sweatered Fraulein” concerns Sgt. John Leonard, an injured airman who, along with other Allied prisoners, is taken to a prisoner of war camp in an old fortress called Alpenhaus, in the Bavarian Alps. 

Alpenhaus, Leonard soon discovers, now serves as a “cat house,” a rather beaten-down one at that, reserved for Nazi VIPs. It’s patrolled by old guards, most of them vets of the First World War who have little interest in Hitler but are “doing their duty” for Germany. But most importantly it’s overseen by Hanne Jaegermann, a young, beautiful, and built blonde (her hair so blonde it’s almost white, we’re informed) who likes to wear tight sweaters that are always either white or black. And in true “Nazi chic” fashion her apartment in the fortress is decorated solely in black and white. There’s an old vet here who is officially the commandant, but Hanne is clearly in charge, and this puzzles Leonard. He soon runs afoul of the woman, though; when he’s called into her presence because he speaks fluent German, Hanne demands that Leonard act as her official translator for the American prisoners. When Leonard refuses, he soon understands he’s made a powerful enemy, one who will enjoy toying with him. 

So begins a twisted sort of psycho-sexual tale in which Hanne constantly abuses and humiliates Leonard – making him scrub the floor and then dumping the bleach-filled water on his face, having him beaten up by her sadistic henchman, punishing (and killing) other prisoners as a warning to him, and etc. While Hanne toys with Leonard, saving him “for a rainy day,” she is even more brutal with the other prisoners; she has a few people taken down by her Dobermans (one of the victims a young prostitute who refuses to sleep with a certain Nazi official), orders some other people shot, and in the most harrowing example she has one guy stripped and then beats him to death by smashing him in the groin with a sharpened belt buckle! This is his punishment for trying to kiss one of the hookers in the establishment. 

With her ground rules set that this will be the treatment for any prisoner who tries to touch one of the women, Hanne then sets upon toying with Leonard. In another memorable bit she calls him to her apartment, strips nude, and has him read Faust to her – but as Leonard soon learns, she’s really trying to arouse his lust so that he can try to touch her…and then be beaten to death for it. In another bit she calls Leonard once again and both she and some of the establishment girls are all nude or half-nude, and again Leonard does his best to avoid them. Suprisingly though, Leonard never does have his way with Hanne; Gallagher I’ve noticed tries to be relatively realistic in his stories, all things considered. While Hanne is certainly a smokin’ hot babe, Leonard is more concerned about his safety and thus never falls into her trap. 

Overall this was a very good, very fast-moving story, coming off like a twisted take on Hogan’s Heroes. It doesn’t get as wild as you’d like, though, save for the parts where Hanne is dispensing her twisted brand of justice. Even the parts where the Nazi elite come over for an orgy or two are relatively tame, Gallagher focused more on Leonard’s broiling anger than the sleazy fun. Speaking of which the finale is very memorable, as the Americans arrive in April 1945 and Leonard takes the opportunity to get his hands on Hanne and beat the living shit out of her. Certainly one of the few stories I’ve ever read that ended with a male character beating a female character unmerciful, up to and including slamming her face into a brick wall several times. However Hanne manages to live, and in the epilogue we’re told she was sent to prison, then later to a sanitarium for the violently insane. 

Next up is “Meiko Homma, The Japanese Iwasaki Maiden,” which originally appeared as “Imprisoned For Six Months In Japan’s Secret Female Garrison” in the June 1960 Stag. It also appeared in the first Male annual, in 1963, and I reviewed it a few years ago here. This one also stays relatively realistic throughout, despite the giant birdcage the American soldier is kept prisoner in, but a big difference between this story and “The Sweatered Fraulein” is that the hero of this tale scores with the villainous babe. 

The third story is “Bandana Husseini, The Lebanese Guerrilla Girl,” which originally appeared as “Nude Girl Raiders Of Beirut” in the January 1959 Men. This one’s notable in that it’s shorter than the other stories in Women Without Morals, is the only story in the book that doesn’t take place in WWII, and also features a female protagonist. This would be the titular Bandana, a “beautiful Arabic-looking girl” with “hair in pigtails” and “sport clothes from Paris.” It’s early 1957, and Bandana has made waves in Lebanon for her bandit activities – plus the rumor that she carries “a tommygun with a rose-colored cartridge clip.” This is another one that would’ve fit in the Women With Guns anthology, but Gallagher already had another story in that one. At any rate, “The Lebanese Guerrilla Girl” also has a different tone than the other stories here, almost coming off like a fable; there’s no real peek into the mind of Bandana Husseini, as there is with say John Leonard in “The Sweatered Fraulein;” instead the focus is on her wild deeds, with the anti-heroine coming off like a mythical figure at times. 

Bandana is in her early 20s, the daughter of a wealthy Lebanese man and a graduate of an American university, but when we meet her she’s in jail for having stolen to give to the poor. She escapes, finds safe passage with an old merchant who ends up raping her (his two drivers also getting in on the act), and then ultimately falls in with a group of rebels led by a guy named Hulim. From here she gets her own tommygun, painting it red, and begins a series of brazen acts against the establishment. Per the original men’s mag story title, she often does so in the nude, her and her two female accomplices in the group stripping down for their various commando missions. The story’s most memorable scene has Bandana getting revenge on the old rapist, orchestrating his fall off a bridge and waiting patiently for two days for him to die. Otherwise “The Lebanese Guerrilla Girl” doesn’t have the “meat” that the other stories here do, coming off more like a quick, action-packed tale with a wild child protagonist. 

Next is “Claire Molyneaux, The Commandant’s Wife,” which originally appeared as “Madame Penal” in the June 1959 Male. This is the longest story in the anthology, coming in at almost 50 pages. It’s another prisoner of war yarn, and a bit too similar to “The Sweatered Fraulein.” While it’s a fine story, I think it was a mistake including this one in Women Without Morals, as it’s inferior to that previous story, mostly because this one lacks the twisted psycho-sexual subtext of “The Sweatered Fraulein,” coming off more like your typical prison camp yarn. But given the theme of the anthology, the sadistic commandant is of course a woman, in this case Claire Molyneaux, young wife of the official commandant of a French prison camp in Latakia, Syria (Latakia being one of the places where Nick Carter gets the tobacco for his special cigarettes, at least in the volumes by Manning Lee Stokes – random factoid alert!). 

It’s 1939, and the brief intro informs us that merchant seaman Joseph Kolinsky, of Chicago, has been arrested in French territory on false chages of being an Axis ally, this being shortly after France and Germany have declared war. Along with other falsely-accused prisoners he’s hauled off to this prison camp in the middle of the desert. Soon enough he encounters Claire Molyneaux, the hotstuff commandant’s wife who is given to wearing a military tunic, shorts, and high boots; curiously though we’re informed she isn’t that hotstuff, but still pretty enough to attract attention. Her husband, the supposed Commandant Molyneaux, is old and enfeebled (we’re informed he married Claire just a few years ago and is desperate to keep her), and Claire runs roughshod over the camp, ruling the soldiers and brutalizing the prisoners. But the focus this time is much more on the hardscrabble life of Kolinsky in the prison, losing all the pulpy nature of “The Sweatered Fraulein.” 

At least, Kolinsky is a bit more of a rugged hero than John Leonard, and spends most of the novel fighting back, whereas Leonard didn’t put up as much of an effort. It’s become clear after reading several stories by Richard Gallagher that his protagonists are for the most part normal guys…perhaps a bit too normal, as they lack the square-jawed, ass-kicking virility one might expect from men’s adventure magazine protagonists. Thus, instead of swinging into action, Gallagher’s characters are more introspective and, while they will initially put up a fight against their tormentors, ultimately they will decide that life is more important than dignity. Indeed there’s a part in “The Sweatered Fraulein” where John Leonard suddenly understands why millions of cowed German Jews obediently allowed the Nazis to cart them off to the death camps: because there was always the promise of living another day. The parallels to today were quite strong, here – the hope that someday, as we continue to give up one individual right after another (all for “our safety,” of course), things will get better…despite the grim certainty that things will only get worse. For, as the stories collected in this book demonstrate, once tyrants get a taste of power they will never give it up. 

And Claire Molyneaux is certainly a tyrant, lacking even the wanton charm of Hanne Jaegermann. Her custom outfitt, you’ll note, is almost identical to the one Sergeant Homma wore in the earlier story, but unlike the previous gals in the anthology Claire doesn’t seem to have much interest in men…other than torturing them. So begins an overly long but still suspenseful tale in which Claire brutalizes Kolinsky in various ways, often humiliating him. She also often has other prisoners shot, and enjoys making them toil endlessly on the construction of a pointless road in the desert. The focus though is on the lot of the prisoners, and the villainess disappears from the narrative too often. But as mentioned Kolinsky has a bit more backbone than the protagonists in the other prison camp stories here, and at one point tries to kill Claire, but of course he fails and is tortured more. Also at one point she strips and offers herself to him – the story’s sole concession to the sleaze men’s mag readers demand – but Kolinsky won’t play because he knows he’ll suffer. Luckily Claire is drunk and passes out, seemingly forgetting her sexual proposition. 

Gallagher takes an interesting direction in the finale, in which the Germans liberate the camp, France having declared defeat and the Nazis move in. Claire Molyneaux is placed under arrest and put on a kangaroo trial for her transgressions against the prisoners. Suddenly the sadistic harlot looks like a scared little girl, and the story ends with her being pulled in front of a firing squad and strapped to a stake. She’s crying and desolate and Gallagher has it that you start to feel sorry for her. Even Kolinsky, who has finally been granted his freedom, seems to be moved by the spectacle. Claire sees him as he is leaving the compound and screams for his help, pleading with him to stop them from shooting her. Kolinsky goes over to her…and then slaps her in the face and leaves her for her execution! This unexpected gutting of the maudlin sap was the highlight of the story, but truth be told “The Commandant’s Wife” was my least favorite story here. 

Last up is “Colette Le Gros, The French Blonde,” which appeared as “The Castaway Fraulein And Her Strange Partners” in the September 1960 Male. Even though this story also features an American prisoner of war as the protagonist, it departs from the prison camp setup of the other stories, featuring the unusual plot of four men and one woman escaping across the Atlantic in a 30-foot whaleboat. It’s November of 1944 and as the story opens Robert Corti, a downed airman who served as navigator on a bomber, is held at gunpoint as he boards a boat on the coast of France. With Corti are SS Captain Wolfgang Klausewitz, Klausewitz’s bookish aid Leitner, a mysterious Frenchman known only as Pierre (I kept picturing him as the Danger 5 guy), and finally Colette Le Gros, a stacked French beauty (the most beautiful woman Corti’s ever seen in person, in fact) who is Klausewitz’s mistress. 

The shaky setup has it that Klausewitz, knowing Germany is about to fall to the Americans, wants to escape to Nazi-friendly Argentina. The commandant of a war camp, he knows he’ll hang from a noose for the brutalities he’s carried out on his prisoners. He’s plotted out his seaborne escape, but has been waiting “months” for a navigator to be shot down. Corti, finally, is that navigator, and thus he’s been drafted into this escape attempt. Leitner is coming along because he too is a Nazi, and Colette is going along because the French natives will cut her hair off and brand her as a Nazi-loving whore. As for Pierre, his background and motives are mysterious; a former member of the Maquis resistance fighters, he’s only here due to Colette, who has insisted Klausewitz bring him along. Colette also has the thoughtful insistence that Corti, Leitner, and Pierre “have a woman” before boarding the boat, to slake their needs before beginning the voyage – she’s not bound to get on a boat with four horny men, even if she does “love to be loved.” 

It’s kind of goofy…I mean they’ve stocked the boat with crates of food and gallons of water, and lots of liquor and all, but someone’s constantly holding a gun on Corti so he won’t try to escape. But you’d think that he’d get a chance at some point during the 50-day voyage to Argentina. However Corti is another Gallagher protagonist in that he’s not super willing to risk his skin. About the only difference is that he dishes out a lot of passive-aggressive backtalk; Klausewitz, for example, he takes to calling “schmuck,” explaining to the buzzcutted Nazi sadist that the word is American slang for “boss.” Gallagher seems to have more fun with this tale than the others in the book, giving each character a memorable personality; Leitner, for example, bides his time reading from a book of quotations, always trying to find the right quote for the right occasion. 

Given the setting, the lurid angle isn’t as much exploited. Corti’s early tumble with the native French gal Colette finds for him, before leaving on the voyage, is so vaguely-described that you wonder if anything even happened. But once the voyage starts the only shenangians that occur feature Klausewitz and Colette…who enjoy going off in the whaleboat’s sole cabin for a little loud lovin,’ even leaving the door open so the others can see. Colette later informs Corti that exhibitionism turns her on. And, true to the vibe of these stories, she’s often sporting a bikini during the voyage. She’s more along the lines of Bandana Husseini than the other three villainesses in Women Without Morals; she’s not a sadistic commandant, but does enjoy a nice killing or two, most notably demonstrated when a Spanish gunship stops them and Claire frags them – hiding a “potato masher” in a bag and passing it over as if it were their papers of transport. 

But what starts out as a promising suspense yarn turns into a sea survival yarn. I mean it’s good and all, with a lot of cool survival tips – like eating plankton, or a part where a hapless albatross lands on the boat and Corti catches it and they cook it (after drinking the blood and eating the uncooked liver for all the iron). But it turns out that this is the story, not the interesting opening material like who Pierre really is, or what Klausewitz hopes to do once they reach Argentina. Rather, it becomes a sea story, with all the expected tropes: a massive storm knocks out their provisions, including Corti’s navigational equipment, followed by a hardscrabble existence as they try to figure out where the hell in the Atlantic they are. And all the while someone keeps holding a damn gun on Corti, even though he’s literally the only one on the boat who knows how to survive at sea. 

Suprisingly, Gallagher finds the opportunity to include some sleaze; one night Colette comes to Corti and offers herself to him. But once again Gallagher delivers zero in the way of lurid details; indeed, he informs us that, because of the roughness of the wooden deck and the fact that they’re afraid Klausewitz will discover them, the act is “not pleasant.” Furthermore, Gallagher is not an author who tells us much about the ample charms of his female characters. The word “breasts” rarely appears in this book, in fact. For the most part, Gallagher will tell us a woman is pretty, with a nice build, and leave it at that. Even in the supposedly risque scenes – like when Colette strips down, or wears a bikini – he yields no juicy details, just stating the bare fact that the chick’s now in her bra and panties, without any word painting. Perhaps he assumed the artist would handle the T&A and figured his words would just be redundant. 

As I read “The French Blonde” I started to experience déjà vu, and realized that it was similar to another Gallagher story I’d read – “Buried Alive: A Jap Lieutenant, Three Pleasure Girls, An American G.I.” The two stories are pretty similar, despite that one being set underground and this one being set on the sea. Again Gallagher takes a plot rife with exploitative potential – I mean a hot and horny blonde stuck on a boat with five randy guys (one of ‘em a friggin’ SS officer!!) – but ignores the exploitative stuff and goes for a reserved, “realistic” tone. As I say, the writing is fine, and the character touches are great, but the issue is that this “survival” stuff takes over the story and all the promise is ultimately jettisoned. For that matter, the finale is a harried postscript in which we learn that, upon reaching Portugal (once Corti takes the helm…after the others have been incapacitated by the DTs, a shark attack, and a salt water-jammed Luger), Corti split away from the group, recovered for a few months, and returned to England to continue fighting in the war…and he has no idea what happened to Klausewitz, Colette, Leitner, or Pierre! 

And that’s all there is to Women Without Morals, which I picked up some years ago and intended to read at the time. I’m surprised it took me this long to get to it, as it seemed to promise all I could want from a men’s adventure magazine anthology. But as it turns out, Gallagher’s stories are a little too conservative for the men’s mag genre…I mean these particular “women without morals” seem positively saintly when compared to some of the women in, say, Soft Brides For The Beast Of Blood. But on the other hand, as mentioned Gallagher is a very competent writer, providing a lot more character and narrative depth than you’d ever encounter in “the sweats.” Yet personally, if we’re talking of Diamond Line authors, I much prefer the work of Mario Puzo and Emile Schurmacher.

Here is the cover of the second edition: